Yet again we find ourselves engaged in a day cruise down the River Styx, courtesy of RADIO FREE CHIP correspondent, the ferryman Charon, who regrettably, was quite busy as the summer of 2013 drew to a close. Inside of three weeks last month, he called home a trio of keyboardists with significant connections to various tributaries of American music—each quite beloved to their devoted fans.
Let us now call their names, and offer an amen chorus, by way of giving RADIO FREE CHIP readers a thumbnail sketch of their respective Sound Signatures—so as to initiate your own journey of discovery.
As a little boy, George Duke’s mother took him to see big band performances by Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington.
His reactions were visceral and immediate
Racing through the theater aisles in pursuit of the former, while so captivated by the latter that he found himself shouting out to no one in particular, “Get me a piano.”
As fate would have it, when he went out to purchase his first jazz record, someone suggested Miles Davis as a good starting point, and providentially the cover art for KIND OF BLUE captivated him. Duke’s subsequent encounters with Miles, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Bill Evans, John Coltrane and future mentor Cannonball Adderley—a veritable Justice League of America—were a source of enduring inspiration.
As for the path which would seal his own Sound Signature, in George’s own estimation, while he may have gone to the woodshed on Bill Evans, given his roots in gospel, doo wop and R&B, he gravitated towards the likes of Les McCann and Wynton Kelly–pianists who imbued their vision of jazz with a heaping helping of blues and funk. As things played out, like any devout student of American music (or the Actor’s Studio), context often determines one’s personal connection to magnetic north; and ultimately location-location-location (in this case Los Angeles) played a pivotal role in defining Duke’s evolution and final destination.
And so, Duke and his working trio came to partner with Jean Luc Ponty, which led to a sideman’s gig on the violinist’s own KING KONG, in which Frank Zappa fashioned arrangements of his own original repertoire as showcases for Ponty.
So taken with Duke was this baddest of Mother Superiors, that it led to a five year collaboration, which compelled the pianist to shed the blue blazer of a jazz purist, and don we now the gay post-modern apparel of a rocking crossover artist (and critically, to seal his aesthetic accord with synthesizers and electric keys).
This in turn begat a gig George characterized as the greatest experience of his life, with Cannonball Adderley, who surely helped supercharge Duke’s love for all things swinging, funky and sanctified, as did a subsequent partnership with drumming juggernaut Billy Cobham, in one of the most popular electric jazz ensembles of its day (wherein Duke could in turn mentor a proud young jazz-crossover upstart like himself, ten years removed, in guitarist John Scofield).
From such a foundation did Duke offer beguiling snapshots of his sundry aspects over the next 30 years, be they R&B or funk-oriented; jazz or fusion; as an instrumentalist or composer; improviser or arranger; instrumentalist and producer. Likely George’s career path as one of the main architects of a romantic brand of pop/soul jazz explains how he might have fallen off this listener’s radar screen, save for the odd assignation when friends pulled my coat to something—much as how my colleague Matt Merewitz of Fully Altered Media texted me on his passing: “What, no love for George?”
Ironic that in taking our leave of George Duke, we are inspired to revisit his formative work with Ponty, Zappa and Cannonball and an engaging all-star encounter with fellow funky jazz icons on The Legends of Jazz Special, let alone a revealing encounter with hostess Marian McPartland on a 1994 broadcast of her National Public Radio PIANO JAZZ radio show to even begin to take the full measure of a man who clearly had a lot more to give when he passed on within a heartbeat or two of his late wife, at only 67.
In the autumn of his years, Walton had just been honored, quite fittingly, as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master—which served in a formal sense to high five Cedar for a lifetime’s work and acknowledge his ubiquitous presence on the jazz scene as a leader, sideman and composer over the course of seven decades.
One of the seminal hard bop pianists of the past half century, Walton’s journey found him defining his Sound Signature through a more extended expression of the mainstream jazz piano tradition than Brother Duke, perhaps because he endured for so long as a centerpiece on the New York jazz scene, who came of age—and whose path was set as a professional—through extended experiences with two of the seminal jazz finishing schools of their day—the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet (1960-1961) and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1961-1964).
As documented on albums such as MOSAIC and on this remarkable video document from San Remo, Italy, on March 23 of 1963, Walton was a key component and the orchestral glue for what is arguably one of drummer Art Blakey’s most dynamic editions of the Jazz Messengers, featuring a veritable roll call of champions: Wayne Shorter on tenor, Freddie Hubbad on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone and bassist Reggie Workman. You can hear the history of the jazz piano in the introduction alone, let alone in his exposition, on Walton’s showcase “That Old Feeling” (located between 31:15-38:00 on your radio dial).
His virtuoso command of the vocabulary notwithstanding, Walton’s intro and subsequent solo on this showcase point to his finely honed gifts as a composer and arranger, gifts he would polish and expand upon on such original jazz standards as “Mosaic,” “Bolivia,” “Mode for Joe” and “Ugetsu,” and as a collaborator with a Who’s Who of Jazz royalty, including Abbey Lincoln, Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Pat Martino, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw among many many others.
With his elegant, full-bodied orchestral stylings, and supportive, self-effacing temperament, Walton often allowed as how he preferred his role as an accompanist to that of a leader, and in part this explains his ubiquity and the glow of assurance and certainty that would come over musical pilgrims upon seeing his name listed in the credits–much as I did a few posts back in our tribute to Woody Shaw, where Walton chaired an exemplary quartet for trumpeter Shaw with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Victor Jones.
Cedar Walton’s mere presence on a gig was like a money-back guarantee that the pianist would be listening to his band-mates as if his life depended on it, and that this…this formal elegance and generosity of spirit would radiate from the piano chair, in the amber glow of his spontaneous arrangements and orchestrations.
Thankfully over the years, despite that touch of reticence, these musical qualities led to many an opportunity to extend upon his gifts as a team player and to chair many of his own ensembles, such as those splendid Eastern Rebellion ensembles with Sam Jones, Billy Higgins and Clifford Jordan, and a series of fine recordings for the Highnote label in the winter of his creative journey.
Elegant, eclectic and engaging, Marian McPartland was a gracious ambassador for American music and an inspiring role model for women in jazz over the course of a career that stretched roughly from World War II until the summer of 2013, when she passed away on August 20 at her Port Washington, Long Island home at the age of 95.
Given her prolific output as a composer and an improviser—let alone her ubiquitous presence as a Peabody Award-winning radio personality, it is worth recollecting how challenging was the path she set for herself given how her passion for any and all aspects of the jazz piano tradition would engender such a paucity of encouragement and positive feedback from her own family–let alone the bitchy condescension of some home-grown colleagues who should have been first on line to lend a helping hand.
A native of England, she was born Margaret Marian Turner on March 20, 1918. Enduring violin lessons at her mother’s insistence, she began teaching herself piano at the age of three, progressing quickly enough to gain entrance into London’s Guildhall School of Music, where much to the horror of her parents and teachers, she found herself inexorably drawn to the music of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Wilson and Hazel Scott, and when she was offered the opportunity to quit school and hit the road with Billy Mayerl and His Claviers (a four-piano vaudeville act), her own father tried to dissuade her with cash incentives, while her mother‘s gloomy take was that “‘You’ll come to no good; you’ll marry a musician and live in an attic,’ Of course, that did happen.”
Indeed, Marian met and married the noted Chicago cornet player Jimmy McPartland while on a USO tour during the war (he was a charter member of the city’s legendary Austin High Gang, who popularized jazz among young white musicians in the 1920s, inspired by the music of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong). Subsequently, upon arriving in the United States in 1946, the British jazz critic Leonard Feather offered this dickish assessment: “Oh, she’ll never make it: she’s English, white and a woman.”
“He always used to tell me it was a joke,” she recalled ruefully, “but I don’t think he meant it as a joke.” Nevertheless, she persevered, and while her husband’s musical inclinations trended towards Dixieland music, she was a modernist at heart, with a richly inflected harmonic palette and a buoyant sense of swing, which came to a creative head in the 1950s when she fronted a trio, most prominently with bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, over the course of what turned out to be a twelve-year engagement at the Hickory House, back when 52nd Street was the epicenter of the jazz world in midtown Manhattan. She subsequently revisited the magic of her Hickory House Trio with Crow and Morello in a sumptuous sounding 1999 release, REPRISE (Concord), one of the classiest, most swinging live jazz recordings of the past 20 years.
McPartland was one of the last remaining live music acts on 52nd Street, before that stretch of real estate between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was plowed under in favor of a series of soul-less office buildings. Self-sufficient and committed, she formed her own record label and remained open to all manner of fresh influences (not the least of which was the music of Bill Evans), continuing to grow and remain modern in the best sense of that term.
Yet ironically, her greatest impact as a musician and an ambassador of jazz commenced in the fall of 1978, when she recorded a series of encounters between herself and fellow pianists Mary Lou Williams, Billy Taylor, Bobby Short, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson for what became a 33 year run as the host of PIANO JAZZ on National Public Radio, in which McPartland created a warm, intimate environment with which to engage a host of great pianists, as well as instrumentalists, vocalists and songwriters from the world of jazz and popular music—a borderless, hierarchy-free format in which she regularly jumped into the deep end of the pool with everyone from the introspective Bill Evans and avant garde firebrand Cecil Taylor, to country music, soul and progressive rock icons such as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Frank Zappa, and fellow broadcast personality (and kindred spirit) Studs Terkel. Her ability to be charming and accommodating, probing and insightful—to create a relaxing atmosphere in which to engender conversational intimacy and musical conversations—made PIANO JAZZ a national treasure.
She recorded prolifically, leaving behind a wonderful body of work documenting her continuing growth as a musician (and a series of highlights from her PIANO JAZZ collaborations) for the Concord label, and in November of 2007 she topped things off with the premier performance of her composition for symphony and improvised piano, A Portrait Of Rachel Carlson, with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Donald Portnoy.
As writer Peter Keepnews observed in a splendid New York Times send-off, “Unlike some jazz musicians of her generation, Ms. McPartland never became set in her ways; her playing grew denser and more complex with time, and even late in life she was experimenting with new harmonic ideas. ‘I’ve become a bit more reckless, maybe,’ she said in 1998. ‘I’m getting to the point where I can smash down a chord and not know what it’s going to be, and make it work.’”
Finally, and all too briefly, a shout-out to Albert Murray, who passed away at the age of 97 at his home in Harlem.
Murray was an influential social, literary and jazz critic; an essayist, novelist and historian; who along with Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis, helped found Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Among his many works, STOMIPING THE BLUES retains a particular resonance for this writer; one of the most thought-provoking, insightful books ever written about jazz and blues. Like much of his work, it is something of a tone poem in praise of our ongoing multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial experiment–for him the blues embodies everything noble and affirmative and resilient about the American spirit.
Ahead of his time or simply right on time? “The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people. It’s the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people. Jazz is only possible in a climate of freedom.”