The Second Oldest Profession? (Part 2)

In last week’s post I tried to dispel the myth of music being a form of the world’s oldest profession by referencing the Biblical character of Jubal, “the father of all such as handle the harp and organ” (Genesis 4:21); a distinction that would seem to include string and wind players, but not percussionists and vocalists. While it might seem glib to look at the development of the pianoforte as a grand effort to repatriate those who would bang on rocks and logs into the family of musicians, there are still certain individuals who consider those making music by manipulating their respiratory systems as members of a musical subclass comprised of uneducated performers whose artistic expression relies more on body language than musical acumen; but, of course, anyone with sense knows that musicianship includes singing. Furthermore, the opening chapter from the aforementioned compendium describes the creation of all things as the result of vocalization—that, in essence, we are sung into being. So it’s not so much of a stretch to declare that the first, and thus oldest, “profession” is…music! Which brings me to this week’s post from the road.

San Francisco is a city that seems to want to exist very much apart from the milieu of the Great American Cultural Machine and, in doing so, has occasionally become a trend-setter for it. It was here that the so-called “Summer of Love” ushered in the “psychedelic ‘60s” (which seemed to take up more of the ‘70s in my memory) with groups like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Sons of Champlin, Moby Grape, Santana, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. It was in San Francisco in 1966 that the Beatles followed the lead of Glenn Gould four years earlier in Los Angeles by retiring from the concert stage. It was also in San Francisco in the previous decade that vibraphonist Cal Tjader developed a small-group Latin jazz style that became known as “salsa.” In 1961, a Tjader sideman, San Francisco-born pianist Vince Guaraldi, recorded an unexpected hit tune, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” that heavily influenced the new-age performance styles of George Winston and David Benoit— if not serving as the genre’s Alberti-bass intensive model. (One wonders if, by improvising over the dominant key left-hand ostinato of the “A” section’s principle theme instead of using the swinging “B” section of Guaraldi’s original and by substituting an anticipated lower octave tonic for Guaraldi’s close-fisted left-hand roll in its cadential consequent, Winston was agreeing with the Gould-ian argument on disauthenticity in period performance.)

In that same year another San Francisco native, Mary Stallings, came to national prominence in a collaboration with Tjader, Cal Tjader Plays, Mary Stallings Sings (Fantasy Records, 1961). Her voice is still a marvel of precision and technique that has been presented for the last 24 years, three nights a week, at the downtown San Francisco restaurant Bix, where she is currently accompanied by pianist David Udolph. Being a Cal Tjader alumnus, I was especially thrilled to perform with them at the Kirk Douglas Theater last June. The restaurant’s owner, Doug Beiderbecke, has adopted the nickname of the iconic trumpeter Leon Beiderbecke and applied it to his eatery. He also shows his love for jazz by presenting music there seven days a week. However, the clientele is comprised more of what we used to call “yuppies” (back in the day) and often exceeds by decibels the average amplitude of the performing musicians. Still, 88-year-old pianist-singer-songwriter Bob Dorough successfully engaged the audience at Bix in sing-along and call-and-response numbers during his three-day stint there last November, which was probably due more to his being the composer and performer of much of the music on the television show Sesame Street than his role as Crab Man in Porgy and Bess or his work with Miles Davis.

Udolph’s wife, vocalist Sherry Roberts, told me about Dorough’s Bix appearance. I was calling to talk to Dave about rehearsals for our appearance Sunday afternoon at Chez Hanny with trumpeter Dave Bendigkeit and trombonist Wayne Wallace (to balance out the lack of drums on this concert, I’ll be playing with Bendigkeit and drummer Vince Lateano in a piano-less trio on December 16 at David’s dojo in Pacifica). She also informed me about a workshop she attended at the Jazzschool in Berkeley by another vocalist who has kept her voice in top form over the years, 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Sheila Jordan. I missed Sheila’s 84th birthday celebration in New York, but saw that the Jazzschool was presenting a fundraiser for themselves and a tribute to Jordan at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse last Monday and I planned to attend it. The venue’s name doesn’t do the 220 seat theater justice. The sound system is excellent, and there is an uninterrupted line-of-sight view of the stage from every point in the room; literally, not a bad seat in the house. The concert opened with a few words from the head of the Vocal Jazz Studies program at Jazzschool, Laurie Antonioli, who also acted as the evening’s emcee. After a brief video presentation (produced by vocalist and Jordan biographer Ellen Johnson) of accolades for Sheila by her friends and colleagues in New York—including Mark Murphy, Jay Clayton, Theo Bleckmann, Judi Silvano and her husband Joe Lovano, Connie Crothers, Andrea Wolper and her husband Ken Filiano—the music began with Antonioli singing Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell’s “You Are My Sunshine” in saxophonist/bass clarinetist Sheldon Brown’s arrangement based on the classic one by George Russell and co-realized by pianist Matt Clark, bassist John Shifflett, and drummer Jason Lewis. Antonioli told the audience that this is the group she regularly uses on her projects, a point that was made obvious by the ease and depth of their interaction.

Although there are no bad seats at Freight and Salvage, there was one back at my home-on-the-road where my computer died the following morning. Unfortunately, I lost two drafts of this article and all of the charts I brought to play on Sunday! I wish I had taken hand-written notes instead of putting them on the computer’s hard drive because I’ve lost all of the details of the event I had hoped to include here. However, I can report that each vocalist paying homage to Jordan performed two songs (I don’t remember who did what) and that the order of their performances were: Antonioli, Ed Reed, Madeline Eastman, Kitty Margolis, Ellen Johnson, and Kyra Gordon, the winner of last year’s Mark Murphy Scholarship. Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella then presented the winner of the 2013 award to Kathy Blackburn. This was followed by three tunes performed by Sheila Jordan that ended with all of the singers paying tribute by joining in a round-robin trading of eight-measure long scat solos on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” The other song titles I remember are: “Some Other Time,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” “Squeeze Me,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” and “Sheila’s Blues” (sung by Jordan). There were seven or eight more songs, but I don’t remember which ones they are. However, I plan to continue researching the event’s program while I’m in the Bay Area and will use the comments section to make updates.

What is so great about seeing this tribute, besides the phenomenal musicianship of everyone involved, is that it was like being at a private party, albeit one in a large amphitheater. The principal performers are all long-time associates and friends and the warmth, camaraderie, and respect they all expressed in word, humor, and song was genuine. I’ve seen this happen a lot between singers, even when competing with one another for the limited opportunities to ply their craft. I remember Vicki Burns creating a regular series for herself at the Pigale restaurant in Manhattan and sharing it with her network of associates, which included Linda Ciofolo, Judi Silvano, Melissa Hamilton, and many other chanteuses who would regularly drop by and sing with each other. Sadly, and unceremoniously, the establishment discontinued its music policy after a few months. There are, however, several venues in Manhattan that specifically target jazz singers: Studio 100 in the Mariott Residency Inn, which features jazz vocalists every Thursday, and Saul Rubin’s Zeb’s on West 28th Street that does so every Wednesday are just two. The 55 Bar (where I’ll be playing in Fay Victor’s series on Dec. 27), the Zinc Bar (which just hosted Melissa Hamilton’s CD release), the Kitano Jazz Club, Somethin’ Jazz on Manhattan’s East Side, Small’s Jazz Club in Greenwich Village (which hosts a vocal workshop by Marion Cowings and a session afterward every Sunday) are New York venues that regularly present singers of the highest caliber.

When I get home, I think I’ll assemble a comprehensive list of them. I’ll put together one on San Francisco for next week!

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