Lester Young told François Postif in 1959, “It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig? Sweetness can be funky, filthy, or anything, but which part do you want?”*
As someone who has sought sweetness all his life, I delight in that statement. I don’t mean stickiness or sentimentality, but a gentle approach to the subject being considered, loving rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive.
I have met many people who are acquainted with jazz in an intellectual way, who value Miles and Trane as modernists influential as Kandinsky or Joyce, but who have missed or disdained the sweetness that can be so integral to the music.
For some of them, jazz is a mystery to be wary of. It is intricate, cerebral, complex, a closed system with no way in for the lay person. This might spring from a sensibility that equates anger with authenticity. Thus, they experience sweet warm music as banal, the faded dance music of oblivious grandparents shuffling around the floor, clinging to each other as the ship tilts dangerously.
“Ben Webster with strings? Oh, that’s beautiful saxophone playing, but does it challenge the listener? It’s too pretty for me!”
I warm to art that embraces me rather than one that says, “Sorry. You are not educated enough or radical enough to appreciate this.” Complexity is always intriguing but not as an aggressive rebuke to the listener. Sweetness can elevate a music that creates a direct line from the creators’ hearts to the hearers’.
And sometimes the dearest and deepest art is a masquerade, where the artists act as if nothing particularly difficult is being created. But consider Edmond Hall, Harry Carney, Tony Fruscella, Bobby Hackett, Frank Chace, or Benny Morton playing a melody, or the 1938 Basie rhythm section, or four quarter notes by Louis on YOU ARE MY LUCKY STAR. To fully understand such gorgeous phenomena would take a lifetime, but at the same time the sounds are immediately accessible as beautiful. This music woos the listener’s ears, brain, heart, and spirit.
Such sweetness, delicate intricacy, conviction, expertise, and deep feeling were all evident when Michael Kanan, piano; Neal Miner, string bass; Greg Ruggiero, guitar, took the stage at Mezzrow on March 23, 2015. Here are three more deep examples:
Michael’s ADORÉE, which he wrote for the late singer Jimmy Scott:
A brisk THE NEARNESS OF YOU:
Ellington’s wonderful THE MOOCHE:
(I thought this performance was especially delicious: in the ideal world, there would be the two-CD set of this trio performing Ellington and Strayhorn.)
Here is the first part of the beautiful music created that evening.
Lester would have loved to play with this trio. I felt his admiring spirit in the room.
*This quotation comes from THE LESTER YOUNG READER, ed. Lewis Porter (Smithsonian, 1991): 189.
May your happiness increase!