Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Jazz Rarity: Successful Doublers.

I suppose we should define our terms. One definition of doubling is that a person play various saxes and flute. Kudos to you guys, but that's out-those axes are all too close. It's expected (sorry, Rahsaan). Next, there are people who play credible piano, apart from whatever horn they play. You really have to play some piano anyway, so forget that. Then, there are those people who play "lower brass," meaning trombone and tuba/euphonium. This is a little more like it, as you have to master both slide and valves. But, still not enough (sorry Howard J.). And, in this context, singing just don't count. No, I'm talking about musicians who master instruments from two completely different families: trumpet, reed, percussion and strings. With this, we've narrowed the field down from millions to just a handful. This is difficult enough to do that these people qualify as freaks of jazz nature. I know I'll get in trouble with some folks by (they will say) putting a premium on virtuosity over expressiveness. Probably the key person in that conversation is Ornette and to that I say-sometimes yes, sometimes no, but without the technique, it's hit-and-miss. With the people I'm talking about, it's almost always hit. I'll start with Ray Nance (aka "floorshow"), a man who played sweet violin, trumpet and danced, as his boss might say, divinely. Here's Ray soloing on violin and playing w. Duke's trumpet section. Then you got Benny Carter, basically a contemporary of Nance, who, aside from writing and arranging, played beautiful alto and very credible trumpet-really knew his way around the instrument. How about Jimmy Dorsey, who started on trumpet and moved to reeds, but managed to retain his trumpet chops. Here's a page of Dorsey stuff. Bobby Hackett, whom we know as a fabulous cornet player actually started as a guitarist. I'm gonna pair him with Adrian Rollini, a fine bass sax player who doubled on vibes. Here the 2 of them are together. Slightly younger than the above and on the Latin side was Mario Rivera, who played w. Machito, Stitt and many others. There was no family of instruments this guy did NOT play. Go here for videos. I'm learning nobody likes a long post, so I'll end here. However, I got half a dozen more, including Gowans, Wetmore, Durham and one more, who I believe is the best of them all. If you got anyone who deserves to be with this august group, let me know.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wish I'd Been There: Carnegie Hall '49

My good friend Tom Curry is the former co-proprietor, along with Bob Porter, of Phoenix Records, one of the old school Boston jazz labels. He recently he gave me "Charlie Parker and the Jazz Stars at Carnegie Hall '49." On the heels of my labyrinthine (half-finished) post on Bird, I thought I would write a simple appreciation of this fine recording. Here we have Bud is at his height, with Max and Curly on "All God's Children..." Bud's playing leaps off the recording. Max plays brushes here and this is cool for me, as I often find his kit pitched too high for my taste. Even though brushes can make a higher pitched sound than sticks, here they sound, well, throatier. Miles, Serge, Stitt, Benny Green convene for "Four." I never got that bullshit about Miles lacking technique. His smoking solo here presages his nonet "Birth of the Cool" solo. Serge sounds a bit fragmented in his solo, playing in short bursts. Yes, Stitt sounds like Bird, but you would not mistake the two-the tone is different, for one thing. Phrasing is similar, although Stitt doesn't cross as many bar lines as Bird. Benny Green is fantastic-combining a balsy sound with genuine bop harmonic understanding. They also do "Hot House," "Ornithology"...Well, you don't want a set list. Let's move to other highlights: Hearing early Sassy falls in the category of sheer pleasure, and she kills on "Mean To Me." Sarah uses a fair amount of vibrato and some repetition, which stylistically keeps one of her feet in an older, swing camp. Plus-she's got stride piano accompaniment, which could actually be her(someone let me know who it is) which also gives it a swing, rather than bop feel. But the quality of her voice is sublime and she doesn't play as fast and loose with the melody as she does later on, when her singing moved into the Baroque/Rococo. This is completely seductive. Getz is, well, Getz-ian on "You Go To My Head," joined by the Konit-zian Konitz. They are soulmates at least in that they fall on the same end of the saxophone tonal spectrum. Konitz is already looking for something different. A full Tristano aggregation pipes in on "Sax of a Kind." Eventually, we get to Koko, with Bird and Red Rodney. The head is a bit sloppier than the well-known version with Diz. Bird's solo is just as fiery and assured as his version with Diz, but the revelation to me is Rodney's solo. I always thought Red was a great player, but I put him half a step below Magee and Fats. At this point, he doesn't have quite the upper register they did (a range he did develop later on), but here he plays a fantastically adept and creative solo. For this alone, you need to seek out this CD. Someone needs to sink their teeth into his life and do a bio of Rodney: prodigy, junky, con man, safe-cracker and serious contributor to jazz.

Monday, April 26, 2010

You Wanna Gig? Join a Marching Band


By my count, every day sees between 70-100 postings in the "Musician" section of Boston Craigslist. Some percentage of these are ads from bands trying to elbow into the wedding circuit or offering up sedate cocktail piano. Some are venues "willing to provide free exposure" to bands. A few promise a direct line to cruise ship gigs or gigs in the exotic Far East. Others offer beats, videos, amp repair and a fair number, lessons (study with me and soon you too will be able to post an ad in Craigslist looking to start a band). The vast majority are people looking to start bands, and/or bands looking for rad bass players, rockin' drummers and smokin' guitarists. Occasionally there's a flame war about a rip-off studio or manager.


What are the odds any of these ads will lead to a musician putting a few bucks in his or her pocket? About the same odds our Mayor Mumbles Menino will be asked to coach dialogue in the next Hugh Grant movie.


But there is one set of ads that always pays money. I know it for a fact. These are the ads seeking brass, reeds and percussion for marching bands. That's right. Outside of the teaching dodge and the few high-end gigs perched precariously on the top of the function and nightclub pyramid, the one sure gig in this town is joining up with a rag tag marching outfit and waddling dis-synchronously down the streets and highways of Boston and suburbia. Until I came to understand the big fat profit the parade bookers were making off my sweat (and grew too lazy and decrepit ), I partook freely and came to know the circuit well.


Here's how it works: scores of cities and towns muster up their civic energy and pride to mark such events as Flag Day, July 4th, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, St. Patrick's Day, Armed Forces Day, Labor Day and god knows what else day. Whichever leading light of the particular polis is running the show makes sure the firemen and cops show up (they don't have to ask the pols, who can smell a parade a month away). They usually know someone who knows someone who's a clown or maybe can get a hold of a horse or two and, of course, no parade is complete without a band or two.


There are a few guys in the area who keep a stable of musicians they can call on to hire out and make the scene at $50 bucks a shot (re-stocking the larder with sporadic postings on Craigslist). When you get the call and say yes, you are directed to show up in white shirt and black pants. Then, when you get to the gig, you are told you are now a member of the "army band," "the navy band," or even "the marine band." The bands are distinguishable by the phony insignia on the undersized beret you try to stick on your head and by the noose-like ascot you are told to knot around your neck.


Usually, there is a boss or a straw boss, handing out this tatty gear, tossing you the music and telling you whether you are supposed to march behind the VFW and in front of the girls with the spinning flags, or behind the convertible chauffeuring Ms. West Peabody and in front of the Hibernian Society. In one case, the Tony Barrie Band, the ageless Tony himself leads the charge. As you walk down the street, Tony grabs all the kids watching, gathers up his musicians and leads the kids down the middle of the street as you play the Mickey Mouse Club Theme. If he manages to find someone with a birthday, the whole band rushes over to play Happy Birthday. For the most part, it's a steady diet of Sousa, with the occassional medley from the Sound Of Music.


The fact, is, while there is much to make fun of, there's something attractive about this ritual. People leave the house. They stand next to their neighbors and eat popcorn. They boo the politicians. The exotic sound of tubas and glockenspiels fills space usually inhabited by KISS 108. Musicians who love to play but can find no other niche in this digital culture have a chance to blow and be acknowledged as they grind their chops into tartare; maybe feel a little kinship with a hundred and fifty years of people who've done the same thing. And, kids love it. Shit. That's enough right there.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jazz Session Restoration.



The Majestic Mr Crane's profile got caught in crossfires on a day of despair when I deleted piles of stuff. Now it's back and staying here. And in the creeping dynamism that blogging is, I'll be adding more to this as Mr. Crane has a book out and has also revealed some notable promise at poetry.




1. Describe your discovery of Music.
"My grandfather, Bernie Flanders, was largely responsible for my initial discovery of music. He was a clarinet and saxophone player in a small territory band in Western Massachusetts in the 1930s. By the time I came around in the 1970s, he had a nice record collection of big band music (including his favorite, Glen Gray) and also some music by popular singers, particulary Nat Cole and the duo of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. I listened to all those records on the big console stereo my grandparents had. It looked like a cradenza, and housed a stereo and record player. (I talk about this at great length in The Jazz Session#100, which is a tribute to my grandfather:


In high school, I met a group of friends, particularly my friend
Kevin Baird , who introduced me to prog rock groups such as Genesis (the good stuff from the Gabriel era and immediately after),Yes, King Crimson, Rush and Marillion.

During my 15 or so minutes in college, my friend Mike Fortune, a very talented drummer, widened my horizons to include more small-group jazz and free jazz, plus folks like Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart and Roky Erickson.

My wife, Jennifer, is a big fan of Americana, and she hipped me to Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett, Iris Dement and her personal favorite, Bruce Springsteen.

And along the way, I guess I picked up a few things on my own, too."


2. Describe your research into various periods of the idiom as an ad hoc scholar and fan.
"I think my "research," which is probably too lofty a word, came in two intense bursts, surrounded by lower-intensity periods of continued study and appreciation. The first burst started in 1996, when I became a professional saxophone player, working mostly in the latin jazz and straight-ahead worlds. I listened to tons of music then to learn more about what I was playing and what was appropriate for the genres I was being paid to play. My bandmates during those years were great teachers and guides, particularly Roberto Moreno, a conguero in Tucson, AZ, who turned me on to Israel "Cachao" Lopez, for which I'll forever be grateful.
Through the doorway of Cachao was an entire universe of music that I haven't come close to exploring fully.

Probably the most intense research period occured from 2001-2004, when I was the station manager and afternoon drive-time host at Jazz90.1 (WGMC), a 24-hour community jazz station in Rochester, NY. Coming up with several hours of music and talk each day, plus doing hundreds of on-air interviews, necessitated a lot of reading and study. The Jazz Session is similar, but I feel like I'm starting from a more solid foundation these days. That said, I'm learning every day about artists who are new to me and who excite me and demand further listening. That's the beauty of music.

One note about my knowledge base: I think there are enormous holes in it.My good friend, the saxophonist
Josh Rutner , has been helping me worry less about the holes and encouraging me to just enjoy the discovery, which is very useful advice."

3. Describe the attractions and appeal of your favorite periods.
"A few random examples of my affinity for particular musicians:

I love Chuck Mangione because his music is incredibly tuneful and rhythmic and reminds me of my early discovery of small-group jazz. (His An Evening of Magic: Live at the Hollywood Bowl was the first thing I bought with my own money.)

I love John Coltrane because he showed me a wider horizon of possibility where performance is concerned, and because he always seems to be speaking through his horn.

I love Nat Cole because of my grandparents, and because he could swing and sing his ass off.

I love Sun Ra because he's surprising and dignified and silly and brilliant and satirical and unknowable, all at the same time.

I love Ella Fitzgerald because she took the music seriously but remembered it could be fun and funny, too.

I love Rahsaan Roland Kirk because how could you not love Rahsaan Roland Kirk?

And on and on. I give up! This question could be a book rather than a blog post."


4. Describe the trajectory of your work as an advocate, include affiliations and community aspects.
"I've gone through several kinds of advocacy on behalf of the music. The first, which was wrapped up in economics, too, was as a musician. When I played this music for my living, I walked a line between advocacy and personal gain. That said, the gain was never too large, so it was easier to retain some aspect of the advocacy.

Later, as the manager of a community jazz station, my role as an advocate for the music was very explicit, but also tied to raising funds to keep the station running. The fundraising was incredibly stressful, but the direct connection with the listners was extremely rewarding. The station staff also spent a lot of time in the community at single concerts and larger festivals, which was a wonderful way to meet the people who loved the music and the station.

I now host The Jazz Session in hopes of some day making it my actual job, but in the knowledge that such a day may never arrive. Thus far, it's been a money-losing proposition. The set-up costs and the cost of travel and technology are all out of my own (mostly empty) pocket. I don't say that to set myself up as a martyr or even as any special kind of altruist, merely to point to the reality of deciding to interview jazz musicians as a potential revenue source. It may be the only thing more foolish than trying to play jazz as a revenue source. (Which I say with love and and a smile!)"


5. Describe evolving methods that are a facet of preparing Jazz Sessions..
"The Jazz Session is a fairly simple beast. In many cases, record labels and artists send me CDs and digital downloads. In other cases, I seek out artists with whom I'm already familiar or who I come across online. In either case, I listen to the record quite a few times and do online research to prepare for the interview. I don't submit questions in advance or offer shows for review before publishing them online. In recent months, I've been doing too many interviews, but I've got a more rational pace going now. Starting in January, The Jazz Session will be back down to two shows a week. It generally takes 6-8 weeks from interview to finished show.

In terms of the mechanics of interviewing, I try to ask a question and then get out of the way, letting the artist answer each question for as long as it takes. I do sometimes remove entire question-and-answer segments during the production process, but I don't remove pieces of a particular answer. I do, of course, edit out many of the "ahs" and "uhms" to make things flow more smoothly.

Most interviews are fairly easy if you're familiar with the music and have done some basic research. And even some of the interviews for which I've done no research (for example, an unexpected interview at a festival) work quite well."


6. What role does Web 2.0 and other tech have in your work?
"For starters, the entire show exists online, so the Web is crucial to what I do.

I recently ran an online survey for The Jazz Session's listeners. The survey just ended on Oct. 31, but I think the data will be very useful as I craft the show going forward. Asking the listeners for their opinions was very eye-opening for me.

I use Facebook and Twitter quite a bit to promote the show. I have a digital newsletter that I send out each Monday via my email distribution list and via The Jazz Session's Facebook group. The indivdual blog postfor each episode of the show allows comments, but most people send me comments via email rather than commenting directly on the post.

I have a partnership with All About Jazz, and AAJ has created a widget for The Jazz Session that runs on the right side of every AAJ page and on several other sites. The survey results suggest that the exposure on the AAJ home page and in the AAJ news feed has been great for the show's profile.

I've been uploading the episodes to iTunes since the very first show, and many survey respondents said they discovered the show that way.

Regarding the technical aspects of the show, I record in-person interviews onto a Marantz PMD 660 solid state recorder. It has a USB-out so I can transfer the digital audio to my laptop. I record the phone interviews using a Telos ONE phone hybrid. It runs through a mixer and into my Linux-based laptop. I use the open-source audio editor Audacity to record the phone interviews, and to mix all the shows."


7. What old media elements are used?
"I use a phone line for the interviews that I don't do in person. Other than that, it's all fairly new technology."

8. How has change in the economy impacted your work?
"Well, I'm a lot poorer than I used to be, so I can't travel to New York nearly as often as I used to. Other than that, though, there hasn't been a big impact. The artists are still out there, and it doesn't cost that much to make a phone call, so I've been able to keep up a strong interview pace."

9. Describe aspirations, projects and future hopes.
"My dream? I'd love to do The Jazz Session for a living. I think there are two ways to make this a reality: (1) Get the show picked up by a syndication service or network such as National Public Radio or Public Radio International; or (2) give the show for free to stations across the country, then use that radio presence (combined with the strong download numbers) to attract underwriters.

I'd also like to turn some of my interviews into a book. I talk to many artists who aren't included in the classic books of interviews, and I'd like to be one of the people who helps preserve their thinking about the music."




Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lucky Lester Grinds The Gris-Gris

These poems were actually written in response to great photos shot by an ex; no longer available to the likes of me. I've chosen some other photos that are, at least, close to the spirit of the originals.


ORNETTE COLEMAN
Ornette, the weird school kid. Intuited calculus. Flunked math.
Sneaked into the Band Room during English and tried to wrestle sounds from oboes and cellos.
Read comic books and slept with his homeroom teacher.
Liked his marching band uniform; lost a different piece of it every week.
Chess club.
Ornette, the weird school kid.
Bad reader. Simian line on his palm.
Juice fasts. Kools.
Brass, bow and reed junkie.
Hears one sound and devises a thousand ways to recreate it.



LESTER BOWIE
Man looks like an Algerian pharmacist:
Lucky Lester mixes the decoction,
Grinds the gris-gris.
And don’t worry about trying to find some damn philosopher’s stone.
Toys with the keys to the recombinant jazz gene lab. Sweeps up after closing and snorts what he finds on the floor.
Virus wrangler, germ dancer, spore fucker.
Rimless glasses.



MILES DAVIS
Troop leader
of the Hip Patrol.
Change, like a tapeworm,
Eating out your gut.



ARCHIE SHEPP
Hey brother, you look like some kind of fucking duck. You hear me? Or some goose. Yea, some shit like that. You didn’t learn from no book. No, no book tell you how to make a face like a damn duck.
You blow that thing loud, right? You make some sounds. You blow tenor.
Allright.
You make some sounds like something inside that horn tryin’ to get out;
Reach up the neck of that horn and grab you by the throat;
squeeze you till you play what IT wants to hear.
Maybe that’s why you make that damn duck face.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lost New Orleans

In honor of Jazzfest, I thought it appropriate to share some of the fruits of my research and reveal names of some of the less-known people and places that made early Crescent City Jazz history:


Musicians


One-Nostril Clyde
Toothpick Willie
Joseph 'Vaseline' Brunelle
Clyde 'Ofal' Pivnik
L'il Chicklets
Big Sluice
Leroy 'Creampie' Shavely
Melatonin Slim
Rufus 'Cutacle' Scaline
Buzz The Flea
Girdle and Griddlecakes Duffy(Siamese twins)
Oleander 'Sniffles' Zampa
Two-Crack Max Figgis
Langdon 'Crabcakes' Beaudoin


Joints


Sweetie Pie's Monodrome
Mamie's Mantis Hideaway
Queen Lillie's Nectar trap
Pookie's Natural Foods
Betty's Both-Ways Cabaret
Rita's Donuts and Crullers


Musical Organizations


Krispy Taylor's Trudgers
Juan San Juan and His Coffin Twirlers
Harry Ruby and the Minyon-aires
Clyde Baleen and the Super Sieve Six
The South Rampart St. Rhythm Manglers
Ollie's Watchfob Handlers
Louis The Greek's Menthol Stompers
Colonel Butt's Aftertaste Ragtime Orchestra
Ben Bichette's Trough Scrapers

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Of Shoulders and Limbs

That is, giants stand on shoulders and go out on limbs... In the wake of the wide-ranging discussion following my last post, there were many directions to pursue. I decided to try and pull enough threads out of the bebop birthing saga to try and see how (and if) Charlie Parker's contributions were qualitatively different from others who created that music. This is partly about music and partly about personal mythology, with an eye cast at the question of codification. One way to start is to look at Bird's confrere Dizzy Gillespie, the man whom we naturally pair with Bird as foundational bop pillar. In terms of personality, Diz was his opposite number. He was basically reliable, able to hold big bands together for long periods of time and was a hands-on teacher for other musicians. Although Diz was an avid herb-alist, he avoided the pitfalls of addiction. If Bird's public face was the tortured genius-sometimes-do-well, Diz presented as kooky but sane, a man who happily continued the legacy of entertainer/trumpet innovator going through Bolden-Armstrong-Eldridge. The U.S. State Dept. tapped Satchmo and Diz to go overseas and represent, but it's tough to imagine, even if he'd lived-Ambassador Bird. Now, to the music. First of all, did Bird or Diz expand what the technical boundaries of their respective instruments-alto sax and trumpet? One widely accepted premise is that the saxophone is a more glib instrument. Moving in a linear way from the top to the bottom of the horn or leaping from register to register is simply easier to do. No octave key on a trumpet. Of course, Bird got around the horn with speed and agility although, just in those terms, Jimmy Dorsey was his virtuosic equal and others were close (I’m not talking about what they played). For his part, Dizzy made the trumpet do things it simply had never done. He pushed velocity in trumpet-playing, taking full advantage of false fingerings to give the illusion of a cascade-more like a cataract-of notes, and his articulation at top speeds was unsurpassed. It says something that in the last 70 years, so few trumpet players have successfully mastered trumpet technique the way Diz did. What about use of extreme registers? Alto has a range of a little less than 3 octaves (although the range of the alto was eventually pushed to harmonics high above that). The trumpet's natural range is slightly smaller. However, one of the measures of the evolution of trumpet playing was lifting the ceiling of the expected upper register. Armstrong pushed it up; was known to play a hundred high C's in a row and his big finales often led to high F's. Eldridge pushed it higher and Dizzy pushed it higher still; commonly blowing in the high Eflat to Aflat range. This register, when played well, carries tremendous emotional energy. One reason the trumpet-along with the clarinet-was the dominant instrument in the swing era was that the range of tempos typical taken during that time allowed full use of that capacity and entire arrangements were built to showcase it effectively. Yes, I know, Cat Anderson, Maynard Ferguson and a flock of lead trumpet players took the trumpet up another octave and more later on, but the stratospheric notes played by these "high-note specialists" could not have the full-bodied sound that I'm talking about. Up that high there are simply no overtones left to give a note the same depth, especially with the shallow mouthpieces they used to get that scream.. Dizzy's early work took full advantage of a ballsy high register and when he made the move to bop-he carried that through and often set up third and fourth choruses to showcase his high register. SMALL DIGRESSION There's always been a debate among trumpet players (like me) about playing high for its own sake; its "musicality." Not to belabor a point, but it's hard to imagine a trumpet player not wanting to be able to play every note the instrument is capable of producing. BACK TO BUSINESS Bird went all over the horn, but didn't stay very long in either the high or low registers and didn't use these registers for any particular dramatic purpose. It wasn’t until the late 1950's that alto players began to stretch the range of the alto into the "altissimo" register and also tried to develop multi-phonics and harmonics (to me, more viable on the tenor than the on the alto). A session like “Ascension” undertaken in 1940 would have resulted in the participants being rounded up and exiled to Camarillo or Bellevue. What about Bird's tone on the horn? In fact, apart from note choice, which we’ll talk about later, it was Bird’s tone that signaled his sharpest break from the past. I suggest there are 2 major qualities to a musician’s tone: vibrato and sonority, which work hand in hand. Essentially, we’re talking about how much someone “milks” a tone. In fact, on the alto, a fairly heavy vibrato was the norm. Hodges probably extracted the most possible juice from a single note (Apart from a wide vibrato, he got his effect not from single notes, but from sliding above and below those notes-glissandi and smears). The standard sonority was a fairly creamy broadness, thicker to achieve darkness or thinner for brightness, depending on the player and the type of band (sweet or hot). There are still traces of vibrato in Bird’s earliest recordings with McShann , but his sonority became brassier, harder, more insistent and energetic and his vibrato was basically obliterated. There are times in ballads when you hear it struggling to get back into the sound. It briefly does and is then swamped by a sense of urgency. If you’re looking for a specific progenitor for this shift in alto tone, I don’t think you’ll find it in an alto player. Hawkins, yes, but Hawkins had a rival in Lester and,as far as the tenor goes, their two major “sound” schools continued. Eventually, in the 1950’s, the so-called “cool” school reintroduced a more “legit” and vibrato’ed sound on the alto, but essentially, the sound that Bird introduced on alto became the sound that every young alto player emulated. It defined “modern” on the instrument, so much so that in retrospect it seems like, if Bird hadn’t come up with it, a bunch of chemists would have had to synthesize it in a lab and dose the whiskey at Small’s and Minton’s. Next time, Bird gets more of his due, as I look at phrasing, repertoire and where all those damn notes came from. Looking forward to readers doing the work I didn’t do and posting representative examples and counter-examples of my schema.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Celtics Jazz Quintet

The Celtics are b.ball players, but they are also a quintet. Like all musical ensembles, they are hit and miss. Creative in streaks, they are capable of long lapses in focus. Their grit is sometimes suspect, but they can bring it. And when they sync, they can blow. Here's how I see them: Rajon Rondo=Miles Davis Paul Pierce=Coleman Hawkins Kevin Garnett=Booker Little Kendrick Perkins=Charles Mingus Ray Allen=Big Sid Catlett I ain't gonna explain. Either you think I got it, or ya don't.

Codification and the "Great Man"




Gracias to key respondent R.C. for posting significant historical markers...


The adage is: "Talent imitates, genius steals," but in jazz, the line between the two is not so clear cut. A note here, a note there...Copping solos is what jazz musicians have always done to learn their craft. Freddie Keppard was notorious, of course, for covering his valves with a handkerchief when he played so other trumpet players couldn't steal his stuff and for the same reason, he passed on being the first self-declared jass musician to record (note: all such myths are subject to verification by Chief Inquisitor R.C.).


This brings us to the question of the "Great Man;" a controversy that the Art World has gotten so much mileage out of, probably since Berenson. To wit: what springs full-blown from the mind of the genius and what is simply reconsideration and reconstruction of existing materials? Or, as we might say here, what is codification/building block, what is new?


If you want to do Great Man in jazz, three names stand out: Louis, Bird and Trane. By consensus, they were responsible for the largest tectonic shifts in the music. Louis' case is too complicated for me-too near the roots of it all-and his career spanned most of a century. Trane's case is so interlocked with psycho-spiritual considerations, that discerning what is cultural context and what is Coltrane is also too daunting. This leaves Bird, a good choice because the changes he wrought, although resonating beyond the music, are more easily parsed out.


If you're looking for Bird's credentials, Mingus wrote a song- "If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats." He also said he thought alto players should pay Bird royalties. Now, Mingus-never a man to be trifled with-also had big problems with the influence that Bird's drug habit had on jazz. However, it's _influence_ we're talking about here. Not _good_ influence. Parker famously advised young musicians not to take up the habit, and if any aspiring shrink out there wants to take a crack at that infra-psychic knot, go ahead. Many have tried. As far as I'm concerned, drugs circumscribed all aspects of Bird's life (except opportunities to scuffle). Is it ironic that such circumscription may be in some inverse proportion to the durability of the Bird mythology? No. Given America's lust for "romantic" paradigms, I think it's fair to say that the ill-fated quality of his life did nothing to diminish his stature as a Great Man.


The trope on Bird's major musical contribution is that he extended the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic language of jazz. (c,f,. the famous rib joint story about him recognizing the usefulness of upper partials-9th's, 11th's, 13th's). My contention is that Bird arguably implemented this (change in) language better than anyone else, but that in fact, it was a language that was already basically in use. His speed-of execution and thought-and his technique-32nd notes became the lingua franca-give the impression of stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, but there was a small but intrepid squadron already out in the field, sweeping for mines.


The only way to get into this is to compare Bird's playing with that of his comrade Dizzy G. and, for broader context, with others who changed the music circa 1940-Monk, Bud, Byas, C. Christian, Prez. I will gather my meager forces and expose my analysis in the next thrilling episode.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Part One: Codification-A Dirty Little Jazz Secret?

One of the relatively unexplored corners of jazz-especially large ensemble jazz- is the extent to which solos have been codified. I see this codifying being done in 2 ways. The first is that soloists recreate a solo in performance that people have come to know through a recording. There are many examples in Ellington and Basie. The second way is that a well-known recorded solo is actually orchestrated for either a section of the band or for the entire ensemble. In fact, I decided to write about this when I heard the Tommy Dorsey band's 1947 version of "Marie" on YouTube. This later version featured Bunny Berigan's (died in 1942) well-known solo on that tune arranged for the entire trumpet section. It comes down to us through received wisdom that the impetus for this process is largely commercial; that bandleaders force it or at least encourage it in order to mine every last gold shard from the vein opened up by a popular recording. This is almost a dirty little secret and is seldom addressed in jazz writing-either academic or popular. Is that because it is "counter-mythology?" Seen as not in the spirit of continuous spontaneous creativity jazz people care to associate with our music? Many possible areas of exploration open up: the 'hipness' factor in jazz and its place in the larger cultural context; the shifting/evolving relationship between that factor and the desire to please an audience (Miles a possible seismic center of that shift?); the question of how much variation from melody qualifies a performance as improvisatory and the difference in our judgment of that between vocalists and instrumentalists... I'd like to open this up so that readers will help direct the flow of this conversation. I invite you to submit concrete examples of the process of codification as I have described it-or to cite other ways it has happened. Let's see how far back the process can be traced, examine contexts, compare examples and see what arises for further exploration.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Of Griots and Dance: Music in our Village

It was my good fortune to hear the Senegalese musician Baaba Maal last night and to experience the creation of a musical village. The crowd was mostly middle-aged white people, with a small African representation. In the end, the 4-500 people who had come as individuals to the Somerville Theatre ended up as members of an ecstatic community. While there was a full battalion of expert musicians, it was Baaba Maal who shaped the experience. The key musical element was, or course, rhythm. The bass line thundered and worked a groove with the rhythm guitar that went through your body. There was a talking drummer, another who played hand percussion, as well as various other African drums and timbales (yes). Then, the unsung rhythm hero-the traps player. Without his continuous rock solid underpinning, the other percussionists wouldn't have been free to go off on their flights of fancy. By the end of the night, several other people had taken the stage to play percussion-some of whom seemed to be known to Baaba, others who didn't. To create a village, it helps to have a griot, and since Baaba left his village as a young man, he has traveled with his. Maal spoke movingly of him, his role in his life and the sense of continuity he gives him to his roots. The griot sang backup, one lead vocal and simply lent a tremendous spiritual presence to the stage. By the end of the night, several people had come on the stage to touch him and to press what was probably money into his hands (someone else came on and hung his tie around the neck of the hand drummer). At first, dancing was sporadic, carried on by some of the Africans and by others who had clearly studied African dance. One white man carried on ecstatically and un-selfconsciously in front of the stage. Near the end of the night, Baaba brought him on stage and gave him the mic. He turned 60 years old that day. Baaba led the audience in "Happy Birthday." Mama, that's the scene I want for my 60th. Another man who came on stage was squarely in the "Gandy-eccentric-dancer" lineage, putting on moves that looked liked illustrations from Ubu Roi or 19th century pre-cakewalk abstractions. Eventually, the stage hosted a succession of men, women and children; black and white, old and young, and 9/10ths of the audience was dancing in the aisles. At the beginning of the concert, Maal had said that he liked to pace his concerts like an African party-starting out slowly, sitting under the mango tree and working up the energy from there. It's one thing for a musician to state so clearly and boldly what he wants to achieve. It's something else to make it actually happen. I had taken one of my youth journalism students and it was his first concert. Gotta say, I may have made it hard for his future musical life by setting the bar so high.