Tag Archives: Jazz at the Philharmonic

MANTLE or MARIS? and other PLAYGROUND ARGUMENTS

I have never been involved in sports as participant or spectator.  But when I was not yet ten, at recess, there were intense discussions, often arguments, among my male classmates about the merits of baseball stars Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris, competing to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.  I tried to join in, because I wanted to belong, and it would have been foolish to say, “Who cares?”  Looking back at least in this situation, we had statistical evidence: hits, runs, RBI’s and the like.  But this hierarchical squabbling struck me as silly then, and seems even sillier now when applied to art and creativity.

I should preface what follows by writing that jazz is a holy art to me, to quote Schubert.  And if what follows sounds irritable, you can say, “Michael’s gotten crabby in semi-quarantine, I see,” and I wouldn’t argue the point.  But the reason for this post is that it disturbs me when I see people who believe themselves experts and advocates about the music debasing it by their reactions.

A day or so ago I made the mistake of entering into a Facebook discussion on a wonderful page devoted to Lester Young, where someone with fine taste posted Lester’s 1942 version of BODY AND SOUL (Nat Cole and Red Callender).  The first response that caught my eye?  I quote, “Sorry, but coleman hawkins owns this song.”  Various people chimed in to proclaim the superiority of their favorite player, and I, rather than leaving the keyboard, wrote, “Art is not a competitive sport,” which also met with a variety of responses, which I won’t go into here.

On another page, someone posted that a revered drummer was the “GOAT,” or “Greatest of All Time,” not an omnivorous animal.  You can imagine the discussions that ensued, the rimshots and ride-cymbal crashes.

I found it odd that fans were so much more vehement about presumed superiority than most musicians were and are.

I don’t deny that some musicians were competitive by nature, wanting to show their powers, their mastery.  Some of the greatest lived to “battle,” among them Roy Eldridge, and “cutting contests” have a long history.  Norman Granz, knowing his audience, made these tests of strength and audience appeal the center of Jazz at the Philharmonic with “the drum battle” between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, or gladiatorial exercises between Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips, between Roy and Dizzy GIllespie.  However, when the concert was over, these musicians were friends who rode the band bus in harmony.  Artists with even a small amount of self-awareness respect each other, because they know how hard it is to play or to sing well, how it requires great skill and constant devotion to the art and the craft.

So these discussions of WHO’S THE BEST? are driven by audiences who want to see their team win.  They are also fueled by journalism and press-agentry.  Jazz has been weighed and measured by people who gave recordings and concerts stars and letter grades, in magazines that encouraged readers to vote for their favorites.  People would then buy the next issue to see how their votes counted.  All of this seems inexplicable now, that in 1956 a new record that we think a classic was given two stars in Down Beat when it appeared.  Or that X placed forty-seventh in the Critics’ Poll for that year.  Polls and year-end lists of the Ten Best CDs of the Year still go on, the latter energized by people of good character, but I think of them as marketing tools, not much else.  These competitions were good business for winners: if you won the poll, your price would increase.

We continue to live in a culture that greatly values the subjective opinion of the audience member(s).  I bought kitchen knives recently, and the company invited me to “submit my review.”  I was happy to, because the knives are exceedingly sharp.  But my review was a way of their getting free copywriting.  What I wrote might motivate someone to buy a knife, but it would have no effect on the knife’s quality.  It remains that way in art.  If you say that Tatum is your favorite pianist, does his work get any better: if you say he is too ornate, does he falter?  I am also reminded of someone who ran a jazz club, who told me that the way they knew if a band was good was the number of people in the room.  To me, the symphony means more than the volume of applause.

In print and in person, there were and are the jazz ideologues offering verdicts.  M “is the greatest jazz singer,” where P “is just a pop vocalist.”  C is “ground-breaking,” “harmonically adventurous,” “innovative,” “cutting-edge,” “genre-bending.” Reading this, I must assume that everyone else is sitting in the dirt, looking sadly at their dinner, a half-done potato covered with ash.

Art does not lend itself to the collection of evidence that baseball does.  If a singer has a larger range, is she a “better” artist?  If a drummer has a more dazzling technique, is he the King?  Is the superior musician the one who has more gigs, more fame, more money, more recognition?

I understand that there are artists who have been justifiably elevated to the pantheon (which, to me, is different than anyone’s “Hall of Fame”) but this also speaks to the Star System in Jazz, where there must be only one supernova in the galaxy.  For you, it’s Miles or Trane, for you Bird or Rollins, for you, Duke, for you, Louis.  The Star System is evident in what passes for “jazz criticism,” but perhaps most forcefully in Jazz Studies textbooks, where the Stars whiz by at blurry speed.  Louis-Roy-Dizzy-Miles.  James P.-Earl-Teddy-Tatum-Monk-Cecil.  And so on.  No room for Tony Fruscella or Buster Bailey because the publisher’s budget only allows for 650 pages and this price point.

Mind you, not only have I no objection to a rainbow of personal tastes, because I am a walking collection of them, and I revel in this.  If the music that makes you most happy is on an Impulse CD or a Dial 78 or an American Music one, who would I be to say that your feelings should be challenged?

But let us give up pretending that preference is empirical judgment.  Let us not treat individual reaction as law for everyone.  To write that someone is “the best,” or “better than,” is an attempt to say, “I like this.  Therefore it is good, because my judgment is always valid,” and then, “Why do you assert that something else that I do not champion is better?  Are you attacking my discernment?  I must defend my family’s honor!  Pistols at dawn!”

We are thus back at recess, a bunch of quarrelsome fourth-grade boys.  Art deserves reverence.  And the most reverent response may be rapt silence.

Try it here:

May your happiness increase!

A DREAM WE CAN SEE — JATP IN EUROPE: ROY ELDRIDGE, COLEMAN HAWKINS, DON BYAS, BENNY CARTER, LALO SCHIFRIN, SAM JONES, JO JONES (November 25, 1960, Paris)

Recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on November 25, 1960 — directed by Jean-Christophe Averty. Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Benny Carter, alto saxophone; Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Lalo Schifrin, piano; Sam Jones, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

Brought to you through the kind diligence of the indefatigable Franz Hoffmann.

TAKE THE “A” TRAIN:

BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA:

I don’t have my Verve recordings of the JATP in Europe tour to compare these with, but even if the television broadcasts are identical to the recordings, what rapture to see these men in their prime!  (And even if Jo’s lengthy solo on INDIANA was by this time a set-piece, how remarkable to have it on film to see and study.)

Yes, giants did walk the earth.  Tell it to the children.

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

POSITIVELY VIBRANT at ATLANTA 2012: JOHN COCUZZI, CHUCK REDD, HARRY ALLEN, MATT MUNISTERI, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, FRANK TATE, ED METZ (April 22, 2012)

Two men, one vibraphone, no pushing or crowding, just swing and harmony: more a brotherly conversation than a cutting contest.  The font line is John Cocuzzi and Chuck Redd, wielding their mallets with intensity and care; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Ed Metz, drums.

Only at the Atlanta Jazz Party!

The venerable and much-loved CRAZY RHYTHM to start:

John slyly sings I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING:

A lovely interlude — harking back to JATP or to Condon’s — the ballad medley: GHOST OF A CHANCE (John) / CHELSEA BRIDGE (Harry) – SOME OTHER SPRING (Chuck):

And the Hampton – Christian – Goodman AIR MAIL SPECIAL to close:

May your happiness increase.

JAZZ WORTH READING: “NORMAN GRANZ: THE MAN WHO USED JAZZ FOR JUSTICE,” by TAD HERSHORN

Three singular personalities have been responsible for much of what we now take for granted in jazz in the last hundred years in recordings and public performance: John Hammond, George Wein, and Norman Granz.

Hammond wrote his own somewhat mythic autobiography and was the subject of a tepid posthumous biography.  Wein, the only member of the trio still with us, has an expansive autobiography.  Granz, who died in 2001, discouraged efforts to write his story until journalist and jazz scholar Tad Hershorn entered his life.  And Hershorn’s biography of Granz is a substantial accomplishment.

A book on Granz as record producer (for fifty years) would have been intriguing in itself, for even though Granz alternated between being controlling and negligent, he recorded Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Holiday, Young, Webster, Tatum, Parker, Gillespie, O’Day, Getz, Hampton, Wilson, Konitz, Hawkins, Eldridge, Rich, Peterson, Ellington, Basie . . . The sessions are uneven, but the energy animating them is undeniable, and the successes are memorable.  Imagine a jazz cosmos without JATP, Norgran, Clef, Verve, Pablo.

Another book might have chronicled Granz the concert promoter — the inventor of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the model for many concerts to come after its inception in the early Forties.  (Who else would have Louis, Ella, and Tatum on the same bill?)

And there might have been another book concerning Granz as friend-of and sometimes enemy-of: his relations with Picasso, with Sinatra, Ellington, Peterson, Fitzgerald, among others, are intriguing windows into his character and theirs, providing both inspiring and acrimonious anecdotes.

But the narrative Hershorn chose to tie these stories together is Granz’s vehement, unwavering vision of jazz as a racially integrated music played in public for integrated audiences.  Younger (or more idealistic) readers may be startled by the historical information that emerges in the first fifteen years of Granz’s years as a concert promoter: yes, there were drinking fountains for “colored” and “white,” as well as restaurants that did not serve anyone appropriately light-skinned.  Granz, who often appears to be someone indifferent to social grace, an abrasive, self-righteous and self-absorbed figure, comes through as a heroic figure who made it possible for “mixed” audiences to sit together and to hear American music (a struggle, I must point out, that he didn’t originate — although he continued it valiantly).

Hershorn’s book is the result of fifteen years of work on the subject, including a number of in-person interviews of an ailing (although still acerbic) Granz.  The book is thoroughly researched — some forty pages of footnotes, a chronology, an extensive bibliography, rare photographs.  The book has no competition, and he has spoken with people who knew Granz — from publicist Virginia Wicks to Peterson to Quincy Jones and Nat Hentoff — so this book has a freshness many other jazz biographies lack because the important sources are long dead.

But Granz — energetic, willful, moving quickly — is a difficult subject because he is always in motion.  Occasionally Hershorn’s chronological organization (with extended considerations of important musicians and friends) seems like an airport walkway, efficient but constraining.  At times the mere data seems overwhelming: during the JATP period, we learn about every concert tour — the players, itinerary, gross receipts.  A biographer should fall in love with the material, and is writing both for the contemporary audience and for future generations who may use the book as an invaluable research tool.  But some of this material might have profitably been placed in an appendix, unless it was needed for the dramatic arc of the story.

Granz’a extended career and long active life — I would not have wished it otherwise — also pose problems for a biographer properly intent on showing him an unacknowledged civil rights pioneer.  Once Granz can be sure that the local police won’t attempt to plant drugs on his musicians; once they can stay at the best hotels; once there is no restriction on who can sit where in the audience, much of the air goes out of the book.  Once the battle has been won, Granz can go on being a wealthy businessman, an art collector, friends with Picasso, playing tennis.  To be fair, this diminuendo is often the inevitable pattern of biographies: when the book is focused on its subject’s struggle towards a goal, what happens to the biography once that goal is achieved?

But overall the book is a fine one.  Hershorn has managed his relationship to his subject with great grace.  Some biographers loathe their subject and crow over errors of judgment,  meanness of spirit.  Others adore their subjects and make excuses for bad behavior.  Hershorn is careful, accurate, and fair, permitting us to applaud what Granz made possible even if we find the man unpleasant.  Hershorn is also a clear writer, although too fond of casual cliche — “the red carpet treatment,” “made no bones about it,” “wined and dined” — for me, but this will not bother others.  And in an era where large, detailed books are becoming more and more rare, to have published this one is a remarkable accomplishment.

If occasionally the reader tires of Granz, the book can be put aside for a day.  Or one might listen to a half-hour of Pres and Teddy, Ben Webster with strings, Billie Holiday with Jimmy Rowles, or one of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks.  For those masterpieces, one would forgive Granz anything.

CLASSIC BALLADS FROM JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 19, 2010)

The late Joe Boughton, commander-in-chief of Jazz at Chautauqua and other jazz parties, had very definite ideas about what should go on in a jazz performance and what was verboten, taboo, unforgivable.  So it would have caused him some astonishment to be told that he and Norman Granz (whose Jazz at the Philharmonic — with its long themeless blues, drum solos, and explorations of I GOT RHYTHM changes — represented everything he deplored) agreed on anything.  But they both understood something crucial about the performance of jazz ballads before a live audience.

Both men knew, through experience, that having all the musicians on the stand play BODY AND SOUL, for instance, each one taking two choruses, could lead to a certain sameness, not only for the audience but for the players.  Granz got there first with the solution: a ballad medley, where each of the horn players told the rhythm section what their chosen song was, the key (the tempo remained fixed throughout) and played a chorus in leisurely fashion.  You can hear this on Granz’s recordings, live and in the studio.

Joe Boughton didn’t release any of his ballad medleys, but the one that closed off the 2010 Jazz at Chautauqua — the most recent party, and not the last — was particularly moving.  Here are three videos that capture most of it (with some editing for a variety of reasons, none of them musical).

We begin with an extraordinary rhythm section of Rossano Sportiello, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Jon Burr, bass; Pete Siers, drums, and an unusual combination of songs: Rossano tenderly delineates I GOT IT BAD (AND THAT AIN’T GOOD) then turns it over to Marty, who sings and plays the Louis Armstrong – Horace Gerlach IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN:

Randy Reinhart climbs the stage to deliver an absolutely velvety APRIL IN PARIS, a performance that seems untoppable until Dan Barrett convincingly explains how THAT OLD FEELING is still in his heart.  (The crowd properly gives it a small ovation, and Dan looks does a comic double-take of surprise, “Me?”  Yes, you!) 

The very gentlemanly and polite Bob Havens asks PLEASE — doing Bing very proud.  Continuing in this most gallant fashion, clarinetist Bob Reitmeier very quietly asks us in for TEA FOR TWO.  Harry Allen sweetly tells us I WISH YOU LOVE, with Dan Block coming up immediately after!  

The Man of Feeling, Dan Block, assures us (the stakes are getting higher with each delicious cameo) that EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS.  Scott Robinson isn’t a combative, competitive player, but his version of SLEEPY TIME GAL — on the bass sax, which he carries — would be a masterpiece anywhere.  Scott Robinson heroically lifts the bass sax for SLEEPY TIME GAL.  Bobby Gordon tenderly whispers his love for the music in SUGAR; Andy Stein devotes himself to LAURA; Jon Burr emotes lyrically with PRELUDE TO A KISS — which is received with the proper hush (how nice to hear a bass solo receive such quiet attention):

Extraordinarily lovely, with not a hackneyed or overdramatized note in the bunch.  I’d like to make these clips required viewing for jazz musicians and singers of all vintages — to say nothing of those of us who can’t live without beauty.  And not incidentally — the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua will be held from September 15-18.  If you have already purchased your 2011 calendar . . . .

DAVE TOUGH / WOODY HERMAN on eBay

As of May 2, 2010, $250 or the best offer takes the set — a 1947 JATP program, plus autographs by Doris Day, Les Brown, Ted Nash, Charlie Spivak, Woody Herman, and Dave Tough . . . !