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!

I’ve Got Mail

The ebb and flow of people in one’s life is always amazing. I have had the great fortune to count among my friends a lot of wonderful jazz people. Our paths cross, then diverge, then cross again somewhere down the line. Often, years intervene. Back in the days when I was enjoying Monday nights at the Vanguard, or any night at Bradley’s (a tiny bar on University Place that hosted the world’s best jazz pianists and was the musicians’ late night hang out), one of my favorite people to hang with was Carol Sloane. Carol is a superb interpeter of a lyric, truly one of the best jazz singers, and sadly underrated. If you are not familiar with her work, 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.

Anyway, about the mail. Carol wrote to fill in a few details about Joe Williams’ recording date with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra:

Memories of this record date flood back to me. I was there, as Joe’s guest. He had been singing at The Half Note, and he told me that the date was scheduled for a few hours’ hence. He came to my apartment (35th & Third) and flopped on the sofa for a while. Slept a bit, I think. Then we went uptown for some breakfast and on to the date.

She also questioned my memory of “the plaintive sounds of Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of Willow Weep for Me.”

I asked Bob to listen to a recording of Mildred Bailey’s gentle version of a song I liked called “Willow Tree”. He responded to it, and of course, eventually wrote a gorgeous chart. He may also have written one on “Willow Weep For Me”, but I suspect you may have confused the two. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Well, it turns out we are both right. First I looked at my CDs and found that the band had recorded both ‘willow’ songs, but the credits did not list the arrangers. Still in a quandry, I decided to go to the source. I called Brookmeyer, who promptly informed me that he wrote five charts for that fine band: St. Louis Blues, ABC Blues, Samba Con Getchu, Willow Tree, and Willow Weep For Me. He also happened to mention that he is about to launch a new project online with ArtistShare. When he launches, I will let you know, and at that time I will tell you more about the brainstorm that is ArtistShare.

Childrens Stories

I remember that as a child I read Winnie the Pooh, all manner of fairytales, Eloise, Madeline, Stuart Little, and Charlotte’s Web, but the story that stands out most is The Little Engine That Could. I grew up believing that you could do anything if you put your mind to it. I still believe that.

I don’t have any children, but I do have some children’s books on my shelf, mostly a few of my own tattered and scribbled upon childhood tomes that I somehow rescued from the give-it-away or trash piles. The Little Engine That Could was not among them, so a few years ago, for what reason I can no longer recall, I bought a brand new copy from a 1991 printing. The original copyright year is 1930 — that’s what I call a long shelf life.

Even as a child, I loved biographies, but I remember listening to more biographies than I read. I think it was Riverside Records that had a wonderful series of recordings called “A Child’s Introduction to…” Each record was the story of a different composer, narrative tales with sound effects and, of course, music. I knew the life stories of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart as if they were my best friends. The series no longer exists, but I do look for it from time to time, hoping that someone will discover the masters and reissue these aural productions on CD. Meanwhile, I still like Peter and the Wolf along with the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and a few years ago I found some good audio children’s tales, notably Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Mr. Bach Comes to Call.

In the last few years I have bought a few “new” children’s books, all of them about artists of one sort or another. A real favorite of mine is a very creative tale called When Pigasso Met Mootisse, by Nina Laden (Chronicle Books). Hyperion Books for Children have some great biographies — the two on my shelf are Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa, and Alvin Ailey, both by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. My most recent acquisition is Roxanne Orgill’s If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong with illutrations by Leonard Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Company).

What’s on your shelf – past or present? What books you remember from your childhood? What are the children you know reading today? Send me an email [devra AT devradowrite.com] and I will compile and post a list.

A Week of Monday Nights

I love living in California, really I do. But there are moments when I truly wish I could beam myself to New York City just for an evening or three. I would dearly loved to have been at The Village Vanguard every night last week — a whole week of the band now known at the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is a a rarity. Ever since 1965 this band — then known as The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra — has held forth on Monday nights, missing only a few here and there when the band was on tour.

My personal memories of the band don’t go back quite that far; I became acquainted with the band about five years in. I loved to descend those steep stairs into the smoky basement club. It was always crowded, the band barely fit on the tiny stage, and the music filled the room so, that you thought it would bust through the walls and spill up into the street. I remember the plaintive sounds of Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of Willow Weep for Me, and a tune called Pensive Miss that, being a brooding teenager, I felt was written just for me. I listened to old timers Cliff Heather and Butterball Jackson mix it up with a young woman named Janice Robinson in trombone section. The saxes I recall included Jerry Dodgion, Pepper Adams, Billy Harper and Jimmy Heath, with Thad Jones standing just inches in front of them waving his arms like no conductor I had ever seen before. He played the band as if it were as much an extension of his being as was his own flugelhorn. The high note of the trumpets was the band’s youngest member, a kid named Jon Faddis on whom I had a tremendous crush, and there was a girl singer, just starting out, who sang two songs each set. Thad knew this young lady was destined for success…and he was right about Dee Dee Bridgewater.

CD Cover Dee DeeMy favorite male singer has always been Joe Williams. I never got to hear him sing live with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, but one of my favorite recordings from the days of yore was an early morning session they did with Joe in 1966. When I say early morning, I don’t mean the wee small hours — which might have been preferable as the band had been playing the night before until one or two o’clock in the morning. With a recording session just a few hours off, most of them didn’t bother to go home. They just hung out, had few drinks, ate some breakfast and showed up at the studio ready to play some more. Presenting Joe Williams & Thad Jones/Mel Lewis was originally recorded live in the studio to a 4-track machine for Solid State records; Blue Note Records reissued it on CD in 1994. Reviewer Scott Yanow wrote,

“Many of the selections (half of which have been in the singer’s repertoire ever since) are given definitive treatment on this set (particularly a humorous “Evil Man Blues,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” and “Smack Dab in the Middle”), and Williams scats at his best on “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Get this one.”

If Dee Dee had recorded with the band, I would send you right out to get that one too; alas, not. But if you are not yet acquainted with this lady’s talents, you should check her out. Try Keeping Tradition, an album full of mostly standards recorded in 1992, or Live at Yoshi’s which was recorded in 1998 though not released until 2000.

And don’t forget the band! The tradition lives on, so if you’re ever in New York on a Monday night, give yourself a present and catch the band at The Village Vanguard.

Two Ladies in Jazz

Have you ever heard of Nedra Wheeler? I can’t believe that I have not been aware of her until now, especially when I read her credits that include live and recorded performances with Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Higgins, Harper Brothers, Cedar Walton, Branford Marsalis, Billy Childs, and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few.

I saw her Friday night at the birthday concert for Gerald Wiggins, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She not only has the most amazing smile, but you can see the music bouncing around inside of her and coming out not only through her fingers on the strings, but through her hips, and her feet, and her shoulders as she dances with her bass. The expressions that cross her face range from intense concentration, to rapture, to a sheer and exhuberant joy of the music, the moment, and her fellow musicians. She’s having the time of her life onstage and it’s infectious. Add in her musical prowess — good tone, great sense of time, and big ears that hear all the possibilities — and you have a true force of musical nature.

I’ve heard that she recorded a CD titled “Gifts: Live at Birdland West,” and as soon as I find out where to get it, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, for those of you in the greater Los Angeles area, you can see Nedra Wheeler on July 2nd at the Ford Amphitheatre with an outstanding group who call themselves the Lady Jazz Orchestra.

Swedish jazz singer, Monica Zetterlund, died last week in a fire. She was 67. Wire reports say that the fire was caused by a cigarette, and that Ms. Zetterlund, disabled by scoliosis, was unable to escape from her Stockholm apartment. I was sad to hear of such an unpleasant ending, but I was pleasantly surprised that the Los Angeles Times ran her obit and photo, albeit a small one.

Los Angeles is not the world’s most hospitable place when it comes to jazz or jazz artists of a certain age. Truth be told, if Ms. Zetterlund had been coming to Los Angeles to appear at a club, the likelihood of a Times feature story promoting her appearance would be slim to none. A review? Maybe, just maybe.

Perhaps it is partly a sign of the times — jazz being yesterday’s popular music — but locale is a definite factor. New York is far more supportive of jazz. Ms. Zetterlund was well-received there back in the 1960s when, at the suggestion of Leonard Feather, my husband arranged for her first performances in America. Her engagements included clubs in New York and Chicago, and an appearance on the Steve Allen Show. She became a big star in Sweden, not only as a jazz singer but as an actress. In America, in the jazz communty, she will be remembered best for her 1964 recording of “Waltz For Debby,” with Bill Evans.

Fond Memories and Strong Opinions

Cannonball Adderley’s Big Man: The Legend of John Henry starring Joe Williams, Randy Crawford and Robert Guillaume

Yesterday, engrossed in an audio research project, I lost track of time. I was listening to Cannonball Adderley’s Big Man: The Legend of John Henry starring Joe Williams, Randy Crawford and Robert Guillaume. I hadn’t heard this two-disc LP in many years, having long ago retired my turntable. (For those of you too young to know, LP stands for “long playing” and refers to those old 12-inch vinyl records.) It’s never been released on CD, so I had a production house make a digital copy for me.

Big Man, conceived as a jazz opera, was released in 1975, shortly after Cannonball’s untimely death. In the words of Nat Adderley, “Cannon considered Big Man one of the most important projects of his whole career. Since he had a pretty big career, you can get some idea of what it meant to him to compose the score for a full-scale musical play, and particularly this musical, dealing with a theme that has major significance for all Americans and particularly for all black Americans.”

My life as a publicist brought me in contact with all three stars. Joe Williams, who was my first retainer client, introduced me to his manager, John Levy. (Recently I mentioned John’s biography here). John had also been Randy’s manager at one time, and they remained friendly. Those of you who remember a television show called “Benson” will remember Robert well, but unless you saw him in Guys & Dolls (1976) or Phantom of the Opera (1990) you may not know that he was a wonderful song and dance man too, and that in 1959 he was part of Quincy Jones’ road tour of Harold Arlen’s jazz musical Free and Easy.

I first heard the Big Man recording in the early 1980s, and my memory of it was that it was wonderful! It sounded more like a Broadway musical than an opera. The bigger-than-life role suited Joe, Randy and Robert were also in good voice, the man-against-machine story was timeless, and the project was creative. In a way, I am glad that Cannonball did not live to read the reviews, because the jazz critics were not kind — “an eclectic hash” was one of the nicer descriptions. In their estimation, Cannonball, one of the jazz gods of his time, had done something that did not meet their jazz expectations. The Black press wasn’t very nice either.

Perhaps it was the innocence of youth, or more likely the fondness I had for the performers, that left me with such sweet recollections. Listening now with more seasoned ears, I might admit that Big Man is not the best musical show I’ve ever heard; the dialogue may be a bit thin and some sequences overly repetitious, but it has a few pretty songs (“I’m Gonna Give Lovin’ A Try” and “Stayin’ Place” among them), some good arrangements, it was entertaining, and the world is much richer for its existance.

Now I have friends who are critics, and they may take exception with me here, both about my opinion of Big Man and about my next statements. I believe it is unfair to expect artists, whatever their metier, to deliver one increasingly superior work after another. Nor do I think that an artist should have to stick within the confines of any one style or format, or even genre. I appreciate artists who stretch their creative muscles and take risks, even if I don’t particularly like the result. Sometimes the work truly falls flat, an experiement that didn’t work; other times a creation may be ahead of its time, not yet understood by its audience; and sometimes, just sometimes, magic happens and everyone knows it. It’s easy to be dismissive, and tempting to write clever barbs, so I appreciate critics who stretch themselves to provide constructive criticism that not only educates audiences but also encourages artists to grow. Now having said that publically, I have to acknowledge that I, myself, am too often guilty of substituting witty repartee for worthy reflection. I will try to do better.

Happy Birthday “Wig”

Gerald “The Wig” Wiggins
Jazz Pianist
(b) May 12, 1922 –

Whether playing solo, leading a small group, accompanying a singer, or driving a big band, for more than sixty years Gerald Wiggins has been an ongoing contributor to the innovative art form called jazz. Those whose ears are well steeped in jazz might hear hints of the influences of Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, but such traces are fleeting and quickly give way to a style that is unique and recognizable. “The Wig,” as he is known to fans, friends, and family, has remained a true original. He is a quiet and unassuming man, not quite shy, but definitely modest; Wig is one who lets his music speak for itself.

Wig plays with an intriguing blend of lyrical simplicity and intricate harmonies that when combined yield subtle surprises that swing regardless of tempo. Writers, in an attempt to preserve the fleeting moments in which jazz lives, use words as diverse as witty, wry, mischievous, sensitive, subtle, soulful, spirited, elegant, funky, saucy, frivolous, whimsical, and masterful to describe Wig’s playing. But how can one describe something that evolves within each moment? As renowned jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather put it, “Wig has a style that transcends eras and idioms.”

Read More…

NOTE: Friday night the Music Department Jazz Series at Santa Monica College will “Celebrate Wig” with special guest artists: Ernie Andrews, John Beasley, Oscar Brashear, Cora Colman, Leslie Drayton, Keith Fiddmont, Tootie Heath, Paul Humphrey, Jon Mayer, Herman Riley, Patrice Rushen, Lesa Terry, Nedra Wheeler, John B. Williams, and Ricky Woodard. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, celebration starts at 8 PM. The address is 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA. Free admisssion and parking.

It Takes More Than Chops

Modern Jazz Quartet, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, Russell Mallone, Benny Green, the Heath Brothers, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider — jazz

Not long ago my husband and I were invited to a ‘bar and grill’ that features local jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. Despite its proximity to our home, we had never been there before, but a friend of a friend was promoting a new jazz pianist and we agreed to go. The program notes explained that the pianist, who was classically trained with a degree in piano performance, had been studying jazz for the last three or four years. She had played a few gigs with other groups, and tonight was her showcase with her trio.

Her opening was technically quite impressive, but anyone can attack the keyboard, it’s learning to caress it that’s hard. Still, flying fingers and big sounds go over well with today’s audiences. The more notes a player can squeeze into a single measure, the faster the tempo, the more brilliant the musician is assumed to be. Add in a modulation to a different key and the audience will be on its feet. We wished we could get on our feet too, not to applaud, but to head for the egress. Too many notes and not enough nuances are high on our list of pet peeves, but there were worse offenses to come.

She never once played a tune as it was written; not once did we hear the original melodic and harmonic lines before she began improvising. Her musical abstractions were like aural crayon scrawls of a two-year-old who had not yet learned basic shapes or how to color between the lines, and I wondered if she actually had ever learned any of the tunes. I didn’t have to wonder for long. She soon announced that while her piano teacher wanted her to study a song for weeks, she would quickly become too bored. No wonder all the tunes sounded alike – same key, same approach, same feel. Only the tempos varied. Obscured by the influence of Coltrane, even My Funny Valentine came out sounding like Giant Steps.

My husband often quotes Ben Webster talking about the importance of knowing the lyrics and telling the story with your instrument, and he ascribes the behavior of today’s audiences and young artists to inadequate arts education. There is an education gap, to be sure, but as the evening wore on, I began to view this pianist’s performance more as a rebellion against her classical training. I wished then, and I hope still, that someday she will return to some of the practices of the concert stage: the protocol that dictates some degree of formality in attire (unless it’s casual Friday), precludes long verbal digressions about one’s boyfriend or personal minutia, requires that the players learn the music, and obliges them to play as an ensemble (which is not the same thing as playing simultaneously). Such protocols, I would hasten to tell her, are not the sole pervue of the Mozart and Mahler crowd, they have been, and continue to be, well employed by the likes of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, Russell Mallone, Benny Green, the Heath Brothers, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider, and scores of other artists across all musical genres. Technique, alone, is never enough.

Casual Fridays, Bah Humbug

In today’s New York Times I read that the Mostly Mozart Festival “plans to reconfigure the stage at Avery Fisher Hall to create what it calls a greater sense of intimacy and a closer connection between musicians and audience.” The physical environment isn’t all that has changed or is changing in the orchestral world. How about casual Fridays? This may be old news, but I haven’t been to an orchestral concert in quite awhile, so it was new to me.

A few weeks back I was gifted with a ticket to hear a Friday night Dvorak program played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall. This was my first visit to the new, more intimate concert hall and, according to my notepad, my first impression was “casual elegance.” Little did I know how prophetic the word ‘casual’ would be for me. I was so busy admiring the pale honey-colored wood, the sleek design lines that swoop and curve around the hall, the pipe organ that looks like an abstract sculpture, and my fabulous center seat with beaucoup leg room, that I had yet to read the program before the musicians came on stage.

The program book made note of Casual Fridays, but without explanation. I find it disappointing enough that the audiences no longer “dress” to go to the theater or concerts, and I am sadly used to seeing patrons’ seats filled with worn and torn jeans, or even shorts and tank tops, but I was truly dismayed when this motley crew took their chairs, dressed to run weekend errands at best.

The program opened with Legend in B-flat minor (Op 59, No 10), orchestrated for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, harp and strings. I tried to focus on the music, but the hairy arms protruding from a truly ugly short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt were too distracting and the 4-minute piece was over before I knew it. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. “Am I an elitist snob?” Clearly, what someone looks like has no bearing on the music. “Get a grip. Focus.” I listened to the Violin Concerto in A minor (Op. 53) with my eyes closed, and within a dozen measures of the opening Allegro I was happily lost in the sound of the solo violinist supported by a unified orchestra. Unity of sound was what I wanted to hear, but my eyes had been identifying individual musicians and my ears followed suit, zeroing in on this oboist or that cellist. I don’t want to see or hear the individual players; I want to feel the orchestra as a whole. I am not a classical critic, not even a connoisseur, but I would like to cast my vote for the abolition of casual Fridays.