A Saxophonist From Santiago Cracks The Stateside Scene

Melissa Aldana, 24, took after her father in pursuing jazz saxophone.

In the summer of 2003, a handful of jazz fans and musicians gathered to celebrate the opening of Thelonious, Lugar de Jazz, an important addition to the small but bustling jazz scene in Santiago, Chile. Among them was a 14-year-old saxophonist, probably the youngest person in the new club. She was attending under the watchful eye of her father — himself one of Chile’s most renowned jazzmen — but Melissa Aldana had insisted on being there.

“I was there the first night,” she explained to me in a recent interview. “I was trying to play because it was supposed to be an open jam session, and then only a few people showed up.” Continue reading

In New Afro-Cuban Music, Ancient Tradition Meets Future Shock

In Henry Dumas’ short story “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” three “afro-horns” have been forged from a rare metal found only in Africa and South America. One rests in a European museum; a second one is believed to be somewhere on the west coast of Mexico among a tribe of Indians; and a third is owned by Probe, a jazz musician. When Probe finally plays the afro-horn in public, the sound is devastatingly powerful.

The drummer Francisco Mora-Catlett was working with Sun Ra, the iconic Afro-Futurist keyboardist and conceptualist, when he discovered the story. “I was impressed by the surrealistic ways in which he explained things and by the subtleties that were going on,” Mora-Catlett says.

Around the same time, pianist Michele Rosewoman was getting involved in two different musical communities. While growing up in Oakland, Calif., she studied jazz with pianist Ed Kelly in the early ’70s, and befriended many members of St. Louis’ Black Artists’ Group and its Chicago-based kindred-spirit organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. At the same time, she was studying Afro-Cuban and Haitian percussion. Continue reading

Ravi Coltrane’s Favorite ‘Ice Cream’ Flavor

Like a piece of gym equipment that always yields a great workout, most musicians have favorite tunes. For saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, “Who Wants Ice Cream” by trumpeter Ralph Alessi has proven especially fertile, drawing him back again and again since he recorded it as part of the album Spirit Fiction.

Coltrane is expected to play the tune during our webcast of his performance Live at the Village Vanguard Wednesday night. In an interview, he offered a musical primer to explain its lasting appeal — and his taste in frozen treats. Continue reading

O Brothers: Drummers Brian and Brady Blade

If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, sometimes two apples will land on similar turf. Brian Blade has been Wayne Shorter‘s drummer for several years and leads his own project called The Fellowship Band. His older brother Brady Blade is perhaps best known for his drumming with Emmylou Harris and is an all-around music industry mover and shaker.

The two have a lot in common besides their instrument. Both have moved back to their hometown of Shreveport, La., making for more frequent holiday get-togethers. And Brady’s new Mid-City Records label will be releasing Brian’s new recording with The Fellowship Band, Landmarks, in the spring (in conjunction with Blue Note Records).

Since Brady will be following Brian to New York to catch his Village Vanguard run this week — NPR Music and WBGO are broadcasting the first set — we decided to explore the bonds of kinship with a little he said, he said.

Lara Pellegrinelli: You and your brother look a lot alike. And, come to think of it, I’ve never seen you in the same place at the same time. Any chance you’re the same person?

Continue reading

13 Jazz Artists Awarded Over $1.7 Million

In April, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced the recipients of its 2014 Performing Artist Awards, including 13 jazz and improvising musicians, who will receive at least $1.7 million in unrestricted grants in total.

The awards were given in two tiers. Six jazz musicians were given Doris Duke Artist Awards, worth an unrestricted grant of $225,000 over a 3-5 year period, with the potential to earn an additional $50,000. They include alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, multiple woodwind player Roscoe Mitchell, harpist Zeena Parkins, pianist Craig Taborn and pianist Randy Weston.

Seven jazz musicians were given Doris Duke Impact Awards, worth an unrestricted grant of $60,000 over 2-3 years plus the potential of an extra $20,000. They include pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Aruán Ortiz, alto saxophonist Matana Roberts and vocalist Jen Shyu. Continue reading

A Jazz Institution Moves Back Home To Los Angeles

Last weekend, at a sold-out, star-studded gala concert in Hollywood, Pharrell Williams and Herbie Hancock remixed Williams’ hit “Happy,” Kevin Spacey served up a compelling Frank Sinatra imitation singing “Fly Me To The Moon” and former President Bill Clinton offered a heartfelt reminiscence about his early days as a John Coltrane wannabe. (“Sometimes frustrated jazz musicians end up in another line of work and it ends up pretty good,” he joked.) The opener was a jazz concert: Three virtuosic young trumpet players — Adam O’Farrill, Billy Buss and Marquis Hill — deftly negotiated standards.

It was the final round of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the annual showcase for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and the highest-profile event of its kind. This year’s competition took place in Los Angeles for the first time in six years, though it’s only the latest of the Monk Institute’s endeavors to put down roots here. The Institute’s other flagship program, a select graduate school called the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, came to UCLA in 2012, after having been housed across town at USC from 1999 to 2007. It also enjoys a close relationship with the Los Angeles Unified School District, where a number of middle- and high-school jazz education programs have operated for nearly 20 years.

On the same day I committed to doctoral study in the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, the Institute announced it would move to UCLA. Since arriving in the fall of 2011, I’ve watched the performance program quickly weave itself into the fabric of the recently formed Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA. Its first cohort of master’s degree students graduated this past June. Continue reading

How Taxes And Moving Changed The Sound Of Jazz

When many of us at NPR rushed to file our U.S. federal income-tax returns, I’m reminded of a moment in jazz history. Namely, the mid-1940s, when a new style called bebop came into popularity.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article relates (behind the paywall, unfortunately), jazz is not immune to transience or taxes. A stiff federal cabaret tax imposed on New York nightclubs in 1944 had much to do with why bebop became popular, and why jazz has moved from dance-hall ballrooms to sit-down clubs for focused listening. So argues the trombonist, singer and bandleader Eric Felten:

Clubs that provided strictly instrumental music to which no one danced were exempt from the cabaret tax. It is no coincidence that in the back half of the 1940s, a new and undanceable jazz performed primarily by small instrumental groups — bebop — emerged as the music of the moment.

“The spotlight was on instrumentalists because of the prohibitive entertainment taxes,” the great bebop drummer Max Roach was quoted in jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s memoirs, To Be or Not to Bop. “You couldn’t have a big band, because the big band played for dancing.”

The federal excise tax inadvertently spurred the bebop revolution: “If somebody got up to dance, there would be 20 percent more tax on the dollar. If someone got up there and sang a song, it would be 20 percent more,” Roach said. “It was a wonderful period for the development of the instrumentalist.”

While I wouldn’t argue with Max Roach, I think Felten overstates his case, if only by omitting many of the other reasons for bebop’s emergence. Continue reading

When Your Grandfather Is The Greatest Living Jazz Drummer

The drummer Marcus Gilmore is coming off a major year in his career. In 2012, DownBeat magazine named him its top Rising Star Drummer in its long-running Critics Poll; pianist Vijay Iyer‘s trio, of which Gilmore is a member, also took the Jazz Album and Jazz Group of the Year categories. Over the last decade, he’s worked with an esteemed roll call of performers including Cassandra Wilson, Nicholas Payton, Kenny Garrett and the legendary pianist Chick Corea, with whom he just recorded a new album. He’s currently in the studio working on a solo project.

Gilmore is 25.

It’s no secret that he’s also the grandson of iconic drummer Roy Haynes, but it’s not something Gilmore wears on his sleeve — at least not in a typical sense. While he says he doesn’t feel any pressure to follow in such enormous footsteps, he does intently advocate for his grandfather’s rightful legacy.

“What people don’t realize, when they talk about people like Roy Haynes as one of the great jazz drummers, is that really he is one of the original drummers creating the language for everybody,” Gilmore told me in a backstage interview, in between sets with Iyer at the Jazz Standard in New York. “But people don’t think about it like that; they think of him as a jazz great. But the thing is really the drum — the trap set — is pretty new, maybe like 100 years. If you’re playing that much drums in 1945, that means you’re one of the pioneers of the instrument.” Continue reading

Piano Vs. Piano, And Why Style Matters

Comparisons have always helped me appreciate jazz. An artist plays a tune fast; another does it as a ballad. A trumpeter finishes his solo, and a saxophonist takes that closing phrase and morphs it in a different direction. A musician revisits a composition years later with a new arrangement and ensemble. Aligned side by side, you get a good sense of why jazz is a music of individual style, and of gradual accretion, and of friendly “Oh, yeah, watch this” motivation.

I got that feeling recently listening to a recent duet album from the late pianists Tommy Flanagan and Jaki Byard. In 1982, they played a fondly remembered San Francisco club called the Keystone Korner as a duo: two guys, two pianos. It’s recently been released as The Magic of 2, and from the opening song, comparison is the name of the game. Here’s their take on Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple”:

Tommy Flanagan can be heard stating the melody and taking the first solo. At 3:38, you hear applause as Flanagan wraps his solo and Jaki Byard gets his time to shine. A slightly chaotic closing section leads to a final melody statement from Byard. Continue reading

Eighty Years Of Master Educator Ellis Marsalis

If anyone has earned the nickname Pops, it’s Ellis Marsalis.

As jazz’s best-known father figure, the senior Marsalis has four noted musical offspring: Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. But if you consider all the musicians he’s taught or mentored, his clan is even more extensive, diverse and influential.

I talked to six musicians who gave us the long view of the Marsalis family tree, and how they were schooled by its patriarch.

Delfeayo Marsalis (trombonist and son): Ellis Marsalis represents the history of American music, from a time when all performers had a profound understanding of the sound of jazz, the blues and swing. No one born after 1955 has the sound I’m speaking of, and we’re not exactly sure why that is. When he plays, it is the sound of truth. That’s a sound we’re all trying to get to. As an educator, he is able to teach students firsthand by example.

Irvin Mayfield (trumpeter): In terms of music education in the city of New Orleans, Ellis Marsalis is omnipotent. I grew up with the Marsalis family, starting with nursery school alongside Jason Marsalis. When I was 10 years of age, Ellis Marsalis became my first jazz teacher. Continue reading