Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Where's The Melody" By Martin Williams

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"A short, model primer on jazz, in which Mr. Williams triumphantly makes a difficult subject seem difficult and absolutely comprehensible. He spells out in an even, shoulder-to-shoulder manner the various kinds of improvisation, the places of the composer and arranger, jazz rhythms, and the like, and along the way he carefully knocks down those distracting and divisive genre terms 'swing/ 'Dixieland/ and 'bebop' by choosing illustrations from every walk of jazz."

". . . a remarkable performance: concise, lucid, and mercifully free of fustian proselytizing. In the opening section, Williams, primarily through the analysis of key available recorded solos, clarifies the basic ways in which jazzmen improvise and the diverse functions of the composer-arranger in jazz.
The book, however, is more than a grammar. Jettisoning the traditional romanticized approach to jazz history by region and river, Williams places the evolution of the language in much more useful perspective by describing the changes in jazz made by its major innovators, from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman."
- Nat Hentoff, BOOKWEEK

I can’t believe I still own a copy of Martin Williams’ Where’s The Melody: A Listener’s Guide to Jazz [New York: Minerva Press, 1963].

Dogged-eared with paper that is yellowing and book spine glue that’s hardening and cracking, it’s been loaned out so many times that it is a miracle that it ever made it back to my bookshelf.

One of the best primer on the process of making Jazz ever written, I thought it might be fun to share the book’s Introduction and Opening Chapter with you on these pages.

© -  Martin Williams, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"An American Art"

If we know anything about jazz at all, we have probably heard that it is supposed to be an art—our only art according to some; "America's contribution to the arts/' according to certain European commentators. It has also the kind of prestige that goes with praise from the "classical" side of the fence. One of the first men to recognize the artistic qualities of jazz was the outstanding Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who in 1919 wrote a tribute to the great clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, adding that perhaps tomorrow the whole world would be moving along his road. And in 1965 the American composer-critic Virgil Thompson said that "jazz is the most astounding spontaneous musical event to take place anywhere since the Reformation/.”

Jazz has its special publications, both here and abroad, its own journalists, reviewers, critics, historians, and scholars. Also, as most of us are aware, our State Department is willing to export jazz to answer for our cultural prestige abroad. Yet here at home, this "American art" is the subject of certain ignorance and certain misunderstandings.

It is possible to approach jazz in several ways. It is more than possible—it is in a sense almost mandatory—to consider jazz as an aspect of Negro American life and of the far-reaching and little understood effect of Negro-American life on American life in general. Jazz is, of course, a product of Negro-American culture, and that means that it represents also a unique coming together of African and European musical traditions.

It is also possible to treat jazz at second hand, as it has influenced our other music. The results of this approach might surprise some of us, for there is hardly a corner of American music that has not been touched somehow by jazz. It has touched most corners of music in Europe as well. To give one rather unexpected example, most of the trumpet players in our symphony orchestras, whether they are performing Bach or Bar-tok, Grieg or Gershwin, play with a slight vibrato (literally, a vibration to their trumpet sound) that they are not supposed to have, because in the past jazz musicians have generally used one. The symphonists have simply picked it up, some of them perhaps unconsciously.

It is  not surprising that all American  popular music, and some American concert music as well, were once commonly referred to as "jazz,” because the influence of jazz and of pre-jazz Afro-American music is everywhere in our musical life — on Broadway, in musical films, in the hotel dance band, in the "hit parade," in the concert hall. And, in one form or another, this influence has been there for over seventy years. So apparently "square" a popular song as Dancing in the Dark would not have been written without the powerful and pervasive effect of the musical force we call "jazz."

Jazz has also been treated through the biographies of its players, and some writers have treated jazzmen as what they are—creative people, most often functioning as popular entertainers. But jazzmen have also been treated as colorful old characters or as pathetic, aging men, unworthy of the callous caprice with which a delinquent showbiz has shunted them aside. It is possible, after all, for the most interesting of men, or even the most colorful of old characters, to be involved in an activity that need not detain us for its own sake. We might appreciate the personal maturity of a shop steward without being interested in owning a handbook on union organization at the local level or one on the processing of auto parts on a modern assembly line.

However, jazz is a music, and it is worthy of our attention as a music. Its musical achievements are quite high, perhaps higher than those of any other so-called "folk" or "popular" music in human history. Undoubtedly the musical level of jazz would have had to be high before it could have exerted such a strong and continuing influence upon other musics. But jazz music itself is much more interesting than the subject of its influence. It has a life of its own, growing, developing, and finding its own way, taking what it needs from the European tradition and adding something of its own at each step. And, as the years pass, jazz behaves less and less like a "popular" commercial music, subject to the fads of the moment, and more and more like what we are apt to think of (rightly or wrongly) as an "art music."

Let us assume in looking at jazz that we know little or nothing about the techniques of music and little or nothing about jazz and its history.

We will assume we know little about jazz history because we want to look at it from a musical standpoint, and because very little that we can appreciate has been written on it from that standpoint. And we will assume that we don't know much about music, because many of us don't.
But perhaps lack of a detailed musical background is an advantage. Jazz has taught itself, so to speak. Jazz musicians have often taught
themselves and the music as a whole has wended its selective way, almost on its own, through the techniques of European music. If we were to study music, we would of course study a system largely deduced from practice, a theory derived from what the great European composers have actually done when they wrote. But sometimes this musical system and theory applies to jazz only approximately, only insofar as jazz musicians have borrowed it, transmuted it, and used it in their own way. So in listening to a partly self-taught music, we shall probably have the gods on our side if we become self-taught listeners.

We do not learn to listen theoretically or in the abstract, of course, and almost all the comments in this book are attached to specific recordings. We shall begin by going directly to the crux of the matter, to the jazz musician as he plays combinations and sequences of notes that sound sometimes familiar, sometimes only vaguely familiar, and sometimes not familiar at all. And we shall try to understand how] jazz musicians play, what they do with a melody; how much they improvise, make up as they go along, and how much they work out ahead of time; and the kind of musical logic involved in their way of playing.

There is, after all, little point in worrying about the history of an art or the biographies of its players until we have some familiarity with the art itself. As an introduction to how jazz players play, we will look in the first section of this book, "Where's the Melody?" at what they do with more or less familiar popular songs. Then we will turn to an important original musical form that has been used by jazzmen of all styles and periods, the form called "The Blues.' With these basic forms and practices in mind, we can examine "Eight Recorded Solos" in more careful detail.

Having been thus introduced to the work of the jazz soloist, we can turn, in the section called "What Does a Composer Do?" to the jazz composer-arranger, the man who provides the player with basic material or who revises material he finds in the American popular repertory. The composer-arranger orchestrates; he gives the musicians in large and small ensembles written (or sometimes memorized) parts to play and he assigns the soloists space and duration in which to improvise. A soloist is responsible for his portion of a performance; a composer-arranger for the effect of the whole.

In these four introductory sections we have deliberately avoided chronology and avoided the sometimes careless catch-phrases of styles and schools and periods of jazz. The things that Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk have in common as players are more important and instructive than differences in the way they make music. Teddy Wilson, a pianist who first rose to prominence in the mid-Thirties, in those days took the same basic approach to improvised invention as did Charlie Parker, the revolutionary figure of the mid-Forties. And the music of the pianist and leader from the "swing period," Count Basie, taught the modernist John Lewis as much as did Charlie Parker's music— perhaps more.

Having examined the basics of jazz this far, we are now in a position to look at its musical history in "Last Trip Up the River." From a musical standpoint that history is made up of the contributions of certain major
jazz players who renew the basic language of the music periodically, men like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and of certain major jazz composers, men like Duke Ellington, who periodically give larger synthesis and summary and form to the music.

After paying this much attention to the music itself, it is perhaps time to have accounts of the players at work on the scene—in nightclubs, in studios, and in private rehearsals. Thus, the second part of this book describes a nightclub evening of a pianist-composer, "Monk at the Five Spot"; a record date by vibraharpist Milt Jackson and a brass ensemble, "Recording with 'Bags'"; another recording session by a Mississippi blues singer of the old school, "Big Joe in the Studio"; and a rehearsal by some of the men who are involved in the avant-garde with "Jimmy Giuffre at Home.”'

The final part of this book, "Comment by a Listener," represents an effort to return to the music and its musicians with the knowledge so far acquired. In comments (some brief and some more comprehensive) on figures like Horace Silver, Billie Holiday, and Roy Eldridge, I have expanded on some of the points of jazz history described in the first part of the book and have tried to show, in a more or less casual sampling, how some exceptional musicians have developed the ideas of the great figures and have also made contributions of their own. I have also dealt with the work of some less creative figures who water down and popularize the musical ideas of others. I have used as examples some recorded performances which do not seem to me successful; the value in this is not in pointing the finger at failure (or my idea of failure) but rather in discussing how and why performances may fail. Finally, I have commented on recent developments and the jazz avant-garde as exemplified by Ornette Coleman.

I have not tried in this book to disguise my enthusiasm for jazz and for most of the players and performers I have discussed. But I have tried not to include too many of my own specific emotional responses to the musicians and their work. My purpose in this book has been to clear the way, to help listeners discover their own responses by putting them more directly in touch with the music itself. I have suggested my own feelings about jazz, I trust, largely as a means to such an end.

Finally, I think that each reader should undertake a book of this sort at his own pace—even at his own leisure—and that for some a gradual alternation of reading and listening can be the most rewarding. With that purpose in mind, I have included suggestions for a "Basic Library of Jazz" and have, in various sections, added "Record Notes" which list representative works of the artists discussed. The reader will, I hope, take it from there. …

Where's the Melody?

Let us assume that we are following two men as they enter a jazz nightclub or arrive, a few minutes late, at a jazz concert. One of them is an avid fan, an insider who has been following the music enthusiastically for years. His friend is not an insider; he is curious and sympathetic but a little puzzled. As they move inside the club or concert hall, the music is underway. The novice turns to the insider and asks, "What are they playing, do you know?"

The master replies, 'That's A Foggy Day"

At this point we can discern puzzlement, and perhaps despair, on the face of our novice. He knows perfectly well what A Foggy Day in London Town sounds like, and he hears nothing whatever like its melody coming from the musicians in front of him. Yet his friend is sure that it's A Foggy Day.
Jazz must be some kind of musical puzzle.

In effect, our novice has asked a prevalent question, "Where's the melody?" Or, to put it more crudely, "What are those musicians doing up there?" It is a question that is considered so square by some jazz fans, and even some musicians, that they refuse to answer—or even hear it. Yet I think it is a perfectly valid question, and answering it can be enlightening. For what those musicians are "doing up there" is not very obscure. It is not wholly unprecedented in the Western European music from which American music partly derives. And it is certainly no kind of musical game or puzzle.

Most of us probably know that jazz musicians make variations on a theme and that these variations are often improvised, invented on the spot as they play. For many people the primary quality in jazz is its rhythm—jazz is a particular rhythmic way of playing music. And anyone who has ever watched a group of jazz fans will be led to suspect that more than a few of them are responding to jazz rhythm—and very little else. There is nothing invalid about such a response, for its particular way of handling rhythm is indeed one of the unique things and one of the most compelling things about jazz music. But on the other hand, jazz rhythm, on the surface at least, is a readily recognizable quality. For our novice it is probably the thing that for him makes jazz jazz. He hears it, he feels it, and he says, "That's jazz." He may not always be right and he may not sense the fine details of whether the musicians are handling jazz rhythms well (that is, whether they are "swinging"), but he will be right most of the time.

Let's take a familiar popular song, which is what jazzmen do about half the time. There is nothing in the popular song that necessarily makes it jazz. It may have been influenced by jazz, even heavily influenced, as most American popular music has. But if a jazz musician plays it, he will play it with jazz rhythm. He will make it "swing/' give it a particular kind of momentum and movement. Thus, a jazz musician has already made a rhythmic variation on a piece by performing it at all. But so far he has given us no problems, for he has used the familiar melody in a recognizable way— let us say it is A Foggy Day or Pennies from Heaven or Embraceable You or any of thousands of American popular songs that are familiar to most of us and that are commonly used by jazz musicians.

Almost any jazz performance of familiar pieces like those will have at least an opening chorus based on the familiar melody itself. However, many jazz musicians use the melody not just for their opening statements, but as a basis of everything they do. There are players from every style and school of jazz who play that way; if you came in in the middle of one of their performances you would probably know right away what they were playing.
But such performances are not a matter of playing the same thing over and over again. These players make variations. For example, they will embellish the melody in various ways: they will add decorative notes and phrases, they will fill in in places where the melody comes to rest, and they will make slight changes in the notes as written.

At the same time they may improvise with the harmony of a piece (particularly if they are pianists) altering the simple chords that you and I would find on a piece of sheet music and even adding to the chords.

Now, of course, these things can be done badly. Some decorations can be cluttering and affected. The point of the melodic embellishments and of the richer harmony is to enhance the piece, to bring out its good qualities or modify its poor ones, and, at best, to discover hidden qualities and make a better piece of music of it. The great master of this particular embellishment approach to jazz improving was the pianist Art Tatum whose additions and fills were often dazzling, and whose sense of rich, improvised harmony was probably the most developed that our popular music has ever seen.

But besides filling out and elaborating the melody, a jazz musician can subtract from it, can reduce it to a kind of outline with fascinating musical experience thereby. Thelonious Monk,  because of his exceptional and subtle sense of rhythm, can take even a silly popular ditty and make it sound like a first-rate composition for piano — his version of You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart is a good example, or, to take a better song, his rephrasing of I Should Care.

Another player who uses this melodic approach to variations is Erroll Garner. And there are horn players, particularly from older generations, who are excellent at this kind of paraphrase of familiar melodies.

The greatest of all is Louis Armstrong, who can work with good popular material like I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues and improve it, or who can work with poor material like That's My Home and make it sound like deathless melody.

Thus a great deal of jazz variation is recognizably made on a familiar melody, and there are players from all styles and schools who use this approach. They may elaborate the melody, they may decorate it, or they may reduce it and simplify it (basically, these are what a classicist would call kinds of "melodic variation"), and they may re-harmonize it. But it is — always there somewhere. The art lies in how well they transmute it, in how good a paraphrase they come up with while transforming what was written.

Now let's go back to our jazz fan and his novice friend who were entering the club or concert. Let's assume that now they are comfortably in their seats, that the Miles Davis ensemble is performing, and that they begin Bye Bye, Blackbird. In the first chorus of this piece our novice would hear a transmutation of a familiar, perhaps appealing, but obviously and deliberately lightweight popular ditty from the Twenties. He will realize that there is indeed a sea change taking place, however, for although Davis' trumpet is keeping recognizably to the written melody, he has transformed it, making it a kind of buoyant dirge. Then, in Davis' second chorus, there suddenly seems to be no more Bye Bye, Blackbird. What is going on?

What is going on is that Miles Davis is offering a new melody, one which he is improvising on the spot. This melody does continue the mood and the musical implications he was sketching in his first chorus, but it offers some very new ideas of melody.

Davis is using as his guide for this new melody what we may call an "outline" or "framework" of Bye Bye, Blackbird. Technically speaking, he is using what musicians call the “chord changes, the harmonic understructure of Bye Bye, Blackbird as the basis for this melody of his own. (Classicists would call this a harmonic variation, incidentally.)

The way to listen to him now is to listen not for something we already know or have already heard, but for the music that Miles Davis is making as we hear him. If we also hear, or sense unconsciously, that "outline," that related chord structure the player is using as his guide, fine. But we don't have to. Jazz is not a musical game or puzzle.

Sometimes jazz musicians will a familiar structure, a familiar set of chord changes from a standard popular song, without using the theme melody at all, even for their opening chorus. They simply invent, from the very beginning, without any theme statement or paraphrase. Classic examples are Lester Young's 1944 version of These Foolish Things and Charlie Parker's Embraceable You. In each case the player is using the familiar harmonic outline for his guide — but not necessarily for ours. Again, jazz variation is not a guessing game or a puzzle. Where's the melody? Well, again, the melody is the one that Lester Young or Charlie Parker is making up, the one he is playing. It is not something we have heard before; it may even seem to be like nothing we have heard before. It is what he is playing. Hear it, enjoy it. And hear it well, for it may not exist again.

Similarly, jazz musicians sometimes introduce their improvising with new themes, written or memorized, which are also patterned to old chord structures.  Thus, Ornithology takes its outline from the How High The Moon; Count Basie’s Roseland Shuffle came from Shoeshine Boy; Moten Swing came from You’re Driving' Me Crazy; and there are probably at least two thousand jazz originals, from Sidney Bechet's Shag through Ornette Coleman's Angel Voice, based on the chords to Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. An obvious reason for this is that the new themes have a more jazzlike melodic character than the popular songs which were their harmonic origin.

Thus, there are three kinds of variations—those that involve rhythm, which are intrinsic in jazz performances, as we have seen; those that involve embellishing or paraphrasing a written melody, either decorating it or subtracting from it or both; and those that involve the invention of new melodies within a harmonic outline. They are all found, alone or more often in combination, in all styles and schools of jazz except the most recent.

At this point, let's try a summary by example. Let us assume that we play a little bit of piano and read a little bit of music. We are attracted to a particular popular song and purchase a piece of sheet music for that song to try it out on the parlor spinet. The sheet music will probably present the song in a fairly simple manner. The right-hand piano part, the treble, will give its melody. The left-hand part, the bass, will give simple chords that fit that melody; usually the chords given on sheet music are simple, and often they are quite simple. We take the piece home and play it over a few times until we've got it, as written down, fairly smoothly.

For most people this is the end of the matter. They have learned to play the song as the sheet music presents it. But let us assume that there is a jazz musician inside us and he takes over. The first step would be to play the piece with jazz rhythm. Automatically, this will mean at least some changes in the values of the notes and some personal interpretations of the accents. We have begun to make the piece "swing." Actually, an authentic "swing" is not an easy matter, but let's assume we're getting one fairly well.

Incidentally, in doing this we have discovered that making a piece of music "swing" has nothing to do with playing it fast or loud. It is a matter of giving it a particular kind of rhythm. It can be done slowly and quietly. (Actually, it is very difficult to swing at extremely slow tempo or at extremely fast tempo—but that technicality needn't detain us now.)

Now let's say that under the impetus of that swing and its unique momentum, we begin to try changing certain of the melody notes more boldly. What we have already changed suggests more changes, and we extend some, we shorten others, we leave out some, we add others. We begin to get a different piece of music. At the same time, perhaps we hear more interesting harmonies for the left hand. We change a few of the chords to make them richer, and, in passing, we perhaps add a few appropriate tones that weren't there.

Now, the final step: suppose we gradually diminish the original right-hand part—the treble, the melody notes—altogether. We keep the left-hand part (or our version of it) and with the right hand we make up a new melody part that fits that left-hand part.

It used to be said that modern jazzmen, of the generation of the Forties, began the business of writing new themes to old structures and of inventing new solo melodies to chords alone. But this is obviously untrue. It is untrue of the blues form, as we shall see. Furthermore, our example of Moten Swing comes from 1932, and there are earlier examples of jazz originals with their chords borrowed from, let's say, After You've Gone, or I Ain't Got Nobody, or Sweet Sue, or a dozen others. And, almost all of the great players of the late Thirties—men like pianist Teddy Wilson; tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Lester Young; alto saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter; guitarist Charlie Christian —did much of their playing on chord structures alone, with little or no reference to a theme. Indeed, even earlier players were capable of it, and there are many recorded examples of "non-thematic" variations, of variations that invent original melodies, by Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, and even by Bunk Johnson whose style dates from the early days of New Orleans jazz.

Only the youngest players have broken away from using either the melody of a piece or its chords as direct guides for making their variations.

A good paraphrase of a melody by a good jazz musician is frequently quite superior to its point of departure, the original popular song in the standard repertory. And a good melodic invention by a great jazz musician is a piece of spontaneous composition that may be miles ahead of its point of departure. 1 would not denigrate George Gershwin's achievements; he was one of our best popular composers— indeed, one of our best musicians. But Gershwin was usually writing songs, fairly simple melodies intended to be sung, usually by relatively untrained voices. And Charlie Parker's recorded variations on Gershwin's Embraceable You and Lady Be Good are instrumentally brilliant in a way that Gershwin's songs are not and were not intended to be.

However, Parker, like most great jazzmen, was also a melodist. He was a great instrumental melodist when judged by quite exacting musical standards. When we remember that Parker (again, like most great jazzmen) was a player and did his "composing" as he played, by improvisation, then we realize how astonishing his achievement was.

And so, we come back again to our question and our answer. Where's the melody? The melody is the one the player is making. Hear it well, for it probably will not exist again. And it may well be extraordinary.”

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tadd Dameron - Fontainebleau - Max Harrison

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Fontainebleau originates from Tadd Dameron’s last full year of freedom [1956] before the term of imprisonment that more of less ended his career [he was released from prison in 1962 and died of cancer in 1965].

It is a fine set with no clutter in the horns. The title piece if entirely written-out with no scope for improvisation.

Here is Jazz critic Max Harrison’s of it from the February, 1960 edition of the Jazz Review.

© -Max Harrison, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dameron should have been one of the most prominent jazz composers, arrangers and bandleaders in the immediate postwar years for he was certainly among the most gifted. He lacked technical slickness, and that was surely a disadvantage in the busy world of the record makers, but nearly everything he wrote was modestly yet firmly individual. The melodic style, warm but fresh, was the most distinctive single aspect of Dameron's work, yet his orchestration for small and medium-sized groups was instantly recognisable, too. Confining himself mainly to conventional instrumentations, and never seeking really unusual sounds, his textures are almost always striking.

The concise inventiveness of many of his themes, such as Ladybird, Cool breeze, Stay on it, Jahbero, Our delight, The Squirrel, Half step down, please, Symphonette, Hothouse and Good Bait, won them classic status in the jazz of the 19408, and they gave rise to remarkable improvisations by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and others. Navarro was, indeed, the finest interpreter the composer ever found, and they recorded together often during those years. Following the great trumpeter's premature death in 1950, Dameron's career appeared to lose its impetus, and from then until his own demise in 1965 little was salvaged except bits and pieces. Malcolm Lowry (Dark as the Grave, London,1969) compares an artist to a fireman rescuing valuables from a burning house, that house being the work of art, unscathed, intact in the mind which conceived it, but which the artist has had to set on fire before he can exteriorise it. What he finishes with—the 'completed work' —is a small heap of salvaged objects. This will scarcely serve for the greatest works of art, but it would be hard to better as an image of the last decade and a half of Dameron's life.

He had the more gifted jazzman's usual ambition to break out of the straitjacket of repeating twelve- and thirty-two-bar choruses, and wrote an extended piece called Soulphony for Gillespie to play at Carnegie Hall. This has sunk without a trace, but he made further attempts, and the most convincing is Fontainebleau, which he first recorded in 1956 (American Prestige D7842). It tries to suggest, rather than directly portray, the palace of that name (described in the sleeve note of the original American issue as "where the Bourbons used to cavourt"!) and the surrounding forest.

According to Dameron, the quite simple formal plan has three parts. The first, Leforet, opens with a brooding introductory theme that is heard first on the string bass, then on bass doubled with baritone saxophone, then on the remaining horns—trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor saxophones. This leads to the main theme of the section, and of the whole work, stated by Kinny Dorham's trumpet. It is a flowing, lyrical melody characteristic of the composer, and, though perhaps unsuitable for large-scale development, is entirely suitable for its limited use here. This theme is extended in a written-out (not improvised) alto saxophone solo played most expressively by Sahib Shihab, and by the ensemble. A transitional piano solo from Dameron himself leads to Les cygnes.

This opens with a brief ensemble that manages to suggest the main Foret theme without direct statement, and then a baritone saxophone ostinato bridges to the Cygnes theme, the other principal idea of Fon-tainebleau. It is announced on baritone saxophone and trombone accompanied from above with another ostinato by alto and tenor saxophones. As this is developed, trumpet and alto interject motives derived from the main Foret theme.

Transition from Les cygnes to L'adieu is ill-defined and the third section introduces no fresh material. It begins with another ensemble suggesting the chief Foret theme, followed by the baritone saxophone ostinato that earlier appeared at the be ginning of Les cygnes. Over this a modification of the Cygnes theme itself is given out by alto and tenor saxophones, and it resolves, still supported with the baritone ostinato, to the introductory Foret theme on alto, then on both alto and tenor. This, too, is in modified form—almost jaunty compared with its sombre initial appearance. Restatements of this motive, by trumpet, then by alto and tenor saxophones, alternate with two further ensembles, the last of which brings Fontainebleau to a close.

It is typical of Dameron to proceed by suggestion rather than direct statement, but his thematic cross-references from one section to another help to produce a satisfyingly tight structure. And the listener's interest is sustained by real melodic invention. As usual, the orchestration is effective, and recalls a comment by Dexter Gordon (Quoted in Ira Gitler, Jazz Masters of the 40s, New York, 1966), made after playing some Dameron scores, that every line—all the subsidiary parts—had melodic significance, not just the top one. In fact variety is achieved here with diversified themes and the melodic extensions arising from them, by line, that is, not colour. Colour and texture have their place, however, and the composer gets a notable effect by introducing two of his themes— the Foret introduction and Les cygnes—in low register and then transposing them to high on their reappearances. Similarly, the baritone saxophone ostinato is succeeded by an alto and tenor one in Les cygnes.

These changes, allied to the slowly quickening tempo, produce a feeling of increasing brightness as the work moves from its brooding start to an affirmative conclusion. The weaknesses, as noted, are the vague demarcation between Les cygnes and L'adieu, and the fact that the latter, because it introduces no material of its own, does not constitute a truly independent third section: another theme was needed, and it is hard to believe that Dameron would have found it difficult to think of one.

Fontainebleau leaves no room for improvisation, but this performance is considerably aided by Dorham's trumpeting, by Sahib Shihab's alto and Cecil Payne's baritone saxophone, and by Shadow Wilson's drumming. The ensemble playing is scarcely in the highest class, yet a more cleanly executed reading by a larger group which the composer recorded in 1962 (American Riverside RLP419]) has a rather unpleasant routine-session glibness which robs the piece of some of its character. Dameron often complained about the poor quality of the performances his work received, and insisted that he was poorly represented on records, but Dorham & Co. showed a proper understanding of his pithy yet relaxed music ….”
Jazz Review, February 1960

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Another Look At The Strange, Sorrowful and Sad Life of Billie Holiday [From the Archives]

“I loved her. It was almost like she grew to be a part of me. Her insides were her outsides, you know? When she passed I was crying, not crying with sorrow, but crying because she was at peace at last. It was so beautiful, she gave so much feeling, it was overwhelming.”
- Shirley Horn [vocalist and song stylist]

“A great woman, very cool, and the hippest thing I ever knew.”
Etta James [vocalist and song stylist] 

“How many Billie Holidays are there and which do you prefer? Elated or dour, funny or truculent, sweet or sour, our Lady of Sorrows or 52nd Street’s Queen, early Billie or late, Billie of hope or Billy or heartache, Billie with Pres or with strings, Lady Day or Lady Nightmare or Lady in Ermine, Lady Be Good, Lady in Red, Lady Luck, Lady Blue, Lady Divine, the Lady Who Swings the Band, Lady Mine – crank up the record machine, listen closely and take your choice.

For Billie Holiday is one of those exceptional artists whose work is a perfect tuning fork for our own inclinations. She echoes our emotions, rehabilitates our innocence, cauterizes our nerves.

That she managed so capacious a vision with her slim vocal range and infinite capacity for nurturing demons is a miracle to which generations of interpreters have been and will continue to be drawn. The greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.”
- Gary Giddins

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I had a fleeting look at singer Billie Holiday, once.

It came in the form of her appearance of The Sound of Jazz, a CBS television “Seven Lively Arts” special that was broadcast on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 1957.

Our television set was positioned in the living room of a third floor bay window out which one could see the streets, tenements and church bell towers in what has now become the fashionable Federal Hill area of ProvidenceRI.

It was a dreary day with skies that darkened and became very foreboding the way late afternoons could often, suddenly become during early New England winters [these also stayed late].

After two, stirring performances of Traditional or Dixieland Jazz by trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen’s All-Stars, the camera turned to Billie who was seated on a stool with members of pianist Mal Waldron’s group standing behind her and off to her left.

Suddenly, everything on the television screen looked and sounded as though it had become sluggish and subsumed by the murky mood of the day.

When the TV cameras focused on Billie, the view from the television screen appeared to go into slow motion.  In this they were aided and abetted by Billie enunciation’s as her singing was languid, almost lethargic.

The TV cameras panned around the standing musicians in an unhurried manner and tenor saxophonists Lester Young, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins along with trumpeter “Doc” Cheatham and trombonist Vic Dickenson all took solos interspersed around Billie’s singing that were measured, bordering on being belabored.

Earlier that summer, I had attended the Newport [RI] Jazz Festival and loved being amidst the music and the musicians in what seemed like one continually joyous celebration of life.

But while watching and listening to Billie, I was struck by how strange, sad and sorrowful the music could become.

At the time, I was too young to realize that the television program was trying to achieve a “primitive” aura or that strange, sad and sorrowful were indeed an accurate description of Billie Holiday’s short-lived life [she died two years later in 1959 at the age of 44!].

Some months after Billie’s death, I purchased an issue of The New Yorker magazine and a record album of the music from The Sound of Jazz.. Whitney Balliett’s savvy writing in the former and Eric Larrabee’s liner notes to the latter offered me details about Billie television performance that provided a deeper understanding of what I had witnessed that dreary day in December 1957.

We thought we’d share Whitney and Eric’s essays with you, along with a video tribute to Billie which concludes this piece, as a way of remembering the role that Billie Holiday played in shaping The Sound of Jazz.

© -Whitney Balliett/Lippincott/The New Yorker Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved [paragraphing modified].

Miss Holiday

“Toward the end of her life, Billie Holiday, who died last summer, at the age of forty-four, had be­come inextricably caught in a tangle of notoriety and fame. It was compounded of an endless series of skirmishes with the police and the courts (she was shamelessly arrested on her deathbed for the alleged possession of narcotics); the bitter, vindic­tive, self-pitying image of herself established in her autobiography, published in 1956—a to-hell-with-you image that tended to repel rather than attract compassion; and the fervent adulation still granted her by a diminishing but ferocious band of admirers. Her new listeners must have been puzzled by all this turmoil, for she sang during much of the fifties with a heavy, unsteady voice that sometimes gave the im­pression of being pushed painfully in front of her, like a medicine ball. She seemed, in fact, to be em­battled with every song she tackled.

Nonetheless, her admirers were not mad. Between 1935, when she popped out of nowhere, and 1940, Miss Holi­day had knocked a good portion of the jazz world on its ear with a hundred or so recordings, several dozen of which rank with the greatest of non-classi­cal vocal efforts. Part of the success of these record­ings, which have an uncanny balance of ease, con­trol, unself-consciousness, emotion, and humor, is due to the accompaniment provided by small bands made up of men like Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson. Though their work—in obbligatos that underline the grace of her voice, in exemplary solos, and in tumbling, laughing ensembles—often takes up as much space as the vocals, it is Miss Holiday who continues to astonish.

Until she appeared, genuine jazz singing had been practiced largely by a myriad of often obscure blues singers led by Bessie Smith, and by a handful of instrumentalists led by Louis Armstrong. Bessie Smith leveled a massive lyricism at limited materials, while Armstrong's coalyard rumblings, though ir­resistible in themselves, occasionally seemed to have little to do with singing. Distilling and mixing the best of her predecessors with her own high talents, Billie Holiday became the first full-fledged jazz singer (and, with the defection in recent years of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, possibly the last). She could sing anything, and her style was completely her own. She appeared to play her voice rather than sing with it. In addition to a hornlike control of melody and rhythm, she had an affecting contralto that took on innumerable timbres: a dark-brown sound, sometimes fretted by growls or hoarseness, in the lower register; a pliable oboe tone in the high register; and a clear, pushing, little-girl alto in between.

Her style came in three subtly dif­ferent parts. There was one for ephemeral popular songs, one for the more durable efforts of George Gershwin and his peers, and one for the blues. Since she was primarily an improviser, not an in­terpreter, she was often most striking when han­dling pop songs, like "Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town," "It's Too Hot for Words," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," which she spattered with a mocking, let's-have-some-fun-with-this air. Thus, at a fast tempo, she might loll back in half time, and not only elongate each word, so that it seemed nothing but vowels, but flatten the melody into a near-monotone of four or five notes. Then, in the last eight bars or so, she would suddenly pounce on the beat, pick up the melody, and close in a here-I-am rush. (If the evil was in her she might stomp such a number all the way through, rocking it relentlessly back and forth and coating it with dead-serious growls.) At slow tempos, she would use the full range of her voice, adding exaggerated smears to her phrases or dotting them with series of laughlike staccato notes. At the same time, she was busy fashioning a deceptively simple and thor­ough melodic variation on the tune, smoothing its wrinkles, toughening up its soft spots, and lending it far more lyricism than it usually deserved. This was accomplished not by superimposing melodic candelabra on her material, in the manner of Sarah Vaughan and her baroque students, but by unob­trusively altering its melodic and rhythmic structure with a flow of marvelously placed phrases that might wander around behind the beat, and then suddenly push ahead of it (each syllable urgently pinned to a staccato note) or slide through legato curves full of blue notes and generous vibratos. Miss Holiday's rhythmic sense had much in common with Lester Young's, who would sooner have gone into another line of work than place a note convention­ally. Moreover, her enunciation of pop songs was a mixture of clarity and caricature, bringing into action that rule of ridicule that the victim be reproduced perfectly before being destroyed. Her "moon"s and "June"s rang like bells, and one didn't hear their cracks until the sound began to die away. The com­posers of the pop songs she sang should be grateful; her renditions ("Ooo-ooo-ooo/ What a lil moon-laight can do-oo-oo"), and not the songs, are what we remember.

Her approach to Gershwin and such was almost reverent in comparison. In a number like "Summer­time," she allowed the emotion that she had spent on lesser materials in sarcasm or near-flippancy to come through undisguised. Ceaselessly inventive, she would still shape the melody to fit her voice and mood, but in such a way that its beauties—and not hers—were pointed up. (The number of popular singers, to say nothing of jazz singers, who have been able to slip inside their material, instead of plodding along beside it, is remarkably small.) "Summertime" became a pure lullaby, "But Not for Me" a self-joshing lament, and "Porgy" a prayer. When there were superior lyrics on hand, she under­lined them with a diction and an understanding that shunted the meaning of each word forward. More than that, she would, at her best, lend a first-rate song a new and peculiarly heightened emotion that, one suddenly realized, its composer had only been reaching for. And the effort never showed.

Miss Holiday simply let go when she sang the blues. She was never, however, a loud singer, nor did she depend on the big whisper of most of her mi­crophone-reared successors; instead, she projected her voice firmly, keeping in steady balance her enunciation, timbre, and phrasing. She was, in fact, a model elocutionist. Free of the more complex structures of the standard popular song, she moved through the innumerable emotional pastures of the form, ranging from the down-and-out to the joyous to the nasty and biting to quiet, almost loving blues.

Then, in 1944, when Miss Holiday started re­cording again (after the recording bans), the magic had begun to vanish. Perhaps it was the increasing strain of her private life, or the mysterious rigor mortis that so often freezes highly talented but un­trained and basically intuitive performers. At any rate, she had become self-conscious. Although her voice had improved in resonance and control, her style had grown mannered. She ended her phrases with disconcerting, lachrymose dips. She struggled with her words instead of batting them about or savoring them. The melodic twists and turns lost their spontaneity. One could accurately predict her rhythmic patterns.

Even her beauty—the huge gar­denia clamped to the side of her head; the high, flashing cheekbones; the almost motionless body, the snapping fingers, and the thrown-back head; the mobile mouth, which seemed to measure the emo­tional shape and texture of each word—implied careful calculation. From time to time, some of this stylization lifted—she never, of course, lost her presence, which became more and more melancholy —and there were glimpses of her old naturalness. After 1950, her voice grew deeper and coarser, and her sense of pitch and phrasing eluded her, and finally she became that most rending of spectacles —a once great performer doing a parody of herself that could have been bettered by her inferiors. Her still devoted partisans clamored on; they would have done her greater service by doffing their hats and remaining silent. …”

© -Eric Larrabee/Harper and Bros./Harper Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The best thing that ever happened to television happened on CBS between five and six in the afternoon on Sunday, December 8. At least that was where and when it happened first; the pro­gram may have been run at a different hour and date in your part of the country, and—if there is any justice—it will be repeated, the more often the better. It was an installment in "The Seven Lively Arts" series called "The Sound of Jazz," and as far as I'm concerned you can throw away all previous standards of comparison. This is where live television began to amount to some­thing.

It was opened and closed, and from time to time interrupted, by John Crosby as "host," but mostly it was musicians playing jazz—in a bare studio, dressed in whatever they liked (hats, sweat shirts, it didn't matter), smoking, talking to one another, or just walking around. Each group was introduced and then away it went, with time enough (in nearly all cases) to get the music going, while the camera roamed over the faces of participants and spectators. There were no phony or elaborate explanations. As the executive pro­ducer, Jack Houseman, remarked approvingly to the music critic Virgil Thomson, during the dress rehearsal: "This is the first program about jazz that doesn't say it started in New Orleans and then went up the river."

Technically "The Sound of Jazz" gave the appearance of being very (as they say on the Avenue) "primitive." You knew that you were in a studio and that these people were being televised. If it sounded better to have a micro­phone right in front of a man's face, there the microphone would be; and if one cameraman got in another's way he didn't scurry ashamedly out of it. But this impromptu effect, of course, took a deal of contriving. The musicians couldn't be­lieve at first that hats were really okay, and Billie Holiday had to be persuaded to appear in slacks and pony-tail instead of the gown she had spe­cially planned on. The air of casualness was in fact the end product of months of work.

THIS milestone was primarily made possible by Houseman, his assistant Robert Goldman, and the producer for this show, Robert Herridge, who had the unbelievable courage and good sense to hire good taste and turn it loose. They found two jazz critics with some ideas, Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff, and after the usual round of con­ferences and memos, gave them complete artistic control. Balliett and Hentoff, from the start, had the kind of program in mind that they eventually produced—one that would concentrate on music. When I asked Balliett at what point they had decided in favor of visual realism and informality, he thought a moment and said, "I don't think it ever occurred to us to do it any other way."

They got the musicians they wanted, whether currently well known or not and whether or not "485" (the address on Madison of the Columbia front office) would have made the same choice. They were able to assemble combinations of musicians whose booking arrangements usually keep them apart, and also let an old-timer like Pee Wee Russell play side by side with a modern­ist like Jimmy Giuffre. The name of one performer made "485" nervous, but Balliett and Hentoff put their feet down—and they won. Let it be written that as of 1957 there was still some decency left, and somebody willing to fight for it.

As "The Sound of Jazz" came into the final weeks before air-time, it began to make other people uneasy, and for better reasons. Since there was so little of the normal panic on the surface, everybody panicked inside. The director, Jack Smight, found that he was twice as jumpy with­out actors around to worry about; and when "485" found out in the last few days that there really wasn't any script to speak of it began to emit angry noises: "What are you doing down there?" Balliett and Hentoff could only answer that everything was going to be fine, the musi­cians would turn up, and there would be some music. They hoped this was true.

THEY needn't have worried. If you were lucky enough to have seen "The Sound of Jazz" I don't have to tell you how great it was and, even if you weren't, what I'd want to do anyway is sell you an explanation of why it was great. The cornerstone of live television, class will please now repeat, is the human face—with its spon­taneity and tension, its halo of contradictions, its hints of life lived and life to come. Of course the TV camera is merciless; it draws on the person behind the face for all the resources that it can find there. It is not one eye but millions of eyes; it has high expectations and asks that the person before it be poised in the balance, somehow challenged or tested, so as to bring forth the most meanings from the ever-changing interplay of expressions in the face.

What made the jazz musicians extraordinary, when the camera put their features through its harsh examination, was how much it found there. Children and animals make the best movie actors, as Douglas Fairbanks said, because they are un-self-conscious and unable to fake. No more could these musicians be anything but themselves, for they are committed to independence and to a headlong attack on the cosmos. It showed; here— and no kidding—were individuals of stature and profundity, of flesh and substance, of warmth and bite. The music was good, yes, but what lifted "The Sound of Jazz" to a level hitherto un-attained was the sight of it being made. As a lady in White Plains sat down and wrote CBS as soon as the show was over, one so seldom has the chance "to see real people doing something that really matters to them."

Neither Balliett nor Hentoff expected the visual effect to be as sensational as it was. They knew that director Jack Smight "dug" jazz, but they would never have dared anticipate the deft and intricate camera work that enabled him to cut from one shot to another as skillfully as though he were a movie editor, working with developed film instead of a live show. The cameramen simply outdid themselves (for the record, and giving them a credit line they should have had on the air, they were Bob Heller, Harold Classen, Joe Sokota, Jack Brown, and Marty Tuck). Balliett and Hentoff's long and careful planning had made it possible for the musicians to extemporize; now the cameramen and director could extemporize too, with the freedom to smudge the edges—leave that head half in the way—of practiced talent, the artistic intelligence that dares to risk a blunder because it knows precisely what it is doing. Jazz is like that, and as a result the two effects of "The Sound of Jazz"—on the eye and on the ear—were miraculously in tune with each other.

NOW there is talk not only of a repeat but of a series, and no one could better deserve it than this new-found team. But one wonders if the miracle can happen twice. Part of the reason that Balliett and Hentoff were let alone was that no one in high authority really understood what they were up to. Now the secret is out and thpre will be many hazards. As I sat with them in producer Robert Herridge's office, going over the first day's mail, the phone rang and Herridge answered it. He listened, laughed explosively, and hung up. "Lawrence Welk," he said, "de­mands equal time."

Copyright, 1958, by Harper and Brothers. Reprinted by permission from Harper's Magazine.”

The personnel and solo sequence for the Billie Holiday video tribute are -

Fine and Mellow—Billie Holiday with Mai Waldron All-Stars including: Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, tenor sax; Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Mai Waldron, piano; Jo Jones, drums; Danny Barker, guitar; Jim Atlas, bass.
1st chorus: Holiday
2nd chorus: Young
3rd chorus: Webster
4th chorus: Holiday
5th chorus: Cheatham
6th chorus: Hawkins
7th chorus: Holiday
8th chorus: Dickenson
9th chorus: Holiday
10th chorus: Holiday