“Jazz on a String”

About a month ago, I shared an email from Los Angeles Times writer Don Heckman. In part, he wrote:

…writing an attack is easy, and sometimes it’s the appropriate thing to do. But writing something which points out problems with possible solutions is much harder and, I believe, demands more of one’s writing skill.

I admire his position, but there are times when I feel the public would be better served by his powers of critical thinking and his years of musical experience. Monday was one such time. Don and I both attended the sixth annual Instrumental Women’s show, “Jazz on a String” this past Saturday at the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, and as my husband put it, “you two must have seen different shows.”

Don’s review opens with “An array of first-rate talent showed up…” but he never mentions that they could not be properly heard due to poor sound (a deficiency either of the sound system or the engineers) that turned the 18-piece string section into mud. And perhaps it was the chilled night air that troubled the strings’ ability to stay in tune. He describes Lesa Terry’s solos as “briskly swinging, jazz-driven” and mentions Cheryl Keyes “inventive flute soloing and dark-toned vocal,” but does that mean they were good? Lori Andrews “demonstrated a remarkable capacity to produce blues-bent improvised lines,” but to what end? Phyllis Battle may have been ebullient, but was she in good voice?

The two performances that he found “most intriguing” were Nedra Wheeler and the string octet from the Pasadena Young Musicians Orchestra. They were my favorites, too. I’ve written about Nedra before, and one of the things I love about her is that she embodies the music, she is jazz, and it comes through her playing and vocals, as well as her stage presence. The eight pretty high school violinists have a long way to go, but they played well on Lesa Terry’s arrangement of Horace Silver’s “The Preacher.”

Don’s only serious criticism was “the far too many announcements and introductions,” and he concludes, “It was, in sum, a fine evening of music.” I feel that while it was an entertaining evening, musically it was far from excellent.

Duke Ellington used to say that there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. Arts education is virtually nonexistant in our schools, so it is up to the critics to inform John Q Audience that musical pyrotechniques do not mean that the music is good. Contrary to popular opinion as observed in myriad audience responses — opinion I suspect is largely based in ignorance — playing fast, bending notes, and changing keys does not make a musician a virtuoso. And singers who use over-the-top vocal tricks, growling and shouting, have forsaken the art of the song. A concert may be entertaining, and there is value in that, but does that mean the music was good? I think not.

Patriotic Jazzmen

I am continually amazed by the number of legendary jazz musicians who have served our country, in uniform, carrying instruments in lieu of weapons. Music has the power to break barriers, be they barriers of geography, ideology, religion, or other discriminations.

Prior to 1920 (when more than one thousand warrant officer positions were authorized and their jobs expanded to include clerical, administrative, and band leading activities), military musicians were either enlisted men or commissioned officers — and none were black. Expanding the role warrant officers allowed the military to recruit superior musicians who were not otherwise qualified for officer status.

Racial integration has historically been a piece-meal operation, in or out of the military. It was through music that President Roosevelt found one way to elevate the status of black men in the Navy. Before World War II, blacks in the Navy were mess men or stewards, boot blacks or stokers. Through the Great Lakes Experience (1942-1945), the US Navy recruited 5,000 black musicians and trained them as bandsmen at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. This act added dimension to the great history of the Navy Band Great Lakes, which was founded in 1917 by Lieutenant Commander John Philip Sousa.

My husband, John Levy, a jazz bassist living in Chicago, might have been one of the Great Lakes recruits, but he was not. In December of 1941, he was on the road again with the Cabin Boys, this time headed for Warren, Ohio. He was en route one Sunday, listening to the car radio, when he heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “Everybody in those days was feeling patriotic, and I was no exception,” he remembers. “There were role models in my family. My Uncle Johnny, Mama’s oldest brother, had fought in the Spanish-American War. Then years later, Uncle Sherman was one of the 300,000 blacks who fought in WWI.” John wanted to join the Army Signal Corps, so when he got back to Chicago, he took lessons and scored high, 98.2 on the test. A few months later he was called for an appointment, but when he got there they refused to accept him, despite his high score. “We don’t take niggers in the Signal Corps,” they told him.

That experience left a scar and killed his desire to enlist, but it did not hamper his feelings of patriotism, nor did it stop him from supporting the war effort or entertaining the troops. Several years ago, while writing his biography, I discovered a letter from the United States Treasury Department thanking him for his “efforts in furthering the sale of War Bonds and Stamps,” probably a thank you for his participation in the War Bond Jam Session in the Mayfair Room of Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. The letter was dated April 1944, and was addressed to him in care of the Garrick Stagebar where he had a steady gig playing bass with the Stuff Smith Trio. One day the trio went to the Navy base to entertain. “The Great Lakes Navy Band with Willie Smith, Ernie Royal and Clark Terry also played that day,” John reminisces. “That band had great musicians, guys we didn’t get to hear often around town.”

In a 1978 interview posted on the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s web site, trumpeter Clark Terry told Charles Walton, “When we finished our boot camp we received our ratings, which was displayed by having a lyre sown on our sleeve. To see a Black man in a United States Navy with a lyre on his sleeve instead of a C, which meant cook, was quite an oddity.”

Many of those musicians went on to have stellar musical careers after their military service. A few years ago, The Great Lakes Naval Training Center celebrated the 60th anniversary of “The Great Lakes Experience of World War II,” and paid tribute to the Navy’s first black musicians. Clark Terry was there, along with composer/bandleader Gerald Wilson. Both men have earned more honors and awards than either can count. My husband and I saw both of them together at a January 2004 gathering of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. Gerald Wilson received a Jazz Master award in 1990 and Clark Terry got his in 1991.

My father’s musical experience vis a vis racial bias has been from the opposite end – he was “the white guy” in the celebrated Chico Hamilton Quintet back in 1955. And with the Sonny Rollins quintet he was “the white guy” featured on the legendary album titled The Bridge. People have asked him about his experiences and he refuses to see it as black and white. He views music as a way of bonding people together and crossing barriers, be they barriers of geography, ideology, religion, or other discriminations. He is also an NEA Jazz Master (2004), and in his acceptance speech he said, “The women and men who have received this award in the past have spread peace and love throughout the world, something that governments might emulate. I am pleased to be one of the peacemakers.”

If music is the language of humanity, then every musician, in or out of uniform, will be a peacemaker, musical instruments will be standard issue, and wars will be resolved diplomatically, in concert.

F Sharp

Where is Django’s guitar? The Epiphone that Django Reinhart played when touring the US with Duke Ellington was given to Cleveland-born guitarist Fred Sharp by Django’s son, Babik, in 1985. (The story of Django’s Epiphone, a 1946 Zephyr #3442, can be read here.)

The two guitarsts, Fred and Babik, were brought together in 1967 by Charles Delaunay, noted French critic, Django biographer, and founder of Jazz Hot magazine. (Jazz Hot, started in 1935, may be the oldest jazz magazine in the world.) Fred has written about Babik here and about Delauney here.

I met Charles Delauney when I was 16 years old. I was in France with a teen travel group called The Experiment in International Living, and after spending a few weeks living with a farming family in the Jura Mountains where I learned how to milk cows and bale hay, the Americans and one similarly aged family member from each of the host families took a bus trip all the way down to Nice. Riding down the Promenade des Anglais in the bus I saw huge posters everywhere heralding Le Grande Parade du Jazz, the festival produce by George Wein. To make a long story a little shorter (you’ll have to wait for my memoir for all the details), I ran into Ed Thigpen who arranged for me to see that night’s show, and it was there, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, that I met Delauney. When he learned that I would be in Paris about a week later, he said to call, which I did, and that led to a delightful afternoon at Versailles followed by une crème glacée at a lovely little cafe.

Google led me to an article about Delauney titled Magnificent Obsession: The Discographers, by Jerry Atkins. It seems that the first discographies almost simultaneously sprang into being in 1936 — in Melody Maker (a British weekly), Dalauney’s Hot Discographie (in Paris), and Hugues Pannassié’s Hot Jazz (in the US) — but Atkins writes, “Charles Delaunay is probably the father of discographical format as we know it today. ”

But geting back to Fred, who has played and recorded with Pee Wee Russell, Mugsy Spanier, Miff Mole, Red Norvo, and Jack Teagarden, among others. It was Fred who, in 1946, sent a young songwriter named Joe Bari to pitch his song to Frankie Laine. Bari sang the song for Laine, who said, “What do you need me for? You sing great!” There’s more to this story written up by Joe Mosbrook, but Bari later became famous as Tony Bennett.

Fred also happened to be Jim Hall’s first guitar teacher. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Fred in person (he lives in Florida now), but we do exchange occassional emails. About a month ago he wrote:

When I first moved to Sarasota in 1990, I started teaching guitar ( a big mistake) at Gottuso’s Music Shop. I had a young man, about 15 or 16 come to me and asked if he could study with me. I told him, “I only teach Jazz”, to which he replied, “Oh…I already took that!”

I’ve Got Mail: Jazz In The Woods

recent crow The Bill Crow photo I posted previously was a tad dated, so Bill sent me this one taken by Judy Kirtley (wife of pianist Bill Mays) a little over a year ago. He wrote of the first photo:

That’s an old picture of me, back when I had more hair. It was taken at Struggles in Edgewater, NJ, on the last gig that Al and Zoot played together before Zoot passed. (That’s Zoot’s shoulder sharing the photo with me.)

Bill also told me that he is going on vacation, and taking his tuba with him:

It’s nice to practice on the deck of our cabin in the wood…the tuba sounds lovely ringing out across the treetops and distant hills. No complaints from the neighbors or the deer so far.

That’s a scene I can clearly envision, not because I have such a great imagination, but because I have seen a similar sight. Here is the first paragraph of the liner notes I wrote for Jim Hall’s 1997 CD, Textures.

The screened-in porch of the Hall country retreat is in the middle of the woods. The birds chirp and the chipmunks splash through the fallen leaves getting ready for winter. The cacophony of the city is far away and here we sit, my father and I, talking about Textures, his latest recording. From my perspective this project reveals a startling and wonderful new persona.

Coincidentally, this CD includes three pieces written for a brass ensemble. I know that the tuba has a long history in jazz, but outside of marching bands, it’s not heard all that often these days. My favorite tune from this recording is Circus Dance, a lumbering waltz for two trumpets, trombone, tuba, guitar and drums. [I’ve posted a pdf of the liner notes here]

I’ve Got Mail: It’s a Small World – Part Two

If you’re a regular here, you’ll know that I’ve mentioned Bob Brookmeyer before, twice with regard to the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra (here and here) and once with respect to ArtistShare. The other day, it was last Thursday, around lunchtime, I was listening to Get Well Soon, a Brookmeyer CD I had just bought. A few hours later, the front doorbell rings. I can see the door from my office window and there’s a guy standing there, his arm in a sling, holding a CD. Stay Out of the SunSo I open the door, he hands me the CD — Bob Brookmeyer’s Stay Out Of The Sun — and says, “I’m Michael Stephans. I’m a friend of Bob’s and I live just four houses down the block from you.” Now I’ve lived here for almost seven years, and he’s been there for at least six, and we never knew of one another until now. It took a nudge from Bob and encouragement from a mutual neighbor to get Michael to drop in, and I am glad that he did. (By the way, Michael is the drummer on this very beautiful CD.)

Subsequently, Michael read my posting about Alec Wilder and sent me the following email:

I had the chance to be in the orchestra that premiered a saxophone concerto he wrote for Zoot [Sims] many years ago, and meeting him was daunting, but fun. One of my favorite collections of his tunes is Bob’s “7 x Wilder” with your dad [Jim Hall], Bill Crow, and Mel [Lewis]. The music still breathes so beautifully…

I am embarassed to say that I am not familiar with this recording (I had to look it up, it’s a 1961 Verve LP), but I plan to get my hands on a copy ASAP.

I’ve Got Mail: It’s a Small World – Part One

Bill CrowThe jazz family is of the large extended variety, and that makes the jazz world very small, connecting people with much less than six degrees of separation. So it should not come as any great surprise that Rifftides and DevraDoWrite share quite a few readers in common. One of the people who found me by way of Rifftides (thank you Doug Ramsey) is bassist Bill Crow.

Bill Crow was a musical chameleon in his youth, playing trumpet, baritone horn, alto sax drums, and valve trombone. He didn’t take up the bass until he was in his early 20s. Within a few years he was playing bass with Stan Getz, Marian McPartland, and Gerry Mulligan, to name just three, and he never looked back. That was in the 1950s. His credits as a writer also date back to the 1950s with his record and book reviews for Jazz Review. In 1991, Oxford University Press published Jazz Anecdotes, a collection of Bill’s stories that was voted Best Jazz Book of 1991 in a Jazz Times readers’ poll. Two years later, they published a second volume, From Birdland to Broadway: Scenes from a Jazz Life

I’ve known Bill (or more accurately, Bill has known me) since I was a little kid — at one time my dad sublet Bill’s apartment at 22 Cornelia Street. Bill also has a connection with Marian McPartland (about whom I recently wrote) as he was the bassist in the McPartland Trio when it was named “Small Group of the Year” by Metronome (1955). Also, coincidentlly, in the same issue of The Washington Post wherein Terry Teachout recommended the Alec Wilder book that prompted me to talk about Marian a few days ago, Jonathan Yardley recommended Bill’s book (read it here).

So what’s Bill Crow up to now?

I’m playing a lot with a guitarist named Doug Proper, who lives in upper Westchester County. Good drummer, Gerry Fitzerald, and the fourth member of the group is often Joe Beck, who is a monster guitar player.

When Joe can’t make it, we sometimes have John Abercrombie, and sometimes a good alto player named Andrew Beals.

Tonight I’m driving up to the New Paltz area to play with the Kansas City Sound, a band that reveres the Old Testament Basie book. Harvey Kaiser, a saxophonist, is the leader, and we often have Eddie Bert on trombone, Fred Smith on trumpet and a variety of piano players.

Last week I subbed for Earl May on a band that plays the old Ellington repertoire, so I’m getting my nostalgia kicks. I really know how to play that music, so it is nice to be asked to do so.

If you noticed that I didn’t give you a link to Jazz Anecdotes, that is because Bill also happened to mention that Oxford has asked him to make a revised edition.

I’ve added a new preface and about 150 new stories, and they’re going to put it out with a slightly altered cover, calling it “Jazz Anecdotes, Second Time Around.” Should be ready this fall, I think.

I’ll be looking for it, meanwhile you can get a taste of Bill’s stories online in his monthly Band Room column for Local 802’s Allegro. (You’ll have to click on Publications and select Band Room for your search.)

I’ll Be Around

One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the chance encounter with old friends; it’s like strolling to the store for a quart of soy milk and bumping into someone you haven’t seen in ages. Of course, out here in Altadena, we don’t stroll to the store, but you get the idea. Anyway, this morning I was delighted to run into Alec Wilder, courtesy of Terry Teachout and The Washington Post .

I used to go night after night to hear Marian McPartland play at The Cookery, and in later years at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel. She and Alec were close friends and he was in attendance more often than not. Alec was usually alone, and after Marian introduced us, and he was satisfied that I was really there to listen and appreciate the music, he would invite me to sit with him.
Alec & Marian, 1976
He had a gruff exterior that completely evaporated when he smiled. I thought him to be rather professorial, with his tweed jacket and pipe, always a book or two on hand, and forever scribbling notes to himself. Back then, my knowledge of Alec’s musical work was limited to familiarity with a handful of songs that he wrote and which Marian often played — I’ll Be Around, While We’re Young and It’s So Peaceful in the Country being a few of the most well-known.

I wish I could have known him better, and longer. Thinking about those times led me to my bookshelf for a visit with Marian via All In Good Time her book of autobiographical essays about some of the people she’s known — Alec Wilder: The Complete Composer is the title of the last chapter. Marian describes the first song that Alec wrote for her:

He airily tossed me a sheet of music, on which was written, “Jazz Waltz for a Friend — a small present from Alec Wilder.”

I was delighted, and I couldn’t wait to play the piece. It had a haunting melody, which had a way of turning back on itself that I found fascinating. It was deceptively simple to play, yet hard to memorize and improvise on. Many of Alec’s pieces are that way, but they are rewarding, for as you delve into them and explore their intricacies, you find fresh ways to go. Jazz Waltz for a Friend became a part of our trio repertoire, just as Alec became part of my audience from them and on.

One of my favorite CDs by Marian is her solo concert Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, and the last track is, you guessed it, Alec Wilder’s I’ll Be Around.

Canadian Brass

Have you ever heard the Canadian Brass play? Not only do they play wonderful classical chamber music, they also play great jazz, and Luther Henderson is the man reponsible for hundreds of their “jazz” arrangements. I am working on a biography of Luther’s life, and I didn’t know much about his relationship with the Canadian Brass unil after the fact. Here’s a brief excerpt from my introduction — I was describing a memorial concert/gathering that took place in Los Angeles almost a year after his death:

The most amazing performance of the afternoon came from the Canadian Brass, a primarily classical ensemble of five musicians. They began their tribute to Luther with an appropriately jazz-tinged rendition of Amazing Grace, after which Billie playfully called out, “Who’s arrangement was that?” knowing full well that it was Luther’s. And Anne Edwards called out, “I bet he’s listening to you out there.”

Chuck, one of the trumpet players, spoke about how Luther was their “link between the [jazz] tradition and five guys who went to classical music school and studied Bach.” He explained how Luther’s belief in what was jazz differed from that of Wynton Marsalis. “Wynton made a statement that I think he subsequently softened – ‘if it ain’t improvised, it ain’t jazz’ – and Luther felt like the improvisations he could do for us would be an organized cogent improvisation that would then be codified. It would become the classical music that could be handed down.”

But Luther also loved what is commonly referred to as classical music, music in the European tradition by the old masters. Introducing their second piece, Chuck said, “Bach being very important to Luther, he requested somewhere along the line that it was our duty to perform the Toccata and Fugue in D minor in his honor, which we will fulfill this afternoon.”

The piece in question is a keyboard work, one with which Luther was totally familiar, and Chuck added, “I think he was amazed that we would play this at all on brass instruments.” Hearing a Bach piano piece rendered by two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba was certainly different, and Luther’s arrangement was both clever and delightful.

“We play Luther Henderson’s music every night,” Gene, the trombone player, told us. “He hasn’t missed a concert for at least twenty years. So we feel an attachment to him, and you can imagine it’s sort of emotional. Without Luther, there would have been no Canadian Brass. We feel that strongly.”

And with that, they launched into their final selection, an arrangement Luther had written for them early on, called Saints Hallelujah. Despite the fact that it was a memorial service of sorts, the atmosphere was festive, and I heard Billie say, “My favorite.” In this arrangement, the trombone leads off solo, and is then joined by the tuba. Meanwhile, the other three horns execute a few choreographed steps across stage, followed by an elaborately gesticulated preparation for what we anticipate to be their next musical entrance. They moved their horns toward their lips, but it’s a fake out, and instead of brass notes we heard them shout, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” The audience roared. Smiles were wide, even through an occasional tear, and that was how Luther would have liked it.

Creating a medley with When the Saints Go Marching In, a traditional New Orleans funeral parade song, with the classic Hallelujah Chorus, not only illustrates Luther’s humor and mischievous pleasure in tickling an audience, but it also epitomizes his desire to bridge the jazz and classical worlds. Luther agreed with his dear friend and collaborator, Duke Ellington, when Duke said that there are only two kinds of music: good, and the other kind. I thought about the work that Luther had done for Duke in the 1940s, and the monumental symphonic Ellington project he had completed for Sir Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony in Great Britain just a few years ago. On the surface you might say that it began and ended with Duke, and while to limit it thus would be a disservice to the outpouring of Luther’s talent that filled the decades in between, it is true that Duke did play an elemental role in Luther’s career.

When I’m working on a piece about a musical artist I like to listen to their work while I’m writing. One CD that is now often playing in my office is the Canadian Brass’ Take the A Train: The Best of Duke Ellington You might also enjoy reading the tribute to Luther on the Canadian Brass web site.

Haven’t You Heard?

The New York Times ran a huge feature story about it last summer, it’s been tauted by a popular arts blogger (here and here and here), and the main stream press and wire services were abuzz about it after this year’s Grammy Awards. The “it” to which I refer is ArtistShare. ArtistShare is a new concept in Internet marketing and distribution, one that not only returns control to the artist, but also renders moot the fears of digital piracy. Mastermind Brian Camelio, sympathetic to the plight of his music friends, and tired of record companies bemoaning their losses, came up with the concept to empower the artists. As he explains it, “The answer is to market what cannot be pirated: the artist, the artist’s creation process, a fan’s love of an artist’s work. The fan is now part of the creation process, not the litigation process.”

Several jazz artists have now launched ArtistShare websites, among them Maria Schneider, Jim Hall, Jane Ira Bloom, Brian Lynch , and most recently, Bob Brookmeyer, to name only a few. In this model the customary end product, such as a CD or a copy of a music score, turns out to be a by-product, while the sharing of the artistic process becomes the primary product – a product that is experienced over time as it evolves. The behind-the-scenes exposure is provided by media events such as streaming audio and video clips of rehearsals and meetings, photo galleries showing the artist at work, perhaps a pdf peak at the first draft of a new score or an audio lecture analyzing a composition, and journal entries about the project’s progress. Another perk at certain levels is the participant acknowledgement – for example, the placement of the participant’s name in booklet accompanying a new CD.

Because participation in the process is now the product, what might have been viewed as pre-sales now becomes the source of funding for a project. By offering varying levels of participation, an artist can target specific groups of fans. For example, Jim Hall offers guitar lessons posted online for Player Participants, and both Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer offer lessons and scores for Composer Participants. Whether you are an average listener, fellow composer or musician, an aspiring executive producer, or a jazz philanthropist, there is a particiation level for you. If you’re a true jazz fan and arts lover, you’ve got to check it out!

National Critics Conference: Musings Part 2 – An Upbeat Attitude

I sent him a private email, but I want to take this opportunity to thank Los Angeles Times jazz writer Don Heckman publicly for the tone and direction he set when moderating the “Jazz L.A.: The View from the West Coast” panel at the National Critics Conference. It is so easy to succumb to the lure of carping about the downside – whether about the lack of jazz in LA, or the lack of jazz coverage in the media, or even the diminishment of critical thought in the media – but he took the high road and enabled us all to focus on the positives. AllAboutJazz Editor Fred Jung spoke of the terrific mentoring that Los Angeles artists are doing with aspiring musicians. (By the way, this is something that the Jazz Journalists Association has recently begun doing with aspiring jazz writers). Titus Levi, a jazz economist* working at the Center for Cultural Innovation, pointed out that the isolationism caused by the geographic spread of Los Angeles has an upside – it breeds heightened identity and stronger networking. Another often lamented issue is the relative non-existence of jazz icons today; if that is true, Don suggested viewing it as an opportunity rather than a problem. His message (not verbatim) was clear: jazz is in a period of great opportunity – we should have an upbeat attitude and encourage our audiences.

*I’ve never heard of, let alone met, a jazz economist? I plan to talk more with Titus later this summer, and will report back.