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.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

All Hail the Jazz Prodigy

Oy. Why do jazz writers love prodigies so? Can this be a deeply-seated musical inferiority complex rearing its ugly head? "We stole one from the classical boyos"? "You see! Our music is so great that even the prodigies dig it!" Shoot. If ever a genre did not have to prove that the genius of its practitioners unfolds early on, it is jazz. Yes, early jazz professors were often weaned in academic environments like Storyville, where the student body tended to dress in negligees rather than mortarboards. Mozart may not have been part of the bordello curriculum, but as teenagers, Joplin, Blake, Bolden, Armstrong, et al made as much music as Bizet, Piatagorsky or Scriabin; probably more, as they lived lives not bounded by the constraints of the music conservatory and the Royal Court. This early blossoming has continued throughout jazz history (go crazy, commentors). Jazz is essentially a meritocracy, but this merit is not measured strictly in virtuosic terms. Craft and emotional expressiveness are constantly in balance. And from where I stand, if you lack either, you can play the music, but in the end, your name will be writ in water. The prodigy thing is a litmus test for the way we listen. It tests the idea that music has deeper resonance for the spirit. So, before you trot out the latest wunderkind who could have been a concert pianist, but chose jazz instead, really listen to what he or she brings to the table. It's not enough to play the right notes. They must have weight. And, as Louis said, you gotta love each one.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

There's Two Kinds of Jazz People...

-Those who care that Dolphy plays in/out of tune and those who don't. -Those who think a player from a given city has a "sound" from that city and... -Those who skip the Mal Waldron solos and... -Those who admire Wynton's playing and hate what he says and... -Those who think the piano is a percussion instrument and... -Those who lack the moral scruples to create a post like this after creating this post and... -Those who think that bastards can't play beautiful music and... -Those who just collect 78's and those who also play them. -Those who lost Trane in '58, or in '60, or in '63, or in '66; those who lost him in the reverse order, and those who never lost him. Like most people, depending on the day, I am both/all kinds. Addenda welcome.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Loss of the Targeted Hang

My last post bemoaned the disappearance of local places to buy horns. Another aspect of moving instrumental sales online was the demise of places where you could do what you might call a "targeted hang." That is, a place where musicians could indulge themselves with some serious checking in and screwing off, while convincing themselves they were actually getting something done-fixing a dicty spit valve, re-corking a pad, getting a dent banged out, or looking at horns you couldn't afford. Buying a bottle of valve oil could take two hours. These were all excellent excuses for going in to sniff out who was in town, gawk at your improvisational betters, or simply think to yourself "yea, there are actually a bunch of people in this world going through the same crap that I am."

Night clubs are different. Institutions like Berklee are different. In fact, there were never many of these places in Boston, at least as far as I knew: Tottle's for mouthpieces, Rayburn's for everything, JDS (Jack's Drum Shop) School of Music and John Coffey's indescribable studio.

There's a lot happening on the blog, so I'll keep it short and come back later with a look at my little Stevie self waiting for a trumpet lesson, watching the entire trombone section of the BBC orchestra get loaded on John Coffey's booze. Talk about early inspiration...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pawn Shops and the (Jazz) Underclasses

One measure of the way things have been going for the jazz underclasses and the working poor in general over the last 20 years is to look at what's happened to pawn shops.

Pawn shops are like tidal wetlands. You take estuaries for granted until a weather catastrophe hits and your split-level gets washed out to sea. Look at New Orleans.

In the same way, when financial storms hit, pawnbrokers have been there to absorb some of the blow. They have allowed people to drop off property and either get ready cash, or pick it back up when flusher times return. With their disappearance, the financial tides have gotten rougher.

Jazz musicians have always been active users of the service. Sometimes a visit to the local pawnbroker could get you bus money back home when the tour went bust. In the case of Bird and many others, it was money that ended up in a dealer's pocket, but when you need a fix...

For musicians in less dire straits, keeping an eye open for a horn that might work just a little better-and what musician doesn't-pawn shops were the place to go. Over the years, I have bought a Schilke, a Benge, and a Paris Selmer-all cheap-at Cambridge pawn shops.

Unfortunately, in the space of a few ill-conceived years, Cambridge got rid of rent control, turned Harvard Square into a suburban mall and decided to close all its pawn shops; too scrofulous. Boston has relegated its pawn shops to 'the wrong side of town' and these carry almost no instruments. They're all about the bling.

This leaves only 2 alternatives here in Boston: pay retail at the one remaining music store that carries some used horns, or go online. Going online means you don't even have a chance to hold the horn and blow it.

As far as I can see, the online market is really skewed. The eBay trade has created a false "Antiques Roadshow" mentality wherein certain horns acquire a reputation based as much on "collectability" as on playability. Most playing musicians are not about collecting. We want to be able to go someplace, grab a few horns, go in the back room, blow for a few hours and either find something we like or not. If we do, a musician's price is what we want-and should-be able to pay, not a collector's price. Can I get a witness?

Then, there's the fact that in the few pawn shops left that carry instruments, all you can find are guitars. But that's another story.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

R.I.P. Bill Dixon.

Summer always seems to take away the elderly and this one decided it wanted Bill Dixon. I can't think of much more beyond that right now.

Let this space be his and more will come as we who were touched by him gather our thoughts.

Let's begin with Stanley. And Stephen who adds,"Visit Bill's facebook page for photos and remembrances. Leave comments, please."

 Stef shines as does Derek Taylor and Mr. Kelsey was out of the gate early in the old blogroll. Ben Young, as ever, more than does his part as does Mr. Bynum.

And Mr. Dalachinsky made a work last night.

JOY SPRING (riffin on Clifford)-         
for Bill Dixon

the moon makes its own music
music that seeks to constantly
interrupt itself
a piece of something already a part
of some thing
a grain of flavor
fading into grainless nerve endings
fractious parcels
sailing through the window
a view / a circumference
a broken piece of
in the magazine fill the bucket
a rebel walk
i give to you  / you give to me
whatever you give to me
tune yer ears
bowpie –ring oh the seem real
blue pink rose
this new street we’ll call it

nite displays itself like a slain lover
whose bench was once a tree
slain lover cries / exclaims
there beneath the awning

yawning light
water falls  -  grapes
crush in the stomach
wine is born
i’m not sure where i am or
for how long  (i’ll love you)
some rain in the once empty chambers
of my bowels
all weird & strictly romantic.
i’m a lucky guy
& can tenderly dream of
sunset eyes
knowing nothing about books or
prayers   negative values
the symmetry of youth
desired placement
optimum opacity & ghost images

i am in the middle of a straight line
puttering  away
exposed to the dark rocks
bright metal
dark trees
against an overcast sky
& the white-against-black mood
of the music
blind to color yet able to visualize
history’s vanishing letters while
        beholding agitation.

the man from the forest
a clock of hammers
eggs tick the promise of how-good-it-re
ally-is aways
bell/wind of whispered flutters
echoessssssss plurallllls
a sense of patches
grand mar rocks the steepness
& you lie there
old & young / thinkers in a story of…
enjoyin yerselves
devoted to the limitations of the scale
& how to triumphantly overturn

dalachinsky   6/17/10 

Jazz Blog-itudes

Some jazz blogs are straight ahead educational: "Download transcribed solos by Brownie, K.D. Miles, etc." God bless these people.

Most jazz blogs do the work of 'exposing' the music-"The Fearless Fosdyke Four will be at the Bluze and Brew Tavern/Festival/Restaurant this weekend. Don't miss it." Or: "You'll want to check out the FFF's latest CD release on the Gasoid label, available at Amazon/ Walmart/CD Baby/iTunes..." It works better if they post audio or video of the group in question.

Similar blogs, but with more critique, give you a blow by blow of concerts or cd's. These are almost always self-selecting for material the reviewer likes, so seldom is heard a discouraging word. This is often the home of The Top Ten List (see my other post on this menace).

Then, there are interview-oriented sites: "When last heard of, 33 years ago, Desmond LaBrea was on the road with the Jules Verne Aquanauts. We discovered him making baignets in Paduka and asked him why he left the world of riffing for the world of sifting..."

In the blogs above, there is often room for exploring jazz esoterica, i.e.: How many jazz groups have been named after lesser tributaries of the Snake River? I love that stuff.

Then, there are jazz blogs that are more 'meta.' They ask questions and may suggest solutions: "What's up with jazz? Where is the audience? Where's the money going?" "Let's do a Jazz IPO." It is in this arena that the rough-and-tumble lurking in the hearts of jazz people sometimes breaks out. I find the level of emotional engagement here seductive and enjoy this arena. This is where we get closest to experiencing personal agendas, but mostly, the emotion remains subtext, and infuses formal discussions on the redistribution of money, etc...

I have had a long musical life, marked with some pleasure, some pain and, at this point, a feeling of having read the same newspaper headlines over and over. I think this experience helps me sniff out magical thinking. Others see me as cynic. Both views are correct. We're all subject to the vagaries of age, temperament, career success, sex life-It's the human thing and, to the extent that the jazz blog world reflects this ungodly mess, it is better for it.

Some say the old battle between the Beboppers and the Moldy Figs was bad for jazz. Don't know. I think it was a reflection of the emotional importance that the music once had in many people's lives. Most homicide victims fall to the hand of someone they love, or once loved. By the same token, you're probably more likely to jump into swirling currents for the adored one. I'm not sure how many jazz bloggers I'd take the plunge for, but that's another story.

Monday, June 7, 2010

We'll Take the High Road

No one seems happy about the fact that consciousness-altering substances have been at the center of American popular music for the past 100 years or so-and have probably played a role in 'classical' music as well-no doubt our scholarly respondents will fill in the details.

The Silent Majority (still a great expression-thanks, Spiro) doesn't care for this. It represents a lifestyle that is-choose one or more: amoral, immoral, loathsome, sinful and, no doubt, too evocative of the Shadow Within... We won't dwell on the fact that bourbon also does a pretty good job of altering consciousness.

The Protectors of High Culture don't like it because it undermines their trope about art as direct, unmediated communication with the gods. Their Romantic Heroes must burn up all libidinous, social and political frustrations in the promethean fire of their work; not in a hash pipe.

But that just doesn't seem to be the way things actually work.

One single example: the universally loved Louis Armstrong smoked pot daily. This is, on its face, illustration enough of the tangled, unsightly web of cultural contradictions surrounding the issue.

I'm not about defending or attacking musicians getting high (as a guy looking for a job, at least that's my cover). I'm about removing the moral overlay, the cant and hypocrisy; recognizing that some of the greatest musical improvisation has been fueled by drugs and going from there.

I admit it is a tangled web. As a dad, I see the traps here; the fear of admitting you did what you probably don't want them to do-at least not yet. Probably no 'civilization' has had the courage to overtly display its propensity toward, even reliance on, intoxication. In fact, it seems to me that the creation of (narcotized) ritual may have been the most useful way ever found by a society to finesse the problem. "Don't bother daddy now, Junior. He's trying to see god. It's important for the crops."

I've always bemoaned the Western lack of cultural ritual outside the sanitized versions presented by organized religion. It's interesting to think that our musical 'icons' have always sought the space-spiritual space to me-that is made accessible by consciousness alteration. But shhh. Best keep it to yourself.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Findings of the Institute

In 2008, the Rex Stewart/Jabbo Smith Meme and Trope Institute undertook a multiple year study of the increasingly distant proxemics, gestural and spatial relationship between the jazz performing cohort (expanding) and the jazz audience (contracting). This is a précis of our findings.
The Institute initially proceeded under the supposition that the jazz performer-audience relationship could be viewed through the lens of the larger cultural zeitgeist, i.e., economic, sociological and political pressures. However, no pattern emerged that would allow a viable corollary thesis to be formulated.
The second supposition was that changing musical patterns could explain the phenomenon. However, bitonality, ‘free’ playing, the fragmentation of musical forms, etc., while somewhat disruptive, could not be definitively cited.
Eventually, Institute interdepartmental collaboration led us to undertake a media-centric analysis and it was this approach that yielded conclusive results. To wit: photographic and cinematic evidence showed that the disparity and disaffection cited above could be attributed to the rise of the bad jazz moustache and the general decline of the jazz musician tonsure.
It was noted that during the era of increased synchronization between jazz audiences and performers-c.1920-1945, few musicians of stature sported ‘beavers’ of any kind. A profusion of moustaches was noted, with good examples furnished by Mr. Berigan, Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Prez and many others. However, the nattiness and subtlety of these ‘lady ticklers’ began to see a precipitous post-WW II decline and a new crop of facial hair, more akin to ‘crumb catchers,’ supplanted what had once been modeled along crisp, carefully groomed lines.
The final phases of the schism began in the 1950's when, to use the vernacular, “all hell broke loose.” (The idiosyncratic facial hair outcroppings of Thelonius Monk preceded the 1950’s, but the Institute deemed Mr. Monk an anomalous factor, much like the ‘free radical’ of the chemist). Research showed that ‘parts’ in the hair, once firmly established through the use of Brylcreem and other hair pomades, began to wander erratically from side to side.
So too, at this point, did the goatee, Van dyck and ‘soul patch’make their appearance under the 'beatnik' rubric and spread like fungus (eukaryotic organism). Mr. Ornette Coleman, first photographed wearing a conservative sweater and non-obtrusive ‘stash,’ exploded in random hirsuteness (c.f. R.R. Kirk at right).
In some ways, the transformations of Mr. Sonny Rollins-“Mohawk” haircut, followed by shaved head-marked the definitive point at which the proxemics, gestural and spatial relationship between jazz performers and audience made a final disengagement.
The entire final report of The Rex Stewart/Jabbo Smith Meme and Trope Institute can be seen here.
Next Study:Digital Metronomes: Threat or Menace?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Europe, Taxes and All That jazz

Reading about the impending demise of the JazzBaltica festival, and noting the European allusion in Matt's recent posting, it struck me how unexamined is this business of European jazz subsidy-and how seemingly anomalous. What's actually behind their willingness to lay out tax spondulics? The meager explanation we've been fed all along is that Europeans are simply "more cultured" than we Americans, care more about the arts, etc. Come on, people, does this 19th century explanation ring true to you? Not to me.

Yes, there is a long history here. James Reese Europe's Hellfighters made a big splash all the way back in WW I (they liked his name or his music?). Louis, Bechet and others cut a wide early swath. Europe acquired a reputation as a less racist environment and some small percentage-especially black musicians, have chosen to stay there. It was the French who created serious jazz criticism and historiography. No doubt, there's a certain amount of hubris inhering in all that for Europeans. Whether it's completely justifiable or not-well...........>

All that's on the one hand.

On the other, I've been over there a lot as, no doubt, many readers of this blog have. I played music in the streets, subways and clubs, hung out, did some recording, etc. and I just didn't see or experience much difference between the way Europeans relate to the consumption or production of music and the way Americans do.

If you're looking at aesthetics, the devil knows the popular music over there is at least as bad as ours is-maybe worse. Bravo to them for taking more lunch and vacation time to chill, but like us, people spend most of their time thinking about food, booze, sex and money (the order varies).

This is not just idle speculation. The foundation is cracking and we need to do some real analysis before the edifice simply evaporates.

Why did this tax trickle-down happen for so long? What fed the machine and greased the wheels? The weight of history may have played some part, but what kind of business/government linkages were necessary and how were they forged? If national self-image was a driving force, how do jazz promoters leverage that in US marketing? If movable feasts seemed preferable to permanent Temples of High Culture, how did the money flow to one and not the other?

Good answers are hard to come by, but they can only come after the right questions have been unearthed and asked.