Gunther Schuller

This week brought the momentous news that Gunther Schuller died of leukemia at age 89. He was most certainly one of the giants of twentieth-century American music and just as surely one of the most versatile and wide-ranging of musicians. His work from the late 1940s on as a composer of contemporary classical music alone guarantees his eminence, he's in all the history texts on the subject and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1994 orchestral work "Of Reminiscences and Recollections". But of course there was much more to him than that. He was a French hornist whose career on the instrument took him from the Cincinnati Symphony to the pit of the Met Orchestra and many recordings, indeed I first became aware of this aspect of Schuller from his participation in one of the three studio sessions of the Miles Davis Nonet which had such impact as "The Birth of the Cool". He was also a first-rate conductor, an academic and educator (as President of the New England Conservatory in Boston), a programmer of music (as the long-time Artistic Director of The Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood) and an author/jazz historian. He wasn't a jazz musician per se, but had a lifelong fascination with jazz and of course is best known for his pioneering work as a composer in fusing classical and jazz techniques/concepts beginning in the mid '50s, coining the term "Third Stream" for this rapprochement. In this process of synthesis, he found a kindred spirit in pianist and composer John Lewis, often more [...]

Beachcombing

A baseball season is like a vast ocean of plays, numbers and events taking place in games that come at us daily, with the relentlessness of waves breaking on a shoreline. It's impossible to keep track of everything or take it all in, but if you pay attention randomly, you're bound to see things that haven't happened in a long time or perhaps ever, left like nuggets washed up on a beach. For example, on Thursday night I tuned in late to a game between the Texas Rangers and the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium. It was an extreme pitchers' duel, tied 0-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Texas reliever Keone Kela walked the first two Dodger hitters, not a great idea under the circs. But then he induced the next Dodger to tap into the pitcher's best friend, a double-play, the lead runner advancing to third base with two out. Perched there, the base-runner began feinting toward home, just enough to distract Kela, whose pitching arm made a tiny reflexive flinch, practically invisible, but not to the umpires. That's all it took, the ump called Kela for a balk and the winning run came home, it was a balk-off walk-off, a horrible way to lose such a game. I'm sure games have ended this way before, but not very often with such a minimal 1-0 score. It was similar on Sunday in a game between the Rays and Indians in Cleveland. The Rays sent one of their seemingly endless supply of good starting pitchers to the mound in Alex Colome and the Indians countered with a minor-league call-up more [...]

R.I.P. Lenny Boyd

Sometimes bad news comes in waves, as was the case recently when the Toronto jazz scene lost two of its stalwarts - bassist Lenny Boyd, who died on June 6, and drummer Archie Alleyne, who passed on June 8. Both had long careers and there will undoubtedly be forthcoming obituaries detailing their lives and many achievements. I have no intention of doing that here, even if I could, but I would like to share some memories, as each man had a large impact on my musical life in very different ways. Because this may run to some length, I'll follow this piece about Lenny with a separate one on Archie to come. At this point, Lenny may be less known than Archie to local jazz fans, except for older ones. He was more active as a player in the Toronto jazz spotlight during the 1950s and '60s, because for thirty years or so beginning in 1974 he was mostly devoted to teaching full-time in the jazz program at Humber College. This commitment took him away from playing publicly to a large extent - a shame, as he was a very good and quite original bassist, as we shall see. He was my first bass teacher and, with the exception of a few lessons here and there with other people, he was my only bass teacher; I could hardly have had a better one. When I made the transition from guitar to bass in 1973, I'd been taking guitar lessons from Gary Benson at a music store near Coxwell & Danforth. I told Gary of the switch and that I needed some bass lessons and he said there was a guy right down more [...]

Ornette, Redux

I don't usually do this sort of thing, but I wanted to revisit Ornette Coleman and yesterday's article about him, for several reasons. Firstly, the response from people was very quick, positive and voluminous, so thanks to everybody for their comments and support, this was both gratifying and a little surprising. I say surprising because I wrote the piece pretty quickly, wanting to get it out in one day in the interests of timeliness in this case, and for this reason I felt it was far from my best work. There were also distractions and interruptions while I wrote it here at work, which caused me to leave some things out, maybe a good thing. I didn't have time, nor was I up for writing a lot of detailed critical analysis on Ornette's music, maybe just as well - I mean, the man just died here and I wasn't writing a thesis. Partly I wrote the piece as a cathartic aid to help myself get over the surprisingly palpable shock of Ornette's death and also assumed that a lot of readers would already know what he did and what his music accomplished and so on. There were lots of more detailed obituaries yesterday and today which covered this and, moreover, there has been reams of stuff written about Coleman's music over the years, some of it worthwhile, some of it quite misleading. Mostly I wanted the piece to be personal and brief and also to say that while Coleman was an innovative, avant-garde figure, his music was not "weird" or as inaccessible as it's often made out to be. I more [...]

Ornette

This morning brought the news that jazz legend Ornette Coleman died at age 85, from cardiac arrest. Somewhat surprisingly even to me, I'm having real trouble processing this information, my reaction is mostly one of profound shock and disbelief. This flies in the face of logic and reason, which is often the case with our feelings. I mean, I know we all have to go eventually, even Ted Williams, and at 85, Ornette was well within the age range where people can be expected to die of various natural causes. It may have something to do with the fact it has come so quickly on the heels of the deaths of two fine Toronto musicians - Lenny Boyd and Archie Alleyne - both of whom I knew well, in fact I'm in the middle of writing memorial pieces on each of them. And then this - oh God no, not another one gone - but as a friend said the other day, bad news often comes in threes. It's not just that though, it's something else.......it's that Ornette Coleman was so original and ground-breaking a musician, so unique a thinker on matters even beyond music, that he didn't seem to have an age or even to be quite of this earth, so it seems impossible that he's dead, inconceivable. I suppose I fell into the habit of thinking of him not as a man, but as a force, a legend, as a manifesto of revolutionary, yet influential, ideas and principles, in more or less human form. This is odd too, because It's not as though I idolized him outright, he wasn't my absolute favourite musician or anything. more [...]

Used To Be, Still Is

In 1971, Jimmy Rushing turned seventy and became terminally ill with leukemia. He'd been singing jazz professionally for almost fifty years, first leaving his native Oklahoma as an itinerant blues singer in the early twenties, eventually joining Jelly Roll Morton for a short spell in Los Angeles. He worked his way as far back east as Kansas City, getting in on the ground floor of the seminal, blues-based music teeming from that wide-open town. He sang with Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1927, then with Bennie Moten's band in 1929 and finally with Count Basie's band, which grew out of Moten's after his death in 1935. He remained with Basie until 1948, retiring briefly after years on the road. Pausing briefly for air, he then lit out on his own as a freelancer in the early fifties, making a series of wonderful small-group records from 1955 on into the early sixties - two for Vanguard (Jimmy Rushing Sings the Blues and Listen To the Blues) and a string of others, mostly on Columbia. Cat Meets Chick, The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing, Esq., Rushing Lullabies, Brubeck and Rushing (yes, that Brubeck, and they sound good together), Jimmy Rushing and the Smith Girls, and Five Feet of Soul, made in 1963 with an all-star studio big band. During this time, "Mr. Five by Five" (he was "five feet tall and five feet wide") garnered acclaim as an immediately identifiable, quintessential singer for all jazz seasons and settings - big-band, small-group, blues and ballads - he could sing anything more [...]

More Gremlims

In very timely fashion, a couple of readers informed me of a problem with the link to today's post "Tricotism", which didn't seem to be taking people to the bulk of the piece after the initial teaser. I wasn't sure at first what they meant, the problem being that I don't receive the posts, so I don't know what the whole process looks like. At any rate, I think I figured it out and fixed it. I somehow "mis-published" - after clicking on "publish", which sends out the notice, I inadvertently closed something I shouldn't have, which somehow disabled the link. People tell me it seems to be working now and I've checked, it is. You would think after posting well over a hundred of these pieces, I would have the whole thing down by now, but no........there are still probably dozens of cyber-goofs I haven't stumbled upon to date, including some that haven't even been dreamed up yet. I'd like to say it won't happen again, but leave it to me.... Anyway, sorry for the inconvenience and thanks for your continued readership and support. P.S. In today's comments, the wonderful drummer Morgan Freeman asked, "The name though! What or who or where is a Tricotism?" I wondered the same thing when writing about it, and tried looking up the word in several authoritative dictionaries, but apparently it doesn't exist, it was a product of Oscar Pettiford's imagination, a made-up big word. Unlike Thelonious Monk's piece "Epistrophy", which is actually named after a word with two meanings. A more [...]

Tricotism

  It was once said of ex-President Gerald Ford - perhaps unfairly - that he was "too dumb to chew gum and fart at the same time." And as Yogi Berra, that undisputed king of syntax-mangling one-liners once said, "Think!? How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?" Well....Odd as it may sound - or maybe not - I'm finding I can't think and write at the same time, it's a case of think first, write later. Admittedly, I've been known to reverse that order from time to time. My recent visit with Bill Kirchner in New York provided me with so much food for thought - both from him and the city itself - that I can barely digest it, can't seem to stop thinking long enough to write. Mind you, no deep thoughts or anything - but a feverish, disorganized tangle of cranial activity nonetheless. It's a kind of writer's block in reverse - not a shortage of ideas or subjects to write about, but rather too many, coming too fast to get them down. Maybe I should invest in one of those digital voice-recorder thingies, then I could fit right in with all the "phone-zombies" I see downtown, droning on and on into their hand-held devices while bumping into unsuspecting fellow-pedestrians, buildings, hot-dog stands, and whatever else happens to be in their sleepwalking, idiocy-strewn paths. Anyway, to kick-start my languishing "writing career", I thought I'd initiate a series of semi-regular, brief posts about randomly selected, single pieces of music. Almost more [...]