Tag Archives: Wilbur Sweatman

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

‘NITA DOES THE TWIST: ANDREW OLIVER and DAVID HORNIBLOW (Op. Four)

While you were sleeping, or doing the dinner dishes, supervising the kids’ homework, or taking Charlie for his walk, pianist Andrew Oliver and clarinetist David  Horniblow were creating beauty and open-heartedly giving it to us.

Here is what you need to know about the Complete Morton Project, a weekly series of gifts — Mister Morton’s compositions played imaginatively with emotion by Messrs. Horniblow and Oliver.

Here is my most recent posting on this delightful subject.  I will let you discover more for yourselves.

MAMA’NITA, a sinuous Creole dance:

TURTLE TWIST, another hip-swinging exercise in bluesiness:

I have a hard time adequately putting into words my admiration for these two players.  Their music is immaculate but soulfully warm, and they are doing it for the greater glory of the music, not asking for money or purchases or attendance at a gig.  They are showing love for the music and sharing it with us — quite beautifully remarkable in this self-absorbed century.

And that’s Charlie.  He’s not my dog (nor am I his human) but he is adorable and very well-trained: he sits silent while the Wilbur Sweatman record plays and only barks once at the conclusion, Doglish for “Please play that again!”  A model for us all.

May your happiness increase!

“YOU HAD TO WORK FOR YOUR MUSIC”: DAN MORGENSTERN on RECORD-COLLECTING (April 21, 2017)

More delightful memories and stories from Dan Morgenstern.  I’d asked him, “What was it like to buy records in the Forties?” — a scene that few people reading this post have experienced.

First-hand narrative: there’s nothing to compare with it.

Here’s another part of the story of Big Joe Clauberg, as excerpted from Amanda Petrusich’s excellent book, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE.

I took my title for this post from Dan’s recollections of his first phonograph, a wind-up acoustic one, but it has larger meaning for me.

There is still something wondrous about going in to a shop that happens to have a pile of records — an antique store or something else — getting one’s hands dirty, going through a pile of mail-order classical records, red-label Columbias of Dorothy Shay, incomplete sets, and the like — to find a 1938 Brunswick Ellington, Teddy Wilson, or Red Norvo.

Later, the pleasure of going in to an actual record store and looking through the bins — name your dozen favorite artists — and finding something that you didn’t know existed — in my case, recordings of the Eddie Condon Floor Show on Queen-Disc.  More recently, the same experience with compact discs at now vanished chain record stores.

All gone.  The alternative?  Stream forty hours of your cherished jive through one of the services that doesn’t pay the musicians.  Oh, there are happy exceptions: the Blessed Mosaic Records.  But nothing replaces finding treasure on your own.

And, in case the thought hasn’t yet occurred to you, Dan Morgenstern is one of those treasures.

Here’s one of the sides from Dan’s birthday present:

May your happiness increase!

ESCAPING THE BOX

William Carlos Williams: “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet—gosh, how I hate sonnets—is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab any more.”

Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Younger, I would have sided with Frost: too much freedom leads to chaos. But I celebrate Williams’ position (even though his metaphor makes me wince) more as I age, feel, and listen.  Tidiness is a wonderful thing in the kitchen cabinets, but it might lead to the slow death of creative improvising.

In that spirit, I present the latest works of saxophonist / composer / historian / scholar / seeker Allen Lowe, a four-CD set of original compositions with one exception, a spoken-word piece by the novelist Rick Moody.

field recordings cover bc

JAZZ LIVES readers will be familiar with many of the names on that cover; others will provide engaging and sometimes quizzical surprises in listening and emotion.

Lowe’s works don’t seek to present snapshots of particular eras; they don’t offer “styles or schools.” Rather, his imaginations are intense, deep, yet unfettered. FIELD RECORDINGS, Lowe says in his liner notes, grew out of an argument he had with Wnton Marsalis — during Lowe’s attempt to interview Marsalis.  Disagreeing about “minstrelsy,” Marsalis characterized Lowe — in Lowe’s words — as “merely another in a long line of deluded white academics.”

Lowe spent the next six years immersing himself in “early entertainments of every racial persuasion,” which led him to compositions — song forms — that reflected what he had heard and experienced.  He also plays and improvises on many of these performances heard in this CD set.  More details here.

Lowe writes, “There is a tradition in certain kinds of writing in which the writer takes past works and puts them to his own use for very specific philosophical and artistic reasons. Brecht called this copien, as in the use of older texts as a means to something new and different, as a method from which to challenge prior ideas and forms. This project was done in exactly this spirit, as a way of altering certain received ideas of popular and jazz song. It is also a challenge to certain formal and intellectual assumptions.”

I haven’t heard more than one quarter of the set, but found the music so inspiring that I wanted to spread the word about it.   The performances weren’t always easy to listen to — Lowe, as composer and player, doesn’t shy away from improvisation’s rough edges, but he doesn’t run into harshness for its own sake.

What I appreciate most about the music — I was listening both with and without the benefit of Lowe’s commentaries — was its depth of feeling and innate ability to surprise.  The surprises weren’t ones I could predict (I know that sounds like an illogical paradox, but listening to many of the great musicians, I feel I know “where (s)he might be going” in the next chorus).

Rather, I felt the ground shifting under me in the best sense of the metaphor. Over and over, I felt beautifully startled, gently lifted out of my expectations and planted somewhere else, experiencing the sounds from a different perspective.  Each voyage was a fascinating series of what Emerson calls “zig-zag tacks.”  I heard echoes of New Orleans polyphony and street parade, dark unrequited blues, ensemble questing that echoed Mingus and freer improvsations, with searching, winding melodic lines, unpredictable harmonies that felt good as soon as they found my ears.

Language has a hard time describing music in the best of circumstances, and words are particularly inadequate here. One must be a creative listener to feel Lowe’s many musics, but they are well worth the investigation.  He is honest, inquiring, and sly — as is his work on these four CDs.  But beware!  This set is not ear-cushioning, to be listened to in conjunction with household chores, nor is it meant to be heard as one hears some discs: seventy-five minutes of supple protection from the world.  I predict that the listener wise and brave enough to purchase the FIELD RECORDINGS will approach the music as one does a new book of poems: a poem or two at a time, rather than as an artistic devouring of it all.

As a measure of the breadth and often witty depths of Lowe’s imagination, I would list some of the names he calls in his notes and compositions: Bunk Johnson, Tony Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Ernest Hogan, Mantan Moreland, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Lennie Tristano, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Thelonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Varese, Dave Schildkraut, Bud Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Melrose, Paul Whiteman, Bill Challis, Harry Barris, George Bacquet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James P. Johnson, Albert Ayler, Ran Blake, Henry Mancini, Sun Ra, Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Daily, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Bill Triglia, George Gershwin, Frank Teschemacher, Jess Stacy, Bix Beiderbecke, Arizona Dranes, Bert Williams, George Wheeler, Barbara Payne, Clyde Bernhardt, Ma Rainey, Anthony Braxton, Joe Jordan, Jaki Byard, Fess Manetta, Lester Young, Duke Ellington . . . and more.

The curious — and I hope there are many — will listen to samples here and then plunge in — this set costs less than two CDs and is wonderfully lively. You can also learn more at Allen’s website and blog (called EVERYTHING ELSE IS POST MODERNISM) — where Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Norman Mailer, compelled to share a subway seat, eye each other with suspicion.

I admire Allen Lowe’s courage, range, and audacities. The music is often, on first hearing, “weird,” but that’s a compliment. A little weirdness is like good seasoning: so much missed in the music we are sold, so richly enhancing in the right proportions.

And to return to the austere Robert Frost.  My letter to him, unsent and unread, is as follows:Dear Mr. Frost. If you removed the net, you might not have tennis, but you certainly would have an engaging dance.”

May your happiness increase!