Making Strides, Part 2 – James P.

"There has long been a disturbing tendency among jazz aficionados to regard each innovation in the music as "progress", a practice that sends the musicians who have been supplanted into the outer darkness" - Whitney Balliett. I wanted to revisit the above quotation which began Part 1 of this piece, because the process of marginalization Balliett describes applies to few more than James P. Johnson. Johnson was a key pioneer of jazz piano, the founder and widely acknowledged king of stride piano, and was, with Jelly Roll Morton, one of the first great jazz pianists. And yet, since well before his death in 1955 and continuing until recently, Johnson has been largely forgotten, and this obscurity is easy to demonstrate. For years he rested in an unmarked grave in the Mt. Olive Cemetery in Queen's, N.Y., which is scandalous. The respected Reed College musicologist David Schiff wrote an article on Johnson which was sub-titled "The Invisible Pianist". The noted pianist and jazz scholar Ethan Iverson wrote a very systematic and detailed examination of Johnson's playing and recordings called "In Search of James P. Johnson." Both these titles strongly suggest a neglected, shadowy figure, shrouded in the mists of antiquity. And he's not easy to find on the market either - although Johnson made a great many piano rolls and records between 1917 and the middle '40s, it's still difficult to find his recordings. It took some time and effort, but I've managed to cobble together more [...]

Around the Old Ball Yards….

Some random thoughts on the current baseball season.......... There are many ways to spell tough luck in baseball, it's that kind of game...one of the best ways this year is S-a-m-a-r-d-z-i-j-a, as in pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Coming into this week, he had a brilliant ERA of about 1.64, but absolutely zilch to show for it - a record of 0-4. Of course he pitches for a bad team, in fact the 'poster-boy' of all bad teams, the Cubs. This year and last, they're about as bad as they've ever been, I just don't get it.....can't they be good, just once, just for a little while? C'mon, God..... would ya? Pleeze? Samardzija started Wednesday afternoon's inter-league game against the Yanks in Wrigley Field. The night before, the Cubbies shocked themselves and the free world by clobbering the Bronx boys, 6-1. But could this sudden astounding competence and outrageous good fortune continue for our fair-haired boy with the great ERA and eye-chart name? Nooooo. Samardzija threw seven stellar innings, giving up nothing - a couple of measly hits, no walks, no runs and actually lowering his ERA to 1.46. But not only did he not get the win, neither did the Cubs, they lost 3-2 in thirteen.......Jeezus, what does a guy have to do to get a win around there? Sacrifice his mother? Cut off his pitching arm? Samardzija was one of the pitchers the Jays were trying to pry loose in their futile off-season pursuit of a starter, he sure would look good in a Toronto uniform. They'll have to join more [...]

.500, Ho!

The weather around these parts hasn't consistently warmed up yet (a sort of "Prague Spring"), but already the baseball season has reached the quarter-mark, with most teams having played about 40 games. The baseball has been similarly lukewarm, so far it's mostly been characterized by the high number of teams treading water at a winning percentage of .500 or so. Of the 30 MLB teams, 23 are within five games of either side of the break-even mark. If you wanted to use a tighter standard of say, three games either side of even, there are still 18 teams there, which seems high even at this still early point. Only four teams are significantly above .500 - the Tigers (24-12), A's (25-16), Giants (26-15) and, perhaps surprisingly, the Brewers (25-15). (I say perhaps in the Brewers' case because they were a consistent contender recently until falling into a big hole last year, when their star slugger Ryan Braun was forced to take an extended timeout for drinking his classmates' apple juice.) The good news is that there are only three teams far below the .500 mark - the Astros (14-27), the Cubs (13-25) and Arizona (16-27). The first two are hardly a surprise, but few expected the D-backs to be this bad. Everybody else is just kind of plugging along, winning a few, losing a few, week in and week out. There are all sorts of ways to break this down, most of them offering mild to jarring shocks. For example, the two teams who played in last year's World Series - Boston and more [...]

Phew….

It's been a while since my last posting and I'd like to explain.....It's not that I've become lazy of late, or developed a sudden case of writer's block or anything like that, although......For the past few days, I've been unable to log on to the site itself, which is where I do the actual writing. Whenever I tried to get in, I was greeted with the same scary message that the website was temporarily unavailable, due to a "brute force attack" it was undergoing. That was the actual phrase in the displayed message and the creepy, military/sci-fi tone of it filled me with no small dread. It seems that some individual or robotic cyber-virus was infecting or trying to hack into either WordPress or my site, which boggled the mind a little. I mean, who would want to hack into my site, what could possibly be gained by doing so? The stuff I write is of little general interest and even less commercial value; little kids have earned more by selling lemonade for half an hour and I'm not bitching about this, nobody's forcing me to write. I have to tell you though, I didn't fully realize how addicted I've become to writing until this outlet was taken away for a few days. It nearly drove me crazy, admittedly a short trip in my case. Of course, I could have written elsewhere - in Word Perfect or email - then copied the text to the blog, once - and if - the problem was corrected. This occurred to me, and a couple of friends may have noticed they got emails from me that were a little longer more [...]

Making Strides, Part 1 – Labels

"There has long been a disturbing tendency among jazz aficionados to regard each innovation in the music as "progress", a practice that sends the musicians who have been supplanted into the outer darkness" -  Whitney Balliett. The process so neatly described above by Mr. Balliett has bothered me for some time, though I've also been guilty of it myself at times, certainly when I was younger. What troubles me the most is the last part about older musicians being consigned to the shadowy margins. I think a lot of this has to do with labels, those facile attempts to classify and date various ways of playing jazz by assigning a name to them. Dixieland, stride, trad, Chicago, small-group Swing, big-band Swing, bebop, mainstream, progressive, cool, West Coast, hard-bop, avant-garde, neo-whatever-jazz, etc., ad nauseam. I've come to deplore and detest most of these because they do more harm than good. I understand the reason and need for such labels, they provide basic terms of reference and make easy distinctions between different styles so that jazz can be generally discussed and written about. We all try to clarify complex things by reducing them to bite-sized simple images. I use these labels myself because they're in place and provide a means of avoiding cumbersome explanations. But I'm not really comfortable with them; often I intend to put a disclaimer at the beginning of some pieces saying that whenever one of these labels appears, the reader should assume a more [...]

Goin’ to Chicago (Sorry, But I Can’t Take You)

Like many of us, I'm growing a little tired of hearing or thinking about Toronto's disgraced mayor. But his recent crash off the wagon and skedaddle to a rehab shack somewhere in or near Illinois got me to thinking of something more pleasant, namely the classic Count Basie-Jimmy Rushing blues, "Goin' to Chicago". Basie recorded this a number of times in the '40s with Jimmy Rushing singing. I love Rushing to death, but my favourite version of this is on a 1959 record called Sing Along With Basie, which features Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (and on this track, Joe Williams) singing with the band. This record is not to be confused with L, H & R's Sing A Song of Basie from 1957, on which the vocal trio recreated (and replaced) the sound of the whole band by singing every instrumental part of the arrangements, backed by Basie's rhythm section, with Nat Pierce sitting in for the Count on piano. It's a phenomenal vocal tour de force, but I prefer Sing Along With Basie because it features the singers with the actual band, and because Jon Hendricks wrote some great lyrics to the amazing solos from records by the earlier Basie band of the late '30s. Fabulous soloists like Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Dickie Wells, Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison (on tunes like "Jumpin' At the Woodside", "Let Me See", "Every Tub", Tickle Toe") provide wonderful raw material for Hendricks to spin his hip jazz poetry. This version of "Goin' To Chicago" starts with a soulful two-chorus, slow blues more [...]