Saturday, October 28, 2017

"Mama Jazz" - Ella Fitzgerald at 100: A Review of Leslie Gourse's "The Ella Fitzgerald Companion"

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

“Nobody probed to find out anything definitive or accurate about the childhood struggles of the young woman. Nobody realized that Ella’s hardships had forged her character as a loner and thoroughly committed musician in a brilliant and original American art form. Nobody seemed to realize that as a singer she was a genius, and certainly nobody predicted she would develop into a virtual flag of American popular music.”

“Given her inexhaustible inventiveness, and a range of nearly three octaves, she moved easily from a bluesy growl up into the stratosphere— with astounding clarity all the way. Ira Gershwin spoke for many composers when he said: "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." Her famous Songbook recordings of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers and Hart are masterworks. Having excelled in nearly every noteworthy period of the modern jazz era, Miss Fitzgerald set a timeless standard. Young fans in Italy named her "Mama Jazz." That she was.
- Leslie Gourse, Jazz author

I am a big fan of compilations.

When used as a noun in English, “compilation” means the action or process of producing something, especially a list, book, or report, by assembling information collected from other sources [i.e.: assembling previously separate items].

It is a technique that I use frequently to put together the blog features that are displayed on these pages so as to give the reader a fuller view of the Jazz topic or musician that’s being profiled.

One analogy that comes to mind is going out to dinner and ordering a bunch of starters or appetizers as the main meal; you get a variety of tastes this way instead of one main entre.

Another form of comparison is when you load up the CD changer or Mp3 player with a variety of music and then select “Random Play” to achieve a broader sampling of the music instead of listening to just one artist perform.

More specifically, as part of my celebration of the centenary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald [1917-2017], a woman who young Jazz fans in Italy affectionately call “Mama Jazz,” I have queued up selections from the many Songbooks that Ella recorded for Norman Granz’s Verve label in the 1950s and early 1960s..

For those who may be unfamiliar with these compilations, they include selections from many of the Great American Songbook master composers including Duke Ellington [3 CDs], Harold Arlen [2 CDs], Cole Porter [2 CDs], George and Ira Gershwin [3 CDs], Rodgers and Hart [2 CDs], Irving Berlin [2 CDs], and single CDs of the Johnny Mercer Songbook and the Jerome Kern Songbook.

All of them feature Ella primarily with big bands with the music arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, Paul Weston, Buddy Bregman, Billy May, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

The assemblage of so much talent boggles the mind and let’s not leave out the beautiful conditions under which the recordings were engineered at the newly constructed Capitol Records recording studies on Vine Street, a block or two up from Hollywood Blvd, and the brilliant work of the many studio musicians who made these arrangements a musical reality.

Which brings me to Leslie Gourse’s The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. First published in 1998, two years after Ella’s death, Leslie’s book is a compilation “... of articles, interviews and reviews that originally appeared in a variety of publications” which are divided into five [5] sections:

Part One: Spring Is Here: The Early Years
Part Two: How High The Moon - On Her Own, Recording With Decca, 1939-55
Part Three: Everything I’ve Got - Norman Granz and the Songbooks, 1955-65
Part Four: How Long Has This Been Going On?, Living Icon, 1966-80
Part Five: Evening Star - Last Years. 1981-96

The list of contributors is a dazzling array of literary Jazz luminaries that includes Henry Pleasants, John S. Wilson, Leonard Feather, Len Lyons, Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Will Friedwald, John Tynan, Ralph J. Gleason, Bill Coss, Stanley Dance, Earl Wilson, John Edward Hasse, Dom Cerulli and Nat Hentoff.

At the time of its writing, Leslie Gourse had written about Jazz for almost three decades. She edited The Billie Holiday Companion (1997) for Schirmer Books and is the author of Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997). Her articles have been in several newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Chicago Tribune, Down Beat, Harper's Bazaar, and many others.

Leslie explains how she went about developing her compilation in the following Introduction to her book.

"The only thing better than singing is more singing," Ella Fitzgerald toid May Okon, author of "She Still Gets Stage Fright," published in the Sunday News in New York on September 8, 1957. Ella went on: "What greater honors could come to a gal like me than being invited to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Monte Carlo Gala, as I was this year— and having an Ella Fitzgerald night at the Hollywood Bowl (with Duke Ellington's band) as I did last July 20th?"

Ella Fitzgerald had been winning top honors in the music polls for twenty years by then, beginning with first place as a vocalist in the first Down Beat magazine poll in 1937. The next year, 1938, she had her first million-record seller, "A Tisket, a Tasket." Although her career went through ups and downs in the 1940s, she was still referred to as "The First Lady of Song" in several places that decade and in a headline in the New York Times by 1951. In the mid-1950s her career took a mighty upward swing. By 1953 she had firmly secured the management of jazz impresario Norman Granz, founder of Jazz at the Philharmonic. He had at first ignored her, considering her to be a pop singer, not a jazz artist, but he revised his opinion, and his eventual alert attention to details of her bookings, her public image, and her private problems and his decision to have her record collections — songbooks — of the country's greatest popular composers beginning in 1956 made her a superstar.

But the hefty singer, who was about one hundred pounds overweight for most of her adult life and who shook visibly and twined her fingers round and round self-consciously when she performed at Royal Albert Hall in London as late as 1954, never really learned to take her stardom and prestige completely for granted. Sometimes she mentioned a nightmarish incident that had happened when she was sixteen years old. She had been competing in an amateur show in Harlem, when she and her accompanist went in different musical directions. The pianist played the wrong chords. Ella started singing out of tune and then fled the stage, while the audience booed and hooted. She always referred to the incident as if it had happened the day before.

Every reporter who met Ella noticed immediately how unprepossessing and innocent she seemed. She asked other celebrities for their autographs—and then wondered if they minded. She marveled when anyone wanted her autograph or when a head waiter picked up a check in a restaurant for her.
She was so shy and complex that it was the rare writer who obtained permission to interview her.

One night in 1954 backstage at Basin Street East, a jazz club where she was performing in New York, she told New York Post columnist Murray Kempton: "The other night I was so nervous. This is home. If you flop at home, where do you go after that? Then Benny Goodman came in. You know, with a musician, he will notice something. And Benny is not the kind to come back and say 'Gee Sis, you were crazy' when you know you weren't. And I was hoarse that night." Kempton mumbled that, of course, Benny Goodman wouldn't have noticed. "I don't know," Ella said. "He didn't come back to the dressing room afterward."

Kempton called the resulting column simply "She," describing her as a kid though she was nearly forty and celebrating her nineteenth year in the entertainment field though she had been singing professionally since her teens. "She stands with those great arms, that self-deprecating smile, severely frontal in the Byzantine fashion, the mother, the little sister . . . the hope of us all ... a cultural force, a permanent tradition, a great river. ..."

At this time Norman Granz was taking over the helm of Ella's career. Granz had been wanting to sign Ella exclusively to Verve for a long time. He finally acquired the leverage when Decca wanted to release an album including artists under Granz's authority; Granz agreed to let Decca use those artists if Decca would release Ella from her contract before it ran out. Decca did it. Ella signed with Granz in December 1955, and she was poised on the threshold of a great surge forward in her career.

Kempton's article appeared during one of Ella's engagements at Basin Street East in 1954. Gathered to salute Ella were representatives of leading European jazz magazines including Jazz Hot of France and Musica Jazz of Italy; Ella's fellow singers Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, and Harry Belafonte; trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie; and other stars from Broadway, broadcasting, jazz, and the record industry. Congratulatory telegrams and cablegrams poured in from around the world. Ella received eighteen awards plus a plaque from Decca Records in honor of her 22 million dollars in record sales. Still in her future were the extraordinary years with Verve.

Ella went on to even greater acclaim. She won thirteen Grammys — the most for any jazz singer — and had one of the longest recording careers in history. Among her few rivals were Frank Sinatra and bandleader Benny Carter. She placed first in the critics' and readers' popularity polls of music magazines more often than any other singer. She even won a Grammy for a recording in 1990, when she was seventy-two years old, and her voice quavered, her vibrato quaked, her intonation wobbled uncertainly, and her once peerless sense of time wavered. She won in part because her name was still magical for the judges; no other female jazz singer had ever achieved her international fame. Most pop and jazz singers always say the greatest influences in their lives have been Ella and Louis Armstrong. Even Billie Holiday usually ranks after them.

The people who compile encyclopedias of the most important women and African-American women always select for inclusion Ella, and only Ella, among all the great jazz singers. In 1991 she ranked among the most notable African-American women in a book of that name. In 1993, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia featured her as the "First Lady of Jazz." In the section called "The Visual Arts" in the book Women of Achievement: Thirty-five Centuries of History, Ella shows up in the niche between the legendary, inspirational Italian actress Eleonora Duse and Britain's prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. If it is at least in part true that people are known by the company they keep, then Ella Fitzgerald achieved recognition as an uncontested immortal. In 1996 she was chosen for a profile in the December 19 magazine section of the New York Times, which saluted the great people who had died that year.

Yet less was known about her than any other jazz singer. Few celebrities in any part of the entertainment world had more misinformation written about their private lives than Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps only Thelonious Monk among all the jazz stars seemed as cloaked in mystery as Ella.

In the early years of her career, with her successful 1938 recording of "A Tisket, A Tasket" (three years after her first recording, "Love and Kisses," with bandleader Chick Webb), jazz criticism was a young art. Reporters assigned to write about her tended to poke fun at her and portray her as lacking in intellect. She was overweight, homely, girlishly ebullient, and Negro — all attributes that tended to make her fair game in those days for a writer looking for a way to write a flashily entertaining story. Nobody probed to find out anything definitive or accurate about the childhood struggles of the young woman. Nobody realized that her hardships had forged her character as a loner and thoroughly committed musician in a brilliant and original American art form. Nobody seemed to realize that as a singer she was a genius, and certainly nobody predicted she would develop into a virtual flag of American popular music. Even critic and contributor to Metronome magazine George T. Simon, who recognized her as a talented singer and wrote an item about Ella when he first heard her with Chick Webb's band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s, said he could never have foretold how great she would become.

Undoubtedly her feelings were hurt by the slights of the 1930s and early 1940s, when reporters depicted her as simple and childlike. They had no idea she had spent some no-doubt terrifying days as a street urchin and that her first marriage and her early romances (and some of her later affairs, too, according to rumor) were with slick hustlers. Her second marriage, to bassist Ray Brown, would last little more than five years, ending in divorce in August 1953; but that alliance was a casualty of their careers and does not reflect on their fine characters.

In 1949, Ebony magazine featured her as a star to be reckoned with. Little, however, was written about her private life. Her family history remained shadowy, for Ella divulged little, and what she did reveal, she tinkered with to make the facts more palatable to herself. Her manager, Norman Granz, and his staff, colleagues, and friends tended to shield Ella from interviews. Leonard Feather, whose career as an eminent jazz critic developed as Ella matured into a legendary singer, became her friend; to the degree that any writer established an intimate relationship with her, he was one of the few writers granted the opportunity to write about her with information gleaned in personal interviews. Even Edward R. Murrow, visiting Ella in her home in Los Angeles for his popular CBS show "Person to Person," discovered very little about her life behind the scenes. She had a niece and nephew with her on that show, but their names were not revealed, and neither was the identity of their mother, Ella's half sister, Frances, with whom, until Frances's death in the 1960s, Ella remained close and enjoyed, in the words of Stuart Nicholson, "one of the few enduring relationships" of her life.

Neither Ella nor Norman Granz ever published her memoirs or biography. They seemed to shy away from the very idea of a book or even articles about her life, although Ella once said she had thought about a book. But one day when a writer happened by chance to get Ella on the telephone at her house, she said in a shrill voice, "Call the office," and hung up fast.
When Ella was old and ill, a few tentatively probing articles and book-
length biographies were written about her — without her cooperation. For most of her life, the best information came from a handful of critics who knew her fairly well or from musicians who observed her closely when they traveled with her.

Another reason for the lack of books about Ella was that her life lacked controversy, or anyway publicized controversy. It was actually a rather dull life compared with the lives, times, and antics of such stars as Frank Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan or Miles Davis or Rosemary Clooney. Ella never hit a photographer — well, not hard anyway, and not until her later years. And she never had a true nervous breakdown, although she did begin suffering from exhaustion in middle age, when she sometimes sang different concerts in two different cities on the same day. American publishers gauged correctly that the public would never make a run on the bookstores to buy the story of Ella Fitzgerald's life.

Not until Stuart Nicholson published his Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz in 1994 — the first major biography of Ella — did some of the folklore swaddling and obfuscating the facts of Ella's life begin to evaporate. Nicholson included so much documented factual material about her childhood, plus a wonderful discography by jazz historian Phil Schaap, that the book currently stands as the most authoritative biography about her. Nicholson's book is, for the most part, used as a criterion for accuracy, and virtually everything written about Ella before it appeared must be revised.

Ella told columnist Earl Wilson that she had been in the second year of high school — not A.W.O.L. from an orphanage — at the time that bandleader Chick Webb hired her, and Wilson let her claim go at that. About sixty-five years later, Nicholson's biography would reveal that she had been such a truant in high school that the authorities had plucked her out of her aunt's apartment in Harlem and sent her to an orphanage, from which she was indeed A.W.O.L. when she met Chick Webb. She was living by her wits, running numbers, dancing and singing for pennies in the streets of Harlem, wearing rags and men's shoes, and avoiding going back to her aunt's house because she was afraid the authorities might find her and ship her back to the hated "orphanage." And it becomes clear that so much misinformation dogged Ella's footsteps throughout her career because she purposely avoided telling people what really had happened. Perhaps she instinctively understood the old maxim popularized by the legendary African-American baseball player Satchell Paige: "Don't look back, your past may be gaining on you."

She continued to work into her seventies, even though she couldn't see
or walk very well, being beset by myriad illnesses. Some people thought she was a pitiful sight, hobbling onto stages, but the majority viewed her as an American heroine. Why did she keep going? As Jimmy Rowles, a pianist and accompanist who worked with her regularly for a while, told me, "I don't know what she would do without music. When she walks down the street, she trails notes." Rowles also recalled amusing tales about the way she concentrated on her repertoire and found new songs to sing wherever she went, even when she was traveling on airplanes. She always kept her road manager, Pete Cavallo, hopping to find sheet music.

Now that Ella has died, and because she was so close-mouthed, it seems unlikely that some details will ever come to light. But it's possible to speculate that Ella sang, with such joyousness in her sound and style, in part because, by singing, she could tame the memories of her early hardships and keep them at bay. The attitude she took in her singing made her a whole person and enriched the rest of us.

Murray Kempton aptly provides the keynote for this book. His writing reflects the reverence that Americans felt for Ella. The much-esteemed journalist and interpreter and commentator on American politics and culture, Kempton had been assigned to Rome, where he had been disturbed by encounters with some American tourists and by their peculiar values and lack of appreciation — or perhaps simply their innocence — of art and culture. Ella Fitzgerald saved the day for him. And so he wrote about her in "The Americans" in the New York Post on June 25, 1959:

. . . And yet there is an America to which I shall come home and I am grateful for the hope and memory of it to Ella Fitzgerald. She was here this spring . . .

She sang the cruel and demanding bop songs, and those survivals of the '20s, the most sophisticated work in the book, which she has made her special province. And then, unconscious of trying something more, absolutely unaffected, she put her hands together and sang Bess's part of the "You Is My Woman Now" duet from Porgy, which before I had always thought was a man's song.

It is, of course, the song of a loser, or a chippie, who has begun to feel the wonder of possible redemption, the tender of a second chance. I could not believe then that anything Violetta sings in Traviata is any wiser and more beautiful; after two months I do not believe it yet.

The lights were of the careless sort one expects at jazz concerts. She lowered her head and barely spoke these lines, and her face between speech and silence had those harsh lights on it; and there was a sudden
alteration of all ideas of a peace and beauty. That is the face of America. Grant Wood is already only quaint—a withered newspaper photograph— because he never saw that face. If we had a blessed Angelico, that is the face from which he would have worked. She was a child from the colored schools of Newport News when Chick Webb took her on to sing swing songs; she has no education except what she got there, as cruel a school as Palermo; she has never had a coach except her own interior.

Most of the literature about Ella Fitzgerald consists of reviews and previews of her performances. This book reprints a portion of those pieces and also includes those rarer pieces that address Ella's personal life and views. Sometimes the "facts" about her early life vary from piece to piece. It is my hope that this collection of articles in which she talked freely to her interviewers face-to-face will bring Ella vividly to life for the reader.

[Although I doubt that it was available to Leslie’s book due to the timing of its writing, I would also recommend to you that no overview of the literature on Ella Fitzgerald would be complete without the inclusion of Gene Lees’ “The Sweetest Voice in the World: Ella Fitzgerald “ which appears in his compilation - there’s that word again - entitled The Singers and The Song.

Should you find yourself with some spare time on your hands during the 100th anniversary of the year of the birth Ella Fitzgerald, you couldn’t do better than spending some of it by listening to Ella’s Songbooks [most of which are available on YouTube] and reviewing the wonderful selections about her life and music lovingly as compiled by Leslie Gourse in her wonderful tribute to “The First Lady of Song” - The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dizzy Gillespie: Serious and Showy - A look back at one of the most influential trumpeters of the 20th century.

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

It is impossible to fully assess the footprint that John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie left on the path forward of Modern Jazz in the second half of the 20th century.

But the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is doing its best to comprehend as much of it as possible through its numerous postings about Diz on these pages.

Here’s another attempt to acknowledge Dizzy’s significance, this time with the aid of John Edward Hasse.

Mr. Hasse is curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian. His books include “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington ” (Da Capo) and “Discover Jazz” (Pearson).

The following appear in the Oct. 21, 2017 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

“In 1985, as a newly arrived music curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, I was given virtual carte blanche to collect as I wished. What should I seek first? I decided to invite one of jazz’s foremost living innovators—Dizzy Gillespie—to donate his previous “bent” trumpet. I mailed him that request, but heard nothing. After a few months, a colleague who knew him advised, “Get his wife, Lorraine, involved.” So I wrote essentially the same letter to her and figured she might not respond, either. Three days after mailing the letter, a big UPS box arrived. Inside was her husband’s last trumpet. I think she wanted it…out of the

Several months later, Dizzy himself came to formally present the instrument to the museum and drew over a dozen reporters and TV crews. The charismatic Gillespie filled the air with electricity, alternately reminiscent, wise and witty. As the event was winding down, a tall British reporter asked, “Mr. Gillespie, 500 years from now, what will that trumpet be saying?” Gillespie deadpanned, “Five hundred years from now, that trumpet…ain’t gonna be saying nothin’!”

I silently disagreed, for at the Smithsonian his trumpet will be telling stories for centuries; in fact, millions have already seen the trumpet on display there.

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was born Oct. 21, 1917, in Cheraw, S.C., the son of a weekend bandleader. Spending two years performing in Philadelphia, he earned the nickname “Dizzy” for his humorous antics. In 1937, he was drawn to the jazz magnet of New York, where he apprenticed in the big bands of Teddy Hill, Cab Calloway and Earl Hines, practiced obsessively, and joined in jam sessions.

In 1940, he met the 20-year-old alto-sax sensation Charlie Parker. They bonded immediately and, over the next few years, invented a new paradigm: music with asymmetric rhythms, rapid-fire tempos, fast-moving and complex chord progressions, and virtuoso improvisations using multiple scales and altered tones. This music—which much of the public found radically different, puzzling, or off-putting—was intended more for listening in small nightclubs than for dancing in big ballrooms, as had been swing music. By 1945, the new style—known as bebop or bop—was fully formed, as heard on such Gillespie recordings as “Shaw ’Nuff” and “Hot House.”

While playing trumpet in Calloway’s band, Gillespie learned about Latin rhythms from his Cuban-born bandmate Mario Bauzá and became a proponent of fusing American jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion, on such pieces as “Manteca” and “Night in Tunisia.”

Gillespie developed an unmistakable trumpet style — rich with drama, bravura, humor, technique, and melodic and rhythmic invention — that set him far ahead of his contemporaries. Even today, his torrid cascades of high notes dazzle the ear. He also composed and collaborated on a number of jazz standards such as “Groovin’ High,” “Anthropology” and “Salt Peanuts.”
His impact was enormous. He was one of the most influential trumpeters of the 20th century, taking his distinguished place in the lineage of jazz trumpet royalty that began with Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge. Gillespie affected virtually every trumpeter who came after him.

Gillespie attracted attention with his beret, goatee, horn-rimmed glasses, and, when playing, froggy cheeks. From 1951 on, a 45-degree-uptilted bell on his trumpet gave him further visual identity. A bandmate fell on his horn, bending it, and Gillespie found that he liked the sound projection. From then on, each of his trumpets was custom-made with an uptilted bell.

Beneath the showy surface, however, he was dead serious. “Men have died for this music. You can’t get no more serious than that.” Yet, as he said, “If I can make people laugh, and if that makes them receptive to my music, I’m gonna do it.” Unlike his contemporary Miles Davis, Gillespie embraced showmanship and charmed audiences with his ebullient humor, funny routines, and comic dancing.

Beginning in 1956, the U.S. State Department sent Gillespie on goodwill concert tours to Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Insisting that ordinary people—not just VIPs—be admitted to his performances, he disarmed anti-American skeptics and won fans wherever he went, even among people who didn’t know jazz.

In his later years, he became an elder statesman of jazz, a champion of the tradition, and an advocate for global musical exchange. He formed his United Nation Orchestra in 1988 to bring together musicians from North and South America. In 1989, he traveled to 27 countries to give 300 performances. Struck by pancreatic cancer, he died in 1993.

The long roster of musicians Gillespie mentored over several generations includes pianist Billy Taylor, trombonists David Baker and J.J. Johnson, saxophonists James Moody, Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath and Paquito d’Rivera, and trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Jon Faddis.

The list of musicians Dizzy has inspired is much, much longer.ß

Monday, October 23, 2017

Francesco Cafiso – Ciminiera Verdi [Green Chimneys]

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

Some young, Jazz players use a lot of notes in their solos.

This tendency seems to be a part of the joys of first expression; the thrill of discovering that you can play an instrument and play it well.

Kind of like: “Look what I’ve found? Look what I can do? Isn’t this neat?”

Another reason why these young, Jazz musicians play so many notes is because they can.

They are young, indiscriminately so, and they want to play everything that rushes through their minds, getting it from their head into their hands almost instantly.

Their Jazz experience is all new and so wonderful; why be discerning when you can have it all?

If such abilities to “get around the instrument” were found in a young classical musician romping his or her way through one of Paganini’s Caprices, they would be celebrated as a phenomena and hailed as a prodigy.

Playing Paganini’s Caprices, Etudes, et al. does take remarkable technical skill, but in fairness, let’s remember that Paganini already wrote these pieces and the classical musician is executing them from memory.

In the case of the Jazz musician, playing complicated and complex improvisations requires that these be made up on the spot with an unstated preference being that anything that has been played before in the solo cannot be repeated.

But often times when a Jazz musician exhibits the facility to create multi-noted, rapidly-played improvised solos, this is voted down and labeled as showboating or derided as technical grandstanding at the expense of playing with sincerity of feeling.

Such feats of technical artistry are greeted with precepts such as “It’s not what you play, but what you leave out” as though the young, Jazz performer not only has to resolve the momentary miracle of Jazz invention, but has to do so while solving a Zen koan at the same time ["What is the sound of the un-played note" or some such nonsense].

Alto saxophonist Francesco Cafiso plays lots of notes in this interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s Green Chimneys [ciminiera verdi, in Italian].

At only 28 years of age, its hard to believe that he has this much talent [he was only 17 years old when this was recorded].

Monk’s music ain’t easy.

The eminent tenor saxophonist John Coltrane once said that losing one’s way in Monk’s music is like stepping into an empty elevator shaft.

As you will hear in this example of extemporized Jazz at its very best, Francesco never loses his way – not for a moment.

Oh, and he plays a lot of notes, too.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jack Brownlow: A Hometown Favorite

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

Every town has one.

Whether its Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Reno or Seattle.

Somewhere in these cities, there is an exceptional Jazz musician who is mainly known only to those familiar with the local Jazz scene.

For whatever reason, these local Jazz musicians don’t travel, preferring to stay close to home while working the occasional club date, party or benefit.

Every so often, a group of local admirers cobble some schimolies together and produce a compact disc to put on display their local favorite’s talents.

These fans know that their player is special and want portable accessibility to the music while at the same time doing their bit to document it for posterity.

Until the advent of e-commerce, the “distribution” of such recordings often consisted of making it available for sale on a card table that was staffed by someone before and/or after gigs or performances.

When you’ve listened to a lot of Jazz, you can usually tell when someone is special.

You hear it first in the phrasing and with the ready expression of ideas while soloing.

Jazz soloing is like the geometric head start in the sense that you never catch up.

When you improvise something it’s gone; you can’t retrieve it and do it again.

You have to stay on top of what you are doing as Jazz is insistently progressive – it goes forward with you or without you.

People who can play the music, flow with it. Their phrasing is in line with the tempo, the new melodies that they super-impose over the chord structures are interesting and inventive and they bring a sense of command and completion to the process of creating Jazz.

These qualities help bring some Jazz musicians to national, if not, international prominence. Deservedly so.  It’s not easy to play this stuff.

We buy their recordings, read articles about them in the Jazz press and attend their concerts and club dates.

But throughout the history of Jazz, be it in the form of what was referred to as “territory bands,” or local legends who never made it to the big time or recorded, or those who only played Jazz as a hobby, word-of-mouth communication somehow managed to inform us of the startling brilliance of these locally-based musicians.

Such was the case with pianist Jack Brownlow who for many years was one of the most highly regarded Jazz musicians in the greater-Seattle area.

The eminent Jazz author, Doug Ramsey, first brought Jack Brownlow to my attention in 1999 when he hipped me to the fact that Jack’s trio would be appearing at Seattle’s Jazz Alley to commemorate the release of its Jazz Focus CD Suddenly It’s Bruno [JFCD 031].

I was living in Seattle at the time, and little did I know it, but Bruno [Jack’s nickname] and I were neighbors as we both resided in the Green Lake suburb of the city.

Listening to Jack Brownlow play Jazz that evening was a memorable experience.

He reminded me of Nat King Cole, Paul Smith, George Shearing and Bill Evans, all of whom are piano stylists in the sense that their technical ability, or as some call it today, their “pianism” is implied rather than stated.

Jack plays “pretty” piano; the instrument’s sonority rings true. There’s a lot going on in the music, but you’re not overwhelmed by it. He guides the music where he wants it to go and in so doing takes the listener with him on a melodic musical journey.

His knowledge of harmony is huge, but here again, much like Jimmy Rowles, it’s understated. Jack hints; he alludes; he creates impressions. He frames the original chords with substitutions and augmentations, but he doesn’t hit-you-over-the-head while doing so.

To my ears, a key underpinning of Jack’s style is his strong rhythmic sense. He is able to play so lightly while weaving in and out of his inspired solos because of his absolutely centered sense of time. He always knows where he is in the music.

Doug Ramsey wrote the following insert notes to Suddenly It’s Bruno and has graciously allowed us to reprint them on these pages.

They contain a wonderful overview of the career of his friend and a gifted pianist who over the years became a hometown favorite of many Jazz fans in the Seattle and Washington-state area.

© -Doug Ramsey, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with the author’s permission.

Suddenly it's Bruno

“Well, not quite suddenly. Jack Brownlow has been playing his inventive melodic lines and exquisite harmonies since he was a boy in the 1930s. At 12, he discovered that he could play any song in any key, without written music, an inheritance from his mother. He studied formally, but when he demonstrated to one of his piano teachers that certain Chopin sonatas needed harmonic improvements, she decided she had taken him as far as she could. His development accelerated. In his teens he was a professional pianist, working in his home town of Wenatchee, Washington, and occa­sionally in Seattle, across the Cascade mountains.

Following his days as a Navy musician in World War Two, Jack spent four months in Kansas City. Most of his play­ing there was at Tootie's Mayfair, a club where Charlie Parker and other KC heroes had worked a few years earlier. As in Bird's day, the experience was intense and the hours were long, from 10 in the evening until 4 a.m. Later in 1945, Brownlow and his service friend Jack Weeks, the bassist and composer-arranger, lived in Los Angles. Working out his Local 47 musicians union card, be spent six months playing around California—mostly at the Big Bear resort in the mountains above Los Angeles—with Weeks and the prominent dance band of his father, Anson Weeks. With an addi­tional six-months hiatus in Wenatchee, he completed the union waiting period and returned to LA., immediately find­ing work with dozens of players prominent in the yeasty post-war Southern California jazz community. Among them were Lester Young, Lucky Thompson and Boyd Raeburn. With Raeburn's trailblazing big band he played piano when
Dodo Marmarosa was otherwise occupied and is heard on some of the bands radio transcriptions.

In late 1946, Weeks enrolled at Mills College for the opportunity to study with the modernist French composer Darius Milhaud. Another young veteran named Dave Brubeck made the same choice. Brownlow considered going to Mills, but he returned to Wenatchee, went into the printing business with his father, married and raised a family. Bruno——his nickname ever since a neighbor's child pronounced Brownlow that way—never gave up his night gig. He played for dances, in taverns, in clubs, in concerts. He accompanied singers and wrote instrumental and vocal arrangements. The lack of sleep was compensated by steadily deepening musical skills. Soon, musicians who worked with Bruno or heard him in the Pacific Northwest circulated word about him, as had Navy musicians and his LA. colleagues.

Ray Blagoff, later a lead trumpeter in name bands and the Hollywood studios, was with Jack at the Farragut Naval base in ldaho. 'We were all in awe of his ear,’ Blagoff says. 'He could play anything in any key. We met shortly after I reported to Farragut. ‘I told him I'd like to play I Had the Craziest Dream " in E. He didn’t 't bat an eye, and I was thrilled because no one had ever been able to accompany me in that key. I told him I had learned the tune from the Harry James record. He said Harry James recorded it in E-flat and my turntable must have been running at the wrong speed.’

His uncanny ear was matched by harmonic acuity and an accompanying gift of melodic inventiveness. Musicians who heard him were impressed. Those who worked with him were astonished. They included the violinist Joe Venuti, whose cantankerousness equaled his brilliance. On their first meeting, Venuti tried his famous trick of derailing the accompanists by changing keys every few bars without warning. Every time he turned left, Bruno and his protégé, bassist Jim Anderson, were on him like flypaper. After Venuti got over his frustration at not being able to instigate one of the train wrecks that gave him so much pleasure, they all settled in and played a great gig.

Bruno moved to Seattle in 1965 and dedicated himself totally to music for the first time since his Los Angeles days. He became a fixture at America’s Cup and, for years, at Canlis, the elegant restaurant high above Lake Union. Usually, he played alone. Occasionally he was joined by Jim Anderson or another bassist. Canlis patrons with sophisticated hearing, among them George Shearing and Alan Hovhaness, were treated to chords and melodic patterns light years beyond what they might have expected as a background for dining. After dinner, the serious listeners joined the cocktailers clustered around the piano.

Musicians serious about developing in harmony, improvisation and repertoire have always found in Jack a wise and will­ing teacher. On his nights off and frequently during the day, the music room of Brownlow’s house, Chateau Bruno, became a workshop for developed and developing musicians. Over the years, they have included trumpeters Randy Brecker and Jay Thomas, guitarist John Stowell and bassists Clipper Anderson, Rufus Reid, Dean Johnson, Andy Zadrozny and Gary Peacock They studied informally with Bruno, as did saxophonist Don Lanphere when he was growing up in Wenatchee

At a party at my house in New York in the early 1970s, the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, hearing Brownlow for the first time, said, "If I played piano, that's how I'd want to play it.' Paul did not have his horn along. He tried to persuade Bruno to extend his East Coast stay so that Desmond could round up bassist Ron Carter and a drummer for some sessions. Brownlow had to get back to Seattle. The results of what would have been an intriguing partnership must be left to the imagination.

In the mid-1990s, Jack reached the saturation point as a restaurant pianist. He ended the nightly job at Canlis and put himself once again on the jazz market. Work materialized almost at once at clubs in Seattle. The pocket conservatory in his living room saw increasing activity, as the city's latest crop of young jazz players showed up to learn and jam. Bassists are particularly attracted to Bruno's harmonic wisdom. There have been so many of them that if there is ever a Jack Brownlow Big Band, it is likely to be Bruno and 15 bass players. In 1996, his first album, Dark Dance appeared as a CD on the Bruno label. He and Clipper Anderson appeared as a duo at the Bumbershoot Jazz Festival in Seattle in 1997. Musical director Bud Shank featured The Jack Brownlow Trio at the Jazz Port Townsend Festival in 1998… .

Bruno became a Seattle institution soon after he established himself in the city in the 1960s. Fans and musicians spread his name far beyond the Pacific Northwest. For years they urged him to record. When he finally did, it was for a label [his own] with virtually no distribution. Now, after five decades of exquisite music-making, Suddenly It’s Bruno takes him to a wider audience and matches his accomplishments to his legend.”