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The Contralto and a Tremolo Guitar

Kot, Greg. I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway. Scribner: New York. 2014.

The young, wholesome face of Mavis Staples graces the cover of this book, but the person who attracted the most attention from me was Pops Staples, the family patriarch. The success of the Staple Singers as stirring gospel performers is attributed to Pops’ direction and management; their spiritual sincerity began with him and stayed with the family despite the money-making demands of the pop recording industry, the changing tastes of the black audience, and the gospel police.

Author Greg Kot is a long-term music critic for the Chicago Tribune. In his book you can find in-depth descriptions of the process of recording song tracks and whole albums of The Staple Singers and the recording artist Mavis Staples; the completeness rivals the liner notes written for any gospel, soul, and R&B record–this is a strength of the book. Another highlight is the historical material Kot gathered from two general sources: recent interviews he conducted with family members Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis Staples; and, the unpublished memoir prepared by Pops Staples. The latter provides accounts of his hardscrabble life in Mississippi, Pops’ working life in Chicago, and family travels to perform in Southern churches—Mavis drove the Cadillac while the family slept, and Pops packed a gun to encourage fair play from festival promoters.

The book begins with an interesting discussion of the early life of Roebuck Staples in the Mississippi Delta. The boy, who as a man was known as “Pops,” grew up in a sharecropping family, absorbing the lifestyle common to rural blacks in the early twentieth century. The slavery-era plantations remained, but the land had been parceled out to tenants who farmed the land for a share of the food crop and little sustenance money. Married at eighteen, Roebuck Staples moved his growing family to Chicago’s South Side like so many other roots musicians seeking improved conditions for the family and professional music opportunity.

There is slight mention of Pops working in the awful meat packing plants on the South Side—they were referred to locally as “the Stockyards.” Kot provides no details of Pops’ actual job, but my image of the workplace is of immigrants and the poorly educated working with knives and in freezing meat lockers; read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for a muckraker’s account. He also worked in the steel mills of Gary, Ind., another common wage-provider for the unskilled black workingmen living on the South Side in the 1950s.  On weekends, the musical family performed at Chicago churches and drove hundreds of miles to perform gospel music in the rural churches and cities of the Deep South; e.g. Jackson, Memphis, and Atlanta. Pops played tremolo guitar, and future solo recording star Mavis sang contralto. When the voice of oldest son Pervis changed as a young teen, Mavis, a small person with a big voice, became the lead vocalist. Pops also vocalized, and the three daughters Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis provided the harmonies.

While reading with an increasing regard for the work of Pops Staples as patriarch and singing family group leader, the warmth turned to chill with the chapter on family tragedy. Pops had left a loaded gun in his home, a home occupied by a daughter dealing with depression. The youngest member of the family went into a back room and shot herself. A weapon meant to defend the family took one member away and emotionally hurt the others. Without the inclusion of this episode in the book, author Kot would have us believe the Staples folks are near perfect; Pervis Staples’ nickname was “Blab” because he talked a lot, but I think that was just his friends having a joke.

The most well-known gospel singer in Chicago and nationally was Mahalia Jackson. She became a friend of the family. In the early years, the Staples could also count as friends and neighbors Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor. A frequent visitor from Detroit was Aretha Franklin. The Staples shared the socio-political stage with Martin Luther King and Jessie Jackson. And, the reader is teased with a lengthy account of Mavis’ relationship with the then folk singer Bob Dylan. In addition to Dylan, Levon Helm of the group The Band, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince provided friendship, songs, and/or produced albums for the Staple Singers and Mavis Staples.

The Civil Rights Movement aided the career of gospel singers. The hymns sung by black church choirs became the songs of the marching protestors. The songs and the singers, like the Staple family members, inspired poor and oppressed people to push the fight for equality and justice. The Staples delivered the message in performance, although their recordings over time were to take on an increasing number of secular tracks. The musicians familiar with their progression attest to the everlasting presence of a spirtual undertone–the Staple Singers remained a gospel group and interwove spiritual songs into their larger performance repertoire.

When the Staple Singers were signed to a contract with Stax Records by executive Al Bell in 1968, the company star was Isaac Hayes; previous to that, it was Otis Redding. The first two Staples albums, the second a solo album for Mavis, were unsuccessful. Bell elected to move the group from Memphis, where the principle session men were Booker T & the M.G.’s musicians, over to a newly established independent studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Steve Cropper, the young white guitarist for Booker T, came along to produce the new album, We’ll Get Over, as he had done with the group’s first, Soul Folk in Action. The Staples family loved working on the songs, which were a mix of gospel sentiments and also covers of songs popularized by Joe South, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Guess Who and others—the group was transitioning from gospel to pop. For this book Steve Cropper was interviewed by Kot: “If there was a downside to working with them (the Staples), there were restrictions from going all-out at first because Pop wasn’t ready to make the leap to what he considered pop music. . . I should say lyrically reluctant because they had that dance element creeping in with our rhythm section. . . It wasn’t until later with Al Bell that they got more down-and-dirty sounding, with meaningful lyrics, and the hits started to come(139).”

The family would attribute the song hits to the outstanding musicians at Muscle Shoals—David Hood on bass, Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, and Eddie Hinton on rhythm and lead guitar. Mavis put it like this: “That was a rhythm to die for; they were funky, and they helped make us sound funky.” Kot: “Their bond with the Staple Singers was especially tight, due in no small part to the family’s easygoing warmth.” From Johnson: “They were huggers. . . We’d get a hug at the beginning and end of the week.” Johnson’s mom and dad would host meals for all interested, “country-fried beefsteak, cream potatoes, brown gravy, black-eyed peas, and corn on the cob. Her homemade pies rivaled those of Mom Staples(170).”

Kot describes Stax executive and record producer Al Bell’s plan at these Muscle Shoals recording sessions: “He (Bell) wanted the Staple Singers interacting with the musicians so there was a genuine dialogue; the rhythm track would be nailed down in tandem with live vocals, and then the Staples would go to Ardent Studios in Memphis to refine and overdub the finished vocals with Bell and engineer Terry Manning.” Two major hits resulted from this combined team effort, “Respect Yourself,” and “I’ll Take You There.” Career success took off from there.

Mavis Staples continues to record solo albums with her band and producers like Ry Cooder, Levon Helm, and Prince. Her 2005 CD release titled We’ll Never Turn Back fell into my hands unexpectedly. My brother, who worked as a community organizer for a time on the South Side, chose to celebrate the presidential election victory of Barack Obama by gifting me and others with a copy—it contains many songs of inspiration and hope. Thanks, brother.


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by | March 13, 2014 · 4:48 pm

Gregg and Duane Were Brothers

Allman, Gregg with Alan Light. My Cross to Bear. William Morrow: New York, NY. 2012. 378 pages.

Gregg and Duane in Muscle Shoals, AL

Gregg Allman and Duane Allman in Muscle Shoals, AL

Duane and Gregg Allman grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and as teenagers lived with their mother in Daytona Beach, Florida. Duane is the recognized organizer and driving force of the original Allman Brothers Band (ABB); Gregg continues to be the primary songwriter and vocalist of this blues group. The book is a complete autobiography of the life of Gregg and a rich source of material on the life of Duane. Duane, a year older, died in a high-speed motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, two years after the band was formed. The bass player of the band, Barry Oakley, died approximately one year later also on a motocycle. The band, following personnel changes and numerous disbandings and reformations, continues to tour and record to this day. The band was a success from the start, but they were so different and innovative–their first two albums, though considered today to be great, did not sell heavily. That was okay; they knew they had something special and a great future if they maintained the brotherhood. After earlier years of doubt and disappointment, things just came together for the brothers Allman.

The discussion here is not of the greatness of ABB, but the life and times of Gregg and Duane prior to the formation of the band in 1969.The title of the book is taken from the song title, “It’s Not My Cross To Bear”– side one, second song, from the first ABB album entitled The Allman Brothers Band. In life, the crosses born by Gregg have been many. The brothers’ father was shot dead when Gregg was about two years old. When he was entering third grade, his mother shipped him and Duane off to military school fifty miles from home so she could complete studies to become a CPA; this was a lonely time for Gregg. Later in the book he sites loneliness as the reason for his six marriages. Back in the Nashville public schools for fifth grade, the older brother Duane was tough on him. Gregg tries to find value in these experiences: his Mom was doing what was best for them, and Duane’s bullying helped prepare him up for life. Other challenges in his life and not for discussion here are the alcohol and heroin addiction that had him in recovery many times, the five divorces, and the differences with band mate Dickey Betts that together with the aforementioned issues lead to the numerous band breakups. Cirrhosis of the liver lead to a successful liver transplant surgery in 2010.

A second stint at the Tennessee military school ended when the brothers simply walked away; they returned to Daytona Beach to form a band in the 1965 called the Allman Joys. Gregg finished high school. From the beginning the music was all blues. They played everywhere and often for free–just for an opportunity to play. No more formal schooling; they were committed to music. They played The Ventures, Eddie Hinton songs, and their psychedelic version of “Tobacco Road.” They began working on an unclaimed folk tune that would carry over to the Allman Brothers Band, “Trouble No More.” Gregg explained, “We also did a lot of old ethnic stuff . . . you could take some of those old album cuts, and there would be something on there–a hook that you could change or something–and who gives a damn who wrote it? It just had that old time feel to it, and we loved it (63). These were “traditional” folk tunes anyone could play and record, but not legally claim, for their own.

If you experienced the Viet Nam era military draft process, you have heard similar stories. Duane attempted draft avoidance by wearing panties to his induction physical, but the ploy failed with the induction official grabbing the garment and throwing it against the wall. The last ditch attempt to avoid induction was to put his hands in his pockets during the induction oath. He was sent home to await the arrival of a federal marshal and delivery to Fort Leavenworth, but the marshal never showed up. Facing army induction the following year, Gregg hosted a “foot-shooting party;” he was careful to shoot between the bones. He reported the following day on crutches with a huge bandage and was sent home. Not a word was written of the military, Viet Nam, nor that foot again. It sounds too easy to be true, but it is written in this book.

Assisting a guy with a paper route during his school years, Gregg made enough money to buy his first guitar, a “finger bleeder,” for twenty-two dollars. Simultaneously, Duane’s motorcycle broke down and he started playing Gregg’s guitar and the two fought over it. In the peacemaking process, Gregg showed Duane how to find his way around the guitar. Rather than do homework, Gregg played “constantly, day and night. My brother was worse, because he would play all day long, while my mother was at work. My brother passed me up in a flash–he got real good. . . That passion was second only to a woman, and it was one of them definite loves, because your guitar ain’t gonna leave ya, just like your dog ain’t gonna leave ya. He had a real love affair with that guitar (34).”

The brothers joined a band lead by Floyd Miles. Only one guitar player was needed, so “we’d switch off every other night.” Duane was getting better playing lead and also sang, but was not good at it.  “Now, he damn sure couldn’t sing, as you can tell by some of the recordings he made. . . when I started singing, that was the best me and Duane ever got along during my whole damn childhood.”  To resolve differences, Duane had encouraged Gregg to learn to sing. Gregg conceded Duane’s superior guitar play with this comment, “. . . you quit school and have had nothing to do for a whole year but sit home every day and play (46).” Agreeing to concede to strength is the basis for a trade agreement.

By late summer of 1965, the Allman Joys band was on the road playing from Pensacola to St. Louis. Gregg met John Loudermilk who mentored him in the art of song-writing, “John Loudermilk taught me to let the song come to me, not to force it, not to put down a word just because it might rhyme or fit. He taught me to let the feeling come from your heart and go to your head.” On the road between Nashville and St. Louis regularly, “we played five sets a night, forty-five minutes a set, six nights a week.” The roadhouse crowds were working class and demanding. “Everybody would request whatever was real hot on the charts, and you’d better know how to play that son of a bitch, and if not, you better learn it tomorrow afternoon. . . the old roadhouses had chicken wire in front of the band so they won’t get hit by the bottles (69).”

I’ll let Gregg describe how he was to begin playing organ. It started with the first Allman Joys tour on a stop in Pensacola when a female friend and her mother bought him a Vox organ because they wanted him to have it. “At first, there wasn’t a lot I could do on it. . . When it came time to play ‘Wooly Bully,’ I could do it on the Vox. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ no problem—I had it. The organ came with a plastic card that was laminated, and it went A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and major, minor, augmented, third, ninth, fifth, and there was a little picture in each block, with little red dots showing where your fingers go. That’s how I learned to play keyboard.” Later in Birmingham Gregg picked up a used Leslie 147 amp and “. . . hooked it up and ran it through a Beatle Top amp, and that son of bitch sounded real close to a Hammond (B3 organ), which added so many dynamics to the band (70).” Shortly after the Allman Brothers Band was formed and perceived success was imminent, the members bought Gregg a Hammond B3 and he has been a fixture on the organ ever since.

Duane was a great slide guitar player and Gregg has the story: “It was his birthday (and he had a cold), so I went and bought him a bottle of Coricidin. . . Then I went by the record store and got that first Taj Mahal record, with all the butterflies on the cover and him sitting on a rocking chair. We’d played with Taj before, borrowed an amplifier from him. So I got Duane that record and the pills.” Gregg took the gifts over to Duane’s and left them on his front porch. Twenty-four hours later, Duane called, “Get over here quick, babybrah (for baby brother). Quick, man!” Duane had taken the pills out of the bottle and removed the label. “He put on that Taj Mahal record, with Jesse Ed Davis playing slide on ‘Statesboro Blues,’ and started playing along with it. When I left those pills by his door, he hadn’t known how to play slide. From the moment that Duane put that Coricidin bottle on his ring finger, he was a natural (90).” Of course, he then practiced for hours at a time with the same passion he displayed when he learned to play guitar–another story of the muse, passion, and practice combining to produce excellence on an instrument.

Band members from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band discovered the Allman Joys playing in St. Louis-Nashville and convinced them to come to Los Angeles and sign a recording contract with Liberty Records. Their first album under the band name Hour Glass and including, along with Gregg and Duane, Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby, was a big flop. On top of that, Liberty imposed restrictions on the frequency of band performances–the band felt their progress was being impeded. They were able to make forays into venues like the Whiskey-a-Go-Go and the Fillmore West, where they played sets in front of The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and Moby Grape; and, at this time Gregg befriended LA luminaries like Jackson Browne and Steve Stills.

Like all newly-formed bands with a contract, the Hour Glass was struggling to find their professional selves. The bass man of this five-piece group “took a whole handful of acid and never quite came back;” he had to go home to Alabama. Considering hiring a West Coast bass player, “. . . if they ain’t from the South, just forget about it. It would be like trying to train an accountant to be a bouncer.” At this time, they were playing blues and R&B; people from Liberty Records were telling them to play popular music. The brothers objective was to play their own music—“It’s like the difference between owning a car and being a cabdriver.” Lastly, some of the same people were telling Gregg to move out front where a vocalist belongs; he writes “As long as it sounds good, why should it matter if someone is standing up or sitting down? Sounding good was what mattered, and my brother really believed that (91).”  The replacement on bass guitar was Pete Carr from Port Orange, Florida; he worked out well and the second Hour Glass album was much improved over the first; plus, Gregg had seven original songs on it with the one exception being “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles.

Due to continuing philosophical differences with Liberty, the Hour Glass disbanded. Duane returned to Florida and the others went their separate ways. They all resented Gregg for staying in California, but Gregory thought it necessary to fulfill contractual obligations with Liberty. While on the West Coast, he worked hard at songwriting and produced the basic formula for “Dreams,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” and “Melissa” — future popular ABB songs. Explaining this flurry of tunes, “I didn’t know why I was doing it. I guess it was because of all the emotions and feelings that were going through me every single day. I felt pretty much abandoned by my brother and the other guys. They laid some pretty heavy shit on me (101).” Gregg heard Duane was doing some great sessions work at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, working with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Gregg kept writing, while living wherever in Los Angeles. “I had access to a Hammond . . .  so I could work up some stuff with it. Half the time I was walking around and I didn’t have enough to eat (102).” The pursuit of music success continued, “this was March 1969. . . the phone rang. It was my brother, calling me from Jacksonville, telling me to come back to Florida.” This was the beginning of the story of the Allman Brothers Band–Duane had organized the six members and Gregg was soon to meet Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, and Jaimoe.

I have written of this period in the Allman brothers lives to highlight their love of music and each other; this book is about brotherhood and not about success in the music business. Becoming a songwriter and mastering an instrument are the points of emphasis here; Allman says he was never in it for the money, but for love of the music, blues music.  “The only thing I think about is where we are going to play next. Two hundred people or twenty thousand people, I just want to play (298).” Nevertheless, this book reveals the hazards of the business–the band breakups, the lingering addictions, and failed marriages are his regrets.  “I have had me a blast . . . but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it (378, last page).” Throughout the personal setbacks, Gregg Allman, with the help of his brother’s inspiration and early guidance, retained his music principles and was able to achieve a great deal of artistic success.

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Nightingales, Warblers, and Other Songbirds

Black Pearls bookHarrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press. 1988.

The decade of the 1920’s is known as the classic blues period of jazz history. Much has been written of the groundbreaking music of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver in that period, but it was also a time in which female black blues singers gained notoriety. The most often cited are Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith; the lesser-known include Ida Cox, Sippie Smith, Edith Wilson and others. These singers left the tent show touring circuit and vaudeville performance stage to make breakthroughs in the white-owned phonograph record industry. Record sales soared; but, the roaring times ended with economic depression and the dissolution of many record companies.

The commerce of black performing/recording artists was known as the “race market” and the product “race records”—a time of awkward attempts at promoting and selling activities and results with references to skin color. New releases were promoted by record companies with full page newspaper advertisements introducing “race record” music and artist—illustrations are provided in this book. In the clubs, these women worked the classy Harlem Clubs that catered to the moneyed white audiences. The revues they starred in on Broadway were usually all black performer presentations—these women could act or dance or offer comedy in addition to vocalize the blues. The advent of radio programming in 1925 had a mixed effect, but clearly introduced this music to a new and large audience. The blues queens had available outlets to please any category of audience—young or old, black or white, and rich or poor.

Author Harrison, an academician, describes the blues music as a reflection of life experience of women in the 1920s. Love and sex; reprisal and violence; poverty and discrimination are common themes. How was this expressed in song?

In Bessie Smith’s tune “Dying by the Hour” we hear:
It’s an old story, every time it’s a doggone man.

Ida Cox from “Georgia Hound Blues”:
Like a hound, you chase all night and you don’t come home till morn.
Pretty daddy, the undertaker has got your last (chase) on.

And, in “Pink Slip Blues,” Cox sings of terminated welfare benefits:
After four long years, Uncle Sam done put me on the shelf,
‘Cause that little pink slip means you got to go for yourself.

Harrison discusses these song lyrics in a lengthy chapter entitled “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and categorizes them as travelling blues, drinking blues, dope head blues, street walking blues, and raunchy. She provides many examples of each: Clara Smith sings of the “rambling bug” in the tune “L & N Blues”; Bessie Smith’s “Gin Mill Blues” is touted; Margaret Johnson finds solace in the bottle with “Dead Drunk Blues”; Chippie Hill copies Ma Rainey’s lament on the oldest profession in “Hustlin Blues.” These lyrics were often penned by men, but the vocalist’s manner of expression, inflections, and body language enabled the female listener to identify with the reality in their own lives. The raw lyrics that flowed freely in the tent shows were cleaned up in the recording studio; but, in the clubs the boldness was delivered to appreciative audiences.

Not to be forgotten here though is the singer’s expression of independence that comes through in most recordings. Harrison properly concludes this chapter of the book with reference to the most desirable characteristic in my view—self-reliance. From “Trouble in Mind Blues” sung by Chippie Hill,

I’m alone every night and the lights are sinking low,
I’ve never had so much trouble in my life before.
My good man, he done quit me and there’s talking all over town,
And, I know my baby, you can’t keep a good woman down.

Blues women had to contend with the interference of church institutions and other self-righteous units seeking to derail their voice from stage and airwaves. The demise of live performances in the 1930’s depression era, however, found many returning to the church with their raunchy song vocals a thing of the past and their morals no longer subject to scrutiny; a few became music leaders and sang freely in church as they had done in their youth.

Disagreements with recording companies, who claimed exclusive rights to the singers, were common. Musicians defeated this by recording with other companies under pseudonyms. For example, Ida Cox, who recorded seventy-eight sides for Paramount during the decade, also recorded for Harmograph and Silvertone under a variety of fictitious names. Alberta Hunter recorded 100-plus sides for seven different companies under contract, and went underground to record for Harmograph, Silvertone, Gennet, Buddy, and Puritan labels using the names May Alix, Helen Roberts, Josephine Beatty, or Alberta Prime. Difficult to assign blame here; so, in general one raises a brow toward all participants in the industry—greedy companies and slippery performers. Where do your sentiments lie?

Harrison interviewed four blues women who survived into the 1980s, and for enlightening detail focuses on their lives with full chapters honoring each–Sippie Wallace born in 1898 in Houston; Victoria “Vickie” Spivey born 1906 in Houston; Edith Wilson born 1896 in Louisville; and Alberta Hunter born 1895 in Memphis. Here is a sampling:

“(Edith) Wilson was a singer who sang rather than emoted (no moans or wails); she enjoyed what her voice could do and did it. A blues song was a song, not her life story. . . although the lack of gripping emotional intensity led most critics to discount her as a blues singer, Wilson’s singing satisfied the type of audiences for whom she sang—whites who frequented “sophisticated” Harlem cabarets run by the underworld mobsters (166).”

Writing of Alberta Hunter, “She communicated with the audience intimately on one level but warned it to keep its distance because ‘I don’t take no mess’; yet this was usually coupled with a wry sense of humor. . . She could belt out the blues with the best of the sisters and she could sing a ballad that pleased the nightclub and theater crowds (208).” Hunter was singing and composing songs into her eighties, and performed in New York’s Greenwich Village at a club she sang in fifty years earlier.

The publisher categorizes this book as “Women’s Studies/Music/Black Studies (back cover, top).” Used copies of this book, originally published in 1988, may be acquired in trade paper format for approximately one dollar (plus shipping and handling) online—this edition is distinguished by the bright pink cover. Included in the book are 29 illustrations–blues singer photographs, newspaper ads announcing new releases, record jackets, sheet music covers, and song sheets. The author provides more than four hundred evidentiary footnotes including the oft-cited periodical sources Chicago Defender, The Afro-American, and Melody Maker.

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Jonny King’s Primer On Jazz–Part II

The following post continues a review of the book, What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz, by Jonny King. The boldface paragraph introductions correspond with actual book chapter titles.

Jonny King

Jonny King

The Set List. The Gershwin brothers and Cole Porter gave us popular tunes in the 30’s and 40’s that became jazz standards simply because they were great tunes. Later, creative musicians transformed the melodies, chord structures, and progressions to effect an emotion they wished to convey. With each recording the artist was breathing new life into an old and recognized melody, believing they were creating something new and they were. The standard sounded fresh and different and thus was worthy of recording again and again; as many as fifty different versions. King writes of Keith Jarrett’s multiple recordings of the same tune at different times by the same band personnel, yet managing to sound different and fresh each time.

Young musicians including Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, and Joshua Redman are again finding ways to recreate the romantic music of the 30’s and 40’s that was first transformed by their bop heroes of the 50’s and 60’s; in this way they are accepting the challenge to breathe new life into a standard. King gives another reason for why the standards do not die—the pop tunes apparently have chord progressions that can be largely preserved while the jazz leader blankets this structure with personal melodic interpretation—the result swings. Add to the many jazz standards the creative compositions of Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, Rollins and others and you have the collection of music known as jazz.

Ballads. The ballad song-form may have the connotation of being slow and romantic, but “. . . all the chops in the world won’t rescue you from harsh scrutiny if you don’t have the maturity and confidence to play lyrically as the moment requires. . . The tenor player’s tone, the trumpeter’s vibrato, and the pianist’s chord voicings and touch are all ruthlessly laid bare to a now-silent audience (120).” The slow-tempo puts pressure and spotlight on the patient technique of the musician. King gives us an interesting discussion of Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk performing as balladeers. Describing their respective tenor and pianist roles in the recording of the Monk composition, “Reflections” in 1957, “Monk’s solo, spurred by (drummer Art) Blakey’s double-time beat, is basically a reinterpretation of the simple melody of ‘Reflections’. He twists and turns the essential notes and phrasing, but constantly refers back to the head that Newk (Rollins) played. Part of the spirit of his solo is an almost deliberate looseness and sloppiness, a willingness to clang his way around the tune’s form. . . Monk playfully bangs out the melody of ‘Reflections’ and punctuates it with raining runs and shattering chord clusters.” Describing Rollins’ solo, “. . . more than Monk, he alternates references to the song’s melody with explosive bursts that span the full range of the horn. Like the song’s composer, Newk approaches the piece with a split personality, alternating between the tender and the eruptive.”

In their performance on this piece, these two bop stalwarts are playing with an equal level of intensity and staying true to their individual personalities–“recognize the consistent voices these two masters bring to everything they write and play (129).” This is interesting descriptive narrative of a classic piece of music, but would it not be a valuable addition to have the recording on your stereo player? Not having that privilege, my response was to read deliberately and multiple times. Maybe you do not have time for that; if so, this book can serve as a valuable reference to be read periodically. The book is quite readable and the chapters are brief and stand alone.

The Blues. Being able to play the “blues” requires not only the transmission of a feeling known to us all, but playing “a particular form of song and set of chord changes (108).” This song structure was employed by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others from jazz origins through the bebop era. King provides a sheet music illustration (109) of blues chord changes over a twelve-bar music form in the key of G that begins with the F7 chord and jumps up to the Bb7 chord and on to other chords, adding that there are infinite variations on this progression. Returning to that blues feeling, “Even as it denotes a particular musical structure, the ‘blues’ also evokes a certain spiritual and soulful way of playing (109).” King cites the tune “Moanin” by Bobby Timmons and also Jimmy Smith’s funky album Back at the Chicken Shack as classics capturing this style of play.

South, East, and West of the Border. Recognizing the role of international music in the development of jazz, King analyzes the work of McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, and Herbie Hancock. Tyner’s playing is described as “volcanic.” Analyzing McCoy’s “African Village,” King states “Herbie Lewis begins with ‘double stops’ on the bass, two notes played simultaneously like a chord.” Following this song section, “. . . other band members, either McCoy or Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphonist) or both, add a small shakerlike percussion instrument and cowbells as (Freddie) Waits’ insistent drumbeat grows more intense. The focus here is on rhythm.” McCoy and Hutcherson then return to the melody of “African Village”–McCoy employs a “pentatonic scale,” giving the melody an African sound in the A section (the song form is AABA); the bridge is then played using a dimished scale creating a sense of tension before returning to the A section restoring a sense of calm to the piece. In describing Hutcherson’s solo, “On the E-minor vamp of ‘African Village,’ he plays simple melodies, blindingly fast runs, and shimmering trills. He also departs frequently from the basic E-minor sound to set up dissonances and tensions, in a sense improvising new harmonies over the simple E-minor sound.” King aids the reader by explaining the meaning of terms AABA form, vamp, dissonance, and modal playing–necessary understandings to get through this extended parsing of a tune’s elements. Apply your new knowledge to the study of the following tunes in this chapter: Morgan’s “Ca-Lee-So” from Delightfulee recorded in 1966, and Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” from Maiden Voyage (1965).

Out. For those players wishing to dispense with obeying written chord structures and time signatures, read how to go your own nonconventional way in this chapter. Sometimes referred to as “free jazz,” this music is part of the avant garde movement in the arts. Not necessarily inaccessible, King points to the work of Miles Davis in the 1960’s and projects lead by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock as sufficiently complex to fit this category. Few would object to describing the journeys of Ornette Coleman as “out.” In this book, King analyzes the Ornette tune “Round Trip” from the 1969 album New York Is Now. There is no pianist in the studio on this date–a common Coleman election. King states, “If you’re not going to play chord changes, why have a pianist’s chord voicing intrude (152).” After Coleman and (Dewey) Redman establish the melody, Elvin (Jones) and Jimmy (Garrison) start walking and swinging in a traditional spang-a-lang . . . (playing) together in a ‘loosely expressive’ manner. Moving from the rhythm section to a description of the tune’s solos, King describes the playing of alto saxophonist Coleman and tenor Redman as a dialog–“call and response, question and answer, squeak up high and rasp down low.” King goes from discussing the orderly, but free styling of the soloists, back to the light and loose playing of Jones and Garrison, “what they do well is to capture the unconfined swell of the piece without ever losing sight of the beat that makes even this freedom swing hard (154).”

King finishes this chapter on non-conventional music by comparing the work of jazz free-formers with the writing of James Joyce in Ulysees and the evolution of painting history. Just as Joyce cast aside the use of common language grammar, the musicians have sought to bend and rewrite jazz language forms to suit their creative mood state; and, in both canvas art and jazz, King notes the shifts from “exact replication to suggestion to total abstraction.” This transformation in jazz over time is driven by the players’ radical stance that helps advance an art form to a new developmental stage.

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Jonny King’s Primer On Jazz–Part I

What Jazz Is bookKing, Jonny. What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide To Understanding and Listening To Jazz. Walker and Company. New York. 1997. 162 pages.

King, a highly experienced jazz pianist, qualifies as an insider; he also writes well. He begins with the premise that jazz is not well understood by non-musicians. The book serves as a primer for beginning and intermediate level jazz fans wanting to advance their technical understanding of an exciting art form. I will present this review in a series. A subsequent part(s) will review the author’s narrative on playlist selection, the jazz standard, the playing of a ballad, the blues, and “out” music. Here, in this first part, I will describe the early content of the book: the language of jazz and the concepts fundamental to its essence; and, the roles that the musicians in the band perform in improvising individually and as a group. My objective is to motivate you to read the book. The bold headings are actual book chapter titles.

Where’s the melody? With jazz music, if the ensemble is playing a standard that the listener knows, the melodic lines that you could sing happily may be lost to the musicians’ improvisation. The recognizable tune may only be sensed in the opening and closing choruses. In group play or during solos, the musician will depart or with pleasure run away from the melody to insert phrases of his choosing, not wishing to conform to standard. With this free expression, the musician is determined to place his personal stamp on a piece and make it his own. The original tune as written belongs to another era, another attitude, and may need reformulation for what is hip today. This attitude of transformation may be attributed to the vast styles of music available for selection, such as classical and African rhythms; and, a significant dose of defiance and personality quirks possessed by the players growing out of the African-American cultural experience have shaped the jazz idiom.

The language of jazz. Author King describes a song as containing melody, harmony, and rhythm. A lead sheet (illustrated by King) prepared for jazz play will contain the chord changes (progression) and the time spacing for the playing of a chord (harmony). Also written on the lead sheet are the notes to be played in succession and the speed and timing of note play (melody). There is clearly a form to the song as set by the composer or arranger. The musician may play the tune strictly as written, but more than likely will improvise with unwritten pauses or a strange note that yet blends into the melody. A four-note or three-note chord may be played with a change in a note or two of that chord to tamper with the mood conveyed. The musician is making a point and the tune remains logical and coherent as the unit knows where they are going, but the route taken differs. The musician is substituting known jazz phrases, or “licks,” for the written ones. This may be called improvisation.

Spang-A-Lang: A Feel and a Groove. Jazz swings. Snapping your fingers, or bobbing your head? If it swings, it’s jazz! Swing is as unique to jazz as is improvisation. King describes the different styles of various drummers—how each swings or drives the other musicians to provide the groove. Individuals include Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. They all had a “relaxed intensity” in their playing.

The Rhythm Section. The work of the drummer is integral to the forward motion of the group and the rhythmic feel conveyed. King introduces the drum set and the associated sounds: the hi-hat, snare drum, bass drum, tom tom, and the ride cymbal and crash cymbal; chit chit, chhh, thwack, dum, da-da-dum, and ssshhhhh. King places the drummer’s level of importance to the jazz ensemble over its role in the classical or rock groups. Jazz drummers have unique characteristics, ways of expressing themselves. Drummers do not play chords nor do they construct melody; they “comp” (accompany) for the soloist and push the tempo much like a point guard in basketball. King refers often to the work of drummer Art Blakey and the ever-changing groups he headed for many years. For contrast, the style preferences of Elvin Jones are addressed.

The other elements of the rhythm section are discussed—the acoustic bass and the piano. “Beyond rhythm, which is the collective responsibility of all members of the rhythm section, the pianist and bassist (and/or guitarist) must establish the harmonic content of the tune (30).” This means managing chord changes that the soloists can play over. The bassist and drummer establish the rhythm and lock into the tempo early on—the groove of the song. This book has interesting sections elaborating upon these rhythm player responsibilities, as well as the work of the more visible front line players.

The Front Line (And Others In Between). King then moves to discussing in turn the roles of the saxophone as “jazz’s signature instrument,” the “egomaniacal” trumpet player, other woodwinds, guitar, vibes, organ, and the vocalists. Throughout this discussion, King cites the legendary players and their expressive styles of playing. Having read this far, you will be ready to show off your newfound knowledge of jazz by dropping the names of the greats, the legends—Ellington, Armstrong, Hawkins, Goodman, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Davis, Rollins, Powell, Basie, FitzGerald, Holiday, etc. You need to have the supply of nicknames to toss about as Jonny King does liberally—Duke, Hawk, Bird, Diz, Newk, Prez, Bu, Trane, PC, Lady Day, and Bags; give your friends the illusion you are on a first-name basis with giants—everyone does it!

Stay tuned for Part II of this review to come in a couple of weeks.

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The 2013 Hyde Park Jazz Festival

Gerald Clayton by Dragan Tasic
September 27–Introduction. Much of the music at this two-day event will be presented on the campus of the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. The founding organization for this Festival that began in September, 2007, is the Hyde Park Jazz Society; the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement stepped up in that first year to provide the necessary funding. Additional non-profit organizations and corporations have added sponsorship in years following. The purpose then and now is to honor the rich jazz cultural history of the South Side of Chicago and keep the tradition of creative arts alive. In addition to the Chicago ensembles assembled, several of the national and international performers on the schedule have strong ties to the City.

The performance locations include 11 indoor stages in the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods, and two large outdoor stages on the Midway Plaisance of the UC campus. I expect to walk easily, but briskly, between venues; excepting two stages, the venues are close together. My tentative plan has me at the Smart Museum of Art for one-hour sets by the Frank Russell Group at 1PM and the John Wojciechowski Quartet at 2:30PM on Saturday. Thirty performances are on the schedule for day one of this two-day fest; a few other names include the Ari Brown Quintet, Frank Rosaly’s Green and Gold, Gerald Clayton Trio (Clayton is pictured above), Dana Hall Quintet, and Ken Vandermark Ensemble: Music of the Midwest School. The final performance on Saturday is Anat Cohen and Douglas Lora Duo at the Rockefeller Chapel ending at Midnight. The music is FREE.

Lest Denverites think I am slighting my current home town, I enjoyed a flight on Denver’s Frontier Airlines to travel to my former home town Chicago. I was a bit discouraged to learn that in-flight beverages were no longer complimentary; however, a cup of hot, fresh Boyer’s (a Colorado company) coffee was served for the price of $1.99 and they accepted my First Bank of Colorado debit card. A beautiful thing.

To get to the Festival from my lodgings at the International Hostel on Congress Expressway and Wabash, I rode the Green Line of the City elevated train system. I disembarked at the end of the line, 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. I walked north on Cottage Grove to 56th and Ellis and found the Smart Museum of Art. Surprise—the stage is outside in front of the museum and the seats are in the sun. I sat there while others headed for the shade of a few trees and took the folding chairs with them. I claimed one remaining chair in front of and near the musicians with maybe 30 other people—it really was not that hot and the sun was at our backs. I enjoyed two one-hour sets with a 30-minute break.

frank Russell albumThe Frank Russell Group. The leader Russell is a Chicago-based electric bass player. He was sporting and used three electric 5-string Lakland bass guitars and said, “I represent a music company. . . they want me to play all of them.” The personnel included Vijay Tellis- Nayak, keyboards; Marco Villareal, guitar; Charles Heath, drums; and Tim McNamara on various reed instruments. The band played songs from the 1970’s fusion period including works by Miles Davis, Chic Corea’s “Spain,” Bobby Irvin’s “Code MD,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” September 28 is the date of Miles’ death in 1991 and Russell acknowledged the date.

The last two tunes included a rendition of “Oleo,” a compositon of Sonny Rollins dating from the early 1950’s and recorded by many. This piece featured a well-received drum solo; and, unlike his many other solo sections, Russell advanced with his instrument to the edge of us sun-resistant audience members to demonstrate his prowess on bass. At the onset of the eighth and last piece, Russell was informed he had but two minutes remaining in his one-hour set; instead of 2, he played a 7-minute song entitled “Ladysmith (Black Mambazo),” a song named after the African vocal group Frank Russell said he was associated with for six years. This is one of sixteen songs you can find on the Frank Russell album, Circle Without End, released in 2011 (and pictured above). I got the opportunity to talk with Russell and sideman McNamara after the set; while speaking of my association with public radio station KUVO in Denver, I learned that Russell’s band played at the Telluride (Colorado) Jazz Festival in 2012; and, McNamara was interested in my discussion of Chicago area locales I haunted in my youth. Talking about my two home cities is always a pleasure.

After a 30-minute break at the Smart Museum, we welcomed the John Wojciechowski Quartet to the patio. From the Festival program, “Saxophonist, composer, and teacher, John Wojciechowski (JW) has performed or recorded with The Chicago Jazz Orchestra, The Woody Herman Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Toskiko Akiyoshi, among others. Completing the foursome are Ryan Cohan, piano; Clark Sommers, bass; and Dana Hall, drums.”

This musical set included five songs and all but one are Wojciechowski originals. The first three are from a project entitled Lexicon, beginning with the song “Pentatonic Tune.” That was followed by the title song “Lexicon” from this CD released in 2009. Then we heard “Lion and the Lamb;” the uptempo section (lion-like) was especially pleasing as the pace really quickened and intensified. Sommers soloed on his upright bass. The fourth song of the set was a slow ballad composed by Ryan Cohan entitled “Kampala Moon” with Cohan showing his virtuosity on the Yamaha piano and JW moving from his tenor to the soprano saxophone; this pleasant piece results from Cohan’s interpretation of his recent experience in Africa. Drummer Hall, whose own quintet was scheduled to play later on the main Wagner Stage this evening, sought some respite shade for this tune. The final number is another JW original and entitled “Title,” at least for now; lacking a suitable moniker, our leader says the title has become the default name from his composition software.

Keeping with my preference, I have sought out and written of the performers that come out early in the day of these quality summer festivals in the City of Chicago. All of the acts are good, the musicians are enthusiastic, and the early-in-the-day crowds are cerebral. I would estimate attendance at this early afternoon session on a pleasant, sunny day at 200 to 300 people.

Ben PatersonFor the last show of the day (that I was able to catch) it was with pen again in-hand taking notes that I experienced the Ben Paterson Organ Quintet. Paterson (pictured at left) seemed to enjoy and excel at talking to his huge audience at the West Stage at the Midway Plaisance near 60th Street and Ellis Avenue. I made note of his between-song quips. After playing a strong groove Jimmy McGriff “blues” tune, Paterson said, “There is not nearly enough blues in New York. It’s great to be back in Chicago playing some blues.” Spoken by a man who knows–although now based in New York, Paterson said he went to school here (UC) and identified the locations of his former Hyde Park apartments. The musicians in this group are young and they stepped up and played. The second song was the jazz standard, “Perdido,” composed by Juan Tizol and first recorded by Duke Ellington in 1942.

The third and fourth tunes were not named or recognized, but Paterson introduced the first as a “funk” tune and the second as a “ballad.” “Funk” they did, with saxophonist Scott Burns and trumpeter Marquis Hill demonstrating again that these two horns in an up-front duo segment blend well! The next song was identified by Paterson as a Dizzy Gillespie funk tune recorded in 1970, “Alligator.” At times the two horns will retire to a back corner of the stage, only to return to the fore to blow hard a duel solo for a wall-of-sound effect of a kind that we grey-haired people should recognize. Ben Paterson provides the deep bass groove and repetitive bass runs on the organ. The last selection was the Cole Porter tune “Silk Stockings,” featuring Burns on tenor sax and Paterson with his long bass lines forming the groove. No dancers–Paterson tried coaxing dancers throughout. Nevertheless, another pleasing performance at the HPJF.

Paterson’s most recent album is Blues for Oscar, a tribute to Oscar Peterson. As seems to be the custom at blues and jazz festivals, there was a brief sales pitch for the CDs and, “visit my web site” at And, so ended the first day for me at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

Additional musical one-hour sets I was able to catch the first day of the Festival included: Ari Brown Quintet, Gerald Clayton Trio, and the Dana Hall Quintet. On Sunday I enjoyed the performances of three ensembles with vocalists: the Chicago Yestet; Jeff Lindberg’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra with Tammy McCann; and the Dee Alexander Quartet. All are recommended!

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The Real Folk Blues with John Lee Hooker

John Lee HookerMurray, Charles Shaar. Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century. St. Martin’s Press. 2000.

The lyrical content of traditional blues music describes the emotional pain from lost love, cheating spouse, or vanquished hopes. Nonetheless, the music will make you feel good, and that is the power of this music. One guy with a guitar and a stomping foot is all that’s necessary. Simple materials and the expression of emotional pain evoke a satisfying response. Speaking of young people today, Murray writes: “The blues make them feel bad, and they can’t get past that. . . the blues is not about feeling bad, but about feeling good despite every factor in the world which conspires to make you feel bad. By telling his story, John Lee Hooker enables us to face our own. . . it is his (the bluesman’s) job to forgive us and comfort us, shoulder our burdens as he invites us to help him shoulder his own. I (Murray) remember what it is to feel so flat-out, rock-bottom bad that you simply, involuntarily, apropos of nothing in particular, begin to weep. And I know that, eventually, the weeping stops. And then the boogie begins (9).”

The Real Folk Blues. Murray provides a lengthy description of blues as a native art form and how it evolved and is distinguished from Anglo-American folk music (see chapter 3). “The most crucial . . . point about ‘folk music’ is that the constituency whom it most truly represents doesn’t consider it to be ‘folk music,’ but simply their music. Folk music—the traditional set of forms, styles and songs indigenous to a people, a culture or a locale—is radically distinguishable from ‘art’ music, of both the classical and avant garde varieties, and from ‘popular’ music, produced and marketed to a mass audience (52).” It is safe to say, however, that the music we call “blues” crosses over into all forms of music today—folk, jazz, pop, and rock; the genre lines are flexible and porous. The blues is a kind of folk music.

The folk singer draws upon the traditional arts and beliefs of the larger group to which he belongs—a clan, family, or local culture; a social chronicler with a song to sing. “In contrast, the bluesman’s vision is, almost by definition, personal. . . The bluesman makes himself the focus of his work; by placing himself at the center of his art, he is taking possession of his life. He is asserting his right to interpret his own existence. . . (73).” The bluesman is saying this is how I feel today and how the world is impacting me in my sadness, or happiness. One’s own perception of his present condition as expressed in song removes the ambiguity of the group’s emotional response and gives it a sense of realness that only the individual can convey—his personal psychology at the moment, so to speak.

African-American blues musicians recognize that there is “a strong and clearly defined tradition,” and “its practitioners are expected to improvise freely within it, re-creating it anew to meet the immediate needs of both performer and audience (54).” The traditional blues music themes lie in “dance songs, work songs, celebrations, laments, love songs, hate songs, and so forth.” These themes and the materials (riffs, chord progressions, melodies, etc.) employed to create them are available to all. “What counts above all in the blues is individuality: the development of a unique and unmistakable voice (54)” to place a personal stamp on the creative process and product. In this biography, Murray succeeds in using the historical perspective to trace the cultural events and personal experiences that helped shape the musical style and personality of a unique blues voice—John Lee Hooker.

Master Bluesman. John Lee learned to play blues guitar from his stepfather. His parents had divorced and, lo and behold, his new stepdad could show him everything on the instrument. “Will Moore gave his new stepson his next guitar–an old mail-order Stella. . .(34)” Quoting Hooker: “He would tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, and if he would tell me I wouldn’t do it, because back in them days if you did something wrong that you shouldn’t’a didn’t’a did, you get a good whuppin’. . . But he never had to do that because I never did get outta line. . . He wanted me to do what I wanted to do best, long as it was right. . . He is my roots because he is the man that caused me who I am today. . . What I’m doin’ today, that’s him. . . I wanted to play just like him, and I did, but he was so bluesy.” Moore played with Charley Patton and Son House, but he would not take 15 year-old John Lee with him. In describing his first hit, Boogie Chillen, recorded in Detroit some fifteen years after he left home, Hooker said, “That was his tune; that was his beat. I never thought I would make nothin’ out of it, and he didn’t either. But I came out with it and it just happened.”

The “Oral Transmission” of Folk Blues. Murray writes: “Hooker’s earliest musical experiences came through the oral tradition: from direct contact with Tony Hollins, who taught him his first chords and songs, and from Will Moore, who gave him the boogie. . . his most profoundly formative influences came from direct, face-to-face encounters with musicians who had themselves learned their stuff the hard way, the old way, the traditional way—from their elders, the elders who were themselves the first generation of bluesmen. . . they were his folk (61).” Hollins befriended the Hooker family in Mississippi and recorded in Chicago during the 1940’s but his work was never released on records; included were tunes such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Crawlin’ King Snake” that were popularized by others and were to become standards in the blues genre. The music and lyrics were not written for passage to successive generations, and Hooker learned directly from this “master bluesman” by word-of-mouth and demonstration, as we assume Hollins learned from his elders. In modern times, readers of liner notes and the center of vinyl platters may note the tune credited to “traditional.” The unknown creator did not write the tune for posterity and no one has the right to claim it.

In this short review for a blog format I have summarized, quoted, and interpreted from a lengthy biography of 491 pages with emphasis on Chapter 3, “The Real Folk Blues?” There is no reference list, but from Murray’s descriptions in text and footnotes I provide a few sources for additional reading:
1. Evans, David. Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues. Da Capo Books, 1982.
2. Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People from Charley Patton to Robert Cray. Secker and Warburg, 1995.
3. Charters, Samuel. The Bluesmen. Oak Publications, 1967


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