In Conversation with Chuchito Valdes Jr.

by Tomas Peña



Born in Havana Cuba, Chuchito Valdes Jr. hails from one of the most distinguished and important musical families in Cuba. He has recorded and performed with Irakere, a groundbreaking group that he led for two years. In addition, he has performed at festivals, clubs and concerts throughout the world. His ensemble was featured at the 19th International Havana Jazz Festival (2000), as well as at the Cancún International Jazz Festival in May of 2001 & 2002. The band recently completed a successful U.S tour.

In his youth, Chuchito learned from many Cuban masters, but he also studied classical music including harmony and composition. When he is not traveling around the world performing, Chuchito lives in Cancún, Mexico where he leads his Afro-Cuban based Latin-Jazz ensemble. His original compositions and arrangements draw on a wide variety of classical harmonic and structural techniques and his music reflects many styles including Afro-Cuban Latin Jazz, Bebop, Danzon, Cha-Cha- Cha, Son Montuno among others.

My comments: At first glance, it’s a bit tricky distinguishing Chuchito Valdez Jr. from his father, Chucho (the resemblance is astonishing), but when lays his masterful hands on the ivories there is mistaking the fact that Chuchito is his own person. On stage Chuchito is flamboyant and occasionally “over the top,” but he is as comfortable with a raucous version of Mambo Influenciado as he is with a lyrical danzon. With genes like his, can you blame him for being so exuberant?




Congratulations on an amazing performance. Is this your first visit to New York?

No, I was here about two years ago. I performed at the Jazz Standard and I have performed at Birdland in the past.

It’s been awhile seen we have seen your grandfather, Bebo and your father, Chucho. How are they doing?

They are well thank God.

How does it feel to hail from such an important musical family?

At times it’s difficult. . . . My mother was the person who encouraged me to pursue a career as a musician. She told me that I had a gift for music, that I was a “natural.”

Funny you should mention that. I was just about to ask why you chose the piano.

Believe it or not, I started as a baseball player. . . but my mother always encouraged me to believe that I had options and that I didn’t have to stick to one thing.

What is your mother’s name?

Mercedes. She was a singer in Cuba, but she gave up her career to stay home and take care of the kids!

No doubt, you have been told that the resemblance between you and your father is astonishing. Do the constant comparisons to your father bother you or have you grown accustomed to it?

There is no getting around the fact that we are the spitting image of each other. My face, my body, I look exactly like him. But I don’t feel any pressure. It’s difficult to explain but that’s just the way it is.

So essentially you were born to play the piano.

In school my case was considered strange. I loved baseball but I was drawn to the piano. It created such a stir that the teachers finally came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to pursue a career in music.

How old were you at the time?

Thirteen.

So at thirteen you turned all of your efforts to mastering the piano?

That’s how it was.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Bobby Carcasses. As I understand it he was one of your mentors.

I have a lot of admiration for Bobby Carcasses. The first jazz concert that I ever did was with Bobby, Juan Formell Jr. and Frederico from Los Van Van …

Bobby has been a father, mentor and “guru” to many of the young musicians in Cuba. While he was here, he made a recording with (drummer) Dafnis Prieto, (saxophonist) Yosvany Terry, (pianist) Osmany Paredes, (flutist) Andrea Brachfeld and others. [Note: Carcasses performed at The Jazz Gallery in 2007. The recording has yet to be released.]

For me Bobby has been a father, mentor, guide and guru …

What kind of music did your father play at home?

My father played a lot of Oscar Peterson around the house.

Were there any other American Jazz Artists that had an influence on your father?

Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner …

Did you receive any musical training from your father? Where did you receive your formal training?

I attended the Ignacio Cervantes School for Professional Musicians. In answer to the second question, no, my father never said, “sit down and play this …”

Still, you must have been influenced by listening to him rehearse …

Yes, but my father was away a lot.

Your style is very physical. What goes through your mind when you are performing?

A lot of emotions. I think of my family – my wife, my children …

Your family is in Cancún, Mexico, correct?

Yes.

You live there permanently?

Yes.

So you are able to travel freely between Cuba, Mexico and the U.S? Getting back to your style of playing, what else goes through your mind?

Yes I am able to travel to Cuba whenever I like.

[At this point in the interview my partner and interpreter, Nilsa Gutierrez comments that she sensed “a force” guiding Chuchito’s hand and Chuchito literally jumps out of his seat.]

You saw and felt that? Women see things we don’t see …

No doubt!

It’s true. I don’t really know where my power comes from.

Let’s just say it comes from God, a higher power. Pianist Omar Sosa told me the same thing.

Yes, from God. You have to have respect for people that have that kind of vision (looks at Nilsa). Peligro! (Danger!)! Salud y Ache para ti! (Blessings).

[Laughter] Let’s talk about your new CD, Keys of Latin Jazz and a new recording that was just released in Mexico, called Dynastia Valdez, featuring Bebo, Chucho and yourself.

Dynastia Valdez was a surprise to me.

How so?

It’s actually a compilation of our music (3 CD’s).

So the three of you are not actually performing together?

No.

And Keys of Latin Jazz?

I recorded that with my group in Chicago. I composed all of the music, with the exception of two songs (by Pedro Flores and Rafael Hernandez).

The composer is listed as Luis Jesus Valdez. Is that your full name?

Yes, Luis Jesus Valdez.

Forgive me for asking but I know you as “Chuchito.”

My father’s name is Jesus Valdez Rodriguez.

Is there any possibility that you might record with your grandfather and your father in the future?

The idea has been in the works for two years. Unfortunately, my grandfather’s record company (Calle 54 Records) is not on board.

Why?

I have no idea. We were scheduled to perform at the Blue Note but for some reason, it never happened.

The Blue Note in New York?

No, my father can’t come to New York because of his visa and the political situation.

That’s too bad, I hope the situation resolves itself. On another note, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

First, I would like to earn a Grammy! Then I would like to consolidate my music and decide what else. I want to compose, arrange and perform with a symphony orchestra. And of course, become a better piano player.

At this point in the interview musician Juan Formell Jr. chimes in.

JF: Become a better piano player? What more can be done with the piano? Between you, your father and your grandfather you have exhausted all of the possibilities!

We could add a few more keys … how about ninety-one keys instead of eighty-eight [Laughter). On a more serious note, would you care to comment on U.S./Cuba relations?

I don’t like to discuss politics, however, I would like to see Cuba and the U.S. get back together.

I second that. Do you have any plans to return to New York in the near future?

I will be touring for the next month and performing with my group in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. Afterwards, I will return to Mexico. I like traveling and working in the states but I enjoy returning home to my family.

I was in Mexico City about three years ago. Jazz wise, there wasn’t a lot happening.

There is one jazz club in Cancún and I play there often [Chucho says the name of the venue but it is unintelligible.] I played there so often that the owner would get angry at me when I went on tour! There is also a jazz festival. I was lucky enough to have the governor of Cancún appoint me as the musical director in 2006.

Is that a yearly event?

It’s supposed to be but last year they the festival was canceled due to lack of support.

When is the festival held?

In May. Please come!

You don’t have to ask me twice!

I hope to become the President of the festival in the future. A lot of people are not aware of the fact that the festival dates back fifteen years. Ray Charles and Tito Puente have performed there in the past.

I hope to see you there. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Thank you. But before you leave, did you enjoy the music? Tell me the truth.

Are you serious? It was amazing. We had a blast! Please give my regards to your family.

Thank you.

January 28, 2008 · 4 comments

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In Conversation with Mark Lotz

by Tomas Peña

Introduction: Flutist Mark Alban Lotz has created a unique niche for himself in the field of World Music. He is one of those rare musicians who is as comfortable performing Cuban folkloric music, as he is exploring the African roots of Latin music, or blasting Indian classical music in his car. A Fula’s Call sees Mark joining forces with Omar Ka, a West African griot (a storyteller who carries on the oral history of his tribe) who sings about such weighty topics as: truth, honesty, respect, gratitude, happiness, the nomadic life and the walk to Mecca. A Fula’s Call demonstrates what happens when people cast their cultural differences aside and join forces for a common cause.


Congratulations on the release of A Fula’s Call. What was the concept going in?

Our music is a mix of different worlds: European, African and Indian. Our “mission” is to combine the best of all of these worlds into our sound. For lack of a better term, let’s call it, “Global World Music with a distinct Fulani sound and a European twist!”



                    Omar Ka

It’s a very unique and beautiful sound. Omar’s voice is absolutely haunting. For the benefit of our readers, the title stems from the fact that Omar hails from the West African nomadic tribe of the Fula.

You grew up in Thailand, Uganda and Germany and studied music at the Amsterdam School of the Arts and in the United States. Your music reflects the fact that you are a citizen of the world. You have recorded with everyone from the Cuban folkloric groups to the Global Village Orchestra. That’s quite a range!

Yeah and I really love it. It makes my profession very satisfying as I am encountering a lot of musicians in (sometimes) bizarre, funky venues. As for my range, I am a European musician rooted in jazz and classical music, though I have also studied Afro Cuban music and I am currently studying Indian music. I also like doing my own thing. That is why my music will always be, what I call, “tasteful fusion.” As Miles Davis said, “It’s all about taste.”

Tell me about your “tribe” (band).

Omar Ka is an African griot and is strongly rooted in nomadic music; Afra Mussawisade is steeped in World/Latin music; Raphael Vanoli is a sound painter and I am an improviser.

A West African griot/vocalist, an Iranian percussionist, a French guitarist and a German flutist! Not to mention your guests: An Indian vocalist, a German playing the African thumb piano. That’s quite a combination.



            Mark Lotz, photo by Sannah de Zwart

Actually, there are more guests. I learned from Latino’s to invite people on to the stage!

How did you and Omar come together?

I heard a lot about Omar and always wanted to work with him. Eventually we got together to jam and exchange ideas, then we wrote the music and rehearsed with Afra and Raphael. A feature article appeared in a Russian magazine, which resulted in an invitation to participate in the Ethno Jazz Festival in Chisinau. Initially, I went there with a crossover group called Vistar (a group based around the Hindustanic singer, poet Raj Mohan) and the tour was a big success. Later, I went to Russia with A Fula’s Call. Censorship is alive and well in Russia but the warmth and friendship of the Russian people made the tour a huge success.

Tell me about the making of Fula’s Call.

The recording, editing and mixing took the better part of a year but it was worth it. We are very proud of this recording.

As well you should be. As a big fan of Afro Cuban music, I am curious to know how you became involved with the genre. Also, you performed with the late, great percussionist Miguel “Anga” Diaz (who passed away in 2007). What was it like working with Anga?

We performed at the Percuba Jazz Festival in Havana in 1997 and recorded at the ICAIC studios, which is close to the legendary Egrem studios. Sjahin During knew Anga and asked him to record with us. It’s amazing how quickly he adapted to our music. As I remember him he was a sweet and gentle guy.

Is there any chance that the band might be visiting the United States? I would think that the World Music Institute, or a similar organization would be interested in A Fula’s Call.

Definitely. We need a manager to help us set up a U.S. tour. I hope this interview helps. Please, managers, record labels, DJ’s and journalists do not hesitate to contact us. I just toured the U.S. and Canada with Estrell Acosta’s Guajira (Cuban country music. An Cuban cast with one exception – ME!). Also, I would love to experience a New York Sirloin Style Steak again… it’s almost as good as pernil (Cuban roasted pork).

What kind of music are you listening to, at home or in your car?

I am listening to North Indian classical music by Hari Prasad Chaurrasia and others. Occasionally I listen to jazz and folkloric music, like Fulani flute master Bailo Bah. Also, pop music by Omar Ka and my friend Praful. But nothing beats Indian classical music while driving!

Mark, “your cup runneth over!” Thank you and good luck with A Fula’s Call.

Suggested Listening:
Mark Lotz & Shango’s Dance – Cuban Fishes Make Good Dishes (Loplop/Random Chance Records)
Lotz of Music in Havana – Blues for Yemaya (Loplop/Random Chance Records)
Global Village Orchestra – Globalistics (Loplop/Random Chance Records)

January 26, 2008 · 0 comments

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In Conversation with Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch

By Bob Blumenthal

Introduction: For the past six years, I have served as critic-in-residence at the Discover Jazz Festival in Burlington, Vermont, which has allowed me to conduct numerous on-stage interviews with the featured artists prior to the concert performances. Among the benefits has been the chance to go outside the one-on-one interview mode where appropriate. This year, Eddie Palmieri’s Latin Jazz Group, with Brian Lynch featured on trumpet, opened the ten-day festival. Given the different backgrounds of the two musicians, their longstanding collaborations, and the fact that their most recent recorded effort, Simpatico (ArtistShare) had won the 2007 Grammy for best Latin Jazz disc, they seemed to be an ideal interview team. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, which took place on June 1 in Flynn Space. My thanks to Arnie Malina and Brian Johnson of the Flynn Center for their assistance.



                                         Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch, photo by Ignacio Palmieri

I’m always curious about people’s initial exposure to music. In your case, Eddie, I suspect that your family was involved.

EP: It started with my mother, who arrived from Puerto Rico in 1945. When my brother Charlie was born, he was almost immediately put into the study of piano, and by the time he was 14, he was playing professionally. He was nine years older than me, and was clearly my inspiration. So I started hearing the music he was playing and the records he would bring home, as well as the bands he played with the other popular big bands.

At the same time, my uncles were very musical. The extended family lived very close together, so I always heard them playing guitars and singing. Between them upstairs at my grandmother’s, and my brother in our home, little by little I was inspired to study piano. I studied drums briefly, because my uncle had a typical orchestra like the kind you found in Puerto Rico, and I played timbales with him. After doing that for two years, I gave him the timbales back and returned to the piano.

Your brother Charlie is someone who deserves more attention from music fans.

EP: In my opinion, he was the greatest pianist in our genre. At that time, the kind of club dates you saw later didn’t exist; but by 1948 he was already working at the Copacabana, in the orchestra. He also helped Tito Puente get started around that time by doing the Picadilly Boys. He made some great recordings with Tito, then left to join Pupi Campo, who was working with Jack Paar on a TV show. This was when Paar had a show early in the morning. Having gone through the big bands and the show bands, Charlie finally decided to start traveling with a smaller group, four or five musicians. When he’d get a gig on the road, he’d recommend me as his sub for the New York work he had.

By 1959, he formed his first charanga band, with a young man named Johnny Pacheco on flute. That’s when my brother started to write, not just for his groups but also for many other artists through Tito Puente’s office.

So you came on the scene as Charlie’s little brother.

EP: Right. He’d tell people, “My brother’s just starting, but he’s ready.” That’s how I got my first gig, with a bass player named Johnny Segui, who had a great book because he was also a copyist. He’d do the copying for Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, and the deal was that he’d get a copy of the arrangement for himself. So he had a great book. Then my brother recommended me to Vincentico Valdez, who had been the vocalist with Tito Puente for many years. I spent two years with him, beginning in 1956, and then he recommended me to Tito Rodriguez, who had started to do a Vegas-type show. We even went to Vegas. I recorded that great album Live at the Palladium with him. It included Latin Jazz, which wasn’t called Latin Jazz at the time, but the jazz element was already mixed in with the more dance-oriented pieces. By late 1961, I started my first orchestra, La Perfecta.

Eddie was born in New York…

EP: Spanish Harlem, on 112th between Madison and Park – but I was raised in the Bronx.

…and Brian is from Milwaukee, where he was part of a great generation of local jazz musicians.



                            Eddie Palmieri, photo by Herb Snitzer

BL: Right. Carl Allen, Dave Hazeltine, Jeff Chambers. I was just in Milwaukee last week, where we attempted a reunion of my college jazz group that included Jeff and some other great musicians who aren’t as well known. One gentleman who influenced all of us was Tony King. In the late 1960s, he put together one of the first degree programs in pure jazz performance, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. It might have even been before Berklee became a college and could only give certificates as opposed to true college degrees. His mission, to show the importance of jazz in musical culture and American culture, and to fight for its proper stature, influenced all of us. He also loved bringing people together, regardless of race, while still emphasizing where the music came from. He really taught us culture as well as music.

I had been playing trumpet from the age of nine, but never had a goal of becoming a musician until I discovered jazz. I’m 50 years old now, so I’m what I guess you’d call a late-hippy-era guy, and in 1970 I began to hear the rock bands that had horns, like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. I was also into the great funk bands that had horns, like Sly and Buddy Miles. Being a kid that played a trumpet, hearing those bands gave me more of a sense of purpose.

My jazz exposure initially came from listening to the radio. Again, this was the era when radio was more free-form, where you might hear tracks by John Coltrane or Miles Davis alongside those by the Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead. The first three LPs I bought, in order, were Miles Davis’ Live Evil, John Coltrane’s Sun Ship and Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. I started way out there, while still listening to a lot of horn-driven pop music; but the avant-garde stuff took over very quickly. But while I was listening to the Art Ensemble and Sun Ra, I was also in a rock band with a guy who had all of the Prestige and Blue Note albums. So then I started hearing Blue Train and Tenor Madness. Then the CTI records had a huge impact on me, especially all of Freddie Hubbard’s records. And those Cedar Walton Live at Boomer’s albums made a huge impact, in terms of showing me how good straight-ahead jazz could sound in a live setting.

Funny that you mention Sun Ra. I thought I detected a little Heliocentric vibe on the track you both wrote for the Simpatico disc called “Jazzucar,” where Edsel Gomez plays organ alongside Eddie on piano.

BL: That’s in there, but it’s also a tribute to the way Eddie and his brother would play organ and piano together.

You two are among the greatest examples of musicians who create without worrying about whether someone will call the results jazz, Latin or what have you; but the lines were more rigidly drawn when you were both growing up. How broad were your individual listening experiences in those years?

BL: Latin music entered my mix after I started to play with a Latin band while I was in college in Milwaukee. The leader, Tony Ramos, had written a lot of original music that you could call salsa jazz. The band had vocalists, but he also wrote hip instrumental things. He had also transcribed some music by Eddie, Machito, Tipica 73 and Ray Barretto. Playing that music when I was 21, and just hanging out with the band, is really when I began to hear Eddie’s stuff. I didn’t find out about the earlier stuff from Cuba until later; but even then, hearing Eddie or the Fania All-Stars, I wasn’t having a “What is this?” kind of reaction, because I had heard a lot of Horace Silver and he has some of that same feeling in his music. Let’s face it – if you were listening to Horace, Lee Morgan and Art Blakey, you’d hear the rhythms in some of their stuff. The musics have always been locked together.

EP: My primary focus was the orchestral music of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez; but at the same time, each band played some music that at the time was referred to as “instrumental mambos.” What would be called Latin Jazz now, but structured for dancers by great arrangers. In 1956, I started paying attention to what was coming out of Cuba, and really got into the fundamentals of the music. The mambo, the cha-cha-cha, all of that came out of Cuba, so I became focused on Cuban orchestras. The jazz I first paid attention to was on my brother’s Duke Ellington and Count Basie records. But the first jazz album that I bought was by Richard Twardzik. I got that album in 1958 and was into his compositions like “A Crutch for the Crab” and “Yellow Tango.” Over time I started listening to more jazz artists. When I formed La Perfecta, I started trading records with Barry Rogers. I’d loan him a La Sonora Matancera album, and he’d loan me Thelonious Monk. That’s how I was introduced to Kind of Blue, Thelonious, Bill Evans, all of the pianists. All of that music, plus the small Latin group Cal Tjader formed with Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, were my jazz foundations.

Very few artists can not only come up with radical new concepts, but also fight for them. La Perfecta is a primary example of that.

EP: I really wanted a Conjunto, like the bands that were coming out of Cuba, which meant three or four trumpets and a rhythm section. But it was expensive to put a band of that size together, especially when you also had to carry vocalists, and there were not many trumpet players around who could play the music I was hearing. So I started getting jobs with just six or seven guys. At this time, in 1960, Johnny Pacheco was holding Tuesday night jam sessions in the Bronx. I knew the owner of the club where the sessions were held, and would sometimes be on the bill as well. At one of the sessions, I met Barry Rogers, and asked him if I could start calling him when gigs came up. We did a few where he was the only horn. Sometimes it was just a flute, which was very popular then because of the pachanga. One night I was able to have both Barry and a flute, and immediately knew that was it. Eventually Barry met a second trombone player, Jose Rodriguez from Brazil, at a recording session, and the combinations that they created were truly unique. In my opinion, nobody will ever match what those two did.

That band stayed together for eight years, and in the early days promoting it was tough. They wouldn’t let us into the Palladium, for example, so I rented a place next door and became a barker on the street. “Over here, folks, not over there!” The owner of the Palladium would complain to Jose Curbelo, a fine pianist who was also an agent: “That kid is crazy, he’s taking business away from me.” Jose just said, in his Cuban accent, “Then you will have to book him.” Next thing I knew, I got 90 gigs at the Palladium, at minimum scale. That was crucial, because when you get a few gigs, you feel compelled to fill out the calendar with more.

We didn’t travel much then – once to California and once to Venezuela – but we certainly took care of the boroughs in New York.

Who were the people you looked to as models, Brian, as your music began to cross these supposed boundary lines?

BL: There were great models around me in the bands I joined after I came to New York. Early on I met Shunzo Ono, who had played in a lot of Latin bands. In Machito’s band, he played alongside Chocolate Armenteros, and he got to the point where he could really play like Chocolate. People don’t know this, but Shunzo’s a great example of a player who is fluent in both idioms.

By the time I got to New York, more and more players were around who were trying to do more than just scratch the surface when they encountered Afro-Caribbean music. Jazz players had always taken dance gigs with Latin bands, but they had not always been so keen on studying the music. I wanted to learn, and joining Hector Lavoe’s band was very important to me, because the guys in that band took the time to coach me on my phrasing and how to play in the context of that band, as well as pulling my coat to the history. It’s like filling in the pieces of a puzzle, which is the same thing that listeners do. I remember around 1979 getting Eddie’s album Unfinished Masterpiece and saying, “Hey, this guy Ronnie Cuber is also on a new record I’ve got with Tom Harrell and Mickey Tucker. And Randy Brecker’s on Eddie’s album, too.” There was a lot of back and forth. The same kind of connections I had made when I first listened to jazz was happening all over again. I also got a lot of instruction once I joined Eddie’s band, especially on these long tours. He’d put music on every day we were out there, and from listening to jazz I had learned how to absorb what I was hearing. To be engaged like that all over again was a great thing.

Eddie, when you touch the piano, the sound that emerges is monumental. I don’t mean it’s just loud, but something in the sound has that presence. I don’t know if this can be learned, or is just there, but I’m curious as to your view of how your sound developed.

EP: I always believed that your sound should be like your signature. Watching my brother play, with his incredible attack, and listening to the Cuban players – my teachers through records, like Lili Martinez, the pianist for the great tres player Arsenio Rodriguez. The piano solos he took in the ‘40s were just amazing, and at that time you could only record two minute and 45 second singles. Another great player was Jesus Lopez. He was with the Arcaño Orchestra, where Cachao wrote the arrangements for so many years. His attack was incredible. Then you had the different style of Peruchin, and Bebo Valdes, Chucho’s father; big band players, but with more jazz and harmonic structure to add flavor. And to me, the great arranger Rene Hernandez with the Machito Orchestra was a genius. They brought him in right after World War II, 1945 or ’46, and by ’47, in my opinion, he was changing the whole structure of the band. That’s also the point where Chano Pozo arrived, recommended by Mario Bauza to Dizzy Gillespie, and you could see the change that one percussion instrument could work in a jazz orchestra.

I listened to all of these great artists, but I was also noticing the touch of the jazz greats like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans – another guy with a fantastic sound on the piano. So that touch that I was searching for just happened, and blended with the percussive part of me that came from those early years playing drums. Once, when Donald Harrison was in the band, he told me “you solo like a drummer.” Some credit also goes to the classical training that I had, from Ms. Margaret Barnes, who had her studio in the Carnegie Hall building and had taught my brother.

I think that all of that – the classical technique, plus playing in octaves, which we had to do because there were no microphones. When I played with Vincentito Valdes, he would put his voice mike on the piano when my solo came around, and then take it back when he was ready to sing again. And Brian was part of my evolution, too. When we made our first recording together, Palmas, he was part of the influence in changing my fingering to accommodate the Latin jazz style. The attack of the Latin form of piano playing gave you that power. You had to strike the instrument with all you had.

You mentioned Palmas, which I believe was recorded about 20 years ago.

BL: It has been 20 years since I joined Mr. Palmieri’s organization – and I may start getting paid soon.

EP: Yeah, you’ve been sitting in all of these years.

BL: I told Eddie that great Art Blakey story about Stanley Clarke at the Village Gate, where Art had cut his bass player loose after the bassist had asked for more money. So somebody in the band recommended Stanley; but after two weeks he hadn’t gotten paid. When his friend in the band asked Art about it, Art said, “I thought he was sitting in.”

Well, when Brian began to “sit in,” you involved some other jazz players as well – Conrad Herwig, Donald Harrison…

EP: Brian brought Donald in.

BL: Donald and I had been doing a few things together, a couple of Blakey tribute tours based on our time in his band. After one of those tours, Eddie mentioned adding a saxophone player, and Donald just fit right into the middle of what we had developed. He made the whole thing work.

EP: Brian had joined the larger Latin band, and little by little something started to happen. So my son, Eddie, Jr., arranged to have us record the Latin jazz ensemble, where the challenge for me became writing in a way that would fulfill the jazz improvisers while at the same time sustaining the percussion and the dance focus, like those “instrumental mambos” that I was weaned on. And, from the beginning of our relationship, I could see that Brian was digging deeply into the Latin element. He made it his business to find out what was going on, the wonderful secrets of phrasing that make up the Latin idiom. After Palmas, we did two more CDs with Donald added.

Those albums were watersheds of sorts, even given the fact that Latin and jazz players had interacted in the past. Traditionally, though, either a jazz player was taking a Latin gig or vice versa. Then you guys presented something where whether you called it one thing or the other became irrelevant.

BL: What those recordings demonstrate is how comfortably the concepts in Eddie’s music fit in with those of, say, the Jazz Messengers. Conrad and I had gained so much experience in different bands, and Donald knew so much intuitively just coming from New Orleans and appreciating the role of the drums. When I was playing with both Eddie and Art, it struck me that this was the same thing. For me, genre just fades away. The feeling, the swing, the power and the soulfulness come to the fore. I often say that Eddie is the ultimate jazz gig. Even with the big band and a singer, I always feel that I can go as far out as Miles or anyone else did in the ‘60s. We did some gigs early on where I was the only horn in the small group, and playing over Eddie and Giovanni Hidalgo was just amazing.

A great example of what the two of you continue to create is Simpatico, by the Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project. It won this year’s Latin Grammy, and it contains every bit of music that we discussed today. I’m sure that you can get a copy after the concert.

BL: I’m not sure. They’ve run out and are printing more.

EP: I bought them all!

BL: We collaborated on several compositions, and in one amazing afternoon we wrote three tunes.

EP: Brian did some incredible arrangements, in addition to his playing. He definitely deserved that Grammy.

January 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jazz Honored by GRAMMY® Hall of Fame

by Alan Kurtz

Grammy at 50

In the wake of the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, which CBS telecast nationally in mid-February 2008, we temporarily set aside our usual aversion to show-business award ceremonies to reflect on the Big Picture, something we here at Jazz.com never tire of analyzing, contemplating, examining, inspecting, perusing, pondering, probing, scrutinizing, studying, surveying, vetting, viewing, weighing, and otherwise casting a watchful eye upon.

"The Hall of Fame Award," explains The Recording Academy's website, "was established in 1973 to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that are at least 25 years old. Inductees are selected annually by a special member committee of eminent and knowledgeable professionals from all branches of the recording arts."

As of February 2008, 73 jazz singles and 51 jazz albums have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. However, in listing these inductees, The Recording Academy's website gives, like a POW, only name, rank and serial number. Jazz.com is therefore pleased to complement the Grammy honor roll with a detailed review of each HOF jazz track. Plus, since many HOF singles are drawn from HOF albums, our handy track reviews will guide you to those albums as well.

Let it be said, however, that while most of our reviews confirm Grammy's HOF choices, in some cases we beg to differ with the "eminent and knowledgeable professionals." Most notably, their 2007 election of Duke Ellington's "Cocktails For Two," hardly one of the Maestro's masterpieces. We also treat "Sing, Sing, Sing," "Cherokee," "Star Dust," "Frenesi," "Night Train" and "Mack The Knife" with less than reverence.

Sometimes Grammy herself seems downright befuddled by jazz, as in 2001's election of "Moody's Mood For Love," credited to saxophonist James Moody on the Prestige label in 1952. Although Prestige twice released "Moody's Mood For Love" (based on the standard "I'm In The Mood For Love") by James Moody—first as an instrumental recorded in Sweden in 1949, later with Eddie Jefferson's vocal, remade stateside in 1954—James Moody did not record "Moody's Mood For Love" in 1952.

What did distinguish 1952 in this regard, however, was Prestige's release of the bestselling "Moody's Mood For Love" by King Pleasure, singing Eddie Jefferson's lyric based on James Moody's improvised 1949 solo. Confused yet? Grammy's eminent and knowledgeable professionals were. To us, at least, it seems likely that King Pleasure's single, which put vocalese on the map, is Grammy's Hall of Fame choice, even if the poor dear didn't fully know what she was doing.

And while we're at it, we must take issue with Grammy's arbitrary classification of certain Hall of Famers as non-jazz. What, for instance, do the following have in common? We'll tell you in advance: according to Grammy, they're not jazz.

•  Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started" and Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade," two Swing Era stalwarts. Just because jazz happened then to be America's pop music doesn't mean it stopped being jazz.

•  Lena Horne's "Stormy Weather" and Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," 1940s hits by crossover artists thoroughly steeped in jazz.

•  Julie London's "Cry Me A River" and Peggy Lee's "Fever," pop-jazz delights from the 1950s. Barney Kessel's contribution to "Cry Me A River" and Shelly Manne's to "Fever" make those hits jazz irrespective of the singers, who resolve the argument anyway beyond dispute in jazz's favor.

•  Or how about Henry Mancini's crime-jazz classic "Peter Gunn," Mongo Santamaria's Latin-jazz favorite "Watermelon Man," or Getz & Gilberto's tall-&-tan-&-young-&-lovely "The Girl From Ipanema"? The latter's exclusion from jazz is especially silly, considering that the album it powered to smash success is enshrined in Grammy's Jazz HOF.

•  And don't even get us started on Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World." Not jazz! It's like saying the Statue of Liberty isn't in New York. Crimea River!

Reservations aside, we commend The Recording Academy's Hall of Fame for so prominently honoring jazz, and proudly salute the class of 2008 HOF jazz inductees:

Singles:
Louis Armstrong & Earl Hines, "Weather Bird" (1928)
Louis Armstrong, "St. Louis Blues" (1929)
Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra, "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932)
Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, "King Porter Stomp" (1935)
Benny Goodman Sextet, "Seven Come Eleven" (1940)

Albums:
Etta Jones, Don't Go To Strangers (1960)
John Coltrane Quartet, Ballads (1962)

Complete List:
Grammy Hall of Fame Jazz Singles
 

January 21, 2008 · 2 comments

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The Jazz Disease

by Jim Cullum, Jr.

Jim Cullum Jr. is the leader of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and proprietor of the Landing Jazz Club on the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio. Jim is also the co-producer of the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series.

Jim began playing cornet in 1955 at age 14. Fascinated with the records of legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Jim was at first self-taught. In high school he organized his fellow musicians into after-the-game dance bands. While attending college, Jim began a partnership with his clarinetist father, the late Jim Cullum, Sr., forming a seven-piece traditional group they called the Happy Jazz Band.

Jim Sr. was born in Dallas and had two careers—one in the family grocery business and another as a jazz reed player. During the 1930s he worked in bands led by Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey and Adrian Rollini.

Part of my fascination with jazz came from a desire to please and win the respect of my father and mother. This desire certainly lay beyond consciousness, for when I began discovering jazz I was a typical early adolescent and would never have voluntarily done what my "prehistoric" parents wanted.

But I always admired them. They were tangled up with jazz in a big way and like any wild adventure, theirs was a life of extremes. They had lived the craziest, wackiest, most romantic life and had the most fun—at least so it seemed to me. Ernest Hemingway had nothing on my fun-loving father. But for a few years beginning in about 1949, life performed one of its inevitable flip-flops and things weren't quite as much fun anymore. Dad was 35 that year.



   Jim Cullum Sr. in Dallas in the 1940s

Oh, he didn't give in easily. In fact, even on an off day, he still seemed to have a lot of fun. He had a built-in ability to laugh at life. An example: one day while we were still living in Dallas, I went along while Dad hung out at the "Pink Elephant Lounge" with his drinking buddy, drummer Bob McClendon. Still young men, they were handsome and well-dressed. They always reminded me of a Hope and Crosby "Road" movie. The Pink Elephant was aptly named as it catered to hard-core drinkers. In compliance with Texas liquor laws of that time, The Pink Elephant served only beer and set-ups, but its owner ran a small liquor store in the building next door so customers bought distilled spirits by the pint or fifth. The Elephant action would start during the late morning, about 11:00 AM, with a few regulars struggling in for "hair of the dog."

One day at the Pink Elephant, I was on hand to witness Dad and McClendon in a classic which started when Dad, laughing and very much in the spirit of the moment, dropped McClendon's hat on the floor and stomped on it. Wow! Take that! (He had been joking about the style of the hat for weeks.) With that, McClendon reached over and picked up a large pair of shears that happened to be lying on the bar and cut off Dad's tie. To make this more interesting, it was a cold day and the heat wasn't on in the Elephant. They stood in their overcoats facing each other in a Laurel and Hardy stance and gradually tore and ripped off each other's coats and shirts. One would stand and look on as though defenseless while the other seized a piece of cloth like a suit breast pocket. In a downward thrust—rrrrrip—off would come the pocket. It went on and on to the astonishment of the bartender and the other Pink Elephant customers.

Eventually we left for home, Dad still laughing to himself. But the other side of all this gradually began to emerge. Dad and McClendon were constantly playing practical jokes on each other. The distributor cap would be taken off the car or the electric power or water would get turned off. Twenty chicken dinners were delivered. At this stage my mother was worn out with all this. She was the responsible one—the balancer of books. Family economics were already strained, and Dad's fine Chesterfield overcoat, his suit coat, shirt, and tie were ruined. Although Dad laughed about this for the rest of his life, that afternoon, as reality set in, it wasn't quite so funny.

Why such zaniness? Why such destruction? The "jazz disease," Dad called it. A little madness seemed to go with the territory. Obsessed with jazz, on fire with youthful exuberance, possessors of inborn musical talent, they were at the same time frustrated eccentrics who tended to have disrespect for the bandleaders who employed them. Of course, they wanted perfection both in music and in the music business, and they rarely got it.

One night, after a commercial gig he could barely tolerate, Bob McClendon quit the business and drove to the middle of the Trinity River Viaduct where he contemptuously threw the drums he loved to play into the Trinity and watched them float away. Two weeks later, desperate to play, he bought a funny-looking old set that had been gathering dust around the Musician's Union. The Union secretary had brought them back from France at the end of World War I. McClendon paid him $5.00 for them, took them away and made music on them. Like any addict, he didn't seem to especially like music while he was playing but he couldn't live without it. The jazz disease, no doubt.

Too much drinking fit right in with all of this. In fact, drinking and driving were standard for those guys in those years. Behind the wheel, they would often take a slug and follow with a quick 7-Up chaser. As a boy, I rode in the back seat and was known to drink up the chaser when nobody was looking.

One day I was rolling along in the back seat of the "Bronze Beauty" (cornetist Garner Clark's very used Packard was painted bronze). Dad was driving, Garner rode in the front seat. As we passed through a Dallas neighborhood, we went by a house with a young boy seated on its front porch, playing a trumpet. Garner blanched and commanded, "Stop the car!" We backed up, and gradually the house and young aspiring trumpeter came back into view. Garner got out, stood on the running board, and called over the top of the Bronze Beauty to the boy, "Don't do it! Give it up, before it's too late!" In my father's life, this wild, heavy-drinking, jazz-crazy chase was coming to an end. Like any strong beast, all this didn't die easily but struggled on and off until March, 1953, when Dad took his last drink and, at least for a while, put his horn away.

We moved to San Antonio on my 12th birthday. What a drag, man! I didn't want to move to San Antonio. Leave my friends? (I was 12 years old, remember!). Oh, what a terrible drag!

But for my parents, San Antonio was the "promised land." A second chance at life. Dad, now sober, had a wonderful business opportunity, and he meant to make the best of it. He threw himself in with his amazing energy, drive, and determination as he made up for lost time. He used his father and older brother Marvin as his models and worked hard and smart, and as he zoomed along he built a big new business. The jazz that had driven so much of his life was gone. To everyone's surprise, I began to become obsessed with jazz just as Dad was putting it down.

We lived for a while in a modest rent house, and Dad's collection of 78 RPM records, complete in its own large stand-up chest, was placed in my bedroom as the house offered no other practical place for them.

So there I was, blue and lonely, 12 years old, nothing to console me except those old scratchy records. Gradually, they started coming to my aid.

The rest of the family was too busy to notice, but I escaped into Louis Armstrong records. Putting hard mileage on the already worn 78s, I memorized Louis' solos and riffs. Louis to the rescue. Bob Crosby was well-represented in the records as was the great Benny Goodman. Eventually, I discovered Bix.

My musical beginnings were certainly not normal. I wasn't in the Junior High Band and I didn't have a musical instrument of any kind. But I was submerged in this old jazz and was easily memorizing the work of the great masters. I'd go around all day whistling constantly to myself. Bix and his Gang were my companions. "Thou Swell," "Jazz Me Blues," "Ol' Man River," "Royal Garden Blues." I'd whistle the entire record: intros, ensembles, interludes, and solos.

One day I was absent-mindedly doing my whistling thing when my melody (or I should say, Bix's melody) caught my father's ear. "Hey!" he said, not realizing the source of my song, "That's pretty good! Maybe you should take up some kind of horn." That was all I needed. It was just a casual remark, and Dad wouldn't have dreamed he'd just helped set me on the jazz road. Oh, I thought, what an idea—a horn!

I started thinking that maybe I should get a trombone. It looked easy to me: for a lower note just shove the slide out a little more. But I never got a chance to find out about the trombone the hard way, as fate had placed an interesting antique cornet in my path. There it was in a pawn shop window. I had arrived there strictly by chance, and spotted it from a restaurant across the street. It drew me over like a magnet. I could have sooner ignored the Great Wall of China had it suddenly appeared across the street.

After several negotiating sessions with the pawn broker, I became the proud owner of a C. Bruno and Sons Bb cornet; approximate date of issue: 1905, price: $7.00. I bought a book, How to Play the Cornet, for $1.00.

So I was off. In one day I mastered the C scale, and on day two I was able to sort of render the song "Ja-Da." In about two more days I had ready the chorus of "Tin Roof Blues."

My father began to occasionally retrieve his clarinet from its almost-forgotten, lonely residence in the back bedroom closet. It had been patiently waiting there, behind out-of-date double-breasted dinner jackets and two-toned shoes, for its comeback. With a new and different kind of musical spark Dad gave practical suggestions and experimented with different harmonies to my crude attempts at melody.

After about a year of progress, and while attending Alamo Heights High, I formed a "kid's band." Dad would occasionally join us, playing a borrowed tenor saxophone as the clarinet chair was taken. Unlikely opportunities for employment began to come our way. We played some afternoons at the Alamo Heights Dairy Queen in return for a credit line against which burgers, milk shakes, sundaes, and other goodies would be drawn. A few times we played at school, in the halls or after lunch and for assemblies. Eventually we played for a few dances around town, some even at the San Antonio Country Club. At one point during these High School years, I decided it would be good for me to join the Alamo Heights High School Band, and I called the band director, Mr. Arsers. Enthusiastically, I described my progress, showed off my old, funny-looking cornet, and explained my interest in advancing my skills, learning to read music, etc.

Oh, was I disappointed! Mr. Arsers emphatically refused to let me join, citing a number of objections, mainly that I hadn't come up through the school district's music program. Undaunted, I waited two weeks and approached him again, but was rebuffed this time on grounds that my old cornet was silver-plated. The Alamo Heights Band contained only brass lacquered instruments!

Thus rejected, I went on to my next period class, choral singing (all along I was a member of the high school chorus) and the choral director, Mr. Greenlee, noticed my distress. I told my story about not being accepted by the band. "Why do you want to be in the band anyway?" he asked. "I'll teach you and in return you can be my errand boy."

So it went. I ran errands for Mr. Greenlee and he taught me, mostly on piano, about music theory—chords and scales and a lot of very useful stuff I would never have gotten in the band.

Fats Waller's words ring true: "One never knows, do one?"



   Jim Cullum Sr. and Jim Cullum Jr. in 1973

Epilogue

During the 1940s, there were some 50 members of the proud Dallas jazz elite. Being of the next generation, I watched them gradually fall away. The last to go was the remarkable Bob McClendon, who was going strong well into his 80s. Handsome and dapper to the last, he continued to drum around town. All during the 1980s, Bob played twice-weekly at the Greenville Bar & Grill in Dallas and never failed to ignite the band and the crowd. Booze never did get to him like it did some of the others.

I enjoyed seeing him a number of times during his last four years. He had become a mellow reflection of the wild man he once had been. But he still had that laugh and spirit and would get that twinkle in his eye when he talked of the old days...like the time he was with Clyde McCoy's band and the musicians and band bus were assembled early one morning on the sidewalk just outside a hotel where they had worked and slept the night before. McClendon didn't show up at the pre-arranged time to load his drums on top of the bus.

Clyde, impatient and pacing up and down the sidewalk, sent a band member up to McClendon's room on the 6th floor with instructions to get the drums down there at once.

You can easily guess the outcome. McClendon was still asleep and sent word back to McCoy to relax or he'd place the drums "where the sun don't shine!" (He never could stand McCoy's corny trumpet playing anyway.) Of course, McCoy hit the ceiling and sent his messenger back with word to get those drums down there immediately or McClendon was fired. With that, McClendon, true to form, opened the window and heaved the drums out. As they crashed to the sidewalk six floors below and just down from where the band was waiting, they broke all to pieces. McCoy, the musicians, the bus driver, and a few passersby stood open-mouthed as McClendon, laughing, went back to bed and at least for a while entered the ranks of the unemployed. Crazy? No, the jazz disease!

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

January 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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GRAMMY® Hall of Fame Jazz Singles

"The Hall of Fame Award," explains The Recording Academy's website, "was established in 1973 to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that are at least 25 years old. Inductees are selected annually by a special member committee of eminent and knowledgeable professionals from all branches of the recording arts."

As of February 2008, 73 jazz singles have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Jazz.com is pleased to complement the Grammy honor roll with a detailed review of each HOF jazz track. Note that the date in parentheses may not always correspond exactly, since Grammy lists release date, whereas Jazz.com prefers recording date.

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, "Darktown Strutters' Ball" (1917)
Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds, "Crazy Blues" (1920)
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Chimes Blues" (1923)
Bessie Smith With Louis Armstrong, cornet, "St. Louis Blues" (1925)
Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, "Heebie Jeebies" (1926)
Frankie Trumbauer And His Orchestra Featuring Bix Beiderbecke On Cornet, "Singin' The Blues" (1927)
Bix Beiderbecke, "In A Mist (Piano Solo)" (1927)
Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, "West End Blues" (1928)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, "Black And Tan Fantasy" (1928)
Pine Top Smith, "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie" (1928)
Louis Armstrong & Earl Hines, "Weather Bird" (1928)
Thomas "Fats" Waller, "Ain't Misbehavin' (Piano Solo)" (1929)
Louis Armstrong, "St. Louis Blues" (1929)
Duke Ellington, "Mood Indigo" (1931)
Cab Calloway & His Orchestra, "Minnie The Moocher" (1931)
Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra, "All Of Me" (1932)
Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra, "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932)
Ethel Waters, "Stormy Weather" (1933)
Thomas "Fats" Waller, "Honeysuckle Rose" (1934)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, "Cocktails For Two" (1934)
Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France Featuring Django Reinhardt And Stephane Grappelli, "Djangology" (1935)
Benny Goodman And His Orchestra, "King Porter Stomp" (1935)
Benny Goodman Quartet, "Moonglow" (1936)
Count Basie, "One O'clock Jump" (1937)
Benny Goodman, "Sing, Sing, Sing" (1937)
Jimmie Lunceford And His Orchestra, "For Dancers Only" (1937)
Artie Shaw And His Orchestra, "Begin The Beguine" (1938)
Chick Webb And His Orchestra With Ella Fitzgerald, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (1938)
Coleman Hawkins, "Body And Soul" (1939)
Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit" (1939)
Art Tatum, Piano Solo, "Tea For Two" (1939)
Benny Goodman And His Orchestra, Martha Tilton, Vocal And Ziggy Elman, Trumpet, "And The Angels Sing" (1939)
Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra, "Cherokee" (1939)
Woody Herman And His Orchestra, "Woodchopper's Ball" (1939)
Count Basie's Kansas City 7, "Lester Leaps In" (1939)
Artie Shaw And His Orchestra, "Star Dust" (1940)
Artie Shaw And His Orchestra, "Frenesi" (1940)
Benny Goodman Sextet, "Seven Come Eleven" (1940)
Billie Holiday, "God Bless The Child" (1941)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, "Take The "A" Train" (1941)
Lionel Hampton And His Orchestra, "Flying Home" (1942)
Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra, "Black, Brown And Beige" (1944)
King Cole Trio, "Straighten Up And Fly Right" (1944)
Lester Young Quartet, "Just You, Just Me" (1944)
Billie Holiday, "Embraceable You" (1944)
Stan Kenton And His Orchestra, "Artistry In Rhythm" (1945)
Billie Holiday, "Lover Man" (1945)
Dizzy Gillespie & His Sextet, "Groovin' High" (1945)
Charlie Parker And His Re-Boppers, "Billie's Bounce" (1945)
Charlie Parker Sextet, "Ornithology" (1946)
Sarah Vaughan, "If You Could See Me Now" (1946)
Django Reinhardt And Stephane Grappelli With The Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France, "Nuages" (1946)
The King Cole Trio, "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" (1946)
Dizzy Gillespie & His Sextet, "A Night In Tunisia" (1946)
Dizzy Gillespie & His Orchestra, "Manteca" (1947)
Woody Herman And His Orchestra, "Four Brothers" (1948)
Thelonious Monk Quintet, "Round Midnight" (1948)
Woody Herman And His Orchestra, "Early Autumn" (1949)
Bud Powell Trio, "Un Poco Loco" (1951)
James Moody, "Moody's Mood For Love" (1952)
Jimmy Forrest, "Night Train" (1952)
Erroll Garner Trio, "Misty" (1954)
Count Basie & His Orchestra, "April In Paris" (1955)
Count Basie Orchestra, Joe Williams, Vocal, "Every Day I Have The Blues" (1955)
Louis Armstrong & The All-Stars, "Mack The Knife" (1955)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, "Diminuendo In Blue And Crescendo In Blue" (1956)
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, "Moanin'" (1958)
Nina Simone, "I Loves You, Porgy" (1959)
Ella Fitzgerald, "How High The Moon" (1960)
Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd, "Desafinado" (1962)
Dave Brubeck Quartet, "Take Five" (1963)
John Coltrane With Johnny Hartman, "Lush Life" (1963)
Chick Corea, "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" (1968)

January 20, 2008 · 3 comments

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The Face of the Bass


by Don Mopsick, JCJB Bassist

Don Mopsick

The great Milt Hinton often said that the bass is the “Atlas of jazz” because its role in the jazz band is to “carry the other instruments on its shoulders.”

The bass provides a steady beat and the root notes of the chords of the tunes upon which the soloists construct their inventions, melding together rhythm and harmony in one function. “Bass” is often misspelled as “base” but the meaning is very similar in music, that of “foundation.”

In early jazz bands, bassists played the bass fiddle, the tuba, or the bass saxophone. The typical bassist of the 1920s, if he played tuba or bass sax, was expected to “double” on the bass fiddle as well. The wind instruments provided a louder, more directional sound that was able to cut through the noisy, boisterous crowds in large dance halls and night clubs where jazz was first played. The problem of bass projection was “solved” in the 1950s by amplifying bass fiddles and then with specially-built electronic basses, culminating in guitar-like solid-body instruments manufactured by Fender, Gibson, and other guitar makers.

I am amazed by the skills of contemporary electric bass players (since I no longer own an electric bass, I can't be considered one of them). "Tapping and slapping" has grown into a whole new art form for the instrument. I first heard the thumb-slap electric style as developed by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. I have been told by electric bassists steeped in this style that the wrist action involved goes much further back to the traditional Gospel tambourine technique.

I remember that when I first started in the 1970s experimenting with this on electric bass guitar, it seemed so natural for the instrument.

Like so many other aspects of American music and jazz, the roots of this style go back to early 20th century New Orleans.

There was a New Orleans bass style, by which I mean that there seems to have been a collection of bass players born before 1910 in New Orleans who went forth into the rest of the country acting as little spark plugs in the developing jazz bands in which they found themselves. All of them played in a manner very similar to one another.

The first to appear nationally was Bill Johnson (1872-1972), considered the father of jazz bass. He led one of the first jazz bands (The Original Creole Orchestra) out of New Orleans to tour the country on the Orpheum circuit around 1914. Bill used a syncopated single-stroke hook. This means "hooking" the right index finger under the string and letting it snap against the fingerboard (sound familiar to electric players?). Since he did not use the return-stroke slap, I call it a single-stroke style punctuated by notes syncopated in the ragtime manner. Other later New Orleans bass players who used the single-stroke were Pops Foster (played with Louis Armstrong and others), John Lindsey (with Jelly Roll Morton, 1926), and Wellman Braud (of the Ellington band in the '20s-'30s).

The hallmark of this sound on the bass is its percussive quality. The audible “snap” of the string against the fingerboard allows the bass to function in fact as another drum in the rhythm section of the band. Like my experience with the electric bass, when I started in the '90s with the hook-slap style on the bass fiddle, it seemed a very natural, relaxed, and swinging way to play time, because the power of the entire right arm and wrist is involved.

Other early New Orleans. players such as Steve Brown (with Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman) and Al Morgan (Cab Calloway) used a double- and triple-stroke slap style. In this, the player slaps one, two, or three percussion notes after the initial hook pull, yielding a lot of possible rhythmic combinations, some of the same ones used by today's electric thumb-slapping maniacs.

The finest exponent of the New Orleans style in the modern era was Milt Hinton. Born in Mississippi in 1910, he knew and befriended Bill Johnson in Chicago in the late '20s. Milt says that Bill taught him the hook style as the only way of getting a big sound out of the bass to be heard above the band. Milt replaced Al Morgan in the Cab Calloway band in '37 and developed the multiple-slap style to new heights. He told me that the way he thought of what he did on bass was similar rhythmically to what a tap dancer does with his feet.

Hooking and slapping was considered passé by the late ‘40s and most bass players abandoned it in favor of the warmer, "sideways-pull" sound of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, and Israel Crosby. Milt himself continued to use both styles. As one of the most-recorded musicians in history, Milt found himself in almost every conceivable kind of recording session and band, including many “hi-fi” “Dixieland” albums that were made during that period to “cash in” on the new popularity of the Dukes of Dixieland and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. You can hear Milt on these records slapping away during his solos, but on other recordings of the era such as the famous ones he did with Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole, he is using the more “modern” side-pull technique that is dominant today among the vast majority of bass fiddle players.

On the Riverwalk Jazz radio series, you can sometimes catch a reprise performance of Milt’s 1991 solo version of "Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho," a truly awe-inspiring tour-de-force of double and triple slapping.

In late 1990, when I first considered joining the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, I had a revealing phone conversation with Bob Haggart, the late bassist and composer who was the guiding musical light behind the Bob Crosby Bobcats and the World’s Greatest Jazzband. Bob had been filling in at the Landing and on the road for bassist Jack Wyatt, who was ailing. As one of the only bands left that still performs Haggart classics like “Dog Town Blues” and “Smoky Mary,” Bob always felt very strongly about the importance of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s role in preserving classic jazz.

On the phone, Bob suggested to me that if I were to go to work for Jim, who preferred the old-school acoustic way of playing the bass, I should consider re-stringing my bass with gut strings and high action. “That’s definitely what I would do if I were going to take the job,” he said. It was the way the vast majority of bassists set up their instruments before the advent of amplifiers and pickups, because it afforded the biggest possible sound to cut through even a big band swinging at full tilt.

I decided to follow that path and have never once looked back.

Don Mopsick

About the Author:

A native of New Jersey and educated at Rutgers, Berklee and the Manhattan School of Music, Don Mopsick joined the Cullum Band in 1991. During a thirteen-year free-lance career in Florida, he played concert dates with many visiting jazz performers. In Don's bass playing, one hears echoes of bass greats Bill Johnson, Pops Foster, and Milt Hinton. Mopsick presents something endearing to musicians and jazz fans of an earlier era: a completely acoustic approach.

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

January 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Why the Cornet?


by Jim Cullum

Jim Cullum

There's a question I hear over and over: "Is that a cornet?" Almost always, it's followed with: "Why a cornet and not a trumpet?"

At the present time, there are quite a number of great cornetists blowing up a storm: Warren Vaché Jr., Tom Pletcher, Tommy Saunders, Randy Reinhart, Peter Ecklund, and my favorite of all, Bob Barnard. Of course there are many others.

But why the cornet?

Louis Armstrong himself, 30 years after his death, now finally acknowledged as the greatest of all contributors to jazz, showed his clear preference for the trumpet. Louis' soaring trumpet was the inspiration for all the great swing era trumpet stars. As a group, they completely dominated jazz brass playing. A list of the most famous in this camp would include Bunny Berrigan, Ziggy Elman, Hot Lips Page, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Erwin, Charlie Shavers, Billy Butterfield, and Harry James. All were serious trumpet players and serious disciples of Louis.

With the exception of Wild Bill Davison, the only well-known jazz cornet players of those days were those who were so captivated by the beautiful cornet tone of Bix Beiderbecke that they chased that elusive holy grail throughout their careers and stuck with their cornets. It was the sound that they were after. There were not many: Bobby Hackett, Maxie Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland. A few others played the cornet from time to time, but were mostly trumpet players. Rex Stewart and Ray Nance come to mind. None were big stars, although Hackett finally sort of hit it in the 1950s with his solos on the Jackie Gleason records.

Many of us who are followers of both the Armstrong and Beiderbecke traditions end up with collections of cornets and trumpets. At one point I was carrying three gig bags around--one with a trumpet, one with a flugelhorn and one with a cornet.

In 1979, our band made its first visit to Europe where we played for a couple of festivals, including the annual Breda Festival in Holland. There I found a very high-powered flea market selling instruments at high prices. On a whim, I stopped by with my trumpet and flugelhorn and negotiated. They went on sale and were gone in an hour. I've been strictly a cornetist ever since.

My pockets lined with flea market cash, I beaded for Paris and the factory of the Courtois Company, makers of fine cornets. Courtois is the oldest instrument maker in the world, and they will proudly tell you that they made brass instruments as far back as the late 1700s (they even made instruments for Napoleon).

The Courtois factory on Rue de Nancy, Paris is quite amazing. There, about five workmen still hand-hammer bells. It is obvious that everything in the shop is quite old. As I remarked on this, the owner exclaimed, "Oh, this our new place. We moved here in 1860!" Soon I was on my way with two shiny new Courtois Cornets.

That night, my Parisian pal Pierre Atlao took me around to sit in at several "Caves" (basement jazz bistros thick with smoke--there are still some in Paris today). At the famed "Slow Club" we found the even more famed soprano saxophonist Claude Luter and his band.

As I showed off my new Courtois cornets, Luter laughed. The French brass players can't wait to get their hands on American instruments, he said while here I was in Paris chasing Courtois cornets on Rue de Nancy.

Why the cornet? It's the sound, the flexibility, and also I'd say its the magic of the Beiderbecke model.

I now have quite a collection of cornets. In a later articles, I'll run down the list. Each comes with an interesting story.

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

January 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Earliest Memories and the Hollywood Club


by Jim Cullum, Jr.

My grandmother, Eloise Cullum of Dallas, was about as full of life as one could be, I suppose. Her spark reaches down through the generations. What a gal! During her busy life, she found time to raise six children. She was strong-willed, opinionated, and determined that her children would have the best of everything. She and my grandfather Ashley moved their brood to a farm on the outskirts of Dallas so their children could be raised in the country.

Jim Cullum's Parents

Their obviously talented boys included Robert, James (my father), and Charles. As high school approached, each was given some sort of musical instrument. Bob, the oldest, played the saxophone. When time came for Jim to receive his instrument, my grandmother had been influenced by a music teacher or maybe an instrument salesman, and Jim was presented with a new Boehm system clarinet (the old Albert system was becoming obsolete). She had heard the axiom, "If he starts on clarinet, it's easy to double on saxophone, but if he starts on saxophone, doubling will be difficult." So at Christmas 1926, young Jim, age 12, unwrapped a new clarinet and life was never the same. He spent hours facing a corner, practicing. (The corner acted as an acoustic chamber). Oh, he thought, what a sound! For the rest of his life, the woody clarinet sound was the greatest fun life offered.

Left: Jim and Conoly Cullum (my parents) in Cullumville, 1946. We call this photo "Always Party Time."

Jim played his clarinet with a passion through high school and college. Eventually, he began to play professionally.

Meanwhile, his energetic mother began a small-scale land development on the family farm in north Dallas. As her children married in close succession, she gave each a lot on which to build a house. Her one-block street was called Nash Street after son-in-law George Nash, and gradually neighbors began calling the area "Cullumville."

Jim and his bride Conoly (my mother) became part of this happy scene. He began working as his father's apprentice in family wholesale grocery business, and the clarinet got little use for several years.

This is where I came in. I have no recollection of World War II, but by war's end in 1945 I was four years old, and bits and pieces of memory of those years have survived. The Cullumville life was idyllic. My playmates were mostly cousins, and other neighbors often were aunts and uncles. My grandparents lived in the big house at one end of Nash Street. We children played freely up and down Nash, and most spectacular of all was the creek that bounded Cullumville on the north. We dammed it and created small spillways. Life was tree climbing, stickhorse riding, and other similar adventures.

Cullum cousins

Right: Cullumville cousins in the snow, 1946. L.to R.: Jimmy Cullum, Mary Conoly Cullum, Mary Nash, Danny Cullum, Betsy Cullum, Sally Cullum.

By this time, Jim Sr. had yielded to his lifetime desire to be a full-time professional jazz musician. He had gradually increased his musical activities, then in 1944 he resigned his position with the family business and was off and running. In 1945, he joined the Jack Teagarden band and left Dallas for the life of a traveling musician.

Somewhere interwoven with these years, my memory flicks on as follows: it's deep in the middle of the night and a jam session is underway downstairs in our Cullumville living room. The music has awakened me and I climb out of bed in the pajamas that had the the feet built-in, and pad downstairs to the "party," where I am welcomed, especially by the women present. I snuggle on a comfortable lap as the music is mixed together with the talking, smoking, drinking, and laughing.

This scene, which was played over and over, often disturbed the Cullumville neighbors, particularly in the summer when the music floated out through open windows.

At the end of World War II, my father's good friend Garner Clark, an especially gifted cornetist, returned to Dallas. Garner, who had saved much of his Army pay, wished to invest his "winnings" in a jazz club. A partnership ensued as Dad and Garner established the Hollywood Club on an outlying desolate strip of the Fort Worth Pike. Something had been there before the Hollywood, but I know nothing of the predecessor. The venture seemed doomed to failure almost from the start.

My mother was on hand and spent much of her time mopping up the ladies' room as the club had severe plumbing problems and the toilets regularly overflowed. The place served Cajun-style food and had a full professional jazz band. It was the typical musician's dream. Garner began to almost live there, and had a cot in the liquor storage room. (The fox was really in charge of the chicken coop!).

The club had good music, but nothing else went well. Several months of uncharacteristic rain began and, unbeknownst to our heroes, a large amount of water accumulated on the sunken flat roof. In the night club business, rainy nights always mean poor attendance and the club's location was a severe handicap. As business dropped off, desperate attempts were made to salvage things. The Hollywood was made into a "private club" so that liquor could be served by the drink (at that time prohibited by Texas liquor laws). After a few weeks, the law swooped down, Garner was arrested, and spent a night in jail.

Then a deal was worked out with some professional gamblers who converted a portion of the club into an illegal casino. What a scene! A jazz band and its listeners and dancers occupied approximately one-half of the club, and gambling tables hidden behind a ceiling-to-floor curtain were active in the other half. At this time the water on the roof, trapped for several months, finally worked its way through, and water began to "rain" all over the gambling tables.

Hollywood Club outside

The place had an unpaved parking lot which was turned into a churned mud-hole during the heavy rains. Customers' cars regularly sank to the axles. The porter/janitor often attempted to drive stuck cars out of the muck, and was very skilled in these maneuvers, often succeeding. A couple of times he lost his shoes in the sticky mud. Once, keys were accidentally dropped in the mud in the dark, and the earnest porter (whose name is lost to posterity) dove for them, returning to the light of the Hollywood Club entrance completely covered with mud. For a while, the club resorted to keeping a full-time wrecker on hand to pull cars out of the parking lot.

Ah, memories! I can remember leaving our comfortable home to accompany my father for a Sunday afternoon session at the Hollywood Club. Our route took us across several old rickety wooden bridges across the Trinity River. I was allowed to steer the car down these back roads and over a couple of the bridges. Once at the club, I would hit up the musicians for quarters which I would use to play the gamblers' slot machines. Nothing was more fun. I sometimes think of this when my children come to me for quarters to sink into the ever-present video games of today.

The Hollywood Club's plumbing problems were crudely corrected by running a new sewer line out in the back of the building for about two hundred yards. (The club was situated in open space and was the one lonely inhabitant on a deserted strip of a two-lane highway). A bull dozer was hired to dig a large open pit into which the club's raw sewage was emptied. Even in those years, these methods of sewage disposal were strictly against the law, but no one was watching and Cullum and Clark heartily congratulated themselves.

Then the plot thickened as Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra were appearing for a good long run at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas. Many nights, after his job ended, Jimmy would journey out to the Hollywood club, sometimes to sit in, as he was an admirer of the band. He had ideas of creating a "band within a band" in his orchestra, and he often brought one or two of his musicians along to hear what the Hollywood Club band was doing. Everybody in both bands became very friendly, and as the Hollywood Club was struggling, Jimmy Dorsey agreed to make a special Sunday afternoon appearance there.

Hollywood Club insert

Now one of the Hollywood regulars was an ardent Jimmy Dorsey fan and had equipped his young son (who was about my age--about five years old) with a shiny curved soprano saxophone. Jimmy Dorsey, of course, was famous for his alto saxophone playing, and a soprano looks very much like a miniature or toy alto. Said regular, upon hearing of the approaching appearance of Jimmy Dorsey at the Hollywood Club, hired a photographer to be on hand to snap a picture of Jimmy Dorsey and his famous alto, together with young son and soprano. The little boy was very dressed up for the picture and the sax hung from his neck on a saxophone strap.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Dorsey was late and as boys will be boys, saxophone-bedecked son and I began playing in the open space behind the club. Eventually, we worked our way out to the secret sewage pit where young son fell in, complete with saxophone. He crawled out as we began to realize that something was terribly wrong, and we began making our way back to the club, where in the meantime Jimmy Dorsey had arrived, the photographer was ready, and the father was searching frantically for young son. Autograph-seekers were upon Jimmy Dorsey, and the photo opportunity was about to slip away when we got back to the club's back door. Father confronted son, tears were shed, and son being thoroughly soaked with raw sewage, the entire photo plan was blown.

Hollywood Club Garner Clark band

The Hollywood Club met its doom after about six months of operation. Somehow it caught fire and was gutted. Everyone suspected the landlord, who collected handsomely from the fire insurance carrier.

Garner left to become the house cornetist at the famed Jazz Limited Club in Chicago, but he soon returned to Dallas. The Hollywood Club band had dissolved, but was regrouped over and over for unlikely Dallas playing jobs.

My family picked up and moved for two years to Venezuela, where my father accepted an executive position with Nelson Rockefeller interests. But that's another story!

Memories of the Hollywood Club survived, along with a set of shrimp forks with H.C. embossed in the handles. They followed our family for years, gradually being lost one by one until, like the Hollywood Club participants, they have completely disappeared.

But in 1946, these same participants were in full bloom. They demonstrated to, and thoroughly convinced an innocent young five-year-old boy (that's me) that nothing could be more fun or more laughs or more "kicks" than a jazz night club.

Here are some of the players from those days:

Cliff Bruton Jamie Gilliand
Cliff Brewton John Haynie Gilland
Bob McClendon Jesse James
Bob McClendon Jesse James

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

January 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Jazz Disease


By Vicci Johnson
Director of Jazz Bands, Murray JHS, St. Paul MN
Education Chair, Twin Cities Jazz Society

Public school music educators employ varied strategies to promote and support their programs. Here are some thoughts why these strategies must be supported by the nation's music communities, from a Minnesota public school music educator and advocate, Vicci Johnson.

Today in Minnesota my 70-year-old next-door neighbor listens to the radio shows of Jerry Swanberg, Arne Fogel, and Garrison Keillor. She also listens to her favorite recordings by Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and the Carpenters. She also holds season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra. Her Minnesota public school experience helped gift her with an appreciation for diverse forms of music.

Times have changed. How many students of hip-hop hold season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra or attend jazz concerts? Few young people today appreciate more than one form of music. How could we allow this to happen?

Today there are only a few urban public elementary schools remaining in which a young student might acquire and develop the basic skills and inspiration that could lead to careers in the fields of music education and professional music. I worry that too few urban schools spawn future arts aficionados and patrons.

Reasons for school music’s decline are familiar to concerned observers. There’s less funding for public school music programs. Policymakers and the public often consider music to be unnecessary and less “core” than math, reading, and science. From computers to ipods to athletics, there’s more competition for a student’s time. And today’s graduate students in school administration often fail to appreciate music as an essential component of public education.

To reverse this trend, it will take more than projects like “April is JAZZ in Our Schools Month,” noble as such efforts are. Surely a basic requirement is for today's community of adult musicians and music devotees to fight cuts to school music programs across the United States. And the value of music in elementary schools must somehow be driven home. Consider the following:

Group performance in an elementary school music classroom trains young people in the discipline of collaboration (win-win)—great preparation for adulthood in culturally diverse social and workplace settings.

Kodaly (founder of Kodaly vocal education for children) understood that music is an ‘indispensable part of universal human knowledge.’ Believing the slogan ‘Let music belong to everyone!’ he insisted “it is only natural that music has to be made part of the school curriculum." Evidence shows how vocal music alongside math, reading, and science can raise student grades. It makes learning fun, not dry. Class control and discipline problems are minimized.

Communities with large and healthy ARTS economies enjoy a richer quality of life, with more people benefiting from post-secondary education and less poverty.

For more in-depth testimonials to the value of music in school curricula, read Richard Florida's three books on the creative class and local economies. A fine treatment of how to use Kodaly vocal music as a tool for teaching reading, math, and science, is found in Dr. Elizabeth K. Berry Olson's thesis, “Affirming Parallel Concepts among Reading, Mathematics, and Music through Kodaly Music Instruction,” University of Iowa, 2003.

Regarding the worth of music education as taught in the public schools, and in support of Dr. Olson's findings, note the following statement from Dr. Grant Venerable, chemist and educator at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in his book, The Paradox of the Silicon Savior: "Significantly, one of the most striking facts in Silicon Valley industry is that the very best engineers and technical designers are, nearly without exception, practicing musicians."

Consider also a Nov. 17, 1992 keynote speech by Harriet Mayor Fulbright for the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education. She referenced Ellen Harris, a provost from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wrote: "The ARTS have helped prepare MIT students in business. An alumnus at a large New York accounting firm recently stated at an MIT alumni meeting that his firm interviews about 40 MIT students every year. Of the ten they recently hired, four presented minors in the arts. This latter (ARTS) fact so significantly set these candidates apart from the others in terms of creative thinking, flexibility, and presentation, that the firm is now using the arts minors as a screening criterion."

Projects like “April is JAZZ in Our Schools Month” can be very important for urban communities because so few public officials consider the evidence, no matter the source. Music in our schools encourages young students to practice creative strategies in preparation for everyday challenges in their personal and professional lives. Music in our schools is essential for future support to any city's arts and tourism economy. Whether a musical performer or a music patron, an individual’s quality of life is enhanced by the embrace of music. The public school, the great equalizer, must be encouraged and supported to play its part.

To that end, if you happen to find yourself near a public school celebrating "April is JAZZ in Our Schools Month," please attend a performance. The music teacher and the students will appreciate your support. It will send a message to administration that the community values and boosts the arts.

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

January 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Play the Melody!


By Don Mopsick

At the age of 23, I began to work weekends at resort hotels in the Catskill mountains of New York. By that time, I had already been earning money playing the trumpet and bass guitar for seven years. Eventually, I took up playing the bass full time, but during that period my only real interest was to become the next Clifford Brown, and Bebop was my creed.

Bebop, or Bop, was a jazz movement created in the 1940s by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Based at first on earlier jazz, the style explored new harmonic possibilities of familiar standard tunes and 12-bar blues by using substitute chord changes. The soloist improvised on the new chords (often of his own invention) using many, many notes, sometimes quite abstracted and far removed from the original tune, often played at double-time or nutty, fast tempos.

Most of the musicians I knew in the early 1970s who were my age and worked the Catskill hotels were similarly infected with the Bop bug. Our duties consisted of playing ("faking," or playing without written music) standard tunes for dance sets followed by a floor show. When called upon to stand up and solo, the temptation was to wail forth with our most righteous, fiery licks.

The customers, over 50 and, of course, hopelessly square to us hipsters, were not shy about complaining to the bandleader if such an outburst occurred. What they wanted to hear was what Gershwin, Porter or Berlin wrote, not some far-out, bad jazz.

The bandleaders were acutely aware of the problem. Very often, right before the job began, the leader would admonish: "When it's your turn to play a solo, I want to hear the melody. This ain't no jam session. Just play the tune for them, okay?" It was okay, we all understood that this was a matter of job survival.

Sometimes there was a late dance set, by the end of which most of the customers had gone off to bed. That's when the lid came off, and what we thought of as the "real music" began.

It was okay for a few years of summers and weekends, but then I moved on. My jazz sensibilities evolved as I became aware of a much wider world, in fact, an ocean of jazz. I became interested in playing the tuba and found myself in traditional jazz bands, learning "Jazz Me Blues," "Milenberg Joys," and discovering Armstrong, Jelly, Oliver, Bechet, and many others. I learned to value simplicity, purity, and above all the heartfelt truth of hard-swinging and stomping rhythm.

Finally settling on the bass fiddle as my instrument of choice, I got calls to play many different kinds of jazz, blues, pit bands, and generic jobs which are known in the music trade as "general business." I never lost my interest in trad and Dixieland and tried to seek out as many of those jobs as I could. In the fall of 1990, I got a call from Jim Cullum in Texas. His bass player Jack Wyatt had just died after a long illness, and would I be interested in coming to San Antonio to audition for the job?

I went, Jim hired me, and I'm still there.

Since 1992 the Jim Cullum Jazz Band has had a unique opportunity to serve on the faculty of the annual Stanford Summer Jazz Camp at Stanford University in Northern California. The Stanford Camp is a week-long immersion in the basics for instrumental and vocal students between the ages of 12 and 17. Since 1972, the umbrella organization, The Stanford Jazz Workshop has been presenting a variety of education and concert programs at Stanford.

Our teaching duties at Jazz Camp include the entire band performing a few classics of pre-war jazz made famous by Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, etc., along with a talk by Jim Cullum. This presentation is given to the entire student body as part of a class called "Jazz Tradition." Additionally, individual JCJB members conduct classes in ear training and master classes for each instrument, as well as private individual lessons.

As far as I know, Stanford is the only jazz camp in existence that offers faculty proficient in both pre- and post-war jazz styles. The majority of the faculty is Bop or Post-Bop oriented. A typical student ensemble will perform tunes made famous by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Chick Corea, or Herbie Hancock such as "Milestones," "So What?," "Blue Bossa," etc. Our band coaches two student combos in simpler, more traditional fare. This year, our "advanced" student combo also prepared a separate program that included, among other Bop tunes, "Tadd's Delight" by Tadd Dameron.

Jazz Camp is a rare opportunity for two cultures of jazz, which are too often worlds apart, to rub up against each other. For me, the annual experience helps to crystallize my thoughts about what I believe to be the most important elements in all of jazz and, therefore, what are the most important lessons for the next generation of players.

When we first started teaching at Stanford back in 1992, I felt as a stranger in a strange land, as if the JCJB was a hermetically-sealed time capsule pushing its way upstream against a torrent of modes, complex chord-scale relationships, polyrhythmic explorations, and reverence for a spurious teaching device called the "blues scale."

By 2003 I felt that the seal had eroded considerably, and the message was finally diffusing out into the general camp population: good jazz doesn't have to be complicated, some of the best jazz ever played is based on simple three-chord tunes, and great jazz solos can be constructed on a series of simple melodies played in hot rhythm. In a word, jazz is fun.

In my bass master class, I've had the pleasure of witnessing the musical growth of a few returning students over a period of several years. One of the returnees had made a leap from last year, when he was an average bass guitar student, to this year, when he showed up playing some formidable bass fiddle and the promise of great things to come.

The camp lunch hour is given over to faculty concerts outdoors at the student center. Featured at one of these was an accomplished group of faculty players performing original music in a modal modern jazz style. A very energetic drummer played in the style of Jack DeJohnette, along with electric Fender Rhodes piano and amplified bass fiddle, with trumpet and saxophones playing directly into microphones in the pentatonic/modal style of Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, etc. A satisfying, though loud performance worthy of respect.

My bass prodigy sat with me listening to the hour-long concert. Afterwards, he asked me, "How can I learn to like this kind of jazz?" I said, "A lot of people really go for this, but some never really learn to like it." "How about you?" he asked. "I understand it," I said, "but I prefer the kind of jazz where you can hear melodies."

It was time to get back to class. His question was way too good and my answer was way too short. So, Alex, if you're reading this, here's the rest of it.

Modal modern jazz is a very rhythmic form of Impressionism. In the European art-music world, the analogous composers were Debussy, Ravel, and Satie. Their composing is characterized by constantly shifting tonal (harmonic) centers, and, except in the case of Satie, the melody takes a secondary role. The aim seems to be to bring the listener along on a journey of evolving palettes of colors and emotions. This compositional model is ideal for motion picture soundtrack scores, where the music serves to emotionally underpin the unfolding of the narrative.

In the jazz world, modal compositions also feature this constantly shifting tonality, for example, in tunes like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" or Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge." Since a large part of a jazz player's compositional art lies in the solo, the solos in this style seek to state or outline each tonality and explore every possible permutation of it (some use the term "deconstruction" to describe this process).

One can think of the opposite of this harmonic compositional model as a melodic one. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, etc., come to mind as examples. The melody suggests the harmony, not the other way around. Variations and developments suggest and refer back to the melody. The best melodies are logically constructed, are aesthetically pleasing to the ear, and can stand up by themselves as music without lyrics or as an accompaniment to a movie.

If we extend this concept to include hot rhythm, then most of the vast output of jazz created before 1940 can be characterized as melodic. Necessarily so, since early jazz players favored popular tunes as vehicles for their improvisations. In one sense, the words "tune" and "melody" are interchangeable. Irving Berlin, perhaps more than any other tunesmith, had his finger on the pulse of the American popular taste for melody, so it's no wonder that jazzmen love to play his songs.

Another reason that melodies are popular, that is, easily accessed by most people, is that they have the power of narrative. They unfold, revealing themselves over time. Each one is a story in itself. This is the real challenge for the jazz soloist: to hold the listener's interest solely by the narrative power of his melodic invention.

This is precisely the quality lacking in so many modern jazz soloists, and this lack goes a long way toward explaining why so many people avoid modern jazz entirely: they think of it as a mysteriously dense and impenetrable music that one has to study to understand. Jazz for jazz musicians.

Here's a test: if you walk in on the middle of someone's jazz solo performance, how long should it take you to recognize what song they're playing? If the soloist has not cultivated a sense of melodic narrative, and makes no reference whatever to the song itself, it may take all the way until the end of the tune when the whole band states the melody explicitly. If the soloist adopts the same pentatonic/modal approach for every tune, his solo will sound the same no matter what song he's playing, usually a sort of generic Coltrane.

In my lessons and master classes, after suggesting how to practice scales and chords (which are the ABCs of jazz), I spend considerable time with my students on how to cultivate the improvisational mind. A large part of this comes into play in the process of playing and creating melodies. This is especially helpful to budding bassists, who rarely if ever get a chance to play actual melodies.

Another helpful technique in learning how to coherently improvise is to think of a jazz solo as conversational speech. To get your point across while speaking to someone, several short sentences get the job done better than one long run-on sentence. In the same way the student should ask himself, "What am I saying with this solo, and can I say it more elegantly, with fewer notes and in fewer choruses?" And, "How is my solo different from the one I played on the last tune?"

I use the example of the late tenor saxophonist Eddie Barefield. In a career spanning 60 years, he worked with Fletcher Henderson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. Watching him work was a revelation and epiphany for me. He constructed his masterful, long solos out of simple little riffs, gradually and patiently, at first leaving plenty of space between them, then building on sparse simplicity to a climax of grooving romp.

I've heard it said that almost anyone can learn to write a book, but telling a good story is a gift that few possess. Next to Barefield, my favorite jazz storyteller is Louis Armstrong. Each of his classic recorded solos unfolds in a startlingly creative yet melodically inevitable way, as if it were somehow out there just waiting to be discovered and played.

And what about those old "squares" at the Catskill hotels? Well, they don't call them the Greatest Generation for nothing. Their ranks have thinned since the 1970s, and I hear that the Catskills have changed a lot since then. I still see them at the Landing in San Antonio. But, unlike my presumptuous attitude of thirty years ago, I now feel inspired and privileged to play for them the music they knew intimately as youths, in the style in which it was created. The payoff for me is the look on their faces when, as Ralph Sutton was fond of quoting Fats Waller, "You get that right tickin' rhythm and man, its' on!"

© 2003 The Mississippi Rag

(This article appeared in the November 2003 issue of the Mississippi Rag and is reproduced here with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz. Also visit the Mississippi Rag website at http://www.mississippirag.com.)

January 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Swingin' Unplugged


By Don Mopsick

Electric instruments—especially the electric guitar—have become so universal and ubiquitous in the post-WWII rock-dominated world of pop music that a word had to be invented to denote the old-school way: “unplugged.”

Decades ago, an ad agency for 7-Up came up with the ingenious and successful “un-cola” campaign, and proved that defining things negatively in terms of what they are not can appeal to the impulse to stand out from the crowd, go your own way, and march to the beat of a different drummer.

As a mid-Boomer, I saw my first electric instruments at age 12 when my big brother Mike came home with a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a Precision Bass. Both of these instruments are solid-bodied, meaning that they have no acoustic sound of their own—they must be plugged into an amplifier to be heard. Mike let me fool around with the P-bass. In the quiet of our living room, without using the amp I could hear the tiny, plinky sounds the P-bass made well enough to learn how to get around on it.

I also played the trumpet in the junior high school Band, two hours per week during the school day, but after school I played bass guitar in a rock and roll “garage band” with its heady promise of raw sexual power. In theory at least, plugging in an electric guitar converted one’s testosterone into electrons, which were then broadcast directly into the brains of nearby females via an irresistible magnetic beam.

It turned out that we were the first generation of musicians steeped in the dual worlds of loud, electrified rock 'n roll and softer, subtler unplugged jazz, folk, and classical music.

Jazz had discovered the electric guitar in the late 1930s with Charlie Christian, and Miles Davis embraced rock rhythms and all-electric combinations with his seminal 1971 albums Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Since then, electrified rock elements have been important contributors to whatever commercial success jazz has had in recent years. These days, the average listener is likely to encounter a live "jazz" performance not quite up to the volume of a heavy metal band, but very loud nonetheless.

As a young adult professional musician, I went through what I thought of then as reinventing myself as a “jazz bassist.” In my work I used both the solid-body electric bass guitar and the bass fiddle. According to the fashion of the time, I explored every known method of amplifying the fiddle. My aim was to produce a sound at least loud enough to compete with the other players who would show up to the job with their amps and gear. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was contributing to an endless “arms race” of upwardly spiraling volume levels.

The results were rarely satisfying. In all of my experimenting, I never found a pickup or amp that sounded as good to me as the unplugged bass fiddle did in my practice room at home. The more gear I bought, the more frustrated and disappointed I became. In 1990 Jim Cullum called to offer me an audition with his band in San Antonio with the stipulation that the bass position involved playing strictly unplugged. That immediately got my attention. Then, a phone conversation with bass legend Bob Haggart convinced me that this was the way to go.

Our friend Marty Grosz, acoustic guitarist, singer, raconteur and guest on Riverwalk Jazz, has a lot to say about how electrifying stringed instruments changes the way they function in a jazz setting. “With an amplifier, your sound is not coming out of you, it's coming from behind you out of a box.” Furthermore, he says, the string height of electric instruments is usually so low that the player feels very little resistance under his fingers. Marty says, you’ve got to have that "fight" or a certain amount of stiffness, to create a pulse that swings.

During 14 happy unplugged, amp-less years with the Cullum band, I’ve come to learn that creating swinging rhythm involves some physical as well as mental effort. I realized why jazz performances captured on old 78-rpm disks often swing more and sound more alive than on more modern ones: The pre-electric player had to learn how to draw a living sound and swinging pulse out of a hollow wooden instrument by moving and controlling a resonating air column with sheer muscle power and musicality.

Now we're getting somewhere!

Today my music room closet is full of pickups, cables, amps, pre-amps, equalizers, etc., gathering dust. I should probably get rid of all of it on eBay, but it's nice to know it's all there in case I have to "go electric" again. But by then it will all probably be way obsolete, and I'll have to start over from scratch.

Naaah!

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

January 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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An Interview with Javon Jackson

by Ralph A. Miriello

With a long list of credentials to validate his considerable talent, Javon Jackson has established himself as both a popular and accomplished tenor saxophonist. He remains a bit of an enigma for many fans who may be confused by his recent musical directions as a leader. Given that he played an important part in the late Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers until the maestro’s death in late 1990, his solo career has been a departure from his mainstream roots and perhaps a bit of a quandary for straight ahead fans. He has chosen to mix it up with a series of recent recordings that span a gap between popular soul/funk music with his hard bop jazz roots in a way that is both daring and honest to his intentions.


                              Javon Jackson, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Careful listening reveals a talented, thoughtful player that is consistently exploring a repertoire of popular music in an attempt to both expand musical horizons while still retaining his musical integrity. In this attempt he follows in the footsteps of his heroes like Lee Morgan, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. All these artists have found inspiration beyond the traditional standards and forayed into the contemporary music of their respective times. Jackson’s style produces a purposefully rounder, fuller and more subtle tone than many of his frenetic contemporaries, no matter what the musical format.

But just when you think he has gone off on a no holds barred funk-a-thon, Jackson shows up as the sole, subtle journeyman saxophone voice on the veteran Jimmy Cobb’s straight ahead New York Times recording reclaiming his mainstream credentials. If disciplined restraint and an attempt to bridge popular music with thoughtfully executed improvisation deserves to be admired than Jackson’s work is certainly admirable. Also, his music is just plain fun to listen to with a faithful dedication to maintaining the rhythmic bottom that allows one to tap out the beat while still retaining a bit of an edge in the delivery.

At only 42 years of age he is at the crossroads of when seasoned experience meets still vital energy to produce some really extraordinary moments on the tenor. A careful watch of his future musical direction would be well warranted for those fans who have identified the special spark so often heard in his playing. His enigmatic soul will no doubt continue to explore and surprise all the while maintaining his personal view of musical honesty.

We caught up with the ever-working Jackson, via telephone, at his home in New Jersey. where he had just returned from a West Coast tour with the “Turbinator" -- keyboardist, Dr. Lonnie Smith. We talked about his past, his current recordings and his future plans.




You attended the Berkelee to school of music in Boston. What years were you there and what fellow musicians did you meet there?

Well I can give you a few. I knew lot during that time. … Mark Whitfield, he was my room mate, Jacky Terrasson, Cyrus Chestnut , a saxophonist name of Sam Newsome, Delfeayo Marsalis, a drummer named Will Calhoun that was part of a group called Living Color, a rock group.… There were so many people that I am probably missing some names, there was a lot of people there, but that gives you a kind of an overview of some of the people..

Did you find that the school was a very important part of your musical education?

Yes I would. I would consider the opportunity great because I met a lot of really wonderful musicians that were students and faculty. The city itself, in terms of being able to go out very frequently [was great] … to hear world-class musicians. Growing up in Denver that wasn't available to me as it was in Boston. There were a lot of clubs.

How does Boston rate to you and a jazz mecca compared to say New York?

Well it is very close to New York. I don't think anything really compares to New York but I will say that Boston has a very strong jazz musical environment. A lot of great clubs there and … a lot of musicians teach in the area, not just in Berklee, but in many of the colleges and universities in the area. So I would say it ranks very high!

You clearly chose to take the somewhat traditional route of apprenticeship for jazz musicians by having spent time with luminaries like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones and Cedar Walton. What inspired you to take this route?

Well its kind of the route most musicians take in terms of apprenticeship with certain instrumentalists as they're coming up and they get this opportunity. . . . If you look at the history of jazz musicians, it kind of works like that. . . . There is an apprenticeship in certain musical groups and from there you develop, acquire leadership skills to go on and be your own leader. I think it's good. I think when you get all these different perspectives it helps one to get a nice firm grasp and then to develop one's own instinctive voice.

Your sound has been compared to Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, Maceo Parker and even at times to Grover Washington Jr.. Do you agree with any of these comparisons?

Well, everyone comes from somebody. After awhile the jazz Diaspora is a family, so I would say you might hear some Joe Henderson definitely. Stanley Turrentine was an influence. I'm definitely a fan of Grover Washington Jr. I'm a fan of Maceo's, so I mean it's all relative. Those musicians [have] probably listened to some of the same things that I’ve listened to so there's probably some correlation there. I wouldn't discredit the statement.

You have been reported to have said that this “school of Blakey” was one of the most important learning experiences of your career. How so?

Art Blakey made a life long mantra to support young musicians and their endeavors. It goes all the way back to Lee Morgan or Clifford Brown or all the different individuals that had this time with Art Blakey. I was happy to be part of this school, if you kind of want to call it a finishing school. It was its own unique school. You had the Duke Ellington school of music, the Duke Ellington school was the big-band [school]. . . . You have the Miles Davis school or the Horace Silver school. You have all these different schools that helps support and develop different aspects of the music.



                                      Javon Jackson
                       Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Who do you feel most influenced the sound of your playing?

Couldn’t say any one person. It would be several. Saxophone wise it would be Lester Young, definitely Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt, I don't know if I said Stanley Turrentine, to musicians like Lucky Thompson. There is a lot. I gave you eight to ten but it could easily be thirty.

Any other instrument player that influenced you?

Definitely, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock McCoy Tyner, and I didn't mention Wayne Shorter [before] who has had an impact on me. Art Blakey without a doubt. Recently I was on the road with Al Foster and I got a great appreciation for his artistry. There has been a lot of musicians that influenced me.

Who would you consider to be your contemporaries? What musicians playing today that you like?

On the saxophone or in general?

As a tenor player in particular.

Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, a gentleman named Gary Thomas, I'm a fan of his saxophone ability. Again I feel uncomfortable citing just four or five. …let me just say I am a fan of all these musicians, in terms of their ability to get out and do it and continue to do it

When compared to other players of your instrument, reviewers have used the words 'fuller' and 'measured' to describe your technique. Do you consciously try for the rounded, less biting approach to the instruments sound or has it just evolved as part of finding your own voice to?

I don't know what that means -- fuller or measured? … I am always trying to develop the saxophone to a certain level in terms of technical prowess. For me any musician that we talk about in any genre is identified by his sound, not what they play but the way they play it. So if I put the CD player on, and it wouldn't take four or five seconds to recognize Miles. At the most four or five seconds to recognize Coleman Hawkins… so to me the trick, the real great ability is to be identified. If somebody identifies me, that's better than not been identified at all. In my mind I'm just trying to be an honest saxophonist. For me tone is important, sound is important, the ability to get around on your instrument and to be challenging to yourself, but also to deliver something that will have some meaning to the non-musician as well.

Many people equate passionate playing with a flurry of notes and stunningly fluid arpeggios, you don’t seem to use this in your music a great deal. Do you feel you can emote more from a more measured, sparse rendering?

It just depends. You look at a guy like Miles Davis. If you listen Miles Davis take a solo after Coltrane, it might not be as many notes as Coltrane but [they have] the delivery and the meaning and at the end of the day they both have the same amount impact to me. Both can be impactful but the ability is to be flexible to what is asked of you…. In certain situations I base it on just what I feel. Today maybe more so than in the past. . . . We're in a testosterone age. We're trying to -- and I'm including myself -- were trying to impress each other as opposed to being honest to what we are delivering. If I'm honest to what I'm delivering it doesn't have to be a lot of notes

Many jazz greats have translated contemporary popular music into a jazz format; some with mixed reviews. You once attributed the exploration and integration of the more popular music of the sixties and seventies into your repertoire to the influence of Craig Street, your former producer at Blue Note. Did this retrospective approach to the music you grew up with strike a chord in you?

Yeah. Again, Craig helped me because during that time at Blue Note I was making a lot of records that were supportive to the history and the genre before me in terms of an acoustic sense … of jazz originals. I met Craig and we decided to share music. So he gave me [his] music and I gave him some [of my] music. His set of music was all over the map. One of them was the Allman Brothers, then it would be Muddy Waters then it would be Duke Ellington…where as my thing was down a certain road. So it kind of opened me up. When I grew up, guess what, I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire or Stevie Wonder in addition to my parents having Charlie Parker in the house and Miles Davis, Amhad Jamal... I wanted to record a Frank Zappa song when I was on Blue Note at that time with Craig. I didn't know anybody that recorded a Frank Zappa song, besides Frank. . . . So it allowed me to be completely clean with my blueprint….. I try to find some diamonds in the rough, if you will, in terms of recording so that it allows me to say [to myself] what do you bring to this Javon?

You wrote a song called "Richard’s R.A.P," which you recorded on your latest Palmetto release Now and is dedicated to the great bassist Richard Davis. Do you know him personally and what is the source of this dedication?

There's another musician who I didn't mention who had a big influence on me. Richard lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin. Periodically . . . I'm up in that area with him doing concerts. We established a really, really close relationship. I don't know how to qualify him as a big brother, as an uncle, as a father. He calls me a son. I just look at him as a person who, although he is in his seventies, he talks to me as current as anybody; very current and very supportive. There was one particular time when I went . . . to perform with him. He has an organization called Retention Action Project, it's a race-based group that tries to ease relations in that area and all over the country. . . . so I wrote something. . . . It's called "Richard's R.A.P." [Retention Action Project].

He crosses over to classical hasn’t he?

Oh, absolutely. He had a great relationship with Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. Very respected bassist, and a musician who is quite open to different styles of music.

Your most recent recordings, like Now and Easy Does It, definitely have a funky groove to them. Are you attempting to reach out to a cross over audience in the hope that they will be introduced to jazz through explorations in funk or do you just really dig the groove?

I would say I just like the music. It's an opportunity for me to deliver some music that I feel close to and that I'm a fan of. At this particular period, I like delivering the music, with an edge I might add, but with that kind of bottom in terms of the rhythm and the palette of the band.

Are you concerned that some of your more traditional listeners, who might be looking for your hard bop sound may be disappointed or turned off to this more popular music oriented direction?

I never really try to consider all that because if you come to a show, it's not like I've totally abandoned any of what might be deemed straight ahead material. Even on that record Now I recorded "Richard's RAP," which is not really a funk song or "I Remember You," which is a ballad. I still like to think that I'm involved in other projects that support my interest and my willingness to develop more so [than] as a pure saxophonist. . . . Sometimes you just want something that's funny or sometimes something that's simple. So there's always a balance to our lives.

You’ve played with Freddie Hubbard, a player who has great velocity, dynamism, as well as lyricism to his playing. Freddie has attributed the problems with his lip as being the result of overplaying. He even went so far as to caution younger players to not over-blow like he did. Did his experience effect or alter your playing style or intensity?

No. What Freddie was speaking to was more of a brass related situation. I attribute that to the nature of a brass instrument more so than my instrument. I'm sure that everything being relative, there is something in there that I could make relevant to me. I don't really look at it like that. I do look at it that, as we tend to grow and we tend to live in this world, things change, sometimes at the drop of a hat.

A year and a half ago when I lost my mom, I lost other people before like Art Blakey and grandparents, but when you lose somebody [like that] it just got really close. It lets you know that this thing is not forever. We believe it's forever, and it is forever, but not in this existence. So that's what I meant. . . . Things can change and you have to just appreciate individuals. I appreciate Freddie because he still one of my closest friends and he's been a big supporter of me and I've learned a lot from him. I think what happens when you do so many great things you are held up to that forever. So Freddie's always being held up to Freddie in 1969 or Freddie in 1975 and he's just Freddie. Sonny Rollins is Sonny Rollins. I read one time where someone wrote [complaining that] Sonny only played two hours because in the past he's played three hours. Why not just appreciate that he played those two hours?

But that's what happens when you do something really great. Guess what, that's what you're held up to. So you're only as good as the last thing you done.

That’s a little cruel isn’t it?

I guess it's cruel but that's the way the game is played. So when you get into the arena and your Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or John Coltrane or whoever, you do the very best you can and you don't worry about the naysayers. Everybody’s got an opinion. The bottom line is your opinion. . . . Let that be your guide.

Since you been out as a solo artist you have had an affinity for the use of jazz organ in your groups. You have played with such masters as John Medeski, Larry Goldings and most recently with Dr. Lonnie Smith. What attracts you to this old school format?

Well Dr. Lonnie was first before the other guys that you mentioned. He was the first organ player I recorded with. There was a lot of jazz records in the house and my mother was a big fan of the saxophone. In terms of John Coltrane she liked how smooth he was in terms of fluidity. My father liked saxophone, but he like Gene Ammons. Gene Ammons did a lot of organ records. So I grew up with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt together and Jack McDuff , Big John Patton, Jimmy Smith. Most of the time when I'm doing something I kind of hear the artist and then I can go after the particular artist. I like the organ, but I hear Dr. Lonnie more so than just have the organ there. More so Dr. Lonnie’s sound or on the other records John Medeski’s [sound] or . . . Larry Golding's [sound].

How did your relationship with Dr. Lonnie start?

I met Dr. Lonnie when I was with Art Blakey. I've known him from that period of time. I was a big fan of Lou Donaldson, another close person who's been supportive. I also did a pretty extensive tour with Dr. Lonnie, drummer Idris Mohammed and a guitarist named Dave Stryker. That was the first long-term tour we had done. . . . I appreciate his artistry, very much and I am a fan.

Unlike many of your fellow sax players, you have incorporated vocalists into your recordings. Lisa Fischer and Eve Cornelious come to mind. Many saxophonists seem to avoid vocalists in their groups. What is it that you like about working with vocalists?

Well I have been spoiled. The first tour I did with Art Blakey in Brazil, we were opposite Sarah Vaughan. Later the first CD I did on Blue Note, the producer was Betty Carter and the vocalist on that CD was Diane Reeves. Later I did a CD and Cassandra Wilson was the vocalist on one of my tracks. . . . So I have just been a big fan of vocals. Most of the musician’s that I know from yesteryear or even the great ones today talk about how important words are and the lyrics are. So I've always had a willingness to . . . want to be around a great song stylist in terms of lyrics.

Very few saxophonists actually work with vocalists. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman come to mind, but not many.

Sonny Rollins did a great record with Earl Coleman. . . . Most all of these people that we mentioned like vocals. Charlie Parker, as told to me by Jimmy Cobb, was interested in doing something with Dinah Washington . . . and he did great recordings with little Jimmy Scott. All these musicians . . . they all have a great love for vocals.

How do you determine the format of instrumentation that you want to hear prior to cutting an album? Is it a function of who was available or do you have a specific instrument format in mind?

It’s never who's available. I always consider who I want to play with [first]… and that determines who I call. More so I think of the individual, then comes the instrument.

One review of your album Easy Does It described it as a session that emoted this sense of everyone having a good time, having fun and making music. Is it always an exercise of joyful creation in the studio?

Not always but most of the time it is. I don't think that recording was any different than me listening to Cannonball [Adderley] talking to musicians before [one of his recordings]. They all went in there, were good friends and they had good times. I just can't believe that Kind of Blue wasn’t a lot of fun for them at that time.

Serious as it was?

Well how you determine what is serious? Why is it serious? It's hard to qualify what serious is. Having a relationship with Jimmy Cobb, who is the last musician alive that was at that session, I don't think he would say that. So it just depends. Somebody says A Love Supreme is serious, well it's serious in the focus and its dedication. . . but it's hard to say. At the end of the day it's a swinging record. But that would be a question I love for you to ask Jimmy [Cobb] some time.

It's been said that you are a believer in Duke Ellington's sentiment that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Within the context of good music, in your opinion what factors makes good music really great and how do you try to achieve great music?

I think that [Duke’s sentiment] works for me. That's a question with no one particular answer. All I know is that really, really great music is honest. The first thing you have to do is be honest. When you are honest to yourself, you can be honest to the listener. You can be honest to your fellow musicians. You can be honest to whatever it is your trying to deliver.

You have been on the faculty of SUNY Purchase as an assistant professor of Jazz education. Are you a student of jazz is history and do you still teach?

I do not teach at [SUNY] Purchase any more, that ended in September. I am a fan of it [jazz history] because I was a student. I was supplied information from Art Blakey. In some ways the schools have kind of taken on what I was fortunate to be the last part of. Which is being part of the group, or unit or band and having a great bandleader deliver and support you and kind of give you the tricks of the trade, give you on-the-job training while he took you all over the world. It's becoming somewhat different now. There are not as many bands, so more musicians tend to go to college. There are a lot of great artists who are in the universities teaching

I remember when Art Blakey, we found out that he was ill, we were young people and emotional about it, he said listen….” if you mention my name once a day I'll live forever.”

Many accomplished musicians have a difficult time financially and they find some rewards in the halls of academia. More importantly they get something out of teaching. What did you get out of teaching?

I still do [teach], I just don't teach at [SUNY] Purchase. I still do a lot of master classes. The statement that you made that allowed musicians are not financially successful, I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. There are a lot of people in general who are not financially successful. That's because, the one thing, they spend more than they make. That's a problem with society…

In your experience has race ever trumped talent in the selection of a player for a particular group?

The fact that you mention race; race is an issue in this country and in the world, but for me, I would rather look in the mirror. If I get a gig or I didn’t get an opportunity I don't want to say, if I had only been that color or if I’d only been in this situation that he was in, because I've been asked that before. I’m always a firm believer in you get what you deserve. That doesn't mean that someone deserves not to be successful. Sometimes. . . I look at myself and say . . . What did I do wrong? Not necessarily wrong but how can I make a better decision in the future or better choices? I like to feel that it all boils down to choices. It's having vision for yourself and trying to see that thing through . . . and being willing to make some mistakes. As Art Blakey said to me . . . 'If your not making any mistakes I know you're not trying!'

Have you ever heard it expressed that jazz music was a type of music that could only be truly played by African Americans and not everybody?

Not really. . . . If you're doing something and you really connected to what you trying to do it doesn't really matter what anybody else's says anyway. I will say this: the music that were talking about it is based on the African-American lifestyle. There's no denying that . . . . Art Blakey said . . . 'Once an idea has been established or presented to the world,' and this is a quote from him, 'it's available to the world to utilize.' But, show some respect and give some credit to where the music came from. . . . It doesn't mean that you have to be African-American to enjoy it or African-American to play it. Anyone can enjoy it and anyone can play it and it's been supported by non African-American people, to a great degree. So we need all those parts, and again it's not wholly African-American. To be an African-American means you're part of a lot of different Diasporas, if you will. Because it is always hard in this world, you never get something based on one thing. It's always a series of small things. No it’s more than that and actually the guys or the gals that really win are the people who focused on the subtleties. Because it's not what you see it's what's unseen.

Who have you always wanted to play with but never had a chance?

Many people. Stevie Wonder, Prince, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin. . . . There's a lot of different people.

Is there a new point of departure that you want to explore in your future projects? Like a new musical direction?

It would be hard for me to qualify in words and I don't really know if I have an answer for you. I am trying to develop what you hear me do on Now and trying to develop as an artist.

Where will you be playing next and who will be in your working band?

I'm playing in Boston with the Javon Jackson band, which consists of myself, David Gilmore [guitar], a bassist named Kenny Davis and Rudy Royston a young drummer who I like a lot. Then the next performance I’m doing is a collective group I'm doing with Benny Green . . . at the Iridium. Myself, Benny Green, a bassist named Corcoran Holt, the great Al Foster is the featured guest and another special guest will be Wallace Roney on trumpet. That's the most immediate thing that's coming up in about a week and a half.

Many musicians struggle with music as a business. Some older, extremely talented musicians have found themselves in dire straits after a long and musically successful career. You seem to have figured the business side out pretty successfully. Do you have any words of advice to upcoming musicians about how to handle business?

Remember that it is a business; that's the first thing. It's a great opportunity to play music and to do something your entire life, to do something you have been doing from the time you're a child. Dizzy Gillespie was a great businessman. Eddie Harris was a businessman. Ron Carter is a businessman and they [are all] great artists. I think Miles Davis understood the business. There are a lot of musicians who understand the business, it just depends on what level. Again it gets back to a simple idea. . . . Are you spending more than you're making? It's awareness. It's a cycle, a vicious cycle sometimes. . . . It just goes from one generation to another. There are a lot of people out here speaking to that. Bill Cosby is speaking to [it], in terms of the African-American male, doing some things to better themselves. Go out and get that information; get that book see what he has to say.

He has gotten a lot of flack for it.

Yes, but guess what? He believes in it, he's honest. So he is not really concerned. It all goes back to honest. He is being honest with himself. He is trying to leave the world a better place, so whether you like it or not doesn’t matter. Everybody didn’t like Jesus and he was for good. . . . You can't be liked by all people. You have to feel a certain point that they respect you for stepping out there and trying to be honest for yourself. . . . I don’t have it all figured out but you have to have the vision, and after the vision comes action.

As a family man does the road take its toll and how do you deal with it?

I am trying to find a way to balance business versus non-business. It's a constant challenge, but if you have people in your life who support you and understand what you're trying to do and you try to do your best to support them on the other side, you can work it out.

Your only 42 years old so you have a whole lot of music left to play. Do you have any personal goals and how do you want to be perceived by the listeners and your peers?

I have a lot of goals. Some I probably don't want to share. . . . Sometimes you start sharing it and you jinx yourself. But I definitely have goals. Some within the next few months and some that will be over the next two or three years. Personal commitments to myself in regards to being a better individual and I hope that doesn't come off corny but really I'm just trying to grow and do better on a daily basis.

Regarding what my peers and friends think. I want them to think what they want to think. . . . I just hope they would see Javon as an honest person, one who's trying to do good, one who's trying to get more than he receives. Coltrane gave more than he received, not that he didn’t receive, but he gave a whole lot. Sonny Rollins is giving. He seems to be the kind of individual who is committed to giving more than receiving. It's not about receiving as much as it’s about giving.

When you're playing do you believe you channel or tap into something beyond you?

Yeah, I'm very spiritual. So I believe there is something working behind me, or in back of me, I feel there is a energy, there is a spirit that is being delivered. It’s always there.

On your latest release with Christian McBride, Jimmy Cobb and Cedar Walton called New York Time you played a straight ahead style with these masters in a traditional quartet format. How did this come about?

It's not my record. It's a collaborative record, but it’s really a Jimmy Cobb record. But we all supported the recording with our music. I just played what the music called for. I couldn’t play what I played on Now on that CD. It was a Jimmy Cobb conceived idea. That band will be performing next April at the Iridium.

Do you find yourself seeking out some of the older players from time to time and is it inspirational?

Absolutely, yes to both. I seek them out and I look forward to opportunities to play with them. If I get a call phone call from a Cedar Walton or I get a phone call from a Ron Carter I am elated! I try to do my best to be available.

With the younger guys like Christian McBride and Benny Green is there more of a sense of exploration and more dynamism?

No. Energy can be different, but I wouldn't say it's any less dynamic [with the older musicians]. I mean it wasn’t any less dynamic playing with Elvin Jones than playing with anyone else.

How did the Jackson/Green project come about?

Last year Benny did a tour with me and after we finished he said we had a lot of fun and we should sit down and talk about doing something again maybe together, something collaborative. So we sat down and had dinner over it. We decided that we would try it. Let's get together periodically and played together, because we had played with each other quite a bit with Art Blakey and later Freddie Hubbard.

Any surprises for your fans coming up?

[I] did some touring with Les McCann, he did some touring with me, right now we're in the midst of planning some extensive touring with Les and the Javon Jackson band. So I am looking forward to that and some other ideas I am trying to work on. I don't want to jinx them but [I have] some special projects that are in the works. I try to keep things moving forward, keep pushing and trying to keep challenging myself.

Well thank you Javon, we appreciate your time and candor.

January 16, 2008 · 2 comments

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OctoJAZZarian Profile: Clark Terry




For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is trumpeter Clark Terry.



by arnold jay smith

Like his idol, Louis Armstrong, trumpeter, flugelhornist, vocalist, bandleader Clark Terry wants only to be an entertainer. “Louis said it should be fun,” Terry said. “As long as (Louis) was making people feel good he was happy.”


                         Clark Terry, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


Indeed, Louis repeated that credo to anyone who would listen: close friends & acquaintances, informal gatherings & large audiences, even on recordings & at private parties. That was some of Clark’s reasoning when he began “mumbling,” his patented –well, it should be-- method of vocalizing, part scat, part vocalese, nonsensical patter which sounds like scatter logical dialects. But it’s always tasteful, if whimsical, fun.

It began in the bars of his native St. Louis, Mo. He calls them “stein bars.” “The piano player didn’t get paid, normally,” he told me. “Just keep putting steins of beer on the piano.” He always played in F#.” (Not your normal vocalist’s key.) “He took requests and invited singers to sit in. It didn’t matter what they sang so long as it was in F#. The rest was unintelligible, anyhow. You know, those steins.”

His legacy, of course, is his horn playing; the kind of playing that has recognized signatory power after only a note or so. He’s actually talking through the horn. “Anyone who plays can sing,” he said. “Even if we don’t have voices.” He was thinking of Louis. “Ella (Fitzgerald) couldn’t play, but she wanted to sound like an instrument. Anyone she sang with treated her as another instrument in the band. His stylized mumbling came from a Dick Tracy comic strip character whose over-his-head balloons carried hieroglyphics instead of language. Clark used it on the Johnny Carson show when the band was asked by the audience to play some obscure campfire song as part of the “stump the band” segment. Again, fun prevailing.

“When we lived in Corona, Queens near Dizzy Gillespie Diz and I would walk over to Pops’ (Louis Armstrong) house and ring the bell. Lucille, Louis’ wife, would peek through the hole and turn to Pops and say to her husband, ‘It looks like Diz and Clark are here to get their batteries charged.’” And that’s what it was. “We would sit around and listen to Pops spin stories.” Clark remembered sitting under a picture of Louis sitting on the potty, pants around his ankles looking out at you with the caption, ”Leave it all behind you.” It was an advertisement for a fierce laxative called Swiss Kris, which Louis endorsed, a box of which remains in the medicine cabinet of the spot marked Louis Armstrong House in Corona.

It was at one of those informal get-to’s when Pops said to Clark, ”You should sing more.” An indirect result was the first formal mumbles recording, The Oscar Peterson Trio + One.

Peterson had just passed away at the time of our informal telephone chat. “It was essential to know and play with Oscar Peterson,” Clark said. “We had this gag when we didn’t like the piano player. I would move to the piano and bump whoever it was off the bench saying, ‘Get lost’ and proceed to play. One time at the Blue Note (NYC) I did that when OP was at the piano [if you can imagine anyone doing such as thing]. He laughed so hard he nearly fell off the bandstand.” (The piano was close to the edge.)

Clark related that Peterson, riddled by painful arthritis, would play as treatment. So instead of curtailing his performing schedule he increased it. Only a stroke would finally limit him, and only his left hand at that.

While mumbles was a lark which became a CeeTee trademark, other experiments involved his horns. An album called Top ‘n’ Bottom Brass featured Clark’s trumpet and flugelhorn and Don Butterfield’s tuba. (Hence the title.) On it Clark played a tune called “Blues for Etta.” “Etta was the mother of a sax player I knew some time ago,” he remembered. “I played it on only the mouthpiece, no horn. It was a way you used to practice to strengthen your chops. It was also something different like playing two horns at once, or playing upside down.” Which he does to make his sets more fun.

Personally, whenever I saw the Clark Terry name on any LP it was in my figurative shopping cart, whether it was with Count Basie –he was a member of that transitional small group-- Duke Ellington –the spectacular ‘50s-‘60s band-- or just some studio backup group. If CT was in it you knew the arranger, producer, or booker was astute enough to record more than just musical wallpaper.

One such person was the late Bob Thiele who produced more than a few jazz recordings with and for his wife, the late Teresa Brewer. “The trick you need to remember is to stay out of the singer’s way,” Clark said. “We were with Teresa in Europe recording some of Louis tunes. There was a whole bunch of trumpet players each featured [on a different Armstrong favorite]. One of the players was [a young] Nicholas Payton who came on like gangbusters.” Clark intimated that Payton was in danger of losing the gig. “[After a couple of unsuccessful takes] I called him over to the side and told him to lay back; don’t overpower her. She’s the star,” advice which Clark learned from decades of accompaniment from as long ago as the riverboats.

“In racist St. Louis a form of communication was the Mississippi River and its entertainment boats,” Clark explained. “While I was too young to play on them, they came to town and stayed for a week. One booking agent was trumpeter Dewey Johnson and his Musical Ambassadors. The deal was ‘cheap booze, living and ladies,’ accent on the ‘cheap.’”

In one of those riverboat bands led by the legendary Fate Marable “if you arrived late for a gig you ’got the ax,’ literally, Clark remembered. “When you arrived at the bandstand there was the boat’s fire ax on your seat and you knew you were fired. That’s how that expression originated.”

Across the Mississippi from St. Louis, MO. is East St. Louis, IL, birthplace of Miles Dewey Davis. Dewey, as he was called, was not named after Dewey Johnson as Clark initially thought, but after his father. Clark remembers the young Dewey very well.

“Miles’ teacher [at Lincoln High School], Elwood Buchanan, pulled my coat to him,” Clark said. “We were then all fans of Harry James, who was very popular. Miles loved James’ vibrato and would play everything like that. Buchy would wrap paper around a ruler and hit him [to get him out of the vibrato habit].” And now we know how Miles got his vibrato-less style. Lest we forget that the award-winning Milesian dress code was a result of his admiration for Clark’s sartorial splendor.

“Miles played Heim mouthpieces which were a favorite of symphony player and teacher Joe Gustav,” Clark continued. Dizzy Gillespie heard of Gustav’s teaching prowess so he went to him for some lessons. Clark: “Diz played some fast runs as only he could to Gustav’s amazement considering those puffed cheeks. Gustav asked how long he had been playing like that. Diz hesitated then replied, ‘All my life.’ [The great] Gustav turned away and said, ‘Just keep doing it and get the hell out of here.’”

Clark and the as yet pre-bop Miles’ paths crossed many times thereafter each time eliciting a tangential tale from Clark. “We were working Carbondale, IL with one-legged band leader Benny Reid. Miles was there with Buchy’s [Lincoln High] band to play for a bunch of girls dancing around a Maypole. Miles liked that, all those girls. Our band was staying in a rooming house. Reid would get up an hour earlier than us and eat all our food. So one morning we got up two hours earlier and hid his peg leg, and ate all his food. You could hear him stomping around upstairs looking for his leg.”

Another encounter with Miles was at a downtown St. Louis club called the Elks, a steep climb to a loft area. Miles was there with Eddie Randall’s band. “I heard something I had never heard before coming from upstairs. I raced up all those stairs and found out it was Miles.”

The term “downtown” has special meaning for St. Louis residents. The West End was considered high class,” Clark explained. “’Downtown‘ meant something else; West Enders kind of looked down on us. I went to Vashon High, a Downtown school; my friends Ernie and Jimmy Wilkins went to Sumner, a West End school.” That didn’t stop the Terry/Wilkins team from writing and playing some of jazz’s great charts for Terry’s Big B-a-d Band over many decades. “Ernie’s first chart for his own band was ‘Forrest Fire,’ written for [another St. Louis native] Jimmy Forrest, Clark noted. “The piano player was Charlie Fox, who we called ‘Sluggo,’ comic strip Nancy’s boy friend. He was built like a fire plug: short and strong. The bass player was Wendell Marshall, who later replaced his cousin Jimmy Blanton in the Ellington band.”

When I asked this truly legendary man about regrets he readily replied, “The piano. I never had access to one so I never learned how to play. I could have done more writing and arranging.”

Perhaps that left more time for other delights. During my salad days I would travel throughout Europe often passing Clark in railroad stations and airports. We’d wave and he would yell the name of some restaurant in some city he had just visited. I frequently followed his gustatory advice.

As to now, “I am unprepared to cope with road any longer. Just trying to get through the day with personal stuff, you know the private function things. There is one thing though: I love kids. I don’t want to do to them what was done to me. One time I went to a trumpet player to learn how to develop my lower register. He told me to go home and practice sitting straight up in front of a mirror, grit my teeth and wiggle my left ear. I think I heard him say as I left, ‘That ought to hold him for a while.’ I don’t ever want to be that way. My home is like a school: whoever drops in gets a lesson.”

Just like Louis.

Clark Terry’s web site is www.clarkterry.com and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.

January 11, 2008 · 14 comments

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In Conversation with Maria Schneider

by Eugene Marlow

In the annals of jazz history there are a few notables who are so well known and respected that the mere mention of a first or last name or nickname immediately identifies them. “Pops,” ”Bird,” “Benny,” “The Judge,” “Duke,” “Miles,” “Tatum,” “Evans” are a few that come quickly to mind. In more recent times, particularly in New York Circles, mention the name “Maria” and people know who you are talking about: Grammy award-winning composer, arranger, conductor and educator Maria Schneider.




                                             Maria Schneider

                                      Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Like Ziegfield Follies star Eddie Cantor many years before, it has taken Maria several decades to become a hit, seemingly, overnight. But this slight of frame bundle of musical creativity has established herself as a major force in the world of jazz composition, in some ways transcending the genre. Observing her at a rehearsal of the Maria Schneider Orchestra bears testimony to the impact of her centered and focused presence. At times conducting as if in a dance, at others leading her band of players with a Bruce Lee sharpness, she moves as though envisioning a scene in her head as she conducts, and the music is spontaneously transmitted from her heart and mind to the players in an instant. Each note in each composition counts, despite the room she gives her players to improvise. There is a deep connection with her musicians, a relationship she works at. She is at once encouraging, smiling, rewarding, acknowledging. She takes pleasure in her players. And the feeling is reciprocated. The musicians enjoy and respect the music —- it is no mere gig. The feeling is palpable. When there is a problem, a mere glance from Maria is enough for a change to be made.

The music itself defies standard definitions of jazz. The inner musical lines reflect her own inner voices. The music is full of characteristic “Schneiderisms”: undulating waves of piano to forte to piano, especially in the brass, and highly textured orchestrations evoking visual imagery and musical colors. It is very personal music.

In a recent conversation, Schneider discussed her approach to her work, the inspiration behind her music, as well as her aspirations and plans for the future.




I was listening to the “Sky Blue” album again and I wrote down some words to describe it. I want to use “Sky Blue” as a jumping off point because I want to talk to you about you as a composer and how you get to your material. So, here are some words and please respond to these words. You tell me if I’m on target here or not: Contemplative. Personal. Moody. Serious. Searching. Reaching. Feminine. Emotional waves. Expansive. Symphonic. Mahlerian. Filmic. Full of musical scenes. Very American. Great use of brass. The question I want to ask you is: How much of your material is autobiographical? That’s really two questions. Do those words describe you as a composer?

It’s hard to say because when I write music, more and more I realize I follow my music, rather than lead it. Years ago, I had a conversation with Brazilian-born composer-guitarist Egberto Gismonti. You should listen to his music. You’ll flip out. You’ll just love it, I know. He said, “You should never lead the music. You must follow the music.” I didn’t really know what he meant then, but I’m starting to know what he meant now.

I think my music tells me what it is and very often it’s something about my life. And it’s either going back in time or it’s just expressing where I am in the moment. So I would say it’s very autobiographical, but some of it is real time autobiography, some is like a diary almost. And then some is a kind of historic autobiographical. I don’t know why or how or if this is similar to other people, but a lot of times when I sit down to write, I’m not thinking about writing about anything. Like, “Oh, I’m sad. I’m going to write a sad piece now.” That’s simplistic, but it isn’t like that. It’s more like I sit down to write and sounds come out a lot of times in the way a daydream will just come up. You’ll be walking and all of a sudden, you just find yourself thinking about a certain person or something comes up.


                                                           Maria Schneider
                                                      Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

A lot of times when I’m writing, as I’m coming up with the music, some scene will come up in my head and I’m not even consciously looking to imagine what I’m going to be thinking about when I’m writing. I can find the subject, but a lot of times as that scene comes up in my head, as I’m working on the music, the music becomes almost like a film score to that thing. And then before I realize it, I’m consciously writing about memory or I’m writing about something that happened. So it’s like the music conjures up a memory and then the memory feeds the music. And it almost feels as if some past memory wants to be manifested into something to be shared which for me means music.

Do you ever feel you ever get in the way of the music?

I don’t know. I hope not. Sometimes I feel certain limitations. When I was writing “Cerulean Skies,” I had ideas about a certain freedom and what I wanted the music to be and I was wondering if I had the technical capability to get across the feeling I wanted. Sometimes I feel limited -- that the music wants to be more than I want to make it.

Your music sounds very flowing as if it’s easy, as if one idea flows into the other, very casually. It doesn’t sound forced. It sounds very natural. Is it because you’re that disciplined in the writing of the music?

What you’re talking about is incredibly hard work, to make the transitions and everything feel navigable and like it just happened. That isn’t to say you don’t want surprise in your music, but you want the kind of surprises that feel like you want them to happen. That is just very, very, very difficult. It does not come naturally to create those changes and those shifts, and all of a sudden you’re in a new place; but it feels like it just flows into it. It’s very difficult.

Every once in a while, you’ll come up with a transition or something that comes easy. I’m sure you’ve experienced that in your own composing. Some things just come easy and you’re like, “Oh, I’m a genius.” You know? And then the next minute, you turn around and you just for the life of you can’t figure out how to get from point A to point B in a logical way. And it’s very, very difficult. I really struggle as a composer. And I’m happy if the music sounds free because I don’t want the music to feel the way I feel when I’m writing it. I want it to feel the way I feel behind the writing of it. But I think a lot of my complexities in writing music aren’t that writing music is so difficult. And maybe it’s like you said, I get in the way of the music. That’s my own psychology. “Do I get in the way of my music?” My own self-doubt gets in the way of the music.

What doubts do you have even at this point in your career?

Plenty, plenty. That I’m going to write a horrible piece and that the people who commissioned it are going to be dissatisfied and I’m going to embarrass myself and the whole band and everybody in the universe is going to laugh at me. Everything that everybody else worries about, I worry about. At this point if I write not the greatest piece, it’s not going to destroy my entire reputation or whatever, but I want every piece to be something special. With every piece I’m trying to reach further and further and I always feel like we get further and further, but there’s an infinite distance to go. It’s like going around a circle. We’re just at a different point in the circle.

How do you get yourself out of the way then? How do you deal with those doubts? How do you push them aside so you can get to the work?

The best is if I can just get the enthusiasm for the idea, if I can forget myself and make it about the music and not about me. If I can just get myself to express what I’m expressing and forget about how I’m being perceived. It’s the same as like public speaking. Years ago, when I was in high school and we’d have to read in school out loud I used to get so nervous my voice would shake. I couldn’t breathe. It was horrible. You probably can’t believe that because on the mike at a performance I’m so bordering on obnoxious and inappropriate -- and maybe not even bordering on it. It seems probably very easy for me to speak to a room of people, but when I was a kid, it was not.

I had a girlfriend who had been a Miss Aquatennial Queen in Minnesota. I think she was probably 16 years old or 17 at the time and she had to give all these speeches all over the place for various groups and I was like, “Cathy, how do you do that?” And she said, “When you speak, you have to just think about the message. If you start thinking about yourself and how you’re being perceived, you’re going to implode, but you have to think about what you’re getting across.” And I realize it’s the same in anything, in writing or just being natural. If you just go to your heart and you’re just expressing, your self-doubt goes away. The minute you start thinking about how they are perceiving you and you get out of your center, you’re lost. It’s probably like martial arts or gymnastics or skating. You have to be centered. You have to know where your center of gravity is for everything. And in writing music, or creating, your center of gravity is this elusive spot in yourself. It’s this point in yourself where you’re highly alert to your ideas and your energy is really there. It’s very much internal. I really think it’s almost learning to meditate is learning to write music.

Am I correct in saying that your music has become increasingly symphonic, broader?

I think so. Not consciously so, but I think it is.

I remember you telling me once you had gone to a Mahler Concert. I don’t remember which one of the symphonies. But it gave me the sense that even then you were reaching for that kind of sound, that kind of concept in writing for your orchestra.

I’ve had more people say that the “Sky Blue” album reminds them of Mahler and I’m not sure why. There are people who know every Mahler symphony well. I’m not one of them. So it certainly isn’t conscious. I should really listen carefully to Mahler and see what people are hearing, because you’re not the first person who’s said that.

I love trying to make my big band sound like an orchestra, not like a big band, getting all these subtle colors out of the group. I don’t want my group to sound like a big band because to me a big band doesn’t have a lot of emotional subtly and expression in it. It’s got power and energy and it’s fun and it can be beautiful, but it’s not often very moving and I want my music to be very expressive and very moving.

Why?

Because that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s the reason I write: to express, to say something. It’s like storytelling for me.

Is this what you’re always reaching for? To try to tell some kind of a story?

I don’t think it always is; because there are pieces on the album that have no story, so it’s not specifically a story. But I’m just wishing to share a sensibility. All I know is that if I’m not doing it for too long, I’m not happy and if I’m doing it too much, I’m also not happy because I’m stressed. It’s just one of those things. It is who I am at this point. And writing these pieces, it’s like a person who just can’t keep from having babies. They just keep coming.

Is there something you’re consciously aware of that you’re trying to get to in your music or are you just tapping into some creative drive and it comes out as a musical composition?

It’s completely not premeditated. There’s nothing I’m trying to do. I have no idea what’s coming next. I used to really panic about that, thinking I don’t know what I want to do, maybe there’s nothing else. I’ve just grown to trust that there’s a spring there and whatever comes out needs to come out. With each of my six albums, I didn’t really plan to write them as an album. But each album has a certain cohesiveness about it and I think the cohesiveness comes because what I’m putting on these albums, what I’m actually writing is sort of a chronology of my life. So the pieces that came about during, for example, the Concert in the Garden album, that music was probably largely influenced maybe by having gone to Brazil. For some reason I was getting deeply into dance. I’m not sure, but there’s something those pieces have in common.

This album, Sky Blue, is something else. I think the music on this album is probably emotionally my most provocative and I’m not really sure what that’s about. Maybe in five years, I’ll look back. Somebody asked me what music I’d been listening to in an interview and I said, “I’ve been listening to a lot of singers.” And then all of a sudden I realized that’s a real trait of this album, the melodies are simple and singable.

I think you’re right.

And I think it has to do with because I’ve been going through a phase of listening to singers singing simple things, and not necessarily jazz singers. I think whatever you immerse your life in in terms of either what you do, what kind of conversations you have, the way you live, emotionally where you’re at, with friends or family or your own life or whether your healthy or ill or what -- all these things come into your world and it creates something. I can’t know what I want to work towards because I don’t know where I’m going to be. I’ve lived long enough to know that you really can’t predict what things hit your life from one day to the next.

That is true.

The music follows that. To predict where you are creatively is kind of crazy.

What are you working on now?

I’m not. The album had me completely, insanely busy until the end of July [2007]. And then we started the whole publicity thing because it’s very important that I pay for this thing. So there were a lot of interviews and then I started this marathon of traveling and touring, working with a lot of other groups, and clinics. And I was going to be doing a huge flamenco project next summer and I pulled out of it. I even talked about it in interviews and I was very excited about it, but I realized I just overdid it. I really overdid it this year, actually the last two years. And I needed some space in my life.

So right now I’m just trying to catch up on endless desk work and I’ve been just in my apartment getting rid of things, books, and I want to organize all my music. I don’t even know what I have here. I’ve got so many CDs here that it’s such a pile. It becomes this blob and I know there is all this great music there that I want to listen to. So I just have to have some space in my life for those things. I’ve just been like a production machine here for the last couple of years.

You also had a very successful last couple of years. Several commissions, an armful of awards from the Jazz Journalists Association, a Grammy, and now another Grammy nomination for Sky Blue and another for one of the cuts on the album, “Cerulian Skies.”

Yeah. It’s been great. It’s been really great, but I just need a little bit of a rest and I’m trying to figure out what gigs and commissions I’m going to take. Today, a commission came in that will be something I can actually use for the orchestra. I’ve had some really unusual people talk to me, but I’m going to hesitate to say what it is because I don’t want to do that thing of talking about something and then pulling out from it again -- that is things other than the big band, things that include strings and stuff like that are possible in the future.

A closing question. Ever since I’ve known you, you seem to be very much in touch with yourself. I don’t mean in an egotistical sense, but very much attuned to yourself and things around you. Am I correct on that? I think that informs your music in some way.

In touch with myself? In what kind of way do you mean?

You don’t ignore yourself.

You’re probably right. Everything I do, from the way I run my business now and the way I do my music, I don’t give it away. In terms of the way I live, I’m very concerned about my house, and my diet and exercising, so I really watch and take care of myself. I expend a lot of energy. When I go and work with a group someplace, I expend so much energy, mental energy and kind of heart energy. You meet all these new people, you’re making the music happen and it’s really fun, but sometimes I don’t realize how exhausted I’ve become or how much I’ve depleted myself until I come home. And when I come home, I really have to recharge. And when you’ve always got more work on your plate, it’s very hard to do that.

I’m actually trying to get better about that because I think to some degree I’ve been a little bit out of touch with myself. I’ve been more focused on the project at hand and needing to do this or that, or focusing on that this person expects this or that, and a lot of times I’ll take on all these projects, and my head is spinning when it should really be on me, assessing my energy and asking myself what I truly want to do. I’ve found sometimes I make the mistake of doing things because I’m obligated to it because I told somebody I would do it, therefore I have to do it. I’m not really stopping to think, “Maria, do you really have the energy for this?” I think I have to be more careful about that. So, I’m not sure how much it’s true that I’m so in touch with myself. I’m actually working on being more in touch with myself.

Terrific. You’ve given me enough material for a chapter in a book. Thank you, Maria Schneider

January 05, 2008 · 4 comments

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