Archive for April, 2009

Lunch With Artie Shaw

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

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AN EARLIER POST mentioned Artie Shaw. I presume anyone reading this knows Artie was a big band leader in the 1930s and ’40s and one of the best popular clarinetists of all time.

One day around 1980 my friend (and another big band leader), Pat Longo, asked if I wanted to have lunch with Artie. Of course I did. Pat was friendly with Artie and arranged it. A few days later we drove to Thousand Oaks and found Artie sipping iced tea in a booth at the very back of the Velvet Turtle restaurant.

I was expecting a tall, dark haired, good looking guy; the image I remembered from photos of Artie from the 1940s. The man sitting at the table was in his middle seventies, of average height, bald on top with short gray hair, only vaguely reminiscent of those old photos. But what a personality and intellect!

Artie had given up the clarinet in the mid 1950s and he spent a lot of our time together explaining why: The record companies insisted on dictating what he could play and Artie was far too independent to accept their conditions.

He had seen jazz change direction in the late 1940s. Bebop was all the rage and, if you were unable to play it, jazz would leave you behind. Artie knew popular music was moving in a different direction from jazz and excluded his instrument; to survive he stuck with jazz. Clarinet was the wrong instrument for the kind of music that would become rock. So for a couple of years he practiced six or more hours a day, put together a group of top young jazz musicians, and found work at a club. I thought Artie had said it was in Las Vegas but, according to CD liner notes, the club was the Embers in New York. His group came together there and, in the mid ’50s, they recorded a few hours of music, all in the bop style.

Who was on the sessions? Hank Jones (piano), Tal Farlow or Joe Puma (guitar), Tommy Potter (bass), Joe Roland (vibes), and Irv Kluger (drums).

Artie said they would work all night in the nightclub, stop at one or two o’clock in the morning, then head for a studio and record until dawn. They also recorded in Hollywood. Artie claimed to have financed the sessions. Altogether the group recorded about three dozen tunes. Artie said his technique was at its zenith. I have heard the recordings. He was right.

But the music was straight ahead jazz and the world knew Artie Shaw as a big band clarinetist from the Swing era. One after another the record companies refused to release Artie’s recordings. He said they wanted a remake of Begin the Beguine or Frenesi in the old style. “Sorry, Artie,” they said, “Bop is not what the public wants from you. We doubt anyone will buy it and we won’t risk anything to find out.”

Artie argued. He fought. He may even have spoken to a lawyer. But he lost the battle. So he stopped playing. Forever. He had rejected the music business a couple of times before but, in the mid ’50s, it was final. He made one clarinet into a table lamp. He became a writer. That was the end of Artie the musician.

But about thirty years later Artie Shaw’s recordings did appear. Book Of The Month Club Records offered them on CD. I have all four disks. Artie plays bebop and sounds wonderful.

Everything Artie Shaw said about the music business and about music at that lunch has proved to be true. Every word. My only regret is that I never was able to tell him.

Tempo

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

THE FOLLOWING DIATRIBE IS DELIBERATELY CONTROVERSIAL

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EVERY CLARINETIST MUST ENDURE comparison with Benny Goodman and his ability to play lyrically at fast tempos. I might go so far as to say that nobody else I can think of has been able to play as melodically at such tempos as Benny. That is one reason it was his trademark.

Some years later, when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker led the bebop onslaught, they played tempos that sometimes made Benny’s blistering excursions seem almost tame. So every saxophonist now endures comparison with Parker and every trumpet player with Gillespie and every pianist with Art Tatum just as every player of any other instrument seems destined to live up to a predecessor’s technical prowess.

But as Benny blazed, Duke Ellington and some other greats swung more slowly. Ellington’s groups rarely played fast yet they carved out a top spot in jazz history. And despite the bop revolution’s indelible influence, by the early 1950s the “Cool” era espoused more relaxed tempos and emphasized melodic improvisation with more carefully chosen notes.

Why, then, do so many listeners rate a musician’s ability by how many notes he can cram into a measure?

To inject controversy yet again I suggest a reason: Because those listeners are unable to differentiate between “music” and “instrumental sounds”. When the nuance a musician puts on a note or the choice of the note itself means little to the ear or the emotion, the intellect falls back on what it can quantify: Technique. But even the most precise torrent of notes impresses us for a relatively short time, then degenerates into stultifying gobbledygook.

Many of the greatest jazz musicians of all time preferred slower tempos and fewer notes. Perhaps two of the best known were trumpet players Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Compare their elegance to the meaningless runs you hear next time somebody tries to impress you with an endless string of 32nd notes at a wild gallop. The thrill you may feel as you anticipate whether the speedster will hit a wrong note inevitably will come in second to the emotional impact of a few important notes at just the right time. I bet if you could take just one recording to that proverbial desert island it would be something moderate and melodic.

Listen to your own favorite selections and see whether you agree.

What Is A Musician?

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

THE FOLLOWING DIATRIBE IS DELIBERATELY CONTROVERSIAL

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YEARS AGO I asked a couple of musicians with good reputations to record four or five tunes I had hoped would appear on an album. We were acquaintances and colleagues but they insisted I pay them for the session. It ran a few minutes longer than I had expected because they took long and frequent breaks. Before they left they also boorishly demanded I pay for their unnecessary “overtime”. The final injury was the unpleasant mediocrity of their performance; the recording was unsuitable for anything.

I was inexperienced, they took advantage of me, and I learned a valuable lesson. But that is not the point of the story.

A couple of years later my wife and I were talking about that session and she asked a surprising question about those two guys: “Why do you call them professional musicians?”

My answer was probably about the same as yours would be: “Because they have studied music, they are competent on their instruments, they have a lot of experience, and they earn a living from playing.”

Now for the point of the story:

My wife (who is very astute and has unerringly good taste) said, “But they aren’t professional because what they play never sounds musical. Nothing they play sounds good.”

Think about that.

If a musician is competent on his instrument but what he plays never arouses a positive emotional response, is it truly “music”? And if somebody purports to be a professional musician, should he, by definition, create sounds pleasurable to listen to? I refer to substance rather than style.

Many people seem to confuse reputations and style with real substance. Some rationalize and compromise in order to “fit in” or to “be nice” or merely to justify an opinion. And, over time, enough of that nonsense may corrupt a general perception, ultimately even corrupt an entire concept.

I spent a lot of time thinking about my wife’s statement. I think she’s right. If the notes are displeasing, the player is not a musician. He simply plays an instrument.

When Did Jazz Die?

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

THE FOLLOWING DIATRIBE IS DELIBERATELY CONTROVERSIAL

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HERE’S WHAT REALLY UPSETS ME: Jazz is commercially dead and that puts one of its feet in the casket of cultural death. It’s just that some musicians haven’t figured it out yet.

Jazz began to die when bebop was born, sometime in the latter half of the 1940s. That’s when an avante garde of jazz musicians started to play for each other instead of for the public. Soon another generation of musicians rushed in to fill the void in popular music jazz left with a Boogie Woogie derivative that ultimately emerged as rock.

Most musicians today think real jazz began with bebop and completely miss the significance of earlier jazz. Maybe they’re like people who think movies didn’t count until they were in color. Or maybe they think any music that appeals to emotion rather than intellect is beneath them and falls into an inferior realm called popular music. Or maybe they just lack the ability to recognize or play the right notes and can’t admit it.

Whatever they think, the following is true:

Any “art form” that fails strongly to impact the emotions (usually in a positive way) is doomed. Any “art form” that exists to serve snobs is doomed. Any “art form” that needs colleges and universities to help it survive (i.e., today’s jazz) is doomed. Any “art form” that falls into any of the above categories is not really art. Don’t believe it? Live a century or two and find out for yourself.

And any person who fails to understand the above lacks analytical skills, a sense of history, sufficient intelligence, or all three. And none of the above should suggest that post 1945 jazz players, in general, are not more learned, sophisticated, or technically proficient than many of their predecessors. It’s just that, after a while, musicians — or artists in nearly any discipline — tend to forget the reason their genre became popular in the first place. Or they try to make more of it than they should. Whatever the reason that happens, the result is entropy and, ultimately, the demise of the genre.

How do such things happen? When I went to grad school the professors used big words, convoluted sentences, and expressed simple ideas in a complicated way. I finally figured out it was because they wanted people to think they were smarter than they really are. I also realized a lot of professors are (figuratively) idiots. Then one day a really intelligent guy (not a professor) re-taught me to write using small words and simple sentences. It was hard, especially when I had to explain something complicated. Eventually I realized you can’t say something simply and clearly to an average guy until you truly understand it yourself.

What does that have to do with music? When I became a professional musician, my mentor (a veteran of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, an arranger for Benny Goodman, and a major talent in his own right) pretty much made the same point; he asked why I played so many notes. (It was because I wanted to sound like a genius, of course.)

Then, a couple of years later Artie Shaw pointed out to me that jazz ran into big trouble about the time musicians started saying such things as, “I play, like, jazz, man.” (We were talking about Miles Davis.) He said it’s either jazz or it isn’t. If it’s “like jazz”, it may be something related to jazz but it’s not jazz. It was one of Artie’s wry “jokes”. He was advocating the use of precision in composing a solo.

So one day it all came together. Less is more. Simple usually out-classes complex and it is a lot harder to be simple. Emotion in music invariably trumps intellect. And I realized many jazz guys from the ’20s through the mid ’40s understood how to reach an audience musically and emotionally. And I realized the bop and post bop guys reached us intellectually but failed to reach us on that emotional level as well as their predecessors. And I realized what jazz was supposed to be all about. And I stopped trying to impress other musicians with all those notes. And I started to play a lot better.

When enough other musicians figure that out, jazz may have a shot at a comeback, assuming anyone in contemporary society would give it a chance. But it is unlikely the corporate entertainment bureaucracy would allow it onto radio, TV, or “cool” websites. Too much of a risk. Unless, of course, somebody already has made a lot of money with it….