Daily Archives: August 13, 2012

REVERE THE DEAD, EMBRACE THE LIVING

From an English formal garden, 2010, a flower that is very much alive. Photograph by Michael Steinman

When does deep reverence become a self-created prison?

With my video camera, I attempt to capture what I think of as emotionally powerful performances by musicians playing and singing in 2012.  I don’t expect everyone to share my preferences.  But a comment posted on a YouTube video of an artist who isn’t yet forty took me by surprise.  Here it is, paraphrased:

Younger Artist’s performance is alright but isn’t distinct enough. Where are the Xs, Ys, and Zs (insert the names of Great Dead Musicians here)?

My first reaction was annoyance on behalf of the Younger Artist, someone whose work I admire, being made tiny in comparison with The Heroic Dead.

And then I felt sad for the commenter, whose ears were so full of the dead artists he loved that he didn’t have room in his consciousness for someone living who sounded different.

Many of us who love this music have spent a long time entranced by the sounds and images of those people who have “made the transition,” who are no longer on the planet.  Charlie Christian and Jimmie Blanton died before I was born, and that doesn’t obstruct my admiration for them.  So a historical perspective — something to be cultivated — has a good deal of reverence for the dead as its foundation.  Otherwise the reader / listener / viewer chases Novelty: this is the best band because it’s the newest, and Thursday’s child is fairer of face than Tuesday’s.  What was his name again?

But for some listeners, the dark shadow of NOT AS GOOD AS hangs over their experience of this lively art.  So that Kid J, a wonderful musician, is somehow unworthy when compared to Bix, Louis, Bunk, Coltrane, Jo, Billie . . .  And because we can so easily acquire almost every note that Lester Young or Peggy Lee (to pick names at random) recorded, we can fill our ears and iPods with the almost three-dimensional aural presence of our Gods and Goddesses from morning to night.  Very seductive!

What if that idolatry closes the door on our ability to appreciate the men and women who are creating it LIVE for us in clubs, concerts, dance halls, videos, discs, and the like?  The experience of being in the same place as musicians who are improvising is not the same as listening to a recording or even watching the video clip.

The improviser or improvisers creates something new and tangy, something that didn’t exist before, right in front of us.  And if there’s no one recording it with a video camera or an iPhone, it’s gone into memory.  The people on the bandstand giggle, take a deep breath, wipe their faces, take a swig of water, and prepare to create something vibrant on the next song.

This williingness to take risks in the name of music is very brave and very beautiful, and we should embrace the living people who are attempting to make a living by making art.  There will be time to sit on the couch and listen to records or mp3s.  There will be time to make critical judgments that the Living aren’t as good as the Dead.

In the recent past, I have heard tenor saxophonists who made me feel the same way Ben Webster does, pianists who make me as elated as Mel Powell does . . . and I could keep both perceptions in my mind, honoring the living and the dead.

I am not, by the way, saying that Everyone has to like Everything.  My own range is narrow by many people’s standards.  But when I hear an artist I’ve never encountered before, and (s)he elates me, it is a deep reward.  It doesn’t mean I am being disloyal to the dead if I applaud a living musician, does it?  But I think some people live in the land of Either / Or and thus, unwittingly, cut themselves off from possible pleasure.

I imagine someone, seventeen or so, walking past the Greenwich Village club called THE PIED PIPER or the RIVIERA (the latter stands, although without music) in 1944, looking at the sandwich sign on the street, advertising James P. Johnson, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Frank Orchard . . . and thinking, “Nah.  He’s no Fats Waller; he’s no Bix; he’s no Tesch; he’s no Jimmy Harrison,” and choosing not to go in . . . and having the next fifty or sixty years to regret his choice.

Artists (and people) are perhaps only Different . . . not Better or Worse.

May your happiness increase.

Advertisements

A HOT BAND IS GOOD TO FIND (Part One): CLINT BAKER’S NEW ORLEANS JAZZ BAND at the WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOP (August 1, 2012)

What happened in Mountain View, California, on Wednesday, August 1, 2012, might have been noted by global weather scientists as the best kind of seismic alteration.  Clint Baker’s New Orleans Jazz Band played two sets for dancers at the “Wednesday Night Hop” held at the Cheryl Burke Dance Studio and they made the cosmos rock — as far as I and the dancers could tell.

The participants?  Clint on trumpet and vocal; Jim Klippert, trombone; Bill Carter, clarinet; Jason Vanderford, guitar; Bill Reinhart, banjo; Tom Wilson, string bass; Steve Apple, drums.

Here’s where you can find out about future Wednesday Night Hops: the street address, the admission cost, directions.

And here’s the first part of the evening.

But a word before you immerse yourselves in the rocking hot sounds.

Some of my nicest readers gently write in, “Michael, you really should have put your camera here or there,” and I try not to let that SHOULD weigh too heavily on me. The gentle suggesters do not realize that I am at these gigs because the band members are generous kind people who put up with my presence and my camera.  But the world is not my personal video studio and I am trying my best to be unobtrusive — not the jazz world’s Erich von Stroheim.

So at Mountain View I could have set up my camera under a huge whirring electric fan (needed to keep the dancers from heatstroke) or over the drums.  I chose the latter and initially I was anxious.  But necessity is not only an inventive mother — sometimes Miss Necessity is a real pal (think of Joan Blondell in the Thirties movies where she tells the naive heroine what really needs to be said).

Setting up close to Steve Apple was a religious experience, for he played with such quiet strength,  such variety of sound and timbre, such deep swing that my vantage point was a true gift.  You can hear how the horns floated on top of and through this blissful rhythm section . . . . and how they mixed 2012 swing with a beautiful New Orleans splendor!  Clint’s solid lead would have made the masters grin; Bill Carter and Jim Klippert weave curlicues and romp on the harmonies in the best way — and those fellows in the back: Reinhart and Vanderford and Wilson would get my vote for Best String Trio anywhere.  The real thing, alive and well.

Clint called DALLAS BLUES to start, which is the hallmark of a man who loves the music — and he had been playing Luis Russell in the car on the way down to Mountain View, always a good idea:

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY is a sweet Jabbo Smith tune that’s getting more play these days (Eddie Erickson does it, too!) — romance in swingtime:

WHISPERING shows, once again, how a band sensitive to the dancers can swing anything:

RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET brings back 1935 Louis (this is a Decca band) and the New Orleans tradition of playing pop tunes rather than sticking to a narrow repertoire of  “good old good ones”: I think of Bunk Johnson preferring PISTOL PACKIN’ MAMA and MARIA ELENA on dance gigs:

EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, with the verse — and I swung my camera around to catch the expert hopping of Audrey Kanemoto, our heroine, and Manu Smith.  Watching this video, I thought of the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who loved jazz and had been an amateur saxophonist in his homeland under a variety of occupations.  In one of his novels, he has a passage describing playing in a band while the current love of his life is doing a beautiful expert vigorous Charleston to the music.  He would have loved to see this band and these dancers:

There was no beer at Mountain View, although there were Fritos in little bags from the vending machine.  Perhaps that’s why THE BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT came to mind.  Or perhaps it was time for some Lowdown Groove, which I have not found in any vending machine:

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOP, a fast blues for the Lindy Hoppers:

I love SOLID OLD MAN — a simple line from the session that Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Billy Taylor did with Django in 1939:

KRAZY KAPERS is, as Clint mentions, a line on DIGA DIGA DOO — recorded first by Benny Carter in 1933 with one of our dream bands, featuring Floyd O’Brien, Chu Berry, Sidney Catlett, Teddy Wilson, Max Kaminsky, Lawrence Lucie, and Ernest Hill.  (Thank you, John Hammond!):

My goodness!  What a hot band!  And there’s more to come.

May your happiness increase.

“WELCOME TO NUTVILLE”: A BUDDY RICH DOCUMENTARY

The filmmaker Brian Morgan seems to me to be someone full of energy, creativity, and humor.  And he’s set out on a course of action that seems both logical and daring: to make an expansive documentary film that will do justice to the life and music of the remarkable jazz drummer Buddy Rich.  From every bit of evidence we have — the recordings, the interviews, the television and film appearances — Rich was not only a monumental musician but someone determined to go his own way in all things — thus a first-rate subject for a large study on both counts.  And since so many jazz legends have been documented many years after they are dead, timing is everything . . . while the people who knew and worked with Buddy are still on the planet.

Brian has one great advantage in that he has the enthusiastic commitment of Cathy Rich, Buddy’s daughter — someone blessed with some of her father’s determination.

Projects like this are no longer funded by major grants or huge Hollywood studios (we know that if one of the latter got hold of this idea, it wouldn’t resemble Buddy’s life or music at all when it was through) . . . so Brian and Cathy are asking for your help, your support, and your contribution.  Even if you can’t bankroll the project in some dramatic way, I urge you to watch the video here.  This site is accepting one-dollar donations, although I am sure they wouldn’t mind more sweeping largesse — and since just about everyone who ever sat down at a drum set since 1937 has in some way been conscious of Mr. Rich, I wish that all the drummers — professional, amateur, and people who tap on the table — would take this appeal seriously.

And as a reward for your patience and generosity, here is a seventeen-minute collection of excerpts from the 1950 film Norman Granz never saw to its completion, tentatively titled IMPROVISATION, which finds Buddy among Hank Jones, Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Harry Edison, Flip Phillips, and Ella Fitzgerald . . . not only showing off the fast company who worked with and admired Buddy, but how wonderfully he fit into this varied presentation by musicians with very different styles:

May your happiness increase.