Tag Archives: Warne Marsh

“THE TRISTANO SCHOOL” (New York Times, Jan. 9, 2011)

First, the picture — from the Bettmann / Corbis archives: the original jazz club Birdland, perhaps on opening night in 1949.  From the left, Max Kaminsky on trumpet, Lester Young on tenor saxophone, a nearly-hidden George Wettling on drums, Hot Lips Page on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, Lennie Tristano on piano.

Had I been there at that front table, I would not have been turning my head away to see what the other people or the photographer happened to be doing, but that matters little now.  (And where are the acetates of this music, broadcast by the Voice of America — this imagined blues performance, especially?)

The photograph accompanies an article by Nate Chinen in The New York Times, relevant to my anticipation of tenor saxophonist Ted Brown’s upcoming gig:

Had he enjoyed a different sort of jazz career, you might say that Ted Brown was finally making a comeback. A tenor saxophonist drawn to a light and lyrically swinging style, Mr. Brown turned 83 last month, with just a handful of albums to his name. For the better part of 30 years, from the early 1960s on, he made his living as a computer programmer. “I’m not good at going out and getting gigs,” he said recently, sounding resigned and matter of fact. By his account his last booking in New York as a bandleader was in 1976 at the short-lived Midtown branch of George Wein’s Storyville club.

His next booking is Wednesday night at the Kitano Hotel on Park Avenue, and the circumstances are ripe for his return. Mr. Brown was among the early protégés of Lennie Tristano, a blind pianist and composer who charted his own course through modern postwar jazz before withdrawing into a reclusive life of pedagogy. (He died in 1978.) The music of the Tristano School, as it came to be known, was for many years the province of niche enthusiasts, and only a rare point of reference for musicians in the jazz mainstream.

That’s no longer the case, thanks to the ascendant influence of a generation of players — like the saxophonist Mark Turner, 45, and the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, 40 — who have been vocal in their admiration for Tristano’s harmonically daring, melodically intricate music. Greater availability of that music has furthered the cause, as have scholarly examinations like “Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music” (University of Michigan Press), published in 2007. The Tristano School, always ahead of its time, has come to feel congruent with ours, exerting real influence among younger musicians, including some of the brightest and best.

Mr. Brown, a first-wave initiate with stories to tell, should be of serious interest to them. “I moved from Southern California to New York in September 1948,” he said in a phone conversation, speaking from his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “I had been to New York when I was in the Army in ’46, and heard a lot of music on 52nd Street. I wanted to get back here, and I wanted to find a good teacher.”

Tipped off by an Army acquaintance who had studied with Tristano, Mr. Brown attended a private session and soon became a disciple, joining two other gifted saxophonists: Lee Konitz, who at 83 is among jazz’s great unfaltering elders; and Warne Marsh, who died in 1987. Mr. Brown’s best-circulated recordings were all made with one or the other of these peers.

Tristano was an imposingly dexterous pianist with a commitment to contemporary harmony and the forward-skimming melodic line. Born and raised in Chicago, he moved to New York in 1946, when bebop was ascendant. His music resembled bop in its brisk variations on standard themes, but was less rhythmically volatile and more sternly obsessed with pure improvisation. He took part in the New York scene for a while, earning the respect of some prominent critics and musicians — including Charlie Parker and the pianist Billy Taylor, who died last month — but even then Tristano’s primary focus was on developing musical ideas in a workshop setting.

“Right at the beginning he told me he didn’t want students who were coming in for a few lessons and popping out on the road,” Mr. Brown said. He remained a student for seven years, helping establish a rehearsal studio above an auto shop at 317 East 32nd Street in Manhattan. The address quickly became the title of a Tristano School anthem.

“It’s gotten blown out of proportion,” Mr. Brown said of Tristano’s aloof and imperious reputation. “He was strict, but he also had a very human side.” Yet it’s true that Tristano issued scathing judgments of other musicians, and that he maintained a compulsive control over his music, gradually abandoning live performance for the studio, where he could overdub parts — as on his pioneering, self-titled 1956 Atlantic album — and stamp the output with metronomic precision, often using an actual metronome.

“He was a cult groove weirdo,” said Ethan Iverson, the pianist in the Bad Plus. “I really disapprove of the way he separated his scene from other cats who could play.”

In 2008 Mr. Iverson published a thoughtful essay on his band’s blog, Do the Math, praising Tristano’s singular genius but taking him to task for his social disengagement. In the end, Mr. Iverson wrote, it helps to think of Tristano not as a jazz musician, but rather alongside the player-piano visionary Conlon Nancarrow and the modernist composer Charles Ives, “both experimental American hermits who decided not to play with others.”

Seclusion was one reason for Tristano’s obscurity. Another, more complex, was race. (Mr. Iverson’s essay delves into that issue in detail.) Tristano played with a number of black musicians, but his inner circle was white, as was the perceived affect of his music. “Lennie’s concept was first to get a rhythm section playing very basic, so that what he was doing would be in clear relief,” Mr. Konitz explains in the 2007 book “Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art” (University of Michigan Press). Given the centrality of dynamic rhythm in jazz, that approach alienated some listeners from Tristano’s music.

“People thought it was cold,” Mr. Turner said. “The African diasporic rhythmic element was not there, not strong enough.” In his own music — notably with Fly, a leaderless trio that will appear at the Jazz Gallery on Tuesday — Mr. Turner set out to make an adjustment. “That’s something that I wanted to do, was bring that into the fold,” he said. “The harmonic information, the melodic information, all of that is so interesting, so why can’t it be brought into a warmer place rhythmically?” (He has a tune called “Lennie Groove.”)

Growing up in Southern California, Mr. Turner discovered Warne Marsh and responded to the style. “It was almost like a no-no,” he said of his interest in the Tristano School. “No one was doing it, no one in the quote-unquote modern mainstream jazz world.” He responded to the articulate force of the music, but it was more than that: “Something about it spoke to my own personal life and upbringing, being a person of African descent brought up primarily in Caucasian neighborhoods. I felt I was going out on a limb, kind of like when I started listening to rock music and new wave and ska.”

Because Mr. Turner is one of the most emulated saxophonists of the last 15 years, especially among music students, the Tristano School has seeped into the consciousness of a new generation of players. Some of his colleagues, similarly revered by the conservatory crowd, have intensified the process. Mr. Rosenwinkel, a longtime band mate of Mr. Turner’s, favors the harmonic involution and long, unfurling lines of the Tristano School. The drummer Jorge Rossy, another Tristano enthusiast, was a decadelong member of the extremely influential Brad Mehldau Trio. And of course there’s Mr. Iverson, who like Mr. Mehldau has played occasionally with Mr. Konitz.

There was a post-bop Tristano School undercurrent well before Mr. Turner and his circle. The critic Stanley Crouch has astutely argued that Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock drew from Marsh and Tristano, and there’s at least a whisper of Tristano in Keith Jarrett’s pianism. But widespread acknowledgment of the influence is new. “When I was coming up, I felt like I was really excited about that music and had very few people to share it with,” said Michael Kanan, another contemporary of Mr. Turner’s and the pianist in Mr. Brown’s quartet at the Kitano. “Now I’m encountering more young musicians interested in that music than I’ve ever seen.”

Among the 20-something pianists who have a clear admiration for Tristano is Dan Tepfer. “There are tracks of his that just can’t be ignored,” Mr. Tepfer said. Two years ago he released an album called “Duos With Lee” (Sunnyside), featuring Mr. Konitz. With two saxophonists closer to his own age, Noah Preminger and Dan Voss, he has played gigs around the city featuring nothing but Tristano School music.

Because of obvious precursors, saxophonists may be the chief new inheritors of the style. In addition to Mr. Preminger and Mr. Voss, a noncomprehensive list would include Lena Bloch, Ben Van Gelder, Jeremy Udden and Ben Wendel in New York, and Brad Linde in Washington. (For what it’s worth, all of these musicians are white.)

The streamlined aspects of jazz in the contemporary sphere make for a naturally receptive Tristano moment. “I would say there was a certain ‘straighter’ feel to the way Tristano and his school played eighth notes,” Mr. Wendel, a member of the band Kneebody, wrote in an e-mail message, “and this fits in with how a lot of present-day players approach time.”

For his part Mr. Brown, a profound admirer of Charlie Parker and Lester Young, looks to a more classic mode of interplay. “I always liked the concept of swinging and melody,” he said. One of his best albums, “In Good Company” (Steeplechase), from 1985, features the guitarist Jimmy Raney, the bassist Buster Williams and the drummer Ben Riley: a deeply swinging rhythm team.

What still distinguishes Mr. Brown as a Tristano-ite is the resistance to pattern work and cliché in his solos. “He’s just such a pure improviser,” Mr. Kanan said. “He plays these lovely, beautiful melodies, one after the other, never repeating himself. And never playing in a way where it seems like he’s trying to get attention.”

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PAY ATTENTION: TED BROWN RETURNS! (Jan. 12, 2011)

Mark your calendars: saxophonist Ted Brown will be playing his first official New York gig in thirty years this coming January 12th at the Kitano Hotel — with a congenial rhythm section of Michael Kanan, piano; Murray Wall, bass, and Taro Okamoto, drums.  

In the late 1940s, Ted Brown, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz were among the first students of jazz innovator Lennie Tristano.  And Brown continues to evoke the spirit of Lester Young — as he did when I saw him play alongside Joel Press and Michael Kanan at the end of June 2010.  Here are Ted, Joel, Michael, Neal Kanan, and Joe Hunt exploring ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE at Sofia’s Ristorante (Ted is wearing the red shirt, if you don’t know him by sight or sound):

Brown has performed and recorded with Tristano, Marsh, Konitz, Art Pepper, Kenny Clarke, Art Taylor, Jimmy Giuffre, Jimmy Raney, and many others.  His best-known recordings are probably JAZZ OF TWO CITIES with Marsh and FIGURE AND SPIRIT with Konitz.  (Both also feature Brown’s own compositions.)

Brown’s more recent years have often been lean: he has worked as a computer programmer.  But even when not performing regularly, he continued to practice at home and play private jam sessions.  His sound has retained its purity, warmth, and intimacy.  Perhaps he’s even grown as artist; certainly he is playing just as strong as on his classic recordings.

Supporting Brown at the Kitano are players connected to both the Tristano universe and serious swing:

Michael Kanan (piano) studied with Tristano-disciples Harvey Diamond and Sal Mosca.  He was a member of the International Hashva Orchestra (Mark Turner, Nat Su, Jorge Rossy) which explored original Tristano/Marsh/Konitz repertoire.  Kanan appears on Kurt Rosenwinkel’s INTUIT and has had long term associations with Jimmy Scott and Jane Monheit.

Murray Wall (bass) has performed Clark Terry, Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton, Ken Peplowski, Jon Hendricks, Marty Grosz, Annie Ross, Billy Eckstine, the EarRegulars, Michael Bank, and Mel Torme.  And upon arriving in New York from Australia in the 1970ss, he also  studied with Tristano.

Taro Okamoto (drums) has performed with Sal Mosca, Warne Marsh, Hank Jones and Sadik Hakim.  He was also an assistant to Elvin Jones. Most importantly for this gig, Wall and Okamoto have been playing together for 30 years!

The Kitano Hotel: 66 Park Avenue at 38th Street, NYC.  Sets at 8:00 and 10:00.  No cover charge, $15 minimum good for food or drink.  Reservations recommended: 212-885-7119.  http://www.kitano.com.

P.S.  I saw Ehud Asherie and Harry Allen at the Kitano this summer.  There’s a first-rate piano and they make a fine mojito!  Look for me — in between sets, of course: I’ll be the person intently looking through a viewfinder.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.