Variants On a Theme of Thelonious Monk
(including guest post by Eric Lewis)
(Anthology of previous DTM, slightly re-edited. The first piece is from April 2011, the rest of my stuff is from August and September 2012, ELEW's piece is from October 2012.
Thelonious Monk was simultaneously the height of tradition, the sum product of centuries of tradition from at least two genres; he was also so personal that he remains one of the few pianists that can be identified in a single note.
The following diverse strands seem to work pretty well in sequence, although they were not originally meant to go together.)
At 84, Martial Solal’s tremendous piano technique remains astonishingly fluid. The octaves are tossed off like single notes, the right hand cascades are precise, the left hand bounds about like a well-trained poodle.
I’ve never really connected with Solal on record, and regrettably last night’s solo recital in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center left me equally unmoved. However, he is a dedicated improvisor, so “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Cherokee,” “Corcovado,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and other standards will be entirely different on another night. A close friend assures me that sometimes he enters a phenomenal space and then all bets are off. That almost happened when an entrancing polyrhythm began churning on “Tea for Two.” His diffuse but sincere medley of “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Caravan” was good too.
Martial Solal is about to play a week at the Village Vanguard; all New York lovers of interesting piano music should go see a set.
But even on his best day, the constant cutesy endings must be a problem. To conclude a pointlessly abstract, incomplete “Begin the Beguine” (a wonderful song which must be played all the way through and fairly straight to make sense), he blasted off a left hand Hanon exercise in B major underneath a quote of the old blues “Frankie and Johnny” in C. Why do this? As a dumb joke? I don’t get it.
I admit I was in a bad mood. This concert was the final event of the 2010/2011 series Jazz Up Close Celebrates Thelonious Monk. Geri Allen, Randy Weston, and artistic director Danilo Perez also performed as part of this Monk-themed series. Last night Perez was on hand to have a pre-performance chat with Solal, and naturally Perez asked Solal how he responded to Monk.
Solal said he was impressed that Monk wore a hat onstage, but obviously Monk wasn’t a serious pianist. A composer, sure, but not someone who could make it in the Conservatoire.
Solal is not the only virtuoso who has dismissed Monk. Oscar Peterson and Lennie Tristano did as well. Still, I was deeply offended that Solal chose this time and place, the last gig of the Monk series, to air this opinion. When will Thelonious Sphere Monk get the respect he deserves?
Solal’s opinion is simply wrong, anyway. Piano technique doesn't just mean playing fast, it means playing with great time, emotional projection, and a full tone. Who had better piano technique than Thelonious Monk?
Solal rummaged around inside “‘Round Midnight” during his set, smacking a few clusters and transposing themes into other keys. The audience murmured appreciatively, but all I could think of was Monk’s solo version recorded in 1954 just days after Solal and Monk met and played back to back at the Salle Pleyel.
Update, December 2012: Red Sullivan believes that I misunderstood this interaction, and offered some relevant quotes:
Solal: "If Monk one Monday morning woke up, went to the piano and played like Tatum, there is not Monk any more. He had his sound because of his type of technique. So this is not automatically bad. But to lose the technique is bad, because when you lose technique, you still play what you have in your mind. You will play the same thing.
“But I have been very influenced by Monk. More than people believe. The way he thinks about the music and the way he was free about certain rules of the music interested me a lot. I love anyone who has personality, a strong style, le passion d’etre. And I repeat, I like only musicians who have a personal way".
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that Monk is an effective interpreter of his own music?
SOLAL: Il ne pas comprende.
INTERVIEWER (2nd attempt): Do you think that Monk plays his own music with the proper technique?
SOLAL: Of course.
Before Solal came on I had to endure an hour of college jazz students reading down Monk music.
The kids were good musicians, destined to become professionals. However, the printed program (and Perez) claimed they were playing charts from the famous Town Hall concert. That wasn't true: they mostly used contemporary, normalized lead sheets. The one big band arrangement, “Little Rootie Tootie” was not Hall Overton’s stark transcription (and highlight of Monk at Town Hall), but some bland version influenced by Perez’s Panamonk. Like everyone else, I enjoy Panamonk, but I was really laying for that Overton arrangement.
And despite their burgeoning professionalism, the students showed no understanding of what makes Monk “Monk.”
What makes him so hard to play? For my money he is the most poorly-performed jazz composer. Walking around defeatedly after the gig, I came up with some possible answers.
Monk's material is always derived from the purest of jazz traditions, but his displaced accents and stark voicings are sometimes thought of as connected to European modernism. Indeed, Monk is a father figure to the avant-garde. But Monk’s own music is not pointillist, Webern-esque, or even particularly abstract. It is hardcore jazz with roots in the blues and Kansas City swing. Getting abstract with Monk can work -- the George Russell/Eric Dolphy "'Round Midnight" comes to mind -- but to do so takes serious consideration.
Monk’s surrealism has been interpreted as clowning around or startling. “Oh, look! I just clanged a minor second! Isn’t that funny!” The Tom Lord discography lists songs called, “Monkin’ Around,” “Monkin’ Business,” “Monk-ing Around,” and “Monking Business.” To the composers of these works I say: Fuck you. Monk never monkeyed around or did any monkey business. Sure, some of his renditions of standards like “Remember” or “Just A Gigolo” are among the greatest examples of jazz surrealism ever recorded. But they are still serious. And his clanging minor seconds come straight from boogie-woogie and Harlem stride, not the circus.
Monk’s music is more specific than many realize. Monk had very little to do with paper, although he could read music very well and write it, too. He just thought that paper missed the point, because you needed to learn it from him to get it all, and how was paper going to help you do that? Beginning with Miles Davis, many Monk interpreters have muddled the details.
Monk’s rhythmic concept is strong, obvious, and profound, and if you take that away, you miss the point entirely. Once in a while a ballad is out of tempo, although, even then, there is never any doubt as to where “one” is. Most of the time it marches and undulates, and there is also an Afro-Cuban or Caribbean element, brought out on Danilo Perez’s aforementioned Panamonkand Jerry Gonzales and the Fort Apache Band. But Perez and Gonzales really know what they are doing. The average jam session version of "Bemsha Swing" rendered as a humorous latin number evades the deeper meaning of Monk's special feel.
Am I saying that no one but Monk should play his music? No, he’s a great composer and a signal stylist who should be fair game for anybody.
Still, there are only two Monk tribute albums that I keep in steady rotation, and both of them feature special performances by great drummers. Evidence by Steve Lacy and Don Cherry has a divine turn by Billy Higgins. The horn solos are excellent, too, although they incorrectly reduce the melody of “Evidence” to a simple hemiola. (Who is Carl Brown? This mysterious bassist plays great, too.) I also appreciate Tommy Flanagan’s thoughtful Thelonica with George Mraz, especially for a rare occasion to hear Art Taylor swinging so hard in the early 80’s.
However, Flanagan was regrettably part of one of the least successful Monk performances I’ve ever experienced, the duo with Barry Harris in the movie Straight, No Chaser. It’s not that Flanagan and Harris aren’t heavy, or that this version of “Well, You Needn’t” is so bad. In its way it’s very good -- How could it not be, with Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris playing the piano?
But after an hour of Thelonious Monk on video, Flanagan and Harris look and sound like cocktail pianists. Monk is a major 20th Century stylist and artist: Every word, every suit, every song title, and (especially) every note was thought out and delivered with maximum intensity. It would have been unfair to make any other modern jazz pianist follow Monk and play one of his tunes in Straight No Chaser.
To their credit, Flanagan and Harris couldn’t get on a bandstand without swinging. Martial Solal can swing, too, but he doesn’t seem to take that technique seriously enough. At least, I could have used a bit more of it from him last night, especially after he said that Monk couldn’t play the piano.
My experience at the Kimmel began well. When I went in the foyer was packed with people sampling wine and dancing to the oldies, a state of affairs probably envied by other centralized PACs. It was a PIFA: Family Fun Weekend, and my “rush” ticket was only $10 -- I expected to pay at least three times as much. (But I wasn’t told about the hour of student Monk I’d have to sit through, either.)
The really exciting event was getting to hear Robin D.G. Kelley’s pre-concert talk. I’ve spent this whole post bitching about Monk interpretation and reception, so it’s high time to acknowledge Kelley’s sensational book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. The inexpensive paperback edition is just out: everyone who enjoys DTM should buy it. A couple of unedited extras are available on the book’s website; see especially the material on “Eronel” and the Five Spot.
Kelley’s book was released around the same time as Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops.
Teachout positions Armstrong not just as a jazz musician, but as an overwhelmingly important figure in popular culture. (This great book is out in paperback, too.)
Kelley’s repositioning of Monk is less obvious but just as important. In Kelley’s view, Monk was not just the product but an integral part of a vibrant black jazz culture. (Go here to look at a photo featured in Kelley's slideshow: Monk in Brooklyn in 1952 or 53 -- where the NYPD didn’t enforce their cabaret card policy, and where most of the patrons were black.) Kelley’s work can only help future interpreters of the Sphere songbook, for keeping this culture in mind should be crucial when considering Monk.
Kelley is a charismatic speaker and his presentation drew a respectable audience. The audio tracks were three of the best: “Evidence” solo from ’54 (dig how the first bar is only an octave D yet somehow we hear the whole E-flat chord), “Monk’s Mood” with Coltrane at Carnegie (they take so much time with each phrase!) and the Overton transcription of “Rootie Tootie” from Town Hall (since I missed it at the gig, at least I heard it at the talk).
To go back to the idea of Monk’s technique: my one quibble with Kelley is how much time he spends defending Monk’s pianism on European grounds, even going so far as to claim that Monk played Chopin études at home. Well, Monk could read music well, and all pianists of any inclination play through some Chopin occasionally, so that’s no surprise. But ultimately that defense is misguided, because it implies that playing Chopin is harder than playing Monk. It is not.
Rules of Grammar
The most widely-circulated modern jazz fakebook in history was the Fifth Edition of The Real Book. On page 454, Thelonious Monk's first name is misspelled three times. That's a shame, but at one time that tricky moniker was hardly ever spelled right. Even important Monk supporter LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) writes "Thelonius" throughout the essential 60's era book Black Music.
The familiar typo is bad enough, but I suspect that the composer would have been even more bothered by how almost every single bar in the chart is wrong.
Not that inaccuracies in the pitches were something new, either. According to the Tom Lord discography, there are 413 recorded versions of "Well You Needn't." I wonder how many of them go to G for the bridge instead of D-flat. If there is any justice D-flat will be in the majority...but I'm dubious. I've heard so much G over the years.
The perpetrator of the G major fiction was Miles Davis. His first recording in 1954 with Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey had far more circulation than Monk's previous trio rendition in 1947. (Interesting to remember both of these Blue Note versions were for 78 or 45 rpm "singles" and not on LP until later.) Miles and Horace are moody and beautiful: I'd forgive the violations more easily if they hadn't been so influential. In addition to the completely wrong bridge, Miles plays the pickups to the first melody of A incorrectly, using B natural and C, just like the chart above. (Monk's notes are G-sharp and A.) However, Miles does at least get the rhythm of the first bar right: the high C is on the beat, not anticipated à la the Fifth Edition.
(Mark Stryker pointed out that the slightly later Miles quintet version was even more popular and influential than this quartet, although I've personally always known the quartet better, and actually prefer it to this day.)
In my masterclasses, someone always plays Monk, and I usually complain about it. I wrote last week on DTM:
The excellent pianist David Rysphan came by last week, and wrote about it on his blog. I had met David but it had been a few years and in another country. He was a familiar face, though, so after he played a solid version of "I Mean You" I asked him, "Haven't you been here before? Don't you know better than to play Monk in my class?"
I am a hardline conservative when it comes to Monk's music. My standard yowl of pain is, "Would you change the notes to a Mozart sonata? So why do you change the harmony to a Monk song?"
David, bless his heart, was playing G minor in bar five under the melody. I hasten to add, this is also how Kenny Barron and McCoy Tyner and a host of worthy others play it as well! But it's 2012: in my opinion it is time to start treating Monk's texts with fidelity.
In bar five, Monk plays F instead of G minor. After D-flat and D, he "incorrectly" makes the bass go back to the tonic rather than circling around. It's the kind of detail that makes his music sound like Monk, not just some other "jazz."
Of course on solos, even he puts the II/V in there, but still there can be the echo of the "wrong" move.
While that missive didn't stop someone new from playing "Think of One" with generic chords yesterday, it did get some amusing action on Twitter.
Corey Mwamba (@coreymwamba) began the party by asking,
Do you get upset about "Well You Needn't" as well?
Yes, that one has been especially mutilated since Miles
Andre Canniere (@andrecanniere) jumped in and said,
Miles goes to G7 in the bridge, Monk goes to Db7
To which I responded,
is it Db7? OR SOMETHING STARKER
There was various comments by Canniere, Mwamba, and Matt Mitchell (@mattmitchellus), who said:
maybe no 7th? 6/9 chord instead? Going totally on memory
or maybe no 6
I was silent, enjoying the discussion, waiting. Finally, Vijay Iyer (@vijayiyer) delivered some serious science:
there's a blindfold test with monk where he talks about it...
"It starts with a D-flat Major 9" - Thelonious Monk
Jazz musicians have a gift for messing up the simplest things: Freddie Freeloader, All Blues, Blue Bossa...
And since these are the tunes young players learn on, they also learn that no one actually listens carefully.
So, what is the chord that opens the bridge of "Well You Needn't?" I don't think it is D-flat major 9, myself -- although thanks to Vijay for reminding me of that quote! (That whole blindfold test is great.)
After all, is that quote totally accurate? Phineas Newborn doesn't play D-flat, he goes to G. Monk is quoted as saying, "He hit the inside wrong - didn't have the right changes. It's supposed to be major ninths, and he's playing ninths." (walks to the piano, demonstrates) "It starts with a D-flat Major 9 . . . See what I mean?"
Doesn't it seem like something is missing?
At any rate, however he said it, I personally can't imagine Monk playing a sustained chord with a C in it to describe the bridge of "Well You Needn't."
C as a passing tone, sure. Monk played that sometimes. He also played C-flat in passing, too, like (as Canniere pointed out) on the first recording.
But Monk tended not to play either seventh much in that bar, or indeed in any bar of the parallel harmony D-flat, D, E-flat, E...
I've just spent a little time listening to Monk's saxophonists. Since Coltrane played so much stuff all the time, he's always a good one to check out for the changes. According to legend, Coltrane was nodding out on heroin so Monk has to yell his name to wake up and solo. (The form is quite precarious for a moment.) Coltrane pretty much avoids sevenths on the bridge, but if I had to make a ruling, I'd say it was more of a dominant sound than major seventh.
On the other hand, Charlie Rouse definitely plays some dominants. Still, those Rouse dominants seem less frequent than sixths, which is what Monk mostly uses too.
In my opinion, the harmony of the bridge is low D-flat, an F a tenth above that, and an E-flat above that. Three notes; even the fifth is superfluous, although Monk does use an A-flat pretty frequently. (I would have signed off on Matt Mitchell's second tweet.)
If I had to write it, I wouldn't say D-flat seven, major seven, or even 6/9. I'd just say D-flat.
To their credit, that's how it is in the Steve Cardenas/Don Sickler Thelonious Monk Fake Book.
All this talk of the bridge, what of the A? Well, that is also a particularly weird one. Gene Ramey unquestionably plays F to G-flat on the first recording, and of course that's what everyone else has always played since. In Monk's own band (but hardly anywhere else) that move was expanded to F, G-flat, F, E-flat, etc. by Wilbur Ware, a hip idea also used by Butch Warren and Larry Gales.
But you have to listen to the bassists to get the F to G-flat chromatic vibe. Monk doesn't any of that in his low left hand: rather, he has a wonderful wandering line that he even occasonally put into a low horn. While soloing, Monk's right hand hardly ever strays to G-flat, usually remaining in F throughout.
Comping is a different story: you can hear the G-flat in Monk's high-register comping.
Bassist Putter Smith played with Monk several times near the end. When he asked Monk if he should play F alternating with G-flat or just F, Monk shrugged and said, "Mix it up."
The point of all this, by the way, is not to slavishly imitate Monk when playing his music. The point is to find yourself through immersion in authentic canonical detail.
Miles, Horace, Percy: in 1954 they all were already canon. Those in my class aren't similarly consecrated.
I always appreciate it when students show genuine concern about learning the details. One time Shimrit Shoshan brought in a bootleg of Monk practicing "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" and I was truly impressed: Talk about the right kind of apple for the teacher!
I didn't know her well, and never heard her play outside of a few tunes at class. But I loved her direction and told her so. She was into not just Monk but Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Andrew Hill. 1950's piano madness, the blacker and weirder the better.
Honestly, I thought the only thing potentially holding her back was her stunning good looks, an asset I've seen become a debit more than a few times in the relentlessly hetero male NYC jazz scene. But I wasn't too worried, and looked forward to hearing what she had figured out in a few years.
I'm sure everyone who knew her was astonished to hear of her sudden passing today. The last time I saw her she was young, healthy, and vibrant. But I've talked to a few folks and the sad news is 100% confirmed.
While finding her path, Shimrit would have definitely formed an opinion about the bridge of "Well You Needn't." I feel really down that I can't find out what it was or would have been.
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.
However, 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 even 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.
Please the Commitee
It's no secret that the jazz economy is in a slump. In particular, if you play straight-ahead acoustic jazz, there are far fewer gigs than ever.
In recent years I've spoken to many great professional musicians who have needed to leave New York and begin teaching elsewhere in order to survive. The ratio of jazz college progams to jazz clubs is now absurdly inbalanced.
From what I know of jazz education, the issue of audience development is seldom addressed. A few times a year I see a "How do we develop the jazz audience?" essay on the internet. Usually the system is held up to blame in some way. Rarely is it suggested that the musicians themselves are on the hook to create engaging art that an audience demands to hear again and again.
In Bill Kirchner's recent interview he says some interesting things, including how he tells students, "You need to improvise a career like you improvise jazz." But I believe that sort of insight is comparatively rare.
I'm bringing all this up because the details of next Thelonious Monk competition have been announced. If there is a valid art form, lots of young talent, and no gigs, competitions are the next logical step.
While I know and deeply respect some major players that have won jazz competitions, I firmly believe there is a dark side to getting judged for your art.
There have been competitions in classical music for many years now, and few observers would argue they have been good for true artistic excellence. The Ivory Trade: Music and the Business of Music at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition by Joseph Horowitz is highly recommended. When in Warsaw recently, I bought several CDs by Polish pianists who had all either won or judged in the International Chopin Piano Competition. The CDs were bland, and I left them in my hotel room. If I were trying to find my voice as a Chopin pianist, I might want to stay away. [DTM: Warsaw Rhapsody.]
It's deeply ironic that Thelonious Monk is the name taken for our biggest jazz competition. Read Robin D.G. Kelley's book. This man was frequently rejected by his peers. He didn't have regular gigs until the late 50's. He won over the hearts and minds of the general audience before many musicians accepted him. He is still controversial in some circles.
Roy Haynes, Ben Riley, Peter Erskine, Carl Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington and Brian Blade are the judges for this year's Monk drum competition. Fine. I almost fell asleep while copying that list, but, fine. Two elderly authentic Monk drummers and four seasoned pros that can play anything.
Perhaps it's the "play anything" aspect that really bothers me. Monk couldn't play anything. He could only play one thing, Monk. And that one thing burned bright enough that anyone of any background could understand that it was beautiful...
...Unless just enough was known about the "right" way to play mainstream jazz in order to judge Monk "wrong."
Monk wouldn't have been a semifinalist in his own competition.
Everyone who reads this will already understand everything I just wrote. Why am I bothering?
I think it is because I don't know any of the drummer semifinalists: Dor Herskovits, Noam Israeli, Kristijan Krajncan, Martin Krümmling, Julian Külpmann, Justin Brown, Dustin Kaufman, Abe Lagrimas, Jr., Kyle Poole, Jamison Ross, Colin Stranahan and Oscar Suchanek. It is exciting to think about a dozen cats who might be really, really great. We need charismatic and idionsycratic drummers for the music to move forward. All the most innovative and most popular jazz is deeply connected to the drums.
If any of those dozen are thinking outside the box, my sympathies. I would break a cold sweat trying to play my jazz in a way to win a competition judged by those six legends and professionals. ("Ok, play 'Confirmation' in front of Carl Allen in order to make the money. Go!")
We need more audience for jazz, and the way to get that audience is not to play jazz correctly. The way to get that audience is to make essential new music.
In 2012, trying to win a competition is probably seen as a valid career path for young players. Perhaps it is. But even though it will give them sleepless nights, I sincerely hope that at least some of these semifinalists, whether they win, place, or get knocked out right away, have bigger fish to fry than just playing jazz "correctly."
How Many Dominant Sevenths Does It Take to Win a Monk Competition?
In the wake of posting about "Well You Needn't," I've kept thinking about Thelonious Monk's chord progressions. My proposal that Monk didn't play dominant or major sevenths on the bridge could have extended to the A sections, as there is no F7 in the first bar. While dominants do show up in the middle and end (the whole note left hand “thumb line” uses both sevenths), the "F7" at the top of the Real Book chart is just as wrong as everything else.
At least since Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, it has become standard to include a seventh in almost all chords used in conventional jazz. But Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and other canonical greats used plenty of triads and sixth chords.
Adding a seventh to a chord allows for a scalar approach to improvised melody. Each seventh chord has a related chord scale. Using a scale is a great way to play -- but it is not the only way.
Sometimes chord scale playing can result in a tame, standardized way to improvise, where everything sounds the same. Looking at what Monk really played can be inspiring when searching for other solutions.
My argument against competitions is basically same thing. To my ears, there had been an astonishing amount of agreement about what jazz really is in most youthful swinging jazz since 1990. That agreement was one reason I rebelled against it. I just couldn’t see it as the jazz tradition -- not my jazz tradition, anyway. I was delighted to be lifted out of the discussion entirely by Reid Anderson and David King in 2001.
It is crucial to remember that my writing on DTM reflects my own experience, passions, and blind spots. On Twitter and in the forum, several competition veterans said they played exactly how they wanted to play, in a non-conventional manner, and won anyway.
Kudos. I could have never won a competition. Indeed, my joke about playing “Confirmation” in front of Carl Allen was loaded with my own fears. Even though I’ve recorded “Confirmation” twice, with Billy Hart and Tootie Heath, I still wouldn’t want to play that in front of a bebop jury. Forget it! You couldn’t pay me enough.
And that’s who my post “Please the Commitee” was for: not the idiosyncratic talent with enough chops to win anyway, but those looking for something more vulnerable, don’t have those chops, and are wondering if they should think more about passing the bar. In my opinion, don’t worry about passing the bar. Keep looking inside yourself. We have enough cats who can play, but not enough that connect with the bigger canvas of music, the arts, and life in general.
Several took my sleepiness at the drum jury to mean I didn’t like those drummers. Not at all! I'm devoted to Haynes, hired Riley, have a possessive love towards Erskine, stood in my seat and cheered Blade, told Allen his quarter notes on the snare for a chorus with Ron Carter made my week, just dug a video with Terri Lyne. But that committee doesn't seem likely to promote wild-cards over straight solids. Maybe I'm wrong. (I hope so.)
Let me put it this way: If I was on that jury, it would be impossible for me not to agree with whatever Roy Haynes and Ben Riley said. I love and respect them too much. I could not look them in the eye and and disagree with them.
And Haynes and Riley are old and potentially cranky. Just one Ben Riley story: Some time ago, a great straight-ahead pianist was playing a week with Riley. Before the second night, two minutes before the set, Riley growled at the pianist, “Don’t play any of that Herbie Hancock shit.”
I hired Buster Williams and Ben Riley last year for a couple of nights at Smalls, because I love them so much, I’m studying jazz, and I want to get a last taste of that kind of swinging greatness while it is on the planet. I also modified my playing in the extreme, in a way I couldn’t have when I was competition age.
I also, it must be said, got my ass kicked. I advise everyone to hire Williams and Riley while they can.
Of course Riley doesn’t want to hear any “Herbie Hancock shit.” And he’s also right! There’s too much Herbie out there now, everyone plays like that. Indeed, for my money, there is too much Herbie in the pianist he was talking about.
Whether he’s right about “Herbie Hancock shit” or not, he’s almost certainly not open to a bunch of new music, and why should he be? He played the new music with Monk and others in the 60’s.
I am glad Ben Riley is getting paid, though. When people have asked me to judge competitions, I’m astonished at the red carpet offered. Big money, a gig, swanky hotel, star treatment, etc. (I always turn it down, for obvious reasons.)
Ben Riley deserves all the red carpet he can get. I just wish he didn’t have to weigh in on the relative merits of youthful talent to get it.
I know, of course, that DTM is not going to stop jazz competitions! And, honestly, I wouldn’t want that responsibility, either. Surely some good does come out of them.
But I’d like room to keep asking the tough questions. Do competitions grow our audience? Do they help innovation? Are schools that train the young to win competitions a vicious cycle?
Those scoffing at those queries should look at the much longer history of classical piano competitions. Again, I recommend The Ivory Trade: Music and the Business of Music at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition by Joseph Horowitz, but admittedly that's from a few years ago now. More recently and online there is 2009's "The Dark Side of Piano Competitions" by Michael Johnson and 2010's "Extreme Chopin" by Paul Wells.
There’s also a superb chapter by Charles Rosen in Piano Notes, “Conservatories and Contests,” which is shockingly honest about how some of the committee’s decisions get made.
On one occasion, many years ago at the piano competition at Leeds, I was on the jury: one pianist gave a tremendous showing of himself in the first round, and played very poorly in the second. My feeling was that one splendid performance deserves further hearing, and I lobbied successfully to have him succeed to the next stage. (You are not supposed to lobby on the jury...but it is almost always done.) He was subsequently voted into the final almost unanimously...
On this occasion the jury could not have been more distinguished...They disagreed radically about almost every contestant...It was Annie Fischer, a pianist for whom I (like almost everyone else) had the utmost admiration, who gave a good mark to the pianist I thought should get another chance; she was rather taken with a good-looking Korean contestant, so I voted for her candidate and she voted for mine. In the next round, I was sitting next to her while the Korean was playing, and she turned to me and said softly: “He isn’t very good, is he?” “No,” I replied, trying to invest my reply with the proper melancholy.
Perhaps jazz judges are always above being swayed by personal interests, sex, sex appeal, race, and other earthly matters when looking for the “best.” At any rate, none of those factors matter to Haynes, Riley, Erskine, Blade, Carrington, or Allen, right?
They don't matter to me, anyway. I'm above all that. I promise! Especially if I'm getting paid five grand to judge you and I'm playing a gig later in front of the winner.
Joking aside, it’s certainly true that as a contestant I’d rather play for jazz cats than uptight classical musicians. At least with the jazz cats some fluffs are allowed, and, if all else fails, you can play some blues.
Still On the Moon
Patrick Jarenwattananon offered an ABS think piece about the Monk competition, bouncing off my own posts here and here. The comments section includes some spicy bits.
I remain surprised that my posts have been this controversial. “Artistic competitions have a dark side” is a supremely obvious truth from where I sit.
PJ seems to think the list of winners and finishers offers hope. Pianist Eric Lewis, a winner, says flatly in the comments, “Competition stimulates economic growth.”
That’s not what I see. I look at the list and marvel how many names I haven’t heard of. Did any of these bright talents get discouraged and out of the game thanks to the post-competition blues? Of the names I do know, some virtuosos got pushed forward in the industry thanks to the win. Would they -- and by extension, the overall charisma, economic growth, and audience development of this music -- have been better served by being a late bloomer, not a competition winner?
Just to be extra clear, I admire most of the winners and the finalists that I have heard. Some of them are friends of mine -- I hope we are still friends after all my ranting! I'm not asking if any one player isn't really great, I'm asking if the whole system is rigged to keep jazz in the margins. I began all this with the main point:
It's no secret that the jazz economy is in a slump. In particular, if you play straight-ahead acoustic jazz, there are far fewer gigs than ever.
In recent years I've spoken to many great professional musicians who have needed to leave New York and begin teaching elsewhere in order to survive. The ratio of jazz college progams to jazz clubs is now absurdly inbalanced.
From what I know of jazz education, the issue of audience development is seldom addressed. A few times a year I see a "How do we develop the jazz audience?" essay on the internet. Usually the system is held up to blame in some way. Rarely is it suggested that the musicians themselves are on the hook to create engaging art that an audience demands to hear again and again.
Those are the kind of questions I was trying to ask -- and will keep asking! How many of the Monk finalists can regularly fill 200-seat theaters across America? Do any of them sell more than a few thousand records these days? In Eric Lewis’s case, I believe he became obvious to the general public only after becoming ELEW and branding himself as the inventor of “Rockjazz.” I’d like to hear more from him on navigating a successful postmodern career.
Another good question remains, “Who is judging and what are the criteria?” The drummers are up again in 2012. The last time there were drummers, 20 years ago, Harold Summey beat Jorge Rossy. At the time, I heard a lot about how the committee refused to give it to Jorge because he was from Spain. (Not from the modest Jorge himself, but from others.) Certainly the photo-op with Bill Cosby on the Monk site looks better with Summey than with some Spanish guy.
Nothing against Summey, of course. I don’t know his playing (he’s been on hardly any records) but I applaud those D.C. vets who stay close to home and keep an authentic scene alive. Of course, the fact that I even am having to weigh the artistic output of Summey vs. Rossy (the latter is on many important records and just off a summer tour with Wayne Shorter) is ridiculous! This futile task argues against competitions.
I admit that my contention that Monk couldn’t win his own competition was over the top; certainly, transposed into the headline of PJ’s piece, it looks rather sensationalist. I understand why Eric Lewis and another professional pianist, Ben Waltzer, leapt to Monk’s defense. I had a similar reaction when I heard Martial Solal publicly declare, “Obviously Monk wasn’t a serious pianist. A composer, sure, but not someone who could make it in the Conservatoire.”
I mistakenly took it for granted that my own extensive celebration of Monk’s excellence as a pianist would be known by everyone else. I’m bummed that Lewis and Waltzer think I have propagated (in Lewis’s words), “The popular and woefully ignorant notion that Monk had technique problems.”
I maintain that there is a dichotomy, though. Perhaps I should have written, “The fact that our biggest competition is named for someone that Miles Davis claimed couldn’t comp and Lennie Tristano said was the worst pianist he had ever heard is deeply ironic.”
Still too strong? How about this: “The man who said, ‘I’m not commercial. I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants -- you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you are doing -- even if it does take them fifteen, twenty twenty years’ might be surprised to find his name attached to star-studded galas sponsored by luxury vehicles celebrating youthful virtuosity.”
Sure, as Waltzer points out, Monk won teen talent competitions. Even more impressively, he was accepted by the Harlem stride masters as one of their own, and then became the tireless engine behind horn players of every description at Minton’s. But he turned against conventional expression to find his inner self. Eventually, he was almost outside of normal jazz.
A rare example of mature Monk playing normal jazz is on Clark Terry’s In Orbit. Monk sounds wonderful, of course, but to my ears the diverse styles hang him up a little bit. There is tension in the slow blues, the uptempo chase, and the light latin number as Monk struggles to remake them in his own image. Finally, on the one Monk composition, “Let’s Cool One,” a masterpiece emerges, not least because it shows that Philly Joe Jones and Monk should have made at least a dozen more records together.
After the days of teen competitions, rent parties, and jamming at Minton’s were over, Monk only played Monk. Everyone he played with had to go to him. As the Robin D.G. Kelley biography shows over and over again, Monk paid very heavy dues to achieve those personal results. Even Bird and Diz wouldn’t feature him on the one record they all made together.
Today, I know of a prominent American jazz pianist who queries how great Monk really was, just like Oscar Peterson, who said, “Thelonious Monk is limited technically...I don’t think Monk is a linear player. Usually someone who’s not a linear player is hamstrung.”
The modern gentleman (and very fine player) has been invited to judge competitions. I may have stated my case in an over-top-fashion but I’m not crazy. For Monk to win his own competition he’d need a soulful jury uniformly willing to give up grading linear fireworks in favor of deep content.
One last thing about the Monk competition: It would be nice if the composers got a little more juice. They are the ones that sit in the dark, working on pitches over and over again, frequently to no applause. (Just like Monk himself before he broke at the Five Spot.) I can get behind a gala for young composers in a way I can't for young players. But on the Monk competition site, I see a list of names that I don’t know...and that’s it. As far as I can tell, none of the winning compositions have been archived online or released on CD.
I informally studied under the winner of the very first composer competition, Patrick Zimmerli, so I know the piece he won with, “The Paw.” He had to pay his band (Kevin Hays, Larry Grenadier, and Tom Rainey) out of pocket to play the work at the finals: he knew there was no way it could be read on-site by any professionals anywhere. One reason I’m not so interested in most of the current crop of intellectual jazz is because Pat nailed it way back then. There were Elliott Carter rhythms, Milton Babbitt harmonies, fierce post-Coltrane solos. Everyone who has ever heard “The Paw” has never forgotten it. It was insane.
Pat won the contest, but “The Paw” has never been commercially available anywhere. You can’t argue that the Monk competition did anything for “The Paw.” I wonder how many other winning composers in the last 19 years have written music that might change the world if it could only be heard? The least the competition could do is archive the scores and performances online. Hell, I’d even pay a subscription fee to get a taste.
Congratulations to Competition Drummers
After all my gloom and doom here on DTM, I admit I kinda wanted to be there yesterday and tonight to check out the cats.
I'm certain there was fierce talent onstage both days. The winner, Jamison Ross, is a new name to me but I'll be listening to him soon. These posts never meant to take away from the abilities of those who are competition winners! I absolutely wish Mr. Ross the very best.
As for the other contestants: I hope no one who didn't win or place is discouraged from pursuing weird and exciting music. As I wrote in the beginning, "We need charismatic and idionsycratic drummers for the music to move forward. All the most innovative and most popular jazz is deeply connected to the drums."
Five Questions for Eric Lewis
I was distressed when Eric Lewis left a negative comment at A Blog Supremebouncing off of my criticism of the Monk Institute Competition. After I said as much, Eric and I connected through Twitter. We agreed that I should ask him some questions for DTM.
It's an honor to present such forthright contemporary history on my blog!
1. I first heard you playing wonderfully well on The Magic Hour with Wynton Marsalis. Describe your path of your earlier, “straight-ahead” career and how you got to play with Wynton.
I started classical piano lessons at home at the age of 2 or 3. I first met Wynton at a concert of his in my hometown of Camden, NJ when I was about 13. At that time, I didn't know how to improvise effectively, however, my teacher, Gerald Price, and I worked out an arrangement of "Lush Life" for me to perform and look hip while I was waiting for my Jazz teeth to come in. So after getting cussed out backstage, in the band trailer, for proclaiming that I liked Chick Corea's Electric Band record, Marcus Roberts was assigned to listen to me play and give me a critique. So I played "Lush Life" and was told to check out Bach's Well Tempered Clavier and Monk's music after receiving a bit of a pat on the back for my embryonic playing. I was deeply affected by how the mystique of New York meshed with the expensive suits and the high minded, semi-militant Afro swagger of those jazzmen -- as well as the fact that two of the prettiest cheerleaders from the high school I was illegally attending (out of district by 40 miles) had come to Camden to see young Marsalis swing.
So from then on I was sold on New York and Monk and suits. And I wanted to prove to Wynton that I would become a bad mofo on my instrument, even to the point of playing in his band. And it all happened.
Here's a photo from that fateful night:
If you manage to scour through the Origins of ELEW pt 1 and pt 2, you will find shots of me with everyone from Billy Eckstine to Kenny Kirkland to James Baldwin.
Here's what a typical Marsalis Youth moment looked like:
Notice I went from sweatshirt and baseball cap to suit and tie. I was into the change, at the time.
Moving forward, I won the Rodger's and Hammerstein Full Scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music and was accepted into the studio of Jaki Byard, with whom I studied. I kept in touch with Wynton and following graduation and a tour with Cassandra Wilson, drummer Ali Jackson (who I'd met during my tenure as house pianist for the epic Craig Bailey jam sessions at the Dean Street Cafe in Brooklyn) recommended me to play with Wynton's unit. I became one of Wynton's pianists. Over time, I recorded 6 or more small group records with him and some film scores and J@LC Orchestra recordings. My Magic Hour work with the Skain-ish One is a fine example of the types of contrapuntal and micro-polyrhythmic initiatives I favor, experimenting within Swing (...especially when things aren't swinging that hard for whatever reason). A good example of my swingingest work with Wynton can be heard on his Live at the House of Tribesgem. My solo on "What Is This Thing Called Love" was pretty well done. (Video is on YouTube.)
I'd also recommend checking out my work with him on his poignant Jack Johnson document, Unforgivable Blackness.
Along with recording and touring with Cassandra Wilson (Traveling Miles was a fun record and HBO special), I toured with Jon Hendricks, who told me great stories about growing up in Toledo with Art Tatum as a neighbor and boyhood pal. Touring with Elvin Jones for two years was beyond epic. Whole different conversation to be had there. After Elvin was Roy Hargove briefly before finishing up the apprenticing with a final bit of Marsalis/LCJO work.
2. When Ted Panken played me a track of you and Clark Terry together for a blindfold test, I couldn’t guess who it was: You were playing virtuosic stride piano, and I hadn’t heard you play that way yet. Is it important for all jazz pianists to learn some stride?
"Importance " as well as some of the other words that are going to come up soon, set the tone for debate. Debate is such a luxury at times.
Suffice it to say that if a pianist wants to get the comfy, well-paying gig with Wynton, they will first need to accrue the physical and emotional acumen to execute stride piano playing. And, if they happen to get the Wynton gig and are subpar in the stride piano department, their employment will be put at risk by some other pianist who can play stride piano. The point is ....tools do what tools do. The usage of the term "Importance " to me implies something pursuant the endeavors concerning human survival or artistic achievement. Having made a point about keeping a rent gig, when it comes to artistic achievement, stride piano provides a useful foundation for genre - centric left hand implementation. Left hand Oom-Pah derivatives and comping variants are rather ubiquitous in jazz piano performance practice today, so one's assimilation of said proxy and protocol remains a factor in determining the extent of one's success in efforts of contrapuntal synchrony or the efficient delineation of tension harmony, as in the Blues. Powell, Monk, Garner and Tatum employed left hand configurations with rhythmic acumen and idiomatic aplomb. It came from Stride. And also Boogie Woogie. Which are both technical forerunners of my Rockjazz piano method.
3. I’ve heard it said that you were the favorite for winning the Monk Institute Competition. Tell us how you worked on winning the comp, how the judging went down, and what happened for your career as a result.
I didn't know or think that I was considered a "favorite" in the political sense. In the aftermath of it all I was inclined to believe that I was not the "favorite" but overcame the politics of winning the prize thru the sheer force of compelling playing. But let's save that for a moment.
My preparation was multi-platformed. I had a home-made international spy network sending me bootleg recordings of the other competitors so that I could analyze their strengths and weakness. I studied the playing styles of the judges to best guess what kind of playing they would want to hear. I mentally conditioned myself to believe that everyone in the contest would sound as emotionally compelling and technically dominating as Art Tatum. I designed my repertoire based upon the idea that most would try to impress the judges with obscure Monk tunes. So I prepared the most famous Monk tunes. I figured most would do 2 songs with the rhythm section, so I only used the rhythm section on one song. I figured most would use the rhythm section for their uptempo piece so I did my uptempo piece solo (which clinched me a spot in the Finals. It was my rendition of "Cherokee"). I figured most would play one Monk tune and then play other composers' pieces, so with the exception of "Cherokee," I played all Monk tunes. I played my medium tempo tunes as fast as everyone's uptempo tunes, and my uptempo was faster than that and it was solo piano with stride to boot. My slow tempo was also slower than everyone's. I was the only one to play a Monk blues and it was "Blue Monk" which was a big hit at the finals. For the cheering audience at least.....
Here's the arrangement of "Cherokee" with me in my LCJO Brooks Bros suit, overweight, with a campy intro from Wynton and a primitive video (more about that in a minute). And yeah, yeah, I know. Notes notes etc. Whatever. I won with it. And I certainly needed that win....
The judging process was a bit nerve-wracking and I'm glad that it worked in my favor. When I was on America's Got Talent I was reminded of that feeling. I was a chess gambler at the time of my Monk trial and had a sizable debt waiting to be paid as well as at 26, I had just quit Wynton's band amid frustration with his way with me, depression and panic attacks. With no big gigs happening, I needed things to go my way and the process of watching others decide my fate was a bit creepy.
Following the win, shaping forces came into my career that finally would lead to ELEW. I was led on and blown off by Herbie regarding some deal he was going to set me up with. The then-president of Verve, Richard Seidel, who approached me at the competition, never followed thru with me. Bob Belden, who was at one point doing A&R for Blue Note, had already seen to officially blowing me off after I had met with Bruce Lundvall so the Blue Note avenue was already closed by the time I won the Monk. (At the office, Belden played Kevin Hays' record with Dejohnette and was smugly explaining to me how my homemade demo didn't sound warm enough...) The Times' article on my Monk win was unenthusiastic. Jazz journals made no real feature about my win. So....that was that. No-one was impressed. I did get called to record a track on Clark Terry's One on One ("Liza") and maybe a performance at Wolftrap.
After I paid my street debt, I got the Elvin Jones call and life was moved forward. Two years of father and son exchanges. I was the Sorcerer's Apprentice. But I was getting close to 30 and while Keiko and Elvin were tranquilly just finishing out his career, I had yet to truly get mine going as a leader. I had to quit that band amid the unfulfilled promises of recordings with Elvin and a Yamaha Piano endorsement. I ran into Hargrove at a jam session and learned he needed a piano player. So after we recorded Jimmy Cobb's "Purple Haze" record with Michael Brecker, I joined his band. It was an educational, exciting, turbulent and sophomoric 3 months before I quit amid differences with management. I rejoined Wynton and the LCJO for the last time, having mastered my mind and instrument far more, thanks to Elvin, and the former adolescent clashes with Wynton subsided..... mostly. I was able to do some good work for the man and have always and conceivably will always, along with a host of others, appreciate him as THE Jazz Artist of the Turn of the Century.
But the Monk win has been a saving grace for me at the authenticity level. While the jazz gatekeepers and covert naysayers have done their filibustering, suppressing and dismissing of my work, none can argue or dilute the fact that I won the Monk Competition, and no matter who I mention that win to, it carries decisive, validating weight. Had I not won, the ELEW brand initiative would have had much tougher weeds to cut back in the outside world where people only care about winners, solid credentials and capitalistic bottom lines.
Four years after the Monk, I actually made a record called Hopscotch which was pretty cool in places but the indie producer/label president screwed up the distribution and humiliated me with his video techniques. I became more desperate than ever after that debacle. I was pretty overweight too.
Here's "Pinocchio" (brace for humiliating video work).
4. Many in the jazz community were astonished by the emergence of ELEW. To many, it looked like you were selling out and going for the money, but I suspected you were actually embracing something you wanted to do all along. How did ELEW happen, why did you do it, and what has happened for your career as a result? If you feel like talking about this, who has accepted ELEW and who hasn’t?
OK, let's see if I can convey this information efficiently. There is a lot to categorize and many points of reference to integrate succinctly.
A. Key challenges - Age, glass ceilings, Physique
While in what would be my last contract with Wynton's LCJO, we played in various millionaires and billionaire residences etc. He was doing fundraising for the Time - Warner Headquarters. It was my first time being around individuals with that type of wealth. In Wynton's band you get to meet people from Hollywood to the White House on out to International politicians and captains of industry. But having just gotten out of chess debt (for the last time) I was far more sensitive than before to the economics of Life. I was turning 30 and my twenty-something-major-label-jazz-record-deal-getting chances looked deader than Dillinger. Which pissed me off. Because I was getting hard-earned respect from Master musicians and thrilling audiences yet getting no shots for an independent career from the jazz gatekeepers who were passing on me.
And even when Wynton got around to feeling enough conviction to stop calling me crazy and somewhat champion my cause, it was ineffective. He once brought me to George Wein's apartment to get that guy to give me a shot, and afterwards nothing happened.
Consider my astonishment. How could I win competitions, thrill audiences, tour and record with the Masters yet be regarded as a bum steer by the jazz industry heads? Of course, there were certain musicians creating blocks behind the scenes at the social level. I was more into the Music than keeping up with the social needs of the industry execs and their sycophants. While hanging at the Zinc Bar, A&R men would try to get me to disclose personal things about other musicians etc. I NEVER played that game with those types and since they had corporate position and influence they punished my blowing them off socially, by blowing me off professionally. Plus there were plenty musicians that were fine and mellow with being social with those touristy types so I wasn't missed. Or needed for that matter.
Oh, yeah. Let's not forget. I was overweight. Not marketably like Cyrus Chestnut I suppose, but fatter than most all of the signed pianists. I didn't want to believe it could be that shallow. Never wanted to believe that for all the meritocratic rhetoric about jazz INTEGRITY, it was just about powerful friends and/ or projected sexiness, no different from the Pop industry. Now this component of the music business doesn't have to be demonized, but I think the people who never bothered to tell me where I was going wrong, suck, frankly. (I look good now tho. Sexy even. Took a while.)
B. Pivotal individuals - the Aspirant, the Eccentric, the Mighty One
On one of the Marsalis fundraising trips to LA I met the husband of a very rich lady. He was pretty demure. The next time I saw him was at the grand opening of the J@LC facility. He was freakishly Eccentric. His wife had passed away and he was partying like a rockstar with the money. He caught me backstage and complained that Wynton didn't let me really show my talent on the show and that he wanted to hear me play the way I had at his wife's home, where I really opened up on everyone and just plain threw down. So by this time, all of the chess hustler training was deeply ingrained in me, from spotting opportunity to exploiting it. I was still running the jam session at Cleopatra's Needle so we jumped into his limo and hung there. After that, he introduced me to his rich lady friend who in turn introduced me to Lee Iacocca. Suddenly I was socializing with icons and wealthy individuals completely outside of the Wynton sphere. But this time I had enough understanding to make sure I took care and jubilantly fostered those non-music relationships.
Meanwhile I had a young fellow by the name of Rylan Smith, become a fan of mine. There is a club called HR-57 in DC that kept me working during the period just before and right after the break from Wynton. I sometimes would sleep on the couch there after the gig to save on hotel costs etc. Anyway, Rylan was the Aspirant. He was a college kid per se but he was also a salesman. He refused to accept that I should give up my dreams of a big phat solo career and he wanted to be a part of it and get us highly PAID thru it. He became my first manager.Entourage was on TV and we began to act like we were living it. That optimistic camaraderie helped my wounded self-esteem.
While still at the LCJO, I lost a bunch of weight amid a breakup with a girlfriend. I was looking good and started getting some rhythm from a lovely lady in the office. She was just flirting but I still was game to chase her. She expressed her admiration for my energetic performances nite after nite with Skain and coyly hinted that there had to be some way for me to get my career going. One night she invited me to a lounge and when I walked in, she was dancing with the individual who would change my life most profoundly. The Mighty One. Nancy J Hirsch. The young lady from the office used to work for her at Nancy's PR Firm. Nancy had already been told of me and wanted me to perform at J@LC in some clothes of one of her fashion clients. That basic collaboration led to more and more collaborations and familiarizations with her company and my skill set.
The Aspirant didn't last as my manager due to a gross screw up that the Mighty One had to fix for me. Shortly thereafter, Nancy became my manager and Publicist. The Eccentric has disappeared.
C. the ELEW Initiative - mechanics, implementation, backlash, success
So. I have to believe that I've given adequate attention and detail regarding the not-so-ideal harmony between my former jazzworld ambitions and the receptivity of that pre iPod, Tower Records, jazz community/industry. Should be clear.
Moving forward. After quitting LCJO for the final time amid indifference and apathy towards my attempts to make an independent name for myself, I went to war. I quit mollycoddling my fear of reprisals from the "jazz community". The idea of being broke but rich with "jazz integrity" became beyond abhorrent to me.
ESPECIALLY SINCE PRETTY MUCH ANY AND EVERYTHING SWINGING AND NON_SWINGING HAD PASSED FOR JAZZ FOR QUITE SOME TIME BY THEN.
I come from Camden, NJ. Brutality and Poverty are native to the city. There was a child beheaded by his suicidal dope fiend mother around the corner from my mother's house. Crackheads stealing copper wires out of the lampposts. Machine gun deaths in the alley behind Mom's home. That kind of stuff is a vivid reminder that at the end of the day, I either have people helping me or leaving me to the wolves. So I became determined to take care of my primary investor, Nancy, and to Muspelheim with the rest.
Now, after I noticed that the rock angle was the way to go for me, given my emotional connection to the cutting lyrics found in it, along with the genre's marketable use of blazing instrumental improvisation, and because Mehldau and the Bad Plus had gotten such industry kudos for their deconstructionist spins on mainstream covers, I knew that I would get all kinds of "jazz community" backlash etc. when I finally began to get my more mainstreamy, straightforward versions of the fusion going.
So I went underground, as Wynton put it. To physically master my conception, to experiment with various instrumental formatting of the playing style (the Ratliff NYT article documented a less academically successful night during one of those band experiments before the concept was very ready for critical evaluation. However that is the nature developing a concept in public. Some will be somewhat more patient with failures than others but that fact is a thing to experience and celebrate as a mature participant in the Arts, no matter the degree of initial dismay), to prepare the industrial attack and bide my time like Ivan the Terrible. For a couple years. And by the way, I never moved to LA. Please smack R. Glasper for spreading that rumor because it's all I hear: "Hey man, I heard you moved to LA."
What happened was that while most assumed I had dropped out of the scene to professionally languish in post Marsalis limbo, I was quietly absorbing and being absorbed into the worlds of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the Obama Campaign, Nascar and High Fashion. It was those quiet alliances that continue to provide my team with opulent business opportunities.
Anyway, it was all starting to crystallize by the time I went sans band. Playing guitar power chords on piano was physically reminiscent of playing McCoy Tyner. Playing rhythm guitar patterns and rock singer screams was physically reminiscent of playing Erroll Garner. Plugging in emotional content was no problem. All else was technically echoing blues piano or Euro-classical preludes and fugues. Rounded out by Ragtime/parade oriented duple beat patterns, where the endurance developed in stride piano training came in handy again. The lyrics and energy of the rock tunes facilitated my sharing of pain, loss, joy and defiance thru a medium and a sound that was immensely gratifying to mainstream audiences.
The familiarity of the tunes brought the audiences' perceptual ears into a position to further appreciate my variations in the music, no matter how slight. I could improvise for 2 minutes or 2 seconds and be equally appreciated as an improviser. With the increasing momentum around my conceptual shift, I pursued more experimentation with the art of Branding and Marketing. I changed my name to ELEW in accordance with a branding book, to be further absorbed into the mainstream psyche like other celeb instrumentalists such as Kenny G, Yanni, Liberace -- or even Rachmaninoff and Liszt for that matter. I named my extroverted post-Boogie Woogie, piano centric genre, Rockjazz, to distance and distinguish it, for my potential clients, from the either nostalgic but geriatric brand image of jazz or the achingly academic yet snobbishly casual brand image of jazz. I donned Armor and began to adopt a benchless Stance to be in associative brand congruence with the rock guitar player tradition. The photographers loved it. And suddenly my audiences became more and more diverse. Hollywood celebs started showing up. Supermodels. Silicon Valley tycoons. But also construction workers, social workers and military personnel all looking to rock out with the ever stalwart ELEW. And then more calls started coming in for high-end private performances. I was finally able to earn my compensation in a way that surprisingly became just as gratifying and academically interesting as the former ecstasies I had known with Cassandra and Hendricks and Wynton and Roy and Elvin.
Nancy and I became busy little bees during those two years before the CNN feature on me awoke my native "jazz community." The critical backlash from the jazz world finding out in full what I was into was upsetting at first, mainly because I was still working on making the style sound really good and smooth so I knew what they were hearing but couldn't fix it. But I also knew that the vitriol had its roots in competitive dispositions. I was stepping on the toes of Authorities who felt comfy being in charge of classifying stuff in Jazz. I had hacked the socio-economic mainframe. And the Rockjazz brand was mine. My business technique was being furnished with a premium level of mainstream media recognition. Egos, hubris and opinions vainly spiked for a short moment, etc.
People don't often realize how powerful a thing is until they experience the results of neglecting to effectively employ it. Branding. A completely essential, overwhelmingly powerful tool. The ancient Africans were the last to discover gunpowder. They paid dearly for their lack of information regarding the technology that would eventually be used against them. Kenny G outbranded the traditional jazz players so severely that he became the populace's idea of what or who a Jazz player was, much to the impotent chagrin of the Jazz community. And they didn't learn from his success either. The IAJE brand managed to go broke, depriving the jazz world of a sorely needed outpost while Kenny G sold hundreds of millions and bought a plane. And Starbucks.
ELEW Rockjazz Vol. 1 was the top selling jazz cd for CD Baby. We had no major American distributor but we did have AVEX in Japan. It was on my label, NINJAZZ. I toured it internationally and made fun videos. After becoming a Paradigm Agency artist and appearing on America's Got Talent, Josh Groban selected me to open for him in arenas throughout North America. I had the great impish pleasure of playing "Inner Urge" at Madison Square Garden in front of traditional American grandmothers and mothers and girls dolled up to go to a cotillion. Oddly, Lil Wayne's people got wind of me from that tour and checked out my new record. And so now our duet will be heard on his new record I Am Not Human 2.
ELEW Rockjazz Vol. 2 is out and pleasing the fans. And sounds great. There's lots of cool video stuff happening plus I'm in my best physical condition ever and playing great. And the fun just keeps comin.
So in the end, everyone has played their part right out of a movie script: angel investors, stalwart supporters, masters, fans, haters, paramours, mentors, rivals, critics etc.
As far as who likes me or my work and doesn't, my latest recording and my Facebook page photos will give anyone interested a fair taste of what my current music and lifestyle is composed of. And who likes it. My detractors have been pretty public so a Google search or Twitter search will reveal them rather neatly.
I'm a regular at NY jam sessions but I've never had an actual encounter with a musician or critic bluntly attacking me etc... but I'd probably like it.
Anyways, Jazz beefs tend to get sorta pathetic. Mastercard, take me away. I scare some NYC taxi drivers because of what they interpret about my intentions towards them, as a so-called Black guy. So they don't pick me up. Some pick me up and take me where I want to go with no hesitation or fear. So it is and so it shall be, conceivably. I'm happy to talk piano technique, jazz theory and the occasionally incisive debates about what I'm doing are super fun. Im also happy to not suit some peoples tastes, at times. I don't suit my own tastes, at times. No big deal.
5. I wrestle with this last question myself: What are the dangers and benefits in playing many styles and many ways?
Exercising the fingers along with perceptual reflex pathology is good regardless of musical format if we are purely talking piano for piano's sake. Try it all, I say. In every direction there is knowledge. There is only benefit.
Danger comes when we introduce the element of branding. Are you tired of hearing that word yet? I am tired of saying it. Trying to manage the marketplace expectations is more than a slack notion. It is a critical skill.
The customer wants to know what to expect from the vendor. What are you selling?, says the customer. The shrewd vendor needs to quickly and ever efficiently, disambiguate themselves to their potential customer before the potential customer works with a different vendor.
I consider anything that can bring a threat to the implementation of my industrial tools, a Danger.
I thank you Ethan for your invitation to present my sentiments and reflections.
I dig your blog and how you truly endeavor to Do the Math on our beloved Art form, Jazz.
Best to you, Broheim
Thanks again to Eric Lewis for yesterday’s post.
Nothing Eric said was really a surprise to me, but I can’t remember anyone else being so frank in print before. I remain thrilled that he entrusted DTM with such a valuable document.
Just a few final thoughts:
1) In some ways, Eric’s recap and analysis of the Monk Competition validates my criticism. As I’ve said all along, the more personal and vulnerable aspects of art are jeopardized at these sporting events. In my opinion, if you are a musician looking for a more private path, stay away! You don’t need the grief.
The year Eric won, the other finalists were Orrin Evans, Sam Yahel, and Jacob Sacks. I wouldn’t dare make the ruling that Eric is top dog of that incredibly diverse group. It makes me queasy imagining them trying to best each other for a purse and a shot a record deal. Those four outstanding pianists should all be on the same side.
But, also as I’ve said before, DTM obviously isn’t going to end competitions (and I wouldn’t want that responsibility, either). So: If you are a musician who is a natural athlete and competitor, Eric offers valuable advice. Research your fellow contestants and the jury. Figure out how to best please the committee and the audience. Prepare your mental state and each detail of your presentation in order to dominate and win.
Just make sure that’s the path you want to be on if you decide to go for it, for Eric makes it clear that competitions don’t always do so much for the winners.
Indeed, he only turned that win into a decent-sized poker chip outside of the jazz industry! Perhaps in the future other powerful musicians will follow Eric’s path, first gaining respect at straight-ahead competitions before settling down into a crossover career. Robert Glasper said something like that recently as well, that he made conventional trio albums first so that nobody could say he couldn’t play when he moved into hip-hop. Interesting stuff to think about.
2) In the video of “Cherokee,” especially in the blistering stride chorus, Eric plays a lot of A-flat dominant on the A sections. That is what everybody plays these days -- Wynton, Marcus Roberts, Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden, Brad Mehldau...
I don't play it that way, though. In my opinion, A-flat 7 is a misreading: the real chord is E-flat minor sixth. Relisten to Bird and Bud again -- they don’t really play A-flat 7, or at least they don’t play it in a “Get your A-flat 7 licks in while you can” way. Especially Bud: In his left hand, E-flat is the lowest voice, not A-flat. Bud does this because he knows the next chord is B-flat, which of course in first inversion, with D in the bass. There are no Bach chorales where the tonic is preceded by a dominant on the lowered seventh, but there are many examples of Bach getting home via four minor.
If bar 7 is A-flat, then someone should write a contrafact of “Cherokee” where bar 9 is D-flat.
3) My favorite of the links is Eric’s stellar rendition of “Pinocchio," which has some great Ralph Penland; the snare commentary in particular is outrageous. In the ‘90s I saw Penland play with Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton and also have him in my library with George Cables and other groups recorded on the West Coast. Penland is undoubtedly underrated, especially out East. It’s a good move to have an older cat playing with some post-Marcus and Tain types: Penland warms the beat right up, making it instantly more like old-school jazz.
“Pinocchio” reminded me to look again at this tiny Kenny Kirkland clip with Penland, which is about as good as this style ever got.
Kirkland’s untimely death left a hole in the scene that hasn’t been filled. My only regret about ELEW is that I personally am more intrigued by Eric Lewis, one of Kirkland’s best successors. Eric notes that The Magic Hour has “The types of contrapuntal and micro-polyrhythmic initiatives I favor experimenting within Swing.” I believe those initiatives would occasionally surpass Kirkland or even Roberts in complexity and intensity.
Of course, I need to remember: now and in the future, ELEW is still Eric Lewis, someone I am never going to follow at a jam session!