Top 50 JAzz Blog

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.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Enigma of Jabbo Smith

HIs talent and contribution were enormous. How did he get shoved to the side of the jazz trumpet-playing historical narrative?

Let's do a short comparison of stop-time choruses (rhythm section just plays accents) between Jabbo and Louis Armstrong. Here's Armstrong's famous Potato Head Blues (1927):

Now, here's Jabbo on Boston Scuffle (1929):

The technique in both cases is superb. Yes, Armstrong's tone is slightly more, call it more charismatic. However, I submit that here, as in many of his recordings, Jabbo actually shows a wider arsenal of trumpet techniques than Armstrong-and I am a BIG fan of Louis.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Trademarking Jazz™

A Sunday New York Times ad for the Blue Note club in NYC lists: "Dizzy Gillespie™ Alumni All-Stars."

Ya gotta ask, why has Dizzy's name been trademarked? I suppose if the entire band's name was trademarked it might constitute a healthy trend; that there are rival Alumni All-star groups out there and enough loose cash at stake that one of them needs to get the imprimatur of Dizzy's estate to fend off the pretender. But it's only Dizzy's name with the trademark sign.

Is there a miscreant out there passing himself off as the late and much lamented maestro? Doesn't ring true. Has the Gillespie estate been purchased by Disney, officious propagator of copyright litigation to protect the images of Mickey and Goofy?

Not exactly. After a little research, this showed up: "As the exclusive licensing agent for Dizzy Gillespie, CMG Worldwide is dedicated to maintaining and developing a positive brand image for our client. We actively seek out commercial opportunities that are consistent with our brand positioning goals."

Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide has a long list of famous clients, from Mark Twain and Jack Dempsey to Benny Goodman. CMG is a tireless protector (lobbyist) for the rights of the estates of dead celebrities.

I'm not opening up a debate about the length of copyright protection here. That's its own can of worms. I'm talking about the question of extending the realm of "protection" into more and more areas. 

Should a musician's estate collect royalties on recordings and compositions? Definitely. Should they collect on t-shirt sales? Debatable, but should they collect when a band includes the name of the dead performer? Should they collect for the thousands of "Tribute" pages dotting the 'net? How did the "Mark Twain Tribute Cruise" and the Benny Goodman Centennial Tribute" slip through the cracks un-trademarked? Someone at CMG needs to be knuckle-rapped.

We know the importance his wife Lorraine had in Dizzy's life and career and she deserved to reap the creative results of same. She's been gone since 2005, the same year CMG picked up the contract. Diz was survived by a daughter and grandson and I assume that ASCAP, BMI and whoever owns Verve, DeGee Records, etc. are still paying off the family. If not, let loose the lawyers.

As far as "protection" beyond that, though, I truly believe that Diz would be the last person to sic lawyers on people using his name as part of their own creative efforts. As to whether or not a particular use fulfills CMG's credo as "maintaining and developing a positive brand image," I believe Diz would just say, in that silky crankcase voice of his, "I think we'll just let the people decide who the real Dizzy Gillespie is."