December 12, 2008

Old Meets New

Click on the above title, Old Meets New, to see pictures of Oriskany native Sam Kininger returning home and visiting the Hamilton jazz archive for the first time with his old high school jazz mentor, Monk. The pictures show a clinic Sam conducted on December 7 with Monk's new crop of Hamilton students, and the subsequent jam session.

December 6, 2008

It's Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup

This month marks the second anniversary of the abrupt passing of Kenny Davern, at age 72 at home of a heart attack. Kenny had only returned to his home in New Mexico two months prior, after attending his annual trek to Hamilton for our Fallcoming concert.

From before the jazz archive even existed, archive benefactor Milt Fillius hand-picked musicians to come to Hamilton for a special concert for the Hamilton community. Kenny always came, usually as leader, but in addition, Milt chose the best of the best. We were treated to the finest free jazz concerts, and Milt brought them to us! They always were, and still are, remarkable annual events. Kenny played the clarinet, and he maintained his amazing chops right until the end. Once Monk made an offhand comment to Kenny saying “I’ve read you’re considered one of best clarinetists alive,” to which Kenny directly replied, “Who’s the best?” I loved Kenny. It wasn’t just about his “sweet” jazz playing, though there was that. He was a realist and never sugar coated things, at least not with us. He also had the most caustic wit, on the bandstand and off, and said exactly what was on his mind. One time a Hamilton trustee rose to leave the event mid-set. Kenny addressed him by saying “got to go to bed? Got to go watch ‘The Tonight Show’?” The trustee returned to his seat. Kenny had no idea that the elderly person was a Hamilton VIP. Of course Kenny knew Milt and Monk and I, but for him, his yearly treks to Clinton, (via a minimum getting on three planes to make the connections) were simply a great gig.

I once told Kenny that the musicians Milt picked were Milt’s absolute favorites and Milt got such a kick out of choosing all the musicians he wanted to hear play together, never-minding the dynamics of what such combinations meant to the musicians. It was amazing to see Milt, year after year, sitting plumb in the front row of in the building known as the Fillius Events Barn and grinning ear to ear, watching his friends perform. He used the college as the venue, and he would have probably done it from his home in San Diego if he could have, but Milt liked to share his passion with others. When I told this to Kenny, that Milt was hand-selecting his own band and footing the entire bill for the weekend, it seemed to make more sense to Kenny. Of course Milt never consulted the musicians about who they would like to play with. Milt assumed that the musicians would happily come together as professionals do.

There are two videos of Kenny at Hamilton. Part 2 is a sit down he did at the college with Monk in 2001. We have found that many times interviewees either don’t watch the videos, or squirrel them away somewhere and never share them with their families. Bereaved families, however, are usually thrilled to discover them after the musician passes.

During interviews, very few musicians spoke their mind on tape as clearly as Kenny did. Usually once the camera went on there was a huge reluctance to say anything negative about anybody, especially fellow musicians. It’s after the lights are turned off and the camera is shut down that the musician’s true feelings are revealed. The musicians are usually uptight on camera for about the first 15 minutes of any interview. They are nervous, being that this is being conducted by a college, that they will be intimidated by professorial questions. Monk speaks as a bachelor’s-level-educated musician first, and as an improviser and composer. It only takes a short time before the interviewee warms up. The interviews themselves are directed by the conversation, not by a list of prepared questions Monk researches beforehand. In preparation for interviews, Monk buys recent CD’s of interviewees’ recent work and often consults
The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz tomes before the session, so he sits down fully prepared about personal style and past relationships.

From the first moment Kenny sat down with his friend Monk, the wit was revealed and the stories are all there. We are sad that Part 2 was only an hour in length.

I will never forget the first conversation I had with Kenny, it was a personal coup. Kenny was on a break at the Hamilton concert, and went outside to smoke. This was around 1997. I asked Kenny about set list decisions, the implication being because all six musicians didn’t ordinarily play together, and finding common ground seemed so effortless. He said there was usually some kind of sit down where they’d decide before the set. I said to him “Oh so on stage, you don’t just get up there and call ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in E, right?” He stared at me for a minute, then turned to Monk and said “I like this girl.” Once I had heard Monk mention that he was afraid because he was backing up Joe Williams for a few tunes on piano when he was at the college, and he was apprehensive because Joe was nonchalant about telling Monk in advance what tunes he wanted to sing and in which keys. Monk said to me “I’m afraid he’s going to say ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in E.” Thus I filed away Monk’s comment, then later used the same comment with Kenny, and from that moment on Kenny and I had a warm relationship.

Kenny always invited Monk to come to the stage for one song at every Fallcoming, and Monk got to choose the tune. Once Monk said “how about ‘Summertime’” and Kenny said “no way, I own that tune.” That was Kenny’s signature song and he didn’t want to share it. So Monk decided instead on “Wabash Blues,” from a recent album Kenny had released. Nearing the end of the first set Kenny would point to Monk in the audience with his clarinet and say “get your horn out, boy,” and Monk would pull out his old Conn silver soprano sax and saunter to the stage. Monk never had to fumble with opening his case, putting his horn together or preparing his reed. To me, it looked like he belonged with the group. I always took pictures, as did the college.

Monk, Kenny, and James Chirillo on guitar, Fallcoming 2005

Chuck Riggs, the drummer on Kenny’s last gig at Hamilton, called after he passed and wanted Monk to know that he thought we had videotaped the last concert Kenny ever played. We aren’t sure if this is true or not, but when he returned home to New Mexico, Kenny did call and I could hear Monk on the phone talking to him about the final performance. Kenny seemed unhappy about his own performance, after receiving the videotape in the mail, and I heard Monk saying that the micing process wasn’t all that great as it was done from a camera in the balcony of the Fillius Events Barn. Kenny and Monk reviewed the concert song by song. I think Kenny was his own worst critic. He never failed to amaze me with his facility and how strongly he was able to maintain it and not compromise his playing due to his age as so many musicians do who develop physical problems. Kenny told Monk that he was unhappy with the final note Monk played on, “Wabash Blues,” and how he kept wanting Monk to get off that note. Monk told me after he hung up the phone that he knew at the time that the note he should have been on was a physical impossibility on the soprano sax, and that Monk knew at the time it was wrong, but Kenny called it to his attention later on. Jeez, these musicians sure can be picayune about things, can’t they? It’s doubtful anyone in the audience noticed it, but Kenny and Monk both did, enough so that it was a topic for later conversational dissection.

When Kenny did a clinic at the college at that same last visit in October, 2006, Monk went to the small class with him so that he could accompany Kenny on piano. Monk considers himself an adequate pianist, not a top-flight soloist. When he came home he beamed as he told me that Kenny had given him the supreme compliment after the clinic, that he really knew what he was doing in the art of accompaniment (presumably not playing too much or too little but just right). Since piano isn’t Monk’s first instrument, it really meant a lot, coming from Kenny.

We went out to a restaurant for lunch before the concert that day of Fallcoming, just the three of us. I was unable to attend that final concert, as one of my daughters needed me to be in Rochester for that weekend. Anyway, I was looking at the menu and Monk and I brought up something we have often discussed between us. Pasta is usually described as “al dente,” but what’s the opposite of that? It isn’t like when you order your steak rare or well done. So we posed the question to Kenny, what is the opposite of al dente? Without missing a beat, Kenny said “it’s Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.” We both cracked up at the instantaneousness of his response, thus forever putting this question to bed for both Monk and myself.

I’m not sure if Kenny ever knew what an unlikely place Hamilton is for the jazz archive to be located. Hamilton is a northeastern liberal arts college with a small music department. Milt Fillius, ’44, being the huge swing era supporter that he was, provided the initiative for the creation of the jazz archive starting around 1992. This project went around and around for three years, much to Milt’s dismay, before Mary Kopcza from the Communications & Development department at college finally called Monk in 1995 and asked if he’d be interested in coordinating the project. At that time Monk was reluctant to get involved because although he was an adjunct instructor on saxophone, he was Artistic Director for the Arts in Education Institute at the Stanley Center for the Arts. Monk agreed to stick his big toe in the water in 1995 to see what this would all be about. Monk was not interested in “coordinating” the project (providing all the research, questions and contacts for someone else to use to conduct the actual interviews). In March of 1995, Milt Fillius attended the first interview trip to Scottsdale, AZ, and he said he wanted Monk to become the Director of the Jazz Archive. So since nearly the beginning, it’s been Monk who conducted the interviews.

And through this position, Monk travels to do presentations on jazz history — at SU, and Rutgers — and makes presentations before groups, such as the Society of American Archivists in New Orleans, and, before the International Association of Jazz Educators went down last year, Monk made biannual presentations or we wrote papers for IAJE conferences. He’s often invited to give presentations which include interview clips with commentary.

When Kenny passed Monk dedicated his next radio show to Kenny. He usually transfers these to CD, and he sent the CD to Kenny’s lovely widow, Elsa.
Monk did the same thing when Bob Rosengarden passed recently, and sent it to Bob’s widow, Sharon, a longtime friend of ours. Bob, or “Rosie” as he was nicknamed, was a longtime friend of Milt and was his Fallcoming drummer of choice. Bob let us know in no uncertain terms when we first met him that he preferred being referred to as Bob, not Bobby, as he was often identified on album covers. He came to the college many times. Bob used to be the music director of the “Dick Cavett Show,” and provided all the ta-ta-booms after the jokes Dick Cavett delivered. Bob was incapacitated by Alzheimer’s for the last several years of his life, and Sharon often called either myself or Monk to share stories about Bob and his use of the minimal drumset. Sharon attended Fallcoming with Bob when he attended his final public performance also, and at that time Sharon told Monk and I “this will be the last concert Bob ever plays in public,” as she saw Bob’s early Alzheimer symptoms. When Monk sent Sharon the CD of his radio show after Bob passed, she called us and said “it was lovely to hear Bob’s voice again, it had been so long since I heard his voice.” The “voice” of course, were the clips Monk had selected to augment the radio show.

It was fortunate that Milt Fillius and Monk had seven years of active interviewing gathering, enough time to get this archive to where it is, for which we are very proud. And in the process, the education that has come as a fortunate byproduct of doing the interviews, for Monk, has been an invaluable resource for Monk’s personal development.

Here’s one final funny story about Kenny which to mind as I recall his trips here. In 2005, Kenny had a new cell phone. He was never one for gadgets or computers or email. That year, one of Kenny’s flights was delayed. He called our home phone and got our answering machine and started ranting and raving about how he couldn’t figure out how to “work the phone” and swearing about the flight being delayed, and then finally leaving the message about when his flight would arrive in Syracuse. We got the message and Monk adjusted his schedule for the later pick-up. Monk too tends to be quite challenged when it comes to all things cellular, and when Kenny finally arrived at the Syracuse airport at 11 PM, the airport was dark and effectively “closed.” The two of them wandered around the airport apparently just missing each other, for about 45 minutes before they finally connected. Monk knew the flight had landed. Anyway, they couldn’t find each other. Apparently it never occurred to the two of them until the next day, well after the crisis was resolved, that they simply could have called each other on their cell phones to connect with each other. My daughters were laughing hysterically when they were told about the scenario, as us old fogies never seem to think of using technology first, to solve problems. Later Kenny profusely apologized to me for having heard his rant on our machine. He was sincere in his apology, but I thought it was the funniest message I ever heard on our telephone.
We miss Kenny and we mourn his passing at such a young age. We take solace in the fact that he maintained his finest form right up until the end. And he left such a remarkable body of work, including his album “My Inspiration,” Kenny’s personal favorite. Click on the link of the title of this article, “It’s Campbell’s Chicken Soup Noodles” and you will be transported to the Hamilton website where there is a clip of Kenny and Monk’s interview from 2001. Coincidentally on that site, just below Kenny’s clip is also one of Bob Rosengarden, so you will get double the fun.


November 16, 2008

Standing Ovation Inflation

Does anyone remember the standing ovation Johnny Carson got on his last "Tonight Show" performance? Now there’s a reason for a standing ovation. When he walked out the audience rose and sustained applause. The camera showed shots of audience members with tears streaming down their faces, and Johnny himself became unusually emotional, you could see his globus, and his eyes welled up.

On the other hand, today, members of “The View” and “Ellen” get standing ovations just by walking out on stage every day. You show up and you get a standing ovation.

When I read in the New York Times that somebody got a standing ovation for something, my automatic response to that is, So? Standing ovations have taken the place of applause, and I believe this is unfortunate.

Now don’t get me wrong, every performer likes to get standing ovations. But nowadays, it’s as if when you DON’T get one, boy you’ve really messed up.

I began to notice this in the eighties when my daughters were young and the parents in the audience immediately jumped to their feet and applauded after their dance recital. Are you kidding me? Then when they went to their all-county musical performances, boy those were REALLY good — of course THEY got a standing ovation. I’d like to ask these audiences who immediately spring to their feet, what incentive are you giving these kids to improve? It’s like science fairs. You show up, and EVERYBODY gets a ribbon. It’s grade inflation. It’s applause inflation.

My wife and I attend a local Broadway Theater League and for twenty years we’ve had season tickets in the second row aisle, and we usually enjoy these touring performances. After every single performance, the audience springs to its feet practically before the applause even begins. Being that we are so close, and that I am known by many people in my community, it’s kind of an awkward situation. In the first place, sitting there while everyone else is standing is awkward because of the direct eye contact from the performers, being that we’re so close to the stage. Second, it’s as if we didn’t like the performance, and we are glued to our seats because we didn’t like it, which may not be the case at all.

Applause is such an interesting thing. Clap between movements in classical performances and it’s gauche. DON’T clap after a jazz solo and that is gauche. Applause has different purposes. In the classical scenario it shows that the listener is astute to know that isn’t the end of the piece, even if the ensemble has stopped playing. In jazz, however, spontaneous enthusiastic clapping is far more preferable than polite clapping for recognition that the solo has ended. Different types of applause mean clearly different things to your fellow audience attendees as well.

In years passed, audiences had many ways of showing they didn’t like performances: golf clapping or booing for performances. They also had other ways for showing they loved performances, such as rhythmic clapping, finger snapping, sustained clapping, feet stomping, shouts of “Bravo!,”whistling, cheering, yelling, hooting, and in the olden days of the sixties, lighting bic lighters and holding them up (meaning they’re not clapping at all). One time in the late seventies I remember giving George Harrison a standing ovation with bic lighters and yelling. That one was deserved, and quite emotionally moving.

So if you see me sitting there NOT standing up, it’s not because I didn’t like the performance, but it’s because I’m wondering how the audience would be able to show appreciation after seeing Dave Brubeck in concert, or how they would have expressed gratitude to Johnny Carson on his last Tonight Show. Maybe they would have just stood there and clapped for the whole show?

As I said when I started, it’s a personal thing. But to my readers I say do not be afraid NOT to stand even if you think a performance was great. Because after the standing ovation, there’s no where up to go to express appreciation for a lifetime achievement. Performers do their profession, which is what they’re paid to do and we should EXPECT them to do it well.

October 5, 2008

He Played with the "King of Jazz"

A storied career came to an end yesterday with word that woodwind phenom Al Gallodoro passed on October 4, 2008, at the age of 95.

What I first remember about Al from our two interviews was his attention to detail. When we first met and I had to write his name down, he emphatically articulated that it was Gall-O-Do-Ro — only one A up front, then three O’s. He wanted to make sure that his name wasn’t misspelled. I think he gave that attention to detail to everything in his life, and especially his musicianship.

Al was born on June 20, 1913, and started playing in Vaudeville venues in New Orleans at the age of 13. He moved swiftly into the world of popular music, big band swing, and ultimately found a place with the “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman. We may argue about whether Paul Whiteman deserved that moniker, but he certainly was an important figure in the early twentieth century music, in both the popular and classical genres. In fact it was his group that premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Al was fond of saying that he played the clarinet lead, the signature ascending slide at the beginning of “Rhapsody in Blue,” some ten thousand times.

It was my pleasure to interview Al twice, in 1995 and 2005. During our 2005 interview, Al recalled seeing Paul Whiteman for the first time:
Al: I have to tell you this story. It must have been early 1928. See I moved to New Orleans from Pensacola, Florida in October of ’27. It could have been late ’27 or early ’28 the St. Charles Theater on St. Charles Street — there’s an Avenue and a Street — The Paul Whiteman Band was coming through. And God I’m only about 15 years old, or 15-1/2 years old. And I waited outside. And who gets out of a cab? The Dapper Dan Paul Whiteman, dressed with the afternoon clothes and striped pants and all. I’m looking — I was too bashful to say anything. I finally went in the theater and Frankie Trumbauer was with the band, Bix Beiderbecke was with the band, Chester Hazlett was lead alto, Charlie Margulis. And anyway I just marveled at it. But what I want to say is back then, let’s say 1928, who ever thought that in 1936 I would become the lead alto man in New York with Paul Whiteman? This was something. It was unbelievable.

Al proceeded to give me a first-hand account of the early years of jazz from his authoritative perspective. One couldn’t help but be enthralled by his wealth of musical experiences and stories, and his obvious pride in his technical mastery of multiple instruments. Al was called a “triple threat” because he could play bass clarinet, alto saxophone and clarinet, all with an incredible amount of virtuosity. Most people aren’t aware that in the early part of the century the saxophone enjoyed attention from a number of composers who wrote what I would call semi-classical music. The thing that held it all together as a genre was the extreme technique required to play this music — double and triple tonguing and extremely fast sections balanced with lyrical passages. It all required virtuosic technique and high musicianship. Al was the master of this music.

I was pleased to have the opportunity a year ago to book Al for two concerts in a series I was promoting in public libraries near Utica, New York. Al was fortunate to have an accompanist and manager named JoAnn Chmielowski, who made it her business to assure that Al was not forgotten: indeed, that Al’s name and legacy would be exposed in as many venues as possible during his ninth decade. I couldn’t think of a better person than Al to kick off a long series of library concerts, and he lived up to my expectations. Even though he was stooped and slow at the age of 94, he brought a certain aura and charisma with him. His desire to keep playing helped him find ways to continue. His hands had developed debilitating arthritis, so much so that he had to have his clarinet keys covered with pads because his fingers no longer had the strength to cover the holes on their own. Still he managed to enthrall an audience who could scarcely believe that a man in his nineties was playing with the vigor and technical mastery he displayed at those two concerts back in April of 2007.

Only the people in the first row could actually see Al perform, as he sat in a chair hunched over behind his music stand in his captain’s cap, lifting his head in between songs to deliver a wry comment about his age, but still giving us the impression that he was a man with whom you did not mess. If you look at the pictures of Al from the late 1920’s, and then a picture of him in the year 2005, you can get a sense of a career like few others. Al was able to bring spontaneity of jazz to his classical playing and the preciseness and dedication to the composers’ wishes to his jazz music. He could exist in both worlds and was a man who paid such attention to detail that he often times would write out the passages he had improvised, only the ones that worked best. In effect they became his own compositions originated on the fly but which satisfied all his musical requirements, so they were worthy of repeatedly being played.

I recall reading Gene Lees’ book Cats of Any Color which included a surprising but now understandable quote from noted composer and saxophonist Benny Golson who said “Al Gallodoro was probably the best I ever heard. The guy was unreal. He must have been from Mars.” If so, it must be that people from Mars live long and productive lives.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Al was involved in music. His last gig was on September 20, 2008 in Corning, New York, and he had dates on the calendar for this month and next. As is the case with many jazz musicians, retirement was not in his vocabulary. Deepest sympathies are extended to Al’s grandson Kevin Wood, to JoAnn Chmielowski, and to the other members of Al’s family.

Click on the title of this post, — He Played with the "King of Jazz" — to go to Al's web site.