Tag Archives: John Milton

FINEST FIG JAM

fig jam

Some history might be needed here.  “A fig,” “a Moldy Fig,” even “a Mouldy Figge,” is now-archaic language invented during the Forties, when jazz found itself divided into warring factions called Dixieland and Bebop.  This divisiveness may have splintered the music and its audiences irrevocably.  Much of the noisy conflict was fomented by journalists and publicists seeking to attract audiences through controversy.  At this distance, we know that GROOVIN’ HIGH is only WHISPERING with a new blouse, but people allowed themselves to ignore this.  I find the poet Philip Larkin very endearing in his art and his vinegary energies, but his jazz prose embodies this point of view, where the world had reached an artistic peak in 1932 with the Rhythmakers recordings and had gone steadily downhill.  I agree with the first part of this formulation but not the second. 

I began my devotional listening as a Fig, so it took a long gradual period of contemplative immersion before I could understand that, say, John Coltrane wasn’t The Enemy out to destroy the music I loved.  In truth, I was never an extremist but I had strong, narrow likes and dislikes.  I remember having a brief conversation with another student in a middle-school Music Appreciation class who was deeply immersed in the New Thing — this was forty-plus years ago and the new thing was Archie Shepp, and the conversation went like this:

“Alan,” which might not be his name, but is a good guess: “I hear you like jazz.”

Me (brightening at having found a fellow subversive): “Oh, yes, I do!”

“Alan”: “Do you listen to Archie Shepp?”

Me (horrified that he hadn’t mentioned Louis, and coming up with a wise-acre New Yorker rejoinder): “Archie Shepp?! I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it!”

“Alan”: “Well, the hell with you!”

So goes critical discourse at its finest! 

I would like to boast that I’ve seen the light and the scales have dropped from my eyes, but if you told me I had to choose only one jazz recording to spend eternity with, it still might be AFTER YOU’VE GONE by the Blue Note Jazzmen, even though I can understand and appreciate music that would have perplexed and repelled me in my youth.  And the music was always there, I just didn’t get it. 

This self-scrutiny is provoked by a phone conversation I had yesterday with Bob Rusch (or RDR), editor and chief spiritual guide of the quarterly journal devoted to Creative Improvised Music, CADENCE.  Full disclosure requires me to say that I write reviews for CADENCE, and I continue to admire the journal’s honesty.  And working with Bob has always been a pleasurable lesson in Emersonian candor: when I have felt an inexplicable need to tactfully cloak the truth in polite words, he has always asked, “Why?” 

If you’ve never read CADENCE, you have been missing something special and rare.  See for yourself (www.cadencebuilding.com).

In the course of our conversation — we speak infrequently, but over the past five years it has always been both bracing and affectionate — Bob said gently that he thought I was “getting more figgish,” and I agreed.  But it made me think, and perhaps my experience will ring true with my readers. 

There used to be “the jazz record industry,” and I am not talking about sixty-five years ago, the Commodore Music Shop, and listening booths.  Ten years ago, perhaps, there were many more active companies producing compact discs.  (If you want to have a sobering experience, casually inspect the spines of any fifty CDs in your library and note how many of those labels no longer exist.)  This, of course, has to do with the economy, an aging audience, and more. 

It has had an double-edged result.  On one hand, no more new issues from Chiaroscuro, no more Pablo, fewer ways for musicians to be encouraged by a label.  But because labels no longer exist, many energetic musicians have gone into business for themselves and produce their own discs.  

This can be a boon: musicians can record what they want, have it sound the way they want, without the interference of recording engineers or the heads of record companies . . . and splendid personal statements emerge.  But this asks musicians to be both courageous and affluent (or at least credit-worthy): a self-produced CD might require a $10,000 investment that the artist might get back over ten years of selling the discs one at a time on the gig.  We should all live and be well! 

(Musician joke: “My latest CD is a million-seller.  I’ve got a million in my cellar.”)

Many players I know have made a virtue of necessity, but I think many of them look back nostalgically to the dear dead days when they got a call to go to a studio at noon to make a date, they played their hearts out, they got paid, and eight months later they knew that the disc they had appeared on was being sold all over the world.  Yes, their control over the music was compromised, their pay was a percentage of the profit, but someone else was handling all the annoying business.  

What this means for someone like myself, reviewing CDs, is that a good deal of what I am asked to listen to is by artists new to me (a good thing) who are offering their own music (potentially a good thing).  And occasionally it leads me to sit up in my chair and say, “By God, (s)he’s got it!”  Melissa Collard was new to me when I first heard her OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, and she is one of those singers whose work I most treasure.  Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Danny Tobias, Lyle Ritz, Andy Brown, Petra van Nuis, and more.  

But much of what I hear is both competent yet entirely forgettable.  I know that Lips Page said, “The material is immaterial,” but hand me a CD full of original compositions by a player and I wonder, “Gee, you’ve already decided that there’s nothing new for you to say on the blues or on I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR?”  Funny, that hasn’t occurred to Sonny Rollins.

And it is sad to receive a CD by a singer or musician, male or female, where great effort has gone into burnishing the exterior at the expense of other things.  When the artist credits his or her hair stylist and wardrobe person first, I think, “Oh no.  Repertoire, not manicure.  No one listens to the cover.” 

So my “figgishness” or “figitude” (both my own coinings) is a way to get back to what music means to me — a spiritual / intellectual / experience that makes me want to grin foolishly and shout exultantly.  I would indeed rather hear a wonderful performance of an original composition by musicians I don’t know than a tired rendition of OUR BUNGALOW OF DREAMS, but I need to hear jazz that makes me remember why I began to listen to the music in the first place: joy, inventiveness, clear delight in being alive in the face of death.  If your listening is purely an intellectual exercise and you find that gratifying, fine, but mine is tied up with the emotions.  Is the music beautiful?  Does it make me feel some strong emotion, preferably happiness?  Can I admire the players?            

So I close this post with a new example of FINEST FIG JAM — pure, organic, and locally sourced.  It’s another YouTube clip from the lucky and generous SFRaeAnn of the Eldorado Serenaders, whose front line is Don Neely on reeds, Robert Young on reeds, trumpet, and vocal, Dave Frey, plectrum banjo, Jim Young, tenor banjo, Steven Rose, sousaphone, Stan Greenberg, percussion.  This performance of BALTIMORE (one of those delightful songs-about-a-new-dance-craze) honors Bix and Wingy and Red, and I think this band is terribly, admirably brave to be shouting it out in a bookstore.  “Fit audience, though few,” said Milton, but he never had to worry about the tip jar.  It was recorded on October 25, 2009 at North Light Books in Cotati, California.  

“JAZZ IS DEAD,” REDUX

In the past two days, I’ve received several group emails on the gloomy present and worse future of jazz — its aging and shrinking audience, its diminishing sliver of the music market, the lack of recognition and awareness it is granted by the media, etc.  And those emails delve into the usual ruminations on HOW DID THIS HAPPEN and WHAT CAN BE DONE and IS IT TRUE? 

I would find it hard to disprove the grim assertions.  I grew up in a time and place where the local department store had a section for jazz records, where Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were on broadcast television and commercial radio, where there were people in their teens and twenties at jazz concerts and clubs.  A month ago, at Whitley Bay, for instance, I saw the Chicago Stompers — a swinging Italian big band with the right spirit whose eldest member was twenty-four.  Yet the audience was mostly nearing retirement age, and I wondered (as I always do) whether there would be jazz parties and jazz festivals offering the kind of music I love in twenty years.

Both sides of the debate were present in my email box. 

A “cultural critic” with a substantial reputation trotted out the familiar and even more depressing statistics: only a small percentage of Americans go to hear live jazz, and that percentage is getting older, apparently not being replaced by their children and grandchildren.  (Observe the grey-haired audience at a Schubert concert, by the way, and you might feel the same angst.)  Marty Grosz, who makes his living playing hot jazz, said to me a few years ago that the music was in the same position in this century as scrimshaw: an archaic art practiced by a few experts, appreciated by a very small number of people. 

But this rushing-to-embrace doom has a certain tired familiarity to it.  Jazz has never been an art form that enjoyed overwhelming popular success.  For every copy of the Goodman Carnegie Hall concert recordings sold in 1950, more were sold by Earl Grant and Johnnie Ray.  The Swing Era — that Edenic time that makes jazz fans misty-eyed — was also dominated by the Andrews Sisters, Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser.  Jazz has always enjoyed a narrow audience, and I suspect that this is something its fans secretly enjoy, knowing about Tesch and Tristano when everyone else was listening to the Top Forty.  “Fit audience, though few,” wrote John Milton. 

And journalists and critics know that bad news — the sky is falling, again — gets more attention than the reverse.  Articles of this sort used to be called “thumb-suckers,” and the phrase is devastatingly apt. 

On the other hand, a sincere devotee of “traditional jazz” wrote that things were better than they seem, that jazz was being played at parties and festivals all across the US, and that it was only the slanted nature of surveys, statistics, and media coverage that gave rise to the premature mourning.  Some of this is true.  The Europeans, especially, seem to be doing a far better job of keeping hot jazz alive than the Americans.  Still, it’s hard to predict that jazz will “be alive” forever, especially if your definition of “alive” relies on a fancifully large audience that probably never existed. 

My thoughts on the subject may strike some readers as nihilistic.  Everything comes to an end.  Human beings are finite, and their accomplishments are forgotten.  “All things fall and are built again,” wrote W.B. Yeats, and he was considering something larger than jazz as an idea, a way of life, or a practice.   

Suppose at some time in the unimaginable future no one knew who Lester Young was or why past civilizations had made space for him in their encyclopedia.  Would Lester’s life and work have been meaningless?  I don’t think so.  If what we love as “jazz” is no longer talked about or even played, it will have existed, taken up space in our ears and our consciousness.  Perhaps we should stop glooming over the aticipated “death of jazz” or defending it against statisticians and simply live in the moment to enjoy what is there, while it (and we) are able to do so.

P.S.  People addicted to journalism will recognize the syndrome I have been describing and be able to call to mind grave articles on “The Death of the Broadway Theatre,” “The Death of Print,” “Is Fashion Dead?” “The End of Classical Music,” and such funereal prose has been the fashion in jazz criticism for a long time.  I would bet that a survey of DOWN BEAT circa 1939 could turn up pieces titled “Swing Is Dead, Says _ _ _ _ ,” and to the left of my computer I have a 1999 essay from THE ANTIOCH REVIEW (its special jazz issue), “Where’s The Jazz Audience,” by Willard Jenkins.  Sincere, thoughtful, earnest . . . . but plus ca change.

MAKING RECORDS WITH MARTY GROSZ

I realize my title contains an archaic expression, for no one makes records anymore. At Clinton Recording Studios last week, the expert engineer Doug Pomeroy was far beyond cutting grooves in a wax disc. But the atmosphere at a jazz recording session, especially one led by the guitarist Marty Grosz, is somewhere between the cheerfully lewd horseplay of a boys’ locker room and the intense seriousness of artists who know they are making something permanent out of music created on the spot. Eveyone knows that their art is both out-of-fashion and timeless.

The facts first. Grosz, looking more healthy and energized than at the previous recording session I attended (Marty Grosz and his Hot Combination for Arbors) is in equal parts vaudevillian and serious jazz scholar, crooner and chordal guitar virtuoso — someone who loves what he calls “jazz arcana” and an indefatigable rhythmic sparkplug. I’ve seen him lead groups where his is the only rhythm instrument, and he swings any number of horns easily.

At this session, Marty was recording his newest assemblage, “The Hot Winds,” make of that title what you may, for the first time. The group, compact and versatile, included Dan Block, Scott Robinson, and Vince Giordano on reeds, with Rob Garcia on drums.

But that description does them an injustice. Rob not only played drums, but added a great deal of orchestral color and commentary on his glockenspiel (or is it called orchestra bells these days?). In fact, during a break, at Vince’s request, Rob played an on-target version of Ellington’s “The Mooche” — supplying all the Jungle Band percussion patented by Sonny Greer while Rob played the melody on the bells.

Vince not only sang but also played his aluminum string bass, bass sax, and tuba. Between Dan and Scott, there was a forest of instruments: a clarinet, an alto saxophone, a baritone saxophone, an echo cornet, an Eb alto horn, a C-melody saxophone, and bass clarinet.

On the second day, Marty’s Philadelphia friend Jim Gicking brought his trombone for ensemble color on two tracks, but he also told me that he plays guitar duets (Carl Kress and Dick McDonough and the like) with Marty.

As an architectural digression: Studio A at Clinton is a square room with lots of wood, not only on the floor — and the “greatest ceiling in New York,” said Scott — resembling either Saturn’s rings or crop circles, you pick.

And, as a happy throwback to the Old Days, the musicians were arranged in a circle, so that they could see one another. True, there were more microphones than you would have found in 1940, but times change. But The Hot Winds could have made lovely music anywhere: their sound a mixture of so many happy jazz experiences — Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, a New Orleans parade, the figure-eight strum of Bernard Addison on the 1940 Chocolate Dandies session, the Bechet-Spanier HRS discs, Django and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France . . . all leavened with the strong personalities of the five musicians in the room: jocular, inventive, hard-driving, tender.

Marty sang a number of rare songs the first day, among them one of my favorites — the 1933 ditty, “I’ve Gotta Get Up And Go To Work,” which isn’t a Monday-morning moan but a celebration of employment, something to sing about when so many were jobless:

Exactly eight o’clock! / Where’s my other sock? / I’ve got a job / So help me, Bob / I’ve gotta get up and go to work . . .

In keeping with the good cheer, Vince sang “My Blackbirds are Bluebirds Now,” one of those late-Twenties songs innocently tying good luck and bad luck to avian colors (!). While they were deciding on their head arrangement, Marty told the story of working in a trio with bassist Bill Pemberton and a famous musician, a fine player, who took a very long time to decide on the next song: “Hey, X, you wanna play ‘Rosetta’?” “Oh, I don’t know. (Long pause.) I’m not sure I know how the bridge goes.” and so on. Turning to Rob, he gave stern artistic guidance: “Give us a little Zutty [Singleton]. Don’t be afraid. We want to go wild.” And Rob, whose playing is full of snap and crackle, not to mention pop, swung out nicely.

Tenderness filled the studio with the next song, a 1931 love-effusion recorded by Ethel Waters and Jack Teagarden, “I Just Couldn’t Take It, Baby,” where Marty showed off the emotional range sometimes obscured by his comedies. As the last selection of the day, Marty returned to a beloved but little-known Fats Waller opus, “The Panic Is On,” which he had been playing and recording since his earliest days: its chart, he said, was “stolen from an old arrangement I did when I was a twerp.” And the evening and the morning were the first day.

The second day was devoted to instrumentals — where the soloists could stretch out more. Marty is one of the few musicians I know who plans his CDs as if they were concerts — variety in repertoire, mood, key, tempo, and length. He waxes eloquent on the current practice of throwing twenty-four selections at listeners, which means that people, wearied by monotony, never make it past Track Three.

The first tune he called was the truly obscure Ellington-related “Maori,” by William H, Tyers, who also wrote “Panama.” Marty envisioned this for two clarinets, with a New Orleans flavor, where the soloists kept playing, veering in and out of collective improvisation. I was reminded of the happy early days of Soprano Summit, with Marty the heart of their rhythm section. “When Buddha Smiles,” even rarer, followed — a festival of instrument-switching, as Scott first played baritone sax (it was Dan’s), then curved soprano, Eb alto horn. I am proud to report that I became indispensable for a few minutes, holding the baritone in mid-air after Scott had finished his solo because there was no stand for it. “They also serve who only stand and wait,” said John Milton, and I developed a new admiration for Harry Carney, who had that truly heavy instrument around his neck for nearly fifty years.

Jim Gicking brought his trombone into the studio for the next two numbers — a wistful “Under A Blanket of Blue,” Marty’s remembrance of the late Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace, who liked that ballad, and another rare Fats tune, “Caught,” which got a groovy treatment — not exactly music for a stripper, but in that neighborhood. Another obscurity, “Love and Kisses,” an early Ella Fitzgerald – Chick Webb record, showed its similarity to “With Plenty of Money and You” with touches of “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down.” As is Marty’s habit, he very carefully counted off the tempo he wanted by singing / humming / scatting much of the first sixteen bars, to make sure that he and the band were in the same groove. When he led The Hot Winds into King Oliver’s “Riverside Blues,” his aesthetic direction was clear: “Let’s make it like we were playing in a joint.” I was sitting down, notebook on my lap, so I couldn’t see everything that was happening, and was happily puzzled to hear a Scott Robinson blues chorus that sounded as if he was playing a huge kazoo underwater. Later I found out that he had taken off the mouthpiece of his metal clarinet and was humming into the barrel, creating a truly other-worldly sound. (Correction: to make that sound, Scott told me, he buzzes into the clarinet as if playing a trumpet.)

Finally — and joyously — everyone swung an old Apex Club favorite, “Oh, Sister, Ain’t That Hot?” which, in Marty’s hands is never a question. In fact, during these sessions, I kept thinking of something he had once told me: in Chicago, when he was a young jazz player, he and his friends had the admonitory catchphrase “GET HOT OR GO HOME.” That’s a gospel that he and The Hot Winds take seriously, and some time next year everyone will be able to hear this delicious music on an Arbors CD.