More Stones

It’s almost three weeks that I’ve been in San Francisco with three more to go between my mother’s memorial (tonight) and Jazz Camp West (June 22-29). My foraging through her record collection is a work in progress, but progress is being made! Besides coming across the first recording with a recognized jazz artist I was on (which is not what my discography lists as Syzygy with the Denny Zeitlin Trio, but rather a 1969 University of the Pacific Summer Camp recording with a big band featuring a 15-year-old Jon Faddis), I came across two LPs that are, arguably, turning points in recorded music.

The importance I assign to one of them, Igor Stravinsky Conducts, 1961, might stem more from my own opinion and how that opinion was shaped by hearing the composer conduct his own works. I had been used to hearing his music filtered through the “ears” of the Great American Cultural Machine, a filter that seemed to make every attempt to “elevate” new music into something that resembled the “perfection” of the “great” recordings of the “masters.” In this recording, I heard one of the masters of the musical heritage that the GACM was appropriating create music that he thought typified that heritage. Instead of a musical experience born out of the philosophy of Felix Mendelssohn’s “revival” of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, that demanded editorial cuts and a reorchestration to fit the musical “taste” of the Berlin audience, the album (Columbia Masterworks MS 6272) invokes how a composer, a self-professed neo-classicist, re-imagines what pre-Romantic music could sound like. (Of course, neither ideals address the issue of using modern temperament to perform music that references a time before the modern piano.)

The importance of the other is less about my personal opinion than it is its being a landmark in how the GAMC has made jazz a part of the European art music tradition (at least in how it is marketed). The album, Haydn/Hummel/L. Mozart: Trumpet Concertos, is another CBS Masterworks product and is seminal to its featured trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, who is pitted against a ripieno comprised of the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard. Well, there is a personal story I could attach to this recording. I never bothered listening to it until I found out that Leppard was the musical director of the Indianapolis Symphony. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with Marsalis recording the pieces, but because I already knew them well from listening to my father’s recording of Maurice André playing the same works in the 1960s. In fact, my friends and I used the André recording as a model for our own playing of the pieces when we were in junior high school. But the Marsalis/Leppard album has forever changed how the denizens of “highbrow” society look at and understand jazz musicians and the music they make. No longer does a rebellious debutante and her companion(s) need to go “slumming” to hear great musicians who are on the cutting edge of a music that fills the waiting room of a new, and better, world where socio-economic stratification and skin color aren’t the key considerations for determining one’s deportment towards someone else. Now one can go to a special concert hall and hear jazz performed as “equal” to the works of Salieri and Lully. No need to walk through a neighborhood filled with the street life of after-hours entrepreneurs and their vagabond clientele.

This might explain why so many jazz musicians appear to lead “double lives” where their on-stage personae are erudite, articulate, and fashionably genteel, while in the “real world” they might be gas station attendants or winos. One pianist explained to me why he quit his job with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, “I’d rather not be getting $1,000 per trick when others who don’t play as well can walk up the street and make $5,000 a trick.” I know it sounds harsh, but many of the crème de la crème of every artistic stripe freely talk about how they feel “dirty” after playing to the adoration of large audiences of concert subscribers, as if their artistic integrity had to be compromised to placate the congregation in the Temple of the Familiar, a topic that was introduced last week. Before the reader thinks that I agree with any analogy to the so-called “world’s oldest profession” being alluded to above, I want to be clear that I see the whole concert hall paradigm as a way to lease entitlement to a leisure class. Like the restaurant, where diners can pay a nominal to exorbitant fee for being served a repast as if they were royalty, concert goers get an ersatz Esterházy experience where they time share the services of their own orchestra that will give them the same sense of disassociation from the hard work experienced by the rest of humanity.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone going to hear live music in a concert hall. My mom spent quite a bit of her hard-earned bucks on her subscriptions to the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet, and Opera. They’re world-class outfits and are worthy of the ticket price to hear them (especially since Michael Tilson Thomas has taken up the cause of championing the music of Charles Ives), but I think of how the current trend to make jazz a concert hall music is gutting the source of that music: the jazz club. Fortunately, the conservatory-to-concert hall pipeline hasn’t entirely supplanted the necessity of the jam session and jazz club as a place to impart jazz pedagogy. This becomes obvious in a city like San Francisco, where the 3,000 plus miles between it and the nexus of jazz, New York City, creates a vacuum that can only be filled by a network of urban griots who bring the news of what’s new with the new. Who knew that I would find myself in this position when, after two weeks of nothing but focusing on my mom’s affairs, I decided Tuesday night to go out on the town? (Actually, I went out a few days earlier, but that will be addressed later.)

The only jazz club in San Francisco that’s within walking distance of where I’m staying is the Club Deluxe. I’ve mentioned it in previous posts and highly recommend it to anyone coming to San Francisco who has the time and interest in hearing representatives of the up-and-coming Bay Area jazz musicians who are determined to be the best they can be. The establishment also has served the royal me some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten, but since I arrived after 10 p.m., when they close their kitchen for the night, my status is in decline because I only drink their hand-squeezed grapefruit juice.

The musical festivities on Tuesday were led by Smith Dobson, the son of a fantastic pianist of the same name that I used to play with before I left for New York in 1977. It was a jam session that night and I knew the pianist, Adam Schulman, from when I played at Chez Hanny several years ago with him and clarinetist-saxophonist Sheldon Brown. The bassist, a great player named Robert Overbury, was playing an instrument that is easily a carbon copy of my first bass, right down to the height of the strings. He let me sit in on it and, between going through the records and books of my childhood and his beautiful hand-assembled pre-war Juzeck bass, I felt like I was back home. But the thing that brought me back to reality was listening to Dobson play. When I came in, he was playing drums, but by the time I was playing bass, he was playing tenor saxophone. The experience reminded me of Adam Niewood, another son of an old friend who died tragically. (Adam’s father, Gerry, was a saxophonist who died in the airplane crash outside of Buffalo that filmmaker Michael Moore referenced in his movie Capitalism: A Love Story. Smith Dobson, Sr., was killed in an automobile accident a few years earlier.) When Adam decided he wanted to play the saxophone, his father taught him by giving him a set of drumsticks and making him accompany the elder saxophonist for years. Smith, Jr., began his musical career on drums, adding vibraphone and saxophones later on. Both are extremely masterful as percussionists and woodwind players. (The saxophone-drummer model is fairly common. Saxophonists Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, and William Drewes are all accomplished drummers.) After the music was over, I expressed to Smith that I was sorry I didn’t get a chance to play with him on drums. He suggested that I should come by on Wednesday to rectify that.

When I got to Club Deluxe the next night, the group was led by Patrick Wolff, who plays alto and tenor saxophones, with Adam Schulman again on piano, a relatively old acquaintance and excellent bassist Eric Markowitz, and Smith on drums. They were in the middle of a tune which I don’t remember, but joining them was a fantastic young vocalist, Tiffany Austin, and a baritone saxophonist who I thought familiar, but couldn’t place until after he had left. His name is Dayna Stephens, and I know him as a tenor saxophonist who lives in New York. It turns out that he, like Jon Faddis, grew up in Berkeley, California. Stephens was in town visiting family and playing at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival as well as a celebration of the music of Dave Brubeck with the Oakland Symphony. He sounded absolutely brilliant on baritone, and I hope I get a chance to play with him before he and/or I have to leave the West Coast. Although Stevens had left before I played, Ms. Austin led us on a version of Arthur Schwartz’s “Alone Together” that, owing to my avant-garde tendencies, went to very interesting places. I was honored to play with such open-minded and creative musicians. Sadly, though, I’ve learned that Club Deluxe will no longer be serving pizza. So ends the reign of King Ratzo.

I did, however, get to play the role of griot to the musicians of Club Deluxe. I told them of my experiences playing in New York in stories from my past and from recent days, as I’m sure Mr. Stephens did as well. It’s important that this be done, because if all that the musicians in San Francisco know of what’s going on in New York is what they hear from Jazz at Lincoln Center and the “name” clubs, like The Blue Note, The Village Vanguard, and Birdland, then how will they know about artists like William Parker, Fay Victor, Stacey Dillard, or Melissa Hamilton? There’s so much that the GACM doesn’t know … not to mention what it doesn’t want you to know!

This brings me to the night that I said I would talk about earlier, the one where I went out “on the town” to hear music before Tuesday. I had been given a ticket to see the Philip Glass Ensemble perform at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on May 25. They were performing music for Jean Coctaeu’s classic film, La Belle et la Bête, and two things left me scratching my head that I’ll share with you. The first had to do with the people in the seats next to me. They were a well-groomed couple, male and female and I’m guessing separated by some 20-30 years, who were chatting away in Portuguese, a language I don’t understand but recognize. As I was sitting quietly, waiting for the performance to start, the younger of the two leaned across her partner to ask me if I knew “whether the opera tonight is in French or English.” When I answered that I did not know, she seemed to be upset that I didn’t and wanted to point out that I should. I apologized and explained again that I didn’t know. She returned to her chattering without bothering to thank me for answering her. Now I truly believe that I am the exemplification of a stupid American. I am not conversant in anything but English and have to admit that it’s no fault but my own, even though I prefer to blame Ronald Reagan for cutting the language requirements in elementary schools when he became governor of California.

But I don’t believe this means that total strangers are permitted to rub it in, and I had to scratch my head about what the point of it all is. So, as the house lights were dimming, I asked my neighbor, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they sang in Spanish?”, to which they both replied, “No, we’re speaking Portuguese!” All I could say to that was “Muito Obrigado” in what I hope was a Brazilian accent, and hope we could all enjoy the performance, which was as great as Philip Glass performances always are. But the second, and more significant point has to do with the piece, which was listed as an “opera/film” in the program notes. Is music composed to replace the soundtrack of a film truly an opera, especially if the singers don’t move more than to sit down in a chair when not singing? The only staging was the screen to project the film on, and there were no arias, only the melodicization of the movie’s dialog. Because so much of the audience in attendance are probably not music historians, will calling this performance an opera lead the way to a redefining of the genre? Even though the word “opera” doesn’t semantically refer to music or acting or a division of the affects (storytelling to emotive display), isn’t the term as a musical one contingent on those references?

Does the status “highbrow” remove the responsibility of the griot to impart knowledge of culture accurately? And if La Belle et la Bête isn’t an opera, what is it?

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