The Jazz.com Blog
January 25, 2009 · 7 comments
Last week, after watching history unfold on live TV, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon was shocked, SHOCKED to discover he'd been bamboozled by the spectacle of great musicians feigning their honorable craft. Now sufficiently recovered to scold all concerned, Alan Kurtz reminds us that jazz musicians have endured far worse than winter's chill to practice their art. Readers are invited to comment either below or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. But please, we cannot in good conscience accept prerecorded submissions. T.G.
It's hard to decide what's worse. First, as witnessed by hundreds of millions across the globe, Chief Justice John Roberts bungles the simple 35-word oath of office with which he tries to solemnly swear in Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States. This transforms what should have been a dignified formality into an embarrassing, endlessly rebroadcast caricature of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.
Then comes news that famed classical artists Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriella Montero and Anthony McGill faked their chamber-music moment in the noonday sun, pantomiming Milli Vanilli-style to a recording ostensibly because subfreezing temperatures at the outdoor Inauguration ceremony interfered with the tuning of their oh-so-delicate instruments.
What a bunch of sissies!
Jazz musicians have long performed under far worse conditions. A quick search of jazz.com's track reviews reveals dozens of unforgettable live recordings: some done in nightclubs, others at outdoor festivals, and all in less than ideal circumstances.
First, let's dispose of low temperature as a pretext for sham performances. You want cold, Itzhak? You want frigid, Yo-Yo? Well, try playing in Carnegie Hall on Christmas Day 1938, where Paul Whiteman pulled out Ellington's "Blue Belles of Harlem" live before one of the coldest audiences on record. Trust me, Yo-Yo, it was enough to turn your belles bluer than Babe the Ox.
In 1953, bebop giants Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach faced a different but no less onerous atmospheric challenge. Most fans know about how Bird flew in, sans his regular horn (which he'd characteristically hocked), and resorted to a Grafton acrylic sax. (Then retailing brand new for less than $100, Bird's toy-like plastic horn was sold at auction by Christie's of London in 1995 for $150,000.) Less well known is how Charles Mingus's bass was adversely affected by the unseasonably sultry May weather. Indeed, the humidity inside Toronto's Massey Hall (which, being Canadian, lacked air conditioning) muffled his sound so thoroughly that Mingus was compelled to later overdub his bass part on "Perdido," with calamitous results. But did Mingus consider prerecording his part that night and faking it onstage? Of course not! The 37 paying customers deserved better, and got it.
Or how about Erroll Garner, up to his elbows in crashing surf during 1955's Concert by the Sea live in Carmel, California? Did the diminutive pianist bail out with backstage tapes? Hah! Ever the trouper, elfin Erroll soldiered on, insisting bravely: "It's All Right with Me."
And don't forget Duke Ellington, fighting off a swarm of locusts at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival to make jazz history with "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue."
Nor did Billie Holiday wilt under the high-intensity 12,000-watt glare of 1957's The Sound of Jazz, telecast live by CBS. Keeping her cool, Billie remained "Fine and Mellow" as always.
Similarly unfazed, Maynard Ferguson rejected entreaties to prerecord at Birdland in 1959 when that cellar club's notoriously fickle barometric pressure prevented him from reaching his customary notes above the melting point of tungsten. Maynard just put his lips together and blew "Oleo."
And for sheer heroism, nothing tops New York Swing sailing through "Till Tom Special" on the high seas during the 1996 Floating Jazz Festival. Even after a ruptured ballast tank flooded the main ballroom, forcing passengers into lifeboats as a precautionary measure, musicians John Bunch, Bucky Pizzarelli and Jay Leonhart refused to abandon their soggy stage. For them, as for jazzmen from time immemorial, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloomy sales could stay them from the swift completion of their appointed choruses.
Skeptics will no doubt accuse me of making a mountain out of an MP3 file. But bear in mind that as recently as 1974, deceptively misused audio technology brought down a sitting President. I'm not suggesting that the 2009 Inaugural charade of four pampered longhair musicians necessarily rises to that level of importance. But it should definitely be investigated. Justice and decency require no less.
When all is said and done, every musician worth his or her salt must be able to look us in the eye and say with conviction, "I am not a prerecording."
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.