Top 50 JAzz Blog

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Where does jazz fit in the post-Newtown discussion about violence and popular culture? 

While not really in the mix now, jazz has historically played the role that hip hop, some kinds of rock and video games now play. This short overview will look at mainstream perceptions of the relationship between jazz and "violence" and how that perception changed through time. 

Jazz grabbed a lot of pieces of American culture to create itself: field shouts, preaching, spirituals, minstrelsy, blues, ragtime, parlor music, brass band music. Further, most of those were, themselves, hybrid strains. 

Some of those influences, like spirituals, preaching and parlor music, self-identified as "genteel," or "uplifting." Some, like field shouts and hollers and blues, were labeled "slave music;" and were, by implication, "low." Minstrelsy and ragtime were associated with shakier morality-more urban, apt to indulge in "sophisticated" humor and often associated with houses of ill repute. Brass band music was energetic and its association with circuses(entertainment) reduced its moral tone. However, many of the trappings of performance-the military, the village green-were less suspect. Call it somewhere in between.

Each of these genres was also associated with the relative presence of, or lack of, violence. It's easy to see which was which.

By the turn of the 20th century, a music we now see as incipient jazz was being played by Buddy Bolden's group, Jelly Roll Morton and others. While it contained many musical influences, both "high" and"low," and was played at benign venues like parades and picnics, it was more closely associated with Storyville gut bucket joints, or the rough parts of cities like St. Louis and Memphis. Often described as wild and uncontrolled, the music was acquiring a specifically disreputable image.

Musicians in various cities were able to work both sides of the fence, playing improvisational music in joints and waltzes and quadrilles at balls and cotillions. With the unusual exception of James Reese Europe and the Clef Club in New York City, there was a racialist system which relegated darker-skinned musicians to gin joints, parades and lower-paying gigs, while whites or lighter-skinned creoles (in New Orleans) were able to work anywhere.

As the teens proceeded, there was more mixing among musicians and bands were expected to play many different kinds of "high" or "low-down" music, but by this point, jazz had provoked a serious moral backlash. Crusaders from many cultural niches helped to position it solidly as an anti-establishment music, associated with the demi-monde.

King Oliver and co. in Chicago
With the onset of Prohibition in 1919, jazz became anthemic for people flouting bourgeois norms. Bootleggers and other prospering members of the criminal class moved into the nightclub business and jazz was the music of choice. While merely a bystander, jazz became more specifically linked to violence, and moralistic, anti-jazz campaigns were common.

The backlash against Prohibition and its eventual demise in 1933 coincided with the rise of "swing" music. The cultural perception of jazz shifted and the music became less something to epater le bourgeoisie and more something you'd play on the jukebox in the malt shop. During WWII, the music "played its part," helped to sell war bonds and became even less associated with violence (any irony there?). 
The Connection
Post-war, jazz ran into more trouble because of its association with narcotics.  Mainstream perception, subject to the paranoia of McCarthy-ism and the patina of Eisenhower-era placidity, magnified the connection between jazz and a violent underworld. Still, it was not a monolithic public response. Rock and Roll records were being burned and benign public beatniks like Maynard G. Krebs were, like, acceptable to the masses.

By the 1960's, jazz moved toward a more centrist moral/cultural position. A wave of spiritualism, spearheaded by John Coltrane and wider adoption of the Muslim religion by jazz musicians had defused the jazz-violence connection. Also, rock was now clearly the music of the counter-culture.

In the following decades, the common perception of jazz, to the extent it was thought about it at all, changed little. Rock musicians remained the bad boys until they were supplanted by hip hop artists. Video games then joined them under the public microscope.

Even though jazz always had one (sometimes small) foot in elite social circles, it also talked about things that gentility-or hypocrisy-precluded as part of the cultural dialogue and which, at the least, had overtones of violence. So, while there are "political" dimensions to any outsider-minority-generated art, mainstream moral codes, at least in America, have always exerted more of a sanctioning influence over jazz than has The State. Even during the 1950's, when the narcotics-jazz connection was widely noted, the State Department sent jazz musicians around the world to try and help win the Cold War. 

The government has been too concerned with monitoring domestic political dissent and with its own overseas military campaigns, to pay much attention to the relationship of culture to violence on the home front. Even well-positioned crusaders like Tipper Gore have had a limited influence on government action. 

The debate has been dominated by the people with the loudest voice and the most money (the NRA, if you haven't figured it out), who have successfully reinforced archaic myths of rugged individualism and the right to the untrammeled arming of our populace.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Truth About Mouthpieces (updated)

I recently posted about Booker Little and trumpet player/blogger Ian Carey commented: "interesting that he got that fat "1C" sound out of a tiny Al Cass 1-28!"

That's one facet of the mouthpiece mythology that I didn't get into in this original post: People believe they should strive to get to a bigger mouthpiece (1c-3c) so they can get to a "bigger sound." The truth is, it absolutely depends on the player. Enough great players with "fat" sounds have put the lie to it to make any young (or older) trumpet player think twice:

Clifford Brown's sound has always been renowned for its juiciness. What mouthpiece did he use? Bach 17C1 and 17C2, equivalent now to Bach 10 3/4 CW. Small.  Ditto Conte Condoli. Ditto Fats Navarro. You think of Red Allen's sound as small? Don't think so. He used a very small cup Zottola. Dizzy Gillespie: Al Cass 2-24 & 2-25-equivalent to a Bach 11.75. The list is long.

The neglect that I experienced around mouthpiece choice and which I believe continues in early brass education is sickening. Young players: You need to know how important mouthpieces are. I truly believe that players just starting out are given mouthpieces that are several sizes too big and trying to use a mouthpiece that's too big can really mess you up.

You can play almost any trumpet, unless it's a real piece of junk, but having the wrong mouthpiece can absolutely stunt your musical growth. When you pick up this beast of an axe, you need positive reinforcement to stick with it. The wrong mouthpiece can make it so much more difficult to play that it can erode morale and no doubt has led many to ditch the horn. On the other hand, finding the right size mouthpiece can be incredibly motivating and speed you on your way to great range and flexibility.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Artists Respond to Tragedy

From the biggest stars to those playing off nights in coffeehouses, musicians do have the power to effect change in this culture, by raising awareness and money for a cause. I call upon the members of the musical community to organize as quickly as possible to start the process.  The power of the NRA has been unassailable to this point and this must change. If you live in the Boston area, please let your presence and interest be known. 

I am confident that my own group, SLSAPS, will respond and possibly act as coordinators or, in any case, as a point of contact for either a single large effort or multiple efforts to raise money and support for gun control. 

The pain is deep, but we can do something. Let's do it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Look At "Why Jazz Happened"

There is much to fascinate here. It's rare to find a book with so much information which also reads so easily. Marginal Jazz fans will find a ton of material to interest them. Hard-nosed jazz-istas will too, but they may find themselves at odds, as I did, with some of the broad conclusions Myers forwards here.  

I admit up front that I tend to be uneasy in the face of someone else's certainty concerning musical/ historical constructs. Even a dizzying array of facts seldom nails anything down for me. Take the truism that artists reflect the times in which they operate: 
Easy to say, sez me, 
But much harder to prove specifi-cally. 

There are, for example, many jazz musicians born in 1985 who fashion their playing after bebop heros long mouldering in their graves. Maybe the fact that these musicians have heard hip hop or watched Dancing With the Stars is in there as part of their internal art-making process along with many hours of listening to Charlie Parker, but it's not so easy to parse out those influences. The process is always subject to conjecture, projection, bias, limited information; even with (especially with?) the words of musicians to back up your case.

On a larger scale, this is what Myers is trying to do in this book: anchor specific musical changes and content to historical, non-musical events. In service of this, he brings a laudable amount of research and scores of interviews, creating a book that is always interesting, sometimes enlightening, but occasionally too apt to push what is really conjecture into the realm of the authoritative.  

Myers gives us an interesting account of the reasons for the growth of L.A. after WW II and tries to tie those events to the onset of "West Coast" jazz. His chief witness is saxophonist Dave Pell, who clearly had a hell of a time, but I don't buy the case that tract housing developments, sunshine, beach, golf and the movie industry made specific musical things happen. Myers says: "The sound suited its surroundings, placing a new emphasis on instrumental harmony, fluid execution, and polished teamwork"(p.94). Hmm. If Gil Evans and the whole New York Birth of the Cool crowd wasn't fluid, polished, etc., who was? Myers also talks a lot about how L.A. separated musicians because distances, driving, running between studio gigs, etc. meant that there was much less hanging out in the kind of places that thrived in NYC. Is this also the kind of environment that would promote the sound of "instrumental harmony, fluid execution, and polished teamwork" noted above? Don't think you can have it both ways.

A clear tale is told here of how racism operated to close down jazz activity on black Central Ave. and provoke black musicians to move to the East Coast. But there are also enough stories in jazz folklore about racism in NYC, harassment over drugs, cabaret card suspensions, etc., that the idea of NYC as a racial refuge doesn't ring true; even more so because the book acknowledges that on neither coast did racism between jazz musicians seem to be a problem.

The section on how R&B affected jazz gathers much interesting information, but the underlying thesis is not convincing: hard bop as an attempt by jazz to "remain relevant" by infusing jazz with the beat and funk of R&B. Myers quotes Gene Seymour here: "Instead of grasping for greater complexity, hard bop provided jazz music with an innovative way of keeping things simple (p121)." I don't hear it in the music. Myers cites Elmo Hope, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson as hard bop composers. He says that hard bop had a "harder, more unified sound. (p.134)" and that it "added a back beat-a strong accent on the second and fourth beats of each measure(p.134)." I just can't buy it, even with Lou Donaldson kind of backing up the case. There were certainly some tunes that were more funky, but the predominating modality was instrumental virtuosity and a bop approach in the rhythm section. I can't see "Joy Spring" wooing away Earl Bostic fans. (It's cool, though, to learn that William Kunstler was the lawyer who helped Gigi Gryce incorporate to gain control of his music).

The chapter on the G.I. bill enabling a lot of musicians to acquire more formal music lifts a veil on the jazz-classical connection. I agree with Myers that formal classical training impacted jazz, but we disagree on what that specific impact was. Myers says that the result of this training was "a more complex form of jazz" (p.47). OK, if you're just talking about Third Stream music-and I see that music as more complicated only in terms of form, not improvisation. 

I think the major effect of this training was not that jazz itself became more complex, but that trained jazz arrangers were able to move into film and television work and to work with more popular artists on recordings. Examples: Buddy Collette, Teo Macero, Dick Hyman, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini, Andre Previn and Bill Holman. 

Jazzwax, Myers' blog, is superlative. It contains scores of interviews with musicians and music industry people. By putting many of his interviews in service here, Myers seems to want to make the tone of the book something in between just plain history and an oral history like Hentoff's "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya." But it sometimes begats a pastiche feeling. A sub chapter will start; you will see a quote; there will be a digression, then other quotes arise that recapitulate the start of the sub chapter, sometimes saying essentially the same thing. A story or a quote sometimes shifts chronology in a way that doesn't completely make sense. In the chapter on the rise of amplification in rock, we start out with Woodstock and go back to the mid 60's.  

The internationalist Indian and African aspect of John Coltrane's playing is referred to, as is Trane's few allusions to the civil rights struggle in the titles of songs. But there is no effort to explain the spiritual influence Coltrane had and still has on the music and the musicians. The interior voyage of a musician is fueled by an incalculable number of personal experiences and is not easily quantified. I think this is where the difficulty of relating musical processes to historical events comes home to roost. 

Does this mean I think it's a vain exercise to try and connect historical/technological events to musical content? Definitely not. There are conclusions here with which I take absolutely no issue-the ramifications of the Musicians Union recording bans of the 1940's; advances in recording-tape, the LP, the 45 and with amplification; Black separatism influences and others. If just as a gathering of information and oral history, Myers' effort is invaluable.

But wrapping things up into a too-neat theoretical bundle can be problematic. As with Dr. Frankenstein's efforts to create life, you can try and make sure that all the parts you put into the body are top grade and even then, there are no guarantees. You have to be ready to accept that your creation might pique the ire of restless villagers armed with pitchforks, torches and blogs (nothing personal, Marc).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

1950's Trumpets #3: Joe Gordon

Joe's one of our (Boston) boys. His career exemplified some of the larger themes of 50's trumpet playing: an early start, bop influence, big band experience, adaptability in various musical situations and on the down side: heroin addiction and early death.

Born 5/15/28, Gordon got early exposure to classical music through his mother, an amateur singer. He heard the Basie band, then a Coleman Hawkins/Don Byas group when he was a teen and signed on for a class in "modern music" at the New England Conservatory.

In his late teens, he worked on the railroads as a sandwich boy and jammed at various stops during layovers. His first formal gig was in 1947 with vibes player Pete Diggs in Akron(Pete Diggs?). 

Boston's main man Sabby Lewis heard Joe in Boston and invited him into his big band. Joe's name got out there and in 1951 he played his first recording session with Boston alto player Charlie Mariano. Though it's tempting, I won't play "Tzoris" ("Pack Up Your Troubles in an old Kit Bag").  I'll play the title track, "Boston Uncommon." Personnel is: Charlie Mariano (as), Jim Clark (ts), George Myers (bar), Joe Gordon (t), Sonny Truitt (tb), Roy Frazee (p), Jack Lawlor (b), Gene Glennon (d)

It's a nice arrangement, right out of Birth of the Cool and the sound developing simultaneously on the West Coast. Gordon's solo is well-articulated and constructed, with nice little vibrato flourishes at the end of some phrases.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

1950's Trumpets, Pt. 2: Booker Little

Don Fagerquist was the first focus of our attention in this series about lesser-known brilliant trumpet players of the 1950's. If Fagerquist's playing was pretty much down-the-middle, Booker Little set up musical camp farther out on the edge. Fagerquist was anchored in jazz developments of the 40's and early 50's, while Booker looked ahead to the 60's.

Booker Little was born in 1938 in Memphis, a city where Phineas Newborn, Jr. was elder to a number of future jazz artists, such as Frank Stroziertrumpeter Louis Smith (Booker's cousin) and George Coleman, who got Booker moving seriously toward jazz. 

In 1954, after high school, Booker moved to Chicago and got a Bachelors degree in music at the Chicago Conservatory. For nine months of his stay, he roomed with Sonny Rollins, who was in Chicago preparing to join the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. Sonny introduced Booker to Max Roach, with whom Booker made his first recording and eventually gigged. The musicians in Roach's circle and those he knew from early Memphis days became many of the people he ran with during the short span of his career. His first recording was in June, 1956 and he died on October 5, 1961 of uraemic poisoning/kidney failure at the age of 23.

Booker articulated his views on music in a valuable Metronome magazine article by Robert Levin, an article used as the basis of this piece by Dan Miller. One way to introduce Booker's music is to quote his own words from that interview:

"Most of the guys who are thinking completely conventionally--they'd say 'Well maybe you've got a wrong note in there.' But I can't think in terms of wrong notes--in fact, I don't hear any notes as being wrong. It's a matter of knowing how to integrate the notes and, if you must, how to resolve them. Because if you insist that this note or that note is wrong I think you're thinking conventionally-technically, and forgetting about emotion. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The 1950's: a Brilliant Decade for Trumpeters

Don Fagerquist
Blue Mitchell
I started off with the idea of looking at a few of the less well-known trumpet players who came of age in the 1950s. As I looked more closely at who reached maturity and was at or near the top of their game in that quiet Eisenhauer decade, I couldn't believe the wealth of players. There were the famous: Kenny Dorham, Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell, Joe Newman, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Art Farmer, Maynard Ferguson, Chet Baker, Donald Byrd, Doc Severinson(you could arguably put Miles here too). 
Idrees Sulieman
Jack Sheldon
Then, there were the somewhat less well-known: Nat Adderly, Idrees Sulieman, Bill Hardman, Thad Jones, Carmell Jones, Booker Little, Dizzy Reece, the Condoli Brothers and Johnny Coles. Then, there are those whose names are pretty much restricted to the cognoscenti: Richard Williams, Don Fagerquist, Shorty Rogers, Cy Touff, Ernie Royal, Dupree Bolton,  Tony Fruscella, Jon Eardley, Don Ellis, Jack Sheldon, Herb Pomeroy. I'm sure readers can, and probably will, name some I forgot. 
Dupree Bolton
Herb Pomeroy

The playing of many of these guys does not fall easily into one category. They had mastered the bop idiom, but most were not strictly boppers. Some were cool, some partially so; some hot; some came from the West Coast, but didn't play "West Coast," some came from somewhere else but did; some chose the cutting edge, others went down the middle.

I'll hoist a glass to some of the players from this stellar decade in upcoming posts. Today, I'll feature one from the cognoscenti pile: Don Fagerquist. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Peggy's Blue Skylight

Just want to point B.C. readers to this video I uploaded to You Tube. This is the well-known Charles Mingus song with my lyrics. (I have put lyrics to a lot more of the song and to the Booker Ervin solo, but they are not performed here).

For posting, I excerpted it from my *teleplay of the same name, which is why you will see some video of the main characters in that teleplay over the audio.

The song is beautifully sung by Dominique Eade, with support by John Leonard on Bass and Tom Beaver on keyboard.

Here are my lyrics to the song:

A building is greying, its edges are fraying, a sign;
Of bad luck beckoned and innocence destined, to die.
Leave it and you feel,
You've got nothing left but to conceal,
The loneliness living in the city
That you cannot bear.

A blind man is singing, his cup is set ringing, a dime;
A gambler shuffles, a sucker is hustled, for wine.
Windows open wide,
Admitting not light but dark inside;
A face will appear and glow soft in the moonlight,
And die.

But a thought has begun to renew you.
To bury the blue you;
The loneliness shattering to pieces;
Thinking of Peggy and drinking in Peggy,
It's clear where your solace and your peace is.

Wakening in love,
Enfolding her tight, you look above;
The skylight is blue,
A frame for your emotions, tonight.

[Booker Ervin solo]:
As the rhythm of this solo
Marks up time with its notes;
So are our days measured by events,
Quickly or slowly the quality will tell,
That time is measured not by minutes or days,
Its pace a relative question changing with our lives;
People passing through, events determine, times pace;
Are we the victims of fate or do choices we make make a difference?

The answer may lie between the two,
A constant compromise between shifting winds of fate
And taking hold,
Making hard decisions and forcing life's hand.

Trying to find the questions,
Unsure which questions we should ask,
Hoping the answers won't be denied,
To a person who is living honestly, trying to be open.

Learning daily,
That pleasure often hides in, simple, places;
Born on a breeze bearing the scent of a warm autumn day,
Seen on the face of a child at play,
Lost in a warm moon-lit ray;
Locked in the laughter of your lover as she lay,
By your side soft, warm and gentle;
Questions fading,
As you see life is time lived moment to moment.
[Return to chorus]

I have written vocalese lyrics to many jazz songs and solos. Vocalists are welcome to contact me about checking out my material.

*I have posted the complete teleplay (14 minutes long):

Friday, November 16, 2012

Son of Bad Jazz Art

The u-readers of B.C. seem to have an unquenchable thirst for bad jazz art. Heeding that siren song is not just my duty, it is my way out of the complicated posts I have started and stopped over the last week...

A LOT OF bad jazz art treats musicians as though they are escapees from the local leper colony. This is no way to treat your heroes.
Anthropomorphizing natural objects is a venerable bad jazz art choice.

This one is called "Blown Away;" alluding, I guess, to pieces of his body (Art Farmer?):

                                         I say it's the Wet Pavement Motif and I say the hell with it.

Neato. It's kinda like; abstract.

This is your Bad Jazz Art Professor signing off (a.k.a. crying in the wilderness). Pleasant dreams to you all and remember: the internet is forever.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Busted by the Feds

I had business in the Tip O'Neill Federal Office building here in Boston. In case you haven't been to a federal building in a while, this story will stand as a reminder you that you have to go through a "security system" to get in.

Alright, for reasons outside the bounds of this story, I was already in a bad mood and was pissed off to have to go through this process. My choler rose as I watched four dour, pokey security cops tell regular people to empty their pockets, take off their belts, their jackets, run the metal detector wands over them and all the same crap you have to go through at an airport. I began to grumble and the guy behind me joined in, albeit more quietly. 

Then it was the turn of the two people in front of me. They were a Muslim couple, pushing an infant in a baby carriage. They had to completely empty the carriage, then the guard ran his hands through every fold and cushion, as well as lifting up and examining the bottom of the carriage. All my thoughts about living in a police state rose to the surface. 

Now, my turn. I emptied my crap into a bin with an obvious attitude and the guy didn't like it. He told me to empty my pockets and I told him I already did, but not in the obsequious, compliant voice that you're supposed to use with the minions of power. He picked up the bin and told me to get out. I said I had a 10:30 appointment. He said "get out and come back in an hour, when you calm down."

I picked up my crap and stomped out. When I pushed open the outside door,  I heard it slam against something. Ten steps later, three cops surrounded me, as did one guy in civvies. I don't know who the guy in civvies was, but the cops were letting him talk to me. I think he was simply trying to determine if I was "dangerous." I guess he thought not. The eldest one-a regular Boston cop-had a cool head. Maybe he's seen people slam doors at the Tip O'Neill Federal Office building before. In any case, he told me to go back through the line and that we would deal with the problem after I was finished with my business.
As I passed through the security checkpoint, the guards stared at me with gimlet eyes, ready to pounce, but I got through Checkpoint Charlie successfully. While I waited in the social security office to be seen, one of the cops came in and asked me for my drivers license. 

When I finished my SS appointment, I was directed back to a cluster of cops, where my license was returned and I was given a "citation" awarding me $500 for being a model citizen and standing up to the depredations of the Man. Well, no. I was actually fined $150 plus $25 "handling charge" (they won't let scalpers do it, but they do) for "destruction of federal property."

Alright, not a tragic story, but one that leaves a few impressions. 

First, as my wife reminded me, I will now be on every "watch list" at airports and god knows where else. 

Second, this story is not evidence of a particular guard's racism toward Muslims-at least I hope he would exercice the same mindless thoroughness with a white couple. However, it does highlight the innate stupidity of the system. 

Third, it remains infuriating to me that you can't behave as a normal human in the presence of a cop. You can't say: "get to work, I'm paying your salary" to a cop on his cel phone, collecting serious money for not directing traffic at a construction site.  Lawfully following instructions is not enough, your "attitude" has to fall within the proper obsequious guidelines. 

Fourth, if I was African-American, I have a strong feeling I wouldn't be able to post this on my blog until I got out of the local lockup and a tentative court date had been set.

Monday, November 5, 2012

R.I.P. Ted Curson

Ted Curson died yesterday (June 3, 1935 – November 4, 2012).  If his contribution is recognized at all, it's for his time spent with Charles Mingus, but Curson had a long career and created a singular, instantly recognizable sound.

Born in Philly, Curson went to the Granoff Conservatory, also John Coltrane's alma mater [You can read my interview with Mr. Granoff in the book Coltrane on Coltrane, by Chris DeVito].

Ted moved to NYC in the mid-1950's and started playing with Cecil Taylor. In 1959, he recorded tracks on "Love For Sale" w. Taylor, including this tune, "Little Lees" [Interesting how much Monk there is in Cecil's playing here]:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Gioia's Jazz Standards

I have only dipped into The Jazz Standards, but this book is such a kick that I'll write this in blatant disregard for my policy of reading first and writing second.

You feel in good hands from the top, lightly guided by Gioia, a seasoned pro, with no odd axes to grind, no academic shtick to flog. The feeling is like spending a night among friends, talking about which tunes you think are important and which versions of the tunes stand out. Just as you might now reach for Brian Rust to settle arguments about who was on a certain Trumbauer date or Leonard Feather to look up where Ike Quebec was born, you'll be able to turn to "The Jazz Standards" to get a quick look at the history of a tune and a memory jog to help lead you back to a certain recording you couldn't quite remember.

New facts abound. Guy Wood, composer of "My One and Only Love" wrote music for Captain Kangaroo? Sigmund Romberg worked in a pencil factory? Prez had a top 10 juke box hit with "Just You, Just Me"?

Of course, there will be disagreements among invested jazz people-Jon Hendricks' "Airegin" lyrics rate a mention, but not King Pleasure's for "All of Me." Maybe Kenny Dorham's "Prince Albert," an alternative melody for "All the things You Are," should have gotten a citation. Will jazz fans really "have a hard time enjoying Bird's outing ["Bird with Strings" playing "Just Friends"] given the mood music ambience of the arrangement?" Maybe a case can be made that other tunes, like "Up Jumped Spring" or "Moanin'" should be here...

But you can accept and even relish these disagreements, because you can tell by what the author put in that he knew he had to leave a lot out. It's a big book-over 500 pages-and I bet the author and the publisher had some long conversations about how long it could or should be. You could, for example, do an entire tome on "I Got Rhythm."

OK, enough. I like it. I'm glad it's on my shelf.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Clifford Brown Phenomenon

Marking the births or deaths of artists usually happens in "big" years-the 10th, 25th, etc. It's different with Clifford Brown, whose passing is marked even in the "small" years, as in this, the 82nd anniversary of his birth.
Clifford was indisputably one of our greatest trumpet players, but it's not his playing that explains the hold he has on our psyche, especially compared to the emotional connection we feel to other greats from the late 40's to late 60's era, like Fats Navarro, Sonny Berman, Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Lee Morgan, Booker Little. 

We have plucked Clifford out of this group because we want to celebrate the fact that in Clifford, musical genius managed to coexist with an open, humble and yes, sweet personality.

In a recent post, I said that Clifford didn't have "it," as defined by a player's reputation outweighing his musical contribution. But observing the Clifford phenomenon, it becomes clear that he sits in a singular category of "it-ness;" one not rooted in flashy personal style or the charisma of the bad boy. He was the rare soul in jazz who could play it straight and still be the best; who wouldn't let the harsh road and escapes from same (drugs, booze, promiscuity, overbearing ego) run roughshod over his innate gentleness.

The fact that this seems to be a rare personality constellation in the most elite realms of music-and art in general-is vaguely disconcerting, summoning up as it does all those hoary adages about the tortured genius. We'll not soon escape that labyrinth of romanticism (one corner of which is "it-itude"), so for the moment let's just celebrate a joyous spring of relief from such burdens:

Monday, October 29, 2012

Duets With Dead People


So glad to see that Rod Stewart and Ella Fitzgerald are finally getting together. They join a macabre crew that includes Celine Dion and Sinatra, Ol Blue Eyes and Hayley Reinhart(!), Lauren Hill and Bob Marley, Lisa-Marie and Elvis and, of course Natalie with Nat.

Since I'm always asking for too much anyway, how about a little less fame-by-association-mongering? 

Do we let the offspring-Lisa-Marie and Natalie-off the hook. Sorry. No. Trotting out your baby pictures and your less-compelling voices in public is an embarrassment, not a tribute to your dad.

And sticking copyright signs on the names of dead celebrities is no solution. It just means dealing with the copyright holder's phalanx of lawyers and not the estate's. Does anyone think that the corporation noted in my Trademarking Jazz post, CMG Worldwide, would have turned this down; even, as CMG says, to "maintain and develop a positive brand image"?

I have found previous ghoulish re-animation collaborations merely crude and unaesthetic, but to pair Rod and Ella is to sink a leaf blower engine in a Ferrari; to put Cool Whip in a Godiva chocolate; to put Donald Trump's hair on Sophia Loren's head. It shouldn't be done. It shouldn't even be conceived of.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Jazz Mystique; Who Has "It"?

In a Twitter exchange about my last post, Nicholas Peyton wrote that Louis Armstrong and Jabbo Smith achieved vastly different levels of fame and reputation because Louis had "it" and Jabbo didn't. 
That makes sense. Given the playing of Louis and Jabbo, if we simply rediscovered their recordings from the late 1920's, without knowing anything about them, I believe we would hypothesize similar career trajectories for these two great musicians and that's not what happened. Smith had a solid but unexceptional career for about ten years, was rediscovered in the 1960's as a Respected Elder and enjoyed some success until the 1980's. Armstrong achieved international fame. 

Most successful jazz musicians did just fine, thank you, through the meritocracy of musical genius, without having to rely on "it." (Of course, good looks never hurt. Especially in female singers, there has always been a sorting process that moved good lookers to the front of the line. Timing, too plays a part).

So, what is "it"?  To some extent, "it" needs quotations marks because it's hard to define except tautologically: style, charisma, sex appeal, aloofness, cool, "badness" (promiscuity, dope, other breaking of norms). Each time a jazz musician is acknowledged to have "it," the elements shift. Some move to the surface, some are not in play and some, while seemingly contradictory, co-exist in the same person.

To see if a musician has "it," look at the relationship between their real musical contribution and their reputation. Ask if their contributions have created too small a reputation, one that's too large or one that is, like Goldilock's last bowl of porridge, just right. If the reputation is oversized, it may be because of the "It factor@" (Simon Cowell: hands off).

For example, Wayne Shorter's musical contributions have been immense. His reputation among musicians is stellar, his public career is solid. There is equivalence there; balance. Does he have "it"? No. 

On the other hand, I think Bill Evans, a musician whose contributions are congruent to Shorter's, did have "it." His contribution was large; his reputation larger. Why the difference? I think it's a result of his complex presentation as junky/nerd (compared to the more straightforward presentation of Shorter). Evans projected a multi-layered personality and, as far as mystiques go, his"transgressive" behavior (dope) is a part of it.

Chet Baker had "it," for reasons too obvious to mention.

Did Clifford Brown? The non-musical mythology about Clifford is about his sweetness as a person. Such things do not really portend "it." He died too young to be certain, but indications are that his reputation would have paralleled his musical skill and not transcended it. 

Duke Ellington? Yes. His looks, style, vocal presentation and lifestyle reflected a complex man and the audience "read" that.

Bix Beiderbecke? Yes. His ardent admirers won't like this, but his playing was not so far ahead of many of his contemporaries that it would justify the rarified status he enjoys, had he not had "it."

Bessie Smith? Yes. She did stand at least head, if not shoulders above the others, but her continuing stature so far above other blues singer/shouters of her era is due to her charisma and her notable reputation for livin' large.

Dizzy Gillespie? Yes. In many ways, the classic trickster, Diz brought a comfort level to outrageousness that spoke to a charismatic freedom. 

John Coltrane? Of course. 

We'll end up with probably the #1 "it" guy in jazz: Miles Davis. Through the 40's, he was just one in a pack of elite trumpet players. His interest in expanding the jazz palette (Birth of the Cool) in the late 1940's brought him out of the pack and also had the effect of associating him with the idea of coolness. 

The Andover Shop
Jazz musicians, including the young Miles, had always been invested in a solid sartorial presentation, but starting in the mid-50's, the way Miles dressed began to be a specific part of the way he was promoted by his record company, Columbia. George Frazier's liner notes for "Miles Greatest Hits" in 1965 were an ode to Miles as fashionista. Miles' clothing evolved with his music. He moved through Brooks Brothers, the Andover Shop and designer styles as he went from Au Privave, to Sketches of Spain to Tutu.  
The iconography surrounding the man is arguably denser then that of his two closest mythological competitors: Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. The epigrammatic way in which he spoke and the semi-strangled whisper in which he spoke it; his battles with cops and bores; kicking dope, boxing, wives. All, "it"-worthy.

I always strain against people confusing the art with the artist, but the need for the audience to project personality into the music is powerful. Almost all of us are suckers for "it." However, it's also on the shoulders of those who know the history of this music to try and fill in some of the gaps that have been created by the power of "it;" to push back toward what really needs to be kept at the center. You know what I'm talkin' about.