Tag Archives: Ed Blackwell

HOD O’BRIEN, WRITER

Hod O'Brien and wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian

Hod O’Brien and wife, singer Stephanie Nakasian

Pianist Hod O’Brien is a master of melodic improvisations.  If you missed his July 2015 gig at Mezzrow with bassist Ray Drummond, the evidence is here.

But here’s the beautiful part.  Some jazz musicians keep words at a distance and their expressiveness comes out through the keyboard, the brass tubing, and so on.  But Hod has written a pointed, light-hearted memoir that operates the way he plays.  His words seem simple, his constructions are never ornate, but he gets to the heart of things and leaves the reader enlightened, renewed.

HOD BOOK

The first thing to say about this book is how pleased I am to read a book by someone who, like Hod, has been an active part of jazz for six decades.  It’s not “as told to,” nor is it embellished by a jazz scholar as a posthumous tribute.  Here is part of  Hod’s preface, which reveals much about his character:

“This book is not intended to be a strictly biographical text, but, rather a collection of funny, little incidents and stories I’ve witnessed and heard along my way, on my path as a freelance jazz musician over the past 60 years of my professional life.

It’s intended mostly for fans of mine, whomever and wherever you all are, and fellow musicians, who might be interested in hearing a little bit more about me from another perspective, rather than from just my music and recordings alone. . . . The jazz community is a small, but hip part of the world, of which I’m happy and proud to be a member, and to whom I wish to express my deep gratitude — to those of you in it and interested in my work.”

I was immediately struck by Hod’s self-description as “happy and proud,” and the book bears him out.  “Proud” doesn’t mean immodest — in fact, Hod constantly seems delighted and amazed at the musicians he’s gotten to play with, but his happiness is a great and reassuring undercurrent in the book.  (When was the last time you met someone deeply nourished by his or her work?  Hod is that person.)

His  book moves quickly: at the start he is a child picking out one-finger melodies on the piano, learning boogie-woogie, hearing JATP and bebop recordings; a few pages later it is 1955 and he filling in for Randy Weston at a gig in Massachusetts, hearing Pepper Adams, getting threatened by Charles Mingus, meeting and playing with Zoot Sims and Bob Brookmeyer.  Oscar Pettiford (called “Pet” by Thad Jones) gets a longer portrait.  The O.P. portrait is so good that I won’t spoil it, but it has cameo appearances by Bill Evans and Paul Chambers, Chet Baker, and Philly Joe Jones.  In case you are realizing that Hod has managed to play with or hear or meet many jazz luminaries in the past sixty years, that alone is reason to buy the book.  There’s J.R. Monterose and a defective piano, a compromised Wilbur Ware, friendliness from Max Roach and Arthur Taylor.

The book (and Hod’s life) takes a surprising turn with Hod losing interest in his jazz career, studying with Charles Wuorinen, and delving into physics, higher mathematics, and early computer programming.  But a reunion with his old friend Roswell Rudd moves him back to performance and the club scene.

Interruption: for those of you who can only read about doomed heroic figures, victims, or the chronically self-destructive, this is not such a book.  Hod has setbacks but makes friends and makes music; he marries the fine singer Stephanie Nakasian, and they remain happily married, with a singer in the family, daughter Veronica Swift (born in 1994) — who just won second place in the Thelonious Monk jazz competition.  Now back to our regularly scheduled narrative.

Hod’s experiences as a clubowner are somewhere between surreal, hilarious, and sad — but his reminiscences of Sonny Greer (and a birthday gift), Joe Puma, Chuck Wayne, Al Haig, Stan Getz, and the little East Side club called Gregory’s (which I remember although I didn’t see Hod there).  There’s  Hod’s playing a set with Dizzy, Ornette, Ed Blackwell, and Teddy Kotick . . . and much more, including more than fifty photographs, a discography, and a list of Hod’s compositions: very nicely done at 122 pages.

You can buy it here — and you can also find out more about Hod . . . such as his return to Mezzrow on March 18-19, 2016. But until then, you can entertain yourself with a copy of HAVE PIANO . . . WILL SWING! — a book that surely lives up to its title.

May your happiness increase!

“BIG EASY BIG BANDS: DAWN AND RISE OF THE JAZZ ORCHESTRA,” by EDDY DETERMEYER

A successful book on jazz has to be accurate, unbiased, and deep.  The writer shouldn’t twist evidence to fit an ideology; (s)he has to base conclusions on solid research; ideally, the book has to contain something new.

Eddy Determeyer’s new book on New Orleans “big bands” is successful in these ways.  I knew his work from his 2009 RHYTHM IS OUR BUSINESS: JIMMIE LUNCEFORD AND THE HARLEM EXPRESS — a beautifully thorough and lively study of that band and its somewhat elusive leader — so I was eager to read BIG EASY BIG BANDS.

BIG EASY BIG BANDS

It’s a fascinating book because it focuses on an aspect of New Orleans jazz and dance music that we knew existed but that apparently never received such loving attention — “orchestras,” groups larger than five or six pieces, relying on written arrangements — from the teens to the present day.

Determeyer’s scope is broad: in this book, one finds Louis Armstrong and Joe Robichaux, Champion Jack Dupree, Aaron Bell, Benny Powell, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Wallace Davenport, Sam Lee, Ed Blackwell, Dooky Chase, “Mr. Google Eyes,” Papa Jack Laine, and many others.

That a number of those names are less familiar is the point of the book, and testimony to the hard work behind it.  For one thing, Determeyer has shown by his research that there was a vital musical tradition in New Orleans running parallel to the one that most of us acknowledge: street musicians, small improvising bands, larger marching aggregations.  But — so runs the accepted myth — the “big bands” came out of Kansas City, New York, and Chicago, leaving New Orleans as a kind of improvisers’ Eden, both pure and somewhat behind the curve.

Determeyer’s research, from Congo Square to hard bop, shows that there was much more going on: picnics at Milneburg, steamboats and minstrel shows, Sam Morgan’s band, the excursion boats — with Fate Marable in charge (including drummer Monk Hazel’s account of a cutting contest between Emmett Hardy and young Louis (where Louis is reputed to have said, “You is the king!).

One of the strengths of Determeyer’s book is that the reader glides happily from one vivid anecdote to another: Huey Long saws off one leg of a three thousand dollar Steinway grand so that it can get into a club; Joe Robichaux, forty years later, is nearly done in by the erotic / financial insistence of a Japanese prostitute.  Cap’n John Handy sits in with his younger namesake, John Handy, and they have a good time.

It’s a thoroughly entertaining and informative book — stretching from the 1700s in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina — with a number of surprising photographs, an index, and clear links to research sources.

You can purchase a copy at the Determeyer’s webstore — BIG EASY BIG BANDS is surprisingly affordable.  It will entertain and enlighten . . . what more could we ask?

May your happiness increase.