December 12, 2010


The history of jazz now spans a hundred plus years. The founding fathers have long since passed into music history, and, sadly, the ranks of the second and third generations of master musicians is becoming thin. On December 9th we lost James Moody, saxophonist, vocalist, band leader and a man who spread optimism wherever he went. I met James Moody in San Diego on February 13, 1998. Our interview was delightful, mostly because James had a knack for putting people at ease.

Along with his high level of musicianship, he was also known for his relaxed and humorous bandstand personality. As a disciple of Dizzy Gillespie, James gathered musical knowledge as well as tips on how to engage an audience and keep your musicians loose:

JM: But Diz man, I’d be playing, we’d be on the bandstand, and Dizzy would come up and whisper in my ear “Moody your fly’s open,” and man I’d be very — and then he’d look at me with that look you know.

Like many musicians, James was able to remember the circumstances and the feeling of his first infatuation with music, realized through a storefront window:

MR: How did you come to the saxophone? Was it your first choice of instruments?

JM: I just loved the way it looked, and loved the way it sounded.

MR: Yeah?

JM: Yeah. I told my wife Linda, I told her “honey,” I says “in Newark, New Jersey where I lived, around the corner from where I lived, I lived on West Street, and if you went down the block and turned a corner, that was Springfield Avenue, there was a music store there called Dawn & Kirchner. And they used to have these windows, and they were just lined up with saxophones, you know, just lined up. And boy I used to go and just press my nose in it and look at it. Oh, man.” And finally one day my uncle bought me, he got me a saxophone, but it didn’t look like those, it was silver and it was alto, second hand, you know. But later on I finally got a nice horn. But the first horn I got, when I got it, oh man, I dug it. I put it in the bed next to me and just looked at it. I was out man.

MR Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice. I wish we had a photo of that.

JM: Yeah. Sixteen years old.

MR: And that was an alto?

JM: Alto, yeah. And you know what? It must have been a Conn because it had one of those screw things on it. Because I even forgot what — like in those days, I mean it didn’t mean anything, Conn or whatever, it was a saxophone.

James’ early career received a boost with a serendipitous incident. While in Europe as a young man, he recorded a spontaneous version of “I’m in the Mood for Love.” The numbers of records sold involving a jazz hit certainly pales in comparison with a rock hit, but indeed this did become a hit for James and brought him back to the United States. His version of the song became known as “Moody’s Mood for Love.” James related the story behind the engaging saxophone introduction:

MR: So up until that point, even when you recorded “Moody’s Mood for Love,” it was all coming from your ear?

JM: All by ear. “Moody’s Mood for Love,” the same thing. What I did was, I was playing tenor, so Lars Gullen, who was a very fantastic baritone jazz player in Sweden — good musicians in Sweden boy, wonderful — he had this beat up looking silver alto sitting by him at the record date. I asked him do you mind if I look at it? He said no. In the old days it was different. You played other people’s horns. You know you would never do that now. So anyway, they says you have one more cut to do, what would you like to do? I said how about “I’m in the Mood for Love?” Okay? And they said okay. So Gus Aphalia — this is the truth — the arranger, he went into the john and jotted down the harmonies, and then came back out and put them up on the thing, and we did it in one take. Now here’s why it sounded like it sounded. When they hit the chord — boom — [scats]. I’m trying to find the notes, because it’s alto now, not tenor. And people said oh you must have been inspired. I said yeah, I’m inspired to try and find the notes, that’s what I was inspired.

“Moody’s Mood for Love” became one of his theme songs and his version was eventually covered with a vocal version by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure.

On the strength of this record James returned to the United States, against his better judgement. While in his later years he may have struck us as a man who was always upbeat and full of optimism, he had his share of negative experiences in his life. The most telling was in dealing with the racism pervading much of the United States during his early years. He related one incident which he experienced as a band leader traveling in the south:

JM: Because I had had it, like with the racism that went on. I mean it was — remember I told you about the Brook Benton Revue? We were on the tour, and, I forget just where we were, but I had a hundred dollar bill. So I went into the donut shop to get some donuts. They said they didn’t have any change. So I went across the street to an automobile company, where they sell automobiles, asked for change, they didn’t have it there. So I said oh the heck with it. I got back on the bus. So when I got on the bus, in a minute, Brook Benton called me and says “hey, Moody.” I said “what?” He says “this state trooper wants to see you.” So I thought he was joking, a state trooper. I looked out, sure enough there’s a state trooper down there. So I get off, and the state trooper looks at me, and he says “what’s your name?” I told him I says “James Moody.” He says, “what do you do?” I said “well see, my name’s on the bus there,” I said “I’m with the band here.” And Brook says “maybe —” he says “get the hell out of here, get over here, I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to him.” So he says “how much money do you have?” I says “I don’t know, maybe four or five hundred dollars.” So he says “let me see it.” So I reached in one pocket and pulled out my traveler’s checks. And in another pocket I had cash, but something told me don’t do it. So I gave him the traveler’s checks, about seven, eight hundred bucks in traveler’s checks, because I had to pay the band. And so he looks at the traveler’s checks, he looks at me and he says “too much money.” So what am I supposed to say to the guy? Too much money? I mean I didn’t say anything. He looked again, “too much money.” I said “well,” I says, “I’m the leader here,” and I said “and I have to pay the musicians. I haven’t paid them all.” He says “too much money.” So he put it down and he looked at me again. “Too much” — he must have said this about fifteen or twenty times, then he called for another car, and another car came with a lieutenant, and they talked, and then a captain came and they talked. After this crap went on about a half hour, forty-five minutes, they came over again and did it again. “Too much money — too much money.” And then I mean he just gave me the traveler’s checks back and he left. Now you know what happened? When I went in to the automobile store, evidently they said there’s a negro over here with a hundred dollar bill, he probably stole it. So the cops came, and that’s how that came about.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who started their careers during the early years of bebop, James lived a long and full life, passing away at the age of 85. He was able to reap some of the benefits when jazz became a respected music in the United States. He received honors from the International Jazz Hall of Fame and was named an National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. Still he was less than happy with the fact that a man in his position was unable to call his own shots when recording an album at the age of 72. During the interview we listened to an excerpt from his then most recent release entitled “Moody Plays Mancini.”

MR: How did this album come about?

JM: Well the company wanted a concept. And that’s the thing nowadays, concept.

MR: Right.

JM: So we came up with the concept. Frank Sinatra before this. And then after this, Mancini, so that was the concept. But that’s how that came about.

MR: Does that bother you at all? That you need to do a concept?

JM: Yes it does, I have to be truthful, yes it does. Because you see what I think is that, and it’s been like this for a long time, the artist or the musician should make the records, and the record companies should sell them. But it’s the other way around. They want to make the records and then they want you to sell them. I mean that’s the impression I get.

MR: That the people that hold the purse strings are not musicians.

JM: No, they never are … But you know what I would love to do? I would love to be able to go into the studio with the musicians that I want, and the engineer should be there, and I’d just do what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it, and that would be it. Rather than somebody stopping me — hold it, take one more take. I’d like to just be able to do that.

James was one of those people who make me think I should be more like him — to do my best to spread a positive attitude and engage with people I barely know. He was a self-described romantic, but could still swing the music while romanticizing it. He never failed to acknowledge the emotional and career support that his wife Linda provided for him. I felt privileged to spend 90 minutes with such a man, and of the 300+ interviews I’ve experienced, his was the only one which ended with the interviewee asking of me “can I get a hug?”

November 28, 2010

In Search of A Sound

Music is a combination of sounds, and with jazz music our listening experience can vary from the relative simplicity of the piano-bass-drums trio to the complexity of the Duke Ellington Orchestra consisting of 18 or so musicians, each with his own individual sound. What makes the sound of any individual jazz musician compelling is a complex issue. Since high school I’ve been in love with the sound of Cannonball Adderley. His saxophone sound is buoyant, emotional and deep-bodied, and it’s a sound I have tried to emulate as best I can. At the same time I can’t separate Cannonball’s alto sax sound from the sound of his band, especially in the Joe Zawinul years of the 1960’s. Those two things together represent my favorite jazz sound. I got to see Cannonball and his band a few times and I feel safe in saying that Cannonball’s sound was a direct reflection of the man that he was.

The subject of an instrumentalist’s sound was often discussed in our jazz archive interviews. The artists who had their formative years in the thirties and forties took great pride in finding a sound that distinguished them from their fellow players. Harry “Sweets” Edison in particular talked about the importance of not sounding like the guy sitting next to him in his interview in March of 1995:

SE: Most of the musicians in those days demanded respect because they were an artist. And they were all individualists. Everybody had a sound of their own. They could be identified on the record. Like if Billie Holiday would sing on the record you’d know it’s nobody but Billie Holiday. She’s the only one sounded like that. If Louis Armstrong, he can hit one note on a record, and you know it’s Louis Armstrong. Nobody sounded like Lester Young. Like Coleman Hawkins. Like Bunny Berigan. Like Benny Goodman, Chu Berry, Dizzy Gillespie. They all had a sound that they could be recognized. And that was our ambition in my day to not be an imitator, but an originator, you know. And as they used to say they’d rather be the world’s worst originator than the world’s greatest imitator. Because there’s nobody like the man that first sounded like that. You can never capture his feeling. So we all wanted to be individualists. I made many, many records with Billie Holiday and it was always a joy just to be in her company because she was just absolutely — I met her when she was about 19 years old. And what a voluptuous, beautiful girl she was. She was absolutely just gorgeous. And she had a sound that when you hear her on a record, you know that’s Billie Holiday. And that’s what we strived for in those days. Nowadays it seems like musicians have their idols and they don’t venture any place else but what their idol is playing. Like Charlie Parker. All alto players sound like Charlie Parker. All the tenor players nowadays sound like John Coltrane. All the trumpet players either sound like Miles or Dizzy. So there’s no originality nowadays with the musicians.

MR: Well, you know finding that original sound I guess is not that easy.

SE: Well we did it.

MR: You sure did.

Of course there are mechanical considerations for what makes a sound on any instrument. On a saxophone you have multiple factors, the horn, the mouthpiece, the reed, et cetera, but a 2010 interviewee, baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan basically dismissed these technical considerations when it comes to what comprises an individual’s sound:

MR: I could tell that sound, in the general sense of the word, seems to be very important to you. Because when someone asked you about the biggest difference between playing alto and moving to baritone it was all about the sound.

GS: Um hum. Well to me in music, general sound is first. Sound comes before anything. I mean if you listen to all the great musicians in this music, they all have individual sounds. That’s the first thing that you hear that grabs you, right? If you listen to, just the tenor saxophone, right? John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Don Byas, Frank Wess, and the list goes on and on, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Georgie Auld, they all play the tenor saxophone but they all have — Al Cohn, Zoot Sims — I could go on all day — Tina Brooks, Hank Mobley. You know they play one note and you know who they are immediately. And to me that’s like the defining thing about being a musician, and for me the most important thing is your sound. And I’ve given a lot of thought and a lot of practice to try to really develop a sound that’s personal and unique to me, because that’s the first thing that people hear. I mean you could be a great technician but if you don’t have a good sound no one’s going to want to hear you and you’re not going to be able to get past your sound. And it’s really the identifying characteristic of who you are as a musician. And your sound is not in the instrument, the sound is not — in my case — it’s not in the saxophone, it’s not in the reed, it’s not in the mouthpiece and it’s not in the ligature. The sound is something that you carry within your very being. And that’s what comes out. So take someone like Sonny Rollins, right? I think that if you gave Sonny Rollins 50 different tenor saxes, 50 different reeds and 50 different ligatures, he’s going to sound like Sonny Rollins, with some variation because maybe the instruments aren’t comfortable. Maybe his comfort level behind the instrument isn’t the same. But essentially what’s going to come out is Sonny Rollins. Because his sound is not in the instrument. And I tell that to my students. I say don’t look for the magic instrument, because there’s no magic instrument.

Every jazz musician is a product of what he or she listens to on the way up. Some musicians tend to grab onto one or two artists for their sources, while others may sample from a wider array of sounds, and not only the sound of their own instrument. Musicians often say they get ideas about their sound from players who don’t play like instruments, it’s more about conception, phrasing, and note choices.

The “Three ations” from Clark Terry is often quoted when the discussion of sound and absorbing influences comes up. Clark was interviewed in 1995 by Joe Williams, the late singer, who was helpful us with our then-budding archive.

CT: We call them the “ation stages,” you’ve got to go through them “ation stages.” Everybody imitated somebody as the first step. The first cat didn’t hear nothing but railroad tracks. He imitated that [scats]. Or whatever. You’ve got to imitate something.

JW: You go from imitation to assimilation, from assimilation to innovation.

Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion also spoke on creating a sound and quoted fellow saxman Pepper Adams who summed it up even more succinctly:

MR: You were influenced by Charlie Parker. Is that a fair statement?

JD: Well sure.

MR: Wasn’t everybody I guess.

JD: I guess, sure. I mean I was never good enough to copy anybody … [but one time] when Pepper spoke he says “well you know when you copy from one person that’s plagiarism. But if you copy from everybody it’s called research.”

Tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts was interviewed in 2003 and has been featured on hundreds of recordings and related the practical considerations that influenced his sound:

MR: You’ve got a very distinctive sound. And I’m wondering was there a period of trying different mouthpieces and all that, and were you trying to sound like somebody to arrive at your own thing?

EW: No it evolved through the music business. The only person I ever really tried to sound like was Trane. Because that was where I’m coming from. That’s where I plugged into. Everybody has someone they emulate when they’re a kid, when they’re learning how to play. And so Coltrane was it for me. I developed my sound, interestingly enough, from playing pop music. When you play pop music, when you play pop solos on all of these records, and you have eight bars in the middle of the tune and then you get to play on the fade while they fade it out and then the DJ tries to fade it out as fast as he can, as soon as they hear the vocal end and the saxophone start you’re out of there.

MR: It’s their cue.

EW: Unless you bought the record, and then you get to hear the saxophone solo go for like twenty bars at the end of some of these things. But on the radio as soon as the DJ hears the saxophone solo you’re out of there. So anyway, I started working on my sound and concentrating on my sound when I realized with pop music, in order for it to be pop music, it has to be within a certain genre. It’s set up a certain way, production-wise it’s set up a certain way, harmonically it’s very simple structured music. As a soloist within that genre you can’t do anything harmonically. You can’t play chromatically through that music. You can’t do anything in that music that is intricate or evolved on a technical or harmonic level. Because at that point it’s not pop music. You take that music to a different place and it’s out of context with the music, therefore it is not right for the music. So you don’t go to a pop session and play a Charlie Parker solo. So what happens is the idiom of the music is so simple harmonically that the only way you can establish a style is to have a sound that is recognizable. So that when you play one note, when you play three notes it’s recognizable because it’s a unique tone quality. And I recognized that in the music. And so I developed my sound. It’s a combination of the stuff I grew up listening to, it’s a combination of Coltrane with a softer edge, but it’s still that center and it’s still that intensity, but it’s just very simplified.

The essence of what makes a musician’s sound distinctive and identifiable remains mostly undefinable and magical. It’s the same magic that makes a melody stick in our head, and the same magic that makes a particular improvised solo a classic.

October 25, 2010

The Right Notes

In the last blog entry the subject of “wrong notes” was addressed by quotes from players from what is best described as the hard bop school. This post-bop style places them squarely in the modern jazz era and helps us understand their comments and opinions more clearly.

An annual duty of mine at Hamilton College deals with an earlier style of jazz. Once a year at Fallcoming we host a group of hand-picked musicians who perform an evening concert of traditional and mainstream jazz. This year our group proved wildly successful. It was comprised of a sextet covering several generations, but one that was able to perform as if they were a seasoned road band. The sextet was: Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), Nicki Parrott (bass), Evan Christopher (clarinet), Randy Sandke (trumpet), Jackie Williams (drums) and leader Dick Hyman (piano).

Thanks to John Herr for providing the excellent photographs of the Fallcoming event.
Above, Dick Hyman and this writer after the concert.

I know for a fact that the last time these six artists performed as a band was one year ago during Fallcoming 2009. They were so well received that we invited them back as a unit. This group of musicians can function as a working ensemble because they know the repertoire that Dick Hyman is likely to call, a mix of standards from the golden era of songwriting (the 30’s and 40’s), and jazz classics that predate those decades, what we can call New Orleans/Dixieland music.

These musicians would address the question of wrong notes from a different viewpoint. There is much less of the “anything works” approach. The musicians create improvisation in a well-defined playing field where wrong notes sound less like hip choices and more like mistakes. Nonetheless, their playing is highly inventive, and arguably harder. Their note choices may be more constrained by the theory behind the music, but if you had heard this concert you’d have been astounded by the inventiveness of the improvised melodies and rhythms.

A big part of the success of this event has to be attributed to Mr. Hyman, who has had an amazing career as a pianist, composer, arranger, film scorer, and concert organizer. Aside from my admiration for his playing, I am jealous of his experiences throughout his career, including the years of steady work in New York City’s studios. His day-to-day schedule included everything from jazz to semi-classical music. He also was called upon to provide incidental music for soap operas and game shows, and he played keyboards on many pop hits during the emergence of Rock & Roll.

I asked Dick Hyman about this time in his life during his first interview, in March of 1995:

MR: What kind of people did you play behind?

DH: Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruth Brown, whom I’m working with now, Laverne Baker, The Coasters, The Drifters. I remember that terrible record “White Christmas” that was so popular.

MR: Did you play on that?

DH: I did. But we did all that stuff. And if you asked me what we thought of it, we always —we said to each other can you imagine we said to each other, in twenty years, this was in 1955 or so, in twenty years people will be saying to each other, “listen darling, they’re playing our song.” And you know that’s exactly what happened. All of that funny music that we laughed at became classic in Rock. And go figure it out.

MR: Well people, even musicians who’ve never done studio work, may not realize that you don’t have to like everything you play on in a studio. It’s not possible.

DH: No, no. What you have to like is being able to play it well.

That last statement ought to be written inside the instrument cases of young musicians. Dick was also called upon to do things which he might never have anticipated. He played mallet percussion, he whistled on a number of hit records, and was one of the first musicians to employ the Moog synthesizer.

Mr. Hyman is a pianist who seemingly can play anything that he can think of, in any style. He once recorded an LP with twelve different versions of the song “A Child is Born” as if played by twelve different and contrasting piano players. It’s interesting to watch him spin out his melodic and improvised phrases. His facial expression may not change at all, but the thought process behind his creations is magical.

I asked him about that thought process in our second interview, from March of 2001.

MR: I had a question also about trying to define hard things — and that is the concept of what you choose to play when you’re improvising.

DH: Oh. You mean what piece or what ideas?

MR: No. Where does improvising come from?

DH: It comes from your background and from the ideas of whomever you may be playing with, and also your technical capability. The ideas of — I’ve used this analogy before — the ideas are rather like a kaleidoscope which you shake up so that it produces different images each time but they’re made up of the same colored jewels and bits of paper. They are liable to be the same ideas in a different form every time you shake it up unless you keep adding to the kaleidoscope and put in different jewels, different colored pieces of paper, and then when you shake it up the next time it’s going to be a bit different. But there is very little, I think, of improvisation that hasn’t been thought of before or that you haven’t somehow used. The point is to keep replenishing the supply and keep on mixing it up differently. And a way that you can — certainly the tool that you use is just technique. If I’m in good shape technically I will try things that I wouldn’t otherwise. If I’m not in shape technically I won’t try to do certain things, I’ll stay where it’s safe and I know that I’ve been before. But if I feel very loose and in good shape and I’ve played a lot then I really can stretch out and try things that maybe I’ve heard other people do and see if I can get my version of, try things, just let the fingers go where they may, and pose certain problems for myself and see how I can get out of them, and just sometimes there are, too, moments where you don’t quite know where an idea comes from. Those are precious and they’re rare. If you’re lucky you’re recording them or you can write them down and they become compositions. But you watch for those. Sometimes you can chase them. If you have to compose something on a deadline of course, you really go out and you try to grab the muse and bring her back. Sometimes you can be successful. Some people use drugs and liquor to get to that stage. I’m not sure that works. I do think that, in my case, in the first part of the day might be the most creative part, and that possibly is because I’ve been thinking about the things through the night that I want to get to the next day.

It was a thrill to watch Dick Hyman in action as well as hear him. At times on this jazz concert he would employ the Basie technique, a simple raise of the eyebrow or the point of a finger indicating where the music should be sent. On a number of occasions he got up from the piano and walked over to the horn players while the drummer or bassist was soloing, had a slight word with them about something he wanted them to do, then walked back to the piano to hear the results.

I was invited to sit in on a tune at this latest Fallcoming event, and I wished I had the adjectives to describe the feeling. Let's just say being surrounded by that assemblage of talent makes it much easier to find the right notes.

Dick Hyman has recently put all of his skills into a huge project entitled Dick Hyman: A Century of Jazz Piano released on the Arbors jazz label in 2009. This is a serious collection of piano music performed by Dick Hyman, spanning the era from pre-Ragtime all the way to free improvisation. It includes five CD’s and a DVD, and Dick is currently working on an accompanying method book. It is well worth checking out.

October 3, 2010

A Wrong Note?

Let’s return to the initial reason for this blog: the resource of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. Our interview sessions now number 300 + and I was recently reflecting on how my questions have changed since we started the project in 1995. While we didn’t go into the sessions with a set agenda, there were questions I often asked of interviewees. A sampling of these questions are: (1) at what point did this particular musician think they could make a living in jazz; (2) what was the learning process before formal collegiate jazz education programs; and (3) what was your worst gig ever (a question that rarely worked).

In the last couple of years my interviewees have been from a significantly younger set of musicians, typically in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The experiences of these musicians are far different from the veterans who started their careers in the 1930’s. A question I have been asking of late is: in jazz improvisation, what constitutes a wrong note? My most recent interviewee, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, said what others of his generation have been saying. In short, there is no wrong note. I thought of all the mistakes I have made while soloing over the years. Perhaps I was wrong about them being wrong.

Of course these musicians went on to explain and qualify their answers. But first we need to take a look at what constitutes a wrong note in music. A wrong note in classical music is much more apparent than in jazz, especially in jazz improvisation. In classical music, if a performer plays a note not written by the composer, it’s a wrong note. Even people who take a certain perverse pride in saying they’re tone deaf, can sense an incorrect pitch in a familiar classical piece. Victor Borge, the highly accomplished pianist/comedian, made a career out of well placed mistakes, incorrect notes that people could identify in the midst of classical performances.

I can remember listening to both Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, two trumpeters with vastly different sounds and approaches, but both of them often played notes that struck me as being incorrect, unintended, and from my definition at that time, a “mistake.” However, if Miles Davis played a note, with that fragile tone of his, it took on a certain extra poignancy, whether or not he intended it. When Dizzy Gillespie played a wrong note, he could, being that he was Dizzy Gillespie.

In jazz improvisation the playing field is different. Jazz artists are spontaneously creating melodies, phrases and licks that usually correspond to a scale or a choice of notes that “match” the underlying chords. But jazz vocabulary has changed a great deal from when Sweets Edison was ready to quit the Basie band in the late thirties because he felt he was playing too many “wrong” notes. Nowadays there is a certain attitude of anything goes, because anything can be justified or codified by the jazz theory and pedagogy currently being taught at the university level.

When Javon Jackson said there is no such thing as a wrong note, he went on to say that even playing a C sharp over a C chord can be made to work. It depends on where you place it in the phrase, if you leave it hanging out there at the end of a phrase it more likely will sound incorrect than if you resolve it with a certain intent. We must admit though, that Javon Jackson’s C sharp will sound less questionable than a timid junior high player playing a C sharp over a C chord. The tone, the intent, and the confidence all make a difference in how we perceive what people play.

Joe Magnarelli, hard bop trumpeter of some renown, had this to say about the question of right and wrong notes:

JM: I think a wrong note is when you give up on that note. When you give up on it then it’s wrong but, because there’s no wrong notes, really, there’s no wrong notes. You can make any note valid on any chord. I mean think about it. If you have a G major chord and you play an A flat, depending on how you resolve that A flat, it could be a beautiful thing. Now if you go back to study classical music you’ll find things like that all over the place. And I think being sure of yourself and having faith in yourself to play something that doesn’t sound good and then play your way out of it. I mean I have done that. I played something I like and I’ll think to myself in that split second, wow, what was that, you know? And then I just play it again and develop that thing and bring it back into the solo, that’s the key. But if you play something and you make a face or you musically give up on it, then it’s wrong.

Tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama (of the same generation as Joe Magnarelli and Javon Jackson) is very big on tension and release in his solos, and constantly improvises with that concept in mind. He was very succinct and thoughtful in his response to my question.

MR: In jazz improvisation, to you, what constitutes a wrong note?

RL: Well okay that’s a good question. It’s like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, okay? I think there are wrong notes. A lot of people don’t. I do. I really do. Because you have a background, you have a chord, and then you could use all twelve notes but it’s how you organize them. You know what I mean? It’s the organization. Sometimes you might put a wrong note in a wrong part of the beat or something, and it sounds wrong. And I just get this tension up my spine. You know what I mean? But, then technically you can play a wrong note, technically meaning theoretically it could be a wrong note but it sounds right. You know, because of the placement. You know Thad Jones was the master of it. Coltrane too. Sonny Rollins, all those masters, Joe Henderson. As far as theoretically, in other words we have a chord, we have a scale and we have the chord tone. So if you play outside of that, it could be considered wrong. But if you know how to phrase it exactly right and resolve it right that’s another thing. It’s in the resolution. You can resolve a wrong note and make it right see. And then sometimes I know when I hit a wrong note, you know like I say I feel it up my spine.

What constitutes a wrong note certainly can be addressed and thought of in many ways. The style of music has a great deal to do with it. If you’re playing modal jazz and improvising on one chord at length, the tendency to play non-scale tones is certainly there and almost required, because your palette is limited. In this case I can embrace the “no wrong notes” philosophy. If an accomplished jazz musician is consistently playing notes chosen for a purpose, placing them in a phrase, in time, and with confidence. This goes double when they stray away and play outside the chord changes (see the last blog posting for a definition of chord change).

I think that all the musicians who addressed this question would say that if you play something by accident, take responsibility for it, account for it, and try to make it work. That’s part of what makes modern jazz sound different than classic jazz.

This weekend I traveled to SUNY Fredonia to participate in the annual alumni jazz reunion concert. I had some challenging improvised solo opportunities and I tried to keep this right/wrong note topic in mind. On the way home I had a few regrets over notes I stumbled upon. Whether or not I was able to recover and turn them into “right” notes remains in the ears of the beholder.

July 21, 2010

Jazz Language Primer

Jazz has its own language. Some of these words were invented by the musicians, while others were coined by critics and historians to describe what the players do:

Axe — a musical instrument.

Break — a spot in the tune where everyone stops except for one player. This player will fill in this hole in the tune and it is usually two or four measures long.

Blue note — a note that is purposely played a half step lower than usual, typically the third, fifth or seventh note of the eight-note scale. Blues singers first did this, later they were copied by instrumentalists.

Bridge — not all songs have a bridge but most standards do (see Standards). Jazz musicians for years have adapted popular songs from the 30’s and 40’s and they often are written in an A-A-B-A form. The music to each A is the same or similar; the B section (the bridge) offers something new.

Changes — the chords to a particular song. The changes provide the blueprint for the improvisations. The term “rhythm changes” is shorthand for the chords to the song “I Got Rhythm” and new melodies have been written over these changes.

Chart — a written piece of music (the whole arrangement or an individual part).

Chorus — usually refers to the part of the song that has the title. Jazz players also use the term to describe improvising once through the whole song (i.e. each player takes one chorus).

Comp — the guitar, or piano and bass play the changes behind the soloist(s), improvising the rhythm to fit the feel of a particular performance. Freddie Green, long time guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra, had a comping style named after him, a steady chunking strum on each beat.

Cutting contest — two like instruments “battling” each other by trading improvised choruses. It’s more competitive than a jam session, and sometimes is used to establish a reputation.

Gig — any musical job. The word has now entered the mainstream, often irking musicians, especially when a DJ refers to their “gigs.”

Head arrangement — a band arrangement that has been created in rehearsals or on-the-spot by the players. It is committed to memory and may later be written down on paper if it is a keeper.

Inside/outside — when an improviser uses notes that correspond to the change (chord) they are playing inside. Going outside is experimenting with notes that may sound wrong, especially to traditionalists or new listeners.

Jam session — An informal gathering of jazz players playing standards and blues. This is a valuable tool for aspiring musicians and used to be the accepted way to learn jazz.

Laying out — refers to a player in the rhythm section who purposely does not play at all for a length of time (also called “strolling”). The bassist rarely lays out.

Rhythm section — bass, drums, piano and/or guitar. They provide the background for the soloists and set up the groove. The rhythm section instruments can also solo, or a rhythm section can be a band by itself.

Standards — songs that jazz musicians are expected to have memorized. These tunes are typically from the 30’s and 40’s and were written by the great songwriters (George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, etc). Knowing standards allows musicians who have never previously met to play a whole night together without written music. Newer tunes are constantly added to this list.

Tag — adding a phrase at the end of the song. The tag is usually cued by the group leader when it’s time to go “home” (i.e. to end the piece). The tag is usually the last four measures played extra times.

Taste — a now out-of-date term (which replaced bread) referring to the monetary compensation for a gig.

Walking — when the bass player plays one note for every beat of the music. Essential in swing music.

June 29, 2010

Against the Tide

When the oral history gathering began for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive in 1995, a great deal of our focus was on alumni of the Count Basie Orchestra. This is an ever-diminishing class of stellar musicians and we are sorry to hear that trombonist Benny Powell passed away on June 26 at the age of 80. We were fortunate to interview Benny twice, in 1995 and again in 1999.

Benny was born in New Orleans on March 1, 1930. He was playing professionally in his teens and joined the Lionel Hampton Band in 1948. In 1951 he joined the Count Basie Orchestra and quickly began sharing the trombone solo chores with section mate Henry Coker. Benny stayed with the Basie band for twelve years, winning the Down Beat Critic’s Poll in 1956 and recording frequently with small groups during this period. In the 60’s he led his own combos, played with the Merv Griffin Show band, helped administer the Jazzmobile and continued big band work with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. He spent much of the 70’s in Los Angeles, where he performed with Bill Berry and Bill Holman. Benny was also a valued sideman in ensembles led by pianist Randy Weston.

When Benny joined Basie in 1951 at the tender age of 21, The Count liked to play things close to the vest, and Benny related that he played with the band for twelve years and never was officially told by Basie that he had been formally hired.

Benny was a thoughtful man, and described himself as a maverick, partly in the way that he would dip his toe into commercial work but always play an active role in what he considered to be more creative music. He also was a self-described sharp dressed man, shedding his tuxedo as soon as he could, and changing into his own “little slick stuff” which often included traditional African attire.

His secret to making a living as a maverick musician , as quoted by Benny in 1999 was: “I go against the tide but I guess I’d call myself a legitimate maverick, because I’ve been going against the tide all my life. But my secret is I can go against the tide and not be abrasive.”

Benny had some well-formed opinions about jazz and the arts in general. He was a theater person, took great stock in education, and took pride in the fact that he could perform in front of “kindergartners or Congress.” In our 1999 interview he said about his own philosophy, “most successful musicians understand humankind. Whether you’re talking to a president or a porter you should be able to communicate.”

He championed the contributions of the African-Americans and their innovations in jazz and blues, and he also recognized all the historical collaborations that took place, especially in the jazz arena:

BP: One of the things I think that’s never been played enough is Benny Goodman’s role in showing a visible democracy. Up until then you’d see pictures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Dr. George Washington Carver; Eleanor Roosevelt with Marion Anderson, but they weren’t doing anything. Benny Goodman with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, was one of the first visible evidence that we could work together in that kind of respect. And I don’t think history books have made enough of that. I think if that were the case then we wouldn’t still have these arguments, because we would decided that then, we all made this stuff. Now if you go into the non-racial thing then you’re disrespecting my heritage because you see the Blues came from people being whipped and beaten and all of that. I know we’d all like to forget about that, but I think it was because of that — I have a contention, no great art is ever created by happy people. It’s always adversity that creates art. So when I do my lectures, I start off my lectures with Negro spirituals because they chronicle the experience, which is “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and then I tell the people about the voice of being cut off. Anyway, it’s a deep story behind it, and jazz is being left out.

Most musicians have a few musical moments in their career that remain indelibly etched in their memories and I thought I knew one of Benny Powell’s. True Basie fans know that in 1955 Benny was the trombonist who played the striking solo on the bridge of “April in Paris,” one of the band’s most memorable recordings. It was this audio excerpt that I chose to play for Benny during our 1999 interview. It led him somewhere else, however.

MR: I wanted to ask you if you remember the specifics of this particular recording session.

[Audio of “April in Paris”]

BP: My first impression is how blessed I am to have been a part of that because as I hear it I think about Freddie Green, I think about Marshall Royal, that was just the two things that jumped out at me right away, since Marshall Royal played lead alto and it was so solid, then you could hear Freddie Green in the back. I don’t really remember as much from this date as I do from the one we did with Duke Ellington.

MR: Oh, both bands?

BP: Yes. It was called Battle Royal. I think I was like a kid in a candy store because I think where I was seated, I was sort of like I was in eyeshot of both Basie and Duke Ellington, and I kept pinching myself, I said you’re not here, you’re going to wake up any minute. And these guys were such statesmen themselves, because someone remarked the other night at Lincoln Center on the Duke Ellington thing, about that same date. I think it ended up with Basie playing a solo on “Take the A Train,” and Duke playing a solo on “One O’Clock Jump.” But those guys were such statesmen, they’d say well Mr. Basie, this number just demands your presence. “But no, Maestro, I wouldn’t dare.” Oh man those guys were cool. Oh man. And I was a little kid, you know, and I’m looking at these guys. And I don’t believe it. But also I remember one of the biggest sensual thrills I’ve ever gotten, on the end there’s both of these bands playing these huge chords, I think that arrangement was by Jimmy Jones who used to be accompanist for Sarah Vaughan. I think he had a hand in that. But man at the end there’s some power chords in Sonny Payne’s solo. The drum is playing through all of that. Oh man, if you were in the room, sometimes try it yourself. Go to somewhere in a pretty enclosed room, and turn up the sound. Oh man. I mean it will just do all sorts of thing to yourself. It will rearrange your cells.

I was humbled to read Benny’s inscription on my LP copy of “April in Paris” which read “To Monk, Thank you for keeping the flame burning.” Benny is part of that flame.

May 25, 2010

But Does It Swing?

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz is one of the prime sources for facts about jazz and its artists. They also scored well with an opinion. Their lengthy definition of “swing,” starts as follows:

Swing -- a quality attributed to jazz performance. Although basic to the perception and performance of jazz, swing has resisted concise definition or description.

We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to define the magic of an artistic concept. It’s true in any art form that what makes a work stand out is, in the end, undefinable. We can look at the parts and discover some truisms about them. Jazz musicians know that when they see a series of eighth notes, which normally divide a beat into two equal parts, they play the first one longer than the second. This is a clearly definable part of swing. We know that swing music is almost always in 4/4 time, that it involves a combination of instruments working together, and that it is the basis for a whole genre of music that employs the name. Nonetheless we still try to specifically define the concept, and it’s been a favorite question of mine in gathering interviews for the Jazz Archive.

It is a logical question to ask of jazz drummers, who along with the bassists are most responsible for making things swing.

Drummer Ed Shaughnessy, who drove Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show big band, stated the following about swing. He had a certain affinity for the word “infectious.”

MR: Are you able, in talking to students or anybody in fact, to put what swing is into words?

ES: I finally think I can do it. I struggled with it for a long time. But I really think I can do it. The thing is before I do it I want to say to you how often swing is used as a noun representing the type of music. Right? They’ll say the swing bands of the 30’s and 40’s, right? And they played swing. We’re going to deal with it as — really how would you describe it if I’m going to go about swing as a feeling? Would we say it’s still a noun but it’s... I mean if I say “it swings” that’s like an adjective, isn’t it? Okay. Well I just want to make this clear to anybody who watches this tape. Because what I find the problem is sometimes is that youngsters, and even oldsters, they mix up the terms “to swing” and lock it in exclusively to jazz music. Now I think bluegrass music swing like hell. It swings. Now what is that swinging I’m talking about? Without drums, right? It’s infectious. The main thing I think that swing means, for me, is that it’s an infectious beat that makes you want to move, whether it’s to dance or to sit and tap your foot or to tap your hands, but it makes you want to move in a sense, and in a response to it. It brings something out in you. It gets into you. Maybe it makes you happy. But mostly it makes you want to get with it. Infectious is the best word I can use. That’s why I don’t like the fact that someone, who is very hard-headed about anything other than jazz, like if I say to them sometimes, well you know some of James Brown’s funk rhythms would swing you out into bad health. “Well I don’t like rock & roll.” I say look man [scats] — I say if you could hear that and you can’t move yourself, you are dead, they should embalm you see? But that’s a form of swing, do you know what I’m saying? If you hear a bunch of Africans playing [scats] and they’re playing that twelve-eight stuff like the Watusi people do, and even if you don’t see them dancing, if you hear that it’s infectious. It gets you going too. So to me, any music, like bluegrass, or jazz, or funk music or Watusi music, it’s infectious and communicates to you rhythmically, and gets a visceral thing going. That’s what I think swing is about. And I don’t think it’s an exclusive property of jazz. I really don’t. However, some people will play jazz and it doesn’t swing. That’s the part that I think people should understand. To be swinging is a certain feeling. You can have jazz people playing but it ain’t swinging too good see. So I think — I’m not going to say the mistake — but I think the error sometimes is to feel that if you’re playing jazz it’s necessarily swinging. No it’s not necessarily swinging. You know? It might be a little cerebral, a little abstract, and you don’t feel very much of that visceral communication. It might be very good, it might be very technical, but it isn’t kind of getting to you. That’s the absence of swing. That doesn’t mean other things can’t be there. Improvisation can be there. Imagination can be there. And feeling can be there. But I’ve heard for instance a bass and a drummer, both of whom were very good well known, and they don’t play good together. They are not compatible. It never settles into a good, unified pulse. So it isn’t swinging too good. That’s a good definition, don’t you think?

MR: I like it, I love the word infectious.

ES: I’m not saying because it’s mine, but I mean infectious is really what swing is about. Hey, yes. [snaps fingers] When I see audience, and I’m playing and I see some of that, it doesn’t have to be everybody, if I see just a smattering of that, I think we’re getting it across. And if I see nobody moving, I don’t think we’re getting it across.

I often have had the enjoyable task of booking highly respected jazz artists to perform at the college, sometimes grouping them together in unrehearsed ensembles. It’s interesting to hear the musicians talk afterwards in private about how things felt. You might assume that musicians at the top of their game can make things swing at will, no matter who the personnel may be. This is definitely not the case and I often overhear talk about which bassist and drummer don’t work well together, or which bassist, drummer and guitar player really lock in and make things swing.

Swing of course is not just rhythmic — there’s a harmonic component to the music that was developed in the mid-1930’s. Pianist and composer Steve Allen (yes, that Steve Allen) addressed this part of the definition of swing:

MR: Can you define for me when you hear something that’s really swinging, why? Why does one thing swing and the next thing doesn’t?

SA: The dominant factor is rhythm I think. Well people would think of that right out of the barn, but that isn’t all there is to it. There are certain ways of voicing instruments, if you’re talking now let’s say about a big band, 14, 15, 16 pieces, there are certain kinds of harmonies sometimes, now it’s so common we don’t even notice it or comment on it, but sometime in the late 30’s you began to hear more chords. Even if it’s a simple chord, a C chord let’s say, where they added the sixth note of the scale instead of the tonic. [scats]. Let’s see C-E-G, to those three notes they added the A which is the sixth note in the group. And why that sounds hipper, or cooler as they would say today, it’s not easy to explain in purely scientific terms, but that’s the way it is. That had probably happened first, even before it happened with instruments it happened with voices. If you listen to trios or quartets, there were no five group singing groups that I know about in the old days, until the Hi Lo’s and a group like that came along, they didn’t get that complex with their harmonies. But we all remember the term “Barber Shop Quartet” [sings] down by the ol’ mill stream. That’s nice stuff, but the harmonies are as simple as possible. Only the necessary notes are there. There’s no enrichment or adornment. But then about 1937ish or so a group called The Merrimacks, if you can find any of their old recording, play them sometime with this comment, you’ll see what I’m talking about. They were the first people to add the sixth and to add other harmonic enrichments — where they got them I don’t know, you’ll have to dig them out of the grave and ask them I guess. But you can hear it in their old recordings. Then from The Merrimacks, that opened the window of opportunity, I’m very big with clich├ęs today, and you had groups like the Pied Pipers, the Mellowlarks, Mel Torme had a great group, the Meltones I think they were called, in which the harmonies were more typical of what was also happening at that time in voicing the reed sections, the saxophone sections, of orchestras. When they only had four notes, they could still put in the sixth and some enrichments, but when they added a fifth saxophone, which now all the big bands had had for years, somehow that enlarged the harmonic possibilities and we associated that kind of harmonic hipness, with big band with jazz, with swing.

If you want to go to the piano to see what Steve was talking about with the sixth chord, simply play a C-E-G and add the A, the sixth tone in the key of C. For a more authentic swing voicing, put the C on top (play E-G-A-C in your right hand from the bottom up). Play a single low C on the bass end. That’s a good swing chord.

In addition to being a feeling, swing was the popular music of the day from the mid-30’s to the late 40’s. But in the mid-50’s instead of swinging, kids wanted to rock. Rock music straightened the swing eighth notes out, as saxophonist Jerry Dodgion so succinctly stated, in an almost off-hand remark:

JD: In those days [the late 40’s] 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. I

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.

My own two cents about swinging, or establishing any infectious groove, is that when instruments are in balance you have a much better chance of success. The All-American Rhythm Section of the Count Basie Band of the 1930’s and 40’s, is often held up as the standard bearer of the swing rhythm section. I’m convinced that one thing they did that made them so successful was balancing their own volume. This was in the days before amplification, where the drummer played in a volume to match the acoustic bass and the acoustic guitar and the acoustic piano. That self-imposed balancing transformed four instruments into one unit. The rhythm section itself was one instrument. Call it what you will.

My personal concept about this was reinforced in 1996 when on an archive trip I was able to hear, on successive nights, the Capp/Pierce Juggernaut Big Band and the Count Basie Orchestra, at the time directed by Grover Mitchell. The Juggernaut bought into the concept of “mic everything” (make the big band bigger). Powerful indeed, but in my opinion this band did not swing unless you call swinging getting beat over the head. The next night, on the same stage, the Count Basie Orchestra, in the original Count Basie tradition, swung their butts off. With a mic for the soloist only and the rest of the band providing their own balance. They used their experience and musicality to create the groove. The sound man had little to do.

Does this blog entry provide a definitive description of swing? Of course not. Swing is magic.

March 29, 2010

Improvisation 101

I’ve had music teachers and adults compliment me on my interaction with students, saying that I have a good way of teaching improvisation. I don’t take a lot of credit for it. It reminds me of the Jon Hendricks story talking about Count Basie being interviewed by the English journalist, who said “Mr. Basie, you seem to play with a great deal of economy of notes.” And Basie said “I can’t play no mo.” So perhaps there’s an advantage to not having your head filled with too much theory because it doesn’t cloud your thinking and you can see the forest AND the trees.

In this case, the forest is creating the improvised melody. The trees become all those scales, licks, phrases, enclosures, modes and ideas that can be applied, and that can be of use, but applied too early they only tend to obscure the forest, the idea of creating a melody. That’s why I think it’s a good idea when working with a kid who seems to have any interest at all in improvising, you work with a scale and a little call and response, and then THEY give the call and YOU respond, and all it is is a little rhythm. Then divide the rhythm between two different notes, and then three different notes if you want, where we set a beat and we make up little phrases from the scale we’re working on. This is not a jazz exercise per se. Sometimes we’ll do a march beat and we’ll be in a G scale for example. Play any notes in the G scale, let’s play something people could march to. Or let’s do a waltz — let’s play in 3/4.

I had a recent conversation with a music teacher who was about to retire, as he had been teaching nearly thirty years. This conversation made me realize how some basic things may not be a part of a person’s teaching arsenal. Though he may have played music for a long time, it was a revelation to him that I simply told him that on the flute when he is improvising he could play an E flat against a C chord. His comment was “yeah but that’s dissonant, because the C chord has an E.” I said, no, that’s the blues, that’s what makes blues sound like blues. His honest reaction was “wow, that’s really interesting.” Even though he played in a jazz group, he didn’t know that.

He also had numerous questions regarding a microphone and its proper use on the bandstand. He was surprised to learn that a microphone does not make you sound better, it only makes you sound louder. He didn’t seem to believe that. And that is an arguable statement. Because a microphone connected to all the possibilities (reverb and sound enhancement) can make you sound better, in a way. But you still are amplifying the sound you put into it. And if you put in a lousy tone, a tentative tone, an unconfident tone into a microphone, it will make that unconfident tone a loud unconfident tone.

School districts who hire me tend to have me return year after year to work with groups of kids. I often do guest spots before the audiences in the evening when I perform with the school bands. One particular administrator likes to call on me to do something a cappella before the audience. Every year I try to do something different. One year I played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” one year I did “St. Louis Blues,” and this is always on solo saxophone. I always arrive at the stage with very little pre-planning. I do some thinking about it, but I’ve learned to trust my own instincts and rely on observation and intuition during the day or leading up to the event. A recent night started out where the music teacher had some other guest, he had a fairly good band that was there who was traveling through the area. They played a little thing for the kids and then they were going some Q & A. They were asking the kids about their listening habits. One guy asked junior high kids if they had ever heard of Louis Armstrong. One girl raised her hand and said yes, he played trumpet and he sang “What a Wonderful World.” They were glad to get that answer. So I registered that, and then I had a long break between the afternoon and the evening performance. The kids who I had seen at the same school last year, who I had been able to spend the day with, a whole year later these kids had remembered the little blues lick that I taught them a year ago. Not only had they remembered it, but they had taught it to the grade that came in this year, who I had not seen the previous year. It wasn’t a hard melody, but the fact that they remembered it a year later and taught it to the other kids, and recognized that they could put it into this arrangement they were doing called “A Bunch of Blues,” because luckily it happened to being the same key. But they recognized they could play this melody in the middle of this chart and it fit. And they asked the director’s permission to use what they called “Monk’s Blues,” and they did. So that was a rewarding moment.

In the evening, I decided to play “What a Wonderful World,” for the audience and I verbally related some of these things to the audience before I played it. I played it by myself. The room had a nice sound, a sort of “gym reverb.” I milked the song, but with the words in mind as I played it. I think it worked very well. Afterwards a grandfather came up to me and wanted my autograph and said it was the most beautiful rendition he’d ever heard of the song and how special it was. Then the kid who had originally answered the question about Louis Armstrong came up and she was thrilled that I had done that. I told her it was prompted by what she said, and I said that I shared her enthusiasm for the song.

In a session for prospective Arts in Education teaching artists (TA’s). I decided to do a little exercise that on one side of the page it says “TA work is…” and on the other side said “TA work is not …” and encouraged them to put down some obvious things. TA work is not an opportunity for you to display your technical prowess on your instrument … TA work is challenging … I put down TA work is rocket science, and I also put TA work is NOT rocket science because I feel you can apply the same concept to improvising. It certainly is hard, but the hard part is figuring out how to learn all that stuff but forget it. It helps to know it, but you need to figure out ways to transfer it and filter it into language and concepts and activities that display the ideas rather than talk about it. And it’s not about exclusive language of your discipline. It’s about being able to share your joy, fascination or insight about something with others who don’t share it but could share it, but you have to figure out a way to make it palatable, to make it and safe for them to experiment with and user-friendly. It’s the same with improvising. You have to create a safe environment for people to try things and teach them the idea of a mistake changes from one kind of music to another, that mistakes can be dealt with, and that mistakes are not your deadly enemy.

March 26, 2010

Jake Hanna: "Have A Ball"

Sorry to report that another of our interviewees recently passed away, drummer Jake Hanna. Some interviews immediately started in a manner that told me right away I was in for a treat. Jake Hanna was one. Jake passed away on February 12 at the age of 78. He was a versatile musician, having spent significant time with the Marian McPartland Trio as well as the Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd big band. He also spent ten years as part of the Merv Griffin TV house band, and held down the drum chair with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra and the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Jake was well known for his quick wit and often outrageous humor and it was on display right from the start of our conversation. Picture Jake’s voice with a James Cagney “you dirty rat” delivery in this brief exchange at the start of our interview:

MR: We are in Aspen, Colorado, filming for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. And I’ve been waiting for this for quite a while now. We’re filming with Jake Hanna, one of the great jazz drummers and conversationalists.

JH: Conversationalist, yes. I love your name, Monk. I’m going to start using that name, Monk Rowe. I’ve been using Sneed Hern for years. But Monk Rowe, that’s a hell of a name. I never heard a name like that either. Thelonious Monk was far out, but Monk Rowe.

Jake went on to tell me that two of his heroes were both “Kings of Swing.” One of course, clarinetist Benny Goodman, dubbed the “King of Swing” after he brought big band music into the consciousness of the general public in the late 1930’s. His other King of Swing was a ball player, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, one of the all-time great hitters in the history of baseball. He was equally enamored of both of them, although he admitted, “Benny never liked me.” Jake was part of a large club in that regard.

Most of the men in his generation spent at least two years in the service. He pointed out something to me that affected musicians, doctors, and other professionals who were drafted or who enlisted.

MR: At what age were you inclined to think, hey maybe I can make a living as a drummer?

JH: Well I never did anything else. So I never thought of it, never thought of it. Just loved it. I never thought of ever doing anything else. Ever. I just loved it. When I went in the service, I figured well I’ll go in, I’ll be a gunner, you know. But they eliminated them gunners, in the 50’s, they eliminated it, everything was electronic. And they came up with the jets then, jets were invented. So they wouldn’t let me handle a gun anyway, you know. But if you played a musical instrument they put you right in band play, and if you were a doctor or in medicine they pulled you right into that area and gave you a commission. You can’t train a musician in four years. You just take somebody off the street and say all right you’re in the service? Oh, you’re going to be — I need two drummers over here — forget it, you can’t train a guy you see? Who plays the drums? You do? Over here. A doctor? We can’t train a doctor in four years. So you’re automatically in when you go in. That’s automatically what you do. Most people, they can train you. Infantry, everybody can shoot a gun.

MR: That’s true. I never even thought of it that way.

JH: No they have to have specialists, and you’ve got to go right away. They can train guys in dots and dashes and radio people, they can get that done in six months you know. But not a musician. Play a march and then play a little dance job and play a show. In fact most musicians can’t do all that you know, really.

MR: It’s true. So you got to play during your service?

JH: Oh yeah, yeah. In fact I went in to do that. Because I wasn’t good enough to play outside. And out of high school I really didn’t know how to do anything. So I says I’ll go in the service, see if I get in the band, you know, took a chance. I couldn’t read [music] you know. Eventually I learned to read off of trumpet parts and things, and the guys in the new band I was with in Texas, they showed me how to read, and quick. I learned how to read in a couple of days, really.

Even though he had a Type A personality and a high energy level, he was not a drummer who felt it was his responsibility to make people swing. In fact, he was most happy when he was, as he put it, “just following, just tagging along, that’s all, have a ball.” The ten years with the Merv Griffin house band probably kept him financially solvent, but like many musicians it was a double-edged sword. Jake described the work, which was often linked with playing behind the popular musicians of that time.

He goes on to describe the video he must have seen that showed the process with Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are The World” project. Like many musicians of his generation, he did not recognize talent in the same manner that the younger generation did.

MR: Well how did you like working a steady thing, a TV show every day?

JH: Oh, I hated it. Just hated it. The money was lousy in New York believe it or not. And we went out to the coast, and he more than tripled it. So we made good money out there. But it was even worse. It was awful. It’s a Sonny & Cher world out there, that television. It was people with no ability at all and no talent at all. Did you happen to watch the thing the other day, Quincy Jones trying to teach Bruce Springsteen and the poet/singer, what the hell’s his name, Dylan?

MR: Bob Dylan?

JH: Trying to show them a song. These guys, well you might as well try to talk to that wall to get these guys to hear, they’re totally deaf. It was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen. “Honey come in here. Watch this.” And my wife started laughing, I started laughing, we called up people, “watch these two idiots.” Millionaires, billionaires these guys. They can’t do anything. God they were awful. Then poor Quincy, he just said okay, fine you know. We’ll just do it your way. Showing them the melody, they just couldn’t get the melody. And so he goes “sing what you’re singing. That will be the melody” you know. Poor Quincy. He’s dealt with these fools for years. And Phil Ramone is in with them too. You know he’s the best sound engineer there is. I don’t know what he’s doing with these guys. Making a lot of money I guess. But he did a lot of great stuff with Woody you know. Great stuff. He’s a hell of a nice guy too. But yeah, it was awful that stuff they were doing. And that’s what used to appear on the show all the time. Monty Rock III. The Lovin’ Spoonful. And what was a couple of others. Peter and something or other, no, when the Beatle thing was going on.

MR: Peter and ... Chad and Jeremy ‑ oh Peter and Gordon.

JH: Peter and Gordon. Oh, man, I mean they were awful.

Jake was definitely a memorable personality, a versatile musician, and he made friends easily. If you’d like to read more about Jake you might like to find Marian McPartland’s book All in Good Time. Marian’s thoughts on Jake got a whole chapter.