Monday, February 29, 2016

Bob Brookmeyer: An Interview With Bill Coss

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


Jazz author and critic Bill Coss wrote many articles for both Down Beat and Metronome magazines in the 1950s and 1960. He was for a time the editor of Metronome’s annual Yearbook, a compilation of drawings, anecdotes and articles on a variety of subjects including Jazz.

This is Bill Coss’ first visit to these pages and what makes it even more memorable is that he brings with him a delightful interview with valve trombonist, composer and arrangers, Bob Brookmeyer.

Conducted in 1961, in the years following the interview Bob would go on to develop one of the legendary careers in the Jazz world both at home and in Europe. Bob died in 2011.

“Bob Brookmeyer is a deceptively relaxed, tightly poised, carefully cynical young man whose social and musical comments are highly polished examples of opposites—the brooding playboy, the thoughtful imp.

"You say I'm playing better than I ever played before?" He smiles, lights a cigarette, coughs, explains that he hasn't a cold, "just New York bronchitis," to which he has "patiently adjusted" rather than follow doctor's orders to give up smoking. "I'd say," he finally does say, "that I'm playing just as bad as I ever did.

"Maybe there seems to be an improvement because I'm playing with a big band. Your solos are necessarily short in a band of any size. You have to stress consistency. No, it's not a thing you regret. It's a worthwhile sacrifice, a responsibility toward 13 or 14 other people, the other guys in the band. I know Gerry feels that way too.

"Am I being a disappointment? I remember one time when an interview got off to a flying finish as soon as I answered the critic's first two questions. You know, they were the usual ones: what is jazz and where is it going?

"I told him that jazz was a living and that jazz was going down the drain. That was a put-on, of course, but jazz is my living. That's about as far as I want to go on the subject. No definitions, thank you. It's my living and I do the best I can.

"I've stayed away from analyzing it. I stay away from all the tags too, this tabloid thinking that somehow got into jazz. All the words that are used are pretty silly. Jazz is a pretty silly word, for that matter.

"As I say, all I know about jazz is that you do the best you can. You learn that you can't cheat on the music; you can't even sacrifice the music for your home life.
"That's why I'm not especially interested in where jazz may be going. I'm only concerned with writing jazz, much more so than in the playing of it. And I can't get especially involved in the futuristic developments. Those people who do are certainly important enough, if only because you can learn things negatively from them. But the danger of living or working in the future is that you lose so much of present humanity that way. When people complain about some experimentalists, that's really what they are complaining about, or what they should be complaining about — the loss of humanity."

Jazz is a human voice, as one critic has put it. Most of our great instrumentalists would agree with that in one way or another, and with its application to their playing. As Brookmeyer would say it: "What you are producing should be a human sound. The metal instrument is just a thing you use. It shouldn't determine you or what you do. But it does for too many musicians today. That's why so many of the musicians sound alike.

"I grant you that most young trombonists wouldn't want to sound like Bill Harris. (You know he influenced me more than anyone else.) But my point is that they couldn't, even if they wanted to. They play the instrument, not themselves. Bill played himself on the instrument. When it wouldn't do what he wanted to say, he damn well stomped on it until it did. Jazz is a personal expression. A jazzman should be saying what he feels. He's one human being talking to others, telling his story — and that means humor and sadness, joy, all the things that humans have. You tell it freely and honestly, and sometimes you don't make it. It's a matter of percentages; like, telling a joke that no one laughs at. But you tell it, whatever it is, and it's yours. That's you, that's human, that's jazz."

That's the convinced and dedicated Brookmeyer speaking; preaching, if you will, and come naturally by the conviction, dedication and preaching, if your bit is environmentalism, because his early environment was in the jazz bedrock of Kansas City.

Born just five miles from its heart, across the viaduct on the Kansas side, on December 19, 1929, he has written expressively and charmingly about his experience there for a United Artists album cover:

". . . some lovely and lasting talk came out of there — some gentleness (genteelness, if you will), that could only be found around men who so fully knew what they did and wherein they spoke that relaxation was the only way to express it. When you're not sure, it gets very nervous, but that utter confidence in swing is hard to beat. . .

"When I was one of the youngest jazz fans in the country, my dad and I would cheat on the parson a Sunday or two and stay by the radio to wait for the 15 minutes of Basie, 10:45 over KCKN (now a country and western station, bless their souls). Then too, Basie would be through town at the Tower theater, five, six times a year and I got to be a real pro at forging passes from school to catch three shows and two bad Westerns before there would be some salt from the home kitchen. First time I ever heard any really close up was around my 13th year. A kiddy band I toiled with was waiting their turn at old Garrett hall and we came upon Oliver Todd's six-piece band—they would make anybody's jaw slacken up a bit with Little Phil (Edward Phillips, now hopelessly a mental patient, due to our lovely and humane local 'apartheid'), and some of the easiest, longest time I had ever seen. My, that was a sight that I shan't forget. When I was old enough to sneak into the night clubs and dives where the good bands played, it was always the same feeling, to my heart anyway. Smooth, deep, rich, mellow, like a fine cigarette, if you will. But with a 'cleanup' local government, the end of the war, and the advent of the ofay bopper, that pretty well washed up swing music in KC. There are still a lot of my friends about who went to school with Bird, danced to Basie at the old Reno club, loved all that the easy jive stood for, but you can't hold a wake all your life, so—nothin' shakin' back home—Wolfe was right —Home in a pine box. . ."

If you feel a resemblance to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the movement of this writing, even in Brookmeyer's care for words, accept the thought and file it carefully. Unfortunately, he doesn't feel that he has time for the written word. Fortunately, he feels he has the time for the written note, about which more later in this essay. Fortunately, too, there is every possible resemblance between the Brookmeyer love of the old Kansas City and his musical, personal expression of it today.

What Leonard Feather has described as a style which is bop-influenced, but definitely in the mainstream, "resembling a valve equivalent of Bill Harris," got off to a strange start. Bob began his career as a clarinetist, added trombone and piano, and studied at the Kansas City Conservatory before he went into the Army. After military service, he rejoined Tex Beneke as a pianist. "I still played slide trombone, though, but just now and then. But when I auditioned for Claude Thornhill, I tried the valve. That was in 1952. I found the slide instrument lacked the passion of the valve, and it was easier to say things I wanted to say with trumpet fingering.

"In those days, there was so much prejudice against the valve trombone. It was thought of as a doubling instrument. Several bands had trumpeters who would suddenly change chairs and make the trombone section sound bigger for certain arrangements. It's different now, but I still see conductors look at me weirdly. Still, they pay you, so what's the difference?"

Beneke and Thornhill, and bands led by Ray McKinley, Louis Prima, Terry Gibbs, Jerry Wald, and Woody Herman, brought him to 1953 and a one-year affiliation with Stan Getz, which finally called him to the attention of the jazz world here and abroad. Jimmy Giuffre asked to be quoted, especially for this article, stating that "that band with Getz and Brookmeyer is my favorite of all the jazz groups I've ever heard."

Bob was being quoted widely by that time. To one interviewer he explained: "My style is composed of everything I've heard that I've liked, and even, I'm afraid, some things I haven't liked." Or. "There's something timeless about all the great things in jazz. Something that cuts across years and styles. I've listened to and collected what I could of old Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and Mezz Mezzrow, along with lots of others. There's strength and simplicity in them."

Once, when he was questioned about what seemed to be retrogression, he said: "In the past two or three years, especially . . . now that I've settled down in my playing, all this interest in the past and in the folk influence around me has become reactivated . . . I'm going to start doing more research. I don't mean I'm going to make bathtub gin, but I'm going to listen and find more sheet music . . . I'm not afraid of being called retrogressive. Music can be like love and painting. Just because a song and a spirit have been around a while doesn't mean it's diminished in value."

At the same time he began to be analyzed by jazz writers, the very thing he says he most abhors, although his own words are indicative of a very careful analysis. Ira Gitler remembers that during his visits to Kansas City in the late 1940s, "the musicians around town spoke warmly of him. The one thing that they all had in common was an enthusiasm for the playing of Bob Brookmeyer."

Composer-arranger Bill Holman reflects that "obviously he has a lot of academic knowledge, but he never lets it interfere with his concept of what jazz should be.

He's used his knowledge of techniques to get across his thought, yet without destroying the thought itself." Nat Hentoff writes: "Brookmeyer has opened himself to jazz of all eras. He has absorbed, tested, and selected from the whole reservoir of autobiographies in sound that is the jazz language, those elements he felt relevant to his own experience in living and telling his story in jazz. He has listened and imagined farther back than Jelly Roll Morton and beyond Charlie Parker. He has not limited himself to any one era, school or attitude, preferring to filter all of jazz through his emotions rather than remain a parochial hipster."

The most concise of the reports on Brookmeyer is from critic-drummer Jack Maher: "Brookmeyer pours all he has learned of the past and the present into his playing. Harmonically and rhythmically, its source is a compressed history of the jazz heritage with a heavy emphasis on the wonderful rolling swing that was so much a part of the Basie contribution. Much of what Bob plays has a smooth, punching percussiveness to it. His ideas evolve out of basic phrases that are extended, restructured and re-accented rhythmically. This puts him in a distinct empathy with drummers. All kinds of inventions and improvisations come to the minds, hands, and feelings of the drummer as he listens to Bob. Harmonically, he has that unique ability to blend with other instruments. Besides unison, he can interweave ideas with another horn without yelling the other instrumentalists off the bandstand. He's articulate whether in group therapy or when he's carrying on a bit of self-analysis. His solos exist as entities in themselves. They build simply and slowly, increase in intensity and close out at the instinctive dramatic moment. . ."

The subject of all this (and the great deal more) is amazed at all the words, but pleased in a low-key kind of way. He likes readers to beware of long quotes attributed to him ("My God, the things I've said"). He wants, most positively, to be accepted on his own terms, and he is a positive thinker.

About playing: "Whatever instrument you play, you must have a passion for it, and you must play it passionately. Even if you aren't good and keep making mistakes, you must have the passion."

About a record of his own, he gives a set of directions that stand for almost any Brookmeyer album: "Just grab a nice glass of Dewar's Finest, one big, old and very easy chair, turn the volume up, and listen. Why, by neddies, you can even dance, if it's allowed in your town on Sunday. But above all, you're supposed to have a good time with it, otherwise you missed the whole point, and you can't do that." About adverse criticism: "You can tell Buddy (Rich, that is, who wondered critically in print for another publication) that the reason that we do what we do is because it's fun." "Can you imagine? Some writer in the middle-West said we had Billy May style arrangements.

"Anyway, I've begun to believe that there is one sure way of knowing whether you belong in a club or not. When the waiters treat you impossibly, you know that you've had it.

"I'm convinced that we are too much at the mercy of everyone. Unlike artists in almost any other field, we have no one to protect us. We need some kind of buffer. Martha Glaser is the best example of that; what she does to protect and advance Erroll Garner. She should probably be Secretary of State. She's had the experience."

About his current experience with the Gerry Mulligan Band: "I already said that the feeling of working with so many other people is a good one; everybody working for something believed in. I don't regret not playing in a small group. Arrangers and composers need a big band. There isn't anything quite like it. That's so for all musicians. Ask Mel Lewis. Look at all the things he gave up on the west coast to come with this band, just because he knew that he should play with a big jazz band."

About the future: "The immediate future, that is. The band is good, but we've never had a quiet time. Everything has been pressure and more pressure. That's no way to prepare for the present or the future. Gerry's very wisely about to call a halt to the band for about two months. Not a vacation, mind you; just a time to work, to write in peace and quiet, to relax and create. You know what I said about jazz being a living. Think about it that way. Just after the first of the year, we will shut down to retool. We'll bring out the spring line along about March some time."

January 19, 1961
Bob Brookmeyer: Strength and Simplicity

Down Beat

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Matt Niess and The Capitol Bones

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


You don’t see [hear?] front lines in Jazz combos made up of two of the same instruments very often.

The quintet headed-up by trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding was an exception as were the quintets led tenor saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.

I seem to recall the Candoli Brothers, trumpeters Pete and Conte, teaming up for the occasional record outing as did Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan on The Night of the Cookers, one of Blue Note’s rare “Live” recordings, but most Jazz groups preferred different sonorities in their lead horns.

To my ears, I always thought that the key to the success of same instrumentation front lines lay with the arrangements, particularly those that emphasized harmonies that made the texture of the two horns sound richer and fuller.

Arrangers who have a background in orchestrating for big bands usually have a good idea as to what devices to use to keep things interesting between two of the same horns.

Of course, things become even more interesting when two are doubled into four because the harmonic possibilities expand exponentially and the pairing of lead horns becomes a full blown trumpet, trombone or saxophone “section.”

With four trumpets, four trombones or, as is often the case, five saxophones to work with the scale and the scope of blended sound that can be voiced for same instruments is quite astounding.

Once again, trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding were among the earliest to explore the possibilities of expanding the sound of a chorus or section of the same instruments on the recordings they made with eight trombones which consisted of two groups of four trombones, each having three tenor trombones and one bass trombone.

A trombone quartet [sometimes expanded to a quintet with the addition of a second bass trombone], backed by a swinging piano-bass-drum rhythm section performing arrangements that explore the full range of the instrument’s sonority is one of my favorite Jazz sounds.

I guess if two of something is good four or five must be better?

Over the years, I’ve scouted out trombone quartets and quintets such as Super Trombone made up of Jim Pugh, Eijiro Nakagawa, Dave Taylor and Dave Bergeron and Canada’s The Brass Connection which features Ian McDougall, Doug Hamilton, Jerry Johnson, Bob Livingston and John Capon.

A later find was The Capitol Bones headed up by Matt Niess which resulted from a heads-up from Danny Beher at Sea Breeze Records.

Jerry Amoury wrote the following detailed insert notes The Capitol Bones’ Epistrophy (Sea Breeze Jazz® SB-3042) CD. The background information about how the group achieves its distinctive sound and the annotation of each track serves to underscore how instruments with the same sonority can create such a wide range of textures.

After Jerry’s notes you’ll find a video and an audio-only digital file that will provide you with a chance to sample The Capitol Bones’ renderings of Monk’s Epistrophy and I Mean You.

“To the general listening audience the trombone is a pleasant instrument to hear from time to time. Trombonists, on the other hand, are obsessed with all aspects of the instrument. The sound of the solo trombone, the lush blend of trombones playing together, the ringing of the overtones when the pitch is just right; these are the things that compel trombonists to seek out others of their ilk who share that love. Many times, this obsession leads to the formation of trombone ensembles.

No other type of group can provide the pure-cane blend of five trombones playing music created specifically for them with that sonority in mind. It's a glorious sound that draws trombone players together like a moth is drawn toward a flame.

In order to elevate a good group of players to a great ensemble you need some very important ingredients: strong leadership, boundless energy, chops across the board, and charts that give the players the opportunity to display their wares. The Capitol Bones is an ensemble that has combined all of these elements in near perfect balance.

Leader and founder, Matt Niess, created the group in 1991 bringing together some of the best jazz trombonists in the Washington, DC area. That same year The Capitol Bones won the Kai Winding jazz trombone ensemble competition sponsored by the International Trombone Association. The sound of this group has always grabbed the attention of other trombonists. More importantly, it has piqued the interest of composers and arrangers from all over the nation. Since its creation, The Capitol Bones have performed arrangements and original compositions from such notables as Conrad Herwig, Mark Taylor, Mike Tomaro and Jim Roberts, just to name a few.

In 1997, The Capitol Bones came out with their first CD, My Favorite Things (Sea Breeze Jazz® SB-3020). The recording introduced the ensemble to a vast audience well beyond the boundaries of the DC region. So successful was this recording that Matt Niess has created his second offering, Epistrophy (Sea Breeze Jazz® SB-3042). Like the previous CD, this project offers superb ensemble playing, great solos and clever arrangements. Epistrophy stretches the creative limits of the arrangers in a way that is fascinating and truly original. Matt called upon arrangers Tony Nalker and Mike Tomaro to write charts beyond the standard melody-solo-soli section-coda-tag form that dominates so many trombone ensemble recordings. These charts expand the group's limits in terms of dynamics, musical expression, range and blend.

This CD is more than a reprise of a previous recording. It is a labor of love which pushes the players and writers to a greater level of creativity and intensity that can only be reached when all involved are equally dedicated to the proposition that all trombone ensembles are not created equal.

The Capitol Bones use three tenor and two bass trombones throughout the CD. Two basses give the group more options with regard to tone colors and voicing. The title track, Thelonious Monk's classic Epistrophy, arranged by Tony Nalker, takes full advantage of this. Listen for the two basses playing kicks in perfect 5ths that drive the melody forward. Tony, pianist throughout the recording, shows his love for Monk's intense and aggressive melodic sense with this arrangement. The in-your-face, no-apologies energy of this tune brought the audience to its feet at the 1999 International Trombone Festival in Potsdam, NY. If this opener doesn't grab your attention hit the eject button right now!

Mike Tomaro's arrangement of One Note Samba captures Antonio Carlos Jobim's smooth, elegant style perfectly. As the title implies, there's little to pull from the melody notes in this tune. The ear is drawn to the supporting voices beneath the melody. Tomaro moves the inner voices in a way that gives the "pretty" notes their day in the sun. Great groove, great chart and great solos by Jim McFalls and Tony Nalker.

What is it about Monk that makes his music so well suited for trombone ensemble? Clever lines and really cool harmonies which offer ample room for passing tones and counter-lines. This is true of Tomaro's arrangement of I Mean You. Drummer Steve Fidyk starts the tune with a groove akin to a New Orleans street band. The bones match that feel with the upper voices harmonizing the melody set against a two-feel tuba line played by the bass trombone. This tune is aggressive and fun to listen to.

Matt Niess pays homage to Stan Kenton's big band with Here's That Rainy Day. It's the rare trombonist who hasn't played Kenton's wonderful big band arrangement. This is a straight lift from the original.

After hearing NY trombonist Conrad Herwig play Joe Henderson's Inner Urge, Matt decided to arrange it for the group. The harmonic structure of this chart is a far cry from the standard ii-v-i formula [a common Jazz chord progression]. The more static harmonies give the soloist a chance to play lines once thought to be the sole domain of the tenor sax and trumpet. Listen to Matt Niess' work throughout this chart. His lead playing is outstanding.

Speak Low gives the ensemble a chance to show off the blend and cohesion that has become a Capitol Bones trademark. A series of 7/8 lines in counter motion to each other create an intricate ostinato. As things settle into a nice groove the melody appears in the middle register. The timbre created with two bass trombones is beautiful and lush. The rhythm section consists of triangle, guitar and shaker. Jay Gibble's trombone solo completes this unique arrangement. Tony Nalker wrote this arrangement for the '99 ITW.

Bass trombonist Jeff Cortazzo is featured in an arrangement of the standard, I Thought About You, written for him by his lifelong friend Matt Niess. It's a great vehicle for Jeff to show off his incredible flexibility on the horn. He makes it all sound so easy. An added bonus for the listener: it's a wonderful, swinging chart. Listen for Jim McFalls' solo work in this one.

William Walton wrote Touch Her Soft Lips and Part for Lawrence Olivier's 1944 film Henry V. This lovely ballad is perfectly suited for trombone ensemble and beautifully arranged by Tony Nalker. The work opens with a treacherously exposed unison statement of the primary theme. Later, dark velvet, lowly-voiced harmonies are set against a soaring melody line throughout the rest of this piece. As well as being the arranger, Tony plays both the trombone and piano solos.

Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, arranged by Matt Niess, is presented as a salsa here. Listen to Steve Fidyk's relentless drive on the drums and Jim Roberts' Santana-like guitar. This chart demonstrates how powerful and dominating this group can sound when given the chance. Matt's solo exposes his love of salsa playing and all the aggressive nature that it demands!

Stolen Moments, arranged by Bob Olsen, showcases the solo talent of Jay Gibble. Matt's use of a pixie mute while trading off with Jay is a nice effect. The tempo is slower than one might expect to hear. This gives the chart a weight to it that swings.

Hank Levy gave us a true gem when he wrote the 5/4 waltz, Decoupage, for the Kenton 76 album. The ensemble sounds buoyant as it fits perfectly into the mixed meter groove. Jim McFalls' solo is perhaps the best on the CD! Listen to the rhythm section. Jim Roberts, Tony Nalker and Steve Fidyk have played together for years and that maturity comes through here. It's joyful.

Mike Tomaro's Conspiracy Theory was originally written for big band. Matt convinced Mike to arrange the chart for The Capitol Bones. He included a tricky, very hip trombone & guitar duet, along with a wicked soli section. This is the only funk chart on the CD.

The Capitol Bones close out this project with Tony Nalker's arrangement of Thad Jones' A Child Is Born. The selection was recorded twice by the players with both takes mixed together in order to make the ensemble sound like a trombone choir. The arrangement is simple, beautiful and a fitting capstone to this CD.

When hobbies and passing interests move to the next level great things can result. Epistrophy’s proof of this adage. On behalf of Matt Niess and The Capitol Bones, listen and enjoy the music. It's for you.”



Saturday, February 27, 2016

An Interview with Johnny Griffin by Dom DeMichael

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


"When Bird [alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker] was alive, I wouldn't go near him too much," he said. "The same thing goes for [tenor saxophonists] Don Byas and Dexter Gordon. They were very strong. I felt it wouldn't do my playing any good. I might start playing like them.
- Johnny Griffin, tenor saxophonist

“If saxophone playing had a Formula One division, Johnny Griffin would have pole position every start- or he would have had before he discovered a gentler and more lyrical side to his musical personality. Born in Chicago, the Little Giant was part of the first bebop generation, but he only really found his true voice in the '505, often in partnership with Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, with whom he duelled to often spectacular effect. Griffin spent some time in Europe in the '6os but has enjoyed a resurgence back home in more recent years.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Johnny Griffin, a jazz tenor-saxophonist from Chicago whose speed, control, and harmonic acuity made him one of the most talented musicians of his generation, and who abandoned his hopes for an American career when he moved to Europe in 1963, died Friday at his home in Availles-Limouzine, a village in France. He was 80 and had lived in Availles-Limouzine for 24 years.

His death was announced to Agence France-Presse by his wife, who did not give a cause. He played his last concert Monday in Hyères.

His height — around five feet five — earned him the nickname “The Little Giant”; his speed in bebop improvising marked him as “The Fastest Gun in the West”; a group he led with Eddie Lockjaw Davis was informally called the “tough tenor” band, a designation that was eventually applied to a whole school of hard bop tenor players.”
- Obituary By Ben Ratliff, published in the July 26, 2008 New York Times

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles welcomes back to these pages the writing of Don DeMichael with a piece on Johnny Griffin, a powerhouse tenor saxophonist whose fierce sound and finger-bustin’ technique were characteristic of his playing throughout a career that spanned six decades and two continents.

“So much controversy has been stirred up by "Third Stream" music, the back-to-the-land movement, the need for new forms in jazz composition, the importance of Mainstream jazz, the value of Traditional jazz, and
God-knows-what-else, that it's easy to lose sight of jazzmen who aren't trying to mold the shape of things to come — men who don't particularly care where jazz is heading or where it's been, musicians whose greatest desire is simply to play their instruments.

It's ironic that, throughout the history of jazz, such men have had the greatest impact on the direction of jazz and have been the ones to add to the legends and traditions of the music. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Lester Young were probably more concerned with what they were going to play when they were on stand than with how they might alter the course of jazz. It has been the blowers — and Louis, Bird, and Pres were at heart blowers—who have shown the way. Jazz evolves every night; there's no such thing as evolution by planned crusade.

All of which brings us to little Johnny Griffin, a blower of the first stripe. He is a man concerned with living and playing in the present.

The diminutive tenor man, currently co-leading a group with Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis, said recently, "Jazz is self-expression. It's not what I recorded last year or what I played last night, but how I feel tonight that's important. I feel differently tonight than I did yesterday. If I feel bad, I'll play bad. But if I feel good, there'll be some feeling of hilarity in my playing."

Griffin believes in the inspiration of the moment, in giving in to circumstances. "Jazz to me is not arrangements," he said. "That's why I like to blow. I don't even want to know what I'm going to play. The individual solo, that's jazz. To say something...

"I'm what you might call a nervous person when I'm playing. I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode. I like to play with

fire, and I like strong bassists and drummers. I've played with such fiery rhythm sections with drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Max Roach that there's little you can miss as far as fire is concerned.

"Some guys say, Why don't you cool it the first set — take it easy?' And I try for the first tune or so. But when I get into the music, I don't have anything to do with it. I can't help myself. Before you know it, things are wailing."

Griffin's career includes a two-year stay with Lionel Hampton. He joined Hamp a few days after graduating from high school in 1945. He tells amusing tales of the Hampton band's adventures. One concerns a theater engagement in New York City.

The theater management insisted on a tight time schedule — 53 minutes were
allotted the show, no more, no less. Griffin says Hampton would get carried away playing Flying Home, and many times during the engagement, as the elevated stage descended with the band blasting away, Hampton would be seen still marching through the audience with a blowing tenor man.

After leaving the Hampton band in 1947, Griffin spent 10 years with a variety of groups, including those of Joe Morris and Arnett Cobb, and an early edition of the Jazz Messengers. In 1958, he worked four months with Thelonious Monk, a period he says was "a wonderful experience."

"I don't think Monk changed me, though — not my way of playing," he said. "I've known Monk a long time. I worked with him in Chicago at the Beehive in '54 or '55. As strange as he may seem to the public, Monk is a well-read person. And if you can get close to him, he can carry on a very intelligent conversation.

"He's such a strong person when he's playing his own music. You have to modify your playing with him, especially when he's comping. You have to go Monk's way. Sometimes I'd ask him what change he had played on some tune. He'd tell me, but then he'd say, "But that's only relative. You've got to hear it.'"

The 32-year-old tenor man's respect for "strong" players is mirrored in his own muscular playing. But he feels that he is what he is today because he avoided listening too much to "strong" jazzmen.

"When Bird was alive, I wouldn't go near him too much," he said. "The same thing goes for Don Byas and Dexter Gordon. They were very strong. I felt it wouldn't do my playing any good. I might start playing like them.

"Yet everything I play comes from others. Everything I've ever heard comes out in what I play. You shouldn't get stuck on any one man, but listen to them all, then draw on them according to how you feel at any one time. I don't want anyone to influence me overly. It would suppress what I have to express. I wouldn't be giving myself to myself."

Even though he avoided overexposure to "strong" players, there were others whom Griffin listened to — Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie ("always"), Elmo Hope, Wardell Gray, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster ("the ferociousness of Ben"), Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young ("He didn't play with fire, but he was so relaxed . . . the way he'd bend notes ... he just swung").

But even with his studied avoidance of strong players and the consequent emergence of his own style, Griffin is not content with his playing. "Somebody can tape something I play one night, and I can listen to it the next night and think it's okay. But later, I'll pick it to pieces. I've never been satisfied with anything I've done.

"I'm searching for something, and I don't have a clear idea what I'm looking for. The more I learn, the more there is that I know I don't know.”

Maturity comes when you realize your limitations as well as your strengths. Johnny Griffin today is a mature person. His search for a nebulous "something" could conceivably end with a large group of his own. His latest Riverside record, The Big Soul Band, and his plans for more big band recordings would indicate this. Whatever his "something" turns out to be, it will be vital, fiery music, firmly rooted in the present.                  

January 5, 1961

Down Beat

Friday, February 26, 2016

Ken Burns Jazz - A Retrospective Review - Part 2B

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


“Ken Burns Jazz has an unwholesome preoccupation with heroin addiction. One odious sequence shows a young man sticking a needle into his arm. An elder musician said, "It makes us look like a bunch of drunks and dopers." It shows nothing of the gracious (and sometimes wealthy) lives lived by Benny Carter, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, and many more, nor does it show the remarkably long list of addicts who, like Mulligan, kicked the habit. In this it is deeply, grimly, morbidly misleading.” 
- Gene Lees, Jazz author, essayist and publisher


“Wynton Marsalis shares Burns's long-standing propensity for overstatement in the service of high ideals. Burns lets Marsalis and others get away with so much in Jazz — presenting the character and motivations of long-dead musicians, for example, without distinguishing between legend and actual memory — that his methods as a documentarian are open to question, along with his credentials as a social historian.”
- Francis Davis, Jazz author, critic, essayist


We continued our retrospective review of Ken Burns PBS television series on the subject of Jazz with the following pieces by Terry Teachout, Jazz author, critic and former bassist, Francis Davis, a Jazz author who frequently writes for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, Don Heckman the Jazz columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Ken Downey with The Seattle Weekly.


Terry Teachout


“By his own admission, Ken Burns knew little about jazz when he undertook to tell its long, complicated story. Hence it should come as no surprise that Jazz has little of interest to say about the music with which it is nominally concerned. I find it revealing that Mr. Burns rarely allows any piece of music to play more than a few seconds, uninterrupted by the distracting chatter of a talking head (usually Wynton Marsalis).


Instead, he gives us hour upon hour of garrulous anecdotage and gaseous generalizations, many of the latter seemingly intended to suggest that jazz was less a musical phenomenon than a sociological one.


"Jazz" says Mr. Burns, "necessarily becomes a story about race relations and prejudice, about minstrelsy and Jim Crow, lynching and civil rights." That may be what Jazz is but it's not what jazz was. Of course you cannot properly tell the story of jazz without closely examining its cultural context, but to treat the aesthetic achievements of geniuses like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as mere opportunities for historical point-making is to distort them beyond recognition. Jazz is neither a war nor a sport — it is an art form, one significant enough to be chronicled in its own right and on its own terms, something that Jazz scarcely even attempts to do.”


Francis Davis


After remarking that he found the series “enjoyable television,” Davis went on to make these observations about Ken Burns Jazz:


A few seconds into the first episode the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis — a senior creative consultant on the series who is onscreen so much that he might as well have been given star billing — informs us that "jazz music objectifies America" and gives us "a painless way of understanding ourselves." His declaration is followed by a montage of the music's major figures over which the actor Keith David, reading copy supplied by Geoffrey C. Ward (who also co-wrote the scripts for Burns's two previous series) is an "improvisational act, making itself up as it goes along, just like the country that gave it birth." The lecture continues throughout the series, delivered by Marsalis and others. Close to the end, Marsalis restates the theme with a little extra spin, as he might with a melody to conclude a performance with his band. Jazz "gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself," he says, talking in the way that presidential candidates are prone to do — as if believing that democracy is a form of existentialism.


Marsalis shares Burns's long-standing propensity for overstatement in the service of high ideals. Burns lets Marsalis and others get away with so much in Jazz — presenting the character and motivations of long-dead musicians, for example, without distinguishing between legend and actual memory — that his methods as a documentarian are open to question, along with his credentials as a social historian.
After some preliminary flag-waving, Burns's new series begins with the hoariest of creation myths: that New Orleans was the single birthplace of jazz, something I doubt anyone besides Burns and his New Orleans-born senior creative adviser believes. It's one with the latest in resurrection myths that Marsalis's arrival on the scene in 1980 saved jazz from death at the hands of self-indulgent avant-gardists and purveyors of jazz-rock fusion (we're even shown snapshots of the baby Wynton)....


Burns has admitted to knowing nothing about jazz going into this project, and he seems to have learned most of what he now knows about the subject from Marsalis. With Crouch and Murray on the board of advisers and serving as commentators, what we're getting is the party line ....


Bill Evans was the most influential pianist of the last forty years, but all we learn about him is that he once played with Miles Davis and was white. You'd think he was significant only as an example of the black trumpeter's enlightened employment policy .. .


Burns is big on sociological context, so the music unfolds against a backdrop of speakeasies and bread lines, dance crazes and world wars, lynchings and civil rights marches. The series certainly looks good, and it sounds good, too, if you ignore Keith David's overenunciated delivery (he sounds like he was bitten by the same bug that got Maya Angelou) and the melodramatic readings by a host of other actors ....


As annoying as Marsalis can be, though, he takes a back seat to the preening Matt Glaser, a violinist who performed on the sound tracks of The Civil War and Baseball who turns up every so often to share an insight on, say, Armstrong's relationship with the space-time continuum. Glaser sounds like one of those guys you overhear trying to impress their dates in jazz clubs, only it's us he's trying to score with ....


The larger problems with the series stems from the dubious habits Burns has picked up since The Civil War. For every person we hear speaking from experience, another comes along to tell us things he couldn't possibly know. Talking with certainty about events in the lives of Armstrong and Ellington, Marsalis might as well be a televangelist chatting confidentially about Jesus. Of the semi-mythical early-twentieth century New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, Marsalis says his "innovation was one of personality, so instead of playing all his fast stuff, he would bring you the sound of Buddy Bolden." How could he know? No recording of Bolden survives, and he is said to have played in public for the last time in 1907. [Emphasis mine] As Marsalis speaks, we hear a trumpeter on the soundtrack playing a rollicking blues, with no indication that it's a recent performance by Marsalis. Most viewers will probably assume it's Bolden, and will surely accept what Marsalis says about him.


As in Baseball, Burns shows tendencies toward cockeyed legend, cut-rate sociology, and amateur psychoanalysis.”

Don Heckman

[Don Heckman, in the Los Angeles Times, noted how little attention was given to jazz on the West Coast. He wrote:]

"From the early appearances by Jelly Roll Morton in the twenties, through the glory days of Central Avenue, into the cool sounds of West Coast jazz in the fifties, through the edgy sixties and into the diverse blends of funk, blues, avant-garde and revisited mainstream ... Southern California has been a primal, if underappreciated, producer of world-class jazz."

Heckman quotes John Clayton: "And it fails to acknowledge the special relationships — as co-workers and friends — that have historically existed between most jazz musicians, black and white, in Los Angeles."

Ken Downey

“... the way Burns & Co. cram the last forty years of the music's hundred-year history into the last tenth of the series' running time, and the way Marsalis and his cronies dominate much of that, is as comic as it is arrogant."

[If the series raised jazz record sales through the ceiling, he says], that "is good news for the media conglomerates who hold the copyrights on past masterpieces. Most have shut down their jazz divisions; why spend money recording the living when you can do so nicely fattening on the dead?"

[Downey wasn't even enthralled by it as movie-making. He wrote:]

“As one who can claim not to have missed one second of [its] 1,067 minutes ... I am here to tell you that Jazz is one hundred percent twenty-four karat Burnsiana, in every respect a meticulous stylistic copy of his earlier PBS blockbusters, The Civil War and Baseball.

And that's exactly what's wrong with it. Never have subject matter and style been so ill-matched in a non-fiction film: Imagine Roger and Me's Michael Moore documenting daily life in a nunnery — that far off key. Jazz, the music, is exuberant, anarchic, mercurial; Jazz the film is solemn, plodding, relentless. ...

Even in The Civil War, Burns' unremitting solemnity and death-march pacing troubled some viewers (well me, anyway) but at least the approach suited the seriousness of the subject. Apparently due to the enormous commercial appeal and critical success of that film, Burns has approached every subject since in the same spirit and with the same set of technical tools until both have hardened into invariable formula. Once again we have the slow pans across grainy historic photos intercut with interpretive color by contemporary experts, both bathed in the reverential musings of an omniscient narrator .. . and evocative, ever-changing background noise.”

To be continued….