Tag Archives: Michael Steinman

Satch Plays Cynical

Not just the result of his glowing, relentlessly grateful stage presence (that continues to vex grumpy intellectuals), but due to the sheer optimism of his voice and trumpet, especially the big golden horn that remained instantly recognizable right through to his last recordings (which bother the same sophisticates), Louis Armstrong is synonymous with joy. It’s why his expressions of sorrow stand out like pictures from a funeral in a family photo album.

Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi cites a performance of “Black And Blue” from 1965 in East Berlin as one example of Armstrong’s awe-inspiring melancholy. The “frustration, rage and deep seriousness” described by Michael Steinman is all the more stirring because it conveys a sense of positive belief in the world, now dashed. Ultimately Armstrong’s dejection is still rooted in hope:

A catalog of lachrymose “Louie” would probably be sparse but powerful. It’s much harder to find cynicism in Armstrong’s music. Throughout his career he could convey surprise, act out playful sarcasm, even feign a warm condescension, but an outright denial of hope is harder to locate in Armstrong’s work. Yet there it is in 1925, while Armstrong was still a young man, given instrumental form on Bessie Smith’s “Cold In Hand Blues”:

Armstrong’s resigned, almost sardonic harping on the same note in the opening verse and the way he moves from a bluesy depiction of madness to a shrugging gesture and finally to indifferent decoration answering Smith in the second blues chorus doesn’t merely throw “cold water” onto her stanzas. Armstrong’s asides are more like projections of Smith’s own internal doubt; he’s too synced up with her musically, especially through his subtle but effective harmonization behind the vocal, to just be an antidote to the text. Yet Armstrong’s double-time responses in the final chorus, chatty rejoinders that seem to say “yes, yes, yes of course you’ll find another man,” show he isn’t taking the words at face value, either.

Emotional explication is ultimately a very personal, and therefore subjective, exercise. Perhaps what’s most astonishing about this performance is that even if you didn’t speak English and had no idea that blue notes and minor chords signified any type of emotional idea, this performance would still work on purely musical grounds. The variety of inflections, the contrast between Smith’s girth and Armstrong’s squawk, pianist Fred Longshaw’s rhythmic accompaniment and Armstrong’s solo (starting out with a figure that trombonist Kid Ory would duplicate beside Armstrong on “Gut Bucket Blues” several months later) would impress a Martian on purely sonic terms.  We can debate what Armstrong meant to say, but his saying it was more than enough.


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In Search of the REAL King Oliver

And His WHAT?!

And His WHAT?!

I’m always grateful for Michael Steinman’s blog, but his coverage of Keith Nichols’ band playing the music of King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators made me thankful for something other than music or Michael’s camera.

My first experience with King Oliver was through a GRP “Decca” CD purchased at a Sam Goody in Long Island. Up till then the legendary cornetist had been just a name praised in books, so it was pretty exciting (in the days before Amazon) to see “King Oliver” on an actual recording.  Yet like any excited, overeager kid, I grabbed the disc without bothering to read past what I was looking for.

Lots of late nights reading bulky jazz history texts taught me that King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band changed the course of jazz.  A car ride home to Brooklyn and three lines from Richard Hadlock‘s liner notes informed me that King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators were organized years after the Creole Jazz Band broke up, around the time that dental problems were really beginning to impact his playing.  In other words, this wasn’t peak Oliver or the most important band he led.  Since so many people were talking about the earlier band and no one had bothered to tell me about this band, impressionable me concluded I had missed out on something,  Repeated listening over several years, right up through the video of Nichols’ group cooking their way through this music, proved me completely and blissfully wrong.

Oliver’s earlier ensemble had already begun to incorporate solos, arranged passages and its own unique rhythm into something different from the bands Oliver played with back in New Orleans. His Syncopators went even further.  An amalgam of the NOLA tradition, Oliver’s Chicago innovations and commercial dance music,  this tentet looked like a lot of dance bands and even used some stock arrangements, but its texture and strut were a sound a part.  Just listen to the saxes on “Deep Henderson,” the booting rhythm of “Wa Wa Wa” or stinging brass flourish that introduces “Too Bad.”  There’s a rich, gritty sound to this band, far removed from the earthy transparency of that other Oliver group.

authenticityOliver also gave these sidemen more liberty than the members of the Creole Jazz Band ever enjoyed.  Kid Ory shakes up several arrangements, often with a snarl like the one on “Sugarfoot Stomp,” and reedmen Darnell Howard, Omer Simeon and Barney Bigard show up on several sides (with Albert Nicholas playing the written solo on “Snag It” with the immediacy of an improvisation).  For all the mention of tooth and gum decay, Oliver gets a deliciously greasy tone on his horn throughout, piercing rather than broad, and daresay wonderfully different from Armstrong.

The Dixie Syncopators are their own band, as distinct and interesting as the Creole Jazz Band, just not as well covered.  It took me a while but eventually I learned how to listen to what the music is rather than what it is not. Thank goodness I’m getting old enough to stop looking for golden ages.

Still here?  Don’t forget to check out the clips of Keith Nichols’ bands on Jazz Lives!

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Deep Thoughts for a Shallow Endeavor, or How I Spent My Holiday Vacation

A degree in philosophy is the best training for a position in academia, not because it provides the analytical tools or research skills of a scholar, but because it lends itself to the type of idle thinking best left to a week off during the holidays. This holiday break I reflected on just how selfish this blog is.

The nature, or stereotype, of blogging, is that it is by definition a self-oriented pursuit. Yet Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic was never intended to be a blog about ‘me’ (as one friend and respected blogger puts it, a “blog about eating a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch today”). It was intended to be a blog about music. Of course it’s one person’s subjective views on music. It mostly covers music I like, explaining why I like it in an effort to introduce others to that music without browbeating them. If I dislike something, I rarely bring it up, but it’s always by way of reinforcing the second part of the word “distaste.”

Yet why write about music at all, especially music which, when it does get any attention, only appeals to a small group of specialists, scholars, aficionados, and collectors?

There are many other, better music writers out there. That’s not fishing for a compliment; it’s an honest assessment of their education, experience, resources and talent. In fact those are the people who inspire me, people like Ted Gioia, Marc Myers, Ricky Riccardi, Lloyd Schwartz and Michael Steinman, as well as academics such as Charles Rosen and Gunther Schuller, not to mention the performers who promote this repertoire like Vince Giordano, Leslie Kwan, Josh Duffee, Musicians of the Old Post Road and other working musicians who don’t see obscurities but simply hear music.

I don’t have any of these peoples’ training or credentials (though I do verify everything printed here and any mistakes are immediately noted and corrected). There’s also no revenue attached to this blog. I actually have a very rewarding full time job that supports music education and has nothing to do with the music covered on ANA.

So without any advanced credentials, and without making a dime from it, in fact with having to keep it up alongside career, family and continuing education, why do I do it? Do I even have any right to do it? With all of those talented minds out there,  I could easily go home after work and just listen without saying a thing (which many musicians argue is the best path for anyone, including me).

The problem is that I would still be thinking things about the music. For example, why is Sacchini declared an inferior composer in the Grove Dictionary of Music when his beautiful, elegant Oedipe a Colone still fascinates me centuries after he died? Why is unusual instrumentation a sign of creativity in contemporary jazz musicians, yet Louis Armstrong’s Hawaiian guitars and strings written off as shameless novelty? Why does some music make it to the top of the historical heap while so much more languishes in obscurity, even when it’s all worth hearing at least once? Is there anything more to be said about Min Leibrook beyond the personnel listings and faded photographs?

It’s not war in the Middle East or the Kardashians’ grocery list, and no one is forcing me to write about these topics, but somehow it feels like they need to be covered, based on nothing else than an itch in my brain.

Like I said, selfish. More selfish than any blog about grilled cheese.

It’s also vain. Even for full-time writers, there are only so many hours in a day, so I assume responsibility for the Georgians, Woody Walder and George Stafford, as well as Cimarosa and J.B. Bach (the famous Bach’s older cousin). The truth is I’d love to see Downbeat cover the jazzier side of Ted Lewis’ band, or Rinaldo Alessandrini discuss all of Vivaldi’s concertos one at a time. Yet there is a lot of music by living musicians to cover, and more importantly to be played, so in the meantime, and with your patience, these musicians are stuck with me.

Even without formal training (and again without looking for comments to the contrary), I am certain that this music deserves better. Volunteers welcome.

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RIP Joe Muranyi

Joe Muranyi, courtesy of Henning Janos

Joe Muranyi passed away last Friday.  A bad Internet connection and a busy weekend kept the news from me until Monday, and uncertainty about what to say kept me from commenting until today.

Muranyi was best known as the last clarinetist to play with Louis Armstrong, as well as a good friend of Armstrong’s, a prodigious jazz writer and a fine musician in his own right.  Muranyi was a link to a seminal force in music.  He was also the person who taught me how to give Louis Armstrong the benefit of the doubt.

As a younger listener,  I was one of those Louis Armstrong fans who just assumed that the great trumpeter’s career as a jazz artist ended some time around 1928, when big bands, vocals and Tin Pan Alley made him into a (mere) “popular entertainer.”  Joe Muranyi’s liner notes for the 1989 BMG/Bluebird CD Laughing Louie taught me better.  Knowing the man and his music well, he pointed out that Armstrong wasn’t holding back, he was playing just the notes he needed for maximum impact.  He wasn’t selling out by leaving jazz tunes behind, he was flexing his imagination and chops by looking ahead to new material.  Most of all, he was reaching more listeners.  Armstrong was all about reaching people.

Muranyi’s commentary moved like great sports casting.  It was also optimistic, open-minded and above all insightful, treating these 1932 and 1933 studio sessions not as popular concessions or the product of opportunistic management, but as the sincere work of a pensive yet joyful artist.  In short, Muranyi heard music, and from then on so did I.

And that’s all I have to say about him.  I’ll leave the rest to some other writers who help me to hear more and understand better:

Goodbye, Josephus” from Michael Steinman at Jazz Lives.

In Loving Memory of Joe Muranyi” by Ricky Riccardi at The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.

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Rethink This…Music

Is It Ever a Bad Idea?

The second annual Rethink Music conference wrapped up yesterday here in Boston, though the ideas behind the event are meant to keep going.  Presented by Berklee College of Music in association Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the two-day program and “Impact Weekend” brought together “the strongest minds from across all facets of the music industry to examine current challenges and formulate paths forward.”  If it affects the present and future of music performance and business, Rethink Music means to cover it.

This blogger wasn’t able to attend Rethink Music (darned rent-paying, emotionally fulfilling day job!), and due to my affiliations with the higher education community, chose to opine about the event after the fact.  Yet something tells me that as a devotee of jazz reissues, small classical labels and other specialized outlets for “old” music, there wasn’t much there for me anyway.

Then something else tells me I’m wrong.

The fact is that Rethink Music should have something (if not everything or exactly the right thing) to say to anyone who cares about any form of music as something more than a diversion.  Panels such as “Music and Technology” and “Building an Artist Brand” might seem better suited for Justin Bieber or P. Diddy’s clientele, but those topics deal with marketing and utilizing today’s resources to grow audiences, issues that even Louis Armstrong and Mozart’s current “handlers” need to consider.  Every niche label owner, audio restorer, record collector, local orchestra manager and purveyor of the pop of yestercentury should be listening.

Talented Teenager with Personal Issues? Get This Guy an Agent!

YouTube, blogs, digital downloads and other online platforms have revolutionized the way listeners find and hear music.  They’re not perfect, but they certainly have their advantages (unless we all have the time and money to shop for 78′s, or fly to that opera we want to hear).  As for “branding,” has anyone ever thought to publicize “Satch” and “Wolfie” as anything more than historical objects, or suppliers of medicine that’s good for audiences even if they don’t like the taste?

In short, Rethink Music is talking about access and adaptation, two words which are too often criticized by aficionados of “good music.”  Discussions about the death of classical music and  jazz often come down to a lack of new audiences, or degenerate into sweeping generalizations about the banality of popular taste.  Yet the fault, as well as the hope, is in our hands: if we want to keep hearing the music we love, and if we want our children to hear it all, we’ll start paying attention to what meetings like Rethink Music have to say.

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Clarence Williams: Good, Great and Gone

Speaking of neglected talent, where do you put a successful pianist, singer, bandleader, composer, manager and publisher in the annals of jazz?  If it’s Clarence Williams, square in the footnotes.

Largely forgotten to everyone except twenties aficionados and record collectors and occasionally mentioned for bringing Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet together for their gladiatorial first encounter, Williams was born just outside New Orleans, touring by age twelve, ran successful publishing houses in New Orleans, Chicago and New York, accompanied and managed the likes of Bessie Smith and Fats Waller and composed (or at least collected royalties for) early jazz standards such “Royal Garden Blues,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

Most histories treat Williams as a better businessman than musician, glossing over the hundred or so recordings he made under his own name for various labels throughout the twenties and early thirties.  Williams was a competent pianist and at best a charming singer, yet despite never being a great performer he still created some of the most unique jazz of the prewar era.

The best Williams sides combine the relaxed, airy beat of his hometown with simple but effective arrangements influenced by  Northern dance bands.  “Close Fit Blues” couples unsung hero Ed Allen’s cornet and Cyrus St. Clair’s tuba commentary with a pastoral clarinet duet from Fletcher Henderson‘s star sidemen Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins:

“Breeze” strikes a similarly pacific mood, starting with trombonist Ed Cuffee barking against a limpid sax trio.  It combines theme and variation at the same time, followed by Williams’ tender singing [just click the arrow to play]:

When Williams turns up the heat, as for example on “Sweet Emmalina,” it’s with a broad, gentle but driving energy, far removed from the jerky intensity of many other bands of the time and with St. Clair’s slap tonguing, on tuba, as an added treat timbral effect [just click on the song title to listen]:

Sweet Emmalina

Williams also knew when to just let soloists stretch out.  “Sweet Emmalina” and “Dreaming the Hours Away” forego snappy arranged introductions and simply let Bailey cut loose, with an especially finger-busting solo on “Dreaming.”  Later on, Hawkins sweats out a stabbing, metallic solo before the two reeds provide clarinet and sax riffs that make Williams’ little band sound much larger.  Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington weren’t the only bandleaders experimenting with textures around this time:

Dreaming The Hours Away

Williams is best known for the Armstrong/Bechet recordings,  but he usually employed the same core of imaginative, now obscure players in addition to occasional guests from big name bands.  Allen was one of the most imaginative pre-Armstrong hornmen.  On “I’ve Found A New Baby” with a Williams washboard group, the cornetist’s scorching lead and rhythmically liberated lines make his historical neglect seem all the more surprising:

I’ve Found A New Baby

Reedman Albert Soccaras also appears on several Williams’ sides, including hot flute solos like the one on “Have You Ever Felt That Way” predating Herbie Mann by a few decades:

As for Williams’ own piano, he provided solid harmonies and steady, bumping rhythm underneath it all.  The piano rolls and solos he recorded may never have given his client and collaborator James P. Johnson anything to worry about, but Williams’ real instrument was his ear.

For a faithful but utterly individual tribute to Williams, check out the Hot Antic Jazz Band at the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival, captured by Elin Smith and posted on Michael Steinman’s (excellent) blog here.

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Philosophy for Friday

Lessons in love and respect, from across the internet and beyond genre.

To relentless listening and learning: may they always be one and the same.

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When the Band Sounds Good, You’re Never Resting: Frank Teschemacher with Eddie Condon’s Quartet

Following a performance by a quartet of trumpet, piano, bass and drums, a friend observed that “the trumpet player didn’t play half as much as the rest of the band!”  It’s true that the rhythm section has to keep the music going even when the front line gets to take a break.  Yet the best bands are group efforts where all the players’ voices are felt, even when they’re not playing.

Tesch: From Teenaged Autodidact to Esteemed Professional

Frank Teschemacher didn’t play the entire duration of the two sides he recorded with the Eddie Condon Quartet, but he’s heard throughout.  As Michael Steinman points out in his informative, loving commentary, this session was the Okeh label’s answer to Jimmie Noone’s records, with their two reed front line over rhythm section.  Paying for a smaller group pleased Okeh’s supervisor Tommy Rockwell, and just getting to play pleased Teschemacher.  Teschemacher’s lead on this session of July 28, 1928 in turn pleased and inspired his three colleagues.

The clarinetist’s spiky tone and jittery lines cue the rhythm section to bear down on the beat with similar intensity for “Oh, Baby.”  Drummer Gene Krupa asserts himself on heads, not cymbals, creating a duet for percussion and piano with Joe Sullivan.  When Teschemacher trades to a slightly more relaxed alto sax, Condon’s rolling guitar keeps the energy going with a thinner accompanying texture:

“Indiana,” the other side cut that day, sounds more mellow in comparison.  The introduction revs up the engine before Teschemacher’s alto and Condon’s vocal offer hot but melodically faithful interpretations of the tune.  Joe Sullivan remains characteristically charging after the vocal:

Teschemacher then returns on clarinet, offering some deliciously reedy patter in the lower register, and then, as though a ringer just walked into the studio, returns to crackling upper register and ends the side on a literal and emotional high note.  Most “legitimate” clarinet players strive for a unity of sound across the instrument’s three very distinct registers.  Teschemacher’s wild, perhaps undisciplined approach spares the listener this form of classical homogeneity, and suddenly Rockwell only paying for four players seems unjust.

Rockwell’s “discount” sides were ahead of their time, yet they remain proud reminders of this era of jazz.  The idea of a single horn with rhythm section won’t make musicological headlines these days, but hearing Teschemacher as the lone lead was still unusual at a time when most groups were either divided into sections, or led by the front line triumvirate of trumpet, trombone and clarinet.  At the same time the infectiously choppy rhythm is a prewar phenomenon, with no hint of the smooth Swing Era aesthetic then on the horizon.

And of course there’s Teschemacher, whose accolades and influence would increase tenfold following his early death (just shy of age 26) in a car accident.  Whether or not his reputation is incidental or embellished by this tragedy, there’s no exaggerating the presence felt on these two sides.  Teschemacher was doing his job with or without a mouthpiece.

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Forget the Words

No soapboxing (or #SOAP-boxing for that matter) about “jazz” today.  Instead, music, inspired by the word.

Whether it’s the merry-go-round melody, squeaky clean chord changes or built-in trending of the title, “Jazz Me Blues” has become such a warhorse that musicians may need surgical scrubs to keep it from bleeding on them.  The composition itself may seem lightweight, but Tom Delaney‘s 1921 hit has opened up vast musical horizons beyond its initial intent (sort of like the word “jazz”).

Bix Beiderbecke‘s two recordings of “Jazz Me Blues” chart his development from a distinct, if hesitant, musical personality, stepping out in relaxed, arching style from behind the agitated amateurs of The Wolverines:

to the confident lead cornet who knows where to push and how to pull back to let fellow professionals shine. Adrian Rollini’s punctuations emit an agility and wit that belies the size of his bass sax, while Don Murray’s staggering quadruple-time flashes on clarinet conjure images of elated, congratulatory smiles from his colleagues in the studio:

Charles Pierce‘s band may not sport the most easygoing beat, but his arrangement for Charles Altier’s cornet and three saxes over Paul Kettler’s metrical drums maintains the period charm of a 1928 Chicago dance hall:

Eddie Condon was open about a variety of subjects, including his exasperation at decades of requests for the same “dixieland” standards.  Yet hearing Condon and his frequent musical accomplices (and drinking buddies), the “standard” never sounds standard.  After an energetic but somewhat perfunctory run-through of the head, illuminated by Edmond Hall’s tangy clarinet, “Jazz Me Blues” becomes secondary material to Cutty Cutshall’s trombone and Billy Butterfield and “Wild Bill” Davison‘s tag-team trumpets:

The so-called “bop wars” of the forties and fifties seem utterly contrived next to Art Pepper’s joyous traversal of the tune on his Meets the Rhythm Section album:

Woody Herman similarly shredded period distinctions courtesy of his bands’ myriad cutting edges.  His 1964 arrangement of “Jazz Me Blues” combines the smooth propulsion of Swing Era big bands with the cool, quicksilver phrases of the modern jazz era…and of course a song written around the time some of his sidemen were born:

With their own deliciously airy beat and in their own sweet way, here’s the EarRegulars marching this warhorse to new vistas, in beautiful sound and color, no less.  Also dig Pete Martinez’s reference to Edmond Hall-style growl (at about 2:01):

Finally, just as a reminder of how far Tom Delaney’s little ditty has come (and probably to make some enemies before closing this post), here’s the Original Dixieland [OMITTED] Band‘s recording from the same year the tune was written.  This group deserves a place in the history books for how much controversy they’ve stirred alone, but Nick LaRocca’s golden cornet transcends stylistic pissing contests, and the clarinet/alto sax duet (at 2:00 in the following clip) shows a concern for instrumental texture missing in this era’s relentless onslaught of trumpet/trombone/clarinet triumvirates:

“Jazz Me Blues” does in fact have lyrics, but this writer has yet to find a recording that includes them.  It’s probably for the better: after all, who needs words?

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In Praise of Dead Ends

Hawkins. Young. George Johnson.

Don’t worry if that last name doesn’t sound familiar, or if it sticks out when saddled next to the two most influential saxophonists in jazz history.

George Johnson is best (and perhaps only) known for the tenor sax buried behind layers of youthfully busy polyphony and 78rpm static on Bix Beiderbecke‘s first recordings with the Wolverines in 1924.  If not for the influential cornetist’s presence, these fifteen sides would be downplayed as period pop ephemera, the work of rambunctious, untrained kids, unworthy of the continuous remastering and reissue they receive to this day.  If Johnson’s moaning behind Beiderbecke on “Tiger Rag” and “Royal Garden Blues,” or his straight-laced lead and wooden tone on two takes of “Susie” (at about 0:26 in the following clip) didn’t generate any imitators, his playing is all the more charming because it’s such a singular sound:

The only thing jazz may love more than hearing its saxophone royalty is writing their family trees.  Many jazz histories outline a teleology of influences leading inexorably to jazz modernity: Hawkins begat Webster and Berry, who begat Byas, who begat Rollins, who begat Coltrane…and Trumbauer begat Young, who begat Parker, who begat everyone…Earlier artists are just that: musicians who were around earlier than the mold musicians we all know.  Just like a Model A or blunderbuss, they might be interesting historical figures but somehow they’re not a fully “developed” product.

Don’t take my word for it, just listen to Dan Morgenstern discussing the intrinsic beauties of Duke Ellington‘s early recordings:

Jazz history, with its obsession for developmental theories, tends to handle music with hindsight and has categorized most pre-1940 Ellingtonia as “leading up to” the indisputable plateau of ‘Ko-Ko,’ ‘Main Stem,’ etc…what strikes me most forcibly upon rehearing [Ellington's recordings from the twenties]…is how much each individual piece has to offer just in itself…it is the greatest possible tribute to the genius of Ellington and his famous men that this should be so, for after all, at each given moment of playing, they were making music and not writing chapters n the history of jazz.

For further perspective from another source wiser than this blogger, and regarding a figure who never had the fortune (or PR) to found a lineage, Michael Steinman offers his thoughts on neglected saxophonist Boyce Brown…

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing [Brown's] volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis [Armstrong] and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

Steinman’s language is as insightful as his ideas: all great players have a “deep understanding” of their peers and forefathers, but understanding ain’t imitation, or for that matter explanation.

Players like George Johnson and Boyce Brown, or Buster Bailey, Don Murray, Leonard Davis, Cyrus St. Clair and many others are a blessing, because they force the listener to be just that, a listening audience, receptive to what they’ve never heard and might never hear again, rather than a catalog of sounds and inspirations heard elsewhere.  Play it again, George…

The Wolverines, with George Johnson Standing Third from the Left

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