The Best Tracks of the Month

Five days per week, highlights an oustanding recent track as part of its Song of the Day feature. The aim is to guide listeners through the confusing array of new CDs on the market, and direct them to superior music they might otherwise miss.

Some of the names below will be familiar, and a few—Hank Jones, Gerald Wilson—are famous veterans who were gigging back in the Swing Era. Yet many of the tracks highlighted come from new or little-known artists who have released self-produced disks or are working with small indie labels.

Given the gradual retreat of major labels from jazz music and their reluctance to promote new artists that deviate in any way from proven commercial formulas, the situation grows ever more confusing and fans have greater need for knowledgeable, impartial guides in their efforts to find the best new music. In this environment, it becomes harder—but all the more urgent—for critics to open their ears and search out the hidden gems amidst the glut of releases.

Below you will find links to reviews of the songs featured in October. Each review provides full personnel and recording info, a candid assessment, a scoring on’s 100-point evaluation system, and a place you can go to purchase a (legal) download.

Happy listening!

Song of The Day: Featured Tracks from October 2009:

Joey DeFrancesco: Fly Me to the Moon
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Ike Sturm: Kyrie
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Jeff Hamilton: The Serpent's Tooth
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

Hank Jones & Oliver Jones: What Am I Here For?
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Quartet San Francisco: Strange Meadowlark
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

Loren Stillman: Man of Mystery
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Ayelet Rose Gottlieb: Some Kiss
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Egberto Gismonti: Sertões Veredas
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Krantz-Carlock-Lefebvre: War Torn Johnny
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Jon Irabagon: January Dream
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Ben Allison: Fred
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Mika Pohjola: Blues Chacarera
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

CéU: Vira Lata
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Barrett Martin: Shapeshifter
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Gerald Wilson: Detroit
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Anouar Brahem: Stopover at Djibouti
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Hailey Niswanger: Oliloqui Valley
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Wayne Wallace: Freedom Jazz Dance (Baile de Libertad)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

John Proulx: Let's Get Lost
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Watermelon Slim: Wreck on the Highway
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Poncho Sanchez: Cantaloupe Island
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

October 31, 2009 · 0 comments


The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

This week marks the publication of my new book, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool. With the permission of the publisher, I am sharing an extract below. Also, note that I will be making an appearance in the Los Angeles area this Friday, October 30, at Book Soup, at 8818 Sunset Boulevard, at 7 PM. T.G.

 The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

For a long time, coolness has been measured primarily at the cash register. So much so, that the word cool today is used most often to describe a gadget or a product or something else available for sale. Back in the 1950s, the term might be affixed to a person or a style of music or an attitude. But with each passing year, cool is less and less a personal vibe and more an attribute of merchandise.

A Google search for cool and iPod comes back with ten million hits. You get the idea; of course you do, it's pounded into your head a thousand times a day by every marketing message that tries to co-opt coolness. This depersonalization and commoditization of the cool has perhaps been its greatest success�but also a leading cause of its decline. Cool has been a great concept and has served its corporate bosses loyally for as long as it could, but now it is approaching its point of exhaustion.

Kerouac wore Khakis

A postcool society? You may think that strange, but here is something stranger: the people who are leading the way are those who, a few years ago, would have stood out as the coolest of the cool. The cool is crumbling from the inside. The trendsetters are now the most vehement in moving beyond the cool. And for that very reason, the retrenching of the cool is one trend that will not be reversed any time soon. This postcool attitude is not just another style, but a rejection of the stylized. It is not just another trend, but a distaste for trendiness. It is not just another pose, but a dismissal of the poseurs.

Kerouac wore Khakis

And what is that new worldview? What comes after the cool? To some extent, life after cool will remind us of what life was like before cool came on the scene. Cool was defined by its reliance on image and irony, by its artifice and playful fluidity. It was marked, above all, by an outward focus on trends and fashions. The notion of lifestyle�a term that hardly existed outside of academic literature during the first half of the twentieth century�became of paramount import during the Age of Cool, and the idea that one could shape one�s persona and way of living as though they were works of art (a foreign concept to most people during the Great Depression) became widespread.

Postcool, in contrast, is built on a new earnestness and directness, a celebration of simplicity and authenticity. Irony is out; plainspokenness is in. The natural and down-to-earth are preferred to the glitzy and fashionable. The real is valued above the contrived, honesty above artifice. Communications�from the simple text message to the spin-doctoring of prominent pundits on the boob tube�are quicker and to the point. Postcool is less exciting than cool, but more practical and results oriented. It�s less malleable and fluid, but far more predictable in its behavior patterns.

Yet the shift to a postcool mentality is not without its downsides. Above all, many problems are created when society loses its cool. The directness and bluntness of postcool life are only a step away from outright hostility and confrontation. We already see this in talk radio and cable television and other spheres of social interaction, where the decibel levels quickly rise and conversations easily collapse into shouting matches. Talk radio becomes scream radio. Town hall meetings turn into WWE free-for-alls. Back in the days of cool, indirect and ironic styles of communication were the norm, and ways of interacting were more stylized and often fanciful. As a result, social exchanges were slower to escalate into confrontation and denunciation. But postcool prides itself on its directness and is suspicious of rhetorical flourishes that soften our interactions. In short, life will be rougher and tougher after cool has left the building.

And the postcool lifestyle? Actually, there is more than one. Of course, many people nowadays are simply burnt out on the hip and stylish, opting out of cool�s glitzy promises by choice or necessity. If cool were a credit card, these people maxed out long ago and are now on a different path. But a growing number of individuals have deeply set values and priorities that put them at odds with the cool. Many are tuned into concepts of sustainability and eco-friendly living; these people inevitably find that green values are incompatible with the increasingly consumption-oriented precepts of cool. Others pursue what were once called alternative lifestyles, but they aren�t so alternative anymore when tens of millions of people embrace them. Ways of living, previously on the fringe and captured under the catchall rubric New Age have now gone mainstream; they encompass everything from meditation to macrobiotics, but share the confidence that they have gone beyond fashionability and cool attitudes.

Still other builders of the postcool society have less flamboyant ways of rebelling against trendiness�in fact, their lives are often so nondescript that the media struggles with labels, such as �soccer moms� or �NASCAR dads,� in their attempts to comprehend their very unvoguish values. A host of religious movements promise the same thing: check out the growing chorus of believers who urge us to be uncool for Jesus�or Buddha or Muhammad or some other spiritual force outside the gravitational pull of pop culture. Meanwhile, others look to a more biological type of redemption, seeking a pure and healthy life; and though these folks may be ignorant of the latest fads and fashions, they are excited by words like organic, unprocessed, unadulterated�a fixation with the natural that was once on the fringe, but is increasingly part of the mainstream. A separate constituency adopts a political stance in their opposition to cool, rebelling against Nike and other merchants of fashionability as part of protest against cultural and economic imperialism. This shift in the Zeitgeist, as we shall see, cuts across all political ideologies and demographic categories.

But, most of all, we see the death of cool in a pervasive change in attitude sweeping all segments of society. We see it in a marked lessening of irony and sarcasm and cooler-than-thou vanity in the public sphere�behavior patterns that dominated the last half century�and their replacement by a new earnestness, almost a cult of sincerity. We see it in the rapid growth in styles of art and ways of living that emphasize authenticity, simplicity, and getting in touch with nature and natural ways. We see it in a return to roots, in which individuals, families, and communities find renewed meaning in shared rituals and traditions. We see it in a growing distaste for marketing, hype, and exaggerated forms of expression, and a preference for stick-to-the-facts honesty. These down-to-earth attitudes have always been present, and back in the 1930s and �40s they actually were dominant in social and community life. But with the media-fed cult of the cool, they were pushed to the sidelines.

Guess what? They are coming back stronger than ever. Such old-fashioned ways are easy enough to ridicule�and many are quick to point out that authenticity and earnestness are the slipperiest of concepts�yet these ideas are becoming the powerful forces again in public discourse and private lives. Who can be surprised, when Merriam-Webster reports that the word most frequently looked up in its online dictionary is integrity? This is exactly what people are looking for today�and not just in the dictionary.


A comparison between two magazines, with their opposed mind-sets and diverging histories, gives us a flavor of this seismic shift in attitudes. In 1999, Tina Brown, former editor of trendsetting Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Tatler, put together what promised to be the biggest�and coolest�magazine launch in history. Supported by a host of high-profile people and enormous financial resources, Brown raised the curtain on Talk with a blowout party at the Statue of Liberty�an event described by one newspaper as �the most opulent ever thrown� in the history of Manhattan media. With Lady Liberty looking on, the A-list of socialites, power brokers, and arbiters of taste�Madonna, Henry Kissinger, Salman Rushdie, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Newman, Kate Moss, and Matthew Broderick, among others�gathered for what seemed to be a defining moment in the history of cool. Give me your huddled millionaires yearning to eat Brie. You couldn�t get hipper than this, and celebrities clamored to get their names and photos in the pages of the magazine that was poised to define fashionability for the new millennium.

And then? Well, the magazine went down in a spectacular manner. True, it attracted advertisers, and name writers, and all the beautiful people featured in the articles�but it couldn�t interest readers, who looked at Talk and just yawned. The magazine closed its doors two and a half years after the Statue of Liberty bash. The harder Brown strived to be cool, the less people paid attention. Certainly it wasn�t for lack of investment capital. Talk was not cheap. It burned through $50 million�an extraordinary amount for a periodical�during its brief life. Despite the massive hype, circulation peaked at a modest 670,000.

 Real Simple

Meanwhile, at virtually the same time that Brown was flogging Talk, an absurdly low-profile magazine took life with a very understated name. Called Real Simple, this periodical ignored coolness at every step, presenting itself with an austerity that seemed to defy every rule of media survival. Its goal was to provide �beautiful, actionable solutions for simplifying every aspect of your life.� Huh? You need a magazine for that? Few in the media paid attention, and those who did often laughed at the concept. Some derided the periodical as an �aphorism in search of an audience.� Even its editor happily proclaimed �this magazine doesn�t have a personality.� Yet Real Simple flourished while Talk faltered, pushing its circulation up to two million and now occupying the same wire racks at the supermarket checkout stand that once held Tina Brown�s oh-so-cool paean to the trend of the month. In 2006, Real Simple made the move to television with the launch of a companion show on PBS. Brown had dreamed of a media empire with offshoots from her magazine, but the ascetic periodical with the strange, understated name is now the player who is spreading into new markets.

This is an extract from The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, a new book by Ted Gioia published by Speck Press. All rights reserved.

October 28, 2009 · 0 comments


The Brooklyn Big Band Bonanza, or, Revenge of the Six-Way Mustache

Tim Wilkins, a regular contributor here, recently attended the Brooklyn Big Band Bonanza, a blowout event with so many large jazz ensembles on hand that the musicians almost outnumbered the audience. His report is below. T.G.

                                  The Industrial Jazz Group

Are big bands cool? Darcy James Argue doesn't think so. "It's a dorky way to make music, and always will be," he told me.

This may surprise some who know Argue as the bandleader whose 18-piece group, Secret Society, has been called "a wholly original take on big band's past, present and future," and who has been compared to Ellington by Newsweek.

Argue thought for a second, then qualified his answer: "Maybe there are enough dorks out there to make some interesting things happen."

Enough dorks turned out – a hundred and fifty in the audience, plus sixty or so on stage - to make interesting things happen at the "Brooklyn Big Band Bonanza" at The Bell House, a converted warehouse in the once-desolate Gowanus industrial zone last Monday. Argue put together a bill with two local bands, his own and Travis Sullivan's Björkestra, and Andrew Durkin's Industrial Jazz Group (IJG), visiting from the West Coast. Plans to include another local band, led by saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo, fell through.

It is to Argue's credit that he has used his notoriety, which has grown since his CD release Infernal Machines and the Newsweek article this spring, to draw attention to other bands and leaders who like him try to reimagine large-format jazz.

"It's taking something old and kind of fashioning it into something cutting-edge," he told me the day after the show. "Having this very kind of old-fashioned way of making music, the jazz big band, and taking the core of that and reconfiguring it for the 21st century."

The evening had many surprises, foremost of which was the level of enthusiasm and imagination in a genre which has always been precarious for financial reasons, even in the best of times.

"Big bands are part of the romantic ideal," said Adam Schatz from Search and Restore, a nonprofit which helped put on the show. "It's the artist saying, 'We're going to transcend logic; we're going to put aside common sense for a minute and just do this thing.'"

                                          The Björkestra

First up was the Björkestra. Sullivan, an alto saxophonist, formed the group in 2004 to recast songs written by Icelandic singer Björk as jazz. The idea is more than a gimmick: Björk's harmonies are minimal yet unclichéd, much in the way Hoagy Carmichael's or Joni Mitchell's are. Her lyrics are also full of potent self-disclosure, which speak more directly to contemporary listeners than some saccharine "neo-standards," which ape the conventions of jazz singing from the past.

Of course, none of this would matter without the Björkestra's superb arrangements and execution. Against a backdrop of dance and electronica-inspired beats, the band's soloists, especially Sullivan and baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, confirmed how well Björk's harmonies invite jazz, and in particular intervallic, improvisation. The band's singer, Becca Stevens, was simply astonishing as she twinned her own unerring musical sense with the emotional honesty of Björk's lyrics. Midway through the set, she switched to a more forgiving vocal mic, but she hardly needed to – her intonation was as precise as a jeweler's blade. Most of the numbers she and the band performed, like "Hyperballad" and "Alarm Call," can be heard on their 2008 Koch CD Enjoy!, but this a group best heard live.

Next up was the Industrial Jazz Group. There's nothing even remotely "industrial" about the IJG, which combines Zappa-esque whimsy with Situationist satire, complete with funny hats and partial (male) nudity. The band's 16 pieces ripped through unpredictable-sounding charts full of abruptly shifting moods and tempos.

"It's more like structural improvisation," Durkin told me. "There's enough of a tune so that everyone knows where we're going, then I try to subtract some things so there are spaces, so they can own it and it sounds like it's being created on the spot. It's harder to play than it sounds."

To understand the IJG, imagine what Charles Mingus would have sounded like if he ran a house band for the sketch comedy show Laugh-In. The band's shirtless bass player, wearing a Roman centurion's helmet, wiggled incessantly while two singers offered running commentary in faux-operatic tones, encouraging audience members to wear the fake "six-way mustaches" they tossed into the crowd, and to have "Dinner at Applebee's, then f**k all night!"

"I like that kind of Rabelaisian kind of side to it," Durkin said. "Part of it is an attempt to let our hair down a little bit; to not be quite so serious about playing music. We're not purists."

Durkin's nod to François Rabelais, the sixteenth-century French creator of the carnivalesque novel, was no surprise: he holds a PhD in literature from USC, where he started the band as a quintet nine years ago. In fact, many these "dorks" seem quite literate: Durkin and Argue are prolific bloggers, and Argue frequently compares his music to "steampunk," an artistic movement which, as he explained it, "takes tropes from Victorian literature" to imagine a world where outmoded technologies – like the steam engine, or the 18-piece big band – are still vital. But on Monday night, thanks to the virtuosity and conviction of the players, these big bands radiated their own vitality; no tropes were needed.

Argue's compositions are full of gothic harmonic twists and a driving, rock-inspired pulse. This heady mix can sound muddled in a less-optimal performance space, as it did when I heard them on a hotel stage at the last IAJE in Toronto, but the high wooden ceiling and broad stage of the Bell House, which normally books rock bands, was ideally suited to these large groups - moreso than any comparable venue in New York. For the music's sake, I hope they will book more jazz events in the future.

Secret Society is an A-list of New York's younger instrumentalists, which includes trumpeters Seneca Black and Ingrid Jensen, and saxophonist Erika vonKleist. The group was augmented for the set by others including tenor saxophonist John Ellis, who offered one of the evening's most memorable solos.

The band played several charts from Argue's CD release, including "Phobos," "Zeno," and "Transit," his homage to Chinatown's cheap bus service between New York and Boston, well known to Berklee students and alums.

Then came the anarchists. As Secret Society streched out the last chord to "The Perils of Empire" and the crowd began to applaud, a cacophony of honks rippled up from below the stage. Five or six bearded men in army fatigues stormed in, looking as if they were back from an anti-WTO protest, molotov cocktails in hand. Instead, they pulled out baritone saxophones and indulged in Braxton-esque multiphonics, sowing sonic havoc as they wove through the crowd. One of them tossed a camouflage hat up onto the stage, where the Secret Society's bari man, Josh Sinton, grabbed it and and joined in. The renegade horns then wended out into the street, where the joyful cacophony continued.

These were members of the Baritone Army, an ad-hoc group led by Stefan Zeniuk, who recruits bari players to form musical flash mobs, startling patrons at McDonald's, in subway stations and at other public venues around the city.

"Dude, it was awesome, I loved it!" said Argue, who knows Zeniuk but had no idea he planned to crash the party. " It was one of those those kind of crazy, memorable moments that can only happen at live shows."

Zeniuk's flash intervention ended the evening on a high note of hilarity, a fitting cap to a concert which demonstrated that even oft-wooly big bands can defy expectations. Indeed, the main thing these bands had in common, aside from their unfailingly high levels of musical craft, was their sense of fun.

"We're just trying to have a good time, and we're hoping people are gonna enjoy the show and have a good time," said Durkin. "And we think there's a way to get people to love jazz that maybe don't typically listen to it."

Schatz agreed that fun is a key to developing a new and younger audience for jazz, and big bands in particular. Another is to make the music affordable, which he tries to do by keeping tickets under $20 and opening shows like the Big Band Bonanza to all ages.

"Everyone who's on stage is visibly enjoying themselves; that's why they do it," he said. "It's a great example of the music winning out against everything else."

For me, the Brooklyn Big Band Bonanza answered another important question: where, since the demise of the IAJE, can you go to hear insanely great lab bands, with no respect for authority, but great jazz chops and ideas to burn? Just head down to an abandoned warehouse in a city near you, and look for the guys and gals wearing six-way mustaches: they'll tell you.

(Editor's note: a previous version of this article mistakenly identified the Björkestra's baritone saxophone player on Monday night as Lauren Sevian, who played on the band's 2006 CD release.)

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

October 27, 2009 · 2 comments


Guitar Hero, Jazz Style

Bill Barnes concludes his three-part article on the role of guitar in jazz below. Click here for parts one and two. T.G.

The “audience factor” can no longer be ignored. We are fast approaching a period in which jazz musicians may outnumber the people who want to hear them play. When that happens, we will no longer have a living, breathing art; we will be left with a hobbyist-driven artifact, the musical equivalent of Latin, a dead language spoken only in lecture halls and courtrooms.

guitar strings

So the questions remain: Who will save performance jazz? As much as I’d like to suggest that a few caped “jazz guitar heroes” will swoop down from the sky, dazzling stadiums full of newly-enraptured jazz Moonies, we know that’s probably not going to happen.

In reality, the future viability of jazz is dependent on two radical changes in our cultural environment. First, music education must become a priority in our public school systems, with emphasis on jazz and classical music in elementary school curricula. Like foreign languages, complex musical concepts are more easily assimilated if taught early and have the additional benefit of increasing a child’s right brain-left brain connection.

Second, musicians must be willing to communicate more and connect with their target audiences. This would be a cultural compromise of sorts—‘opening up’ the public ear, with a bit of ‘sweetening up’ from jazz artists. After all, even the boldest pioneers knew when to pitch camp and dig in after opening up new territories. John Pizzarelli gets it—with an aura of urbane charm and the judicious use of comfortable, flowing bop lines he has made a career of repackaging the Great American Songbook. George Benson has been climbing the charts for years, though his prowess as a player is sometimes kept in the background by his vocal finesse.

It’s no accident that Herbie Hancock has sold millions of records and filled concert halls, revitalizing his audience base by incorporating elements of hip hop, funk and techno into his compositions and utilizing guitarists like "Wah Wah" Watson and Lionel Loueke along the way. After winning a Grammy for Album of the Year for his interpretations of Joni Mitchell tunes and his projects with vocalists Elvis Costello and Christina Aguilera, Herbie is the closest thing we have to a popular jazz superstar. His music has enough broad appeal to reach the neophytes. They may not understand it but it still makes them want to dance.

“Horrors,” you say? Well, if you happen to be in Paris, pay a visit to the Caveau Huchette. You will see an ancient cellar full of young people dancing to bebop, swing and cool jazz. Huchette is not exactly avant-garde, nor is it the hippest jazz salon in Europe, but its patrons are having fun. What’s wrong with that?

Today jazz guitarists are in a position to effect positive change as trailblazers of the next wave, nujazz or whatever you wish to call it. These frontiersmen may choose to dazzle with pyrotechnics and shatter existing tenets of music, or they can choose to communicate with clarity. I don’t suggest that we ‘dumb down’ the music. There is a world of difference between vapidity and clarity. What we need is deeper simplicity, a value often embraced by guitar virtuosi like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and Earl Klugh.

Playing it safe never factored into the equation for any of these artists—in their hands, simplicity is merely the thoughtful restraint of brilliant ideas. In the wrong hands, simplicity is nothing more than mediocrity with the safety on, banality disguised as taste. By the same token, we can’t force the public to listen to angry, strident, chaotic exhortation in the name of Great Art. There must come a time when jazz once again enjoys a broad appeal, without losing its soul, when people everywhere no longer feel threatened and intimidated by its complexity and have no qualms over dancing joyfully to its boundless energy.

If we play it, they will come; but only if they can hear it—and if they dig what they hear. As Thoreau famously said, “It's not enough to be busy. The question is what are you busy about?” It is high time we redoubled our effort to find common ground with the public ear.

Jazzers don’t have to be the victims in this technological revolution. The tail has been wagging the dog much too long—we must use mass media and technology in a proactive, intelligent way, striking a balance between art and commerce. Imagine multi-media events where a growing legion of young, musically savvy fans dance a superlocrian dervish generated by hypnotically rhythmic world-beat newsion guitarist ensembles. Just as Charlie Christian changed the playbook with his use of the tube amplifier, the next generation of digitally supercharged jazz guitarists can forge a future limited only by its collective imagination.

This blog entry posted by Bill Barnes

October 24, 2009 · 2 comments


A Jazz Success Story in Vermont

Willard Jenkins continues his series on grassroots jazz organizations in the US with a look at a remarkable success story in Burlington Vermont . Jenkins shares below his dialogue with Arnie Malina, whose efforts in jazz advocacy could serve as a role model for other local jazz organizations. T.G.

When it comes to presenting the performing arts Arnie Malina is a force of nature. He has won numerous awards, including citations from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) and the Governor’s Arts Award from the state of Montana. Arnie is a past APAP board member and current board member of the National Performance Network. Additionally Arnie was one of the distinguished arts presenters profiled in the definitive 1990 arts presenting guidebook Twenty One Voices: The Art of Presenting Performing Arts by Naomi Rhodes. (DIYers alert: get that book!)

I had the pleasure of first meeting Arnie in 1991, as co-architect of the former Lila Wallace-Readers Digest National Jazz Network (NJN) of presenting organizations, when he was part of the Network representing Helena Presents. (The NJN also included past participants in this series of conversations John Gilbreath, Marty Ashby, and Tom Guralnick). A warm and generous man with a quick wit and a sharp eye for unusual arts programming, though a multi-discipline presenter Arnie quickly became one of the leaders of that pioneering network of jazz presenters. Since then I’ve viewed with great interest the excellent work he’s done in Burlington, VT, where he’s the artistic director and chief programming officer of the Flynn Theatre and their Discover Jazz Festival. Here’s a man who knows how to build jazz audiences in unlikely places!

How’s a NY guy like you wind up presenting in such unlikely jazz havens as Helena, MT and Burlington, VT.

Arnie Malina

I grew up in New York City and left when I was 21. I went to Music & Arts HS and I actually remember giving a report in an English class on jazz, and I remember getting help from a senior who lived in my neighborhood who was a jazz saxophonist. Somebody said I must know everything about jazz, and I said ‘oh no, I don’t know anything… [jazz] is such a complex endeavor and [I] hope to continue to learn.’

I went to City College in New York then I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, so that was my first leap out of the city. When I got to Boulder there weren’t even sidewalks where my dorm was.

Eventually I married a woman who was from Helena, MT, so that’s how I got to Helena. It’s really beautiful there, yet there was not a whole lot to do—especially for someone who loved going to foreign films, independent films. . . . so we opened up a film society to fill that craving and it turned into a community cultural center. And it became the most exciting thing I’d ever worked on, it was like my baby.

When did you first present jazz in Helena?

In 1976; we really started out showing films, this was even before video. Even in a place like Helena, MT there were local people who have a hunger for jazz and there were jazz artists there, so I became one of their champions. I started presenting local jazz artists, some of whom were my friends. Then we eventually established a performing arts series out of this film society; three years into it we ended up having a major performing arts series. Because we started presenting very adventurous things we were always the maverick in town. First they were worried that we were presenting porno films…

With the performing arts series I started out with four events and one of them was always jazz. I was always a multi-discipline presenter and I always presented stuff that wasn’t the norm. I tried to contribute and expand the community’s cultural interest. In Helena, MT at that time the only thing that was commercially viable was a Dixieland jazz festival that happened every year. It was very successful but very tame. My focus was to bring stuff that wasn’t the norm. We developed an adventurous audience between the films and the jazz, and we started presenting modern dance—the first modern dance event in Helena, MT, probably the first so-called progressive jazz events.

I started out presenting people like Sonny Rollins, but I also presented really unusual things for that area, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the World Saxophone Quartet… before I left Montana we’d presented the World Saxophone Quartet four times.

What prompted your move to Burlington, VT?

I was asked to come here. People really wanted me to take this job so people started calling me from New England, people I had worked with from the various jazz networks. . . . I took over in ’97 for the very talented Philip Bither when he went to the Walker Art Center. I was a perfect fit in a way because [Philip and I] belonged to similar networks. From my work in Montana we got to be part of the NJN and also the National Performance Network, and the Flynn was also part of those networks. The Flynn had the same kind of programming profile I had developed in Montana.

Back to Montana for a moment, talk about the extraordinary project you did with Don Pullen.

I got to know Don Pullen totally blindly when I went to the Miami New Music Festival back in 1988. I heard him perform for the first time and I remember he had bells on his ankles and really loved it. I got in touch with him and at first he thought ‘who the hell is this guy’? But he was game and he came to Montana and we did a little residency in a church because we were in the process of renovating the jail into a performing arts center. So now what’s called Helena Presents, or the Myrna Loy Center, is headquartered in an old jail that we renovated into a performing arts center that opened up around ’91. This [Pullen residency] was before the jail but I’m thrilled to say that Don Pullen got to perform in the jail [laughs]; the project was finished before he passed on. I presented him a number of times, including his African-Brazilian Connection twice, I presented him as a soloist. . . . this was after the Don Pullen-George Adams Quartet.

I had also presented the Garth Fagan Dance Company and in those days you were able to apply for major bucks to develop new works and a 3-year residency program. In Montana I also had a lot of experiences with Native American drumming groups, and various rituals and ceremonies, so I got the idea to do a jazz-Native American project. And I also thought it could be a dance-jazz project. Garth Fagan became very excited about it and Don Pullen was thrilled to participate. We wrote a grant, it was a huge undertaking and the second time we got a three year grant. That was a very ambitious project that included a ton of residency activities, both on the Salish-Kootenai reservation north of Missoula, MT and in Helena.

Ultimately Don did a number of residencies but he became ill and there were times that he would unbelievably arrive at the Helena airport just coming from chemotherapy. It was an astonishing experience for me but it really felt like this project was keeping him alive. Don also made dear friends with the Native Americans. We’d go to different native music groups so that he could learn about their music.

Where was this work performed?

It was performed in quite a few places: in Helena, MT, on the Indian reservation in the gymnasium where a line of people a mile long waited to get into the theater. It was performed in Washington, DC under the auspices of what was then District Curators. It was performed in Seattle, WA, in Missoula, MT, and it was performed in New York City at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. And [Sacred Common Ground] was recorded by Blue Note Records and I’m a co-producer with Michael Cuscuna. I’d never [produced a record] before so I got a little taste of what that was all about. Don did record the album but he died before he was able to perform it with the project complete. So we got DD Jackson, who was a protégé of Don Pullen, one of his students; he was able to perform the work in all those places, but Don made the recording and that was a blessing.

What other projects involving jazz musicians and composers are you most proud of?

I presented the world premier of Steve Lacy’s Vespers in a cathedral in Helena, MT in 1991 that was very exciting. We also had a 3-year residency with Lester Bowie ’97-’99 in Burlington. That was extraordinary because we went to all these rural towns and Lester did things like perform in a supermarket; he did a residency at BF Goodrich rubber plant. . . . I also remember his former wife Fontella Bass was part of that and also the dancer-choreographer Diane McIntyre. What was fun about that was that Diane McIntyre also danced with Don Pullen. She came up to Burlington as part of the Lester Bowie residency.

Is it safe to say that since you got to Burlington your jazz presenting has escalated?

The [Discover Jazz Festival] is huge for us here and it’s expanded since I got here to two weekends.

How about as far as your overall annual season at the Flynn Theatre…

We have two theatres here that we present jazz in; one is 1450 seats, which dictates a certain kind of performance, and since I’ve been here we’ve also developed a black box theater in 2000, which we call the Flynn Jazz Cabaret Space. In all the genres it has enabled us to do more experimental things because it doesn’t cost as much to run… When we do something in the Flynn main stage we have to charge ourselves $3,000 rent to help pay for the space, there are union tech crews which are $3,000-5,000 per show, much larger advertising budgets—$5,000. . . . But in the Flynn [black box] space, which is only 180 seats, we can do [marketing] more through email, the rental is only $400 and we can experiment more and have smaller houses, so it’s a godsend. We do that not only with jazz but also with some new music, theater, and even with some dance. For jazz it’s a really great space.

What jazz did you present last season?

We presented the Chick Corea-John McLaughlin Five Peace Band on the big stage, we presented the Maria Schneider Orchestra—and I’m very proud to say that we commissioned a work by Maria that’s on her latest CD “Sky Blue,” so we have a credit on that. . . . We presented Omar Sosa and his Afreecanos Quartet [in the black box]. We tried to present Cecil Taylor but it didn’t work out. We’ve been presenting a continuous stream of Dutch jazz. This season we’re presenting the David Binney Quartet, Dafnis Prieto, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Hiromi, a duet between Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau, we’re presenting the Dutch jazz Trio Kaufmann/ Gratowsky/deJood, the Imani Winds with Stefon Harris, and 4-6 things that we haven’t yet scheduled in the smaller space. Hiromi, David Binney, and Dafnis Prieto are in the small space.

What kind of community audience support for your jazz presentations have you been able to garner?

We’ve definitely developed some University of Vermont audience; we’ve worked very closely with the University of Vermont jazz department, which was a fledgling department and I’m sure the director there would agree that we have helped him grow, and since then they’ve added [trumpeter] Ray Vega to their department. We do a number of projects with the UVM jazz department. Each year we have an event where we bring in a jazz artist that works with the jazz band there and the second half of their program is [the visiting artist] with their [own band]. Our visiting artist will come for two days to rehearse their material with the UVM band.

Has this relationship with the University assisted you with your audience development?

Yes, because that way we get some of these younger students to come, faculty members, and we get some support from the department. It’s also a real bonding.

What about the general populace of Burlington?

It’s not easy to fill up the auditorium it’s much easier to fill up Flynn Space, the smaller auditorium. We’re not any different. . . . the big names sell. . . . We sold out the Five Peace Band, which is 1,450 seats, which is a huge, huge amount in a town of 45,000 people!

So your sales are still very much driven by the (artist) attraction. . . . Do you have a significant portion of your audience which comes purely because of your reputation for excellent programming that may be willing to take a chance on people they’ve never heard?

We definitely have that happening, but it’s not a huge number. First of all you have the jazz fanatics. . . . DJs and a small number of fans—around 50 people. Then you have people who really love what we do and get turned on and are willing to take chances. . . . I don’t know what the numbers are but maybe that’s another hundred people. Then you have educational connections that enlarge the audience. Our community is jazz-drenched to a certain extent. I don’t know how it compares to other places; but for instance as part of the jazz festival we showcase 45 high school and jr. high school jazz bands every year. So they know that they’re getting ready to do their final big concert in the context of this jazz festival.

And these school bands are all from the general area around Burlington?

No, they’re from the state of Vermont. We still sponsor the IAJE day [with the still-active Vermont state unit of the former IAJE]. We contribute to that significantly by giving them the theater and all of our various spaces; so there are adjudications and all the various high school bands play. We have an education component here; we have a jazz combo course for kids that sign up—we have two sections, younger kids and high school kids—that happens throughout the year and we also have a sort of Latin-centered jazz camp every summer.

What was the genesis of the Discover Jazz Festival

It’s 27 years old. I wasn’t here but the genesis was a community idea that was originally put together by the city and the Flynn became a partner. Eventually the Flynn became the sole producer, in association with the city.

How has the festival grown over the years?

It’s gotten much larger. It’s now over two weekends. This year it was June 5-14. The most activity occurs on the weekends. During the week we have what we call the Flynn Space Adventures in Music series, and a few other things. This year we had [pianist] Luis Perdomo on a Monday night, Grace Kelly on Tuesday, we had a Dutch group on Wednesday, Trio Braam/deJood/Vatcher, on Thursday we had a woman from Burlington who has moved to Chicago named Jennifer Hartswick who’s a trumpeter and a vocalist. We have the Discover Jazz Big Band which consists of players from around here which is quite good and we’ve had all these projects including one with vibist Cecilia Smith, the tribute to Mary Lou Williams. It was extraordinary; we had local choruses involved, the Discover Jazz Big Band, we had special guests, and a wonderful singer that Cecilia brought.

So there were special guests, local people, and the whole educational impulse of learning about someone that most people don’t know much about—Mary Lou Williams—and honoring a woman with a woman conducting. . . . People were so moved by it—it wasn’t easy to get an audience, we had about 800 people—and the big band loved working on the project.

When we were up there for the festival when we had the first Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest National Jazz Network meeting in ’91, back when you were part of the network with Helena Presents, the Discover Jazz Festival had a lot of activities in off-site spaces.

We still have a variety of spaces, but Flynn Space has become so attractive and much more easy to use, [so] we use it more often. But we have tents—a World Music Tent, a Gospel Music Tent, we’ve had a Blues Tent down by the waterfront. . . . We still occasionally use a space at City Hall which seats about 300, but not as often. During the jazz festival we work with many clubs and they do [complimentary] programs; some of the clubs really support the festival in terms of money and some of the younger artists might be presented there.

Do you see a correlation between the Discover Jazz Festival audience and the audience for your year-round jazz presentations?

Certainly the ones we talked about before—the 50 fanatics. And not only do they come to both but they’re active participants through dialogue, through suggestions, through playing stuff on radio. . . . Then there’s the other hundred-something. . . . It’s certainly true that because the jazz festival is also a party, and a summer thing, and a lot of it is free, it attracts a wider audience. We get people from around New England, New York state, Quebec, etc.

What have been some of your most successful efforts at developing audiences for jazz in Burlington, a place better known for Lake Champlain or Ben & Jerry’s?

How do you develop audiences? Part of it has to do with the programming. . . . We love educational events and we do those as part of a discourse. Whether they actually develop audiences is really hard to say, but to me it’s part of education, part of intellectual activity. . . and we do a lot of those. Even Q&As are such wonderful adventures, especially in Flynn Space. We have meet-the-artist sessions and they’re very well attended. We also have a huge student matinee program; we have 45,000 kids coming to performances. For example this year the students are coming to see the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and Dafnis Prieto. We are dedicated to having at least one student matinee be a jazz program. The kids come from a 50-mile radius, mostly from Vermont. We try to pull out all the stops!

This blog entry posted by Willard Jenkins

October 19, 2009 · 2 comments


Come to Our Gallery Opening

We can't offer any wine or cheese, but we do invite you to attend our gallery opening. is launching a new online exhibition of classic images from the Sony archives. This unique collection of photographic images captures iconic figures from the past at sessions and live performances. As such, they embody the essence of jazz in a way that a posed studio portrait can never match. is delighted to share these images, featuring the great jazz artists associated with Columbia, and highlighting the artistry of photographer Don Hunstein.

Below is a small sampling of the works in the gallery.

Here are Miles Davis and John Coltrane from the 1959 Kind of Blue session that produced “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches”.

                      Photo by Don Hunstein

Below is the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet in the studio to record Time Out.

                       Photo by Don Hunstein

Billie Holiday is captured in mid-phrase at a 1956 session.

                      Photo by Don Hunstein

And finally, Thelonious Monk takes a break during a performance at the Blue Angel in 1963.

                      Photo by Don Hunstein

You can see the rest of the gallery here. visitors can purchase prints of these photos and other jazz collectibles from Sony by visiting their site. Please note that reproduction or use of these images without the written consent of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


The Once and Future Strings (Part Two)

Bill Barnes continues his three-part article on the role of guitar in jazz below. For the first installment, click here. Click here for part three. T.G.

Los Angeles, 1939: On the bandstand a slender young black man from Oklahoma wields an archtop acoustic guitar adorned with a magnetic pickup connected to a primitive tube amplifier, an odd looking box slightly out of place on a stage crowded with horns and music stands.

Charlie Christian

With a sideways glance at the quirky setup, the bandleader brings his clarinet to his lips and swings into the head of "Rose Room." The horn section blares, the drums crash and boom; the guitarist takes his chorus. Suddenly piercing, bell-clear solo lines spring from the grill of the tiny amplifier as the Gibson ES-150 shouts defiantly over the din of the orchestra in distinctively horn-like phrases: "I am jazz guitar and I have something to say!"

The electronically enhanced soloist, Charlie Christian, would die of tuberculosis a few years later, but his legacy would live on. Of course, Christian was not the first jazz guitar player, nor was he unique in his ability to play intricate single-line solos. Eddie Lang had already forged a reputation for innovative solo technique on the archtop. Across the Atlantic, Django Reinhardt, Oscar Aleman and Pierre “Baro” Ferret were laying the foundation of Hot Club swing and jazz Manouche on Maccaferri-designed Selmers and the not-so-heavy metal Regulators. However, Christian was successful in bringing the amplified guitar to the forefront as a solo instrument, opening the door a little wider for subsequent generations of guitarists.

The evolution of jazz guitar continued with legendary players such as Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Raney and Wes Montgomery. Through their fingers, the inspired elocution of finely crafted ideas defined the parameters of the instrument. At the same time, the physical development of the guitar also helped define the parameters of jazz. The amplified acoustic guitar could deliver flurries of notes cutting through the loudest horn sections, but it had a limited capacity for wailing; that is, until two musical pioneers, Les Paul and Leo Fender independently produced the next step in the instrument’s evolution—the solid body electric.

Paradoxically, this innovation eliminated the feedback problems associated with the hollow body, while giving the guitar the ability to sustain notes and scream at inhuman decibel levels. As the solid body came into its own, elements of blues, rock and roll and funk broadened the role of the guitar in shaping the nature of the art.

With Gibson’s Les Paul model, British guitarist John McLaughlin added a bold, if slightly metallic voice to the groundbreaking Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew, and an electrified intensity to the first two Tony Williams Lifetime recordings. His Mahavishnu Orchestra further expanded the boundaries and permanently blurred the line between jazz and rock.

Chick Corea’s Return to Forever ensemble followed suit with the dissonant and occasionally chaotic Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy featuring tortured, heartfelt solo work by guitarist Bill Connors and the white-hot sustain of his Les Paul Custom. Meanwhile, sixties blues and rock innovators Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and others had pushed the edge of the envelope for Leo Fender’s Stratocasters, creating new dynamics which would leach into the approaching fusion movement.

But the solid body would not completely dominate: McLaughlin also helped raise the acoustic bar in an unforgettable duet with Larry Coryell on the visionary milestone recording Spaces and featured the transducer-enhanced Ovation flattop on his My Goals Beyond. Pat Martino proved that the archtop still held a few surprises with the release of his cultural amalgam, East. Other mainstream heavyweights like Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Bucky Pizzarelli and George Barnes would continue to keep faith with the hollow body jazz box. George Benson would utilize its warm, bubbly sound to achieve unprecedented commercial success.

In the following decades, the once supportive rhythm instrument took center stage as guitar wizards like Steve Khan, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton became pied pipers winning over thousands of new jazz fans among young listeners. Blues men and rockers like Duane Allman, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana reached across the aisle for brief forays into the jazz genre. As audio technology evolved and CDs became the delivery system, a wave of new players vied for attention. At the same time, music trends were rapidly shifting and, although players such as Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ron Afif rose to prominence, there seemed to be less room at the top.

Then, along came the Gypsies. In the nineties, Sinti musicians such as Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre rode the first wave of enthusiasm for the rediscovered music of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Swing Revival took hold. Gypsy jazz is still growing in popularity, even as some of its major practitioners are breaking away from its tight pompe form in favor of mainstream, bop and cool idioms. But the Gypsy technique has had a major impact on European players like Robin Nolan, Andreas Öberg and Jon Larsen, and has been working its way into the musical vocabulary on this side of the Atlantic as well, with versatile session players John Jorgenson and Howard Alden and French guitarist Stephane Wrembel as its leading protagonists.

Currently there are so many wonderful jazz guitarists on the forefront that it would take volumes to give them justice. But the shifting dynamics of a shrinking, interconnected world and the resultant cultural exchanges have created a new synergy, changing the nature of how we experience music. Just as the last Broadway production of Cabaret had audience members seated at tables onstage as part of the act, today’s jazz audience is assuming an increasingly participatory role as jazz camps, clinics and interactive websites further integrate the separate worlds of performer and patron. The guitar’s unique properties give it a critical role in this increasingly evolving jazz environment.

This blog entry, by Bill Barnes, is the second section of his three-part article on the state of the guitar. Click here for part three.

October 12, 2009 · 1 comment


Hentoff on Jazz: The Jewish Soul of Willie "The Lion" Smith

Nat Hentoff, a regular contributor to this column, not only writes about the legendary figures of jazz, he also knew most of them on a first name basis. Here he turns his attention to a pianist born as William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith. But for those who worked the 88 keys for a living, he was simply "The Lion." T.G.

In the morning, the first thing I see in my office is Willie "The Lion" Smith at the piano, wearing his derby, with a cigar jutting challengingly from his mouth. Soon after I became part of the New York jazz scene in the early 1950s, one of my great pleasures was to pick up the phone at home and find "The Lion" calling just to chat. That other grandmaster of stride piano, James P. Johnson, once said, "When Willie Smith moved into a place, his every move was a picture." So were his stories on piano, his compositions, and on the phone.

Willie the Lion

In March of 1958 the head of Contemporary Records, Les Koenig, asked if there was anyone I wanted to record for his label. I quickly made my way to Nola Studios on West 57th Street, where Mat Domber of Arbors Records now does a lot of his recordings, with Willie and the equally formidable – and, like Willie, endlessly melodic – pianist Luckey Roberts. The resulting album, "Luckey and the Lion: Harlem Piano," has been reissued on CD by the Concord Music Group.

"He was a myth you saw come alive," Duke Ellington said of Willie, whom he considered his main mentor. But I thought I knew a lot about the man until Michael "Spike" Wilner – a jazz pianist, scholar of stride piano, and the owner and manager of the now-legendary Smalls Jazz Club on West 10th Street in Manhattan, sent me his book of revelations: "Willie 'The Lion' Smith / 8 Piano Compositions / Transcriptions and Essay by Michael 'Spike' Wilner."

Most startling to me was something about which I had a clue in the 1950s, but stupidly never followed up on. Willie and I had the same internist, and among the displays on this doctor's wall was Willie's business card, written in English and Hebrew. I figured this was Wilie's antic wit at play – perhaps a nod to the Jewish managers, bookers and record executives in the jazz business. Was I wrong!

Willie's mother, Spike Wilner writes, was a laundress, and her son delivered the clean clothes to her customers, including "a prosperous Jewish family that treated Smith as one fo their own," much like the Jewish family in New Orleans that bought a young Louis Armstrong his first horn. Every Saturday, when a rabbi came to the family's home to teach Hebrew classes, Willie was welcomed to join in.

What fascinated Young Willie, Wilner writes, was "the chanting of the rabbi." Reading this, I was a boy again in an Orthodox synagogue in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, in mandatory attendance during the High Holidays. My guess is that the chanting rabbi Willie heard was also a cantor, or chazzan, who sang, often with improvisations, the Jewish prayers.

As I wrote in my memoir "Boston Boy," published by Knopf and Paul Dry Books, the chazzan's voice penetrated so deeply into my very being that I almost shouted aloud, as I did on a Boston street when I first heard jazz. I didn't shout in the shul so not to embarrass my father. But it was this same chrechts - the soul cry of human promise, transcendence and vulnerability - which I later found in the blues, Billie Holiday, Charles, Mingus and John Coltrane, just to name a few of the jazz chazzans I have known.

The rabbi who reached Willie as I had been reached, Spike Wilner continues, "took special pains to teach him alone." At 13 – and I had to stop reading to fully grasp this – Willie Smith "had his bar mitzvah in a Newark synagogue."

Wilner quotes the Lion himself: "A lot of people are unable to understand my wanting to be Jewish. One said to me, ' Lion, you stepped up to the plate with one strike against you – and now you take a second one right down the middle! They can't seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith." (Editor's note: In his 1965 autobiography, Music On My Mind, Smith also states that his birth father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish.)

This Lion of Judah actually later became a cantor, or chazzan, himself at a Harlem synagogue of Black Jews!

What I would have given to have heard him there! Although I've been a Jewish atheist since I was twelve, I would have become a member of that congregation. Had there been any objections, I'm certain Rabbi Smith, with the vibrant life force of his stride piano, would have told the objectors to learn the interconnectedness of us all – from music.

He knew – as he once said – "Music doesn't stem from any single race, creed, or locality, it comes from a mixture of all these things. As does The Lion."

Spike Wilner includes, in his book, Duke Ellington's recollection of the first time he heard The Lion play piano: "Actually everything and everybody seemed to be doing whatever they were doing in the tempo The Lion's group was laying down. The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly – one of the strangest and greatest sensations I ever had. The waiters served in that tempo; everybody who had to walk in, out or around the place walked with a beat."

In my youth, a Yiddish soul brother was called a "landsman." I always thought of Willie as a soul brother. If I'd listened intentently enough, I would have caught in his often jubilant stride rhythms an ageless touch of Jewish klezmer swinging.

Why was he called The Lion? During World War One, Willie served in an all-black batallion, the 350th Field Artillery. One time, while fighting in the trenches for 49 days without a break, he volunteered to man the "Glorious 75" – the big, ungainly and deadly French 75-millimeter cannon, which was decisive in the Allied victories at the Marne and Verdun. Having been cited for bravery, Willie was called "The Lion" by his colonel.

Back in the States, The Lion wore a derby "because the rabbis did." Underneath, on the Holy Days, was his yarmulke. In my anti-Semitic Boston boyhood, wearing a yarmulke could have gotten you bashed in the teeth as "a Christ-killer." But Lord help anyone who would have tried to mess with The Lion.

This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff

October 08, 2009 · 11 comments


James P.'s Last Rent Party

I can't remember the last time pre-WW2 jazz created such a buzz. But the Last Rent Party is the talk of the town. And the money went to a good cause: a headstone for the magisterial stride pianist and composer James P. Johnson. Tim Wilkins was on hand and reports below. T.G.

"James P.'s Last Rent Party" is what Michael "Spike" Wilner chose to call the marathon jam session he organized at Smalls, the underground club he runs in New York's Greenwich Village, to honor piano pioneer James P. Johnson on Sunday. Wilner assembled the nation's best stride professors, including Dick Hyman, Ethan Iverson, Ted Rosenthal and a half-dozen others, including the mighty "Terror of San Francisco," Mike Lipskin. This all-star team played for nearly nine hours so the James P. Johnson Foundation can buy a tombstone for the stride master's grave in Queens, which is, shockingly, unmarked.

"We tried to create a cutting-session atmosphere," Wilner told me before his set. "I'm just going to try to walk away with dignity!"

                            Ted Rosenthal and Dick Hyman

This may have been an incredible concentration of piano prowess in a tiny room, but it otherwise bore little resemblance to the rowdy Harlem rent parties where James P. earned his stripes. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg's smoking ban, I even brought my sixteen-month-old daughter, Emma, who got hooked on stride's bouncing groove. There were plenty of piano sharpies on hand, studying every note, who ranged in age from their teens into their nineties: one or two could remember hearing James P. himself play in the forties.

While an atmosphere of mutual affection and bonhomie prevailed, there was still enough friendly tension in the air to keep the performers on their toes: during the first sets I sat next to Iverson, who listened intently, then snuck out around 4 p.m. and went around the corner to the Village Vanguard, where he borrowed the house piano to warm up.

Iverson's set was one of the marathon's many highlights: he played "Theme in Two Voices," a piece he discovered only days before in the archives of Rutgers University's Institute for Jazz Studies in Newark. He also played thoroughly deconstructed versions of Johnson's "Old-Fashioned Love" and "The Charleston."

Iverson extended Johnson's revolutionary use of cross-rhythms, which helped ragtime become jazz, by creating asymmetric note flows with his left hand. These groupings only occasionally coincided with recognizable snatches of melody he spun out with his right. He then bounced the melody into his left hand, setting up an uncommon counterpoint which slowly gathered steam as the voices converged: first, the familiar bounce of stride bass appeared, which he then locked into a celebratory, immediately recognizable explosion of The Charleston's main theme, which is perhaps the best-loved and remembered strain of the Jazz Age.

Carolina Shout

Some played Johnson's compositions, such as his notorious finger-buster "Carolina Shout," "Steeplechase Rag," "Jingles" and "You've Got To Be Modernistic," while others preferred their own compositions or those of Johnson's contemporaries and disciples, such as Luckey Roberts, Thomas "Fats" Waller and Duke Ellington. Interpretations ranged from the soulful (Aaron Diehl) to postmodern (Iverson), elegiac (Conal Fowkes), playful (Lipskin) and ultra-kinetic (Wilner). All displayed the virtuosity and skill associated with Johnson's style.

Hyman and Rosenthal closed out the evening with a breathtaking suite of four-hand arrangements, including a medley of hits from his 1923 Broadway show, Runnin' Wild, and Hyman's own lyrical interpretation of Johnson's "Liza."

The inspiration for this event came earlier this year when Scott Brown, James P.'s biographer, discovered the pianist was buried in an unmarked grave in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens. He brought this to the attention of members of New York's circle of hard-core stride enthusiasts, which includes Wilner, Terry Waldo and Ehud Asherie. They quickly enlisted the help of others, including Iverson, and set a plan in motion.

"Everyone was just amazed and shocked that an artist of that stature and magnitude would be completely forgotten," Wilner told me. "We were pretty much appalled." There is a kind of stride renaissance underway in New York, thanks largely to the efforts of younger pianists like Wilner and Waldo, who for several years hosted weekly "cutting sessions" at a sister club of Smalls, Fat Cat, on Sunday afternoons.

Brown also tracked down James P.'s grandson, Barry Glover. It turns out Glover had created a non-profit to honor James P.'s life and music, and donated a treasure trove of manuscripts to the IJS. He was delighted in the young pianists' interest, and invited them to not only raise money for a headstone, but also to help draw greater attention to James P.'s legacy. Together, they hatched the plan for Sunday night's "Rent Party," which Glover hopes will become an annual event for the Foundation.

"Keep Off The Grass!" is what Wilner jokingly suggested the tombstone should read, citing one of James P.'s best-known compositions. While the stone will most likely bear a more dignified inscription, it will hopefully serve as a small step towards wider appreciation of Johnson, whose innovations were essential to the emergence of jazz itself, and so deserve to be recognized beyond the inner circle of jazz pianists who have long acknowledged him as a founding master of their craft.

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

October 06, 2009 · 5 comments


The Once and Future Strings

When electric guitar first showed up in the jazz world, most fans treated it as a novelty effect. But after the impact of Chicago blues, rock-and-roll and other related styles, the plugged-in guitar has become the defining sound of contemporary music. Along the way, it has emerged as the path by which many new fans gain familiarity with jazz. Bill Barnes looks at this situation below in the first installment of a three-part article on the state of the guitar in jazz and its potential for the future. T.G.

The ubiquitous guitar has long been an instrument of the masses, comfortable, expressive and familiar to listeners of all tastes and backgrounds. As such, it is the ideal “gateway instrument” to jazz. With its unique genre-spanning properties, no other polyphonic instrument is as accessible, versatile or malleable.


Entry-level guitars are available in any price range, and, like the piano, comparatively easy for young fingers to play. Unlike the piano, guitars travel light and take up hardly any room. It has been the de rigueur accessory to the activist folkie, necessary equipment for the leather-clad rocker and a principal voice for the perfervid bluesman. While the reasons for taking up the guitar are as varied as the styles played on the instrument, there has been a tendency for many guitarists who begin to outgrow the technical limitations of a particular genre to gravitate to the art of jazz. I was one of those who made the leap.

The Christmas of 1958 was perhaps the most special Santa drop of my childhood. That morning, under the aromatic balsam with its glowing, oversized lights, shimmering tinsel and German glass ornaments sat my very first guitar, a Silvertone flattop acoustic. It was a gift from my older brother Ken, who had promised to buy me a guitar of my own if I ever learned how to play—but until then I was to keep my grubby eight year-old hands off his gorgeous Espana classical. Taking the bait, I snuck into his room at every opportunity, constructing simple chords by ear until I was able to master the historic “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” much to my brother’s chagrin.

Lionizing the king of the wild frontier in first position triads is hardly an auspicious beginning to a jazz guitarist’s career, but in rural 1950s North Carolina, there was little available inspiration beyond Elvis and Chuck Berry, who I assumed were the defining boundaries of the instrument. My musical development was haphazard, migrating from folk music to rock & roll, then to R & B. I was well into my teens before I discovered the unlimited possibilities of jazz, and then only after I had begun playing with older, more sophisticated musicians, mostly university students from other parts of the country. It was a gradual, meandering progression, crossing the chasm between “Louie, Louie” and Louis Armstrong. I mention this only because my story is far from unique—it’s the way many aspiring guitar players stumbled into the art of jazz. But not any more- the digital age has now leveled the playing field.

Until recently there were few educational resources beyond Berklee for jazz guitar other than private studies, the dry, tediously rote Mel Bay method books and, of course, the painstaking analysis of solos from vinyl LP records, which could be slowed to half-speed. A fledgling jazz guitarist could spend hours deciphering lines, practicing modes and scales, picking the brains of other guitar players. Fortunately this situation has improved by leaps and bounds. The advent of affordable digital recording technology and the Internet have opened a floodgate of recording options, instruction videos, student-teacher interaction and connectivity, transforming the way we learn the craft, write the music and the way we do business.

Digital music file-sharing allows musicians in different hemispheres to work on recording projects together in the comfort of their homes. More albums are being released in digital format only, as more music buffs migrate to their iPods. Record stores, nightclubs, recording studios and concert halls are becoming subjugated by traffic on the information superhighway. This new techno-musical universe presents both opportunities and challenges, but as new batches of musical larvae emerge from their cocoons, it is the stage upon which the next act will be played.

Jazz education and jazz guitar in particular are entering a new, exciting era—YouTube, MP3 portability and a plethora of Internet networks supporting jazz guitar are increasing the exchange of ideas and accelerating the learning curve. Interactive online instruction websites have increased the free exchange of knowledge making top level instruction a mere mouse click away. A guitar student in Bucharest, Mexico City or Osaka can interact with and study under the same cutting-edge instructors as the kid in Brooklyn—assuming he has a decent computer, a digital video recorder and high-speed Internet access.

There are a number of jazz guitar instructional sites on the Internet, but I would like to mention three interactive courses I feel offer the most bang for the buck. For a mainstream, thoroughly technical approach, the Mark Elf Guitar Conservatory and the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute offer richly detailed, methodical lessons on theory and guitar technique, along with valuable tips extracted from their considerable experience.

Both of these teachers are highly acclaimed virtuosi with impressive professional pedigrees. Elf has been a university instructor, frequent clinician for Clark Terry’s jazz camps and has recorded or performed with a Who’s Who of jazz legends, from Dizzy Gillespie to Jack McDuff. Bruno’s credentials include a world tour with the Buddy Rich Orchestra and long stints with Frank Sinatra, Doc Severinsen, Anthony Newley and Lena Horne, as well as an impressive discography. Both guitarists’ sites offer incentives for improvement and individual master class video feedback, along with extensive accompanying sheet music with tablature.

But the website that I find the most intriguing is from Sweden’s fiery young guitar phenom, Andreas Öberg. Andreas Guitar Universe is a user-friendly interactive site offering a fast-track, streamlined method incorporating Öberg’s aggressive technique with a common sense, ear-oriented approach to playing. “I want you to learn to play what’s in your head, not just what’s in your fingers,” he says in one of his lessons—and quite convincingly shows us how its done, no tricks, no secrets.

I love his logical, no-nonsense approach—utilizing the fretboard much the same way the Gypsy players do, relating modal phrasing to the underlying chord structure without being overly concerned over positions. “I try to get the students to hear everything they play and learn how to visualize the whole fretboard instead of just learning different positions.” This site is also unique for its comprehensive instruction on Gypsy jazz, blues, funk, rock and special techniques like harp harmonics, bass line-chord comping and sweeps. Barely in his thirties, Öberg hasn’t accumulated the same decades of road work as Bruno or Elf, but in terms of knowledge, technique and versatility, he is very much an old soul and his playing speaks volumes—solid technicality seasoned with street-smart, monster chops.

As jazz completes its first decade of the millennium in a boiling cauldron of new technology, migrating tastes and shifting markets, the old, woody sound of the archtop is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among young players. The buoyant, crunchy swing of Django Reinhardt has a growing mob of jazz Manouche enthusiasts, the lines between jazz, blues and R&B continue to meld and new generations of guitarists are helping to keep the fires of bebop, fusion and mainstream burning.

But live venues are closing, working musicians are competing with synthesized gadgetry and recorded music revenues are shrinking. The transition to a digital universe has increased musicians’ capacity to study, write, record and communicate, but has also created a bit of collateral damage. To be fully realized, jazz needs to be played and heard live and, unfortunately, at least here in the United States, the size of the audience is shrinking.

This is the first installment of Bill Barnes’ three-part look at the evolution of the guitar. Click here for part two.

October 05, 2009 · 6 comments


Danilo Perez in Boston

Roanna Forman, a regular contributor to this column, recently reported on guitarist Julian Lage and delivered no fewer than 14 separate reviews on the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. But she apparently is ready to come back for more music. Now she turns her attention to pianist Danilo Perez. T.G.

                            Danilo Pérez by Jos. L. Knaepen

Globalization may have been dangerous for the world economy, but it’s done great things for jazz. Ask Danilo Perez. The Artistic Director of Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz Institute added alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa of India and eclectic percussionist Jamey Haddad to the non-stop Afro-Latin motor I heard at Scullers last week.

Favoring a recuperating ruptured Achilles tendon, the pianist, his trio, and guest musicians were all about the groove. Whether it was fat, funky, polymetric, repetitive, developed, or taken up by different instruments, it was a steady motor for soloists and the ensemble. All solos, even the alto’s, were defined by and bound to that pulse. And it was all directed by the solid feel of Perez’s left hand.

Participatory, democratic and optimistic about the audience’s pitch, Perez started by asking everyone to hum a note. The sax player picked up on mine, riffed on it to begin in Indian scales, then expanded that to rapid lines and sheets. Mahanthappa’s sound complemented the trio’s earthy, solid sound well, as Haddad played accents on tambourine, triangle, and other more exotic toys.

Jamey Haddad, who has collaborated with artists as diverse as Esperanza Spaulding, Joe Lovano, and Paul Simon, is a peripatetic museum of percussion effects, some specially adapted, like a spring drum tempered with maracas. Haddad also uses Moroccan grass brooms on his hand drums, a djembe and a kanjira—an Indian drum from the tambourine family. His last solo of the evening showed off an ocean drum, whose translucent head revealed pictures of fish. Haddad plays it with a small rake to magnify the ocean-like sounds of the small metal balls inside.

Danilo’s injury in no way impaired his hands. A chunky, dark left hand underpinned his right-hand runs on “Suite for the Americas.” In trades his lines were in perfect sync with other instruments. Clean cadences and full harmonies set up a solo piano piece, which Perez dug into with cluster chords played with the forearm up to the elbow. Monk-influenced phrasing, modified Eddie Palmieri riffs, and post-modern lines kept the momentum strong throughout the set, and Perez worked out harmonic and rhythmic problems with inventive counterpoint and walking intervals, lifting by runs to accented notes. Drummer Adam Cruz had the virtue of not overplaying, although with a dynamo like Perez that might be hard to do, and bassist Ben Street gave a good, fat bottom to the overall sound, with solos that stayed in the lower parts of the register.

As the set ended, I reflected on the two acts that had appeared on the same stage on consecutive nights. The first—Julian Lage, light, lithe, using string instruments for melody, harmony, and color, driven by the insistent knock and splash of the cajon. The other—Danilo Perez, a generation older, an established star, grounded and pulsating to complex Afro-Latin rhythms and advanced harmonies. Aesthetically you might prefer one over the other, but jazz embraces and synthesizes the two, and that’s its greatest strength.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

October 01, 2009 · 1 comment