August 17, 2018

The Queen of Soul, 1942-2018

Today I feel the same way as when I heard Ray Charles died. Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles embodied the best of the musical styles developed by African-American musicians, singers and songwriters. These include jazz, blues, Gospel, rhythm & blues, and soul, of which Aretha was the absolute Queen. A colleague at Hamilton College today said, “She changed us,” and I believe she meant that Aretha raised the bar of what a singer could do to and for you. Aretha’s music touched your head, your heart, and your hips. There was something to think about, there was something to feel, and there was something to make you move.
I had my own unforgettable Aretha Franklin experience. In 2008, as part of the Great Names series at Hamilton College, Aretha performed in the field house on the Hamilton College campus. Typical of many artists of her stature, she brought her own rhythm section, but a local horn section was required. I was asked to contract local musicians to fill the saxophone, brass and percussion chairs. Conveniently, I hired myself as an alto saxophonist.
Aretha Franklin at Hamilton College, 1988

What made the day so memorable, beyond the fact that the Queen of Soul was coming to town, was the heightened abilities required of the contracted musicians. We convened in the late afternoon the day of the concert. I would not describe it as a rehearsal, it was more of a run-through and a not-so-subtle message to be on your game: to pay attention and keep focused on the task at hand. The lengthy song list required that the tunes were not even run all the way through. Intros and endings were played, the music director said, “The rest will be okay, just watch me,” and boy did he mean watch.
The hardest part of the evening was to basically tune out Aretha. How do you not pay attention to Aretha Franklin? No one commanded the stage as she did. But as soon as we horn players looked up to soak in the talent in front of us, we invariably would miss our cue and lose our place in the music. By the way, that was music we had not seen until that afternoon.
Later when people asked me what was it like or how was she, I had to turn the question around and ask them. How was she? I’m not complaining mind you. I shared the stage with Aretha Franklin.
Aretha’s career spanned six decades and, like all iconic artists, the styles of music she performed moved from one genre to another. I will suggest two recordings to listen to, one being rather obscure. In 1973 Aretha was still experimenting with jazz and she chose to record Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere from “West Side Story.” The first time I heard it I was very puzzled. How could she sing so far behind the beat? She was so far behind the beat she was in the wrong measure. This does not indicate that she was making a mistake. Aretha was taking her time. She was letting the music speak for itself, and inserting the lyric where her innate musicality told her to do so. A jazz section follows with Aretha on piano and a fine alto saxophonist. This was not a hit for Aretha, but it brings home to me that her musicianship matched her incredible voice.
The second recording comes from 2015 at the Kennedy Center honors. This was the year that songwriter Carole King was among the group of artists to receive the award. This clip doesn’t need much explaining but you might want to have a tissue close at hand. No one commanded the stage like Aretha Franklin.

July 4, 2018

Bill Watrous, 1939-2018

From the left: Wendell Brunious, Dennis Mackrel, Jerome Richardson, Keter Betts, Monk Rowe, Bill Watrous, Rick Montalbano

Readers may have noticed my absence from writing this blog. All my spare time has been spent preparing uploads for the Fillius Jazz YouTube channel, where complete interviews have been posted for more than half of our oral history sessions. The death of Bill Watrous, however, has returned me to the blog. My interview with Bill, viewable here, was comprehensive and congenial, but there is more backstory to be shared about my association with him.
In the spring of 1999, in true cosmic fashion, Bill’s promo kit arrived unexpectedly on my desk just as I was seeking a trombone player to participate on my upcoming recording of “Jazz Life.” This album of original compositions would eventually include myself plus six members, three of whom are now deceased: bassist Keter Betts, saxophonist Jerome Richardson, and now trombonist Bill Watrous. Rounding out the ensemble were Rick Montalbano, Dennis Mackrel and Wendell Brunious. Before I started the archive project I had always assumed that artists of the stature of Bill Watrous would be unavailable to me. However, every artist I contacted happily agreed to the engagement. I learned along the way that jazz musicians always have dates in their calendars to fill, and a gig is a gig. Bill proved to be full of positive energy as well as the consummate musician. He entertained the group with his personal cache of jazz stories, while treating the music as if he was in an L.A. recording studio. One of my favorite moments on the recording is during the improvisation section of BeyondCategory at the 2:34 mark where Bill seamlessly extends Wendell’s last improvised phrase, then launches into his own striking solo. As trumpeter Joe Wilder said of improvisation, you always want to make a smooth transition, as perfectly exemplified in this moment.
Our paths crossed again at jazz conventions, and over the years we exchanged phone calls where our lengthy conversations extended beyond music and into the ups and downs of everyday life. Oddly enough, Bill’s wife Maryanne occasionally referred to Bill as “Monk.”
Bill’s passing caught me off-guard. He always struck me as younger than his years, probably due to his distinctive Price Valiant haircut, penchant for jean jackets, and his poignant observations on current events. Adios Mr. Watrous, and thank you for our friendship.