Let’s Go Team!

There is a paradox in Western art music. While the works of Western music are generally credited to specific individuals, it can be said that no music is about a single individual; it’s a team effort. The teams that I usually perform with are small ensembles of three to five musicians who, for the most part, improvise their performances and tend to fall into three categories: (1) where one or more traditional etiquettes are employed, such as the jam-session default I’ve discussed in previous posts (an example would be Fay Victor’s ongoing work with the music of Herbie Nichols); (2) where the principal considerations are vague and overarching, the paradigm of so-called “free” improvisation (which is what I’ll be doing tonight, September 28, at the Stone with vocalist Judi Silvano and percussionist Warren Smith); and (3) where most of what is played is composed but includes specified intervals of improvisation, such as the music of Alt.Timers (who will be performing this Friday, October 5, at Spectrum).

Occasionally I play in larger groups, like last Thursday (September 20) when I had the honor to work in Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra at El Taller in New York City. Berger, along with Ingrid Sertso and Ornette Coleman, founded the Creative Music Foundation of Woodstock, New York, in 1971, but has been a mainstay on the avant-garde scene since the 1960s. (An online video clip of that concert shows how Berger leads his ensemble by cuing sections and individuals in the group to improvise or play material that was taught to them right before the concert in a way that exemplifies the second of the categories listed above.)

The Chicago native Deborah Weisz is a trombonist-arranger who, having studied with Roswell Rudd, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely, and Manny Albam, takes an approach to leading a large group more in the style of the third category. She writes for that special ensemble known as the “big band,” a congregation of 16 musicians (8 brass, 5 woodwinds, and 3 rhythm section players) that demands an understanding of a peculiarly American orchestration tradition having its roots in the music of James Reese Europe. I don’t get the opportunity to play in big bands very often, although I cut my teeth in them as far back as 1969 in a summer music camp held at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Trumpeter Jon Faddis, saxophonists Alex Foster and Marc Russo, and drummer Tom Rainey were part of the camp’s big band led by Bob Soder, who founded one of the first curricular high school jazz bands that was located in Pleasant Hill, California. And it was with the San Francisco Mission Boys Club Jazz Band that I was bestowed with my moniker, so I have a special place in my heart for the big band and am looking forward to playing with Weisz’s group this Monday (October 1) at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn.

The overlay of the Western paradox mentioned above on the musics of subaltern American cultures has opened the door for a variety of phenomena that would not exist otherwise. One of the most obvious of them reared its head two weeks ago, on September 15, when I found myself playing in a special event, An Evening in Blue, at the Vanderveer Park United Methodist Church in Brooklyn. This is an annual event hosted by the church for the benefit of its local community and includes an evening of dining and music. The ensemble was made up of 4 woodwinds, 2 brass, and 4 rhythm section players that alternated between playing instrumental pieces and accompanying singers Frank Senior, Brianna Thomas, and the Reverend Lori Hartman. The program was comprised of well-known songs, like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” and John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” with excellent arrangements by John Wilson, Mark Taylor, Mark Tomaro, and Joseph Roberts (Vanderveer Church’s assistant music director) and conducted by Raymond Trapp (the church’s principal music director). I was told that there is a tradition of having someone in the band introduce one of the numbers and I was asked to introduce a piece called “Solar.” After the dress rehearsal, I told them everything I know about the song and was surprised when they said they still wanted me to do it. The reason for this is that the song is attributed to “The Prince of Darkness,” a. k. a. Miles Davis.

Not that I’d have any problem saying something nice about Miles Davis, there’s quite a bit of good stuff to say about him, but I had a big problem with the song. Recent research has proved that “Solar” wasn’t written by Davis, but rather by Chuck Wayne, a New Jersey-based guitarist who worked with George Shearing, Woody Herman, and Tony Bennett. “Solar” was recorded on a 1954 album of Davis’s, Walkin’, and is one of its most popular tracks. In fact, the tombstone that marks Davis’s burial site in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery has the first two measures of the piece engraved on it. It’s a staple of jazz jam sessions, concerts, and recordings, and it’s considered a necessary part of the repertoire of any aspiring jazz musician who wants to be taken seriously. But a recent accounting of Wayne’s estate by the Library of Congress proves that the song was recorded by Wayne in 1946 under the title “Sonny” (for Sonny Berman, who played trumpet on the date).

I wound up talking about how a tradition of authorship misattribution exists in the history of jazz; how John Coltrane, through no fault of his own, was erroneously listed as the composer of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” on the Impulse! recording, Coltrane Live at Birdland. Other examples of wrongly attributed authorship include: “St. Thomas” (written by Randy Weston, not Sonny Rollins), “Blue In Green” (by Bill Evans, not Miles Davis), “Water” (Pierre Ouellette, not Jim Pepper), and the list goes on. I also mentioned another example that I think strikes to the heart of the matter: “Donna Lee,” a standard-setting melody over the chord progression to the song “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” which was originally attributed to Charlie Parker but, in fact, was written in 1947 by a journeyman Miles Davis! This shifting of authorship has become a kind of tradition that the jazz community and academy will have to continue addressing for quite a while. I’m not so sure that it’s always a malicious act, though. It’s very possible that cultural differences between a jazz artist and his/her record production team might obfuscate communication to the point that neither is sure of what’s really going on. This can be seen happening in the video clip of Thelonious Monk and producer Teo Macero from Clint Eastwood’s documentary, Straight, No Chaser. But sometimes the impetus for the misattribution of authorship is simply greed, possibly the only vice one can’t overdose from. I believe that such is the case for “Donna Lee” and “Solar.” I finished my introduction by quoting Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet Petrushka has at least one motive from Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole in its possession. He once said, “good composers borrow, but great composers steal”—a saying that may have actually been first uttered by T. S. Eliot! I just hope that nobody at the Vanderveer Church misconstrued the introduction to Wayne’s tune as a slight on Miles Davis’s compositional technique!

There is a larger-scale authorship misattribution for the genre, jazz, that has been argued about for almost a century. Whether or not greed is at the root is a part of a discussion that, while important to an overarching understanding of this uniquely American music and culture, is not very important to understanding its multi-national origins. Current erudition poses a single origin that can only hold true if other and older subalterns are disinvited from the discussion. Over time, many of these groups have been repositioned in their relationship to the Great American Cultural Machine as the history of American music has been (re)written. This is probably most notable recently in the television series Jazz by Ken Burns. It’s been twelve years since the show was first aired, and the gulf it repositioned between those who (as my mentor, Dr. Lewis Porter, might say) “know” and those who “don’t know” jazz has grown, possibly exponentially. This is despite the best efforts of everyone on “team jazz history,” including Ken Burns, to accurately represent the subject in historical documentation. I hope to dedicate more of this blog to an examination of this phenomenon and hope that its readers continue to feel inspired to contribute their thoughts and ideas on it.

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6 thoughts on “Let’s Go Team!

    1. Ratzo B. Harris

      Thank you for pointing this out, Lawrence (and thank you for reading the post). I actually knew this, but inconveniently forgot it while I was copying information from the program (which I had hoped to include a link to, but it doesn’t work because it’s in a Google document), which incorrectly listed Brubeck as the composer. I like to think that if I had been asked to introduce “Take Five” that I would have told the audience that Paul Desmond is the actual composer. However, there is an aspect to “Take Five” that brings the Desmond authorship into question. According to Brubeck:

      I was doing an album called Time Out where I was gonna do different kinds of time signatures…. Joe Morello was playing … [the 5/4] beat backstage and Paul would pick up his horn and start playing against it…. I said, “There’s a tune I want to get into this album because it’s in five four … Paul, write down some of these things that you’re playing against Joe’s beat.” … the first thing he said was, “I can’t write a tune in five four time.” And I said, “Well did you put anything down?” And he said, “Yeah, I put a couple of themes down.” I said, “Let me see ‘em.” So he played one of ‘em, then he played the other. And I said, “Look if you repeat this one and then use that second theme as a bridge and then go back, you have the typical jazz form …” So that’s what we did.

      So, in a sense, Brubeck actually participated in the composition of “Take Five”!

      But, clearly, Brubeck agrees that Desmond composed the piece and the album credits and copyright reflect that. Thanks for setting me straight!

      Reply
  1. Judi Silvano

    Very well written Mr. Harris.. And let’s not forget the tangled web of Duke Ellington’s publishing.. having shared credit on a number of compositions with Irving Mills, who was his agent I think? and then of course, continuing the mis-attribution in his relationship with the great composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn.

    Reply
  2. Kevin Whitehead

    Assigning authorship in the film world can be dicey too. Charlotte Zwerin directed ‘Straight, No Chaser.’ Eastwood was listed as its executive producer.

    Reply
  3. Michael Robinson

    Thank you for introducing the name Irving Mills to me, someone who I previously managed to overlook.

    His son, Bob Mills, states:

    “Ellington and Mills collaborated on quite a number of tunes that became popular standards: Mood Indigo, Solitude, It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Sophisticated Lady, Black and Tan Fantasy, and many others that you’ll find listed on ACAPS’s website. In spite of a limited vocabulary Irving had a poetic sense of beauty and knew how to create a lyrics, sometimes using a ghost writer to complete his idea, and sometimes building on the idea of a ghost writer. He put Duke into the Cotton Club and I’m sure you are aware of that history.”

    If someone believes that Irving Mills was not the lyricist for these songs, and knows the name of the person they believe collaborated with Ellington, please share this information. Simply because someone is involved with the business of music doesn’t automatically disqualify them from possessing creative artistic ability, as Quincy Jones and Herb Alpert, among countless others, have demonstrated.

    Personally, after reading some of the complex, prolific, and astonishingly substantive career of Irving Mills, I tend to agree with Duke Ellington, who stated that Mills was his true collaborator on the aforementioned songs.

    Reply

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