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 “Alison” (because I knew she would like David Sanborn’s soulful saxophone playing on it), and, to wash away the failed Flower Power taste of the first track, a version of “San Francisco Bay Blues”. But there are so many, so which one? I skipped over takes by Jesse Fuller (the song’s composer), Eric Clapton, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, finally settling on the version from Phoebe Snow’s eponymous 1974 debut album. It’s so slow and moody, taking the song even further away from blues harmony while putting it in closer touch with the feeling of the blues, which is much more important from where I stand.
Teddy Wilson & Zoot Sims – Pop Stars
I listened to this track before sending it off with the others and all of a sudden, it was 1974 again and there I was, 17 and in the last year of high school. Not literally of course – my back was still killing me and as usual something disconcerting was happening in my gut – but in my mind I was a teenager. I was back listening to this album for the first time and reliving what an impact it had on me and how much I enjoyed it. Partly because it introduced Phoebe Snow as a distinctive singer/songwriter who stood out because of her vocal range, musical use of melisma and the nuanced hitch in her expressive voice. And also because it was so hard to pigeonhole – for lack of a better term it was a pop album, but one with equally strong elements of folk, blues, R & B, and jazz. The latter owing to musicians on it such as bassists Chuck Israels and Chuck Domanico, with guest appearances by Teddy Wilson and Zoot Sims.
I went searching on YouTube for my favourite track from the album, not able to remember its name because it had been over 40 years since I’d last heard it. Finally I figured out it was “Harpo’s Blues”, yet another song with a blues title that is not a blues, not even close. And yet……… I like both the tune and the lyric and Snow’s soulful singing, but most of all the transformational contributions Zoot Sims and Teddy Wilson make to it. Yes, that Teddy Wilson, 40 years into a career that saw him break the jazz colour barrier in the ’30s with Benny Goodman’s Trio and who was the musical director on all those immortal Billie Holiday/Lester Young Columbia sides. In short, the nonpareil swing pianist.
I must confess I’d forgotten Wilson was on the track, it was Zoot I remembered. But as soon as I heard the ringing bell tones off the top, followed by some crystalline chords and a few gleaming runs, I knew it had to be Teddy, because nobody else sounds quite like him. Few can make the piano sound so pearly or dance quite so elegantly, and those who can – men like Hank Jones, John Lewis, or Tommy Flanagan – listened intently to Wilson and absorbed him. He’s the personification of gentle grace and his playing here is like a sunbeam through lace curtains. Zoot is not heard from at all until the song’s darker second system arrives. As the tonality switches to minor and just ahead of Snow’s vocal entry, Zoot plays a typically pithy, jabbing phrase that has the impact of a small explosion, like a match being struck in a dark alley. The rhythm changes along with the tonality here as the bassist – Chuck Domanico, if memory serves – digs in and delivers some deep and throbbing quarter notes, which only feed Zoot’s fire as he continues to play smoking ghostly lines in answer to Snow’s gutsy vocal. In no time flat, they’ve gone from a gently rocking ‘folk’ feel to the kingdom of swing and the magical realm of jazz. After Wilson’s elegaic solo this minor system returns and they have at it with even more heat and drama. This is ass-backwards because I’ve already written the thousand words, but here’s the picture, er, track:
The Flavour of the Month, For a While
I sent this track on to Bill Kirchner, who said he remembered the release of this album and commented that in those days it was a fad for a while to use jazz guests as soloists on pop records, citing Benny Carter with Maria Muldaur, Sims and Joe Farrell with Laura Nyro, and Wayne Shorter and Pete Christlieb with Steely Dan. He said it did no harm and may have created a few converts along the way. I replied, adding Phil Woods with Billy Joel and Hubert Laws with Van Morrison to the list, and that Morrison went one step further, using jazz rhythm players such as Jay Berliner, Richard Davis, and Connie Kay on some of his mid-’70s records because he liked their particular sound and feel.
As to these guest appearances converting some young listeners, I can only speak for myself. I was already an avid jazz listener and had started trying to play the bass when I first heard Snow’s album at 17, but the inclusion of Sims and Wilson delighted me even then, giving off a sense that jazz was not as isolated as I’d thought and that jazz players could step into the pop limelight and make eloquent contributions to popular records, something they did with greater frequency before rock took over as popular music. I remember thinking how refreshing it was that whoever produced this record didn’t say something fatuous like “get me some guys who sound like Teddy Wilson and Zoot Sims!” but instead opted for the real deal, and then knew exactly what to do with them. I find the inclusion of Teddy Wilson the most surprising and inspiring of all these examples because, with the exception of Benny Carter, he went back further than any of the others and was generally less involved with studio work than any of them.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
At 17 I was mostly listening to hard-bop, but certainly knew who Zoot Sims and Teddy Wilson were and had probably listened to them in passing. Hearing them with Phoebe Snow only made me anxious to hear more of them, and my appreciation of each man has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. I had no way of knowing that I would come to play with each man in the near future – with Zoot in a series of annual two-week stands at Bourbon Street between 1978 and 1983, and with Teddy just once, on a CBC-TV jazz special. I was in the house big band and was called on to play two duo numbers – “These Foolish Things” and “Tea For Two” – with the pianist. It was perhaps a year or two before he died, but Teddy still had plenty left on the piano, certainly enough to leave me in his dust. Playing with him so unexpectedly was a somewhat disconcerting honour – I’m glad now that it happened, but at the time it was a bit like playing with God. No, actually, more like playing with a saint.
It’s oddly comforting that “Harpo’s Blues” sounds as good to me now – maybe even better – than it did all those years ago. It could be seen as a case of arrested development, but I prefer to think it means there’s been some constancy to my musical values. I’ve studied, played and listened to an awful lot of music since I was 17 and I occasionally fear this means my ears have become too inured and maybe have closed up to an extent. But this is not so, it only seems that way sometimes. I’m constantly hearing things for the first time which surprise and delight me, along with music I’ve heard many times before that still knocks me out. And, in the case of “Harpo’s Blues”, I can still derive great pleasure from a track I heard a lifetime ago and then not again for 44 years. Maybe I’m not as jaded as I thought.
The Idea of Jazz
I say it’s oddly comforting that “Harpo’s Blues” still sounds so good to me because, while my tastes have changed and expanded over the years, perhaps it’s right that what I liked back then is still in essence what I like today. And generally, “what I like” is epitomized by what happens during the minor strain of the tune: a dramatic focus of intensity and feeling as the bass releases the energy of a walking line accompanied by prodding piano, underpinning the heated call-and-response between Snow and Zoot. It’s called swing, if that’s not too dirty a word or too passé an idea. Or if swing is too repugnant and confusing a term, then call it everyone thinking on the same wavelength, having a conversation in which everybody says the right thing at the right time. But “swing” is a more compact way of putting it. Swinging is often thought of as obvious or basic, but there’s nothing obvious or basic about it, it only happens when everything lines up exactly right. It’s not just a matter of rhythm, it’s the sum total of everything – sound, ideas, energy, dynamics – entering the air in clear focus. If it were easy, everybody could do it, and would. But not everyone can, and few can on this level.
Because the jazz moments here come almost out of context and in such simple contrast to the rest of it, this would be a good track to play for someone who doesn’t know much about jazz, but is curious about it. One could point out that the earlier section is more “folky” – not because of the major tonality but more because of the rhythmic feel – whereas the minor-key action is jazz. Wanting to understand the difference, they might ask: “What’s the point of jazz, anyway? What’s the main idea?” The idea is to get off the ground, literally. To transcend, to rise above and leave the dust of the earthly plane behind, just like other forms of art do. At least, that’s my best answer. Whenever I’ve heard great jazz, and especially whenever I’ve played it and everything goes ineffably right with everyone pulling together, the feeling is one of weightless euphoria, of energy being collectively released to lift everyone up. That’s the idea of jazz. It doesn’t always work and it can’t be forced, but when it happens, it’s palpable and very special. Even on a pop record. Oops, perhaps that last comment was a bit jaded.
Déjà Vu, All Over Again
Speaking of a tenor saxophonist playing ghostly phrases behind a singer…………With one of his most celebrated musical partners present in Wilson – and one of his acolytes in Sims – the spirit of Lester Young hangs over “Harpo’s Blues”. Eventually it made me think of another favourite track, a minor blues by the 1939 Count Basie band featuring Jimmy Rushing – “I Left My Baby”. I would bet everything I own that Zoot Sims heard this in his formative years and learned much from it about playing behind a singer and playing in minor tonality, two things he was celebrated for.
The introduction here, with some wonderful wah-wah brass and Earle Warren’s declamatory, soaring alto saxophone, is sensational in setting the mood, but the real magic happens when Rushing enters. Behind the singer’s first two blues choruses, Lester Young plays a spine-tingling obbligato that literally conjures the sound of human misery, of a woman weeping and wailing. The effect is uncannily eerie and, like Lester himself, not really of this world.
This track is living proof that, in my friend John Alcorn’s words, music is the way feelings sound:
© 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.