Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The persistent power of Buddy Rich

(This post is a sideways reaction to Ethan Iverson's recent missive about the film Whiplash and Buddy Rich.  The post is fantastic, as is the accompanying post about Rich by Mark Stryker. I should note that I have yet to see Whiplash, and don't care that much about it.  I feel obliged to merely due to  the number of people that ask me about the damn movie.  And I like J.K. Simmons a lot.)

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?