Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Breaking Winds of Change: II or Miles and Friends

There is a Youtube site where I will get hammered if I dare say something negative about Miles Davis. Not by the moderator, who is one of the finest folks walking about, but by the online jazz loving community that doesn’t love anything negative being said about Miles Davis. So, somewhere in the electronic universe, here, wherever here is, I’m going to say the one negative thing about Miles that gives birth to all of the other negative things I say about Miles. So get your rocks ready.

Back in St. Louis, if you spent time with a certain group of finely aged musicians, you very well might run into someone who knew Miles way back when. Certainly you would meet someone who knew his family. So the Miles stories were just a little less mythological. The story tellers wouldn’t refer to Miles as some type of jazz god, but more like that little kid they had to correct or call his parents about. And for some, if he walked into the room in the middle of one of their stories, the storyteller, gray-haired but still strong enough, would have no compunction about stopping his story to get up and give Miles a good whoopin’. And Miles would take it, because, being the venerable teachers they were, they would explain to him exactly why he was about to receive the switch across his buttock so that he would understand the fairness of it all. These guys were like that. They didn’t have to ask for respect, you just knew to give it. You just knew not to interrupt. You knew that if you knew best behavior, use it.

Here’s the story. There was another trumpeter, possibly older than Miles, that Miles would care for. Whether it was from a war injury, a birth defect, this man needed the help, and Miles was more than obliging to give it. He would bring him to and from gigs, help him with groceries, drive him around to meet his basic needs. They were the best of friends. They would call each other on the phone and play lines to each other. One of the Venerables said, “It was Bebop then, and all these guys were playing so many notes, but when Bobby Danzig would begin his solo, the first three notes were so beautiful, everything that came before it, everyone else’s solos became meaningless, just float away like smoke.”

“You know,” they would say, “Miles’ daddy thought he was going to Julliard, he didn’t tell his father that he was skipping class to go play jazz. When he made it big, Miles, you know I never forgave him for not calling Bobby anymore. You know why, don’t you. Bobby could play better than Miles, and Miles wasn’t about to let that happen—that’s how Miles broke his new ground in jazz, copying the way Bobby used to play. Then the Venerable would allow his mind to drift back in time, remembering the sounds of Bobby Danzig, the echoes still as fresh as the original call. “Just beautiful,” he would say.

I never got a chance to hear Bobby Danzig, and that is because Miles didn’t want me to, or anyone else to, for that matter. When Cannonball heard Wes Montgomery he called Orrin Keepnews, John Coltrane called his friend McCoy Tyner—because, for all of the personal problems so many jazz musicians had, they had a way of fighting them off once they began playing. The Music had a way of giving them strength, their instruments were their swords. Miles—his ego defeated his music, and for so much of what he played, it was very difficult to separate his genuine music from his equally well developed con game, spending as much time suppressing jazz as playing it. What kind of a musician does that?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Breaking Winds of Change: I

This is going to be one of those posts that runs off onto the shoulder of the road before getting on with the Jazz Journey. It’s going to feel like we’ve run right into a tree, but it’s just the shoulder of the road. It starts like this:

The Southern states lost the American Civil War because of a fart. Take it literally. A fart changed the history of the United States.

Feels more like a concrete wall than a tree? Yeah, it could. Here’s the story. In the first few years of the war the South was winning, the agricultural south, the non-industrialized, the slave-holding South, was winning. They were winning primarily because they had smarter Generals, as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to name the smartest, were fighting more intelligent, and therefore more victorious battles than George McClellan and Winfield Scott. It just happened that way, before the South seceded, everyone went to West Point, and best and the brightest were Southern.

One evening after dinner Stonewall Jackson needed to take a walk outside of camp. To smoke, the historians say. They also say that he must have snapped a twig too loudly because one of his sentries turned and fired, killing Jackson. This changed the course of the war.

If you think carefully about this incident though, thinking about the quality of the meal, thinking that beans were probably a part of it, and that only a distinctly human sound could have caused that reaction from a sentry—after all, a breaking twig could be caused by just about any animal—then, my dear Watson, there can be only one conclusion.

This little story has been floating around in my mind for some time, one of the ways I support the idea that the smallest events can cause the greatest changes, innocuous choices can change history. This came rumbling forward as I commented on another site regarding the passing away of the brilliant, hate-filled, full blown psycho, Bobby Fisher. In my comment I mentioned that such nuts can only come to prominence because others who may be just as gifted, for whatever reason, do not get to the top of the mountain, although, in terms of talent there isn’t any difference. It’s one of the problems of the world, that the dastardly can still defeat the humble. Another commenter took me to task, and I responded. He took me to task for daring to quote from Studs Terkel’s book Working, from an interview with steelworker Mike LeFevre, who asked “How many Mozarts are working on an assembly line?”

Came the reply, None. Short, simple, insulting to everyone working. Terkel is banal. And I responded.

None. Here are three examples of “None” within 25 square miles. Years ago Elvin Jones said something interesting in Downbeat, that he’d really heard only one drummer who could truly outplay him, and this man is selling fish in St. Louis. Elvin Jones/fishmonger in St. Louis. Jones was referring to the legendary Joe Charles, a magnificent drummer who I had, not just the pleasure of, but a moment of true ecstasy of, hearing one night at the Broadway Oyster Bar. It was the finest band I have ever heard, the Joe Charles Quintet, playing harmonies that sounded as whole and natural as diatonic harmonies, but completely different. I went over to the trumpet player’s house soon after and he showed me the music—not only did I not understand any of it; the chords were so strange I couldn’t even play it. And yet the music swung, the polyrythms Charles played were magical, and the music is gone. Every so often I will run into a great musician who heard Charles play, because I ask if they’ve heard him, and a sense of awe sweeps over them. They can only nod, the affirming words get stuck, held back by g-forces within their soul, as Charles’ music takes them to another time, a vanished dimension.

Willie Akins is a tenor man in St. Louis. I know that he teaches now, but I don’t know what he did for a living years ago—when Cannonball Adderley called him to join the Sextet. He wasn’t home at the time, his wife answered the phone, and Cannonball probably began talking as only he could, Akins wife was as transfixed as all of us get, and she forgot to get a return phone number. By the time Willie could find a return number, the group was set, and we now know of Yusef Lateef and Charles Lloyd, but few know of Willie Akins. Guess what? I’ve heard all three. Akins is the man.

In every city, before the world of Guitar Center, there were Mom and Pop music stores, actually Mom and Pop smoking dope music stores, and within some of these stores there was someone who works there who knows the work of just about every guitarist of every style—ever. “Grabold Waterfork? The finest Lute player in Medieval Venice! He was Norwegian really, but he followed the music to Venice…” I walked into the store one day, tried out a few guitars, mentioned the name of my teacher—Bill Mamer. “Did you say Bill Mamer?” asked the historian. I nodded. “One of the…six…finest guitarists who ever lived." I can tell you with just as much certainty, this is a true statement. But Bill could see the writing on the wall, that jazz was dying, he saw great players come through town, one of which had to sleep in the kitchen of the place they were playing, and he knew he had to leave music. Combine Kessel, Montgomery—and Mozart. He had those kind of ears. Never forgot a note he’d heard, could play anything after hearing it once, improving it, making it magnificent, and playing with a passion and beauty—again words fail. Soulful g-force.

Soulful G-Force.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman Meet Hitler and Tojo

We are all Alec Guiness now. Rather (pronounced somewhat like rah-there) we are all Colonel Nicholson now, Guiness’ stellar portrayal, in The Bridge on the River Kwai, of a thoroughly British officer enslaved during WWII, whose blood stubborn dedication to the codes of the Army and the Geneva conventions, eventually turn his slavery into dominance over the Japanese prison camp commander. Nicholson is eventually seduced by another blood, make that THE other blood, that runs through his veins, that of the Empire Builder, who thinks of time not in seconds or hours, not in weeks and months, but in terms of eternity—building a bridge, making his contribution, that will last through the present war into a future of possibly more than 600 years of what of course will be British rule. These blood codes do not mix well, and the impeccable reasoning that freed him and his men turns slightly, imperceptibly, into one day of insanity that leads to his death and the destruction of his meticulously engineered world.

We are all Colonel Nicholson now, with two bloods coursing through our veins, the blood of soul, and the blood of the codes of our Western Intellect. They do not mix, the latter enslaves the former, enforcing a quantitative, noun driven, precisely timed, frontal lobe weltanschauung, damming (damning?) what was once a soul that flowed like a powerful river into a weak, mud clotted creek. And it gets away with it precisely because of its precision, the ability to engineer and invent technology that is simply astounding, so much so, so awe-inspiring, that we overlook the dam, its concrete, and its accompanying forced drought that affects our inner spirit. In other words, we live in a world of instant messaging but with nothing to say and without the wisdom required to communicate in meaningful ways.

The dam is made of numbers and nouns, where jargon stops the flow of the inner river that used to be augmented with the language of poetry and music, of art and thoughtful as opposed to mindless religion. Like the blindness of Colonel Nicholson, the engineered and inescapable paradox, the dam, the oppression, is hardest to see when it is most obvious—that building the bridge across Kwai would only strengthen those whose methods could again bring his subjugation. We see the lake of technological progress, we cannot see the desert that lies and grows within us.

Without this ability to sense what is within, it is only a hop and skip from mass producing cars to mass producing death—and that is horror of World War II. It is easy to say that American and Russian mass production stopped the Nazis, stopped Hitler and Tojo, but I think it was the lack of technology that did the job—that is, there was no soul jargon, the departments of psychology were in their infancy and infatuated with words and worlds that did not exist, that the public was in no mood to accept, in 1930 and 1940—the id, and superego, and Skinner’s theory of behaviorism.

And so, for a few decades, what is known as the Greatest Generation had that flow, had the ancient river running and full, irrigating them as they marched and endured, both the War and the Depression. For them emotion was music, jazz, swing, and blues, the different bloods mixing together as beautifully and the Ohio and the Missouri Rivers merge with the Mississippi. It was Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, it was swing and beauty that killed the beast.

But in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, like the illusion of Colonel Nicholson, the apparently new freedoms disguised a rise in the dam, built stronger and higher than before WWII.

But there are recordings of those who followed Armstrong and Goodman, the self-taught, the Farlows and Montgomerys, the Adderleys and Woods, the Forrests and the Stitt, the Kessels and the Lockjaws, these recordings, coupled with a simple move from deep within, that the dam does not need to be exploded but simply peeled away like a swatch of old duct tape, and the desert will be irrigated once more.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Jazz in Black and White

I think it was John Ford who said that it wasn’t possible to do a good close-up in color. Whether John Ford said it is more debatable, I believe, than whether the statement is true. Black and white film seems to reveal the essence of things in a way that color cannot even approach. Especially jazz things. The color distracts us, activates our rods and cones and changes our focus in the same way a track switch is flipped sending the railroad to Detroit instead of Chicago. It creates detours in our mind, in our literal neuropathways, the cerebral highways and byways filled with all things familiar, our comfortable measurable thoughts of the way things are.

We aren’t used to thinking in terms of essence, or soul, or, in a very fine black and white photograph, the heart of the soul. This is why, when choosing videos, I much prefer black and white, which shows emotion more clearly, shows the searching, the sorrow and the joy, whereas color just seems to show sweat and blinkers us to the realities of the music.

And color makes us aware of color. Color is a blessing for the sociologist and a curse for the musician. Color makes us aware of race, one of those concepts pulled out of thin air, that somehow insinuated itself into our collective thoughts so thoroughly as to become an unchallenged fact of nature. The concept that made 17th century slavery fit into the minds of 17th century folks as easily as a Vaseline covered hand slides into a glove has gotten an intellectual free pass. Not even Newton’s ideas about gravity had it so easy. For the sociologist, the history of jazz is the history of race, and it gives them something to write about, like McDonald’s, billions of pages printed.

But for the musician, the heart of jazz cannot even be seen in color, nor in black and white. It can only be seen in complete darkness, in the journey to get close, no closer, to get inside the song, when the musician closes his or her eyes and puts the horn to their lips, when the guitarist and bassist close their eyes and put their heads down, when the gaze turns from the color of the external world to the darkness of the internal world, where the search for life and truth begin, to be converted into sounds, in this darkness is where we live, in this darkness we find who we really are. And then the music begins.