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.

Synchronicity

I swear we didn’t plan it. I didn’t even know about it until this moment, but it seems that Terry, Isaac and I are all on the same thought train today. About four hours ago I wrote and posted Fond Memories and Strong Opinions, and it wasn’t until just now that I had a chance to check Terry’s blog, About Last Night. What do I find there? An endorsement of the need for “considered, intelligent, thoughtful criticism” and a link to Isaac’s full piece at Parabasis, which also points out the difference between critics and reviewers. It’s a “must read.”

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.

Behind Schedule

“I might be late, but did you think I wasn’t coming?” and “When the wolf gets off your back, the lion’ll still be on your trail” are two expressions that feel appropos at the moment. For those of you who stopped by last night or earlier this morning and were disappointed not to find a new posting, I apologize. I had started out with a regular routine of of posting after dinner, but, well, life got in the way. Come back in a few hours and I will tell you all about it.

By the way, the opening lines of this post were borrowed from a friend who liberally peppers conversations with such colloquial constructions. Others include, “Ain’t no shame to my game,” “Walkin’ up and ridin’ back,” and “Don’t go to a banquet with a sandwich in your hand expecting dinner.” One day soon I am going to research their derrivations and write about them.

See you in a bit.

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.

I’ve Got Mail

Yes, I want to hear from you. I know many bloggers allow readers to post comments directly, but I am not ready to open the gates when so many spammers are clamoring to get in. It is also for that reason that I have not posted a convenient “click here to email me” button, as those are quickly harvested by spammers as well. My email address is my first name, Devra, AT DevraDoWrite.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

Several people wrote to share in my dismay about casual Fridays at the concert hall. One wrote:

It almost seems to me a bit disrespectful of the majesty of orchestral music. When I was young, my parents insisted that I behaved better, and performed better, when I was “dressed for the part”. While I am certain that many musicians are capable of great performances irrespective of how they are dressed, I suspect that at least some perform better in “concert black”.

and another wrote:

Bless you for writing about the people who go to concerts in their clean-out-the-garage clothes. They do so not only on Casual Friday, you know. The music is the thing, of course, but standards matter.

My favorite email last week came from a friend on the East Coast who wrote:

As you’ll discover about reaching 50, one of the luxuries of our “certain age” is not giving a rat’s ass about what anyone thinks about our work. If we think it has value, the hardest test has been passed.

I’ll try hard to put those editors and publishers and reviewers out of my mind, you know, the ones who can make or break a career. Seriously. My friend is right. I know a lot of artists, both writers and musicians, and those who work hardest at their craft are inevitably their own toughest critic. Often, they pan work that their audience found pleasing nonetheless, and, as Martha might say “that’s a good thing,” as it drives one to do even better. And on those occassions when an artist feels the magic — those are the moments to live for, moments that can’t be bought. As the commercial says, “some things are priceless; for everything else there’s Mastercard.”

Caveat Lector

A friend sent me a link go a an opinion piece by Adam Cohen that ran on Sunday in The New York Times (The Latest Rumbling in the Blogosphere: Questions About Ethics).

Being a newbie in the blogosphere, perhaps I have yet to earn the right to chime in on whether bloggers should be held to the same jouralistic standards as the mainstream media, but the arguments that I have heard seem to be off-point. To me, blogging is a medium, not the message.

I could blog as a news journalist checking all my facts and providing objective balance and opposing views, or as a partisan extolling one particular viewpoint. I might be a critic using my expertise in whatever field to provide comment and context for my considered opinion of someone else’s work, or simply a jane doe columnist providing personal essays and opinions.

Whether online or on paper, it should all depend on what the content calls for. For me, the one thing that does transcend the medium is the importance of being honest about one’s intentions. I believe that every writer has an unspoken contract with his or her readers, a contract based on the writer’s self-representation and the reader’s perception, and it is the writer’s responsibility to live up to that contract. If I am writing nonfiction, I must check my facts. If I proport to be objective, then I must present all sides. If I clearly state my bias, don’t expect me to argue for the opposition. And if it is just my opinion, take it for what it’s worth, no more, no less.

Peahens and Peacocks and Geese, Oh My

Being about as swift as a herd of turtles, it was nearly one o’clock by the time we arrived at the Arboretum. My girlfriend, her young daughter, and I strolled the paths until we found a small wood bench with a view of the pond. Several wood ducks – the ones that look like somebody painted them – were swimming about, sharing the waters with a couple of Canadian geese. Ashore, peahens ambled around the bench pecking at little nothings while mother and daughter walked to the water’s edge and I sat quietly.

The tram passed by the pond and its riders dutifully tossed bread bits at the ducks and geese, but it seemed an automatic gesture and they passed by without savoring the peacefulness of the scene or enjoying the personalities of its inhabitants. The passers-by didn’t notice how the male wood duck deferred to his female companions, allowing them the first choice of tasty treats before snapping up some chewy chunks for himself.

The riders thought that this was their habitat and that the animals and scenery were there to entertain them, not the other way around. Truth is that this is their world, their home, and if you listen closely you can hear them laughing at us – “those silly people,” the peahens whisper to one another while the Canadian geese honk their ridicule more loudly. But children understand, and are happy to inform you, pointing out the house that belongs to the ducks and the tunnel that belongs to the water.

I like to bask in the sun like the turtle on the rock watching the baby ducklings splash and play a few feet away. The air is filled with the cacophony of duck and birdcalls, then there’s a sudden moment of silence when all you can hear is the dribbling of water on the rocks and the wind whispering through the bare tree branches mostly still nude from the winter. But there is green all around – the grass, the bushes and the succulent ground covers with their smattering of colorful blooms.

Of course what may seem peaceful to me is not necessarily so to them. We notice the two male wood ducks who are clearly quarreling over a girl duck, and we watch two geese cross the grass with tails a-swishing to chase away a peacock who appears to be bothering no one. He retreats, dragging his plumage behind him, and the geese turn then to stare at us. The child is busy digging an indentation in the dirt and filling it with blades of grass. It’s a nest for the geese, but they are unimpressed and unappreciative of the maternal efforts of a three-year-old. They waddle away.

Ultimately, we too head for home, but not without a small detour through the forest of yellow and green bamboo where we search for lions or tigers or bears. “They must be hiding,” I suggest when no creatures appear. “No silly. There aren’t any tigers,” she informs me. “It’s just pretend.”

Book Me, Danno

I had hoped to get some reading done this weekend, but I did not make much of a dent — how could I when I have a stack of books awaiting me in every room of the house. I am serving a self-imposed lifetime sentence as a reader, and despite the fact that I am a relatively fast reader, the piles seem to multiply as I discover more memoirs and narrative nonfiction tales that intrigue me. Perhaps I will post a list of all the titles (an idea borrowed from The Millionsreading queue). That will take some time to compile, but for starters, and in no particular order, I’m looking at:

  • Pull Me Up: A Memoir – Dan Barry
  • Living With Jazz: A Reader – Dan Morgenstern
  • Book Ends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship – Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern
  • Getting Personal – Phillip Lopate
  • The Devil in the White City – Erik Larsen
  • Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu
  • These are in addition to All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life by Loren Eiseley, which I just picked up from the library on the emphatic recommendation of a friend, and The Everlasting Stream, a beautifully written memoir by Walt Harrington that I began reading last night. The Eiseley book looks to be intriguing, though perhaps a bit dark; but it’s too soon to tell. Here’s the beginning of the second paragraph —

    Make no mistake. Everything in the mind is in rat’s country. It doesn’t die. They are merely carried, these disparate memories, back and forth in the desert of a billion neurons, set down, picked up, and dropped again by mental pack rats. Nothing perishes, it is merely lost till a surgeon’s electrode starts the music of an old player piano whose scrolls are dust. Or you yourself do it, tossing in the restless nights, or even in the day on a strange street when a hurdy-gurdy plays. Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was.

    On the surface, Harrington’s memoir is about hunting. Being an animal lover, this is not something I wish to explore even from a distance, let alone ‘witness’ in the intimate detail for which Harrington is noted, but it’s the details that draw me in – that, plus the author’s self-awareness and his promise of a larger story —

    My story is about: Alex, Bobby, Lewis, and Carl; my father, my son, and myself; rabbits, dogs, and shotguns; flora and fauna; blood and death; guilt and responsibility; ambition, achievement, and satisfaction; affection of the old rugged male as opposed to the modern sensitive male; friends as family; conversation as ceremony and affirmation not therapy and revelation; pristine moments; and, most of all, memory–the memory of it all told and retold, sharpened like a good knife blade, until the minutiae of living becomes the meaning of life.

    Despite my quest to get these books read, I do hate it when a book I’m really enjoying ends. And I suspect that The Everlasting Stream will be a compelling page-turner for me and so will not last as long as I would like. Still, it will be good to check one more off my everlasting list.

    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.