I’m a sucker for a big band. The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra remains a personal favorite, but I have a fondness for the Airmen of Note, perhaps a residual attachment from the days of Joe Williams — Joe was Basie’s #1 son, but Joe spread his love around and liked this band a lot. So, if I were to be in DC later this month — I’m not, but if I were — you’d find me front and center at the Airmen of Note’s free concert — Blues Alley at 8 PM on April 25th.

I’ve Got More Mail

I received an email from Edgar at WGBH radio 89.7 FM in Massachsetts. I get a lot of pitches and press releases, but as DevraDoWrite is my personal platform, and I make no pretense to be an unbiased journalist when writing here, I feel free to ignore everything that is of no personal interest to me; that includes all “smooth jazz.” A lot of people waste their time pitching me because they do not take the time to do the research, but Edgar clearly knows that I am a extreme fan of Sonny Rollins, and he didn’t push. Here’s what he wrote:

I thought this might be of interest, either for your blog or just for your own personal enjoyment. The legendary Sonny Rollins–who has played and recorded with the likes of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey–will be a guest on Open Source with Christopher Lydon, this Thursday, April 5 at 7pm. The show airs on WGBH 89.7 FM in New England and streams live worldwide at Tune in and hear the insights of the one and only Saxophone Colossus.

That’s this Thursday, 7 PM Eastern time — I’ll be tuned in via computer here.

Exploring Subcultures

I feel very privileged to be friends with so many talented people, many who are actually renowned in the fields of my two primary interests – jazz and non-fiction writing. The other day I mentioned author/mentor Marita Golden, and today I received news from another guru/writing mentor/friend named Lee Gutkind.

Some years ago, James Wolcott, in one of his writings for Vanity Fair, dubbed Lee “the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction.” It was not intended to be a compliment, but Lee has made good use of the title ever since, founding the Creative Nonfiction Foundation that publishes a journal of excellent writings, and also directing the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference, all while continuing to write amazing books that immerse readers in worlds they are unlikely to encounter otherwise — the world of heart transplantation, veterinary medicine, psychiatric institutions, to name a few, and now the world of robotics. Here’s he promo blurb on his latest book titled “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”:

The high bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is alive and hyper night and day with the likes of Hyperion, which traversed the Antarctic, and Zoe, the world’s first robot scientist, now back home. Robot Segways learn to play soccer, while other robots go on treasure hunts or are destined for hospitals and museums. Dozens of cavorting mechanical creatures, along with tangles of wire, tools, and computer innards are scattered haphazardly. All of these zipping and zooming gizmos are controlled by disheveled young men sitting on the floor, folding chairs, or tool cases, or huddled over laptops squinting into displays with manic intensity. Award-winning author Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture, following these young roboticists and their bold conceptual machines from Pittsburgh to NASA and to the most barren and arid desert on earth. He makes intelligible their discoveries and stumbling points in this lively behind-the-scenes work.
(For more information on Almost Human: Making Robots Think, visit the official website.)

When I am dreaming up book ideas, usually I am either intrigued by a desire to learn about a world unknown to me, or driven by a desire to show a particular world to others. As a reader, I love books that bring me into a new world, or show me sides of a world I thought I knew, in ways that allow me to identify with the people and or circumstances. I face many challenges in writing the Luther Henderson biography not the least of which wll be how to make the reader understand just what it is that a musical arranger does, where the lines between arranging and composing blur, and why these people are seemingly invisible when their role is so crucial to the success of the people we all recognize as stars.

Lee Gutkind, John McPhee, Tracy Kidder — to name just three — they are all masters of this craft known by many names: creative nonfiction, immersion journalism, narrative nonfiction. Wednesday, March 21 you can hear Lee Gutkind on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” To find the stations nearest you that carry this program, go here.

Lee’s schedule includes a bunch up upcoming live appearances in and around Arizona, far closer to me than the Pittsburgh home of the journal, but I’m up to my eyeballs writing, so rather than travel I’ll have to make do with listening to him on the radio. In my neighborhood “Talk of the Nation” airs from 8-10 PM, but I’m also hoping that NPR will post the show online afterwards as they do with so many of their programs.

Open Ears

A year or so ago drummer Michael Stephans (then my neighbor down the street, since moved East) offered to play for me his latest recording, OM/ShalOM, which had not yet released. Now Michael is a first-class drummer, and, as his bio tells you, not only do his compatriots include Bob Brookmeyer, Pharoah Sanders, the late Charlie Byrd, Don Menza, Buddy Colette, Alan Broadbent, Bob Florence, Mike Melvoin, Lynn Arriale, Bud Shank, … but he has also played with personalities as wildly diverse as The Rolling Stones, Cher, David Bowie, Shirley MacLaine, and Natalie Cole. Still I was hesitant because I knew this was an unusual recording, a fusion of well-known Hebrew liturgical songs and Yiddish-based melodies with modern improvisational music. Michael is a deep guy (he’s got a PhD, two Masters degrees and he’s a poet too), and I was afaid that this music would be over my head, too ‘out there.’ Forgive me here, but I thought, “Oy vey. What will I say?”

OMSHALOMCover.jpgAlmost immediately I was sucked into this vortex of sound, much of it feeling very primal. Five musicians (Michael, David Liebman, Bennie Maupin, Scott Colley, and Munyungo Jackson), each a major player in his own right, charted deep waters but always came safely back to shore. Part of what drew me in was the familiarity of the melodies – Let My People Go, Shalom Alechim, and Hava Nagilah to name a few – but I think it was the timber of the horns, the undulating steadiness of the beat, and the intensity of emotion that kept me afloat and attentive throughout. The CD, with a beautiful cover by Paul Harryn, includes a few of Michael’s originals including the title track, Kaddish for Elvin, and Moon Over Miami that is a poem set to music.

Now I am pleased to share with you the news that OM/ShalOM will celebrate its New York premiere and CD release on Monday evening, February 26th, 2007 at the Blue Note in New York City. And for those of you in the vicinity of the Poconos, you can hear a preview on Sunday, February 25th at the Deerhead Inn.

Best Buy!

Just a few minutes ago I was griping to my husband about the cost of an evening’s entertainment. A ‘reasonably-priced’ meal for two, with one cocktail and a glass of wine each, followed by concert or club admission easily reaches the $200 mark. That’s fine if you’re earning a hefty income…or if you only go out on rare occasion. Thankfully, we do alright and go out when we want, but that doesn’t make me unaware.

Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the high cost of presenting entertainment, especially if the artists are paid well, though often that’s not the case. Still, prices do go up….and up….and up. (Whatever happened to “that which goes up must also come down” ?)

I wish everybody could enjoy an evening’s entertainment regardless of their economic status — in fact, I think that the have-nots might benefit more from the experience than those who have fewer worries. But that’s another subject for another day.

Regardless of your income, if you are a jazz lover in New York with $5 and a free lunch hour on Wednesday, January 3rd – 1-2 PM, make your way over to Saint Peter’s Church (E. 54th St. & Lexington Ave.) for the MIDTOWN JAZZ AT MIDDAY concert featuring soprano saxophonist BILL KIRCHNER and pianist JUNIOR MANCE. I can’t think of a better way — or more affordable — to spend a lunch hour at the start of the year!

I Heard It Through The Grapevine…Online

Tonight, Friday, Dec. 1, 8pm Eastern, WGBH radio host Steve Schwartz will feature dad’s music. I’m guessing it’s something of a birthday feature as dad’s birthday is December 4.  Listen to Jim Hall Jazz from Studio Four on the radio (89.7) or online (the Listen Live link is under the Radio menu on the left).

More Radio

While I’m on the subject of promoting good radio broadcasts, you should tune in to WBGO tomorrow night (Sunday, Nov 12, from 11 p.m. to midnight, Eastern Standard Time) and listen to the music of Bob Brookmeyer. Producer Bill Kirchner writes:

Valve trombonist/pianist/composer/arranger Bob Brookmeyer (b. 1929) has been a major jazz musician for more than a half-century. Only in the past 25 years, though, has he been widely recognized as one of jazz’s finest living composers.

We’ll hear recent recordings of Brookmeyer’s writing for his Europe-based New Art Orchestra. Plus a surprise.

If you are a WBGO regular you’ll recognize that this is part of the “Jazz From the Archives” series that runs every Sunday on WBGO-FM (88.3) presented by the Institute of Jazz Studies.

NOTE: If you live outside the New York City metropolitan area, WBGO also broadcasts online.


Happy Birthday Phil! On Friday, November 3, from 8pm to Midnight Eastern. WGBH 89.7FM’s Jazz From Studio Four host Steve Schwartz celebrates the 75th birthday of alto saxophonist Phil Woods (born Nov. 2, 1931) with a four-hour retrospective of his ongoing career. One of the true masters of the bop vocabulary, Woods has played with an impressive array of artists—touring and recording with jazz legends Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Benny Goodman and playing on pop albums by Billy Joel, Carly Simon and Steely Dan. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy an evening while simultaneously boning-up on large slice of jazz history. If you’re not within earshot via terrestrial radio, tune in online at

Meanwhile, here’s a little appetizer. It’s an excerpt from the liner notes I wrote for a live concert recording in honor of Johnny Pate, featuring Phil Woods, James Moody, Monty Alexander, Shirley Horn, and Ron Carter, among others.

…“Minor Detail,” opens with Pate playing solo piano – the first of many pleasures yet to come. The solo introduction to this minor-key ballad is thick with rich chordal harmonies that weave through the reed and horn sections. Then an alto saxophone is heard in the distance, and it’s Phil Woods, in his trademark black cap, who emerges from the wings playing. Soon a deeper horn sounds and James Moody wanders onstage playing tenor. Woods kisses the top of Moody’s balding head, and the two go on musically conversing with one another. The jazz ensemble members are mesmerized, and though it is not discernable to the ear, they are so awestruck that they nearly miss their musical cue to come back in. Woods and Moody wander off the stage.

At the microphone again, Pate waits just a beat to compose himself, and tries to lighten the moment by joking. “An intrusion,” he says, gesturing toward the wings. “They just let anyone wander around.” He tells the audience about the day he heard Phil Woods playing alto on a Dizzy Gillespie recording, and how he thought to himself that if he were ever in a position to produce records, Phil Woods would top his list of artists. Bringing Woods back onstage, “all the way from Pennsylvania,” his voice cracks with tears. A week earlier, Pate predicted this would happen, telling Spencer Patterson of the Las Vegas Sun, “I haven’t been in contact with most of these people for years. Seeing them all at once, all together will be quite a thing. I’ll need three or four boxes of Kleenex.”

It may not seem like such a long way from Pennsylvania to Nevada, but for someone battling emphysema and down with the flu just days earlier, it is a very long way indeed. Still, Woods would not have missed today’s events. Woods’ handwritten note to Pate, reprinted in the program book, says, “Your faith in me long ago lives forever in my heart.” Woods means it. He tells the audience about his life as a struggling musician in the 1960s. “I couldn’t get arrested. ‘Buy a flute, be a studio man,’ they told me. I said ‘forget it.’” Woods moved to Europe where he hoped the musical climate would be more hospitable to jazz musicians. But in 1968, salvation came from stateside in the form of Johnny Pate.

Then East Coast director of A&R for Verve Records/MGM, Pate was in a position to make Woods an offer. Tracking him down in France, Pate offered Woods a record deal with a dream rhythm section (Herbie Hancock on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Grady Tate on drums), augmented by a string section led by Gene Orloff. The album is titled Round Trip. “I’m talking the truth,” Woods tells us. “I went back to France with a shitload of money, and a few months later I was invited to play at Newport. I was back, baby! I was back, and that’s ’cause of Johnny Pate, and I want to say thank you.”

Woods sounds breathless when talking, but not when playing. He is featured on the next two selections, “Carolyn” and “Fill the Woods With Laughter,” both of which are on that 1968 recording. The first, a ballad dedicated to Pate’s wife, is a simple theme with variations, rich harmonies, a walking bass line, and a sweet trumpet turn at the end. The students acquit themselves well, breaking into double time before the bridge, but it is Woods who plays with such love that my eyes tear up. Pate is standing on stage, bending backward from the knees as if the music is the wind and he is a sail. Much later, the only words Pate will be able to muster are “I love what he does with a ballad. I just stood there in awe.” By the time they finish the second tune, the audience is cheering and all Pate can say now is “Wow!”


Speaking of jazz classics, I just saw a press release reminding me that it has been 50 years since Paul Gonsalves’ six minute solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” brought the proverbial house down at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Tonight, on the radio, Columbia record producer George Avakian, Newport Jazz impresario George Wein, and critic Stanley Crouch will be savoring the memory of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’s historic performance — the program is Open Source, it airs from Boston (89.7 on the dial) at 7 PM and can be heard online here.


Sunday, July 9, from 11 p.m. to midnight (Eastern Daylight Time) “Jazz From the Archives” features the music of Eddie Harris. You can hear it online, or if you are in the New York City metropolitan area you can tune in to WBGO-FM (88.3). Producer Bill Kirchner writes:

Eddie Harris (1934-1996) started his professional career as a pianist, but he became one of the most distinctive post-bebop tenor saxophonists, with an appealing airy sound and virtuoso technique. He achieved popularity through a number of commercial hits, but those who knew his playing well were aware that he was a first-rate jazz improviser.

We’ll hear some of the best of Harris’s Atlantic recordings of the mid-to-late 1960s, featuring him along with pianists Cedar Walton and Jodie Christian, bassist Ron Carter, drummers Billy Higgins, Bobby Thomas, and Billy Hart, trumpeter Ray Codrington, and others.