May 19, 2014

Putting the Notes in Order

I recently watched “The Glenn Miller Story” for probably the 19th time. Hollywood took significant liberties in bringing the story of band leader and arranger Glenn Miller to the big screen. According to his former band members, the real Glenn was not nearly as charming as Jimmy Stewart, who played him in the movie. But I love the part where Glenn (Jimmy) tries to describe the drive to create something new, to combine instruments in a way no one has done before, and achieve a unified sound from the variety of instruments and musicians playing them. I have this arranging bug. I’m not happy unless I am arranging something: a tune for a saxophone quartet, a full big band score, or a duet for two flutes.
When jazz started out it was mostly a small group affair, with instrumentalists making up their parts and predominantly playing by ear. As bands grew larger, this improvisatory approach became untenable, and the role of the arranger increased in importance. All the great band leaders depended on arrangers. As skilled as they were, many remained in obscurity, known only to fellow musicians or the most ardent fans.
Arranging work can encompass a wide variety of situations, from writing a “chart” for the Count Basie Orchestra, to scoring the strings and brass for a furniture commercial. Almost every piece of music we hear that involves more than a four-piece band requires input from an arranger. Most arrangers played an instrument and often paid their dues as sidemen in traveling bands. Pianist Mike Abene experienced the typical road travails and additional instrument hassles that helped push him down the arranger’s path:
Michael Abene
MR:    What was the road like at that time?
MA:    My big thing on the road was with Maynard [Ferguson]’s band. You know I didn’t go through a lot of bands because I was so involved in the writing end of it. But with Maynard at the time it was funny. It was like two station wagons and a panel truck. And you’d have like basically — and it was a smaller band, it was like four reeds, two trombones, four trumpets including Maynard, and three rhythm. So you’d have usually the band boy and one driver would be driving the panel truck and the rest of us would be split up into two station wagons. Which, if you’ve ever ridden with five or six guys in a station wagon, six or eight hundred miles, it’s not — so to this day I can sleep bolt upright — in a train or car I can just sit bolt upright. It looks like I’m looking at you and I could be asleep. But the thing is, it was funny with Maynard because I was never really happy with any of the records first of all. And just the recording quality, it was only one record I felt that the band really sounded good was a thing called the “Blues Roar.” And we had enlarged the band at that, for that particular — it’s Don Sebesky and I and Willie Maiden did the writing. But in the clubs, when we’d do clubs or concerts, it was wonderful because Maynard would just open up all the charts and we’d play like it was a small band. It would just, I mean some tunes were like 45 minutes, 50 minutes, and the rhythm section just used to be very loose. So if we could only capture that on record I always felt. But I mean generally it was a good experience in that Maynard was a very good band leader, sometimes a little too lenient you know, but he was a great guy. I have no complaints about that. A lot of good things happened.
MR:    As a piano player, did you ever have to deal with lousy pianos?
MA:    God, that’s why I prefer writing. You just answered — and you just solved the riddle of my life. People say don’t you miss playing. Yeah I miss playing. But I really love writing because, the first reason being that you know you guys can play your own horns, like the drummer plays his drums, the bass player, but then you’re stuck with some of these pianos, they’re just hideous. And to this day that’s still kind of an occupational hazard for piano players too. But that’s why, and the other thing is sometimes you play and you play a great solo, right? So the next night you go back and nobody even has any idea about how well you might have played the night before. It’s up in the air someplace. At least you write something, a good band, it’s there to remind you if it’s really good.
In all the interviews we’ve gathered for the Fillius Jazz Archive, I have never once spoken to a successful musician who was forced into the business. Mike Abene confirms that the path of a musician/arranger has to be self-motivated.
MR:    When you were a teenager, did you have a choice in your career or were you compelled to just go into music?
MA:    I was compelled, not through my parents, but self-compelled. And I realized very young that I really wanted to be in music. And my whole family was basically in music. My father was very good, like a Freddie Green kind of guitar player. He had a big band, and his brothers all played. It was the Italian end so they were all barbers and string players or [they played] accordions. His father was an accordion player and mandolin and everything. And my mother’s side of the family, her brothers, you know one brother was a drummer, another brother sang, he married a woman who was a hell of a pianist, couldn’t read a note of music but was one of those could hear something once and retentive, just bang, could play it. So it was always around. But I really enjoyed — I was actually writing and playing professionally at 15.
Manny Albam has arranged for an impressive list of artists including Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae and Count Basie. As a saxophone player, he avoided the instrument woes that Mike Abene had, and his physical location in the band had an impact on his fledgling arranging career.
Manny Albam
MR:    Why the saxophone as your instrument?
MA:    It started as the clarinet. I think I was about 13 or 14 and I guess I was mesmerized by Goodman and Shaw. And Pee Wee Russell. Pee Wee was actually more of a hero of mine than the other two guys, they were a little too glib and smooth and all that. But Pee Wee had that essence of jazz. The rough tone and the whole thing.
MR:    His personality was kind of interesting to watch too.
MA:    Oh yeah. I finally met him in Boston, we stayed at the same hotel and I ran into him in the lobby and we talked a little bit. As a clarinet player I was almost forced to take up the alto. And I started sitting into a lot of bands as a second alto player. Now the second alto chair in those days, in the four-man sax section was also baritone chair and so I became a baritone player and I’m glad of it. I finally sold my alto. As a writer from the baritone chair you hear everything up above you. You hear from your position way up to the first trumpet and you hear right through all the chords and the voicings and all of that. It’s a great place to live. And conversely, a lot of the arrangers, they were trombone players and they sit right in the middle and they hear it from both sides I guess. That’s where their thing is. You know, Brookmeyer, Billy Byers, Ray Wright, a whole bunch of them, Don Sebesky, for some reason or other, Nelson Riddle was a trombone player. It seems to be those two chairs are great places to hear what other people do. So if you play other people’s arrangements, you can learn a lot from them.
Like most arrangers, Manny Albam had to deal with a rapidly changing music scene. His career spanned the swing era into rock & roll and commercial work. Swing bands, and especially studio players, were required to be excellent sight readers. Manny didn’t realize he had become spoiled over the years by working with musicians who could play his arrangements correctly, usually the first time. He had a rude awakening when he started writing for rock groups.
MR:    Did it change your work at all when rock & roll became the popular music?
MA:    Well what happened to me a couple of times, there used to be a group in Canada called the Guess Who, and there was another one called the Lloyds of London. They would come down to New York and cut a basic track and then I would go in and add strings and horns and whatever. And that began to become like a joke. They’d go in, first the bass player would come in and play his line. And then the guitar player came in and says, “wait a minute I can’t play with that thing, you’ve got G natural and it’s wrong – I can’t do that.” So the bass player would have to make another track. And then the piano player came in and they’d change. So to get one thing down sometimes took three or four days. Finally they got two tracks down and I took them home and I would write “sweetening” is what they’d call it — strings and horns and all that. And we’d call the session and the string players came in and sat down and they played the thing through once and we recorded them the second time and they left and then the horn players came in. And these guys were, “holy Jesus, you mean you did the whole thing in 20 minutes? I can’t believe it.” I said, “well they’re musicians. They read music.” You’d have like Marvin Stamm or Bill Watrous or whatever. They’d just come in, sit down and go [scats] and leave, and pick up their $90 or whatever. And the [rock] groups didn’t know then who they were dealing with yet. They were dealing with great players.
Part of being a successful arranger is recognizing what is needed for a particular artist. Bill Holman, who was capable of writing thick and powerful charts for Stan Kenton, intuitively recognized the need for space when he had his first assignment for a vocalist:
Bill Holman
MR:    You had quite a list of singers here that you arranged for also. When was your first experience doing a chart for a singer?
BH:    It must have been around the middle 50’s for Peggy Lee. I believe in starting at the top you know. And I was really scared because I had kind of a crush on her since 1942.
MR:    Oh that’s nice.
BH:    But she’s a great singer, so I really took it easy writing the charts. I didn’t put a whole lot in there, you know, afraid to get in their way. She told me later after a couple of years, she said, “the thing I really like about your charts is all the stuff you leave out.” So I guessed right on that one.
Sometimes the biggest challenge in a “work for hire” arranging assignment is the quality of the original content. During my arranging/studio experience, the engineer had a phrase we used when we were trying to rescue music that had no redeeming qualities: “putting frosting on a turd.” Bill spoke honestly about his brief film scoring career:
BH:    I’ve never gone into actually composing for movies. I did a couple of grade C movies in the ‘50’s.
MR:    Did you ever see them?
BH:    Yes. One of them made T.V. and it comes out occasionally as a re-run. It was called “Swamp Women.”
MR:    “Swamp Women” with score by Bill Holman. Yeah?
BH:    Yeah. Terrible music.
MR:    I’m going to watch it.
Maria Schneider is one of the more recent arranging success stories, and like Duke Ellington, found it a necessity to have her own group to play her music. She is articulate and thoughtful in her teaching and passing on what she has learned:
Maria Schneider
MR:    How do you impart  some of your philosophies to other students? Is it possible to do that?
MS:    I try to just show them how I dance around and try to figure my way into music. I try to encourage students to look for something that just feels good, then try to find the logic in it, keep developing the logic, but kind of let their left and right brain work together so that it doesn’t become too analytical. And never thinking what do they think I should write, what’s going to be hip. What should I adopt to be cool. But try to stay inside. I always feel like the thing that makes each person unique is that you are you, nobody on earth can imitate you, nobody can be more you than you are. So that your job is to become you to the deepest degree that you can, and that’s where your beauty and that’s where your mastery is, in developing yourself. I think so often it’s really easy to look at other people and say oh he’s a master, I have to try to be like that, I have to follow him. No, you have to find the depth of yourself and be disciplined and develop yourself to the same degree that those people were disciplined and developed themselves. And that’s the thing that nobody can imitate. And that’s where your strength, and that’s where your gift is. That’s what people want to see, is feel the uniqueness of each other. That’s where you really communicate something fresh with somebody. It’s hard to do that.
Maria also believes that an artist cannot live in a vacuum, that their work must be inspired by circumstances that come from living a full and active life.
MS:    Music isn’t enough for me in life. There’s other things too. And I love music but I think what I love about music is it’s a valve for other things. I love life, and I want more time to live. And to me music is, one of the problems with musicians is I think they get so caught up in making records and going to the next project that very often the person’s first record is the most powerful. Because that record represents years of just working on your own and doing other things in life, and then suddenly you become so busy doing your music you aren’t paying attention so much to the other things in your life because they aren’t as important as the music. But what feeds the music? Music is fed by a deep and rich life. So I think it’s really important to have other things in your life that you can do with equal love.
Even with computer programs that enable arrangers and composers to hear their work as it’s written, there is nothing like that first “human read-through,” real musicians playing your work. It’s a challenge to conduct with your fingers crossed.
My next entry will highlight some magnificent arrangements from different musical genres.

May 10, 2014

Joe Wilder, 1922-2014

Joe Wilder, in 1998
I first met Joe Wilder at the Sarasota Jazz Festival on April 12, 1996. We had corresponded back and forth about an interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive, but his time during this festival was fully occupied with playing with a number of ensembles. When we finally met, he apologized for the logistical back and forth, and insisted on taking my photograph, even though it was the first time we met. I remember after that first meeting reflecting on what a gentle man he was, but also one who had his priorities well in order.

Joe passed away yesterday, May 9, 2014, at the age of 92. While I celebrate his important life and career, I can’t help but be melancholy about the loss of one of the finest people I’ve ever met. Joe taught by example. His playing, his everyday demeanor and his sense of humor were a model to young musicians. While not a household name, he was held in the highest regard by his fellow artists.
In our second interview, in 1998, I asked Joe about his work ethic:
MR:    I’m wondering, where did you get this work ethic? Was it something from your family?
JW:     I guess I got it mainly from my father, who was a musician. My father played with a lot of the bands in Philadelphia and he was a stickler for being on time. He used to pound that into my brothers and me. You know it’s better for you to come one hour early than to come one second late for something, and he would use as an example, there was a drummer that played with one of the bands he played with. And the guy was a good drummer. And he said, “you know the dance starts at 8:00 and we’re all there,” and he said, “and we’re all sitting on the bandstand ready to play and the drummer isn’t there. He comes at 8:15.” He said, “he knows it takes him at least 20 minutes to set up his drums.” He said, “now what sense does that make? What excuse is that?” And then he would say, “you know just because you’re black doesn’t mean you have to show up late.” And they had an expression that they used to use, they would say you go to work and you come on time, and then there’s another time that they call “CP time” — colored people’s time — CPT was a thing they used to use. The blacks used it in reference to the other people that came late you see? And they would say well there is such a thing as the correct time and CPT. So this was a real put down, so you didn’t want to get involved with that. But that’s basically where I got it from, my father. And the other idea, the deportment of the guys on the job and things like that. He felt that they had an obligation to come on time, perform properly, to dress properly and conduct themselves in a way that people wouldn’t have any problems with them.
MR:    I’ve never heard that expression.
JW:    Yeah, it’s an old expression. A lot of the Latino musicians have an expression that’s similar too. The Latino musicians, one fellow was a friend of mine and he was one of the first Latin musicians to play in the Broadway theaters. And we were doing Laureli with Carol Channing. And a couple of times he showed up, the show hits at 2:00, and at 2:30 he came in and he couldn’t walk through the band, he had a crawl because of the way we were all set up, he had to crawl through the orchestra to get to his seat. And he was so accustomed to showing up late when he’d play a Latin dance some place in some hall, if he got there a half hour late, as long as you got there it was okay. So they had to explain to him that this is not a Latin dance hall, it was a Broadway theater.
As a trumpet player, Joe did it all: big bands, Broadway, studio dates, jazz recordings and symphonic work. He also became a marvelous photographer. Always a practical man, he once turned down an offer from Duke Ellington because he was supporting a family and making a better salary elsewhere.
Ed Berger, a dear friend of Joe’s and former Associate Director of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, just completed a marvelous book entitled Softly, With Feeling — Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music. It is published by Temple University Press and was recently released in late April of this year. It’s a marvelous read, relating the fascinating life story of Joe Wilder, while also shining the spotlight on the segregation and eventual integration of one of the major facets of the music business. Joe Wilder, Milt Hinton, and a handful of other African American musicians were in the forefront of this movement to level the playing field in the Broadway pit bands and studio orchestras.
Of the lessons I learned from Joe, the most important was the idea that it is possible to be gracious and a gentleman while refusing to be intimidated or exploited. I felt inspired simply by standing next to him.
Joe Wilder and Monk Rowe
My 1999 release Jazz Life included the song Portrait in the Wild, which I composed as a tribute to Joe. Wendell Brunious, with his luscious tone on the flugelhorn, captured the desired feeling for the piece. I wrote of Joe in this blog in an entry from January of 2009 entitled A Statesman of the Highest Order.