Friday, December 29, 2006


By Brian Groder
Latham 5106-2

When I teach jazz survey courses the avant-garde period is always the trickiest, because people have such preconceived notions about freer or experimental jazz. Brian Groder’s Torque is a great starter CD if you’re looking to stretch someone’s ears with more exploratory, yet accessible jazz.

Opening with the short, intriguing “Spellcast,” it is clear Torque will take surprising twists and turns, but will not shriek, or otherwise scare neophyte listeners. Groder has a remarkable advantage in his sidemen, Sam Rivers and Rivers’ regular trio-mates, Doug Matthews and Anthony Cole. Groder has played in Rivers’ band, so now having his support in a very prominent sideman role is a bit unusual, though not unprecedented (Miles Davis playing on Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else comes to mind).

Their empathy comes through in the strong interplay, particularly on “Behind the Shadows Part 1 & 2.” Listening to their compatibility is also a pleasure as they weave together the duet “Camouflage.”

While the playing is adventurous, it does not meander. Most cuts are around four minutes, and all have a focused emotional intensity. On a tune like “Involution” Matthews and Cole maintain a propulsive beat, behind inventive solos from Groder and Rivers. Groder also shows an effective use space on the austere bass-duet “Iota.”

Groder often plays muted, as on the sprightly “Jingo,” another trumpet-bass feature. Having backed up singers in Atlantic City bands (like Cole who backed up members of his family of famous vocalists), Groder obviously understands musical communication. He has conversations through his trumpet, rather than yelling at the top of his lungs.

Torque has challenging compositions, adventurous solos, and accessible swing. It is strong statement from Groder’s emerging voice and further solidifies the sterling reputation of the veteran Rivers. It is music that can reach both fans of the avant-garde and those who rarely venture beyond modal hard-bop, which is actually quite something to say.

(Torque has an official street date of January 15, but it is available on CD Baby and Groder’s website now, so you can start off the New Year with it spinning.)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hurricane Blues

Hurricane Blues: Poems About Katrina and Rita
Edited by Philip C. Kolin and Susan Swarthout
Southeast Missouri State University Press tradepaper

For those still looking to support some worthy causes at year-end, Hurricane Blues is a new anthology of poems inspired by the hurricanes of 2005, all proceeds of which go to hurricane relief. As has been the case with all responses to Katrina, the poetry here runs the gamut, from the touching and moving, to the angry and bitter.

New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, so music often plays a role in the poems collected here. In Linda Back McKay’s “Moving Life,” one of the more hopeful poems, jazz is associated with rebirth, as McKay writes:

“Finally, after sky parlays with stars,
the city is frothy again
with charcoal, river fish, jazz riffs.” (p.175)

Conversely, jazz is associated with the death and New Orleans funerals in Marjorie Maddox’s "Jazz Memorial," which starts in a much darker mood:

“While the band jams,
_____Your widow passes out
beads as bright as grief.
_____I tap my feet
__________to “When the Saints . . .” (p. 148)

New Orleans legend Fats Domino makes several appearances, serving as the inspiration for Marion Menna’s “Blue Monday,” which often quotes his songs:

“Our tears fell like rain and the moon
stood still. The four winds blew
‘til blue Monday when Fats came
walking, yes indeed, still walking,
out of the dome.” (p. 105)

There are quite a few political barbs in Hurricane. FEMA, of course, comes in for some well deserved trashing. For some reason, the blue shirt Pres. Bush wore for his Jackson Square address seems to have particularly rubbed some of Hurricane poets the wrong way. While Nagin and Blanco largely get a free ride for their management, or lack there of, in this collection, the image of the abandoned school buses, intended to evacuate city residents, does crop up occasionally. In fact they inspired one of the subtler poems in the anthology, Walter R. Holland’s “The Yellow School Buses.” Holland writes:

“Yellow as flowers in a field, the un-driven buses
sat, loaves of an uneaten bread.” (p. 120)

Unfortunately, there is not much subtlety to Fred Chappell’s “The Grateful Gratitude Blues,” which borders on poor taste for the overtones of its mock obsequiousness, which could be interpreted as playing on past racial stereotypes. There is no interest in uniting the country for the long rebuilding process ahead in lines like:

“We know what you-all did sir to help us in our pain
You gave some cash to Haliburton and sent some ice to Maine
So we thank you very kindly sir we thank you Mr Brown”


“We’ll be bailing out our bedrooms and fighting starving rats
And fending off cottonmouths and voting for Democrats
Who will thank you very kindly sir yes they’ll thank you Mr Brown” (p. 82)

Hurricane Blues reflects the general response to Katrina itself—heartbreaking with interludes of ugly recriminations. Most of the poems are moving reminders of the loss engendered by Katrina, and it is important not to let the excesses of the Chappells to obscure that reality.

The publisher, Southeastern Missouri State, is donating proceeds to hurricane relief, so you can feel good about purchasing it, although they do not identify which funds they will be donating to. You can also give a year-end gift to the Jazz Foundation of America, as I did, for all their relief efforts on behalf of New Orleans musicians in need of a little help

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

JT Calls It a Year

What a year that was according to Jazz Times’ February 2007 year-end issue, in mailboxes now. In their “Year in Review ‘06” the editors take note of the big stories of the year.

They largely refrain from editorializing on Valery Ponomarev’s brutish treatment from French Airport security, suggesting: “Other than a few anger management and human relations courses, perhaps there’s some kind of brie sedative that can be doled out to irate French security guards?” The convoluted attempts to blame this incident on Pres. Bush have struck me as bizarre. The idea that French bureaucrats are acting thuggish in order to do his bidding is obviously ludicrous, given French anti-American sentiment and general dhimmitude. The truth is transported instruments has always been an issue for musicians. Jay Leonhart performed “You Can’t Take a Bass on a Plane” in his Bass Lesson show well before 9-11, and he was trying to check his bass as luggage.

JT also takes note that Sun Ra stalwart Pat Patrick’s son Deval was elected governor of Massachusetts. They note: “word is that Deval wants nothing to do with the Sun Ra legacy, though he did make the story of his childhood struggle—his father abandoned his family to move to New York with the Arkestra—a key part of his biography in his campaign.” No mention of the younger Patrick’s radicalism, in keeping with the general reporting on his campaign. Good luck Bay Staters.

Of course, the editors just can’t help themselves when the subject is the President. Under the inappropriate sub-heading “Reception in the Freedom Later Suite” they mention a state dinner hosted by the president, featuring jazz performances to be broadcast on PBS later next year. They whine: “Sadly, Dubya didn’t get down like Jimmy Carter did with Dizzy Gillespie on the White House lawn.” So Carter made a show of enjoying himself. Great. Then what did he do for jazz afterwards? That’s right, nothing. It has been the Bush Administration’s NEA that has made jazz a priority. Under Carter, no love. If he enjoyed Dizzy so much, why not give him some recognition, but as written here before, only GOP presidents have awarded the Medal of Freedom to jazz artists. And frankly, I don’t think jazz musicians enjoyed Carter stagflation anymore than the rest of the country.

Perhaps most offensive is their item labeled “This Gig is Torture.” Smooth jazzer Marion Meadows had his priorities straight, going to Gitmo to perform for the American men and women in uniform stationed there. Meadows is quoted saying: “Having been asked back again in 2006 is truly an honor.” Good for Meadows. JT sneers: “No word from the detainees about Meadows show.” Way to stand with illegal enemy combatants JT. Oh, but you know they support the troops, right? In reality, Gitmo is one of the most dangerous posts, where the inmates frequently attack our servicemen. Again, give credit to Meadows for thinking for himself, and showing some solidarity with the troops.

So much for the editors. What did the readers have to say? In the past, I launched a campaign for Cuban defector and clear-thinker Paquito D’Rivera in the jazz magazine reader polls, particularly in the clarinet category, where the prohibitive favorite is always Don Byron, an excellent player of pronounced left-leaning politics. The results are in, and Byron won, but D’Rivera came in second. However, last year D’Rivera didn’t even make the list, so maybe we had some impact after all. D’Rivera also placed fourth on the alto list this year, while the year before he was not represented in any category. Is this the benefit of our campaign (aided by JT’s online voting as opposed to DB’s reply cards) or a fluke of fate? Stay tuned next year.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Jazz Nativity

Merry Christmas (belatedly) from J.B. Spins. There was some great Christmas jazz to be heard in New York this year. This year Birdland featured the Jazz Nativity: Bending Towards the Light, Anne Phillips’s jazz Christmas pageant that has grown out of a fundraiser for St. Peters into a swinging holiday tradition.

Each year features this different jazz kings. This year’s included trombonist Benny Powell, of Count Basie and Randy Weston fame, and in an inspiring development, has become a leader in his own right in recent years. The other Kings were flutist Dave Valentin, former musical director for Tito Puente and tap-dancer Max Pollak. The real surprise Christmas Eve was the unannounced appearance of one of the former kings, Paquito D’Rivera, who with clarinet in hand, definitely came to jam, and brought the house down.

The music, some of which was originally penned by Dave and Iola Brubeck, was fantastic. Bob Kindred, the music director, is an under-recorded giant of the tenor sax, whose strong but gentle tone is perfectly matched for the material. The great Candido did indeed show why he is a legend on the conga drums. Arturo O’Farrill also joined the band as an announced guest. As he said during his regular Sunday night set with the Chico O’Farrill Jazz Orchestra following the Nativity on Christmas Eve: “if you missed the Jazz Nativity tonight, don’t ever do that again.” Presumably there are 363 shopping days until the next performance. If you’re still in the Christmas spirit, you can check out clips
here (and try not to wince when you see Donna Hanover introduced as the First Lady of New York.)

If you couldn’t make it to Birdland, maybe you checked out St. Peter’s jazz service, the place where it all started. I’m sure Ike and friends put on a great show. Jazz has that thing that’s hard to define: soul. It’s joyous music—perfect for celebrating Christmas. Whether its Duke Pearson’s Merry Olde Soul or Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, some of the best Christmas albums are from jazz artists. I hope you all had a swinging Christmas.

Django Reinhardt and the History of Gypsy Jazz

Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz
By Michael Dregni with Alain Antonietto and Anne Legrand
Speck Press illustrated tradepaperback

The defining images of each instrument in jazz have all been provided by American artists, with arguably one exception. The legend of jazz guitar is Django Reinhardt, a European gypsy. He is the gypsy guitarist who gives Sean Penn a complex in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. His sophisticated portraits, (natty mustache and casually dangling cigarette) are icons of jazz. His music would inspire scores of jazz musicians, as Michael Dregni and company explain in Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz.

Much of Reinhardt’s life has become jazz lore, and hardly needs repeating: the caravan fire that damaged his left hand, his reinvented technique for fretting with thumb, index and ring fingers only, and the formation of the Hot Club of France Quintet with his great musical associate Stephane Grappelli. It would seem like a cruel twist of fate that Reinhardt’s star would rise just as National Socialism began its dominance of Europe—a catastrophic development for Reinhardt’s fellow Romany. Many biographers have not been generous in their portrayals of Reinhardt as he played relatively unmolested during the early years of the Paris occupation. Dregni is kinder in describing the circumstances faced by Reinhardt. He explains the basic National Socialist jazz dilemma:

“The Nazis were wise to fight to quell jazz. Under the Occupation—whether in France or elsewhere in German-occupied Europe as well as Great Britain—swing became the sound of freedom. Yet even German soldiers and hausfraus loved jazz. So while the Nazi Propagandastaffel outlawed American music, it held its hand in banning swing outright.” (p. 87)

Therefore, Reinhardt was allowed to perform, and his longtime promoter and producer, Charles Delaunay (son of the artist Robert) was given permission to continue organizing Hot Club concerts throughout France. According to Dregni:

“Delaunay, however, abused his privilege. He used his travels to gather information for the resistance—until he was jailed by the resistance.” (p. 88)

As the German Occupation got increasingly uglier Reinhardt did indeed attempt to escape through the Swiss border. Unfortunately he was refused admittance, as Dregni explains, “by Swiss guards who turned him back, stating the country gave refuge to Jews and political prisoners, but not Gypsies.” (p. 102)

Reinhardt would survive the Occupation, eventually touring America with Duke Ellington Orchestra, before dying tragically young at the age of 43 in 1953. However, this book makes clear, his influence was far-reaching. Many succeeding Gypsy jazz musicians get their due, particularly his often over-looked brother Joseph. It is also great to see lesser known artists profiled, like Armand Stenegry:

“a decorated Romany resistance fighter who worked behind German lines to aid the Normandy invasions In the 1960’s he became “Archange” as part of La Mission [the Gypsy Evangelical Church], and recorded several EPs of hymns, many with bouncing electric Gypsy jazz-style guitar riffs in the tradition of Django.” (p.183)

Dregni and company also write about Gypsy life and tradition with insight and sensitivity. The images collected here are the real highlight, as they capture the ambiance of the Bal Musette and Hot Club of France eras and document the Gypsy jazz musicians who would follow Reinhardt. The photos, rare record jackets, promotional posters, advertisements, and other assorted images a beautifully reproduced, making Django a handsome and informative book.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Small Concession in Jazziz

New Orleans is never too far from the minds of jazz lovers now and rightly so. Larry Blumenthal reports on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in his “Blu Notes” column in the December issue of Jazziz. The general theme asks whether the Federal government, particularly President Bush will only give lip service to rebuilding efforts, or come through for New Orleans. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

He does make one interesting concession late in the column:

“It’s worth noting too, that, through an expanded National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters program, the Bush administration has presided over a period when federal funding for worthy jazz musicians may have actually increased.”

I don’t think there’s any question it has. Under Dana Gioia’s chairmanship the fellowship award to Jazz Masters has been increased to a meaningful $25,000. The NEA has orchestrated 50 state tours of the Jazz Masters bringing legendary jazz artists to Americans who probably would rarely have had the opportunity to hear them, and launched major publicity campaigns on behalf of the Jazz Masters program and the award winners.

It might be counter-intuitive to most jazz fans, but Republican administrations have been better for jazz. Under the Clinton administration, jazz was decidedly not a priority at the NEA. Now jazz is one of the agency’s showcase programs. As recently pointed out, every jazz musician awarded the Medal of Freedom received it from a Republican president. The decision in the James Newton-Beastie Boys case, the most troubling ruling for jazz artists, was handed down by a Clinton appointee.

Katrina was a tragedy compounded by bi-partisan incompetence. Looking at the full record, jazz should vote Republican, but I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Nice Solo, See You in Court

You shouldn’t need a J.D. if you want a career in music, but sometimes it wouldn’t hurt. For Exhibit A look to Procol Harem’s legal family feud playing out in the courts. The A.P. reports (oddly without comment from Capt. Jamil Hussein) that organist Matthew Fisher has won a 40 percent stake in the band’s monster hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” based on his organ solo. Gary Brooker, the lead singer claims he wrote the song with Keith Reid before Fisher joined the band. They naturally, are less than thrilled. The A.P. quotes their statement:

“It is effectively open season on the songwriter,” they said. “It will mean that unless all musicians’ parts are written for them, no publisher or songwriter will be able to risk making a recording for fear of a possible claim of songwriting credit.”

It might seem reasonable to give Fisher compensation for creating the distinctive organ intro because it has been an indispensable part of the entire song, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see this reversed on appeal. After all, will courts want to see the door opened up for a slew of cases from instrumental soloists seeking co-ownership of the songs they played on? For instance, Sonny Rollins could sue the Rolling Stones for a piece of “Waiting on a Friend.” They definitely have some deep pockets there.

This actually runs contrary to recent court rulings in America that deny composer rights to any music not explicitly notated. This was the crux of the ruling against avant-garde jazz flutist James Newton’s suit against the Beastie Boys for sampling a three note excerpt from his song “Choir” without his permission. The sample utilized multiphonics, which by their nature defy notation. U.S. District Court Judge Nora Manella wasn’t interested in that, and ruled that the three notes that could actually be notated were not in themselves sufficiently original to be legally considered a composition. Therefore, since Newton’s record label had cleared the recording rights (without asking his permission) there were no additional composer rights for the Beasties to clear. (Obviously, this begged the question, if the multiphonic clip from “Choir” wasn't original, why would the Beastie Boys bother sampling it?)

Jazz improvisation has consistently challenged conventional notions of composition. Surely, there is a logical middle ground between these two rulings, where composers can retain the rights to their songs, regardless of the degree of notation involved.

Just for the record, who do you think appointed Manella to the Federal bench? Why yes, that champion of jazz himself, Bill Clinton. Manella, a longtime Feinstein associate, is now a CA State Appellate Judge courtesy of supposed Republican Governor Schwarzenegger. However, jazz musicians and composers will be dealing with the impact of her ruling here in America for years to come.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Person of the Year Just Violated Your Copyright

At the height of Napster’s popularity, the music press would never write a remotely nice word about the download site. However, recent articles on YouTube have been much more ambivalent, if not downright positive. For instance, a sidebar to Jazz Times December story on jazz artists on myspace asks the featured artists to recommend their favorite clips available on YouTube. While acknowledging possible copyright issues, Christopher Porter writes: “But for now, is a fantastic one-stop shopping source for jazz clips.” So don’t sweat the artists’ rights—go ahead and browse for cool jazz clips.

Gil Erskine expresses similar sentiments in “YouTube—Decades of Jazz on the Small Screen,” published in the December IAJRC Journal. He picks ten of the best jazz films available on the site, including Gjon Mili’s classic short film “Jammin’ the Blues,” (here for now) featuring artists like Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet, as well as Louis Armstrong performances from a 1933 Danish film (“Dinah” and “I Cover the Waterfront”). He seems to dismiss copyright claims as well, writing: “there is also alarm that material will be deleted! I have already noticed that clips of corporate-obvious stars as Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday have been withdrawn.”

When Napster let people download audio files for free, it was condemned as theft. When YouTube provides free video clips, it is considered a public service. Why the double-standard? YouTube certainly benefits from its image as an instrument of political activism. Indeed films like “Flight Club” are uploaded in the hopes that people will view them and tell their friends. Until Comedy Central recently started asserting their rights, YouTube had been a clearing house of Jon Stewart’s Pres. Bush rants. Those who did so, qualified as one of several million of my fellow Time “Persons of the Year,” being online content providers. (Talk about lame, Time essentially makes no distinction between LGF’s Charles Johnson, the scourge of Reuter’s phony photography, and someone posting an Amazon review of Porky’s II on DVD.)

YouTube can certainly be an effective avenue for promotion, but artists, or their heirs, have a right to control their copyrighted work, whether in video or audio form. After all, it affects their livelihood. They deserve to be compensated for their work, so be understanding if the selection of jazz clips on YouTube thins out dramatically.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

That’s a Christmas Party

Monday night is jam session night. It is one of the many services the Jazz Foundation of America provides. Last night, in addition to the regular jam, the Foundation had their Christmas party for clients and supporters. It was indeed a celebration, with music provided by the famous, the should-be-famous, and musicians just starting out.

Wendy and everyone at the Foundation have done amazing work for musicians in need. They are still doing casework from Katrina, in addition to their regular client-base. They also throw a holiday party to puts to shame the corporate events I’ve been to this season. In the holiday spirit, you can support their work here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Ragtime Kid

The Ragtime Kid
By Larry Karp
Poisoned Pen Press

Ragtime’s historical and critical stock has risen significantly in the time since it was played by the likes of Scott Joplin and Tom Turpin. As Larry Karp’s novel The Ragtime Kid, makes acutely clear, racial attitudes blinded many to the aesthetic qualities of the music.

Karp has written a mystery around actual events which took place in Sedalia, MO around the turn of the century, featuring the historical figures of Scott Joplin; John Stark, a music store owner who would become the leading music publisher of ragtime; and Brun Campbell, the “Ragtime Kid,” a white ragtime pianist who studied under Joplin. In an informative afterward, Karp explains the historical questions which formed the conceit of his fictional mystery:

“Why did a man nearly sixty years old, proprietor of a successful music store, who’d done no more than dabble in music publishing by printing copies of a few very conventional pieces, decide to bring out the work of an unknown young black composer? Why did that composer, so determined to write “respectable” music, entrust his work to such an inexperienced publisher? And above all, why did John Stark agree to a royalties contract, such a striking exception to common practice of the time?” (p. 343)

What follows is a mystery story that attempts to fill those holes in the historical record. There is no mystery as to who the villains are in Karp’s story, as led by Elmo Freitag, a former Confederate would-be music publisher and abetted by his brutish white trash henchmen. Freitag enters the story as an odious figure, and Karp continues debase his character as the story progresses, to the point of near over-kill. However, more than the crime story, the real strength of Karp’s novel comes through his portrayal of ragtime music and the contemporaneous world of music publishing. His respect for Joplin’s music is evident throughout. At one point the fictional Joplin explains his music to Campbell:

“My ragtime is different from the ragtime you hear in hotels and saloons and parlors. Those tunes develop—usually start from a melody that’s been around forever, then as people play it, they add a little of this, a little of that. Like the songs minstrels sang in Europe, no two singers the same, and the song as it was sung in 1700 was not even recognizable in 1800. But my music is composed. It is high-class music, no different from a song by Schubert, a concerto by Mozart, or a Beethoven symphony.” (p. 80)

Despite the strengths of Ragtime Kid, it would have benefited from some prudent editing. At times it is a little talky, with a few too many conversations recapping other conversations. Once into the novel, Karp does pull readers through the story, effectively using the racial realities of 1899 Missouri to dramatically increase the suspense. The threat of violence to Stark, an abolitionist before serving in the Union army, and to African-Americans like Joplin, as well as whites like Campbell who might befriend them, was all too real in the Sedalia of that time. Ragtime Kid does capture the resulting tension, and conveys some legitimate insight into the music of the ragtime era, in a quite satisfying novel.

Run-off Rundown

Last week's New Orleans’ run-off election is old news now—posting a bit belatedly due to a sales conference in Florida and jury duty. Evidently William Jefferson needs to be caught with more than $90 grand before the voters will turn him out.

The Times-Picayune’s coverage pointed to Jefferson’s success with African-American voters, chalking it up to low voter turnout and post-Katrina skepticism of the federal government, which of course, he has been an influential part of for years. They also report on his surprising success with white voters, in part credited to the law & order criticism leveled at Jefferson’s opponent by the sheriff of Jefferson Parrish.

I suspect there were two additional factors behind Jefferson’s big win—at 57% it was big. First and foremost, Ray Nagin seems to have a tight hold on the city’s machine. Nagin survived a challenge from the Democrat Lt. Governor earlier this year, and had supported Jefferson’s re-election. As for Jefferson’s success with white voters, I suspect Republicans and Republican-inclined independents pulled the lever for Jefferson in hopes of sending Nancy Pelosi a New Orleans-sized headache. Mission accomplished. I can understand the inclination, but it will not help NOLA’s rebuilding efforts that their most prominent political leaders are Nagin and Jefferson.

Pelosi has already said Jefferson is not reclaiming his seat on the appropriations committee. It is hard to see how he will wield much influence, despite being in the majority. How desirable is it going to be to land Jefferson as a cosponsor on legislation, for instance?

The political strength of Nagin is the biggest story and something that should concern “Governor” Blanco. Nagin had supported Republican Bobby Jindal in the 2003 campaign. After her incompetent handling of Katrina now Rep. Jindal is already spoiling for a rematch. If Nagin undercut hers in New Orleans, the Democrat base in the state, she’s toast. More political theater to come.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Billie Holiday—a Biography for Students

Billie Holiday: a Biography
By Meg Greene
Greenwood Press (paper over board)

Drug abuse. Prostitution. Domestic violence. Not exactly the stuff of most books for young adults, but it is impossible to tell Billie Holiday’s life story without dealing with these issues. One of the merits of Meg Greene’s biography Billie Holiday is that she deals with the more provocative and salacious aspects of Holiday’s life matter-of-factly, without glamorizing them.

Greene is clearly a Holiday fan. However, she exaggerates things a tad when she writes: “Before she appeared on the scene, jazz singers rarely personalized their tunes. Only blues singers, such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Dinah Washington did not sound generic and interchangeable.” (p. x) How about arguably the most influential jazz singer of all time, Louis Armstrong; Ethel Waters, considered the evolutionary link between Bessie Smith and Holiday; or Ellington’s early, and some consider greatest, vocalist Ivie Anderson?

Greene gives the facts and circumstances of Holiday’s life straight, without much spin. She succinctly gives context as when explaining the circumstances which allowed famed producer John Hammond to arrange her first recording sessions. Greene explains:

“Hammond had come up with a plan in which the company could import titles from its British counterpart, English Columbia. The company, though selling to an English audience, often set up recording sessions in the United States. This way, Hammond could not only record American artists, but also have a ready-made market, as English audiences generally were far more interested in American jazz than were Americans. It did not hurt that the Depression had not hit England.” (p. 28)

One of the temptations to which Holiday biographers frequently succumb is fixating on the lurid details of her private life at the expense of her music. Greene, to her credit, does not make that mistake. She assesses Holiday’s periods for the Columbia, Commodore, and Verve labels, and discusses her work with the big bands of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman. Of course, “Strange Fruit” is discussed in detail. She also discusses what some consider her last great album, Lady in Satin, explaining peoples’ love or hate attitude towards the LP:

“Many fans found the album too painful to listen to. It was as if Holiday was chronicling her life story, singing it in a voice that was worn out and used up. Ray Ellis’s arrangements did not help much; the background seems too lush, contrived, and artificial against the raw pain of Holiday’s voice. But others found the album to be as honest and real a collection of songs as Holiday was capable of producing.” (p. 105)

Ultimately, it was Holiday’s music for which scores of jazz fans adore her, not her drug problems or abusive relationships. While Meg Greene might be writing for a middle and high school audience, it is nice to see a biographer who keeps Holiday’s life in the proper perspective.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Blues and Recognition in the White House

The Medal of Freedom is the highest award the U.S. government bestows on private citizens. Tonight, as the NY Sun reports, President Bush will award the Medal of Freedom to a largely impressive field of ten individuals, including former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, the great British historian Paul Johnson, and America’s preeminent Bluesman, B. B. King.

Pres. Bush’s predecessor often made a nauseating show of being a jazz fan. Yet when he had an opportunity to give show some recognition, the future disbarred attorney didn’t show the music any love (his list of recipients is here).

In fact, every jazz artist receiving the Medal of Freedom received it from a Republican president. In a famous ceremony filmed by the USIA and later screened at a Soviet music film festival, Nixon bestowed the Medal of Freedom upon Duke Ellington during a White House party for Duke’s 70th birthday. It would be the beginning of an important friendship between the two men.

Ronald Reagan would award the Medal of Freedom to Eubie Blake, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, and Mabel Mercer. George H. W. Bush honored Ella Fitzgerald. Pres. George W. Bush has previously awarded the Medal of Freedom to Bill Cosby, a prominent jazz advocate and sometime producer of jazz sessions. Tonight he will also posthumously award the Medal to Buck O’Neil, who in addition to his baseball achievements was also a commentator for Ken Burns’ Jazz.

When it comes to recognizing jazz greats, Democrats haven't come through. Republicans have.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Cobalt Blue

Cobalt Blue
By Eri Yamamoto
Thirsty Ear (the Blue Series)

According to her biography, Eri Yamamoto was a classical piano prodigy in Japan, but discovered jazz during a 1995 trip to America, where she heard Tommy Flanagan through happenstance. From that background, she has developed a distinctive jazz style, which makes Cobalt Blue an exciting listening experience.

At times Yamamoto’s playing shows that classical influence in her rhapsodic solos. There is also quite a bit of McCoy Tyner in her talent for gradually increasing the intensity through a tune, controlling it, and letting it subside when she wishes. One can definitely hear this “Takeda No Komoriuta,” her adaptation of a Japanese folk song, and the knockout title track. “Cobalt Blue” is particularly dramatic for its slow build that finally develops into a pulsating vamp.

Indeed, Yamamoto has a muscular, percussive attack—particularly evident on the frenetically caffeinated “Hot Coffee.” Yet, she can also give a crystalline interpretation of Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” which also features a fine bass solo from David Ambrosio. With Ikuo Takeuchi on drums, the trio interplay is superb throughout Cobalt. The other standard, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” is played as an up-tempo groover, an unusual choice that really works.

Yamamoto’s compositions are intriguing, like the subtle melody of the moody “Irving Place.” Yamamoto’s ability to use space is also impressive. She even lets Ambrosio’s bass carry the lead voice on “A Little Nap.” Her tunes, like “Cobalt Blue” evolve and unfold, with surprising twists and turns, which make Cobalt a richly textured listening experience.

The hardest reviews to write are those of new artists readers probably haven’t heard of, performing a number of originals people probably will not recognize, because one can't assume many common points of reference. In Yamamoto’s case, I have to just say: trust me, this is a good one. The way she recasts the two standards here is really refreshing, and it would be fascinating to hear her adapt more songs like “Takeda No Komoriuta.” As a composer, she brings to mind the elliptical work of Andrew Hill. This is an excellent CD from a very talented musician

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pointless Grammy Award Predictions

The Grammy Awards have been belittled here before and will surely be mocked again in the future. The reader polls remain more important to jazz fans than the little gold statues, and no wonder. The Grammy Awards treat jazz the same as they do polka and Hawaiian music, safely banished from the telecast. Still, I have received many e-mails from jazz record labels touting their nominees, and why not? People have heard of the Grammy, so it’s a legitimate pitch for publicity. Maybe it is not worth the prognosticating effort, but here’s a belated take on the nominations announced last week, that would be of interest to jazz listeners.

Best Contemporary Jazz Album: This is more or less a fusion catch-all category. Of the nominees, my choice would be Christian Scott’s Rewind This. This seems to be an uneasy fit in this category, which is why I like it. I would rate Béla Fleck or Mike Stern the front-runners, but I could certainly be wrong, particularly in this category.

Best Jazz Vocal Album: Diana Krall has to be the prohibitive favorite—she does sell CDs, a lot of CDs. Nancy Wilson could be a dark horse, in appreciation for her entire career.

Best Jazz Instrumental Solo: My choice would be Paquito D’Rivera (always a favorite here) for his solo on “Paq Man.” I don’t see him winning this year though. Michael Brecker already owns 11 Grammys, but I think he will be the sentimental choice for his very public battle with MDS (myelodyplastic syndrome) and his efforts to promote blood stem cell donations (completely unrelated to embryonic stem cells), and that would be not be an outrageous choice by any stretch. (More info on his website here)

Best Jazz Instrumental Album: Chick Corea is a perennial favorite, and if the two titans—Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins—cancel each other out I could see him winning again. My vote would be for Rollins. Jack DeJohnette is politically right in line with most of the recording industry, so I could see Trio Beyond as a dark horse, but it is not like he’d be giving an acceptance speech. (Besides, they already have the Dixie Chicks to give political tirades.)

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album: If predicting, I would say Randy Brecker’s Some Skunk Funk, which features his brother, wins on his coattails. If voting, I would go for Joe Lovano.

Best Latin Jazz Album: Tough field to assess, but despite being on Artistshare (or maybe that’s a plus), Eddie Palmieri’s stature probably wins out here for his collaboration with Brian Lynch.

In other categories of interest to jazz listeners, I can definitely see Dr. John & the Lower 911 winning the Best Contemporary Blues Album for Sippiana Hericane as an expression of the Academy’s Katrina sentiments.

For Best Instrumental Composition, Taylor Eigsti, Patrick Williams, and Fred Hersch are competing against two John Williams soundtrack compositions. Hopefully the two John Williams entries cannibalize each other (I’m particularly rooting against the selection from appeasement film Munich). Hersch is a past nominee, who is well known for his work on behalf of A.I.D.S. causes, which should generate good karma with academy voters. I could also see Patrick Williams, a previous Grammy winner, garnering votes, even though Elevation has not been widely reviewed (if at all).

Best Instrumental Arrangement nominees are all jazz artists—again I’m guessing Corea here. In the eagerly anticipated Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist category, Gil Goldstein is nominated twice and the great Slide Hampton also got a nod. My heart is with Hampton, but the winner will come from either the Chris Botti or Tony Bennett albums—after all Grammy Awards are all about sales. Dan Morgenstern is nominated for Best Album Notes for Bluebird’s Fats Waller box and the other nominees are probably hoping he wins.

ECM's Manfred Eicher is nominated for Classical Producer of the Year. He has won before, but he should win most years. All classical listeners should be grateful to Eicher for launching a major division of ECM dedicated contemporary classical music, embracing challenging composers and maintaining ECM’s high production standards.

There are many artists and CDs I would have liked to see nominated, but the most glaring omission had to be Andrew Hills Time Lines, which I expect to top many critics’ top 10 lists. Hill is an amazing artist, but has not exactly been a commercial powerhouse, so no Grammy love for him.

Gee, those are some bold predictions there. If you only watch the award ceremony, you probably won’t know how wildly off-base they were. You’ll have to go hunting on the internet for the full list of winners. Jazz, blues, and classical are stuck in the Grammy ghetto with the traditional Hawaiian albums (there were indeed five new ones to nominate this year). Until they embrace more than bubble gum pop songs, jazz listeners will not be able to take them too seriously. That does not mean the jazz winners shouldn’t take satisfaction in winning or that their publicists shouldn’t try to make what hay they can. Any recognition for jazz artists is a good thing.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Blind Singer Joe’s Blues

Blind Singer Joe’s Blues
By Robert Love Taylor
Southern Methodist University Press

Blues and folk music share some deep ancestral ties. The great Library of Congress field recorder Alan Lomax certainly understood the connection. In his novel Blind Singer Joe’s Blues, Robert Love Taylor illustrates that relationship in a story of deeply tangled family roots.

Set in the border towns of Tennessee and Virginia, Taylor’s novel tells the early family history of a blues and jazz oriented guitarist and vocalist, Singer Joe Crider. (Knowing that his given name is Singer Joe, who is indeed blind, actually makes the title sound less awkward.) He is the product of an unfortunate union, one of two that produce sons for his mother. In each case, the father enters her life as a somewhat sinister figure, but becomes ever more pathetic as the story unfolds. It is the third man of her life, fiddler Pink Miracle that serves as a moral center for the story.

The Crider and Bayless families live a hardscrabble existence. Domestic service, running moonshine, and handling snakes are parts of everyday life for them. In an often grim and naturalistic book, Taylor does not scorn his characters for being hicks, but he spares them none of life’s hardships.

The blues is central to Blind Singer, but rarely seen or heard. It is simultaneously the music of escape and belonging. Both Singer Joe Crider and Pink Miracle, estranged from their immediate families, find acceptance in the world of African-American blues, despite their white country backgrounds. In the blues, Miracle once found a surrogate father-figure in blues musician Sonny Boy Jimson, and his own niche on fabled Beale Street, where he could:

“feel like a king, because of the music, the musicians playing with him, almost all of them black, sons of slaves, blues in their blood, leading him, a white boy from Oklahoma, into the music, making him play his way into and then out of feelings he didn’t even know he had.” (p. 74)

Later, Crider’s mother would run-off with Miracle, forming a country family-band. Crider would eventually find his own musical acceptance in the Deep Ellum section of Dallas, where:

“once Charlie Christian—before he signed on with Benny Goodman—looked him up and traded licks with him, and Bob Wills came around, puffing cigar smoke, asking him to play this or that, but nothing came of it, and he didn’t care to play with those Texas Playboys anyway, that country-boy jazz. That was Pink Miracle’s music, not his.” (p. 215)

Taylor is an excellent writer. He handles shifts in time and interludes of dream and delirium with great skill. His ear for dialogue and dialect is also quite impressive. Blind Singer effectively conveys the people and locales of Appalachia and the American Southwest. It might not be a satisfying read for those who worship the devil blues of Robert Johnson and Peatey Wheatstraw, and are looking for blues novels that essentially rewrite their legends. Taylor however, has written a compelling family drama that evokes a Southern Gothic atmosphere of “hants” and haunted places, which in reality are just the desperate people and mean circumstances which produced Singer Joe Crider.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Something Cool Finally Happens at the Public Theater

Finally On-Stage reports this weekend, a Public Theater event happened that did not involve dreary propaganda on behalf of Palestinian terrorism. Václav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, and playwright and prisoner of conscience before that, was honored with a presentation of the off-Broadway Obie Awards the Communist government of then Czechoslovakia refused to let him accept during the Cold War. Havel had won the drama awards for The Memorandum (1968), The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1970), and A Private View (1983). Joseph Papp actually smuggled Obie #1 into Czechoslovakia, while the other two remained unclaimed.

The Public Theater has a reputation for foisting propaganda masquerading as theater on its patrons, with recent fare including My Name is Rachel Corrie and Tim Robbins’ universally panned Embedded. I happily give them credit for hosting the tribute to Pres. Havel. While they had him there, they would have learned a great deal if they had asked him his assessment of Cuba’s human rights record or the stakes in the war on terror. Under Havel’s leadership, and continuing under Václav Klaus’ administration, the Czech Republic has been one of Cuba’s staunchest critics in Europe and an ally of America in Iraq. Likely, they missed that opportunity for enlightenment, but at least they must be starting to get the evils of Soviet Communism, more than a decade later. After all, it was clear from the proceedings it was not by his choice that he was unable to claim his Obie in 1968, or 1970, or 1983.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

New Orleans, 1960

New Orleans, 1960
By William Claxton and Joachim E. Berendt

In 1960 German jazz writer Joachim Berendt and American photographer William Claxton set out on a road trip across America to record the jazz scene in all its regionalisms. The result was their classic collaboration, Jazz Life, from which New Orleans 1960 has been excerpted.

Berendt writes they were repeatedly warned not to bother with New Orleans, because “jazz in New Orleans is dead.” (p. 17) Indeed, pre-Katrina it was conventional wisdom to dismiss the jazz of New Orleans following Louis Armstrong’s departure for Chicago as simple museum-piece recreations. In actuality, Claxton and Berendt found a lively music scene and many surviving members of jazz’s pioneer generation. Many were clearly characters in an endearing sense, like famed clarinetist Alphonse Picou, renown for his “High Society” solo. Berendt writes of seeking out Picou at his club for an interview:

“They told us not to arrive after eleven in the morning if we wanted to find him sober, but even that was obviously too late. Alphonse Picou was happy there were still people who remembered him.” (p. 21)

Not all the figures profiled are as endearing. Nick LaRocca, the leader of the white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, has been portrayed as a racist who purloined the jazz of African-American musicians in most recent jazz histories. Despite his insistence he created jazz, LaRocca’s interview with Berendt, and his unfortunate word choices, confirms this view of the trumpeter. Claxton does more to help LaRocca’s image with a beautiful silhouette photo on page 67. Figures like LaRocca and Papa Jack Laine are usually only seen in weathered early photos from their heyday, shown Ken Burns style. One assumes they had died by the 1930’s. Seeing them in their advanced years in Claxton’s gloriously printed photos from 1960 is a revelation.

The abundance of color photography is another surprise of New Orleans, 1960. Claxton is probably best known for his photos of Chet Baker and Steve McQueen, the most famous shots of which were black and white. Previous Claxton collections, like Jazz Scene are largely black and white (except for select photos including Miles, Mahalia Jackson, and some New Orleans parade photos also included in 1960). For parades his use of color often emphasizes the gold of the brass or the red of a marshal’s sash against the black and white of the musicians’ suits, and the white clapboard houses and the grey stone of the cemeteries.

Also included is an interlude to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which as Berendt notes, has been immortalized for having incarcerated Leadbelly. One of the inmates they talked with was Robert Pete Williams, who would later record for Prestige and tour the folk-blues festival circuit. Williams exemplifies the spiritual duality of religious blues artists, pulled by spirituals in one direction and the Devil blues in another. Williams told Berendt and Claxton:

“Music always pursued me. I tried to stop playing, because I thought I should prepare my soul for God. You have to realize, I was a Christian before I came here. I can also play spirituals, but I’ve strayed from God. He wanted me to become a preacher, but I didn’t.” (p. 170)

Claxton and Berendt found in New Orleans a city much more vibrant musically then they had been led to expect. It was a city consciously built in a precarious location. As Berendt writes of the city founders: “The instinct that led them to found the city in a bend of the Mississippi between the river and big Lake Pontchartrain—in an act of deliberate disobedience to a directive from the Paris court—is still worthy of admiration 250 years later.” (p. 22) However, when Katrina hit in 2005, the geography of New Orleans was devastating.

In the years following 1960, many of the surviving jazz legends would blow heir final choruses and the brass bands and parade societies would fall on hard times in the early seventies before seeing a rejuvenation led by bands like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. In 2005, as in 1960, the jazz scene in New Orleans was actually stronger than many realized. Hopefully it will rebound again.

New Orleans, 1960 records the city and its jazz scene as it was then, warts and all, including the harsh realities of segregation. It is a beautiful tribute to music produced in the city. It vividly captures the link New Orleanians have to their music and documents jazz history that can never be recreated with some amazing images.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Still Live in the Vanguard

When I reviewed Lorraine Gordon’s Alive at the Village Vanguard, I said I had never really met her, but she always seemed cool when I went to her club. After attending a book party in her club Wed. night I can say I briefly met her and she was very nice. My online book reviewing did not seem to mean much to her though, which is certainly understandable.

The publisher, Herman Leonard, put together a very nice event. To give it the society page treatment, those seen in attendance included: Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and John Mosca of the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. (No actual live music though.) It is great to see a house taking jazz titles seriously, and promoting them accordingly.

The Vanguard is a unique place in jazz history, and it is always good to be there. You can get a sense of that history from reading Lorraine Gordon’s entertaining book.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Atzmon and the Face of the Far-Left

(Readers' note: I'll be at a business conference 12/7 & 12/8 and most likely unable to blog until it concludes.)
The fever swamps of extreme British far-left organization are becoming increasingly factional, as various players attempt to purge their rivals. On one side are followers of the self-described “Israeli-born Palestinian” jazz musician Gilad Atzmon (background here and here), known for his fierce criticism of Israel and rhetoric that embraces anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and approaches outright Holocaust denial. Representing the voice of reason (or what passes for it in British far-left circles) are groups like the Jewish Socialists’ Group.

The JSG sent open letter to a Scottish Palestinian advocacy group which had invited Aztmon to address their organization, suggesting they might not want to host someone whose program is: “regurgitating world Jewish conspiracy theories and diminishing the crimes of Nazism.” They highlight some hateful quotes and a particular incident:

“In 2005 Atzmon approvingly distributed Paul Eisen’s essay “Holocaust Wars” which Socialist Unity website described as ‘a full-blooded exposition of Holocaust denial material and a tribute to the notorious neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel.’ Atzmon said he only had ‘slight differences’ with Eisen’s article.”

For his part, Atzmon would like to change the face of the British far-left too, making it look, well, less Jewish. As the Guardian’s David Hirsh quotes, Atzmon told his Scottish audience:

“I would use this opportunity and appeal to our friends amongst the Jewish socialists and other Jewish solidarity groups. I would ask them to clear the stage willingly, and to re-join as ordinary human beings.”

The clear implication seems to be that in Atzmon’s mind being ordinary human beings and being Jewish are mutually exclusive. Should anyone care about the power struggles of the British far-left “anti-Zionist” movement? In a recent post, Simply Jews ask “why bother?” They link to Hirsh, who does sound the alarms, because:

“I consider this Atzmon is an anti-Semitic crank; hardly unusual, is it? The big deal is this: Atzmon is currently being hosted and/or being given a platform by groups that are thought of as being anti-racist and on the left.”

It is important to shine a light on fanaticism. Anti-Semitism is rising, particularly in Europe. When incubated in an insular and extreme political environment, where Bush is equated with Hitler, Israel with National Socialist Germany, revolution is advocated and political assassination fantasies are lauded such demagoguery can have frightening consequences. I would argue such circumstances contributed to Malachi Ritscher’s self-immolation, in a case of rage turned inward. How long will it be before a disturbed individual reacting to such rhetoric turns his rage outward towards others? That is why people of good conscience should consistently condemn the likes of Atzmon.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Silver Belles in Been Rich All My Life

Been Rich All My Life
Directed Heather Lyn MacDonald
Toots Crackin’ Porduction/First Run Features

There was a time when people dressed up for a night out. The big bands ruled the night clubs and theaters, and the women of the Silver Belles were dancing in the chorus at the Apollo Theater. Director-producer-and most-everything-else Heather Lyn MacDonald records their stories in the touching theatrical documentary Been Rich All My Life, now available on DVD.

It was big band swing that they danced to at the Apollo and legendary night-spots like the Cotton Club, so as one would expect, music plays an important role in their story. Silver Belle Marian Coles explains: “We do mostly jazz moves. You got to be loose to move and the music inspires that.” Which band did they single out? Jimmie Lunceford’s: “that was our band . . . because they were swinging.” Lunceford even wrote a tune specifically for them, “For Dancers Only.”

Ms. Coles, age 88 at time of filming, was also teaching tap in addition to performing. When she talks about preserving the tap tradition, her words have resonance for jazz lovers as well: “I love to dance—I teach because our style of dance—there’s no one out here doing it . . . I teach to pass it on, because the students love it.” Her teaching techniques even reflect a jazz influence, as she scats the dance steps to her students.

What starts off as a pleasant portrait of the Silver Belles, becomes very real, with the passing of their senior member, Bettye Lou Wood, and another suffers a serious injury. At one point it is uncertain whether the Belles will be able to continue as a troupe. MacDonald captured some great interviews, preserving some important cultural history and the American history that shaped it. In one interview, Cleo Hayes tells us: “I’m from Greenville, Mississippi and I don’t have to tell you why I left.”

If you don’t know, it should be clear when listen to their experiences on Southern tours. Even when a part of the first African-American USO tour, they had to deal with segregation, despite soldiers shouting: “Hey Apollo, Hey Apollo.” The Belles certainly were apart of great musical history, working with the likes of Bill Robinson and Eubie Blake, the musical director for their USO tour.

The DVD release puts together a nice package, with a lesson in dancing the Shim Sham Shimmy taught by Silver Belle Fay Ray. Love to see that catch on in the clubs. Also, Pete Whitman gets his due as composer in a bonus interview. He wrote some nice tunes inspired by the original swing bands that hold up well on their own, and are available here as separate audio tracks. The soundtrack also features some effective solo piano performances by Benny Weinbeck.

Like jazz, tap dancing commands artistic respect, if not the commercial clout each once had during the swing era. For both to survive, the masters must pass the tradition on, teaching young talents. Coles and Hayes both credit Bettye Lou Wood for just that sort of formative instruction early in their careers. It is that sense of living tradition and passion for one’s art that makes Been Rich such a rewarding film.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Alive at the Village Vanguard

Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life in and Out of Jazz Time
By Lorraine Gordon as told to Barry Singer
Hal Leonard

I have never met Lorraine Gordon but she always seems nice when I visit her club, the legendary Village Vanguard. I have also heard from musicians that she runs a tight ship. Getting to the gig late is not recommended. Gordon’s life is inextricably intertwined with jazz history, as she describes in her memoir Alive at the Village Vanguard.

Gordon discovered jazz at a young age, and her love of the music led her to meet and ultimately marry Alfred Lion, the German émigré who co-founded legendary Blue Note Records with Francis Wolff. (Alive includes a beautiful Wolff portrait of her.) Blue Note fans will be fascinated to read Gordon’s eye-witness account of Blue Notes early years. Gordon worked side-by-side with Lion to build the independent label, both in the office and the recording studio. Gordon recalls:

“Alfred and I sat in the recording booth behind a glass wall. We’d discuss what numbers they wanted to play, put together ten tunes, each tune three minutes long.” (p. 50)

Having seen the care that went into selecting master takes, Gordon has no use for the proliferation of alternate takes on reissues. Of Lion’s judgment as a producer, she writes:

“He was a true perfectionist about everything, and he was usually right. We would talk about takes after each recording; we’d listen and simply pick the best . . . That’s what I don’t like about what these so-called archivists are doing today: they’re hauling every take out of the vault; they’re first, second takes, third takes, fourth takes and issuing them. Alfred would never have done that.” (p. 78)

One of Blue Note’s most important early signings was Thelonious Monk, who became Gordon’s “personal mission.” In her words” “we sort of became part of the Monk family.” (p. 67) She would even convince Max Gordon, the owner of the Village Vanguard, to book Monk for a week. Unfortunately the Vanguard really lived up to its name that week, as audiences just were not ready for Monk. As Gordon recalls: “Nobody came. None of the so-called jazz critics. None of the so-called cognoscenti. Zilch.” (p. 96)

Monk’s stand may have been disappointing from a business perspective. However, a few years later, Gordon divorced Lion and married Max Gordon. During her marriage to the night club owner, Gordon raised her family, enjoyed nights out at Gordon’s clubs and got politically active. It was Gordon who introduced Barbara Streisand, then performing at Gordon’s uptown Blue Angel club, to left-wing activism. In an early group interview with Mike Wallace Streisand decidedly under-whelmed her political mentor:

“we talked about our peace movement, and then Mike turned to Barbara. ‘You’re involved with this, too?’ He asked. And Barbara replied—I’ll never forget it—‘Oh yeah, we’re like a bunch of lemmings. We all follow each other and jump off the cliff.’” (p. 147)

In 1989 Max Gordon passed away, and the Lorraine Gordon era began at the Vanguard. While the Blue Angel was a casualty of television age, the shrewd move to an exclusively jazz format kept the West-Village club a going concern. Managing a club in this town is no easy task. As Gordon explains one must deal with:

“the board of health, the fire department, the I.R.S.—all the departments that run your business in New York City, whether you like it or not. (p. 206)

Under Lorraine Gordon’s new management, she tightened up the club’s business practices, and showed extraordinary taste in her bookings, as evidenced by the chronology compiled by Brian Rushton which ends the book. It certainly brings back some great memories of shows I have heard there, including: Joe Wilder, Jason Moran, Clark Terry, Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Hargrove, Greg Osby, Wycliffe Gordon, and of course the Carnegie Hall tribute concert.

Alive will certainly be of interest to jazz fans, particularly Blue Note fanatics. Unlike Richard Cook’s book on Blue Note, Gordon really does provide insights into the label’s early years. Jazz has always faced commercial challenges, but it has found independent entrepreneurs who have taken great risks to see that the music is made available to those who love it. Gordon did that at Blue Note with Lion and Wolff. She continues to provide a home for it at 178 Seventh Avenue South, a sacred space for jazz lovers.

Alive is a quick read, told in a witty, conversational style that holds nothing back. I might not agree with Gordon’s politics, but there’s no arguing with her musical taste. Of course I recommend it. Unlike Henry Kissinger, I want to be welcome to return to the Vanguard.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

New School Mambo

Downtown looked uptown in the New School’s day of Afro-Cuban programming, most explicitly in From Mambo to Hip Hop: a South Bronx Tale, a documentary which examined the impact of music on the borough which the Yankees call home. The film included some interesting interviews with Afro-Cuban jazz artists like Ray Barretto and co-producer Bobby Sanabria. Perhaps most striking were the clear visual similarities between mambo dancers like Tito Rodríguez and later Hip Hop dancers. While there may have been clear stylistic differences, the kinesthetic parallels were obvious.

Some things did seem to change. Returning to Paul Austerlitz’s history of the Machito band in Jazz Consciousness, he writes about Ernest Ensley, one of many mambo dancers who were then on the scene:

“Ensley’s life as a mambero was a true labor of love: he often danced after a full day’s work, returning home as late as 5:30 A.M., only to leave for work again as early as 8:00 or 9:00 A.M.!” (p. 86)

South Bronx Tale celebrates the all-night Hip-Hop parties that grew out of truce among Bronx gangs. Participants talked of partying all night, getting breakfast, and then partying all day. While that might be preferable to open gang warfare, it is essentially hedonism and has little in common with the example of Ensley.

South Bronx Tale does discuss the hits the borough has taken, correctly identifying drugs, gangs, and the South Bronx Expressway, which Robert Moses rammed through the Bronx without regard to the destructive impact on formerly middle class residential communities. I would add the Bronx also suffered under feckless Beame and Dinkins administrations, whose sad records on crime and economic development led normally Democratic New Yorkers to elect Giuliani in 2001. (Koch gets a marginal pass.)

The Q&A afterwards was the usual mixed bag. Reagan left office in 1989, but many in the audience felt compelled to blame his “budget cuts” for the current state of music education. There is no point in explaining to them education in America is almost entirely founded at the state and local level, largely through property taxes. They were simply repeating an article of faith amongst New York liberals.

The concert ended the programming on a high note. New School often puts on shows with students playing with well-known faculty members that are always worth seeing. Some students I have seen play at the New School now have CDs out. The current New School Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Sanabria is upholding the tradition nicely.

Special guest artist Sonny Fortune brought soul to “Since I fell for You,” segueing into a beautiful “Stormy Weather.” There were plenty of good workouts, like Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan,” featuring Kaitlin Miller on trumpet (who seemed to have the largest cheering section in attendance). New tunes “D Train” and “El Arche de Sanabria en Moderacion” proved that Afro-Cuban jazz is alive and well. Fortune with MasahiroYamamoto on Soprano created waves of sound on the finale “Manteca” that amazed the audience.

All the students acquitted themselves well, with distinctive solos turned in by Yamamoto on alto, Jeremy Viner on tenor, Andrew Carrico on baritone, Miller and Justin Davis in a great trumpet section, and Cristian Rivera on Congas. As usual, the music had more to say than the talking.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Yet Another Reason to Dislike the French

Like we needed another. Apologies for getting to this story late (it just hit the printed pages of Jazz Times this month), but the reaction to it is almost as bizarre as the event itself. Valery Ponomarev, a jazz musician who defected from the then Soviet Union, was involved in an altercation with French police in September. The IHT reports:

“Ponomarev said that when he arrived late to board his evening flight, a flustered Air India employee retrieved his trumpet from a luggage belt at a security checkpoint without explanation to place it in the plane’s hold.

Ponomarev protested vigorously, he said, because he had carried the instrument onto an earlier connecting flight and also had noticed that another passenger was carrying aboard a sitar. His angry complaints attracted the notice of an Air India supervisor, who summoned the police.

Four officers came running to take his trumpet case, but Ponomarev refused to give it to them, prompting one of them to subdue him by wrenching his arm behind his back, breaking it.”

According to Ponomarev he was held for six hours before he was allowed to see a doctor. Who to sympathize with, the Russian defector jazz musician or overzealous French civil servants? Talk about a no-brainer. I heard Ponomarev’s big band play an excellent show at Birdland earlier this year. He played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1970’s, recording one of my favorite Blakey LPs, Gypsy Folk Tales. Obviously, the French authorities’ behavior is indefensible.

Ponomarev was assaulted in France, by French cops, trying to get on an Air India flight. So who does the left side of the blogosphere hold responsible? President George W. Bush, of course. In a wild act of psychological transference they blame him for creating an environment of paranoid airport security. After all, the French have been so obsequiously willing to do the bidding of the Bush administration, right? It’s time for these bloggers to start taking their meds again.

The incident brings to mind Tom Wolfe’s famous line inspired by Jean-Francois Revel: “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Til Tomorrow

Til Tomorrow: Remembering Marvin Gaye
By Cassandre McKinley
MaxJazz (MXJ 123)

Maybe there’s something in the air, but jazz artists seem to be taking stock of the Marvin Gaye catalog. After the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s reinterpretation of What’s Going On, Cassandre Wilson sings songs associated with Gaye on her debut Til Tomorrow.

Cynical jazz observers sneer about the new formula for crossover success—combine an attractive female vocalist with some well chosen pop standards given jazzy arrangements and unleash a marketing campaign. Maybe it is a formula, but it’s not necessarily a bad one. In this case, McKinley has the most important part of the equation. She has a strong voice, with great tone and clear diction.

McKinley sounds great throughout Tomorrow, the only quibble being one or two weak arrangements. No such caveat applies to “Trouble Man,” the first cut that really shows McKinley’s facility at various tempos in a rendition that gets to blues at the core of Gaye’s music.
The gospel-tinged take on “Night Life” (a Willie Nelson tune via Gaye) is another fine feature for McKinley. It’s a very satisfying jazz track, with nice trumpet work from John Allmark. She also handles a swinging up-tempo “Pride and Joy” with stylish zest. The real standout track is McKinley’s rendition of “Let’s Get It On,” undeniably the most famous Gaye hit on the CD. She credits Kenny Rankin as the inspiration for the spare arrangement for guitar and percussion. Her voice had to carry the tune, and it does, fully expressing the desire and longing of the tune. It’s a track that should make converts of Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson fans.

After “Let’s Get It On,” one just wants to sit back and say “ah, yes.” Unfortunately, it is followed by a jarring disco-sounding intro of background singers, rain sticks, and synthesizers for “After the Dance,” which kills the mood. The simple piano accompaniment of “Yesterday” trusts the power of her voice and works much better for it. Also notable is “You’re the One for Me,” which even features a little scattish vocalizing and effective sax work from Dino Govoni.

Til Tomorrow is a very strong debut (apart from some self-released sessions which do not seem to be readily available). Also worth noting for J.B. Spins readers who support Americans in uniform, McKinley dedicates the CD to her sergeant brother. Hearing McKinley’s voice, you have to conclude she is the real deal.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

J.B. vs. PW

Normal people do not read Publisher’s Weekly, but you might recognize the name from snippets of their positive reviews reprinted on book covers. PW is the trade publication of the publishing industry. Its pre-publication capsule reviews do not normally sell books to consumers, but they can have an effect with bookstore and library buyers. Of course, they cannot review everything published. So how often do they review jazz books?

Of the 39 books reviewed here this year, and the one coming hopefully at the end of the week, PW reviewed nine. That’s nine out of forty. Out of that nine, two were graphic novels (comic books), Bluesman and Stagger Lee. Granted, I specialize, whereas they have to narrow the field of every book churned off a press. I will not fault them for ignoring David Brown’s Noise Orders, at times a thought-provoking book, but clearly not destined for great bookstore distribution. It is harder to get space for scholarly titles, illustrated books, reprints, and paperback originals. Still, there were some surprising omissions.

Stanley Crouch’s Considering Genius was eagerly anticipated for the debates it would ignite on jazz discussion boards. Crouch is a national figure, instantly recognizable from his appearances in Ken Burns documentaries and his column in the NY Daily News. Previous Crouch collections have been reviewed, but no love for Genius?

Pete Turner’s Color of Jazz will be the coveted jazz gift book of the season for everyone who loved CTI’s bestselling 1970’s LPs. Illustrated books are not as likely to be reviewed, but past Turner collections have been, yet no review this time.

Linda Dahl’s Haunted Heart, the tragic biography of Sussanah McCorkle, is a compelling read with what could be called Oprah appeal (abuse, mental health). Her Mary Lou Wiliams biography drew a mixed review from PW, but no ink for Heart?

Libraries rely on trade reviews more than anyone to shape their buys. Frankly, their patrons tend to be older, more likely to remember Dick Haymes. Ruth Prigozy’s Life of Dick Haymes could well have been of interest to them, but no notice in PW.

When PW does review jazz titles, they have generally been positive. Two of the nine titles we both reviewed, received starred reviews, denoting exceptional merit: Sancton’s Song for My Fathers and Kahn’s House That Trane Built (deservedly so). They also gave solidly positive reviews to most of the other nine, including D’Rivera’s My Sax Life and Burns’ Keeping the Beat on the Street.

PW is not able to review everything, so it will necessarily miss some jazz and blues titles. I seem to be able to fill a good part of that void, but I would welcome some competition. It would be good for the music to receive any kind of additional publicity, and good for bookstores too, as jazz listeners tend to be more affluent and better educated than the average person—in other words, good customers.

The nine:
Stagger Lee:
House That Trane Built:
My Sax Life:
Great Black Way:
Keeping the Beat on the Street:
Song for My Fathers:
One O'Clock Jump:
Harlem of the West:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jazz Consciousness

Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race and Humanity
By Paul Austerlitz
Wesleyan University Press

Collections tend to be uneven—the good aspect of that being if one selection is the flat, the next entry may show signs of life. Musician and ethnomusicologist Paul Austerlitz collects and rewrites studies of jazz heavily informed by figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon in his ideologically tinged collection Jazz Consciousness, which exemplifies this tendency.

Austerlitz’s general thesis relates to a duality of jazz, as both a connection to America, particularly African Americans, and as a cultural connection to the African Diaspora writ large. His strongest pieces are profiles of Machito and Mario Bauzá and a survey of the development of jazz in Finland. Unfortunately, he starts slowly with liberal doses of racial politics, making arguments like: “While some critics, however, might laud jazz’s aesthetic ‘integration’ as an epitome of ‘American democracy,’ I argue that the inclusiveness of jazz is atypical of dominant trends in the United States.” (p. 20) As evidenced by the quotes on “American Democracy,” Consciousness starts with a high quotient of ideology, but it does get more informative as it progresses.

In telling the history of Bauzá and Machito, Austerlitz tries to explain the aspects of America, in addition to jazz, which attracted Bauzá:

“This philosophy of black self-help, perhaps inspired by Booker T. Washington, was consonant with Bauza’s attraction to the Harlem Renaissance: instead of looking to the white world for solutions, successful African Americans kept their dignity intact and their pocketbooks full by forging black institutions.” (p. 56)

Machito and his Afro-Cubans gained enormous popularity in New York, fusing the jazz Bauzá learned in America with the Afro-Cuban rhythms Machito brought to the band. Long ensconced at the Palladium nightclub, the Machito band enjoyed the cross-fertilization made possible by the understanding reached by local club owners. According to Austerlitz:

“the Palladium and Birdland were situated within blocks of each other. The owners of the two venues had an informal agreement whereby musicians working at either club could enter the other one free of charge. Players could thus keep up on what the others were doing.” (p. 90)

In discussing Machito, Austerlitz makes much of the fact that he never played in his Cuban homeland, offering some explanations, like his baritone, which was not widely heard as a solo voice in Cuba. He fails to mention that the fact that Cuba has been ruled by an oppressive dictator since 1959 (who was quite hostile towards jazz until the 1970’s and Irakere) which would have made a Machito tour there extremely difficult. [Another Cuban note: Austerlitz mistakenly suggests Pauito D’Rivera came to America as part of the Mariel boatlift. (p. 113) Actually he defected in Spain while on tour with Irakere.]

Austerlitz’s strongest piece is a survey of Finnish jazz, probably because he is cognizant of the ironies of the story he tells. Writing on the German model for the first Finnish jazz band, Austerlitz quotes a scholar of Finnish music, who wrote: “while Finland was looking for a German king, the first ‘continental jazz band sounds’ were being played by the German Kings of Jazz.” (p. 125) More staid musical critics became leery of jazz as it gained popularity in the 1920’s. One anti-jazz publication Austerlitz quotes warned of: “over-stimulation of shot nerves, and even nudity.” (p. 131) I’ll bet that really scared the kids off. Jazz would have lean years in Finland, but learning that Finns would eventually settle on the Tango as the consensus alternative to 1960’s rock and roll is reason enough to read Consciousness. Austerlitz explains:

“many agrarian and working-class Finns were ‘now looking for a music which would sound truly Finnish, and somewhat paradoxically . . . adopted the tango. Either you supported the Beatles or the tango.’” (p. 142)

Sometimes Consciousness is fascinating and sometimes it is tedious. It is a decidedly mixed bag, but where else can you hip yourself to the story of the Finnish tango craze?

Monday, November 27, 2006

I Hear Fanaticism

Take a look at the self-selected face of the extreme anti-war left. It is Malachi Ritscher, a documenter and recorder of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene who self-immolated on November 3rd in protest of the Iraqi War (some background). Now there is an effort among extremist bloggers to celebrate this tragedy, with blog posts titled “I Heard You, Malachi.” I won’t link to any, but you can find them on technorati here. Their goal is to publicize Ritscher in the MSM to make him a martyr, and the AP duly picks up the story today.

Those who now seek to canonize Ritscher, and thereby exploit his tragedy, downplay his obviously disturbed state of mind. Ritscher left a statement of intent that includes a fantasy about missing an opportunity to assassinate Sec. Rumsfeld:

“I passed Donald Rumsfeld on Delaware Avenue and I was acutely aware that slashing his throat would spare the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people. I had a knife clenched in my hand, and there were no bodyguards visible; to my deep shame I hesitated.”

He maintained a website titled killthepresident dot net. In years past, these would be considered concrete evidence of mental illness, but violent assassination discourse seems to have been normalized by the anti-war, anti-Bush extremists. For Ritscher, immersion in such a fanatical political climate culminated in his suicide.

Those ghoulishly seeking to exploit this tragedy castigate the media's alleged “conservative” or “corporate” biases for not covering the story in a big way, dismissing the legitimate “copy-cat” concerns, for which news outlets are ordinarily reluctant to cover suicides in general. More than that, a sympathetic media is simply trying to save the extremist left from its self. Making a man who self-immolated and harbored fantasies of political assassination the public face of the “anti-war” movement would not be astute PR move. It might well be appropriate though. What Ritscher did was the act of a fanatic, idealized by fanatics.

Richard Roeper has taken flack from those same fanatics for a column in which he wrote:

“with all due respect, if he thought setting himself on fire and ending his life in Chicago would change anyone’s mind about the war in Iraq, his last gesture on this planet was his saddest and most futile.”

Fanaticism is not attractive to most Americans, so publicizing Ritscher’s suicide would likely prove counter-productive to anti-war extremists. One feels enormous sympathy for his friends and family. It would be a disservice to Ritscher’s memory to make his name synonymous with his final act. Most who are now blogging about this tragedy, would not know Ken Vandermark or Fred Anderson or any Chicago musician from Adam, but it was Ritscher’s work documenting Chicago’s challenging jazz artists that should be remembered as his real legacy.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

So There

So There
Steve Swallow with Robert Creeley
ECM XtraWatt 12

Poetic collaborations with jazz are often frustrating. Unless one is a passionate devotee of the reciting poet, they rarely withstand more than one or two spins. However, there is an overall musicality to Steve Swallow’s posthumous collaboration with Robert Creeley, So There that does indeed reward repeated listening.

The poet did record the vocal tracks in 2001, but his death prevented anticipated follow-up sessions. Combining the jazz of Steve Kuhn on piano and elements of classical chamber music with the Cikada String Quartet, Swallow worked for years to compose the appropriate musical accompaniment for Creeley’s recorded words. Unlike other jazz and poetry efforts, Swallow’s arrangements do not fall into the predictable format—poet recites, musicians play a few bars, poet recites again, etc—that characterize too much of the subgenre. Swallow’s music, by necessity written around the pre-existing Creeley tracks, serve to frame and support his words in a unified whole. As a result, the poet is often not heard until relatively late in a track, but usually to great effect.

For instance, in “Sufi Sam Christian” Creeley’s words are not heard until around the 2:25 minute mark, after the beautiful melancholy of Swallow’s bass solo and the mournful strings. When Creeley speaks in a soothing, world-weary voice: “Lift me into Heaven slowly, because my back’s sore, and my mind’s too thoughtful,” rather than jarring, it is a fitting conclusion to an elegant track.

Steve Kuhn, a frequent collaborator with Swallow, is also employed to good effect, bringing a light bluesy touch to tunes like “Later.” The overall tone of the CD is wistful, but not maudlin. Indeed there is a strong rhythmic drive to most of the tunes, like “Just in Time,” which artfully combines the jazz piano and bass duo with the string quartet.

There is humor of the unexpected too. “Riddle,” a Monkish sounding piece, showcases Kuhn solo, until Swallow’s bass introduces Creeley asking: “What did you throw it on the floor for? Who the Hell you think you are?” Through out So There, Creeley’s vocal tracks are seamlessly integrated, as on “Ambition,” where Kuhn’s piano perfectly echoes the poet’s staccato delivery.

So There is beautifully conceived and crafted. Creeley’s voice blends so effectively with Swallow’s music one has to concentrate to hear his words distinct from the whole. So There is a high water-mark for jazz and poetry, which should challenge future such collaborations with its refreshingly original conceptions.