Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, September 29, 2017

Intonation: Good Enough For Jazz?

There's an ancient trope musicians share while they're tuning up. After a few minutes of slides and mouthpieces being manipulated to try and agree on a Bflat, someone says "Ok-good enough for jazz."

How much a listener is distracted by intonation in jazz is personal, but it's clear that in the hierarchy of jazz values, personal expression trumps intonation. In fact, a lot of great players have existed in a kind of a tuning nether-region. 
I don't mean "bending" notes, which is an obvious device. But, is the musician purposely playing out of tune, doesn't notice it, or is he or she hearing the music in another way; possibly more as in a non-tempered, just-intonation framework?

This varies from instrument to instrument.

Bass players will be pissed off, but I find their intonation often dubious. Walking-ok, but once the solos start and they're freed from the shackles of playing important chord tones, it's a different story. Can't really talk about pianists, of course, as they do what they can with what they're given. As far as trumpet players- look at pictures of classical trumpet players and you see they have
fingers in both the first and third valve slides, in order to make adjustments. Not so, jazz players, who are often out of tune, especially when they use mutes. I hear trombonists adjusting well, especially in the upper register, when the slide is least extended. Mutes are an issue for them, too.

Really, it's about sax players-and mostly about alto players.

There's a school of alto players to which applying the usual standards of playing sharp or flat just doesn't make sense.

Here's where some of them fall to me:

Cannonball Adderly: bright tone, pleasantly sharp.

Gary Bartz: pretty much in the center
Benny Carter: liked to push it up and down, but settled at home
Johnny Hodges: all over the place, but he knew where he was
Ornette Coleman: an intonation enigma; where will he be?
Lou Donaldson: moderately bright tone, but, surprisingly, sometimes a shade under pitch(!)
Eric Dolphy: often far away from "in tune" on the sharp end.
Charlie Parker: His tone changed (almost) everyone's tone to the edgier bright sound that has dominated since that time. I think that people must have heard him as playing sharp, which a lot of the time he was, but less sharp than his tone would lead you to think.
Jackie McLean: He's the guy that inspired this post; pushes sharp to the extreme.

Where do you stand on this question?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Music Takes Root in Racist Soil

We jazz folk like to emphasize the fact that the music has provided a fertile playing field, if you will, for inter-racial camaraderie. However, at this particular moment in American history, it feels right to show how foul the cultural context was that begat the music and to give a sense of how extraordinary it was that people were able to transcend that context and lay the foundations for jazz, ragtime and other popular musics.

Wilbur Sweatman's career exemplifies the path a black musician had to take in order to make a career in the pervasive racism of late 19th c. and early 20th c. America. It's a fascinating and sobering story and Mark Berresford's well researched biography Wilbur Sweatman, That's Got 'Em tells the story well. This post also adds observations culled from a recent reading of Dennis Owsley's City of Gabriels, The History of Jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1973, where the story of racism is told once again.

Berresford makes a strong case for Sweatman as an under-appreciated bridge figure between ragtime and jazz. Sweatman grew up in a town not far from ragtime hotbed Sedalia, MO and the Mississippi river, with its flow of itinerant musicians. He started, in the 1890's, in the trenches of showbiz as a member oa "pick" (pickaninnyband and transitioned into minstrelsy, brass bands, circus bands and vaudeville, where he spent most of his career. His musical skills put him in leadership positions early on and he associated with important figures in African-American music, many of whom are little known today: Nathaniel Clark Smith, P.G. Lowery, Harry T. Burleigh, Ford T. Dabney and others, whose names are slightly more familiar: Will Vodery, Perry Bradford, Shelton Brooks, Bob Cole, Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe, Ernest Hogan, James Weldon Johnson among others.

It may be all too easy to think-especially given the hardscrabble quality of the itinerant musical life-that these musicians were uneducated, "natural" musicians. However, the story of Sweatman's success, along with that of 
Will Marion Cook
figures like Lowery, Smith, Cook, Europe and others, puts the lie to the mythology about the "natural" black musician. Many musicians were self-taught, often because formal training was unavailable to them, but the implication that disciplined intellectual training was beyond the scope of black musicians, was one of the most pernicious manifestations of racism. Natural they may have been, but what this biography makes clear is that in order to make a living in music, a musician had to have a solid musical background, be able to read music and if not write, then contribute to arrangements and play in any style of music. 
Eddie Randall's St. Louis Devils, 1938

City of Gabriels describes a similar scenario. Unlike the mythology of the riverboat bands, which we think of as hotbeds of improvisation for many famous jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds and Pee Wee Russell, there was little improvisation. The riverboats' bands, largely run by Fate Marable for the Streckfus family steamship line, were highly disciplined and structured musical environments, where one had to learn how to read well and be adaptable in many musical situations. And, as such, this gig was highly valued by musicians.
Fate Marable Riverboat Band
The racist attitude about "natural" versus "educable" forced black musicians to hide their education. For example, black musicians playing in James Reese Europe bands for white audiences had to quickly memorize the latest songs, as they could not be seen to use sheet music on the bandstand, lest they be seen as putting themselves on the same level as their audience. And, of course, black musicians had to give up any idea of becoming involved in the world of classical music. 
James Reese Europe's Hellfighters
City of Gabriels covers an aspect of the story not covered in the Sweatman book, that of musician's unions.

In St. Louis, white bands played only for whites, while black bands could play for both black and white audiences. However, jobs in legitimate theatre and classical music were restricted to the white union. Both unions managed to uphold decent per-job wage levels, but when times grew tough in the late 1920's, enmity between the two unions grew, as the bread and butter jobs in the new entertainment industries of radio and film were also not made available to black union members. Separate but unequal unions were not officially desegregated by the American Federation of Musicians in all American cities until 1971. 

Of course, the history of racism in music encompasses much more than I've talked about here, just as it is only one aspect of the pattern of discrimination that pervaded every trade, profession and employment track in America. As a lifelong aspiring practitioner of jazz, I can only take a knee in honor of the indomitable men and women who laid the foundation of this profound expression of the human spirit.

Monday, September 25, 2017

In Praise of Young Jazz Musicians

I hear a lot about this entitled generation of kids. The lazy buggers don't woodshed for 12 hours a day learning Charlie Parker solos like we did. They don't give a hoot about blowing Cherokee in 12 keys.

And yet, those lazy buggers seem to be filling the halls of Berklee, North Texas State and a hundred other jazz programs. Are they walking down the halls of NEC listening to Kanye West and Beyonce? Probably, but Bird and Trane are also on their playlists. All you have to do is listen to the music being made by high school and college ensembles to see that the musicianship is off the charts.

So, what's gonna happen to this large cohort of trained jazz musicians?

The top 1-5% of players are likely to be recognized and able to make a living as performing musicians.

Other, very promising young musicians who have musical parents or who can plug into an extended musical family, may be fortunate enough to be nurtured by an informal mentoring system. This can lead to sitting in with already established players and/or introductions to important music industry contacts.

For the rest, gigs are unlikely to provide a steady income. Jobs paying a living wage in the field of music are limited: teaching, piano tuning, studio engineering. Or, you might try your luck overseas. The most likely scenario is taking a "day job" and doing music whenever you can.

Apart from offering poor employment options, jazz, for the most part, has lost its cache of cool, meaning this youthful cohort is drifting away from its hip hop/pop/techno-centric peer group like ice floes breaking off the polar cap. Add to all that how hard this difficult music is to master.

And yet, the music continues to draw in enthusiastic musicians.  I see it as a testament to the enduring power of the music and not to the short-sightedness of youth.  Despite the diminished status or popularity of jazz in the culture, these young people feel the music's power to move and uplift us. There's something very heartening in the idea that they recognize this and continue to aspire to fulfill the infinite potential of the music.

Friday, September 22, 2017

An Hour with Eddie Jefferson

On this edition of the DuPlex Mystery Jazz Hour of 9.21.17, we hear some of the music of Eddie Jefferson. Eddie was one of the prime innovators in vocalese-the art of putting lyrics to jazz tunes and solos.  



‪Eddie Jefferson and James Moody‬ "I Cover the Waterfront" and
"Moody's mood for love"  (1956) on Argo

Eddie Jefferson "New York Afternoon (feat. Richie Cole)" from "Keeper of the Flame" (1979) on Muse

Eddie Jefferson "So What" from "The Jazz Singer" (1976) on Inner city

Eddie Jefferson "Harold's House of Jazz" from "Keeper of the Flame" 1979 on Muse

Eddie Jefferson "Sister Sadie" from "The Jazz Singer" 1976 on Inner city

Eddie Jefferson "Lady Be Good" from "The Live-Liest" 1976 on Muse

Eddie Jefferson "Body and Soul" from "The Jazz Singer" 1976)on Inner city

Eddie Jefferson "Benny's From Heaven" from "The Main Man" 1977 on Inner city

Eddie Jefferson "Groovin' High" from "The Live-Liest" 1976 on Muse

Dexter Gordon feat. Eddie Jefferson "Diggin' In" from "Great Encounters" 1978 on Columbia

Eddie Jefferson "Parker's Mood" from "The Live-Liest" 1976 on Muse

Eddie Jefferson "Now's The Time" from "The Jazz Singer" 1976 on Inner City

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Jazz Seduce-O-Meter (updated)

Friends, I have seen the error of my ways and apologize for the sarcastic tone of my recent post on the scientific link between sex and jazz. Looking back at my own experience dispassionately, I see there is in fact a clear link between people's sex lives and their musical taste. "Getz-Gilberto" is guaranteed to get anyone into your bed faster and more efficiently than, say, Black Flag. That is statistically indisputable. 

So, in the spirit of stretching this scientific inquiry to the breaking point, I have created "The Jazz Seduce-O-Meter"-JSOM-designed to help you maximize your musical dollar in order to fully leverage the sexiness of the jazz mystique. Your goal is to reach 10 points. Ten points guarantees results. Understand that each Jazz Seduce-O-Meter must be tailored to your specific demographic**. 

Here is the Boomer version (abridged): 
Bossa Nova: +4 
Miles Davis Birth of the Cool: +3 
Miles Davis Kind of Blue: +4 
Miles Davis muted, playing ballads: +3 
Any other Miles: -4 
Sinatra w. Dorsey: +3 
Sinatra w. Stordahl: +3  
Sinatra w. Paul Anka: -10 
Coltrane w. Johnny Hartman: +4  
Coltrane Ballads: +3 
Any other Coltrane: -5 
Organ Trios: -2 
ECM Records: +2 
Bill Evans: +3 
Anything "With Strings:" -1 
Third Stream Music: +-0 
Avant-garde jazz of any kind: -10 

**Keep your eye on your demographic. A knowledgeable source sends this warning: GIlberto doesn't work with punker chicks.

Mix and match as much as you like, just stay away from the negative numbers and please! Avoid those screeching saxophones at all cost. Let us know whether the Jazz Seduce-O-Meter has worked for you! All we ask here at Seduction Central is that you not name your first born "Cannonball."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Real Zydeco Stuff

In 1987, I went on assignment from the Christian Science Monitor to the New Orleans Jazz Fest. The idea was not so much to cover the festival itself, but to try and find some local music in its natural setting. I wrote about that trip on this blog in 2011.

As noted in that entry, I was fortunate to hear about Walter Polite, living out in New Iberia. My photographer Donna Paul and I found our way to his house, where Walter lived with his family.  He greeted us warmly and we sat happily on his front porch as he played and sang for us, including Hey Lucile, My Baby Don't Wear no Shoes, Don't You Mess With My Tutu and more.

I recently got a message from Keyona Hippolite, Walter's great-grandson, saying he'd seen the article and asking if I still had the audio, as his grandmother wanted to use it for a tribute to Walter they are holding.soon.  So, I dug into the archives and found it.

Bear in mind that this is a 30-year old cassette recording. The audio starts out rough, but after a few minutes, it evens out. This is some beautiful, down-home, yet sophisticated music, from the hands and voice of a master.