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.
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.