A Bird Uncaged

In last week’s post I wrote about my impressions of two organizations that regularly present jazz performances in New York City at no cost to their audiences: the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and Jazzmobile. The post opened with the telling of how I was introduced to Parker’s music and how that experience has subsequently informed my musical life. The post generated a comment that included five points I hadn’t mentioned, but which are important: (1) Charlie Parker was one of the greatest improvisers of the 20th century; (2) there has been a long-held misconception that Parker used drugs to enhance his music; (3) the recording ban of 1942-44 left some of Parker’s best work undocumented; (4) that better versions of “Just Friends” exist than the Charlie Parker with Strings version; and that (5) Parker’s performance on his most famous version of “Lover Man” was the result of drug withdrawal, not inspiration. I want to briefly respond with a few observations.

(1) Parker, a brilliant and gifted saxophonist and improviser, practiced incessantly and memorized (composed?) his solos. There is a recording of “Just Friends” from a 1952 Carnegie Hall concert where someone near the microphone can be heard singing along with his regurgitation of the Parker w/ Strings solo. This wasn’t peculiar to Parker. As a sideman, I’ve witnessed saxophonists Joe Henderson, Jim Pepper, and Chris Hunter, as well as pianists Kenny Werner and Joanne Brackeen, quote entire choruses of their recorded solos. One of Parker’s associates, bassist Charles Mingus, described improvisation as spontaneous composition. Parker’s improvising was, though, groundbreaking. Musicians the world over have been influenced by his playing and writing.

(2) Parker’s addiction to drugs was all-consuming; it negatively impacted his personal and business dealings, and was the principal factor contributing to his early death. Parker himself admitted that his use of drugs was not a healthy practice and, not altogether successfully, urged his acolytes to not follow his example. However, there can be no question that his music was strongly influenced by his use of opiates. It cannot be definitively ascertained whether or not Parker would have been a better musician had he not been an addict, but he certainly didn’t think that drugs made his playing better. There are many examples of musicians who kicked their drug habits—John Coltrane, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Elvin Jones, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, and, for a time, Miles Davis and Bill Evans, for instance—and one can’t argue that their playing suffered for their effort. In fact, their playing improved dramatically.

(3) The recording ban not only left Parker’s work undocumented, but it also left nearly all of the music created by be-bop’s pioneers during these formative years unavailable for study. All told, there are eight extant recordings of Parker from this period, two being his last recordings with the Jay McShann Orchestra and the rest being jam sessions at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in New York City, room 305 of the Savoy Hotel in Chicago (with Billy Eckstein playing trumpet), and other undisclosed Chicago locations (with Benny Goodman, Hazel Scott, and several “unknowns”).

(4) Parker wasn’t happy with the arrangements for the Charlie Parker with Strings recordings and went as far as to fire members of the ensemble in hopes of changing the static nature of the composed music. He unsuccessfully petitioned Norman Granz to commission Stefan Wolpe to write music for the group in hopes of having something he felt would be more artistically compatible with his “avant-garde” nature, but his need for drug money kept him from doing much more with his career after 1950 than rehashing the music he made in the 1940s. What Parker played on the recording in question of “Just Friends” was, without a doubt, a classic solo, but when compared to his small-group recordings, not particularly inspired. To my thinking Granz’s refusal to support Parker’s artistic savvy cheated history much more than the recording ban of 1942-44.

(5) As long as Parker had enough of the right kind of drugs in his system, he could perform at a level of proficiency that his public had come to expect. It is well-known that Parker was withdrawing from heroin when the version of “Lover Man” referred to in the comment was recorded. He was drinking heavily to counter the withdrawal symptoms and, as a result, his performance was not up to par (which is putting it mildly, as the producer of the date was holding Parker up during the recording!). Still, bassist-composer Charles Mingus thought this was one of Parker’s best recordings. I understand why Mingus would believe this. When listening to it, one hears Charlie Parker working harder than ever to play his best. It’s almost as if he was breaking new ground; uncaged, but not free. While Parker wasn’t happy with the recording, it is an indelible part of his legacy and one that has informed many of his musical descendants. It’s interesting to note that the comment mentions a 1974 version of “Just Friends” by Lee Konitz that exhibits much of the phrasing of Parker’s botched “Lover Man.”

A person I know, who will remain unidentified, said that he/she could “listen to Bird play for hours on end, but as soon as he stopped” would get as far away as possible because, when dealing with Parker on a personal level, he was about nothing more than getting drugs. It reminded me of something attributed to another drug addicted but excellent saxophonist (who will also remain nameless): “When I’m not doing drugs, I have a complicated life; I have debts to clear up, bills to pay. But when I’m strung out [on drugs], life is simple; all I have to do is get [more drugs].” While this sentiment reflects what some (including myself) would consider a truly pathetic way to live, a sense of noblesse oblige might be extracted from it. For both of these musicians, the most important things in life were playing music and getting high. To get high, though, both of them relied on habit-forming narcotics that produce intense withdrawal symptoms. To reduce one’s life to this level entails a great degree of dedication and sacrifice, especially in a culture that enacts severe penalties of ostracization for such behavior. But this same culture idolizes the creative fury of the antisocial, narcissistic, obsessive/compulsive, addicted personality. Mozart, Poe, Byron, Tesla, Bach, Wagner, Davis, Hendrix, Rembrandt, and Bukowski are just a few names from history whose predilection for unorthodox behavior appears to be part and parcel of their seemingly effortless artistic excellence.*

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze said, “We are habits, nothing but habits—the habit of saying ‘I’. Perhaps there is no more striking answer to the problem of the Self” (Empiricism and Subjectivity, p. x). Without going into further explanation of a subject that I’m just beginning to grok, I will say that I agree with the notion. I know that I feel most comfortable inside boxes and surrounded by simple geometric shapes. I know that I’m habituated to this most unnatural way of living, as are most of my fellow humans. (And, although being something of a hoarder, I have a certain amount of squalor that I try to maintain control over; I know that this, too, is a function of habit.) I’m sure that we all can look at our lives and find plenty of examples of habits that make up our reality. I know that when I make music, it is habit that dictates at least 90% of what I do. When I recognize the playing of other musicians—say, John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman—I know that what distinguishes their playing are the choices that became habitual to them. So I see how Deleuze can conjecture that “we are habits.” Yet artistic creativity demands that we make a habit of breaking those habits, which can become a habit that, for some, becomes hard to break! It is a process of inventing new habits that define, or redefine, the Self. In music, this would be the development of a “voice.” I believe that the brightest stars that the arts produces are those who, in the process of developing their voices, tap deeply into the collective Self and give it a new habit to expect and identify with. This was the case for Charlie Parker, Mozart, Poe, Byron, Bach, Wagner, Davis, Hendrix, Rembrandt and Bukowski. This was also the case for John Cage, a rather unique man of habits and addictions, whose music, according to Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, crosses disciplines into philosophy and science.

I mentioned Dr. Rosenberg in a previous post. He is a scholar, musician, author, as well as an HCI (human-computer interaction) and hypermedia specialist. (His online CV offers more information about him and his projects.) One of these projects is a questionnaire that was sent out to current and former alumni of the Rutgers University Jazz History and Research program. This questionnaire is titled “Jazz Musicians and Educators: Embodied Cognition; Distributed Cognition and Improvisation,” and was intended to be used in a presentation he is giving at Manchester Metropolitan University on September 6, 2012, which is the same day that I’m writing this. I received the questionnaire four days after the requested August 10 return date (I actually didn’t get to read the email until August 16), but found the premise of his research rather interesting. I began to fill out the questionnaire and realized that it would be much more involved than the standard multiple-choice forms I used fill out for extra credit in psychology 101. At one point, the questionnaire directs the participant to refer to an article Rosenberg wrote, “Jazz and Emergence (Part One) From Calculus to Cage, and from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman: Complexity and the Aesthetics and Politics of Emergent Form in Jazz,” that appeared in the December 2010 issue of Inflexions. That is where I ran into a problem: I didn’t really understand the article very well, which cast doubt on my understanding of the questionnaire. I just couldn’t finish answering the questionnaire until I had a better grasp of the article that was recommended to be read. My attempt at filling out Dr. Rosenberg’s questionnaire was a failure!

The main problem for me was that the paper is written for the academic, not the jazz musician. While I truly don’t believe that the two are incompatible (although some of my colleagues do believe that), it takes a bit of patience to take it all in. For one thing, Dr. Rosenberg’s work is steeped in the writing of Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two multi-disciplinary philosophers whom I had never read before. (I took one semester of philosophy as an undergrad and came to the conclusion that Nietzsche went mad because he realized he was wrong!) So I have been reading the works of Deleuze and Guattari in what little spare time is available to a professional musician who travels by car to different cities regularly. (If you’re in the Woodstock area tonight [Friday, September 7], come by the Photosensualis Studio at 15 Rock City Road [845-679-5695], where I’ll be performing with guitarist Dom Minasi, vibraphonist-pianist Karl Berger, vocalist-poet Ingrid Sertso, and drummer extraordinaire Harvey Sorgen!)

I was heartened to read in their magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus, that “[it] is inevitable that the Plan(e) [a term used to suggest the plateaus of the Balanese landscape that are at once physical, structural, temporal, and ritual], thus conceived [referring to the writing of Nietzche as an example of ‘nonpulsed time’], will always fail…. As [John] Cage says, it is of the nature of the plan(e) that it fail” (p. 269). Deleuze, thankfully, footnotes Cage’s exact words:

“Where did the title of your second book, A Year From Monday, come from?” “From a plan a group of friends and I made to meet each other again in Mexico ‘a year from next Monday.’ We were together on a Saturday. And we were never able to fulfill that plan. It’s a form of silence…. The very fact that our plan failed, the fact we were unable to meet does not mean that everything failed. The plan wasn’t a failure.”—John Cage and Daniel Charles, For the Birds (Boston: Marion Boyers, 1981), pp. 116-117.

So in failure, I have not failed! (Francesca—It ain’t Christmas yet, but I hear Handel’s Messiah coming from somewhere!.)

I think that Deleuze was examining the difference between a conception of music where there “is a transcendent compositional principal that is not of the nature of sound, that is not ‘audible’ by itself or for itself” with one where

[There] are no longer any forms or … subjects. There is no structure, any more than there is genesis. There are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed [or relatively unformed] elements … molecules and particles of all kinds. There are only haecceities, affects, subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages (p. 266).

To illustrate the former, Deleuze refers to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was “obliged to describe the structure of his sound forms as existing ‘alongside’ them, since he is unable to make it audible.” For the latter he attributes Cage as the one who “first and most perfectly deployed this fixed sound plane, which affirms a process against all structure and genesis, a floating time against pulsed time or tempo, experimentation against any kind of interpretation, and in which silence as sonorous rest also marks the absolute state of movement” (p. 267). But wasn’t it Cage who said of music, “composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another?” (“Experimental Music,” The Score and I. M. A. Magazine [London, June 1955]). In felicitatis parum non deficere! But Deleuze wasn’t suggesting a plan(e) where “anything goes”:

This synthesis of disparate elements is not without ambiguity.… the same ambiguity, perhaps, as the modern valorization of children’s drawings, texts by the mad, and concerts of noise. Sometimes one overdoes it … then instead of producing a cosmic machine capable of “rendering sonorous,” one lapses back to a machine … that ends up reproducing nothing but a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds. The claim is that one is opening music to all events, all irruptions, but one ends up reproducing a scrambling that prevents any event from happening. All one has left is a resonance chamber well on the way to forming a black hole. A material that is too rich remains too “territorialized”: on noise sources, on the nature of the objects … (this even applies to Cage’s prepared piano) (pp. 333-34).

Clearly Deleuze is a proponent of the doctrine of “less is more.” This becomes clear in his other magnum opus, also co-written with Guattari:

But on the other, the schizorevolutionary, pole, the value of art is no longer measured except in terms of the decoded and deterritorial-ized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence, beneath the conditions of identity of the parameters, across a structure reduced to impotence; a writing with pneumatic, electronic, or gaseous indifferent supports, and that appears all the more difficult and intellectual to intellectuals as it is accessible to the infirm, the illiterate, and the schizos, embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of meanings and aims (the Artaud experiment, the Burroughs experiment). It is here that art accedes to its authentic modernity, which simply consists in liberating what was present in art from its beginnings, but was hidden underneath aims and objects, even if aesthetic, and underneath recodings or axiomatics: the pure process that fulfills itself, and that never ceases to reach fulfillment as it proceeds—art as “experimentation.”* (pp. 370-71) *See all of John Cage’s work, and his book Silence (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): “The word experimental is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown” (p. 13). And regarding the active or practical notions of decoding, of deconstruction, and of the work as a process, the reader is referred to the excellent commentaries of Daniel Charles on Cage, “Musique et anarchie,” in Bulletin de la Societefrancaise de philosophie, July 1971, where there is violent anger on the part of some participants in the discussion, reacting to the idea that there is no longer any code. (p. 371, n.)

This is where Deleuze, Cage, and I—for now—part company; partially because I don’t agree that the best music is simple, or that music that is indeterminate as to form—i.e., with an unknown outcome—is necessarily experimental, and principally because I have digressed from Dr. Rosenberg’s article.

I wanted to return to Rosenberg’s paper for many reasons. The most important in my eyes being that he suggests that the realm he addresses might be “too quick to efface the continued conditions of suppression with respect to the complex intertwinings of political, economic and social forces—especially where the condition of African-Americans in the United States is concerned.” In the footnote, which is far too long to include, Rosenberg refers to Foucault’s recognition in 1995 “that Western ‘democracies’ were moving away from regimes of power based on power, as exemplified by institutions, to conditions where ‘continuous control and communication’ enables power to remain immanent, beneath the threshold of awareness.” (Which might be my problem with academy-speak, which disallows serious consideration of George Orwell saying the same thing at least eleven years before!) But the real reason is that Dr. Rosenberg describes a cross-disciplinary application of phase space diagramming, whereby many possible outcomes can be represented as “clouds” of points in a two-dimensional plane.

Without going into his well thought out and articulated examination of scales, remelodicization and chord substitution (that include an interesting correlation with Baroque contrapuntal terminologies that I believe are indispensible to the presentation of jazz theory to a Eurocentric non-jazz literate academic reception)—or going beyond the mention of his novel approach of associating bifurcation theory to the art of chord progression substitution, which can convert choices or options (depending on whether one is analyzing or improvising) to graphic points in space phase diagrams—I believe that Dr. Rosenberg is onto something vital in his inclusion of the ensemble as possessing a disembodied, or “distributed,” cognitive process. In Beneath the Underdog Mingus describes how he and Parker could communicate precise ideas with each other when playing music together. My own experience with this was limited to once with Kenny Werner and two times with Joe Henderson and was very brief because I wasn’t quite ready for it. (When I asked Joanne Brackeen about it, she told me that “whatever you feel onstage with Joe is true!”). However, the halls of academe are probably about as ready to accept a functioning subaltern collective consciousness as it is to accept chi as life-force. Still, Rosenberg is adroit in observing that:

We can find direct echoes of phase space diagrams of thermodynamic processes such as equilibrium and periodic attractors, in the music score of Concert for Piano and Orchestra by John Cage. Compare the bizarre revamping of the rules for music notation in this score with the phase space diagram of the Evolution in phase space of a cell corresponding to a mixing system. Again, here is another score of John Cage to compare with a phase space diagram. (pp. 235-36)

Rosenberg on Cage 1

John Cage, Concert for Piano and Orchestra © 1960 by Henmar Press / Edition Peters. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from C.F. Peters Corp.

Rosenberg On Cage 2

Typical Evolution in Phase Space of a Cell Corresponding to a “Mixing” System. “Order Out of Chaos” by Ilya Prigogine and Isabella Stengers (Bantam, 1984)

Rosenberg’s reference to the music of Cage has little bearing on jazz-rooted improvisation except to compare his process of deconstructing the “calculus of music notation,” which he sees as parallel innovations (calculus and music notation). He makes important note that jazz musicians approach deconstruction according to a tradition not afforded Cage because of Cage’s “complicity with respect to top-down European aesthetic sensibilities.” Indeed, the history of how Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra as outlined in Isaac Schankler’s excellent monograph is rife with examples of non-functioning disembodied cognition of the work. Rosenberg does not present Cage as existing in a vacuum, however. He reminds his reader that Cage had a network of like-minded individuals that included Marcel DuChamp and Merce Cunningham. Shankler points out that Cage also had a champion in pianist David Tudor, who might be the source for a Cagean performance practice. I found his disclosure that Tudor used different interpretative materials in the rehearsals than were used in performances of Concert to be absolutely in line with how jazz musicians “practice” improvisation. But Cage was a maverick in his field. He was running against the grain, breaking with a hegemonic tradition that was at odds with his Zen-informed principles. Parker, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, while innovative, were part of a culture that was, and mostly still is, excluded from being part of that tradition’s world view. Dr. Rosenberg’s research suggests an inclusion of a recalibrating impetus for the machine that regulates this, and I say more power to him. There’s a long tradition of bad habits associated with reversible time that needs to be dealt with. Just the idea that jazz is an African American music with no concrete inclusion of original Americans makes for a long road to hoe: longer than forty acres!

When I think of John Cage, I remember my only meeting with him. I was about 25 years old, absolutely broke and wandering around Greenwich Village with an electric bass I had bought from Dennis Irwin (which is why I was broke!). At the time I was habitually drinking, taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, and weighed 100 pounds less than I do now. I heard that John Cage was signing copies of his new book, For the Birds at B. Dalton on 6th Avenue and 8th Street. I had read his other books and decided to go, even though I couldn’t buy his new one. It was an uncommonly, for then, hot day in September and I was wearing a t-shirt and cutoffs. I was expecting to see a long line of people and hoped that I might, somehow, fall into a situation where I could get a copy of his new book and get it signed. Instead I found an empty store with a table occupied by John Cage and another person, probably a store manager, and a pile of books. I approached the table and introduced myself as someone who really liked his other books, but was unable to buy the new one. He looked at me very oddly, I thought, like he was hoping for something. I was so flustered by his gaze that I didn’t even think to ask him to autograph my electric bass, but in retrospective consideration of our habits, it was probably good that I didn’t. It is important, I think, to remember that Cage was the kind of guy who would poison himself with mushrooms! Yes, we all have our habits that define Self. But when these habits are denied us, we become incredibly creative, like Charlie Parker playing “Lover Man.” I’ve been told that when Cecil Taylor plays a concert, he refrains from any imbibing or smoking for a day or two before hand, to keep his creative edge keen, and then afterwards goes on a rampage!


*I’m not suggesting that artistic excellence is an outcome of drug addiction. There are many, many cases of addicts not deemed to be admirable people: Göring, Henry VIII, François (a.k.a. Marquis de Sade), and, in our time, Rush Limbaugh come to mind.

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6 thoughts on “A Bird Uncaged

  1. Michael Robinson

    It’s enjoyable trading some choruses bi-coastally with you, Ratzo. Here goes:

    My initial specific point is that the two greatest musical improvisers of the twentieth century, Charlie Parker and Ravi Shankar, were interestingly born in the same year of 1920, which those fluent in Chinese astrology will recognize as a year of the Metal Monkey.

    In a purely musical sense, there are many striking parallels, including how they both transformed the very language of their traditions, jazz and Hindustani music, by virtue of melodic, rhythmic, technical and expressive means, and both influenced all the instruments in their respective musics, transcending the alto saxophone and sitar. In addition, both excel in slow music, ballads and alap, as well as playing at torrid tempos never navigated before.

    When Bird was at his best, as a functioning addict, the improvisations were fresh and new every time. It was only when he was compromised by physical and/or mental trauma that he resorted to repeating himself. Perhaps there may even have been some social/economic pressure to repeat recorded solos on some songs, but calling Charlie Parker a composer instead of an improviser is akin to calling Michael Jordan a baseball player, which he did for one year, rather than a basketball player.

    Now I wish I had confronted Charlie Mingus, never one of my favorite jazz artists, about his oft repeated feelings on the Dial recording of Lover Man for a clarification. I originally approached the infamous take years ago with an open mind, readying myself for its purported greatness, and it has always fallen flat for me. I suppose if one were to have stuck thorns into Bird’s flesh while he was recording that would have resulted in a different sound as well.

    When I learned subsequently that Bird felt the 1946 Lover Man was a greedy, insensitive, and even sadistic power play over his artistic wishes by the label, I felt vindicated in my aesthetic reaction. I went back and listened again today, and it’s still painful, like someone being forced, differentiated from emotional epiphany.

    Don Funes, a gifted and innovative teacher, author and musician, once played The Torture Never Stops from the Zoot Allures album by Frank Zappa, and my first response was to ask if it was an S&M spoof, but Don insisted the song was about real torture, an opinion I subsequently agreed with as I listened more carefully, the difference being that the background vocalists were acting, unlike Charlie Parker, who was desperate for money, and not of sound mind when he was coerced to record Lover Man in 1946.

    Leonard Altman, the eminent musicologist and arts administrator, after I told him of my meeting with John Cage, related the following story: Leonard went to see a performance that may have included dance, featuring Cage onstage slowing drinking an entire bottle of wine. Afterwards, Altman voiced concern to John that the extended run of the piece might turn the composer into an alcoholic. Cage replied ruefully that this was the only way he could stand getting through the tedium of this particular engagement.

    I checked online, and guitarist Steve Dukes goes into detail about how John enjoyed alcohol. Perhaps some others know the extent of Cage’s drinking, which I assume was social, and only required by that one piece.

    Bird’s original Just Friends is one of his greatest improvisations, and that is why it is extraordinary that Lee Konitz actually surpassed it. I’m unaware of any other version of Just Friends that stands alongside these two recordings.

    Bird’s rendition focuses more on stunningly penetrating, byzantine embroidery, with Debussy/Ravel-like splashes of dazzling melodic-harmonic color, articulated with a rhythmic sophistication that surpasses any classical composer of his time, rivaling Alla Rakha, and informed with mostly light romantic rasa. Konitz’s version, spurred on by the equally resourceful playing of DeJohnette, Holland and Solal, builds a living architectural marvel that one never tires of, including an Artie Shaw riff executed in a powerfully original manner, and a compelling narrative that rivals Beethoven. This Just Friends is suffused with a gritty and soaring passion, exhibiting Lee’s unconventional yet beautifully calibrated and compelling timbre, which may be compared to Bob Dylan’s voice, who I’m sure Konitz loves about as much as Woody Allen: “Sorry I couldn’t make it to the Dylan concert. My raccoon had hepatitis.” (I am also a huge Bob Dylan admirer.)

    Instead of attempting to emulate the African-American ethos, the predominant influence on jazz, Konitz follows his Jewish-American cultural instincts, greatly influenced by Artie Shaw, who is usually overlooked as an inspiration not only on Lee, but also on modern jazz in general, a huge untouched topic by itself. (Lenny Tristano, Benny Goodman, and Johnny Hodges are the more commonly cited influences on Konitz, who I once observed transcribing John Coltrane’s luminescent recording of Weaver of Dreams.)

    Lee has pointed out that he frequently plays the music of Jewish composers, and its true that a high percentage of jazz standards come from them, a few of the most renowned being Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers.

    Konitz is famous for not sounding and improvising at all like Charlie Parker in any way, including tone, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, expression, and the very nature of his melodic and rhythmic orientation. The only thing they really have in common, other than an equivalent genius for creating within and transcending complex harmonic structures, is playing the alto saxophone. In fact, this is what Lee’s good friend, Charlie Parker, admired most about him. As Gary Foster stated, “Lee Konitz was an earthquake in the jazz world.” Even Horace Silver, despite a highly contrasted expressive bent, marveled at the manner in which Lee “played changes.”

    Spontaneity is the essence of jazz improvisation, and no one in the entire history of jazz can match the level and quality of Konitz’s impossibly varied improvisations sustained from the late forties to the present, although several, like Parker and Coltrane, did so for a decade or two before their lives were tragically cut short.

    In addition to Just Friends, here are some other standards I believe Konitz recorded the ultimate versions of: Round Midnight (with Michel Petrucciani), Night and Day (with Red Mitchell), There Will Never Be Another You (with Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford), I Remember You (with Elvin Jones), Windows (with Hap Galper), and Zingaro (with Peggy Stern).

    Rather than the jazz triptych of Parker, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman mentioned in this article, I believe the three most noteworthy improvisers in modern jazz are Parker, Konitz and Coltrane. (I have long viewed Coleman and Cage as influential catalysts.)

    Regarding Martin Rosenberg, I hope that he finds time to weave the unexplored element of Native American ancestry into his examinations of jazz. I am unaware of any research being pursued in this field.

    Reply
    1. Ratzo B Harris

      Hi Michael,

      I understand your opinion about Bird and Shankar being “the two greatest improvisers of the 20th Century.” While it is an opinion that, I think, has merit as a point of discussion, I cannot agree because I don’t believe that such labels can apply. There are so many improvisers who can rightfully be included as contenders for the title you bestow (John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, Ali Akbar Khan, Jimi Hendrix, Egberto Gismonti, Don Cherry, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, etc.) that I couldn’t involve the article in an endless “name-dropping” contest. But by adding “one of” as a condition, your statement becomes undeniable and inarguable.

      I also have to disagree that Bird’s solos, irregardless of his state of sobriety (whatever THAT might mean, since he was loaded most of the time), were “fresh and new every time.” The evidence I included about his “Just Friends” solo being played two years later at Carnegie Hall is just one example. The famous 4-bar break from “A Night In Tunisia” is one he played almost verbatim throughout his entire career. Indeed, the “Lover Man” solo you mention from the date he played while he was anything but level-headed might actually be one of his most original performances — it’s certainly unique — even if it’s not note perfect. And I didn’t call Parker a composer (although a close examination of his compositions reveals widespread under-rating of his talent in this area). What I did was suggest that his solo on “Just Friends” might have been, in part, composed.

      I believe that Lee Konitz is an original player who had the good fortune of knowing Bird’s output without feeling the need to dedicate himself to imitation. For whatever reasons, many saxophonists had trouble finding voices that could transcend Parker’s. Coltrane had to switch from alto to tenor, as did Sonny Stitt. Cannonball led the way into a post-bop style through accessing compositions (usually of his sidemen) that emphasized a gospel feeling. Lee looked for greater interaction with the musicians he shared the stage with and accessing a softer tone, like that of Mulligan and Desmond (also contenders for the Greatest 20th-Century Improviser title). I think what makes Parker such a giant is that his prowess and intelligence gave him an edge when compared with his contemporaries. For Shankar, he was the first popular voice of Indian music in America, which signifies him as an innovator in this country. So many Americans (myself definitely included) are dazzled by novelty and might miss connections that allow a view of the entire picture, or at least more than one example. That’s why I cannot agree with “greatest,” “best,” or “ultimate” in an assessment of a single musician in regards to a context like the span of a hundred years.

      I agree with you about African American influence (although I think that the term is usually used improperly) and that the predominantly Jewish Tin Pan Alley produced a huge amount of music that became used for improvising by jazz musicians (especially in Parker’s time). But it should not be forgotten that this was by design–there were people who would show up at recording sessions with new songs from newly produced and even yet-to-be produced musicals who would cut deals with a session’s producer. John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” is a result of this. The handshaking/competition of these two subaltern groups is fodder for much research and future social healing.

      In fact, I agree with the rest of your post up to where you suggest that “spontaneity is the essence of jazz improvisation.” I would counter that spontaneity is an essential ingredient of any improvisation, since there’s no improvisation without it, but I think that mastery is much more valuable to a jazz performance. Maybe your position places mastery is a tacit “given,” but I believe that part of mastery is taking removing the unforeseen from one’s improvisation and creating an illusion of spontaneity (I think next week’s blog will include this.) I also don’t agree that Konitz’s output is inclusive of “impossibly varied improvisation” since his improvisations are not “impossible” (he played them, so they’re possible). Konitz has suggested a method for learning how to create the kinds of variations he does by using a tiered approach to practicing a given tune. The method is rigorous and demands a lot of practicing. It’s not about spontaneity, but about mastery. I believe that one of the most peculiar facets of the common Americans’ view of jazz is that it’s “natural” and “easy.” Man, it’s HARD to play jazz well. It’s so hard that a lot of people who attempt it are happy just to have gotten through a chorus of improvising without playing anything good!

      I have no problem with including Lee Konitz as an important improviser, on the level of Parker, Coltrane, and Coleman. My choice, though, was made for me. The part of this post that so many people have missed (and I do wish more of them would comment here, instead of on my Facebook page!) is the questionnaire about improvisation and the scholarly work of Martin Rosenberg. His examination of jazz improvisation as “distributed” (as opposed to “disembodied,” a term I used) cogitation goes to the absolute heart and soul of what this music is about. Coleman, Coltrane, Konitz, and Parker (listed alphabetically) didn’t and don’t operate in a vacuum. Jazz is “group think” at its finest!

      Reply
      1. Michael Robinson

        Thank you for these eloquent elucidations, Ratzo. Here are some additional thoughts that spring to mind, even if I suspect that some of them qualify as preaching to the choir:

        Many in the music and jazz communities overlook the crucial role played by Jewish Americans in the history of jazz.

        Jazz, from roughly 1930 to 1960, is inconceivable without the musical forms used for improvisational settings that came from American song composers who possessed a genius for music equivalent to the musicians who extemporized upon their creative output.

        A high percentage of these composers were Jewish-American, just as a high percentage of the pertinent improvisers were African-American.

        Simply because a pejorative and mistaken word has been commonly used in the past doesn’t make if acceptable. “Tin Pan Alley” is no more adequate, respectful and accurate as a name for the timeless, perfect compositions wedded inextricably to jazz than “Bordello Alley” would be for the later.

        “Jazz” itself is a great word, exotic and obscure, and I’m unaware of anyone who is offended by its actually original meaning, which I believe is sexual intercourse, a truly Hindu-like enlightenment where Shringara Rasa is the great mother.

        My assertions about composers and improvisers in jazz are sweeping generalizations, of course, and there are myriad notable exceptions, including composers Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, and improvisers Artie Shaw and Stan Getz. (The crucial origins and role of the blues in jazz has not been touched upon either.)

        Last year, Anthony Tommasini, in The New York Times, took it upon himself to name the ten greatest Western composers who are diseased, placing Bach first, and Beethoven second, and one cannot resist engaging in similar speculations, as I have done, without doing any harm.

        For myself, the placement of Bach and Beethoven, due to the overwhelming musical evidence, is the only real question, and the placement of any other eight composers is arbitrarily subjective. Right now, I would place Beethoven first, and Bach second, but in the past I would have concurred with Tommasini, and who knows what the future holds. (Most recently, I am awestruck by Machaut.)

        I am very familiar with the artists you listed as possible alternate choices to Parker and Shankar, with the exception of Gismonti, who I look forward to hearing, but like Bach and Beethoven, I cannot deny the body of work presented by Parker and Shankar.

        Ravi Shankar has been the subject of much jealousy and resentment in the world of Indian classical music largely because of his enormous success in terms of fame, yet it’s important to recognize that his intellectual, expressive and technical accomplishments are indisputable in India, or anywhere else, except, again, by those who envy him, or fail to comprehend his innovations, clinging to the past.

        Myself, I could not begin to appreciate Shankar’s essence until I had been listening to other leading Indian artists for years, along with some study. Raviji is definitely a rarefied, developed taste whose true value is not immediately discernable, except on surface levels due to his remarkable charisma.

        The point most people miss about Charlie Parker’s use of narcotics is that he did not take morphine and heroin to get high. Rather, he took these narcotics, beginning at the tender age of fifteen, to restore his equilibrium and sense of normalcy by relieving the excruciating spinal pain that wouldn’t allow him to even think straight following a catastrophic car crash.

        It’s doubtful that this physical pain ever abated before Bird’s death, and even if it did, the psychological and physiological effects of these tragic events on someone who had not yet reached adulthood became the self-medicating, nightmarish reality he never escaped from due to the lack of proper medical advise and treatment in a racist society.

        Describing the musical tone of Lee Konitz as “softer” is misleading. In fact, his tone was famous for being able to slash through the combined volume and force of the entire Stan Kenton Orchestra, which played louder than any previous big band. Lee’s tone is about as soft as a laser beam! Even in his earliest recordings with Lenny Tristano, Konitz burns like a white flame. More recently, I’ve heard Konitz perform live without a microphone, and he easily fills the space at every dynamic level over drums, piano and bass, something not many musicians are capable of doing successfully. (It is true that Konitz, like Shankar, is a developed taste.)

        Many great jazz artists, including those of Italian and other ancestries, who happen not to be African-American, have sometimes been subjected to superficial and ethnocentric misunderstandings that serve no purpose other than to suppress and marginalize significant diversity.

        Incidentally, my favorite jazz pianist has long been Bill Evans, but recently I have become enamored of Red Garland, and I would go so far to say that he now appears to be the main stylistic influence on Evans.

        It’s wonderful to discover something new like this, and have the opportunity to delve into Garland’s output. Obviously, I was not ready to initially appreciate the profundity of Garland’s creativity, which flew over my head at first.

        I am curious to consider Martin Rosenberg’s work when there is some free time, but my initial impression is that he needs to include the neglected element of Native American ancestry in his examinations of jazz.

        Thanks for supplying the true birthplace of Sam Lewis, who it appears was descended from Russian Jews, and not actually born in Russia, as the source I read incorrectly listed. In other words, his parents likely fled for their very lives in the face of pogroms, as my grandparents did.

        Regarding John Klenner, who you said emigrated from Germany by 1930, and thus had nothing to worry about, the Simon Wiesenthal Center states: “The aftermath of World War I created a threatening political atmosphere for German Jewry. Economic depression, radical nationalism, street violence, fears of communism and dissatisfaction with democracy drove many Germans towards fiercely antisemitic attitudes. Hostility mounted dangerously throughout the late 1920s.”

        I will be glad to share the pun you enquired about if we happen to meet sometime, not that it’s anything so great. My guess is that we actually concur on most topics, but this format is not as fluid as a conversation.

        In closing, I am puzzled why Konitz’s Kary’s Trance, perhaps my favorite jazz line of all, and related pieces by Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, are not played and taught more by jazz artists and educators. They collectively offer a unique insight and springboard into the art of pure improvisation. Perhaps they are simply considered too complex and difficult, but they are well worth the effort.

        OK, one more question: I’ve never heard this story about John Coltrane and My Favorite Things. Can you please be more specific, including the names of the people involved, and who told you this story? It doesn’t sound credible to me that the song wasn’t the choice of Coltrane, but if it did go down as you described I suppose it was a fortuitous occurrence because it provided a perfect setting for Coltrane’s raga yearnings.

        Reply
        1. Ratzo B Harris

          To answer your last question I refer you to: Ingrid Monson, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation: Irony, Parody, and Ethnomusicology,” Critical Inquiry, 20/2, (Winter, 1994), University of Chicago Press; p. 298, fn. 33.

          Reply
  2. Michael Robinson

    I somehow neglected to include Lester Young among the influences on Lee Konitz.

    My apologies to Hal Galper for the careless typo. He inspired Konitz to create one of his finest albums, Windows.

    Recently, as part of a not yet published interview with Jack DeJohnette, I had the opportunity to hear Chick Corea perform his composition, Windows, with Hubert Laws, Stanley Clarke and DeJohnette. It was the highlight of the two evenings I attended at Catalina Bar and Grill on Sunset in Los Angeles.

    Out of curiosity, I researched the origin of Just Friends, and it turns out to have been composed way back in 1931 by John Klenner and Sam Lewis, both Jewish-American. John Klenner, from Germany, was the composer, and Sam Lewis, from Russia, was the lyricist. (I was going to make an obvious James Bond pun, related to the lyrics of Just Friends, until I realized that both Lewis and Klenner likely fled those countries for their very lives.)

    Reply
    1. Ratzo B Harris

      Sam Lewis (nee: Samuel Levine) was born in New York City. John Klenner was born in Germany and was living in the United States by 1930, several years before Hitler’s Nazi party began its antisemitic reign of terror. So what’s the James Bond pun?

      Reply

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