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.