Category Archives: Jazz History

Hyperdrive on the Piano

 

The Ruthless Shapes of Paradise

A hyperpiano is, for the most part, the same as any other piano with one difference. Instead of just hitting the keys to create sound, a multitude of different objects are placed on different strings of the piano. Many of these sounds seem to come right out of an eerie horror movie soundtrack.

While playing the piano, everything from copper bars, rubber blocks, cow bells and even plastic cassettes can be placed on the strings as well as slid up and down for different effects. For example, by placing a rubber block across the strings, higher pitched sounds are created. Sliding the block will make audible rubbing or whipping sounds. By listening to just the sounds being created by these objects, it’s hard to tell that you are actually listening to a piano. In fact, it sometimes sounds like you are listening to another instrument like a guitar or banjo. These different sounds can also be combined with playing the piano traditionally, which adds structure to the music and creates a more cohesive piece.

Hyperpianos are not widely used throughout the musical world and this could be attributed to their odd sound as well as the risk of damaging the piano. Strings are fragile and placing and rubbing objects on them could ruin them. Specific sizes of objects are recommended as to not damage the strings. This recommendation comes from the creator and main player of the instrument Denman Maroney, who lends his sound to Steve Olson’s album, The Ruthless Shapes of Paradise.

Despite its relative obscurity, the hyperpiano is able to create numerous sounds by changing which objects are on the strings. While it may not work as well in mainstream jazz, it could find a home in Avant-Garde Jazz or by providing the soundtrack for the next blockbuster horror or suspense film. If you are in the mood for some truly experimental jazz, check out the hyperpiano. You can learn more about it and the different techniques used to create its unique sound at Maroney’s website:

http://www.denmanmaroney.com/Hyper.html

Translating Ether To Paper

The headline of this feature story in the Green Bay Press-Gazette is “Saxophonist transcribes jazz to printed notes.” Especially if you’re not familiar with the mechanics of the craft, it is a rather amazing thing:

“There will be one measure with 65 notes in it,” he said. “First of all, I have to write out every note and then divide each beat into however many notes until it hits on the next beat.

“And you have to do this in real time. So I’m doing it by pressing the pause button.”

Now, the musicians reading this are saying, “big deal,” and wondering why this is the basis of a feature story. For most jazz improvisers, transcribing recorded solos is a valuable way of studying the greats in depth. Writing down every single note and rest in even the simplest solo forces you to listen closely and repeatedly. And because musical notation has inherent limitations — how to represent that trumpet growl, or that tricky flurry of notes? — you must translate with great precision. (Sixty-five notes in a measure seems like a bit of hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Continue reading Translating Ether To Paper

Remembering Laurie Frink, The ‘Trumpet Mother’ Of The Jazz Scene

Sometimes, the most important musicians are the ones farthest away from the spotlight.

Laurie Frink was a great trumpet player. Great enough to tour with jazz big bands led by Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan (where she played lead) and Maria Schneider; to be one of the first female trumpet players on the Broadway pit orchestra circuit in New York. As a freelancer, she was known for her ability to execute just about anything, no matter the level of difficulty. Continue reading Remembering Laurie Frink, The ‘Trumpet Mother’ Of The Jazz Scene

‘A Walking Encyclopedia Of Rhythms’: Remembering Steve Berrios

It is not easy to play both jazz drum set and Afro-Caribbean percussion. Lots of drummers do it, but few have mastered it in a way that makes their sound in either style unmistakable from the first beat.

The music community lost one of those true innovators Wednesday with the death of percussionist Steve Berrios in New York at age 68. Berrios could move seamlessly from jazz to Afro-Cuban rhythms in a way that perfectly reflected his bicultural roots.

Berrios was a true Nuevoriqueño, born in New York in 1945 to parents who had recently arrived from Puerto Rico. His father was a percussionist who played with many of the top dance orchestras in New York during the height of the 1950s mambo craze. Berrios followed in his dad’s footsteps and eventually landed an important gig with Mongo Santamaría, perhaps the greatest exponent of Afro-Cuban music in this country. He had a long list of album credits and even a Grammy nomination for one of his two solo albums. Continue reading ‘A Walking Encyclopedia Of Rhythms’: Remembering Steve Berrios

Coleman Hawkins And Charlie Parker Were Not Particularly Good Actors

I was wondering just how much Madonna was lip-synching during the pitch-perfect (and ridiculously spectacular) Super Bowl halftime show last night. Coincidentally, I was recently reminded of this play-synching gem from Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and company. Someone uploaded a BBC documentary’s explanation to YouTube:

A little context. In 1944, impresario Norman Granz and the photographer/filmmaker Gjon Mili teamed up to make “Jammin’ the Blues,” a beautiful 10-minute short with stars of the time. In 1950, they started another project called Improvisation, with an even larger cast and running time. Five tunes were recorded, featuring various luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young, among others. The bit that we’re watching is from the section featuring Charlie Parker (alto sax) and Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), supported by the rhythm section of Hank Jones (piano), Ray Brown (bass) and Buddy Rich (drums). What a lineup, right? Continue reading Coleman Hawkins And Charlie Parker Were Not Particularly Good Actors

5 Points Where Poetry Meets Jazz

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.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

The Legacy And Future Of A Black Entertainment Palace

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.

Name a popular African American entertainer between 1910 and 1970, and he or she probably played the Howard: Chuck Berry, James Brown, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. Because jazz was once pop music, this means the Howard hosted plenty of jazz legends in the primes of their careers, including everyone from proto-jazz bandleader James Reese Europe to Louis Armstrong to the Count Basie Orchestra to Ella Fitzgerald to Charlie Parker to Jimmy Smith. For further reading, The Washington Post put together this oral history, and created this handy timeline graphic too.

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:

Continue reading The Legacy And Future Of A Black Entertainment Palace

40 Years Of Mondays: One Saxophonist’s Addiction To The Fringe

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 40 Years Of Mondays: One Saxophonist’s Addiction To The Fringe

Thelonious Monk And Art Blakey: 24 Years Of Telepathy

Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk and drummer Art Blakey were born two years and one day apart: Monk in 1917, Blakey in 1919. The two are among the most influential musicians in jazz history, and — appropriately, somehow — were close colleagues throughout their careers. In fact, Blakey played on Monk’s first three recording sessions as a bandleader.

This video is the best YouTube clip I could find of Monk and Blakey together; it’s from a 1971 all-star world tour. Dizzy Gillespie, prominently, plays trumpet; Sonny Stitt is on alto sax; Kai Winding plays trombone; Al McKibbon is the bassist. The band, billed as Giants of Jazz, is playing “Round Midnight,” probably Monk’s most famous composition.

Soon after this show, Monk would make his final studio recording. Blakey was there, too.

There are many other recordings featuring both Monk and Blakey, but I’d briefly like to point out the first and last. As Robin D.G. Kelley documents in his excellent biography of Monk, there was a touch of a mentor-protege relationship between Monk and Blakey at first: Monk and fellow pianist Bud Powell used to take Blakey to jam sessions around New York. When the opportunity first arose for Monk to document his vision on wax, Blakey was asked to do the gig. Continue reading Thelonious Monk And Art Blakey: 24 Years Of Telepathy

The Drummer Who Invented Jazz’s Basic Beat

It doesn’t take an expert to identify this sound as a jazz rhythm:

Musicians call it “spang-a-lang,” for obvious phonetic reasons, and it’s so synonymous with jazz, it no longer occurs to us that someone had to invent it. But someone did: a drummer named Kenny Clarke, who would have turned 100 today.

Spang-a-lang was only part of Clarke’s innovation. Marking time on the ride cymbal with his right hand — previously, jazz drummers employed the bass drum with the right foot — gave his left hand and feet the freedom and sonic space to play thundering accents (“dropping bombs”) at irregular intervals. The sound they made inspired another phonetic term: “Klook,” which became Clarke’s nickname.

“Clarke represents a tectonic shift,” drummer and educator Ralph Peterson says. “He is the patriarch of drumming in modern jazz.” Continue reading The Drummer Who Invented Jazz’s Basic Beat