Remembering John Stubblefield [February 4, 1945-July 4, 2005]

JOHN STUBBLEFIELD was a remarkably gifted tenor and soprano saxophonist, a really original voice, and a decidedly singular individual. I remember being introduced to him at the Village Gate for a one-off orchestral gig by my dear friend Julius Hemphill. 100_5735

Very tongue and cheek, John came by my table and kidded around with guitarist Jack Wilkins, quipping how he hoped he’d be able to make himself heard over the massed polyphonic array of reeds and brass.

John Stubblefield--At Soul Food Place In Queens

Smirking coyly as Stubblefield sauntered away, Jack rolled his eyes and laughed: “Make himself heard,” he laughed. “You could hear him in Chicago.”

[John Stubblefield launches into his earthy tenor showcase on “At Harmony” solo at approximately 5:20 in, following a dramatic alto improvisation by composer-arranger Julius Hemphill, with preceding solos by Marty Ehrlich on soprano and Frank Lacy on trombone; Ronnie Burrage is the drummer, Jerome Harris on Steinberger Bass, while two major voices on the electric guitar carry the underlying harmony–Jack Wilkins and Bill Frisell.]

Jerome Harris, a wonderful guitarist and bass guitarist, was the bassist on that gig–and a good friend as well. We had scheduled a hang at my crib for some playing and to scope out some gear, and at the conclusion of our session, he mentioned to me that he was going to visit John in the hospital. I was disturbed to hear of John’s illness, and offered to tag along.

When we got to the hospital John was in good spirits and extraordinarily welcoming to me, considering how sick he was and how relatively flimsy was our personal connection. From that visit I took away a profound sense of his warmth, his humor and his extensive knowledge of American musical history, as he schooled me on all manner of things pre-jazz in the development of our collective folk roots in blues and spirituals.

On a more personal note, I recall his meat loaf. Come again? Jerome and I had arrived about dinner time, and for whatever reason, John immediately offered to share his dinner with me. In fact, he insisted. Now I am not a lad who has missed many meals in this lifetime, in fact Beaver Harris once exclaimed as we hiked crosstown: “Damn, Chip, how do you ever gain any weight as hard as you walk?” BEAVER, HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ME EAT?

In any event, perhaps Stubbs took notice of my pulchritudinous form and deduced that I was missing out on feeding time at the zoo. More likely, it said something about his spirit as a jazz musician, which is of course all about give and take and SHARING…yet on a deeper level, I could at that time reference how on several occasions, during taxi fleet shape-ups, West African brothers–total strangers–insisted on sharing their food with me.

John Stubblefield Portrait

INSISTED.

Something to do with their culture. Something to do with their humanity. I mean, what could possibly be a more engaging act of the heart, than to share your bounty with another…let alone a stranger.

John Stubblefield and Max Roach

Max Roach & John Stubblefield

I attempted to beg off, but John would hear none of it, and was already partitioning off my portion when the nurse came in, and he charmed her into bringing back a whole additional meal “for my friend, here.”

So when, in marking the 10th anniversary of his passing, I began receiving e-mails, thanking me for my miniscule part in supporting John in his hour of need (at what now seems like a lifetime ago), I was taken back to the warmth and kindness and good humor of a friend in strife, now a friend for life (and on into the next).

And in reading remembrances by people who knew John Stubblefield so much better than did I, I can’t help noticing that references to his epic musicianship as a leader, and as a vital cog in the ensembles of Kenny Barron and the Charles Mingus Big Band, seemingly go without saying.

Yet no one goes away without commenting as to what. in the parlance of my own tribe, a MENSCH John Stubblefield was. And how his spirit continues to abide in his family and those friends whose lives he continues to touch.

John Stubblefield with Bill Clinton

Two Sons Of Arkansas

Which goes a long way towards explaining how, with the recent passing of such friends and mentors as Clark Terry, Bob Belden and Ornette Coleman, jazz inspires and continues to endure in my heart and that of so many friends and strangers alike.

Thanks for reaching out as a brother, John Stubblefield, to me, as you did to so many in a lifetime all too short, but so very richly lived.

John Stubblefield Signed Promo Shot

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Tears For Charleston: Ruminations On Rage, Forgiveness And The Mythology Of Oppressed White Folk

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Given the numbing news coming out of Charleston in the wake of this act of racist terrorism, some of my brothers in spirit, and cousins in pigment, are having a hard time wrapping their heads around notions of absolution and forgiveness as put forth by relatives of the victims to an unrepentant, ignorant-ass, white supremacist.  And who can blame them?

“Black Christians and this ‘forgive-forgive-forgive’ talk, shows exactly why slave masters handed Black slaves the Bible–obedient subservience.”

“Yes, I’ve grown weary of calls to pray, and forgive.”

I hear y’all, and I feel your rage, but consider this. I am not what you might characterize as an enthusiast for of any of the major monotheistic religions, including that of my own tribe. But dig: BY THEIR OWN LIGHT, these folks lived as Christians, they died as Christians, and their family and friends are attempting to forgive like Christians.

Jesus With A Gun

I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall the Nazz whipping out his semi-automatic and howling at the Romans, “I piss on you white motherfuckers.” He is alleged to have said “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” As well as, “turn the other cheek,” and “let he who is without sin…”

Okay, so most of us are more like Don Corleone: “If he should be struck by lightning, than I am going to blame some of the people in this room–and that I do not forgive.”

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Mahatma Gandhi

Frederick Nietzsche’s analysis of Christianity was that it was a SLAVE’S RELIGION from the get-go. That is to say, he distilled it down to the following notion: we are lowest on the totem pole, we are persecuted and victimized, therefore by virtue of our greater suffering, WE ARE THE ELECT OF GOD.  And indeed, that particular God–through an act of Vicarious Redemption–made a blood sacrifice of his only begotten son, or so the mythology goes, that he might redeem mankind.

nietzsche-quotes

Speaking only for myself, I am as appalled by that notion, as that of the patriarch Abraham hearing voices in his head, and going, “Yeah, sure, let me sacrifice my son on the altar to demonstrate my fealty and obedience unto thee.” Myself, I think of my daughter, I think of my grand-daughter, and the phrase FUCK YOU comes to mind. And the notion of the Blood of Christ? I am not judging, but speaking purely for myself, how is that different than any of the so-called pagan rites with which man initially confronted his fear of nature, his fear of death?

So many elements of the Negro Spirituals, if one may invoke that quaint term, speak in metaphors awash in Old Testament imagery of Jews in bondage, let my people go, go down Moses, and as you may recall, out of all this rejection and violence and suffering, my own tribe extrapolated the notion that we had a special covenant with The Desert Deity, and were thus the chosen people.

Chico_Marx_1909

Which is why, to this day, I consider myself a Skim Milk Jew (one hundred-a-percent Jewish, without all-a the butterfat), and embrace Chico Marx as my rabbi.

Speaking of comedians, that little stooge Jeb Bush put his own peculiar spin on this tragedy while out on the campaign trail, apparently telling his audience that he was unable to fathom what was going through the killer’s mind. I mean, Earth to Jeb, nothing ambiguous here…THIS MOTHERFUCKER SAID PRECISELY WHAT WAS ON HIS MIND, if I may be allowed to loosely paraphrase: I am a duly-anointed representative of the oppressed white majority, and after only 400 years, we are still not prepared to let someone else drive, even for eight lousy years; as such, I am here to avenge all of the raped white women, and disenfranchised white folks, that the south might rise again to take back our country.  And so, in closing, my obliging Christian friends, thanks ever so much for your gracious hospitality during this past hour of Bible study, but the time has come for me to fulfill my destiny by executing you uppity niggers.

Lynchings_A

A LYNCH MOB mentality, plain and simple, which back in the day, was very much imbued with a commensurate sense of evangelical Christian righteousness.  Nothing ambiguous about a burning cross, nor strange fruit hanging from a poplar tree.  Pastoral scenes of the gallant south, indeed.

Hell, the victims themselves welcomed this viper into their midst, and treated him as a brother in spirit for over an hour, right up the point where he re-committed himself to his…mission, sparing one woman to let the world know what happened here today.

THE HORROR. Meanwhile, over the course of the past 24 hours, I had some exchanges with a beige brother on Facebook, given to taunting boring liberals like myself and invoking all of the hoary cliches with which to demonize the President, conveying the distinct impression that…well, let me allow him to have the last word on our exchange: “I’m not debating whether or not it was a hate crime. Although I would point out that despite the statistics, the media coverage of hate crimes is decidedly one sided.”

I mean, ag-oh-knee–white people really do have it rough. How so ever do they cope?  Indeed, the Clown Car Contingent of the current GOP Presidential field has been making braying noises about how under the tyrant Obama the oppression of Christians in America has come to match and even exceed that of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.  Such unbridled oppression of white folks, presumably by a cabal of Jew Socialists, Liberals and Nigras, is now touted as somehow commensurate with Krystal Nacht and Aushwitz.

birthofanation01

Is it any wonder that in a climate of such divisive dog whistles and confederate flags, with right-wing talk radio and end-day bloggers fomenting irrational fear and loathing, that the seeds of hate and violence, the myth of of some ineluctable Negro Oppression crying out for revenge, and calling for a righteous champion to defend the honor of sullied white womanhood–not unlike the romantic depiction of the Klu Klux Klan in D.W. Griffin’s 1915 epic, BIRTH OF A NATION–would take root in the soil of an aimless young white man’s mind, awash as it was in the hubris of racial hatred, and thus susceptible to a hysterical helping of fear-mongering bullshit.  And to hear FOX NEWS spin it, this senseless, cowardly act of terrorism had no racial component whatsoever, la-de-dah, but was instead an assault on beleaguered evangelical Christians.  I mean, in what quadrant of the known universe is this delusional, self-pitying science-fiction tethered to reality?  [Sigh…]

In any event, watching the video of this miserable little puddle of piss standing there impassively at his arraignment, as the victims’ families, their hearts a-breaking, spoke of forgiving him…this Poor Pantheistic Pilgrim, this eternal Doubting Thomas, found himself deeply moved.  Personally, all I wanted was to go medieval on his scrawny little ass.

Could I have forgiven him like that. Not hardly. Do I understand? Not really. And yet I find myself reaching out to my black brothers and sisters, and without meaning to preclude your sense of outrage and horror, I would ask you to reflect for a moment and cut your fellow black brothers and sisters some slack. They are simply trying to be righteous, as they understand or experience Jesus.

Do I feel it? No.

Do I understand it?

Not really, BUT I RESPECT the level of spiritual commitment it represents for them; their steadfast refusal to wallow in the gutter with this evil, soul-less vessel of a humanoid. Is it pathetic? Well, one surely experiences pathos bearing witness to it. Is it noble? Praise Jesus, as the saying goes, it most definitely aspires to be. Were these poor parishioners victimized by their own sense of love and outreach and inclusion? Without a doubt. They were not simply reaching out to embrace the spirit of Jesus in this stranger, but trying to exemplify a sense of commonality; a shared sense of solidarity–to bond with this young man as GOOD AMERICANS…my country ’tis of thee… Chip Stern In Taxi [Kevin Hagen]

Me? When I drove a cab, I picked up every shade of black, brown and beige, every ethnicity, and went to every neighborhood in the city. Not as an innocent, nor was it like I was doing someone a favor, or taking on pro bono work–I was simply trying to offer a service and treat everyone with respect.

Nevertheless, I checked out everyone very carefully, and every now and then, I would get up close and personal with someone who WAS CLEARLY A WRONG MOTHERFUCKER. Thank God I didn’t have a gun…just tried to keep my wits about me.

Which is why the most extraordinary thing about this massacre to me, besides the steadfast refusal of so many white people to own any aspect of it, is that these poor martyred souls were so imbued in Jesus, that they never judged, never excluded, never noticed that there was a serpent in their midst–that this white boy WAS CLEARLY A WRONG MOTHERFUCKER. That they had to pay for their faith, pay for their sense of love and inclusion, pay for their All-American sense of solidarity and brotherhood with their very lives–well…what can you say?

Antietam Dead

Simply that they represent the latest in a long line of African-American martyrs; victims of our endemic, deeply seeded, festering racism…of the ORIGINAL SIN by which this country was initially birthed, and which has remained largely unspoken, and wholly unresolved since the Founding Fathers, in their haste to reach a consensus and ratify the Constitution, fashioned an uneasy compromise which deemed slaves equal to 3/5th of a white man, for the purposes of putting congressmen from the more sparsely populated southern states on a roughly equal numerical footing with northern members of the House of Representatives.

Confederate States

And much as the blood of Jesus was supposed to wash away the stain of original sin, so the death and sacrifice of the Civil War was meant to symbolically resolve this fatal flaw in our collective covenant.  Alas, it would appear that some members of the Confederacy might want to check their data plan, because they never received the text message. “Oh, the flag is meant to signify a sense of heritage, not of hate.”  Well now, that is surely a canard.  I mean, how many more innocent people must die before we finally toss this divisive imagery and specious rhetoric in the compost heap of history where it belongs?

Birmingham, 1963_D

Maybe the time for forgiveness is past. Surely it is not possible to forgive, let alone comprehend, how someone could blow up four little girls attending Sunday School in a Birmingham church, or riddle the bodies of nine devout, welcoming, inclusive Christians in a historic Charleston church with bullets–all victims of some misguided, misanthropic sense of white privilege. I was inspired to start writing this missive on my Facebook Timeline by the posts of a very dear old friend, and fellow Knicks fan (speaking of something crying out for absolution), who was struggling with mixed emotions regarding black rage and his sense of moral and cultural impotence as it relates to the efficacy of…once again…for the umpteenth time…speaking in terms of prayer and forgiveness, when for all the world it feels like the empty gesture of some docile Uncle Toms.  I don’t see it that way, but then, I ain’t black.  Nor do I necessarily see myself as whiteBirmingham, 1963_B…by which I mean to say, that white has naught to do with melatonin levels, but represents a peculiar state of mind, a vague sense of superiority and entitlement.  I’ll cop to being beige…let’s leave it at that.

Which is why, alas, when all is said and done, despite this gusher of verbiage. imbued as I might be in black music and black culture, as a beige outsider, I’m not sure I’ve said anything or have much to offer in the way of succor, outside of empathy, my own sense of outrage and the desire to extend comfort and support.  Still, even as a non-believer (in organized religion, not in spirit and consciousness), what I just witnessed, as one after another, members of the victims’ immediate families could find it in their hearts, to abide by their sense of what Jesus would do, and extend the olive branch of forgiveness to this demented dweeb…well, even if I am unable to co-sign that notion, the sheer decency of that gesture, frankly leaves me speechless and in awe of their humanity.

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Bob Belden [1956-2015]

Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.

Jimi Hendrix

Bob Belden with Iranian MusiciansOn this past Sunday, May 17, my friend and colleague, saxophonist-producer Bob Belden, suffered a massive heart attack.  By the time the medics got to him, his pulse had ceased for 15 minutes, and he ended up in Lenox Hill Hospital on life-support, from which he was removed at 1:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon, May 20th–a wrenching, unexpected loss, all the more stunning, coming as it did hard on the heels of Bruce Lundvall’s passing.

Lundvall, a respected music executive,  much-beloved for his support and advocacy of jazz music from the corporate side of the street, had been afflicted for some time with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, while Belden was a composer and conceptualist with a historian’s deep devotion to jazz’s roots, still very much in the game.

Nevertheless, despite this Grammy-Award winner’s well-deserved reputation not only as a composer but as an archivist and annotator, he held an iconoclast’s conviction that an artist’s responsibility was to move the music forward and connect to people–seemingly positioned for a bold new period of creative freedom and outreach, when he was suddenly taken from us.

Over the years, it seems that whenever someone dear to me transitions over to the shadow side of the mirror, I find myself referencing the title song from Alice Coltrane’s (aka; Turiya) 1970 recording, JOURNEY IN SATCHINDANANDA, with bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Rashied Ali and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (which was also the very first live jazz event I ever attended–the beginning of my jazz journey–at Slugs on 3rd Street between Avenues B & C in September of 1970).

Bob Belden As A Young Dude

There is an ineffable, timeless, vaguely Carnatic quality to Cecil McBee’s richly inflected bass vamp and of course, the prayerful drone of Turiya’s harp (with all of the metaphorical overtones inherent in that instrument’s ecstatic sound and Coltrane’s suggestions of both ragas and the sanctified church).

And the manner in which Pharoah’s soprano saxophone swoops in with fluttering, flute-like cadences, projecting all at once such an air of meditative wonder and mystery, of loss and of acceptance, that I find this at once to be perhaps the most poignant, yet consoling pieces of music in my sonic library.

I’d be fronting if I let on that I am presently consoled by this music, though it surely offers a road map for resolution, seeing as how me and so many of my contemporaries presently find ourselves at that stage in our rites of passage where we strongly suspect that we’re playing with the house’s money.  You never know–and no one had a clue that Brother Belden was about to cash out.

Bob Belden in Iran

Still, in reflecting on his body of his work and enduring spirit, one has to smile, because Bob Belden was a great character, a genuinely original thinker, an authentically funny motherfucker, and a truly committed musician with a genuine sense of wonder and outreach–who never let his reverence for history interfere with his pursuit of mystery.

Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life.

Art Blakey

As such, his recent musical journey to Iran–a heroic gesture not only of visionary compassion and spiritual outreach, but of great historical/humanistic insight–seemed to this scribe to mark a real creative uptick for an artist trying to ride out the economic/emotional roller coaster endemic to such a journey.  A meaningful leap forward from an artist with much left to give and something significant to say.

I was genuinely happy for Bob, and quite proud of him as well for bucking the received wisdom of those armchair warriors who can’t find the funds to support our returning veterans, yet are all too eager to roll out the heavy ordinance and bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran.  A really gutsy, meaningful gesture–which I related to him with considerable passion both in phone conversations and messages over the past few months.

And just this past week, I received a download from CHESKY Records of IN AN AMBIENT WAY, a wonderful project Bob had recently completed with trumpet master Wallace Roney and an all-star super-group, dubbed Powerhouse (featuring drummer Lenny White, bassist Daryl Johns, guitarist Oz Noy and keyboardist Kevin Hays), paying loving homage to that transitional period of Miles Davis’ post-MILES IN THE SKY explorations, which the cats at JALC seem to have peremptorily dismissed as superficial and irrelevant; the implication being that this represented a phase of the master trumpeter’s work where he’d ceased to matter–nor should it be regarded as worthy of commensurate admiration and esteem.

Bob Belden With ScoreThis writer, Brother Belden, and the members of Powerhouse beg to differ.

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” William Faulkner once wrote, and while Bob Belden knew as much about America’s musical, cultural and historical antecedents as anyone I have ever encountered, he steadfastly refused to reside there, even if from time to time he reflected with considerable passion on some of its hidden gems.

Now he IS there, himself an unwilling conscript in the rear-view mirror of history…and the suddenness with which he was wrenched from our midst is still raw and disorienting to me; IN AN AMBIENT WAY is just hitting the streets as we speak, while DVD and CD documentation of Bob’s musical journey through Iran is slated for release latter in 2015.

A sigh and a smile then for Bob Belden (with a wink and a nod in the general direction of his Grammy-Award winning score to THE BLACK DAHLIA), one of the real good guys in American music, going out on a creative/compassionate high note, speaking up for the better angels of our nature both as creative artists and as human beings–as if to say the commonality which bonds American dawgs and Persian kats is so much stronger and more meaningful than the enmity of old men.

Bob Belden: a saxophonist and composer of considerable distinction, and a mensch by any other name.

Bob Belden Photographs Iranian Audience

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Lew Soloff Goes On And On…With A Song In His Heart

Lew Soloff was a great trumpeter who was the epitome of a cross-over musician.  He made everyone around him sound good…a real team player.

Dave Liebman

YES, I HAD COPIES OF THE FIRST TWO BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS ALBUMS.  Lew_SoloffEVERYBODY DID, BACK IN THE DAY.

YOU KIDDING ME?

BUT AS I WENT THROUGH MY MUSICAL RITES OF PASSAGE DURING THE EARLY 1970S, MY REFERENCE POINTS FOR THE ARTISTRY OF TRUMPET MASTER LEW SOLOFF WERE FORGED IN A MUCH MORE OBSCURE CONTEXT…DURING THE MANY TIMES I MADE THE TREK FROM LONG ISLAND TO A FUNKY-BUTT CLUB ON MANHATTAN’S LOWER EAST SIDE–TO IMMERSE MYSELF IN THE MUSIC OF MY NEW FOUND HERO, DRUMMER ELVIN JONES.

THERE WERE NIGHTS AT SLUGS, LOCATED ON EAST 3RD STREET BETWEEN AVENUES B AND C, WHERE I WAS LITERALLY THE ONLY LISTENER IN ATTENDANCE. I’D ORDER A MUG OF WHITE WINE FOR A BUCK, AND POSITION MYSELF DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF ELVIN’S BASS DRUM, AND JUST GLORY IN THE LUMINESCENCE OF HIS CONCEPTION, AS MISTER JONES AND BASSIST GENE PERLA KEPT SAXOPHONISTS DAVE LIEBMAN AND STEVE GROSSMAN PULSATING ON TECTONIC PLATES OF RHYTHM.

Steve Grossman_Gene Perla_Dave Liebman_Elvin Jones [1971]

Steve Grossman, Gene Perla, Elvin Jones and Dave Liebman

BOTH RESPONDED WITH SUCH UNBRIDLED PASSION AND VIRTUOSITY THAT I NEVER EVEN REMOTELY SUSPECTED THAT THIS REPRESENTED, FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, AMONG THEIR VERY FIRST BIG-TIME PROFESSIONAL GIGS (ALTHOUGH DAVE HAD TOURED WITH TEN WHEEL DRIVE AND APPRENTICED WITH ANOTHER LEGENDARY DRUMMER, PETE LAROCA, WHILE STEVE TOOK OVER THE SAXOPHONE CHAIR FROM NO LESS AN ICON THAN WAYNE SHORTER, IN THAT MILES AT THE FILLMORE EAST ENSEMBLE WITH CHICK COREA, KEITH JARRETT, DAVE HOLLAND AND AIRTO).

NEVER MATTERED TO ELVIN, GENE, DAVE AND STEVE IF THERE WERE ONE PERSON IN ATTENDANCE OR A HUNDRED. THEY PLAYED AS IF THEIR LIVES DEPENDED ON IT; AS IF THIS WAS THE LAST GIG THEY WERE EVER GOING TO PLAY. THEY WERE INSPIRED BY THE MUSIC ITSELF, REFLECTING THAT SEARCHING TRADITION AND TOTAL SPIRITUAL COMMITMENT OF THE LATE JOHN COLTRANE.

Elvin Jones Big Tie by Chuck StewartHOWEVER, THERE WERE SOME NIGHTS WHEN ELVIN WAS EVEN MORE FIRED UP, AND THOSE GENERALLY OCCURRED WHEN LEW SOLOFF SHOWED UP TO SIT IN WITH HIS TRUMPET.

THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT THE SOUND AND FEEL OF A GREAT TRUMPET PLAYER AND A MASTER DRUMMER, THE INTERMINGLING OF ALL THAT BRASS AND BRONZE, THAT IS SINGULAR TO JAZZ: THINK CLIFFORD BROWN AND BOOKER LITTLE WITH MAX ROACH; THINK LEE MORGAN AND FREDDIE HUBBARD WITH ART BLAKEY; THINK MILES DAVIS WITH PHILLY JOE JONES AND TONY WILLIAMS. ELVIN WAS OFTEN INSPIRED TO CALL OUT THE TRUMPETER’S NAME (“YEAH, LEW, BABY!”) WHEN IN THE THROES OF THEIR CONVERSATIONAL COMMUNION, AND THE WHOLE BAND SEEMED TO DERIVE A SIGNIFICANT BOOST TO THEIR ALREADY FORMIDABLE LEVEL OF PASSION, WHEN LEW CAME BY TO JOIN THEM.

Lew Soloff with BS&T

Lew Soloff with BS&T

FROM BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS TO ELVIN JONES?

NOT AS MUCH OF A STRETCH AS YOU WOULD THINK FOR A MUSICIAN’S MUSICIAN SUCH AS LEW SOLOFF, WHO CAME OF AGE AMONG A GENERATION OF PLAYERS WHO TOOK PRIDE NOT ONLY IN THEIR BEBOP ARTISTRY, BUT IN THEIR ABILITY TO BE TRUE WORKING MUSICIANS IN THE BEST SENSE OF THAT TERM; TO MAKE GIGS, AND TREAT EACH ONE AS SPECIAL, BE IT SOME LIGHTWEIGHT CATSKILLS HANG, A HUMBLE BAR MITZVAH OR A JINGLE DATE, LET ALONE THE FORMIDABLE READING DEMANDS OF A BROADWAY SHOW, A SYMPHONIC WORK OR A BIG BAND.

SURE, LEW SOLOFF GARNERED A LOT OF ATTENTION FROM HIS WORK IN ONE OF THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL CROSSOVER/JAZZ-ROCK GIGS WITH BLOOD SWEAT & TEARS. BUT HE COULD ALSO BE CALLED UPON TO PLAY “LEGIT” TRUMPET IN THE CLASSICAL SENSE, TO BRING A COMMANDING PRESENCE TO BOTH LEAD AND ENSEMBLE FUNCTIONS IN A TRUMPET SECTION, AND TO SOLO WITH INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY IN JAZZ-ROCK, MODERN JAZZ AND CLASSICAL SETTINGS.

Gil Evans, by Allan Tannenbaum

Gil Evans

AS SUCH, OVER THE YEARS, HE MADE A SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTION TO THOSE WONDERFUL GIL EVANS BIG BANDS THAT USED TO HOLD COURT AT SWEET BASIL IN THE VILLAGE, TO JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ENSEMBLES.  YOU NAME IT. LEW SOLOFF WAS A PRO’S PRO, AND A TRUMPETER PLAYER’S TRUMPETER. HE COULD BE JUST AS FORCEFUL OR AS INVISIBLE AS THE MUSIC REQUIRED.

LEW SOLOFF DIDN’T NEED TO BE A LEAD DOG JUST TO PULL THE SLED.

I LAST HEARD LEW SOLOFF LIVE IN JANUARY OF 2014, WHEN HE LENT A BRILLIANT TOUCH OF VOCALIZED COUNTERPOINT TO THE ARTISTIC CONCEPTION OF VOCALIST TESSA SOUTER’S VERY ORIGINAL APPROACH TO A CHAMBER-STYLED ENSEMBLE DOWNTOWN AT THE 55 BAR IN SHERIDAN SQUARE.

(LIVING AS I DO NEAR THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE, EVERYTHING IS NECESSARILY DOWNTOWN.)

Lew Soloff & Tessa Souter [Iridium, Sepetmeber 2014]

Lew Soloff & Tessa Souter [Iridium, September 2014]

LEW WAS…WELL, LEW WAS LEW, ABLE TO TEMPER HIS CONCEPTION TO THE DEMANDS OF THE MOMENT, WITHOUT HOLDING BACK, YET NEVER OFFHANDEDLY IMPOSING HIS EGO ON THE MUSIC. WHATEVER WAS REQUIRED, BE IT HEAVY OR LIGHT, LEW HAD THE SKILL AND THE KNOWLEDGE AND THE SENSITIVITY TO MAKE THE MUSIC COME OUT RIGHT.

SO FOR LEW TO LEAVE US SO SUDDENLY, A YOUNG MAN OF 71, FROM A MASSIVE HEART ATTACK, IS AS STUNNING A LOSS AS WHEN HIS OWN MUSICAL COLLEAGUE, PIANIST MULGREW MILLER, SUCCUMBED TO A STROKE, AN EVEN YOUNGER MAN OF 57, BACK IN THE SPRING OF 2013.  YOU DON”T REPLACE CATS LIKE THAT.

[SIGH.  I RECKON WE’RE ALL PLAYING WITH THE HOUSE’S MONEY.]

IT WAS BACK AROUND 1998-1999, THAT THE NOTED PIANIST, CLUB-OWNER, RACONTEUR AND TIRELESS ADVOCATE FOR MODERN JAZZ, THE ESTIMABLE LORD TODD BARKAN, ENGAGED ME TO DO THE LINER NOTES FOR ONE OF LEW SOLOFF’S ALL-TOO INFREQUENT RECORDINGS AS A LEADER, A SESSION WHICH TODD HAD CO-PRODUCED: WITH A SONG IN MY HEART.

Todd Barkan and Miles Davis

Todd Barkan Invokes Louis Armstrong & Miles Davis

IT FEATURED AN ENSEMBLE ONE MIGHT LIKEN TO THE THE FAMED MURDERER’S ROW OF THE 1927 NEW YORK YANKEES, VERILY, EACH MAN A DUDE: PIANIST MULGREW MILLER, BASSIST GEORGE MRAZ AND DRUMMER VICTOR LEWIS.

I THUS ENJOYED THE PLEASURE OF AN EXTENDED HANG WITH LEW SOLOFF: BOTH TO REPRISE HIS COMING OF AGE AS A MUSICIAN, AND TO BRING INTO FOCUS THE MUSICAL VALUES WHICH SHAPED THE ENSEMBLE CHARACTER OF THIS ELEGANTLY UNDERSTATED AND VERY SOFTLY FOCUSED RECITAL, IN WHICH, BY AND LARGE (THE TITLE TUNE TAKING ON A MORE FORCEFUL APPROACH), BALLADS AND LEW’S HARMON MUTED TRUMPET DEFINED THE RECORDING’S SOUND SIGNATURE.

(UPON REFLECTION, ENGAGING LEW IN THE INTERVIEW PROCESS WAS ANALOGOUS TO THE GIVE AND TAKE, THE CALL AND RESPONSE ONE MIGHT ENJOY IN PLAYING WITH HIM ON A BANDSTAND–RIGHT UP THERE WITH OTHER CHERISHED MEMORIES OF ENGAGING GIANTS THE LIKES OF SONNY ROLLINS, HERBIE HANCOCK AND CLARK TERRY.)

WHILE WHAT FOLLOWS, IS A DISTILLATION OF CONVERSATIONS RELATING VERY MUCH TO A SPECIFIC PROJECT, AT A PARTICULAR TIME AND PLACE, IT NEVERTHELESS AFFORDS US THE OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE THE MEASURE OF A VERY SWEET MAN, AN ALL-AROUND MUSICIAN AND A TRUMPET MASTER OF THE VERY HIGHEST ORDER.

* * * * * * * * *

Lew Soloff1With A Song In My Heart is a summit meeting of jazz virtuosos, so confident in their mastery, that they’re able to strip away all artifice and zero in on the liquid cherry center of collective improvisation: tune and tempo. This is a session that invites you to immerse yourself fully in its lyric details, or to daydream away to its deep, easygoing grooves. With A Song In My Heart sings and swings, and Lew Soloff chairs this recital with the elegance and tranquility of a horn player for whom the trumpet’s technical challenges have long ago been surmounted.

On With A Song In My Heart, Soloff plays with such grace and ease, with an economy of means and such a real sense of nuance and shading, that it puts me in mind of another paradigm of brass refinement, Clark Terry—the Johnny Hodges of the trumpet. Soloff’s devotion to the music so transcends the technical challenges of the instrument, it’s tempting to overlook how hard it is to make it look so easy. Indeed Soloff plays like a man with nothing to prove, save for his deep devotion to the virtues of a song-like tone and a beautifully sculpted phrase.

Soloff’s Harmon-muted ruminations are so richly adorned with timbral and textural details, so lovingly punctuated by shrewd syncopations and telling silences, that one is reminded anew of the trumpet’s capacity not simply for brash rhythmic excitement but for sublime, voice-like melodic invention.

Lew Soloff With A Song In My Heart [Front Cover]“A long-time goal of mine, from listening to people like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, has always been to play something simply and emotionally,” Soloff explains.

“And there are many ways of doing it. There are people who play a lot of notes, and there are people who don’t play a lot of notes. But I have a particular fascination with the people who don’t. Like, what is that quality that makes them so special? And that’s the thing about this record that I like so much.”

Lew Soloff With A Song In My HeartWhich is why, in a sense, With A Song In My Heart represents the artistic apex of a long, circuitous creative arc—the culmination of Soloff’s life-long fascination with the instrument’s capacity for vocal expression.

Born on February 20, 1944, Soloff’s deep spiritual connection to the trumpet incubated away subliminally in the archives of his mind for years and years, until in a flash of memory, he realized the true origins of his artistic inspiration. “I was raised in Brooklyn until I was five,” Soloff recalls.

“I moved to Lakewood, New Jersey in the second grade. When I was in the fourth grade, they gave everybody a tonette, right. And then in the fifth grade they asked everybody what instrument they wanted to play, and I picked the trumpet, I thought, because it was shiny. Quite honestly that’s the reason I consciously thought that I played the trumpet, until I was in college, when I realized the real reason. I was walking back to the dormitory from classes one night, and I started to remember Roy Eldridge’s solo from “After You’ve Gone” with Gene Krupa, a record my grandmother and grandfather had in the house when I was like four or five.

“And back then I used to listen to Louis Armstrong, because of my Uncle, who was a show piano player named Jesse Solomon. He turned me on to Louis, and I was listening to records like “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music” and especially “Shoe Shine Boy.” On the former he executes a scale where he goes up very, very sweetly to a high G on the trumpet, and that kind of turned me on to the upper register of the instrument. But I wasn’t conscious of this when I first picked up the trumpet, yet that was my introduction to music, and I began playing trumpet when I was ten. And after doing my first job in the Catskills when I was fifteen, I decided to be a musician because I had so much fun hanging around the musicians and entertainers. I just knew that this was my thing.”

As a young jazz fan, making my way through the catacombs of Manhattan it seemed as though everywhere I turned up, every other disc I laid my hands on, there was Lew Soloff. When I picked up on those early Blood Sweat And Tears records, there was Lew Soloff. Caught a performance by the Gil Evans Big Band, and there was Lew Soloff. Went down to the Lower East Side to hear Elvin Jones at Slugs and the drummer would just light up like a Christmas tree whenever Lew Soloff dropped in from another job to add his trumpet to the mix.

Lew Soloff3While perusing the credits to some singer’s record, inevitably Lew Soloff’s name would pop up.

Live or in the studio, it didn’t seem to make much difference what the music was or what you needed. Jazz or Latin. Instrumental or vocal charts. Improvisation or sight reading. Soloist or section man. Middle register lyricism or upper register screaming.  If you needed a trumpet player you could bet your budget on—then or now—the call went out for Lew Soloff, the ultimate team player and working musician.

“I don’t do that much studio work anymore,” Soloff points out over lunch as we discuss his rich tapestry of experience. “I’m almost totally involved in the jazz world. But coming up, anything I played, I loved—I just wanted to have the horn on my face. I was in the Catskills for seven summers from 1959-1965. And by doing that, I learned to sight read really well, playing different acts every night. I still do job-type jobs, because I have a family to support, and until you really break through in a major kind of way, it’s very difficult to make a living just in the jazz world, without anything else to fall back on.

“You see, the connotation of working musician to me is being hired to play your instrument, rather than being hired to play your music. And it’s all been a lot of fun for me. If it’s a really, really great arrangement it’s a joy. One of the thrills of my life was playing lead with Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand. When I came up there were so many great big band records, and I wanted to be one of those guys on the back of the album jacket, at first, but then I got turned on to some other things.

“I always improvised in the context of whatever little club dates I was doing and whatever jam sessions I could make. But in the summer of 1963 I played up at Kutscher’s Country Club in a show band. And every night I and the other musicians—including Dave Liebman—would jam until five in the morning. I learned a lot about playing that summer, and that I like to play too much to only be a big band trumpet player. I needed more expression than that alone could afford me.”

Lew Soloff5Working his way around the New York music scene in the ‘60s, Lew Soloff’s blend of craft and creativity soon earned him a reputation as musician’s musician, and it seemed as if all the top bandleaders gave him a holler at one time or another.

“I was a working musician on the scene, making rehearsal bands and recording dates,” Soloff says proudly of his formative days. “I did some club dates. I played in Radio City Music Hall. When I came to New York I started working with Machito and a whole lot of really good Latin players, such as Tito Puente. I even played with Vincent Lopez. The first jazz gig I had was with Maynard [Ferguson]. Then I started rehearing with Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson in that wonderful big band, and we rehearsed three hours a day, five days a week. And that was really a lot of fun.

“Then in 1966 [tuba player] Howard Johnson got me on the Gil Evans Big Band, and to me that was the greatest gig in my life. I played with him until he passed away, and I still play with his son every chance I get. I learned a lot about interpreting parts and also about soloing from Gil.

“I was basically knocking around town doing a lot of playing—not record dates, but a lot of playing with people like Maynard and Clark Terry—when I got a call to join Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1968. I kind of liked that first record. I prided myself on my versatility at that point. I knew several of the BS&T guys from the Catskills Mountains and the rehearsal scene in New York, while the other guys were basically from the rock and roll scene. But I had never played rock and roll, and I wanted to be able to play anything.

“Also, I thought I would meet some girls, too,” Soloff laughs.

Since his Blood, Sweat & Tears days, Soloff has appeared on countless recording sessions, but when producer Makoto Kimata heard Soloff playing duets with pianist Mulgrew Miller he was so taken by the trumpeter’s command of the Harmon mute, that he enlisted fellow producer Todd Barkan to help organize a session showcasing Soloff’s lyric talents in what amounts to an overview of the American popular song form…and great melodies in general, from Arlen and Rodgers and Kern, to this Tchaikovsky cat, who seems like a real comer.

Lew Soloff4And in teaming Soloff with pianist Miller, bassist George Mraz and drummer Victor Lewis, Barkan and Kimata assembled a band with the kind of deep intuition and measured restraint that allow Soloff’s music to simmer deep and hard without ever quite boiling over—the type of musicians who make a recording session resonate with a level of interplay worthy of working bands with ten years of collective flight time under their belts.

Echoing those sentiments, Soloff proudly points to this recording as evidence of what can happen over the course of two days when great jazz artists get to know each other deeply and have a blast doing so. “You know the way in which this record begins? With ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine.’ Well, those were the first notes we ever played together.”

Which is how, as they say, you separate the men from the boys. On “Come Rain Or Come Shine” Mraz and Lewis display a gift all too rare among contemporary rhythm players…the ability to render their accompaniments so that they’re practically invisible—plenty of heat, yet the song is never consumed by the fire.  Soloff and Miller dance gently around the melody, until Lewis shifts from brushes to sticks, signaling a telling modulation in emphasis, inspiring Soloff to respond by elongating his phrases ever so slightly, allowing his melodies to grow more elliptical and jagged, yet never losing his focused sense of the song. In like manner, Miller completes the circle with rhythmic/harmonic variations that gradually lead back to the repose of Mraz’s understated melodic embellishments.  In like manner do they approach the title tune, which concludes this session on an up note, swinging as hard as you please; an expressive rhythmic workout that frames Soloff’s more pensive ruminations in sharp relief, without ever quite breaking the sensual, intimate spell Lew and the band weave throughout

“That’s a good point,” Soloff allows. “Besides wanting to explore aspects of the song form, once we saw the way the music was going—with most of the cuts having a fairly relaxed feel to them—it just didn’t feel right to all of a sudden do some crash and burn tune right in the middle of it, and draw somebody out of that mood. We ourselves felt like sustaining the mood that the recording was already in. Now a standard such as  ‘With A Song In My Heart’ is a tune that you really have to know; it has some different things going on harmonically, and we really swing out, but still, I kept the mute in, and we didn’t roar and burn on it. It never got to that place, which is another side of what the band really can do, of course, but this record is very heavily influenced by singers, as it’s built around some great examples of the American standard.”

Lew Soloff6Still, the band achieves a nice sense of pacing and variety in their choice of tunes, tempos and grooves, such as the lovely Spanish tinge on “Deguello” (from Rio Bravo) and the near eastern vibe of Soloff’s own “Istanbul,” both of which benefit from the composing and arranging skills of Rob Moussney; Moussney also distilled down the “Andantino from Tchaikovsy’s Symphony # 4, Second Movement” into a beautiful jazz interpretation of a melody originally carried by the oboe, with a lovely harmonic role for Lew’s wife Emily Mitchell on harp (who also shines on “Deguello”). “In the original,” Lew explains, “there are a lot thematic developments that went through many, many modulations, and Rob kind of edited it down and got us back to the original key in a very nice, concise manner.”

Still, for all the great moments and superb interplay on With A Song In My Heart, the most telling emotional moments for this listener occur on a stunning Soloff rendition of “I’m A Fool To Want You,” the old Sinatra tear jerker. The trumpeter’s solo should be required listening for anyone who wants to gain an insight into what it means to be both a jazz improviser and a jazz interpreter.

The manner in which Soloff reprises the theme after Miller’s solo—walking on eggshells by stretching phrases in a breathless, sing-song manner–the voice suddenly cracking as if overcome by ruminations on some past love gone awry—is the reasoned, tender lyricism of a mature musician, overflowing with feeling, yet devoid of cheap sentiment. It is the sound of an original, confident in his mastery, incapable of playing a superfluous note.

An artist whose time has come, a trumpeter ready for any challenge.

An artist, who if we may be allowed a parting postscript, was still reaching for a higher ideal of his instrument, a mastery of both its hot and cool aspects, right down to the moment he was recruited to join tribal elder Clark Terry, and presumably the Archangel Gabriel, in some exalted celestial brass section, on the other side of the river.

In Lew’s own words, he never stopped reaching. “The universal spirit, or whatever it is, is what infects us, and makes us play the music.”

In that spirit of a lifetime’s journey, please refer to the incredibly emotive amen choruses Lew puts down on our final video clip of “Georgia On My Mind” (from October 20, 2013). 

If you love jazz, if you love blues, if you live the trumpet, this performance is truly Lew Soloff’s Sermon on the Mount.  It’s all here; all the discipline and aspiration of a lifetime distilled into one radiant, extended aria.  I mean, damn.  All soul and no artifice, transcending the horn itself, while seemingly referencing every significant expressive element of the trumpet’s cumulative vocabulary, going back to tribal elder Louis Armstrong, and all of his spiritual children. 

True mastery, but never for its own sake.

In a word? 

SOUL.

And because Lew Soloff never stopped reaching, we will never stop listening.

A peaceful journey, my friend.

Lew Soloff2

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Charlie Haden–Face Of The Bass

The bass, no matter what kind of music you’re playing, it just enhances the sound and makes everything sound more beautiful and full.
When the bass stops, the bottom kind of drops out of everything.
Charlie Haden

WHEN BASSIST CHARLIE HADEN PASSED AWAY IN THE SUMMER OF 2014, HE LEFT A VOID IN THE ARTISTIC FIRMAMENT WHICH IS UNLIKELY TO BE FILLED ANY TIME SOON.

Charlie Haden Bass ProfileHADEN’S WAS A POETIC SENSIBILITY, AN EVOCATION OF FREEDOM AND THE ASPIRING SPIRIT IN ALL THINGS MUSICAL.

NOR DID HE CONFINE THESE PRINCIPLES TO JAZZ IMPROVISATION ALONE.

AT MOST EVERY OPPORTUNITY HE ASPIRED TO EMBODY THE SPIRIT OF MAN AS HE FELT IT IN TERMS OF LIBERATION AND JUSTICE AND BROTHERHOOD.

Charlie Haden At EaseJ, Ocean Way 1994WHEN HADEN FIRST CAME TO NEW YORK CITY IN 1959 FOR A LEGENDARY SIX-MONTH ENGAGEMENT AT THE FIVE SPOT,  IT WAS AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF ORNETTE COLEMAN’S CONTROVERSIAL ENSEMBLE WITH THEIR ADVENTUROUS, FREELY INFLECTED POST-MODERN APPROACH TO COLLECTIVE IMPROVISATION.

WHAT WAS THEN CHARACTERIZED AS REVOLUTIONARY AND DECONSTRUCTIVE, WAS IN NO WAY A BREAK WITH THE PAST, BUT AN ATTEMPT TO FASHION A RHYTHMICALLY COMBUSTIBLE KIND OF COLLECTIVE CONVERSATION THAT BLURRED THE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN FRONT LINE AND BACK LINE, SOLOIST AND ACCOMPANIST, FREEDOM AND FORM–EVOLUTIONARY IN THE BEST SENSE OF THAT WORD…DEEPLY ROOTED AS IT WAS IN JAZZ AND BLUES TRADITIONS.

HADEN’S ABILITY TO MAINTAIN ONE BEAR OF A RHYTHMIC PULSE, WHILE MODULATING MELODICALLY AS IF THROUGH ALL 24 MAJOR AND MINOR KEYS SIMULTANEOUSLY, SUGGESTED A RESTLESSLY SHIFTING, ABSTRACT HARMONIC CANVAS, EVEN AS IT EVOKED THE RUSTIC, FOLKISH QUALITIES OF THE SUNDAY MORNING HYMNAL, THE AMEN CHORUS AND THE GRAND OL’ OPRY.

Charlie Haden with Ornette Quartet [Circa 1961]WHEN THE YOUNG BASSIST FROM THE OZARKS LOOKED ACROSS THE JAM-PACKED ROOM AND DOWN THE BAR FROM HIS PERCH ON THE BANDSTAND, STARING AT HIM INTENTLY–SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT, KID, WRIT LARGE UPON THEIR FURROWED BROWS–WERE THE MOST PROMINENT FACES OF THE MODERN BASS–CHARLES MINGUS, PAUL CHAMBERS, WILBUR WARE, PERCY HEATH.

YEARS LATER WHEN PEOPLE INQUIRED AS TO WHY HE PLAYED WITH HIS EYES CLOSED, CHARLIE WOULD CHUCKLE, AND REFERENCE THAT BAPTISM OF FIRE.

STILL, WHILE HIS EYES MIGHT HAVE REMAINED CLOSED, HIS EARS WERE ALWAYS WIDE OPEN, AS HE ENDEAVORED, FOR ALL HIS CONSIDERABLE TECHNIQUE, NOT TO PLAY THE MOST NOTES, BUT TO PLAY THE PRETTIEST, THE MOST MEANINGFUL–WHERE YOU ONLY NEEDED TWO PEOPLE TO FORM A CONGREGATION, AND THE SOUND ITSELF CONVEYED SOME SUGGESTION OF A DEEPER REALITY

Otherness if you like. 

SEEING HADEN FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE NYC PREMIER OF ORNETTE COLEMAN’S SYMPHONIC WORK, SKIES OF AMERICA HALF A LIFETIME AGO, IMPLANTED A DRAMATIC IMAGE OF HADEN AS A PERFORMER IN MY MIND’S EYE, EVEN AS HIS SOUND WAS FOREVER EMBEDDED IN MY RECOMBINANT DNA.

A SOUND THAT NEVER LEFT ME, OVER THE COURSE OF MANY AN INTIMATE COLLABORATION WITH THE LIKES OF KEITH JARRETT, HAMPTON HAWES, ALICE COLTRANE, PAT METHENY, PAUL MOTIAN, PAUL BLEY, HANK JONES AND JIM HALL–NOT TO MENTION A SPONTANEOUS COLLABORATION OVER THE COURSE OF FOUR DAYS AT OCEAN WAY STUDIOS IN LOS ANGELES THAT I PRODUCED FOR DRUMMER GINGER BAKER BACK IN 1994, WITH CHARLIE AND GUITARIST BILL FRISELL–GOING BACK HOME (ATLANTIC).

Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman1

Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

A FEW YEARS BEFORE THAT SUMMIT SESSION, I WAS RUNNING THE JAZZ DEPARTMENT AT THE HMV RECORD STORE ON 86TH STREET AND LEXINGTON AVENUE IN MANHATTAN, WHEN CHARLIE CAME BY THE SHOP TO PROMOTE HIS CURRENT RELEASE, AN INTIMATE AND CURIOUSLY OVERLOOKED RECITAL OF DUETS WITH PORTUGUESE GUITARIST CARLOS PAREDES–DIALOGUES.

(THE SINGULAR TIMBRE AND FOLKISH OVERTONES OF PAREDES’ 12-STRINGED INSTRUMENT, FRAMED AS THEY ARE AGAINST THE CAVERNOUS DEPTH OF HADEN’S MOANIN’ BASS FIDDLE, UPON FIRST BLUSH REMINDED ME FOR ALL THE WORLD OF ZITHER MASTER ANTON KARAS’ FAMOUS MUSICAL SCORE FOR CAROL REED’S FILM NOIRE CLASSIC, THE THIRD MAN.)

CHARLIE TOOK ME TO LUNCH, WHERE I HAVE AN ENDURING MEMORY OF HIM ORDERING A LARGE CAPPUCCINO WITH A TRIPLE-ESPRESSO SIDECAR–WHICH HE THEN PROCEEDED TO POUR DIRECTLY INTO HIS CAPPUCCINO, KNOCKING IT ALL DOWN IN A FEW SWIFT GULPS–FOR A BRACING CAFFEINE DEPTH CHARGE.

IN CONVEYING HIS ENDURING PASSION FOR THE SPIRIT OF THE BASS, OUR CONVERSATIONS THAT AFTERNOON FORMED THE BASIS FOR A PORTRAIT OF A CREATIVE ARTIST STILL VERY MUCH AT THE PEAK OF HIS POWERS, AND WHOSE ARTISTRY CONTINUES TO CAST A LONG SHADOW UPON ALL THOSE WHO LOVE JAZZ AND WERE TOUCHED BY HIS DEEP SENSE OF COMMITMENT TO THE MUSIC.

IN THAT SPIRIT, AND BY WAY OF A CONCLUSIVE SEND-OFF AND PERSONALIZED LOVE-IN, EVEN AS JAZZ MUSICIANS AND EDUCATORS GATHER IN NEW YORK FOR THE JAZZ CONNECT CONFERENCE + WINTERFEST FESTIVAL, FAMILY AND FRIENDS WILL BE HONORING THE BASSIST WITH A FREE MEMORIAL CONCERT TO BE HELD IN MANHATTAN’S TOWN HALL (CELEBRATING CHARLIE HADEN) AT 7:00PM ON TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, 2015.

I MEAN, IT’S NOT LIKE CHARLIE’S GONE.

Some notes just linger longer than others.

Ginger Baker, Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell at Ocean Way, 1994

Ginger Baker-Charlie Haden-Bill Frisell (Ocean Way Studios, Hollywood, 1994)

The face of the bass is an illusion.

Most see it as a specific instrument, the lowest note, the deepest sound.

But in truth it is the first note, the last note, the one note without which none of the other notes or rhythms would make any sense. The bass note acts as a fulcrum, a pivot point, translating the rhythms of the drums to the melody instruments, grounding the harmony of a song in time and space.

The face of the bass is the center of life.

Since first bursting on the jazz scene as Ornette Coleman’s prodigiously swinging teenage bass man, Charlie Haden has portrayed the face of the bass like a great romantic poet, imbuing each note with its own special glow. Eyes closed in a deep rapture, head thrust back as if hanging for dear life upon the forecastle to some lofty oaken mast as we sailed directly into the gusting fury of an ocean gale.

Charlie Haden and Paul Motian

Charlie Haden with Keith Jarrett and Paul Motian

Charlie Haden still appears in awe of music every time he plays–each silence as telling as the tones which preceded it.

“You see,” Haden explains, by way of defining his muse, “as a child growing up, whenever I heard music, whether it was country or classical or jazz, whether it was a band or a choir, the bass held everything together. It was the fullness that lifted everything up. My mom used to take me to the black churches in Springfield, Missouri when I was a kid, and I used to hear the choir singing, and I always loved the bass. And when I began listening to classical music, I always loved the sound of the bowed basses in the orchestra. When the basses stopped, it kind of got empty for me. They just filled up the room for me, and made everything really warm.”

And for all of Charlie Haden’s prodigious drive and freedom, it is precisely that sense of warmth, born of the high-lonely sound of Americana, which distinguishes his playing.

Over the last thirty years there have certainly been bassists with greater facility and flash, but while Charlie Haden doesn’t play the most notes, he’s made a career out of playing the prettiest. And therein lies Haden’s enduring gift to music, a gift which has lifted the ensembles of leaders like Ornette, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, and has animated his own work, from intimate encounters with the likes of Hampton Hawes, Gerri Allen, Carlos Puedes and long time rhythm mate Paul Motian, to large scale, consciousness raising works with his own Liberation Music Orchestra, most tellingly on his award winning Blue Note release Dream Keeper–a magnificent marriage of folk, classical, jazz and spiritual values.

“Playing a lot of notes doesn’t mean anything,” Haden insists. “I place importance on every note that I play. It’s as if I may never play again. And I approach each performance as if it were an offering. It’s like when you walk into a beautiful cathedral, you have to raise yourself to the level of awe you feel. And that’s the way I try to prepare myself for a concert. You’re in a very intimate relationship with the audience, and you want to convey the preciousness of life to them in a succinct way get right to the point without any wasted notes.

“And I really don’t have any time for waste or tolerance for shallowness. So I look for the notes that are going to make the greatest impact on everyone, and the notes that are going to make something the most beautiful it can be. Whether or not I succeed is another story. I’m never happy with the way I play. I always think there’s so much more in the notes that I heard and couldn’t play. But I make sure that the notes I do play are played with great care and intention, great respect and reverence. And hopefully, it’ll give someone a good feeling when they hear it.

“I really see things as being alive: I see my instrument as being alive, I see the notes as being alive, I see music as being alive–music as being a close friend to you. When you touch music, and you’re in the act of improvisation, it teaches you humility, the importance of being a giving human being–to have respect and reverence for beauty. And before you can begin to grasp any of that, you have to start off with a reverent silence. From that silence you hear the textures of your soul. You see, there’s not just quiet, there’s reverence. And it’s like preparing yourself to be close to music. You have to have great respect for music.”

Which, for Charlie Haden, literally began at his parent’s feet. “I’m from Shenandoah, Iowa. My dad was from Missouri, and my mother was from Baxter Spring, Kansas, and they met and went to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. And as each one of my brothers and sisters were born, they were added to the group: Uncle Carl Haden & The Haden Family. It was similar to the Carter Family. I mean, my dad was friends with Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, Woody Guthrie, A.P Carter and all those people.

Charlie Haden & The Haden Family_A

The Haden Family

“I was born August 6, 1937, and I started singing earlier than any of my brothers and sisters. I sang my first song on the radio when I was 22 months old: `Little Sir Echo.’ Some of our sponsors were Waits’ Green Mountain Cough Syrup, Cocoa Puffs, Sparkolite Cereal and Pillsbury, and my dad had one of those `golden throat’ voices that you identify with immediately. We used to get duffel bags full of mail, and we went out over these real powerful radio stations in Springfield, Missouri near the Ozarks that would broadcast all the way to Canada and Mexico and that’s where I grew up. Then when I was fourteen, we got an opportunity to do a TV show in Omaha, Nebraska. I began my freshman year of high school there, and began thinking about playing the bass.

Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny1

Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden

“I’m basically self-taught. From the time when I was two years old, until I was fifteen years old, I sang twice a day on the radio. It was really disciplined in the harmonic sense, and my dad was very strict about intonation. If we got flat or sharp, we heard about it–believe me, man. So we developed these brilliant ears. And in my case, while I wasn’t playing an instrument, I was singing all these harmony parts.

Bird and Diz--CD Cover“My brother played bass on the show, and he was a big jazz fan. Around 1949-50 he’d acquired some Dizzy Gillesipe, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington records. Now my brother would never allow me to pick up his instrument. So I’d wait for him to leave, then run into his room and play the bass along with his records, and play drums with cardboard hangers on the pillows. And that’s how I got close to the sound of the bass and the sound of jazz.

“The orchestra instructor in school taught me about reading music and bowing. Then I formed a group with a drummer at North High; we called ourselves The Cool Four, right, and we played several assemblies in the auditorium. Our big hit was `Ragg Mop.’ `I say R-, I say R A, R A G G…'” Haden chuckles at the memory of the big time. “And then Jazz At The Philharmonic came through Omaha with Ray Brown, Charlie Parker and Lester Young and Willie Smith. Oh, man.

“I can never ever remember questioning what I wanted to be when I grew up–I knew I wanted to play jazz. Then my dad just decided he wanted to retire and get out of show business, and we moved back to Springfield. He was a fisherman, so he built a fishing lodge down on Lake Bullsholes in the Ozarks, and I finished high school living there. I applied for a bunch of scholarships, and finally decided to go to this jazz school on the west coast, the Westlake College of Modern Music.

“So I was playing bass with the house band on this TV show called `The Ozark Jubilee,’ and lots of people passed through from Nashville, which is how I got to meet the great guitarist Hank Garland, who was with Eddie Arnold. Hank and I used to play between breaks, and go into `There Will Never Be Another You’ or a blues, and he really gave me lots of encouragement. `Keep playing man. Don’t let anything deter you. Don’t stay in this place–get out!’

“And as soon as I had enough money saved up, I hopped a Greyhound bus and started at Westlake, but I dropped out because I was playing with a lot of different musicians every night, and I kept waking up later and later, cutting classes, and finally realized I was wasting my tuition. Then I started meeting up with some of my heroes at varied sessions, and I began learning the language by playing with them.”

Yet even in this formative stage, in spite of his profound admiration for all the grand masters of the bass fiddle, Haden had already internalized a rich, resonant sound all his own.

Charlie Haden in Isolation Booth, COLOR, Ocean Way Studios, 1994

“It was very important for me to get a really deep sound from the instrument. How do you do that? Well, when you telephone me I know who it is because I recognize your voice. Everyone has individual vocal cords. And I really believe that we’re all put together for a reason, and everything makes sense and our vocal cords go along with our structure and our metabolism and our genes.”

Well, if that’s the case you should sound like Eddie Gomez, I suggest hopefully.

“Oh no, no, no,” Haden laughs in horror. “No, I’m not talking about if your voice is deep then you’re going to be a deep bass player. No, that’s not what I mean at all.”

I was just checking.

“That’s great,” Haden says in his distinctive Midwestern twang. “What I mean, is that inside of every human being is their own unique musical voice. That’s why Bird could pick up anybody’s alto and sound like Bird. Why Art Tatum could play on any awful piano and sound like Art Tatum. It was always real important for me to get a deep sound, because I wanted everyone to feel like they were sitting around a fireplace or standing in the middle of a rain forest among these gigantic trees. I wanted a feeling of depth, and that’s what I strived for on the bass.

“I mean, when young players shop around for a better instrument, it’s not only important to find an instrument that sounds close to the way you’re hearing, but an instrument that feels good. Because if the fingerboard and the neck feel good to your left hand, that’s going to make the sound even warmer–because you’re going to almost feel your soul every time you press down on those strings, man. And I always try to play as if I could feel the depth of the instrument though my fingers, and through my ears, and hopefully it makes somebody else feel real cozy.

“And not only is the sound really important, but the harmonic structure inside of the human being is born through discovering one’s favorite notes on different chords. And I think that every musician has their own favorite notes. That’s what makes for a unique identity in music.”

Kind of like the way Ray Brown invariably begins each chorus down low on the tonic.

“There you go, there you go. I mean, Ray Brown playing on this album with Bird and Kenny Clarke called Sweedish Schnapps, has to be some of the most beautiful bass sounds I’ve ever heard; Jimmy Blanton playing duets with Duke Ellington; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Wilbur Ware, Israel Crosby, Wellman Braud, Walter Page; to me, all those bassists had this respect for depth and beauty–having a beautiful sound. When I’m with students at Cal Arts, I tell them to make the sound as deep as they possibly can, because when the sound comes back to you, it inspires you even more.

“See, nothing upsets me more then when I hear someone with a beautiful French, Italian or German instrument, that’s maybe 150 years old or more, and has this beautiful deep tone. Then they drop the action so low that the instrument doesn’t resonate, get a really bad pickup, plug into an amplifier with the treble and volume way up, and man, when you finger those G and D strings, they have a real metallic twang to them, and in essence you’ve taken a beautiful acoustic instrument and turned it into a bad electric bass. Go get a nice old Fender Precision or a Steinberger if that’s the sound you’re aiming for.

Charlie Haden Tells a Joke1

Charlie

“And that’s why I’ve always played on gut strings from the very beginning. You see, on the low strings, the wood sound can already come out, but on the G and D strings which are the high vibrating strings, you’ve got to really have strings that lend themselves to the wood sound of the instrument, and metal strings won’t do that. It’s easier to bow a bass if you’re playing all metal strings, because the gut strings don’t accept the bow as readily as the metal strings do.

So the A and E strings that I use are Thomastik Spirocore, which are metal strings, but my G and D have a gut core and a Tynex nylon winding. They’re called Golden Spiral strings, and are distributed by D’Addario.”

Still, with the advent of rock music (and the ascension of gifted, assertive drummers), the volume levels grew to such a degree that these unamplified resonances of gut and wood became a thing of the past. “I used to just put a microphone in a towel and place it in the tailpiece of the bass, and that’s how we got heard,” Haden shrugs, “but soon everybody was so loud, I had to get myself a Barcus Berry pickup and an Ampeg amplifier just to hear myself. I’d turn the treble completely off, the bass completely up, and the volume very low to try and get a natural acoustic sound, but it was really difficult.

Charlie Haden Tells a Joke2

Tells

“Then about four years ago, this young bass player from St. Galens, Switzerland, Stefan Schertler, came to a Joe Henderson concert in Genoa with me and Al Foster, to give me the very first prototype of his new pickup design. He put it right on the bass, and I recorded with it and it really knocked me out. It was the only pickup I’d ever used that amplified the true sound of the instrument without having a personality of its own otherwise you’re amplifying the pickup instead of the instrument, you see.

“And amplifiers were a big hangup in that way, too, until I discovered this wonderful little Gallien-Kruger amp, the 200MB. They’re very light and compact with one little speaker and they also have an outlet in the back for a mic cable so you can go through the house, which is even better than a direct box. I record with it and do concerts with it without using a DI, although when I’m recording I usually go on three tracks, going direct along with two acoustic mics one up on the fingerboard and one down by the bridge and I mix them together, to get both the body sound and the action sound.”

Charlie Haden Tells a Joke3

A Joke

Yet while Haden’s control of sound has become more acute, years of jive sound systems and intense volume levels have taken a toll on his hearing.

“It’s as if the volume keeps going up and up in my head. And I have really severe ringing in my ears–loud enharmonic clusters–all the time. And every time I play, if I don’t wear protection in my ears, the ringing keeps getting louder and louder and louder. I’ve been to several ear doctors and specialists, and they all tell me that there’s nothing that can be done about it. I even asked them if there were any way to make a hearing aid where I could turn down the volume of everything, and they cracked up.

“So as a result I have to carry ear plugs and stuff with me all the time, even if I’m out walking down the street. It’s a very frustrating thing, because if I think about how loud the ringing is in my head I could easily flip out. Sometimes I can’t even sleep because of it. But I’ve kind of gotten accustomed to it, and I’ve accepted it, and it’s pretty much a part of my everyday walking around life.”

But for Charlie Haden, acceptance is not a byword of his artistic credo. Ideals of struggle and resolution motivate him, because Haden sees and hears things not as they are, but as they should be–as they could be. So when Haden produces the brilliant young Cuban pianist Carlos Rubalcaba’s Discovery for Blue Note, or when he imparts the aura of the Spanish revolution on Carla Bley’s “Dream Keeper” suite, there is something more than music at play–it is, hopefully, an expression of truth and talent in pursuit of higher values.

“People have expressed their feelings about human rights and racial equality through many different art forms for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’d even go so far as to say that whether or not you know what your art is about, everyone that makes an impact in an art form has to be–or has to feel–a responsibility to improve the quality of life.

It’s like spreading deep values.

It’s like spreading creative values.

It’s like wanting to bring some depth back into the world.

Charlie Haden and the haden family [1939]

Charlie Haden & The haden family [2008]

Three Generations Of Haden

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Jack Bruce, Bass Out Front–HCKKH Blues & N.S.U [1968]

Rest in Peace, Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce at MSG [EPA-STEVE POPE]Here from 1968, is Jack Bruce’s modern jazz opus, the too-often overlooked THINGS WE LIKE, which certainly changed my life…looking as I was back then for a more modern conception of the jazz guitar.

This was pre-USA John McLaughlin, from 1968, then scuffling about on the English jazz scene, an old mate of Jack and Ginger Baker’s from their stint in the Graham Bond Organization, circa 1963-1964.

So impressed was drummer Tony Williams with what he heard of McLaughlin herein, and on selections he heard of a Ronnie Scott’s club date with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, that he hired McLaughlin sight unseen, and subsequently brought on-board Bruce himself to join them with organist Larry Young in the legendary original edition of the Tony Williams Lifetime (which you may sample herein on the desperate-sounding, punk jazz cacophony of “Vuelta Abajo”).

Jack plays acoustic bass on this electrifying collective performance of “HCKKH Blues,” which should prove a revelation to those only familiar with his influential bass guitar sound signature–his tone and attack are immense and commanding, guiding the group in a powerful 6/8 improv very much in the spirit of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.

McLaughlin’s gnarly, vocaized tone is raspy and distorted, more a hard blues/Brit-Rock sound than an atypical jazz tone, and some of his asymmetrical phrases on one climactic episode (check in about 1:40) initially put me in mind of Eric Dolphy when as a young pup I first heard this performance, back in 1970-71 when THINGS WE LIKE was originally released.

Drummer Jon Hiseman provides elemental energy and swing, while reed-man Dick Heckstall-Smith is a heraldic melodic focus, very much in his Sonny Rollins mode, through towards the end of his solo he goes all Roland Kirk on us, simultaneously playing both tenor and soprano.

Jack Bruce--Things We Like CD CoverIn light of the three classic solo albums of Rock/R&B/folk/Classically-inflected songs which Jack Bruce unleashed post-Cream in a gush of creativity (SONGS FOR A TAILOR, HARMONY ROW, IN FROM THE STORM), his work on THINGS WE LIKE in general, and “HCKKH Blues” in particular clearly illustrates the jazz peidgree he and Ginger Baker brought to Cream.

(As did his subsequent collaborations with Tony Williams, Larry Coryell, Mick Taylor, Carla Bley, Billy Cobahm, Frank Zappa and further explorations of his unique take on the post-Beatles song form.)

Still, “HCKKH Blues” retains a special place in my heart, as does this elemental collective improv with Ginger and Eric from a gig at Winterland in 1968, “N.S.U.”

Note how time-wise, Jack’s bass tends to push ahead of the beat, while Ginger’s drums seem to reside just behind the beat, summing out into an extraordinary degree of rhythmic tension, inspiring a desperate sense of immediacy from Clapton, as the power trio relentlessly builds to a cathartic climax worthy of Ravi Shankar or John Coltrane–clearly anticipating the coming of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the burgeoning jazz-fusion movement, every bit as much as a host of hard rock and metal bands on the not too distant horizon.

Jack Bruce on Upright Bass

So much more which could be said, and will be said, about Jack’s solo albums, the greater arc of an illustrious career as an improvising bassist and a songwriter, iconic collaborations (such as his power trio hangs with Frank Zappa and Jim Gordon on “Apostrophe” and McLaughlin and Paul Motian from their “Rawalpindi Blues” showcase on keyboardist-composer Carla Bley’s operatic epic, ESCALATOR OVER THE HILL) his most recent set of songs, SILVER RAILS, and certainly a greater focus on more famous, influential songs, such as “Sunshine Of Your Love,” of course. of course…

But herein, in my own little corner of cyberspace, RADIO FREE CHIP chooses to celebrate a more obscure, under-appreciated aspect of the bass innovator’s instrumental oeuvre.  As such, Jack Bruce put the bass out front, giving the electric bass guitar a more prominent rhythmic-melodic role in modern music, paving the way for Steve Swallow, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and generation upon generation of electric bass virtuosos, much as Scott LaFaro’s freely-inflected counterpoint changed expectations of how the acoustic bass might function in a post-modern jazz ensemble.

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Sonny Rollins Ambushed By The New Yorker

This comment, posted by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins on his Twitter page, would seem to say it all.

Sonny Rollins Eminence Gray Head Shot in Red, by John Abbott [2005]

“Hey folks, this is some guy’s idea of a joke.”

The joke in question was a piece, published in that once-distinguished periodical, THE NEW YORKER, suggestively entitled, Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words, which purported to be made up of direct quotes by the artist, and which bespoke the lame, self-congratulatory, frat-boy mentality of their author, but more disturbingly, something quite sinister in its mocking dismissal of America’s greatest original art form—let alone one of its most revered innovators, a man feted by American Presidents, and beloved the wide world over.

Sonny Rollins and Barack Obama“Oh, lighten up, Chip, it was just a joke. Anyone could see that. I laughed my ass off. God, jazz fans take themselves so damn seriously.”

Yes, there it is. Turn the controversy on its head and deflect outrage away from the authors of this feast, and in the general direction of those whom you have wounded. After all, it was only satire.

Alas, that dog won’t hunt.

Had the tone of the piece not been so hurtful and clichéd; if the humor were even vaguely discernible to the naked eye, would THE NEW YORKER have been deluged by such a firestorm of outrage; would the editors (scrambling to cover their ass by erecting a flimsy litigation dome about the crash site) have felt compelled to post an Express Mail disclaimer, seemingly invoking the spirit of proofreading intern Lawrence Welk (subsequently corrected):

Separated At Birth [David Remnick & Lawrence Welk]

Separated At Birth? [David Remnick & Lawrence Welk]

 Editor’s note: This article, which is part of our Shouts & Murmurs humor blog, is a work a satire.

 And-a one, and-a two…

Sonny Rollins In Denmark

I mean, picture if you will Mister Sonny Rollins, minding his own business, ensconced in his new home in Woodstock, New York, reading, studying, and, as is his wont, P-R-A-C-T-I-C-I-N-G: practicing in the devotional sense; practicing in the search for transcendence; practicing for the sheer love of love of jazz; practicing for the joy of being at one with his tenor saxophone; practicing with a purpose—practicing in anticipation of returning to the arena of live performance in 2015, feeling as he does that there is yet so much left to accomplish, so much music with which he might flesh out and fulfill his legacy.

Diminuendo & Crescendo Dancer2

“Preach It, Sonny!”

One would think that after seven decades of inspiration and innovation that Sonny’s enduring legacy of spontaneous invention and transformational experiences–a legacy of promulgating the joy and dignity, the intellectual challenges and artistic integrity of jazz–would be simply unassailable.

Sonny Rollins at 14

Sonny Rollins At 14

Well, honk-honk, you’d be wrong.

You’d think from the smug, slapdash manner in which THE NEW YORKER editors invoked their one-size-fits-all, litigation-proof posture of s-a-t-i-r-e, that they regarded hack hall-of-famer Django Gold as the second coming of H.L Mencken, Ring Lardner and Dorothy Parker. Or that his cornball take on jazz had any basis in reality, humorous or otherwise.

Whitney Balliett

Spit To Be Tied: Whitney Balliett

I mean, this is the same publication, which from 1954-until-2001 (when he was unceremoniously shown the door), published the book reviews and elegant jazz musings of Whitney Balliett, who as a man of letters, understood that the cultural, intellectual and poetic foundations of jazz—both of the art form itself and of its most iconic practitioners, from Armstrong and Ellington, through Rollins and Coltrane–were inseparable from the greater fabric of the American experience in general–and of New York in particular.

I mean, God forbid Balliett should get wind of this mean-spirited, amateurishly executed piss-take from his time-share in the outer quadrants of the Andromeda Galaxy.

We’d be compelled to disinter his Earthly remains and mount them on a rotisserie spit, so as he might brown evenly on all sides whilst spinning in his grave.

Do you suppose that a dictionary definition of satire might afford us an insight into what David Remnick’s cadre of whimsical humorists might have had in mind when they zeroed in on Sonny Rollins as a source of fun for the whole family?

Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity.

Some common synonyms for satire: mockery, ridicule, derision, caricature…scorn.

I’m sure that if Lady Remnick deigned to descend from his perch high atop Trendsetters Valhalla to engage the enraged mob, he’d counter as to how the following synonyms may also be referenced to connote satire: parody, burlesque, caricature, lampoon…

Jonathan Swift_Modest ProposalPerhaps I simply lack the aesthetic distance with which to best imbibe the cutting, intoxicating wit of Django Gold.  To invoke his equal, we needs return to the halcyon days of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay, A Modest Proposal, wherein he proposed a perfectly logical solution to Great Britain’s post-Cromwellian Irish Problem (hell, as late as the American Civil War, signs in Manhattan specified, “No Dogs, Irish or Niggers”).

”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled…”

Fast forward to the city of New York, not long after the abdication of his Holiness, Cardinal Bloomberg; to the July 31, 2014 edition of a publication claiming to be THE NEW YORKER, and it’s Daily Shouts blog.  Let the hilarity ensue:

“Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it.”

Stop, you’re killin’ me, Django. That tried and true “jazz ain’t nothing but a pride of noodling niggers” quip never gets old, does it? Please, take my wife. I needs reach for the Ray Bans so as to bask a moment’s longer in thine penumbra. As Don Rickles’ wife Barbara might put it, “Is that about it?”

“I really don’t know why I keep doing this. Inertia, I guess. Once you get stuck in a rut, it’s difficult to pull yourself out, even if you hate every minute of it. Maybe I’m just a coward.”

Plainly it requires a special cut of Ivy League refinement to craft such a righteous bitch-slapping…in your face, and clearly Sonny Rollins had it coming, the pretentious ol’ pickaninny. Do the name Ruby Begonia mean anything to you?  Somebody, please, sample me a drummer (the real ones are too stupid to lay down an actual beat and repeat it over and over and over)–so that I might commence to riffin’, too.  Hit me.

Coming soon to Daily Shouts: Itzhak Perlman In His Own Words

Itzhak Perlman

Hey, Itzhak, Can’t You Take A Joke?

“Hey, ever notice how few Jewish composers there are?  That’s because it’s so much easier to simply buy up the publishing rights.”

Bada-Boom. Hey, I think I’m getting the hang of it.  Straightforward enough–JUST BE A JACKASS.

Now that I’m on a roll, let’s try another…

“Johann Sebastian Bach is the most overrated composer in the history of western music. He’s racked up more press because the goyim go for all of that sacred music he cranked out in between impregnating his wives to the tune of twenty children. When I think of all the time I wasted on those Solo Violin Partitas, when I could have been doing something constructive, like deep knee bends, or finally finishing Mein Kampf.”

Or as Tony Curtis’ conniving Lieutenant Holden might’ve observed to Cary Grant’s Commander Sherman in Operation Petticoat, “We’d say you were making your point the hard way, Chip”  All in a day’s work for The Satire Brigade.

Still, by what thought-process was Fool’s Gold’s derogatory, petty piss-take thought worthy of publication?  And what so ever did Sonny Rollins do to precipitate such disrespect?

Were Django and his posse gathered at some trendy bar down in the Meat-Packing District, imbibing dirty martinis, breaking wind and tossing off witticisms like discarded flowers, as if each of these aromatic effusions were commensurate with Arpege by Lanvin, when they had a vision?

Furthermore, what’s most troubling to this scribe about the whole dreary incident, is that Gold’s editor-in-chief David Remnick is not some Tea Party knuckle-dragger or in any way, shape or form, overtly racist; hell’s bells, he’s the author of King Of The World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the American Hero.

duke ellington and louis armstrong

cassius-clay-sonny-liston-1964_bMuahammad Ali is an American hero? And not Sonny Rollins? Or Duke Ellington? Or Louis Armstrong?  Or a thousand committed artists still walking among us.  Wherefore then the dismissive condescension of Remnick’s hipster brigade?

Again, the note implicit in THE NEW YORKER’S patronizing tone, is one of downright SCORN, which Sonny Rollins so movingly articulated in a series of video responses fashioned with Bret Primack, an engaged, passionate advocate for American musicians who goes by the nom de plume The Jazz Video Guy and helps Sonny with his web site Please note: In his response, Sonny does not linger upon his own ego, anymore than he falls back on talent alone in pursuit of his muse.  Rather, like a young Cassius Clay, facing up to Sonny Liston, Rollins confronts these wimpy journalistic bullies, and gives them what’s for on behalf of his congregation, his people.  His children.

JAZZ IS REAL…JAZZ IS NOT A JOKE.

Apparently jazz musicians, black, white or beige, simply don’t know their place and are not worthy of cultural accreditation, let alone respect, from the likes of Remnick & Company; surely not commensurate with the sight of LeBron James rising majestically from the foul line for a slam dunk; the symbolic resonance of two black bucks beating the snot out of each other in ritual combat for the soul of the nation; the zip-coon posturings of some faux gangstas in a post-modern reprise of the old minstrel show; or the specter of moo-cow-pro-temps Kim Kardashian doing chin ups on the swarthy Johnson of some lucky brother, in the most uninspired depiction of fellatio since man first walked erect.

Perhaps the penultimate word belongs to another American Hero, who spoke of his frustrations with the indomitable jazz journalist Nat Hentoff, back in 1965, the night after the Pulitzer Prize Committee showed Duke Ellington their ass and invited him to pucker up. “I’m hardly surprised,” Duke said, “that my music is still without official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind. By and large, in this country, jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”

Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, by Chuck Stewart

 And now for something completely different.

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Mop Mop: Max Roach’s Media Encounter With Kentucky Sour Mash

Chip Stern with Art Taylor, Papa Jo, Max, Shelton Gary [Cropped]

Chip Stern with Art Taylor, Papa Jo Jones,
Max Roach and Shelton Gary

Radio Free Chip here.  One hell of a long winter, was it not dear friends?

And was it ever brutal for your author on a number of levels, including an unending series of computer meltdowns–culminating in a very long, harrowing bout of the flu that lasted for the better part of two months and left me a physical wreck.

On top of that, there ensued a whole slew of family and personal obligations, and before I knew it, several months had passed without any RADIO FREE CHIP blog entries.

Woodford Reserve Distilliry

Woodford Reserve Distillery
Versailles, Kentucky

I’ve certainly missed all of you, and have been more or less dawdling along on some content as time allows, looking in time to make a suitable splash with the requisite passion about some great music I’ve been digging all the while.

Little did I suspect that my initial splash would be of old Kentucky bourbon, as featured in one of the more abstract, tongue -in-cheek advertising spots I’ve ever encountered (which a sizable contingent of humorless, politically-correct types on the Internet seem to think unforgivably sexist).  But then who would’ve thought that half a lifetime ago America would have both an African-American president and a growing number of states where sales of marijuana for medical or personal use would be legal? Go figure.

Which is why I was inspired to make a brief re-appearance to share this momentous cameo with you, even as other creative kettles percolate away on my psychic back burners.

Bourbon did you say?

Mia--Xmas Mia In Carolina [12-19-13]

Mia Caroline Stanley
April 15, 2013

Indeed I did.

You see, I was up early on Monday morning, April the 14th, a day before the first birthday celebration of my granddaughter Mia Caroline Stanley (down Charlotte, North Carolina-way, where my daughter and her husband relocated this past Christmas).

I’m presently engrossed in the conclusion of a reading marathon that began when I was laid up with the flu and a non-functioning computer:

Robert Caro--The Passage Of PowerI was finishing up Volume Four of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro’s epic Shakespearean LBJ chronicle, THE PASSAGE OF POWER, while half watching/half listening to a re-broadcast of the MAD MEN season premier on AMC, when peeking out from behind a commercial voice-over, I discerned the familiar strains of my dear friend Max Roach’s solo drum composition “For Big Sid.”

I mean, what the fuck? Parade rest! I immediately came to full attention.

Angry Baby, Cropped

“Who characterized this commercial as sexist?”

No, it doesn’t seem to be the master’s original rendition (from his Atlantic release, DRUMS UNLIMITED), but a pretty righteous re-creation of what is after all, an actual-factual composition, a stately set of variations for the multi-percussion kit every bit as architecturally structured and melodically phrased as a Bach Solo Partita for Violin.

(Reinforcing the musical efficacy of Mister Roach’s formal designs, and his lifetime’s assertion that the drums are a musical instrument capable of every bit as much intellectual depth as a piano sonata.)  Max Roach--Drums Unlimited [Cover]

 

(Additionally, “For Big Sid” has been covered by innumerable drummers who looked to Max as an inspiration, such as Steve Smith, who recently collaborated with the folks at Hudson Music to author The Roots Of Rock Drumming: Interviews with the Drummers Who Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.)

The roots of Max’s most famous set piece have their origins in a dynamic showcase for the legendary drummer Big Sid Catlett, as featured in his famous live performance with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars

These variations in turn derived from a famous 1943 recording by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins of his composition “Boff Boff [Mop Mop]”, which in addition to drummer Catlett, also featured such jazz giants as pianist Art Tatum and bassist Oscar Pettiford.

And to what purpose were Max Roach’s thematic variations on a set of rhythmic choruses by his great inspiration Big Sid Catlett deployed?  Why as a backdrop for a television commercial trumpeting, so to speak, the virtues of Woodford Reserve–a very old, very distinguished brand of Kentucky Bourbon, whose initial distillations go all the way back to 1780, marking them as the oldest of nine bourbon producers in the bluegrass state.

What can I say. Verily, the Rapture must be nigh.

Anyway, here’s a toast to you Brother Roach, the ultimate straight no chaser artist–I miss you every day I’m alive, and think of you with great affection every time I sit down behind my own drum set.

Chip's Drum Set [3-4-14]

And furthermore, as a token of respect, though I’ve never been much of an enthusiast for the spirits (now and again I would imbibe the odd beaker of Hennessy Cognac when hanging out with Papa Jo Jones, just so he wouldn’t have to drink alone), I shall in due course go out and purchase a bottle of Woodford Reserve Old Kentucky Bourbon at the earliest possible provocation.

Is there a precedent for people responding in kind to such media sophistication by actually purchasing the product?

Speaking only for myself, I recently purchased a box of Nabisco Honey Grahams out of solidarity with that company for answering the mendacity of some medieval knuckle-draggers who defamed the manufacturer for producing a commercial that they felt glorified Godless homosexuals in a two-dad family unit.

(“Everyday wholesome snacks, for every wholesome family–this is wholesome…”)

Nabisco chose to turn the other cheek, and responded to this hysterical crank chorus with an even more remarkable advertisement, which further celebrated themes of tolerance and diversity by doubling down on their initial message of love–pointing out how positive responses out-numbered the negative by a whopping factor of ten-to-one.

Likewise, many, many moons ago (circa 1985, if you must know), I saw a McDonald’s commercial featuring Aretha Franklin and Jerry Butler–The Queen of Soul and The Iceman–hocking a gastrointestinal atrocity dubbed the McDLT.

The premise of this commercial was that McDonald’s special packaging, not unlike Miss Aretha and Brother Butler, rolled both hot and cool, homie, reflecting as such the manner in which its soulful Styrofoam conveyance sequestered the grilled  from the chilled–so as to sustain the burger’s warmth and the crispy, wholesome qualities of the lettuce and tomato.  Can I hear an amen?

My reaction at the time was one of both solidarity and pity

Whatsoever had compelled Miss Aretha to lend her name and visage to such a cause?

“Damn,” I thought at the time, “If the Queen of Soul can abase herself for the sake of a fast food burger, the very least I can do, out of abiding love and respect, is to consume one on her behalf.”

Alas, some days later, when archeological remnants of the McDLT had yet to clear my colon, I determined that from this point forward, “Girl, you on your own.”

I trust that with due moderation, my experience of Woodford Reserve, and subsequent toasts to Roach, Catlett and Papa Jo, will prove far more engaging.

Big Sid Catlett Juggles

Big Sid Catlett

Mop Mop.

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Jim Hall–When In Doubt, Just Shut Up And Listen

I feel that jazz is not so much a style as a process of making music.

Bill Evans

Jim is from a generation where people are very, very…I don’t want to say close-minded—but very much set in their ways and established, and have firmly established the way they are going to sound for the rest of their career. Jim seems to be a work in progress. I want to be like him when I grow up. I still want to be moving and searching and growing and absorbing and trying to rework things and unlearn what I’ve learned and then learn it again.

Greg Osby

The guitar is still a mystery to me.

Jim Hall

So, this is how the world ends—not with a whim but a banker.

Paul Desmond

There’s nothing quite like taking a high-performance car out on the Autobahn and shifting into overdrive; opening up the engine; feeling that surge of power as light and sound dissolve into a blur of locomotion. However, were you to downshift into a lower gear, your perspective would be radically altered; you’d not only have the forest but the trees, as the haze of primary colors snapped into sharp focus, and suddenly you’d be able to perceive subtle nuances of brown and green and turquoise with the eyes of a child…or a painter.

Monet--White Water Lilies 1899

Jim Hall smiles thoughtfully at that notion as Django, his little dust mop of a dog, cuddles on his lap. “That’s funny you’d say that. Last year my wife Jane and I went to an overpriced spa in Massachusetts, and every morning they’d organize these groups to take brisk walks, and I was in the baby group because I was always gawking at stuff, looking at things, and I’d end up at the end of the line. And in front of me were all of these elderly ladies, because I can’t really just walk through the woods without lingering on things.

“So I guess you’re right—I’m kind of put together that way.”

Jim Hall olderJim Hall’s quiet, supple artistry transcends the instrument itself—he is the emperor of cool. In the tradition of bluesy minimalists such as Count Basie, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Gil Evans, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton, Paul Desmond, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans,

Jim Hall is not so much concerned with the means, as the ends.

He is a genius at playing next to nothing and imbuing each note with a deep spiritual hue.

Jim Hall is a master listener, a virtuoso of silence and inflection…the pregnant rhythmic pause.

Nor does Jim succumb to the allure of facile pattern playing; he constructs phrases; he makes music: lyrical, understated, melodic improvisations, marked by coy syncopated disjunctions, elegant conversational counterpoint and luminous harmonic architecture.

To this listener, Jim is the Monet of Jazz Guitar–with a painter’s eye for shape and shadow, color and texture, balance and form.

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny - TBB JAZZ FESTIVAL - PARIS juin 1991

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny
Paris, 1991

“To me, Jim illuminated the potential of the guitar by facing and addressing its limitations head on,” seconds Pat Metheny, himself one of jazz guitar’s most intrepid explorers, and Hall’s collaborator on one of the elder artist’s most intimate, probing recitals, the newly released Jim Hall & Pat Metheny (Telarc).

“Jim found a way of increasing the dynamic range of the instrument by his special touch and picking technique and there are dozens of guitarists who have been influenced specifically by Jim’s approach—I’ve always felt that John Scofield, Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie, Mick Goodrick, and myself all have a particular relationship to what Jim hit upon in terms of phrasing and dynamics.

“Yet at the same time, as much as I think we would all point to Jim as an influence, I don’t think any of us sound particularly like each other…or Jim at this point, for that matter.”

“To me, this is the best kind of influence a musician can impart to other musicians: Inspiring you to find your own thing through your own research.”

Pablo Picasso--The Blind Man's Meal“And now I’m listening to all the younger guys in terms of what they’re doing with sound and phrasing,” Hall acknowledges, by way of returning the compliment.

“I would hate it if I still was trying to play what I did in the ’60s,” he says, shuddering at the possibility. “I think I would be out of music. I listen to all those young guys in order to keep growing, because that’s the way my brain works, too. I see it as a family, and we listen to one another, and kind of keep the language going.

“That’s why it infuriates me when people talk about Miles’ ‘electric band’ and put it down. I say it’s none of our business. For me, he’s like Picasso. You wouldn’t tell Picasso to keep doing the blue period, would you? ‘Oh, I preferred your representational work. Knock it off with those warped-looking people.’

“Again, I see music as a family, anyway, which is marvelous—it crosses across ethnic boundaries, gender boundaries, age boundaries, and all of the boundaries that people erect.

“Music doesn’t know about that.”

“I first met Pat when he was fifteen years old,” Jim recalls. “He had braces on his teeth and was kind of a juvenile delinquent. He had sort of semi-run away from home for a little while.

Jim Hall _Ron+Carter

Jim Hall with Ron Carter

“I was working at a place called The Guitar with Ron Carter, and Pat came in with Atilla Zoller. Pat had won a scholarship to some DownBeat camp, and Atilla had been his teacher. So Atilla was taking him around New York. He had been up to hear Freddie Hubbard at Club Baron’s; and he’d heard the Bill Evans Trio.

“So I knew him then, and I stayed aware of what he was doing when he went with Gary Burton. We did a concert at City College in 1982; he played just with Steve Rodby and I played with Ben Riley and Harvie Swartz. We played one or two duets, and then he played some with my trio, and it just seemed like we could play together.

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny2“The thing I love about Metheny on our duo record is that he gets so many different sounds. The thing he does on ‘Summertime,’ I was just awe-struck. That was just one guitar, no overdubs, like a Richie Havens strum. I’d be watching him, going, ‘Wow, look at that, what’s he going to do now?’ And I’m going, ‘Dah-duh Daah,’ and he’s going ‘Brrrrrooooommmmm!’ Then he played this thing he calls the Pikkaso guitar, with 40-some strings; he also played a nylon-string guitar, with a pick and with his fingers, and a fretless classical guitar as well as an electric guitar.

“And then we’d do five or six improvised things, which were literally spontaneous—we’d just look at each other. Those were done in the studio, sort of like refreshers. We would have worked on one tune for maybe an hour or so, and then we’d say ‘Let’s just play something free,’ you know, to kind of blow all the cobwebs out. I’d just sort of look at him and we’d start, and it felt like he was inside my brain. It was pretty unreal how he could react and almost think about what you were going to do next.”

Jim Hall & Pat Metheny is the culmination of Hall’s superb cycle of recordings for the Telarc label. Still radiant in the autumn of his artistic bloom, Hall’s work on Dedications and Inspirations, Dialogues, Textures, Panorama: Live at the Village Vanguard, and By Arrangement illuminates his youthful, exploratory attitude about music, showcasing him both as a master improviser and as a distinctive composer/arranger, whose music, though deeply informed by jazz, classical, and folk sources, is truly beyond category (a point driven home by Bruce Ricker’s superb documentary portrait, Jim Hall: A Life in Progress). In a sense, these six varied Telarc recitals find him having come full circle, revisiting the inspirations of his youth, re-exploring his experiences in the conservatory, and re-affirming the directions he began to pursue as an up-and-coming musician in the 1950s—a musical aesthetic defined as much by his willingness to take a long breath as to glory in the sound of his own singular voice.

Jim Hall became the antidote to rote guitar-speak, transcending the instrument’s technical entanglements to manifest a vision of the guitar as an authentic modern jazz instrument. In the process, Jim Hall became an inspiration to the technically challenged amongst us, who while we might’ve aspired to develop an improviser’s vocabulary on the instrument, came away from our encounters with the likes of Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix both inspired and humbled. If not for Jim Hall, it seemed as though the only honorable alternative was to toss our instrument under the first southbound truck.

“It’s an accumulation of things,” Jim points out by way of explicating his evolution. “I heard Charlie Christian’s solo on ‘Grand Slam.’ Two choruses of the blues in F, and it was like a spiritual awakening. Which I’ve never had otherwise—that really changed my life. I didn’t even know for sure what it was he was doing, but it sounded so amazing I wanted to be able to do that. And the great thing about it, is that when I hear that now, I have the same reaction, which is, ‘Gee that sounds great—I wish I could do that.’

“Anyway, I started on the guitar when I was nine or ten. Then I played the bass from the time I was in junior high. And I learned how to play it well enough that I could bow it to a degree. And then later on I did club date things where I played bass and sang a couple of tunes.

“So it was mostly bass and guitar until I got into music school, where I played a lot of piano—there was no guitar. I played piano to get in, and then I played string bass in the orchestra—which have come in real handy. I started a master’s in composition, studied a ton of counterpoint and form and analysis, took a semester of timpani and a semester of oboe, which was murder, let me tell you—I used to black out every time I tried to play it.

Jim Hall as a Young Man“So that’s one factor in explaining my approach to music. And another part of it is my personality, naturally. Some people can play fast. It’s almost like being an athlete. Some people are put together differently.

“Again, I’m having to infer this hundreds of years later, but I was around Tal Farlow a lot when I moved to California. I had heard him with the Red Norvo Trio, which was an amazing group. And then Jimmy Raney was a good friend of mine. And Wes Montgomery…I already knew Wes’ brothers before I heard him. And I’d heard George Van Eps since I was a kid, as well. So my point is, that it’s almost like I said to myself, ‘Okay, if I practice every minute for the rest of my life, I’ll never be able to do that. So what am I doing?’ It was like I said to myself, ‘Hey dummy, do something different.’ It seemed to make sense to do something personal that had to do with me, and had more to do with me than playing the guitar. Also, something that would fit in the context of what I was doing to make a living. So part of it was survival, too.

“So it had something to do with that, and it also had something to do with having gone through a music school [The Cleveland Institute of Music] where I heard everything from Gregorian chant to electronic music—so I was able to see music not just as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Charlie Christian or Bartok, but as an art form. And I didn’t feel as frantic about getting great guitar chops, although working with Sonny Rollins certainly got my attention,” he chuckles. “He sure got me practicing, because that gig was so challenging.”

Jim Hall was a cat who learned to live by his wits, made the most out of what he had, and developed an irrefutably hip, gracefully swinging survival strategy on the bandstand.

And the more Jim turned down his amp, the more intense he became. “I actually use the amplifier, especially now, I think, to play softer. Because I know that were I to play an unamplified guitar loud enough to project even to the second table at the Village Vanguard, I’d have to really bang the notes hard.”

So sure, other players may have had more elaborate floor routines, but no one was more musical than Jim Hall. Sure, Johnny Smith was more commanding; Django Reinhardt and Barney Kessell had more fire; Herb Ellis and Kenny Burrell were bluesier; Wes Montgomery swung harder (than everybody) and had a more driving, angular style of phrasing; Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney played longer, more complex melodic elisions. But Jim Hall took a little from all of them, as well as Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Bill Evans, and J.S. Bach, and distilled it down into a rhythmically sophisticated lyric style; something deeply felt and deceptively simple–to the point where he could blend in…or simply disappear.

Jim Hall_Bill Evans_Philly Joe Jones

Jim Hall with Bill Evans and Philly Joe Jones

For instance, piano players and guitarists aren’t exactly kissing cousins harmonically, because the manner in which the chords lay on their instruments is so different.

Yet Hall blends seamlessly with Bill Evans on “My Funny Valentine” (from Undercurrent on United Artist) and George Shearing on “Street of Dreams” (from First Edition on Concord). And while guitarists spend a lot of time practicing scales, how often can they match the flowing, intervallic grace and vocalized phrasing of the most commanding horn players? Well, on Sonny Rollins’ “Without a Song” and “John S.” (from The Bridge on RCA) and Art Farmer’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (from Live at the Half Note on Atlantic) Jim Hall straps on his flotation device and crafts sly contrapuntal rejoinders, employing hip chordal voicings to engage Sonny and Art conversationally.

(Or as Art Farmer put it, “When you have Jim Hall, you don’t need a pianist.”)

Jim Hall with Art Farmer Quartet

Pete La Roca, Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Steve Swallow

More significantly, on Jim’s first working gigs, the bands functioned more like chamber ensembles than your garden variety jazz combos—so Hall was encouraged to evolve in an unconventional manner. Quite a challenge and a blessing: to be able to enjoy such a heady brand of creative freedom on your first important jobs.

“You’re telling me!” Jim laughs. “In the dictionary, where it says lucky? They have my picture there. I was really fortunate. Starting with the Chico Hamilton Group, and then two different Jimmy Giuffre trios—the one with Bob Brookmeyer and one with Ralph Pena—and the stuff with Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer.

“I was often in situations where I didn’t function in the normal guitar way. I had to either play written lines with Giuffre, or I’d get to write a lot, as I did for Chico Hamilton.

“So it had more to do with Music, with a capital M, than with guitar stuff. In fact, Jimmy would get after me about things in the phrasing. If I had a written part to play with him, and he heard lots of guitar strokes—picked strokes—I think for Jimmy that sounded like tonguing on the trumpet, so he’d say ‘Would you figure out a different way to play that?’ So I got involved in using the right hand more just to set the string in motion, and do more things with the left hand, whatever you call that…legato.

Lester Young1

The Prez
Lester Young

“I approached the guitar, not so much as a guitar player, but somewhere between a piano and a tenor saxophone—anyway that’s what I hear on the guitar.

“I was more influenced by tenor saxophonists like Lucky Thompson, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, and Lester Young than guitarists. I loved Lester Young’s sound. He had his own way of treating harmony and melody and rhythm. He played melodies all the time, and found the most beautiful notes within a chord that outlined it.

“And nobody could play a ballad like Ben Webster, and of course I loved Paul Desmond. I was into Ornette right from the beginning and a few years later, when I heard Coltrane a lot, I got interested in those arpeggiated things that he did. And Miles Davis could play silence better than most guys today can play notes—anybody.

“With Bob Brookmeyer and Jimmy Giuffre, here we were, three conservatory guys, exploring all sorts of traditional blues like Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“And some of it came by osmosis through Bill Evans, too. Because I was around him a lot, and I heard him develop.

“The first time I met him he was in a quartet with Tony Scott…this is way before Miles, like in 1955-1956. This was with Paul Motian in Chicago when I was there with Chico Hamilton, and they were playing some other place where I stopped in to hear them. And my memory is that then Bill was playing somewhere between Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano…that is, like Bud Powell, but across the bar lines. But it still was very personal. And then I heard him when he joined Miles Davis, and I worked opposite him with Jimmy Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer. And that would’ve been like 1958 or so.

“So I heard Bill a lot, and because of the types of groups I was in, I paid particular attention to the piano players in other groups to see what they did for accompanying. And for me, Bill just brought such a wide range of textures and dynamics and different uses of the pedal.

“And he wasn’t afraid to be pianistic and to listen real carefully. With a lot of those kind of bebop players it had gotten to be like boxing or some kind of macho thing, and Bill really wasn’t into that.

Jim Hall1“So I think I was influenced quite a bit by the way Bill voiced chords and the way he accompanied.

“Like a lot of times I’ll play chords where I’ll leave the root out, because I assume the bass player has that covered anyway. And maybe just some fourths piled up, that you can move easily if you have to. And there’s all sort of triadic stuff, where anything you hear in the way of a melodic line, you can harmonize a number of different ways.

“I took a lot of that stuff from the first George Van Eps method book, and I would use my own chord voicings [plays a variety of different voicings over the basic diatonic movement, sometimes forcing the harmony at gunpoint, like Monk—you will resolve]. Stravinsky did that kind of thing a lot, too. Like a C chord would be [plays odd inversions]…but it’s still a C chord.

Jim Hall & Bill Frisell1

Jim Hall and Bill Frisell

“Bill [Frisell]? I’d describe him the same way I describe Pat—you really felt like he was inside your brain.

“Like I knew that Bill got a kick out of the way I played rhythm. I think of rhythm playing the way a drummer plays the hi-hat cymbal. So my hand is going all the time, and sometimes I’m not actually playing a chord. You just might hear it hitting the strings, and then I’ll play a chord where I think it’s appropriate.

“On ‘My Funny Valentine’ Bill really bails me out on my own solo. He hears that I’m in trouble and he leads me into the next phrase. And when I played rhythm he just instantly stopped using his left hand, because he knew that was covered. He was amazing in that way.

Jim Hall as an Old Man

“You’ve still got to make music, though. All of the technical things? Those are just tools, and there still has to be something personal at play.

“I’d rather hear B.B. King play three notes than hear a lot of guitar players play all night with their zillions of chops, because there’s something about B.B.’s intelligence.

“I always figured I’ve made a living recovering from mistakes. You take something where you maybe didn’t literally mean to play it, and you try and make it fit somehow—and it’s fun.

“So that’s more what I’m interested in—making what everyone does right for the moment and for the music.

“The same way that Bartok did on the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. I think it’s the very opening of that [picks up his guitar and plays the part]. It starts as a fugue, with four or five parts, and then it goes to a retrograde, and pretty soon the retrograde and the original wind up in a unison and it ends like that—it’s just perfect architecture. Boy, I can just get torn up looking at the score and listening to that because I don’t know what that means philosophically, but it’s just gorgeous architecture.

Jim Hall as a Young Man2“All the other stuff is just there to be used in the service of whatever good music, good painting or good writing means.

“And when in doubt, when all else fails, don’t just do something—sit there,” he laughs.

“When in doubt, lay out—don’t say anything.

“I like that.

“If you’re in doubt, just shut up and listen.”

[Originally published in JAZZ TIMES: July, 1999]

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Chico Hamilton & Jim Hall–SPIRITS REJOICE

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The cycles of birth and death being what they are, going on within us and without us, as is RADIO FREE CHIP’s wont—being both a freshly minted grandfather and a devout musician—we inevitably find ourselves singing an amen chorus or two of “Spirits Rejoice.”

CHICO HAMILTON QUINTET

The Original Classic Chico Hamilton Quintet of the 1950s
Featuring Buddy Collette, Jim Hall, Fred Katz, Carson Smith

And so, as we mark the passing of two iconic Tribal Elders by calling attention to their enduring gifts of love and light (and invoking their Sound Signatures), let us now briefly celebrate the music of drummer Chico Hamilton and guitarist Jim Hall, bonded in death, much as they were in life.

Because while there were surely instrumentalists who had more garish floor routines, Hamilton and Hall’s sheer musicality was predicated on more adult ideals: they were committed to fashioning as beautiful a sound as possible, while prioritizing the importance of space–and putting a premium on listening.

As musicians, they possessed a sense of elegance and restraint; a degree of conversational empathy and a collective generosity of spirit that manifested itself as a genius for imbuing the silences with as much power, if not more, than the notes themselves.

Chico Hamilton with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet

Chico Hamilton with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker

In the process, they created a delicious sense of anticipation, predicated on the notion that if you don’t play as if you were being paid by the note, there’s a good chance that the phrases and beats you craft will be filled out and completed in the listener’s mind.

Chico’s spiritual connection with Jim goes back to the golden age of jazz in the 1950s.

Inspired by Papa Jo Jones, Hamilton established himself as a master drummer on the West Coast through his work with the original Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet and as a valued accompanist for singer Lena Horne. The drummer’s 1956 recording, Chico Hamilton Trio (Pacific Jazz), marked his maiden voyage as a leader, and in tandem with the great bassist George Duvivier and guitarists Howard Roberts and Jim Hall, El Chico produced one of the great trio recordings in the history of jazz: not much smoke, but plenty of quiet fire, articulated with a deceptively laid back brand of swinging intensity (on mallets and brushes, as well as with sticks) that is the hallmark of true class and style.

With Chico’s passage on November 25, and Hall’s death on December 10, their collective performance on Duvivier’s spooky blues, “Porch Light,” takes on a special resonance. Dig how Hamilton battens down the hatches underneath Duvivier’s probing bass line with his swirling, swinging brushes…a lost art. And God bless Jim Hall for his iconic tonal purity and groovy post-Charlie Christian phasing; did any jazz guitarist ever swing harder with fewer well-chosen notes?

Chico Hamilton on BrushesAlas, as a scribe, it often falls upon us to articulate the ineffable, and in the process, we often find ourselves reduced to leaning on easy clichés, comparisons and catch phrases.

And was there ever a more unfortunate label ascribed to anyone’s music, let alone that of Chico Hamilton, and to a lesser extent, Jim Hall, than that one-size-fits-all-jive known as COOL JAZZ.

I mean, I’m as guilty of this as anyone, having myself referred to Jim Hall as “The Emperor Of Cool.”

I guess the prevailing logic at the time was that if you were from NYC, you played hard bop, but if you were working on the Left Coast (or were a Caucassian), that somehow your music, your genre was therefore C-O-O-L…as in lacking swing, blues, balls, negritude–you name it.

Chico Hamilton with Fred Astaire & The Delta Rhythm Players from YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH [1941]

Chico Hamilton with Fred Astaire & The Delta Rhythm Players
YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH [1941]

I know for a fact that Chico deeply resented this bullshit, and as a progenitor of what might more accurately be called Chamber Jazz, while he led a number of innovative ensembles, featuring tightly crafted arrangements and unusual (for that time) instrumentation (such as his groups featuring cellist Fred Katz, woodwind player Buddy Collette and guitarist Hall), somehow Chico’s music was bagged, labeled, and often undervalued as Cool Jazz–a label that never seemed to stick quite as tightly to so like-minded a conceptualist as pianist John Lewis and his own equally elegant ensemble, the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The Hollywood connection? The sweet smell of commercial success? Who knows, but while Chico Hamilton’s command of the drums was more timbrally sensual, thematically cerebral and melodically elegant than jaw-droppingly technocratic, he was the finest mallet player and brush master this side of Big Sid Catlett and Papa Jo Jones, and he took a back seat to no one as a group leader (including Jazz Messenger pro temps, Art Blakey), with an eye for talent and how to nurture it within his group aesthetic, without losing ensemble integrity or unduly inhibiting any musician’s more adventurous instincts.

Jim Hall for one gives Chico major props for encouraging his development not only as an instrumental stylist, but as a composer/arranger; and his experiences with Chico certainly supercharged his evolution as a musician, particularly in his subsequent chamber jazz adventures with Jimmy Giuffre’s innovative trios, not to mention the dynamic post-bop ensembles of Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer.

Shall we drop names? Let’s.

Referencing naught but guitarists? Chico Hamilton not only launched Jim Hall into his creative orbit, but also helped provide a dynamic context for the likes of Howard Roberts, John Pisano, Dennis Budimir, Gabor Szabo, Larry Coryell, John Abercrombie, Barry Finnerty, Joe Beck, Rodney Jones and Carry DeNigris. And yes, that’s Chico Hamilton playing drums with ex-sideman Szabo on the guitarist’s hugely influential original, “Gypsy Queen,” from his solo recording, Spellbinder. Not to mention bassist Albert Stinson.

Horn and woodwind players?

How about this excerpt from the famous film JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, showcasing Hamilton’s dramatic mallet work and moody melodic variations behind California native Eric Dolphy on flute (who to the best of my knowledge, was never summarily dismissed as a ‘West Coast’ musician). But don’t stop there: Chico also helped launch the careers of Paul Horn, Charles Lloyd, George Bohanon, Arnie Lawrence, Arthur Blythe, Steve Turre and Eric Person.

I can remember my college days during the early ’70s, when it seemed as though all through the record collections of my jazzbo friends, mixed in with their Miles and Coltrane, were all of Chico’s hugely influential recordings for the Impulse label, including Passin’ Thru, Man From Two Worlds, Chic Chic Chico, and The Dealer–and that somewhere on those LP sleeves, there’d be a photo of the drummer decked out in the fly-est threads this side of Miles Davis.  What a dude!

Chico Hamilton--Drum Shot from UnderneathNor did Chico let the grass grow under this feet over the next 50-some years, continuing to nurture young talent in a series of ever-evolving groups, such as Euphoria. while influencing several generations of musicians as an educator at the New School in lower Manhattan and as an NEA Jazz Master. Chico remained a presence, and a leader, and an inspiration to several generations of musicians and listeners (most notable among them, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts), while keeping a prolific stream of recordings in the pipeline well into his 90s, even at the point when he could no longer mount the drum kit himself.

But clearly, as of 2007, he was still capable of making the drums dance and sing, as this elegant mallets showcase demonstrates.

In any event, as we take our leave of Foreststorn Hamilton, now that Chico is forever young, I have no doubt that many listeners–your narrator included–will find themselves re-investigating his extensive catalog, and digging back into his fascinating history as a instrumentalist and leader. If you count yourself among such sonic Pilgrims, there’s no better place to reacquaint oneself with the late drummer than in a fascinating series of interviews The Wall Street Journal’s own Marc Myers conducted with Chico a few years back on his own JAZZ WAX, the gold standard for jazz blogs on the internet. Enjoy.

Jim Hall? Outside of Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, there’s likely never been a more influential jazz guitarist, if we may paint him with so broad a brush. Because while Jim Hall wore his jazz pedigree proudly, I’m not convinced that he necessarily viewed himself so much as a guitarist, but as a musician–for whom the guitar remained a challenge and a mystery, and who grew old gracefully while remaining engaged by all of the young guitarists who grew up viewing him as a creative father, and who are now tribal elders in their own right.

And all individuals to a man: Mick Goodrick, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein among others.

In fact, Hall performed in Jazz At Lincoln Center‘s Allen Room with his trio just a few weeks back, a concert in which he was joined onstage by the aforementioned John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein. In fact, active and creative to the end, he was due to undertake a series of duo gigs in Japan in January of 2014 with long-time collaborator, master bassist Ron Carter.

The last time I got to hear Jim Hall live, was as a special guest at Sonny Rollins’ 80th Birthday celebration at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater back in September of 2010, and it was frankly a bit unsettling, as he did not appear to be in the best of health, and was scuffling a bit before he finally found his sea legs, as Sonny cheered him on–one brother to another.

Still, here in some concert footage from the 2012 North Sea Jazz Festival, with long-time collaborator Scott Colley on bass, he reminds me for all the world of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, teetering between one silence and another, probing for invisible chords only he can hear, yet fully engaged, as he seemingly melts into the woody tone of his Jim Hall Signature Edition Arch Top.

Picasso, the-old-guitaristOn the second selection, as the bass player’s solo grows more intense, his rhythm playing becomes quieter and quieter, as if he were trying to subdue his amplifier, and invite the listener into the acoustic isolation with which he is absorbed.

And you know what? The more he comes down, the harder this listener finds himself listening. On the third and final tune, a blues, I thought back to some old B&W footage of Lester Young in a televised performance of “Fine And Mellow” with Billie Holiday, from back in 1957.

Though his strength was on the wane, and he didn’t seem to have his full wind, Lester imbued every note with a plaintive life force as if emerging from a deep sleep to recount some dimly remembered dream.

Every time I see it, now, I’m reminded that in the end, as the bar keep cries out last call, it ain’t about your quote/unquote technique; it ain’t about the notes–the human being is the instrument.

What once seemed sad, even tragic, now seems poignant; a special kind of beauty, born of an inner resolve–the will to create and to communicate. The elemental I AM.

I get some sense of that in Jim’s performance at North Sea, as he gets back up on horseback and takes the reins yet again, as if there were time for many more rides, out in the fresh air and sunshine.

Jim Hall Older2I have a lot more I could say about Jim Hall and what he means to me.  Some of it you can glean in another posting on RADIO FREE CHIP, wherein I reprise a lovely sit-down I had with Jim some years back, which originally appeared in another form as the cover story for the July 1999 edition of Jazz Times.

However, better to leave you with a pithy footnote from an exchange of texts I traded with Bill Frisell yesterday morning, as we expressed our mixed emotions regarding Jim (and Chico’s) passing.

“Having trouble finding words today. I am blessed to have known him. Feeling sad. But…wow. What a life. So much music. I’m so thankful.”

Spirits rejoice.

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