- Thomas Owens, Bebop: The Music and its Players (1995).
Friday, May 27, 2022
- Thomas Owens, Bebop: The Music and its Players (1995).
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights
Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was published in the September 2006 edition of Jazz Journal.
For more information and subscriptions please visit www.jazzjournal.co.uk
© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
I only ever achieved a moderate level of competence on the saxophone but it has always been my proud boast that I gave John Horler who has worked with Zoot Sims, Chet Baker, Pepper Adams, Herb Geller and Maynard Ferguson his first paid engagement. It was 1964 and as usual on a Friday evening I had telephoned the union asking if any pianists were available for a Saturday gig in London’s Balls Pond Road, Dalston – my little group only worked in the best locations! John was recommended and we met at the Kings Head pub where we were booked to entertain the guests at a wedding reception from 7 to 11 pm, for the princely sum of £2.50 per man.
Pointing at a beaten-up wreck of an upright, the landlord proudly told us that it had been “painted only last week” but a few random arpeggios from our visiting virtuoso revealed all we needed to know – it was a semi-tone flat and missing a number of notes. During an evening of what must have seemed to John like interminable medleys of foxtrots, waltzes, cha-chas and pop tunes of the day, I desperately tried to reveal some hip jazz credentials to him by enthusing about my latest purchase which featured Bob Brookmeyer, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock and Gary Burton. Later while the rest of the band took a break and uninhibited by an instrument that should have been condemned before the war, I vividly remember him playing a swinging version of Brookmeyer’s “Jive Hoot” from the album to the uncomprehending guests.
John carried on slumming musically with my group for a few more weeks. Despite this unfortunate beginning to his musical career he still talks to me and readily agreed to this interview which took place at his home in West Norwood, South London.
“I was born in Lymington, Hampshire on the 26th. February 1947 and started classical piano studies when I was six years old, eventually getting a Distinction at Grade 8 from the Associated Board when I was ten. It was thanks to my father who was a professional trumpeter that I became interested in jazz. He introduced me to Art Tatum and I remember we both worked on transcribing Art’s “Embraceable You” soon after I passed Grade 8 so that I could play it on a local radio station. We got the gist down on paper and although I couldn’t play it exactly like Tatum, I heard a tape recently and it wasn’t bad – I must have been pretty good in those days! I appeared at a lot of music festivals because the piano was all I lived for and it was very exciting but eventually something inside me said, ‘For God’s sake, stop all this!’ I needed a rest although my parents, who were great, didn’t really understand the pressure that I was under from so much performing.
“My father often had friends around to listen to records and one of them left the Gerry Mulligan Paris Jazz Fair album with Bob Brookmeyer at the house. We all loved it, especially my brother Dave who plays trombone and has been with the WDR Orchestra in Cologne for the past 25 years. We really started to listen to jazz then. We had been dazzled by Tatum’s technique of course but that Mulligan record really ‘clicked’ with both of us and never left us. My grandmother started buying us an LP each month and those records turning up were big events. We acquired all the Mulligan quartet LPs as they came out as well as Brookmeyer’s Blues Hot And Cold and Oscar Peterson’s trio playing Porgy And Bess. Another favourite was Stan Getz and J.J.Johnson at the Opera House with those two classic ballads – “Yesterdays” and “It Never Entered My Mind”. One of the albums that had a particular influence on me was the Brookmeyer and Stan Getz LP recorded in 1961 with the wonderful Roy Haynes on drums. Steve Kuhn was on piano and he was the one who indirectly introduced me to Bill Evans. Instead of a two-handed chord like Oscar would do, Steve played a single note in the right hand which was repeated as a chord in the left. He did that all the time and I thought it was great because I had never heard that approach before. I started to absorb those ideas into my own playing and when I heard Bill Evans I realised where Steve got it from.
“The first Bill Evans record I bought was Waltz For Debby. I played that LP over and over and funnily enough it was Scott LaFaro who blew me away before Bill – I haven’t heard bass playing like that even to this day. Of course I collected all of Evans's albums after that but I was a little disappointed with the LP he made with Brookmeyer. Bob’s ideas of course are amazing and he can certainly play the piano but the difference in pianistic ability is too great. Bill was almost concert piano standard and Bob is a trombone player who doubles – he does it very well but he’s not in Evans’s league. I believe he went to the date expecting to play trombone and was surprised when he saw two pianos set up. It’s such a shame he didn’t play the trombone with Bill and I’m not really a fan of two pianos playing together anyway.
“I studied at the Royal Academy from 1963 to 1967 and towards the end of the’60s I started working at the Penthouse Club in Shepherd’s Market with Bob Layzel’s band. We backed artists like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks and I also occasionally got a call to play with Maynard Ferguson’s big band when he was over here. I did a few deps when the regular pianist wasn’t available and Maynard was very good to me and great to work with – although the remuneration wasn’t wonderful! Unfortunately very often when I was there the rest of the rhythm section were replacements too. This created problems with the geography of the music and led to some confusion regarding repeats and where they went back to. It was better when the regular guys like Randy Jones and Dave Lynane were there because one of them would say, ‘OK John, go to letter C now’ so I knew where I was. I remember one piece though where I was supposed to bring in the tempo on piano and I got it completely wrong. Maynard just cued the band in and played my part with me bringing it up to the right tempo with no fuss at all. That’s real class because he didn’t leave me with egg on my face.
“I often worked with Ronnie Ross and we got on very well. He usually used my great friends Allan Ganley on drums and Chris Laurence on bass and we did a number of broadcasts, either as a quartet or a quintet with trombonist Chris Pyne. Ronnie had a big sound on baritone and I was very touched when Sue, his wife, sent me a letter after he died in 1991. She told me that he had really liked my playing and thought a lot of me. I wish I had kept that letter.” (Just as an aside, it should never be forgotten what a superb player Ronnie Ross was. John Lewis, who asked him and Joe Harriott to tour Europe with the MJQ in 1959 once said that Ross was his favourite baritone soloist. One particularly excellent example of his work is a 1963 album on World Record Club (E)T346 with Bill Le Sage, Spike Heatley and Allan Ganley – unfortunately not available yet on CD).
“By the mid 70s I was starting to get a lot of calls for session work with people like Engelbert Humperdinck, Harry Secombe and even Placido Domingo. Classical singers had started to record standard tunes which they didn’t do very well. I remember Placido who was charming to us incidentally trying “Blue Moon” which he must have attempted about 20 times. Normally you would put the track down so the singer could come in later and add the vocal but he did it live which meant we had to play it 20 times too. I got pretty fed up with “Blue Moon” which has never been one of my favourite tunes anyway.
In 1976 I did a European tour with Shirley MacLaine and I loved working with her. She was very nice to all the musicians and a tremendous artist – an amazing singer and dancer.
“I played a lot with Tony Coe who of course is a genius which at times makes him a little unpredictable.You just have to accept that he’s ‘Tony’ and as I’ve got more mature and experienced over the years I understand him better. We made an album in 1978 titled Coe-Existence (LAM 100) and we also worked together more recently in Malcolm Creese’s Acoustic Triangle. We aren’t with Malcolm any more but we have a group with a similar line-up with just Alec Dankworth on bass.
“In 1979 I played with Chet Baker at The Canteen for a week which was one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve ever had because he was straight and he played wonderfully well. He had a few dots and we actually had a rehearsal with him so you can see how together he was. A lot of musicians came to listen and I particularly remember Henry Lowther being there because he loved Baker. Chet introduced me to Richie Beirach’s music and he sang quite a lot although I preferred it when he just played the trumpet. I must give credit to the rhythm section – Jim Richardson and Tony Mann – who played so well for Chet who was not a powerful player. At our rehearsal he told us that he didn’t want things to be too loud so Tony played brushes for him but when it came to me he switched to sticks. We could stretch out as much as we wanted, which Chet liked because it gave him long rests.” (Baker had very definite opinions about drummers. He once said ‘A drummer has got to be very good to be better than no drummer at all’.)
“Jim Richardson has the recording from The Canteen and it’s pretty good. When the legalities are ironed out, let's hope it can be released because Chet played so well. He told Poppy my wife how much he enjoyed working with me and he even asked me to do some more dates in Europe with him. A few years later in 1985 I played with him again this time at Ronnie Scott’s but by then he was really out of it. Sometimes he wouldn’t appear and when he did he was stoned – it was terrible really and I didn’t enjoy it at all.” (Thorbjorn Sjogren’s Chet Baker discography lists private recordings of the Ronnie Scott and Canteen dates. John also worked with Chet at The Canteen later in 1983. These performances were released commercially in 2016 on Ubuntu Music UBU0003.)
“Getting back to 1979, that was the year Bob Brookmeyer came over to do a tour with Jim Hall as well as some dates with Cliff Hardie’s big band. My brother Dave and I got a chance to play with him because we were in Cliff’s band at the time. Bill Holman had written a suite for Bob who also brought some of his own arrangements for us to play and we did three concerts with him which unfortunately lost money. Dave later went to Germany to join the WDR band. Over the years Brookmeyer often played with them and he and Dave became good friends.
“Zoot Sims was booked for two weeks at Ronnie’s in 1980 and I enjoyed working with him. He didn’t seem too happy though because he had a medical problem at the time which meant he wasn’t able to drink. The group sounded pretty good with Bobby Orr on drums and Lennie Bush on bass who are both British jazz legends. There was one tune that gave us all problems with Zoot because we couldn’t agree on the bridge for “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me”. I tried every way with that bridge but my changes never seemed to fit with what he was doing. I went to the trouble of looking up the song copy but whatever I played didn’t suit Zoot - even Lennie who was a tremendous busker didn’t know what he wanted. I was pretty confident in those days and I wasn’t overawed by playing with him so I said, ‘Zoot, why don’t you write out what you want me to play?’ That was all I needed but he never did.
“Jimmy Rowles had written a whole bunch of chords for him to give to pianists when he was touring. Being an ‘ear’ player Zoot didn’t know everything Jimmy had written and occasionally there would be a discrepancy between the chart and what Zoot played. I was never quite sure if he wanted me to follow him or play exactly what was written – you have to be a mind reader sometimes. I remember telling him how impressed I was with one of his solos on a Mulligan CJB live recording. One night he turned to me and said, ‘Here’s something I know you’ll like’ and he counted us off into “The Red Door'' which he had played on the album. Even though we had our problems he was just fantastic.
“I also played with Pepper Adams at the Pizza Express in Dean Street followed by a TV show in Liverpool. Pepper was a great soloist and a very nice guy who had a fondness for Guinness. We had long chats and although I don’t recall all the things we spoke about, he did tell me that he wasn’t totally happy with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band because he didn’t get too much solo space from Thad. I saw the band at Ronnie’s and it did seem like a lot of trumpet solos with very little from Pepper.
“I’ve played a lot with Pete King over the years. We started working together around 1980 and at the time I think we had one of the best groups in the country. We did an album in 1982 (Spotlight ESPJ520) and one of the numbers was a free duet called “New Beginnings” which was the title of the LP. That idea started one night on a gig when I joined in on his cadenza to “My Old Flame”. He turned round and said, ‘Keep going’ and we used to try that quite often in those days. We did another album in 1983 called East 34th. Street which featured two of my tunes – “Evans’s Song” and “3/4 Peace” (Spotlight SPJ 424).
“As far as free playing is concerned it depends on the musicians but as I get older I find I am not so keen on it anymore because the idea of just playing anything doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes though I play a phrase with someone like Tony Coe. He can hear and then embellish it before moving into something else which can be rewarding. I remember hearing Brookmeyer and Jim Hall doing some free things which had form and a theme where they just played lines without chords. It was successful because they are both such fantastic musicians.
“1982 was the year I played on the movie soundtrack for Yentl with Barbra Streisand. Michel Legrand had written the music and he conducted a large orchestra with four keyboard players including the magnificent classical pianist Howard Shelley. His part was completely black with dots and I remember looking at it feeling glad that he had to play it and not me. We had a problem because when Barbra came into the studio she said the music was too high for her. We were given a few minutes to transpose everything down a minor third and I remember Howard did brilliantly even though he had the hardest part.
“1983 was the first year I recorded with John Dankworth (Sepia ERSR2012) and after the session he said he would like me to start touring with him and Cleo Laine. I was very flattered but I was doing a lot of free-lance work and I was a little concerned about losing my connections if I was away for too long. It all seemed very exotic because they were travelling the world then and Cleo of course often worked in America. I took a chance but when the schedule came through the first dates I saw were at Hull and Tunbridge Wells! Anyway, I joined and I’ve been with them both ever since. John usually has a quintet with Mark Nightingale, Alec Dankworth and Allan Ganley although occasionally he expands to a big band. We sometimes play one of my originals – “Around In Three” which Cleo recorded in 2005 as “Once Upon A Time” with her own lyric (QMT 10108).
I’ve also played with Tony Kinsey off and on since the mid 70s and I’ve been involved in quite a few of his recording projects. The great Alan Branscombe who was one of my favourite pianists was there before me and when he died Tony asked me to take over.
“I’ve sometimes accompanied Herb Geller when he is in the UK and he is a really nice guy and a wonderful player. It’s all a bit ‘eyes down’ with Herb though because he plays a lot of originals and some really obscure standards so you’re reading all the time which can be hard work. It’s nice if the leader lets the guys busk something they know so they can relax a little.
“I don’t listen to many new jazz records these days because I prefer the ‘old masters’ like Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Getz, J.J. Johnson, Jim Hall, Mulligan and Brookmeyer. Mulligan’s CJB played some of the best music I’ve ever heard incidentally. I also like Jim McNeely, Richie Beirach, Chick Corea, Victor Feldman, Wynton Kelly and early Herbie Hancock. Obviously I’ve listened to Tatum and nobody can do what Peterson does in his particular genre. I listen a lot to modern writers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy and Alban Berg as well as classical composers like Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven. I also like the Rachmaninov piano concertos – that ‘over the top’ stuff doesn’t seem so ‘over the top’ as I get older and more romantic! I think it’s good for jazz musicians to be aware of other forms. Bill Evans introduced Miles Davis to Ravel for instance and if you look at the structure of some of their pieces you can see where they absorbed European harmonies into their own material.
“I must just mention some of my recent recordings. Alan Barnes and I have worked together quite a lot over the years and our duo CD – Stablemates - which we did in 2004 on Alan’s own label turned out very well (Woodville WWCD107). I also recorded a duo album with Ken Peplowski in 2001 titled Ellingtonian Tales on Mainstem MCD 0021 that I’m very happy with and my latest trio album – The Key To It All – is currently being mixed and re-mastered and should be available soon.”
The last word here should come from one of John Horler’s former colleagues - Bob Brookmeyer. He was quoted on the cover of one of my favourite Horler CDs - Gentle Piece, which John recorded for the Spotlight label in 1993 with Dave Green, Phil Lee and Spike Wells (SPJ-CD542). As always with Brookmeyer his comments are concise and succinct – ‘I find a quiet dignity and a sense of deep feeling in John’s music. The touch, the musicality and the well-thought out presentation provides ready access to his thinking and the support is always sensitive and helpful.’
Monday, May 23, 2022
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
This piece appeared in the February 1983 edition of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter which he began writing and publishing in August 1981.
Without going into details, Gene was frustrated and was considering aborting the publication. [And not for the first time, either, in the almost 30 year history of the publication.]
Of course, this solicited many “Say it isn’t so ‘Letters to the Editor’” which took many forms, one of which was the following from Richard Sudhalter, a distinguished Bix Beiderbecke scholar and a fairly adept cornet player who would later go on to write full length biographies of Bix, Hoagy Carmichael and the seminal Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.
The decade of the 2020s marks the 100th year anniversary of many of the earliest developments in the formalization of Jazz as we have come to know it including the advent of the leading voices in the music - trumpeters Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.
Bix’s short-lived career barely survived the decade and, as a result, a great deal of “Young Man with a Horn Dies Young” hagiography became associated with it.
Richard Sudhalter would have none of that nonsense. Instead, he spent years in research documenting who Bix really was, both as a person and as a musician, and the following piece is an example of the quality of his efforts.
Sudhalter’s letter also contains some interesting reflections of some rarely observed or discussed influences on early Jazz from some unlikely sources which makes it a fascinating read from this perspective alone.
Sadly, the passing of both Sudhalter  and Lees  is a reminder that Jazz is rarely discussed in such erudite terms these days.
Indiana Twilights By Richard M. Sudhalter, New York.
“I suppose it was inevitable that I would want to discuss Bix with you [Gene Lees]. A crucial point is sometimes missed — that Bix never stopped being his parents’ son, a product of that upper-middle class environment and ethic so clearly expressed through the Beiderbecke family and their life in Davenport. Yes, he coveted parental approval and never got it. But at root he didn't want that approval for being a jazz cornet player. Far from it. He was awed and intimidated, impressed to tears, with what he found in Whiteman's orchestra - with virtuosity and theoretical excellence and compositional skills. For him, on the testimony of friends and acquaintances, most of them long gone now, Bix had kind of grown outside his infatuation with hot jazz by 1925. He came more and more to consider it a manifestation of adolescence. In his view, the people who clung to it were either musically stunted or, as in the case of Louis Armstrong, “native geniuses.”
Bix saw himself — wanted to see himself - as a “legitimate" or “respectable" musician, a composer, someone who could create something musically enduring and, in his view, worthwhile. His solos on the records? He liked some of them, didn't like others. Some — particularly the early Wolverines efforts — embarrassed him. It was a very revealing moment, that meeting with Sylvester Ahola which we describe in the book. Hooley remembered with lasting astonishment Bix's demeanor: looking at the floor and mumbling, “Hell, I'm just a musical degenerate.” He meant it. To him, the writing of Ferde Grofe and Gershwin and Bargy and the rest was class. It was accomplishment, Kultur, if you will. Not for nothing did he all but forsake the cornet in the last year of life. He just didn't give a damn about it anymore. He wanted to compose, to excel as a “real" — his quotation marks more than mine —- musician.
But that was half a century ago. No dropping out to take a few courses at Berklee or Julliard or Manhattan. No chance to get his primal scream out of his system with some Park Avenue shrink. No “support system" of friends to whom he could talk. Just Hoagy and Challis, both of them wrapped up in their careers, plus a bunch of jazz guys whose adolescent mentality would remain rooted in their systems far into old age. Imagine discussing inner aesthetic and socio-musical conflicts with Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, or George Wettling. Dave Tough, maybe — but then he was off in Europe somewhere playing Bohemian. “Hell, there are only two musicians I'd go across the street to hear now," Bix said to Richardson Turner. “That's Louis and LaRocca." LaRocca for auld lang syne and Armstrong because Bix recognized him for the apocalyptic figure he was. By then jazz seemed almost irrelevant to him. Yet he was caught very securely in a classic trap. If he dropped out, went home, took any kind of left turn, he'd lose the prominence, the adulation of the musicians and the kids who formed the core jazz audience of the time. It would have constituted a loss of face and of what small self-esteem his quick rise to prominence had granted him. He had to hang on, to keep proving and proving and proving - to himself as well as to the rest. “I'm not worthless," he might have said, had he had to express it verbally.
Eddie Miller [tenor sax and clarinet] tells of a date he worked at Yale with Bix, Bunny and Bill “Jazz" Moore — a light-skinned black working in white bands — as the brass team. Eddie was just a kid then. He said he had looked forward with anticipation and wild surmise to working with his idol. Yet Bix not only didn't play all that well; he seemed alternately indifferent to the music and sullen. It was Eddie's impression that he regarded [Bunny] Berigan as a threat (and in one sense, if you subscribe to the jazz adversary system, the polls and tallies and other gladiatorial paraphernalia, he was) and resented his energy and dash and sheer strength. It is one of the more piquant ironies of that phase of the jazz story. Bix was not a revolutionary, a jazz rebel. He was a nice, middle class boy who never succeeded in bringing his prodigious musical gifts and aspirations into line with the realities of his life. Had he lived — ah, the eternal teaser! — had he lived, I am convinced he'd have ended up either writing for the movies, if the commercial lures had snared him; a significant American composer, following through what Gershwin wanted to do but couldn't because of his imperfect grasp of the native American jazz idiom; or out of music entirely.
By the way, I have always doubted the authenticity of the story wherein Louis takes out the mouthpiece and hands his horn to Bix. By then Louis was playing trumpet. Cornet — and Bix never played anything else takes a different— sized mouthpiece. His wouldn't have fit Louis's horn. It makes good legendry, but sober considerations of fact suggest that it never happened. Your [Gene Lees] discussion of French Autumn Syndrome prompts thought.
[In the preceding October, November and December edition of the 1982 Jazzletter, Gene ran a three part piece entitled “The French Autumn Syndrome” by which he meant the unquestioned conviction held by the French that their country culture and language are stylistically superior to all others. Any discussion of art is freighted by a vast complex of unexamined assumptions that one might call the French Autumn Syndrome. Praise one musician and someone will take up the heated advocacy of another one as his better.]
And that's all to the good. No matter how heated the disagreements that such writing arouses, it has performed an invaluable service by stimulating thought and feeling. How much writing within what we rather foolishly called “jazz criticism" even approaches doing that? Strip away the opinion-mongering and what generally is left? Onanism [self-gratification], elevated through sheer energy to the level of art. Life and love, taste and emotion and style, seem to be matters of infinite gradation - the crowd as usual made up of individuals.
Language is at best an approximation, an arbitrary method for identifying things, concepts, feelings to be communicated and shared. The danger is built in. Who's to say that our own understandings of the things we try to express will correspond to the understandings of others? They seldom do, especially in those areas of experience which rely heavily on subjective response and emotional involvement. Music especially sets up all sorts of snares. Why do we enjoy what we enjoy? What penetrates the walls, scales the battlements of daily defenses and how? Each response is custom built, formed out of a lifetime of experiences. Consensus helps a little — but its aid is deeply suspect. In the end, music is one of the eternal mysteries, reliant on personal chemistry, perception, need, and all the other variables that make us a planet of quirks and accidents. With that in mind, can you defend your case for the nature and/or politics of the traditional jazz audience? Would you want to have to furnish corroborative proof that the “admirer of ‘modern’ jazz is inclined to respect the earlier styles of the music," while the lover of the earlier styles displays only contempt for latter-day developments? . Not that all those attitudes don't exist. Of course they do.
But to draw such general inferences from your experience with them puts you and I on rather shaky turf. Consider this. Consider one man's view. It's that of a man who doesn't belong to the Flat Earth Society, doesn't know any cops or rednecks, doesn't vote Republican (as a matter of fact usually doesn't vote, but that's another story), and loves to be challenged by life. He argues: It is possible to perceive the jazz which emerged from this culture ‘during the '20s and '30s as a final expression of late Nineteenth Century Romanticism. Its aesthetic foundation, manner of harmonic and melodic organization, sound, and sonorities, all seem less a part of what we've come to identify as Twentieth Century motivation than echoes of an earlier time. Indeed, the very yearning quality which finds its most explicit form in Bix, but is by no means confined to him, bespeaks lavender, lilacs, and fin-du-siecle twilight.
What about Bix, with his layering of jubilation and melancholy, the bittersweet after echoes and temps-perdu atmosphere of his work both on cornet and at the piano? Its sound and emotional atmosphere are redolent immediately of the French Impressionists — and more directly of the salon piano idiom of this century's first two decades, themselves warmed-over Romanticism, Nineteenth Century thoughts and feelings viewed through a soft-focus lens.
Listen, with these thoughts in mind, to the large body of popular and light-classical piano music written in the 1920s, including Eastwood Lane's Adirondack Sketches, Willard Robison's Rural Revelations, and such Rube Bloom confections as Soliloquy and Suite of Moods. They provide a context within which Beiderbecke's ruminations at the piano seem very much the expression of a Zeitgeist. What is most remarkable about In a Mist and the rest, I think, is not what they are viewed objectively, they are charming but in some respects unremarkable — but who wrote them and how. The notion that a self-taught hot cornet player brought these pieces into being says much about him, even more about American music in the early Twentieth Century.
Armstrong. What did Louis really do? What made him so extraordinary? At least one man's answer comes readily: he created a distinctive, individual model for a solo style, both on his instrument and all others, a style with its own integrity and logic, aesthetic coherence and emotional arc. Yes, but listen to bel canto singing, especially in the tenor repertoire, throughout French and Italian opera of the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth. Play a record of Pavarotti singing Gelida Manina from Boheme back to back with Armstrong's final chorus on the Okeh When You're Smiling. Compare the gathering intensity and the inner cry of Willie the Weeper or the bravura stop-time chorus on Potato Head Blues with climactic moments in Turandot, Tosca, Norma, Lucia, and the rest. The language, the frame of reference, is the same.
At one minute after midnight on January 1, 1900, nobody closed a door, lowered a trunk lid, or erased a blackboard. Things went on as usual, with all sorts of expressions of hope that the new century would improve on the old and usher in some kind of golden age which would wed the accumulated wisdom of ages and the wonders of technological progress. No one knew what to expect, and it took, I would submit, a couple of decades or more for the character of the new century, in particular the effect of burgeoning technology, to assert itself. In the meantime, music of all sorts simply continued to do what it had always done: to express aspirations, strive for excellence and beauty.
Why should jazz have been any different? If anything, it was slower than many other forms to explore the implications of a technologically-dominated world. Jazz musicians during the 1920s were still fooling with whole-tone scales and parallel ninth chords fifteen years or more after Stravinsky unveiled Le Sacre and The Firebird. In sum, I believe that the Nineteenth Century and its aesthetic priorities saturate early jazz. And I would submit that there are many, many people who listen to that music, love it, lobby for it, and for just that reason. Whatever their individual reasons, many of them (or us, since I would include myself) respond more vigorously to the stimuli and aspirations of that age — identify with, as they say nowadays, values and ideas rooted in those times. We still perceive a coherent and enduring set of aesthetic standards in the music of those years, a set of standards which seem to look better and better as the Twentieth Century grinds its angry, violent way along.
We are discussing an age which had not yet shifted from idealizing life to reflecting it, an age which asked art to stimulate imagination, to reach out and up. In the context of those values, that age, it is possible to ask, “Why should art simply reflect life? Isn't life (reality, if you like) prosaic and demoralizing enough, frustrating and downright ugly enough, without being reflected and projected again through music, painting and literature?" It is a basic philosophic difference that pervades every level of this culture. It's Webster's International (prescriptive) vs. Webster's Third International (descriptive); Fred and Ginger (idealized) vs. Taxi Driver (descriptive). I believe it took jazz close to forty years to catch up to the heartbeat of the Twentieth Century. I believe that bebop was the result. It said, in essence, “Why waste your time mooring and dreaming? That's not life, this is life. Life is full of tension and nervousness and angst. Life shatters dreams into fragments, then reassembles them according to the moment and the mood."
For a long time, romanticism all but disappeared from modern jazz (or whatever else one feels like calling the jazz which grew out of the war years). Without reaching too far for a point, it is possible to conclude that World War II really dragged popular art kicking and screaming at last into the Twentieth Century. The first war, the Great War, the “war to end war" — had been endured; the nation heaved a vast sigh of relief on Armistice Day and vowed that now we knew better and it would never happen again, not like that. Let us not forget the ability of music to move us. For many years, jazz — and I think part of the grievance of many traditional jazz lovers can be traced to this —— seemed to have collectively forgotten this. Or rejected it. The music impressed its listeners: no dearth of complexity, technical mastery, harmonic and melodic inventiveness, sheer ingenuity. But there is something quite else in the ability to play a note, a phrase, and bring tear to the eye of the guy sitting at the corner table. Remember that feeling, when you ache and exult and tremble and suffer, all at once, because of something somebody played or sang? A lot of us live for those moments, the moments that allow us to leave the scene of the experience just a bit different from what we were when we arrived. Far from wanting not to be challenged, this in a sense is the ultimate challenge — not to the head but to the heart, not to knowledge and skill, which we acquire at no cost to ourselves, but to our innermost reservoirs offeeling; the things we guard and keep secret and defend. Bix Beiderbecke reached me on that level the first time I ever heard him on a record. For all my years of hearing and growing and broadening and understanding my world, he still does. And I'm very very glad of it. Eddie Condon and his close associates suffered now and then from a kind of selective musical myopia. And their pronouncements — especially Eddie's, in that he was among the most vocal and compulsively articulate of them —— occasionally did harm. Red Nichols is a case in point. Few — least of all Red, were he still living — would make a case for him as a jazz soloist of towering resourcefulness and originality. What he was, however, deserves recognition. He was a superb, well-disciplined trumpet player, an organizer of excellent bands, and an energetic promulgator of good jazz. He managed to get work, good record opportunities, and exposure for good musicians. He was responsible for a large and still impressive body of fine recorded music, in a sense the modern jazz of its day — musically literate, harmonically and melodically varied, and sometimes fascinating in its ingenuity. It didn't swing much. But, as has been proven again and again, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. It had its own integrity, and established a standard. The efforts of Mole, the Dorseys, Livingstone, Schutt, Rollini, McDonough, Vic Berton, and the rest — and of Red himself — were a model to an entire generation, black and white. It was not, as many have claimed with the luxury of hindsight, merely wrong-headedness. Nichols and the musicians with whom he surrounded himself were far and away the most accomplished jazz musicians of their time. Some day, when racial parochialism from both camps has spent itself and the guilt paroxysms of the 1960s and '70s have subsided, perhaps we'll be able to enjoy a balanced, comfortable, and fair appraisal of the roles of white and black musicians in the formative jazz years. Artie Shaw, for example, is quite right: the Casa Loma Orchestra was indeed the pioneer force among white swing bands. More than that, it is interesting to listen to records by the Mills
Blue Rhythm Band and others of that period, to hear how very influential the Casa Loma band was. ' Two decades after the war to end war, it not only happened again but it happened worse. No more time for dreams and backward looks. Too much grubby reality staring us all in the face. No wonder the jazz of those days said “Screw you, Jack," in almost its every note and phrase. There are no absolute realities, no truths save perceived ones. If our century has adopted, at last, an aesthetic quite different from that of the century that preceded it, let us remember it is only that: different. Not better or worse, only different. It's only too comprehensible. Not the full story, of course. Nothing's ever that simple. But as you fill in the details, they all seem to fall in place. l Yet humanity always confounds the experts. Despite the times, despite the realities and the atmosphere and the prevailing attitudes, people insist on growing up listening to the voices within their heads. How else to explain a middle-class boy from Newton, Mass., who spends his teen years full of dreams of Hoagy and Willard Robison, Bix, Tram, Red, and Miff, Indiana twilights and country lanes and the scent of lilacs in summer dusk. I apologize for running on so long. But that, my friend, is the effect the Jazzletter has. And you want to hang it up? —RMS