November 6, 2014

Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax
A few weeks ago I was chatting about music in a small circle of classical musicians. I happened to mention that the saxophone is one of the few instruments that was actually invented by one person, as opposed to an evolution over the years. One person commented, “yes, and we’ve been cursing Adolphe Sax’s name since its invention.”
This comment was only partly in jest. The saxophone has its lovers and its detractors, but it is indeed one of the few instruments we can cite as an invention. Most instruments evolve over decades and even centuries. The flute used to be made of wood. The piano came from a long line of keyboard evolutions including the harpsichord and the clavichord. And the trumpets lived without valves for a long time.
Today, November 6, we note the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax. Mr. Sax was born in 1814 in the town of Dinart which was part of France, later annexed by the Netherlands. It was common at the time to follow in your father’s footsteps as far as a trade. Adolphe’s father was a cabinetmaker and inventive enough to provide musical instruments for a Dutch army band when ordered to do so. Adolphe took to the business of instrument making, eventually producing a new and improved bass clarinet and exhibiting nine music related inventions at the 1840 Belgian Industrial Fair Exhibition.
Paris was the capital of musical life in France and Adolphe moved there to seek his fortune. His idea to combine the fluency of a woodwind instrument with the power of a brass instrument was met with encouragement by the composer Berlios, also a music critic. This stamp of approval encouraged Adolphe to pursue production of seven different sizes of saxophones and the instrument gained popularity in opera orchestras as well as military bands. The rest of Adolphe’s life was not happy in a storybook fashion. He spent most of his energies defending himself from lawsuits from other instrument inventors who claimed they conceived of the saxophone first.
One of his sons, Adolphe-Edouard, followed him into the business and maintained his instrument making workshop, which was eventually bought by the Selmer company. To this day Selmer still has the highest reputation for their saxophone manufacturing.
Adolphe Sax received his patent for the saxophone in 1846, making it the youngest of the wind instruments and far too late to have been written for by the great Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers. Adolphe never knew that the saxophone would become the most popular of jazz instruments on another continent and be the first choice of many young musicians in the fourth and fifth grades.
The seven sizes of the saxophone have been whittled down to mostly the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. But if you would like to hear the whole gamut of the instrument, including the bass and the massive contrabass, I suggest looking for the album by Scott Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist who played every size of saxophone when he recorded “Thinking Big” on Arbors Records in 1997. Mr. Robinson’s obsession with saxophones, especially the contrabass, is well known in music circles. When I interviewed him in 1997 he related how the story of his frantic search to acquire a contrabass ended with success:
Scott Robinson
MR:    You have an album coming out with a contrabass?
SR:    Yeah. That instrument I never even dreamed of getting, because there’s so few in the world, there’s like a dozen in the world. But I did happen to meet somebody in Rome, I told them I was looking for old instruments, and he says, “oh there’s this giant saxophone in an antique shop.” And I really didn’t believe him, because people say, “oh yeah, it’s like higher than that door.” And then you go look at it and it’s a baritone. That kind of thing happens all the time. But this guy was for real. His name was Enrico. And he was for real with this. And he sent me pictures of it. And I was out of my mind, you know I couldn’t sleep. But there again, the guy didn’t want to sell it. But he had it just standing up in his antique furniture shop, and he had canes and umbrellas and stuff down inside it. And that took two and a half years. Finally the guy parted with it and my friend brought it over in a big box the size of a phone booth. I picked him up at the airport and we brought the thing home, and it’s just unbelievable. And the amazing thing is how small the bass sax looks next to this. The bass saxophone just — I busted out laughing. We dragged them both out in the yard and we stood them up and the contrabass and then the bass sax is just down here.
MR:    So this is an octave below a baritone sax?
SR:    Yeah. But it seems proportionately larger somehow than what you would think. I mean it’s at least twice the size of the bass sax. Amazing. Taller than me and I’m six-four nearly.
You might want to view Mr. Robinson playing the contrabass in this story on CNN.
When rock & roll entered the scene in the 50s, many wind instruments were replaced by the electric guitar. Perhaps because of its ability to convey intense emotion, the saxophone survived and is often featured in many rock & roll instrumentals. Our previous blog detailing more about the instrument, “The Saxophone Survives,” can be read here.
In addition to its popularity, the saxophone also must be the most misspelled instrument. Please note the O in the middle, not an A, as I have seen countless times.
Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax.

October 30, 2014

The Bass Solo

Most of us have heard the jokes about bass solos: A couple complains to a marriage counselor that they’ve lost any ability to communicate. The counselor leads them down the hall and into a room where a jazz trio is playing. Just as they take their seats the bass solo starts, and immediately the couple starts talking to one another.
Or, the short version: Q: What happens when the bassist starts to solo? A: No one knows, everyone starts talking.
There’s some truth to this. Why is it that audience attention tends to wander when it’s time for the bassist to have his/her moment in the spotlight? I’ve given a lot of thought to it, and recently two incidents increased my focus.
I was listening to a wonderful Benny Carter CD, a 5-piece saxophone section with piano, bass and drums. In one particular tune, after multiple choruses of soloing by Benny Carter and Frank Wess, the bassist had his solo spot. Immediately I reached for the volume control.
Last week during my college radio show I was playing one of my own CDs which features Keter Betts on bass. During one song it was Keter’s turn in the spotlight. Once again I went for the volume control.
The string bass has always been a difficult instrument to amplify and record, and when it comes time for their solo they are often close to inaudible. In addition, have you ever noticed what the other musicians in a small jazz group do when it’s time for the bass to have its say? Typically they all stop. Is it any wonder that the audience attention can wander? When the sax, trumpet and piano solo, they are backed up by the bass and drums, providing both the groove and the song form. Then the bassist gets handed the ball and the rest of the team walks off the court. Admittedly there is an acoustic issue about playing during a bass solo. Any extra sound from horns, piano and drums tends to drown out the bass and cause them to play at a volume that is inconsistent with the feel of the music. If it’s not hard enough already, the bassist is usually the last in line for soloing. Just when the hands are going numb they become the focus.
Bassist Chubby Jackson, a veteran of the Woody Herman band, commented on this phenomenon:
Chubby Jackson
MR:    I’m always impressed by the physicality that must have been required to be an acoustic bass player at those times. I think of you back there, with, like you said, very little amplification, driving that whole band. Did you ever experience any physical harm?
CJ:    Oh yeah. A lot of times your arms get numb, your fingers too. You’re playing and all of a sudden they start to shake because your whole body is carried away with what’s expected of you. But physically at that moment, you’re not up to it. You know what I mean? Because everybody else in the band has a moment to sit with the horn in their lap, until the end of time. I said “the end of time.” You like it?
MR:    I picture some of those jam sessions where the horn players are lined up and playing “I Got Rhythm” and they come up for four or five choruses, next guy. And you guys are back there.
CJ:    Yeah. And then someone looks at you and said “take one.” Jeez. Take one. That’s the laugh of the century, when somebody points to the bass player, after 28 choruses have been in front, and your hands are in one of these. You know you walk around — I had hands on me that were so ugly, I used to keep my hands in my pockets all the time.
Chubby relied on his ebullient personality and stage presence to help him get through these trying physical moments.
I’ll admit that my jazz attitudes fall more in line with the previous era. I don’t think a jazz combo needs to have a bass solo on every song, just like I don’t believe having a drum solo on every song is necessary. But I also believe that the standard (melody—everyone solos—melody) format can induce audience apathy.
Recently, Jay Leonhart, one of the finest bass players working today, visited Hamilton College. On the drive to the school from his hotel we were talking about making a living in the music world, and Jay casually stated, “no one hires me for my solos.” I had the opportunity to interview Jay the next day and asked him, then why do other musicians hire him?
Jay Leonhart
JL:    I was always making enough money to pay my bills, to do what I needed to do. And I always worked. And that was because, I mean I don’t mean to sound arrogant at all, but it’s because I’m at the top of the class in terms of what I can do on the bass, in terms of the various things I can do. You know, Broadway, jazz, even symphony if need be. Oh I’m not a great symphony player but I’ve done it. I can read anything. And I’m very skilled. And I’m one of the guys who makes a living at it. And there’s so many who don’t. There’s so many musicians who can’t because the competition is ferocious. And you’ve got to have everything. You know, what do bass players need? Good pitch. Good time. Good sense of music. Good musicianship. It goes on and on — that list of things that bass players need to know how to do. And if you don’t do it just great, there’s somebody right around the corner who does, and people are going to find out.
MR:    Plus don’t you have to add to that, to sort of be likeable — a personality that people are going to want to call you back because of the way you are?
JL:    Oh God yes. That’s very important. I mean in any business, in every business, people say, like Woody Allen says, most of work is just showing up. That’s what he says. Then people say well if you’re not easy to work with, people don’t want to work with you, and they won’t. And that will get around and all of a sudden you’ll be out of business.
I think bass players have to have a certain mindset. They need to be musically fulfilled and take pleasure by playing the most significant role in the rhythm section. For me, it all starts with the bass. There’s no other instrument that can provide both the time and the harmonic guidelines of a song like a string bass can. I’ve noticed a phenomenon in the last number of years: bassists who play their instrument like a saxophone. In other words, bass players who just aren’t satisfied with their role in the band and play as if they are responsible for both the melody and the soloing at the same time. Invariably the feel of the group suffers.
Here’s my own ideas about what might keep the audience conversation from peaking during the bass solo:
 Break up the routine — find a different order for solos; instead of sax, trumpet piano, try having the bass be the first soloist.
Let the bass play the melody — there’s an interesting concept — either a solo bass melody or in unison with one of the horn players. This will get the audience’s attention and let the bass player have a memorable moment.
More bowed bass solos — it’s been my observation that when the bass player picks up his bow people perk up.
The horns, piano and drums play hits (chords on the downbeats) during the bass solo, marking the time and keeping the audience with them while letting the bass fill the spaces in between. This works especially well with the 12-bar blues. Or, have the horns do what clarinetist Kenny Davern called “footballs” (barely audible whole notes on the chord tones).
Consider limiting the bass solos, but limit everyone else’s solo as well. Vary the soloists on subsequent song selections. There’s no written rule in jazz etiquette books that horn players and piano players must solo on every song. Distribute them across your set and go for some variety.
My advice to young bass players echoes Jay Leonhart’s. For every hour you work on your technique and your bass soloing abilities, spend two hours learning to play time and memorizing the songs that you’ll be called upon to play.
Milt Hinton, the “Dean of Jazz Bassists” summed it up: the players in the rhythm section are providing a rhythmic service, don’t ever forget it.

September 20, 2014

Jackie Cain, 1928-2014

Roy Kral and Jackie Cain, in 1998.

Jackie Cain possessed one of the purest voices in jazz and popular music, and a musicality to match. Music aficionados from the 1950’s on were familiar with the Jackie & Roy (Kral) duo. Together they enjoyed a 55-year career and a 53-year marriage. Roy Kral passed away in 2002, and Jackie died last Monday, September 15. Their music ranged from hip and swinging vocalese, to semi-novelty renditions of pop songs, to beautiful ballads with impeccable arrangements by Roy Kral, Quincy Jones, Don Sebesky and others.
Jackie & Roy shared the story of their meeting in our interview, which took place on March 22, 1998 in New York City:
MR:    Was it love at first note for you guys?
RK:    Oh yes, love at first note. But not at first sight. She was much too young for me.
JC:    Well Roy’s seven years old than I am, so at that point I was about 17 years old.
RK:   She told me she was 16.
JC:    No. I met him when I was 17 I believe. And he had another girlfriend, and I was just this little naive girl from Milwaukee. So I don’t think I attracted his attention that much. But then he did like working with me I believe.
RK:    Here’s what happened. A friend of mine brought her in to the club, Jump Town, it was early ‘47, on the west end of Chicago. Dave Garroway was looking for sponsors. Jump Town was his first sponsor. He talked up the club, the place starts to boom. And this friend of mine, a tenor player, brought Jackie in to hear our quartet. I was working with the George Davis Quartet. And this tenor player said, “hey let her sing, she’s really good.” And I says, “naaa, don’t be bringing your girls in here, they’ll ask me to play in the key of X, something that I don’t know anyway.”
JC:    Piano players never like to play for girl singers, because half the time they don’t know what key they sing, and they don’t know what tune they want to do, and that sort of thing. So they’re sort of negative about it in general.
RK:    So I said no deal. We went to the bar and libations, and Vete [Bob Anderson] said, “ah come on, she’s good.” She sang “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.” And I happened to have loved that song because hearing Frances Wayne sing it with Woody Herman’s band, a Neil Hefti arrangement. I said God, that’s great. Okay. And she sang that. The club owner was there that night, and he came up to us and said, “you guys need a singer for Friday and Saturday.” Okay.
Jackie & Roy enjoyed early success as members of Charlie Ventura’s small group, and had a few modest hits with songs such as “Cheerful Little Earful” and the unlikely “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” Most of their music was indeed cheerful and able to please the average listener, but hip enough to gain the respect of jazz musicians. After leaving the Ventura group, Jackie & Roy paid their share of dues. They described the realities of life as performers while raising small children:
MR:    So after the kind of short lived group with the cello, did you consciously sit and say okay the public wasn’t quite ready for that, what are we going to do now.
RK:    What we did was
JC:    Have a baby.
RK:    Yeah.
JC:    In the interim, amidst all these things, we’re having kids, and having to do with just living your life. That’s been one of our problems in the sense of being known to the public, because every time we’d get a little momentum going we would have a family thing happen. We were happy about it.
RK:    And it was — I was going to say what we did was cut down to just the two of us, just piano and the two voices, and we worked any way we could. Because things were rather slow. And finally we got on the road with a child, and we had a station wagon and we had a kind of a buggy, and behind the back seat
JC:    One of those that you lift out of the frame you know? And you put it behind the second seat in the station wagon and so if you have to change the baby you get on your knees and you’ve got your own little bassinet right there. And that was the days when you had to sterilize bottles and everything. Every night you’d check into a motel on a trip and have to take the sterilizer in and wash the bottles and sterilize them.
MR:   If you have a duo gig, and you’re on the road in your station wagon, what did you do with your child while you were performing?
RK:    Well we went to Hawaii, and we were working at this hotel on the roof, and we got into there and didn’t know who we were going get, and finally we found a young Japanese girl who was very responsible, and we would get ready for work and she would come in and read to our first daughter, and then put her to bed, and this Japanese girl would go into the bathroom with the lights on, and do her reading and do her homework, and take care that we finish our show, and we’d come in and she’d go home.
JC:    We had to find people wherever we were and it was always very nerve wracking because you know, are we going to find somebody for the first night? And in fact, in that incident in Hawaii, we didn’t have anyone for the first night, but luckily it was in the same hotel, and so we got her to sleep and we went upstairs and did our show, but this is what happened. She woke up and she heard us because it was all open, there was no air conditioning, it was like an open room thing, and it was just screened in. Anyway she heard us and she went out of the room in her little Dr. Denton’s and she went looking for us, and ended up down in the lobby and the people in the lobby said well where are your parents, little girl? And she said well I hear them singing. So anyway that was one of the funny incidents. And a lot of stuff like that happened. But most of the time we were very good, I mean we were lucky we found people the first day we got there through somebody in the club who knew somebody or whatever.
As a duo they fell into the world of commercial jingles, singing first on an ad for Halo shampoo. The sound of their voices and Roy’s arranging skills made them naturals for this field, and they went on to record many familiar jingles, including Cheerios, Plymouth cars and Borden’s instant coffee. This commercial life was balanced with creative LP’s, my favorite being the 1972 release “Time and Love.” They spoke of this album, made for producer Creed Taylor:
JC:    In 1972 we made that album “Time and Love,” which is the album we did for Creed Taylor, and that was such a wonderful time. And we hadn’t been doing anything because we were doing the commercials. So at one point we said gee we’ve got to record something. We should get back in the studio and do something. And I don’t remember how it came about — oh yeah we were going in and pitch it to Creed.
RK:    We’d done maybe four albums for him on Verve and so forth, and we were going to go into the city and just like talk it up — Creed we want to do another album, and like let’s see what we can do, and so we walked in and we started talking, talking, talking, and he says “that sounds like a good idea, let’s do it.”
JC:    He was for it right away. And then he got Don Sebesky on it, and of course Don Sebesky contributed such a tremendous amount, because he came up with a lot of the ideas and did all these big charts orchestrating, and of course there were a couple of Roy’s things in there too but he orchestrated everything for a 70 piece orchestra. And it was just, I mean it was thrilling to do it.
MR:    You had the best.
RK:    The best players of New York.
MR:    And I specifically remember hearing the title tune and just it was so beautiful, and all of a sudden when the Bach section came in, I said wow, that is brilliant.
RK:    And the opening I think was where Jackie did the French horn part.
JC:    The first day we went into the studio, I had to sing that. And I hadn’t been singing because we were doing commercials and we weren’t working in a club then. And so I was warming up and trying to get my voice in shape, because we always do that before we do anything. But I went in the studio and I was so nervous, because I had to do this a capella.
RK:    “Afternoon of the Faun.”
JC:    Yes, “Afternoon of the Faun.” And so I did it, and it worked out okay. And he was there conducting everything, and a lot of the string things of course were recorded separately and I had to just come in and fit in, with the earphones, and that’s always such an unnatural situation. When you get in the studio, and you’re thrown into these unnatural things where you’re wearing earphones and the band isn’t even there, and you’re singing like alone in a booth, it’s very hard to get into it.
RK:    And there are a few places where it was just all conducted. And we couldn’t coordinate — how long do you wait before you come in, before they come in, there would be spaces. And so we said, “Don, you’ve got to come help us, come into the studio.” He said, “oh sure, yeah.” And he said, “well now it’s going to be like this” and he would come in and it’d be wrong.
JC:    Even he couldn’t really feel it.
RK:    I said, “Don, we’ve got to do this right.” And he says, “yeah but I can’t find it either.” So he said, “try it.” And we put in little things like, gee if you touch yourself three times and then come in then it’ll be all right.
JC:    It was very tricky. But we did enjoy it, and then I got to do “Bachianas Brasileiras,” which was something I would never dream of attempting. But Don thought that I could do it, and thank God he let me try.
MR:    Was “A Simple Song” on that record also?
JC:    Yeah.
MR:    Was that a Bernstein?
RK:    Yes. And Don Sebesky coupled it with Dave Brubeck’s “Summer Song.”
JC:    No, you’re thinking of another one. You’re thinking of “Summertime” and “Summer Song.” “Summertime” coupled with Dave Brubeck’s “Summer Song,” where we sing all the voices, it sounds like a chorus, it’s all us doing it. That was such a fun thing to do, because it was different.
You can listen to the title track “Time and Love” here, and read our previous blog, Songsof Summer where Summertime/Summer Song was discussed.
Jackie was well respected in the music business and she shared her “most important compliment”:
JC:    One time [composer Alec Wilder] said a thing about me that I’ll never forget because he doesn’t say nice things if he doesn’t mean them. He said, “when she sings a song it stays sung.”