Tag Archives: JOhn Coltrane

“LITTLE THINGS THAT DON’T GET INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS”: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of SYMPHONY SID TORIN, WILLIS CONOVER, ARTIE SHAW, and COOTIE WILLIAMS (June 8, 2018)

I am so fortunate in many ways, some of them not evident on this site.  But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand that my being able to interview Dan Morgenstern at his home from March 2017 on — at irregular intervals — is a gift I would not have dreamed possible when I was only A Wee Boy reading his liner notes and DOWN BEAT articles.

Dan is an unaffected master of small revealing insights that show character: in some ways, he is a great short-story writer even though he is working with factual narrative.  Watching these interviews, you’ll go away with Artie Shaw pacing the room and talking, Willis Conover’s ashtrays, Cootie Williams reverently carrying Louis’ horn back to the latter’s hotel, and more.

About ten days ago, we spent another ninety minutes where Dan told affectionate tales of Jaki Byard, Ulysses Kay, Randy Weston, Kenny Dorham, and more.  Those videos will come to light in time.  But we had a marathon session last June, with stories of Louis, Cozy Cole, Milt Hinton, Coltrane, Roy, Teddy, Basie, Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, Perry Como and others — which you can savor here.  And, although it sounds immodest, you should.  (I also have videos of a July session with Dan: stay tuned, as they used to say.)

Here are more delightful stories from the June session.

Dan remembers Symphony Sid Torin, with sidebars about John Hammond, Nat Lorber, Rudi Blesh, Stan Kenton at Carnegie Hall, Roy Eldridge, and jazz radio in general:

Dan’s affectionate portrait of another man with a mission concerning jazz — the Voice of America’s Willis Conover:

and some afterthoughts about Willis:

and, to conclude, another leisurely portrait, early and late, of Artie Shaw:

with Artie as a “champion talker,” and a gig at Bop City, and sidelights about Benny Goodman and Cootie Williams, the latter reverent of Louis:

Thank you, Dan, for so generously making these people, scenes, and sounds come so alive.

May your happiness increase!

OUR MAN DAN: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of COZY COLE, BENNY CARTER, MILT HINTON, LOUIS ARMSTRONG, TEDDY WILSON, COUNT BASIE, JOHN COLTRANE, ROY ELDRIDGE, JOE WILDER, ED BERGER, and PERRY COMO (June 8, 2018)

Dan Morgenstern, now 89, is so full of wonderful stories — sharply-realized, hilarious, sad — that my job as a visitor with a camera has usually been to set up the video equipment, do a sound check, ask a leading question, and sit back in bliss.  Here’s the first half of my June 2018 visit to Dan’s nest.  Beautiful narratives are all nicely set out for us.

I’d already posted the first one — a total surprise, a heroic reaction to injustice — but I would like more people to hear and see it:

More about Cozy Cole and friends, including Milt Hinton, Cab Calloway, and a hungry Benny Carter:

More about Milt Hinton, with wonderful anecdotes about Louis and Joe Glaser, Dizzy Gillespie, Cozy Cole, and Mel Lewis:

And some beautiful stories about Count Basie — including Dan’s attendance at a Town Hall concert with Basie, Roy Eldridge, and John Coltrane:

Finally (for this posting — there will be a continuation) memories of Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, with a comment about Roy Eldridge:

That we have Dan Morgenstern with us to tell such tales is a wonderful thing.  As Louis said to the King, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

May your happiness increase!

THE WAY IT SHOULD BE DONE: A NEW BOOK BY DEREK COLLER and BERT WHYATT

Before you read another word: if you know the remarkable work of Derek Coller and the late Bert Whyatt, you can skip to the bottom for details on how to buy it: you won’t need me to convince you of its worth.

Full disclosure, for those who like FD: I corresponded with Bert and exchanged information and tapes for the Bobby Hackett book he and George Hulme did, and I am mentioned in this new book as a source pertaining to Frank Chace.

Now for larger matters: when I pick up a book purporting to be on jazz, I value clear presentation of information, at best first-hand narrative or close informed analysis, any ideological basis (if there must be one) aboveboard.  I should come away from any reading feeling that I know many new things or have been given new ways of perceiving what I know.

Here’s what repels me (details omitted to avoid legal action):

During the twentieth century, jazz was at the center of multiple debates about social life and American experience. Jazz music and its performers were framed in both positive and negative manners. The autobiographies of _____ musicians _____ and ______ provide insight into the general frames they used to frame jazz experience and agency sometimes at odds with dominant discourses. Through Michel Foucault’s notion of ethical substance, I analyze the way in which jazz is constructed in their autobiographies. Several themes are used by both autobiographers to frame their actions, which are constructed in a complex and ambivalent manner revealing both the ethics of jazz and its covert culture.

A long pause.  Happily, I can leave Foucault to his own devices, and enthusiastically recommend CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE, the opposite of the miasma in italics.  And, for the curious, the picture above is of Sig Meyer and his Druids, c. 1924 — including Volly De Faut, Arnold Loyacano, Marvin Saxbe, and Muggsy Spanier.  In itself, that photograph says everything you might need to know about the depth of research in this book.

Coller and Whyatt come from the old school of scholars — note I don’t write “critics” — who believe that the stories musicians tell about themselves and others are more worthy than what listeners believe they hear.  This is a collection of articles — essays, portraits, studies — by both authors, published in Storyville, The Mississippi Rag, the IAJRC Journal, Jazz Journal, and as liner notes — between 1983 and 2016.

For once, I will quote the publisher’s copy, because it is so apt:

When Derek Coller decided to pay tribute to his late friend – the author, biographer, discographer and researcher, Bert Whyatt – he looked for a common theme under which to group some of the articles they had written together over the years. He found it in Chicago where their research activities had gravitated towards the style of music created by the young white musicians from that city and its environs – particularly those who rallied around the figurehead of Eddie Condon – as they listened to and learned from the pioneer black stylists, many of them the greatest jazz players to emigrate from New Orleans, including King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny and Baby Dodds and Jimmy Noone. Two trips to the USA, made by the authors in 1979 and 1992, led to meetings and correspondence with some of the musicians in this compilation, and to learning about many others. There are connections between most of these articles, interviews and notes, with an over-lapping of jobs, leaders and clubs. Some of the stories are about pioneers: Elmer Schoebel, Jack Pettis and Frank Snyder, for example, were in the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923. Trombonist George Brunis, chronicled here, was also a member of that band, though his long career – during which he played with Muggsy Spanier, as did Rod Cless and George Zack, in the Spanier Ragtime Band of ‘Great Sixteen’ fame – has been more widely documented. Floyd Bean and Tut Soper, here too, were also Spanier alumni. The articles originally appeared variously under a dual by-line, or by either Whyatt or Coller, but always with consultation and discussion prior to publication. Here they become a lively mix of the voices of the authors as well as the musicians and their families, building a story through biography, reviews and discography. The book is illustrated with evocative black and white photographs and images, and there is an Index of names and places to help the reader keep track of the musicians, composers, producers, promoters and writers who created this part of the history of jazz.

“A lively mix” is an understatement. First off, the book is full of wonderful anecdotage, primarily by the musicians themselves.  And it helps to explicate Chicago — which is often legendary but certainly under-documented — as its own world of jazz, where one could encounter Jimmy Yancey, Brownie McGhee, Bud Jacobson, Brad Gowans, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes — see the 1949 photo facing the table of contents.

For me, the complete and absorbing charm of the book and the research under it is in the focus on those musicians whom I’ve known as names on record labels or in discographies.  Yes, there is coverage of Muggsy Spanier and George Brunis (the first already the subject of a fine biography by — no surprise — Bert), but the other portraits are welcome because the musicians depicted never got the attention during or after their lifetimes.  I will simply list them: Jack Pettis, Frank Snyder, Elmer Schoebel, Rod Cless, George Snurpus, Maurice Bercov, Floyd O’Brien, Oro “Tut” Soper, Floyd Town, Johnny Lane, George Zack, Jack Gardner, Chet Roble, Floyd Bean, Bill Reinhardt and his club Jazz Ltd., Dan Lipscomb, Frank Chace, Jimmy Ille, Art Jenkins, Doc Cenardo, Freddy Greenleaf, and Paul Jordan.

And that is surely not all.  Photographs new to me, of course.  And when I open the book at random, gems leap out: on page 202, pianist Tut Soper describes Chicago as “the center of gravity as far as jazz is concerned.”  On page 63, we are in trombonist Floyd O’Brien’s datebook for 1928, describing gigs and who was in the band.  On page 227, jazz writer Larry Kart recalls hearing (and recording) clarinetist Frank Chace and pianist Bob Wright playing Coltrane’s LAZY BIRD and Tadd Dameron’s IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW.

I mentioned anecdotage earlier in this post, and will add a few excerpts from string bassist Harlow Atwood (201-2), talking of clarinetist / clubowner Bill Reinhardt and early rehearsals (Fall 1932) for Charlie Barnet’s first big band:

(. . . Charlie then was a 17 years-old pothead fugitive from Moses Brown Prep in Providence, R.I.) which boasted the legendary Jack Purvis on trumpet and Scoops Thompson (he sold drugs by the scoopful!) on guitar.  The two wildest dudes I ever met in the business.  That band, by the way, opened the brand-new Paramount Hotel, owned by Charlie’s family, on New Year’s Eve of ’32-’33 and lasted exactly one set.  Barnet’s mother, shocked to her socks by Purvis’ romping charts, fired Charlie herself.  I was sitting at Charlie’s table and heard the conversation.  

And, later, Atwood’s memories of valve-trombonist Frank Orchard (memorable for appearances on Commodore Records — I also saw him at Jimmy Ryan’s in the Seventies) who also acted as M.C., played piano, guitar, and sang — and who installed “a 2 1/2 times life-sized photo of himself at the club’s street entrance”:

The sets were pure Mack Sennett.  Frank would tinkle a piano intro, then switch to rhythm guitar for the opening chorus, grab his guitar and up to the mike to sing / play a chorus, then do the sock chorus on trombone lead and finally sprint back to the piano for the ending.  Plus, of course, introductory blather.

That’s purest jazz catnip to me, and I hope to you also.

If you’d told me a few years ago that I would hold a book with a detailed portrait of the pianist Jack Gardner in it, or a reference to tenorist Joe Masek, I would have thought that impossible.  And I have taken so long to review this book because of its irresistible nature.  When I received it in the mail, I left it visible in my apartment, and when I passed by it, I would stop to read a few pages: its distracting force was just that powerful.  I apologize to Derek and to the shade of Bert for being so tardy, but if you are in the least curious about Chicago jazz — from the teens to the Seventies — you will find CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE fascinating, quotable, and invaluable. I wish there were a bookshelf of volumes of equal merit.

Buy a copy here or here .  Alas, the book doesn’t come with a I BRAKE FOR SIG MEYERS AND HIS DRUIDS bumper sticker or a multi-volume CD set of previously unheard live sessions recorded by John Steiner, but we will make do with this lovely collection.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN’S CHICAGO DAYS (July 8, 2017)

Readers of JAZZ LIVES know the esteem that we who love this music hold Dan Morgenstern in, and I continue to be pleased and honored that he permits me to ask him questions in front of my camera.  We had another little session on July 8, 2017, and I asked Dan to tell us all about his days in Chicago.  Here are three interview segments, full of good stories.

First, stories about DOWN BEAT, Don DeMicheal, Robert Kaiser, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Harriet Choice, John Coltrane, Joe Segal, Dexter Gordon, Art Hodes, Gene Lees, and others:

and more, about Art Hodes, Jimmy McPartland, Pee Wee Russell, Norman Murphy, Marty Grosz, George Grosz, Wayne Jones, AACM, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jim McNeely, Harriet Choice, John Steiner, Edith Wilson, the Brecker Brothers:

and, finally, tales of Rush Street, Tiny Davis, the blues, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Harlem:

The warmth of Dan’s being comes through in every word.  And who else on the planet has had first-hand encounters with (let us say) both Edith Wilson and the AACM?  I have several more segments from this afternoon to share with you, and Dan and I have a return encounter planned for more.

And because a posting about Dan has to have some relevant music, here is the JUST JAZZ program he produced with Robert Kaiser, featuring Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Lou Forestieri, Frankyln Skeete, and Don DeMicheal:

May your happiness increase!

IN THE JAZZ BOROUGH: DENNIS LICHTMAN’S QUEENSBORO SIX, PART TWO (August 29, 2015)

Manhattnites think theirs is the jazz borough: Harlem, Fifty-Second Street, the Village.  Sorry, but no.  It’s Queens, home to Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bix Beiderbecke, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Clarence Williams, Count Basie, Milt Hinton, Bobby  Hackett, Illinois Jacquet, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Heath, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Benny Goodman, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Ben Webster . . .

QUEENS map

And the jazz glories of this borough aren’t only historical (read: dusty).  Dennis Lichtman proved that vividly in his concert — with his Queensboro Six — at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (34-56 107th St, Corona, Queens, by the way) on August 29, 2015.  The band was Dennic, clarinet, compositions, arrangements; Gordon Au, trumpet; J. Walter Hawkes, trombone; Nathan Peck, string bass; Dalton Ridenhour, keyboard; Rob Garcia, drums; Terry Wilson, vocal, with guest stars Ed Polcer, cornet; Tamar Korn, vocal.  And there were luminaries not on the bandstand: Michael Cogswell and Ricky Riccardi, Brynn White, Cynthia Sayer, Jerome Raim, among others.

Here‘s the first half of the concert for those who missed my posting.  And now the second.  Dennis explains it all, so watch, listen, and savor.

UNDECIDED:

MIDNIGHT AT THE PIERS:

STOMPIN’ AT MONA’S:

I CRIED FOR YOU (vocal Terry Wilson):

BLACK AND BLUE (vocal Terry):

THE POWER OF NOT-THEN:

I’D REMEMBER HAVING MET YOU IF I’D MET YOU:

WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO (add Terry WIlson, Ed Polcer, Tamar Korn):

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S GOT TO BE SWEETNESS, MAN, YOU DIG?”: MICHAEL KANAN, NEAL MINER, GREG RUGGIERO at MEZZROW, MARCH 23, 2015 (Part Two)

Lester Young told François Postif in 1959, “It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig? Sweetness can be funky, filthy, or anything, but which part do you want?”*

As someone who has sought sweetness all his life, I delight in that statement. I don’t mean stickiness or sentimentality, but a gentle approach to the subject being considered, loving rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive.

I have met many people who are acquainted with jazz in an intellectual way, who value Miles and Trane as modernists influential as Kandinsky or Joyce, but who have missed or disdained the sweetness that can be so integral to the music.

For some of them, jazz is a mystery to be wary of.  It is intricate, cerebral, complex, a closed system with no way in for the lay person. This might spring from a sensibility that equates anger with authenticity.  Thus, they experience sweet warm music as banal, the faded dance music of oblivious grandparents shuffling around the floor, clinging to each other as the ship tilts dangerously.

“Ben Webster with strings? Oh, that’s beautiful saxophone playing, but does it challenge the listener? It’s too pretty for me!”

I warm to art that embraces me rather than one that says, “Sorry.  You are not educated enough or radical enough to appreciate this.”  Complexity is always intriguing but not as an aggressive rebuke to the listener.  Sweetness can elevate a music that creates a direct line from the creators’ hearts to the hearers’.

And sometimes the dearest and deepest art is a masquerade, where the artists act as if nothing particularly difficult is being created.  But consider Edmond Hall, Harry Carney, Tony Fruscella, Bobby Hackett, Frank Chace, or Benny Morton playing a melody, or the 1938 Basie rhythm section, or four quarter notes by Louis on YOU ARE MY LUCKY STAR.  To fully understand such gorgeous phenomena would take a lifetime, but at the same time the sounds are immediately accessible as beautiful.  This music woos the listener’s ears, brain, heart, and spirit.

Such sweetness, delicate intricacy, conviction, expertise, and deep feeling were all evident when Michael Kanan, piano; Neal Miner, string bass; Greg Ruggiero, guitar, took the stage at Mezzrow on March 23, 2015. Here are three more deep examples:

Michael’s ADORÉE, which he wrote for the late singer Jimmy Scott:

A brisk THE NEARNESS OF YOU:

Ellington’s wonderful THE MOOCHE:

(I thought this performance was especially delicious: in the ideal world, there would be the two-CD set of this trio performing Ellington and Strayhorn.)

Here is the first part of the beautiful music created that evening.

Lester would have loved to play with this trio. I felt his admiring spirit in the room.

*This quotation comes from THE LESTER YOUNG READER, ed. Lewis Porter (Smithsonian, 1991): 189.

May your happiness increase!

LARGER THAN ANY TEXTBOOK

I opened a jazz-history textbook the other day, and was struck once again by the packaging of the music as a chronologically-unfolding procession. Each “style” is afforded a chapter. World musics lead to ragtime, to Bolden, to Louis, Henderson, Ellington, Lester, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Ornette, and “the future of jazz.”

Implicit in this survey, since “progress is our most important product” in this contemporary landscape, is the idea that the music began in simplicity (acceptable because they didn’t know any better) and added on new densities of harmony, rhythm (all to be applauded).

I find the idea that New is an improvement on Old distasteful, but I will leave that for now.  (By the same token, I do not automatically think Old = True, and New = Corrupt.)

What fascinated me so much in this textbook was the presentation of The Great Innovators.  The “Stars,” if you will. I am proud of what others might call unrestrained admiration for Louis Armstrong — a love perhaps bordering on idolatry. I feel the same way about Jack Teagarden, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and a hundred others. But this book made clear that when the New Innovator came to town, everyone tried to play or sing like him / her, so immense was their powerful artistic identity.

The Innovators, to be sure, affected musicians with seismic force. Rex Stewart wrote of hearing Louis with Henderson that he, Rex, tried to not only play like Louis but affect all things Louis-like.

But we see in Rex’s case, that imitation very quickly becomes a subtler thing, and that Rex absorbed from Louis certain shadings and approaches that fit into his own conception of what he was meant to do and be.

There is, of course, the other example: the Innovator comes to town, the critics go wild, the fans bow down — but some musicians say, “That is not for me at all,” and keep developing their own sounds in a sweetly defiant individuality. Pee Wee Russell is very much aware of Benny Goodman; Miff Mole knows about Jack Teagarden; Pete Brown lives in the same city as Charlie Parker . . . but Russell, Mole, and Brown go their own ways.

All this is meant only to suggest that the creative improvised music we love is too large, too organic, too fluid to be compressed into a forward-moving history textbook.

May your happiness increase!

JOURNEY TO UNMAPPED PLACES: “JAZZ LIVES: TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART” by JAAP VAN DE KLOMP

JazzLives Blog

Between 2005 and 2008, the Dutch photographer and jazz scholar Jaap van de Klomp began a series of soulful pilgrimages in honor of the men and women who had created the music he so loves.

The result is the lovely and often sad book of photographs, JAZZ LIVES, which takes its subtitle, TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART, from the words chiseled into Lester Young’s gravestone.

Yes, gravestone.

Every jazz lover knows the familiar photographs of our heroes and heroines: Billie Holiday with her dog; Louis Armstrong snappily dressed in London; Charlie Parker on the bandstand.  But where are our idols now?

The two hundred and more pages of JAZZ LIVES document where their mortal remains lie: with elaborate gravestones, unmarked plots of overgrown land, monuments proud and forlorn.  Jaap took his camera across the United States and Europe to capture these landscapes, resulting in a heartfelt pilgrimage to shrines of the dead. Each photograph is accompanied by a concise biography by Scott Yanow, and the book is organized by instruments once played.

The gravestones sometimes speak of posthumous reputation and fame: huge blocks of costly stone or unmarked areas of grass.  A monument for Ellington and empty space for Bud Powell.  An essay by Dan Morgenstern opens the book; one by the jazz musician and writer Bill Crow closes it. A simply written but evocative essay by the photographer himself explains something about his travels.

But the graves say so much — by presence and absence, reality and implication — about Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Serge Chaloff, Vic Dickenson, Andrew Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet, Django Reinhardt, Jack Teagarden, Britt Woodman, Al Grey, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, John Carter, Russell Procope, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Willie the Lion Smith, Gigi Gryce, Roland Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Wardell Gray, Stuff Smith, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Hank Mobley, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Herbie Nichols, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Milt Hinton, Jimmie Blanton, George Duvivier, Jo Jones, Zutty Singleton, Denzil Best, Billy Higgins, Sidney Catlett, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Ivie Anderson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Johnny Hartman, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn, Sun Ra, Bennie Moten, W. C. Handy, Tadd Dameron, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and others.

To give some sense of the breadth of his searching, the gravestones of trumpet players included in this book are: Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Hot Lips Page, Henry Red Allen, Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Lester Bowie.

Jaap, born in 1940, has been involved with the music and the musicians for more than half a century, including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Kenny Drew, and Kenny Clarke among others.

But he is not only a person of great feeling and a fine photographer.  Jaap is one of those rare souls who wants to share what he has done.  He wrote this to me, “The book which is sold out in the Netherlands by now will not be reprinted and has been proven to be physically too heavy for worldwide distribution. In this form I still hope to reach more jazz enthusiasts with a book which was a great pleasure to make.and which is still a very dear project to me.”

He has offered to make his book available as a digital download — for free — to anyone who emails him at info@jaapvandeklomp.nl  with JazzLives in the subject line.  The whole book is about 150 MB and it might take a few minutes to download.

This is generosity without hidden motive, and it is a beautiful work of art and devotion.

May your happiness increase!

OSCAR PETTIFORD, FOUND

OP front

Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily.  But Pettiford’s is often not among them.

Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career.  An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don  Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.

This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings.  It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s.  But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.

Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous.  And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of.  Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.

Surely he should be better known.

Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):

And his stirring solo on STARDUST:

Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience.  One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions.  That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.

Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there.  Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago.  Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.

American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.

OP cover rear

And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME.  Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz.  The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.

And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:

Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow?  Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative.  So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar.  Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew.  “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.

May your happiness increase!

A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

Ian Fleming never gave me a thought.  I never had a specially-equipped car, dangerous gadgets.  But I was a spy for Dixieland.

In a recent seminar with one of my mentors, Prof. Figg, he asked the question, “What are your secret guilty musical pleasures?”

I think the Professor expected that I was listening to Justin Bieber or to marimba orchestras.  Toy pianos.  Singing dogs.  Kate Smith.  Anthony Braxton.  Rossini overtures.  Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And although I thought hard, I couldn’t come up with any guilty musical pleasures.  Oh, I love sentiment: Connee Boswell’s LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY makes me cry.  But I am proud of my reaction to her singing, so there’s nothing guilty in it.

But then I started to remember the time when I was a jazz operative in enemy country.

When I was nine or ten, I was already seriously hooked by hot jazz.  Louis Armstrong, first and foremost.  I recall spending birthday money on a Louis record, and I was thrilled when he appeared on television.

I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles came to the United States, and I found them fascinating — but for only a short time.  They were fun, energetic, new, uninhibited.  I remember pestering my father to buy me the soundtrack album from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.  When I could, I bought those records, borrowed them from friends, tried so hard to make them my personal soundtrack.  (Everyone else did.)

I got all the way up to RUBBER SOUL before I decided that I didn’t really like this music all that much.  What I was entranced by was the possibility of being liked because you like what everyone else likes.

I had already begun to notice, although I probably did not articulate it to myself, that one’s musical preferences were ways definitions of one’s self, stated publicly or otherwise.  One’s taste was an ideological / emotional badge.

If you liked Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ THIS DIAMOND RING (why do I remember this now?) you were possibly a member of the club that could be considered worthy of being inspected for possible admission to the clubhouse.

But walking around telling my peers that I listened to Louis Armstrong — the truth — was clearly not the way to be accepted, to be cool, to be “in” or popular.  I remember telling some adults, who looked at me indulgently.  Perhaps they thought my preference more strange than the loud music their children were listening to.  My conscious anachronism must have struck them as at best, a benign eccentricity; at worst, inexplicable.

Among my peers, anything that new and rebellious was good.  Ancient and entrenched was definitely not.  When I met the pretty granddaughter of our French-Canadian neighbors, I knew I could not tell her that I preferred Fats Waller to Iron Butterfly and expect her to swoon.  “Our” music was supposed to unsettle the old folks who fed and clothed you; it wasn’t supposed to have any comforting connections to their world.  Jini Hendrix, not Jimmie Blanton.

So I kept my love to myself.  I told very few people that I listened to Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland in my room, that I read Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES (and was then violently disappointed by his playing — I was too young to appreciate those Bluebird sides).  I couldn’t really confess to anyone that I loved Bobby Hackett’s air-traceries on ballads, that “Dixieland jazz” on television — those small groupings of oddly-dressed men — thrilled me.  I even remember watching Lawrence Welk’s program for the brief “hot” interludes (not knowing at the time that I would someday see and admire Bob Havens in person).  Even my parents, who were very indulgent and loving, did not quite know what to make of my obsession: they had lived through the Depression and the Swing Era, but the depth of my ardor must have puzzled them.

In this century, a broader acceptance is the rule.  It is much easier to say, “Oh, I listen to Bulgarian hip-hop,” or “I am working on my harpsichord on the weekends,” than it was.  I know a young woman in middle school who dresses in elaborate clothing every day, plays the ukulele, analyzes 1905 Sousa records.  She seems to have gained much more flexibility to be unusual in this century than I had in mine.

My generation may have marched to Thoreau’s different drummer, but to call the metaphorical figure of independence Dave Tough did not do.   It still seems a towering irony that my nonconformist friends were obliviously conformist.

I had to go underground because I identified so strongly with the music of an earlier generation and one before that.  I didn’t dance, so I hadn’t met the swing-dance generation who would teach me the Balboa and know, instinctively, which version of SWINGIN’ THE BLUES they liked.  In 1966, had I come out of the aesthetic closet and said, “The music I like was the popular music — or at least one strain of it — in 1936,” I would be marked as even more freakish than I already was.

I could and did wear the flowered shirts and bell-bottom trousers (both of which pleased me for their own sake) but I could not admit to an admiration for Pee Wee Russell.  To do so would be to say, “I want to be just like your grandparents,” not readily accepted among my peers.

It might have been easier if I had had the ability and patience to seriously attempt a musical instrument.  Then I could have hung out in the bandroom with the other trumpet geeks and said, “Have you heard what Ray Nance does here?”  But that community was denied me.

Even when I was in an independent study program in my senior year of high school, I knew I had to practice secrecy.  It was difficult to unmask.  My friend Stu Zimny has reminded me of our being on field trips into Manhattan, and my running off during our lunch break to buy Commodore 78s.  He would ask, “What did you buy?” and I would say, “Oh, nothing really.  You wouldn’t be interested,” or some similar falsehood.

I was afraid of being laughed at if I was seen buying archaic recordings of strange music with odd-sounding players.  Red, Muggsy, Big Sid, Little T . . . these heroic affectionate sobriquets were encouraged in baseball but not elsewhere.

My affections did not transfer easily.  My seventeen-year-old self — suave, stylish, ineffably debonair, thought that Jack Teagarden’s 1954 recording of A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY was the best seduction music ever.  What woman could resist his wooing?  (All of them.)

I don’t remember when and how the mists began to lift.  It may have been when I began to encounter other young men at jazz concerts.  We glanced at each other cautiously, suspiciously.  “You like this music too?”  “Yeah.”  “Don’t tell anyone, OK?”  “I like hot jazz.”  “Shhhh!  Keep it down.  They’ll hear us!”

But I only began to “come out” in college, perhaps defensively but more proud.  “Yes, I listen to Louis Armstrong records.  Do you want to come to my house and hear what I am listening to?”

It wasn’t always easy.  “Cartoon music” was often the way my records were described.  “How can you listen to that old stuff?  What do you hear in it?” “Wow, that’s old-fashioned!”

At this point in the imagined black-and-white film, calendar pages fall off the wall.  We are now in NOW, this century, where I am entirely comfortable with my own love for hot music.

It fascinates me that when the Beloved lovingly introduces me, “Oh, this is my Sweetie — he has a great jazz video blog!” I can see people’s eyelids begin to flutter — with puzzlement or tedium, it is hard to say.  I can only imagine what people think.  “Oh, no.  Jazz, for God’s sake.  One step less interesting than toy trains.  What shall I say?  I never ‘understood jazz,’ and this fellow is obviously so interested in it that he’s vibrating as he stands there.”  So they say, generously, “Jazz!  Wow, that’s interesting.  Do you like Miles Davis?”  Or “I think John Coltrane was a very spiritual being.  I like electro-fusion.  Do you like Diana Krall?”

And they are being as gracious as human beings can be, so it pains me to redirect their enthusiasm.  But I have to say, “Well, I admire Miles and Coltrane, but my heart is with older stuff.”  “Oh, what do you mean?”  “Louis Armstrong is my hero.  Billie Holiday.  Duke Ellington,” keeping it as plain as possible.  And it is clear that with those words and those names I have marked myself as An Oddity.  The most kind people say, “Did you see ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night?  There was a woman who had a whole collection of autographed band photographs from the Big Band Era, and one of them was signed by Louis Armstrong?”  Others smile sweetly, vaguely, and head for the white wine spritzers.

Jazz still remains a mystery to most people, and those of us who truly resonate to it are destined to remain Outsiders.  It’s a pity.  Why shouldn’t everyone be able to share the great pleasures that we know?

I am now a Spy Emeritus, now able to view these episodes with nostalgia and amusement tempering my puzzlement.  Call me 0078, retired.  But I remember the feeling of being out of step with the culture of my times, and being made to feel weird.

Yet I followed what I loved, and jazz has paid me back for my loyalty a million times over.  And it continues to do so.

This one’s for my friends AJS and KD — and, as always, for the Beloved, who knew that it don’t mean a thing . . . before I ever came along.

May your happiness increase.

“THEY SAY IT’S WONDERFUL”: DAN BARRETT, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JOE COHN, JOEL FORBES at THE EAR INN (Sunday, September 30, 2012)

Wonderful!

This beautiful Irving Berlin love-ballad was first sung by Ethel Merman (and her male partner, Ray Middleton) in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1946) — and it has been treated lovingly by all manner of singers and instrumentalists — Sinatra and Ruby Braff, Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, Doris Day, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Scott . . .


But this song got a lovely, sweetly swinging performance last Sunday, September 30, at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York) because of those Masters of Wonder, Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Joe Cohn, guitar; Joel Forbes, string bass.

I think that “wonderful” used to mean worthy of our amazed admiration, full of wondrous things.  It seems an appropriate description for the music at The Ear Inn every Sunday night from 8 – 11 PM.

May your happiness increase.

SWINGING “POP SONGS” in SEATTLE (Sept. 6, 2012)

The subject today is The Illusion of Musical Purity in Jazz.

I think it began in the Twenties, when jazzmen themselves made divisions between “commercial” and “hot” music.  The former was what you were paid to play — often trivial, unswinging, unimaginative — reading stock arrangements while someone in a tuxedo waved a baton.  The latter — the ideal — was what you played at 4 AM with enough gin or muggles or spaghetti (or all three) to make sure that everyone was mellow.  Later on, when the fans started to anatomize the music in ways the musicians had never cared to, the fans and journalists built walls stronger than the Berlin version.  “Commercial” music was “Swing,” where good guys played insipid pop tunes and took eight-bar solos once a night; “the real thing” was an ideal, rarely achieved.

Think of the posthumous scorn heaped on Paul Whiteman because his Orchestra wasn’t Bix and his Gang; think of those serious jazz fans who traced The Decline of Louis Armstrong to I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE taking the place of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP.

But the musicians themselves — while preferring looseness, open-mindedness, swing, and an escape from the paper — never much cared what songs they were playing.  Was PISTOL PACKIN’ MAMA unworthy of Bunk Johnson?  He didn’t think so.  Did John Coltrane disdain MY FAVORITE THINGS, or Charlie Parker A SLOW BOAT TO CHINA?

I have remembered, more than once, Wild Bill Davison’s comment to an interviewer that he never learned or knew THAT’S A PLENTY until he came to New York: in Chicago, he and his friends played swinging improvisations on current and classic pop tunes.  As did Eddie Condon, Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Mildred Bailey.

These thoughts were especially prominent in my mind when I found the latest videos from the estimable First Thursday Band — led by pianist Ray Skjelbred — at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington . . . on September 6, 2012.  The other members of the FTB are drummer Mike Daughterty, skilled at roll play; bassist Dave Brown, whose beat can’t be beat; multi-instrumentalist Steve Wright.  Some of the tunes you will see and hear below — by virtue of jazz instrumentalists playing them memorably — have become “jazz classics.”  But they were all popular tunes, premiered in vaudeville, Broadway musicals, the movies, around the parlor piano.

The ambiance here is so reminiscent of an otherwise unknown Chicago club, circa 1934, with the good guys having the time of their life playing requests and songs they like.  Close your eyes and you’ll hear not only Wright, Brown, Daugherty, and Skjelbred, but Frank Melrose, Earl Hines, Alex Hill, Zinky Cohn; Guy Kelly, Jimmie Noone, Frank Teschmacher, Wellman Braud, Milt Hinton, Zutty Singleton, Sidney Catlett — the list of happily approving ghosts is very long.

I begin this history / music theory lesson with Wayne King’s theme song — in the wrong hands, as soggy as uncooked French toast, but here snappy and sweet:

THE WALTZ YOU SAVED FOR ME :

Richard Whiting’s SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY, which had a life long before John Hammond handed it to Billie Holiday:

A zippy Harry Barris song from the film extravaganza THE KING OF JAZZ — in our century, adopted as music for penguins — HAPPY FEET (with the verse — and then Skjelbred leaps in like a man possessed):

Isham Jones’ pretty, mournful WHAT’S THE USE? (with a rhythm section that won’t quit):

And from 1919, one of those songs suggesting that happiness could be conveyed by facial expressions, in fact, by loving SMILES:

Purists, begone!  Visit here to see more.

May your happiness increase.

REVERE THE DEAD, EMBRACE THE LIVING

From an English formal garden, 2010, a flower that is very much alive. Photograph by Michael Steinman

When does deep reverence become a self-created prison?

With my video camera, I attempt to capture what I think of as emotionally powerful performances by musicians playing and singing in 2012.  I don’t expect everyone to share my preferences.  But a comment posted on a YouTube video of an artist who isn’t yet forty took me by surprise.  Here it is, paraphrased:

Younger Artist’s performance is alright but isn’t distinct enough. Where are the Xs, Ys, and Zs (insert the names of Great Dead Musicians here)?

My first reaction was annoyance on behalf of the Younger Artist, someone whose work I admire, being made tiny in comparison with The Heroic Dead.

And then I felt sad for the commenter, whose ears were so full of the dead artists he loved that he didn’t have room in his consciousness for someone living who sounded different.

Many of us who love this music have spent a long time entranced by the sounds and images of those people who have “made the transition,” who are no longer on the planet.  Charlie Christian and Jimmie Blanton died before I was born, and that doesn’t obstruct my admiration for them.  So a historical perspective — something to be cultivated — has a good deal of reverence for the dead as its foundation.  Otherwise the reader / listener / viewer chases Novelty: this is the best band because it’s the newest, and Thursday’s child is fairer of face than Tuesday’s.  What was his name again?

But for some listeners, the dark shadow of NOT AS GOOD AS hangs over their experience of this lively art.  So that Kid J, a wonderful musician, is somehow unworthy when compared to Bix, Louis, Bunk, Coltrane, Jo, Billie . . .  And because we can so easily acquire almost every note that Lester Young or Peggy Lee (to pick names at random) recorded, we can fill our ears and iPods with the almost three-dimensional aural presence of our Gods and Goddesses from morning to night.  Very seductive!

What if that idolatry closes the door on our ability to appreciate the men and women who are creating it LIVE for us in clubs, concerts, dance halls, videos, discs, and the like?  The experience of being in the same place as musicians who are improvising is not the same as listening to a recording or even watching the video clip.

The improviser or improvisers creates something new and tangy, something that didn’t exist before, right in front of us.  And if there’s no one recording it with a video camera or an iPhone, it’s gone into memory.  The people on the bandstand giggle, take a deep breath, wipe their faces, take a swig of water, and prepare to create something vibrant on the next song.

This williingness to take risks in the name of music is very brave and very beautiful, and we should embrace the living people who are attempting to make a living by making art.  There will be time to sit on the couch and listen to records or mp3s.  There will be time to make critical judgments that the Living aren’t as good as the Dead.

In the recent past, I have heard tenor saxophonists who made me feel the same way Ben Webster does, pianists who make me as elated as Mel Powell does . . . and I could keep both perceptions in my mind, honoring the living and the dead.

I am not, by the way, saying that Everyone has to like Everything.  My own range is narrow by many people’s standards.  But when I hear an artist I’ve never encountered before, and (s)he elates me, it is a deep reward.  It doesn’t mean I am being disloyal to the dead if I applaud a living musician, does it?  But I think some people live in the land of Either / Or and thus, unwittingly, cut themselves off from possible pleasure.

I imagine someone, seventeen or so, walking past the Greenwich Village club called THE PIED PIPER or the RIVIERA (the latter stands, although without music) in 1944, looking at the sandwich sign on the street, advertising James P. Johnson, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Frank Orchard . . . and thinking, “Nah.  He’s no Fats Waller; he’s no Bix; he’s no Tesch; he’s no Jimmy Harrison,” and choosing not to go in . . . and having the next fifty or sixty years to regret his choice.

Artists (and people) are perhaps only Different . . . not Better or Worse.

May your happiness increase.

THE REAL THING: CHRIS TYLE’S SILVER LEAF JAZZ BAND

Often, the best music doesn’t get the most intense publicity.  This is especially true for Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Jazz Band — a flexible down-home band that could play hot and sweet, and specialized in music that was authentically from the heart — not from someone else’s recordings.  If you don’t know Chris, you’ve missed out on a great deal of memorable jazz: he is one of the finest hot cornetists on the planet, a gutty singer, a splendid clarinetist, and a drummer other drummers speak of admiringly.  He’s also a fine scholar and researcher, so his music projects are based on a deep love of the music rather than simply getting a group together in the studio and saying, “What’s next?”

The compact discs his Silver Leaf Jazz Band recorded are among the most refreshing I know . . . but not enough attention has been paid to them.  I recall, some years ago, being in the car with a musician-friend, who said, “Listen to this and tell me what you think . . . don’t try to identify the musicians, just enjoy the sounds.”  By the time the band was sixteen bars in, I was hooked.

I think JAZZ LIVES readers should be, too.

One of the ironies of the “jazz audience” is that often it gravitates to the Officially Old — those Sam Morgan or Ellington-Blanton discs, or the Brand New — Exx Why and her Girls, recorded in 2012 . . . and what’s in the middle gets forgotten, even by listeners with a wide reach.  This would be a wrong turn . . . !

The first CD I would draw your attention to is by the smallest group: a quartet of Chris, clarinetist Orange Kellin, pianist Steve Pistorius, and drummer John Gill — everyone also takes a turn at the vocal microphone except Orange.  The disc is called NEW ORLEANS WIGGLE (GHB BCD-347) and it features good songs that haven’t been exhausted through overexposure, including a substantial portion of music associated with Armand Piron, Lovie Austin, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Dick Oxtot, and others: NEW ORLEANS WIGGLE / ST. LOUIS BLUES / STOCKYARDS STRUT / RED MAN BLUES / TAKE ME TO THE LAND OF JAZZ / PONCHARTRAIN / HERE COMES THE HOT TAMALE MAN / AIN’T NOBODY GOT THE BLUES LIKE ME / YEARNING (JUST FOR YOU) / MESSIN’ AROUND / NEW ORLEANS BLUES / DOWN WHERE THE SUN GOES DOWN / BOUNCING AROUND / MAMMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / MANDY LEE BLUES / STEPPING ON THE BLUES.

A quintet is featured on STREETS AND SCENES OF NEW ORLEANS (Good Time Jazz GTJCD 15001-2): Chris, Jacques Gauthe, clarinet; Dave Sager, trombone; Tom Roberts, piano; John Gill.  They play CONGO SQUARE / SILVER LEAF STRUT / FAREWELL TO STORYVILLE / WEST END BLUES / WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / WHY DON’T YOU GO TO NEW ORLEANS? / PERDIDO STREET BLUES / GALLATIN STREET GRIND / BLUES FOR RAMPART STREET / NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES / BORDER OF THE QUARTER / DECATUR STREET BLUES / WE SHALL WALK THROUGH THE STREETS OF THE CITY / TIN ROOF BLUES / CANAL STREET BLUES / BASIN STREET BLUES / GRAVIER STREET BLUES / BACK O’TOWN BLUES / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE.  Some familiar tunes here, but none of them rendered in a formulaic way — along with less-played compositions associated with Johnny Wiggs, Johnny Dodds, Ida Cox, and others.

On GREAT COMPOSERS OF NEW ORLEANS JAZZ (Good Time Jazz GTJCD 15005-1), Chris and a larger ensemble offer the most entertaining history lesson I can imagine.  The band is Chris, Mike Owen, trombone; Orange Kellin, Steve Pistorious, piano; Craig Ventresco, guitar / banjo; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums / washboard — with guest appearances from Duke Heitger, trumpet, and Tom Fischer, clarinet / alto sax.  The tunes are a wonderful education in hot jazz: PAPA’S GOT THE JIM-JAMS / WEARY CITY / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE / YOU CAN HAVE IT / GHOST OF THE BLUES / ISN’T THERE A LITTLE LOVE? / EVERYBODY LOVES SOMEBODY BLUES / KLONDYKE BLUES / IT ALL BELONGS TO YOU / RAMBLING BLUES / NUMBER TWO BLUES / I MUST HAVE IT / PECULIAR / COOKIE / PAPA, WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO DO TO ME I’VE BEEN DOING IT FOR YEARS — music composed by Alcide “Yellow” Nunez, Wingy Manone, Sidney Bechet, Larry Shields, Nick LaRocca, King Oliver, Sharkey Bonano, and a young fellow named Armstrong.

By the time I came to Chris’ Jelly Roll Morton tribute, I had heard a great many of them . . . some stiffly “correct,” others weirdly “innovative.”  But JELLY’S BEST JAM (Good Time Jazz 15002-1) lives up to its name, with Chris, Orange, John Gill (on trombone this time); Tom Roberts, Vince Giordano, string bass, and Hal Smith.  Interspersed among the band performances are four solos Jelly Roll recorded in 1938: CREEPY FEELING / FINGER BUSTER / WININ’ BOY BLUES / HONKY TONK MUSIC.  The band sides are EACH DAY / THE PEARLS / IF SOMEONE WOULD ONLY LOVE ME / MAMA’S GOT A BABY / JELLY ROLL BLUES / SHREVEPORT STOMP / BLUE BLOOD BLUES / KING PORTER STOMP / MISTER JOE / BIG FAT HAM / JUNGLE BLUES / GOOD OLD NEW YORK — all performed with a flair and imagination that Jelly Roll himself would have enjoyed.  For myself, I can testify that this CD is dangerously swinging: I got caught up in KING PORTER STOMP while driving to see the Beloved and missed my exit completely . . . still, it was worth it.

Recently, I asked Chris to tell us something about the birth of this band:

I started working at the Can-Can Cafe, in the Royal Sonesta Hotel [in New Orleans], in early 1992.  I was playing trumpet with clarinetist Barry Wratten’s band.  Barry’s band was there for a few months, was laid-off, then Clive Wilson came in.  After a few months they were laid off.

After Barry’s band got their walking papers, I went to the management and mentioned I had led bands in the past and would be interested in the job if they ever wanted to make a change.  In October, 1992, I got the call to start working there, six nights a week.

I wanted the band to be a success, not only with the public but also with the management.  Luckily, managment were pretty much “hands-off,” leaving me to run things as I thought appropriate.  My vision was for the band to be a “classic” jazz group, not a Bourbon Street dixieland band.  Bearing the latter in mind, however, when we had tour groups I tailored our repertoire to the chestnuts: Bill Bailey, Muskrat Ramble, Saints, etc.  But we played these things in our style, and the people I hired were on the same page as myself, musically. The tourist set(s) aside, there was an incredible amount of quality music played there.  Once the tour group sets were over, we played music written or recorded by King Oliver, Louis, Jelly Roll Morton, the ODJB.  I love obscure pop songs of the 1920s and 1930s, so we’d do those, too.

George Hocutt, a producer who had been involved with the record business for decades, liked the band and encouraged Fantasy Records in Berkeley to ressurect the Good Time Jazz label for new recordings.  Fantasy had been issuing material from the Good Time Jazz catalog for awhile.  So George talked them into recording the Silver Leaf Jazz Band.  We ended up doing three recordings, and George also recorded cornetist Scott Black, clarinetist Tim Laughlin, and clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Jacques Gauthe’.

The band at the Can-Can was always a quartet – which was all the hotel could budget.  But I’d add players for the recordings.  The first, “Street and Scenes of New Orleans”, was the regular band plus trombonist David Sager.  With the Jelly Roll Morton tribute we did a six-piece band, and a seven piece band for the “Great Composers of New Orleans Jazz” CD.

The “Composers” cd is my favorite – mainly for the selection of tunes but also for the playing of the other musicians.  That’s not to say the others aren’t good – they are, and they all got excellent reviews when they were released.  

We also did some nice recordings for Stomp-Off and for George Buck’s label, GHB.  The one we did for George got an incredible rating from the Penguin Guide to Jazz.  There’s only a few recordings in the book that get a special “rosette.”  So our recording, with a quartet, was given the same rating as “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane.  A few years ago Concord Records bought Fantasy, and even though the Silver Leaf Jazz Band is listed on their website, the CDs are out-of-print.

Fortunately, these four superb discs are still available through Chris — and buying discs direct from the artist is the method I recommend!

They can go to my site – www.tyleman.com, and click on the CD photos.  It will take them to Paypal.  If they want to pay some other way, like check or money order, they can just send me an email: chris@tyleman.com.  I’m asking $14.95 each, but it they order three or more I’ll send the CDs post paid. They would need to contact me for the “special offer.”

I urge you to get these good sounds!

May your happiness increase.

“FROM NOTES TO WORDS”: JON-ERIK KELLSO, MATT MUNISTERI, SCOTT ROBINSON, PAT O’LEARY, SEAN SINGER, ANN ROWER: THE THIRD ANNUAL JAZZ AND POETRY FESTIVAL (School of Visual Arts, New York City, March 22, 2012)

Does music speak louder than words?  At the Jazz and Poetry Festival hosted by the School of Visual Arts a few weeks ago in New York City, there was no such competition — just a series of amiable statements with both sides having their say.  The musicians were the Jon-Erik Kellso Quartet (otherwise known as the EarRegulars when found on Sunday nights at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City): Jon-Erik on trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, alto and bass taragota; Pat O’Leary, string bass).  The writers were Sean Singer and Ann Rower.   As you’ll see and hear.

The Quartet offers SOME OF THESE DAYS (with a brief foray into SHINE ON HARVEST MOON); WABASH BLUES; ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS (for Bix Beiderbecke):

Here’s the conclusion of ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS and I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES:

After an introduction by Robert Lobe, Sean Singer takes the microphone to read selections from his 2002 poetry collection DISCOGRAPHY — poems touching on John Coltrane, Ellington, Albert Ayler, Scott Joplin, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and others:

Maryhelen Hendricks introduced the writer Ann Rower, who read a series of excerpts from her untitled novel in the form of a journal — which moved from sharply-realized anecdotes to memories of her uncle, the lyricist Leo Robin:

And the program concluded with a return to musical improvisations, as the Quartet continued the tribute to Leo Robin with THANKS FOR THE MEMORY (music by Ralph Rainger); a romping SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL; a wistful Scott Robinson feature on another Robin-Rainger song, WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE; YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY:

And YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, concluded:

Thanks to all the musicians and writers, to Robert Lobe and Maryhelen Hendricks — and special thanks to the Jonnybogue Video Rescue Service (“No job too small.  Baked while you sleep”).  Make a note of that.

May your happiness increase.

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.

“THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS,” by JUDITH SCHLESINGER

“Has JAZZ LIVES gone crazy?” some of you might ask.  No, even though the book I offer for your consideration might seem to some to have only a tenuous connection to jazz.

But Judith Schlesinger’s new book, THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS, is immensely relevant to the mythological accretions that jazz has had foisted on it for the last century.  And the book is also immensely lively and entertaining.

Any jazz listener might list those jazz musicians celebrated for the irresistible combination of deep creativity and — to some — inevitable mental illness.  Shall we begin with Charlie Parker?  Buddy Bolden.  Then add Leon Roppolo, Cassino Simpson, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.  A quick scan of “jazz musician” “mental illness” on Google brings up Charles Mingus, Billy Tipton, Rosemary Clooney, right there alongside Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh.  Let’s not even talk about Billie Holiday, shall we?

These creative artists make good copy, and their “mental instability” has been used as modern-day evidence that Plato was right: to be creative, one must be beyond the “normal” that many people demonstrate.  Schlesinger states it simply: “The mad genius is a beloved cultural artifact, a popular spectacle . . . . It provides the perfect container for every romantic fantasy about both madness and genius–and doesn’t have to be any more precise than that to be useful.  But a fact, it is not.  There is simply no good reason to believe that exceptionally creative people are more afflicted with psychopathology than anyone else.”

What fascinates Schlesinger is not so much arguing about biographical details: were Mozart’s scatological jokes evidence of a disordered mind?  But she is much more intrigued, and sometimes horrified, by the ways that modern “scientists” and “chroniclers” have distorted, invented, appropriated, and misread evidence to make it fit their portrait: Creative = Crazy.  And the misrepresentations are sometimes set in stone: Schlesinger has done all kinds of fascinating homework: her detective work about Beethoven’s “death mask” is a delight.

She is especially drawn to — and sympathetic to — jazz musicians and the burden of half-truth and complete fallacy attached to them, especially posthumously.  She proudly asserts that the creative people she admires are “heroic,” rather than “mentally disabled,” and — without making lists, points us towards the much more stable, well-adjusted figures in the music business who don’t get the press because their narratives can’t be forced into romantic myth.  Consider Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane — musicians too busy practicing their craft and having a good time in the process to be Mad Geniuses.

When it comes to the way in which jazz musicians are perceived by psychologists and therapists, the examples Schlesinger finds would be hilarious if they weren’t so appalling.  Did you know that Coltrane’s “excessive practicing” and search for “the perfect mouthpiece” were dead-on symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder?  So writes Gregory Wills.  Ask Arnold M. Ludwig’s opinion about Bix Beiderbecke and you get this: Bis had “mental problems” because he had trouble, late in life with his embouchure.

THE INSANITY HOAX shows off Schlesinger’s sharp eye and sharp wit, but she’s more than George Carlin riffing on the absurdities she has read about, observed, and experienced.  Although she has a free-swinging style, the book is no improvisation: it offers thirty-five pages of endnotes and bibliography.  No doubt it will irritate those — patients, academics, therapists, and practitioners — who see the DSM as a sacred book, those who take Kay Redfield Jamison’s simple equation (all great artists are or have been mentally ill to be such great artists) as true.  But it is intelligent, forthright, full of information, and a pleasure to read: one of those books I wished were longer.

You can find out more about the book here.

ANDY FARBER: MAKING BEAUTIFUL SOUNDS

Having a large jazz orchestra in this century has often posed challenges besides the economic ones. 

Many “big bands” get formed only for special occasions and are thus not well-rehearsed.  Then there’s the matter of repertoire: should a band made up of improvising jazz players go into the past or boldly plunge into the future, however one defines it?  Or should such an orchestra bridge Past and Present — not an easy thing: it means more than letting the saxophone soloist play GIANT STEPS licks in the middle of A STRING OF PEARLS. 

Saxophonist Andy Farber has found his own answer to these questions.  He’s worked with all kinds and sizes of ensembles comfortably.  But his own orchestra has found its own path that pays homage to the past without being anyone’s ghost band — in a way that’s both reassuring and innovative.

Here’s what Andy told Alvester Garnett, who not only plays wonderful big band drums but also wrote fine liner notes (!): “The goal of this record is to focus on the emotional and spiritual element of large group ensemble playing.  I feel like there is a great amount of nuance in this band, ao conscious effort in playing pretty, shaping lines, playing parts as if it were a solo.”  Does that give you a sense of the silken textures Andy and his Orchestra have created?

You don’t have to take it on faith.  The band sounds wonderful — and its overall sound is not heavy or ponderous, nor does it make you wonder what all the players in the band are doing (some “big bands” quickly break down into soloist-plus-rhythm that you wonder if the other players have gotten off the bandstand to check their email — not here). 

And the names of the players will tell you a great deal.  Andy himself is a fine solo player (as I hope you’ve seen in my videos of him sitting in at The Ear Inn): here he’s joined by Dan Block, Chuck Wilson, Jay Brandford, Marc Phaneuf, Kurt Bacher, saxes (with a special guest appearance by Jerry Dodgion); Brian Pareschi, Irv Grossman, Kenny Rampton, and Alex Norris are the trumpets; Art Baron, Harvey Tibbs, Wayne Goodman, Max Seigel the trombones; Bob Grillo plays guitar; Mark Sherman, vibraphone; Kenny Ascher, piano; Jennifer Vincent, bass; Alvester Garnett, drums.  And there is some hip vocalizing from the Prince of Hip, Jon Hendricks and his Singers.

The repertoire includes the happily familiar (BODY AND SOUL, MIDNIGHT, THE STARS AND YOU, THE MAN I LOVE, SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, JACK THE BELLBOY) and Andy’s witty, swinging originals (SPACE SUIT, BOMBERS, IT IS WHAT IT IS, and SHORT YARN) — and more.  All sinuously played, with a delight in sound rather than volume, texture rather than speed. 

If someone were to ask me the honorably weary question, “Are the big bands ever coming back?” I would play them this CD.  This band has no need to return: it is most reassuringly here. 

The CD is on BWR (Black Warrior Records) and can be found at better record stores everywhere?  Well, not quite — but it is available online through a number of sites and (of course) from Andy when you see him playing, which I urge you to do.

ERNIE KRIVDA KNOWS

It’s possible that some readers have never heard of Cleveland-born saxophonist Ernie Krivda, now 65.  I’d like to change that, for I have been impressed by his work in various contexts for some time.  And musicians in the know (among them Quincy Jones and Joe Lovano) have always admired Ernie as a person and a player. 

Thanks to Bob Rusch, I first heard Ernie on a magical tribute to Stan Getz, where Ernie had assembled a large ensemble, including forty strings. to play Eddie Sauter’s film music for FOCUS and then, taking Getz as his inspiration but not copying him, had soared over that background.  The disc, “Ernie Krivda: Focus on Stan Getz: Live at Severance Hall,” (Cadence Jazz 1165)  remains one of my favorites — tumultuous, tender, sweet, ferocious — and I am not exaggerating when I say that I bought a copy of Getz’s FOCUS and preferred Ernie’s version.  (Heresy, I know, but true.)  Here’s some first-hand (or first-heard evidence of what Ernie does so magnificently: his 1993 duo exploration of LOVE WALKED IN with pianist Bill Dobbins):

Although Ernie clearly has a whole range of saxophone influences in his mind, from early Hawkins and Young onwards to Rollins, he is an individualist with his own sound and approach.  He’s not one of those musicians who has only two approaches: one, the respectful first chorus of a ballad; two, the abrupt deconstruction of the melody and harmony into abstract fragments.  Krivda, as you can hear in LOVE WALKED IN, honors George Gershwin’s melody, but is also making the terrain his own, gently pulling and tugging at the music’s familiar contours, experimenting with timbre, harmony, rhythmic alterations.  His playing is hard to categorize (for those who need categories), but I hear the sound of a man thinking, feeling, and exploring. 

Since this blog is often devoted to musicians who are no longer with us, I am pleased to be able to write about one who is alive and inventive.  Ernie had three new CDs: a solo saxophone effort, “November Man,”a second, “The Art of the Trio,” and a third (in process), “Ernie Krivda and The Detroit Connection,” featuring Dominick Farinacci and Sean Jones.  Krivda has also received the nationally recognized Cleveland Arts Prize for career achievement and a major fellowship acknowledging him as a player and composer.  His next album with The Detroit Connection is a tribute to the music of John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins.  The Detroit Connection band includes 78-year-old pianist Claude Black, Marion Hayden on bass (the matriarch of the Detroit jazz world), and Paul Gonsalves’ son Renell Gonsalves on drums.  It will be Ernie’s 30th album.

To learn more about Ernie, visit http://www.erniekrivda.com/index.php.. One of the categories I invented for this blog, early on, is “Pay Attention!” — profoundly relevant to the man and the music I’ve been describing here.

LEAVING SPACE(S)

Some years back, I took one of the six-hour driver training courses designed to reduce my auto insurance bill.  What I remember most was the instructor exhorting everyone to leave space — that is, not to get right up behind cars on the highway (“tailgating”) or even when stopped at a light. 

But “leaving space(s)” is just as valid in a jazz context.  Last night, when the Beloved and I were at Birdland, I was admiring the way the front-line players — Gordon Au, Jim Fryer, and Dan Block — intertwined but stayed out of each other’s way.  The space between their phrases was almost as important as the phrases themselves. 

Think of the Basie rhythm section: a pianist who could, when younger, fill every bar in the best Waller manner — but came to understand that his job was to be an aphorist, a tap dancer over the sweet cushion of Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones.  As phenomenally brilliant as Art Tatum was, if Tatum were to replace Basie for a number, the world would be irreparably out of balance.  Consider a solo by Louis or Lester, or Buck Clayton’s accompaniment to Billie Holiday, Bobby Hackett’s to Lee Wiley.  Their pauses are essential to the shapes of their sound-sculptures.   

Jonathan Swift defined style in writing as the proper words in the proper order.  He might also have encouraged speakers and writers to leave space for breath, as the best jazz soloists and singers always do.

Or (as the story goes) when a young John Coltrane asked Miles Davis what he could do to improve his playing, Miles is supposed to have replied, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth once in a while.”

NATE CHINEN: “FIGS AND STONES”

Nate Chinen writes about jazz for The New York Times, JazzTimes, the Village Voice, and he also has a thriving blog, “The Gig”: http://thegig.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/mossy-stone.html#more

Until this year, I would have perceived him as living on the other side of the Jazz Divide, because we clearly loved very different — even irreconcilable — music.  But my opinion changed last January when Nate sent me a friendly email:

I don’t believe we’ve met, but I wanted to get in touch. I’m working on a JazzTimes column about the “new” strain of jazz traditionalism, and the ways in which the culture(s) of swing and bebop have continued to thrive, often well out of the reach of mainstream-media coverage. You struck me as an ideal person to sound off on such matters, so I’m wondering whether you might have some spare time this afternoon or evening. We could speak by phone or I could shoot you a few questions over email. Please let me know, in any case. I’ll look forward to making your acquaintance.

I was delighted — someone was graciously asking whether I would like to discuss my favorite subject!  So we spent an hour on the phone.  Nate asked pertinent questions, listened closely, and let me talk.  I told him that this “new traditionalism” was deep and inventive.  It wasn’t simply young people copying old records. 

I spoke at length about the performances I had seen in New York and elsewhere — musicians comfortable with many approaches to improvising, able to encompass Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson in a single solo without seeming exhibitionistic or synthetic.  I told Nate about nights at The Ear Inn, where musicians of different “schools” found a common language  — connecting George Mitchell and Don Cherry — that was communal, genuine, and satisfying.  (I also urged him to join me there some Sunday, and he said he would.) 

Of course, I mentioned the names of my living heroes (my readers will be able to name a dozen) throughout the conversation, in hopes that he would understand that jazz — the religion of JAZZ — was very much alive here and now. 

As our conversation progressed, Nate was enthusiastic about his inventing a new name for the old — derisive — term for people who loved older jazz players and styles.  In the ideological wars of the Forties, they were “moldy figs,” defending their territory against the interlopers Bird and Dizzy.  Nate had come up with “mossy stones,” and his coinage made me think of a quotation from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”  If I had been worried at the start that Nate was uncomprehending or hostile to my sensibilities, this phone conversation had given me reason to relax.

Yesterday, Nate informed me that the article had been published:   

Figs & Stones

Some time ago Michael Steinman, a professor of English at Nassau Community College, was out to dinner on vacation when the conversation turned to jazz. Hearing of his love for the music, someone at another table proudly claimed that he had been at Carnegie Hall in the early ’60s, for a concert that included tenor titans John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “I told him my taste in jazz went back a bit further than that,” Steinman recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you a moldy fig?’”

The fact that you’re here, dear reader, probably means you know that them’s fightin’ words. To be seen as a moldy fig, at this point in jazz’s post-history, is to be lumped together with the loonies and curmudgeons, hopelessly out of step, terminally uncool. Like Renaissance faire habitués and Civil War reenactors, the moldy fig longs for some receding point on the timeline, striving to transplant its bygone values to an inhospitable soil. Jazz, for such a creature, is a firm ideal, lovingly and narrowly circumscribed.

What’s funny is the fact that “moldy fig” connotes two distinct jazz factions that should be fundamentally at odds. The term originally referred to the early jazz traditionalists who saw the music as having peaked in the 1920s. Soon it was also leveled at swing adherents who decried the advancing tide of bebop. Both meanings were in circulation in the 1940s, reflecting a pair of schisms in jazz at the time. As Bernard Gendron once put it, in a definitive essay on the subject: “The first of these conflicts pitted swing against the newly revitalized New Orleans jazz that it had previously supplanted, and the second against the bebop avant-garde movement that threatened to make it obsolescent.”

Pluck in the face of obsolescence is what unites the moldy figs of both persuasions today: the Benny Goodman fan club, say, with members of the Sidney Bechet Society. The term has even become a badge of honor among some listeners—though not for Steinman, who runs a blog called Jazz Lives. “Traditionalism to me is not tuba and banjo,” he writes in an explanatory note, distancing himself from the moldiest of fig trappings. But he’s clear about the music he loves—“[My] heroes include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon,” he writes—and he uses his platform to champion it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the moldy-fig legacy as it applies to the next wave of jazz traditionalists. While the music has advanced (I’ll refrain from writing “evolved”), the shadow of obsolescence has been lengthening. It no longer stops at the breakthroughs of bebop, or the refinement of modal jazz. So even though jazz’s mid-century modern constituency still has a lot to be thankful for—the Jazz Icons DVD series, for one, and present-day paragons like tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander—the center of the music no longer reflects that reality.

Perhaps you can identify. Depending on your tastes, you might be among the jazz diehards disillusioned with what’s become of the jazz media, with its fetish for newness. You nod your head when you hear of the death of jazz, as it’s commonly understood. Well, don’t look now, but you might be a mossy stone.

Allow me to explain. A mossy stone is a jazz adherent whose core stylistic allegiance is to the music pioneered in the 1940s, streamlined in the ’50s and diversified in the ’60s. This region of inquiry begins with bebop and ends with free jazz, cutting off at the early stirrings of fusion. Wynton Marsalis, once disparaged by critic Gene Santoro as a “latter-day moldy fig,” actually fits this bill: Though vocal in his advocacy of swing and earlier jazz, he’s a modernist at heart, as his own track record proves. (Listen again to his last few albums on Blue Note.) But you could despise Marsalis and still be a mossy stone. All it takes is a tacit understanding that jazz innovation peaked by about 1967, and that nothing of real, lasting value has changed in the music since.

Right about now you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of a mossy stone. Simple: I made the term up, while pondering the distance between results in critics’ polls and readers’ polls. Obviously I’m riffing on the aphorism “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” with its valorization of forward motion. I’m also invoking the Rolling Stones, and rock, with its progressive connotations. A mossy stone finds no traction in the straight-eighth groove and fusionlike flow of so many jazz albums today. He or she appreciates the Monkish aspects of a pianist like Robert Glasper or Jason Moran, but not so much the hip-hop inflections. You can be a mossy stone at any age—I bet there are more than a few working at the high school level—as long as you possess the same stubbornness exhibited by the moldy figs all those years ago.

As someone sympathetic to the mossy stone agenda—I too have wondered why young musicians can’t occasionally carve up a standard, or just swing a little—let me offer a reassurance. Moss may be disconcertingly similar to mold, but that’s fine. As Gendron observed, regarding the two schisms in 1940s jazz: “Both contests were fought on much of the same discursive terrain.” Likewise, the mossy stone and the moldy fig have two very different record collections, but they’re cousins in many respects.

Of course moldy figs have had a longer time to refine their contrarianism, honing an admirable combination of staunch defiance and pragmatic resignation. When I mentioned my new bit of jazz taxonomy to Steinman, he picked up on this right away, despite his reflexive wariness about labels, especially those dreamt up by jazz critics.

“Have you read ‘Easter, 1916,’ the Yeats poem?” he asked. Yes, but it had been a while. When I consulted the text, I found its vivid image of a stone planted in a stream. The water moves, as do the reflections of clouds along its surface. A horse and rider splash along. “Minute by minute they live,” Yeats writes. “The stone’s in the midst of all.”

Anyone who’s been interviewed dreads being misquoted, so I was thrilled to find that Nate had paid me the great compliment of accuracy.  And he had given me a short solo at the start, middle, and end — generous journalism.   But the piece does raise a few issues for me, and since Nate invited me to address them here, I will take him up on it. 

I am delighted that he gives such serious attention to this “new traditionalism.”  It would be very easy to depict this phenomena as more evidence of The Death of Jazz: “See, all we have left is these shrinking audiences on cruise ships and jazz parties listening to stale perfomances of jazz-by-rote.  People who are almost dead listening to music that certainly is.” 

Although I am not ready for Medicare, it would also have been easy to satirize or stereotype me: an eager chronicler of a moribund art, recording its final wheezes.  I am pleased that neither of these approaches color Nate’s essay in the slightest.    

But I find it curious that the musicians whose names I utter in his essay are all dead.  It suggests that my “new traditionalism” is entirely antiquarian, as if I did not delight in current performances by players very much alive.  Yes, my iPod is full of now-dead players, but I’ll bet Nate listens to some dead folks, too.  He even writes obituaries of them, as in the case of John Bunch. 

Was it that Nate didn’t want to turn his essay into a list of names?  Or was it that he did not want to offen worthy players by omitting their names?  I admire tact, but Nate’s editing makes me and the Mossy Stones (who share my initials) seem to be the Emily Griersons or Miss Havishams of Dixieland, if you will.

At first glance, changing Figs into Stones sounds wonderful.  But “moldy fig” is such an archaic term that only those deeply involved in jazz history (“Jazz Battle” or “Squabblin,” if you like) would even recognize it.  True, I am pleased to no longer be compared to rotting produce.  And Nate does generously praise the “mossy stones” for their insistent devotion to the art they love. 

But do these names really matter? 

Given the minute notice jazz gets in the larger media, is this meditation on nomenclature the most profound way to bring attention to rewarding music?  And, given the divisive nature of much of the writing purportedly about jazz, is setting up a new sub-category of listeners a good thing?  Perhaps we should be attempting to bring the “schools” and “allegiances” together, so everyone could be open to music that could go back to ragtime and forward to hard bop and beyond. 

But this is the beginning of a deeper conversation — an optimistic one, not mourning the death of jazz but celebrating the life around us.  Nate and I agree that there is astonishing music to be heard and loved, now and in the future. 

And my invitation to dinner at The Ear Inn is still open!

COME OUT FROM BEHIND THOSE WORDS!

I’m troubled by the code words that jazz listeners use to describe the varieties of music they prefer. 

Some who believe that jazz only reached fruition when Charlie Parker (or John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman) burst forth, say in print that they prefer jazz that is “forward-looking,” “adventurous,” “innovative.”  Others who think jazz reached the perfection of form sometime before 1945 or 1960 or 2000 and has been in decline ever since, then your music of choice is “authentic,” “the real thing,” “pure,” “uncorrupted.”  Of course, “modern,” “contemporary,” “timeless” get a workout as well.   “Adventurous,” too. 

Veiled in code words, these ideological positions seek to validate a false premise: that Art progresses or declines.  Did Louis “improve” on King Oliver?  Did Clifford Brown “improve” on Roy Eldridge?  Was “Swing” more innovative than “New Orleans” or “Chicago”; did “Bebop” sweep all that come before it away, only to be rumped by “Hard Bop” and “Free Jazz”? 

Seriously, it makes jazz seem like a parade of the years: if you thought 1944 was great, wait till you hear 1945 — or one box of detergent replacing the last one because the NEW box is IMPROVED (and orange with blue stripes, too).

We all have very particular — sometimes idiosyncratic — preferences in our music as well as in everything else. 

But when those preferences are expressed as statements of critical truth, they may do the music a disservice.  I prefer Ellington’s analogy of the diner in a restaurant who likes his fish cooked the way Pierre does it.  So if your definition of the ideal way to play the alto saxophone is Hilton Jefferson or Benny Carter or Phil Woods, say so.  Those who see jazz as a progress year by year, with each new stylistic change an inevitable improvement on the old-fashioned music of the dusty past are missing out on many hot choruses, now and on record.  And the listeners who are so committed to banjo-and-tuba rhythm sections and find anything else oppressively “modern” may deprive themselves of the joy of Andy Brown, Neil Miner, and Jeff Hamilton. 

So let us abandon the ideological structures for an hour or a day.  Say, rather, “I like the way _________ sings, the way ________ plays trumpet,” rather than suggesting that either of these players has somehow made all others superfluous.  “Better” and “greater” might well be dispensable.  Let us be open about our admittedly subjective likes and dislikes (I have boxes of them to share) — to be cherished as personal expressions, but not made into statements of value. 

And perhaps it’s time for listeners and critics, too, to go back to the Blindfold Test — or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind.”  Let us not be swayed by the famous name (or the absolutely unknown name) on the CD: what does the music sound like? 

A few unsolicited ruminations to begin 2010 . . . .