Is music's influence in American society dwindling? If so, what impact will music's declining import have on how we behave and treat each other? And is part of the reason for our new national divisiveness and crankiness a direct result of music's public retreat?
For all of the vast libraries of digital music we own on our computers and all of the portable music players that enable us to tote around thousands of songs, music seems to be less important now to our culture than it once was. Tempo and beat are no longer an integral part of America's collective character, and we're fast becoming a nation of sour pusses.
Think back: public America in the '40s and '50s was awash in music—from radio and records to dances and concerts. There were jukeboxes, radio stations, record stores, clubs, charts marking the hits, hops and dozens of music publications. Even the designs of food boxes, cars and sign typography reflected the rhythm of the day. Music meant excitement and thrills, and the way people walked reflected a society heavily influenced by bands, beats and harmony. The words "hip" and "groove" didn't come out of thin air.
America's grand obsession with music and harmony continued into the '60s, '70s, '80s and even '90s—from folk-rock to MTV. In all those decades, music was consumed in groups. At homes, friends gathered to listen to records or watch music videos. In public, there were clubs, concerts in parks, festivals and transistor radios that millions of people tuned into simultaneously. Music was public and an ever-present part of the culture, and had an uplifting impact on our psyche.
But starting with the rise of downloading in the early 2000s and demise of record stores—where everyday people could pop into a public space and hear what was new—music began to become privatized. With ubiquitous white headphones came a culture that views music as something you consume in isolation. Music you experience in public now is the stuff that clothing stores and restaurants blast or iPod listeners crank up with annoyance on buses—not something we share, admire and think about together.
I recall visiting large record stores like Tower and Virgin in New York in the late 1990s. You'd put on a headset and listen to music as you flipped through CDs. You'd also listen to new albums that store clerks were playing through the store speaker systems. Mind you, I'm not nostalgic for record or CD stores per se. But I do miss the collective act of consuming music at reasonable volumes, of asking what's playing or discovering a new band because a kid in the store urges me to check it out.
If music soothes the savage breast, then what's to become of us as music continues to retreat into personal files and folders? Here's my suggestion: We have enough public parks in this country. I think towns and cities (or Apple) should now create large-scale music zones broken out into sections, like in CD stores of old, where anyone can stop in, listen to old and new music and strike up conversations about it. And download for a fee if they wish. Such spaces wouldn't have to earn a profit. But I'm sure they would go far to put smiles back on Americans' faces—before it's too late.
Coleman Hawkins. New York's WKCR-FM will start its annual Coleman Hawkins Birthday Broadcast at midnight, playing the tenor saxophonist's smooth, bearish lines around the clock until Monday at midnight. You can tune in on your computer from anywhere in the world by going to WKCR.org.
David Amram. Last Thursday was David's 81st birthday. And on David's birthday, I traditionally give him a call. I call nearly all of my jazz legend pals on their birthdays, but David is a little different. Part of the fun is trying to figure out where he is at the precise moment I call.
Last year, as you may recall, I caught David filling his car at a gas station along a New York highway. This year, he was halfway into a plate of huevos rancheros at a diner in Tulsa Okla. He had just been inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and given a Lifetime Achievement Award. He also had performed jazz and conducted an orchestra playing his classical compositions.
David said he was about to split for Paso Robles, Calif., where this weekend he is receiving the first Bruce Ricker Lifetime Achievement Award from The Paso Digital Film Festival, commemorating Clint Eastwood and Bruce Ricker's 30 years of documenting jazz in film. He also will perform a jazz concert in San Luis Obispo. [Pictured: the late Bruce Ricker, left, with Clint Eastwood]
Not bad for the hep jazz mayor of Greenwich Village. Happy Birthday, David!
Jordi Pujol. Dick Bank, a West Coast record producer, sent along the following note in the wake of my recent interview with Fresh Sound's Jordi Pujol.
"I have known and worked with Jordi Pujol for almost 20 years. In the mid-1980s, I began to hear recordings on the radio from the 1950s that had disappeared from the airwaves and record stores years earlier. There were no pops or clicks on the recordings—they were new. I soon discovered that the source was a company in Spain called Fresh Sound.
"At first, I was sure the recordings were bootlegs. But I soon learned that this company had licensed all of the music from the labels. Bill Perkins and Frank Strazzeri both knew Jordi Pujol, the owner, and told me that he had been coming to Los Angeles for years and that all the players from the ‘50s knew him. The next time he was in town, they said, they’d invite me to dinner. When Jordi and I met, his passion for the music was obvious.
"When I began to produce my own recordings, I asked Jordi if he would issue them because no one else was interested. The recordings featured musicians from the ‘50s who were playing better than ever. Jordi gave me carte blanche.
"I was never told whom to record, what tunes to do, or which studio I had to use. Where most booklets are four to eight pages, he didn’t balk when mine were 32 pages—the absolute limit for a jewel case. Jordi absorbed the cost of pressing and issuing these albums, which I could not have afforded, not to mention world-wide distribution.
"I have found Jordi to be a selfless man. I have never heard him use bad language or speak unkindly of others. With record stores a thing of the past and the business at best precarious, he soldiers on.
"Anyone who would say disparaging things about Jordi really doesn’t know him or his love for the music and his desire to see the recordings available again in a better quality than when it was originally issued.
"People of his type are from my generation, even though he was born when these albums originally were recorded. They are few and far between today."
The lick. You've heard this endlessly but probably never realized it. Legendary record promoter Dick LaPalm sent along the following clip...
'Little' Jimmy Scott. Blogger Jason Hoffer recently conducted an interview with singer 'Little' Jimmy Scott. You can hear a podcast of their conversation at GoingThruVinyl.com.
CD discoveries of the week. If you miss Amy Winehouse, you'll find traces of her sound in Sarah Elizabeth Charles, the female vocalist on Enoch Smith Jr.'s Misfits (Music4MyPeople). Actually, Charles' voice is stronger, prettier and less cranky. And if Charles' all-in vocals aren't enough, wait until you hear pianist Smith, his eight originals and his arrangements throughout. There's a story-telling, gospel vibe here, but with enormous soul. Joining Smith and Charles are bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Sangmin Lee, who frame Smith perfectly with sensitivity and tenderness. Dig Wise Man, I Want You and I Won't Complain. This is new jazz at its best. You'll find this one at CD Baby. More on Smith and Charles at their sites.
Saxophonist Bill Kirchner has never been satisfied arranging or playing standards as written. On both One Starry Night (1987) and Old Friends (2008)—both of which have just been released as downloads—he turns jazz standards inside out and winds up with highly energized, brawling results. For instance, his nonet on the '87 date takes on Sergio Mendes' So Many Stars, delivering a Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra meets Charles Mingus knockout interpretation. Or dig Ralph Lalama's tenor power on Andy LaVerne's Maximum Density. On Old Friends, it's just Bill and pianist Marc Copland. Bill weaves his soprano through Johnny Mandel's Keester Parade as boldly as he does on Miles Davis' Agitation and Wayne Shorter's Footprints. Bill has an ability to drill down below the surface of a song and fearlessly reach around from an emotional and technical perspective, finding new musical corners and aspects you may have missed. You'll find One Starry Night and Old Friends at Amazon.
Harold O'Neal is a fascinating pianist. On Marvelous Fantasy (Smalls), he records solo in honor of Harold Pennington, his great grandfather and silent-film pianist. This isn't Keystone Kops stuff. Each piece has enormous depth and classical tension. Think silent-film romantic moments. The beauty of this music is that you're hearing it without the silent films running, so you are left only with the rich accompaniment, not the dated images or storylines. O'Neal attended the Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with pianist Kenny Barron. Sample Miya and Mr. Piccolo. You'll find this gem at Amazon. More on O'Neal at his site.
I'm a pushover for This Could Be the Start of Something Big. I'd love the song even if cats were meowing it on a fence. Pianist Yoko Miwa plays it beautifully for more than 11 minutes with bassist Greg Laughman and drummer Scott Goulding on her fifth CD, Live at Scullers Jazz Club. It's picture perfect. Miwa performs most frequently in Boston, where she teaches at the Berklee College of Music. Also worth noting are Miwa's originals Mr. B.G. and Silent Promise, which build with passion and grace. You'll find this one at iTunes or Amazon. More on Miwa at her site.
The Le Boeuf Brothers are a crafty pair. Remy plays reeds and Pascal plays keyboards and sings. On In Praise of Shadows (Nineteen-Eight), the identical twins combine fusion energy with electronica, producing a spiritual, contemporary sound that takes you back and pushes you forward. The pair create acoustic-electronic collages that focus more on mood than melody, but the music is engaging just the same. Dig Red Velvet, Fire Dancing Dreams and D2D. You'll find this one at iTunes and Amazon. More on the Le Boeuf Brothers at their site.
Oddball album cover of the week: Beat Girl (1960) was a British film with a surf-guitar score by John Barry, who would soon be orchestrating music for James Bond films. In fact, much of the music on this album was a prototype for the lounge fare that would wind up shaken, not stirred. But enough of that. On to our cover. First, it seems that in the late '50s, tough guys customarily bit their nails in front of potential mates when they weren't sure what to do. As for women, this adolescent habit usually caused them to check out other guys, as they appear to be doing here if you look closely (click to enlarge). Interestingly, male indecision still isn't big with women. As for tough guys, today they get their nails done.