Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Shekomeko Shuffle: In Search of Artie Shaw

Leading off his series In Search of Shakespeare, Michael Wood asked:

"[Why] go in search of Shakespeare? Can the life of a writer ever be as interesting or exciting as a conqueror, an inventor, or an explorer, a Napoleon, a Columbus, an Alexander the Great? Well yes it can. More so, because the writers and the poets are the explorers of the human heart, and long after the conquerors are forgotten, their legacy will be the most valuable to us as human beings."

If poets are the explorers of the human heart, perhaps musicians are the explorers of the soul--that region touching the eternal; the essential aspect of human beings so difficult to describe or analyze. And just as the geography of great writers warrants our attention, so too those of musicians--especially jazz musicians, who more than any others seem to carry their lives with them wherever they go, singing them through their horns.

America isn't the type of nation that likes to honor (or perhaps even remember) its artists, especially those outside the mainstream, who might serve little immediate commercial or political purpose. Try naming the historical markers for great poets or musicians, and you might find the list to be short. In my own lifetime, I can remember seeing only three monuments to writers: A statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Maine; another of James Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown, NY; and a statue of Hart Crane (since removed or relocated) in Cleveland. I'm sure there are others, but a casual trip through the UK will show more constant markers denoting important artists. In the history of jazz, only New Orleans seems to fully acknowledge importance of place, and has done an admirable job maintaining the roots of jazz history.

With this in mind, I set out this past week to visit one of  the most important landscapes outside of New Orleans for a jazz clarinetist: the site of Artie Shaw's farm near Pine Plains, NY, in the bucolic Hudson Valley Region.

Shaw remains for me among the most important of all jazz clarinetists, for several reasons. First, if you poll musicians you'll find that just about every type of clarinetist has endorsed him. In a world of rivalry, jealousy, and bravado, his playing remains close to universally admired.

New Orleans native and Ellington alumnus Barney Bigard called Shaw the greatest of all jazz musicians.

Buddy DeFranco, the first great bop clarinetist, called Shaw's 'Stardust' solo the finest ever played.

Don Byron, a representative of the avant garde in current jazz clarinet, has said "I remember the clarity of [Shaw's] tone, a harder, edgier, and more modern tone than Benny Goodman's. He could play stuff that made harmonic sense way up high, and where Goodman's playing seemed both triadic and ornamental, Shaw's note choices seemed to foreshadow the discipline that would become bebop."

Even the classical world has paid homage to Shaw's clarinetistry. Franklin Cohen of the Cleveland Orchestra said "Shaw is the greatest player I ever heard. It's hard to play the way he plays. It's not an overblown orchestral style. He makes so many incredible shadings."

This is nothing short of remarkable. There are few musicians who can claim, on any instrument, such a list of admirers.

Second, on a personal level, Shaw's geography has overlapped my own. Both of us grew up in New York and Southern Connecticut as kids. Both of us lived in Cleveland, and both of us had a deep attachment to the mystic beauty of the Hudson Valley region of New York State.

It was in the Hudson Valley that Artie Shaw made his most significant strides as a musician, expanding his musical style from swing to modern jazz. While living at Picardy Farm, four miles south of Pine Plains, New York, he wrote his autobiography and quietly deepened his playing, composing tunes reflective of the landscape. The first of these, entitled "The Shekomeko Shuffle" was a tongue-in-cheek tone poem describing the frustrations of having to commute from the farm, where he had felt such peace, to New York City. The tune begins and ends with a bitter quote from Stravinsky's Petrushka--but eschewing existential whining, Shaw launches into an argument that feels like an upbeat drive down the Taconic Parkway. Along the way, Shaw demonstrates how he was assimilating and transforming modern jazz influences--an expansion of jazz clarinet vocabulary that would ultimately result in the massive Last Recordings of 1953.

Shekomeko was very close to Shaw's farm--just over a few hills, in fact. Originally a Mohican village for converts of the Moravian missionaries, it was also the likely place where the fictional Natty Bumppo would have met Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking tales.

The Jazz Clarinet goes to Shekomeko

Driving over the hills to the site of Shaw's old farm, I listened to tunes like "Lyric", which Shaw said was inspired by Robert Henri's quote about another painter; that he painted "like a man going over a hill, whistling." Nowhere has this music seemed more at home than these hills.

Landscape near the site of the Shaw Farm

Before this trip, I'd contacted the Library at Pine Plains, inquiring as to whether or not anyone still knew where Shaw lived, exactly, as the properties have changed hands and boundaries several times since he sold his acreage. As of this writing, I haven't gotten a reply--but I did manage to find out that his farm was located "four miles south of Pine Plains on route 82."

When I arrived at the spot along Route 82, there were a few options for potential homes. Not knowing exactly which might have been Artie's, I did the next best thing: stood alongside Route 82, by a barn that might have belonged to Artie Shaw, and played the Shekomeko Shuffle. Unless anyone can prove otherwise, I now lay claim to being the first jazz clarinetist since Shaw himself to play 'The Shekomeko Shuffle' along Route 82.

ES along Rt. 82

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I mentioned the importance of place regarding the final Gramercy 5 recordings:

The music was intended by Shaw to sound "clear, pellucid" which he likened to the waters of a mountain lake, so pristine that you can see to the bottom. The metaphor is apt, and a worthy goal for jazz musicians: it implies a transparent honesty. Many such lakes exist up where Shaw had lived on a farm for much of the early '50s near Shekomeko, NY--a place he said he wished he could have remained.

"Picardy Farm..." he would write nearly thirty years later. "Good God, the emotions those two words evoke. The place where for the first time in my life I had found a real home, a warm sense of security, and a feeling of calm and peace of mind."

That sense of pristine beauty, clarity, and peace of mind is never far away in these recordings, and has probably never been equaled in jazz history.

Near the old Shaw farm is Taghkanic State Park, where one might experience one of those pellucid lakes. To see the morning mists turn into clouds in the sunrise at such a place, in a landscape that seems to eschew the banalities of commercialism and wrangling--somehow remaining pristine throughout it all--is to come into contact with some of the essential inspiration for Shaw's greatest music. It is a landscape that is unique for the variety of artists it has inspired: from James Fenimore Cooper's novels, to the paintings of the Hudson River school, to Artie Shaw, to Sonny Rollins.

Morning Mist over Lake Taghkanic

If I'd never gone to New Orleans, I might never have understood, on a deeper level, the roots of jazz--especially the playing of Sidney Bechet and the earliest jazz clarinetists. Likewise, going in search of Artie Shaw's farm; hearing and playing this music in this landscape, has brought me a deeper appreciation of both.

Monday, September 9, 2013

CD Review: Frank Teschemacher * Jazz Me Blues * 1927-1930

Frank Teschemacher (1906-1932) was the central figure of the famed 'Austin High Gang'  whose membership and influence extended through the 1920s to such players as Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Dave Tough, and Jess Stacy.

Tesch was remembered by Benny Goodman as "a fine musician and perhaps the most inventive it has been my privilege to hear." Gunther Schuller called him "the Ornette Coleman of the twenties, a lone original who, killed in an auto accident on leap-year day in 1932 at age twenty-five, never had the chance to fully develop his curious art"(The Swing Era, 11).

Artie Shaw remembered a session with Tesch at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago one night in 1930:

[On] this same session was the clarinet player...Frank Teschemacher. I sat next to him and watched him while he played. We were all slightly drunk on bad bootleg gin, but it didn't seem to affect his playing any. He...had this odd style of playing (...). Even while he'd be reaching out for something in his deliberately fumbling way, some phrase you couldn't quite see the beginning or end of (or for that matter, the reason for in the first place), there was an assurance about everything he did that made you see that he himself knew where he was going all the time; and by the time he got there you began to see it yourself, for in its own grotesque way it made a kind of musical sense, but something extremely personal and intimate to himself, something so subtle that it could never possibly have had great communicative meaning to anyone but another musician and even then only to a jazz musician who happened to be pretty damn hep to what was going on. [ The Trouble with Cinderella, pp198-199]   

It can be difficult to find recordings of Tesch--one of the only compilations available these days is this 2011 CD with 26 tracks, from Retrospective Records in the UK. Though not as comprehensive as some of the earlier LP sets, this CD is an excellent collection of recordings from 1927-30, featuring Tesch's work in groups such as the Chicago Rhythm Kings, Wingy Manone and his Club Royale Orchestra, and even playing "Jazz Me Blues" under his own name. Also featured on these cuts are some early performances of Gene Krupa, Eddie Condon, Muggsy Spanier, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and others.

For those who have heard a wide variety of jazz clarinet recordings, the legendary wildness and roughness of Teschmacher's style might seem to have been exaggerated a bit by history--perhaps as much as Benny's "refinement" of sound has been exaggerated (the two seem to have been treated at times as poles of jazz clarinetistry, in a way that does neither of them justice). My dominant first impression on hearing Tesch was not how contrasting he was to Goodman, but how similar Tesch's altissimo approach was to Benny's mature, 1930s style. More than any other clarinetist before him, Tesch had a clear, strong, commanding altissimo with tongue attacks that jumped. To my ear, Benny's altissimo articulation resembles Tesch's more than Roppolo, Noone, Dodds, Lewis, or any other jazz clarinetist of the era. Likewise, the astonishing solo formulations of Tesch seem less shocking than they must have during the pre-swing era.

Having granted these things, this CD is an important document of a trailblazing jazz clarinetist, who like Stan HasselgĂ„rd a generation later, died tragically in a car accident before his full artistic stature could be realized. His playing gives us a better picture of the clarinet milieu of the 1920s, particularly the supremely important Chicago scene that produced Goodman. Three Good Reeds.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

David Stone Martin Album Covers

Most of us who participate in jazz, either as musicians or as listeners, owe in some way a debt of gratitude to Norman Granz, the impresario who is perhaps best remembered for spear-heading the Jazz at the Philharmonic series and founding five important record labels: Clef, Norgran, Down Home, Pablo, and Verve. Albums like Bird with Strings, Bird & Diz, the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook series, Lady Sings the Blues, and a vast slew of other classics might never have reached the public without him.

Granz was not only remarkably attuned to musical values, but understood the importance of matching great music to great contemporary art. His hiring of David Stone Martin, an artist with a rare understanding of jazz, was a stroke of brilliance. Stone Martin's album covers are deservedly revered in their own right, and some of his finest works depicted the clarinet and jazz clarinetists.  

In 1954, Granz convinced a reluctant Artie Shaw to release four albums worth of his last Gramercy 5 sessions on the Clef label. The albums are extremely rare these days: they went almost entirely unnoticed and fell immediately out of print, with rights reverting back to Shaw, who didn't share them with the world again for several decades. Unfortunately, the Clef releases didn't present Shaw's work particularly well sonically--choosing to emphasize Shaw the soloist, the audio mix brings his clarinet so far to the foreground that the rest of the band sounds muddied and less relevant: mere accompaniment. This fault was corrected on Shaw's subsequent releases of the material, but if the final Gramercy 5 had any chance of success, conceptually, in the 1950s, the Clef versions did little to help. Moreover, Granz, whose heart was certainly in the right place, nevertheless shot the project in the foot with his liner notes, defensively suggesting that Artie was a real jazz musician (as though that needed proof), and that he didn't lose sight of the melody in the recordings (as though that mattered). The sum total of the Clef recordings, between the vinyl and the back covers, amounted to naught but stoked disappointment for Shaw, leaving only one overwhelming saving grace: the covers by David Stone Martin, which happen to be some of the greatest artworks inspired by jazz clarinet.

These album covers are now extremely rare. Unlike the more famous bop covers for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, which have been issued and reissued regularly, the Shaw Gramercy 5 covers immediately fell into obscurity. I have three of the covers, along with my three favorite Stone Martin Buddy DeFranco covers, on the wall of my studio (the bottom three in the pictures below).

David Stone Martin Jazz Clarinet Covers: (clockwise from top left) Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson play Gershwin, The Music of Buddy DeFranco, Buddy DeFranco: Closed Session, Artie Shaw Gramercy Five #4, Artie Shaw Gramercy Five #3, Artie Shaw Gramercy Five #1

These album covers are my favorite depictions of the clarinet, and of the music, that I've ever run across. David Stone Martin not only understood the construction of the clarinet, but something of the feel of playing it. His varying abstractions of the keys and the joint sizes (particularly on The Music of Buddy DeFranco) speaks of a mind actively engaged in what it is to play clarinet. The differences between his depictions of DeFranco and Shaw are as telling as the musicians' styles: the modernist profile of DeFranco, with concentrated, abstractedly gnarled fingers (as though he was working out a particularly vexing problem); the reflective, meditative Shaw bowing his head and listening.

The pictures tell stories, too: how many jazz clarinetists will recognize the scene of a bed, with an open case--practicing in the bedroom or a hotel room before a gig? Then there is the cover of DeFranco's Closed Session: Buddy stares at the "fine instruments", his head turned away from the tenor sax (rejecting the double?), casually looking while his own horn is safely tucked under his shoulder, the case melding into his torso. Perhaps the masterpiece of them all is the final Gramercy 5 release, with the stabbed heart, like a guitar, the clarinet, and the profile of the beautiful woman--is she dancing to the music or is she leaving him? The poignancy of the abstraction works like a triad, but one so subtle we can't tell whether it's major or minor--in reality it's a graceful, extended chord.

Great album art is rare. Some labels have opted for a sensible and safer approach than Norman Granz's labels did: black and white photos of the musicians themselves is usually a smart way to go, and labels like Blue Note have produced some of the most iconic jazz photos utilizing that method. Rolling the dice on contemporary art styles and graphic design is considerably more dangerous. Having said this, we can be grateful for the many risks Granz took, and for the masterful work of David Stone Martin.

For jazz clarinetists, the work is inspiring: these covers are a testament to the complexity, beauty, and value of the music we have dedicated so much of our lives to.   

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jazz Clarinet Gear Review: 1952 Selmer Centered Tone

If readership of The Jazz Clarinet is any gauge of market interest, the Selmer Centered Tone should be ready for a comeback. By far the most read post on this blog is last year's gear review of my 1955 Q Series Selmer Centered Tone, Model 802.

There is so much interest in the Selmer CT that the 1955 review routinely tops my weekly and monthly charts, and as of this writing more readers have flocked to it than to the those reviews posted here of the Buffet R13, Boosey & Hawkes Edgware, Selmer Balanced Tone, and Fritz Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm combined.

Having played a Centered Tone for over a year now, I can understand why. They are in a class of their own when it comes to dynamics, power, color palette, jazz flexibility, intonation, ease of projection, and modern tone conception. Of all the horns I've played, only the later Selmer 10S rivals its volume.

Because the 1955 Q Series CT worked so well for me, and because 7 ring models are becoming increasingly rare, I purchased a back up earlier this summer: a 1952 P Series Centered Tone, Model 804 (which includes the articulated G# mechanism).

1952 P Series Selmer Centered Tone Model 804

This horn was previously owned by a conscientious player and collector, so it arrived in excellent adjustment. Besides the difference of key work to my 1955 Model 802, and perhaps more importantly to the resonance of the instrument, the lower joint was topped off by a metal sleeve (standard on these horns when possessing an articulated G# and present on my 1944 BT and 1951 Fritz Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm as well):

Bottom Joint/Inner Sleeve P-Series CT
Whether this or any slight difference in bore between the models accounts for it, this P Series horn is not only slightly heavier in a physical sense, but darker and more solid in tone than my 1955 Q Series. In many ways, the horn seems a perfect median between the Balanced Tone and later Centered Tones--it has some of the retro-depth of a BT, while giving the hair-trigger response of the CT.

The chalumeau of this horn is rich and mellow, the clarion perfectly matched, and the altissimo is even more spot-on, intonation-wise, than my 1955 Q Series. The 1955 has a bit more 'jump' to the sound and a type of warmth I've not found in any other instrument, so each has their strength--the P Series would be my choice in more intimate settings, perhaps. Either way, they compliment each other well, and my goal was met: to have a pair of Centered Tones that were interchangeable from my playing standpoint. Because different horns demand different breathing approaches and voicing, it was important for me to have one that behaved in the same manner while my main axe was in the shop.

Several months back, there were some internet rumors that Selmer was considering a Reference Clarinet based upon the Centered Tone. Those rumors seem to have come to naught. But if anyone from Selmer Paris is reading, they might want to know that my Centered Tone review is by far the most popular on this blog--a popularity that never seems to wane. I hope, with many others, that a Reference CT is the works and will be available eventually.