Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Three Vignettes About Jazz

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

Stories told by musicians about other Jazz musicians usually reflect more about the musician's personality and character than about their music, per se, although as the late Jazz author Richard Sudhalter frequently emphasized: Jazz musicians are their music. The two are inseparable.

The following anecdotes are made up of excerpts from one of the earliest of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter which was published in 1985 [Gene began the Jazzletter in 1983].

If you are like me and enjoy looking at Jazz musicians in broader social contexts, then the following pieces will appeal to those sensibilities.

One Man's Road
by Clare Fischer

“When I read the Jazzletter, I am constantly amazed that I find myself so stimulated. I envy the forum you have created, whether for getting something off your chest or for fine humor. I laugh, sometimes so strongly I'm sorely conscious of doing it by myself. I cry, thankful that I am by myself. I get angry over some inequity you are dealing with. Never have I responded so often to so much from a single source.

You touch on many areas that seem to strike similar experiences in my own life. Language seems to be my undoing. I have, as you have, had interesting experiences in foreign languages. I see such parallels between music and language. But that which is so important to me doesn't seem to mean much to anyone else. And so I know what it is to be a minority in this world.

In whatever area of endeavor — physics, medicine, music, you name it — less than ten percent of the people have real insight and capability. Though the remaining ninety percent are stamped, licensed, approved, given degrees and other approbations by the State, you will search long and hard to find a really good doctor, a really insightful professor, a good musician. Most of them are going through the motions, teachers who have nothing to teach contriving to give the illusion of teaching and firmly convinced that they are doing so. The ninety percent are of course the democratic majority and, as such, make up the membership of the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and N.A.J.E. In this democracy where everyone is equal, few people perceive how unequal we are.

Ears, for example. Most people do not have accurate or perceptive hearing. Each person evaluates what he hears convinced he has the total.

Language goes through its degeneration in a variety of ways, but one of the most common is through not hearing accurately. In old English, those words which we now spell with wh were spelled hw, and even though some scribes transposed this to wh, we continued to pronounce the aspirated h before the w, thus being able to differentiate whale (hwale) from wail, why from Y, what from watt, and where from ware. One of the funniest examples of this deterioration occurs in an Angie Dickenson toothpaste commercial. She does not pronounce the h in "whitest", and since she pronounces intervocallic t like d, "whitest" comes out "widest". Who wants wide teeth? And who wants to save the wails?

The same thing happens with harmonies. People hear to a degree commensurate with their level of understanding. Many are incapable of transcribing solos or arrangements from records because they fit what they hear through what they understand.

The worst ramification is the effect the unperceptive ninety percent have on the insightful ten percent — the American Medical Association fighting off innovative ideas and procedures from the minority; the following of musical styles in vogue by the many and the squelching of the individuals in music. The majority go through the motions, convinced they are playing music. And that is a description of this year's Grammy awards!

When I was a young musician, having first listened to Meade Lux Lewis, Fatha Hines, Nat Cole, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell, I paid attention to pianists. Subsequently I found more interest in the horn players and composers -  Hawkins, the Duke, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster among them. They were mostly sax players, and alto sax players at that. I followed Diz and Bird most devotedly and vividly remember the marvelous unfolding of the bop period. But I soon tired of that unperceptive majority who were aping Parker.

I had a strong black influence in my early years, and worked at the age of fifteen at a Crispus Attucks American Legion Hall with an all-black band. I wore what we called drapes during that period, the only time in my life that I was clothes conscious. I was ostracized by my high school class because of my "mixing". I only knew that this music was alive in a way that contrasted sharply with so much "white" music. I listened only peripherally to the Dorseys and Glenn Miller, being more interested in Ellington, Basie, Henderson and — out of Chicago - King Kolax.

When I went on to college, I roomed with students from Latin America, especially a Puerto Rican by the name of Roberto Fortier. This, the late 1940s, was the heyday of the mambo, and could he dance! I was besieged by Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez and many others. I listened, but did not myself attempt to play this music.

It was about this time that I heard Lee Konitz for the first time and, developing now along more sophisticated lines myself, I embraced his work as a devotee. I mean everything he touched brought response of the strongest kind. I transcribed his solos by the dozen. I copied them on vellum so that I could give them to others. This is the one player who influenced me most.

I never cared for Lennie Tristano. He seemed too stiff and tight-assed for me. Lee was loose, with a melodic angularity and harmonic originality. Then what happened? Lee was the talented ten percent pressured by the democratic majority. "He played a lot of notes, but he didn't swing." He did not receive the acclaim he deserved because the ninety percent said Bird Bird and nothing but the Bird. He didn't sound like Bird. He didn't play like Bird. He was an absolutely original voice.

The era of black political awareness was dawning, and although jazz had been one of the first areas where black-white equality was practiced, now a strong exclusionary attitude set in among many black jazz musicians. Some of it was conscious, some of it was unconscious, as in a wonderful quote from Gerald Wilson in a college listening course: "This was one of the better non-black bands."

To be a white jazz musician in certain circles at that time, one had to carry a passport with visa. Lee Konitz, the sensitive Jewish kid, began chasing after his "black soul", as he was quoted in Down Beat. The result? He has changed radically from what he was originally. He lost his genius and is now indistinguishable from any number of saxophone players. He uses a plastic reed, is capable of squawking, and at times can play extremely out of tune.

Jazz was and is a street music, but as each generation has played it different elements have entered it at different levels: greater instrumental technique, more sophisticated harmonies, more complicated rhythmic structures and those who react against them — starting with the bop-Dixie conflict and growing, ever growing, until each part has split off from the main stem to the point where there is no main stem. The latest thing seems to be fusion, which many see as a development of jazz but which I contend is a development of rock and roll.

With all this divergence, and knowing that there is no one jazz that is universal, one tries to maintain that element necessary to function totally -- self-confidence. To some it comes early, existing in youthful naivete. To others, like me, it comes late.

I started out to be a classical composer and got sidetracked into jazz. I have been as influenced by Bach, Bartok, Berg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Dutilleux, Schoenberg, as I have by Ellington, Bud Powell et al. When I play the blues I fuse Meade Lux Lewis' old chord changes with Duke Ellington colors voiced via Stravinsky. I feel I am more influenced as a pianist by what I have explored or developed as a writer, and more influenced by composers than pianists.

When I came to Los Angeles in 1958 I spent much time in East L.A. finding out what Latin music was made of. I had known instinctively that what I heard jazz musicians play for Latin was ersatz. During this period I met and played with Cal Tjader. I wrote several albums for him. Then raising a family took over my life, and I became heavily involved with studio music. For about ten years I did that almost exclusively. When I did play in public the press usually said, "Studio musician fronts jazz group." And all the while I thought I was a jazz musician who played in the studios. Finally, about eight years ago, after a hiatus in Latin jazz of fifteen years, Cal asked me to record and play again with his group. At this time in my life, my late forties, I started with my own group, Salsa Picante, and with my vocal group 2+2.

Suddenly everything in my life coalesced — my interest in the Latin culture, my self-confidence, and above all, feeling good about what I was doing.

Unless the instrument is a beauty, I do not play the piano now. I prefer electric pianos, digital pianos, and organ, because the sound sources are so exciting. Plus, with amplification, you don't have to beat your arthritic knuckles to the bone fighting drummers whose dynamic sensibilities are of the Mack truck variety.

Every player has to find those aspects of his own work that are unique in order to believe in himself. When you at last know you are good but do not manifest conceit in talking about it, it seems to me that maturity sets in. I have ample technique, but there are those whose chops leave me in the dust. There are those who play faster and swing harder than I do. But I know my strengths: harmonic voicings and harmony in general, sensitive and innovative melodic turns, with my own sense of rhythmic phrasing.

I'm in virgin territory, blazing my own trails. After years of being influenced by others and developing my own voice out of all of it, I now at fifty-six find myself influencing others. And that's scarey. Here I am, not completely established myself and others are utilizing my stuff before everyone knows where it comes from!

Did You Ever Play with Bud Powell?
by Al Levitt

Not very long long ago, someone asked me that question. I thought for a moment and answered, "Yeah, only once. I think it was in Fontainebleau."

In 1957, we had a group that played every Saturday and Sunday afternoon at the Club St. Germain. In it were Barney Willen, tenor saxophone, Luis Fuentes, trombone, Sacha Distel, guitar, Rene Utreger, piano, Paul Revere, bass, and myself on drums. At the time, Bud Powell was appearing there nightly with Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot for a two-week engagement, to be followed by J.J. Johnson.

One day Barney and our rhythm section were approached by Marcel Romano, who in those days was a kind of Parisian version of Norman Granz, and we agreed to play a concert in Fontainebleau in which we were to accompany J.J. and Bud.

When the day arrived, we all met in front of the club on rue St. Benoit. We were to make the short trip together with the instruments in a large American station wagon. I think it was a Chrysler. It was a very big car, with enough room for everything and everyone. We greeted each other, J.J. was very friendly and outgoing, but Bud just glared and didn't say a word.

It was about a sixty-kilometer drive from Paris to Fontainebleau and lasted about an hour. The trip was pleasant. We enjoyed some nice conversation and a few jokes, but Bud just glared out his window and didn't say a word.

When we arrived, we unloaded the instruments, checked out the hall, set up, tried the sound system, and retired to the dressing room to decide on a program. Barney, Rene, Paul and I had been playing together fairly regularly, so we just selected a few tunes from our usual repertoire. J.J. made a list of his tunes and keys, but Bud just glared and didn't say a word.

We opened the concert as a trio — Rene, Paul and myself. After two tunes, Barney joined us to make it a quartet for two more tunes. The announcer brought on J.J. and he played three tunes with the rhythm section. The audience was very receptive, and the music felt good. The acoustics were fine, and we could hear ourselves and each other. We received a warm response and then took an intermission. J.J. thanked us and complimented the rhythm section. It was a real pleasure to play with him. He's a master of his instrument and his time and feeling were beautiful. Refreshments were provided for us backstage and we all had something, except for Bud, who was sitting in a chair, still glaring and still not saying a word.

It was getting close to time for the second half, in which Paul and I were to start as a trio with Bud. Paul approached me and asked if I had any idea what we were going to play. I answered, "No," and looked toward Bud. He was still sitting in his chair, glaring and not saying a word. Paul and I looked at one another, aware that we were both very tense and anxious about what would happen next.

The intermission was over. The announcer was introducing Bud Powell. The audience applauded enthusiastically. Upon hearing his name, Bud rose from the chair and started briskly toward the stage, passing within inches of Paul and myself. He was still glaring, and he still hadn't said a word.

We felt even more tense than before and hesitated, actually frozen in our tracks. Bud had nearly reached the stage when he realized there was no one coming behind him. He approached us, wearing the most terrified and insecure expression on his face, and said, "Aren't you guys going to play with me?" Paul and I were shocked. Bud was even more frightened than we were. The realization broke the ice, and we said, "Sure, Bud, let's go. "We followed him on stage, still with no idea of what we were going to play.

Bud called a tune and a key, both of which were standard, so there was no problem. We played four or five tunes as a trio. Then J.J. and Barney joined us to make it a quintet for the finale.

Bud's trio set was on fire, and then he provided some of the most stimulating comping you could hope to hear behind the horns. The concert was a great success and everything worked out fine.

We packed up our instruments and left. Outside, as we were loading the station wagon, I noticed a young guy who had gone up to Bud and was trying to explain in limited English how much he had enjoyed seeing and hearing Bud Powell in person. He asked Bud if he could have the honor of shaking his hand. Bud just stood there, with both hands in his pockets, glaring and not saying a word.

The return trip to Paris was nice. Everyone was pleased with the results we had achieved, but Bud was just glaring out of his window at the darkness and not saying a word.

When we arrived in St. Germain des Pres, we said goodnight and remarked what a pleasure it had been, and we parted, going our separate ways. Bud just stood there glaring and didn't say a word.”
- AL

Or Opposite Oscar Peterson?
by Eddie Higgins

“During one of the many times in the late 1950s and '60s I worked opposite Oscar Peterson at the London House in Chicago (fourteen times in twelve years, 'to be exact), he and Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen were having a particularly hot night. Even when one or another of them wasn't "on", the trio was awesome — in my opinion the greatest piano trio in the history of jazz. And on this occasion, they were all on, and the total effect was just devastating.

After they had finished their third encore to a five-minute standing, whistling, screaming, stomping ovation and left the bandstand, it was my unenviable task to follow them with my trio. I was proud of Richard Evans and Marshall Thompson, and we had developed a good reputation of our own among the various groups with whom we shared the bandstand in those halcyon days. But there wasn't anyone who could have followed Oscar Peterson that night. I mean, there was, I swear, smoke and steam coming out of the piano when the set ended.

Well, I did what I was being paid to do, but with that sinking feeling you get when you're down two sets to love, the score in the third set is two-five, and you're looking across the net at John McEnroe.

After a lackluster set of forty minutes, which seemed like three hours, we left the stand to polite applause, and I started to look for a hole to climb into. Oscar had been sitting with friends in Booth 16 — remember? — and as I attempted to sneak past him into the bar, he reached out and grabbed my arm.

"I want to talk to you," he said in a grim tone of voice.

I followed him out into the lobby of the building, which of course was deserted at that time of night. He backed me up against the wall and started poking a forefinger into my chest. It still hurts when I think about it.

"What the hell was that set all about?" he said.

I started a feeble justification but he cut me off. "Bullshit! If you couldn't play, you wouldn't be here. If I ever hear you play another dumb-ass set like that, I'm going to come up there personally and break your arm! You not only embarrassed Richard and Marshall, you embarrassed me in front of my friends, just when I had been telling them how proud I am of you, and how great you play.

"I know we're having a good night, but there are plenty of nights when you guys put the heat on us, and if you don't believe me, ask Ray and Ed. We walk in the door, and you're smoking up there, and we look at each other and say, ‘Oh oh, no coasting on the first set tonight!' So just remember one thing, Mr. Higgins, when you go up there to play, don't compare yourself to me or anyone else. You play your music your way, and play it the best you have in you, every set, every night. That's called professionalism." And he turned and walked back into the club without a further word.

I've never forgotten that night for two reasons. It was excellent advice from someone I admired and respected tremendously. And it showed that he cared about me deeply.

I'm still making a living playing the piano, and, believe it or not, playing jazz for the most part. It's more of a struggle now, after thirty-five years, than it was at the beginning, but I attribute that to two factors mostly.

One, I insist on living where I want to — Miami in the winter and Cape Cod in the summer — instead of where I should live in order to further my career, New York City. Two, the thirty-year dominance of rock, country, disco, Top Forty, and other forms of musical primitivism (I don't care who does it; it's still musical primitivism) has just about dried up the venues for the kind of music I play, with the exception of a few remaining holdouts in the big cities. For example, in all of South Florida, with a population of close to seven million people, there are three jazz clubs at present — two in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale. So I've had to start traveling a little: traditional jazz festivals, at which I dust of my Dixieland repertoire and my stride and boogie-woogie chops; Chicago, which is still a place I can work just about any time I want; and infrequent trips abroad. I try to fill in the gaps with "casuals" (L.A. jargon), "the outside" (Miami jargon), "jobbing" (Chicago jargon), "general business" (Boston jargon), and whatever they call it in New York.

It's a tough way to make a living, but as Med Flory said in that same issue of the Jazzletter with your piece on Oscar, you're never completely happy doing anything else. So you just do it.

Drop a line if you have the time, and if you don't, I understand completely. Your friend always,

- Eddie”


February, 1985

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