Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Praise of Traditional Jazz

I listen to all kinds of music (mostly jazz of various types, to be sure), but I tend to concentrate on one type at a time, with other styles mixed in for variety. Lately I've been focused largely on traditional jazz, which encompasses such real or imagined variations as New Orleans style, Chicago, style, Dixieland, small-band swing, etc. Leaving aside any attempt to define any of these or distinguish among them, the kind of music I'm talking about generally consists of three or four wind instruments (one or two trumpets, trombone, clarinet, and possibly saxophone) improvising loosely over a solid three- or four-piece rhythm section. In this style each player knows his place in the ensemble and shares a common language of tunes and chord changes. It's a style of jazz that has survived since the beginning of the music, no matter what changes have occurred in jazz.

Some of the most beautiful traditional jazz has, not surprisingly, been created by New Orleans musicians. New Orleans style jazz is often considered by the uninitiated to be merely "good-time music;" lightweight, happy stuff of no particular depth. But for those with ears to hear, there is a depth and complexity to the music that is not apparent if you're only listening with half an ear. I have seldom listened to that greatest of all New Orleans bands, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, without sensing that this is music made created by artists keenly aware of the joy of life and the surety of death. In the "happiest" passages, the horns add heart-wrenching blue notes which give lie to the prevailing sentiment. And in the saddest blues, there is is a sense that life is to be lived and enjoyed.

The emotional "content" of any music is, finally, subjective. But in a strictly musical sense, the best New Orleans jazz has a depth and beauty that isn't found in any other kind of music, because it is based on a level of improvised polyphony that can only be achieved by musicians who understand the style at a very high level. In the aforementioned King Oliver band, each instrument had a strictly defined role: Oliver's cornet took the melodic lead, Louis Armstrong played a more or less parallel part in harmony, the clarinetist played a secondary part which often bridged the gaps between the cornet phrases, and the trombone played a spare, quasi-bass line. But sometime after Oliver left New Orleans, the musicians of that city developed a manner of playing in which the lead was spontaneously passed among the front-line instruments. This style reached perhaps its highest peak in the recordings Bunk Johnson made for the American Music label in the mid-1940s, and in the 1945 Blue Note session by Johnson and Sidney Bechet*.

This ensemble style is gloriously present on a CD I recently acquired: Kid Howard at San Jacinto Hall. I only picked up this 1963 CD because I have been reading Brian Harvey's book about New Orleans trumpeter Kid Howard. I was a little unsure - not only is the book not that great (it's poorly written and edited), but Howard was notoriously inconsistent. The playing on the San Jacinto album is amazing, though; there is hardly a moment which doesn't feature at least two of the horns inprovising together. During each tune, just at the point when the listener might start to get bored, there is a change of texture or dynamics. I charted out what was going on in "Blues for Old San Jacinto;" the seven choruses proceed like this: the first two choruses have trumpet, trombone, and clarinet improvising equal parts. All three instruments play the next two choruses, but the clarinet takes the lead, the trombone plays a secondary part, and the trumpet takes a very spare third line. In the fifth chorus, the trumpet lays out completely; the trombone takes the lead, and the clarinet plays a countermelody. The sixth chorus features all three instruments playing equally again, at a mezzo piano dynamic level, and in the last chorus the equal polyphony continues, but at a forte level. It's not complex, but it works perfectly. And you know that it just happened as the tape was rolling; nobody discussed it beforehand.

Unfortunately, this manner of playing has largely faded out in New Orleans. The largely tourist audiences want to hear solos, so most traditional jazz performances in New Orleans these days have ensemble playing only during the first and last choruses; in between there is a string of solos. But the older ensemble style can still be found at times; some of the best music I have heard at Preservation Hall in recent years has been at the end of sets, when there was not time for solos - they musicians had no choice but to play polyphony. And, of course, there are always records.

*This amazing session has been neglected by both jazz fans and commentators, possibly because it doesn't fit into anyone's ideas of what Johnson and Bechet are all about. But the 20 or so minutes music they made in the studio have some of the greatest ensemble polyphony that any musicians have improvised.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jeffery's Danny Barker Story

Danny Barker (1909-1994) was a guitarist, banjoist, singer, writer, composer, raconteur, and jazz archivist from New Orleans. He was probably best known among casual jazz fans for his seven-year stint anchoring the rhythm section of Cab Calloway’s big band in the late thirties and forties. But when he moved from New York back to New Orleans in 1965, he was all over the city’s jazz scene, as a performer, teacher, and as the first curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Among his other talents, Barker was one of the great rhythm guitarists in jazz. His style was somewhat different from that of Freddie Green, who is often held up as the best rhythm guitarist of all time. Danny tended to use richer chords than Green (who had kind of a minimalist approach) and his beat was strong and springy, often interspersed with triplets and syncopations. His Save the Bones album, recorded late in his life, is a great illustration of his rhythm style, as well as being a very entertaining record. Barker made hundreds of other recordings; particularly interesting is the series he did in the thirties and forties backing up his wife, singer Blue Lu Barker, in a series of sometimes risqué, bluesy songs, usually of his own composition. The most famous of these is “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” which was a hit for Maria Mauldaur back in the seventies. He also wrote “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” which sold lots of records for Nat King Cole and the Pointer Sisters. He recorded with both Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker – one of the few musicians to do so. And, although he is not generally credited as such, I consider him to be the father of New Orleans R & B – hear his 1945 recordings of “Indian Red” and “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.”

Every time I visit New Orleans, I make it a point to stroll to the end of Chartres Street in the French Quarter and look for the plaque marking Danny’s birthplace. It’s on a typical French Quarter townhouse built in the early nineteenth century. His mother was a Barbarin – any fan of New Orleans jazz will recognize that name.

This is all background to my Danny Barker story. I’ve told this story a few times, but here it is with all the details:

It starts around 1990; I had just visited New Orleans for the first time, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band had just issued their New Orleans Album, with several Crescent City guest stars. One of the tunes on the album was “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” with Danny Barker playing guitar and singing. It’s a great version of the song, with a hilarious spoken intro by Danny. Well, my ex-wife and I were driving around with The New Orleans Album in the tape player, and she was very taken with that song. So I had a plan: take her back to New Orleans and surprise her with a visit to the Palm Court to hear Danny Barker.

During that period Danny played every Sunday night at the Palm Court with his Jazz Hounds. I booked us a room in the Quarter over Memorial Day weekend of 1992, when neither of us had to work on Monday. A week before the trip, I called the Palm Court, “Danny Barker is playing there on Sunday, right?” “Yes, Danny plays here every Sunday.” Well, we had a nice trip, ate some great food, and had a good time. Then we headed to the Palm Court on Sunday night. As we got close, we could hear music, but it didn’t sound like what I was expecting. When we got to the door, I could see a young band on the stage playing bebop. I asked about Danny and was told that he was visiting relatives in Chicago.

As you can imagine, we were pretty disappointed. We didn’t stay to hear the band, and we left town the next day. But before we left, I took a look in the phone book, and sure enough, there was a listing for Danny Barker on Sere Street. I copied down the number and put it in my wallet.

That summer, I screwed up my courage, dialed the number, and explained the situation to Danny, offering to pay him for a gig if he would play a little private concert for us when we returned to New Orleans. He was very gracious, and said sure, just give him a call. So we went back over Thanksgiving of 1992 and rented a house on Dumaine Street for a couple of days. It was the coldest I’ve ever been in New Orleans; I don’t think I was really warm for three days. When I called Danny, he asked directions and said he’d come to our place. I didn’t want to put him to any trouble, so I said we could come to his house. He agreed and gave me directions to a small bungalow up past the Fairgrounds.

We rang the bell about 10:00 in the morning and were given a warm greeting by Danny and Blue Lu. After some small talk, he pulled out his guitar and played and sang “The Second Line” by his uncle, Paul Barbarin. For the next hour and a half, we were given an incredible private concert – it was just amazing.

Without meaning to, we put Blue Lu into a bit of a bad mood – we had been talking about how much we enjoyed Danny’s music while forgetting that Blue Lu was a performer herself, although she had not sung professionally for several years. I quickly picked up some hints from Danny, and asked Lu to sing. She refused at first, but soon forgot the slight and was singing along with Danny. I remember “Basin Street Blues,” “Save the Bones,” and, of course, “Don’t You Feel Me Leg.”

After they had played and sung for awhile, Danny reached behind an end table and pulled out a Mosaic Records box set – the Blue Note recordings of Herbie Nichols – and started talking about what a genius Nichols was. I took the opportunity to clear up a discographical mystery – the guitar player on Nichols’ first session as leader (for Savoy) is always given as “probably Danny Barker.” I asked, “Didn’t you record with him?” Danny looked puzzled and said no. When I got home I listened to the session more carefully, and it is obviously not Danny on guitar.

Before we left Danny and Blue Lu each autographed a publicity picture for us – Lu’s was from her Capitol Records days (c. 1950), while Danny’s was more recent. They invited us to stay for lunch, but we didn’t want to wear out our welcome. It was one of the great days of my life. I have always regretted not being able to attend Danny’s funeral a couple of years later.

Footnote: My friend Scott Hooker, the great traditional jazz pianist, is a frighteningly good voice mimic. He heard enough of Danny Barker’s voice from recordings to have it down. About two or three years after Danny’s death, I was living alone in an apartment in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. One evening my phone rang; when I picked it up and said hello, a voice said, “Hi, Jeff; this is Danny Barker.” Every hair on my body stood up – it was uncanny. Since I was unable to speak, Scott let me know it was him. His imitation was so perfect that it was Danny Barker on the phone – there was no doubt in my mind.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Delta and Frank Frost

Speaking of Frank Frost (see last post)....

During the 1990's (and a couple of times since), I would periodically visit the Mississippi Delta to chase down the blues and visit some of the holy sites of the music. I’m not talking about the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana, but the narrow triangle of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers that Mississippians call the Delta. This region is indeed an inland delta, and flooded every year until the system of flood control levees was built. The Delta was pretty much wilderness until after the Civil War, when a few intrepid settlers discovered that it had the best topsoil for growing cotton in the country. The planters cleared tracts for huge plantations, and since cotton was, before mechanization, a highly labor-intensive crop, the black Americans who were now nominally citizens flocked to the area to find work and a living. Many of them, or their descendants, would come to regret this move. For about a hundred years, the Delta had a black majority, but the white minority ruled with a pretty brutal iron fist. The sharecropping system kept the laborers subjugated, in debt and unable to leave the plantations. It’s no wonder that, around the turn of the twentieth century, the blues first developed there.*

Even to a native Southerner, the Delta seems strange and a little foreign. In the winter, when I first visited, the sky is low and oppressive; in the summer, it seems infinite – since the land is almost completely flat and there aren’t many trees, it seems as if you can see forever. Even though the vegetation is lush in the summer, the Delta has a strangely desolate feel, not helped by the fact that most of the small towns in the region have been largely deserted by businesses. By the time I first visited, the Delta had left behind its past as the most racist place in America to the extent that the white and black citizens had realized that they have to live together. And they do, for the most part, in a kind of polite, uneasy truce. Except for the urban homelessness I see in Atlanta, I have never seen the kind of shocking poverty I’ve seen in the Delta anywhere else in America. In the nineties, and I imagine still, there were/are people living without electricity and running water.

The blues are still in the air in the Delta; the blues are still played on AM radio as popular music, and the music is still played for dancers in juke joints, along with later styles of African-American popular music. And for a blues lover like me, holy sites abound. I have visited the graves of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson (all three of them!)**, and Sonny Boy Williamson. I have visited Dockery Plantation (ground zero for the blues if anywhere is) and stood in the remains of Muddy Waters cabin on Stovall Plantation.*** I've stood where the Southern crosses the Dog**** and stood on the platform at the depot in Tutwiler, where W.C. Handy first heard the blues. And I've heard some great Mississippi bluesmen, many of whom are now gone, like Lonnie Pitchford, Jack Owens, Eugene Powell (who recorded in the 1930’s as Sonny Boy Nelson), Wade Walton, Othar Turner, and on one amazing evening, Frank Frost.

Although he appeared briefly in the movie Crossroads, Frank Frost (1936-1999) was never famous, except to hard-core blues aficionados and Delta juke joint patrons. An accomplished blues singer, guitarist, keyboard and harp player, he never left the Delta for any length of time. Along with guitarist/bassist Big Jack Johnson and drummer Sam Carr, he was a member of the long-lived juke joint trio The Jelly Roll Kings, who were originally Frank Frost and the Nighthawks. During 25 years of barnstorming the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta areas, they managed to record three albums; the last one, from which the lyrics in my last post were taken, was recorded shortly before Frost’s death.

In the late 1990’s, I was at a Sunflower River Blues Festival performance by Greenville, Mississippi harmonica player Willie Foster; in the backing band were Sam Carr and Frank Frost. Frost seemed old and tired; he hunched over his organ and pecked out chords in a somewhat detached manner. Foster started urging him to come up and sing a feature number; he refused at first, but finally was persuaded. He pulled a harmonica out of his pocket as he shuffled***** to the front of the stage, counted off a tempo, and was instantly transformed as he sang and played one of his signature songs, “Midnight Prowler.” For five minutes, he WAS the Midnight Prowler - he stalked around the stage as he played and sang like a man possessed. Then the song ended, and he became Frank Frost again - old, tired, and damaged by alcohol. He took his place behind the keyboard and spent the rest of the set hunched over and uninvolved. It was an amazing and moving moment.

*A case can be made for the blues originating in Texas and spreading first to Mississippi, instead of vice versa. It's six of one/half a dozen of another: both places were brutally racist.

**He was a black man with a common name who died in Mississippi in the thirties; it's no wonder that we don't know exactly where he was buried. Three cemeteries have claims to his "official" final resting place.

***One of the delicious ironies of the Delta blues is that Howard Stovall III, the grandson of Muddy's employer, plays keyboard with Arthneice Jones' Stone Gas Band, an otherwise all-black blues band. The irony is not lost on Howard III, as he has made clear.

****The Southern Railroad once crossed the Yazoo Delta (Yellow Dog) line in Moorhead, Mississippi, as celebrated in "Yellow Dog Blues."

*****I'm aware of the racist implications of this verb, but there is no other way to describe Frost's gait.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Blues Poetry

I love the blues for many reasons, musical and non-musical. One reason is that the best blues lyrics rise to the level of poetry, although they are usually more homespun poetry than high art. Here (from memory) are some blues lyrics that I find moving, wise, funny, or chilling. They range from single lines to complete verses to entire songs.

It takes two to tango, but only one to mess around.
- Cousin Joe, "It Takes Two to Tango"

There ain't no heaven, ain't no burnin' hell.
Where I go when I die can't nobody tell.
- Son House, "Preachin' Blues" (also used by John Lee Hooker)

New York's a pretty city; the lights, they shine so bright,
New York's a pretty city; the lights, they shine so bright,
But I'd rather be in New Orleans, walkin' by candlelight.
- Genevieve Davis, "I Haven't Got a Dollar to Pay the House Rent Man"
This was recorded in New Orleans in 1927. I know how she feels.

Who's that yonder comin' down the road?
Comin' down the road?
Cryin', who's that yonder comin' down the road?
Well, it looks like Maggie, baby, but she walks too slow.
- Tommy Johnson, "Maggie Campbell Blues"
This is one of my favorite blues verses. This verse is like a Mississippi haiku - an image, a snapshot of a moment, but there's a lot there. Is the person on the road a woman who resembles Maggie, or is it Maggie, walking slowly and feeling the weight of her lover's (the singer's?) infidelity? And who is the "baby" the singer is addressing, and where are they? This verse stands alone in the song - none of the other verses address the situation; the rest are unrelated, traditional blues verses, although they also contain beautiful images, like this one:

Sun's gonna shine in my back door someday.
Cryin', sun's gonna shine in my back door someday.
Wind's gonna change and blow my blues away.
- Tommy Johnson, "Maggie Campbell Blues"

Don't say I don't love you 'cause I don't hold you in my arms;
Don't say I don't love you 'cause I don't hold you in my arms;
I'm a country boy, and I'll always treat you wrong.
- Muddy Waters, "Country Boy"

See my jumper hangin' out on the line.
See my jumper, lord, hangin' out on the line.
By that you know something's on my mind.

I wouldn't have been here if it hadn't been for you.
I wouldn't have been here, baby, if it hadn't been for you.
Way down here, way you wanna do.

Fix my supper, let me go to bed.
Fix my supper, lord, let me go to bed.
This white lightning done gone to me head.

This white lightning done gone to me head.
- R. L. Burnside, "Jumper on the Line"
This is the entire song, and it's another one of my favorites - a portrait of a deeply depressed man whose life has gone terribly wrong, but with nothing more than hints why.

I'm gonna to leave you, baby, before I commit a crime.
- Howlin' Wolf, "Commit a Crime"

Frank Frost, you better lay that bottle down.
Frank Frost, you better lay that bottle down.
If you don't lay that bottle down, that bottle gonna lay you down.
- Big Jack Johnson, "Frank Frost Blues"
As Big Jack sang this in the studio, Frank Frost was only feet away, playing organ. A few months later, Frank was dead.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Stating the Obvious

This may be like saying that the sun rising every morning is amazing (although we usually don't notice it), but Miles Davis's Kind of Blue is a masterpiece.

Well, duh! That's like saying, "Hey, you ought to hear the Fifth Symphony by that guy Beethoven. It's pretty good." Anyone who gets into classical music discovers Beethoven's Fifth, listens to it over and over, marvels at the construction and imagination, and then takes it for granted or ignores it. You know it's great, but after a certain point you don't listen to it regularly. I remember a music history professor during my undergraduate years who heard the Fifth Symphony performed after not hearing for a couple of years. She came into class gushing over it, amazed at how fresh it seemed.

That was my reaction the other night when I put on Kind of Blue. I had a very long day, including an elementary band concert, and when I got home I announced to Karen that I needed to go for one of the biggies - Miles or Ellington - to center myself. For some reason, I went with "the greatest jazz album of all time." Yeah, I knew it was good, but I had forgotten how good. Almost every detail is perfect - every chord voicing, every bass note (well, almost), every drumset choice. And every one of Miles' solos is the epitome of improvisation as beautiful melody - it's hard to imagine that any of the trumpet solos could be any better. Some of the saxophone aren't quite to that level, but they're pretty good. You can almost see the light bulb going off over Coltrane's head - he took the lessons of this album and ran with them. And although I sometimes find Jimmy Cobb's drumming boring, it seems just right on Kind of Blue.

Perfection is rare or nonexistent in this world, but Kind of Blue comes pretty close.