Tag Archives: All About Jazz

All About Jazz Is All About Buster Bailey (Today, Kinda’)

Buster BaileyThrilled to see my review of Buster Bailey‘s All About Memphis on All About Jazz. It’s great to see my name on an article, but I’m even prouder of the fact that this underrated clarinetist cut an album as a leader and that he’s getting some attention today, right next to some musicians who just happen to be alive.

Incidentally, the album is available as a (cheap) download on Amazon. Perhaps with the right attention, the only thing that will be a footnote about Bailey will be his death.

Thanks for reading, and keep listening.

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How (Not) To Listen To Early Jazz

All About Jazz has been very supportive of prewar jazz coverage, so I’m thrilled to see my column published on their website. In its latest article, I discuss some of the perceptions that make the music’s early sounds seem so removed from the jazz continuum. Hopefully it’ll inspire some open ears, and maybe a few stuffed stockings.

I also hope you’ll give it a read, right here. Thank you!

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The Printed Score and Jazz

Somehwere, An Elephant is Giving Him A Bad Review

During his victory speech in South Carolina on Saturday night, Newt Gingrich joked about allowing President Barack Obama to use a teleprompter in debates. Gingrich has made this joke before, implying that the president needs far more preparation than he does to discuss the issues. I haven’t found any statistics comparing the ratio of Gingrichian teleprompter comments to criticisms against President George W. Bush for using similar devices, but let’s agree that neither side is safe from these attacks. It’s also safe to assume that they arise out of some powerful perceptions (if not necessarily actual facts) about the candidates.

Speaking off the top of one’s head in an articulate, exciting manner seems more impressive than doing so from a script. Spontaneity implies intelligence, poise and sincerity, while canned lines imply inauthenticity, an indicator that the orator doesn’t really know his or her stuff. After all, isn’t it easier just to read something? Aren’t we hearing something more honest when someone improvises?

Let’s face it, many jazz lovers make the same value judgment. Even if we listen to and love a variety of composed and extemporized genres, deep down we assume we’re hearing “more” of an artist when they’re improvising. The use of the phrase “opens up” is telling: it’s rarely used to describe an arrangement.  A good jazz chart knocks our socks off, but we hear the “true” musician when they’re creating in the moment. It’s also why highlighting a musician’s inspirations rather than their innovations can be damning: referencing another player too much in a solo implies planning, and worse, imitation. Creating something entirely original from an admired colleague’s utterances never seems as personal when compared to offering something totally unfamiliar.

The Tyranny of the Written Score

For even casual listeners, jazz is primarily associated with a soloist improvising multiple choruses.  Stylistically jazz has steadily shed all perceived impediments to completely “free” improvisation: first the written score, then the set melody, next chord changes, then key and in some cases even a steady groove.  This development not only leaves a lot of jazz in stylistic limbo, it passes over some great music that happens to be on paper.

In an interview I conducted with Vince Giordano last year, the bandleader, performer and historian glowingly described the music of the twenties and thirties as “a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz.”  In his liner notes to An Anthology of Big Band Swing, Loren Schoenberg applauds arranger Bill Finegan’s ability to “…create scores with little or no improvisation that were still highly effective jazz.” It’s also worth noting that many jazz musicians have found inspiration from the written and rehearsed pages of the classical tradition (which itself is not always reducible to a score).

And if all the performers of Bach, Mozart and Brahms are doing is simply reading from a score, then anyone can be a great orator; all they need is a speechwriter and a research staff.   There are quite a few ways to express knowledge and sincerity (or for that matter to sound knowledgeable or sincere).  Whatever the relationship is between jazz and improvisation, music and spontaneity or expertise and preparation, the point is “what,” rather than “how.”

Duke Ellington understood his players so well that many parts he composed for them were mistaken for improvisations.  In performance, where the sheer sound of “Concerto for Cootie” comes from seems like a footnote:

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Phat Washboard


Let’s Jam.

Aside from the actual music on Frog’s new release of Clarence Williams’ washboard bands, John Collinson’s liner notes illustrate why these reissues are so important.  Collinson suggests  “the use of the washboard may have been an attempt to connect with the unsophisticated coloured migrants from the south [sic] who may have felt happier on hearing certain sounds they could relate to.” He also notes “The usual reason offered however is as substitute for an expensive drum kit.”  The possibility of artistic choice, rather than commercial or financial compromise, never enters the discussion.

My first experience with a washboard band was on a high school trip to Disneyland (or was it Disney World?  Which one is really humid and looks like a five-year old child’s mind after they get into the medicine cabinet?).  Trumpet, trombone, clarinet and banjo sang and strummed to the heavens over the clang of stain-removing percussion.

Yes, They Might Just Be Playing This Music By Choice

Most of my fellow tourists viewed the group as either a colorful attraction or an annoyance, not unlike Mickey, Donald and those two destructive chipmunks.  Yet since that visit, I’ve continued to be impressed with the panoply of sounds a skilled washboard player can conjure from their washboard, including scrapes, taps, alternating downward and upward strokes, and through a variety of auxiliary percussion mounted with an engineer’s resourcefulness. During a trip to Prague two years ago, I was greeted and then dazzled by the miniature cymbals of a washboardist playing with a group of Dixieland-loving Czech musicians on the Charles Bridge.

Barring a large influx of Southern migrants (or time travellers from the pre-war era) crossing the bridge, these musicians were simply expressing themselves with an instrument they found inspiring. Hearing the instrument or style as “old-fashioned” or “primitive” is the listener’s issue, not theirs.

Yes, He Was Also The Grandfather and Guardian of Actor Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad

As for Clarence Williams’ decision to use a washboard, even if it was based on calculation rather than preference, the sound of Floyd Casey, Bruce Johnson and Jasper Taylor is all we need. Rather than hearing Frog’s latest release as a record of earlier, simpler (read, simplistic) music making, we can listen to it as a unique artistic experience.  Not to disagree with Frog, but there will never be anything “vintage” about that.

As for the actual music on that CD, check out my review on All About Jazz.

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