Tag Archives: kindness

LIVING KINDNESS: A MILT HINTON STORY

The extraordinary pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus) has a superb blog called DO THE MATH, and most recently he has offered a lengthy, lively conversation with string bassist Bob Cranshaw here. This story seized me.

BC:  Milt Hinton was one of the first bass players that I heard. This was before TV. I heard him on the radio. I think he was my biggest influence. When I heard him play, the shit was swinging so hard that the radio was about to jump off the table. I went to my father, and I said, “I want to play that.”

I have a story about Milt when I came to New York. I had been in New York maybe a few months, and I was on 48th and Broadway. I was on my way to rehearsal with somebody and I had a bag on my bass that was raggedy and about to fall off, but I couldn’t afford anything else. I was walking down to the rehearsal and this gentleman dressed with a tie stopped me on the street. He said, “Hi. What’s your name?” I said, “Bob Cranshaw.” He said, “Are you a professional bassist?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “I’m Milt Hinton.” I said, “Oh, shit.” It was like meeting God. Here’s my mentor.

He took me into Manny’s and he bought me a bass case on the spot.

EI:  Really? Hadn’t even heard you play a note?

BC:  Took me and bought me a bass case right there. He said as a professional, I couldn’t be walking around with a bag like that. What I teach in my method and my thought of music is, I say, “The Milt Hinton Method,” because when I came, I followed Milt around. I used to just go. They were doing a lot of recording. They were recording all day. I would just go to the date and I would sit on the side. I didn’t want to disturb anybody, but just to watch him. What I got from watching him was when – it could be 50 musicians – when The Judge walked into the room, you could feel the energy. Everybody was talking. That was the kind of guy he was. That was the life. He was my biggest, my most wonderful influence, was watching The Judge. When I started to play, when I started to work with Joe Williams and so forth, Milt did all the record dates. He was part of the rhythm section with Osie Johnson and a couple other guys. I would go to the dates and just watch him because I was working with Joe and I was going to have to play the same music the next week. I said, “I might as well get it from the horse’s mouth. Let me get the first thing and then I have a better understanding of what I need to play when we go out on the road with Joe Williams.”

I followed Milt’s career all the way to the point where I used to call him every Sunday. I’d say, “Judge, I just want me blessing,” just to talk to him and so forth. One Sunday I called, and his wife said, “The Judge is at a club meeting.” I’m saying, “He’s almost 90 years old. What kind of club meeting? What could he be into now?” There was a club called the Friendly Fifties that are in New York and I’m a member now. I joined following his thing. It was what guys like Jonah Jones and a bunch of the older guys put together, this club, so that the wives could be more together when they were traveling. These were the early days. I became part of the Friendly Fifties, and I wrote an article for Allegro at the union about all of these famous guys that were part of this club that nobody had any idea it existed.

I love the rest of the stories — because Milt in person was the embodiment of Wise Joy — but it is the little anecdote of the bass case that catches me and will not subside into a Nice Anecdote about One of My Heroes. You will notice that Milt didn’t lecture the young man about how wrong he was; he didn’t sell him a case and ask for money to be paid back; he was serious but gently fixed what was wrong with loving alacrity.

We all praise Kindness as a virtue.  We try to be Kind.  But how many of us would have made it so vibrantly alive as Milt did?  Kindness in Action.

Several years ago, I wrote a post I am still proud of: I called it What Would Louis Do?.

Meaning Louis no disrespect, I would like to propose the quiet religion of Hintonism. Nothing new except the name. Doing good without asking for recompense. Taking good care of a stranger.

When we lie down in bed at night, we could ask ourselves, “Did I do my Milt today?”  If we did, fine.  We could try to do several Milts the next day, and ever onwards.  We might have less money, but we’d be surrounded by love and that love would surely be immortal.  Just a thought.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

MEAN.

Fats Waller said that one of his ambitions was to travel the country, preaching sermons with a big band in back of him. I feel the same tendency twice a year, so I encourage any reader who might find me even slightly didactic to turn the leaf and choose another page.

My travels in the land of jazz (and elsewhere) bring me face to face with men of my generation who affect a certain bluff, gruff heartiness as their mode of conversation with other men. It is meant to resemble comic friendliness, but it has bits of broken glass mixed in. This “being funny” has come to feel downright hurtful.  “Making a joke” isn’t amusing when it’s at someone’s expense.

I do not exempt myself from blame.  For a long time I was a small-time energetic Mocker, a Satirist, someone made fun of the failings of himself and his friends. I’ve tried to stop doing this.  It’s mean. It is the very opposite of welcoming and loving.

I guess that many men grew up believing that if you displayed your affection for another man, if you showed that you were delighted he was there, you were girlish — behavior to be avoided lest someone think you insufficiently manly.

But if “Joe, you old rascal. Tired of bothering the girls at Safeway and they let you out to come here?” really means, “Joe, I am always glad to see you and am happy you are here,” or even, “Joe, I love you,” why not say it and drop all the “funny” banter that is really nasty stuff?

I suspect that some of the “comedy” is because we feel Small in ourselves (“Will anyone notice how tiny I have gotten? Does anyone love me?”) and one way to feel Bigger is to make others feel Small.  If everyone is busy laughing at Joe, they will be too busy to laugh at Us.

But I believe that when we act lovingly, the questions of Who’s Bigger and Who’s Smaller quickly become inconsequential.  And laughter with an edge is like any sharp thing: you never know who’s bleeding once the ruckus stops.  (In this century, “edgy” has come to seem a term of modern praise. Think about it.)

Should any reader think I am being too hard on my fellow Males, I know that Women do this too — I think of Mildred and Bessie meeting on the street and one saying to the other, “I have this dress that’s too big for me.  Why don’t you take it?” which I used to think was hilarious. Now I wish they could just have given each other a hug and shut up. Love is more important than what the scale says.

I offer two kinds of music for meditations on Meanness, which you know used to mean a kind of ungenerous smallness.  Although these songs are based on the drama of the unresponsive or cold lover, let their melody and words (thank you, Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert) ring in your head before you — out of careless habit — say something Mean:

and almost a decade later:

If you show your heart to people, they show theirs back to you.

May your happiness increase!

KIND WORDS NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE

In the five years’ plus that I have been creating JAZZ LIVES and sharing videos on YouTube, I have winced at the ubiquity of unkind words, publicly expressed, online.

I don’t refer to heated political or ideological discourse, but “criticism” aimed at the performances of particular artists I celebrate. A few examples, taken from life: X’s improvisations “don’t work. Sorry!”  Y (a living player) “isn’t fit to shine the shoes of Z” (a senior improviser).  A “shouldn’t sing like that”; B “is rushing”; C “doesn’t know what he’s doing on the tune”; D “has a whiny voice”; E “is out of tune”; F “should lose some weight.”

Why insult artists who bravely stand up in public?

I do understand subjective reactions, how deeply valid they seem.  I am not shocked that a reader might (let us say) think that anyone who doesn’t play like Lester Young is wrong.  That is a prerogative, in just the same way I like my tea prepared a certain way. But do such “critical judgments” require that artists who are clearly working hard at presenting candid, feeling art (for I give them that as a basic premise) should be insulted because a viewer prefers something else? If you think Lester is peerless, does it follow that you have to insult Ben Webster? And since the language of this century has become so coarse, I wish someone would tell me what is gained by someone online writing “[Artist’s name] sucks.”

You might tell me that Ben Webster is past feeling hurt by what people say, and perhaps you are right.  But I have used the examples above rather than put in the names of the real people who have been shot at from ambush.

Writing abusively about a fellow person is different from giving a motel a bad review on Yelp because your room was poor.

I prefer other responses that do less harm.  To quote Chaucer, if you don’t like the story, you turn over the leaf; you choose another page. Or, if the internet is a huge city with a million restaurants, you walk to the next block if the taqueria here displeases you.  But some of my “correspondents” apparently need to smash the plate glass window of the place they are rejecting.  Their expression of “taste” isn’t complete as praise; it has to destroy everything else.

I am not suggesting a moratorium on negative judgments.  I do not propose that we say that your nephew, after his second violin lesson, sounds as good as Joe Venuti.  (I hope he does, but you will agree it is unlikely.)

But should the relative anonymity of the web, the aliases people use regularly, encourage unkindness?  The people you see on my videos, on other people’s videos, those you hear on CDs and downloads, are living persons with feelings. As a rule, online viewers are getting to watch P or Q sing or play for free.  Why, then, be ungracious or snide? Certainly there are other “better” performers to see, to hear — easily accessible.

I also know that such criticisms are often “witty,” and some prefer their “humor” that is sharp-edged.  In very small doses this might be entertaining, but it often sounds like mean schoolchildren, and it certainly stops being amusing when the blade sticks in your tender vitals.  To me, much of this “acerbic” wit is really anger, not well-disguised and not terribly attractive.  And I think it takes great courage, conviction, and generosity of spirit to sing or play in public, to allow oneself to be video-recorded; a small group of people, preferring anonymity, firing darts in public from their computers or phones, seem less courageous and generous.

Being “smart” from behind a pseudonym allows the Masked Critic to pretend to greater knowledge of an art form then musician being criticize.  But “pretend” is crucial here.  These varieties of unkind behavior are nothing more than weapons that the deeply insecure use to make themselves feel superior to people who are getting more attention.  Such acts that masquerade as “free speech” and “expressing an opinion,” if unkind, afford a short-term, mean-spirited pleasure, and the consequences of such unkindness might be much more lasting and wounding than the initial impulse.  Opinions are lovely.  Everyone has a plenitude of them.  Must they all be shared, if their intent, however disguised, is destructive?

I admit, I have watched videos online and thought, “My goodness, that band is awful!” but I had to ask myself, “Is the band really awful or are they simply not playing the way you like?”  And with that question in the air, I have held back from making a public statement of what is essentially a subjective, personal response.  What would it serve if I typed it in and then hit Publish?  Would the band, astonished and enlightened, start playing in a way that pleased me?  Should it?

Should we use our considerable energies and finite time to focus on imperfections, or should we celebrate what we see, in all its flawed human glory? Spread love, not hate.

In some New Orleans restaurants, the sign BE NICE OR LEAVE is prominently displayed.  Those words are too tough for me, but I offer another version: KINDNESS BEGETS KINDNESS.  If you are generous to others, they will return that embrace.  And we all need kindness.

May your happiness increase!

GIVE IMPERFECTION A BIG HUG

I can’t forget the story that Bob Wilber tells in his memoir (MUSIC WAS NOT ENOUGH, published by Oxford University Press) of his time in the mid-Fifties Eddie Condon band.  Bob recalls that he was then trying to construct every solo so that it was all perfect.  One night Condon, somewhat intoxicated, leaned over to him on the bandstand and said, “Hey, kid!  Make a mistake!”

Even when drunk, Condon was in touch with deep wisdoms.

I encounter so many people — more often women, not men — who keep a running tally of their flaws, failures, gaffes.  They strive towards some imagined ideal of perfection and use it as a way to see themselves as lopsided, inadequate. They succeed 99% and then berate themselves for the missing 1.

In the world of jazz, our heroes were uniformly imperfect.  Hear Louis and Bix crack notes; hear Hawkins and Bird squeak and squeal.  Hear the tempo slow down or speed up on a hallowed record.  Hear the rhythm section take four bars to get itself together.  Hear the singer hit a note sharp or flat.  Hear the band come in a beat too soon.

In live performances, we’ve all heard the band start and then stop to start again.  Those who are paying attention may have heard one of the players be unsure of a particular chord change and someone in the band then says quietly, “A flat,” and things get on the right track for the next chorus.

It’s all “flawed,” but the flaws are human and thus endearing.

I remember being dismayed at my first forays into recording studios nearly ten years ago, hearing musicians I had always revered ask for “inserts” and “punches” to fix this note or that.  You could argue that they were creating artifacts for posterity that had to be as close to flawless as possible, but the process sometimes felt more like the underground laboratory of a science-fiction novel than a creative enterprise.

If Louis could make a mistake and forgive himself; if the result could be a jazz classic, why can’t we allow ourselves some of the same freedom?

Let each one reading this post follow Condon’s advice — and see that our little worlds and the big one do not fall down because we consciously made a mistake.  If we embrace our own imperfections, it seems we might be easier with the lapses of others.  And the world would be perhaps a more untidy place, but certainly a more relaxed and affectionate one.  Whether you are kind to yourself and then extend it to others, or the other way around . . . the result is tangible, sweet, and lasting.  Try it for yourself!

And here are Bob Wilber (at 84) and Ehud Asherie.  If they’re making mistakes, chasing that bunny, I can’t hear them:

May your happiness increase!

. . . AND A DOLLAR SHORT?

Written much more in sorrow and bewilderment than in self-righteous anger:

I continue to be puzzled by the lack of generosity of jazz fans in live music venues.  Many people who are having a good time and yelling WOOHOO! at the end of a set of inspired music by live musicians slip away when the tip jar is passed or — with visible discomfort — put a dollar bill in it.  And the bill is sometimes put there under guilt-inducing scrutiny: a person (spectator, friend, or musician) moves the jar from patron to patron, waiting patiently, making eye contact.

A friend has been in charge of passing the tip jar at some gigs, and she has told me, “When I stand in front of someone with the jar, the person will take a dollar bill, crumple it up, and put his / her closed hand into the jar so that the bill cannot be seen.  When I count the money at the end of the gig, the crumpled dollar bills far outweigh any other ones.”

At some gigs, the tip jar sits in front of the band or on top of the piano, it may remain almost empty all night.  If it can be ignored or skirted, it is.

Of course there are a thousand reasons and rationalizations for this lack of largesse.

“It’s a terrible economy” is perhaps the first.  I couldn’t deny that.

“The musicians are getting paid by the club / bar / management, aren’t they?” comes in second.  One hopes so, but at what rates?

A more elaborate construction is “Tipping is a disgrace.  The musicians shouldn’t have to beg, and my way of protesting their salaries is to refuse to demean them with a gratuity.”

That last one I like a great deal, for it manages to sound noble while the speaker’s wallet is safe, untouched.

I am sure that JAZZ LIVES readers who have waited tables or served food and drink in other ways have stories of frugality (to be exceedingly polite).  For many people, “tourists” of one kind or another, the lack of generosity may result from an unfamiliarity with the customs of the country, a pervasive unawareness.  But if you come from far away to (let us say) New York or San Francisco and you have a guidebook, it does mention the subject.  Even if the commentary is most often about waitpeople in restaurants and people who carry suitcases elsewhere, a wise tourist who wishes to be gracious can understand the significance of a jar and what might be offered to creative musicians as a tangible thank-you.

Now, I know that both younger and older generations have been enabled — perhaps encouraged — to put distance between them and the music by records, radio, videos on YouTube, downloads, and more.  But when a jazz fan visits an establishment where there is one person or a dozen playing instruments or singing, it is harder to ignore their tangible reality of the artists at work.  They are PEOPLE.  They have instruments; they sing or speak into microphones.  They make eye contact.  They are much larger than earbuds, more substantial than any digital download.

To me, the person unwilling to give the musicians something as an expression of gratitude is saying wordlessly but powerfully, “You musicians are not people I have to acknowledge.  You are background music, hired to play while I eat and drink.  Philosophically, you are the barely-visible soundtrack to my pleasure.  When I go home, you might continue to exist, but not in my reality.”

Few working musicians are prospering playing improvised jazz, I think.  Many of my heroes and heroines are singing and playing their hearts out for fifty dollars an evening.  Plus tips.  Or sometimes the improvisers “play for the door,” which is not a way to go home feeling well-compensated.

I am haunted by the cheerful words one musician told me midway through a three-hour performance in a bar where the patrons were regularly consuming drinks.  “Michael, I love this gig!  It pays sixty-five dollars and a salad!”  (This was not an ironic or satiric utterance: he stated this happily.)

How many of my readers would be willing to work for three hours for this salary — and that’s before taxes?  And the musician, I assure you, was world-famous.  He was not stacking boxes in a supermarket; he was not pumping gasoline.

I would like to propose a new moral / aesthetic guideline.  Of course I have no power to enforce it, except to suggest that it is both fair and kind.

Those who download music from iTunes, for instance, pay close to a dollar a song.  And in that case only some of that money goes directly to the artist.  Wouldn’t a dollar a song be a fair starting point for compensating musicians playing live in front of you?  True, you cannot necessarily stuff them into your earbuds — Newtonian physics is against it — but they are creating something right in front of you.  Or, a more tangible model.  A seventy-five minute CD costs fifteen to twenty dollars.  Listen to an hour-plus of music; pay the band something equivalent.

I hear the objections.  “People will stay away from clubs and bars if they are expected to pay such high prices for the music.  And the owners want to see their places filled with patrons buying food and drinks to justify the expenditure of hiring jazz musicians.”  

I know that the “cover charge” drives some casual — and some serious — listeners away.  But I wonder whether musicians are happy when they are forced to push a tip jar into people’s line of sight and wait for the dollar to be dropped in.  Is this inspiring or demeaning?

What might we say to the patron who has had a few glasses of win and a meal — let us say a thirty-dollar tab or less — who then puts a dollar in the tip jar under duress.  Is it too much to say, “Put the cost of one glass of wine in the tip jar; fair to you; fair to them”?

I do my best to be generous now, but I was guilty of this in 1972.  I saw Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s and sat the whole night nursing a $2.50 bottle of Miller beer, which didn’t taste all that good at 9 PM and was foul after midnight.  In my defense, I was a college student with a part-time job who was earning $1.85 / hour.  But I feel bad about it now, and wish I had been able to be more generous.  I wish I could apologize to Roy and the band.  I was wrong.

I am sure that some listeners and perhaps a few musicians will object to the fuss they perceive me as making here.  “It goes with the territory, and my heroes who played in the (insert golden decade here) didn’t make a great living, so why should I complain?”  The logic bothers me.  Because Johnny Dodds had a drive a taxi to be somewhere in the neighborhood of solvent, should modern musicians.

Is the artist unworthy of a living wage?

I think ultimately that listeners have some moral obligation to be generous to the musicians they say they admire.  

If they choose to lament that their favorite players are having a hard time, have they contributed tangibly to the ease and comfort of the artist?  

And, on a larger scale, those who lament the lack of places to play, artists being forced to take day jobs to survive — in fact, the very DEATH OF JAZZ — to give it the appropriate journalistic emphasis.  Are the people who look away when the tip jar comes or drop a dollar in it killing off jazz and jazz musicians by their delicate frugalities?

The Beloved, very wise, said to me, “Didn’t you write a post about this already?” She is right.  It’s one of her finest qualities.  I expect some disagreement to be expressed by both fans and musicians.  But I find the manifestations of a lack of gratitude dismaying.  And since gratitude is one of the primary engines beneath human kindness, I do not feel upset about writing this polite protest against its absence.  Words from Thoreau’s CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, slightly edited, seem apt here:

I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.

When the individual plays a trombone, a guitar, or sings, should we cease to be neighborly?

Ponder this, dear listeners.  Bills come in denominations larger than ONE.

May your happiness increase. 

TREAT THE DEAD KINDLY

If you come up to me, face to face, and suggest something about me — in the sweetest tone of voice — that I know to be untrue, or something that hurts my feelings, I can respond in several ways.  “You were misinformed.”  “That just isn’t the case.”  “Why would you say something like that?” “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way,” and a dozen others.

If you write something about me that is unkind, offensive, biased, or false, I can respond in the same ways . . . or, if I am furious or wounded, I can hire an attorney to put sharp-edged words on paper to make you stop.  “Libel” and “slander” become part of the conversation, as does the all-purpose phrase “legal action.”

But the dead have no such recourse.

Here’s a true story.  Two years ago, someone I had never before encountered wrote to me with some anecdotes he thought I would like to print on JAZZ LIVES.  One of them concerned a musician I will call Charles Atlas.  I knew that Charles occasionally took a drink, but my correspondent told a tale of alcohol making him act foolishly.  I will spare you the details.

Reading this tale of a grown man’s stupidity, I felt wounded.  Could one of my heroes have behaved like this?  But almost immediately that feeling of shock was followed by protectiveness.  I wasn’t about to bring shame to Charles, nor was I going to participate in publicizing stories — true or not — that would encourage readers to laugh at him, to think he was less than heroic.

In the 1980s, Joyce Carol Oates coined the term “pathography” for the modern biographical study that emphasizes the subject’s flaws: “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”  Although such books — and the gloating self-righteousness the reader is encouraged to indulge in — are fascinating in the same way a tabloid newspaper, seen at the supermarket checkout is — their appeal is essentially repellent.

So that when I read a recent news story that refers to Louis Armstrong as a lower-case “lothario,” I am appalled, not only by the weird archaism, but at the mix of prurience and disrespect.  “Hey, that’s LOUIS ARMSTRONG you are talking about, Buster!” I want to say.

Some readers might think that all journalistic exploration is justified.  After all, to know the whole person do we not need to know his or her faults?  Perhaps. But is it crucial to our understanding of Ben Webster’s music to know that he had a violent side?  And if we insist on knowing this, how large a shadow should it cast on his life’s work?  Is Ruby Braff’s legendary irascibility more memorable than his music?  I think not.  If this sounds as if I am a hero-worshipping nineteenth-century biographer, I confess to leaning in that direction.  Human beings are complex and not all mysteries are meant to be unraveled.

Privacy counts.  Twenty years ago, I would have taken the position that the private life of a public individual was fair game.  But I have shifted that position so that when the elderly widow of a famous artist talked about her desire to burn certain private letters, I thought she had the right idea.  You can come visit me; I will speak candidly to you, but you cannot follow me into the bathroom.

And privacy is such a fragile concept in this century: type in anyone’s name and Google downwards.  The chance of finding that name followed by “hot nude photos” is not small.

If we love and respect someone while he or she is on the planet, should those feelings of affection and reverence cease when the person has made the transition to another existence?

But disrespect and unkindness to the dead are not solely the purview of people who (consciously or not) want to pull down the great figures because they are so imposing, because they make ordinary mortals seem so tiny.  The dead can be treated unkindly by those who feel great love for their idols.

People in love with the great artists can also crush and deform them in a choking embrace — an embrace turned off-balance by an ideological notion.  Someone who has labored to write a book on Kid MacIntosh must be careful not to distort or invent evidence to make the Kid a victim, perhaps.  The distorting impulse is subtle, and it comes out of love, “How could someone like the Kid have been less than a superstar?  It must have been his manager / his wife / discrimination / exploitation,” etc.  But love can obstruct our clear sight as much as any other emotion.  The chronicler who thinks (s)he owns the subject is mistaken.  The Kid was there before the book began and will remain long after the book has been remaindered.

We should treat the dead kindly.  Someday we all will be dead, and perhaps we will hope for the same posthumous kindness.

May your happiness increase.