Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Legend in Concert

The second performance by a major jazz artist that I remember attending was by McCoy Tyner. (Not to keep you in suspense, the first was by the Gary Burton Quartet.) I don't remember any of the tunes Tyner's group played, but I remember the intensity of the music - I was sitting just a few feet away from Eric Gravatt's ride cymbal. And I remember all the members of the band - Joe Ford and Ron Bridgewater on saxophones, Charles Fambrough on bass, Tyner and Gravatt, of course, and percussionist Guilherme Franco. This must have been 1976 or '77, at the long-defunct Midtown Pub in Atlanta.

Tyner would have been in his late thirties at that time. He was in his twenties during his tenure as one-fourth of one of the greatest jazz ensembles of all time, the John Coltrane Quartet. And he was 71 when I heard him play a concert with his trio at Atlanta's Variety Playhouse tonight.

Age has taken a step or two off of Tyner's technique, but has not effected his musical instincts. His rhythm section was accomplished, but not particularly distinctive. (I never caught the drummer's name, but Gerald Cannon was the bassist.) The first set was fairly mellow; he opened with "Sama Luyaca," which he first recorded in 1978, and segued into a version of Ellington's "In a Mellotone" which was a swinging delight. The trio's seemingly spontaneous arrangement of Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" included uptempo burning and bluesy medium tempo passages.

The second set had more of the modal intensity I associate with Tyner, with plenty of the "left hand like a drum" that is one of the pianist's trademarks. The highlight of the evening was this set's reading of "Blues on the Corner," from the 1967 Real McCoy album. Tyner overlaid the basic twelve-bar form with complex subsitute harmonies, but never lost the blues feeling. And it swung like hell.

I was pleased to see that the hall was packed; Mr. Tyner seemed touched by the warm reception he received. As he was making his final speech of the evening, a couple of ladies in the audience yelled, "We love you!" They spoke for all of us.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

King Bolden

Sooner or later, everyone who is at all interested in the history of jazz has got to deal with Buddy Bolden. By the time researchers began looking into the origins of the music in the 1930s, Charles Bolden (1877-1931) was already more legend than man. The Bolden story usually included these elements:

Buddy Bolden was the first jazz musician. (Well, maybe.)

He could blow his cornet so powerfully that when he was playing in Lincoln Park off Carrollton Avenue, he could be heard downtown in the French Quarter. (Um... no. Please!)

He could blow his cornet so powerfully that when he was playing across the river in Algiers, he could be heard downtown in the French Quarter. (Theoretically possible, considering the lack of automobile traffic noise and the way sound carries in New Orleans.)

Bolden was a barber, a scandal sheet editor, a police informant. (No, no, and no.)

He blew out his brains, figuratively speaking, going beserk during while playing a parade. (Sorta.)

Okay, let's deal with the first thing everyone "knows" about Buddy Bolden - he was the first jazz musician. It seems kind of ridiculous that the beginnings of this wonderful music called jazz could be pinned down to one person. Except.... Musician after musician who lived through the Bolden era and survived long enough to be interviewed has stated that he was the first to put together the strands of ragtime, blues, spirituals, and Creole songs in such a way that something new was created. Typical is an account by the great Creole trumpeter Peter Bocage, who was born in 1887 (and so was a young man of 19 when Bolden's career ended). Bocage was interviewed by Dick Allen and William Russell in 1959 [clarifications in brackets are mine]:

Q: Who do you think was the first band to play jazz or ragtime?
A: Well, I attribute it to Bolden. Bolden was a fellow, he didn't know a note as big as this house [he couldn't read music], whatever they played, they caught [by ear], or made up. They made up their own music and played it their own way. So that's the way jazz started. Just his improvisation.


This passage is transcribed in the book which contains pretty much all of what we know (and probably will ever know) about Bolden: In Search of Buddy Bolden by Donald Marquis. Marquis' book, first published in 1978, is meticulously researched, and so might come off as disappointing in a roundabout way: Marquis resists the temptation to embellish the Bolden story. He dispels many of the myths, and simply presents everything he has been able to find out about Bolden. The problem is that even Marquis was not able to find out that much - there are plenty of gaps in the story, and we are left without a real feel for what kind of person he was. But the book is extremely valuable for showing us as true a picture of Bolden as we are likely to get.

But what did he sound like? If Bolden recorded (and accounts of a cylinder recording persist), nothing has survived. But Freddie Keppard (1890-1933) did record, and many early New Orleans musicians said that he sounded something like Bolden. Peter Bocage again:

Q: Did anyone or does anyone play like Bolden?
A: Keppard, they were most on the same style. The improvisations is always gonna be a little different, no two men alike.


Keppard recorded several times during the 1920s, but only the 1926 date by Freddie Keppard and His Jazz Cardinals presents him on his own terms. His playing on "Stockyard Strut" and "Salty Dog" is clipped and raggy, built around short phrases. It is powerful, but doesn't swing in the way jazz had already started to swing by that time. It's easy to imagine that Keppard's cornet style may contain an echo of Buddy Bolden.

A group of traditional jazz musicians built around cornetist Marc Caparone issued a CD in 1999 which, although little known, is an impressive piece of jazz scholarship, as well as a fun listen: Music of the Bolden Era on the Stomp Off label, by the Imperial Serenaders. The selections, instrumentation, and performance styles are based on the best available research about what and how Bolden played. It's archaic, lively, and pretty convincing.

When I first visited New Orleans in 1990, I made my own Bolden pilgrimages. My first evening there, I drove several miles out St. Charles and Carrollton Avenues to the sites of Lincoln and Johnson Parks, two recreation areas for the "colored" citizens of the city where Bolden played. There's not much to see there; my first wife wryly commented that "that sure is a historic gas station." But Bolden's house on First Street is still standing, and will most likely remain intact until New Orleans is finally washed away, since the house has been placed on the National Register of Historical Places. It looks as it probably did 110 years ago, although during Bolden's lifetime this was a middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood. Now it is one of the poorest parts of the city, full of vacant and decaying buildings - depressing and a little frightening to drive through, let along walk in.

But my real Bolden moment came when I was walking through Armstrong Park, which was carved out of the Treme neighborhood. The Masonic hall known locally as Perseverance Hall was formerly on St. Claude St., but it now stands on the park grounds. One morning I walked up at a time when the building was being renovated. The workers had left the doors unlocked, so I walked in and stood on the wooden floor where Buddy Bolden had played for dancers a century earlier. Standing on the boards Bolden had stood on, looking up at the high ceiling, and imagining the sound of the Bolden band in 1900 was a moving experience.

Buddy Bolden had mental/emotional issues which were exacerbated by alcohol abuse. In 1907 he was arrested and sent to the Lousiana Insane Asylum in Jackson. He stayed there for 25 years before dying a forgotten man. The exact location of his grave is unkown, but it's somewhere in Section C of New Orleans' Holt Cemetery. All of us jazz people owe him a debt. Thank you, Buddy Bolden, and rest in peace.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ai

I love poetry, but reading it presents the same problem as listening to the music of Cecil Taylor: it takes time, energy, and solitude, and I have too little of each these days. But yesterday I put on a record by a Kinda Famous African-American Female Poet, who read her work accompanied by a group of jazz/funk musicians. It was terrible - musically and poetically. I only listened to the first side, and I don't think I'm going to keep the record even for the one track that the Famous Jazz Saxophonist (who was once married to the poet) plays on.

But that record made me hungry for some poetry by an accomplished and talented female poet, so I pulled all my books by Ai off the shelf and started reading. I don't know what name she was given when she was born, but Ai describes herself as "1/2 Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche." Her poetry is dark, chilling, and very moving. I discovered her work by chance about 16 years ago when I picked the reprint of her first two collections, Cruelty and Killing Floor, off the shelf at an Atlanta bookstore. I think I wanted to see what kind of poetry someone named Ai wrote; when I opened the book at random, I was floored.

Ai writes character poems. By that I mean that her poetry is not written in her voice or the voice of an omniscient narrator, but in the voice of, well, a child molester, a teenaged boy who kills his family, a young African boy whose hand is cut off by a rebel fighter (at least I think that's what happens), or Jack Ruby. She manages to fully inhabit these characters, most of whom she could have nothing in common with except for the humanity we all share.

The poems are often grim and violent. The violence sometimes seems random and sometimes seems inevitable - you get the impression that the life of the narrator of "Sleep Like a Hammer" has all led up to the moment when he kills his father. The violence often seems analogous to the sex in the poems - the characters use it in order to convince themselves that they are alive - in order to feel something. But beyond the poetry's bleakness is a touching sense of the fragility of life - of the sense that life is precious.

The title poem of her 2003 collection Dread is "narrated" by an Irish-American female New York City cop - Shirley Herlihy, or Officer Girlie, as the lowlifes on her beat call her. As I read the poem, my first impression was that it was too prose-like. But that impression quickly disappeared. The details which Ai adds, line by line, create a strong and very real image. As the poem progresses, we learn that Officer Herlihy's troubled brother died in the World Trade Center attack, that her parents died in a domestic murder-suicide, and that she compulsively sifts through the rubble at Ground Zero, looking for any trace of her lost brother.

I don't know if reading this will make anyone want to read Ai's work; it will probably make many folks run the other way. Her poetry is not for the faint of heart, but it is extremely moving. I'm probably breaking 15 copyright laws by doing this (and I'll remove this if requested), but I wanted to end with an entire poem, from Killing Floor. The narrator is a soldier who is not long for this world.

THE GERMAN ARMY, RUSSIA, 1943

For twelve days,
I drilled through Moscow ice
to reach paradise,
that white tablecloth, set with a plate
that's cracking bit by bit
like the glassy air, like me.
I know I'll fly apart soon,
the pieces of me so light they float.
The Russians burned their crops,
rather than feed our army.
Now they strike us against each other like dry rocks
and set us on fire with a hunger
nothing can feed.
Someone calls me and I look up.
It's Hitler.
I imagine eating his terrible, luminous eyes.
Brother, he says.
I stand up, tie the rags tighter around my feet.
I hear my footsteps running behind me,
but I am already going.

Monday, January 11, 2010

JATP

Okay, this is something of a confession for an erudite, sophisticated jazz listener such as myself. I have a weakness for Jazz At the Philharmonic. Norman Granz's jazz roadshow of that name was sometimes characterized by playing that could be described as "lowest common denominator" jazz. The saxophones often squealed and honked, the trumpet battled to see who could play who could play higher, and the drummers bashed and banged. The audiences responded with cheers worthy of a Mussolini rally. But a quick count shows that I have 11 LPs of JATP material, along with several concerts on CD and even some 78s, including Jazz At the Philharmonic, Volume One. Why?

Norman Granz began presenting jazz concerts in Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles in 1944. He started recording the shows almost from the beginning, and was so taken with the spirit of the music from a February 12, 1945 concert that he started shopping it around to record companies. All the major labels were horrified - the tunes were too long and sloppy, and the audience was too loud. But the small folk label Asch was interested, and released "How High the Moon" and "Lady Be Good" on three twelve-inch 78s. The music set the pattern for the dozens of JATP recordings that followed. The concert series soon hit the road, playing all over the United States and Europe, producing album after album, and keeping the Jazz At the Philharmonic name no matter where the performance was. By the turn of the 1950s, JATP shows generally consisted of two or three short sets featuring individual performers or established groups, and always ended with a long "jam session" set.

The saxophonists at that 1945 concert (Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Ventura, and Willie Smith) played in typical JATP fashion - each started his solos tastefully, but got more and more obvious, repetitive, and even hysterical. Jacquet and Flip Phillips, who played in many JATP shows, were famous for this kind of over-the-top improvising. Other saxophonists, though, played with Granz's troupe without pandering or compromising. Charlie Parker shows up on recordings from 1946 and 1949, and plays superbly, although it is disconcerting to hear lesser saxophonists get more applause for honking low C's. Coleman Hawkins made frequent appearances from 1946 on, and was never anything but his sophisticated, harmonically acute self. Lester Young was able to find a middle ground in his JATP showings. Honks and repeated notes were part of style anyway, although handled with more subtlety than by Jacquet and Phillips, and he was able to be himself while still appealing strongly to the audiences. Benny Carter usually exhibited his unruffled, urbane style, but during the Carnegie Hall concert of September 13, 1952, goes nuts a little bit, seemingly mocking the "JATP style" of saxophonics.

Charlie Parker's first recorded JATP appearance is somewhat legendary. He arrived late to the January 28, 1946 show at the Philharmonic in L.A. His playing was wild, sloppy, and brilliant; the three choruses he played on "Lady Be Good" were bluesy, inspired, and widely influential. When Bird stepped back from the microphone after this solo, none of the other horn players wanted to follow him, so the next solo was one of the rare bass solos in JATP history. While bassist Billy Hadnott played, the horns huddled and decided that Lester Young was best equipped to play something that wouldn't be totally eclipsed by Bird's solo; Prez reluctantly walked to the mic and played a solo which was indeed quite beautiful.

That's one reason I enjoy JATP recordings so much. As with any improvised music, moments of surprising beauty can occur at any time. A few days ago, I was listening to the JATP performance of "Mordido" from 1947. (The big blockbuster tune from that concert was "Perdido," so Granz named a couple of the other jam session tunes "Mordido" and "Endido.") I have the original issue of "Mordido," spread across six 78 sides. And, until the fifth side, it was all so hokey that I had just about decided to ditch these records. But then came the piano solo by Hank Jones, and it was just gorgeous - totally unlike any of the histrionics that had gone before. Needless to say, I kept the records.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. I don't just love JATP for the sublime moments. At times (like "Mordido"), the louder-and-higher atmosphere gets to be too much. But, warts and all, Jazz At the Philharmonic is a lot of fun. A JATP concert is usually more like comfort food than fine cuisine, but hey, sometimes I want a hot dog and fries.

My favorite JATP recordings (and I certainly haven't heard them all) include the 1946 concert with Charlie Parker and Lester Young described above, as well as the September 18, 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert that also features Bird and Prez. There's a great LP, issued in 1983, called The Coleman Hawkins Set; it collects three of Hawkins' feature sets, from 1949, 1950, and 1957. I'm partial to the November 21, 1960 Stockholm concert which resulted in four LPs; it has the only recorded instance of Benny Carter and Cannonball Adderley sharing a stage, as well as excellent playing by Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Don Byas, and others. But the best extant JATP recording, in my opinion, is from Carnegie Hall, November 2, 1949, although it was not released until 2002. Both Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins are on hand, as is Hank Jones and the great Fats Navarro on trumpet. The drummer is Shelly Manne, whose playing is tasteful and swinging - a nice change from the volume and showmanship of frequent JATP participant Buddy Rich. There are a few lesser lights on this recording, but no matter - there is plenty of inspired playing here. Parker, Hawkins, and Navarro are at their best.

One or two Jazz At the Philharmonic concerts would be plenty for most jazz fans. But you might end up, like me, needing a regular dose of the jazz comfort food that is JATP.

Thanks to blogger King Ubu for clearing up some of the discographical mysteries concerning JATP, Volume One.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy New Year and Updates

Happy New Year to all. I've been busy with various endeavors, but wanted to get back to posting here, so here's a little bit of this and that, with some updates.

When you live in Georgia, where it seldom snows, you appreciate how beautiful snow is. I imagine that it gets old quickly in colder places, but snow is a welcome rarity here. Except that we freak out a little - everything closes down when there is one inch of snow. I'm enjoying an unexpected day off of work right now. To be fair, part of the problem here is that driving gets pretty tricky. First of all, we don't know how to drive on snow. Secondly, we have very few snowplows and salt trucks here, so many roads never get cleared. But the main reason driving gets so treacherous is, ironically, because it doesn't get that cold here. Instead of nice crunchy snow, we tend to get a mushy mix of rain, sleet, and snow that freezes, melts, and refreezes multiple times, forming a slick (and almost invisible) coat of ice on the roads. Looking out my window this morning, it seemed kind of ridiculous that all the schools were closed, but on the other hand, there was a 29-car pileup due to ice on one of the Interstate ramps in Atlanta.

Ben Schenck of the Panorama Jazz Band informs me that my favorite dive bar, The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, has reopened. It looks like the Panorama plays at the Cat on Saturdays when they are not otherwise engaged. I hope that's still the case when I vist NOLA in April.

I have partially corrected my ignorance of John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble music by picking up the newest CD by the group, Eternal Interlude. It's gorgeous - engaging from moment to moment while having the kind of impact that larger compositional form can give. I'm glad I discovered Hollenbeck's music.

Some bootleg CD Horo Records issues have been come out recently, but it looks like the official CD reissues will finally be coming out early this year. I don't know know where Steve Lacy's Eronel is in the release schedule, but I'm looking forward to finally hearing this album.

Finally, a petty little personal story of the kind I usually try to avoid here. Between Christmas and New Year's Day, Karen and I visited her relatives in Washington state. We stayed with her brother, who lives between Bellingham and Lynden; his house is only about 15 minutes from the Canadian border. Well, being so close, I couldn't resist crossing the border to hunt some Canadian geocaches. Crossing into Canada was a breeze, so I visited Aldergrove Lake and found a couple of caches. The border crossing back to the U.S. was a different story. The cars were bumper to bumper for at least a mile. That was okay - I knew it might be a long border crossing, so I had my iPod and a book. I was patient and didn't get upset - until the border was in sight and a jerk in an SUV cut in front of me from the emergency lane. I cursed, but there didn't really seem to be anything I could do about it. Then, when we got even closer to the checkpoint, a young Canadian officer walked over to my passenger door. I rolled down the window; he asked, "Excuse me, sir, did that car pull in front of you from the emergency lane?" I'm guessing they had a video camera watching the line of cars. I answered, "Why, yes sir, he did!" He walked up to the car and yelled, "Pull over!" I cheered.