Tag Archives: Charles Mingus

Fess Williams and Eric Dolphy Playing Their Saxophones

What do Fess Williams and Eric Dolphy have in common? For starters, both played for none other than Charles Mingus.

Dolphy, prophet of the jazz avant-garde, deeply admired by Mingus and considered one of the most galvanizing forces to ever play with the bassist/composer, and Williams, an incredibly popular bandleader during the twenties, now mostly remembered for his gas pipe clarinet that even diehard collectors merely tolerate: both appeared at Mingus’ (in)famous Town Hall Concert of 1962. Dolphy performed most of the show, but Mingus brought Williams, a.k.a. his Uncle Stanley, onstage briefly to show off some circular breathing.

Even more important than a boss or an uncle, Williams and Dolphy share an ear for the humorous and disturbing, a penchant for making their instruments squeak, honk and pop, throwing in plenty of gangly dissonances and other sounds that most musicians leave behind alongside soft reeds and method books.

Compare Williams’ jagged breaks at the beginning of “Playing My Saxophone”:

with Dolphy’s entrance on his groundbreaking “Out To Lunch”:

and it’s easy to hear that both reedmen simply love sound: the more jarring, the better. It’s fun to imagine Dolphy and Williams backstage at Town Hall, not saying a word but merely trading squawks and fractured themes.

Both Williams and Dolphy also snub their noses at the clean lines and cultivated timbres no doubt enforced at the conservatories they trained in. That makes them both rebels, and jazz loves a good rebel! Yet given Williams’ period of activity and the large audiences he played to, his rejection of classical instruction seems more commercial, and therefore more suspect.  Most jazz histories (when they mention Williams at all) relegate him to “novelty.” Williams was out to make a buck, Dolphy sought to change ears and minds. Dolphy is the artist, Williams was merely an entertainer.

It’s a neat little distinction, but it speaks more to cultural interpretation than sheer sound. Dolphy does often display much quicker fingers and harmonic variety, yet that’s as much of a stylistic choice as Williams’ reliance on a percussive sound and bumpy phrases.  Even when the sounds aren’t so similar, both players’ sense of taking the listener to a different, even weirder place is clear. Simply listening to Dolphy’s blurting, burry bass clarinet on “Booker’s Waltz”:

back-to-back with Williams’ ambling slap tongue solo on “Dixie Stomp” illustrates two musicians who liked to play in every sense of that word:

Yet even assuming that Williams was just goofing off to make a buck and that Dolphy was in fact the serious artist pushing boundaries, all the listener is left with is the sound. The sound is out there to be heard.  Trying asking it about its motives, or whether it’s a novelty or work of art.

While We're At It, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Left) Stole Wilbur Sweatman's Act!

While We’re At It, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Right) Stole Wilbur Sweatman’s Act!

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Fat Girls, Brownies and Moldy Figs

The three of you that read this blog regularly (hi Mom!) might be surprised to hear that this writer also appreciates a new and wild style of jazz called “bebop, rebop, Chinese music” or simply “bop.”  It’s tempting to count decades, but the truth is that bop has remained perennially “modern” since it first emerged in the late forties.

For even the most casual listener, “jazz” is often defined by the sound of small groups featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane among other bop deities, and the recordings on Blue Note, Prestige, Atlantic and other musician-friendly labels of the fifties and early sixties.  The brains, balls and imagination of these players and this style almost make you forget about other approaches to jazz.

Almost.

Listening to trumpeter Clifford Brown with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, his technique easily surpasses most players from the pre-WWII soundscape.  Brown tosses out long lines peppered with harmonic twists and rhythmic accents.  The tempos start at blistering and only go up from there. “Powell’s Prances,” “Kiss and Run” and the only modestly more laidback “Flossie Lou” all feature Brown breaking out of predictable two and four bar phrasing, leaping up to crackling high notes and apparently growing a third lung to pull off his flights.  Yet “Gertrude’s Bounce” impresses the most because Brown keeps its lighthearted sleigh bell swing even as he hangs fire. Brown is playing at a superhuman level of speed, power, precision and creativity while having a ball; this is just what he does naturally:

Perhaps even more astounding is how naturally Brown’s lithe yet warm tone comes through in everything he plays.  It can be hard to hear that tone at such high speeds and with so many notes, but it makes every other aspect of Brown’s technique that much more rewarding.  It’s also instantly recognizable, the same way Sidney Bechet or Bubber Miley’s tone could be picked out even before they spun a bluesy Rococo line, or growled out some gutbucket poetry.

Fats Navarro, Photo by Herman Leonard

The same goes for Brown’s inspiration, Fats Navarro, who relied less upon long, rapid-fire lines than his protégé (even if he demonstrated at dramatic points in his solos that he could pull them off too!).   Navarro’s pensive, angular improvisations with Tadd Dameron’s band are always built off a resplendent surface that could easily lead the brass section in a big band, or maybe a philharmonic.  Just like Bechet, Miley, Louis Armstrong, Wild Bill Davison or other greats from jazz’s early days, for “Fat Girl” and “Brownie” it all started with tone.

“Fat Girl.” “Brownie.” “Bubber.” “Wild Bill.” Don’t forget “Mezz,” “Bird,” “Satch” or “Dizzy.” The nicknames highlight the continuity of spirit, if not style, between jazz pre and post-bop.  Alongside the clear sense of self in their tone, there’s a sense of humor in how their colleagues identified them.  Even bop’s conservatory-trained firebrands learned to play jazz in the club, the same place earlier generation learned to play, as well as drink, smoke, etc.

Even for a moldy fig like me, it’s easy to appreciate bop, not to mention simply enjoy the hell out of it. Aside from its sheer visceral and creative drive, the best bop has plenty in common with all the “ancient” jazz that preceded it, though it’s helpful to appreciate their differences.

I wonder how Navarro would have handled Bubber Miley’s part on “Black and Tan Fantasy…”

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