December 14, 2018

Nancy Wilson 1937-2018

On the heels of our tribute to Joe Williams, we now learn of the passing of vocalist Nancy Wilson at the age of 81. Nancy and Joe shared a number of parallel lines throughout their singing careers. They had a common manager in John Levy; they both recorded albums with Cannonball Adderley, George Shearing, and Count Basie; and both objected to being typecast as a certain style of vocalist. I was fortunate to sit with Nancy Wilson in November of 1995 for an interview, and she addressed the issue of stereotypes:
NW:   I have to say about jazz critics, they really gave me the pits for a while. They felt that the Cannonball Adderley album was a compromise for Cannon. Because I was a pop artist.
MR:   No kidding?
NW:   Oh, yes. You don’t know the stuff they did to us. But my point that I’ve always tried to stress is I came into this business with a gift, the voice is a given. It was a gift from God. I didn’t put any labels on it. I also decided to leave my home to do this, to be commercial. I mean the object of the game for me was why would I want to, why would anybody in their right mind want to give up their security, their home, all the things that mean happiness to me, to go out to only want to fulfill somebody else’s idea of who and what I am. I figured that I was going to do this on a major scale or I didn’t want to do it. Because I could go home, go to Carnegie Tech as opposed to Central State, and be a doctor or be something in medicine, and I’d have been fine. But the voice was always out front. But I have never apologized for being a commercial artist. That is why I do what I do, is to sell. I want to be heard, I want to reach as many people as I can. I believe in that mass thing. You know I want everybody to know who I am if I’m going to do it.
I recall being surprised to hear this recollection, as the Cannonball Adderley-Nancy Wilson LP is one of my absolute favorite recordings.
One thing Nancy did not have to deal with was performance anxiety. Again from her interview:
MR:   Can you recall as a child, were you always pretty comfortable in front of an audience? 
NW:   It never occurred to me that you should be nervous. When I found out I was so grown that it didn’t make any difference. Then I found out people actually get nauseous and tremble and shake. Well I don’t want to do this if I have to be sick before I go on. But some people do. Some people just feel that that’s a part of it. I like being relaxed. I like taking it in stride. I love it. I keep it in its proper perspective, and it allows me to continue to do it. As long as I do it this way I can do it.
Nancy was awarded three Grammys and was an NPR host for Jazz Profiles. She considered herself a storyteller, and she chose the songs in her repertoire based on their strong narrative element.
This interview was conducted early on in our oral history project, when I was still developing an interviewing style. I will always remember the dignity and class that was part of Nancy’s persona. You can view the complete video here.

December 11, 2018

Joe Williams Centennial

Joe Williams, in 1998
Today we celebrate singer Joe Williams’ one hundredth birthday. Joe was born Joseph Goreed on December 12, 1918 in Cordele, Georgia. He grew up in Chicago, paid his musical dues with a number of area swing bands, and joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1954. Joe started a solo career in 1961 which lasted four plus decades. Along the way he became close friends with Milt Fillius Jr., an avid jazz fan and a 1944 graduate of Hamilton College. Together Joe and Milt launched an oral history project, an effort to gather extemporaneous life stories of jazz musicians, their spouses, writers, producers, and jazz aficionados. This collaboration resulted in what is now called the Fillius Jazz Archive, and I am proud to be called the Joe Williams Director. Our 350+ video interviews are now posted on the Fillius Jazz YouTube Channel.
To celebrate Joe’s one-hundredth birthday we are posting a compilation of interview excerpts which were previously unpublished. Joe’s commentary is intertwined with anecdotes from his accompanist Norman Simmons, his manager John Levy, and Basie band members Bill Hughes and John Williams. These excerpts and outtakes were originally captured for the 1996 concert documentary called Joe Williams: A Portrait in Song, a film commissioned by Hamilton College and produced by Burrill Crohn.
We invite you to view this compilation here, and hope you enjoy the magic of Joe Williams all over again.

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.