Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Operators" Are Standing By-by Steve Provizer

Some have castigated the recent alliance between Sony and the Miles Davis estate which offers "A mouthpiece replica of exactly the 'Gustat' Heim 2 model used by Davis especially created by Kanstul," t-shirts and other fascinating items. They even throw in 43 cd's. In fact, those corporate giants don't go nearly far enough in offering a package that can truly bring fans closer to their favorite artists. I have therefore forged a metaheuristic liaison with certain Ukranian businessmen and am delighted to be able to offer the Deluxe Louis Armstrong Simulacrum Kit, composed of:
  1. A copy of the gun Armstrong shot off to get sent to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys.
  2. A facsimile of the original sisal belt Armstrong used to hold up his pants while delivering coal.
  3. A lump of coal.
  4. Two half-used packages of Swiss Kriss.
  5. A set of 10 designer "do-rags" created in honor of Satchmo's 100th anniversary.
  6. An "I Hate Bebop" pin, allegedly worn by Armstrong at an Elks Club meeting in Sept. 1952.
  7. A glassene envelope containing a half ounce of muggles that Armstrong forgot he even had.
Act today and we will throw in a re-engineered recording of Armstrong's solos with the King Oliver band, with the rest of that rickety group stripped off and replaced by the same excellent studio musicians Eastwood used to replace Potter, Roach and Haig in the movie "Bird." So act now. Our 'operators' are standing by. It's not re-animation, but it's pretty damn close.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Safety In Numbers-by Steve Provizer

The trigger for this was reading that today is Annie Ross' birthday. As far as I'm concerned (and it's a safe bet no one else is), there has never been a greater female 'parts' singer than Annie. Not just parts, but the vocalese solos she sang with Lambert and Hendricks. Fantastic range, intonation and phrasing. I never saw her live, but her recorded work isn't in the same league. There's a lot of ancillary reasons-inferior accompaniment and repertoire among them, but her voice was her voice and, in the end, she simply stopped compelling attention when she sang on her own. Jazz history is full of people who could arguably be put into that category. Does their work suddenly lose all merit when they step out and take on a heavier career burden? Of course not. But, ironically, their identities as musicians were the result of playing relationships with other, more "leader"-type musicians, or found within the safety of a larger ensemble. Here are some possibilities: A number of people away from Ellington-Webster, Cootie, Hodges, Cat Anderson; Basie people fared a bit better, I think (Did Herschel ever record on his own?); Junior Cook away from Horace Silver; some Mingus guys-Knepper, Curson, Hillyer; did Wynton Kelly ever sound as good as he did with Miles? Art Farmer worked less well without the Jazztet... For each, there's a different set of explanations for why they achieved some kind of synergy with a person or group and why moving away from that, to some degree, seemed to dissipate their musical power. I'm curious to see how the Royal Readership responds to those I've mentioned as well as its suggestions about others who fit this pattern.

Friday, July 23, 2010

All Hail the Jazz Super-Stud-by Steve Provizer

Lana and Artie
Pity the poor jazz musician. For about 75 years we were branded with a kind of anti-hero cultural status. To live up to that, we coughed up scores of booze-soaked and heroin-riddled deaths. Some-Artie Shaw, Harry James-were forced to march-step through scores of glamorous divorces. After that, the pressure eased off a bit. When people paid any attention at all, they saw us as only minor cultural anomalies, with a soupcon of romanticism; just enough to use in cigarette ads. Today, there's something new to deal with. A recent study says we're Kings of the Sexual Jungle. Actually, the study says King Stud would be an agnostic, butt-smoking, black, jewish, atheist jazz musician. But is that what people are seeing? No. They only see the jazz musician part. Quelle burden. Now, all those darlint servers are gonna be so distracted by our fauvist magnetism they will start spilling whiskey sours over the clientele right in the middle of our steamy renditions of Cherokee. I hope my fellow jazzers don't buy into the hype and start actually having more sex. Or worse still, playing more ballads. So please, out there in cyberspace, stop burdening us with the label of superstud. Wait. What's that you say? It's only jazz tweeters and jazz websites that are actually talking about this? Well, that's a relief. Then it's just wish-fulfillment; like that study due out soon about jazz musicians as big earners.
Dexter's Swingin' Lifestyle

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Life, Death, Resurrection and the Cornet-by Steve Provizer

--> During a recent Nat Adderly listening session, I thought “Why play this style on cornet and not trumpet?” I was thinking of the cliched perception of the cornet, as personified by cornet greats Oliver, Bix, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy McPartland et al. The cornet sound is theoretically mellower and rounder than a trumpet’s. The horns have the same length of tubing, but the cornet is squashed together a little more and most important, has more conical tubing than a trumpet, which has a cylindrical bore until it flares approaching the bell. The cornet mouthpiece emphasizes this difference. No scientist I, but I assume the acoustic difference may be that the wave form is less sawtooth and more sine. But think Adderly, Ruby Braff, Thad Jones and Warren Vache. Think Olu Dara and Graham Haynes if you want. To some degree, these guys have all broken the bounds. When they play long tones, you hear the difference in the horns (especially with Vache's vibrato), but essentially, these guys play the cornet like it was a trumpet, with brilliance, fire and a lot of upper register. Adderly emphasizes the blues and funk, Ruby the swing, Thad newer harmony, Daru and Graham the sonics and Vache facility all over the horn.
The evolution of a horn is an interesting thing. The cornet was the locus of technical innovation through the 19th c. while the trumpet was still thought of as it was in the Baroque period: a long tube with holes and little else. In 19th c. concert bands-feeder for brass-centric jazz-the cornets played the melody (The star was Herbert Clarke, whose technique books trumpet players still use) and the trumpets essentially played fanfare parts. Trumpet manufacturers began to catch on and applied cornet innovations around the turn of the century, but Jazz was an ensemble music and cornet worked better. Louis and Bix both played the cornet, but eventually, Armstrong stretched the limits of the cornet to the breaking point and switched to trumpet in 1927 for the Hot Seven recordings. The cornet lost ground and never caught up, except for "Dixieland" or "trad" players. For brass doublers, the pendulum swung hard to the hyper-mellow fluegelhorn. Me, I would rather hear a cornet. So, in a bizarre way, Nat, Ruby, Thad and company brought the cornet-trumpet cycle all the way back around. Where once Armstrong broke through the limits of the cornet to get to the trumpet, they did the reverse.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Infernal Vuvuzela, Scarcity and The Breath-by Steve Provizer

The World Cup has resuscitated the vuvuzela, formerly known to us boomers as "can I have one of those big horns?" These horns (always red) stuck out the top of the 2-wheeled carts dragged along by guys working the crowds at parades and ballparks. They also had banners, mylar balloons and the industrious ones had cut deals with other vendors to sell popcorn. But the horns were the most expensive and highly-prized tchochkes. Browbeating a parent into buying one was an all-day effort. To quote myself on Facebook: "I'm sure now that people have experienced the melodic limitations of the vuvuzela, they will flock to study the trumpet." Of course, this is the same category of cluelessness inhabited by people who are sure that sampling say, Michael Henderson, in your hip hop track will bring the kids around to listening to jazz. But this infernal device did evoke thoughts about the power of limited means. Wha? Listen: I had a friend who played the piano. He came from a rich family. He refused to go to a gig where they wanted him to play any kind of piano but a grand. No electric, spinet or upright for him...I'll just sit here for a few minutes steaming as I remember all the music I've heard made on crappy pianos by Tatum, Bud, James P.-basically any great jazz pianist. It stands to reason you don't want to sit down to play a piano with no F# above middle C, with the top octave sounding like the broken works of a cheap music box, or with a sustain pedal that sounds like it's harboring a family of mice. But that's what you got. You take it as a challenge to figure out work-arounds. Maybe it forces you to use new patterns and you discover a riff you never knew existed. Maybe it pisses you off so much you give up trying. Of course, that would mean no payday-and no music. People act amazed at the great music played by people who made banjos out of cereal boxes, or drums out of spackle containers or oil drums. Not me. The investment almost pre-determines that if the music's in you, you'll work hard enough to get it out. Now, you ain't making great music with the infernal vuvuzela, but you are putting enough breath into a column to agitate the standing waves and engage the harmonic series. That puts you closer to the many musicians who made somethin' from nothin' than to the people who buy Martin Committee horns and hang them on their den walls. Breathing is always a good thing. And you gotta breathe to work the vuv.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sweet, Hot and Smooth@-by Steve Provizer

Sometimes people don't know a good, no, a brilliant idea when it bites' em on the tweet. Alex W. Rodriguez @arodjazz was looking for advice on how to write a "smooth jazz" chapter for his jazz curriculum and I suggested he trace its roots back to the age-old dichotomy between "sweet" and "hot" jazz (Notice the copyright mark on the title-shows what a good idea it is). He didn't bite on it, but I am. It's a potentially juicy area for exploration: Bert Williams-hot or sweet? James Europe wasn't sweet, but could you really call him hot? George Benson: when did it happen?) Of course, it's also an impossibly large question for the likes of me, but Gap-toothed sitemaster Chris would pop me in the chops if I didn't run with it (This is all good insider stuff, by the way, but you're paying big money for access, so why not). In the pop world, there was probably always a definable split between sweet and hot. You had parlor music/popular song (sweet), blues (hot), ragtime/cakewalk/minstrel/vaudeville/black theatre (in-between), marches (more or less sui generis). Then, by the teens, "jazz" (hot). Note the large category not easily defined as either one or the other. No doubt musicians were aware of what their audience wanted (their "demo" we modern hucksters would say) and were fluid as necessary. Sometimes a person sang some folk; sometimes some blues-stands to reason. Vaudeville billed itself as family-friendly, but hot performers came out of there. Did they wait until they left to start being hot? Seems doubtful. With the over-generalized style practiced by a blogger who wants to hold his audience, I mean, given our space limitations, it's not possible to parse what happened before "jazz." It seems more reasonable to tackle the issue of Sweet, Hot and Smooth@ by starting in the late teens, when the word 'jazz' began to stick and denote something pretty specific. Sidebar to researchers: It would be interesting to know the extent to which the use of the label "jazz"was media-driven or a collective decision-spoken or unspoken-on the part of its practitioners. Until that time, we shall struggle ahead, picking up our investigation next time with: "Jazz Cage Match@ Part the First: Fletcher 'Hatchet' Henderson vs. 'Grapplin' Guy Lombardo."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sweet, Hot and Smooth Roots-by Steve Provizer

Now, ladies and gents, the promised jazz cage scrap between Fletcher 'Hatchet' Henderson and 'Grapplin' Guy Lombardo, or should we say, the familias Henderson and Lombardo. It's tag team, as both come brothered-up, but Fletcher and Horace are outgunned by the Lombardo mob: Guy, Carmen, Liebert and Victor.
Henderson does higher ed. and pledges Alpha Phi Alpha at Atlanta U. At the same time, the Lombardos rehearse a grammar school orchestra in the back of their dad's tailor shop. That puts them ahead in the early rounds, as they turn pro in the teens.
Henderson, however, comes on strong and is the first to score in NYC, forming an orchestra in 1922 and getting good gigs at Club Alabam and the Roseland.
The sweet and hot waters are muddy.
Henderson's arrangements at this point are as much Whiteman as anything else. His is a social dance band with a blues tinge. Meanwhile, Lombardo records for jazz label Gennett in early 1924 and there's not a hell of a lot of difference between those recordings and early Henderson. Late 1924 marks the real split. The Lombardo boys start "The Royal Canadians" and Louis Armstrong joins the Henderson crowd. First knockdown goes to the Royal Canadians, as they implement a strong PR strategy, using the tag line: "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven." Even if the sobriquet 'sweet' has been in general use, it starts to get burnished to a high cultural gleam by the Royal Canadians. When Armstrong joins Henderson in 1924, he brings the heat. Henderson and fellow arranger Don Redman respond by creating arrangements that allow the Armstrong fire to shine in a large ensemble context. Soloists like Hawkins hear Louis and join the fray. As the boys in the quarterlies would say, this is the juncture at which Henderson and Lombardo self-differentiate; in the process, creating more distinguishable sweet and hot streams in popular music. A quick retrospective follow-up reveals the following: Henderson's band nurtured jazz stars and the new idea of what large-ensemble jazz arranging could be. He couldn't keep the band together and mostly lived off arrangements he'd originally done for his 20's band that the Goodman band scored big with a decade later. The Royal Canadians go on to sell somewhere between 100-300 million records and become the musical face of New Year's Eve in America. Just sayin'. Next Time on JazzGrudgeMatch2010@: All in the Family-"Dorsey vs. Dorsey."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Cylindrical Paper Cup Filled with Booze-by Steve Provizer

John Coffey
Way back in the Lost Hang post, I said I'd fill in the details about my trumpet lessons with John Coffey. Here goes.

My first trumpet teacher came to the house. A big jolly man, he reached down, patted his butt and said to me, "Now, you can tell your jughead friends this, but don't tell your mother. When you play, you gotta press down like you're fartin'. See what I mean?"

After this, my parents got the name of John Coffey and off I went. The MTA (then MBTA, then T) stop near Coffey's studio was "Symphony." The smell of urine, decades of grime and bums laid out on the benches told you that no one expected the chi-chi crowd going to Symphony was gonna get there by subway.

Coffey's studio was on the second floor of a building on Huntington Ave., right across the street from Symphony Hall. On the first floor was a clothing store that sold yellow shoes, wide brimmed hats and pleated pants. I don't think the boys in the BSO were frequent shoppers; maybe the guys who played around the corner at Wally's.

Coffey looked like one of the presidents you couldn't identify. He was robust a la Grover Cleveland, had a shock of white hair, trombone-player jowls, Tommy Dorsey glasses and a voice that combined the sweetness of the southerner with the growl of the lifelong smoker. His studio was vast, with a large entry room, a small "warmup" room on one end, and an unseen office at the other. Every room had shelving squeezed into every available space and squeezed into the shelving were instruments for sale. Lining the walls were hundreds of photographs of John with Koussevitsky (for whom he played), with Jack Benny (for whom he played and to whom he passed his violin from the pit in vaudeville); John with every mythical creature that a knowing 12 year old could imagine. In the middle of the space was a small room for lessons. 

Coffey's trombone sat on a stand, an ancient encrustation of congealed saliva covering his mouthpiece; the wooden floor beneath stained by decades of emptied spit-valves. The lessons were supposed to be half an hour. In fact, we were usually interrupted at least 4 times. I was glad. I stunk and every minute of the lesson, I was embarrassed by my ineptitude. Usually the interruption was a musician who was in the neighborhood and just wanted to say hi or check out a horn. Occasionally something more august, like the entire trombone section of the BBC Orchestra, would come in. On those occasions, John would light up a smoke, reach under his seat, pull out a bottle and fill the little paper cups at the water fountain with a snort for the boys.

My fate, it seems, was sealed. Don't misunderstand me. I'm on record as being anti-nostalgia (except w. Fats Navarro), so I propose the preceding as a cautionary tale. Parents: Don't hyper-investigate the musical influences in your kid's life. And kids-whatever you do, don't go home and tell your parents how cool your lesson was. You'll never get back there again. Your lifetime earnings may go up, but your life will be poorer.