December 24, 2015

Harlem Lullaby

As a follow-up to our previous post about the MOOC project, I recently engaged in an interesting activity. For the last week of the MOOC I decided to include my own Top Ten list of jazz recordings as a basis for discussion and feedback. The list is not intended as the “most important jazz recordings ever,” but is simply a collection of songs that affected me when I first heard them, and still have a special spot in my mind.
In my teen years I used to tune in to an all-night jazz station in Rochester, New York, hosted by Harry Abraham. Harry had the quintessential late night jazz DJ voice, and my transistor radio enabled me to listen underneath the sheets, long after I was supposed to be asleep. One night Harry announced the tune “HarlemLullaby” by Junior Mance. Something about this piano trio recording grabbed me that night and made me seek out the record, and it has remained a favorite ever since. Its evocative, bluesy mood conjures up a feeling —a déjà vu for something I know I have not experienced in this life.
“Harlem Lullaby” begins and ends with a rubato piano solo based on a phrase from the French song “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.” Junior’s A section employs a mix of blues and Gospel chord changes, and links to a powerful bridge in the relative minor. Throughout, his identifiable style is front and center. Listen to the improvised lick at 2:35 to 2:55. Pure blues bliss.
Almost 40 years later, thanks to the Fillius Jazz Archive, I sat with Junior Mance and related my late night epiphany. Junior had his own radio story:

Junior Mance, in 1999
JM: What you say about under the sheets, well I guess I was about ten years old and my dad asked me one Christmas, “what do you want for Christmas?” I said, “I want a table radio.” You know this was before they had the little battery portables and all of that. And he was shocked. He thought what does he want a radio for? Well they would listen to all the broadcasts at night, you know like Earl Hines would broadcast from the Grand Terrace. And there was another place in Chicago I think called the Gerrick Show Lounge, where I remember Don Byas and J.C. Higginbotham were in a small group there. And they would catch all — you know that was the days when there were more radio broadcasts than there were records. But they came on so late and my folks wouldn’t let me stay up to listen. But I’d ease up and crack the door and I’d sit there and listen. So I says I’ll fix this, you know, and I asked for a radio. So they gave me the radio for Christmas. So I remember I would listen and Earl Hines would come on I’d search and I’d turn the volume down real low until I found it. Then I would get under the covers with the pillow and all, and listen to it. And every night this went on and they were none the wiser so then after it was over I’d put it back on the table. After it was over that was a time when mothers usually come in and tuck you in, you know, and I’d fake like I’m sleeping. Well one night, I fell asleep before the broadcast was over. The radio and me and everything is under the pillow and I’m sound asleep. So it woke me up and she pulled the pillow back and I says uh oh, this is it, I’m know I’m going to get it. She called me father in and they laughed. They said look at that. So then after that they started letting me listen, as long as I was in bed, and I could turn it on and listen to it.
Junior’s anecdote is echoed by many other jazz artists who grew up in the decades when radio was the main source of home entertainment. The serendipity connected with “Harlem Lullaby” did not end with my interview with Junior. Along the way I met producer Joel Dorn who was a later interviewee, and I noticed that he produced the album “Harlem Lullaby.” The liner notes were written by a second jazz producer, Orrin Keepnews, who also granted us a fascinating interview.
On my CD release in 1999, “Jazz Life,” I decided to tackle this tune, and I was quite pleased with the outcome. You can listen to that version here.
Two years ago I completed the circle with Junior by booking him and his trio at Hamilton College during a celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month. He retained that upbeat blues approach to his music, and was a pleasure to have on campus.

November 12, 2015

The Jazz MOOC

Lately it seems I’ve been spending every waking hour MOOCing. Some of you know by now I’m a saxophonist, so you might surmise that MOOCing is a saxophone technique, perhaps a spinoff of “honking.” When I was asked to do a MOOC by the powers-that-be at Hamilton College, I was vaguely familiar with the term, as two Hamilton professors had done MOOCs before me.
MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and it is an initiative of an organization called edX. Hamilton College and many other institutes of higher learning have embraced this new method of offering courses to (basically) the world. The course is done totally online, and anyone can enroll. There are no hurdles or applications to join in, and there is no cost for taking the course. Our MOOC is called “Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players,” and will launch on February 2, 2016. It will run for six consecutive weeks.
MOOCing has been an unexpected challenge for me. My comfort level with computer technology is nonexistent. Fortunately, I have a highly trained creative team from Hamilton’s Library and Instructional Technology Services working with me. Still, the hands-on activities I have used previously in workshops are not available to me in this online format. For decades I have worked with both musicians and non-musicians teaching concepts in jazz, blues and improvised music. The one-on-one and group interaction has always been key to what I do. While we have done some filming with small groups, the human interaction is not the same, and I am being prodded into the 21st century. At the same time, I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved in this new endeavor. I often tease my students when I ask them to do something new: “it builds character” I say. I should have a lot of character by the time this project is over.
Click here for information about our MOOC. I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s aimed at both musicians and casual listeners, and includes material from our jazz archive interviews.

October 21, 2015

Happy Birthday Diz

One of the true jazz pioneers, John Birks Gillespie, was born on this day, October 21, in 1917. John became “Dizzy” along the way, reportedly because of his outsized humor and tendency for onstage antics. Dizzy Gillespie is on any jazz historian’s list of the top 10 most important jazz innovators. Along with Charlie Parker he ushered the new style of jazz coined bebop in the late 40s. Soon after, his incorporation of Cuban rhythms and Cuban musicians into his bands assured his place in jazz history not only as an astounding instrumentalist, but as a composer and stylistic innovator. Dizzy spread jazz to every corner of the world, carrying on the Ambassador of Jazz mantle that Louis Armstrong had owned for many years.
Even people who know little about jazz will recognize Dizzy for two trademark images: his trumpet with the upturned bell, and the cheeks. Over the years, Dizzy’s muscles in his cheeks and neck gave way and he seemed delighted to use this physical trait to help endear fans to him.

Photo by Milt Hinton
We saw Dizzy Gillespie live one time. In the late 80s he performed in an outdoor venue in a Syracuse, NY park. With thousands in attendance, the mayor of Syracuse stepped to the microphone and declared it “Dizzy Gillespie Day” in Syracuse, and Dizzy was handed a ceremonial key to the city. He stepped to the microphone, and in that distinguished but gravely voice declared loudly, “no shit!”

Happy 98th birthday, Dizzy!

October 4, 2015

Phil Woods, 1931-2015

Phil Woods, in 1999
Even though the math is obvious, I have difficulty accepting the fact that the second generation of important jazz artists are now mostly gone. As Phil Woods stated in our interview “I was the last generation to come up and actually learn from the masters direct.”
Phil passed away on September 29 at the age of 83. He was the most respected saxophonist remaining of this second generation of musicians who really lived the jazz life. He proudly carried the bebop torch and drew a distinction between himself and the real innovators, preferring to be considered an accomplished craftsman. During interviews, Phil moved effortlessly from philosopher to curmudgeon, and his opinions carried the same weight as his recordings did.
MR: A couple of weeks ago when we had a brief conversation on the phone, you said you were taking time these days to do some writing and reflecting. What do you reflect and write on these days?
PW: How lucky I am to make a living doing something I love to do; having a wonderful, supportive family; living in a wonderful part of the world where a lot of young people know who Charlie Parker was and John Coltrane. Delaware Water Gap [Pennsylvania], you might not be aware of it, but this venerable institution we’re sitting in right now, The Deer Head Inn, has had jazz for over 50 years. They run at least three nights a week — Friday and Saturday and they usually have a matinee type thing on Sunday, and there’s been some great jazz played here. I remember one night, a jam session here, there must have been ten, fifteen saxophone players. And I said to Rick Chamberlain and Ed Joubert, we should move this outside. This was about 22 years ago. And that led to the stage across the street. We have a celebration of the arts which is held every year. So I was reflecting on all these good things that are going on.
MR: Do you feel jazz is healthier today than it has been in the past?
PW: No, not really healthier. I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture, but jazz seems to have lost its cutting edge, it seems to be in a regressive mode activated somehow. I mean jazz just goes on, and it’s never been so alive and well, we’ve never had so many kids playing music, and this is a positive thing. I don’t mean to negate the import of a kid picking up an instrument because if he’s got an instrument in his mouth he’s probably less liable to buy an assault rifle. I mean I think music is good. Any cutting back of funds for music education is a big mistake, which we’re also getting involved in. But the idea of jazz being alive and well, every campus has a jazz program, every school has a jazz program. But I don’t hear it. I mean I was the last generation to come up and actually learn from the masters direct. My first band was Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie and I got a chance to really one-on-one with the masters. I’m not indicting jazz education, I think it’s a good thing. But a university should reflect the needs of society. And society doesn’t need quite as many tenor players as we’re graduating. I’d like to find a gig for all of those tenor players. Now the jazz gigs, I mean everybody’s still playing “Scrapple from the Apple” and “Stella By Starlight” and the old war horses, which is fine and good. But jazz should be more cutting edge. Jazz should be more now. I don’t hear anybody doing like what Dolphy did or what Ornette did. I love what John Zorn is doing. I don’t know if you call it jazz. But I think the musician of the future is not going to be just a jazz type of person. I think it’s going to be more — a typical set might be a tango, an Astor Piazzolla, a bossa nova, some pygmy music from Africa, a little Charlie Parker, a little pre-Archie Shepp. I mean it’s kind of become so collated and codified that everybody now has the same Real Book the same fake books. This is good but it should be more aggravating, it should stick in the craw. It’s too acceptable. It’s lacking color and it’s lacking a bit of humor. It doesn’t quite have the humor. Where are the Zoot Sims and the Al Cohn, like that. In Copenhagen they said, “Al, have you tried the elephant beer?” And Al came back and said, “I drink to forget, man.” I mean I don’t hear that. I mean God bless the kids, but too many three-piece suits and managers.
You can read more quotes from Phil in JazzTales from Jazz Legends. If you enjoy this blog you will love the book. It’s available now on Amazon.

September 23, 2015

Jazz Tales from Jazz Legends

We are pleased to announce the release of Jazz Tales from Jazz Legends. The book celebrates 20 years of the oral history project that is now known as the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College.
Those who have visited our blog will enjoy the extended storytelling from jazz personalities, both famous and unsung. The book provides first-hand accounts of the jazz lives of over 100 select interviewees, including Jon Hendricks, Steve Allen, Béla Fleck and Marian McPartland.
Readers may see a few familiar passages from this blog, which have been expanded and woven together with historical background from the author.
The book is available at Amazon. Click here.

August 31, 2015

Harold Ousley, 1929-2015

Harold Ousley, in 2001

Sadly, we are all too familiar with reading obituaries of jazz artists we had the pleasure of interviewing for the Fillius Jazz Archive. The oral history project has now completed its twentieth year, and the list of deceased musicians continues to grow. Most recently I read of the passing of Harold Ousley, who died on August 13, 2015.
Harold has a special significance for us. At the time of his death we were just completing work on a book to be released in October entitled Jazz Tales from Jazz Legends. The book features poignant and informative excerpts from our interviews (over 325 in number), and Harold provided a unique reflection on music and life. His inspiring words are the last excerpt in the book and brought it to what we feel is a thoughtful conclusion.
Harold was born in Chicago in 1929 and had the advantage of passing through DuSable High School. DuSable’s now-famous music instructor was Captain Walter Dyett, and his track record in producing future musical stars is impressive. Harold spoke about his experience with Captain Dyett, who managed to inspire his young musicians while running a very tight ship.
HO: I started music in high school. What happened, I went to the high school, DuSable. And so I got into band because prior to that, when I was in grammar school, I used to take piano, my grandmother gave me piano lessons. Because at that time people had pianos in their home it was just the thing to play piano. And I had people in my family who were in there — I had my uncle who was a tap dancer and my mother was interested in show business for a while. So there was a love for the music. And so by me taking piano and even though I didn’t stay with it, because at that time I had more of an interest in going out playing football and pump pump pullaway with it, with the fellas in the neighborhood. And my uncle, I had an uncle who didn’t play music, he was into sports, but he loved jazz. So he used to play all the big band things, the records, for me at the time. And so that’s when I first heard the saxophone. Of course I fell in love with it. So going to high school I wanted to get in the band and learn how to play saxophone. And Walter Dyett, was a very wonderful teacher who taught Gene Ammons and Nat King Cole and people like this. First if you were going to play saxophone you had to play clarinet. And the reason for this is that a clarinet has three registers. And within it it has a saxophone register. So if you play clarinet you automatically know how to finger the saxophone, you got a head start. Whereas if you play saxophone, you know, playing the clarinet is another situation. So in first and second, in beginner’s band and first and second band, we played clarinet. And then we had a concert band, I was in the clarinet section there. But we had what he called a booster band. It was a swing band. And in there was the preparation for being able to go into a professional band. And so the reading ability and everything, in fact Johnny Griffin joined Lionel Hampton’s band when he was in school. He was 16 at that time, but he was ready because Cap prepared him.
MR: This was really then kind of serious preparation for a career, is that right?
HO: Yes it was. You know I didn’t realize until years later, just how much knowledge and ability that Captain Dyett had. He used to tell us, “when you play, play to the back of the audience.” In other words then we’re projecting our sound all the way, so everybody in the middle was going to hear it, but the person in back could hear it as well. And I didn’t realize until I started reading metaphysical material just what that was, you know, positive thinking and projecting the mind and things like this. And the things that he taught was just even though we might not have realized it then, and the thing about it, you weren’t officially in the band until you got thrown out at some time. Because everybody in the band got thrown out at some time. I remember on one occasion, this was during the wartime, and I had a clarinet and during this time some of the shops where you would go to have your instrument fixed, they didn’t have what they needed. I went and the repairman had put some glue because the bottom, the bell, was broken and he had to fix that. So what happened, I’m in the band playing, and when you play it the saliva comes out of your horn and loosened that up. And I managed to catch it. Because I knew if it hit the floor, out the door. So I just put it down on the floor. So I’m playing with no bell. But Cap could see everybody in the band and it was almost, it was about 50, 60 musicians in the band, and he looked over there, and so now he came over to me and took my clarinet and said what the so-and-so is this? And everybody fell— he said, “get out of here.” I was trying to keep from getting thrown out. But when you come back to him he would always let you get back in the band because he knew you were serious about wanting to be in the music.
MR: Were the students, did they have a love-hate relationship with him because he was so strict?
HO: Well no, because most of the students were really like this, I mean they are trying to keep on his good side. Not everybody — everybody gets a different impression and responds to the situation differently. But everybody had respect for him. And so they wanted to be in the band, so if you got thrown out for not paying attention or just fooling around, you would go back to make sure you got in the band.
Like many of his contemporaries, Harold eventually made the move to New York and fashioned a career through perseverance and versatility. He accompanied singers including Billie Holiday and Diana Washington, recorded albums in both the jazz and soul vein, and played with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. His eloquence and thoughtful reflections can be glimpsed in this excerpt from our 2001 interview.
MR: In the late 50s, rock & roll was kind of rearing its head. Did you get into that?
HO: Yeah, I got into that. Well you know I had to play a variety of music a lot of times in order to work. But I’ve always enjoyed different kinds of music. You know, a variety of music. Because I think all music is good when it’s played well, if it has good feeling, and even in performances I do now, I like to do a variety of things, like swing, play pretty, play funky, uptempo. Because people, everybody likes something different. And I think, my belief, in the things that I’ve studied, I found out that music is a very essential part of life. That life was created to musical principles. Because life has tempo, it has cycles. And everything vibrates, like vibration is tempo. Every atom vibrates. You know we’re constantly — there’s movement in everything. And the planets, the same way with the planets. And everything is in harmony and in sync with each other. And so everything is really music. When we talk to each other and we get along, music is harmony. When people get along together, that’s harmony and it’s music. And when people don’t get along it’s no longer music and harmony. I think even now, even to a greater degree in solving situations in the world — music is going to play a major part in that as people come together through the music. Even like here. People are coming together because they love the music. Whether they’re teaching it in school or playing it in clubs or whatever they’re doing, what brings us together is the music. And we come together in friendship and in love and harmony. So music is an essential thing. And when people get involved in it, they begin to develop a greater harmony. You know like in jazz you find people of all races, of all ages coming together, and enjoying the music and sharing ideas. And usually, people who like jazz have gotten to a level where they want to communicate and get along with people. You never see people going to jazz concert hitting each other in the mouth. You know, it’s always about loving the music. You see somebody next to you saying hello, so right away you’ve got something to talk about and you comment on the music and people have met and fell in love and married. So the music is going to play essential — and not only jazz but all, you know concert music, all music that is serious and the people who are involved in it approach it from a very positive level and a level of love and concern. It happens.
Harold is one of the countless jazz artists who were known mostly to fellow musicians and serious fans of the music. I started a conversation with him at a jazz educators’ event before I knew who he was. He handed me his business card, and the name jumped out at me, thanks to the LP liner notes I studied as a teenager.
Soon we will announce the release of Jazz Tales from Jazz Legends. If you enjoy this blog you will love the book.

August 8, 2015

Still the One

Cannonball Adderley
Everyone has a short list of memorable events, occurrences that make such an impression that we can recall exactly where we were when they happened. I was born in 1950, so my list includes the Kennedy assassination, the first landing on the moon, and the Beatles appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Also on my list is the date August 8, 1975. Forty years ago today, I was in my car outside Rome, New York when I heard the radio announce that Julian “Cannonball” Adderley had passed away.
I’ve written about Cannonball before, and he is still my all-time favorite jazz artist. As an up-and-coming saxophonist I was first influenced by the cool toned and somewhat dispassionate Paul Desmond, who became popular alongside Dave Brubeck. But Cannonball offered something else: a perfect balance of technique, tone, and passionate delivery. The fact that he was an engaging speaker and invited the listener into the music was a big plus.
I was so into Cannonball’s recordings that I noticed when he switched saxophones, from a King Super 20 to the more iconic Selmer. I was not the only fan who noticed. During my interview with Charles McPherson, a major player in the world of jazz saxophone, we discussed this change.
MR:   Can we get a shot of you holding your horn? I’m trying to recognize what kind of horn it is.
Charles McPherson
CM:   It’s a King. Most people play a Selmer, and this is a King Super 20.
MR:   Yeah. Cannonball used to play it.
CM:   Yeah Cannonball and Bird. Yeah. And it’s a very nice horn, it’s very human-like. Very much like the human voice.
MR:   It’s interesting you say that because when I hear your tone — actually the thing that attracts me to a player is the tone first. And I hear that in your sound. And I noticed when Cannonball switched from King to Selmer that I was disappointed.
CM:   Unbelievable. I mean I know that. But I’m surprised that — well you said you play saxophone.
MR:   Yeah, but I heard it.
CM:   Isn’t that something, because I did too. And so you really do know. Because that’s a subtle thing, but it is a difference. And I remember it as a CD or record, whatever, where he did play Selmer for a while. And it was great, and it’s still great ‘cause he’s great. And I remember that oh this is great, but it doesn’t have that pop or that warmth either. And the Selmer is a great horn, and he sounded great on it. But this King, it was just something about that that, I don’t know just Cannonball sounded great on this. And Charlie Parker sounded great on this horn. I’ve heard other people on this horn that don’t sound so great, and I hope I’m not one of them.
I’d like to take a brief look at three recordings that personified the Cannonball Adderley legacy.
Cannonball burst into the New York jazz scene in the mid-1950s and his 1957 recording of the uptempo “Spectacular” demonstrated his mastery of the demanding and sometimes frantic bop style. He had so absorbed the language of Charlie Parker that the critics jumped on the bandwagon and hailed him as the new Bird. “Spectacular” is an impressive display of technique and chordal-based improvisation.
Ten years later Cannonball and his quintet had progressed into a style that critics called “soul jazz.” From the album “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Sticks” provides a striking example of Cannonball in full blues/gospel/soul mode. “The Sticks” is a 12-bar blues with an ear-catching melody. Brother Nat plays three exciting choruses; near the end of his third he engages in some stuttering double-tonguing. Cannonball, always aware of his musical surroundings, jumps on Nat’s phrasing at 1:27, roaring into a solo that has the live audience completely in his corner.
One year later, again in a live situation, Cannonball displayed his masterful approach to a ballad. The song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” provided him with a highly expressive vehicle and his huge tone filled the room. If you listen to Cannon’s voice at the end of the song, it sounds like he actually choked himself up with the intensity of the song.
Drummer Roy McCurdy spent twelve years with Cannonball and spoke enthusiastically about his experience. Here he speaks of a unique method for keeping in sync with the brothers:
Roy McCurdy
RM:   Did you ever see Cannon and Nat live?
MR:   Oh, yeah.
RM:   They were really funny to me, because I was behind them all the time, looking at them. And this brother was short and Cannon was tall. And they had a way of snapping their fingers and moving, and their behinds were both in sync you know. And they would be snapping and the behinds would be in sync.
MR:   It’s almost as if you guys were creating a style as you went along.
RM:   Yeah. It was.
MR:   Did you have a name for it or did you let other people name it?
RM:   We just let other people name it. It was just music for us you know. We didn’t want to be in one particular slot all the time, like just straight ahead jazz or something. We wanted to be able to do all kinds of things and have some fun. And not only did we do funk and soul and Gospel and jazz, we also experimented with different time figures and things too at that time. Like 7/4 time, 5/4 time and things like that. We did “Seventy-four Miles Away.” That album was 7/4 time.
Vocalist Nancy Wilson credits Cannonball with jumpstarting her career, and during our interview I told her of my enthrallment with one of her early albums, “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley.” Oddly enough, the critics were not kind to this recording.
MR:   This particular album, I can’t imagine anybody saying anything bad about it.
Nancy Wilson
NW:   Oh it was the fact that Cannonball Adderley had kind of stepped out of the jazz thing, into the pop. Because this was a huge across the board album. It was not just a jazz album. “The Masquerade Is Over,” “Sleeping Bee,” these songs just popped out everywhere. And that was the good thing about radio in those days and music is that the focus wasn’t so narrow then. We were able to play concert venues, Carnegie Hall where we were also able to go into, the south side of Chicago and play The Southerland. So you could do so many more things then than you can today. The labels kind of keep you out of places. Whereas before we tried to broaden the scope. I believe that Cannonball Adderley took jazz out of the sawdust and he was one of the more commercial jazz artists. And he made his audience understand what he was doing.
It’s hard to say what Cannonball Adderley would be doing with his musical career if he had lived. Other artists, such as Benny Carter and Milt Hinton remained productive into their eighties and nineties. The avante garde saxophonist Kidd Jordan offered his opinion on what Cannonball’s music might have evolved into, and gave us a bit of insight into his personality:
Kidd Jordan
KJ:   Cannonball was one of my favorite players too. And look, changes didn’t mean nothing to him, you know that huh? Cannonball was playing by ear. I mean he could hear changes like that, and that’s why he went and locked in all them patterns that people was playing. Well you know Cannonball, and he sounded like a first alto player, that was another thing.
MR:   That’s for sure.
KJ:   That’s right. Cannonball could lead us saxes man. I listened to that Cannonball and they’re talking about first alto players, as a soloist he’s got the same thing that all those first alto players had. You know? And changes didn’t mean nothing. Believe me. Cannonball could play through ‘cause he could hear ‘em. Now that’s a case that that’s a complete musician. And look, before he died he told me he said, “Kidd, you know what? I’m going to play some of that crazy stuff, you see the next album I do? I’m gonna do some of the crazy stuff you’re doing.” But he died before that. Now that would have been something.
MR:   What kind of guy was he?
KJ:   Oh easy, happy-go-lucky, I mean one of the most beautiful cats I ever knew. And I got — he and Alvin Batiste was great friends. And me and Alvin was brother-in-laws you know, we’ve been brother-in-laws for 50 years now, so every time Cannon would come in they’d be cooking gumbo and all, and it would be party time when he’d come to town.

I know I’ll spend this weekend listening to some of my favorite Cannonball from the LPs that I saved my money for back in the early 60s. You can read our previous blog on Cannonball entitled, “Mercy Mercy” from May of 2009.

June 18, 2015

Has Played With ...

My wife and I recently saw an engaging movie called “The Wrecking Crew.” It chronicled the history of a select group of studio musicians in Los Angeles who seemingly played on every record that came out of L.A. studios in the 60s and 70s. Their list of credits is astounding; both albums and one-hit-wonders succeeded because of their musical input.
When preparing for an interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive, I try to do as much research as possible, and have read numerous resumes and bios in this process. A common phrase is: John Q. Musician has played or recorded with … This all-inclusive resume bullet covers a lot of ground and can include the following sub-categories:
            Has shared the stage with …
            Has been hired by a contractor to play with …
            Has paid these musicians to play with him
            Has been hired for a recording session with …
            Has jammed with …
My own musical resume includes entries in almost all of these categories.
The most common occurrence for shared the stage with is being a member of a warm-up band for a big name act. I recall the excitement of warming up for Herbie Hancock in the mid-1970s. Herbie’s group was enjoying a surge of popularity on the heels of his groundbreaking record “Chameleon.” I was a member of an Oswego, NY-based band called Coalition and we fit the genre of jazz-fusion. The band members and I fantasized about the possibilities. All warm-up bands do. Maybe he’ll hear us, like us, and invite us on his tour to be his regular warm-up act. Maybe he knows somebody in the record business and will provide a recommendation. Of course none of that happened. My strongest memory is being required to be on stage five hours before the concert for a perfunctory sound check. Herbie’s saxophonist, Benny Maupin, stood where I did after our set. So I guess I can say that I shared the stage with Herbie Hancock and his Head Hunters.
Years later I was a member of a group called Mr. Edd. We warmed up for the guitar phenom Rick Derringer. Different band, same excitement, same result.
Much of my experience with pop and rock personalities has been under the hired by a contractor category. Utica, Syracuse and Rochester provide performing sites on the convenient New York State Thruway circuit, and many artists who require back-up bands have passed through over the years. I will never forget my experience with rock & roll singer Bobby Lewis, who was best known for his hit “Tossin’ & Turnin.’” Bobby augmented his 30 minute set with other hits from the era, and in our brief and harried rehearsal we ran through the doo wop song “Who Put the Bomp.” Bobby, who was legally blind, became agitated during the intro, when my attempts to accompany him on piano didn’t jive with his singing. His gesticulations became more and more animated as he exclaimed, “No! No! Not like that!” I became extremely frustrated as I stared at the music and struggled to connect with Bobby’s words, “I’d like to thank the guy who wrote the song...” Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable amount of time, I took a close look at both pages of the music and discovered that some unnamed pianist before me had taped the two pages backwards. I was actually trying to start the song at the beginning of page two. I beat myself up pretty good after this particular gig, but it makes for a good story.
My memories with Sam the Sham, of “Wooly Bully” fame are more upbeat. Sam came with his own guitar accompanist and a contracted bassist and drummer was all he needed to add, except for the song “Wooly Bully,” which required a prominent tenor sax solo. I got the assignment and before we walked out on stage Sam came to me with a serious demeanor, and said, “are you my sax player tonight?” I replied, “yes, I am.” He said, “are you good?” Now this is a question that you get asked on occasion and there’s always an internal debate. The knee-jerk response is, “well yes, I’m a decent player.” Boring. In this case I decided to play his game, hoping it was indeed a game. I said, “yes, I’m good.” He says, “are you really good?” I said, “yes, I’m really good.” “Are you great?” “I’m a great player.” His last move: “well then you can’t play with me.” But I did. A memorable moment.
By far the most intense gig via contractor was the Hamilton College concert with Aretha Franklin. In this case I was the contractor for the horn section. So I hired myself. The run-through in the afternoon couldn’t even be called a rehearsal. One chart after the other, play the beginning, play the end, move on.
Aretha Franklin at Hamilton College, in 2008
Afterwards people asked me, “how was Aretha?” And I can’t even tell them. She was not at the rehearsal, and during the concert the horn players had to do their best to tune her out, knowing that as soon as we started paying attention to what she was doing we would lose our place as the music flew by. But I can tell you that the moniker “Queen of Soul” is apropos.
I was contracted to play three dates with rock & roller Del Shannon and initially thought I would be playing the iconic keyboard solo on “Runaway.” It is technically challenging, and is a hook in and of itself. I put considerable practice time into it, only to have Del say, “don’t play that, play something raunchy.”
Other artists that I could include in this “contracted for” category include Bob Newhart, Connie Francis and Joan Rivers. You can read about my experience with Ms. Rivers in my blog entry Joan Saves the Day.

On to the has paid these musicians to play with category. I can cite a lengthy list of jazz artists that I have been in the enviable position to hire. In 1975 I engaged in my first booking of a well-known jazz personality. I brought Marian McPartland to the high school where I taught and staged a concert with her and my jazz band. In a quartet segment I was able to perform with this artist who was so full of class and talent. We were acquaintances for the rest of her life, and one of my songs on my 1999 release of “Jazz Life” was dedicated to her. It’s entitled “Queen’s Waltz.”
Every fall I book a group of veteran jazz players for Hamilton’s Fallcoming concert. It was on stage during one of the 2002 events that I received a nice compliment, in the form of a question. The band partially consisted of woodwind artists Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber. I was invited on stage to play “Apex Blues.” During my soprano sax solo I engaged in what I call “tongue wagging,” an effect rather like double tonguing on the trumpet. Bob Wilber, who was standing to my left, asked me while I was playing, “hey, how do you do that?”
(L-R) Kenny Davern, Monk Rowe, Bob Wilber
My engagements with these musicians over the years, also included Clark Terry, Joe Wilder, and Claude “Fiddler” Williams. These comprise some of my most memorable musical moments. There are advantages to playing with people you have hired. You are very likely to receive glowing praise, especially while you still have their pay in your possession.
Another category would be hired to play on a record. In the early 1980s a band came to town to record at UCA Studios where I worked. Like all bands, they were doing demos in hopes of obtaining a record deal. Unlike most bands, they landed one, and a healthy one at that. A couple of months later I found myself in a Memphis, Tennessee recording studio, engaged as an arranger and keyboardist. At one point I was overdubbing a keyboard part, basically beating up on a Wurlitzer electric piano that had been passed through a fuzz box and Marshall amp. The harder I played, the more they liked it. I’m not sure that I would include this particular song on a compilation of musical moments to tout. Actually the best recollection I have of the trip was being able to run my fingers over the B3 organ that Booker T used on “Green Onions.”
As for the last category, has jammed with, I never have been much of a “jammer,” but I do my best to prepare my students for moments when they will jam with others. One of my former students, Sam Kininger, jammed regularly with The Dave Mathews Band, proving once again that all cream eventually does rise.

May 31, 2015

Inheriting a Big Band

My normal schedule as a working musician includes multiple duties at Hamilton College in Upstate New York. Those duties encompass private saxophone lessons, directing a saxophone ensemble, and overseeing the Fillius Jazz Archive. Playing gigs and writing the occasional arrangement for local groups supplement my day-to-day schedule.
This past spring semester I had a welcome addition in the form of directing the Hamilton College Jazz Ensemble. This is an opportunity presented to me every five years when the college jazz professor takes a sabbatical. I am familiar with big bands. The bands of Glenn Miller, Count Basie and the like were my first inspiration to pursue music. In college I was a member of the SUNY Fredonia Jazz Ensemble; I led a high school jazz ensemble in the Utica area; and I’ve played on and off with local big bands over the years.
Jazz bands do not require “conducting” per se. The groove should already be there from the rhythm section, and the waving of arms in a traditional sense is perfunctory. As band leader Bill Holman stated in our February 1999 interview, “well, things that are in tempo, dance band or jazz band charts, conducting is kind of a grand word for it, because what you do is get them started and get them stopped.” For me, a few cues from the hips, hands and eyes suffice.
Most instrumental teachers from the middle school level and up are now expected to direct a jazz ensemble. They learn that the standard instrumentation consists of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, and one each of piano, bass, drums and guitar. A vocalist is optional.
This year at Hamilton the band I inherited consisted of six saxophones, two trombones, one trumpet, three guitars, three drummers, a pianist, and three vocalists (two male and one female). Both Hamilton student bass players were spending the semester abroad. And while I avoid hiring ringers, I did engage a local bassist, Sean Peters, to fill in. No bass, no band! I sought out a second student trumpet player and recruited a tubist from the brass ensemble. This gave me a marginal brass section, significantly out of balance with the six hard-blowing saxophonists. To be honest, I welcomed the challenge and would have been disappointed if I had inherited a band with the requisite person in each chair ready to read store-bought arrangements as written. I have always loved arranging music as much as playing it, and here was my opportunity to get my licks in, both writing charts and tweaking others for the band’s strengths and weaknesses.
From our first rehearsal I made it clear that learning by ear and spontaneity would be part of our process. We learned Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)”  without written music or lyrics. To keep the extra drummers, guitarists and singers engaged, I arranged a piece that included a part for rhythm sticks.
Our two weekly rehearsals were leading to two on-campus performances in May. My eclectic tastes in music were reflected in our concert program, which ultimately ended up in a healthy number of tunes, 14 to be exact, in multiple styles. A gig in the college café served as a warm-up for the main event in a concert hall on May 5.
I have always had faith in the blues to catch people’s ears, so our first two numbers of the performance were 12-bar blues: Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack O’ Woe” and Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66,” giving one of our vocalists his first appearance. The rest of the concert consisted of classic swing from the 1930s, a ballad “At Last” to feature our girl singer, and a premier performance of an upbeat Latin chart composed by our one music major in the band. I was cognizant of the fact that our five-man brass section was going to need a break during the middle of the concert, and also that variety and changes in groove are an integral part of a successful performance. With that in mind, we featured each section of the band. Guitarists played Django Reinhardt’s “A Minor Swing”:
The saxes ripped through Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” (which I can tell you can survive without any brass at all).
The singers exactly mirrored the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, so we gave the audience what was most probably their first exposure to the extremely catchy tune “Yeh Yeh” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
The brass were featured on Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” and our three drummers engaged in a tom-tom battle on the Benny Goodman classic “Sing Sing Sing.”
The band then reconvened for a medley. I think it’s safe to say that this was the first combination of these particular songs. Trombonist Al Gray wrote a wonderful ear worm called “Echoes of New Orleans,” written to reflect his experience of hearing marching bands pass by his hotel room during Mardi Gras. The planets aligned for this particular song. One of our saxophonists played decent clarinet, a New Orleans staple, and a guitarist fortuitously doubled on banjo. With the tuba, these additions added the exact right touch. I had an intuition that our “I Feel Good” vocalist might know how to really play the tambourine — the kind with the head on it. At one rehearsal I handed it to him and said, “when I give you the nod, let me hear what you can do.” And he really captured the sound of the street. A fade out ending, mimicked the band disappearing down the street, and we transitioned into controlled cacophony. A shouted, “one-two-three-four-WHAP” “I Feel Good” announced our last tune. In a dress rehearsal that afternoon I told the horn players to feel free to rise up out of their seats, since there was no written music. They took me at my word and their impromptu dance around the stage helped inspire a standing ovation at the end of the concert.
Invariably an unexpected situation occurs at such events. I took considerable care in discussing the appropriate dress, the banning of cell phones during the concert, no practicing on stage, etc. I failed to announce, “no shorts,” which apparently can be part of a collegiate dress wardrobe. When three male band members appeared with bared legs, the only thing to do was seize the moment and stage an impromptu “fashion show,” complete with improvised piano accompaniment.
Music teachers are not often taught about arranging. It’s a skill that can be learned from books, but is better experienced by doing, starting with flute duets, transitioning to saxophone quartets, followed by two and three part choral arrangements. You have to learn what to do and what not to do, depending on the age level you are writing for. Computer programs like Sebelius and Finale help. But the musical intuition you learn throughout your career is the best aid.
Leading a band every year is much like having a sports team. Your best and your worst players eventually will move on. And what you get from one year to the next will vary, sometimes immensely. Arranging skills can help you use this situation to your advantage by customizing charts for the strengths and weakness of the players in any given ensemble.

May 8, 2015

Marty Napoleon, 1921-2015

Pianist Marty Napoleon passed away on April 27 at the age of 93. He was born in Brooklyn, NY of Sicilian immigrants as Matthew Napoli, later legally changing his name. Marty came from a long line of musicians. His familial situation was atypical. In his case the scenario of the young musician who finds disfavor with his girlfriend’s father was reversed.
MR:    Can I assume that it was okay with your parents that you were going into this field?
MN:    As a matter of fact that’s funny you lead me into that. Because when I started going with my wife, I met my wife when we were both 18 years old. Obviously we were the same age just about. And we kept company for about two years. But after about a year, my father said to me, “you can’t keep company with that girl.” I said, “why not?” He says, “you’re planning on marrying her?” I said, “yeah.” He said, “well you can’t even think about that.” I said, “why?” He said, “she’s going to keep you away from studying the piano.” How would you like to have parents like that?
In today’s jazz world, the majority of musicians are well skilled in all facets of music, and are expected to be able to read the most complex arrangements. Such was not the case in Marty’s time, and he was well into a career as a pianist before he learned to interpret notes on a page. Marty landed a gig with Chico Marx of Marx Brothers fame, and literally learned to read on the job.
MN:    To get back to Chico, I couldn’t read. I hadn’t learned yet, because I was like scuffling. So when we got to Chico’s band and I was like playing these shows with comedians and dancers, I was lucky that we had an 18-piece orchestra. And fortunately I had what they called a piano/conductor part. And on the top, in red ink, was what the lead trumpet was playing, see? So now I would fake through the first show and from the second show on I would follow the red notes on the piano sheets see? And I would notice like whenever the band had an eighth rest and a dotted quarter, I know it always went [scats] and I said, hey that’s great, you know. By the time I left that band I was reading music.
MN:    The funny thing was, only about three years ago, my wife and I were sitting in the living room and I said, “well you know I scuffled during Chico’s band because I couldn’t read.” She said, “you didn’t know how to read when you were with Chico’s band?” She never even knew I couldn’t read.
Musicians of the 30s and 40s in particular seem to have played musical chairs throughout their careers. Marty played with a long list of well-known jazz artists, including Gene Krupa, Red Allen, Joe Venuti, Charlie Ventura and in bands with his uncle Phil and brother Teddy. Prominently listed among Marty’s credits are his multiple stints with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Marty was able to witness why Louis Armstrong had the nickname “Ambassador Satch” and how his God-like presence overseas did not always translate into the same respect at home:
MR:    Were there certain places that you’ve played that were particularly memorable overseas?
MN:    Mostly all the places because especially, like I say, I wrote everything down. So I remember every place. One of the most exhilarating experiences was when we got to Switzerland, the first time I played in Switzerland. The first time I went into Europe with Louis was in October of 1952. ’52 or ’53.
MR:    ’52 ’53 the first time around.
MN:    Yeah okay.
MR:    Sweden, Denmark, Finland.
MN:    Yeah the first place was Sweden, and we got into this town and the place was closed. There wasn’t a thing in town. I met a guy and he could speak English and he spoke to me, “you with Louis Armstrong?” I says, “hey where is everybody?” He says, “what do you mean?” “I don’t see anybody in the streets, nobody walking, the shops are closing.” He says, “Louis Armstrong’s here.” I said, “what do you mean?” He said, “they closed the whole town,” they were getting prepared to go see Louis at the concert. I swear to God, man. He said, “what do you mean, Louis Armstrong’s here.” I said oh, okay. So anyway it was Sweden, then we went to Denmark, then we were here and we traveled a lot, but it was so rough I’m telling you. Because we were doing not only like we’d play one country here today and then go to the next country, we would play two shows, one in the afternoon and one in the evening and sometimes a second one would even be in a different country.
MR:    Did you ever have any problems with the fact that it was an integrated band racially?
MN:    We were in Texas and we were playing in a place called the Seven something, and we had taken a break and I went outside to get some fresh air, it was very hot in the room even though it was air conditioning, you know it gets hot. So I went outside and while I was sitting like this getting some sun, it got dark and I opened my eyes and I saw about four big Texas guys with the big necks like this, and they said, “hey man.” I said, “yeah?” “How come you play with a nigger band?” I said, “what?” They said, “you heard me.” I said, “what the hell are you talking about, man?” I said, “you know who that is? That’s Louis Armstrong.” “So what?” I said, “what do you mean, so what? Didn’t you pay to come in to see him?” The guy says, “yeah.” I said, “how much did you pay?” I forget, ten dollars? I said, “I’m getting paid to work with him, you’re a bigger jerk than I am, aren’t you?” And just as I said that, Cozy [Cole] was coming out to call me or something, and he heard me say that. He says, “Marty, telephone.” So he came to grab me and he pulled me in. He says, “are you crazy?” I said, “what?” He says, “didn’t you see the size of those guys?” I said, “yeah but did you hear what they said, I mean, come on, Cozy.”
Like many musicians who made their living playing jazz-based music, Marty was mystified by the pop music of the 80s and 90s. The melodic elements and the rhythmic swing that he so loved was missing, and he never lost the belief that there was still a fan base out there, although it was more likely to be overseas.
MN:    I feel sad because you know how I know there’s a market for it? I went to Europe about five years in a row with Peanuts Hucko. We were doing a tribute to Louis Armstrong. We had Peanuts, Trummy Young, Billy Butterfield, Jack Lesberg and Gus Johnson. When I tell you we went to Portugal for one night, and we played opposite a kid who was a local hero, who had a hit record, he was about 23 years old, and he was fantastic. He had all kinds of amplifiers. Three guys they sounded like a whole orchestra. It was great. And he had a hit record and he was from that town, and they loved him. And we had to follow him. So now he breaks it up, I mean completely. Now to introduce us and we come out, and we get [sparse applause]. We started to play “Back Home Again Indiana,” well you never heard anything like that in your whole life. Clomping, Stamping, Cheering, Whistling, “hey you guys are great man.” They went crazy. We tore it up. We had to do four encores, they wouldn’t let us off the stage. I said man this is fantastic. These six old guys come on here and they say what’s going on. I was with the world’s greatest band too, the world’s greatest. Everybody in the band was great. People loved it. They were swinging. I mean when the band is swinging it gets to the people, I don’t care what you say.
Marty possessed excellent recall for details about his musical adventures, and we were fortunate to have captured a lengthy interview with him in New York City in 1999.