Top 50 JAzz Blog

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's In A Name?

Chris B.

Is it churlish to question whether some musicians should be called "jazz" musicians? I doubt it keeps them up at night and in fact, calling yourself a jazz artist is probably a bad career move.  It's not a question of chops and whether someone deserves to be put under the jazz umbrella. I mean, who's the arbiter? And who really gives a crap?

And yet...
Bubber M.
If we care about getting the young 'uns to tune into jazz and discover the rich history of the music, maybe we should be aware that some of the popular performers labeled as "jazz" are probably even less interesting to people under 21 than Pee Wee Russell, Bubber Miley or Roswell Rudd would be.

Youth is a time when the debate about who is "keepin it real" is even more extreme and heated than it is among us elderlys. The DIY movement prefers vinyl to mp3 and I imagine a solid campaign behind 78's with a little surface noise would get traction.

Yea, there's always a lot of "fronting" about realness. Maybe it's the physical needs charged up by hormones run amok, but however you explain it, intensity and challenge are highly valued in the young. And, when everything is so available, difficulty and scarcity create value; create charisma.

Rex S.

I know, this is beginning to look like the "5 reasons not to use the word jazz" list, but let those who care be conscious of how they throw the word jazz out there.  Keep in mind that music that soothes rather than disrupts and lulls rather than challenges will get the swift boot by young people. Give em Trane, Cecil, Rex Stewart and Oscar Pettiford. That might shake some adolescent trees.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Orchestra Pit & The Pendulum

Dismantling the pit orchestra
The New York Times ran a piece on 3/24 talking about how pit orchestras are being moved out of pits so that more prime seating can be made available to Broadway big-spenders. The orchestras conduct their business by video and audio link from basements and other storage facilities far away from the theater where the show is actually being staged.

I have no quibble with this savvy business move and, in fact, am taking steps to implement a similar program in my own home.

First of all, my daughter's bedroom takes up a lot of space, but does she pay rent? Not on your life, buddy, so I looked up how much a room at the local boardinghouse would cost and calculated the difference between that and how much I could get for renting her room. Result? She's got to go. OK, we'll miss her, but she's a teenager, not around much anyway and her creams and lotions really clutter up the bathroom.

Next, I took a look at the living room. Nice and spacious. Then, I looked at my study-a tiny converted porch. You know which one I get to declare on my taxes. So, as of Monday, all my stuff moves into the big room and I now get to take six times the business office deduction. There'll be room for the TV in my former study and while it gets a bit cold out there in the winter, my wife is fond of camping and I think I can deduct the cost of blankets.

The final move is sheer genius. My mother lives all by herself on the first floor of the house. Meanwhile, I have a whole attic going unused. I can't rent it-it's not insulated and the floor won't pass inspection-so up you go, mom.  It's a pull-down staircase, a bit too heavy for her to operate, but there's usually someone around if she wants to get out. Oh, don't worry, she won't mind, believe me; anything to keep her baby solvent.

The show must go on.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jazz Makes a Standard

Pianist Robert Glasper said, in reference to The Great American Songbook: "It's time for a new standard. We can't do the old thing forever." Given the many attempts to bring jazz into hip hop or hip hop into jazz, I then posed the question: How far can you bend a standard before it breaks?  
Sung to the tune of Melancholy Baby: "Come to me my broken metatarsal"
Jazz has always been in the business of bending tunes. In fact, it seems completely reasonable to think that the Great American Songbook would be a much smaller part of American musical culture if these now "standard" tunes had not been plucked from their original Broadway or Hollywood context by jazz performers, who dug out and actualized their rhythmic, harmonic and melodic implications.

Going back to the 1920's, there were both vocal and instrumental jazz/pop versions of tunes originally used on stage and in film. Working alone, neither sung versions or instrumental versions could have done the job, but together they showed how a tune could be transmuted into a musical entity that transcended its initial conception and performance.

To see if this process unfolded in a way that is comparable to current cross-fertilization efforts between hip hop and jazz, let's look at how the process traditionally happened, using one of the great jazz war horses: "All the Things You Are."

With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Jr. this song originally came from a show called "Very Warm For May." The history of the relationship between this tune and jazz is long and deep and also a little perplexing. All sources say the show opened on November 17, 1939, but according to Dr. Chalfen, there were two jazz-inflected versions recorded before that date: Tommy Dorsey's on October 20, '39 and Artie Shaw's, on Oct. 26. The sheet music says the song wasn't copyrighted until 1940, so maybe someone heard it in previews in Boston or New London and rushed out arrangements before the legal profession could stick its oar in. Sheer speculation.

In any case, this is the way Kern and Hammerstein conceived it to be performed in 1939 (as produced in a later re-creation):

The song was lovely in its fashion, but completely rooted in one particular era and style: Broadway Musical-shading-toward Light Opera. Kern marked the chorus a "Burthen," and "cantabile," (singable). These are archaic and/or fancified terms, reflecting Kern's roots in 1910's musical theatre. Withal, given its sophisticated harmony, it was clearly a song worth the attention of jazz people.

As noted above, in 1939, before the show actually opened, Artie Shaw recorded it with Helen Forrest. The first part (verse) was eliminated. There is a "classy" intro (big brass chords) before the low-down-ish piano slides in. Then, Shaw's clarinet chorus is a great illustration of how jazz claims source material and makes it its own. Forrest's vocal follows Shaw's lead. 

Although we're focusing on vocal transformations, we need to have an instrumental version, done in a style that would have been formative for any jazz vocalist. Here's Charlie Parker, with Red Rodney, Al Haig, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes in 1949. 

This is Ella Fitzgerald in 1963, long after the song had been enfolded by jazz into its protean bosom. The tempo is up a bit, the background is more overtly jazz-like and Ella inflects the song all the way through. Even though Ella could handle a soprano range, the key has been brought down to take the gleam off and give it a darker feeling. When she picks it up after the instrumental, she completely alters the melody, then takes it home.

Through the years, various jazzmen wrote new melodies for the song's chord changes, including "Bird of Paradise" by Charlie Parker, "Prince Albert" by Kenny Dorham and "Boston Bernie" by Dexter Gordon. Charles Mingus retitled it "All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife was Your Mother." 

Addendum: Who first came up with what became the classic jazz intro for "All the Things You Are?" It's completely unlike the Kern verse. I'm thinking that Dizzy wrote it, but would love to hear from anyone who can spec this out. Thanks, Steve.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Tenuous Rise of the Singing Class in Jazz-Pt. I

In a recent interview at Jazz wax, Robert Glasper said of existing jazz styles: "I think they've run their course in terms of attracting a new audience."  Glasper also said, in referring to The Great American Songbook, that "It's time for a new standard. We can't do the old thing forever."

He's on to something. Two trend lines are going in opposite directions.

Chet's Funny Valentine
For many years, learning "All the Things You Are," "Laura," etc. served a dual purpose: you could study how the masters negotiated the chord changes and you could play songs that audiences wanted to hear. Today, aspiring jazz musicians continue to learn pretty much the same tunes their forebears have for the last, say, 50 years, but at this point, a rapidly diminishing number of listeners recognize these tunes.  And, the work of any instrumentalist playing standards in the traditional, bop, or swing style will always be compared to the incomparable body of work generated by the great jazz masters. After having heard these tunes played by the likes of Dexter Gordon and Miles, will even these listeners hear the 1000th iteration of "My Funny Valentine" as anything but pleasant background to a nice meal?

Jazz vocalists are apparently surviving this process better than instrumentalists. Of course, singers doing the American Songbook in a jazz style can also be compared to previous jazz giants, but at this point, the abstraction of a note combined with the specific gravity of a lyric (a.k.a. singing a song) continues to foster a free-floating emotional exchange between the artist and a fairly broad range of listeners. This kind of exchange may have once been the norm between mainstream jazz instrumentalist and audience, but it's now a lot rarer.

I have no hard stats to back me up, but my strong perception is that in the last fifteen years, there has been a increasing percentage of vocalists booked into Boston-area jazz venues. Booking follows taste.  Other circumstantial evidence: the various incarnations of Roy Eldridge playing "Rockin' Chair" on YouTube have about 13,000 views. The vocal version done by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden have hundreds of thousands of views. Michael Buble's "The Way you Look Tonight" has over a million views. I think you'd be hard pressed to total up 50 posted jazz versions of the tune to reach a million.

People often talk about these songs being cyclically re-discovered, but to people under 30 (except those studying jazz), knowing "Just In time" is like knowing who preceded President Taft. 

Part 2: Can you salvage the standard repertoire by infusing current influences. Or, if you bend a standard too far does it break?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Out of the Mouth of River

Snap, Diddly and Squirt, in person

There were a number of fabulous suggestions for re-naming this blog. But-my bombast notwithstanding-I couldn't quite convince myself to completely ditch "Brilliant Corners." Instead, I decided to extend the name with a submission that completely killed me"Snap Diddley Squirt: A Jazz Blog.'"

Here's my friend Amy's description of how she and husband Ken undertook the process:

"Steve Provizer was looking for a new name for his illustrious jazz blog. Ken and I love a challenge so we started brainstorming. Then River, our 6 year old daughter, chimed in and said, 'Snap Diddley Squirt: A Jazz Blog!'"  We laughed and laughed. It was the best idea of the evening.

We made an audio recording of our brainstorming session for fun.  You can listen to it here:  

Hope that works!!  we still sing it for fun - (with Riv's sing-songy touch she added)   it's very memorable."

Thanks, guys. It certainly worked for me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Jazz: Analog Music in a Digital Era?" by Steve Provizer

Gentlemen, we must not have an analog/digital Gap
When you talk about the struggle for economic justice for jazz musicians (see posts below), you have to talk about the why's and wherefore's of the shrinking jazz pie. One factor I've yet to see explored is this: People, especially those who grew up in the digital sound era, have become used to a certain kind of "pristine" low-noise (and highly compressed) sound, and attendance at live performances may be taking a hit because of this. In a digital era, I believe that jazz-at least mainstream jazz-is, by its nature, analog.

Let's go back a bit:
We humans tend to adjust our expectations as necessary. Until the mid-1920's and electronic reproduction, recordings were fairly crude and listener expectations were low. When you bought a King Oliver record in 1924, you understood that it would be a vastly inferior sonic experience to hearing him live. During the 30's and 40's, recording technology continued to improve and people expected better audio.  Then, in the 50's, stereo, recording tape and the long playing record significantly raised the bar. When you bought a studio-recorded Blue Note record, you expected to hear audio quality that approached what you got at a live performance. 

A cultural meme was alive and well: "There's nothing like hearing music live."

Up to the 60's, most recordings still represented "performances," an entire band playing together either in an acoustically-controlled environment (studio), or live on location. Then, isolation booths, layered sound and significant editing became much more widespread. Plus, the content of recordings began to seriously diverge from what could be heard live. People did not expect to hear Sgt. Pepper or, for that matter Ascension, in concert.

Over the next few decades, recording moved from the analogue to the digital domain. CD's and digital files replaced the cassette and LP's for personal listening. In every genre, recordings were expected to sound crystal clear (if reduced in quality by compression to MP3's).

While there were always comments along the lines of: "They sounded better on the record"-and popular recorded solos were duplicated live-more and more, rather than conceiving the LIVE performance as something that a recording should try to capture, the RECORDING has become the standard by which the live performance is judged. 

The truism "there's nothing like hearing music live" has been taking on serious water. 

Theatrical spectacle, stacks of amps and enormous woofers get rock and pop fans to live shows, giving them an experience they can't get on their ipods. On television, performances like Robert Glasper's recent appearance on David Letterman demonstrate that TV has the tech to give us the hi-fi experience. Film does too, although with atrocious decibel abuse.  Not so the typical jazz venue.

Ancient fetishists like me, who abide the scratches and clicks that we grew up hearing on vinyl can live with less than stellar sound, but we're already deeply invested in the music. For young people, lower quality audio can be a reason, along with high prices and lack of media attention, to make going out to hear jazz a non-habit.

There's been a lot of blog talk about jazz musicians making more of an effort to relate to the audience-to make a better "presentation." This is important, but jazz venues must reckon with current audio expectations or expect increasing erosion in a demographic whose attention they must capture.

Truth is, I don't know if even a staunch effort to produce better live mixes of acoustic instruments will stem the tide. Recording has become atomistic to the degree that recordings can fairly easily be pieced together note by note and out-and-out mistakes seldom slip through the digital editing net. Plugging in a MIDI cable will always guarantee a cleaner signal than putting a mic on a trumpet-especially in a live performance. 

Jazz is a music that thrives on getting in and out of dark corners, but it doesn't seem to be thriving on the native soil of Digital-Vania.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Jazz &, er, Golf

The action by Justice for Jazz Artists  (see below) is getting a mixed reaction. Most people who contacted me are supportive of the action and there's a great deal of support online. I received emails from a couple of folks involved in the operation of clubs in NYC (sent to everyone who signed the online petition?) that fiercely defended the way they do business. A fellow Boston jazz blogger, Stu Vandermark sent me an email saying that it was a bogus effort. He wrote about these kinds of actions here.

I'm not sure whether the campaign is not well timed or focused, but I continue to believe, especially because of union slacking, that such a campaign is needed. 

I realize that the idea of tarring the mass of jazz club operators with the brush of avarice and lack of concern for jazz musicians doesn't always ring true-good luck if you go into the business of jazz to make a quick buck. The idea of pushing back specifically at them may or may not be the best strategy, but having a specific target means the issue is much likelier to get out there in public. And get out there it must. It's one way to wake people up to the real issue: who gets subsidized in America. 

Think about just one example: golf courses. The golf courses in Las Vegas are estimated to use 22 BILLION gallons of water a year for irrigation. The golf courses on Long Island use 50,000 POUNDS of pesticide a year. Precious water syphoned off, pesticide use running amok and corporations can write off their support of golf tournaments. 

Fine. Let it be. I like a nice chip shot as much as the next guy. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking we haven't made the choice-that it all "just worked out that way." Tax codes are written by Congress. Media conglomeration rules are written by Congress. Government controls the allocation of natural resources, as it does that paltry business known as support for the arts via NEA and NEH; both constantly threatened with defunding. 

Maybe this campaign can help us all start to make some necessary connections.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Jazz Standing Up For Itself

I wanted to make note of the campaign being organized by Justice for Jazz Artists, details of which you can read here.

In a previous post, I talked about the need for musicians to organize and/or collectivize on their own behalf. This organization and this campaign represent a credible way to do just that.

Happily, JJA is savvy enough to know that they have to broaden the campaign to include not just musicians, but everyone in the jazz community and, in fact, anyone who cares about artists in our culture not getting the usual shaft.

I urge you to go to the website and sign on as a supporter and to let your circle of friends know about this campaign.