A Hot Time in the Old Town

I’ve said it’s great to be back in the place one calls home, but home can also have a way of reminding one of one’s place in it which can give a bittersweet taste to the homecoming. Obviously, arriving in time to experience the final week of the triple-digit heat wave that engulfed the East Coast could be a case in point, but I’m referring to an experience I had when the wave was starting to break on Sunday. I returned to my car from a rehearsal to find a parking citation under its windshield wiper. It turns out that while most of my time since early February was spent on the road, I let the required annual vehicle inspection slip my mind.… Welcome home, Mr. Harris! I might throw myself on the mercy of the court in an attempt to defray the cost of the ticket, but I have a feeling that the bulk of the stipend for the gig being rehearsed is going to the New York City Department of Finance. I’ll try to accept it as yet another debit in the cost of doing business.

To drive home (pun intended) the flip side of being home again; while my wife and I were on our way to do some long-neglected shopping, a driver who was a little too eager to park backed into the side of our car while we were waiting for a light to change. (Our insurance company—it turns out that the perp uses the same one that we do—decided that, even though I was not at fault, I should split the cost of repairs with his policy.) As if to assuage my soul’s re-awakening sense of being pilloried by life in the Big Apple (something I forgot I had become used to while I was on the Left Coast), I heard a husky and familiar voice on Dumbo’s [1] radio singing Vincent Youmans’s “Sometimes I’m Happy.” The voice belonged to a woman who sang with the second-nature command of gospel and blues inflection that can make jazz swing so hard. I searched my memory, but couldn’t come up with a name to attach to the voice. I then asked my wife—who is better at identifying singers—if she could tell, and she said she thought it might be the indomitable Carmen McRae. I agreed that it could be, if it was a later recording (to explain the husky quality), but the technique and intonation were more like a younger McRae, and this version didn’t sound like any of the recordings of her singing that song I’d heard before. So, partly to enrich my mental musical catalog and partly to stay in the Dumbo’s air conditioned cabin, I remained in the car, hopeful that WBGO’s on-air host would read the personnel roster after the tune was done.

The show was National Public Radio’s JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater. I remember when JazzSet first aired with Branford Marsalis as the host in 1992. The principal NPR outlet in Indianapolis, WFYI-FM, had cut their jazz programming from seven hours a day to one hour per week as part of a shift towards airing fewer locally produced shows and focusing on a Eurocentric musical aesthetic that might appeal to a more “highbrow” audience. The only problem was that by firing the two jazz hosts, Dick Dickinson and Ralph Adams, the station was left with a rather large collection of jazz vinyl, but no DJs who knew anything about them. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and spent one year hosting a show, Jazz Focus, that aired right after Marsalis, who was on-air right after drummer Kenny (a. k. a. “The Jazzmaniac”) Washington’s weekly show broadcast from WBGO. One of the things that I couldn’t stand about DJs at that time was that most of them would play three selections before announcing what they were. Often they would announce the last two numbers played and then announce the first of the upcoming three, which meant that if you didn’t hear the announcement before their tripartite offering, you wouldn’t know anything about its first tune. I liked that Washington and Marsalis announced each piece before they played it and included a recap afterwards. I followed their lead then and wish that WBGO’s on-air hosts would do the same now.

WBGO

Fortunately, the way that JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater is structured today continues the tradition established when Branford Marsalis was the host. So I was rewarded for my air-conditioned patience, but briefly surprised to hear that the singer I was admiring was San Francisco veteran vocalist Mary Stallings. The surprise was brief because I already knew that JazzSet was going to air A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan featuring her and Canadian-born vocalist Jane Monheit with the Eric Reed Trio (Reed on piano and most likely Hamilton Price on bass and Kevin Kanner on drums) recorded live from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room on July 4, 2011. I wanted to stay and listen to Ms. Monheit sing Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” but knew that I had to get into the store to help the missus with the heavier items we needed to get. To be totally honest, though, what I did hear sounded as if Monheit and Reed weren’t a great fit. I’ve heard Monheit’s performances with her pianist Michael Kanan, as well as a video with pianist Kenny Werner, and thought she connected with them nicely, but maybe Reed’s philosophy about what jazz is inadvertently set up a barrier of sorts. Possibly, when I get the chance to listen to the entire show while I don’t have other things to do, I’ll have a different opinion. Even then, my opinion is no reflection on Monheit or Reed, who make great music with their groups and are featured on WBGO regularly.

Such is not the case for Mary Stallings, who is nearing 75 and still one of the best kept secrets of San Francisco. Although she makes great music, she has gone largely underexposed to the mainstream jazz listenership that WBGO caters to. I first heard her last year when pianist Dave Udolf [2] hired me to play with her in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theater. I was entirely smitten by Stallings’s artistry and vocal prowess. While there is a YouTube pictorial of the event, the music used in the video, “Don’t Misunderstand,” is from a recording, Don’t Look Back, that she made on November 21 and 22, 2011, with Reed, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Carl Allen at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. Ms. Stallings now receives a fair amount of critical praise for her work and, hopefully, works whenever she wants to. She and Udolf still appear regularly at Bix, an upscale restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach district, where the diners regularly drown out the live music.

I don’t mean this as a slight to WBGO, although their programming favors the tastes of the Great American Cultural Machine, which I often find leaves something to be desired. They are like every other member of the ever-dwindling family of jazz-oriented radio stations in the country: striving to stay on the air in an atmosphere barometrically oversaturated with and precipitating motoric monometric musical product. The fact that they are an NPR outlet necessitates competing for marketplace credibility vis-à-vis membership drives as well as corporate/institutional funding. Stations like Indianapolis’ WFYI-FM no longer bother with keeping jazz on the airwaves, despite the genre’s local cultural relevance and the public’s interest in its being on the air.[3] WBGO resorts to playing rhythm & blues from the 1960s and ‘70s on the weekends. This reflects a trend towards music less rhythmically complex than mainstream or modern jazz and has been exemplified in the rosters of jazz festivals around the world over the last 30 years. Fortunately, the concerted efforts of many mainstream artists, like Wynton Marsalis and Keith Jarrett, have reinvigorated an interest in the complex and irregular metering that jazz performers have developed and mastered over the last century. But the GACM still fosters a sense of security in the monotonous metricality of the music it makes popular over the airwaves.

One of the strategies adopted by jazz presenters has been to delve into the music of past masters in “musical tributes,” such as the one mentioned above. There is merit to this approach: It offers a presentation focused on a part of the canon that has shaped American music in a way that mirrors the traditional pedagogical methods of those artists themselves and offers a view into how it’s being done in the institutions that are reinventing jazz today. But these tributes are often too limited in their scope. In the case mentioned earlier, A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, only two artists presented ten songs: “(We’ll Be Dancing) Cheek to Cheek” by Irving Berlin; “Sometimes I’m Happy” by Vincent Youmans; “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) by Duke Ellington; “Darn that Dream” by Eddie DeLange; “I’ve Got the World on a String” by Harold Arlen; Saul Chaplin’s “Please Be Kind”; Youmans’s “More Than You Know”; George Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (In London Town)”; plus Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The problem that I see in this is that an artist like Sarah Vaughan, who recorded hundreds of songs, if not hundreds of albums, influenced thousands of today’s singers. Vicki Burns, Jay Clayton, Lainie Cooke, Roz Corral, Madeline Eastman, Melissa Hamilton, Lezlie Harrison, Ariel Hendricks, Sheila Jordan, Diane Krall, Carmen Lundy, Kitty Margolis, Helen Merrill, Diana Perez, Dianne Reeves, Judi Silvano, Esperanza Spaulding, Fay Victor, Roseanna Vitro, and Cassandra Wilson are just a few of the vocalists who could have been included in such an undertaking. A tribute to an iconic artist like Vaughan ought to have included more than two artists.

I believe that it comes down to whether the idea is to actually pay homage to a fallen hero or to just cash in on someone else’s glory. I know that might seem somewhat hypocritical coming from someone who performed in a tribute concert just a few weeks ago, but I would look at the stature of the artists being honored. Sarah Vaughan is a name familiar to millions of people. I would even suggest that there are those who know the name but who have never knowingly listened to one of her recordings. While the artists involved are clearly dedicated to doing the right thing for the music, Vaughan’s name was invoked as a marketing tool to attract an audience to a fairly high-priced venue to listen to very good singers play familiar music that everyone knows. The artist whose tribute I was involved in, Chuck Metcalf, is someone known to very few individuals. We gathered to present the relatively unheard compositions of someone known principally as an accompanist. While there was a suggested door charge, nobody was turned away. We also invited musicians who knew Metcalf to sit in and play as well. To cut to the chase, Metcalf’s musicality was being saluted by his peers while Vaughan’s popularity was being saluted by the GACM.

There is an upcoming tribute worth mentioning, the Jim Pepper Festival 2013 being held in Portland, Oregon, in a few weeks. Jim Pepper was a saxophonist of Native American descent who performed with Don Cherry, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and Paul Motian, among others. He is the author of record [4] of a song, “Witchi Tai To,” that has been recorded by quite a few artists, most notably Paul Winter, Oregon, Brewer and Shipley, Harper’s Bizarre, and Jan Garbarek. One of the reasons that this event is noteworthy is that it will feature the reunion of a group that is considered by many to be the first jazz-rock fusion group, The Free Spirits. The group was comprised of guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Chris Hills, vocalist Columbus Chip Baker, and drummer Bobby Moses (now known as Rakalam Bob Moses), as well as Pepper. They recorded one album for ABC Records, Out Of Sight and Sound (produced by Bob Thiele, who wanted to find a band that could fill the void left by the retirement of the Beatles and didn’t capture the group’s jazz side), before Coryell and Moses joined vibraphonist Gary Burton’s group. All of the band’s members will be performing except Pepper, who passed away in 1992. Other performers include: poet and saxophonist Joy Harjo and the Arrow Dynamics Band, featuring Larry Mitchell, Grayhawk Perkins, and Peter Paul Jones; the Pura Fe Quartet; the Keith Secola Band; John Trudell and Bad Dog; violinist Swil Kanim; Indian flutist Jan Michael Looking Wolf; and the Gabriel Ayala Trio. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest area between August 7 and 10, it should be worth the trip if for no other reason than to see The Free Spirits, but the rest of the groups will be pretty hot, too.

While I was in the Bay Area, I got to hang out with saxophonist Mel Martin. At one point Mel suggested that the best way to get a decent opportunity to play music in public nowadays is to mount a tribute. When we met to play some music, he had just heard that one of the members of his now defunct band, Listen, had passed away. The band featured some of the best musicians in the Bay Area. Artists such as Andy Narell (steel drums), George Marsh, Vince Lateano, and Terry Bozio (drums), Dave Dunaway, Kenny Jenkins, Chuck Metcalf (bass), Mark Levine and Art Lande (piano), and Kenneth Nash, Richard Waters, and Glen Cronkite (percussion) all performed in Listen. Even though Listen, like The Free Spirits, also only recorded one album, the musician’s artistic vision was left intact and the group was very popular on the West Coast during the 1970s. The musician who had passed was Richard Waters, the inventor of the waterphone, an instrument that is widely used in film soundtracks, especially horror movies. When I arrived, Mel was playing a recording of a radio show that featured music by Waters. We turned up the heat by jamming with the recording for a few hours as our tribute.

Notes:


1. “Dumbo” is the name I’ve given our car. While my wife prefers “Luigi” (because it reminds her of a pug dog), I only see a white elephant of gas, repair, and insurance bills; a kind of extortion for not having to suffer the convection ovens that MTA subway platforms become in the summer.


2. I have been constantly misspelling his name, which I apologize for now and thank vocalist Vicki Burns for pointing out.


3. Indianapolis has always had a fairly active live jazz scene, producing such luminaries as J. J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, Freddie Hubbard, and Wes Montgomery. When WFYI, which also had a television broadcasting component, began to change its programming in 1991, there was a great amount of outcry from its listeners and viewers. This included several weeks of picketing that included local musicians as well as Indianapolis jazz fans.


4. There exists documentation that suggests that Pepper didn’t compose the song by himself.

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