Tag Archives: Jazz at Lincoln Center

For the 99th Birthday of the Great Bassist Israel “Cachao” López Valdés, a Short Essay Written in 2012

It’s the 99th birthday anniversary of the master bassist Israel “Cachao” López Valdés (1918-2008). For the occasion, here’s a program note I wrote for a  2012 Jazz at Lincoln Center concert devoted to his music, directed by Carlos Henriquez. This link will take you to a documentary about his life broadcast on PBS’ American Masters series a few years ago.

 

The Music of Cachao

By Ted Panken ©2012

His name was Israel “Cachao” López, he came from Havana, Cuba and during his 90 years on the planet he played the contrabass with the imperial authority of Serge Koussevitzky,  the kinetic precision of a Yoruba drummer, and the unbridled creativity of Charles Mingus.  His old friend Bebo Valdés, a fellow 1918 baby, called him “the king of rhythm.”

As a child, Cachao played bass for a theater orchestra that accompanied silent movies. At 13, he began a 30-year run with the Havana Philharmonic. He moonlighted in dance bands, including one called Arcaño y Sus Maravillas that included his older brother, the pianist-cellist Orestes López, with whom, in 1938, he composed “Mambo,” introducing a swinging groove (nuevo ritmo) for the final section of danzón, an elegant, ritualized form—and Cuba’s national dance from the latter 19th century through the 1950s—that involves composing four separate episodes, each in a different tempo. Bandleader Damaso “Perez” Prado popularized the rhythmic weave, and it exploded onto the international stage, including the dance floors of New York City, where it evolved into the lingua franca beat of Latin Jazz.

Cachao’s mambo also propelled a series of recorded jam sessions (billed as descargas, after the Spanish verb meaning, among other things, to discharge electricity and speak one’s mind) with the best-and-brightest—and jazz-aware—Cuban dance musicians employed by the nightclubs and casinos of Batista’s Havana. They directly influenced the evolution of salsa as articulated by Tito Puente (Cachao composed “Oye Como Va”), Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri, all of whom hired Cachao after he migrated permanently to the United States in 1964.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by JLCO bassist Carlos Henriquez, will address both the danzón and descarga on this evening’s celebration of Cachao’s legacy. Now 32, Henriquez is a thoroughly 21st century musician, able to navigate the multiplicity of idioms that fall under the jazz umbrella, among them the clave and swing dialects, “without an accent.”

That this is no small task was made clear by the great jazz bassist Ron Carter himself. Speaking on WKCR in 2001, he analogized the jazz feel to “four beats straight up and down, like a picket fence,” while describing clave as that “picket fence leaning over to one side so all the beats move at 45 degree angles from the straight line.” Carter continued: “Jazz isn’t so filled with counter-rhythms, but Latin music has four or five rhythms going all at once in one tune, enough rhythms to last you for a week, held together by the clave beat. All the choices can overwhelm you. I’m amazed that they always pick the right ones.”

Cachao himself was no stranger to jazz. “When I first started listening to jazz, bassists weren’t soloists yet,” he told me during a 2005 encounter. He recalled an informal encounter with bass pioneer Milt Hinton, in Havana with Cab Calloway, perhaps in the late 1940s, at which they “played the songs of Duke Ellington together, one doing the melody and the other doing the bass.” Still, he “spoke jazz” in an accent infused with the infinite permutations of clave.

For Henriquez, the son of a trombone player and a dancer—both of whom were connoisseurs of swing and salsa—the “accent-less” approach is his birthright as a product of the South Bronx “melting pot.” It didn’t hurt to receive hands-on mentoring from the likes of clave wizard Andy Gonzalez and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra predecessors Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker, as well as such distinguished prior employers as Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri.

“I use Cachao’s concepts all the time,” Henriquez states, noting that the maestro, who learned the bongos even before the bass, extrapolated the rhythms of each component of the Afro-Cuban bata drums, but most notably those associated with the low-range tumbador, and incorporated them into his bass playing. “He learned the instrument with finesse and style, with accuracy and technique. But he also incorporated his life into the music. There’s a side that’s very street-oriented, ferocious, strong, dark, and powerful, which I love, but there was a sweet, beautiful side, too.

“The concept of tumbao [a syncopated, repetitive rhythmic pattern], of playing a fundamental part that becomes a leading part, is widely misunderstood. In African music, the bass is actually the moving line—focusing on the root rhythm and creating that as a solo. That attracts the whole band to you. Cachao was a magnetic force; he was the core of everything.”

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For Bill Holman’s 87th Birthday, A Brief Interview From 2011

It’s the 87th birthday of the superb arranger, Bill Holman, who made his name generating charts for Stan Kenton during the early ’50s, and made some of the more phantasmagoric big band recordings of the ’80s and ’90s. I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Holman at the end of 2011 when Jazz at Lincoln Center assigned me to write program notes for a Kenton tribute concert. The unedited transcript follows.

* * *

Bill Holman on Stan Kenton (December 28, 2011):

TP:   Let me ask you a general question. It’s been written about, and I’m a little embarrassed to ask it, but: what do you feel that you brought to the Kenton band, and what do you think Kenton was looking for from you?

BH:   I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this before. I think I brought a little more of a jazz element into the band. Stan kept saying that he didn’t want a swing band, he didn’t want a Tommy Dorsey band or a Count Basie band. He was talking about rhythm, I think, mainly. He didn’t want that dancey, kind of jazz rhythm. He wanted straight eighth notes and everything very serious and solemn. I lightened up the band quite a bit, I think. The contrapuntal approach that everybody talks to was just a feature of the way I wrote. But I actually tried to write more jazz music for the band, and…

It’s funny. I was talking to somebody yesterday about the predicament that Buddy Childress was in. He was the lead trumpet player, he was the concert master of the band, and he was kind of responsible for the way the band phrased and the way the band played their eighth notes. Stan was still insisting that he wanted the straight eighth notes, and I was writing more of a swing feel eighth-note—and the two were different. So Buddy had to figure out a way to kind of get it in the middle, and he came up with a very strange conception that people have since called holding eighth notes. They weren’t mine, really; they were Buddy’s. I think after the first two successful charts that I wrote for the band, Stan probably realized that he was faced with a different kind of conception. He didn’t try to talk me out of it, and kept on with it, and finally, in 1955, a couple of years after I left, he had Al Porcino and Mel Lewis, and it was a swing band. Not one of the swingingest bands, but it was a swing band, and Stan went along with it for a while. Then finally, he had some kind of epiphany or something, and he let Porcino go and he told me to stop writing. It slipped back a little bit, but he was still doing more rhythmic things than he had in the past.

TP:   It seems that what you were doing in ‘52 and ‘53 and ‘54 was very suited to the band’s personnel—a lot of individualistic soloists, influenced very much by Lester Young and Bird and swing music, as you were. So your conception seems to have been a nice for the band.

BH:   I think probably the best arrangements for any band are written by people who are playing in the band, because night after night you get the feeling of what the band does well, and when it takes off, and you hear the soloists and hear what they can do… It’s a big advantage to be a member of a band.

TP:   In the charts you wrote for Lee Konitz, were you taking any particular factors into account?

BH:   No, I just wrote for Lee as a very capable soloist. I didn’t think too much about his…well, what I found out later, that he tries to do things that are completely original. He leaves out most of the jazz vocabulary that we know and love, but he prefers to just start at zero and do his own thing. I didn’t know this at the time. I was pretty young and inexperienced. So I just wrote the best chart that I could, hearing him. It’s funny. When we first rehearsed “In A Lighter Vein,” which was the up-tempo feature for him, he said, “I can’t get any feeling from this melody at all.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Jesus!—it bombed.” Then he turned around and played the shit out of it.

TP:   You and he are the same age, from different parts of the country, but both deeply influenced by the big bands and soloists you heard in your formative years. I know music became your avocation a little late. But were you a fan of the Kenton band in the ‘40s?

BH:   Oh, yeah. I thought they were terrific. I grew up close to the Balboa Rendezvous, where they got their start. We used to hear the band when it still had Lunceford influences. So I was aware of the band from the very start, and I really liked the things that they were doing in the ‘40s, which was before I became a jazz player and found out what real jazz was like, and realized that what they were doing wasn’t jazz.

TP:   Was there any sort of ambivalence for you when you joined the band? I’ve read 4-5 fairly thorough interviews on the Internet, and it seems as though and Kenton had a somewhat ambivalent relationship. Not that this needs to be part of the note… Was there any sense for you, joining the band, that the way you were thinking about things didn’t necessarily sync up with Kenton’s?

BH:   If I had been a functioning writer at the time, more than a player, I think there probably would have been. But I joined the band as a player, and I was just happy to join such a good band with such a great record. I was just happy to be there. I didn’t write for the band for quite some time. I’d written a couple of charts before I joined the band, but they were just total flops. I was trying to do things that I wasn’t hearing. So when I joined the band, I was just happy to be there, and Stan remembered that I was a writer, and pretty soon he started encouraging me to write. He paid me for everything I did. I did several charts before I really connected with the band, and he paid for those, and had them copied, and we rehearsed them and even played them a couple of times. I wrote one chart on “Star Eyes,” and it was just counterpoint from beginning to end. We played it one night, and Stan said, “You know, Holman, that sounds like a merry-go-round.” That’s a pretty good line.

TP:   Was his input helpful to you in developing your style?

BH:   [SIGHS] I’m trying to think, now… He didn’t talk to me much about writing, aside from egging me on to write. He gave me one assignment, which was a thing for Maynard Ferguson and Sal Salvador. It was “Invention For Guitar and Trumpet.” He kind of laid that out, what he was looking for. It turns out to have been a very successful piece, although I don’t like it at all. But it always seems to get put in the reissues and so forth. But mainly, he didn’t talk to me about what he was expecting or needing.

TP:   if I may ask you this for the 8-millionth time, what are some of your favorites of the charts that you wrote for the Kenton band?

BH:   Well, I always liked, “What’s New” and, of course, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” which is a lot of people’s favorite. I like “Stella By Starlight” for Charlie Mariano, and “Yesterdays,’ and some of the early things—“Fearless Finlay” and I can’t think of the other name.  Does that give you enough?

TP:   Yes, I think that gives me enough. May I ask a more general question. What do you think were the qualities of Kenton as a personality and bandleader, and the band itself, that made the Kenton band so popular? It was a huge operation. What do you think people were responding to?

BH:   It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. In the ‘40s, he was doing his progressive jazz and the Rugolo thing. It’s hard to say. Maybe the precision and the brassy sound. I don’t really know. It’s a large band. I think large bands tend to be more impressive than small bands to certain people. Kenton’s personality. He was a very striking figure in front of a band. You got me on that one.

TP:   He’s one of these people, like Woody Herman or Ellington, who kept the organization going for years and years and years, building a body of music… If nothing else, it’s a real act of will, I guess. It strikes me in the course of thinking about him for these last few days.

BH:   I think that a lot of people had an affection for Stan, the person. He was always very gracious to the public, and took time-out to talk to people and kids… I meet these people now who come to the Kenton reunion concerts out here that Ken Poston puts on occasionally, and they seem to love the idea of Stan Kenton. He got to these people somehow.

TP:   Apart from the NEA Jazz Masters thing a couple of years ago, when the JALCO played one of your charts, is this your first collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?

BH:   Yes, aside from that one shot.

TP:   Have you followed their history over the last 20 years?

BH:   Pretty much.

TP:   Do you any remarks about the orchestra, and the way they might or might not match up with the way Kenton thought about music?

BH:   Hah. Well, I don’t know. I’m kind of curious about that myself. Their emphasis has been on Duke and mostly black music, and this is the whitest of the white bands, I think.

TP:   Did you say ‘the whitest of the white bands’?

BH:   Yeah.

TP:   Perhaps that phrase might apply a little less to the stuff you put out 55 years ago, and the way the band treated it.

BH:   Yeah, but I think still, Kenton encompasses all of that. Stan Kenton stands for a certain kind of music that is kind of unemotional. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Clean. Well, you know how some musicians use the term “greasy” when they’re talking about funky jazz? Stan’s band was never greasy, regardless of who wrote for it. There, I’ve finally figured it out.

TP:   I guess it will be fascinating to see how the concert goes, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from them after the new year. You’re not presenting anything new for the band…

BH:   No.

TP:   All older stuff.

BH:   Yes.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Bill Holman, Interview, Stan Kenton

R.I.P. Jim Hall (Dec. 4, 1930-Dec. 10, 2013)

Very sad to hear of the passing of Jim Hall, the master guitarist-composer who was a universal influence on guitar sound and practice post-1965. He was playing wonderfully as recently as Nov. 22 and 23rd at a Jazz at Lincoln Center event with two of his acolytes, John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein. I’d like to share three items documenting separate encounters with Mr. Hall (who I first had the opportunity to meet during the ’90s on several WKCR encounters), most recently in October for the program notes for the aforementioned concert. I’ve also appended the proceedings of a public DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in Orvieto—where he was performing all week in a two-guitar context with Bill Frisell, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron—right after New Year’s Day in 2010, and a conversation for a piece I wrote for DownBeat about the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village during the ’50s. I haven’t transcribed the proceedings of our WKCR shows, in which he related his personal history in some depth. You’ll be able to find biographical particulars elsewhere, but this documentary from the late ’90s, written by his daughter, Devra Hall, is a great place to start, as is this conversation with Larry Appelbaum. So are these DownBeat articles, from 1962 and 1965, respectively.

* * *

Jim Hall Concert with Peter Bernstein & John Abercrombie – Program Notes:

“Jim Hall is, in many ways, to me, the father of modern jazz guitar.”–Pat Metheny

“I used to focus on playing like Jim Hall, trying to play slow and really hear whatever I was doing, not let my fingers get ahead of me. I love Jim because it’s not a whole lot of notes, but he generates so much intensity with such a poetic vibe.”—Mike Stern

“Jim Hall is like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat. He’s so quirky and unorthodox, but always musical, with a purpose to everything that he plays and does. There’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein. Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too.”—Russell Malone

“Jim plays the baddest stuff I’ve ever heard. It’s like guitar playing from the future, but yet it’s happening right now.”—Julian Lage

* * * *

On this evening’s concert, guitarist Jim Hall, 82 years young, augments his trio with fellow plectrists John Abercrombie, 69, and Peter Bernstein, 46. Both regard the elder maestro as a preeminent signpost figure in their stylistic development, while most closely resembling him in the individuality of their respective voices.

A game-changer for the last four decades, a key figure in assimilating and coalescing the various streams that entered jazz expression during the ’70s, Abercrombie—like Hall—remains a work in progress in his golden years, as is evident on 39 Steps, his lyric, harmonically erudite 2013 release on ECM (his 24th for the label since 1974), and on its immediate predecessor, Within A Song. On the latter date, Abercrombie reconfigures in his own argot four songs from ‘60s recordings by Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer and Bill Evans to which Hall made consequential contributions. Among them is “Without A Song,” from Rollins’ 1961 masterpiece The Bridge.

“I heard it in a record store when I was 17, and had an epiphany,” Abercrombie told me last year. “I didn’t know what he was doing, but it sounded so perfect. That was the strongest reaction I’ve had to any piece of music from the jazz world.”

Bernstein experienced his own epiphanies as Hall’s student at the New School during the latter ‘80s. “Playing duo with him then, I’d wonder how he kept the harmony and time so clear,” he recalls. “He’s such a great listener, so supportive, so empathetic—all the things that he is as a human being come through when he accompanies.” Over the subsequent quarter-century, he’s  earned the esteem of peer-groupers like Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman, and elder masters like Rollins, Jimmy Cobb and Lou Donaldson for his touch, the voice-like quality of his tone, the melodic and harmonic clarity of his solo declamations, and, as Hall notes, “his complete avoidance of cliches.”

“Jim introduced a completely new aesthetic,” Bernstein says of his mentor. “He came out of Charlie Christian and Freddie Green, and doesn’t shy away from playing the blues and bebop, and doing things that the guitar wants to do as an instrument. At the same time he’s a very intellectual musician with an advanced harmonic concept.”

As always, Hall will follow the core principles by which he’s operated since his debut recording with Chico Hamilton in 1955. “I try to make each performance kind of a composition,” he says. “The idea of improvising in the first place is doing whatever it takes to appropriately get out of the guitar whatever goes through your mind. Ideally, all of us on stage—whether it’s three or four or five—will always be listening with that same target in mind, to make it into a nice composition.

“I picture myself as a listener when I’m playing or writing. That’s one reason why I solo the way I do. I like to leave space for the listener to reflect on what’s been played already, and then take them some place else.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Jim Hall Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Julian Lage, “Lil’ Darlin” (from SOUNDING POINT, Decca, 2009) (Lage, guitar; Jamie Roeder, bass; Tupac Mantilla, percussion; Neal Hefti, composer)

I actually know him. That’s Julian Lage. I’ve known him since he was 11 years old. I think he’s 21 or something now. I really admire him. He’s very different. A lovely young guy. On this record also, although not on this track, he has a banjo player, Bela Fleck, who is outstanding. That was a Basie tune, right? Right, “Lil’ Darling.” It was a completely unique treatment of a standard jazz tune. Basie’s guitarist, Freddie Greene, was amazing. He really kept the Count Basie band together. When Freddie left, they sounded great, but it just was not the same without Freddie Greene on guitar. In fact, I wrote a piece which we’ll play this evening called “OwedTo Freddie Greene,”

2.   Egberto Gismonti-Alexandre Gismonti, “Aguas & Dança” (from SAUDAÇÕES, ECM, 2009) (Egberto Gismonti, acoustic guitar, composer; Alexandre Gismonti, acoustic guitar)

That’s amazing guitar playing, and I have no idea who it is. Egberto Gismonti wrote it and played it? I know Egberto Gismonti, and he is a fantastic musician. He plays fantastic piano, and he’s a composition… I think he lives in Rio still. That’s one of the marvelous things about music. You just played a record by a very young guitarist, and now you played one by a slightly older Brazilian guitar player. [Brazilian music has been in your repertoire for many years.] It’s kind of a gringo version! I just admire Brazilian music so much. We’re playing a piece this week called “Cavaquinho.” I was in Brazil several times, starting in 1959 or 1960. It felt like everybody in Rio played the guitar. Music was coming out from everywhere. It was a great experience.

3.  Bobby Broom, “In Walked Bud” (from PLAYS FOR MONK, Origin, 2009) (Broom, guitar; Dennis Carroll, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I don’t know who that is either. [SINGS REFRAIN] I’ve forgotten the name of the tune. “In Walked Bud,” that’s right. Fantastic guitar playing. I could have used a little more harmonic sense, maybe a chord now and then just filling in, but it sounded great. Tell us who it was. Bobby Broom? I just know the name. [He’s played with Sonny Rollins since the early ‘80s.] I know Sonny Rollins. [LAUGHTER] That’s why Sonny doesn’t call me any more. Working with Sonny was probably my most important job. I first heard him with Max Roach’s group with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, and I admired his playing. I joined Sonny in early 1961. I was only 12 years old. It was very challenging, because it got me practicing. I’m serious. Sonny was and is one of my heroes. I was in the hospital for a long time this year with back surgery, and Sonny called. He never talks very much, but in the hospital we talked for 45 minutes on the phone one day. I almost hesitate to get into this, but in those days there was still a lot of racial crap going on, and Sonny made me aware of it. All of my early heroes were African-American—Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and then Sonny later. It was just fascinating. I was so honored to play with him. This may not be appropriate to say, but I think with our new American President, it’s gotten so much better just in terms of getting along together.

4.  Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Fall” (from REFLECTIONS, Word of Mouth, 2009) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Eric Revis, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

I don’t have any idea who that is. It seemed like it was in an odd meter, 7/4 or 5/4.. I don’t know what they were performing. . It sounded a great ensemble, and I admire the guitar player—it sounded good to me, but I don’t know anything about it. Oh, it’s Kurt. It’s interesting. A lot of this is brand-new to me. If I listen to music, generally it’s classical music. If I listened to great guitar players, it would be depressing. Bela Bartok. He plays good guitar. It’s amazing how guitar playing has just opened up and gotten better. Bill Frisell and I have known each other since Bill was a teenager, I think. Now I’m learning from him. That’s how it goes. It seems to me that one of the requisites of being involved in music, or any art form, is that it keeps growing, and if you’re open, then you will grow as well, and not stop someplace and say, “Well, that’s over; now I’m just going to keep playing this G-7 chord.”

5. John McLaughlin, “Stella By Starlight”(from THIEVES AND POETS, Verve, 2003) (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, arranger)

Again, I don’t know who that is, but it was an amazing guitar player. I know it’s “Stella By Starlight.” It sounded like B-flat. For me, I love that melody so much, I think that I would not have put all that filigree. I would have concentrated on the melody and the words to the song. I think that needs to be presented. It seems like each piece, especially if it’s a song, should probably be presented in a different way, and this is a love song, and it has nothing to do with flashy picking like “I Got Rhythm” or something. This is an amazing guitar player; again, I didn’t particularly like the way the song was treated. This song came from a period where there were so many fantastic songs that I think need to be played more. I feel like, in a lot of ways, younger people are cheated because recording stuff all got into the hands of marketing people. It’s great to hear lovely compositions performed and recorded again. [AFTER] That was John? I knew I’d insult a friend. Again, I wish I could do that. I’m sure I have a lot of things which would embarrass me.

6. Wolfgang Muthspiel-Brian Blade, “Heavy Song” (from FRIENDLY TRAVELERS, Material, 2006) (Muthspiel, guitar, composer; Blade, drums)

Again, I don’t know who that is. It’s interesting, and it made me think about amplification. It sounded like an excellent guitar player. It’s funny. I still like the sound of the acoustic guitar just being amplified a little bit, but that was a whole different genre, I guess. I hope you’ll hear, when we play later, that I like to be able to hear Scott Colley on bass fiddle, not necessarily amplified, and Joey Baron, who is close to me and I can hear everything he plays. I understand amplification and the need for it, but I think it needs to be, in general, kind of tuned down a bit. Maybe start over with Andres Segovia or something—I don’t know. Because when you perform as a quartet, you’re part of a group of four people, and I like to be able to react to what Scott plays in the bottom of the texture, and then what Joey does. That’s just my personal preference. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound like some old fogey up here. I enjoy all of this music. It’s just that my feeling about music is different. Because I couldn’t hear the individuals in the group at all, and it puzzled me. [AFTER] It would probably make one interesting track on a CD, I guess. Again, I love all the guitar playing. [It’s interesting. I’m selecting one piece from a CD that reflects a broad spectrum of music.]

7.  Adam Rogers, “Sight” (from SIGHT, Criss Cross, 2009) (Rogers, guitar, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Clarence Penn, drums)

That one I really enjoyed. Again, I have no idea who it is, but in relation to what I was saying earlier, I could hear the whole texture very clearly. Marvelous guitar playing, and he or she… Do you know Sheryl Bailey? She’s a great guitar player, too—I hate to say “he” all the time. The guitarist would listen to what was happening and react. It seemed like people were listening. I love that. And it sounded very original, too. The shape of the piece, the chord changes, the bassline—it really kept my attention. It wasn’t Les Paul, was it. [LAUGHS] I loved Les Paul.

8. Pat Metheny-Brad Mehldau, “Ahmid-6″ (from METHENY MEHLDAU, Nonesuch, 2006) (Metheny, guitar, composer; Mehldau, piano)

Again, I do not know who it is, but it’s another amazing guitar player. Again, I wish that somehow or other, there was some clarity at the beginning of the piece, so I would know what they were improvising on. The playing was amazing, but it just sounded like playing over chord changes pretty much, and I would like to have… Like with a painting—you have a background and then some stuff added. But I thought it was great playing. I never had great facility, so I just play slowly, and then, when I play a little bit faster, they say, ”ooh, it’s fantastic.” [AFTER] I’ve known Pat since he was about 15 years old. He’s done so well.
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9. Jonathan Kreisberg, “The Best Thing For You” (from THE SOUTH OF EVERYWHERE, Mel Bay, 2007) (Kreisberg, guitar; Matt Penman, bass; Mark Ferber, drums; Irving Berlin, composer)

That I enjoyed a lot, too. Whoever it was really presented “The Best Things Thing For You Is Me,” presented the tune very clearly—and again, the guitar player was amazing. I enjoyed it. On every selection you played, I thought the guitar playing was pretty stunning. But that one was clearer to me, because whoever it was played the melody so well.

* * *

Jim Hall (Vanguard 70th) – (Jan. 30, 2005):

TP:   70 years in one place in Manhattan. It’s staggering.

HALL:   I agree.  I don’t know how old he was when he died…

TP:   He was born in 1903. He was close to 90.

HALL:   I remember when he had the Blue Angel uptown.

TP:   And he had it for 20 years. He got it when the Vanguard was already ten years old.  Billy Taylor, Jimmy Heath and Roy Haynes all were here before you.

HALL:   Yeah. I visited with Chico Hamilton and played at Basin Street East, but I finally moved here around 1960.

TP:   The clubs I can ask you about would be the Five Spot, the Bohemia…

HALL:   I played the Bohemia with Jim Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer, and we played opposite Miles’ sextet.

TP:   So it was a trip to New York before you moved.

HALL:   Right.

TP:   I can ask you about the Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Half Note, and Bradley’s.

HALL:   The place where I first worked with Sonny Rollins was owned by the Termini Brothers – the Jazz Gallery.

TP:   Let’s start with your first trip to New York with Chico Hamilton and Basin Street, and the Bohemia. What was Basin Street like?  Do you recall the layout of the room or the ambiance?

HALL:   It was my first trip to New York as a musician, and the whole thing was kind of overwhelming.  It was Chico’s quintet, and I think Jerome Richardson played with us instead of Buddy Collette, because Buddy was doing the Groucho Marx television show or something. We played opposite Max Roach with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, Richie Powell and George Morrow. As I remember, it was laid out like a big board meeting room or something, and there was a bar and lots of tables.  All kinds of people came in. One time I looked up, and Richie Powell was sitting there with his brother, Bud Powell.  Erroll Garner came in. Sammy Davis, Jr., came in and sat in on drums one night!  I don’t know how long the place lasted, though.

When I was with Jimmy Giuffre… Later on he was managed by Norman Granz. But there was a guy doing the booking whose name I can’t remember, but he also managed Mort Sahl, and Mort had a show on Broadway for about three weeks called The Next President.  Jimmy, Bob and I played there with Mort Sahl, and then we’d go down to the Bohemia and worked there, too.

TP:   What was the Bohemia like?  It was a big room on Barrow Street?

HALL:   Exactly.  It looked like a high school auditorium.  I remember there were lots of tables set up, and the bandstand was kind of raised in the back, like an auditorium, kind of.  As I said, we worked opposite Miles’ great group with Bill Evans.

TP:   What was the atmosphere like, the clientele?  I guess it was a lot different than Basin Street. Maybe not.

HALL:   This was all so new to me… I remember Stan Getz came in one night, and down in the dressing room he was trying out one of John Coltrane’s horns, and I played a couple of tunes with Stan.  Another time I remember Neshui and Ahmet Ertegun came in with Queen somebody… Her husband was King Hussein of Jordan, I think, and he had fired her because they couldn’t have kids together. So the Ertegun brothers came in with her, and I was sitting with Charlie Persip.  Charlie was working with Art Farmer someplace, and he came in to hear Miles’ band.  I said to Charlie, “You see that beautiful lady? That’s Queen Saroya (I think) of Jordan.” Charlie said, “No shit?”

Anyway, it was great working opposite Miles and…

TP:  Was the place full all the time?  I get the feeling reading about it that it was a very popular room, and all the cats would go down there to hear.

HALL:   Probably.  It was hard to have a perspective.  First of all, I did the show with Mort Sahl.  David Allyn sang on Mort’s show, too. The club didn’t have the coziness of the Vanguard, certainly, or the magic, I think.  It was more like a theater, I felt.  So was the Jazz Gallery, a bit.  They had an interesting background at the Gallery, though, with moving lights or something behind us.

TP:   Did you also play the Five Spot?

HALL:   Yes.  I remember it being crowded all the time, and very… I was staying at the Van Rensselaer Hotel in the Village at the time, and I worked opposite Ornette Coleman’s group there once with Jimmy.  It was Ornette and Charlie Haden and either Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, probably Billy. That was a thrill.  I also remember hearing George Russell play with a ten-piece group or so there. I remember the Five Spot as being small and kind of dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness, sort of.  Thelonious Monk came in one night. Then Leonard Bernstein came in; that was the time he jumped up on the stage and kissed Ornette or something. Cecil Taylor would sometimes come in late at night.  He and Buell Neidlinger were buddies, I think, and Cecil would play sometimes after work, or…
TP:   Sit in after the last set?
HALL:   Yeah.  It just seemed like an extremely hip place, that’s all.

TP:   The epitome of hipness is a nice phrase. What do you remember about Ornette being there?  That’s an engagement that sort of rocked the world.

HALL:   I guess.  I had known Ornette in California.  Actually, he was doing a date with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne and Don Cherry.  Red was a close friend, and he invited me to the record date.  When I got there, I was in the control booth, and Red was sitting in the control booth, and they were playing without him.  Red was very controlling, and he kept asking Ornette, “Well, how many measures before this? How many bars?”  Ornette would say, “Just trust me.”  So Red got frustrated, and he bailed.  He was sitting in the control booth for a while. But I loved Ornette’s playing right away. I’d gone to a conservatory of music, and I heard Bartok and Hindemith and Schoenberg and all those people, so it didn’t surprise me.  But I loved his playing right from the start.  But it was great being around Ornette when he was kind of breaking ground.

Then John Lewis had Ornette and Don both up at the School of Jazz at Lenox…

TP:   Oh, I forgot that you were on Jazz Abstractions.

HALL:   Right.  And John would bring in ringers to go to this music school.  It was every summer for two or three weeks, I think, at the end of the summer up at Lenox.  He got Don Cherry and Ornette there as students, and Attila Zoller was there as a student, Gary McFarland… It was kind of a rich period. But obviously, you don’t realize it when you’re living it.

TP:   Of course not.  What were the Termini Brothers like?

HALL:   They were great.

TP:   Soulful guys?

HALL:   Yeah, they were just nice guys. When I was a kid, all the club owners were these guys with the broken nose and cigars and stuff, and the Termini Brothers seemed like they would have been good neighbors or they could run a grocery store, or something like that.  Really nice.

TP:   And you played with Sonny at the Jazz Gallery.

HALL:   I  did. It was on St. Marks Place just east of the Bowery.

TP:   I know you played at the Half Note quite a bit.

HALL:   Yes.

TP:   It seems that all the musicians enjoyed playing there.

HALL:  It was really relaxed, and the Canterinos, Mike and Sonny, they were great. The bar made a sort of oval around the bandstand, and they had this great guy, Al the waiter, who wore this tuxedo all the time, and he would kind of drag his feet when he walked, and he would call out orders. It’s probably on some records. He’d say, “Son-ny!!” when he wanted beers or something.

TP:   Is he the guy who would always light people’s cigarettes?

HALL:   Yes.  We called him “the torch” sometimes.

TP:   Back when you got to town, all the clubs went to 4 a.m., right? Three sets, 2 a.m. last set?

HALL:   Yeah.  When I worked at the Five Spot, they had this Budweiser clock right above the bandstand that would kind of circle around slowly, and I’d look at the clock and it would say 20 of 3, and I’d play about an hour, we’d play an hour, and I’d look up and it would say 15 minutes to 3!  I think it went to 4.  You played long.

TP:   And the Half Note was isolated, so it had to be a destination.

HALL:   That’s right.  It wasn’t in the heart of things at all.

TP:   It seems the mid ‘60s is when a lot of the small piano rooms downtown cropped up.  But Bradley’s, the Knickerbocker, Village Corner.

HALL:   I wasn’t a regular at Bradley’s, but I did hear a lot of… I heard Jimmy Rowles there with Red Mitchell, and stuff like that.  The Knickerbocker somehow seemed not as important to me. Bradley’s was a fun hangout, and I liked Bradley, and I got to know Sam Jones really well there.  In fact, when Sam was dying… Sam was a big fan of boxing, so anything having to do with boxing, I cut it out of the newspaper and would mail it to him.

TP: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, were there other places you’d wind up trying to get to?

HALL:   Just to hear music?  On the one hand, I loved Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and they were at the Half Note a lot.  The Half Note moved uptown or to midtown for a while, but it didn’t seem to gel. I played there with Paul Desmond, Ben Riley and Ron Carter, and we played opposite the Bill Evans Trio there.  I remember the Cantorino brothers and the old man wearing tuxedos. They were all dressed up. That seemed kind of weird to me.

TP: How did the clubs in New York differ from the clubs in L.A. and Cleveland?

HALL:   I’m not sure. In Cleveland there was a club called Lindsay’s Sky Bar that was very hip. I heard everybody there. It was a bit like the Vanguard.  It was small and dark, and I heard Charlie Parker there. I heard Art Tatum. I heard Red Norvo with Tal Farlow; that’s where I heard Tal.  I heard Stuff Smith; that was great.  That was a very hip club. There were a couple of them in Cleveland. Later I heard Charlie Parker with Miles Davis and Max Roach at a different club. So there was stuff to hear.

But for some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard.  The sinkhole!  I mean that in a good way.  You go down there, and you’re in an environment. After I spoke with you the first time, I made a list of all the people I had heard there and stuff.  I lost part of it.  But Jesus, I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there, and Slam Stewart was playing with him. I heard Ben Webster there. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over before I knew him.  Oh, and I think I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May.  Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce there.  I think Mort Sahl, but I’m not sure.  I heard Wes Montgomery there with Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly, I think. And I worked in a duet with Miles’ group with Wynton and Jimmy Cobb and Paul and Hank Mobley.

TP:   So you’ve been working at the Vanguard for almost fifty years.

HALL:   Seems like it!

TP:   Has it changed?  New sound system, they removed a post…

HALL:   I’ll have to check with Jed about this, or maybe you could, but there was a Japanese company that came in, and they wanted to get the sound of the Village Vanguard somehow, and they measured it from top to bottom, everything, and then as a payoff they gave them a new sound system.  So that changed the whole thing!  It cracked me up.

TP:   For better or worse?

HALL:   I really don’t know. I’ve just always enjoyed playing there somehow.

TP:   What does it? Is it the spirit?  The sound?

HALL:   The sound is good. It’s mostly just the ambiance, all the pictures on the wall.  So many memories.  And Max Gordon sitting in the back there.  And that kitchen is… Talk about magic meeting.  One time, on Paul Desmond’s birthday, my daughter cooked something for his birthday, and afterwards my wife and I and Paul went to the Vanguard. Thelonious Monk was working there before his son. I think Thelonious was not doing too well then. It’s the only time I’ve ever had a conversation with Monk, was with Paul Desmond and Thelonious.

TP:   And you’ve continued to play there steadily since ‘57 or ‘58.

HALL:   Right.  I remember hearing Joe Lovano with Bill Frisell and Motian there. That almost got me in a fight with Stanley Crouch later on. He put them down… I saw Stanley and Wynton Marsalis on Charlie Rose, and Stanley was pontificating, and they started putting down Miles Davis by his later bands. Stanley said, “I could tell he was going out by the way he was dressing?”  I thought, “Shit, what about Duke Ellington?” That really infuriated me, and I thought especially Wynton to say anything negative about Miles, and Miles opened so many doors for people… I always thought Miles could play silence better than most people could play notes. So I went in to hear the trio with Lovano and Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, and I was knocked out. I came outside, and Stanley was outside.  He said , “Oh, Jim Hall, down there listening to that junior music, huh.” So that got me bugged, and I started arguing with him.   P.S., Stanley called me the next day to have lunch after we had a shout-out!

TP:   Are clubs different now than they were when you first hit New York?  Are the audiences different? The general run of clubowners… But you don’t play that many other clubs.

HALL:   The Blue Note sometimes, and the new Birdland. Somehow the Vanguard… Maybe it’s because it’s underground. But somehow it seems like home to me.

TP:   There’s something about it that is jazz, nothing but jazz…

HALL:   Exactly.  I was working there once with Don Thompson and either Elliott Zigmund, or maybe Ben Riley, a trio, and some guy came down the stairs and robbed Cliff Lauder at the door with a gun while we were playing “Body and Soul” or something.

TP:   But the Vanguard has stayed the same pretty much.

HALL:   It really has.

TP:   It’s so rare in 2004-05 to have anything similar to what it was 20 years ago, even 50 years ago.

HALL:   Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.  Did I tell you about Lorraine Gordon and Henry Kissinger? Jed told me that Havel was there, and a few minutes into the set Henry Kissinger came down the stairs and Lorraine wouldn’t let him in!  She said, “You can’t come in; the set’s already started.”

TP:   I think eventually she let him in, but made him pay.

HALL:   She said, “Okay, that will be thirty dollars.”

TP:   Who are you going to play with on your night?

HALL:   I’m not sure yet.  I might just do it as a duo. Maybe Henry Kissinger will come in and make a speech.  He says, “Perhaps you don’t know who I am.” She said,”Oh, I know all about you; that’s part of the problem.” You’ve got to love that, no matter what kind of pain in the ass she is.

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A 2006 DownBeat Feature On Wynton Marsalis, Who Turned 50 Yesterday

I couldn’t attend Wynton Marsalis’s four 50th birthday concerts in which he presented repertoire from his 30+ years in the music business. All accounts state — no doubt accurately — that to witness them was an extraordinary experience.

I’ve admired Marsalis since 1981, when I heard him playing with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The feeling was reinforced not long thereafter, an extraordinary concert at New York’s Public Theater with Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell, his father, Ellis Marsalis, his brother Branford, and bassist Mark Helias. A decade before, I’d conducted two extended interviews with Wynton, resulting in this article, which has been on the Internet for a while.

In 2005, DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write an extended feature on Wynton. Unfortunately, for space reasons, they had to cut my final draft — here’s the “directors’ cut,” so to speak.

* * *

That Wynton Marsalis does not think small was evident last November 14th, when Jazz at Lincoln Center threw a thousand-dollar-a-ticket fundraiser to celebrate its Artistic Director’s quarter century in the spotlight.

When the Rose Theater’s lights dimmed, television journalist Ed Bradley, the evening’s host, brought Marsalis on stage to a standing ovation from a crowd  primarily of donors from New York’s finance, real estate and media industries, intelligentsia, and eminent entertainers, all attired in black ties, cummerbunds, and designer gowns. Themselves tuxedoed, Bradley and Marsalis turned to a projection of 1979 high school yearbook photo of an Afroed, grinning Marsalis, trumpet in hand. “Pet peeve: Sucking valves,” read the salutation. “Biggest weakness: Bach Stradivarius trumpets.”

Another slide popped up. “Always saying: ‘Be cool, white boy,’” read the top inscription. The crowd laughed uneasily. Marsalis shook his head with a rueful smile, and Bradley joked about youthful indiscretion. The line below stated: “Ambition: ‘Transcend the f****g music being played today.’”

Interrupted by testimonials from various JALC dignitaries,  Marsalis spent the next 90 minutes demonstrating how assiduously he had applied himself to the latter aspiration. He played standards with flair—a burnished, elegant “Embraceable You” in duo with Hank Jones; signifying with the mute behind Diana Krall on “East Of The Sun”; stretching out with old piano partner Marcus Roberts on “Cherokee”—but he also prepared a tasting menu of ambitious compositions from the ’90s that reflect his omnivorous interests. The material was decidedly not about conceptualism, nor juxtaposing materials, nor conveying philosophical notions at the expense of human feeling. Rather, Marsalis pursued an aesthetic propagated by his intellectual mentor, Albert Murray, and actualized by painter-collagist Romare Bearden, who expressed a modernist sensibility through deploying an iconography of American vernacular archetypes.

For example, on “Many Gone,” a spiritual from At The Octoroon Balls, the Kronos Quartet conveyed Stravinsky-like harmonies with timbre and attack drawn from American fiddle music. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra displayed its mastery of Ellingtonian erotica behind two Alvin Ailey dancers on “Home: Beyond This Rage,” a vignette from Sweet Release. Gospel diva Kim Burrell raised the roof on “Oh, What A Friend We Have In Jesus/God Don’t Like Ugly,” from Blood On The Fields, Marsalis’ 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio.

With Joe Lovano standing in for Branford Marsalis and Jason Marsalis for Jeff Watts, Marsalis played “Hesitation” from his eponymous 1982 debut, engaging Lovano in extended, abstract counterpoint. Herlin Riley displayed his assimilation of New Orleans drum vocabulary on “Uptown Ruler,” a Coltrane-esque blues in 5/4 from the late-’80s Soul Gestures In Southern Blue series that marked Marsalis’ embrace of an across-the-timeline aesthetic. To conclude the evening, LCJO played “The Caboose,” the kaleidoscopic end car of Marsalis’ complex, Ellington-inspired 1998 suite, Big Train, replete with intricate ensemble dialogues, highwire brass unisons, instrumental onomatopoeia, a shouted question from Wycliffe Gordon (“somebody, somebody, somebody, please tell me; I want to know just how the big train goes”), and an inclusive choral response from the band in a hymnal subtone (“big train from the east, big train from the west”).

The lyric is emblematic of the scope of Marsalis’ ambition and accomplishment. At 44, he’s perhaps the most visible jazz artist on the planet—he’s filled clubs and concert halls since he formed his first band at 20, and became a bona fide mainstream celebrity at 23, when he won his first Classical Grammy. But he feels, with some justification, that the impact of his corpus on the sound of jazz today is less than it might be.

“I know people haven’t listened to the music, because they tell me so,” Marsalis said on the first press day of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2005-06 season. “Musicians who come into the band always say, ‘I didn’t realize it was that hard,’ or ‘I never heard it.’”

“I think his major contribution was on the political side, raising the visibility of jazz, but I don’t hear anything within his music that I see as a big contribution to the SOUND of today,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, voicing a sentiment expressed off the record by a cross-generational sampling of musicians. “Now, he has influenced a ton of trumpet players, though not really me. He’s very akin to Clark Terry in his phrasing, the way he ghosts the notes. I saw Wynton on a PBS special with Kathleen Battle when I was starting out. I was very classical music oriented then, and it excited me, partly because it was a black person playing the shit out of the trumpet. So I decided to check out The Majesty of the Blues. I returned it right away. With his band, it feels like he wants to educate you. That’s great, but after a while, you feel like you’re  in a seminar or clinic.”

But what a clinic!  “To be to able to hear things the way he hears them is pretty amazing,” said pianist Eric Reed in 1997, after six years in Marsalis’ employ. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, dude, what’s going on in your head?’  To be able to commit that to paper is even more amazing, and getting a group of individuals to play that compounds the amazement. Wynton has unlimited resources, and he’s able to commit to a musical vision, which is unique in the jazz world.”

“Wynton developed in a fishbowl,” says David Berger. “He’s a big risk-taker, and any mistakes he’s made, the whole world watched, whereas most of us did that] while we were in school.”

“You haven’t heard me talk about other people’s music since I became a man,” Marsalis says, referring to the famously irascible statements of his youth, but he remains anything but shy in conveying strongly held ideas about what jazz is and is not, and hews to this pedagogy in selecting repertoire. In response, disaffected jazzfolk have attacked his motives with almost prosecutorial suspicion, disparaged his talent, critiqued his taste, and caricatured him as a musical analog to Reagan-Bush Republicanism. More often than not, the nay-saying has a tabloidish and assumptive connotation, eschewing concrete musical issues and presenting personal tastes and resentments as objective declarations of fact.  Now it’s hard to find an article about JALC in the mainstream press that does not include the C-word.

“It’s our house,” Marsalis likes to say about Jazz at Lincoln Center, showing thick skin in public. But he hears the catcalls.

The trope that the musical community is more attuned to the external trappings that frame Marsalis’ career than to the actual particulars of his production dates to his early years in the spotlight. “The unfortunate circumstance of Wynton being Wynton prevented any real acceptance of the importance of what they were doing,” said trombone playing brother Delfeayo Marsalis on the response of his mid-’80s peer group at Berklee School of Music to Wynton’s first quintet. “They were paying attention to Branford and Wynton—moreso Wynton—as a commodity.”

“I agree with that,” Wynton said. “Because so much of the response was anti, it cheated a lot of musicians out of the chance to figure out how to get to the next step in their evolution. They ended up just imitating stuff from the ’60s or ’50s, erroneously thinking that’s what we were doing. But that’s not what we do.

“My conception is holistic. Instead of being relegated to our time period, we can be in time. We had Afros in the ‘70s. Everybody used suss chords then. Now we can use suss chords and triads and New Orleans grooves, and do the 1960 jazz imitation of what the avant-garde musicians played in Germany in 1912—the chaos element. All the music that’s in one consciousness is the same. We are free to utilize all that we know, because we don’t have to appeal to a tradition, and we can create a truly modern music that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, but is also traditional. It’s revolutionary in its implications. All of it exists at one time.”

[BREAK]

Two days before Christmas, Marsalis spoke about  ‘All Rise,’ his 90-minute, 12-movement, millennial opus for symphony orchestra, big band and vocal choir, in which he weaves together the various genres, styles and forms that he explored during the ‘90s and incorporates a global array of rhythms, melodies and scales.  “I thought about it way back in high school,” he said at his Upper West Side highrise. “I was always dreaming, and I thought, ‘What if you could put all of the music together and everybody played at one time, but they were all playing stuff that was hard for them to play?’”

An edition of Yeats’ poems lay open on the table in front of his living room couch, and a floor compartment beneath it contained a washboard, the recent Fagels translation of The Iliad, W.C. Sebold’s Austerlitz, Walter van de Leur’s biography of Billy Strayhorn, and Runaway Slave Advertisements.. On a coffee table across the room stood side-by-side sculpted chess sets with matches in progress. Occupying the southwest corner is a piano, piled with books (the Joyce Carol Yates-edited “Best American Essays of the Century,” Eileen Southern’s “History of Afro-American Artists”), scores (among them a folio of Bartok’s String Quartets), and tools of the composer’s trade, such as tuning forks and a slide rule with chords.

Marsalis wrote “All Rise” on commission from ’90s New York Philharmonic head Kurt Masur, and premiered it in 1999. “He brought the idea of using a lot of different traditions and of it being a full evening, which was a risk for him,” Delfeayo said. “He wanted to continue that strain in Gershwin and Bernstein of dealing with Afro-American music and music from the European tradition.”

During a well-received October 2005 U.K. tour of “All Rise” that received reviews with such words as “herculean” and “brilliant,” Masur told a journalist that Marsalis’ understanding of his “basic idea—to reflect how jazz began,” was “absolutely philosophical.”

“In classical music that’s a plus,” Marsalis responded to Masur’s comment. “In jazz, it’s a minus, like something is wrong with you. People who are intellectuals in this music, like John Lewis or Dizzy or Duke Ellington, their music is not dealt with for what it is. People kept crying for Ellington’s music between 1938 and 1942, that it was his best period. All of his music has such depth and complexity. From a philosophic standpoint, what he actually put together begs to be treated on a serious level.”

If he wrote a book about Ellington, what points would he emphasize?

“First would be what in his philosophy allowed him to have such an unbelievably long, sustained development,” Marsalis said. “In the ‘New Orleans Suite’ from 1970 and ‘Black And Tan Fantasy,’ which he wrote in the ’20s, he deals with the same thing—blues, call-and-response, the antiphonal relationship between brass and woodwinds, mood pieces, shuffles. What does his development teach us in terms of his sustained seriousness of his art?

“I could pull out hundreds of  technical things that he invented. How he uses the blues inside of voicings and in the progressions he wrote, how he used the sound of the blues to modulate, how he used metric modulations in ‘Harlem.’ Why he liked that real straight vocal music. How he appropriated New Orleans counterpoint. What he looked for in vernacular music to put in his style. More than the technical things, why did he want to do that? The majority of his songs were not what his audience wanted. Nobody was clamoring to hear ‘Such Sweet Thunder.’”

What drove Ellington to do it?

“He wanted to be great,” Marsalis exclaimed with a long, it-ought-to-be-obvious laugh. “That’s why he searched around to figure out what in all this experience would lead him to the deepest regions of his musicianship and help him to develop his greatness.”

It’s impossible to interpret Marsalis’ assessment of Ellington as anything but a self-descriptive aesthetic manifesto. “Wynton does not want to equal anybody,” said multireedist Victor Goines, who first met Marsalis in kindergarten. Hanging out with Marsalis when both were 14, Goines heard him play Coltrane’s “Countdown” solo and decided that jazz was what he wanted to do. He joined the Marsalis Septet in 1993, allowing Marsalis to add the clarinet to his tonal palette.

“He has to surpass,” Goines said. “The only yardstick that is an accurate length for him is Duke Ellington.”

Stanley Crouch and Murray introduced Marsalis to Ellington during the ’80s. Gunther Schuller and then David Berger schooled him on Ellington’s scores. By 1985, when Branford and Kenny Kirkland jumped ship to join Sting on the cusp of the release of Black Codes From The Underground, the groundwork was set for Marsalis to realign.

“I heard that Albert Murray told him something along the lines of, ‘You will be more able to achieve your goals and vision whenever you start to do more things with musicians who are not your peers, and will more readily focus on what you’re trying to do,’” Watts recalled.

“The first band broke up too soon,” Marsalis acknowledges. “We had some impact, but it could have been greater if we’d stayed together longer. It seemed like everybody picked up on Black Codes From The Underground and liked it. It was high-energy playing. Tain’s combination of fusion and jazz; Kenny Kirkland’s rhythmic propulsion and sophistication; my interplay with Branford on ‘Hesitation,’ which comes from the New Orleans way of playing and the vocabulary of modern jazz. We put a New Orleans Two-Way-Pocky-Way groove and extended rhythms—stuff I’d heard from James Black and my father, using six-bar phrases or 3/4 bars—in the middle of Black Codes. Modulating into different keys within a song, like on ‘Delfeayo’s Dilemma,’ where I play in one key, Branford in another, and Kenny Kirkland in another key. On ‘Twilight,’ we improvised counterpoint at the same time. We phrased our melodies with a funky New Orleans flavor, but still in modern jazz.”

“The early band will have to go down historically as one of the more important small ensembles, but the way things have developed, you almost have to pretend that period didn’t exist, because you can’t find the individuals to re-create it,” Delfeayo Marsalis said. “These guys were going for a high level of intellectual expression. The compositional structure was well-conceived and different, but also it was a great improvising band. Those guys came together, and that hardcore jazz was the right thing for the right time. It was fortunate and unfortunate that it broke up. The level of intellectual challenge that he personally has received after early 1987 is limited. But he will always figure out a way to work the situation, and he became a great sculptor of greater works of music.”

“That’s the type of commentary you always get from people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” Marsalis says. “I think that at a certain moment Delfeayo liked that particular band.”

In Marsalis’ view, the period to which his younger brother refers was a time of philosophical solidification. “First I had to put the history of jazz together in my mind,” he says. “When Albert Murray’s book, Good Morning Blues came out, I played at a party at the Village Gate with Rudy Rutherford, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, and other older cats who’d played with Basie. I’d played with the bebop musicians, like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Philly Joe, and I knew Miles and Dizzy and Art Farmer. I’d played with Herbie and Tony and Ron Carter. I’d played with Lester Bowie. But I’d never played with musicians from that generation. That was my missing link.

“To sit with all of them and check out their way of playing, the life in their music—it’s like what I knew my whole life. I could fit in easily with the essence of what they were playing. I thought I was going to play modern music—some scales, D over G, all the chords, playing in 5/4. That wasn’t something they could play on. They started just playing riffs. I’m from New Orleans, and grew up hearing riffs. Now, they weren’t men who were going to patronize you. They were like, ‘Damn, that’s a hip-ass riff. Shit, youngster, you might be for real.’ That night I went home and said, ‘Now I understand something.’

“In 1985 Sweets Edison told me something that had a profound effect. He said, ‘Don’t wait for nobody to validate you. You’re from New Orleans. You grew up a certain way. I knew you when you was a boy. You ain’t all this shit that they’re sayin’. You’re not from the North. You’re already yourself. All you got to do is be what you are.’”

Edison’s reference was to Marsalis’ upbringing in the hothouse musical culture of ‘70s New Orleans, where, as Marsalis put it, “musicians work—the gigs don’t pay that much, but you play. I always had a job. I would come home at 1 or 2 in the morning and go to school at 7. I played as much as I could possibly play.”

From 13 to 16, Wynton and Branford earned up to $100 a night with a funk band called the Creators, playing covers of ‘70s R&B hits at outdoor dances, receptions, weddings and the like, subverting the surroundings, Branford recalls, with segues from, say, a Parliament line into a tune by Deodato. Wynton played show tunes with a community band comprised of band directors, marched on parades, played classical music with his high school peer group in the New Orleans Youth Orchestra, with adult amateurs in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, with symphony brass quartets and quintets. Himself no churchgoer, he played the black church circuit with pianist Kermit Campbell, internalizing the ritual of the service. He played Chick Corea tunes and “‘70s things on the cusp of fusion” with an adult band at Tyler’s Beer Gardens in the French Quarter. And he practiced four or five hours a day, an hour before school, an hour at lunch, an hour before dinner, an hour after the evening’s gig.

“In jazz, the thought always was you play whatever you feel,” Marsalis said. “But to achieve something and be successful in classical music, it was a given that you had to know the history.” Branford Marsalis recalls Wynton coming home from his trumpet lesson “with this big-assed book on Austria. He said, ‘Mr. Janson said that I will never be able to play Mozart unless I understand the people and the times that created him.’” Towards that end, Wynton bought natural trumpets, and systematically taught himself the instrument’s history and literature. Afternoons from 1 to 5, he attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where his father had established the jazz curriculum. There he learned theory from “my great teacher” Bert Braud, whose theme-and-variation class subsumed Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Bach.

Perhaps most importantly, Marsalis rejected the generation gap. “They were so much hipper than us,” he laughs, referring to Ellis Marsalis and such family friends as Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell and Sweets Edison. “We had our lifestyle. But compared to Blue Mitchell? Shit! Jazz musicians don’t get dated. You’re not going to rebel against them. My Dad’s vibe was always, ‘If you really want to rebel against me, come up with something that I don’t understand. Don’t come to me with some bullshit.’ Or ‘the greatest rebellion is self-financed; you’re not really serious about rebelling.” He was serious when he told you that. He was ready for you to be gone! ‘Man, I don’t need you to tell me what to do. Leave! Get your own crib. It’s hard out here with all these kids. I don’t have time to be up babysitting you while you’re trying to live out the American Dream with no money.’”

Stories of prodigies who didn’t fulfill their promise are commonplace in the arts. But Marsalis—who was getting local press by 15 and enjoying the attention of women who found intriguing the sight of the studious, bespectacled young trumpeter doing his homework between sets while “everyone was getting drunk or high”  (“The older ones would say, ‘Are you doin’ your homework, baby?’ ‘Yeah, can you help me with this?’)—did not allow approbation from neighborhood down-homes or local gentry to turn his head.

“I wasn’t impressionable,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to fit in with anyone. My Daddy’s friends were too much older, and I wasn’t trying to fit in with guys in my neighborhood. There’s a certain allure of being in the street and ignorant, but once I determined I wasn’t going to act like them, I didn’t care what they thought. I could play ball, and I would fight. Even to this day, I don’t like to be fucked with. If you want to find out, we can go ahead and do that. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it, though. Even when I had to kind of integrate a school and deal with being just one black person being picked on, I always said, ‘If you call me a nigger, we’re gonna fight.’”

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Three years after that party with the Basieites at the Village Gate, Marsalis—with New Orleanians Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley in the bass and drum chairs—began to change his sound. “Wynton is good at adjusting direction based on the talent of the individuals he has around him,” said Marcus Roberts, who replaced Kenny Kirkland in 1985. “It became more of a blues-based, groove-oriented way of playing. He explored different colors, and his concept of blues on the trumpet evolved. He matured in his ability to merge older trumpet styles into a more modern abstract vocabulary that he himself was codifying.”

Goines adds that the effect of a stable personnel is that “Wynton started to write for the individual personalities, like Duke did, as opposed to the saxophone chair.” The primary personalities were Wess Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed and Goines, and Marsalis used the first iteration of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra—including such ex-Ellingtonians as Jimmy Hamilton, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Willie Cook, and Joe Temperley—as a template for incorporating their sounds as he built the repertoire for the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the next edition of LCJO.

“I always tell this story,” Marsalis said of his stylistic volte face. “A girl came to a concert we gave with the quintet at Blues Alley, and in five minutes she gave me the best critique of what we played that I ever got. She said, ‘I came to hear you all play, and I don’t like jazz, but I took my boyfriend, because I read an article on you all in Ebony and I wanted to see what it was. The first song, you all played together, and then everybody played individually. I thought that’s a great way to introduce the band, but you all played that way on every song.’ So at first it was a critique of the basic form of playing. Then she said, ‘Everybody plays for a very long time; you can follow it, but why do you all play so long?’ So the solos are too long. Then she told us that we played so loud she couldn’t hear all that was going on, and then she said, ‘I liked when you played the slow song, but then you started to play fast, and you played fast longer than you played slow.’ I followed what she said almost to the letter.”

It is interesting to compare Marsalis’ evolution to that experienced by his ‘70s outcat and funkster targets, who shaped their own predispositions in an age when the idiomatic tradition was in the air. His focus on self-determination through institution-building, educational outreach, and constructing an idiosyncratic body of work from a panoply of styles, is not so different from the tenets propounded in ‘60s Chicago by the AACM, comprised of musicians who are generational contemporaries of his father and such other independent-minded ‘70s New Orleans modernist improviser-educators as Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan.

“The word ‘conserve’ means to keep what’s good of what we have, like conserving trees,” says Berger. “But we also want to grow new trees. In some ways Duke Ellington was conservative, but he was also avant-garde. That’s what Wynton is. He throws down the gauntlet and says you’ve got to master the past before you can move into the future with any kind of success. How can you say that ‘Blood on the Fields’ is a retro piece? Yes, he uses a lot of Ellington’s conventions, but there’s so much modern stuff that was never heard before, and concepts from all over.”

“I think Wynton decided that whatever was going on in jazz was wrong, and he was going to go back and do it the way it had been done 55 or 60 years ago,” said Branford Marsalis. “I don’t necessarily disagree. Today’s musicians are far more versatile in the things they can do but have light, small, compact sounds and massive limitations in terms of swing. The emphasis of the songs becomes harmony and odd-meter forms. It’s more of a race toward scholarship. Wynton’s band was the absolute antithesis of that. He decided not to use monitors on the stage, not to have a bunch of musicians playing with their bells attached to the microphones or using pickups, which changes the nature of how a band sounds. Neither the song forms nor the meters were complex, but based on either the 6/8 Spanish tinge or straight 4/4 swing. It sounds simple until you get your ass on the stage and try to do it.

“On the standard jazz song, everyone is in the same key when the song starts and plays over the same set of themes. Wynton would have a guy solo on a blues in one key, then have an interlude which leads the next player to solo in a completely different key. It forces the musicians out of their comfort zone. It’s what Duke Ellington used to do. It’s what Jelly Roll Morton used to do. There was an easier and more difficult way of playing back then, and we gave it up for a more difficult, easier way of playing now.”

“You have to be as complete as possible in your knowledge of the history of the music,” says Ali Jackson, 29, who assumed the LCJO drum chair in fall 2005. “To be able to fit the styles of Jelly Roll Morton or Wayne Shorter. To play like Big Sid Catlett or Baby Dodds, or then like Buddy Rich, or Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams, but do it by playing what you know. Wynton is interested in musicians have a vested interest in all of the music. I believe in a style of jazz that runs all the way up to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and we’re similar conceptually.  His perspective is to encompass it all and find the divine paradox, that strain that runs through everything, that ties it all together.”

Jackson adds that because Marsalis writes what he hears, irrespective of instrumental limitation, that perspective also involves a high degree of difficulty.

“The demands of his book on the clarinet are extraordinary,” says Victor Goines. “But Wynton has a certain vision to be able to anticipate someone’s learning curve. I used to make a point of saying, ‘Look, my learning curve has not peaked yet. Whatever you want to write, you should write it. Don’t pigeonhole me.’”

“I like for the music to be hard,” Marsalis said. “As a trumpet player, why do I want to play the Brandenberg Concerto? Because it’s hard. I want to play the pieces that challenge me the most. I don’t just mean velocity. Some music is emotionally complex, too. But a degree of complexity, balanced with a certain spiritual substance and emotional weight, ensures that your music will remain.”

[BREAK]

My first conversation with Marsalis occurred two days after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the turf he had traveled as a youngster. His parents and brother Mbaya were safe in Baton Rouge, and their house suffered minor damage in comparison to some. Still, friends of Marsalis reported that the trumpeter, whose life and career reflect a fundamental, inexorable optimism, was shaken, suffused with the sense that everything could end.

“It’s not going to end,” Marsalis countered the day after New Year’s, concluding our final conversation. “We’re still going to be out here.” He did not elaborate. Two weeks later, the Cultural Committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which Marsalis co-chairs, requested $600 million in Federal funds to build a jazz museum, expand the city’s arts distract, and implement a jobs program for artists. A week after that, President Bush reneged on his earlier promise to provide sufficient funds to rebuild the Crescent City.

Perhaps such concerns diminished whatever pleasure Marsalis took in celebrating his astonishing quarter century. “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “It seems like a short time, in any case. I have a good friend who says, ‘I forgive everybody; we’re only out here for 80 years.’”

It’s a good bet that Marsalis will sustain his pace for much of that timeframe. In January, he completed the score for Ken Burns’ forthcoming opus on World War Two, and in April he’ll film a piece on Congo Square that will include African percussionist Yakob Addy. Also forthcoming is a small group piece with singing called “From The Plantation To the Penitentiary,” while on the grand scale he’s preparing an opera on the Civil War and, at Masur’s instigation, a mass.

It might take Marsalis 180 years to absolve his antagonists, though. “They call me conservative and all this bullshit, because I’m not of the Rock ethos,” he said heatedly. “Nothing in my experience as a musician would make me look up to that. Jazz was revealed to me from too young an age. In this era we have 50 Cent and these rappers playing over a machine, playing a beat, talking about ‘nigger,’ and ‘I don’t care what my parents like,’ and the use of all these equations to construct something philosophically. But I’m not using a philosophical equation. I’m using what I know, which is music.”

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