Thursday, June 4, 2015

Jaki Byard - The Jazz Tradition and The Tradition of Humor in Jazz

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Humor has always been a part of Jazz. Anyone who has ever read bassist and all-around-good-guy Bill Crow’s book Jazz Anecdotes knows the truth inherent in this statement.

Maybe the reason for this prevalence of humor is because The Jazz Life has always been such a hard pull that musicians have been forced to develop a sense of humor in order to deal with its vagaries.

Jokes abound everywhere in the Jazz World including the play on words found in songs titles: pianist Russ Freeman’s Hugo Hurwhey [You Go Your Way] or Fats Waller’s Puttin’ On The Witz, or Charlie Mingus’ The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers.

Another example can be found in the actions of these humorous Jazz Wind-Up Dolls;

The Stan Kenton Wind-Up Doll: Wind it up and it raises its arms.
The Miles Davis Wind-Up Doll: Wind it up and it turns its back on the audience.
The Thelonious Monk Wind-Up Doll: Wind it up and it disappears.

Or in the humor in Jazz lyrics like the following which were written and sung by Annie Ross of Lambert Hendricks Ross to Wardell Gray’s famous solo on Twisted.

“My analyst told me
That I was right out of my head
The way he described it
He said Id be better dead than live
I didnt listen to his jive
I knew all along
That he was all wrong
And I knew that he thought
I was crazy but I’m not
Oh no

My analyst told me
That I was right out of my head
He said Id need treatment
But I’m not that easily led
He said I was the type
That was most inclined
When out of his sight
To be out of my mind
And he thought I was nuts
No more ifs or ands or buts

They say as a child
I appeared a little bit wild
With all my crazy ideas
But I knew what was happening
I knew I was a genius...
What’s so strange when you know
That you’re a wizard at three
I knew that this was meant to be

Now I heard little children
Were supposed to sleep tight
That’s why I got into the vodka one night
My parents got frantic
Didn’t know what to do
But I saw some crazy scenes
Before I came to
Now do you think I was crazy
I may have been only three
But I was swinging

They all laugh at angry young men
They all laugh at Edison
And also at Einstein
So why should I feel sorry
If they just couldn’t understand
The idiomatic logic
That went on in my head
I had a brain
It was insane
Oh they used to laugh at me
When I refused to ride
On all those double decker buses
All because there was no driver on the top

My analyst told me
That I was right out of my head
But I said dear doctor
I think that it’s you instead
Because I have got a thing
Thats unique and new
To prove it Ill have
The last laugh on you
cause instead of one head
I got two
And you know two heads are better than one.”

Or these lyrics to Dave Frishberg’s Peel Me A Grape as made famous by Diana Krall:

“Peel me a grape
Crush me some ice
Skin me a peach
Save the fuzz for my pillow

Talk to me nice, talk to me nice
You've got to wine me and dine me
Don't try to fool me; bejewel me
Either amuse me, or lose me
I'm getting hungry, peel me a grape

Pop me a cork, french me a fry
Crack me a nut, bring a bowl full of bon-bons
Chill me some wine, keep standin' by
Just entertain me, champagne me
Show me you love me, kid glove me
Best way to cheer me, cashmere me
I'm getting hungry, peel me...

Here's how to be an agreeable chap
Love me and leave me in luxury's lap
Hop when I holler, skip when I snap
When I say "do it", jump to it

Send out for scotch, boil me a crab
Cut me a rose make, my tea with the petals
Just hang around, pick up the tab
Never out think me, just mink me
Polar bear rug me, don't bug me
New Thunderbird me, you heard me
I'm getting hungry, peel me a grape

Here's how to be an agreeable chap
Love me and leave me in luxury's lap
Hop when I holler, skip when I snap
When I say, "do it"...

Send out for scotch, boil me a crab
Cut me a rose, make my tea with the petals
Just hang around, pick up the tab
Never out think me, just mink me
Polar bear rug me, don't bug me
New Thunderbird me, you heard me
I'm getting hungry, peel me a grape
Peel me
Peel me a grape”

One musician who always seemed to find the humor in Jazz was the late pianist Jaki Byard [1922-1999].

Jaki’s way of mixing styles, selecting unusual tunes to improvise on or reaching back into the Jazz tradition to create bebop versions of ragtime and stride piano tunes [James P.Johnson’s Yamecraw on his Hi-Fly New Jazz CD, OJCCD-1879-2 or his Tribute to the Ticklers on his Concord CD recorded at Maybeck Hall, Vol. 17, CCD 4511 come to mind] - are all examples of the sheer delight that Jaki found in approaching Jazz with a slightly humorous bent.

Never disrespectful, Jaki Byard liked his Jazz with a large dose of fun.

More than any other performing pianist, Jaki Byard alludes explicitly to the jazz piano tradition in his playing. Consider his tour de force album, Solo Piano (Prestige ‎– PR 7686, Prestige ‎– PRST 7686). With equal authenticity and conviction, he plays a stride left hand like Fats Waller, atonal clusters like Cecil Taylor, and nearly every pianistic idiom that evolved between them.

Of course, Byard paid for his reliance on the Jazz tradition by giving up the pursuit of a clear stylistic identity for himself. It hurt him commercially; the public, unless it is indulging in an occasional bout of nostalgia, demands individuality and novelty.

Musicians generally have more respect for tradition than their listeners have. Bandleader Charles Mingus, in whose work the roots of jazz are always showing through, took full advantage of Byard's historical sense in his great bands of the sixties. Byard also enjoyed a few favored years in the mid-sixties, when Prestige recorded him as a leader with groups that included Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Ron Carter, and George Benson. One of the great thrills provided by these groups and the Mingus bands is hearing a tradition-oriented pianist like Byard with an iconoclastic saxophonist like Eric Dolphy. Byard prided himself on his adaptability and never affects the pose of "uncompromising artiste."

In an interview with Len Lyons which is contained in The Great Jazz Pianists, Speaking of Their Lives and Their Music, Jaki tells of playing a mayors' conference in New Orleans, where, despite the presence of two marching bands, he was asked to open the event with The Star-Spangled Banner, probably the least improvised-upon tune in the entire American songbook. "Something told me before the job to check out the song," Jaki recalled, "and sure enough they asked for it. ... So maybe it's good to have songs like that in your repertoire. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, When the Saints Come Marching In, Burt Bacharach, Blood, Sweat & Tears - I've used them all over the world and improvised on them. I go from that to Bach, to outside, back to inside, and all over the place."

Not surprisingly, Byard was an excellent teacher, not only of piano but of composing and arranging. He has served on the faculties of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, City College of New York, the Julius Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and several other institutions.

Jaki was a simple, direct man with little pretense about what he did. He understood intimately how varied and evolutionary the Jazz piano tradition is. Len Lyons said of his interview with Jaki:  “I had hoped to discover the training and background that enabled him to re-create so authentically virtually all of jazz piano history. But Byard explains this versatility in his own terms. For him it all comes down to ‘tingling in your spine.’"

The yelps, squeals of joy and the huge smile on his face when he found his improvisations going into “unexpected places” would probably make for an interesting Jaki Byard Wind-Up Doll, don’t you think?

The following video features Jaki along with Ron Carter on bass and Roy Haynes on drums in a 2:20 tour de force on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Recorded in 1961, Jaki was one of the first and, for a long while, the few to play the tune after the Coltrane version came out a couple of years earlier.

Jaki’s playing on this piece is a perfect example of the assertion by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.: “Blessed with a powerful left hand and a free approach to harmony, Jaki was able to work in almost any context, from gospelly blues to the avant-garde.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.