Without A Song

In “Jazz After Politics,” John Halle says he is a jazz fan.

Shuja Haider responded in a most inspired fashion. Thanks! (Also thanks to Darcy James Argue for debating with Halle on Twitter a little bit and privately pointing me in the direction of Haider’s piece.)

The nice thing about these little internet dust-ups is how they give us occasion to re-listen. I’ve owned Joe Henderson’s The Kicker forever, but I can honestly say “Without A Song” is not a JoeHen track I’ve really dealt with until tonight.

Halle says:

A nadir of obliviousness was reached by the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson through the inclusion of the standard “Without a Song” in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are “Power to the People,” “In Pursuit of Blackness,” “If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “Black is the Color.” So it is more than a little disturbing, in this context, to encounter the vile Jim Crow racism of the second phrase: “A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song.”

Henderson is by no means unusual among jazz musicians in being oblivious to the silliness and, worse, to the casual racism and misogyny informing the sensibility of the golden age of American song from which jazz draws.

H’mm. Okay. Well, Haider says it all, really, with his tart comment,

I wish I could state this with more restraint, but how dare John fucking Halle purport to know what Joe Henderson was thinking?

…But I’d thought I’d check out this track for myself and see what I could discover. It was an enjoyable investigation.

In 1967, the Blue Note label was fading fast, so JoeHen tried out Orrin Keepnews’s new venture. It seemed to be a good fit: There were a dozen Milestone JoeHen albums produced during the next decade.

For a long time, these albums were only available on CD as part of a box set Joe Henderson: The Milestone Years. So maybe that is why Halle claims that “Without a Song” is part of “a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement.”

In reality, the first two Milestone records, The Kicker and Tetragon, are utterly conventional jazz dates. Only with 1969’s Power to the People was there a turn to the four albums with an overtly political theme.

For his Milestone debut, JoeHen had a sextet: Mike Lawrence, Grachan Moncur, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, and Louis Hayes. It’s a great collection of great musicians, especially in the rhythm section.

However, for those that love experimentation, this configuration is a bit of a disappointment. It is inarguably more conservative than the bands on JoeHen’s previous classic Blue Note dates. The key figure is Louis Hayes. Mr. Hayes is one of the greatest bebop and hard-bop drummers, but no one thinks his major virtue is flexibility. Previously on Blue Note, JoeHen used Pete LaRoca, Elvin Jones, and Joe Chambers, all musicians who could bend to an avant-garde notion if needed. Mr. Hayes just isn’t that kind of player.

Not that Louis Hayes isn’t truly great. If his deep musicianship on The Kicker doesn’t satisfy, see any of his records with Horace Silver or Cannonball Adderley. My point is that the inclusion of Hayes suggests that JoeHen (or his producer) thinks this new label needs groovy sextet music in the Art Blakey and Horace Silver mold.

Trumpeter Lawrence and trombonist Moncur only get limited solo space, mostly playing on the heads and supplying backgrounds. The major soloist besides JoeHen is Kenny Barron. Despite his very young age, Barron had already been with Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody, and his playing on this album is marvelous in every detail. But just like Hayes, Barron is essentially conservative.

As far as repertoire goes, “Mamacita,” “The Kicker,” “If,” and “Mo’  Joe” are blues-based originals dispatched in fine style. More and more, I think this marriage of funk and velocity is the ultimate in jazz virtuosity. A couple of these themes were recorded before, it is interesting to compare different versions.

“Chelsea Bridge” is a revealing choice, suggesting that JoeHen’s much later album of Billy Strayhorn has more depth than one might guess, and (more importantly) also that Strayhorn’s suspended harmony really meant something to JoeHen.

“Nardis” is a rather weak attempt to make these hard-boppers play some Bill Evans-style modality. Ron Carter gets it (of course thanks to his Miles Davis training) but Louis Hayes is perhaps a bit lost. I wonder if this tune was an Orrin Keepnews suggestion, as Keepnews seemed hell-bent on getting Evans back on his new label. (Previously Evans was Keepnews’s most-beloved project on Riverside.)

“O Amor Em Paz” is a nice bossa done by João Gilberto; as far as I know this was the first jazz instrumental version. JoeHen loved not just the bossa-nova influence in jazz but also loved Stan Getz, the tenor sax player most associated with bossa. Indeed, JoeHen’s tribute to the genre, “Recorda-me,” may be his most-covered tune.

Anyway, before I get to “Without a Song”: There’s absolutely nothing about The Kicker that overtly suggests social ferment. Rather, it seems to suggest that the great records on Blue Note made a decade earlier are the correct model for happening jazz.

In his 1967 liner notes, Jack Springer says “Without a Song” is

…an old standard that Joe loves to stretch out on.

Fair enough. Jazz cats play old tunes. “Without a Song” is from 1929.

I am not an expert in how old tunes become “standards,” but when looking at the Lord discography, it seems like “Without a Song” was only taken up by jazz players after Billy Eckstine made a hit version in 1946. Being Afro-American, naturally Eckstine changed the word “darky” (or “darkie”) cited by Halle to “man.”

Every elder Afro-American jazz musician I’ve ever met reveres Billy Eckstine for being one of the most profound, sophisticated, and stylish Afro-American entertainers.

I personally believe this is why John Coltrane repeatedly made Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You” his outrageous ballad feature in the 1960’s. After all, Trane could have selected one of a thousand other non-black composers for royal deconstruction midway through his intense sets. It’s a political statement to repeatedly choose something by Eckstine.

I hasten to add, this is speculation! But if you are jazz fan who understands anything about black history, it becomes impossible not to read between the lines.

JoeHen must have known the Eckstine version of “Without a Song” as a kid. Intriguingly, that glamorous arrangement is full of chromatic chords. (I don’t know the arranger, but it is clearly someone hip to bebop.) These changes are not “Coltrane changes,” that difficult mediant movement given life by Coltrane in “Giant Steps” and other compositions and arrangements…but they aren’t so far off from mediant movement, either.

In August 1967, JoeHen had a record date. He needed to fill out the rep with an old standard. John Coltrane had just died a couple of months ago. Hey, why not arrange an old tune with Coltrane changes, just like Trane did with “How High the Moon” and “Body and Soul?” And since Trane always played that Eckstine ballad “I Want to Talk About You,” why not play one of Mr. B’s classic hits, “Without A Song,” but with Coltrane changes? Even the title suggests the loss we feel from Trane’s sudden absence…

Again, I’m speculating!

But John Halle definitely shouldn’t have seized on this track as “oblivious” politically. From where I’m sitting tonight, the 1967 JoeHen reharmonized “Without a Song” is absolutely a political statement about pretty tunes, hard bebop, Coltrane, race, velocity, and transition. If you love jazz, it’s impossible not to admire it.

At any rate, no speculation is required when listening to Louis Hayes here. Hayes plays like a man possessed! For me it is Hayes’s best performance on the album. The ferocious solos by JoeHen and Kenny Barron are great too.

Of course I get why John Halle and others are so interested in putting jazz down these days. It’s fairly moribund time, and jazz fans (like me) clearly respond to clickbait.

I also dig Halle’s leftist perspective in general. By all means let us address his list of racial inequities!

At the end of the day, though, I just can’t really accept anyone weighing in on jazz without proving that they actually love and care about the music first. In my view, musicians like Joe Henderson and Louis Hayes have never gotten the credit they deserve. Halle inadvertently reinforces the importance of JALC (an organization Halle seems to disapprove of) by fumbling around in this amateur fashion. Can you imagine the rage Wynton Marsalis has privately felt during a lifetime of trying to convince white establishment that this music deserves a proper platform and a proper elucidation?

Louis Hayes is still around: Perhaps Halle could talk to Hayes about jazz, race, and politics. Now that would be an interesting read.