December 30, 2016


There is a long list of things I could resolve to do in 2017. After giving it some thought I have concluded that improving my speaking skills takes precedence. I am referring to eliminating extra words when I speak; words and phrases such as you know, I mean, so, at the end of the day, right, okay, ad infinitum. When did these meaningless inserts become ubiquitous in our everyday speech patterns? We hear them in ordinary conversation, and we note their constant presence with broadcast professionals.
Coincidentally as this resolution became an idea, I was reminded of the succinct beauty of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln delivered his 272 word reflection after sitting through a 2 plus hour speech from then-noted orator Edward Everett. Lincoln paid tribute to the casualties of both the North and the South, and marked the significance of the Gettysburg Battle in our history, without one wasted word. In a convoluted fantasy I began to speculate on what Lincoln’s message would have sounded like if it included the omnipresent verbal tics we have come to expect in English language today. With apologies to Lincoln:
So four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, I mean, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Well now we are engaged in a great civil war you know, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. So we are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. I mean it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, I think, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground okay? The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. Here’s the point. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. Right? At the end of the day, it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. Well, it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion you know, to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth, you know what I mean?

The function of this exercise is to remind myself to edit my speech as I would edit my writing or my playing. I can make an analogy to my improvisation style, which I believe is economical and devoid of pointless flourishes. Several veteran jazz improvisers acknowledged that it took them decades to determine what not to “say.”

December 20, 2016

Jingle By Request

This blog entry was prompted by a request from Fred, a loyal blog reader.
Holiday recordings typically live out their lives as background music. Every store at this time of year pipes in the familiar tunes by a multitude of artists. Even in the home, holiday music is usually turned on to provide ambiance. I’m happy to say that Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ “Jingle All the Way” CD rises far above that level of listening. If you choose just one holiday recording to actually sit and listen to, you can’t go wrong with “Jingle All the Way.” We spoke of this inventive release in our blog in December of 2014, and the constantly shifting arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
The album opens with “Jingle Bells” and employs the arranging scenario of “everything, including the kitchen sink.” This 3-1/2 minute version of the standard of holiday standards, includes the sound of a galloping horse, a flute, a rather disco-ish repetitive bass line, synthesized percussion, bluegrass banjo picking, and (best of all) Tuvan throat singers vocalizing the lyrics to “Jingle Bells” in what I assume is their native Tibetan language. If you put this cut on at the typical background music level, your curiosity will draw you to the volume control so you can give a good listen to what is actually going on. Highly recommended.

December 14, 2016

No Nobel Prize for These Lyrics

I count myself among the many fans who applaud the Nobel Prize Commission’s decision to honor Bob Dylan for his lyrics. His life’s work certainly stands up when compared with many of our most celebrated authors and poets. I do wonder if they’ve opened a door for other songwriters. What about Lennon/McCartney, Joni Mitchell, or Oscar Hammerstein?
There were plenty of people who felt this prize was a bad decision. Perhaps it is an unfair competition to consider lyrics when they have the obvious benefit of music. Or perhaps some of those objectors couldn’t separate Dylan’s writing from the opposite end of the lyric spectrum, the subject of this blog. I am speaking of those nonsensical phrases, often earworms, that seem to have no reason for being except to be matched with catchy musical riffs.
This is not a new concept. Composers since Bach’s era and before frequently extended melodic lines by hanging out on one particular vowel. To acknowledge the holidays, a well known example is the song “Angels We Have Heard On High.” The hook to the song employs the word “Gloria.” In this traditional French carol, the O vowel in Gloria is extended for four full measures, an interesting and effective compositional tool.
Frankie Valli did much the same in the Four Seasons hit, “She … eh … eh … eh… eh … erie Baby.” Working musicians know that the bar will erupt in sound and sing along when the band arrives at these meaningless “words.”
These hooks are most obvious when they became the song titles. A short list includes the 1960 one hit wonder “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles; a 1963 hit by the Crystals, “Da Doo Ron Ron”; in 1964, “Do Wah Diddy” by Manfred Mann; and Ob La Di, Ob La Da” by the Beatles in 1968.
More often, these verbal licks are contained within the song. When I hear them I often get the impression that the songwriter may have been stuck trying to fill in a measure or two, and just resorted to an effective consonant/vowel combination. They often become the hook of the song, the most memorable part.
See if you can name these tunes. The following are verbal riffs. See if you can name the tune and the artist. You can post your guesses in the comments section. I’d love to see more if you can find some to share with us.
1. Fa-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la
2. Heidi-heidi-heidi-ho
3. Thumpety-thump-thump
4. Bop-shop-a-lu-bop
5. Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la
6. Boom-shaka-laka-laka
7. Na-na-na…na-na-na-na
8. La-la-la-la-dee-da-da, La-la-la-la-tee-da
9. Ooka-chaka-ooka-chaka
10. Ba-da-ya
In addition to his writings worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan may have penned an ultimate syllable-only tune. His 1970 LP “Self Portrait” included what is essentially an instrumental song entitled “Wigwam.” Throughout the song Dylan reinforces the melody with a lengthy series of one syllable sounds. It’s the kind of thing a songwriter might do as they’re searching for the actual words, only to eventually decide that the syllables suffice. It is truly a memorable tune that speaks to the power of a hook that is not dependent on words for its strength.

November 5, 2016

Bob Cranshaw, 1932-2016

Bob Cranshaw
Bassist Bob Cranshaw passed on November 2, 2016. He followed the musical path of his idol, Milt Hinton. Milt believed that the bass and the drums provided a “rhythmic service” and Bob lived that philosophy, whether he was playing behind Ella Fitzgerald or Big Bird. Yes, Bob did play behind Big Bird on “Sesame Street” for 27 years. At the same time he was playing with Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery, Ella Fitzgerald, or Joe Williams. A steady, hip day gig combined with jazz work at night was heaven for Bob, or as he aptly stated, “I had my cake and ate it too.”
In the Fillius Jazz Archive interview with Bob in 1995, he related his first gig with Sonny Rollins, which occurred when he was 27 years old:
BC:         I worked with Sonny, starting I think in 1959 or ‘60. I met Sonny before around Chicago, but I never worked with him. And one day Sonny heard Walter Perkins the drummer and I, who, we came as a package you know. And one day Sonny was doing the Playboy [Jazz] Festival, and he asked Walter Perkins to do it and he said, “Walter, get the bass player who you would like.” So I was hired. We played the festival, it was really a very funny situation ‘cause it was in the afternoon on a Sunday. Sonny Rollins told us to be there I think the concert maybe started at one o’clock or two, I think about two. Sonny said well be there, ready to play at one. I get there, and we don’t see no Sonny. Two o’clock comes, the concert starts, the first group plays, 15, 20 minutes. The second group, 15 or 20 minutes. The third group was a Dixieland band. And we were the fourth group to go on. The Dixieland band played 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour. They’re waiting now for Sonny to come in. The Dixieland band played I think for at least 40 minutes. By that time people were wiped out with hearing the band. They were looking now, they were ready to hear Sonny. Still no Sonny. Come to find out when the people started to really get tired, all of a sudden Sonny comes out. Sonny had probably been in the auditorium since eleven o’clock, just casing everything. But he picked his time to come out. And we just tore the place up. And it was just a trio. Just bass, drums and saxophone. No rehearsal, we just played. And it was a wonderful experience.
When Sonny entered an experimental phase of his career, Bob opted to return to more basic music as an accompanist for singer Joe Williams. As a bonus he was able to watch Joe in the recording studio, where Joe’s bassist of choice was Milt Hinton. Like hundreds of other bassists, he learned music and life lessons from Milt, who was called the “Dean of Jazz Bassists.”
BC:         I grew up on Joe Williams. I mean I can say as a young guy, I was young at that time and it was just right for me. Because Joe’s stuff was very structured. But he was such a professional. We would get on the stage and we were swinging. I mean the music felt so good. Every night it was just very consistent. And the trio was Junior Mance and Mickey Roker. And we had a good time with each other but it was a thrill to play with Joe Williams because I just grew up. I mean I became a man with Joe Williams. He gave me that foundation you know and how to greet people, how to be, and not only that he introduced me to some of the most influential people in my life. One was Milt Hinton. Joe Williams did a lot of recordings with Milt Hinton and Jimmy Jones or Hank Jones and Osie Johnson. And I got a chance to sit and just watch these people. Any record date he had I was there. But any time Milt Hinton would record I would follow him around like a puppy. If Milt Hinton had a date, I just wanted to see how Milt Hinton and George Duvivier, how they approached music. And I would ask questions with Joe if they played something. I knew that after they finished recording it, I was going to have to play it. Because this is what we would do in our performances. So it was like catching first hand the master play it, and then I could branch off of what they were playing because they might have used a larger group maybe with horns, where when we got ready to play it we had to do it with a trio. But I was there. I wanted to understand everything about that tune and what I could do. And I would ask Milt Hinton, why did you play this there, well why did you play this F here as opposed to playing it there, what did you hear here. I wanted to know everything that Milt Hinton was doing. And I became, I feel like I’m a Milt Hinton clone in a way, because I enjoy watching Milt, how he carried himself and what a gentleman he is, and how great, I used to walk in and I’d be sitting at a record date, and I’d be like kind of hiding. I just didn’t want to bug him. And I would wait until he came in. And it could be a record date with 50 musicians. When Milt Hinton walked in the door, you felt an energy, you know, it was something like a storm just hit the place. And I enjoyed that feeling. So I said this is what I would like to be. This is the way I would like to carry myself. This is what I would like to become.
Like many jazz musicians, Bob Cranshaw credits the upbeat music that occurred in black churches as part of his early development.
BC:         I would just go to different churches in Evanston and I would go to the basement. I wouldn’t go upstairs. I just wanted to hear what was the interplay between what happened with the music, and what rhythms that people had in their feet, and all of that. It would feel like that the roof, you know feel like the floor was going to cave in, ‘cause there was such a great feeling, great energy. And I think as a musician, I’m more drawn to a band with this kind of energy.
Bob achieved his goals as a first call musician and mentor to the next generation of bassists. He eventually arrived at a place where he could pass work on to younger musicians, and played an important role in the musicians’ union, making sure studio and Broadway musicians were getting a fair deal.
In a wonderful bit of serendipity, the Fillius Jazz Archive played a role in a CD release that captured the quartet Bob mentioned here. After Joe Williams’ death in 1999, the Archive took ownership of a trove of reed to reel tapes from Joe’s career. The CD “Havin’ a Good Time” was released on Hyena Records in 2005. The live date, from 1964, captured Joe Williams and Ben Webster, backed up by Mickey Roker, Junior Mance and Bob.
As far as his playing, he pretty much summed it up when he said, “My job is to set up the groove, the pocket. I don’t have to solo. I never made myself a soloist or got into all of that. I never wanted to be a big deal, but if it felt good I was a big deal.”

October 24, 2016

The Producer's Hat


Autumn at Hamilton College brings a much-anticipated and welcomed event. World-class jazz on Friday night of Fallcoming weekend has been a tradition for 23 years. This event takes place in the acoustically friendly environment of the Fillius Events Barn. The list of jazz musicians who have taken part in this concert is impressive and includes Milt Hinton, Clark Terry, Bucky Pizzarelli and Kenny Davern.
In the early years of my job as Director of the Fillius Jazz Archive, I assisted Milt Fillius in producing this event. After his passing in 2002, the responsibility became mine. As with any event that involves performers and an audience, the devil can be in the details. The following are some of those individual logistics that need to be addressed: book the musicians (a year ahead of the event) and reserve the concert space; create posters and programs; book local travel and accommodations for the artists; organize for a pre-concert dinner for 20 guests; arrange for proper lighting and audio in the concert space; and collaborate with physical plant on the desired room set-up.
This particular year brought a new and exciting set of challenges to our fall jazz event. The recommendation from a respected jazz artist led us to book two outstanding pianists for a duo piano concert. Dick Hyman, at age 89, is still at the top of his game, and his game includes performing virtually any style of jazz and classical music. The only piano player I’m aware of who can match Mr. Hyman’s abilities is his co-performer for the evening, Rossano Sportiello, 47 years younger than Mr. Hyman but equally adept at playing with dazzling technique and consummate musicianship.
 Rossano Sportiello, Monk Rowe and Dick Hyman
Photo by John Herr

When the idea of a two piano performance was presented and accepted by both artists, Mr. Hyman said, “Well, we ought to record this.” This rang a bell with me. Never in the 23 years of this event had we done a recording with the ultimate goal of release on a jazz label in mind. Both Dick and Rossano record frequently for Arbors Records, and so the plan proceeded. This led to more logistics, some of which were new to me: locate and rent two top-of-the-line matching pianos, and arrange for a delivery by a piano moving company; secure an insurance rider and extra security for two nine-foot grands; assure availability of the piano tuner to tune both pianos twice, once before rehearsal and again before the concert; discuss logistics with the record label; locate and negotiate with a recording studio who had remote recording capabilities to capture the concert; and finally, process check requests for the entire weekend.
Unexpected details always arise. In this case, unwanted noise in the room was interfering with capturing clean audio. An aggressive foot tapping by one pianist was solved by locating a small rug. The steady hum of a ventilation fan also was polluting the audio, requiring a last minute call to physical plant. The concert on October 7 came off without a hitch, and first reviews of the audio that resulted were highly encouraging.
The next steps included digital review of audio, transfers to CD and cassettes (yes, cassettes!) for review by the artists, and collaboration with a graphic designer on the cover. In the hopper are composing liner notes, discussing song choices, collaborating on necessary audio edits, and arranging for the final mastering.
Stay tuned for part 2 when Dick Hyman and Rossano Sportiello Live at Hamilton is released on Arbors, anticipated in the spring of 2017.

September 25, 2016

The Fist Clap

I was recently at a live music event where the music inspired audience participation in the form of clapping. The people on either side of me looked in puzzlement when I chose to fist clap. Afterwards, one of them said, “What’s with that?”
For many years I’ve been involved in the field of aesthetic education where teachers and students study works of art and find ways to connect them to their grade level and curriculum. A work of art could be in the field of dance, writing, visual arts or music. I’ve been fortunate to be able to witness some incredible performances, none more so than the a cappella Gospel group The Fairfield Four, from Nashville. My first impression of them was visual: the five members (yes there are sometimes five members in the Fairfield Four) wore blue jean overalls with black tuxedo jackets and bow ties, suggesting earthy elegance. During one song, “Standing in the Safety Zone,” they started swaying rhythmically to the music while fist clapping on the back beat.
The Fairfield Four

So what is it? The fist clap simply looks like this:
It struck me as one of the hippest things I’d ever seen. We normally associate the fist with aggression. In this context it portrayed subtle power and provided just enough rhythmic backbeat to propel the music but not interfere with the vocal harmonies. From that day on I was a fist clapper. Next time you’re at an event where the music inspires clapping, give it a try. Make sure you’re on the backbeat: 1, 2, 3, 4. Of course it’s best done while standing and swaying in time with the music. Don’t be bothered by those around you who might look askance. If they are hip at all, they will get on board with their own fist claps. As a bonus, it’s easier on the hands.
Just for practice, try fist clapping with this version of the Fairfield Four’s “Standing in the Safety Zone.” Feels good, doesn’t it?

September 5, 2016

Return of the MOOC

Last spring from July 2015 through February of 2016 I was engaged in an intense new experience creating a (FREE) Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for Hamilton College entitled Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players. The tech team at Hamilton brought to life my ideas for presenting jazz to a worldwide audience. In its inaugural run, over 9,200 people signed up from 134 countries. The response was overwhelmingly positive after the 6-week run. We explored such major concepts as swing, improvisation, and group interaction. The course was designed to appeal to casual fans and musicians alike.
Acknowledging the success of the spring launch, Hamilton decided to run the course again. We have added new material and revamped modules in response to class discussion. The first week of the course launches at 7 PM EST tonight, and it is not too late to sign up. You may take the course at your own pace and there are no deadlines. Each week’s content is delivered to your email exactly one week after the previous week. Even if you are reading this well after the launch date, you may still sign up and begin participating in the course.
Here is alink to an introductory video which takes you to a sign-up. Hope you’ll join us.

August 20, 2016

The Universal Language

We recently took a trip outside the U.S. borders, specifically across the pond to the U.K. The impetus for the trip was attending and presenting at the bi-annual conference of the International Society for Music Education (ISME). Glasgow was the host city for this gathering, that saw 1500 participants from every continent except Antarctica. In addition one thousand performers displayed their talents during the 5-day conference. While the phrase “music is the universal language” may seem quaint, it sums up the character and flavor of this organization and the conference.
Music educators gathered to present their research and expertise on music education, both current practices and future initiatives. At any given time during the week you could attend an interactive demonstration, hear a research paper presentation, or watch a student concert. The sessions went from the practical, such as “How to Get Parents/Guardians on Your Side” to a session that should have received an award for creative titles: “Featherless Dinosaurs and the Hip-Hop Simulacrum.” About 95% of the presentations were forward-thinking, embracing the latest technology and pedagogy. I was pleased to see brisk business at a corner kiosk, where a couple demonstrated their approach to introducing music with ocarinas. I presented a series of video excerpts from the Fillius Jazz Archive, and a workshop on the poetry of the blues.
The best part of the trip for us was the confluence of musical styles and performers from around the globe. A sampling of the live performances I heard included: Håkan Rydin, a Swedish jazz pianist playing a medley of “Here There and Everywhere” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”; an African Dance/Music ensemble from Kent State, Ohio; the Palestine Youth Orchestra performing a thrilling version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”; and a raucous English pep band whose repertoire included “The Theme from Hawaii Five-O.”
My conviction that music more than any other art form or product crosses all borders was confirmed when I heard a Scottish bar band across from our hotel playing “The Wanderer” by Dion & the Belmonts.
The Scottish people are incredibly cordial, and even when we couldn’t understand what they were saying, I admired their inherently musical speech patterns.
In my role as Director of the Fillius Jazz Archive I took advantage of the opportunity to gather interviews with non-U.S. artists. My delightful session with Swedish jazz pianist Håkan Rydin was followed by an intense conversation with guitarist extraordinaire Laurence Juber.
Monk Rowe and Laurence Juber
While not a household name, Laurence is a Grammy award winning guitarist and has been a first-call studio musician in both London and Los Angeles. He has performed and recorded with three of the four Beatles, including a three-year stint with Wings. We might assume that having “done it all” would lead to a sort of musical retirement, but Mr. Juber constantly seeks new challenges, championing the acoustic guitar in multiple settings, and paying it forward by working with young people in educational settings. I smiled at his recollection from his early years:
MR:         Can I ask what your parents thought about your path?
LJ:         I mean they were fine with me playing the guitar, from their point of view, as long as I had something to fall back on.
We indulged our Fab Four fandom with a Beatles walking tour through London, a stroll across the Abbey Road crosswalk, and the requisite Beatles bus tour in Liverpool. I’m not sure which was cooler – seeing George Frideric Handel’s resting place in Westminster Abbey, or the house where John and Paul wrote many of their early hits.
The U.K. sent us the Beatles, Handel and David Bowie, while we exported Ellington, Chuck Berry and Leonard Bernstein. Quid pro quo I guess.

June 21, 2016

Summertime and the Gigging is Easy

John Hutson and Monk Rowe at MWPAI

(Well not always easy, but plentiful.) The summer season is a gig-friendly time for musicians. If I look at my June calendar alone almost half of my gigs are summer events — from outdoor community concerts to backyard birthday parties to class reunions and seasonal fundraisers. I am reminded that of all the arts, music offers the most consistent compensation assuming a musician can fulfill the requirements of the engagement. I don’t often say this to other musicians, but if they start down the path of complaining about the scarcity of gigs I might remind them of the plight of the dancer, the poet, the visual artist, and the other artistic endeavors. To them the idea of a paying gig is almost nonexistent. Check your local calendar of events for the summer and see how many poetry readings, dance events or “live” painters are offered to the public for summer entertainment.
This doesn’t mean that summer gigs are a breeze. Certain logistical elements arise exclusively during the summer, including weather-related cancellations or the unpredicted rain shower, and unloading and loading in extreme heat. But musicians are a funny lot. We will look at a calendar of events and see a venue, say a canal park, and we are reminded of our disdain for the place — dirt road access, stairs to the stage, mosquitoes at dusk, and short bread with a long wait for the check. The next thought in our head will be why weren’t we booked there this year.
The season also suggests the playing of some classic summer tunes. You all know what they are: “Margaritaville,” by Jimmy Buffett; “In the Summertime,” by Mungo Jerry; and “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran. There are a few songs of summer that raise the bar both musically and lyrically. Check out our blog called Songs of Summer from 2012 for an example of one of the best.

June 2, 2016

Hollywood Takes on Benny Goodman

 A recent DVD purchase at a garage sale brought back a pleasant memory. While “The Glenn Miller Story” was the movie that fascinated me decades ago, “The Benny Goodman Story” follows a similar path and provides 90 minutes of pleasurable viewing, and a mix of fact and fiction. Watch the trailer here.
“The Benny Goodman Story” was produced in 1956, 21 years after The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s unexpected success at Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. This event, often cited as the birth of the Swing Era, was played to good effect in the film. Benny’s band had bombed across the country, their brand of “hot” music (as Benny called it) falling on deaf ears and mystifying the dancers. The band was unaware that their previous East Coast radio broadcasts had attracted a following on the West Coast, and enthusiastic fans saved the band.
Like most Hollywood biographies, it is highly fictionalized and, as the website “Rotten Tomatoes” says, is more of a series of musical highlights than a biography. Indeed it is. We get to see and hear real musicians (not actors) doing their thing, including drummer Gene Krupa; trumpeters Harry James, Buck Clayton, and Ziggy Elman; pianist Teddy Wilson; saxophonist Stan Getz; and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
Steve Allen was the right man to portray Benny. It helped immensely that Steve was an accomplished pianist and songwriter, and he grasped the clarinet “finger syncing” more than adequately. He spoke about the process of obtaining the leading role in the film in our 1999 interview in Los Angeles:
Steve Allen, in 1999
SA: By the time the thing was brought to my attention it was a firm offer, “we’d like you to do the picture.” I later heard partly how that came about. We will never — at least I never knew — how long the casting list was. I’ll explain briefly to people who might not know about the movie business, that whenever you have a script ready to go you don’t just call up somebody and say, “Get me Tom Cruise,” or whoever. You make out a list. Because although you might like to have Tom Cruise in your movie, maybe you’re ten million dollars short and he’s not available or there’s a lot of reasons he’s not going to do it. Whatever. So you make out a list. Well if I can’t get Tom Cruise, how about John Travolta? If he’s not available, whoever. So we’ll never know whether my name was ninth on a list or was number one on the list, I don’t know. The only other name that I ever heard was in contention was Tony Curtis, and Tony and I are obviously not the same individual. He’s a very handsome fellow, and he had the advantage that at that time he was under contract to Universal, so he was sort of one of their stock leading men, and I’ve been told that some people at the studio wanted him to play the lead. But that was vetoed by Benny himself, who I’ve been told said, I’m just paraphrasing of course, I wasn’t there when he said it, said I want Steve Allen for this because first of all Tony doesn’t know anything about music and he won’t seem real, he won’t seem legitimate as a musician speaking, also what can he do with the clarinet, you might as well hand him a tractor. I’m punching up Benny’s dialogue, but that was the thrust of his message, the other thing was a little less flattering. He said also, Tony Curtis is a pretty boy. He said I’m not a pretty boy and Steve Allen’s not a pretty boy. And it turned out that I did look more like Benny than — Tony looked nothing like him, so that had a lot to do with it.
Steve also spoke about learning the clarinet for the role, and about Benny’s real-life absentmindedness
SA: Yeah. As soon as I agreed to do the movie then of course the question was even though I was a musician I knew nothing about the clarinet, so we had to hire somebody to teach me, and somebody knew about Sol. Our mutual friend Bobby Rosengarden once said something hysterically funny, he described Sol Yaged as quote the Jewish Benny Goodman. For you young people, Benny himself is Jewish. But anyway Sol was the perfect choice, and a very easy guy to work with, so he gave me several weeks of just basic lessons: how to hold it, how to blow and all that stuff. And the reason I did have to go through all that, some people have said well why did you bother? Why didn’t you just go like that and pretend to play? The answer is my fingers had to be on the right holes. Now if you’re taking a shot from the back of a ballroom, it doesn’t matter, you can hardly see my hands. But on a close up I can’t be playing this if the real notes are over here. So I did have to have my fingers, and I did have to learn the instrument, and I learned it well enough to do a little playing in public. I once played a duet with Benny himself on a little tune I’d written. Benny himself that night was in a fog as usual. Benny Goodman lived in a fog. He was Mr. Absent Minded and often didn’t know what he was doing. He’d walk on stage with his fly open and stuff. He was just a careless man and didn’t think much about the world. He was just the greatest clarinet player of them all. So just after the movie, NBC and Universal Studios got together to do a little promotion going in both directions, so that meant booking Benny on our show, which was on the air Sunday nights at NBC at the time. So Benny himself played for a few minutes, and naturally was thrilling as always, and then our production group decided that Benny and I would do my little song with the two of us playing clarinets. It was sort of a riff thing, an easy thing to play. So in the script I walked in after Benny had played his marvelous numbers, and I said, “Benny that was terrific.” And his line was, “Well thank you, Steve, say, I see you brought your clarinet, why don’t you and I do something together?” A pretty simple line, and he’d had a whole week to work on it, he had one line with a week to work on it, and he forgot my name. Now it was my show, I was playing him in the movie, you might figure if there was any name he wouldn’t forget it’s mine. He might have forgotten his own. But anyway he did, on the air, and he did what he always did, because he was always forgetting people’s names. He had the world’s worst memory for names.
Benny solved his memory issues by calling everyone “Pops.”
Sol Yaged, who was chosen to teach Steve Allen for the film, was also interviewed in 2000 for the Fillius Jazz Archive. He related his experiences with the film and spoke of his extreme admiration for Benny:
MR:   Tell me about getting hooked up with Steve Allen.
Sol Yaged, in 2000
SY:   I was working at a place called The Somerset Hotel on 47th Street off Seventh Avenue. I was there with a trio. And he used to come in every night to sit in with me, Steve Allen. This was before he had a show. He had just come to New York from Chicago, and we used to let him sit in with us all the time. And we became very good friends. And I’m indebted to him quite a lot because he’s done a lot for me. I’ve been on his show many a time. I was on a show with Benny Goodman, Urbie Green, there’s pictures of Stan Getz in the band, Buck Clayton. And he’s been very kind to me, Steve Allen. And whenever he’s in New York and he has to do a musical thing he always calls me. Great guy. And we got a lot of mileage out of the “Benny Goodman Story.”
MR:   Right. Was he a good student?
SY:   Excellent. The best. It was unbelievable. After a couple of lessons he was able to pick up the clarinet and play a blues. He was very astute. That’s a good question you asked.
MR:   Did Benny like the movie?
SY:   Benny Goodman did not like the movie.
MR:   It was Hollywoodized quite a bit.
SY:   Believe it or not, Monk, the picture did very well in Japan. I found out some time later after we made the movie that it stayed at one theater for over a year, that’s how popular it was. It was very, very big in Tokyo. Universal International Pictures selected Steve Allen, and Benny Goodman gave his okay, but then I think he regretted it. And then Steve Allen selected me to be his coach, and Benny Goodman had to give his okay also.
MR:   What was Benny’s personality like for you?
SY:   What can I say? He was the king. I don’t care what he said or didn’t say. I was happy to be in the same room with him. I used to go to all of his rehearsals, every one of his recording dates, Monk. And one day I came in late. He started at a certain time and I came in about 15, 20 minutes later because I was living in Brooklyn. He says “Sol, you’re late,” like that he would say that to me. I felt very elated that he even said that to me. He was very nice, very gracious and warm to me. His wife Alice was a very fine woman. His brother-in-law, John Hammond, was very nice and warm to me.
Goodman himself provided the clarinet solos, and his real bandmates provided added excitement. The film’s musical moments more than compensated for the rather slow-moving romantic sub-plot, although it was true that Benny married promoter John Hammond’s sister, Alice.
Goodman’s next triumph after Palomar was his 1938 appearance at Carnegie Hall. His band and the special guests rearranged the acoustics of this formidable classical music institution. Serious jazz fans and sociologists who know the role of jazz in society will be displeased over the film’s lack of attention paid to the historic racial integration in the joining of Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, comprising the Benny Goodman Quartet. This was the first integrated jazz group to gain attention on a national scale, and predated by seven years Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the world of professional baseball.
In real life, Benny Goodman was irascible, self-centered, and occasionally downright nasty. The film’s only acknowledgement of his now-legendary personality was a focus on his stubbornness. The producers cleverly worked one of Goodman biggest hits, “Don’t Be That Way” throughout the movie. The script was peppered with fellow actors beseeching the world’s greatest clarinetist, “Oh Benny, don’t be that way.”
Flaws aside, the music, the dancing and the portrayal of an exciting musical period carries the film. I have written other blogs on Benny, A Social Hero from February 6, 2009, and 100 Years of Benny, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth on June 3, 2009.

May 24, 2016

Joe Temperley, 1929-2016

Joe Temperley, in 1997

We’ve learned of the passing of another stellar jazz artist. Joe Temperley was a master of the big horn — the baritone saxophone. He was one of the numerous musicians from around the world who responded to the spell of jazz and the desire to come to the country of its birth.
Joe was born in Scotland and experienced practical schooling with Scottish bands, including the well-known ensemble of Humphrey Lyttelton. Visits by American jazz musicians were rare, but Joe took advantage when they happened, and was able to see Harry Carney, his baritone saxophone idol. In our 1997 interview he related the story of a visit to Scotland by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra:
MR:  How did you meet Harry?
JT:   I met him in England when the band used to come. When the Ellington band used to come to England, Humphrey used to buy tickets for everybody in the band. And we used to go, the first time the Ellington band came to England, they did maybe 26 concerts. And we probably saw maybe 21 or 22 of them. We just used to follow them around, all over the place. And every night we’d walk in and see everybody, and they’d say, “Oh you guys are here again.” You know they couldn’t figure out why we were at the concerts all the time. But Duke Ellington, that was such a thing, to go and watch that band and see all those people that were in the band.
MR:  That was the prime: [Johnny] Hodges and Harry—
JT:   Harry [Carney] and Paul [Gonsalves] and Jimmy Hamilton. It was amazing.
MR:  Were they on every night, from one night to the next? Can you remember that?
JT:   Well yeah. No, no they weren’t on every night. I mean sometimes they sounded like a high school band. And then they could be sounding terrible and 10 or 15 minutes later, they sounded like something you’ve never heard in your life before. They were just absolute — the way they could turn it on — maybe if they saw somebody walking in or if somebody came in to see them — all of a sudden the band would be transformed into something entirely different. Because you know that band traveled all the time. They were tired.
MR:  Years and years on the road.
JT:   It was an amazing band. And it still is, it’s still the premier jazz orchestra of all times, in my opinion.
Joe immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, his destination was New York City, the jazz capital of the world. He had to “pay some dues” before he was able to enter the music world.
MR:  Did you have to wait to get into the union?
JT:   Yes. It took six months to get into the union, Local 802. It doesn’t take that, it takes six minutes now, or even six seconds. They’re dying to get people in the union.
MR:  They need the dues.
JT:   Oh, yes. But at that time it was like a six month wait. So I waited it out.
MR:  What did you do during those six months?
JT:  I worked in Corvettes, selling audio equipment. And that was an experience too of course. All of a sudden you know I went from playing every night, playing my saxophone and all that, all of a sudden I’m working in a retail store. But it served its purpose.
MR:  That’s right. It puts things in perspective for you.
JT:  Yes, absolutely, yes. And living in New York I started going out to hear people and became friendly with people like Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne and different people. And then I spent maybe 18 months with Woody’s band. But it was very hard then. It was very rigorous. I couldn’t deal with all those bus trips.
The most creative big band of the late 60s was led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. When their baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams needed a sub, Joe Temperley got the call. He was in awe of the musicians with whom he shared the stage:
JT:  I must tell you this. When I actually played with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Band, I was so over-awed by the feeling of playing in that band and I couldn’t play for looking at everybody. You know looking at Snooky Young and Jimmy Nottingham, and Mel Lewis and Richard Davis and Jerome Richardson and Joe Farrell and all these people that were in the band. It was just a humbling experience for me. I would like to do it now you know. I would like to really do that again now.
MR:  That was quite a roster. Everyone was a soloist.
JT:   The saxophone section was Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Joe Farrell, Eddie Daniels and myself. It was amazing.
Joe became a founding member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis, holding down the baritone saxophone chair until his death this month. Like Wynton, he agreed that paying tribute to jazz icons does not include trying to reproduce their sound note for note:
JT:  I’ve played the soprano a long time. But you know I play the tenor quite a bit. I like to play the tenor. But I don’t play the tenor as much as I would like to but I play in school. I have two or three tenor students in school so I get to play the tenor. And then I do some gigs and things, odd things, and sometimes with the Lincoln Center band sometimes I play the tenor in different situations, sometimes I play the soprano, and at first I played the baritone and bass clarinet. So I’m kind of a utility man there as well as being the baritone player there. Like in this upcoming Sidney Bechet concert I’m going to be playing the soprano, which I’m looking forward to.
MR:  In that situation, are you trying to emulate him as close as possible?
JT:   No. Not at all. Wynton doesn’t encourage that. Like we play Ellington music. He likes you to play your own idea of what you think it should be, rather than just play the solos note for note. Then I don’t think it’s a fair reproduction because you can’t play like that. I can’t sound like Harry Carney. And somebody else can’t sound like Cootie Williams, and somebody else can’t sound like Paul Gonzalves. You can’t do it.
MR:  We can listen to their records if we want to hear them.
JT:   Of course. Yeah. And you can play your own way in that particular feeling but you can’t impersonate them. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Joe handled the baritone saxophone in a muscular yet delicate way. Some of my favorite recordings of him occurred in the company of pianist Junior Mance. Here’s a link to Junior and Joe playing one of Duke Ellington’s iconic recordings, “In a Sentimental Mood.”

May 17, 2016

Buster Cooper, 1929-2016

“Being in a band” usually means you’re part of a four, five, or six piece group. But during the Swing Era a band meant an organization of up to 20 people — saxophone, trumpet, and trombone sections supported by a rhythm section. The best of the bands, such as Basie, Ellington and Miller lasted beyond the big band years and provided employment for a significant number of musicians. Among them was George “Buster” Cooper, trombonist.
Buster was born in St. Petersburg, Florida on April 4, 1929 and passed on May 13, 2016. Like many working jazz musicians, he made a life on the bandstand and in the studios. He rose to the top of the big band world during his seven year stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Buster was interviewed along with fellow Ellington alum Bill Berry in a 1995 interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive. They spoke about Duke Ellington, his persona and his special relationship with co-composer Billy Strayhorn:
Buster Cooper, in 1995
BC:  Well it seems to me like a perfect collaboration. And okay, Duke and Strayhorn was fantastic. I’ve seen Duke, he started tunes, he’d say, “Here, Stray, I can’t turn the corner now on this one. Fix this for me.” You can tell.
Bill Berry, in 1995
BB:  Or over the phone, “Strayhorn, I’m stuck here, you know with this, do something with it,” and the way the stories go I’m sure it’s true, is Strayhorn would send something out that was like perfect, like as though they were reading each other’s minds.
BC:  Exactly. Fantastic.
BB:  The perfect solution, you know. Also, Duke Ellington was the smartest, brightest person I’ve ever met. Period.
BC:  Exactly. I used to sit and watch him man and I’d try and figure him out, you know. I used to be looking at him and he wasn’t aware of watching or nothing like that because he didn’t even know what the time was. That didn’t mean nothing. Obviously he thought maybe that’d make you rush through the day, you understand what I’m saying? And I used to sit up on the bandstand and I’d just watch him you know. And I finally came to the conclusion one night. I said Duke Ellington knows who Duke is. Period. Believe me.
BB:  He’s the only one that knew.
BC:  Believe me. He knew what Duke was all about. Fantastic man. I’ve just seen people come into a room you know, after Duke would walk into this room right now, and it would be something like a halo right around him.
BB:  Yeah. The room lights up.
BC:  Really. It does.
BB:  There’s very few people like that. He was one of them.
BC:  He’d walk in this room and — boom — the whole room would go up.
BB:  Yes. I was at the White House for his 70th birthday. And there were like not only a bunch of great, world famous jazz musicians, but there was the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court and heaven knows who else. And the spotlight was on Ellington at all times. I mean you’d have sworn there was somebody following him around with a light, and there wasn’t. You know I mean this is in very fast company. You know the most powerful people in the country, in the world.
After Buster’s tenure with Ellington, he followed the familiar path for big band players and entered studio work in Los Angeles. As a sideline, he played with big bands led by Bill Berry, Frank Capp, and Nat Pierce. His nickname, “the bumble bee” apparently was derived from his ability to play at a furious tempo.
If you’ve read my blog in the past you may know that I’m an ardent fan of Cannonball and Nat Adderley. In Chris Sheridan’s book Dis Here, a Bio-Discography of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Buster has a brief but significant mention. According to Sheridan, in June of 1955 the Adderley brothers drove to New York City from Florida to test the waters with a professional career in jazz in mind. On their first night in the Big Apple, Nat’s friend and former band mate from the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Buster Cooper, took them to the Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village. A band led by bassist Oscar Pettiford was in residence. Saxophonist Jerome Richardson was missing from the bandstand and Cannonball was invited to play a few tunes. For the Adderleys, the rest is history. So thank you Buster for your role in that fortuitous meeting.
Throughout Buster’s life he remained humble and acknowledged where he felt his talent came from:
BC:  Actually I don’t play the trombone. Okay, a supreme being plays the trombone through me. I am the instrument. You understand what I’m saying? So I mean I just put that clearly now, you understand what I’m saying?