December 26, 2013

Family Matters

Before the advent of formalized jazz education, the learning process for young musicians included listening to recordings, developing their ear, and finding a mentor. There are numerous examples of the mentor-student relationship staying right at home. Famous father-son combinations include Duke and Mercer Ellington; Tony “Big T” Lovano and his celebrated son, Joe; Dave Brubeck and his sons; and Bucky and John Pizzarelli. I’ve been fortunate to get to know both Bucky and John, and through their interviews conducted for the Fillius Jazz Archive we can gain an insight into how their working relationship developed. In these first excerpts, they both describe the musical atmosphere that each experienced in his youth.

Bucky Pizzarelli
BP:    [During the depression] my folks had a grocery store in Paterson, New Jersey … and we struggled through the whole thing. And everybody ate, we had a good time, and we struggled right into World War II. You know we struggled out of the depression into the World War. But we had a lot of fun in between. We listened to a lot of big band music and we had a lot of music within the family circle. My uncles played guitars and banjos. My father played a little mandolin. And that was our entertainment, to take our minds off the depression. Then we also had the big bands on the radio, and we heard broadcasts from all over the country at different times. Sometimes four different bands the same night.
MR:    Did you have a reputation in high school as a musician?
BP:    Small really. I’d play weddings. I had a few guys I would call and I’d make two or three dollars, which was big money in those days.
And from John’s perspective:
John Pizzarelli
JP:    I wrote a lot of pop songs and I thought maybe there was a chance along the way there was going to be some pop music in my future, of performing my own songs and being Billy Joel or James Taylor. And it’s interesting because I never realized that I was making a living doing what I was — I was playing with my dad, and I’d be getting these six hundred dollar checks and thousand dollar checks, or getting twenty-five. And that was like wow. If we had fifty for the [rock band] gig we were going crazy. And I still had the rock band, because we had fun doing it, and we’d have stretches of down time and I was playing solo gigs and then on the weekend I’d take a rock gig with my band, just playing four chord songs, three chord songs. And my father said, “you’re the only guy playing jazz to support his rock & roll habit.” And he was right. I mean I’d be playing gigs and I’d be giving the money away. Ah we’re having fun here. Doug had the van, give Doug the gas money. I’ll take five bucks, and I’ll have another beer. And the drummer had to come alone. Give him toll money.
You get the impression that both Bucky and John would have been playing music whether they had been paid or not. This is a very common theme, and almost a requirement for a musician — if you don’t love it for the sake of playing it’s best to find another line of work.
Some of my favorite interview moments have come about when two different interviewees talk about the same incident. Here Bucky and John each share their memory of a particular duo situation one summer at the Pierre Hotel:
BP:    Every one of my [four] children play something … [John and I] played one summer together at the Pierre Hotel. I was playing there with a trio and in the summer they cut down and said “can you just come in with two guitars and make it easy?” And John did it with me and then he got his baptism of fire there with me giving him dirty looks when he hit the wrong chord, and he gave them to me when I did. But fortunately he can sit down with a tune and come up with a good set of chords for it. That’s what I like about him.
JP:    From 1980 to 1989 we worked everywhere and anywhere — house parties, concerts, we would play clubs out in Jersey. The Cornerstone out in New Jersey in Metuchen and nobody would listen, everybody would be talking away you know, and we’d sit and play for two hours, just talking to each other. “Okay, what do you want to play, okay.” Boom. Ear training 101. Well we’ll fake that song, okay, and he’d play melodies. And the best example of that is my first gig with my dad. It was eight weeks at the Pierre Hotel in 1980, the summer of 1980. July and August. And the first night I knew about eight songs, and we had to play four hours. I remember him saying “Mountain Greenery.” “What?” He’d go [scats] and he’d look at me and he’d be pounding these melodies out, and wouldn’t tell me anything. And maybe once in a while he’d hit a G7 like “you didn’t hear G7?” Oh and it was the longest eight weeks. But I mean I learned, started to learn songs. And it was the best  — I figured it out along the way that the way he learned was by watching Joe Mooney rehearse at this club in Paterson. And Joe Mooney was blind and he had the accordion with Andy Fitzgerald on clarinet and Jack Hotop on guitar and Gate Reeger. And they’d be playing and Joe would say “here’s how it goes,” and he’d go [scats] and here’s what you play, and this is what you play. And that’s how he taught me. He’d go zip, zip, zip and that’s what you’d do. And then he’d say, “let’s fake this tune.” Rehearsals? There was never written out music. And it’s the best thing, and it was the hardest thing.
You can hear John and his wife Jessica Molaskey on their PBS radio show entitled “Radio Deluxe.” Read more about John at our previous blog entitled Nice Guys Finish First, and we have quoted some of Bucky’s advice for the New Year which also may be interesting and timely reading.

December 10, 2013

Nutcracker Swing

Among the numerous annual holiday events in your neighborhood, it’s a good bet that at least one production of “The Nutcracker Suite” ballet will be taking place. It’s produced by the finest  ballet companies — as in the American Ballet Theater — as well as your local dance school. The “Sleeping Beauty” ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1890 with the now famous music score composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was a master orchestrator, assigning his distinctive melodies to exactly the right instrument. If Russia can claim Tchaikovsky as one of its premier composers, America certainly can put Duke Ellington on the same pedestal.

Ellington, composer of approximately two thousand compositions, rarely arranged music that was not of his own creation. Fortunately for holiday listeners, he teamed with co-composer Billy Strayhorn for an intriguing version of “The Nutcracker Suite” performed by The Ellington Orchestra and recorded on a 1960 LP titled “Three Suites.”
Ellington and Strayhorn managed to make Tchaikovsky swing. Their take on each movement of the suite retained the flavor of the dance and added swinging ensemble parts and sparkling solos. The Duke was an equally skilled orchestrator, but he wrote for individuals rather than specific instruments. Veteran members Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton and Laurence Brown shine throughout the recasting of this holiday classic.
Ellington did not lack for a sense of humor, reflected in his tweaked titles. Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Pipes” was renamed “Toot Toot Tootsie Toot” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” became “Sugar Rum Cherry.”
A search on the Internet will yield multiple versions of the Ellington/ Strayhorn/ Tchaikovsky collaboration, including live performances by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I highly recommend purchasing the CD. It will provide pleasurable holiday listening, and will surely inspire delight for those who have not heard it before.
Seasonal music plays a significant role in end-of-the-year gigs for musicians. You can read my previous musing from 2009 entitled Christmas Time is Here.

November 2, 2013

Frank Wess, 1922-2013

Frank Wess, at Hamilton College in 2007
If you’re a jazz fan, especially of big band jazz, I know you’ve heard Frank Wess. If you’re not a big band fan I’m pretty sure you’ve heard him anyway. In the 2000 movie “Space Cowboys,” the astronaut played by Tommy Lee Jones saves the day and guides the Russian nuclear-tipped missiles out of earth’s orbit and to the moon, saving much of humanity. In the final scene the camera pans over the lunar landscape, ending in a close-up of our hero astronaut’s final resting place. Cue the music: Freddie Green’s rhythm guitar, a couple of piano notes from Basie, “Fly Me to the Moon” sung by Frank Sinatra, and backed up by Frank Wess’ classy flute.
Frank Wess passed away on October 30 at the age of 91, adding to the ever-growing list of Basie alums that have now left us. Frank played a major role in what was dubbed the “New Testament Band” that Basie formed after a brief hiatus in the early 50’s. Wess was part of a consistent saxophone section and stayed with the band for eleven years. Among his section mates were Marshall Royal, the straw boss, on lead alto; tenors Frank Foster, Billy Mitchell or Eric Dixon; and Charlie Fowlkes holding down the baritone chair. Frank was the last surviving member of this reed royalty.
He appeared at Hamilton College on three different occasions for our Fallcoming jazz weekends. I was mystified why he was carrying this long, slim case to the gig when I saw him, why he would need a pool cue? When I asked him about it he said, “oh that’s for my flute. This way I don’t have to keep taking it apart and putting it together.” Frank was not the first jazz flautist, but was among the most influential, and provided arrangers such as Quincy Jones and Neal Hefti with a distinctive sound to use in their charts for the Basie band. Frank spoke about his use of the flute to complement his alto and tenor sax, during our interview from May, 1995:
Frank Wess, in 1995
MR:    What led you to pick up [the flute] as a jazz horn?
FW:    That started years ago when I was in high school. My teacher, Henry L. Grant, who was also Duke Ellington’s teacher and Billy Taylor — Dr. Billy Taylor and I studied with him — and he was the orchestra teacher. And he gave me a flute to take home. So I took it home and after fooling with it a while I realized that I couldn’t do it without a teacher. And at the time, I couldn’t afford a teacher and there wasn’t one available that I knew of. So I said I’ll just let it rest until I can get to it. So at that time there was a fellow named William Culver, who was in the Chic Webb orchestra. And he played with a group within the orchestra called the Little Chicks. And that inspired me to want to play the flute. Because he was the first that I know of to do it. And he recorded a lot with Benny Carter and the musicians that were recording at that time. So when I got a chance to study it under the GI bill I got a chance to go back to school and studied flute, so I did. And Basie evidently was looking for a tenor player, so he kept calling and calling. He called for a couple of years and I told him I was doing something, and I couldn’t leave right then. So he just kept calling. Periodically he would call. And in the meantime I got a degree, a bachelor’s degree in flute, and we got together and I joined Basie. Well the thing was at the time what made me go with him because actually I had quit the road five years before I joined Basie. You know I’d given up on the road because I first left home in 1939. So he said, “well Frank, I think I can give you more exposure than you’ve had.” So that’s what made me join him. I said maybe that is what I need. So I went with him. Well Billy Eckstine had told him about me. Then when I got in the band, Don Redman had asked him, “have you ever heard him play flute?” He said “no.” Said “you ought to let him play flute.” So Bas’ told me, “whatever solos you have, you know, on tenor, whatever you’ve got, if you want to play it on flute, just go ahead and do it.” So that’s how that came about.
Basie fans will debate passionately about the greatest era of the Count’s orchestra. Some people preferred the very early ensemble which included Lester Young, Sweets Edison, and the “All-American Rhythm Section.” But the “New Testament” had a stunning combination of precision, power, individual soloists, and an amazing staff of arrangers, including Frank Wess. He spoke about the band and his role in it:
FW:   The band was hot. We were in one of the best bands Basie ever had. And that’s the band that made him rich, you know. The band was tight. I had forgotten actually, how good the band was until I was listening to those Mosaic recordings. And then it came back to me, how good that band was. It was like one person playing. Everybody was — it was a good band. Well Basie, he knew how to do that. You know he didn’t fault nobody. He just let it stay there until the cats got it together, and then when they got it together he knew what to do with it. But you know the fellows in the band did all of that. He didn’t know too many people, really, I mean musicians. When he’d want somebody he’d say “hey Magic, I need a trumpet player — I need a trombone player — I need a bass” I need this — I need that. And I’d tell him who to call. I got Eddie Jones in the band, Bill Hughes, Sonny Cohn, Eric Dixon, Thad Jones, I can’t think, oh Al Aarons. Yeah I got a whole lot of people in the band.
Frank was responsible for one of the a-ha moments that I experienced during the first few years of my jazz archive experience. We, and I include myself, assume that when musicians gather they engage in intense conversations about music and other musicians. We were lucky enough to take part in a jazz cruise, where our interview with Frank occurred. I learned a lesson when I was invited to join a table where Frank was holding court. I blogged about the story here, entitled Jazz Chat.
Frank’s answers to interview questions could be profound or perfunctory. When he was asked about practice regimens and technical exercises, Frank addressed the question quite eloquently, choosing his words carefully. His advice was born out of years of experience:
FW:    Etudes are studies and that’s what they were meant to be, and that’s what they are. Because you can’t consider most etudes as music, because they’re not. You know they were designed to do a certain thing. Technically you know. But most students, they spend so much time doing that that when they come out and start playing they think they’re making music when it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s two different things. I can be the greatest saxophone player in the world and not be able to make a note of music. It’s two different things. See so they have to get, they almost have to forget that, and then make some music, you know what I mean? Because it’s been my observation that all good music, regardless of what type it is, European music or I don’t care any kind of music, it’s all a matter of, well it’s an extension actually of us. And we, as a part of the universe, we operate the same way. It’s a matter of tension and release. And in music it’s the same thing. And in the best music, I’ve noticed it’s the artful use of that tension and release that makes the music, using the components of music which are first rhythm, because you can have rhythm without melody, and melody and harmony. And the one that’s ignored so much — which is this is important — is silence. Because that is the ultimate release to sound. And it’s the silence that makes the sound important. So if you keep on playing, it gets to be more and more meaningless as you go.
Frank’s eleven years with Basie were memorable, but they were only a fraction of his seven decade career. He left the road to make his living as many former big band players did, arranging, playing commercial dates and Broadway shows, recording, and leading small and large ensembles. He was honored in 2007 as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, a well-conceived program to honor jazz veteran artists while they can still enjoy the acclaim and support.

October 24, 2013

Musical Time Travel

I’ve stated before that my performing repertoire and listening habits can hardly be considered current or up to date. My role as Jazz Archive Director at Hamilton has strengthened my enjoyment of jazz music and personalities from the past — the swing era and the soloists from the 30’s and 40’s. My “songs for gigs” list reflects this obsession and my “current tunes” are now mostly from the 50’s and 60’s.

My passion for this music was reinforced and well-satisfied during the last three weekends. The annual Fallcoming concert at Hamilton for the last five years has featured a group led by pianist Dick Hyman. This year’s members included guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, trumpeter Randy Sandke, drummer Jackie Williams, and bassist Jay Leonhart. Jazz fans will raise their eyebrows at such an impressive cast of characters.
For Fallcoming Jazz ‘13 we tried something different than the normal organized jam session format. A number of years ago, a Dick Hyman CD entitled “From the Age of Swing” came to my attention. I fell in love with the creative arrangements for a four-piece rhythm section and four horns, consisting of alto and baritone saxes, trumpet and trombone. Mr. Hyman’s charts captured the feel of the early big band era, and his imaginative writing was a joy to hear and play. The quintet was augmented by Syracuse trombonist Greg McCrea, Hamilton student Deanna Nappi on baritone sax, and myself on alto sax. Here’s a YouTube link of the first tune we played on this concert.
We played the Hyman charts on September 27, and I found myself immersed in musical heaven. Randy on trumpet faithfully reproduced the approach and sound of Joe Wilder, the trumpeter on the original recording. The rhythm section provided an indescribable bed of swing, demonstrating the power of organized simplicity, and it wouldn’t have happened without the 4/4 chordal strumming of Bucky Pizzarelli, who also was on the 1999 recording. Guitarists describe this as “Freddie Green,” the style of strumming that Mr. Green provided for the Count Basie Orchestra for nearly 50 years.
Here’s a description of that style from Bucky, taken from his 2003 interview:
Bucky Pizzarelli
MR:    Is there some distinguishing thing about what Freddie Green did that’s possible to verbalize?
BP:    It’s very hard to describe what he did but he played a 4/4 beat with an accent on two and four, and he just kept chunking away. And if you study the music of Count Basie, the rhythm section never played figures with the band. When they played eighth-quarter-eighth, you know, they just kept chunking away through the whole thing. And it works better that way. The minute everybody’s doing the same thing it doesn’t work. It’s like a drummer hitting figures with the brass section. It’s terrible.
Jay Leonhart, Bucky’s rhythm section-mate at Fallcoming, described the specifics that make it work:
Jay Leonhart
JL:    I’ve heard Bucky, and who else, James Chirillo … the two of them, they’ll take the third and the seventh, right in the middle of the strings, right in that nice middle range around middle C, which on the piano would be — and they’ll just sit and play the third and the seventh. It’s either a minor third or a major seventh. Or maybe a sixth if they want to get adventurous. And they can just sit there and play like that. And the only notes coming out of the guitar are the relevant ones. And they’re not doubling the third, like making Bach turn over in his grave ... It’s so defined and clear. And as a result their chops are good because they’re not making a lot of moves and they’re not trying to play six notes with every … they can concentrate on the time, and they do. And that’s the way Bucky plays. Yet he’s a grand soloist when he plays songs by himself, he can really play the guitar. He’s not just a two, three and seven guy. He can really play the guitar.
This steady pulse allows everyone in the band to play less, and we know less equals more. It was a memorable moment, transporting me back to the time when this style was the popular music of the day. Mr. Hyman skillfully led the 8-piece ensemble, which had only engaged in a run through of the charts. As an added bonus, Deanna, one of my students, acquitted herself with great skill on the baritone saxophone. The biggest difference from actually performing this music during its original lifespan was the setting. If we had been performing in 1937 in a dance hall, the success of the band would have been determined by the number of dancers on the dance floor. This music has now been elevated to an art form worthy of a seated audience in a concert hall setting.
The next weekend I traveled to SUNY Fredonia, for another round of nostalgia. The annual Fredonia Jazz Ensemble reunion concert took place on Friday evening. In similar fashion, an all-too-brief rehearsal preceded a concert by members of the original members of the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble from the classes of the 1970’s. This weekend is always a mix of music and camaraderie, reconnecting with musicians from those brief college years who shared a love for big band music. At the time, we took pride in the fact that we were operating outside the conventions of the music program. In the mid-70’s jazz had not been embraced by the majority of music schools, and the jazz ensemble was a student-directed affair. Our repertoire this night consisted of familiar big band fare, but from the bands that thrived after the swing era. Material from Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis bands provided plenty of challenge. Most of us playing that night had harbored fantasies of getting a call to join one of these groups and abruptly leaving our studies in avid response.
As an incentive for my own writing, I always compose a new work for this weekend, and I can be confident that it will be played well and with great spirit. My new piece, “Angelica,” was received a good deal of praise, making it worth the time and effort.
The last step on my time travel took me back even further. I got a call to play a dinner dance entitled “A 1920’s Jazz Gala.” While my musical tastes have traveled backwards, the 1920’s was pushing it even for me. A fair amount of research was required for this Great Gatsby-era gig. It was an authentic recreation of a 1920’s speakeasy with period clothing encouraged for all attendees; a non-alcohol event in the spirit of prohibition. This time the songs included tunes you would find in dusty sheet music archives: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “The Charleston,” and “3 O’clock in the Morning.” My current quartet rose to the occasion. The drummer brought vintage drums and the required whistles, woodblocks and cowbells that were so much a part of this upbeat small-band jazz. I was happy to see a number of college and high school students among the attendees, illustrating the fact that some eras carry a magical aura all their own. Here’s a photo of our group from this nostalgic evening.
(L-R) Monk Rowe, Tom McGrath,
John Hutson, and Sean Peters
The three consecutive weekends provided a welcomed musical challenge and a personal sentimental journey.

September 11, 2013

From Page to Stage

In our last blog entry we talked about musical inspiration — where it comes from and what it can result in. A two-measure phrase and groove had entered my head at that time, and I decided to try to expand it into a new work that could be premiered at a Hamilton College concert on September 6. The two-bar phrase that came to me on my morning walk looked like this as first notated:
It wasn’t much to go on, and the manuscript sat on the piano for a day or two until I had time to look at it and begin the real work of composing. How do you take a promising phrase and turn it into a composition with enough length and musical content to be worthy of a public performance? Finding a form is helpful. Most compositions in the jazz realm are written in a fairly specific form, at least mine have been. I’ve written my share of 12-bar blues, and a number of songs that fit into the 32-bar song form, a template dating back to the 1930’s. It’s a convenient form. An 8-bar A section and a repeat of it, a new 8-bar B section, then followed by a repeat of the initial A section. This magically turns 16 bars of composition into 32. This was the form that seemed to present itself as I worked on expanding the initial idea.
The restrictions in this particular case were considerable. The concert format was for a soloist and accompanist, with a preferred time limit of four to five minutes. This limited instrumentation presented a challenge, because two single note instruments would have to provide melody, harmony and rhythm. To achieve a Latin feel that would set up the melody, I employed percussive effects, the string bassist tapping on his instrument and the saxophonist clicking out a separate rhythm on a maraca tied to his belt. As the composer and saxophonist, I knew there were certain notes I could write for just my left hand on the sax, while I tapped the maraca with my right. In addition, I knew that the bass player could tap on his bass while he plucked his instrument, as long as I wrote the part for an open string. These types of details fit into the realm of knowing orchestral instruments and their capabilities.
The song took form and the 2-bar idea developed into 4, then 8. The melody remained in the saxophone and the bass provided root notes and a generic Latin groove. The three eighth notes at the end of bars 4 and 8 grew in importance as the piece progressed. The 8-bar A section looked like this:
The bridge led me to a distant key, presenting a challenge to return to the original , and I must admit this was one of the more jarring transitions I have written. I refer to this as “the Andrew Lloyd Weber modulation,” which consists of no modulation at all, just an abrupt return from whence you came.
For a number of years now I have composed directly into the Finale musical software program, occasionally going to the piano to check things before I notate them. Finale’s reproduction is fairly realistic, and you get a decent idea of what the piece will sound like. The piece needed some contrast and a bit more length, so a section employing a dramatic tremolo/arco bass sound served as an introduction and ending.
When the piece was 90 percent completed I called the bass player to set up a rehearsal, and tried to put it out of my mind for the time being. Most of the work was done, but the song did not have a title. Some time ago I wrote a separate blog called “Instrumental Song Titles,” and how difficult they can be to think of unless a composition is dedicated to a person or event. While the song had a Latin feel, it did not have any distinct reason for being, nor was it composed with something specific in mind. I could have called it “Walking the Dog,” because the initial melody occurred to me while I was doing just that. I dismissed the idea because (1) it would seem inappropriate included on a program for a classical concert; and (2) Rufus Thomas already wrote “Walking the Dog” some 50 years ago. I wanted this title to have a Latin flavor to it so I decided to take the now-important rhythm — three eighth notes — from the piece and translated it into Spanish. After consulting someone who knew the language and proper grammar, the title became “Las tres corcheas.” I liked it, and I thought it might make people ponder about a hidden meaning in the song, of which there is none.
Due to scheduling issues, our rehearsal became a run through that very afternoon before the performance. I was not concerned. The bassist, Darryl Pugh from Syracuse, is a highly skilled musician, comfortable in classical, jazz and Latin genres.
The piece was well received at the concert and came out sounding very close to the way I envisioned it. The fewer instruments you are using the more likely you are to get the result you heard in your head.
The premier of the piece could very well be its only performance, as often compositions written for specific occasions are played only once. You can take a listen to the piece as an MP3 here, as the Finale program plays it. You will hear a two second gap at 1:48, where the solo sections were inserted during the performance.
For me, inspiration for composing seems to arrive when everything I’ve ever heard, played or previously written collides in my head. If I’m lucky, a new phrase synergistically finds its way out.

August 27, 2013

The Sound of Inspiration

The act of composing has been on my mind recently, due to the fact that I have compositions underway — self-imposed writing assignments for two annual fall events.
The two pieces are quite different: a Latin flavored duet for saxophone and bass; and a straight ahead chart for full jazz ensemble. A lot has been written about what inspires composers, painters, authors and choreographers, and there is no one answer.
In the course of my oral history project at Hamilton, numerous interviewees have cited life experiences as inspiration for their compositions, or for the way they improvise. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon spoke about this in our interview from March of 2001:
Wycliffe Gordon
MR:   Where does your inspiration come from for writing new music?
WG:   Oh different things. It could be life experiences. I grew up in the church down south, I was in church every Sunday whether I wanted to be or not. But it depends. It comes from many things. But mainly things that are blues based and the feeling of the music of the church. And sometimes I just am walking around, I hear things and I start to sing. And I learned a very important lesson when I was in college. I write everything down now. Because if you don’t, I think it’s very mysterious how this music thing works in terms of new music coming to you. I’d like to be able to hear everything that I’ve written, get it out of here, on the paper, and maybe get the music performed. I love to play and to perform but I love to write. Because a performance can last — if you get it recorded it can last forever, but I would like to continue to compose music for various aggregations but not just jazz, and that’s what I would like to do.
Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider’s anecdote about her start as a composer and arranger offered a different story. Her experience is almost the opposite — it was actually the lack of a relevant life experience that set the stage for her defining moment, and the impetus to embrace the big band as her platform.
MS:   As far as jazz composition goes, when I did my undergrad at the University of Minnesota, there was no jazz program at that school. I also didn’t have a jazz high school band or anything like that. You know I’m from Minnesota, a very small town, and there was only one person in Windem that really knew anything about jazz, but she was an extraordinary stride player. This is kind of going off on your question, but it kind of leads up, because my education really started with her. And as I was learning classical pieces, she taught me how to play in this old stride style. So we were learning standards and I would come up with my own piano arrangements of them basically, with a little bit of improvisation. And I learned to play out of a fake book. The thing is, she didn’t tell me anything about the development of jazz. And there was no record stores, the only records I had were old Ellington records from the 30’s, Teddy Wilson, Artie Shaw — I didn’t have any modern jazz records. And public T.V. and public radio wasn’t so big back then. I had a lot of classical music, but I always felt sad because I felt that I grew up in the wrong era. I thought that jazz had died and I felt really sad that I grew up in the wrong era, because I wanted to be part of that. So by the time I went to college for music, I thought well maybe I’ll study composition. But I felt weird in the classical world. Because the classical world, in the universities especially, even more so at that time, tonality was something that, if you wrote something that was tonal, you were just shunned.
MR:   Is that right? That’s really weird.
MS:   Well it’s absolutely true. And I remember I wrote a piece for two pianos that was on a sort of composer forum concert at the school or whatever. And there were people looking at each other, because everybody was writing sort of atonal music and this thing was very tonal and romantic. And I remember seeing two older composers looking at each other and giggling. And I remember feeling, I just don’t have a place in this world, in this music. And then two things happened at once. I went to a Bob Hope show, of all things, and they were backed up by a big band from the college. This is right when I started school, and I thought oh my God, there’s a big band. And there was this kid playing drums, and people improvising a little bit. And I was like, oh my God, I want to — I had no idea this sort of thing existed. And this guy who lived in the dorm down the hall from me, he heard me playing some old Ellington album, and he said “do you like jazz?” And I said “yeah, you know what that is?” Well as it turned out, I didn’t know what it was, he knew what it was. He brought me all these records. He brought me Herbie Hancock “Head Hunters,” he brought me Coltrane, McCoy Tyner. I’d never heard a piano player play without a root before. So suddenly I heard all this modern jazz. And I’ll tell you, I was like in tears, because it was like oh my God, the dream came true that this music had evolved and I could be part of it.
In a wonderful bit of irony, Maria Schneider, who was laughed at by avante garde composers in the classical world, has now become one of the most adventurous and ground-breaking writers in the jazz world.
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck cited inspiration that grew from other cultures, (Blue Rondo á la Turk being the most obvious example). Later in his life, excerpts from spiritual texts served as inspiration for his new work. On the day of our interview (November 21, 2001) Dave was working on a piece of music for voice and piano, inspired by both current events and an ancient text. The United States had just launched the war in Afghanistan, and Brubeck was reminded of verses from Luke 23, exhorting women to not bear children because of the tumultuous times. The piece was so dark that his wife Iola, a trusted confidant and advisor, could not encourage him to complete it. Dave then shared a brief anecdote about an earlier composition, a commission to celebrate a visit by the Pope:
MR:   When you go to compose a new piece, does it usually come from a commission that has some guidelines for what they want? A subject area perhaps?
DB:   In some cases yeah. The piece I wrote for the Pope, they gave me a sentence, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the jaws of hell cannot prevail against it.” So I decided I couldn’t do that. They wanted nine minutes while the Pope entered the stadium in San Francisco. Candlestick Park. And I said you know I don’t have enough text to do nine minutes. And then I went to bed, dreamt the subject and countersubject of a fugue, and I knew how to do it, how Bach would have done it. He’d take a sentence and make it last a while. And so I did a chorale and fugue on that sentence and I got a second sentence from The Bible. I said give me one more sentence. And they decided they’d give me the next sentence, it was in keeping what they wanted. “What is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So I had those two sentences.
Vocalist and writer Jon Hendricks was one of the many musicians who collaborated with Dave Brubeck. Their work together resulted in the stage show “The Real Embassadors.” Like Dave, he is a spiritual man, and the term divine inspiration meant exactly that. He shared his thoughts about this in our interview from October of 1995:
Jon Hendricks
MR:   When you did this “Sing a Song of Basie,” it seems like a tremendous amount of writing went into this.
JH:   Yes.
MR:   Did it take a long time?
JH:   It took a shorter time to write it than it did to learn it. Like I can attest to the spirituality of the creative process you know, and there have been symposia on that, people have talked about that. And I know that when you’re in the process of creating something, you become God’s pencil, you know? Because you’re watching the pencil to see what’s coming out. So if you’re the one doing it, you wouldn’t have to do that. You would know what’s coming out. But all during “Sing a Song of Basie” I would be watching the pencil to see what was coming. And it was almost like revealed writing. It just came. And to this day if I do a lyric I do the whole band with the solos and all in one draft. And I go back and maybe I have to change one or two words here, but it just pours out. I think it’s revealed. I think that’s the way it is.
Bobby Watson
Saxophonist and composer Bobby Watson addressed the rare arrival of divine inspiration and the necessary work that follows:
BW:   Sometimes the chords come first, but most of the time I go for the melody. And I keep a little journal if I hear something I’ll write it down and then I’ll get back to it later. You may have a change here or there, but basically you know, if something comes to you, you write that down. You used to say like your divine inspiration — divine inspiration doesn’t come that often. And usually when it does it comes in four bars. Very rarely do you hear a song and it’s complete. I have written a few songs that way, it just comes so fast you can’t hardly get it down on paper, the whole song. I can probably count that on one hand. But most of my songs, you know you have to toil over them, and I get maybe four bars of divine inspiration. And with the craft you stretch that into a whole song.
Bobby credits a professor, Christian Williams from the University of Miami, for some lasting insight into the process. Professor Williams demanded that students start their composing by relating to an emotion, and then use only a melody to try and capture it.
The “four bars of divine inspiration” rang a bell with me. Both this summer and last summer I’ve had a serendipitous experience with composing and inspiration. In both instances there was a need for me to write for an upcoming event, as I mentioned in the beginning of this blog. The inspiration both times came on my daily morning walk around the block with our dog. For whatever reason, a bit of melody entered my head, with a specific groove. Last summer’s was a rather old-timey swing beat, circa the thirties. This year the melody had a strong Latin feel to it. In both cases I kept repeating it over and over in my head until I returned home in frantic search of staff paper and pencil to capture it before it left my mind. Then the work started. These were snippets, not nearly four bars, in fact they were less than two. But the germ of the idea was there. Where did it come from? I like the fact that we don’t know. I like the fact that there will always be a bit of magic, a new idea, a new way to improvise, or a new-found phrase never before used in a particular context.
My Latin idea will be premiered in September at a Hamilton College concert. Perhaps we’ll revisit the song when that concert takes place. For me, pressure helps. Desperation leads to inspiration, hopefully. 

August 22, 2013

Marian McPartland, 1918-2013

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe
Photo by Val DeVisser

Today I am reflecting on the life and career of Marian McPartland, who passed away on August 20, at the age of 95. The accolades and tributes are pouring in, and almost all of them include the qualifier that Marian was one of the most accomplished of all women jazz musicians. In fact, if we want to pay proper tribute to her, it would be more appropriate to say that Marian McPartland was a wonderful jazz pianist, educator, radio personality, and a classy individual. While it is difficult to not feel melancholy at the passing of another legend, I keep reminding myself that Marian defied her parents’ wishes for her to lead a proper British life; she waded onto the beach at Normandy, forged a career as a major jazz artist, created the longest running NPR series, and touched the lives of countless fans and fellow musicians. This is a cause for celebration.

Marian emigrated from the U.K. to the U.S. in 1946, a time when a woman jazz instrumentalist was a rarity, and an Englishwoman jazz musician even more so. I think she enjoyed exceeding peoples’ expectations, and the fact that she was accorded a different response in the press and in the jazz community in general was less bothersome to her than most people think. She touched upon this in our interview, which was conducted in April of 1997 before a concert in Utica, NY.

MM:    I don’t think it was ever an uphill struggle for me, because I sort of had my indoctrination in working with Jimmy, and boy Jimmy was so supportive and proud of me. And so when I started at The Embers as a trio — Ed and Don, they couldn’t be nicer. I mean very seldom did I have a bad experience. The only problem would be like I remember the first review I had from Leonard Feather: “she has three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.” And it didn’t bother me that much. I don’t remember being too upset about that. And if there were things it’d probably be from the audience like “oh you play good for a girl,” or “you sound just like a man.” I mean you don’t hear those things anymore. And I mean there were a lot of women on the scene: Mary Lou Williams, Barbara Carroll, people I’d heard before I got there — Hazel Scott, Lil Harden. I never felt that the women were in such bad shape I guess. They went ahead and they had consciousness raising and I remember talking to Barbara about this, and she said “well I didn’t know it was a thing, we’ve just been playing and doing our thing right along.” And I never had to feel that things were tough. I never did.
MR:    I think it’s often the case when the people that are doing it, aren’t aware that there’s a real problem. It’s the people that are observing from outside, you know, think there’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.
MM:    Well and there were some women who were trying to get gigs. Like somebody I recently had on “Piano Jazz” was a bass player named Coline Ray, was really wonderful, and she said years ago she would get a call for a gig and as soon as the person knew it was a girl, he’d hang up. But I don’t think it was all that prevalent, truthfully. There’s probably still an air of male chauvinism there. But I don’t care. I still like things like having the door opened for me and I don’t have trouble with political correctness. If the bass player wants to put his arm around me, that’s okay.
The Jimmy she refers to is of course cornetist Jimmy McPartland. In a story that seems like a fairy tale, Marian and Jimmy met and connected in a turbulent time. She spoke about her involvement in WW II and the direction her life took afterwards:
MR:    Can I take you back to when you met Jimmy and, it must have been quite an experience to be a young lady in World War II, you started with the British version of USO, is that right?
MM:    Yes.
MR:    Did you have a contract with them? Was it a volunteer thing, or was it a real job?
MM:    Oh I think we had a contract, it was a real job. In fact at that time I had the choice of either being dropped into the woman’s Army, or going into some kind of entertainment, so naturally I decided I would do that immediately, I didn’t have to think about it at all. So the pay was pretty decent, and we played all over the country. Accommodations and travel were not always the best because there was a war on. And there would be bombs dropping once in a while. But then I switched and went with regular Merchant USO. Somebody said “oh you ought to join USO, the pay is better and you’ll meet all these wonderful American guys” stuff like that, and I though oooh. So that’s what I did. And then we worked, it would be a regular show, like with a comedian or a singer or dancer, they had a guitar player and then I did the piano player thing for the whole show. So then it got to be when they were going to have the invasion and after the invasion, they were sounding people who wanted to go over to France and of course I wanted to go and did go with the first group which was about a month after the invasion. And we went over in a boat and we had helmets and combat boots and everything the GI’s had except the guns. You know I felt like MacArthur wading ashore onto Omaha Beach and straggling up the beach and we knew how to put up pup tents. But we never had to because somebody always did that for us. I should have kept a diary. And we went through all of these miserably bombed and strafed areas that were just a mass of rubble, and we finally arrived in Belgium in a rest area, and it was called Eupen, and they had a big band and they had all kinds of stuff going on and the area shows would come there to rest, and they had an Officer’s Club, and that’s where I met Jimmy. One of the people, Willy Shaw, was a comedian from Chicago, knew Jimmy, and said “we can’t have this man out there being in combat, we’ve got to get him into Special Service,” so that’s what they did. So that’s how I met Jimmy, because he then became a member of this little band. But first they had a big party for him, all the band members and people are saying “Jimmy McPartland’s coming, Jimmy McPartland’s coming,” and I’m going “who?” I’d heard of Bud Freeman and Sidney Bechet, but I hadn’t heard of Jimmy yet. And they had a party in this tent and they were going to have a jam session, and Jimmy always told me afterwards, “oh I saw you across the tent and I knew you wanted to play and I said to myself ‘oh a woman musician, she wants to play and I know she’s going to be terrible,’ and you were,” he says. But I really wasn’t terrible I think I just didn’t know how to play with a big band at that point.
MR:    So you guys hit it off pretty quickly?
MM:    Yes we did. And I guess going out every day early, out to the carrier to entertain the troops and going — maybe had to perform on a flatbed truck or they’d build a stage out of boards or it would be raining and they’d put a top over the piano and stuff like that. It wasn’t exactly the greatest. But they just loved it, and then they would wine and dine us and oh, it was something. So you know there we were, so I think it was a case of propinquity — that’s a good word — like we were there and so it just followed on that we would get together. And of course I admired Jimmy’s playing and he started to tell me that he liked my harmony so one thing led to another.
MR:    From a logistical standpoint it must have been interesting seeing what kind of instrument you were going to deal with every day — what kind of piano were they going to find for me?
MM:    Well it’s funny because I thought it was going to be terrible, in fact one of the prerequisites of the job was that you would learn to play accordion in case there were no pianos. Oh, boy, I’ll never live this down. But I never had to actually play the accordion because they had these wonderful little like a G.I. piano which was not quite a full keyboard, like a small upright, painted gray, Army style. And I always got to play on one of those. I never had a problem. And then when we were in Eupen, Jimmy went out to somebody’s house, some people that had been branded as traitors, and removed the piano and put it on a truck and brought it over to the theater for me, and this was like “oh, you went out and got a piano for me, oh.”
MR:    What a nice gesture.
MM:    So that sort of fixed the deal right there. So we got married over there in Aachen, Germany.
Her music, life and career prospered in the United States, first with the assistance of her husband Jimmy and his musical connections, and soon after as a leader of her own trio.
My association with Marian dates back to 1975. For a few years I taught music in Verona, NY, a rural school district outside Utica. I was flabbergasted one day to find a note in my mailbox, distributed to all the teachers, about an upcoming assembly for the students featuring pianist Marian McPartland. I specifically remember saying to the nearest teacher, “Marian McPartland is coming to VVS!?” Her response was “who is Marian McPartland?” As it turned out, our principal was significantly hipper than we had realized. He was a jazz fan and when he saw Marian’s name on the list of performing artists sponsored by our local BOCES, he jumped at the opportunity. I will never forget Marian performing before an auditorium full of middle and high school students. She handled it well, and in recognition of the then-current pop music, included Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine of my Life” in her performance. In what was a first for me, I approached her afterwards and wondered if she might return during the school year to perform as a guest with my newly-formed high school jazz ensemble. She did, and the concert was a great success. Marian exuded class and was attuned to the level and needs of the students on stage. In reflecting on her visit I am reminded that the life of a musician, no matter where they are in the hierarchy of the jazz community, is never an easy one. Marian would have been 54 at the time of this visit, at the height of her career, yet she was playing a rural high school assembly in Central New York, and gladly doing so. Her only complaint was that the Verona Motel had no phones in the rooms.
Our paths crossed a number of times after that, most significantly in 1997. By that time I had been at Hamilton for three years and was in the midst of our jazz oral history project. She brought her trio to a nearby Utica venue for a concert, and soon after received an honorary degree from the college, one of 13 jazz musicians so honored to date. The last time I saw Marian perform was in Toronto at the 2003 IAJE conference. Marian would have been 85 at the time, and was slowed by age and arthritis. When I saw her hands before the concert I could not imagine that she was about to go on stage with a piano trio. But like many veteran musicians, Marian learned how to compensate and her stage presence, dry wit, knack for creating perfect set lists, and her always-keen harmonic sense enabled her to enthrall a standing-room-only audience.
Most jazz fans are familiar with the photo called “A Great Day in Harlem” by Art Kane, taken in 1958. Marian was one of three women among the 57 jazz artists pictured that day. She stood next to Mary Lou Williams, one of her musical heroes, and when a restaging of the picture was conducted in 1997, Marian was one of the nine remaining musicians. The updated 1997 photo drew a considerably large jazz contingent and Marian can be spotted next to the late Dave Brubeck, a mutual admiration society. I stumbled across this audio YouTube today of Dave and Marian playing “Take Five” together.
Her personality and spot-on memory enabled her to make the NPR program “Piano Jazz” a long running hit. For over three decades Marian interviewed and performed with a long list of both veteran and up and coming musicians. Her willingness to take risks and her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of jazz piano enabled her to perform with everyone from Eubie Blake to Cecil Taylor, and with young jazz artists of today. When it came time for Marian to step aside, she chose fellow pianist Jon Weber to become her replacement. When I interviewed Jon at Hamilton College in June of 2012, he was understandably honored to fill the role:
JW:    I am humbled beyond belief that Marian has chosen me to follow her concept into the next generation. I’m very, very happy about it. She started something in 1978 from scratch. There were no jazz radio programs like it. There wasn’t one where you brought on a guest, another musician, and they played together, and they said “oh remember that time at the Hickory House” “remember at the Palladium when the Duke was there, yeah, and Tito Puente walked in and Monk was there.” They have these stories, these jazz stories, that sort of humanize jazz musicians and in a little bit take away from the mystique and make them, oh jazz musicians aren’t so brooding and indecipherable as I had thought, they’re just regular people. And yes, to follow Marian’s concept is an honor that I am humbled beyond belief. I try to research everything about every guest that I have on the show. Because I want to know something, I want to ask something if I possibly can that hasn’t been asked before. Marian does this naturally. Marian could just listen to someone’s records, in those days the albums and probably iron clothes and make a turkey and, you know, write a chart. And then the next day go on the show and say “oh yes on the eighth album on the second side that thing you did in your solo, I got a kick out of it.” She remembers everything.
Marian had an adventurous musical spirit, and during our pre-concert interview in Utica I asked her about playing free jazz, and mentioned one of her more harmonically challenging records called “Ambience.”
MM:    Michael Moore had written several of those tunes that were on “Ambiance” and then I had written “Ambiance” and there was a couple of other things. But we had this very freestyle drummer too, Jimmy Madison. He was on most the tracks, and Billy Hart was on the rest of it. And boy if I could just set up that same thing again I probably would get into that same bag. You’re making me think I should do some more. I mean I can and I do, like every time on “Piano Jazz” if the guest wants to do it, we’ll do at least one free piece. Some of them turn out better than others. It’s always a kick doing it.
MR:    Well there’s always tonight.
MM:    Yeah, that’s true.
Two hours later, at the halfway point in her concert she said to the audience, “well my friend Monk Rowe challenged me to play something free tonight, so here we go,” and they launched into an extemporaneous exploration. I don’t have much of an ego, but I will say that I was proud to have had Marian call me her friend.
Marian so inspired me as an interviewee that I tried to capture her personality in this song called “Queen’s Waltz.”

July 28, 2013

Global Channels

An argument can be made that everything comes from someplace else. Even jazz, frequently extolled as “America’s only original art form,” is a blend of disparate styles blended together into something new. British pianist Keith Ingham came to America to pursue a career in jazz, and described this unique blend with great passion:

MR:    Are there any counterparts of American musicians who’ve gone over to England and learned as much about your music as you have about —
Keith Ingham
KI:   What do you mean, the British music? I mean we never had anything as wonderful as jazz. You see, I think it comes from a melting pot society where you’ve got all these different strains coming together. That’s the whole point. You had Italians here, so you have these wonderful lyric qualities; you have African-Americans, that rhythmic thing they do they brought that looseness and that sense of swing; you had the Germans here so you have the correctness of intonation and things like that. You have that whole melting pot. And they all brought their music. You have the Russians with all that minor key, soul stuff. It’s wonderful. Gershwin is Russian but also very Jewish and that kind of sad, soulful feeling that’s in his music. It’s the melting pot that America is that made American music. That’s what it is. There’s nothing like it in the world. You’re so lucky, don’t lose it, because it’s your great contribution to world culture. I mean it’s your Beethoven, your Haydn, your Schubert, your Debussy, your Ravel, your Rachmaninoff, your Stravinsky, it’s all there. It’s Duke Ellington, it’s Fats Waller, it’s Henry “Red” Allen, it’s Bix, it’s Eddie Lang, it’s Joe Venuti, it’s up there. And God bless it.
Saxophonist and arranger Frank Foster expressed it succinctly: “we have such a melting pot here, we’re all into each other’s culture.”
Until the early part of the twentieth century, America’s music, dance and visual arts were mostly based on European styles. The cultural tables have turned in major fashion as we now identify music as America’s most significant export. It’s a shame that America can’t be compensated financially. If we could charge for the export of our creative innovations, our trade imbalance would immediately be in the black. Musically the world is now hard-wired. National and geographical borders are meaningless as musical genres spread globally via the internet.
It’s no secret that America’s musical seeds have been spread around the globe and found fertile ground. European musicians jumped on the jazz bandwagon as early as the 1920’s. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones learned their lessons well from American blues and rock & roll, and sent it back to us, new and improved.
I got my first taste of the pervasive effect of American popular music some years ago when I played a gig for a Korean fraternity at Colgate University in Upstate New York. On our break a student asked if he could play their music through our PA system. I obliged, and in my naïveté expected to hear something exotic and different, perhaps flute-based pentatonic melodies with some twangy plucked sound from an unknown instrument. What I heard was American-based pop music, rhythms, forms and instrumentation, with Korean lyrics. More recently I became acquainted with a Hamilton College student who had traveled to the college from Kenya. In getting to know him, I asked some basic questions about his home and surroundings. I was curious about the kind of music popular in his hometown. His answer was “Kenny Rogers.” Kenny Rogers!? And even in the last month, the evidence mounts. I recently played a lunchtime gig at a Chinese restaurant, run by immigrants from China. The presence of a saxophone player in the group prompted one of the young waiters to ask me “does the sax player know the song ‘Go Home’?” “Go Home?” I asked. “Come Home” he stumbled with his English. Then a vague memory surfaced. I think Kenny G had such a song. I said, “do you mean ‘Going Home’?” He said, “oh yes, Kenny G, Kenny G ‘Going Home’. Kenny G is very big in China.” Nelson Mandela has survived to recently see his 95th birthday. Outside the hospital his well-wishers sang to him, first in their Sotho dialect, then in the Dutch-based Afrikaans, and finally in English. The melody? But of course, “Happy Birthday,” written by two American nursery school teachers.
I am currently seeking to collaborate with musicians from Utica’s refugee population, especially those from countries in southeast Asia. In attending their cultural presentations I am hearing more of the same. The singers are being accompanied by play-along tapes that could just as easily be accompaniment for Justin Bieber.
But it’s not a one-way street. American musicians embrace influences from around the globe: Latin jazz, Celtic rock, and other combinations now are common concert fare, and many bands tout their ability to combine exotic styles.
Academia has also played a major role in exposing and presenting music from other continents. I recently attended a summer concert at the Eastman School of Music, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the country. On the bill was music from Indonesia in the form of a Gamelan Angklung (ensemble), an Mbira orchestra playing music from Zimbabwe, and a Pan-African percussion and dance ensemble led by Kerfala (“Fana”) Bangoura. It was a fascinating evening of music, with sounds and sights that were a first for many in the audience. As with our home-grown jazz and blues, America has now taken traditional music from other countries and placed it in academic and concert settings. It was informative to view the members of the Gamelon and Mbira ensembles, an all-encompassing cross section of gender and generations, all of them energetic and committed to the performance of this music from the other side of the globe, and all of them from Central New York.
Fana Bangoura
Only the African percussion and dance ensemble included members who can claim their performance as part of their native culture. Fana, the leader, was a longtime member of Guinea’s prestigious “Les Ballets Africans and Les Percussions Des Guinee” national performing group. A number of his members include djembe players from other West African countries, and the rest of his ensemble is made up of interested Rochester residents. I am happy to say that my own daughter held down an incredible anchoring pulse on a trio of drums known as the dun dun. Calling this music polyrhythmic would be a understatement. I’m sure everyone in the audience experienced a dramatic increase in their pulse and blood pressure as the six djembe players added to the groove of the dun dun, and Fana improvised over the top of it, like our finest jazz artists. The dancers in their native garb added a further rhythmic and visual component. There’s something primal, intoxicating and magnetic about the sound of drums. The wood and animal skin are made to come alive with the energy of human hands, triggering a visceral excitement, no matter where you are on the globe.
Our friend Dave Brubeck knew it. He said “rhythm is the universal human language.”

July 22, 2013

Good Vibes

Peter Appleyard, 1929-2013

Last October’s Fallcoming jazz concert at Hamilton College consisted of an all-star line-up of Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jackie Williams, Nicky Parrott, Randy Sandke, and vibraphonist Peter Appleyard. As organizer of the concert I was especially pleased to be able to bring Peter back together with Bucky and Dick, two musicians with which he had enjoyed musical associations throughout his career. Peter passed away on July 17 at his home near Toronto at the age of 84.
Booking Peter for our Fallcoming concert was one more opportunity for me to learn about the music business. As I now know, engaging a Canadian musician involves cross-country trade and work regulations. Peter had to pay a fee of over $600 simply to cross the border to play the gig. Apparently our countries’ are attempting to protect jobs, including gigs for musicians. I knew Peter would not be transporting his own vibraphone and I was curious if he had ever told the border security personnel that he was only visiting friends in the US. He related a story of a violinist who tried the same thing. Upon seeing the violin in the musician’s car, they inspected every bit of his luggage, found his contract, and fined him more than he could ever have possibly made on the engagement. This story resonated throughout Canada as a warning to others who might try a similar evasion of the required tax. So Peter paid the “toll,” — or rather, we added it to his fee.
It was my privilege to conduct an interview with him before the concert last October. Like the majority of musicians from his generation, his entrance into the music profession was based both on serendipity and being prepared when opportunities arose.
Peter was born in Grimsby, England and was a teenager during World War II. Like most vibraphonists, he started on the drums, and talked about what could be called his first break in the music business:
PA:    I left school when I was 13, public school, and in those days in Britain you had to pay for a child’s secondary education, high school. But my parents were victims of the recession and didn’t have much money. They couldn’t afford to do that. And so they applied me for an apprenticeship for a compass adjuster and nautical instrument-maker. We would take a ship out into the River Humber, which was about three miles wide, and we’d take a bearing, and say that was true north, and adjust accordingly to bring it truthfully into line, true north. I was doing that for about two years, and on one occasion I had to go and pick up some Admiralty Charts — not music charts — Admiralty Charts for the British Navy. They used to have corvettes and this type of vessel, to circumvent the British minefields, to get out into the North Sea. Well this 30-minute errand used to be an hour’s adventure for me, because on the way to the Admiralty there’s a record shop. And I always used to stop in there and audition some records, which you could do in those days. You could take three or four records and go and listen to them and come back and say “I’d like to have this one” you know, so-and-so. So this day, here I am in this record shop listening to probably a Benny Goodman Sextet record, and I was tapping away with some drum sticks. Meantime the Royal Navy is waiting to go to sea, and the Admiral is saying “where the hell are those charts, we’re losing the tide.” And anyway this door opens and this fellow with a big moustache, and it was an ex-REF type as a matter of fact, and he says “say, old chap, do you play the drums?” I said, “yeah.” “Well,” he said, “our drummer got caught in bed with another woman last night by his wife, and she promptly took the fire axe off the wall and chopped up his drums.” I say he was pretty lucky. “And if you’d like to come down to the Palace Theater on Saturday morning and audition for ‘Felix Mendelsohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders,’” (it was an Alvino Ray type band, you know) “come down.” So I went down with my drum set, because I was playing drums then. And I got the job. As a compass adjuster’s apprentice I was earning 7 schillings and 6 pence a week, which in those days was like, oh maybe, it was like one dollar. Mr. Mendelsohn offered me 17 pounds a week. So guess what I did? It was rather a difficult decision because I was in love with a beautiful girl and it meant leaving her, and I thought oh, shall I do this? I thought about it and I spoke to my parents of course, and they said, “well you should try it and see how it works.” Those were the days when vaudeville theatres had big bands as their attraction. Ours was the number one band in Britain. We were the first band on British television.
It’s interesting to learn that the big bands played a role in England in providing work for musicians, much like they did during the swing era in the United States. The size of the band and their versatility in backing up various acts provided fertile ground for young musicians.
Peter found his way to the vibraphone in an equally interesting story.
PA:    Actually I’ll tell you this very brief story about the vibraphone and how I got attached to it. During the war I used to go out and entertain the troops at various stations. I played several USO’s over there at the time. I remember once I went in and there was a brand new set of Slingerland drums with big cymbals. I couldn’t believe it. I thought jeez, I’ve really got to get to America. Anyway, this night we were playing this very large aerodrome. And this guy came up, and I was playing drums in this accordion band, and this guy came up with a little tiny vibraphone and he starts to tap with one hand and he had a flatbed guitar and he’d put an electric motor in it with plectrums on a wheel, hitting one string going brrrrrr, and he’d slide his steel up and down there and he’s play arpeggiated chords with the vibraphone. So anyway, I went up to him after and I said, “Mr. Blakey, that’s quite an instrument.” I said, “now can I try it?” He said, “yeah, sure, go ahead.” So there was a cute girl standing there and she said, “you sound good on that.” I thought aha, I should be playing this. Anyway, I said, “would you sell them to me?” And he said, “no I can’t do that.” I said, “well all right, if you ever want to sell it let me know.” So the war ended and a knock came at my door, Mr. Blakey. He said, “you still want to buy the vibraphone?” I said, “yeah.” He said, “15 pounds.” Now I was still working as a compass adjuster’s assistant. So 15 pounds was a king’s ransom. I knew a guitarist who played in a big band with me and I asked him to loan me the money. I borrowed the money and I bought it. My father was furious. You didn’t do that in those days, you know, don’t buy anything on time. If you can’t afford it don’t buy it. So I bought it. About 15 years ago we went back and I went to look this man up, Mr. Blakey, he was still alive. He said, “I’m going to tell you something now I couldn’t tell you before.” He said, “do you remember when we played those aerodromes, I never came home with you?” I said, “Mr. Blakey, it was 60 years ago, but now that you mention it” — because we used to go on bikes. “No, you didn’t as a matter of fact.” He said, “well I’ll tell you, I am telling you now, I was a British spy. And the vibraphone was a cover for me to get on the aerodrome without being suspected by a possible German spy or sympathizers with Germany, on the airport.” I mean you couldn’t say anything to him, there were sounds everywhere, it would “be like dad, keep mum.” And I said, “what did you do.” Well he said, “after the concert they put me in a single engine aircraft with a pilot and fly me behind the German lines in France,” he says, “just prior to the invasion.” And they’d shut the engine off about a mile before a predetermined field, and the Maquis would guide us down with flashlights, and we’d glide in and I’d exchange information with the Maquis, the French resistance, pertaining to what I’d seen, what are the Germans doing” blah blah blah. I said, “Mr. Blakey, how many times did you do that?” “Well” he said, “at least twelve times.” And you know if you get caught it’s fatal, you get shot — spying.
MR:    And the vibes were his cover, huh?
MR:   That’s a really great story. How big were the vibes? Two octaves?
PA:    Two octaves. Yes.
MR:   And you would ride your bike home from the gig?
PA:    And my father made a wooden trailer for me, to put the drums in. And then when I bought the vibes, now we used to have — we used to deliver groceries and they had a basket, and they had a little box on the front. And I started out playing waltzes on them, with the big band.
Peter’s early career led him on a circuitous route, from England, to the Bahamas, with a brief stop in New York City and then on to Canada. He settled in Toronto and enjoyed a long career that included jazz gigs, studio recordings, and acting as music director for radio and television shows. Along the way he had fruitful musical associations with the aforementioned Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, and clarinetist Benny Goodman. His own favorite memory involves “Mr. Blue Eyes” [Frank Sinatra], and once again his presence on stage came about from stars aligning in a most unexpected fashion.
PA:    Whilst I was with Benny, in New York, Mr. Sinatra was going to have a show for two weeks at the Eros Theater with Ella Fitzgerald and the Basie Band, and a huge string section. And I went down to buy tickets and I couldn’t get any, they were sold out. So I went over to Manny’s Music Shop and I ran into Irv Cottler. [He was] a very good drummer, he was with Frank all those great years. And he said, “Peter, how are you?” I said, “Fine, Irv, how are you?” He said, “we were talking about you last night.” I said, “who, me?” He said, “Bill Miller,” pianist, “and Frank and me.” I said, “what are you talking about me for?” He said, “well Frank wants to use vibes at the Eros, and Bill Miller said, “‘well why don’t we get Peter Appleyard?’” So Frank said, “Peter Appleyard?” He said, “yeah, he works with Benny.” He said, “if he works with Benny, get him.” I got the job without an audition. On the second day [Frank] came up to me and he said, “Peter, I owe you an apology.” I said, “what for?” He said, “there’s not enough here [for you] to play, but sweetheart if you feel like playing behind me or Ella do it.” At the end of the run he gives a party like it wouldn’t quit on stage with him, the most beautiful wine and Italian food. He gave me a sterling silver jewelry box, engraved, “Peter, thanks F.S.” He was a great guy. Generous, generous man. And people have asked me “if you wanted to re-live two weeks of your life, or a week in music, which week will you choose?” And I think it would be those two weeks with him. I used to sit on the stage, Monk — they’d do “The Lady is a Tramp” to finish, you know, he and Ella with the Basie band. You’re Basie, and I’m this close to you. And there’s reams of music, and Basie’s looking going clink, you know. Frank goes “I get too hungry” and Basie goes bonk bonk, bonk bonk. All this music. So finally one night Frank sang “I get too hungry/for dinner at eight.” And Basie goes [scats a complicated piano run] and Sinatra turns around and said, “Bill [Basie], be careful, you might get a hernia.” But oh, he was so great. And out of all the people I’ve  ever spoken to — and I’ve played for and met the Queen Mother twice — no one gave me the sensation that I experienced with Frank Sinatra.
Peter was a man who could function as an accompanist, and knew his role in any ensemble. At the same time he had the flair of a showman and could wow the audience with his flashy mallet technique.
It’s the rare concert that comes off without a glitch and moment of intense anxiety. In this case it was the college vibraphones that provided the angst. Even though I had checked out the instrument, my limited knowledge was not sufficient. When Mr. Appleyard went to play the vibes at sound check, it was discovered that something was awry. I can’t tell you what it was except that it had to do with the tension on the bars, and it was fortunate that my bandmate and dear friend, drummer Tom McGrath, was on hand to fashion a repair with a bungee cord that he used to keep one of his drum sets tightly closed. Thank you, Tom.
Fallcoming Jazz '12 (L-R) Bucky Pizzarelli,
Randy Sandke, Monk Rowe, Peter Appleyard
The concert was a huge success and I got to play a couple of tunes standing next to Peter, thus racking up one more entry into my list of memorable associations.
A CD worth pursuing is Peter’s The Lost 1974 Sessions, an all-star line-up recorded back in 1974 and released in 2012. It recently saw the light of day thanks to Peter’s efforts.