Monday, April 22, 2013

T.S. Monk on the Current State of Jazz

There is a fairly recent interview with T.S. Monk (son and namesake of Thelonious Sphere Monk) currently available on the DownBeat magazine website. It's well worth a read for anyone interested in T.S. Monk's first hand accounts of his father, and a number of other things, including his opinions on the advent of university jazz faculties in the 1960s, their curriculum, the roots of jazz, and the necessary transmission of the artform from generation to generation via oral tradition. At the very end, he offered this assessment of our current situation--one that I too have felt, despite the shrivelling markets and monetary compensation for the jazz artist:

[Jazz] is the most wonderful music... the most human music of all time. It will never go anywhere unless human beings stop desiring to be individuals. And that’s not going to happen. So, we are healthier now, despite marketplaces and all that stuff. As an art form, we are healthier now than we have ever been.

The importance of jazz can never be quantified in economic terms or mere popularity. T.S.Monk's account of his childhood, growing up as the son of one of the greatest of all musical geniuses, demonstrates the importance of community, family, and mutual support to the music. Relationships and accountability to each other are central: it is wonderful to read them so well expressed by his son. It's no wonder Thelonious Monk's music exudes this all of this and more.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Artie Shaw * Back Bay Shuffle * 1938

In the liner notes to the 1997 reissue of the complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman, Loren Schoenberg boldly outlined the cultural importance and strength of jazz:

Jazz flowered in this country in the 1930s during a period of universal social upheaval. In defiance of the crippling economic depression that gripped the world's economy, this music became the rallying cry for a young generation that less than a decade later, in World War II, would go on to thwart the megalomaniac fascist leaders of Europe and Asia.

Anyone doubting the justification of a context this grand need look only as far some of the Hollywood films that came out in support of the war effort. The Andrews Sisters teamed up with Abbott and Costello in 1941's Buck Privates, perhaps the best remembered of these movies. Several decades of nostalgia and tribute bands have, for a time, obscured the intensity and optimistic ferocity of swing era music, but if we put ourselves back in time for a moment imaginatively, we hear how full of courage, swagger, and unyielding brilliance performances like the Andrews Sisters' were. Attempting to sing or play 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' as they did reveals everything: there is no room for sentimentality. The music punches, rolls, and swings on perpetually--it is clear, crisp emotional, and strong.

Other films offer equally powerful displays. Harry James and the Andrews Sisters teamed up for Private Buckaroo in 1942. One number near the end, featuring a dance group with Harry wailing in his modal Jewish style (Helen Forrest once said she joined the James band because of that Jewish sound) is particularly telling. It's filled with young dancers: the whole thing projecting American freedom, youth, and strength in the face of danger. Here swing becomes, in the words of Artie Shaw, a musical demonstration of "life against death."

Most of the jazz oriented swing bands of the '30s and '40s weren't the syrupy, sentimental units they were later caricatured as (often by other bands). They were lean, hungry, often ferocious ensembles who shouted joy, sorrow, and everything in between with clarity and determination. I doubt we'll hear their like again. Even a light hearted little number celebrating gigs in Boston, recorded by Shaw in 1938, has emotional depths simmering beneath the bouncing surface.

"Back Bay Shuffle" was a Shaw original; a little tone poem describing the scramble of musicians after a late Boston gig to catch the last train back to New York, lest they be stranded over night. The tune was a major hit. I offer it here today, along with my thoughts and prayers, for the people of Boston, in the wake of the sinister and cowardly attack upon them yesterday. May God's peace be with you, and may tunes like this help strengthen you as you continue (we musicians must do what we can).

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Austin Wylie & His Golden Pheasant Orchestra (1926)

In 1926, at age sixteen, Artie Shaw left New Haven for Joe Cantor's Far East Orchestra, a band which played at a Chinese Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Shortly afterwards, he left Cantor's band for Austin Wylie's Orchestra at the Golden Pheasant, which was the top band in Cleveland at the time. Shaw thrived in the Golden Pheasant Orchestra, not only playing but serving as an arranger and director. When he left, Wylie came with him--this time as Shaw's road manager.

While in Cleveland, his roommate was none other than Claude Thornhill. I've always thought there was a musical kinship between Shaw and Thornhill that lasted beyond their Cleveland days. Thornhill was to ultimately create a unique type of big band jazz that served as a precursor and influence upon Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool, while Shaw was to repeatedly return to the development of what he termed "chamber jazz"--a concept that would come to final fruition in his "pellucid" Gramercy 5 recordings of 1954. This crystalline quality, found in Thornhill's "Snowfall" and Shaw's last recordings, are to me direct outgrowths of their formative years in Cleveland, where the musical life has so long fostered that same clear quality.

Fortunately, there still exist some recordings of Austin Wylie's Golden Pheasant Orchestra. When I stumbled across a few of them the other day on YouTube, they were a rare thrill to hear. This band, recorded shortly before Shaw's arrival, was certainly as good as the other major bands of the 1920s. They swing, play tightly in tune, and are in general as good or superior to many of the more famous groups associated with that era.

Many years later, Shaw was to wonder if he hadn't made a mistake leaving Cleveland. Listening to this recording helps us understand both the influences and the draw of the Cleveland Jazz scene upon Artie Shaw at an important stage of his development.

[ Reposted 4/11/13--ES]

Cleveland, Ken Peplowski, and JazzTimes

After New Orleans and Chicago, Cleveland has been one of the more important cities in the development of the jazz clarinet. Though Artie Shaw is associated most with New Haven and New York, he spent his formative years in Cleveland playing, learning the art of arranging, and leading a band for the first time with Austin Wylie. Cleveland was his indispensable training ground.

When he left Wylie's Golden Pheasant Orchestra, Shaw was replaced by one of the unsung heroes of swing era clarinet: Clarence Hutchenrider, later known as a jazz soloist for the Casa Loma Orchestra.

And while the fortunes of the jazz clarinet have waxed and waned over the decades, one of the players keeping the instrument vital has been Cleveland native Ken Peplowski.

Last year, JazzTimes produced an interview with Ken, discussing several topics; among them his development as a young player in Cleveland. His observations in the video are compelling, and serve as a reminder of the importance of experimentation, intuition, and "on the job training" to the jazz process. Likewise, his connections between the Cleveland polka band scene, the forms learned, and his later career as a jazz musician are of great interest, adding yet another layer of eclectic depth and possibility to the music's perpetual need for renewal.

Over the past year, JazzTimes has shown a real interest in clarinetists, beyond the superficial nod more common in magazines. A good example of this depth came last June, when Nate Chinen explored the phenomenon and dangers of saxophone doubling after a player has established a clarinet identity. This is a topic rarely even noticed, let alone discussed. Shortly thereafter, the September 2012 issue featured an insightful cover story by Geoffrey Himes on Anat Cohen. Earlier in the year, John Murph had contributed a similarly important story on Don Byron. So when the May 2013 issue arrived in my mailbox yesterday, I was gratified to see this sort of coverage continuing, with a back page "Artist's Choice" list by Ken Peplowski.

Ken's list is a great primer for those interested in the sheer diversity of sounds and styles available to the jazz clarinetist, inspiring another look at players such as Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, and Jimmie Noone, among others. I highly recommend checking out his insights and the recordings mentioned.

Since the 1940s, the career situation for jazz musicians has been tenuous and culturally frustrating. It can be tempting to spend too much time lamenting the difficulties facing the art, while missing the moments of opportunity. One of the current bright spots in the jazz landscape is a new prominence, slowly ripening, for the jazz clarinet. This wouldn't be possible without artists such as Buddy DeFranco, Bill Smith, Kenny Davern, Ken Peplowski, Eddie Daniels, Don Byron, Dr. Michael White, Evan Christoper, and others who have carried the ball through some lean decades, committing their talents to the service of an often neglected instrument in a supremely important, yet equally neglected art. But it also wouldn't be possible without journals like JazzTimes giving their music and insights a platform. Ken's list in JazzTimes will undoubtedly reach many fans in the coming months, exposing the greater jazz public to a history they might never have noticed--or never have been given the opportunity to consider.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Artie Shaw * A Legacy * Book-of-the-Month Records (71-7715) * 1984

While it is generally assumed that the first release of materials from the final Gramercy 5 sessions was delayed until the early 1990s, Shaw actually released fifteen tunes from those 1954 sessions as part of a four LP set entitled Artie Shaw: A Legacy through Book-of-the-Month Club Records in 1984. That this obscure release didn't garner much attention made it possible to re-release an expanded version of the sessions in the following decade, with few noticing.

For those who prefer vinyl, this set might be the best place to get many tracks of that final Gramcery 5. Included are arguably the definitive versions of the following tunes, most of them Shaw compositions (marked with * below):

Begin the Beguine
Don't Take Your Love From Me
Dancing in the Dark
The Chaser (*)
Sunny Side Up (*)
Cross Your Heart
Back Bay Shuffle (*)
How High the Moon
Star Dust
Summit Ridge Drive (*)
Stop and Go Mambo (*)
Scuttlebutt (*)
Grabtown Grapple (*)
When the Quail Come Back to San Quentin (*)
The Sad Sack (*)

There are important omissions from this list, to be sure (especially Shaw's other originals, such as "Lyric" and "Lugubrious" ), but those aside, it would be difficult to come up with a better set list drawn from the final sessions.

The program notes, written by Gene Lees and based upon discussion with Shaw, provide a unique window for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the man and his music. Lees was able to draw reflections of particular precision and depth. For example, at one point in their discussion Lees accused Shaw of being a hopeless romantic, to which Artie replied:

All right. Let's ask ourselves a question about 'romantic.' If 'romantic' is to believe--in spite of everything and in spite of the fact that we die at the end of it all--that there is some good to be got out of this experience called living, then, yes, I suppose I'm a romantic. I believe that living is the only crap game in town.

Look at the glory, look at the marvel, look at the wonder of life...The simple miracle of existence is the thing I just can't get past.

The entire booklet is worth reading, but here are some sample quotes:

 On 'Swing' and 'The Chaser':

Let's consider that word. It's a verb, not an adjective or a noun. If jazz doesn't swing, it isn't jazz. Now here, the whole thing gets so comfortable that you forget all about tempo. The tempo takes on an identity of its own and becomes in effect another member of the group.  You suddenly don't think about the music. It seems to take over, coming to life. "Swing" becomes a verb. The music begins to swing--but not the way a pendulum swings; a pendulum is always a victim of entropy, the tendency of all things in the universe to slow down. Maybe it's life against death we're talking about.

On 'Stop and Go Mambo':

This was my somewhat sardonic answer to the outbreak of mamboism...It starts with a quote from Dizzy [Gillespie] and Charlie [Parker], as my little bow to the bop era...The whole thing was meant as light humor, an element I find sadly lacking in most jazz. Point is, it's one thing to be serious, quite another to be solemn.

My last arpeggio is actually based on Scriabin's so-called mystic chord...The Notes--to take some of the mystery out of the word "mystic"--are F, B, E-flat, A, D, G. I come back down on a G major arpeggio. Try it on your bazooka sometime.

On Bebop:

Once Charlie and Dizzy and some of the others like Thelonious Monk came along and changed the entire face of jazz--actually they were the first wholly new influence since Louis Armstrong, who was a seminal figure--the music couldn't possibly have remained the same.

The point is, they had been listening to the same music I had listened to all of my life, so I never was uncomfortable with the 'new' chord structures they were playing. In the early days, if you played an E major chord (based on the third of C major), most musicians would say you were playing "out of the chord." Lots of them, in fact, would think you were deaf. Actually, though, it was an old thing as far as modern "serious" music is concerned.

After Dizzy and Charlie came along I was, for the first time in my life as a player, able to stretch out and do what I had always wanted to do but what audiences wouldn't hold still for when I was at my zenith. At that time I had to stay within the frame of what mass audiences understood. So it was a great relief when the boppers arrived. I was quite comfortable with those guys.

In addition to the 1954 Gramercy 5 session material, sides six, seven, and eight contain some extremely rare recordings.

Side Six features an air check of Artie Shaw performing the Mozart Quintet with the WOR string quartet (the notes list this as being from 1947, though Simosko's discography says it was actually from 1949--see Simosko, p.115).

Side Seven contains a rare live concert of Shaw performing the Nicolai Berezowsky four movement Concerto for Clarinet with the National Youth Symphony in Carnegie Hall, 1948.

The first movement baffled the audience totally. But by the second movement they apparently began to understand that there was was humor in the piece, and at the end of that movement they finally unbent enough to laugh. The last movement is the toughest thing I have ever played on the clarinet...There's one segment of ten or eleven seconds that I spent almost three months practicing. But the third movement [Andante Sostenuto] is the one I find a really beautiful thing.

Finally, a serious collector of Shaw's work might purchase this set for Side Eight alone. It features three pieces--Alexander Krein's "Hebrew Sketches, No. 2, Op. 13", for clarinet and string quartet (from the WOR air checks), Shaw's own "The Blues" (the lesser-known sketch for his later "Concerto", performed with Paul Whiteman at Carnegie Hall in 1938), and his "Interlude in B-flat", recorded live in the Imperial Theatre, NYC, 1936. The first is beautifully executed, and the remaining two are among the most important performances of Artie Shaw's career. For those wanting a fuller picture of Artie Shaw's genius, these performances are essential.