December 28, 2012

The Jazz Glass: Half Full or Half Empty?

Next week I will travel to Atlanta for the annual JazzEd Network conference. This association quickly stepped in when the International Association of Jazz Educators went bankrupt in 2008. If a journalist wanted to write an article about the healthy state of one of America’s original art forms, this would be the event to attend. Educators, performers, students, and entrepreneurs will convene for four days of concerts, clinics and commerce. The jazz glass will be overflowing.

Players and promoters know that this vibrant scene is sadly not mirrored in other areas. Rick Tessel, the publisher of JazzEd Magazine, recently authored “The Paradox of Today’s Jazz Scene.” He pointed out the inequalities, citing statistics and focusing on the fact that high schools, middle schools, and conservatories have students studying jazz more than ever before. At the same time, the jazz audience is shrinking, especially under the age of 45, according to the Jazz Audience Initiative. The record industry is suffering as well, and jazz recordings account for less than 3% of total music sales. Mr. Tessel cites possible reasons, including the proliferation of music on the internet, and the fact that “younger buyers seem to be more actively involved in the full range of music activities, especially downloading and organizing music.” My reading of this statement is that downloading and organizing have replaced purchasing and attending. I don’t think any observers of the jazz scene are surprised by this paradox.
Saxophonist/composer Jane Ira Bloom recognized the situation with recordings back in 1998 when I interviewed her for the Jazz Archive.
MR:    Yesterday I overheard you talking about recording albums and the business of finding labels, and you had mentioned that the business for records these days is not too healthy in the jazz world and that the time you’re getting to make records is getting smaller.
Jane Ira Bloom
JB:    Yeah. Well this is the middle, the jazz trenches, we’re not talking about the major jazz labels, we’re talking about all the independent jazz labels that live and operate in this kind of middle ground, on very small budgets. And the fact is it’s become so easy to make a CD now, everybody can make one, anybody can make a CD and get it out there and reproduce it and get it in the record stores. And I’m not entirely sure what that says about the quality and the content of what’s in those CD’s if they’re so easy to do, how carefully we think about what it is that we record and want to put out there. There is also a lot of other entertainment options for people who buy CD’s now, you know the computer and internet has changed all kinds of things. And entertainment options people have, not just listening to records. People can barely listen to 60 minutes of music, they don’t have that amount of time. An LP used to be 40 minutes. People could handle that. Jazz critics say today that they don’t even have time to listen to an entire CD when they’re evaluating new albums. It takes a lot of time.
MR:    Yeah. You get a stack of CD’s on your desk that you’re supposed to review and each one of them is an hour.
JB:    Yeah. It also brings up the point of, you know, how carefully are you thinking about what you are recording, how special you want to make those musical moments.
Bob Kinkel, a founding members of the TransSiberian Orchestra, and my most recent interviewee, succinctly addressed the easy accessibility of current technology:
Bob Kinkel
BK:    My view of technology and the way it’s gotten so much easier to do it in all forms — like graphic design, art, music recording — it’s really easy to get to high mediocrity. And unfortunately that is where a lot of people stay and it’s very rare that people are popping above that with any kind of design. It’s like I’m happy that a lot of the top architectural schools are making everybody do stuff by hand again before they’ll let them take whatever design they did by hand and put into CAD programs. So it’s more using it as a tool instead of the creative crutch, because it’s so easy to get to get high mediocrity.
It’s hard to imagine that the connection between slumping record sales and concert attendance is not one of the consequences of the astounding leaps in technology. Recently I related to my most accomplished saxophone student the thrill of seeing Cannonball Adderley in live shows in the late 1960’s. His reply was “oh yes, I’ve seen him on YouTube.” My saxophone teacher about that same time would recommend to me different artists to listen to and absorb. My process would be to save up money from my allowance and go to the record store to pore through the offerings, making my most informed choice possible. The prodigious liner notes on the album jackets assisted in my selections. I also listened to my transistor radio late at night where I heard the all-night jazz station in Rochester, New York. All of the above are now just a click away.
Very few young musicians would ever need or want to recreate the effort that Phil Woods talked about in our interview from 1999.
Phil Woods
PW:    Before I graduated, I was still in high school. And we’d come down, we’d take the bus to New York and we’d have to take another subway out to Long Island and then a bus to Lennie’s [Tristano] house, and I forget what it was, it was $15 a lesson or something, which seemed like a lot of bread in those days. I’d take a lesson then go back to Manhattan and go to Romeo’s and get a bowl of spaghetti, and you knew it was fresh because it’d been sitting in the window all day, and then we’d go to Mainstream Records and get the latest Bud and Bird and Diz, whatever we could afford. They were 78’s of course in those days. And if we still have a dollar left over we’d go to 52nd Street. I could get a Coca Cola for a dollar and I could sit there all night man. And that’s where I first heard Charlie Parker. I think he was sitting in with Milt Jackson I believe and Howard McGhee.
If I suggest to my saxophone students today that they would benefit from listening to a certain artist, my expectation used to be that the student would seek them out and purchase select recordings. Suppose I suggest that John Coltrane is the important artist. My Google search yielded the following on the first page offering: A live recording of John playing “Naima,” a live recording of “My Favorite Things,” the full version of “Blue Trane” with moving photo gallery, and a version of “Giant Steps” with an animated solo, the notes appearing one after the other, in real time, complete with chord changes. Most Coltrane fans would agree that these four songs belong on the short list of his notable recordings. Will the average student feel compelled to purchase this music? Why should they?
Let’s look at a current artist. Eric Alexander is an accomplished saxophonist, influenced by John Coltrane amongst others. Eric’s Google search offers a treasure trove of video and audio. One particular link has 32 different videos of Eric performing. What about live concerts? If a student desires to see an actual live performance, he/she can visit Small’s website, and for $5 a month live jazz from the club can be viewed every night. Is the experience the same as actually being in a jazz club? Of course not. However, it’s very close, and costs next to nothing. Let’s face it, the days of going to extraordinary measures for your jazz education are long gone, except for paying extraordinary tuition.
My intention here is not to sound like a “moldy fig,” the term used to describe purists who dismissed any attempts to modernize jazz in the 30’s. The discrepancy between the separate sides of jazz provide a fertile topic for music journalists and the occasional sociology paper. I believe most of the situation can be explained by the adage “what we receive too cheap, we esteem too little.”
There is little doubt that the JazzEd conference at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta will be stimulating and upbeat. If you attend, please consider my presentation on Friday, January 4, 2013, at 10 a.m. in the Learning Center. I will host a screening of the film “Joe Williams: A Portrait in Song.” Hamilton College produced this concert documentary in 1996, featuring Joe with the Count Basie Orchestra. Expect a review on the conference in our next posting.

October 31, 2012

Mat Domber, Friend of Jazz

Mat Domber

The history of recorded jazz is, of course, the story of its players. But by the very nature of the business, producers, and record company owners also play a role. Invariably even the best of producers clashed with their artists over business matters or the aesthetics of the jazz being produced. Mat Domber (and his wife Rachel) were founders and owners of Arbors Records, and Mat was a man well-loved in the jazz business, and a highly respected producer. I have met and interviewed many Arbors artists and Mat always received the highest praise. He passed away on September 19, 2012, and he will be sorely missed by jazz musicians and their audience.
Mat started producing jazz recordings for the best of reasons. He simply loved the music. Mat was a self-described “Eddie Condonite” and, as a youth, heard live jazz at Nick’s in New York. He tried to emulate Pee Wee Russell on the clarinet for a brief time, and wisely decided to make his career in law and real estate. But jazz remained a passion for him, and years later he found himself in a position where he could help some under-recorded musicians become more known to the public. Arbors Records was founded in 1989 and since then has produced over 300 recordings.
Mat didn’t like to label music, although if you need to categorize the music on Arbors it is mostly in the traditional jazz mode. Here are his thoughts on the subject of labels, from our interview conducted on January 12, 2007 at the International Association of Jazz Educators:
MR:      You said some significant things [this morning] in that you don’t necessarily care for labels in marketing jazz or in jazz in general?
MD:      That’s right. We don’t. Because good music is good music. And if you label something as let’s say Dixieland for example, people think of Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and they think of sleeve garters and they think of striped shirts. And they forget the musical importance of that style of music and actually the difficulty of creating it. It’s a kind of music that’s so easy to play poorly and so difficult to play well.
MR:      That’s a great statement.
MD:      But that’s only one aspect of it. I mean jazz has become so broad that it’s even very difficult to define. What is jazz today? I mean Kenny G, is he jazz? Is polytonal New Orleans music jazz? I mean and everything in between. Music is music.
MR:      You said something this morning about a collection of sounds that is supposed to elicit some kind of emotional response.
MD:      Right. And that I think is one of the important things about music, music in general, whether it’s classical music, whether it’s jazz. It’s related to emotion. And one of the problems that I think has happened to the way in which even jazz has been moving is that it’s lost its soul. It’s lost that emotional impact. It’s become a technical exercise. It’s become something to display the virtuosity of the musician but it doesn’t expose his heart and soul. And earlier jazz did just that. It didn’t have quite the virtuosity but it had feeling, it had soul, it had something that you take away that’s memorable. Something that’s — even with the early musicians — as somebody commented, Wycliffe Gordon commented this morning — it has, you could recognize a musician by his tone, by his phrasing, as an individual.
A lot of that is lost.
Producers varied in the amounts of hands-on manipulation they felt was necessary to produce a sellable product. Part of Mat’s role seemed to be making people comfortable and dealing with egos, but he mainly left musical choices up to the artists themselves. When he was actually asked his opinion by his musical heroes, he was somewhat taken aback.
MR:      As a producer of these things, did you ever have to deal with personality conflicts between the musicians?
MD:      Sure.
MR:      They are people too, right?
MD:      Well when you’re dealing with musicians you’re dealing with artists. When you’re dealing with artists there are always personality issues, there’s always ego — this guy doesn’t like the other guy, this guy had a gig but he never invited me to play with him so I don’t want to play with him. You know you always have things of that kind that go on. Usually you can help smooth it over. Sometimes you just make sure that they stay separated.
MR:      When you make a new CD, are you the producer in the sense that do you direct the music that’s going to go on the —
MD:      I’m not a musician. I don’t know one chord from another if push came to shove. I decided that what I would do is leave the music to the musicians. So normally what I will do is choose somebody who I’d like to record or choose a group that I’d like to record. And I ask the leader to select the musicians that will help him to present his music the way he wants to present it, or, we record women as well as men. And I leave the choice of tunes to them, I leave the editing of the music to them, although occasionally I might have an opinion, but I don’t think that I know as much about music as Ruby Braff did or know as much as Kenny Davern or any of these people, so why should I try to tell them? But the strange thing that started to happen with the recordings that we did, that they would ask me for my opinion. And I was always very flattered when Kenny Davern would say “well which take did you prefer?” And I’d think to myself my God, you’re asking me? And sometimes I came up with an answer that he agreed with and sometimes I didn’t.
In addition to a steady output of recorded jazz, Arbors Records also sponsored an annual Florida jazz event called the March of Jazz, was co-founder of the group The Statesmen of Jazz, and more recently was involved in producing the Jazz Alive cruises.
Mat was well aware of the importance of jazz in twentieth century America, and the complicated issues involving the music and race. If you’ve ever delved into the jazz party circuit, you would have noticed that the musicians — and especially the audience — were predominantly white. Mat addressed this issue in our interview:
MD:      We’ve always had black musicians or at least we’ve tried to have black musicians at our parties. I felt that the music is color blind and gender blind. We have women who we think are good performers who fit in. The whole issue is fitting in. I mean you know, Milt Hinton was at our parties while he was alive of course, and came — we honored him on his birthday as one of our — we had Benny Waters and we had Benny’s, I think he was 95 at the time, and we presented a tribute to Benny as part of our March of Jazz. We’ve had Joe Wilder. But the problem has always been to find musicians that would fit in, who would be able to play with the group as a whole, would know the tunes and would be able to perform. And with our Statesmen of Jazz group we’ve been able to reach out to more and more musicians. I mean we have people like Norman Simmons who play regularly with us and we put Norman together with Warren Vache you know, and they play together beautifully. Rufus Reid playing bass in our group, Bobby Cranshaw playing bass, so that we try to do that. But it is a problem. And of course I have to say that you know if you bring up the subject of race I mean that raises other issues. There aren’t too many black people who come to our parties as audience. I can’t speak for why but there are very, very, very few. And in terms of jazz producers, building a bottom line, they’re looking at inviting musicians who they think will have a following, who they think will bring an audience to them, and that too is a factor in how many black musicians they want to invite. Now on the other side of the coin you have the group that puts on cruises where they have a lot of black musicians who are playing on the cruises, with white musicians I mean, and they get a large black audience. But it’s funny, when you go on those cruises you see that most of the black audience will go to those performances where the black musicians are playing, and not too many of them come in to where the white musicians are playing, which is a shame because in the early days of music, the early days of jazz, although the country was segregated, the music wasn’t. And very often in the recording studios you’d have white and black musicians who were recording together while they couldn’t appear together on stage. And they jammed together and they learned from each other, and that was very, very interesting. Plus the fact that so many of the black musicians had teachers who were white. Buster Bailey, for example, went to the same music teacher that Benny Goodman did in Chicago. And I’m sure that there are many, many, many more examples that you could quote. So it’s an unfortunate thing but I think that part of it too related to economics. I think that the black musicians, with justification, felt that they were, for a long, long time, excluded from the better paying jobs and the better hotel work, from the jobs that white bands were getting. And when the circle turned I think they felt that they wanted to do their thing and take advantage of their thing and why should they bring in other people to participate in what they felt was their chance to make a few bucks.
MR:      Yeah. It’s a really complicated issue for sure.
MD:      Yes it is. And it’s cultural as well as musical.
MR:      Were you saying that you can’t really separate American culture when you study jazz history? It’s all one and the same?
MD:      I think I made that comment. But others might have said the same thing. Yeah it’s true, it’s true. You can look at, I’ve always felt that our segregated society had a lot to do with the evolution of the music during those times. I think also the rise of the black power movement after World War II had a lot to do with the direction that music took at that time. And in that sense the music was really related to the culture and the cultural phenomena that were taking place at the time.
Arbors Records produced recordings from many of the great jazz artists — Warren Vache, Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Hyman, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern and Bob Haggart — not bad for what Mat called a “Mom and Pop” operation. Mat and Rachel were especially important to those jazz artists in the “middle generation,” the players who were neither the new young stars nor the celebrated elder veterans. Mat was one of the good guys.

October 3, 2012

Eddie Bert, 1922-2012

Eddie Bert

Eddie Bert was a trombone player whose large tone and swagger with his instrument belied his small stature. He passed away September 27, 2012 at his home in Danbury, CT, at the age of 90. I had the good fortune to interview Eddie in Danbury on November 20, 2001. During my Archive interviews I’ve been able to hear countless diverse stories about how musicians of his era got their start on their particular instruments, and Eddie shared his experience:
MR:      What made you gravitate — was trombone your first instrument?
EB:      Not really. You see I grew up in the Bronx. Then when I was ten I moved to Mount Vernon. And in the Bronx they didn’t have any band so I didn’t know where that radio stuff came from. I heard the radio and I heard music but I didn’t know anything about it. So then when I got to Mount Vernon they had a band in the school, in the elementary school. And the teacher said here, try this trumpet. So I played the trumpet. And she said yeah, you’d be a good trumpet player, tell your father to get you a horn. Nothing. So I had to take what was there. And they had an E flat alto horn. And you don’t do too much with that. When the tuba goes oomph, you go pah. Oomph-pah, oomph-pah, oomph. And that got kind of boring. So one day we were playing a concert in one of the schools and we were playing the “Skater’s Waltz,” and the drummer couldn’t play three-four. So I said let me play that, because I had some friends in the drum section you know. So anyway I started playing bass drum and we were right in back of the trombones. And they had these counter melodies in the marches and stuff like that. And I said yeah, I like that. So I had a broken umbrella. And, you know the part that goes up? So I did that, and I had a razzer. You know what a razzer is?
MR:      I think so.
EB:      One of those big rubber things brrumph, brrumpt, brrumph. So I’d walk down the street going like that. So finally my father says what are you doing? I says playing trombone. But it isn’t a trombone. I said yeah but I don’t have one. So he finally got me one of these stupid, it was like what we call a pea shooter. It was made by Wurlitzer. And it was a terrible horn but it was a horn. So I played it for a little bit.
MR:      It was a trombone but just a lousy one?
EB:      Yeah. But then after about a year he bought me a horn. So that’s how I started.
MR:      That’s a great story. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a picture of you going down the street with that umbrella? You know it’s funny too, a lot of guys, did you say it was a Sears trombone?
EB:      No, a Wurlitzer. It was like Sears & Roebuck.
MR:      Sure. A lot of those early instruments came from them, and the catalogue, and cost five or six dollars.
His career in music was inspired by listening to a 78 rpm in one of the booths of a record store. He loved the tenor sax player. Turns out it was Lester Young and the band was about to make their now-famous appearance at The Famous Door in New York City. Eddie managed to get a lesson with Basie trombonist Benny Morton, and he was on his way.
Eddie played with an amazing number of big bands — stylistically from one end of the spectrum to the other. These included Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, and even Charles Mingus. When you look at the resumes of some of these musicians, it looks as if they got fired after six weeks, because they’ve played with so many bandleaders. I asked Eddie about these seemingly short stints with so many bands:
MR:      Was there a particular reason that musicians seemed to go from one band to the other quite often?
EB:      Yeah. In other words I’m from New York, right? So you’re based in New York. When Kai Winding left Stan Kenton, this was in ’47, he called and said “I’m not going back with the band so why don’t you call Stan.” Because he had seen me with Red [Norvo] when we were at The Aquarium in New York. He came in with his band. That was when that band debuted. And I was with Red at that time, with the small band. And he heard me and he was friendly and all that. So I wrote to him and he said yeah, come on the band. So that’s California. So I had to go to California, right? I knew he was coming to New York because we worked at the Commodore Hotel for a month and then we went to the Paramount Theater and we did a lot of recording. This was in ’47. So then he started back out to California. And meanwhile I had a baby with my wife and I said I’ve got to jump off. So I had to jump off. So that’s what happened. I joined him three different times and I kept jumping off when he’d go back to California. Because, you know, the family situation. That’s the way you stay married.
MR:      Yeah.
EB:      So anyway, that’s why I was with a lot of bands. Because I’d always do that. When I went with Benny Goodman, he was going out, but he was going to stay out there for six months he told us. He stayed for six weeks and then started coming back. So that was kind of a drag.
MR:      What was it like to be on the road at that time? Was it a tough life?
EB:      Yeah. I mean you don’t eat right and all that. Because you’re traveling by bus mostly. And when you stop, you stop. You’re liable to stop in some place that don’t have that good food and stuff like that. So it’s kind of a scuffle.
MR:      And a typical day, would the bus leave after you’re done playing?
EB:      It depends how far the trip is. If it’s 300 miles or 500 miles, you’ve got to leave after the gig. And you had to pay for your own hotel in those days. So a lot of guys ghosted. In other words, you had two in a room instead of one. Or three. Whatever you can get away with.
MR:      Yeah. Okay. And what was the salary like? I mean I know it varied from band to band.
EB:      Yeah. From a bill and a half to two bills. But your expenses had to come out of that. So it wasn’t like today. Today they put you up. It’s different.
The romanticism of being a big band musician on the road has been debunked by many of our interviewees. With a family at home, Eddie decided he needed to stop jumping on and off of bands. The circle of musicians and contractors called these kind of people roadies, in other words, don’t hire him for a long term job, he’s a “roadie” — at any moment he might pick up and join whatever big band. At his wife’s urging, Eddie used the GI Bill and went back to school for a music teaching degree.
EB:      So I went to Manhattan School of Music and it took me seven years to get a master’s but meanwhile they heard I was in town so guys would call up and say can you do a date, like and I’d have to borrow a horn and run down and do a date. But finally I got in with the thing and I got established.
MR:      But you weren’t taking jazz courses, right?
EB:      Oh no, no. They couldn’t understand that.
MR:      So you got a degree in teaching?
EB:      Yeah.
MR:      Right. Did you ever really use it?
EB:      When I was doing my student teaching they had me go to Yonkers to do — a guy was doing jury duty. So they said you go up there for two weeks. So I went up there and about the second or third day I went to the principal and I said “I got a record date can I take off tomorrow?” He said “what’s a record date?” I said oh, Jesus, not for me. So I got out of that. I never used it.
MR:      Oh that’s funny, what’s a record date.
EB:      Yeah. If he didn’t know what a record date was, I don’t belong there. I had to get out. You can’t turn record dates down. I mean then you end up a roadie.
MR:      Okay. You’re right back where you started.
EB:      Yeah. So that was that. I forgot about the teaching.
MR:      But you did get the degree.
EB:      Yeah. I’ve still got it.
After his briefest of stints in the world of education, Eddie found multiple niches and was able to stay more or less in the New York area. He became part of the pit orchestras for many Broadway musicals, played on countless radio and television commercials, and was a member of the Dick Cavett television show house band. He always kept his jazz chops, as evidenced by his participation in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and his gigs with Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. The sometimes volatile Charles Mingus recruited Eddie to play in what became known as the “Town Hall Concert Fiasco” in 1962. The brilliant Mingus asked a lot of his sidemen:
MR:      Did [Mingus] require some things from his sidemen that other leaders wouldn’t?
EB:      Well yeah. I mean he wanted you to play his music. And the way you played his music with a small group, he didn’t write it out. You go up to his apartment and he’d play it for you on the piano, and you’d learn it in your head. And that’s how you learned it. Because he said “if I write it out you’re going to play it different,” which you do. If it’s written out you play it different. But if you get it in your head and you play it like you want to play it. And he says “play it your way.” He didn’t say any specific thing. Here it is. Like for instance “Jump Monk.” When I first learned that, it was by rote. I just learned it. And when we went on “The Bohemia,” there was no music.
MR:      No music.
EB:      And he’d change things during the night, you know change little things. You’d be playing and he’s singing in your ear “play this,” and he’s singing. So you play it as he’s singing it.
MR:      Cool.
EB:      Oh yeah.
MR:      You had to be on your toes.
EB:      Oh yeah.
MR:      Very interesting. Did they ever record, was it the Town Hall concert or something?
EB:      Yeah. ’62.
MR:      Right.
EB:      Yeah they recorded that. But what happened was they pushed the date up a month, which hung him up about writing the music. That’s when he punched Jimmy Knepper in the mouth. And I asked Jimmy how did that happen. He said he was copying music for him and he went up to bring him some music and Mingus says “write me something.” So he says “it’s your concert, it’s not my concert.” Bamm. You know.
MR:      I guess he was under a little pressure.
EB:      Well yeah. But Jimmy didn’t play the concert. He wasn’t in the band. But he was doing the copying I guess.
MR:      The concert was kind of a rough affair, wasn’t it?
EB:      Well we ended up, we were rehearsing while the audience was there. And then he went out and made this announcement, he said “ladies and gentlemen this is a recording it’s not a concert so if you want to get your money back go to the box office.” And the producer’s in the back saying what is he talking about? And half the audience left. But they had copyists copying the music while we were rehearsing it on the spot. And they were recording it. It ended up so like this — and then the stage hand said “it’s eleven o’clock and at eleven o’clock we’re pulling the curtain.” So like that ended that. So like I don’t know, either Clark Terry or Ernie Royal went [scats] and we started playing “Mellow Tone.” And that was the last tune on the concert. And as I went off I had a plunger and I went [scats] and it’s on the tape. I mean it was all like tension.
MR:      Was Mingus even still on stage at that point?
EB:      I don’t know. I wanted to get out of there before they threw the tomatoes or something.
MR:      Or something worse. Wow.
EB:      It was a fiasco.
Eddie continued to work with challenging groups including the New York Jazz Repertory Company in the 70’s and the American Jazz Orchestra in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. He was playing into his 89th year, and demonstrated an uncanny ability to remember how far he had to travel for his gigs, during this clip from 2001:
MR:      What’s in the near future for you?
EB:      Yeah well it’s just day to day. I do what I can. A lot of rehearsal bands and stuff to keep chops. But that’s what you have to do, and then do a lot of traveling. You know last Friday I worked in Morristown, New Jersey and that’s like 100 miles each way. And what was it yesterday, no day before yesterday I worked in Lambertville, which is outside of New Hope. That was 150 miles each way. And then I make some rehearsal bands, I do a rehearsal in Emerson, New Jersey, that’s 65 miles each way. That’s no pay. That’s a rehearsal. Then I rehearse with another band in Berlin, Connecticut, and that’s 45 miles each way.
MR:      Looks like you’ve got your mileage down anyway.
EB:      Oh yeah.
Eddie surprised me by sending a collection of lead sheets to his original compositions, another of his talents. I enjoyed playing through them while reminiscing for this blog entry. They are very hip tunes, and as diverse as was the arc of his career.

September 21, 2012

Dave and Iola Brubeck

Today Dave and Iola Brubeck are celebrating their 70th anniversary. They have supported each other during the ups and downs of a life in jazz, and I was lucky enough to interview them both — ten years apart — in their Connecticut home.
Dave Brubeck
After the Hamilton interview project was well underway, I began to get requests to do presentations about the Archive to small groups. Some of these were at the college, others in community venues. People often approached me after these presentations and asked if I met with this person or that person, favorite jazz personalities who were elderly but still vital. I don’t know if I would have thought to pursue an interview with Dave Brubeck, but after one presentation at Hamilton an alumni couple approached me and asked if I had done an interview with Brubeck. When I answered that I had not, they said I should pursue it. They said that Dave lived near them in Connecticut and they spoke glowingly of him and his community philanthropy, and indicated he was very approachable. Shortly thereafter I contacted the Brubeck Institute which was just getting underway at that time, and I was directed to George Moore, the fellow who handled most of Brubeck’s business contacts.
I was 14 or 15 when I first heard “Take Five” on the radio. It was one of very few jazz songs that made the AM radio playlist in the sixties and it altered my listening habits significantly. The Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond on saxophone was the first group I sought out and began to analyze.
When it was determined that I would be able to interview Dave for the Archive, my only contact was with Brubeck’s business manager, George. He was helpful, but he made the idea of conducting an interview with Brubeck quite imposing. First of all it was decided that we would do the interview at Brubeck’s home, and George made it clear in a polite way that Dave would not want to talk about the past, the “Take Five” type questions. This is analogous to getting a chance to interview Paul McCartney but being warned to not ask about The Beatles. The time of Brubeck’s life with the quartet for which he is most renown is with Desmond, but it was a relatively brief period of his life and hence the warning from George not to go back there with my questions.
I suppose if I had the opportunity to ask questions about Brubeck’s period in the sixties, I would have asked him if he was surprised that “Take Five” made the AM playlists, or if casual listeners were aware of the odd time signatures, liner notes notwithstanding. I might have asked him why he added the 4/4 swing section interludes in “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” with its 9/8 time signature. Maybe I would have asked him to comment on Al Jarreau’s lyrics to the piece or ask him how that came about. Early on when I began doing these jazz interviews I learned not to make the mistake of asking questions which contained an agenda or an opinion if I could avoid it. A question such as that might have been “Did you add the swing section in ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ because you thought the audience needed a safe haven by this part in the song?” Asking questions in this way causes unwanted outcomes in the interviews. It’s not my job to try to dazzle either Brubeck or any potential audience of the video with my expertise or insights. The point was to direct the subject and then to create subsequent questions based on the interviewees’ responses. That’s the only way you can possibly get at the true feelings, motives and ideas of the interviewees. It’s not the time to hear any of my opinions, difficult as it is to restrain myself at times.
I would have prepared many questions on this era if I’d had the chance, and it probably would have been a good interview. As it turned out, Brubeck reminisced on this period in his life, but he went there of his own accord, without my prodding. I was grateful for that meandering of thought.
George sent a series of four cassettes of interviews Brubeck had recently done, and listening to these cassettes probably represented the most homework I had ever done on one person, keeping notes and trying to figure out how to engage him in subject matter that was more recent, material I wasn’t all that familiar with, such as his symphonic compositions.
Thinking back, it clearly was the one interview that had me the most nervous beforehand. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly. Normally the equipment necessary to conduct these interviews involved two cameras with lighting, separate DAT machines for audio, and backdrop curtains. Typically in hotel rooms we’d move furniture around to accommodate the set up. In the case of going to someone’s home you want to disrupt as little as possible and get in and out as quickly as you can, yet still get a good-looking video. I also knew that he had another appointment scheduled for later that afternoon. The cameraman and I were planning to drive that day from one place in Connecticut to another, and we arrived in Brubeck’s community well over an hour before our scheduled appointment, necessitating that we kill time and heightening my nervousness.
When we finally pulled up and met George, it looked like an appropriate set-up. We would be situated on a closed in porch overlooking a little ravine, and Brubeck would be seated at his piano. We did not meet Brubeck until we were all set up and then George went and brought him to the interview. I felt anxious for the interview to get rolling, and for the challenge of picking-up that comfort level with people, which is always the preliminary part of the interview. I wanted him to feel that I was asking questions that he would enjoy discussing.
Watching the interview now, I think I spent too much time on subjects I hadn’t anticipated. I wasn’t prepared for the depth of his spirituality. I don’t know whether I would have been able to prepare for it even had I known, but I recall not feeling comfortable getting into discussions about religion. The things that inspire Dave Brubeck to write seem weighty compared to what inspires me to compose. To me, musical compositions are mostly about getting a start and then solving the problem, how to get from one place to another in an interesting manner. In one sense, though, that part of the musical puzzle is the way he thinks, as when he talked about getting a commission along with some other composers to do new settings of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the choral movement at the end of the Ninth. He didn’t want to do it, because he thought the piece was sacrosanct, but when his musical mind took over he immediately went to the challenge. How then could he do this? Oh! It’s perfect in five:

And then:
 This is the kind of immediate musical problem solving that composers often demonstrate.
One interesting moment in the interview was his description of finishing pieces in oddball places, like writing a Christmas mass in the back of a Volkswagen bus as his wife was driving them to visit one of their sons at summer camp. I remember when finishing my graduate hours, taking a course called “The Philosophy of Testing,” which was excruciatingly dull. I recalled being in this class in the basement of a church in the Upstate New York boondocks, sitting in the back of the room using a big book to camouflage manuscript paper as I worked on an arrangement of “Your Smiling Face,” the James Taylor song. I remember that vividly because I was in the talking stage of forming a new group and I intended to use the arrangement for the new band.
There were two significant moments in the interview. The first was about him traveling in Russia, and talking about how the music brought the Soviets and Americans together. As he spoke I realized he was starting to choke-up on camera and I remember thinking to myself how far is this going to go, how long do I wait before I try to say something, do I respond to what the subject is or do I move into a different area. My response to this came from doing the homework and being aware of a previous comment he had made in another interview. People often say that music is the universal language. His previous interview comment was that rhythm is the universal language. I used that comment and also used the well-known piece he wrote back in the sixties called “The Real Ambassadors,” where he was touting music and its pioneers, including Louis Armstrong, as the real ambassadors, and thinking he was one of them, so that’s what I chose for my panic-stricken comment. I said “you said it the best, when you said rhythm ties humanity together. Am I correct? That’s an absolutely amazing story. And you are one of the real ambassadors. We’re most appreciative that you’ve done that in your lifetime. [Pause] I’m really interested to hear about your vision for the [Brubeck] Institute.”
The second significant moment in the interview was when I played a small excerpt from a Jackie [Cain] & Roy [Kral] medley of the two songs “Summertime” and “Summer Song,” from their “Time and Love” album. It had some significant springboards for discussion. “Summer Song” was his composition and his wife Iola’s lyrics. It was from their musical “The Real Ambassadors,” and it was a song that Louis Armstrong had originally sung. Also significant was that Paul Desmond was playing on the cut from the Jackie & Roy recording. It was a nice moment when he realized what it was that I had brought for him, and his spontaneous and wholly positive reaction to it, a piece he clearly had not heard in decades. Significant for me was his serene facial expression when he heard the dissonance resolve in the a cappella section at the words “swimming hole,” because the beauty of this was the precise reason I chose to bring that piece from among the myriad I could have selected.
Afterwards I was humbled and fortunate as he took me to his workspace. He had two pianos, one being an upright that was set on cinderblocks so that he could play standing up. I recalled that as a young man Brubeck had a serious swimming accident where he hurt his back, and dealing with that injury was still part of his life. He showed me the piece he had been working on that morning. The interview was done in November of 2001, and the piece was about the war in Afghanistan. He had mentioned it in the interview, and said that Iola had commented that no one would want to hear this, and he shouldn’t write it, because it was too sad. He played a little of it for me and asked what I thought of it. I can’t remember what I said. I’m sure I said it was lovely or striking. I did refrain, however, from making an idiotic crack such as “well if you work for a few more years you can become a well-known composer, Mr. Brubeck.”
Iola Brubeck
In the summer of 2011 I returned to the Brubeck home, this time to interview Iola Brubeck, as she is a lyricist. Iola and I had been trying to find a time that was convenient for both of us, and it was a relief to finally be able to obtain this interview, as she is also in her early nineties. This time I was under no constraints as to questions being off limits, and she seemed genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to be interviewed for our Archive.
Over the years, Iola’s impact on Dave’s career cannot be understated. It was Iola, for example, who suggested they focus their efforts on the then-budding college circuit in the fifties, an astute observation. Dave and Iola were both raised in California and attended college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. After college, and as he began his career, Dave was working clubs in San Francisco. Iola said it was Duke Ellington who advised Dave that if he ever wanted to make it big in jazz that it was necessary to move to the New York market. At that time they bought the house where they now reside in Connecticut, and proceeded to raise their six children.
At the time of the interview I asked Iola if she still traveled with Dave. She said that for a few years they only traveled to places they could get to by car, for example the Newport Jazz Festival. But she said that nowadays she didn’t venture far from home. She said that it wasn’t exciting anymore to get on a plane and travel.
Iola was a gracious and humble interviewee. Like many of our interviewees, she didn’t realize she’d be receiving a modest honorarium from the college in exchange for her time. Hamilton requires that a W-9 IRS form be filled out for any amount at all if funds are to be disbursed by the college. I found it delightful that Iola didn’t know her own Social Security number. She had to retire to the office in the house to fetch it.
A few weeks after we sent the Brubecks a DVD copy of Iola’s interview, she emailed me to say that she and Dave had watched it together and that they both enjoyed it. I felt proud to be able to conduct an interview that would please Dave Brubeck, as most interviewees do not acknowledge receipt of the finished DVD.

September 7, 2012

Jazz Blasts from the Past

If you were an enthusiastic fan of swing music in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s — and there were legions of them — you would have known these terms and even used them in conversation: tub thumper, ork (and orks), wax and shellac, jive, zoot, chirp, canary and warbler, 88 man, sweet, straw boss, flicker, gut scraper, and Hitemen. Swing music had its stars, its sidemen, and its own dialect.

A recent donation to the Hamilton College Jazz Archive included a fascinating collection of Down Beat magazines from the early 1940’s. Down Beat was established in 1934 in Chicago, and the original title was “Down Beat — Music News from Coast to Coast.” In the early days, Down Beat read like a big band tabloid; a weekly magazine that followed the music industry, concentrating almost solely on the swing genre of jazz, which was the popular music of the day. Let’s take a look at some of the articles from 1942, their captivating titles, and what the articles show us about the era.
April 15, 1942 — “Four Chirps to Chester Combo”
Down Beat tells us that band leader Bob Chester added four new vocalists to his organization, tentatively calling them the “Rhythmites.” Every swing band had a vocal component. Sometimes it was a girl and a guy singer, sometimes a group. The girl singer might also be called a “fem chirp” or a “canary,” who took care of the “warbling.”
From the same issue we see the headline “College Ork Eyecatcher”
This was an illuminating article about a hot young band from Northwestern University in Chicago, discovered by bandleader Les Brown. Ork is short for orchestra, also short for tailored orchestrations or arrangements, a huge part of the success or failure of a swing band.
From the same issue comes “Hitemen Leave for Army — Dizzy Gillespie Joins Ork
The news for the Les Hite band was that two members were drafted. Filling one of the trumpet chairs was the young but soon-to-be-famous Dizzy Gillespie. Of course World War II occupied the news and many of the articles in Down Beat talked of the musicians’ role in the war, who was drafted, who was going to lead a band in the service, and what famous musicians were killed or wounded in the conflict.
From February of 1942 we learn that “Sepia Talent in Demand in California” and “Unknown Sepia Crew Rocks Texas Plains.” Webster’s dictionary defines sepia as “a dark reddish-brown color or the particular tint in a photograph.” Down Beat used the word to denote an African-American musician, and it was most likely to be used with a person of lighter skin tone. Obviously this has become a word long out of favor. Despite some moves towards integration in the swing world, bands were almost exclusively all white or all black. I was interested to see the headline of the January 1, 1943 Down Beat issue “Ellington Wins Swing Poll” but the 1942 All-American Swing Band contained only five black musicians out of seventeen categories.
Earthshaking news for professional musicians was summed up in the alliterative title “Jim Jimmies the Jive” from July 1, 1942. Translation: James Petrillo, head of the American Federation of Musicians, made good on his threat to halt all recording activity in the United States. His aggressive stance against the recording industry for not allowing payments to musicians for radio and jukebox play eventually was a winner for union members. But for over two years recording of new music was severely curtailed in the United States, except for the bootlegs, the solo vocalists, and the V-disks made for the servicemen. Indeed sales of records (disks/platters) was a huge part of the music business and the union move was not the only thing threatening that part of the business. Another headline from February of 1942 reads “Rough Disks Make Critics Moan.” Shellac was an important ingredient in the creation of vinyl disks but in short supply because of the war effort. A combination of bad records and bad needles apparently was ruining the fidelity of the early 1940’s swing records.
A timely fashion item showed up in the November 1, 1942 Down Beat issue: “Curses, Lincoln Bars Zoot Suits.” The generously tailored zoot suit was synonymous with swing musicians and swing fans, and some club owners were not fond of it. The suits were also called reet pleates and drape shapes, and the article contained the following excerpt: “the [Lincoln Hotel] management has issued orders that characters, hep or otherwise, in the baggy overlong pants and coats which somehow have become associated with swing, will cut not a single rug while the nation’s top drawing card is on view.” In the atmosphere of World War II when many resources were being rationed, the Lincoln Hotel owners apparently thought the generous material put into zoot suits constituted wastefulness.

Our interviewee Sol Yaged spoke of his remembrances of the period, highlighting the Lincoln Hotel:
Sol Yaged
SY:     There was a lot of great music at one time. I’ll never forget the Lincoln Hotel on 46th, 47th Street and Eighth Avenue, I used to hear Artie Shaw’s band, or some great band. Charlie Barnet played that room, Jan Savett played that room. It was owned by a woman called Marie Cramer. She owned these two hotels, the Lincoln Hotel on Eighth Avenue and 47th Street, and then she owned the Edison Hotel on 46th Street off Broadway. But she used the sweet bands at that hotel. She used bands there like Blue Baron, Sammy Kaye and another band that became a hotel band later on, Henry Jerome and his orchestra. She used all the sweet bands at that hotel, the Edison Hotel, and the Lincoln Hotel she used all the hot bands like Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet and Jan Savett. I’ll never forget the first time, even though I adore Benny Goodman, where I first heard Artie Shaw play in person at the Lincoln Hotel, “Begin the Beguine.” It was unbelievable. That sound was just unbelievable the way the band came in. Buddy Rich on drums, Tony Pastor on saxophone, a very exciting sound. And the band was right on, Monk. He had a very tight band. I’ll never forget when he was at the Strand Theater at the same time Benny Goodman was at the Paramount Theater. I was there. There was a big sign at the Paramount Theater with a picture of Benny Goodman with his clarinet, King of Swing. Then you walk up four, five, six blocks at the Strand Theater, a big sign, Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet, with his picture. At the same time they both appeared, it was unbelievably exciting. Everybody was running back and forth. It was a very, very exciting two weeks.
Down Beat kept tabs on the hot selling records and jukebox favorites. Here’s a look at the popular recordings spinning on the jukeboxes (a/k/a coin machines). Among the Top 12 in February of 1942 are “The White Cliffs of Dover” by Jimmy Dorsey; “Deep in the Heart of Texas” by Alvino Ray; and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” by Glenn Miller. Every song listing included the first artist choice followed by a second, as these songs were covered simultaneously by multiple bands and vocalists.
I’ve spoken to Hamilton alums and enthusiastic music fans who were teenagers in this period. They were every bit as fanatical as music fans of the Beatles and Beyonce. One Archive interviewee, the late drummer Stanley Kay, spoke of his passion for the music in the swing era:
Stanley Kay
MR:    Was your family surprised at the direction your career took?
SK:     No. Because they knew that’s what I wanted to do. That’s all I wanted to do. I never wanted to do anything else. And people shouldn’t do what I’m saying, but I didn’t graduate high school because I spent all my time in the Paramount Theater when the new bands were coming. It was like empty in the school. I was one. I was the leader of empty. And it was an interesting thing because when we went to the Paramount Theater, we gave one guy 55 cents in the morning. And it was, you had Don Baker at the organ, a sing-a-long, a bouncing ball, Fox Movietone News, the movie and then the band. And it could be Tommy and Frank Sinatra and the Nicholas Brothers or Charlie Barnet. And I’d sit there and say when am I going to do that? When am I going to do that? And the first time I did it with Buddy Rich, when the pit went up, I looked down and saw where I sat. I looked right there, and I went like this, I says thank you. I says I made it.

Down Beat magazine is still one of the two or three top jazz magazines in the country. Its current cover price ($6) is far different from what we see here, in 1942.

And, for your amusement, the rest of the swing slang:
tub thumper — a drummer
flicker — a movie or film
straw boss — the second in command in a swing outfit, often the lead alto sax man
gutscraper — a violinist (playing on strings made of cat gut)
wax — as a noun, a musical recording; as a verb, the process of recording
88 man — a pianist
sweet — swing music with a light touch for the less adventurous crowd; as contrasted to hot meaning bands with high energy and outstanding virtuosity
Music has the ability to capture the spirit of its era. Without a doubt, the enjoyment of big band music helped balance the somberness of a nation at war. The history books I’ve read don’t capture the joy of this era, nor the creative jargon, in these dusty relics circa 1942.

July 25, 2012

Songs of Summer

The summer season has provided inspiration for both popular and classical compositions for centuries. One of the earliest examples, circa 1260, is the English Medieval round “Sumer is Icumen In.” The translation from Middle English shows us that thirteenth century songwriters were motivated by the activities of summer. Sly Stone was similarly inspired in his 1969 hit “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and a verse from each song seamlessly spans the centuries:
From “Sumer is Icumen In”:
            Summer has come in, loudly sing cuckoo
            The seed grows and the meadow blooms and the world springs anew
From “Hot Fun in the Summertime”:
            Boop boopa boop when I want to, out of school
            County fair in the country sun and everything is cool.
Instrumental music has its share of summer songs as well. Vivaldi had his 1723 “hit” with the Summer movement of “The Four Seasons,” and two hundred plus years later organist Walter Wanderley gave us “Samba de Verao,” (“Summer Samba”).
The Internet is rife with lists of the hundred best summer songs, and at present they are in heavy rotation on the oldies stations. My vote for one of the most outstanding summer songs is rarely heard on the radio, and never makes the lists.
In the late 1950s, Dave and Iola Brubeck started to collaborate on a musical production to be called “The Real Ambassadors.” Their lofty aspirations were to bring together some of the greatest musical talent in existence and show the world through music that humanity could live together in peace. Louis Armstrong was to be the focal point, and the whole production was built around his irrepressible voice and trumpet. Amongst the songs from “The Real Ambassadors” was a beautiful ballad entitled “Summer Song.” The music was by Dave Brubeck, and the lyric was by his wife, Iola. Iola managed to combine lyrical poetry, with homespun Americana. Her first line offers a beautiful simile:
            Love to me is like a summer day
            Silent ‘cause there is just too much to say
And later in the song:
            I hear laughter from the swimming hole
            Kids are fishing with a willow pole
“The Real Ambassadors” was recorded in 1961 and performed only once, at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. The festival was mostly filmed but “The Real Ambassadors” debut was not, reportedly due to a lack of $750 that would have kept the film crew working. The Brubecks had always hoped that it could be turned into a Broadway production, but at this date it has only been reissued on CD. Check out Louis’ rendition of “Summer Song.” The Brubecks certainly could hear his voice when they wrote the tune. Louis made the song his own, just as he did a few years later with the hit “What a Wonderful World.” The song can also be heard on CD on the Columbia release “Dave Brubeck/Vocal Encounters” where Dave and his quartet are matched with the likes of Carmen McCrae, Jimmy Rushing, Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong.

I came through the back door with my association with “Summer Song.” As so often happens, the first version of a song you hear is not the original. I became enchanted with “Summer Song” from the 1972 LP “Time and Love” by Jackie and Roy. Along with arranger Don Sebesky they cleverly combined their version of “Summer Song” with the Gershwin classic “Summertime,” entitled Summer Song/Summertime. To make the connection with the Brubecks one layer deeper, they invited saxophonist Paul Desmond to guest on the cut. He weaves “Summertime” in and out of his improvisations, and the lush arrangement by Don Sebesky make this version the equal of the original.
I had the privilege of interviewing both Dave and Iola Brubeck on separate occasions in their Connecticut home and I took the opportunity to play the Jackie and Roy version for them. They were both enamored of the recording; in fact Dave actually jumped out of his seat at a moment in the song (at 2:25). After Desmond’s gorgeous solo, Jackie and Roy sing an overdubbed four-part harmony that made the composer of this song sit up and take notice.
No one sits at a higher pinnacle in the music pantheon than the Brubecks, but in true humble musician fashion, both Dave and Iola separately mentioned the significance of Louis Armstrong’s participation in their “Real Ambassador” production. They both made mention of Pops’ inscription on their original score of “Summer Song,” which read: “To Mrs. Brubeck, I am very happy, Satchmo.”
Check out both of these recordings of Summer Song. I think you’ll have a new favorite for the season.

June 13, 2012

Dynamics Make it Interesting

A Bruce Springsteen quote: “I’m driving in my car/I turn on the radio.” The car radio gave me the impetus for my first blog about memorable music moments, and serves as a second inspiration for more. This time the focus is on dynamics. One of the definitions in Webster’s New World Dictionary defines dynamics as “relating to or tending toward change.” Then down the list, “the effect of varying degrees of loudness and softness in the performance of music.” Music students learn the basics of soft (p) and loud (f), as well as the gradual crescendos and decrescendos between them.
Back to the car. I was listening to the oldies station and was forced to another station by a song I couldn’t stand, and landed on the classical station. The DJ announced the mother of all classical pieces: “Beethoven’s Fifth.” How can you turn the channel from “Beethoven’s Fifth?” But how many of you have had the experience of listening to classical music in the car? More often than not it is a frustrating experience. Now you hear it, now you don’t. The obvious reason is the use of dynamics. Pop music rarely takes advantage of the effect of dynamics, unless it’s loud, louder, loudest. In fact if you’ve had studio experience, you know that the final mix on a pop song has the dB meter riding consistently just below the red. It’s a different story with instrumental classical music, where a huge part of the effect of a piece is the use of dynamics.
Let’s take a look at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in particular the First Movement. Everyone can hum the four note figure in their head, and Beethoven milks it for all it’s worth, loud and intense. At about 1:09, he pulls back and decreases the volume and emotion, only to build up again. In this particular clip we hear some terrific use of dynamics, in the beginning, and also at about 2:46, where we experience the masterful use of crescendos and decrescendos throughout the First Movement. Watch Toscanini as he makes sure that the French horn lick at 4:50 is appropriately soft. It’s also interesting to note that Maestro Toscanini had memorized all of Beethoven’s dynamics and needed no score. It all works because this is concert hall music. People are being as quiet as possible, and no road noise intrudes.
Though separated by a century, setting, instrumentation and an ocean, Count Basie displayed the same skill as Beethoven in the use of dynamic extremes to create excitement in his work. With acoustic music, the most obvious way to increase the volume of a band is to have more people play, with varying degrees of intensity. Look at this version of the Count Basie Orchestra and their arrangement of “All of Me.” This is classic Basie. The piece starts with just the rhythm section, Freddie Green chomping away on the guitar, and Basie handling the melody in the most subtle fashion. Just before the halfway point, at measure 15 and 16 (1:07), all the brass and saxes slyly pick up their horns and lay into a three-note figure that takes the dynamics of the band from double piano (pp) to triple forte (fff). Perhaps some of you have had the experience of hearing the Basie band play this chart. I heard it backstage at a concert and it scared the life out of me. Listen to the audience. They applaud the dynamics! It’s a great moment. And of course, it’s followed by a return to that subtle chunking rhythm, a driving force with minimal volume.

Jerry Dodgion
Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion is most associated with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, but in our interview from 1996 he cited his brief time with the Count Basie Band as thrilling and unforgettable. Jerry spoke of the unique ability of the band to play at both ends of the dynamic spectrum and still swing.
MR:   Did you get a chance again to record with [Basie]?
JD:   Yes, several years later. I didn’t even know it was with Count Basie which was good because I would have probably been nervous. I got a call for three days of recording with Chico O’Farrill on the answering service. And I showed up and it was Count Basie’s band. I’m looking around and I said am I in the right studio? So then I see Chico and I says I guess so. I mean that was really great. That was a lot of fun too. That was an album called “Basic Basie.” And I even played a few solos on that, which I was a little apprehensive about. I mean Lockjaw was on that too and he made that great recording of “Bewitched” on one of those dates. It was really wonderful to see this and be in there and be part of it happening. Because I loved the music so much and heard it on records so much, and heard the band in person. I heard the band in person a lot. And that band, the band of the ‘50s and ‘60s was an unbelievable ensemble band. Maybe it was really one of the best ever. They could play with the great swinging and feeling and the emotion and everything. But together. And the ensemble was just so together it was just thrilling. And the dynamics, unbelievable. I mean they could play softer than we’re talking now, the whole band. And you’d still hear the bass with no amplifier. Frank Wess would play the flute, Thad did some things with flute and bass, and you could hear him. Now I don’t know — when the amplification came in it changed everything, you know? The bass became louder than the band and you could not hear the flute unless you turned up the mic and when the flute player turns up his mic then the bass player turns up his mic and then there’s the guitar player, forget it. And here were — and there’s no end to this stuff. But the real sensitive part of playing acoustically, that band just was the best ever. I just, I couldn’t believe it.
Is there anything softer than triple pianissimo (ppp)? The only answer is silence. A rarely used effect in music is the total absence of sound. Two of my favorite musicians knew about it. Cannonball Adderley and Joe Zawinul had a productive working relationship from 1961-1970. Joe wrote many of Cannonball’s most notable pieces. Here’s an example from a live recording in Chicago. The “Country Preacher” Cannonball refers to is a young Reverend Jesse Jackson. Joe Zawinul composed the song and it starts in a meandering fashion with his electric piano lick followed by some Cannonball ruminations on the soprano sax. The band kicks into higher gear, reaching a crescendo at 2:23, ending with a snare drum whack by Roy McCurdy. What can follow that? How about three or four seconds of absolute silence, and then the most subtle entrance possible? Effective? Check out the crowd. They went crazy for the silence. That’s dynamic.
In a similar fashion, Samuel Barber, composer of the work “Adagio for Strings,” may have found himself in a musical quandary. Most people have heard all or part of this piece, as it has been broadcast at solemn occasions and notably employed in the Vietnam movie “Platoon.” This piece existed on its own for years and was first written as a string quartet. It is a marvelous example of the use of dynamics. No winds. No percussion. It’s simply a string orchestra at an imperceptible tempo, building and building, slowly stepping from one dynamic level to the next with rich harmonies. Barber’s composition climbs through seven highly emotional minutes, challenging the listener to stay engaged. Finally it builds to the point where you’re pleading for it to stop. And stop it does. What could possibly follow this heart-wrenching crescendo? Nothing but silence. A good three to five seconds of absolute silence is followed by a cautious reentry of the strings, allowing you to breathe again. This piece is not served well through your computer, so please plug it into your stereo system. Or, find a recording, turn out the lights, get rid of the video, and be absorbed by this piece.
Manny Albam
Arranger Manny Albam was interviewed in October of 1998. His work encompassed writing in the fields of jazz, popular music and classical orchestration. He spoke about dynamics and the potential power they have over audiences:
MA:   Subtleties work if you begin to manipulate the orchestra. And that is orchestration. And that is what dynamics in orchestration do[es] for the audience. You suddenly realize wow, they’re doing something I can’t quite hear, I’d better pay attention. That’s part of audience manipulation. I did things orchestrated on Broadway, not too much. I used to help other people and then I got my own thing to do. And I worked with George Abbott, Mr. Broadway, a great director and all that. And I wrote this great arrangement for one of the singers in the show and he called me over and he said “we don’t want applause at the end of that.” I said “no?” He said “no, we want that to dwindle off into the next scene and to be a smooth thing that will go right into the next scene.” And I learned something about that. They don’t want applause. If you want to bring the audience to their feet you write these big chords and the rhythm section and everybody’s wailing away, and the audience will go “hey! yeah!” and get up, “encore! encore!” You know, the show stopper. But these things are for dramatic changes that happen. No applause. I had to re-write the whole last twelve bars of the thing to bring it all down to nothing and then the whole thing would swing into place. Now once you learn things like that from other venues, in other words this is drama, this has nothing to do with music, but music has got a lot to do with drama anyway.
Dynamics leads to drama.