Archive for July, 2009

Dick Cary

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

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FEW PEOPLE REMEMBER his name or know who he was. Dick Cary was an excellent jazz pianist, composer, and horn player. He was a very intelligent, educated, erudite gentleman. He also was my friend and mentor. He was born on July 10, 1916 in Hartford, Connecticut, studied classical music, and disappointed his parents by moving to New York to play jazz.

Dick was one of the best jazz musicians in New York in the 1940s and ’50s. He worked with Eddie Condon’s groups, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, Brad Gowens, and vocalist Lee Wiley. He appeared alongside Peanuts Hucko, Pee Wee Russell, Lou McGarrity, Cliff Leman, George Van Epps, Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, and any number of other Swing era musicians and recorded with practitioners of all jazz styles. He wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman but turned down Benny’s offer to play piano with the big band. (”Who wanted to sit around all night to wait for an eight bar solo in the second set?” he asked.) But most people remember Dick from his work in the late 1940s as one of the original Louis Armstrong All-Stars.

In 1959, when traditional jazz slowed down in New York Dick, along with several other musicians, moved to Los Angeles. He already had embraced the 1950s West Coast “cool” jazz movement (as was evident from his playing and composition), did some work in Hollywood’s recording studios, and ultimately devoted himself to composition although he continued to perform until a few weeks before his death. For nearly thirty years he hosted a Tuesday night rehearsal band consisting of many of the best jazz musicians in Southern California. They played nothing but his original tunes and arrangements.

I met Dick Cary in 1978. I needed a piano player for a lunchtime concert in downtown Los Angeles and had no idea whom to call. I was a member of the Musicians’ Union so I looked up piano players and found a listing for Jess Stacey, the original pianist with Benny Goodman’s big band between 1936 and 1938. Jess had retired and referred me to Dick.

Dick played so beautifully he became my first call for piano. We became friends. He had little tolerance for fools or musicians with bad taste or rude behavior and, in the privacy of our conversations, he would mock such people and cackle. He told me countless stories about the musicians he had known. He admired many and was in awe of some. At heart he was a romantic and he lived for good music and to perform with other top musicians.

He would invite me to his house to play duets and often suggested ways to improve my playing. For example he might ask, “Why do you want to play all those notes? Try playing more simply.”

Once I asked him what kind of tunes he thought I played best. His two word answer was, “The blues.”

Another time he asked, “Why does every clarinet player think he has to play like Benny Goodman?” I just looked at him blankly. He went on, “Why don’t you try playing more like Pee Wee Russell or Johnny Hodges?”

Pee Wee was the one musician we never agreed about. Dick thought he was excellent and I disagreed, at least about the way he played in the latter part of his career. But Johnny Hodges’ alto sax playing was outstanding and Dick’s question stayed with me. Much later, I realized why Dick suggested him: Because my way of thinking about and playing music is much closer to that of Hodges than Goodman and Dick knew I could make the most of my ability by absorbing more of Hodges’ approach.

Over the years he introduced me to a lot of great players and, in 1979 and 1980 we invited some to my house for Wednesday evening jam sessions. Dick usually played piano and sometimes would double on trumpet. My friend and top Hollywood session player, Lyle Ritz, or Dick’s regular colleague, Ray Leatherwood, played bass. Gene Estes or Burr Middleton played drums. The trombonists were Bob Enevoldsen, Herbie Harper, or Betty O’Hara. Betty also played trumpet.

After a couple of weeks Dick phoned me with a question: Dick Cathcart had spoken to him about perhaps coming out of retirement and doing a little playing. Would I mind if he joined us on trumpet? I knew Cathcart was a terrific player and enthusiastically invited him. Dick Cathcart literally began his “comeback” in my living room.

Sometime around 1980 or ‘81 the great trombonist, Bob Havens, and I sponsored a recording session. We booked a studio in Hollywood. The musicians with us were Dick Cary, Dick Cathcart, Betty O’Hara, tenor saxophonist Dick Hafer, Ray Leatherwood, Gene Estes, and guitarists Dave and Larry Koonse. (Dave Koonse and Dick Cathcart had to leave early so Dave’s immensely talented son, Larry, took over on guitar and Betty O’Hara joined us on trumpet about halfway through the day.) Betty also sang. Everybody performed at no charge.

At one point during a break Dick told me, “You played that pretty well.” I was very surprised and answered, “I think that’s the first time you’ve ever complimented me.” He gave me a funny look and asked, “Why should anyone compliment you? We never used to compliment each other back in New York.” I discovered simply being in the band was the greatest compliment they could offer.

I remember once, in a telephone conversation, I told Dick how some other musicians thought my approach to jazz was wrong. I could sense his utter delight as I finished the story. He mischievously asked, “Do you ever get the feeling you’re … ‘out of step’?” Then he cackled with glee. Somehow that one remark epitomized our relationship.

Also around that time Dick recorded his album, California Dreamin’, and needed some photos. He sat in my front yard and I took a roll of portraits of him. One, with a cigar stub in his mouth and that mischievous look in his eye, was a classic. Dick kept the negatives and I never did receive a print. But, when the album came out, he gave me a copy and the photo was on the back.

A couple of years later, Dick developed cancer and needed surgery. I visited him in the hospital and he looked terrible. But he recovered, gave up alcohol and smoking, began walking five miles a day, played tennis a couple of hours each day and looked positively fit. For the next ten years he was in the best shape of his adult life.

In 1988, when Ken Borgers, then program director at all-jazz public radio station KLON-FM, asked me to lead a concert with the Concord Jazz All Stars, Dick offered to help me “get in shape” and we played more duets at his house. He said, “Stick closer to the melody and go back to it now and then.” He reminded me, “Fewer notes. Leave space. It’s okay if you don’t play all the time.” And, “Sometimes it’s effective to repeat the same note a few times.”

The musicians for the KLON performance were Scott Hamilton (tenor sax), Bill Berry (trumpet), Dave McKenna (piano), Doug MacDonald (guitar), Dave Stone (bass), and Jake Hanna (drums). I led the group on clarinet (much to Jake’s annoyance but we were friends and, besides, everything annoys Jake). Ken Borgers later told me it was the most successful jazz concert in KLON’s history.

I had permission to invite Dick Cary and he could have had his choice of any seat in the hall. But he preferred to stand backstage, out of sight, a few feet behind his friend, Dave McKenna. On the long drive home he talked about Dave’s playing and how they both love baseball and how Dave used to go out with his daughter. And somewhere in the middle of his ramblings he slipped in a compliment about my performance that night, the second and final of his life.

The last time I saw Dick was around 1991, at his house, for another evening of duets. He looked old. His playing was a little less perfect. At one point he stopped in the middle of a tune and just sat there for a moment with his head down. Then he slowly looked up and said, “This is the damnedest thing. Every now and then my head just drops forward and I can’t seem to do anything about it. Just, you know, for no reason. My doctor says it’s something called myasthenia gravis. It’s a little annoying, especially when it happens in the middle of a performance as it did last week….”

Some time went by and I heard nothing from Dick. Then, in April 1994, the Los Angeles Times published his obituary. It was a difficult way to learn of his death. We had an unusually close rapport, unlike anything I have shared with anyone else; a deep friendship with many unspoken words. So I was ticked off at Dick. At least he could have phoned to say he was dead.

Musician Or Computer?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

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I TRIED SOMETHING bizarre this month out of sheer frustration and it worked pretty well. I have been unable to get my “A” team into the studio for four months; someone always is working. So, instead, I used a computer program to create rhythm section tracks.

I recorded myself with it and then I sent the result to a dozen or so people for feedback. Most thought the computer generated rhythm section sounded as good as or even better than the best guys I’ve recorded with.

That is rather disturbing.

A computer lacks the ability to play jazz well so I created modified country and soft rock rhythm tracks. Pop rhythm section accompaniment is typically less interactive than jazz accompaniment and, in most pop recordings, rhythm section players rarely solo. Instead they stick to arrangements and the lead singer or instrumentalist performs pretty much throughout the entire tune. So that’s what I did.

It is nothing new. The music on virtually all television shows, many movies, and a lot of CDs is by one person with a computer. It is increasingly rare to find human beings playing acoustic instruments on TV and movie soundtracks.

And then I wondered how many human musicians we would need in the future….

Jazz and most non-orchestral acoustic music would need human performers. Unfortunately they are virtually dead from a commercial standpoint and show no sign of recovery.

Symphony orchestras and chamber groups naturally will need humans. But, for some time, such groups as the Chronos String Quartet have augmented their live playing with pre-recorded accompaniment. Rock groups and stage acts have been doing it, too. Most vocalists could perform as well with a pre-recorded backup group as with live musicians and some acts completely have replaced live musicians.

Next time you listen to “smooth jazz”, for example, try to figure out how many tunes use actual musicans in the rhythm section and how many use tracks a producer created on the keyboard.

Most pop music can get by with computerized or pre-recorded rhythm sections. Why? Because commercial music is no longer about music; it is about entertainment. And visual entertainment almost always overpowers audio. So, in many cases, a vocalist is only as good as he or she looks. And the audience concentrates on the singer, not the band.

Where does that leave us? In a bleak landscape where the creation of most music and melodies by musicians and composers has yielded to rhythmic entertainment by mannequins and gangsters, many of questionable talent but of “contemporary” and “cool” appearance. It is a landscape where dancing and pyrotechnics trump melody and virtuosity; a landscape where the essence of music has lost many of the gentler and warmer qualities of humanity. It is no wonder computer generated rhythm sections can flourish.

Besides, they are cheaper.

The Decline Of Jazz Festivals And Why We Have No New Jazz Stars

Friday, July 10th, 2009

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SUPPOSE YOUR FAVORITE sport were baseball. How much would you like it if, over the years, teams rarely or never introduced a new player? What if, instead, the same players continued year after year even if they could hardly hit, catch, or throw the ball? Or what if you subscribed to a photography magazine that only published photos and articles by the same half dozen contributors even though the world was full of better ones?

Wouldn’t you need a word much stronger than “idiotic” to describe any team or league or publication rigidly insisting upon doing business in that way? Anybody with a shred of common sense knows that is the perfect recipe for failure.

Guess what? I have just described the jazz festival business and, in particular, the directors of traditional jazz festivals.

Oh, I suppose a few directors introduce new talent now and then, especially those trying to be avante garde. But if you look at the musicians performing at the majority of festivals you will read lists of the same names you have seen for decades.

The last thing I would advocate is to discard talented veterans. Heck, I want to see them appear often and I want them to earn a good living. But jazz also needs new names. To survive it must produce a steady stream of new musicians whose specialties range from Dixieland to the most contemporary hybrid. But nobody with influence cares.

I have spoken to several festival directors. They explained their audience consists of people of three basic categories: Type A follows two or three favorite individuals or groups through the entire festival and ignores everyone else. Type B stakes out seats at a given venue and never moves. Type C, (supposedly) the smallest group by far, wants to see an occasional new performer.

Sorry, folks. I don’t believe it. I believe many festival directors are narrow minded, prejudiced idiots.

Some years ago I brought a very good group to a festival. I was returning from a twelve year “retirement” so, despite my colorful background, few remembered my name. Some may have heard of one or two others in the group. We played to a standing ovation. The festival director was in the audience.

A couple of weeks later I phoned to thank him for inviting us. He said, “If you’re asking whether I’m going to invite you again next year the answer is no.”

I explained that was not the reason for the call but, now that he had brought it up, why not?

“Because nobody knows you.”

I was incredulous. I replied, “You were in the audience; we played to a standing ovation.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said.

His festival is now defunct. So are several others. Most of those remaining are on the edge of extinction. None of the directors understands why. All they know is that each year their audience shrinks by ten percent and nobody under the age of fifty attends. Gee, I wonder why.

When I was trying to break back into the business I offered to play at a fairly big local festival for free, just to reestablish my name. The director turned me down. Why? “If if let you play, then I can’t bring in somebody else my audience already knows. I might lose some ticket sales.” (How about the money he would save on airfare, hotel accommodations, and performance fees? Apparently he forgot about that.)

Another band hired me so I have played there every year anyway. Today the average age of that festival’s audience is 70 and attendance easily is half what it was five years ago. When you look around you rarely see any hair color but white. Barring a miracle this may be the final year of that festival. Surprise.

Do you still wonder why jazz is in trouble, why you rarely see new performers, and why festivals are disappearing? You have just read the perfect recipe for failure and nearly every festival follows it to the letter.