Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band" - The Chris Smith Biography

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Mel showed me at that time, what a drummer is capable of doing as far as being integrated as an inescapable component of the arrangement as a whole. Not just something stuck in there at the last minute. You don't replace Mel Lewis, you just hope to get somebody who's like him — maybe.”
- Don Sebesky, trombonist, composer-arranger

“Well, it boils down to the fact that Mel played music on the drums. He absorbed what everyone in the band was doing and found things to play that complimented it. His time was so relaxed that sometimes he got in trouble for it. I remember one time; while we were playing with Terry Gibbs, hearing Al Porcino pounding his heel on the floor and saying, "Let's go Mel!" Because Mel was so easy that sometimes he would drag a little bit. But, to me it was a perfect solution to big band drumming.”
- Bill Holman, tenor saxophonist, big band leader, composer, arranger

“Mel never stopped speaking up for what he believed in and he always stayed true to his belief that jazz music should be swinging and innovative. Due in part to his unapologetic honesty his career wasn't filled with the fame and fortune that other drummers achieved. Yet Mel stayed true to himself and developed artistically throughout his entire life, in turn leaving the world with a recorded legacy that is priceless.” [p. 105]
- Chris Smith, professional drummer, educator author of Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band

"My whole approach to playing is reaction. I don't listen to myself play. I'm too busy listening to everything going on around me. All my body is doing is reacting to that. I augment, compliment, round out. I can make anybody sound good. I have my own style, but I play uniquely with everyone that I play with ... Sometimes I'm forcing things, making things happen another way, but I'm still reacting to everything I hear. The composition I'm creating as I play in a big band is also because of what I'm hearing ... Everything depends on your ears. If I'm busy listening to me, then I'm not hearing the rest of the band. When the band is playing as an ensemble, I'm part of that ensemble."
— Mel Lewis, clinic in Hilversum, Netherlands 1985

Early in his career, some Jazz critics dismissed Mel Lewis as a drummer with “no chops” [little technique] who played behind the beat. But as Chris Smith points out in his masterfully comprehensive biography of Mel is that - “What makes the critics' under-appreciation of Mel so incorrect is what most every musician and many listeners know: that while a band can play poorly with a great drummer, no band can be great without one.”

When you finish reading Chris’ Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band - The Life and Music of Mel Lewis [Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2014], there will be no doubt in your mind - nor should there be - that Mel Lewis was one of the greatest Jazz drummers who ever lived [1929-1990].

He ranks right up there with Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Davy Tough, Sid Catlett, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Louie Bellson, Joe Morello, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and any other “signature drummer” in the history of the music. [“Signature drummer” was Buddy Rich’s term for a drummer whose style was instantly recognizable and distinctive from other drummers].

As Gerry Mulligan once put it: “There’s still not a drummer who achieved what Mel Lewis did. And I’m not sure how to describe it.”

Maybe one answer is in the following remark that Mel made to Burt Korall the author of Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz - The Bebop Years:

“I found that to really make money you had to give up music. So I gave up money.”

For forty years, Mel Lewis made music in a widely diverse range of settings that included trios, small groups and big bands.

And what a collection of big bands: Tex Beneke, Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Ray, Ray Anthony, Stan Kenton, the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, Gerald Wilson, Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band and Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra plus the many performances with various iterations of the WDR big band in Germany during the 1980s.

But Gerry’s point is well-taken, Mel’s footprint on Jazz is so huge - how do you describe it?

Until Chris Smith biography of Mel came along, Mel’s career was almost impossible to recount let alone describe. After reading it one is tempted to ask: Is there anyone that Mel didn’t play during a career that spanned four decades from  approximately 1950 to 1990?

Each time I started to prepare and outline for how I wanted to approach reviewing Chris Smith’s engaging biography of Mel Lewis, I’d read a little further in my notes to each chapter which then prompted me to rethink and rewrite the whole feature!

Chris’ book is much more than a mere biography of Mel, it imparts soooo much knowledge and information about the broader Jazz World in the second half of the 20th century and Mel’s role in creating of lot of it that it could easily have been entitled Drum Wisdom and Jazz Revelations: The Life and Times of Mel Lewis [1929 - 1990].

Perhaps the easiest way to begin is with Mel Lewis’ own description of who he is and what he does: “Hi, my name is Mel Lewis and I play drums and cymbals.”

Or as it it specifically stated in Chris’ biography:

“You can say I am an old man, the kids can say "Oh what does he know he is from the old school." Man, I am not from the old school! I am a musician , and I play drums and cymbals. I use cymbals that are real cymbals. It’s like driving a good car as opposed to a piece of junk, you know ... But man, once you really know how to play a drum, meaning you can play it, you know what it sounds like, and you can sit and create music on that drum, then you’ve achieved something. I don't mean play songs where you sit there playing backbeats and play a fill here and you do this there. I mean where you can actually make music on an instrument, then you'll know exactly what I am talking about.” [p. 105]

The significance of this remark is that while many drummers are apologists because of the bad rap they get for not being like other musicians [not being melody and harmony “sensitive”], Mel was proud of his instrument and the way he played it.  

Never one to downplay his own abilities, Mel took things a step further when he remarked:

"I am a unique drummer. I have a style that nobody else has. I make music happen. I make bands do things that no other band can do. Any time I've played, any band I've played in, that band has become mine. Now, I didn't do it on purpose... it just happened.” [p. 74]

What becomes apparent as you read through the 23 chapters of Chris’ biography is that Mel Lewis put a lot of thought into his approach to drumming, something you might not assume, because Mel was not a flashy or “technique drummer.

Here are some quotations that reflect how deeply Mel thought about his drumming:

  • "My whole approach to playing is reaction. I don't listen to myself play. I'm too busy listening to everything going on around me. All my body is doing is reacting to that. I augment, compliment, round out. I can make anybody sound good. I have my own style, but I play uniquely with everyone that I play with ... Sometimes I'm forcing things, making things happen another way, but I'm still reacting to everything I hear. The composition I'm creating as I play in a big band is also because of what I'm hearing ... Everything depends on your ears. If I'm busy listening to me, then I'm not hearing the rest of the band. When the band is playing as an ensemble, I'm part of that ensemble." —Mel Lewis, clinic in Hilversum, Netherlands 1985

  • Strangely, in print interviews Mel often downplayed the influence Tiny had on his drumming. However, in an interview with Will Moyle, Mel clearly stated, "Tiny played so musically, he was a big influence on my playing. That great sound out of his bass drum and his constant motion. He used what we call 'Rub-a-Dub' feel, which I use too. That is what really makes a band move ahead and play inspired, it's that 'Rub-a-Dub'."

  • [Mel was often credited with bringing a small group style of drumming into a big band setting]. “Now I am with a dance band again [Alvino Ray], but the funny bit is that bebop had completely taken me over by this time; I was really a bop drummer. And the small group thing was really coming into my head now, this way of playing. But I wasn't thinking about it that way, I didn't even realize what I was doing. I wasn't saying, "oh, I'm gonna play small group drums in a big band."

  • “Good drummers were a rarity and that's all there was to it. There's no ego problem involved, it's just there weren't many good drummers. There still aren't.”

  • “[During] his time with Kenton, Mel's softer dynamics and bebop-influenced style of big band drumming were a major influence on the band's sound. … After only a handful of times playing the [Kenton band’s] complex arrangements, he was beyond reading the chart and had already interpreted the music in his own style. Even at the young age of twenty-six, Mel had the ability to quickly memorize music and play in a way that uniquely suited each arrangement … .Mel’s light touch, bebop comping, and ability to support the ensemble without overplaying, began setting a new standard of big band drumming.” [Chris Smith]

  • “It is worth noting that the sound of Mel's drums and cymbals on Art Pepper + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics [arrangements by Marty Paich] is an excellent representation of his "typical sound" at the time. Mel's "sound" was a combination of many aspects, two of which were his use of calfskin drumheads and tuning his drums medium-low in pitch, even when playing in a small group. His drum sound on Modern Jazz Classics is a prime example of the warm tone he pulled out of the calfskin heads and how the sound of his drums blended into the ensemble, yet were tuned high enough to cut through when needed. Another important aspect of Mel's "sound" heard on the album is his use of low-pitched cymbals and the master touch in which he played them. … Mel was physically relaxed when he played, creating so much intensity while making the whole process look effortless.” [Chris Smith]

  • “Buddy [Rich] knew the melody so well he would play the melodies along with the band. That is where I disagreed with him. He forced the music to be played like a drummer, where my bit is I play it like the band is playing. That's where him and I are opposites in big band playing. But behind it, we have the same talent for hearing. This is what he liked about me and what I liked about him. In other words, what we liked about each other was the things neither one of us could do, the respect for each other’s signature.”

  • “His cymbal colors and textures created a continually shifting sonic backdrop, and in typical Mel fashion, when it was time to swing his cymbal beat wrapped a comforting blanket of sound around the whole band. His bass drum and toms were used as both melodic voices and low register textures. Most importantly his drumming demonstrated that orchestration and patience were as powerful musical tools as chops and speed. … Mel often pushed intensity to new heights by moving from his main ride cymbal to his Chinese cymbal. At the point where other drummers may have added volume or overplayed, Mel elevated the music  by changing his cymbal sound and intensifying the texture.” [Chris Smith]

  • "Playing from hand to hand and constantly moving the cymbal pattern, gets the feeling of straight ahead motion without getting into a rigid situation. The only thing that really has to keep going and stay rigid is the hi-hat. But you never think about your hi-hat, it just goes. But you keep moving your hands with different patterns while listening to the soloist and reacting to what they play." —Mel Lewis, clinic in Hilversum, Netherlands, 1985

  • "I think drummers should create their own fills based on what they are hearing instead of the old standard fill before a dotted quarter... Drummers can create their own fills based on the music itself, based on what will follow or what proceeded.” —Mel Lewis, Modern Drummer, February 1985-

  • "When playing figures with the ensemble, duplicate its effects: loud or soft, long or short. For short sound, strike the center of the snare drum; snap the hi-hats shut tightly) press the stick into the head of a torn) make a cross-stick shot. For a long sound, strike a cymbal; hit the bass drum) instantly snapping the beater back) snap the hi-hats in an open position and let them ring. Strike a torn and let the note sustain. Strike the off-center area of the snare drum (a semi-long sound). Never, unless it is called for, play a figure with just one sound (every note sounding alike). Each note has a different texture and requires varying treatment... Always sing the figure, either aloud or to yourself. This applies when studying the figure (before playing it) and at the moment of execution. And sing with the feeling and articulation of the horn. Then duplicate this feeling on the drum set. In this way you will get a better blend between the drums and the horns." —Mel Lewis, International Musician, 1961

What also becomes apparent through a close reading of Chris Smith’s Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band  is how much other musicians appreciated Mel’s approach to drumming.

  • “The thing that was so amazing about Mel was that he heard everything that was going on in the band. Mel would give it up for the band. In other words, he felt that he was not only a part of the rhythm section, but that he was a part of each section of the band. And depending on which section had the lead, whether it was a sax soli, a trombone soli, or the trumpets were leading the ensemble through the out chorus, Mel knew every part. Inside of what he did, as far as the overall sound of the drums, he would also accentuate things that other drummers would never hear. He would do it so subtly that you felt it more than you heard it. He was just so unique in his ability to be a total part of the orchestration ... He never got in the way, and Mel never made the drums a prominent instrument in the band. His sound was always something that the band sat on top of, and he was the most supportive drummer that I have ever heard. For me, I have never heard anyone be so giving musically, as part of a big band. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as a drummer, I think he probably thought of himself as just a band member. But as it ended up, he was the band!” - Marvin Stamm, trumpet player

  • “The Concert Jazz Band was my first chance to really get to know Mel and get to play music with him on a steady basis. I thought it was a hot rhythm section! I liked the sounds that he got out of his cymbals and I liked the general steam that he was able to turn on. You know it s funny, one time he told me, ‘I don't like to play what the brass section is playing, they got enough accent in their playing and they can do that on their own. If I play everything that they play they get lazy. We need to get them more up on the time. I like to play what the saxophone players are playing.’ And I thought that was a very interesting insight into his conception of playing.” - Bill Crow, bassist

  • “When Mel Lewis was with the Terry Gibbs band, he did some of the best drumming I ever heard with that band. I'm not that free with compliments, but the band was so hot. It was the most perfect way of playing drums with that band. Mel's a marvelous drummer and totally individualistic. He doesn't sound like anybody else. That's the best thing you can say about anybody, and I said it.” - Buddy Rich, drummer and band leade

  • “Through the years I played various gigs with Mel, everything from big band, to piano trio at Jazz clubs, to wedding gigs. He was always so relaxed when he played it looked like he was up there reading the paper! Mel's absolute first priority, no matter what, was the feel of the music. He knew that if it didn't feel good, neither the band nor the audience would like it. It didn't matter what you wanted to do harmonically, melodically, formally or any of that—if the music didn't start from a place of good feel, forget it! Trust your body, trust your instincts and let the music flow—it will be ok.” Peter Malinverni, pianist

  • “Mel really knew how to hear what was right for the music. Like most good musicians, he had the ability to adapt to a situation and play what was appropriate in a very natural way. He really knew how to orchestrate. What I also loved so much about Mel was his ability to "shade" the time of the music. He knew when to get up on it, and he knew when to get back on it, depending on what was happening with the band. He knew how to "dig in the stirrups," or "pull back the reins," you know. He had an amazing ability to know how and when to do that. A real gift — Adam Nussbaum, drummer

  • ”Mel was capable of contributing many things to an album, and he did it in ways that only he could do. His musical approach to drumming never forced people to play a certain way. He allowed people to play the way they play, and then he made his musical contribution while that was happening. —Jerry Dodgion, alto saxophonist

  • “He really embodied the idea of being a team player, rather than drawing attention to himself. He tried to keep the small group feeling in the big band, and I think that he proved that great music could be made without making bold technical statements. I also think that he showed that it's really possible to play a wide range of music well over the course of a career. Even though he may have been "pigeon holed" as a certain type of player, he found a way to bring life to all kinds of musical situations.” —John Riley, drummer

  • “Mel's wasn't an incredibly technical drummer, he kind of rumbled back there, but he could just explode with energy when the music called for it. He was the only drummer that I have ever played with that told me he had a specific cymbal for my sound. That really blew me away! He said, "Yeah I have a cymbal for George, I had a cymbal for Richard, and I have a cymbal for you."
  • Mel and I once recorded these play-along albums for Ramon Ricker. After recording the whole day it was suggested that since everyone had settled in we go back and rerecord the very first song. The recording engineer said, "Should I playback the tempo of the first take?" And Mel said, "No I got it."
  • So we recorded the song again and when we finished we listened back. The new version ended up being one second different than the original take! The song was six or seven minutes in length and the two recordings were done at least six hours apart. Everybody that was in the control booth kind of fell silent and looked at each other and said, "Wow that’s incredible!" Mel had a very unique internal clock; that was one of his gifts.” — Rufus Reid, bassist

  • “Mel played to make everybody else in the band sound as good as possible. He did this by thinking of their phrasing and thinking like a horn player. He was totally unselfish; he always played what the band needed.” — Jeff Hamilton, drummer

  • “Mel played very musical. All the drummers that have played with my band, after Mel left and the records came out, they sort of played the same licks that Mel played because it was almost like someone had written them out, they fit the music perfect! He was so musical.” - Terry Gibbs, vibraphonist and band leader

  • “When Mel died, it was one of the biggest losses the music ever had. People all over the world suffered. And they'll never recover. We were sitting in Cologne, a key producer and I. We said, "Mel," and were silent for five minutes because there's no replacement. All of the bands, big and small, amateur and professional, that he made sound good have to feel a terrible, terrible loss. There will never be another like him. Mel was one of the greatest drummers of all. I'd stake my life on that.” - Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombonist, band leader, composer-arranger.

There are two other main themes that Chris Smith stresses over the course of the 23 chapters that make up Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band are Mel’s development as a band leader which dated back to his time on Stan Kenton’s band when he observed: “‘Stan Kenton treated his musicians like gentlemen; and he knew how to draw the best out of you. He never told anybody how to play. And I thought that was very important,’ recalled Mel. The lessons Mel learned from Kenton deeply influenced the way he treated fellow musicians when he became a bandleader.”

The other primary theme that Chris Smith underscores in his biography was Mel’s efforts to help young drummers: “Much like the love he showed for the members of his band, Mel also extended his friendship, advice, and equipment to the young jazz drummers whom he thought showed promise. Drummer Adam Nussbaum recalled his relationship with Mel:

“I really got to know Mel when I was playing with John Scofield and Michael Moore at a club "Palssons" on West 72nd street in New York City; that was not too far from where Mel lived. He showed up to the gig and saw me playing with these cats. He kind of knew about me because I was playing with some of the guys in his band like Dennis Irwin, Dick Oatts, Joe Lovano, Jim McNeely, we were all buddies. At the time I had a set of walnut finish Gretsch drums, was using old K's, and had calfskin heads on my snare and bass drum. I guess he may have seen me as a younger version of himself; I also had red hair and was Jewish. After we said hello to each other, I said, "Hey Mel why don’t you come up and play a little bit." So Mel sat in and played a couple tunes with Scofield.

After the gig was done Mel said to me, "What are you doing tomorrow? I want you to come to my house tomorrow around noon, you free?" So I went over the next day, I ring the bell, and Mel said, "Wait for me in the lobby." So I waited for him in the lobby, and then we went down to the basement, to his storage place. When we got down there he took out a snare drum and floor torn. He said, "Here man, I want you to have these." I said, "What?" He goes, "Yeah man, these match your Gretsch drums | perfectly, they stole the rest from me and I am using Slingerland now, so you should have them." Just real matter of fact, it was just so sweet of him.

Mel didn't have a son, so I think he saw a bunch of us guys in New York—of the younger generation (Kenny Washington, Danny Gottlieb, Joey Baron, Peter Erskine, and others) whom he felt had some talent—kind of like his family. He was very supportive and encouraging to us, like a father. I would have to say that he is one of my musical fathers. We'd go out to eat, we'd go to his apartment and he would sit in his big chair and play recordings that he played on. I'd bring up things that I played on. We'd listen and we'd talk. We spent time just hanging out; not necessarily talking about drums per say just talking about music and life. He watched out for the guys that he cared about. If Mel cared about you and liked you, he really took to you.”

The book concludes with over 50 pages of drum transcriptions and annotated listening guides for examples of Mel on records, a timeline of the drum equipment that Mel played on over the course of his career and a selected discography.

One couldn’t ask for a better retrospective of Mel’s career and assessment of its significance in the history of Jazz than the one that Chris Smith has researched, compiled and written for Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band -The Life and Music of Mel Lewis.

Mel was so deserving of the respect that Chris’ biography puts forth in his definitive study and we are fortunate to have Chris’ outstanding treatment of this singular musician. Along with Helene LaFaro Fernandez’s biography of her brother Scott LaFaro and Michael Sparke’s biography of Stan Kenton, it assumes its honored place in the University of North Texas Lives of Musicians series.

You can locate order information about the book via this link.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"One Man's Road" by Clare Fischer

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

One of the most pleasant associations I ever had during my time playing Jazz back when the World was young was formed during an afternoon I spent in the company of Clare Fischer at his home in the lovely Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles.

My close friend and bassist Harvey Newmark telephoned to ask if I could make a rehearsal with Clare at his home.

Clare was forming a new trio as bassist Gary Peacock had just left for New York and drummer Gene Stone had gone on the road with a vocal group.

Clare was a cordial host and we spent the afternoon making music with occasional breaks to brew coffee. Clare ground his own coffee beans, used a Chemex glass coffee pot and paper filters and produced some of the most delicious coffee I had ever tasted.

The music he made was “delicious," too, and over the years, I followed Clare’s career closely and heard him perform in person on a number of occasions.

I found Clare to be one of the most articulate and erudite persons I ever met, in or out of the Jazz world.

The following piece by Clare is another of the examples that Gene Lees offered in support of his premise that Jazz musicians, on average, are a highly articulate group. Here’s how he explained this argument in the February 1985 edition of the Jazzletter from which the Fischer article  is also drawn.

“Jazz musicians are often extremely well read. They perceive and think subtly and deeply, although they are often cautious — not shy — about whom they share their insights with. If they know you, they'll talk your ear off. I have already dealt, in one of the early issues of the Jazzletter, with a tendency of jazz musicians in the old days to let outsiders believe they were dumb, in both senses of the word. But this was an affectation, growing out of slavery in America — the camouflage of one's intelligence as a way of lying low. It was a bit of an act, that hey-baby-wha's-happ'nin' manner, which eventually developed into a sort of self-satirizing in-joke. Anyone deceived by it didn't know jazz musicians very well. While I have known a few musicians who fit the shy-inarticulate mould, they have been the exceptions. And even then, you never knew when they were merely taciturn, rather than inarticulate.”

By Clare Fischer

“When I read the Jazzletter, I am constantly amazed that I find myself so stimulated. I envy the forum you have created, whether for getting something off your chest or for fine humor. I laugh, sometimes so strongly I'm sorely conscious of doing it by myself. I cry, thankful that I am by myself. I get angry over some inequity you are dealing with. Never have I responded so often to so much from a single source.

You touch on many areas that seem to strike similar experiences in my own life. Language seems to be my undoing. I have, as you have, had interesting experiences in foreign languages. I see such parallels between music and language. But that which is so important to me doesn't seem to mean much to anyone else. And so I know what it is to be a minority in this world.

In whatever area of endeavor — physics, medicine, music, you name it — less than ten percent of the people have real insight and capability. Though the remaining ninety percent are stamped, licensed, approved, given degrees and other approbations by the State, you will search long and hard to find a really good doctor, a really insightful professor, a good musician. Most of them are going through the motions, teachers who have nothing to teach contriving to give the illusion of teaching and firmly convinced that they are doing so. The ninety percent are of course the democratic majority and, as such, make up the membership of the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and N.A.J.E. In this democracy where everyone is equal, few people perceive how unequal we are.

Ears, for example. Most people do not have accurate or perceptive hearing. Each person evaluates what he hears convinced he has the total.

Language goes through its degeneration in a variety of ways, but one of the most common is through not hearing accurately. In old English, those words which we now spell with wh were spelled hw, and even though some scribes transposed this to wh, we continued to pronounce the aspirated h before the w, thus being able to differentiate whale (hwale) from wail, why from Y, what from watt, and where from ware. One of the funniest examples of this deterioration occurs in an Angie Dickenson toothpaste commercial. She does not pronounce the h in "whitest", and since she pronounces intervocallic t like d, "whitest" comes out "widest". Who wants wide teeth? And who wants to save the wails?

The same thing happens with harmonies. People hear to a degree commensurate with their level of understanding. Many are incapable of transcribing solos or arrangements from records because they fit what they hear through what they understand.

The worst ramification is the effect the unperceptive ninety percent have on the insightful ten percent — the American Medical Association fighting off innovative ideas and procedures from the minority; the following of musical styles in vogue by the many and the squelching of the individuals in music. The majority go through the motions, convinced they are playing music. And that is a description of this year's [1985]Grammy awards!

When I was a young musician, having first listened to Meade Lux Lewis, Fatha Hines, Nat Cole, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell, I paid attention to pianists. Subsequently I found more interest in the horn players and composers - Hawkins, the Duke, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster among them. They were mostly sax players, and alto sax players at that. I followed Diz and Bird most devotedly and vividly remember the marvelous unfolding of the bop period. But I soon tired of that unperceptive majority who were aping Parker.

I had a strong black influence in my early years, and worked at the age of fifteen at a Crispus Attucks American Legion Hall with an all-black band. I wore what we called drapes during that period, the only time in my life that I was clothes conscious. I was ostracized by my high school class because of my "mixing". I only knew that this music was alive in a way that contrasted sharply with so much "white" music. I listened only peripherally to the Dorseys and Glenn Miller, being more interested in Ellington, Basie, Henderson and — out of Chicago - King Kolax.

When I went on to college, I roomed with students from Latin America, especially a Puerto Rican by the name of Roberto Fortier. This, the late 1940s, was the heyday of the mambo, and could he dance! I was besieged by Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez and many others. I listened, but did not myself attempt to play this music.

It was about this time that I heard Lee Konitz for the first time and, developing now along more sophisticated lines myself, I embraced his work as a devotee. I mean everything he touched brought response of the strongest kind. I transcribed his solos by the dozen. I copied them on vellum so that I could give them to others. This is the one player who influenced me most.

I never cared for Lennie Tristano. He seemed too stiff and tight-assed for me. Lee was loose, with a melodic angularity and harmonic originality. Then what happened? Lee was the talented ten percent pressured by the democratic majority. "He played a lot of notes, but he didn't swing." He did not receive the acclaim he deserved because the ninety percent said Bird, Bird and nothing but the Bird. He didn't sound like Bird. He didn't play like Bird. He was an absolutely original voice.

The era of black political awareness was dawning, and although jazz had been one of the first areas where black-white equality was practiced, now a strong exclusionary attitude set in among many black jazz musicians. Some of it was conscious, some of it was unconscious, as in a wonderful quote from Gerald Wilson in a college listening course: "This was one of the better non-black bands."

To be a white jazz musician in certain circles at that time, one had to carry a passport with visa. Lee Konitz, the sensitive Jewish kid, began chasing after his "black soul", as he was quoted in Down Beat. The result? He has changed radically from what he was originally. He lost his genius and is now indistinguishable from any number of saxophone players. He uses a plastic reed, is capable of squawking, and at times can play extremely out of tune.

Jazz was and is a street music, but as each generation has played it different elements have entered it at different levels: greater instrumental technique, more sophisticated harmonies, more complicated rhythmic structures and those who react against them - - starting with the bop-Dixie conflict and growing, ever growing, until each part has split off from the main stem to the point where there is no main stem. The latest thing seems to be fusion, which many see as a development of jazz but which I contend is a development of rock and roll.

With all this divergence, and knowing that there is no one jazz that is universal, one tries to maintain that element necessary to function totally -- self-confidence. To some it comes early, existing in youthful naivete. To others, like me, it comes late.

I started out to be a classical composer and got sidetracked into jazz. I have been as influenced by Bach, Bartok, Berg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Dutilleux, Schoenberg, as I have by Ellington, Bud Powell et al. When I play the blues I fuse Meade Lux Lewis' old chord changes with Duke Ellington colors voiced via Stravinsky. I feel I am more influenced as a pianist by what I have explored or developed as a writer, and more influenced by composers than pianists.

When I came to Los Angeles in 1958 I spent much time in East L.A. finding out what Latin music was made of. I had known instinctively that what I heard jazz musicians play for Latin was ersatz. During this period I met and played with Cal Tjader. I wrote several albums for him. Then raising a family took over my life, and I became heavily involved with studio music. For about ten years I did that almost exclusively. When I did play in public the press usually said, "Studio musician fronts jazz group." And all the while I thought I was a jazz musician who played in the studios. Finally, about eight years ago, after a hiatus in Latin jazz of fifteen years, Cal asked me to record and play again with his group. At this time in my life, my late forties, I started with my own group, Salsa Picante, and with my vocal group 2 + 2.

Suddenly everything in my life coalesced — my interest in the Latin culture, my self-confidence, and above all, feeling good about what I was doing.

Unless the instrument is a beauty, I do not play the piano now. I prefer electric pianos, digital pianos, and organ, because the sound sources are so exciting. Plus, with amplification, you don't have to beat your arthritic knuckles to the bone fighting drummers whose dynamic sensibilities are of the Mack truck variety.

Every player has to find those aspects of his own work that are unique in order to believe in himself. When you at last know you are good but do not manifest conceit in talking about it, it seems to me that maturity sets in. I have ample technique, but there are those whose chops leave me in the dust. There are those who play faster and swing harder than I do. But I know my strengths: harmonic voicings and harmony in general, sensitive and innovative melodic turns, with my own sense of rhythmic phrasing.

I'm in virgin territory, blazing my own trails. After years of being influenced by others and developing my own voice out of all of it, I now at fifty-six find myself influencing others. And that's scarey. Here I am, not completely established myself and others are utilizing my stuff before everyone knows where it comes from!

The following video features “early” Clare on Things Ain’t What They Used To Be with Ralph Pena on bass and Larry Bunker on drums.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Blue Angel Crowd by Dave Frishberg

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The following piece by pianist and composer Dave Frishberg is another example that Gene Lees published to support his premise that Jazz musicians, on average, are a highly articulate group. Here’s how he explained that premise in the February 1985 edition of the Jazzletter from which the Frishberg article that is also drawn.

“Jazz musicians are often extremely well read. They perceive and think subtly and deeply, although they are often cautious — not shy — about whom they share their insights with. If they know you, they'll talk your ear off. I have already dealt, in one of the early issues of the Jazzletter, with a tendency of jazz musicians in the old days to let outsiders believe they were dumb, in both senses of the word. But this was an affectation, growing out of slavery in America — the camouflage of one's intelligence as a way of lying low. It was a bit of an act, that hey-baby-wha's-happ'nin' manner, which eventually developed into a sort of self-satirizing in-joke. Anyone deceived by it didn't know jazz musicians very well. While I have known a few musicians who fit the shy-inarticulate mould, they have been the exceptions. And even then, you never knew when they were merely taciturn, rather than inarticulate.”

Below Dave’s essay you’ll find John S. Wilson’s 1991 New York Times review of James Gavin’s first book INTIMATE NIGHTS The Golden Age of New York Cabaret which just happens to be a history of the boîte  which has been defined thusly: “a funky boîte on Paris's Left Bank that offers hot jazz to a self-consciously cool crowd.”

“A few weeks ago I spoke on the phone with composer Johnny Mandel, whose catalogue includes Emily, The Shadow of Your Smile, A Time for Love, and a dozen other familiar songs with meat on their bones. He and I have a song together, You Are There. "Do you realize," I asked him, "that there are now eight recordings of You Are There. I don't think I've seen a penny on it, have you?" He laughed and said, no, he probably hadn't. Then he asked me who had recorded it. I began to list from memory: "Let's see. Blossom Dearie, Irene Krai, Sue Raney, myself. . ."

"Well no wonder," Mandel interrupted. "You're talking about the Blue Angel crowd."

The Blue Angel crowd. Perfect. The song freaks.

I hadn't thought about the Blue Angel for so long. Back in the late 1950s, when I had just arrived in New York City and begun to work as a pianist, there were maybe a dozen of those chic little East Side supper clubs — "boites," I guess they're called — that featured singers or singing pianists with the emphasis on esoteric repertoire.

There was Le Ruban Bleu, the Apartment, the Living Room, L'Intrigue, and, of course, the Blue Angel. There was Bobby Short, Bobby Cole, Blossom Dearie, Felicia Sanders, Charles DeForest, Charlie Cochran, Mabel Mercer, and a bunch of other names I remember but you probably wouldn't.

You could sit at the bar until four in the morning and hear songs you never dreamed existed. I heard Fly Me to-the Moon for the first time in one of those clubs. Likewise Lucky to Be Me, My Gentleman Friend, Too Late Now — a whole encyclopedia of words and music that would stick to my ribs, and remain a most valuable part of my musical consciousness for the rest of my life. I first heard Blossom Dearie when she and Annie Ross were doing an act together at Julius Monk's Downstairs. The first time I heard Bob Dorough perform was at a grim little place called the Dickens Room on Lexington Avenue at 39th Street.

It was around then that I began to accompany singers, and my own repertoire began to bloom. I started to notice who was writing the good melodies and designing the stylish structures, how the good lyric writers made it happen, who were the harmonic heavyweights. I found out about Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner. When I discovered Frank Loesser, it was like finding a gold mine. I began to get hung up on this three-minute art form.

Looking back on it now, I can see there was a certain cultishness about what I am now pleased to call the Blue Angel crowd. Generally speaking, I'd say they were singers who preferred very simple unobtrusive accompaniments, and chose not to dress up the songs with elaborate or tricky arrangements. The song was the thing. They took pride in their personal arcane repertoires.

And the customers were part of the Blue Angel crowd too. Song freaks just like the singers, they were often pretty hip. Much too polite to request a song by title. "Gershwin tonight?" they would smile. Gershwin was like a steak dinner to them, Irving Berlin like a nice bowl of chicken soup. Nourishment.

But the music business was changing fast. The day of the professional songwriter was drawing to a close, as recording entrepreneurs worked hand in hand with independent radio broadcasters to market disposable songs that became quickly obsolete. Folk musicians, young amateur performers, and rhythm and blues artists could supply the small record labels and local radio stations with all the material they needed. There was suddenly more music than any of us really wanted to hear. I remember from a college economics course the principle called Gresham's Law, which I think states that when cheap currency is permitted to flood the marketplace, it drives the good currency out. I think Gresham's law was operating — and operates still — in our musical marketplace. But, in fairness, I should tell you that I got a D in that economics course.

I guess the most illustrious survivors of that stubbornly artistic Blue Angel bunch are Bobby Short and Blossom Dearie. Bob Dorough and I have been around long enough to qualify as bona fide survivors, but I would say our activities were centered elsewhere — Dorough's as a writer/producer in the recording studios, mine as a pianist in the jazz clubs.

But among the current crop of song freaks — today's Blue Angel crowd, if you will — Dorough and I will eagerly claim charter membership. Who else have we got here? There's Susannah McCorkle, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Carole Sloane, Carol Fredette, Richard Rodney Bennett, Shirley Horn, Sue Raney, Mike Palter and Lynn Jackson . . . and all the others who act as curators for the repertoire.

This is not to ignore Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and the Chairman of the Board. But these are stars, don't you see, a different group entirely.

However, this is to ignore Linda Ronstadt, Toni Tenille, Willie Nelson, and anybody else who thinks all you got to do is sing Don't Blame Me and you're a connoisseur. This is the Blue Angel, baby. You got to show me some I.D. . . .

One thing's certain. There are fewer and fewer places for the B.A. crowd to do their stuff. That fact made the demise of Stephen's After All in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, all the more melancholy. I don't think I'm stretching it when I say there are probably not more than half a dozen places, and Stephen's was one, in the Western Hemisphere that do a first-class job of presenting vintage American pop music. (I still don't know what to call it. Cabaret? Too limited a term. Quality pop music? Myopic, not to mention arrogant. Classic pop? Too confusing.)

Well, anyhow, I can't complain. I'm hearing my songs played on the radio with increasing frequency. Public radio mainly. Even some of those "cult" recordings of You Are There. Because even though the Blue Angel, Stephen's After All, Nancy Steele's L'Intrigue, Trudy Heller's Versailles, even though they've all closed shop, the old Blue Angel crowd has found a home. It turns out to be public radio. I'll bet that's where eighty-five percent of my airplay is taking place.

If Blossom, Dorough and I had any doubts that we had an audience on public radio, they were dispelled by the astonishing turnout at our concerts in Raleigh, sponsored by the Spectator and WUNC. It was quite a reception we received. I'm still sailing on it. Like the old saying, I guess we're world famous in Raleigh-Durham.

And the old Blue Angel's still open for business." — DF

When a Cellar Was the Place to Be

By John S. Wilson; Published: The New York Times. September 22, 1991
INTIMATE NIGHTS The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. By James Gavin. Illustrated. 406 pp. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

“Dorothy Loudon, the singer and comedienne who frequently appeared at the Blue Angel between 1955 and 1962 (and later starred on Broadway in "Annie"), recently performed at a "Salute to Cabaret" as part of the New York International Festival of the Arts. "My roots are in cabaret," she said at the time. "But in those days, we didn't call it cabaret. It was saloons -- or dumps actually."

More than 50 years earlier, Helen Morgan, a star on Broadway who also sang in speakeasies during Prohibition and in the earliest post-repeal nightclubs, had declared: "I want to finish with nightclubs. I hate the smoky tiny places."

The back rooms of speakeasies provided a tacky, ramshackle heritage for the intimate rooms that are the subject of "Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret," James Gavin's survey of their 60-year history in New York. His sources are the people who were involved in the clubs and in the performances -- club owners, directors, skit writers, songwriters, singers, comedians, musicians. They recall, often with burning hindsight, numerous disasters and an occasional triumph.

Herbert Jacoby, a tall, darkly ominous presence who had been the press agent for a small club in Paris in the early 1930's, brought a slightly Continental touch to the fledgling world of Manhattan's small clubs when he opened Le Ruban Bleu on East 56th Street in 1937. Regulars remember that he started shows promptly at 11 P.M. by introducing the performers "in funereal tones."

Julius Monk, a willowy Carolinian who spoke in an unintelligible mixture of Southern and British accents that Mr. Gavin describes as "oatmeal diction," managed the room. When Jacoby left in 1943 to found another club, the Blue Angel, Mr. Monk took over Le Ruban Bleu, assuming the duties of master of ceremonies, which he performed with unintelligible elegance.

Herbert Jacoby and Julius Monk, pioneer entrepreneurs of the New York cabaret scene, float through Mr. Gavin's book, providing a variety of narrative threads. When Jacoby started the Blue Angel, he needed $5,000 to get it going. He got the money from Max Gordon, who had been running the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village for nine years (the Vanguard was a cabaret, using comedians, singers and jazz groups, until 1957, when Gordon made it the esteemed jazz room that it remains).

Although their personalities and tastes were at opposite extremes, Jacoby and Gordon remained partners in the Angel for 20 years and even opened a second, short-lived club, Le Directoire. Jacoby had a "deserved reputation as a snob," Mr. Gavin writes, while Gordon was a gentle, caring man who had "won admiration as the most honest, level-headed boss an act could have."

The two men fought constantly; Jacoby privately "called the Village Vanguard a sewer, sneering that Gordon had as much taste as a Vanguard hamburger." But their differing tastes made the two clubs successful: Gordon brought Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt to the Vanguard (and subsequently to the Blue Angel) while Jacoby chose Kaye Ballard, Barbara Cook and Bobby Short for the Angel.

Julius Monk was fired from Le Ruban Bleu in 1956, 18 months before the club closed. He wound up in a relatively menial position at a San Francisco club, where Murray Grand, a pianist, singer and songwriter, found him when Mr. Grand was suddenly pushed into the role of manager of a fading New York club with a San Francisco name, the Purple Onion. Instead of the usual custom of putting acts on individually, Mr. Grand wanted to use them as elements in a revue, and he asked Mr. Monk to help.

Mr. Grand renamed the club the Downstairs (because it was located in a cellar, at 51st Street and Sixth Avenue). When he proposed his idea of a revue to the club's owner, Irving Haber, an accountant who owned three other clubs, and told him that Julius Monk was coming east to work on it, he found that Haber did not know what a revue was and had never heard of Julius Monk. Nonetheless, Haber gave them two weeks to put on a show.

While Mr. Monk got some friends to help tidy up the dilapidated club, Mr. Grand put together a show called "Four Below" with skits and songs by Michael Brown, the team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt ("The Fantasticks" was still in their future), and others.

On opening night, March 4, 1956, Mr. Grand was shocked to find that the sign outside proclaimed "Julius Monk's Downstairs Presents Four Below." Mr. Grand was not mentioned in the program, not even as the writer of his own songs. But "Four Below," which Mr. Gavin identifies as "the first legitimate cafe revue in New York City," became the hit of the season and started a series of Monk revues that set the tone for New York cabaret for a decade.

In his first book, Mr. Gavin discusses rooms such as Spivy's, Cafe Society, One Fifth Avenue, Tony's (with Mabel Mercer) and the Bon Soir (with Barbra Streisand); performers such as Bart Howard, who was the accompanist and master of ceremonies at the Blue Angel before his song "Fly Me to the Moon" became famous; comics such as Mort Sahl, Nichols and May, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett and, later, Lenny Bruce; and, still later, venues such as the Ballroom, first in SoHo and then in Chelsea.

A steady deluge of cheating, backbiting, recriminations and desperation accompanied the progress of the intimate clubs through the years. Although it sometimes seems like much ado about nothing, the details are vividly reported in "Intimate Nights" by some of the participants -- in whose memories the incidents are apparently etched in acid.”

John S. Wilson frequently writes about jazz and cabaret for The New York Times.