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!”

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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

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copyright 2018 Bob Hecht

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

Jazz & Democracy

As someone who both adores the best qualities that jazz has to offer, and abhors our current national politics of polarization, I’m often struck by how the two realms of jazz and politics so dramatically conflict, in their respective expressions of two great American inventions.

It’s not supposed to be like that, though, because jazz and democracy,  theoretically at least, share so many core principles.

Jazz, I believe, contains the best of democratic values. In jazz, everyone has a ‘voice’ and a role to play. Of necessity, a jazz group is a flexible collective, with leadership roles continually shifting from one player to another. It’s essentially an ongoing and vitally alive conversation.

Sometimes, that conversation takes the classic form of ‘call and response,’ wherein one person’s expression is then answered by another, with ideas being traded back and forth and new threads added to create an entirely new, collaborative musical fabric.

Therefore, when it functions well, a jazz group reflects the individual band members’ needs and desires to communicate with one another—as well as with, of course, their audience (their constituents)—and to cooperate, to bend to the common good, to create something together. Isn’t that a lot of what democracy is supposed to be about?

By contrast, in the obstructive, intransigent politics of the day, there is apparently little or no desire to cooperate with one another or to bend to the common good—represented by the needs of the people, their constituents. In fact, there’s rarely even any agreement on what the basic facts are!

Such denial of truth would never happen in jazz, where B flat is always B flat! (Nor would it ordinarily happen in science, where it has been proved the world is not flat!)

To play together, a jazz group first has to arrive at a basic level of musical understanding, agreeing on a score or a song to play, the key they’re going to play it in, the tempo and rhythm, etc. With the ground rules thus established, each player is then free to improvise on the agreed-upon structure…but always with the needs of the other players—the common good—kept foremost in mind.

As clarinetist Anat Cohen has observed…”When you play jazz, you have to learn to have a conversation.”

Jazz in many ways is the art of conversation, of honest musical exchange, in which there needs to be space allowed for give and take between the participants. It’s all about listening to each other, and responding constructively, creatively, to what the other is saying.

Unlike what commonly occurs in the political realm today, the members of a jazz group can’t just say “No!” to their fellow colleagues (like denying a legitimate Supreme Court seat, for example)—or else the whole effort simply falls apart, the bandstand collapsing under the weight of conflict. You know, like Congress has collapsed under the weight of its conflicts.

Herbie Hancock has described jazz simply as “a dialogue.” And as I watch and read the news each day—and consequently have to battle not to become ever more deeply mired in hopelessness, cynicism and depression—I often wonder what it would be like if the intrinsic qualities and conventions of jazz were ever applied to our national dialogue.

Can you imagine such a world? One in which our politicians adopted the core values of jazz? I know…crazy, right? Because first the various ‘players’ would have to get on the same ‘bandstand’ together…and then they would have to reach some basic agreements (like facts are different than opinions)…and they’d need to honor their commitment to the same ‘score’—which is called the Constitution—and then they’d have to set forth with the desire and willingness to cooperate, to ‘play’ together with a common goal and with mutual respect, and to find ways to accommodate all the different individual ‘voices.’

Nat Hentoff once wrote, “There’s almost a touching belief in music as a cleansing, purifying, liberating force, as if jazzmen were the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Oh, if only they were our legislators, Nat, if only….

It is terribly sad and disturbing to see our democracy being ravaged and perverted in the many ways it appears to be in these rather dark days.

But, at least we’ll always have jazz.

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copyright 2018 Bob Hecht

In Your Own Sweet Way—A Bill Evans Memory

It was the kind of New York night not fit for man nor beast. Sleet and wind whipping about, snow banks and ice everywhere. With my ‘49 Dodge slipping and sliding on the Village streets, I make my way to the Vanguard to catch the midnight set. The small sign outside the entrance inconspicuously announces: Bill Evans Trio. This is the 1962 edition of the trio, reformed after bassist Scott LaFaro’s death the year before; and this is the club where Bill had played his last sets with Scotty, with whom he had such unearthly musical empathy, before the fiery car crash that ended his life. (Those final, magical sessions were captured for posterity on two historic Riverside live albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Waltz for Debby.) The trio still has Paul Motian on drums, but now features the young Chuck Israels on bass, in the unenviable position of trying to fill LaFaro’s role.

As I finish my descent down that famed, steep staircase, I can see that there are only a few people in the club on this winter weeknight. I take a table right in front of the bandstand and order a beer. What a cozy and warm contrast to the storm raging outside, just above this basement jazz oasis; here I am, nestled in my favorite club—which feels even more intimate than usual tonight with so few patrons—and about to hear my very favorite musician. Within a few minutes the trio walks onto the stand, and without any noticeable communication but seemingly as one mind begins playing “How Deep Is the Ocean.” I listen raptly, mostly with my eyes closed. The music is transporting, the interplay like a finely tuned conversation. When the tune ends I clap and in that moment realize with a shock that I am now the only remaining audience member, the few others apparently having slipped out at the start of the set.

Zen question: What is the sound of one pair of hands clapping in a jazz club? Answer: Emptiness. And that just felt so wrong, especially given the magnificence of this trio’s music. Bill and his cohorts, however, seem unfazed (how many other times has something like this happened, I wonder) and they continue without comment to the next tune, which I recognize as “How My Heart Sings.” They then go on to play a full forty-five-minute set. As I listen I’m in a weirdly ambivalent state—alternately uncomfortable and rapturous—as I feel bad for the musicians yet am also ecstatic at witnessing this giant playing an entire set for an audience of one…at being that audience of one! I applaud enthusiastically but it’s still very much a hollow and pathetic sound. (Much later I wish I would have jumped from table to table clapping, whistling and cheering to simulate a fuller and more appropriately boisterous audience—perhaps they would have at least gotten a laugh out of that.)

At the end of the set I see Bill standing near the stairs and I approach and thank him for the marvelous music. And then, knowing that music at the Vanguard typically continues for a couple more hours—and fully displaying my twenty-year-old naiveté—I actually ask the great Bill Evans if he’s going to play another set! He smiles sweetly, with none of the condescension, irony or even hilarity that would have been fitting under the circumstances, and says simply, no, he doesn’t think so. I bid him goodnight and climb those stairs from the empty club to the blizzard waiting at street level.

how my foolish heart sings
how deep is the detour ahead
so very early my man’s gone

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copyright 2018 Bob Hecht