Friday, August 28, 2015

A Visitor's Post-Katrina Story: RIP Vera

Ten years after Katrina, here's an odd little vignette from a frequent visitor to New Orleans. I'm a pretty down-to-earth guy, I think, in my view of how the world and universe works. I'm not superstitious or mystical at all, except concerning music. But I told this story recently, and it's still, well, interesting to me.

I have visited New Orleans once or twice a year since 1990; for years, when I was teaching public school music, my trip was during my school system's spring break - the first week of April. So I hit the city in April, 2006 - seven months after Katrina.  I didn't know quite what to expect, but what I found was a shell of the city I had visited a year earlier. There were no street lights, very little music to be found, and the space underneath the interstate overpass was a car graveyard. At one point I was checking out the Bywater neighborhood, and thought, "Okay, this isn't too bad." Then I realized that the Lower Ninth Ward was just across the bridge. I drove over, but didn't stay long - seeing the devastation there was like getting punched in the gut. 

I had heard of an interesting Katrina memorial that I wanted to see. As I had heard the story, a young man who lived near the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street had a neighbor named Vera - a middle-aged woman.  In the aftermath of Katrina, before the National Guard moved in, he found Vera's body. In the chaos of that time, there was no one to call. So he built a brick tomb to protect the body until it could be removed, and put a sign on it: "RIP Vera."

Vera's body had, of course, been taken away long before my visit. But the makeshift tomb and the sign were still there, seven months later. I found the story and the memorial to be very moving, and decided that I wanted to take a picture of Vera's temporary resting place. I parked nearby and made about ten attempts to take a picture, but something went wrong every time - my camera malfunctioned, or turned off before I could hit the shutter button, or a car blocked my view, etc. I was getting frustrated, when it hit me - oh, I'm not supposed to be taking a picture of this.

I'm still a down-to-earth, non-mystical guy. Objectively, I believe that my failure to take a picture of Vera's tomb was due to a series of coincidences. But whether or not the universe was giving me a message, I got it. This was a sacred spot, not a tourist attraction.

RIP, Vera. And long live New Orleans.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Braxton in Alabama; February, 2015

Anthony Braxton  spent February 6 to 27 of this year in, of all places, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he was in residency at the University of Alabama. The last eight nights of his residency featured concerts of his music - different ensembles every night. Tuscaloosa is just over three hours from my house by car, and I hadn't heard/seen him in person for about 20 years. Attending at least some of the concerts was an easy decision, and since the first two, on February 18 and 19, appealed to me musically and fit into my schedule, I made sure to be there.
The Percussion Ensemble plays Composition 174; Taylor Ho Bynum at the laptop.

My Alabama trip was incredibly rewarding. Actually, "free-jazz pilgrimage" is a more apt description than "trip." Wednesday night's concert was a solo performance at the Bama Theater in downtown Tuscaloosa, and Braxton performed exclusively on alto saxophone, as is usual for his solo concerts. The audience seemed to be composed of music majors there for their concert quotas, curious newcomers to Braxton's world, and genuine Braxton enthusiasts. Wisely, probably, Braxton opened with a a lyrical, relatively accessible piece, followed by an overtly impressive virtuoso offering.. Only then did he venture into the more challenging elements of his sound world - multiphonics, vocalizing through his horn, extreme register changes, etc.
University of Alabama big band

Thursday night's concert featured the University of Alabama percussion ensemble and big band. I could have let myself be disappointed by the fact that Braxton didn't play a more active role, either as instrumentalist or conductor, but I wasn't disappointed at all, because the music was excellent. Taylor Ho Bynum, the trumpeter who has worked closely with Braxton for several years, was the main conductor; was joined by a second conductor on one piece and two others on another. The first piece was Braxton's Composition 174, for percussion ensemble and recorded voices. This was the piece I was least looking forward to, and the one that surprised me the most. The recorded narration could be interpreted as a dramatized  visit to another planet, a commentary on the music, or both. The total effect was magical, much to my surprise. This is not the kind of thing I thought I would like, but I loved it.
Noffsinger and Braxton

The big band then played a long collage piece that started out as Composition 134, and had large chunks of Composition 100 and bits of other pieces. It was long, complex, and kaleidoscopic, and the students played with energy and enthusiasm. But the final piece of the program just floored me: a glorious rendition of Composition 58, the twisted march which appeared on the Creative Orchestra Music 1976 album, by the big band, the percussion ensemble, and three saxophone soloists. Braxton making his first appearance of the evening, soloed on sopranino sax, U of A saxophone professor Jonathan Noffsinger played alto, and Andrew Raffo Dewar soloed on soprano. Dewar, who has collaborated with Braxton in the past, is also on the faculty at Alabama, and he largely made Braxton's residency happen.
Braxton solos

Anyway, it was a stunning ten minutes or so. The large percussion section, on all manner of marching percussion instrument (including vintage field drums), gave the piece an impact that the recording just couldn't match. I was giddy, and when I wandered through the halls of the music building looking for a bathroom, it was clear that the students were just as exhilarated.

Composition 58. Bynum conducting; Dewar, Noffsinger, and Braxton seated on left.
But there was one more incident that turned my trip into a real free-jazz pilgrimage. On Thursday afternoon I was exploring an old cemetery in Vance, Alabama, halfway between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. I was floored when I came across the grave of Sun Ra trumpeter and bassist Jothan Callins, out there in the middle of nowhere. It was an amazing and touching accidental discovery.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

St. Louis Cemetery #2

Over a year since my last post.... No apologies or explanations, but I now feel like adding to this blog again.

New Orleans, with its history and its music, deeply fascinates me. I've visited 32 times since my first trip in 1990. On those visits, I've spent a good bit of time wandering through the amazing cemeteries there. New Orleans' cites of the dead are endlessly absorbing, and unlike the graveyards of any other city. Most of the city's burials are in above-ground tombs, since the water table is so high, and many of the vaults have generations of remains mixed together - the law states that after a burial, a vault must remain sealed for a year and a day. In the days before embalming, New Orleans' climate and humidity ensured that there would be little left of a body after that amount of time.

For most of my years of visiting, I was warned not to go to St. Louis Cemetery #2 except with an organized tour - and those tours were infrequent. This cemetery was, until recently, bordered on two sides by the crime-ridden Iberville Housing Project. Before my trip to the city earlier this month, I noticed (via the internet) that folks seem to be visiting St. Louis #2 fearlessly and frequently these days. All those years of warnings were hard to overcome, though, so I wrote to Save Our Cemeteries, the nonprofit group whose mission is just what its name suggests, asking if it was indeed safe to vist the cemetery. The answer was an emphatic "yes;" the Iberville Project has been torn down (for better or worse), and visiting St. Louis #2 is no different than visiting any other cemetery in the city.

So, with some residual trepidation, I finally walked through
this historic burying ground on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 8. I knew that several important New Orleans musicians were buried there, but I made several discoveries that surprised me.

One of the first tombs I came across was that of Claude Treme, who subdivided his plantation and sold the lots the formed the neighborhood which bears his name. But I was mostly looking for musicians' tombs, and I came across many. I was particularly interested in the Barbarin vault, with the earthly remains of the great jazz drummer Paul Barbarin (who played with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, among others), along with his nephew, guitarist Danny Barker (one of my heroes) and Danny's wife, blues singer Blue Lu Barker.

I soon came across a vault, apparently donated by a music lover, in which the R & B legends Ernie-K-Doe and Earl King were both buried. Then I spotted the impressive Cagnolatti tomb, which holds the remains of trumpeter Ernie "Little Cag" Cagnolatti, probably best known for holding down the trumpet chair in Big Jim Robinson's bands over the years.

But the row of wall vaults along the Claiborne Avenue wall in the middle section of the cemetery overwhelmed me. In these (presumably) modestly-priced tombs, I came across many early jazz musicians who are legendary to me, although they're obscure to the public at large - even the most jazz fans. Below are captioned pictures; I won't try to go into detail about what each musician means to me, although finding A.J. Piron's grave made my jaw drop. I've included some pictures with no connection to New Orleans music as well.

Barbarin vault
Paul Barbarin, Danny Barker, & Blue Lu Barker

Ernie K-Doe
Earl King

A.J. Piron, whose 1923 recording are some of my favorites.

Trumpeter Ernie Cagnolatti

Banjoist Creole George Guesnon
Burnell (correct spelling) & Lester Santiago - two great pianists
Emile Knox, bass drummer for the Young Tuxedo Brass Band

Can't prove it 100%, but I think that this is the Louis Warnick who played the wonderful alto sax on the great 1923 A.J. Piron recordings.
I'm not sure why this marker moved me so much - Mary was the sister of the great trumpet player Freddie Keppard, who found fame in Chicago, and of guitarist Louis Keppard, who stayed in New Orleans.
Dooky Chase, founder of one of the most famous restaurants in Treme.

Not every family who buried a loved one in St. Louis #2 had money for a nice tomb.

Nobody home.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Marian McPartland, RIP

I haven't felt compelled to add to this blog for some time.  But Marian McPartland died yesterday, and I have to pay tribute.

We've lost a lot of jazz giants lately.  Another great pianist, Cedar Walton, died just a day before Ms. McPartland; he was 79.  But McPartland's contributions went much further than her piano playing; this is a loss which hits hard.

Many listeners knew McPartland best as the host of the NPR radio program Piano Jazz.  From 1978 to 2011, she traded licks with everyone from Eubie Blake to Frank Zappa on the show, and always sounded like she was having the time of her life doing so.

 Her range as a pianist was impressive; there are recordings of her playing dixieland standards with her husband Jimmy, playing bebop, and playing Ornette Coleman tunes.  For most of McParland's career, there was a lightness to her music; it seldom touched me deeply, although I always enjoyed it.  One exception to that caveat is her 2007 album Twilight World.  There are a few moments of rhythmic uncertainty, but there is an emotional depth to her playing that I seldom hear in her earlier work, fine as it is.

She was part of Alec Wilder's "inner circle" - her taste and respect for melody led Wilder to write pieces such as "Jazz Waltz for a Friend," "Homework," and, well, "Inner Circle" for her.  This Alec Wilder fan is grateful.

We've lost a great pianist, composer, writer, and spokesperson for jazz.  RIP, Marian.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Harlem Air Shaft

I would not be able to single out any Duke Ellington recording as my favorite.  But I could probably make a list of my favorites, and high on that list would be "Harlem Air Shaft." It's a piece that has long fascinated me for its seeming adherence to, and subversion of, the conventions of its time.  At first hearing, it seems to be a typical big-band riff tune, like "In the Mood" or "Jumpin' at the Woodside."  (A "riff," for those who aren't sure, is a short, repeated melodic snippet; think of the saxophone melody of "In the Mood," which is built on a riff repeated five times.)  "Harlem Air Shaft," after the introduction, can be heard as nothing more than four riff-based choruses.  But Ellington plays with the riff conventions in some inventive ways, and in the process came up with a minor masterpiece.

"Harlem Air Shaft" was recorded by the Ellington band on July 22, 1940, near the beginning of a period of unbelievable genius by Ellington. In the years of 1940 and 1941, it seemed as if every Ellington recording session produced at least two or three masterpieces. The July 22 session resulted in at least one more, "All Too Soon," and the equally brilliant "Sepia Panorama" was recorded two days later. "Harlem Air Shaft" and "Sepia Panorama" were released as two sides of a 78 RPM record - 50 cents well spent, for a record buyer in 1940!

Skip the introduction for a minute, and listen to the first chorus. Muted trumpets play a repeated two-measure riff in harmony, with a few alterations to fit the chord changes. In almost any other band, this trumpet riff would be answered or overlayed with riffs by the saxophone and/or trombone sections. But Ellington's counterpoint to the trumpet riff is not another riff; it's a long-lined unison melody by the saxophone section. The trumpet riff is catchy; the saxophone melody is striking and bluesy.  At the bridge, there's a richly harmonized saxophone riff, with Tricky Sam Nanton's vocalized plunger-muted trombone counterpoint.

The second chorus is a dialogue between the saxophones, riffing in harmony, and the solo trumpet of Cootie Williams.  It could have been ordinary and predictable, but the three stop-time moments, where the rhythm section stops playing and the saxes sing out, are surprising and arresting.  (What did the dancers do?)  Ellington's sax riffs are more varied than was usual for the time, and of course, Cootie Williams at his peak is exciting to hear.

There's a new, bluesy riff in the third chorus, played by the trombones in harmony.  The saxophones, in unison, fill in the gaps between the trombone riffs with very inventive, constantly changing licks; it's easy to overlook them at first.  The bridge has the brass playing irregular, accented chords, with the saxophones again murmuring below.  Barney Bigard's clarinet soars over the entire chorus.

The fourth chorus most closely follows standard big-band procedures of the time; volume drops and the brass and saxophones riff together in harmony for sixteen measure in harmony, with Cootie's tightly-muted trumpet dancing over the ensemble.  But even here, Ellington is not content to settle for the ordinary - after a two-measure riff that is repeated, he has written a beautiful four-measure answer rather than repeating the riff two more times.

At the bridge, Bigard once again takes over the solo role, playing humorous little near-glissando runs between appearances of a new ensemble riff.  But wait - it's not new at all; we've heard it before.  It's a harmonized version of what Tricky Sam played in the bridge back in the first chorus.  The piece ends with a powerhouse, stabbing brass riff, the saxophones playing a contrasting, more melodic riff (similar to what they played in the third chorus), and Bigard's clarinet wailing above it all.

Throughout all of this, the band plays great drive; the forward motion of "Harlem Air Shaft" is relentless and exciting.  And the colors are constantly varied; instrumental combinations change frequently, and the way Ellington uses each section of the band is altered from chorus to chorus.  The saxophones are, in some ways, the real stars of the performance; their harmonized sound is just delicious, and their unison riffs are played with great subtlety.

But we skipped the introduction.  It's brilliant, but it's only revealed to be so after we've heard the rest of "Harlem Air Shaft."  The introduction is a mini-overture; in twelve measures it sums up the rest of the piece.  For the first four measure, the saxophones play, over rich brass chords, what we later realize is a slight variation on the trumpet riff from the first chorus.  The next four measures don't strictly "pre-echo" anything in the body of the piece, but the saxophone harmonies suggest links with several later spots, such as the saxophone melody in the stop-time portion of the second chorus.  The last four measures of the intro begin with a single statement of the trombone riff from the third chorus, followed by a short transition to the first chorus.

It's simple, but brilliant, and almost every detail of the piece is worth our attention.  "Harlem Air Shaft" is a big-band riff tune, but a riff tune written by a composer of genius.  Go listen to it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Maurice Durand and a Chance Encounter With Jazz History

Every time I visit New Orleans I find something remarkable, or at least interesting, just by wandering around.  On my visit last week, geocaching took me to a spot on Burgundy Street in the Bywater neighborhood in the Ninth Ward - a spot I didn't know exsisted.  It's a large arch, erected in in 1919 "by the people of this the Ninth Ward in honor of its citizens who were enlisted in combative service and in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the triumph of right over might in the Great World War."

The arch is pretty interesting and impressive in and of itself.  I found a website on the monument and its history here.  I don't know how tall it is, but I'm almost six feet tall, and the top of my head only made it one-fourth of the way or so up the four large brass plaques on the arch.  You can see two of the plaques in the picture to the left, the other two are on the other side of the arch.  They list the names of all the men from the Ninth Ward who served in World War I.  I was a little surprised, but shouldn't have been, to see that the names are divided by race; three of the plaques list the white soldiers who served, while one of the two on the back honors the "colored" men who served in the war.

As I was looking at the names of the African-American Ninth Warders who served, one name jumped out at me: that of Maurice Durand.  I knew that Durand was an early jazz and brass band trumpet player from New Orleans, and it seemed to me that he would have been about the right age to have served in the first World War.  But I wasn't sure whether or not this name represented the right Maurice Durand.  When I got home, a little research revealed that, yes, this was Maurice Durand, the musician.

An early-eighties interview with saxophonist and bandleader Harold Dejan placed Durand in the correct part of New Orleans:

Maurice Durand had his own little band too, so I played with him too. Durand lived on Deslonde Street in the 9th Ward and used to get all the jobs down St. Bernard Parish. During the day he worked at a broom factory. He played on all the weddings and St. Joseph day parties. Maurice used to play in the Alley Cabaret by the St. Bernard Market, that's on Claiborne and St. Bernard and in the back was the Alley Cabaret.

But did Durand serve in the military during WWI?  Yes, he did, as it turns out.  Discussing the famous Onward Brass Band and its members in his book Fallen Heroes: A History of New Orleans Brass Bands, Richard Knowles says that Durand played both clarinet and trumpet in the 816th Pioneer Regimental Brass Band, which spent time in both England and France during the war.

Durand, born just outside of New Orleans in 1893, was a student of the legendary Professor Jim Humphrey, who taught so many early jazzmen.  He had a youthful band with Willie Humphrey, the Professor's grandson, and later became something of a protégé of Manuel Perez, the famous cornetist.  Durand played with the Onward, Tuxedo, Imperial, and Terminal brass bands and played dance band jobs like the ones described by Harold Dejan above.  According to the brass band history website containing the quote from Dejan, Durand also gigged at the famous Pythian Temple Roof Garden uptown.

That same website states that Maurice Durand never recorded, and that's almost true.  Fed up with the meager pay, he retired from music in 1933 and moved to San Francisco in 1944 - he died there in 1961.  But jazz researcher Bill Russell tracked him down and recorded an interview with him in 1958.  During the interview, Russell persuaded him to play a little trumpet, and on the CD which accompanies the Fallen Heroes book, you can hear Maurice Durand play 16 measures of "I'm Confessin'."  His lip is obviously out of shape, but you can also tell that this is a man with a good command of the trumpet.  

I'm not sure how interesting all of this is to anyone else, but my chance encounter with a little bit of jazz history fascinated me.  I was glad to pay tribute to a jazz pioneer.

Friday, October 12, 2012

1928 Victor "Race" Record Sleeve

A couple of years ago I bought a box of 78 RPM records, mostly early country music from the late 1920s and early 1930s.  In the box was this 1928 record sleeve, which was intended for a Victor "race" record - that being the term used at the time for records aimed at an African-American audience.  I was struck by the sleeve when I saw it; not only is it a beautiful example of one-color graphic design, but, unusually for its time, it portrays black artists with a certain amount of dignity and respect.

Blues researcher Jeff Titon devoted an entire chapter of his book Early Downhome Blues to the differences in record companies' portrayals of early country music and early blues in their advertising.  Advertisements for early country records (or "old-time tunes") generally featured white rural Americans in peaceful, dignified settings - listening to the phonograph in the evening or dancing with their neighbors.  "Race" record advertisements, on the other hand, were often filled with cartoonish caricatures of black culture.  It was as if the record companies were so out of touch with black America that they didn't realize that they were offending the very people they were trying to sell records to.

This record sleeve is different, for the most part.  There is a hint of blackface in the depiction of comedians Jones and Jones in the lower right-hand corner of the front, and the clarinetist in the upper left-hand corner is a little over the top, but otherwise, the illustrations are sympathetic.  Each of the pictures corresponds to a Victor record listed on the back - and how amazing it would be to have original copies of all of these records!  Clockwise from the upper left, the pictures represent clarinetist Douglas Williams, Rev. F.W. McGhee, blues singer Luke Jordan, Jelly Roll Morton's band, Jones and Jones, Johnny Dodds' Washboard Band, The Memphis Jug Band, and the Pace Jubilee Singers.

I have about half of this music on CD, but none of these 78s.  I selected a Victor record from the same period to keep in this wonderful sleeve - "Get Low-Down Blues"/"Kansas City Breakdown:" by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra.  I have quite a few early record sleeves, but this one is by far my favorite.