Archive for the ‘ Jazz ’ Category

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise

Yes, I am ignoring Furguson, the border crisis (children being returned from asylum), Gaza, and many more.

There comes a time, however, when it is necessary to figure out what makes us human, among those who deny it.

My current answer is Sonny Rollins. Occasionally,  it’s worth contemplating the sunrise:




St. James Infirm’ry

Red Allen says all the boys were there: King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Buddy Bolden, Wiggy Manone, Louis Armstrong, and of course Allen himself:


RIP Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: with Hank Jones on piano for the 1995 album Steal Away: Spirituals Hymns & Folk Songs on Verve.

What more is there to say?

America’s Greatest Composer

In a few days it will be 40 years since Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington passed. (He died on May 24, 1974. He didn’t get to live to see Nixon resign.)

There is nothing magical about these anniversaries, of course. It only occurred to me because I have been thinking about the state of American music for a couple of days. I won’t reveal my thoughts here, for fear of being dismissed as an old crank. But I can suggest that it would be difficult for anyone to make the case that someone other than the Duke can claim the title of America’s greatest composer.

There’s no doubt that Carter, Wuorinen, Babbit, Varese and Ives made important music that we will study for years to come. But America has never produced art music, in the European tradition, as a natural matter. In terms of vital, organic and innovative music, America has only produced jazz and blue grass. Blue grass, however, has never been written in a wide enough variety of forms to be considered a serious art form. Jazz, however, has had quite a number of original composers, something of a perceived anomaly for a music mostly known for improvisation covering pop music. It is true that it is difficult to isolate a jazz “composer” (such as, for example, Monk, Gillespie, Mingus and Coltrane) from an “arranger” (such as Henderson, Basie and Evans). But there is no doubt where Duke Ellington stands on that divide. For more than forty years he produced one marvel after another, which he not only wrote, but arranged and conducted.

It’s difficult to pick a period that best displays his genius. But “periods” he certainly has, as assuredly as Picasso did. From the “Jungle Music” of his Cotton Club days, to the “classicist” of the 30s and 40s (with the Carnegie Hall music), during which time he had the outstanding performers Ben Webster on sax and Jimmy Blanton on bass, which RCA Victor used to sell its compilation of Ellington recordings. The ’50s were a difficult time for Big Bands but Ellington used it to write one of his most startling pieces, “Satin Doll,” which was never better interpreted than by his own quirky original piano treatment. The 60s saw him attempt “serious” compositions/arrangements with suites (including a version of the “Nutcracker”) that did not stack up to his earlier efforts. But at the same time he was exploring the avant-garde. Possibly the best of these efforts was Money Jungle with Coltrane and Mingus. The efforts of the 60s paid off with a renaissance in the 70s, when he himself was in his 70s. And it was listening to an album from that period that got me thinking in this vein. The album was Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

That album ostensibly offers a “fusion” with what Ellington calls “oriental” music. You can safely ignore the Duke’s explanation; in fact it’s somewhat embarrassing to listen to. I have never understood the thinking of the A&R flacks at Columbia Records, who seemed to relish self-indulgent and often patronizing blather. But once you get past the first 10 seconds or so of this album, you will find the music undeniably superb. Admittedly, the effects are largely owing to block orchestral forces and the open voicings of the brass at climaxes. But pitting block forces was the mainstay of someone as orthodox in Germanic art music as Bruckner. And if you object to open voicings, then you probably have no interest in big band jazz anyway.

That said, if you have a half hour, it could be spent in many worse ways than listening to Afro-Eurasian Eclipse:

September 15, 1963: 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama

A mere fifty years ago today America awoke to the deep and virulent hatred that smoldered in the breast of this country. It was born in an inhumanity that was present long before the founding at the country, acknowledged in the Constitution (an imperfect temporizing which is overly revered today), nurtured with legal, economic and social injustice that still is not eradicated, despite the act of reactionary terrorism that took place on that day.

The victims were as unlikely as the place the massacre took place—at a church on a Sunday morning. None of the victims would be 65 yet, if they had survived. Twenty two others were injured (one girl lost an eye), as the dynamite was timed to go off at the moment that 26 children assembled to hear a sermon on Christian forgiveness. The martyrs were:

Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14).

Addie Mae Collins (age 14) [top left], Denise McNair (age 11) [top right], Cynthia Wesley (age 11) [bottom left] and Carole Robertson (age 14) [bottom right].

Words could not then formulate a civilized response to the craven act of barbarism.

John Coltrane’s elegy on the event, “Alabama,” gives one response:

All history is filled with overwhelming grief, and even the smallest steps forward must be paid for in buckets of innocent blood. And yet that is not enough.  Necessity then requires the innocents to bear their sorrow publicly to let the world judge whether reason exists to deny justice.

Mr. and Mrs. Alvin C. Robertson arrive for funeral services for their daughter Carol, Sept. 17, 1963. [Photo: Bettmann/Corbis.]

Mr. and Mrs. Alvin C. Robertson arrive for funeral services for their daughter Carol, Sept. 17, 1963. [Photo: Bettmann/Corbis.]

At the funeral Martin Luther King said that life was as hard as crucible steel. And though all the mourners over the world played their meek part, justice was still denied. Neither the state nor the federal government filed charges in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1977 that the first conspirator was charged. He was sentenced to life in prison, but death shortened his sentence eight years later. Another died in 1994, never charged. A third was charged in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison. The fourth was sentenced in 2002 and died two years later. In all, the four assassins enjoyed a total of 122 years before they were charged or 72 years more than the total length their victims lived on earth.

Once it was said that these victims could count the passing of the Voting Rights Act as a memorial. But this year, despite the repeated reenactment by Congress, the Supreme Court, now filled with soulless reactionaries, struck down a key portion of the act as being outdated and not supported by the fact-finding of Congress. Justice Antonin Scalia was secure enough in his own arrogance to say that the Act, which was simply a modest and long-belated form of political justice, “embedded” a form of “racial preferment.” He said this not in a court of law, because to him laws are simply the expression of power which emanates from money, but at a private gathering at the University of California Washington Center.

Within minutes of the Court’s decision, several formerly confederates states began to draw up legislation (and in one case voted on a bill) that would restrict voting access by African-Americans, as well as other groups disfavored by the powers that be. It is therefore clear that although the victims of 50 years ago did not die in vain, America’s original sin has never been expiated. In fact, all signs suggest that buckets of blood will again be required before the rising tide of injustice and malice can be stemmed.

Peacock & Crispell: Azure

Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell in undated and unattributed publicity photo from Rubin Museum website.

Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell in undated and unattributed publicity photo from Rubin Museum website.

The new album Azure (ECM 2013), pairing bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Marilyn Crispell, was launched tonight by a performance at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.

Peacock and Crispell both of course have impeccable jazz pedigrees. Peacock goes back to the golden era of the jazz avant-garde. He played in one of the great incarnations of the Bill Evans trio along side Paul Motian and earned his free jazz bona fides by recording with Albert Ayler on Spiritual Unity (on the nonpareil but short-lived label ESP in 1964). He was then in and out of jazz returning first with Paul Bley than Keith Jarrett. Marilyn Crispell is of a later generation, who entered jazz through an academic door at the New England Conservatory. She nonetheless also earned her stripes working with Anthony Braxton for 10 years.

Peacock and Crispell have a history that goes back for several years. They recorded as a trio with Paul Motian (on ECM), including an album of the music of Peacock’s then wife, Annette Peacock (Nothing Ever Was). Since Motian’s tragic death in 2011, they have worked as a duo, although this is the first album that resulted from that collaboration.

The album itself was recorded in 2011 (in Saugerties, New York). That it is only now seeing the light of day is a testament to the decrepit condition of jazz labels in the age of Youtube and streamed or self-produced albums.

Jazz labels may feel that they do not need to take advantage of more current production and distribution systems under the believe that the days of jazz are passing with the aging of its last generation of fans. Some maintain that jazz is suffering a twin death: part of it (the younger musicians) are being absorbed into an amorphous world music genre, the rest of it is becoming more of a museum than a living art form.

The new album by Peacock and Crispell will not disprove that theory. If anything, their collaboration is the perfect summary of a couple of strains of the avant-garde since the early 1960s. Crispell’s piano pieces both in composition and playing technique are reminiscent of the music of the early Cecil Taylor, who she acknowledge was her first influence. Aging jazz fans needn’t worry that the influence went much beyond the mid-1960s. Crispell is far too academically inclined to begin by lying on the floor or engage in the kind of vocalizing that the later Taylor often allowed himself to do. Crispell’s work is much more composed (it is actually through-composed with written music) than Taylor’s ever was. The constraint on improvisation might be due to her long stint with Braxton.

Crispell’s academic orientation doesn’t end with Taylor. She has absorbed the chromaticism of Bill Evans and Don Pullen (although not the propulsive drive). Peacock is of course one of a kind, whose individual voice and plucking attack reflects his immersion in the beginnings of free jazz.

The Rubin makes its jazz performers pick a piece currently on exhibit and “create music: around it. This being an album release, the exercise was somewhat academic. Nevertheless, Crispell was game and picked two “Buddhas” as she called them (one was a bodhisattva) and claimed that they reflected the “compassion” that the album was about. It struck me as odd that Peacock, who actually studied Zen, wasn’t the one who picked the art. But perhaps it was his comment on how unhelpful the Rubin’s exercise is.

In any event, the performance was warmly received. It was a nostalgic tour of the kind of music that can result from unmooring jazz from the song-format and beebop’s harmonic framework. The angular harmonies of post-60s free jazz were all on display, but in the tempered kind of way that ECM likes to package its music. Crispell’s compositions (particularly “Waltz After David M”) show that the free jazz vocabulary can include a tonal, and even sentimental, center. This piece itself is worth the price of the album, especially for those of us who mourn the passing of the genre (and so many other things). Jazz has been dying for a long time. In fact, Roy Eldridge said that jazz was the music of those desperately trying to be happy, despite the circumstances. But that might not be said of all art.

Gen X’s secular saint

Though he seemed the humorless Presbyterian minister that he in fact was, Fred Rogers (1928-2003) had surprisingly broad interests.

He majored in music and his wife remembered he had the extraordinary ability to sit down and play whatever pop music he had just heard. He composed most of the music for the Neighborhood, including the theme. He also was able to improvize. He must have valued that ability, because the Neighborhood’s musical director, arranger and pianist was Johnny Costa, once a nationally known pianist whose harmonic inventiveness caused Art Tatum to call him “the white Art Tatum.” If you listen to Costa’s solo album “Classic Costa,” you will hear that this was no meaningless flattery. In some ways it is more like the later Earl Hines than Tatum, but you can hear the rich harmonic improvisation of the kind that Tatum invented. The fact that the musical director for a children’s program can be compared to a legend of American imporvisational music shows just how important Fred Rogers was. And although Rogers never made great music, his expressed love of it explains why someone like Itzhak Perlman came to Pittsburgh to perform Bach at his funeral.

HIs approach to children was not just inspired by his theology, although the reference in his official eulogy that he believed intensely in the observation “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine …” (Matt. xxv:40) was undoubtredly true. He actively studied the new indeas in child psychology, at a time when Pittsburgh was the place to be in that field. Rogers had regular exposure to the ideas of Erik Erikson and Benjamin Spock who taught there. Some who have re-watched large numbers of the Neighborhood concluded that he brought a consistent and unique approach to children:

Much of what we found reinforced what we already knew, that Fred Rogers was genuine and thoughtful and incredibly, subtly a visionary. Retracing his path through television is a reminder of the power of one person to bring great change. He has become such a part of the twentieth-century landscape that we forget the scale of his contribution. … Rogers’ focus and insight, even his testimony before Congress and the Supreme Court, forever changed our attitude toward children’s television programming.

Boomers, of course, mostly are too old to have experience Rogers at an impressionable age. And we tend to be somewhat embarrassed at his forceful seriousness at childhood issues. But on re-watching him, we find that it is this seriousness that is the point. Childhood, as those pioneers in Pittsburgh knew, is a serious drama. Whether he had any effect on Generation X as a whole is probably doubtful. We are still, for a nation who grew up during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movements, surprisingly intollerant, selfish, easily manipulated by slogans and willing to bring desstruction to helpless innocents as long as it doesn’t disrupt our narrow world. Maybe he affected for the good many individuals. But whether he did or not has nothing to do with his saintliness. After all, how many saints in fact changed the world? Probably none.

But all saints generate hostility and hate. And that even Mr. Rogers did even if only the ridiculous and professional sort. At his funeral Fred Phelps and his sad and hateful Westboro Baptist Church entourage arrived to remind people that spite and hatefulness, often in the guise of Christianity, cannot abide anyone who devoted himself to a good cause. And perhaps that phenomenon is spreading.

In any event, I bring all this up, long after anyone is celebrating the life of Fred Rogers, solely to introduce a new video montage tribute to Rogers by PBS Digital Studios with the somewhat cloying synthesizer-voice remix by John D. Boswell (of Symphony of Science fame). But Boswell is not enough to ruin the pleasure of seeing three minutes of a good man whose departure perhaps not coincidentally corresponds with our lurch towards the compassionless, selfish, spite-fill world we seem to find ourselves in: