For every music star, thousands spend their lives playing a supporting role — those who barely see and often don’t seek the spotlight.
One of them died Tuesday. His name was Joe Byrd, and he was a hell of a bass player. He was 78 when the driver of an SUV ran a red light and struck his car.
He was also guitarist Charlie Byrd’s younger brother. Charlie came to international attention in 1962 with his album Jazz Samba. Recorded in a church in Washington, D.C., with guest saxophonist Stan Getz, it produced a Top 20 pop hit with the Antonio Carlos Jobim tune “Desafinado.” The album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and helped launch the bossa nova craze in the U.S.
Joe played rhythm guitar and a little bass on Jazz Samba. (His given name was Gene Byrd, and that’s how he’s credited on the album.) Charlie became a jazz star and Joe happily backed him up for four decades. Here’s a later clip of the Charlie Byrd Trio, with Chuck Redd on drums. Continue reading →
Poetry and song were once the same: The first poems were recited to music played on the lyre. (It’s the source of the word “lyric.”) Today, poems are published in books and journals, while songs are heard but seldom read. The poet Robert Pinsky tells of a successful songwriter-singer who said, “A little poetry can really help a song, but too much poetry will sink a song.”
Surprisingly, we’re left with relatively few recordings of poetry sung by jazz artists. Speaking truth and emotion, sonic and rhythmic, structured and free, poetry and jazz seem like natural born partners. More often, we do hear poets read their writing to accompaniment by jazz musicians — a form of spoken-word performance. Others write poetry inspired, informed and shaped by jazz. (If you’d like to read some examples, take a look at Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young, or The Jazz Poetry Anthology by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, for starters.)
In honor of National Poetry Month, the world’s largest literary celebration, and Jazz Appreciation Month, which culminates with a global concert on International Jazz Day (April 30), this week’s Take Five samples the collisions between poetry and jazz.
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During the age of segregation, Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre was one of the country’s first large venues to welcome black audiences and performers. It was the most prestigious room in the city’s entertainment and nightlife district of the African American community — its “Black Broadway.” And after decades of dormancy and disrepair, the renovated Howard Theatre reopened in 2012. NPR’s Weekend Edition gave a good sense of the building’s historical importance in a report.
All this makes for a fascinating story, especially as it connects the dots between jazz history and African American history. But now the theater is again becoming a living part of its community. And the particular way the Howard is rebooting gives some clues as to where its legacy stands — how, in the great jazz tradition, its past figures into its present. For example:
This album cover represents some of the greatest work of one Teddy Charles. As a vibraphone player, composer, arranger and record producer based in New York City (and briefly Los Angeles), he had opportunities to work with the greats of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s: Charles Mingus, Mal Waldron, Miles Davis and many others. These talents and opportunities coincided with the January 1956 recording sessions most famously released as The Teddy Charles Tentet, on Atlantic Records.
Charles died after a storied life in and out of music. He was as much Teddy Charles, jazz pioneer, as Captain Ted Charles, operator of commercial charter sailboats. He left music in the early 1960s to run boats in the Caribbean, and even when he returned to the New York region, he continued to own and operate charter vessels alongside his musical activities. In recent years, collaborations with saxophonist Chris Byars brought about a small resurgence of interest in Charles’ music, including a studio album (2009’s Dances With Bulls) and increased performance opportunities — including with a 10-piece ensemble.Continue reading →
I was an 18-year-old saxophone student at Berklee College of Music when my new best friend, a trumpeter named Willy Olenick, told me about The Fringe. “You’ve got to hear this band,” he said. “They’re an amazing trio. You can hear them any Monday night at Michael’s and you’re nuts not to go.”
Willy didn’t mention anything about what style they played, and I didn’t ask. I just took his advice and went.
Michael’s was a small, narrow bar behind Symphony Hall in Boston. There was a WPA mural on the wall. They only served beer and wine, and let’s just say a contingent of a few regulars might have been there just for the Rolling Rocks. (In fact, they may have been there all day for the Rolling Rocks.) A man named Bill was at the front door at night, collecting the $2 cover charge. Michael himself manned the bar.
Frankly, on first hearing The Fringe, I wasn’t sure what was happening. The trio took the stage, and I don’t think I was even sure when the set started. At some point, I realized that this music was not like the other jazz I had heard. Until that time, my jazz listening had been mostly big bands and straight-ahead, swinging jazz groups. Continue reading →
The Washington State University Big Band under the direction of Greg Yasinitsky with special guest Brian Ploeger on trumpet. Performing Joy Spring by Clifford Brown, arr. Charles Argersinger, at Jazz Night at Gladish 2015.
The late alto saxophone giant Jackie McLean died after a long illness in 2006, but continued performing and teaching until late in his life. One of the last songs he wrote and recorded was “Mr. E,” which leads off his 1998 septet album Fire and Love.
I’m thinking of it because I recently heard another version of the song by the much younger alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and his trio. Their take on “Mr. E” comes from a recording called Dialect Fluorescent, which came out just a few months ago.
“I really love the composition,” Lehman said. “I love the way the melody is structured; I love the way that the harmony is set up. And I think it’s really ingenious, actually, the way that every aspect of the composition … is really set up to create a kind of musical framework that at once is really grounded, and gives you a kind of sense of place and sound as a listener, but also has an incredible amount of flexibility and is kind of malleable as musical material.” Continue reading →
Oliver Jones — the greatest living jazz musician in Canada — played his hometown Montreal International Jazz Festival, one of the world’s largest. “Oliver Jones Plays Oliver Jones,” read the bill. It was the first time, he said in a conversation earlier last week, that the pianist, now 77, would be playing strictly his own tunes for an entire set.
The show was an affirmation of his legacy, in Canada and abroad, and — backed by his trio of Jim Doxas on drums and Eric Lagacé on bass — he played brilliantly into the night. Highlights included “One More Time,” the swinging title track of his 2006 release, and “Lights of Burgundy,” a wistful ballad recorded in 1985 and named after the poor, black neighborhood in Montreal where he grew up, Little Burgundy.
For the final song, however, Jones strayed from the script. He chose the late pianist Oscar Peterson‘s powerful “Hymn to Freedom,” which wound up a fitting conclusion to the show. Earlier that evening, Jones had presented Canadian vibraphonist Peter Appleyard with the Festival’s Oscar Peterson Award, a prize bestowed to a great Canadian jazz musician. Jones received the award himself in 1990. Continue reading →