Wednesday, March 04, 2015
There has been jazz music around me for as long as I can remember. My dad grew up listening to Symphony Sid broadcasts, and wrote about jazz for his high school literary magazine. Growing up I heard Brubeck and Ellington and the like on the radio and on records. Lots of Ray Charles, BB King and gospel music too. I remember nosing around the WGBH record library when I was seven or so. The music didn't start to stick until a little later, but it was always around.
When I did get into this music (it was Charlie Parker playing "Lover Man" that got me), I was lucky that I had the means and opportunity to see a lot of great players live. We were on the tail end of the "young lions" buzz, so there were still free outdoor jazz festivals, a huge jazz section at Tower Records and venues you could jump on a subway train and see. Some Thursdays my dad and I went to the Regattabar in Cambridge and heard a whole Thursday night of music for $9 and one Coca-cola. In high school I heard Miles, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Garrett, Charlie Haden, Gary Bartz, Joe Lovano, the Miles reunion band, Wynton Marsalis, Joe Henderson, and on and on. And being an ambitious kid, I would hang around afterwards, get autographs, and ask for any pearls of wisdom I could glean. And as it has been seemingly forever, the musicians were kind and generous and got a kick out of me. Kenny Garrett told me to learn Marcel Mule etudes, somebody was always telling me about another record I needed to know, Charlie Haden told me the key was finding beauty, etc. It was amazing.
This was, of course, high school in the 90s, so I also entered the world of jazz education, getting the gospel of jazz according to the (white) big band teacher. (To be fair, my own high school music teacher was great- we had just a combo, and worked almost exclusively on improvising and playing tunes- Duke, Monk, Bird, Zappa (!) and some other really hip stuff. I am still enormously grateful to Matt Finnegan, and a handful of other teachers, and always will be. But I did camps and competition bands and the like, and there the vibe could be quite different.) I got to play some cool music, but I also played my fair share of what I'll call (bowing to Ethan's post) the stage band Mount Rushmore- Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson and Rob McConnell. (I think in the years since Gordon Goodwin certainly bumps the "big boss band", but it's all of one cloth. Higher, faster, louder.)
Now I was a clueless teenager, no doubt, but I couldn't help but feel a disconnect between what I heard and felt from the musicians I'd hear in clubs and concert halls on the one hand and the stage band stuff I'd play on the other. There was such a profound difference in the feeling I got, both in my body and in my soul, when McCoy played "In a Mellow Tone", or when Wynton's band did their New Orleans thing*, or when I listened to a Monk record than when I played Kenton's version of "My Funny Valentine". (Or God help us the Rich band's "Norwegian Wood") Go read Ethan's first ten paragraphs- I've been trying to articulate that thought for twenty years! I believed fiercely, and without knowing why, that the people hoisting the stage band stuff on me, however well intentioned, just somehow didn't get it. And it wasn't just a disconnect of color or time or place- it was a profound misunderstanding of intent. (Being a teenager, my words at the time were a little choicer...)
Fast forward twenty years. Now I'm that white jazz teacher, working at a suburban high school with a fantastic music program, a high level jazz ensemble and a very successful track record. (The school has won literally dozens of top prizes and gold medals at state and regional competitions, toured all over, played at Monterrey and in Europe, etc) So now I'm seeing things from the other side, and it's an interesting view.
First, while the music industry is a very difficult period of transition, and there are fewer gigs in worse venues than in any time in my lifetime, the jazz education machine is doing okay. There is an amazing ecosystem designed to help kids of all ages learn to improvise and play "jazz", sometimes for nothing or next to nothing, often at a decent mark-up. Summer programs from the local music school all the way up to Banff offer amazing opportunities to learn and network to all comers, from the most tradition conscious to the most progressive. It's an amazing time to be a student of this music.
Second, there are more and better materials available to students and teachers alike than there ever were in my day as a student. This year my big band's book includes music of Ellington (original charts, not rearrangements), Basie, Kenny Wheeler, Bob Brookmeyer, Charles Mingus, and Bill Holman, and we're not done learning tunes by a long shot. We got to work on Mingus charts with feedback from folks who actually played with Mingus! When we go to festivals I hear other bands playing these charts, and Louis Armstrong Hot Sevens, and Thad Jones, and Pat Metheny charts that Pat helped create, and Illinois Jacquet, and... I teach a combo that was able to learn Steve Coleman music... from Steve Coleman. To practice improvising they can pay a few bucks for Jerry Bergonzi or Hal Crook's books and have shedding material that will take years to absorb. And not just licks to practice, material that could help them to find their own voice if they're willing to look. And with the internet, they literally have access to almost all music ever recorded any time they want, from Bix Biderbeck to Brian Blade and everything in between. If I want kids to hear a chart we'll learn, all I have to do is point them to Youtube, and my hungry students will listen to it a hundred times, which makes rehearsing it so much easier, and then we get to play more of these fun tunes. I would've killed for this stuff at age 16.
Furthermore, while I work in an affluent district, a lot of this music can be had for free! Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Let My Children Hear Music Foundation (run by Sue Mingus) offer their arrangements of Mingus, Ellington, Basie, Mary Lou Williams, etc. for nothing or very little for schools that participate in their festival programs. J@LC also has asks programs that are accepted into the Ellington Festival in New York to designate a school without as many means as a recipient of a clinic from a J@LC orchestra member... at no cost to either program. This is the long way of saying that if you want to teach big band jazz at the high school and college level, you don't have to look very hard for tremendous resources of great musical and historical significance.
And yet even with all of this knowledge I had no shot at, at the aforementioned regional festivals and competitions, I still hear lots of bands, high school and college, playing the stage band stuff, Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson, and winning with it. (At one festival I won't name, a local band- one I have no affiliation with- played the shit out of a Duke Ellington set, complete with personalized arrangements that made the most of the players they had, just like Duke would've. They finished second to a band playing... wait for it... the Buddy Rich "Caravan" chart that appears in Whiplash. You can't make this stuff up...) There is still a large corner of the jazz education world that, despite all of this access, including the ability to hear how Duke Ellington and Basie and Coltrane et al actually described and narrated their own music, cling to a "stage band" esthetic. Or to put it another way, operate as if the "African understanding" that Ethan describes, the one that attracted me to this music in the first place, simply doesn't exist, or doesn't matter. I walk away dumbfounded.
As I said, I haven't seen Whiplash yet; I've watched some of the clips online and read more about the movie than I care to admit to. And in December, when the Oscar buzz around the film started, I was ready to completely write it off, and bitch out Damien Chazelle (whose first movie I enjoyed and have a personal attachment to) for missing the jazz mark entirely. But now that I'm back in the world of jazz education, the story seems a little more plausible. The narrative of the stage band, with the director as master and the players as servants, where craft trumps any opportunity for art, still holds a curious power in many circles. Maybe this is the what the teenage Chazelle thought was jazz, because his experience was a steady diet of stage band jazz. I don't have to imagine high school programs that run on a "Whiplash" esthetic; I've seen them recently. And I feel the same way as I did in high school: it's not a pretty site.
I'd like to see this change- I don't think these bands serve either the music or the students, they just win trophies. And not just by waiting for these Buddy Rich-loving band directors age out of their jobs. (it will happen, eventually and I think in this part of the country cooler heads will prevail.) Maybe musicians, especially musicians who do lots of clinics at the high school and college level, would be willing to point directors towards these resources, or even donate a couple of their CDs to the schools so that kids are hearing what's actually happening on the scene now. Maybe parents and administrators who love this music will start to call out bands whose esthetic is, er, perhaps a little passe. Maybe I'm just typing pipe dreams- thoughts?
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Monday, December 29, 2014
Just to be clear, I use my language carefully- I just checked, and I've only heard 12 of the 50 CDs that made NPR's best of 2014 list. (I think it's safe to say that that A Blog Supreme passed the Village Voice as the go to for jazz a couple of years ago.) There are several CDs on that list that I'm excited to hear, and several that I don't give two sh&#*ts about. This is only a list of new music released in 2014 (so no Keith Jarrett reissue or the like). It's the music that moved me, as well as some general commentary. So here goes, in no special order:
EDIT: This post may be revised because, quietly a NEW ORNETTE COLEMAN record came out. Waiting for it to come... (h/t Hank Shteamer)
Taylor McFerrin: Early Riser: This was my favorite CD of the first half of the year, hands down. It defies easy category, except maybe "hazy". A fascinating, moody swirl of grooves and ambiance, held back only (ironically) by a start turn by Taylor's dad Bobby McFerrin. But by far the most cohesive album (a concept that is sadly dying) I heard.
D'Angelo (and the Vanguard), Black Messiah: Read Nick Payton on this album- I don't agree with him (mostly), but as usual it's the right kind of provocative. And while it's certainly not at the level of Voodoo, and it may be overproduced (too many years in the making will do that...) it's still a high point of my 2014 listening.
Jason Moran, All Rise: A Joyous Elegy to Fats Waller: The key word on this one for me is joyous- from the first horn hits it jumps out of the speakers, almost daring you not to dance. The playing is great, the singing is (mostly) great, and it's just FUN.
Side note: Ethan Iverson touches on this in a recent post- the mixed critical response to this album, while pretty predictable, was frustrating. I remember hearing Kevin Whitehead's review on NPR and having the hairs crawl on my back. I got that feeling again when I read the sidebar attached to it on NPR's Top 50 Jazz list ("too much fat and too little Fats"?) I don't care that critics don't like it, bit it frustrates me that in looking for Waller, they miss the other well Moran and producer Meshell N'Degeocello are drawing from, Fela Kuti. This album drips Fela, who, like Fats in his day, created a high point in rump-shaking music. And those grooves are about as far from "smooth jazz" as you can be. (OK, "Two Sleepy People" was way too sleepy, but you get one mulligan...) I found this oversight a little staggering, not that they didn't like it, but how wrong they got it.
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Landmarks: The last time I saw this band (too long ago!), I was struck by the way this band has come to create a particular sense of place in their music- so many of the guys here come from the deep south, and Blade is already a legend in New Orleans (and, I suppose, in every college music program too, but...) But listen to this album (or Mama Rosa, or any of the live recordings on Youtube) and it feels like the bayou. In a time when, due to the internet and the pace of life, it's easy to lose any specificity of place, to find it in such fantastic music is a gift.
Ambrose Akinmusure: the imagined savior is far easier to paint: I'll be honest, I heard his first CD, and his set at Newport two years ago, and the first thing I thought was "too much hype, not enough music." I expected a guy like Christian Scott, like (sorry all, I love his blog too!) Nick Payton, who while a really good player and writer and thinker, would never outpace the hype. I'm glad I gave him a second shot. This is a mature, fascinating, captivating record- bringing Becca Stevens and Theo Bleckman in to sing was a masterstroke, and the band is playing on a telepathic level. I hope Ambrose is allowed to continue to experiment and grow and develop, and I'm rooting for a wildly different, equally fascinating record from him in the not-too-distant future.
Ron Miles, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Circuit Rider: I liked their first trio record a couple of years ago, I love this one. Ron Miles continues to be, I think, one of the most slept on trumpeters on the planet. Blows a lot of guys who get a lot more hype (yes, including Ambrose, who I like) out of the water with his versatility, deep focused sound and phenomenal groove. Bostonians, hear him with the Bad Plus (and the also amazing Tim Berne and Sam Newsome) in January doing Ornette Coleman's strange and wonderful Science Fiction music in January.
Bonus EP: Sam Newsome plays Monk and Ellington Live (on ITunes for 1.99, a steal!) I first heard Sam on young lions recordings years ago, and didn't think much of it. Then he started really studying, and playing, solo saxophone, and has created something dramatic and otherworldly here.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Janelle Monae has been my musical crush since "Archandroid" came out. And this makes me even more excited about the new record...
Imagine Dragons "On Top of the World"
This isn't a single (hence this video by my friend Wari)), so maybe I'm cheating, but I much prefer this to their actual single. And this has the carefree summer vibe- I want this with me at a beach. Or in Colorado doing yoga...
This one has started to make the radio rounds. Catchy as hell, and the video is so cute...
Okay folks- thoughts?
(Oh, by the way, I don't have a summer jam, but I do have a new record I'm trying to release, and a Kickstarter to get it out. Please check it, pre-order, help me make it happen!)
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Saturday, December 17, 2011
We lost a master yesterday. Bob Brookmeyer, who was a tremendous teacher long before I met him, and an even bigger influence when I got to work with him, passed away a few days from his 82nd birthday. There will be lots of worthy tributes in the press and the blogs this week, but I wanted to write the story of my relationship with Bob the musiciain, the teacher, and the man.
First, Bob was the first musician to make me care about big band music. I hadn't played with a big band until I got to college, and we were fed the usual diet of Basie, Thad Jones, Bob Mintzer, and (stiffly played) Duke Ellington. I got why it mattered (and see my hubris in hindsight), but I didn't care. Then, in my sophomore year in short succession, I heard “Hello and Goodbye”, “Ding Dong Ding”, and most importantly for me “KP '94”. In Bob's hands, the big band was as cutting edge a tool as a ginsu knife, and easily as relevant as the Lovano and Steve Coleman I was gorging on. (Of course, I found out later they both played for Bob in the Vanguard band...) To the end, his music was both careful and ecstatic, swinging hard and smart.
My senior year of college, we got word that Bob (a favorite of our department head, of course) was coming to perform with us for out last big band concerts of the year, playing two concerts of his music, mostly fairly recent material, including “KP '94”. All of us in the band were thrilled... and terrified. Bob's genius as a musician was nearly matched by his reputation as a, well, curmudgeon is a nice word. And none of us wanted to be embarrassed.
I remember the first rehearsal to this day- we had been shedding the ^$&# out of this music for months, and thought we were ready. Our director introduced Bob, he said something pithy, and then got up to conduct the first tune. His count off (we're used to the standard “1, 2, 1-2-3-4) went something like this: “va-da-va-DUH-ba-da DAH-ba-da-duh-va, DAHT, ZAT, ZUUUH- DAT!” By the end, he was shouting. We were so confused we didn't play. He counted the tune off with the sound and the intensity he wanted, and didn't let up for the rest of the run. We thought we were tight before he got there; we weren't close. He whipped us into shape in five days; I've not been the same musician after that.
I got to play for Bob in a small group during that run; he loved the tune we played and how we played it, so we became friendly. (The tune was by James Carney, and Bob and James became friends soon after that, helping set up Bob's 90s west coast quartet) I did a summer workshop with him, and we were in touch occasionally. In my last year in New York, I went to Bob's 70th birthday gig at the Vanguard with the big band there. Bob and I chatted, and I said I wanted to study with him at New England Conservatory. He said something like “we can make that happen” and he did; I enrolled at NEC, with a fair amount of scholarship money, that September.
This was the real beginning of my work with Bob as my teacher. I was anxious to get at all of what I saw as Bob's innovations, but all he wanted to talk about was “craft”- chord voicings, line resolutions, finishing phrases, the nuts and bolts of any kind of writing. I was frustrated, and I know he started to get frustrated too, but ultimately he was right. I wasn't nearly as skilled, or as ready, as I thought I was, and Bob firmly (but not meanly) reeled me in. I worked with him for two years; what I wrote in year one ranged from okay to crap, but in year two I wrote what I still feel is some of the best musical work I've ever done. And it wasn't just the stuff I brought to him for big band (when you worked with Bob, that's what you did)- it was small group tunes, music for voice and strings, even pop tunes. Bob made everything better.
In this time I got to know Bob the man; more than once I would go up to his house in New Hampshire to take a lesson, and after the lesson we would spend the rest of the afternoon and into the evening together. Mostly, Bob just told stories: of his days standing in awe of the Basie band, of playing with everyone (except maybe Duke Ellington, who I think he turned down when he called- long story). Of letting his vices get the better of him, landing him in rehab, and he thought, out of music forever. Then of his road back, both from his demons and into the world of music and then teaching music. In the 70s, finally clean and sober, Bob started from scratch and re-imaginied himself as a composer and player, listening to everything that had happened while he was in a haze- Coltrane and free jazz, but also all kinds of contemporary classical music, including Lutoslowski and Feldman, the two he mentioned most often to me. What came from this was perhaps his most fertile period as a writer. (My friend and fellow Brookmeyer buddy Darcy James Argue wrote eloquently about this period when we were working on what became the Behearer project) That by itself demanded my respect.
And as a teacher, he kept that restless quality control; he was opinionated, no doubt, but would listen to everything and try to make it better. And he was the consumate professional; no matter how hard he rode you in lessons or rehearsals (and he could be vicious), in concert he made everyone sound like the cat's meow.
I feel very blessed to have known and studied with Bob. The alumni of his studio are legendary at this point: Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, Ted Nash, Darcy, John Hollenbeck, and on and on. But whether you went on in big bands or not, Bob changed you, no doubt.
After Bob retired and I stopped seriously writing music, I sadly lost touch with him, hearing things occasionally from friends and peers. That said, there was something nice about knowing that he was around and working, and that eventually I'd catch him again. More the fool me. I don't know the circumstances of his death, but I grieve for and with his fantastic wife Jan and their family. Bob certainly made me a better composer, but I find myself calling on his skills, his demands, his wisdom in many other places too. I hear Bob in how I coach my saxophone students, and his demands on me the composer and improviser unwittingly helped me prepare to create and sequence yoga classes, and to improvise my way out of jams there too. I am beyond grateful for the many ways that Bob Brookmeyer made me a better musiscian, and a better man. Godspeed Bob.