Author: Ratzo B Harris

A Man at Home On the Road—Remembering Mose Allison (1927-2016)

Mose Allison. (Photograph © Michael Wilson)

If you live, a day will come
If you live, a day will come
When the sun will shine and the crops will grow
And you’ll think that you’re a not gonna worry no mo’
But if you live, your time will come
Your time will come.

—Mose Allison “(If You Live,” from Mose Allison Sings, Prestige PR 7279, 1963)

I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or the Staples Singers or the great blues and jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries.

—Bonnie Raitt (from One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison by Patti Jones, London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1995; back cover)

I got my first call from Mose Allison around 1982 or ‘83. I can’t remember much detail about the call and lost my records about six years later in a fire. But I remember him asking if I was the person who bore my name, which I answered in the affirmative. He then introduced himself and asked if I’d be able to join him at a particular place (which I don’t remember) on a certain date and time (which I don’t remember either). I’m sure I said that I had heard him in 1976 with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Rich Gerard at the El Matador in San Francisco and I remember that he said George Marsh, one of the great West Coast drum gurus who I had the good fortune of playing with while I was in my teens, gave him my number. When I heard that George recommended me, I accepted the offer without hesitation.

There would be no rehearsal but Mr. Allison (who insisted that I call him “Mose”) assured me he’d bring charts and that I should bring a music stand. He hired a conguero as well (whose name I, of course, don’t remember). I had a few weeks before the date and, because I was familiar with his work, didn’t get as nervous as usual for me in anticipation of working for a new client. I’d first heard “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” on the radio when I was in high school (it was a big hit among folks involved in San Francisco’s anti-Vietnam War scene) and I would catch some of his sets when he played The El Matador. I was fascinated by the work of Addison Farmer, the bass-playing twin brother of trumpeter Art Farmer, on Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and “Swingin’ Machine” and spent a lot of time practicing with the radio where Mose’s music made not daily, but frequent, on-air appearances. So I was sure it’d be smooth sailing once we hit the stage. But I had a little trouble getting to the venue, a rustic restaurant/bar that looked like it may have been an inn at one time (and I don’t remember the name of it, either), and showed up fashionably late—with enough time to set up and play, but not much time to talk over the charts Mr. Allison—I mean Mose—wanted me to read.

They were well-calligraphied, accurate, and organized in a leather binder with two, three and even four tunes per page, which were each given a large page number. Instead of calling a tune by name, Mose would call the page number, either out loud or by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, which could look a little odd as the book had over 30 pages. To call the charts “terse” would be an understatement, they were the barest of bare-boned and meant to be read by one person: the bassist (of course, he carried a set of charts for guitar and other transposing instruments when needed; but they, unlike the leather-bound bass book, were kept in manila folders). The bass charts consisted mostly of chord symbols above slash marks, peppered with the notes that were essential to the tune as well as directions about when and how to play them. Mose was considered by many to be a “blues artist” and a large part of his material was blues—which he usually didn’t bother writing out, but rather leaving a space in the stave for directions like: “C-minor (or major) Blues” or “Calypso Blues.”

Mose wasn’t one to insist on how one was to play his music, other than the few indispensable notes in some bass lines and the chord progressions, which were very open to interpretation. But that wasn’t an indicator of a laissez faire attitude towards his own music: he was very particular about certain elements that he wanted to hear. The way he explained these elements to his sidemen, however, challenged some of their basic instincts. When we sat down in the club’s “green room” during the first break, he looked at me, smiled and began explaining to me what he didn’t have time to say before we started:

“When we get into the blowin’ during the blues numbers, go to the flat-six chord before the five, unless the chart states otherwise. And don’t play the third of the chord unless it’s preceded, or followed, by the other third.”

A nice way of saying that I had done the first set almost entirely wrong!

To be sure, I understood the part about going to the flat-six chord: instead of going straight to a G7 (if you’re in the key of C) in the ninth measure of the 12-bar form, you play an A♭7 for a measure and then play G7 in the tenth; it’s a tritone substitute for the minor-two chord (D-minor 7)—pretty basic, but jazzy stuff! But he could tell that I was a little confused about the thirds and elucidated:

“That means that if you play the major third of a chord in your bassline, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the minor third and, conversely, if you play the minor third, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the major third.”

I’d do my best over the next 30 years to follow that directive, but leaving out thirds for three sets can be tricky. Sometimes, when I made the error, I’d play the “other third” the next time the chord came up. That seemed to resonate with Mose, so I tried separating the thirds by a chorus, which seemed to be okay as well. When I tried to use the major third on one tune and the minor third on another one, however, he let me know it didn’t work. Once, when we were opening for Al Kooper at the Bottom Line, I played a chorus using just roots and fifths, first one, then the other. Mose, who was not one to heap liberal amounts of praise, congratulated me for the first time: “Ratzo, you’ve just inspired me to create a new rule: No alternating between roots and fifths.”

The bass players were in charge of the book during the gig and sometimes had to explain the contents to new drummers—when Mose wasn’t looking. I once booked Mose at a club, Just Jazz, in St. Louis with Mark Wolfley, a fantastic Cincinnati-based percussionist who I met while he was studying at the New England Conservatory. Since I knew he could read music, I offered to share the book on a tune he didn’t know. As I was turning my music stand so that he could see the chart, Mose, who also was a lexicon of off-color aphorisms, leaned into his microphone and declared, “No, don’t do that! Givin’ sheet music to a drummer is like givin’ whiskey to the Indians!” (Of course, Mark’s next drum solo employed a war-dance rhythm as its principle motive.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that he had no aesthetic rubric to share with his drummers. In an unpublished interview conducted by Marsh, the matter is explored:

GM: How many different drummers would you say you play with in any given year?

MA: Maybe 30 to 40 drummers a year. I play over 200 nights a year. Most of that is scattered all over the country and Europe. Very seldom will I play more than a few days or a week with the same drummer.

GM: What things do you look for when you hire a drummer?

MA: The first thing I ask a drummer is to not play a back beat. No heavy back beat. And I’d just as soon not have the sock on 2 and 4. And I don’t like rim shot patterns where the drummer hits the rim on 2 and 4 or just 4.

For those unfamiliar with jazz or blues, the rhythmic patterns described above are considered the virtual backbone of the genres (the last, hitting the rim on just the fourth beat of the measure, is what happens on “If You Live”). Hearing jazz or blues without these elements is, for many, akin to hearing the music of Beethoven with no major scales. But, in One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, he goes on the record comparing the backbeat to “construction work,” suggesting that: “the backbeat is another form of pollution, bad air.” He once told me that he thought of the genre(s) that featured the abhorrent backbeat as “Le Blues Banal, with the emphasis on Le.” His reasoning was explained to Marsh:

Over the years I’ve come to regard these as “automatic marker” type things and being unnecessary. The concept of the drummer as time keeper is sort of passé anyhow. All the musicians in a jazz band are supposed to be timekeepers…. The drummer should embellish the time while he responds to the soloist. He … isn’t the sole proprietor of the time. For me the whole idea of jazz is for everybody to be swinging with the time. It should release the drummer from that role of a “mechanistic” time keeper who plays only automatic patterns and things. It frees the drummer to do more things. It also frees me so that I can go into different time figures.

I think that it was the “different time” that brought me to my knees on that first night. We opened with an instrumental number called “Promenade.” If you’ve been clicking the links, you heard the stately and relaxed original version from his 1959 Prestige release, Autumn Song with Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free, which bears as much resemblance to what we played as lemonade does to tabasco. Comparing the version of “Swingin Machine” from the second paragraph above with the one preceding this paragraph illustrates their dissimilarities: the latter’s tempo is much faster (and gets even faster) and Allison is fairly free with the form, digging into an open-ended extemporization over the tonic chord until the time seems right and then playing the turn-around back to the tonic. He repeats this ad infinitum and finishes by playing the song’s bridge for the last time. Listen to “Promenade” and notice that, while the chord progression is more involved than in “Swingin’ Machine,” the blowing follows the same idea of playing over one chord until a cue to move on. Mose’s tempo for “Promenade” that night was at least q = 220 (compared to q = 118 in the original). We played it a little slower later, but never as slow as on the recording. It’s a fact that Mose Allison loved to play long solos at break-neck tempos—something that I can find exhilarating as well—but taking my first bass solo after accompanying a 10-minute Mose Allison tour-de-force was … humbling. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened during the opener throughout the rest of the set, which didn’t help with sight-reading his Spartan bass book. It seemed like every time I looked up from the book for help, Mose had a grin that was masking a chortle.

Things went a little better during the set break, after we’d talked about thirds. That discussion included instructions on what kind of bass lines to use on the blues: “Unless the chart says otherwise, you shouldn’t walk” (play one note per quarter-note—another jazz and blues signifier), “try to use something like the calypso [lines suggested in the book].” I prayed that all I had to do was channel Addison Farmer and I’d make it to the parking lot with most of my dignity. What I remember about the second set is that it went pretty much the same as the first, only this time I didn’t get sucker-punched by the opening tune and I knew some of the ones he called (or signed—he would save his best-known stuff for the last set; I assume to keep the die-hards in their seats). In other words, I had no excuses! When it was over he paid me in cash, took the bass book back, said “it was nice working with you” and was gone before I had the instrument in its case. I was sure it was the last time I would get to play with Mose Allison.

Which is exactly how I felt after the second gig with him. It was at Folk City on West 3rd Street in the Village. This time Mose hired Scott Napoli, a deep-swinging drummer who, as the saying goes, “makes it look easy.” He held me together for the two nights we were there. Looking back, I see that my problem was that Mose had evolved as a pianist since he made the recordings I was familiar with from the 1950s. In them you can hear his allegiance to the diatonically-informed post-bop “cool” school, highlighted by long bop-ish lines that displayed an even more confident command of melodic invention than his very capable trumpet playing. By the time I heard Mose at the El Matador, though, he was accessing the style less and, for all intents and purposes, quit playing trumpet (I recently learned that his horn was stolen and he took it as some kind of sign). By the time I got the first call he had pretty much stripped his playing of anything resembling even a hint of bebop cliché. I thought I knew what the singer-pianist Mose Allison played like, but this guy with the white hair—who sorta looked like Mose Allison and sang a lot like Mose Allison—played piano like no one I’d heard before. I started to realize that my strategy of infusing Addison Farmer into my on-the-job audition wasn’t going to help the job of accompanying the pianist Mose Allison (but I still dig Addison Farmer’s playing)! For the rest of the night I would be searching for the bailing-wire to hold together the crack (me) in his swingin’ machine. In retrospect, I know I switched to the right strategy: go with the drummer. I decided to examine how Scott negotiated Mose’s rules with the hope that it might help me imagine an effective strategy to deploy, should he employ me again. (Thank you, Mr. Napoli!)

For the next five years I was absolutely convinced that every gig I played with Mose was the last. I tried calling the bass player who I was ostensibly subbing for, Dennis Irwin, to ask him about his experiences, hoping to get pointers, but he would just start singing the middle verses of Allison’s tunes and the subject would change to something else. I was starting to hear the songs in my sleep because, like most people, I felt like they were written with me in mind. Mose had the ability to expose in the space of a chorus or less, basic truths about daily existence that most of us tend to ignore. He was so good at this that an extremely musically erudite friend whom I had comped into the Iridium Jazz Club to see us was so taken by the prose of Mose that, after he got drunk, he gave me a very nice note, almost a little letter, to pass along saying he needn’t worry, all will get better! For me, the songs “What Do You Do?” became an admission of my own inextricable part in the woes of life and “Hello, Universe” a prayer to the Most Magnificent that, despite all my concerted efforts, things are all right, while “How Much Truth” disclosed the hard evidence they’re not. But then, right after we played at the Bottom Line, where the new rule was invented, he said, “See you on the next one!” I barely knew what to say—and I don’t remember what I said. Maybe it was: “Cool, when will that be?” If so, he probably gave me a general idea of when he planned to be back in town and that he’d call soon to let me know the particulars, which was pretty much how things went for the rest of my tenure.

The Bottom Line was also the first time I accompanied Mose with Tom Whaley on drums. Up to then, and besides from Scott Napoli, he’d used Paul Motian (we’d later record two records with Mose: Gimcracks and Gewgaws and The Earth Wants You) and Jamey Haddad. I met Tom previously, around 1981, in New York City. He was part of the Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet and our paths crossed in the mix-‘em-and-match-‘em milieu of New York’s jam session network. My new “partner-in-time” had several years of experience working for Mose with Dennis Irwin on bass (they would also record with him) and he knew the book (as much as any drummer was allowed to) forward-and-backward. Tom had already figured out how to negotiate the terrain of Mose’s blues and piano playing, which meant that I could devise accompaniment strategies focused more on interacting with Mose in the moment and less about marking the progress of his charts. From then on it wasn’t about playing the book, now we could get down to making music!

Mose was a guiding light for truth, justice and the jazz life. He was serious, funny, swinging and always—always—himself. He never, in all the time I knew him, changed to please somebody else or to become more commercial. This made him a hero to many (including Van Morrison) who not only loved his hip musical story-telling but also his ethos. He was totally focused on playing the piano and making the 9pm hit each night with as much integrity as possible. He lived for the gigs and for the road. Recording was more or less a necessity, but it was the piano and the music that drove him. An honorable man, down to his socks. We will miss him terribly, but of course, we have his music to help us through these hard times. – Ben Sidran

The reason Mose played with so many drummers per year is that he was in the practice of using “pick-up” bands in the cities he played. It was a common practice, back in the day, for bandleaders to reduce their overhead by “picking up” local musicians, instead of taking a band on the road.

I don’t believe that Mose did this merely to save money. Mose became accustomed to traveling light early, since he was born in an era and area when and where leaders toured their localities with bands whose personnel could easily be replaced. These “territory bands,” although they waned in popularity with the advent of radio and the record player, were the norm. Mose was a jazz man at heart who mostly played with small groups and employed improvisation in his music and improvisers as accompanists. And he preferred his accompanists to not know his book as well as he did. He liked to mix-and-match his sidemen; it added to the uncertainty he craved, an uncertainty that kept the experience of playing the same music 200-plus nights a year as fresh as possible. Having a group of core musicians in key locations throughout the world assured Mose that he could maintain the sense of comradery that was essential in presenting his unique contribution to music, but it could (and never will) replace a regular touring band as quintessential to that end. This becomes obvious when considering how the tradition of jazz club performance in America has evolved (or, if you wish, devolved) over the last sixty years. Gone are the times when a jazz musician might play for several months in one location (the average now is a couple of days with many venues booking several bands in a single evening). The four- and six-week runs that were commonplace in the 1960s became two- and three-weeks long in the ‘70s and the one- and two-week runs of the ‘80s shortened to one week or less in the 1990s and so-on up to now. While this might be a godsend to a senior-class touring musician when it comes to getting one’s rest, it minimizes how much an audience can immerse itself in the artist’s live performance process. The ramifications of this are numerous and profoundly far-reaching, but what is pertinent here is that Mose wasn’t able to develop the same rapport with his bands that he could on the longer nightclub stays.

Mose did what he could to make the best of it. He knew that his repertoire was steeped in the blues, but it was a different kind of blues than the majority of what the culture machine considers “commercially viable.” For one thing, the instruments of choice for the overwhelming majority of blues singers who also play one is the guitar and/or harmonica, not the piano or trumpet. (For a long time, the most prevalent keyboard instrument for blues groups has been the electric organ.) Because the instrument(s) that one chooses to study profoundly influences the kinds of music one learns to play, most of the blues you hear are played in E, A, G and D: keys which lay well on the guitar.

But the home key of the piano is C and for the trumpet: B-flat, so a tune like Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind,” which was originally presented in the key of E by Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Louis Armstrong (many blues players and so-called “blues players” play it in A, G, and D as well—but, if you’re fact-checking the links, know that many guitar players tune their instruments a half-step lower) is played by Mose in B-flat and F, both very common keys for jazz musicians when playing blues. In One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, Mose gives the impression that he made a study of a wide variety of music, especially if played on the piano. Yet, while he data-mined Scriabin as well as Ellington and Meade Lux Lewis, he never resorted to imitating their styles. Instead, like so many of the jazz musicians he was exposed to (e.g. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, et al.), Mose took what was idiosyncratic about his playing and made it iconic, incorporating the raw materials found in the music he studied into a sound all his own.

As Ben Sidran alluded, artistic integrity was Allison’s bottom line, and he found that playing in jazz clubs with jazz musicians satisfied his (pun intended) standards. For Mose, who lived the first 18 years of his life in rural Mississippi (he was born on his grandparent’s farm), jazz was the music of Duke Ellington and Lester Young and had its roots in the playing of Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and (according to his biography) his personal favorites: Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner. (Mose called his first band the Nat Garner Trio.) But, while the genre blues (often, and I believe mistakenly, called “the blues”) wasn’t as popular nationally as jazz, it was ubiquitous in the area where Mose grew up and he was very (again, according to his biography) familiar with the recordings of Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Roosevelt Sykes.

I was lucky to be Mose Allison’s “regular” bassist living in what could eventually be called his hometown, New York City. (Mose lived on Long Island for most of the time I worked for him.) I was over at his home a couple of times and got to know his wife Audre and two of his kids, John and Amy. We played regularly at Iridium, The Jazz Standard and, while it was open, Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan. We did a stint or two at The Blue Note, Visiones (before it closed) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (before it moved to Columbus Circle). These were top-line venues for jazz in Manhattan and usually packed with fans (although when Fat Tuesdays started to go under, we played a few empty nights) ranging from curious tourists to the royalty of rock.

I look at my stint with Mose as having two stages. The first was when I was a hardcore drinker and the second was after I stopped imbibing altogether. As I stated before, there was a point early on when I thought certain tunes he performed were written with me in mind. One of them, Johnny Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise,” kept me on something resembling the straight-and-narrow while I removed alcohol consumption from my daily routine, which included relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana from 1990-93. While there, I commuted back to New York to play Mose’s jobs there and booked two Midwest mini-tours for him. The first, in 1991, included two days in at the Blue Wisp in Cincinatti, The Place to Start in Indianapolis, Bear’s Place in Bloomington, and Just Jazz at the Hotel Majestic in St. Louis (where I tried to share the book with the drummer). The second, in 1993, included drummer Stan Gage, who worked with Mose in New York before Tom Whaley. We returned to Cincinatti and St. Louis, but the venue in Indianapolis closed (we were actually the last act to play there; now the room is called The Jazz Kitchen), so we played at a theater, The Vogue, and finished the tour at The Tuba Club in Kansas City. The last was an eye-opener for me: not only did the audience talk the whole time we performed, but at one point a customer sitting close to the stage lit a cigar and blew smoke at Mose while he was singing. That incident was one of the (many) deciding factors in my decision to move back to New York.

But working with Mose away from home was also inspiring. He and his wife drove out from New York to Cincinnati for the first date (and acted like they were on theirs). She took their car to visit family somewhere not horribly far away while he rode with me for the rest of the tour, flying back to New York from St. Louis. I learned something about levels of knowledge, attaining or not attaining them, and a lot about booking tours. (After the 1993 tour I began writing a song I’m prepared to never finish: “Don’t Hire Your Boss.”) After returning to New York I continued working with Mose, but I never tried to book him again. Instead, I passed along recommendations and contact information for new venues—my days as a booking agent were done. There was an incident, though, that forever changed my views about American music that should be related here. In looking for local support for the first tour, I approached the Indianapolis Jazz Society. They informed me that they considered Mose a blues musician and rejected my advances, suggesting that I go to the Indianapolis Blues Society instead. I asked around for information about that organization and was directed to the local radio station, WFYI-FM, where I should talk to Jay Zochowski, a champion of Indianapolis-based bluesman Yank Rachell and the on-air-host of the blues program, Nothin’ But the Blues (and where I hosted a show, Jazz Focus, throughout 1992), who agreed to interview Mose the day of our appearance at The Place to Start. But Mose was tired from the drive from Cincinnati and said I should do the interview instead. I checked with Jay and he agreed. During the interview, he inquired if we’d be playing Parchman Farm and, fortunately, I had already asked Mose about this because it was one of his biggest hits, but we never played it. When I asked him why this was he began with another aphorism:

It’s like givin’ matches to children. The Parchman Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a maximum security correctional facility. If you go there and ask, the inmates all claim that they’re innocent. Each stanza of the song is one of their excuses for bein’ there—the last one goes: “I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life / an’ all I did was shoot my wife.” As I went around the country singin’ it, people would come up and tell me how they could sympathize with me! Turns out there’s a lot of people who are into that, so I don’t play it no more.

For the next tour I approached the Indianapolis Blues Society to help underwrite the night at The Vogue and Zochowski was the person to talk to that year. He explained that, as far as the Society was concerned, Mose wasn’t a real blues musician so they couldn’t lend support. However, Lady Luck appeared in the guise of an Indianapolis jazz fan, Mary Rose Niemi, who generously stepped up to the plate to cover the event. I thought we’d sell enough tickets to pay her back and recover some traveling expenses, but we had an empty house. Zochowski gave us no mention on his show, and the jazz community wasn’t much help either. The Vogue doesn’t even include the date in its roster! I was bellied-up until we got to St. Louis. On our way to St. Louis, I asked him about whether he considered himself a jazz or a blues musician, since there seemed to be some controversy about that among music experts. He laughed: “Well, I’ve been tryin’ to figure that one out, too—good luck!”

I still resided in Indianapolis when we recorded The Earth Wants You, but the session convened over three days at Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Studios in New York City. Wickliffe pretty much let the artists “do their thing,” mostly listening for glaring errors and watching the clock, but our producer, Ben Sidran, ran a very different ship. A pianist-singer-songwriter (among his many hats) whose work is highly informed by Allison’s, Sidran was involved from the project’s inception and planned well for the date. He and Mose presented thirteen tunes in four different settings: piano and bass with (1) drums and three horns; (2) drums and guitar; (3) drums and harmonica; and (4) congas and guitar. The first day was dedicated to recording Mose’s horn charts: Bob Malach (as noted earlier) on tenor saxophone with Joe Lovano on alto and Randy Brecker on trumpet. I had a bit of down time while the horns rehearsed their parts and spent it mostly drinking coffee and hanging out. On one trip back from the coffee machine I detoured into the control room. Ben was talking with a lean, dark-haired fellow who he introduced as Jon Paris, a harmonica player checking out the music for date’s final gathering. I believe, and the discography in Jones’s biography agrees, that this is Mose’s only studio recording with harmonica (there may be others recorded after One Man’s Blues was published, but I couldn’t find any). We exchanged pleasantries until it was time to record. On the second day, we recorded with John Scofield on guitar and Ray Mantilla on congas for half the session and Motian on drums for the other half. On the third day, I came in expecting to see Paris, but was introduced to a fellow named Hugh McCracken who, I was told, played guitar on a lot of sessions and “doubled on harmonica a little.” One of my shortcomings is names and bios and I had no idea who McCracken was. It wasn’t until I attended his memorial that I learned that he had a reputation for being non-punctual, showing on occasion as much as a day or two late. I surmised that this was why Sidran, anticipating a potential problem, had Paris there: as backup! The long and the short is that McCracken played great, the session went really well, despite the decision to use the recording studio world’s tightrope-without-a-net method of recording direct to two-tracks, so everything was done “live” without overdubs. I found a place to sublease in November, drove back to Indianapolis and packed my bags.

As usual, The Earth Wants You wasn’t a huge commercial success, but some of the tunes resonated inside the music community, especially “Children of the Future,” that couches an anti-war theme as an apology to children who come from “mixed” (aren’t they all?) partners from groups who are killing each other. Many are the times I’ve found myself accompanying someone on it. My favorite is the title track. It advances the blatant truth of “If You Live,” but with fresh rhetoric; it’s the blatant truths Allison exposed in his words that attracted me to his music in the first place. But don’t think he would fink on himself after cutting down a cherry tree, many are also the times I heard Mose say that he was proud of the song; but, when pressed for why, he would usually and deadpanly deliver: “It took me three months to find the name of a village in Vietnam that would rhyme with ‘done you wrong’.”

Mose grasped the obvious: that we are all victims of circumstances of some kind, but he was blessed with an ability to understand what those circumstances really are and cursed with the need to identify them in words. Despite his borderline nihilistic leanings, Mose acted with the knowledge that most of us are trying to do the best we can with whatever we have, even if that isn’t much. He set his moral compass to treat everyone with an even-keeled application of “do-unto-others-as-you-have-them-do-unto-you.” Although I was proud of our work on The Earth Wants You, I was not so proud of how the last Midwest tour worked out. I began to feel, once again, like the Swingin’ Machine may have swung shut, even though I was back in New York. But Mose kept calling with things to do.

For the most part I was available, but sometimes a prior commitment would require sending a sub, usually Mark Helias or Ron McClure. Even so, I was surprised when, in late 2000, Mose called me to do another record date with him. When he called with the particulars he disclosed that this would be his first self-produced, or mostly self-produced, recording project. Knowing that he was more in-control of this project than was his norm was a profound honor for me. Paul Motian would, again, be on drums, but this time the “guest” forces were reduced to two: Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and Russell Malone on guitar. And he gave me the introduction to the title track “Gimcracks and Gewgaws,” a 14-bar blues with no IV chord. Mose’s wordplay, like his humor, is subtle on this tune and reaches beyond the lyrics as he “drops” a beat at the end of his solo and returns to singing with: “Well, I guess I dropped it on the floor.” This was the first album Mose recorded since the publication of One Man’s Blues and could be said to represent a new chapter for him. Besides taking a more direct part in the financial affairs of the project, he presents new original compositions, except for “Somebody Gonna Have to Move” and records two “oldies,” W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Russ Morgan’s “So Tired.” The material is presented by quartets: piano, bass, drums and either saxophone or guitar. The one exception is his solo performance of “Old Man Blues,” a reworking of “Young Man’s Blues,” which The Who turned into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. The new lyrics tell a bitter downside of the situation Mose humorously addressed in “Certified Senior Citizen”: how growing old changes one’s relationship with society. Of course, he supplies the underlying reason: “The young man knows how to wheel and deal / The young man’s got that sex appeal / The young man is the man of the hour / Thirty Five years of purchasing power.” We recorded two ballads that impressed me mightily: “Texanna,” a lament to the grandmother he never met for reasons he’ll never know and the masterpiece, “Numbers On Paper.” While I don’t believe that Mose wrote anything with me in mind, I have a similar relationship with my grandfather that he describes in “Texanna” (he was estranged from his wife long before I was born, and the only person who knew him, my grandmother, wouldn’t talk about him). But what is impressive is how well Allison tells the whole story without need for programmatic explanations (like the one supplied here); with a fearless application of words that his audience may not understand: “You were taken from your baby child / But he grew into that same profile / Just a lonely photograph / Of my mystery distaff.” But “Numbers On Paper” is nothing less than an examination of the single most dehumanizing thing a society does to its citizenry: apply numbers to them. He opens the song by reminding his listener that, at first, we almost gleefully accept the process while at the end, he suggests that in the end, we’ve lost our identity because of it. He uses a bittersweet tone that had become more apparent in his conversation. About a year after Gimcracks and Gewgaws was released we were talking during a set break and politics reared its ugly, yet popular, head. I proffered my opinion: “it seems like these guys read 1984 and told each other, “hey, we can DO this.” Mose kind of smiled and offhandedly, “yeah, but who would-a thought they’d make it fashionable! And Mose, who was a fashion unto himself, was no fan of it! That was something clearly stated in “Who’s In, Who’s Out” from The Earth Wants You.

Mose memorized his book and composed in his head. He would work on tunes over long stretches of time, sometimes years, and keep it all straight in his memory. So I was a little surprised when he started to mess up his lyrics. (This link contains another coincidence that shakes my core a bit and I’d like to share: the bassist, Kelly Sill, is playing the bass I used on my first gig with Mose!) At first, he would just repeat a verse, which isn’t that strange; it happens a lot more than most artists would like to admit. But there came a time when he called a number and would start a tune from a different page. I knew the book well enough to roll with that, but then he brought in a tune, “My Brain,” and I knew something was afoot. He had gone on record saying that his tunes pretty much conveyed everything he wanted to pass on to his public.

One of the last times I played with him was a tribute that Elvis Costello and Amy Allison had put together at the City Winery. Mose and I played at the end of the concert. We got through it without any incidents worth mentioning and he conveyed his borderline nihilist philosophy to great applause. He brought his lyrics along as a safeguard, but he didn’t need them. But throughout 2012, his condition worsened and he retired from the stage. My last conversation with him was later that year to congratulate him on being named an NEA Jazz Master. I told him that it was a great thing that he was finally being recognized for his contributions to American Music. He intimated that he guessed they finally figured out how to get him to play for free. I laughed. I told him that if he needed an extra testimonial, I’d be happy to supply one. He laughed (I talk a lot worse than I write). I think that we knew that we’d never play together again. I would bump into his daughter Amy on the streets of New York and offer to come out and hang, play some, but I never heard back about it. I think that he had no interest in watching his sidemen try to convince him that everything was cool with the music, being with his family was enough.

When I look back at the great bassists Mose Allison used on his records: Taylor LaFarge, Addison Farmer, Bill Crow, Aaron Bell, Henry Grimes, Ben Tucker, Stan Gilbert, Earl May, Red Mitchell, John Williams, Bob Cranshaw, Chuck Rainey, Clyde Flowers, Jack Hanna, Putter Smith, Jack Bruce, Dennis Irwin, Bill Huntington, Tom Rutley, Roy Babbington, and Bill Douglas—I feel more humbled than when I did on my first encounter with him; so many of them are legend to my craft. The list doesn’t include the non-recording bassists, the ones he would call to join him for a week or two per year in their hometowns: Kelly Sill, Mel Graves, Rick Kilburn, Ron McClure, Kelly Roberti, Charlie Haden. We all met a guy whose words were prophecy and whose piano playing was so special that it rang in your head for weeks, months, years. We were part of Mose’s “60 years of on-the-job training” and knew that we were better players for the experience. We accompanied and created music for a man who was, for the industry we’re proud to be part of, uncategorizable. I, honestly, haven’t played a blues of any kind for 30 years without thinking about Mose Allison. I guess, if I ever do, it will be time for me to retire as well.

I want to thank: Ben Sidran for the citation that is included in this remembrance; Tom Whaley for spending hours on the phone helping me get my timeline straight, Bill Goodwin for putting me in touch with Tom and talking about Mose’s directions to drummers; George Marsh for sharing his interview; Amy Allison for loaning me her copy of One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, and for taking the time to talk to me about him when he no longer did; and finally John Allison whose remembrance of his father I’ve included below in its entirety.

A few Words about My Dad, Mose Allison

By John Allison

I often get the question, what was Mose like at home? My answer to that is, the man you see performing and the man you hear singing those lyrics, that is the man he is was at home. My dad had no hobbies, did not golf, did not play tennis, and did not spend money on a single hobby that I can recall. He spent his time listening to music of all sorts, the stranger the better, he did some yoga stretching in the morning and some Tai Chi that sometimes embarrassed us kids when we had company over. He liked to run at the track in his younger days, then switched to swimming and actually had a schedule of high and low tides for the Long Island Sound; the beach was just a couple miles from home. Other than that, in his free time he liked to cook and read books, many books. He made lists of “to read” books on small pieces of paper. Mose read esoteric type books with content about the cosmos, the Human Brain, books with titles like, The Fabric of Reality, A Field Guide to the Invisible and The Nature of the Universe. And yes, he did play the piano at home, but he only played repetitive hypnotic runs to keep his mind sharp and his fingers limber.

Mose was one of the least material persons I have ever known. He was not one to ever be seen shopping with the exception of grocery shopping. His entire wardrobe took up 5 feet of space in his closet, most clothing purchases being made by my mom. He called me long distance one time to tell me his luggage was missing and in his luggage contained his only belt. He described the belt to me in detail, hoping I could assist him in finding an exact replacement. I also recall the time my mom replaced our 20 year old couch with a new one. My dad’s space in the den was at one end of this old couch. The new couch was placed in the den and the old couch was placed in our foyer by the door awaiting a ride to the local Thrift store. When I walked in the door, dad was sitting on the old couch at his usual space at the end of the old couch reading his book. Mose eventually warmed to the new couch.

My dad never had much of a record collection. I started buying records when I was 9 years old. I could play a song over 40 times and each time feel a sense of elation. Dad was different, he listened to a song once and it made a connection in his brain, like a mathematical equation, and that was all he needed, that one time. That to me is very strange. To this day I have many favorite songs I still play over and over. With dad, one listen was all it took.

About receiving awards, I know Mose always has appreciated praise but never let it get to his head. He did not believe in the show off, look at me, I’m great, attitudes that run so prevalent through the entertainment world. I was with him in Sedona AZ when he received a beautiful Lifetime Achievement Award, he smiled and thanked those responsible then handed the award to me and said, “I am not carrying that on the plane.” When I asked him why he did not want to go to the Grammy Awards after he was nominated, he replied, “I don’t believe in renting shoes.” In reality he may have already been booked at a small club in Des Moines, OH, and Mose, after 65 years of what he called, “On the Job Training,” never missed a single gig.

Mose preferred the setting and intimacy of a jazz club and that is where he really earned a living. The record companies all tried to cash in and make Mose a commercial success. Mose wanted nothing to do with backup girl singers and A&R men arrangements. He wanted to sing his songs his way at the places he liked best. Atlantic tried to get him to Muscle Shoals, Mose declined. Burger King offered him a huge payday for one day’s work. He told me, “I ain’t singing about no hamburger.” Mom was not happy.

I knew a club owner and promoter that told me, “After 35 years of promoting shows, Mose was the only performer to ever to give me money back.” The promoter had paid Mose but lost money on the show. Dad gave him some money back, why? Because Mose was also interested in keeping his club going so he could keep coming back to play.

In 1989 I accepted a Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame award on his behalf. Mose had a gig somewhere else that date so dad wrote a little something for me to read to the crowd after accepting his award. It read:

There are very few places in the world where a person could have heard as many different kinds of music as I was able to hear growing up in Tippo, Mississippi. Also, the aphorisms, the ironies, the speech patterns with their exaggerations and understatements have served me well and are still a part of my dialogues with myself. If it takes a village to raise a child, then I was certainly raised by Tippo, Mississippi.

Ten years before Elvis got to Beale Street Mose had already been there, getting Zoot suits made for him and performing on keyboards with the BB King Orchestra at Mitchell’s Hotel, a blacks only club in 1947. Dad told me years ago that he first heard rock’ n roll on Beale Street in 1942 from the band Tuff Green and the Rockettes. Mose also remembered hearing a matinee solo performance at the Orpheum Theater by harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson that made a huge impression on him.
Mose was in New York City in 1956 playing piano with the giants of jazz, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, Stan Getz and others. After a short time Mose presented a cassette tape to Prestige Records. The executives at Prestige loved what they heard and immediately had Mose in the studio recording. What Mose gave them was a suite of sketches, songs, evoking the atmosphere of his home town, Tippo, Mississippi. Mose called it his Cotton Country Suite, the record company renamed it, Back Country Suite. Songs from that era included; “Parchman Farm,” “Blues,” “One Room Country Shack,” “Highway 49,” “The Hills,” “Mojo Woman,” “Devil in the Cane Field,” and “Creek Bank.”
From that first record Mose was receiving critical acclaim from audiences and critics alike. Mose went on to record two more albums that same year. It was 1957. Today there are over 50 albums to choose from. My dad wrote over 220 songs. Most folks know four or five. My advice, listen to more Mose!

One of my favorites from his Grammy-nominated album on Blue Note Records, Ever Since The World Ended, is titled “Top Forty.” This song to me represents the way my dad looked at the business of the recording industry.

When my dad passed, he was comfortable and with family. We each got to kiss him, tell him we love him and that it was OK to let go, go home. So he did. No one gets out alive. Dad was 89 and his was a life well-lived. I only feel very fortunate and grateful to have had such a cool dad. I get to ride the turnrows of Mississippi and listen to Mose and I can do that till the day I “go home.”

Finally, a reporter once asked Dad, “You were socially relevant before Dylan, satirical before Newman and rude before Jagger, how come you are not a big star?” Dad simply and honestly replied, “Just lucky I guess.”

Happy Holidays

Louis Armstrongs' Christmas Album
It’s that time of year when many a working musician gets called for gigs that are, hopefully, less than life-defining. New Year’s Eve will find me playing yet another glorified cocktail party, but a lot noisier. Every year I make a list of resolutions that always includes “never take work on New Year’s Eve.” But as usual, after a long year of making a lot of music for not a lot of money, a mid-November phone call starts the New Year’s Eve shuffle going. This year, it’s to play in town for less than I would like, but too much to say “no.” Shortly after came the calls offering a little more, but requiring a drive across the Hudson River. Because I don’t want to get to bed after 4 am on New Year’s Day this year, I have decided to take less in order to stay near home. Besides, mass transit is free that night.

I had a taste of the holiday festivities on Wednesday, playing a pre-Christmas party in the lobby of Trump World Tower. I know that, considering the rants about the Great American Culture Machine that have been a regular feature of this blog, it might seem odd for me to play music at that location, but the acoustics there are rather nice and one cannot really equate the world of Donald Trump with American Culture, even if the image of intensity and ruthlessness he projects appeals to a sub-culture of wannabe robber barons living under the delusion that ascending the corporate ladder will make them interesting. And, judging by what I’ve seen and heard of him, he’s not a shaper of American culture so much as a caricatured product of it. So I resisted the urge to play the theme from The Apprentice during my bass solos and focused on the litany of Christmas songs that find their way into my performance repertoire between Black Friday and year’s end.

It’s not that all of these songs are bad. My colleagues and I are usually in agreement (around this time of year, anyway) that there are excellent vehicles for improvisation in the canon of carols composed to commemorate the holiday season. “The Christmas Song” by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane seem to top the list among the circles of jazz musicians with whom I negotiate, although I’m partial to the version of the latter performed by Cliff Edwards in the role of Jiminy Cricket, myself. Often “Christmas Time is Here” by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi is considered a good choice for improvising as well. But then we start running into problems as we run out of options because the majority of Christmas songs are just not suited for intelligent jazz improvisation. The majority need to be doctored in a big way to be of interest to the jazz person’s sensibilities. (I’ll put in a shameless plug now for a Christmas music project by Lee McClure that I believe is worth listening to.)

Why is most of the serious Christmas musical fare so devoid of musical meat and yet, for nearly two months, we are all barraged from almost every angle with it? Truly, without corporate hype there just wouldn’t be any reason to listen to or play most of this stuff. My theory is that it’s part of a plan to use a musical “less-is-more” paradigm to numb the American aesthetic into a mindless torpor that could be subliminally inculcated into accepting the prospect of sitting in a concert hall and listening to the music of long gone European composers whose music has been heard a hundred times on recordings at home as superior to listening to master improvisers inventing new music in an intimate setting. It sets up a process of brain decay that allowed works that delve into the possibilities of melodic invention like “Karma Chameleon” to rise to the top of the charts. This approach to music marketing also fosters a kind of blind (or deaf) acceptance of anything orchestral as being the height of human achievement. I found the second concept reinforced as I was walking out of the elevator in my apartment building with my “stick-bass” and asked by a neighbor if I was part of “the philharmonic.” When I explained that I was a free-lance musician she told me that even though her sister sings opera and her brother is a concert pianist, they and she “also like jazz, too.” I now understand why artists like Duke Ellington and Max Roach abhorred the word “jazz.”

But this ranting inspired by the Christmas spirits needs, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s visitations, to be left behind so that better things can be discussed. A New Year approaches and in it, I plan to not be blogging. NewMusicBox has informed me that they prefer that I submit more in-depth articles for future publication and I agree whole-heartedly. I’ll be submitting a list of jazz artists who also show wizardry in the wide wonderful world of words who can collectively present a picture of American improvised music from other regions of the United States. I can now spend more time composing for Alt.Timers as well as the bass trio I put together with Ed Schuller and Scott Lee, plus other musicians I play with. I’ll still work with Fay Victor (today—Friday, December 20—at the Greenwich House in Manhattan and Thursday, December 26, at the 55 Bar) and (hopefully, before the Fates take away the chance) the other fantastic artists I’ve been blessed to make music with. I’ll be playing at the United Methodist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, with pianist-composer Eric Olsen on Christmas Eve, before meeting up with the rest of my wife’s family, which will lend a sense of verity to the homage paid to the Prince of Peace’s nativity narrative. The regular Thursday jam session at Jimmy Ryans in the Bronx; and the irregular Monday session at The Turning Point in Piermont, New York will continue (pending the Fates’ whimsy). I’ll also be taking on a new project with a repertoire ensemble, Mr. Gone, playing the jazz-rock fusion music of Weather Report and Herbie Hancock, and plan to work on a method book and a few other self-motivated writing projects. With a little luck and funding, I even hope to continue my formal education. But this three-year run as the “improvised music correspondent” for NMBx has been a great honor and eye- (as well as ear-) opening experience for me. I’ve been given the opportunity to observe my peers and betters and the forces that make them do what they do best, create new music, in a way that I had hitherto not done. Before, I listened to music just to know it, and not as a point of discussion beyond the technical elements of the piece heard. Now I find myself listening critically to works in a greater body of human achievement and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the old way. For that I thank you, NewMusicBox.

Happy Holidays!

A Point of Culture

If memory serves me right, it was in May or June of 1977 that my girlfriend called to tell me that her father had taken ill, that she was flying from San Francisco to New York City, and that it would make her feel better if I would meet her there. So on a Saturday morning I packed my string bass into a borrowed car and made the 700-mile-long drive from Indianapolis to New York. I’ll always remember surfacing from the depths of the Lincoln Tunnel at midnight and into a virtual sea of humanity along the Dyer Avenue approach to 42nd Street. People were walking, talking, yelling, shopping, and going about their various legitimate and not-so-legitimate businesses as if it was the middle of the day. To someone accustomed to the relative peace and quiet of the post-midnight normalcy of most American cities, the sheer volume of people I saw at that hour was stunning. I found a payphone and called my lady friend, who told me how to negotiate the grid of Manhattan’s roadways to 2nd Avenue and 18th Street where we would meet. About half an hour later I arrived and found her sitting on the front steps of the address where we would be staying for the next week. We hadn’t seen each other for almost a month and were too excited to go to sleep, so we took a drive around town to talk without disturbing our host. We drove east to the FDR Drive and took it south to circle around the island’s lower tip, where we saw the financial district’s colossal skyscrapers contrasting against an expanse of glassy black harbor extending to the Statue of Liberty, a gift to a new nation of guerrilla revolutionaries from a people equated with the very ideal of the American secession from the Crown. We then continued north to Harlem (where one pedestrian looked at the license plate on our car and laughed!) before driving through Central Park and back to our host’s apartment. For the next week, she would visit her father during the day, and at night we looked for movies, restaurants, and music.

The end of this story is already known to those who, for reasons probably best kept to themselves, avidly attend to this blog (or, at least, to those who read my confession from last year). But for those who don’t (or didn’t), I’ll summarize: On the last day we were in New York, we went to a then new and now defunct restaurant, Sweet Basil, for Sunday brunch. The band was playing at a level I would expect to hear at a major music festival and had never before heard coming from an afternoon music-for-dining guitar trio. When the leader of the group revealed himself as Jim Hall (with Michael Moore playing bass and Joe La Barbera on drums), I knew that it was time to get over the claustrophobia I inherited from my parents and take up life as a nematode in the Big Apple because, at the time, New York was probably the only city in the United States where the likes of a force of nature like James Stanley Hall, who passed away on Monday at the age of 83, would be playing brunch in a noisy restaurant.
Of course, I knew about Jim Hall before that day. His recording career stretched back to at least in 1956 when he was working for drummer/composer Chico Hamilton (who also passed away recently) and by the time I had made my decision to take up music as a vocation certain recordings he was featured on—particularly: Undercurrent, Intermodulation (both are duo recordings with pianist Bill Evans from 1961 and 1966, respectively), and, most especially, Live!—were part of my regular study regimen. So, to be clear, I wasn’t surprised at all by what I heard, once I knew who I was hearing. Jim Hall was one of those musicians whose playing changed how American music sounds. His imagination and technical command of the guitar allowed him to rethink and subsequently expand on the traditional approach to the instrument’s fretboard, almost as if he were playing a piano. Like his contemporary, Wes Montgomery, he performed in a variety of settings and genres without losing his individuality, as can be seen here. The list of musicians he worked with is incredibly diverse. Chico Hamilton, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald, Gary Burton, Ron Carter, Red Mitchell, Itzhak Perlman, The Kronos Quartet, Michel Petrucciani… the list seems endless. Although his single-note facility was understated, his use of wide intervals, quartal voicings, and chromaticism inspired many of the masters of subsequent generations of influential guitarists, including: Mick Goodrick, John Scoffield, Mike Stern, Pat Methany, Bill Frisell, John Stowell, Emily Remler, Vic Juris, John Abercrombie, Sheryl Bailey, and Bruce Arnold, among many others. One could say that Hall was a singular point in the culture of American guitar playing.

In the years since my Sweet Basil experience, I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Jim Hall a few times, although I never got to play with him. One thing that always impressed me about him was his ability to pick up where he left off. Years could go by, and he seemed to remember where and when we had last seen each other. He was also very supportive of younger musicians and their causes. He was a vital part of ArtistShare collective of artists that host the website where his latest releases are available. I remember a heartfelt duo set he performed with pianist/composer Cynthia Hilts at her 2004 Benefit Concert for Peace at the club where I had first heard him, although the name had been changed to Sweet Rhythm. In 2004 Jim Hall was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and in 2006 the French Ministry of Culture named him a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters for his “contributions to musical expression” and “ongoing experimentation.”

It was his lot to be an inspiration to others, as I can attest to from my New York City home. I remember a story about him that circulated around town when he wanted to have an album cover (this was before CDs) illustrated by the cartoonist Gary Larson, the creator of The Far Side. Supposedly, Hall’s agent contacted Larson’s and the request was made. Larson was alleged to have quoted a price of one million dollars for job. Hall’s agent told Larson that, even though he was certainly worth the price, it was a bit hefty for the project, especially considering how recordings by jazz artists were no longer selling like hotcakes. Larson then countered his own offer by suggesting that he would do it for a guitar lesson with Hall. The lesson happened and the two became fast friends.

Gary Larson cover for Jim Hall album

The cover for Jim Hall’s 1993 album Something Special, designed by Gary Larson (Music Masters 65105)

I last saw Hall play with his quartet featuring Greg Osby on alto saxophone, Steve Laspina on bass, and Joey Baron on drums at Birdland last year. It was the same group that had recorded there some two years before and while, like guitar icon Les Paul, Hall’s technique had been hindered by arthritis, his musical sensibilities were intact and the band made great music. And that’s what Hall seemed to always be about: making great music.

Culture, The End.

For some inexplicable reason this year’s Thanksgiving and the week that followed found me making a lot of music with guitarists. It started with dinner with the family subset that shares my passion for music: my wife, her brother, his lady-friend, and her niece. My wife has a beautiful voice and loves to sing the songs from the Great American Songbook that are also considered “jazz standards” and sang: “Baltimore Oriole” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer; “Skylark” by Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster; George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Summertime”; “God Bless the Child” by Billy Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.; Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “It Might As Well Be Spring”; and “Route 66” by Bobby Troup. Her brother was once a glam-rock bassist, but now plays a mean blues guitar. He and his lady-friend, who plays guitar and sings, perform around the New Jersey clubs together. The niece is a folk singer who plays piano and guitar. So, while my brother-in-law did an excellent job on “Baltimore Oriole” and “Route 66” with his sister and me, when it came time for us all to play together, we found common ground with Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and songs by the Beatles. Somehow the music of the Bee Gees came up, which left me out of the picture until I found a chance to initiate Bill Withers’s “Lean On Me.” When we played his “Ain’t No Sunshine” a disagreement over the chord changes ensued and, because the hour was getting late, we agreed to close the session. Overall, though, it was a successful outing and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to play this music in a setting that didn’t require wearing a tuxedo!

The next night was spent playing in a very nice venue in Islip, Long Island, the Treme Jazz Club, with guitar virtuoso Tim Siciliano and drummer extraordinaire Gene Jackson. Siciliano is a hard-edged guitarist who plays with a fiery intensity without sacrificing sensitivity or interaction with his accompanists. Sadly, the piezo pickup on my bass decided to die at the end of the first set and I had to use a vocal microphone wrapped in a dishtowel for amplification. I now carry an extra pickup as well as a spare set of strings with me, but not without some grumbling about the need to wield a soldering iron as well as engage in low-level luthier-ship over the holiday weekend—as Jackson DeForest Kelley might have put it, “[email protected]#-it Jim, I’m just a country bass-player, not an electrician!” But, then again, the nature of the music business demands that many of its practitioners engage in multiple vocations and disciplines.

As if to suggest that there exists an intelligent force that amuses itself by influencing the events occurring in the three (or four) dimensions we regularly negotiate, this cross-disciplinary foray was further amplified on Monday at a discussion on the future of guitar design hosted by the Center for Transformative Media at Parsons The New School for Design and its esteemed director, Dr. Edward Keller. The title of the talk was What Is At Stake With Ergonomics in Guitar Design: Fretboard Cognition, Embodiment, Collective Intelligence. The featured lecturer was Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, an independent scholar and guitarist who is investigating the premise that our ability to use music as a tool for reorganizing cognitive terrains holds a key to unlocking strategies for the emergence of social progress. My part in this lecture was to perform as an accompanist for guitarist Dom Minasi when illustrating certain points in Dr. Rosenberg’s Powerpoint presentation with musical examples and when Rosenberg stepped down from the lectern to demonstrate his considerable skill as an improvising guitarist. He discussed the work of various scholars and researchers who have examined the brain function of people listening to and performing music and how, through concerted and diligent regimens of study and practice, the physical idiosyncrasies of a musical instrument evolve from an impediment to artistic expression to its principle informant.

It’s no secret that experienced musicians eventually arrive at a point where the physicality of the instruments they play seems to disappear. No longer do they need to consider which limb goes where (with fingers being the phalangeal extension of limbs) or how much air to move in order to properly manipulate the technological contrivances designed to make music. It’s at this point that proprioception (e.g. muscle memory) provides the player with a cognitive shortcut that frees the conscious mind from primarily focusing on the mechanical details of music performance and allows it to address issues of aesthetics. Dr. Rosenberg took this one step further by introducing how—and I’m using my words, not his—the jazz musician, by practicing improvising over chord progressions, can place voice leading and other facets of music theory under the auspices of proprioceptive administration. In fact, the rapid-fire decisions needed in the improvised negotiation of a chord progression can become so ingrained that the analysis of musical phrases played by other musicians can take place in what Rosenberg calls Proprio-Sentience. (This ability is not limited to music. New York public school teacher, poet, and string-figure expert James Murphy has written articles and a book about his use of what is commonly considered a childhood pastime to teach mathematics to his students. I believe his observations, although terse, are rather pertinent to understanding the human condition.) To illustrate this, Rosenberg looks at how jazz improvisations will often lead to new melodies based on the chord progressions of other songs. Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” (based on Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton’s “How High the Moon”) was one example mentioned.

We played an arrangement of Rosenberg’s, “My Bebop Valentine,” that features a new melody over the progression to Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Another aspect of “My Bebop Valentine” is that the composer incorporated a mistake he remembered making during a performance of “My Funny Valentine.” In this mistake, he played four measures of the song’s progression a half-step flat (easy to do on a string instrument like the guitar). This led to a discussion of modifying the chord progressions of pieces from the Great American Songbook and then an examination of John Coltrane’s composition, “Giant Steps.” Its progression incorporates an ascending minor-third/perfect-fourth pattern that was used by Coltrane and others to modify many pre-existing chord progressions in a way that has deeply informed modern jazz improvisation, composition, and education. (Gone are the days when one could authoritatively assert that one didn’t have to know “Giant Steps” to play jazz; now one has to be able to play the tune in all twelve keys!)

Sadly, time was an issue and we didn’t get to perform any “Giant Steps” variants, which would have included my own composition “Apollo.” (I was, however, asked to supply an impromptu bass solo. I did so by using all of the techniques and phrases that are part of my musical vocabulary that originated from incorrectly performing a different phrase or technique, of which there are many. It was my tip-of-the-hat to “My Bebop Valentine” and currently has the working title “It Was a Mistake.”) There were other musical offerings that fell by the wayside because of the time constraint. We didn’t get to play variations of blues progressions, which had been planned (along with a composition by Dom Minasi, “Takin’ Satin Doll Out,” which was originally performed on his recording, Takin’ the Duke Out) to show how proprio-sentience can simplify highly structured forms into more loosely organized ones that allow for a greater degree of expression by the artists performing them. The idea of this was to illustrate how groups of improvising musicians can generate a kind of group-think that Rosenberg described as disembodied cognition or collective intelligence. As if to strengthen the suggestion of an other-dimensional force at work, the week after Thanksgiving began for me with a performance at The Stone with a large group of old friends led by saxophonist Joe Lovano playing free-jazz and featuring the singular guitar playing of Michael Bocian, protégé of the iconic Cleveland guitarist Bill DeArango, which ends a week-long series of Stone concerts curated by Lovano.

I hope that the readers of this week’s post will take the time to check out the website for Bill DeArango a guitarist whose importance on the development of jazz—from the earliest days of bebop to the music of Weather Report—has gone largely unsung. Furthermore, it is my contention that the guitar, more than almost any other instrument, has been the principle voice of American music. Its portability, coupled with its potential for harmonic expression, has made it a staple of nearly every form of music considered distinctly American. I say “more than almost any other instrument,” though, because nearly every critical turning point in American music has been defined by what is played on the bass and drums. The latter of these, the drum set, an assembly of various percussion instruments into a single entity, is possibly the only original American musical instrument (arguably the actual part of the set uniquely American is the hi-hat cymbal stand) and goes to the greater picture of instrument design as an issue of transformative media. I hope that the Center for Transformative Media will take up the evolution of the drum set as well as that of the guitar in a future series.

Vertical Bass

Ratzo B. Harris’s signature Merchant Vertical Bass, photo courtesy of Lex Samu

Of course, the ever-changing design of the bass could also be taken up by the Center. Ned Steinberger, who developed the NS line of stringed instruments, was the featured lecturer in an earlier presentation, but there are other designs that could be considered. For example: the bass I used for Dr. Rosenberg’s presentation is the latest model of luthier Bill Merchant’s Vertical Bass. While both of their instruments’ designs originate in the 1930s, Merchant’s design is revolutionary for externalizing the internal structure of the bass, making it more durable than hollow-bodied versions but able to realize the sonic capabilities of an acoustic bass.
The lecture ended with a panel discussion where the question was raised of what ethical conditions might be pertinent to the consideration of using music as an agent of cognitive conditioning. While the research describing and mapping how the music-to-mind connection works is new, the overarching knowledge of it is as old as society. One of the great technological innovations steeped in the principle is the pipe organ, used to mesmerize church-goers in Europe. While music, by and of itself, has extremely vague, if any, semantic value, its ability to enhance any message makes it indispensable in multimedia products, such as: film, opera, and radio and television advertising. Music will always be subservient to the drama it accompanies. So it is incumbent on the musician to balance the argument between the elephant and the 800-pound gorilla in the room, keeping in mind that size matters in very strange ways indeed. I am reminded of an Isaac Schankler article “You Used To Like Terrible Music.” I’ll freely admit that I still do! I’m one of those guys who gets teary when he hears Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Small World, Isn’t It?” and is still listening to Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” The corporate messaging of rock ‘n’ roll was tenuous when I started my exploration of American music and the music from the Summer of Love could still promote the ideas of people like Paul and Anne Erlich’s The Population Bomb. I found myself remembering the ground-breaking rock band, Chicago, and a tune that I hope they still perform, “Mother.” Maybe it’s only because my own mother worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for twenty years that I love this example of what many would consider “bad music,” but the drama it addressed more than forty years ago has become an elephant of, quite literally, breath-taking proportions that we, as musicians and citizens, should probably be addressing now. I hope that others agree our culture depends on it.

Cultured, Part 2

Music’s function as a carrier of social messaging has always been an essential part of human culture. Evidence presented in last week’s post showing that the innate characteristic of pattern recognition common to most animals can be prenatally engaged suggests that the use of music for introducing and indoctrinating us to our social hierarchy can begin while still in our mother’s womb. (Music’s power to influence an audience lies in the fact that it doesn’t really exist until it’s performed; that its reception is only possible over an extended period of time. So it can subtly present and deliver symbols, concepts, and opinions while we’re occupied by activities that are not specifically music related, e.g., driving, work, worship, shopping, eating, and maybe even sleeping.)

This led to the inclusion of the idea that music can act as an agent for social change with a reference to the summary of music-related news items that the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt in Germany publishes weekly. In the latest offering, a New York Daily News article is mentioned. The summary went, “Other researchers have found out that ‘piano players who had experience in jazz improvisation showed more connectivity between three major regions of the brain’s frontal lobe when they improvised music’.” But, when I read the article it linked to, I discovered that the report was part of another summary of events from the Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Meeting held in San Diego, California. The actual research and its results were mentioned only briefly and in no great detail.

After scouring through at least a thousand pages of abstracts from the meeting, I found the one pertaining to the study, which offered a bit more information. Especially interesting to see was that the mechanics of improvisation is not dependent on the amount of training for it:

A negative correlation was found between hours of improvisational training and the level of activity in the right superior parietal lobule and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. There was neither a correlation between expertise and behavioral complexity of the improvisations, nor between general piano practicing and brain activity.

However, the extent of the mechanics was dependent on training:

Analyses of psychophysiological interactions (PPI) were performed using seed regions in premotor and prefrontal cortex that have earlier been identified as key regions involved in free response generation and improvisation. For all these regions, it was found that improvisational training was related to increased functional connectivity with other motor, premotor, and prefrontal regions, when controlling for age and general piano playing.

The final result was something any jazz musician could tell you, albeit less clinically:

Extensive experience with improvisation is associated with lower levels of activity in frontal and parietal association areas, regions which are central for cognitive control, working memory, and explicit response selection, suggesting that generation of meaningful musical materials can be more automated or performed with less attentional effort. The PPI analysis indicates that improvisational training results in extensive functional reorganizations within motor regions of the frontal lobe.

I still wanted to know what it was the thirty-nine subjects involved in the study were asked to improvise. Did they play over chord changes? One chord? Free-form? Of course, when I plugged the presentation’s title, “Neural basis of expertise in musical creativity—a functional magnetic resonance imaging study,” and the name of the author, Ana Pinho (Karolinska Institutet), into my trusty Google search engine, I immediately found the press release for the meeting, which showed that there were two more presentations about music and brain function being offered: “It matters when you start: The age of onset of music training predicts brain anatomy” (Yunxin Wang, Beijing Normal University) and “Enhanced multisensory processing in musicians” (Julie Roy, University of Montreal). The release, “Musical Training Shapes Brain Anatomy and Affects Function: Training before age seven has bigger impact on brain anatomy; improvisation can rewire the brain,” included the overarching thesis:

Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions—from finger tapping to dancing—and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time.

While I mused over the idea that musical instrument playing is largely about finger tapping and dance-like body movement, I looked at the website,, that the release suggested as a place to find more information. Although there I found a fascinating article linking another activity to reorganized brain function, the intake of tetrahydrocannibol, I could not find the actual data from Pinho’s research. Back at the Google search page, however, I did find more published research about music and cognition that included some of the information that I find interesting.

What is germane to social messaging and music reception, and what I find most intriguing about the above mentioned research, is—without placing any relational value of worth on either—the difference in cognition (i.e., brain function) between creating music (improvisation) and reciting it (playing from memory). One researcher, Dr. Charles Limb, has gone to the trouble of making this understandable to the average person:

The difference between the two modes of cognition—how the improvising brain is engaged in less self-monitoring, more self-exposition, and more language-based functionality than the reciting brain—is fascinating. I posit that the language-based functionality discussed by Limb (starting ca. 11:25 in the video) requires attention to auditory input and is more like the state of mind experienced when one is just listening to music, as opposed to playing it from memory. And, according to one study on the subject, cognitive activity while listening to music is more universal than individual. As the author of the study explains, it doesn’t matter whether or not we’re listening to the same piece of music, or what details we’re paying attention to when we listen to the same piece of music—our brains will be doing the same thing. Listening to music is an activity that fosters cohesion and synchronicity. Ergo, music is very good for social messaging across large numbers of people who are listening to it at the same time.

Even though the concept of music as a semiological device isn’t new, the implications of the above-mentioned research are incredible. One of them is the idea that musicians, when improvising in concert (or consort, for that matter), have the potential to think as one—a kind of “disembodied cognition,” as one researcher I know, Dr. Martin Rosenberg, calls it. He will be giving a demonstration on this subject next month, which will be discussed in next week’s post.


I generally feel a sense of self-righteous satisfaction when scientific research (the kind with reproducible results) once again reveals evidence supporting my personal non-peer-reviewed theories and beliefs about music functioning as a fabric to weave and tailor the wardrobes of our lives with. So, I was happy to read about the research from Finland that proves that we are able to respond to music before we are born. Although the idea has been tossed around for quite a while, the study echoes one conducted in France nearly three years earlier that, while using different methods, came to the same conclusion: human beings are capable of apprehending and remembering music while in the womb. The concept that memories of our watery symbiotic prenatal sonic environment are transported into the world of air-breathing individuation lends support to a theory I have about the practice of regulating the temporal experience by dividing it into a series of motoric units. These units, be they global (hours, minutes, seconds) or local (whole note, half note, quarter note), are as arbitrary a way to measure time as equal temperament is to measure an octave.

Given that our gestational sonic environment is unarguably rich, the predominant sound heard is the uneven rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat with a ratio that approximates the Golden Mean. (The ratio varies, though, depending on one’s general health, state of mind, and level of physical activity.) The tempo of a heartbeat for an adult at rest ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute and, moreover, the volume levels of the two beats making up the rhythmic pattern are different. The heartbeat that an unborn human hears when its mother is healthy, relaxed, and in a good frame of mind sounds very similar to the drumming patterns that accompany Native American round or “friendship” dances. In Native American music, evenly spaced drum pulses are mostly used in competitive or “fancy” dances. They sound similar to the heartbeat of someone engaged in intense physical activity.

My theory goes that we unconsciously equate irregular rhythms with security, safety, and community, especially rhythms that resemble the human heartbeat, such as the Charleston rhythm of jazz or the bombo – ponche bass line heard in the tresillo-style tumbao of Latin music. These rhythms, I believe, were in common use in America before the arrival of European colonists. Modern American music, though, is primarily the result of Eurocentric philosophy, technology, and pedagogy, and its largely tacit hegemonic foundation of super-cultural fathers currently supports the idea that these rhythmic elements were imported to the New World as part of the African Diaspora. This would suggest that jazz, which is officially America’s indigenous art form and born out of a push for inclusion of African Americans in mainstream American culture, is non-inclusive of the indigenous New World cultures that predate by millennia the trans-Atlantic colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But the push has been an obvious success, despite the inability of so many melanin-challenged brothers and sisters to accept that white supremacy is very near the root of our nation’s woes, and there are many who believe that African-American inclusion will lead to an egalitarian culture recognizing a broader base of diversity. So hope stays alive while artists like Vijay Iyer, Fred Ho, Jennifer Leitham, Fred Hersch, Cynthia Hilts, Joris Teepe, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Sanabria, Joanne Brackeen, Arturo O’Farrill, and Wayne Wallace exemplify how, no matter how one negotiates the Great American Culture Machine, diversity is key.

As a side note, I would like to think that the Kaheri Quartet, who celebrated the release of their first CD last month, is part of this trend, especially since—along with guitarist Omar Tamez, pianist Angelica Sanchez, and drummer Satoshi Takeishi—I’m a member of it and we plan to record our second CD in a few weeks. Kaheri’s music is about improvisation, both structured and not. While it’s not a new concept, what is unique to the group is the addition of non-African elements to the mix. While it is truthfully said that all human experience can be traced to Africa, its musicological influence in Kaheri is filtered through several layers of diasporic timelines that include the pre-European indigenous elements that inform Tamez’s playing. Sanchez is well-known on the new music scene, especially for her collaborations with saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey. Takeishi is from Mito, Japan, but spent years working in Columbia, South America, on projects that combined elements of folk, jazz, and classical music.

The international aspect of Kaheri is one that mirrors how jazz studies has become international as well, and the publicly funded Jazzinstitut Darmstadt offers a service that scans through the headlines of leading newspapers for jazz-related news items. One story that caught my eye was an interview with saxophonist Dave Rempis. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Rempis has made Chicago, Illinois, his home for the last 15 years. Like Tamez, Rempis is an organizer as well as a performer and improviser. He performs as part of a group, The Vandermark 5, that takes a unique approach to alternative groove-based jazz. Rempis’s playing is high energy and steeped in the aesthetic of post-Albert Ayler avant-garde and free-jazz movements. In his interview, he is asked the question that I feel is at the heart of this post: “Do you ever think of social progress and playing music in the same breath?” His answer, although coming from the right place, reflects a problem with how jazz as an American art form is perceived and/or taught in America:

The history of jazz and social progress are deeply intertwined on every level, from the first racially mixed groups that Benny Goodman led and made no compromises with, to Max Roach’s groundbreaking Freedom Now Suite, and up through current times, whether it be in regards to the various wars this country has undertaken in recent years, or to social movements such as gay rights. On a less explicit level, jazz is inherently a music that allows for meaningful personal expression without necessarily sacrificing group integrity, and the balance of those things between the musicians offers a model for possibilities within the society at large.

As was mentioned in a previous post, the racially diverse groups led by Benny Goodman were formed at the behest of his agent, John Hammond; Goodman’s participation was a compromise. Besides, the push to include subaltern musicians in “mainstream” society went back at least to James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra playing at Carnegie Hall in 1912, twenty-six years before Goodman. (Notice that his first name is abbreviated to “Jas.” on the poster.) If one wants to suggest a “great white hope” for integration in the jazz age, probably credit should be given to Vernon and Irene Castle, the ballroom dancing stars who popularized the fox trot and employed Europe’s “Society Orchestra” to accompany them in the same year. Another problem is to use the We Insist! (subtitled Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) (Candid Records, 1960) as an endpoint for jazz as a force for social change. John Coltrane recorded “Alabama,” dedicated to the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, in 1963 and New Thing At Newport (Impulse!, 1965) mostly featured the politically outspoken music of Archie Shepp. Saxophonist Joe Henderson’s Milestone release, If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, was recorded at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1970. Jim Pepper’s first recording as a leader, Pepper’s Pow Wow (Embryo, 1971), includes two Peter La Farge tunes, “Senecas (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow)” and “Drums,” both about the mistreatment of Native Americans, as well as the traditional, “Nommie Nommie (When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder),” a tongue-in-cheek version of the Methodist spiritual. Mingus alumni and trumpet virtuoso Jack Walrath recorded his A Plea For Sanity in 1983 for Stash Records, and the work of Fred Ho (Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon!, Innova Records, 2010) has never been disassociated with his political activism. In short, jazz is still very much part of the push for social change.

The music/social commentary connection isn’t limited to contemporary African-American musical forms either. Part of the Mozart effect could be the inclusion of the political views suggested in The Magic Flute or Zaide. Of course Dimitri Shostakovich is another figure from European art music who managed to include social commentary in his music. In America, Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are and were individuals whose vision was tp use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new releases. My concern is that the new research mentioned earlier won’t lead to the creation of a consumer class via pre-natal indoctrination. While this suggestion might be nothing more than the result of a fatalistic imagination working overtime, there are social issues that need to be addressed with louder voices more now than ever.

To be continued…

Culture Counter Culture Pt. 5

I was inspired to connect more dots in this series by Rob Deemer’s post about creativity not existing in a vacuum, “Creative Partners in the Work of Life.” I see a correlated concept of reflexivity at work in both, although one (mine) places geography and a conglomerate of like-minded associates in the foreground of the panorama influencing an artist’s development, while the other discusses a more isolated unit, not unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s “Nation of Two,” existing within, and independent of, location. Because he was specifically referring to composers, the paired names of Kurt Weill – Lotte Lenya, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Nadezhda von Meck, Frédéric Chopin – George Sand, and Gustav – Alma Mahler popped into my head, and I was surprised to find that I immediately thought of European composers. So I decided to name a few American ones who weren’t Eurocentric in their musical output. George – Ira Gershwin, and Duke Ellington – Billy Strayhorn were the first two sets I though of. But what of improvising musicians – the “spontaneous” composers? Certainly great improvisers have their partners, usually a spouse, who act as a landing strip for the flights into the wild blue artistic yonder. As shown in a previous “post, pianist Bill Evans had his brother, Harry, and Thelonious Monk was absolutely dependent on his wife, Nellie. Then, because of his having recently passed away, the name Lou Reed and his wife Laurie Anderson came to mind.

I won’t write much about Reed because Anderson’s eulogy in Rolling Stone Magazine paints such a fine portrait of him. I never really met him (or her), other than being introduced backstage at a concert in Central Park two years ago. However, through the magic of the recording studio, Reed and I did appear on the same track of A Portrait of Howard Tate (Solid Ground, CD, 2006), even though we recorded on separate days. (The tune was Reed’s classic, “How Do You Think It Feels?”) I remember, though, that at the Central Park concert, Reed and Anderson presented a fascinating and lovely example of the emotional anchoring described by Deemer because, while, they didn’t get in each other’s way or involve themselves in each other’s performance, they appeared inseparable; although not together, their acts were totally together! At the time it made an impression on me. But, while partnerships like these are important to the well-being of an artist, their livelihood is reliant on a different kind of relationship. The one with the presenter.

The partnership between artist and presenter is especially vital to what and how an audience hears. Without individuals like Orrin Keepnews (to whom Bill Evans dedicated in anagram the composition, “Re: A Person I Knew”), Teo Macero (who allowed Miles Davis full creative license at Columbia Records), or Bob Thiele (who enabled the vision of John Coltrane, even when it amplified the “moderns vs. moldy fig” debate to a level similar to Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster/Marshall stack vs. Freddie Green’s unamplified Stromberg Master 400), what would American music sound like? I mentioned someone deeply involved with presenting new music since 1972, Thomas Buckner, who would go as far as to transport a recording team and equipment from Berkeley, California to Mexico City to record the entire output of Conlon Nancarrow on the composer’s player pianos. In the case of the above mentioned Central Park concert the presenter was Hal Willner, producer of the musical television revue hosted by David Sanborn, Sunday Night. These people are as often forgotten as the spouse or close friend who rarely gets noted for the support that the artist could not do without.

How many people are aware of the people who ran clubs like Basin Street West, the El Matador, the Hungry I, or the Blackhawk—night clubs that were the mainstay of jazz in San Francisco—or New York clubs like Birdland (the original), the Three Dueces, the Five Spot or even the Village Vanguard (despite there being a book written by its founder, Max Gordon)? I once discussed the contributions of Amos Kaune, the owner of a New Jersey jazz club, Gulliver’s, who passed away last year. In that discussion, I mentioned the name Mike Canterino as someone who was still active. That has changed because he passed away in June and I would like to include a few words about his relevance to American music and “Culture Counter Culture.”

Michael Canterino, with his brother Sonny, opened a jazz club in the 1957, the Half Note, and stayed in the business of presenting new and established jazz artists until it closed in 1975. The story goes that Canterino was in the Navy when he met saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and that the experience turned him into such a fan of the music he heard that when he was discharged, he spent two years convincing his father to let him turn the family bar into a place to champion it. He and his brother built a stage and, according to wife Judi Marie, he began booking bands for runs of thirteen weeks at a time. (Compare that with the two- or three-night long engagements that venues offer now.) The roster of artists who performed at the Half Note is a who’s who of jazz: Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, Clark Terry (and his big band), Al Cohn, Wynton Kelly, Anita O’Day, Lennie Tristano (who wouldn’t play the club until a piano he liked was brought in, which Canterino let him pick out), and Charles Mingus were a few of the artists who performed there regularly.

By 1959, Alan Grant (who also passed away last year) hosted live radio broadcasts from the club’s Hudson and Spring Street location on WABC-FM. Some of these broadcasts are documented in John Coltrane Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up (Impulse!, CD, recorded 1965), Lee Konitz Live at the Half Note (Verve, CD, recorded 1959), Bill Evans Live at the Half Note (Verve CD, recorded 1959), Continuity: Lennie Tristano Live at the Half Note (Orchard CD, recorded 1958 and 1964), The Complete Live at the Half Note featuring the Wynton Kelly Trio and Wes Montgomery (Verve CD, recorded 1965, parts originally released on the Verve LP Smokin’ at the Half Note). The last of these is considered essential listening for anyone pursuing a career as a jazz guitarist and Judi claims that her husband helped the young Wes and his brothers, bassist Monk and pianist Buddy, move to New York from Indianapolis. (Which makes sense, since the person who hooked Canterino on jazz, Cannonball Adderley, discovered Montgomery while on tour in Indianapolis, deciding the guitarist needed a shot at something better than working in a factory during the day and playing music after-hours.) What it boils down to is that Mike Canterino was more interested in promoting and hearing the music than in running a club, although he did that very well. However, he didn’t impose a performance schedule on the artists—they could play as long as they wanted to—and he made friends with them. Jimmy Rushing, the iconic vocalist of the original Count Basie band, was the godfather of Mike and Judi’s son and was loyal to the Half Note, turning down offers to play at the club’s main competition, the Village Vanguard.

I first met Mike and Judi through vocalists Anne-Marie Moss and Jackie Paris who hired me to play at Eddie Condon’s, a club Mike was managing after the Half Note closed. For years, I saw him get new jazz clubs going around the New York area. When the Blue Note opened in 1981 Mike was there, sometimes tending bar while Judi tended the coat room. I remember them both working at the now defunct Di Femio’s in Yonkers, Mike at the bar and Judi waiting tables. When Amos Kaune opened Trumpet’s in Montclair, New Jersey, Mike was there. And when I didn’t have a car, he would sometimes come and drive me to the club. There is a story about Anita O’Day, during her down-and-out days, being stranded in Bangkok without a return ticket. Even though she owed money to Canterino, he wired her enough to get her back to the States and then helped her get re-established. That was all part of presenting music as far as Michael Canterino was concerned. Pianist-composer-educator Mike Longo, who runs the jazz program at the Baha’i Center in New York, wrote a eulogy that wound up not being read at Canterino’s September 16 memorial concert at St. Peter’s Church expands on this. Because of its length it is heavily excerpted below:

I first met Mike Canterino in 1962…. I can remember venturing down to … hear the John Coltrane Quartet. The place was so packed that I was barely able to get [in] … so I stood … amidst a wall of people packed like sardines. I … didn’t spend a dime because it was too crowded for the waiter to get to [me] … I remember [thinking], “This is great! I got to hear music of this caliber and all I paid was the subway fare”…. About a year later … Ross Thompkins sent me there to sub … with Zoot Sims [and] I met the Canterino family…. I was still struggling [and] hungry and … Mama Canterino asked me if I’d like a meatball sandwich on Italian bread….At the end of the night, after I got paid, I went to pay my bill and they wouldn’t accept any money….Mike was the bartender … Judi was working the cloakroom. The mother and father were running the kitchen…. I knew right away that I was in the presence of … special folks who genuinely love this music and the people who play it…. For example, [if] a musician would show up drunk … in most cases [he] would be booted out….Not [with] the Canterino family. They would … pour black coffee down him and try to get him sober enough to make the gig. Then they would pay him … as if nothing had happened. And furthermore, they would book him back…. I cannot recall any place in the world where I witnessed such compassion towards musicians in a jazz club than the Half Note…. When business was bad, the first thing they did was make sure the musicians were paid…. One of the things I loved about Mike [was] his marvelous sense of humor…. He would tell … stories of characters in the neighborhood, like “Mike the Milkman” who … would be drunk and drive his truck into all the garbage cans along the street….And … [his] Zoot Sims stories, which were works of art, [were among] the most entertaining things one could ever experience…. I recall … when I was playing at Zinno’s … Mike and Judi came by to hear me and Mike had a violin and a bow with no case…. I think Judy had given it to him as a present and he was club hopping with his violin and bow, even though he couldn’t play it. I guess he just wanted people to see he had one. You see, Mike loved music and musicians and he was just proud to own a musical instrument. Although he wasn’t a musician himself, he was one of the few people that the musicians considered as one of them. He was “one of the cats” to many of us and definitely a bona fide member of the New York jazz scene who was loved by all of us…. I have lost a dear friend and the world has lost a truly great human being and jazz has lost one of its own.

Mr. Longo’s sentiments are echoed throughout the jazz community by those who remember Mike Canterino. Clark Terry, who is in bad health himself, Skyped his respects in. It’s not often that a club owner is honored at St. Peter’s; usually it’s the musicians who are memorialized there. But quite a few musicians came to play. Lee Konitz, Don Friedman, Bob Dorough, Norman Simmons, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, and Jay Leonhart were just a few artists who came to remember Mike. His co-workers, bartenders and club managers also came out. Mike was not only well-loved, but well-respected. It was enlightening to hear what the music scene was really like in New York “back in the day.” But I’ll remember Mike as the fellow who was always around listening to music. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I learned that Mrs. Canterino, Judi Marie, has been singing for decades. She was a student of Lennie Tristano who came down to the club to hear him play. That’s where she met Mike and the rest, as they say, is history. The last few times I saw Mike, his heart wasn’t very strong. But he still came out to listen to Judi sing, and even hear me play. The very last time I saw him was at a little club in Larchmont that had double-booked the group I was working with. The other group double-booked was Judi’s. The club admitted their mistake and paid us, so we stayed and ate dinner, listened to Judi sing, and hung out a little with Mike, who thought the whole thing was pretty funny. Judi sounded great that night. Sadly, Mike didn’t. He was at a point where talking was exhausting for him. But as long as the music was playing, he was awake and listening! It was good to learn that his generosity didn’t go unrewarded. According to Joe Lang’s tribute to Canterino in Jersey Jazz: the Journal of the New Jersey Jazz Society (vol. 41, no. 8, September 2013), the Half Note had fallen on bad times and a last ditch effort to mount a benefit concert to save it had failed.

Disappointed and discouraged, Mike, Sonny and several of the musicians headed for the club and spent the balance of the evening drinking up what was left of the liquor supply … before the marshal came to put a lock on the door…. After several hours of their tippling, a gentleman entered the club and ordered a drink. They were out of what he requested, but he settled for something from the liquor they had remaining. Upon being served, this man handed Mike a check for a healthy amount. Mike felt his leg was being pulled and was about to go off on the man when he saw Zoot (Sims) put his hand up saying “It’s good!” … The man … turned out to be Dick Gibson, an investment banker who started the company that manufactured the Water Pik. He was a jazz aficionado who wanted to save the Half Note from disappearing.

One last thing about Mike Canterino. Although he might not have played a musical instrument, he could carry a tune well and knew how to deliver a lyric. He would often sing a ballad from his chair in the audience at Judi’s gigs. And he drew very well. His portrait of Jimmy Rushing, a.k.a. “Mr. Five-by-Five” is about four-by-three.

A "4 by 3" of "Mr. 5 by 5"

A “4 by 3” of “Mr. 5 by 5 Mike Canterino’s portrait of Jimmy Rushing. photographed by Mike Canterino, Jr. Reprinted with permission by Judi Marie Canterino. All rights reserved by the estate of Mike Canterino “


Kampela with Momenta Quartet

Arthur Kampela takes a bow with the Momenta Quartet after the quartet performed his music on the Interpretations Series concert at Roulette on October 17, 2013. Photo by Ratzo B. Harris.

A thematic thread running through the last month of posts has been the concept of location as a reflexive component in how genre is expressed and understood in musical performance and its reception. A question that emerged early on in the discussion had to do with why some artists, like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard of Indiana, appear to stick with their career trajectories and others, like trumpeter Al Kiger of Indiana, after an initial go in the “major leagues,” return to lives of relative obscurity. Of course, there are many circumstances that may or may not contribute to the decisions these two artists made, not the least of them would have been ethnicity. While some might think that Kiger’s being German American—like Jack Teagarden some twenty years before—could keep him from realizing his full potential in the jazz industry in the 1960s, the attempted resurgence of the Indiana Klu Klux Klan at that time could have been a reason returning home was not part of Hubbard’s overarching agenda. I know that when I relocated to my “Indianie” home for three years starting in 1990, I was surprised at how little seemed to have changed.

(Although it was nothing compared to what I experienced in Clearwater, Florida when I tried to enjoy a drink with two drummers, one black and one not, in a bar after we were done playing the 1991 Clearwater Jazz Festival – we literally had to walk out backwards!) When people asked me why I had returned to New York City in 1994, I explained that I’m not that comfortable with that particular kind of America.

And, even though there are more and more fast food outlets and less and less old-style delicatessens than when I first arrived in 1977, New York is still the best place for me to live when it comes to the music I play and listen to. Living elsewhere is like cigarettes, drinking, drugs, promiscuity, and “super-sized” fast-food: I gave it the old college try, but it’s not for me. While I know that other cities have healthy and thriving music scenes, I have become complacent in a place where one can record new music with Cynthia Hilts’s Lyric Fury, attend an intriguing round-table discussion on the non-African American origins of jazz and play at a premier supper-club with Judi Silvano (on Thelonious Monk’s birthday); all within 48 hours – and for the mere price of two traffic tickets! (Guess you can’t take the Indy out of the boy?)

Concert halls like the Madame Walker Theater in Indianapolis or the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, California are among my favorite places to hear live music, but the sheer number of venues in the five boroughs of New York City makes for a smorgasbord of sonic sustenance that has the potential to quell anyone’s pangs of auditory appetence. One such venue, Roulette in Brooklyn, is celebrating its 35th year of presenting new music and is also the new home for the Interpretations series, which turned 25 this year as well. Two weeks ago, on October 17, they presented the Momenta Quartet (Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler, violins; Stephanie Griffin, viola; and Michawl Haas, cello) who performed music by four composers who improvise. These were all relatively new works and were presented in the second half of the evening. The first half was dedicated to two works by Gene Coleman, Sendai Transmissions (its world premiere) and Spiral Transmissions, performed by Ensemble N_JP—Naomi Sato and Ishikawa, sho; Naoko Kikuchi and Yoko Rekano Kimura, Koto and voice; Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Nick Millevoi, electric guitar; Teddy Rankin-Parker and Hikaru Tamaki, cello (with an additional pre-recorded cello part performed by Alex Waterman); Toshimaru Nakamura, live electronics; and Thomas Buckner, voice. The works included video images supplied by Coleman and Ryutaro Hakamata, edited by Nick Lerman, and with animation by Chris Landau that was projected on a screen at the rear of the stage. While this music was really good, it had nothing to do with improvisation, so we’ll fast forward, so to speak, to the Momenta Quartet.

The name that attracted me to this concert was that of the venerable multi-instrumentalist, author, educator, and improviser Dr. Yusef Lateef. His work as a jazz artist goes back to the early 1940s when he was touring with Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, and Lucky Millender. He is still best known for his work with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in the 1960s, but has recorded over 100 albums as a leader and started his own label, YAL Records, in the 1990s. He refers to his improvisations as “autophysiopsychic music.” His String Quartet no. 2 is well-planned, with nothing automatic about it. At 93 years, Lateef is still performing, recording, composing, writing, and teaching.

Yusef Lateef’s String Quartet no. 2 (2012), 1st mvt. Allegro con brio.

Gordon Beeferman (The Rat Land, Habitats) is a pianist and composer who also fronts two groups that play improvised music: Imaginary Band and Other Life Forms. His piece, Quadrille, added a dancer-choreographer (Stephanie Sleeper) as well as the composer on piano to the string quartet. This charming work demanded that the musicians perform from a variety of non-traditional locations and positions on stage, such as: climbing on and off of their chairs, running and walking around the stage’s perimeter, actual dancing with the choreographer, and being dragged across the stage by the feet.

Gordon Beeferman’s Quadrille (2012), excerpt.

Adam Rudolph is an extraordinary percussionist who has performed and recorded with Jon Hassell, Don Cherry, Shadowfax, Ned Rothenberg, Bill Laswell, and quite a bit with Yusef Lateef. He holds degrees from Cal Arts, Oberlin College, and the University of Ghana. His experience with the trance ceremonies of Ghana shows a strong influence in his composing. The excerpt from Morphic Resonance is taken from the middle of the piece.

Adam Rudolph’s Morphic Resonance (2013), excerpt.

Arthur Kampela hails from Rio de Janeiro and holds a Ph.D. in composition from Columbia University, where he currently teaches. His liberal use of extended techniques coupled with a dense, but clear rhythmic concept results in a work that is both stunning and engaging. Although sections are clearly audible, the performance ran continuously for nearly 25 minutes. The excerpt starts at the beginning of the piece. After the performance, Kampela explained to the audience that, although all of the music of Uma Faca Sό Lâmina (A Knife All Blade) has been performed before, this was the first time that it had been performed in one sitting.

Arthur Kampela Uma Faca Sό Lâmina (A Knife All Blade) (1998), excerpts: “Bridges for Solo Viola” and “C-Proposition”.

Because I seem to have been living under a rock for the last eight years, this was my first exposure to the Momenta Quartet, a group that has been presenting new works of living composers for the last eight years. I was curious to know how much of their performance was improvised and my initial contact with the group indicates that very little, if any, of it was. The group’s only improviser seems to be Stephanie Griffin, the violist. But she does that mostly outside of Momenta, in groups with Beeferman, Rudolph, and Kampela. According to Griffin, the idea of Music by Improvisers was to display “how the spirit of improvisation is still embedded” in music where “improvisers write everything down.” All of the pieces were very good and Momenta gave each their best, which is also really good. My observation, which is not at all meant as criticism, was that the younger composers (Beeferman and Kampela) obscured tonality more than their elder statesmen on the program. There was a tendency towards a modular, but masterful, organization in all of the material that highlighted shifts in texture and timbre. But it was interesting to note how the works of the elder composers (Lateef and Rudolph) were more lyrical than those of the younger ones, even in the weighty and intense parts. A lot of this could be attributed to generational influences; what was considered on the vanguard of new American music in the 1930s and ‘40s was very different than what was understood to be new in the 1980s and ‘90s. The unique personalities of the composers were well arranged in Momenta’s program, though, and the entire presentation had a satisfying flow that wasn’t at all overshadowed by the ensemble’s virtuosity, which (in the best sense) left most of the audience “wanting more.”

Music is nothing if it isn’t heard. Most musicians are happy to just play it, so it is a very special group of people who dedicate their lives to making sure it happens where an audience can appreciate it. So kudos to the Momenta Quartet, Ensemble N_JP, and especially Thomas Buckner, the director and producer of Interpretations. I’ve been familiar with his presentations as well as the music he has been making since the early 1970s, when he was running a record label and performance space dedicated to obscure opera singers and avant-garde music, 1750 Arch Street in Berkeley. The first official recording session I was involved with, Syzygy with the Denny Zeitlin Trio, was on his label and featured his singing as well. Tom relocated to New York shortly after I did and I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to quite a bit of his work, both as a presenter and as an artist since then, also. It’s soul-satisfying to know that his contributions to American new music, which cut across—and often side-step—the generic labels of the Great American Culture Machine with grace and integrity, are still on-going. I thank Tom for granting me permission to record the portions of the concert included above and I suggest to my readers that they make sure to try to attend the Interpretations series at Roulette as often as possible. I doubt they will be disappointed.

Culture Counter Culture, Pt. 4

Last week’s “post” offered a hypothesis about the relationship between geography and how music is interpreted and performed that elicited much response. One was a fascinating comment that mentioned sitarist Ravi Shankar’s introducing the musical traditions of his native India to the Great American Culture Machine and the lasting influence of that. Shankar was clearly a bold and avid explorer of the sociological, as well as physical, reflexive terrain of location and musical genre. This was mirrored in the way his daughters, Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, paid tribute to his memory. The commenter also brought up an early recording overlooked in my post that featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse! A-5, 1961), led by composer-arranger-saxophonist Oliver Nelson that included baritone saxophonist George Barrow, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Roy Haynes, and Eric Dolphy playing flute and alto saxophone. While the album is, arguably, a nod to the landmark Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue (Columbia CL1355, 1959), Hubbard’s ground-breaking solo on its best known track, “Stolen Moments” is the antithesis of Davis’s subdued approach and defined Hubbard as a new voice on trumpet. But the cool thing about including The Blues and the Abstract Truth is that it makes for a convenient “six degrees of separation” style segue to the late Al Kiger, the biographical subject of today’s post.

The modal exploration that ostensibly inspired Kind of Blue stemmed from the philosophy of George Russell, the theorist and composer whose seminal book The Lydian Chromatic Concept for Tonal Organization was first published in 1953. In addition, his own compositions and arrangements, as well as his work at the Lenox School for Jazz helped set the stage for modern jazz studies. Bill Evans, the pianist on Kind of Blue as well as The Blues and the Abstract Truth studied with Russell and was featured in a composition, “Concerto for Billy the Kid” (which is based on Gene de Paul’s “I’ll Remember April”), on Russell’s first recording as a leader, The Jazz Workshop (RCA Victor LPM 1372, 1957).

George Russell’s “Concerto for Billy the Kid” featuring Bill Evans at the piano with Art Farmer – trumpet, Tony Scott – alto saxophone, Jimmy Cleveland – trombone, Barry Galbraith – guitar, Osie Johnson – drums, and (probably) Teddy Kotick – bass.

Integration of philosophy, theory, composition, teaching, and performance was key to Russell’s vision of making music unfettered by cliché, but still rooted in the jazz tradition. His strategy to achieve this included writing for ensembles with a fixed personnel of musicians who would learn to improvise by what he called “The Concept” (even to the point of writing out solo passages) or who had already developed their own unique musical language. Two examples of the latter, trumpeter Don Ellis and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, played on Russell’s album Ezz-thetics (Riverside RLP 375, 1961), which was recorded a few months before the release of The Blues and the Abstract Truth. Both became icons in American music; Dolphy for raising the standards of technical proficiency and harmonic invention on the flute, alto saxophone, and bass clarinet in jazz avant-garde and Ellis as a jazz-pop crossover big band leader known for idiosyncratic instrumentation and playing in quartertones and odd-meters. Dolphy filled the chair previously held by David Young, an extremely talented tenor saxophonist who, like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, was a native of Indianapolis, Indiana. The rest of the group on the Ezz-thetics session featured two more Indiana musicians as well: drummer Joe Hunt and trombonist-composer-educator David Baker. (The bassist on the date, Steve Swallow, hails from New Jersey and was replacing Chuck Israels.) Before this album, Russell’s core group was comprised of musicians he met in his 1959 class at the Lenox School. All but the bassist were from Indiana. Along with Hunt, Baker, and Young, the 1960 George Russell Sextet included Indiana native Al Kiger on trumpet. (To complete the list, Chuck Israels was born in New York City and Russell in Cincinnati, Ohio. Russell’s next steady saxophonist, Paul Plummer, was also from Indianapolis.)

Alan Kiger was born in Muncie, Indiana, a small city (population: 70,085) that is the Delaware County seat and home of the Ball Corporation (the ones who used to make fruit canning jars) and Ball State University (formerly the Eastern Indiana Normal School). His mother was a piano teacher and the young Kiger studied with, among others, Max Woodbury, the principle trumpet for the Indianapolis Symphony (also Freddie Hubbard’s instructor). He met trombonist David Baker while they were students at Indiana University in 1952. It was Baker who led the pilgrimage with fellow student David Young to the Lenox School in 1959 and later enlisted Joe Hunt into George Russell’s group. But it was Hunt, after hearing Kiger at a jam session in Indianapolis, who enlisted the trumpeter to be a “ringer” in a marching band sponsored by the Indiana chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles that appeared in a parade in New York City in “either 1955 or ’56.” Kiger was a few years older than Hunt, who was still in high school, and knew several Indiana ex-patriots who had relocated to New York, principally pianist Al Plank (with Anita O’Day) and drummer Harold Granowsky (with Lennie Tristano). It was probably Granowsky who showed Hunt and Kiger the town while they were on parade, but Hunt is firm that Plank introduced Kiger to New York-style cheesecake, which he understandably became infatuated with.
Jazz in the Space Age
According to Hunt, Russell travelled to Indiana to rehearse his new band in 1960 and finalized the group’s personnel there. Not all discographies agree on specifics, but they do agree that Kiger recorded three commercially released albums with Russell: Jazz In the Space Age (Decca DL 9219, 1961); George Russell Sextet at the Five Spot (Decca DL 9220, 1960), and Stratusphunk (Riverside RLP 341, 1960). (The disagreement is about whether Jazz In the Space Age was recorded in December of 1959 and January of 1960 or May and September of 1960.) Although neither Hunt nor Israels are on Jazz In the Space Age, they are on the other two recordings as well as several private ones, which confirms the time frame of Hunt’s reminiscing. He also described Kiger as an extremely shy person, not given to disclosing his feelings or opinions, something that David Baker describes about Young in a tribute to the saxophonist aired on WFIU (Indiana University Radio) in 2009.

Some critics cite Stratusphunk as marking Russell’s first application of his modal theory, which might suggest that Miles Davis’s exposure to Russell’s theories exploited on Kind of Blue was more anecdotal than firsthand. But for The Blues and the Abstract Truth there is a possibility that Nelson had heard the music from George Russell Sextet at the Five Spot, either live or on the album, and paid a Stravinsky-ish homage to Russell. This assessment comes from listening to Carla Bley’s composition, “Beast Blues,” (my apologies for the accompanying video) and comparing it to Nelson’s “Stolen Moments.” The voicings of Nelson’s arrangement match those of Russell’s piano comping and the harmonic motion of the form’s consequent phrase is similar between the two as well. The possibility that the title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Russell’s version of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” which comes after “Beast Blues” on George Russell Sextet at the Five Spot, is another consideration. Furthermore, the rest of the tracks on The Blues and the Abstract Truth, bear a closer resemblance to Russell’s sound; only “Stolen Moments” has Davis’s Kind of Blue vibe. It is very possible that Russell’s Indianapolis group made an impression on Nelson in 1961.

New York City is Mecca to thousands of aspiring artists, especially jazz musicians. But, to twist a phrase into a Gordian knot, not everyone who makes it there, makes it there. And America was a different place in 1960 than it is now. Eisenhower was still the President and John F. Kennedy was campaigning against Richard M. Nixon. Although Russell could find work for his group in New York City, racial tensions elsewhere were worse than they are today (and they’re not very good today, either). Jim Crow was still commonplace in the South and touring in a racially diverse avant-garde music group could have been seen by some as an invitation for disaster. Both Hunt and Baker believe that Young and Kiger didn’t like being on the road and decided to go back to their Indiana homes. (Baker himself would eventually return to Indiana, but because his mouth had been injured in an accident and it had become difficult to play the trombone comfortably.) Fortunately, the world of jazz musicians is usually friendly to those with talent, which all of the members of Russell’s bands had. The link to the radio show mentioned above will reveal several examples of how good the Indiana contingent of Russell’s sextet were. “Waltz from Outer Space,” “Kentucky Oysters,” “Dimensions,” and “Moment’s Notice” contain tour-de-force performances delivered by Hunt, Baker, Young, and Kiger. Needless to say, the jazz scene in Indiana welcomed them back and they prospered.

And Kiger’s career didn’t start or end with the George Russell Sextet. His discography shows that by 1952 he was working regularly in big bands and small groups. He recorded in Chicago, Bloomington, New York, and San Francisco with bands assembled by Al Cobine and Jerry Coker. When he returned to Indiana, he played often and recorded regularly. The discographies referenced thus far focus on his jazz work, but Kiger was also a session player who did his fair share of jingles and non-jazz work (Muzak, show bands, film music, etc.). When he played in big bands, though, he was usually assigned the soloist’s chair. This afforded him an outlet for his creativity and also a bit of local stardom. On top of this, he was also a skilled arranger and good copyist. He did quite a bit of work for Henry Mancini in this capacity and damaged the tendons in his right hand, but instead of letting that stop him, he became a left-handed trumpet player.

Royce Campbell, guitarist for Henry Mancini and the Smithsonian Institute Jazz Band, was 15 years old when he met Al Kiger playing on a job at the Indianapolis 500 led by Campbell’s uncle, pianist-arranger Carroll De Camp. Campbell used Kiger on his first two albums, Nighttime Daydreams and Gentle Breeze. He described him as a great arranger and a “sincere, warm, and intelligent” person, who “if you were his friend, you were a friend for life. He was sincerely happy to see you. If you weren’t, he wasn’t.” I met Kiger once, very briefly in the early 1990s and found him politely aloof. But I heard him play several times at The Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis with a house big band that was originally co-led by Stan Kenton alumnae John Von Ohlen (drums) and Chuck Carter (woodwinds) and found him to be a very impressive soloist. Pianist Steve Allee, a regular member of groups led by bassist-composer-educator Rufus Reid, was the Von Ohlen/Carter band’s arranger and eventually took it over. (Von Ohlen now leads the Blue Wisp Big Band in the club of the same name in Cincinnati.) Allee’s musical relationship with Kiger was a close one that included playing each other’s arrangements and compositions for over twelve years. He spoke of meeting Kiger in the late 1960s at the regular jam sessions the trumpet player hosted at his farm in Daleville, Indiana, and described Kiger as erudite, living in a home filled with novels and books on art and poetry. He believed that Kiger “elevated the [musical] standards for Indianapolis.” Allee generously supplied links to these examples of Kiger playing with his big band: “Downtown Blues” and “Saturn Dance.”

Al Kiger died July 20, 2013, at his daughter’s home in Austin, Texas. The Blue Wisp Jazz Band and America’s Hometown Band of Muncie performed tributes to him. He was buried with his horn.

Culture Counter Culture, Pt. 3

It was through reading a comment from two weeks ago that I learned that the voice I had heard over the car radio singing “Sidewalk Talk” back in 1984 didn’t belong to the song’s composer, Madonna. Rather, it was Catharine Buchanan, an excellent vocalist who didn’t realize commercial success beyond that song (released under the name of its producer, Jellybean, a.k.a. John Benitez) reaching #1 on the U. S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart in 1985. (The song ranked in the U. K. as well.) The heartfelt comment described Buchanan’s excitement over showing off her New York City apartment music studio “to a composer,” how the experience inspired the commenter to use sarongs to protect his electronic equipment from dust, and how nearly completely she slipped into obscurity until her untimely death in 2001. The comment’s author thought that there was only one other extant commercially released recording of Buchanan, a European techno-dance piece, “Love Is,” which was recorded in 1988.

I spent fruitless hours searching for more audio clips of Ms. Buchanan’s work—or even biographical information about her—but finally decided to put the project on the back burner for the time being. So I was thrilled to read in the comments from last week’s post that two more examples of her work with bassist-composer Steven Severin can be heard on SoundCloud. Both tracks were recorded in 1990 and released in England; their “small studio” sound and non-mainstream American textures (which can be over-saturated with low-frequency information) juxtapose with Buchanan’s decidedly non-British voice.

While this juxtaposition might appeal to an armchair musicologist like me, it might have also hurt the chances of the collaborative effort’s reaching a wider audience. This is because a musical reflexivity exists between genre and locale, a fact supported by concepts like: “Chicago” versus [Mississippi] “Delta” blues or “West Coast” versus “East Coast” jazz. In this paradigm, musicians can act as a nexus of many stylistic affectations that might be realized in a unique artistic voice that the listener might find exotic. British Invaders of the 1960s, like Van Morrison and John Lennon began their careers playing in British skiffle bands, which were part of a revival of certain pre-swing American musical idioms, like jug-band and blues shouting, that had become, or were becoming, obsolete. The African-American exoticness of these idioms certainly appealed to British musicians and their audiences and the non-American sound of the British Invasion singers certainly lent an exoticness that audiences in the States could embrace. While it makes sense to think that Europe could be a fertile ground for Catharine Buchanan to transplant her career, perceptive ears might notice that her voice sounds like the one singing “Sidewalk Talk” (since it was the voice singing “Sidewalk Talk”) and be fooled into thinking of her as a Madonna impersonator. And, while the arrangements could be remixed for distribution in America, her non-British diction would not be exotic to U.S. listeners. Ironically, the success of Buchanan’s contribution to American pop culture doomed her to obscurity.

The reflexivity of genre and locale is important to the concept of a sonic “lineage” spanning the history of a given discipline. In the field of jazz trumpet playing, one such timeline suggests that New Orleans-based Louis Armstrong was followed by Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Maynard Ferguson, and, finally, Freddie Hubbard. But this narrative is far from definitive. Most serious histories include the name Buddy Bolden as the first jazz trumpeter (and even the first jazz musician) and follow a more focused genealogy that would disinclude Ferguson (and probably Baker) while including Lee Morgan, Thad Jones, Woody Shaw, and culminate with Wynton Marsalis or Terrance Blanchard. My own list would place Ferguson in a line with Raphael Mendez, Harry James, Doc Severinson, and Arturo Sandoval, include anomalies like Jabbo Smith, Don Cherry, Wadada Leo Smith, Jon Hassell, and Herb Robertson. Modern mainstreamers, neo-jazzists, and hyper-modernists like Kenny Wheeler, Jon Faddis, Warren Vache, Tom Harrell, Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove, Steve Bernstein, Dave Ballou, James Zollar, Randy Brecker, Ralph Alessi, Lex Samu, Wynton Marsalis, and Jack Walrath would also loom large in my ever-sprawling and amoeba-like conglomeration of cornetists and trumpeters.

It’s hardly a surprise that the short list of trumpet players previously mentioned ends with Freddie Hubbard. His sound was unmistakable and widely imitated as was his technical facility. He mastered several techniques that became his trademarks: a yodeling effect of shifting across adjacent harmonics, rapid-fire false fingerings on a single tone, and a percussive style of scalar playing. As a young man he practiced diligently and studied at the Jordan Conservatory of Music in Indianapolis with the principle trumpet for that city’s symphony, Max Woodbury. Hubbard believed that developing one’s technical abilities to their fullest was paramount to creating music:

Some musicians don’t seem to care about technique, but to me, there’s more in playing trumpet than just working to your own capacity. I want to keep developing, and I want to be able to play the whole range of the horn any time I feel like it. When a certain idea occurs to me, I want to be able to execute it. That’s what I’ve been working on ever since I started playing. It’s no use having a whole bunch of ideas floating around in your mind and then not being able to execute them. – Hubbard as quoted in Leonard Feather’s liner notes for Breaking Point (Blue Note BN 4172, 1964)

Freddie Hubbard 1976

Freddie Hubbard in 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello, from the Wikimedia Commons

Hubbard moved to New York City in 1958 and began working with many of that city’s elite jazz musicians. In December of that year he recorded two songs at a recording session with saxophonist John Coltrane that were included on the albums The Believer and Stardust. In 1960 Hubbard began recording for Blue Note Records, an association that would last for seven years and produce 39 albums (eight under his own name). It was also in that year that, along with trumpeter Don Cherry, bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, bassists Scott La Faro and Charlie Haden, and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, Hubbard played on saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s controversial landmark record, Free Jazz. Although there is no definitive discography dedicated to Freddie Hubbard, the Tom Lord Jazz Discography lists over 115 separate titles under Hubbard’s name. The problem with this number is that it might include reissues and doesn’t include sessions, like Free Jazz, that he did as a sideman. (If one takes his work for Blue Note as a reference, there’s a likelihood that Hubbard appeared on almost 600 record dates.)

In 1961 Hubbard took over the highly coveted trumpet chair in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a post previously held by Lee Morgan. His writing was eclectic and he penned several tunes. “Up Jumped Spring,” “Bird-like,” and “The Intrepid Fox” became jazz standards. “Red Clay,” and “Sky Dive,” and First Light” became classics of what is now called “smooth” jazz. Hubbard was a stellar trumpeter who could command top dollar at the height of his career. But the music of his crossover success was a far cry from his early years playing with Eric Dolphy and his involvement on Ascension, the landmark experimental album by John Coltrane, or some of the more avant garde projects he participated in, like this collaboration with Turkish-American composer (and Atlantic Records producer) İlhan Mimaroğlu. Ironically, Hubbard’s success offered him lifestyle options that proved to be counterproductive to making good music. Instead of keeping up a regimen of practice and study that would sustain the virtuosic technique he had developed, he chose to partake in chemical substances that would enable him to push through fatigue and pain. Sadly, his career outlived his lip, and in his last years he wasn’t able to deliver the stunning performances that were the foundation of his stardom. Still, Hubbard’s contribution to American music is undeniable and years after his death his trumpet playing still stands as a benchmark for jazz trumpet players to aim for.

In keeping with the theme of genre-location reflexivity, Hubbard’s hometown, Indianapolis, Indiana, has provided plenty of names to the canon of jazz history. Trombonist-composer J. J. Johnson, guitarist extraordinaire Wes Montgomery (as well as his brothers, pianist-vibraphonist Buddy and bassist Monk), and trombonist-composer Slide Hampton are just a few of the Indianapolis artists that are or were at one time household names among the jazz community. A few of the lesser known Indianapolis musicians who, because of their contributions as performers and educators, are also vital to the development and propagation of jazz include: Leroy Vinnegar and Larry Ridley (bass), Melvin Rhine (organ), John Bunch and Al Planck (piano), Jimmy Coe (saxophone-arranger), and Steve Allee (piano-composer). And there also exists an elite core of trumpeters from Indianapolis whose contributions to jazz are, while not as obvious as Hubbard’s, profound and well worth a cursory examination.

Next week we’ll take a look at another.