Thursday, February 28, 2013

Artie Shaw on Anti-Semitism

Among jazz clarinet autobiographies, there are two which I consider indispensable. The first, Sidney Bechet's Treat it Gentle, has already been reviewed here. In it are some of the most important observations concerning the history of jazz, performance, and even the nature of music itself. The second, Artie Shaw's The Trouble with Cinderella, is an altogether different kind of book. Rambling, autobiographical and discursive, it is a text that yields its content by wrestling. Shaw was not the natural writer he'd hoped to be, but he was undoubtedly a real intellectual, which can make him seem strange in a culture so often dominated by pseudo-intellectualism.

To analyze this book would be almost as difficult as to analyze Shaw himself, which was a task too difficult for anyone who ever knew him. So for this post, I've decided to quote from Artie's thoughts on anti-Semitism: a topic which unfortunately never seems to become as culturally irrelevant as it ought to be. For those who have not thought in depth on the subject, or haven't felt the direct results of it, Shaw's autobiography gives us a window into not only its effects on a musical genius, but the era he lived in, which bore the immediate seeds of our own.

[...] I had never given much thought to such matters as being "different" from other kids I knew. As far as I was concerned, kids were kids, some were bigger than others, some were boys, and some were girls. [After moving to New Haven], I suddenly had to unlearn any previous notions I may have had about myself and other kids. Because there was this one thing about myself, this "difference" that set me apart.

I learned what it means to be a Jew...


No Jewish child, no matter how carefully protected, can avoid at least a few head-on collisions with this thing called anti-Semitism; and as to how any individual child will react, or how hard it throws him and how weird a character-malformation he may develop as a result of his first contact with this particular type of stupidity--well, your guess is as good as any. All I can do is explain how it worked in my own case.


All I could figure out was that there must be something about me that was different, alien, strange, and (worst of all) undesirable--that is, from other kids' point of view. I'm sure I wouldn't have recognized the word anti-Semitism if I'd tripped over it. I had no idea what the words "kike" or "sheeny" meant, for I had never heard them before. As for being called "Christ-killer"--all I can tell you is that up to that time the word Christ had never been used in my presence except as a something I vaguely recognized as a "swear-word." 


I drew into a little shell, a coat of armor of outer toughness, inside which I tried to conceal my feelings. In other words, from the moment I realized that my being Jewish was something to be jeered at for, called names for, or hated and excluded for--from that moment I was no longer the same kid I had been before. And not only not the same kid, but changed in a certain, specific way, and in a way that I don't believe could possibly have occurred otherwise.

To put it as bluntly as I can, I believe in all honesty and with as much awareness as I can bring to bear on it from where I stand right now, that this one lesson had more to do with shaping the course and direction of my entire life than any other single thing that has happened to me, before or since. (...) I had to resign myself to what even at that age I knew to be the plain truth: that for no reason I could understand, and certainly through no choice of my own (for how could there have been a choice when I had not even been aware of an issue?)--there I was, a Jew, whatever that meant, and, whether I liked it or not, a Jew I would remain for the rest of my life until the day I died. [pp.23-26.]

I've been told a number of times that there has been great progress made. But somehow I find it difficult to believe. Maybe it's just naivete on my part. But it seems to me that when a disease like [anti-Semitism] can reach such proportions as we've seen it reach within the past two decades--when some six million human beings, men, women, and children, are murdered, raped, tortured, experimented on like guinea pigs, herded together like cattle (but not treated like cattle because cattle is valuable property), gassed, burnt in charnel ovens, thrown like dead dogs into lime pits, branded and made into hideous skeletonlike caricatures of human beings, before finally being "mercifully" permitted to die and put an end to the whole miserable sport--when all this can take place before our eyes  and you can still to this very moment find any number of well-fed, prosperous citizens going around thinking to themselves, and quite often saying right out loud (for it's a free country, isn't it?) that after all Hitler was right about one thing anyway--that same old puke-making one thing--well, I ask you, what is a guy supposed to think and feel? I don't believe you'll have any great deal of difficulty in understanding a very small amount of mild bitterness. To say nothing of a slight disgust at the idea of having to be a member of a species which can behave the way it quite often does and continues to call itself "human"!

I am not deluding myself with any notion of making any Great Contribution in this matter of minority persecution. Bitterness and anger, justifiable or otherwise, cannot help much, practically speaking. Certainly there is good and sufficient reason for both bitterness and anger. I have had my share of both these emotions. But I know they're of no use. In fact, I have seen them work to the detriment of those who use them in the fight against this disease; particularly where they lead victims of discrimination into their own measures of discrimination against those who discriminate--an even more subtle form of discrimination, a kind of counter persecution, inevitably doomed to failure as a method of dealing with the evil. Minorities cannot afford to blind themselves in their fight against persecution. No man can last long as a fighter if he's kidding himself that he can afford anger--and if you don't believe that, ask any professional.   [pp.34-35]

These words are as sadly relevant now as they were in 1952. That Shaw had the courage to share these specific wounds and reflections is a very rare thing in the history of jazz. The last paragraph quoted seems to me, in fact, a Great Contribution in its own way, reminding us of a principle not often enough detailed in our public discourse and obsessive social planning: hate cannot be snuffed out by hate. Shaw continues: seems to me only natural that if we think about it at all we have to hold ourselves, each one of us, at least partially accountable for the mess. For it is, after all, our own mess. We, collectively, as a species, made it."

We might as well each start cleaning it up now, in whatever small ways we can, wherever we find ourselves.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mouthpiece Review: Morgan RM06 (c. 1989)

Morgan RM06

One of the more unusual mouthpieces in my collection is a Ralph Morgan RM06, which has a scoop beak more common to saxophone mouthpieces, purchased in New York City in 1989.

The designation RM06 makes this a 1.06mm tip opening of their standard pro model.

Morgan RM06--profile view

It's easy to jump to the conclusion, based on the outer shape of this mouthpiece, that it might sound brash, or saxo-phoney. Playing it rather immediately dispels those concerns. The tone it produces for me is warm, round, yet slightly diffuse. I don't find the "core" or "edge" sound of a Selmer C85 in this mouthpiece, which tends rather towards a nice floating softness instead. There is also, for me, a sense of greater separation from the sound when I play this one. In many ways, this piece behaves like a Vandoren B40, but with a little more directness and compactness--there is a feeling that the Morgan's sound can be turned more quickly and nimbly.

The intonation and timbral consistency of this mouthpiece is exemplary, from the bottom of the chalumeau to the top of the altissimo. It also holds sound shape very well at extreme dynamics. These are undoubtedly the qualities that convinced me to buy it--especially considering the angle I tend to the hold the horn (more elevated than the usual classical posture). With this Morgan, I can blow "straight down the horn" and get a solid, timbrally consistent sound, well in tune.

I bought this mouthpiece back in 1989 on an impulse. It sounded fantastic in the store, and was too good to leave behind. Almost immediately after getting it home, though, I found that the scoop beak wasn't for me--however nice the sound, I could never "forget" the mouthpiece enough and just wail. Since then, it's basically sat in an obscure, yet honorable place in my mouthpiece museum.

Bottom line: The Morgan RM06 is a very good mouthpiece--obviously a high quality design, excellent tone and articulation. Other players might find the scoop beak ideal. I recommend it especially for players coming from the saxophone--not because this will yield a saxophone sound, but because it can give the player a solid clarinet sound, yet with something closer, perhaps, to what a sax player is used to in terms of beak shape and embouchure comfort.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

CD Review: Benny Goodman * Air Play

In 1986, with little fanfare, the Doctor Jazz label put out a double LP containing remasters of Benny Goodman air checks under the title of Air PlayDespite the unfortunate choice of putting an elderly Benny on the cover, these were actually live performances of the 1936, 1937, and 1938 Goodman band, quartet, trio, and even a rare duo between Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. The original acetates had been given to Goodman by Thomas Ciano of Long Island, transferred by D.R. Connor, and represent some of the finest examples of Goodman's band from its most important period.

The catalogue of live Goodman is fairly vast, and there are better known collections out there, including the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, multiple volumes of the Camel Caravan, and the "Complete" Madhattan Room Broadcasts. But even with those essential recordings in mind, if I was to recommend only one album of live Goodman material, it would be Air Play.

Though this double LP set was eventually released in 1989 on a single CD, and therefore is considerably shorter than the other live sets mentioned above, these arguably represent the finest live performances we have of Goodman. Each different band is presented in top form. Leading off with 1937 checks, it's Harry James's leadership of the trumpet section that leaps out of the speakers at us. The young James's presence is so stunning, and the trumpet section of Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin so tightly pulled along in his irresistible tide of sound, that we can understand why Duke Ellington called this trio the "wonder of the age", and why Cootie Williams made it a professional goal to one day play in the Goodman band. For me, this is the hardest swinging, best sounding trumpet section ever assembled.

Matching that intensity and swagger is Goodman's clarinet. Too often, it was suggested by jealous, hardly disinterested parties that Goodman was a mere technician. These recordings refute such an accusation more eloquently than any others. Few moments in clarinet history thrill me quite the way Benny's statement of the theme on an uptempo "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" from January 19, 1937. His tone is absolutely commanding: solid, flexible, muscular; his swing is a perfection of paradox--loosely firm, sweetly punching, relaxed tension--the limber, balanced boxer of jazz clarinet. It's a very short moment, but any clarinetist wanting to understand the essence of Goodman's musical style needs to attempt this solo with the same commanding presence. They will soon find that the Goodman mystique and style ultimately have very little to do with flashiness. Musical and tonal depth are the true sorces of Goodman's interpretive sense.

One of the acetates was from a shortwave broadcast from New York to the BBC. According to the notes, Gene Krupa had the flu and couldn't make the gig. Because of this, we're treated to a Goodman/Wilson duo for "Body & Soul"-- arguably the finest performance of a tune that they "owned" anyway, followed immediately by "Dinah" with Lionel Hampton added on vibes. Benny was known for making his winds rehearse at times without rhythm section--he would insist that each section be able to swing on their own. This, in part, accounts for the unique drive of the Goodman band. In the duo and trio, we hear how this sort of swing was present in each of the members, independently of drum support.

There are as many gems here as tracks--including a solo performance by Jess Stacy of Bix Beiderbecke's "In a Mist", a definitive version of "You Go To My Head" with Martha Tilton taking the vocal, and (for me at least) the definitive quartet version of "Stompin' at the Savoy". The inner voicings of Lionel Hampton's soloing on "Stompin" are the most eloquent of the many I've heard, and the acetate transfer is uniquely excellent. The most famous version of this, from the Carnegie Hall concert, sounds overwrought and tense in comparison.

On "You're Blasé", the trio is yet another unique configuration, with Lionel Hampton taking over on drums. This charming little tune was never recorded in the studio by Goodman's "classic" quartet or trio.

Bud Freeman, whose tenure with Goodman was so fleeting, was even present on several tracks, demonstrating particularly on "Bumble Bee Stomp" why he is such a seminal figure in the development of the tenor saxophone.

The liner notes by Leonard Feather are a refreshing example of jazz criticism from a better age. Instead of ideological vagaries, so common to jazz criticism these days, Feather engages the music itself, commenting intelligently about certain aspects of the arrangements, and the forms of tunes. Moreover, as a historian, he deftly places Goodman in proper context when he writes:

Swing music, in fact, was a phenomenon that had been around for years; all that was needed to bring it into focus was an individual in whom (and around whom) all its essential characteristics could coalesce, in such a manner that its appeal would cut across barriers and result in mass popularity both for the artist and for the idiom he represented.
It was not surprising that Benny Goodman was that individual. He was the first genuine virtuoso jazz orchestra leader ever to front an ensemble of this quality. Duke Ellington's genius was expressed more through his orchestra than at the piano; Louis Armstrong, incomparable as a soloist, never had a band worthy of him and was busy trying to get his sax section to emulate the sound of Guy Lombardo.   

Finally, one of the more hauntingly beautiful moments in air check history occurs with Goodman's sign off number, Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye", when two announcers close the evening's broadcast--one in Japanese and one in English, as the broadcast was transmitted not only to the United States, but Tokyo for the many jazz fans in Japan. This peace-filled moment of cultural exchange is made more poignant with what we 21st century listeners know: that many of those listening and dancing to this music would be plunged into a terrible conflict only two years later, undoubtedly claiming lives from those ranks. The great era of American musical romanticism ushered in by the Goodman band would be almost as short lived as the war itself, the consequences of which made, in many ways, the type of music making Goodman and his colleagues made on these air checks impossible shortly thereafter.

This irreplaceable album receives The Jazz Clarinet's rating of Five Good Reeds, for containing definitive versions of important songs, important soloing, historical significance, and a rare brilliant bit of historical analysis in the liner notes themselves.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Leon Roppolo and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (1922-25)

Though little discussed in jazz histories, Leon Roppolo was a foundational figure to the history of jazz clarinet. By 1922, Sidney Bechet had become more focused on soprano saxophone, and many other jazz clarinetists were still struggling with the horn technically. By contrast, Roppolo could lay claim to being the first true jazz soloist to be recorded (as Richard Sudhalter has called him), and in those recordings he set a clarinet style strong enough to influence Irving Fazola, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Pete Fountain.

Recordings of most other 1920s clarinetists reveal a chunky, rough style, often struggling inconsistently. Yet as early as 1922, Roppolo had developed a cool, confident, brooding approach far in advance of many others. Soon, Jimmie Noone was to burst on the recording scene with even more remarkable technique, but the concept of and phrasing of Roppolo were to remain influential.

It is difficult to explain the importance of Roppolo's approach to a non-clarinetist, and this is perhaps why historians, so often drawn from the brass playing ranks, have neglected him. More than any other register, it is the jazz clarinet altissimo--its expressive potential and flexibility--that seperates jazz approach from classical pedagogy. Roppolo's was polished in a way few others were: he had a haunting combination of lightness and power that was to serve as the template for Goodman, Shaw, Fazola--and indirectly for Pete Fountain.

His three recorded solos on Tin Roof Blues demonstrate this powerfully. Below is my transcription of the second of those solos (according to Richard Sudhalter's timeline, p. 42):

The opening altissimo G is both stronger and more hauntingly beautiful than most clarinets of the era, save the virtuosic Noone. Instead of straining, Roppolo is expressive. The plunging glissando downward is important, not for harmonic or melodic, but timbral importance. The way "Rapp" crackles over the break and hits the clarion e-flat was subtly exceptional for its flexibility and usage. This moment means more than a single figure: it is a demonstration of flexibility that one will not learn in classical pedagogy, and effects the rest of one's clarinet approach if mastered--opening up a timbral language (and eventually new melodic possibilities) as a result. It profoundly and decisively influenced Benny Goodman, as did Roppolo's suave approach.

As Goodman was to bluntly write in The Kingdom of Swing:

My idea of a great clarinet player...was Leon Rapollo, who was playing at the Friars' Inn then with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and I did my best to sound like him. I never heard him play in person more than once, but there were plenty of good records to study up on. [p33]
Later, Ben Pollack, who was to give Goodman his decisive break, was to hire Benny precisely because of his similarity to Roppolo [Firestone, p.38].

In the history of jazz, there have been many crimes. White players often, especially in the early years, stole music and styles from black bands, frequently making more money in the process. The history of jazz criticism has wrestled with the cross currents of creativity: what constitutes stealing, what constitutes creativity, and how do we know which is which? Players such as Goodman, Shaw, and Fountain have always rightly acknowledged their debt to black musicians, and Mezz Mezzrow strongly opined in his own book that the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (N.O.R.K.) were a copy of King Oliver's band of the same era. [Mezzrow p. 54] No historian can afford to overlook this--it would be inaccurate, unfair, and wrong.

With this squarely in mind, Leon Roppolo, arguably the centerpiece to the N.O.R.K., has no recorded precedent of any color, and so far as I can tell should be considered clean of cashing in on another's genius. To put it another way his particular way of playing, and influence in jazz history, seems his own. It has been hypothesized that his style is an Italian classical inheritance. This might explain some of it, but I have studied more than one branch of the Italian-American classical clarinet tradition, and nowhere in it have I ever heard anyone who was similar to Roppolo's approach. He is, so far as I can tell, an original. With a clean conscience, then, we may admire him.

Roppolo's style was important for much more than technical flexibility--his clarinet playing was cooler, more brooding, and smoother than the general sensibilities of the era. Every time I see the word suave in the Copland clarinet concerto, I think this couldn't have been written in the score without Roppolo, whose own suave approach so fundamentally effected Benny's, and therefore influenced Copland's commission.

Pete Fountain has said that Irving Fazola was obsessed with Roppolo's playing, and that while Pete himself hardly heard Rapp's recordings, the similarity of approach is undeniable. But perhaps the most surprising comparison is Artie Shaw. So far as I know, Shaw never went into detail about the effects of the N.O.R.K. on his clarinet concept--perhaps he never acknowledged any influence. Brass playing historians such as Sudhalter have heard the influence of Bix Beiderbecke in Shaw's approach, and late in life Shaw talked about transcribing Louis Armstrong. These are certainly true influences, but Roppolo might also have been an important influence. Anyone who has extensively transcribed Shaw cannot help but run into language seeming directly from Roppolo in Shaw's playing--the falling gliss from Tin Roof Blues, as well as the cool detached approach, appears and reappears in various guises in Shaw.

The recordings of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings from 1922-25 are of importance to jazz clarinetists. If Artie Shaw's final Gramercy 5 Sessions represent a peak, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings recordings represent an important aspect of the foundation, along with Johnny Dodds's recordings with King Oliver and the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives & Sevens, Jimmie Noone's Apex Club recordings and very few others. Five Good Reeds.

Firestone, Ross. Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman. Norton & Co. NYC. 1993.

Goodman, Benny & Irving Kolodin. The Kingdom of Swing. Stackpole Sons, NYC, 1939.

Mezzrow, Mezz & Bernard Wolfe. Really the Blues. Barnes & Noble reprint, 2009.

Sudhalter, Richard. Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915-1945.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Gear Review: Protec Slimline PRO PAC "Green Tea" Single Clarinet Case

A couple of weeks back, for the first time in many years, the time had come for me to purchase a new, single clarinet case. My vintage 1955 Selmer Centered-Tone case, cool as it looked, had a broken zipper and no storage compartment large enough for my 10-reed holder. I'd been keeping the CT in my old Selmer 10S case, but this was unsatisfactory on two levels: first, it meant the 10S was moved to a BAM double case, and the latches weren't particularly reliable.

I've owned a couple of BAM cases over the years--one for my tenor sax, and the double clarinet case mentioned above. They've served me well over the years, and I thought I'd get a single BAM for the CT, until doing some research. This time around, I was struck by how expensive a single clarinet case would be--especially when comparing BAM to the Protec Slimline PRO PAC cases, which seemed to be of similar quality, yet a quarter of the price.

Considering the return policy of WWBW, I figured it was worth checking out the Protec. It arrived about a week ago, and I'm very happy with it.

The biggest difference, and of considerable importance to players of unusually shaped clarinets (Yamaha CSGs or Wurlitzers come to mind, with their longer top joints and short barrels) is the interior foam. BAM cases are very pliable and can be molded to the shape of the horn--the Protec Slimline, by contrast, is harder and not particularly flexible. The good news for me is that the CT fits perfectly, and while the Rovner ligature and cap is a snug fit, if it is angled as above, it too fits ideally. There are two slots for barrels--the second slot might serve as a swab/cork grease compartment, but I've used it for a back up short barrel.

Protec Slimline Clarinet Case "Green Tea"
In terms of the exterior, the pouch is precisely what I'd been looking for--large enough for a 10 reed case, swabs, pencils, pens, cork grease, etc. The case is sturdy and light--it seems at least as well constructed as my BAM cases.

Finally, that most important of considerations: color. When buying a classical case, most musicians have a choice between various shades of black. You have your jet black, your Euro-black, and your techno-black. Each of these shades helps ensure the case will match your black turtleneck and scarf, which in turn will help you blend in at auditions (and as we know, blending is indispensable in the classical world). These rules aren't rigid: once you get a tenured position, you may be permitted by your conductor to branch out aesthetically and get yourself a leather case--and so long as it matches, for instance, the leather of a psychiatrist's couch, it won't clash with anything in your life.

This aside, jazzers are free to splash a little color--if it's done responsibly (always remember, as with your altissimo, that with great power comes great responsibility). Like so much in the jazz world, there is a symbolism to everything, and we have our own in-language. The "Green Tea" color, among jazz clarinetists, has a very specific reference: the cover of the 1965 LP release of Artie Shaw's "September Song" and Other Favorites. That's right, folks: this color proves your jazzer status every bit as much as saying "Daddy-O", calling Beethoven a "long hair", and saying "solid", knowingly, when you agree with someone. It's hep. And if hep ain't hip, then it's hip. It's also seven bucks cheaper than the black case.

So don't be a moldy fig, Daddy-O. Get hep to the case, gates. It's solid.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mouthpiece Review: Vandoren B45 (c.1985)

Vandoren B45

It has been a long time since I've played a Vandoren B45. The ancient specimen seen above was my main mouthpiece from about 1986 to 1989, when I was in High School. It was given to me by a teacher, so I'm not sure what vintage it is exactly--early to mid '80s is the most likely date.

The B45 was at one time considered by many as a baseline Vandoren mouthpiece--a sort of standard reference point for gauging others. I've read some internet opinions of them recently that encouraged me to pull mine out and give it another go. I was deeply impressed.

This B45 has an excellent amount of power and depth. It has a boom to the sound--especially the chalumeau--that my more diffuse and softer sounding B40 lacks. Articulation is crisper than the B40, especially clarion and altissimo attacks so common in the playing of jazz players. The tone is full and has quite a bit of "jump", though not as much for me as the Selmer C85. I'm really impressed by the smooth quality and feel of the 'piece--it's tubby quality down low when pushed seems ideal for jazz. Most gratifying is that it avoids the "fuzz or buzz" problem of so many classical mouthpieces.

For those who want a little more complexity to the sound--more layers and "ring" to the tone, the C85 series is still my preference. But this B45 has depth with room to the sound--probably more than any other mouthpiece in my collection after the C85.

Earlier on this blog, I've mentioned my opinion that players should ideally be able to play on a 'standard' Vandoren or a Selmer C85 series mouthpiece for a several reasons, including their price and availability. Playing on the B45 again has only strengthened that opinion for me--and strengthened the opinion that players should hold onto their primary mouthpieces--even several years after switching, you just might come back around to an old favorite.

Friday, February 1, 2013

R.I.P. Patty Andrews, last of the Andrews Sisters

The New York Times has reported that Patty Andrews, the lead singer and youngest of the Andrews Sisters, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 94.

Anton Bruckner once said that when he reached the gates of Heaven, he would be allowed in on account of his Te Deum. I'm no theologian, and won't comment on Bruckner's ideas on that score. But if I was asked to speak up for Patty Andrews, I'd offer her performance of 'Moonlight' with her sisters, Harry James, and his Orchestra. I daresay that tune, and so many like it, have done me more good in my life than I can measure.

Like most siblings, the Andrews had their famous fights, but they managed through it all to produce one of the most unique and engaging groups in American music history. Singing like a big band trumpet section, they moved as one and could swing as hard as any.

It's my prayer that all the old rivalries are gone, all tears dried, and that Patty is singing with her sisters again in Heaven today.