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 different pieces at opposite ends of a room, only multiplied by five and with less organization. Or, to borrow one of Rob McConnell’s favourite phrases, it sounds like “World War Three in stereo.”
The purpose of all this is partly to get the instruments warmed up and vibrating and to get the blood flowing in the fingers and/or lips, but there’s also a nervous energy involved, an anxiousness to get on with things. And I’ve often thought that, given the pressures of playing in an orchestra, this is their only chance to blow off some steam and cut loose without fear of censure. Maybe this is what jazz would sound like if classical musicians played it. Come to think of it, sometimes this is what jazz sounds like when jazz musicians play it.
Eventually, at some magically appointed moment, like at a dinner party when everyone decides to leave at the same time as if by mass hypnosis, the concertmaster walks out and the din dies down. He (I’d say “or she” but it’s always a guy) takes a bow to applause and after milking the moment sufficiently, he turns to the oboist to blow the concert A and everybody tunes up to it. The contrast of everybody suddenly playing the same note after all the foregoing randomness is stunning and serves to focus the attention and fuel the anticipation of the audience. Here we go.
My experience playing with symphony orchestras has been limited, but I was hired a few times as an extra to play the bass in some jazz/pops concerts with the TSO over the years. These were always pleasant and rewarding, both for musical reasons and as an exercise in seeing “how the other half lives” – which is to say, generally better. They were concentrated mid-week affairs, with an afternoon rehearsal followed by an evening show, then the next day a matinee and an evening show, and done.
I was onstage during a matinee, set up in front of the low brass and separated from my friends and colleagues in the bass section by the butt-end of the piano and some plexi-glass baffling. Or maybe baffling plexi-glass – what was it doing there? Protecting everybody from the drum-set, no doubt. Everyone was warming up as described earlier, when out of the depths of the oceanic din I heard a melody being played behind me, indistinct at first, then growing clearer.
It was Count Basie’s “Blue and Sentimental” being played by the orchestra’s tuba player Marc Tetrault, of all people. “What the….?” You could have knocked me over with a feather, but after the initial surprise my bass-playing instincts took over and I joined in with some accompanying notes and time. It’s not that Marc needed my “help”, but it would have been churlish to leave him facing the garden of noise around us alone. And besides, he sounded great, which only made me want a piece of the action, so what else was I to do? He played the melody really in tune at a walking ballad tempo with good jazz phrasing and a clear, full sound. There are probably a lot of people out there who refuse to believe that the tuba is capable of sounding beautiful playing a melody, but Marc made “B&S” sound like it was written for the tuba.
It was wild, just great. Here we were, two bottom-feeders of the orchestra leaning into the wind, jamming away on a ‘good old good one’ with nobody the wiser. Hank Jones once said playing jazz is mostly a matter of concentration and as Marc and I discovered, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie. It took every ounce of listening and focus we could muster to stay together amid the sturm und drang surrounding us, but somehow we did it. Although, having played in a lot of noisy jazz clubs, it was probably a little easier for me than Marc. Along with the concentration I was chuckling inside because this was just so…………weird.
I’ve always loved “Blue and Sentimental” and have listened to the Basie band’s original 1938 recording of it at least a hundred times. And seemingly, Marc Tetrault had listened to it a few times too. As much as any song, it personifies Kansas City jazz, a style I’ve always had a lot of time for. I was lucky enough to play “B&S” with Buddy Tate a few times, which, considering that he joined Basie’s band in 1939, makes for a pretty close connection to this tradition that I won’t forget in a hurry. And as Marc and I took the tune out with the tag and a short ritardando before the ending, I knew I wouldn’t soon forget our impromptu little duo either. When we were finished I turned to Marc with a grin and he smiled back and gave me the thumbs up sign as if to say “Thanks, I’ve been wanting to do that for a while now.” It only lasted about two minutes, but it was so unexpected and spontaneous that it felt like an indelible, if largely invisible, jazz moment, coming in the last place I would have expected to have one. And with the surreal orchestral “backgrounds”, it was like Eddie Durham meets Karlheinz Stockhausen.
For those who don’t know the song, here’s Basie’s recording from June 6, 1938. The melody is played on tenor saxophone by the great Herschel Evans, one of the original ‘Texas tenors’, his delivery by turns dramatic and romantic. This is likely his most celebrated feature with the band and tragically, he would die eight months later at just 29, from heart disease. The impossibly cool and limpid clarinet solo is by Lester Young, playing the metal instrument he favoured and which he later lost. Though their contrasting styles led to many tenor battles in the band, Evans and Young were great friends and Lester would feel Herschel’s death very keenly. The aforementioned Buddy Tate, a fellow Texan, would eventually replace Evans with Basie, difficult as that was.
Getting back to the tuba-bass duo……… after the matinee, Marc and I had a laugh and a nice postmortem about the fun we’d had. Tall and burly with glasses, a ruddy face and receding hair cut short, Marc looks like a tuba player and, by golly, he sure sounded like one, just marvelous. Clearly he was a jazz fan and I asked him which jazz tuba players he’d listened to and he listed the usual suspects – guys like Bill Barber, Red Callendar, Don Butterfield, Harvey Phillips, and Howard Johnson. At a later gig I brought a couple of CDs to lend him – one featuring a couple of rare sessions by Callendar playing tuba as a leader, and Clark Terry’s TOP AND BOTTOM BRASS, which features Butterfield as the other horn in a quintet. Marc returned the favour by lending me a CD of brass ensembles featuring the tuba in a lead role playing an amazing range of styles, showing what the instrument is really capable of. So a small bond grew between us, and if we were to bump into each other ten years from now we might say “hey, do you remember that time we played ‘Blue and Sentimental’ with all the noise around us? Man, what a riot…”
I told Marc I’d always wanted to play in more bands with bass and tuba but the opportunities had been rare, mostly having to do with money. I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of having two bass voices, whether playing in unison or harmony, or playing entirely separate parts. He agreed, and said that was partly the reason he started playing “B&S” – he figured I’d join in and was curious about how it would sound. I’m a little prejudiced, but I think the bass and tuba sound great together. I’ve played some duos with other bassists and it can be interesting and fun, but the trouble is that two basses sound too much alike after a while. Even though they play in the same range, the tuba and bass are quite distinct from one another in sound because one is brass and the other is wood. But when they play together a third sound is produced, a unique, round voice, both foggy and penetrating.
I guess it’s partly why I gravitated to playing the bass, but I’ve always had a love, maybe even a need, for low sounds. The bottom end of the piano, bass clarinet, baritone and bass saxophones, tubas or sousaphones, bass trombones, bassoons and contrabassoons, the dark wash of a Chinese cymbal. I hear down there and vibrate with all of them. For a while I fantasized about having a band with mostly low register instruments – a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, plus tuba, bass trombone, baritone sax doubling on bass clarinet, French horn, with maybe soprano sax or trumpet to provide some high contrast. I even had names picked out, like “Crunch”, “Mud Gravity” or maybe “The Lo-Los”. Like many of my bright ideas, this had exactly zero commercial potential and never got off the ground, so to speak.
I wish there had been more, but Gil Evans was the only jazz arranger to use both bass and tuba consistently for any length of time. He explored the possibilities for over twenty years from his early days with Claude Thornhill, the Birth of the Cool nonet fronted by Miles Davis, his later collaborations with Davis starting in the late-fifties, and in his own bands. Here’s a great example of the “third sound” a tuba and bass can make together, from “The Buzzard Song”, the opening track from the Evans/Davis version of PORGY AND BESS. In the second half, after the heart-stopping brass intro and the lovely melody statement and solo by Davis, Evans scores a unison soli for Bill Barber on tuba and Paul Chambers on bass with the rest of the orchestra undulating around them. It goes on for quite a while, which only builds the suspenseful and mysterious beauty of it. It’s my favourite moment from the many wondrous ones on this record:
So, the odd little tuba-bass duo of Marc and me with white noise makes for a fond memory and a funny story, but also has provided some food for thought over the years. One of the things I’ve taken from it is that it’s a small but sure sign that the artificial walls that once separated classical and jazz musicians have now mostly tumbled down. Not only is there a mutual respect between these camps now, but a genuine friendliness, as in this case. I may have an exaggerated sense of how rigid the walls were because my grandfather, a symphonic percussionist from the 1930s into the 1970s, had some pretty old-school attitudes along these lines. That jazz was not really “serious” music and that jazz players were unreliable layabouts, not quite up to snuff technically and so on. He wasn’t shy about making these pronouncements, but his attitude started to change in the ’70s when a student lent him a copy of Gary Burton’s solo vibraphone record ALONE AT LAST and he was stunned by what Burton could do with four mallets. When I started to show an interest in jazz he told me that when I was about a year old he was playing in Stratford during the summer of 1957 when Duke Ellington and his Orchestra played “Such Sweet Thunder”, the Shakesperean Suite inspired by a visit to the festival the year before. He heard the performance and thought, “hmmm, maybe there is something to this jazz stuff after all….”. And after I began playing around town, I remember him coming to a gig I did with Terry Gibbs and being astonished by the lightning speed and sweaty intensity Gibbs brought to the vibes. Oddly, my grandfather’s hard-line attitudes have survived in me after all these years, only in reverse. I find myself sometimes getting annoyed if a jazz performance is too straight or clean, if there isn’t enough gutbucket or groove happening, enough dirt. But lately I catch myself and tamp down my inner troglodyte. “Easy there Grok, or it’s back in the cage with you. They’ll start swinging soon…… maybe.”
Also, our little step-out on “B&S” highlights some points about playing music, especially unwritten music, that are so basic and obvious that they often get overlooked or taken for granted. Namely that it’s largely a matter of mutual intent and cooperation and above all making decisions on the fly based on listening hard, but also based on a store of knowledge, of information. People, myself included, are always going on about the spontaneity of jazz and the importance of being “in the moment” and that’s all true enough. But if I hadn’t been intimately familiar with the ins and outs of “Blue and Sentimental” when Marc Tetrault started playing it so unexpectedly, all the listening and “in the moment-ness” in the world wouldn’t have told me what to play or allowed me to join in. That wouldn’t have been the end of the world in that bizarre situation, but if it had been a real small-group jazz performance, not coming in on bass because you don’t know what to play, well…….. that’s a bit of a problem. Trust me, I know because it’s happened to me, mostly early in my career. There’s no worse feeling in the world, not knowing a tune and sounding all lame and wrong as you try to find your way through it while everybody else is wailing. After scraping the egg off my face a few times in these train-wrecks, I vowed to myself I would make sure this happened as seldom as possible to me in the future.
More than once I’ve been asked, “Steve, why do you bother learning all those old tunes that have nothing to do with what’s happening now? And how do you even remember all of them?” The answer to the first question is that in jazz, you just never know what tune’s going to be called by who, or when, and sometimes it isn’t even called, somebody just starts playing it. So you have to be ready, and that involves learning some tunes by doing some listening to records, some research. It’s ironic, but the more preparation you’ve done, the more coolly “spontaneous” you can seem. If jazz is a language, then the songs are the topics and if you don’ know the topic being discussed, you can’t say anything. As for remembering all those tunes, the secret is getting the melody in your ear, that way it sticks. So if you haven’t played a certain tune in a year, you follow the melody in your ear and it reminds you of all the details as you go along and you don’t get lost. At least most of the time.
The same rules apply to free jazz, where there aren’t any tunes being called. It’s still about musicians knowing and trusting one another, listening and leaving some space. Successful free improvisation still hinges on musical cooperation and organic development, otherwise it’s just gobbledygook. Whether “in” or “out”, to me the difference between a good jazz performance or a poor one usually comes down to a matter of conviction. Part of that conviction is the brave willingness on the part of the musicians to surrender control and take risks, but the rest of it is preparation and knowing how to listen and being ready. Readiness is all. And for that reason, jazz musicians are forever gathering information and doing homework apart from regular practicing. If they get credit for this at all it’s usually in the form of someone marveling about how “magically creative” they are, but a lot of it is study and listening done away from the spotlight.
Looking back on it now, the “Blue and Sedimental” incident reminds me of one of those Zen koans, along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest……………” In this case the riddle would be, “If two musicians play something in a forest of noise and nobody hears them, have they played at all?” The answer is “Yes, they have, but only they know it.”
© 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.