Sure sign that you're a badass
when ~60 yrs later the most basic facts of your work
are still mysterious even to experts
Last night I interviewed George Cables for DTM. As soon as I arrived, George took me down to the basement. His house in Queens has been in the family since the mid 1960s, and over the years George has accumulated quite a collection of historical jazz treasures. The above poster is for a three week gig in Brooklyn at the East Inn in 1970.
Um. 9 to 4. By modern standards, that's pretty unbelievable, especially for three weeks at a stretch. The piano had only 64 keys and not all of them worked. George told me one night near the end there was only one patron at the beginning of the set...and that the customer was asleep.
A few years later George was gigging with Max Roach. Thelonious Monk came out to hear the band, and at the party afterwards, Monk even hung out. Max told George later that Monk said he liked George's playing. "I still haven't come down from that one!" George said, his face lighting up like a little boy being introduced to a hero.
On DTM, I keep adding to a collection of rather heavy-handed assertions about how important it is to know the inner workings of Thelonious Monk's music, to not treat it as jam-session style material. It's an easy claim for me to make partly because I'm personally convinced this is how the composer felt about it himself.
The irony is that approach is not particularly in the modern jazz tradition. Many of the greatest soloists, from Louis Armstrong until now, didn't worry about the composer's intent too much. George Cables told me last night that he thought it was important to change a person's songs to make them your own, and that he expected others to do the same with his own body of significant and detailed jazz compositions.
It was interesting to be reminded of this basic truth so directly one day after starting a minor twitter war about the "correct" bridge of "Well, You Needn't."
Not that I back down from saying that caring about the details has worked for me. Anything I've played in public in the last 15 years, from Kurt Cobain to Stravinsky to Motian: I know the details. It's part of how I make jazz. But I also admit that is not really the standard practice of many, if not most, of my jazz heroes.
It's also a different time. None of the pianists in my class -- or myself! -- will ever get a chance to hit with Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw for six hours a night for three solid weeks in front of no people. I think I can be a little stern with my students about knowing the "correct" Monk before making his work their own.
However, if anyone reading my Monk missives thinks, "Jeez, Ethan Iverson is a Nazi": I hear you. My approach needn't be for everyone.
Indeed, George Cables and every other significant pianist of his generation plays Monk with textual freedom.
I'll keep it mind.
Twitter etc. follow-ups to my "Well You Needn't" post:
Corey Mwamba offered some eloquent thoughts. "I remember one Tomorrow's Warriors session where I was accused by a pianist of not being able to play because I knew the original harmonies to the song." Good grief.
Vijay Iyer's piece on Monk in JazzTimes. I agree with all of this, of course.
And the title of this post comes from nhoj elttil (@nhojelttil): "Sure sign that you're a badass when ~60 yrs later the most basic facts of your work are still mysterious even to experts." I love it.
I knew there were errors in my post but was too tired to sift them all out. Too bad I didn't just send it first to the estimable Mark Stryker (@Mark_Stryker). I eagerly await Mark's forthcoming book on Detroit jazz. Take it away, Mark:
I suspect version on "Steamin'" is what cemented Miles' WYN in canon. Better known than earlier BN, yes? The first time I sat in on a gig when I was in high school was at this pizza place in Bloomington (Ind.) where a local trumpet player led a weekly gig with typically the best players from IU, which included at the time Michael Weiss on piano. So I get up to play and I suggested "Well You Needn't" because I had learned it from an older pianist at my high school who had taught it to me from a sheet he had written out a couple years earlier (Miles' changes), and by then I knew the version from "Steamin'" which was part of a Prestige twofer ("Workin' and Steamin'") that was among the very first records I ever bought. When I suggested the tune, the leader was a little startled because it wasn't exactly the kind of tune a kid would ask to play. But the very first thing that happened was that Michael turned to me and asked whether I wanted to play Miles' or Monk's version. That threw me -- had no idea what he was talking about. I either said "I don't know" or looked at him quizzically, because he quickly asked: "What's the first chord on the bridge, G or D-flat?" I said "G7" and he answered, then that's Miles."
Doesn't surprise me that he was up on that at age 22.
Checking online discographies: While Miles’ “Well You Needn’t” did indeed come out on a Blue Note 45 (and that was news to me; I would have guessed a 78), Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” was originally on a 78: http://www.jazzdisco.org/blue-note-records/catalog-78-rpm-series/single-index/
Footnote: Not to go too deep in the weeds – oh, what the hell! – but both records subsequently came out on Blue Note 10-inch 33 rpm recordings, before appearing on 12-inch Long Playing records. Things were moving fast in those days in the industry and what I don’t know is how long the 10-inch records had circulation before being superseded by the 12-inch, or for that matter how long the 45s circulated. How other musicians (and the public) consumed and learned the music in those transitional days would be interesting to know from a scholarly perspective if no other.
More on point, worth considering is the further dissemination of the tune and subsequent recordings. Miles was the first to record it after Monk, who re-recorded it several times of course. But who recorded it next after Miles and how did they play it? Hardly anyone played or recorded Monk’s music through most of the ‘50s, save a stray tune or two by Miles, Sonny, Lacy, Blakey, Gigi Gryce and Teddy Charles. I’m almost positive that Steve Lacy’s remarkable “Reflections” in 1958 was the first true attempt at a Monk repertory album without Monk at the piano. So, back to the question: Who first recorded “Well You Needn’t” after Miles? It may be Nat Adderley on “Branching Out” (Riverside) in 1958, a version I’m sorry to say I haven’t heard. The recording by Phineas Newborn was made in 1962; Cannonball recorded it on “Cannonball Adderley Quintet Plus” in 1961 and that one is the Miles arrangement.
I’m convinced it was the version on “Steamin’” that ended up codifying the tune, despite the fact that the Blue Note recording preceded it. (The shout chorus they play on “Steamin’” has become standard too.) Miles’ first quintet codified so much of what remains the modern jazz mainstream. Think of everything that is still in currency – repertoire, the specific standards and keys, the arrangements, all the shit borrowed from Ahmad (playing in “2,” the tags, etc.), the way the rhythm section swings and relates to the soloists, the individual styles of everybody in the band.
All totally true. I knew there were no 45's in 1947, duh. I fixed that. As far as the multiple Miles versions go, I personally know the quartet one best, but of course the quintet is the one people imitated.
I wonder what Alfred Lion would make of SoundCloud?