Archive for the ‘ Jazz ’ Category

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:


Periodic Poetry: Drake, “Good Morning, Heartache”

Shortly after September 11, 2001 the New York Times cultural correspondents responded in a fashion typical for the New York Times–they picked the art pieces they believed to be most appropriate in light of the tragedy at the World Trade Center. Of course, it was done in the typical superficial manner that  New York Times cultural correspondents generally display. A safe Requiem was picked by the Classical critic. I believe Abbey Lincoln’s “The World is Falling Down” was picked by the Jazz critic. Like the obituary department, the cultural correspondents have their opinions pre-packaged.

(I am not panning Abbey Lincoln in the least. In fact I would have had more to say immediately after her death had I not recently described my appreciation of the most memorable performance of hers that I saw. I will probably have more to say soon, but her career was quite varied and deserves more than the reflexive tributes we’ve seen at, for example, NPR. That said, “The World is Falling Down” is a metaphor for something quite different from a memorial for the World Trade Center tragedy and it’s selection was an example of the laziness of the then jazz critic of the Times. I am passing over how the Times had fallen into the dull habit of responding to things with “best-of” lists; railing against that trend is like trying to erect levees against the general erosion of tastes and sensibilities my generation has inflicted on our society.)

The one jazz standard that would not leave my mind in the weeks following September 11, 2001 was “Good Morning, Heartache.” Written by Ervin Drake (who I believe was the principle lyricist), Irene Higginbotham and Dan Fisher, it was first performed by Billie Holiday in January 1946. To the extent that the lyrics are considered by themselves, the principle virtue lies in the title. The verses are nothing more than poorly expressed, almost inarticulate, descriptions of total despondency. Perhaps it is not possible to be articulate about such a topic, at least in poetry. Higginbotham’s haunting melody greatly improves the impression of the lyrics. But only Billie Holiday could turn this torch song into a work of art.

Holiday first recorded the piece on January 22, 1946. For several years Holiday had been unmoored from her Teddy Wilson backing with Lester Young. In fact, her recording career had been in somewhat of a decline since the 1942 recording ban. The January 22, 1946 recording for Decca was another singer-with-band-accompaniment approach, this time with the Bill Stegmeyer Orchestra. It was a far cry from the innovative small group jazz sessions where Holiday’s voice was another instrument among equals with the Swing Era’s greatest instrumentalists. Decca was less interested in jazz innovators than singers in the style of Judy Garland (who it recorded first when she was 12 shortly before Holiday made her first recording with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra in 1935 for Brunswick). Even though Holiday’s voice was at its peak in 1946, it is not the version I think of when I thought of the song in 2001. The definitive version is her June 7, 1956 version with Tony Scott’s studio band. That version is most often heard mainly because it is owned by Verve and hence has better distribution. But it is simply the better performance.

Billie Holiday at the June 1956 recording session with the Tony Scott Orchestra

The horns are eminently sympathetic with Holiday’s 1950s style. Charlie Shavers was on trumpet and Paul Quinichette played tenor sax. Shavers had recorded in several of the late 1930s groups with Holiday and had also been a regular in the 1950s Verve sessions. Quinichette had the pedigree for the performance. He replaced Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra and had become so proficient in the ethereal style of Prez that he became known as the Vice President. Tony Scott, the leader, was a Juilliard-trained clarinetist who was an early convert to bebop, although in an airier style than most bopsters. Holiday evidently was quite comfortable with him, since he recorded fairly frequently with her in the 1950s and even toured Europe with her. Holiday was always particular about guitarists (the father who abandoned her was one, and she never used him), and the superb Kenny Burrell recorded here. Wynton Kelly was her pianist for this two-day session only. Aaron Bell was bassist and Lenny McBrowne was the percussionist.

There is, however only one reason to experience this recording–the reason it the song is elevated beyond the words and music: Billie Holiday. By 1956 Holiday had experienced a second major phase of recordings, owing to her association with Verve. Norman Granz, whatever else can be said about impresarios in general and Granz in particular, was able to retool the new voice and personality of Holiday with small group musicians who were exceptionally congenial to the new Holiday. Holiday in the 1930s had a bubbly, charming, seductive quality. The 1950s were more than a lifetime away from that Holiday. Drugs, racism, two husbands, a farce of a legal proceeding, prison, banishment from New York clubs, and her private demons had begun ravaging her voice. But it only gave her the ability to more profoundly express some dark emotional corners that most people never want to see. It wasn’t despair or loneliness or resignation. It was the knowledge of how the world worked at its core–a mechanism that was profoundly indifferent to human concerns. And it was that feeling that came through the 1956 recording. It was that revelation that haunted the days following September 11, 2001. And while over the years my feelings toward the tragedy gradually and unintentionally changed, the recent spate of hate, xenophobia, and self-centered, irrational ruthlessness that has overtaken a large segment of this country, whose fomenters have tried to concentrate and consecrate in the September 11 memorial evoke the same feeling — this time over what has happened to this country at the hands of its own citizens.

Good Morning Heartache

(first published in recording session January 22, 1946 by Billie Holiday)

by Ervin Drake (Irene Higginbotham and Dan Fisher)

Good morning, heartache,
You old gloomy sight.
Good morning, heartache.
Thought we said goodbye last night.
I turned and tossed until it seems you had gone,
But here you are with the dawn.
Wish I forget you, but you’re here to stay.
It seems I met you
When my love went away.
Now everyday I stop I’m saying to you,
Good morning heartache, what’s new?

Stop haunting me now!
Can’t shake you nohow.
Just leave me alone.
I’ve got those Monday blues
Straight to Sunday blues.
Good morning, heartache.
Here we go again.
Good morning, heartache.
You’re the one
Who knew me when.
Might as well get use to you hanging around.
Good morning, heartache,
Sit down.

Having read the bare words, it’s necessary to listen to the 1956 performance by Holiday.

Abbey Lincoln after Two Decades

Almost 23 years ago I attended a concert at the Universal Jazz Coalition, then in what looked like an abandoned warehouse in SoHo. It was a tribute performance by Abbey Lincoln to Billie Holiday. At the time, I was really stunned by the performance. It came about as close as I could imagine to the emotional impact of Holiday at top form. Lincoln didn’t try to imitate Holiday, of course. She was in her late 50s then, and age was beginning to take a toll on her voice –- in the upper range her throat constricted and she had difficulty staying on pitch (using vibrato to help stabilize her). But quibbling is silly. When Abbey reaches for a high note and you’re afraid she won’t make it, your heart stops. And that’s part of the effect. Her voice was like a belt of Scotch, an acquired taste, but once you acquired it, you drink nothing else. And the huskiness reminded one of Holiday late in life—when the bruisings of a very hard life left their toll on the voice (and undoubtedly deeper).

It would be almost impossible for a competent jazz group and above average singer to turn the Billie Holiday stem-winders into a bad show. But Lincoln did more than that. She could turn the old Tin Pan Alley favorites into works of art. (Note I did not say “minor” works of art.)

I was able to verify this because I happen to have both volumes of Enja’s recordings of the concert. And I listened to them again after a long while.  And I’ll probably listen to them a couple of more times today.

There is a section right before the instrumental interlude before the intermission (the end of the first disc), where she sings “Lover Man,” “These Foolish Things,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” For these 15 minutes she elevates 20th Century, bourgeois, romantic love into an experience worthy of the highest artistic probing. At the risk of sounding like a sentimentalist, if you can listen to that stretch without misting up, you must be either a Gen-Xer or a hedge fund manager.

Musicologists of our age, hundreds of years from now, will have the opposite problem of contemporary musicologists studying, for example, the Italian Renaissance. We have limited material, and the trick is to figure out why it was considered good then, and why it should endure now. Now we have unlimited amounts of sound; in the future they will have to cull from the mounds of dross what should endure. I hope somebody has these Enja discs then, and they have the means to play them. I have no idea what they will think of them. Perhaps they will think that we were frivolous fools, obsessed with “love” and ignored all the problems of hunger, ignorance, pestilence. Or perhaps they will think we had no taste. They will have to dissect the elements which we take for granted. And they will never be “in the moment,” as they say. And they might not even find it important music. But if you spend an hour and a half now listening to it, I promise you won’t be sorry.

After listening to the music, I thought I’d look up what happened to the sidemen. Harold Vick, the tenor saxophonist who provides compelling obbligato and dream-like solos in the vocal breaks, I had known of for a long while, but had never been a particular student of. I now am shocked to find he died a week after the concert. The soulfulness of that tenor now has added depth. Vick came from the same town in North Carolina that Monk came from. He studied with his uncle Prince Robinson (an early tenor, but a fixture on some of my favorite big bands). Vick became a hard bopper, but retained that “thick” tenor sound of R&B players (he played with such groups during college at Howard), which is undoubtedly how he became associated with the Blue Note label.

The pianist James Weidman, who played several well constructed solos on the Lincoln album, particularly on Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” I’m happy to find is still performing, mostly as a sideman. He had been with Lincoln from the early 80s to the early 90s, and reunited with her in the 2002 Jazz at Lincoln Center Abbey Lincoln “Anthology.” Drummer Mark Johnson stayed with her for a little bit longer, and went on to play with Geri Allen, and others including Wallace Roney (where he played on Tony Williams’ drum kit).

The strangest course was followed by bassist Tarik Shah. Shah evidently pursued martial arts (considering himself something of a ninja), while continuing to perform bass. In May 2005, Shah was arrested in New York in a sting to uncover Al Qaeda sympathizers. Originally there was some supporters claiming that this was hysterical overreaction by counter-terrorism police. But there were apparently tapes capturing him saying some really ugly things.

It seems that Shah’s father had been a follower of Malcolm X, and Shah himself became a Muslim as an adult. Perhaps this was a natural progression for a kid who listened to Cannonball Adderley. And perhaps it led to dalliances with radical Muslims. Or perhaps he was merely a troubled braggart goaded by overly “enthusiastic” agents. It will take some time before we will be able to evaluate all the ugliness of “law enforcement” of the Bush-Ashcroft-Gonzalez-Chertoff era. There are articles on the Web describing some of the evidence against Shah; it’s all too dreary for me to review now. Or even to link to.

But I find it difficult to understand, how (if indeed it’s true) the bassist at the Jazz Coalition, who performed so strongly on “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain” and was so sensitive on Lincoln’s torch song renditions, could have ended up claiming that he could smile and then strangle a little girl. Perhaps it’s because I’m a decadent “idealist.” Perhaps art and morality have no correlation.

All I’ve found out is that nearly 20 years to the date of the Abbey Lincoln performance Shah was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “terrorism.”