Tag Archives: Michael Steinman

Kuhn’s History Of Jazz

kuhncoverThomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions suggests that natural science operates according to, and periodically discards, paradigms unique to a historical and material setting. For Kuhn, the information contained in a chemistry textbook doesn’t represent the objective accretion of truth but is a work of its time, as much determined by external contingencies and human “idiosyncrasies” as it is by research and experimentation. In other words science is constructed, not necessarily discovered and definitely not already out there waiting to be revealed by scientists.

This complex (even when stripped down to three sentences by a sub-amateur) claim may sound like an odd fit for empirical investigation but might be useful for artistic ones. Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm,” the “models from which spring particular coherent traditions,” is already standard in a variety of disciplines. When Scott DeVeaux, in “Constructing The Jazz Tradition,” asserts “from textbook to textbook, there is a substantive agreement on the defining features of each style, pantheon of great innovators and canon of recorded masterpieces,” he is essentially describing a paradigm. The way that DeVeaux and other jazz scholars such as Kenneth E. Prouty discuss The Smithsonian Collection Of Jazz, it may be the first downloadable paradigm.

The word “music” appears only once in Kuhn’s essay and he doesn’t even mention “jazz.” “Science” is of course used many times but “history” is mentioned nearly as often. If Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn can shed some light on the current state of jazz, then perhaps Kuhn can illuminate its past.

1. The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions
2. How To Hear Bubbles
3. The Jazz Of History

The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions

Unsurprisingly, Kuhn also frequently references “revolution.” According to Kuhn, revolutions occur when “existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created,” and they can overtake governments as well as scientific paradigms. Defining “institutions” in a broader sense, for example as the stylistic and professional practices that a working musician operates within, or replacing “institutions” with “big bands arrangements, chordal improvisation, the American popular songbook” or a similar idea, and Kuhn’s scientific or political “problem” could easily be a musical “issue.”

For example, the issue of improvisation within the context of swing big bands in the forties has been well documented by jazz historians. At that time, in that musical setting, musicians who excelled at or enjoyed ensemble work could thrive while aspiring soloists lacked the same opportunities. From its beginnings jazz has increasingly relied upon rhythmic displacement, paraphrase, variation and other aspects of improvisation. Jazz also entered American popular music at virtually the same time it coalesced into a recognizable idiom. Yet as Ted Gioia points out in The Imperfect Art, improvisation “has never been the public’s cup of tea, and since [Louis] Armstrong improvisation has slowly come to dominate jazz.”

To his credit, Kuhn even seems to describe musicians chafing under what they felt as constraints during the big band era and the feelings that led to musical revolution. When Kuhn describes how “individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it,” replace “political” with “big band” or “studio” and you can practically hear Roy Eldridge’s high notes, Art Tatum’s dense runs or Dizzy Gillespie playing “Chinese music” when Cab Calloway wasn’t around. There was bound to be tension between jazz and popular music but the consequences of that tension were never written in stone.

Kuhn explains that “as in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.” Within the jazz community of the forties, the needs of a specific group of musicians, those who identified “jazz” primarily with solo improvisation as well as greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity (rather than melodic refinement, collective participation or danceability) were not being met. The bop revolution was not just a rejection of prevailing norms but also a redefinition of “jazz.” For these players, jazz could/should be a vehicle for the soloist, exploring sophisticated technical and music ideas, playing for listeners and not dancers, front and center, left to do their own thing (perhaps more admirable when it was actually in front of an empty room). That thing caught on, while ensemble conceptions of jazz or ones that eschew progressive harmonic or rhythmic ideas are still often associated with musical archaism or popular concession.

Ted Gioia, writing in The Imperfect Art, summed up the culmination of the forties young lions’ stance on improvisation in 1988:
Yet improvisation, if not restricted to jazz, is nonetheless essential to it. [Jelly Roll] Morton’s music, as well as that of other early jazz masters-Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and their contemporaries-reflects its central role. More than any of these artists’ compositional or technical innovations, improvisation remains today the most distinctive element of a jazz performance-so much that a jazz instrumentalist is evaluated almost entirely on his ability as a soloist.
To most of the jazz community, Gioia’s description no doubt still sounds like a teleological end. Decades of not only experiencing jazz from a specific lens but looking back on its past through that lens can make the music of Fletcher Henderson’s pre-Armstrong orchestra, the Original Memphis Five, the John Kirby Sextet and others sound frustratingly different rather than refreshingly unique. Contemporary musicians playing in that style may receive praise but rarely without a sense that they are a niche rather than an aspect of the jazz mainstream. Did Steve Greenlee’s review of The Fat Babies’ new album in JazzTimes have to begin with a reference to “museums”? Is that the only band that draws inspiration from earlier sources?

Kuhn’s description of revolutionary-era societies “divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one” is a fair description for the stylistic tug of war in the postwar jazz community (and maybe now). Yet the “old” camp was not simply defending the status quo or taking a reactionary stance. It found great expressive potential in those older/other idioms. If those practitioners ever saw their music as a commercial compromise, that just aligned with their goal of reaching as broad an audience as possible. Reading Thomas Brothers’s explanation that “Natty Dominique believed that all New Orleans musicians were entertainers first” alongside Garvin Bushell noting how Johnny and Baby Dodds both “regarded themselves as artists,” Gioia’s description of “an artistic force freed from the confining bonds of mass appeal” begins to sound subjective, maybe over-determined.

Decades of the soloist-centered, artist-centered concept of jazz as the mostly undisputed norm disguise the fact that it was the result of what one part of the jazz community wanted, assisted by some extra-musical forces. Kuhn suggests that to understand any revolution one must “examine not only the impact of nature and logic but also the technologically persuasive argument.” In the case of jazz during the forties, calling anything “modern” and therefore defining it in opposition to “traditional, old guard” or just “old” is still a persuasive device. Younger players describing the older New Orleans style as “nursery rhymes,” rebranding jazz musicians as artists rather than entertainers and the emphasis on identity politics all helped one camp’s views to ascend based on far more than pitches and rhythms.

The idea of something other than music shaping the course of music is not groundbreaking. Kuhn noting that “an apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given…community” sounds a lot like Marc Myers’s point that “events unrelated to the music or the artists have influenced the emergence and direction of major jazz styles.” Kuhn’s point may have been shocking to scientists in 1962 but not to political, social or art historians in 2014. Replace “scientific” with “musical” and Kuhn might as well be describing innovations in recording technology, the musicians’ strikes of the forties or other factors now clearly articulated by Myers in his Why Jazz Happened.

Yet beyond those parallels, the arbitrary nature of any change makes it harder to take its results for granted. For example the fall of the three-minute jazz recording may have been a technological inevitability but not a musical one. Plenty of jazz musicians of the LP era kept their performances under five minutes. There were (and remain) alternatives to the dozen-chorus model of jazz improvisation. Yet the effects of this technological event are now treated as the raison d’être of jazz and viewed as a step in “freeing” jazz musicians to express themselves. Today’s listeners can not only hear chorus after chorus of improvisation from their musical idols but expect as much if the music is categorized “jazz.”

MichelangeloCreationOfSunAndMoonFromSistineChapelDiscussing the effects of “writing history backwards,” Kuhn describes the tendency to “refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as a contribution to the statement and solution of the text’s paradigm problems.” A little catachresis (“musician” for scientist, “style, genre” or even “listeners” or “critics” for “problems”) makes Kuhn’s description resemble the great man, X begat Y model of so many jazz histories. Critics listen to King Oliver to hear what Louis Armstrong learned from him and historians pick out parts of Don Redman arrangements that dovetail with contemporary understanding of a jazz big band. Vestigial ideas such as Oliver’s novelty effects or Redman’s clarinet trios and creative musicians who didn’t found a school of influence such as Don Murray or Johnny Dunn are either ignored or classified “not jazz.”

When John McDonough describes Earl Hines’s late twenties band in terms of “thin saxophone voicings and an arthritic two-beat, banjo-tuba rhythm section that trapped soloists (Hines included) in a vocabulary of quarter notes” before its “breakthrough” incorporation of string bass in 1932, McDonough evaluates his subject according to a standard that had not yet been established in its own context. According to this analytical model, early jazz is only worthwhile according to its resemblance to what we recognize in the present day. It’s the equivalent of criticizing Michelangelo’s works because of their religious emphasis and suggesting that he should have done more protest art.

This model overlooks the fact that early jazz musicians players were, in Kuhn’s words, not “working upon the same set of fixed problems [i.e. musical concepts] and in the same set of fixed canons” as contemporary jazz musicians. Tubas and three-part sax sections may or may not have been economic or acoustic compromises in their town time. Yet rather than understanding what the early Hines band made possible with those supposed compromises, this critical position attempts to locate the point at which the band started to get it “right” according to present standards. If this model were applied to discussions of modern piano’s place in Western classical music or pre versus post-electrically amplified guitar, it would generate a very sleek but one-sided picture of the topic.

How To Hear Bubbles

If this type of analysis were limited to jazz critics and textbook writers it might seem like an academic problem. Yet Kuhn even seems to describe the impressive but blandly uniform virtuosity of many young players that is debated time and time again in jazz circles. If the jazz student “joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models [and] his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals” it might preclude productive debates about those fundamentals and their alternatives.

Kuhn also points out “unless he has experienced a revolution in their lifetime, the historical sense of the working scientist [read ‘musician’ or ‘musicologist’] or lay reader of textbook literature [‘clubgoer’] extends only to the outcome of the most recent revolutions in the field.” Jazz musicians, especially the elder statesmen, aren’t getting any younger. Without any living links to what it was like to play jazz before Bird, Coltrane, or Esperanza, some pedagogy must be in place to demonstrate that there was, and still can be, such a thing.

Young jazz players still diligently practice Bird heads and “Giant Steps,” and many explore R&B, hip-hop, world and other genres. Yet the ones practicing tailgate trombone or Coleman Hawkins’s “Stampede” solo are fewer and far between. How much exposure do students at The New School receive to Jelly Roll Morton or Fud Livingston’s works? How many Berklee students play in ensembles for ragtime, classic blues, New Orleans collective improvisation, Chicago style, hot dance or any of the other prewar, so-called “Dixieland” idioms? The “decade-defined periods” and “logical, flowing developmental narrative” that Kenneth E. Prouty critiques in his “Towards Jazz’s ‘Official’ History: The Debates And Discourses Of Jazz History’s ‘Textbooks’” allows a neat package that leaves out a lot of nuance.

bubblechamberimageKuhn even offers some comments about scientists’ work that sound uncannily like many criticisms leveled at contemporary jazz:
No longer will his researches [read one’s own pick of “improvisations, compositions” or “gigs”] be …addressed…to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of this field. Instead…addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers [read “hear all of the notes, understand the harmonic sophistication or complex meters”].
The phrase “music for musicians” can seem like a cliché in jazz discussions but is hard to ignore given the very specific background and training needed to perform many types of contemporary jazz. Kuhn describes how “looking at a bubble-chamber photograph, the student sees confused and broken lines, the physicist a record of familiar subnuclear events. Only after a number of such transformations of vision does the student become an inhabitant of the scientist’s world, seeing what the scientist sees and responding as the scientist does.” In a jazz, the question is how much of a student does a listener have to become just to appreciate or even enjoy the music?

The Jazz of History

Whether he intended to or not, Kuhn offers an alternative that might serve music historians, students and listeners well. Instead of the accretion model that merely discards older paradigms, Kuhn praises historians who evaluate paradigms within their own framework and understand the needs that that those concepts were responding to:
Rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to our present vantage, they attempt to display the historical integrity of that science in its own time. They ask, for example, not about the relation of Galileo’s views to those of modern science, but rather about the relationship between his views and those of his group, i.e. his teachers, contemporaries, and immediate successors…they insist upon studying the opinions of that group and other similar ones from the viewpoint-usually very different from that of modern science-that gives those opinions the maximum internal coherence…
Musical analogs to this approach are easy to imagine but returning to the earlier example of improvisation, its reduced role in many pieces of earlier jazz may now seem like shortchanging the soloist. Eight-bar hot solos in the midst of countless dance band records cause many listeners to imagine frustrated musicians wishing for more room and to wonder what their idols might have sounded like if they were “really” allowed to perform. The idea that improvisation was an ingredient rather than the substance of jazz at that time and that jazz musicians found value in written parts as well as ad-libbed won’t change contemporary tastes, but it might shift understanding. The question stops being whether Phil Napoleon or Buster Bailey could do what Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker do, but whether they ever thought to do it, or even wanted to.

Assuming that, as Kuhn does, “earlier generations pursued their own problems with their own instruments and own canons,” in other words treating the past like an end rather than a step, history can seem like its own unique bundle of possibilities. Surprisingly, it begins to resemble Kuhn’s description of a post-revolutionary viewpoint, where one is “transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.” Drug companies or rocket scientists might not want to conduct research using past theories but Kuhn’s approach could be incredibly rewarding for open-minded jazz lovers.

For one last game of wordplay, see Kuhn’s characterization of Robert Boyle:
He was a leader of a scientific revolution that, by changing the relation of “element” to chemical manipulation and chemical theory, transformed the notion into a tool quite different from it had been before and transformed both chemistry and the chemist’s word…”
Try changing “Boyle” to “Armstrong,” “element” to “improvisation,” “scientific” to “musical” and anything related to chemistry with a term related to jazz. Perhaps a silly exercise but one that yields an accurate statement. Unlike science, in jazz there is no need to choose between pre and post-Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane, Davis, Payton, Iyer, etc. paradigms. It really is just music.

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Symposium On “Chimes Blues”

Here is Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1923:

Here is Gunther Schuller, describing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1968:
[It] is a solo only in the sense that it takes place alone; it is not yet fully a solo in character and conception. It might easily have been one part of a collectively improvised chorus lifted from its background.

Here is Thomas Brothers, discussing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo and apparently expanding upon Schuller’s point, in 2014:
“Where’s that lead?” Armstrong heard [mentor and boss King Oliver] say…and that admonition was still ringing in his ears when he soloed on “Chimes Blues”…

Here is Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, playing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1947:

Here is the whole recording:

Things really pick up after that Armstrong homage, with the whole performance taking on newfound energy and cohesion. In other words, Armstrong’s “twenty-four bars of magic” work well as a lead. Yet Wilber, pianist Dick Wellstood and the other musicians knew that, didn’t they?  We are fortunate to have a variety of thinkers from a variety of perspectives, and eras, sharing their insights. Yet that band did beat those scholars to this musicological punch!

(Incidentally, “magic” is an inspired description: an incredible thing that can be analyzed and perhaps even demystified, or something that we can explain even as it continues to stupefy us.  Keep listening, and for goodness sake keep talking about what you hear.)

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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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