When I moved from San Francisco to New York City in the fall of 1977, I really wasn’t sure of what I was getting into. All I knew was that most of the records I listened to were recorded there, that the New York Philharmonic was considered America’s premier symphony orchestra, and that nearly every musician I had met who spent time there had a quality to their playing that I found attractive. The list of these musicians include: bassists Chris Amberger, Michael Burr, Mel Graves, and James Leary; drummers Clarence Becton, Larry Hancock, and Eddie Marshall; pianists Richard Kermode, Art Lande, Mike Nock, and Denny Zeitlin; saxophonists John Handy, Joe Henderson, Mel Martin, Jim Pepper, and Hal Stein; trumpeter Woody Shaw; trombonist Julian Priester; and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. (There were probably others; this is a “short” list.) I can’t say what that quality is that I was enamored of. I know that part of it is an approach to playing that uses a broad or “loose” interpretation of meter. These players also played in a way that was more about personal expression than proper interpretation. Whatever that quality (or qualities) was, I knew that, while it wasn’t missing in musicians who never lived in New York, almost everyone who had lived there had it! So when a chance to burrow in the Big Apple came my way, I took it.
I found a few recent expatriates who I knew from the Bay Area—saxophonist Seth Brody and the late drummer Jeff Papez—who showed me the ropes and introduced me to the scene. I also looked up someone I had met through Jim Pepper, pianist Joanne Brackeen, who I owe a huge debt of (at least) gratitude to for helping me “break” in. It was Jeff who introduced me to another recent arrival to New York, pianist Fred Hersch. Fred and his roommate, bassist Ed Felson (who now runs the Blue Wisp jazz club in Cincinnati, Ohio) lived around the corner from me in the Village very near a nightclub on University Avenue, Bradley’s, that featured piano-bass duos and was named after its owner, Bradley Cunningham. We wound up being part of the regular rotation at another club, Christie’s Skylight Gardens, on East 12th Street. I’m not sure who Christie was, but the club featured bands led by singers. The names on the list of regular singers at Christie’s included Roberta Baum, Lotti Golden, Devorah Segall, Sally Swisher, Roseanna Vitro, Martha Wilcox, and Gail Winter. Instrumentalists on the roster included: pianists Esther Blue, Armen Donelian, Kim Forman, Andy Lavern, Alan Simon, Harris Simon (Alan’s brother), and Vanessa Vickers; drummers Grover Mooney and Jeff Papez; and guitarist/bassist Scott Hardy.
These were the days when an engagement in a nightclub usually lasted a week (often longer) and the performers were expected to play for four to five hours per night. Needless to say, after a year of playing there, a familial feeling developed among many of us that extended beyond Christie’s bandstand and the cracked soundboard of its Ivers & Pond baby grand piano. I’m not sure exactly how this family came to include the name Paul Wickliffe, but I do remember that it was Roberta Baum who asked me to play on her demo session at his 8-track recording facility, Studio 28. The name referred to its location on West 28th Street in Manhattan. Paul eventually moved his recording business eight blocks north and renamed it Skyline Studios. Skyline soon became one of New York’s premier recording facilities. I can’t remember how many projects I had the good fortune to record there, but the ones that stick out in my memory are one with Mose Allison, The Earth Wants You, and two with Roseanna Vitro: Reaching For the Moon and Passion Dance. But I will always remember the 28th Street studio, with its spaghetti-board walls and minimalist décor, located near the heart of Manhattan’s flower district on a block once known as Tin Pan Alley.
The website for the Historic Districts Council for New York City establishes 1893 as the year that M. Witmark & Sons opened the first music publishing business on the block, moving uptown from 14th Street in order to be closer to the theaters on Broadway, where their music was being performed. According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the block earned its name from the sound of the upright pianos that were used to play the songs (approximately 25,000 per year) being composed and/or demoed by the music publishing companies located there. This explanation makes sense, since these instruments had a loud, metallic tone (sometimes thumbtacks were put in the hammers to accentuate this) and, since there was no air conditioning at the time, the windows of these firms would be open for anyone passing by to hear—all at once. I have heard at least one person say that they believe the name to be pejorative and disrespectful. I would argue with the validity of this point of view as much as I would argue with the idea that the phrase was coined as descriptive prose, which is to say not at all. However, the term is used today to refer to that location in that time, the music produced there, and as significant of anywhere that has a high concentration of music facilities or venues. I imagine that there are music “snobs” who look upon the idea of producing music for mass consumption as beneath the field’s artistic potential, but enough high-quality music came out of Tin Pan Alley that I believe their argument falls on its face. This also applies to the Tin Pan Alley-ish meccas of Memphis, Detroit, the San Francisco Bay Area, and even New Orleans, which is commonly considered the birthplace of jazz.
Many people believe that the name “jazz” means “sexual intercourse.” I’m not sure this is the case. There’s an excellent Wikipedia article that refutes this notion and includes the name of someone who has offered a reward for anyone who can show that usage from before 1913, when the term first appeared in print to describe a baseball pitch that is probably what is now called a “slider.” (The reward has stood, unclaimed, for eleven years!) In his excellent book, Jazz: A Century of Change, Dr. Lewis Porter examines scores of historical records relating to the origin of the term and comes to the conclusion that none of the theories presented carry enough weight to be considered probable. One theory, however, not included in Porter’s book that makes the most sense to me was presented by Vincent Lopez, a popular pianist and bandleader from the 1920s, who did as much or more than his contemporaries to develop and promote jazz as well as many musicians who would later become musical icons: Xavier Cugat, the Dorsey Brothers (Jimmy and Tommy), Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw, for example. Lopez is quoted in the July 1924 issue of Metronome saying:
I have been for a long time making a study both of the word “jazz” and of the kind of music which it represents. The origin of the word is shrouded in mystery. The story of its beginning that is most frequently told and most generally believed among musicians has to do with a corruption of the name “Charles.” In Vicksburg, Miss., during the period when rag-time was at the height of its popularity and “blues” were gaining favor, there was a colored drummer of rather unique ability named “Chas. Washington.” As is a very common custom in certain parts of the South he was called “Chaz.” “Chaz” could not read music, but he had a gift for “faking,” and a marvelous sense of syncopated rhythm. It was a practice to repeat the trio or chorus of popular numbers, and because of the catchiness of “Chaz’s” drumming he was called on to do his best on the repeats. At the end of the first chorus the leader would say: “Now, Chaz.”
From this small beginning it soon became a widespread habit to distinguish any form of exaggerated rhythm as “Chaz.” It was immensely popular from the start, for it had appeal to the physical emotions unobtainable from any other sort of music. “Chas” himself had learned the effectiveness of this manner of drumming through following the lead of country fiddlers in their spirited playing of Natchez Under the Hill, Arkansaw Traveler, Cotton Eye’d Joe, and the numerous other similar tunes so dear to the hearts of quadrille dancers.
And why not? This music—with its hops, drags, jumps, stomps, riffs, and vamps—invented new words and reinvented old ones. “Jive,” for instance, was the language of jazz musicians and could also be a dance form and a kind of speaking that is intentionally misleading or teasing. This term came into use in the 1930s, a time when Lester Young defined the police as “ice” while suggesting that one should “be cool” when they were around. Soon, when something was good, it was “cool.” Later, in the 1960s, jazz musicians and fans also gave the word “bad” the meaning “good.” If something was really good it was “hip” and someone who was savvy was “hep.” (“It’s hip to be hep.”) Men were “cats” and women were “chicks” and eventually everything was a mother****a! This linguistic creation and recreation was also applied to names. “Zoot,” “Dizzy,” “Pops,” “Pookie,” “Satchmo,” “Mugsy,” “Snooky,” and “Fats” are the names of jazz legends (and don’t confuse “Pappa” Joe Jones with “Philly” Joe Jones or Marvin “Smitty” Smith with “Marvelous” Marvin Smith!). Their instruments were “axes” and their cars were “shorts” and they lived in “digs”—and they could “dig” their digs, you dig? It gets to a point where one has to wonder, what’s in a name, anyway?
I was intrigued to discover during my research for this post that there was a television series that aired in 1959 and 1960, Love and Marriage, that was not at all similar to the short-lived 1996 sitcom of the same name. The original starred William Demarest, who is probably best remembered for his role as Uncle Charley in My Three Sons (he also played Buster Billings in the 1927 version of The Jazz Singer and, in a kind of strange twist of fate, the role of Steve Martin in the 1946 film The Jolson Story). In Love and Marriage Demarest plays the role of William Harris, the owner of a failing Tin Pan Alley publishing house. The problem with the business is that Harris is a “moldy fig” who can’t bring himself to get involved with rock ‘n’ roll, a music he can’t stand. It’s a strange twist that my father, William Harris (who was also known as “Whitey,” because of his hair), was a Dixieland trumpeter who couldn’t stand rock ‘n’ roll (he called it “rack ‘n’ ruin”) or country & western, for that matter. My catholic tastes were a constant source of annoyance to him. (He even made me leave the house because I liked Wynton Marsalis’s playing!) Another William Harris was Archie Shepp’s long-time drummer, “Beaver.”
I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t born with the moniker I use, which is not “Ratso,” as in Midnight Cowboy, but rather “Ratzo,” as in “ratzo v’shov,” a term from the Kabbalah that loosely means “run and return.” It can be interpreted as something that leaves its creator and later returns to it, such as Siddhartha or the Childe Harold or—music! But Mom doesn’t like to talk about it very much … she digs Waylon Jennings!