Sunday, October 25, 2009

Copenhagen Report

My wonderful wife Karen had a meeting in Copenhagen, and I kind of invited myself along. I mean, how often am I going to get a chance to go to Copenhagen? Here’s my brief report on the trip. It will be totally uninteresting to people who don’t know my or to those who are well-travelled. You can skip this post. But for my friends who want to know what I’ve been up to for a week:

It’s amazing that we can fly across the ocean in a day, but there’s no denying that jamming a bunch of people into a tube for nine hours is a pretty brutal way to travel. But a grueling flight to Paris left us with enough time between planes to find a geocache near Charles De Gaulle Airport. What better way to stretch our legs and set foot on French soil?

A few hours later, we were working our way through the Copenhagen airport, trying to figure out how to get to our hotel. There were plenty of the usual missteps one makes when in a new city for the first time, but soon we were settled in. The next day (Monday) would be the only full day we had together, so decided to put another country under our belts and took the train to Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. Considering that the third-largest city in the U.S. is the huge Chicago, Malmö seemed pretty small and sleepy, but it was a nice little town. We walked around for awhile to get our bearings, and ate a nice Indian meal on Lilla Torg, a beautiful old square. I (of course) added Sweden to the list of countries I’ve geocached in. Perhaps the highlight of our short trip to Malmö was a visit to St. Peter’s Church, where construction began in the 14th century. The roof was originally painted with Biblical and allegorical scenes, but was whitewashed over in the 16th century. The Merchant’s Chapel, however, was added in the 15th century and shortly thereafter sealed off as redundant, so the roof paintings survived. They’re pretty amazing – somewhat faded, but the haunted faces of Christ and the medieval knights still communicate across the centuries.

Back in Copenhagen, we walked the length of the Strøget, a series of streets given over to pedestrians. It ranges from fascinating to tacky. At the end of the Strøget, we walked past the Royal Theatre to Nyhavn, the beautiful “new harbor” neighborhood where the canal is lined with restaurants. Karen picked out a tiny place called Havfruen (Mermaid), where we had a great meal. After one more drink on the way back, we called it a day.

Some general impressions: To an American, this is just a beautiful old city – interesting buildings, squares, and canals all over the place. Bicycles everywhere. There are probably as many bicycles as cars on the streets, and they are left parked all over the place, often without being locked. Everyone seems to smoke, although it’s not allowed inside most places any more. Danish women all seem beautiful and about seven feet tall. And the language makes absolutely no sense to an outsider. Spanish or French is easy to pronounce, at least, when you know the rules. Karen had a short Danish lesson as part of her meeting and tried to explain some things to me, but it seemed pretty random. Just about everyone speaks English, though, and will quickly switch to it when they realize that you don’t speak Danish.

On Tuesday, Karen and I left the hotel early so that she could check in for her meeting. I spent a few hours walking, record shopping, and geocaching. I bought lunch from one of the pølser (hot dog) stands, where I got a Danish hot dog that rivaled one of Chicago’s for unusual toppings – along with spicy mustard, it had bacon bits and pickles. It was great. I found a cache at the Rundetårn, the “Round Tower” built in the 17th century. I was amused by the description on the cache page, on which one of the cache hiders related how, when she was a child, she was convinced that the Rundetårn was the tallest building in the world – she had read about skyscrapers in America, and thought that they must be almost as tall.

That night I heard Jesper Thilo’s very creative quartet at Jazz Paradise in the Huset arts complex. It’s the same for jazz musicians everywhere – they played the first set for an audience of three. However, from the first note, they played as if their lives depended on it – with mastery, concentration, and interaction. Thilo’s tenor sax sound was rich and beautiful, and he swung hard. Even if his playing was not particularly original, it reminded me of how rewarding unadorned straight-ahead jazz can still be. Olivier Antunes took things in odd directions during his piano solos, and bassist Bo Stief deserved a medal for following him at least 90% of the time. The drummer, Frands Rifbjerg, was solid as a rock. Thilo’s selection of tunes was a little old-fashioned by American standards, for the most part, but he did play Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround” along with “Thou Swell” and “Strike Up the Band.” A rewarding evening – and the audience swelled to eight during the second set!

On Wednesday, Karen was able to get away from her meeting to sightsee with me in the morning. She showed me around Slotsholmen, the small island which was the original center of Copenhagen. (She had been given a tour the day before.) Then we took the harbor bus (a ferry, basically) across to the Christianshavn section of the city. After walking along one of the canals, she had to return to her meeting, so I explored Christianshavn for the rest of the morning. It seems a little more “real” and working-class than the other parts of Copenhagen I visited. There were very few signs or menus in English in this section of town. I paid 25 kroner for the privilege of climbing to the top of the spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church). In the States, this would be a risk management officer’s nightmare. There are 500 steps to the top. The first 350 are inside and wooden; they get steeper, narrower, darker, and more rickety as you ascend. The final 150 steps wind around the outside of the tower and continue to get narrower to the top. It was fairly terrifying, but the view was great.

I then visited the “free city” of Christiana, a section of Christianshavn centered around some abandoned military barracks and which was taken over in 1971 by a group of (for lack of a better word) hippies. The settlers declared the area independent of Copenhagen, and the settlement has existed in an uneasy truce with the city government since. Maybe I’m showing my age or conventionality, but this was an extremely depressing area. It just seemed dirty and unkempt; it was the only part of Copenhagen I visited which was littered with trash. I was glad to leave it behind and take a nice walk along the moat on the eastern side of the island.

More strolling, more sightseeing. The highlight of Thursday was a visit to the National Museum, which had so many amazing displays that I soon began to suffer from “museum fatigue” – one bronze age tool started to look like another. I’d love to go back and spend about a week in this museum. Then it was time to move to a hotel close to the airport, since I had a 6:00 AM flight the next morning. The TV didn’t work in my downtown hotel, so the main revelation from my last evening in Denmark was that Danish TV is as bad as American TV, except that you can see breasts in commercials.

Copenhagen is a beautiful place. I already want to go back, and take my horn. I hope I have the chance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Everybody's Talking About Sammy

In reading interviews with old New Orleans musicians, names of great, unrecorded trumpet players like Buddy Bolden, Buddy Petit, and Chris Kelly keep coming up. But the band that inspires awe, admiration, and even fear in those interviews is Sam Morgan's Jazz Band, which recorded eight titles for Columbia Records in 1927. Those 24 minutes of music represent some of the most exciting New Orleans jazz ever put down.

Sam Morgan's was a musical family; he and his brother Isiah played cornet in the band, another brother, Andrew, played clarinet and tenor sax, and brother Al was an accomplished bassist. (Al Morgan went north and made a name for himself before the band recorded.) Alto saxophonist Earl Fouche and Big Jim Robinson on trombone were the other horns on the Columbia records, and a strong four-piece rhythm section provided the foundation. That rhythm section drives the band like a diesel engine, playing a strong four beats to the bar, as opposed to the two-beat rhythm of many "dixieland" bands.

The whole band swings very hard, and surprisingly makes no concessions to the fashions of popular music at large, unless you consider the presence of saxophones in the ensemble a trendy 1920s element. (I don't.) Compare the Morgans' approach to other New Orleans bands who recorded around the same time: Oscar Celestin's band or the Halfway House Orchestra, for instance. Those band were adopting the scored ensemble passages and "modern" harmonies of the northern bands of the time, but not the Morgan band. They continued to play old-style New Orleans improvised polyphony.

The tunes are mostly originals; the most impressive as a composition is "Bogalousa Stomp," a multi-strain piece which is still played fairly frequently by New Orleans bands. (Kermit Ruffins has recorded a nice version.) Sam Morgan sings "Everybody's Talking About Sammy" and the racy "Short Dress Gal" in a rough, cawing voice; I can only understand some of the words. In addition to the jazz stomps, the band also recorded three spirituals; they were the first jazz band to do so. "Sing On" and "Over in the Gloryland" are still played by New Orleans jazz and brass bands; I don't know whether this is because the Morgan recordings were influential or because the tunes have always been popular in the city. There is a touching passage in "Down by the Riverside when all the instruments except the piano drop out and some of the band sing the spiritual in harmony. It's a beautiful down-home moment from this swinging group.

The Morgan recordings, particularly the spirituals, also demonstrate the cross-pollination that was going on between the jazz bands (which played mostly for dancing) and the brass bands which played on the street. On "Sing On" and "Gloryland," the band is basically playing brass band style with a rhythm section. Take away the trap set, string bass, piano, and banjo and replace them with tuba, snare drum, and bass drum, and this band could have played the same notes at a funeral parade.

Perhaps the most impressive musician in the band was alto saxophonist Earl Fouche. He never recorded again, and that's something of a tragedy, because he really shines on the Morgan sides. He's all over the place - doubling the first cornet, harmonizing with the cornets, playing countermelodies, and contributing killer solos to "Mobile Stomp" and "Bogalousa Strut." Fouche obviously had a real command of the saxophone and of harmony, something that can't be said of everyone in the band. (You'll hear some poor note choices by Andrew Morgan in "Over in the Gloryland" and a spectacularly wrong note by Jim Robinson in the introduction to "Steppin' on the Gas," where he plays a D against an A flat major chord.) Based on these eight recordings, Fouche was probably the best saxophonist in New Orleans during that period.

Ill health dogged Sam Morgan, and the band fell apart when he died in the mid 1930s. Only Robinson, Andrew Morgan, and bassist Sidney Brown recorded commercially after this, and only Jim Robinson really gained any fame. Brother Isiah continued to play, and a field recording made at a dance in Mississippi in the 1950s showed him to be an able, swinging, but unspectacular trumpeter. There have been several recorded tributes to the Morgan band, but by far the best is the Sam Morgan Revisited session made under Kid Howard's name for the Icon label. The record was reissued on the Jazzology family of labels, and features five absolutely smoking versions of Morgan's tunes. The band includes Jim Robinson and Andrew Morgan, as well as other musicians who played with Sam Morgan at various times, but who weren't on the Columbia sessions. They play with an abandon which makes this session one of the most exciting of the so-called "New Orleans Revival" of the sixties.

The eight Morgan sides have been reissued on Azure and Jazz Oracle CDs, and probably elsewhere. I'll always be grateful that they jammed into the upstairs room of Werlein's Music Store on Canal Street to play into the inadequate recording equipment of the time. The myth that all the good musicians left New Orleans by 1920 is blown out of the water by these stirring, amazing 24 minutes of music.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Website

I've finished the new website, at least in its preliminary form - I plan to keep adding to it and improving it. But if you visit you'll be able to keep up with where I'm playing, download strange music (including a couple of tracks by the semi-legendary Bazooka Ants), and buy lots of CDs. Check it out.


It's been a strange and intense week. I've dealt with angry and irrational people on my day job, worked obsessively to get my new website up, practiced the saxophone and clarinet with satisfaction and frustration, and presented a new band.

The debut of the new Jeff Crompton Quartet at Atlanta's Eyedrum Gallery tonight was sloppy and intense, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. The band was exhausted afterwards, which I take as a good sign. I think we certainly have potential. We play the kind of free jazz that relies on listening, interaction, and instinct, and we're just going to have to play together for awhile before things really start to jell. The musicians in the audience tonight didn't hear all the mistakes that we felt and heard, so I think the spirit of the music prevailed over the sloppiness. Thank you Keith, Bill and Ben.

Now I'm trying to come down with Steve Lacy. The last tune on the Live in Budapest duet album with Steve Potts is "Morning Joy," based on the Bob Kaufman poem of the same name. It's a strange and wonderful poem, which I memorized about 15
years ago. Here it is from memory - the line breaks and punctuation might not be quite right, but I've got the words:

Piano buttons stitched on morning lights;
Jazz wakes with the day.
As I awaken with jazz,
Love lit the night.

Eyes appear and disappear
To lead me once more
To a green moon.

Streets paved with opal sadness
Lead me counterclockwise
To pockets of joy
And jazz.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Please Stand By....

As has been pointed out, I don't post to this blog that often - about four times a month seems to be the rate I've settled into. I've been thinking about music (and other things) just as much as ever, but I've been putting lots of time into my new quartet (which makes its debut at Eyedrum Gallery in Atlanta in four days) and into my new website. I hope to have the website up and running by the time the quartet hits the stage on Friday. It will have info on my musical activities, free downloadable tracks, and (of course) CDs for sale. Stay tuned.

And thanks to everyone who has found their way to this blog. I hope you've found something you enjoy, and I hope you'll come back.