November 30, 2009

Christmas Time is Here

It’s that time of year — of course I’m talking about the holidays. I used to be just as jolly as the next guy when it came to the holiday season, but I do admit to feeling a bit like Scrooge every time Thanksgiving and the following month roll around. I can attribute some of that to the gross commercialism that is now part of the Christmas season, which starts in early October, and the fact that working the holidays in a WalMart can now be fatal does not help the overall spirit of the season. I suspect my ambivalence to the holiday season is mostly attributable to Christmas gigs. Probably 15 years ago I started working an increasing number of holiday parties, private events, parties sponsored by banks or insurance companies, you name it. Everybody has their office parties, usually in the evening, often in a private club. Mostly I work these as a solo pianist. I have to acknowledge my teeth-gritting during that first holiday song, which I always try to delay at least until the calendar hits December.

This year my first holiday party came a couple of days after Thanksgiving and I was determined not to play a Christmas song just yet. But as the night progressed I realized this was definitely a holiday party, and I should be professional, so I asked myself what would be the first holiday tune of the year. I chose “Winter Wonderland.” This song has interesting chord changes, an intriguing modulation going to the bridge (up a minor third), and you have to pay attention when playing it.

In the ensuing party I pulled out my standard list: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” the usual suspects. I suppose the problem is repetition and a basic set of mostly uninteresting chord changes and insipid lyrics. “Have a holly jolly Christmas/It’s the best time of the year” is not actually all that inspiring. In spite of this, I do admit a certain envy for songwriter Johnny Marks who wrote this stuff in spades. He wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and many other Christmas songs, and I’m sure if he played his cards right and had his copyrights and publishing in order, he had many merry Christmases.

One of the oddest things that happens to me along the way during these numerous Christmas parties is an unintentional inserting of the wrong bridge in a Christmas song. It’s as if the parts are interchangeable. Many Christmas songs follow the standard A-A-B-A song form, much like many songs of the golden age, what we have come to know as standards. It’s intriguing how you can play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and when you get to the bridge you can play the bridge from “Holly Jolly Christmas”; or you could play “Jingle Bell Rock” and insert the bridge from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and when you get to the last A you can play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It always happens to me unintentionally the first time. I’ll be playing one of these songs and I’ll get to the bridge and somehow realize I made a transition to a different song and I didn’t even realize it. I do it absentmindedly the first few times, then it’s sort of fun to switch from one song to another and look around the room to see if anybody noticed. I have yet to see anyone indicate they heard it. And by the way, “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” are not rock tunes at all, they are both swing tunes. What’s up with that?

Christmas tunes do wear me down, but a gig is a gig, and so I stick it out and try to insert the short list of hip Christmas tunes, which fortunately do exist. Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” has a beautiful set of chord changes and could actually be re-written with a non-Christmas lyric and be a great tune. Oddly enough, it was written poolside in California in July. “Christmastime is Here” is a another beautiful song, by Vince Guaraldi. I’m also fond of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” mostly because it can be played in a nice, slow 6/8 groove.

This year, Christmas gigs are down — just like the economy — across the board. A lot of those banks and insurance companies that used to have Christmas parties did not call this year and I’m feeling a little out of touch with the Christmas songs. So if you want to send me a Christmas gig I’ll be glad to play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in all twelve keys.

Here’s a scenario that has happened to me and I will get some perverse pleasure knowing it may happen to someone else. If you’re in a restaurant with a pianist, and the pianist is doing his best to cover the holiday repertoire, wait until four or five Christmas songs have been played, then go up to the piano and put one dollar in the tip jar and say “how about some Christmas songs?” Then duck.

November 21, 2009

The Lost Verse

Last week my wife and I attended a stage version of the musical “The Wizard of Oz,” part of Utica’s Broadway Theater League performances. Most of us have seen the movie countless times as part of our childhood, less of us have seen the stage musical, and few of us have read the original book by L. Frank Baum. If you are familiar with the 1939 film you know that the first and most recognizable song is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” True to form, the initial vocal offering we heard in this stage production was this song, but the first line was not “Somewhere over the rainbow,” the first lyrics from Dorothy were:

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There’s a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place beyond the sun
Just a step beyond the rain
Somewhere over the rainbow …

This is a classic example of the genius of the songwriters of the thirties and forties: the Gershwin Brothers, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Rogers & Hart, Irving Berlin, and in the case of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

The section of “Over the Rainbow that we rarely hear is called the verse. The craftsmen of that era were able to create songs that could stand on their own even when one third or more of the composition was snipped out. Do you recognize the lyrics of this song?

I was never spellbound
By a starry sky
What is there to moonglow
When love has passed you by
Then there came a midnight
And the world was new
Now here I am so spellbound, darling
Not by stars but just by you

Did you get it? The next lyric would be: “At last, my love has come along.” Yes indeed, this is the never-heard verse of the song “At Last” made famous by Etta James, originally from the movie “Orchestra Wives” that featured the Glenn Miller Orchestra (written by Harry Warren and Mac Gordon).

I am so impressed by the fact that these composers could write a verse (usually at a slower tempo than the chorus to follow) set up the song lyrically and musically, flow into the chorus familiar to us, and make that verse completely disposable.

One clue to this phenomenon that you’ll see in the better music books is that the majority of these songs with “lost verses” came from musicals or movies. The lyrics to the verse were closely connected to the story line happening at that moment in the script. If you look back at the verse to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” you’ll see references to what has happened in the story thus far and a foreshadowing of what will happen. It’s easy to see in this case because we know the story so well. Yet the chorus certainly stands on its own without this set-up information.

This verse-chorus arrangement also provided for an effective layering of music and tempos. A typical verse was slow and rubato, allowing the singer to emote, almost always followed by a brighter tempo kicking into the part of the song that people would be whistling as they left the theater, or so the producer hoped.

How about George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” — how many people have ever heard these lyrics?

Days can be sunny
With never a sigh
Don’t need what money can buy
Birds in the trees
Sing their day full of song
Why shouldn’t we sing along?
I’m chipper all the day
Happy with my lot
How do I get that way
Look at what I’ve got
I got rhythm — I got music …

One of the most familiar songs in the history of popular music has 24 bars of music that are never heard. These lost verses do provide an outlet for new interpretations by up-and-coming artists. I have often seen a reviewer phrase: “and this new singer has taken the trouble to sing the rarely-heard verse.”

I wonder if it was the prescience of the great songwriters of that era that guided their craft, methodically thinking ahead as they composed, knowing that their A sections would be discarded and the choruses would stand alone to live on in cover versions separate from the original setting. The first time I looked closely at the music for the Beatles tune “Here, There and Everywhere” I understood why Paul and John mentioned people like Oscar & Hammerstein as influences. The song starts out with their brief version of a verse: “To lead a better life I need my love to be here.” It sets up the song with a slow, out of tempo intro, followed by the part that we know so well. The song certainly would have stood on its own had they taken a razor blade and just cut out that piece of the tape. It’s a lost art. I can’t say I’m all that familiar with current Broadway, but I don’t see this craft from Andrew Lloyd Weber.

If you listen to jazz stations at all there may be occasions where you hear a singer sing something unfamiliar. Most likely it’ll be slow and dreamy. At some point a familiar song will reveal itself. You may then say to yourself, Aha! A Lost Verse!

See if you can determine this wistful song from a classic movie:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like third dimension
Yet we grow a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory
So we must get down to earth
At times relax, relieve the tension
No matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

And the answer is?

October 19, 2009

The Band Takes a DAT

This past Saturday my band took a serious dance aptitude test (DAT). We played for a local dance club, an organization that teaches ballroom dancing to couples and has monthly dinner dances where they practice what they learn. The instructor couple had indicated to me how much trouble they had in past years finding bands who could cut the gig. I sympathized with them up to a point, but in the back of my mind I was wondering what the problem was. Was it because playing for dancing has become a thing of the past? This is partly true, but musicians in my generation have spent many hours playing gigs where people dance, most often at weddings but sometimes in clubs. So I wasn’t quite sure what the problem was, until I got the suggested song list, which I requested.

When I received the list I understood their issue with bands. It was easy to see that these dancers would be very specific in their wants. In years past, a band leader could feel comfortable going into a gig with dancers by having a sampling of tunes that covered swing, a few 6/8 ballads, a couple of rock numbers, a waltz, a bossa nova and a polka if requested. These styles could usually get you through any gig.

The list I received from the leaders of this club was more specifically defined. It included all the above-mentioned styles, with the addition of a foxtrot, a bolero, a merengue, two types of cha-chas (a regular cha-cha and a chilly cha-cha), a samba, a rumba, a mambo, an Argentine tango and an American tango. You might guess that I was approaching this gig with a bit more seriousness than was originally anticipated. As I looked through the identified songs that accompanied each style, I surmised an unusual degree of homework lay ahead. The biggest issues were with the Latin numbers. When we are asked for a Latin tune, most musicians think of a bossa nova, like “Girl from Ipanema,” or “Spanish Eyes.” That used to cover the Latin genre. This list made me seriously ponder what I actually knew about the difference between a tango, a cha-cha, a samba and a mambo. I had to admit that I did not actually know a heck of a lot. Adding to my trepidation was the fact that although I had a quartet, I did not have my full band with me. I was grateful, however, to have Tom McGrath on the gig, my A-list drummer.

The gig was a dinner dance and I put a lot of thought into the first tune. We started in our comfort zone and played the bossa nova “Summer Samba,” (also called “So Nice”), and to my immense relief we weren’t four measures into the tune when more than half the audience was on the dance floor, even though they were mid-dinner. I immediately saw that these dancers knew their stuff. As the night progressed I felt better and more confident as the dancers responded to our selections. But in addition to all these styles, we had a flood of requests. We expected the polka and the waltz, but in addition we were asked for west coast swing, “Spanish Eyes,” “The Hustle,” “Mustang Sally,” “The Electric Slide,” and even a song called “Number 720 in the Book.” I admit I had never heard of that one, but we filled nearly every request and apparently passed the DAT by a margin of two standard deviations above the mean.

I often think I missed the era of music I really would have thrived in, the late 30’s through the war years, when the audience participated by dancing, when arrangers could find work with big bands, when there were plentiful gigs for sidemen, and when jazz and swing music was the popular music of the day. I try not to talk about music history that predated me as if I were there, like the 39-year-old who proclaimed in a Ken Burns documentary that in 1940 the Savoy dance club was THE place to be. So I will only say that I had a flash this last Saturday night of being in a dance hall in 1939. We had a stage, a beautiful dance floor, we had the spotlighted globe rotating in the ceiling, and we had 50 couples dancing and dressed to the nines, applauding after every selection with enthusiastic smiles.

If I’d had a roadie to move my gear I would have called it the perfect gig.

September 23, 2009

"I Must Have Been the Luckiest" — Eddie Locke

During one of my New York City interview trips back in January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing drummer Eddie Locke. Though his was a familiar name from LP liner notes, I can’t honestly say I knew of his work. Other interviewees suggested he might be a good candidate to interview for our archive.

This year, for the first time, Eddie was scheduled to come to Hamilton for our annual Fallcoming event October 2. When he called in July saying he had to cancel the gig, I didn’t realize how sick he was. I wanted to hold the date open for him, thinking whatever illness he had he was likely to overcome in three months. Sadly, last week we learned he passed.

Trying not to be over-the-top with superlatives, I will say that Eddie is our (my wife and my) favorite interview. He was spontaneous, funny, and deeply appreciative of the mentoring he received from Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins and others. Eddie may have been the youngest musician to have appeared in the famous Art Kane photograph “A Great Day in Harlem,” photographed in 1958. He claims he didn’t belong there; the only reason he was included was because at the time he was hanging out with Jo Jones, sometimes literally carrying his drums. Still, Eddie was there, and he was not one of the random toddlers sitting along the curb with Count Basie. At the time he would have been around 28 years old, and had been in New York City for four years.

Eddie was deeply respectful of what his mentors explained by example; perhaps the last of a group of musicians who learned by mentorship. They dressed impeccably. They carried themselves in a dignified manner. They respected their audience, even when the crowd was thimble-sized. Sharing the stage with musicians of more experience and stature, Eddie learned his craft from the stimulating environment in New York City in the 1950’s. For most of his life he was a sideman, though there are a few LP’s listed under Eddie’s own name.

In our interview, Eddie related his experience of coming from his hometown of Detroit to New York for the first time as one half of the duo “Bop and Locke,” and his wonderment at what imploded his senses at first:

EL:       We came here in ’54.

MR:       Okay.

EL:       But we got booked into the Apollo Theater which was unheard of. That was one of the biggest Vaudeville houses that’s ever been. And we didn’t have no name. We only had played once in Detroit. And this agent saw us there. And we played at the Colonial Theater. And then he submitted us to the Apollo. And they accepted us. And that was really something you know, just to come right from Detroit to the Apollo Theater, in New York City like that, it was like astounding for me.

MR:       Were you guys nervous?

EL:       Whew. Was I nervous. When we got off the train, we rode the train here, we got off at Park Avenue and 125th Street. And when we came down those steps I was scared. I never had seen that many people. It was in July. I had never seen that many people on the street before in my life. It was like wooh, I wanted to go right back up those steps man. I was very, very funny to see. And I asked somebody, was it a parade? Because I’d never seen that many people on the street at one time like that. And that was the beginning. And we played the Apollo, and we made the whole week. You know after the first show at the Apollo, Mr. Schifman, he always watched the first show. That was the guy that owned the Apollo. And then if he called you into the office it was usually to tell you that you’ve got to go. He would pay you, but he didn’t want you. If he didn’t like the act you had to go. And after we did our first show, they had a little speaker system you know, they said “Bop and Locke? This is Schifman’s office.” And all the other acts in the other show said, “Oh, man, I feel sorry for you guys, man.” Because usually when he called —. But when we went in his office, you know, he said “you know, you guys got a nice little act, I’ll tell you one thing though, cut out those jokes.” We had some terrible jokes. And you know where we got the jokes from? We sent off for them, you know, years ago in the back of comedy books and things, you could send off for a joke book. That’s what we did. And I’ve still got it.

MR:       You’ve still got the book?

EL:       Yeah, I’ve still got the joke book. Yeah.

MR:       Oh, great.

EL:       He said “you can stay, you can do the dancing and the drumming, singing. No more jokes.”

In the ensuing five decades of life in New York, Eddie never lost that youthful enthusiasm and reverence for the music, even as he became an inspiration to other musicians. Here Eddie speaks of his relationship with Roy Eldridge:

EL:       I must have been the luckiest — and I thank God for it. I mean I don’t go to church all the time, but I do thank God for it all the time. Because that was really luck. You’ve got to be good but you’ve got to be lucky too.

MR:       Roy had quite a competitive spirit, didn’t he?

EL:       I’ve never played with anyone that loved to play as much as him. Never. And my greatest story, every time I tell somebody this, they always, they love it, but I’m going to tell this so this will be on film forever. I will never forget, we were playing in a place and there was no one in the place, just like this room we’re in now, with the band. We were up there playing. And I was just like that [scats]. And he turned around and he leaned over the drumset at me and he said “what are you doing?” And I said “well Roy” I says, “there’s nobody in here.” He looked me right in — I mean he got closer — he said, “I’M HERE!” That was the scariest thing, I mean and the way he said it, you know what I mean? But it made a difference in me. He said “I’m here.” Let’s play. Because that’s what he did. I mean I’ve heard him play some of the greatest music I ever heard, in a room just like this with nobody in it. He loved that horn. It was just like — that’s why at his funeral, when Dizzy said, He said “y’all gotta find something else to do now,” he said “because this is the only person that was ever named Jazz.” And that’s what he was. I’ve seen him, I mean Jo Jones told me, he said “one of these days you’re going to be playing with him, man, and he’s going to take you out of that drum seat. He’s going to rip you right out of that drum seat.” I said now that is really deep. I didn’t pay that much attention. But he did. Right up in Toronto one time. Oh God. I had this feature on “Caravan” that we did, and when he got to the bridge one time boy, I mean it was just like it was so dynamic. It was just like I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even play. It just took me away, I’m telling you. It was unbelievable. I never felt nothing like that before in my life. It was just — his presence when he played was just like unbelievable. Unbelievable. Like I said, I heard him every night. I never played with him — you know how long I played with him — but I had played with him before I played in Ryan’s. And never a night — he’s the only person I’ve ever been around like that — it was never a night where sometime during the night I said “wow.” Do you know what I mean? I mean he would do something that I’d never heard him do before. Like this stuff so dynamic that it would be just like woah. That was amazing. He was amazing.

 “Lucky” are the young drummers who chose Eddie as their mentor.


September 4, 2009

The Best Recording Ever

Okay, I picked a provocative title, and if you clicked on this blog entry you probably came to it with the understandable attitude that there is no way you are going to agree with my choice for best song ever recorded. In fact I was inspired to pick such a title because I am in the midst of reading a book by music author Elijah Wald entitled How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll -- an alternative history of American popular music. If you’re in Borders and you see a book about The Beatles destroying Rock & Roll, there’s no way you won’t pick it up, which I think was the point of the title. (I am two-thirds of the way through the book and The Beatles have barely been mentioned.)

One particular song has fascinated me for years, and I will eliminate other possibilities by narrowing my choice to instrumentals. The instrumental radio hit is almost a thing of the past, becoming rarer as time passes. In the fifties and sixties it was a different story. Instrumental tunes like “Honky Tonk,” “Stranger on the Shore,” “Tequila,” and “Harlem Nocturne” could be heard on AM radio and showed up on Billboard’s Top 100 List, almost always one-hit wonders for the artist. In 1962 Booker T and the MG’s recorded and released an instrumental song called “Green Onions” on the Stax label. I know you’ve all heard it, you might not even be aware what it was called, but this song has musical magic in every measure.

“Green Onions” has received its share of attention over the years. “Rolling Stone” places it #181 out of 500 on their choice of best songs ever. Movie-wise it has been used in the films “Quadrophenia,” and “Get Shorty,” it’s been in numerous commercials, as radio bumper music, and is still played at ballparks across the country.

What makes this song stand the test of time? First of all, Booker T (I will assume), or perhaps Al Jackson, counted off the perfect tempo. It clocks in at 142 beats per minute. It’s not particularly important to put a number to it, but it is a tempo that is upbeat but not too fast to become frantic. You can snap your fingers on two and four with great ease, and even people with two left feet can move back and forth to its insistent groove. The original tempo will not be heard if you visit YouTube to see live performances of “Green Onions” saved on film. As is usually the case, the live performances of recorded songs are considerably faster and you will hear the difference from the record to live versions by Booker T and his band.

On the recording, the introduction starts with four measures of organ accompanied only by the hi-hat, with a little bit of dirt in the organ sound that made the Hammond B3 the keyboard of choice at the time. The form is our old friend the 12-bar blues. People who’ve read this blog know that I’m a great lover of the 12-bar blues and you can see my entry “Why I Love the Blues” from 3/30/09. There is a particular sound to this opening lick and the following 12 bars that I find fascinating. At the risk of getting too musically technical, the bass line, in quarter notes, plays F-F-A flat-B flat, clearly indicating a minor bass line and an overall minor flavor. At the same time, on the top, the melody (if you could even call it that) starts with a beat of rest followed by quarter notes on F-E flat-D, in a descending line contrasting with the ascending line of the bass. While the bass line is playing in a minor mode, the top three chords underneath the melody tones are all major triads: F, A flat and B flat. I’m convinced that this major on top and the minor on the bottom is what gives this song a certain darkness but also an indefinable hip sound, that’s hip with a capital H. There’s no getting around the fact that the song oozes cool.

After the four-bar intro, the drums, bass and guitar kick in and immediately take it up a notch. Guitarist Steve Cropper found the perfect thing to play over the first 12 bars, as he nails an accented chord on the second half of every beat 4, slightly anticipating beat 1, giving a forward propulsion to the whole affair. Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn doubles the left hand of the organist in unison on the ascending minor bass notes.

The first 12 bars has to be considered the melody of the song, as simple as it is. After that we launch into two 12-bar choruses of improvised organ solo, single note lines that include a beautifully placed choppy dissonance in the entrance to chorus number two. At the end of Booker T’s first two choruses, someone yells an enthusiastic but barely audible “yeah!” probably picked up by the drum mics. Check it out at 1 minute and 10 seconds into the song.

Al Jackson provides a minimal but forceful beat. These three elements, a unison guitar/bass line on the bottom, a single note solo on top, and the basic backbeat drum groove, may be the ultimate example of the whole equaling more than the sum of its parts.

The guitar steps up in the third chorus and affirms my theory that this song was one-take wonder. When the guitar solo starts you can hear it is significantly too loud, and it takes about five licks before somebody (either the man behind the control board or Steve Cropper himself) fiddles with the volume until the solo balances with the accompaniment. In today’s huge multi-tracking studios and months for making an album, this would never have been allowed. In the final mix there would never be any discrepancies regarding the balance between instruments. Cropper plays his second 12-bars with one lick repeated over and over, transposed up a fourth, back down, up a fifth, etc., in order to match the three basic chords of the 12-bar blues. The organ returns, filling two more 12-bar phrases with single note lines. The song fades out much like the intro. And after 2 minutes and 50 seconds the musical magic is complete.

Steve Cropper credits the name “Green Onions” to an attempt to come up with a title as funky as possible. The fact that Booker T and the MG’s was a quartet that was half black and half white only adds a certain hipness and panache to the song.

It’s nearly impossible to put into words what makes this song so seemingly perfect, and I’m sure there are people out there who think I’ve chosen an odd choice for my nomination for the most perfect song ever recorded. Everyone has a personal short list of songs that belong in “perfect” territory.

Some years ago I was hired to go down to Memphis to provide keyboard parts and string arrangements on a recording for an up-and-coming heavy metal band called “Young Turk.” While I was there one of the engineers happened to point to a Hammond organ sitting in the hallway. “You see that B3?” he said. “That’s the organ Booker T used on ‘Green Onions.’” Do you suppose I succumbed to the childish impulse to run my fingers over the keyboard? I did.

August 12, 2009

The New Cut of the Jam

I just returned from a week in Pittsburgh, mostly focused on working with an Aesthetic Education group. I also managed to get some jazz in. Because of that experience, I was mildly curious about the etymology of the word “jam,” and wondered if the Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz had anything to say about it. Indeed they had a brief listing for the word “jam,” and defined it as “to improvise, usually in a group, whence to take part in a Jam session.” Nothing new there, but I would have preferred that the Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz avoided the word “whence.” At any rate, we all know what jam means in a musical context. The part they left out is that jam is usually used in a context of informality. It often takes place with people sitting in, frequently with a band that is not rehearsed, a group of musicians who are just together for this one particular evening. It is not only a jazz word. There is now a genre of rock music attributed to “jam bands.”

I’ve participated in my share of jam sessions over the years, although I rarely seek them out. I acknowledge that I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to playing in a band. I like things to be somewhat arranged. It’s not that jam sessions have to be totally random. There are riffs and little figures that musicians can often come up with on the spot to make the music sound almost arranged. I recall one very memorable moment watching clarinetist Kenny Davern subtly organize the band on the spot using “footballs” [shaping his thumb and forefinger into whole notes to indicate a background riff].

While I was in Pittsburgh someone encouraged me to stop down at an Ethiopian restaurant called Tana on Wednesday night, where a local band is in residence for an open jam session. I took my soprano sax and went, and was immediately welcomed into a very friendly atmosphere. The saxophone player, Tony Campbell, saw me with my case, came up and introduced himself and asked me my name, and said “yeah, we’ll have you up in a while.”

Normally I like to sneak in and check out what is happening and then decide if I want to stay or not, but in this case I was committed. In these situations you can’t help but listen to the group, and size it up. How do you match up with these players? What kind of tunes are they doing? It was clear this band focused on what we would call contemporary jazz, if you still consider the 70’s and 80’s as contemporary.

The next step is to sit there and think okay, if that’s their thing, what do I know that fits in, in case he is kind enough to ask me what song I’d like to play. I was thinking “Cantaloupe Island,” Herbie Hancock’s sister composition to “Watermelon Man” might be a good choice. Just as I’m thinking that, what does he count off to play but “Cantaloupe Island.” So I sat and listened, and went on to my next choice. Of course a blues is always a staple of jam sessions, but rather than just improvise a head it’s nice to be able to mention a blues tune. What’s better than “Blue Monk?” So they ended “Cantaloupe Island,” I heard the sax player turn to his rhythm section and say “okay let’s go to B flat.” He counted off the tempo and guess what he played? Of course. “Blue Monk.” All right well those choices aren’t going to work. I think I should just try to forego the song selection process and just enjoy myself. There was another fine alto player who sat in the first set and I cooled my heels until after their break.

“Well what do you want to play?” And I pulled something out of the hat. How about “Summertime.” He goes “cool, A minor?” I said “sure.” So he goes up to the bandstand and counts off the band into “Summertime” and launches into the counter melody made famous by Miles Davis and later by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I jumped to my feet, I didn’t even have my soprano out of its case, put on the mouthpiece and picked up on the melody. Now I plan an old Conn soprano. It’s a beautiful, soulful horn. It’s also a bear to keep in tune. After a few moments of fussing with my mouthpiece in between phrases, after unsticking my G sharp and octave key, I finally found my place in the music. Not my best effort, I felt. But the crowd was welcoming. He said “all right, what else you got?” I thought of a Mel Torme/Herbie Mann song “Coming Home Baby.” Cool. He counts off a hip funky tempo, the other alto player joins in, and we do a credible job of creating a spontaneous arrangement. If anybody got blown away I think it was me, although this was not what jam sessions used to be, sometimes called “cutting contests.” This was not a cutting contest. This was totally friendly musicians responding to what I played, people buying drinks, and enjoying each other’s playing, a very jazz friendly atmosphere.

This convivial setting was miles away from the experience that jazz flautist Holly Hofmann described in our interview for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. She found herself in a situation that was beyond cutting. It was more like “let’s get this chick.” Holly described it as follows:

HH: The cutting session was a nightmare of its own.

MR: Well if you don’t mind, tell me about that. Because I’ve often wondered what that would be like — I’ve never been in I think a real cutting session like that. Was it the tunes they called?

HH: It was the tunes and the tempos. It was a very famous group in New York City who were quite appalled that Slide [Hampton] brought this little flute player in to sit in with them, and they just decided that they were going to see if I could play. Thank God my dad had given me a list of cutting session tunes, like “Cherokee,” and you know the ones that they really do it to you on. And they called “Cherokee,” and it’s one-one-one-one. It’s so fast that they can’t play it, but it doesn’t matter because they want to see if you can play it.

MR: Put you on the spot.

HH: Right. And then the saxophone player who shall remain nameless came over and said “well honey, do you think you can play ‘Just Friends?’” And I said “yes I can.” He says okay, B major, one-two, one-two-three-four.

MR: Get out. He did that?

HH: Yeah. And Slide went over and said “guys, you know, don’t do this, because it’s making you look bad.” And Slide just said — you will stay — I wanted to get off the stage and he said “you will stand there and you will play because this is the tradition. This is what’s been done. This is what Diz did to Miles. This is what has been done to people over the years as long as jazz has been an art form.” So he said just to stay with it and do it, and to do the best you can, and I did okay. And you know, “Just Friends” in B major is a real trip. But thank God I was playing by ear.

MR: Yeah. Thank God you got started when you were five with your father doing that.

HH: And they just kept calling tunes at that tempo. “Cherokee,” “Hot House,” it just didn’t stop for the rest of the set.

MR: And this was in a club atmosphere?

HH: Yeah.

Jam sessions used to be an integral part of a musician’s education and a way of establishing yourself (or not) as a new player on the scene. Throwing yourself into the fire, doing your best in negotiating on the spot was one of the best experiences a young musician could have. The decrease in jazz clubs and opportunities for jam sessions has mostly been replaced by music schools and jazz method books, but is an experience worth seeking out for aspiring musicians. I was glad I made the trip to this Pittsburgh club. The musicians and the audience were welcoming and enthusiastic. There was the traditional exchange of praise and business cards, even though it’s unlikely we will cross paths again. A local musician who I often share the bandstand with is fond of saying “anyone get hurt?” at the end of a challenging tune. There were no injuries that night in Pittsburgh, at least in this particular jazz haven.

July 28, 2009

The Tip Jar

 Let me say upfront that I’m not complaining about the fact that I can make money while playing the piano. But it sometimes feels as though time is moving backwards during a four hour gig. I do two things to help pass the time. One of them is observing the audience, trying to guess what the best selections are. The other one is to welcome and hope for requests. A relative of mine once said “when you play solo piano, how can you stand it when people come up and ask for songs? I could never do that.” Actually, I welcome it. It’s a challenge, and, let’s be frank, it also helps feed the tip jar.

Last Friday I played a restaurant that I usually work about once a month. It’s an enjoyable gig. There’s always a decent sized crowd and even though they don’t seem like they’re listening, I know they are. It was an active night for requests but it didn’t start on a great note. A young woman came up and asked me if I could play “Somewhere In Time.” All I could remember was that there was a movie of the same name and this was the opening theme. I tried the approach “can you hum a few bars?” This sometimes will work. If a person can hum or sing the beginning of the song sometimes it’ll jog my memory and I can fake my way through it, filling their request. When I asked her to hum a few bars she looked a little puzzled and said “I’ll be right back.” And she went back to the table with her friends. I figured she was going to ask them to hum a few bars and then come back and hum it to me. She returned and said, “okay, how about ‘Mac the Knife’?” Now there’s a transition for you. But yes, “Mac the Knife” I certainly can play.

Afterwards I focused on a Hispanic couple I saw come in. So I did my standard queue to myself, what would I play for a Hispanic couple? This is a game of chance because making assumptions often does not work. In fact, shortly after they sat down the young man approached the piano and I said to myself oh whatever this is I’m not going to be able to get it. In fact, he asked for the “Theme from Love Story.” Sure, I can get through “Love Story” for you. And as I played it I saw them gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, and wondered if he knew that the woman in “Love Story” died at the end? Nonetheless, it made them happy. The next time I looked up he was giving her food from his own plate with his fork. This couple was tight. His next trip to the piano had me anticipate another cloying love theme. In fact, he asked for “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” This sent my mind off into all kinds of scenarios as I struggled to get through this not-so-typical pop tune. Perhaps one of them had been away somewhere in the military or incarcerated, and the other one did indeed tie a yellow ribbon around some tree in front of their house hoping for the return. Perhaps they like Tony Orlando because he is Latino.

These musings were brought to an end as the requests for the evening started to multiply. A young man I vaguely knew sat down with his parents and sister and the requests started coming one after another: “Autumn Leaves?” No problem. “Girl from Ipanema?” Sure. “My Funny Valentine?” What key? “Bridge over Troubled Water?” Bingo. I was on a roll and my tip jar looked healthy. Finally I was waylaid by a request from the oldest person at the table, the father. Could I play “Forgiveness” by Don Henley. Awww, an 80’s tune. The closer the decade to the present, the lower my batting average. I couldn’t play it. So I played “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles as a consolation.

There’s an interesting social interaction that happens when people make requests. First of all, do they make a request without putting any money in the tip jar? I would say this is a faux pas, even if they don’t realize it. Do they hold the bill, make the request, and then if you say “sure I can play that” THEN put the bill in the tip jar? If they put the bill in your jar and make the request and you don’t know it, what then? Take it out? That has never happened to me. But if a person puts the money in the jar and then makes the request, you do feel a certain pressure to play the song. My experience has been that if you can play the first couple of bars and make it sound passable that most people will be happy and say “yeah, that’s how that goes.”

I’ve previously related how people have come up and made requests of songs that I played just a few minutes before, as if the tune got in their head and they didn’t know what it was at the time, but their mind told them shortly thereafter that that’s what they wanted to hear.

Near the end of the evening, an elderly woman pulled up a chair next to the piano just to watch. “I like your style,” she said. I said “thanks a lot, is there anything I can play for you?” “I’d love if you’d play ‘Stardust’.” STARDUST! “Stardust” is one of those tunes that you really can’t fake, and it’s also one of those tunes that I keep saying I have to memorize. In addition, on this particular night, I kept confusing “Stardust” with “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” If you know these two tunes and you hum the first couple bars of each one you’ll find that the ascending melody line is quite similar. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t get one separated from the other. So I ended up playing what sounded like “I’m Getting Stardust Over You.” She seemed happy. I was aggravated with my own memory.

            After my “Stardust/Sentimental” medley I thought the night was over as far as requests. In the last five minutes a guy came up and asked for — you won’t believe it — “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” I looked at him and said “are you joking?” He said “well no, I like that song.” I thought he was in cahoots with the fellow from earlier on but — go figure. Two requests for that song in the same evening.

As far as the tip jar, experience tells me to feed the tip jar first. You have to put a couple of bills in there so people know why that jar is sitting on the piano. What denominations you prime it with depends on where you are playing. I usually put in a five and a couple of ones. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t putting the bills in correctly until the veteran hostess at this particular restaurant came over to my tip jar, took the folded bills out, straightened them out with a nice crease lengthwise, and then leaned them against the side of the glass. “Better to see them,” she said. People in New York City or Miami Beach may prime their tip jars with twenties, perhaps even fifties. I think the going rate around here is smaller denominations.

All-in-all it was one of the more enjoyable evenings I’ve played. There were a lot of playable requests and a lot of tips. When I grabbed the bills and stuffed them into my coat pocket they made a nice bulge on the way home. I always resist counting. I let my wife do that. They were all ones. 

July 21, 2009

Interchangeable Parts

Fortunately it’s been a busy summer gig-wise, with my own band, various sideman gigs, and the occasional stopping in to hear other local summer concerts and club dates. The last couple of weeks a phrase popped into my head that has to date back to junior high social studies, “interchangeable parts.” The phrase was first coined in the late 1700’s when some enterprising inventors figured out how to create firearms, muskets more specifically, using all the same interchangeable parts in case one part broke. Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame played some role in this invention. Somehow the phrase seems to apply both to my own work and what I see from my fellow musicians.

In this area, and I suspect in most music communities, you first get a gig, then you get a band. Unless you have a working group where you can afford to keep the same musicians employed almost full time, a leader is often required to fill in spots with various players. It all works out in the mix: the parts — whether they be drummers, bassists, guitarists or saxophonists — usually will fill the bill and the gig will go more or less as planned. Every musician, especially a leader, has his A list, his B list, and a C list (that hopefully he doesn’t have utilize). Once they get a gig they start making the phones work seeing if they can line up the best possible quartet, quintet, or big band to fill the date. A common exchange between local musicians might go as follows: “Hey I saw Steve the other night at Tiny’s.” “Oh yeah? Who’d he have with him?” There is mild curiosity as to how it would have sounded, and an underlying question as to what list am I on of Steve’s, as obviously I did not get the call.

Non-musicians may wonder how all this works out. If you think of a sports analogy it might make sense. You certainly could put a basketball team together and play a competitive game if you chose a good center, point guard, power forward, etc. They know how the game works. It may not be a championship team but they’ll be able to make a good showing. But unlike machine parts, the level of filling the spot in the mix will of course vary from athlete to athlete and musician to musician.

What gets people on my A list is not only how well they play. It’s almost a given that they don’t make any list unless they play competently. What determines the designated list is often what they don’t bring to the gig. I call it baggage: failure to be punctual, failure to understand what volume level is appropriate for the job, failure to play the appropriate style. If it’s a Rock & Roll date, playing in a progressive jazz style may impress the particular person who’s playing it (they may be self-impressed) but it will not fit the music. So a lot of things go into why you call a certain person, and obviously the player who plays well and does not carry baggage are those who are hardest to get because they’re on everyone’s A list

This process of filling holes for a gig happens at every level. If you’re an avid reader of LP liner notes, as I used to be and still am, you’ll sometimes notice an odd name in the listing for bands like Count Basie or the Duke Ellington Orchestra. If you knew the band you’d say “what’s that saxophone player doing on this LP?” It could be that the second alto player had a dentist appointment when they made the recording session and he couldn’t get there and they had to call a sub. I recall one memorable exchange with saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who was recently quoted in another blog entry (June 7, “The Power of the Eighth Note”). I noticed Jerry’s name on a Count Basie record, “Hollywood Basie’s Way,” recorded in 1966. There was Jerry Dodgion playing second alto on this recording. Now Jerry Dodgion was never a full time member of the Count Basie Orchestra and I asked him about that. Here is the exchange:

MR: You played on this particular record with Basie [“Hollywood Basie’s Way”].

JD: Oh, that one.

MR: Yeah. Remember that one?

JD: Sure I do.

MR: Nice record. And how did that come about?

JD: Well I knew almost everybody in the band because I’d gone to hear the band so much in those years. And one day Billy Mitchell called me and he said “what are you doing Thursday?” I said “I’m not doing anything, why” He said “well would you like to make a recording date with Count Basie?” I said “that’s why I’m alive.” I mean that’s the dream, I mean unbelievable, I thought that’s never going to happen. Well he said Bobby Plater had to take off, because he was writing a date for Lockjaw that was scheduled at the exact same time so he couldn’t be there, so would I come in and play. I said great. So I got to play with Marshall Royal, with Basie, and that was always a dream too, you know, because [he was] the consummate lead alto player for that band. As Thad used to say, “tailor made lead alto.” That was really a thrill. Wonderful.

I’m positive Jerry did his utmost to act as an interchangeable part, filling the role seamlessly and making sure he stayed on Basie’s list.

June 29, 2009

Jazz Studies

Congratulations to JoAnn Krivin for the publication of her stunning book of jazz photography which was captured via front row seats over a period of about 25 years. I had the privilege of writing the introduction for the work. Click on the title above, "Jazz Studies," and you will be transported to JoAnn's website which details the book.

June 19, 2009

The Saxophone Survives

If there was ever a period in American popular music friendly to wind players it would have been the Swing era (mid-1930’s until World War II). The average swing band employed up to 15 wind players: saxophones, trombones and trumpets. If you think about the fact that swing was the popular music of the day, the chance of being employed as a saxophonist, trumpeter or trombonist was far greater than in any other period before or after.

Things changed fairly quickly when Swing fell out of favor. Pop music turned its focus on the vocalist: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, and so on. These singers were backed by mostly nameless studio orchestras. Following that, the advent of Rock & Roll further focused the spotlight on the singer/front man and brought the electric guitar to the forefront, an amplified instrument that could rival the volume previously created by the 15 saxes and brass players. Wind players were mostly left to scramble and head to the studios or the school band rooms in the hopes of staying in the business.

For adaptable players, the one wind instrument that survived was the saxophone. The sax became the instrument that best suited the new sounds: Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll. For some reason the saxophone was most appropriate for this new raunchy and raw music, perhaps because it is capable of producing a very human sound with growls, flutters, doits, shrieks and the like. Some of the saxophone players who were able to embrace this new sound found themselves quite busy. People like King Curtis and Sam “The Man” Taylor were called upon to come into the studio and create 20 seconds of magic on countless pop recordings. Their sounds are familiar even if their names are not.

We can point to singer/saxophonist Louis Jordan as one of the musicians who managed the transition in fine style and set the table for those to come. Louis created a small jump band using a saxophone and a trumpet that bridged the gap between the large swing bands and Rock & Roll. In addition, the instrumental music of the 50’s and 60’s that managed to find a space on the airwaves was heavily saxophone oriented. Bassist Bill Black, of Elvis Presley sideman fame, went on to form the Bill Black Combo, a group that released numerous albums of instrumental covers with the a nameless saxophonist taking the place of the vocal. Ace Cannon, another saxophone player, found a similar niche playing pop instrumentals that made Rock & Roll palatable to almost every age group. These saxophonists rarely received credit on the recordings, and sometimes received disdain from the strict jazzers, but we can assume they welcomed the work.

Alto players Louis and Ace notwithstanding, the predominant saxophone voice of the day was the tenor. It seemed to best fit the range and match the male vocal, and new entries to the scene included Plas Johnson, Jerome Richardson and Harold Ashby. This is the same Harold Ashby who was in the Duke Ellington saxophone section for a decade, after he was a preeminent sax voice on the electric blues coming out of Chicago on Chess Records.

This trend continued into the 70’s and 80’s. Among the instrumentalists who were able to bridge the world of jazz and rock are the prominent saxophonists Grover Washington, David Sanborn and Kenny Gee, who is now reportedly the largest selling instrumentalist of all time. He surpassed trumpeter Herb Alpert, one of the few exceptions to the saxophone rule. While solos from wind instruments seem to be increasingly rare in pop music, if you hear one in the form of the music of Sting, Phil Collins, or Billy Joel, it will most likely be the saxophone.

 Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, focused on developing a hybrid between brass and woodwinds, and he would be pleased that his instrument thrived. Perhaps it’s a little payback for the lack of saxophones in symphonic orchestras. The saxophone’s popularity may explain why typical middle and high school band directors now share a common observation with Professor Harold Hill: “I have saxophones ‘springing up like weeds.’”


June 7, 2009

The Curious Power of Eighth Notes

Do eighth notes gets eight beats? Do eighth notes get an eighth of a beat? Those of you who are reading this who know better are aware that an eighth note almost always gets a half a beat. It’s simply based on four. Eight eighth notes equal four whole beats, thus one eighth note is a half a beat.

In music, two eighth notes on the page indicate an even dividing of the beat: the downbeat and the upbeat. Musicians count them in different ways. Most music teachers say one-and, two-and. Some music teachers say tee-tee-ta (two eighth notes and a quarter note). Eighth notes figure prominently in some memorable musical phrases. Think of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: three eighth notes followed by a half note. Think of the chromatic foreboding introduction to the theme from “Jaws,” a series of eighth notes. You will have to decide which of those two is more important in music history.

A curious thing happened along the way to paired eighth notes. Generally speaking, until the beginning of the twentieth century, eighth notes were played as a down and an up evenly. The beat was divided in half, each half getting the same amount of time. When blues, and especially jazz, started to germinate in the southern U.S. around the turn of the century, eighth notes began to be played in more of a skipping fashion, the first half getting slightly more than the second half. We cannot point to one person who started this trend, although Louis Armstrong is credited with teaching the world how to swing more than anyone else. Indeed, the most obvious characteristic of what we now call swing music was the pairs of eighth notes played with the first half longer than the second half. The best example I can think of is Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” If you look at it on paper, it’s simply a series of eighth notes. But the swing musicians learned that eighth notes were not played evenly. Each pair was played with the first half somewhat longer than the second half. When the arrangers and composers tried to write it down they found it was an inexact science. It’s not a dotted eighth plus sixteenth note, that’s too march-like. It’s more like the beat divided in three parts with the first two connected by a tie. It’s too technical to verbally describe, but we can hear it immediately. Swing music is based on “swinging” eighth notes. The eighth notes in classical music resisted the impulse to swing, thus widening the divide.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Curiously enough, after some fifty years of swinging eighth notes in popular music, they started to migrate back to where they started. I think we can point to the beginning of Rock & Roll: Chuck Berry and Little Richard for example as the transition. These musicians had half a foot coming out of the swing and rhythm & blues era, where eighth notes were unevenly divided and swinging. We can hear the transition in the music of Louis Jordan. Fairly quickly (think Jerry Lee Lewis) the eighth notes became straight again, played much like classical eighth notes and exactly like written on the page. This straightening out of the eighth notes became the biggest distinguishing feature between swing and what was subsequently called Rock & Roll. When a musician calls a tune and a drummer is not familiar with it, their first question would probably be “do you want me to swing it or play straight?” In other words, is it swinging uneven eighth notes or straight eighth notes.

I love the offhand comment that saxophonist Jerry Dodgion made about this in 1996. Jerry is a man who grew up in the swing era and makes his living as a jazz and swing musician. He was around to observe the transition and the profound effect it had on the music business and his own work.

JD: In those days the pop music was still jazz oriented more so. Then later on it became more Rock & Roll, even eighth note oriented. So it changes, it’s changing all the time.

MR: Can I just back up? You just said “even note oriented.”

JD: Even eighth note.

MR: Yes. See I never heard anybody quite describe ... we know how swing eighth notes go and how Rock & Roll eighth notes go, but no one ever exactly said the music became even note oriented. That’s very interesting to me.

JD: Well some drummers, if you talk to some drummers, they might tell you that. Because that’s a basic thing. It’s an even eighth note as opposed to the twelve eight, smooth flowing.

One eighth note by itself doesn’t make any difference. But two makes all the difference in the world. You can hear the transition happening in the recording studio with some of Chuck Berry’s early music where Chuck is wailing away on straight eighth notes and half his band is obviously swinging. The juxtaposition of the two says volumes more than any music history book can describe.

June 3, 2009

100 Years of Benny

Swing fans mark the spring of 2009 as a significant event, the centennial of the birth of Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. After a few years as a studio musician in New York he launched his own band. As the story goes, Benny launched the swing era on the west coast, and young dancers went crazy to his music. Calling anybody the “king” of anything can certainly cause arguments and discussions. I wonder what William Basie and Edward Ellington thought about Benny Goodman being called the “King of Swing.” He certainly was the person who made swing a household word and the pop music of the day, although there were many artists who could have laid claim to the title. Fortunately, William Basie was called the “Count” and Edward Ellington was called “Duke,” so there was enough royalty to spread around.

Benny Goodman was known as a perfectionist, to put it mildly. He thought about his clarinet, his clarinet and his clarinet, and then he thought about the perfect band. He also had a couple of other attributes that swing fans might not have known. One was his astounding absence of a memory. During our interview with Steve Allen he had a first-hand experience with Benny’s lack of memory concerning names. (See blog entry dated February 6, “A Social Hero”). Steve had a great connection to Benny because Steve played Benny’s character in “The Benny Goodman Story” and actually learned to play the clarinet.

Another non-musical attribute of Benny’s was his (let’s be kind) frugal approach to life. He was not a big spender, especially when hiring sidemen. The consummate bassist Milt Hilton shared a couple of stories in a Hamilton College interview that was conducted by our dear friend Joe Williams. According to web references Benny was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago, but Milt relates otherwise. Milt reminisces about three particular experiences with Benny, growing up in Chicago, at a daughter’s wedding and on a West Coast jazz event:

MH: I’ll tell you a funny story about Benny Goodman. Now Benny Goodman was nine months older than I. July 18, 1923 I took my first violin lesson. My mother sent me to the west side to the Jane Ellis Hull House, every Saturday, where kids could get music lessons for twenty-five cents. And Benny Goodman was right there. There was nine in his family. We were, back in 1923, we were taking music lessons together. And he remembered that. We’d argue and fight, he’d fire me and hire me back again, but we had respect, of a musician, a good musician. He knew what a good musician is. He was a good musician. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t nearly as liked as well as we wish he had been liked, but it was because he had such an insatiable desire for perfection. And you know Benny wasn’t born in Chicago, he was born in Russia, outside Kiev. But when his mother and father came to Chicago, he was a baby in arms. So you can apply for papers for your child, as born in America. I found out that years later. And we kept our friendship to the last. When his daughter got married, he called me up and said “hey, Milt, my daughter’s getting married, you and Mona come on over on Friday.” He’d say “bring your bass.” And he was all dressed up in his finery, so proud of his daughter getting married, and we had George Barnes there, and Bucky Pizzarelli, and a bunch of musicians. And we were over in the corner playing and everybody’s congratulating Benny Goodman because his daughter’s getting married, and his foot is going like this, tapping his foot. And next thing we know he’s got his clarinet and he’s right over there with us. He was an insatiable musician.

JW: Did you hear that marvelous story that Mel tells about him, Mel Powell? He says Benny came out to California in later years and called him up and says “Mel?” He says “Yeah, Benny.” He says “Let’s do lunch.” So Mel says “yeah, all right. You buying?” He said there was a long pause, and Benny said “let’s go Dutch.”

MH: He couldn’t get away from that. I got a funny one. There’s a million Benny Goodman stories. You know he called you up, saying he’d just passed from Concord Records, Carl Jefferson was out there in California, and he was having a big jazz party out there, and he called me up and he says “Milt, I’d like for you to bring a group of major musicians from New York out, so get some guys.” And I say “okay, I’ll get them together.” So I got Jo Jones, Claude Hopkins, Budd Johnson, Benny Morton, Roy Eldridge, and I mentioned Jo Jones and myself. You couldn’t get a more senior group than that. So we were going to go to California to do this concert. So Benny Goodman’s going to be out there. So Carl Jefferson told Benny, “well Milt is going to come out and bring some guys,” and he says, “oh he is? Well maybe I can get them to play with me.” He says, “call him up and tell him that.” So Carl Jefferson says “no, you call him and tell him that.” Now Carl Jefferson is giving me $6,000, a thousand dollars apiece for each one of us to come out there. And Benny Goodman called me up and says “hey, Milt, I see where you’re going to be out here in California at the concert.” I say “yeah.” He says “I’m closing, do you want to play with me?” I say “yeah Benny, I don’t mind playing with you,” I said “what’s the bread like?” He says “will $185 be okay?” I say “oh, wait a minute, Benny, wait a minute” I say. He says, “okay, what do you want?” So I figured out, I got greedy. I say, well I’m getting $1000 already, I’ll just ask him for $500 more. So I say “if you give me $500 I’ll do it.” He hung up the phone on me. He hung up the phone.

Lastly, Skitch Henderson, of “The Tonight Show” fame and New York Pops Orchestra, had his own take on Benny Goodman, who, no matter how perfect the musical situation seemed to be he would be the last person to be completely satisfied. Skitch talked about Benny Goodman’s performance on “The Tonight Show” in New York with Johnny Carson, when Skitch was musical director:

SH: This was a funny night with Goodman. I asked Goodman, I think I must have asked him for two or three years to come and do the show, and he never would do it. Benny was Benny. “No, Pops, forget it, Pops. I’m not going to come down and have to rehearse.” So at last I saw him one day and I said “Benny, I’m going to give you a gift.” I said “I’m going to get all of Fletcher’s old charts and they have been blown up just a bit, there are five saxophones instead of four, and I want you to just — it would be good for you, and I want you to do it for the guys in the band. Because you’ll never have an aggregation like this again.” Anyway he did the show. I asked him who he wanted to play piano, and it’s interesting that he called Marian McPartland, as opposed to Teddy Wilson, which fascinated me. Anyway it was a hell of a night. Now I’m playing, I’m conducting — two years pass, and I’m conducting in Brisbane, Australia. Now I’m not in Omaha, I’m in Brisbane. And the phone rings and it’s Benny. I mean I hear this voice. “Hey Pops, I left my braces in Sidney, do you have any spare braces?” You know, suspenders. So I said “Yeah I guess so.” And then that night after that concert he and I sat and talked in this smelly gymnasium where they played, and it kind of broke my heart because I said, we had a confession period to each other. He was talking to me about his unhappiness that he hadn’t, even though he was a very successful player and guest, he had no placement with a group because nobody would work for him, he was so mean, let’s face it. Bobby Rosengarden, I think Bobby refused the calls, everybody did. They gave up at last. So in this strange night in Australia I said “Benny, I have very few things that ever made me smile on “The Tonight Show” because there was always rankling from upstairs about the clients,” and I said “the band took care of itself and I just had to work out the schedule.” But I said “the night you came on and played it really thrilled me to hear that, that you could have that kind of virtuosity in every chair.” I mean there wasn’t a guy there that hadn’t paid their dues a hundred times over. And there was dead silence and he looks at me and said “yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” And then he launched into a tirade. He had just toured with a British band of five brass, four saxophones and three rhythm, like the old, old Benny, 1936 Benny Goodman Band. And that’s what he was happy with. I’ll never forget that. “Yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” That Bucky Pizzarelli and I talk about. Because Bucky was good to the end. He’d go to the house in Connecticut and play with Benny, just the two of them, just to make him play. But it was strange that he had that.

MR: He wasn’t even happy with perfection.

SH: Yeah. And he was such a perfectionist.

MR: Wow.

SH: “Yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” That was, for me, almost like a curtain coming down in Benny’s life with me. And I told the guys. Of course they thought “what else do you expect him to say?”

Benny Goodman’s music will certainly last forever. In addition, Benny played an important role in racial dynamics in the United States and we wrote about this in the blog entry dated February 6, 2009.

May 26, 2009

Mercy, Mercy

We didn’t start the jazz archive project until 1995, so there is a long list of jazz artists we never had a chance to interview. Foremost among them for me was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. If I had to pick only one musician who grabbed me and who I wanted to emulate, it would be Cannonball.

I can’t recall what the first recording was that piqued my interest in him. I can remember the Glenn Miller that my parents exposed me to, and I can remember Brubeck’s “Take Five” with Paul Desmond having a strong effect on me. With Cannonball it was probably his recording of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” because it was getting significant radio play and had such a great hook. At the end of the buildup in the chorus, Cannon plays a note that drips with soul and joy. Later I can remember singing along to his recording using the smarmy words from the Buckinghams, the classic line “My baby, she’s made out of love/Like one of those bunnies from a Playboy Club.” I wonder how Joe Zawinul, the author of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” felt about that cover version.

Cannonball was a guy who was blessed with just about everything you could want as a musician and an entertainer. He had a huge, flexible sound, comfortable with ballads, bebop or blues; he had a great band, co-led with his brother, Nat; he had two fine composers in the band, Nat and Joe Zawinul; and he always had dynamic bass and drums, first with Louis Hayes on drums and Sam Jones on bass, and later with Roy McCurdy and either Victor Gaskin or Walter Booker. This latter was actually my favorite Cannonball group. Roy McCurdy had a great viewpoint, figuratively and literally, about playing with Nat and Cannon. In our interview we were marveling at the live recording of “Country Preacher” and the reaction from the audience after the dramatic pause in the middle of the song. Here’s what Roy had to say about that, from our 1995 session:

RM: “I was behind them all the time, looking at them. And his brother was short and Cannon was tall. And they had a way of snapping their fingers and moving, and their behinds were both in sync you know. And they would be snapping and the behinds would be in sync. And during that pause, that’s what was going on, you know they had that little sync thing going. And then they’d go back and hit it. Joe would hit it, and the people loved that thing. It was a kind of a follow up to 'Mercy, Mercy.' Yeah it was really nice.

Along with all this musicianship, Cannonball was among the rare jazz musicians who had what you might call the “gift of gab,” but it was more than gab. He had a way of introducing the band, his songs, and his whole approach to performing brought the audience with him. He was profoundly hip, but didn’t have to work at it. As he was fond of saying “hipness is a fact of life, not a state of mind.” You don’t decide you’re going to be hip, you just are, and he was that.

I had a wonderful moment during an interview with pianist and arranger Shelly Berg. Without my prompting, he expressed better than I could, what made Cannonball so unique. Here’s what Shelly said, from our interview in 2000. I’m happy to share Shelly’s words here because they perfectly sum up what I have felt about Cannonball since around 1966.

SB: “[Cannonball was] the perfect culmination of every attribute. Impeccable technique, impeccable time, as sophisticated harmonically and melodically as anybody of his day, and yet so incredibly soulful and bluesy. And you put all those things together and there’s just no other player for me that’s ever synergized all those things so well. And nobody’s ever swung any more than that.

I was fortunate to see Cannonball perform on three or four occasions. A couple of times he came to a club in my hometown, Rochester, NY. In one case it was a library concert and I remember discovering the reality of the jazz artist. The band seemed to be running late, and it was informative to watch the band members, Cannonball, Joe Zawinul and the rest, carrying their own drums, keyboards, etc., and setting them up. There was no road crew for those guys.

Later on, at SUNY Fredonia, some very hip music students got together and brought the Cannonball Adderley Quintet to Fredonia for a three day residency, so I found myself sitting five feet away from Cannonball with a small group of saxophonists in a clinic situation. He called “Straight, No Chaser,” to which I happily knew the melody, and asked us each to play a couple of choruses. It was totally a capella, with no rhythm section. I can’t recall what I played. I’m sure it wasn’t brilliant, but it didn’t matter. He was gracious and hip, even at 9 a.m.

Fortunately most of Cannonball’s LP’s have been reissued on CD. Among my favorite recordings that my readers might love I would include:

• “Hamba Nami” from Accent on Africa, Capitol Records, ST 2987.
• “I Can’t Get Started” from Nancy Wilson and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Capitol Records, SM 1657.
• “Country Preacher” from Live at Operation Breadbasket, Capitol, SKAO 404.
• “Sack O’ Woe” from Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Capitol ST 2663.

May 10, 2009

Rock & Roll — The New Nostalgia

First of all I apologize for not having blogged for the past month. We’ve been in the middle of a move which has been a challenge.

I’ve been in the music business long enough to see a curious turnover. It used to be when a gig was going to be an obvious senior citizen event, the playlist called for “Sentimental Journey,” “In the Mood,” “As Time Goes By” and various collections of swing and ballads written in the 1930’s and 40’s. As I’m dictating this entry I’m on my way home from a gig that had us playing in a huge ballroom for that same demographic. And what did they come to hear? They came to hear a five piece vocal group doing Doo-Wop and various pop hits of the fifties; followed by an Elvis Presley show. Rock & Roll has now become nostalgia for the boomers. It’s as if the Rock & Roll deluge which overtook swing and jazz as pop music in the 50’s has now happened again. The generation who embraced Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra as their pop music is leaving us. Do the math. Kids who were Sweet 16 in 1958 when Chuck Berry sang about being that age are now in their late sixties.

As I looked out in the audience at this gig I was struck by the impression that these songs must have made on them as teenagers. I watched a lady with bluish hair singing along with the bop-bops that come at regular intervals in Elvis’ song “Don’t Be Cruel.” Not only did she know the song, she knew the back-up vocal parts! On the drive home, I picked up an AM station broadcasting a show called “Friday Night Bandstand.” I don’t know about you, but if I hear “Friday Night Bandstand” is coming on I normally expect to hear big band ballroom sounds. Instead I heard “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino; “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets; and “Who Wrote the Book of Love” by the Monotones.

This particular evening came on the heels of an event that gives the phrase “Rock & Roll will never die” added significance for me. For the last two years I’ve been working with a group that we call “The Roots of Rock & Roll” with this exact thought in my mind, that Rock & Roll has now become the music of nostalgia. At the same time it seems to cut across all generations. Our band recently played three concerts in one day for junior high kids and for primary grades, and you would be amazed at the involvement of kindergartners, first graders and second graders in the music that their grandparents — possibly even their great-grandparents — were listening to as teenagers. There’s something about “Johnny B. Goode” “Don’t Be Cruel, and “Great Balls of Fire,” that seeps into our subconscious, perhaps like no other pop music. Maybe it’s the singalongability, the simplicity of form and the strong backbeat that seems universal for generations. Maybe it’s the tempos that inspire — no demand — that we move some part of our body. It’s fascinating to listen to a song like “In the Mood” followed by “Rock Around the Clock.” They are basically both swing songs, almost the same tempo, based on a 12-bar blues form, and “Rock Around the Clock” will perk up anybody’s ear, no matter what age.

So if you’re a musician and you are playing for a mature audience with hearing aids and canes, don’t be surprised when instead of requesting “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me,” they ask for “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”