Waxing & musings: Was jazz meant to be played in arenas? Sitting in Central Park with my wife yesterday, I couldn't help but wonder what role the arena and amplification may have played in acoustic jazz's decline in the 1970s. On most Saturdays during the summer, Central Park hosts free outdoor concerts at an arena called SummerStage. Though my wife and I were seated on a bench at 72d St. near Fifth Ave.—a quarter-mile from the throng—we still could hear the muffled pounding and hard vocal. The crowd was responding to Calle 13, a five-time Latin Grammy Award and Grammy Award-winning Puerto Rican hip hop and alternative-reggaeton duo.
While Calle 13 is hardly jazz, the pumped-up sound of the arena made me wonder whether jazz was suited to such places. Arenas date back to the Romans, who added gladiators and chariots, and filled them with the populace. Romans didn't have much to do back then, and the idle masses needed to be distracted and kept busy. Arenas of any size still bring out the screamer and stomper in most people, as we demand greater thrills and excitement from the main event.
Certainly, jazz concerts and festivals have for decades featured music performed in large venues. And legends like Sonny Rollins know how to work a large stage. But if jazz is played in too spacious a setting, let alone an arena, is it still jazz? Modern jazz of the late 1940s and 1950s flowered in nightclubs, where the music became an intimate, expressive art form. You could reach out and almost touch the musicians or catch a drink with them between sets at the bar. And musicians thrived on audience reactions to their music.
When the 1970s rolled around and sports arenas opened their doors to rock bands, jazz took the cue and amped up. The piano, guitar and bass all went electric in a bid to maximize hefty sound systems and appeal to young rock-minded listeners. But when this happened, did jazz become something else? Can jazz retain its true personality when musicians must communicate in an excessively large setting and listeners expect the spectacular? Or does jazz lose its artistic edge, charisma and humility as soon as it leaves the intimate confines of small clubs?
I'm not sure, but I tend to think so. With or without lions.
Music tip. Reader Ted Steinberg sent along an e-mail raving about eMusic.com, a site that charges you a flat fee each month and then lets you download what you want based on credits. For example, Ted says he found the Big Jay McNeely Classics album I mentioned on Friday for just $3—or 14 cents a track. If you're a downloader, sounds like it's worth checking out.
Terry Teachout. I've seen the movie Chinatown 49 times. Back in the summer of '74, just before college, I worked as an usher in a movie theater and watched it while walking around with a red painted flashlight and on my breaks. On several occasions that summer, during the 10 a.m. show, I had the entire theater to myself. What I always waited for during the film was Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack to come in and out, and Uan Rasey's soaring trumpet. If you love this film as much as I do, you have to catch Terry Teachout's "Sightings" column in the weekend version of The Wall Street Journal. Or go here. "The future, Mr. Gittes, the future!"
All-Bill radio. On his Jazz From the Archives radio show tonight, jazz musician and writer Bill Kirchner will feature the music of artists with whom he has played over the years. He will feature one track each by David Allyn [pictured], Andy Bey, Jackie Cain, Ann Hampton Callaway, Chris Connor, Ethel Ennis, Jim Ferguson, Carol Fredette, Anita Gravine, Sheila Jordan, Anita O'Day, Daryl Sherman, and Ronnie Wells. You can listen to the show live tonight (Sunday) at 11 p.m. (EDT) here.
Jerry Shriver. USA Today music and jazz writer Jerry Shriver had an interesting article in the newspaper on June 29th. In his piece, he looked at 1959 and wrote about about the major recordings of that year and addressed the big question—why was 1959 such a watershed year. You'll find his article here.
Andrea Bartelucci, the Italian jazz flutist, sent me an e-mail last week to tell me about his latest album, Flirty Gerty. It's available only in Russia, but you can listen to tracks from this and other albums for free at his MySpace page here. An amazing world out there, again brought down to size by e-mail and the Web.
CD Discovery of the Week. In 1952, trombonist Bill Harris played a series of engagements at Birdland leading a range of different groups. The gigs were broadcast over the air and recorded. Bill Harris: Live at Birdland, 1952 (from 2001) features most of those 1952 dates, as well as a couple from the mid-1940s.
Harris had a powerful crying style on the trombone that was at once aggressive and laid back. He easily shifted between playing warm legato lines on ballads to tiger-like staccato attacks on bebop tunes. As a transitional player, Harris could easily handle the hopping demands of swing and the blistering pace of bop. Harris spent much of his career off and on with Woody Herman's great bands between 1944 and 1959, and he led many small groups in between. Harris is a favorite of many jazz trombonists, including Bob Brookmeyer.
What makes this set of live dates particularly fascinating is Harris' ability to play tender, romantic solos and fierce up-beat executions. Particularly wonderful is a 1946 arrangement by Ralph Burns of Everything Happens to Me. The chart opens with a series of cascading runs by Ted Wheeler on flute; John LaPorta and Salvatore DeLegge on clarinets; and Mickey Folus on bass-clarinet. Other great moments include tracks with Horace Silver on piano.
Bill Harris: Live at Birdland, 1952 can be found here on CD.
Oddball album cover of the week: This 1954 album for Norgran paired Buddy De Franco with pianist Sonny Clark, and it's excellent. As for the cover, you can just hear the art department complaining: "Accounting says we only have $20 to spend on the cover. What can we possibly do with $20?" Apparently they found the solution in the secretarial pool and at Woolworth's.