To Preserve ‘America’s Gift To The World,’ A Jazz Elder Becomes A UCLA Professor

Kenny Burrell performs at his 80th birthday concert in 2011.

Kenny Burrell performs at his 80th birthday concert in 2011.

Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Just before 11 o’clock on a crisp Monday night in Hollywood, 82-year-old Kenny Burrell put his Gibson guitar in its velvet-lined case and said goodnight to several members of the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited. He had just finished an intermission-free, two-hour-plus set with the large ensemble, as he has done once a month since the summer. Waiting patiently among the suits and smiles was a 21-year-old guitarist eager to meet his idol. When the room finally cleared, Burrell was amiable and inquisitive, talking to the young fan about music and Michigan, where he grew up. Continue reading

A DIY Guide To The History Of Women In Jazz

Trombonist and arranger Melba Liston is one of the women featured in a new documentary about female instrumentalists in jazz, The Girls in the Band.

Trombonist and arranger Melba Liston is one of the women featured in a new documentary about female instrumentalists in jazz, The Girls in the Band.

Carol Comer & Diane Gregg/Courtesy of the artist

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has issued a proclamation declaring Friday, May 10th, “Women in Jazz Day” — an attempt at cultural reform that’s bound to enjoy the same resounding success as . Which is to say: Nice try, Mr. Mayor.

Women in jazz certainly deserve to be celebrated. But trying to persuade arbiters of the jazz canon to make room for women as a fundamental, integral part of our history? You’d have better luck extending term limits .

The mayoral proclamation was occasioned by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s premiere of , a documentary about female jazz instrumentalists from the 1920s to the present. Described by producer and director Judy Chaiken as women’s answer to Ken Burns’ Jazz (the 19-hour miniseries that only spares a minute or two for the contributions of women instrumentalists), The Girls in the Band has already seen its share of festival screenings and won a few awards. Herbie Hancock, who was interviewed for the film, brushed away tears of joy when he watched it, according to a press release.

The Girls in the Band brought a tear to my eyes, too, but only because I wish it had gone deeper and been afforded a little more polish, offering viewers an experience as vibrant and well-crafted as the music these women made. Continue reading

Duke Ellington: Highlights Of His Twilight

Duke Ellington rehearses for a 1973 concert in London's Westminster Abbey.

Duke Ellington rehearses for a 1973 concert in London’s Westminster Abbey.

Central Press/Getty Images

When received the news that , his songwriting and arranging partner of 28 years, had died, Ellington reportedly cried and told a friend, “No, I’m not all right! Nothing is going to be all right now.”

The cancer-stricken Strayhorn passed away on May 31, 1967, and Ellington himself would follow seven years later, dying on May 24, 1974, at the age of 75. But the Duke did not go gently into the good night of his own mortality; he toured incessantly in the last years of his life and produced late-period masterpieces such as The New Orleans Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. “Who’s 70?” he said to a reporter who kept bringing up his age. “That’s an awful weight to put on an up-and-coming man like me.”

As his son Mercer Ellington later noted, Duke Ellington took Strayhorn’s passing as an impetus, born of necessity, to increase his own productivity as a writer. His discography from 1967 to 1973 contains numerous points of interest, such as The River (written for an Alvin Ailey ballet), a duet date with bassist Ray Brown (This One’s for Blanton) and a stellar piano-trio concert (Live at the Whitney). Here are five more glowing snapshots from the Ellingtonian twilight. Continue reading

Black History Meets Black Music: ‘Blues People’ At 50

Amiri Baraka leaves the polling place after voting in Newark, N.J., in 2010. Amiri's son, Ras Baraka, is currently running for mayor.

Amiri Baraka leaves the polling place after voting in Newark, N.J., in 2010. Amiri’s son, Ras Baraka, is currently running for mayor.

The year saw the March on Washington, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers, the bombing of the Birmingham church that resulted in the deaths of four black girls and the passing of W.E.B. Du Bois. That same year, LeRoi Jones — a twentysomething, Newark, N.J.-born, African-American, Lower East Side-based Beat poet — published a book titled Blues People: a panoramic sociocultural history of African-American music. It was the first major book of its kind by a black author, now known as Amiri Baraka. In the 50 years since, it has never been out of print. Continue reading

A Sax Trio Taps Tradition While Thriving In The Present

Melissa Aldana and Crash Trio released its self-titled debut album in June.

Melissa Aldana and Crash Trio released its self-titled debut album in June.


Melissa Aldana, who became the first female instrumentalist and first South American musician to win the International Jazz Saxophone Competition last fall, is not the average talent-contest winner.

Aldana plays tenor saxophone — which is unusual enough by itself, jazz still being mostly a boy’s club. On top of that, she has a big, fierce sound that carries echoes of nearly forgotten swing-era players like , and she’s got a distinct style accented by long, cleanly executed melodic lines.

One significant thing about Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio’s self-titled debut album is what’s missing: There’s no piano or harmony instrument. Some of Aldana’s favorite musicians recorded in similar settings; she says it’s an important step in her evolution, and that she likes the responsibility of outlining the chords, as well as the freedom to change them. Continue reading

Jessica Williams On Piano Jazz

Jessica Williams.

Jimmy and Deana Katz/Courtesy of the artist

Pianist and composer Jessica Williams has gained critical acclaim and multiple Grammy nominations for her writing and remarkable skill at the keyboard. Dave Brubeck called her “one of the greatest jazz pianists I have ever heard.”

On this episode of Piano Jazz from 1992, Williams solos on “Why Do I Love You” and joins host McPartland for “Straight, No Chaser” — one of two Thelonious Monk tunes during the session.


Originally broadcast in the spring of 1992.

Set List

  • “Why Do I Love You” (Hammerstein, Kern)
  • “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” (Bassman, Washington)
  • “Misterioso” (Monk)
  • “Willow Creek” (McPartland)
  • “Free Piece” (McPartland)
  • “The Child Within” (Williams)
  • “I’m Old Fashioned” (Kern, Mercer)
  • “Straight, No Chaser” (Monk)

Sam Friend On ‘Song Travels’

Sam Friend.

Sam Friend and his band the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys play jazz, blues and originals, drawing on the sound of grassroots jazz combos from a century ago.

In this edition of Song Travels, Friend joins host to discuss his transition from New York trio musician to New Orleans bandleader. He shares his love of traditional “jass” with a rendition of “Sweet Lorraine” on six-string banjo.


Set List

  • Sam Friend (voice, banjo), Michael Feinstein (piano), “Nothing To Do” (Friend)
  • Sam Friend & The Hoodoo Sauce, “Honey, I Found You (excerpt)” (Friend)
  • New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, “Dreamer (excerpt)” (Friend)
  • Friend (voice, banjo), “Where My Baby Goes” (Friend)
  • Johnson, Lang, “Jet Black Blues (excerpt)” (Johnson, Lang)
  • New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, “I Can’t Stop Logging On Facebook (excerpt)” (Friend)
  • Friend (voice, banjo), “Strange Love” (Friend)
  • New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, “A Long Time Ago (excerpt)” (Friend)
  • Friend (voice, banjo), Feinstein (piano), “Sweet Lorraine” (Burwell, Parish)
  • New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, “If You Ain’t Payin’ We Ain’t Playin’ (excerpt)” (Friend)

How Japan Came To Love Jazz

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe celebrates with saxophonist Sadao Watanabe after performing with high-school students from Fukushima in northern Japan in 2013.

Kimimasa Mayama/AFP/Getty Images

If you’ve witnessed a headlining performance from pianists Toshiko Akiyoshi or , visited a “jazu kissa” where records are spun and coffee poured, or read nearly any work by author , then you probably have a sense that Japan has taken well to jazz music.

Incidentally, the centerpiece Global Concert of this year’s — the annual musical diplomacy initiative from UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz — was held today in Osaka, one of Japan’s historical jazz capitals. (As of publication, the should be available shortly.)

So how did this music get to Japan in the first place? How did the island nation which fought the U.S. in WWII come to embrace an art form that originated in black America? And does the history of jazz in Japan actually support the peace-brokering role that UNESCO claims?

For a few answers, and a primer on Japanese jazz history, I gave professor a call. An East Asian historian at Northern Illinois University and an amateur musician, he’s the author of Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan and the editor of Jazz Planet, a collection of essays about jazz outside the U.S. Here’s an edited version of our conversation: Continue reading