Tag Archives: jazz criticism

JAZZ MIGHT NEED PROTECTION FROM THOSE WHO ANALYZE IT AND THOSE WHO SQUEEZE IT TOO TIGHTLY

A visual display of the presumed growth of jazz.

I’ve been reading liberally in the jazz-fan groups on Facebook, which (as I’ve suggested in an earlier post) might be my first error.  But several reactions to the music I and others love caught my eye and I could not walk away from them. I characterize these reflex actions as ENTHUSIASTIC “ANALYSIS”.

A recent example: a fan posted a YouTube video of a band performing and recording in New Orleans, c. 1928, with this commentary:  Surely this is how a true vintage New Orleans band sounds.  Later, a second fan responded: As I understand it, with bands started soloing like that they started calling at Chicago Jazz [.]  Fortunately, I no longer teach English for a living and thus would not comment “PROOFREAD!” on the second fellow’s analysis, but the first fan wanted to straighten the second one out: This band never left N.O. Chicago Jazz really started with the white groups that played in Chicago in the 30’s line Muggsy Spanier.

At this point the room started to spin in a most unpleasing way.  Rejecting my usual prudence, I wrote: So musicians who played jazz in Chicago in the Twenties weren’t playing “Chicago jazz”? Music is larger than labels. The musicians themselves never called what they were playing these names: these names are inventions of fans and critics, and they are artificial. And to label “schools” of music by race is really not a good idea and never was.  My prose was not greeted with shouts of “Yeah you rite!”  No one offered to buy me a drink.

But I think the first few assertions are so restrictive that they deserve a few perhaps didactic sentences.  I do not set myself up as an Oracle, mind you, but I find narrowness of perspective troubling.

If I were to expand on the original assertions above, they might be:

Authentic New Orleans jazz was an ensemble music performed in that city by Black musicians.  Solos were not part of it.  When the music opened up to solos, it conveniently changed its name from “New Orleans jazz” to “Chicago jazz.”  Then, the final metamorphosis happened when White people who lived in Chicago — including Mr. Spanier — started playing “Chicago jazz.”

I find several problems here, as my comment indicates.  First, as someone before me wisely said, it is unlikely that any group of jazz musicians went into a recording studio, and before the downbeat, heard the leader say, “Well, fellows, now we are going to play a piece of music that will define ‘New Orleans jazz’ for all time.”  I presume it is more likely that they said, “Let’s try that new tune, and don’t mess up the breaks in the first chorus, all right?”

Musicians play, and played MUSIC.  Fans and journalists and “critics” invented names for the ways they thought the music sounded, and from that impulse came divisiveness, theorizing, and other expenditures of energy that may have diverted people from actually listening to the music.

Second, we must acknowledge stylistic cross-pollination.  “White Chicago jazz” comes directly from “Black New Orleans jazz,” and Mr. Spanier would tell you that his inspirations were King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.  He openly acknowledged his reverent debt to them, by the way, so this is not about Muggsy the Cultural Pillager.

Third, jazz lends itself to wonderful examples of creative people who went their own way.  An electric guitar on a 1941 Sidney Bechet record?  Louis Armstrong recording popular songs and comic numbers in 1926?  And, going back to the asphyxiating categories of New Orleans and Chicago jazz . . . Jelly Roll Morton, a self-defined Creole who, according to his sister Frances, was Jewish, would have been classified as “colored,”  He came to Chicago and recorded his Red Hot Peppers with a preponderance of New Orleans musicians — Chicago jazz or New Orleans jazz?  They had solos AND they had written passages.  They are larger than any category, except if you want to have a large box labeled EXTRAORDINARY MUSIC?

I offer a musical example, and I wish people could listen to it blindfolded.

If you had to characterize or anatomize this, say, for a prize on a quiz show, what would you call it?  The gracious gentleman who posted it describes it thusly: Early NO revival recorded in NY in 1946 and played in the true original No style some lovely mortonesque piano by Don Ewell with Bunk on trumpet and Alphonse Steele drums [.]

Again, it’s slippery.  IN THE GLOAMING is an Irish song from 1877: perhaps someone wants to call this “folk-jazz”?  Bunk Johnson, Black, from New Orleans: if you give the horn player primacy, this is “New Orleans jazz.”  But it was recorded in New York.  The annotator wants it both ways — it’s “Early NO revival” “in the true original No style.”  But there are solos: the trio does not play ensemble throughout.  The pianist, White Don Ewell from Baltimore, plays “lovely mortonesque piano,” but does that make the record less “authentic” because of the White Maryland infusion?  I confess that I could not find out where Alphonse Steele was born — my books ignore him — but I am guessing he was Black, and he recorded in New York with Henry “Red” Allen and Billie Holiday.  So was he a New York Swing Era jazz musician?

From whence comes this intense urge to classify, to label, to dissect?

Digression: I won’t even touch the vitriolic discussions of “authenticity” and which “style” of playing — insert beloved and vilified band names here — people prefer.  Very few people seem willing or perhaps able to distinguish between “I like this band.  They sound good to me.” and “This is the best band that ever was and anyone who doesn’t like them is an ignorant moron” (Facebook encourages the highest kind of discourse, such as — a direct quote, “Lol u are insane.”)

Could all the jazz fans who have this urge to stuff the music in airless labeled boxes learn this 1906 Bert Williams song and let it guide them?

Ultimately, I think this slicing-and-dicing, weighing and measuring, does the music no good.  I think of Lennie and the mouse in OF MICE AND MEN.

But of course I am wrong: I accept that.  I will sleep better knowing it.

May your happiness increase!

“IRISH BLACK BOTTOM”: TERRY WALDO, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JIM FRYER, EVAN ARNTZEN, JOHN GILL, BRIAN NALEPKA, JAY LEPLEY (Fat Cat, January 29, 2017)

okeh-irish-black-bottom

No, this isn’t an early celebration of Saint Patrick, nor is it a lesson in North American vernacular dance.  A week ago today, I had the delightful good fortune of being in the basement known as Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street) to hear Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Band — Terry, piano; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; John Gill, banjo; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Jay Lepley, drums.  And one of the lively excursions into hot archaeology that they offered was Percy Venable’s novelty number, IRISH BLACK BOTTOM, premiered by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in Chicago in 1926.  For the full history of this song and that performance, read on in Ricky Riccardi’s quite magnificent Louis blog.

And now, from 1926 to 2017, with a performance calculated to warm you more efficiently than heated seats in a new car:

The genial joyousness of that performance could win anyone over, even without the history.  But I also post this musical episode to reiterate a point.  Many “jazz critics” see the chronological advance of the music as one improvement succeeding another: Roy Eldridge was more “sophisticated” than Louis, Charlie Parker more than Roy, Miles and Trane and Ornette even more so. “Sophisticated” is a weighted word, especially when the appearance of complexity is taken as the highest good.  But for those who look at “Dixieland” as simple, I’d suggest that even a tune as lightweight as IRISH BLACK BOTTOM has its own sophistication, its own complicated routine, and it is not something one could pick up at one hearing, the Real Book notwithstanding.  Court adjourned.

May your happiness increase!

THE VOICE OF MUSIC

I began my jazz life rather innocently as a Listener: a child sitting close to a V-M (The Voice of Music, it said on the inside lid) three-speed phonograph.  I can summon up the worn brown felt of the turntable, the pattern of the speaker grille.  And as I listened to the record of the moment I watched the label revolve, transfixed both by the music and by the whirling shapes the writing on the label made.  When the record ended, I picked up the tone arm and placed it in the outer groove to hear and watch it, dreamily, again. 

I progressed through different phonographs, tape recorders, portable cassette recorders, and learned (as life became busier) to start the music playing and do other things at the same time: type an undergraduate Milton essay while Louis and his Hot Seven played in the background, make breakfast while listening to Lee Wiley.  But the musicians had no more tangible presence than what I might see on television or in the pictures adorning a record’s liner notes.  I did see Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars in the spring of 1967, but that is another essay. 

Aside from Louis, I didn’t truly see live jazz until 1969 or 1970.  I think it was at Town Hall in New York City, produced by the late Dick Gibson, featuring not only the World’s Greatest Jazz Band but also Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Newman, and perhaps Garnett Brown.  Heady stuff!  Now, from my seat (clutching my forbidden cassette recorder) I could watch Al and Zoot speak to one another; I could see my hero Vic Dickenson, tall, thin, leaning slightly to one side.   

I had moved away from the speaker, even though concerts in large halls kept the musicians as tiny, eloquent figures whom I could hear but not converse with.  It was only in the very early Seventies that I was able to see jazz performed in clubs — where I could timidly approach Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber, and others to ask for their autographs.  And the conversations that sprang out of these encounters were barely defined as “conversation.”  Nervous and admiring, a Fan, a record album clutched under my arm, I would timidly ask, “May I have your autograph?” or “Would you sign this for me, Mr. Sims?”  (I showed Zoot Sims an album he had appeared on for English RCA, and he said, “Gee, they must have made this when Bucky and I were appearing at Soerabaja.  I’ve never heard it.”  I said, “Would you like me to make you a copy of it?” He grimaced and said, “Oh, no, no thanks.”) 

While I was busy being a Fan (and occasionally an Amateur Photographer), I was also bringing various tape-recorders, which made me a Taper . . . evoking occasionally strong reactions.  Cyril Haynes refused to play until I put my cassette recorder away; Wild Bill Davison wanted to be paid off in Scotch; Dicky Wells pantomimed vigorous negation; Kenny Davern rather kindly told me that my microphone placement was all wrong (after Mike Burgevin had assured him I was on the right side of things); Ruby Braff lectured me by mail on the importance of having fresh batteries.  I saw Ray Nance several nights in a row in a Long Island club — he played and sang marvelously — and when I gave him a reel-to-reel copy of a concert he had performed in two years earlier, he looked at it as if he didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do with it, although collectors had been offering him such things for decades. 

Being a Taper was delicate business, but often rewarding, although musicians (with justification) tend to view me with skepticism: what is going to happen to those tapes that kid is making?  Does he have his own bootleg label; is he going to make money out of my work?

I became more than a Taper in 2000, when I began to write CD reviews . . . first for the IAJRC Journal, then the Mississippi Rag, for Cadence and All About Jazz (associations that happily have continued), for Coda and Jazz Improv . . . and liner notes.  These effusions brought me into a different relationship with the musicians. 

Simply put, I got closer to the players but often my distance increased.

A paradox, you say?  As a Listener, I was invisible and anonymous; as a Fan, I appeared and had substance for a minute or two.  As a Taper, I was mostly a nuisance, although some musicians actually wanted to hear what the tapes sounded like. 

But as a Reviewer, a Writer, a (whisper this), a Critic, I had a name and perhaps the power to exalt or to annoy.  Most often, I was the person who said to Bill Charlap, “You don’t know me, but I loved your _______ CD and wrote a very enthusiastic review of it for Cadence.”  And he politely, happily, said, “Yes, I remember that review.  It was very nice — thank you so much!” 

I haven’t had to deal with musicians who are irritated by what I’ve written, although I’ve received a few sharp-edged emails from a producer and another jazz critic, both of them who told me I was being deeply unfair when I thought I was telling the truth. 

But when I began to be someone ever so slightly known in local jazz circles as the fellow who could help you publicize your upcoming gig in the Mississippi Rag, or the person who might write a laudatory review of your self-produced CD, a slight edge crept into some interchanges.  Nothing dramatic happened, but I felt that relations between me (a non-Musician) and the Musicians were simpler when I was not in a position to say something in print about their latest efforts, to effect their livelihood.

 There were immense rewards, of course: I got to meet and talk to many more of my heroes on a different footing — a Friend of the Music as well as a Member of the Jazz Press, and I am always happy when people come over and say hello. 

All of this changed slightly more than two years ago when I created this blog, and acquired the first of a series of video cameras.  The experience of this blog has been more favorable than I can say, and I have used it to celebrate improvisations from the whole range of jazz’s history and to make it possible for people who live far away to see and hear their heroes. 

The video camera, however, is a different matter.  The cassette recorder, the reel-to-reel recorder, the digital recorder, all came with their own baggage or perhaps freight, all understandable.  The musician who has a cold, or would rather be elsewhere, looks down at the technology and might say, inwardly, “Oh, damnit — all my imperfections are going to be recorded for posterity; jazz collectors who are this guy’s friends are going to be getting free copies of my music; they won’t have to buy my CDs.  What will I get out of it?”  But when I discovered YouTube — probably years after many more technologically-sophisticated jazz fans — the world opened up for me.  Not only could I bring home an audio recording of what I’d just heard (to copy for the musicians and a few friends): I could record the event visually as well as audibly, and send it around the world. 

Most of the musicians have been exceptionally tolerant and gracious.  And there have been only a few times in two years of video recording where a musician has asked me to remove a performance from circulation, which I’ve done quickly in the spirit of fairness.  Were I the proverbial fly on the wall — certainly not a unique phenomenon at any jazz club — would I be happy with the way I was characterized?  “Does any musician see me at a club and think, “I surely will be happy when Michael goes away for a few months, then I can play in peace without looking up and seeing that little camera staring at me, capturing everything . . . “?

I originally felt that this posting was heading for gloom, a rumination on the equation between intimacy and distance, on the responsibilities that begin in dreams, even musical ones, but there were three cheering encounters last week at the Ear Inn, my Sunday night haunt.  One of the musicians came over (unsolicited) to say he thought what I was doing was worthwhile and that he thought the new camera was swell; later on in the evening, I was approached from left and right (Peter and Margarethe from Uppsala and Fumi from New York) by grateful people who said that they had found the club solely by watching these videos. 

I can imagine that in the future my age, health, and circumstances would make it difficult for me to get to jazz clubs as I am doing now.  And I can envision ending my career of jazz love and appreciation as I began, as a Listener, although the Voice of Music phonograph has been supplanted.  But maybe I will spend the last chapter of my jazz life delighting in the music’s sounds and shapes through YouTube and other versions not yet discovered, even if I’m not behind the camera.  

I hope that there will always be the kindness of strangers who know how to swing.  And know what it is to share their pleasures.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.