April 25, 2017

She Could Sing the Telephone Book

Today is the one hundredth birthday of vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. When jazz critics debate the superlative jazz singers, they start with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, then move on to everyone else. Ella has always been number one on my personal list. She offered what I wanted in a jazz singer: an impeccable sense of swing, respect for the composer’s melody, and emotion tempered in measured amounts.
In 1999 I had the good fortune to interview pianist Paul Smith in Los Angeles. He cited his time as Ella Fitgzerald’s accompanist as a career highlight:
Paul Smith, in 1999
MR:         Tell me about working with Ella if you don’t mind.
PS:         That was a total delight. Musically you can’t beat it. I mean it spoiled you for most other singers. She was such an easy person to play for. I mean that was a case, I mean when she’s scatting, you play one-fifteenth of what you’re capable of playing. We did one album together, which I bought three or four copies of for posterity for my family and everything, and it’s called “The Intimate Ella,” and it’s just piano and her.
And it’s the one album where nobody plays choruses. I mean most, I’d say 99% of her albums, she was the band singer. The band played 16 bars, or if it was done with Oscar or Joe Pass or whoever, I mean they played choruses and they played behind her, and it was kind of like a coordinated thing between them but it wasn’t really her album. And this one, she loved to sing ballads. And I don’t think she had ever done a complete ballad album, she always ended up having to scat or having to do swinging things. So we did like 15 tunes, all ballads. And she was at the height of her career at that time. And I said, “I’m going to play four bars, and you sing. There’s no piano choruses, nobody else, this is just you, you just do what you want to do.” And it turned out to be — I mean it’s a singer’s tour de force. Every singer should listen to that whole album. That’s where the statement came from she could sing the telephone book and make it sound good. Because she did all the tunes that people have trouble with — “Melancholy Baby,” “Who’s Sorry Now,” and the “Black Coffee,” “One for the Road.” It’s just a beautiful album, not because I’m on it but just from the singing standpoint she was exquisite and singing just what she wanted to sing. She didn’t want to do any scat, didn’t want any tunes where she had to ad lib. She did her little ad libs, which she does on ballads, but generally it’s straight melody pretty much. And it’s a great album for her.
You can view the full interview with Paul Smith on the Fillius Jazz Archive YouTube Channel.
Here’s a link to “Angel Eyes,” one of the cuts from “The Intimate Ella.”
As a contrast, you may also enjoy this classic performance of Ella scatting on “How High the Moon.”
Happy Birthday, Ella!

April 17, 2017

Junior's Last Gig

When I was a teenager I didn’t know what the word “epiphany” meant, but I experienced a few. One came courtesy of a late night radio station in Rochester, and a recording of Junior Mance’s “Harlem Lullaby.” I wrote about this song and my conversation with Junior in an earlier blog entry here. Junior has remained a personal favorite of mine, and I have had the pleasure of booking him and his trio on a number of occasions.
It saddens me to relate that Junior’s health is in decline as he suffers from dementia. Now at age 88, Junior is cared for by his wife, soul-mate and manager, Gloria Clayborne Mance. Gloria’s tireless efforts on Junior’s behalf have been noticed by documentary filmmakers Jyllian Gunther and Adam Khan, and they are undertaking a project to record Junior and Gloria’s story. It is entitled Sunset and the Mockingbird, and you can click the title to see its trailer.  Their story is reflective of thousands of other narratives across the country as the misfortune of dementia and Alzheimer’s become more prevalent in our aging population.
Documentary films by their very nature are not financed by corporations or movie studios, thus a Kickstarter campaign is underway to raise the necessary funding to complete this worthwhile project. Their goal is to raise $38,000 by the end of April, and they have passed the halfway point. Please consider donating to this worthy cause, both large and small amounts are welcome. You can access the Kickstarter fund drive here.

March 11, 2017

Dave Valentin, 1952-2017

The flute has been an add-on for most of jazz history. Typically saxophone players learned it as a “double,” especially when big band arrangers started writing flute parts to be played by someone in the sax section. The most notable example of this is tenor saxophonist Frank Wess, who made the flute an integral part of the Count Basie sound in the 1950s and ‘60s. A short list of jazz flautists include Mr. Wess as well as Sam Most, Hubert Laws, Herbie Mann, and the late Dave Valentin. Dave passed away at the early age of 64 on Wednesday, March 8.
As a young percussionist influenced by his Puerto Rican parents, Dave found himself in the company of celebrated Latin band leaders. He loved to tell the story of being attracted to the flute because of a striking female flute player.
After teaching junior high school music for three years, Dave was the first artist signed to the GRP record label, led by musicians Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen. Along the way he earned a Grammy award and adulation for his combination of jazz and authentic Latin music. He was serious about the music he produced, and had strong opinions regarding jazz for lazy listeners:
DV: I think this quiet storm crap, I think it really damaged the music in a lot of ways. Where people think that this easy listening, like really easy listening is good music.
MR: You said “quiet storm?” Is that your own phrase?
DV: Oh no they use that on the radio, quiet storm format. Or cool jazz. And not to mention any names, but there’s just some music where people think that’s what a saxophone should sound like. And it’s a no-brainer. There’s no challenge in it. And I think that’s damaged the music. I mean if you play good music, people will listen. It’s very simple.
MR: I was curious if you’ve ever had producers who wanted you to like include something because they thought it would help your sales.
DV: Well with the disco thing, there was one album called “Flute Juice” and I think a review came in called “it should be called ‘Prune Juice.’” That’s the last time I did that. And I told Larry I’m not going to make another record like this. The next record was “Kalahari,” and that was one of the best records I’ve done. I said please — because it was actually his suggestion because he thought — the sales — he thought that might be a good idea to do some discoish kind of thing. But it didn’t work out. But at least he learned quickly. I said just let me produce, Larry, you just sit behind the desk.
The care he took with his own music was reflected in the care he took in his life, and he credited some words of wisdom from his father. “Listen, if you’re going to clean your room, do the best you can. If you’re going to be a brother, father, do the best you can. If you’re going to do the dishes, do the best you can. If you’re going to be a musician, do the best you can. And whatever you decide, then be the best you can.”
Percussionist Mario Bauza also offered words of wisdom Dave lived by: “If you think it’s that bad, it’s really not. And if you have faith, intelligence and a sense of humor you can overcome anything.”
Good advice, for everyone.
You can watch the entire interview I did with Dave in April of 2000 on the Fillius Jazz Archive Channel. Click here.

February 26, 2017

A Hundred Years Ago Today


On February 26, 1917, a less-than-famous five piece band recorded what was called the first jazz record. The Original Dixieland “Jass” band was comprised of five musicians from New Orleans who formed their band in Chicago in 1916. Their recording consisted of a semi-improvised conversation between trumpet, clarinet and trombone, with rhythm provided by piano and drums.
In a now familiar occurrence regarding innovators and imitators, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, an all-white quintet, was afforded the now historic opportunity to make the first jazz record. Their music was a re-creation of the style they had heard in New Orleans, provided by black musicians such as King Oliver, Buddy Bolden and Freddie Keppard. According to jazz lore, trumpeter Keppard was offered a chance to be the first jazz musician to record but he declined, believing that his personal style would be stolen easily by way of this new medium of re-created music on wax.
Livery Stable Blues” is a pale imitation of the real thing. The New Orleans style had been around for a number of years, an offshoot of the joyous  music provided by marching bands in New Orleans. It was the first incarnation of swing, and set the stage for many jazz superstars to come, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Bix Beiderbecke. The Victor Talking Machine Company released this record complete with the indication of “Fox Trot,” a popular dance style at the time. The Original Dixieland Jass Band enjoyed modest success both here and abroad, but eventually faded away, like all bands, partly due to the racist and exaggerated statements by their leader and trumpeter, Nick LaRocca, who insisted that he was a key player in the invention of jazz.
Have a listen to “Livery Stable Blues” — you’ll find it quaint and hopelessly dated both in sound and style. Reflecting the title, the instrumentalists imitate barnyard sounds and barely manage to achieve a swinging rhythm. Whatever we think of it, it was a milestone. Victor Talking Machine Company, whose mind was always on profits, felt it worthy of exposure to the public. In the early part of the twentieth century music was mostly spread through live performances. A 78 RPM disc brought home to be played on the family Victrola was always an event. I can picture the adults in the room wondering what is this “jass music” I’m hearing? — and thinking this can’t possibly last. A few decades later they said the same thing about rock & roll.

February 20, 2017

Fillius YouTube Channel Opens

I am pleased to announce the launch of the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College YouTube channel which is now up and running. On it we are uploading complete video interviews we have recorded from our body of over 330 sessions with jazz luminaries here and abroad. Syncing the closed captioning transcripts with the video takes some time, so as of now there are twelve interviews uploaded. We will be adding more weekly, so be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the fun.

February 14, 2017

Al Jarreau, 1940-2017

The music world was surprised and saddened to learn of the passing of singer Al Jarreau on February 12. Mr. Jarreau was 76 at the time of his death, and had enjoyed a career spanning many decades, and recognition in the music world that included Grammy awards in three different categories.
While ostensibly a jazz singer, Al branched out into the pop and rhythm & blues world, and is mostly recognized for hits that spanned the late 70s and early 80s. These ear catching tunes included “We’re in this Love Together,” “Dancing in the Garden,” “Boogie Down,” and “Mornin’.” He benefited from collaboration with the best of producers and musicians, including Jay Graydon and studio ace drummer Steve Gadd.
Al had a particular talent for scat singing, and was an early purveyor of what we call “mouth percussion.” He was a fascinating singer to watch, as he used his vocal cavity (mouth, tongue, and jaw) and whole body to elicit unique vocal sounds.
Less heard on the radio but always a highlight of his live concerts were vocal versions of iconic jazz songs. When you start with material by Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond and Chick Corea, you can hardly go wrong. So if you have a few minutes, check out this other side of Al Jarreau, with his versions of “Take Five,” “Blue Rondo รก la Turk,” and “Spain.” He was the a one-of-a-kind talent who attracted many devotees.

January 8, 2017

Nat Hentoff, 1925-2017

Nat Hentoff, in 2007

The nation lost a unique voice, and the Fillius Jazz Archive lost a supporter with the passing of Nat Hentoff on January 7. Mr. Hentoff died at the age of 91 at his home in Manhattan. In a career that spanned seven decades, he excelled as a jazz critic and as an astute observer of our nation and its politics. The Associated Press opined, “Nat Hentoff enjoyed a diverse and iconoclastic career, basking in the freedom to be infuriating on a myriad of subjects.”
Nat was interviewed for the Fillius Jazz Archive in New York City on January 12, 2007, almost ten years ago to the day of this blog.
As a child Nat loved jazz and had aspirations to pursue a career as a musician.
NH:  I was taking clarinet lessons from an alumnus of the Boston Symphony and I was about 13, 14 years old. And I could read anything. And I was playing scales one day near an open window, it was a summer day. And all of a sudden I hear a shout from downstairs. “Hey kid, you want to go to a session?” I look down, there’s this short kid and I figured well I can read anything, so I went. And when we got there this kid took out his horn and began to play and I knew then that I’d have to find a day job that wasn’t in jazz. It was [jazz cornetist] Ruby Braff. He was about my age. He was already playing extraordinarily beautiful stuff.
Due to his passion for the music, Nat still found himself in the middle of the jazz scene. As a co-producer for the 1957 “Sounds of Jazz” Live TV special, he witnessed a poignant moment between Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Here is a link to that moment, seen in this clip at 1:25.
NH:  The background of that was Lester was not feeling well. He was supposed to be in one of the big band sections with the all-time sax section: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, I forget who else we had there. I said look, you don’t have to do that, and when you do the small combo thing with Billie, you can just sit down. And then she came on in a circle with Roy Eldridge and Lester etcetera. He got up and in the control room, people, as this was unfolding, had tears in their eyes. It was such a moment. Because they were looking at each other, as Lester played. And they had been very close and then not so close, and it was so personal and so intimate, and I was so glad we got that for the ages.
Like the musicians he so admired, Nat was required to wear multiple career hats which seemed to suit him well. I asked him about making a living as a writer/critic.
MR:  Was it tough raising a family of four kids as a freelance journalist?
NH:  It was tough for a while because I got fired. My one gig was at Down Beat when the first child was coming along and I committed a wrongdoing. We were writing essentially about black music. We had no black employees, no black writers in either New York, Chicago where the headquarters were, or in Los Angeles. The boss wasn’t interested in the music at all; he ran a printing shop but he owned the paper. He did not like Jews, he did not like blacks. And one day a woman came in. I thought she was black and we needed a sort of a receptionist so I figured okay we can start with that. I didn’t check with him. He found out about it and I was fired. Years later when I wrote about it she wrote me a note and she said well you know I’m not black, I’m Egyptian. Well some of the theorists today would say yes you are. But anyway that left me in a hole, and Norman Granz was very helpful. He gave me a whole bunch of liner notes for a hundred bucks apiece, and that paid the rent for a while. But I had to freelance. And the Village Voice was very important. They didn’t pay us at the time. But I went there on one condition, that I didn’t have to write about jazz. Because in terms of the newspaper and magazine editors, I was stereotyped, talk about categorizing. So I could write about anything I wanted to: education, the laws, civil liberties. And that got me started as a freelance writer.
Nat was highly attuned to the sharing of accurate information. Even though our interview took place ten years ago, the proliferation of instant Internet access was a concern to him.
NH:   This is an extraordinary paradox. There’s never been a time in human history when there’s been so much instant access to information — or what appears to be information. The 24 hour news cycle is such that the idea of reporting in teams or a reporter getting months to do a story, that’s very rare now. So what you get are, if not sound bites, quick stories. And once something else happens — when I was growing up in Boston the reporters had a phrase, follow-up. You all had to follow-up on the story. But there’s not much of that either. And this cacophony of information, it’s increasingly on the Internet. Most of the newspapers, to stay alive, are going increasingly on the Internet, and they’re being contested by bloggers and they’re multiplying. But there’s no filter as to what you’re hearing from the bloggers. Is it information or just unvarnished biased opinion? So in a time when we have access to all this information I think there’s more confusion than ever before.
Nat Hentoff wrote supportively of the oral history project that is the Fillius Jazz Archive, and his opinions about our effort appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and Jazz Times. We shared a love for the music and personality of singer Joe Williams, and Nat wrote glowingly about our 2005 release of the CD “Havin’ a Good Time” culled from reel to reel tapes from Joe Williams’ estate. At the end of our interview, Nat evoked Joe’s name:
MR:  I’m very appreciative of you giving me your time today.
NH:  Oh look, as you can tell I enjoy talking. But one of your friends, I was once in Joe Williams’ dressing room and we were talking about players who are no longer here, some because of their own damn fault. And Joe looked at me and said, “You and I are survivors.” And I felt like I’d been knighted, that Joe would put me in his company.