Archive for the ‘ Jazz ’ Category

Basie, the Sophisticate

Although Count Basie came from New Jersey, he came to prominence as the pianist of Bennie Moten’s Kansas City band. And so, when he took over that band, and for many years after, he was not considered in the league of eastern bands, like Ellington’s or Fletcher Henerson’s, because the swing of the American midwest was not considered either original, like the stultified stuff then coming from New Orleans, or new enough, like the music then played by the musical diaspora in Chicago, or sophisticated enough, like the bands in New York.

None of this seemed to rile Basie, or his new champion John Hammond, the A&R savior of Columbia records, who brought Basie’s band to New York City.

But Basie proved more resilient than an ordinary regional novelty. Basie proved as sophisticated as the New Yorkers. He commissioned arrangements and took aim at the smartest Tin Pan Alley favorites. And so with a chart written by Jimmy Mundy, Basie recorded Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” with Helen Humes (and a beguiling muted solo by Buck Clayton), not for Columbia, but for Decca on January 5, 1939:

Note the witty bass comments before and during the vocals. Unfortunately, the ending was poorly conceived and abrupt. Perhaps that could be explained by the technological limitations of recordings of the time. Whatever the explanation, in the next decade (and more) that problem would be fixed.

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I see your face in every flower

A genius once wrote:

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.”

Isn’t it more economical to just sing?:

Billie Holiday (vocal), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Dicky Wells (trombone), Lester Young (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Margaret Johnson (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums). September 15, 1938.

Dicky Wells’s trombone solo is almost as reverential as the President’s clarinet.

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.

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