Guest Posts: Aaron Diehl, John Hollenbeck, Mark Stryker
(Four essays reprinted from old DTM, all originally posted in early 2010.)
One Never Knows: An Unexpected Encounter with John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet (by Aaron Diehl)
I was not very familiar with John Lewis or the Modern Jazz Quartet until I heard Fontessa (1956) in college. Loren Schoenberg, my jazz history professor, dedicated an entire class to the album. It was a lesson on programmatic structure. The selections were carefully chosen and placed for the purpose of constructing a musical narrative from start (“Versailles”), to finish (“Woody’n You”). What immediately struck me about the ensemble was their overall balance—the warm, dulcet quality to their timbre. Underneath the refinement, though, lie the seductive and intoxicating characteristics of the blues and groove.
As my interest grew, finding written music for the group was challenging, until Loren called one day offering a job helping Mr. Lewis’ wife, Mirjana, organize an endless archive of her late husband’s tapes, scores, parts, and manuscripts. I recognized the value of the opportunity when Loren first approached me, but I could never have envisioned the long-term impact the almost six month task would impress upon my musical education. My time spent with Mrs. Lewis was full of anecdotes about her husband, and during my afternoon visits to her home, she would play a succession of MJQ recordings. I never had the honor of meeting John Lewis, but through Mirjana’s reflections, I began to get a sense of the warm, gentlemanly persona that he possessed. He was reserved and quiet, yet adamant and persistent about his ambitions. As the late pianist Dick Katz once told me: “John always got his way, and the longevity of the MJQ is a testament to that.” The group was together 48 years, albeit with a hiatus from 1974 to 1981.
It was not difficult to tell that Lewis was unbelievably organized—many of his draft manuscripts were very clear and neatly arranged, and well kept (some of them, such as “Spanish Steps,” date back to the late 50’s). When sifting through the music, I saw scores ranging from solo piano to symphony orchestra. Titles such as “The Legendary Profile,” “Skating in Central Park,” and “Concorde,” popped up frequently, and there were multiple arrangements of “Django” just for the MJQ alone! The engraved scores included all of the parts, but those who have seen footage of the group probably noticed that Milt Jackson had everything memorized. He possessed a photographic memory, and Albert “Tootie” Heath even mentions this in his DTM interview. All of the music has a copyright under MJQ Music, Inc., the publisher for the ensemble, and their headquarters were housed in a small office inside the Ed Sullivan Theater (where the Late Show with David Letterman is taped). I worked there for the first few months of this project, and it was like being in a time capsule from the 1960’s—the smell of old reel boxes and onionskin paper permeated the air, and the most advanced piece of technology in the room might have been a typewriter.
The publisher is still in existence -- there's a website where one can ostensibly rent or purchase material including jazz and classical works by J.J. Johnson, Lalo Schifrin, Gunther Schuller, et al. -- but attempting to order anything is futile at best. Paul Schwartz, who managed the company for decades, recently retired. MJQ Music is now beginning the process of having its music administered by Hal Leonard, and it is uncertain when the charts will become available. I called Hal Leonard via the phone number listed at the top of the website, inquiring about renting an arrangement of "Django," and unfortunately nothing is ready yet.
Anyone willing to take on the task of transcribing some of the MJQ arrangements will notice that the tonal clarity and balance of the ensemble are such that there is not too much ambiguity or question about what is being played. Percy Heath’s bass is always heard, and as those who transcribe know, this can be crucial in determining the harmonic movement. Here's a few pages of my own transcription of “One Never Knows,” from the soundtrack of No Sun in Venice (1957).
I highly recommend this album, as it also premiers another MJQ staple, “The Golden Striker.” Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down the film yet. Anyone out there who might know where I could find it?
“One Never Knows” has a 24-bar ABA’ theme, but the piece in its entirety is a longer, through-composed work that develops the melodic material throughout the course of the arrangement. Part of the genius of Lewis was his departure from the standard format of melody-solo(s)-melody, creating a listening experience that is unpredictable and fresh. Even on a blues (usually for this the MJQ played one of Milt Jackson’s), there would be some type of interlude between solos. On Jackson’s “Cylinder,” for example, after the vibraphone solo in D-flat, the band would typically play a 4-bar interlude leading into the piano solo, now in a new key of B-flat. As simple as it appears on paper, it adds a new level of interest to the ear. These qualities are especially exemplified on Blues at Carnegie Hall from 1966. The ensemble makes use of various grooves (shuffle, boogaloo, swing, etc.), tempos, and key signatures. All of the pieces on the album are blues-centered, with Jackson’s compositions making up most of repertoire (Ray Brown’s “Pyramid” is the first track, and there are a couple of pieces in the middle by Lewis). It was the ideal showcase for Milt, who loved to play the blues, and would play them all night if he could.
The virtuosic nature of Jackson’s playing could make one believe that the vibraphone’s role in this music greatly surpassed the others. I am discovering that Lewis and drummer Connie Kay had a massively crucial responsibility in shaping the overall timbre of the group. I recommend the Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings, which chronicles the band from 1952 to 1985 (Atlantic just needs to release a box set like this, and we’ll be set). Within the span that the Prestige and Pablo recordings cover, you can hear the difference in approach between Kenny Clarke (he was the first drummer), and Kay, who replaced Clarke in 1955. Kay maintained a more delicate, and multi-timbral approach, all while keeping a strong beat with Percy. This was a perfect fit for Lewis’ style, although I can never get enough of the early records with Clarke, especially on takes of “La Ronde” and “All the Things You Are.” Similarly, Lewis had a very distinct linear way of accompanying that added a contrapuntal texture to the music. Even when comping in a block chord fashion, he would form some type of melodic nugget, and riff on it for a while. Percy Heath was the “glue” in the group, holding everything together with his warm tone, and fat beat.
Next Monday night, I will be performing the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola along with Rodney Green, David Wong, and Warren Wolf. Will we be able to replicate the MJQ’s sound precisely? Of course not. But their concept has been a source of inspiration for discovering our own musical identity, both individually and as a unit. Subtlety, nuance, structural variety, and a solid groove are powerful assets in jazz; John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay left a treasured blueprint for that model. It would be a pity not to capitalize on any opportunity that allows us to gain a closer understanding of how momentous these four men were in the history of 20th Century music.
-- Aaron Diehl
Saving the World, One Composition at a Time (by John Hollenbeck)
Several recent events: the December celebration of Bob Brookmeyer's 80th
birthday; my father’s passing in May; my interaction with students at
the Jazz Institute Berlin; and the coming of a new year, have coalesced
in my mind and prompted me to strive harder to write music and (maybe
more importantly) work on myself personally. I would like to offer some
thoughts on how these two activities can actually be worked on
simultaneously. In other words, how the process of composing music can
be used to enrich and improve oneself and thereby have a positive
influence on humanity.
Mostly through DTM's “blogroll”, I have recently made a concerted effort to keep up with the rest of the music blogosphere. It makes perfect sense that the majority of blogs I’ve read focus mainly on the end results and the final product of a musician’s efforts. I know (especially after trying in vain to write this essay) that the innards of creation are difficult to put into words and perhaps not as blog-worthy, but I have always been fascinated by the experience a musician has during the creation of a work. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking to others about “the process” of composition and how this can affect the music that one writes. But a surprising offshoot of this emphasis on the process was the discovery that it could also alter my personality and be a vehicle for personal growth if I remained open and aware during the tough, decision-making moments of any compositional practice. I find this insight very helpful in those moments when the “results” seem so important and potentially stressful.
Based on my experiences with the solitary spiritual practice of meditation, I have come to see how the practice of composition can give one the same opportunity to confront his/her vulnerabilities. We composers sit alone in a room focusing for long hours and making seemingly peaceful decisions. These decisions we make as we compose will not harm others, nor will they most likely be life-changing in the same way that a surgeon’s decision could alter a life dramatically. Yet how we behave and what we choose when we are alone in a room with no one watching is significant – these solitary moments can often reveal aspects of our character that we would much rather avoid. These decisions can set a precedent, positive or negative, for future decision-making and behavior which will extend far beyond the scope of composition into everyday living.
When composing we are bound to hit walls and obstacles which challenge us and force us to confront our weaknesses as composers, but also as human beings. To give one example, I and I know other composers have encountered those moments, when in the thick of composing we suddenly step back and realize that we are writing something that has already been written – and it could even be that we are rewriting our own music (!) or it could be someone else’s piece we really like. I believe that what happens next in this process is very important.
There are many options but I usually consider these four possibilities.
1) Go ahead with the composition as it is and hope no one will notice.
2) Throw it away!
3) Keep tweaking it and putting it through my personal "filter" until it has become something "new" and original.4) Acknowledge it and then make the piece an arrangement of the original.
I have at some point chosen each of these four options over the course of my career, but have opted for #3 most of the time. That is the one that feels honest to me. But maybe more important to me is to have been aware enough to come to this point where I recognize I need to make one of these choices, and to be fully open and conscious as I face the decision-making moment. What I have found is that if I am present and aware, I can not choose #1.
When challenged and confronted by our own limitations in the composition process, I see it as an opportunity to develop character. I would expect that if a person is in a room alone and follows a path of deceit, chances are pretty high that in the future it will be easy, maybe even habitual, to be dishonest. Small decisions like this can set a precedent for the future. If we are alone and no one is watching us, yet we do our best to see our motivations clearly and make honest decisions based on principle (and not on the pressure of an impending deadline for instance), then we end up leaving that room having become a better person. For me, this honest soul searching has become the greatest reason to practice composing – the process of composing with a vigilant, self-reflective mind can help me to become a better person, and thereby makes the world a better place. This may strike some of you as cheesy, but it’s an approach I have come to truly value.
Of course, the results of our compositions are of importance, but by giving the actual practice of composition a stronger emphasis, it can be meaningful to a composer on any level and at any time. It can take some of the pressure off needing to be successful all of the time, and allows one to appreciate the moment (even the painful ones!) by shifting the emphasis to an awareness of the process rather than focusing on simply achieving the goal. I have chosen composition for this essay because it’s what I do, but I believe that any activity where we are forced to deal with our own “inner game” can become an ethical and/or spiritual practice if we choose to make it so.
-- John Hollenbeck
The next two are linked: I wrote a little bit about a Charles McPherson gig, and Mark Stryker sent in his marvelous profile originally published in the Detroit Free Press.
The Real Bop (by ei)
Lou Donaldson likes to tell the young’uns, “If you could have heard the real bop, it would have scared you half to death.”
Charles McPherson is in town through Sunday at the Jazz Standard with Tom Harrell, Jeb Patton, Ray Drummond, and Willie Jones III. Last night the band was still learning the book but that was part of the charm: I watched McPherson navigate the mildly tricky changes of Harrell’s “Papaya Vacation” for what looked like the first time. The threading was still flawless but with just a hint more vulnerability than usual.
McPherson is 71; he's is only 19 years younger than Charlie Parker (and was 16 years old when Bird died). His style is distinct from Bird -- it’s more liquid and varied -- but McPherson has never felt the need to develop past pure bebop. He’s not a conservative musician, though: he was comfortable playing amidst all sorts of madnesses in Mingus’s band for at least a decade, and last night he took more chances than anyone else.
All the music was good, but the best pieces were the blues: McPherson’s “Bud Like” opened the set and Bird’s “Billie’s Bounce” closed it. On both McPherson was especially authoritative, swinging, and disjunct. You can never guess what a master bopper will play next, and when they hit it just right you feel the surprise in your solar plexus.
Ray Drummond always has exactly the right feel for this kind of music. I'm always more likely to go see any given straight-ahead jazz group if Drummond is holding it down.
In the 1950’s Grange Rutan was briefly married to another master bopper, Al Haig. Dizzy Gillespie nicknamed her “Lady Haig,” and that is the sobriquet she places proudly on the cover of her memoir Death of a Bebop Wife. The dead wife is not Rutan but Haig’s third wife Bonnie, who many believe was murdered by Haig while in a drunken rage.
Al Haig is on many important records with Charlie Parker. The fabulous Bird, Haig, Percy Heath, Max Roach date has been mentioned several times on this blog already. But I also enjoy the non-Bird trio sessions with Bill Crow and Lee Abrams from the same era, which is superior cocktail piano at its best. (This is not a criticism - I love superior cocktail piano.)
I’ve always wondered why there wasn’t more from or about Al Haig. Now I know.
Unfortunately, Rutan’s book is in need of a hard edit. Among many other distractions, a visit to a psychic is extraneous and surely the late Ross Russell would not be pleased with how his complete correspondence with Rutan is reproduced undigested. (“Dear Grange, thanks for your two notes and the jazzy Christmas card.”)
Ultimately, however, this book is hypnotic and overwhelming. I know of nothing else that shows the seamy underbelly of jazz like Death of Bebop Wife does. Among the unique items are Walter Bishop’s bad but heartfelt poem about his grief that a white pianist had the gig with Bird, trumpeter Bitsy Mullen’s description of a long threesome with a groupie (she said, “One-Way Haig,” when the pianist refused to give her oral sex), and Robert Sleckner’s disgusting “My So-Called Tribute.” (“The mattress Bonnie was found dead on I made into a sofa bed, and later, when I was a single person, I used it for my bed; I ignored the urine stain on the mattress and turned it over.”)
The book’s trajectory is non-linear, but Rutan is smart to put the long transcription of Haig’s grilling by detectives Kaytack, Sperlazzi, and Snack precisely at mid-point. It’s a brutal exhibit. Perhaps Haig is suffering from shock, but based on this document I suspect Haig was guilty: His story doesn’t make sense.
While Rutan is obviously exorcising her demons in respect to Haig the man, she offers nothing but love to Haig the musician, a sentiment echoed by many other great players throughout the book. In the end I found myself wanting to hear more Al Haig.
Reminiscing by Ear (by Mark Stryker)
CHICAGO -- Armed with a portable CD player and a small stack of discs, I set up shop in Charles McPherson's hotel suite here in the Windy City, where the veteran Detroit-bred alto saxophonist is in the midst of a recent weeklong stand at the Jazz Showcase. McPherson, one of the headliners at this week's Detroit International Jazz Festival, is one of the most potent musicians to emerge from Detroit's mid-century cauldron of bebop. He has had a major career, working extensively with giants like Charles Mingus and recording prolifically. Still, he remains a musician's musician rather than an industry star.
McPherson is not an innovator but a profound stylist instead, who has etched his own distinctive identity within the template of classic bebop. He is revered for the luminosity of his tone, the rapturous momentum of his improvisations and the cliche-free purity with which his phrasing channels the spirit and language of Charlie Parker. At 66, he's playing the most expressive and startling music of his career.
McPherson agreed to forego a typical interview in favor of an informal listening session -- an entertaining way to get inside the head of a jazz musician. Not only do you get an insider's view of the art, the discussion inevitably opens a window on aesthetic priorities and triggers memories of former associates and war stories. I chose recordings that mirror the broad arc of McPherson's career, from his Detroit roots and deep understanding of Parker to a landmark 1971 LP with Mingus and a late '90s CD that documents the current state of his art.
We meet at noon as McPherson's wife and 13-year-old daughter are leaving to explore downtown Chicago. McPherson settles into the sofa. He is of medium height, athletically built and, despite salt-and-pepper hair, looks a decade younger. The prodigious afro he once sported has been scaled back, but the bushy mustache remains. He is an enthusiastic and lucid conversationalist, his thoughts unwinding in complete paragraphs.
Barry Harris Quintet -- "Burgundy" from Newer Than New (Original Jazz Classics/Riverside) Sept. 28, 1961
No one was more responsible for McPherson's life in jazz than Barry Harris, the Detroit-born pianist and bebop guru who mentored countless musicians in Detroit and later in New York. McPherson was 15 when he began studying with Harris, who was 10 years older. McPherson made his recording debut in a small role with Mingus in 1960, but this 1961 date with Harris was his coming out LP. He was 22.
Harris' breezy original "Burgundy" opens with Latin rhythms before shifting into a swinging groove for solos. A look of concern falls across McPherson's face. "I haven't heard this in 30 years," he says. "I'm scared to listen to me."
A suave piano solo draws praise, and so does 21-year-old trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, another Harris disciple from Detroit. Little known, Hillyer died of cancer in 1985. "He wasn't a bravura trumpet player," McPherson says. "But he played as well or better than a lot of others in terms of the loftiness of the musical statement."
McPherson's playing lacks the sagacity, strength and individualism of his mature work, and he grows increasingly uncomfortable listening. He makes me stop the disc halfway through his solo. "I hear so many things that are immature in my sound and the timidity of the playing," he says. "I hear too much caution, which speaks of an insecurity. It's not easy to sound good young, and some of it has to do with the equipment - the mouthpiece, the horn. I can tell my mouthpiece is too small. I didn't know any better."
McPherson grew up on Detroit's west side, near Harris and the Blue Bird Inn, the epicenter of Detroit's modern jazz scene in the 1950s. McPherson soaked up the sounds nightly in front of the club "Barry would come out on the break and one day he said to come by his house where he'd hold court. We'd ask questions like, 'What do you play here and what scales go with this kind of a dominant 7th chord?' He was exploring for himself and showed us what he was finding.
"Pretty soon I was going over there every day. There was an aura of intellectuality in Barry's house. Barry would do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day, and he'd zip through it. He was a reader. One day I came home from school and I had my report card, and he asked to see it. I was a C student; I didn't try for anything more than that. He saw the C's and he said, 'You're quite average, aren't you?' I said, 'Well, I'm passing.'
"He said, 'You can't be average and play the kind of music you're trying to learn. There's too much going on. Charlie Parker is not average. Your heroes are above average.' It was like a little epiphany. It totally changed my life. I put in more effort and instead of being a C student I got A's. I started getting interested in literature. I read Henry Miller's 'Tropic of Capricorn,' and I started reading philosophers, for instance, Francis Bacon, Kant, Schopenhauer. In Detroit, in this bebop niche we had, to be considered hip meant that you had to know about Charlie Parker and people like that, but you also had to know about Kant and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell, and you had to know about art. We were like 17.
"People like Barry and (baritone saxophonist) Pepper Adams were so smart that we learned about bebop and all that. But they were able to say, 'Oh, Marc Chagall painted that.' That influenced us."
Charlie Parker -- "Willis" from The Washington Concerts (Blue Note) Feb. 22, 1953
Fifty years after his death in 1955 at age 34, alto saxophonist Charlie (Bird) Parker remains a pervasive influence. Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were the architects of modern jazz (or bebop) in the 1940s, but Parker was the movement's Prometheus and its defining virtuoso. Musicians gravitate toward Parker's bootleg nightclub recordings because, unshackled by the constraints of the 3-minute record, he stretches out for thrilling chorus after chorus. The best performances reveal streaks of demonic inspiration, and freedom he rarely matched in the studio.
Parker's one-nighter with a Washington, D.C., big band finds him soloing brilliantly without benefit of a rehearsal or music, coping on the fly with unexpected key modulations and breaks in the arrangements. His ears are so sharp he hears around corners, soaring over the pedestrian charts like an Icarus immune from the sun. McPherson's delirious style is rooted in this wilder Parker. He is enthralled by the solo on "Willis," a bebop tune based on the harmonies of "Pennies from Heaven." Parker's sly quote from Stravinsky's "Petrushka" brings a knowing smile, and McPherson marks the end of startling double-time passages by saying, "Beautiful!" Parker's phrases grow daringly long and asymmetric, notes explode from the horn like fireworks and his tone thickens into a songful wail.
"What can you say?" begins McPherson. "It's virtuosity. It's musicality. It's imagination. It's intellect. It's emotion. It's perfect instrumental playing and creative spontaneity."
What do you hear in Bird's playing that others may overlook?
"I hear the rhythm. Now, people hear technique and virtuosity, and I certainly hear that. Charlie Parker was so proficient in so many ways you can take your pick. But to me, the area of rhythm and phrasing is what is so spectacular. There are two things that give you variety: sequence and rhythm. When you think about musical phrases, sequence and rhythm give you animation. When you're improvising, you want a balance of tension and release rhythmically but also harmonically and melodically.
"Bird does all those things really well. The balance of tension and release gives you surprise. Starting phrases on odd parts of the beat creates tension -- not starting on a downbeat because that's what people expect.
"You can slice the beat into little bitty pieces and start a phrase at the 16th note or 32nd note level. Bird is great at that. This is what I want to do, and this is what great players do. I like to be totally rhythmically free. I like to think like a drummer. Harmony is a given, but the main event is how I phrase the harmony. More important is how I put everything together and the story I'm telling. The main event is the human soul being expressed."
Charles Mingus -- "The Chill of Death" from Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia) Nov. 18, 1971
McPherson joined bassist-composer Charles Mingus in 1960 shortly after arriving in New York. He and Hillyer were recommended to Mingus by former Detroiter Yusef Lateef. Mingus auditioned them at an afternoon jam session at a coffeehouse, hired them on the spot and had them report to work that night. Mingus' aesthetic was gloriously chaotic. Lush Ellingtonian colors collided with roiled textures, searing intensity and extended forms. Mingus also loved Charlie Parker and in McPherson found a fresh disciple to fold into his sound world.
Let My Children Hear Music, a masterpiece with an expansive ensemble of winds, brass and strings, includes a Mingus recitation of his own heart-of-darkness poem to dense and brooding accompaniment. McPherson then improvises freely against a hallucinatory backdrop. "Oh, wow," McPherson says softly at the sound of Mingus' voice: The chill of death as she clutched my hand/ I knew she was coming so I stood like a man.
McPherson was given no music and told to react to the abstract sound around him. "This is pretty good," he says. "It didn't make me cringe. What I'm consigned to do is not easy. There's no (standard harmony) or sequential construction. And look what this is about: The emotions are foreboding, mystery and fear. How do you play that? I don't know if melodicism is what you need. Dissonance might be what's called for. I did some of this fairly well, but there were some areas where I think I get too tonal. If I did this now, I'd be less concerned with trying to be melodic. I'd think about how to melodically handle dissonance."
McPherson worked with Mingus off and on for a dozen years, and it was often stressful. Mingus was a large, Buddha-shaped man and famously volatile, known for firing musicians at will, carrying a knife, berating audiences and resolving conflict with his fists. "Our first night on the gig at the Showplace, Mingus proceeded to tear up a Steinway grand piano because the club owner owed him money. He went in and pulled the strings out of the piano one by one.
"And then he wanted to kill (saxophonist) Eric Dolphy because he was quitting the band. He reached in his pocket and got his knife, and said (imitates Mingus' gruff rumble): 'Eric, get your knife out.' And Eric who was a very sweet and intelligent person, said, 'Aw, Mingus, I don't have no knife.' Mingus says, 'Well, wait a minute. I'll buy you one.' And he goes to a store across the street and buys a knife and comes back and says, 'OK, we're each going to kill each other right now.' Eric says, 'Oh, Mingus, c'mon.' Of course nothing happened. That was my first gig."
Charles McPherson --"Fire Dance" from Manhattan Nocturne (Arabesque) April 1997
McPherson recorded three CDs for Arabesque in the 1990s, teaming with front-rank rhythm sections and essaying original songs, jazz classics and standard ballads. A whirlpool of Afro-Cuban rhythms defines McPherson's "Fire Dance," and his solo unleashes a tsunami of melody on top of a propulsive vamp. "I'm glad I stopped before I ran out of ideas," he says. "I've heard things where I thought it would have been better to stop a chorus or two earlier. If you compare this to that first solo you played, at least I can say that there is a progression toward better playing of the horn and just playing music better.
"You gotta have the wedding of head and heart. Your technique has to be up to par so that when inspiration fails, technique saves you. And you may have inspiration but you gotta have the technique to execute. It's left and right brain, intellect and emotion. The combination makes for the best art. When you practice, that's the conscious mind. You're learning mundane things: academics, the idiom, instrumental technique. But when you perform, you should play from the unconscious mind.
"The act of playing is an act of humility. The conscious mind has to sit to the side and observe the show. When you learn to do that you are no longer a prisoner of your own empirical experiences - I am a man. I am a white man. I am a black man. You're no longer restricted. Now you can plug into what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious.
If you can plug into that, you can play above your empirical experience. The connections are already there. The real act of creation and genius is when you can do that."
-- Mark Stryker