What’s in a Name?

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.

Tin Pan Alley Then

43-47 W. 28th Street on Tin Pan Alley, possibly ca. 1925.

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.

Tin Pan Alley Now

The same three buildings from the Tin Pan Alley photograph today. I believe that Studio 28 was above the green awning.

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!

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8 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Michael Robinson

    Simply because one’s view may or may not be a minority opinion has little to do with the validity of that perspective. I will leave it to individual readers to decide whether or not the context of your use of the term Tin Pan Alley in a reply to my comments in the previous article was intentionally or reflexively dismissive.

    This is not the first time I have been troubled by a commonly used word. Back in 1998, I wrote: “I find it offensive that the world’s tallest mountain is known by a recent Anglican name (Everest), when there are beautiful and ancient names in Tibet and Nepal for this sacred place. Chomolungma, meaning Goddess Mother of Earth, is Tibetan, and Sagarmatha, which represents a male god, is the name from Nepal, meaning Top of the Ocean, or the highest point on earth rising above the sea.”

    As I suspected, you have no actual knowledge or evidence about the specific circumstances in which John Coltrane decided to record My Favorite Things. In fact, Ingrid Monson, the author of the paper you referred me to, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation: Irony, Parody, and Ethnomusicology,” states that Coltrane selected this composition by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein on his own volition.

    That is not to say I do not have serious problems with the paper: Monson exhibits a highly ethnocentric and superficial understanding of My Favorite Things’ aesthetic value, not even mentioning the lyrics of the song.

    At least three prominent jazz artists I know of, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz and Lou Levy, all regarded Italian-American vocalist, Frank Sinatra, as their favorite jazz singer. These opinions first came to my attention when during a lesson with Konitz following my freshman year of college, I asked him who he listened to for musical inspiration, and was astonished to hear him reply, “Frank Sinatra,” who up to that point I only associated with Strangers In the Night! (Sinatra famously and modestly preferred to refer to himself as a Saloon Singer.)

    One of the reasons jazz artists admire Sinatra relates to his astonishing ability to extract the unique rasa of each song he interpreted, taking extraordinary measure of the lyrics, a ritual practiced by instrumentalists Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, who concurred that lyrics were a window into the musical soul of a composition.

    Regarding her paper that makes prominent mention of My Favorite Things, why does Monson consider it beyond the scope of John Coltrane’s omnivorous intellectual curiosity and knowledge to have attended a performance of the intensely moving show, The Sound of Music, or at least known the story the show portrays?

    Myself, I feel that the monumental expressive power of Coltrane’s original recording of My Favorite Things is partly informed by an awareness of the unimaginable atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, a regime that ultimately threatens the children and adults in The Sound of Music.

    The song, My Favorite Things, which Monson dismisses as sentimental and trite, movingly and exquisitely portrays the joy, wonder and naiveté of privileged Austrian children and their caretaker before they encounter a regime whose real life practices included throwing living children directly into ovens on a vast scale.

    A few years later, John Coltrane, mourned and protested against the monstrous immolation of African-American children in his profoundly moving composition, Alabama.

    Personally, I believe that the power and magnificence of Coltrane’s music was instrumental in bringing about a consciousness that empowered the Civil Rights Movement in America, and an end to the Vietnam War.

    Rather than downplaying the importance and aesthetic value of predominantly Jewish-American composers and lyricists that combined with predominantly African-American improvisers while forging an intrinsic part of a prodigous evolving art form known collectively as jazz, I urge Monson and others to broaden their perspective, and thus avoid tainting whatever valid musical and sociological points they may have.

    Perhaps an even more outrageous omission in “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation: Irony, Parody, and Ethnomusicology,” is the author’s failure to mention that the main musical reason Coltrane seized upon My Favorite Things was his recognition of its unusually dramatic and expressive movement from major to minor modalities within the context of a folk song-like utterance, providing a perfect medium for expressing the saxophonist’s fascination, love and obsession with the Hindustani raga recordings of sitarist Ravi Shankar, sarodist Ali Akbar Khan and shehnai artist Bismillah Khan, all from India. It was Bismillah Khan who influenced Coltrane’s unforgettable recorded use of the soprano saxophone for My Favorite Things, an instrument that Coltrane initially associated with Sidney Bechet.

    In closing, I wish to point out, as Ravi Shankar has done, that the term “ethnomusicology” is inherently racist, as it assumes that one group is the norm, and everyone else is “ethnic.” One solution is to have the unfortunate word replaced by the original, all-encompassing “musicology,” which would help to erase the walls that divide us in life too.

    Like Columbo, I have one more thought, and this is related to the song I originally commented on several articles ago: How wonderful it would be if the presidential election could simply be decided by how President Obama and Mitt Romney each rendered the challenging intervals of Just Friends. (I’m unfairly blaming NewMusicBox, a name I admire, for not being able to get this song out of my head!)

    Reply
    1. Michael Robinson

      Upon closer examination of the song, My Favorite Things, which previously I was referencing primarily by memory, the song is initially sung by Maria, a cloistered nun, who is considering taking a position as a maid for a wealthy family. Later in the show, Maria reprises the song together with the children she came to care for. Wikipedia states: The song’s main melody seems derivative of Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, particularly in its repetitive simplicity and its minor-key sense of dread. Put simply, the melody conveys terror. The happy, optimistic lyrics–”Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudel”–are just a counterpoint and cover-up to this undercurrent of fear. As noted above, the song was written to be sung by a young woman scared of facing new responsibilities outside the convent. In the film script the song is repositioned, with Maria singing it to the von Trapp children during the thunderstorm; but the terror contained in the melody is still the dominant emotion. (This interpretation is consistent with my supposition that John Coltrane was conscious of the menacing totalitarian context that engendered The Sound of Music and My Favorite Things.)

      While rereading the paper referenced, I did come across a brief mention of the lyrics for My Favorite Things, but in a continuing pattern of troubling obfuscation, Ingrid hones in on the stanza of the song describing the beauties of Winter – this is her home in the Austrian Alps Maria is singing about after all – something Monson suggests John Coltrane (and all African-Americans?) would have no affinity for. In fact, she states that John likely would have been rankled by use of the adjective “white” to describe snow and winter, as well as the word “cream” to describe the color of a pony. Presumably, Ingrid has no issue with “Raindrops on roses,” “Bright copper kettles,” “Brown paper packages tied up with strings,” and “Wild geese that fly with moon on their wings,” etc. But moonlight is generally light-colored, so perhaps that allusion is suspect to Monson as well. Following this logic, Coltrane’s famous ballad, Central Park West, most definitely would have excluded the park during winter when is snowed. (Of course, there is an equal chance this transcendental composition was inspired by the park during winter, spring, summer or fall.)

      This is the first time I’ve heard the term “song-plugger,” and it truly is ugly and derogatory sounding. I am curious to know the name of the person, who McCoy Tyner is credited with vaguely recalling, originally gave a copy of My Favorite Things to the John Colrane Quartet while they were performing at the Jazz Gallery. McCoy is not certain about this sequence of events, and we still do not know for a fact whether or not John attended a performance of the Sound of Music, whether or not he heard a copy of the original album released featuring the Broadway cast, and whether or not he requested a copy of My Favorite Things, or recognized the song if it was brought to him unexpectedly.

      Is it at all possible to assume that this unnamed person(s) made an intelligent decision when deciding that John might like the song? Would it be possible to find out the name of this person(s) so that proper recognition is given to someone who helped make possible one of the most influential musical events of the twentieth-century, the John Coltrane Quartet’s recording of My Favorite Things?

      Shortly after the opening of The Sound of Music, Oscar Hammerstein, a creative genius whose songs in collaboration with Jerome Kern include All The Things You are and The Song is You, two cornerstones of jazz literature that inspired Charlie Parker to reach some of his loftiest heights, passed away. (Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, which like My Favorite Things became one of John Coltrane’s greatest recordings, was yet another of his songs, written in collaboration with Sigmund Romberg.)

      Reply
      1. Ratzo B Harris

        One of the nicest people I ever knew in the music business was a song plugger, Ray Passman. He was also a song writer (mostly lyrics, I think). One of the songs he co-wrote was “Route 66.” I would see him at various gigs of jazz and cabaret singers in New York. He usually had a manila envelop with him of a new song to hawk and would also offer his services as a royalty agent for ASCAP (at a special price, of course!). He was a charming and well-informed person who kept himself aware of the goings-on in the music biz and was generous with his knowledge and experience. I was honored to be asked to play a few tunes at his memorial, where I also got to hear a Passman’s lyrics to “Stablemates” sung by Jon Hendricks with Bob Dorough on piano! I can’t list all of the musicians who attended his memorial, but rest assured that we all thought he was one of the best of the best. I believe, as I’m sure he did, that he served the jazz community well in his chosen field.

        I don’t see the term as derogatory though. It’s like being a bass player, it’s not such a low thing! At least I don’t blow my licks at the saxophone!! :-)

        Reply
        1. Michael

          It was fascinating to read this comment that serves to humanize a term I was unfamiliar with.

          I have no doubt that Ingrid Monson has written many brilliant, insightful and important things about jazz, and I look forward to exploring her work. The comments I made here relate only to specified aspects of the paper brought to my attention.

          Reply
          1. Ratzo B. Harris

            I like Monson’s writings on jazz studies. I don’t know, though, how easy it is to hunt down the song-plugger who introduced Coltrane to “My Favorite Things.” I’m sure there are avenues that can be explored. It seems that pluggers were salaried and unionized, so I’m sure that there would be a record, somewhere, of who was covering the club he was playing in. If I were going to take the project on, I’d probably start with an inquiry at ASCAP. There are a few points about the song, as it appears in the Broadway musical, I’d like to point out.

            The character of Maria is not a cloistered nun, but rather a postulant (being considered for vows). She isn’t considering the position at the home of the Von Trapps, but is assigned to it by her Mother Abbess. The song, a kind of duet between the Mother Abbess and Maria, describes Maria’s strategy for coping with her anxiety and fear of life outside the convent where she hopes to take her vows (as you noted, it was the movie version that placed the song at the Von Trapps’ during a thunderstorm).

            I agree that it’s a little odd to think that African Americans would become “rankled” because snow is white. But there is no doubt that there were plenty of examples of racially-biased binaries that might inspire feelings of irony and might inspire Elgba-esque expression in the music of John Coltrane and his contemporaries.

            Reply
  2. Michael Robinson

    No doubt, part of what binds African Americans and Jewish Americans together, in art and life, is a native spirituality, and a history of shared oppression.

    Back when I was giving programs, I was deeply moved when an African-American gentleman in the audience approached me afterwards, and told me he felt a strong affinity with the spirituality experienced beneath the surface of the music.

    When I gave programs for disadvantaged African-American children, they were jumping up and down, dancing to a new musical experience with great joy.

    During the years I lived in NYC, my favorite place was probably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a favorite memory of that sanctuary was arranging to meet a friend, who is an artist, in the vast lobby. Originally from Jamaica, she outshone all the priceless paintings and sculptures, standing out across the bustling crowd wearing a long, ivory-white dress set against her chocolate-hued skin. I was not so conscious of our diverse backgrounds until one day she told me she no longer wished to visit the Upper East Side because people stared at her.

    Hindus believe that humans are capable of becoming gods through repeated actions that benefit the oppressed, and I believe that John Coltrane, who named his son after Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar, did become a god, or perhaps a saint, through musical offerings. (Coltrane’s birthday was yesterday.)

    Getting back to the mundane, I would truly appreciate it if you can supply at least one specific example of “plenty of examples of racially-biased binaries that might inspire feelings of irony and might inspire Elgba-esque expression in the music of John Coltrane.”

    Up to this point, irony is not a sentiment I associate with Coltrane, who seemed to function on a different plane, in any way, but I am open, and welcome the opportunity to recognize the concept if you can spare the time to elucidate.

    Reply
  3. Mary J

    Lotti Golden performed at Christie’s Skylight Gardens? I’m familiar with her 1969 groundbreaking rock LP “Motor-Cycle” on Atlantic (which does have some jazz infused in the instrumentals) but still I think of her as a rock artist. I’m surprised she performed in a jazz club. Wish I could have seen her perform!

    Reply
  4. Devorah Segall

    Ratzo, nice to find this article – great reading. And I appreciate you mentioning me as one of the regular singers at Christie’s..
    That was a great time in my life in Jazz in NYC- hard to fathom now that there were steady recurring gigs like that one which lasted a week at a time and recurred every month. Wow- I would love to have that now!!
    I loved those gigs with you. I have vivid memories and many live recordings of singing there with you with Fred Hersch, Harris Simon, Frank Stagnitta, and sometimes Jeremy Steig and so many other beautiful musicians. It was a great blessing to be a part of that for so long.
    … And speaking of Frank Sinatra (above post) I remember one night at Christie’s someone gave us a $50 tip to do one of “his” songs- or was it $100?!!Were you on the gig that night? I love singing with you, Ratzo.

    Reply

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