Category Archives: It’s A Mystery

IN MEMORY OF TOM BAKER, WHO DID ALL THINGS WELL

I now have an opportunity to share with you some wonderful videos of the amazing musician Tom Baker (1952-2001) who lives on.

Below is a picture of our benefactor and generous friend, Enrico Borsetti, who took a video camera to the 2000 Ascona Jazz Festival and recorded treasures — some of which I have already posted, featuring Dan Barrett, Jeff Hamilton, Ray Sherman, Jon-Erik Kellso, Brian Oglivie, John Smith, Eddie Erickson, Joel Forbes, and Rebecca Kilgore.

Another magnificent band, led by pianist / singer Keith Nichols, was called The Blue Rhythm Makers — and here on YouTube you can see two incarnations with different personnel.  The one I share today features the immensely talented and much-missed Tom Baker (trumpet, trombone, reeds, vocal, and more I am probably leaving out), my friend-heroes Matthias Seuffert, Martin Wheatley, Frans Sjostrom.

Here you can learn more / see more about Tom, who made the transition at 49.

Here’s Tom’s very touching reading of ANNIE LAURIE, which I think unforgettable, especially thinking of such a brilliant man who is no longer with us:

and a searing I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW:

and a radiant version of Benny Carter’s ONCE UPON A TIME:

Since I believe that “the dead” KNOW, I send tears and reverent admiration to Tom Baker.  And let us not forget the living, to whom I send gratitude.

May your happiness increase!

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MONEY BLUES, or BEYOND “FEED THE KITTY”

Go to a jazz club, bar or restaurant that offers live music, and there is often a tip jar (tip vase, tip pumpkin, in the latest incarnation a tip brown paper bag).  Very few people bother to put anything in it, and those who do often think a lonely dollar is just recompense for the hour of music — created by human beings — that they’ve just heard.  I’ve been to nightspots where one of the musicians walked from patron to patron, asking for “tips for the band,” and some people look embarrassed, offer coins, or — in one case — hand the musician a five and ask for three back.  And when the patron is on his or her third drink, it seems offensive to say, “I am worthy of twenty-five dollars of alcohol but the musicians are furniture that makes sounds.  I don’t pay chairs when I sit on them.”

The professional who performs a valuable service (be she an ENT doctor or an estate lawyer helping you write a will) has studied for years to earn that credential, and must keep re-certifying to retain it.  I think such levels of skill deserve more pay than — let us say — folding jeans at the local chain clothing store, with all respect to the folders.  The musician you listen to has probably put in ten thousand hours of practice on her instrument, and keeps working.  That’s worth more than a dollar.

But there’s an intrinsic problem, as Blanche DuBois found out, in relying on the kindness of strangers.  Sometimes people are more strange than they are kind.

A musical interlude at an angle to this theme:

Eric Whittington, owner and spiritual Chief of Staff of Bird & Beckett — bookstore, cultural center, concert space — in San Francisco, has written cogently about this on his blog:

A healthy arts culture requires public subsidy. To us, it seems as simple as that.  

At Bird & Beckett, we generally ask you to put up $10 to $15 to $20 when you come to a show, and that goes a long way. And when you and your neighbors donate to our nonprofit, that supplements the money you put in at the shows and also underpins our overhead costs — so that we can stay in business as a venue and as a bookshop.

Is $10 or $20 a lot of money to hear talented performers play live music?

Not really. How much did you pay for your last burrito? How much did you tip the wait staff in that nice restaurant down the street for visiting your table several times in the course of serving you a meal that cost you $20 to $75? How much did you pay to see a movie over in West Portal? What price the popcorn?

30 people at the bookshop putting in $10 apiece comes to $300. For four musicians, that’s $75 apiece, with nothing to the venue. If there are only 12 people in the room, $15 apiece is only going to total $180 for that Saturday night quartet, though we pay out $400.

But your pockets on any given day are only so deep!
Again, a healthy arts culture requires public subsidy!

As an individual, you are personally making a substantial and crucial contribution when you seek out live music and put up your cash, whether by paying a cover charge, by throwing money in the donation buckets and tip jars, by spending lavishly on a performer’s merchandise and a venue’s food & drink. Still, it’s not really enough unless you’re able and willing to pay a $50 cover instead of $15. Subsidy is necessary. How do we get there? How do we distribute it?

Jazz in the Neighborhood – a wonderful organization that’s been sponsoring performances in non-traditional venues all over the Bay Area the past several years – has just launched a fund to supplement musicians’ pay. Their efforts can’t cover all the musicians in all the venues. Nonetheless, they’re raising the bar, raising consciousness and setting a standard. $150 per show per performer is the goal they’re establishing. You’ll be reading about their efforts in the media. They’re our allies, and champions of the City’s (the region’s) working jazz musicians. Google them now! Wrap your mind around their efforts.

The problem, simply stated is this: It’s unusual for musicians to get decent pay in this city when they play live music. Some get steady work, and sometimes that work is decently paid, but that’s rare and they almost always travel far and long for a 2-3 hour gig, lugging gear, setting up, breaking down and schlepping. Practicing incessantly, working side jobs. And most find gigs only occasionally — teaching or doing what they can to stay in music. For most, pay is paltry and, we believe, insultingly low. Often a just a tip jar to split, or a percentage of the door. Playing your heart out for $35 isn’t unheard of. Playing for less happens too.

How would that sit with you if you were in their shoes?

And here’s another development of the same generous idea, as explored by Burt Dragin in the East Bay Express, called “A New Model for Paying Musicians A Living Wage”.  Here’s the relevant text:

Bay Area trumpeter Mario Guarneri is sympathetic to the plight of freelance jazz musicians. The septuagenarian has a long career performing with symphonies and for television and film, while teaching at various institutions. But in recent years he’s seen up-and-coming jazz musicians struggling just to get by.

“Most venues don’t pay a guaranteed fair wage,” he said. “Instead, they offer a percentage of the door, or ask musicians to split the tip jar.” If you do the math, he said, “the hourly wages often amount to less than the SF city minimum wage.”

Underpaid freelance musicians is nothing new. But lack of union support, the Internet’s supply of “free” music, and an abundance of talented musicians in a buyer’s market have exacerbated the problem.

Years ago, Guarneri decided to do something about it — by paying musicians out of his own pocket. But he realized his method was a band-aid approach to a systemic problem. So, in 2012 he created Jazz in the Neighborhood, a nonprofit whose goal is “to improve the economics of jazz performance in the Bay Area by presenting affordable concerts, paying musicians a guaranteed wage, and supporting the work of established and aspiring artists.”

“Suffice it to say, the music scene as we knew it in the Bay Area in the 1980s and ’90s was a very different scene than it is now,” said Jon Herbst, a sought-after composer, arranger, and audio engineer who helped Guarneri start Jazz in the Neighborhood. “We saw the whole sort of degradation of the music scene take place and were aware of it. We saw that it was affecting many, many talented players that we knew and were associated with; it hit them hard.”

Jazz in the Neighborhood took a major step in 2013, becoming a member of the Intersection Incubator, a program of the nonprofit Intersection for the Arts, which allowed it to receive tax-deductible contributions. Jazz in the Neighborhood has presented nearly 200 concerts in Bay Area venues such as Piedmont Center for the Arts, Community Music Center in San Francisco, and Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, paying $140,000 to more than 300 musicians. “There was no tip jar allowed and no splitting-the-door percentage deals,” Guarneri explained. Sponsorship comes from a variety of sources: members, grants, corporate and private foundations, local businesses, and ticket sales.

Bay Area jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer has performed at several Jazz in the Neighborhood events and was recently named to the group’s artistic advisory committee. “I love what Mario is doing,” Brewer said. “He has made us realize there is a partnership to be had with young artists and professionals coming together.”

Last year, Guarneri expanded his efforts further by creating the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund. A survey of Bay Area jazz venues by Jazz in the Neighborhood revealed that musicians were paid an average of $95 each for a three- or four-hour performance. The fund ensures that musicians earn at least $150 per performance by subsidizing up to 40 percent of that amount after the venue guarantees the initial 60 percent of their pay. During a pilot program last year, Jazz in the Neighborhood supplemented musician’s salaries by $2,000 (adding about $60 to each musician’s pay) over the course of eight concerts. This year, Jazz in the Neighborhood received a $3,000 grant from the SF Friends of Chamber Music to fund a concert next year showcasing three young professionals who have come through the nonprofit’s Emerging Artists programs. The concert will be held Feb. 16 in the SF Community Music Center.

While jazz musicians typically haven’t had the support of the musicians’ union, Guarneri hopes to change that. “The union supports the symphony, opera, ballet and theater orchestras because they bring in revenue to the union through work dues and thus have a strong voice in union policies,” he said.

David Schoenbrun, president of the Bay Area Musicians Union Local 6, is sympathetic to what he called Guarneri’s “noble quest.” But he cited several obstacles to revisiting such prosperity. “Patrons once found a value in live music and a willingness to pay for it,” said Schoenbrun. “But there’s been a cultural shift in the value of music, and people often feel it should be free. That’s been a difficulty, and it’s sure to get worse.”

There’s also been a shift in the musicians’ union membership: Most members are in their 50s and 60s. “We have fewer and fewer young people joining, which was not the case in the 1950s and ’60s, when the union could ensure the minimum number of musicians in the room, no matter what kind of music they were playing,” Schoenbrun said. “The only young people joining are fresh out of the conservatory and want to play in orchestras, which requires union membership.”

Younger jazz players are reluctant to join because there is no work for them that requires union membership, Schoenbrun continued. “And they see no reason to expend money on dues if they don’t think the union can protect what they’re doing.”

Another element in the mix is the fact that many musicians do club work “as an avocation, without expectation — or hope even — of ever being paid. It’s a labor of love,” Schoenbrun said. This development, he noted, “takes it out of the professional realm. Club owners plead poverty because they don’t get enough traffic, and only take musicians who have established a following.” Experienced jazz musicians are left to hope that a gig will provide a chance to sell a few CDs.

But there may be a warming in the relationship between Jazz in the Neighborhood and the musicians’ union. Recently, Guarneri and the Jazz in the Neighborhood staff made a presentation to the union board about his nonprofit’s accomplishments. “We’re not sure how we can partner together to help musicians, but they clearly appreciate that we’ve paid professional wages to over 300 musicians and seem to want to help,” Guarneri said.

In the meantime, Guarneri continues to scour the Bay Area, putting on shows and making a pitch to venues and promoters to sign on to the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund model. Jazz in the Neighborhood will hold a major fundraiser at a private home in Marin on Sunday, Sept. 24, featuring jazz notables Mimi Fox on guitar and singer Clairdee.

Is it possible for Jazz in the Neighborhood to improve the lives of local musicians? Guarneri could have retired long ago. But that’s not his style. “It’s a struggle to change the dynamic, the way musicians are treated in our society,” he said. “But in trying to alter the system, I always ask, ‘Do we have to do things that way?'”

Another interlude:

Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson were ground-breaking artists, seriously influential and much beloved.  Neither of them died prosperous.  If you value the music, it is logical to value the artist who creates it.

May your happiness increase!

“SWIGGLE” TURNS SIXTEEN! WITH A BAND.

My little friend “Swiggle” Murchison had her Sweet Sixteen party this summer, and it was a blast.  I should explain that the Murchisons are dear friends of mine — musical and otherwise — and that everyone in their family has pet names.  Dad is “Hoppy,” Mom is “Luscious,” and “Swiggle” got her name as an especially wiggly infant who more than once nearly flew off the changing table.  Now she dances to jazz.

For her Sweet Sixteen, they hired a band — four of the finest — Danny Tobias, trumpet; Jay Rattman, reeds; Chris Flory, guitar; Joe Plowman, string bass.  But that’s not all.  Hoppy is a Broadway stage designer and Luscious is a realtor who stages houses for her clients, so they transformed (for one afternoon only) a large room in their house into a simulated jazz club. And the music was lovely. They allowed me to share a few selections.

What a delight to know Swiggle, Hoppy, Luscious, Danny, Jay, Chris, and Joe. And to have a jubilant audience to share joys with.  That’s you.

ALL BY MYSELF:

HOW’S IT GO? (Danny’s composition on the harmonies of SHINE):

LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:

IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU:

Sadly, the cake is all gone, so there’s no point in asking me for the Murchisons’ address.  But the lovely memories remain.

May your happiness increase! 

“OF THINGS PAST”: JIMMY KNEPPER, DICK KATZ, GEORGE MRAZ, MEL LEWIS (1986)

This doesn’t require much commentary: it is a gorgeously tender themeless improvisation on THESE FOOLISH THINGS by Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Dick Katz, piano; George Mraz, string bass; Mel Lewis, drums.

Knepper began his recording career with big bands, so playing ballads was part of the training, since one played for dancers.  And if you’ve never heard of him, I invite you to be uplifted by calm, searching music that is at once melancholy and uplifting.

I hope you are as moved by this as I am.

May your happiness increase!

WITH TENDERNESS: THEN, NOW, SOON (JOEL FORRESTER, VITO DIETERLE, MATT GARRITY, DAVE HOFSTRA)

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

Some more music from my hero Joel Forrester, captured live at Cleopatra’s Needle on August 3, 2017, which is the THEN of the title.  Joel brought with him Vito Dieterle, tenor saxophone; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Matt Garrity, drums (and other noble participants, their identities to be revealed in future JAZZ LIVES’ posts).

Two selections struck me most strongly as wordless evocations of tenderness, overlaid with grief.  The first, YOUR LITTLE DOG, Joel’s elegy for a beloved pet, is incomplete: I arrived late to this Musical Offering and the quartet was taking its leisurely melancholy route through this composition, one of Joel’s that is most dear to me. Here is the closing minute.  I wish I’d arrived earlier, but this minute-plus remains emotionally powerful:

Later in the evening, Joel and the quartet offered a slow ballad, ABOUT FRANCOISE, which has much of the same mood:

I’ve lingered over these two performances because they present a sound, a mood, a tempo that I don’t always encounter, in a world where some musicians feel pressured to be brighter, quicker, more attention-getting.  Joel and friends know that music that mourns can also elate and uplift, and I hope you feel those emotions here.

That was THEN, as they say.  The NOW is, of course, the minutes you are spending absorbing the sounds.

SOON is not yet here as I write this, but it will come  . . .  you know the rest.

Joel, Vito, and Dave have a new trio gig in Riverdale, New York, this coming Sunday, which is September 10, from 3 to 7 PM, at MON AMOUR, a coffee-and-wine cafe at 234 West 238th Street, two doors to the east of Broadway.  Take the #1 train to 238 (its penultimate station stop) and you are THERE. No cover or music charge. 

And Joel has promised me a full version of YOUR LITTLE DOG for my camera and my audience.  You could spend Sunday afternoon searching for your autumn-winter wardrobe, but that can wait a few days.

Something relevant and perhaps not coincidental: I am reading with great pleasure OPEN CITY, the 2011 debut novel by Teju Cole — the book a gift from tenor saxophonist Sam Taylor, and after beginning this blog, I had to leave my computer but could take the book with me.  The narrator says, early on, of a younger friend in his neighborhood, “My friend was especially passionate about jazz. Most of the names and styles that he so delighted in meant little to me (there are apparently number of great jazz musicians from the sixties and seventies with the last name Jones).  But I could sense, even from my ignorant distance, the sophistication of his ear.  He often said that he would sit down at a piano someday and show me how jazz worked, and that when I finally understood blue notes and swung notes, the heavens would part and my life would be transformed.  I more than half believed him . . . ” (24-25).

Cole’s words echo Forrester’s “tunes.”

May your happiness increase!

GLIMPSES OF MISS WILEY and COLLEAGUES (1934-1953)

A small pleasure. seen on eBay.

Here’s what it sounds like:

The facts are: Lee Wiley, vocal; Sterling Bose, Tommy Dorsey, Sid Stoneburn, others; Ernie White, Larry Gomar,  Justin Ring or Victor Young, directing. New York, August 13, 1934 38298-B.

And nearly twenty years later:

Lee’s voice had changed, predictably, as had the band, but I like the new, tougher approach just as much.

We enter the magical world of sheet music covers.  This song is familiar, with the distinct connection to Victor Young — with whom Lee enjoyed a long relationship.  I reprint the cover for comparison:

Although I can’t offer a recording of Lee singing LOVE ME, how about two versions by Jack Teagarden — the first with ornamentation by Sterling Bose, Jimmy Dorsey, Perry Botkin — again directed by Victor Young?  I knew you wouldn’t object:

This is, again, twenty years later, swinging as well as romantic — from the sextet that Jack led after he’d left Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars.  This 1953 band was a family affair, with brother Charlie on trumpet, sister Norma on piano:

Back to Lee.

This piece of sheet music is new to me, and I haven’t found any recordings of the song to offer you:

This song is known to me because Red Allen recorded it at the time, but no recording of Lee singing it exists.  Still, it’s pleasant to hear her voice in one’s mental recording studio:

and, in case you’ve never seen it, here is the justly famous film — silent but with a soundtrack added later, both thanks to Josh Rushton — of Lee and then-husband Jess Stacy, out and about.

May your happiness increase!

“SO THEY TELL ME”: JON-ERIK KELLSO and EHUD ASHERIE at ROTH’S STEAKHOUSE (June 24, 2008)

A decade ago, I became an intermittent denizen of the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the best reasons.  Although that period of my life has ended, for all things change and shift, I remember those days and nights with fondness.

One of the pleasures for an even more brief period was hearing music at Roth’s Steakhouse on Columbus Avenue in the Nineties.  It closed sometime after 2010, so I can now say that the food was indifferent.  But the music was sublime.  Here is a tender musical souvenir of days gone by — but not days beyond recall.  It is a leisurely yet rhythmic exploration of Irving Berlin’s ballad from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, a sentiment few would deny, THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL — performed by two musical romantics who also like their romance to move along at the right tempo, Jon-Erik Kellso and Ehud Asherie, brass and piano, respectively.

In his very admiring chapter on Mr. Berlin in AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder says nothing about THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL, but I will fill in for him for one sentence.  Originally, the music for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN was to be composed by Jerome Kern, who died suddenly before he could create the score; I hear faint tracings of Kern in Berlin’s arching melody line, especially evident if one plays or sings the song as a very slow ballad.

Here, Jon-Erik and Ehud create their own world in praise of love not yet realized or never forgotten:

I’ve left the end of the video intact — with the waitperson pushing the specials on hopeful diners — to add to the Rothian ambiance.  Another place where one could dine on extraordinary music, gone, but the sounds remain.

May your happiness increase!