Tag: jazz history

Grist for the Mills

I’ve been engaged in a Facebook discussion about professional respect among jazz musicians. One of the points that came up rather early in the ever-growing thread engaged the participants’ ideas about misconstruing or misunderstanding statements said between musicians in public settings. I can remember misconstruing something that one of my idols, bassist-pianist-singer-composer Red Mitchell, said to me at Bradley’s, a now defunct nightclub that was once an epicenter of the jazz community in New York. I had gone out alone that night to hear Red play with a friend of mine, Scott Hardy, and his wife Leslie Pinchick. I hadn’t heard Red for a several years and had previously only heard him when he was collaborating or acting as a sideperson. But this night he was the featured headliner at Bradley’s.

When I arrived, the first set of the Mitchell-Pintchick-Hardy collaboration was already underway—it was normal then for jazz artists to play four or five sets a night over a period of five to six nights a week—with Leslie at the piano, Scott on guitar, and Red on contrabass. (Red tuned his instrument in fifths an octave below the violoncello—only one of the unorthodoxies of his playing). It was their opening night and Bradley’s was packed, so when they were done I schmoozed around the bar a bit—talking with colleagues, prospective employers, and music fans—and didn’t bother with fianchettoing my way up to the band area, since I planned to hear another set anyway. During the next set, Pintchick sat at a front table while Red played piano and sang and Scott played electric bass. Red, a fine pianist, prolific composer, and distinctive vocalist, did very well and kept the group working for several years. (Eventually Scott mastered the upright bass and now he and Leslie work as a team.) I was deeply impressed by Red’s seamless switch from bassist to pianist/singer; one could say that I was even intimidated by his talent. The club had emptied out somewhat during the next break and Red was walking about the room, talking with people. He came up to me and I told him that I thought his sets were great. He responded by asking me, “Can you do this?” I was floored! I always thought that Red was my better, and had approached him for lessons on a few occasions, but did he have to rub my face in it? I never went to see Red again and felt terrible when I heard he died of a heart attack in 1992. A few years later, I was talking with his nephew, the late saxophonist Brian Mitchell, during one of our all-night Monopoly tournaments and mentioned the incident. He informed me that I had entirely misconstrued his uncle’s intentions and that Red was actually looking for someone to sub for him! Since that painful enlightenment, I have endeavored to cultivate and keep an open mind about questions that are asked of me.

This melancholy tale is illustrative of how misunderstanding can almost blind us to what is really going on. I was baffled nearly to the point of hilarity when several people decided that my less-than-glowing opinion of the “jazz” compositions credited to the pen of Paul Whiteman included Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but trying to explain that, since Whiteman didn’t write the piece, and was, therefore, not part of my opinion was an exercise in futility that transformed that hilarity into a state of depression. When it was pointed out to me by my betters in the field of jazz reportage that Whiteman “never wrote anything,” I was relieved that my misunderstanding of the American copyright paradigm removed any need to stand my ground, although I still hold my opinion of the pieces, whoever actually wrote them. But that sense of relief also fell to the wayside with the realization that one cannot rely on the official record of the Library of Congress for points of fact. This is the case of Miles Davis’s copyright of “Solar,” a piece of music that is so intertwined with his legacy that it appears on his tombstone, even though he didn’t compose it. I didn’t intend to brand Miles Davis as an out-and-out plagiarist when this was originally posted. I tried to include a sense of conservative balance by including a reference to Charlie Parker’s plagiarizing Davis’s “Donna Lee.” It was in this spirit of apologia that I mentioned how Duke Ellington obfuscated the authorship of what may have been his collaborations with Billy Strayhorn, Rudy Jackson, and Irving Mills. Some have misconstrued this criticism of Ellington as an attack on one or more of the others. For a very brief moment I found this hilarious, but now my soul plumbs the depths of despair!

For the record, I was not attacking Billy Strayhorn, who clearly had a very special relationship with Ellington that involved quite a bit of negotiation on several levels, including matters of authorship. Nor was I attacking Jackson, a person who I think probably took a fall for the misattribution of “Creole Love Call” after King Oliver sued Ellington over its authorship; it’s possible that the portrayal of Ellington’s shock over the plagiarism is a fluke of the historical record. And I was definitely not attacking Mills, who clearly was a very important figure in Ellington’s career nor was I suggesting that Mills was ineffectual to it. I posited only that, even without Mills’s influence, Ellington would have still been a successful musician, but I would agree that he would probably not have been as successful. Furthermore, I do not dispute Mills’s authorship of anything. I don’t know much about him other than what I’ve read and heard from reliable sources. Any assertions about Mills included in last week’s post are not mine, but theirs. Sadly, those reliable sources don’t include copyright or publisher records, which, for reasons mentioned previously, have become somewhat dubious. However, I do find it interesting that one of Mills’s sons “can’t tell you for a fact” what the tunes were that his father wrote lyrics for, while his other son offers that the elder Mills lyric writing process included “sometimes using a ghostwriter” to collaborate with. It leads one to wonder what the names of the ghostwriters were and why they’re not included in the copyrights.

My point is that misunderstanding is a powerful thing, indeed. What if trumpeter Freddie Keppard had not misconstrued the offer to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company as being potentially detrimental to his career? Would the Original Dixieland Jass Band have faded into obscurity? Would the music we call “jazz” be known by a different name? Would modern universities be offering programs in “Dixieland studies”? I think that rhetorical questions such as these, or what Miles Davis’s music would have been like if he had never met Teo Macero, or what Benny Goodman’s music would have been like if John Hammond wasn’t a socialist, are worth thinking about from time to time. What was the poetry of Irving Mills really like? What would the modern jazz festival be if Norman Granz had gone to Princeton, as he originally intended? What would the Beatles have become if Brian Epstein had become a barrister? What would the music of the Doors have sounded like if Tim Buckley never existed? Or what if Cristóbal Colón understood that sailing westward was not the most efficient way to get to Asia?

These questions, from a rhetorical lot, are for the reader to ponder or not.
Any proposed answers to them are moot, as most of my opinions are to boot!

The Best Laid Plans

I had planned to talk about bassists this week, especially about the upcoming Interpretations-sponsored performance by John Eckhardt at Roulette on Monday, October 11, but it has finally come to pass that my priorities have veered so far toward the banal that I must appeal to the universe for guidance. Here are the particulars:

I had made plans to attend Brianna Thomas’s engagement at ZEB’S in the Chelsea district of Manhattan (actually two blocks away from the 28th Street location I described in my post about Tin Pan Alley). I had mentioned Thomas in last week’s post as one of the excellent vocalists I had the pleasure of accompanying in a concert where a problem of authorship arose around a composition, “Solar,” that was misattributed to Miles Davis. It turns out that I had first heard Thomas sing at a recital for Janet Lawson’s class at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in 2010. Although I was very impressed with her singing then, I didn’t remember the incident until long after the event that we played together, possibly because our contact there was limited to one on-stage rehearsal and the concert itself. We only spoke with each other for a total of two minutes and that was pretty much limited to a discussion of how we would play Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone,” a piece that Ellington did compose (with lyrics by Milt Gaber), but as a new melody to the chord progression for Harry Williams and Art Hickman’s “In Sunny Roseland” (a. k. a. “Rose Room”).

I emphasize the authorship of “In A Mellow Tone” for two reasons: (1) to show that the practice of remelodicizing chord progressions of popular songs didn’t begin (in case anyone was wondering) during the bebop era, although it was raised to a high art then; and (2) to bring up a point about misattribution in Duke Ellington’s musical output. It seems that Ellington was in the practice of claiming authorship for the music created by his sidemen. Although it was a limited practice, he, nonetheless, did engage in what I will call “contractual plagiarism.” The best-known example of this was with his long-time collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. In this model, Parties A (Strayhorn) and B (Ellington) would agree that a certain work or certain works created by Party A will be attributed in part or whole to Party B, who wasn’t actually involved in the creation of that work beyond hiring Party A to create it. In copyright terms, a “work for hire.” This is a different situation than the one I cited regarding “Solar,” Miles Davis’s plagiarism of Chuck Wayne’s “Sonny.” A case that is somewhat similar to “Solar” is raised around the very popular “Creole Love Call.” The song’s melody was brought to Ellington (who took a co-composer credit) by one of Ellington’s saxophonists, Rudy Jackson, who claimed it as his own invention. King Oliver, who had recorded the melody of the song as “Camp Meeting Blues” some years before, sued Ellington, who won the lawsuit but was so upset that he fired Jackson. But Ellington’s “contractual” misattributions worked both ways, which is clear in his relationship with Irving Mills, who, in return for supplying Ellington with many lucrative performing engagements—including the long-term stay at the Cotton Club, was granted ownership over half of Duke Ellington, Inc. This resulted in many of Ellington’s best-known works being credited to Mills as a co-author.

The case of Ellingtonian misattribution is an example of professional symbiosis where both parties have something to gain from the obfuscation of authorship, the sort that only deceives the public and whatever higher power(s) might have something to say about it in the hereafter. It appears to have been a fairly common practice. I was recently corrected by jazz historian Scott Yanow about what turns out to be an entirely unsupported claim on my part about the music of Paul Whiteman. I once posited that the music he composed and considered to be jazz was “drivel,” but it was pointed out to me that Whiteman actually never composed anything, that he got his name attached to the copyright of a song in return for having his band record it. While it seems a somewhat overly simplistic way to be excluded from any criticism based on aesthetic criteria, Mr. Whiteman’s compositional acumen is now vindicated, since he had none. But that leaves the question of whether or not contractual misattribution is morally right or wrong.

While I believe that anything done between consenting adults is not morally wrong, there is the problem of whether something agreed to vis-à-vis economic coercion is actually a matter of mutual consent. The contractual misattributions of Whiteman and Ellington are prima facie examples of win-win situations once agreed upon. But what if they weren’t agreed upon? Would Ellington have become a household name or even been able to keep his band together as long as he did if he didn’t agree to give Mills equal partnership in his organization? It’s difficult to say. I believe that Ellington would have managed to become very successful without the influence of Mills. In fact, it was his success, or the obvious promise of it, up to then that attracted Mills in the first place. But consider how often the refusal to hand over one’s intellectual property has led to obscurity and financial struggle for a musician. Such was the case of trumpeter and territory band leader Don Albert, who refused to agree to the terms Joe Glaser offered (to reduce Albert’s band to ten musicians from fourteen) and thus lost the lucrative market of New York City as a place to include on his itinerary. (Details can be found on pages 331-33 of this article.) It isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to see how this becomes part of the current trend of underpaying (or not paying at all) musicians for their performances. It seems that there is a misconception that professional musicians are actually hobbyists who play music in their spare time for a spare dime or that musicians should be happy to get a chance to be “exposed” to the public. This translates into a state of affairs where an artist’s best chance of financial success is to not need to work at all! Artistic expression then becomes proportional to class status and rare is the case where a musician of limited means can develop his or her art.

What’s in a Name?

When I moved from San Francisco to New York City in the fall of 1977, I really wasn’t sure of what I was getting into. All I knew was that most of the records I listened to were recorded there, that the New York Philharmonic was considered America’s premier symphony orchestra, and that nearly every musician I had met who spent time there had a quality to their playing that I found attractive. The list of these musicians include: bassists Chris Amberger, Michael Burr, Mel Graves, and James Leary; drummers Clarence Becton, Larry Hancock, and Eddie Marshall; pianists Richard Kermode, Art Lande, Mike Nock, and Denny Zeitlin; saxophonists John Handy, Joe Henderson, Mel Martin, Jim Pepper, and Hal Stein; trumpeter Woody Shaw; trombonist Julian Priester; and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. (There were probably others; this is a “short” list.) I can’t say what that quality is that I was enamored of. I know that part of it is an approach to playing that uses a broad or “loose” interpretation of meter. These players also played in a way that was more about personal expression than proper interpretation. Whatever that quality (or qualities) was, I knew that, while it wasn’t missing in musicians who never lived in New York, almost everyone who had lived there had it! So when a chance to burrow in the Big Apple came my way, I took it.

I found a few recent expatriates who I knew from the Bay Area—saxophonist Seth Brody and the late drummer Jeff Papez—who showed me the ropes and introduced me to the scene. I also looked up someone I had met through Jim Pepper, pianist Joanne Brackeen, who I owe a huge debt of (at least) gratitude to for helping me “break” in. It was Jeff who introduced me to another recent arrival to New York, pianist Fred Hersch. Fred and his roommate, bassist Ed Felson (who now runs the Blue Wisp jazz club in Cincinnati, Ohio) lived around the corner from me in the Village very near a nightclub on University Avenue, Bradley’s, that featured piano-bass duos and was named after its owner, Bradley Cunningham. We wound up being part of the regular rotation at another club, Christie’s Skylight Gardens, on East 12th Street. I’m not sure who Christie was, but the club featured bands led by singers. The names on the list of regular singers at Christie’s included Roberta Baum, Lotti Golden, Devorah Segall, Sally Swisher, Roseanna Vitro, Martha Wilcox, and Gail Winter. Instrumentalists on the roster included: pianists Esther Blue, Armen Donelian, Kim Forman, Andy Lavern, Alan Simon, Harris Simon (Alan’s brother), and Vanessa Vickers; drummers Grover Mooney and Jeff Papez; and guitarist/bassist Scott Hardy.

These were the days when an engagement in a nightclub usually lasted a week (often longer) and the performers were expected to play for four to five hours per night. Needless to say, after a year of playing there, a familial feeling developed among many of us that extended beyond Christie’s bandstand and the cracked soundboard of its Ivers & Pond baby grand piano. I’m not sure exactly how this family came to include the name Paul Wickliffe, but I do remember that it was Roberta Baum who asked me to play on her demo session at his 8-track recording facility, Studio 28. The name referred to its location on West 28th Street in Manhattan. Paul eventually moved his recording business eight blocks north and renamed it Skyline Studios. Skyline soon became one of New York’s premier recording facilities. I can’t remember how many projects I had the good fortune to record there, but the ones that stick out in my memory are one with Mose Allison, The Earth Wants You, and two with Roseanna Vitro: Reaching For the Moon and Passion Dance. But I will always remember the 28th Street studio, with its spaghetti-board walls and minimalist décor, located near the heart of Manhattan’s flower district on a block once known as Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley Then

43-47 W. 28th Street on Tin Pan Alley, possibly ca. 1925.

The website for the Historic Districts Council for New York City establishes 1893 as the year that M. Witmark & Sons opened the first music publishing business on the block, moving uptown from 14th Street in order to be closer to the theaters on Broadway, where their music was being performed. According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the block earned its name from the sound of the upright pianos that were used to play the songs (approximately 25,000 per year) being composed and/or demoed by the music publishing companies located there. This explanation makes sense, since these instruments had a loud, metallic tone (sometimes thumbtacks were put in the hammers to accentuate this) and, since there was no air conditioning at the time, the windows of these firms would be open for anyone passing by to hear—all at once. I have heard at least one person say that they believe the name to be pejorative and disrespectful. I would argue with the validity of this point of view as much as I would argue with the idea that the phrase was coined as descriptive prose, which is to say not at all. However, the term is used today to refer to that location in that time, the music produced there, and as significant of anywhere that has a high concentration of music facilities or venues. I imagine that there are music “snobs” who look upon the idea of producing music for mass consumption as beneath the field’s artistic potential, but enough high-quality music came out of Tin Pan Alley that I believe their argument falls on its face. This also applies to the Tin Pan Alley-ish meccas of Memphis, Detroit, the San Francisco Bay Area, and even New Orleans, which is commonly considered the birthplace of jazz.

Tin Pan Alley Now

The same three buildings from the Tin Pan Alley photograph today. I believe that Studio 28 was above the green awning.

Many people believe that the name “jazz” means “sexual intercourse.” I’m not sure this is the case. There’s an excellent Wikipedia article that refutes this notion and includes the name of someone who has offered a reward for anyone who can show that usage from before 1913, when the term first appeared in print to describe a baseball pitch that is probably what is now called a “slider.” (The reward has stood, unclaimed, for eleven years!) In his excellent book, Jazz: A Century of Change, Dr. Lewis Porter examines scores of historical records relating to the origin of the term and comes to the conclusion that none of the theories presented carry enough weight to be considered probable. One theory, however, not included in Porter’s book that makes the most sense to me was presented by Vincent Lopez, a popular pianist and bandleader from the 1920s, who did as much or more than his contemporaries to develop and promote jazz as well as many musicians who would later become musical icons: Xavier Cugat, the Dorsey Brothers (Jimmy and Tommy), Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw, for example. Lopez is quoted in the July 1924 issue of Metronome saying:

I have been for a long time making a study both of the word “jazz” and of the kind of music which it represents. The origin of the word is shrouded in mystery. The story of its beginning that is most frequently told and most generally believed among musicians has to do with a corruption of the name “Charles.” In Vicksburg, Miss., during the period when rag-time was at the height of its popularity and “blues” were gaining favor, there was a colored drummer of rather unique ability named “Chas. Washington.” As is a very common custom in certain parts of the South he was called “Chaz.” “Chaz” could not read music, but he had a gift for “faking,” and a marvelous sense of syncopated rhythm. It was a practice to repeat the trio or chorus of popular numbers, and because of the catchiness of “Chaz’s” drumming he was called on to do his best on the repeats. At the end of the first chorus the leader would say: “Now, Chaz.”

From this small beginning it soon became a widespread habit to distinguish any form of exaggerated rhythm as “Chaz.” It was immensely popular from the start, for it had appeal to the physical emotions unobtainable from any other sort of music. “Chas” himself had learned the effectiveness of this manner of drumming through following the lead of country fiddlers in their spirited playing of Natchez Under the Hill, Arkansaw Traveler, Cotton Eye’d Joe, and the numerous other similar tunes so dear to the hearts of quadrille dancers.

And why not? This music—with its hops, drags, jumps, stomps, riffs, and vamps—invented new words and reinvented old ones. “Jive,” for instance, was the language of jazz musicians and could also be a dance form and a kind of speaking that is intentionally misleading or teasing. This term came into use in the 1930s, a time when Lester Young defined the police as “ice” while suggesting that one should “be cool” when they were around. Soon, when something was good, it was “cool.” Later, in the 1960s, jazz musicians and fans also gave the word “bad” the meaning “good.” If something was really good it was “hip” and someone who was savvy was “hep.” (“It’s hip to be hep.”) Men were “cats” and women were “chicks” and eventually everything was a mother****a! This linguistic creation and recreation was also applied to names. “Zoot,” “Dizzy,” “Pops,” “Pookie,” “Satchmo,” “Mugsy,” “Snooky,” and “Fats” are the names of jazz legends (and don’t confuse “Pappa” Joe Jones with “Philly” Joe Jones or Marvin “Smitty” Smith with “Marvelous” Marvin Smith!). Their instruments were “axes” and their cars were “shorts” and they lived in “digs”—and they could “dig” their digs, you dig? It gets to a point where one has to wonder, what’s in a name, anyway?

I was intrigued to discover during my research for this post that there was a television series that aired in 1959 and 1960, Love and Marriage, that was not at all similar to the short-lived 1996 sitcom of the same name. The original starred William Demarest, who is probably best remembered for his role as Uncle Charley in My Three Sons (he also played Buster Billings in the 1927 version of The Jazz Singer and, in a kind of strange twist of fate, the role of Steve Martin in the 1946 film The Jolson Story). In Love and Marriage Demarest plays the role of William Harris, the owner of a failing Tin Pan Alley publishing house. The problem with the business is that Harris is a “moldy fig” who can’t bring himself to get involved with rock ‘n’ roll, a music he can’t stand. It’s a strange twist that my father, William Harris (who was also known as “Whitey,” because of his hair), was a Dixieland trumpeter who couldn’t stand rock ‘n’ roll (he called it “rack ‘n’ ruin”) or country & western, for that matter. My catholic tastes were a constant source of annoyance to him. (He even made me leave the house because I liked Wynton Marsalis’s playing!) Another William Harris was Archie Shepp’s long-time drummer, “Beaver.”

I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t born with the moniker I use, which is not “Ratso,” as in Midnight Cowboy, but rather “Ratzo,” as in “ratzo v’shov,” a term from the Kabbalah that loosely means “run and return.” It can be interpreted as something that leaves its creator and later returns to it, such as Siddhartha or the Childe Harold or—music! But Mom doesn’t like to talk about it very much … she digs Waylon Jennings!

I Guess I’ll Call It Serendipity…

…and hope I’m using the word correctly.

It started off that I didn’t know what to write about here. I’m done with “cliquing” for the time being (although I know there’s more there) and, while the comments from last week are tempting to use as fodder, I know I must move on. So Monday rolls around and I catch something like the flu, strep throat, bronchitis, the bends, and malaria and can do nothing but sleep, wheeze, hack, and groan until Thursday, when, after I see the doctor, I have an opportunity to take care of everything that didn’t get done (including writing this post) earlier in the week, but that has to be taken care of before I leave town on Sunday. The good news is that I don’t have malaria, the bends, bronchitis, or even strep throat and I’ll probably be over the whole thing by Friday night. The bad news—I had to work Thursday night at a club that has achieved a new low in the treatment of musicians, and I hadn’t even thought about what to write about yet. While it is tempting to discuss the club, I know I have to think it through and probably discuss it with our editorial conscience first. When I told my finer partner in The Institution (you know, the great “I Did”—marriage) about my fears, she suggested that I write about the trip I’ll be embarking on. OK, says I.

Starting Monday, May 7, Yours Truly will be involved in a wonderful little consortium of musicians from different countries and disciplines meeting in Monterrey, México. This will be the 10th annual “Encuentro de Internacional de Músicos de Jazz y Música Viva Monterrey” presented at Conarte and the third that I’ve had the privilege to participate in. Conarte is part of Fundidora Park, a reconfigured steel mill that is now the city’s largest interdisciplinary cultural center. This year’s line up at Conarte includes (for those of you who might remember President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s salutation) My Fellow Americans Lou Grassi (drums, cymbals, and percussion), Herb Robertson (trumpets, trombone, French horn, and mutes), Conny Bauer (trombone), as well as Andreas Willers (guitar) from Germany, Sophia Domancich (piano) from France, Harri Söjström (soprano saxophone) from Finland, Marcos Miranda (soprano saxophone, alto clarinet, and exotic flutes) from Bolivia, and Rémi Álvarez (soprano and tenor saxophones and flute) and Omar Tamez (guitar, effects, and percussion) from México. Tamez, who I have mentioned before and at length in this column, is the person largely responsible for producing the event. He has been travelling a lot lately, since recovering from cancer in 2004, and gaining the respect of the artists he meets and works with in his travels, including percussionist Harvey Sorgen, guitarist Bruce Arnold (they’ve recorded together for Arnold’s MUSE EEK label), and vocalist/composer Katie Bull (who was going to attend this year, but had to bow out).

So I logged onto NewMusicBox to check up on things before I started to write this, and I see the face of Wadada Leo Smith, someone who I know little about other than that I want to know more about him. Tamez and Smith played together earlier this year in Buffalo, New York, and, from what I heard, the two will be involved in projects in the future. I decided to read the Oteri interview with Smith and was blown away by his clear and direct explanation of his musical philosophy and his method for composing long forms that allow for the greatest creative involvement by the performer vis-à-vis the performer’s simultaneous interpretation of Smith’s “musical language,” Ankhrasmation.

As an improvising bassist, I find myself hamstrung by stylistic considerations based on arcane traditions and historical lineage. One of the appealing aspects of jazz is that the music is possibly younger than the recording industry, and its historical lineage and traditions are, for the most part, available for study. One of the drawbacks is that the list of artists huddled under jazz’s awning, often without their consent, produce a music that is so diverse that it’s very difficult to pinpoint what the overarching traditions are. Smith accesses trumpeter Miles Davis as a standard without subcategorizing Davis’s creative output, something that, until very recently, few did. I also found Smith’s inclusion of tonguing, the heart and soul of trumpet playing, included in the interview. I’m usually disappointed to read interviews with musicians who pretend that their technique is secondary to their music. I can understand this approach when the audience hasn’t a clue as to what music is, but I think it shows an utter lack of respect to the music community when a musician won’t even suggest that there’s something about his or her relationship to their instrument that is vital to the music that comes out of it. Furthermore, Smith’s description of the blues as a place where musical personalities meet with no regard to musicological considerations such as scordatura, temperament, tempo, or form was eye-opening. Without resorting to the neo-conservative hyperbole that many jazz studies programs find appealing, Smith gives a no-nonsense explanation of the blues as doin’ the dozens in song.

The thing that struck me as most profound in Smith’s interview was the inclusion of Booker Little’s failed attempts to produce multiphonics on the trumpet as proof of an intention to do so, which makes Little an early proponent of multiphonics on the instrument. This is something that goes almost totally against the grain of musicology, the idea that the intent to do it means it was done. This is an attitude that only works in paradigms that include improvisation as a vital part of making music—even, paradoxically, when the music being performed is pre-composed. I found myself re-reading the comments from last week and essentially agreeing with “improvisation is the beginning and end of all music making.”[1] Miles Davis is attributed to saying, “When you make a mistake, play it again, and then once more just to be sure,” which I think also goes to this point. Finally, in Derek Bailey’s Improvisation Steve Lacy described this in his finest style by answering the question, “In 15 seconds, what’s the difference between composition and improvisation?” with: “In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.”

Which took Lacy exactly 15 seconds to say.[2]

1. Thanks to Andrew Strauss.

2. Thanks to Herb Robertson.

Shifted Cliques

When I began this protracted discussion about cliques back in March, I had a specific goal in mind: to describe American music as part-and-parcel of the many sociopolitical echelons that comprise America as a distinct cultural entity. I now see that musical cliques have an amorphous quality that makes them, much like American music as a whole, difficult to pin down. While I try to focus on improvised (American) music in my posts as a stand-alone phenomenon practiced by a dedicated and rather large clique, the truth of the matter is that very little music is entirely improvised, yet most music includes a certain amount of improvisation. To further confuse matters, some of the most memorable creations by improvising musicians were mostly composed (Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey”) while some of the best-known compositions were mostly improvised (Count Basie’s “One O’ Clock Jump”). Take that a step farther and you have the related philosophical tenets that the best improvised music sounds composed and the best composed music sounds improvised! The reason the blog focuses on jazz so much is that, of all of the musical genres that are distinctly American, jazz is the one that incorporates improvisation the most, with the arguable exception of Latin American music. This, of course, starts a slippery discussion of how to define “American” when referring to “American music.” One of the things I love about NewMusicBox is that we try to use as broad a definition as possible, so that music performed in America can be included.

As I mentioned in the above-linked entry, jazz, as a recorded music, will very soon be a century old. On February 17, 1917, the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band recorded two songs for the Victor Talking Machine Company, “Dixie Jass Band One Step” (introducing “That Teasin’ Rag”) and “Livery Stable Blues.” According to a currently accepted historical timeline, Victor originally offered trumpeter Freddie Keppard an opportunity to record with his Original Creole Orchestra in 1915. The group, also called The Creole Band, was co-led by bassist Bill Johnson and was engaged in a four-year tour of the vaudeville circuit. Keppard was considered to be New Orleans’s top cornetist (filling the slot left by the retirement of Buddy Bolden), but had moved to Los Angeles to join the Creole Band after King Oliver had “cut” him for the title in 1914. Keppard turned down Victor’s offer, ostensibly because he was concerned that others might “steal his stuff” and because the fee offered by the Company was much lower than he was used to getting for playing the vaudeville circuit (that the Victor Company also wanted the group to make a test recording for no money may have also been a significant factor). Things might be very different today if the Creole Band had accepted the offer. For one thing, the music being discussed might not be called “jazz,” since the word was mostly used as a sports terms, specifically in baseball.

The personnel of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (they eventually respelled their name) consisted of: Nick LaRocca, trumpet; Larry Shields, clarinet; Eddie Edwards, trombone; Henry Ragas, piano; and Tony Spargo on drums. Spargo’s (his real name was Antonio Sparbaro) drum set employed a large bass drum (played with the butt of his right-hand drum stick), a snare drum, a “Chinese tom-tom,” a wood block, a cowbell, and a single suspended cymbal. While the drum set used was fairly standard for the time (and deserves more study as a truly American instrument), what has made the ODJB controversial is that the group was not made up of black or Creole musicians. LaRocca, Spargo, and Ragas were from families of Italian immigrants, Shields was from an Irish family, and I have yet to learn of Edwards’s nationality. Whether or not this began the long-standing argument over supra-cultural appropriation of African American music, it is part of its ubiquitous presence in the history of jazz. One of the things that strikes me about this is that, at the time, Italian and Irish Americans were not considered to be white, so, strictly speaking, the OJDB was not an example of supra-cultural appropriation—although LaRocca, in his later years and long after Italian Americans had become “officially” white, argued that African Americans had little or nothing to do with the origins and early development of jazz, apparently thinking that the idea of jazz having African socio-musical elements was part of a Communist plot to mix races in the South. This is an example of how musical cliques can be detrimental to society at large. Anyone who believes that African Americans played no part in the development of American music is just being silly. It’s like ignoring the input from Native Americans like Jack Teagarden, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Mildred Bailey, Russell Moore, Kay Starr, or Jim Pepper.

I received a comment on my post last week that inquired as to whether I consider “a living oral tradition to be a clique.” I neglected to address that in my direct response but would like to consider the query here. While, certainly, a group of individuals who participate in a specific oral tradition can be considered a clique (since they can make up an exclusive circle of persons held together by a common interest), I don’t see the oral tradition per se as much of a clique but more as a method for disseminating information about the clique concerned. And, while I still haven’t read Performing Music in the Age of Recording, I think I will, for the time being, disagree with the premise that the body of recorded music serves more as evidence for a “shift in attitudes toward the musical past.” The example of Louis Armstrong’s filing his almost note-for-note performance of “Cornet Chop Suey” two years before he recorded it is a blatant example of how a recorded performance, commonly understood as improvised, was proved vis-à-vis academic-style research to be through composed. It was the research that provides the shift. In reality, it is understood by many of those who learned to play jazz by oral tradition that much of what is assumed by the general public to be improvised is actually pre-composed. But what I wonder is how technology dovetails with the oral tradition. When a master musician gives lessons by using recorded media (cassette tapes, CDs, video tapes), is this part of an oral tradition? How about our blogging at NewMusicBox?

Clique Escape

We all know that American music is comprised of a multitude of genres, subgenres, cliques, factions and styles. The swath of American music is so wide that many of its most broad-minded proponents from one camp unabashedly and sincerely argue that some of the other widely listened to varieties of American music aren’t really music at all. This was the case for jazz in the first two decades of the 20th century, when many respected members of “proper” society considered the nascent genre as so much caterwauling of licentious verbiage over primitive drumbeats and rudimentary chord progressions. Now it is the official musical art of America, a “national treasure.” As we near the 100th anniversary of the first recording of “jass” music, we should pay at least some cursory attention to what jazz is.

Jazz is a music that emerged from the ghettos of New Orleans. While it may have originated and possibly have been simultaneously performed elsewhere, jazz was first identified as a music played by New Orleans musicians. The musicians who played it by the time it was first recorded were Americans: African American, Native American, Italian American, German American, Jewish American, and Mexican American. All were involved, but by far the best jazz players were Creole Americans from New Orleans. By the third decade of the 20th century jazz was firmly entrenched in almost every city in America. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Kansas City were centers where the music was being played. While jazz began as a highly competitive field of music, it also acted as a unifying force among African Americans and working-class youth and was associated with the Socialist Party of America during the 1930s and 40s, largely through the efforts of John Hammond. Since then jazz has been used to promote America’s military and capitalist ventures during both World Wars and the messages of the Civil Rights, Black Nationalist, Native American, and anti-war movements as well.

Since 1917, the recorded music industry has identified, promoted, and sold the work of select “stars” that have set standards for performance and overall style. Despite the competitive aspects of jazz, there has always been a jazz community which attempts to bridge socio-economic differences that are part of America’s culture. It can be argued that jazz is little more than that; an attempt to bridge socio-economic divisions. Probably the most obvious example of this is the jam session; loosely organized events where jazz musicians listen to and play with each other. Musical development is explained and explored, new artists are presented to established artists by sponsoring mentors, and discussions (sometimes rather heated ones) about the state of the art abound. For young musicians, the jam session is traditionally where lasting relationships and career directions are first made.

The way jazz was originally taught was through mentoring and independent group study. There were no institutions that taught jazz as a curricular topic until the 1950s, although certain pedagogues, such as Lennie Tristano, would teach large enough numbers of private students to qualify as alumni of an informal “school.” Because improvisation is a salient feature of jazz, a wide range of highly personal approaches have always been at work. Even when imitating the “look-and-feel” of a popular record “star” (i.e. Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis), an artist can usually be identified by a well-versed listener. Since the 1950s a jazz academy has emerged. Its various institutions compete among each other for affluent or grant-savvy individuals to earn bachelors, masters, and even doctoral degrees in jazz performance, composition, theory, and history. Because of jazz’s legacy of connectedness to socio-economic trends, the fields of jazz studies can overlap into other fields (American studies, Afro-American studies, sociology, film studies, dance, ethnomusicology, etc.). Now the jazz academy competes with the jazz community as the arbiter of what and who will be identified as the best examples of what jazz, America’s original musical art form, is. In many ways, this appropriation of the jazz legacy by its academic proponents has had an unsettling effect among the larger jazz community. Many traditionally-schooled artists find themselves left out as more and more teaching jobs require academic credentials that weren’t needed 25 years ago. Some identify a new style of “academic” jazz they consider lacking in emotional content and feel the necessity to delve deeper into a personal expression that disregards much of the overall texture of the greater community, which is the sonic base for the academy.

Through it all, the recorded music industry is feeling a pinch. Artists identified with jazz have largely lost their pop star potential (even though bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding—amid some controversy—took the Grammy for best new artist of the year and artists like Sting and Harry Connick, Jr. began their careers playing jazz). When Maria Schneider took the Best Large Ensemble Album award in 2005, a potential death-knell for the industry was rung as the album, Concert in the Garden was only available for purchase on the internet and through the collective, ArtistShare, that she helped to spearhead. Now we see the “official” categories that the recorded music industry considers to be jazz whittled down to four (Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album). That this year’s Best Jazz Vocal Album went to Terri Lyne Carrington , a drummer who included several vocalists on her album, The Mosaic Project, is a new point of concern for the jazz community as well. Many jazz artists feel like the only road to hoe is the one that leads to recording projects and venues that cater to more pop-oriented music and audiences that don’t know from jazz or music in general.

Many of the venues that are dedicated to presenting jazz have to charge admission fees that are out of the range of most jazz musicians’ budgets. This has led to a socio-economic rift in the jazz community that mirrors the one of American society in general and forces many artists to rethink their relationship with jazz. This isn’t particularly new to the jazz community (or the music world as a whole, for that matter); the history of jazz is rife with artists who prefer to not be called jazz musicians (Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus, for example), claiming that the label is too limiting. A current example of how this plays out is Nicholas Payton’s recent announcement that he no longer plays jazz, but instead Black American Music, while Wynton Marsalis has no problem with being associated with jazz. (Another facet of Marsalis’s relationship to jazz is denunciation of hip-hop music and culture.) While either or both of these excellent trumpeters may have forgotten the inclusivity of jazz’s historical legacy, it is clear that competition is still a driving force among many of jazz’s greatest artists.

(To be continued.)