Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Hard Bop and Its Critics": Now in The Jazz Annex

From the perspective of 50+ years, it is easy to romanticize, and thereby distort, the era of Hard Bop.  Jazz scholarship is the antidote.  To remind us what Hard Bop was up against, the late David H. Rosenthal wrote "Hard Bop and Its Critics," published in The Black Perspective in Music in 1988, the text of which is now available in The Jazz Annex.  (Take the link in the preceding sentence.)  It should whet your appetite for the book he produced five years later, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coltrane's "My Favorite Things": Recorded 50 Years Ago Today

“I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.”— John Coltrane, 1960

Thanks to visitor Dave Lull, I was alerted to Robin Washington's reminiscence of that time, published a few days ago in the Duluth News Tribune.  The article refers to a wonderful radio documentary on Trane: this 29 minutes of heaven can be enjoyed here.   Hear Trane himself speak, along with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Steve Kuhn (Trane's pianist immediately before Tyner), and Harvard jazz scholar Ingrid Monson (whose perceptive comments heard in this documentary have moved me to put several of her books on reserve at my library).

In 1996, Scott Anderson wrote his thesis on Trane's revolutionary appropriation of that lilting waltz, which sets it in its late '50s context (Rogers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music"), analyzes its form, and provides copious information on Trane's main recordings of this classic (including the one that knocked me out in the early '70s, the performance at Newport Jazz Festival, July 2, 1965).  This study deserves the widest possible dissemination among Coltrane fans.

Two great documents, using the written and spoken word, to help make present to us what occurred fifty years ago.

Finally, my favorite video of "My Favorite Things," not least of which because it shows, not only regular quartet members Tyner, Jones, and Jimmy Garrison, but also Eric Dolphy (on flute) .

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jimmy Ponder, In Depth

In the interest of bringing jazz guitarist Jimmy Ponder out of the "out of the background to the foreground of our minds," as I recently said I hope to do, I am happy to bring to your attention a detailed analysis and stimulating discussion of Ponder's career and music entitled, "Jimmy Ponder: A Case Study of Creative Processes and Identity Formation in American Popular Music."  It is the Master's Thesis of Pittsburgh-based guitarist Colter Harper, and the University of Pittsburgh has made it available online. 

In his introduction, Harper says that as
"a student and friend of Jimmy Ponder’s, I have been struck by the conviction of his musical values and their relationship to all aspects of his life. I am deeply indebted to Ponder for sharing his artistic vision with such vehement dedication and will carry his lessons in all of my artistic endeavors. This study is my offering of appreciation for his teachings and lifelong dedication to the art of music."

(In my previous post on Ponder, I opined that Pittsburgh "needs its counterpart to Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960.  Well, Harper, who is currently working toward his doctorate at Duquesne University, has chosen for his dissertation topic "Jazz in Pittsburgh, 1948-1968."  Something to look forward to.)

Although I needed nothing more than the title to be drawn to Harper's monograph, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more it contained than the usual thesis ingredients (biosketch, discography, bibliography, quotation, etc.)  Among the many topics he explores are: "Soul and Hammond Organ Jazz," "Race and Ideology," "The Chitlin' Circuit," "Authenticity and the Creation of 'Voice' in Jazz," "The Aesthetics of Soul Jazz," and "Ponder as a Band Leader."  Harper weaves the content of interviews with Ponder and his colleagues into an historical narrative supported by solid reading, and renders his synthesis with journalistic concision.  His brief forays into social theory do not derail but rather enrich his narrative. 

(One quibble: I find "meaningful" meaningless, but it seems to be Harper's his one verbal crutch.  He never defines it, but uses it seventeen times.  It is out of place in a scholarly effort in which he otherwise made the meaning of all his distinctive assertions clear.)

Harper's insights into jazz's social dynamics have forced me to think differently, and harder, about what I have to work on to further my own musical growth.  In themselves, one's practice materials, no matter how diligently attended to, can shed no light on the experience of "locking in" with one's fellow musicians or on communicating with the audience. 

Other writers have noted the difference between playing before an audience and recording in a studio, but Harper illuminated it for me in a few sentences:
"Part of the creative energy of the live performance is the close proximity of the musicians, which aids their ability to communicate musically, visually, and orally.  Separation in a recording studio removes the physical experience of creating music, replacing it with a purely aural one. . . . " 
"[M]usicians in a studio environment are conscious of the fact that the performance will become a lasting statement of their abilities and so are less likely to experiment with new ideas.  What may feel and sound like an inspired moment in a live environment may appear faulty out of context."
Don't be put off by the words "master's thesis."  Minus the scholarly paraphernalia, the text takes up about 90 pages of double-spaced typescript.  Think of it as a long magazine article about something you love.  Then tell others about it.  Jimmy Ponder will be in the foreground of our musical minds in no time.

Now sit back and dig Jimmy's tone and groove on "Jennifer" from his 1976 release for ABC Impulse, Illusions.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Art Blakey: 1919-1990, Jazz Dispatcher

For more than 35 years, from the mid-50s to his death in 1990, Art Blakey gathered around him the finest musicians in the post-Bebop era and crystallized a new sound, that of The Jazz Messengers. 

Art Blakey w/Messengers Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan and Jymie Merritt.
Zurich, 1958.  From Newstalgia.

There were previous incarnations of this idea, one of a rehearsal band called The Seventeen Messengers, the key term evocative of Blakey's conversion to Islam in the late '40s. The moving parade of stellar personnel over the years revealed Blakey to have been The Jazz Dispatcher.

Since to reproduce here the list of the messengers he dispatched to the four corners, and his discography, might shift focus away from him, I direct you to this page where Steve Schwartz and Michael Fitzgerald have laid it all out.  Wikipedia's shorter version is's Blakey page is also essential.  (My desert-island album picks? A Night in Tunisia, Mosaic, Free for All, and all three volumes of A Night at Birdland, which features the pantheon of Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, and Clifford Brown along with Curly Russell on bass.)

There was, of course, Blakey's drumming, which seemed to announce the opening of Heaven's Gate:

Jazz has been blessed with many great drummers.  Art Blakey, however, was unique: one cannot imagine the history of Jazz over the last sixty years without his eagle eye for talent; his ability to motivate them to reach their potential; leadership skills that turned a half a dozen of them at a time into musically cohesive working units (and entrepreneurial foresight to keep them working!); and "tough love" that made room for new blood when it was "time," often regardless of whether the musician on the receiving end of the news agreed with the timing.  The Jazz Messengers never were, thank God, a "nostalgia band."  They were more like an Academy of Hard Bop, of which Blakey was the Dean.

Having worked with many of the giants of Swing and Bebop, including Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker, Blakey was the conduit of that legacy to every young person who came under his wing, including Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, and Valery Ponomarev, all of whom create music to this day.  (Ponomarev cleverly pays tribute to his former boss by calling his big band "Our Father Who Art Blakey.")  Blakey personally represented to them living tradition while spearheading the movement that made Hard Bop, not an acquired taste as it is today, but one form of Black popular music. (David Rosenthal's Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965 tells the story.) 

One night in the mid-'70s I found myself standing in front of Art Blakey inside The Village Gate.  Having just finished a set, he was listening to two other musicians conversing off-stage where I happened to be.  He didn't speak while I was standing there, and as I had no particular reason to continue to do so, I moved on.  Once again, this was case of my not knowing then what I know now, and wishing I could have asked him something, anything.  In any case, I recall being struck by how short and stocky, relatively speaking, this man was.  (I'm taken aback when I realize that he was then as old as I am now.)  More pertinently, I had just been impressed by how thunderous was his playing, thinking for a moment that perhaps I could have saved a few bucks merely by standing outside the club and listening.  But that there was more to the experience than percussive power, this neophyte even then knew. 

In this rare color video from 1986, following (at around 3:00) former Messenger Bobby Watson's appreciation of the man, Blakey personifies not only the passion that must fuel commitment to Jazz as a way of life, but also the knowledge that music is a three-way encounter among the Creator, the musician, and the audience.  Finding this sermon -- there is no other word for it -- made my day.  I hope it will makes yours.

My favorite saying attributed to him is that "music washes away the dust of everyday life," for which dust the Shakespearean metaphor is "mortal coil."  [Note: I've just learned that this revises an aphorism of poet Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882): "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."--T.F. 2/8/11]  Art Blakey, born 91 years ago today, shuffled off his twenty years ago this Saturday.  I can only imagine that he is in heaven preparing to accompany The Second Coming.