Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Walter Polite-A Bayou Working Man & Musician

I wrote this article about Walter Polite (pronounced Po-leet) for the Christian Science Monitor in 1997 and Walter died soon after. I reprint it here because I'm going back to N.O. and the memory of this bayou working man sitting on his front porch, grandkids running in and out while he played for me for hours, is one I'd like to summon up one more time...

NEW Orleans and the surrounding Louisiana countryside have proven as fertile in the generation of music as any region of the United States, perhaps the world. Jazz, Cajun, zydeco, and Mardi Gras music were all spawned here; Afro-Caribbean, gospel, blues, and rhythm-and blues have all flourished here.

To explore this legacy and especially today's Cajun and zydeco (“ZY- deco") music - a type of accordian-driven Cajun music blending blues and country idioms - I spent some time this spring in New Orleans and the bayou country, timing my visit to coincide with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in May. This event, aside from presenting nationally- known acts, is a magnet for many of the area's crafts people, chefs, and, of course, musicians. I enjoyed the varied culinary specialties as well as the jazz and blues music, but I especially sought out the Cajun musicmakers.

Allen Fontenot, a Cajun fiddler and leader of a group called the Country Cajuns, recalled what it was like decades ago to be a young musician in local dance halls. Speaking in a patois that is itself a combination of ethnicities, Mr. Fontenot said, “You used to pay a quarter to get into the country dances and for that you’d get a live band and a big bowl of gumbo at 11. We used to call these dances 'fais dodo,' which means 'make sleep. You see, young couples would bring their little children to the dance, and they'd have to try and get them to go to sleep before they could party.”

While this kind of a dance is rare today, I discovered that the bayous and the country roadhouses that keep the music alive have remained pretty much the same for the last 50 years. Swamps dense with vegetation and squat cinder block or tin buildings with names Iike the "Half Moon” and "Coz's Blue Goose Lounge" still dot the countryside from outside New Orleans to Lafayette and New Iberia, “the heart of Cajun country."

It was on a trip to New Iberia that I met someone who personifies Louisiana's indigenous music culture. Walter Polite, born 75 years ago in St. Martinville, La., is a robust working man, who made his living as a laborer.

“I worked in the field, worked in the swamp, worked on the levee--all hand work," he said. "Never drove a tractor." There is something else that Mr, Polite does with his hands, and that is play the accordion masterfully.

We sat on the screened-in front porch of his small frame house, as three other generations of the Polite family listened or went about their business. He showed me some memorabilia and talked about his history with the accordion:

“My cousin went and bought a French accordion, but he couldn't play on it, so he gave it to me; said, 'If you can play on it, take it.' So I started to play; little dances, little parties, like that …Then I lost my child, and I stopped playing for about five years, Later on, some folks asked me to play for a dance, and I picked it up and started again."

It was clear that Polite didn't really enjoy taIking about himself and wanted to get down to more important business: "Now I'm gonna play you some music - some zydeco music.”
Technically, the instrument he plays is a triple-row diatonic accordion, but I was totally captivated by his playing and had no desire to analyze; the man and his music seemed totally unified. With his foot keeping accurate time, he played and sang, sometime in English, sometimes in patois French: "Hey Lucía," "Lena," "My Tutu," "Zydeco Cha Cha," and others.

"I don't say I'm the best." he explained, "but I try to satisfy the people." 

In the estimation of this visitor, he certainly does that.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Boston Celtics Jazz Lineup" By Steve Provizer

Last year at the beginning of the playoffs, I posted my take on the C's as jazz musicians. The only change in this year's lineup is Shaq.

Rajon Rondo=Miles Davis
Paul Pierce=Coleman Hawkins
Kevin Garnett=Booker Little 
Shaquille O'Neal-Walter Page
Ray Allen=Big Sid Catlett

(Not to be used for illegal gambling purposes...If only)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Operators Are (Still) Standing By" by Steve Provizer

Last summer, inspired by the alliance between Sony and the Miles Davis estate which offered a mouthpiece replica, t-shirts and other fascinating items, we created our own Louis Armstrong Simulacrum Kit. And, we couldn't keep 'em in stock!

Always eager to satisfy the insatiable jazz consumer, we have again forged a metaheuristic liaison with a clutch of Ukranian businessmen and created The Deluxe Charlie Parker Simulacrum Kit, which allows you to really "get next" this greatest of jazz improvisers. It includes:
  1. A dental x-ray showing Bird's "upper partials."  
  2. A yardbird wing from 1941, preserved in formaldehyde.
  3. A wheel from the band bus that probably crushed it.
  4. A bottle of Gordon's gin salvaged from the wreckage of the old Birdland, with a letter of provenance from Willy's Liquor Store on 44th St.
  5. An early brochure from the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce
  6. A box of Dean Benedetti out-takes (so unlistenable that even Ross Russell wouldn't release them, but still...)
  7. One oboe reed with a imbedded Mitch Miller moustache hair.

And, for the first 20 buyers, we will throw in shards from t
he cymbal thrown by Jo Jones in an infamous jam session incident (verification pending).

So act now. Our 'operators' are standing by.
And, as we always say, "it's not re-animation, but it's pretty damn close."

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Chet Baker Watch & Other Jazz Necessities," by Steve Provizer

Glad to see someone's finally designing a Chet Baker watch. If anyone says "be on time" to me, it's Chet.

Not to be outdone, I have a number of products in the pipeline:

Charlie Parker Day Planner
Trumbauer Guide To Linux
G.I. Lennie Action Figure
Joe Newman Sump Pump
Bill Evans Chest Expander
Keith Jarrett Beard Trimmer
The iTrane

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"The Shadow of Kitty Genovese" by Stephen Provizer

This is a re-written version of a post from last April, which I'm reprising as a pre-quel to a post later this week about the Occupy movement. I think it's timely.

I recently re-discovered the unusual Phil Ochs LP "Pleasures of the Harbor."  A song from that album, "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," and another song from 1967-"All's Quiet on West 23rd," by a group called "Jetstream"-were inspired by a 1964 incident in Queens where the murder and rape of a woman named Kitty Genovese went unreported by neighbors.

The degree of passivity and non-involvement on the part of Genovese's neighbors is not clear (Good explanation here), but the incident inspired a flurry of research, which in turn generated a sociological premise called The Bystander Effect. The gist of this is that the larger the size of a group of people witnessing a "reportable" activity, the less likely any one person is to take action.

Friday, April 8, 2011

"Monk's Moods; a Look at Robin Kelley's Bio" by Stephen Provizer

Robin Kelley's massive bio Monk has been widely reviewed and justifiably praised. Monk's musical history is exhaustively researched and definitively outlined. Kelley's chapter on the early days of bop at Minton's and Monroe's is the clearest explanation of that confusing scene I've ever read.

But, when I read biographies, what most interests me is the interplay-the dissonances and congruences-between the art and the artist. The way this is undertaken determines where a biography is placed on the hagiography-to-'gotcha' spectrum.

In his Acknowledgments, Robin Kelley says he "did not want to write an authorized biography" and that Monk's son Toot, "...only asked me to do two things: 'Dig deep and tell the truth.' This is no small task, as Thelonious Monk may be the most enigmatic jazz hero of all. Kelley presents us with a ton of facts. It's up to the reader to decide whether or not we've been told "the truth."

Kelley's decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to soft-peddle, play out palpably throughout the book. There seems to be no doubt that Monk was both a seer and a pain in the ass. He was a visionary and an egotist; a doting father and an absent one; a hard worker who turned it off when he felt slighted; a boss who said he "never fired anyone," but often replaced band members on short notice.

The story of Monk's drugs and alcohol use is often alluded to, but not deeply explored. This is an important omission, as much of what we think about Monk hangs on his biochemistry. I.e., when did he begin to get in the thrall of bi-polar-ism? To what extent are the episodes described caused by personal chemistry? Drugs? Some combination of the two? How much control might he have exerted over his drug and alcohol intake? Kelley tilts the moral ambiguity in favor of Monk, as one might emphasize a deceased uncle's intelligence over his biting sarcasm.

Kelley's failure to go more deeply into the "personal responsibility" aspect of the story is reflected in another way. Much is said to denigrate the media or other people's take on Monk as naive or child-like. But Kelley often purveys Monk as someone who is unaware that his odd behavior might make people think he's odd. On the other hand, Kelley often takes pains to tell us how aware Monk is of his surroundings and circumstances.

A biography may provide a means of self-reflection that can help us gain insight into ourselves. After all, deciding whether a book such as this tells "the truth" is less about facts than the reader's personal morality. But here, you get a bit of the same feeling you get with "embedded" war reporting. Living, eating, sleeping and facing bullets together affects what you choose to put in and leave out.

In this book, Robin Kelley has given us an amazing story, but we may need a slightly more detached scholar to help us through the dense psychic thicket that was Thelonious Monk.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Video Vault-Woody Shaw-"Bemsha Swing."

Another in the series of the great Woody Shaw, playing "Bemsha Swing," recorded by me on 8.21.85 at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, MA.

Woody Shaw-trumpet.
Stanley Cowell-piano
David WIlliams-bass
Terri-Lyne Carrington-drums