Tag Archives: hipster

THE ARTIST, THE AUDIENCE: CHICAGO 1948

This picture just turned up on an NPR blogpost about the contemporary guise of the “hipster” as opposed to “hep cat” and people who were genuinely “hip.” I have my own — perhaps acerbic — thoughts on the current phenomenon of hipsterdom as practiced by comfortably affluent urban young men, but I will not inflict them on you.  (Here is the original post.)

Rather, I offer this portrait of someone I admire: Mister Strong, surrounded by fans, presumably after playing a set at Chicago’s Blue Note in 1948 (photograph by Edward S. Kitch for the Associated Press):

ap480401072

My first reaction to this photo was, “Goodness, he looks furious,” but I was wrong.

What I see here now is the absolute intent focus on a task — in this case, making sure that he is in touch with the people who have come to see and hear him create music. “Playing for the people” didn’t stop with the final notes of WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH; these fans must be honored.  And those last notes have sounded so close to this picture that he still has trumpet and handkerchief at the ready — no time to go back to the dressing room.

The fans are equally intent: what is this, for them, but approaching a deity at close range and going home with something he has touched?  In 1948, young men and women still dressed to go out; perhaps they are all too young to have suits, but they know something about “dressing up,” and their clothing is anything but ironic.

And, although I am in a wholly life-enhancing relationship, I would like to time-travel back to 1948 — not only to hear the music, but to ask the diminutive young woman who is peering in at the scene if she will go with me for an ice-cream soda sometime. Or to a movie.

Louis, COME BACK! This world needs you so.

Thoughts on a snowy New York morning.

May your happiness increase!

BASIE SAYS YES

Miles Davis has often been quoted as saying, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

I would never disagree with this. I don’t wish to set up any competition, but I think everyone should give thanks to Count Basie — and not just once. And not just musicians, either.

It is fashionable, still, to affect hipness, and that is not limited to people under 30. And some intriguing theoretician has suggested that the qualities we praise as hip — subtlety, originality, a wry way of perceiving the world — were exemplified by Lester Young before Kerouac and the Beats took them as their own. I like this theory, although what Pres would have made of a Williamsburg or Berkeley or Portland hipster is not known.

But I would propose Basie as the original Parent of many virtues we prize. Singularity, although a loving reverence for one’s ancestors (as in Basie’s affectionate nods to Fats Waller), an awareness that joy and sorrow are not only wedded but interdependent (that the blues are at the heart of everything), and a deep emotional commitment to swinging one’s way through life.  Swinging, as embodied by Basie, his peers and their descendants, meant the maximum of grace with the minimum of visible labor.  The style later exemplified by Astaire with a Kansas City world-view. Passion and fun, no less powerful for being streamlined to their essentials. His playing and his approach have been characterized and parodied as “minimalist,” but I think of it more as a Thoreau-inspired simplicity. Don’t need that note, do we? Let it be implied. Unheard melodies and all that. How Basie knew what he knew is beyond us, but the evidence is there for us to hear.

Here’s an audible example of what Basie did. And does:

That’s one of four tracks from the 1939 Chicago session, issued in the Seventies as “Basie’s Bad Boys”: Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, trumpets; Dan Minor, trombone (audibly?), Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page; string bass; Jo Jones, drums. Yes, the studio sound is foggy and dense, but the music just flies and smiles and rocks.

These thoughts are provoked by two photographs for sale on eBay — from the Frank Driggs Collection (each one for three hundred dollars plus) — of Basie and his colleagues and friends in 1941 and 1943.  Lester had leapt out, but they seemed to be doing fine on their own.  Here’s a rehearsal session at the New York studio of Columbia Records. They are apparently listening to a playback.  Details first:

BASIE IN THE STUDIO 1941 true front

The front:

COUNT BASIE REHEARSAL 1941

What I notice first, always (this is a photograph often reproduced but also often cropped) is Basie’s dreamily unfocused expression which might be deep concentration.  Jo’s nearly angry attentiveness, his thinness (that protruding Adam’s apple), his full head of hair and tidy mustache.  Walter Page’s substantial girth. The handkerchief not quite tucked away in his back pocket.  The way his vest is strained by what’s in it.  The height of Jo’s beautiful trousers, and his suspenders.  The way Page (casually?) is listening to what handsome Buck Clayton is playing.  How beautifully everyone is dressed, in an era before jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and knapsacks.

And a more formal pose, 1943, where cake predominates:BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 back

Jimmy Rushing steals the show, and all eyes are on him (although Buck is somewhat quizzical and Basie — aware of the photographer — doesn’t turn around; Jo’s smile is world-weary).  What, I must know, is Rushing saying to that forkful? “Sent for you yesterday and here you come today,” perhaps? Or “Tell me, pretty baby, how you want your lovin’ done”?  Or perhaps the plainer, “I am going to EAT YOU ALL UP!” 

BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 front

I chose to title this posting BASIE SAYS YES because I believe he always did. Although Basie spent his life “playing the blues,” his approach to them was always life-affirming.  Even on the darkest dirge, there is a slight grin. “Look how sad I can make this music sound.  Isn’t it a lot of fun to play such sad music?”

Cool, swinging, affirmative.  We could follow him, a Sage, for life-lessons.

May your happiness increase! 

BAD BOYS, NAUGHTY GIRLS: JAZZ MYTHOGRAPHY

This post grew out of an online conversation with my friend Julio Schwarz Andrade, a fine young musician currently exploring the music of short-lived trumpeter Tony Fruscella.  Julio said he found Fruscella both moving and inconsistent, and asked my opinion.  I said that Fruscella was one of those musicians elevated to mythic status not only because he could play beautifully (hear his I’LL BE SEEING YOU) but because the jazz audience seems eager to create a posthumous mythography, celebrating behavior they themselves don’t indulge in.

“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” is the philosophy of Studs Lonigan in James T. Farrell’s fiction.

I think it ironic that men and women who pay their bills, have two beers on a Friday night and then stop, wear their seat belts — people who not only espouse all the bourgeois middle-class virtues but live them — are secretly entranced by those who do not or cannot: the OUTLAW, the SUPERNOVA, the ECCENTRIC.

Were I asked by a young jazz musician how to ensure posthumous fame, one answer would be “Practice your instrument so that you play brilliantly, memorably.  Learn from those who have gone before you and listen closely on the bandstand.”

But that isn’t always enough to merit a place in the great jazz mythography.  So my advice (delivered ironically) might sound like this: “Want to make sure that your life in jazz will be chronicled long after your death?  Take heroin; you’re much more interesting if you’re tortured.  Die young.  Break the law.  Be dramatically inconsistent, so that someone narrating the arc of your career can chart your “early beginnings,” “meteoric rise,” “sad end.”  Behave in an apparently erratic fashion.  Steal someone’s horn; give up hygiene.  Cultivate intellectual arrogance; antagonize your fellow players.  Avoid the ordinary, the conventional, give up all attempts at social awareness.”

Of course, the musicians and singers I know view these personality traits — echoes of a presumed hipster way of life — with pained skepticism at best.  They may see themselves as outsiders, but they prize bourgeois virtues: showing up early for the gig, ready to play, one’s clothes clean, being a professional, knowing the key.  They like to work alongside reliable individuals, not those too stoned to play.

But these habits don’t make for dramatic mythography, so they don’t get celebrated.

Although the players and singers who outlived the most famous self-destructive figures in jazz speak with reverence and affection of the dead, it can’t have been easy to deal with these “jazz titans” on the stand.  In retrospect, they describe how A stole someone’s horn, how B didn’t bathe, how C broke the plate-glass window; how D nodded off while the band was playing, how E apparently committed suicide through excess of food or drink.  Great stories after the fact, but not easy to tolerate in real life.  In this century, nonconformity seems expected, and Thoreau still has validity, but is it essential to creative improvisation?

The voyeuristic fascination with the painful details of the lives of some musicians puzzles me.  I wonder how many people who see Billie Holiday as an iconic victim have heard more than a few of her performances.

Do some people secretly envy the outlaw his or her defiance, self-destructive boldness?  Are prudent listeners enthralled by myths of people who defied everything that was “good” for them because the short lives of their musical heroes make them feel comfortable and secure?  Or are others so entranced by the Jazz Martyr, whose life is so deeply focused on the music that all else becomes unimportant?

In a world where people — kindly and sometimes officiously — tell us what to do (get that taillight fixed, lose fifteen pounds, be on time for work) I wonder if some well-behaved people find stories of disobedience vicariously gratifying?

Could we make a case that (for one example) Fats Waller had to behave the way he did — or thought he did — to create the music that lives on after him?  EARLY TO BED was the name of his last musical show . . . but a way of life he chose to reject.

Speculating on the inner lives of the people we admire must always be both intriguing and futile: they take their secrets with them.  Who among us fully understands what motivates his or her behavior?

I don’t see the doomed-artist mythography diminishing any time soon, as long as readers want to immerse themselves in tales of Outsider rule-breaking.  But I wish we could simply listen to the music without getting distracted by the figures we have invented.

Perhaps we could also honor a Barry Harris, a Buck Clayton, an Ed Hall, a Benny Morton, a Joe Wilder, an Eddie Higgins, a Milt Hinton.  These players — and so many others — show that one can be a middle-class citizen and a creative improviser.  But the bad boys and girls get all the press.

P.S.  As a real-life postscript.  Last night (Feb. 21, 2012) I went to a new room where a fine jazz trio was playing.  Behind me were two “jazz fans,” talking throughout the music about their favorites and when they had discovered each musician.  At one point, the conversation about pianists took this turn: “I can’t think of the name of that druggie jazz pianist.  Very famous,” (presumably Bill Evans?) and a few songs later, one fan opined to the other, “I liked Chet Baker.  But he wasn’t a very nice person.  And, you know, he took drugs.”