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.

October 10, 2017

Happy Birthday(s)


October 10th marks the birthdays of two prominent jazz pianists. Thelonious Sphere Monk was born 100 years ago today in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. His piano style was unique among his peers and his original compositions have become celebrated standards, studied and performed by all aspiring jazz musicians. Thelonious appears on any jazz historian’s list of the top ten most influential jazz artists.

Among his many admirers is pianist Junior Mance, born in 1928 on this same day, October 10th, in Evanston, Illinois. Junior enjoyed a successful career as an accompanist to jazz singers, including Joe Williams and Dinah Washington, and as a leader of his own piano trio. He often included Monk compositions in his recordings and a perfect way to acknowledge this October 10th is provided at this link.


Just this week the Fillius Jazz Archive published two videos with Junior Mance. You can view Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

Happy viewing.

October 6, 2017

Make Your Own Luck



Some people believe in luck. Some people dismiss the very idea of something occurring without a specific reason. A number of celebrities have addressed the role of luck in their careers, including Oprah Winfrey who stated, “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity”; and Loretta Lynn who said, “In the long run you make your own luck—good, bad or indifferent.”
Jimmy Owens is a highly accomplished jazz trumpeter, an advocate for jazz education, and a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master recipient. I was recently drawn to a story he told during our interview in 2001, and in a sense it has to do with luck. Jimmy was fortunate to come from a household that appreciated music and his supportive father took him to see the Miles Davis Quintet in a club when Jimmy was 15 years old. This event occurred in 1958, a period where Miles Davis was becoming a household name and leading one of his most celebrated combos who in less than a year would record the iconic “Kind of Blue” LP. Jimmy tells the tale:
JO:  What happened was my father took me to see Miles Davis. I am fifteen years old. And Miles was working at a club called Small’s Paradise doing a matinee, and my father took me to see Miles, and when we got there, the band was off. They were on a break. So my father is at the bar and I’m next to him, and I walked over to the bandstand, which was this high off the ground you know, and I’m standing there, I’ve heard all of these stories about Miles Davis being a nasty person. I’m standing there with my hands behind  my back looking at the trumpet and the piano. I’d never seen a blue trumpet before. And he had this horn that was tinted blue. And all of a sudden someone slides down at the piano, and I see it’s Miles. And he looks up at me and he’s playing some chords, and he says, “You play trumpet, kid?” I said, “Yeah.” He played a little while, and he says, “Play me a tune.” And he gave me his horn. So I took the horn and I was going to take the mouthpiece out and I said, “Take your mouthpiece.” “What you going to do, play without a mouthpiece?” I said, “No, I’ve got my own.” I put my mouthpiece in the horn, and I played “Walkin’.” Okay? At which point the musicians were coming back on the stage. And the last person on the stage — Miles took the horn back you know — the last person on the stage was Bill Evans. And Miles said, “Hey, Bill, you hear this kid play?” “No,” he says. Miles gave me the horn and said, “Go ahead, play it again.” So I started to play “Walkin’” and the whole band joined in. And when I say the whole band, that’s Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. And I played “Walkin’,” and take a solo, you take it out and Miles says, “Go play another one.”  I play “Bags’ Groove.” And Trane takes a solo you know, Cannonball takes a solo. Oh it was unbelievable.
There are a number of things that struck me about this story. First, the idea that Miles Davis would offer young Jimmy Owens his trumpet, mouthpiece in place. Sharing mouthpieces may have been common back then, but it certainly is not something you do today. And this is the Miles Davis who had built a reputation as the “Dark Prince,” with an aloof and sometimes irascible reputation amplified by his half-whispered, raspy voice. Perhaps Miles was tired and welcomed the opportunity for a guest to fill some time.
The other thing I recognized in this story is that the young Jimmy Owens was making his own luck. The fact that his trumpet mouthpiece was in his pocket was not “luck.” The fact that Jimmy had been working on the Miles Davis composition “Walkin’” and that he knew the tune “Bags’ Groove” was in the  band’s repertoire was also not simply lucky. Jimmy Owens was prepared. He probably thought that even speaking with Miles Davis was a pipe dream. Nonetheless, he prepared for any eventuality. So there’s a lesson to be learned.
I constantly tell my college students who pursue jazz that they have to be ready when opportunity strikes. If they’re asked to sit in they need to be ready by knowing (without music) a number of songs they can play and improvise on. I elaborated more on this on this in our blog entitled Jazz Etiquette: The Art of Sitting in, from March 19, 2013.
It would have been a wonderful, fairy tale ending if after the gig Miles had suggested that Jimmy call a fellow band leader who was looking for a trumpet player, or arranged for a recording session for the 15-year-old phenomena. That did not happen, but the confidence that Jimmy gained that night is an experience money can’t buy.
There is a noteworthy addendum to Jimmy’s story:
JO: I mentioned specifically Jimmy Cobb, because we played together many, many times. And he was teaching at the New School where I was teaching. And one day in the office I bumped into him. And I said, “Hey, Cobb, I want to ask you something. You remember working at Small’s Paradise with Miles?” He says, “I remember working there.” I said, “You remember a matinee that a kid sat in with the band and played with them?” He said, “You know I do recall that.” I said, “Man, that was me.” He said, “What!” I said, “You remember that for sure?” He says, “I really remember that night, because that was my first week working with the band and I look up and at the bar there is Philly Joe Jones and I got so nervous. Well when he told me that story, I just broke up. And he really remembered that night, me sitting in with the band, or a kid, a young kid sitting in with the band.
From the Fillius archive, here is a link to the full YouTube interview I conducted with Jimmy Owens on January 12, 2001.