July 4, 2018

Bill Watrous, 1939-2018

From the left: Wendell Brunious, Dennis Mackrel, Jerome Richardson, Keter Betts, Monk Rowe, Bill Watrous, Rick Montalbano

Readers may have noticed my absence from writing this blog. All my spare time has been spent preparing uploads for the Fillius Jazz YouTube channel, where complete interviews have been posted for more than half of our oral history sessions. The death of Bill Watrous, however, has returned me to the blog. My interview with Bill, viewable here, was comprehensive and congenial, but there is more backstory to be shared about my association with him.
In the spring of 1999, in true cosmic fashion, Bill’s promo kit arrived unexpectedly on my desk just as I was seeking a trombone player to participate on my upcoming recording of “Jazz Life.” This album of original compositions would eventually include myself plus six members, three of whom are now deceased: bassist Keter Betts, saxophonist Jerome Richardson, and now trombonist Bill Watrous. Rounding out the ensemble were Rick Montalbano, Dennis Mackrel and Wendell Brunious. Before I started the archive project I had always assumed that artists of the stature of Bill Watrous would be unavailable to me. However, every artist I contacted happily agreed to the engagement. I learned along the way that jazz musicians always have dates in their calendars to fill, and a gig is a gig. Bill proved to be full of positive energy as well as the consummate musician. He entertained the group with his personal cache of jazz stories, while treating the music as if he was in an L.A. recording studio. One of my favorite moments on the recording is during the improvisation section of BeyondCategory at the 2:34 mark where Bill seamlessly extends Wendell’s last improvised phrase, then launches into his own striking solo. As trumpeter Joe Wilder said of improvisation, you always want to make a smooth transition, as perfectly exemplified in this moment.
Our paths crossed again at jazz conventions, and over the years we exchanged phone calls where our lengthy conversations extended beyond music and into the ups and downs of everyday life. Oddly enough, Bill’s wife Maryanne occasionally referred to Bill as “Monk.”
Bill’s passing caught me off-guard. He always struck me as younger than his years, probably due to his distinctive Price Valiant haircut, penchant for jean jackets, and his poignant observations on current events. Adios Mr. Watrous, and thank you for our friendship.

December 13, 2017

Otis Redding's Music Theory

Fifty years ago, on December 10, 1967, pop star Otis Redding along with his band perished in a plane crash on a lake in Wisconsin. Otis was at the height of his career. His song “(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay,” written with Steve Cropper, was released shortly after his death and became the first posthumous number one record. I have played this song countless times as a solo pianist and as a member of various bands. To me it’s a perfect example of hip chord changes, optimized structure, and interesting story line.
Fifty years ago in December I had decided on a career in music. As a high school senior I was doing my best to prepare myself for music college taking lessons on saxophone, piano, and music theory. One of the first things we learned was chord types — mostly major or minor. A three-note chord built on each tone of the major scale looks like this:
When using chord symbols, the minor triads are indicated with a lower case m, as in Bm (for B minor). This arrangement is the same for every key, and has provided a basic compositional language for hundreds of years.
For the verse of “Dock of the Bay” Otis and Steve chose the I, the iii, the IV and the ii chord, in that order. If you look at this transcription of the first eight measures of the song you will notice that their three and two chord are not minor at all. This very slight change makes all the difference in the sound of the song. I have tried playing the song returning those two chords to their normal state and it is amusingly terrible. It works in an odd way because of the nature of the melody, which will be discussed momentarily. But Otis and Steve’s progression is where it’s at.
In the chorus of the song, the chord choice is the I chord, followed by the vi chord. If we refer to our triad chart we notice that the vi chord is normally minor. But once again, our two songwriters change this chord to major, offering a distinctive progression that schooled musicians would rarely be inclined to employ.
When I did get to music school, I was placed in Music Theory 101, and quickly learned about four part contrapuntal composition. Among the myriad rules is a dictum to “avoid parallel fifths and octaves.” The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines this in musical legalese as: “…[T]he duplication of the melodic progression of one part by another at the distance of a fifth or an octave. Such voice leading is considered faulty and strictly prohibited in classical tonal counterpoint.”
Fortunately for us, Otis Redding was not confined by such archaic directives. If we look at his notated melody and the accompanying chords, we will find that this whole four-bar repeated phrase contains exactly the parallel octaves that classical composers were forbidden to employ. Even when it hits the chorus, Otis still lands on the root of the chord with his melody. I never noticed it until I sat at the piano and, instead of singing the melody, actually played it and compared the treble and bass. “A classicized version of the first four bars of “Dock of the Bay” would look like this:
If I had handed in this melodic invention in my Theory 101 class, red ink would have flowed. The professor would have been puzzled by both the chord progression and the insistence on parallel octaves. It’s a definite breach of classical etiquette. Including an F major chord in the key of G as Otis did later in the bridge would have earned a “see me in my office” from the professor.
What’s the conclusion? For me, I am continually fascinated and envious of the musical inventions of self-taught songwriters. Lennon and McCartney, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell all fall under this category, and I like to describe it as “if it sounds good, use it.” Referring to music theory, trombonist Dan Barrett stated in his interview, “Any knowledge is good.” But there is a downside if adhering to music theory norms inhibits the use of ears and musical intuition.
If you haven’t found it by now, here’s a YouTube link to “Dock of the Bay” for your listening edification.

November 24, 2017

George Avakian, 1919-2017

Artists in all disciplines depend on a variety of behind-the-scenes personalities who bring their visions to life. George Avakian, who passed away on November 22, was an integral part of the presentation and marketing of jazz for six decades. In addition to his role as a producer, George was a jazz historian, a talent scout, and a prolific writer of LP liner notes. Early in his career he made a significant contribution to the jazz canon by compiling and re-issuing historically important recordings by Louis Armstrong and other jazz pioneers.
There is some debate about when jazz changed from entertainment to an art form. George addressed this question during our interview:
MR: Yesterday I had asked you a question about if the early jazz musicians thought of their music as an art form. And you said probably not.
GA: No not really. They were just playing happy music that they had developed within their lives, and they were happy making a living at it as best they could in many cases of course. Because a jazz musician’s life has never been easy unless you happen to hit it big. But I don’t think musicians ever took it seriously as an art form until they were told it was an art form, and that probably started, I think it would have to be during the World War II years. Because before there weren’t any articles being written in magazines, God knows no books to speak of, but once that started, quite a bit of pretension did begin to creep in. And some of it spurred I feel the bop movement because that was something new and hard to understand compared to the relative ease of listening to the earlier music because that was, among other things, dance music, social music, good time music, popular songs were involved. Bop became something which for the most part did not depend on familiar standard selections, even though a lot of the earlier compositions were simply variations on the harmonies which were themselves altered along the way, of standard tunes by Gershwin and Cole Porter and so forth. So it became a kind of an inside arty thing. And this was encouraged by the people who wrote about jazz because more and more writing about jazz took place in magazines.
George’s expertise in production and marketing played an important role in moving jazz not only into the retail marketplace but also into the greater culture. His range of projects included work with Louis Armstrong and other innovators such as Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Gil Evans. Notable LP productions included Benny Goodman “Live at Carnegie Hall,” “Ellington at Newport,” and “Miles Ahead.”
George was the co-founder of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, and was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2011.
From the Fillius archive, here is a link to the full YouTube interview I conducted with George on April 21, 1998.