The Jazz.com Blog
February 24, 2008 · 2 comments
Jazz.com's arnold jay smith contributes these reminisces on celebrated producer Teo Macero, who passed away last week.T.G.
Jazz history tells us of many surprising, prophetic discoveries. We have Louis Armstrong “dropping” his music and scat was born; Hank Crawford “delayed” en route to a CTI recording session and an untested future star Grover Washington, Jr. steps in instead; Wes Montgomery, who could not read music, intimidated by an in-studio string session, so multi-tracking is invented; and Miles Davis getting sick all over a Columbia Records studio while his very cool producer, Teo Macero, takes the band's work and makes a double LP, with some tape and a razor blade.
Macero, who died last Tuesday at 82 on Long Island, NY, did not limit his career to Miles, it just feels that way. Nor did he flay away Sweeny Todd-like exclusively in the electric Milesian era. Most accounts gloss over his accomplishments for other performers.
Johnny Mathis was a school teacher who was also an aspiring Olympic track star. On the day he was supposed to go for official and final tryouts, his manager called with the opportunity of a lifetime. It seems that a saxophonist-turned-producer had heard the young Mathis in a jazz club in Boston and wanted to do some test pressings, on that same fateful day. Mathis told me that story when I mentioned a junior high English teacher of mine who was also a track star. “Yeah, we were supposed to go down there together, “Mathis remembered. “I stood him up.” Macero 1; Olympics 0.
Into the session Teo brought some of the established jazz stars of the day. The LP went nowhere and was quietly withdrawn as Mathis and manager felt his diction was imperfect. (They were right.) Macero and jazz out, strings and schmaltz in. Recorded history, and Guinness Book numbers (“All Time Greatest Hits”) were in pursuit.
Miles and George Avakian recorded their first LP for Columbia, which could not be released because Miles owed Prestige three LPs. Davis fulfilled his obligation with that first John Coltrane quintet in a marathon studio outing, from which came Relaxin’, Workin’ and Cookin'. Columbia then released Round About Midnight, but Prestige countered by issuing their projects one at a time. You can’t imagine what a boon that was to a certain coterie of very young jazzers. Macero produced most of the rest of Columbia Miles, both acoustic and electric.
The Miles-Macero relationship was among the first in the producer-era from which came such expressions as “we’ll fix it in the mix,” and “production overkill.” On the other hand recording, studio electricity and electronics became art in the hands of Macero. He believed that just because his canvas and brushes did not require fruit or models he was nonetheless creating art. All he needed were the raw materials – the tracks - and long after the musicians left the studio he’d cut and paste, the finished product much like a collage.
Musicians didn’t always appreciate his methods, however. There’s a telling scene in the movie Straight, No Chaser where Thelonious Monk specifically asks his producer, Macero, to turn on the tape machine while Monk warmed up. Macero disobeyed and Monk was so inconsolable that he would not sit down at the piano until after much cajoling. Monk was right; that take was the best of the day.
To his credit Macero did produce some of Monk’s best big band work. From those sessions came a couple of LPs, my favorite title of which is Who’s Afraid of Big Band Monk? However, the excessive reverb drove me crazy. Other Macero productions included works by Charles Mingus. Teo certainly liked challenges - both musical and personality-wise.
Teo Macero was an accomplished musician and composer in the European classical tradition, as well as jazz and contemporary music. He even produced and played on a jazz version of the Broadway show Guys and Dolls, of which he was particularly proud. We had been friendly enough for him to send me a complete collection (10 CDs) of his contemporary works, some of which are quite exploratory. He was a guest at one of my Jazz Insights sessions at the New School, during which he offered up details no one had heard to that point, inside stuff about Miles, Columbia, and the industry. He also helped set up an interview during Miles’ retirement in 1977 for a children’s show about jazz I was to write. Prior to the visit to Miles’ Upper West Side town house Teo warned me, “Don’t let him take you down to his boxing ring; he will hurt you.” Sure enough, Miles did indeed ask and even as he tugged my arm I remained resolute and did not go down those stairs. Thank you, Teo.
Although we negotiated to have him return to Jazz Insights it never came to pass, and that upset him. “You never said ‘thank you’ for those CDs I sent you (the contemporary music),” he once railed at me in public. “You haven’t asked me back to your (expletive) class,” at another time. I was near tears each time. But I was consoled by same of his friends, who noted that he was by that time, shall we say, not the Teo Macero of old.
The Teo Macero legacy, of course, will be the Miles razor tapes. He decried the issuance of every burp and hiccup of those “complete” sessions. He claimed that it took away from the art which he crafted, showed all the little pieces prior to their proper placement. To me they show how a genius works, but they do get boring and redundant. Nice packaging, though; I think he was proud of that.
This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith