The Mingus Mettle

“What was it like to work with all those different jazz personalities?” “Who were your favorites?” “Was __________ as bad as everyone said he was?” “Did you encounter any performer who just blew you off?”

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Over my years of covering so many of our jazz greats, a fairly common theme raised by friends and acquaintances of mine centered around their perceived impressions of a certain musician’s reported bad behavior.

One such individual, recognized for his tempestuous personality, was bassist Charles Mingus. My initial exposure to the prolific composer/arranger and bandleader occurred at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival.

After doing just two numbers, he marched off the stage playing, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It was only later when I learned about the contract dispute Mingus had that day with MJF Founder Jimmy Lyons. Before he would honor their agreement and perform, the volatile big man demanded that the impresario get down on his knees and beg.

At times, it was hard to fathom some of the reports of his utter lack of decorum. From his early childhood days, Mingus revered Duke Ellington; indeed, he openly named the Maestro as one of his primary influences, and during his career was fond of recording his own stellar interpretations of Ellington’s works. So I was particularly dumbfounded to learn about his inexplicable treatment of

Duke during a 1962 United Artists trio record date, Money Jungle, that also included drummer Max Roach.

In his revealing memoirs, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington wrote about the strange turn of events during that recording session. He had composed, but not written, the tunes and simply ran through a series of demonstrations at the piano to give them a feel of what he had in mind. On one number he described the beauty of an untouched little African flower deep in the forest, announced the key signature and the two nodded in agreement.

He wrote, “Roach’s rhythmic embellishments could not have been more fitting, nor have sounded more authentic, while Mingus, with his eyes closed, fell into each and every harmonic groove, adding countermelodies as though he had been playing the number all his life. It was one of those mystic moments when our three muses were one and the same. There was just one take and I was thrilled.”

But then in the middle of that session, Mingus started packing up his bass, getting ready to leave. Ellington asked him where he was going.

“Man, I can’t play with that drummer.”

“Why, what’s wrong.”

”Duke, I have always loved you and what you’re doing in music, but you’ll have to get another bass player.”

“What, you mean just like that, in the middle of a date? Come on, man, it can’t be that serious!”

But Charles continued packing up, heading out to the elevator door. Ever the professional, Duke followed him to the elevator where he said simply, “Mingus, my man, United Artists gave you a full-page ad in the Christmas Billboard. It was beautiful.

“You know,” he continued, “if Columbia Records had spent that kind of money on promoting me, I would still be with them today.”

Mingus picked up his bass, returned to the studio and the three of them recorded very happily until the album was completed.

*****

For me, during the different times I was in his midst as a photographer, Charles Mingus was all business, but gentle and easy to be around. He was in a particularly buoyant mood one spring night at the 1976 Berkeley Jazz Festival surrounded by an eclectic group of leaders in their own right, including trumpeter Nat Adderley, the then-youthful trombonist/conch shell specialist Steve Turre, and a reunited Mingus alum, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who amazingly was back in the spotlight only six months after suffering a massive stroke that paralyzed his entire right side. It was a momentous night for Mingus’s crew and their delirious fans.

*****

The year 2019 marks the 40th anniversary since the passing of Charles Mingus. Despite all his peccadillos and downright explosive episodes, no one can minimize the man’s considerable contributions to the jazz canon and his lofty position in the music’s hierarchy.

As a player, he possessed an enticingly rich tone, amazing technique, plus a deep understanding of rhythmic and metric changes that literally challenged his bandmates to achieve the utmost in collective improvisation. As a leader, his bands served as training grounds for dozens of uncompromising and future stars, ranging from Jaki Byard and Eric Dolphy to Don Pullen and George Adams. And his voluminous compositions and arrangements –  capped off with the masterpiece, “Epitaph,” a monumental two-and-a-half hour long suite first performed a decade after his death – represent a virtual goldmine of creative genius.


ALBUM                  

Mingus: The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady (Impulse: 1963)

COMPOSITION   

“Solo Dancer”

PERSONNEL         

Charles Mingus - bass, piano, composer; Jerome Richardson - soprano and baritone saxophones, flute; Charlie Mariano - alto saxophone; Dick Hafer - tenor saxophone, flute; Rolf Ericson - trumpet; Richard Williams - trumpet; Quentin Jackson - trombone; Don Butterfield - tuba, contrabass trombone; Jaki Byard - piano; Jay Berliner - acoustic guitar; Dannie Richmond - drums




Kiyoshi “Boxman” Koyama, Jazz Entrepreneur of the Far East

The list of “Worldwide Jazz Champions,” those people and organizations who produce, chronicle, promote, extol and celebrate the creators of this fabulous art form we know as Jazz, runs deep. It is my great honor to recognize the man who I believe was the primary driver of jazz throughout Asia, Kiyoshi Koyama, who passed away on February 3rd at age 82.

I first became aware of Mr. Koyama in late 1969, who two years earlier had taken the helm as editor-in-chief of Swing Journal magazine in Tokyo, Japan. Along with my personal introduction asking to become a contributor to his publication, I included an assortment of 100 black-and-white prints of jazz musicians. The following month, I received back a welcoming letter, along with my first copy of Swing Journal – which coincidentally featured seven published enlargements from the images I had submitted.

That was the beginning of my relationship with Kiyoshi Koyama and the magazine throughout the following decade.

Under his guidance and direction, Swing Journal became, in my estimation, the “Jazz Bible” of Japan. Along with standard coverage of the artists’ professional dealings – interviews, recordings, critical reviews and such – I soon discovered that Koyama was driven to share with readers in much more detail the very intimate lives of his featured musicians through both words and pictures.

Indeed, many of the “Day In the Life” photo features that are currently found in my book are the result of assignments he gave me on behalf of Swing Journal. Before my book was published, I asked Kiyoshi if he would send me a personal biography of his career, part of which follows:

“In the late ‘60s and ‘70s,” he wrote, “we were living in an analog age, there was no Internet or YouTube. Magazines like Swing Journal needed to satisfy our readers’ interests. As the editor, I wanted to show in the photo pages each individual artist’s life, how they live, how they perform and where.

“Not many people could afford to visit New York or Los Angeles at that time. To be able to visit the Newport Jazz Festival (NY) for the first time in 1968 was my dream come true. I wanted to show our readers how exciting it was to be able to attend a world-famous jazz festival, how exciting to visit jazz clubs in New York, how exciting to meet musicians who you only knew through their album covers.

“I was like Japan’s No. 1 jazz fan. Luckily, our readers grew steadily and fast and by the mid-’70s, Swing Journal had some 450 pages each month with lots of gravure photo pages. That’s why I asked you to cover ‘photo stories’ of many musicians.”

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[ A sample of some Swing Journal cover artists who I also featured in Jazz In Available Light ]

In a new endeavor throughout the 1980s – working within the master tape vault at PolyGram Music Company – Koyama greatly expanded his jazz credentials by becoming a record producer specializing in packaging complete reissue projects involving key musicians. Phil Schaap, jazz disc jockey, historian, archivist and producer wrote, “Kiyoshi Koyama earned his sobriquet, “Boxman,” as his productions were typically the largest – and finest – sets.”

Among the numerous box sets he produced during that decade, Koyama was awarded Grammy nominations as producer of Best Historical Album box sets for “The Complete Keynote Collections” (21 records) in 1986 and “Brownie: The Complete EmArcy Recordings of Clifford Brown” in 1989 (Check out the Listening Tip below).

Recognized by jazz aficionados across the globe, Koyama was a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association; served as a Veteran Committee voter for Down Beat magazine’s annual International Critics Poll; wrote the section on Japanese musicians for The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz and the chapter of “Jazz in Japan” for the Oxford Companion of Jazz; and stayed active up until the end by hosting his popular radio show, “Jazz Tonight” on NHK-FM, playing rare and new recordings from his own personal archives.

In 2018, a comprehensive, personalized retrospective of Koyama and his life in jazz was published by The Japan Times, the US newspaper equivalent to The New York Times.

I am grateful to have been a close friend, collaborator and confidante of Kiyoshi “Boxman” Koyama.


ALBUM                  

Brownie: The Complete EmArcy Recordings of Clifford Brown

COMPOSITION   

“Daahoud” (Alternate Take)

PERSONNEL         

Clifford Brown, trumpet; Harold Land, tenor saxophone; Richie Powell, piano; George Morrow, bass; Max Roach, drums


Two Greats from “A Great Day”

Coincidences.

Here in January, 2019, it is now 60 years from the original publishing by Esquire magazine of the historic Art Kane photograph, entitled “A Great Day In Harlem,” featuring 57 of the best jazz musicians together in the same frame.

What makes this iconic image particularly important now – and why it is currently being reprinted in so many media – is the fact that only two of the original 57 greats from that day are still with us – tenor saxophonists/composers Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins. It’s also timely to note that the 25th of this month is also Benny Golson’s 90th birthday.

“A Great Day In Harlem” showing Golson and Rollins (#2 and #44 respectively)   Photograph by Art Kane

“A Great Day In Harlem” showing Golson and Rollins (#2 and #44 respectively)

Photograph by Art Kane

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I can’t think of a better occasion to pay tribute to these masters...two of our still remaining, greatest living jazz giants from the past. Beyond their voluminous contributions, what stands out to me, personally – having been in their midst on many occasions – is how unpretentious, down-to-earth and giving each of these artists always were.

In so many of the reviews I’ve read on Sonny Rollins, it’s common to note how often he mentions “The Golden Rule.” In an interview with Justin Joffe of RealClearLife, he said, “Life is short. My time out here has to be The Golden Rule, I know what I’m supposed to do now. I have to be a kind person, I have to give more than take.”

Despite his celebrity and the pressing demands on his time, I can attest that Rollins absolutely lived this credo. I remember one spring afternoon in 1979 when he and Lucille (his business manager and wife of 47 years who passed away in 2004) were in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I contacted Sonny early that day – without having previously requested a meeting with him in advance – and asked if we could do a photo session at the Berkeley Marina where he was staying, the two of them were obliging and openly generous. Under the same circumstances, many lesser “stars” would never have been so accommodating.

The same goes for Benny Golson. He personified so many of the traits that make him a true professional. More of a low-key individual, he was reticent when it came to boasting or calling attention to himself. Indeed, some may have believed that he was magnanimous and unselfish to a fault.

I’m reminded of the late 1950s story involving Benny and pianist Bobby Timmons when they were working for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In a December 19, 2013, Down Beat magazine reprint, critic Ted Panken shared how Timmons kept playing an incomplete “funky little bit” between tunes over and over. Later, when they got to a rehearsal session, Golson said, “You know that little lick you play...you’ve got eight bars. All you need is another eight bars on the bridge.” At that point, Benny Golson could have completed the necessary bridge and taken credit as co-composer. Instead, he made sure that Bobby stuck with it and finished it on his own. That memorable tune in today’s jazz canon was“Moanin’.”                                                                    

In a similar vein, writer Matthew Kassel described how Golson reacted after being invited to participate in the now-legendary “A Great Day in Harlem” photo session (November 7, 2018 Vulture magazine). “I was the new boy in town,” he said. “When I got up there, I saw all of my heroes, and then I wondered, ‘Why in the heck am I here? Nobody really knows who I am.’

“I hadn’t really proven myself by then,” he continued. Most of the guys there, I knew who they were, but I didn’t know them. Who did I know? I could have appeared there nude and nobody would have paid any attention to me.”

As a final coincidence praising these two jazz giants, it seems only fitting for me to share the images that are featured in the opening (Rollins) and closing (Golson) pages of my book. The moody, more-artistic takes I selected to be prominently displayed for the readers were simply an effort to express my deep appreciation for these most honorable and deserving artists. Where would modern music be without Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins?

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins

Benny Golson

Benny Golson


ALBUM                  

Saxophone Colossus (Prestige)

COMPOSITION   

“Blue 7”

PERSONNEL         

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Doug Watkins, bass; Max Roach, drums

 

ALBUM                  

The Other Side of Benny Golson (Riverside)

COMPOSITION   

“Strut Time”

PERSONNEL         

Benny Golson, tenor saxophone; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Barry Harris, piano; Jymie Merritt, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums.


Hits and Misses

 
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In the modern music world, the old saying, “There’s no money in jazz,” pretty much holds true. For every Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Dave Brubeck or Wynton Marsalis, there are thousands of others – highly-skilled artists who night in and night out use their creative juices in an effort to stand out and make a name for themselves, draw encouraging crowds wherever they go and hopefully, land lucrative recording contracts.

For many jazz musicians, the search for success is an uphill battle, a constant struggle. In order to survive, even our most recognized jazz greats – people like Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner – had to accept menial jobs along the way, i.e. working for the US Postal Service, toiling as a shipping clerk or driving taxi cabs.

And so it goes if you’re a photographer, a writer, or an aspiring author trying to sell his or her own work – regardless of your field of endeavor or your level of expertise.

Literally everyone searching for a publisher has had their share of rejection slips. Getting published, even for the most famous among us, can often appear as practically an insurmountable undertaking. The first book proposal by Canadian novelist L.M. Montgomery was rejected by five different publishers. After putting her manuscript in a hatbox for two years, she finally resubmitted it to L.C. Page & Company. The result: Anne of Green Gables went on to sell 50 million copies.

Likewise, Thor Heyerdahl believed his book Kon-Tiki: Across The Pacific was particularly unique, but 20 different publishers all disagreed. His 21st submission to Simon & Schuster wound up selling 20 million copies.

As a freelance jazz photojournalist intent on doing a book of my own, I had amassed a cache of valuable photographs and personal stories. With all that material, I had the loftiest of expectations; not in selling a million copies, but just in finding a publisher. Indeed, when I had completed my work, Jazz In Available Light: Illuminating the Jazz Greats from the 1960s, ‘70 & ‘80s – and developed what I believed was a compelling, hard-hitting book proposal – I was sure that my efforts would be welcomed with open arms. Instead, my search for the right publisher dragged on for many months, and my rejection notices kept piling up.

Sure, I was disappointed during much of that time, but I chalked it up as just another learning experience. I knew that persistence and perseverance would eventually pay off. Rather than get depressed, I remembered back to some of my earlier business dealings that also didn’t go as planned. In each case, the setbacks occurred because of another party who was involved in the transaction, i.e. a magazine editor failed to credit and pay for a published photo; someone reneged on an agreement/assignment; an equipment manufacturer illegally used a photograph of their sponsored artist; or a producer decided not to honor a contract and had to be sued in small claims court.


Thinking back about one unusual event that occurred long ago now strikes me as rather humorous.

I recalled that night in August of 1969 while covering the Concord Summer Festival. Visiting backstage prior to the opening set, I was approached by a representative of vocalist Carmen McRae, who explained that she was doing a live recording that night and needed photographs to view for possible album use.

As soon as the announcement was made and Carmen appeared onstage, the scene held all the trappings for what would be a special, momentous occasion. The perfectly-coiffed diva was outfitted in a dynamic mod-influenced, pink background, high fashion designer creation that absolutely stunned the audience. Similarly, she exuded that resolute, in-charge attitude of hers and performed brilliantly throughout the set. I had a ball photographing her.

I was pleased when I saw my results a short time later, and after reaching out to her rep was told to contact Ms. McRae directly. When I called Carmen, she set a time for the two of us to meet in San Francisco. Anticipating our get-together, I brought with me about 15 of the images that I felt were the most expressive and revealed her in the optimum, best moment.

Looking carefully through each of the images, Carmen matter-of-factly dismissed one after another with such comments as, “No, that’s no good.” Afterwards, she said, “Don’t print these. I would never use any of these photographs. I was drunk that night.”

Needless to say, that set of circumstances was pretty unsettling at the time. I was not prepared to hear those remarks. But I thanked her for reviewing what I had and then left.


To my knowledge, no recording was ever made of Carmen McRae that night in Concord.


ALBUM
I Fall In Love Too Easily

COMPOSITION

“Carmen McRae’s Finest Hour” (Verve Records)

 

More Monterey Musings

 
Leonard Feather and Mary Lou Williams doing   the first ever Blindfold Test (Metronome magazine, September 1946)

Leonard Feather and Mary Lou Williams doing the first ever Blindfold Test (Metronome magazine, September 1946)

 

As a follower of, and contributor to, the jazz scene for a very long time, one of the things that stands out is the progression of the music...including all of its forms of expression. Jazz is, of course, always changing, but so too is the way it’s covered.

Take, for example, the popular feature “Blindfold Test” that appears in each issue of Down Beat magazine. Critic Leonard Feather (1914-1994) invented the blindfold test, the significance of which was to use a noted jazz musician listening to recorded works of various artists without knowledge of who they were, and then eliciting critical opinions of what he/she heard. The very first one-on-one “Blindfold Test,” featuring pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams, appeared in the September, 1946 issue of Metronome magazine.

After Metronome folded, the “Blindfold Test” became a regular Down Beat feature in March, 1951.

Since the departure of Leonard Feather, Down Beat’s primary hosts of the blindfold tests are writers Dan Ouellette and Ted Panken. Whenever possible, they stage their “live” listening programs with assembled crowds at various music venues and jazz festivals across the US, Canada and Europe. I had an opportunity to witness one such Blindfold Test when I joined the audience during an interactive public setting on the grounds of the 61st annual Monterey Jazz Festival last month.

Dan Ouellette’s guest was the bassist, composer, arranger, producer, educator and Grammy award-winner John Clayton. Because of Clayton’s considerable big band credits, including his works with the Count Basie Orchestra, the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, The Royal Conservatory in Holland and the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the recorded selections he was asked to identify and critique were other big band units.

What I found so interesting in this setting was how Clayton – thoroughly engrossed, using “big ears” to capture the identifiable sounds – arrived at his educated guesses of the leaders and solo personnel on the various recordings. While he didn’t correctly identify all of the selections Ouellette played (which would be a near impossibility for even the most studious of all jazz listeners), all of the criteria he personally employed for discerning what he heard was indeed revealing. For example, as a prime rhythm-maker himself, he was listening in detail to the lines delivered by the bands’ bassists and drummers to help arrive at his decisions.

 
John Clayton, Christian McBride, and John Patitucci from this year’s MJF (photo: @montereyjazzfestival)

John Clayton, Christian McBride, and John Patitucci from this year’s MJF (photo: @montereyjazzfestival)

I remembered back to 1984 when I was photographing guitarist Emily Remler, one of the featured artists in my book. It was apparent during our conversations just how strong of an impact two particular bassists had played in her own life. Regarding her bassist at that time, Eddie Gomez, she told me, “I used to say, ‘If I could play with Eddie Gomez, I could die right after that, happy.’”

Likewise, she was especially effusive about John Clayton, the man responsible for introducing her to the public on her very first Concord Records disc, It’s All in the Family, featuring the Clayton Brothers (John on bass, Jeff on alto saxophone), pianist Roger Kellaway and drummer Jeff Hamilton. That outing helped launch Emily as a bonafide leader on a series of what would become her own albums.

After the Blindfold Test wrapped up, I introduced myself to John Clayton, passing along what Emily had shared with me about how much she revered the bassist. And how excited she was while touring overseas in the early ‘80s to have been able to reunite and perform with him again during his tenure as leader of the John Clayton Orchestra in Europe.

It was a bittersweet reminder of the really good times the two artists enjoyed together. There was no need to say anything about the early demise of Emily Remler, or how much the two meant to each other. As we departed, I congratulated him on his career, plus his many contributions to both the current state of jazz and to the education community.

Walking away, I couldn’t help but think what these two might still be creating were she alive today.

 
A photo from when I captured Emily Remler in 1984

A photo from when I captured Emily Remler in 1984

 

Monterey Musings/Evolution of the Double Bass

With September’s 61st anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) now in the books, it was most fitting and appropriate for the promoters to devote one special segment in honor of double bassist Ray Brown, a key component who helped shape the history and success of the festival. Kudos to Artistic Director Tim Jackson for recognizing the significance of such programming. Brown, who passed in 2002 at age 75, was practically an MJF mainstay – from his first appearance in 1959 to his last in 1994.

It goes without saying that were it not for Ray Brown, there would be a huge void in the progression of this instrument today. But to his credit, Ray was always quick to praise another bassist, Jimmy Blanton, who provided the single-most influence for him and was directly responsible for Brown’s own personal development.

Blanton, today recognized as the virtual jazz founder of bebop bass, was thrust into the spotlight as a 21-year-old when Duke Ellington hired him for his Orchestra in 1939. As described by critic Harvey Pekar, Duke was so enamored with Jimmy’s pizzicato technique – “...full of eighth- and 16th-notes and triplets, and he played melodic, piano-like parts at brisk tempo” – that he showcased the bassist front and center on the stage next to his piano. Ellington had never before featured his bass player in such a manner, and within a short time, even frequently used the youngster in duo recordings and in intimate combo settings with such band stalwarts as Johnny Hodges.

 
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In the 1950s, Brown told then-editor of Down Beat, Jack Tracy, "I just began digging into Blanton because I saw he had it covered--there was nobody else. There he was, right in the middle of all those fabulous records the Ellington band was making at the time, and I didn't see any need to listen to anybody else.”

As a way to pay it forward during his final Monterey visit in 1994, Ray closed the loop by passing along the “double bass baton” to another rising successor. Halfway through his set, Brown announced, “I have a little surprise for you. I’m hoping it’s going to be a treat for you. I have probably one of the most promising young bass players to come along in quite some time. I happen to think he’s as talented at his age as the guy that I copied playing the bass from, Mr. Jimmy Blanton from the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I’d like you to help me welcome to the stage Christian McBride.”

From the glowing praise he received that night as a 22-year-old, McBride has more than lived up to the early billing, as well as exceeded all the expectations of him that have since followed. Today the six-time Grammy Award winner continues to walk away with multiple first place finishes among readers and critics alike in virtually all the major jazz magazine polls.

So it was only natural that the 2018 “Remembering Ray Brown” tribute at Monterey featured Christian McBride. The headliner, who had the honor of making music and hanging out with Ray Brown on numerous occasions, was joined by fellow bassists John Clayton and John Patitucci who were also strongly influenced by Brown. Coincidentally, beginning in 1997, both McBride and Clayton joined with Ray Brown to record several albums under the name “Superbass.”

Final Note: October 5, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of Jimmy Blanton’s birth. Had he not succumbed to tuberculosis at age 23 – and likewise, guitarist Charlie Christian at age 25 – there’s no telling just how much broader and exciting our modern music landscape would be today. As it is, the jazz world is indeed blessed to have received their bountiful contributions.


EXAMPLE OF JIMMY BLANTON

 

EXAMPLE OF RAY BROWN


The Making of a Jazz Standard

It was while in college as a 20-year-old in 1949 that Bill Evans wrote his first composition. In his biography, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Yale University’s Peter Pettinger wrote, “...he produced a small masterpiece in waltz time that he called ‘Very Early.’ It is a highly disciplined piece of writing, its melody comprising a two-bar falling, and then rising, germ; it can withstand the most rigorous structural analysis. It exemplifies a fundamental lifelong characteristic: the application of logic to a creative musical process. That approach was the backbone of the form and content of Evans's art. And yet when we listen to his music, we are conscious not of the compositional process but only of the resultant poetry. Played ‘straight’ from the page, ‘Very Early’ is a lyrical gem; but it also provided its composer with a fruitful sequence for improvisation, the earliest of many compositions that sustained him around the globe for three decades.”

One of the highest compliments that can bestowed on a jazz artist is to have his/her composition performed and recorded by other recognized industry leaders. The more frequently this happens – and the more widely the tune becomes known among listeners – the more likely it is to become judged as a jazz standard.

In his fascinating book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2012), noted historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia offers up 253 such examples, denoting them as standards “...based on their significance in the jazz repertoire of the current era.”

I don’t believe anyone can quibble with the final list of selections Gioia chose for his book, other than perhaps simply wanting to add a few more. In my estimation, “Very Early” is one of those pieces worthy of consideration of the title, jazz standard.

For someone of Bill Evans’ bonafides, it’s perfectly understandable why pianists, especially, would want to create their own take of this idyllic jazz waltz. Indeed, many of them already have. For starters, check out the myriad renditions available online by Michel Petrucciani, Kenny Werner, Doug McKenzie, Ariana Racicot, Stefano Battaglia and the 15-year-old prodigy Joey Alexander in performance with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see and hear what is becoming an ever-growing stable of guitarists who have embraced this delightfully challenging piece, with the much-heralded John McLaughlin leading the pack. Since his eloquent interpretation of “Very Early” from the 1981 tribute album, Time Remembered: John McLaughlin plays Bill Evans, a host of others have followed suit, including Howard Alden, Tom Quayle, Gary Willis, Matt Otten, Jack Wilkins, Simon Peter King, Rick Stone, Tim Lerch, Jake Reichbart, Danny Whalen and more.

Still other instrumentalists, including alto saxophonist Phil Woods and vibraphonist Joe Locke, have added their own special versions to the mix, but my personal favorite translations of “Very Early”– after Evans – were recorded by two of jazz’s most lyrical but expressly diverse tenor saxophonist stylists, Stan Getz and Charles Lloyd.

Fabulous artists taking a tune, reworking and reinventing it to call it their own. This is what makes jazz so great.


ALBUM                  

Moon Beams (Bill Evans Trio, Riverside Records, 1962)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early”

PERSONNEL         

Bill Evans, piano; Chuck Israels, bass; Paul Motian, drums

 

ALBUM                  

Pure Getz (Stan Getz Quartet, Concord Records, 1992)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early” (solo begins at :20 second mark through 1:10)

PERSONNEL         

Stan Getz, tenor saxophone; Jim McNeely, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Victor Lewis, drums

 
 

 

ALBUM                  

Charles Lloyd Quartet: Montreux, 1982 (Elektra/Musician label)

COMPOSITION   

“Very Early” (Lloyd’s solo begins at 1:50 mark)

PERSONNEL         

Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Michel Petrucciani, piano;  Palle Danielsson, bass; Son Ship Theus, drums


That Innate Ability to Make the Leap

“One of the most thrilling things about jazz as a spontaneous creative process is in recording it, and later, hearing oneself and being so surprised at what has happened.”

– Bill Evans

Early on, it was the pianist and composer Bill Evans, who so deeply moved me. His choice of music and the way he played those most expressively sensitive lines elicited all sorts of emotions in me. He could sometimes fill you with sadness; he could bring you to a place of peace and tranquility; and on those especially gorgeous, heart-rending ballads, his calming delivery could bring tears to your eyes.

Because of all his unique qualities, I spent many hours becoming more familiar with Bill Evans. One of the more enlightening works I discovered of the great pianist was a brief documentary produced in 1966. It was kind of a step-by-step discussion involving creative problem-solving featuring Bill and his brother Harry, a music teacher who played both piano and trumpet (The documentary is still available online, including this additive version assembled by composer Jon Brantingham).

In it, they begin by discussing improvisation and the nature of jazz, which Evans describes as a “process” rather than a style. Then, moving to the piano, Bill demonstrates how to take the basics of the song “Star Eyes” as a simple framework and from there add succeeding layers of rhythm, harmonics and melodic variation.

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For Evans in 1966, then in his late ‘30s, what he formulated in those final three minutes of this demonstration was all so perfectly natural, so spontaneously creative and finished. And I’m guessing if Bill had listened to a playback of his ad-libbing on this tune – seemingly very simple, at least to him – he would still have heard something that was surprising.

Why? Because this is the nature of improvisation, creating in the moment. You can’t expect an artist to go back and play exactly what he/she has just conceived. There are no written notes. That’s what makes jazz so inspiring, so exciting. It’s always fresh. For both artist and listener, that’s the surprise.

The first time I heard that documentary, I was also surprised to learn that in one very small way, Bill Evans’ early music experience was similar to my own. He, too, got his start through classical training and over time, was able to perform complete masterpieces from the written scores. Yet, he was unable to play a simple tune without a music chart. “I couldn’t play ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ without the notes,” he stated. Even after joining a dance band as a teenager, he would still play the stock arrangements exactly as written.

But then, “...one night, I got real adventurous on ‘Tuxedo Junction,’” he said, “and I put in a little ‘Bwang’...this was such an experience, to make music that wasn’t indicated.”

In Evans’ case, reaching the lofty pinnacle of perfection that he achieved was an ongoing process, taking him many years. It wasn’t until “...maybe something like 28 when I began to feel a degree of expressive ability,” he said.

The journey for every creative musician is different; for some, it appears to be much easier. Fortunately for those of us who are huge Bill Evans fanatics, he just kept at it. In his own way, something inside compelled him to stretch out, to go beyond the written notes, to reveal his innate creative personality.

Only a special, select few have this capability and enjoy this distinction.When we discover them, they should certainly be celebrated.


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ALBUM Waltz for Debby (Riverside, 1961) Bill Evans Trio

COMPOSITION “My Foolish Heart”

PERSONNEL Bill Evans, piano; Scott LaFaro, bass; Paul Motian, drums


Not Ready for Prime Time

When you’re young and green, chances are you have no clue what you’re going to pursue as a career. That was me in a nutshell, certainly as a teenager.

Whatever hopes my parents might have had that I would grow up to become a musician was permanently dashed the night I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet solo on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House,” from the legendary 1953 album, Jazz at Massey Hall, in Toronto.

What is today dubbed as “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever” may be a slightly over-hyped claim, but it was the last time that Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Gillespie ever performed together. Historically, there can be no denying it is one of the greatest recorded live shows in all of jazz.

Dizzy.jpg
 

I was unaware at the time that this quintet personified the bebop movement. All I knew is that what I was hearing was spontaneous, highly-spirited musical joy. Dizzy’s phenomenal take caught me by complete surprise.

As a cornetist who had studied the instrument for seven years, I was technically very proficient. But I only played what was actually written, I couldn’t improvise. I wasn’t even able to comprehend what Gillespie had delivered...such free, expressive creativity, his fleeting runs, the clean articulation even in the higher registers. Afterwards, I just sat there in amazement.

It was just a short time later that I went off to college, never picking up my horn again.

Had I not been exposed to jazz music, or listened that evening to Dizzy Gillespie, my guess is that I may have continued to dabble with my horn from time to time, all the while foolishly believing I was actually pretty damn good.  

I can only imagine New York in the 1940s, and what it must have been like for those brash, but nervous, up-and-comers during the after-hours cutting contests at Minton’s Playhouse. Consider those amateurs believing so strongly in themselves...thinking they had the speed, stamina and technique, and could play the most bewilderingly complex phrases necessary to battle with the great beboppers, the likes of Dizzy Gillespie.


 

ALBUM  Jazz at Massey Hall (Debut Records)

COMPOSITION  “Hot House” (the best part begins around the 3:30 mark)

PERSONNEL  Charlie Parker, alto saxophone; Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Bud Powell, piano; Charles Mingus, bass; Max Roach, drums

 


Casting a Wide Net

Reflecting back on my flukish introduction to jazz, I have this seeming conundrum: How is it that my revelation of this “...only true indigenous American art form” (as Quincy Jones noted in the Foreword of my book) all came about because of a most passionate and knowledgeable Brit playing records on the radio?

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Wes Bowen (uncredited photo)

 

And how is it that Wes Bowen, an erudite transplant from South Wales who served as paratrooper in World War II and rose to the rank of major in the British military, would somehow become recognized as one of the world’s great authorities in jazz. After moving to the US following the war, he began what would become a 30-year career in broadcast journalism, along the way even holding the post of national president of the Broadcasting Editorial Association.

From my own exposure to this great music in the 1950s, what I eventually learned is that Bowen’s popular “All That Jazz” program on Salt Lake’s KSL Radio had regular followers spanning 38 states, even reaching ships at sea.

Like so many others from across the pond, Bowen (born in 1924) received his “baptism” – also through radio – by listening to the recordings of such early jazz masters as pianists Duke Ellington (with whom he became a  close friend), Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Earl (Fatha) Hines.

Interspersed with the great sides he spun, Bowen would share his personal accounts and interactions with various artists. Wes Bowen made you feel like you were part of his world...that you belonged, and were a member of this special family. His distinct accent, his cool, laid-back delivery during those early morning hours so perfectly fit with the captivating sounds I was hearing.

As a teenager, I guess I was too shy to even consider trying to get his phone number and letting him know how much of an impact he was having on me. Looking back now, I wish I had made the connection. I think we would have become fast friends.

 
Earl (Fatha) Hines

Earl (Fatha) Hines

In 1955, about the same time that Wes Bowen was exposing me and my ears to this exciting new music, Willis Conover launched his wildly celebrated “Voice of America” jazz broadcasts, reaching millions of new listeners throughout Europe, as well as behind the Iron Curtain.

Bowen may not have had the same reach that Conover enjoyed, but each in his own way made a huge impact in furthering the spread of jazz around the world. It’s interesting – while it was a New Yorker in the mid-20th century who brought this amazing American art to the Old World, it took a Britisher to bring it back to America...and, more importantly in my case, to me.

And of course, Duke

And of course, Duke

 

 

ALBUM  Fatha's Pianology 

COMPOSITION  “Pianology” 

PERSONNEL  Earl Hines

 

 

ALBUM  In a Sentimental Mood

COMPOSITION  “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” 

PERSONNEL  Duke Ellington