Tag Archives: John Coltrane

Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.

Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.

Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.

The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.

Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.

Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guide entry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.

Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:

It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.

This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:

Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:

His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:

On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:

Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:

Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):

Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.

If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:

[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.

Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz.  Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.

I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter.  There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as  dramatic arch and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.

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Tom Smith Remembers Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd (Photo Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images via Billboard)

Donald Byrd (Photo Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images via Billboard)

The jazz world and music community as a whole were saddened by the passing of Dr. Donald Byrd earlier this month. The trumpeter was known as a mainstay of Blue Note’s classic period and for his work in various soul, funk and pop settings. The numerous obituaries and remembrances for Byrd also speak to his role as an influential educator and mentor to many artists.

One of those mentees, Tom Smith, currently serves as professor and Director of Jazz Studies at Ningbo University in China. In the following piece (appearing in English courtesy of the Romanian website Jazz Compass with photos and hyperlinks added by me), Smith provides a heartfelt recollection of Byrd, especially his prescience regarding the global scope of jazz. Smith’s position as an international jazz educator with his “boots on the ground” as well as someone close to Byrd is worthy of several reprints and translations.

Recalling a Mentor
by Tom Smith

This past week, a great and influential jazz musician named “Donald Byrd” died. He was one of my earliest mentors, and as colorful a man as ever known. I first met him in early 1981 following a terrible six-month road gig that began optimistically in Minneapolis before self-destructing in Central Mexico. I was twenty-three and already burned out, having decided a homebound strategy until alternate plans could be discerned and evaluated. Then by accident, I learned of Byrd’s professorship at North Carolina Central [University], and signed on for an ambiguous term of graduate studies, never planning to finish…only to hang and play with the great trumpeter whenever possible.

I met Byrd (the name we all called him) face to face when two days into enrollment, he bolted into my practice room. “I haven’t heard a straight horn tone since I got here,” he said. Then he introduced himself, followed by my cursory, albeit “hamfisted while trying to be cool.” admirer confession. I think that really threw him off, considering a recent unexplained anonymity, perplexing in light of numerous albums and freshly recalled affiliation with a Blackbyrds’ hit called “Walking in Rhythm.” Then, he took me into his office and we jammed for an hour or so. After that I had Byrd pretty much to myself for any amount of arbitrary brain picking, and with him being the big talker that he was, such exercises were a joy to pursue.

I think Byrd saw me as this enigma who was looking for something he couldn’t find. So, within that context, he tolerated our daily banter, while some of my favorite interims included solitary evenings where he passed along Art Blakey gossip, while sharing Frank Zappa recordings. He was especially fond of the Lather set, and outright stole my copy of Studio Tan.

Donald Byrd and Tom Smith (photo courtesy of Tom Smith)

Donald Byrd and Tom Smith (photo courtesy of Tom Smith)

Still, those discussions were never entirely perfect. Truth be known, we fought tooth and nail about any number of things, especially jazz. Back then, I was an unforgiving hard core, which made it easy to sense my loathing for his newer “get some money” approach. Subsequently, he made it abundantly clear that lectures from overreaching kids were beneath his pay grade. In the process, I acquired numerous scars, including his being mad enough to withdraw a prior touring commitment. But that’s the way Byrd was: hot, cold, turn on a dime.

Not surprisingly, he was up on current affairs, while intrigued with Eastern Bloc nations. Byrd was in fact the first musician to tell me about the Romanian curiosity for jazz. He even periodically enlisted diplomats to get him there, an aspiration never realized but always on his radar. His intuitive knowledge of Iron Curtain behaviors always fascinated, and as the years passed those places assumed a greater importance for me. Sometimes, Byrd’s assumptions were downright prophetic.

“Watch what happens when Russia leaves,” he said. “Those people will hook up with the money countries and musicians will get their asses out of there.”

http://romanianjazz.blogspot.com/2008/07/johnny-rducanu-jazz-made-in-romania.html“But what then, Byrd?” I asked. “That’s going to be up to them,” he replied. “But we’ll be deep in the middle of it, you can bet on that. Then later, musicians will return to their cultures, because it’s just too hard to walk away from what you are.” Then he looked me square in the eye and shared another deeply furrowed insight. “The older ones will stay right there, insisting on taking money they will think belonged to them as young men,” a tacit attack on my misdirected indictment of his more human inclinations. After all, I could never in a million years imagine how many different ways Black musicians were robbed in Byrd’s time, any more than I could understand the plight of older Romanians deprived of their own paydays. Still, while most of the past decade unfolded, I diligently fought for contrasting outcomes, while knowing in my heart of hearts that Donald Byrd’s all-encompassing prophecy had indeed come to fruition.

Back in 2004, I wrote a magazine article describing the future exodus of Romanian artists. I called it, “The Reverse Migration,” and was astonished by how some reacted, as if to imply I had manifested something Romanians already knew to be gospel. But nine years ago, with [European Union] ascension just over the horizon, popular wisdom asserted that most, if not all Romanian artists would scurry across Western borders faster than you could say “Ceausescu.” It was further assumed that Romania’s small but massively talented family of jazz musicians would be among those most severely affected, if not irreparably damaged. Romania and Bucharest in particular, was blessed with a good quantity of talented jazz performers, who undertook numerous important tasks, including participation in any number of worthwhile endeavors, while simultaneously creating most of the jazz everyone there took for granted.

Alex Simu with Srdjan Ivanovic's Quartet at the Dutch Jazz Competition, 2008 (Photo courtesy of Simu)

Alex Simu with Srdjan Ivanovic’s Quartet at the Dutch Jazz Competition, 2008 (Photo courtesy of Alex Simu)

As a Fulbright Professor at the National University of Music, I had the good fortune of teaching Romania’s best young jazz musicians. But in all candor, I was largely disappointed by their diminished sense of artistic nationalism, and perennially dismayed by their unhealthy infatuation for Western art. “Just show us how to play in your manner,” they would say. “If you want to help, show us how to secure Western residencies,” the hook to any admission that preceded a desire to leave Romania. Then just as Byrd had predicted, a Western migration of young jazz musicians did indeed occur. It started six months into my first residency when a young saxophonist named Alex Simu bolted for Holland. After that, the floodgates opened, and few of my class remained, leaving a handful of persistent loyalists, young works in progress, and a core group of older musicians in their stead, with some harboring no desire but to see all work go into their pockets alone.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, the yang of my theory was proved unfounded. Westerners never came to take those jobs abandoned by emigration, seeing as how there were none to take. A great 2008 recession had seen to that.

Following a brief return in 2009, I was very concerned about Bucharest while harboring guarded optimism for the rest of the country. Timisoara was certainly a bright spot, the result of a failed but legacy successful jazz school that rejuvenated Western Romania’s happily optimistic Banat infrastructure. Then Cluj profited from six months with Dave Brubeck’s oldest son Darius, while old Fulbright loyalist Rick Condit reinforced his efforts in Iasi. Soon, I realized that what remained could most likely survive as a non-stagnant national product, deemphasizing Bucharest to some extent, but in turn holding dear old legacies for as long as required, before Romania’s young prodigal sons (now older, more seasoned men) returned single file through Bucharest’s Arc De Triumph. Still, this essential reshuffling could not deter those enterprising and creative souls, both young and old (such as Mihai Iordache, Raul Kusak, Irina Sarbu, Michael Acker, etc.) who have kept Bucharest’s jazz scene alive despite any number of obstacles.

In the meantime, the Alex Simus, Lucian Bans, Catalin Mileas, Petru Popas, Arthur Baloghs and George Dumitrius continue to expand their expat influences, while growing exponentially as savvy, marketable performers, all quality driven and ethical to a fault.

I have also taken note of the current inclination for Romanians to sing jazz in their own language, not because they have to, but because they want to. This in turn seems intertwined with those Romanian folk melodies I currently hear in the motivic expressions of young performers: musicians who see their jazz not so much in terms of Americanized cloning, but as the melding of a relevant and viable name brand that says “We’re from this place and this is our way.” It’s also nice to hear them share how they’re interested in what Alex, Catalin, Lucian or George are doing even if it isn’t in Romania, because like all great diasporas, jazz culture can most certainly achieve highest enlightenment when on the move.

http://www.theage.com.au/national/obituaries/hard-bop-luminary-who-weathered-crossover-controversy-and-inspired-leading-hiphop-artists-20130214-2eg8u.htmlWhile reflecting on the teachings of my old mentor Donald Byrd, I can easily imagine his looking down just long enough to shake his head and say “I told you so.”

[Jazz Compass Editor’s Note] From 2002 to 2008, Tom Smith was a six-time Fulbright Professor of Jazz in Bucharest and Timisoara. He is currently a Professor of Music at Ningbo University, in Zhejiang Province, China.

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A Contender for John Coltrane’s Favorite Tuba Player

Released in 1963, and even with its rhythm section and harmonic sensibility soaked in modern jazz, John Coltrane’s album Ballads may be one of the best examples of the prewar jazz aesthetic:

Coltrane’s reliance on pure tone and straightforward lyricism speaks to a style of jazz that can paraphrase melodies (even fast ones) as well as deconstruct them.  The “tune proper” isn’t thrown out after the first chorus, but partnered with throughout the performance, channeled to make something recognizable but personal.

Do yourself a favor and click on the following hyperlinks.  You will not be sorry.

Coltrane, the symbol of boundary-pushing, technically advanced modern jazz, keeps company with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as Phil Napoleon, Manny Klein and Joe Smith. Trumpeters were usually the ones playing lead in the twenties, thirties and forties, but saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and his way of paring down a melody to its essentials also comes to mind, as does trombonist Kid Ory.  Don Murray, with a gorgeously burry sound and distinct personality on baritone sax, also understood that the expressive potential of straight melody.  Even Guy Lombardo’s sax section, hated by jazz scholars and beloved by Armstrong for their clean melody statements, might have appreciated Coltrane’s approach on Ballads.

Coltrane’s glistening tenor sax even brings to mind tuba player Clinton Walker on “Frankie and Johnny” with King Oliver:

Walker provides a rich lead for the leader’s punctuations, and while he doesn’t get all of his notes out, its an admirable solo.  Modern ears may hear it as a novelty, but the tone, the attempt to control the sound and the refusal to harrumph reveal a player giving both the melody and his own voice their due.  Differences of chops, decades and octaves notwithstanding, these musicians were all about the tune.

Wonder If He Ever Heard Alberto Socarras?

Wonder If He Listened to Alberto Socarras?

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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.


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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