Top 50 JAzz Blog

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Vote With Your Ears-Dizzy for Pres." by Steve Provizer

Vote for Herbie
Herbert Hoover's advisers no doubt warned him that getting endorsements from Red Allen or Miff Mole might backfire. Ditto Harry Truman, who never sought the support of Bird-or even Tommy Dorsey. Ronald Reagan never thought that the backing of Archie Shepp would seal the deal.

Through most of its history, even in its mainstream swing heyday, jazz was considered dionysian enough to be vaguely disreputable. Eventually, you got jazz people invited to the White House and there was even a period when jazzmen were sent abroad as "ambassadors"-never a really comfortable fit, as exemplified by the fact that when Armstrong was photographed in full Ambassador's get-up, he was carrying a briefcase which happened to be full, as he said, of "that fine moota[pot]."

Listening to Brubeck's 1962 album (and unproduced musical) "The Real Ambassadors" wrestle with the wrongs and rights of collaboration with the US government is like observing through a one-way mirror as a group of confused psychologists scratch each other's van dycks. 

While there have been many jazz songs about civil rights, injustice, war-Trane's "Alabama," Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn," "Compared to What," by Les McCann-the only jazz title I know of that addresses politicians directly in any way-deprecating or not-is Mingus' "Fables of Faubus." That came at a point when rock and roll had pretty much usurped the mantle of disreputability from jazz.

Jazz musicians, subject to the whims of local, state and federal beaurocracies and law-enforcement, may have been reluctant to shake those trees. Whatever the reasons, the relationship between specifically electoral politics and jazz has been almost non-existent.

With these depressing 2010 mid-term elections upon us, I'd like to recall an odd and for me, lovely moment when jazz and electoral politics became strange bedfellows: Dizzy Gillespie's campaign for President in 1963-64.

Dizzy had marketed "Dizzy for President" badges as a laugher, to raise money for Core (Congress for Racial Equality), and other civil rights projects under Dr Martin Luther King's direction. But people responded so strongly that Dizzy let it happen and buttons and bumper stickers sprouted in hip enclaves throughout the land. Dizzy's response was perfectly modulated, letting us know in his sly way that he understood and shared with us the multiple layers of irony and seriousness that his participation brought to this mid Vietnam-era election.

Unfortunately, Dizzy's character sealed his fate as a candidate. Too funny, for one thing. Also too wry, too arch, too dedicated to music, weed and worst of all, too honest. Eventually, LBJ beat Barry Goldwater.

Dizzy may have dropped out of the 1964 race, but when I got old enough to vote, in 1968, I wrote his name in on my ballot for President and I was not alone. You may know who won that election: Tricky Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Jazz people: I know how hard it is to take this stuff seriously, but...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"The Institute's New Jazz Typology" by Steve Provizer

"...why is the Tristano school always shown as a branch of cool jazz? Those guys were hardcore bebop heads. Is it just that they were white and some of them wore glasses so people confuse them with Brubeck?"- Ian Carey

Mr. Carey, The Institute is here for you. Our first attempt at typology, utilizing shifting hair patterns, was primitive. Now, 6 months later, our staff has devised a truly scientific means of classifying jazz musicians in their proper schools, be it Traditional, Swing, West Coast, Bop, Cool, Hard Bop. Post-Bop, New Thing, Avant-Garde, Fusion, Retro. We call it: Spectacle Assessment Typology (SAT)*

*Please note the gender limitations of this process. Until the 1960's, female jazz musicians seem not to have been allowed to wear eyeglasses in photographs. 
Charles "Doc" Cooke

Frank Teschemacher
Very few examples of eyeglass wearers in early jazz could be found by our research staff: James Reese Europe, Miff Mole, Charles "Doc" Cooke, Fudd Livingston and Frank Teschemacher. Questions arise: Were photograph-ees in general warned to take off their glasses to avoid reflections from the flash powder? Was wearing glasses considered "namby-pamby" enough that jazz players of that era felt compelled to take their glasses off? Is good eyesight part of a genetic constellation that also includes genes dominant for improvisation? No clear answer emerges. In any case, white or black, as the above photos show, there was remarkable consistency in the style of the eyeglasses, thus simplifying SAT of early jazzmen (Primus jazzus sapien). 

Assessing the next generation, we still see very few eyeglass "users." However, those who did were among the most well-known band leaders. Trombonists Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller led the way, along with Benny Goodman. This group-Swingus Jazzus Sapien-made a dramatic stylistic purge and massed around a new, wire-rimmed style.  The Institute continues to research whether the domination of trombone players in this area reflects the relative difficulty of keeping a slide in focus. In any case, the stylistic consistency of the eyewear allows for easy SAT of this jazz sub-category.
Tommy Dorsey
Glenn MIller

During the 1940's, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie's protean, nay, cavalier approach to eyewear seemed designed to deliberately throw The Institute's researchers into cataleptic fits.
Gillespie opened up the floodgates for jazz musicians who felt that personal taste-including darkly tinted eyewear ("sunglasses")-should be the sine qua non for eyewear, rather than the Institute's more reasonable, genre-specific approach.

Happily, there was more consistency among white jazz musicians. While it's difficult for the Institute to create a flow chart that would show definitively who originated styles and who followed, we can see a strong black horn-rimmed lineage running from Misters Gillespie and Monk to white jazz musicians who adopted the style post-WWII. We feel it is here that the confusion cited by Mr. Ian Carey is rooted.

Some adoptees of this style include Lee Konitz,
Dave Brubeck and somewhat later, Bill Evans.

We at The Institute are confident of our methodology. So confident, in fact, that we believe the natural tendency to group these musicians together because of the similarity of their eyeglasses is well-founded and that the idea of wide stylistic differences between them is illusory. Our SAT analysis clearly shows that, not only is their music essentially congruent, they may actually be the same person. Is there a record of them all performing or recording together? We think not.

Next time: The Tell-Tale Cravat.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Ellington on Art and Craft" by Steve Provizer

Duke Ellington said: "The wise players are those that play what they can master."

Indeed, a highly controversial thing to say, especially in light of the radical shifts jazz has undergone in the last 60 or so years. Let's say it values the "craft" in jazz more heavily than the "art." Art versus craft has been taken up in other guises here in the blog, but it's important to reapproach it through the words of someone as respected as Ellington.

The sound of Duke's orchestra-the arrangements, solos and colors-absolutely relied on the specific players in his band, making the musical equilibrium of his groups subject to a very fine balance. As Duke said, every musician has limitations. His musicians were "masters with limitations," but he knew exactly what those parameters of mastery and imitation were, and counted on their ongoing presence to build a superb orchestral foundation. This meant that, more than any other big band leader, Duke dealt with barely controlled chaos; a good reason for him to prize longevity, consistency and to let the boys be boys, as long as they ultimately got the job done.

On the other hand...

The boundaries of what it means to be creatively, individually expressive in jazz have been expanded.  If you are now alive, you may prefer Fletcher Henderson, Bird, Coltrane, Ayler, late Miles, or whoever, but you know who they all are. You know the degree to which they pushed against existing boundaries. You know the extent to which they more obviously built on existing frameworks or tried to break free of those. And the fact is, you have to choose which model to adopt-or you have the freedom to choose-or however you want to put it.

No doubt some easily make their peace with this. Personally, I find it an unending dilemma. If I simply choose to play what I know I can play well ("craft"), audiences are probably happier-there is something satisfying-and calming-about seeing someone trying to express something musically and succeeding. But for me, it feels too safe and as though something is missing. I find myself climbing onto tree limbs that can only occasionally support me ("art").

Now, if the ghosts of all those people who preceded me could occasionally just take five...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Horns and Hormones by Steve Provizer

Getting married tends to take a guy out of the blog loop, but like Freddie Kruger, I manage to stay alive for the sequels...
I just finished reading "Hotter Than That," sub-titled "The Trumpet, Jazz and American Culture." I might add-"That's Awfully Grandiose For A Book That Slices Off Such A Teeny Tiny Piece of It," but that's the kind of blurb and sub-title hyperbole that jazz books aimed for a general audience sometimes indulge in.

I realized after I read it that Krin Gabbard, the author, had edited two weightier tomes I read a while back when I was contemplating going to grad school: "Jazz Among the Discourses" and "Representing Jazz;" the kind of stuff that convinced me my place was not in the Academy.

There is interesting material in this book-trumpet history, the dangers/early deaths of trumpeters, some material on how the trumpet is made (albeit with too much conversation with and about Dave Monette),  a variably entertaining exegesis about Miles-but remembering Gabbard's academic inclinations helped me understand why he took such pains to introduce a "THESIS" into "Hotter Than That;" a thesis requiring significant mental contortions and sporadic leaps from a high, shaky scaffold into a shot glass-sized target.

Here it is: The choice of the trumpet signifies the need of the trumpet player to express his manhood. African-American players, starting from Buddy Bolden, were given few ways to express their manhood, therefore grasped eagerly at this opportunity and developed all the possible musical-and extra-musical ways (clothes, strut) to accomplish it. White players ("who unquestionably possessed a special breed of masculinity" saw this and, rather than becoming athletes or professionals, became jazz musicians. His case extends to saying that Goodman hired Cootie, Dorsey took on Shavers and Shaw hired Lips Page in order to "boost their (the band leaders) masculine presentation." Whoa.

Alright, we've talked enough about ego in this blog to not dismiss this thesis entirely, especially in the case of African-American musicians, who indeed had far fewer choices for anything. But why push it so far? (WARNING: amateur shrinkage ahead). Gabbard is an aspiring trumpet player himself, and I can't help but notice how longingly he talks about hitting the high C's and reaching that hyper-masculine, testosterone-riddled musical pinnacle: The Lead Trumpet Player.

He seems to be aware of the other pleasures of playing and also says that "a lead trumpeter might also be a nerd masquerading as a brute." He admits there are some great female players and also notes the fact that the guitar replaced the trumpet as our adolescent male's chief macho instrumental choice. None of this seems to derail him from his need to return to the masculinity leit motif.

So, you trumpet players out there, seems like the safest thing is just to fess up. You know you suffer from a lack of hormonal self-confidence, so wise up, cop to it and give it a gangster lean. Just repeat after me: "I'm too sexy for my Benge, too sexy for my Schilke, too sexy for my Bach..."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"The Marvelous Ego Labyrinth" by Steve Provizer

Too much of a bad thing, no doubt, but being unemployed has induced hyper-posting.  My Little Grey Cells, otherwise preoccupied for the last 12 years with idle strategies for world domination have lately been inspired by things people write in the comments. In this case, the ego posting.

The interplay of ego on the bandstand is a marvelous labyrinth-a combination of conscious and unconscious body language, visual signals and-whether playing music with or without harmonic guideposts-perceptions of how much and how well people are listening. 

The most successful collaborations calibrate egos through listening-active and intensive listening-which to me means an openness to allowing what someone else plays to effect your next musical decision. As with any kind of communications, this will be more or less conscious on the part of a given player. But somewhere along the line, the player has to decide that responsibility for the music's success is shared; that he or she is willing to be a part of a larger group that either delivers the goods or screws up.

Solo genius is not predictive of collaborative genius. Bruno may disagree, but when I listen to Bird playing fours with other horn players, I don't have the impression of a person who has made the decision to really share the space. While the other soloist plays his 4, Bird's next entrance seems to say that he had been listening less than thinking about what his next 4 bars would be.

I think that many of us have been in the position of sharing a bandstand with a musician who simply wants to get his own agenda across. This is acceptable if you've understood that your role is sideman, know the limits of your soloing, etc. But in any purportedly collaborative situation, it's alienating and disastrous. Amazingly, I'm not sure the audience always hears it. Visuals can be so important to an audience and musicians are oiten too well-mannered to let their irritation and frustration show. When I talk about a bad playing experience, this is at the top of the list, above audience size, response and finances.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Happy Birthday Bill Dixon, Wherever You Are.

Image courtesy of Stephen Haynes.

"If you are you, 24 hours a day, then you do not have to remember who you are supposed to be in different situations - something that I imagine could be troublesome."

The Grand Old Man didn't make it to today and in the period that has followed his passing in June, there have been all manner of musical chairs shuffled in a back story spectacle of mixed appeal.

On one hand I've seen a regular academic cred cottage industry arise from some who seem to need that. Only a few were much help when he was alive and we who cared about Bill owe them. 

Laurence Cook lives the lingering reality of it well whenever he makes it to the gallery here and the younger players are starting to revere him in a very moving way. The other night, I joined an ensemble in carrying his heavy drum kit stuff to his car after the show. No one needed to be asked.

In another instance I've run into neurotic avoidance due to some need to individuate. The press half made a hash of it save for Ben Young and the list of things deserved that never came Bill's way is larger than the list of things he accomplished.

In many ways it is a story of a generational clash. Susan Faludi has many of the answers in Stiffed. One of the great generation survived depression and war to end up in quarrels with the younger parade who recoiled when the Grand Old Man gave them a piece of his mind.  

And then we have Stanley. 

"Mourning is over.  Time to put on some big boy trousers and meet the world.

Lights are back on at the Dixon Society.  Enjoy.

Since the 16th of June, I haven't been listening to much music. That's not entirely true.  I've been listening to a fair bit of Peter Tosh during my commute as that CD is stuck in the player.  Aside from that, not much music.  Not much of this music, anyway.

While there was a conscious decision to cease and desist with the writing until today, I wasn't motivated to do much writing anyway.  Do words mean anything?  If blogging isn't the essence of saying things to make yourself feel better (which is a bad idea), then what is it?

Before responding to Dixon's passing, I wanted to wait and see what I missed most about Bill Dixon.  Now that I've waited, it is clear that what I miss most about Bill Dixon was his zero tolerance for time wasting morons and the nonsense they generate.  

Actually, zero tolerance might not be the best descriptor, as in many instances there was an active and hostile aggression towards said time wasting morons and their nonsense.  Less than zero tolerance."
(read more)

"Gimme Some Jazz-Over Easy" by Steve Provizer

And one thing leads to the next...C.R. mentions in his ego post comment the degree of effort audiences will apply to "something non essential like aesthetic nourishment." This leads to the knock heard for so long about jazz: you have to work too hard to 'get' it.

It's sometimes framed as "accessibility,' a word that either puts up walls or acknowledges that walls exist. The passage through a maze can be accessible. High mountain gaps in Tibet can be accessible.  In any case, some effort is involved.

In one way, jazz fans have no problem with this idea. It marks them as an elite; gives them intellectual bragging rights-and maybe a shred of "cool factor." This may also resonate some with musicians. Unfortunately, musicians also have to deal with audience shrinkage and the attendant psychic and financial ramifications.

It's tough to quantify the elements of Hard/Not Accessible. Lack of recognizable melody? Complex rhythms? Polytonalism? Too much fortissimo? Certainly 30's jazz seemed-and seems-Not Hard to a lot of people, but "free jazz" does. Some strains of jazz have become background for car chases and sex scenes, thereby falling off the scale completely.  Some people have brought in hip hop, rock, disco, etc. to shift the balance.

It may be true that one person's "hard" music is another person's "easy," but sales and downloads show that most people's hard is not some else's easy. It's their hard. too. Otherwise, there'd be a more random statistical pattern.

In a way, this question has a kind of moral/puritan ethic undertone, like that in the "personal responsibility" or the "greatest generation- versus-the-boomers" debate. I.e., that audiences don't have
the "right stuff."

Have the expectations, energy and capacities (lack of attention span or other psychic shortfalls) of audiences changed over time or remained stable? Is there a smaller group of people willing to tackle challenging music? Are there simply so many more aesthetic choices that this change isn't measurable?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In (Mild) Praise of Ego by Steve Provizer

The conversation around the fear-and-confidence post was rejuvenated and made me think in terms longer than a reply comment.

Much of the conversation-externally and internally-revolves around trying to figure out the difference between "self-expression" and "communication." But is there really a difference? I don't think there is. Ego is in both and unless you're spending 12 hours a day in zazen, ego is not bad or good-it's just there.

Try to imagine a musician who is completely unaffected by the presence of an audience; who responds neither to praise, silence or to rotten tomatoes heaved at the stage.

On the other hand, try to imagine a musician who gets no personal satisfaction at all from pleasing an audience, whose every note represents a begrudged martyrdom. Despite the bitching and moaning we all do about bad gigs, I have real difficulty thinking there are no moments of personal creative satisfaction mixed in.

The more extreme positions-each contemptuous of audience in its own way-are probably more reactive than self-generated; more about self-image than evaluating the balance between your expectations and actual audience feedback/acceptance, and then deciding consciously what steps, if any, you could take to change the balance.

It probably doesn't help to ask yourself the usual question-"what's really important to you?" That's just a way to think yourself into an endless spiral.

No doubt there are people for whom confidence is more or less a fixed commodity. For most of us, it's always in flux. A constant creative re-consideration of the difference between self-acceptance and ambition is probably something that, at the least, would do no harm.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Aar! She bop She Bam! (and other pirate cliches)

Somehow, I think there's a pretty strong link between jazz fans and radio pirates. Or maybe it's just me. Anyway, readers of this blog are invited to check out my editorial about not letting ex-radio pirates get LPFM licenses-"I Don't Wanna Go To Rehab" at: 

Didn't even see Chris' post below until I posted. I can only say: there's piracy, and then there's community radio.