CHANGES MADE

This post is motivated by email conversations with friends, some of them musicians, who confess in hushed tones that they really can’t listen to X, no matter how famous or renowned (s)he is. 

So I hereby reveal my contributions to this secret dialogue.  It interests me that some of the music I adored in my twenties I no longer can put up with. 

I find Ella Fitzgerald chilly and detached except when she is warmed by Ellis Larkins or Louis.  Once I thrilled to Tatum’s rococco wanderings for Norman Granz and Hines’s late-period bubblings-over.  No more.  No can do.  No Oscar Peterson; no Buddy Rich.  Rush the tempo, no matter how famous you are, and I want to walk away.     

Some of this may be the result of my aging impatience.  I’ve heard a lot, on record and in performance, and much pales by comparison.  Of course, my reaction may sound snobbish.  “What an over-critical view!  Jazz needs all the friends it can get,” some might say. 

But now I want a certain intense passionate simplicity (or it has to sound like simplicity — even though it isn’t simple at all!) rather than displays of technique.  Tell your story and let someone else play, please.  It’s not a matter of disliking, but a paring-away of what now seems to me inessential.  Maybe my ears are saying, “You know, life isn’t long enough to listen to four choruses of that solo.”  I know that some readers will find my choices wrong, inexplicable.  And I applaud their doing so.  We must listen to and love that which makes us vibrate in the best ways.

And I still have my treasures.  Certain recordings (I restrict myself to dead players and singers) I will carry with me to the grave, and beyond.  Lee Wiley’s Liberty Music Shop recordings.  Louis’s THAT’S MY HOME, KNOCKIN’ A JUG, and two dozen others.  The Chocolate Dandies’ I NEVER KNEW.  Eddie Condon’s TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL.  Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE.  Teddy Wilson’s I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (School for Pianists).  Red Allen’s ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON.  Billie’s I’LL BE SEEING YOU.  Mildred’s WILLOW TREE and BORN TO BE BLUE.  Joe Thomas’s YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME.  James P. Johnson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE and AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  The Basie rhythm section.  Almost anything by Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, Buck Clayton, Emmett Berry, Lawrence Brown, the Boswell Sisters.  Red Norvo on xylophone.  Ben Webster with strings.  Lester Young in good company.  Jack Purvis’s work on the Seger Ellis SLEEPY TIME GAL.  The Ellington-Hodges STOMPY JONES.  The 1934 Fats Waller sessions with Bill Coleman.  Dicky Wells in the Thirties.  Hot Lips Page and Dave Tough on Artie Shaw’s 1941 THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Teddy Bunn.  frank Newton.  Early Crosby, and the Bing-Mercer MR. CROSBY AND MR. MERCER.  Bix, Tram, and Lang.  Mercer’s THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN.  Early Jack Teagarden.

But many other famous players and recordings do not move me.  However, one of the freedoms of no longer attempting to be a completist, not having to listen to everything the Jazz Heroes / Heroines did is that I can spend time discovering less-publicized delights, the living players I celebrate in this blog.

And then there’s the larger issue, or burden, of perception.   

Some time ago, I began to write a blogpost called IS ANYONE LISTENING?  It remains a valid question.  Occasionally jazz seems based on a star system that rigidifies.  You come to the music of Kid Flublip early, fall in love with it, and are loyally obligated to keep to your early allegiance.  That’s wonderful, if the music continues to satisfy.  But I wonder if listeners are actually listening to what they hear or are so wrapped up in their adoration that they no longer hear.  Can an acolyte hear what the band is playing or is (s)he wholly in love with the name of the leader?     

Everyone might try a self-imposed Blindfold Test, or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind”: take a treasured recording and listen to it as if you’d never heard it before.  It requires a playing-tricks-on-the-self, but the result is exciting.  Familiar recordings give up new bits of lovely evidence; others crumble.  The Famous Bassist is out of tune; the Revered Soloist goes on for too long. 

A listening public — as opposed to a sentiment-driven one — might find new disenchantment.  The music we actually hear might not measure up to what we think we remember.  But that would enable us, as well, to put aside our adorations and hear something or someone new, a different kind of reward.

And if the musicians or singers I’ve grown away from still sing to you, consider yourself fortunate; it must be idyllic to find everything in an art form equally rewarding.  I can’t do it, and I am not sure that it would be a rewarding activity.

17 responses to “CHANGES MADE

  1. Nice, thoughtful post. I think I’ll go make a playlist called the “Steinman Takes To The Grave” list.

    I had a conversation yesterday with a friend who is a jazz singer and she told me that she had a recent realisation that she now prefers Billie to Ella, which she previously had thought was not possible. I guess the more we explore our passions, the more we come to appreciate the finer aspects of them.

    As a side note I still have an irrational dislike of anything Carmen McRae. I know she’s supposed to be awesome, and maybe I haven’t listened to the right recordings, but she drives me nuts.

  2. Thank you, Trevor! The only Carmen I like is an MCA reissue of a Fifties Decca session devoted to songs about birds — but I confess that I first bought the CD because it has heartbreakingly beautiful Ben Webster solos. And I ain’t about to go to the grave just yet, I hope, but your idea for labeling the playlist made me laugh aloud — which is a nice gift! Cheers, Michael

  3. Hey Michael, I have to disagree with you. Now you don’t like Ella, Buddy Rich, Oscar, etc. because they rush too much? They didn’t rush, they started some of their performances at a fast tempo and stayed at that tempo, that’s not rushing. They did that because they were capable of doing that, which a lot of musicians then and now are not capable of. They should not be disparaged for their efforts simply because they were playing at a fast tempo. Plus your desultory comments wander all over the place and make no sense. What are you smoking? As they say, those that can, do; those that can’t, teach; those that can’t teach, critique; and those that can’t critique, well, I’m sorry, but that is the category you seem to be falling into. Good grief, you seem to have lost your focus on commenting on and exposing the general public and jazz fans and musicians to good music. I have been telling all kinds of jazz fans and fellow musicians about your Jazz Lives website but now I’m going do so with a caution about the motivations of the creator. Sorry for the bellyaching but you really blew it this time. Lee

  4. You haven’t read what I said carefully. Although you might not think it deserves a second reading, I would suggest that you look closely at the unwarranted logical leap you have made in reading from Ella to Oscar to rushing. But it is clear that you are a man in the grip of his strong passions, and who am I to stand in the way of your rhetoric? Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as they say. Michael

  5. Methinks you’ve shaken the jazz world to its very foundation with the first negative words ever published about Ella Fitzgerald’s singing or Art Tatum’s excesses of ornamentation. Well said! You realize, of course, you’re well on your way to becoming the American Philip Larkin. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

  6. Superb post, and brave. You tackle a tricky business–the money and fame in jazz are gone, so hipness and coolness are sort of the only, desperately clutched currency–and come out well.

    Noticing and admitting dislikes is as big a part of taste as proclaiming your loves (which is often jumping on a comfy bandwagon). Bigger, actually. Ideally, you stay always open to it shifting.

    Things change. Sounds hit your ears and body differently over time.

    I notice how much I have to make myself actively LISTEN, ATTEND TO vibrations coming from a recording. Otherwise it’s still listening, and charm finds me and pricks my consciousness, but it’s more auto-pilot.

    While we’re sharing, let me nominate a lovely guy as one I just can’t do, though it may be low-hanging, pop-not-jazz fruit: Tony Bennett.

  7. When this dialogue is over, I think we’ll all have to go into the musical equivalent of the Witness Protection Program. Listening is a very difficult creative activity; it takes a lot of will power to “be here now” and shut out the distractions, as we are all so — by necessity or style? — used to multi-tasking to background music. As to Benedetto, I understand: I heard him for years as an over-emphatic melodramatist . . . but as he’s aged, I hear the Louis in back of and through his singing. But, then again, I couldn’t and didn’t care to actually hear Sinatra for years, until Jonathan Schwartz played the recording of “P.S., I Love You” with a string quartet, and it took up residence in my heart, as sappy as that sounds. Some of this might be that I wasn’t ready for that kind of romance when I was younger; some of it might have been my own inability or unwillingness to get behind the late-Sinatra facade of “I’m so tough, I swing so hard.” Investigating one’s own responses to art might seem another kind of narcissism, but it is revealing, I think. Thank you, Ed! Cheers, Michael

    P.S. And for those readers who don’t know: Edward Lovett is a fine singer and guitarist! No fooling!

  8. Bill Gallagher

    In the immortal words of Rodney King: Can we all get along? People change (marriages begin with the guy expecting that his bride will never change and the gal expecting that she will be able to change him – with some effort ). Tastes change. One of my early jazz heros was Sir Charles Thompson. After years of listening to him, his fast-paced runs started to get to me. I knew his “significant other” well and she confided that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, as she recalled a customer where Sir Charles was playing ask him if he had to be someplace soon. There’s nothing wrong with fast tempos – I happen to enjoy a slow tempo, it allows me to soak up the music and the melody more – and I still listen to Sir Charles. However, I believe that changes in our tastes have less to do with tempo than for reasons of stylistic growth. How else can I explain my guitarist son, growing up trying to emulate Jimi Hendrix and now settling down to listen intently to Django?

  9. A great story, Bill! And perhaps in twenty years your son will be thinking of himself as Eddie Lang or Teddy Bunn? Cheers and thanks, Michael

  10. There will (always) Be Some…Changes Made-
    Creativity. Although I haven’t heard Bessie Smith in 30 years, as soon as I think of her she plays in my mind- “If I call three times a day, baby… come and drive my blues away.” She was real to me from day one. Ella? I didn’t appreciate Ella until into my 60’s- what a shame. I thought Bille was better. How foolish! They are creatively different. Two genius women. Different. Made that way. They were expressing themselves using song- Mildred and Lee to Dinah W. and Carmen, all of them! On PBS’ “An American Classic-Ella”- I saw (we see) her sing “Summertime,” extended measure, she is dripping wet, a concert in Germany. I knew after that what I’d been missing from this creative woman. Art, Oscar and Buddy, Fatha Hines?
    Why not put them on a shelf for awhile? Please don’t dismiss/banish them from your jazz kingdom. Youtube Oscar and his trio plus Joe Jones? and Coleman, backing up Nat Cole on
    ” Sweet Lorraine.” YT Buddy with Bean and Bird, Hank Jones and Ray Brown. Listen to Art play “Blvd. of Broken Dreams.” I was critical of extended solos, too, as much as I worked with dear Kenny. Paul Gonsalves? I liken him now to a Jackson Pollack stretching out on his huge canvas. Bless the many trad bands all over the world as they keep a style of jazz alive. Are they creative? View a few videos at Warren Vache’s website. A creative jazz musician for certain. Playing, too, can be a very difficult activity, especially when we make every effort to be fresh and creative- expressing ourselves on our instruments. The changes we go through are amazing. Keep making us examine ourselves MS.
    Nice that you share with us some changes you’ve made. Thank you for providing the op to comment. mb

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  12. Taste is a funny thing. I should clarify: this post was a subjective reaction, a checking my aesthetic pulse. I didn’t (as another commenter suggests) disrespect these great artists, and, at the end of the post I suggested that others could and should enjoy them. It’s just that, as I get older, I realize I don’t always have the time to listen to something that doesn’t give me great pleasure, no matter how much the jazz canon says I should be enjoying it. It certainly sounds perverse to some, but I wrote the long list of music I would never be parted from to show that I hadn’t, Heaven forbid, turned sour on jazz. But my saying that I no longer can listen to X and Y is not to say that everyone should not. And if I can no longer listen to late Art but still get excited over the 1941 BATTERY BLUES, may I be excused? And the day I cease to get excited over FORTY-SEVENTH AND STATE, I’ll know it’s all over. Cheers to you and Lee as well — Michael

  13. Michael,

    Thank you for another thought provoking post.

    Because one’s taste in jazz is such a personal thing it is not surprising that our listening changes with the passing of years. In my case this is more a process of re-evaluation rather than gradually disliking a particular musician’s playing.

    To provide some examples:-

    Like you I have for some years now found Art Tatum’s solo piano for Norman Granz to be rather rich for my taste. A little goes a long way. This is not, however, to take away anything from the sheer genius of Art. My re-evaluation comes in my growing appreciation of Art as an accompanist. Within the discipline of the small group his playing is constrained slightly. Any such constraint in a lesser player could be disastrous but with Tatum it strips away the excesses of his playing to great effect. In the 50’s we have to thank Norman Granz for his foresight and courage in recording Tatum in both a solo role and as an accompanist to some of his contemporaries at their peak. The two best examples of this in my opinion are the quartet sides with Ben Webster and those with Roy Eldridge. Both men were of the same generation as Art and had strong enough personalities to not let him dominate the sessions. An earlier example of Tatum’s accompanying role is the superb backing he gives to Louis’ final solo on “Basin Street Blues” at the Esquire Jazz Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House 13th January 1944.

    Billie Holiday has always been my lady jazz singer of choice followed by Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley. I have never liked scat singing except for Louis but Ella’s interpretation of the Great American Songbook, (again courtesy of Norman Granz), are magical and essential listening to all of us who love good lyricists and songwriters. One of my personal favourites is the Harold Arlen album which has some wonderful Benny Carter.

    Last but not least. Oscar Peterson. Like his idol Art Tatum, Peterson could be totally overpowering. The 50’s trios and quartets can be quite mechanical at times and again a little goes a long way. Great piano playing all the same. Again I re-evaluated my view of Peterson when I heard the wonderful sides (6 LPs in total) which he did for Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer in the late 60’s for MPS under the title “Exclusively For My Friends”. These were recorded in a relaxed environment in front of a small audience and with a great rhythm section of variously – Ed Thigpen, Sam Jones, Ray Brown, Bobby Durham etc.

    I apologise for perhaps rambling at length. I do feel that rather than dismiss we should re-think and by doing so we can discover treasures which were hidden to us when we did not have the hindsight of maturity.

    Best wishes
    Robin

    PS What about something on Johnny Guarnieri. A great and perhaps slightly forgotten piano player. I have just acquired 2 LPs “Superstride” and “Playing Harry Warren”. Wonderful music!

  14. Dear Robin,

    Thank you so much for your response. It’s exactly what I hoped would grow out of my posting — articulate and not annoyed. And I assure you that, were I to be driving in some forsaken area of this country, turn on the radio in despair at the popular noisy junk coming out of the speaker, and tune in to late Tatum, any Oscar, any Ella, I would revel in it. But give a man like myself a full iPod or an apartment filled with compact discs and more, then I have choices. I can say to myself, “I’d rather listen to Jimmy Rowles. I’d rather listen to ivie Anderson. I’d rather listen to Johnny Guarneri!” And so on. And I don’t have to feel guilty for preferring one musician above another.

    It surprises me that no one has yet called on Ellington’s analogy of the diner in the restaurant who likes his fish cooked the way Pierre cooks it. He is not making a statement about fish — he LOVES fish — but one about style. If I am dining with friends and the dessert cart comes around and I say, “No thanks, I don’t really like deep-fried banana; I prefer ginger ice cream,” no one will suggest that I am a danger to the community. But if I say I don’t appreciate the playing of X or Y, then people begin to look worried, or feel as if I have been impious. I never said that my listeners were barred from loving Ella — I’m not trying to be an Art Czar. Alas!

    But maybe all this is a good good thing — that these artists should still make people so passionate means that they live and that their music lives!

    As for Johnny Guarneri: didn’t he SWING, now? Hear him on the Keynote sessions, with Don Byas, in the Goodman Sextet — and to think that when he began to do “his” Fats, “his” Basie, that Benny would shout at him, “Stop that!” I found some of his later things — 5/4 stride at the speed of light — technically awe-inspiring rather than musically warm, but you are right: he deserves more attention than he’s received.

    Thanks for writing! Feel encouraged to do so whenever the spirit moves you. Cheers, Michael

    I am grateful that you reminded me of the Ben-Tatum session: music to make the angels weep or beam, depending.

  15. An important post since each of us has his or her own favorites and it is unlikely that any two lists would be the same.

    Michael, may I suggest that this may be a phase? In my own listening I have flipped and flopped a few times on a number of artists for some of the reasons you bring forth.

    One should always check and recheck his own thinking on the great ones and also recognize the fact that nobody is the sole judge of greatness. And one must also determine what part personal preferences may play in these opinions.

    One favorite of the critics 45-50 years ago, is a musician whom I cannot listen to under most circumstances. Yet I keep one LP on hand and every ten years I listen to the same track to see whether or not it still sounds bad. The anniversary is coming up soon. I’ll let you know.

    Regarding Carmen McRae: you haven’t heard the right stuff. Try the Jazz Casual DVD for openers.

  16. Really enjoyed this post, Michael. I am surprised that you would use the phrase “chilly and detached” of Ella’s singing, though. Whilst her delivery of lyrics does sometimes feel sometimes as though she is dancing on the ceiling, somehow above it all, (I find this to an extent, too, with Torme or Nat Cole’s vocals – inherently musical but less dramatic than, say, Holiday, Sinatra or even peggy Lee) I always consider her voice like a great warm valley. Her delivery of a lyric strikes me at times as somewhere between child-like and yet suggesting a sort of great wounded and self-effacing dignity which I am describing very poorly but which is evident especially when one sees her perform than just listens to her. Like Doris Day, hers is the art that conceals rather than reveals autobiography and is perhaps all the more remarkable for that. Ella often seems to be placed in a head-to-head comparsion with Billie Holiday and usually, critically, comes off worse – but this is comparing apples and oranges. There is much in Ella’s art I cherish. Would there were a figure in pop music today with a tenth of her grace and ability.

    In terms of music that doesn’t do it for me anymore – well, I really should let go my Glenn Miller collection (!) and vast swathes of Sinatra, too – artists I overdosed on in my Larkinesque ‘unspent’ youth – but I just can’t let go of the times in which I first heard them. This accursed nostalgia – a la recherche du tempo perdu!

  17. Okay, this may seem a little nerdy, but I followed through on my threat to make a “Steinman Takes To The Grave” playlist.

    I have most of what you listed – how’d I do?…

    Here’s to a long life of jazz listening!

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