Top 50 JAzz Blog

Monday, November 29, 2010

"When Money Comes in the Door, Duende Goes Out the Window" by Steve Provizer

Duende was first a fairy or goblin-like creature in Spanish and Latin American mythology. Eventually, it became a concept-something that you could have, or which inhabited you; a way of describing the passion inherent in flamenco or other folk musics. The concept has had two main popularizers: Frederico Garcia Lorca and George Frazier.

Lorca 's complex vision of duende was irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical. He said: "It is a struggle, not a thought."

George Frazier was a mid-20th century columnist for several Boston newspapers and wrote for Esquire, Down Beat and other magazines. He was sartorially-obsessive and smart-ass, and wrote often about jazz and about duende. He was not really useful as an exemplar of an era-more a cranky anomaly. He was a working-class kid who aspired to infuse Boston jazz's hemi-semi-demi monde with his Ivy-League-tinged bonhomie.

Frazier applied or denied duende to celebrities like Joe Dimaggio and Frank Sinatra. He also applied it to The Guinness Book of Records, the Army-Navy Game and Sydney Greenstreet. In other words, by dint of having to crank out thousands of words a week for half a century, Frazier cheapened the concept, but he did bring a personal, idiosyncratic analysis to celebrity-hood and gave us a framework in which to think about fame which is still useful.

Being a celebrity in America was never a picnic. Homosexuality was verboten. Sham personalities and trumped-up romances filled the pages of smarmy columnists like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper. Sponsors, ad agencies, talent combines and film studios pulled all the strings. The only thing that may have changed over the last 40 years is more gender sexual-preference

What I would call Rebellious Compliance became the watchword and Justin Bieber is its current exemplar. In Bieber you find perfectly mated the illusion of accessibility with unachievable desirablility; an obfuscation possible so long as Bieber can be kept enshrouded in a cross-media-platform miasma.

The natural result of this ghastly press-agent potage is the papparazi-vulture, who feasts on the carcass of our projections. Technology and a growing culture-wide devaluation of privacy have made it worse, but it was always there: intercontinental cables and newspaper headlines followed the passage of Irving Berlin through Europe almost a hundred years ago.
Some celebrities may indeed have had duende at the outset of their careers and they may have charisma still. But duende requires courage. It requires dismissing self-image. In an upwardly mobile career, the sweet smell of success tends to begat the treacly putrescence of unbridled narcissism. Courage often gets replaced by hubris. 

The enemy is obviously us. We are the sheep whose judgment is susceptible to flackery and to the mass psychology of: "I accept you because you're already accepted." And, "I don't quite accept you because you're not famous;" brothers under the skin to "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?"

Duende still exists, but you have to use your own nose to smell it. When you walk into a venue-large or small-resolve to make up your own damn mind. Don't let the sizzle get you off the scent. Caution, though. Side-effects may include: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The Myth of 'The First'" by Steve Provizer

There's a guy who recently said he's identified the World's First Rock-and-Roll Song

Id'ing the first of anything is alluring; even better than finding the Biggest Spruce Tree or the Skinniest Model. Arguing about the First Of Something has the same kind of endless circularity you get in a stoned conversation about "Best Of's." It can be enjoyable as long as no dopey egotist who needs more sex (Hey, that's me-at least the dopey egotist part) holds tight to their own opinion about, say, what the Best Bird Solo is.

In non-art First Of's, taste is supposed to be less of an issue. Shouldn't we be able to tell who invented something? But it turns out to be very blurry, indeed. In science and industry, you often have multiple people finding the same solution, one of them getting it out first and the other disappearing. Equally often, the person who did something or discovered something is superceded by the person who successfully marketed it, bought the rights real cheap or simply swindled them out of the rights, the patent or the glory.  We always seem surprised when we learn about these episodes, even though they seem to be as much rule as exception. It's the Winners-Write-History thing. 

There's two directions I can take at this point. One is to make fun of the whole business by trumping up bogus Firsts. Say, The First Drip Painter to use Cyan, or the First Accordionist Who Didn't Play Lady of Spain.

The other direction is to question the whole premise of the "First;" at least in the case of popular music. To me, the First idea is of a piece with the Linear Development of Jazz theory. There may be one vector that is more energetic than others (New Orleans and Up The River), but there was simultaneous activity in many parts of the country-San Francisco, New York, Denver, not to mention that something like the blues was being sung and played in most of the South and tunes were being "ragged" all over the country.

In the same way, blues, boogie-woogie, jive, big band and small band swing, stomp, western swing, jump, gospel, were all spinning out by the late 1930's. No doubt a lot of the cross-pollination was not recorded, but it's insane to think that those threads were not being woven at the same time in many parts of the country into the skein that consensus would-in retrospect-call rock and roll.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Charlie Shavers: Decided. by Steve Provizer

[I first wrote about Charlie Shavers a couple of years ago and since then, have noticed signs that increased attention is being paid to this great trumpet player (pure coincidence, I'm sure). I have expanded that piece, added new links and new commentary]

I first heard Shavers many years ago playing on Billie Holliday''s Verve LP "Solitude"- my favorite Lady Day record. Charlie's playing, both open and muted, was beautiful. I don't know why I didn't pursue his discography at that point; it just kind of spun out over time and I have grown to increasingly dig Shaver's facility, creativity and tone.

The only other swing trumpet players who could give Charlie Shavers a run for his money as both soloist and lead player were Roy EldridgeHarry Edison and Buck Clayton. If you happened to like the particularities of their sounds, you might say Harry James, Cootie Williams, Bunny Berigan or Red Allen were in his league. Shavers' tone was basically 'poppin', but rounder, slightly less edged and with a touch more vibrato than the others. His range was unsurpassed, except by Eldridge. He used mutes to great effect throughout his career.

Shavers was an alumnus of the Tiny Bradshaw, Lucky Millinder and John Kirby, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman bands and Jazz at the Philharmonic. He recorded and sounded perfectly at home in many styles-blues, traditional, swing, semi-bop.

There's a dearth of info out there about the man. There is one very cool interview with him here, and what he says about the trumpet will surprise you. In this interview with Bobby Shew, there is a reference to Charlie's having what seems to be narcolepsy.

Whether or not he had that kind of medical condition or not he seems to have been an extremely laid back possibly even passive, guy. It's interesting to speculate on how his personality interacted with his career-especially his recording career-as many of the recordings he made in mid-to-late career (he died at age 50) were not very good. Producers put him in settings they thought would make him appeal to a bigger audience. On some of these, he is simply a high note guy and on some, a "beautiful music" guy. He probably had neither the clout nor the personality that would have made him push back against any of these musical follies.

Here's Charlie with Johnny Dodds in 1938 playing the mistitled tune "Melancholy."

This is the Charlie Shavers Quintet in 1947 doing "Dizzy's Dilemna."

Here's Charlie and Lady Day, 1952, on "Moonglow."

Here he is in 1952 with Eldridge in one of the classic JATP "battles."

One of the few clips of Charlie has him here in another fantastic "battle" with Buck Clayton:

Here he is holding down the solo and first chair at the same time for the Dorseys:

Here he is with his first major gig-John Kirby. Sid Catlett is fantastic:

And finally, here he is not long before his death. Dig the violinist Svend Asmussen. You might also recognize the bass player and the tenor player:

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Jazz Cops on Patrol" by Steve Provizer

So, my band is working toward the out-chorus of "All of Me," when this stocky guy with a crew cut comes up to the stage. He's a tough looking mug, wearing a blue drum major hat with "this space for rent" written on his forehead.

"Alright," he says to the drummer, "Put those sticks down. You've traded enough fours for tonight. And you with the bass-drop that bow.  We take a dim view of excessive arco down at headquarters." Then, he takes a pad out of his pocket and starts writing out what looks like a ticket. 

Joe, our bass player pipes up: "Hey man, who the hell are you?"

"Jazz Cops," he says, and pulls out a badge with Sid Bechet's picture on it. "Boys," he explains, "you've broken more jazz statutes tonight than Boots Randolph."

He finishes writing the ticket, tears it off the pad and says: "Who's the supposed leader of this clown posse?"

I step up, take the ticket and try to decipher it: "02? 03? What the hell does all this mean?"

"Key for the violation codes are on the back, Bozo. I'd advise you to commit them to memory," and with that, he turns on his flat feet and flees.

"Oh, one last thing," he yells from the back of the club, "Fines are doubled on New Year's Eve."

Sadist... Well, here are those Jazz Code Violations, revealed for the first time:

01-Tempo Violation: Going 150 beats per minute in a Ballad Zone.

02-Erroneous Genre Miscegenation-Attempting to merge incompatible musical styles. 

03-Arrangement Creativity Deficit: Unimaginative, rote use of form [i.e., head, solo, solo, solo, repeat head].

04-Criminal Endings Abuse: Infinite drum rolls and aimless horn noodling over a protracted final chord. 

05-Arco-philia: Overuse of the bowed bass to achieve a dramatic effect. 

06-Vehicular Homicide: Inviting someone to sit in and then calling "Giant Steps" in Dflat. 

07-Playing while intoxicated: [with Bird, Trane, Miles].

08-Inspection Violation: Un-emptied spit valve, squawky reed or rattling snare.

09-Faulty Instrumentation: [Overuse of the soprano sax].

10-Cheap Trick Abuse: Arbitrary application of odd meters in a 4/4 Zone.

Dum, da dum dum daaah. A Mark LXVIII Production.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Jazz 911: Rescuing the Great American Songbook" By Steve Provizer

When you reach into the faux-velvet bag, there's a feeling of infinite possibility inspired by the virgin letters nestled inside. But you can only get that feeling after you’ve swept the last set of painstakingly-created words off the Scrabble board.

Oddly, I went through the same process when I read Peter Ven Der Merwe's book-Origins of the Popular Style. The intensity and detail of his musical analysis broke down musical structures to the point where they began to destabilize and eventually float free. More and more, I understood the weight of the baggage I bring to the act of listening to music. As obvious as the idea may seem, it was startling to actually feel that melody, harmony and rhythm are just raw material-free radicals-waiting to be recombined by creative musicians.

Living with this feeling for a while led me to realize just how radical an influence jazz has had on popular music, especially the Great American Songbook. It's not as big a leap as it seems.

There was always some dialogue between "popular"music (parlor, spirituals, blues, ragtime) music and "classical" music (opera, symphonic, etc). Classical composers sporadically infused their work with popular material while, for popular music, the appropriation and reconfiguration of musical raw materials has always been meat and potatoes.

But the way that jazz undertook this process of reconfiguration broke radically from the past.
Papa Charlie Jackson
Jazz began, as other new popular music genres had, with simple variations, ornamentation and new inflexions. Improvisation was moving toward the center and that in itself was new, but was just one part of the radical shift. With each new decade, the proper job of the jazz improviser increasingly became to disconnect a song from its original moorings. Each player needed to be a re-composer, listening to the musical flesh and bones of a song and then re-imagining, rearranging and filtering these through a jazz lens. What emerged was not a new "version" of a song, but a new song entirely, one with more flexibility, more elan and emotional weight. If this meant "disrespect" for original intent, so be it: Just Swing It@ (keep away, Nike).

The Ingenues
Because jazz musicians performed this alchemy, a repertoire survived that otherwise would have been consigned to the musical dustbin. Or, at best, occasionally resurrected as a cultural curiosity. This includes much of the Great American Songbook.

Radical notion? Look at the oeuvres of the great American composers- Kern, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Berlin, etc... Almost all their work was written for theatre-some for movies. If the only time we heard their songs was in the theatre or cinema, performed as they were originally intended to be heard, we would either engage with that material as nostalgia or, more likely, leave at intermission.

Over the past century, songs that would have otherwise been discarded as archaic and stilted have been continually resurrected by improvisers, who brought fresh ears and ideas, releasing a sophistication, subtlety and power that would otherwise have remain untapped. To use a "green" metaphor, jazz took in banana peels, lemon rinds and egg shells and turned them into rich dark compost. 

Of course, there were Great American Songs that even in their inception were not in need of reclamation. These were often written outside the theatre, for nightclub reviews, or specifically for or by jazz musicians (chiefly Ellington, Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Gershwin).

But there are so many examples that support my thesis. I give you a few here, but feel like my role is to lay the concept out and that many more examples will come from you:

What Is This Thing Called Love
What Is This Thing Called Love
What Is ThiS Thing Called Love

All the Things you Are
All the Things You Are
All the Things You Are

Look For the Silver Lining
Look For the Silver Lining