J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The House That Trane Built


The House That Trane Built: the Story of Impulse Records
By Ashley Kahn
W.W. Norton
0-393-05879-4


Art and commerce are typically presumed to be in opposition. Yet for a music label, publishing house, or film studio to be successful, artists and business people have to collaborate. That is exactly what happened at a very high level for fifteen years during Impulse Records’ heyday, as Ashley Kahn chronicles in The House That Trane Built.

Known for its distinctive orange and black gatefold covers and its exclamation point logo, "Impulse!" became a favorite label of jazz collectors. While John Coltrane was undoubtedly its signature artists, the foundation was laid by another legend, Ray Charles.

As Coltrane is credited with building Impulse, Ray Charles is credited with establishing its parent company ABC-Paramount, where he had crafted a legendary deal allowing him complete artistic autonomy. However, given his pride in his jazz roots, Charles was more than amenable to launching ABC’s jazz imprint. As Kahn quotes Charles: “But with jazz—oh yes—with jazz you got to compose as you go . . . I suppose that’s why I’m always proud I can play jazz and why it isn’t any accident that I’ve always wanted to make jazz records and have a true-to-life jazz band.” (p. 36)

Charles cut Impulse’s first LP Genius + Soul = Jazz, which yielded one of the labels only two nationally charting singles, “One Mint Julep.” (Later Milt Jackson would record two versions of the tune on his under-rated Impulse album Memphis Jackson). Despite the critically role he played in establishing impulse, Charles would modestly demur: “I’m not gonna blow no horns man. That’s nice if they want to think that way.”

Kahn reports: “a $10,000 advance for the first year, with two-year options that rose to $20,000 annually thereafter,” were the terms that secured Impulse’s first exclusive signing, John Coltrane (p. 48). It proved to be a wise investment.

The man who signed Coltrane, Creed Taylor, produced one album with him, Africa/Brass, after which he was recruited by Verve records. Much of the book is devoted to the close working relationship between Trane, and Taylor’s successor, Bob Thiele, a swing aficionado whose ears were about to be stretched by Coltrane. According to Thiele:

“I don’t think I was at Impulse more than a week when we decided to record Coltrane live at the village Vanguard . . . That first night, as I recall, I was pretty shook up; I was confused. But by staying involved, the music began to make sense to me.” (p. 66)

As Coltrane would continue to evolve with the avant-garde movement, he would champion younger players, like Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. Impulse became the only major label to record the free jazz movement in a commercially viable way. Often it involved highlighting Coltrane’s influence, as was the case with Shepp’s debut, Four for Trane. As Shepp explains: “Bob Thiele made the stipulation that all the songs had to be written by John. I had to use Trane’s music.” (p. 120)

With Coltrane successfully shoehorning avant-garde artists, many adopted by the Black Power movement, onto Impulse, the label developed a more militant reputation. None would be more strident than Charlie Haden, whose one-off LP Liberation Music Orchestra, featured Communist ballads from the Spanish Civil War and originals like “Song for Che.” Yet as arranger Carla Bley recalls: “none of the guys in the band shared Charlie’s viewpoints. It was just a gig.” (p. 202)

Kahn convincingly argues Impulse was a unique label, a subsidiary of a major, that acted like an indy. House is an appealing book as a physical object as well, produced with bold typography, photos and sidebars. He intersperses the text with profiles of many specific LPS, some famed like A Love Supreme, others overlooked like Howard Roberts’ Antelope Freeway.

The LP discography is generally good, but one would have liked to have seen original 45’s, those not contained within albums, included as well. (For instance, Larry Frazier, presumably the guitarist who worked with Jimmy McGriff recorded 45-205 “Before Six” & “After Six” and then was dropped from the label. One wonders what the story was behind his short tenure.)

Like Blue Note LPs featuring Reid Miles designs and Francis Wolff’s photography, Impulse records, with their bold black and orange, and striking photography by the likes of Pete Turner and Chuck Stewart became sought after collector items. Like classic Blue Notes, the music inside the Impulse grooves was as strong as their packaging. Kahn recounts the Impulse story from both the commercial and artistic perspective, showing even-handed respect for those involved on each side of the business.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Graphically Novel Jazz


R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar are two of the singular superstars of comics. Both are known for their devotion to jazz, and both have a distinctly dark style. They seem to have set the tone for the comic treatments of jazz which have followed them, with the jazz artist as victim being a common theme.

The most recent jazz themed graphic novel is Lance Tooks’ Between The Devil and Miles Davis, and it is also the most disappointing. It depicts a world in which everyone, not just jazz musicians are victims, of Bush, Capitalism, Haliburton, and any other leftwing bogeyman du jour.

A stronger but uneven jazz comic published this year was Narwain Publishing’s New Orleans & Jazz, a special anthology issue benefiting Katrina relief efforts of the American Red Cross. There are some strong stories including a portrayal of an adolescent Louis Armstrong playing for King Oliver, inked in grays before young Satch plays, but in bright colors after he raises his cornet. The most effective story from T.J. May and Lynx Studio integrates Katrina into fable form, as blues legend Stackalee (Stagger Lee) goes toe-to-toe with the Devil, concluding:

“The Devil blew a hurricane not seen in New Orleans for some hundred plus years. But Stackalee held back the storm from that honky-tonk dive to protect those that did right by him.

In the days to come, those same few helped out the city folk that weren’t so lucky. It was slow comin,’ but the city healed up nice. The folk got a little nicer, and the music played a little louder.

As time passed, the local folk took to calling that storm Katrina, cause it all started with that dark-haired, blue-dressed demon.” (p. 22)

While the Stackalee story hits the right redemptive note, the next story (more of a vignette) from Xavier Morrell is sadly typical fare from the Bush bashing left, with a TV reporter actually saying on air: “… President Bush proposed several times drastic cuts in the storm protection program in New Orleans . . .” (p. 29) Again, there is a reversion to jazzman (and everyone else) as victim, this time trafficking the same old myths from the media’s discredited Katrina coverage.

A surprisingly knowledgeable take on jazz comes in Gerard Jones and Mark Badger’s three issue mini-series Batman: Jazz, in which the Dark Knight protects Blue Byrd, a Charlie Parker figure, from a musical group of super villains called the Brothers of the Bop. Jones & Badger admirably contradict the stereotype of Bird/Byrd as a simple intuitive junkie, showing him as a family man and intellectual. Ultimately though, they fall back into the trap of characterizing Blue Byrd as a victim, first of pushers and organized crime figures, and then of the Brothers of Bop.

In his afterward to Carlos Sampayo and Jose Munoz’s Billie Holiday, Stanley Crouch complained: “Billie Holiday’s life and art are often victims of racial, sociological, psychoanalytic and feminist sentimentality.” (p. 50) However, the graphic novel itself, displays many of those excesses, reveling in every perverse degradation in an unseemly manner. With leering depictions of drug use and sexual abuse, Billie Holiday is all about victimhood, all the time, at the expense of the music. After all, “Strange Fruit” was a pretty important song, one would think a biography of Billie Holiday would want to mention it.

Truly jazz has endured significant tragedy. However, jazz also produced the archetype of the uncompromising artist, as exemplified by Miles Davis turning his back to the audience. It produced the beboppers who put up the “no dancing” signs, artists willing to say: “this is my music and if you don’t like it, stick it in your ear.”

It is frustrating that graphic novels focus on the victimization, and not the integrity and independence of jazz men. They are hardly alone in doing so, as novels, (John A. Williams’ Night Song, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn) and films (A Man Called Adam, Uncle Joe Shannon) often show the same prejudices. One would think the medium that brought us the superhero would be more attuned to the forceful jazz artist, refusing to make concessions to popular tastes.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jazz GOTV

Jazz is the music of democracy. Many times has the analogy been made between the two. On the bandstand, every sideman gets a chance to solo, but he does so within the agreed to confines of the tune (usually). It is free expression made possible by the rule of law. It is the music of America.

Perhaps for that reason, the magazine reader polls have arguably had more importance than industry awards like the Grammys. Now Jazz Improv magazine is launching their own reader poll, following the tradition of Downbeat, Jazz Times and the late Metronome magazines. And why not? After all, record labels often buy advertising to congratulate their artists on high poll showings, and who wouldn’t want a piece of that ad revenue?

I’ve already launched a campaign for Paquito D’Rivera in the Downbeat poll in the clarinet and musician categories, so I would apply it to JI as well. Reviewing his autobiography only increases my enthusiasm for D’Rivera and his music. He writes beautifully about Cuba, the home he was forced to leave because of Castro’s brutal dictatorship. Now voting is on for Jazz Improv’s inaugural poll. To vote, go here for a download of their latest NY Jazz Guide & Directory, and print out page 39.

In addition to D’Rivera, I would nominate Lionel Hampton for Lifetime Achievement award (although Armstrong & Ellington will be deservedly hard to beat). Hampton is a pioneer on their level, who single-handedly introduced the vibes, not just to jazz, but essentially to popular music in general. Perhaps even more importantly, he was a part of Benny Goodman’s famous quartet, the first racially integrated combo to perform publicly, eighteen years before the landmark integration case Brown v. Board of Ed.

Lionel Hampton knew something about turning out the vote. He helped manage Richard Nixon house reelection campaign in 1946. He wrote campaign songs for Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaigns. He was elected by Downbeat readers into their Hall of Fame in 1987.

Exercise the right denied to D’Rivera’s countrymen, and vote for him and Hampton.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Jazz Train


The Jazz Train—Original London Cast
Original cast and selections from Bertice Reading, Marie Bryant, Elisabeth Welch and the Peters Sisters
Sepia 1062
www.sepiarecords.com

Jazz has a historic association with musical theater, beginning with the reviews of James Reese Europe, prior to the advent of the book musical. The Jazz Train of 1955 follows in the tradition of those musical reviews, and prefigures the modern jukebox musical created with Ain’t Misbehavin,’ based on the music of Fats Waller. Although titled The Jazz Train, it was really a musical cavalcade with each car of the train identified with a style of African American popular music. It is however, a very entertaining show that will still have plenty of appeal for jazz listeners.

While the happy music coming out of the plantation and minstrel cars will strike contemporary listeners as somewhat questionable, the performances themselves are energetic. However, the real standout numbers come from Bertice Reading, as she gives a swinging up-tempo rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” and does right by the inspiration for “Bessie Smith Blues.” Having sung and swung with the bands of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, Reading serves as the shows apostolic link to the legendary American big bands.

Jazz Train is supplemented with some rare 78 sessions recorded by African American jazz and cabaret vocalists who found a more welcoming artistic environment in London, including cast-member Reading. Perhaps as valuable as Jazz Train itself, are tracks from the sadly under-recorded Marie Bryant. While Bryant is known for her association with Duke Ellington, she is probably best remembered for her appearance in Gjon Mili’s short film Jammin’ the Blues, considered by many to be the greatest jazz film of any length ever produced, currently available on youtube here (copyright issues?).

According to the liner notes, Bryant actually caused an international incident: “Daniel Malan, the Prime Minister of South Africa, was in London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, when Bryant performed in the show an anti-apartheid calypso, Don’t Malign Malan.” (p. 6) Bryant’s swinging versions of standards like “Beale Street Blues” and “Georgia on My Mind” alone would be worth the price of admission.

Jazz Train collects some important cultural history and many excellent vocal performances. It is an important reissue that seems to have been unjustly ignored by the American jazz press, but would be a rewarding addition to any CD collection.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Summer Jazz Reading

Its time for the perennial summer reading lists, as summer jazz festivals and concerts in the park gear up. For some jazz reading as you lounge in between sets, many excellent have been reviewed here. Stanley Crouch’s Considering Genius offers up plenty of food for thought. Paquito D’Rivera’s My Sax Life is entertaining and enlightening (reviewed below). Thomas Sancton’s Song for My Fathers and Mick Burns’ Keeping the Beat on the Street serve up some genuine New Orleans flavor. However, one of the best books written on jazz is actually a YA novel, that is not currently in-print.

Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Country is a wise coming of age story of aspiring jazz trumpeter Tom Curtis from an affluent white family. As he becomes involved with Moses Godfrey, an African-American jazz musician bearing a strong resemblance to Thelonious Monk, it opens his eyes to the realities of both a jazz musician’s life and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

Hentoff tells his story in episodic form, with each chapter offering insightful perspectives on aspects of jazz, without forcing it down the throats of young readers. However, Hentoff effectively leaves some ambiguity in the novel’s conclusion. While we may not be so certain where Curtis will end up in life, we have confidence in his ability to make the right decisions, because we know he is a good kid, having seen him develop the values which will guide him.

Jazz Country is a fantastic novel. I wish I had read when I was younger. It is worth searching the net for. (Of course, there have been many great new jazz titles published recently. Look for more reviews to be posted soon.)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Paquito D’Rivera’s My Sax Life


My Sax Life: a Memoir
By Paquito D’rivera
Northwestern University Press
0-8101-2218-9


Not to go into too much detail, but working in publishing can make one quickly cynical about celebrity books. However, having heard the charismatic D’Rivera play live several times, and offering up spontaneous opinions at a live Downbeat blindfold test at IAJE’s annual conference, it is refreshing to hear the same D’Rivera come through loud and clear in the pages of his memoir, My Sax Life.

Inspired by Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall LP, D’Rivera was a musical prodigy. The son of a musician and specialized instrument dealer, Paquito D’Rivera played widely on Cuban television before the revolution which swept Castro into his exalted dictatorship. As D’Rivera remembers, despite being anti-Batista, his mother quickly grasped the nature of the new regime telling the family: “This guy is worse than that other son of a bitch they got rid of, so we’re going to have to get the hell out of here really fast.” (p. 55)

Unfortunately, D’Rivera’s family did not immediately heed his mother’s advice, as life became difficult under the new regime for saxophonists. At one point the youthful reedman was warned off a radio broadcast when a bureaucrat unaware of his identity told him: “Armandito Zequeira and Tito Rivera’s son are walking around with an arsenal of imperialistic instruments, and we can’t allow that here.” Dark days were ahead for jazz, the imperialistic saxophone, and those who played them in Cuba.

What followed were years of artistic frustration, including compulsory military service, where D’Rivera did have the good fortune to be assigned to an army band, despite his already considerable record of counter-revolutionary behavior and jazz affinity. His talent and service in the army band led to stints in other state-sponsored ensembles. His independent thinking led to long periods of unemployment and isolation.

Irakere represents the peak of D’Rivera’s career in Castro’s Cuba, a critically acclaimed jazz combo that dared not call itself such. Its value to the regime as propaganda tool allowed D’Rivera to hear the magic word: “fasten—which was the code word used by Amadito Valdes Jr. and all of the musicians to refer to international travel.” (p. 221) It was on one such trip to Spain that D’Rivera defected, leaving behind his wife and son. Although the desperate D’Rivera originally intended to leave for America as part of the Mariel Boatlift, he changed his plans after witnessing vicious street gangs organized by the regime “spontaneously” terrorize fellow Cubans for declaring their intentions to participate in the planned exodus.

It would take a massive public relations effort to shame the tyrant-for-life in Havana to release his hostages. D’Rivera repeatedly faxed newspapers around the globe and wrote open letters embarrassing Castro’s celebrity amen-corner, like bassist and left-wing extremist Charlie Haden. D’Rivera wrote in his Jazz Times letter: “So I wonder if it would be interesting for you to know that while you were playing your odes to Che Guevara and to Fidel (who naturally didn’t attend your concert, or any other concert), my son and his mother were visited by the political police.” (p. 193) Haden naturally responded by demanding Jazz Times suppress D’Rivera’s letter—fortunately JT enjoys the freedom of press denied in Haden’s preferred police state, so the letter ran.

That is indeed vintage D’Rivera. He has lost too many friends to Castro’s prisons and concentration camps. He gives a voice to many of Cuba’s powerless artists, like his close friend, flutist Felix Duran, one of the last people D’Rivera sought out before defecting. The emotion comes through when D’Rivera writes: “this irreproachable man, who had never spoken a word in public about politics, lost many opportunities to travel abroad in artistic groups only because he refused to publicly repudiate our good friendship, which is evidently more valuable to him than all of the material goods in the world.” (p. 308)

As a result, he does not hold back in his appraisal of the revolutionary junta. On Guevara, he writes: “he had the balls to impose a revolution upon the natives of a country he didn’t know. He also even ordered the execution of many Cubans during his tenure as military chief at La Cabana fortress in Havana. But thank God (and the CIA, I guess), all that is left of that twisted character are several thousand T-shirts with his face on them, available mainly at Cuban tourist stores for purchase with American dollars only!” (p. 136)

Whether blowing a virtuoso solo, or calling out apologists for tyranny like Haden or Danny Glover, Paquito D’Rivera is always passionately honest. He writes with equal fervor about music and politics, in a book that can teach readers much about both. D’Rivera also has the confidence to print contributions by close associates, which sometimes make him the butt of an amusing reminiscence. He writes in general chronological order, but often jumps forward and backward to give context for his stories in a conversational style. His book truly reads like the D’Rivera one hears on the bandstand, at times joyful, witty, intellectual, sometimes ribald, but never dull. My Sax Life is a fast but informative read that is genuinely funny at times, loaded with jazz anecdotes and insights. It deserves to be in-print for years to come.

D’Rivera’s playing is always tasteful and lively, having graced the stage with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Celia Cruz, Machito and Tito Puente. A multi-reed virtuoso in jazz and classical music, D’Rivera has already been recognized as a NEA Jazz Master. As mentioned here before, there is still time to vote for Paquito D’Rivera in the Downbeat jazz poll, for best clarinet and best jazz musician. Exercise your right to vote—one of the many rights Cubans are still denied.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Charles Lloyd in Our World


Charles Lloyd visage graces recent covers of Downbeat, UK’s Jazzwise and NY’s All About Jazz, promoting his new ECM release Sangam. He has the same distant, searching look familiar from the photos of Dorothy Darr. Lloyd’s jazz is informed by his Memphis blues roots, his apprenticeships with Cannonball Adderley and Chico Hamilton, and his continuing interest in Eastern musical forms and philosophy. Lloyd may seem otherworldly, but he is most definitely of this world.

Lloyd is celebrated for his performance at a 1967 Tallinn jazz festival, one of the first performances by an American jazz artist behind the Iron Curtain. However as musician Paquito D’Rivera relates in his autobiography My Sax Life (full review to come soon), the Party authorities were not keen on the possible effect of Lloyd’s jazz on the audience, and tried to direct him towards more propaganda friendly photo-ops.

Lloyd and his sidemen would not play that game. According to D’Rivera: “the four of them staged a protest on behalf of artistic freedom. They lay on the ground and would not move until they were allowed to perform for their fans at the festival. They even went as far as accusing the authorities of racism, knowing that the government would be embarrassed by such a charge on their soil because Communists often boasted that they were free of that capitalist evil.” (p. 172) When there were finally allowed to perform the results were transcendent.

When asked about his Soviet experience in an interview many years later, Lloyd replied: “The people were repressed by politics, but their hunger for freedom made them want our music even more. I think they recognized the music was our own path to personal freedoms.”

Musically, Lloyd would continue to develop, experimenting with Eastern forms, and even fusion. After a long hiatus, he returned to performed, recording a string of excellent sessions for the ECM label. On September 11, 2001, he was scheduled to start a stand at the Blue Note. Again, events from the outside world intervened. Lloyd started his Blue Note engagement that Friday, with a series of free shows designed to encourage patrons to come back to the clubs, and raise New Yorkers flagging spirits in general. He added spirituals and other reflective songs to his set list, in what ultimately became the 2-CD Lift Every Voice, again on ECM.

At times mournful, it might be his best recorded work, and an excellent entry-point to his catalog for listeners unfamiliar with his music. Despite the presence of pop covers like “What’s Going On,” the music is at a consistently high level, and the emotional impact is considerable. “Hymn to the Mother” with its long introduction by John Abercrombie seems a particularly moving meditation on loss and grief.

Lloyd has contributed much to jazz. His Forest Flower is an acknowledged classic, and he has brought the music a wider audience through his 1960’s concerts at the Filmore. He is worthy of the cover-story attention, for many reasons. He is a jazz legend, bordering on the unearthly, but has contributed much to this world.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Between the Devil and Miles Davis

Lucifer’s Garden of Verses Volume Four: Between the Devil & Miles Davis
By Lance Tooks
NBM/ComicsLit:
www.nbmpublishing.com
1-56163-469-7

The Prince of Darkness. The Dark Magus. These all some of the demonic monikers often bestowed on the legendary Miles Davis. As a result, Amo Tanzer, the protagonist of Lance Tooks’ graphic novel, Between the Devil & Miles Davis is finding the Faustian premise of her contracted Miles Davis book clichéd and uninspiring. Despite the badgering of her editor and sometime lover, she dismisses her undelivered book as a case of “paging Robert Johnson.” (p. 3)

Tanzer has issues: professional, financial, and personal. After a traffic accident, she stumbles into a mysterious bar that only plays the music of Miles and his sidemen on its jukebox. Narcissa, the proprietor, mixes her some special cocktails. As they drink and relate very personal episodes from their pasts, Tanzer regains her perspective on her life and a new inspiration for her book project, telling Narcissa “I’ll just listen to the music and jot down everything it tells me. It’s got plenty to say.” (p. 71)

Between the Devil is strongest when the woman are relating their family stories, as when Tanzer’s parents meet at the Montreux Jazz Festival and Narcissa’s mother endures the humiliating treatment of a director who bears a resemblance to Woody Allen. Unfortunately, the graphic novel often hits off-key notes when it veers into political diatribe.

When we first see Tanzer on page one, she explains she keeps a photo of Gov. Jeb Bush because “I’d hate to lose sight of the horrors ahead.” She wears a “Haliburton Plantation” t-shirt, which borders on the offensive for many reasons, particularly given that several of the company’s employees have died trying to build a stronger Iraq. Tanzer dismisses her Republican Secret Service brother as “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” which at least is a hip reference to one of the better blaxploitation movies with a great Herbie Hancock soundtrack. Interestingly, Tooks seems to be on target when he satirizes a Louis Farrakhan figure, who insists Tanzer sit before him on a footstool during their interview, but then he makes PC efforts to distance the character from the Nation of Islam, describing his faith as “a mix of the writings of Iceberg Slim and the Klingon Empire.” (p. 8)

Given his musical references, it is clear Tooks knows his Miles Davis. However, when he succumbs to the temptations of the political rant, it undermines the power of the story he is trying to tell. Part four of a thematically related quartet, Between the Devil has its moments of insight well complemented by the black & white art. However, Miles Davis fans will probably be left cold. After all, the last tune we hear coming from Narcissa’s bar is one-hit-wonder Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way,” a pop tune he covered late in his career on Tutu.

(Welcome Lance Tooks fans. Thanks for checking out a dissenting review—remember, dissent is patriotic. Check out the "Graphically Novel Jazz" post from 7/28 while you're here.)

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Finally, Some Props for the Military


It seems like the press is incapable of giving the American military credit for anything, but Harvey Siders’ Big Band CD review round-up in last month’s Jazz Times gave props to Three Shades of Blue from the Navy’s Commodores Jazz Ensemble. Siders praised the CD for its “sound as big as an aircraft carrier,” but lamented the fact that it is not commercially available, writing: “‘The recording is limited to “recruiting, educational activities and troop morale usage’ by the Dept. of Defense. Hey, what about civilian jazz-lovers’ morale?” At least there are a number of samples available online, and he’s right, they are quite good. The originals are surprisingly strong and textured, like “Revell’s Reverie” and “The Green Umbrella.”

The American military has played an important and under-appreciated role in jazz history. Diverse musicians, like Dave Brubeck and Albert Ayler received early experience playing in military bands. Legendary band leaders like Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw started the tradition of American military swing bands when they enlisted during WWII. It’s good to see the Navy band get some credit for keeping the tradition alive.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Theater of the Absurdly Criminal

The director of the Motorcycle Diaries, Jose Rivera, continues his project of whitewashing Che Guevara’s crimes against humanity with a new play at the Public Theater, School of the Americas. Roma Torre gives it her patented smack-down review on NY1’s On Stage (rerun last night), using phrases like:

“an ambitious, but ultimately flimsy drama.”

“there’s a sense of the cliché in the way that Rivera imagines the brief meetings between Che and the bright but naïve teacher.”

“the whole thing comes off as stilted and contrived”

“there are plenty of Christ-like allusions to the tortured, soon-to-be-executed martyr, which makes the play seem all the more forced.”

“it doesn’t help that he [the director] resorts to heavy-handed symbolism at the end.”

However, Torre lets the Public Theater off the hook for glamorizing an executioner who advocated sadistic torture as an act of revolutionary zeal. If a playwright were to compare a National Socialist torturer to Jesus, presumably she would take exception to it. In this case she gives Rivera a pass for doing exactly that with Che, but she won’t let him off the hook for foisting a clichéd piece of dreary propaganda on New York’s theater audiences. Applaud her for maintaining some standards, at least.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Polls Are Open, Vote for Paquito


Arguably the greatest award in jazz is now the NEA Jazz Master title. However, in the years prior to NEA Chair Dana Gioia reinvigorating the Jazz Master program, the jazz magazine reader’s polls were much more coveted than traditional recording industry accolades, like Grammy’s. Of the reader’s poll, Downbeat magazine’s is probably the more famous, but the Jazz Times poll has cachet as well. Both can help reluctant labels to put a little more muscle in their marketing, and in general they carry prestige in the jazz world.

You should, as with any ballot, vote your conscious, but I would offer a suggestion: vote for Paquito D’Rivera for clarinet and jazz musician of the year. D’Rivera is an excellent musician, who defected from Cuba in 1980 to pursue musical free expression in America. D’Rivera is popular with his fellow musicians, as evidenced this year by his performances at the NEA Jazz Masters jam session, and with Toots Thielemans and friends during the harmonica player’s Carnegie Hall tribute concert.

D’Rivera’s preferred reed is the clarinet, and he usually makes the readers polls in that category, but below Don Byron. A legitimately talented clarinetist, Byron has been a perennial winner, but when his work broaches politics, it is with tunes like “Shelby Steele Would Be Mowing Your Lawn” and “The Importance of Being SHARPTON” on Music for Six Musicians.

It’s time to get behind D’Rivera, a musician’s musician and a plain-spoken critic of Castro’s criminal reign of terror in his native Cuba. D’Rivera’s My Sax Life (review coming soon) is an entertaining and insightful musical memoir, which dramatically portrays the reality of post-revolution Cuba.

Voting for D’Rivera is not a simply a partisan act. He is a truly worthy artist, already the recipient of the NEA Jazz Master title. Votes for D’Rivera for clarinet and jazz musician would hardly scandalize the jazz press, despite their overwhelming left-wing biases. D’Rivera is that good. (Even Hall of Fame votes for NEA Jazz Master D’Rivera would not be inappropriate, although I’ll give my Hall nod to Illinois Jacquet, the Texas Tenor who was a big part of Lionel Hampton’s breakout hit “Flying Home.”) While you’re at it, you can also vote with confidence for Arturo Sandoval on trumpet, D’Rivera’s fellow Cuban defector and frequent musical associate, whose life was dramatized by Andy Garcia in an HBO bio-picture.

Currently, there does not appear to be an online voting feature on Downbeat’s website, but there are business reply card ballots in the latest (August 2006) issue of the printed magazine. Only official ballots are accepted. They must be post-marked by August 29th and the results will be announced in December. Jazz Times usually has on-line voting, and I’ll post info on their poll when it is announced.

D’Rivera and Sandoval defected for freedom and artistic expression. As listeners, we have benefited from their decision to make their home in America. To show some appreciation, do what Cubans can’t do: exercise your right to vote. In this case, vote for D’Rivera and Sandoval.

(Thanks to Babalu Blog for supporting the campaign.)
(Thanks to Gateway Pundit too, I sense a winning coalition coming together.)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Smith’s Great Black Way


The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance
By RJ Smith
PublicAffairs Books
1-58648-295-5

Probably second only to New York’s 52nd Street, Central Avenue in Los Angeles was one the most preeminent thoroughfares in jazz history. Home to clubs, independent record labels, musicians, and their patrons and listeners, Central Avenue was the center of African-American life in the 1930’s and 1940’s. RJ Smith gives readers a breezy cultural and political history of the Avenue and the people who called it home in The Great Black Way.

Although geographically a western city, Smith makes the point that Los Angeles was pursuing a very southern strategy of segregation, often through the collusion of the local government, businesses, and unions. This was particularly the case with the booming shipbuilding industry, which was in dire need of labor meet the demands of the war effort. Unfortunately, personnel decisions were largely in the hands of the white International Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders and Helpers, which created segregated auxiliaries for African American workers. According to Smith:

“Flimsy contrivances, the Negro auxiliaries were subordinate to the white locals in matters regarding union policies and expenditures from the treasury. They provided black members with worse benefits than whites received, allowed for no grievance procedures, and gave blacks no representation at national conventions. Dues, however, were the same as those taken from whites’ paychecks.” (p. 96)

Such collusive policies created intense pressures, but from that pressure also came artistic expression. Chester Himes, for instance, could call out both the official power structure and the Communist agitators looking to exploit it. Smith writes: “his second novel, 1947’s Lonely Crusade wasn’t selling—and it wasn’t pleasing the critics, either. Lonely Crusade follows a black activist in an aircraft factory butting heads with communists and industrialists. Himes gleefully caricatured his Marxist associates, and when the book came out it was his targets turn to attack.” (p. 106)

Himes wasn’t the only creative artist to call the Central Avenue area home. The sounds of jazz and R&B flowed out of clubs, bars, and restaurants. Sometimes talent was a victim to circumstance, as was the case of Leo Watson, an influential jazz vocalist who was undone by mental illness and alcoholism. Smith relates an incident when: “the editors of Esquire magazine tried hunting him down; they wanted to give him an award for being one of the greatest jazz singers on earth. It took them three months of searching before they found him, loading trucks in a war plant.” (p. 176)

Central Avenue is more remembered for the jam sessions it hosted, than for any particular style of jazz played. The jam sessions immortalized by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray in “The Chase” become an extended metaphor for Smith, symbolizing the improvised nature of life on the Avenue. Yet even the jazz session faced opposition, as the musicians union registered its injunctions:

“Naturally enough, the musicians union objected. Players were giving it away free, and the union wasn’t getting its cut. They fined those who jammed, yet their efforts showed all the more how different these sessions were from work and how special places like Jack’s Basket Room were at 3 a.m.” (p.260)

Eventually the union would relent, and the jam session became an accepted part of Avenue life. They were both great opportunities, and great potential pitfalls. Young musicians could make their names at a session, or take a stiff dose of public humiliation. Now most musicians and aficionados often lament the lack of opportunities for Avenue-style jam sessions, recognizing the loss of something special.

Smith makes it clear that 1940’s Central Avenue was far from paradise. It did produce under-appreciated civil rights campaigners, great jazz artists like Buddy Collette and Slim Gaillard, the Exotica of Korla Pandit, the R&B of Big Jay McNeely and Joe Liggins, and the crime fiction of Chester Himes, all of whom Smith examines in detail. It makes for an entertaining and informative history of a particular time and place in American history.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Visions of Koreas

Some very different images of the two Koreas can be found on-line. For the positive, some western jazz musicians have found successful opportunities for artistic collaboration in South Korea recently, according to the Korea Times. American Ronn Branton now lives in Korea with his Korean wife, pursuing fusions of Jazz and traditional Korean classical music. American vocalist Tim Strong is also currently living in the South with his wife, the New Zealand Ambassador, another in a long line of jazz ambassadors, going back to Armstrong and Brubeck.

Conversely, the Black Ship (via Korea Liberator) shows some grim images of life in the North, from a book published in Japan by Charles Jenkins. Jenkins had deserted the American army while serving in South Korea for fear of serving in Viet Nam. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of seeking refuge in the North, where he was exploited as a propaganda tool. He was eventually allowed to relocate to Japan, where he published this memoir. Black Ship provides some helpful caption translations, like: “Just married. Whenever taking a picture, we always struggled to find a spot where there wouldn’t be any barbed wire in the background.” Obviously Jenkins is a controversial figure, but it looks like his book has value as a document of life in North Korea. These translations show how cool the internet can be for disseminating information.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Def Jazz or Deaf to Jazz?


Jazz has always responded to new developments in popular music, so it is hardly surprising that some jazz artists would explore fusions with hip-hop. Yet, despite the number of attempts made, there has yet to be the jazz-hip-hop Bitches Brew that captures the attention of fans of both genres, pointing the way for scores of imitators.

Greg Osby’s late 1980’s-early 1990’s groups reportedly performed some blistering jazz-hip-hop explorations that were never adequately documented, although Black Book has some very strong moments. Many thought Us3’s Hand on the Torch might be that break-out CD, but their follow-up flopped. Instead of becoming the next Bitches Brew, their big hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” went on to be a Madison Avenue cliché, heard in scores of commercials and the Get Shorty soundtrack.

El-P’s High Water might be the most artistically successful fusion attempt to date. While the darkly intense set of original instrumental compositions does feature some breaks and beats, composer-producer El-P refrained from rapping, most likely alienating most of his fan base from the worthy project. Overall, many jazz-hip-hop fusion attempts lack a cohesive sound, consisting of rap passages, alternating with instrumental interludes, with no unifying feeling.

Recently, GRP collected a diverse group of musicians to cover tunes from the Def Jam catalog on Def Jazz, but again the results are mixed. Probably the most successful track is the opener, “All I Need,” featuring real-deal jazz musicians like trumpeter Roy Hargrove and Hammond B-3 cooker Joe DeFrancesco. The organist also contributes to a strong closer, “Give It Up.” “Bring the Pain” featuring Hubert Laws is at least interesting, in that it successfully recalls the feel of his flute & vocal CTI work of the 1970’s. Not surprisingly, Oran “Juice” Jones revisiting “The Rain” is the guaranteed skip track on the set.

Overall Def Jazz is uneven, often demonstrating why it is on Universal Music’s designated smooth jazz imprint, GRP. Many smooth-oriented players are featured, sometimes generating more smoke than usual, but never any real fire. As usual the results are mixed. Somehow no artist has yet perfected the alchemy.

In Listen-Up Quincy Jones compared the improvisational ability of rappers to that of jazz musicians. However, integrating the two schools has proved difficult in practice. Some fear such fusion, concerned that the excesses of hip-hop could seep into jazz. One understands their worries, but I suspect jazz artists of today are too well disciplined and have too much integrity to fall into such traps.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

New Tax Bill from Old Labour

That Chancellor Gordon Brown is reverting to Labor’s previous “tax the rich” form is no surprise, but his choice of targets is odd. As Locus Magazine reports in the July edition (content not on-line), British writers are alarmed by news that: “the British Treasury announced plans to collect taxes on the percentage of earnings paid to agents, which are regularly written off as business expenses.” They quote a source in the Chancellor’s office saying: “The Revenue believes that the law only allows actors, singers, musicians, and dancers to claim that agents are a necessary business expense.”

According to the BBC, Inland Revenue has already lost the first legal challenge in a court battle with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan (a British version of Regis Philbin and Happy Kelly), who successfully argued their shtick was sufficiently “theatrical” in nature. However, according to the Beeb: “Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxson, John Humphreys on Mastermind, newsreaders and weather forecasters do not meet the criteria.”

Sounds like good times ahead for the Conservatives. Forget about Blair buddying up with Bush. There’s nothing like a visit from Inland Revenue to alienate Labor’s traditional allies in the media and literary circles.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Majer’s Velvet Lounge


The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz
By Gerald Majer
Columbia University Press
0-231-13682-X

Often in films jazz as used a signifier of a character’s sensitive outsider status. The audience knows Tom Hanks character in The Terminal and virtual every character played by Woody Allen stand apart from the crowd, because they play or listen to jazz. In those films, the jazz characters are usually sufficiently interesting to hold viewers attention. While Gerald Majer’s autobiographical essays in The Velvet Lounge use jazz in a similar fashion, the incidents from his life are often pedestrian and told in an over-wrought style, likely to frustrate most readers.

Each essay collected in Lounge begins as a meditation on a musician, but morphs into an episode from Majer’s life. Majer can turn some nice phrases, but he brings little insight to the music in general. There are some nice descriptions of attending Sun Ra concerts in “Proxima Ra,” showing Majer’s tendency to veer into prose poem terrain with passages like:

“And as the show ended and the Arkestra wound through the audience still playing—it was never over, they kept circling again though you thought they were done, and even when they’d left you could still hear the horns and the voices going on somewhere offstage, outside on the stairs, out ahead of you a minute on Rush Street, mixing with the crowd and the taxis and the noise of cruising late-night traffic—a touch, there on my shoulder. Ra’s hand.” (p. 58)

Yet, most of “Proxima Ra” is dedicated to Majer’s ruminations on his trips to the public library to research a school science project, the Wilson Cloud Chamber. It is these interludes that show Majer’s weakness for overblown cosmological ponderings like:

“Cosmic rays: I leaned over the photograph protectively as if guarding a portrait of a face—maybe a face that I feared, maybe a face that I loved, maybe my own face. I stared and stared, feeling again after a while a mixing of perception, the eye giving up its straining after image, the mind startled and then drifting, the skin as though listening, the body becoming a whorled and hollowed space like an ear.” (p. 52)

After all that, Majer leaves us hanging, never telling us how the Wilson Cloud Chamber panned out. Oddly enough, it is the Sun Ra shows that seem more grounded in reality.

To his credit, Majer is open to adventurous forms of jazz. The book takes it title from the name of the club run by tenor sax player and Chicago free jazz stalwart Fred Anderson. Since the book was written, Anderson’s club has closed, but he reportedly intends to reopen in another location. Indeed, the essay for which Anderson is the touchstone musician is probably the most successful. As it has far too often been the case, Anderson’s first club was the victim of local government regulation. As Majer relates:

“The Bird House lasted less than a year. Legally, it was a matter of zoning, a rule about off-street parking for businesses providing live entertainment. It was a transparently biased decision on the city’s part.” (p. 119)

Majer should get credit for writing with tremendous honesty about his life, but his overblown descriptions of mundane events undermine their appeal. For a jazz themed coming of age memoir, I would recommend Thomas Sancton’s Song for My Fathers instead.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Getting Stingy on 43rd Street

Some eyebrows in the publishing world are raised on word in Editor and Publisher that almost none of the contributors whose work will be reprinted an upcoming NYT reference book will be paid or even notified of their inclusion in the cinder-block tome. Could the Sulzberger family firm be feeling the “pinch” of cancelled subscriptions? Is it belt-tightening or just plain tackiness?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Bearden’s Memphis Blues


Memphis Blues: Birthplace of a Tradition
By William Bearden
Arcadia
0-7385-4237-7


Thanks, to W.C. Handy, Memphis will always have a special claim on the blues, thanks to his classics, like “Memphis Blues” and Beale Street Blues.” As William Bearden’s photo-essay book, Memphis Blues documents, the Beale Street area would be a vital center for the blues until the urban renewal schemes of the 1970’s destroyed the neighborhood, much like what also happened to San Francisco’s once vital Filmore District.

Bearden collects some great pictures and images to briefly outline the story of Memphis’ blues scene, giving thumbnail sketches of some fascinating cultural history, like WDIA, “the first radio station in America to be programmed solely by African Americans.” (p. 36) Some of his captions distill much into few words, like his take on Muddy Waters, writing: “his hard-edged sound was defined further by his attitudes toward authority, money, and women.” Sounds like the blues, alright.

On the jazz side, Phineas Newborn, Jr. is wisely featured (including a nice solo shot on p. 52). However, Memphis can boast of many other jazzmen well grounded in the blues, like Newborn’s associates who played with him on Young Men From Memphis: Down Home Reunion on the United Artists Label. These included musicians like Booker Little, George Coleman, and Louis Smith. Understandably, Bearden’s focus is on legit bluesmen, but there is considerable space given to blues-rock crossover figures like The Band’s Levon Helm, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and the band Moloch.

Ultimately, Memphis Blues shows the widespread influence of the music the city produced, in an attractive volume of black and white photographs. What men like W.C. Handy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Furry Lewis did in Memphis would have a historic effect on young English listeners, who would re-import the blues back into America as bands like the Rolling Stones and the Blues Breakers. Memphis Blues economically (perhaps too briefly for hard-core blues enthusiasts) illustrates that story.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Stanley Crouch Considering Genius


Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz
By Stanley Crouch
Basic Books/Civitas
0-465-001517-4


Given Stanley Crouch’s take-no-prisoners reputation, reviewing his latest book is a little intimidating, but his newest collection of essays offers readers plenty to sink their teeth into. Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz features Crouch’s passion, wit, and scholarship, providing entertaining insights into many of the great figures of jazz history. Crouch is not about to write Considering Mediocrity, after all.

Crouch may well be one of the most stylistically influential jazz writers. He often writes elaborately lofty passages, and then hits the reader over the head with something heavy. Often this brings an affectionate smile, as when discussing Louis Armstrong late in his career, Crouch writes: “as long as a lion has teeth and claws, it isn’t safe to stick an arm in his cage.” (p. 77) Other times it can make one wince, as when critiquing the music recorded for Clint Eastwood’s Bird, Crouch bluntly states: “the drummer, John Guerin, does not swing.” (p. 69) Period, end of paragraph.

Crouch takes jazz seriously, and he does not have the time or inclination to mince words. Throughout the jazz writings collected here, Crouch defends the seemingly irrefutable proposition that jazz was a unique creation of African-Americans, and must be considered in that context. However Crouch refuses to reduce jazz to an expression of victim-hood, arguing: “it is a dangerous simplification to hear jazz primarily as a music protesting the social conditions of Afro-Americans,” later arguing “If social problems in and of themselves were the only things that provoke the creation of great art, a century as bloody as ours would have inspired far more original and profound aesthetic achievements than it has.” (p. 179) For those who insist on interpreting jazz as a music of victimization, if you take away the suffering, you would also take away the art, and Crouch will have none of that.

Crouch disregards sacred cows when it comes to writing about music and race, which led to his being spectacularly fired as a columnist for Jazz Times. When Crouch took critics to task for championing the white “downtown” experimental trumpeter Dave Douglas over more swing oriented African-American players, it created a hue and cry heard far outside the jazz press. In fact, Douglas got off easy in the provocatively titled column “Putting the White Man in Charge” when the normally sharp-penned Crouch allowed Douglas “is far from being a bad musician, but he knows he should keep as much distance as possible between himself and trumpet players like Walace Roney, Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton.” (p. 233-234)

Crouch proceeded to praise white players like Joe Lovano, and in a later column, Brad Mehldau and Bill Charlap, but to his detractors, Crouch was the Bull Connor of “Crow Jim,” the alleged discrimination against white players in jazz. Rather than be delighted to have printed something that actually generated discussion, Jazz Times purged Crouch, the most recognizable jazz critic, perhaps ever, thanks to his on-screen commentary on Ken Burns’ Jazz and Jack Johnson documentaries.

It was actually a controversy more about style, than race, but it was sufficient to end Crouch’s column. Many of Crouch’s rhetorical battles are fought over the boundaries of jazz, which he often sets as encompassing: “the blues, four/four swing (fast/medium/slow), the ballad, and the AfroHispanic or “Latin” rhythm” (p. 221) Often left out are fusion and the so-called avant-garde, although both Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra are profiled in complimentary terms.

Crouch writes with a passion for jazz, because he believes it is important. “Blues to Be Constitutional” makes an extended comparison between jazz and the U.S. Constitution, arguing:

“Just as American democracy, however periodically flawed in intent and realization, is a political, cultural, economic, and social rejection of the automated limitations of class and caste, jazz is an art in which improvisation declares an aesthetic rejection of the preconceptions that stifle individual and collective invention.” (p. 176)

Rather than simply rewrite record label press releases, Crouch defends a vision of jazz based in swing and the blues, and not beholden to notions of innovation for innovation’s own sake. Although I would suggest Crouch is missing out on some of the artists he dismisses, (like Don Byron, at least on his more swinging CDs like Bug Music and Ivey-Divey), he has a legitimate point of view based on an intimate knowledge of the music. Unlike many jazz books, Considering Genius will probably have wide readership outside the immediate music circles, due to Crouch’s PBS celebrity and syndicated Daily News column. What they will find is passionate writing befitting a great music, and the American nation which produced it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Still Keeping the Beat

Check out Mick Burns website here. I recommended Keeping the Beat on the Street, his book on New Orleans brass bands a few weeks ago. Burns is also a musician and you can hear some of his playing on a great clip from the BBC promoting a benefit for New Orleans musicians.

Whether it is musicians helping musicians or British and American forces serving together in Iraq, it is gratifying to see the Atlantic alliance is still strong. That’s probably why many Americans like myself, were pulling for England in the World Cup after America’s quick exit. We’re both out of the Cup now, but musicians like Burns and organizations like the Jazz Foundation are keeping the music beating.

Still Can’t Buy Class

When Marine Staff Sgt. Raymond Plouhar was killed in Iraq it made national headlines, not for being a story of service and sacrifice, but because Plouhar had been unflatteringly portrayed in his role of military recruiter in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. One week later, Michael Moore still doesn’t consider this news interesting enough to merit mention on his website.

A search of the propagandist’s website for “Plouhar” will only return a transcript of his appearance in Fahrenheit, accompanied by “anti-recruitment” editorial material from a far-left “peace” group. Of course, the premise of that particular part of the film was that predatory military recruiters were convincing young Americans to do something they were unwilling to do. Sgt. Plouhar’s service in Iraq exposes this as the lie it is.

One would think Moore could summon the decency to make note of Plouhar’s service, but that would further undercut his already discredited propaganda effort. Like Paris Hilton, Michael Moore proves again, that no matter how rich you might become, you just can’t buy class.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Celebrating Independence Day


Fireworks and barbeque may be traditional means of celebrating the Fourth of July, but it is also an opportunity for more reflective observations. I always listen to Louis Armstrong over Independence Day weekend.

Thought to have been born on July 4, 1900, Armstrong is now known to have come into the world on the less auspicious date of August 4, 1901. It is telling how appropriate and fitting 7/4/00 seemed to be for the man from New Orleans. Armstrong codified the notion of the jazz solo as an expression of individual creativity, and invented scat singing as a vehicle for vocalists to enjoy the same freedom. Born in St. James Alley, the middle of abject poverty and mean living in New Orleans, Armstrong would become Ambassador Satch, the most recognized and popular American around the globe.

106 years after Armstrong’s apocryphal birth-date, America faces a new set of challenges in the War Against the Terror of Islamic-Fascism. Many American military personnel are serving on the front-lines of this battle, some of the most heroic are profiled in Home of the Brave, by the late Sec. Caspar Weinberger and Wynton Hall. I’m ordinarily reluctant to flak here for a book published by my house, but this one is a bit of an exception. I’ll simply point to this recent post from Gateway Pundit, for further details.

This Independence Day, remember the courage and sacrifice that keeps America strong, and enjoy the sounds of freedom produced by Armstrong in that uniquely American art-form, now called jazz.

Closed Rings

The $24 million musical adaptation of The Lord of the Rings staged in Toronto was the great hope for Canadian theater and tourism, but Michael Riedel reports in his NYPost column, the show will soon close. Riedel writes:

“‘The Lord of the Rings’ will lose nearly all of that $24 million, $3 million of which came from the province of Ontario, which hoped the show would boost Toronto tourism.

(Note to Canadian taxpayers: NEVER PUT YOUR OWN MONEY IN THE SHOW.)”

No doubt. Leave that to the professionals, like Rosie “Taboo” O’Donnell. I would have thought Lord of the Rings would have been reasonably critic-proof, given the legions of Tolkien fans, but evidently not. Regardless, the government of Ontario should have known better than to try to play the angel role in the high stakes commercial theater game.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Forbes-Roberts’ One Long Tune


One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau
By Ron Forbes-Roberts
University of North Texas Press
1-57441-210-8


The early chapters of most biographies are a struggle to read, regardless of the prose style of the biographer, because only the most passionate enthusiasts will be interested in the youthful years of the subject. However, Forbes-Roberts had an advantage in Lenny Breau, a jazz guitarist who was playing so early, at such a highly accomplished level, that the story of his artistic development begins well before Breau graduates from high school. It is a musical journey Forbes-Roberts documents quite well in One Long Tune: the Life and Music of Lenny Breau.

Born to professional country singers who toured New England and Canada as Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, Breau’s earliest professional experience was as part of their country & western review. Although celebrated as jazz soloist who adapted the innovations of pianist Bill Evans from the piano to the guitar, country sounds who always be a part of Breau’s palette. Indeed, the arguably most important association of Breau’s life, and the greatest influence on his stylistic development was country legend Chet Atkins. Forbes-Roberts writes:

“The stable, straight-laced, and generous older man would become the empathetic, accepting father to Lenny Breau the Hal Lone Pine had not been. Motivated by a deep affection and respect for Lenny, Atkins did all he could to guide Lenny professionally and personally.” (p. 119)

One of the many virtues of Forbes-Roberts’ biography is that he clearly and persuasively explains the innovative techniques Breau, and Atkins before him, brought to the guitar. In doing so, he dispels any lingering preconceived notions of jazz and country artists as primitive, unschooled, and simply intuitive musicians. Breau and Atkins were advanced musicians, who gave tremendous thought to their art, and honed their playing through dedicated practice.

Atkins would produce Breau’s first two albums for RCA. Despite the promise they showed, Breau’s career was often undermined by his personal demons, particularly his drug and alcohol addiction. Breau continued to pursue music with a religious fervor, but his chaotic marriage to his abusive second wife, Jewell, further acerbated problems.

Tragically, on August 12, 1984, Breau was found strangled in the roof-top pool of his low-rent L.A. apartment building. To his credit again, Forbes-Roberts doesn’t pull any punches writing about Breau’s murder and LAPD detectives Bird and Aldahl’s suspicion of Jewel Breau:

“Her well-documented history of spousal abuse and flaws in her testimony (which remain confidential in the unclosed case) convinced Bird and Aldahl of her guilt and they requested that she submit to a polygraph test. Jewel agreed initially, but balked at the last moment and refused to have further contact with the police except through her lawyer. Bird told this author that her refusal to be tested confirmed his belief that she was complicit in her husband’s murder.” (p. 271)

Jewel Breau, now remarried as Jewel Flowers, refused to be interviewed by Forbes-Roberts. She was never charged because “the detectives decided that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office would not have a strong enough case to bring her to trial.”

One Long Tune is a great music biography. Fellow guitarist Forbes-Roberts writes about Breau’s technical facility in such great detail, some readers may find themselves skimming these passages. However, rather than tossing around over-used terms like “genius,” Forbes-Roberts makes a well-reasoned, credible case for Breau greatness. Over all, the book is highly readable. If nothing else, it will broaden the appreciation for the music of Lenny Breau, but one can also hope it will lead someone to take another look at his murder investigation.