Tag Archives: be-bop

“WHAT DO YOU CALL THAT?”

With some regularity, I get an email note from a sincere, curious JAZZ LIVES reader or viewer who has encountered a stirring, perhaps unclassifiable musical performance: “What style is that?” or “What do you call that kind of jazz?”

The questions make me sad.  Sometimes it seems as if listeners are made nervous by the music’s potential to surprise, as if jazz had become a little dog, very sweet-natured, that could turn around and bite badly.

Uncertainty makes us tremble, but I didn’t think that the need for certainties would have so infected our ability to love the music on its own terms.  Some people with good hearts and ears will only be truly easy and happy when they know that a performance of ATLANTA BLUES is “down-home,” “Mainstream,” “pre-bop,” “trad,” “neo-retro,” and the like.  Pick your terminology.  It reminds me of those charts in INTRODUCTION TO JAZZ books with everyone neatly listed, either in tables or in timelines, from Buddy Bolden (he was “New Orleans,” we knew) to Charlie Parker (safe at home in “be-bop”).  Roy Eldridge gave birth to Dizzy Gillespie, and so on.  I always found those charts annoying because of their conservative narrowness: were Ben Webster and Lester Young “Swing” players who weren’t allowed to go out of their front yards?  And the charts left so many people out: I never saw Joe Thomas anywhere.

Although I am an “academic” by profession (I have taught English to college freshmen and sophomores for longer than Bix Beiderbecke’s time on earth) I blame the academics even before there were Jazz History courses, in their attempts to standardize, categorize an organic art form into something teachable — with final exam questions to be determined later.  Charts and boxes, timelines and categories are attempts to quantify something that threatens to spill out and over the edges.  These restrictive mechanisms have governed literary anthologies (organized by “schools” and arranged by the birthdates of the writers being studied) for many generations.

It’s a tribute to any art — jazz, poetry, painting — that such well-meaning acts haven’t killed it dead.

Then, of course, jazz is a music that blessedly stirs up fierce allegiances.  That’s a good thing!  I love to see people who hug their music to their hearts: both they and the music are fully alive in such moments.  But allegiance devolves into party skirmishes and ideological statements: my music is PURE; yours is COMMERCIAL.  Mine is THE TRUTH; yours is CORRUPTED.  The journalists and critics saw good copy here and thus we had DIXIELAND versus BE-BOP and the like, the ancient doing battle with the new.  The musicians knew better and respected each other: Baby Dodds and Max Roach weren’t at war.

But the need to name, to classify, to take big living entities and force them into little boxes — a chilling process — hasn’t gone away.  Too bad.  It gets in the way of our ability to sink deeply into the collective creativity that jazz offers us if we’re wondering what to call what we’re hearing.

Let us be guided by Eddie Condon: WE CALLED IT MUSIC.

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MARTY GROSZ’S BASS MOTIVES at CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 18, 2010)

My flippant title is not completely irrelevant.

For starters, at jazz clubs and parties and festivals, there are performances ranging from humdrum to spectacular.  And — not very often — there are performances that viewers and listeners know they won’t ever forget. 

I take great pride in presenting one such episode: around four minutes long, quietly rocking rather than explosive, and performed before noon — an unseemly time of day for most jazz musicians.

The band was officially titled Marty Grosz and “The Mouldy Figs,” referring to those rather artificial wars between musical ideologies stirred up by jazz critics and fans in the Forties and Fifties.  A “Mouldy Fig” read Rudi Blesh rather than Barry Ulanov or Leonard Feather, revered Bunk Johnson rather than Fats Navarro.  Figs deplored “be-bop,” horn-rimmed glasses, and berets.

Since Marty Grosz has displayed a serious leaning towards band-names no one has thought of before (his Hot Puppies, his Orphan Newsboys, and so on) I have taken the liberty of renaming the band — for this performance only “Bass Motives.”  Why?  Well, there’s Arnie Kinsella on drums — someone who knows how to make a particular point with a ferocious hit to his bass drum; Andy Stein, usually playing violin but here picking up his baritone sax; Vince Giordano, bass saxophonist supreme; Scott Robinson, the Doc Savage of the instrument room, also playing bass saxophone. 

The tune they launch into is the pretty old Eddie Cantor tribute to his wife, Ida — IDA (SWEET AS APPLE CIDER).  But behind Eddie and Ida and their family is the far more serious presence of Red Nichols and his Five Pennies in the Brunswick studios in 1927 — the Pennies including Pee Wee Russell and Adrian Rollini, perhaps the finest bass saxophonist ever, ever.  And one of the songs they took on was a moving ballad-tempo version of IDA. 

Marty and his Bass Motives not only evoke that lovely recording but sing out in their own style.  When I wrote that some rare performances are unforgettable, I wasn’t over-praising this one:

Incidentally, for the chroniclers in the audience: Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke have received a good deal of well-earned praise for their imperishable recordings in early 1927 of two “jazz ballads,” that is, improvisation carried out at a medium-slow tempo: SINGIN’ THE BLUES and I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA (with a sweet reading of ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS not far behind).  The original Nichols recording — in August of that same year — seems deeply emotionally influenced by the pretty playing of Bix and Tram.