Tag Archives: Thoreau

IN THE RIVER THAT IS TIME: DAN BLOCK’S TRANSFORMATIONALISTS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 17, 2016)

I think of Dan Block as the main character in a Ray Bradbury story.  Friendly but mysterious, he comes to a small town in the Midwest and puts up a banner advertising his TRANSFORMATIONALISTS: “Time Is But The Stream We Go Fishing In / Come With Us!”  A middle-school trombonist hesitantly approaches the Magical Transormationalist, falls under the spell of the music, and when the band leaves town, she goes with them, entranced, on to glories yet undiscovered.

finshing-thoreau

When Dan has led his “Harlem in the Thirties Updated” group at Fat Cat and other venues, I’ve not counted the audience members to see if anyone went missing.  But we were certainly entranced and remain so.

A version of Dan’s magic troupe performed a brief set at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party in September 2016: Dan, alto saxophone / arrangements; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums.  The repertoire came from famous bands (Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter) and was written by Mary Lou Williams, Carter, and others — but it sounded fresh, rather than being a distillation of famous records.

The opener, associated with Chick Webb, HARLEM CONGO:

Mary Lou Williams’ composition (I believe Puddin’ Head was trumpeter Edgar Battle):

another Mary Lou creation:

Something for and from Benny Carter:

And, finally, an early version of climate change from the 1934 Henderson band:

Inventive and wholly satisfying.  Another version of the Block Transformationalists will be playing at Smalls on West Tenth Street on February 3, 2017, with the group that performed this music at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Mark your perpetual calendars, please.

May your happiness increase!

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BASIE SAYS YES

Miles Davis has often been quoted as saying, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

I would never disagree with this. I don’t wish to set up any competition, but I think everyone should give thanks to Count Basie — and not just once. And not just musicians, either.

It is fashionable, still, to affect hipness, and that is not limited to people under 30. And some intriguing theoretician has suggested that the qualities we praise as hip — subtlety, originality, a wry way of perceiving the world — were exemplified by Lester Young before Kerouac and the Beats took them as their own. I like this theory, although what Pres would have made of a Williamsburg or Berkeley or Portland hipster is not known.

But I would propose Basie as the original Parent of many virtues we prize. Singularity, although a loving reverence for one’s ancestors (as in Basie’s affectionate nods to Fats Waller), an awareness that joy and sorrow are not only wedded but interdependent (that the blues are at the heart of everything), and a deep emotional commitment to swinging one’s way through life.  Swinging, as embodied by Basie, his peers and their descendants, meant the maximum of grace with the minimum of visible labor.  The style later exemplified by Astaire with a Kansas City world-view. Passion and fun, no less powerful for being streamlined to their essentials. His playing and his approach have been characterized and parodied as “minimalist,” but I think of it more as a Thoreau-inspired simplicity. Don’t need that note, do we? Let it be implied. Unheard melodies and all that. How Basie knew what he knew is beyond us, but the evidence is there for us to hear.

Here’s an audible example of what Basie did. And does:

That’s the 1939 Chicago session, issued in the Seventies as “Basie’s Bad Boys”: Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, trumpets; Dan Minor, trombone (audibly?), Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page; string bass; Jo Jones, drums. Yes, the studio sound is foggy and dense, but the music just flies and smiles and rocks.

These thoughts are provoked by two photographs for sale on eBay — from the Frank Driggs Collection (each one for three hundred dollars plus) — of Basie and his colleagues and friends in 1941 and 1943.  Lester had leapt out, but they seemed to be doing fine on their own.  Here’s a rehearsal session at the New York studio of Columbia Records. They are apparently listening to a playback.  Details first:

BASIE IN THE STUDIO 1941 true front

The front:

COUNT BASIE REHEARSAL 1941

What I notice first, always (this is a photograph often reproduced but also often cropped) is Basie’s dreamily unfocused expression which might be deep concentration.  Jo’s nearly angry attentiveness, his thinness (that protruding Adam’s apple), his full head of hair and tidy mustache.  Walter Page’s substantial girth. The handkerchief not quite tucked away in his back pocket.  The way his vest is strained by what’s in it.  The height of Jo’s beautiful trousers, and his suspenders.  The way Page (casually?) is listening to what handsome Buck Clayton is playing.  How beautifully everyone is dressed, in an era before jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and knapsacks.

And a more formal pose, 1943, where cake predominates:BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 back

Jimmy Rushing steals the show, and all eyes are on him (although Buck is somewhat quizzical and Basie — aware of the photographer — doesn’t turn around; Jo’s smile is world-weary).  What, I must know, is Rushing saying to that forkful? “Sent for you yesterday and here you come today,” perhaps? Or “Tell me, pretty baby, how you want your lovin’ done”?  Or perhaps the plainer, “I am going to EAT YOU ALL UP!” 

BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 front

I chose to title this posting BASIE SAYS YES because I believe he always did. Although Basie spent his life “playing the blues,” his approach to them was always life-affirming.  Even on the darkest dirge, there is a slight grin. “Look how sad I can make this music sound.  Isn’t it a lot of fun to play such sad music?”

Cool, swinging, affirmative.  We could follow him, a Sage, for life-lessons.

May your happiness increase! 

A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

Ian Fleming never gave me a thought.  I never had a specially-equipped car, dangerous gadgets.  But I was a spy for Dixieland.

In a recent seminar with one of my mentors, Prof. Figg, he asked the question, “What are your secret guilty musical pleasures?”

I think the Professor expected that I was listening to Justin Bieber or to marimba orchestras.  Toy pianos.  Singing dogs.  Kate Smith.  Anthony Braxton.  Rossini overtures.  Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And although I thought hard, I couldn’t come up with any guilty musical pleasures.  Oh, I love sentiment: Connee Boswell’s LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY makes me cry.  But I am proud of my reaction to her singing, so there’s nothing guilty in it.

But then I started to remember the time when I was a jazz operative in enemy country.

When I was nine or ten, I was already seriously hooked by hot jazz.  Louis Armstrong, first and foremost.  I recall spending birthday money on a Louis record, and I was thrilled when he appeared on television.

I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles came to the United States, and I found them fascinating — but for only a short time.  They were fun, energetic, new, uninhibited.  I remember pestering my father to buy me the soundtrack album from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.  When I could, I bought those records, borrowed them from friends, tried so hard to make them my personal soundtrack.  (Everyone else did.)

I got all the way up to RUBBER SOUL before I decided that I didn’t really like this music all that much.  What I was entranced by was the possibility of being liked because you like what everyone else likes.

I had already begun to notice, although I probably did not articulate it to myself, that one’s musical preferences were ways definitions of one’s self, stated publicly or otherwise.  One’s taste was an ideological / emotional badge.

If you liked Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ THIS DIAMOND RING (why do I remember this now?) you were possibly a member of the club that could be considered worthy of being inspected for possible admission to the clubhouse.

But walking around telling my peers that I listened to Louis Armstrong — the truth — was clearly not the way to be accepted, to be cool, to be “in” or popular.  I remember telling some adults, who looked at me indulgently.  Perhaps they thought my preference more strange than the loud music their children were listening to.  My conscious anachronism must have struck them as at best, a benign eccentricity; at worst, inexplicable.

Among my peers, anything that new and rebellious was good.  Ancient and entrenched was definitely not.  When I met the pretty granddaughter of our French-Canadian neighbors, I knew I could not tell her that I preferred Fats Waller to Iron Butterfly and expect her to swoon.  “Our” music was supposed to unsettle the old folks who fed and clothed you; it wasn’t supposed to have any comforting connections to their world.  Jini Hendrix, not Jimmie Blanton.

So I kept my love to myself.  I told very few people that I listened to Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland in my room, that I read Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES (and was then violently disappointed by his playing — I was too young to appreciate those Bluebird sides).  I couldn’t really confess to anyone that I loved Bobby Hackett’s air-traceries on ballads, that “Dixieland jazz” on television — those small groupings of oddly-dressed men — thrilled me.  I even remember watching Lawrence Welk’s program for the brief “hot” interludes (not knowing at the time that I would someday see and admire Bob Havens in person).  Even my parents, who were very indulgent and loving, did not quite know what to make of my obsession: they had lived through the Depression and the Swing Era, but the depth of my ardor must have puzzled them.

In this century, a broader acceptance is the rule.  It is much easier to say, “Oh, I listen to Bulgarian hip-hop,” or “I am working on my harpsichord on the weekends,” than it was.  I know a young woman in middle school who dresses in elaborate clothing every day, plays the ukulele, analyzes 1905 Sousa records.  She seems to have gained much more flexibility to be unusual in this century than I had in mine.

My generation may have marched to Thoreau’s different drummer, but to call the metaphorical figure of independence Dave Tough did not do.   It still seems a towering irony that my nonconformist friends were obliviously conformist.

I had to go underground because I identified so strongly with the music of an earlier generation and one before that.  I didn’t dance, so I hadn’t met the swing-dance generation who would teach me the Balboa and know, instinctively, which version of SWINGIN’ THE BLUES they liked.  In 1966, had I come out of the aesthetic closet and said, “The music I like was the popular music — or at least one strain of it — in 1936,” I would be marked as even more freakish than I already was.

I could and did wear the flowered shirts and bell-bottom trousers (both of which pleased me for their own sake) but I could not admit to an admiration for Pee Wee Russell.  To do so would be to say, “I want to be just like your grandparents,” not readily accepted among my peers.

It might have been easier if I had had the ability and patience to seriously attempt a musical instrument.  Then I could have hung out in the bandroom with the other trumpet geeks and said, “Have you heard what Ray Nance does here?”  But that community was denied me.

Even when I was in an independent study program in my senior year of high school, I knew I had to practice secrecy.  It was difficult to unmask.  My friend Stu Zimny has reminded me of our being on field trips into Manhattan, and my running off during our lunch break to buy Commodore 78s.  He would ask, “What did you buy?” and I would say, “Oh, nothing really.  You wouldn’t be interested,” or some similar falsehood.

I was afraid of being laughed at if I was seen buying archaic recordings of strange music with odd-sounding players.  Red, Muggsy, Big Sid, Little T . . . these heroic affectionate sobriquets were encouraged in baseball but not elsewhere.

My affections did not transfer easily.  My seventeen-year-old self — suave, stylish, ineffably debonair, thought that Jack Teagarden’s 1954 recording of A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY was the best seduction music ever.  What woman could resist his wooing?  (All of them.)

I don’t remember when and how the mists began to lift.  It may have been when I began to encounter other young men at jazz concerts.  We glanced at each other cautiously, suspiciously.  “You like this music too?”  “Yeah.”  “Don’t tell anyone, OK?”  “I like hot jazz.”  “Shhhh!  Keep it down.  They’ll hear us!”

But I only began to “come out” in college, perhaps defensively but more proud.  “Yes, I listen to Louis Armstrong records.  Do you want to come to my house and hear what I am listening to?”

It wasn’t always easy.  “Cartoon music” was often the way my records were described.  “How can you listen to that old stuff?  What do you hear in it?” “Wow, that’s old-fashioned!”

At this point in the imagined black-and-white film, calendar pages fall off the wall.  We are now in NOW, this century, where I am entirely comfortable with my own love for hot music.

It fascinates me that when the Beloved lovingly introduces me, “Oh, this is my Sweetie — he has a great jazz video blog!” I can see people’s eyelids begin to flutter — with puzzlement or tedium, it is hard to say.  I can only imagine what people think.  “Oh, no.  Jazz, for God’s sake.  One step less interesting than toy trains.  What shall I say?  I never ‘understood jazz,’ and this fellow is obviously so interested in it that he’s vibrating as he stands there.”  So they say, generously, “Jazz!  Wow, that’s interesting.  Do you like Miles Davis?”  Or “I think John Coltrane was a very spiritual being.  I like electro-fusion.  Do you like Diana Krall?”

And they are being as gracious as human beings can be, so it pains me to redirect their enthusiasm.  But I have to say, “Well, I admire Miles and Coltrane, but my heart is with older stuff.”  “Oh, what do you mean?”  “Louis Armstrong is my hero.  Billie Holiday.  Duke Ellington,” keeping it as plain as possible.  And it is clear that with those words and those names I have marked myself as An Oddity.  The most kind people say, “Did you see ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night?  There was a woman who had a whole collection of autographed band photographs from the Big Band Era, and one of them was signed by Louis Armstrong?”  Others smile sweetly, vaguely, and head for the white wine spritzers.

Jazz still remains a mystery to most people, and those of us who truly resonate to it are destined to remain Outsiders.  It’s a pity.  Why shouldn’t everyone be able to share the great pleasures that we know?

I am now a Spy Emeritus, now able to view these episodes with nostalgia and amusement tempering my puzzlement.  Call me 0078, retired.  But I remember the feeling of being out of step with the culture of my times, and being made to feel weird.

Yet I followed what I loved, and jazz has paid me back for my loyalty a million times over.  And it continues to do so.

This one’s for my friends AJS and KD — and, as always, for the Beloved, who knew that it don’t mean a thing . . . before I ever came along.

May your happiness increase.

. . . AND A DOLLAR SHORT?

Written much more in sorrow and bewilderment than in self-righteous anger:

I continue to be puzzled by the lack of generosity of jazz fans in live music venues.  Many people who are having a good time and yelling WOOHOO! at the end of a set of inspired music by live musicians slip away when the tip jar is passed or — with visible discomfort — put a dollar bill in it.  And the bill is sometimes put there under guilt-inducing scrutiny: a person (spectator, friend, or musician) moves the jar from patron to patron, waiting patiently, making eye contact.

A friend has been in charge of passing the tip jar at some gigs, and she has told me, “When I stand in front of someone with the jar, the person will take a dollar bill, crumple it up, and put his / her closed hand into the jar so that the bill cannot be seen.  When I count the money at the end of the gig, the crumpled dollar bills far outweigh any other ones.”

At some gigs, the tip jar sits in front of the band or on top of the piano, it may remain almost empty all night.  If it can be ignored or skirted, it is.

Of course there are a thousand reasons and rationalizations for this lack of largesse.

“It’s a terrible economy” is perhaps the first.  I couldn’t deny that.

“The musicians are getting paid by the club / bar / management, aren’t they?” comes in second.  One hopes so, but at what rates?

A more elaborate construction is “Tipping is a disgrace.  The musicians shouldn’t have to beg, and my way of protesting their salaries is to refuse to demean them with a gratuity.”

That last one I like a great deal, for it manages to sound noble while the speaker’s wallet is safe, untouched.

I am sure that JAZZ LIVES readers who have waited tables or served food and drink in other ways have stories of frugality (to be exceedingly polite).  For many people, “tourists” of one kind or another, the lack of generosity may result from an unfamiliarity with the customs of the country, a pervasive unawareness.  But if you come from far away to (let us say) New York or San Francisco and you have a guidebook, it does mention the subject.  Even if the commentary is most often about waitpeople in restaurants and people who carry suitcases elsewhere, a wise tourist who wishes to be gracious can understand the significance of a jar and what might be offered to creative musicians as a tangible thank-you.

Now, I know that both younger and older generations have been enabled — perhaps encouraged — to put distance between them and the music by records, radio, videos on YouTube, downloads, and more.  But when a jazz fan visits an establishment where there is one person or a dozen playing instruments or singing, it is harder to ignore their tangible reality of the artists at work.  They are PEOPLE.  They have instruments; they sing or speak into microphones.  They make eye contact.  They are much larger than earbuds, more substantial than any digital download.

To me, the person unwilling to give the musicians something as an expression of gratitude is saying wordlessly but powerfully, “You musicians are not people I have to acknowledge.  You are background music, hired to play while I eat and drink.  Philosophically, you are the barely-visible soundtrack to my pleasure.  When I go home, you might continue to exist, but not in my reality.”

Few working musicians are prospering playing improvised jazz, I think.  Many of my heroes and heroines are singing and playing their hearts out for fifty dollars an evening.  Plus tips.  Or sometimes the improvisers “play for the door,” which is not a way to go home feeling well-compensated.

I am haunted by the cheerful words one musician told me midway through a three-hour performance in a bar where the patrons were regularly consuming drinks.  “Michael, I love this gig!  It pays sixty-five dollars and a salad!”  (This was not an ironic or satiric utterance: he stated this happily.)

How many of my readers would be willing to work for three hours for this salary — and that’s before taxes?  And the musician, I assure you, was world-famous.  He was not stacking boxes in a supermarket; he was not pumping gasoline.

I would like to propose a new moral / aesthetic guideline.  Of course I have no power to enforce it, except to suggest that it is both fair and kind.

Those who download music from iTunes, for instance, pay close to a dollar a song.  And in that case only some of that money goes directly to the artist.  Wouldn’t a dollar a song be a fair starting point for compensating musicians playing live in front of you?  True, you cannot necessarily stuff them into your earbuds — Newtonian physics is against it — but they are creating something right in front of you.  Or, a more tangible model.  A seventy-five minute CD costs fifteen to twenty dollars.  Listen to an hour-plus of music; pay the band something equivalent.

I hear the objections.  “People will stay away from clubs and bars if they are expected to pay such high prices for the music.  And the owners want to see their places filled with patrons buying food and drinks to justify the expenditure of hiring jazz musicians.”  

I know that the “cover charge” drives some casual — and some serious — listeners away.  But I wonder whether musicians are happy when they are forced to push a tip jar into people’s line of sight and wait for the dollar to be dropped in.  Is this inspiring or demeaning?

What might we say to the patron who has had a few glasses of win and a meal — let us say a thirty-dollar tab or less — who then puts a dollar in the tip jar under duress.  Is it too much to say, “Put the cost of one glass of wine in the tip jar; fair to you; fair to them”?

I do my best to be generous now, but I was guilty of this in 1972.  I saw Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s and sat the whole night nursing a $2.50 bottle of Miller beer, which didn’t taste all that good at 9 PM and was foul after midnight.  In my defense, I was a college student with a part-time job who was earning $1.85 / hour.  But I feel bad about it now, and wish I had been able to be more generous.  I wish I could apologize to Roy and the band.  I was wrong.

I am sure that some listeners and perhaps a few musicians will object to the fuss they perceive me as making here.  “It goes with the territory, and my heroes who played in the (insert golden decade here) didn’t make a great living, so why should I complain?”  The logic bothers me.  Because Johnny Dodds had a drive a taxi to be somewhere in the neighborhood of solvent, should modern musicians.

Is the artist unworthy of a living wage?

I think ultimately that listeners have some moral obligation to be generous to the musicians they say they admire.  

If they choose to lament that their favorite players are having a hard time, have they contributed tangibly to the ease and comfort of the artist?  

And, on a larger scale, those who lament the lack of places to play, artists being forced to take day jobs to survive — in fact, the very DEATH OF JAZZ — to give it the appropriate journalistic emphasis.  Are the people who look away when the tip jar comes or drop a dollar in it killing off jazz and jazz musicians by their delicate frugalities?

The Beloved, very wise, said to me, “Didn’t you write a post about this already?” She is right.  It’s one of her finest qualities.  I expect some disagreement to be expressed by both fans and musicians.  But I find the manifestations of a lack of gratitude dismaying.  And since gratitude is one of the primary engines beneath human kindness, I do not feel upset about writing this polite protest against its absence.  Words from Thoreau’s CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, slightly edited, seem apt here:

I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.

When the individual plays a trombone, a guitar, or sings, should we cease to be neighborly?

Ponder this, dear listeners.  Bills come in denominations larger than ONE.

May your happiness increase. 

MAKING MERRY at MONTEREY 2012: A REYNOLDS BROTHERS JAM SESSION with JOHN SHERIDAN, ALLAN VACHE, JOHN COCUZZI, DAWN LAMBETH, and SUE KRONINGER (March 4, 2012)

Some jazz parties and festivals visibly deflate in their final hours.  Not the 2012 Jazz Bash by the Bay — also known as Dixieland Monterey.  This was, for me, the final set of the three-day blowout, and it was a delight.

Once again, the sly truth came out: the Reynolds Brothers don’t have the international reputation their music deserves, and on some festival bills they aren’t the band whose name appears in the largest font.

But they exude jazz pheronomes — or, to put it more simply, the best musicians on the bill always make it a point to sit in with John Reynolds, Ralf Reynolds, Katie Cavera, and Marc Caparone.  It’s the jazz equivalent of a civilian finding the restaurant where the chefs eat on their night off.  The noble sitters-in were John Sheridan, piano; Allan Vache, clarinet; John Cocuzzi, unamplified vibraphone.  “Three Johns, no waiting,” says Mr. John Reynolds at the start.

The set started right off with an enthusiastic affirmation — saying YES to life is a good thing! — I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

Another affirmation, even when it’s couched as a question by way of Fats Waller, AIN’T ‘CHA GLAD?:

One of Ralf’s many secrets is that he did graduate work in European history . . . who better to instruct the crowd in historical geography with CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS . . . making Merry, of course.  Merry says hello:

From raillery to romance with the help of Dawn Lambeth, the living embodiment of what Louis called “tonation and phrasing,” her subtly textured voice and her speaking rubatos beautifully on display in SUGAR (with majestically quiet help from John Sheridan):

What might seem odd, an instrumental version of a song associated with Bing Crosby, works perfectly, with Marc leading the way into YOUNG AND HEALTHY:

A friend of the music and one of the gracious shapers of the Jazz Bash by the Bay, Sue Kroninger — also a dynamic singer — joined in with WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO, giving Allan a chance to show off his version of early Benny to great advantage with Hamp Cocuzzi and Teddy Sheridan in hot pursuit.  1936, anyone?:

The tempo had to slow down — so here’s a tender I’VE GOT A FEELIN’ I’M FALLING.  Beneath that serious exterior, John Sheridan is a deep romantic — and his playing of the verse is just another glorious piece of evidence.  And it’s not just the verse!  Listening to this one again, I think it might have been one of the highlights of the whole weekend:

John’s choice of THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN is always a wise one — not only is it a romping song, but its political / ethical sentiments continue to strike chords today — Thoreau in swingtime:

And — to close — CRAZY RHYTHM — a rendition that truly lives up to its name with a cutting contest or a conversation between Ralf on washboard and John on vibraphone — or at least parts of his vibraphone — that has to be seen to be believed.  Or something like that.  Crazy, man, crazy! (With very strong echoes of a Hampton Victor circa 1937, too.):

Thank you, Reynolds Brothers.  Thank you, friends.  Thank you, Merry.  Thank you, Jazz Bash by the Bay.  I’m ready to make my room reservations for March 2013.  Just let me know the dates!  Dixieland Monterey / Jazz Bash by the Bay is a proven source of joy.

May your happiness increase.

BAD BOYS, NAUGHTY GIRLS: JAZZ MYTHOGRAPHY

This post grew out of an online conversation with my friend Julio Schwarz Andrade, a fine young musician currently exploring the music of short-lived trumpeter Tony Fruscella.  Julio said he found Fruscella both moving and inconsistent, and asked my opinion.  I said that Fruscella was one of those musicians elevated to mythic status not only because he could play beautifully (hear his I’LL BE SEEING YOU) but because the jazz audience seems eager to create a posthumous mythography, celebrating behavior they themselves don’t indulge in.

“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” is the philosophy of Studs Lonigan in James T. Farrell’s fiction.

I think it ironic that men and women who pay their bills, have two beers on a Friday night and then stop, wear their seat belts — people who not only espouse all the bourgeois middle-class virtues but live them — are secretly entranced by those who do not or cannot: the OUTLAW, the SUPERNOVA, the ECCENTRIC.

Were I asked by a young jazz musician how to ensure posthumous fame, one answer would be “Practice your instrument so that you play brilliantly, memorably.  Learn from those who have gone before you and listen closely on the bandstand.”

But that isn’t always enough to merit a place in the great jazz mythography.  So my advice (delivered ironically) might sound like this: “Want to make sure that your life in jazz will be chronicled long after your death?  Take heroin; you’re much more interesting if you’re tortured.  Die young.  Break the law.  Be dramatically inconsistent, so that someone narrating the arc of your career can chart your “early beginnings,” “meteoric rise,” “sad end.”  Behave in an apparently erratic fashion.  Steal someone’s horn; give up hygiene.  Cultivate intellectual arrogance; antagonize your fellow players.  Avoid the ordinary, the conventional, give up all attempts at social awareness.”

Of course, the musicians and singers I know view these personality traits — echoes of a presumed hipster way of life — with pained skepticism at best.  They may see themselves as outsiders, but they prize bourgeois virtues: showing up early for the gig, ready to play, one’s clothes clean, being a professional, knowing the key.  They like to work alongside reliable individuals, not those too stoned to play.

But these habits don’t make for dramatic mythography, so they don’t get celebrated.

Although the players and singers who outlived the most famous self-destructive figures in jazz speak with reverence and affection of the dead, it can’t have been easy to deal with these “jazz titans” on the stand.  In retrospect, they describe how A stole someone’s horn, how B didn’t bathe, how C broke the plate-glass window; how D nodded off while the band was playing, how E apparently committed suicide through excess of food or drink.  Great stories after the fact, but not easy to tolerate in real life.  In this century, nonconformity seems expected, and Thoreau still has validity, but is it essential to creative improvisation?

The voyeuristic fascination with the painful details of the lives of some musicians puzzles me.  I wonder how many people who see Billie Holiday as an iconic victim have heard more than a few of her performances.

Do some people secretly envy the outlaw his or her defiance, self-destructive boldness?  Are prudent listeners enthralled by myths of people who defied everything that was “good” for them because the short lives of their musical heroes make them feel comfortable and secure?  Or are others so entranced by the Jazz Martyr, whose life is so deeply focused on the music that all else becomes unimportant?

In a world where people — kindly and sometimes officiously — tell us what to do (get that taillight fixed, lose fifteen pounds, be on time for work) I wonder if some well-behaved people find stories of disobedience vicariously gratifying?

Could we make a case that (for one example) Fats Waller had to behave the way he did — or thought he did — to create the music that lives on after him?  EARLY TO BED was the name of his last musical show . . . but a way of life he chose to reject.

Speculating on the inner lives of the people we admire must always be both intriguing and futile: they take their secrets with them.  Who among us fully understands what motivates his or her behavior?

I don’t see the doomed-artist mythography diminishing any time soon, as long as readers want to immerse themselves in tales of Outsider rule-breaking.  But I wish we could simply listen to the music without getting distracted by the figures we have invented.

Perhaps we could also honor a Barry Harris, a Buck Clayton, an Ed Hall, a Benny Morton, a Joe Wilder, an Eddie Higgins, a Milt Hinton.  These players — and so many others — show that one can be a middle-class citizen and a creative improviser.  But the bad boys and girls get all the press.

P.S.  As a real-life postscript.  Last night (Feb. 21, 2012) I went to a new room where a fine jazz trio was playing.  Behind me were two “jazz fans,” talking throughout the music about their favorites and when they had discovered each musician.  At one point, the conversation about pianists took this turn: “I can’t think of the name of that druggie jazz pianist.  Very famous,” (presumably Bill Evans?) and a few songs later, one fan opined to the other, “I liked Chet Baker.  But he wasn’t a very nice person.  And, you know, he took drugs.”

UNDERNEATH THE ARCHES: THE REYNOLDS BROTHERS and BOB DRAGA at SWEET AND HOT 2011

The Reynolds Brothers bring it in a gratifying hot, witty way.  More from these Swing Masters and clarinetist Bob Draga, recorded outdoors at “Rampart Street” at the 2011 Sweet and Hot Music Festival.  (“Rampart Street” is something of a joke born of necessity: sharp-eyed viewers will see that the imagined ceiling of this outdoors stage is a highway ramp.) 

For this set, the Brothers were Ralf (washboard, vocal); John (guitar, banjo, vocal, whistling); Marc Caparone (cornet), Katie Cavera (string bass, vocal); Larry Wright (alto sax, ocarina), with the nimble lines of Bob Draga weaving in and out.

Is there anything finer than DINAH?

The band that has Katie Cavera in it is doubly or triply gifted — instrumentally and vocally, as she demonstrates on DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME?

Nothing but BLUE SKIES do I see:

Perhaps because the odd stage, John came up with OUT OF NOWHERE for his homage to Harry Lillis Crosby:

Translate the lyrics to the Fields-McHugh DIGA DIGA DOO without being politically incorrect and win a prize — or just get swept along by the fine momentum here:

SADIE GREEN (The Vamp of New Orleans) . . . was a hot mama, and this tune is a heated improvisation in her honor — half vaudeville, half rocking jazz:

I have a special fondness for OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN — one of those 1931 songs designed to make the homeless and unemployed feel that their lot was endurable . . . but the sentiments it espouses (a love of Nature, freedom from materialism, and a Thoreau-like simplicity mixed with a hip socialism) touch a responsive chord, as do the Brothers in this performance:

I’m as happy as I can be (even though my heart feels a chill) when the Reynolds Brothers SWING THAT MUSIC.  And Marc’s singing is just grand:

Yeah, man!

P.S.  A reader wrote in, “I love the Reynolds Brothers, but why does the one with the washboard [that’s Ralf] keep blowing that whistle?”  Youth wants to know: Ralf blows that whistle when a member of the band creates a particularly hoary “quotation” from another song — it’s in the interest of fairness, a referee calling FOUL.  Now you know.

P.P.S.  Connee Boswell’s rendition of the beautifully sad song UNDERNEATH THE ARCHES should be better known, especially in perilous economic times.