Tag Archives: Lester Young

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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Random Thoughts On The Sax Section

VincentLopezSaxSection1926VerticalIn trying to describe what makes Bennie Moten’s saxophone section so wonderfully different from any other in the continuum, I started to think about what jazz listeners have come to expect from the entity known as a “saxophone section.” The following began as an introduction for the Moten posts, went in its own direction and then turned into some random thoughts on this very important part of the jazz orchestra. The reader may be able to extract some larger point, or at the very least enjoy the music and photos.

jazz-consortium-bandleaderblogdotcomPaul Whiteman called the saxophone section the string section of a big band. There’s more to his comparison than plush harmonies and fast scales. Just as the string section of a classical orchestra identifies the group as another link in a particular musical tradition, while distinguishing the best orchestras as unique members of that particular musical community, so does the saxophone section of a jazz big band. That’s not to diminish the distinct sound of a particular brass or rhythm section. Yet what instrument signifies “classical” like the violin, or “jazz” like the saxophone?

http://archive.org/details/BenPollack-91-100Think of Benny Goodman’s well-drilled but warm foursome under Hymie Schertzer’s transparent lead, or Earle Warren’s searing alto atop the twin tenors of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, with Jack Washington anchoring it all on baritone. Duke Ellington’s saxophone sections patched together various reeds in different combinations yet remained instantly recognizable despite, or because of, their versatility. Whiteman wasn’t just commenting on notes in a score or crafting good copy: how much does a single note from this instrumental part reveal about the musical whole?

Walter Thomas, Andrew Brown Arville Harris, Eddie Barefield in 1934The modern saxophone section lives and thrives by concerted blend and drive as well as the power of its soloists. Woody Herman’s “four brothers” section is best known for solos by Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, but their famous titular number shows how well they work(ed) together as well as individually. The best sax sections are their own band within a band. There’s enough differentiation of register and timbre between the two to three instruments that comprise the section to create a self-contained ensemble. At the same time, solid improvised solos splintering out of the unit are a given. Several “Meets the Sax Section” albums illustrate the idea, as well as how powerful that idea has remained for listeners.

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra c/o nj.comThe swing era may not have introduced the concept of a saxophone section (which was already de rigueur for dance bands by the twenties), but it did codify a certain conception of it. From the big, rich sound of Count Basie’s new testament saxes, through the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band grooving under Jerome Richardson’s greasy soprano, to the thick, ultra-precise reeds directed by Bob Mintzer and other contemporary players, there’s a clear expectation of what a saxophone section should “do,” which still allows individual texture and growth.

Mingus Big Band JazzTimesUnlike the classical string section, where individual tone is incidental to the “ideal tone” taught and striven for in conservatories, the ideal tone in a jazz band is the musician’s tone. Individual timbres may balance one another but never disappear into the mix. Every metaphor has its limits…

Thomas County Central High School Saxophone Section

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Clarinetist Lester Young

Responding to an earlier post about the loss of Joe Muranyi, a commenter recalled Muranyi trying out his own “metal Conn clarinet, a horn a more self-conscious player would recoil from.”  The open-minded Muranyi in turn “played the living heck out of it.”  Apparently for some musicians, the instrument is always a catalyst and never a compromise.  For Lester Young, a metal clarinet was a choice, maybe even a necessity.

Gunther Schuller notes that when Young put down his tenor, the influential jazz artist and part-time tragic hero “played a cheap metal clarinet that he picked up somewhere on his travels, but whose tone he loved dearly.”  Young kept the signature lightness of his sax on the smaller horn, and at fast tempos would use the same triplets and encircling, never inundating lines for the “little stories” he had to tell.  At slower tempos and in more reflective settings, he’d come up with a story like the one in “Blues with Helen,” from the 1939 Spirituals to Swing concert organized by impresario John Hammond [starting at 1:47 in the clip below]:

Hammond introduces Young as “switching over to clarinet,” but there is no sense of “switch” or adaptation here: Young is simply playing clarinet.  The tone could be called “thin,” but more like a leaf rather than paper, something likely to tear given the right force but able to support storms and sunlight on its own terms.  Sustained notes let the audience absorb that sound while always unfolding a narrative, never halting the action or merely displaying beauty for the sake of itself.  If anything is different, it’s that the clarinet’s brighter, at times childlike timbre brings out the fragility of the clarinetist.

Benny Goodman mentions purchasing a Selmer (wood) clarinet for Young while in Europe, an instrument fewer clarinetists might recoil from.  While it’s endearing to imagine Young gratefully accepting the gift and sticking to his cheap little instrument, the truth is that it doesn’t matter what kind of clarinet Lester Young played, only that he played clarinet.

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Jazz In The Family

Working for my father’s home improvement business during high school taught me to appreciate the hard work supporting our household.  It also paid for the music in my earphones, which were usually on full blast as I swept floors and fetched coffee.  I listened to a lot of music working the family business, but one job still stands out because it introduced me to Eddie Durham.

I had just purchased the Count Basie collection playing on my Walkman as I stuffed insulation.  After a string of bright, up-tempo tunes including “One O’Clock Jump,” “John’s Idea,” “Out the Window” and “Swinging the Blues,” a moodier, minor key piece materialized.  It had the same loose Basie beat and spare but powerful ensemble figures.  Buck Clayton‘s tart-toned muted trumpet was also recognizable.  Yet the chromatic drawl I heard gave the band a more structured, darker persona.  All the dusty, scratched cassette case in my pocket told me was that the song was called “Topsy.”  A lot of curiosity and a little research told me that this was Eddie Durham:

I also realized that I already knew of Eddie Durham without knowing who Eddie Durham was.  He had arranged all those other numbers for the Basie band, and his name would keep coming up in the recordings of Jimmie Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Jan Savitt.  Later on I would discover his electric guitar on the Kansas City Six sides he made with other Basie sidemen for the Commodore label.  Eventually I would have to stop counting the number of times I uttered, “Wow, that was Eddie Durham on trombone!”  My career responsibilities and knowledge of jazz have changed since first hearing “Topsy,” but more importantly I keep encountering Eddie Durham.  It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

Durham doesn’t receive the same attention as contemporary arrangers like Don Redman, Sy Oliver or the legendary Duke Ellington.  His trombone playing never spurred any followers the way Jack Teagarden did, and Charlie Christian’s pioneering work has overshadowed Durham’s electric guitar as well as his influence on the young Christian.  Eddie Durham is easy to appreciate but not always easy to find.

Durham’s children, daughter Marsha “Topsy” Durham and son Eric, are helping to change that.  Their website honors their father with fastidious, loving care. From Durham’s beginnings as a musical director for a wild West shows to his post-retirement comeback, visitors can read about Durham’s life, peruse photos, find links to other sources and even enjoy a concise, informative documentary featuring Dan Morgenstern, Loren Schoenberg and Vince Giordano.  It’s an incredible resource and tribute to their father’s legacy.  In the meantime we’ll all look forward to hearing more of Eddie Durham.

Look, learn and best of all listen at DurhamJazz.com!

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