Poetry and Jazz

Jazz And The Poet Laureate is the title of Mr. Rifftides’ piece today. I happen to be in Toronto this weekend with two poets who, as jazz lovers, have put their passions not only on the page, but into action. As poets, each has written about and been inspired by jazz, but beyond their talents as poets, their love of jazz has led them to contribute greatly to the lifeblood of jazz and so I wish to call Dana Gioia and A.B. Spellman to your attention.

A February 2003 headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read: “Who Is Dana Gioia? He’s a poet, a businessman, a Northern Californian and President Bush’s choice to head the National Endowment for the Arts.” Now, in his second term as Chairman of the NEA, Dana continues to elevate jazz, expanding the Jazz Masters program in his quest to make it equal to the prestige of the pulitzer prize. (Our good friend Terry Teachout, as a member of he National Council on the Arts, is well acquainted with Chairman Gioia.) Dana is an award-winning poet, essayist, critic, and author, and his poems have been set to music by numerous composers, from classical to rock. I asked Dana about this and he mentioned Dave Brubeck as one of those composers and also spoke of a joint performance he did in New York with Chico Hamilton. On his web site you will find his bio along with many links to poems, and excerpts from his works and interviews.

I met A.B. a few years ago through the jazz masters program but I did not know a lot about his background. A little web research yielded the following:

For thirty years A.B. Spellman was “a guiding force in the continuation and expansion of the NEA Jazz Masters program” and the NEA Jazz Master award given for Jazz Advocacy is now given in his name. He is an author, poet, critic, and lecturer. He was a poet-in-residence at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Ga. He taught various courses in African-American culture; offered courses in modern poetry, creative writing, and jazz at Emory, Rutgers, and Harvard Universities. Spellman is an occasional television and radio commentator. He offered reviews and commentaries on National Public Radio’s Jazz Riffs series, including the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library program. Mr. Spellman is a graduate of Howard University. read more

And from the History Makers website:

In 1966, Spellman’s writing career took off when he published his first full-length book, Four Lives in the Bee-Bop Business, an in-depth look at the lives of jazz musicians Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Nichols and Jackie McLean. The following year, Spellman joined a group of black poets touring the nation’s historically black colleges. From 1968 until 1969, he worked as a political essayist and poet for Rhythm Magazine, and in 1969, Spellman conducted a lecture series throughout the country teaching at various colleges including Morehouse, Emory and Rutgers. read more

Here’s a brief excerpt from A.B.’s poem titled After Vallejo

…when you come for me come singing
no dirge, but scat my eulogy in bebop
code. sing that i died among gods
but lived with no god & did not suffer
for it. find one true poem that i made
& sing it to my shade as it fades
into the wind. sing it presto, in 4/4 time
in the universal ghetto key of b flat…

And here on the NEA web site you will find links to audio of his reading of After Vallejo and his remarks to the National Council on the Arts in March 2005.

These two gentlemen are well worth knowing; they have done immeasurable good for the world of jazz and in support of jazz musicians in America.

Floating and Swinging in the Eastern Caribbean – part 3

Tuesday, November 13, 2007
As I strolled the Lido deck, coffee in hand, we were still in transit from Nassau, on our way to St. Thomas, playing hide and seek with the emerging sun. Here I was, thousands of miles away from my Pasadena/Altadena home, enjoying the newness of places and people, reveling in the urge to do absolutely nothing and chatting with everyone, passengers and crew alike, and who do I meet but Ralph and Kitty and Joyce, and where do they live? Pasadena! I didn’t find out until I got home that they are hometown celebs, so to speak. Ralph and Kitty are local activists who have been serving the Pasadena community for many years, Ralph being on the Board of the Levitt Pavilion, and Joyce recently retired from the Pasadena City Council, was honored by Pasadena Democratic state Sen. Jack Scott the 21st State Senate District Woman of the Year. And to top it off, all three are well known to my two of my closest friends, Phil who once worked for the Pasadena School District and Regina, a publicist turned jewelry-designer who lives in Pasadena and handles press and promotion for several local arts festivals.

cruisejimmytshirt.jpgBy noon it was a breezy 78-degrees with winds from the East-North-East at 22knots (25.3mph) and poolside was crowded with jazz cruisers (including Jimmy Heath, left) all wearing their blue cruise t-shirts that entitled them to free drinks. Pina Coladas in the sun made me miss the Keyboard Capers (a series of piano solos) but I did make it later to hear the first four tunes in Lynne Arriale’s first set before our early dinner seating.

They played Alone Together, Evidence (Monk), Home (an Arriale original) and Jones’ Bones, but I think that the group was suffering from the same sound difficulties in the Queen’s Lounge that had plagued Clairdee the day before. The set was reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal in that Lynne wandered in and out of many different moods within a single song, but the transitions did not flow smoothly and I felt a push-me pull-you tug of war between the players (Thomson Kneeland on bass and Steve Davis on drums), exacerbated by the Davis’ embellishments that lacked rhythm or groove. I am familiar with Davis’s playing in this group, having a few years ago quite favorably reviewed Lynne’s trio recording Live in Montreux, so either they were having a bad day, or more likely, getting ready to kill the sound man.

Cruise ships are not built for high fidelity sound, but jazz cruises have nonetheless maintained and even grown in popularity. Where once there was only 1 a year, there are now several…here and here and here…so I guess that’s a good thing.

cruiselonnie2.jpgAfter dinner we caught Dr. Lonnie Smith’s organ trio upstairs in the Crow’s Nest for an early set. Dr. Lonnie was a delightful surprise — I know him and love him as a gentle soul, but I’ve never been keen on the organ. Truth be told, I would have said flat out that I don’t much care for jazz organ, but I was prepared to enjoy what I could. Never would I have thought that long before the end of his set I’d want to buy the CD. (Yes, I did go and buy one – The Turbanator.) cruisepeterb.jpgWith Peter Bernstein on guitar and Anthony Pinciotti on drums, the opening was heavily rhythmic, loud and kind of thick (full-throttle organ sound), and I watched incredulously as little old ladies — both black and white blue-hairs — swayed gently, almost imperceptibly as they fell under the spell this turban-topped doctor of organology who wears a mischievous smile and sings along with himself as he plays (here’s a vidclip from Nashville).

They opened with Freedom Jazz Dance, and followed with a triple parody of Lonnie singing Misty (Lonnie Mattress/Johnny Mathis), Sunshine of My Life (imitating Stevie), and You Sure Look Good To Me a la Elvis. Then came what I considered to be his tour-de-force, piece de resistance – Squeeze Me, taken oh so slow with lots of space — a lesson in how to build a song and a set. After that they got down and dirty again with Simone (?) (it sounded like Wade In The Water to me) and Roy Hargrove couldn’t resist the urge to sit in. Their last selection started with mystical, ethereal, futuristic sounds, an almost underwater quality, and the tune turned out to be Caravan, complete with an extended drum solo.

After Lonnie’s set we tried to listen to Cyrus Chestnut’s Trio but the Queen’s Lounge was just too cold. We stopped at Ocean Bar but Eric Alexander’s group was too loud, so we opted for a quick nap before Clairdee’s two late sets in the Ocean Bar starting at 10:30pm – we were relieved to experience better sound and much better shows.

Tomorrow…St. Thomas.

Floating and Swinging in the Eastern Caribbean – part 2

Monday November 12, 2007
I arose early as always. It was before seven when I entered the Lido in search of coffee. Having traveled 183 nautical miles at an average speed of 14.6 knots (16.8 mph), we were about to dock in Nassau – a mere 8 minutes from first line ashore to safely docked at 7:10am.

lonniesmith.jpgOrgan master Dr. Lonnie Smith was up early too, and I had breakfast with him and a documentary filmmaker named Bill. Conversation ranged from whether or not we wanted to go ashore and peruse the Straw Market, to more serious ideas such as the home for older musicians that Lonnie wishes existed, one where the older musicians could play occasionally and teach the younger ones who would come to a ‘school’ next door.

Clairdee was scheduled for double-duty today. At 1 pm was the Gospel Hour in the Vista Lounge with Cyrus Chestnut Trio and Clairdee. Cyrus’ trio (with bassist is Dezron Douglas, and drummer Neal Smith) played the first 40 minutes or so. Mesmerized by Cyrus’ big fat chords, fast runs, and dynamic shifts and turns, I lost track of the songs, but remember they opened with Junior Mance’s Jubilation, and Cyrus played some beautiful, reflective solos that showed his prodigious pianistic talent, more meditative than a shout of joy. Clairdee joined them for three songs at the end – Please Send Me Someone to Love (Percy Mayfield), His Eye Is On the Sparrow (lyricist Civilla D. Martin and composer Charles H. Gabriel, and This Little Light of Mine; before it was over we were back at sea.

It’s just another 80-degree partly-cloudy day in paradise. The next leg of the trip was to be longest – 843 nm (969.45 miles) from Nassau to St Thomas – so we did not remain long in Nassau, departing the dock just before 2 pm and picking up a little speed (averaging 20.8 knots or 24 mph).

At 3:30 in the Queen’s Lounge, a medium-sized room with a small stage, Clairdee began her first set with her own trio. Thanks to an inadequate sound set-up, and no time to sound-check, none of the musicians could hear each other let alone hear the vocals. The result was a timid-sounding musical accompaniment that provided no foundation for the singer — it was something of a disaster, but the show went on and subsequent sets were much better. Norman Simmon, wearing his producer’s hat, has been working with Clairdee on a new album and, though he wasn’t on he ship, we could hear the results of the work they’ve been doing. In fact, but the end of the week, Clairdee had a whole new group of fans wondering where she’s been hiding until now.

cruisedinner.jpgFollowing dinner, during which Jimmy Heath had us cracking up with his funny lines (old meal, you know the stuff that older folks eat for breakfast, and tales of a meter maid, someone who wrote a song using in a whole bunch of different time signatures) we staked out seats in the Ocean Bar to hear the Lewis Nash Quartet with bassist Peter Washington, pianist Renee Rosnes and Jimmy Greene on tenor and soprano sax. Not only did we stay for both sets, but we sat right next to the drum set which is a testament to Lewis’ touch and dynamic range — not once did I have to cover my ears. In Lewis’ hands melody and harmony get just as much attention as rhythm.

They started the set with Red Top, “a blues classic,” said Lewis, followed by an original melody by Renee called Dizzy’s Spell because it is based on the chord structure of Dizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma. Jimmy played soprano on this one and the rhythm section was so tight, so in sync, that I felt it was hard for him to fit in — but my reaction may well have been influenced by my preference for the tenor sound over soprano. Jimmy switched back to tenor on Ask Me Now and I felt it to be much more expressive — whether that is a sign of his comfort or my bias I can’t tell you, but he sure has a wonderful warm tenor tone. They ended the set with Stablemates by Benny Golsen. Renee plays a lot of notes but each and every note says something, and that’s saying a lot.

The second set started with a Monk tune titled Eronel (Lenore backwards) after which Lewis acknowledged in the audience his elementary school music teacher. Then they played Lee Morgan’s Sea Aura (?), a tune that I never would have known by name but I instantly recognized the melody. Lewis has a way of imparting lots of info but you never feel like he’s talking a lot. He began the next tune with hands on his drums, then soft mallets, brushes and finally sticks propelling us into You and the Night and the Music. It was the rolling rhythms and not the waves that had me rockin’ in my seat.

Later we headed back into the Vista Lounge to catch the Dizzy Alumni Big Band set at 10 pm. Seated next to us were two ladies and we began to talk while waiting for the sound people to work out their problems. (John says that when we’re in an elevator I’ll know everyone’s life story before the doors open.) Dorothy J. Frasier Brooks and her friend Sarah are both from Chicago. Dorothy, who is 84-years-young and now resides in Vegas, knew all of John’s friends and haunts from back in the day (that being the 1930s and early 40s). What a treat for John to talk with people who share first-hand his frame of reference. cruise_jimmyheath.jpg

Finally, the band hit. The set included Hot House (Tad Dameron) with solos by Jimmy Heath (pictured on the right), Roy Hargrove (bottom left of Heath picture), and Eric Gunnerson; Con Alma (Dizzy Gillespie) featuring James Moody (pictured below, left), Claudio Roditi and Slide Hampton; Jessica’s Day (Quincy Jones) during which Roy Hargrove removed his mute to ‘talk about it” with Mark Deadman picking up the conversation from there; and I Mean You (Thelonious Monk, arranged by Dennis Mackrel) with solos by Eric Gunnerson, Steve Davis on trombone, John Lee on bass, with the flutes counter balanced by Gary Smulyan (bottom right of Heath picture) on baritone sax playing out the melody at the end. Also featured during the set were Jay Ashby, Wycliffe Gordon, Antonio Hart, and Jonathan Bosack. And if all of this was not entertaining enough, we were then treated to “a new trio of girl singers” – Roy Hargrove, James Moody and Slide Hampton scatting and yodeling their way through Blue Boogie. The set ended with Things to Come set afire by Roy Hargrove, the Claudio Roditi (pictured below, right), and Gisbert (next to Roy in Heath photo) as they swapped 8, 4 and 2-bar phrases ending together on the highest of hi notes. And so another day comes to a close on the high Cs.

cruise_moody.jpg cruise_claudio.jpg

Floating and Swinging in the Eastern Caribbean – part 1

Our last jazz cruise was aboard the SS Norway with Joe Williams. It seems like forever ago – ten years, actually. After he died we hadn’t had occasion to go again…until now. This year Clairdee was part of a stellar lineup that included the Dizzy Alumni Big Band (with lots of our friends including Jimmy Heath, James Moody, Slide Hampton and Jay Ashby), Lewis Nash’s group with Renee Rosnes and Peter Washington (one of John’s favorite bassists), the Cyrus Chestnut trio and many, many more. The jazz cruises have been under new management for some time now, and the Holland America line has replaced the Norwegian line as host, so we booked passage on the ms Westerdam.

We flew to Ft Lauderdale on Saturday and spent the night in Hollywood. The usual arrival confusion and airport antics haven’t changed, especially for bass players – over-sized bass coffins coming down the luggage shoots despite the extra tariff paid for special handling, hotel vans that are too small to accommodate the equipment…. But jazz musicians are, by and large, road warriors and they cope. Clairdee’s bassist snagged a van built to take disabled passengers in wheelchairs, and soon enough we were feasting on cracked crab dinners. “Tell Sal that Johnny sent you,” said the hotel concierge as he pointed us toward the upstairs at Billy’s Stone Crab restaurant.

Bright and early Sunday morning the musicians gathered in the lobby to board buses that would take us to the dock. More general confusion as we waited dockside on the buses for awhile, watching the previous week’s cruise passengers disembark, but soon enough we were through the immigration lines, duly quizzed and photographed. They had to put us somewhere until our staterooms were ready, so we were directed to the Lido Deck for lunch. Food, again; besides listening to music, eating and drinking, talking and sunning were to be the primary activities of the week. By noon the skies were partly cloudy, the temperature was about 80F and winds at 12 knots (13.8 mph) were blowing east-north-east, a moderate breeze, just strong enough to rustle small branches ashore.

westerdam.jpgAt 950 feet long and 106 feet wide, The Westerdam, built in 2004, is just slightly smaller than the Norway (a difference of less than 14,000 sq ft. or about 12%) – walk three times around the Westerdam promenade and you’ve traveled one mile. The ship has 11 decks, 14 elevators, lots of stairs, two swimming pools, bars, lounges, a casino, even an internet café. Our cabin was on Deck 5, the Verandah Deck half way between the mid and aft of the ship. It was compact, but we had a small couch and the floor-to-ceiling glass door to the private deck with two chairs made it feel spacious. As we waited for our luggage to appear, we explored our room in search of drawer space, which we finally discovered under the bed hidden by a dust ruffle.

cruiselifevestjohn.jpgcruiselifevestdevra.jpgThe first order of ship’s business was the mandatory lifeboat drill at 4 pm. I thought it would take longer for 1802 guests to be logged in as present and accounted for, but at exactly 4:56 the crew let go the lines and we were un-docked. Thirty minutes later the sea voyage officially commenced and Nassau lay 183 nautical miles (210.45 statute miles) away as we cruised off relatively slowly at 14.6 knots (or about 16.8 miles per hour).

And then it was time to eat, again. We were assigned to the first dinner seating, 5:30 pm, on the upper level of the Vista Dining room. Table 69 seats 10, and our tablemates were Slide Hampton and Evelyn, Jimmy Heath and Mona, James Moody and Linda, and Walter Nisenson and Paula. Overall, the food was excellent and the service impressive. (more about the crew later)

The opening night festivities – Showtime In The Vista Lounge – took place in the ship’s official showroom with a proper stage and sound system, but with arena seating spanning two-decks in height, controlling the sound for jazz groups would be an ongoing challenge. The program was designed to give the audience a little sample of what was to come, and with so many performers aboard, groups and soloists were paired up in make-shift configurations and asked to play one tune only.

Lynne Arriale’s trio joined by saxophonist Houston Person opened with Namely You, a song I remember from the musical show Li’l Abner, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Next up was baritone vocalist Jamie Davis with a vibrato a la Eckstine paired with saxman Plas Johnson. Plas’s rendition felt truer to the lyric than the actual vocal and so brought to mind an earlier dinner conversation when Jimmy Heath old a story about being in Copenhagen and Ben Webster asking him to write out the words to For Heaven Sake because he wanted to play it – Ben knew the melody and changes but wouldn’t play it until he knew the words, the intent. I’d heard this about Ben Webster before, from John, and he frequently imparts this same bit of wisdom to up-and-coming singers and always attributes it to Ben Webster.

They were followed by a comedy break – Pete Barbuti backed by Eddie Higgins on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass, Ernie Adams on drums – and the audience loved it. I’m not a big fan of schtick, but Pete is funny and I have a residual soft-spot for him as he was one of Joe Williams’ favorites.

Next up was the oh-so-tight trio of Renee Rosnes, Peter Washington and Lewis Nash augmented by Gil Castiano on trumpet and Charles McPherson on alto sax. The trio alone was cooking, a simmering blend perfected by lot of experience — like the roux of the best gumbo — but when the horns came in they never found the groove – lots of notes in a hurry — where’s the fire?

A bass and bone duo? Bassist Jay Leonhart and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon are both consummate musicians who manage a cerebral blend of comedy and music that I can and do appreciate. During a very clever rendition of Lester Leaps In they even switched roles so that Jay was singing the trombone and Wycliffe was clucking the bass. (Perhaps you had to be there, or hear it for yourself on their CD titled This Rhythm On My Mind – I bought the CD, thirteen tracks with a tiny bit of sax or percussion assistance on three. If I had not heard them live the first night, I would never have thought to buy it as I would have assumed it was more gimmick and/or comedy than music. That would have been a sorry mistake.)

Then Clairdee joined Jay for a sassy bass and vocal duet on Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me. And the program concluded with Mike LeDonne on piano, Christoph Luty on bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums, Eric Alexander on sax, Ken Peplowski on clarinet and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet.

There was plenty more to hear in the various rooms afloat that night, but we were pooped and off to sleep we went.

PS: All of the artist links in this posting take you to YouTube videoclips

Marla’s Report: Minton’s and More

I’ve been working on a write-up about the Jazz Cruise, my own ship’s log of sorts, but I can’t seem to get it finished and in good enough shape to post for you. Soon, I promise. Meanwhile, I am noticing that my blogosphere buddies sometimes get a little help from their friends and post items sent in to them by others. My friend Marla sent me a mini-pictorial of her visit to Minton’s and gave me permission to post it. Marla’s pilgrimage to Minton’s was made just a week or so ago when she was in New York with Rebecca Parris who was appearing at Birdland.

One of the highlights of my trip to NY was going to Minton’s Playhouse. I’ve always wanted to go there and finally followed through this past Saturday. So, here’s Marla trying to imagine what Monk and Horace Silver saw when they were sitting at the piano:

Here’s a much better, full view of the mural:


A picture I took from the bandstand looking out into the audience (though the club was empty, as it was about 4 p.m.):


The bar was on the opposite wall prior to the 1974 closing.

Those of you who know Marla will nod in accordance when I say that having Marla for a friend is kinda like having your own personal year-round Santa Claus because whenever she sees something that she knows her friends will enjoy, she shares it with them. And that’s often, so the presents keep coming all year long. Another thing I love about Marla is that she never seems jaded – she knows lots of people, she’s been lots of places and had many experiences, but everything seems new and cool through her eyes.

By the way, Rebecca got a fabulous New York Times review (it’s about time the media powers that be gave her her due! thank you Stephen Holden) – so New Yorkers keep your eyes and ears open next year as it’s a good bet that she’ll be invited back. Marla also reported that Rebecca will soon be a guest on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz and that Jazz Set with Dee Dee Bridgewater will be broadcasting Rebecca’s show recorded live at the Marblehead Jazz Fest this past summer. I love it when good things happen for good people!

If by chance you just arrived on planet jazz and are not familiar with Rebecca’s singing, check out this and this and this.

ADDENDUM — Marla just sent me two more pix :

Here’s a picture of the famous Hotel Cecil. You know that Minton’s is to the left of the main entrance to the Hotel Cecil, yes? Apparently, it was an actual dining room when the Cecil was still a hotel and Henry Minton started to use it as a jazz room. Now, the Cecil is a renovated single room occupancy residence. Both Minton’s Playhouse and the Hotel Cecil are official National Landmarks and will be there for a long time! I wanted to get the 118th and St. Nicholas sign in, too:


And one last pic of the bandstand/mural from the audience (I think I was standing close to or against the left wall):


It’s My Party

As most of my readers know, I do not consider or even intend for this blog to be an impartial journal or source of news as in ‘all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-print. I receive tons of press releases and even some review copies of books and CDs, but I am very selective in what I choose to write about, and my selection criteria is admittedly based on my personal taste. If I post a blatant plug — and I do from time to time — it’s to let you know about something that I like, or plan to attend, or wish that I could attend. Sometimes I choose to share my negative opinions about a performance or recording, but usually those opinions are not intended to attack a particular person as much as to address an issue or make a point using that particular performer or performance to illustrate. For example, one of my pet peeves is the substitution of technique for creative talent. Another pet peeve is the audience’s acceptance of this ‘substitution.’ These themes come up repeatedly on this blog and date back to its inception — see It Takes More Than Chops, or It’s About the Music, or of course the more recent post about the Benny Carter celebration.

Three comments were posted about my Benny Carter celebration piece and I’d like to respond to each. The first was from Wen. In addition to the comment he posted on my blog, he also sent me an email message:

roberta has “soul or feeling” . you got to be kidding. listen to her 2 cds

First, this guy doesn’t know me or anything about me. If he did, he’d know that paycheck notwithstanding, I am the first person in line to criticize some of Nancy’s performances. In particular I am not fond of those selections on which she tends to over-emote, and I much prefer her very early recordings (1960s) and a few of her more recent (especially RSVP), while I usually skip over most of her 1970s releases. But when it comes to reading a lyric, telling a story, few can match the talents of Carmen, Sarah and Nancy, and neither Roberta nor Marlena came anywhere near close. I don’t know what Wen means when he says Nancy is “on her way out,” but I don’t believe in “giving” anyone a break — breaks are to be earned. There may be some right-time-right-place luck involved, but you have to be ready if you’re going to become anything more than a flash-in-the-pan or B-list performer. Success can be bought, but not talent; nurturing one’s talents takes a lot of hard work.

Second, I am going to take this opportunity to suggest to Wen that he consider some rules nettiquette — all caps is considering shouting, it’s rude, not to mention hard to read. Also, the beauty of a blog is that it is there for those who wish to read it, and rss feeds allow people to choose to be notified of new postings. ‘Choice’ being the operative concept here. Some websites and blogs also have a mailing list to notify subscribers; subscribers being those who ‘choose’ to sign up or register. Adding someone to your e-newsletter list without asking if they’d like to subscribe is now considered to be spamming by most internet providers. (Wen, please take note.)

The next comment was posted by Valerie, a good friend of mine. We often agree to disagree, but I do want to comment on some of the things she said. To support her appreciation of Roberta Gambarini, Valerie suggested “just ask folks like jimmy heath, james moody, slide hampton, hank jones and, if it were only possible to ask benny, i’m sure he’d agree also. ” I have my doubts about that. These guys are nice guys, Gentlemen with a capital G, and I have heard them encourage all sorts of people, including some who lack even a shread of talent. Heck, a few such notables used to encourage me to sing, even sit in at a gig, and I can assure you that I have no talent whatsoever as a vocalist. Way back when, in those days when I might have been described as “a fine young slip of a girl,” I did have the nerve to sit in on occasion at gigs in out-of-town clubs (ie not in NYC). One summer, Sweets Edison nearly coaxed me onstage at a major European jazz festival; good thing I had some sense left! I reiterate, I have no vocal talent, none, but that didn’t stop some very notable folks from saying otherwise.

Valerie also said that “the choice of singing ‘here’s to life’ was obviously a huge mistake!” I don’t think the selection was a mistake; I took umbrage not to Marlena’s selection of the song, but to her treatment of the song and what felt to me to be her lack of appreciation of the lyrics. Finally, I do have to agree with Valerie that Q’s hosting that night left much to be desired. As close as Q and Benny were, I think that his participation in the event was ‘a must,’ but perhaps he could have spoken briefly from his heart and then maybe conducted a piece, or, if hosting was to be his lot, the script should have been written more specifically with the speaker in mind – his voice, his cadence, his speech patterns, etc.

The last reader comment contained a very gentle reminder about Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to Ellington’s instrumental Cottontail. (Chris, thank you very much!) Whatever crevice of gray matter in which my prior knowledge of that song is stored must have been malfunctioning. (I know, that’s just convoluted speak for “I must have been having a senior moment” or more appropriately “how could I be so dumb?”) I used to love Carol Sloane‘s rendition of Cottontail (Carol, where are you? why didn’t you chime in to correct my gaff?) Here’s a YouTube link to a swinging audio rendition by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross with story graphics.

A line in the song — “carrots and you make a very good stew” — gives rise to the thought that my opinions may yet land me in the stew, but, to corrupt a song from my youth, “it’s my party and I’ll write what I want to….”

Benny’s Birthday

As readers of Rifftides already know, yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bennett Carter. (If you missed the Rifftides postings go here and here.) Benny lived to see 95, and according to Quincy Jones, host of last night’s tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, Benny had a blast at his 95th birthday party.

Overall, it was an excellent concert featuring The Benny Carter Trio (Chris Neville, Steve LaSpina and Steve Johns) and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with many spectacular soloists, plus several special guests. For me the high-note was Russell Malone‘s most beautiful solo guitar rendition of a Carter original titled “All About You.” Backstage, during intermission, Russell told me that he was visiting Benny’s home one day and Benny played it for him. “I asked him if he wrote it and he said ‘yes, yesterday’ and gave it to me.” Other moments of great beauty included the contributions of James Moody (who now drives Benny’s Rolls Royce with a license plate that reads: “Benny’s”) and Roy Hargrove (with whom Benny alternated sets during a week at the Blue Note in New York in 1994) — both played with great sensitivity and beautiful tone.

Less pleasing were the vocalists. Roberta Gambarini, may have great chops but to my ears she has no soul, no feeling whatsoever. And Marlena Shaw hit the most sour note of the night, complete destroying “Here’s to Life.” Both Joe Williams and Shirley Horn have recorded definitive versions of that song, each plumbing the depths of the song’s lyric and harmonic intent. I am not adverse to an artist refashioning a song, infusing it with their unique interpretation, but Marlena chose to disregard both the meaning of the words and the melodic and harmonic integrity of the composition, offering instead some pseudo-hip “jazzy” arrangement. I should have been forewarned when Quincy introduced the segment with a scripted story about Benny telling Marlena that lyrics don’t matter in jazz, it’s all about the improv. Having known Benny, I have my doubts about that story, or at least about what he meant by whatever it is that he actually said. It may be relevant that the tune in question during that discussion was “Cottontail.” I am aware of only two sets of lyrics for this song, the original being about how Easter bunny Peter Cottontail brings a basket full of goodies for children on Easter morning:

Here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping’ down the bunny trail,
Hippity, hoppity,
Easter’s on its way.

and Ella Fitzgerald’s version:

Come on, Wail
Wail, Cotton Tail
Benny Webster, come on and blow for me

hardly in the same league as Here’s To Life ( lyrics by Phyllis Molinary, music by Artie Butler):

No complaints and no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets
And I have learned that all you give is all you get
So give it all you’ve got

I had my share, I drank my fill
And even though I’m satisfied, I’m hungry still
To see what’s down another road, beyond a hill
And do it all again……….

Also on point, not to mention speaking of Ben Webster, my husband has often told a story about Ben opining that you can’t really do justice to a song unless you know the lyrics. This is something I’ve heard many jazz musicians say. Luther Henderson (whose bio I am in he process of writing) used to go so far as write in the lyrics on the orchestral charts he was arranging so that the classical musicians might have a deeper understanding of the music.

Low-notes not withstanding, it was a lovely evening and, in these days prone to commercial pandering, I was especially heartened to see such a big turn-out to celebrate the music of Benny Carter. Those who miss him most will speak first of the classy guy whose style as a man was understated but whose friendship was fiercely loyal, and then they will regale you with stories of his prodigious talents.

A Circle of Friends

If you are a longtime reader of DevraDoWrite you might remember that writer Bill Zinsser is one of my heros, mentors, and friends. I mention him today because jazz singer extraordinaire Carol Sloane reports that she is now reading Zinsser’s book “Easy To Remember, The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs” – a copy of which graces my shelf, of course.

I posted a blurb about Bill Z back in June 2005 (Describing Real People) and mentioned Jerry Jazz Musician’s interview with Zinsser. In August, in response to a query about jazz in China, I posted the first paragraph from Zinsser’s “Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz”

In April 2006, noting some thoughts about memoir I cited Zinsser again (“Writers are the custodians of memory…”) and linked to the NPR piece On Memoir, Truth, and “Writing Well”. Other well-worn Zinsser books on my shelf include:

Bill Charlap is also a friend and a most amazing talent. Several years ago John and I were on a jazz cruise and Bill C did an afternoon concert — part solo, part with small ensemble. To this day I remember being blown away not just by his playing, but by the programming of his presentation, the meticulous crafting that went into his selection of material and the sequencing. Unlike those casual musicians who think that all jazz presentations should be ‘improvised’ — an impromptu jam, tunes called as they go along — Bill C’s approach is deeper, more considered, perhaps even philosophical. Here’s a quote posted a few years ago by Jazz Police:

“I try not to think about the piano per se, I’m not interested in bravura displays. Melody is the most sublime of all the utterances. Harmony is an emotional response. Rhythm is physical. Melody is an intuitive response that carries both the emotional and the physical.” -Bill Charlap

I can’t find an official Bill Charlap web site but AllAboutJazz has a brief bio and there’s this Fresh Air piece on NPR. Or even better see him on YouTube playing In the Still of the Night with Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums.

As for Ms. Sloane, who started this stroll down memory lane, she, too, is a friend. (Aren’t I lucky to have so many terrific friends?!) I first mentioned Carol, the supreme songstress and lover of lyrics, here on DevraDoWrite back in May 2005. If you are going to be in New York this Sunday (August 5th) you can hear her in a free concert at Riverbank State Park in Manhattan near 145th street (Jammin On the Hudson: Songbird Carol Sloane) backed by Norman Simmons on piano (If you’re not hip to Norman, he was a favorite accompanist and longtime musical director for several of our vocal greats including Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, and Joe Williams — and yes, Norman is also a longtime friend and fellow Libra).

Jazz It Up

A few weeks ago someone forwrded to me via email a copy of an open letter to Oprah Winfrey from Greg Thomas, Host/Co-producer of Jazz It Up! I wrote to Thomas and he granted me permission to post the letter here.

An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey: A Jazz Alternative

After watching your two-part town hall meeting: “After Imus: Now What?” I’m compelled to reach out to you. I’m a native New Yorker with southern black American roots and an abiding devotion to the greatest music produced in the U.S.A—jazz. As a teen in the late ’70s, when hearing the scratching of LPs in the Park Hill section of Staten Island, I scratched my head in puzzlement. Other than the infectious dance beats and a few catchy hooks, I didn’t get caught up with rap since my mind was being blown by the sounds of Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Benny Carter, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and so many other great improvisers, vocalists and band leaders of jazz.

Maybe it’s the old soul/old school in me, but to my ears rap sounded like child’s play compared to the mature, sophisticated, earthy and sublime jazz music that I immersed myself in as a teen and since.

As an American concerned about the direction of our culture, and as father of a bright and beautiful 11 year-young daughter, I implore you, Oprah, to add the voices of jazz musicians to the discussion of “Now What?”

There are many articulate, learned and passionate jazz musicians whose views will add dimension and insight to the discourse, and whose music provides an alternative, and even perhaps an antidote to the destructive images and words found in the more popular music of today.

For instance, there’s the splendid bassist Christian McBride, 35, a young giant of jazz who’s played with the elder statesmen of jazz, with artists such as Sting, David Sanborn and Pat Metheny, as well as with DJ Logic and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots (his homeboy from Philadelphia.)
Another example is the superb tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, 38, who graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Harvard University in 1991. Like McBride, Redman has performed and recorded with his jazz elders, as well as artists and groups such as The Dave Matthews Band, MeShell Ndegeocello, Big Daddy Kane, The Rolling Stones, and Stevie Wonder. He was featured in the late Robert Altman’s film, Kansas City.

Of course there’s composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, 45, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, whose latest recording, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary confronts many of the same social and cultural issues discussed in your post-Imus town hall meeting. He’s been vocal about these matters for over 20 years.

Queen Latifah, 37, an extraordinarily talented artist of music and film, would be a wonderful addition to a discussion among these artists, as Dr. Maya Angelou might agree, since she named Ms. Latifah as one of the well-known artists she respects and admires from the hip hop genre. She’s also a very good songstress of jazz and classic R&B, so Ms. Latifah’s point of view should be heard. Her father owned a jazz club in Newark, New Jersey, which in part explains her jazz chops.

These four are the tip of the iceberg of potential guests on a follow-up program to further this urgently needed dialogue, but, in my opinion, as good a group of artists to continue it with as any.

But instead of just talking about the issues, perhaps they could also perform together on the show, demonstrating the power of jazz music to bring together those of differing viewpoints and styles.

Just as Jesus was not accepted in his own town of Nazareth, jazz is shunned by most Americans not exposed to its true glories, yet many in Europe and other places in the world recognize it as a fine art representing the best of America and black American culture.

By doing a show with the likes of those above, my beloved sister, you’d continue to turn the tide, raise awareness of, as Abraham Lincoln once said, the “better angels of our nature,” and bring even more exposure to the cultural excellence from which we as a people spring.

Greg Thomas

Jazz It Up! is an online tv jazz entertainment news series. It’s subscription based, but free. The web site appears to be a single page with an explanatory/welcome video. Looking for more, I clicked on the the Questions & Comments link but it took me to a typically over-designed hard-to-read MySpace page that for me was a turn-off. Still, the guy writes a great letter and his heart is in the right place so I won’t hold that against him. Who knows, maybe he’ll reach some young folks and introduce them to jazz.

Immediately after subscribin I received an email explaining that whenever there’s a new episode I’ll get an email with a link to view it. Or, as my computer is running Windows, I can download a free BrownStoneDigitalTV Desktop Viewer.  An icon will appear near my system clock, and when it blinks it means a new show is available; double click and voila.

A little further invesitgation led me to Brownstone Digital‘s main website where I can see the bigger picture — this is an “independent interactive content production company” with five or more shows so far, each appealing to a clearly identifiable target market. It’s really quite interesting, and no doubt just a small part of this constantly changing entertainment landscape.


On April 18th Carol Sloane launched her blog SloaneView and she’s on a roll. As a consumate interpreter of a lyric, it’s no surprise that she has a way with words and is an engaging storyteller. (If you’re not hip to Carol’s vocal stylings allow me to reiterate a recommendation I made two years ago this month: get thee to Amazon now! One of my favorites is the 1988 recording Love You Madly, with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Akira Tana, Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan. It’s one of Carol’s favorites, too. )

Carol’s stories are often humorous. Having been Carmen McRae’s publicist many years ago I am all-too-familiar with her phone manners and laughed myself silly at Carol’s happy birthday story. Her tales are told simply, conversationlly, with unflinching honesty and candor, coupled with a dash of explication for those not in-the-know. But what I really love is that these vignettes always show something about the people that might otherwise not be known. For example, I never knew that Jimmy Rowles was fanatical lover of animals. Okay, it’s not that the revelations are earth-shattering, but that unique perspective from being there allows us a glimpse of facets that make up the whole person — it’s those “telling details” that narrative writers are always talking about.

In addition to memorable career moments, Carol promises also to write about sports and cooking, politics and culture, and something I am very much looking forward to, ” and the occasional screech and holler aimed at knuckle-headedness.” I’ve added SloanView to my list of recommended sites and I will be checking in regularly.