The Beloved and I have been on the road for more than a month now. While we are in the car, the CD player is (as Pee Wee Erwin used to say) hotter than a depot stove, with respites for cassettes (the Braff-Hyman Concord duet version of MY FAIR LADY) or the CBC. But most often we are listening to one of the two hundred-plus compact discs I brought along. (If ever someone was a candidate for an iPod, I nominate myself.)
Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins arrangements, 1937 Basie airshots, Dick Sudhalter, Jack Purvis, Lester Young, Seger Ellis, 1940 Ellington, Ben Webster, Spirituals to Swing, early Crosby, late Jimmy Rowles, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, and so on.
This musical buffet has led me to think, admittedly not for the first time, about artistic originality, creativity, and “influence.” Especially in jazz, listeners and critics privilege a musician’s having an individualistic, recognizable sound, something that musicians worked towards with some earnestness. And it went beyond sound: musicians were proud of their origins but even more proud of telling their own stories.
But taken to an extreme, this pride in individuality might have its limitations. It leads us to make the appearance of originality the greatest virtue, so that a cliche of jazz prose or oral history is, “When K came on the scene, we were amazed, because he didn’t sound like P, the main man at the time.”
So, when I listen to Jones-Smith, Inc. romping through “Lady Be Good” or “Shoe Shine Boy,” I think of the impact those sides must have had on 1937 listeners who knew nothing of Lester, Tatti Smith, Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The quintet we hear still seems daringly “original.” Certainly Lester sounds so unlike Hawkins and his disciples, unlike other musicians,even now. His rhythm, his tone, his flight. And it is certainly valid to praise the Basie rhythm trio for the same driving singularity. I do not mean to slight Carl “Tatti” Smith in all this, but his percussive attack was not uncommon among trumpeters of that era.
So it is a commonplace to cherish these sides for their singularity, that they sounded so unlike the records made in late 1936. But what shall we then say of the Fats Waller turns of phrase and whole phrases so evident in Basie’s playing? (Earl Hines and James P. Johnson are in there, too.) What of the influence of older bassists Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, and Pops Foster, on Page’s work here? Jo Jones’s drumming was certainly a revelation, but one can hear Sidney Catlett in his accents and Walter Johnson in his hi-hat work. Perhaps some of Gene Krupa and George Stafford as well.
And when one listens closely to the riffs that the Basie band threw around with such headlong delight on, say, “One O’Clock Jump,” one hears familiar late-Twenties / early-Thirties jazz figures: one of them in particular, is the phrase Louis sings to the words “Oh, memory” on that take of “Star Dust.”
Of course we might fold our hands and say meditatively, “Oh, everyone comes from somewhere,” which is undeniable. But this makes me think of the way the conceive of jazz improvisation, the ways in which jazz finds us, and the technology that enwraps it. If you were to take someone who knows little about jazz to a club or concert performance, the novice usually says, with a hint of astonishment, “How do they know what they are playing? How do they know where to come in?” And the more experienced listener can say, “There is a common language in this music as in othercommunal arts. If one of the players says, ‘Let’s do “Undecided” in two flats,” the other players are familiar with that melody, its harmony, rhythmic patterns, the conventions that go with it. All this is learned through intent listening, bandstand-practice, and intuitive empathy.” So what looks “made up on the spot” both is and isn’t. And only the musicians, perhaps, know whether the trombonist is playing the solo she always plays or if she is stepping bravely out into space. Whether she herself knows, at the time or after, is beyond our knowing and perhaps hers.
Playing a musical instrument competently is difficult. Inventing something that even approaches “originality” while playing an instrument, among other musicians, the notes moving by inexorably, is even more daunting. So, as a result, many musicians have a set of learned patterns they can call upon while speeding through familiar repertory: their “crib,” some call it. Thus, if you hear Waltie King speed through “It’s You Or No One,” one night, Waltie may dazzle with a wondrous display of technique allied to feeling. “What a solo!” you say. If you follow Waltie to his other gigs and hear him play that same song twenty times, would you be disillusioned if his solo on Thursday bore close resemblance to his brilliant exploits of Monday? How many listeners truly know when a musician is inspired one night, playing it safe the next? And, frankly, does it make a difference if the solo — ingenious or worked-out — charms our ears?
This brings us to Lester Young, who said that a musician had to be original, and that he did not want to listen to his old records for fear of being influenced by them and becoming a “repeater pencil.” His fellow musicians testify that he was astonishingly inventive, that he could play dozens of choruses at a jam session and never repeat himself. But even given that piece of mythology, can we be sure that his improvisations on the Vocalion “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” were not, in some way, workings-out of ideas he had already played in other contexts? Were those solos as original to him as they continue to appear to us?
We cannot know, since we have no recordings of Lester before this one (Jo Jones spoke of a “little silver record” (you’d have to imagine his odd verbal style here) he had once owned of Lester, circa 1934, but told Stu Zimny and myself that it had disappeared long ago). And even if we had acetates stacked to the ceiling, the question might be both unanswerable and moot.
And records themselves complicate the issue. Before there were strings of alternate takes and session tapes, records were singular artifacts: three minutes capturing one unrepeatable occasion. Think of the Armstrong-Hines “Weather Bird” or the Webster-Blanton “Star Dust” duet from Fargo 1940. Unique. Irreplaceable. But the same worrying questions apply to the music captured by microphones. And the dazzling singularity of a recorded performance, by people who are now dead, puts a weight on the shoulders of living players whom we hope will create fresh solos each time they lift their horns. I think that this also accounts for some of the pressure musicians feel when they must step into the recording studio, that their improvisations will attain a certain permanence, a permanence they might never intend.
And jazz critics condescend to musicians who create solos and, with only minor variations, repeat them for years. I have quietly groaned when faced with yet another late Jack Teagarden performance of “Basin Street Blues,” but perhaps, in retrospect, I should not have done so. It could not have been easy for him or anyone to a) find something new to say about that particular piece of music, and b) to play and sing so beautifully, even if every nuance had been worked out. I was a trifle disappointed whenever Vic Dickenson, whom I saw often in his last years, would embark upon “In A Sentimental Mood,” because every note, sigh, and slur in it had been perfected through repetition. But, and some may find this sentimental, I would love to have him here to play it again. And it was an exquisite piece of music.
Such ruminations might seem to have no particular beginning and certainly no end. Perhaps the only conclusion we might draw is the oldest one, that all kinds of human creativity are miraculous. We should cherish those pieces of music that are both intelligent and impassioned, whether they seem “original” or derivative. And road travelers might find a great deal of pleasure, as I do, listening to what Jack Purvis plays behind Seger Ellis on the unissued “Sleepy Time Gal” — but more about that in a future posting.