Jazz Column 57


The Jazz Column

by Michael Ullman


  It's been several decades now since critics (and musicians) started calling jazz "America's classical music," a phrase that betrays their lingering, and it seems to me, wholly unjustified, insecurities. All comparisons limp, Montaigne wrote with his characteristic wisdom, and yet we can't think without them. But let's scuttle this one. It has proven altogether too easy to go from thinking of jazz as the rough equivalent, in its popularity for instance, to Mozart's music, to looking for and then praising elements in jazz one has already learned to admire in the classics. Among the often strikingly skilled new generation of jazz academics, one finds cranks I call "motive-hunters," who are astonished to find that a great jazz musician will re-use a phrase or rhythm, sometimes in the same place in different choruses of a solo. The problem is that the practice is also used by desperate amateurs and its presence doesn't tell us whether or not this or that Lester Young or Sonny Rollins solo is particularly expressive.

  At least in our analyses, we have to stop worrying, it seems to me, about the prestige of jazz, and investigate its crucial, indissolubly mixed, characteristics, its rhythms as well as its chords, its specific sounds and personalities, its varying roles in various communities, its changing shape and expectations. Consider the attitude towards the extended piece, as critics and historians tend to call any jazz composition that takes over three minutes to play. Samuel Johnson averred that no one ever wished Paradise Lost any longer. Who ould wish any piece of music to be extended, a process that suggests stretching, distortion? There's of course nothing wrong with length, or motivic writing for that matter, and yet I see no reason to praise Charles Mingus's Epitaph (Columbia C2K 45428), a massive, self-plagiarizing ramble through his oeuvre, over the shorter masterpieces he created earlier. Berlioz's Benevenuto Cellini sacrificed everything, even his previous sculptures, to create one gigantic masterpiece. It's a beautifully romantic conception, though perhaps he should have thrown himself into the kiln as well, like Empedocles on Etna. Similarly romantic dreams of a large scale masterwork have not had consistently impressive results in jazz. Maybe the model is wrong-a great jazz performance is a proverb--sharp, witty and provocative-rather than an epic.

  I don't blame anyone for trying. Perhaps it's the fault of the overwhelming popularity and prestige of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but for decades jazz composers ave looked towards the long piece as either justification for or as somehow the culmination of their ambitions. The extended piece has a long history, which includes Duke Ellington's four part Reminiscing in Tempo from 1935. Ellington's a powerful example. From the mid-thirties on, he was always talking of a larger, all-inclusive masterwork, whether an opera-ballet named Boola, which was never realized, or the 1943 composition Black, Brown and Beige, which was premiered at Carnegie Hall. Most critics didn't buy it: the reaction at best mixed. But then so was the piece. Today it is almost sacrilegious to point out its pompous beginning, or awkward shifts, or to note that its most memorable section, the hymn-like Come Sunday, works better as an independent piece than as a moment in a hastily assembled history of African-American peoples.

  The public may still prefer Johnny Hodges playing Solitude, but there's a new generation of jazz academics, who on the other hand, favor the written over the improvised, the grandiose over the simple, and even sometimes the exotic over the straightforward, because the former all respond better to the analytical tools they have learned. Again a mini-controversy over Duke Ellington has resulted. For many Ellington, rather than say Louis Armstrong, virtually symbolizes jazz. He was an enigmatic, multi-faceted figure, a skilled bandleader, a manipulator of people from individual women to large crowds, a stunningly effective pianist, and someone who knew how to put together a performance of any kind. Yet now that we don't see him in action, it's common to see him primarily as a composer and arranger, and he has been praised as both America's greatest composer and the greatest composer of the twentieth century.

  How does one justify such (unnecessary) assertions? With his three minute masterpieces, recordings that go back to Black and Tan Fantasy and East St. Louis Toodle-oo in he mid-twenties? Does one focus on the growing sophistication of his recordings from the thirties or on the string of undoubted masterpieces from around 1938 to 1941? Or does one look to the larger works that followed, his Sacred Concerts from the end of his life, or suites such as Far East Suite or his movie music to Anatomy of a Murder? Since I adore much of Ellington from many periods, I'll merely point out some of the problems. If the three-minute recordings of the twenties through the early forties seem often near perfect-I am thinking of pieces such as Concerto for Cootie and Harlem Air Shaft, but there are literally dozens more, that may be because he performed many of them live with his band virtually nightly. He could throw together a piece from seemingly disparate segments and hone it to a masterpiece.

  That procedure didn't work anywhere nearly as well with larger pieces. It is not surprising that after the Black, Brown and Beige debacle, Ellington looked towards another form: the suite. To the end of his life, it seems to me, Ellington thought in smaller segments. Sometimes the less successful of those suites seem a jumble of voices: often he would take an earlier piece and inject it into an ongoing work, giving it a new, programmatic title. At best, as in the little, neglected Toot Suite, the pieces sound as if they were meant for each other. Occasionally he was careless in every sense of the word, as when he showed up at an Ellington-Ella Fitzgerald date without arrangements. Some of the later works seem disorganized to me, and no wonder, given the way they were assembled.

   At the very least, one has to say that Ellington worked with different methods than a "classical" composer and with different aims. He was a public figure, an entertainer who in his seventies lip-synched lyrics to a bad rock and roll song for laughs. He defied categorization; sometimes he defied good taste. As a composer too, he presents problems. Famously, Ellington liked to borrow themes from his musicians, and he gratefully, if perhaps too readily, took credit for the compositions as well as the arrangements of others, in particular those of his "second heart beat," Billy Strayhorn, who was his assistant, and co-composer from the late thirties until near the end of Strayhorn's life in 1967.

  A controversy has developed among Ellingtonians about those contributions, which began after Strayhorn showed Ellington in 1938 his precociously world-weary early songs, and was subsequently hired as an arranger-lyricist. Those who want to promote Ellington as the great A merican composer have tended to undervalue Strayhorn's part of the legacy. It may be disturbing to Ellingtonian's to learn that the introduction to such as quintessential piece of Ellingtonia as Concerto for Cootie was written by Billy Strayhorn. Yet it is obvious that a masterpiece such as Chelsea Bridge from 1941 is a distinctly Strayhorn masterpiece, though realized with Ellington's orchestra and with many Ellingtonian effects. (The man who put the band together created the possible effects of that band---it wasn't Strayhorn who hired tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.)

  Strikingly, during their lifetimes, the two composers tended to obscure their respective contributions. I imagine that both knew that there was only room, as Ellington said when he squashed his son Mercer's hopes for a band of his own, for one Ellington orchestra. As a result, they kept the details of their collaboration (mostly) to themselves. Ellington tended to take the credit for everything, and whether because he recognized a good thing when he saw it, or whether because his homosexuality made him feel vulnerable in front of the public, the shy Strayhorn mostly accepted his place--which came with the generous salary Ellington accorded him. I wouldn't underestimate the cover Ellington gave. A gay black musician said of gays in the forties: "We all hid, every one of us, except Billy. He wasn't afraid. We were. And you know what the difference was? Duke Ellington." And yet homosexuality was hardly shocking in the entertainment business, not even in jazz.

  Let no man, one is tempted to say, drive asunder what God has joined. Nonetheless, simple justice and a desire to unlock more of the mysteries of Ellington's oeuvre (with perhaps a hint of resentment towards Ellington) have recently created a mini Strayhorn industry. David Hajdu's 1996 Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn stressed Strayhorn's impoverished childhood, his homosexuality, and many of the frustrations of his life, including his occasional frustrations with Ellington. But then, Ellington not only loved Strayhorn, he admired him. Ellingtonian singer Herb Jeffries said of the two: "Duke was a magnificent role model. He was brilliant at it. But some of it was hocus-pocus-grand gestures and particular five-dollar phrases that he'd pronounce with dramatic emphasis. Meanwhile, he'd never read anything but the Bible…and he knew far less about the fine arts, including other composers, than he liked to let on. In Billy, Duke saw that image he considered so important, in flesh and blood."

  Now, in addition to Hajdu's biography, we have a musicologically solid analysis of Strayhorn's compositions and arranging in Walter Van de Leur's Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Oxford, 2002). It's a book that begins shakily, with a clichéd complaint: "Due to the relatively low status of their music, jazz musicians, educators, and researchers as well as university jazz faculty and orchestra boards often find themselves negotiating subtle antagonistic forces of subtle prejudice, commercialism, and even racism." I have trouble Conceiving my tenured colleagues in that heroic light. (They don't, however.) Nor do I think an approach to jazz that begins by denouncing "commercialism" is going to get very far, since for most of its existence, jazz has been what one now calls "entertainment music."

   Ellington would just have called it music. For all our ritualized denunciations of commercialism, I also don't know a single musician who wishes his or her work were commercially less successful. Van de Leur goes on quite rightly to add that: "The institutionalized jazz community has embraced, virtually unanimously, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) as its prime weapon in the continuous battle with the musical establishment." Any list of prizes that Ellington won, of degrees he received, of honors and glories and, indeed, record sales, would show that Ellington IS solidly establishment. No one's going to lose a promotion-- or a grant--by praising Duke Ellington. He's a safe weapon to wield. Otherwise, I remark cynically, the likes of Wynton Marsalis wouldn't be there behind him.

  After these remarks, Van de Leur gets down to business. He notes that Gunther Schuller called Strayhorn a mere "follower" of Ellington, that critic Gary Giddins (without having seen a page of score) averred that it was impossible to discover where Ellington leaves off and Strayhorn begins in their collaborations, and that Wynton Marsalis, who called Strayhorn, "Duke Jr." told a reporter he doubted that the Peer Gynt Suites could have been arranged by Strayhorn. Van de Leur, who has studied, it would seem, all the available manuscripts, tells us that eighty per cent of the suite was in Strayhorn's hand. Van de Leur's wants to dig out what is typically Strayhorn-ian from the grand corpus of Ellington's production. The results are frequently fascinating.

  Van de Leur is able to identify with some certainty the enormous, separable legacy of Strayhorn. He names names. The book includes a list of Strayhorn's existing manuscripts, another of his works on record, and finally an alphabetical listing of all of Strayhorn's compositions, whether recorded or not. More importantly to the average listener, he convincingly describes the characteristic Ellington---and Strayhorn-effects, and notes where they differ. Strayhorn once said he wants his pieces to form "an integral and complete mental picture." Van de Leur expands on this comment, noting that a Strayhorn piece, or even an arrangement such as his Where or When, is "a gradually unraveling musical adventure" whose "sections tell a story, introduce new perspectives on the song's melody, and s tart subplots that are resolved along the way. Strayhorn stresses continuity, as in the ineffable flow of Chelsea Bridge. Ellington "tends to rely on contrast…infusing new and musically unrelated ideas into the musical fabric of a given piece" such as Harlem Airshaft. So far so good, except that the miracle of Ellington's own writing is that what Van de Leur calls "musically unrelated ideas" somehow become related in Ellington's hands. The author also notes that in performance, Ellington might treat a well-crafted, carefully unfolding, Strayhorn composition like one of his own compositions, rearranging or dropping sections at will. Strayhorn liked things fixed; Ellington could treat music like tinker toys.

  In Something to Live For, there are numerous technical observations that will make sense to virtually any careful listener. Ellington would use more close-position voicing, while also using the lower register of instruments more often than Strayhorn. Ellington thought of the baritone saxophone, and undoubtedly his friend, baritonist Harry Carney, as something that should stand out---he frequently bequeaths Carney "an individual line with chord tones that lie outside the basic harmony." Both composers liked dissonance, but Strayhorn wrote middle and upper register dissonance, and Ellington spread out his sound. The overall effect? Strayhorn's are well-made compositions, with well-thought-out introductions, graceful modulations, chromatic effects and sometimes summary codas. His writing sounds smoother, more elegant, less dashing perhaps. Van de Leur can tell you why, and does. Nonetheless, if there's an obvious fault to Walter Van de Leur's detailed and often quite interesting analyses of Strayhorn pieces in his useful new book Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, it's that they are unable to distinguish a great, or even a good, from a dull piece. Perhaps it's the fault of analysis itself. Questions remain. How ould, one wonders, such distinct techniques meld so well together? What holds an Ellington piece together that is composed of what Van de Leur calls "unrelated" musical ideas? Shouldn't musicologists be developing a new concept of relation if that is the case?

  One joyous point. Van de Leur has documented the existence of dozens of unknown or barely known Strayhorn compositions. Despite recent publications such as the song book Billy Strayhorn: An American Master, few of these obscurities are being played anywhere. If I were a horn player looking for a new ballad, I'd know where I'd start my search. (Those looking for non-Ellingtonian renditions of Strayhorn's music have some attractive choices. The late Joe Henderson helped fuel the Strayhorn revival with Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, Verve 314-511-779-2, and pianist Fred Hersch's Passion Flower, Nonesuch 79395-2 is a joy. Verve has also issued its anthology, Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook, Verve 314 529 908-2, with performances by musicians as strangely assorted as Art Farmer and Cecil Taylor. Several of Strayhorn's own infrequent sessions are available: I'll recommend Lush Life, Red Baron AK 52760. The Dutch Jazz Orchestra under Jerry Van Rooijen provided an invaluable service by recording beautifully realized performances of twelve Strayhorn obscurities on Portrait of a Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn.)

  Duke Ellington thrived before audiences, yet somehow the question always came up,what was behind the slightly lubricious elegance, the almost scornfully sweet talk, the slick appearance? What was the man like when the great act was folded up, to misquote a Robert Lowell sonnet about Robert Frost? What did he mean by it? His son said he was lonely; his sister called him unknowable. More than one friend has suggested that Billy Strayhorn was like a musical son to Ellington, a person with whom, at least spiritually, he could leap some gap that otherwise condemned him to a strangely public solitude.

  There's never been any such romance about Louis Armstrong, which means, if I read him rightly, that his act was even better. No one can separate the dancer from the dance when it comes to Armstrong, and few have tried. Consider the recently reissued three disc set, Louis Armstrong: A Musical Autobiography (Verve 314 543 822-2), recorded between 1947 and 1957. This collection originally came in an elegant box, with two lp size photographs suitable for framing (or in my case, losing). I won't even pretend to be objective about this collection. I received it when I was thirteen from a beloved grandmother, and wore it out. Of course I could distinguish between the greater performances in the collection, Armstrong's When You're Smiling and Hobo, You Can Ride This Train, and the ineffable Knockin' a Jug, from its weaker moments. Once you know the originals, who would want to hear Velma Middleton sing a blues immortalized by Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith? I still consider the set miraculous in its way. Someone wrote, Leonard Feather, it is said, a little narrative about Armstrong's life that the trumpeter spoke as introductions to those pieces. As he might say himself, they gassed me, man. His warmth, spirit, his joy in performing was so rich that it came through even the most stilted phrase and me made happy just to be alive. That's what I hear in the best of these performances, and that's what one wants to feel in music.

  Not that there aren't other ways. We might consider Artie Shaw, the master clarinetist and bandleader, whose five-disc Self-Portrait has recently been issued by BMG (Artie Shaw: Self Portrait, Bluebird 63808-2). The coolly elegant Shaw was as precisely demanding about his music as Armstrong was insouciant. I once observed him rehearsing a band: he spent a whole afternoon on Star Dust, working so hard to try to get the trumpets to get a specific choked, muted sound in the background of one chorus that it seemed a life or death matter. To the trumpets, it was mostly death. Ellington played up to audiences, and Armstrong virtually played them by playing himself. Shaw almost visibly scorned them. Devastatingly handsome, a brilliant clarinetist, he was almost an immediate success. Almost wasn't quick enough. As he has said in his memoirs, and again in the notes to this collection, which are amusingly titled Good Enough Ain't Good Enough, his first band was an experimental group that featured a string quartet. That didn't work commercially, so he dumbed the band down according to his own standards and lead a swing band that was "the loudest goddamn band" he could muster. He was a hit, but his very success, if we are to believe his own words, was a condemnation of his fans.

  He seemed to be able to do no wrong. Even quitting the business while denouncing jitterbugs seemed to endear him to swing fans. He recorded the single, long-form chorus of an obscure song, and it turned out to be Begin the Beguine. He never liked it. Subsequently, whenever things seemed to be going too well for him, Shaw would quit the music business as if he, or we, didn't deserve such happiness. He put down his clarinet for good in the fifties, after recording with a group of young modernists the stunning Don't Take Your Love From Me included here. For someone like Armstrong, music was as natural as breathing, as inevitable and as right as rain. For Shaw, it was a trial worthy of Sisyphus. A performance was a mountain he had to climb again and again. He was, by his own lights, doomed to failure. "The big problem for some people-and unfortunately I'm one of them-is that you eventually reach a point where you're never satisfied with what you're doing. …it's as if someone laid a curse on you. I was never satisfied. There are about twelve different ways to play a quarter note, and some sixteen degrees between fortissimo and pianissimo. A great composer can express anguish or ecstasy in a brief musical passage. But how many people can understand the sound of a Monet water-lily or a Van Gogh." Typically, Shaw moves from talking about the impossibility of playing perfectly to the failures of the audience. Both plagued him, perhaps unnecessarily.

  No matter. The five discs collect here some wonderful music, including the beloved (and hated) Begin the Beguine. In fact, the box contains fewer surprises than one might expect: it's, in his words, a real hunk of Americana. The music holds up. Shaw has (thankfully) omitted most of the vocals "because they were usually on banal trifles that I felt would probably have a life-span of ten to twelve minutes." We do have Billie Holiday's Any Old Time and Hot Lips Page's Take Your Shoes Off, Baby, who is also happily featured on Blues in the Night. Shaw had a thing for great trumpet players: in 1944 he hired Roy Eldridge. The collection begins with that most unlikely of theme songs, Nightmare, and it ends with the 1954 quintet sessions featuring bop pianist Hank Jones, a delightful choice. Wherever p ossible, Shaw has chosen air checks rather than studio recordings. There's a new take of the gently swaying Rose Room. Among the highlights to my ears are the surprisingly raucous two part Blues A and Blues B, Shaw compositions such as Monsoon, and his coolly ravishing versions of great standards such as It Had to Be You, Softly as in a Morning's Sunrise, and Star Dust.

  Ellington once said that he learned the rules in order to be able to break them. Recently I talked to the vibrant Japanese pianist-composer Satoko Fujii about her experiences as a student in Boston. She said that best of all were her lessons with George Russell. Other teachers, she said told her what she couldn't do. "George teaches you you can do anything." Russell has developed a theoretical system that can explain, and perhaps therefore justify, virtually any note or chord you dare to play. Such a system can't tell you which note to play, but Russell's tutelage proved liberating for Fujii, whose discs are beautifully made, wildly adventurous and yet sensible and deeply felt. Fujii came to jazz indirectly: she says first "I had to find out what I couldn't play." She spent sixteen years playing classical piano before coming to the Berklee School of Music, where she learned voice-leading and orchestral textures from Herb P omeroy's famous class on the arranging techniques of Ellington (and Strayhorn). She also learned she couldn't play bebop or at least not to her satisfaction. Subsequently at the New England Conservatory, she studied with pianist Paul Bley, who urged her to play something totally new.

  In Japan, the first jazz Fujii heard was by John Coltrane, and more surprisingly to Americans, the wailing avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler, who is largely ignored here today. A gain, she found the experience liberating. The Japanese character is, Fujii opines, very calm on the surface, very disciplined, and yet when it lets go, it really likes to let go. Now she plays with a Japanese group and a New York based group. It might shock Americans, particularly those from Manhattan, but she finds her Japanese counterparts much more adventurous, even louder and more crazy, than the neo-conservative Americans she hears in Manhattan night clubs. Her new recordings are Vulcan (Libra Records 205-5) with her Japanese group, and Junction (EWE CD-0034) with bassist Mark Dresser and Jim Black. Vulcan begins with an unearthly, wavering vocal that slowly climbs up a scale before dissolving into a mass of growls and reemerging in a higher octave. Meanwhile, a funky bass line emerges and we hear the improvising of trumpet player Natsuki Tamura. The music is gripping, not least because of its strong rhythms. "I like rock drumming," Fujii told me. Junction is a trio date that takes up where Bill Evans left off. Bass and drums are free to take over in a fluid exchange of ideas, all based on Fujii's songful compositions. Get both, and listen to contrasting way the two bands play Fujii's Ninepin.

  Finally,two more piano trios. One is the beautifully recorded collection of "Latin" jazz by Michel Camilo called Triangulo (Telarc Jazz CD-83549). This one is a winner from its earliest bars, as we can hear in Camilo's nuanced and lyrical playing of his Piece of Cake. Most of the repertoire is fresh, but fans of Dizzy Gillespie will be pleased to hear his Con Alma, a tune which helped accommodate jazz to Latin rhythms. Camilo stretches Con Alma in something like half-time until the bridge, which he walks nonchalantly. Camilo has a fine touch: his piano sounds good. This one's a joy, not least because of the restrained, varied playing of drummer Horacio Hernandez.

  For some years now, I have been enjoying another pianist whose lyricism seems to come somehow and somewhere out of Bill Evans: Bill Charlap. It's not brand new, but let me recommend the repertoire and playing on Written in the Stars (Blue Note 27291-2 8). He's a relaxed, gracious player who plays the best of standards, from Blue Skies to In the Still of the Night to that favorite of Billy Strayhorn, Where or When. I like to think that Charlap learned that last one from a Strayhorn arrangement.

Michael Ullman

(This article has been published in Fanfare Magazine
It is reproduced by permission of the author 2006-10-08.)

(This article has been published in Fanfare Magazine. It is reproduced by permission of its author 2006-10-08.)