Friday, May 30, 2014

Jazz Underdogs and the Racial Tinge-Pt. 1







The history of jazz is complicated and resists a simple through-line narrative. It arose as a beautifully haphazard cross-pollination between musicians stable or itinerant, schooled or unschooled, making their work easier by creating songs and shouts, picking up tunes from brass and circus bands, listening in speakeasies and dance halls... All of this happening at dozens, probably hundreds of places across the U.S. 
Those would try to shape jazz into easy stories ("born in New Orleans and travelled up the river to Chicago" sound familiar?) need to keep in mind what Quantum Physics teaches us about measurement: nothing is static and the fact that you're measuring something changes its behavior. So, the observer can measure either its position or its movement, not both.


The commonest way to observe (i.e. freeze) the jazz story is through what I call the Jazz Hero approach; in other words, canonization. To make any canon viable takes historical buttressing, in the form of "experts" who produce books, collections of recordings, films, radio and television shows purporting to be historically "definitive."  The two most powerful recent examples were the Smithsonian Anthology of Jazz and the Ken Burns documentary

Jazz dissidents, who know that the Hero's shadow tends to suppress the work of other fine musicians and to over-simplify the process of creation, are always ready to undertake a critique of the canonization process. I've devoted a certain amount of space here and on my radio show The Duplex Mystery Hour to highlighting the work of musicians I think worthy of more attention: Miff MoleJabbo Smith, Charlie Shavers, Howard McGhee/Fats Navarro, The Roane Brothers, Joe Gordon and others. This a mixed race group, but much of the energy of the recent de-construction of the canon has gone into looking into the contribution of white musicians. I see it often on jazz Facebook groups and the leading example is Richard Sudhalter's book "Lost Chords, White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915-1945." 
Is it a good idea to write jazz history by focusing on a particular race, gender, religion or other sub-group?  Does it accomplish the kind of democratization that "new" history goes after, trying to
uncover stories that are not restricted to important business and political figures or other historical "winners"? 

Yes and no.

I find Sudhalter's book rich and fascinating and it has led me to investigate a number of musicians in whose work I never invested much attention. It approaches the music with new, highly-trained ears and is a great repository of biographical details and new transcriptions. So, taken on its own terms, it exceeds expectations.

However, if the goal of re-examining this music is to try and more deeply probe its complicated fabric, then using race as the means of deciding who to focus on makes the book feel, well, oddly segregated. 

There are individuals both black and white not in the canon whose work should reasonably be set side by side for musical comparison. Also, the reason why a particular musician has been relegated to the back benches of jazz deserves a more sophisticated analytical lens than just race. 

An historian may, for example, assign people to "white" and "black" schools of clarinet playing in order to show first of all, that there were such schools and to show that the white school was undervalued historically. But, this 
arbitrarily truncates the analysis and seems more like ax-grinding about the maltreatment of a group than an interesting premise for musical re-examination. In fact, players were as subject to geographical influence as they were to racial influence. The individual trumps the group. If you can recognize the playing of Leon Rappolo, Johnny Dodds, Buster Bailey or Frank Teschemacher, it's because they sound different. 
Dodds
Rapollo
                     

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tourism Prosthetics

We at the Institute blush at having to play catch-up in the competition to provide John and Jane Q. Public with new, stylish aids to tourism. In Jasper National Park, the recently opened Glacier Skywalk  now allows visitors to step out onto a glass-floored observation deck that juts out 100 feet over the Sunwapta Valley. 
Then, there's the Hualapal tribe's Grand Canyon Skywalk in Arizona.

Happily, our cadre of unpaid interns has conceived an idea that should bring home the bacon.

Question: What is the visitor's greatest impediment to touristic pleasure at museums? That we are forced to
 linger, legs weary, eyes bleary, in front of each "attraction" and to jostle for the best position to take photos. 
                                

Our solution? The world's first Museum-Camera@. No, not a Camera Museum
A camera museum, not the Museum-Camera@
(represented in this photo by our clueless graphics staff), but an actual art museum which is, itself, a camera.  

The walls of the museum will be essentially one enormous camera and the very act of your looking at an object will trip a shutter which takes a photo that is automatically downloaded to your phone. 

There will only be a small charge per photo and for an additional fee, we will send smarty-pants, art critic-worthy tweets and post your photos on Facebook, Tumbler or on the cyber-photo site that we plan to build ourselves: The Photographic Museum of the Museum-Camera@. 

At last, you will be able to move through a museum at lightning speed, knowing that you have effortlessly accomplished your primary goal: to document your visit. So, when you get home and are surrounded by friends and loved ones, you'll be able to say "I was there!" and enjoy the beautiful art work from the comfort of your home entertainment center.

Or, as we like to say at The Institute, "A picture is worth a thousand visits!"



Friday, May 9, 2014

They Say It's Spring

A much-delayed spring has cautiously crept into Boston. The Duplex playlist of 5.8.14 celebrates that. Download it, put it on your MP3 player and enjoy a walk through the Arboretum.  

Listen here.

Playlist:


Blossom Dearie "They Say It's Spring" from "Verve Jazz Masters 51" (1957), Verve 
Red Nichols & His Five Pennies "Rose Of Washington Square"  (1929), Brunswick 
Charles Lloyd "Forest Flower" from "Live at Monterey" (1967), Atlantic 
Howard McGhee "BLue Bell" from "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" (1962), Blue Note 
Nat King Cole "Blue Gardenia" from "Ballads of the Day" (Jazz, 1956), Capital 
Bird and Diz "Bloomdido" from "Bird and Diz" (1950), Verve 
Tom Harrell "Song Flower" from "Stories" (Jazz, 1988), Contemporary 
Ella Fitzgerald "Honeysuckle Rose" (1970), MGM 
Gary Burton "Fleurette Africain" from "Lofty Fake Anagram" (1967), RCA Victor 
Cannonball Adderly "Rose Room" from "Cannonball" (1955), Emarcy 
Zoot Sims "Passion Flower" from "Zoot Sims Plays Ellington" (1980), Pablo 

Bill Evans "Days of Wine and Roses" from "Affinity" (1979), Warner Bros. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Greatest Pianist of All Time Contest

The "Who's the Greatest Drummer of All Time contest" at COS lists no African-American drummers. Not wanting to be outmaneuvered in the impending Greatest {  } of All Time-lists-battle, the Institute hereby presents:"Who's The Greatest Pianist of All Time?" The nominees are:

Peter Nero
Victor Borge
Neil Sedaka
Zez Confrey
Jim Brickman
Peter Duchin
Billy Joel
Elton John
Barry Manilow
Liberace

Remember: your vote doesn't count.

Friday, May 2, 2014

"God's Trombones" and S'more Phil WIlson

Carl Fontana
Phil Wilson

A massive stellar ensemble, featuring trombonists Carl Fontana and Phil Wilson, performs on this extended composition "God's Trombones," last heard during Boston Sackbut Week 40 years ago. Listen to this edition of The Duplex, which aired on WZBC on May 1, 2014 and my co-host for this show Dick Vacca and I will fill you in on the details.


Playlist:

Carl Fontana w. Berklee Jazz Trombone Ensemble and Thursday Night Dues Band, "God's Trombones" (Jazz, 1974) 

Phil Wilson, "Flight of the Sackbut" (Jazz, 1974) 

Phil Wilson and the NDR Big Band, "Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz Suite" (Jazz, 1993) on Capri 

Phil Wilson, Makoto Ozone, Chris Rathbun, Terri Lyne Carrington, "What Is This Thing Called Love" (Jazz, 1983), Radio Broadcast 

Woody Herman Orchestra, "It's a Lonesome Old Town" from "Woody Herman 1963" (Jazz, 1963) on Philips 

Phil Wilson, "In a Sentimental Mood" from "Getting It All Together" (Jazz, 1977) on Outrageous Records