Archive for the ‘Posts’ Category

Something To Alienate Almost Everyone

Monday, July 28th, 2014

RECENTLY I LISTENED to three John Coltrane pieces, two from albums, one from a TV show, to figure out why his music always leaves me cold. Yes, I am a heretic, dislike Coltrane and a lot of contemporary jazz, and now have alienated nearly everyone reading this. If you want to experience even more outrage, keep reading:

First, Coltrane seems to focus on the instrument more than the music. In other words, the musical statement he makes to me is, “I have complete command of the instrument and  bombard you with fast sixteenth note runs because I can.” I would prefer that statement to be, “I am confident I can play anything on the sax but I only want do it tastefully, melodically, and display the fireworks on those occasions when the music seems to require it.”

The second reason Coltrane leaves me cold is closely related to his playing so many notes: I find him a master of musical obfuscation; his repeated torrents of notes and scales obliterates the tune’s melodic content. That detracts from, rather than enhances, the music. Melody is and always has been the essence of music regardless of contemporary opinions to the contrary.

Third, Coltrane has an unpleasant tone. I would equate it to a classical virtuoso who owns a Stradivarius but chooses instead to play a plastic violin with rubber strings.

Finally, where’s the emotional content? Enduring music always is about emotion. Maybe you are so evolved that you can hear it in every note. Good for you, and I’ll bet you can see the king’s new clothes, too. To me, Coltrane offers intellect, even emptiness, but very rarely does he speak to the human soul.

Coltrane was schooled musician. The ability to study a tune’s progression, extrapolate from it, and run scales or intervals over the modified changes requires a lot of practice and expertise. It expresses an understanding of harmony and may reveal an intricate weave of notes that, in proper context, could coincide with the melody. But that’s a parlor game, a kind pointless mental exercise that might appeal to the intellect of an engineer or a mathematician. It overlooks the emotion of a less technical listener. If you want to play melodically you have to stay reasonably close to the melody.

“But how about his fans?” argue Trane’s disciples. “They number in the tens of thousands?” (At that point I would ask, “As opposed to billions who walk away shaking their heads?”) The rebuttal might go on: “Those tens of thousands must be more evolved, right? Geniuses even. A Gordian knot of notes and phrases must strike something deep within them the rest of us are incapable of appreciating. Why else would they like the music?”

That’s where rebellion, recalcitrance, and being “cool” enter the picture. Never underestimate the importance of rebellion and being “cool”. After all, the tobacco industry thrives on it. Hundreds of millions of people smoke even though everybody knows smoking destroys the human body. But smokers do it to declare their independence, to flaunt science, to spit on fact, and to create a perverted “cool” image.

A lot of jazz, in a way, is like smoking. A huge number of bebop musicians, for example, were heroin addicts. Their style sprang from the rejection of traditional harmony, phrasing and, eventually, defined rhythm. Bop and its derivatives stem from a musical statement of rebellion and chaos.

Personally, no matter how terrific the musician, I find much of contemporary jazz sophomoric and pretentious. It’s as though the musician says, “Yo! I’m playing the tune but, unless you’re as hip and evolved as I am, you can’t recognize it. That makes me smarter and cooler and more musically evolved than you, and it also shows I got better chops. Admire me or be primitive.”

And here’s the inevitable rebuttal: “Yeah, but their music is beautiful.”

Maybe to your ears, but it’s often beautiful in the same way as the bleak devastation from a wildfire. In the long run, most of us prefer a lush green forest and a clear blue lake.

As a musician, a lifetime of experience has shown me the vast majority of people can hear sound but not music. A doctor or physicist may hear those sounds, count the notes per measure, and quantitatively declare one musician’s technical skills superior to another’s. Therefore, by scientific analysis, the musician able to play the most notes per measure must be the best.

And that is one reason why a large majority of today’s jazz audience consists of white collar males, often in the professions. Appreciating beauty in music requires other qualities. Perhaps that is why only about twenty-percent of the jazz market is female.

Most jazz listeners either find the music intellectually “interesting” or think it’s “cool” without knowing why or how.

I don’t mean to suggest many jazz musicians aren’t talented, learned or even, in some cases, quite tasteful. I only want to explain why the world’s entire jazz community numbers in the thousands rather than the millions or billions.

So, after decades of listening to and analyzing jazz, I choose to approach music in general and jazz in particular in a very different way than John Coltrane and many of today’s musicians. To me, the essence of music is beauty, melody, and positive emotion. A large majority of today’s world would disagree. I am very comfortable with that, perhaps even delighted. (I remember when all my colleagues said I was wrong about something else and, three years later, every one of them had gone bankrupt while I was enjoying one of my best years.)

I also think everything is basically simple; people make things complicated. Simple nearly always beats complex and it is far more difficult to express complicated ideas simply. Less usually is more. Beauty and classical harmony, in the long run, have outlived chaos and dissonance. And, in the arts, positive emotion ultimately tends to surpass intellect.

Contemporary civilization scoffs at elegant simplicity (while embracing primitive simplicity and oversimplification), classical anything, positive emotion, and the true essence of beauty. Only a fool would say the world hasn’t gone nuts. And only a fool would argue many qualities the jazz world currently rejects ultimately are what separate an evolved human being from a brute.

Yeah, I know most jazz fans today must think I’m either a simpleton or insane, lack evolved taste, or am too tin eared to appreciate true genius. That’s more or less what my bankrupt colleagues thought.

Form, Substance, Body and Soul

Monday, April 21st, 2014

EVERYONE CAN HEAR sound, rhythm, and lyrics. Some can repeat a simple melody but it seems few can do much more. Individual limitations, the population’s overall lack of exposure to classical music and jazz, along with other social issues unique to our times have strangled musical diversity and, to some extent, creativity.

An opinion I recently read may support that theory. It appeared on YouTube. I recall nothing about the writer, only his or her statement about Coleman Hawkins’ unsurpassed 1939 recording of Body and Soul:

“I think classical music is boring and I’m not a big fan of Swing style jazz, either. They’re too old fashioned.”

That makes as much sense as saying, “I think no women were pretty until about 1990 because they look out of style.” Or, “I think black and white movies and photos are old fashioned so I only look at color.”

The writer heard the sounds, the rhythm, and maybe on a good day could hum the melody of Body and Soul. But he or she perceives only the tune’s body, not its soul.

Most things consist of both form and substance. Form is the style, for example the body of a 1965 Ford Mustang. Substance is the intrinsic value, or soul; for example the Mustang’s handling, quality control, and safety.

Whoever wrote that comment about classical music and Swing era jazz can recognize form but is unable to appreciate substance. The substance of music, according to my personal definition, would be melody, beauty, positive emotional content and, to a degree, technical execution. Form (or style) may have little to do with it.

I am in the minority. The writer of that YouTube comment and hundreds of millions of other people around the world also can’t appreciate musical substance. If the style varies from what they and their friends listen to, or if it’s from a different era or culture, they dismiss it as boring, old fashioned, or meaningless.

To make matters worse, intelligence has almost no bearing on the ability to appreciate music. For all we know the writer is a physics genius.

The industry that once created music now focuses mostly on visual imagery and rhythm. It has merged completely into the entertainment industry and profit alone dictates whom we see and what we hear. The lowest common denominator decides nearly everything the corporate entertainment world produces. So popular sounds may be entertaining but may not fit the traditional definition of music.

No surprise, but isn’t that sad?

Branford Marsalis Speaks, I Agree

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

JON-ERIK KELLSO is a very good jazz trumpet player in New York. A couple of days ago he posted excerpts from a Seattle Weekly interview with Branford Marsalis. Branford had noticed the music in old records “always sounds better” than that in new ones because, as with classical music, it has strong melodic content.

Branford may have overlooked some relatively recent albums but his overall opinion is accurate. Melody, today, is out of style; virtually all contemporary music is about rhythm, technique, “intellectual” content, and (unbelievably) the performer’s appearance. In that sweeping indictment I include the popular genres, jazz, and even orchestral music.

But how can that be? As my former clarinet teacher, John Neufeld, once explained, “There is no more music business. A few people still may earn a living with music but, as an industry, it is gone.” What do we have instead? An entertainment business, something very different from the music business.

Back to Marsalis: He says jazz aficionados spend a lot of time talking about harmony, as though they are members of “a private club with a secret handshake”. He considers that a mistake. He goes on to say critics might claim a jazz album to be “the most important music since such and such.” But then he asks how we can really apply the word “important” to something most people have never heard.

Let me go a step further and say such critics and aficionados are fools and nincompoops. That group also includes many music educators.

By now some if not all of you must think I’m a real jerk for daring to state such an outrageous opinion. Who the hell am I to write such a thing? We all know aficionados and critics are experts, right? How could they possibly be wrong? After all, nobody should appreciate or accept anything unless a “big name” expert validates it, should he? Well, if you really believe that then maybe critics and aficionados are not the only fools and nincompoops.

Marsalis then points out how “normal” people always react to music’s emotional content. He warns musicians, “If the value of the [tune] is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed.”

Let’s see, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and most other Swing era jazz musicians appealed to emotion rather than intense music analysis and they were very popular. Then along came Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the bebop guys (all remarkable musicians, by the way); then such later prodigies and technical whizzes as John Coltrane. Their music invites intense analysis but, as clever, intellectual, technical, and perfect as it might be, often de-emphasizes melody.

So what happened? Jazz quickly lost popularity until it all but disappeared. Today, melody and (dare I use the word?) beauty in jazz are out of style.

Why do you suppose that is? Let’s go back to the fools and nincompoops comprising the majority of the jazz writers, critics, and educators. Branford Marsalis summarizes their thinking much more succinctly and poignantly than I ever have: “Everything you read about jazz is: ‘Is it new? Is it innovative?’ I mean, man, there’s 12 fucking notes. What’s going to be new?”

But when nincompoops lead, fools follow. The “jazz world” bought into that nonsense decades ago and still sits around saying, “That guy must be good. Did ya catch that run of sixty-fourth notes? How about the way he played a sharp nine in measure thirteen? Genius, man!” Meanwhile the rest of us were bored to tears and took refuge in something more pleasant and emotionally satisfying.

Branford goes on, “So much of jazz — it doesn’t even have an audience other than the music students or the jazz musicians themselves and they’re completely in love with virtuosic aspects of the music, so everything is about how fast a guy plays. It’s not about the musical content [or] whether the music is emotionally moving or has passion.”

Wait a minute. Didn’t I just write that?

But the emphasis on virtuosity has a reason: Fools and nincompoops are unable to judge music as art but easily may quantify it. It’s like sports. The fastest guy to the finish line is the best and nothing else counts. Of course, music isn’t a sport but fools and nincompoops somehow overlook the distinction. Incidentally, it also isn’t a math problem.

Okay, great. Branford Marsalis and I agree. Music should appeal to emotion rather than intellect and, although it’s in the ear of the beholder, I suspect he would include the concept of beauty in music’s appeal. The irony, however, is that American culture (and that of much of the rest of the “civilized” world) has degenerated to such an extent that maybe none of that matters. For most of us, music is something in the background to banish silence and all popular music is vocal.

Branford concludes, “…If [music has] emotional meaning, [it] will translate to a larger audience [with] the capacity to appreciate instrumental music … ’cause a lot of people don’t.”

Actually, most people now lack the capacity to appreciate instrumental music. And that is why the business of music is gone, why the melodic and popular jazz we once knew is dead, and why fools and nincompoops celebrate whatever it is they celebrate.

Louis Armstrong

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND his All Stars performed at UCLA’s Royce Hall in November 1965. It was the most important musical event I could imagine at the time and perhaps still holds that honor.

I was a freshman at UCLA so, as I recall, I paid no admission. I watched the show from the left hand side of the center section, in an aisle seat, about two-thirds back. I remember every musician in the band: Tyree Glenn played trombone, Joe Darensbourg clarinet, Billy Kyle piano, Arvell Shaw bass, and Danny Barcelona drums.

It was a decent show; not great. I remember feeling a little disappointed with the musicians’ performances. It was evident they had played the same tunes in the same way a hundred times before and the gig was just a way to earn a living. Even Louie was off his game.

That often happens when a band plays a long string of one-nighters on the road. The schedule can be hectic especially when, as often happens, a plane or bus runs late. Uncomfortable travel conditions and hotel rooms merely aggravate things, especially when the musicians have to sleep on a bus.

I badly wanted to meet Louie; he had always been my hero and I admire him to this day. Whenever I am unhappy with the way I play a tune I ask myself how Louie might have played it. That helps to simplify my approach and focus my concentration to bring out as much emotion as possible.

After the show I walked around the side of Royce Hall, found an open door, looked inside, and saw the band in a big, industrial green room. It was anything but elegant, even more utilitarian than a classroom. The musicians were taking off their ties and tuxedo jackets, relaxing, and starting to pack up.

A long, narrow platform a few feet to the right of the stage door extended along most of the front wall (directly opposite from where I walked in). It was no more than four feet deep and less than a foot above the linoleum floor. A little to the left of center was a wood box big enough to support a big wooden chair. A tall wooden table, about eighteen inches square, stood just to the right of the chair. Louie sat on the chair. At least a dozen pill bottles and related paraphernalia adorned the table. Nobody else was on the platform although I think, for a few moments, somebody sat on the edge to take off his shoes.

Louie slouched in the chair as though it were a throne and he an exhausted king. He wore his tuxedo pants and the ubiquitous white shirt, but neither a jacket nor a tie and he had undone the first two buttons of the shirt.

I walked up to him and introduced myself and told him I had grown up listening to his records, almost from the time I was born, and later watched him whenever he was on TV. He asked if I played an instrument and I told him I played jazz on the clarinet.

Louie obviously was tired but he smiled and listened and we spoke a little. I no longer remember what we talked about; it was inconsequential. What could a 17 year old say to a legend? I just remember he was very kind and it was as though I were talking to my grandfather. After a couple of minutes I ran out of words and Louie took a sip from a flask and I thanked him for talking to me and, as I left, he said, “Keep playing that licorice stick.”

That was one of the most memorable meetings of my life, including interviews with all kinds of politicians and celebrities when I was a television news reporter. Louie was as down to earth as anyone I’ve met.

The musicians I have known who came up in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s were from a different world. Few people impress me but so many of the generation of Louis Armstrong and Artie Shaw do. Each was a gentleman. Every one I met or performed with understood the role emotion should play in music and exhibited an elegance, even an erudition, I rarely encounter in my own generation and someday hope to find in those younger. I am certain some people still have those qualities and look forward to meeting them.

Deane Hagen

Monday, May 21st, 2012

ON MAY 6 I learned my lifelong pal, Deane Hagen, had died from a massive stroke. Deane was a complete musician. He not only was a superb drummer but also could compose, arrange, and orchestrate. He was the most creative and insanely funny person I’ve ever known. He was much more than a close friend.

If you were to use four (or is it six?) words to describe Deane’s life they would be “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” but those words would never tell you about Deane himself. For instance they omit the childlike innocence he never lost, his emotional vulnerability, his inability ever to be mean to anyone, his inherent sense of loyalty. Deane was an uncomplicated human being whose essence always remained about 16 years old. He spoke baby talk to children; talked like a duck to ducks; was like a puppy around dogs. Few were less organized and reliable or more good hearted. Deane brimmed with passion and it virtually exploded from him when he played drums, something he did as well as anyone in the world.

For most of my life we were almost like brothers.

Deane’s father, Earle Hagen, was a famous and very successful television composer. (Earle composed the 1939 hit, Harlem Nocturne, as a trombone exercise for himself when he was with Tommy Dorsey’s big band but Ray Noble ultimately released the first recording. Decades later, in the 1970s, it became the theme for the Mike Hammer television series. From the 1950s through the 1980s Earle Hagen composed music for dozens of major network shows.)

Deane began playing drums at about the age of four. In kindergarten my sister used to come home with stories about a funny kid in her class. His name was Deane. Some girls called him Deanie the Weenie. You can imagine how terribly impressive that was to me, a mature second grader. Over the next couple of years she talked about various of Deane’s classroom antics.

When Deane and my sister finished the fourth grade she told me how he had brought his drums on the last day of school and astounded the entire class, including the teacher (Clarence Barrows), with his talent.

Once or twice, when we were in junior high school, Deane stopped by our house to visit my sister. I knew who he was but he was seventeen months younger than I. In junior high school seventeen months was like seventeen years.

By the time I was in high school Deane had moved to a sprawling house around the corner. The famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, had designed it. In the late 1960s Deane’s parents sold the house to the Jackson family whose most famous children were Michael and Janet.

Deane and I became friendly in high school and, by the time I graduated, we had become good friends. For decades he was one of my three closest friends, in some ways the most influential and always the most entertaining.

Deane always knew he would play drums professionally and dealt with school almost as an annoying distraction. I wanted to be a clarinetist but thought I should become a doctor. (I ultimately became a musician and publisher.) Because of our mutual interest in music, Deane invited me in the summer of 1965 to go with his father and him to the Glen Glenn soundstage at Desilu Studios to hear some of America’s best musicians record Earle’s compositions. The three of us crammed into Earle’s Ferrari and drove to Hollywood for an Andy Griffith Show session. Deane introduced me to a few players including Gene Estes (drums) and Lyle Ritz (bass). Much later, Lyle and Gene were part of a jazz quintet I led and both became friends.

In the late ’60s I went with Deane and Earle to an I Spy session and met Gene and Lyle again along with Ross Tompkins (piano) and Pete and Conte Candoli (trumpets). Earle drove us in a gold Rolls Royce. It rattled.

Deane and I spent a lot of time together over the summer of 1965, after I graduated from high school, and every summer thereafter. One afternoon in late July 1965 I walked over to his house and heard him playing jazz drums. I called out. No answer. So I went into the house and found Deane at the drums, wearing only swimming trunks and a pair of headphones. He was accompanying a Count Basie record; I saw the jacket on the floor.

Sometimes at night, before I fell asleep, I would lie in bed and listen to an imaginary jazz band. I would start with a trumpet playing the melody, then add a clarinet, then a trombone, then a piano, bass, and drum until, in my mind, I could hear the whole band playing. One day I told Deane about it. He looked at me for a moment and laughed. “I always knew it, Man,” he said, “You’re a musician!”

I’d never thought of myself as a musician but Deane and his father did. That might be one reason why, after they moved to Calabasas, Earle would invite us downstairs to his big music room and play cues from shows he was working on. Deane and Earle always commented on how well various musicians in the band played their parts. They had tremendous respect for good musicians.

The music room’s left-hand wall had an old upright piano with chipped light brown paint. It may have looked a little the worse for wear but it sounded good. An Ampex studio tape deck sat just to the right of the piano. Around 1972 we found a new keyboard instrument against the right-hand wall. Deane played a few notes on it, flipped a few switches, and played them again. The sounds were almost bizarre.

“Is this thing cool or what?” asked Deane. “It’s a Moog synthesizer.”

About that time Earle walked in, sat down, and took a draw on his pipe. He said, “Boys, that instrument is the future of music. In a few years everything will be electronic.” As usual he was right.

In the mid 1970s Deane had earned enough money as a drummer to move from his parents’ house in Calabasas to a standalone rental home in Tarzana, on a small lot abutting the Ventura Freeway, about half a mile east of Reseda Boulevard. It was rather insubstantial and, uh, rustic—a board shack with palm fronds sheltering the front porch. The driveway was dirt. Weeds and a few oaks and pepper trees surrounded it. Deane called the place Casa de Bebop and lived there with Max, the emotionally challenged Irish Setter who might bite, should the mood strike. Now and then Max drank beer.

Max shared the bed with Deane and any number of wild twenty year old women although Laura ultimately spent much more time there than the rest. Laura was Deane’s first long term girlfriend and you could always tell when she had visited; the place was relatively neat and clean. The rest of the time it looked as though the stove and clothes dryer had exploded simultaneously. I always assumed Deane was responsible for the beer cans and sheet music littering the floor and, of course, the drums and cases and random chrome plated hardware.

The main room was a combination living room and kitchen with an ugly, stained, burnt orange shag carpet. The front door was adjacent to the left wall and, ten feet to the right, in the corner, was Deane’s upright piano. A four track Teac tape deck sat to its left and a combination dinner table and desk was in the middle of the room. Posters and photos covered the laminated wood walls and many were publicity shots of Deane with various of his rock bands.

Deane never made it as a band leader but, throughout the ’70s, he toured with many big name acts, worked on several movies including A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and played drums on a number of his father’s TV recording sessions. Earle also assigned him some arranging and orchestration jobs. Deane always waited until the last minute to start them, then worked all night and morning before the session, and slept for the next 24 hours with the telephone off the hook.

One reason for his lack of discipline was alcohol and drugs. Deane had started drinking beer and doing other drugs in high school. I had seen the occasional beer but knew nothing about the drugs. My sister told me about them but I thought she must be wrong. She said he deliberately hid them from me.

By the late ’70s I realized Deane drank a lot of beer and sometimes hard liquor but still knew nothing about the cocaine and pills. On the eve of a breakup one of his girlfriends told me he took drugs but I thought she was exaggerating out of spite.

In the early ’80s Deane rented a house in Canoga Park and, a few years later, another in Chatsworth. That is when I noticed some changes in his behavior. His humor and overall demeanor were more crude and he was less reliable than ever. Empty beer cans and bottles were everywhere and a couple of times I saw him take a “snort” of cocaine. But he still toured with big name entertainers and played drums or wrote music for his father’s television shows. I had no idea of the extent of his addictions even though I visited him almost every week.

In the late 1980s his parents sold the house in Calabasas and moved to Palm Springs. Deane’s brother, Jim, went with them. A year or so later Deane moved there, too. His studio work had ended with his father’s retirement and the touring gigs had slowed to near nothing.

In the summer of 1989 Deane phoned to ask whether I could work a Fourth of July jazz gig at a park in Palm Springs. He would be playing drums. And did I know a good piano player? Of course I did: Dick Cary. So on July 4, 1989 Dick and a girlfriend and I made the long drive to Palm Springs and arrived at Deane’s fancy new house.

The downbeat was at 5 o’clock and we had arrived around 2:30. A couple of other musicians wandered in and we all waited around, munching on chips and drinking beer and soda. Deane consumed a lot of beer and disappeared into the kitchen a few times. His humor and behavior became increasingly coarse and I realized he must be drinking something more potent than beer in the kitchen. His live-in girlfriend and a former nurse, Gail, kept both Deane and the situation under control. For the first time I realized Deane was in trouble and felt a lot of emotions I still am unable to describe.

After that gig Deane remained out of touch for at least a year. Then, one weekend afternoon, he and Gail surprised me by showing up at my house and they stayed for about half an hour. Something was different. He was still Deane and still funny but somehow he seemed a little distant and slightly manic. And he never mentioned music. That was really out of character. It was the second to the last time I saw him. I phoned a few times. Once he told me he had just returned from a road trip with Marvin Gaye; a few weeks later the Los Angeles Times reported Marvin Gaye was dead.

Another time Deane was about to go on tour with Smokey Robinson. Deane said at the audition Smokey stopped the band and told his manager, “Hire that man right now. I never want to work with any other drummer and don’t book me anywhere unless that guy is on the gig!” Somehow Deane lost that gig and never did another tour. A mutual longtime friend, John Turner, told me the reason was that Deane had been drunk and slept through a morning rehearsal.

Then he withdrew. I phoned but Deane always said he was “busy” and told me he was “managing his dad’s business affairs and helping his brother with a pool cleaning business”. Deane had as much business sense as a chicken; the only thing he could do for his father was lose money.

I phoned again in 1992 and at least a couple of other times. He never called back.

Seventeen years passed.

In the early spring of 2009 I received a message on MySpace. A woman named Sylvia asked me to contact her about Deane. As it turned out she was Deane’s final girlfriend and the mother of a daughter I never knew they had. She explained Deane wanted to talk to me and sent me his phone number. Odd, but what else should I expect from Deane? I called.

My old friend answered the phone. He was enthusiastic and had much to tell me. It was wonderful to hear his voice again. The humor was still there but with a serious undertone. The conversation lasted about 30 minutes.

Deane said he lived in a duplex in Palm Desert and attended half a dozen Alcoholic Anonymous meetings each day. Over the past fifteen years he had been to the Betty Ford Clinic three times to try to control his drinking, with no success.

He told me a frightening story about being drunk in Nashville one night, wandering from his hotel to a woman’s home where he became dangerously drunk, getting lost after leaving, eventually managing to find his hotel, and barely pulling himself together enough by late morning to get through a recording session for one of his father’s TV shows (probably Dukes of Hazzard).

The worst story was about the turning point in his life in 2008. Sometime along the line he had added crack cocaine to his addictions. One morning he met a dealer in Palm Springs to buy drugs but the police had them under surveillance. The dealer turned to leave and the police ran toward them to make the bust. Deane tried to swallow a bag of crack but a cop grabbed him, reached into Deane’s mouth for the evidence, and knocked out a lot of loose teeth. Crack cocaine destroys teeth.

They arrested Deane on drug charges and, within a day or two, he suffered a heart attack and stroke almost simultaneously. Recovery took months. He realized he had better clean up his life, reestablish contact with his daughter and her mother (whose lawyer had issued a restraining order preventing Deane from approaching them), and reconnect with his old friends.

He wanted me to visit him in Palm Desert. I made the 120 mile trip the following weekend.

Deane’s duplex was in a neat middle class neighborhood. I arrived around 3 p.m. and rang the doorbell. No answer. I walked around the back and knocked. No response. I was afraid he might have forgotten my visit and had gone somewhere so I called his cell phone. No answer. I tried again five minutes later and a groggy voice answered. A couple of minutes later the door opened and Deane squinted at me. He wore only underwear and a rumpled T-shirt.

“Sorry, Man,” he said. “I was asleep.” Then he grinned and gave me a big hug. “Russ! I can’t believe you’re here! This is great. Man, this is just great!” Deane was missing more than half of his upper and lower front teeth. His hair was thinning and much of what remained was white. He was lean, as always, but a little stooped. Then he lit a cigarette. Deane occasionally had smoked a pipe but never cigarettes. He looked about 75 years old.

I asked about the cigarettes. He said he started smoking them when he took crack. He knew they are unhealthy but he’d given up drinking and drugs and he was damned if he was going to quit smoking, too. He also told me the stroke had affected his drumming speed but it was coming back and he rehearsed a couple of days a week and performed with a band from AA. He expected some false teeth in a few days.

Deane said he had millions of dollars between the late ’90s and about 2003; at one point he claimed to have owned three homes, two in the San Fernando Valley and one in Palm Springs. One in the valley supposedly was an estate. He said he lost all three and the rest of his fortune because he squandered everything on drugs.

But back to that final visit:

Between about 1969 and 1984 we used to write and record outlandish scripts for our own amusement. I had saved every handwritten page and we spent the entire afternoon reading them out loud. Deane still remembered about half of the punch lines. Among the “shows” were This Is Your Life: Irving the Dwarf (actually about a young man whose size varied depending on the joke), The Adventures of Wimpy Doodle, and The Wild World of Sports (covering the final day of a World Series where both pitchers threw a perfect game; a chess match; and the World Freestyle Skiing Championships where a mostly disabled Jean-Claude Wazoo performed death defying moves down the Matterhorn with his eyes, lips, and nostrils).

Around five o’clock somebody knocked on the door. It was Deane’s AA sponsor, Rick. He lived in the adjoining unit and watched over Deane like a hawk. His reward for coming over was to suffer through the last couple of script readings. The first was an inane medical game show, Suture Self, and the second, from a couple of years later, the misadventures of Izzy Friedman, Frontier Accountant. Well, maybe Rick’s suffering was minimal because the three of us laughed ourselves hoarse.

Then Deane finally put on some clothes and we went to dinner at a Denny’s restaurant a few blocks away. Afterwards it was time for my long drive home. Deane hugged me again and thanked me again for visiting. I watched him in the rear view mirror as I drove away. He simply stood there until we no longer could see each other. I almost wept.

Deane phoned on both Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2010. The calls were very short. He evaded all of my questions except one: He still had no replacement teeth. After that all my attempts to contact him failed.

But none of that really tells you enough about one of the world’s most unique, talented, and entertaining human beings. Maybe the following stories, from our wild and misspent youth, will help:

Late one night we went to dinner at Milano’s Italian restaurant in Reseda, a few blocks from Casa de Bebop. A two or three year old boy and his parents were two tables away, in the middle of the room, sitting ducks for Deane. He caught the boy’s eye and made a face. The kid smiled. Deane did it again and the kid laughed. The parents had no idea what was going on; Deane was behind them. Deane became increasingly animated and so did the kid’s reactions. The parents were annoyed and ordered their son to behave. Finally Deane delivered the coup de grace (some kind of bizarre face and gesture) and the kid screamed with delight. His parents smacked him and his mother dragged her crying son out the door while his humiliated father paid the bill. Deane laughed himself silly.

One afternoon we performed for a wedding party at the Odyssey restaurant high above Granada Hills. The bride and groom had asked for a trio so I hired a pretty good pianist and Deane. Deane was half drunk. That day Deane tended to rush a little (he increased the tempo as the tune progressed) but the point of the anecdote has nothing to do with music.

It has to do with how Deane found both the bride and one of her bridesmaids attractive. During the first break he hit on the bride. She was flattered but unreceptive. So, on the second break, Deane went after the bridesmaid. As I recall she may have given him her phone number, just as had hundreds of others over the years. Now you know why his kindergarten nickname, Deanie the Weenie, was so prophetic.

Another time, a little after 11:30 on a weeknight in the middle of summer, I heard the crazy sound of the Bridge On The River Kwai horn on Deane’s car, Gmxmp. (Yes, that was what he named it. You pronounce it “Guh-MOX-uh-mip”.) Then the doorbell rang. My parents had been asleep but my father woke up, trudged down the hall, looked out the front window, opened the door, walked back down the hall, opened my bedroom door, and said, “It’s Deane. Tell him not to come over so late anymore.”

Anyway, Deane was hungry and suggested we drive around the corner to Saul’s Deli. An older couple sat near the far wall of the room. They soon left. A young couple with a four year old son sat in the middle of the row of booths closest to the entrance, on the interior side of a frosted glass partition. Unfortunately for them the hostess sat us on the opposite side of that partition and Deane was in a very good mood.

That’s right, once again it was Deane versus a very young child and his parents. The incident began with Deane manically telling me funny stories, making a variety of bizarre noises, and playing with the mustard. He and I chortled, laughed, and guffawed until the little boy started to giggle. Deane quickly peeked over the partition. The kid picked up on it and smiled but his parents were oblivious. So, when the parents looked away, Deane popped up again, made a ridiculous face, and dropped out of sight. The kid squealed and his parents scolded him.

Deane then pushed his face into a contorted version of a Picasso portrait from the cubism period and bounced above the partition again. The kid shrieked and the parents urgently shushed him. They still had no idea why he was “misbehaving”.

The next flurry would be the pièce de resistance.

The waitress brought some dill pickle halves and Deane jammed one in front of his teeth, furrowed his brow, crossed his eyes, and “smiled” at me. It looked as though he had putrid green, warty gums. I laughed so hard I fell off my chair and chipped a tooth. At the same time Deane raised his head above the partition to share our intellectual sophistication with the kid but made the crucial error of putting his hands on the glass. Until that moment neither of us had known the partition would collapse into a slot in the table if you put pressure on it.

BANG! Down went the glass and there was Deane with the crossed eyes and green, warty grin.

The kid screamed in a combination of surprise and glee and the parents stared at us, aghast. They had just paid the waitress so they hissed at the kid to shut up, then snatched him from the booth and stormed out of the deli. I think the mother actually said, “Well, I never!” but it was hard to hear her because Deane and I were laughing hysterically.

And then there was the spontaneous camping trip. At about two o’clock one Saturday afternoon the phone in my apartment rang. Deane wasted no time with trivialities: “Hey, Man, wanna go camping? Me and Rick are going to Mount Wilson.” I’d never been camping but Deane said he had an extra sleeping bag and they would be “right over”.

Two and a half hours later Deane showed up in his aging metallic green Datsun hatchback. Deane and Max (the wacky Irish Setter) were in the front and Deane’s good friend and very patient roommate, Rick Johnston, was in the back. Rick is a very talented musician himself. He plays keyboard and was a pioneer in using computers to create and record music. Although Rick’s sense of humor always has been about a fiddle-and-a-half short of a full string section he was the epitome of solemnity in comparison with Deane.

We quickly stopped at a liquor store to fortify the provisions in the car with some kind of 80 proof adult beverage and a five pack of cigars. Then we proceeded southeast to Mount Wilson and arrived about an hour before dark. Every level spot in the campground was occupied. The only open space was on a thirty-five degree slope adjacent to a stone barbeque. We tossed down our gear, called Max, went for a short hike, returned in the dark, barbequed a pretty decent dinner, and bundled up. It was becoming very cold very quickly. By then everyone else in the area was asleep but we were musicians and eleven o’clock at night was early. Max was no dope; he cuddled up next to Deane and went to sleep.

Deane told racy stories about some of the hundreds of girls he had slept with and broke out the adult beverage. Then he recalled a couple of previous girlfriends he regretted losing and broke out the cigars. I had never smoked anything but took a cigar in case it might help to dissipate the headache I was developing as a result of alcohol and altitude. Instead it made me feel worse. Deane and Rick traded stories about various wild escapades until about two-thirty or three in the morning.

I think I can state with assurance that neither Rick nor Deane nor I would advocate sleeping on a rocky hillside in a summer weight sleeping bag, after being less prudent than somewhat with respect to alcohol, when the temperature is below twenty degrees, if you want to wake up feeling energetic and refreshed. Deane and Rick may have slept more than four hours but I certainly didn’t, especially after the damned sun came up. Max, by contrast, probably had slept soundly for about eight hours. Anyway, we built another fire and scrambled up a few dozen eggs and cooked some bacon and drank some milk or beer or whatever and had one heck of a breakfast.

We noticed some idiot had poured laundry detergent into the river to wash clothes; it was full of foam and bubbles. In its honor Deane and Rick lit the two remaining cigars and we packed our things. By eight o’clock the three of us and Max were in the car and driving down the Angeles Crest Highway toward home. I think I was back in my apartment by about 10:30 and probably slept half the day.

One night Deane invited me to a party in Van Nuys at the home of bass guitarist Brad Palmer. I knocked on the door and a stunning, lissome blonde opened it. She looked surprised and asked, “Russ?” I was unable to remember being friends with any girl as pretty as she was and just stared back. She said, “It’s me, Princess.”

From the time I started school until about the time I left for college, Princess and her sister, Sally Field, lived next door. Yes, the same Sally Field who won two Oscars. Both were nice, down to earth, friendly girls but Sally was older than I and Princess was a few years younger. I hadn’t seen her since she was a pint size, skinny tomboy with streaked light blonde hair. Apparently Princess had grown up.

She whisked me inside, around the corner to the right, and onto the couch. Then she talked to me for an hour while a bunch of people I’d never seen before stood around munching chips and drinking beer. Princess said she was Brad Palmer’s girlfriend and knew few of the guests. She told me about the past twelve or fifteen years of her life and a little about her sister until Brad asked her to bring out more refreshments. Deane finally appeared from the bowels of the house, said, “Hey, Man”, and disappeared again.

I found Princess again, thanked her, and wandered off into the darkness.

That brief encounter was a very bright spot in my life, one of many I never could have enjoyed without Deane.

A year or two later I bought a house in Sherman Oaks. One weeknight at about nine o’clock I had just finished practicing the clarinet when the phone rang. It was Deane. “Hey, Man, Turner got a gig as a disk jockey in Canyon Country and needs us to come out and punch up his show. This is big; this is important!”

“Turner” was John Turner, a mutual friend of questionable sanity who once had taken drum lessons from Deane. He and Rick and I seemed to be Deane’s best friends and I think we held that honor throughout his life.

Immediately I grasped the gravity of the situation and agreed to accompany Deane to somewhere near Canyon Country or, if not there, then somewhere else, even though I had to wake up the next morning for work. Oh, well; it was an obnoxious job.

For the first time in about seven years Deane was on time and we headed north up the 405 Freeway in the dark, turned east on the 14 Freeway toward Canyon Country, and promptly got lost. We may have wandered for about 45 minutes before Deane’s unerring sense of direction led us to a gas station at the foot of an off ramp where we were able to consult a map. A mere half hour later we arrived at the trailer serving as John’s studio, walked up the ramp to the front door, knocked and, when nobody answered, walked in anyway. We heard Turner blabbing away in another room and, when he finally shut up, announced ourselves. By then it was midnight.

At that point I learned John’s “radio station”, KSCV-FM, broadcast via closed circuit cable to (Lord have mercy) a small community of senior citizens. Only a few years previously I had worked at KFWB all news radio in Hollywood and my experience there led me to conclude Mr. Turner’s studio was somewhat less sophisticated. But I had no time for reflection. John had a break in thirty minutes and our job was to come up with a commercial. The timer started and John went back on the air.

Deane and I were under relentless pressure but years of experience had prepared us. We determined to create a commercial for the fictitious Velvel’s Ice Cream Village and our job was to attract listeners to some of Velvel’s 732 unique and exciting flavors such as dog nose, sushi, creamy Italian, sparkling turnip, bismuth, difflesnap, and spodeblütner.

We managed to read down the script without laughing until John went to a recorded commercial; then we had another half hour to come up with something else. After serious dialogue we resolved to create a feature about Mendel, Your Poultry Pal, and his exciting new uses for chicken skin. Our delivery was flawless.

By then it was after one in the morning. Deane looked at me; I looked at Deane; John looked bewildered. I said, “Deane, our job here is done.” He answered, “Let’s went, Kimosabe.” We disappeared into the night with young Turner reeling in stunned disbelief. As I recall, I slept almost three hours before the alarm rang.

And then there was the Thursday night Deane sent over a sexy blonde who had hitchhiked to Los Angeles from Michigan. She told me Deane and her girlfriend had kicked her out and she had nowhere to sleep….

On May 9, 2012 the Palm Springs Desert Sun published the following obituary: “Deane Hagen, 62, of Palm Desert, CA, passed away on May 3, 2012 in Rancho Mirage, CA. He was born on December 10, 1949 in Burbank, CA. He is survived by his daughter, Deana Hagen, and his brother, James Earle Hagen….”

Perception

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

I DELIBERATELY HAVE taken a long break from writing anything here because, from a practical standpoint, it seems unproductive. None of the posts has helped to sell an album and it is very unlikely any has influenced your own thoughts, taste, or perception.

In fact I had no idea anyone actually reacts to what I write here until somebody on Facebook called me a curmudgeon. Nothing is more rewarding than to reach somebody’s emotions but I really must clarify his perception.

I am no curmudgeon. A better adjective to describe me and what I write is “candid”. I make few concessions to delicacy; I simply express what I have thought about and those thoughts always are subject to revision. If you want to experience a curmudgeon, read what Artie Shaw in his heyday said about audiences, fans, and the music business. Only the naïve or myopic would put me in Artie’s category.

Another reader, somebody I never have met and apparently pretty young, responded with belligerence to my observation, based on forty years as a jazz musician, of how some audiences seem to react to Swing. I intended nothing about it to be derogatory but, for some reason, that reader took it personally.

Both reactions seem analogous to a freshman castigating a professor for suggesting some students in his class might be there for reasons other than a profound interest in the subject.

And that brings up the fascinating concept of perception.

Perception is the subjective way we interpret what we see and hear. It varies widely. The above reactions show how three of us had very different perceptions of what I wrote in my article about Jazz And Success.

Here is another example of how perceptions might vary: Suppose we were looking at a horse and somebody asked what color it was. One person might say, “Red.” Another might add, “I’d say more brown, but the mane and tail are black and there’s a little white star on its forehead.” A third might answer, “What difference does the color make unless you are prejudiced?” And a fourth might snarl, “Who cares? I hate horses.”

See what I mean? Perception may have little to do with reality.

The perception of criticism may lead to even more volatile reactions. Suppose you were to write a tune and somebody—let’s say George Gershwin—were to tell you, “To my ear, if you were to change the B natural in measures three and nineteen to a B flat the whole tune would come alive.” That kind of “criticism” might actually be a high compliment but someone with a personality disorder could consider it denigrating and get angry. (I would love George Gershwin to comment on my music.)

So what?

Well, suppose there were no critics, teachers, friends’ opinions, radio playlists, record companies, reputations, contemporary fashion, or anything else to influence your perception of music (or anything else). Let’s make it even more interesting and also imagine you come from Mars and never in your life have heard any kind music.

Let’s also remove the possibility of listening to music with words because lyrics may make you react more strongly to the message than to the melody.

Finally, without seeing or knowing who is performing, you listen to a lot of music.

I suspect your ignorance of style and reputation, along with the inability to see an attractive performer, would result in an unbiased evaluation of the music. I therefore suspect you would like many unknown performers more than famous ones and maybe some older musical styles more than newer ones.

Then suppose, five years later, after the usual relentless bombardment by the media, peer pressure, concessions to contemporary style, and every other corrupting influence, you were to take the same test again. The second time you listen you also could see the performers and you might recognize some. It is almost certain your perception of the music, and what you prefer, would be vastly different.

At the beginning of this post I expressed doubt my words could make a difference in your perception or opinion. My theoretical experiment explains why: People are monkeys with less body hair. Monkey see, monkey do.

In a land where everybody limps, the man who walks properly is a laughingstock. If you grow up on a diet of Spam, prime rib tastes odd. If your criterion for good music is what is popular, familiar, or what somebody taught you is “good”, truly superb music might seem boring, peculiar, or distasteful.

In most cases society, along with your unique personality, shapes perception and perception often differs from reality. But imagine the wonderful music we might hear (and the opinions we might appreciate) if perception embraced reality.

Why Did Jazz Die?

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

THE ANSWER IS easy: Jazz died because it stopped being fun and expressing happiness. Given today’s mood, it would seem melodic, upbeat jazz is long past due for a comeback.

In the mid 1940s, when Bebop began its systematic dismissal of Swing and other traditional forms of jazz, its heart was intellect and its message rebellion and chaos. As jazz critics continued to demand something “new” almost monthly the music twisted and contorted, instrumentation changed, and harmonies extended. But nothing really “new” evolved after bop because western music has only twelve tones, we can combine them in a limited number of ways, and most humans respond positively to only a few of those combinations. So Bebop and other “modern” jazz sounded disturbing to most people and they looked elsewhere for fulfillment.

They found it in early rock, a combination of boogie-woogie rhythm and the good old fashioned twelve bar blues progression. It was raucous and rebellious but had a strong beat, was fun, and average Joe could understand it. It actually was fairly close to the blues jazz musicians had played since the 1920s.

Then things changed.

The underlying emotion of American popular music beginning in the late 1960s was anger. Sure, some tunes may be lustful, the occasional tune may be sad, and a tiny fragment either humorous or beautiful. But beauty in popular music today almost invites ridicule. Anger and lust prevail, at least in America.

My father told me people were more cheerful in the Swing era. Think about that. The Swing era spanned the Great Depression and World War Two, when you would least expect people or music to express happiness. People had more to be angry about between 1930 and 1950 than at any time since. But the music was upbeat and folks thought that was just swell.

Then it became stylish to be sophisticated and cynical. (After war, style is man’s most idiotic invention.) Happiness gave way to anger and love to lust. Popular music’s emotion soured and its beauty withered. Cold, loud, distorted, electronic sounds replaced the warmth, humanity, and beauty of acoustic instruments.

Most contemporary popular music epitomizes lack of taste. Much is primitive and appeals to an ever lower common denominator. Yet such music shapes our attitudes and reflects our culture. And we think it’s cool.

I have discussed the fate of “modern” jazz elsewhere. It became cerebral and impressionistic. It is now a parlor game for college music departments and is commercially dead.

But what if people again heard happy music? What if the rebellion in music again were upbeat and melodic and celebrated life? That was the kernel of traditional jazz.

What if good natured, blues oriented, swinging four-four big band jazz were to return? And acoustic instrumental music? How would that affect our undercurrent of anger? Do you suppose it might dissipate a little?

What if music were happy and jazz were more as it was at the height of its popularity in the 1930s and ’40s? What if its message were hope and its sound pleasing? What if music made people want to smile and dance? What if jazz and popular music had remained true to their intent?

Jazz possesses an immense power to bring anyone to a level of profound joy. Isn’t beauty preferable to discord and joy preferable to anger?

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.

Jazz And Success

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

IF YOU WERE to scour the world, you would find a handful of terrific jazz musicians whose names and recordings are unknown to all but their families and colleagues. They live and perform in relative obscurity. Festival directors and club owners reject them. Record companies ignore them. Even aficionados are unaware of them. The reason for that is simple: The people who create reputations chose to overlook them.

I’ll tell you something about jazz: By the time I was two years old I had fallen in love with it. Only classical music could compete but I find jazz a more creative means of expression.

I live for playing jazz, yet it is completely frustrating to be a musician. Being a professional is analogous to being married to a beautiful alcoholic: She puts you through 360 days a year of absolute hell but you stay with her for the remaining five days of bliss.

My background may be comparable to those of some other musicians: Live television shows, concerts, telethons, the occasional festival, and the list goes on. But those were as a featured sideman. When I asked our agent to help me launch a band of my own he told me he could do nothing; neither talent, artistry, technique, nor experience count.

How about the frequent standing ovations? No. They are immaterial.

The only marketable quality is fame.

Then how do you acquire fame?

In music, somebody else has to create it for you, usually a record company, by spending a lot of money on advertising and promotion. If you are a jazz musician, that opportunity is unavailable today.

For years I did everything I could to promote myself but time passed and, just as many others, I remained anonymous.

One day in 1988 the Los Angeles radio station we know today as KJAZ asked me to head a couple of concerts featuring the Concord Jazz All Stars (Scott Hamilton, Dave McKenna, Bill Berry, Jake Hanna and others.). The concerts were the most successful in the station’s history and I played very well. Nobody ever called me to perform again.

At that point I was 40 and needed to earn some money so I had to give up music to start a publishing company. I put my clarinet in the closet for twelve years. The case collected dust as I earned a good living publishing magazines.

It was painful even to think about music in those days. My musician pals stopped calling because I no longer played (or hired them) and they had little to say when I called them. I could barely listen to music, except maybe a little classical now and then, because it was too disturbing. At least once a week I would dream about playing but, when I woke up, the dreams would fade and the pressures of survival in business silenced the music inside me until late at night.

In 2000, when I met my wife, she wanted to watch Ken Burns’ PBS series about jazz. As it went along I would tell her, “Listen to this guy’s solo. It’s a classic.” Or, “I worked with that guy. And that one. That guy, too.” She asked how I knew so much and I told her I used to play professionally. She insisted I go back to it. I resisted for a few months and tried to explain she wouldn’t like it. She won and, little by little, I began to extend my practice time until I was cranking out my standard three hours a day, seven days a week.

Then, in 2003, I called my former guitar player, Larry Koonse; the bass player from the 1988 Concord concert, Dave Stone; and a great drummer named Ray Brinker. We recorded an album, Blue Scarlett. The reviews were excellent. The sales were dismal.

The title track and three other tunes on that CD are originals. Half of everything I have recorded is original, including all nineteen tunes on my latest album, Wistful. A generation ago some of those tunes might have become standards. A few people like or even love them and buy an album. But only a handful. After the recording session the music fades into obscurity, along with every other melodic tune these days.

But, in the movie, a voice said, “If you build it, they will come.” Sorry; that was a fairytale.

Southern California has few jazz clubs where I want to perform. There is no point; nobody launches a “career” at a jazz club. The pay is terrible. The acoustics are dreadful. The audiences rudely jabber through the performances. And it is almost impossible to present original tunes at such places because that would require rehearsal for a “club date”, something all but anathema to most Los Angeles area jazz musicians.

The phone rings six or ten times a year, never anyone or anything new. I fall back on the “featured soloist” status with Swing and Dixie bands that play for dancers who neither listen nor care and for older people who typically pay little attention to the quality of what they hear because they are busy recalling the better days of their youth.

An international clique of accomplished jazz players exists. I work with many at gigs in Southern California and elsewhere. Many have come up afterwards to ask, “Where the heck did you come from? What’s your name?” Yet I remain “unknown” so never receive an invitation to festivals.

And if I did? I might be disappointed.

A lifetime of seeing the quality and creativity of “traditional” jazz players decline has made me realize I’d rather lead my own group and do something more unique than run through Jumpin’ at the Woodside for the 1,309,997th time with throw-together groups that, on their best day, are unable to play it or other popular jazz tunes as well as the original band did in an average performance.

I presume you realize this blog is only one part of my website: www.westlakerecords.com. A big feature of the site is its free “radio” shows, each with about twenty minutes of original, contemporary, live recordings. Many thousands of people worldwide listen to the shows each month. But the phone never rings and the albums never sell.

What does all of the above tell you?

People like the music but refuse to pay for it; they would rather listen to an inferior free performance than buy a much better album. It tells you no events exist for relatively unknown jazz players, even brilliant ones. It tells you the only important things in “music” today are how you look, how cool you are, and how famous somebody else has made you by spending millions of corporate dollars. It tells you the business of creating music, as opposed to “glitzy sonic entertainment”, is dead. It tells you jazz is now unpopular, incestuous, cliquish, and a commercial disaster.

One thing I learned a long time ago: It ain’t how good you are; it’s what you do. A lousy porn producer earns more than a brilliant artist. An incompetent and dangerous doctor earns infinitely more than a genius ukulele player. Years ago my oldest friend compared being a great jazz clarinetist with being a great archer: Commercial or popular success is impossible today because each discipline is obsolete.

To enjoy success in the arts only two things matter: Exploiting contemporary taste and finding an investor to make you famous.

What a world.

Originality

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

WHAT A HOOT! On Monday night, June 26, 2011 I was fortunate to perform with the Jonathan Stout Orchestra again, this time at New York City’s Lincoln Center. It was an inspirational two hour concert and the opening event for a series called A Midsummer Night’s Swing.

Jonathan carefully planned each set and hand picked the musicians. He brought most of his Los Angeles rhythm section to New York along with three wind instrument players. He filled out the band with some excellent New York jazz musicians. The band has never sounded as good as it did that night.

Here’s the lineup: The sax section included the consistently excellent Albert Alva on tenor along with 19 year old Chloe Feoranzo. A couple of rising young stars from New York, Will and Pete Anderson, were on altos. The trombone players were Harvey Tibbs (who also transcribed and arranged some tunes) and the irrepressible Dan Weinstein, who doubles on violin. The trumpet section was very strong with Bria Skönberg, Dave Brown, and Jon-Erik Kellso. The rhythm section consisted of Mark Shane on piano, Wally Hersom on bass, Josh Collazzo on drums and, of course, Jonathan Stout on guitar. Hilary Alexander did the singing. Jonathan featured me on clarinet.

Only one thing stood between an excellent program and a superb one: The band recreated old swing tune arrangements; it offered nothing original except solos. While that approach may be just right for some people, I prefer a band to do more than recreate a tune somebody else wrote, arranged, and performed.

No matter how fantastic a contemporary group or individual musician may be, the original recording of a tune and arrangement typically will trump the recreation. First, the original version of a well known tune has become iconic so any deviation from it, no matter how small, becomes distracting. Second, Swing era bands never played tunes at random; leaders hired composers to write music consistent with the band’s style and arranged the tunes to make the best use of specific soloists. Duke Ellington’s band was a perfect example of that. Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and all the others did the same thing.

Contemporary bands playing Swing era arrangements usually lack musicians capable of expressing them properly. Their best results may be close but very rarely equal to or better than the original. That is because contemporary tastes, styles, attitudes, education, and peer pressure combine to influence a musician’s concept. Today’s solos infrequently reflect the way players in the early 1940s thought about music. Playing classic tunes in a more modern style detracts from their impact no matter what a jazz educator or bop snob might think. (That is primarily because Swing era bands played for dancing while later jazz is for listening.)

Contemporary Swing bands, by necessity, consist mainly of musical jacks of all trades rather than masters of one. They don’t work together six nights a week and rarely rehearse, so they play like a group of individuals rather than as a single unit. Today’s instrumentalists have no hope of becoming stars and their audience often consists of the same several dozen dancers or listeners so the performance often is just another gig.

Add to that the factor of personality. Nobody ever will play transcriptions of, for example, Artie Shaw’s or Lester Young’s solos as well as Artie or Lester did, even if the contemporary player has a better command of the instrument, a better instrument and mouthpiece, more musical talent, and the ability to express it. The reason is that those were Artie’s and Lester’s spontaneous solos, springing from their hearts and minds. When they played them their solos expressed something immediate. When we recreate them they are, at best, well crafted interpretations and reflections.

Therefore, to stand out and to play meaningful music, a band and musician not only must be excellent themselves but also must make each tune their own. That means new and better arrangements or, preferably, mostly new and excellent material. Each band needs a unique identity and a good leader determines that based on who is in the band and how each soloist plays.

So as well as a good big band, on its best night, may perform Swing era recreations, I wonder how much more exciting it might sound and how much more personality it might display with a terrific original repertoire.

The Power Of Jazz: DCLX 2011

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

LAST WEEKEND, APRIL 15-17, 2011, was the tenth anniversary of an annual east coast Swing dance event, the Washington, D.C. Lindy Exchange, or DCLX. I was very fortunate to perform there with Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five and full Orchestra. It was one of the most outstanding experiences of my performing career.

Most Swing dance events are fun but, from a musical standpoint, can be a little disappointing. The tunes we play tend to be very similar melodically, the acoustic environment ranges from horrible to mediocre (the sound guys often make things worse), the musicians’ performances can be inconsistent, and most of the 20 to 30 year old participants would just as soon dance to a metronome. A live band, even a good big band, is more a status symbol for the festival promoters than a critical attraction. After all, the dancers listen mostly to rock, rap, and hip-hop in the car, not vintage jazz. But they always are polite enough to thank us with applause at the end of the night because most are good hearted.

Jonathan rarely calls me to play clarinet with the small group—only when all of his tenor sax players are unavailable. Once before, last March, he included me on a traveling gig. So I was stunned when he asked me to fly to Washington and also, at the end of June, to perform at Lincoln Center in New York City. As it turned out both are big band gigs and, on those, he features me on clarinet.

I almost turned down the DCLX trip. Jonathan forgot to book my flight until two days before the departure date. I asked him whether he really needed me and he said a couple of his usual guys were unable to go so, yes, he needed me. Typically that kind of “admission” is his way of manipulating me into doing what he wants but this time I knew he was being truthful; his arsenal of soloists was pretty thin.

We flew into Baltimore because it’s less expensive than flying to Washington, D.C. and, at 12:30 a.m., we drove an hour to Rockville, Maryland. On the way Jonathan explained we would participate in a so-called battle of the bands. As he described it, the “competition” would be very indirect and the other band was nothing we should worry about; just a group of young upstarts from Seattle who played music from the late 1920s, a passing fad and less than ideal for serious dancers. “No problem”, he said. “We’ll mop the floor with them.”

***

The two small groups performed Friday night. We went first and played for ninety minutes, then we packed up as Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators held forth. Well, yes, Glenn is younger than 30 and, yes, his group did play some tunes from the late ‘Twenties. But they also played tunes from the ‘Thirties and early ‘Forties. And his musicians were of about the same age as ours. And they were tight and rehearsed and musical and sounded good.

Our trumpet player, Jim Zeigler, drummer, Paul Lines, bass player, Wally Hersom, and I stuck around to listen. We stayed for an hour. And, as Glenn’s musicians had done with us, we poked our heads through the stage curtain and applauded and cheered them on. They deserved it.

The next day it rained so both big bands rehearsed in a large wooden school building in a beautiful wooded neighborhood near Glen Echo, Maryland. Crytzer’s band already was at work in another room when we arrived.  They sounded very good and played a wide variety of music.

Both big bands consisted of half local musicians and half regulars. Jonathan spent 45 minutes running down a few of our more critical numbers. The lack of dynamics and sloppy section work in the horn and sax sections left him unfazed; the guys would pull it all together at the performance that evening. As for dynamics, well, Jonathan’s band performs at two levels: Loud and louder. He says that’s what dancers want.

So we went back to the hotel as Glenn’s musicians continued to rehearse in the other room.

An hour later Jonathan and I went out for a quick dinner. He seemed preoccupied; he was thinking about the upcoming performance. I asked how serious he was about competing. He said, “I want blood.”

“Blood is good,” I answered. It was clear Jonathan was dead serious despite his casual approach to preparation. I would try to add excitement to our group.

***

Both big bands set up on the same stage. The dance began at 9 o’clock and the Syncopators went first and played very well. Then it was Jonathan’s turn and our first set was, well, adequate. We were lucky because the Syncopators’ second set was little more exciting than our first and Jonathan’s choice of material for our second set was much stronger, varied, and melodic. Mercifully the horns and saxes remembered to bring down the volume behind the many clarinet solos. I was able to nail my parts and help get things swinging. The whole band started to cook. Musical excitement is contagious and I was counting on that. I suppose judges might have scored the two groups about even at that point but Jonathan had the momentum.

And then the event spokesman declared the battle was on; Glenn’s band would play a tune, Jonathan’s would answer, then Glenn, then Jonathan, and finally both bands would duke it out on Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose.

At that point the music took on an intensity I never have experienced at a dance festival. All the musicians played harder and the vocalists sang better and the dancers began to notice. About fifty had stopped dancing during Jonathan’s second set and crowded up to the stage. As the music swung on, more and more couples stopped dancing and moved toward the bandstand. Soon hundreds, all but a couple of dozen people at the very back of the hall, had stopped dancing and began to cheer for the soloists. That was unprecedented. Today’s Swing dancers go to dance, not listen. Music is merely fuel for their feet.

The music pounded on. Glenn had found a young blond guy from Wisconsin who played tenor and baritone sax. His solos on both instruments knocked me out and, on that final tune, Honeysuckle, he really belted out a winner on tenor. I doubt more than a few people realized it.

But Glenn’s secret weapon was his bass player because he doubled on Sousaphone. So, in the middle of Honeysuckle, Glenn traded his guitar for a banjo and the bass player picked up the Sousaphone. The crowd went nuts. They always are suckers for unusual instruments like tubas, washboards, bones, and spoons; it’s a cheap old trick from Vaudeville dog acts. But then half of Glenn’s band dropped out and the rest slid into a Dixieland chorus: Trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm section. Now that was showmanship!

Jonathan roared back with an unrehearsed sax section riff and the section played it slightly wrong. Somewhere along the line he tossed me a second solo. Then the drummers went head to head and our drummer, Paul Lines, played a final volley that took down the house. Glenn’s band answered with a great riff from Benny Goodman’s Fletcher Henderson arrangement they had practiced that afternoon. Jonathan shot back with a riff from Count Basie’s The King and, at the bridge, I threw in Benny’s short 1938 solo. Both bands together blasted out a final chorus and the place broke out into hysteria.

Who won the battle?

Does it really matter? Music is not a competitive sport.

My father was at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles that famous night in August 1935 when Benny Goodman made history and launched the Swing era. Our experience in Glen Echo, Maryland came as close to that as is possible today. It was an electrifying night for the musicians and the dancers.

I have played many times on the Johnny Carson Show and several other TV shows. I performed several times at Carnegie Hall. I’ve played jazz festivals. I have worked with genuine jazz stars. My groups usually received standing ovations. But Saturday night in Glen Echo was one of only two occasions where I experienced that surge of electricity you feel when you know your music has impacted an entire venue. It will stand out in my memory as a unique example of the immense power jazz possesses to bring anyone to a level of profound joy.