If, as Philip Larkin observed not so long ago, the age of Jazz (not the same thing as the Jazz Age) ran roughly from 1925 to 1945, the age of the cocktail covered the same sort of period, perhaps starting a little earlier and taking longer to die away finally. The two were certainly associated at their inception. Under Prohibition in the United States, the customer at the speakeasy drank concoctions of terrible liquor and other substances added in order to render the result just about endurable, while the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or the Original Memphis Five tried to take his mind further off what he was swallowing. The demise of jazz cannot have had much to do with that of the cocktail, which probably faded away along with the disappearance of servants from all but the richest private houses. Nearly every cocktail needs to be freshly made for each round, so that you either have to employ a barman or find yourself consistently having to quit the scene so as to load the jug. Straight drinks are quicker and guests can — indeed often do — help themselves to them.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
November 17, 2013
September 26, 2013
In The Nation, Adam Shatz looks back at the turbulent and creative career of Jazz giant Charles Mingus:
Mingus rarely left his pieces alone when he took them on the road with his Jazz Workshop, as he began calling his bands in the mid-1950s. When the Workshop played “Fables of Faubus,” a dart of sarcasm aimed at Arkansas’s segregationist governor Orval Faubus, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the jaunty eight-minute tune swelled into a half-hour suite, punctuated by tart allusions to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “God Bless America” and a bass clarinet solo of blistering intensity by Eric Dolphy. (The performance is one of five concerts included in The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964–65, a seven-disc boxed set on Mosaic Records.) In the studio, Mingus was always splicing, dicing and overdubbing, enriching the texture of his music, increasing its density. He tinkered with titles, giving old pieces new and sometimes cryptic names: the tender portrait of a woman he loved, “Nouroog,” reappeared after their breakup as “I X Love”; “Better Get It in Your Soul,” a foot-stomping gospel tune that’s still played on jukeboxes, became “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul,” a message to junkies that they’d be better off with a boost from the Lord than one from the needle.
Mingus was always true to his ever-changing moods: he wanted to create music that, in his words, was “as varied as my feelings are, or the world is.” For sheer range of expression, his work has few equals in postwar American music: furious and tender, joyous and melancholy, grave and mischievous, ecstatic and introspective. It moves from the rapture of the church to the euphoria of the ballroom, from accusation to seduction, from a whisper to a growl, often by way of startling jump cuts and sudden changes in tempo. Vocal metaphors are irresistible when discussing Mingus. As Whitney Balliett remarked, music for him was “another way of talking.”
Though he wrote only a few songs with lyrics, his compositions — and his own bass playing, which revealed new dimensions of the instrument and helped liberate it from its traditional time-keeping role — were supremely vocal. He collaborated with poets in East Village coffeehouses and never hesitated to call out to his sidemen when the spirit caught him, as if he was leading a gospel choir. Each instrument in a Mingus tune evoked the voice, invariably in conversation with other voices; and each voice was an extension of his famously tempestuous personality. (“We don’t need a vocalist,” he told the trombonist Britt Woodman. “This band can have an argument with instruments.”) Philip Larkin was astonished by “how every Mingus band sounds like a great rabble of players, like some trick of Shakespearian production.” No matter how small the ensemble, he could create a sense of passionate, often combative dialogue: as one of his sidemen put it, Mingus “liked the sound of a struggle.” If his Workshop settled into a groove, he would suddenly change the time signature: he didn’t want anyone to get too comfortable. Struggle — against complacency, against the confinements of race and genre, against the record industry and the American government — inspired him; he depended on it to create. Though he dreamed of finding refuge on some “colorless island,” it wasn’t clear how he’d spend his time there. He needed something to fight against; his anger, in Geoff Dyer’s words, was “a form of energy, part of the fire sweeping through him.”
February 13, 2013
In the New York Review of Books, Christopher Carroll discusses the great Charles Mingus:
Mingus (1922-1979) would have turned ninety last year, and in celebration, Mosaic has released The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-1965, a new box set with rare and previously unreleased performances by some of Mingus’s greatest ensembles. These concerts, recorded near the apex of Mingus’s career, are visceral and often unvarnished. At times, the music here can be forbidding — several tracks run beyond thirty minutes — and though it may not be as uniformly polished as some of his studio albums, at its best this set captures an element of shock and surprise that Mingus’s studio recordings sometimes don’t.
“Mingus music,” as he called it, was so complex and so much an extension of his own personality that it was largely played only by his own group, the Jazz Workshop. Turnover in the Workshop was high, partly because he couldn’t afford to pay his musicians very well, partly because the experience was so grueling (members called it the Jazz Sweatshop), and partly because so many of them, after sharpening their skills with Mingus, went on to lead their own bands (Gary Giddins once called it the Harvard University of Jazz).
Even with Mingus at the helm playing bass (and sometimes piano), Workshop performances often resembled practice sessions more than concerts. He did everything in his power to push his players beyond their limits: while a musician was soloing, he might double the tempo, cut it in half, or drop the accompaniment of the bass, drums, and piano entirely, all without warning. Often, players would buckle under the pressure and songs would grind to a halt, with Mingus screaming recriminations and heaping shame on everyone in sight. But sometimes his musicians would rise to the challenge, and it was the possibility of this transcendence that gave Jazz Workshop performances such an electrifying sense of expectation and adventure.
January 29, 2013
From the latest issue of Reason, Chris Kjorness outlines some of the pitfalls New York City thoughtfully put in the way of some of the greatest performers of Jazz:
For more than two decades musicians, comedians, and anyone else employed by a Gotham nightclub would be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed by police in exchange for a license to work. The card had to be renewed every two years, and it could be revoked at the whim of the police. The story of the cabaret card illustrates how small men with a little bit of power can inhibit creative expression, stifle artistic growth, and humiliate individual citizens, all in the name of the “public good.”
The cabaret card had its origins in the roaring ’20s. Prohibition made outlaws out of ordinary Americans, and the allure of booze, jazz, and debauchery brought the upper and lower classes together in clandestine after-hours spots. It was the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and white New Yorkers frequently made the trip uptown, looking for adventure and an escape from the tight moral constraints of downtown society.
[. . .]
More than just a barrier to work, the cabaret card for beboppers was an impediment to self-expression and artistic fulfillment. While originating in nightclubs, bebop represented something much more than bar music. The color line had not been broken in American symphony orchestras, so for a young black musician at a prestigious music conservatory — Miles Davis at Julliard, for example — sharing a cramped stage in a 52nd Street nightclub with someone like Charlie Parker was the highest realization of artistic ambition. But before he could do so, a musician would have to be judged not just by lauded masters and discerning aficionados but by the police.
Cops distrusted beboppers for three main reasons: The new breed of jazzmen were anti-establishment, they were confrontational in matters of race, and they had a fondness for heroin. The police had an unlikely ally in their crusade against the upstarts: older establishment jazz musicians who had their own reasons to dislike the beboppers.
In a 1951 Ebony article, Cab Calloway, a king of the 1930s jazz world, decried the widespread drug use in the current jazz scene. Though Calloway didn’t single anyone out by name, the magazine illustrated his essay with photos of bebop musicians, and the publication coincided with an upswing in police enforcement. One musician snared in this crackdown was Charlie Parker.
January 22, 2013
Robert Fulford talks about some of the unexpected changes in society and how they impacted the evolution of Jazz music:
Marc Myers, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and blogs at JazzWax.com, shrewdly explains this process in his new book, Why Jazz Happened (University of California Press). He describes how events ranging from city planning to inventions in sound technology altered the nature of jazz during three decades beginning in 1942. In those 30 years jazz changed from an accompaniment to dancing and drinking to a concert-based performance art directed at careful, even scholarly listeners. Myers can give at least half a dozen reasons why this happened, beginning with the suburbs.
In California the sprawl of the cities did more than shrink the audiences for artists like Teagarden. It also redefined the way jazz musicians worked together. In New York they saw each other often, since most of them lived within a few subway stops. In California they were physically separated and saw each other less often. They had to plan their rehearsals and recordings with care. Arrangements became more important to them. And by the end of the 1950s West Coast jazz had its own smooth, orderly, distinctive style, music created by geography.
The G.I. Bill, by which the U.S. government paid the university costs of veterans, had an even larger effect. Under the G.I. Bill John Lewis spent years at the Manhattan School of Music and later founded the Modern Jazz Quartet, the most elegant group of the era. Dick Hyman studied music at Columbia and became a superb all-purpose arranger and pianist. Dave Brubeck learned techniques of composition from Darius Milhaud, a renowned French composer, at Mills College (And Brubeck never let you forget it.) Pete Rugolo, Nelson Riddle and Jimmy Giuffre made themselves musically literate with the government’s support.
They and their students and colleagues became a new community of broadly educated musicians, the first generation of that kind in jazz history. The government, by accident, altered the tone of an art form.
A single genius-level engineer changed the possibilities of jazz form more than anyone else. He was Peter Goldmark, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who became the star of CBS Laboratories. His name doesn’t get mentioned in Why Jazz Happened, but Myers nevertheless pays tribute to his accomplishment. In 1948 Goldmark introduced the LP, the 33-1/3 rpm disc, which became the worldwide standard until the CD replaced it in the late 1980s.
Before Goldmark, musicians had been limited to single discs running three minutes. Improvisation had to be carefully limited. The LP record allowed them to write or improvise at much greater length.
April 3, 2012
As I’ve said before, I’m not at all a creative person but I’ve always admired those people who are creative. However, Jonah Lehrer suggests that perhaps I’m just lazy:
“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code,” writes Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine.
In his book, Lehrer examines the inner workings of what we call imagination. He looks at the neuroscience behind sudden insights, how the brain solves different kinds of problems and which personal traits help foster creativity. He also shares how external forces factor into the creative process, how to design a workspace to enhance your chances of having an epiphany, why creativity tends to bubble up in certain places and how we can encourage our collective imaginations.
Above all, though, the message of Lehrer’s book is that creativity is not a super power. Anyone can be creative — it just takes hard work. “We should aspire to excessive genius,” says Lehrer, who took some time from his book tour to sit down with Mashable and answer a few questions about the mysteries of how we imagine.
[. . .]
Yo-Yo Ma says his ideal state of creativity is “controlled craziness.” How can we learn to harness that?
What Yo-Yo Ma is referring to is the kind of creativity that occurs when we let ourselves go, allowing the mind to invent without worrying about what it’s inventing. Such creative freedom has inspired some of the most famous works of modern culture, from John Coltrane’s saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. It’s Miles Davis playing his trumpet in Kind of Blue — most of the album was recorded on the very first take — and Lenny Bruce inventing jokes at Carnegie Hall. It’s also the kind of creativity that little kids constantly rely on, largely because they have no choice. Because parts of the brain associated with impulse control remain underdeveloped, they are unable to censor their imagination, to hold back their expression. This helps explain the truth in that great Picasso quote: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
March 11, 2012
Skvorecky left no shortage of legacies to remember him by, but one of the more notable themes in his nonfiction writing is an emphasis on, as Welch puts it, “the oftentime minute similarities between applied fascism and communism.” And some of Skvorecky’s more notable variations on that theme in turn are found in his recollections and insights on the common totalitarian hatred of, among all things, jazz.
[. . .]
Anyone who finds this proposition fascinating won’t, I promise, be disappointed to read the rest of this book, or for that matter all of Talkin’ Moscow Blues: Essays About Literature, Politics, Movies, and Jazz. But maybe the single most remarkable example of 20th-century totalitarian invective against jazz that Skvorecky ever relayed was here in the intro to The Bass Saxophone, where he recalls — faithfully, he assures us (“they had engraved themselves deeply on my mind”) — a set of regulations, issued by a Gauleiter — a regional official for the Reich — as binding on all local dance orchestras during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Get this:
- Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
- in this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
- As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
- so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
- strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
- also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
- the double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
- plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
- musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
- all light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.
March 4, 2012
A post from a few weeks back, but still relevant:
Charles Mingus was recognized in his lifetime as a virtuoso bassist, accomplished pianist and bandleader. Today his enduring legacy may be as a major 20th-century composer. To grasp some sense of his growing importance, consider the fact that his entire body of work has been acquired by the Library of Congress. This is not only a first for jazz, but also for an African-American composer. At this death he left behind more than 100 albums and over 300 compositions — music that is still considered far ahead of its time. In the field of jazz, his is the largest legacy of composition in American music after Duke Ellington.
To think of Mingus as a jazz musician is correct — at least to a certain degree, but the term should be understood in its broadest sense. He was influenced by composers of many different stripes, and it wouldn’t be hard to find passages with as much kinship to Debussy as to gospel and blues. Imagine hearing jazz performed by bassoon, flute, bass clarinet and horn, and you begin to get the subtlety of this composer. Yes, of course, the saxophones, brass and rhythm sections are there too, but this is music that surprises at every turn. Listening beyond the instrumental colors takes us into a world whose treatment of harmony and time is truly unique. Mingus can easily shift between an almost stately blues pace to a double time passage that could have belonged to bebop, and just as fluently, he can take us back out of that hectic rate to his original pace without the least amount of discomfort to the listener. His chord changes are advanced, unpredictable and yet entirely “right” to the ear. To improvise in Mingus is to reach well beyond the tonal palette of traditional “changes”. His is a truly original voice.
I know very little about music, but I’ve loved almost every Mingus piece I’ve heard. He quickly became one of my favourite jazz performers.
January 28, 2012
One of the best jazzmen of the 20th century was recognized in an event at the Kennedy Center recently:
Was there a single jazz musician in the audience for the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony last month? Besides Sonny Rollins, that is, who was one of the five honorees. From what I saw on the CBS telecast of the ceremony, the only jazz musicians in the house were those hired hands who were on stage playing in Sonny’s honor. Is it possible that no other jazz players were there? It’s more likely that the show’s producers wouldn’t recognize a jazz musician even at close range, so all we got were long shots of the Obamas and movie and pop stars. At least the President and First Lady looked like they’d heard jazz before they got to the Center, and surely they appreciated Bill Cosby’s irony-laced introduction. But how many people in that bejeweled crowd had ever heard a note by the Saxophone Colossus?
Granted, it was great to see Sonny getting the honor, to watch the montage of images from his career and hear the narrative voiced by Cosby. Cos described his own surprise encounters with people in far flung places abroad who in the midst of their daily routines were listening to Rollins, then concluded his remarks by welcoming Sonny “home” to his native land. But notwithstanding the primacy of jazz in American performing arts, the music long ago lost its appeal for the masses, and even the curious may know little about its history and Newk’s place in it. Thus while Cosby’s comments spoke to his personal admiration for Rollins, the occasion called for something more, the kind of critically-grounded statement that a Stanley Crouch or Gary Giddins or Bob Blumenthal could have provided. But a teaching moment like this was squandered, while the most resonant image may have been the sign of Rikers Island displayed among Rollins’s personal landmarks.
May 6, 2011
Nicole Ciandella writes about so-called “orphan works” under current US copyright law:
Jazz enthusiasts rejoiced when the National Jazz Museum in Harlem purchased the famous Savory Collection last year, but unless Congress fixes a gaping hole in U.S. copyright laws, few people will actually hear the prized recordings.
William Savory was an audio engineer who developed his own method of recording live audio performances in the late 1930s. Up until World War II, most live performances were recorded on 78 rpm records that could capture only about three minutes of music. But Savory used 12- and 16-inch aluminum discs, which enabled him to create and store high quality recordings of longer performances. His collection includes a six-minute version of Coleman Hawkins performing “Body and Soul” in the spring of 1940 and a recording of Billie Holliday singing a rubato-tempo version of “Strange Fruit” in a nightclub only a month after her original version was released.
While he was alive, Savory kept his recordings mostly to himself. He died in 2004. His son, who inherited the recordings, finally agreed last year to sell the whole Savory Collection to the National Jazz Museum.
Museum spokespeople say the museum is eager to share the songs with the public online, but because of the recordings’ murky copyright status, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. The performances Savory recorded are now considered “orphan works” — in other words, their copyright owners are unknown and cannot be tracked down. The museum can’t obtain permission to disseminate the recordings; and if the museum were to go ahead without permission, it would risk being hit with a copyright infringement lawsuit, meaning potentially hefty civil penalties.
October 16, 2009
- Copper bracelets and magnetic wristbands show no more benefit than non-copper/non-magnetic placebo devices for sufferers of arthritis.
- For an amusing look at how certain machines have evolved, see The Secret Life of Machines.
- Raider Nation in terminal decline? If so, they’re not alone.
- A new biography of Thelonious Monk, reviewed in the New York Times.
- Video report on Barack Obama’s latest diplomatic coup.
- Mark October 31st on your calendar — it’s when Islam4UK is planning a rally and march from Parliament to No. 10 Downing Street, where they will “call for the removal of the tyrant Gordon Brown from power”.