Archive for December, 2009

When Change Is Unnecessary

Monday, December 28th, 2009

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A FRIEND GAVE me a lot of albums documenting small jazz bands from 1940 to the late ’50s. Even though all were Dixieland groups, as the recordings moved forward in time I could hear the style regress from its original intent. And it made me wonder why.

When jazz was new, musicians played a style we now call Dixieland. I guess the name came about because early jazz moved north from New Orleans and other cities south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is a classic and enduring style. When good musicians perform it, the results can be impressive. Among the musicians on the albums were Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Dick Cary, Matty Matlock, Dick Cathcart, Abe Lincoln, Moe Schneider, Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Nick Fatool, George Van Epps, Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky, Jimmy Dorsey, Dave Tough, Cliff Leman, Peanuts Hucko, Jerry Fuller, Eddie Miller, Joe Rushton, Cutty Cuttshall, and Lou McGarrity.

The big bands of the late 1920s through the mid 1940s commercially eclipsed their smaller counterparts and formalized jazz. But, as bebop emerged in the 1940s, so did a “traditional” jazz revival. Dixieland may never have set any sales records but was popular enough to generate major label albums into the 1960s.

If you listen to bands from the early 1930s to the early ’50s, the common denominator is energy. The playing is hot and the music enthusiastic. It is fun to listen to. It makes you want to get out of your chair and move around. Remember, early jazz was analogous to today’s rock.

Bebop began as a hot form of jazz, too, and Dizzy Gillespie wanted people to dance to it. But few did.

The next phase of jazz, emerging in the early ’50s, seemed to develop on the west coast as a style many called “Cool”. It refined the harmonic sophistication of bop and tamed bop’s chaotic nature by slowing things down and applying an almost classical elegance. That supposedly gave jazz a degree of “legitimacy” its critics demanded.

And what do you suppose I heard as I listened to a couple of dozen Columbia, Capitol, CBS, and Roulette albums? The same evolution. Jazz from the the ’40s was unabashedly hot, commanding, exuberant, danceable, and fun.

Some recordings from ’50s are overly arranged and unbearably “cute”. Some fool masquerading as a producer seems to be trying to apologize for the genre by making it “more interesting”. Frankly, I find the arrangements pretentious at best; sometimes even obnoxious.

The recordings from the late ’50s into the early ’60s sound more mature and the playing is excellent but the original energy has transformed into an easy going, laid back approach. Urgency has given way to introspection; the music no longer commands attention.

Dixie had lost its way. I wondered whose brilliant idea it had been to take something that worked so well and change it into a caricature with a contemporary veneer.

Remember the assinine Hooked on Mozart and Hooked on Beethoven recordings from late night television commercials of the ’80s? Some nincompoop decided to make classical orchestral music more contemporary by overlaying an obnoxious 8/8 disco beat. They were all the rage for a few weeks and then, mercifully, succumbed to an ignominious death.

History never teaches idiots a lesson. You can’t improve anything by distorting its original intent. And you are what you are; a dog wearing fake antlers will never convince anyone he’s a deer.

And that brings up a most important question: Why must those who dictate commercial fashion eradicate something good to make room for something new, especially when newer may not be better? Why not keep both? Why eliminate choice?

Some people call that “progress”. I call it entropy: the gradual decay resulting from energy turning inward, the inevitable descent into disorder. It is manifest in the decline of our culture, the arrogance and corruption of government and big business and, sadly, even the ravages of old age.

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something.


Saturday, December 19th, 2009

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THE JAZZ SCENE? What jazz scene? You mean that small group of musicians who play for each other and their friends and almost nobody else?

If you live in a very big city and really search, you might find as many as a couple of dozen places where somebody performs some kind of improvisational music for an hour or more per week. Sometimes it’s real jazz. On the other hand, how about a city the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma? How many jazz clubs do you suppose you’d find?

Of course discovering or creating a venue is only part of the problem. Getting paid is another. Most musicians today would consider themselves lucky to earn about sixty dollars for playing three hours of jazz in a bar or restaurant. Earning a hundred dollars is rare. More than a hundred? You’re joking, right?

Well, suppose you find a place to play and actually can convince a decent rhythm section to perform with you for such an insulting pittance. What are you going to do for an audience? Every jazz musician with enough of a name to attract people off the street already is dead. Club owners take no responsibility for bringing in patrons; they think that’s the musicians’ job.

Sure it is. If a musician could sell, he’d already be making infinitely more money as a salesmen. Yet he must send flyers, faxes, e-mails, and tweets to every relative, friend, and friend of a friend he knows to avoid playing to an empty house. At that, the group probably will play for about seven people. After one such turnout the club owner probably will never hire the group again. (On the other hand I have seen local jazz “celebrities” play for seven or eight people and the club owner seemed to think nothing of it. But that’s because they were part of the right clique and we all know how important that is in jazz.)

Back in my wild and misspent youth I badgered the owner of a well known and highly regarded jazz club to book my quintet for a night. That was when Howard Alden was my guitarist. Of course few people knew of Howard back then, or of any other star in my group. And nobody knew my name either. But my parents had a lot of friends who liked jazz, liked me, and liked the musicians in my group.

After six months the jerk who owned the club finally succumbed to my harangues and graciously allowed us a Monday, late at night. Could he have done anything more to ensure our failure?

Well, my parents’ friends packed the joint and spent money there. A lot. When we finished the last set the greedy club owner ran up to ask if he could book us for another night the following month. (We had earned the standard union rate of thirty-five dollars each.)

I thought for a second or two and answered, “No.”

Why? Because it seemed presumptuous to send invitations to the same people month after month; I long ago had learned to avoid overstaying my welcome. Besides, I was in the middle of a series of performances on the Tonight Show and was playing concerts at beautiful auditoriums around the west and was about to perform in New York at Carnegie Hall, all for hundreds of dollars per night.

None of that had mattered to the club owner. But it somehow seemed relevant to me.

Bars and restaurants completely lost their appeal after that night. I never again wanted to rely on friends and relatives for an audience. I never again wanted to beg anyone for a chance to perform. And I never again wanted anybody to evaluate my musical talent on the basis of how many big spenders I could attract.

No wonder I now work as a sideman.