Tag Archives: Louis Armstrong

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

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FOR FATHER’S DAY: “THE JAZZ APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE,” by SONNY McGOWN

A touching reminiscence by my friend, jazz collector and scholar Sonny McGown:

Through our correspondence over the years and my recent YouTube posts as “Davey Tough,”  our dear host Michael became aware of my father’s musical impact on my life. Quite often many people ask “How did you discover Jazz?” My story begins in 1952 at age 5, observing my father’s music related activities.

Sonny and Mac, later in life.

His name was Monroe “Mac” McGown and his story began at age 10 in the late 1930’s when he was fascinated and captured by the radio broadcasts he heard of the great Benny Goodman band with Krupa, Stacy, James, Elman et al and he soon started collecting Swing records up until the beginning of World War II. As a result of his boyhood hobby in Chemistry, he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and became a Pharmacist’s Mate. He deployed with the U.S. Marines and eventually landed in one of the later waves of the horrific and extended battle of Okinawa. After being honorably discharged in 1946, he decided that Radio and TV electronics would be a promising career so he took correspondence classes and mastered the science. Soon he became a TV repairman and stockpiled his home with radios, TVs and various pieces of audio equipment such as turntables, amplifiers, and speakers.

His first job as a TV repairman was with the Southern Electric Appliance Company in Arlington, VA, who also sold phonograph records which necessarily enlarged his record collection and diminished his take home pay each payday. Sometime in 1950 he procured a Wilcox-Gay Home Disc recorder which allowed him to permanently capture radio and TV music broadcasts onto aluminum based acetate discs. Using his electronics skills, he wired the recorder input to the amplifier stages of the TV and radio thereby obtaining the best possible audio fidelity.

This is where my Jazz initiation begins.

Creating a record involved the constant removal of the metal shavings carved out by the heavy cutting arm. This feat was performed gently with a soft brush and without touching the disc in order to not disturb the turntable speed. Watching this process simply fascinated me and my father recognized an opportunity to stimulate my interest.  In 1952 he trained me to be the brush boy. All of a sudden, I was part of the music preservation process! Further, as fate would have it, I started to relate emotionally to the music as well. There was something captivating about it to me, particularly the rhythms and soon he made me keenly aware of artists like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey among many others.

Thanks to his instruction it wasn’t long before I was able to recognize them by sight and eventually by ear. For a kid this was truly exciting and was similar to seeing your favorite baseball player on TV whose trading card you had but in this case it was a recording that I possessed and could play over and over.

A few years later in 1955, home tape recording became commercially available and my father upgraded to a Magnecord M30 reel to reel recorder and the quality of the recordings vastly improved because there was no annoying surface noise which was inherent in the acetate disc surfaces. More technical training from my father ensued and I soon became an official tape recorder switch operator. At this point he had gained enough confidence in my ability to start and stop the recorder before and after a performance. Eventually he strategically staged a tape recorder setup in the living room, dining room, and master bedroom operational station was usually the bedroom. For upcoming program guidance, we subscribed to the weekly issue of TV Guide magazine which was pretty reliable at listing guest artists on various shows for the week so we had a good idea what to watch for music potential.

So much good Jazz was still on the air in the 1950s. Steve Allen was a serious Jazz promoter as well as an accomplished pianist and regularly featured numerous notable Jazz guests. Jackie Gleason promoted the Dorsey Brothers on “Stage Show.” NBC Monitor Radio had 15 minutes segments where they would cut away to another studio or Jazz venue and broadcast live music. Garry Moore was a big Jazz fan and had top flight talent in his “house band.” There were educational programs such as “The Subject Is Jazz” hosted by critic Gilbert Seldes, “The Stars of Jazz” series from the West Coast hosted by Bobby Troup, “The Timex All Star Jazz Concerts” were superb shows and “The 7 Lively Arts” series which included arguably the most famous Jazz TV broadcast which was the “Sound of Jazz” production. As a kid my favorite TV show was “Pete Kelly’s Blues” with the likes of Dick Cathcart, Matty Matlock, and Nick Fatool providing the background music. In hindsight, I was so fortunate to have the real time opportunity to absorb all of these wonderful sights and sounds by so many Jazz Giants including some who had just a few years left to live.

One of the best regular sources for good Jazz was the daily Arthur Godfrey Show on CBS Radio. Arthur loved Jazz and stocked his “house band” with renowned players such as Dick Hyman, Lou McGarity, Urbie Green, Remo Palmieri, Cozy Cole, and my favorite of all, clarinetist extraordinaire Johnny Mince. Each summer day for me began sitting beside our Zenith FM radio at 9 am with hopes that Johnny would be featured which happened quite often. We have some wonderful Godfrey recordings of eminent guests including Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Benny Goodman, and Erroll Garner among many others.  What a show! You can imagine how sad I felt when summer recess ended.

As you can probably tell by now I was happily hooked on this wonderful music called Jazz due to all of the paternal influence around the house between 1952 and 1958. The next logical step was to begin record collecting. Fortunately, another key person entered my life at this time: and that was my Uncle Don who was my father’s brother. I had an RCA Victor 45 rpm only stackable record changer. Unc gave me several 45 rpm records with the first being a box set of the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. He also helped me expand my nascent collection by taking me each Saturday morning to Swillers, our local record shop, and I would pick out one 45 rpm single and they all came from the RCA Gold Standard series. Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” was my favorite followed closely by Benny Goodman’s “King Porter Stomp.”

Don also subscribed to the Jazztone and Columbia Record Clubs and there were new LPs arriving in the mail on a monthly basis. Eventually I expanded into LPs and my very first purchase was Columbia CL 547 titled “Jam Session Coast to Coast” with the Eddie Condon Gang representing the East Coast and the Rampart St. Paraders on the West Coast; truly one of the Classic Jazz LPs of all time. I wore out every groove on that disc!

Lastly, I must not forget my dear mother! We grocery shopped once a week and she allowed me to buy one record; yes, in those days even grocery stores sold records. Thanks to her I purchased the complete twelve volumes of “The RCA Victor Encyclopedia of Recorded Jazz” which cost a whopping $0.79 cents per 10 inch LP.

Eventually, there came a point where my father and I had our musical differences; thanks in particular to the “Jam Session Coast to Coast” album. He was more of a Big and Small Band Swing fan while I was more into the Condon style. He couldn’t convince me that Benny Goodman was better than Edmond Hall and I couldn’t convince him that Wild Bill Davison could cut Louis Armstrong. It took me some time to realize of course that he was right and I was simply naïve.

On another matter, I’m still feeling guilty to this day that I broke one of his most cherished 78 rpm records. He rarely got mad but this mishap was really disappointing to him. It was Brunswick 7699 by Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. His favorite side was “Why Do I Lie to Myself About You” which is a real swinging instrumental with Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Jonah Jones. I love that record myself, but I’ve never been able to find an original replacement copy because the flip side is “Them There Eyes” by the same band but with a vocal by Billie Holiday. All of Billie’s Brunswick records are highly collectible these days and tough to find. The search goes on even though my father passed away in 1997.

One last fond memory that I truly cherish from my formative period pertains to the release of the movie “The Benny Goodman Story”. My father’s Uncle was an accomplished organist and projectionist at the McHenry Theater on Light St. in Baltimore, MD.  When the BG movie came to town we made the 45 mile trip to Baltimore where Uncle George allowed us upstairs into the projection booth to directly access the theater sound system and tape record the soundtrack in the best fidelity. I still have that reel of tape from 1955 and it plays fine today.

To this point, I have addressed the first 6 years of my Jazz foundation all of which I recall as if it were yesterday. Needless to say, we had a fabulous time building a large Jazz archive together over many years until he passed away. One of the most memorable collecting moments occurred in the mid-1960s. I went to the Discount Record Shop in Washington DC and purchased 2 LPs on the Melodeon label produced by Dick Spottswood. These LPs were the first issue of the legendary and mysterious Bill Dodge World Transcription session featuring Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan. This was unquestionably the greatest recording session with Benny and Bunny together. Also, as avid collectors, this was the kind of session that we never expected to be made available to the public. As soon as I got home that afternoon, I called him at work and he was in total disbelief. He was home in half an hour and we played those records over and over until midnight. For us, this day was like hitting the lottery!

Finally, I must note that my father influenced me in other ways that shaped the course of my life. His alternate passion for electronics lured me into that domain and we spent countless hours building AM and police band radios, repairing TVs and even making loudspeaker baffles from large cardboard boxes. These appealing projects led me to pursue a career in Electrical Engineering, working for the U.S. Navy for 35 years. Never one to be outdone, my father advanced as well by becoming a computer programmer, designing naval shipboard antennas at the Naval Research Laboratory for 40 years. As they say, “like father, like son.” I believe it was just meant to be.

Like many of you, I could go on about my Jazz influences and experiences. The way in which all of this happened has been key to much happiness in my life up to the present day. This music is joyful and comes from the heart. I can’t imagine my life without it and for that I am deeply grateful to my father in particular who fostered my musical and career paths. He didn’t push me into these realms but allowed me to naturally grow within them. As a result, my happiness still increases daily!

Sonny McGown

May your happiness increase!

“YOU’LL GET THE EASY TERMS YOU WANT”: A QUARTER-HOUR WITH LOUIS, 1950

Sometimes the treasure box opens to reveal riches both unimagined and breathtaking.

For the full story behind this 1956 photograph, read here.

Everything in this blogpost is thanks to the kind, diligent archivist Maristella Feustle, the unchallenged expert on broadcaster and innovator Willis Conover.  She’s uncovered rare and previously unknown music and words: “The University of North Texas Music Library is now digitizing the 16-inch radio transcription discs in its Willis Conover Collection. These are in addition to the reel-to-reel tape recordings we digitized under a Grammy Foundation grant in 2015-2016. There are more of these in the pipeline, but the initial set alone has been a highly satisfactory set of unique and unreleased material.”

“Highly satisfactory” indeed.  What follows is a fifteen-minute recording, circa 1950, of Louis Armstrong taking over Willis Conover’s radio microphone before going off to perform with his band at a club called the Blue Mirror, which seems to have been in Washington, D.C..

I know there is a proliferation of Louis to be heard, but this quarter-hour is remarkable and beyond . . . as he reads advertising copy for Philco Balanced Beam television sets and has fun talking about custom reupholstery.  We hear once again, what a fine impovising actor he was.

And!

Louis sings three songs, I MAY BE WRONG, I SURRENDER, DEAR, and BODY AND SOUL to the recorded accompaniment of Billy May (beautiful in itself).  Something to cherish: he never recorded I MAY BE WRONG and improvises some of his own words for the bridge, then scats the second time.  His verbal improvisations are just as much fun.  I won’t explicate more: listen for yourselves.  Here’s the link.

I don’t have a wide-screen television set, but Louis is making me rethink my decision.  Blessings on him, as always, on Willis, and on Maristella.

Postscript: to learn more about the inspiring and influential Willis Conover from someone who knew and admired him, here is my interview of Dan Morgenstern in June 2018.

May your happiness increase!

“A PACKAGE OF SUNSHINE AND FLOWERS”: MARC CAPARONE PLAYS LOUIS ARMSTRONG at the REDWOOD COAST MUSIC FESTIVAL: MARC CAPARONE, CLINT BAKER, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, DAN WALTON, SAM ROCHA, JEFF HAMILTON (May 12, 2019)

My own periodic table of the essential chemical elements has a space for OP, or optimism, the substance that has carried me and others through darkness — the organism needs it in regular doses.  (Under my breath, I say, “Especially these days.”)

Next to it, of course, is the element LA, for Louis Armstrong, who conveyed more optimism than any other human being.

I grew up deeply in love with the music of Louis’ last quarter-century, with the most played jazz record in my tiny childhood collection the Decca sides with Gordon Jenkins; the second in line, TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, which I played until its grooves were a soft gray.  (My original copy disappeared in a period of marital acrimony, but I found another one for solace.)

 

Here is William P. Gottlieb’s famous photograph of that band, that place, and even hints of that fortunate 1947 audience:

But we are in 2019, where I can magically share a passionate new performance of a song very important to Louis — coming from the 1936 film in which he was billed alongside Bing Crosby, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — created by Marc Caparone, cornet; Clint Baker, trombone; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet; Dan Walton, keyboard (which he makes sound like a piano); Sam Rocha, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Uncredited dancers and irrelevant conversation free of charge.

All this goodness took place at the 2019 Redwood Coast Music Festival (thanks to Mark and Val Jansen) in Eureka, California, a musical weekend that made me extremely happy and fulfilled.  More about those joys as I share videos of this and other bands.

On the original performance at Town Hall in 1947, Louis was accompanied by “little Bobby Hackett” on cornet, playing magnificently.  Marc hints at both Louis and Bobby while sounding like himself.  When the group makes their CD, we will bring back George Avakian to do his magical multi-tracking, so that Marc can play cornet filigree to his own vocal.

By the way, if you are one of those lopsided souls who believe that Louis had little to give the world after 1929, I encourage you to read this book, slowly and attentively:

And there are two pieces of good news.  One is that there is more from this Louis tribute; the second is that Ricky Riccardi has completed the second volume of what may become a Louis-trilogy, HEART FULL OF RHYTHM, covering the period 1929-1947.

Blessings on all the musicians, Mark and Val Jansen, Ricky, and all the optimists we have the good fortune to encounter.

May your happiness increase!

“NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU”: DANNY TOBIAS and MARK SHANE’S NEW CD

It’s just so good.

When Mark Shane told me that he had plans to record a CD session in duet with Danny Tobias, I was thrilled: a dream that I hadn’t imagined would come to be.  And it did, and the results are glorious.  I am taking it for granted that JAZZ LIVES readers know well who Mark and Danny are: if these names are new to you, please search them out on this very site.  I’ll wait until you get back.

Here is the link where you can hear sound samples, download the music or buy the disc.  I recommend all three actions!

And because I don’t recommend music I don’t like, you should know that I just about insisted on writing liner notes for this disc.  Instead of plain text, I offer them in Lynn Redmile’s delightful design:

and

May your happiness increase! 

WHAT WOULD JELLY DO? “RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO”: KRIS TOKARSKI, JOSHUA GOUZY, HAL SMITH

Kris Tokarski has been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now.  It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance.  He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.

He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here.  KINKLETS from that disc:

The second disc by Kris and  Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own).

The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played.  And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s  solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags.  (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)

He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.

I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling.  It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five.  But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction.  An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle.  But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom.  (It really does something to me.)

That same playful vision applies to this disc.  It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio.  That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.

Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials.  He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over.  What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it.  And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago.  He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding.  His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.

He’s in good company with Josh and Hal.  Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm.  Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist.  Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.

As for the drummer?  To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive.  He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.

The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide.  Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.

Here’s another sample.  Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018:

Hear what I mean?  They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted.  Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale.  Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal!  And Jelly, of course.

May your happiness increase!

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!