June 29, 2009

Jazz Studies

Congratulations to JoAnn Krivin for the publication of her stunning book of jazz photography which was captured via front row seats over a period of about 25 years. I had the privilege of writing the introduction for the work. Click on the title above, "Jazz Studies," and you will be transported to JoAnn's website which details the book.

June 19, 2009

The Saxophone Survives

If there was ever a period in American popular music friendly to wind players it would have been the Swing era (mid-1930’s until World War II). The average swing band employed up to 15 wind players: saxophones, trombones and trumpets. If you think about the fact that swing was the popular music of the day, the chance of being employed as a saxophonist, trumpeter or trombonist was far greater than in any other period before or after.

Things changed fairly quickly when Swing fell out of favor. Pop music turned its focus on the vocalist: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, and so on. These singers were backed by mostly nameless studio orchestras. Following that, the advent of Rock & Roll further focused the spotlight on the singer/front man and brought the electric guitar to the forefront, an amplified instrument that could rival the volume previously created by the 15 saxes and brass players. Wind players were mostly left to scramble and head to the studios or the school band rooms in the hopes of staying in the business.

For adaptable players, the one wind instrument that survived was the saxophone. The sax became the instrument that best suited the new sounds: Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll. For some reason the saxophone was most appropriate for this new raunchy and raw music, perhaps because it is capable of producing a very human sound with growls, flutters, doits, shrieks and the like. Some of the saxophone players who were able to embrace this new sound found themselves quite busy. People like King Curtis and Sam “The Man” Taylor were called upon to come into the studio and create 20 seconds of magic on countless pop recordings. Their sounds are familiar even if their names are not.

We can point to singer/saxophonist Louis Jordan as one of the musicians who managed the transition in fine style and set the table for those to come. Louis created a small jump band using a saxophone and a trumpet that bridged the gap between the large swing bands and Rock & Roll. In addition, the instrumental music of the 50’s and 60’s that managed to find a space on the airwaves was heavily saxophone oriented. Bassist Bill Black, of Elvis Presley sideman fame, went on to form the Bill Black Combo, a group that released numerous albums of instrumental covers with the a nameless saxophonist taking the place of the vocal. Ace Cannon, another saxophone player, found a similar niche playing pop instrumentals that made Rock & Roll palatable to almost every age group. These saxophonists rarely received credit on the recordings, and sometimes received disdain from the strict jazzers, but we can assume they welcomed the work.

Alto players Louis and Ace notwithstanding, the predominant saxophone voice of the day was the tenor. It seemed to best fit the range and match the male vocal, and new entries to the scene included Plas Johnson, Jerome Richardson and Harold Ashby. This is the same Harold Ashby who was in the Duke Ellington saxophone section for a decade, after he was a preeminent sax voice on the electric blues coming out of Chicago on Chess Records.

This trend continued into the 70’s and 80’s. Among the instrumentalists who were able to bridge the world of jazz and rock are the prominent saxophonists Grover Washington, David Sanborn and Kenny Gee, who is now reportedly the largest selling instrumentalist of all time. He surpassed trumpeter Herb Alpert, one of the few exceptions to the saxophone rule. While solos from wind instruments seem to be increasingly rare in pop music, if you hear one in the form of the music of Sting, Phil Collins, or Billy Joel, it will most likely be the saxophone.

 Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, focused on developing a hybrid between brass and woodwinds, and he would be pleased that his instrument thrived. Perhaps it’s a little payback for the lack of saxophones in symphonic orchestras. The saxophone’s popularity may explain why typical middle and high school band directors now share a common observation with Professor Harold Hill: “I have saxophones ‘springing up like weeds.’”


June 7, 2009

The Curious Power of Eighth Notes

Do eighth notes gets eight beats? Do eighth notes get an eighth of a beat? Those of you who are reading this who know better are aware that an eighth note almost always gets a half a beat. It’s simply based on four. Eight eighth notes equal four whole beats, thus one eighth note is a half a beat.

In music, two eighth notes on the page indicate an even dividing of the beat: the downbeat and the upbeat. Musicians count them in different ways. Most music teachers say one-and, two-and. Some music teachers say tee-tee-ta (two eighth notes and a quarter note). Eighth notes figure prominently in some memorable musical phrases. Think of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: three eighth notes followed by a half note. Think of the chromatic foreboding introduction to the theme from “Jaws,” a series of eighth notes. You will have to decide which of those two is more important in music history.

A curious thing happened along the way to paired eighth notes. Generally speaking, until the beginning of the twentieth century, eighth notes were played as a down and an up evenly. The beat was divided in half, each half getting the same amount of time. When blues, and especially jazz, started to germinate in the southern U.S. around the turn of the century, eighth notes began to be played in more of a skipping fashion, the first half getting slightly more than the second half. We cannot point to one person who started this trend, although Louis Armstrong is credited with teaching the world how to swing more than anyone else. Indeed, the most obvious characteristic of what we now call swing music was the pairs of eighth notes played with the first half longer than the second half. The best example I can think of is Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” If you look at it on paper, it’s simply a series of eighth notes. But the swing musicians learned that eighth notes were not played evenly. Each pair was played with the first half somewhat longer than the second half. When the arrangers and composers tried to write it down they found it was an inexact science. It’s not a dotted eighth plus sixteenth note, that’s too march-like. It’s more like the beat divided in three parts with the first two connected by a tie. It’s too technical to verbally describe, but we can hear it immediately. Swing music is based on “swinging” eighth notes. The eighth notes in classical music resisted the impulse to swing, thus widening the divide.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Curiously enough, after some fifty years of swinging eighth notes in popular music, they started to migrate back to where they started. I think we can point to the beginning of Rock & Roll: Chuck Berry and Little Richard for example as the transition. These musicians had half a foot coming out of the swing and rhythm & blues era, where eighth notes were unevenly divided and swinging. We can hear the transition in the music of Louis Jordan. Fairly quickly (think Jerry Lee Lewis) the eighth notes became straight again, played much like classical eighth notes and exactly like written on the page. This straightening out of the eighth notes became the biggest distinguishing feature between swing and what was subsequently called Rock & Roll. When a musician calls a tune and a drummer is not familiar with it, their first question would probably be “do you want me to swing it or play straight?” In other words, is it swinging uneven eighth notes or straight eighth notes.

I love the offhand comment that saxophonist Jerry Dodgion made about this in 1996. Jerry is a man who grew up in the swing era and makes his living as a jazz and swing musician. He was around to observe the transition and the profound effect it had on the music business and his own work.

JD: In those days the pop music was still jazz oriented more so. Then later on it became more Rock & Roll, even eighth note oriented. So it changes, it’s changing all the time.

MR: Can I just back up? You just said “even note oriented.”

JD: Even eighth note.

MR: Yes. See I never heard anybody quite describe ... we know how swing eighth notes go and how Rock & Roll eighth notes go, but no one ever exactly said the music became even note oriented. That’s very interesting to me.

JD: Well some drummers, if you talk to some drummers, they might tell you that. Because that’s a basic thing. It’s an even eighth note as opposed to the twelve eight, smooth flowing.

One eighth note by itself doesn’t make any difference. But two makes all the difference in the world. You can hear the transition happening in the recording studio with some of Chuck Berry’s early music where Chuck is wailing away on straight eighth notes and half his band is obviously swinging. The juxtaposition of the two says volumes more than any music history book can describe.

June 3, 2009

100 Years of Benny

Swing fans mark the spring of 2009 as a significant event, the centennial of the birth of Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. After a few years as a studio musician in New York he launched his own band. As the story goes, Benny launched the swing era on the west coast, and young dancers went crazy to his music. Calling anybody the “king” of anything can certainly cause arguments and discussions. I wonder what William Basie and Edward Ellington thought about Benny Goodman being called the “King of Swing.” He certainly was the person who made swing a household word and the pop music of the day, although there were many artists who could have laid claim to the title. Fortunately, William Basie was called the “Count” and Edward Ellington was called “Duke,” so there was enough royalty to spread around.

Benny Goodman was known as a perfectionist, to put it mildly. He thought about his clarinet, his clarinet and his clarinet, and then he thought about the perfect band. He also had a couple of other attributes that swing fans might not have known. One was his astounding absence of a memory. During our interview with Steve Allen he had a first-hand experience with Benny’s lack of memory concerning names. (See blog entry dated February 6, “A Social Hero”). Steve had a great connection to Benny because Steve played Benny’s character in “The Benny Goodman Story” and actually learned to play the clarinet.

Another non-musical attribute of Benny’s was his (let’s be kind) frugal approach to life. He was not a big spender, especially when hiring sidemen. The consummate bassist Milt Hilton shared a couple of stories in a Hamilton College interview that was conducted by our dear friend Joe Williams. According to web references Benny was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago, but Milt relates otherwise. Milt reminisces about three particular experiences with Benny, growing up in Chicago, at a daughter’s wedding and on a West Coast jazz event:

MH: I’ll tell you a funny story about Benny Goodman. Now Benny Goodman was nine months older than I. July 18, 1923 I took my first violin lesson. My mother sent me to the west side to the Jane Ellis Hull House, every Saturday, where kids could get music lessons for twenty-five cents. And Benny Goodman was right there. There was nine in his family. We were, back in 1923, we were taking music lessons together. And he remembered that. We’d argue and fight, he’d fire me and hire me back again, but we had respect, of a musician, a good musician. He knew what a good musician is. He was a good musician. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t nearly as liked as well as we wish he had been liked, but it was because he had such an insatiable desire for perfection. And you know Benny wasn’t born in Chicago, he was born in Russia, outside Kiev. But when his mother and father came to Chicago, he was a baby in arms. So you can apply for papers for your child, as born in America. I found out that years later. And we kept our friendship to the last. When his daughter got married, he called me up and said “hey, Milt, my daughter’s getting married, you and Mona come on over on Friday.” He’d say “bring your bass.” And he was all dressed up in his finery, so proud of his daughter getting married, and we had George Barnes there, and Bucky Pizzarelli, and a bunch of musicians. And we were over in the corner playing and everybody’s congratulating Benny Goodman because his daughter’s getting married, and his foot is going like this, tapping his foot. And next thing we know he’s got his clarinet and he’s right over there with us. He was an insatiable musician.

JW: Did you hear that marvelous story that Mel tells about him, Mel Powell? He says Benny came out to California in later years and called him up and says “Mel?” He says “Yeah, Benny.” He says “Let’s do lunch.” So Mel says “yeah, all right. You buying?” He said there was a long pause, and Benny said “let’s go Dutch.”

MH: He couldn’t get away from that. I got a funny one. There’s a million Benny Goodman stories. You know he called you up, saying he’d just passed from Concord Records, Carl Jefferson was out there in California, and he was having a big jazz party out there, and he called me up and he says “Milt, I’d like for you to bring a group of major musicians from New York out, so get some guys.” And I say “okay, I’ll get them together.” So I got Jo Jones, Claude Hopkins, Budd Johnson, Benny Morton, Roy Eldridge, and I mentioned Jo Jones and myself. You couldn’t get a more senior group than that. So we were going to go to California to do this concert. So Benny Goodman’s going to be out there. So Carl Jefferson told Benny, “well Milt is going to come out and bring some guys,” and he says, “oh he is? Well maybe I can get them to play with me.” He says, “call him up and tell him that.” So Carl Jefferson says “no, you call him and tell him that.” Now Carl Jefferson is giving me $6,000, a thousand dollars apiece for each one of us to come out there. And Benny Goodman called me up and says “hey, Milt, I see where you’re going to be out here in California at the concert.” I say “yeah.” He says “I’m closing, do you want to play with me?” I say “yeah Benny, I don’t mind playing with you,” I said “what’s the bread like?” He says “will $185 be okay?” I say “oh, wait a minute, Benny, wait a minute” I say. He says, “okay, what do you want?” So I figured out, I got greedy. I say, well I’m getting $1000 already, I’ll just ask him for $500 more. So I say “if you give me $500 I’ll do it.” He hung up the phone on me. He hung up the phone.

Lastly, Skitch Henderson, of “The Tonight Show” fame and New York Pops Orchestra, had his own take on Benny Goodman, who, no matter how perfect the musical situation seemed to be he would be the last person to be completely satisfied. Skitch talked about Benny Goodman’s performance on “The Tonight Show” in New York with Johnny Carson, when Skitch was musical director:

SH: This was a funny night with Goodman. I asked Goodman, I think I must have asked him for two or three years to come and do the show, and he never would do it. Benny was Benny. “No, Pops, forget it, Pops. I’m not going to come down and have to rehearse.” So at last I saw him one day and I said “Benny, I’m going to give you a gift.” I said “I’m going to get all of Fletcher’s old charts and they have been blown up just a bit, there are five saxophones instead of four, and I want you to just — it would be good for you, and I want you to do it for the guys in the band. Because you’ll never have an aggregation like this again.” Anyway he did the show. I asked him who he wanted to play piano, and it’s interesting that he called Marian McPartland, as opposed to Teddy Wilson, which fascinated me. Anyway it was a hell of a night. Now I’m playing, I’m conducting — two years pass, and I’m conducting in Brisbane, Australia. Now I’m not in Omaha, I’m in Brisbane. And the phone rings and it’s Benny. I mean I hear this voice. “Hey Pops, I left my braces in Sidney, do you have any spare braces?” You know, suspenders. So I said “Yeah I guess so.” And then that night after that concert he and I sat and talked in this smelly gymnasium where they played, and it kind of broke my heart because I said, we had a confession period to each other. He was talking to me about his unhappiness that he hadn’t, even though he was a very successful player and guest, he had no placement with a group because nobody would work for him, he was so mean, let’s face it. Bobby Rosengarden, I think Bobby refused the calls, everybody did. They gave up at last. So in this strange night in Australia I said “Benny, I have very few things that ever made me smile on “The Tonight Show” because there was always rankling from upstairs about the clients,” and I said “the band took care of itself and I just had to work out the schedule.” But I said “the night you came on and played it really thrilled me to hear that, that you could have that kind of virtuosity in every chair.” I mean there wasn’t a guy there that hadn’t paid their dues a hundred times over. And there was dead silence and he looks at me and said “yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” And then he launched into a tirade. He had just toured with a British band of five brass, four saxophones and three rhythm, like the old, old Benny, 1936 Benny Goodman Band. And that’s what he was happy with. I’ll never forget that. “Yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” That Bucky Pizzarelli and I talk about. Because Bucky was good to the end. He’d go to the house in Connecticut and play with Benny, just the two of them, just to make him play. But it was strange that he had that.

MR: He wasn’t even happy with perfection.

SH: Yeah. And he was such a perfectionist.

MR: Wow.

SH: “Yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” That was, for me, almost like a curtain coming down in Benny’s life with me. And I told the guys. Of course they thought “what else do you expect him to say?”

Benny Goodman’s music will certainly last forever. In addition, Benny played an important role in racial dynamics in the United States and we wrote about this in the blog entry dated February 6, 2009.