Tag Archives: popular music

“BUT IS IT JAZZ?” “DOES IT MATTER?” or THE JUDGE PASSES SENTENCE

I had an email conversation a day ago with a musician — expert on his instrument and with a deep immersion in a wide range of music — about a performance I had recorded of his . . . a powerful exposition of a piece of late Sixties “popular music,” which he played splendidly.  He wrote me with some concern, wondering if his performance was, in fact “jazz.”

I wrote back to assure him that it was both beautiful and memorable, and that was what mattered.

Definitions and categories can be useful: if you have a celiac disorder, it is necessary to learn the ingredients on the package so you know no wheat is hiding to attack your body . . . but in art?

I know many listeners who set up boundaries.  This “style” is “too modern,” so they avoid it; this is “old-fashioned,” so others close a door on it.  Others see the racial profile of the musicians or the audience and make up their minds that way.  Too many old folks in the crowd?  Can’t do that.  And so on.  Not enough players of the approved color?  Oh, no.

Perhaps the questions should be, “Does this musical performance make me feel glad to be alive?  Does it stir something in me?  Does it have its own logic and beauty?  Am I happier as a result of it?”  “Will I remember it in ten minutes?”

Here are two examples of beautiful music.  According to some classifiers and dividers, one is jazz, the other isn’t.  Do such rules really matter?

and

Now, this comparison isn’t to say one musician is “as good as” the other; it isn’t to exalt Bing at the expense of Hawkins.  It is simply to say that there are a million varieties of beauty in the world . . . too bad for people who deprive themselves of any of them.

And the Judge.  He was born Milton John Hinton, and later in his life he acquired the nickname of “The Judge,” part a comic homage to Pigmeat Markham’s routine, part a tribute to his being there early at record dates and gigs . . . but he had note paper that I saw for myself, with the heading . . .

THE JUDGE (and a a drawing of a string bass)

You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music!

I’m prepared to serve my sentence, Your Honor.  And thank you for the reminder!

May your happiness increase!

DEBRA’S PLATTER PARTY (1952-1953)

I imagine a teenager, Debra, who has her friends over in her parents’ rec room, perhaps the den, perhaps the basement with knotty pine walls.  Her little brother wants to come and join them but Debra firmly refuses.  This is for her friends, not for twirps.  Debra and  her friends have a few bottles of soda which they pour into aluminum tumblers; there is a bag of potato chips.  But the main focus is the music.

RCA 45

Debra has a pile of new 45 rom records and she has gotten a special record player for her birthday — one of those with a big center spindle.

She stacks up a pile of the current hits: Les Paul and Mary Ford, Tony Bennett, Percy Faith, Jo Stafford, Frankie Laine, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Perry Como, Teresa Brewer, Kay Starr, Leroy Anderson, Al Martino, and someone the kids don’t immediately recognize.  He sings familiar songs: COLD COLD HEART, BECAUSE OF YOU, MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE, I’LL KEEP THE LOVELIGHT BURNING.

He has an unusual voice — rough yet tender — and there is a really impressive trumpet player on the records.  “Who is that singing, Debra?” one of the girls asks.  “Don’t you know Satchmo?” Debra responds.  “Satchmo?” says Julie.  “What kind of name is Satchmo?”  “Oh, that’s Louis Armstrong,” another friend pipes in.  “He’s a jazz musician.  My parents listen to him all the time.”  “He sounds really good,” says Julie.  “Let me see the record,” says one of the other girls.

And so taste is formed.

satchmo serenades

And, yes, there was life before Bill Haley and his Comets, before Elvis.

These ruminations are the result of a trip to a fabled flea market in Alameda, California, where the only thing either of us purchased was this set of two extended-play 45 rpm records — for a dollar.

I have invented the little scenario above because my copy is well-loved and well-played, and Debra wrote her name on the front cover and on the label of each record.  They were hers, you know, and she wasn’t going to get them mixed up with anyone else’s records.

There was a time when “popular music” wasn’t so energetically polarized, when people gathered communally to listen to records, to enjoy, to comment, to discuss.  Life before earbuds.  When Satchmo serenaded, and no one recoiled from “jazz,” or “Dixieland,” or “your parents’ music.”

We can’t bring back those days — or can we?  Play some music for a friend or colleague or family member . . . see if you can send them some old-fashioned good vibrations.  I’m going to play SATCHMO SERENADES when I get back to New York.

Where is Debra?

May your happiness increase.

OH, “PLEASE”!

In honor of Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin, Bing Crosby, Adam Keller, John Gill, and Jon-Erik Kellso — here is the sheet music for PLEASE.  It’s my dream to hear world-class jazz musicians, deep in Swing Romanticism, make this song their own.  Unfortunately, the folio doesn’t have the lyrics — but perhaps that enabled the Famous Music Corporation to publish eleven songs and photographs from Bing’s then-current films: THE BIG BROADCAST, COLLEGE HUMOR, and TOO MUCH HARMONY — for fifty cents.

I’d also like more people to know about Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, who wrote the music and lyrics for PLEASE and many other irreplaceable songs.  Rainger, especially, deserves his place in the collective memory alongside the more familiar names.  Here’s a photograph of Rainger from the Crosby folio:

And here’s the team at work:

If you play an instrument, sing, or even hum, why not try PLEASE?  And if you don’t, well, you could find a way to work the title into everyday conversation.  I believe it has a soothing effect . . .