Jazz History

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:

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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

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

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

Why Tax Day Is Even Worse For Musicians

The income tax filing deadline in the U.S. approaches, and jazz musicians in particular know it. The overwhelming majority of jazz musicians are freelance performers (and often freelance teachers, composers and other music-related service providers). But the informal aesthetics of the jazz world often extend to its business practices as well, with its handshake deals and cash payments. That makes it quite difficult to keep track of income and expenses when it comes time to report to the Internal Revenue Service.

It can be to musicians’ benefit to keep meticulous records. Businesses, including people who are self-employed businesses unto themselves, file their taxes differently, and are eligible for different tax benefits. For example, they may deduct business expenses before paying social security taxes, and this can include manager and publicist fees, sidemen payments, instrument purchases, rehearsal space rental and so forth. (Some musicians even set up separate companies — often a Limited Liability Company, or LLC — to take advantage of further intricacies in the tax code.) Continue reading

One Of The Best Things Ever Written About Jazz Writing

Is also one of the saddest. Here’s the first paragraph:

Jazz writers are a bunch of kids who don’t know anything about the music; also, they are a bunch of old men who haven’t liked anything new since Bird died. They live to put musicians down; this explains why they let record companies bribe them (sometimes outright, sometimes through paying them to do liner notes) never to write anything negative about anybody. By this means, among others, jazz writers get rich off the work of musicians. Nobody publishes in jazz magazines worth reading, though, because there isn’t any audience that will pay to read one.

The article is from 1983, but it still carries a certain resonance today. Its author, J.R. Taylor, was already “semiretired” from freelance criticism by the time he penned this item. But in 1983, somehow he got the Village Voice to print 2,799 words about the actual “marginal” business of jazz writing: pay rates, supplementary income streams of questionable ethical value, the actual age of writers (“jazz writers have always tended to be too young”), the tenuous business of funding a jazz publication and other structural observations about the impossibility of making a living doing this.

Much has changed in the landscape of jazz journalism since 1983 — the Internet, for one — but in spite of the references to obscure defunct publications, the perspective will be familiar to anyone who has tried to write about jazz, especially for money. Perhaps it’s the hint of hope embedded within Taylor’s black humor, which saves the piece from total cynical despair: “The caricature at the head of this column is a thoroughly unfair composite of opinions from members of all these groups. I will now demonstrate that every word of it is true.”

Thanks to saxophonist/composer/writer/historian Bill Kirchner for recently pointing it out. The story has been archived on the servers of the invaluable Jazz Discography website. [Village Voice/Jazz Discography: “Critics Have Problems, Too”]

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

Six Creative Presenters Finding New Audiences For Jazz

Recently on A Blog Supreme, pianist and blogger Kurt Ellenberger expressed doubt that audiences for jazz can continue to grow, writing that audience development is “a tall order that seems insurmountable.” Although this alarm bell has been sounded by jazz writers for at least seven decades, musicians stubbornly seem to keep on playing, and new fans keep on discovering the music.

It’s true, though, that the shape of jazz audience development to come seems to be changing. Rather than linking up with national entertainment circuits or large-scale public campaigns like the Ken Burns film Jazz, many successful efforts are operating on a grassroots scale, through local efforts and dedicated distribution channels. By playing creatively both on and off the bandstand, musicians are actually bringing their sound to new audiences all over the world.

Examples abound. CapitalBop, Search and Restore, Revive Music Group, the Center City Jazz Festival, the Blue Whale, Darcy James Argue, the Outpost Performance Space, and many, many others — these cases were simply drawn from NPR Music stories — are creating communities around art. Taken together, these efforts show that Ellenberger’s lament doesn’t reflect this staggeringly vibrant reality. Rather than pining for grand solutions, perhaps it’s time to recognize the vast diversity and creativity that jazz is offering to its audiences today. Continue reading

For Jazz Musicians Looking For Mentors, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

One of the great things about jazz is that it bridges generations. Because it relies on interactive improvisation and live performance, and thus can’t be completely taught in a classroom or with a book, aspiring younger musicians seek the direct guidance of older, wiser ones. And more experienced musicians have plenty of reasons to take fresh talent under their wings, like gaining new bandmates with fresh skill sets, or helping future torch-bearers to thrive.

Such mentorship has changed a lot in the last half century. Collegiate and even post-graduate jazz education has become a huge engine of talent cultivation. Meanwhile, performing opportunities have greatly diminished. So the previous model of mentorship, where promising musicians learn “on the job” by joining the bands of established musicians, is becoming less common. But as Nate Chinen’s recent New York Times article explains, plenty of “apprentices” are still “availing themselves of counsel” — they’re just taking different paths to it. Continue reading

A Piece Of Technology That Makes Listening To Jazz Better

Maybe you remember when you first realized that the rabbit hole of jazz was far, far deeper than you’d possibly imagined. That the same tenor saxophone player on Kind of Blue also made Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme and Interstellar Space and dozens of other albums and who knows how many guest appearances, and that that was just what people recorded of John Coltrane. And that all those records involved scores of other contributors, who in turn played with scores of other people over scores of years. And that this hopelessly convoluted network reflected just a small slice of jazz history to begin with.

What allowed you to dive in was a guide to the data — maybe a book, or a radio broadcaster, or someone you knew who knew something. A voice who could translate the wilderness to human terms, and made it appealing to jump into.

The new Spotify app from Blue Note Records, released yesterday, isn’t the perfect guide. But as a music discovery tool, it’s a huge leap in the right direction, and it’s certainly the first digital music technology I’ve seen which begins to make sense of the dense jumble in which jazz fans happily abandon themselves. Continue reading