Waxing & musings. Not all jazz is good. A somewhat obvious observation, I know, but an often-overlooked one judging by the debate still raging over whether or not jazz is dying. Too often, we assume that if someone plays or sings jazz, everyone has some moral obligation to buy the person's CD or hear him or her perform. I disagree. What a musician plays matters. And from where I sit, too many new jazz CDs these days are rather dull and uninspiring. There's a crisis brewing in jazz today, but it's not over jazz's aging demographic or dimming popularity. It's a steady and worrisome decline in taste. [Pictured: Counting Sheep by Karen Aune]
To be sure, more jazz musicians today are fabulously schooled and technically spectacular. But a vast majority choose bad or obvious songs, are content to sound like everyone else, or play solos that lack engaging ideas. I don't make this observation to be snobby. I also don't want to sound like grandpa rapping his cane against a table. I just wish more of what I heard each week seduced me and made me feel excited. What's often missing, I find, isn't ability. It's taste and thoughtful choices.
How can jazz musicians acquire good taste? Well, you can't buy good taste, and you can't learn it in school. You can't even pick it up by practicing for hours. Taste comes by prodigiously studying those who already have it and adapting what you hear to your own artistic expression. In jazz, taste exists mostly in the recordings of the 1940s and 1950s and, to some extent, in the 1960s and beyond. Musicians and record producers back then cared intently about how the music sounded and worked hard to catch ears and remain relevant. They also revered the music and musicians who came before them and studied what they had recorded and played.
Today's jazz musicians can learn all they need to about taste by listening and absorbing the great recordings of the past. Then they need to think about why earlier musicians made the choices they did, and adapt what they hear to their own approach and vision. As Artie Shaw once told a clarinet player complaining about his own shortcomings: "Did you become familiar with the work of the greatest musicians in the world; did you do every single thing they did for 10 years—and then another 10 years after that? When you do all that, come back and see me. Then we can talk about talent."
The past isn't old. It actually contains the heart and soul of jazz's future.
Herman Leonard. Following my interview with photographer Herman Leonard and the posting of his famed April 1948 photo of Ella Fitzgerald, many readers speculated on who was pictured to the right of Fitzgerald. Last week, Herman sent along an e-mail to clear up the confusion. From left to right: clarinetist Stan Hasselgard (partially visible), Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and music publisher Jack Robbins (at Ellington's table).
Memories of You. Following my post on Sonny Dunham and Memories of You last week, photographer and producer Hank O'Neal sent along the following recollection:
"The most fun I ever had with Memories of You was in 1968 at New York's Village Gate. I went there with Don Ewell, who was playing duets with Willie 'the Lion' Smith. After a rousing set, Willie announced there was a surprise guest as an intermission pianist. It was Eubie Blake [pictured]. No one even looked up when he was announced. Eubie shuffled to the piano and played something. I don't remember what it was. Polite applause. Then Eubie said he was going to play something he had written in 1898. It was The Charleston Rag. This got the audience's attention. Then he played 'something a U.S. president used as his theme song.' It was I'm Just Wild About Harry. Big time cheers. Then he played the concert version of Memories of You, and the place went nuts. A nice night."
After I brought the clip to the attention of Carol Ware, Leon's wife, she sent along the following comment:
Sammy Price. Disc jockey and historian Symphony Sid Gribetz will be hosting a five-hour program today on pianist Sammy Price. Price began his career as an entertainer on the black vaudeville circuit, and then became a fixture in the Southwestern swing and blues jazz scene. Time: 2 to 7 p.m. (EDT). Go here to listen on WKCR-FM in New York.
CD discoveries of the week. The last live recording of the Bud Shank Quartet was captured at Los Angeles' Jazz Bakery back in January of this year. The alto saxophonist was already ailing and would die in April. What you hear on Bud Shank Quartet: Fascinating Rhythms is a master alto saxophonist comfortable in his own skin and roaring in the face of what lay in the months ahead.
Bud's sound, from the early 1950s on, was edgy and aggressive, like someone telling you a story while poking you in the chest with an index finger. What made all of Bud's recordings exciting is he had nothing to prove, having established himself early on as a Tyrannosaurus Rex player, sideman and leading studio musician. With Bud, you were always listening to a liberated artist who played as he pleased.
What's interesting about this newly released recording is that each track has its own joyous or pained personality. Chicane is a soaring original bossa nova. Over the Rainbow wails hard. Night and Day cuts loose. Perhaps the album's high point is Lover Man, which conjures up ghosts of Charlie Parker's West Coast recording in 1945 just prior to his nervous breakdown. Bud's lines here are harrowing and summarize a powerful career.
Joining Bud on this date were three sterling sidemen: Bill Mays on piano, Bob Magnusson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. You'll find Fascinating Rhythms (Jazzed Media) at iTunes or here.
Another late great artist whose work is out on a new CD is pianist Vince Guaraldi. Perhaps best known for his Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962) and mid-1960s incidental jazz piano pieces for the Charlie Brown TV specials, Guaraldi's recording career spanned from 1951 to 1974. The San Francisco pianist died of a heart attack at age 47 in 1976.
The new double-CD, The Definitive Vince Guaraldi, includes material you probably know well as well as tracks you may have missed or overlooked, such as Mr. Lucky, The Girl From Ipanema and Days of Wine and Roses. There's also a previously unreleased Blues for Peanuts, which is a terrific jazz piece from 1964. What makes this collection special is that it's all together, so you hear the origins and evolution of so much playfulness.
The Definitive Vince Guaraldi (Concord) can be found at iTunes and Amazon.
What do both albums have in common? Fabulous liner notes by the inimitable Doug Ramsey.
Oddball album cover of the week. Les Baxter was in the sax section of Freddie Slack's band during the recording of Cow Cow Boogie in 1942. He also was the bass voice in Mel Torme's Mel-Tones in the mid-1940s, writing many of the vocal group's arrangements. But in the 1950s, Baxter pioneered a new genre: exotic lounge. As out there as Baxter was, Space Escapade (1958) takes the cake. On this cover, it appears Baxter not only has discovered a planet with radioactive females, the partying playmates also have corkscrews conveniently attached to their heads. Baxter clearly has it good here, but I'm not sure how he and his co-pilot managed to get the fizzy cocktails they're hoisting through their bubble helmets.