Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Return of Jazz Shtick-by Steve Provizer

Why did Louis Armstrong's standing in the jazz scene plummet during his "Hello Dolly" era, as if he had not been The Man? The reason may be that 1964 was about the time that jazz lost its sense of humor. Not its sly, oblique sense of humor, but the acceptance of a broad style that included a slick dance and a straight-up belly-laugh. The change didn't happen with the Boppers, although it started to shift. Diz had one foot in the old school, one in the new. It was still acceptable for jazz musicians to sing, dance and entertain. Still hip, but increasingly less so.
To some extent, starting in the late 1950's, the entertainment part of a jazz presentation was farmed out to a new wave of comedians-L. Bruce, M. Sahl, B.Newhart, S. Berman, W. Allen, Nichols and May. The politics of the era made escapism a dirty word. We all took ourselves quite seriously.
The reason I'm on this jag is that I recently saw videos of the group "Mostly Other People Do The Killing" (MOPDtK). This is a group about which there is much to say. However, there was one particular video which featured drummer Kevin Shea doing just about everything to a drum set except eat it. And that's probably in the works. This is essentially the first time comedy and jazz have successfully been combined since the days of Pete Barbuti playing the piano with his nose and Lenny Bruce tapping on a cymbal during "To is a preposition, come is a verb;" and Lenny's bit was telling, but not funny.
In the video, deadpan all the while, Shea sticks an odd-shaped piece of paper on his nose and proceeds to straddle the drums, hump them, bump them, milk them, tangle with them, move them, disassemble them, pratfall over them and use them as a staging area for a finger puppet show. At one point, it looks like Laurel and Hardy moving a piano, but with the bass drum standing in for Ollie. The audience seems too intimidated by the 'seriousness' of the context to respond as I did-laugh out loud. It's just not done. Mr. Wooster.
After all this, Shea moves the band into a fiery "Night In Tunisia." His is a gutsy, funny and focused performance. I know, performance art, yadda-yadda, but this is essentially shtick and a little shtick never hurt anyone.


Chris Rich said...

That's funny, the first euro production I ever did was in 82 or so and it involved Willem Breuker's Kollectief in a chapel space on Tufts Campus.

The joint was packed, all the provincial glitteratti showed up. Beginners luck.

And it was all madcap shtick all the time with fairly elaborate arrangements. They's play tuned booze jugs kind of like a euro free jazz Spike Jones.

I remember picking them up at Logan with a car caravan of helpful Tufts friends. I didn't know them from a wall hole but kept an eye for aging euro hipsters with instrument cases. That worked. On the ride to the hotel, they had this odd and funny habit of conversing in multilingual sentences..start in Dutch wander to French before German and a bit of English like confetti or a garnish.

Entertainment interwoven with edification. The crowd went wild.

Steve Provizer said...

Sounds most excellent and entertaining. Naturally, I exaggerate in order to try and force historical perspective on an unwilling public. Other stuff has happened, but the overwhelming vibe has been ART ART ART and screw having a good laugh.

Chris Rich said...

The curators and art mandarins just suffocate things. I am nearly violently opposed to the entire introduction of the 'curator' function for presenting live music.

It's either maudlin Gen X english majors hiring Uncle Tupelo Refugees or creepy faux visionaries hiring hellish navel gaze white Improv Eyeglaze with enough sanctimoniousness to choke an elephant or, in Boston, gutless middle brow cute stuff that draws flies to its treacle.

Anonymous said...

I agree that many in Jazz may have lost their sense of humor around 1964 as well as its direction, but that’s another story. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Lenny Bruce was King with his bits such as “The Palladium”, “Religions Incorporated”, “Father Flotski”, and later “Christ And Moses”. Bruce was also hanging out with a number of musicians, in particular Joe Maini. In his autobiography for Playboy, Bruce tells the story when he and Maini took Maini’s drunken mother to a local LA TV show that featured that had the best sad story. They won a refrigerator, but couldn’t get into the bungalow that they were living in. It probably wasn’t true, but it was a funny bit as told by Bruce. Bruce lost his sense of humor when he became overwhelmed with his legal battles and his routines turned into dissertations on the American Legal System. He was no longer funny!

A new wave of comedians began to poke fun at society and made us take a good look at ourselves. That was one of the great leaps into reality and broke the mold of humor for humor’s sake alone. It just so happens that Jazz began to go in several directions at the same time and several of them took themselves too seriously. The Jazz musicians who remained in the mainstream of Jazz did not lose their sense of humor. Dizzy, Moody, Dexter, Roy, Jacquet….go right down the line. I knew all of them and believe me; they were always ready for a laugh!
Tom Curry
Jazz From The Top (Zumix Radio)

Chris Rich said...

I realized that, for me, comedy meets me every time I step past my door, without fail.

I live in Cambridge.

There is a panoply of the preposterous, bushels of buffoons, heaps of howls.

It is a dense epicenter of living kitsch and ditzes run amok.

Modern American life in such over anxious and affect saturated places is a rapid churn of tragicomic goofiness as if God set the blender on Liquefy.

And when the door closes on it all, in the quiet of my shelter, I can unwind from the comic overload with some sounds of the sublime as an antidote to the avalanche of the ridiculous.

This very blog is daily comedy as some crazy fat guy stalks it to menace with broken impersonations while uber serious neurotic lurkers anxiously scan for signs of travesty and reasons to harrumph.

So it's rare I have to bother poor old Jazz to make me laugh. Sunny Murray continues the humor tradition..."When you play this music..people assume you must be an intellectual or something."

And if I need to bother Music for a laugh, there's always Fats Waller, Albert Marcoeur or the Waterson's whimsical songs about sheep shearing delivered in nasal voices.

Steve Provizer said...

Dick V. DM'd:
I don't think you were hard enough on the boppers. They were hell-bent on seeking respect as artists and as black artists at that. This really fueled the rebellion against musician-as-entertainer.

Throw in some generational rebellion, some attitudinal changes in wartime America, and the fact that Duke's band and Woody's band were gaining traction with their more ambitious concert music.

You want schtick? Listen to Eddie Condon's crowd. Or Louis Jordan's. Seems to me there was no fun in bebop at all until the media made the weed-smoking, beret-topped caricature of the bop musician popular. Then they played the role to the hilt, at least off the stage.

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

I just saw MOPDTK open for the Schlippenbach trio at the Vancouver Jazz festival. While they all played like motherfuckers, I was/am especially taken with drummer Kevin Shea.

The faint whiff of shtick was totally overpowered by the stench of musical excellence and drum set virtuosity.

Lastly, let us not confuse shtick and fashion excellence. Like a dark denim duster*, two pair (pairs?) of sunglasses is a good look for any one, including a drummer.

* -- extra points if you know who wears the duster in question...

Chris Rich said...

I can't overlook our own Laurence Cook how has an entire kit bag of sly send up aspects from joke shop laugh boxes to performance draped in sheets and he began in the early 60s with Roy Haynes.

His is the sly understated yankee version but quite noticeable, Bennink is another and then Django Carranza who learned his shtick with Hobbs and Timo as avante jazz buskers.

Steve Provizer said...

Alas, the word shtick may have fallen into disrepute. Not with me. It takes balls to do shtick, especially in a ART-y context. You have to have so much confidence in your core abilities that you can climb out on this limb... Who sports the duster?