Saturday, July 23, 2016

Some Thoughts on Musical Worthiness

A friend of mine on Facebook, who is a classical style composer, posted a thoughtful question about musical worthiness and self-doubt. I commented from the perspective of a jazz musician, and found what was drawn out by the discussion to be of potential interest to readers of The Jazz Clarinet. Here's an edited version of my response:

The fear of worthiness is crippling and arguably the least useful emotion for any creative artist. Aspiration to excellence is commendable, and even essential, but it should be exercised without the worrisome glance in the mirror, so to speak. The mirror doesn't really matter, and anyhow, the mirror always lies.. 

All creative artists have to trust two very basic things. They have to Trust the Gift, and they have to Trust the Process. Of the two, the process is the bigger challenge. Trusting the gift is pretty obvious, once you accept it: you really have nothing to do with it. You're either capable of being a musician or not. You either have the talent to be able to work hard enough to convincingly play a Mozart Concerto, or a 12 bar blues, or a sing a Puccini aria, or write a fugue, or you don't. If you don't, chances are you're doing something else with your life and not worrying about it. 

Trusting the process is much harder, because everyone's process is different--we have to FIND it first-- and we can get sidelined in life following processes that don't fit us. Trusting the process demands that we sincerely evaluate who we are as musicians and live it honestly, to the best of our ability. So here's the proper use of self-criticism--not the narcissistic glance in the mirror with the worries about worthiness, but the serious look into the musical self; the examination of the musical conscience, so to speak, to see where the true strengths and weaknesses are, accepting them, and putting in place the proper process to bring the best of you out. Oftentimes people need teachers for that...oftentimes, you just need to work with the right people to draw those qualities out. 

It is not necessary or even possible to understand how the "Elysian Spark" you mentioned works. I would suggest it's a theoretical distraction if the actual artist tries to decipher it. It's like this: I believe God created the heavens and the earth. How he did it, I dunno. Worrying about that is some scientist's job. I can be interested in the question, but I can't let it consume me. I've got music to make. Likewise I believe the musical gift was given to me to play this miraculous musical system called jazz...and I believe this mysterious thing called music is out there, is real, is between musicians and an audience and the angels and the stars...but I don't know how it works. We scratch at it with things called chords and scales and meters...but who knows what it really is? Bechet said that the music feeling in us must reach out and join the music outside of ourselves, and that's when it's right. That's about as close as I've ever heard anyone get to it...unless is was Elgar saying that he felt the music was out there, and he was just taking it down. Wynton Marsalis has said some similar things. 

To BE who you ARE. That's the answer. Are you a Beethoven? Not many are. It takes hundreds of Stamitzes and Wagenseil's to make a Haydn, let alone a Beethoven. Satie was a musical cripple, combined with bizarre musical genius. He turned his weaknesses into strengths. He knew who he was. Bruckner patiently outlasted the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to realize his musical vision...or at least enough of it, despite his crippling self-doubt...Acker Bilk had teeth knocked out on the playground as a kid, and was missing part of his finger, but he wrote his songs and played his own bizarre, powerful, soulful clarinet and touched peoples' lives. 

Play your thing. Sing your song. Find what you do and do it, whether in in rags or tuxedos. Find the true music feeling in you and reach out to the music outside of you and give it away. Peace, friend. You're the real thing as a musician. I've known that since I was kid sitting in Youth Symphony with you conducting us...and at the time I was admittedly more concerned with the pretty blonde girl next to me than Dvorak. Call me a multi-tasker, though, cuz I noticed the real music in you then. Keep Swinging. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Cleveland Jazz on the Street

I'm grateful to have been asked by Roots of American Music to lead a trio during each of the four days the Republican National Convention is here in Cleveland. We're taking part in a non-partisan cultural exposition called Arts Intervention, where select groups have been chosen to represent the diversity and vitality of the Cleveland arts scene.

My trio will perform as street musicians uptown (today and tomorrow), then on Wednesday we'll relocate downtown, where most of the action is.

Here's a clip of us playing my tune "Blue Mardi Gras" earlier today at the corner of Mayfield Road & Euclid Avenue, in uptown Cleveland.

Eric Seddon, clarinet
Kevin Richards, guitar
Ray DeForest, bass

Monday, July 11, 2016

George Lewis * Trios and Bands * 1943-45 * American Music AMCD-4

St Philip Street Breakdown *
Over the Waves *
La Marseillaise *
New Orleans Hula *
Hindustan *
Ciribiribin *
San Jacinto Stomp *
Gloryland **
High Society **
San Jacinto Blues
Ice Cream *
Life Will Be Sweeter *
Old Rugged Cross *
Lead Me Savior *
This Love of Mine *
Over the Waves *
Careless Love ***
Just a Little While to Stay Here ***
Just a Closer Walk With Thee ***

(*)The George Lewis Trio:

George Lewis * clarinet
Lawrence Marrero * banjo
Alcide Pavageau * bass

(**)With Kid Shots:

Louis 'Kid Shots' Madison * trumpet
George Lewis * clarinet
Jim Robinson * trombone
Lawrence Marrero * banjo
Alcide Pavageau * bass
Baby Dodds * drums

(***) N. O. Stompers:

Avery "Kid" Howard * trumpet
George Lewis * clarinet
Jim Robinson * trombone
Lawrence Marrero * banjo
Chester Zardis * bass
Edgar Moseley * drums

Like George Lewis Plays Hymns, recorded thirty years later, this CD, George Lewis: Trios & Bands from American Music (AMCD-4) is remarkable for the amount of solo clarinet, outside of the usual New Orleans ensemble tradition. According to the liner notes, many of the trio numbers on this disc were the result of Lewis's dissatisfaction with a full band recording he'd made just prior to them. He asked to be given more studio time, with just a banjo and bass--even saying he'd work for free. Lawrence Marrero and Alcide Pavageau brought their instruments over to Lewis's St Phillip Street kitchen the next Monday evening, and were paid to record seven of their favorite dance tunes and hymns. Because of the spare instrumentation, we get a very clear look, so to speak, of Lewis's playing from this era.

Also included on this disc are some very important historical documents. The 1944 session that produced "Ice Cream" and "Life Will Be Sweeter" were recorded right after Lewis returned from the hospital, where he had been treated after a life altering accident: his chest had been crushed in an accident on the banana docks. The joy and verve of Lewis's playing is still there--perhaps even enhanced.

Perhaps most remarkably, from a repertoire sense, the New Orleans Stompers 1943 recordings at the end of this disc, of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and "Just a Little While to Stay Here", staples of the trad jazz repertoire, are here presented for the first time on record by a jazz band.

For those wanting an introduction to mid-career George Lewis, this disc serves as a great primer. As an historical document, it's essential.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Terry Lightfoot's Jazzmen * Tradition in Colour * EMI (Encore! ENC 124) * 1958

Green for Danger
Blue Turning Grey Over You
Orange Blossom (really "St Philip's Street Breakdown" by George Lewis)
Yellow Dog Blues
Red Wing
The Old Grey Mare
Burgundy Street Blues
Black Diamond Rag
Mood Indigo
My Blue Heaven
Black and Blue

Terry Lightfoot * clarinet
Colin Smith * trumpet
John Bennett * trombone
Wayne Chandler * banjo
Bill Reid * bass
Ginger Baker * drums

The British Trad Jazz movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, when acknowledged by jazz historians at all, is generally footnoted among the various revivals of early New Orleans style, beginning with Bechet’s Blue Note recordings and the various renewals of interest driven by Louis Armstrong’s extended career. While there is certainly truth to this categorization, such a pigeon hole can also be misleading and devaluing when we really consider the achievement of the actual music: “Creative Resurgence” would be my choice as a better way of understanding what actually happened. Of the many masterful, and deceptively innovative, albums to be released in a very short period of time, Terry Lightfoot’s Tradition in Colour remains a strong example.

The title of each tune makes a nod to the visible spectrum, and leading off with “Green for Danger” we’re thrown right into the Trad Jazz aesthetic—more modal and streamlined than most revival jazz, Wayne Chandler’s banjo standing out more prominently as an organizational influence, the drums (played by a young Ginger Baker) taking a less dominant, more timbral role. Lightfoot’s clarinet, from beginning to end of the album, is excellent—rich, powerful in all registers, layered, and shot through with meaning. At moments the influences of Albert Nicholas and Edmond Hall seem evident, but any and all role models have been fully integrated into a new voice in the jazz clarinet world—confident, relaxed, commanding without being overbearing, ruminative (especially George Lewis’s “Burgundy Street Blues”).

While Lightfoot is the focus, taking the spotlight on the majority of solo numbers, he gives Colin Smith a chance to show off his strong trumpet in Fats Waller’s “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” Later in the album, he features John Bennett’s trombone on “My Blue Heaven.” Bennett in particular seems to have a sound indebted to the English Brass Band tradition, unique in windplaying for its mellow, round, shimmering quality. This is one of the great treats of British Trad Jazz, by the way: the British brass tradition is less buzzy and directional than many others, and the warmth that they bring can change the repertoire immediately, offering different angles on each tune.

Terry Lightfoot himself, however, must be singled out for high praise. His soloing style, while owing a debt to American forefathers, is likewise a product of a specifically British style of clarinetistry, fused to the New Orleans tradition. The richness of his chalumeau, which seamlessly glides into the clarion register, is unique. He is less impetuous and more methodical in his soloing ideas, opting to use motivic cells throughout distinct choruses. That type of playing, more emotionally circumspect, would seem to be antithetical to blues playing, but in Lightfoot’s case it is not: he impresses by being ruminative and contemplative rather than disengaged or cerebral. His blues are deep and strong, even in their detached quality. Most gratifying is that he managed to play the full rich New Orleans style chalumeau without falling into the trap of so many revival clarinetists—going flat. Lightfoot’s execution of the music and the clarinet itself are therefore of importance. Interestingly, “Orange Blossom”, is attributed to Lightfoot himself (at least on the edition of the album I own), yet it's a copy of  George Lewis's “St. Philip Street Breakdown”, which in turn was almost a direct lift from Benny Goodman's solo choruses on 'Gone With What Wind.' Ain't that jazz for you... 

George Lewis and His Ragtime Band * Jazz At Vespers * February 21, 1954

Just a Little While to Stay Here
Bye and Bye
The Old Rugged Cross
Sometimes My Burden is Hard to Bear
Down By the Riverside
Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Lord, You've Been Good to Me
When the Saints Go Marching In

George Lewis * clarinet
Avery "Kid" Howard * trumpet
Jim Robinson * trombone
Alton Purnell * piano
Lawrence Marrero * banjo
Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau * bass
Joe Watkins * drums

While DownBeat and Time magazines were wondering what happened to the jazz clarinet in the 1950s, George Lewis was flying under their defective and underdeveloped radars, touring the globe and inspiring generations of imitators in Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, and even here in the US. The professional jazz press, located mostly in New York and traditionally loathe (even to this day) to look beyond the nightclubs and fashions of that largest of provincial minded cities, simply ignored a vital, and global, trad jazz movement largely spurred by Lewis.

Lewis's story is one of perseverance like few others. He was virtually unnoticed for the first several decades of his musical career, working most of his professional life before his mid-forties as a longshoreman unloading coffee bags in New Orleans. His biggest 'early' break came when he got the call to join Bunk Johnson in NYC in 1945, where he got some notice during one of those rare "revivals" when traditional polyphonic New Orleans style jazz gets noticed in the Big Apple. He was already 45 years old and had been playing professionally since he was a teenager. After Bunk's death in 1949, the band continued under the name of George Lewis and His Ragtime Band.

For a bandleader with as many obstacles to his career as George Lewis, it is remarkable how many landmark, important recordings he made. At a time when jazz was becoming increasingly associated with heroin, anger, and esoteric musical language on the one hand, or tepid commercial sheen on the other, Lewis continued to plow the rough, fertile ground of spirituals, marches, and polyphony developed in his native city. Among those important recordings Jazz At Vespers ranks high.

That the recording happened at all was largely thanks to the Reverend Alvin Kershaw, then rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Oxford, Ohio, whose passion for and dedication to jazz was extraordinary. Around the time of this recording, Rev. Kershaw had gained a bit of national celebrity from appearances on The $64,000 Question (jazz was his chosen category) and on a Sunday religious program, Look Up and Live, where, according to the original album liner notes, he said "To worship properly, we should offer God all of ourselves, our feelings as well as our thoughts. Jazz, which appeals to our emotions, helps us to do this."

The notes to the album go on to say that Kershaw had brought the band to Holy Trinity once before the recording as well, for a Sunday service in 1953. He made it clear to a Cincinnati newspaper at the time that "jazz musicians playing spirituals...are an outgrowth of the suffering of their people [and] have something of universal truth to pass along to his more fortunate congregation." On February 21, 1954, because of a cancellation the band received elsewhere, Kershaw suggested the Lewis band take over the music for Holy Trinity's regular Sunday Vespers service, and this recording was the result.

The recording captures Lewis's ensemble perhaps at zenith. This was the band that had such a powerful impact upon the English trad jazz scene (which in many ways remains more organized and vibrant than the trad jazz community in the US). Monty Sunshine, Acker Bilk, Terry Lightfoot, and countless others imitated and learned from George Lewis, branching out creatively into their own styles afterwards; a young Ringo Starr heard the band and was awed by Joe Watkins's drumming (and once you hear Watkins, you can hear how deeply it impacted the future Beatle). The root of all this music is the spiritual, and the specific depth of uniting human emotion to praise and lamentation, communally. There are few recordings as important as this in jazz history. It does not feature virtuoso playing; it is pure ensemble. It's also something every jazz musician should experience and study.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Sidney Bechet & Mugsy Spanier Big Four * March 28, 1940

The Sidney Bechet/Mugsy Spanier Big Four

Sweet Lorraine
Lazy River 
China Boy
Four or Five Times
That's A Plenty
Squeeze Me
Sweet Sue
If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)

Sidney Bechet * clarinet, soprano sax
Mugsy Spanier * trumpet
Carmen Mastren * guitar
Wellman Braud * bass

In one of those remarkable moments of cross pollination often experienced by musicians, but rarely captured at the precise moment of brilliance in the recording studio, European Gypsy Jazz once had a direct impact upon one of jazz history's founding fathers. The date was March 28, 1940, the idea Stephen Smith's: to pair Bechet and Spanier with a gypsy rhythm section (bass and guitar without drums) and see what happened when they were given the opportunity to swing a la Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de France (Chilton, 126). The result was some of the most compelling recordings of any era, and certainly among the finest of Bechet's stellar career.

For a clarinetist, one of the great advantages of Gypsy Jazz is the lower overall volume of the group. Because there are no drums or piano, it's easier for the clarinet to project clearly, without forcing, in any register of the instrument, at any dynamic level. Bechet takes advantage of this, on both clarinet and soprano sax, switching back and forth sometimes in the same tune. On "That's A Plenty" for example, he lays down what is certainly one of the finest clarinet solos on the tune, then picks up his sax and gives a definitive saxophonic interpretation.

One of the myths surrounding Bechet was that he more or less abandoned the clarinet unless it was demanded by a trumpet player for a more "legitimate" revivalist purpose. Among other things, these remarkable recordings demonstrate that Bechet used clarinet and saxophone according to his vocal and timbral needs, and that the clarinet wasn't exactly supplanted by the soprano sax. When he wants low chalumeau underlining, for instance, he doesn't hesitate to use the clarinet on "Lazy River." The tunes are dominated by saxophone, but nowhere else in Bechet's catalogue is it more clear that he chose based upon expressive needs of each situation.

The titles I've listed above are, so far as I can tell, the only tunes recorded by the Bechet-Spanier Big Four. The link, however, has a slightly different list, including "Jazz Me Blues" and "Panama". For those wishing to have a more comprehensive view of Bechet's American recording career, I highly recommend picking up Universal Music Classics & Jazz France's 14 CD set: Sidney Bechet: The Complete American Masters 1931-1953. The reason I linked above to the other album is simply that the 14 disc box seems to be, sadly, out of print, and only available for several hundred dollars at present on Amazon. I hope it is reissued soon.  

Work Cited:

Chilton, John. Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz, Oxford University Press, NY, 1987.

George Lewis Plays Hymns * 1964 * Milneburg Records MCD 1

George Lewis Plays Hymns

In the Upper Garden
Does Jesus Care
God Will Take Care of You
His Eye Is On The Sparrow
When I Come To The End Of My Journey
Nearer My God To Thee
Sing On
I Shall Not Be Moved
What A Friend We Have In Jesus
At The Cross
Where He Leads Me
Only A Look
Lily of the Valley
Near the Cross
Rock of Ages

George Lewis * clarinet
Joe Robichaux * piano
Pacide Adams * bass

On March 10th and November 28th of 1964, George Lewis recorded one of his most heartfelt and unusual albums. Backed only by Joe Robichaux's piano and Placide Adams's bass he sang fifteen hymn tunes through his Albert system clarinet, simply, clearly, and sincerely.

We can't know exactly what it must have felt like to be in the room with him, but the recording remains one of the best recorded representations of traditional New Orleans clarinet sound.

Unlike the usual procedure of recording in a studio, Lewis requested these be made in a private residence (the uptown home of trombonist Paul Crawford), to enhance the intimacy of the album. The sound is noticeably different--it's great to have a document of his sound in the type of place musicians often actually play this music, whether practicing or for private gatherings.

Ed Lewis's liner notes are excellent, discussing the sessions themselves and the importance of hymn tunes to the history of jazz, pointing out the natural ecumenism of the New Orleans musical world which saw no contradiction in the Catholic George Lewis known for his interpretations of great Protestant hymns.

Most importantly to the jazz clarinetist (after the spiritual substance and depth of this record, that is) is the chance to hear George Lewis's sound, reflectively, clearly, beautifully reproduced, without anything beyond the most genteel accompaniment. Every nuance of his talking style can be appreciated, and the more one listens, the more the warmth of his particular soul effects your heart. There is something of an emotional and spiritual sharing that Lewis accomplishes through his sound that all jazz musicians, and perhaps all musicians in general, ought to aspire to. Indeed, the spiritual substance of the record is entirely wedded to his sound in a manner rarely matched by any instrumentalist.

George Lewis is in many ways an important and indispensable clarinetist in the history of jazz. For those accustomed to listening only to the more technically advanced or commercially successful players, he is a particularly important touchstone to the spiritual roots of the music and expressive range of clarinet tone. This unique album is an important document and resource, of permanent interest in any jazz clarinet library.

Included on the CD version of this album is a seven minute interview with George Lewis, only adding to it's historical importance.