A Portrait of Bill Kirchner, Part One

Introduction Bill Kirchner has been mentioned fairly regularly in my jazz pieces ever since he and I first became friends in August of 2014. This began and has continued mostly in cyberspace as Bill left a couple of comments on my site then followed these up by emailing me personally. He introduced himself, saying he knew of my work with the Boss Brass and commenting that he enjoyed my blogs and admired my writing, which, coming from such an accomplished writer, took me aback somewhat. In typical mensch-like fashion he offered to do anything he could to help with my writing, including spreading the word about it, which he has certainly made good on. As our correspondence continued and we exchanged a lot of information, observations and stories, Bill crept into my head more than a little. He has an immense knowledge of jazz and a phenomenal memory, so I began learning a lot from him straight away, hence the frequent mentions in posts. Indeed, I could have a separate blog just devoted to our many exchanges, perhaps called "Conversations with Bill Kirchner" or something. We've gotten into all kinds of music stuff small and large and he has certainly given me many ideas about jazz subjects to write about, more than I can keep up with in fact. I've got to learn to type faster. I've been intending to write a piece on him for a long while now, in fact I must confess I have begun to do so many times and either stalled or aborted altogether, chucking out a few thousand words in the more [...]

A Little Winter Music

I'd hoped to write some sort of Christmas post - a Yule blog, if you will - as in the past few years but a lot of time was taken up with, well........ Christmas, so I didn't get to it. At any rate, I hope everyone had a nice one, as I did. Most of northern North America is caught in a deep cold snap and there's been plenty of snow to boot - actually, to shovel* - so perhaps a look at some music suggested by this weather is in order. In some cases the winter theme is captured by the titles only, but some of these songs also invoke the forbidding cold in their musical content too. I've lost track of how many mornings the past ten days or so I've watched snow falling from indoors - sometimes straight down and peacefully, other times swirling or furiously blowing sideways; big flakes, little flakes. It's happening even now as I write. Without fail this calls to mind James P. Johnson's classic "Snowy Morning Blues", which he revisited a number of times in the recording studio throughout his career. Like many efforts from that time it's not a blues at all despite its title, nor is it particularly sad but rather quite jaunty and cheerful. Just as falling snow can be, provided you don't have to go anywhere in it. It's probably my favourite of Johnson's piano pieces and certainly one of my favourite stride pieces ever, it has a lilting kind of strut I never tire of. And as a card-carrying Canadian, the implicit poetry of the title moves me, though I would adore this just as much more [...]

Autumn Nocturne

To paraphrase a song about another season, it seemed for a while that fall would be a little late this year. But it's now here in earnest, and then some, and seeing the leaves turn colour and drop off the trees always takes me to autumn songs. There are many of these, but I want to touch on one in particular that has long enchanted me: the lovely old ballad "Autumn Nocturne". It's utterly distinctive even though it shares some traits in common with many other songs. For example, it has the typical 32-bar, A-A-B-A form of many ballads, but with unusual variations in the cadences of its A sections. And the modulation of its bridge, moving to the key a major third above the tonic and then up to the fifth, is the same as "Lover", "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and probably some others. But these are considerations of form and harmony only. As with every good song, what makes "Autumn Nocturne" stand out is its unique melody - rhapsodic and stirring, operatic in range, rococo in detail and kinetically linear. The opening four bars of melody in each A section have a European, "classical" quality reminiscent of an aria, or of German lieder. Elsewhere however, in the latter half of each A section and in the bridge, the relationship between the melody and underlying chords also implies - and indeed, presages - bebop harmonic thought. So there's a duality at work here on two fronts - European/American and classical/jazz. In short, it's a rich, dramatic song with a lot going more [...]

Maybe I’m Not So Jaded After All

Turning 61 recently, I seem to have entered the early phase of my dotage. Some, such as Mrs. W., would argue it's not that early, but quite advanced. This comes equipped with a certain amount of woolly forgetfulness and nostalgia, but even when not feeling the effects of these I'm noticing lately that treasured tracks from my long-lost youth have been coming back to me randomly. And at a furious pace, often abetted by free-associating YouTube clips exchanged in emails with friends of a similar age. I had two of these going simultaneously earlier this week: one with an old friend who now lives in France and celebrated her 59th birthday on October 17, and the other with a musician friend on the subject of how many great songs there are with "blues" in their titles, but which aren't blues at all. Such as "Blues In the Night", "Blues In My Heart", "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues", "Basin St. Blues", "San Francisco Bay Blues" and many more. The birthday girl revealed that she would be visiting San Francisco next October to celebrate her 60th in style, accompanied by her stepsister and a friend named Alison. I'm toying with the idea of joining them, as 'Frisco is one of my favourite cities and I haven't been there in ages. Just for fun - and recognizing for the umpteenth time that there's a song for every occasion and subject - I sent her three YouTube clips: Scott McKenzie's Haight-Ashbury anthem '"If You're Going To San Francisco", Linda Ronstadt's cover of Elvis Costello's more [...]

Trumpet Tales

A while back my good friend Bill Kirchner emailed me an article called "Lead Player", written by William Whitworth and published in the December 10, 1969 issue of The New Yorker. It was both highly entertaining and very informative in considering trumpet playing generally while also serving as an in-depth profile of one of the greatest lead-trumpeters ever, Bernie Glow. Whitworth begins by pointing out the physical toll that playing the trumpet can exact, citing instances of lead players blacking out from holding long notes at slow tempos, or suffering other occupational hazards such as bulging neck disks, hiatus hernias, sore backs and aching legs, all brought on by the duress of forcing air through a tight metal tube with maximum exertion. He also points out that trumpeters tend to amaze one another, forming a tight brotherhood of mutual admiration based on shared knowledge and empathy about just how hard playing the trumpet is. And that within the pecking order of this fraternity lead trumpet players are held in the highest regard for their rare combination of - among other things - power, control, technique, range, and stamina. In a straightforward style featuring a refreshingly dry sense of humour, Whitworth moves on to a look at the demands of playing lead trumpet, using Bernie Glow as a lens. Glow was a first-call lead player on countless jazz and commercial records made by studio-assembled big bands in New York from about 1953 through the '70s - the peak of all recording more [...]

Blue and Sedimental

An account of surely the strangest, funniest and shortest jam session I've ever taken part in........ Anyone who has attended a symphony concert knows the riotous and bewildering cacophony of a full orchestra warming up on stage. It's noise rather than music because there's no design or cooperation and nobody is listening to anybody else. While each musician onstage is an expert on their chosen instrument and fully capable of producing a beautiful tone, it's everyone for themselves during these frenzied warm-ups. So chaos rules, and a fire at a zoo would be more orderly. The horsehair is fairly flying as the various strings are sawing away furiously in any number of keys on passages from Offenbach to Bloch to Bach and back. Meanwhile, the low brass are blasting farty pedal tones while the trumpets are blowing arpeggios up and down, and God only knows what the French horns are doing. The woodwinds are madly trilling and tooting, producing high chirps and low burps with a few reedy wheezes in between. The lonely harpist is playing "The Kerry Dances" but nobody can hear her (never a he) because the nearby members of the percussion section are pounding on various surfaces and tuning up their wrists with a few rolls, secure in the knowledge that for once they can make as much noise as they want without anybody objecting. What each musician is playing separately would sound fine on its own, but taken all together it sounds like one of Charles Ives' compositions for two bands playing more [...]

Geri Allen

Some light went out of the jazz world on June 27 with the sad and stunning news that pianist and educator Geri Allen died at 60, from cancer. Seemingly she wanted to keep her illness quiet, making the loss all the more shocking to her many fans and musical colleagues. That she was so young makes her passing hard to believe, and even harder to accept. How in the world can such a vibrant jazz voice be suddenly and arbitrarily silenced, just......gone, in the blink of an eye? Like a number of people I've talked to, I'm taking her death very hard, almost personally. This despite not knowing her or even having seen her perform in person. I suppose it's partly that I love her playing so and that she was just slightly younger than me that make the loss so hard to take. But her untimely death also forces one to ask an uncomfortable question. Namely, if someone as strong and extravagantly gifted, as lovely and full of life as Geri Allen can go like this, then what's to become of the rest of us? What, indeed? (In the interests of grammatical correctness, I will try to write about Ms. Allen in the past tense, but I confess this seems unnatural and will be difficult.) She was one of the most deeply satisfying pianists to emerge in jazz during the past 35 or 40 years and there was never any talk of her being a great "female" pianist; she was simply a great pianist, full stop. At the end of the day what I find so compelling about her playing was not only that it brimmed with core jazz more [...]

Patti Bown – Overcoming In Triplicate

International Women's Day was March 8 and three days later I played an evening of songs with lyrics by the great Dorothy Fields, the first woman to break into the all-male world of big-time songwriting. Both got me to thinking about the subject of women in jazz and the struggles they've faced over the years establishing careers in the music, other than as singers.  Being a jazz musician is tough: this is not a complaint, but a statement of fact. The music itself presents challenges which never seem to end, and then there's the attendant "lifestyle": not much money or security, erratic work, and the constant uphill battle of playing music that is often misunderstood and/or ignored. I've experienced all of this and more firsthand, but I've had it relatively easy because I'm a white male. Black American musicians have had to face the above challenges of a jazz career while also waging daily battle with the institutionalized racism that has been a fact of life in American society, and continues to be to some extent. Considerable progress has been made on this front and jazz likely has had a good deal to do with that, but there's still work to be done. But imagine, if you will, facing the difficulties of being a jazz musician as a black woman: dealing not just with the challenges of the music and racism, but sexism too. It's a case of 'we shall overcome, someday', but in triplicate.  At any rate, this is not intended as a sociopolitical lecture.....but rather to say that all more [...]

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Great Irish Pianists

OH MY GOD!! Here it is St. Paddy's already and I've completely forgotten to prepare a post for the green day, as I've done for the last two years. And me of Irish descent.....I should be ashamed of myself (and trust me, I am, I am......). I blame Trumpomania, the Adventures of Dolt 45 for my forgetfulness. It's so distracting and lazy-making - why bother to dream up something imaginative when you can just turn on the TV? Anyway, enough of that............. having left myself short on time, I thought it would be nice to celebrate the day with a wee look at some of the great Irish jazz pianists, starting with a big favourite of mine, Tommy Flanagan. Flanagan hailed from the County Monaghan city Moughtown, which proved to be a fertile jazz breeding ground. He was very "lace-curtain", there never was an Irish pianist who played with more grace and lilt. Here he is on his first album with mates Wilbur Little on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, playing "Relaxin' at Camarillo", written by Charles Byrd for the famous botanical gardens of Clare. Note the green cover: And here with a later trio, which for ages accompanied the great Irish can belto singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Miss Fitzgerald is not present on this track, but we'll come to her later. Here, Flanagan abandons his Fenian roots by playing a medley of two songs associated with that noted English villain, the Duke of Wellington: the first written by his associate William Strahorne, and the second by the Duke himself. Ah more [...]

The Shorter Porter

Since the beginning of January, singer John Alcorn has been presenting a weekly songbook series on Saturday nights at the 120 Diner. The relatively new venue is so-named because it's located at 120 Church Street, just below Richmond and immediately south of McVeigh's Irish Pub, a fixture on that corner for as long as I'd care to remember, and maybe even longer than that. As the name and outward appearance would suggest, 120 Diner is a casual venue, but nevertheless a successful one from the standpoint of presenting music, particularly cabaret. Alcorn's approach is somewhere between cabaret and jazz: there's a lot of respect for the songs as originally written, but also a high dosage of improvisation, both in solos and accompaniment.  The diner is intimate, seating only about 60 people, with a small raised stage ideal for a trio, and good natural sound. Alcorn booked Reg Schwager and me - his regular band - for the residency, which was to run through the end of February. Reg and I have had to miss a few nights owing to prior commitments, but the three of us have thoroughly enjoyed playing the room and Alcorn has typically done a nice job of music programming. He began with an evening of Cole Porter on January 7, and continued with the other five major Broadway songwriters - Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, rounding out the eight weeks with evenings devoted to songs associated with Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. Toward the end of more [...]

Horace Parlan, R.I.P.

"Whatever you think can't be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself." - Thelonious Monk The unique and wonderful jazz pianist Horace Parlan died in his sleep on February 23 in the Danish nursing home he had been living in for several years; he was 86 and had been in poor health for some time. Perhaps it's just as well he went this way, as much that he loved had been taken from him in recent years: his devoted wife Norma, his eyesight, his ability to go out and play; seemingly he didn't have much left to live for. He might have disagreed though: as we shall see, he was no stranger to adversity. Whether a blessing or not, when someone as special as Horace Parlan passes, it's a blow, one felt by many. Certainly veteran and hard-core jazz fans treasured him, but more recent or casual converts to the music may barely know of him; he'd been tucked away in Denmark since the mid-70s and hadn't been very active of late. Parlan was born on January 19, 1931 in Pittsburgh, and was adopted as an infant. Pittsburgh produced not only steel, but important jazz pianists. The city's rich piano legacy spanned several generations and styles, and included (in more or less chronological order) Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, Sonny Clark, Ahmad Jamal, and Parlan. All of them are gone now but Jamal, who was born about six months before Parlan and still seems to be going fairly strong. Along with Django more [...]

Music Is the Reason ‘Tis the Season

This is a slightly expanded version of an article I wrote for the Dec./Jan. issue of WholeNote last year. Where possible, I've included samples of some of the harder-to-find and lesser-known music. Music is an essential part of Christmas and with that time of year upon us, I thought I'd offer a look at some records that might enhance our enjoyment of the season. These are all personal favourites and most, but not all, are jazz-oriented. Hopefully there's something here for all tastes, from the religious to the secular, for those who like their Christmas music straight and those who like it, well....not so straight. To organize things a bit, I've arranged the selections into four loose categories: JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL Three Suites – Duke Ellington. One of the three suites is Duke's adaption of a holiday staple - The Nutcracker - to his unique musical soundscape. While he and Billy Strayhorn remain quite true to the original, the highly individual voices of such Ellington veterans as Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown et al cast Tchaikovsky's score in an entirely new light, to say the least. The majestic swing of the Overture is especially thrilling, as far as I'm concerned the Christmas season hasn't begun till I've heard it. As an added bonus the other suites are Grieg's Peer Gynt and Suite Thursday by Ellington and Strayhorn, after John Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday. A Charlie Brown Christmas - Vince Guaraldi. A delightful more [...]

So Long, Mose

"Ever since the world ended, I don't go out as much." - Mose Allison. Mose Allison won't be going out as much as his world ended on Nov.15 at his Hilton Head, S.C. home, just four days past his 89th birthday. I don't mean to strike a facetious tone or make light of his death with the above quote. While not unexpected - he'd slowed down considerably in the past few years - his passing came as a personal blow because I'd worked with him quite a lot; I liked and respected him a great deal. There's some comfort in that he left behind a legacy of some 40 records and of course his many songs, both of which guarantee his art will live on. All in all, he had a very good run, touring extensively for 50 years without a regular working band. As he often said in interviews, "I'm in my --th year of on-the-job training." He was able to do this for so long because, although his on-stage persona and songs could seem fanciful, he was not: he was very disciplined and practical, he took care of himself. He didn't smoke or drink - maybe the odd beer at the end of a night - and never gained a pound, eating sparingly and wisely. Mostly he drank herbal tea with honey for his voice and his only vice, if you can call it that, was a moderate fondness for marijuana. But never much of that either - as he said once, "I only need a little poke, 'cause I'm workin' on a 50-year 'contact-high'". His decision to tour as a single was partly financial - keeping a working band on the road is expensive - more [...]

Remembering Bob Cranshaw

This year in which so many notable musicians have died continued with a rough patch lately. Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen, and in the jazz world, bassist Bob Cranshaw and more recently, Mose Allison. As pop stars, a lot has already been written about Russell and Cohen, to which I can't add much except to say that the band Leon Russell assembled on short notice for Joe Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour is still a model of what rock 'n' roll is supposed to sound like. And that through his words and music and oddly light-handed gravitas, Leonard Cohen established a very personal definition of what it means to be existentially cool. Though not unexpected, Mose Allison's death hit me hard in a personal way because I worked a lot with him and came to know him well. I'll deal with him in a separate post, but for now I want to focus on Bob Cranshaw, who was the least famous of these men, but a giant all the same. Cranshaw was, no pun intended, the walking definition of a bassist who didn't draw attention to himself, yet even so it came as a surprise to me that several jazz insiders hadn't heard of his death until several weeks after it occurred. (He died November 2 in Manhattan from cancer, a month shy of his 84th birthday.) More than once Bill Kirchner has said that Bob Cranshaw was one of the most beloved and respected musicians in New York, and had been for years. He'd worked with virtually everybody and for decades had been tireless in his efforts with the musician's more [...]

Dimentia Internetus

Multinational Jazz Corporations For whatever reason, my friend Ted O'Reilly sent out a number of YouTube clips to the Old Farts this morning. They were a series of warm-and-fuzzy Christmas ads for a chain of UK department stores known as "John Lewis". I've included the first one here, which is quite amusing, as English ads often tend to be. The other clips were variations of it along political/satirical lines which I haven't included because I'm not sure I approve - suddenly, politics don't seem very funny to me these days. Although I've traveled in Britain extensively a number of times and like to think I'm up on its culture as much as most, I'd never heard of the John Lewis chain. Harrod's, yes. Marks & Sparks - as they call it - you betcha. Tesco's, absolutely. But as soon as I saw "John Lewis" in Ted's message, I expected someone had created some ads for a UK department store chain with soundtracks using music by the composer/pianist and musical director of the MJQ, who is a great favourite of mine. I just assumed they would have used his arrangement of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen", also known as "England's Carol", it would be a natural. (Obviously, there's a reason Madison Avenue has not been beating a path to my door all these years.) Here's a favourite version of it by the MJQ. John Lewis is the one wearing Bermuda shorts, seemingly jotting down a grocery list: "The Queen's Fancy", "Little David's Fugue", and "The Golden Striker" are some other Lewis more [...]

Barney Kessel, Redux

After issuing my last post about the Jim Hall-Barney Kessel duo and Barney's amazing "I Took A Trip On A Train" solo offering, I got to remembering some other good stories about him I wish I had included. I've added them to the first post so that it's all of a piece, but for those who already read that one, I'm issuing them separately here. When Barney was giving his little train-salon solo concert, I had no way of knowing that I'd have the good fortune of playing with him in the near future for two fairly long stretches and would come to know him pretty well as a result. The first occasion came in the fall of 1989, when Barney joined the Oliver Jones trio for the Spanish leg of a tour that had begun in Ireland at the Cork Guinness Jazz Festival. We played both clubs and concerts and had some adventures while attuning ourselves to the "always-later" Spanish schedule - the gigs wouldn't start till about 10:30 or 11:00 and might not finish till 2:30 in the morning. On the strength of this, Barney hired me a couple of years later to do a short duo tour in Ontario, with concerts in Toronto, Sudbury, Kingston and Ottawa, followed by a week back in Toronto at The Bermuda Onion, where we were joined by Mark Eisenman on piano and John Sumner on drums. I discovered that, both as a man and a guitarist, Barney Kessel could fool you - there was often more to him than met the eye, or the ear. The paradox of Barney revolved around the contrast between the outward manifestations of more [...]

Barney Kessel: I Took A Trip On A Train

The other day, a friend sent me a remarkable YouTube clip of Jim Hall and Barney Kessel in duo, taking “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” apart. I hadn’t heard it before, or even about it. And it’s not something I would have ever searched for or even imagined, because, while their paths certainly must have crossed often enough in Los Angeles after Hall's arrival there in 1955, they’re not two guitarists one would naturally throw together. Nonetheless, it’s quite amazing how easily they dovetail and how each effects the other here. They're both in adventurous, exploratory form and right off the bat there are delicious little sparks of dissonance and clusters of bitonality. Jim sounds more outwardly virtuosic and extroverted here than usual and even throws in a sly-funny quote from “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” at one point. And along with some of the angular, dipsy-doodle shapes that only he could play, Barney’s comping is quite Jim Hall-like in places. The video quality is a bit wobbly in a "Plan 9 From Outer Space" way, and I wish there was more information given, like when and where. By the looks of Jim, I’d say late-fifties, early-sixties. (Ed. note: Since posting this, jazz history-guitar-whiz Ben Bishop has informed me that this was done at the Berlin Guitar Workshop on Nov. 5, 1967.) Here they are, fasten your seat-belts: In terms of sheer technique and versatility, Kessel was one of the most complete jazz guitarists ever. By this, I don't mean more [...]

A Halloween Story

My apologies for posting this story a few days late, but Halloween and the days leading up to it were very busy, plus there was an 'exceeded bandwidth' issue on this site which made access to it impossible, even for me. This was not as serious as it looked, and my site administrator Citizen X had it fixed within five minutes of being notified. X told me that congratulations were in order because I'd gone from "Basic" to "Gold" in the bandwidth-use department owing to a greater amount of traffic than the other sites he hosts. Fixing the problem was simply a matter of allotting my site more "juice". So thanks to all of my readers, I thought I'd forgotten to pay a bill or something. I'm old, yes, but gold? I've never earned gold in anything before, though I seem to remember winning a bronze for "Improved Posture" in Grade Three - I had nowhere to go but up. Anyway, on to the story. In October of 1987 I did a Concord-Fujitsu tour of Japan with that year's version of the Concord All-Stars, consisting of Warren Vaché on cornet, Dan Barrett on trombone, Scott Hamilton and Red Holloway on tenor saxophone (Red also played some alto), Dave McKenna on piano, Ed Bickert on guitar, Jimmie Smith on drums, and me on bass. The other bands were the Phil Woods Quintet (Woods,Tom Harrell on trumpet, Hal Galper on piano, Steve Gilmore on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums) and George Shearing in duo with Toronto bassist Neil Swainson. Ernestine Anderson - still in her prime and a delight to be more [...]

Taken, Given

Two important musicians - pianist Don Friedman and trumpeter Erich Traugott - died in late June. I was late in hearing about both because I was unconnected for a few days, off playing at the Rochester Jazz Festival. It's often said that bad news comes in threes, but in this case these two losses were counteracted about a week later by some good news: major donations of jazz material to the Sound and Moving Images Library and the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University, celebrated by a very nice reception. And so it goes in jazz: an ebb and flow of loss and gain, give and take. Don Friedman. Pianist-composer Don Friedman died at 81 on June 30 in New York, of pancreatic cancer; by all reports it was quick. He was an intelligent, challenging musician with a style by turns rigorous and gentle, but always thoroughly original. He was perhaps better known and regarded by fellow musicians than the jazz public at large: it always seemed to me he was less recognized and appreciated than he deserved except in Japan, where he had a considerable following. He was born in San Francisco and took up the piano at four, studying for ten years with the same teacher and showing a natural aptitude for classical piano. This was later reflected in his jazz work, which showed technical brilliance, but with a disciplined sense of structure and form even when he was playing "free". When he was fifteen, his family moved to Los Angeles just as the West Coast jazz movement more [...]

Jazz String Theory

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" - William Shakespeare, from Hamlet. Yesterday a friend sent me a YouTube clip of Paul Gonsalves and Chick Corea playing Corea's signature "Windows" in 1966, with Aaron Bell on bass and Louie Bellson on drums. No, that's not a typo.......... even before listening to it, I was astonished by its mere existence. I mean, Paul Gonsalves and Chick Corea?!? They're not a pair you'd put together in a million years; they're at least a generation apart and would seem to be oil and water, musically speaking. When you think Gonsalves, you think Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Newport '56, Billy Strayhorn, Clark Terry, Sam Woodyard, innumerable scenes of wanton inebriation and one of the most relentlessly original tenor saxophone voices of all time.Think Corea and you think Blue Mitchell Quintet, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, NOW HE SINGS, NOW HE SOBS, Return to Forever, "Spain", the Elektric Band and many other things, none of them remotely Ellingtonian. And yet, here they are, from a four-tune Mercer Ellington session (Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney are on the other three numbers.) Here's "Windows" - the only thing wrong with it is that, like most good things, it's too short: This is the first recording of "Windows", a full year before Corea and Stan Getz tackled it on Getz's SWEET RAIN album. There's a Microsoft joke in there somewhere, think of this as Windows 1.0. The song was more [...]

How Are These with Guacamole?

We've just experienced our first heatwave, that sudden annual transition from "it could be warmer" to "man, can you believe how friggin' hot it is already!?" The last thing anyone wants to do in this heat is cook, yet we still have to eat, even if a little lighter. What's needed is some refreshing, satisfying food that doesn't require an oven. Salads and chilled soups like gazpacho are good, but one of the best summer snacks is guacamole, it's very fresh-tasting and quite filling. And, not to spoil it or anything, but it's actually good for you, provided you don't eat the whole bag of tortilla chips once the velvety green dip is gone. Obviously, the key to making good guacamole is having avocados at a perfect stage of soft ripeness, but the timing of this can be tricky. I usually buy the mesh bags with five or six rather than the individual ones, it's cheaper that way. They're often hard as rocks in the store, so you leave them on the counter for a few days to ripen. If you squeeze them and they give and a small dimple is left, they're ready. The trouble is, sometimes they're ready when you don't have time to make the guac and you end up leaving them too long and they get all black and mushy inside. My sister-in-law recently showed me a simple way around this: once the avocados are ripe, put them in the fridge. This stops the ripening process and has the added advantage of chilling the avocados, making the finished product even more refreshing. I've been tinkering with more [...]

Evans Above, Happy St. Patrick’s Day

In honour of St. Patrick's Day, embedded below is my favourite version of “Danny Boy” ever, a 1962 solo piano reading by Bill Evans. Evans was from Welsh stock on his father’s side and Russian on his mother’s, an interesting combination reflected in his playing, which was both romantic and intellectual. I thought I knew how great a pianist Evans was until I heard this track about fifteen or twenty years after first encountering him. It made me realize he was even better than I'd thought, which I wouldn't have considered possible. There are a lot of ways to go about it, but jazz piano just can't be played any better than this. The crystalline sound and pearly touch, the gorgeous, crunchy chord voicings, the long, spring-loaded lines and tensile rhythm, the lyricism, the way he makes the piano sing, the poetry of it all - it's just breathtaking. And to think he wasn't even Irish - smile. In the end though, after all the analysis and attempts to describe Bill's playing, perhaps his agent-to-be Helen Keane said it best when she first heard him: "Oh no, this one's going to break my heart." Even more impressively, this "Danny Boy" was a throw-away done on a solo session that was never meant for release, but rather intended to pull Bill out of the deep, paralyzing depression he fell into after Scott La Faro was killed in a car crash at 25. It reminds me of something I experienced at a Modigliani exhibition a few years ago at the AGO. Along with his many famous portraits more [...]

A Kinder, Gentler Roy

My last post about Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie's electrifying version of "Blue Moon" got me to thinking about another surprising encounter with "Little Jazz" on a record, some 25 or 30 years down the road. If there's one sure thing to be learned about Roy from various sources - reading about him in books, listening to his records or hearing other musicians tell stories about him - it's that he was probably the most competitive trumpeter who ever lived, especially around other trumpet players. Even on his own, Roy was generally an intense and aggressive player, but often leavened the fireworks with some control, showing a lyrical and melodic side. Put another trumpeter next to him though, and look out. He saw red, his hackles rose and he went for the jugular, hitting the other guy with all the speed, power and range he had, trying to win a contest even if there wasn't one. As Gillespie put it, "Roy just didn't know how to behave around other trumpet players." Part of it may just have been his personality, and the fact that he was a little guy probably contributed a bit to the chip on his shoulder as well. He also came up when Louis Armstrong was paramount and cutting contests were the norm; there were guys around every corner in Harlem trying to cut you down to size or steal your gig. His bitter first-hand experiences with racism as the sole black player - and a star soloist at that - travelling with the bands of Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa wouldn't have done much to soften more [...]

A Trip To the Moon with Roy & Diz

Whether you're a young musician in training or a fan in the making, the early days of jazz discovery are heady ones, not unlike Christopher Columbus landing on the shores of the New World. There's so much to hear for the first time, so the musical slate is blank and your ears are fresh and unspoiled, just waiting to be thrilled on a daily basis. Reading about jazz in books and magazines fuels the curiosity and helps along the knowledge, but hearing great music in person or on records is what really makes a visceral impact in those fledgling days. My first such "light-bulb" experiences came while listening to jazz records alone. But later, quite a few of these wow moments came in the company of trumpeter John MacLeod, my oldest jazz friend. This is intended as an account of maybe the most memorable of these. I've mentioned John a number of times in other posts; we met in high school and he inducted me into his Dixieland band on bass with the general instruction to "don't stop playing till the tune's over." Relative to that time - 1973 or so - we were both 'retro-ists' in terms of our jazz tastes and listening habits, John perhaps more so. He was mostly into trad and Swing: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook records and a bunch of older big-band stuff. I was more of a bebopper, heavily into Bird and Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, some MJQ and above all Miles Davis with John Coltrane. more [...]

Nothin’ Up Our Sleeves…..

The Mike Murley Trio - Murley on soprano and tenor saxophones, Reg Schwager on guitar and yours truly on bass - played a concert on the evening of February 5 at The Fourth Stage, a newish performance space at The National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It was part of the city's newly-founded Winter Jazz Festival, which in turn is part of its annual celebration of ice and snow, "Winterlude". Although this year, "Interlude" might be more like it, as our normally frigid capital is having almost as mild a winter as Toronto, with temperatures barely cold enough to keep the ice sculptures solid and the Rideau Canal, normally an outdoor skating rink, partially unfrozen. Oh yeah? Check this..... The major sticking point in the logistical arrangements for this gig was the presenter's - or maybe the stage-crew's - insistence that we do a 1 p.m. sound-check for a 7 p.m. concert. Apart from being obscenely early just on the face of it, this didn't take into account that the band was driving all the way from Toronto that day, which, in winter conditions and including finding our way through a (mostly) unfamiliar city, would mean having to leave at about eight in the morning. Simply put, this just wasn't going to happen. It was even more of a long-shot once it was decided that Mike and Reg would be riding in Mike's Mini and my wife Anna would be driving me and the bass in our Chevy, because she's even less of a morning person than the guys in the band - much, much less. In fact, Mike half-jokingly more [...]

Warren Vache Is Coming To Town

Jazz cornet master Warren Vaché will be appearing for three nights at The Jazz Bistro Feb.25-27, accompanied by a fine local rhythm section consisting of Mark Eisenman on piano, Terry Clarke on drums and some guy named Steve Wallace on bass. This is a musical event not to be missed as Warren, though no stranger to local fans in recent years with regular appearances at The Toronto Jazz Festival and various Ken Page Memorial Trust events, has not played a multiple-night engagement at a Toronto jazz club since the early 1980s heyday of Bourbon Street, where he often appeared with his old running buddy, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Together, Warren and Scott formed the spearhead of what came to be known in the late-70s as 'the young mainstream movement' in which the styles and repertoire of past masters such as Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster, Bobby Hackett and others were not only revived, but refreshed through club appearances, concert and festival tours and a series of Concord recordings. In the years since, Warren, already a redoubtable player in his younger days, has only continued to grow and mature as an artist, refining his style to the point where his solos can now be considered object lessons in the history of jazz trumpet playing, filtered through his own highly unique personal sensibilities. His sound has deepened and taken on a burnished lustre and his dynamic control is breathtaking, he can play at a whisper with great emotional impact. more [...]

Embraceable & Irreplaceable

As Christmas Day arrived, Bill Kirchner sent me a YouTube clip of a classic version of “Embraceable You”, recorded for Commodore on April 30, 1938 by Eddie Condon & His Windy City Seven. It was very thoughtful of him and as nice a Christmas present as any I received. Bill stumbled across it after not hearing it for years and knew I'd love it, which I did – repeated listening to its delightful four minutes made the immediate, concrete world melt away temporarily. A performance like this takes us back to a time when individuality in jazz was not only crucially important, but also more possible, if only because the field was less crowded. Furthermore, it summons up a brief interval when the darkness of the thirties in America lifted: Prohibition and the worst of the Depression were over and, while the storm clouds of war were gathering, they had not yet engulfed the world. Like Bill, I was familiar with this track and had heard it before, but not for some time and it took a while to figure out just where I knew it from. Eventually it came to me, it’s on a very aptly named CD – PEE WEE RUSSELL, JAZZ ORIGINAL, a compilation of various sessions Russell did for Commodore as a leader and sideman. It was the singular personnel on this track - Bobby Hackett on cornet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Russell on clarinet, Bud Freeman on tenor, Jess Stacy on piano, Condon on guitar, Artie Shapiro on bass, and George Wettling on drums – that made it come back to me. One doesn’t more [...]

Tuesday – YouTube’s Way Smarter than Google, Eh?

In my last post (so to speak) about days-of-the-week songs, I mentioned how much trouble I had thinking of a tune for Tuesday and that Bill Kirchner came to the rescue. I also predicted that if I'd gone ahead using "Ruby Tuesday" as originally planned, various record-collector savant types would have come out of the woodwork and pointed out all sorts of jazz Tuesday tracks I should have thought of. I would have needed a big spatula to scrape the egg off my face, but oddly enough, I always have one handy. Even though I used Bill's suggestion of Chico Hamilton's "Tuesday at Two", this happened ayway, and it didn't take long. A few minutes after I hit "publish", my friend Don Brown offered two Tuesday tracks I might have used, both from 1941 - Count Basie's "Tuesday at Ten" and Teddy Wilson's "Tuesday Blues". The Basie track rang a bell because I eventually realized I have it on a CD and have heard it before. The Wilson track was news to me, because it was recorded as a Keynote Transcription. But it turns out I have that one too, on a cleverly disguised CD that doesn't even mention Keynote. Don also mentioned that Benny Goodman did a cover of "Tuesday at Ten" after Base's Columbia record became popular. Don is exactly the kind of guy I had in mind when I made my prediction about experts coming out of the woodwork. He has a huge record collection and has been going to hear live jazz since the late '40s when he was in his late teens. He kept a log book of everyone he went to more [...]

These Are….. the Days of the Week

After the extended psychodrama of the Christmas season, the calendar has clicked over to a whole new year and we're still getting used to writing 2016 instead of 2015. And many of us are back to the grind after having been off work or school for a few weeks, so we're lucky if we even know what day it is......Actually, this is a problem for me at the best of times. With all this temporal disorientation in mind, I thought it might be fun to look at jazz songs or standards with days of the weeks in their titles, just to straighten ourselves out a little. On the face of it, this seemed pretty easy. Without too much trouble or digging around I could think of tunes for every day of the week......except Tuesday, I had the devil of a time with that. Now, I know what you're thinking - what about "Ruby Tuesday", by The Rolling Stones? As an old Stones' fan, I thought of that one right away, but it doesn't exactly fit in with the rest of the song list, comprising entries by jazz titans like Earl Hines, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, among others. Stymied, I consulted the Google oracle about "songs with Tuesday in their title" and found several articles - more lists, really - devoted to this subject, which inspired some hope. Unfounded hope as it turned out - there have been all sorts of songs written about Tuesday, all of them having even less to do with jazz than "Ruby Tuesday". Tuesday was seemingly a hot topic in the pop/rock world, with various entries by more [...]

Auld Clang Syne

Back in the good old days when there was still an actual music business, all musicians worked New Year’s Eve. I mean everybody, except for the elite guys who didn't want to, or have to. It didn't even matter if you were any good or not; demand was high enough that you had some kind of a gig that night even if you weren't ready, if only to provide a semi-warm body on a bandstand somewhere. These 'general business' gigs paid at least double-scale for that night, so in the ‘70s you could walk away with $250 as a sideman - later $400 or $500 – which was pretty good money in those days. It usually meant a considerable amount of abject bandstand suffering and put you right in touch with your inner musical prostitute. But the payoff kept the wolf from the door during the always lean month of January, when musicians’ date-books resembled blizzards. You know, all white pages, no gigs written down. It was not unusual back then to have a NYE gig booked as early as the summer, and once you were booked, it was locked in, iron-clad. You had to give the leader a virtual guarantee signed in blood that you would be there come hell or high water, failing death – and maybe not even then. The last thing you wanted was to be double-booked on NYE, you would never find a sub. It was a kind of gig Russian roulette – did you take the sure thing that came along early, or hold out for a better offer that might come along later? These were the questions that kept working musicians awake nights more [...]

Birth of the Yule

Years ago around Christmas time, I was hanging out with John Sumner and some other musicians after a gig, listening to some records and having a few tastes. We got to kidding around, combining Christmas carols with jazz tunes to form song-title puns. As I recall, "Joy Spring To the World", "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Sing, Sing", "Silent Night In Tunisia", "Sippin' At Jingle Bells", "What Child Is This Thing Called Love?" and "O Little Rootie Tootie Town of Bethlehem" were among the ones we came up with. Many years later I started writing as a hobby, well before I had a blog site. My first 100 pieces or so were about baseball, sent by email to a slowly growing circle of fellow baseball fans on a group list. It was a way of keeping us entertained over the long winter months and when I started branching out and writing a few things about music I created a second email-list of jazz people. As Christmas approached in 2010, something made me remember the old Christmas-jazz song-puns and I sent out a few of them along with some new ones, explaining the origin and how they were put together. I proposed a sort of seasonal game, encouraging friends to write in with their ideas and takes on this to see how many jazz-Christmas hybrids we could come up with and how cringe-worthy or clever these might be. I wondered about the response, but needn't have. It didn't take long. My friend Bill McDonald was the first to jump all over this. Though not a musician by trade, he plays pretty more [...]

Paris; Vernon Duke & The Armour of Music

Other than people living in extremely remote areas untouched by media or technology - if they even exist anymore - I may have been one of the last to hear of the recent appalling attacks in Paris. As my wife Anna would say, this is "not a good story for me", although she learned of the tragedy even later than me, and only after I told her of it. But there was at least an understandable reason for our obliviousness: our three-year-old grandson Charlie came for an overnight visit starting at dinnertime on Friday. Like most kids his age, he has so much curiosity, energy and imagination that being around him is an all-consuming experience and great fun, but exhausting. What with playing and talking and eating with him, there was no time or reason to have a TV or a computer on. And when we did turn to the TV, it was to watch a kids' movie with him, with no ad or news breaks. Afterward, I put Charlie to sleep with the sounds of a Paul Desmond record wafting upstairs from the living room, his last waking words were, "Gwandpa, that saxophone sounds weally good......zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz". I drifted off myself for a few minutes and then woke up and watched a movie with Anna, after which we retired for good, still blissfully ignorant. The next morning started all too early and with immediate relentlessness. It was more of the same, wall-to-wall hanging out and playing with Charlie and I noted to myself for the hundredth time that there's a reason people have children when they're young more [...]

So Long, Archie

A shorter and slightly different (i.e. cleaner) version of this piece on Archie Alleyne appeared in the September issue of WholeNote magazine, v. 121 #1.                                                                       *** June of this year brought a rash of deaths which rocked the jazz community – locally, bassist Lenny Boyd and drummer Archie Alleyne – and internationally, jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and third-stream-composer Gunther Schuller. I wrote memorial blogs about Coleman, Schuller and Boyd, who was my bass teacher. I held back in Archie Alleyne’s case because I just didn’t have another obituary piece about a good friend in me so soon and also because David Perlman, the editor/publisher of WholeNote magazine, asked me to write a piece about Archie in a future issue. Oddly, it was while attending the early spring memorial celebration of Jim Galloway – another local jazz stalwart who passed away recently – that I first learned that Archie was seriously ill. I hadn’t seen Archie in some time and while looking for him at the gathering for Jim I was told that he wasn’t expected to live through the summer, a body blow. He didn't even make it that far, dying on June 8th of prostate cancer. Perhaps it's as well he went so quickly as he was suffering, but the speed of it was still shocking. Archie was such a zestful man, so integral a part of Toronto's musical scene in so many ways and for so long that it's hard more [...]

Guitar Hero

Guitarist Jim Hall died well over a year ago, but I'm still in a state of mourning and semi-denial about it. For ages now, Hall has been an essential part of my jazz listening on reams of classic records with other great musicians. In countless settings, he delivered so many indelible, perfect little musical moments that I can scarcely believe he's gone. Thankfully his prolific recorded legacy lives on, meaning I can bring him into my living room whenever I want, which is often. Some musicians play instruments, while others transcend them to create real beauty; Jim was one of the latter. He wasn't so much a guitarist as he was a music maker, a special designation of Jake Hanna's which he reserved only for the musicians he admired most. The words "empathetic" and "subtle" always came up in descriptions of Hall's work and fittingly so, he was often those. But the words that come to mind when I consider his musicality mostly start with the letter "i". His playing had marvelous insight and integrity, a unique dimension of intuitive interplay, quiet intensity and above all, intelligence. He was surely one of the most musically intelligent figures in the history of jazz, which allowed him to do things on the guitar that seemed improbable, sometimes even impossible. Not because they were technically difficult necessarily, but because they seemed to come from out of nowhere, sprung from his highly-attuned musical imagination. Like the pianist Tommy Flanagan, Hall was more [...]

A Goose by Any Other Name

So, I'm still making like Herman Punster, playing around with baseball names and song titles. Fortunately for all though, it's winding down. One of the challenges of doing this is negotiating the difference between how a name looks and the way it sounds. For example, a reader left one I really enjoyed - "Tiant Steps" - after John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and the ageless Cuban pitcher, Luis Tiant. It works beautifully on paper, a good visual pun, but Tiant's name is pronounced like "tea-aunt", making "Tiant for Two" a better ear-pun. The best song puns work both ways, but they're hard to come up with. I tripped up on pronunciations a few times in my first long pun-post and had to change a couple. My friend Bill Kirchner has huge ears and eagle eyes. He pointed out to me that even as a self-confessed "non-baseball fanatic", he was pretty sure Bobby Knoop's last name was pronounced like "Knopp", meaning it didn't really work for "What's Knoop?" ("What's New?"). So, "But Knoop For Me" would be better. It was the same with Clem Labine - I somehow got it into my head that his name was pronounced "Labeen" and used that for "It's Labine A Long, Long Time". But his last name rhymes with "fine", so I changed the song to "Labine & Dandy". Given that the general populace of North America numbers in the hundreds of millions and there have only been ten or twelve thousand major-league ballplayers, it's amazing that there have been such a disproportionately high number of funny, tongue-twisting more [...]

The Heart Is A Lonely Bunter

Recently, a good friend who knows I like song puns sent me a list of unlikely ones involving soccer players' names and old songs, the work of her son and a pal of his. Their puns were very witty and amusing, combining an amazing knowledge of standard tunes with multinational football names - how many people know that much about either? I follow soccer a little, but mostly during the World Cup and Euro Cup, so I was only able to get some of the puns because I knew all the song titles and was able to extrapolate the footie names I didn't know. Three of the best were "Ribery Thought of You", using French star Frank Ribery; "Iniestadays", after his Spanish counterpart Andres Ianesta; and "My Favourite Frings", using my favourite soccer name, Torsten Frings, of Germany. Loving a challenge as I do - although my poor, innocent friend certainly wasn't throwing down the gauntlet - I thought, hmmm......I don't know many soccer names, but I do know baseball names. So I set about altering song titles with ballplayers' names to form a list of cringe-worthy song puns, what me might call "The Days of Wine and Rojas". I can't take credit for that one, I'm afraid. Let me explain......For a while back in the early '60s, the Philadelphia Phillies had a keystone combination of Bobby Wine at shortstop and Cookie Rojas at second base and they led the league a few times in double-plays turned. A Philly press-box wag dubbed the era "The Days of Wine and Rojas" after the famous movie, which came more [...]

A Tempest in a Turbot

You could say my last post on Jazz at the Aquarium went splat! - or maybe sprat! - and ruffled a few scales, as it were. This is because it was spread so far and wide on Facebook, which was neither my doing or my idea, but I'm okay with it. I thought I'd wait for things to settle down and for everyone - including me - to unknot their knickers before writing a follow-up on the responses to it, which went way beyond anything I expected. I guess I'm a little naïve, maybe a "cock-eyed octopus", but I never expected such a fish-storm, you could have knocked me down with an anchovy. Look, I run a nice, clean, quiet blog mostly about obscure corners of music and other stuff that maybe 37 other people are interested in, and everything's hunky-dory.....Then I write a satirical rant (advertising it as such in bold) and suddenly I'm Bluebeard, Genghis Khan and Oliver Cromwell all rolled into one, with a slice of Captain Bligh on top. It's not saying much and I'm not doing any cart-wheels, but the post set a record on my site for views, comments left and Facebook "likes", whatever they are. Facebook "not-likes" or "hates" were not displayed, but I gather there were quite a few of those too, if they exist. See, I'm not on Facebook or Twitter, in fact I still don't even have a cellphone, I'm nouveau-Luddite-chic. I'm not bragging about this or anything, the reason I don't use Facebook is I don't have time for it. I mean that literally, as in hours in the day. I don't want people more [...]

“Jazz” Sleeps With the Fishes – Would You Like Fries With That?

  WARNING - READER DISCRETION ADVISED - MAY CONTAIN RANT, COARSE LANGUAGE and ILL-CONSIDERED HUMOUR  So, the other day a friend sent me a link to the latest Toronto brainwave in generic jazz promotion, or Jazz-McMarketing, which could be summed up as, "Let's bring so-called jazz to people who never listen to it, while making sure to present it at unimaginably stupid venues". In this case, believe it or not, "Jazz at the Ripley's Aquarium" on the second Friday of every month. Sorry, I couldn't resist the "believe it or not" gag because the joint is run by Ripley's, but just in case you don't believe me, go to the Ripley's Aquarium website. I'd link it here, but I might get into trouble and besides I don't actually want to have even the slightest hand in promoting this howlingly vulgar idea. For those of you not from Toronto, the Ripley's Aquarium is a huge, relatively new tourist attraction that's been promoted to the point of saturation - massive, retina-burning digital billboards depicting sharks, eels, rays and other exotic fish, posters in the subway with clever slogans like "Come to the Aquarium, where staring isn't creepy". I'm sure it's doing quite well and it's the kind of place I would like to take my grandsons, who are both crazy about fish and other wildlife. Of course, it's nestled in among a bunch of similar high-traffic venues in the busiest part of the city - the CN Tower, the Rogers Centre, the Metro Convention Centre, etc. - none of which are more [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]


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 [...]


  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 [...]

In A Mellow Zone; Lax Reality

At the end of February my wife Anna went to visit her sister Fran, who lives in the little town of Courtenay, nestled in the Comox Valley on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It was part holiday, part nursing mission - Fran had to have some surgery done in Victoria and Anna is an excellent care-giver. I went out on March 24th to join them and give Anna a break, staying about sixteen days, which explains why I haven't written a blessed thing in some time. Let's just say that when you're in a setting this beautiful and relaxed, you get a little mellow, even if you don't partake of the local cannabis crop, which I didn't. Well...OK, a small toke once, a kind of "when-in-Rome" concession to the local economy. Apart from being chief cook, bottle-washer and dog-walker, I had nothing but time on my hands, which you would think might translate into a lot of writing. But there's something about being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, mountains, rivers, fresh air, bald eagles, seals and approximately sixty billion trees that keeps you away from the computer and pretty much anything else that might be considered "connected" or "productive" in any East Coast sense. You decompress a whole lot, find yourself slowing right down and marveling at the fact there are about fifty varieties of flowering trees here - magnolias, azalias and such - in full bloom, whereas it was twenty degrees below zero when I left Toronto. Or that the local mall looks pretty much like any other mall, until you more [...]

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Like many musicians, I've had some odd moments in my career, perhaps none odder than hearing the great Irish tenor John McCormack for the first time in a Moscow hotel room about two in the morning. I was with guitarist Oliver Gannon and drummer John Sumner, the three of us well on the way to being in our cups. The occasion was a concert tour of the Soviet Union in September of 1986 with Vancouver saxophonist Fraser McPherson, or "Fraz" as we called him. Fraz was really too jazzy a nickname for him, he looked less like a jazz musician than anyone I've ever met. Tall, balding, distinguished-looking, with thick horned-rim glasses, bushy Lionel Barrymore eyebrows and a stentorian rumble of a voice; a nervous, serious headmaster's demeanour and the omnipresent three-piece suit, he looked more like a diplomat or a banker. Musically he was conservative too, but a wonderful player, knew hundreds of tunes and liked "four beats to the bar, no cheating". He played sort of like Zoot Sims, but not as freewheeling or loose-limbed, more buttoned-down. I came to love Fraz for his fairness and for the wry humour behind his sternness, as well as for all the tunes and musical discipline he taught me. For me it was the last of three such trips to the "big fridge" with Fraz and the most grueling, partly because of the schedule - thirty concerts in thirty days. And the "arrangements" for looking after us were much more disorganized and paranoia-inducing than on the earlier trips; maybe a sign that more [...]

Claude Thornhill & Gently Falling Snow

When it comes to being put in the mood for listening to certain music, I'm ridiculously suggestible. A kettle whistling in the kitchen will make me think of "Five O'Clock Whistle" and the next thing I know, I'm happily listening to Ivie Anderson with the 1940 Duke Ellington band while the kettle boils over, splashing hot water all over the stove. Believe me, it could be worse..... much, much worse. Sometimes the trigger can be more abstract and subliminal, as was the case this past Sunday evening. I'm a bachelor for the next few weeks, as my wife Anna has gone to Vancouver Island to visit her sister and help her recover from upcoming surgery. My old friends Susan and Bob Allair took pity on my sudden lowly status as a "wretched outcast" and invited me to their house on Sunday night for dinner. As always, the food and drink were excellent, as was the company, conversation and music. We started out by listening to jazz on satellite radio, later switching to an R & B trip down memory lane. It was a mild and still night, so I decided to walk home, figuring the forty-minute trudge would help me work off the meal. It began to snow ever so slightly as I neared home and, as I'd also been listening to some Lee Konitz records that afternoon, I immediately thought of Claude Thornhill and his wonderful, unique band of the 1940s. At ninrteen, Konitz first made his mark playing alto in Thornhill's 1947 band and he's never been out of the jazz vanguard since. That I'd been more [...]

Contra Contrafact

  The term contrafact has gradually made its way into the jazz lexicon, establishing an increasingly firm toe-hold for itself in recent years. For those lucky enough not to be familiar with it, a "contrafact" is defined in jazz terms as "a composition created by overlaying a new melody line on the harmonic structure of a pre-existing song" - or put more simply, the borrowing of another song's chord changes to create a new one. I describe those not familiar with the term contrafact as "lucky", because, frankly, I don't have much use for it as a word, though I like the musical practice it describes. I'll go into more detail about my objections later on, but for now, suffice it to say that to me, it has a whiff of the ivory tower about it and is yet another $300 word, which jazz has enough of already, thanks. It's also nowhere near as expedient as the practice it describes. None of this is meant as a rebuke to any people who've used contrafact or continue to. For one thing, some of them are my friends; I've used it myself and will throughout this essay because it's already established and convenient. Early Bebop Contrafacts The practice which "contrafact" describes was a common and important one in the early days of bebop, beginning in the early-1940s. There were earlier examples, such as Duke Ellington's "In A Mellotone", based on "Rose Room", but it was the younger turks of bebop who really ran with the idea. First-generation beboppers put new melody more [...]

Happy 90th to The Jazz Angel

  Surely, Toronto has had no better jazz fan and supporter than Terry Sheard, pictured above at the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival last August. As he will turn 90 this February 25th, he's also been one of the most enduring. I think Terry might agree that his enjoyment of music has helped keep him young despite his advancing years; something certainly has, because he has more jump than many people a third of his age. He's very well-known and well-liked in local music circles, but for those who don't know him, well, let's just say that over the years he has made a huge contribution to the growth of jazz in Canada, one which has perhaps been equalled only by our most important musicians - people like Oscar Peterson, Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Ed Bickert, Guido Basso and a few others. That is a bold statement and I'm sure Terry would protest it, both because he idolizes musicians and is self-effacing to a fault. But it's true, so I don't see how I could avoid making such a claim on his behalf, even if he'd rather I didn't. Simply by showing up to thousands of jazz performances over the years he has been supportive enough, but that's just been the tip of the iceberg with Terry. He has also been tireless in promoting awareness of the music and helping to organize this, both through his own enthusiasm and considerable verbal powers, and in his seventeen-year role on the board of CJRT, Ryerson University's non-profit radio station, which began in the early 1970s. more [...]

Who Was It Wrote That Song?

The vast repertoire of jazz is mostly made up of two main streams: The Great American Songbook, which came from musical theatre or Tin Pan Alley, and songs or compositions that have come from within the ranks of jazz itself. While rumbling around among all these, it's common to come across the same prolific contributors over and over again. The show-tune "big boys", including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and many others far too numerous to mention, and their jazz counterparts - Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billy Strayhorn, Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk, John Lewis, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, etc. The chances of hearing one of their tunes or compositions in any given jazz context are quite high. And this doesn't even include musicians like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and many others who were primarily instrumentalists rather than composer/arrangers, but who still wrote a lot of tunes for their own use. It's also quite common to come across good songs that are played often enough to be familiar, yet the names of their composers don't ring any bells. Usually this is because the person or song-writing team in question wrote only one or two songs that became notable and lasted. I've lost track of how many times I've played a really terrific tune for the umpteenth time and wondered about who wrote it, only to investigate and see  names I've never heard of - as they used to more [...]

Aural Hygiene, Part Two

As I revealed in a much earlier post entitled "Aural Hygiene", I often combine dental-hygiene appointments with CD-shopping because my favourite record store Atelier Grigorian is right around the corner from my tooth-scraper. I repeated this "jazz S&M double-play" this week with some serendipitous results, which in turn led me to remember some stories. As they preserve so much precious music which would otherwise be lost, jazz records provide an indispensable current linking memory, songs, emotion, important musical developments and musicians' stories to form the backbone of jazz, its very mythology. On the way to the store, gums all a-tingle, I was thinking of a Gene Ammons listening kick I've been on lately, which has served as a kind of astringent antidote to hearing too much treacly Christmas music over the holidays. I think of it as a "Jug jag", because Ammons was nicknamed "Jug" for his massive, square head. I've been considering writing a piece on Ammons and mentioned this in an email to my good friend Bill Kirchner, who sent me what I thought was an article he wrote about Ammons and his frequent partner in crime, Sonny Stitt. It was terrific, containing among other things a detailed overview of the evolution of the two-tenor battle from its earliest days. I thanked him for this, saying that the article read like the liner notes to a record, which he kindly let go without comment. At home that night, I dug out a 1962 Stitt/Ammons record called Boss Tenors In more [...]

When A Man Loves A Movie

Along with more gender-appropriate gifts, I bought my wife Anna a copy of the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals for Christmas. I felt slightly guilty about this because I knew I wanted to see it too. On the other hand, Anna's a big fan of the soul/R&B music which this movie would definitely touch on, and then some. She also really enjoyed the similar music docs Standing In the Shadows of Motown and Twenty Feet From Stardom - how's that for rationalization? Anyway, we watched the film last night and it was fascinating. It inspired and moved us beyond words, but I'll attempt to write a few about it anyway. Using a collage technique like the other two docs - weaving together music tracks, old and new footage, live interviews with the famous and not-so-famous into a narrative - this movie tells the story of the birth and evolution of what came to be known as "the Muscle Shoals sound", forged in the tiny Fame Studios in the small, rural-Alabama town of the same name. Relative to its size, this backwoods hole-in-the-wall yielded as many famous records as any other place in the world. Almost as much attention is paid to the unique environment of Muscle Shoals as the music made there. The stark beauty of the place is captured by some of the most clear and vivid cinematography I've ever seen, it almost makes your eyes hurt. Many comment that the area, which is surrounded by a lot of water - swamps, lakes and the Tennessee River - has magical and mysterious musical more [...]

The Truthful Edge of Big Joe Turner

Last Friday around midnight, my wife Anna picked me up from the subway after a gig. As I opened the car door to load in my bass, I was hit by a blast furnace of music, not loud, but intense, like a freight-train. A fat, romping beat and a thundering, edgy voice that could only be one guy. As always when I unexpectedly hear great music coming from a radio, I was stunned and just stood there for a second, transfixed and shaking my butt in the cold like some spazzed-out lunatic. "Jeezus, it's Joe Turner" - wow, does that ever sound good." Anna gave me a look which, despite the smile in her eyes, said, "Bozo, could you put the bass in the car already, so we can get home?" Righto. The voltage of it held me as I got in the car, this was "Hide and Seek", one of Big Joe's biggest jukebox hits from his peak of popularity sometime in the mid- '50s. It's far from his best work, but it still gets to me. The band was underpinned by a pianist - likely Pete Johnson - laying down some killer boogie-woogie, accompanied by a relentless, loping shuffle from the string bass and drums and some Charleston riffs from the horns. A beefy-toned tenor player took a honking chorus, sounding like a cross between Al Sears and Buddy Tate - man, this was good. But most of all there was Big Joe, with that mountain-jack delivery and hurricane voice. It's the voice of God, if God liked to party, which somehow I doubt. There's just so much weight and raw authority in it, there's never any doubt more [...]

A Gentle Whirlpool of Music

I've been playing the bass for about forty years now and I thank my lucky stars that all of the knowledge I've acquired through experience and study has not blunted my ability to partake of music on a purely emotional level. Whether playing or listening, it's the way music feels - and makes you feel - that counts, and this goes beyond any knowledge, important though that is. No matter what kind, music at its best should move you, take you to a place of joy and rapture, make your mind giddy and your body move, should lift you up. It's this way with a magical clip of Elis Regina singing Antonio Carlos Jobim's beautiful "Aguas de Marco" ("The Waters of March"), which I've included here as a kind of Happy New Year wish to everyone. This is appropriate not only because of the inspirational performance, but because I discovered it for the first time just this past New Year's Eve, thanks to some friends. Along with saxophonist Mike Murley and his partner Leslie Adcock, my wife Anna and I were invited over to Ruth and Jim Vivian's house to ring in the new year. We're all old friends and this same group had a similar New Year's evening five or six years ago chez Vivian. Jim of course is a marvelous bassist and a very intelligent and hilarious guy, but he's also a great cook and wine connoisseur, so the evening promised much eating, drinking and social pleasure. It's a wonder all of the deluxe food and wine didn't kill us, but more important was the social feast, a great unfolding more [...]

Blogus Interruptus

Hello all - some of you may be wondering why there have been no posts from me for such a long while - has Wallace lost it, gotten lazy, is he suffering from writer's block? It was actually none of these. Just before the World Series finished I came down with a nasty cough and chest infection which I walked around functioning with like an idiot before it got really bad and turned into what my newly-appointed respirologist called a "rip-roaring case of double pneumonia". If you've never had pneumonia before, well, take it from me, it's like having a sandbag dropped on you from a height. The congestion and resulting cough don't really hurt or anything, they just leave you really short of breath, so fatigued and weakened that little things you always took for granted, like moving around, talking, eating or walking up a flight of stairs become monumental, dizzying challenges. Things get fuzzy and pretty much all you want to do is sleep; more ambitious activities like playing the bass or writing a blog go straight to the back burner. When all this started, I had several pieces half-written which will probably remain unfinished because they were time-sensitive and the iron is no longer hot, so to speak. Breathing & the Bass. The bass is not a wind instrument, so the importance of breathing in playing it tends to be overlooked. I realized this early on when I heard the following: A classic Swing-to-Bop session by the Coleman Hawkins quartet, recorded in New York more [...]

The Mystery and Grace of JERU

It probably doesn't speak well for my mental health, but often for no reason I can fathom, I wake up with a particular record deeply embedded in my mind and ears. Almost as though it had been played constantly by jazz elves while I slept, as some kind of weird music-hypnosis therapy. This happened quite early on Saturday morning, when I couldn't get a Gerry Mulligan record called JERU out of my head even while half asleep. There was nothing for it but to cry uncle, get up, brew some coffee and put the damn thing on. It sounded wonderful as always, so much so that I replayed it several times and decided to write about it.                                                                        *** On June 30, 1962, Gerry Mulligan recorded an album in New York called JERU that followed a blueprint common for other saxophonists, but was entirely atypical for him: a pick-up blowing date featuring his baritone as the only horn, backed by a conventional piano-bass-drums rhythm section. (Actually, along with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ben Tucker on bass and Dave Bailey on drums, Alec Dorsey's conga drums were also used, making it even more unusual for Mulligan.) This simply was not the way Gerry Mulligan went about making records under his own name. He generally liked to record his own tightly-knit, well-rehearsed bands, playing either his compositions or his arrangements of standards, with at least two more [...]

Jazz Cooking: A Bolognese-Puttanesca Hybrid

Last night, I had a craving for the flavour of a simple tomato sauce over pasta, something I haven't had in a while. It's not really a summery dish, but then again it hasn't been all that summery a summer. I set out to make a straightforward Bolognese sauce, made a blunder and ended up with a cross between a Bolognese and a Puttanesca sauce. Much to my surprise and delight, it turned out to be one of the best sauces I've ever made, it was delicious beyond any reasonable expectations. For this reason, and because writing on various jazz matters is going slowwwwly, I thought I'd write about this. Jazz can sustain you in many ways but, the last time I checked, you can't eat it. If you're lucky though, you can still earn enough from jazz to at least put a decent meal on the table, no small thing these days.                                                                 *** I arrived home armed with a pound of ground pork and a large can of crushed tomatoes, Bolognese sauce on my mind. I put the M.J.Q.'s No Sun In Venice on the box, some olive oil in a skillet to warm, and finely chopped a large onion and four cloves of garlic. I dumped the olives and garlic into the skillet and as they hit the warm oil, they made a crackling sizzle just as Connie Kay played a huge, shimmering splash on his open hi-hats. It made me smile; when you cook with a jazz record, things not only smell good but can also sound good, if more [...]

The Thrill of First-Nighting

Recently, I began an email correspondence with the multi-faceted, New York-based jazz figure Bill Kirchner [1], on whom more later. Bill stumbled across my blog and left some nice comments, then contacted me by email. We've been back and forth quite a bit, exchanging thoughts, information and stories. We're about the same age and while he's a lot more accomplished than I could ever hope to be, we have a lot in common, including knowing some of the same people. Among other things, he sent me a link to an interview he did with Ethan Iverson, which made for very interesting reading indeed. The other day I sent him some of the following stories which were suggested to me by various things in the interview and other subjects we'd discussed, which I'll explain as I go along. He got back to me urging me to publish these stories, something which some other friends have been after me to do. I've wanted to make the posts a little more personal by including some stories from my own experiences, along with some of the more historical/biographical stuff I've been writing, which tends to be longer and drier. I've been reluctant to do so though, fearing that some "bandstand moments" don't always translate - you know, the old case of "You had to be there...". Also, some of the funniest stories are not always kind to everyone involved, and I have no wish to be unkind, there's enough of that in the world already. For these reasons, I've withheld some names in a couple of these stories to more [...]

The Strange Case of Osie Johnson

  One thing leads to another and my recent post about trombonist Eddie Bert touched on the drumming of Osie Johnson, which got me to thinking about him and listening again to some of the many records he played on. I've been thinking of writing something on him for a while as he's long been a great favourite, so here goes.                                                                   *** Both on records and in person, drummer Osie Johnson was all over the hyperactive New York jazz scene from the early 1950s to the mid '60s. The range of people he played with was imposing - in small groups and big bands, with black and white musicians of several generations and in a variety of styles, on straight "blowing" dates or more complex, written ones - he worked with just about everyone imaginable. His freelance work with Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith and Milt Hinton was so frequent they became known as "The New York Rhythm Section". The Tom Lord discography lists him as playing on 670 jazz sessions, a huge number even for those peak years and doubly impressive when you consider that most of this took place in just twelve years. But Lord's discography doesn't cover his frequent recordings as a staff drummer for the CBS and NBC studio orchestras, which were of a more commercial nature, plus he was all over the place in clubs. Johnson never played with Count Basie or his band that I'm aware of, more [...]

A ‘Bone For All Seasons

Lester Young and Bill Evans are two examples of the rare breed who achieved an imperishable standing in jazz by creating unique, highly influential styles. Rarer still are those who were beyond category as visionary composers who virtually invented their own musical universe, such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. These are one-of-a-kind geniuses though, originals who come along once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime. But there are mere mortals among us who achieve a similar timeless profile in a more modest, sideman kind of way. Being a career sideman myself and - on my good days - a mere mortal, I reserve special affection and respect for these types of musicians. They have a multidimensional versatility which allows them to work in a wide range of settings and styles, with musicians who cut across generational and even racial barriers. Swing, mainstream, bebop, modern, big band, small group, experimental, straight ahead, tricky originals, standards, blues, ballads - you name it, they can play it, with conviction and authenticity. This range requires not only instrumental proficiency, but a musical open-mindedness, and it is the latter aspect that interests me the most. To play convincingly in such a wide array of 'bags', one must not only be able, but willing. Such musicians are both rare and exceedingly valuable and a definitive example is Eddie Bert, who I think of as the trombonist for all seasons. Bert was never a star exactly, nor more [...]

Young Man With Some Corn

Fairly late the other night I was trawling around the channels, glass of French red in hand, looking for something to watch. There was a ballgame from Seattle on, but it was already 4-0 Orioles in the fifth inning and it had that look of a yawner. I flipped over to TCM just as host Ben Mankiewicz was introducing Young Man With A Horn from 1950, starring Kirk Douglas (!), Doris Day (!!), Lauren Bacall (!!!) and Hoagy Carmichael (!!!!). (I felt like the Jack Lemmon character from The Apartment as he finally sits down with his TV dinner to watch some boob-tube after a long, hard day at the office, followed by waiting for the horny, philandering executives to finish using his pad. He gets all excited as the network schmuck announces the star-studded cast of Grand Hotel, "starring Lionel Barrymore (!), Joan Crawford (!!), Wallace Beery (!!!) ...". With each added star, Lemmon's eyes widen and his jaw drops further, but first there's "a message from our sponsor", only to be followed by the same roll call, but then "a message from our alternate sponsor", at which point Lemmon turns off the box in disgust.) There are no such commercial interruptions on TCM though and of course I watched the whole goddamn movie like the hopeless idiot I am, even though I've seen it enough times to know what a corn-fest it is. The picture has so many drawbacks it's hard to know where to start, but the main problem is that it's based on Dorothy Baker's trashy novel of the same name, a fatuously ripe more [...]

Bill Harris, Trombone Surrealist

It's as well the trombonist Bill Harris actually existed, because not even the most imaginative novelist or jazz fan could have made him up. He was most certainly unique, but that word doesn't quite do him justice; he was "unique" the way 9/11 was "devastating", as the JFK assassination was "shocking", like Rob Ford is "dissolute." And words such as original, individual, colourful and distinctive, while equally applicable, don't really do it in his case either. In spite of this singularity, he remains somewhat on the sidelines at this point. Very little has been written about him and although he recorded a lot as a sideman, he made just three full LPs as a leader, along with a handful of sporadic sessions, most of them not easy to find. He was certainly admired, even idolized, by many trombonists in his day and exerted an influence on them, but very few sounded like him because he was virtually inimitable. One of his better-known tunes was "Characteristically B.H.", but his outstanding characteristic was that he was uncharacteristic of almost everything, in every sense. Jazz is full of colourful characters and voices, but with Harris, there's such a complex range of contrasts in both the man and his music that he's a special case. His trombone voice was one-of-a-kind - try to imagine all three of Duke Ellington's trombonists from the 1930s rolled into one, with Juan Tizol a little more prominent in the mix than the other two - only playing bebop. His more [...]

Rabbit & Deacon, Jazz Healers

As listeners, we all know what the different musical instruments sound like....or at least we like to think so. Every once in a while though, a player will escape the tonal boundaries of his horn, making it sound like another one, or even like something we've never heard before. For example, Lester Young's tenor saxophone, which seemed to come at the listener as a vapour through an invisible airshaft, sounding more like a French horn than a tenor. Fittingly, many of these sonic chameleons worked with Duke Ellington, who had an endless appetite for unique tone colours and knew how to use them. Like Rex Stewart, who, through an alchemy known only to him involving his valves, lip and diaphragm, could make his cornet sound like a neighing horse, a nagging woman or a severely troubled colon, among other things. Or reed master Otto "Toby" Hardwicke, whose wispy upper register on alto sounded uncannily like a violin. Ben Webster could achieve similar bowed-string effects, in quieter moments making his tenor sound like a viola or cello. Recently I heard another Ellingtonian turn this trick in arresting fashion, made all the more stunning by the fact that I already knew it was trombonist Lawrence Brown (nicknamed  "Deacon" for his dignified, sober mien), as I'd heard this particular small-group date with Johnny Hodges several times before. What's actually on a record can't change - by definition it's fixed - but how we hear the music can change, circumstances can make us more more [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

Ben Webster: The Heart of the Matter

Ben Webster fell under the spell of Coleman Hawkins' ground-breaking tenor saxophone style early in his career, but eventually discovered himself and largely formed his own style by about 1938. Shortly after this he found a setting as perfect for him as the Count Basie band was for Lester Young - the Duke Ellington Orchestra, from 1940-43. His time with Ellington and especially the exposure to Johnny Hodges further shaped him. Hawkins may have been Webster's original model, but Hodges and another great alto saxophonist - Ben's lifelong friend Benny Carter - were his biggest influences. From Carter he learned breath control and to smooth out his phrasing with more legato, from Hodges he learned how to project emotion by using glissandi and imbuing his sound with an endlessly nuanced vibrato. Even the Ellington band couldn't contain his Promethian temper for long and he left in a huff after an altercation with Duke in 1943. His style evolved somewhat after this in small ways as he and his life changed, but he never really embraced bebop or other aspects of modernism in jazz, his playing remained essentially the same and true to itself. This individuality was celebrated in the 1950s, when Webster found an ideal outlet in the touring Jazz at the Philharmonic troupes and the attendant record labels (Clef, Norgran, Verve) founded by Norman Granz. His many recordings from that time capture him in a kind of golden middle period and moved critics and listeners alike to belatedly more [...]

Don’t Even Mention My Blue Suede Shoes

  The Name Game. As if jazz fans don't feel confused and isolated enough already, there are some snarly name-duplications around just to make matters worse. Take the name Tommy Flanagan, for example. Most jazz fans would think of the pianist, but the general public might think of the Scottish actor. Google is neutral and offers up about an equal number of hits for each, though the actor's come first. Or Tommy Williams - is it the jazz bassist (who hardly even many jazz fans know about), the equally obscure rock bassist, or the Republican Senator from Texas? But surely the granddaddy of these is Carl Perkins, who could be the star-crossed and now little-known jazz pianist, or the rockabilly musician who achieved lasting fame for writing "Blue Suede Shoes". This pair is really confusing as they were both musicians and were active during the same period. (Just to show that confusion also swirls around song titles, it's quite possible to get "Blue Suede Shoes" mixed up with Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes" if you're not firing on all cylinders. I'm still waiting for someone to request "My Little Blue Suede Shoes" on a gig but, so far, no luck. However, at a Christmas party I once played at, I had the supreme pleasure of witnessing a very drunk East Indian man react to John Alcorn singing "Route 66" by bellowing "Oh goody, Route 67!", sounding for all the world like Peter Sellers in The Party, only much louder. I still don't know how Alcorn managed to continue more [...]

Early Days, Big or Small, Part Two

It's sort of funny, but because I played bass for ten years in Rob McConnell's big band The Boss Brass (and later, about another decade in his Tentette), some people may think of me as this ace big band bass guy. I suppose it makes sense in a way, they were both very good bands and playing in them became part of my skill set and profile. For sure, I learned a lot about playing in big bands from being in those two groups, and knew a lot more about it with a few years in the Brass under my belt than I did when I joined. And I don't mind people thinking of me as a good big band player, I'm enormously proud to have played in those bands and miss them now that they and Rob are gone. It's just that if people had seen me in my first year in the Jazz Programme at Humber College, well.......let's just say that if there had been a yearbook, I'd have been voted "Person Least Likely To Succeed In A Big Band." By the time I first attended Humber in 1975, I'd improved some as a bass player. I had some basic technique and could play a little jazz, walk a bass line and get through some tunes, though I hadn't done many professional jobs yet. And thanks to my guitar studies with Gary Benson, I had a good grounding in theory and harmony, understood how chords worked and so on. My audition at Humber went pretty well and on the strength of this, the bass teachers - Lenny Boyd and Murray Lauder - slotted me into the top big band ensemble, known as the "A Band", run by the great veteran trumpet more [...]

In Praise of Gary Benson

Yesterday brought the sad news that guitarist Gary Benson, a fixture on Toronto's jazz scene for many years, died at the age of 75. It was not entirely unexpected as Gary had been very ill for some time, but the news will hit those who knew him in the jazz community hard nonetheless. He was a fine player and an even better person, we'll all miss his even-keeled, modest personality and sense of humour, his jokes and wonderful impersonations. My thoughts go out to those who were closest to him - his family of course - and his cohorts in The Canadian Jazz Quartet (Frank Wright, Duncan Hopkins and Don Vickery, who played weekly with Gary for many years until his illness struck.) His passing has hit me very hard as well, because Gary was my first music teacher way back when I was in my early teens, playing guitar instead of bass. It's no exaggeration to say that Gary taught me most of what I know about music and gave me a great foundation for everything I later learned in playing the bass. Good beginnings are very important and all the riches of the jazz life I've enjoyed - the friendships, laughs, stories, the satisfaction of playing, listening to and talking music for so many years - stem from starting out with Gary. It was he who got me interested in jazz in the first place and all the invaluable information he gave me made learning to play it a lot easier. My parents bought me a little flat-top guitar for Christmas when I was about eleven - it was a Winston, from the more [...]

Early Days, Big or Small? Part One

In connection with the post on The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess, I wanted to include some more general commentary on jazz and big bands, some of it personal and involving my very early days as a jazz fan and player. As that piece was overly long, I'll take up the subject again here. Big bands are not for everybody, they sometimes form a dividing line in jazz not unlike Dixieland. By this I mean that there are jazz musicians and fans who don't care for big bands at all, and others who prefer them, some exclusively. The first group finds them to be too loud or bombastic, not intimate or free-wheeling enough, that they place too many limits on the creativity and space given to improvising soloists. In short, they feel there's not enough jazz played in big bands. These are the people who go running to turn the volume knob down if they hear a big band record on the radio, or who ask, "Why don't the trumpets shut up, and why do the soloists only play one or two choruses, when are they gonna stretch out a little?" Those who can't get enough of big bands love the roaring excitement of them at full blast, the greater range of dynamics, sounds and colours that more instruments can provide. The shouting brass, the sax solis, the sizzling backgrounds, the shorter solos, the chugging rhythm, the increased organization that more written material and ensemble teamwork can bring. When listening to small groups these types might be apt to ask, "So, where's the beat?" Or, "When are more [...]

Keynote Address, Part Two – Notes

These are notes I wanted to include in the post "Keynote Address", but felt it was long enough as it was. [1].  Alfred Lion arrived in New York in 1929, but health issues forced his return to Germany soon thereafter. He worked in South America from 1933 and would return to New York in 1938, in time to hear John Hammond's "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts of 1938 and '39, which inspired him to found his own label. His good friend Francis Wolff joined him, reportedly catching the last passenger boat to leave Germany in early 1939, before the war began. Blue Note was the most cash-strapped of the small New York independent labels, so in the early going their releases were more intermittent and modest than the others. However, slow and steady wins the race, even with jazz record labels. Due to financial problems, Keynote and HRS both folded in the late 1940s, and while Commodore did a few sporadic recordings in the '50s, it was largely done by 1947. But, Blue Note gathered momentum as a bebop label in the late-'40s and really hit its stride in the '50s and '60s as the label went on to great fame and some fortune, before it all ebbed in the early '70s. Of course the label was revived after a long gap and is now part of the Capitol/EMI imprint, surviving its founders with frequent reissues of its large back catalogue and new releases by contemporary musicians. [2]. Of these four independents, only Keynote offered the full range of traditional jazz, small group swing and more [...]

Keynote Address

The invaluable Spanish jazz-reissue company Fresh Sound Records recently entered new territory by out-doing itself with a huge 11-disc reissue called The Keynote Jazz Collection, 1941-47. With a whopping 243 titles performed by 62 different bands, it's a massive compilation of music from one of the key (no pun intended) independent New York jazz labels of those years - Keynote Records. It offers a stunning cross-section of 1940s jazz in all its various styles, during a time when the music was in a process of transition as bebop was developing. More than one commentator has said that although it's still early in the year, this is likely the jazz reissue of 2014. (Technically, it was released in 2013 - but late, in December - and word is just getting out. I missed the advance notice of this, but some jazz friends who have already received their copies informed me of it, also including a good review of the package in Jazz Weekly by George W. Harris.) I was initially reluctant to buy this set, despite glowing reports about it. This didn't have to do with the cost, which, depending on the source, is actually pretty reasonable, ranging between around $100 to $135 Canadian. My concern was that I already have quite a lot of this music, issued on CD by Japanese Mercury - single discs by Lester Young, Benny Carter, Lennie Tristano, a 4-CD set of Coleman Hawkins, as well as issues under group names such as The Keynoters and The Small Herd. My mind was changed by a review I read more [...]

Putting the Potts On

No, this is not another post about food, I swear. The title of this essay is a pun I couldn't resist, which I'll explain. There's an old expression in jazz that when a band is swinging, really cooking as it were, they "have the pots on." This certainly applies to The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess, a wonderful 1959 big band recording of Gershwin's folk-opera, written by the D.C.-based arranger Bill Potts. It features an all-star cast of the best jazz and studio players New York had to offer at the time, probably the richest period in that city's prolific jazz history. I first heard an LP copy of this record about twenty-five years ago and immediately bought it when it was later issued on CD. I've listened to it often with great pleasure ever since, it's the kind of record that you can listen to for your whole life. It sounds better and better each time you hear it, as you become more familiar with its many highlights and nuances and I've had it on a lot recently. Before going into more detail about the record though, some commentary on the context in which it was made and on big bands in jazz generally, for the sake of perspective.                                                                       *** As organized, regularly touring units, big bands ran into hard times in the late-40s and all but a few of them disbanded in those years. They would never again dominate jazz or American popular more [...]

Happy New Year with Annie & Joe

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYnmSAtZuB0#t=366/ Hi and Happy New Year to everyone. A friend sent me the above YouTube clip and it knocked me out so much I wanted to share it with all of you. It seems to be from a 1959 Playboy jazz special, but fortunately that leering creep Hugh Hefner has limited screen time and there's a very young Tony Bennett among the guests, smoking away like everybody else. First off there's Annie Ross, who gets up and sings "Twisted", her signature tune. It was originally a blues solo by the great tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and Annie put lyrics to the whole thing, having to do with psycho-analysis, because of the song's original title and the fact that visiting the shrink was all the rage back then. The words are really clever and her tongue-in-cheek delivery here is very funny. This practice of putting words to instrumental jazz solos became known as vocalese, and Annie was one of the pioneers of it, along with King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, the last two of whom appear here later on. Years after this, Joni Mitchell recorded a version of Twisted and a lot of people think Joni wrote it, which drove her and Annie both nuts, me too. Ms. Ross is backed here by none other than one of my all-time music heroes, Count Basie. There are some great shots of him, looking for all the world like a kind of sly yet benign jazz chipmunk. At the time, Annie was part of the vocal jazz trio called Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, more [...]

The Iron Clarinet

The soprano saxophone has had a fairly schizoid history as an instrument and this is fitting, because it comes in two completely different forms. There's the straight one, which looks like a slightly bloated clarinet that's been dipped in brass. And the curved one, which looks like a miniature alto saxophone, to be used as a kid's toy or as a prop in a staging of Gulliver's Travels. As alto saxophonist Campbell Ryga (more on him later) puts it, the curved soprano isn't a saxophone, it's "more of a brooch". I don't know much about saxophones, but I'm told the curved one is mellower sounding and easier to control and play in tune, intonation problems have often plagued the horn. Most players favour the straight one though, its sound seems to cut through more and the fingering isn't quite as cramped as on the tiny curved model. Or maybe it's because the tubular model doesn't look as ridiculous, I don't know. In keeping with the instrument's physical duality, for many years there were only two main stylistic models aspiring soprano players could look to and each represented an extreme : the original master Sidney Bechet, who epitomized the earliest traditions of jazz, or John Coltrane, who came much later and represented the avant-garde. For a long time Bechet had the soprano field all to himself, he began playing the straight one along with his first instrument, the clarinet, sometime in the early '20s. This established a pattern that would later become common : most play more [...]

The Cement of Lament

There are certain pieces of music which stick in our minds for hours or even days and often these so-called ear-worms are unwelcome, as we chance to hear a snippet of something we don't even like and it just won't leave us alone, goddamnit. I'm very suggestible in this way, sometimes all it takes is for somebody to mention an old TV show or movie and suddenly my inner jukebox kicks in and I have the theme from "Green Acres" or "To Sir With Love" running through what's left of my mind, thanks a lot, pal. Or I'll wake up first thing in the morning with some dumb, arcane song in my head for no reason at all, making me wonder with no small anxiety just what the hell I was dreaming about that makes "I Love Jennifer Eccles" so all-fired important all of a sudden. It's spooky....what? ....was I at some Hollies fan-club convention in my dreams? And if so, what does this say about me? Sometimes though, I get lucky and an actual "adult" piece of music I really love lodges in my mind's ear for a day or two and its persistence is only maddening to those around me, because I can't stop humming bits of its melody, usually in my trombone-impersonation voice. (Honestly, just how annoying could that be? Apparently, very.) Such is the case with J.J. Johnson's lovely ballad/tone poem "Lament", which has been dogging me off and on in recent months, including right now. It's that kind of tune, it just won't let go, burying itself in my ear like cement. But at least it's good company, it more [...]

La-di-dah, di-dah-di-dum……

On a recent gig there were some requests for autumn songs - "Autumn Leaves"' naturally, which never goes away but I never tire of either, as long as it's not played too fast. Its imperishable structure and cyclical chords make it a great vehicle for blowing, plus people know and like it. Also "Autumn In New York", which is maybe the best of this lot, a masterpiece with the great line describing Manhattan's streets as "canyons of steel". "Autumn Nocturne", "Autumn Serenade" and "Early Autumn" are also good tunes for this season, as are "September Song" and "Indian Summer". We thought we'd put a medley of autumn tunes together and my ever febrile sense of punsmanship led me to suggest songs with the word "fall" in them, like "Let's Fall In Love" or "I Fall In Love Too Easily". Naturally these offerings were greeted with groans and blank looks, though no actual violence from my fellow musos. Come to think of it, Wayne Shorter wrote a tune called "Fall", which is never played or asked for because nobody actually knows it. Another one I like is "'Tis Autumn" by a guy named Henry Nemo, no relation to Jules Verne's nutty evil geneticist character. It's a ballad with a really tuneful melody and cute, fanciful words which actually include some scat-like syllables: Old Father Time checked, so there'd be no doubt; Called on the North wind to come on out, Then cupped his hands so proudly to shout, "La-di-dah di-dah-di-dum, 'tis autumn!" Trees say they're tired, they've born too much more [...]

Sarahndipity – I Feel Pretty…Good

They might be called jazz serendipity, those odd moments when out of the blue (and often out of context), you chance to hear a great jazz performance and it simply takes your head off, you're just gone, palpably reminded of how great and uplifting this music can be. I had the strangest one of these one summer night after a gig, quite a few years ago. I can almost pinpoint the time because I was working at The Senator and that club closed sometime in 2005, so it was likely the summer of 2004 or 2005. It was a Saturday in August and the city was emptier and quieter than usual, as it gets at that time of the year. I was playing at the club in a trio led by saxophonist Trevor Hogg, with David Braid playing piano. We were presenting the music of Lennie Tristano and his famous pupils Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. The music was challenging but fun, though a bit lonely for me without drums; I think The Senator was cutting back to just trios that summer in an attempt to stay open. I left the club shortly after one in the morning. I'd had a few, wasn't exactly tipsy but I wasn't feeling any pain either. I crossed Victoria St. to cut across Dundas Square on my way to the subway. There had been the usual drecky live show there that night, but by then the crowd had dispersed and the square was fairly deserted, though there were still bright lights on and a crew was tearing down equipment on the stage. Some music was playing really loud over the P.A. system, but for once it wasn't more [...]

After Hours Diary

"It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place...." It was just the four of us, fairly late Wednesday night - John Loach and his trumpet, John Alcorn singing without a mic, Mark Eisenman at the keys and me on bass - huddled around the piano at Loach's place in a tight circle, playing a few "good old good ones", the songs of our lives, making music for our own pleasure. It was all about the mood and the moment and this surely was an after hours, jazz one. There was no audience (save for Patti Loach padding about in the kitchen), no requests, no money, no sound-system or wires, no pressure. Just four guys who love to play together, picking bits of music from the air and sending them back out, the songs and sounds drifting into the silence of the night and fading, never to return. Our little jam session hadn't been planned at all and that's partly why it was so satisfying. We'd gathered earlier at the Loaches' house to mix 23 tracks we'd recorded there last October over three nights, with Warren Vache on cornet and Reg Schwager on guitar, Loach at the dials. I don't often say this because it isn't often true, but I really felt back then that we'd caught lightning in a bottle those three nights, especially the last one. The playing seemed very spontaneous and effortless, the result of good musical chemistry, intent listening, superior songs, parked egos, a relaxed atmosphere in a studio just made for making music, i.e. the Loaches' music room. So we drank a little more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Five

The series continues with a look at four bassists who had prolific freelance careers mostly in the mainstream, small-group swing field - John Simmons, Al Hall, Al Lucas and Gene Ramey. These men were born within five years of each other and their careers often overlapped and intersected in the patchwork quilt of New York jazz in the 1940s and '50s. Sometimes, one would replace another with a given artist; for example, each of them played and recorded extensively with Teddy Wilson at one time or another. Simmons and Lucas each played with Illinois Jacquet and pianist Eddie Heywood in the '40s; Lucas and Hall were with Mary Lou Williams for a time. Hall and Simmons both played with Erroll Garner, Simmons and Ramey with Thelonious Monk early in his career and also with Art Tatum. If you have multi-CD sets by certain artists - Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Wilson, Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young - it's not unusual to see two or three of these guys in succession. Each of them was well enough regarded during their prime that they worked constantly with a wide range of people, but this very versatility and the passage of time have pushed these fine bassists into the shadows somewhat. 7.  a) - John Simmons.   I've learned over the years that if you want a meaningful assessment of how a given jazz drummer plays, don't ask another drummer, because they've likely never played with the guy in question and are apt to give information that's too specific or technical. For more [...]

I’ve Got the Hippie, Hippie Shakes

Recently I got into a discussion with two female library colleagues who are my age, about the young of today and some of their customs and..... "idioms". You know....Who Bruno Mars is (which they knew but I didn't.) How Facebook is rapidly becoming old-hat and being replaced by things like Instagram and Snapchat. The preponderance of ghastly plaid shorts and stupid, undersized straw fedoras on young men. How old words like "hip", "cool" and "hipster" have become co-opted by the young, but with new and different connotations. This is wryly ironic for us oldsters, if we're not too grumpy to see it. One of these ladies mentioned that her teenage daughter downloads new tunes to her (the mother's) iPhone, to keep her informed on the "now sounds of today's music", under the heading "I'm A Hip Mom." I jokingly replied with, "Or a hep mom", but neither of my friends knew that word. I explained that it was an old term we used to use, meaning the "royal we". Fortunately, hep was a word from before our time and I hate to admit it, but there aren't too many of those left, boo-hoo. I'm not sure if hep preceded hip or was just an offshoot of it, but it was used back in the early days of bebop - mid to late-'40s - by modern jazz fans and the music press, it was kind of corny even then. Often it was joined with "cat" as in "hep-cat", one who dug the way-out sounds of progressive jazz and knew how to "go man, wail daddy-o, you dig?" You know, the type who sported a beret, goatee and didn't more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Four

The series continues with a look at the great swing veteran Sid Weiss and three guys who are mostly overlooked, despite (or maybe because of) playing bass with famous big bands - Junior Raglin and Ernie Shepard with Duke Ellington, and Eddie Jones with Count Basie. 5. - Sid Weiss. If a soundtrack of The Swing Era was ever assembled, Sid Weiss would be playing bass on more than his fair share of it. He played with four key big bands - Artie Shaw (1938-9), Tommy Dorsey (1940-41), Benny Goodman (1941-45) and Charlie Barnet (1943) - as well as short stints with Jerry Wald, Bunny Berigan and others. He also did a lot of freelance recordings, some of them very notable. A person can only be in one place at a time, yet from 1935-45 Weiss seemed to defy this, he was all over swing music of both the big and small band variety. And yet he's almost completely forgotten now. Some of this has to do with playing bass in a big band, a sure ticket to anonymity because of the sheer numbers involved and the hierarchy of the Big Band Era star system. Highest up were the leaders, who were like royalty and often had names that reflected this - Duke, Count, The King of Swing etc. Then there were the star soloists, who were often leaders in waiting. For example, Benny Goodman's earliest bands hatched such future leaders as Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. The singers naturally attracted some attention, leaving the section guys further down the more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Three

The series continues with a look at the fine veteran West Coast bassist Buddy Clark, and two very good, mostly unknown bassists: Don Prell and William Austin, whose careers were almost as brief and obscure as Gary Mapp's, but not quite. 3. Buddy Clark - Buddy Clark was a very good bassist on the L.A. scene from the early '50s on into the '80s, who's often overlooked. He's become a favourite of mine in random, incremental installments through the years because his career, though busy, followed an intermittent pattern of jazz exposure intermingled with anonymous studio work. I first became aware of him through hearing Supersax in the early '70s; he was co-founder and co-leader of the band along with Med Flory, and did a lot of the arranging of Charlie Parker's solos for five saxophones. Over the years since then, I would hear him on jazz records here and there (often without knowing who was playing at first) and was always very impressed by the rhythmic flow of his playing. There's something about the combination of his firm, full sound, his ringing, slightly percussive attack, his note choices and his placement of the quarter-note just slightly on top of the beat, that add up to a very clear, propulsive time-feel. He always seemed to get things off the ground. In this respect his playing is quite similar to Leroy Vinnegar's, though Vinnegar was funkier, had more personality and inventiveness in his playing than Clark, was more of a dyed-in-the-wool jazz player and hence more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Two

Our look at unsung bassists continues with Tommy Williams, who mostly played with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet and is not to be confused with the more recent jazz bassist Thomas Williams or Tommy Williams, the rock guy. 2. Tommy Williams - I'd been heavily involved with jazz - reading about it, listening to it, playing it - for about 25 years before I first came across the bass playing of Tommy Williams and I won't soon forget it. About twelve years ago, I was hanging out with my good friend John Sumner - a terrific drummer and serious jazz record collector - at his apartment. We were listening to records and talking music as usual and he put on an older Art Farmer LP I didn't know, a quartet date from around the late-'50s or so. The pianist sounded just like Tommy Flanagan (and it was) but the bassist and drummer didn't sound familiar, I couldn't place them. Then on came a track with the bass playing the melody to an old standard I also didn't know ("So Beats My Heart For You") and my ears perked right up, this kind of thing wasn't too commonplace back then. The mystery bassist sounded just great, he got the melody to sing (not easy on the plucked bass) with a long, rounded tone and very articulate, smooth phrasing. It was the kind of thing I'd heard from Oscar Pettiford, Red Mitchell and Paul Chambers, but this guy sounded different. I gave up, had no idea, so I finally asked in desperation, "Who the hell is the bass player?!?" "Tommy Williams" answered Sumner, more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part One

The recent post about the mostly forgotten bassist Billy Taylor got me to thinking of other under-recognized ones, of which there have been no shortage through the years. So here's a look at a few other bass players who were never even close to being household names, despite playing very well. First though, a comic rant on the overuse of the word "underrated" in jazz.                                                           *** I was going to call this article "Underrated Bassists", but it occurred to me that the word underrated has become overrated in jazz. It's certainly been overused in that context to the point where its meaning has become fuzzy, if not completely nonexistent. It's almost as bad as "awesome" but not quite, nothing is. I guess we still have a general sense of what underrated means, but how can so many players (even in so underrated a field as jazz) be underrated? (The answer of course, is "easily".) This mostly started with jazz critics and reviewers in the past, they tossed around 'underrated' like it was confetti, to the point where certain names always summoned up the word automatically. Tommy Flanagan, Hank Mobley, Eddie Bert, Kenny Dorham, Chuck Wayne, Jerry Dodgion, Dick Katz, George Tucker, Mickey Roker, etcetera, etcetera. It almost made you wish that jazz writers came equipped with an electronic sensor-chip, so that every time they went to use 'underrated' they'd get a little more [...]

Surviving Greatness: Wally Pipp & Billy Taylor

A rare few have had the misfortune to be established and very good at what they do, only to be suddenly eclipsed by a wunderkind and relegated to oblivion through no fault of their own. In fact, if these poor souls are remembered at all, it's often only because of the greatness of those who supplanted them. One might call this the Salieri-Mozart dynamic, a most extreme case explored in the movie Amadeus. It's a kind of halo-effect in reverse, as in, "Oh yeah, I remember him...... he's the guy who was replaced by....... (insert famous name)." It was this way with Wally Pipp in baseball, for example. He was a very good first baseman - not quite a star, but good enough to be a regular with the Yankees from 1915-25, before and after Babe Ruth joined them. One fateful day during the 1925 season, he begged out of the line-up with a headache and was replaced by a kid named Lou Gehrig. Baseball fans all know the rest, the phenom absolutely tore it up and Pipp never played another game at first base for the Yanks, as Gehrig embarked on his incredible streak of playing 2,130 consecutive games. He was a charter member of "Murderer's Row", eventually became "The Iron Horse" and of course had a mythical career, the stuff glory is made of. He's likely the greatest first baseman of all time, certainly the most famous and best-loved one. His play and statistics established all this, but Gehrig's untimely death from the disease now named after him - and his stirring speech to more [...]

‘Dis Band Should Disband!

In the wilting heat of these dog days I thought we could use a little comic diversion, so here's one of the games jazz guys play on the road when things get boring, which is often enough. The idea is to make up an imaginary band of musicians whose names are onomatopoeic - yes, I realize that's an awfully big word for a bass player. You know, puns for the instruments they play - and how they play them - usually pretty badly to make it more fun. (It helps if you sound out the names below, but don't do this in public or people will think you're an even bigger drooling idiot than you really are.) Here then, is a bad big band of choice names compiled over the years, say Duke O'Bore and his Prairie Stink-o-Pators:   Trumpets: On lead trumpet we have Blair Lowder of course. The not very sure-lipped jazz trumpet soloist is Manny Clams. The section is rounded out by the mistake-prone Willie Cack and Kenny Maykit, who has very limited range, so his parts are often doubled by Betty Won't. Trombones: The lead trombonist is the slippery Russian, Slide Uptopitch. On second 'bone is a veteran of all the name bands who's never been a leader himself, Cy DeMann. The weak-chopped third trombonist is Cuffs Knightley. Bass trombone is handled by Stan Torian, who hails from Armenia and blows like, the lowest. Reeds: As usual, the sax section is a mixed bag of old hacks and overanxious youngbloods. On lead alto is the aging and slightly deaf veteran Otto Retire, backed by Reed Baddeley more [...]

Melodious Thunk, and Other Funk

I've become friends with one of the reference librarians in the Great Library where I work, partly because she's interested in music of all kinds. She's played the piano most of her life and sung in choirs; she also does some Latin dancing, so music is about as important to her as it is to me. We've taken to trading CDs back and forth and recently I left four jazz ones on her desk with an email explaining them. I got carried away with it as usual - especially with some stories about Sweets Edison, who's on one of the discs - so I've decided to post this for everyone's entertainment, hopefully.                                                   *** I thought it was high time you heard some Thelonious Monk, or "Melodious Thunk" as his wife Nellie called him. I fussed over which record to bring you as an introduction to him, but in the end decided it didn't really matter. I have a feeling you're not going to like him much anyway; he's an acquired taste that some people just don't ever acquire. But have a go. This record is one of his better ones and a little unusual, even for him. I love the kiddie-themed cover, unfortunately this is a Japanese issue, so the liner notes are a little hard to read! Normally, Monk used a quartet with him on piano, plus tenor saxophone, bass and drums. This one has a septet with trumpet, alto saxophone, his favourite bassist and drummer and two tenor saxophone giants who represented the past (Coleman more [...]

Songs In the Key of Three

Since Ed Bickert retired from playing guitar around 2002, his place in a couple of bands I play in - the Mike Murley Trio and the Barry Elmes Quintet - has been taken by Reg Schwager. It speaks volumes for Reg that these were quite seamless transitions; replacing Ed's unique playing would normally be impossible and generally, his absence has left a sizeable hole on the Canadian jazz scene at large. The Elmes Quintet has released several records with Reg playing guitar, but Murley's trio hasn't managed this yet, despite a pass at a live recording at Mezzetta several years ago. This was a hasty one-off which yielded some material that was good, but not quite good enough to release. Reg does appear on Murley's CD The Melody Lingers On, but that wasn't just the trio, it features Guido Basso and Tara Davidson as guests along with a chamber ensemble of strings. Typically, Reg has been pretty quiet on the subject, but Murley and I both agree that a recording by the trio with him is long overdue, especially when you consider how consistently well the group with Reg has played over the last eleven years. It's criminal really, but that's how it goes sometimes in jazz, people get busy with various other gigs, bands or projects and before you know it, ten years have gone by and you still don't have a CD out. The odd circumstance of an old recording by the first trio surfacing and being released recently also set things back unexpectedly on this front. A move to correct this more [...]

Birds, Songs, Memory and Coincidence

One of the perks of working at Osgoode Hall is seeing the grounds in spring and summer, all the beautiful trees and gardens maintained by two very hard-working women. There are about five blossoming crab-apple trees that recently came into spectacular bloom and on Friday morning I saw a flash of orange fly up into one of them. I thought "Baltimore Oriole" right away, but it happened so fast I wasn't sure. So I walked over and stood under the tree, pouring rain and all, peering up through the branches like a gawking idiot. Which is pretty much what I am. Sure enough, there were two orioles, orange as pumpkins, flitting around in the lush pink blossoms. It makes sense, orioles have a sweet tooth and they're likely getting some nectar here, so maybe they'll hang out for a few days. You may have gathered that apart from jazz and baseball, I'm also pretty crazy about birds and songs, which kind of go together. If I'd been with Frank Sinatra and the rest of "The Rat Pack" back in the day (I wish), their motto might have been "Let's get some birds, baseball, bebop, booze and broads and be somebody." I can't tell you what a lovely thrill and surprise it was to see these birds like this, but I'll try. The last time I remember seeing an oriole was in the backyard of my parent's first house in Scarborough, which had several big old elm trees. I have a tiny but crystal-clear memory of looking up through the elm branches one summer day and seeing one perched high up there, the sun more [...]

Zoot, Al & The Mick

This is one of the very first baseball stories I ever wrote and it has jazz content too.  I've been wanting to post it for a while and thanks to the miracles of modern digital technology, I was able to retrieve it from a dusty old email archive it had been sitting in for about four years.  I'll admit I've taken some liberties here in filling in the details as best I can; drinking was most definitely involved in the recounting of the versions of this story told to me and my memory of them is a little dim as this all happened at least thirty years ago. Zoot Sims first told me this story about Mickey Mantle around 1981 and it was later confirmed to me by Jake Hanna, who was at the Half Note as a listener on the night described below.  I didn't get to know Al Cohn well until after Zoot died in 1984, but Al told me this one too, along with many more about Zoot and others.  I can't begin to tell you what an honour and pleasure it was to play with these three great musicians and how entertaining it was to hang out with them off the bandstand.  They provided me with some of my best laughs and fondest memories and I miss them each and every day.                                                *************** I first read about this celebrated ballgame in a collection of Baseball Digest stories - you know, those "gee-whiz, my greatest thrill as a Yankee" jobs.  In the Digest version, an "ailing and feverish" Mickey Mantle came more [...]

What’s In A Name?

The following is kind of a funny story about the production of TEST OF TIME, the CD by Mike Murley's erstwhile trio (a.k.a. Murley-Bickert-Wallace) which just won the Juno Award in the "Best Traditional Jazz" category, whatever that means.  (It used to sort of mean jazz involving straw hats, banjos and/or clarinets, street names from New Orleans and old drunk guys, but I think these days it mostly means jazz with songs you might actually know and maybe even recognize.  Or maybe now, 'traditional' means jazz recorded more than ten years ago by a band that doesn't quite exist anymore, as on this disc.  Your guess is as good as mine.) Before getting to the story though, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all and sundry for their good wishes and in turn to congratulate my fellow-winners Mike Murley, Ed Bickert, and especially our good friend Barry Elmes, who as engineer, producer and " jazz archaeologist" had an awful lot to do with the release of this record.  Winning a Juno for music recorded fourteen years ago is one of the more unexpected but pleasant developments in my admittedly checkered career and is proof that if you manage to stay in the jazz game long enough, you, a) - end up playing almost everywhere with just about anybody you could imagine and, b) - are bound to see, hear and sometimes even smell some mighty unexpected things along the way. Anyway, on to the story: In late September of last year, Mike Murley and I were in Antigonish, N.S. with more [...]

Full Moon, Empty Arms, Blown Mind

It was pretty common practice in the 1930s and '40s to simply borrow a famous (or even obscure) theme from a classical composition and turn it into a popular song, its composer being conveniently dead and thus incapable of suing or collecting royalties.  The music business powers of the day weren't too shy about this kind of thing (they're even worse now) and it's surprising how many of these hybrids have entered the jazz repertoire and are trotted out now and then, often thanks to some good records of them made over the years.  Most of these versions have been instrumental, a good thing because, trust me, you don't want to hear the words that were dreamed up for most of them, they're pretty drecky.  It's not like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter were writing the lyrics, they both had bigger fish to fry, but their musical content is usually strong enough. For example, the old spiritual "Goin' Home" is based on one of the movements (I'd tell you which one if I knew or cared) of Anton Dvorak's famous "New World Symphony" - Czech it out.  Actually it's funny, because the main minor theme (notice how I didn't say "major minor theme") that opens this opus always reminds me of the first few notes of "My Funny Valentine", if played by a German marching band with a pole stuck way up its ass.  (Come to think of it, all German marching bands sound like they have a pole shoved pretty far up there.)  There are plenty of good jazz recordings of "Goin' Home" - by Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, more [...]

Aural Hygiene

I have this odd habit of combining dental appointments with CD shopping.  I know it sounds weird, but there's actually a method to my madness.  My favourite record store - Atelier Grigorian - is on Yorkville Ave. just around the corner from my dentist.  So after blowing good money on having my teeth cleaned every three months, I wash away the fluoride taste by spending some dough on something I actually enjoy, jazz records.  It's kind of a pain-pleasure principle and I only wish my benefit package covered the CD sprees. Atelier Grigorian is deceptive, it seems small when you first enter but goes back a fair way then branches out into a wider section with another room.  It's chock full of CDs and has a helpful, friendly staff who really know their music and their records, in fact several of them are musicians themselves.  Grigorian is perfect for me because it makes absolutely no concessions to popular taste or current trends - if you're looking for the latest Justin Timberlake or Beyonce, go elsewhere.  Their inventory is about two-thirds classical, with the other third mostly jazz with some interesting folk/world music thrown in.  The jazz section is well stocked, longer on quality than quantity and I like the way they have jazz singers in a separate area; which is sensible and makes for easier rummaging. In the last year or two, CD shopping for me has become like the law of diminishing returns for a couple of reasons.  One, as my jazz collection has grown more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part Four)

9.  Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane - Nov. 29, 1957 - Carnegie Hall The 2005 issue of these two stupendous sets from Carnegie Hall allowed listeners to at long last properly hear Monk's legendary "Five Spot" band at its peak, making this Smithsonian discovery one of the most significant in the history of jazz.  Before getting to the music itself though, a discussion of why the Five Spot gig was so important to the careers of Monk and Coltrane and the mystery of why so little of this great band's music was available (and in such desultory form and patchy quality) before this. Thelonious Monk's career belatedly took wing in the second half of the 1950s, aided by his productive contract with Riverside Records and the restoration of his cabaret card, which enabled him to work again in New York clubs.  In July of 1957 Monk took a quartet into the Five Spot Cafe - a bohemian hangout for artists and writers located in the Bowery at 5 Cooper Square - for a now-famous six-month residency.  The band consisted of Monk on piano, John Coltrane on tenor, Wilbur Ware on bass (replaced by Abdul Ahmed-Malik in August)  and Shadow Wilson on drums. The gig was hugely important in Monk's career, putting his music on regular display in New York for the first time in many years.  It also had a huge impact on the development of Coltrane as a musician. Coltrane was available because Miles Davis had disbanded his first quintet, tiring of the junkie antics of Coltrane and the more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part Three)

6.  Billie Holiday - May 24, 1947 - Carnegie Hall This wonderful, short set comes from an early Norman Granz Jazz At the Philharmonic concert.  Apart from her immortal Columbia recordings with Teddy Wilson, Lester Young et al in the late 1930s, these are the Holiday sides I find myself turning to most often.  She does just four songs here - "You'd Better Go Now", "You're Driving Me Crazy", "There Is No Greater Love" and "I Cover the Waterfront".  Each is beautiful, but my favourite here is the first and least-known of the tunes "You'd Better...".  Jeri Southern made a celebrated recording of this torch song some years later, but this is the one for me. The timeless and graceful quality of these performances is remarkable given all the trying circumstances surrounding them.  For one, they came during the most difficult period of Holiday's life, right between her arrest for drug possession in Philadelphia and her sentencing to 366 days in the Federal Prison for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.  Furthermore, she was appearing that night at the Club 18 on 52nd St. and between sets rushed over to Carnegie Hall with her pianist Bobby Tucker to make this unadvertised guest appearance.  Luckily it was recorded and these tracks appear on the 10-CD Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-59. Billie could be unpredictable and considering the conditions one might expect a more distracted or erratic performance, but all is poise and tranquil lyricism here, she rarely sounded more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part Two)

3.  Don Byas and Slam Stewart - June 9, 1945 - Town Hall This one is truly incredible, a once-only, bravura performance of two up-tempo numbers by the unusual duet of tenor saxophone and bass.  Both these jazz masters were in towering form and thank goodness it was recorded. The occasion was a concert put on by one Baron Timmie Rosencrantz, an eccentric and somewhat wealthy Danish emigré who was a writer and sometime salesman for the Commodore Music Shop.  He loved the music of 52nd Street and Harlem and decided to produce a concert at Town Hall featuring some of his favourite musicians - Red Norvo and his Orchestra, Teddy Wilson's Quintet with Flip Phillips, the Gene Krupa-Charlie Vantura Trio, the Stuff Smith Trio, the Bill Coleman Quartet.  He booked the Byas-Stewart duo (not a regular working unit) mainly to provide relief when the various bands were tearing down or setting up.  Against all odds it turned out that this bare-bones pair would provide the best and most memorable music of the evening. It's one thing to put the string bass in a duo with piano or guitar, these instruments can play lines and chords, offering the music more fullness, a harmonic context and self-accompaniment.  But pairing the bass with another instrument capable of only single notes like the saxophone creates challenges and limitations for the musicians that are hard to overcome.  The music will succeed or fail based solely on how well the two play, with no safety net or margin more [...]

Lightning In A Bottle (Part One)

Jazz history is full of celebrated examples of brilliant improvisation - the 1928 Louis Armstrong-Earl Hines duet "Weather Bird", Charlie Parker's solo on "Ko-Ko", the 1939 reading of "Body and Soul" by Coleman Hawkins are obvious cases, where an artist or band sets a new standard or at least reaches rare heights.  But such evaluations are only possible because the performances themselves have been preserved and codified by virtue of having been recorded, otherwise they would be long gone and forgotten.  We take records for granted now, but just think how different the development of jazz would have been without them, if everything had to be heard in person or spread by word of mouth and great performances were lost forever the instant they ended.  Because so much of it is fleeting and not written, records are to jazz what the score is to classical music, or the printing press is to literature. Most jazz records were (and are) made in studios and given the drawbacks of that environment - an often sterile atmosphere, generally poor ambient sound, physical separation of the musicians, the 'under the microscope' pressure of microphones - it's amazing how many good jazz records have been produced under these conditions.  This is especially true considering how much of jazz is improvisation, which can draw upon sources of inspiration often missing from the studio, most importantly a live audience. The recording studio does have its advantages though, more [...]

Viva Edmonton, Part One – It Could Be Verse

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Alberta and have come to understand this ambivalence recently – I don’t care much for Calgary, but I do like Edmonton.  Calgary is very head-office, a button-down, corporate oil town with all the character of drywall.  Edmonton though is funkier and more interesting, with a much stronger arts and culture presence, which was hammered home for me this past weekend.  "The Flying Beavers", as I've dubbed the trio of John Alcorn, Reg Schwager and moi, played two all-Cole Porter concerts in a new cabaret room there called "The Club".  It's in the Citadel Theatre, long one of Canada's best.  Also known as the Rice Theatre, the smaller space has all you could ever ask for as a performer - a grand piano, great lighting, sound, stage, tech-crew, atmosphere, everything.  It’s one of the best rooms I've ever played and we would be proud to have such a venue in T.O.  It was sold out too, which was great, except the audiences seemed really subdued to us, especially on Saturday.  They were like an oil painting, but apparently this is normal for winter crowds in Edmonton, they're still frozen or something.  This was odd too, because actually it was surprisingly mild out, much to our relief.   Anyway, what I wanted to write about are the lyrics to the verses of a couple of Porter songs we did, which I think you might get a kick out of (as Porter also once said in a song.)  Alcorn forgot to bring the music for "Just One Of Those more [...]

Flyin’ Blind With Mr. Ed At the OK Corral

A nicely edited version of this piece can be seen at: http://music.cbc.ca/#/blogs/2012/11/Ed-Bickert-the-Gary-Cooper-of-Canadian-jazz This story concerns the guitarist Ed Bickert, who's had a huge impact on jazz in Canada and certainly on me and other musicians of my generation who came up listening to and playing with him as an elder statesman.  A lot of this will be written in the past tense, which doesn't feel quite right because Ed is thankfully still very much well and among us.  On the other hand, a lot of what I'll describe happened years ago and, because Ed decided to retire from music a while back for his own reasons, his playing is literally a thing of the past, sorry to say.  It lives on though, through his many fine recordings and the values he instilled in a lot of musicians.  Like many, I really miss hearing him, miss playing with him, miss his presence on the scene, what's left of it. Apart from his wonderful playing, and despite being a quiet and modest guy, Ed functioned as a powerful aesthetic compass and edit-button in the jazz played around these parts, a kind of jazz-bullshit antidote.  Whether he was on the bandstand with you, or just in the audience with those radar ears and forbidding eyebrows, you felt Ed's presence, sharpened up and were a lot less inclined to indulge in any musical wanking.  He's from the West and has an aspect of "The Marlboro Man" about him - in fact, that was one of his nicknames, reinforced by decades of "professional" more [...]

What’s New? This Is

The brilliant musician Mel Powell had a jazz career unlike any other I can think of.  It had a stop and start, double-life quality with very long gaps, none of which were caused by the usual problems of drug addiction, imprisonment, alcoholism or nervous breakdowns.  He was so prodigiously gifted that he was torn between jazz - as a top-flight pianist/arranger - and the world of "straight" music, where he was a respected composer of modern classical music (eventually winning the  Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1990) and an elite music educator and academic.  For these reasons, Powell remains an obscure and shadowy jazz figure even to those who have heard of him; at this point, many likely haven't.  I mention all this because, although I've heard some of his records before, I recently heard a track for the first time, a 1954 recording of the standard "What's New", which astonished me.  I'll return to this later, but first some background and context on Powell from his interesting life. Powell was born Melvin Epstein on February 12th, 1923 in New York City to Russian-Jewish parents, certainly a fertile lineage for both pianists and composers.  He grew up in the Bronx within view of Yankee Stadium and was a rabid baseball fan. He was a child prodigy who graduated from high school at fourteen and for a time he entertained ambitions for a career as both a ballplayer and concert pianist.  He began piano studies at six and was well on his way to a concert career when his older more [...]


Although not all bad music is funny, few things are funnier than really awful  - as opposed to merely mundane - music. Provided, of course, that it was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place.  You know, musical bloopers, clams, kacks, orchestral train wrecks, blown lyrics and so on.  I've had a ringside seat on various bandstands for many of these over the years, which has no doubt warped my taste and judgement.  I suppose the key to whether really bad music is funny or not mainly has to do with how long it lasts, and if you can easily make it go away or escape it at will. In the spirit of this, if any of you are trawling on YouTube sometime and feel like some killer laughs, punch in Shooby Taylor and prepare to die, to enter a musical world of improbable and surreal horror.  Only your sides will hurt, he's ghastly, but mind-bendingly hilarious. Shooby Taylor was an obscure (to say the least) American scat singer who billed himself, God knows where, as "The Human Horn."  He was so hysterically awful that he didn't really have a career, yet he's achieved a sliver of posthumous immortality because his singing, though rank, is also undeniably unique. There's a kind of genius at work in its utter lack of talent.  Presumably, this is mostly because nobody else would ever have conceived of trying to sound anything remotely like this. If they had, their friends and neighbours would have assassinated them. What there was of Shooby's "career" was almost entirely more [...]

B.P. – The Price Was Right

Tax season is never a fun time for musicians, or anyone else for that matter. But for me, this annual April bother is always tempered by the memories it brings of Bob Price, who was a very fine jazz bassist, a wonderful guy and an accountant to boot. He's been gone a while now and I always feel the pang of missing him in early spring, but it's also pleasant to remember him and how lucky we were to have a stalwart like him on the local scene. Bob did the lion's share of tax returns for Toronto's jazz players for decades; discovering and using his services was a kind of rite of passage for a local musician. If and when you began making a little money in music, you soon found out that self-employed tax issues were beyond your ken, so you'd ask around and invariably the answer was, "Go and see Bob Price, he's the guy, the best." Being a veteran player himself, Bob knew the ins and outs of a musician's life and the tax angles, so nothing surprised or ruffled him, he'd seen it all. God only knows what he had to deal with over the years and the various musician's tax messes he cleaned up, certainly a couple of mine for sure. No matter what the problem, how disorderly your record-keeping or how delinquent you'd been, Bob would sort it out with patience, humour, discretion and a slug or two from his trusty bottle of J & B, never too far from hand. Bob of course played for years in pianist Norm Amadio's trio, which worked all the time and was a kind of shambolic, floating, Marx more [...]

Flying High At the Beaver

The stylish singer John Alcorn launched a series of Wednesday night musical offerings this week at the Flying Beaver Pubaret (488 Parliament St.), accompanied by Reg Schwager on guitar and yours truly on bass.  John is calling this the Songbook Series; each week he will be presenting two sets of songs by a different major contributor to the GAS (Great American Songbook), kicking things off with fifteen of Cole Porter’s best.  I promise this will be the last of such puerile jokes, but I ask you, when was the last time you heard Cole Porter and “beaver” mentioned in the same paragraph?  Anyway, if the first of these nights was any indication, this could turn into something very special and lasting, my fingers are crossed.  Lord knows the city needs more outlets for quality music, and the combination of this setting and Alcorn’s musical vision mesh very nicely indeed. As to the venue, I hadn’t been to the Flying Beaver before, it had been described to me as a “lesbian bar on Parliament.”  Though true as far as it goes, this is also misleading.  Yes, the place is owned and operated by Maggie Cassella and Heather MacKenzie who both happen to be lesbians and certainly both gay women and men frequent it.  But, it’s not a “gay bar” in the stereotypical sense of that term, people of all persuasions (except anti-gay morons and other assorted boors) are welcome and comfortable here.  I found it to be a smart, fun, friendly place, unpretentious yet brainy, more [...]

My Best Birthday Gift Ever – Music

Some highlights and stories from this year's very enjoyable Prince Edward County Jazz Festival. I've had my nose to the grindstone pretty good for a while now and this has had me feeling every inch of my age and then some. My birthday came and went on August 16 in Picton and joining the 56-year-old club would normally have lead to some angst and hand-wringing over what a drag it is getting old, as The Rolling Stones once put it. Funnily enough though, one of the many nice things about this Jazz Festival was that it gave me a whole new perspective on age and aging, I'm not quite as worried or bugged about it anymore.  At least not all the time, only when I'm schlepping the damn bass around. For years I was often by far the youngest guy in most bands, but this is no longer usually the case for obvious reasons. The house rhythm section for a lot of this festival was me, with Bernie Senensky on piano, age 67, and Brian Barlow on drums, 60 and also the Creative Director of the whole works. This requires of him an awesome level of organization, versatility and energy which he has in spades; the man runs on fumes, makes espresso seem slow. So here I was, much older but again the youngest guy in the band, a small, selfish comfort made irrelevant because these two came at me with so much musical energy, moxie and spirit at all times that I never even considered their age.  Have you ever noticed that when you see someone at the top of their game and really having fun, you don't more [...]

The Death of Fun – Where Have You Gone, Puddin’ Head Jones?

Have you noticed how nicknames have pretty much disappeared from jazz and baseball? What happened, where did they all go? There's still the odd half-decent one around, like say Joey Bats, or Trombone Shorty. But these days it seems the only celebrities in any number with colourful nicknames are rap or hip-hop "artists", and I'd happily say goodbye to their soubriquets if it also meant the musical genre would just disappear, forever and without a trace. Forgive my white-ass, hidebound and middle-aged attitude, but I need a little more wit and romance in my music than sampled rhythm tracks and the rhyming of "bitch" with "snitch" can provide. Otherwise it's pretty Slim Pickens...... sorry..... slim pickings these days, a far cry from the past when the two fields were knee-deep in nicknames. Consider jazz figures for a minute : Jelly Roll, Satchmo, King, Duke, Count, Fatha.  Bunk, Bix, Bunny, Cootie, Wingy, Jabbo. Bubber, Baby, Muggsy, Bumps.  (Rubber baby buggy bumpers.)  Yank, Nappy, Chippie, Matty, Miff, Stuff, Big Tea and Toots. Tricky Sam, Rabbit, Bean and Pres. Big Sid, Little Jazz, Jaws and Sweets. Big-Eye, Cat's-Eye, Lady Day, The Rockin' Chair Lady. The Brute, Bud, Dodo, Bird, Dizzy, Buzzy, Floorshow, Flip. Zoot and Zutty. The Lion, The Beetle, Pinetop, Fats, Slim and Slam, not to mention Bam. Klook, Newk, Bags, Babs, Jug, Keg, Philly Joe, 'Trane and Cannonball. Lots of Reds, Shortys, Pee Wees, Luckys. Busters and Bucks, Papas and Kids. Oh baby......... Nowadays, more [...]

Boston Blow-Up (With Apologies to Serge Chaloff**)

I’ve done a lot of general reading about my two main interests, jazz and baseball. Histories, biographies, collections of reviews, stories and reportage, you name it. It's odd, but every once in a while in a lifetime of random reading, two unrelated subjects can intersect and lead to the very same little dot in time, like two different GPS locators of history. Over the course of thirty-five years of this indiscriminate rambling around in the past, I chanced to run across two passing references to a major event which I'd never heard of before. It had nothing to do with jazz or baseball, but came up anyway: the 1938 New England Hurricane. The first of these came in a baseball book, but didn't mention the storm by name or date. The other was in a book on jazz by Richard M. Sudhalter called "Lost Chords", from a chapter dealing with the great trumpeter Bunny Berigan. I'm woolly-headed at the best of times and not a weather buff, and because I read these two books about twenty-eight years apart, I didn't realize until recently that each story referred to the same storm, or how bad it really was. The baseball book mentioned earlier is "Baseball When the Grass Was Real" by Donald Honig. It's an oral history in which Honig looked up ballplayers who were active between 1925-45 and had them tell the stories of their careers informally. The result is a vivid portrait of baseball in that time, a wonderful, lively and informative read packed with stories of legendary characters and more [...]

Herb Ellis: A Blue, Smooth Road

I've been playing a steady gig at a hotel bar for a while now with a trio that consists of pianist Bernie Senensky, drummer/leader Dan Bodanis and me on bass. Bernie took most of March off to do a tour of the U.S. with another group and as this approached he was scrambling around trying to line up subs and confessed to me he wasn't really looking forward to the road, that he'd miss our gig and was worried something would go wrong in his absence. The night before Bernie was to leave, Dan called a ballad he really likes, "Detour Ahead" and Bernie replied with an impish grin, peering over his glasses with perfect, ironic timing - "De tour ahead is what's worrying me." (Rim-shot.) It's a special, unique song, one that I've heard and played many, many times over the years, yet never tire of. Apart from its beauty, I think this is because it has no echoes of other songs or clichés in it, so every time I play it feels like the first time. We played it again recently and it occurred to me that while I've heard it sung many times I didn't really know the lyrics very well, just snippets of them have stayed in my head - "Smooth road", "gullible clown", "danger sign." I remedied this by looking up the words on Google, here they are: Smooth road, clear day. But why am I the only one Trav'lin this way? How strange the road to love Should be so easy. Can there be a detour ahead? Wake up, slow down. Before you crash and break your heart, Gullible clown. You fool, you're headed more [...]

Ray, Redux

There were some Ray Bryant stories I wanted to get to in the earlier piece about him, but it was too long, as usual. I'm considering a reverse Tom Waits: having had a bottle in front of me for many years, I may opt for a frontal lobotomy in the hope it might shorten my writing. It's not as if it I'm a mental giant or anything, there would be no great loss involved. Anyway, here goes. Though he was fairly serious about music, Ray Bryant had a great sense of humour and a real belly laugh. He also had a mega-watt smile which involved his whole face, even his hair seemed to smile. Some of his humour was of the gallows, ironic variety and when he was delivering this, he had a habit of making his face go all deadpan and serious. His eyes would get wide and grave, he would sigh and could fool you into thinking he was mad. This all came into play one night during one of the earlier gigs I played with him at Bourbon St. around 1980 or so. Ray, Jerry Fuller and I were playing a set when Ted O'Reilly and Rob McConnell, both long-time fans, came in one night. Ray played his arrangement of Neal Hefti's "Girl Talk", one of his best and a real favourite of mine. It was a medium-tempo shuffle in F, and his approach was along the lines of theme-and-variations. Each chorus was kind of a shout chorus built around the melody and each one was slightly different, building and becoming more layered and involved, until the whole thing was grooving like the Basie band, just raging. After the more [...]

Ray, Barrelhouse and Elegant

The pianist Ray Bryant died in June of 2011 and has recently been on my mind a lot, mostly because I chanced to hear some of his records again lately. Though he made a lot of good ones, most of them don't quite do him justice. You really had to hear him live to get the full impact and joy of his playing. Luckily for me, I both heard and played with Ray live quite a bit - a couple of occasions at Bourbon St. when I was quite young and, later on, quite a few times at The Montreal Bistro. I learned a lot from him, some specific things which later had larger, more general implications. In the early going, he also reinforced some things I wasn't sure about yet. We didn't see each other often enough to be friends exactly, but there was certainly a very friendly history between us musically and personally. His death came as a real blow to me even though I knew he'd been ill. Both my mother and sister came to hear Ray the first time I played with him and they became instant fans. They both just loved him, especially my mother, who was a big piano fan in general. His delicate version of the ballad "My One and Only Love" made that song my sister's favourite standard, she chose it for her wedding dance. I introduced Ray to them and after that, he never failed to ask after them and always remembered their names, which floored me. He was that kind of guy though, a warm, unpretentious gent who enjoyed just plain folks. He often played in Toronto during the old days of solo piano at Cafe more [...]

Why the Melody?

I heard a cardinal in high-fidelity just as I left my house the other morning - "bwordy, bwordy, bwordy" echoing down the street. The trees being still bare, it was easy to spot him by following the song - he was up in the top of a maple about forty yards away. As he shifted briefly from one branch to another, the light caught him at just the right angle, bringing a brilliant rush of crimson even at that distance. A morning thrill, a rarity these days, trust me. I stood listening and admiring him for a few seconds and then noticed some rustling in the big tree just overhead. Two robins were flitting about, not singing much. Just as I spotted them they flew off and again the sunlight hit them and I was treated to a flash of their rusty-orange breasts. A sure sign, I thought with a smile - spring is here. There's a song for every occasion and this took my inner juke-box straight to Rodgers and Hart's great "Spring Is Here" - its melody began running through my head as I walked to the subway. It struck me that this song is a kind of analogy for both my aging and growth as a musician - when I was younger, I didn't have much use for it, but it's become a favourite tune in recent years. I think the difference is that I appreciate melody a lot more than I used to, and understand it better. Bassists like myself are often slow in developing a melodic sense, because the instrument doesn't often get to play melodies - being low-pitched, it's usually much more involved with rhythmic more [...]