Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I Remember Tadd by George Ziskind

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

“George Ziskind is an ex-Chicagoan, pianist, and child of the bebop age, who has lived in New York City since the mid-'60s. He was one of Lennie Tristano's first students and notes that, "The low point of my career was a month spent as musical director for Brenda Lee. The high point is yet to come." He believes in: "God, Country, and Art Tatum (not necessarily in that order).”

Here is another in our continuing series about the late, lamented composer-arranger Tadd Dameron [1917-1935]. It was original posted to the Jazz Institute of Chicago website as a remembrance-cum-interview and is featured here with George’s kind permission.

As the conclusion, you’ll find a video tribute to pianist Tommy Flanagan with Tommy performing Tadd’s Our Delight. George Mraz is on bass and Kenny Washington plays drums on this track which is from radio broadcast of a concert held at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City in August, 1988.

© -  George Ziskind; used with permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I had the great good fortune—and it was totally fortuitous—of having my life path cross with that of Tadley Ewing Dameron, in 1958. Tadd saw right away that I had ears and knew what I was talking about on these subjects, and took an interest in me. Thank God! Tadd and I formed a close and symbiotic friendship that lasted until his untimely death in 1965.

If you want to talk about "Been there, done that" in the modern jazz business, well, that's Tadd Dameron. What Bird was to the alto, Dizzy to trumpet, Tadd was in the category of composer/arranger of the new music of the '40s. Most casually-interested jazz fans only know Tadd as the composer (with lyricist Carl Sigman) of "If You Could See Me Now." This standard was just the tip of Tadd's musical iceberg.

He intuitively knew that I greatly respected him and his accomplishments. He also was drawn to my harmonic sense at the piano. One day we walked from his NYC apartment on West End Avenue in the 80s over to Gil Evans' apartment for an unannounced social call (!!!). (He dragged me over to Miles' brownstone, on 77th, another time.) After introducing Gil and me, he blithely said, "George, play something for Gil." Well, I could have shot Tadd, and wanted to die right there. PLAY FOR THE GREAT GIL EVANS? I think I ended up doing "How Long Has This Been Going on?"

In Gil's work area, on a draftsman's table, was a score pad with an arrangement in progress. I went over and looked. It was the Rodgers and Hart tune "Wait 'til You see Her"—which finally appeared on the last Miles and Gil collaboration. I believe this one also had some Lincoln Center concert material on it, too.

During many of the long conversations Tadd and I had about harmony, melody, voicing, rhythm, and other meat-and-potatoes aspects of crafting this new music, he would let drop little crumbs of wisdom—all as casual parts of the conversation of the moment—which I regarded (and still do) as priceless and which could never be learned in such a succinct manner in the leading music schools.


This was Tadd's most basic advice to the improviser. When playing one's chorus(es) on a tune, it is not sufficient to know the harmony (backwards and forwards, so to speak!!); to be 100% comfortable with its figurations; and to have more than a passing familiarity with the composer's conception. Tadd stressed that the above were merely starting points. They were the basic building blocks necessary to construct a credible solo and only when you had those items fully covered could you be ready to deal with the heart of the matter, i.e., to make "little songs" as you played—little self-contained melodic bits—that could be two beats long, or two bars long, or nine or ten bars long.

The length of these motifs was not the important thing; rather, he believed that there should be lots and lots of little melodies within your solo—little songs—and that this was one of the most important defining factors when analyzing the work of any great improviser, no matter what the instrument or the style.
Stop and think for a moment of just a few of the jazz giants whose careers began under the impetus of Tadd's direction or support. Three heavily melodic players instantly come to mind: Clifford Brown, Benny Golson and John Coltrane. Three players, with almost completely disparate playing styles, shared a mastery of harmony and a capacity for pouring out torrents of heavily melodic improvisation.


We had a standing joke between us—whenever I'd leave his place after a hang. (I'd be there to talk music or have a quick informal dinner that Tadd would rustle up—great cook! One thing he could whip together with great dispatch and panache was simply to buy a couple pounds of large cubes of good beef, and throw together with some fresh veggies—potatoes, carrots, beans, etc—and saute the whole mess in a large skillet with a lid on it. Nothing elaborate—but good! Of course these were the days before anyone knew not to eat a lot of meat.) More often than not, Philly Joe Jones would be crashing at Tadd's place and would be present for many of these hangs. Anyway, upon my departing, he'd stick his head out in the hallway and call out, "You know, I specialize in writing for saxes!" Then, about 5 seconds later, as I neared the elevator, his head would come out again and he'd say, "I also specialize in writing for brass!" And so on...through all the sections. We both cracked up, every time he did it.

But, to get serious about his saxophone section writing. He dropped this clue on me once: in a five-man section, harmonize the two tenors and two altos and use the baritone sax as an independent voice, moving it any which way with or against the other four, contrapuntally, in contrary motion, or whatever strikes the writer's fancy, as long as it sounds good.

This is similar to something I learned from Warne Marsh many years later: "You can write or play anything you want, as long as you keep it moving!" There's a world of wisdom in that seemingly simple statement.


The statement is self-defining, but I'll elaborate anyway. Many improvisers are locked into the habit of playing four- or eight-bar phrases, terminating their last phrase (on a 32 bar tune) at the end of bar 30 or so—or on bar 10 or so if it's a blues. A musical statement, Tadd said, sounds much more interesting if you play right through the turnaround. No matter what changes are being employed, just play on those changes all the way through. Better yet, terminate the phrase a couple of bars into the next chorus.

Although a bit off-topic, I want to pass along an anecdote that Tadd told me. Around 1940, Bird and Tadd were on the same bandstand at a jam session in Kansas City. This was the first time they had met. The tune was "Lady Be Good." On the last four bars of the bridge, Bird played two beats each of | E-9 A9 | D-9 G9 | and then on the final two bars of the bridge, the usual bar of | G-7 | and then a bar of | C7 |. Tadd, at the piano, was comping exactly the same thing. At the end of the bridge, Bird ran over to Tadd at the keyboard, threw his arms around him, and exclaimed, "I KNEW someone else would hear it that way!"
These are some small insights that were pointed out to me by Tadley Ewing Dameron, one of the great musical minds of the new jazz music that came into being in the early 1940's.

Jazz Institute of Chicago–MP: You mention the tune, "If you could see me now." Were there other tunes that Tadd was particularly proud of—that he felt really captured what he was trying to do? If so, which ones and why?

GZ: He never expressed an opinion of "his favorite tune" but I know that he wanted to be remembered as a composer and not as an arranger. And CERTAINLY not as a pianist. He did feel that his mini-suite "Fountainbleu" was a composition to be proud of. Although he comped with great rhythmic authority and swagger, his solos were always, to my ears and those of observant others, mainly him spelling out, serially, the notes of the particular chord at hand. Giant that Tadd was, I know of no one who considered him a great pianist.
There was a tune he showed me (I mean at the keyboard, so that I could play it) that killed me. It appears in big band form on his Riverside record of 1962, "The Magic Touch." The title of the tune is "Look, Stop and Listen." For me, this tune shines as a solo piano piece—and it is a certified chopbuster! Tadd wrote it while on Rikers Island and the original title of the tune was "The Great Lockup."

What recordings best illustrate Tadd to you?

Can't answer that—and he felt the definitive one hadn't been done yet.

Did Tadd tell you anything of his early training—how he got interested in music, who were his teachers and influences?

Like many of us, "The University of the Streets," plus God-given talent, and hanging out with other talent, and jamming. The usual routine—which sadly doesn't exist in the same form any more. Nowadays, all you have to do is attend Berklee.

How did you get started in jazz?

I attended Senn High School [on the north side of Chicago.] My early associates are largely mentioned in Marty Clausen's piece [Growing up musically in Chicago]. Also Eddie Baker, Sandy Mosse, Lew Ellenhorn, and Lou Levy. In an incident Lou and I still laugh about, I beat him in a North Side High School Council boogie-woogie contest play-off. Also Hotsy Katz, Cy Touff, Red Lionberg, Ira Sullivan, Wilbur Campbell.

Caught the boogie-woogie bug at age 12; then, when 14, while in a rehearsal band run by Irwin Tunick, my world changed: I stayed behind to explore the delights of their Steinway "D" and a janitor with push broom quietly sidled up to me and said "Ever hear of Art Tatum?" Within a year, Bird had been added to the mix. What more could one need after those two, unless you want to add Bach?”

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