The Jazz.com Blog
June 04, 2009 · 0 comments
In this country, you get bragging rights if you were born on the Fourth of July—not to mention a holiday to go along with your gifts every year. Louis Armstrong even celebrated his birthday on Independence Day, although he was actually born on the Fourth of August. But what about the Fourth of June? The Yankee Doodle boy might be unimpressed, but it turns out that the middle of Gemini has some serious jazz mojo going for it. At least Chris Kelsey hopes to convince us of that below. T.G.
I was born on the 5th of June, 1961—not a bad day for sax players, apparently, given that the wonderful Canadian altoist Francois Carrier also debuted that day. A day earlier would've been even better. A trio of great jazz saxophonists—Oliver Nelson, Mark Whitecage, and Anthony Braxton—share a June 4th birthday. Is it a mere coincidence that the three happen to be among my favorite alto saxophonists not named Eric Dolphy—who was, like them, also a Gemini? I'm a natural skeptic, but this is enough to make me consider there might be something to this astrology thing.
The late Oliver Nelson is the first-born of our sax-playing triplets. Nelson is best-known for his classic album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, but he had a varied and distinguished career before and after. Nelson was born in 1932 to a musical family. He played professionally around his hometown of St. Louis in the '40s before landing a gig with Louis Jordan's big band in 1950 and moving to New York. He stayed in the Apple for a year with Jordan's band, after which he joined the Marines. Upon his discharge from the service, he returned to St. Louis and attended Washington University, where he studied composition and music theory. He got his bachelor's degree from Washington in 1957. A year later he received his Master's from Lincoln University.
After college, Nelson moved back to New York, where his career took off. He played in the bands of Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davison, and worked as house arranger for the Apollo Theater. He made his first record as a leader—Meet Oliver Nelson—in 1959, and in 1960 recorded a spate of albums for Prestige that went far in establishing him as an original voice on the saxophone, as well as a major new compositional talent. He recorded the seminal The Blues and the Abstract Truth in 1961 and a follow-up, More Blues and the Abstract Truth in 1964, both for Impulse. He continued to record as a leader for Prestige, and his talents as an arranger were called upon by such eminences as Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Mann, King Curtis, Billy Taylor, and many more.
As his career progressed, Nelson played less, and composed and arranged more. He would eventually turn to writing for movies and television more or less full time. Gigs included such films as the Billie Holiday bio-pic, Lady Sings the Blues, the controversial Marlon Brando vehicle, Last Tango in Paris, and such TV shows as The Six-Million Dollar Man and Columbo. His activities activity as a jazz musician waned but did not cease. He continued to make an occasional jazz album. One of them—Stolen Moments, for the defunct Inner City label—masterfully reworked his most famous composition, along with themes by Neil Hefti, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. It was recorded only a few months before he suffered a fatal heart attack on October 28, 1975. He was only 43 at the time of his death.
Nelson's music was always suffused with a blues essence, even while incorporating dense, dissonant harmonies. That fealty to the blues and his markedly distinctive style—both as an improviser and a composer/arranger—went far in making his music special. As a tenor and alto saxophonist, Nelson had no apparent ego. He had a strong, bop-based technique, yet some of his most memorable statements—like his iconic tenor solo on the original "Stolen Moments"—were slow and considered, unflashy in the extreme. Nelson used Eric Dolphy on several of his small-group albums, undoubtedly valuing the mercurial outward-bound woodwind artist's style as a contrast to his own innate laconicism.
The Blues and the Abstract Truth shows that his ability to choose complementary players extended to the rest of the band, as well. Combining mildly disparate improvisers (in addition to Nelson and Dolphy, pianist Bill Evans, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Roy Haynes, and, in a minor supporting role, baritone saxophonist George Barrow) created a unique chemistry that contributed mightily to the music's success. Ultimately, Nelson's selflessness—a devotion to making his individual contributions serve an overarching vision, often his own but not infrequently someone else's—made him a great artist.
A relationship with Eric Dolphy also figured in the musical life of alto saxophonist Mark Whitecage. Their paths crossed in the mid '50s in El Paso, Texas, where Whitecage was stationed while in the Army. Meeting and hearing Dolphy inspired Whitecage to go beyond bebop and find his own creative voice. In his online biography, Whitecage recalls first enountering Dolphy: "One note and I was gone. I was in his camp. He turned me on to Zen Buddhism. He was into meditating. He got me on the right course between him and John Coltrane."
Mark Whitecage was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1937. As with Nelson, music ran in Whitecage's family. His father was a pianist, and by age six, Whitecage was playing alto sax in the family band. He spent his teen years playing in dance bands around his home state, adding tenor sax and clarinet to his arsenal along the way. He joined the Army in '55, had his Dolphy revelation, and returned to Connecticut. He continued developing his own conception of improvisation with local musicians, one of whom was the bassist Mario Pavone. He made his first recordings in the mid-to-late '60s with the vibist Bobby Naughton. He spent much of that decade traveling into New York and connecting with like-minded musicians like the drummer Laurence Cook and clarinetist Perry Robinson.
Whitecage eventually moved to New York where, among other things, he experimented with electronics and participated in the burgeoning loft jazz scene. Robinson introduced him to the multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel, in whose Galaxie Dream Band he played for a ten-year period during the '70s and '80s. He kept up an active free lance life, playing in a variety of contexts, including Robinson's clarinet-centric ensemble The Licorice Factory—a band that over the years also included such stylistically dissimilar clarinetists as Tony Scott, Eddie Daniels, and Kenny Davern. During the '80s, Whitecage also began building sound sculptures and started a group, the Glass House Ensemble, to realize that music.
Whitecage's recording career developed a full head of steam in the '90s. He recorded as a leader for the CIMP and Cadence Jazz labels, as well as his own Acoustics imprint. Collaborators included Anthony Braxton, bassist Dominic Duval, drummer Jay Rosen, trumpeters Dave Douglas and Herb Robertson, among many others. Since 2000 he's worked with The Nu Band, a cooperative group with the trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Lou Grassi. He's also worked closely with his clarinetist/photographer wife, Rozanne Levine, playing in her group Chakra Tuning, as well as The New Reed Quartet, which besides Whitecage and Levine also includes Perry Robinson and Matt Snyder.
Whitecage's skill at successfully negotiating the intersection of straight-ahead and free jazz is one on his greatest strengths. He moves comfortably along a stylistic continuum that ranges from nearly traditional bop-based music to an Ayler-esque pan-tonal expressionism. The Nu Band's latest CD—The Lower East Side Blues (Porter Records)—showcases as well as any of his recordings his ability to synthesize the conventional and unconventional. On "Connecticut Solution," Whitecage solos freely over a Latin groove, grabbing certain elements of the beat and shaking them for emphasis, then casting the pulse aside and filling the space with unfettered abandon. The opening section of "In a Whitecage/The Path" features him on clarinet. Whitecage renders the outré free-time ballad with a tenderness that grows into something more impassioned, whereupon he picks up the alto his turns up the heat in earnest. On the aptly-named "The Last of the Beboppers", Whitecage on alto plays down the intricate head, then segues into a soulful freebop solo—ample evidence that Whitecage bows to no contemporary saxophonist when it comes to flat-out swinging.
Whitecage is the least well-known of our birthday boys, yet in a way he demonstrates the breadth of the jazz tradition better than any of them—"From Ragtime to No Time," to quote the title of an album by the late drummer Beaver Harris. While Whitecage doesn't quite go that far back, he does take the best aspects of every strain of modern jazz to create music of depth and originality. That he's managed to fly under the jazz industry radar for so long doesn't speak well of the movers and shakers.
Anthony Braxton is the rare avant-garde jazz musician who actually got the attention of the industry bigs, if only for a moment. Braxton had a certain oddball charisma; he smoked a pipe, played chess, and in general fostered a certain non-conformist, Einstein-ian persona. His music reflected a similar intellectual/revolutionary bent. In the '70s, the Arista label—at the time, home to such pop acts as Barry Manilow and The Bay City Rollers—signed the idiosyncratic saxophonist/composer and released a series of ambitious albums that were wildly non-commercial, even by jazz standards. Unfortunately, the cash brought in by Manilow and his ilk could apparently support such esoteric product as Braxton's for only so long. Arista ultimately resigned its position as keeper of a public trust and cut ties with Braxton, yet not before he was able to create an astonishingly rich body of work for the label. A boxed set comprising Braxton's entire Arista output was released by Mosaic in 2008.
Born (in 1945) and raised in Chicago, Braxton first started playing music as a teenager. He developed an interest in all kinds of music, even singing in a doo wop group. Influenced by the likes of Paul Desmond, John Coltrane, Warne Marsh, and—yes—Eric Dolphy, he took up the alto sax and began playing jazz. His analytical proclivity drew him to the music of Cecil Taylor, whose music he studied closely. He attended the Chicago School of Music from 1959-63, and from '63 studied philosophy and composition at Roosevelt University. At Roosevelt he met like-minded young experimentalists like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. After a stint in the Army (where he played sax in a service band), he returned to Chicago in 1966 and joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was just then getting off the ground.
The remainder of the '60s saw Braxton involved in a plethora of projects, perhaps most notably the Creative Construction Company, a trio with violinist Leroy Jenkins and trumpeter Leo Smith. He also recorded For Alto for the Delmark label, the first-ever recording for solo saxophone. Braxton lived in Paris for a time, where he performed in a quartet that became known as Circle, with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer
By the '80s, Braxton had lost his major label deal, but nevertheless continued to record and produce innovative music at an astounding rate for labels such as Leo, hatART, Black Saint, and many others. He taught at Mills College in California in the '80s, and later Wesleyan College in Connecticut. In 1994 he was awarded the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, which allowed him to document some of his large-scale projects. Many of those recordings feature his present-and-former students at Wesleyan, where he teaches to this day.
In recent years Braxton's horn playing has often taken a back seat to his composition. Those of us who treasure his quirky and highly individualistic personality as saxophonist are often inclined to look back on his '70s and '80s output, an era when his music was typically more jazz-derived. One of the best examples of Braxton as an out-and-out jazz player (albeit one most comfortable operating way outside the mainstream) can be heard on the album Six Compositions: Quartet on the Antilles label, recorded in 1981. Joined by superb inside/outside rhythm section consisting of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Ed Blackwell, the album is a masterpiece of small ensemble free jazz. His "Composition No. 40B" that leads off the album presents Braxton in the best light as a jazz saxophonist. The tune alternates rather conventional, riff-ish Latin-flavored melodies with an implausibly complex free bop head—the latter consisting of extraordinarily wide intervallic leaps, taken at a very quick tempo. Braxton negotiates the twisted line with his usual rough-hewn authority, before embarking on a blistering bop-but-not-bop solo, full of surprising turns and imbued with a wealth of passion. The latter quality is often overlooked by critics in describing Braxton, yet it's a defining characteristic of his playing. Braxton's sax playing has never been dry and academic; rather, he's unsurpassed at combining arcane thought with visceral feeling.
Indeed, an ability to unite the head and heart is a quality shared by all three of our June 4th'ers. Like Dolphy—who played a role in each of their developments—Nelson, Whitecage, and Braxton have created music that appeals to the most rarified elements of human experience. Their respective music is sometimes vastly different in content, yet remarkably similar in net effect. That's intriguing, at the very least, if not empirical proof that astrology "works." You probably won't see me rushing out to get my horoscope done any time soon, but I'm less liable than ever to dismiss the prospect. It's funny how great art has a way of breaking down one's resistance to acknowledging that, indeed, anything is possible.
This blog entry was written by Chris Kelsey.