More Harlem Stride!

It’s rare to be able to hear about the Harlem Stride greats from someone who knew several of them personally, but that’s exactly what Stride jazz pianist Mike Lipskin gives us in part two of his conversation with Bob Hecht as together they delve more deeply into one of the most dynamic and virtuosic styles of piano jazz.

Playlist

“Riffs” James P. Johnson
“Backwater Blues” Bessie Smith & James P. Johnson
“My Handyman” Ethel Waters & James P. Johnson
“If Dreams Come True” James P. Johnson
“Snowy Morning Blues” Mike Lipskin
“Nothin'” Luckey Roberts
“Pilgrim’s Chorus” Donald Lambert
“Tea for Two” Donald Lambert
“Echo of Spring” Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith
“Sneakaway” Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith
“Just You, Just Me” Mike Lipskin & Dick Hyman

Harlem Stride!

Harlem Stride was one of the most vibrant and sophisticated piano styles in the history of jazz—it was the greatest musical creation of the period known as the Harlem Renaissance beginning in the 1920’s. In this episode, Bob Hecht’s guest is the noted Stride pianist Mike Lipskin, who talks about his early personal experiences with some of the Stride greats and shares his deep knowledge of this unique genre.

Playlist

“John Arthur” Jaki Byard
“Handful of Keys” Fats Waller
“Sunflower Slow Drag” Scott Joplin
“Pork & Beans” Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith
“Jubilee Stomp” Duke Ellington
“Prince of Wales” Count Basie
“Get Happy” Art Tatum
“Thelonious” Thelonious Monk
“Lady Madonna” Mike Lipskin
“Mister Christopher Columbus” Fats Waller
“Contrary Motion” Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith
“African Ripples” Mike Lipskin
“Carolina Shout” James P. Johnson
“Jeepers Creepers” Mike Lipskin

Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count”

This is the story of one of jazz’s most heart-wrenching compositions, written on his deathbed by one of jazz’s greatest composers. Billy Strayhorn wrote “Blood Count” as he was dying of esophageal cancer in 1967 in New York City, creating lasting beauty from his last moments on earth.

Playlist

“Blood Count” Art Farmer
“Requiem in D Minor” Mozart, Orchestra des Champs Elysées
“Blood Count” Stan Getz
“Blood Count” Duke Ellington with Johnny Hodges

“Lester-ese”

Lester Young was a true original, and his originality manifested not only in his innovative playing but also in his unique verbal play and wit. In this episode we check out this side of the President of the Tenor Saxophone.

Playlist

“Lady Be Good” Lester Young with Count Basie
“Body & Soul” Coleman Hawkins
“Body & Soul” Lester Young
“Sometimes I’m Happy” Lester Young
“Blue Lester” Lester Young
“Ding Dong” Lester Young
“No Eyes Blues” Lester Young
“I’ll Never Be the Same” Billie Holiday & Lester Young
“I Left My Baby” Jimmy Rushing, Lester Young with Count Basie
“Preservation” Stan Getz
“I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan” Lester Young
“There’ll Never Be Another You” Lester Young

Woody n’ Me

As a fledgling jazz disc jockey in Newark, New Jersey in the early sixties, the author had an unexpected encounter with a future jazz great.

Playlist

“Eronel” Stanley Cowell Trio
“Jordu” Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet
“Hi-Fly” Randy Weston Quartet at the Half Note with Coleman Hawkins
“If You Could See Me Now” Sarah Vaughan with Freddie Webster, Tadd Dameron
“My Old Flame” Sonny Rollins with Kenny Dorham
“All the Things You Are” Woody Shaw

Frank & Billie & Lester’s Mutual Admiration Society

In this episode, Bob Hecht explores some of the things that Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Lester Young had in common with one another musically.  In addition to each having made landmark contributions to jazz and popular music, three three giants were huge fans of each other’s artistry.

Playlist 

“Requiem” Lennie Tristano
“Shoe Shine Boy” Lester Young with Count Basie
“Bird of Paradise” Charlie Parker
“Me, Myself & I” Billie Holiday & Lester Young
“One for My Baby” Frank Sinatra
“Angel Eyes” Frank Sinatra
“Only the Lonely” Frank Sinatra
“Only the Lonely” Roy Orbison
“You Go to My Head” Billie Holiday
“You Go to My Head” Frank Sinatra
“There Is No Greater Love” Billie Holiday
“I’ll Never Be the Same” Billie Holiday & Lester Young
“The Man I Love” Lester Young
“Polka Dots & Moonbeams” Frank Sinatra
“Polka Dots & Moonbeams” Lester Young
“I’m a Fool To Want You” Billie Holiday
“Angel Eyes” Frank Sinatra
“Angel Eyes” Tommy Flanagan

The Train in Jazz & Blues

Since the first half of the 19th century, the sounds, symbols and metaphors of the train have cut across the American musical landscape. The significance of the train has been reflected in virtually every musical form: work songs, spirituals, folk, blues, jazz and pop. From the work-gang rhythms of pounding railroad track spikes to the sounds of train whistles and the clickety-clacks of the tracks, the onomatopoeia of the railroad has been a strong presence in American music. Author Albert Murray called the rhythms of trains, “the definitive percussive emphasis in jazz.”

This podcast gives the listener an ear into some of the amazing sounds and symbolisms of the train woven throughout our country’s music.

Playlist 

“All Aboard” Muddy Waters
“Honky Tonk Train Blues” Meade “Lux” Lewis
“Locomotive” Thelonious Monk
“This Train” The Staples Singers
“Move Along Train” The Staples Singers
“Build That Railroad” Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler
“Track 360” Duke Ellington
“B & O Blues” Joe Turner and Pete Johnson
“Mystery Train” Little Junior Parker
“On the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe” Johnny Mercer
“Dixie Flyer Blues” Bessie Smith
“Rock Island Line” Lead Belly
“Chattanooga Choo-Choo” Susannah McCorkle
“Mystery Pacific” Django Reinhardt
“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” Louis Jordan
“Happy Go Lucky Local” Duke Ellington
“Daybreak Express” Duke Ellington
“Along the Track Blues” Duke Ellington
“Take the ‘A’ Train” Duke Ellington, Betty Roche

Paul Desmond, Original

There weren’t many alto players back in the late forties and early fifties who didn’t attempt to sound like the great Charlie Parker—his influence, on all jazz instruments in fact, was so pervasive that few could escape his gravitational pull. One notable exception was alto man Paul Desmond, who eschewed Bird’s hard-biting virtuosic style for a lighter, more relaxed approach, marked by a highly lyrical melodicism. Yet even Bird himself, and many of the Bird-influenced players of the time, such as Cannonball Adderley, admired Desmond’s playing—Adderley called Desmond “a profoundly beautiful player.” So this episode is the story of a jazzman who went his own way and left a legacy of some of the most beautiful solos in jazz history.

Playlist 

“Somebody Loves Me” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Koko” Charlie Parker
“Out of Nowhere” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“In Your Own Sweet Way” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Blue Rondo a la Turk” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Tangerine” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Indian Summer” Lee Konitz
“You Stepped Out of a Dream” Stan Getz
“Moonlight in Vermont” Pete Brown
“Countless Blues” Lester Young
“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington
“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Here Lies Love” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“This Foolish Things” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Stardust” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“How High the Moon” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“All the Things You Are” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck
“Koto Song” Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck

Farmer’s Art

Art Farmer was one of the jazz world’s all-time great trumpet and flugelhorn players, and one of its most lyrical. In this episode Bob Hecht talks with the noted flugelhorn player Dmitri Matheny about Farmer, who for many years was his mentor and main inspiration.

Playlist

“Stardust” Art Farmer
“Three Little Words” Art Farmer
“Stormy Weather” Dmitri Matheny
“Goodbye Old Girl” Art Farmer
“I Waited For You” Art Farmer
“I’m Old Fashioned” Art Farmer
“Petite Belle” Art Farmer and Jim Hall
“Stompin’ at the Savoy” Art Farmer and Jim Hall
“Sing Me Softly of the Blues” Art Farmer
“Mox Nix” Art Farmer
“Warm Valley” Dmitri Matheny

My Funny Valentine

In some ways, “My Funny Valentine” is an unlikely song to have endured since the 1930’s… it is a rather atypical love song, imbued as it is with the rich irony and whimsy of its creative lyricist, Lorenz Hart. In this podcast, we celebrate the popularity and longevity of this ubiquitous Rodgers & Hart standard.

Playlist

“My Funny Valentine” is performed by the following artists:

Charles McPherson
Carmen McRae
Bill Evans & Jim Hall
Miles Davis
Sarah Vaughan
Frank Sinatra
Chet Baker & Gerry Mulligan
Kate McGarry

Beatle Jazz

This podcast explores the history of the love-hate relationship of the jazz world and the Beatles. We trace the evolution of the Beatles initial, devastating impact on jazz, to the present day when their music is ubiquitous, and revered.

Playlist

“Yesterday” Eric Reed
“Can’t Buy Me Love” The Beatles at Shea Stadium
“A Day in the Life” Wes Montgomery
“Imagine” Stanley Cowell
“A Hard Day’s Night” Count Basie
“All My Loving” Duke Ellington
“Blackbird” Brad Mehldau
“For No One” Ken Peplowski
“Let It Be” Joshua Redman
“Eleanor Rigby” Vince Guaraldi
“Mother Nature’s Son” Joel Frahm with Brad Mehldau
“She’s Leaving Home” McCoy Tyner
“Revolution” Bill Frisell
“Yesterday” Eric Reed

Sophisticated Lady

One of Duke Ellington’s most famous compositions, “Sophisticated Lady,” actually had its genesis in two of his band members’ original musical ideas. In this podcast we explore whether Duke’s greatest genius wasn’t perhaps more that of a collaborator than a composer.

Playlist

“Sophisticated Lady” Coleman Hawkins

“Cotton Tail” Duke Ellington

“I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” Johnny Hodges with Ellington

“Satin Doll” Duke Ellington

“Concerto for Cootie” Cootie Williams with Ellington

“I’m Beginning To See the Light” Johnny Hodges with Ellington

“Sophisticated Lady” Alan Broadbent

“Sophisticated Lady” Duke Ellington

“Mood Indigo” Barney Bigard with Ellington

“Sophisticated Lady” Charles Mingus

“Sophisticated Lady” Sarah Vaughan

Miles Davis, Space Man

Trumpeter Miles Davis was famous for how he used his unique concept of space to create indelible, dramatic solos. In this episode we explore how Miles evolved from a young prototypical bebopper, playing a style in which ‘more’ was often considered hipper than less, to  become a musical minimalist, playing in ways in which ‘less’ is often much more.

Playlist

“Basin Street Blues” Miles Davis

“Now’s the Time” Miles Davis with Charlie Parker

“Dizzy Atmosphere” Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker

“Embraceable You” Miles Davis with Charlie Parker

“Bye Bye Blackbird” Miles Davis with John Coltrane

“I Thought About You” Miles Davis

 

Solo Flight

Charlie Christian was the first superstar of the electric guitar, ultimately paving the way for future greats like Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix. As his childhood friend Ralph Ellison said, “With Christian, the guitar found its jazz voice!” This is the story of his remarkable rise and fall, and the significance of his contributions.

Playlist

“Wholly Cats” Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman

“Solo Flight” Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman

“Blue Devils Blues” Walter Page’s Blue Devils with Hot Lips Page, trumpet

“Swingin’ the Blues” Lester Young with Count Basie

“Good Mornin’ Blues” Charlie Christian and Lester Young, Kansas City Six

“Rose Room” Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman

“Flying Home” Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman

“Pagin’ the Devil” Charlie Christian and Lester Young with Kansas City Six

“Swing to Bop (Topsy)” Charlie Christian

Hughes Blues

Langston Hughes’ love of jazz suffused his work as a poet. Hughes was considered a pioneer in jazz poetry, and collaborated with numerous jazz musicians in poetry readings. This podcast features a number of his jazz-influenced poems, along with a number of music selections from Hughes’ personal record collection.

Playlist

 “How Long Blues” Count Basie

“Blues at Dawn” Langston Hughes reading, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet

“The Mooche” Duke Ellington

“Consider Me” Langston Hughes reading, with Charles Mingus

“Dreams” Langston Hughes reading

“The Pearls” Jelly Roll Morton

“’Round Midnight” Thelonious Monk

“Good Morning Blues” Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie

“Homesick Blues” Langston Hughes reading

“The Weary Blues” Langston Hughes reading

“Scenes in the City” Charles Mingus, Melvin Stewart narrating

“I, Too” Langston Hughes reading

“Night & Morn” Langston Hughes reading, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet

“After Hours” Avery Parish with Erskine Hawkins

“Backlash Blues” Nina Simone

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” Randy Weston

 

Strange Fruit

“Strange Fruit” is the iconic lynching protest song written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, and immortalized by Billie Holiday. Time Magazine named it “the song of the century.”

Playlist

“Strange Fruit” Billie Holiday
“Strange Fruit” Billie Holiday
“Strange Fruit” Sidney Bechet
“Strange Fruit” Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller
“Strange Fruit” Caroline Hecht

Whitney Balliett, Jazz Poet

We’ve had many great jazz critics and writers, but perhaps no one whose work rose to the literary, and even poetic, reaches of Whitney Balliett’s. Dan Morgenstern once called him “the greatest prose stylist to ever apply his writing skills to jazz.” In this podcast, we sample some of Balliett’s unique descriptions of the music of a handful of jazz masters.

Playlist

“Blue Again” Louis Armstrong
“West End Blues” Louis Armstrong
“In a Mellow Tone” Ben Webster
“Fine & Mellow” Doc Cheatham
“Surrey With the Fringe on Top” Blossom Dearie
“Summertime” Sidney Bechet
“These Foolish Things” Lester Young
“Off Minor” Thelonious Monk
“Parker’s Mood” Charlie Parker

Recommended: New Book by Thomas Brothers

Thomas Brothers, who previously wrote the outstanding Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism, recently released a new book that delves into the fascinating realms of musical collaboration. HELP! The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration, provides insight into how these two protean musical groups relied on the contributions and “help” of their band members for inspiration and musical ideas. For example, the author discusses how the numerous contributions of the Ellington aggregation led to Duke’s success as a composer and bandleader. Did you know that alto star Johnny Hodges was responsible for creating the themes that spawned some of Duke’s biggest hits? Or that Billy Strayhorn’s compositional role was much more extensive than often was credited? Or that Lennon and McCartney shared composer credit even for songs they wrote individually?

Brothers has a captivating writing style that brings life, and reading pleasure, to what might otherwise be arcane music history. Highly recommended!

 

Goin’ Home

This is the story of how a piece of classical music composed in 1893 crossed over to other genres, tapping into a universal longing for home.

Playlist

“New World Symphony”, Second Movement, Antonin Dvorak, composer; Dublin Philharmonic
”Goin’ Home” Art Tatum
“Goin’ Home” Yo-Yo Ma
“Wade in the Water” Hank Jones, Charlie Haden
“Steal Away” Mahalia Jackson
“Goin’ Home” Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall
“Goin’ Home” Ben Webster
“Goin’ Home” Jack Teagarden
“Goin’ Home” Sam Cooke
“Goin’ Home” George Cables

Conversations with Thelonious

Thelonious Monk was not known for his volubility. This podcast focuses on a few of his known conversations, and one notable missed opportunity.

Playlist

“Blues Five Spot” Thelonious Monk Quartet
“Trinkle Tinkle” Monk with John Coltrane at the Five Spot
“Monk’s Mood” Thelonious Monk
“Off Minor” Thelonious Monk
“Brilliant Corners” Thelonious Monk
“Nutty” Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane
“Tea for Two” Bud Powell
“Tea for Two” Thelonious Monk
“Smake It” Walter Davis, Jr.
“Flyin’ Hawk” Thelonious Monk with Coleman Hawkins
“Four in One” Thelonious Monk
“All Alone” Thelonious Monk

Bird Lives

The night I truly ‘got’ the shining genius of Charlie Parker I was in my girlfriend’s apartment on the Lower East Side. The year was 1961. I was nineteen, she was much older and hipper, and had turned me on not only to some great music but to getting high as well. She had all the essential jazz records, including the one on the turntable that night. It was The Fabulous Bird, on the old Jazztone label, consisting of reissues of some of Bird’s phenomenal 1947 Dial sessions. She had a very low-fi stereo—I can still see the nickel she had scotch-taped to the tone arm to keep it in the grooves. But the fidelity didn’t matter, in part at least because this evening I had just smoked a skinny ‘New York Tube’ stick of tea.

Though I had been a jazz lover since the age of ten and had been listening to Bird for several years—and certainly recognized his importance—I had never fully ‘heard’ him. I guess he just had never totally broken through for me. But that evening, when he played Out of Nowhere, everything changed. In the master take of that great old Johnny Green composition, Bird develops a breathtakingly beautiful motif, with a series of repeating figures that simply knocked me out and still does to this day as I write this in 2017. His complete mastery came through so clearly and profoundly—the incredible melodic invention, the perfect musical architecture of his solo, the rock-solid sense of time and swing, the deep, deep soulfulness of his playing, the sound, both smooth and raw at the same time, and the virtuosity—my god the virtuosity! I was transfixed…I was hooked. Again and again I lifted that nickel-taped arm back to the beginning of that track to soak in the marvels of his playing.

From that night on, Bird was the end for me, and still is, lo these many decades later. After his death, jazz fans famously scrawled ‘Bird Lives’ on the walls of subways and buildings in New York and in other jazz-crazy cities. (I once did so myself in some wet sidewalk cement in Palo Alto, California.) In truth, his music lives on as a towering achievement— some might even say the towering achievement of twentieth century music.

But cut to another night eighteen years later—this time in Kansas City—a hot and very humid night in late August. KC was Bird’s hometown, the place where he apprenticed and became a master himself.

Late that night I stood waiting in the dark outside the entrance to the old Musicians Union Hall, Local 627, a Kansas City music landmark. “Whatchoo wanna go there for?” our ancient black cab driver had asked. “Ain’t nothin’ but a bunch a crazy dope fiends ‘round there.”

But there was history here. Local 627 was one of the earliest and most important African-American musicians unions. This was where Prez first met the Count, where young Bird had jammed, where so many greats had stopped on their way through KC. The Union Hall was an old brick building, and even in the dark I could make out large pink music notes painted on its exterior. We’d heard there were still sometimes all-night jam sessions in this old shrine, and we were desperate to find some real jazz during our short visit to the city…and hoping they would let in a couple of ofays from California. But my sharp knocks were getting no response and I was feeling as if I might be swallowed up by the Kansas City night.

This was the heart of the KC ghetto, and the truth was, I was feeling very small and very white standing there in the pitch dark.

A sliver of light slipped through a crack in the door and I imagined a private party going on inside, with no one admitted without the right password or secret knock. I thought for a second I heard a laugh and imagined I caught a whiff of weed (just wishful sniffing I guess), but no one answered, and after a while I gave up knocking and walked back to our waiting taxi.

“No luck,” I said to my friend Michael as I slid into the back seat. “I guess we were not meant to hear real Kansas City jazz on this trip.” Earlier in the evening we had scoured the city for good jazz, and after having suffered through some overly-slick cocktail piano had given up and faced the ironic reality that on this night in this former jazz mecca there was nothing good to hear. That was when we had thought to look up the old Union Hall. And now that was a bust as well.

We were in KC for a business conference but in our off hours we were trying to catch something of the real essence of the place and its rich jazz history. (This was many years before the creation of the wonderful American Jazz Museum there, and before the remarkable statue of Bird was erected.)

Our cab driver then salvaged the night by giving us a tour of the area between 12th Street (as in Basie’s 12 Street Rag) and 18th Street. This was the neighborhood where, at the peak of KC’s corruption-nurtured jazz era, there had been as many as fifty jazz and blues clubs. Our cabbie knew where many of the old clubs and ballrooms had been located, even though there were no visible traces of them now.

He pointed to a corner vacant lot at 18th and Highland. “Right there’s where the Sunset Club used to be.” Thick weeds were overgrowing the mere rubble of old walls, walls that had once absorbed the sounds of classic jam sessions. Lester Young, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker had played chorus after chorus well into the morning hours here. During its heyday Kansas City was famous for some of the most legendary, and longest, sessions in jazz history.

He drove on and we passed the junction of 18th and Vine where nothing stands now but a street sign and the memory of Big Joe Turner singing his Piney Brown Blues.

Yes I dreamed last night I was standing at the corner of 18th and Vine,
I shook hands with Piney Brown and I could hardly keep from cryin’.

Then we were over on 12th Street again, staring through the dark at an empty space where the Reno Club had once stood. This, as the legend goes, was where the young Bird, not yet together musically, was ridiculed for his faltering attempts at playing and forced to leave the club, and the city, in humiliation. He told his friend Gene Ramey, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back. I’ll fix these cats. Everybody’s laughing at me now, but just wait and see.”  After some serious woodshedding, Bird did indeed fix those cats, and all the cats on all the instruments in jazz, revolutionizing the entire art form.

So ended our late night exploration of that historic area. But the next morning, because we were determined to find some trace of our musical idol, we decided to escape entirely from the business conference and instead to continue exploring the city and somehow pay homage to Bird. Searching the phone book (this was way before the internet—remember phone books?), I came across a listing for the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation. I called and learned it was an academy of the arts for kids from the ghetto; the person I spoke with said we were welcome to pay a visit, and we decided to walk across town to check it out. The walk would also give us an opportunity to see more of Bird’s old neighborhood.

Picture, then, the unlikely sight of two white jazz freaks in their thirties strolling through the black section of KC on a sunny summer day, occasionally even having the audacity to whistle or sing Charlie Parker solos, solos that had been studiously memorized over years of devout listening. I remember singing random fragments of the famous King Pleasure lyric to Bird’s great blues, Parker’s Mood.

Come with me,
if you want to go to Kansas City.

I’m feeling low down and blue, my heart’s full of sorrow
Don’t hardly know what to do; where will I be tomorrow?
Goin’ to Kansas City. Want to go, too?

We passed by Olive Street but couldn’t locate Bird’s childhood home there among the mostly ramshackle houses in the neighborhood. After several miles of walking we found our way to the Foundation, a professional-looking one-story building. We went in and introduced ourselves as Bird fans who had come simply because of our love and respect for the greatness of the man and his art.

We were not at all prepared for the reception we received. Several of the staff and faculty took time out of their morning to chat with us and to explain what was going on at the Foundation. They seemed genuinely pleased, tickled that we had gone out of our way to visit.

 

The Foundation’s slogan was ‘Off the streets and into the arts.’ Its mission was to provide ghetto kids with instruction in music, both jazz and classical, as well as drama, dance and other performing arts, and had been established several years before by KC musician Eddie Baker. Numerous jazz masters, including Clark Terry and Max Roach, had donated their time to conduct clinics for the neighborhood kids.

We were introduced to Anne Brown, the Dean of the Foundation, who also welcomed us warmly. On the wall in her office was a black and white photo taken at the time of Bird’s burial in Kansas City back in ‘55. In the picture, Max Roach and other jazz greats stood at the gravesite. I asked where the grave was, so that we might pay our respects.

“You’ll never find it,” said Dean Brown. “People chipped away at the gravestone to take away some souvenir of the great Bird. Now there’s nothin’ left.” (I’ve since read that many years later a new headstone was installed but with the egregious error of being decorated with an engraved tenor sax, not the alto Bird primarily played.)

After showing us around the classrooms and performance spaces, one of the music teachers, a very friendly cat named Jim, drove us to Arthur Bryant’s for lunch, arguably KC’s premier barbecue joint. Afterwards, on the way back to the Foundation, he showed us the city’s only ‘monument’ to Bird at that time—a ghetto housing project called Charlie Parker Square. Although the project had street names such as Mary Lou Williams Way, Bennie Moten Lane and Ella Fitzgerald Drive, our new friend had a cynical view of it all. “I’ll bet that only one or two people living there even know who Bird was, let alone listen to his music,” he said with more than a little disgust. “They’re all into disco!”

Jim drove us back to the Foundation where before taking our leave we wanted to say goodbye to Dean Brown. We sat and chatted with her for a bit more in her office, telling her how impressed we were by the work they were doing there, as well as by their graciousness and warmth about our spontaneous visit. With that, to our utter astonishment, she took from her desk drawer two bronze medallions and handed them to us. Engraved on one side was a beautiful likeness of Parker playing his horn, surrounded by the words, ‘The Immortal Charlie “Bird” Parker,’ and on the reverse side the dates of his too-short life (1920-1955), the name of the Foundation, and the encomium ‘Bird Lives.’

“We normally reserve these for our contributing members,” she said. “But this is a very special day, and we’ve been touched that you came by today.”

Amazed by her generosity, and knowing this was something we would treasure for the rest of our lives, we thanked her profusely and I asked, “What did you mean this is a special day?”

She smiled broadly and said, “You didn’t know? Today is August 29th. It’s Charlie Parker’s birthday!”

#####

copyright 2018 Bob Hecht

Listening to God

One afternoon at the age of ten, lightning strikes.

Alone in our ramshackle wood-frame house in Hartford, I decide to listen to some of my parents’ 45 RPM records. I watch one slide down the fat spindle and plop onto the turntable to receive the tone arm and needle. The music starts and like a bolt captures not just my ears but my whole being. It’s a guy with a gravelly voice singing something about building a dream on a kiss. Then there’s this trumpet solo that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It sounds like it could be God himself playing. That voice and trumpet just take my breath away. I play the record over and over until it becomes a part of me forever.

Louis Armstrong—
45 revelations
per minute

#####

copyright 2018 Bob Hecht

Recommended: Debut CD by Trumpeter Charlie Porter

Portland, Oregon-based jazz trumpeter Charlie Porter recently released his debut recording as a leader, the eponymous album “Charlie Porter.” I had the pleasure of hearing the CD release concert for this project, and recommend it highly. Porter is a virtuosic trumpeter, and his album reveals his considerable skills as a composer as well. He is joined by some of the Northwest’s premier musicians, including Chuck Israels, George Colligan, David Evans, John Nastos, Jon Lakey, Mel Brown and others.

Check it out: https://www.charlieportermusic.com

Whistlin’ The Bird—Two Jazz Stories

Part 1: Confirmation (1969)

It wouldn’t be the first time my penchant for whistling jazz tunes got me in trouble…nor the last.

I’d been crazy about whistling from my boyhood. Perhaps I inherited my obsession from my late father. He wasn’t a jazz fan like I am, and I barely even remember him whistling—he wasn’t around much when I was a boy and he died when I was twelve—but my mom later told me he was an outstanding whistler. “He could do triple tonguing and everything,” she said.

So maybe it was in my DNA. But at any rate, after his death I determinedly taught myself to whistle. I have a good ear and decent sense of pitch, so I found I could easily get in sync with whatever music I was hearing. And then I practiced and practiced, whistling along with jazz compositions and solos for years until I got pretty good at it.

To this day, I whistle when walking about, when listening to recordings, when driving, when shopping in grocery stores—my wife says she actually finds it helpful, because if we are separated in a store, she can always locate me by the sound of my whistling.

I will whistle in just about every situation except when listening to live music being performed, because that is totally unacceptable by any standards. I once witnessed a hilarious instance of someone doing just that during a live jazz performance—it was a concert by the great alto saxophonist Lee Konitz in a jazz club in northern California. Lee had just gotten partway through the theme of “Body and Soul,” when over the sound of his sax could clearly be heard someone in the audience attempting to whistle along—loudly and off key (naturally). After a few bars of this gross intrusion, Lee just stopped cold. “Oh, I hear someone is trying to join in here,” Lee said caustically. “What do you say we have a whistle-along? Everyone together now?” Lee then put down his horn and for a full chorus of “Body and Soul,” ala Mitch Miller, conducted the entire audience in whistling that classic tune. It was a ragged effort, to be sure, but Lee made his point, and the stunt sufficiently embarrassed the culprit to pipe down for the rest of the concert—and hopefully for life!

Anyway, back in 1969, I was a teacher at a private boys school in Livingston, New Jersey, where my job was to teach English Grammar & Composition to sixth and seventh-grade boys. There was a defined curriculum but when I wasn’t obliged to force upon them the invaluable life skill of sentence diagramming or the ability to recognize a dangling participle when they saw one, I preferred to concentrate on what I believed was much more important—teaching them some basic skills in creative writing.

I was full of young idealism about education, and my main goal was to encourage these rather spoiled, entitled boys to tap into their imaginations and learn to use language to express thoughts and feelings. As a result, we had many very lively and loud discussions about their compositions in the classroom.

There was only one problem—my boss was an iron-fisted martinet of a woman who considered her mission to be more like that of a drill sergeant than a teacher, and she believed that I, too, should be that way. This was Mrs. Lynham, a fearsome, always unsmiling presence, with a shock of pure white hair set off by comically large, jet-black eyebrows.

Unfortunately, her classroom was adjacent to mine, the two rooms separated only by one of those accordion-style folding doors, which was not at all soundproof. There was never so much as a peep emanating from her side of it, because her students were in constant fear for their lives, as speaking uninvited could get a boy struck viciously with a wooden ruler. But in marked contrast, the students in my classroom were encouraged to talk, and the result was often a boisterous and cacophonous atmosphere.

So, at least once a day, the folding door between the two rooms would be violently thrown open, and the furious visage of Mrs. Lynham would glare us. “Quiet!” she would shout. “I can’t teach with all this racket!” If it had been possible to then slam the accordion door, I’m sure she would have.

The boys would then quiet down, momentarily at least. I would smile and wink at them to let them know I was more on their side than hers, and we would carry on, trying to be a little less unruly. After one of these episodes, Mrs. Lynham took me aside between classes to upbraid me about the disruptive behavior of my classes.

“I want to talk to you about the lack of discipline in your classroom,” she said. “I understand what you are trying to do, but the idea of engaging these boys in conversation is completely misguided. You can’t actually talk to them—they will misconstrue everything you say.” And then, leaning in close to me rather conspiratorially, she told me her own personal pedagogical philosophy. “I consider these boys to be sticks that have to be taught!” She made this autocratic pronouncement with a sly smile, and then added: “That’s the approach that has stood me in good stead for many a year, and I strongly advise you do the same thing.”

I was speechless…and appalled. This was the exact antithesis of everything I believed in.

A few days later, “the whistling incident” occurred. Picture this: while escorting my class through the hallways to an event in the auditorium, I’m blowing a jazz tune—one of Charlie Parker’s greatest compositions, “Confirmation”—when out of nowhere comes Mrs. Lynham, fiercely admonishing me.  

“Stop that right now,” she commands, as if she were dressing down one of her young charges. “It’s inappropriate to whistle in school—before you know it, they’ll all be doing it!”

I’m sure the old battle-axe feared there might be some sort of mass student rebellion, perhaps like the one perpetrated by British prisoners of war in the late fifties World War II film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was those soldiers, you may recall, who bravely risked their lives by disobediently whistling “The Colonel Bogey March” right in the faces of their outraged and humorless Japanese captors.

Except in this case it would’ve instead been a very unlikely kind of bebop whistling anarchy, with legions of young, white, over-privileged boys—the virtual prisoners of war of this school—rearing back, pursing their lips, and blowing “Confirmation” in mad and exhilarating defiance of the established dicta of tradition!

Come to think of it, that would be much as Bird himself had done all those years before, blowing down the walls of traditional jazz conventions with his bebop innovations. And we know from history how devastating a radical rebellion like that can be—presaging the very end of jazz as we knew it.

Part 2: Billie’s Bounce (1971)

It’s just another day working on the assembly line…

Recently, when a photography gig of mine ended, I had to find occasional manual labor for some much-needed cash to pay the rent. So for a while I’ve been on call as a day laborer at the Heublein factory in Menlo Park, California. The job is tedious and mindless—it consists of loading cases of booze onto a conveyor belt, hour after hour. (There’s also a bizarre bit of déjà vu involved, as Heublein makes a cheap rye whiskey under the brand name of Carstairs, a brand my alcoholic parents used to drink in large quantities when I was a kid, and it is mostly cases of that very same whiskey that I am now loading onto the conveyor belt.)

To stay sane, as I work I blow some jazz. I pretty much always have music ‘playing’ in my head, and if I’m in a place where it won’t disturb anyone, it comes out as whistling.

Today, I’m concentrating on one particular jazz piece. I have learned Charlie Parker’s solo on his famous blues, “Billie’s Bounce” and I keep whistling it over and over. Bird’s four-chorus solo is a wonder, one of the most perfect blues solos ever recorded. I can pretty much get it note for note, except for a couple of bars of blazingly fast sixteenth notes, which I usually fumble my way through somewhat pathetically.

It helps me a lot to focus on music while I perform this drudgery, to occupy my mind with something more uplifting. But today I can’t help but notice that a black co-worker at the other end of the conveyor belt who keeps giving me the stank eye…maybe he doesn’t like my whistling? His job is to control the conveyor belt’s speed to make sure things don’t get too out of control (picture Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory).

I’ve seen this guy before, he is a regular employee at Heublein, and he is wearing his usual Black Panther regalia—black shirt and pants, black beret with a Panthers button on it, and a serious Afro.

I, too, am sporting a ‘fro,’ although mine is light brown, and is not intended as a political statement—it’s just that I’m a curly-haired jazz freak, and it’s 1971 in California. But conveyor-belt man keeps giving me these strange looks, and I begin to seriously wonder what exactly is up with him. I try my best to ignore the guy and keep on working, and whistling…

Then, during a break, he approaches me, gives me a hard once over and says, “You’re passin,’ right?”

“Say what?” I reply.

“Like, you’re PASSIN,’ right? Passin’ for white!”

I am taken aback. He actually thinks I’m black and pretending to be white? Is he serious? I guess maybe it’s the ‘fro’ and the Bird solos that have him so confused…

“No, man,” I say, laughing. “I am most definitely white! Always have been, always will be.”

“Don’t bullshit me,” he says. “I hear you whistling those blues, and I see that hair. That’s some kinky shit right there.”

“I know it is,” I say, and try to make a joke to lighten the confrontational mood, “I think it got this curly from listening to so much jazz!”

At least he smiles a little at this, so I quickly add, “Believe me, man, I am NOT passing! And if I was trying to fool people, do you really think I’d be having my hair like this and whistling jazz all the time?”

He looks me hard in the eye for a long moment, and I can tell he sees now that I am telling the truth—so I know we are going to be okay. We smile at each other, clasp hands in a power handshake, and go back to work.

Resuming my job of loading those endless cases, I have to smile, thinking about this unusual exchange. And then I silently congratulate myself—“Damn, man! Your whistling must be getting really good!”

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copyright 2018 Bob Hecht

The Color of Jazz

The late, great trumpeter Clark Terry once offered one of the most pointed, and humorous, comments about the perennial controversies in jazz over race and the perceived abilities of white versus black musicians…

He said, “My theory is that a note doesn’t give a fuck who plays it, as long as he plays it well.”

It’s not easy, or normally appropriate, to find humor in racial prejudice…but there is a little story from my life in the sixties that I do find pretty damn funny, even after all these years…

One night in the mid sixties my phone rings. It’s my friend Kinney.

“Come by tonight, if you can,” he says, “there’s someone I want you to meet. And bring some jazz records.”

Kinney and I have been friends since college, having graduated together from Seton Hall over in Jersey just a couple of years before. We both now live and work in New York; I live with my girlfriend on the Upper East Side, and he by himself down in Greenwich Village.

So before heading for the subway to go downtown, I select a few choice records to share with him: some Bud Powell, some Bird, and some Chet Baker. I have enthusiastically been turning Kinney on to some of the jazz greats I adore, and he has gradually been building a pretty good jazz collection of his own.

He opens the door to welcome me and my girlfriend, and as we enter his apartment he introduces us to a beautiful young black woman sitting on the couch.

“This is Yvonne,” he says proudly, and there’s definitely something about his tone that suggests he might just be bragging about a new sexual conquest.

It was not just Yvonne’s lovely appearance that was surprising to me. To be honest, I had not anticipated my white college friend having a black girlfriend. Interracial romances were not altogether uncommon in the Village in the mid 60’s, but still unusual enough to turn heads. And of course it was a time of ripe change in cultural and sexual mores in this country.

Kinney and Yvonne soon became a couple and moved in together. She seemed a shy and unsophisticated young woman at this point in her life, but over the next several years of their relationship she underwent a transformation. She gradually changed from a rather conventional-looking middle class girl with conventional middle class values, into a classic late 60’s hippie chick. Her tailored dresses became vintage clothes from second hand Village stores. She wore not only bellbottoms, but actual bells. Her straightened hair became an Afro, first a short one and then a huge one…

And gradually, too, her political attitudes changed. From a politically innocent and naive middle class girl, she became a strident black power advocate. And she took on some of the pretensions that often went with such transformations. She changed from a rather simple and meek young woman to a pretentious, self- absorbed and superior-sounding one—an “I have all the answers” kind of person. She became, honestly, very hard to take. Yet she seemed completely unaware of how her transformation could affect, and turn off, friends.

Meanwhile, Kinney’s growing love of jazz, fostered to a large degree by our friendship, also grew steadily during these years. Aside from Chet Baker, whom he said was now his most favorite player, he grew to love, and collect, records by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and other greats.

It never seemed that Yvonne was particularly appreciative of jazz, and in other ways as well the couple appeared mismatched. Kinney had strong intellectual leanings, and a keen desire for spiritual growth. While I turned him on to jazz, he in turn exposed me on to Alan Watts, and the Zen teachings of Huang Po. I never sensed that Yvonne was on the same wavelength in that regard at all.

There came a time when their differences simply became too great. And one day, she just dumped him. While he was out at work, she unexpectedly packed her stuff and split. But not before cleaning out a good portion of his jazz record collection…and she did that in a most bizarre way, reflecting her newly found Afro-centric identity.

“She took all of my records featuring black musicians, every single one,” Kinney lamented to me later. “Now I have an exclusively all-white jazz collection.”

I didn’t say this aloud to my friend, but I guess it was kind of lucky that his most favorite musician was Chet Baker.

……

Such racial bias is, sadly, nothing new to jazz.

It’s always been ironic to me that jazz—which in many ways has a history of being one of the most egalitarian of the arts, in which how a musician is regarded usually has more to do, rightly, with the quality of his or her musicianship than the color of his or her skin—has at times been riddled with conflict over race. There have been many examples of prejudice against both black and white musicians; black musicians have often expressed frustration and anger about the music being at times co-opted by whites, and white musicians have often been frustrated and angered by claims that only blacks can ‘authentically’ play jazz.

So there is a long history of grievances, both legitimate and not, and such attitudes still do exist today, although they were much more acute back in the sixties. It was during those years, after all, that the term ‘Crow Jim’ was coined to signify the reverse racism against white musicians that was quite prevalent.

For example, back then Miles Davis often had to defend the presence of pianist Bill Evans in his band against criticism which was, as Miles characterized it, “that shit some black people put on him about being a white boy in our band. I have always just wanted the best players in my group, and I don’t care about whether they’re black, white, blue, red, or yellow. As long as they can play what I want, that’s it.”

But for the majority of jazz musicians, and its fans, the reality has been, as the great altoist Lee Konitz once commented in an interview, that “the spiritual part of this music far transcends all of those racial considerations…”

The truth is that racial integration came to jazz bandstands before it did to other, more mainstream, situations in our society. In the thirties, Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton, and Artie Shaw hired Billie Holiday, years before Major League Baseball was integrated with the hiring of Jackie Robinson. And Charlie Barnet included many black musicians in his band during those years. These bandleaders did so because they valued musicianship above the prevailing discriminatory racial attitudes of the day, and often did so at considerable risk. When Barnett was warned about the impact that having blacks in his band might have on his popularity and on touring in the southern states, he reportedly replied: “Fuck the South!”

Even Charles Mingus, who was known as ‘Jazz’s Angry Man,’ and who often railed against the so-called white power structure and racism (as in his powerful, satiric piece, “Fables of Faubus”), did not hesitate to include in his various bands such great white musicians as trombonist Jimmy Knepper, saxophonists Bobby Jones and Lee Konitz, and pianist Bill Evans.

Charlie Parker hired trumpeter Chet Baker, pianist Al Haig, and trumpeter Red Rodney, and numerous other white musicians—although when Bird toured the south with the ginger-haired Rodney, he famously billed him as “Albino Red” in an attempt to circumvent segregation laws!

Parker once said about his hiring of Chet Baker, “He plays pure and simple, I like that. That little white cat reminds me of those Bix Beiderbecke records my mother used to play.”

Bix, of course, was white, but that didn’t stop Louis Armstrong from being a great admirer of his playing and a good friend.

Of course no one can honestly say they are truly color blind…to claim so can often be just another form of prejudice. It’s pretty clear that our awareness of racial differences affects our perceptions, no matter how we might try to transcend or overcome our biases.

And any idea that we might now, here in the 21st century be living in a post-racial world is patently absurd…just ask the many African Americans who are routinely harassed or jailed for driving while black, or simply for sitting in a Starbucks while black…or just ask the families of the countless young, unarmed black men gunned down by the cops sworn to protect them, or the many black or brown men and women jailed for the same crimes for which their white counterparts go free. Or the brown skinned children and parents separated at the border by the country’s current racist policies…

In the jazz world, regrettably, there are still those who take the strident position that jazz is strictly black music, and that white musicians are mere interlopers, just faux jazz artists and not the real deal…

For all of us, it’s good to remember that no less the real deal than Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington said way back in the forties…”Jazz has become part of America. There are as many white musicians playing it as Negro…we are all working together along more or less the same lines. We learn from each other. Jazz is American now. American is the big word.”

From its beginnings jazz has been a gumbo of sorts, mixing its ingredients and flavors to form something greater than the sum of its parts…a uniquely American gumbo cooked up in the country’s melting pot.

Of course, there are always some who attempt to foul our American gumbo. As pianist Thelonious Monk once said, “They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.”

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copyright 2018 Bob Hecht