Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

h and m

All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)

Eric+Dolphy++Booker+Little+eric+dolphy+booker+little+five

HOW TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ MUSIC?

Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

 

dolphy

Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

 

rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

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Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)

Eric+Dolphy++Booker+Little+eric+dolphy+booker+little+five

HOW TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ MUSIC?

Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

 

dolphy

Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

“Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

 

rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

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Victory and Sorrow: Bright Moments from Three Masters (Revisited)

Eric+Dolphy++Booker+Little+eric+dolphy+booker+little+five

HOW TO TALK ABOUT JAZZ MUSIC?

Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s all there is to it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. During the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particularly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know, which will continue to ensure that what they don’t know won’t ever hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Volumes are devoted to the romantic gravity of the suffering artist syndrome—the suicides, the drinking and the desolation; these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom hear or see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel stirred by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen. Here are three other musicians, all of whom deserve much wider recognition, not just for the astonishing music they made, but the circumstances they rose above to make it.

Booker LittleBooker Little

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills (dead from tuberculosis, aged 25), Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling.

At the top of my list is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from uremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life; both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s impossible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive—much less thrive—in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

 

dolphy

Eric Dolphy

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and, of course, Booker Little—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose.

Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

Eclipse” from Out There: a tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. For my money, “The Wind Cries Mary”, by Jimi Hendrix (speaking of supernovas), captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. But to achieve similar effect without words, as Dolphy does here, is a staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

Dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the excruciating enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify such senselessness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

 

rahsaan-roland-kirk1Rahsaan Roland Kirk

When listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously), the word that leaps to mind, which can certainly be applied to jazz in general and Rahsaan in particular, is dialogic. This is a term that the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin used to elucidate the ceaseless and very deliberately constructed internal monologues that are contained within Dostoyevsky’s novels. It concerns the notion of a narrative voice being aware of (or concerned with the exertion of) its authority, and anticipating reader reactions as well as a sort of running footnote, answering perceived questions and comments, and always attempting to maintain that autonomous position. It is many voices at once, or the same voice exploring many possibilities.

One of the many aspects of the dialogic voice in jazz music is the practice of quoting all musicians engage in, the process of referencing, mentioning, or giving props to a particular tune or composer, always with the intent of augmenting the overall effect and efficacy of the ongoing improvisation. With Rahsaan, this very purposeful and empowering technique arguably reached its apotheosis. Because he was an artist so well-schooled and hip to the history of all music, it is an education every time a Kirk tune receives the scrutiny it obviously warrants. And because jazz music is inexorably an indigenous black music, and this black music a uniquely American invention, one is necessarily immersed in a seamless expression of the dialogic articulation of America itself.

Joel Dorn (RIP), producer, raconteur and jazz ambassador, did as much as anyone to expose and celebrate the music of our national treasures. He developed an especially close relationship with Rahsaan (and made it a personal mission, during the mid-to-late 90s, to promote what he termed the “Rahsaan-aisance”). Some great reissues came out of those efforts, and his liner notes for the compilation Simmer, Reduce, Garnish and Serve might be the best I’ve ever read by any producer about any recording. In them he discusses Kirk’s final sessions, which occurred after a stroke left the musician without use of the left side of his body and forced him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments.

He kept practically a pre-stroke pace in terms of live performance here and abroad and was committed to making records. His display of raw courage, grit, determination, whatever you want to call it, was mind bending. In order to fully appreciate Boogie-Woogie String Along For Real, it has to be viewed within the context of the herculean effort on Rahsaan’s part just to make it. When the session was done, Rahsaan gave me instructions as to how he wanted the album put together. We hugged goodbye, and I watched as he left the studio…(I) knew (I’d) never see him again.

Rahsaan often talked about bright moments: occasions where one feels deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all you need do is listen with your heart as much as your ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace. Kirk’s ultimate legacy is creating so many bright moments, allowing us to comprehend—and rejoice in—the struggles and elations of the messenger, and the message he’s relaying: his victory and sorrow.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

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Pete La Roca, R.I.P. (Two Years Later)

pete-laroca

It will be an ongoing, and very somber, progression, watching so many old-school jazz musicians (many of whom recorded on the epic Blue Note label during the glory years of the mid-’50s to late-’60s) pass away as the 21st Century soldiers on.

I am sad to read about the passing of Pete La Roca (Peter Sims). HERE is a link to a nice tribute from the Ottawa Citizen (including some kind words from Dave Liebman). In case you are click-through impaired, here is Liebman’s parting shot:

Pete was one of a kind … a stubborn, brilliant guy who insisted on perfection. I will never forget the lessons he taught me, which I recite almost daily in my teaching. For me, Pete’s passing is in a sense like the passing of a father or uncle, meaning of all my mentors he was the last to survive.

La Roca managed to be a typical and unique jazz player of this period. He was sought after, respected and made some special music. At the same time, he resented the hustle and sham of the music industry and left the scene altogether to practice law. Like Michael Corleone, just as he thought he was out, he was drawn back in. A man this talented and tenacious could not remain outside of music forever, and it’s good for everyone that he returned to what he was put here to do.

Speaking of what he did and how he did it, I’ll happily refer to one of my favorite drum tracks (and favorite tracks, period), the opening, title track from Booker Little’s masterful swan song Victory and Sorrow. (More on Little, HERE.) A taste, below:

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

Although I’m talking about Little and the inimitable (almost unbearable) melancholy and yearning he was able to conjure, he was aided immeasurably by the top-tier bands he managed to assemble. On “Victory and Sorrow” La Roca holds the lantern as Little shows us some of what he was already seeing. The way the drummer mixes moods and times at the beginning (.47-1.02) and end (5.20-5.32) of the song manage to move and excite me, even having heard them too many times to count. He takes a song that is already perfect and elevates it to that special, “other” place that can’t, and shouldn’t be articulated, only appreciated. That is the mark of genius, plainly put. It is a marvel, a humbling gesture of greatness, to behold.

Like Little, La Roca did not leave us with a lot (well, depending on how greedy one wants to be), but what he did leave with us can –and should– be cherished.

Here he is on his first outing as a leader (on Blue Note, natch), “Candu” from Basra:

Here he is, gracing the proceedings with his calm, sensitive cool on the title cut from Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Spirits:

Here he is with another gentle giant, Joe Henderson, on a delightful tune entitled “Recorda Me” from Page One:

And a note to leave us on, one more from Victory and Sorrow, “Calling Softly”:

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Pete La Roca, R.I.P. (One Year Later)

It will be an ongoing, and very somber, progression, watching so many old-school jazz musicians (many of whom recorded on the epic Blue Note label during the glory years of the mid-’50s to late-’60s) pass away as the 21st Century soldiers on.

I am sad to read about the passing of Pete La Roca (Peter Sims). HERE is a link to a nice tribute from the Ottawa Citizen (including some kind words from Dave Liebman). In case you are click-through impaired, here is Liebman’s parting shot:

Pete was one of a kind … a stubborn, brilliant guy who insisted on perfection. I will never forget the lessons he taught me, which I recite almost daily in my teaching. For me, Pete’s passing is in a sense like the passing of a father or uncle, meaning of all my mentors he was the last to survive.

La Roca managed to be a typical and unique jazz player of this period. He was sought after, respected and made some special music. At the same time, he resented the hustle and sham of the music industry and left the scene altogether to practice law. Like Michael Corleone, just as he thought he was out, he was drawn back in. A man this talented and tenacious could not remain outside of music forever, and it’s good for everyone that he returned to what he was put here to do.

Speaking of what he did and how he did it, I’ll happily refer to one of my favorite drum tracks (and favorite tracks, period), the opening, title track from Booker Little’s masterful swan song Victory and Sorrow. (More on Little, HERE.) A taste, below:

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

Although I’m talking about Little and the inimitable (almost unbearable) melancholy and yearning he was able to conjure, he was aided immeasurably by the top-tier bands he managed to assemble. On “Victory and Sorrow” La Roca holds the lantern as Little shows us some of what he was already seeing. The way the drummer mixes moods and times at the beginning (.47-1.02) and end (5.20-5.32) of the song manage to move and excite me, even having heard them too many times to count. He takes a song that is already perfect and elevates it to that special, “other” place that can’t, and shouldn’t be articulated, only appreciated. That is the mark of genius, plainly put. It is a marvel, a humbling gesture of greatness, to behold.

Like Little, La Roca did not leave us with a lot (well, depending on how greedy one wants to be), but what he did leave with us can –and should– be cherished.

Here he is on his first outing as a leader (on Blue Note, natch), “Candu” from Basra:

Here he is, gracing the proceedings with his calm, sensitive cool on the title cut from Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Spirits:

Here he is with another gentle giant, Joe Henderson, on a delightful tune entitled “Recorda Me” from Page One:

And a note to leave us on, one more from Victory and Sorrow, “Calling Softly”:

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Lighting The Night: For Herbie, My Brother and Someone You Love

First of all, just stop and listen to this:

Maybe you’re hearing that for the first time and thinking, like I did about a decade or so when I was lucky enough to discover Herbie Nichols, how have I never lived with this music until now?

If so, I’m delighted to be the humble middleman, doing some small part to make more folks aware of this man’s miraculous work. Incidentally, I don’t use the word “miraculous” lightly. It is that, on several levels. The first is obvious to anyone with ears: truly original and, once heard, unforgettable music, plain and simple. The second is that it ever got recorded.

And you may have heard this one before, without realizing Herbie wrote it (it was initially entitled “Serenade”; only later when words were added did it become “Lady Sings the Blues”, immortalized by Billie Holiday):

You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music. So how to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. Trust me. But first, eradicate cliché. Possibly the most despicable myth (that, fortunately doesn’t seem as widespread, perhaps –sigh– because less people talk or care about jazz music in 2013) is one I found myself ceaselessly rebutting back in the bad old days. You know which one: that lazy, anecdotally innacurate and often racist assumption that all jazz artists are (or at least were) heroin addicts. That’s like saying all pro athletes are steroid abusers. Oh wait…

Anyway, the major reason so many people have never heard of Herbie Nichols –aside from the unfortunate fact that entirely too many jazz musicians, no matter who they are or what they did, are increasingly forgotten in a world where the word “jazz” causes so much confusion and consternation, and that is just for the people who may be open to it in the first place– is because he died so young. In 1963, aged 44. Of leukemia. (Yet another genius who died not by his own hand or due to drugs, just to make sure there is no confusion). This is one of the more Tragic (with a capital T) stories in an art form that is full of them.

I’ve written with love and at length of the saint-like Eric Dolphy who, if I were ever inclined to make such a list (and I’m not, particularly), would easily rank in the Top 5 in terms of untimely artistic departures from our planet. What he had left to give is tantalizing as it is incomprehensible; that the fickle forces of fate prevented him from making his joyous noises for several more decades is infuriating. But, as always, it is ludicrous to rail at the silent skies when we can turn to the considerable bounty of Treasure (with a capital T) he left us. Even Booker Little, who was stolen (there is no other word that will do) from us at 23, at least (thank those same fickle forces…) left a tolerably rich body of work –including some majestic music with Dolphy. (That is not a typo, incidentally: 23. Twenty-three. That is the musical equivalent of John Keats, who died at 25 and may well have become the most prominent poet of the 19th Century– if he isn’t already).

Nichols, on the other hand, fell prey to the proverbial fate worse than death: he was unappreciated, and largely ignored for most of his career –if one could even call it that. There are (too) many examples, crossing all musical (and literary) genres of this failure of a worthy artist to find his or her audience. But Nichols, now justly acknowledged as a wholly original and crucially important genius, is one of the more painful instances to consider. His angular and ostensibly arrhythmic playing was, simply, too advanced and ahead of its time for even the most forward-thinking producers of the time to apprehend. At best, he was casually dismissed as sounding too much like Thelonious Monk and although he’d paid dues for almost two decades, it wasn’t until 1955 that he was able to lead his own sessions for Blue Note Records. Better, as they say, late than never, and the work he did during 1955 and 1956 is collected in the must-own Complete Blue Note Recordings.

What else is there to say? Here are a few quotes from the man himself, which should leave little doubt as to the stature of what we lost (but should be grateful to have had in the first place):

What I feel most deeply is that I, everyone, has to keep delving. If you don’t keep delving and examining things in your mind, that’s the end of civilization.

I’m a guy who’s been broke all my life, and music is a release for me. It’s the way I can keep on living. And also, I want to give a rounded picture of life, and happiness is a part of that. My desire is to dig behind the surface and get the feel of what’s actually happening, and I know basically there’s going to be a love involved in it, whatever it is, when you do go beneath the surface.

This music is something to live for…something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Music is joy, and living–not death.

“Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”:

I was thinking of Herbie Nichols today, knowing he died of leukemia, and that I plan to participate in the Light The Night walk this weekend. This is an annual event my family and several friends never miss, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s impossible not to get behind an organization like The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Second, the work and research these people have done are making a difference.

How about a story with a happy ending?

After watching our grandmother and then her daughter (our mother) die of cancer, the Murphy family was done with that disease for a while. Of course, life seldom works that way. Less than six months after my mother’s funeral, my sister’s husband Scott (who is not my brother-in-law; he’s my brother) was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully, it was caught quickly and what was at that time a trial medication effectively put the smack down on the disease. It made a lot of sense for us to show our gratitude for the cause, and all this work, to do some small part to share the love, spread the word and light the night. And so we do.

(I’ve written at length, recently, about my personal campaign to raise funds for cancer-related organizations: the most recent update is HERE.)

My niece, Madeleine, has become our team captain. Here is her call to arms for this year’s walk: 10 years ago this year my family did our first Light the Night walk to raise money for Leukemia and Lymphoma when my dad was diagnosed with Leukemia. He is now cancer-free, but our tradition carries on with me as the captain of our team. This year we are walking October 5th at the Reston Town Center. My goal for our team is to raise $1,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma society- we’ve done it before and I know we can do it again. If you are interested in donating toward our cause or even if you’d like to walk with us, please contact me at vivalamadeleine@hotmail.com. I can’t tell you how much it would be appreciated; anything will help immensely. Also if anyone is interested please join us back at the house right after for our party celebrating my uncle’s release of his book- a memoir about his mother, my grandmother. The book will be sold there and my uncle will also read excerpts from it. It’ll be very exciting and tons of fun so feel free to help support two causes that night! Thank you so much for your time and we are looking forward to October 5th!

Our team page is HERE.

If you want to learn more about the event, or how to get involved, I encourage you to check it out. Let me add that this is not a solicitation, and I’m not trolling for donations. Rather, it’s intended as an awareness campaign. Let’s face it: there is not an overabundance of feel-good stories in our society right now, and it’s easier than ever to let apathy or cynicism sink their claws into your soul. To consider that there are scores of people (professionals and volunteers) dedicated to eradicating a disease that, unchecked, would continue to rob families of loved ones, and all of us of someone (or something) we love, is inspirational. I am humbled by those efforts and celebrate that they have, in part, helped save the life of a person I could not fathom being without. By the way, he turned 44 in 2010.

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Julian Priester: Help Him, Help Yourself

Needless to say, if I had my way jazz musicians would be famous, well-paid and appreciated.

This is not a selfish desire: I would make no money in the venture, but we would likely have more opportunities to hear some of the most gifted musicians on the planet play their songs while making a living.

And added bonus: more people listening to jazz would inexorably lead to increased levels of peace, tolerance and purposeful passion.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Of course, back here in the real world the simple fact of the matter is that too few people listen to jazz. Same as it always was.

But even amongst the forgotten, overlooked or obscure geniuses who have walked amongst us, there is a pecking order of sorts.

Even people who don’t dig jazz would know names like Coltrane, Miles and…well, I was going to add Monk and Mingus, but perhaps it would be more accurate to add Ella and Billie, which I’m more than happy to do.

For those of us who know, love and live for jazz music, we understand that there are the so-called second tier musicians who get much less recognition than they should.

Then there are the ones behind them. It is a sad and regrettable reality that so many remarkable artists could stroll down the street and not have a single person stop them. Or, being told who they were, not register it.

Because too many people don’t listen to jazz.

But they should.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Which brings us to Julian Priester. He has lent his services to innumerable jazz albums, under his own leadership and as a superstar side-man for others. A quick list of cats he’s worked with: John Coltrane, Max Roach, Sam Rivers, Booker Little and Sun Ra. Check out more about him here.

Too often (in life, in this blog) celebration of unappreciated (or, at least, underappreciated) artists occurs once they are gone. I try to make it a habit to honor and applaud the ones who inspire me while they are still around. Whether or not they hear or see it is less than relevant; I want to expose their work to others who may never have otherwise encountered it. I can’t count the number of amazing albums I may never have heard had some kind soul not ensured I got the goods. With that said, here are a few of my favorite things featuring Mr. Priester, the guy behind the guy.

“Greensleeves”, from Coltrane’s Africa/Brass:

“Urnack” (which Priester composed), from Sun Ra’s magnificent and highly recommended Angels and Demons at Play:

“Man of Words”, from one of my favorite albums, Booker Little’s Out Front:

Pretty tasty, huh?

Well, I’m glad to turn you on to some amazing music. Pick up a copy, turn a few other folks on.

Which brings us to the real purpose of this post: Mr. Priester is in trouble, and could use some help. A retired professor, he is not making sufficient funds to cover the expenses some recent –and serious– health issues are prompting. A site has been set up HERE, and you can can donate some money if so inspired. I did. Perhaps once you listen to his music (and realize he has spent the last several decades teaching and evangelizing, literally dedicating his life to his craft, and doing whatever he can to augment awareness of it), you might consider making a donation.

Check this out: he is hanging in there until he can get a kidney transplant. Once that happens, he wants to get back on the road, where he can earn money from playing before crowds, and continuing his life’s work: bringing jazz into the world. Here’s hoping, with some help, he will be able to do this for a long while yet.

Peace.

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Finding Grace in Beautiful Places (Revisited)

In a piece I recommend you reading @ the reliably awesome Rumpus, writer Amber Sparks, a non-believer, discusses matters of faith, spirituality and art (check it here).

The piece is entitled “Seeking Grace in Strange Places”, and I think that title is fine. I do find it curious, being a recalcitrant agnostic myself, that Sparks would consider writing (especially poetry) a “strange” place to seek grace. For at least two reasons. One, I think writing (in particular, Art in general) is not only not a strange place, it’s the ideal place. Second, this sentiment presupposes (and I’m not deliberately picking on Sparks or even trying to quibble over semantics) that, say, a church is not a strange place. Indeed, one could counter, with minimal snark and maximum truth, that there are many things strange about looking for –much less hoping or claiming to find– grace, or God, in a building designated for that purpose. For starters, it’s a sanctioned endeavor, turning the transmission of spiritual release into an act approved by a professional, like taking medication that a doctor prescribed. (I’ve written about the adminstration of the so-called Holy Spirit from the hands of our earthly middle-men, here.) And then, of course, it’s a cliché, although Faith-with-a-capital-F obliges a certain tolerance for clichés.

My own issues with Faith, Church, God, Religion (etc.) have often been inextricable from my writing, just as they have been inseparable aspects of my life. Why shouldn’t they be? Just because I ceased to wrestle with the metaphysical angst of who we are, what we’re doing here and where we’re going –amongst other concerns– and above all, if there was a big conductor in the sky overseeing the proceedings, does not mean I don’t contemplate the implications. For me; for us all. So, getting that out of the way right up front, I think the following paragraph is a succinct enough distillation of where my head is at in matters of “The Faith Question”:

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

But let me be clear, I can –and do– appreciate holy places for their aesthetic appeal. I am encouraged –and inspired– by people of genuine faith whose actions speak louder than psalms. I remain in awe of the human works that have been commissioned –or prompted– by the religious imperative. Being in Ireland this Spring involved a steady diet of Guinness, sheep, castles and cathedrals. Both of the pictures above were taken during this journey. It was incredible, and not a little humbling, to behold these mammoth structures that took decades, or centuries, to construct, and withstood the time and tempest of our increasingly insane world. The combination of inconceivable expertise (how, exactly, did these people create hundred-foot statues out of stone without, you know, lasers or at least the same friendly aliens who assisted the Mayans and Egyptians?), patience, craft and, ahem, cheap labor, all combined in the service of something intentionally designed to be bigger than mortality; something intended to span generations bonded by a common belief. Et cetera.

And certainly some of our best composers (and poets, as Sparks ably illustrates in her piece) have been directly moved by the passion and intensity of their faith to create tributes dedicated to a force they can neither prove nor explain.

Bach, 1727:

Coltrane, 1964:

(Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.)

And, quite possibly, my favorite instance of (literal) biblical text utilized to articulate some very profound and secular concerns, courtesy of The Great One:

As a dedicated non-musician, I use music (and jazz in particular) as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

Booker Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both of which capture the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing.

The inimitable Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

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Pete La Roca, R.I.P.

It will be an ongoing, and very somber, progression, watching so many old-school jazz musicians (many of whom recorded on the epic Blue Note label during the glory years of the mid-’50s to late-’60s) pass away as the 21st Century soldiers on.

I am sad to read about the passing of Pete La Roca (Peter Sims). HERE is a link to a nice tribute from the Ottawa Citizen (including some kind words from Dave Liebman). In case you are click-through impaired, here is Liebman’s parting shot:

Pete was one of a kind … a stubborn, brilliant guy who insisted on perfection. I will never forget the lessons he taught me, which I recite almost daily in my teaching. For me, Pete’s passing is in a sense like the passing of a father or uncle, meaning of all my mentors he was the last to survive.

La Roca managed to be a typical and unique jazz player of this period. He was sought after, respected and made some special music. At the same time, he resented the hustle and sham of the music industry and left the scene altogether to practice law. Like Michael Corleone, just as he thought he was out, he was drawn back in. A man this talented and tenacious could not remain outside of music forever, and it’s good for everyone that he returned to what he was put here to do.

Speaking of what he did and how he did it, I’ll happily refer to one of my favorite drum tracks (and favorite tracks, period), the opening, title track from Booker Little’s masterful swan song Victory and Sorrow. (More on Little, HERE.) A taste, below:

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

Although I’m talking about Little and the inimitable (almost unbearable) melancholy and yearning he was able to conjure, he was aided immeasurably by the top-tier bands he managed to assemble. On “Victory and Sorrow” La Roca holds the lantern as Little shows us some of what he was already seeing. The way the drummer mixes moods and times at the beginning (.47-1.02) and end (5.20-5.32) of the song manage to move and excite me, even having heard them too many times to count. He takes a song that is already perfect and elevates it to that special, “other” place that can’t, and shouldn’t be articulated, only appreciated. That is the mark of genius, plainly put. It is a marvel, a humbling gesture of greatness, to behold.

Like Little, La Roca did not leave us with a lot (well, depending on how greedy one wants to be), but what he did leave with us can –and should– be cherished.

Here he is on his first outing as a leader (on Blue Note, natch), “Candu” from Basra:

Here he is, gracing the proceedings with his calm, sensitive cool on the title cut from Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Spirits:

Here he is with another gentle giant, Joe Henderson, on a delightful tune entitled “Recorda Me” from Page One:

And a note to leave us on, one more from Victory and Sorrow, “Calling Softly”:

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