Tag Archives: Marc Myers

“WHY JAZZ HAPPENED,” by MARC MYERS

WHY JAZZ HAPPENED

WHY JAZZ HAPPENED (University of California Press), the new book by Marc Myers, whom many know for his blog JAZZ WAX, his liner notes, his articles in The Wall Street Journal, is a great accomplishment.

I have written here before how disappointing I find much that is written about jazz — a tepid stew of theorizing, of ideological scraps, an inedible pottage of what everyone else has said.  Readers like myself long for some bracing first-hand research, new points of view that illuminate rather than divide.

WHY JAZZ HAPPENED does all the right things.  For one, it moves away from the star system: Louis begat Bird who begat Miles who begat Trane.  It leaves behind the understandable (but sometimes worn-out) historical cliches; it takes jazz beyond the sound of the recordings: too many “jazz books” sound greatly as if the writer had decided to create “reaction” papers to every track X played in chronological sequence . . . an audio diary of one’s iPod.

I knew Marc was capable of arresting writing from reading JAZZ WAX, and I also was eager to read the book-in-the-making he was creating from his candid, searching interviews with jazz players otherwise ignored.  But he has done much more than assemble a pastiche of voices telling their sweet or odd stories.  He has written a social history of jazz, measuring the effects of non-musical forces on the music.

He has chosen to examine the period 1942-72 (which he feels is the music’s “golden era of improvisation, individualism and recording freedom”) through an analytical lens that is both microscopic and panoramic.  His premise is “approaching jazz history from the outside in,” which means a clear-eyed historical reading of the factors outside the studio and the clubs that shaped the music we adore, the way we hear it, the way it developed.

Thus: the long-playing record; suburbanization in California and the G.I. Bill; the role of concert promoters and disc jockeys; ASCAP and BMI, the role of the “British Invasion”; the connections between late Sixties jazz and racial tension.  If any of this sounds like a cultural anthropologist’s work, I assure you it is far from academic (although the book’s research is beautifully documented.)

The book is consistently lively because Marc, like the best investigator, is deeply curious and not easily satisfied with the pat answers previous works have (sometimes) offered.  And his curiosity has taken him to contemporary reporting . . . but most often it has taken him to the primary sources, for which relief much thanks.

Rather than assuming what the battle over 78, 33, and 45 rpm record technologies was like, he has spoken at length to George Avakian.  Other figures who pop up to add their irreplaceable, salty or affectionate stories to this study are Dave Pell, Creed Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Rudy Van Gelder, Burt Bachrach, Lou Donaldson, Chico Hamilton, and three dozen more.

Faithful readers of Marc’s JAZZ WAX have delighted in these interviews, but one of the pleasures of this book is the beautifully organic way the material is handled: it never feels like pastiche, and the balance between fact, interpretation, and a quick-moving narrative is delightful.

My only regret is that this book begins — because of Marc’s perspective, which I would not deny him — in 1942.  I can only imagine the much larger-scale book he might have written which would have spoken of Prohibition, of the Great Northern Migration, bobbed hair, of the role of Thirties radio . . . and on.

But to his credit, WHY JAZZ HAPPENED has a true feeling for jazz as a seamless whole, so that Louis Armstrong appears alongside Joseph Jarman in the pages of the index, and the book begins and ends with a truly moving episode devoted to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  My hope is that other writers genuinely devoted to an accurate analysis of how and why this music happened — for the world of an art’s development is much larger than a survey of the individual musicians’ idiosyncracies and a list of record dates — will use WHY JAZZ HAPPENED as a flexible, energetic model and write their own books that look back to Marc’s.  Because he is neither didactic nor over-emphatic, I can even envision books based on his model that say, “No, these are MY ten events or forces that made jazz what it is.”

For its ingenuity, subtlety, surprises, and depth, WHY JAZZ HAPPENED deserves to be ranked along the best recent studies of jazz — Randy Sandke’s WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET and Ricky Riccardi’s THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG.

Visit here to see Marc speaking about WHY JAZZ HAPPENED in a multi-part video interview.  It won’t satiate your desire for the book.  I suggest you go here for the next logical step . . . your own copy.

May your happiness increase.

BOB WILLOUGHBY’S REMARKABLE PORTRAITS

Because they give themselves to what they are creating, jazz musicians make splendid photographic subjects.

Bob Willoughby, who died in 2009, wasn’t the first to capture their intensity, lack of self-consciousness, and energy on camera.  But his beautiful volume of photographs and recollections, JAZZ: BODY AND SOUL, shows on every page that his work is superbly moving.  (Evans Mitchell, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound.)

Since musicians — in the act of creation — aren’t standing still, some photographs begin to look like versions of poses we have already seen a thousand times before: the horn player, face distended, sweating, looking like a runner just before crossing the finish line; the intimate relationship between the singer and the vertical microphone; the drummer, moving so quickly that the sticks blur.  Other photographs entrance us because they are the only visual evidence we have that an otherwise obscure musician was ever seen.

Willoughby’s work goes well beyond these formulas, although some of his images have been reproduced so widely that they are now the way that we mentally identify the subject.  But even his most famous pictures have something to offer us, a half-century after they were created.

The book is divided into two sections: one of Wlloughby’s West Coast photographs from 1950 to — Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee.  Particularly absorbing is a series of dramatic photographs catching the emotional interplay between saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and a crowd in hysterical rapture.  Willoughby photographed Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Buck Clayton, Martha Tilton and friends during the recording sessions for the soundtrack of THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY.  An extended photo-essay on Frank Sinatra tells us more than any biography.

The second section of the book offers photographs Willoughby created in Germany in 1992 and 1994 — fascinating portraits of Lee Konitz, Marcus Roberts, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, John Lewis, Mulligan much transformed by the years, and many others.

Having purchased many volumes of photographs of jazz musicians, I tend to look at the book with fascination immediately after their purchase . . . but not often after.  Willoughby’s book has proven itself an exception.  In tne month that I have had a copy, I have come back to it over and over, drawn by what his eye captured — tantalizing wordless dramas that open deeper each time I stare into the pages.

And the appeal of the book is wider than the allure of the musicians portrayed there.  Without being precious or coy, Willoughby created small paintings full of feeling, emotion coming through the lovely blacks, greys, and whites.  He was a master of seeing, of shaping line and angle, shape and focus.  I look at these portraits and I can feel Louis’ happiness, imagine the words passing between Bing and Frank on the set of CAN-CAN, hear Billie’s voice.  In addition, Willoughby’s photos are idiosyncratic master classes for photographers: what to emphasize, what to leave out. . . all the more remarkable because he captured his subjects in the moment.

Marc Myers, of JAZZ WAX, knew and spoke with Willoughby, and the essays Marc has created about the man and his work are rewarding (with photographs that will astonish): read more here and here.   The book’s website — with even more beautiful pictures — can be found here.  Willoughby’s photographs reward the eye.

May your happiness increase.

THRIFT as a VIRTUE

The record collectors used to call it “junking,” but it’s more elevated (cleaner, brighter lighting, safer environs) these days.  Goodwill and the Salvation Army are usually well-stocked with Andy Williams and Donna Summer vinyl, although oddities still pop up — SONGS OF THE RED ARMY, for one.

But the Beloved and I like thrift stores — for wardrobe choices that go beyond the Ralph Lauren racks at Macy’s, for odds and ends (a salad spinner, an unusual coffee mug, intriguing books).  And their supply of records is usually more interesting.

Here are the rewards from a tour of thrift shops in the Mill Valley – Larkspur – Fairfax – San Rafael area in California, the records ranging from the common to the unusual, one dollar or less each:

As Marc Myers would say (he loves the subtexts of odd Fifties record covers), we hope she is enjoying the music — another bachelor pad fantasy, but the woman who liked Clyde Hurley playing a ballad would be a real keeper.

A very different approach to female pulchritude and the male gaze, no?  I might have this music on CD, but felt it would be terribly disloyal to be in the SF area and pass this record by.  Madam here likes jazz piano!

With this one, we’re clearly into the unusual — even though it seems to be a supermarket label and I’ve never heard Billy Franklin play.  (Is it possible that it was a pseudonym?)  But the accompanying band is first-class: Mousey Alexander, drums; Hank D’Amico, clarinet; Hary DiVito, trombone; Whitey Mitchell, bass, and a very young Johnny Varro, piano.  I don’t think I’ll be sufficiently organized to bring this disc to the Sweet and Hot festival to show Johnny, but perhaps.  And the songs are hopeful, too: I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU / INDIANA / SOUTH OF THE BORDER / THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER / SHINE / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / MEMORIES OF YOU / SWEET SUE.

In many thrift and second-hand stores, the 78 rpm records there are often ancient classical, overpriced Edisons, Teach Your Canary To Sing, 4 Top Hits, or the like.  One of the stores had three paper albums and a number of loose records — the usual Sinatra and Gene Autry, but someone’s favorites from 1930-1, which I bought indiscriminately.  Who knows which Columbia or Victor dance band record is hiding a yet-undiscovered Jack Purvis bridge?

Oscar Grogan?  But the other side is Richard Whiting’s HONEY, which is usually performed at a medium tempo, so it’s hopeful.

Now, there’s a prize!  The reverse is MY MAN.

Probably quite sweet rather than hot, but for a dollar, everyone might take a risk.  The other side is INDIAN LOVE CALL, and I hope it’s a precursor of Louis with Gordon Jenkins, Tony Pastor with Artie Shaw.

One other photographed poorly, so the titles will have to suffice:  ME AND MY SHADOW (Johnny Marvin: “The Ukulele Ace,” with Clarinet Accompaniment) / MY SUNDAY GIRL (Charles Kaley, with Violin, Saxophone, and Piano): Columbia 1021-D.  The heart imagines Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti or Matty Malneck, Arthur Schutt . . .

And two ringers — in that I paid more than a dollar for each one in an actual used record store.  But you’ll understand the reason for this sudden profligacy immediately:

I had this a long time ago, and it disappeared under unhappy circumstances: although Willie “the Lion” Smith and Jo Jones should have recorded in every decade prior to this, it’s a blessing that Hughes and Louis Panassie got them into a studio for this and another session as well.

I have heard the music from this two-band-spectacular, but it’s nice to have it on disc — with George Wettling, Nappy Trottier, Jack Maheu, Georg Brunis, Pee Wee Russell, Johnny Frigo, and Vic “Dickinson.”  The photograph of Jimmy and Art giving each other some skin is a good one, even if it’s a tossup whether the pretty model at rear left or the “redcap” looks less convincing.  Maybe Method acting hadn’t hit the Chicago studios yet?

I can’t wait until I encounter a three-speed turntable!

JOHN BUNCH by RANDY SANDKE

Randy Sandke writes:

Someone should really acknowledge the passing of John Bunch.  He was a truly unique stylist and a brilliant improviser.  I remember listening with awe once as he played multiple choruses on the blues, every one taking up a new idea and developing it through each 12-bar sequence without being the slightest bit pedantic.  I thought I was listening to the spontaneous creation of a 20th Century Goldberg Variations.  John had a all the qualities of a great player – originality, flawless technique (which never called attention to itself), great subtlety, and infectious swing.  All he lacked was the major recognition, partly because his personality was very much like his playing: no flash or gimmicks.  Also, perhaps because he was identified as a “mainstream” player, which signifies lack of originality in critical parlance.  But as Harry Allen once said, John was always the most modern (and timeless I would add) player on the bandstand.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/arts/music/02bunch.html>

Nate Chinen’s piece in the NY Times was respectful and accurate to a point, but again, it implied that John was a “swing” player (there’s that word again).  John’s conception began with bebop, and his whole approach (rhythm, harmonic, melodic) was much more in the Hank Jones school than Teddy Wilson, though again, he spoke unequivocally in his own voice.

John was also a gentle and self-effacing person, on the reserved side, but one who had a wealth of fascinating stories to tell: of being shot down over Germany in WWII and spending months in a prisoner-of-war camp (all of which he told me as we were touring Germany); how his trio in Indianapolis couldn’t find a bass player so they used Wes Montgomery playing bass lines on guitar; and how, after playing with a young Freddie Hubbard, he thought “this guy sounds terrible; he’ll never make it.”

John will be sorely missed by those who knew him and those who revered his playing.  Like any true artist, he leaves a void that cannot be filled.

I can only add that I first saw and heard John play with Ruby Braff in the early Seventies.  In retrospect, I was so awed by Ruby’s playing that it took some time for me to actually hear closely what John was consistently, quietly doing.  But I can still see and hear Ruby standing by the piano while John soloed, urging him on, agreeing, smiling at what he heard. 

In a musical landscape of extroverts and self-dramatizers, John pursued his art — serenely and thoughtfully, with wonderful swing and understated eloquence.  In my experience, certain musicians, now gone, were always reliable and more: seeing them onstage, I could relax, knowing that the music was going to be superb.  Jake Hanna, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, John Bunch.  We are fortunate to have heard them, to have been welcomed into their individual rooms.

To hear more from John himself, visit Marc Myers’ invaluable JazzWax, where he is posting an interview he did with John — incomplete but invaluable: http://www.jazzwax.com/2010/04/interview-john-bunch-part-1.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Jazzwax+%28JazzWax%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher

THE BOUNCE ACCORDING TO JOE ALTERMAN

There’s a Stephen Sondheim song — BOUNCE — from the musical of the same name.  I heard it many times on Jonathan Schwartz’s show on WNYC-FM.  It’s a cynical paean to the ability to re-adapt, to get up off the floor, to reinvent yourself, sung by two brothers who have seen a great deal.

I thought about it, however irrelevantly, when the young jazz pianist Joe Alterman sent me a copy of his debut CD, PIANO TRACKS (VOLUME ONE).  Young?  He’s twenty-one.  Credit for my knowing about Joe is due to the energetic Marc Myers, of JazzWax: read his December 2009 post on Joe here: http://www.jazzwax.com/2009/12/joe-alterman-piano-tracks.html.

Joe admires the lyrical, singing, propulsive styles — they’re timeless — embodied by Hank Jones and other giants. 

Joe’s also got his own personal blog, where he writes about meeting Hank Jones and Jimmy Heath, studying with Don Friedman, and more — humble, funny, and to the point.  It’s http://joealterman.blogspot.com/

But back to the CD at hand.  It was recorded last year, and it is a comfortable kind of music: swinging without being self-conscious, embracing the past without being restricted by “repertory” conventions.  Joe is a melodic player — someone who respects the compositions he sets out to play (Arlen, Johnny Green, Styne, Gershwin, Mancini) and is also an adept composer.  I’ve heard some contemporary pianists recently who seem to believe that their improvisations must be aggressive to be compelling, so they rampage over the keyboard as if they were annoyed by it.  That’s not Joe’s style.  He knows the virtue of space, of letting lines breathe.  And he knows how to swing naturally in the fashion of Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal.  Some of the infectious bounce of this CD is due to bassist Scott Glazer and drummer Justin Varnes (on one track, they are replaced by Sam Selinger and Tiffany Chang), but with all due respect to them, I think Joe could swing on his own.  He understands the possibilities within “medium-up-tempo,” and the CD has its own rocking momentum.  And several of his originals deserve their own life — the moody THE FIRST NIGHT HOME, and the naughty blues (BEFORE YOU BRING ME MY CORNBREAD) SLAP SOME BUTTER ON THAT BISCUIT, which surely has lyrics waiting to be sung. 

You can hear some music from the CD at Joe’s site — click on http://www.joealtermanmusic.com/live/

Sondheim’s song urges us all to “learn how to bounce,” which I know is a commendable skill — but young Joe Alterman already knows how.  Welcome!

IN THE CLOUDS

sicilia-2008-ms-and-yucatan-portraits-096

“I’m walking on air,” Andy Razaf wrote, lyrics to a famous Fats Waller melody.  Me, too!

My generous jazz cyber-buddy Marc Myers* (of JAZZ WAX) just sent the good news.

The Jazz Journalists Association has announced the nominees for its 2009 awards, and JAZZ LIVES  –yes, what you are now reading — has been nominated as one of the Blogs of the Year.  (http://www.jazzjournalists.org/top-honors?page=4)

“Fine!  Wonderful!  Perfect!” to quote Fats himself.   Everyone writes to be read or to be heard.  Heartfelt thanks to all of you who have been doing both.  A special thank-you to the Beloved, who nudged me into the Blogosphere last February.

I’ll keep on blogging with even more pleasure.

*Marc, an extraordinary writer, a researcher, interviewer, and jazz detective, is nominated not only for his blog but for his journalism.  Swing, brother, swing!

P. S.   I took the photograph above — my idea of a vernal paradise — Sicily, last spring, probably near the hillside town of Enna.

THE LESTER YOUNG MOSAIC, PART ONE

I know it’s a bold statement, but there is nothing better than the Thirties Basie band with Lester, Buck, and the All-American Rhythm Section.  So I was eager to buy the new Mosaic set and have derived an anticipatory thrill from the four discs still in their shrinkwrap, knowing what I will be able to listen to when I can’t put off the waiting one moment more. 

I had heard from Marc Myers (Mr. JazzWax) that some web-grousers had leaped in online to declare that there was just too much Lester Young on this set for them.   I thought he was teasing.  But here’s an excerpt from Will Friedwald’s admiring piece in the New York Sun (June 2, 2008), “When Basie Was Young At Heart”:

“[The recordings Lester did with his] musical soul mate Billie Holiday, were amazingly democratic: All of the players get equal solo space, and even the star singer is confined to a single chorus.  Not so on the Basie sessions: The bulk of these are solo features that spotlight him more like a king than as an elected official or public servant. There are other solo stars here, notably the trombonist Dicky Wells, trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison and Buck Clayton, as well as two excellent band singers in Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes. Still, the material is skewed toward Young. The four discs here do not contain the band’s complete output of the period, just those numbers on which Young solos.”

When was Lester ever a public servant?  The mind reels. 

I do not share Mr. Friedwald’s muted distress at a possible overabundance of Lester’s music at the expense of those records featuring other players, and direct him back in time to a ten-record vinyl box set put out by French CBS, collecting every recording they could find of Basie’s recordings for Columbia, Vocalion, and OKeh in the 1936-42 period.  (Mosaic has come up with new alternates, incidentally.)  On paper, that CBS set looks like the Holy Grail, and Mr. Friedwald would be able to hear all five takes of “One, Two, Three, O’Lairy,” or whatever it was called.  I find alternate takes thrilling for what they reveal of the creative process, but long stretches of this Basie set were surprisingly monotonous.  But completists believe that what they do not have is much more important than what they do, and in some emotive way they might be right. 

However, I must thank Mr. Friedwald for using the Sun’s resources to reprint a Gjon Mili photograph of Lester and Basie at a jam session.

I believe this comes from Lester’s 1943-44 stint with Basie, because the drummer (probably Kansas Fields) is in uniform.  The other saxophonist is altoist Earle Warren, and (for the moment) the trumpeters elude me.  Is this another shot from the session where they were Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Edison?  But I direct you to the clarinetist.  It’s not Larry Talbot — it’s Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, Jazz’s very own Zelig.  And I am certain that Mezz is blithely playing along while Lester is taking his solo.  If you insist on being charitable, let us say that he is joining the riffing behind Lester.  Notice how he has wedged himself into the gathering, though, and the man behind him — Jo Jones! — has to crane his neck around Mezz to see what is happening.  

Gjon Mili took a number of wonderful shots of Jazz-in-action for a wartime feature published in either LOOK or LIFE around 1943, so this may come from that sequence.  If his odd-sounding name is familiar in the context of jazz and Lester Young, he is also responsible for the short film JAMMIN’ THE BLUES.  Bless him, and the players, too.

I will have more to say about the Lester Young Mosaic once I have begun to break into my precious hoard.