Grist for the Mills
I’ve been engaged in a Facebook discussion about professional respect among jazz musicians. One of the points that came up rather early in the ever-growing thread engaged the participants’ ideas about misconstruing or misunderstanding statements said between musicians in public settings. I can remember misconstruing something that one of my idols, bassist-pianist-singer-composer Red Mitchell, said to me at Bradley’s, a now defunct nightclub that was once an epicenter of the jazz community in New York. I had gone out alone that night to hear Red play with a friend of mine, Scott Hardy, and his wife Leslie Pinchick. I hadn’t heard Red for a several years and had previously only heard him when he was collaborating or acting as a sideperson. But this night he was the featured headliner at Bradley’s.
When I arrived, the first set of the Mitchell-Pintchick-Hardy collaboration was already underway—it was normal then for jazz artists to play four or five sets a night over a period of five to six nights a week—with Leslie at the piano, Scott on guitar, and Red on contrabass. (Red tuned his instrument in fifths an octave below the violoncello—only one of the unorthodoxies of his playing). It was their opening night and Bradley’s was packed, so when they were done I schmoozed around the bar a bit—talking with colleagues, prospective employers, and music fans—and didn’t bother with fianchettoing my way up to the band area, since I planned to hear another set anyway. During the next set, Pintchick sat at a front table while Red played piano and sang and Scott played electric bass. Red, a fine pianist, prolific composer, and distinctive vocalist, did very well and kept the group working for several years. (Eventually Scott mastered the upright bass and now he and Leslie work as a team.) I was deeply impressed by Red’s seamless switch from bassist to pianist/singer; one could say that I was even intimidated by his talent. The club had emptied out somewhat during the next break and Red was walking about the room, talking with people. He came up to me and I told him that I thought his sets were great. He responded by asking me, “Can you do this?” I was floored! I always thought that Red was my better, and had approached him for lessons on a few occasions, but did he have to rub my face in it? I never went to see Red again and felt terrible when I heard he died of a heart attack in 1992. A few years later, I was talking with his nephew, the late saxophonist Brian Mitchell, during one of our all-night Monopoly tournaments and mentioned the incident. He informed me that I had entirely misconstrued his uncle’s intentions and that Red was actually looking for someone to sub for him! Since that painful enlightenment, I have endeavored to cultivate and keep an open mind about questions that are asked of me.
This melancholy tale is illustrative of how misunderstanding can almost blind us to what is really going on. I was baffled nearly to the point of hilarity when several people decided that my less-than-glowing opinion of the “jazz” compositions credited to the pen of Paul Whiteman included Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but trying to explain that, since Whiteman didn’t write the piece, and was, therefore, not part of my opinion was an exercise in futility that transformed that hilarity into a state of depression. When it was pointed out to me by my betters in the field of jazz reportage that Whiteman “never wrote anything,” I was relieved that my misunderstanding of the American copyright paradigm removed any need to stand my ground, although I still hold my opinion of the pieces, whoever actually wrote them. But that sense of relief also fell to the wayside with the realization that one cannot rely on the official record of the Library of Congress for points of fact. This is the case of Miles Davis’s copyright of “Solar,” a piece of music that is so intertwined with his legacy that it appears on his tombstone, even though he didn’t compose it. I didn’t intend to brand Miles Davis as an out-and-out plagiarist when this was originally posted. I tried to include a sense of conservative balance by including a reference to Charlie Parker’s plagiarizing Davis’s “Donna Lee.” It was in this spirit of apologia that I mentioned how Duke Ellington obfuscated the authorship of what may have been his collaborations with Billy Strayhorn, Rudy Jackson, and Irving Mills. Some have misconstrued this criticism of Ellington as an attack on one or more of the others. For a very brief moment I found this hilarious, but now my soul plumbs the depths of despair!
For the record, I was not attacking Billy Strayhorn, who clearly had a very special relationship with Ellington that involved quite a bit of negotiation on several levels, including matters of authorship. Nor was I attacking Jackson, a person who I think probably took a fall for the misattribution of “Creole Love Call” after King Oliver sued Ellington over its authorship; it’s possible that the portrayal of Ellington’s shock over the plagiarism is a fluke of the historical record. And I was definitely not attacking Mills, who clearly was a very important figure in Ellington’s career nor was I suggesting that Mills was ineffectual to it. I posited only that, even without Mills’s influence, Ellington would have still been a successful musician, but I would agree that he would probably not have been as successful. Furthermore, I do not dispute Mills’s authorship of anything. I don’t know much about him other than what I’ve read and heard from reliable sources. Any assertions about Mills included in last week’s post are not mine, but theirs. Sadly, those reliable sources don’t include copyright or publisher records, which, for reasons mentioned previously, have become somewhat dubious. However, I do find it interesting that one of Mills’s sons “can’t tell you for a fact” what the tunes were that his father wrote lyrics for, while his other son offers that the elder Mills lyric writing process included “sometimes using a ghostwriter” to collaborate with. It leads one to wonder what the names of the ghostwriters were and why they’re not included in the copyrights.
My point is that misunderstanding is a powerful thing, indeed. What if trumpeter Freddie Keppard had not misconstrued the offer to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company as being potentially detrimental to his career? Would the Original Dixieland Jass Band have faded into obscurity? Would the music we call “jazz” be known by a different name? Would modern universities be offering programs in “Dixieland studies”? I think that rhetorical questions such as these, or what Miles Davis’s music would have been like if he had never met Teo Macero, or what Benny Goodman’s music would have been like if John Hammond wasn’t a socialist, are worth thinking about from time to time. What was the poetry of Irving Mills really like? What would the modern jazz festival be if Norman Granz had gone to Princeton, as he originally intended? What would the Beatles have become if Brian Epstein had become a barrister? What would the music of the Doors have sounded like if Tim Buckley never existed? Or what if Cristóbal Colón understood that sailing westward was not the most efficient way to get to Asia?
These questions, from a rhetorical lot, are for the reader to ponder or not.
Any proposed answers to them are moot, as most of my opinions are to boot!