On Listology: Art Tatum and Friends

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Hot diggidy, there's a fine jazz discussion happening (start with the first post and read everything under it), although it's really more like a multimedia ragtime master class conducted by 0dysseus. Art Tatum will become your favorite piano player just from reading the anecdotes alone.

Thank you for your kind estimation.

The estimable Bill Crow relates a visit he made to Birdland:
"One evening while Bird's quintet [Bud Powell p, Roy Haynes d, Tommy Potter b, Red Rodney t] was playing a buzz of recognition preceded Art Tatum as he and a friend slipped into chairs right under the piano in the bleachers. Tatum had been the reigning master of the jazz piano for so long that some critics had begun to take his amazing ability for granted, declaring that Bud Powell was the new king of the keyboard.

"Tatum wanted to hear what Bud was playing with Bird. He listened carefully and was complimentary when he was asked what he thought of Bud's playing. As Parker's band left the stand, they all came over to say hello to Tatum, and the musicians in the house band invited him to sit in.

"He felt his way up to the piano, and those of us who were sitting behind him could see that, as Art slid onto the piano bench, he sat down on his left hand. He did it as if by accident, but he kept that hand tucked under his ample rear end throughout the entire set. Art comped for the other players and took several brilliant solos using just his right hand.

"Tatum may have been commenting on the sparse use Powell made of his left hand. Or he could have just been reminding himself that his own two-handed piano style was not currently in fashion at Birdland. Whatever his reasons, Art Tatum let the kids in the bleachers see that he could still play better with one hand than most pianists could play with two."

Gracious! I really wish I could have seen some of this in person. Thanks again for another fab tale. Hey, what are your favorite jazz resources? Or have just just picked all this stuff up over a lifetime of perusing different sources?

I have come to love Ben Ratliff. I wish I could say the same thing about Ornette Coleman. But Ratliff does elicit an excellent description of what makes jazz (and jazz musicians) so unique.

Mr. Coleman grew up loving Charlie Parker and bebop in general. “It was the most advanced collective way of playing a melody and at the same time improvising on it,” he said...

He saw Parker play in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s. “Basically, he had picked up a local rhythm section, and he was playing mostly standards. He didn’t play any of the music that I liked that I’d heard on a record. He looked at his watch and stopped in the middle of what he was playing, put his horn in his case and walked out the door. I said, ohh. I mean, I was trying to figure out what that had to do with music, you know? It taught me something.”

What did it teach him? “He knew the quality of what he could play, and he knew the audience, and he wasn’t impressed enough by the audience to do something that they didn’t know. He wasn’t going to spend any more time trying to prove that.” Of course it always could have been the junk.

I love Ratliff, if onlyfor choosing to include “The Last Words of Copernicus” in the songs he played and discussed with Coleman.

Good one, thank you.

Reminds me that I wanted to share this description of Wynton Marsalis's teaching abilities with you, from a recent edition of The New Yorker, which I have since lostt so can't reference properly:

In jazz, the master teacher is Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who talks about music in a sophisticated yet unaffected way. Recently, I watched Marsalis take command of an unruly crowd of schoolkids at the Apollo Theater, in Harlem. He launched into a lecture on connections between jazz and modern art, the thesis of which was that jazz was a form of modernism, and he backed it up with pictures, performances, and a never-ending stream of talk, He dropped the names Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian, gave a shout-out to Frank Gehry, and supplied a lovely definition of the word "cosmopolitan" ("It means you fit in wherever you go"). He administered discipline ("I'm old school—no talking"), explained the blues as a kind of emotional vaccination ("The blues gives you a little to keep it away"), and interrupted an explication of the African practice of call-and-response to acknowledge a sneeze ("Bless you—call-and-response!"). One of the teachers in the audience said to a colleague, "They ain't gettin' it. I couldn't appreciate this when I was their age." But, on the subway afterward, there was a positive buzz among the kids. One quoted a Marsalis aphorism to his friend: "You gotta have heat in everything you do."

Wow, great story about WM. I always thought Marsalis was a little up his own ass, but it can't be denied that he knows his stuff. And what he's done for the world of Jazz should not be dismissed (by me or anyone else).

What's wrong with me?.. and why haven't I been reading Ben Ratliff more often?

Ratliff recently had a worthy piece on 76-year-old composer/valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. [Insert your Music Man joke here.] Brookmeyer tidly sums up the composer's dilemma with the "ritual gone mad" of jazz solos.

"My first rule became: The first solo only happens when absolutely nothing else can happen," he explained. "You don't write in a solo until you've completely exhausted what you have to say. If you give a soloist an open solo for 30 seconds, he plays like he's coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, 'What the hell was that piece that I was playing from?' And the next 30 seconds is, 'Oh, I guess I'll play what I learned last night.' And bang! Minute 2 is whoever he likes, which is probably Coltrane."
As per usual there are a couple excellent audio clips accompanying the conversation. Like Roy Haynes above, Brookmeyer loves the Basie Band. They gave him a simple, heart-breaking reason for entering the world of jazz.

Excellent! Love the Bill Harris part:

Bill Harris had an overpowering voice on his own, I said. Was he too large a presence for a big band, too disruptive?"I wouldn't say disruptive," Mr. Brookmeyer corrected. "He was influential. His sound was highly emotional. His personality was so strong that he guided the band a lot. As a trombonist in a big band, you're in the middle of everything. You learn how things are made. My old joke is that saxophonists get all the girls, trumpet players make all the money, and trombone players develop an interior life."

Roy Haynes gets a portion of his due in an outstandingly fine piece written by the exemplary Ben Ratliff in the NYTimes. In it Haynes communicates some of pre-eminence of 'Papa' Jo Jones...

We listened to "Swing, Brother, Swing," which is about as good as American music gets. It comes from a radio broadcast in June 1937, recorded at the Savoy Ballroom in New York; it is the Basie orchestra with Jones on drums and Billie Holiday singing. The groove is vicious, menacing; as the band restrains itself for the first chorus and then gradually turns it on, the guitarist Freddie Green drives the rhythm, chunk-chunk-chunk, and Holiday phrases way behind the beat...

"That's a hell of a one to start with, man," Mr. Haynes said, shaking his head. "If anybody wants to know what swing is, check that out. Damn! Everybody's in the pocket. You know, you just feel it: I see people dancing."

Mr. Haynes played with the three greatest female singers in jazz: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

[snip]

Mr. Haynes loved the five years he worked with Vaughan. She had impeccable timing, heard well enough to correct a bass player's chord changes and filled in on piano when necessary. She sang virtuosically onstage and hung out virtuosically with her band afterward. Mr. Haynes suffered his first hangover after going to an after-hours bar with her. (Philadelphia, 1953. Gordon's Gin.)Haynes was twenty-eight before he got his first hangover. Don't let anyone tell you different, Sarah Vaughan could shred.

yass, yass, yass

Ben Ratliff sure is earning his cake this week. In the NYTimes he expresses his dedicated indifference to the induction of Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of Mr. Davis he writes,

by the mid-1960's he sensed correctly that jazz's greatest age was closing. He listened to everything, from Karlheinz Stockhausen - who has not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but certainly could be in the future - to the trumpeter and record executive Herb Alpert, who is being inducted this year in the lifetime-achievement category.
Ratliff then lets Ahmet Ertegun get the last word,
"I love Miles Davis," he said, referring to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. "I also love John Coltrane and Jack Teagarden, but I'm not voting for them either."
In the end it really is so simple.

Thank you! I've printed both of these out for my bedside table (gettin' bleary-eyed in front of the monitor this evening). I hope to get to them very soon, but man, you should see the pile on my bedside table.

First of all: jazz is meant to be experienced in live performances. Composers/instrumentalists creating art with each other where everyone contributes simultaeously. In Amadeus the character of Mozart is very eloquent about music being the only medium in which five people can hold an intelligible conversation. Jazz is the only medium where five people can co-compose on the spot to create a unified vision. It has to be seen to be believed. Listening to jazz on cd is like watching baseball on television. It can be very enjoyable but it's nothing like being at the ballpark.

The best source of interesting, accessible jazz knowledge is the bassist Bill Crow. He has written two books (at least) that are built upon the kind of tales that are told (over and over) on the bus, at bars and backstage. The aptly named Jazz Anecdotes is the better of the two and quickly allows you to pass yourself off as a jazz expert... how I am aware of this I'm sure I don't know. Crow's second book is also packed with stories but they are woven into the story of his life in jazz.

It helps to have a personal affinity for artists. This is especially in true in an art that is so relentlessly personal as jazz. Let me warn you: Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman do not come off very well in these books no matter how briefly they are mentioned. Dizzy Gillespie, on the other hand, comes out smelling like a rose. My favorite story (that I can remember) involves the Lionel Hampton Band playing a concert on a Potomac barge and bassist Monk Montgomery going over the side not once, but twice.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz is an excellent and definitive reference book. Not that I know that much but I've yet to come across an inaccuracy. It tries to list definitive works at the end of every artist's entry (which is good) but virtually all of them are on vinyl (which is... bad.) While the history is very good some of it can be rather... matter-of-fact.

There is a quick and dirty jazz compendium by John Fordham entitled Jazz: History - Instruments - Musicians - Recordings . It has a good accounting of jazz history, short bios of some jazz greats, a musical technique overview and a listing of "classic" recordings. It also breaks down the instruments in jazz (and I mean literally breaks down.) Plus: Pictures Pictures Pictures.

If you have any particular favorites there's nothing like a good jazz biography. A poor jazz biography just makes you long for twenty minute bass solo. There's an excellent writer, David Hajdu, who has done a fine biography of Billy Strayhorn called Lush Life . It's lovely to learn that most of the jazz world didn't have a problem with homosexuals. Good Morning Blues is the autopbiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray. Basie's laid back persona is well served by the fervent writing of Murray. Miles Davis has an autobiography which, with the notable exception of his abuse of Cicely Tyson, is brutally honest.

The best of all is Milt Hinton's autobiography, Bass Line . What can you say about a book that begins with a lynching, where Al Capone saves your finger and you play bass on national television in a Confederate army uniform. There are an amazing amount of fantastic pictures. It is like a great family album of jazz, whereas the book of Burns' documentary on jazz reads like a slide show of someone's vacation pictures: interesting if you know the people in them but bewildering otherwise. (Hinton and his wife were responsible for the film and pictures used in A Great Day in Harlem .) There is no and there never will be a great Duke Ellington biography.

The best way to learn about jazz is the friend-of-a-friend method. Find someone you like. Listen to them a lot. Then start listening to the artists who influenced them or who they influenced as well as their frequent collaborators. For example: There was a time when I didn't like Thelonious Monk. As a matter of fact I actively disliked him, his music annoyed me and I had no idea what people saw in him. But I do love Duke Ellington (greatest artist ever) and I listened to Monk's all-Ellington Riverside trio album. All of a sudden the clouds parted and I understood what he was doing. Not just with Ellington but with everything. I now think that Monk is a genius and I love everything that I hear by him. I have no idea what I was thinking.

If I recall correctly you like Sidney Bechet and love Paul Newman. Bechet's playing is unremittingly incediary and can get tiring after a while. If you've ever wanted to listen to him do a slow ballad and make romantic lovers' music then you might want to listen to Johnny Hodges who took lessons from Bechet when only sixteen. He also replaced Bechet in Willie "The Lion" Smith's quartet and briefly played with him in Duke Ellington's band. "Sophisticated Lady" was his signature tune. If you haven't seen Paris Blues it might make you more favorably inclined towards Louis Armstrong (as "Wild Man" Moore in a brilliant cameo.) Ellington, who signed on to the movie when it was still a story of interracial lovers, does the soundtrack. He writes or re-arranges several brilliant songs and provides the players who dub Newman and Poitier's performances, Lawrence Brown and Paul Gonsalves. (Supposedly Newman actually learned how to play the trombone for the movie.)

There's a great promotional poster of Newman playing the trombone while Ellington and Armstrong grimace and plug their ears.

You do recall correctly, and Paris Blues has been on my "to see" list for what feels like forever. Haven't been able to find a copy to rent anywhere. Yet.

In addition to Bechet, I've always been partial to Charles Mingus, another guy starring in his fair share of anecdotes. I even went so far as to read Beneath the Underdog, which is one of the more bizarre (in a good way) autobiographies I've read.

I've added Jazz Anecdotes to my "to read" list, if I can ever clear my magazine queue for long enough to read a book again. I have the Cuppy book on deck, but it's all I can do to keep up with my six monthly subscriptions. Uncut is going away (sadly) as a cost-cutting measure, so maybe that will open up more text-time for me in 2005.

Thanks!