Tag Archives: modern jazz

THE JAZZ BOOKSHELF: “JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ” and “MR. B”

A quarter-century ago, in actual bookstores, I could find shelves devoted to books on jazz.  That reassuring sight still exists (I saw it in the Strand in New York last week) but the great era of print publishing is, understandably, over. Thus it’s always a pleasure to encounter new books on jazz, and the two below are quite different but will both reward readers.

Jazz-Beat-review--195x300

JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ, by Lew Shaw (AZtold Publishing) is a very amiable collection of profiles written by an admiring, long-time fan and former sportswriter.

What makes these brief affectionate portraits different from the norm is that all (except one) the musicians in this book are living.  Not all of them are stars, but they have devoted followings — from the youthful Jonathan “Jazz” Russell, Pete and Will Anderson, Josh Duffee, Michael Kaeshammer, Ben Polcer, Molly Ryan, Bria Skonberg, Andy Schumm, Stephanie Trick, to the veterans Bill Allred, Jim Cullum, Bob Draga, Yve Evans, Chet Jeager, Flip Oakes, Bucky Pizzarelli, Richard Simon, Mike Vax, Pat Yankee, and Ed Polcer — the book’s inspiration, whose picture is on the cover.

Shaw also profiles other regulars on the festival circuit, Tom Rigney, the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, the Natural Gas Jazz Band, the New Black Eagles, Igor’s Jazz Cowboys.

His emphasis is on musicians exploring older jazz forms and repertoire, but the book is happily free from ideological bickering (with one exception, and the words aren’t the author’s*.  The book is comfortable and easy: I sense that the musicians are delighted to find someone sympathetic, interested, willing to get the facts right for publication.

I was pleased to find a number of my jazz friends and heroes profiled, among them Clint Baker, Kevin Dorn, Banu Gibson, Nicki Parrott, Carl Sonny Leyland, Randy Reinhart, Hal Smith, Rossano Sportiello, and the late Mat Domber.  I know I’ve left several people off this list, but readers will have fun seeing some of their favorites here.

Shaw’s method is simple: he establishes the musician’s place in the world of contemporary traditional jazz, constructs a brief biography — a story rather than a collection of dates and a listing of names and places.  Some comments from a writer or blogger offer different insights (I’m even quoted here a few times) and the musician speaks for him or herself.  The result is a fast-moving collection of short pieces (somewhere between journalistic features and extensive liner notes) that capture their subjects’ personalities in only a few pages.

Shaw is frankly admiring — from a literate fan’s perspective.  For instance (I picked this at random), the opening of his piece on Bob Draga: “Clarinetist Bob Draga is considered the consummate entertainer, having mastered the art of pleasing an audience with musical talent, classy appearance and entertaining repartee.”  That’s Bob, to the life.

One particularly moving episode in this book is the profile of drummer Joe Ascione — and his life with multiple sclerosis since 1997.  If Shaw had done nothing but allow Joe to speak for himself, JAZZ BEAT would still be well worth reading. Many fans come up to musicians at gigs, concerts, and festivals, and ask questions; it is reassuring to see that Lew Shaw has willingly shared his energies and research with us.  The 211-page book is nicely produced with many black-and-white photographs, and copies can be ordered here.

*Chet Jaeger, of the Night Blooming Jazzmen, told Shaw about playing in a Disneyland marching band when Dizzy Gillespie was also performing there, and his reaction: “I decided I would attend and try to learn something about modern jazz, but I gave up after a few numbers.  I always say that when I hit a bad note, everyone knows it’s a bad note. When Miles Davis hits a bad note, people will say, ‘Isn’t that creative.'”

MISTER B

Cary Ginell, author of a fine book on the Jazz Man Record Shop (reviewed here) and a rewarding biography of Cannonball Adderley (here) has produced another first-rate book in the same series: MR. B: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BILLY ECKSTINE (Hal Leonard, 228+ pages).  Ginell may turn out to be this generation’s model for jazz biography, for he doesn’t indulge in pathobiography (chronicling every time his subject is supposed to have left no tip for a waitperson or some other example of bad behavior) and he isn’t a secret Destroyer (appearing to write admiringly of the subject then deflating the Hero(ine) chapter after chapter).

His books are tidy, graceful, compact affairs — full of stories but never digressive, sticking to chronology but never mechanical.

Eckstine has been treated gingerly by the jazz community: yes, he was Earl Hines’ band vocalist, bringing the blues to a larger audience with JELLY, JELLY, then someone given credit for his “legendary” band featuring Dizzy, Bird, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, and others . . . but once Eckstine comes to even greater prominence as an African-American balladeer (think of I APOLOGIZE), the jazz audience loses interest and the naughty word “commercialism” enters the dialogue.

Ginell doesn’t over-compensate, and he — unlike Mister B — doesn’t apologize, but he makes a serious case for Eckstine being one of the important figures in the slow struggle for White Americans to respect people of color.

One of Eckstine’s sons remembered, “Until the day he died, whenever he ordered a sandwich, he always separated the two pieces of bread and gently ran his fingers over the meat, because on a number of occasions while touring the South, they would send the band boy. . . to pick up food from a white restaurant. When they got the sandwiches, they would discover finely ground glass, or vermin feces mixed in with the tuna, chicken, egg, or potato salad.”  We also learn about the repercussions of a LIFE magazine photograph where Eckstine was captured amidst young White female fans — a horrifying example of racist attitudes in 1950. Stories such as that are invaluable, and make a book both readable and memorable, no matter who its subject might be.

The band business was difficult even when the enemy wasn’t trying to poison you so directly; Ed Eckstein also recalled that the critic Leonard Feather subtly attacked his father’s band because Eckstine refused to record Feather’s compositions.  Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie created a parody — sung to the tune STORMY WEATHER, with these lyrics:

I know why, we can’t get a gig on Friday night, / Leonard Feather / Keeps on makin’ it hard for me to keep this band together, / Talkin’ shit about us all the time . . .  

We learn about the relationship between June Eckstine and the promising young Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard; we learn of Eckstine’s close friendship with Dr. King, his devotion to his fans, his generosities.  And as for Eckstine’s apparent “selling-out,” he had this to say, “Some creeps said I ‘forsook’ jazz in order to be commercial. So I saw one of these creeps, a jazz critic, and I said, ‘What are you, mad at me because I want to take care of my family?  Is that what pisses you off? You want me to end up in a goddamn hotel room with a bottle of gin in my pocket and a needle in my arm, and let them discover me laying there? Then I’ll be immortal, I guess, to you . . . It ain’t going to work that way with me, man. I want to take care of my family and give them the things that I think they deserve.'”

And we learn that Eckstine’s last word was “Basie,” which should go some distance in supporting his deep feeling for jazz.

It’s an admirable book.  Although nearly everyone who worked with Eckstine is dead, Ginell has had the cooperation of the singer’s family and friends; he has done thorough research without allowing minutiae to overwhelm the narrative, and the book moves along at a fine 4 / 4 pace.  With rare photographs, as well.

Ginell’s work — and this series in general — is very fine, and these books fill needed spaces in jazz history.  Who’s next?

May your happiness increase!

BENDING TIME DELIGHTFULLY: THE ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND “BACK IN TOWN”

Some listeners believe jazz can be seen as a series of grassy plots, each sealed off and protected an electrical fence.  Thus, the Bad doesn’t infect the Good, the Impure is quarantined from the Truth.

“Old school” bands play GRANDPA’S SPELLS; “swing bands” play DICKIE’S DREAM; “modern” bands play “‘ROUND MIDNIGHT.”

This artifice was created and encouraged by writers, who believed that art could be conceptualized as a straight line, a flow chart, moving towards Progress or Decline.  Pres begat Bird who begat Trane . . .

Most musicians I know smile wearily when confronted with these stifling divisions.  They know that the distance between King Oliver and Bird doesn’t even exist.  In the Forties and Fifties, players trooped into recording studios to make music under these pretenses: HOT MEETS COOL, SWING MEETS DIXIE, and DIXIELAND GOES MODERN (real titles for actual recording dates).  But they knew that the names were simply journalistic devices to package music for consumers and to sell products: the music itself was not altered or harmed by the names.

Thirty and more years ago, I saw two discs in a used record store, by a French band I had never heard of, the ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND.

From “anachronism,” I knew something interesting was happening, and even though my five years of French had eroded, I could figure out that this band was doing something deliciously unusual: playing “bop” and “modern” material in older styles — taking a Charlie Parker line and playing it in the style of a 1926 Jelly Roll Morton recording.

I bought the records in the spirit of “What could possibly go wrong?” — and they were immensely rewarding.

See for yourself in this 1977 performance of ANTHROPOLOGY:

First, you can’t miss the high good spirits here and the immense expertise: the Anachronics are deeply swinging and wonderfully precise but never stiff.

Second, the whole notion is hilariously wonderful, but not in the often mean-spirited way that comedy / parody / satire often operate (think of Chubby Jackson’s DIXIELAND STOMP, where “modern” musicians play “Dixieland” as a messy amateurish creation).  And it is deeply inquisitive — asking questions of jazz and its “styles” — rather than presenting a production of KING LEAR where everyone wears jeans and speaks in rap cadences.

The Anachronics aren’t satirizing Dizzy and Bird, Morton and Henderson.  Rather, their music is intensely witty play: “What would happen if we brought this composition into this world?  How could we honor both of them and have a rousing good time while doing it?”

The AJB began in 1976 and rolled along to great acclaim until 1980.  Although they apparently were based in the past, they were thrillingly original: no one was doing what they did!  But this post isn’t a nostalgic look back at something rich and rare that is now gone.

I am delighted to write that there is a new AJB CD, just out, and it is a rich banquet of sounds, feeling, and ideas.  Recorded in January 2013, it is called BACK IN TOWN — true enough!

The repertoire comes — initially — from Parker, Rollins, Shearing, Monk, Paul Desmond, Mingus, Chick Corea, Clyde Hart, Miles, Quincy Jones — with a few clever originals by AJB members.  The dazzling musicians on this disc are Philippe Baudoin, piano; Marc Richard, clarinet / alto; Patrick Artero, trumpet; Pierre Guicquéro, trombone; André Villéger, clarinet / alto / tenor; Jean-François Bonnel, clarinet / C-melody; Daniel Huck, vocal, alto; François Fournet, banjo; Gérard Gervois, tuba; Sylvain Glévarec, drums; Göran Eriksson, recorder.  (Arrangements by Baudoin, Richard, Artero.)

The soloing and ensemble work couldn’t be better, and each track is simultaneously a series of small delightful explosions and a revelation.  More than “listening to a record,” I felt as if I were perusing a collection of short stories . . . art that reveals itself more and more, a matter of shadings and gleams, on each hearing.

It has become an invaluable disc for me, and I hope it is the first of many to come.  See and hear for yourself: the Anachronic Jazz Band is truly back in town, and we are very grateful.

Here’s a sample of their recent work, captured by Jeff Guyot in July 2013: COOKIN’ THE FROG:

Here’s the band’s Facebook page.  And their website.

May your happiness increase!

“J’AIMERAIS UN CD” [one by JEAN FRANCOIS BONNEL’S NEW QUARTET]

That’s French, and it means “I would like a CD.”  Your pronunciation doesn’t matter, but your comprehension of those words in this context will bring pleasure.

JAZZ LIVES hasn’t suddenly turned into Swing Berlitz, but those French words are your passport to Paradise, as Sidney Bechet would say.  Paradise is defined as a wholly new CD — and wholly new kind of CD — by the Master, Jean-Francois Bonnel.  Before I explain in words, perhaps some excerpts from the music would be even better.

Here are two audible hors d’oeuvres: Tasty Sample One and Two.

Now, a little history.  I had heard Jean-Francois Bonnel on a variety of vinyl and CD issues, playing reeds alongside some of the greatest hot musicians — standing out but never over-assertively.

But I still was unprepared for his intense swing and lyrical improvisations — on clarinet, on tenor, on cornet — when I first heard him at the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival in 2009.  He could wail a gutty blues in the spirit of Johnny Dodds, swing out like Kenny Davern, create a tenor ballad that sounded much like Don Byas, play cornet in the best Keynote manner.  His inventiveness seemed limitless.

Finding myself in the hotel elevator with him one evening at a later Whitley Bay weekend, I intruded on his solitude (he is a very quiet man in person) and said, “Monsieur Bonnel, you are a master!”  (He looked embarrassed.)  “You play with wonderful bands — but I hope someday that you will make a CD with just a rhythm section.”  He smiled and said, “Perhaps someday,” the elevator opened, and he was saved from yet another fan who Wanted Something.  I think he was relieved that the elevator only goes three flights in the Village Newcastle.

I thought little of the incident — aside from thinking I should restrain my impulses somewhat — but then I found myself the lucky owner of a new Jean-Francois Bonnel CD where he led a quartet.  It’s all I had hoped for.  I can’t take credit for the inspiration, but the music is joyously on target.

Bonnel flies on clarinet — reminding me of his idol Davern in his late Arbors period, with a lovely clear tone and a fluid but restrained conception.  He doesn’t aim for the highest notes on the instrument to prove it can be done, and unlike Davern, his solos — although logical — are never a series of predictable motives strung together.  The repertoire is extensive — the familiar NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU (recalling Braff and Louis) and Bob Wilber’s take on LIMEHOUSE BLUES, WEQUASSET WAIL, but there are surprises in the middle, among them Ornette Coleman’s THE BLESSING.

The young musicians on this date are all new to me — in fact, they are Bonnel’s students and proteges — but there is no sense of Gulliver among the Liliputians.  Felix Hunot, guitar, Olivier Lalauze, string bass, and Stephane “Zef” Richard, drums, sound like mature players, able to follow Bonnel’s twisting lines or to work beautifully as soloists and as a cohesive rhythm section.  And as a bonus, Claire Marlange sings with subtlety and feeling (in French) on J’AI MARRE DE L’AMOUR (Fud Livingston’s I’M THROUGH WITH LOVE —  happily, the French lyrics keep “frigidaire”) and SI J’ETAIS UNE CIGARETTE.  KARY’S TRANSE and RONNIE’S TUNE (a romp on I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS) are very Tristano-like, from its tumbling unison line to the way the solos overlap one another.  Like Ruby Braff, Bonnel has a fine varied awareness of the possibilities of the smallest group — using duets as a way of breaking up the potential monotony of head-solo-jammed ensemble.  PLEASE, for instance, pairs clarinet and bass most effectively.  LENA FROM PALESTEENA builds in intensity; THE BLESSING. in Bonnel’s hands, is lyrical rather than angular, a series of musings opening out of one another to form a performance that would have pleased Pee Wee Russell in his last decade; Davern’s LAMENT starts calmly but takes on echoes of a funeral procession; WEQUASSET WAIL sprints from start to finish.  The result is a thoroughly varied and delightful hour of music.

To purchase a copy of this CD, you could encounter M. Bonnel and his New Quartet at one of their gigs in France, or you can click here.  Or ici, if you prefer.

Que votre bonheur augmente.

MODERN SWINGMATISM: MICHAEL BANK’S BIG 7 at SOMETHIN’ JAZZ (May 5, 2012)

I first met pianist / composer Michael Bank about eight years ago and was impressed by his swing playing and his uncliched way of getting from A to B on the most familiar song.  He always swings and he always surprises — but in a sweetly nonabrasive way.  Often I heard him with Kevin Dorn’s bands, and he was not only a fine soloist but a perceptive, supportive ensemble player.  Most recently, I caught him, guitarist Matt Smith, bassist Murray Wall, and drummer Giampaolo Biagi at the Brooklyn jazz club Puppets, where he offered some standards but a number of intriguing originals.

I was delighted to learn that Michael would be bringing his “Big 7” (an octet, if you’re keeping track) to the very pleasant East Side jazz club SOMETHIN’ JAZZ — 212 East 52nd Street, between Second and Third — last Saturday, May 5, 2012.  I knew some of the members already: Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Murray Wall, string bass; Matt Smith, guitar; Steve Little, drums — and others were very pleasant surprises or affirmations of what I already knew: Sam Burtis, trombone; Mike Mullens, alto saxophone; Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone.

Michael’s compositions often have elusive names but their melodies don’t run away from the listener.  And to my ears they inhabit a spacious universe that looks back to Willie “the Lion” Smith and off to the left to the Birth of the Cool, visiting the Keynote and the Vanguard studios, saying Hi to the 1938 Basie band and the 1940 Ellington orchestra — but without a hint of archaeology or “repertory.”  Modern swing is what I call it — and I am entirely aware of how those two words are weighted in jazz talk.  All I know is that I was smiling behind my video camera, with a multitude of delightful surprises entering my consciousness, and wanting to tap my foot.  You will hear why!

And — just to state what should be obvious — SOMETHIN’ JAZZ is a wonderful place to hear music.  I encourage listeners in the New York area to find this out for themselves.

The first of Michael’s wittily titled originals is MINOR CHANGES.  What a lovely sound he gets from his players!

Here’s SYNAESTHESIA, with a nice bounce.  If memory serves, that title refers to the magical cross-currents of sensory perception.  Marian McPartland said that to her the key of D was a color — daffodil yellow.  Lucky people who can taste their words as well as simply reading them (something jazz musicians do all the time):

LL 3 — featuring tombonist Sam Burtis, who peeks out from behind his music stand to make rich sounds:

How about something in honor of rabbits, Rabbits, and Rhythm changes?  COTTON TAIL:

One of Michael’s mentors — most rewardingly — was the pianist / composer / thinker Jaki Byard, and this is FOR JAKI:

And the next logical leap was to Byard’s swinging ONE NOTE:

After a break, the band reassembled for Michael’s own take on that March 17 anthem — here called simply IRISH EYES:

TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE is always a good thing!  Savor the lovely dark introduction:

Ellington’s GOIN’ UP — connected solidly to the previous song by a musical thread:

Michael’s next original is called DIASCHESIS (which — when I looked it up — means “loss of function and electrical activity in an area of the brain due to a lesion in a remote area that is neuronally connected with it).  I have to believe that the title is completely satiric: everything is functioning splendidly in this band!  And I told Michael that I knew big words too — like “delicatessen”:

And here’s a feature for the rhythm section, I HEAR A RHAPSODY:

I had to leave before the final selection was concluded — but it was a rocking blues, both reassuringly familiar and full of surprising curves and angles.

I love and admire this band.  In my ideal world — which isn’t that far from realization — they have a steady weekly gig and I can bring my friends to hear them . . . soon, I hope!

May your happiness increase.

PHILIP LARKIN’S “LETTERS TO MONICA”

I admired Philip Larkin first as a poet, then as an obstinately reactionary jazz critic, then as a writer of letters. 

The first two roles have been examined many times, but I want to say something about his correspondence: thoughts provoked by a new collection of letters to Monica Jones, the woman he had a relationship with for over thirty years.  The phrase “had a relationship” is murky, but their encounters on the page and off defy easy classification.

Larkin could be exceedingly gracious in his correspondence if he chose to: the scholar William McBrien (an authority on both Stevie Smith and Cole Porter) told me that the poet was extremely courteous and modest in their exchanges. 

But more often Larkin is writing to people he has known for decades, and the letters are difficult to read (even when hilarious) because he comes through so completely as someone who knows how flawed he is while hugging his flaws to himself proudly.  He can’t help himself, but who can?  Selfish and complaining, irritable and ungenerous, he also can turn the harsh light on himself and writes of his horror at what he perceives.  At such times I forgave him his meanness of spirit.  But as soon as that moment passed, the next letter returned him to his familiar self, disappointed in almost everything around him.

So his letters are often appalling, often irresistible character studies.  It would have taken a great novelist to delineate him without caricature.   

Larkin experienced hot jazz as a religious revelation and never faltered in his devotion to the Truth as he saw it.  For him, the acme of Western civilization was the recording sessions of the Rhythmakers in 1933 — featuring Henry “Red” Allen and Pee Wee Russell. 

The pianist Larry Eanet once wrote that the first jazz records he heard, the Louis Armstrong – Earl Hines sessions of 1928, hit him “like Cupid’s arrow,” and this was Larkin’s experience also. 

The Rhythmakers records were the standard by which everything, live or on record, had to be judged . . . and as a result, almost everything Larkin ever heard after his first ecstasy, with the exception of Sidney Bechet, seemed flawed. 

Larkin’s letters to Monica are sometimes claustrophobic studies in bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.  We observe Larkin being selfish on one page, sometimes apologizing for it two pages later.  That he and Monica kept up a running lovers’ narrative of themselves as two rabbits is surprisingly charming but, even with that as counterpoint I could read only a dozen pages at a time before I needed to put the book down, if not away.

I also understand more than ever the wisdom of some public figures who refuse to have their private papers made accessible to “scholars” after their deaths.  I think Larkin would have been enraged to know that readers were poking into his letters: in fact, he supervised the destruction of his diaries.

But this post is about Larkin’s devotion to jazz — and his letters are often lifted up from his annoyance, his sulks, his self-absorption, by his love for this transfiguring music. 

I offer a few passages here, the first two suggesting what it was to be a British record collector of American jazz.  (In these days of apparent plenty, with so much music made available, some forget what it was like to have so little at our fingertips.)

I am leaving out the passage where Larkin is furious because an acquaintance who has been to the States has brought him Volume Two of a Bechet Blue Note collection rather than Volume One — you’ll have to buy the book to read his small yet explosive reaction.

23 November 1950 (Belfast, p. 23)  . . . . I looked round the shops, buying a copy of Wild Bill Davison’s Tishomingo Blues that so insinuatingly wound itself into all last summer; but a sense of having been rebuffed remains with me, perhaps because the cow in the record shop wouldn’t let me — or didn’t want to let me — look through a pile of Jazz Collector & Tempo records she had just unpacked — cow of Hell!  I have never seen any before, & Belfast is the last place I expected to find them: I’m sure they will never sell them.  They are the Real McKoy, fantastic private dubbings of entirely irrevocable records: the Malone Reprint Society in terms of jazz . . . .

1 November 1951 (Belfast, 66-67) . . . . played my new records — six unsuspected sides by Muggsy Spanier, Pee Wee Russell et al. discovered by me in Tempo lists, 6/6 each.  I ordered them blind, & played them trembling, fearing lest they should be a fearful let down, but they weren’t: not a dud among them: six sides of aggressive attacking jazz, touching greatness here & there, but what John Hewitt would call ‘good bread’.  They date from Feb & March 1945: already ‘history’, really — wartime.  My great prayer is now to have scooped Kingsley [Amis] over them, wch I’m almost sure to have done.

Our heroes, seen through Larkin’s acerbic, disappointed eyes:

25 January 1957 (Hull, p. 213)  The Condon evening was too strange to describe fully — there were two ‘houses’, each an hour [Humphrey Lyttelton] an hour Condon — or supposedly.  The first was almost empty: the second almost full.  Condon was a little neurotic-lipped man, like a jockey retired by age & drink, with a drunkard’s careful movements.  W. Bill was a fat fiftyish Jack-Oakie College-Humor man, who chewed gum & clowned about.  I couldn’t adjust myself to the thought that these were friends of Bix, and that WB had been driving the car in 1932 when Teschmacher was killed.  They played fairly routine stuff, not as good as their records, though WB did some of his notorious tricks of tone.  I was in the front row: Condon sat playing his guitar about 6′ from my head.  The Lyttelton group was as usual, Johnny Picard blowing away manfully & very well.  But it was all very odd.  A lone shop girl sat beside me, who’d never heard a jazz concert before, & never heard of Condon.  I admired her resolution . . . .   

And two elegies in his own fashion:

7 May 1959 (Hull, p. 249)  I was saddened to hear of the death of Bechet tonight: of course, he hadn’t produced much lately — living among the French had brought out his Creole side musically — but he was a wonderful player in his day, as exemplified by the 2 choruses of Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Mornin’ they played on Radio Newsreel tonight.  At least one could understand his music: not like this modern stuff . . . cacophony (mumble mumble), deliberate atonalism (mumble mumble) etc etc.  Of course one wanted to take him back to New York and put him behind a good blues singer & in front of a good guitarist for a session or two, but I suppose we shall have to be content with what there is.  I’ve always wanted to hear a 12″ Summertime (c. 1940) on which the musicians ‘burst into spontaneous applause’ at the end of the record . . . .

19 February 1969 (Hull, p. 397)  My record player has broken & been taken away, & life is very narrow.  Did you see that Pee Wee Russell is dead?

Larkin understood so well that life without jazz was indeed very narrow. 

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PHILLY JOE JONES SPEAKS OUT

When asked about young “modern” drummers in an interview done in the Sixties, Philly Joe said:

“They haven’t even seen Baby Dodds or sat and watched him play like I did.  Or Sid Catlett.   These are the drummers for the next 20 years.   I don’t care how the drums move.   If any drummer can tell me he can go back and listen to Chick Webb and Dave Tough and Baby Dodds and Sid Catlett and tell me that’s not drums, I’ll break up the drums and forget it.”

I really never thought I’d be quoting Philly Joe — not Papa Jo — in this blog, but that’s an ideological statement I certainly agree with.

HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE

Two biographies of jazz musicians have recently gotten much well-deserved media attention: Robin G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk, Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong book. 

The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.  It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare. 

But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition.  It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher. 

At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi.  But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed. 

But more about that later.  Who was Herbie Nichols?  “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer.  “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.”  “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.”  “Inimitable pianist and composer.”  “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.” 

Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created.  The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.”  In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas.  (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.) 

But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.”  He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band. 

But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily.  Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop.  He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South.  Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better.  Al was nasty to Herbie.  Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now!  Right in the middle of the tune!  Let’s stop that shit now.  Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah!  Go, man, go, go, go!” 

Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim.  One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.”  Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict.  African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.   

Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators.  Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim. 

However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey.  We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow.  A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES.  He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system. 

Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs.  The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread.  The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced. 

And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him.  Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose.  His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.

Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.”  Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology.  Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin.  I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end.  That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.       

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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