April 26, 2012

Joe Muranyi: The Last All-Star

Clarinetist Joe Muranyi passed away on April 20, 2012, and was the last surviving member of the Louis Armstrong All-Star Band. Joe was born in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio on July 14, 1928. Joe was of Hungarian descent and the ethnic influence played a role in his early musical development.
JM:        Hungarians had a natural affinity for music like Italians, Irish, something like that. And in recent years, the past 20 years or so, I’ve gone there a lot and I find that I was basing my opinion of Hungarians on my parents and my family. But music was a very important part and you know I’m getting to the age where I’ve had thoughts and funny thoughts and I cheer up easily. And I’m an emotional being. Of course we all are. But the other night, there was something about “Pennies From Heaven.” The song came up. And I’m thinking about myself, you know, at what age did I start thinking about the music and considering music and whatever. And I remembered that I learned “Pennies From Heaven” [sings] every time it rains it rains — to this day I mean I know the words very well — directly connected back to when I was six or seven. And so I used to go to the movies on Saturday morning for a nickel in those days, you know, in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, Bellair, Ohio, way far away like that. Steel mines and coal mines and a lot of the immigrant beau hunk you know and all that kind of stuff. Polacks and Italians. So I used to go to the movies. I might have seen it there, and maybe I heard it on the radio. My parents at that time didn’t have a gramophone, so I learned “Pennies From Heaven” because I liked it and by ear. And the words and all. And they used to stand me up, that’s the only one I remember, stand me up onto the chair, like seven years old, and I would perform.
Diverse influences continued as Joe progressed from a child musician to a working artist, where he found himself balancing education from the classroom and the bandstand.

MR:        Well in reading about you it seems like an interesting trip from balalaika orchestras to Lenny Tristano to Louis Armstrong to what you’re doing now.
JM:        Well that balalaika is one of those things, you know, you say something that off-beat or not in the normal events in the course of normal events, and that triggers up. Yeah. When I was going to college, you know, I went to Columbia and Manhattan School of Music, I sort of gigged around. I played with, I actually played with an old time Italian band, you know a street band sort of. We didn’t play in the street, but it was in Springfield, Mass. in some Catholic church basement. And that was an experience you know. You had no music, these old guys, it’s like New Orleans or something. And they played standard classical repertoire and they had flute, clarinet, oboe, you know, it was like, the balalaika were like the violins and the violas and all that stuff. And they played classical stuff and Glinka and things like that from the Russian days. And they also played Russian folk songs [sings] which was ethnic again. It was kind of fun.
MR:        Well it’s a great mix for your ears to be doing all that kind of stuff, right?
JM:        Oh yeah. I love so-called ethnic music you know. I used to have quite a collection of Klezmer stuff, which I like very much, and there again, the earlier the better. In the twenty-something it was just wonderful. The new Klezmer bands well they’re fun and stuff but they don’t have the level of anything like the old timers did.

One thing I love about interviewing veteran jazz artists is the anecdotes and offhand comments they make along the way. There’s a well-worn phrase in jazz called “every tub.” I’ve heard it used before, and the meaning never seems to stick with me. Joe reminded me of what the phrase means:
JM:        We were in this place and we go down, there’s a restaurant in the place, in the bowling alley, and we’re going to have something to eat. And it was Pops Foster. And I knew who he was, I loved him and I respected him you know. And he looks at the menu and he said “is this every tub?” I said, “Pops, what’s every tub?” “Oh,” he says, “don’t you know what that means?” I said, “no.” He said, “every tub on its own bottom, do we pay or does the boss pay?” And then you know there’s a King Oliver record called “Every Tub.”
MR:        Sure there is. And a Basie record too.
JM:        Yeah, yeah. And there’s — I think I heard Louis Armstrong say a couple of times, you know an ensemble when you start playing? “Every tub.” You know, it’d be every guy on his own, you know, going to improvise.
MR:        So he meant everybody was paying for their own food?
JM:         Everybody on his own.
MR:        Everybody on his own.
JM:         By every tub means every tub on its own bottom. Everybody on his own.
MR:        That’s cool.
JM:        Okay? And that could apply to paying or it could apply to improvising. You know we’re not going to read music or don’t play the melody, unison. Improvise, yeah.
While most people recognize Joe Muranyi’s name from his association with Louis Armstrong, he also had an association with other artists, including the Eddie Condon gang, the Village Stompers (of which he was a founding member), and also as a producer for RCA Victor. He had strong opinions about jazz education and what he saw as the unfortunate separating of jazz styles and the audience for jazz and its musicians.
MR:        You expressed some feelings about jazz education before we started today.
JM:        Oh yeah. Well I don’t think there’s anything wrong with somebody going to a conservatory to study music and to study jazz. But I’ve never yet met a program, I mean just consider what they produce. They produce people that know about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Pops and everything like that. And I guess some courses they treat history. But forget it. And then they all play the latest thing — oh about the definition of jazz. It’s got to have freedom, yeah. And I like the idea of modern jazz and what they produce but I don’t actually like the music you know. It’s a very curious thing. As I said before, if somebody just asked me do I like jazz, I say no, because I know what they’re thinking and I don’t like it. And let’s put it this way: jazz is so compartmentalized. There are so many aspects. And America’s got this bad history of antagonism between the styles of jazz.
He treasured his stint with Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars, and added his opinion about Satchmo to the thousands of pages that have been written about America’s greatest jazz artist:
JM:        I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it and for me jazz is the music that Louis Armstrong plays. It’s very simple, you can understand, you know when I say that you know what I’m talking about don’t you?
MR:        I do until, but Louis Armstrong played a lot of music after the twenties and thirties also that may not have been really jazz. He jazzed it up.
JM:        Well his music, jazzing it up, what is jazz? Jazz is a feeling. You can play the straight — now Louis Armstrong, you know, he was the same man when he died as he was when he was young you know. That flame in him never died. And he could play the straight melody and melt your heart and that’s jazz. You could tell the difference between somebody very square and somebody swinging. Now this gets into the definition very much, you made a good point there. You say well “Hello Dolly” time is, you know, it’s certainly not as interesting as “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” or “Potato Head Blues,” you know, naked creativity. The situation was completely different. But he never lost his fire. He always showed something. Louis, he was a saint. And it was the biggest thing in my life, and I’m going to get teary, I’m near to. He was a wonderful guy. And he could be a bastard and he could be, oh a terrible, he could hurt you so badly and nobody in the world could do that. But anyhow the point is I liked him and he liked me. And the thing is I’ve never yet, and you know I’ve talked to people for a hundred years, “you ever see Louis?” And you know you hear the most interesting things. And most everybody that got to know him or knew him a little, Louis was his best friend. You know Louis had this quality. He was very gregarious and very good with people and he liked people, and he would really go out of his way and you would think well the big man doesn’t have time for that, but he did make time.
And so we bid farewell to Joe, and thank him for his contribution to the uplifting music of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars.

April 20, 2012

Gig Reality Check

I expected this might be a difficult load in, so I arrived well in advance of the scheduled start time. Security Guard #1 in the parking lot asks my business, then directs me to the area where I will have to unload. After driving around a small circle, Security Guard #2 again asks the same question, implying I suppose that Security Guard #1 wasn’t doing his job. After walkie-talkie-check with Security Chief, I am directed to the area near the back of the stage which will facilitate the best load in. Once again I encounter, this time, Security Guard #3, who points to the door where I will unload, but cautioning that I will not be able to leave my SUV in this vicinity, I can merely unload but then will have to move my vehicle to an appropriate space, approximately a quarter of a mile away. Said door is firmly locked from the inside. Athletic pounding by Security Guard #3 eventually gains entry.
The book we’re playing from has no order in it, and the leader calls the tunes out of earshot. Since playing with these musicians is rare, there are no expectations of what’s to be called, and you’re reading down charts for the whole time. But this is not what I will remember about the gig.
I was reminded of the amusing story Phil Woods told of what training should be required of players who will become working musicians in the future.
MR:    There’s a couple of statements that I read that were kind of humorous from you yourself, that part of jazz education should be getting in a bus and riding around.
PW:    Yeah. Get some ill-fitting uniforms, you know, very uncomfortable. The lightweight in winter, the heavyweight in the summer. A bus whose windows don’t open and no air conditioning, no walkmans allowed. Everybody’s got to double. All the saxophones have got to have at least four or five cases to carry, and a big thick book of about 400 charts. Put everybody on the bus and just drive around in circles on the campus for about twelve, fifteen hours. Then get off the bus, everybody put on these terrible uniforms, call out a set, and the book is never in order. It’s like Gene Quill style, you know, one, two, forty-seven, ninety-three, two hundred and seven, five. Call out the set real quick — everybody gets all their instruments out. Okay, put the instruments back. Put the music back. Put your book in order. Hang up your suit. Get back on the bus. Drive around for another twelve or fifteen hours. Do it once again. And I think you might cut the wheat from the chaff. Who wants to do this? I mean it’s an exaggeration on all points, because there are no more big bands where you could even do this. But I mean that’s the way it used to be. I don’t think it has to be that way. But nevertheless the hardest part of the music business is the traveling, whether it’s a bus or a plane, or just the idea of existing. I mean it ain’t about playing. The playing is easy. It’s all the nonsense you go through to bring your horn up to the bandstand. That’s the altar. That’s the safe place.
Fortunately for me on my speaker-warm-up date, the exit was the easy part, though it has not always been so. The drummer and myself threw all our gear out the back entrance, to be packed up and loaded into the car as the speaker began. I recall a gig years ago where I played a pre-game gig before a Syracuse-Georgetown basketball game at the Carrier Dome. SU Orange versus the Georgetown Hoyas is one of the fiercest rivalries in the NCAA. Because of the expected audience of 20,000+, an early arrival and load-in was required. In hindsight, this was the easy part. We performed on the far side of a huge blue curtain which divided the Carrier Dome in half. Again, the music itself was not the frustrating exercise on this gig. As the band ended, the game started. After packing up I was informed that the only way to exit the Carrier Dome was the way I came in, at the far end of the basketball court. My plea to the Security Guard for another exit from the stage fell on deaf ears. Two choices were presented to me: neither of them good. First, I could have piled up all my gear and left it for the time being, found a seat and watched the game. As an Orange fan, this option was tempting, but this would also mean I would have to go “up the down staircase” at the end of the game, against a tidal wave of 20,000 fans. Option two required me to carry my gear (electric keyboard, amp, keyboard stand and accessory bag) down the sideline as the game played on. I chose option two since I had already invested six hours of time for this “one hour gig.” I loaded myself down like a packhorse and stood at the end of the court waiting for a break in the action. When the ref blew the whistle for a time out, I negotiated my way down the sideline, terrified that I would hear the second whistle that resumed play. My relief in reaching the exit was dampened by my realization that I now had to find a safe corner to store my gear as I fetched my car from the eight-story garage. Of course I was not allowed to park in close proximity. All the way home I told myself “never again.” As you can see from the opening paragraph, there will always be an “again.”

April 12, 2012

Instrumental Song Titles

Steve Allen was the first interviewee I questioned about assigning titles to songs without lyrics. I felt it would be a good question for him because he had a reputation for being prolific in everything he did, and I knew that he pushed his talents to the extreme. I read a story about someone challenging him to write so many songs in so many days. He took on the challenge and did it in a public forum where he sat at a piano and continuously composed. It was a publicity stunt, and I took it with a grain of salt. If you’re a prolific writer it’s likely some of your songs are not inspired by anything in particular. The song I asked Steve about, called “Blues for Somebody,” turned out to have been written for Gus Bivona, a clarinet player who helped Steve move furniture into his new home. Steve also mentioned writing lyrics for a song called “Gravy Waltz,” which was just a title slapped on a tune. The challenge there was writing meaningful lyrics given that bizarre title.

Other times I’ve asked this question and received similar responses confirming that song titles can be nebulous — you can affix a song title just because you need one. When I wrote “Angelica,” I wanted to have a song dedicated to the town of Angelica, New York (an important part of my childhood) and this particular song didn’t have a title. So I used Angelica for that tune. But the song was not particularly inspired by the town of Angelica, nor is it particularly evocative of my memories of the time and place. Like most things I write, Angelica came out of a rhythm and a series of chords, and then I developed it from there.

One of my more recent compositions is called “The And of 4.” You could speculate about a hidden meaning in the title but it simply describes a repetitive accent on the second half of the fourth beat — “the and of four” as musicians describe it.

Béla Fleck was also questioned about song titles, and he mentioned finding titles as he went about his daily activities, and writing them down as they came to him. Once he wrote down the words “Sunset Road,” the actual name of a country road he noticed from the tour bus. He knew he could use it later as a song title. The actual song he called “Sunset Road” was not inspired by that place, but it was a convenient title to use after the tune was written and in need of identification. When you listen to the recording it seems to be a perfect fit.

Classical composers sometimes wrote program music, created to evoke an event or person — “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “Night on Bald Mountain” being perfect examples. The opposite was absolute music, compositions that didn’t have a particular psychological or emotional intent but exist simply as organized sound. The listener is free to apply any meaning or emotion they feel. Classical composers might use the generic title “air,” or “opus,” followed by a number. Many listeners are familiar with the gorgeous work by Samuel Barber entitled “Adagio for Strings.” I cannot think of another piece of music that has more emotion, but Barber’s title actually means “slow tempo for strings.” He wisely left any interpretation to the listener. A jazz analogy could be “Blues #9,” simply a new melody over the standard blues form. More than any other art form, music can exist and be meaningful without implying something specific. By the way, I just made up the title “Blues #9,” so it’s available for use.