Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Council Spur Blues - Robert Curtis Smith, RIP

I've been wanting to write something about the great, if obscure, bluesman Robert Curtis Smith. Now it seems as though this post must serve as a memorial. Smith was not famous enough for his passing to be noted in the press, but word has reached the blues community through his family that he died in Chicago in November. Smith deserves to be remembered by the world at large, if for no other reason than because he recorded one of the best blues albums of the LP era.

R.C. Smith was an elusive figure. He was born in or around Cruger, Mississippi, at the edge of the Delta region, around 1930. For the first 38 years or so of his life he seemed to alternate between attempting to survive the poverty and oppression of life in Mississippi and attempting to escape it. He left the Delta for Chicago and Texas at various times, but apparently found little relief, since he always returned to Mississippi. In an early-1960's interview with Paul Oliver, he described the conditions in which black sharecroppers found themselves in Mississippi:

You work from the time right sun-up until sundown. Other words in choppin' (cotton)
it's three dollars a day, and it's hard to make enough money to practically do anything, because, during the week you got to live and you go to the store and take up a little groceries to carry you that week but when you paid off you owe almost half of that. So there ain't anything you can do with the little change you has got, but stay here, because you can't leave here unless you do leave walkin'.

It would be nice to report that Smith's fortunes changed when he walked into Wade Walton's barbershop in Clarksdale on the day in 1960 when Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz were there, searching for unknown and long-lost blues musicians. Oliver and Strachwitz recognized his talent right away, and Smith made several recordings in 1960 and 1961, including one of the most remarkable blues albums ever. Clarksdale Blues: The Blues of Robert Curtis Smith was released on the Bluesville subsidiary of Prestige records; it made absolutely no impact and sunk without a trace, never to be reissued. But for those of us lucky enough to have a copy, it's a treasure.

Smith's music shows an awareness of the blues tradition; he "covers" songs by Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as the traditional "Catfish Blues." But the really striking songs are his originals. Their power comes largely from his melodic gift (not every bluesman can create memorable, beautiful melodies) and the structures of his songs - most are based on the standard 12-bar blues pattern, but are altered or extended in very interesting and original ways. One song, "Council Spur Blues," describes conditions on Roy Flowers' plantation in great detail, mentioning Flowers and his overseer, Mr. Walker, by name. This was a brave gesture for a black man in Mississippi in 1961.

Smith finally escaped Mississippi around 1968, spending the rest of his life in Chicago. He played the blues up north for awhile, and even auditioned for a spot in Willie Dixon's band. At some point, he had the religious conversion experience he later recounted in "Lye Water Conversion" on the album From Mississippi to Chicago, and only performed gospel music after that. Most people in the blues community knew nothing of all this for years; it seemed as if this talented musician had just disappeared from the face of the earth. For a long time Jim O'Neal, owner of the Rooster Blues record label, had a picture of Smith posted in his Stackhouse record store in Clarksdale; the caption read, "Do you know this man?"

Eventually Wade Walton became aware of Smith's whereabouts; this led to his appearance at the 1997 Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, where I was lucky enough to hear him. It was clear that this was Smith's first performance ever in a concert setting; he was uncomfortable and unsure of what to do or say on stage. But the music (all gospel songs, of course) was passionate and powerful, and over all too soon.

And now there won't be any more music by this remarkable musician. But you can still hear his recordings, if you can find them. A comprehensive discography of Smith's records has been put together by Stefan Wirz, and can be found here. It looks like a lot of records, but most of the issues are drawn from the same few recording sessions. The most easily available CD featuring Smith is I Have to Paint My Face: Mississippi Blues 1960, an anthology on the Arhoolie label; Smith's four solo selections are excellent, and there's a fun example of Wade Walton's infectious, rhythmic playing of his razor and strop to Smith's guitar accompaniment. From Mississippi to Chicago, mentioned above, features several of Smith's later gospel songs and is still in print. Clarksdale Blues, his masterpiece, is long out of print and very difficult to find, but for those who know their way around the internet, can be found for download.

I'm glad I got to hear R.C. Smith perform that afternoon in Clarksdale. So long to a talented man who overcame a lot.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Revisiting Ma and Fletcher

(I apologize in advance for the appearance/layout of this post. I tried to insert the photos in such a way that would look good on the screen, but found that I have very little control over how it may end up looking on any individual computer screen. On the plus side, you can click on any photo for a larger view.)

Yesterday I headed south again, armed with a camera this time, to revisit the Ma Rainey house and grave that I stumbled on by chance last month. (See my November 10 post.) The door of the Rainey house was locked when I tried it, but the woman working there had seen me walk up, so she let me in after determining that I was there to visit the museum, not for any nefarious purpose. She obviously had been trained in Rainey lore, but in some way she didn't seem to "get" it - a lot of the things she said were close to being right, not not quite. I would have preferred to be left alone to wander around by myself, but that didn't seem to be an option.

The house, as pictures attest, was in pretty bad shape a few years back, but it's been restored nicely. Much of Ma's original furniture is intact, including the piano, which has been stripped of the green paint that someone applied at some point. There are some Paramount records on display that made me drool. Otherwise, the displays were pretty generic, providing information about Rainey and the blues. But for me, the whole point was just being in Ma Rainey's house.

One of my assumption in my previous Rainey post was wrong, I think. Ma had such a large house built not so that she could take in boarders, but so that her parents (and sister, I think) could live with her. I was fascinated to see that she had her father's name inscribed in the concrete before the door.

I was also wrong in assuming that the Pridgetts buried on either side of Ma Rainey in Porterdale Cemetery were sisters. Edna, her mother, is on one side, and I think that (based on the dates) that Edna's sister is buried on the other side.

While in the cemetery I took also took pictures of an interesting-shaped tombstone, and the stone marking the grave of Jenny, Kizzie's baby, that I wrote about in that earlier post. Notice that Jenny's stone is marble, and professionally carved. Many, if not most, of the monuments in Porterdale cemetery are concrete, and are much rougher (and cheaper) in appearance. Who paid for the the stone over Jenny's grave? Was Kizzie the maid of a privileged daughter? Could Jenny's father have been the slavemaster?

After paying my respects at Porterdale, I headed 60 miles further south, to the little town of Cuthbert, Georgia. Cuthbert was the birthplace of the great Fletcher Henderson, who practically invented the big band swing style. Henderson spent most of his life in New York or on the road, but he's buried in his hometown. While Ma Rainey was buried in a segregated cemetery, Henderson's grave is in the town's main, mostly white, graveyard. I don't think this had anything to do with his fame as a musician; it was probably due to the respect in which his father was held. Fletcher Henderson, Sr. was principal of the African-American school in Cuthbert for decades.

I last visited Cuthbert and Fletcher's grave about 15 years ago. At that time, there was nothing at the gravesite to indicate that a brilliant and widely influential musician was buried there. Since that time, Chet Kruly, who played with Henderson's band in the late 1940's, sponsored a marker which at least mentions that Henderson had a band.

I'm glad I got to pay my respects to these two great Georgia musicians.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Audio Glimpses of the Past

I spend a good bit of time in antique stores these days, searching for 78s. A couple of months ago, I visited an Atlanta antique store which had an interesting-looking box. It looked like it might have records in it, and it did - not 78s, but 40 or 50 home-recorded discs. They were 12" discs; some were marked as 33 1/3, and some were labeled with song titles or rudimentary information about the radio programs they were recorded from. I bought three of the most promising-looking of the records, took them home, and found them to be easily playable on my turntable. Moreover, they were quite well-recorded, for the most part. A couple of the sides were pretty disappointing - they proved to be nothing more than recordings of disc jockeys playing records, but several of the sides were intriguing and musically rewarding enough to get me pretty excited.

Radio was once a more interesting and creative medium than it is these days. Bands of all types commonly broadcast live from clubs and ballrooms, their sounds carried over the various radio networks to listeners across the country. These broadcasts were sometimes recorded by hobbyists with home recording equipment, which until the late 1940's meant a disc recorder of some kind. The person who recorded the stash of discs I found labeled some with his name, and even with information about the equipment he used.

Our recordist was named J.M. Keith, apparently from Atlanta, since most of the radio stations he recorded from were Atlanta stations like WSB and WAGA. On a couple of discs he engraved the make, model, and serial number of the recorders he used. The earlier records were made with a Presto Model Y, serial #4111. The Model Y paired one of Presto's cheaper recorders with an amplifier and speaker. Later, Mr. Keith upgraded to a Presto 6N, serial #1891. The 6N was a high-quality machine, used by many radio stations. And it wasn't cheap. The price for 6N was $735 in 1950; it probably wasn't much less in 1948, when Keith seemed to have acquired his.

Our friend J.M. Keith had somewhat eclectic tastes; he recorded all kinds of music. There's a really horrible "lounge" quartet from a club in New York, several disc jockey shows, and lots of recordings from the semi-classical Bell Telephone Hour. Listening to those first three discs and examining the labels and sleeves gave me some insight into Mr. Keith's labeling system, though, so I went back to the antique store and bought all of the records that I though might contain worthwhile music. I ended up with a dozen discs. They all seem to be have been recorded in 1947 or 1948. I played them all one evening, one after another, and it was like a trip back in time - like listening to a couple of hours of late-forties radio, dialing to different stations every twelve minutes or so. Most of the discs are quite well-recorded, although in a few cases, the surfaces have deteriorated a little bit. And Mr. Keith would occasionally record with the gain set too high, resulting in some distortion.

There ended up being six sides of music that were interesting enough to digitize and preserve:

Three tunes by the Ray McKinley big band from the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, August, 1947. One of these is Eddie Sauter's amazingly forward-looking "Sand Storm," which the band had recorded in the studio a year and a half earlier.

Three selections by a very different big band, that of Noro Morales. "Caramba Bebop" from this broadcast is a very hot piece of Latin jazz, with an oddly wonderful piano solo by Morales.

A broadcast by the Adrian Rollini Trio. Rollini was the first great bass saxophonist in jazz, but by 1947 he was playing vibes and doubling on chimes. These are the only hot jazz chimes solos I've ever heard.

A side split between Rollini's trio and the Mary Osborne Trio. Osborne was an excellent Charlie Christian-inspired guitarist, but she's featured mostly as a vocalist here.

Twelve or so minutes from an August, 1948 broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. This is an interesting broadcast, but I was surprised at how lame most of the music was. The other side of this disc is much better:

Part of the WSB Barn Dance program that followed the Grand Ole Opry. Barn Dance was similar to the Opry, but the music (and comedy) is more "down home."

I have uploaded selections from all of these broadcasts (except the Grand Ole Opry) here. Once on the page with the links, you can click to listen or right-click to download. I hope you enjoy these audio glimpses of the past. And thank you, J.M. Keith.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Blues Poetry II

As I was cleaning out my file cabinet a few days ago, I came upon a folder of transcriptions of blues lyrics that I did about 15 years ago. Once again, I was stuck with what beautiful poetry blues lyrics can be. Here are four of my favorites from that old stash of transcriptions, plus one more (the Percy Mayfield song) that I transcribed tonight.

Transcribing blues lyrics can be a challenge. Thick Mississippi accents, idiosyncratic pronunciation, archaic turns of phrase, poor recordings with worn surfaces - all of these conspire against an accurate hearing of the lyrics. Comparing different published transcriptions of the same song might reveal very different hearings. But I reviewed all of these tonight, and I'm satisfied with their accuracy. Being Southern helps, as does experience with listening to the blues.

And as wonderful as some of these lyrics are, they are greatly enhanced by hearing them in context, sung by these brilliant musicians. The interaction of the lyrics, the singing, and the instruments is what creates the complete picture. I've listed the original issue, place and date of recording after each song. Punctuation and line breaks are, of course, my own.

Mama, “Tain’t Long for Day
Blind Willie McTell

Wake up, mama, don’t you sleep so hard.
Wake up, mama, don’t you sleep so hard.
Boy, it’s these old blues walkin’ all over your yard.

I’ve got these blues, reason I’m not satisfied.
I’ve got these blues; I’m not satisfied.
That’s the reason why I stole away and cried.

Blues grabbed me at midnight, didn’t turn me loose ‘til day.
Blues grabbed me at midnight, didn’t turn me loose ‘til day.
I didn’t have no mama to drive these blues away.

The big star fallin’, mama, it ain’t long for day.
The big star fallin’, mama, ‘tain’t long for day.
Maybe the sunshine will drive these blues away.

(Oh, come here quick.
Come on mama,
You know I gotcha.)

Mm – mm.
Mm – mm.
Mm – mm.

Victor 21474
Atlanta, Georgia; October 18, 1927

Son House is one of my favorite bluesmen, and one who really paid attention to the quality of his lyrics. "Pony Blues" is traditionally about sexual prowess; House's version seems to be about more than that. Everyone will have his or her own interpretation, but to me, House's pony is himself - his soul.

The Pony Blues
Son House

Why don’t you catch my pony; now saddle up my black mare.
Oh, my pony; saddle up, up my black mare.
You know I’m gonna find my baby, well, in the world somewhere.

You know, he’s a travelin’ horse, and he’s too black bad.
He’s a travelin’ pony; I declare, he’s too black bad.
You know he got a gait, now, no Shetland ain’t, ain’t never had.

You know, I take him by the reins and I led him around and round.
I said I take him by the reins and I, I led him around and round.
You know, he ain’t the best in the world, but he’s the best ever been in this town.

You know, he’s a travelin’ horse and he don’t deny his name.
He’s a travelin’ pony and he don’t deny his name.
You know, the way he can travel is a lowdown, oh, dirty shame.

Why don’t you come up here, pony; now come on, please, let’s us go.
I said, come up, get up now; please, pony, now let’s us go.
Let’s we saddle on down on the Gulf of, of Mexico.

You know, the horse that I’m riding, he can foxtrot, he can lope and pace.
I said the pony I’m ridin’, he can foxtrot, he can lope and pace.
You know, a horse with that many gaits, you know, I’m bound to win that race.

Mm, he’s a travelin’ horse and he don’t deny his name.
He’s a travelin’ pony; he don’t deny his name.
You know, the way he can travel is a lowdown, oh, dirty shame.

Library of Congress 92401
Robinsonville, Mississippi; July 17, 1942

Sad Days, Lonely Nights
Junior Kimbrough

My mama told me –
I was a child.
She said, “Son,
Gonna have hard days.”

My daddy told me, too.
He said, “Son,
Gonna have sad days,
Lonely nights;

Sittin’ alone;
Head hung down,
Tears runnin’ down.”

Done got old –
Sad days,
Lonely nights
Done overtaken me.

Sometimes I sit alone;
I wonder ‘bout the things
My mama and daddy told me.

Sad days,
Lonely nights
Done overtaken me.

Fat Possum 1006
Holly Springs, Mississippi; April, 1994

Memory Pain

Percy Mayfield

Every time I see a woman, it makes me think about mine.
Every time I see a woman, it make me think of mine.
And the way she used to treat me, boys, I just can’t keep from cryin’.

I used to come home in the evenin’; that woman would be gone.
When I would come home in the evenin’, my woman would be gone.
And when I would get up in the mornin’, boys, she’d just be coming home.

I don’t see well, and I’m absent-minded,
And I hardly sleep at all.
My past has put me on a habit
Of nicotine and alcohol.
It serve me right to suffer; serve me right to be alone.
Seems I’m still livin’ with the memory of the days that’s past and gone.

Specialty 2126
Hollywood, California; April 23, 1952

This Joe Callicott song was later recorded by Ry Cooder as "France Chance." Callicott's reference to "great news" means "big news," not "good news."

Love Me Baby Blues
Joe Callicott

Drop down, baby, just like showers of rain;
Hate to hear my fair brown call my name.
Yeah, I hate to hear my fair brown call my name;
Well, she calls so loud and the poor girl calls so plain.

Walked to the station, tears runnin’ down;
I got news my baby done left town.
Yeah, I got news my baby, well, she done blowed this town.
Well, I got great news – my baby done blowed this town.

Rooster crowed in England; heard ‘im in France.
Look like the other guy won’t ‘low me no chance.
Yeah, look like the mmm…, ah, they won’t ‘low me no chance.
Ah, look like to me I can’t get a possible chance.

I knows my doggie when I hear him bark;
I know my baby if I feel her in the dark.
Yeah, I know my baby… I feel her in the….

Ah, tell me woman, how can you be so mean?
Give all of my money out on the brand new stream.
Baby, oh tell me, woman, how can you be so…?

Arhoolie 1042
Nesbit, Mississippi; August, 1967

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Chance Encounter With Ma Rainey

I'll begin this post as so many bloggers have over the years: It's been a long time since my last post. I'll try not to let that happen again. Now, on to business:

Yesterday I drove the 90 miles or so from Atlanta to Columbus, Georgia to hunt for 78s and do some geocaching. Columbus in a nice little city; the downtown area is pretty healthy, mostly due to the large number of Columbus State University students spending their money, I imagine. After looking around downtown for awhile, I drove down 5th Avenue and was surprised to see a historical marker proclaiming "Ma Rainey Home."

Ma Rainey was one of the seminal blues performers and recording artists, although "seminal" seems like an odd adjective to apply to a woman. She was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus in 1886 - earlier, notice, than either Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson. She was singing the blues on tours throughout the South by the time she was 20, and was one of the first Southern blues singers to record - although Bessie Smith beat her to the studios by ten months. Rainey recorded 111 released sides (including alternate takes); unfortunately, her entire recording career was for Paramount Records, famous for the poor quality of their recordings and pressings. But enough of her voice comes through the lousy sound to make it clear that she was the real deal - a strong, earthy singer who sounds like she grew up with the blues.

I had forgotten that this great woman was from Columbus. By the time my brain had processed what I had just seen, I had passed the house. I quickly backed up, pulled over and got out of the car. I read the marker several times, and stared at the house for awhile. It's a large house - I suspect Rainey rented out rooms - and it's painted yellow, as it apparently was when Rainey lived there between her retirement in 1935 and death in 1939. The house is now a museum, but I didn't know that - there was nothing to indicate that it was open to the public. So I just stared.

The marker indicated that Porterdale Cemetery, where Rainey is buried, was nearby. I found the cemetery about a half mile away. Three guys were digging a grave near the entrance, so I pulled over and asked where Ma Rainey's grave was, and one of them showed me. Rainey is buried between two of her Pridgett sisters; each has a concrete slab over her grave. Ma's just reads "Gertrude Rainey" and the date of her death, but she also has a nice new headstone proclaiming her status as "Mother of the Blues."

After visiting the grave, I had the urge to drive back by the house while playing some Ma Rainey music. This was all unplanned, so I didn't have any Rainey CDs with me, but I had brought Allen Lowe's idiosyncratic blues history box set Really the Blues? as road music, so I found "Don't Fish in My Sea" and cranked it up.

It was very cool to run across Rainey's house more or less by chance, and to be led to her gravesite by the plaque. I'm planning to go back before too long, actually visit the museum and take some pictures.

At the cemetery, I had a gut-wrenching moment not directly related to Ma Rainey. Porterdale Cemetery was a burying ground for the black residents of Columbus - for most of the South's history, segregation didn't end with death. Near Rainey's grave was the grave of an infant. The headstone was inscribed with the child's given name (which I don't remember), the date of her death (1858) and "Kizzie's Baby." No last names. I thought it was odd, until it hit me - Kizzie and her child didn't have last names. They were slaves. You can't live down here without frequently thinking about the terrible history of the region, but it was a powerful experience to unexpectedly come across the raw evidence of human slavery - not in a museum, not in a book, but while just wandering around.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

So Long, Donna's

Music has been a part of life on New Orleans' Rampart Street at least since the beginnings of jazz. On South Rampart one could hear Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet playing at the Eagle Saloon or young Louis Armstrong holding forth at the Red Onion. (Both of these buildings are still standing.) The ballroom of the Astoria Hotel was a popular spot in the 1920s and 30s; you could catch Lee Collins and David Jones with their Astoria Hot Eight. Heading downtown to North Rampart, Luis Russell led the band at the Cadillac before moving north to Chicago. The Boswell Sisters were "discovered" while singing at the New Orleans Athletic Club. Cosimo Matassa opened his first recording studio at the corner of North Rampart and Dumaine, the corner immortalized in Professor Longhair's "Go To the Mardi Gras." In the 1970s, Lu & Charlie's featured Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, and James Booker. More recently, Big Sam Williams' Funky Butt was one of the best places in the city to hear music, but the club never reopened after Katrina hit. And now an era has ended: a couple of weeks ago Donna's, the last music club on North Rampart, closed its doors for the last time.

Music clubs come and go all the time; none of them last forever - although it looks like the Village Vanguard has a shot at immortality. So why does the closing of Donna's affect me so much?

From the time that it opened in the early 1990s (I don't remember the exact year), Donna's was something special. Even to an introvert like me, who mostly just wants to be left alone, Donna's was warm and welcoming. It's kind of a cliche, but you felt like family as soon as you walked in the door.

And, of course, the music was often amazing. In the early days, Donna featured brass bands; there weren't really any other clubs featuring this amazing New Orleans hybrid music at the time. The bands would stand at one end of the room, and if you wanted to use the restroom, you had to walk through the band. The first time I heard a New Orleans brass band in the flesh was in Jackson Square, where the young Rebirth Brass Band was playing for tips, but my second exposure to this incredible sound was at Donna's, where I heard the Algiers Brass Band. It was such a stunning experience that I went back a couple of nights later to hear the Pin Stripe BB. I was also fortunate enough to catch Tuba Fats' Chosen Few, the Mahogany, Treme, Hurricane (from Holland), and Hot 8 Brass Bands there.

Later, of course, they built a bandstand against the windows facing Rampart. And expanding from brass bands, Donna booked a variety of New Orleans music (mostly jazz) into the club.

Memories from Donna's:

The Tom McDermott Quartet had just played a version of "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me" which took all sorts of unexpected and unusual turns. I remember one passage in which drummer Shannon Powell was playing in a different, but related, tempo than the rest of the group. As they played the last note, a police car zoomed down North Rampart, sirens blaring. Bassist Matt Perrine laughed and said, "Oh, no - the trad police!"

Uncle Lionel Batiste coming into the club, dressed as sharp as a tack, and dancing with all the young ladies to whatever band was playing.

Speaking of Mr. Batiste - standing near him as the Treme Brass Band was playing and realizing just how interesting and creative his bass drumming is.

Hearing Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers' dark, spooky version of "Light Up." One young man took the message of the song to heart and lit up a joint in the middle of the floor. Donna, who was sensitive to illegal shenanigans in her club, came over the bar like some sort of action hero and had the guy out the door in seconds.

The sitters-in: you never knew who was going to show up to play - Leroy Jones, Nicholas Payton, David Torkanowsky, Kermit, visiting musicians from Europe or Japan. One night Tom McDermott was playing with the young band Loose Marbles when veteran trumpeter Jack Fine came in and sat at the bar. He stayed there all night with his horn on the bar, and whenever he felt like it, he'd pick up the trumpet and join in from his barstool.

And on a couple of occasions, Donna's was where I experienced some of the best music I have ever heard in my life. I can think of at least two evenings when Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott, playing either with a quartet or as a duo, "lifted the bandstand," as Thelonious Monk put it - they played music that transcended "good music" and touched another level.

Donna's husband Charlie manned the kitchen. I still think his barbecue ribs were the best I ever had.

Donna and Charlie decided to close the club for a variety of reasons. Charlie has had health problems, and Donna has been commuting to and from Florida, where she has a teaching job. But the primary reason seems to be the condition of the building; the landlord has been unwilling to make repairs, and the building has been slowly falling apart. Incidentally, this was one of the reasons for the demise of the Funky Butt - and that building was owned by the same landlord.

I don't live in New Orleans; I was a couple-of-times-a-year visitor to Donna's. I doubt anyone associated with the club would remember me. But I owe some of my most cherished memories to that little club on the corner of North Rampart and St. Ann. So long, Donna's - I'll miss you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Barbecue in the South

Life is too short to let it pass without eating barbecue. Of course, if you eat too much barbecue, you won't live as long - but that's another story.

First of all, some definition of terms. Be forewarned that I'm going to do something that I usually avoid: embrace my regional prejudices. This post is concerned with barbecue as it's found in the southeastern United States: that group of states starting in eastern Louisiana (western Louisiana might as well be Texas) and forming a crescent around to Virginia. Down here we believe that:

"Barbecue" is a noun, not a verb. The practice of cooking meat outdoors on a grill is "grilling," not "barbecuing."

With all due respect to my friends in Texas and Kansas City, beef is not barbecue.

Barbecue is pork slow-cooked over hickory wood and served with sauce on it. It's that simple. But something about the interaction of pork, hickory smoke, and sauce results in a dish that's more than the sum of its parts.

The sauce is sometimes applied during the cooking process, but most often added just before eating. It can be tomato-, vinegar-, or mustard-based. I've always been partial to barbecue sauce that uses tomato as its base, but as I get older, I find that I'm enjoying vinegar-based sauces quite a bit.

To me, an indispensable accompaniment to barbecue is brunswick stew - a sometimes mysterious concoction which usually contains pork, chicken, tomatoes, corn, and occasionally other vegetables. Brunswick stew is not universal throughout the South, though; in South Carolina and eastern Georgia they put together something they call barbecue hash instead of brunswick stew. I've been told not to ask what's in it. And one night, in a barbecue joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I had to explain brunswick stew to the waitress; she had never heard of it. I told her that we always ate it with our barbecue in Georgia and described the ingredients. She thought it sounded pretty good. At that point I broke off our conversation, grabbed my newspaper, and smashed a cockroach that was crawling across my table. I still enjoyed the barbecue.

There are stylistic differences in barbecue in different parts of the South. Some places favor using the leaner cuts of pork; some use fattier parts of the pig, for more flavor. In North Carolina, the sauce tends to be vinegar-based; in South Carolina they favor mustard-based sauce. Alabama and Mississippi seem pretty firmly in the tomato-based sauce camp. In Memphis there are places where you have to specify that you don't want slaw on your sandwich; it's considered a given. In north Georgia, the brunswick stew tends to be composed mostly of finely-chopped meat. As you travel further south, the stew contains more vegetables. There are differences between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue that seem to be mostly technical in nature; they will concern the cook, but not the person sitting at the table. It's been said that Georgia can't make up its mind what it wants its barbecue to be. That's pretty much true - you'll find all sorts of sauces and stews in the state.

The best barbecue is found in the shabby little restaurants throughout the South, often out in the middle of nowhere or in run-down neighborhoods in the cities and towns. An ugly cinder block building is a good sign, as are uncertain business hours and a very limited menu. I will drive (and I'm not alone in this) miles out of my way to eat at a good barbecue joint, and I always try to make barbecue part of my agenda when I'm traveling through the South.

Yesterday I ate at my favorite Georgia barbecue joint - Old Clinton Barbecue, about fifteen miles northeast of Macon. Naming Old Clinton as my favorite is somewhat arbitrary, given the competition. Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson is usually considered to serve up the best 'cue in Georgia. Sprayberry's in Newnan is excellent, and Dean's in Jonesboro has a lot to recommend it. Harold's, on the south side of Atlanta, is usually very good - about once every 15 visits you may get an unpleasantly fatty serving of pork. My favorite brunswick stew can be had at the Georgia Pig, which is in Brunswick, fittingly enough. Fincher's in Macon, Sconyer's in Augusta, and Vandy's in Statesboro are are all worth a drive to visit. One of my favorite meals was about 15 years ago, at Richardson's Barbecue in tiny Iron City, in the southwestern corner of the state. They had a jukebox which reflected the rural population of the area perfectly - it was half-filled with country records and half-filled with blues. I kept ordering more food and feeding quarters into the jukebox - blues records for me, thank you. I revisited Richardson's about two years ago; the barbecue was still excellent, but the jukebox was gone.

But Old Clinton Barbecue.... It's odd - the sauce is not very good when sampled by itself; it's salty, thin, vinegary. But by some alchemy, it enhances the excellent smoked pork perfectly. The ladies behind the counter also know just how much sauce to ladle onto the sandwiches; I tried putting a little extra sauce on the last quarter of mine, and it destroyed the perfection. I only visit Old Clinton once a year. Between visits, I sometimes wonder if the barbecue is really as good as I remember. And it always is.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wonder and Madness at 78 Revolutions per Minute

My record collecting has been out of hand for years. My wife just shakes her head when I come home with more recorded music. But until fairly recently, I could tell her, "Well, at least I don't collect 78s." Those who have read this blog regularly know that I can no longer make that claim.

Record collectors are a little nuts anyway, but collecting 78 RPM records is just over the top. In an age when an iPod can hold 1000 hours of music, filling your home with highly breakable pieces of shellac which hold six minutes of music is just ridiculous. And they will fill your home - 78s take up a lot of room. I'm up to seven boxes.

So why bother? Well, the reason I got into 78s is that there is still some music which can't be heard any other way. Not much, these days, with some exhaustive CD reissue programs around the world, but there are still 78s that have not been reissued in any other form. The Boyce Brown record on the Collector's Item label (discussed in an earlier post) is a prime example. I've got more than a few very cool records which are unavailable in any other form.

And even though most of the stuff is available in other formats, there is still something kind of magical about hearing the music as the musicians expected it to be heard at the time. I'm not saying that they wouldn't have preferred more advanced technology if it had been available, but most of the music issued on 78s was conceived to be issued in that form.

And a well-made 78 in good condition can sound wonderful. There is always some surface noise present, but the ears quickly adjust to that. Many LP and CD reissues of material from 78s filter out the surface noise, which also takes out frequencies of the music, removing some of the "life" from the sound. I never had any complaint about the sound quality of my CD reissue of the 1923 recordings by A. J. Piron's New Orleans Orchestra - until I found one of the original records in excellent condition. The 78 sounds much better than the CD. There are certain records in my collection that I cherish for their sound - I can hear Louis Armstrong's breath through his horn and hear Eddie South's bow on the strings of his violin.

There's more to my love of these old records - something less tangible. They are artifacts from the past - windows to a forgotten world. As I hold or play a 78, I often speculate on who originally owned the record - why did they buy this particular record - did they enjoy it? I recently bought a box of records from an antique dealer in Chattanooga. There were a few records in the box which "didn't belong" - they obviously came from another source. But most of the box seemed to be from a single collection. Whose records were they?

Well, the original owner was probably from the country, presumably somewhere in East Tennessee or North Georgia. The vast majority of the records are what we would now call country music, but the style was usually called "hillbilly" at the time. Most of the records come from a ten-year period starting in 1924; the earliest record is a real gem from that year - an Okeh record by Henry Whitter, the first "hillbilly" artist to record. The record buyer's tastes leaned, for the most part, toward the more commercial side of country music - Carson Robison is the most-represented artist, and his music was slicker and more "citified" than the more down-home hillbilly musicians. But there were plenty of amazing "real-deal" records in the box, too, by groups like the West Virginia Night Owls, the North Carolina Ramblers, and the Carter Family.

The person (or family) who accumulated this collection was probably fairly religious - there are quite a few "white gospel" discs in the stack. He (or they) was probably Irish, and not too many generations removed from the Emerald Isle. There are Irish songs performed in country style (like a Conqueror record by Mac and Bob), but there is one straight-up record of Irish dance tunes by the Four Provinces Orchestra, an Irish band out of Philadelphia.

My precursor's record buying tailed off around 1934, but there were a few later records in the stack, like the bizarre gospel song "Television in the Sky," recorded in 1939 by the West Virginia trio of Cap, Andy and Flip. The most recent record is a 1942 Roy Acuff.

I owe this mysterious person a debt for bringing together this fascinating collection of early country music. And I'll keep buying those ten- and twelve-inch shellac discs until I totally run out of room.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Goodbye to Two Giants

I haven't posted here in awhile, and it gives me no pleasure that this post is a memorial. Two giants of avant-garde jazz (for lack of a better term) have died in the past few days. Trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon passed last week at the age of 84. And tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, 81, left us yesterday.

For much of their careers, these two men were, to an extent, outsiders - even by the already marginalized standards of avant-garde improvised music. Both were founding members of organizations whose purpose was to encourage and promote the somewhat challenging music created by their members; Dixon was the primary mover behind the Jazz Composers Guild, which grew out of the October Revolution in Jazz, a week-long series of concerts he set up in 1964. Anderson was a founding member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the Chicago organization that gave a forum to Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman, George Lewis, and many others. The Jazz Composers Guild soon fell apart, split by the differing aims of its members, but the AACM is still going strong.

On his first recording, a 1962 album by the Bill Dixon/Archie Shepp Quartet, Dixon sounds like a fairly conventional free-jazz trumpet player, if that's not too much of a contradiction in terms. It was soon apparent that his music went beyond Jazz with a capital J, however. His magnificent 1966 record Intents and Purposes sounds like it has at least one foot in the realm of contemporary classical music. And his trumpet style developed into one of the most distinctive and unusual in jazz - he used smears, spaces, squeezed notes, blats, sounds that were more air that pitch, and multiphonics. And it all worked; when a Dixon solo was over, it felt like a unified statement, not like a series of effects.

Bill Dixon was, by many accounts, a difficult figure to deal with. I suspect that he would have responded to such a statement by saying that he was uncompromising. He became a professor at Bennington College at Vermont in the late 1960s, and remained there for many years. Dixon recorded infrequently in the seventies and eighties, but recordings became more frequent during the last two decades of his life. His solo on "With (Exit)," from Cecil Taylor's 1966 Conquistador! album, is still one of the most striking passages in recorded music. Just as the piano, basses, and drums begin to get more agitated, Dixon enters with long, ethereal notes separated by spaces, the intervals carefully chosen. It's a beautiful moment.

For many years, Fred Anderson was even more obscure than Bill Dixon, at least to the world outside of Chicago. He made strong contributions to Joseph Jarman's first two albums in 1966 and 1968, then didn't record again for a decade. When I was a young man learning about jazz, I knew Anderson as a somewhat legendary figure who had contributed to the Chicago avant-garde scene of the the sixties, but I had no idea if he had ever recorded again. Somewhere along the way, he became something of a father figure to younger Chicago musicians such as Hamid Drake and Ken Vandermark. Recordings became more frequent, and he developed a strong reputation in the avant-garde jazz world.

His tenor sound was filled with history; you could hear Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons in his playing, although his influences were so well internalized that he never sounded like anyone except himself. While Dixon went into academia, Anderson became a saloon owner - his Velvet Lounge on the Near South Side of Chicago became a mecca for musicians and fans. For those of us who never had the chance to hear him there, there are several live albums from the Velvet Lounge, including an 80th birthday tribute CD and DVD.

Recordings by Dixon and Anderson are easier to find now than in the past, although there are still plenty of gaps in what is available. Hear them on record, since we can't hear them in person anymore. Every year, every month, fewer giants walk the earth. We've just lost two.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Brother Matthew

When I was a high school kid trying to learn all I could about jazz, I found a book in my school's library that fascinated me; I checked it out over and over again. It was the first (1955) edition of Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer's A Pictorial History of Jazz. Even though that book was pretty outdated (it was nearly 20 years old by the time I discovered it), it was the first book that helped me get a handle on the complex, sometimes baffling history of the music. I spent hours poring over the rather poorly-reproduced photographs and captions, trying to understand how all of these musicians fit together, and wondering what they sounded like, since I had only heard recordings by a few of them. In retrospect, the Pictorial History presents a pretty flawed and incomplete view of jazz history, but it was very helpful to me at the time, and I was glad to find a battered copy in a used book store as an adult.

One picture particularly intrigued me, for some reason, and I'm still not entirely sure why. It's a picture of group that only existed for one day, and only for the purpose of making a 78 RPM record for the Collector's Item label. The only one of the five musicians who could be considered to be a fairly big name in the jazz world was cornetist Wild Bill Davidson, although pianist Mel Henke did a good bit of recording later, both in the jazz and pop worlds. But the most interesting figure in the photograph was the small-boned, wispy man with the thinning hair who was playing the alto saxophone. Boyce Brown was described in the text as "obscure," but I somehow knew right away that he was someone I wanted to hear.

Boyce Matthew Brown (1910-1959) was not your typical rough-and-tumble Chicago jazzman; he was introspective, temperate, and lived with his mother. He wrote poetry, read philosophy, and listened to the music of impressionist composers like Debussy and Delius. He was musically literate, but his extremely poor eyesight made sight-reading difficult for him, so he did most of his playing in small Chicago jazz bands. Brown's playing is striking and unusual, even after the passage of many years. He improvised with great drive, but at the same time, his phrasing was often asymmetrical and off-center, and his note choices were unusual.

Boyce Brown recorded fewer than a dozen times in his career. His recording debut was with Paul Mares and His Friars Society Orchestra in 1935; this session is currently available on a Retrieval CD called New Orleans Rhythm Kings: The Complete Set. He is a racehorse out of the gate on the first tune, "Nagasaki;" it's clear that a special talent has been turned loose.

Perhaps his most well-known recordings are the four 1939 sides which Jimmy McPartland's band made for the Decca Chicago Jazz album. This album (a set of six 78 RPM records) attracted a good bit of attention at the time. George Avakian's orginal liner notes are worth quoting:

To most, this record ("China Boy") will serve as an introduction to Boyce Brown's alto sax. He shares a chorus with Bud Jacobson and gives us a typical solo: perfectly executed, fast, full of notes, but completely logical and amazingly conceived. Boyce's personality is expressed in his music - a statement which has worn thin, but here it is the cold truth. Boyce is unlike any musician you have ever met, and his is a completely individual and unorthodox style. Take warning that Boyce will need a lot of listening. His complexity makes a casual hearing worthless. Careful attention will be rewarded by an understanding of the subtleties of Boyce's ideas, which are distinctively his own.

Somewhat amazingly, the publicity the Decca album generated led to Brown winning the "Best Alto Sax" category in the 1940 Down Beat magazine readers' poll - above Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter! Unfortunately, this was "little more than a prelude to obscurity," as writer Richard Sudhalter has said. Boyce had one more record date on which he was prominently featured: the aforementioned Collector's Item session. It's not entirely clear who the leader of the session was; there is no band name on the labels, although they do have all the musicians' names. The sides are often listed in discographies under Wild Bill Davidson's name, and the band is sometimes called the Collector's Item Cats. The matrix numbers in the run-off groove area of the record start with the letters "BB," however, which leads me to believe that it was Boyce's date.

The two issued sides, "On a Blues Kick" and "I Surrender Dear," have never been reissued, as far as I can tell - although "On a Blues Kick" is scheduled for issue on a future volume of Allen Lowe's mammoth blues history set, Really the Blues? (dubbed from my copy of the original record, by the way). These two sides perhaps represent Brown's greatest recorded solos - thoughtful, interesting, and somehow logical and odd at the same time. And for me, they are the reason that I started collecting 78s - I wanted to hear these legendary recordings, and there was no way to do so except to find the original issue.

Because of the rarity of these recordings, I have posted them in mp3 form for listeners to hear or download. Click here to hear this rare record. It's unclear who the copyright holder is; if contacted by such a party, I will remove these recordings upon request.

Boyce Brown's story took an unusual turn, at least for a jazz musician. This quiet, thoughtful man converted to Catholicism in 1952, and became a monk in the Servite order the next year. He played the saxophone only occasionally after that, once for a 1956 ABC-Paramount album called Brother Matthew With Eddie Condon's Jazz Band. He agreed to make the album, in part, to raise money for the monastery. These days the record is almost universally panned, but it's not so bad, in my opinion. Brother Matthew is rusty, but his ideas are interesting, and Condon's guys sound like they're having a alcohol-fueled good time. Brown died in the Servite monastery three years later.

The best source for information about Boyce Brown is probably Richard Sudhalter's book Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz. It contains a quote from George Avakian, made over 50 years after his notes for the Chicago Jazz album:

People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted. I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing? Where did it come from? I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Love Letter

It's been a few weeks since I've posted here. I've written parts of several posts, and ended up rejecting them all - none of them were turning out right. Part of my problem is that it's been a strange, stressful month or so, personally and professionally speaking - more about that later, perhaps.

So I'm going to write something short and simple: a love letter.

A couple of weeks ago I visited New Orleans for the 27th time. (Yes, I have kept track.) I've never lived there, but it feels almost like home to me. I've considered moving to the City That Care Forgot at several points in my life, but there was always something that prevented me from taking that step: family, friends, a job, a band. Perhaps that's a good thing. I sometimes think that if I had moved to New Orleans 15 years ago, there's a good chance I would be dead by now - my early demise brought on by excessive intake of food and alcohol, coupled with lack of sleep brought on by fear of missing some music.

I won't give a detailed report on my latest visit, except to say the Tim Laughlin has the most beautiful clarinet sound I've ever heard, Matt Perrine is still the most amazing tuba player on the planet, and Ben Schenck and the Panorama Jazz Band just get better and better. This visit, like most of them, was a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected. I always learn something new in New Orleans - something about the city, something about music, something about myself. And damn - the music! People ask me if I visit during Jazz Fest. Due to my work schedule, I've never made it to the Jazz and Heritage Festival, but incredible music can be heard in New Orleans every night of the year. A night spent exploring the clubs on Frenchmen Street will provide enough musical inspiration to sustain body and soul for months.

But one can't eat, drink, and listen to music 24 hours a day (although some New Orleanians seem to be trying). What else do I do in the city? Well, I wander, I walk, I explore. The architecture, the history, and just the feel of the city are extraordinary - like nowhere else. You never now when you'll come across something amazing - and in New Orleans the ordinary is amazing enough. I love wandering through the Lower Quarter (the quiet, mostly residential side of the French Quarter, near Esplanade). Such a walk is usually the first thing I do when I hit the city and the last thing I do before I have to leave.

And leaving New Orleans is always hard. Even if I miss my wife; even if my body is rebelling from the quantity and richness of the food; even if I have worn myself out and crave the routine and peace of home, it's hard to leave. I feel a pang in my heart as soon as I hit the entrance ramp for I-10 East. I know it will be months before I see my favorite city again, and it always hurts.

New Orleans is definitely a city that doesn't live in the past; it lives for today. But the past is never forgotten; as William Faulkner might say, it's not even past. Tradition, memory, possibilities, and the present moment all exist at the same time. The city keeps its traditions, even as it changes them to fit the moment. No matter how many times I vist, I never quite know what to expect. I love New Orleans.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Way of the World

It only seems right, since this blog is named after a Mose Allison song, that I take note of the fact that Mr. Allison's first new album since 2002 (and first studio album since 1998!) was released last week. I've spun The Way of the World several times in the past seven days, and, for what it's worth, Jeffery approves.

The Way of the World was produced by Joe Henry, and it has a somewhat different sound from anything Mose has issued before, with plenty of slide guitars, loose snares, and an overall vibe that is less "jazzy" that usual for Mose. The album is short - just over 35 minutes - but it seems "complete." There is one instrumental, "Crush," and if you have heard any live Mose you'll have an idea of what that track sounds like. In addition to new material, there are two standards, one sung as a duet with daughter Amy, and a couple of older Mose songs. Luckily these are not songs that he has performed to death, and they're two I've always liked: "Let It Come Down" and "Ask Me Nice." There's one song written by Amy (sung by Mose) - "Everybody Thinks You're an Angel," which I didn't much like at first, but which has grown on me. Mose also sings a couple of blues written by others - I really like this version of Roosevelt Sykes' "Some Right, Some Wrong" - its minimalist lyrics could have been written by Allison himself. The best of the new songs, in my opinion, is "Modest Proposal." Maybe I like it so much because it seems to indicate that Mr. Allison and I have similar ideas about how the universe works; those who are more traditionally devout might not like it very much.

Mose's voice is that of an 82-year-old, but it was always an unusual, personal singing voice anyway. I'll have to live with this album a while before I have a feel for where it stands in the Mose Allison canon, but it's certainly a worthy addition. I hope there are more to come.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Carl LeBlanc

I thought this might a good time to write about New Orleans guitarist/banjoist/singer Carl LeBlanc, since I've been listening to lots of Sun Ra and New Orleans music lately. LeBlanc is neither a genius nor an innovator - just a journeyman musician with a variety of performing experiences. But he intrigues me: what other musician has toured and recorded with both the Sun Ra Arkestra and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?

LeBlanc grew up in New Orleans' Seventh Ward and heard the city's brass bands on parade when he was a kid. But it was the Beatles' famous Ed Sullivan appearance which inspired him to take up the guitar; a few years later his inspirations were James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. During his apprenticeship years of playing with R & B and jazz bands in New Orleans, he got a call to sub on banjo at Preservation Hall. His dreadlocks, attitude, and lack of knowledge of the traditional jazz repertoire did not endear him to his fellow musicians; he was not called back for 20 years.

LeBlanc came to the attention of the larger jazz world when he joined Sun Ra's Arkestra in the mid 1980s. He has called Ra one of the two great teachers he has had; the other was Narvin Kimball - more about that later. Ra apparently took a liking to the young man and taught him many of the standards LeBlanc didn't know. He appears on several Arkestra recordings from this period; he is most prominently featured on Blue Delight, on which he contributes several excellent solos.

At some point LeBlanc moved back to the Crescent City with, among other things, a stack of Sun Ra compositions Sunny had let him copy. He became something of a protege of Narvin Kimball, an outstanding banjoist who had recorded with Oscar Celestin's band back in the 1920s. In more recent years, Kimball had gained widespread recognition as the banjo player with the main Preservation Hall touring band. Kimball eventually gave LeBanc his beautiful gold-trimmed banjo, and Carl took over as the banjoist with the number one Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

As it did with many New Orleans residents, Katrina dealt a serious blow to LeBlanc. He lost his home, instruments, and Sun Ra manuscripts in the flood; he did manage to save one instrument, though - Kimball's banjo. He has spoken of the connections between his very different mentors - in concert he often sings one of Narvin Kimball's signature songs, "You Can Depend on Me," while playing the older man's banjo. Ironically, though, LeBlanc says that it was Sun Ra who taught him the song.

In addition to his fine playing on several Preservation Hall Jazz Band albums, LeBlanc has issued a solo album on Preservation Hall Records, New Orleans' Seventh Ward Griot. It must confuse a lot of people who buy it at the Hall or at concerts, because traditional jazz makes up only a small part of the record. Most of it is genial R & B - either classic or original - with LeBlanc playing all the instruments. Speaking for myself, I don't find most of these songs very memorable, but there is also LeBlanc's version of "You Can Depend on Me," a striking vocalese rendition of Louis Armstong's opening trumpet solo from "West End Blues," and a strange solo guitar/voice performance of "Madman Across the Water." That last one just confused me at first, then I realized it was more of a tribute to Jimi Hendrix than to Elton John.

But the track that, in my opinion, makes the whole album worthwhile is "On Super Sunday," LeBlanc's version of a New Oleans Mardi Gras Indian chant. I won't go into too much detail about the city's Mardi Gras Indian culture or the practice of parading Uptown in full Indian costume on Super Sunday (St. Joseph's Day). But most of the New Orleans Indian songs ("Indian Red," "Corrine Died on the Battlefield," "Iko Iko," etc.) are about how brave and pretty the Indians are, or about having a good time. LeBlanc's "Super Sunday" starts out typically:

On Super Sunday
On Super Sunday
Hunter's Field
Keepin' it real
Just one deal
Do what you feel

But about 45 seconds in, he sounds a more menacing note:

You get what you give
And you die like you live

From there the song turns into an account of the quick, casual violence that can change things so quickly in New Orleans.

Just havin' fun
Then pop when the gun

Tambourine ringin'
But ain't nobody singin'
Pick up the baby
Look for your lady
You gotta move fast
Cause it might be your last

Layin' in the grass
Like year before last
One more dead
Indian Red.

LeBlanc's anger and helplessness in the face of this violence is palatable on this track. Carl LeBlanc has accomplished a lot in his musical career; "On Super Sunday," perhaps the only Mardi Gras Indian song that will bring a lump to your throat, is not the least of those accomplishments.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What Jazz Is... Sometimes

A couple of times every year Standard Deviation, a band I play with, plays a house party in a large, 100-year-old house in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta. The house is owned by a popular older couple with ties to city's the old-school liberal activist community. The parties are always a blast - lots of food, lots of alcohol, and lots of interesting people: writers, folksingers, liberal talk-show hosts, drag queens, and folks from the neighborhood.

We play a pretty wide variety of jazz at these parties, including tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Monk, Gershwin, and Cole Porter. And the people love it - all night long party-goers hang out to listen, drink, smooch, and especially to dance. We played one of these parties last Saturday, and at its height, that rare, magical alchemy happened - the band, the dancers, and the listeners became one intense, sweaty, happy entity.

For a jazz musician these days, especially one whose music usually leans toward the avent-garde, this can be a rare phenomenon. Jazz is often relegated to the role of background music for eating, drinking, or conversation. Or it's presented in a concert setting, with the band on a lighted stage and the audience in the dark, invisible to the musicians. And there's nothing wrong with that. But it sure is nice to experience that immediate, symbiotic connection with the audience.

Different people have different views of what jazz is, probably because jazz is so many things. It's often called America's classical music or our country's contribution to the arts. I know that comments like that are meant to be positive, but I hope jazz never becomes what classical music has become in some circles - atrophied music to be listened to in the dark, quietly.

Admittedly, the party-goers reacted so well to the music partly because most of the tunes included vocals, and because most of the music featured a strong, danceable beat. But once that connection was made, they were willing to follow us into slightly more challenging areas. Of course, we didn't go into any 30-minute versions of Albert Ayler tunes, but that's not what we were there for. I'm not about to abandon more challenging areas of music, but it's great to swing hard on "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" and have the audience swinging along with you. That's not all jazz can be, but I hope it never loses that populist connection.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Member of the Angel Race

Well, I seem to have started one of my periodic Sun Ra jags - digging out album after album and reminding myself of how incredible this music is. The first Sun Ra album I bought was the Impulse reissue of The Magic City, from 1965. I don't know exactly how old I was, but I think that I was still a teenager. It got to me right away. I knew I was listening to another way of making music than I had experienced before - the music was based on a different aesthetic.

There are plenty of reason why a discerning listener might not like the music of Sun Ra. His music often has a campy, showbiz flavor - albeit from a pretty bizarre angle. His rhythm (and that of his ensembles) is sometimes lumpy/clunky. At times the sections of his large bands played with poor intonation and blend, making the listener wonder what went on at those legendary hours-long rehearsals. And his keyboard style, although it revealed formidable technique, was often offbeat and skittery.

But the impact of Sun Ra's music defies rational criticism. It's more than the sum of it's parts, and that's due to Ra's vision. The music is unusual, deep, accomplished, amateurish, serious, and campy - sometimes all at the same time.

The scope of Ra's recorded output is vast and somewhat baffling. Although he made albums for others, most of his records came out on his own label, Saturn (with its Thoth Intergalactic and Repeto subsidiaries). The release strategy and documentation Ra employed were unusual, to say the least. As I write this, Sound Sun Pleasure!! is playing in the CD player. This album of mostly standards was recorded in 1958, but not released until 1970, when the Sun Ra Arkestra (as he called his band) was playing a completely different style. It must have thoroughly confused those who bought the album at his concerts - the main distribution method for Saturn releases. Furthermore, the personnel list on the back of the album is bogus - Ra just listed a bunch of musicians that were in his band at the time the record was released, most of whom weren't playing with him in 1958. And the version of "Enlightenment" on this album had already been released (in a slightly different mix) on Jazz in Silhouette. This kind of discographical chaos is par for the course for Ra and Saturn - some pressings even paired side one of an album with side two of another.

The almost 850 pages of Robert Campbell and Christopher Trent's The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd edition) make sense of this mess. It's a remarkable book, given the daunting task of sorting out Ra's recordings. I wish it had been around during that brief period in the early 1980s when Rounder Records distributed the Saturn label. One evening I walked into a suburban Atlanta record store and found that the jazz section had a dozen or so Saturn releases with hand-decorated covers. I didn't know much about the Saturn catalog at the time and was confused and uncertain about which records to get, so I walked out without buying anything. I wish I had just grabbed a few at random - they are all rare collector's items today.

What accounts for the impact of Sun Ra's music? Well, for one thing, it is often probing and forward-looking - music "on the edge," as Steve Lacy put it. Ra was a musical explorer who continually tried to push his musicians and himself into unknown territories. As early as 1955, an obscure piece called "Piano Interlude" (eventually released on Deep Purple and on the Evidence reissue of Sound Sun Pleasure!!) reveals a searching, advanced musical imagination, unlike any other in jazz. The piece is built on quartal harmony (chords built on fourths rather than thirds) at first, but flirts more and more with pantonality and atonality as it progresses. Not many jazz musicians were exploring this territory in 1955 - Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor come to mind, but Ra has his own voice and doesn't sound like either of them.

Sun Ra frequently wrote modal pieces in the 1950s - several years before Kind of Blue brought modalism to the forefront of jazz development. By the middle of the 1960s, Ra was creating music completely devoid of tonal center and metered rhythm. Others were doing the same (Cecil Taylor again comes to mind, as does Albert Ayler), but Ra's music is once again very different. Most so-called "free jazz" is still recognizable as jazz because it retains the intensity and forward motion of jazz. But The Magic City and Heliocentric Worlds are different - sounds drift in and out of focus; instruments combine and diverge; the speed and intensity of the music changes frequently. Much of the music from this period can be seen more as the presentation of a kaleidoscopic series of events than of a linear narrative. In that sense it has more in common with Stockhausen or Varese than with conventional jazz.

Ra was also "on the edge" with his use of electronics. He experimented with the Solovox, an early, monophonic electric keyboard, before 1950. He was an early adopter of the Wurlitzer electric piano - hear his 1956 solo piece "Advice to Medics," about which his longtime tenor saxophonist John Gilmore said, "There was a period when, if I was not practicing, I would be listening to that song. There's so much beauty and thought in there." In the mid 1960s he was using instruments like the Rocksicord and Clavioline, and by the end of the decade he had somehow gotten hold of one of the first Moog synthesizers. He seems to have instantly grasped the latter instrument's strengths and limitations; the five solo Moog pieces on My Brother the Wind, Volume II are a beautiful summary of the Moog's possiblities.

But at the same time, Ra kept one foot firmly planted in the music's heritage. Even during his most extreme period, much of his music was intended to swing in a conventional jazz sense, and he never totally abandoned standards as source material. Beginning in the 1970s, he revisited the repertoire of Fletcher Henderson, for whom he did some arranging in Chicago 30 years earlier. For the rest of his career, "Big John's Special," "Queer Notions," and "Can You Take It" frequently showed up in his concerts.

I haven't heard all of Sun Ra's recorded output, and I doubt that few, if any folks have heard it all. But I've heard a lot of it, including most of what are considered his "major" works. One of the striking things about this body of work is that no two albums, even no two pieces, sound alike. Music of great complexity, music of utter simplicity, carefully composed pieces, totally improvised pieces, large bands, small ensembles - they all exist side by side in Ra's world. Of the vast omniverse of Sun Ra's recordings, here are half a dozen of my favorites:

Interstellar Low Ways (also known as Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus (1959/1960) - My favorite early Sun Ra, with gorgeous pieces like "Interstellar Low Ways" and "Space Loneliness" alongside the cool/campy "Interplanetary Music" and "Rocket Number Nine Take Off For the Planet Venus." The latter tune has a tenor solo by John Gilmore that was ahead of its time and which justifies Coltrane's interest in Gilmore during this period.

The Magic City (1965) - The title cut takes up all of side one of the vinyl album - it's monumental and mysterious. The other side contains an early version of the intense "The Shadow World," a piece Ra recorded several times and played from the early sixties to the end of his career. Atlantis and Heliocentric Worlds (Volumes 1 & 2) cover similar ground and are equally fine.

My Brother the Wind, Volume II (1969/1970) - Half prescient synthesizer etudes; half swinging organ-based jazz.

Disco 3000 (1978) - From an Italian tour with a quartet - John Gilmore, Michael Ray on trumpet, and Luqman Ali on drums. Ra was using a Crumar keyboard with a built-in drum machine and programmable bass lines; he used it to create incredible swirls of sound over intense rhythms.

A Fireside Chat With Lucifer (1982) - This album contains the first appearance of the swing/funk anthem "Nuclear War," as well as some free improvisations that can only be described as eloquent. Good luck finding this one - it's never been reissued, although "Nuclear War" has appeared on other albums.

Mayan Temples (1990) - An excellent latter-day recital from Ra, with atonal improvisations, pop standards, modal exotica, and Ra classics like "El is a Sound of Joy."

There's so much more to write/talk about with Sun Ra - the incredible musicians like John Gilmore and Marshall Allen who played with him for years, his poetry, his apprenticeship years, his adoption of Disney songs into his repertoire late in life. But what about the whole outer space thing - did he really believe that he was sent to earth from outer space to save the planet through music, or was it just a showbiz act? He sang, "I know that I'm a member of the angel race; my home is somewhere there out in outer space." My feeling is that it was an act that became more and more real to him as the years passed.

In any case, exploring Ra's music is like traveling through a spiral galaxy. The deeper you get into it, the more you learn. You "see" the music from different angles and grasp more and more of it, although you realize that you'll never totally have a handle on it. But it's a great journey.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Virtual Jazz Tour of New Orleans

It's that time of year again. About halfway through February every year I start pining for New Orleans, that city where I've never lived, but which somehow feels like home to me. So I decided to give myself a virtual tour of my favorite city.

Lately I've been fooling around with Google Maps, particularly the Street View function. If you're not familiar with Street View, here's how it works. Go to Google Maps, zoom in on a location (close enough to distinguish individual streets), then click and drag the yellow humanoid figure at the top left, above the scroll bar. If any streets on your map are available in Street View, they will be highlighted in blue. Drop the little yellow guy onto a street, and the view will change to a panoramic, scrollable, street-level scene. It's an amazing technological achievement, as well as being somewhat creepy, in a Big Brother kind of way.

But it enabled me to "visit" some of my favorite jazz-related spots from 500 miles away. You can reproduce my tour here. I advise that you right-click on each link and open it in a new tab or window, so that you can easily find your way back here. At each location, you can pan, scroll down the street, zoom in, or zoom out. I encourage you to move your view around to get a sense of the neighborhood for each location. You'll figure it out.

We'll start where, in a sense, American music itself started: Congo Square. Before the Civil War, African musical traditions were kept alive during weekly Sunday gatherings of slaves ("generously" allowed by their owners). These meetings were centered around drumming, singing, and dancing. This shaded area is now part of Armstrong Park; you'll see the old Municipal Auditorium in the background. It's just past the edge of the French Quarter, toward the lake. (Directions in New Orleans are commonly given as "Lakeside, Riverside, Downtown, Uptown" instead of "North, South, East, West.") History hangs heavily in the air here, as it does in many spots in New Orleans. Here is the view from North Rampart Street.

If we go to the Downtown edge of Congo Square, by the main entrance to Armstrong Park, then cross Rampart at St. Ann, we'll be at Donna's. Donna's is a little bar with incredible music - brass bands, traditional jazz, modern jazz, and all combinations of the above. It's one of my favorite places to hear music in the city. That's the entrance to the park across the street.

From Donna's we'll head Uptown on Rampart Street. South Rampart Street marks the slightly seedy edge of the Central Business District, and passes through Louis Armstrong's old stomping grounds - a pretty rough neighborhood a century ago, but one with plenty of great music. On the right, at the corner of Rampart and Perdido, is the building which once housed the Eagle Saloon; it still looks solid and formidable. Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, and Sidney Bechet all played here.

Continuing down South Rampart, there's a lonely-looking building on the left. Now a law firm, this was once the Red Onion, a tavern immortalized by the Red Onion Jazz Babies, a recording band featuring Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. They both played here during their New Orleans days.

Further uptown we enter one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans. At the turn of the 20th century, though, it was a middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood, and was home to Charles "Buddy" Bolden, reputedly the first musician to put together the strands of ragtime, blues, and spirituals in such a way that a new music was formed. Here's the view from the corner of Libery and 1st; the Bolden home is behind the big tree. A few feet further down 1st, we can turn around for a good view of Buddy Bolden's house. The house has deteriorated noticeably in the 20 years I have been visiting New Orleans.

St. Charles Avenue follows the curve of the river uptown. One of its major cross streets is Napoleon Avenue, and almost at the end of Napoleon, where it runs into Tchoupitoulas , you'll find Tipitina's, the famous club that was started for a simple reason: to give the late Professor Longhair a place to play. They feature all kinds of music, and most of it is worth hearing.

If you continue down St. Charles, you'll reach its end - you can't go any further without swimming in the Mississippi. Take a right on Carrollton, and you'll end up the the neighborhood of the same name, formerly a separate town. It seems sleepy and slow, even for New Orleans, but the Maple Leaf in the heart of Carrollton is anything but sleepy, especially on Tuesday nights, when the Rebirth Brass Band is in residence. The brilliant, troubled pianist James Booker was a frequent performer here.

After visiting Carrollton, we'll head way back Downtown, to Frenchmen Street in Marigny, past the French Quarter. Frenchmen Street has become the musical center of New Orleans, with a bunch of great clubs - d.b.a., The Blue Nile, etc. But the Cadillac of New Orleans Jazz Clubs is Snug Harbor, where you might hear Ellis Marsalis, Astral Project, Charmaine Neville, or a big name from out of town. If you leave this elegant club, you can cross the street to my favorite New Orleans dive, the Spotted Cat, an amiable dump where you can hear the fabulous Panorama Jazz Band, as well as other talented local musicians.

Further up Frenchmen, at the corner of North Robertson, you'll find the home of Jelly Roll Morton. Like some of the other historic structures in the city, this house has seen better days. This neighborhood was hit pretty hard by Katrina, and many of the houses are in rough shape.

Time to hit the French Quarter - an amazing place, full of incredible architecture, great food, tacky tourist stuff, and bars that never close. These days it's not really the most interesting part of the city for music, though. But I love walking around the quiet part of the Quarter, where Danny Barker was born in a substantial brick house on Chartres Street. There is a nice plaque on the house commemorating its heritage, unlike at the other homes of famous jazzmen in the city.

Around the corner and up a couple of block, you'll find George Lewis's house - it's the orange house with green shutters. I'm sure that Lewis paid next to nothing to rent this place in the 1940s, but it's probably worth a small fortune now. Many of Bunk Johnson's best American Music recordings were made here, and the first New Orleans brass band recording session was held in the back yard in 1945.

We'll make the last stop Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street - it has been my last stop many evenings. Depending on your outlook, the Hall is a tourist spot to be avoided, or it's holy ground. I lean toward the latter viewpoint. Even though my first visit was in 1990, when many jazzheads already considered Preservation Hall to be past its prime, I have heard Percy and Willie Humphrey, Kid Shiek, Narvin Kimball, Jeannette Kimball, Chester Zardis, Tuba Fats, Frog Joseph, and Harold DeJean, among others, in the cramped, uncomfortable confines of the Hall.

I hope you enjoyed the tour, which really only scratched the surface. If you've never been to New Orleans, go! There is much more to the city than Bourbon Street - you can hear incredible music every night of the year.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Magic of Mediocre Monk

Which album is Thelonious Monk's best? Brilliant Corners, Monk's Music, or a collection of his best Blue Note sides would all be reasonable nominees for that honor. Maybe the fairly recent issue of the Carnegie Hall concert with Coltrane is a contender. I know of a few knowledgeable listeners who rate 5 By Monk By 5 above all other Monk albums. But I don't think anyone would place the Columbia album simply called Monk. at the top of the Monkian heap.

And I agree - Monk. (the period is part of the title) is not only not Monk's best album, it's not really even near the top of Monk's Columbia output, which most listeners don't consider on the same level as the Blue Note or Riverside recordings. Without thinking about it very hard, I would put Monk's Dream, Big Band and Quartet in Concert, and Underground from the Columbia catalog above Monk., and on reflection would probably consider other Columbia albums superior to Monk.

But I've listened to Monk. several times in the last few days, and am struck with the realization that even this lesser Monk effort is a magical thing, full of striking moments. The record was made in 1964 by Monk's working quartet of the time, including longtime musical companion Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Ben Riley on drums, and Larry Gales on bass, except on "Teo." That track was recorded seven months earlier than the rest of the album; Butch Warren was the bassist - a fact which wasn't noted on the original album, and is still not mentioned on my 2002 reissue.

Monk. is unusual in that it contains more pop standards than Monk originals - there are only two of the latter. Monk opens the album with his imaginative reharmonization of Gershwin's "Liza;" Rouse's brilliant solo here justifies Monk's loyalty to a saxophonist some critics never thought was musician enough to hang with Monk. "April in Paris," a tune Monk recorded at least seven times, follows. My favorite moment is Monk's last chord, a thick cluster sustained until it fades away. Another standard, "I Love You," is played solo in Monk's best stride-piano-on-acid style. There are two originals, an old one ("Pannonica," written in 1956) and a brand-new one ("Teo"). I don't think anyone would claim that "Teo" is classic Monk, but this deceptively simple tune has some nice, unusual touches.

I'm glad we have the Blue Notes, the Prestige recordings, and the Riversides, but I'm also glad we have albums like Monk. The title of this post is only to be taken seriously in context; if Monk. is mediocre, it's only in comparison to his masterpieces. If this was somehow the only recording we had by an obscure pianist/composer named Thelonious Monk, we'd still know that he was something special.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wlder Concert Report

Last Saturday's Evening With Alec Wilder was more to less successful in these aspects:

Audience response: The smallish hall was packed - we had to put out more chairs. The audience was attentive and appreciative - they even laughed or exclaimed at my Alec Wilder stories. The most gratifying aspect of the event was the number of people who came up with some variation of "Thank you for introducing me to Alec Wilder." They even called for an encore. We didn't have anything prepared, but if I had had the presence of mind, we could have played the last two minutes of "All the Cats Join In" again.

Musical quality: Kind of a mixed bag. There were some really good moments, but nerves took their toll to an extent. If we had a couple of more performances, we could really have things smoking. C'est la vie.

Finances: Well, I didn't lose too much money. I wish I could have paid the musicians more, but at least everybody got something. How does anybody make any money promoting good music?

Anyway, the final tally is on the positive side of the ledger, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe we'll make the Atlanta Alec Wilder concert an annual event. In the meantime, there are some pictures - and more importantly, a few mp3 clips from the concert - here. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Alec Wilder in Atlanta

I'm taking a break from folding programs for the Alec Wilder concert I'm presenting this Saturday night. It's a strange thing - like a campaign staff on election night, I suppose. Ben, my bassist and close friend, reminded me the other night that I've been talking about putting on a concert of Wilder's music for 15 years. About three years ago I started to really pin down repertoire and got that great Atlanta clarinetist, Sandy Wade, to agree to perform the Clarinet Sonata. Various obstacles slowed things down for a year or two, but the pace of the planning picked up about a year ago. We started rehearsing about six months ago, with intensive rehearsals for the past three months. Our final rehearsal made me think we timed the pace just right - the music flowed easily, but still seemed fresh. With a little luck, it could be a really good concert.

But two days out, who really knows? And I have no clear picture of how many people might show up to hear us. And in terms of preparation or publicity, there's not a whole lot more that can be done now. It's going to be what it's going to be. But those of you who are close to Atlanta on Saturday, Feb. 6 are urged to drop by the First Existentialist Congregation (The Old Stone Church - 470 Candler Park Drive) at 8:00 for what should be an interesting and unusual concert. You'll hear some of the best musicians in Atlanta (Scott Hooker, Janna Nelson, Sandy Wade, Ben Gettys, Keith Leslie, Dan Clemenz) and me present some of Alec Wilder's greatest pop, jazz, and classical pieces. Bring ten bucks.