Saturday, November 20, 2021

Keepers of the Flame and Giants by Whitney Balliett

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The Boston Globe stated: “Balliett’s genius for pictorial description (which helps make him a gifted writer of profiles) extends to the music itself. No one writes about what they listen to anywhere near as well.”

Although he played drums during his college days and was a member of a band, Whitney was not a studied musician. He had no formal training in theory and harmony so during the 40+ years he wrote Jazz profiles for The New Yorker magazine he had to fall back on his other gifts when describing the music - his gift for “pictorial description.”

In many ways, this made Whitney’s Jazz writings more accessible to the majority of Jazz fans since they, too, for the most part, lacked procedural training in melody, harmony and rhythm - the building blocks of music.

As a result, "Balliett comes as close as any writer on jazz—perhaps on any musical style — to George Bernard Shaw's intention to write so that a deaf person could understand and appreciate his comments. This volume approaches indispensability." Choice reviewing Balliett’s American Musicians.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to share some briefer pieces from the pen of our ideal - Whitney Balliet - to give you an appreciation for his “ … genius for pictorial description.” This is the sixth in a series of six continuously running featuring Whitney’s sui generis pictorially descriptive approach to writing about Jazz which is marked by what Gary Giddins has labeled “writerly attributes: insight, candor, observation, discernment, delineation, style, diligence and purpose.”

These are all drawn from Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz 1981-1990 [1991]. This is number 6 in a series.

Whitney’s book concludes with chapters that offer a look at what he terms “Keepers of the Flame” in which he includes the sui generis pianist Erroll Garner and “Giants” which offers a wonderful description of vocalist Sarah Vaughan’s unique talents.

As regards, the former, Whitney comments:

“It is surprising that pianists should be the keepers of the flame, for the piano—inflexible and percussive and vibrato-less—does not transmit emotion easily. But jazz pianists, repeatedly beating back the army of broken, out-of-tune pianos which has besieged them since the beginning of the century, have learned how to circumvent the instrument's coldness. By raising and lowering their volume in strategic places, they startle the listener and italicize their phrases. They get vibratolike effects by holding certain notes, and by using the little tremolos that Earl Hines invented. And they place notes, and even chords, in unexpected spots—a rhythmic juggling that creates a fine tension.” 

He then turns to an explanation of how all these devices are in evidence in the playing of Keeper of the Flame, Erroll Garner [who could just as easily be included in the Giants category, too].

“Erroll Garner died in January of 1977, at the age of fifty-three. From the mid-forties, when he first arrived in New York from Pittsburgh, until 1975, when he gave his last public performance, in Chicago, he travelled around the world, obsessed by his music, delighted, inexhaustible, casting his shadow over almost every pianist who heard him, and making his audiences marvel at his ebullience and his melodic invention. Garner, who never learned to read music, could reportedly reproduce the styles of all the great pianists who preceded him, but his own style was inimitable, no matter how often it was copied. He liked to open a number with an ad-lib cadenza, lasting eight or ten bars and giving no indication of what was to come. Then he would drop his volume and go into tempo, his right hand embellishing the melody with behind-the-beat notes broken by offbeat chords, and his left hand keeping strict time with on-the-beat guitarlike chords. He would take the volume up slightly at the bridge and shift into double-time octave chords, lower his volume again, and close the chorus with staccato notes that gave the impression they were wildly trying to break off from the melody they were a part of. The rest of the number would be a constant round of raised and lowered volumes, doubled or halved rhythms, staccato and legato passages, and boiling chordal interludes that wiped his melodic slate clean and prepared the listener for his next surprise. Garner's fast numbers skimmed the earth, and his slow ballads were stately, ceremonious dances.

Garner made countless recordings. Whenever the spirit moved him, he'd rent a studio, summon his bassist and drummer, set down a dozen or more numbers — usually one take apiece. For years, there have been rumors of a trove of unreleased Garner material, and at long last Martha Glaser, his manager and producer, has begun to issue what she believes is the best of it. The first two albums include twenty numbers and are drawn from five different sessions—three in 1961, one in 1964, and one in 1965. The third includes fourteen numbers, set down during one session in 1954. Almost all are prime Garner. (Of course, he had off days. There are missed notes, chords that don't quite land where they should, and endings that don't return to earth.) On the first album, "Easy to Love," he plays a slow, dancing "September Song''; a hustling "My Blue Heaven," its second bridge constructed of an exuberant boppish trumpet line; a "Somebody Loves Me" that includes an even more rakish single-note passage; a medium "As Time Goes By," with a laughing Debussy introduction; and a very fast "Lover Come Back to Me," with a bridge in which his hands invent totally different melodic and rhythmic lines in exhilarating counterpoint.

The second album, "Dancing on the Ceiling," is memorable for a seesawing staccato line in "It Had to Be You"; for a rocking, medium-tempo "After You've Gone," in which Garner takes the breaks — miniature wonders in themselves — and moseys along behind the beat; a strange, slow, rhapsodic gospel blues, "Like Home," played largely with the loud pedal and with heavy, damask chords; and a stomping, new "Ain't Mis-behavin'." 

The third album has at least six marvels. There is an easy "Margie," an unexpectedly fast "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," and a medium-tempo "Louise," full of delayed notes, and double-time chords. There are a fast, ripping "My Gal Sal," a sly "Too Marvellous For Words," and a virtuosic reshaping of Zez Confrey's brittle 1921 "Kitten on the Keys." Audible on all three albums are the hums, grunts, "myeh's, and "oh-oh"s that Garner uttered as he played, the sounds of a man leaning deliriously into his work.

In the chapter on Giants, Whitney includes comments about recent recordings on Verve featuring Art Tatum and an assessment of the techniques that place vocalist Sarah Vaughan in this category.

Virtuosos do not fit easily into jazz. The music revolves around improvisation, and jazz improvisers need only enough technique to play what they hear in their heads. (The drummer Sidney Catlett never considered himself a virtuoso, but he got off certain dazzling snare and cymbal patterns that not even the virtuosic Buddy Rich could match. Catlett's technique was an extension of his imagination; impossible figures popped into his head and instantaneously became real.) Too much technique saps improvisation: it causes floridity and grandstanding, and it tricks audiences into believing that bombast is music. Jazz has harbored two undeniable virtuosos (Rich may have been a third), but no one has ever known quite what to do with them. They are Sarah Vaughan, who died last spring [1990] at the age of sixty-six, and Art Tatum (1909-56), whose final recordings have been issued — with an hour of previously unreleased material — on six compact disks called "Art Tatum: The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces."

Sarah Vaughan was born in Newark and joined Earl Hines' big band as a singer and second pianist when she was nineteen. She never had any formal training  —she was a bebop baby. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were in Hines' band, and so was the singer Billy Eckstine. Vaughan made her first recordings with Eckstine when he formed his own big band in 1944, and a year later she made a small-band record with Parker and Gillespie. By the end of the fifties, she had become a famous singer who moved easily between jazz and popular song. By the end of the sixties, she was a singer of operatic dimensions. She grew to diva proportions, and so did her voice. She had four octaves, each clear and spacious. She sang falsetto, and she could sound like a baritone. She could drop from soprano to baritone in the space of one word. Her low tones were cavernous and her high notes were silver peaks. She had several different vibratos, and when it pleased her she could sing without any vibrato at all. (Think of the Kate Smith singers of the thirties: their vibratos led them.)

In 1980, the composer, conductor, and critic Gunther Schuller introduced Vaughan at a recital she gave at the Smithsonian, and he said that she was "the greatest vocal artist of our century," a hosanna that he immediately complicated by adding that she was "the most creative vocal artist of our time." 

This was true. She was a wonderful embellisher and improviser, who never sang a song the same way twice. She remade her materials — generally, the songs of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Kern, Porter, and Arlen—in her own image. The cost to the songs was sometimes high. She altered melodic lines and harmonies, mislaid lyrics, and used so much melisma that the words became unintelligible. At her most unfettered, she became a horn singer. Yet her melodic lines were of such complexity and daring that no horn player could have played them. Ultimately, she became a kind of abstract singer, whose materials were inadequate for what she did but were all she had. She could, of course, also sing a song relatively straight. But the richness of her voice was always there, and, no matter how few melodic and harmonic alterations she made, this richness tended to overshadow the song, to lean over it, like a voluptuous woman reading a book.

Vaughan and Art Tatum revelled in their techniques. Vaughan liked to show off her intervals, her perfect pitch, her vibratos, and her range. Tatum liked to show off his touch (the envy of every pianist of the past fifty years), his startling speed, his two-handed runs, and his left hand, which could match his right. As Vaughan and Tatum grew older, they inevitably leaned more and more on their technical tricks. Vaughan shuttled between her registers, held notes so long they took on a life of their own, and pretended she was Joan Sutherland or Paul Robeson. Tatum released harmonic clouds, making his chords sound as if they had fifteen or twenty notes, and connected them with long runs—coils of sound that trapped the listener and freed Tatum of the burden of fresh improvisations. He gave the impression at such times that he was speeding luxuriously through the song; in reality, he was pedalling easily in place. Both Vaughan and Tatum were worshipped by their audiences and by their fellow musicians — for their bravura effects and for their musicianship — and they wore their mantles with a pleased arrogance.”

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