Geography as Destiny

Last week, I forgot to mention that the “new” tunes listed in Oregon’s program at Birdland are from their latest recording, In Stride (CamJazz CAMJ 7830-2). I also neglected to mention some other great music I heard while hanging out with Larry Dunlap, my friend from San Francisco. The night after hearing Oregon we met at Arturo’s, an excellent Italian restaurant and jazz venue that has been a mainstay of New York’s Greenwich Village cultural experience since 1957. I had a rehearsal in Brooklyn with trumpeter Lex Samu and guitarist Ken Silverman and Larry was checking out some of his friends from the Bay Area who were performing at Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center (Joe Locke and Friends). We had originally planned to meet at Cleopatra’s Needle with the idea of sitting in during the regular late-night jam session since it had been over 30 years since we last played together. But one of the musicians performing with Locke, Kenny Washington (vocalist and saxophonist, not the drummer/radio host), was going to sit in at Arturo’s where his friend, bassist Pat O’Leary, was working.

We went on a Thursday, which at Arturo’s is about jazz vocalists sitting in. I should have taken notes about who I heard there. I only recognized Leslie Harris, but missed her performance. Washington gave a command performance on his number. (I don’t remember what he sang.) His command of jazz improvisation is rock-solid, which his entourage explained is due to his saxophone playing. This is something that I’d like to examine more: are the best jazz vocalists who scat good because they’re also instrumentalists? Some say yes and some say no. So far, my unofficial take is that it seems to be so, the best improvising singers also play an instrument.

Larry has been playing piano for Clementina Dinah Campbell, a.k.a. Dame Cleo Laine, for quite a while. Laine, like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, has received honors for her work in jazz and classical music. But the so-called “Queen of Jazz” hails from England (while the Marsalis brothers are from the so-called “Birthplace of Jazz”, New Orleans), which is evident (and some jazz aficionados might say excruciatingly so) in her voice, her diction. I have never, and probably will never hear her wonderful voice and mistake it for someone from New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Indianapolis (my birthplace), or anywhere “this side of the pond.” But her jazz singing is excellent and was considered cutting edge when she first came to prominence in the early 1960s. Still, her overall musical style was anything but cutting edge jazz as exemplified by contemporaries like Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, Jeanie Lee, or Eddie Jefferson. But I think it’s great that American Syncopated Music (which jazz is a part of) is actually a conglomeration of personal voices from different geographical localities. Maybe the essential ingredient in what are considered the most distinctive examples of original American music is Diaspora where musicians move to far away places, like New York, Boston, Chicago, Paris, Rio, London, etc.

That’s possibly why I think the jam-session is so important to American music. It’s not that institutional learning can’t have a positive influence on an individual’s grasp of history, technique, and social place; but learning how to be creative is something that institutions just aren’t very good at. So, to really hear what’s brewing in American music, one has to go to where the musicians who are intent on developing their craft go to show each other what they can do. I think I’ll spend next week going to jam-sessions.

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2 thoughts on “Geography as Destiny

  1. philmusic

    Last week, I forgot to mention…

    Mr. Harris if your going to quote my post in your blog “geography as destiny” you might at least take the trouble to answer my post. On the other hand if it is your intention just to report your doings that’s fine just make it clear.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s pretty easy to ignore page

    Reply
  2. Francesca Maese

    Vocalists who are also instrumentalists
    Ratzo, I agree that playing an instrument enhances a vocalists ability to phrase and improvise.

    Reply

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