I’ve started a text thread with my NEC students, and might as well post some of it here…

1. Dicky Wells, “I Got Rhythm” with Lester Young

All jazz musicians play “rhythm changes.”  The phrase comes from “I Got Rhythm” by George and Ira Gershwin. It’s AABA. The Gershwin brothers have a two bar tag on the last A, which is always used in musical theatre performances; jazz musicians abandoned that tag at some point with occasional exceptions: Paul Motian’s version with Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and Charlie Haden has the tag.

Trombonist Dicky Wells, tenor saxist Lester Young, drummer Jo Jones and guitarist Freddie Green all came to prominence with Count Basie in the late ’30s. This is the Swing team with a capital S. Bill Coleman is lesser-known than some other trumpet players of the era like Buck Clayton or Roy Eldridge but is a real virtuoso. Pianist Ellis Larkins went on to be an important vocal accompanist and supremely interesting New York City cocktail pianist. Bassist Al Hall would be the first Afro-American musician hired for the pit of a Broadway musical.

1944. This is right on the cusp of a change in the music, essentially from Swing to Bop. Swing to Bop is the title of a book, a valuable collection of first-person interviews of over two dozen musicians by Ira Gitler, who threads the interview material together with comments of his own. Gitler heard all the bop as it was first being made, could play some saxophone, and remains one of the most valuable commentators on jazz from someone who was there when the music was really great. I learned about this version of  “I’ve Got Rhythm” from Gitler’s Swing to Bop.

The head is personalized. Instead of playing the melody as the composer intended, the three horns make a new syncopated shout out of the original Gershwin material. This shouting riff has Kansas City qualities, and could have been on a Count Basie record from five years before. It also has hard bop qualities, and could have been utilized a decade later by Art Blakey’s first Messengers with Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Horace Silver (the way they took on Fletcher Henderson’s “Soft Winds.”)

The rhythm section is essentially a four person up-tempo drone in quarter notes with a feel that gets subtly more intense over time.  Ellis Larkins is using “Boston,” stride piano with the “oom” and “pah” distributed between the hands.

The diminished chord is very important in Ellis Larkins’s comping, he’s constantly using C sharp and E diminished. (Basie also uses these chords when playing rhythm changes.)

The horn soloists never arpeggiate any diminished harmony. The horns play riffs and melodies in B-flat on the A section and are more precise on the bridge. The rise and fall of the bridge against the A section in rhythm changes is very important, and must be one reason why this form has been so popular with jazz musicians.

The three horns are “talking,” they are “telling a story.” Dicky Wells is notably rough and tumble, frankly almost dirty. It is very beautiful. In his autobiography, Dicky Wells says that “murky” was a term used for black music before “funky” took over. Whatever you want to call it, this trombone solo has it.

A few years later eighth notes would become the default rhythmic unit for horns — think of trombonist J.J. Johnson soloing at this tempo — but at this point there are not as many eighth notes. Everyone is really coming out of the super syncopated, lyrical style of Louis Armstrong.

A key musician in the rhythmic change was Lester Young, and some of his phrases here turn corners that are almost like bebop. Bill Coleman’s fabulous eighth note phrases land in comparatively predictable places, but Young bobs and weaves like Charlie Parker. He takes two solos, first a chorus to warm up, and then back in with a long statement, unusually long for the era. Young plays many B naturals rubbing against the home harmony of B-flat, a “chord substitution” that foreshadows the harmonic complexities of the next generation played by someone like Thelonious Monk.

The brief tag, together but charismatically ragged, goes back straight to New Orleans.

2.  George Gershwin plays piano with Fred and Adele Astaire; Duke Ellington plays “Summertime”

Gershwin wrote many other tunes besides “I Got Rhythm” that have gone into the big book of the Great American Standard.

Gershwin can have an uneasy relationship to American culture, perhaps especially these days in an atmosphere of heightened social justice. If you look around on the internet, there are those that claim pieces like Rhapsody in Blue or American in Paris epitomize white appropriation, that they are a pale version of a fundamentally black style. There’s at least some truth to that perspective. Jazz college students are coming up against tricky questions of “appropriation” left and right. So, here’s my take:

It is most helpful to view Gershwin as a master of musical theatre. More specifically, Gershwin composed many Broadway tunes that are indelible after first hearing, and the harmonic underpinning of those tunes is colorful and charismatic.

The orchestral stuff is also essentially musical theatre writ large for symphonic forces. I don’t love it, and some of it is frankly pretty corny, especially at this late date. Concerto in F, American in Paris, and Rhapsody in Blue are better examples of gateway drugs than flawless masterpieces.

Aspiring jazz musicians don’t have all that much contact with the original Gershwin. At jazz schools today, Gershwin’s songs are played with tempi and harmonies borrowed from post-bop heroes like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans.

Many of the greatest jazz masters were black. 99.9% of the renditions of Gershwin’s songs by black musicians have no cynicism or politically retooling of the song, at least as far as I know.  For these masters, Gershwin is just some groovy source material that jazz cats can make even more groovy.

0.1% of jazz masters might have deliberately made a point of “trashing” Gershwin for political reasons. The famous example is Duke Ellington’s stunning trio deconstruction of “Summertime” with Aaron Bell and Sam Woodyard in 1961. Duke never said, but this truly avant-garde track might have been in reaction to Civil Rights unrest, or it might have been in anger about Gershwin’s continued eclipse of Ellington as the great American composer after Gershwin was dead. Make sure you listen through to the truly dire ending.

The Ellington trio “Summertime” is exceptional in the canon. Ellington himself recorded “Summertime” a few times earlier on and those performances are “straight up.”

Ellington’s earlier ballad “Prelude to a Kiss” has lyrics by Irving Gordon and Irving Mills:

Though it’s just a simple melody
With nothing fancy
Nothing much
You could turn it to a symphony
A Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch…

I’ve never heard a black jazz singer sub out Gershwin for a black composer in the last line.

Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, and Herbie Nichols all praised Gershwin’s symphonic work. Billy Strayhorn wrote a piano concerto in high school that emulated Gershwin. Just yesterday I came across a comment in Gitler’s Swing to Bop where Mary Lou Williams is quoted as saying, “Charlie Christian would be playing Rhapsody in Blue and all these heavy classical things.” Cedar Walton told me himself that Moonlight Sonata, Claire de Lune, and Rhapsody in Blue were his some of his favorites to practice as a child.

With these anecdotes we learn that the black jazz masters considered Gershwin not just as a songwriter, but as a classical composer. They had no problem putting Gershwin alongside older Europeans that might have something to teach about harmony or structure.

Great American music was always impure; it still is. There’s truth to the broadside I began with, that, “Rhapsody in Blue or American in Paris epitomize white appropriation, that they are a pale version of a fundamentally black style,” but it’s also way too late in the game to separate out Gershwin from the DNA of all the best American jazz.  He is omnipresent. He is a basic source. He might not be Scott Joplin or Louis Armstrong but he’s unquestionably in the pantheon. There’s no way around it.

Still, academics fighting today to lessen the number of Gershwin performances on the concert stage have my basic sympathy. At this point, Gershwin’s instrumental formal music tends to be partly a cash grab and partly a way to lure in new audiences, occupying a space next door to orchestras performing suites from the soundtrack to Star Wars.

Within quite recent memory, both Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea have performed Rhapsody and Blue with an orchestra. I suspect Herbie and Chick did this for the money and the glamor, and not for good artistic reasons.

Herbie and Chick should have written their own concertos instead — except that Herbie hasn’t bothered much with formal composition for decades, and Chick’s own track record with writing these kinds of things is not good. (The Chick Corea Piano Concerto is an impossible listen. For that matter, Keith Jarrett’s The Celestial Hawk for piano and orchestra is also terrible. I’d take Gershwin’s Concerto in F over either of those turkeys any day of the week.)

There are no easy answers. Tackling the opera Porgy and Bess would require at least another 1000 words, for now I’ll just say I went to the Met’s recent production and loved it.

I’ve known the above “Fascinating Rhythm” with Gershwin and the Astaires for decades. The older I get the more impressed I become. After the verse, which is admittedly rhythmically unstable, the famous tune rolls out in tricky groups of 7/8 against 4/4. The piano player stomps like James P. Johnson, except when a little graceful rubato is required for the turnaround. When it’s time for an interlude, Gershwin improvises a clunky 12-bar blues.

3. Mary Lou Williams, “Night Life.”

Mary Lou Williams was the great jazz player from the dawn of the music who also stayed the most interested in the progression of the idiom. Although she was a swing pianist from the 30’s, she mentored the greatest pianists from the 40’s bop era, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. In 1955 she recorded A Keyboard History, a rare occasion when a brilliant jazz player offered a roll call of music she considered “all in the family.” Original novelty rags, country blues, boogies, bebops, and several standards done in varied ways with namechecks to major stylists in those idioms. Eventually she wrote abstract choral music and duetted with Cecil Taylor; her final masterpiece would be the marvelous Free Spirits album in 1976 with Mickey Roker and Buster Williams, where influences like Ahmad Jamal and Herbie Hancock are seamlessly integrated into her pianism.

Most jazz listeners probably know her vivacious early work best. In that heyday, she was universally beloved as composer, arranger, pianist, and personality.

 “Night Life” has a truly unexpected harmonic structure. The first theme is in F minor and the second theme is in B-flat. The contrasting trio theme is in D minor.

The intro that suggests the relative major A-flat (ending on a long E flat, which is resolved only deceptively to F minor). A-flat only really appears again briefly at the end, a blink of an eye moment that back-announces the whole track as yet a further level of surreal. In its way it is even more shocking than the out-of-key codas of Jimmy Yancey or the unresolved tensions at the end of Bud, Monk, and Bird. It’s totally badass.

In a 1954 interview, Williams tells the story of this first session:

It was in the winter of 1930-31 that the breaks began to happen. Andy Kirk’s band had hit the road for another string of one-nighters, leaving me in Kansas City. Then came a wire, telling me to meet the band right away in Chicago. It said that Jack Kapp, the Brunswick record man, wanted to hear me play. This looked great. I knew they wouldn’t send for me unless something was in the wind, so by next day I was on my way to St Louis, where I changed trains for Chicago. When I arrived I was cold and tired, but went direct to the studio and sat down and played.

I had been in the habit of making up my own things when asked to play. Out of this training, and the way I was feeling beat, came two originals titled “Drag ‘Em” and “Night Life” — the first a blues, the other a faster piece. These were the first solo records I ever made…The record was released early in ’31 and I never received a recording fee nor any royalties from it, though the record sold quite well.

That record didn’t make my fortune, but it made my name in a double sense. I had been born Mary Elfreda Winn, and had played as Mary Winn until I became Mary Williams. It was Jack Kapp laid the “Lou” on me. Perhaps he figured plain Mary wasn’t enough for a recording artist, whereas Mary Lou was right on the beam. Anyway, Mary Lou went on the label, and Mary Lou it stayed.


Sales Pitch

Don't Panic.jpg

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— Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Time Further Out

Lewis Porter has a nice article on Dave Brubeck over at WBGO, “Reconsidering the Piano Legacy of Dave Brubeck, in a Deep Dive Centennial Special.

I’m quoted as saying, “Dave Brubeck is one of my biggest primary influences!”  Certainly true. His most famous LP Time Out was an early listen and I still think it is a masterpiece after all these years. The compositional material is strikingly charismatic and well organized, the band is on the same page, the engineering is to die for. In terms of improvising, Brubeck’s modest motivic solo on “Blue Rondo a La Turk” went straight into my young brain and has resided there ever since.

Much later in my development I was astonished by the big “classical fantasias” from Jazz at Oberlin. Cecil Taylor obviously heard that side of Brubeck, and Porter has unearthed a valuable quote from Taylor talking about Brubeck for his new article. Unlike the piano playing on Time Out, I worry about the piano style on Oberlin, it seems overbearing to me, with too much classical music pushing the jazz out of the frame. That said, it’s certainly impressive and exciting, and Porter is right to argue for giving Brubeck more credit as a fearless improvisor.

Keith Jarrett was influenced by the solo piano disc of original compositions, Brubeck plays Brubeck. These wandering, lean, and contrapuntal sounds are still a great blindfold test today. (Many jazz piano students at today’s colleges sound just like Brubeck plays Brubeck. They often sound like Jazz at Oberlin as well. I don’t think they know any Brubeck, but they are drawing on the same set of European, “complex” and “progressive” references.)

Jarrett also played through the reasonably accurate folios edited by Brubeck’s brother, Howard. I did this too.

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Prog Rock comes straight out of Brubeck. The Bad Plus used a lot of Prog Rock references, and our acoustic instrumentation sort of brought it back to Brubeck, although the musical material was more Rush or Yes than Brubeck.

Brubeck is famous for those “prog” odd meters, but ironically he wasn’t adept at improvising within those odd meters. In general Brubeck’s musical failings are mostly rhythmic. There’s an old joke that goes, “Since Brubeck couldn’t make it feel right in 4/4, why not add a beat and make it 5/4?”  The best 50’s stuff is fine, and it reaches a peak with Time Out (it wouldn’t be a hit record if it didn’t swing) but from the mid-60’s on Brubeck can be hard to listen to, especially alongside Roy Haynes or Alan Dawson. He even turns the time around with Haynes on “All the Things You Are.” Not good.

The moody Duets LP with Paul Desmond is the best later Brubeck I know — but then again, Desmond was always Brubeck’s ace in the hole.