I Must Have Forgotten To Laugh

This week’s report hails from San Francisco, arguably one of the greyest cities in the Golden State (although it’s not too foggy today). I come here every December to celebrate the holidays with family and friends. Over the past several years I have been afforded the luxury of playing professionally while I’m here, turning my annual pilgrimage into a kind of “busman’s holiday,” and I’ve been blessed to play with many of the great Bay Area jazz musicians, most recently: saxophonists Mel Martin and Sheldon Brown, drummers Alan Hall and Jeff Mars, pianists David Udolf, Grant Levine, and Adam Schulman, and trumpeter Dave Bendigkeit. Of course, I go to jam sessions whenever possible, some open to the public and some not, where I’ve met old friends and associates, such as: pianist Denny Zeitlin, drummers George Marsh and Mark van Trikk, guitarists/vocalists Glenn Jensen and Charley Reed, and one of my oldest associations, guitarist/bassist/trumpeter/vocalist Roger Hrebich.

These last listed names, while not familiar to many music aficionados, are part of a group of musicians I knew in high school who were then, and are now, working rock/blues/funk musicians. We formed bands that would play for dancing and parties, covering the music of Chicago, The Rolling Stones, Tower of Power, Santana, Cold Blood, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and many other popular musicians and music groups. I met pianist Mark Soskin and vocalist Elaine Caswell in a group like this covering the music of Rufus and the Tony Williams “Bum’s Rush” Lifetime group. When I think back on the experience, I realize that most of the groups I worked with then covered the music of others, which is also true of the jazz groups. While most of the “big name” acts I had the pleasure of cutting my teeth with back then (Bobby Hutcherson, Denny Zeitlin, and Joe Henderson) played originals almost exclusively, artists like John Handy, Cal Tjader, and Jim Pepper included a liberal amount of repertoire made popular by others. Vocalists, especially, included “standard” material and, while iconic singers like Jon Hendricks and Betty Carter performed their own compositions, tunes like “Moody’s Mood” and “Every Time We Say Goodbye” were regular features in their performances. It’s a way to connect one’s music making to an historical tradition while engaging a larger performance network. Probably the most extreme use of covers, or standard, repertoire was practiced by the orchestras I played in. I can only remember two times, the West Coast premiere of Pauline Oliveros’s To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation and a performance of Donald Erb’s The Seventh Trumpet, where an orchestra I was in performed an “original” composition. This isn’t to say that orchestras never play new music, just that their ratio of new compositions to “flagwavers” was more than reverse that of the “name” jazz musicians mentioned above. But, outside of the “name” jazz groups, most of the music I heard or played consisted of covers—music originally performed by others.

This has changed for me somewhat over the years, especially since moving to New York in 1977. There are so many musicians who have gravitated to that city in order to develop and promote their musical careers that entire collectives of musicians can dedicate their time and efforts to playing original music to the near exclusion of anything else. I find something rewarding in playing standard material though. For one thing, it allows a way for musicians who rarely play together to make good quality music “on-the-fly,” without rehearsal. This happened last night when I played a private house party with pianist David Udolf and drummer Akira Tana. I have played with Udolf only a handful of times since we were introduced last year by bassist/educator Harvey S, when David and his wife, vocalist Sherri Roberts (who is at the midway point of recording a duo project with pianist Bliss Rodriguez), were visiting. Akira and I figured out that, besides a single tune in a restaurant with Suzanne and Jeff Pittson over seven years ago, we haven’t played together in over 25 years.

Udolf recorded the music on one of those semi-professional portable digital recorders that have become ubiquitous. (Of course he asked our permission first, something that everyone recording a live performance must do—even when using the low-resolution video camera on a cell phone. Always, ALWAYS, get permission first and, please, pass that along!) On the way back from the gig, I stopped by Dave and Sherri’s to see if I could help him figure out how to download the files. Once the transfer was underway, I could hear some of what we played and it was almost “album” quality in both fidelity and performance. It sounded like we played together regularly. Of course this is because we were very familiar with the standard repertoire we played, but it was also true for the original music we performed (two of mine, two of Udolf’s, and one by the now Santa Fe-based bassist Chuck Metcalf).

Without beating the drum and expiring horse too much, years of practice and study are directly responsible for this. I can remember when a conversation I was having with a fellow guest at a party about the music of Pierre Boulez was interrupted by someone who apparently found it stunning that a jazz musician would know anything about Boulez (as if musicians only listen to works from their assigned genres). I was stunned into silence by the remark, since I knew that the person was sincere and I didn’t want to reply with anything that might be taken as insulting. Fortunately, the person I was talking to is more adept at negotiating this sort of thing and handled the situation gracefully. I tend to let my emotions get the better of me in these situations; so, you can imagine my stunned silence when I was given this to read.

As I’ve remarked before on this blog, improvising musicians spend a lot of time practicing and studying in order to extemporize cohesive performances. Every successfully executed phrase has been practiced a thousand times in hundreds of contexts and includes a more than passing familiarity with the elements of theory. So, tomorrow I’ll be working with Tana and pianist Mark Levine, who I haven’t played with in thirty years. But (like every performance a musician engages in) I’ve practiced all that time just for this moment.

I’ve been lucky. When I was going to junior and senior high schools in this fine Pacific coast city, harmony was offered as a course to be taken five days a week. If one wanted to study theory in college, there was ample opportunity to build a solid foundation in the subject before placement exams. For some reason, an education that included music, the second oldest profession mentioned in the Bible, was understood to be important. For other reasons, this is no longer the case. It is incumbent on us to promote music education as part of a well-rounded curriculum. I hope we succeed before time runs out.

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