The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).
She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:
“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.
“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.
“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.”
The actor, Billy Crystal (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.
Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’
But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):
Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.
I asked my friend, the clarinettist and incredibly erudite jazz and dance music expert (in fact an expert on lots of things), Norman Field, about whether or not Benny Goodman is using the so-called “French embouchure” in the clip below. His reply follows:
Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
I’d read about it before, but never knew any likely chronology, except that Goodman was said to have changed to the French embouchure (otherwise known as the ‘Old embouchure’) against the advice of the distinguished British classical clarinettist Reginald Kell. Goodman evidently studied under Kell for some time. This was most likely between 1948 and 1958, as Kell spent those years in the U.S.A., but then returned briefly to the U.K. before returning to the U.S.A., where he retired in 1966 and died in 1981. (Wikipedia).
If the video dates from 1953, this would be an ideal period for Goodman, the perfectionist, to have been studying under Kell.
However, the concern about the French vs. the Modern embouchure is indeed important from a Jazz point of view. All the early New Orleans pioneer clarinettists would have been taught the French style. That is, the mouthpiece and reed are supported entirely by the upper and lower lips. The characteristics of this are a light, sweet, flute-like tone (cf. Alphonse Picou & Big Eye Louis Nelson on the Kid Rena ‘Delta’ sides of 1940). Many of the N.O. guys who went on to fame preserved this characteristic – Noone, Bigard, Nicholas, Fazola come to mind. Whether they actually all kept the French embouchure, or just its inherent beauty, is a different question.
Another advantage of the French embouchure was that it facilitated great mobility: one could execute complex rapid runs & arpeggios with less effort. It may well have been this that appealed to Goodman about using it?
The démise of the French embouchure came about, as far as I understand, for three reasons
1: The introduction of vibrato. Ironically, Kell was one of the first players who began to play with vibrato, which was hitherto absent in classical music. I have no idea what embouchure Kell used, but Goodman wanted to adopt the French ‘Old’ style, and Kell advised him against it. It has been said the Kell did not wish to be known as ‘the man who ruined Benny Goodman’! But Goodman persisted. A slow and subltly controlled vibrato is quite difficult with the French embouchure. Indeed, lip-muscle control becomes more difficult still when a player is elderly, and they may then lapse into an excessively wide vibrato. (This will naturally attract condemnation by critics who have no idea of the processes involved.)
2. The introduction of the saxophone, on which most clarinettists were, sooner or later, required to double, at least in jazz. The saxophone was initially played with the French embouchure, and so had a plain, straightforward and rather dull sound. Indeed, Debussy described it as ‘That underwater instrument’. The saxophone in jazz benefitted considerably from vibrato, so this was naturally transferred back into the clarinet playing, and the New embouchure (as described below) was rapidly adopted as being more convenient for vibrato.
3. Volume. As the 1920 went into the 1930s, bands got louder. By the late 1930 they were very loud indeed, but mostly there was still only one microphone, for the bandleader out front and the vocalists. The idea of some guy getting up and playing piercing high notes on clarinet over six brass & fives saxes using the old embouchure is, to me, simply inconceivable! The clarinet was a delicate, ‘indoor’ instrument; trumpets, trombones and saxophones were ‘outdoor’ instruments. There was no contest. Only the most powerful & rugged clarinet players, using the new embouchure which was capable of being louder, might make themselves heard, faintly. Of course, Goodman would have been out the front, with a microphone to hand. You will understand that this is no criticism of Goodman. Bigard recalled that when Teagarden left the Louis Armstrong All-stars and Trummy Young came in, ‘I really had to crowd the microphone’. Q.E.D.
It’s a fascinating subject, and obviously, one very dear to my heart.
Apologies to all (and especially Irish comrades) for failing to mark St Pat’s Day.
To make up for this, here’s Ben Webster (and his performance is beautiful):
Ben Webster (tenor sax), Kenny Drew (piano), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass), Alex Riel (drums). Denmark, 1965.
Marty Grosz is 85 on Saturday February 28.
As well as being a superb rhythm and chordal guitarist is the tradition of Karl Kress and Dick McDonough, Marty is also an engaging vocalist, a raconteur of Olympian stature, a writer, graphic artist (he is son of George after all) and social commentator … in fact a true renaissance man.
Here he is, a few years ago, playing his ‘Horace Gerlach medley’ with characteristic opening remarks:
And here, from the sleeve notes to his 2000 Jazzology album Left To His Own Devices, is his philosophy of jazz:
“PUT JAZZ BACK INTO THE SALOONS”
Forty years ago I had [a] card printed that bore the legend “Put Jazz Back into the Saloons.” If I were left to my own devices, that is exactly what I would do.
When I got into jazz, during the late Pleistocene era, besides embracing the music, I embraced its anti-establishment climate. I was fond of small improvising groups who played hot music unencumbered by the reams of music manuscript that suffocated individuality in large orchestras. Jamming in some low joint far from the pompous, santitized, pious atmosphere of the concert hall enthralled me.
Nowadays when I tread the boards, I often tread upon the planks of exactly those pristine concert stages – stages intended for the performance of a Schubert Lied or a Stravinsky wind octet. But I’ve never quite acclimatised myself to performing for concert-goers stacked neatly like eggs in their cartons. We hot musicians strut and sweat, toot and bang, scrape and strum; and now and then a fan will register involvement by tapping his or her toe ever so discreetly. Most jazz audiences could be whisked away and plunked down in the midst of a Sunday service at the first Episcopal Church of Greenwich, Connecticut without incurring so much as a raised eyebrow.
Nay, Nay, give me the gin mill of yesteryear, that murky shoe box from whose floors and walls oozed a miasma of tobacco fumes, whiskey breath, stale-beer vapors, the aroma of Tangee Lipstick and Sen-Sen breath pastilles, the scent of Lucky Tiger hair pomade, the odors of show polish, roach paste and toilet disinfectant.
A mahogany bar near the front door was manned by a whey-faced “mixologist” with the sour countenance of one who has heard every joke and clever saying and knows that he is going to hear them again and again until the day the D.T.’s get him and he is carted off.
Flanking the bar like bookends sat two female soldiers of fortune, no longer in the first bloom of youth, perhaps, but not yet inclined towards domestication. Perched insouciantly on leatherette bar stools in ways designed to call attention to their skimpy skirts, mesh stockings and stiletto heels, they cradled long-stemmed glasses filled with a green liqueur and ice cubes that tinkled like little bells. Each wore her version of what columnists used to call a “come-hither look”, cool, sloe-eyed glances that assumed an inner glow at the sight of a big butter-and-egg man unfolding a ten dollar bill or something larger.
At the opposite end of this long dark space stood a bandstand the size of a ouija board. Six or seven or eight musicians plus a drums set, a string bass, and an upright piano fit on the stand like interlocking pieces of a Rubik’s Cube. If a saxophonist on the far left reached into his pocket for a match and inadvertently bumped the drummer, he could cause a chain reaction. The drummer would lean into the bass player, whose bow then prods the piano player’s back just as the latter is raising a tumbler to his lips, causing him to dribble whiskey onto the keyboard. The pianist unleashed a string of oaths and foul imprecations, which are perceived as offensive by a female customer in a tiny pill-box hat, causing her escort to rise off his chair and to castigate the pianist for his improper language, whereupon the pianist challenges the gentleman to “try and do something about it.” This prompts the gentleman to remove his jacket as a foretoken of fisticuffs. Raised voices result in the arrival on the scene of a waiter who doubles as a bouncer and who deftly defuses the conflict by pushing the irate gentleman into his seat while cooing the calming words, “Shut up and sit down.” The orchestra, as is its wont in times of audience unrest, combs its repertoire for a properly soothing selection and settles on ‘Tiger Rag’ or ‘Crazy Rhythm’.
When the rhythm moved them, which was just about anytime the band started up, twenty to thirty dancers jostled, elbowed, and kickedone another, alternately glued together like limpets, or tossing each other about like boomerangs, all on a dance floor intended for ten persons. Laughing, hugging, groping, banging into tables, sending glasses to the floor, they tried to dodge the trombonist’s slide which projected over the edge of the bandstand.
How this frenzied stew of foul air, roistering patrons, long hours and low wages combined to produce beautiful music is not as difficult to explain as one may think. Musicians had a full evening till two or three in the morning, six nights a week, to lock into a groove – something that’s almost impossible to accomplish in the two brief halves of a concert format. Players knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses and could compliment each one another’s styles. Dancers were crucial in that they had a way of encouraging a musician to concentrate on the pulse of the music, causing him to think more of “swinging” and less of showing off with empty technical gestures and cheesy visual tricks. “Swing” was the catchword. Trash all those glib announcements: “Swing Fast”, “Swing Slow”: just Swing.
So how, you may ask, in view of the fact that hot music dives have died and gone to their reward, do I cope? I just pop a time-warp pill, and then, in my mind I’m back in The Peek-A-Boo Lounge, The Tropics, The Bar-O-Music, The Gaslight Club, The Blackstone Hotel, The Old Town Gate, imagining the guys on this CD are with me.
The great musician and human being has finally succumbed: the following article was (obviously) written a few years ago. It’s a fitting tribute to this great musician, and also contains many words of wisdom that would-be jazz musicians should take to heart:
Clark Terry is one of the living legends of this music.
He has played with every big name in jazz over the last half-century from the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, to Ella Fitzgerald…the list could go on forever. With such a rich performing career spanning over six decades, he continues to play with today’s top musicians and inspire up and coming improvisers.
During school, I was lucky enough to have an impromptu lesson with the trumpet master. One night after a rehearsal for a gig, Clark came in unannounced to the practice rooms at our school looking to impart some wisdom to some aspiring musicians. Before I knew it I was sitting inches from Clark Terry’s bell and he was teaching me a tune by ear.
That sound that I had listened to for years on record was coming out of a horn a foot away from me. It was an experience that I will always remember. I don’t know what was more impressive, the fact that I was sitting down with a jazz legend or that Clark, age of 89, came into the music school practice rooms around 10 at night to hang out with students for free.
Pretty amazing, but then again Clark Terry has been dedicated to educating young jazz musicians for decades. He mentored a young Miles Davis and encouraged Quincy Jones as he was starting out as an arranger and trumpet player. With a track record like that, it’s safe to say that he knows a few things about learning this music.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to hear Clark speak or attend one of his master classes, you have probably heard him talk about his take on jazz articulation or about the history of the music as he lived it. One topic that he often talks about is how to approach learning improvisation. For Clark Terry, the art of learning jazz can be summed up into three words: Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation.
Clark explains this idea in about 20 seconds in the clip below:
Sounds pretty simple and straight-forward, right? The great thing is that this idea actually is simple and easy to comprehend, however when you get down to business, each step entails some serious in-depth study and dedicated practice time.
Imitation: Listening. Learning lines by ear. Transcribing solos. Absorbing a player’s feel, articulation, and time.
This is where it all begins.
Imitation is an integral first step in learning to improvise, but sadly, it’s often overlooked by beginners because scales and theory are immediately thrown in their faces. While you do need to have a solid understanding of music theory, the truth is that scales and chords, no matter how much you memorize them or run them up and down, aren’t going to magically turn into great stylistic improvisations full of long lines and interesting harmonies. To do that you need a model.
The great thing about jazz is that who you choose to imitate is entirely up to you. Maybe you dig a player’s sound and articulation, maybe an unconventional ii-V7 line catches your ear, or perhaps the way a soloist uses space in their phrases may be something you desire in your personal concept. Imitation is not relegated to only harmonic ideas or even to the players on your own instrument. If you like what you hear, learn it and incorporate it into your playing.
By imitating the players you love, you’ll begin to understand the music on a deeper level and begin to see a personal sound develop in your own approach to improvisation. Questions that can’t be answered by music theory or etude books, like how to play longer lines or how to articulate and swing, will reveal themselves as you start to imitate the masters.
Assimilation means ingraining these stylistic nuances, harmonic devices, and lines that you’ve transcribed into your musical conception. Not just mentally understanding them on the surface level, but truly connecting them to your ear and body. This is where the hours of dedication and work come in.
Get into the practice room and repeat these lines over and over again, hundreds of times, until they are an unconscious part of your musical conception. Take these phrases through all keys, all ranges, and all inversions. Begin slowly and incrementally increase the speed until you can easily play them. Don’t feel satisfied until you can play these lines in your sleep.
This is not an easy step to complete.
Many of us have taken a lick or pattern in one key and inserted it into our solos as an easy and quick way to sound hip. However, if you’re honest with yourself, it’s clear that this approach is really limiting your playing – not transforming it. Stealing a lick from a book of transcribed solos or learning a line in only one key is not going to cut it. You need to learn these lines and ideas from the record and work them out in all 12 keys. Practice them until you have them down cold and can execute them in the blink of an eye.
A great way to quickly internalize the lines and styles that you’re trying to absorb is to sing them. Sing the rhythms, accents, and the exact pitches so they are first ingrained into your ears – you can even do this outside of the practice room. Remember, when you’ve truly assimilated something, it’s ingrained to the point that you’ll never forget it.
Creating a fresh and personal approach to the music. Many young musicians want to skip to this step as soon as they start learning how to improvise. They want to have their own harmonic concept and a unique sound on their instrument right from the get-go. Without a model or in-depth conception of harmony and melody though, it will be much more difficult to create a truly unique approach.
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.~Salvador Dalì
Innovation is the direct result of hours upon hours of imitation and assimilation. Take a look at the great innovators that this music has already seen. Each one spent countless hours studying harmony, solos, form, tunes, etc. in order to realize their own personal concept.
Woody Shaw studied the solos of Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, and incorporated techniques idiomatic to the saxophone into his own improvisation. Coltrane mastered how to play over standards before he delved into the unknown with his quartet. Before you can change history and plot your own course, you have to know a few things about what preceded you.
The steps of imitation, assimilation, and innovation are not limited to “jazz” music. Take any style or concept that resonates with you and incorporate it into your playing through this process. You may like the harmonies of Ravel or the rhythms found in traditional Indian music. Listen to them, figure them out, analyze them, practice them, and finally use them in new and innovative ways in your improvisations.
Clark Terry’s legacy
Clark Terry is one of the masters of this music and a legendary trumpet player, but his legacy in educating young musicians is just as rich as his contributions on trumpet. Even at the age of 90, Clark continues to reach out to younger musicians and share his knowledge of what it takes to learn and live jazz. Everywhere that he goes, he is dedicated to passing on the tradition of this music to the players of today. Check out this video of Clark giving some words of wisdom to one of our friends and former classmates, Justin Kauflin:
The art of learning to improvise lies in three words: Imitation, Assimilation, and Innovation. Take it from Clark Terry, a master who has lived this music and knows what it takes. If you dedicate yourself to this process, you’ll see improvement in your playing immediately and you’ll be on track to becoming the player you’ve always wanted to be.
Brian Parsons died on Saturday morning, after a long illness (a brain tumour).
Brian had been very politically active in the 1970s and was, briefly, associated with the libertarian-left group Big Flame. He was also a great champion of a wide range of music and pioneered appreciation of what became known as “world music” by means of his Bongo-Go disco (with occasional live sessions), which for many years were a hugely popular feature of Birmingham night-life, at the Moseley Dance Centre. He also supported live jazz and blues: I last saw him about a year ago at a gig featuring the Kinda Dukish Big Band – apparently he’d long been a passionate enthusiast of the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn – something I’d never realised.
Meanwhile, he never lost his political commitment and remained a friend of equality and justice all his life.
So long, old friend and comrade!
H/t Terry Lilly
A wonderful, short (less than ten minutes) documentary about women in jazz, starting with the fabulous ‘International Sweethearts Of Rhythm’, who in 1940’s America, were not only an all-female big band, but also racially integrated. The interviews with (then) surviving members (the film’s about 20 years old) are tremendously uplifting and moving. The late Marian McPartland also features:
Yesterday’s BBC Radio 3 Jazz Record Requests carried a memorable request. It was from one Jean Francois (sorry: I didn’t catch the full name), a friend of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, ‘Cabu’.
JRR presenter Alyn Shipton described Cabu as “a harmless, civilised and witty man” who loved jazz and , at the time of his murder, had been working on a book about Woody Herman. Cabu, apparently, loved the 1937 Cab Calloway recording of Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm, although “he could never pronounce it.” This is in memory of Cabu, and a reminder that authoritarians, Stalinists and fascists invariably hate jazz:
The great clarinettist Buddy DeFranco died on December 24, and I’ve been meaning to write something about him ever since, but always seem to have been preoccupied by other matters.
Well, now Buddy himself has saved me the trouble. Here’s a fascinating piece he wrote for Down Beat magazine, published in their March 11 1953 edition:
My Favorite Clarinetists by Buddy DeFranco
(Ed. note: Buddy DeFranco started winning in the clarinet division of the Down Beat poll in 1945 and hasn’t stopped grabbing plaques since. He’s taken eight in a row, and we thought that it would be of much interest to Down Beat readers to see who the men were that most influenced Buddy’s style.)
There are, naturally, many clarinetists whose playing influenced mine and to whom I listened as often as I could. But I have been asked to name those whom I consider tops in the field and who did most to shape my clarinet style. they are, in order:
* Benny Goodman. I pick benny first just for his sheer proficiency as a clarinetist. He has a good tone, clean, sure technique, and a basic pulse which he introduced as “swing” many years ago. He’s just an automatic first and my idol for years.
* Artie Shaw. I’d name Artie second because of his fluent style and originality. He could handle a melody as easily as a swing piece. And he also has a fine harmonic sense. I had figured that Artie would move more and more into the progressive field, but unfortunately I was disappointed.
* Stan Hasselgard. My deepest regret is that Stan is not with us today. I have the feeling that he would eventually have surpassed everyone in the field of clarinet jazz.
I have often been asked if I ever felt jealous of or vindictive toward Stan. I can say only that during the short time I knew him, he was a warm, honest human being. His kind of competition would have been healthy. Perhaps we could have created (commercially, that is) the same fervour and interest in the clarinet that Benny and Artie did a few years back.
* Jimmy Hamilton. A guy with a good tone, excellent technique, and an original style. I expect great things from Jimmy in the coming years.
* Peanuts Hucko. Although I feel that perhaps Peanuts sounds too close to Benny and not original enough, he nevertheless has excellent facility and an exceptional tone.
* Abe Most. Again I get the feeling that Abe sounds a little too much like someone else, in this case Artie Shaw. But he sure can handle a clarinet.
* Johnny Mince. Johnny has been a favourite of mine ever since I heard him years ago with Tommy Dorsey, when he was playing some brilliantly fast and creative things. I honestly feel that if Johnny weren’t hindered in his present surroundings (studio work) he would definitely make his mark in the modern jazz field.
* Tony Scott. Tony is another clarinetist who is developing a personal style and just at the beginning of what will be a big career. He is acquiring great proficiency and a keen harmonic sense.
There are other clarinetists, too, whom I admire a great deal. Lester Young, for one. I consider his jazz ideas the greatest of anyone’s, but the infrequency with which he plays clarinet keeps him from the list.
Another man, too, who is a great all-round musician and is skilled on clarinet but seldom plays it is Benny Carter. Sol Yaged, too, should be mentioned.
That’s it. That’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten half a dozen guys who should be on it, but the ones I’ve mentioned I think would qualify in anyone’s book.
I can think of no more bracing, positive and life-affirming start to 2015 than this magnificent performance by Henry ‘Red’ Allen, recorded live in 1965 with a quartet that included pianist Sammy Price:
Almost unbelievably, Red had just two years to live when he recorded this, the high point of a late-period revival in his musical and personal fortunes.
Philip Larkin wrote: “There was always something unusual about Allen’s playing: even at the start he tended to sound like Armstrong in a distorting mirror, and by the end of his life an Allen solo was a brooding, gobbling, stretched, telegraphic thing of half-notes and quarter-tones, while an Allen vocal sounded like a man with a bad conscience talking in his sleep.” I trust it’s obvious that Mr Larkin meant all that approvingly.