The Secret Method for Learning Jazz Piano: Stop 'n Cop

Forty years ago, jazz education hardly existed as a profession. The International Association of Jazz Educators hadn’t yet been created – today it boasts over 8,000 members in 42 countries. The Berklee College of Music, the most jazz-oriented of the major music schools, had not yet been accredited. Back in the day, the very idea that jazz musicians might learn their craft in a classroom would have struck many people as a peculiar concept.

When I learned how to play jazz, my two most reliable teachers were called Trial and Error. I listened intently to recordings and the radio, and went to the few jazz clubs that would allow teenagers to gain admission. I remain eternally grateful to the folks at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Their radio ads on Los Angeles’s one serious jazz station invariably ended with the promise that “minors are always cool at the Lighthouse” – so when my friends and I showed up to check out the action, we tried to live up to the claim by acting with as much cool as we could muster. Down the road at Concerts by the Sea, where bigger name jazz musicians were routinely booked, I would be stopped cold by Howard Rumsey, or one of his employees, before I could get inside the front door.

My big step forward was when I learned how to make half-speed tapes of jazz recordings. Phrases that had previously zipped by in a blur of sound, now became digestible as discernible notes. I studied the solos of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell, among others, in slo-mo, while my classmates were rocking and rolling in hi-fi. Then, in pursuit of the hidden first principles of the music, I went backwards rather than forward, immersing myself in early Louis Armstrong, even earlier King Oliver recordings, Jelly Roll Morton, and ragtime. Then I reversed course and dug into the most futuristic and advanced styles of jazz, but having first filled my ears and trained my fingers with as much of the early jazz tradition as I could cram into them.

But all this was done in isolation. I never even dreamed of finding a jazz teacher. I eventually stumbled upon a few jazz method books, and was actually quite upset when I found that all the advanced chord voicings I had developed by ear with painstaking effort over many months were sketched out in the fourth volume of John Mehagen’s series Jazz Improvisation . How much time I could have saved if someone had shown me those pages in advance! And how unfair that other people could learn these voicing without going through the trouble I had incurred.

My situation was fairly typical. I recall one of the better jazz pianists on the Los Angeles scene telling me how he had learned from the older musicians. They didn’t believe in giving lessons – they laughed at the idea – so he developed a system with them which he called “stop and cop.” “I would get them to sit down at the piano and play a song," he explained, "and when they got to an interesting passage, I would have them stop, and I would ‘cop' [copy or borrow] what they were doing.”

By the time I got to university the situation for jazz studies had hardly improved. For my audition with the Department of Music, I was asked to play a movement from a Beethoven sonata or something at least as difficult. I responded with a rapid-fire version of Scott Joplin’s “The Maple Leaf Rag,” and although I passed muster, my choice of this composition raised eyebrows. I felt distinctly out of place in the Department of Music, where jazz played no part in the degree programs. My formal studies did not advance my jazz knowledge one iota during these years. Even in the midst of a large university campus, I still needed to rely on my own ingenuity, exercises and schemes to expand my knowledge of jazz. I tried to set aside three hours per day for practice, and developed my own methodology on the fly. When I had questions, I turned to my peers -- the other players in the vicinity -- who were the only "experts" available to me. It would take a book to describe all the ways I invented of internalizing the jazz idiom. But I learned the art form this way, and perhaps with a greater intensity (and certainly with more devotion) than if all this technical and practical knowledge had been handed to me in ready-made lessons.

How times have changed! Today jazz education is growing even faster than the demand for jazz recordings, and an aspiring musician can look to instructors, schools, summer programs, play-along records, magazines and books and a host of other tools designed to teach an art form that once existed in isolation from all these trappings of acceptance and nurturing.

But, as Stuart Nicholson points out in his ”Jazz Letter from Europe,” this situation may be even more advanced outside the United States. He offers a fascinating account of a new generation of European jazz players who are equally at home in the world of classical music and jazz -- and primarily due to the structure of music education in their home countries. He quotes Wouter Turkenburg, Head of Jazz Studies at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, who remarks: “All of my students have one hour with a jazz teacher and half an hour with a classical teacher per week. If they fail the classical exams it’s hard for them to continue their study.”

Some will lament this state of affairs, believing that the essence of jazz is resistant to such institutionalization, and fearing that any attempt to adapt “our” music to the methodology of the conservatory will stifle and eviscerate it. On the other hand, a new generation of musicians with such broad backgrounds will invariably create new sounds and styles, and some of these will astonish and delight us. Nicholson looks at several interesting examples of this new type of jazz player in his letter.

I tend to take an optimistic view, but not without some nostalgia for the lost world in which jazz musicians learned by Stop 'n Cop, or turned to those two strict but sufficient teachers, Trial and Error. That pair would never get tenure at a music conservatory, but they taught me well and I still rely on their lessons.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

December 31, 2007 · 2 comments

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A Time to Celebrate . . .

New Years Eve by Alan Kurtz

We are not just closing out the year . . . we are also concluding our first month on the web. Since launching jazz.com on December 10, we've made many new friends and renewed more than a few "auld acquaintances."

We have also celebrated lots of good music in our virtual pages. Below is a list of the tracks we have featured as "Song of the Day" since we opened our doors three weeks ago. Click on the link to read the full review and rating.

Maria Schneider: The 'Pretty' Road
Abbey Lincoln: Throw It Away
Kurt Elling: A New Body and Soul
Al Di Meola: Milonga del Angel
Herbie Hancock & Corinne Bailey Rae: River
Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau: A Night Away
The Bad Plus: This Guy's In Love With You
Stefano Bollani: Don't Talk
Chick Corea and Béla Fleck: Brazil
Jacky Terrasson: You've Got a Friend
Paul Bley: Mondsee Variations I
Stanley Clarke: The Toys of Men
Michael Brecker: The Mean Time
Dave Brubeck: Thank You
Herbie Hancock and Norah Jones: Court and Spark



This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

December 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Something Old, Something New

One of the challenges in covering the jazz world – by blog or review, or with a comprehensive web site – is balancing the space devoted to new music and historical material. I did a quick survey of the most recent jazz magazine to arrive in my mailbox, and found that eight of the nine stories featured on its cover dealt with the a current artist or release. This is fairly typical, I suspect, of the jazz media today. But is it the right balance?

Of course, jazz periodicals have always devoted the vast majority of their pages to what is currently happening on the scene. But this made much more sense back in 1970, when Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and so many other legendary figures were still recording and performing. Back then, a fan could gain a complete understanding of the history of the music simply by visiting the leading jazz clubs on a regular basis. The whole spectrum of the music was available to be experienced first hand. But today, all of the pioneers of the jazz art form are gone, and even most of the masters of post-war jazz are departing from our midst – only a few days ago, we lost Oscar Peterson. In this environment, an approach to covering jazz that focuses solely or primarily on what is happening this week or this month misses much of what is most valuable in the jazz heritage.

In planning jazz.com, our goal has been for a more even balance between covering the best of today and celebrating the legacy of the past. If a typical jazz magazine still puts the mix at 80% (current) and 20% (historical), jazz.com is aiming for something approaching a 50-50 balance. I believe that most media outlets covering jazz will gradually move in a similar direction, realizing that their audience often gets as much enjoyment from Miles as from, say, Chris Botti, or that a good guide to hard bop masterpieces or Kansas City jazz is as valuable as reviews of the best new CDs released this week.

Two daily features at jazz.com attempt to balance these conflicting demands. Five days a week, we pick a “Song of the Day” – highlighting an outstanding new or recent release that deserves to be more widely heard. (A list of our picks for “Song of the Day” since our site opened its doors on December 10 can be found here.) But right next to the “Song of the Day” on our homepage, we celebrate a great historical performance, under the title “A Classic Revisited.” (A list of our choices for “A Classic Revisited” can be found here.) Check these out daily on our home page, immediately below our recent articles, and send us an email with any comments or suggestions for songs you would like to see featured in these slots.

The “Song of the Day” for today is Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” from her recent Abbey Sings Abbey release on Verve. Today's selection for “A Classic Revisited” is Stan Getz’s “I’m Late, I’m Late” from the tenorist's great 1961 Focus session, also on the Verve label.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 27, 2007 · 0 comments

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Essential Modern Jazz Trumpet

More than thirty writers are contributing to jazz.com, but Matt Leskovic hits higher trumpet notes than the rest of us. He can leap tall intervals in a single bound, and can work more magic with a plumber’s helper than a crew of handymen. That puckered look on the face, which only serves the other scribes when they want to give out a Bronx cheer, he gets to call an embouchure. In short, he is our resident expert on the mellifluous sounds produced by a well-honed piece of brass tubing.

Today we are publishing Matt’s ‘Dozens’ contribution – his survey of Twelve Essential Modern Jazz Trumpet Solos. Summing up a half century of trumpet artistry in a handful of tracks is hardly an easy task, but our critic guides us smartly through the expected horn-blowers (such as those famous enough to go by their first names: Miles, Dizzy, Wynton) while also tossing in a few unexpected entries.

We are preparing more trumpet features for publication in early 2008. The stylish Brendan Wolfe, who publishes the best (and perhaps only) blog inspired by the legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke – The Beiderbecke Affair, a highly recommended compendium of quotidian wit and wisdom – will soon be sharing his selections for the essential recordings of that legendary cornetist. I will be offering my insider’s guide to twelve jazz trumpeters you don’t know about, but need to discover. Finally, I will be publishing for the first time the full account of my encounters with the elusive trumpet master Dupree Bolton, and extracts from the only complete interview Bolton ever gave. As they say at Mission Control in Houston: ‘Watch this space.”


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 26, 2007 · 0 comments

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Manfred Eicher and ECM

Record labels come and go, and even those that survive rarely maintain their independence. The ECM label has been around for almost forty years now, and during that time every other jazz label of note has changed ownership at least once. Blue Note, Fantasy, Pablo, Concord, even the giants RCA and Columbia, have been bought and sold, the largest whale-sized mega-labels apparently just as susceptible to these disruptions and transitions as the smallest fish in the sea. But ECM has retained its independence through it all, and not just in terms of who owns the business, but even more obviously in the company’s unwavering commitment to an artistic vision and a set of values.

Manfred Eicher, the founder and creative force behind ECM, has probably exerted as much influence on the jazz world as is possible without playing an instrument. He not only has been the visionary producer guiding important recordings by Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti, and Bill Frisell, among others – but he was also a strong advocate for these musicians before they were widely known in the music world. Time and time again, Eicher has championed musicians off the beaten track – geographically as well as stylistically – and given visibility to brilliant artists who, without Eicher, might never have been able to reach a global audience.

Taking chances on lesser known musicians in this way seems like a risky approach. But somehow Eicher takes out all the risk – at least for the fans purchasing ECM’s recordings. Over the years, I have often bought an ECM release, despite knowing little or nothing about the musicians featured – but I have done so with confidence. ECM has such high quality standards and such a firm commitment to artistry, that I know in advance that is unlikely I will be disappointed by what I hear. And I may just encounter something fresh and exciting that I would never otherwise have discovered. How many jazz labels have ever instilled this degree of confidence in their judgments? How many still are able to do so? Today the answer is, sad to say, very few.

Eicher keeps a low profile. I understand that he hasn’t given a media interview in English in more than five years. Indeed, the ECM label prefers to let its music speak itself. (When was the last time you enjoyed the liner notes on a ECM release?) But Stuart Nicholson, one of the most astute jazz critics writing today, recently returned from Germany where he spent some time in conversation with Eicher. We are delighted to publish this interview on jazz.com. In conjunction with this interview, I am offering my choices for a dozen essential tracks from ECM’s first decade. Finally, Stuart is also sharing with us his Jazz Letter from Europe, which is the first of what we hope will be an on-going series.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 25, 2007 · 0 comments

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Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

With the passing of Oscar Peterson, we have lost one of the last representatives of the great post-war generation of pianists who redefined the role of the keyboard in jazz music. We will almost certainly never again see such a concentration of creativity and individuality as the jazz world experienced during the late 1940s and 1950s when most fans first heard the music of Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, and George Shearing. Most of these pianists are now gone. We will need to be content with appreciating their artistry through recordings and the occasional surviving video -- and in our cherished memories of seeing them perform in person.

Oscar Peterson was perhaps the easiest of these musicians to appreciate. His strong sense of swing and virtuoso technique could even move listeners who had little appreciation of the jazz idiom. The virtues of his work were so striking and obvious that it is something of a puzzle how otherwise astute critics could so easily ignore them. Miles Davis, in a famous put-down, once commented that Peterson sounded as if he had to learn how to play the blues. The late Martin Williams – one of the most astute critics ever to write about jazz – dismissed Peterson’s work as a “stockpile of clichés . . . He seems to know every stock riff and lick in the history of jazz.” For both Davis and Williams, the sheer abundance of Peterson’s work, the dramatic and rapid-fire manner he tossed off melodic ideas, somehow made him suspect. Peterson was the improvisatory equivalent of a fire hose, and these critics wanted a small bottle of Evian water.

But there is a place in every art form for fireworks and bravura gestures. Peterson was the most dramatic pianist of his generation, and to see him at top form was an exhilarating experience. I recall guitarist Joe Pass (a great virtuoso in his own right) once noting that if you wanted to play fast with Oscar, he could play fast; and if you wanted to go faster, Oscar could go faster -- Pass shaking his head at this point, like the fan at a NASCAR event who has just seen some death-defying move on the track. To play fast and clean and true is a litmus test for jazz musicians. It always has been and always will be. And among jazz players of his era, no one played faster or cleaner or truer than Oscar Peterson.

Here are some of my favorite Oscar Peterson moments: his driving two-hand boogie work on “Blues Etude”; a surprisingly restrained and introspective solo version of Ellington’s “Lady of the Lavender Mist” from an early Pablo release; his duets with Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge and several other trumpeters from this same period; his sensitive contributions as an accompanist on a number of classic Verve recordings; his underrated Nat-King-Cole-ish vocal work; and his various collaborations with the great Joe Pass. If you haven’t heard the latter combination in a while, check out this clip of Peterson and Pass playing “My One and Only Love.”


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 24, 2007 · 3 comments

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Last Survivor of Ellington's Cotton Club Band Celebrates the Century Mark


The jazz world often romanticizes the musician who dies at a young age - Bix and Brownie, Blanton and Bubber and the other great talents whose lives were cut short. But what about that rare jazz musician who lives a long life? Can we celebrate longevity as well as brevity?

Lawrence Lucie celebrated his hundredth birthday last week. No other living jazz musician can match his stories: serving as best man for Louis Armstrong, gigging with Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson, or playing with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.

Jazz.com's occasional contributor arnold jay smith -- one of my two favorite writers among those with all lower case names -- was in attendance at this happy occasion and sends along his report. T.G.



Guitarist Larry Lucie turned up at his own 100th birthday party at a jazz celebrity-packed NYC Musicians Union Local 802 last Monday. And he remembered everyone who came to greet him.

As part of weekly Jams sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, the usually shy Lucie sat there while the greeters passed by and he responded to reporters' queries. It was also 802's annual Christmas bash and the bands played on.

The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, an ensemble which boasts one nonogenarian and a couple of octo's, serenaded the packed rehearsal room #1 as did a small group led by Bertha (the blues) Hope and featured George Braithwaite and his twin-horned Braithe-a-phone, Bill Saxton, tenor sax, Bob Cunningham, bass, and Jackie Williams, drums.

Lawence Lucie --born 1907 not 1914 as listed in the Feather/Gitler encylopedia-- played with the legends: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Millander, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson. When asked about the rumor that he had played on the Riverboats with Fate Marable he said that he played the boats but not in their hey day with Marable as Louis did.

Other birthday fetes were scheduled during the week-long celebration. One was at his convalescent home on the actual day, December 18, and another at the Duke Ellington Society the day after that. Radio station WKCR broadcast a day-long salute. Also in attendance on Monday, and celebrating his 75th was bassist John Ore, who was celebrating his 75th birthday. Ore was with Earl 'Fatha' Hines aboard an historical cruise which sailed to Cuba 30 years ago.

While more musicians are living longer, and while I was lucky enough to be among the celebrants at Eubie Blake's century mark, I still mutter "one hundred . . . Jeez!"

                                                                                                                                                      arnold jay smtih


This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith and Ted Gioia
 

December 23, 2007 · 1 comment

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About Jazz.com's Music Reviews

For more than a year, a team of twenty-three critics has been working under my direction on an ambitious project to review the most important performances from the century long history of jazz music. But with an interesting twist: while many reviews of jazz CDs have been written over the years, we wanted to focus on individual tracks.

This is a Herculean task, and before we are finished, we will need to tackle more than ten thousand reviews. But such a project is necessary to fill a gap in the jazz world. For a variety of reasons, jazz fans need – and deserve – a more focused source of music criticism than is provided by the standard CD review.

The advantages of reviewing individual tracks are many. By focusing on songs instead of CDs, a reviewer can give readers much clearer guidance. The critic no longer needs to fret over how to assess a CD that might have one or two strong tracks mixed in with weaker material. And an emphasis on individual songs frees us from the confusion wrought by fickle record label execs, who constantly re-package the same material in different compilations, ensuring that the CD recommended one year is out of print the next. But above all, the rapid rise of i-Pods and legal sources of downloading suggests that the future of music will be driven by the track not the disk, and reviewers need to adapt to this brave new world of electronic commerce.

Traditionalists should not fret about this change. In many ways, we are merely returning to the way the music world previously operated, when the industry focused on selling “singles,” the A-side of a 78 or 45 rpm record. But even before the rise of recorded sound, music was composed, performed and consumed one piece at a time. Modern technology is simply returning us to this natural state of affairs.

Another difference in jazz.com reviews is a move away from the 1-5 star rating system that has often been employed to evaluate recordings. In practice, few records received one or two stars, and even fewer were awarded five star reviews. As a result, most records were lumped together into a three or four star category that made it difficult for fans – or critics – to make more nuanced evaluations. At jazz.com we have adopted a 100 point scale, which allows much clearer and more subtle distinctions. (A guide to this 100 point system can be found here.)

But the value of any system of reviews depends, in the final analysis, on the critical judgments of the people making the evaluations. I have worked hard to build a team of smart, knowledgeable reviewers. I have tracked down specialists with deep expertise in specific areas of the jazz tradition, and given them a forum to share their know how. We have not made any attempt to "dumb down" our reviews, or squeeze them into some generic mass market formula. Sometimes they are provocative, or perhaps even go against the grain of received opinion, but they will always be interesting and passionate. The end result is a unique resource for jazz fans. And (unlike most sources of reviews) we allow the reader to add comments and contrary opinions.

I say “end result,” but in fact we still have much to do. We continue to expand our team of jazz critics, and we have an aggressive plan to publish a significant number of new reviews every month.

In the meantime, take a test drive. See what we have to say about some of your favorite jazz artists by using our music review search engine in the left sidebar on this page. And check back again on a regular basis to see what new additions we have made.

Finally, if you have deep expertise in jazz music and strong writing skills, you can inquire about joining us in our grand reviewing project by sending an email to reviews@jazz.com.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

December 20, 2007 · 0 comments

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The Lost Recordings of Herbie Hancock

Some of Herbie Hancock’s finest performances never made it on to CD. I vividly recall hearing him at the opening of Kimball’s East back in 1989, slashing and burning his way through Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster covering his every move. Most of the luminaries in the San Francisco jazz scene was in attendance that night, and Hancock seemed determined to show the locals his best stuff.

I heard Hancock approach this same high level on other occasions where recordings may have been made but never released: a free-and-easy jaunt on “Autumn Leaves” with a pick-up band at a benefit for the KJAZ radio station (now defunct – its bandwidth currently occupied by pathetic disco deejays); some exceptional piano work at a benefit for Conrad Silvert (a few tracks of this were released, but much of it is still sitting in a Sony vault somewhere); and exciting give-and-take in a trio with Tony Williams and Ron Carter at the Berkeley Jazz Festival. But even when Hancock set down some serious tracks in a recording studio, the music didn’t always reach your local Sam Goody or Tower Records. I faced almost insurmountable challenges in securing a copy of the fascinating solo project, Dedication, released by Hancock in Japan, but held out of the US market for “business reasons.” I finally managed to snag a copy, but I needed letters of transit from Peter Lorre and a sockful of yen notes. Another Japanese solo release, The Piano was kept out of overseas markets for twenty-five years. (Who makes these decisions?)

Despite these limitations and oversights, jazz fans still have access to many great Herbie Hancock recordings made over the years. He is responsible for some fifty leader dates and countless sideman sessions, encompassing classic Blue Note LPs, historic performances with Miles Davis, the famous V.S.O.P live recordings, fusion mega-hits, and occasional gigs with everyone from Milton Nascimento to Wynton Marsalis. Picking through this wealth of music in order to select twelve essential tracks presented a challenge. But I gave it my best shot. You can view my picks and second guess my choices at jazz.com's latest installment of the The Dozens.

At the same time, jazz.com is publishing Alan Kurtz’s discriminating choices for twelve blue & sentimental tenor sax ballads. You don’t need letters of transit to enjoy these. But dimming the lights and pouring a couple of gin and tonics for you and a special someone might assist you in this particular musical appreciation lesson.

You can check out more installments of The Dozens here.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 18, 2007 · 0 comments

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Remembering Frank Morgan (1933-2007)

The jazz world is mourning the loss of alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, who passed away on Friday after a battle with colon cancer. Morgan would have turned 74 this coming Sunday.

Thirty years ago, Frank Morgan had disappeared so completely from the jazz scene that Leonard Feather and Gene Norman assumed he was dead when they began working on a reissue of his recordings from the 1950s. But Morgan, like so many others of his generation, found his career eclipsed by an out-of-control drug habit that ravaged his personal life and resulted in long years of incarceration.

This was a tragedy that was all too typical of the West Coast scene of the period. Morgan would later recall that one of the finest bands of his career was a San Quentin ensemble from 1962, which also featured Art Pepper, Jimmy Bunn and Frank Butler. (In the near future, I will be publishing on jazz.com my account of another drug-and-prison casualty of the era, the great trumpeter Dupree Bolton.)

Morgan was one of the last survivors of the thriving Central Avenue scene that served as the center of the Los Angeles jazz world until the late 1940s. Morgan’s father, guitarist Stanley Morgan, ran a popular after hours clubs in the area, the Casa Blanca. Many jazz legends, including Charlie Parker and Erroll Garner, participated in jam sessions at the Casa Blanca, and young Frank Morgan got a chance to match musical wits with the world class talent while he was still a teenager.

Morgan was a master of the bebop vocabulary, but he made only a handful of recording before disappearing into California’s penal institutions. When he tried to resurrect his career in the 1980s, Morgan had to start from the bottom rung. Even jazz insiders were mostly unaware of Morgan and what he could do on the horn. But a talent this large would not stay hidden for long. Even before he secured a recording contract, he shook up the audience at a Duke Ellington tribute concert on the UCLA campus where Morgan stole the show as a virtually unknown player in the midst of an all-star lineup.

His subsequent recordings garnered glowing reviews, and Morgan found himself gaining the recognition in his fifties that should have been his in his twenties and thirties. He recorded extensively, toured regularly, and in 1991, at age 57 he won the Down Beat Critics Poll as best alto saxophonist.

We had grown used to Morgan beating the odds. His comeback in the 1980s seemed almost a miracle to those who had written him off as a casualty of the scene. After a stroke in 1998, doctors told him he would never play again, but he was performing again within six months. But Frank Morgan finally succumbed last Friday. We will miss his presence, but continue to celebrate his legacy.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 17, 2007 · 1 comment

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How Fast Can You Play "Cherokee"?

This story begins many years ago. I was driving late at night on Highway 101, north of San Francisco and heading into Sonoma County. I had hit that section of the highway where the roadway narrows, and the fog is often treacherous. I turned on the radio to help keep alert, and found a live jazz broadcast. I assumed that the broadcast was coming from someplace nearby, but that was merely a guess – I never learned where it originated. Nor did I ever discover the name of the band. Frankly the musicianship of the performers did not make much of an impact on me – at least, not at first -- and I was about to resume hunting for other, more entertaining fare. But then the anonymous bandleader began talking, and I thought I would stay with the station a little longer, if only to learn the names of the players.

“I would like to invite up one of my students to join us on this number,” the man announced. A momentary pause while a saxophonist came up to the bandstand. The leader turned to the newcomer and asked: “What song would you like to play?” The saxophonist replied: “Cherokee” – a daring choice for a student sitting in with a professional band, a song notorious for its complicated harmonies, especially the modulations in the bridge. “Okay,” replied the leader, “but you set the beat.”

The young student saxophonist proceeded to count in a ridiculously fast tempo for “Cherokee,” somewhere north of 350 beats per minute. The band sounded very ragged in the opening bars. For a moment I thought the performance might grind to halt right then and there, but the altoist zipped through the melody undaunted, and then took the first solo. I was now listening with great fascination – because I sensed a disaster about to unfold on live radio. This sax student would inevitably falter taking such a tough song at such a rapid pace. Indeed, he had only demonstrated his naiveté and inexperience by his choice of song and tempo.

But then something amazing happened. The young alto saxophonist took a formidable solo, full of bebop prowess and executed with remarkable technical command. Could this really be a student? This sounded like a top-notch pro, or even more, like a pro among pros. The rest of the band, which had struggled at first, now rose to the occasion, fired up by the youngster and locking into the beat. By the second alto chorus, I was transfixed. This was nothing less than a textbook demonstration of bop sax pyrotechnics. The youngster’s tone was full and rounded, his ideas smartly conceived and deftly executed, and his drive unrelenting. By now my curiosity was intense. Who was this alto ‘student’?

At the conclusion of the song, the bandleader finally obliged me. He returned to the microphone, and announced: “That was my student, Vince Herring.”

The name meant nothing to me, and I would not hear it again for several years. But I remembered it, and was constantly on the lookout for the mysterious Mr. Herring, an unheralded youngster who could step out of a crowd, and fire up an anonymous band with a burning version of “Cherokee.” When I finally saw the debut leader dates of Vince Herring hit the market – probably four years after my late night drive -- and heard this artist praised as the “next Cannonball Adderley” or the “the next Sonny Stitt,” I was far from surprised. I had been waiting for his arrival on the scene since that first taste of his playing.

Fast forward to this weekend, where I heard Vince Herring and his band in performance at Smoke, at 106th and Broadway. Herring has now released more than one dozen CDs under his own name, and tours widely. His quartet had just returned from Europe, where they had completed 23 performances in 22 days. The band – featuring Anthony Wonsey on piano and keyboards, Richie Goods on bass and Joris Dudli on drums – played impressively at Smoke, demonstrating a camaraderie and comfortable congruence that reflected both their familiarity with each other as musicians and their personal rapport as colleagues.

If I recalled Herring upstaging the “Cherokee” ensemble years ago, today he is the model of democratic bandleading. Everybody in the group got a chance to feature an original composition, and solo time was parceled out in fairly equal doses. But don’t kid yourself, Vincent Herring is the star of this show. He is a player who cannot blend into the background, unless he leaves his horns at home. His work on alto and soprano was exceptional, marked by a sweet, strong sound, polished technique, and a bountiful supply of ideas. He is less bop-oriented than I have heard him in other settings, but he retains the core ethos of bop improvisation, which Charlie Parker once described as finding the phrases that allow a musician to play any note against any chord. Herring’s lines are full of interesting chromatic twists and turns, rich in the phrases within the phrases, and coy little cadences.

The amplification was too loud for the space, but in all other respects Smoke is a fun place to experience jazz. If my seat had been any closer to the bandstand, I could have turned the pages and adjusted the microphones. Herring’s schedule finds him playing later this month at the Village Vanguard with Cedar Walton and at Sweet Rhythm with Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Legacy.

And if you manage to see Herring in performance, make sure you ask him to play “Cherokee.”


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Les Paul (Age 92) Upstages the Music Writers

I am in New York for the ASCAP – Deems Taylor Award ceremonies, which concluded a short while ago at the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and where my two most recent books Work Songs and Healing Songs were honored with a special recognition award. This annual event is a rare opportunity to celebrate that under-appreciated breed, the music writer. The best music writers often deliberately keep out of the limelight, since the purpose of their craft is to draw attention not to themselves but to the music they love.

But maybe this is changing. In fact, one of the books honored this year is John Genari’s Blowin Hot and Cool – a study of jazz critics(!). No, not saxophonists or fiddlers, washboard players or tympanists, but the scribblers who write the liner notes. Who knows where this will lead? But if the autographs of jazz writers ever become worth a plugged nickel on eBay, the ASCAP event is the place to get them. Two of the finest in the field were among my fellow honorees: Dan Morgenstern and Francis Davis.

But, once again, the scribblers were upstaged by the players. After an award was given to the makers of a documentary on guitarist Les Paul, the ninety-two year old Mister Paul showed up in person to share stories and bask in the glow. His funny and endearing tale of his first attempt to break into the New York music scene by pretending he was a friend of Paul Whiteman’s eclipsed everything else on the program. So score one for the musicians. But there is always next year.

The live music at the event comprised only a small portion of the program, but whoever selected the performers did a grand job. And what diversity -- an amazing exhibition of Tuvan throat singing; a funny and swinging duet by Eric Reed and Wycliffe Gordon on "Your Feet's Too Big"; a recreation of a Nick Drake performance complete with strings; and a brief interlude of Ben Johnston's microtonal music. Drake and Johnston have both been on my CD player lately (although not at the same time!), and it was a delight to hear this music live in such a celebratory setting. Ben Johnston was also one of the award recipients, honored for a collection of his occasional writings, and the eighty-one composer shared some candid and moving remarks about his joy in finding a loyal and growing audience for music that once seemed destined only for posthumous recognition, if that.

Microtonal music, for those unaware of the term, explores the aural potential of the "notes between the notes," and discovers new musical worlds by challenging our most basic conceptions about scales and tuning. But the ultimate proof of this music's validity is not in its ideology, but its sound. And here Johnston, with his rich compositional palette, succeeds marvelously. Check out, for example, this recording.

Other jazz luminaries honored at the ASCAP event included Ted Panken, Jason Koransky and Lorraine Gordon. Pianist Matthew Shipp was one of the judges.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 13, 2007 · 0 comments

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Introducing the 'Dozens'

In the coming days, I will introduce you to some of the more interesting features on our brand new site. One of my favorites is our on-going series known as The Dozens. Some of you may be familiar with ‘playing the dozens’ – an African-American tradition based on informal, taunting exchanges. Our approach to the ‘dozens’ is a bit different. We select twelve exemplary jazz recordings based on a theme, and submit them for your enjoyment and debate. We have already published a number of these celebrations of the jazz art form (see complete list here). Some are straightforward (Steve Greenlee selects twelve essential John Coltrane performances), while others are whimsical and fun (Alan Kurtz’s celebration of the masterpieces of crime jazz). But they are always prepared with fastidious care, and the deep expertise that our writers draw from a lifetime of jazz listening. You will see more of the ‘dozens’ in the future, and from time to time I will draw attention to them in our blog.

For a description of other jazz.com features, go here.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 12, 2007 · 0 comments

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Welcome to jazz.com

We are proudly opening our doors after almost two years of behind-the-scenes efforts to create a useful and exciting center of jazz activity on the web. We are launching with almost three thousand pages of unique content – including features, reviews and interviews contributed by many of the finest writers in the jazz world.

Our music review section offers an unmatched guide to the greatest jazz tracks, encompassing both timeless classics and the most provocative contemporary performances. Unlike other guides to recordings, which typically review entire CDs, jazz.com highlights the best individual tracks --- an invaluable guide in this day of downloading and iPod-ing.

Jazz.com is also delighted to announce that we are the new home to Lewis Porter’s unique Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians, an unsurpassed source of information on currently active performers. Also make sure to visit our Visual Jazz galleries where we feature the best in jazz photography and painting. We also invite site visitors to participate in our discussion boards, list their goods and services in the jazz.com directory, or create their own jazz.com web page. Check back here in the coming days, as we share more of highlights of jazz.com.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
 

December 01, 2007 · 0 comments

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