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 political 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…

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. (Update: I just learned that some think “I Got Rhythm” owes its first four iconic notes to William Grant Still, and it’s true, a moment flashes by in Still’s Afro-American Symphony that is just like “Rhythm.”) There’s truth to the broadside I suggested before, 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 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 the final A-flat 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.

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.

4. Wallace Roney, “Donna Lee,” with Gary Thomas, Donald Brown, Christian McBride, and Cindy Blackman. 1990.

The jazz community has been rocked by the death of Wallace Roney yesterday. Roney wasn’t quite sixty years old; coming fairly quickly on the heels of the death of Roy Hargrove at the untimely age of 49, it really feels like the art of jazz trumpet has taken a beating.

The first time I heard Roney live it was at the Artist’s Quarter, a small club in the Twin Cities. Roney was in the Tony Williams quintet alongside Billy Pierce, Mulgrew Miller, and Robert Hurst. It was probably 1989. Although the leader was an elder, this music was part of a movement called “Young Lions” in the press. 

Part of the credo of this new wave of young virtuoso players seemed to be deliberate rejection of fusion and the avant-garde. At the start of the 80’s, many jazz musicians were plugged into amps or deeply involved with abstraction. A conventional acoustic situation like the all stars on Chick Corea’s 1981 Three Quartets with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, and Steve Gadd essentially played fusion, even when they used a swing beat. One of the most critically acclaimed groups around that time was the wonderful World Saxophone Quartet, which was so “out” that there wasn’t even a rhythm section. Steppin’ with the World Saxophone Quartet from 1979 is representative.

That had all changed by the mid-80s. 

Tony Williams had played the most extreme avant music in world: first on his early Blue Note records Life Time and Spring, later on there was a duo with Cecil Taylor. Tony also played rock-influenced jazz in the Tony Williams Lifetime, by all accounts one of the loudest “jazz” bands in history. For his ’80s quintet with Roney and Pierce, Tony went back to the general model of hard-bop, joining his master Art Blakey as a drummer-leader searching out new talent.

However, history never goes in a straight line. In the ’70s Tony had been part of VSOP, a group nominally led by Herbie Hancock including Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter. These were the leading lights the ’60s acoustic jazz; four them were part of a legendary Miles Davis quintet. The members of VSOP all played electric music starting in about 1968, but a decade later they mostly unplugged for VSOP. However, the style of VSOP remained informed by fusion and rock, something that might be called, “stadium jazz,” a kind of an outsized version of the 60s music, perhaps more suitable for outdoor concerts than for small clubs.

Eventually Herbie got both Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis in VSOP II with Ron and Tony. Wynton and Branford were two of the most important Young Lions, and in retrospect it is easy to understand that the ‘80s “straight ahead” music helmed by the Lions was really closer to VSOP than Art Blakey. (Later, Wallace Roney would get the call when Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams toured and recorded as a tribute to Miles Davis.)

In the Artist’s Quarter I couldn’t really hear either Wallace Roney or Billy Pierce so well. I could see them play, but Tony Williams was so loud that the horn lines were mostly buried in the mix. If they had been playing an outdoor concert the acoustics would have been fine. Tony chilled out a bit for some great solos by Mulgrew Miller. 

As a leader, Wallace Roney continued in the mold of the Tony Williams quintet and VSOP. His fluid and swinging trumpet lines easily outdistanced his master Miles Davis in terms of basic chops, but I personally (and perhaps wrongly) never felt he put quite enough of an individualistic stamp on what was essentially a 1965 Miles Davis trumpet style.

That said, Roney was certainly a great player. Right now I’m listening to a compelling version of McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace” from the 2013 Roney disc Understanding.

The first run of Roney albums on Muse label from 1987-90 remain important and fresh, documenting a wonderful time and place. For one thing, these Muse albums are one of the best places to appreciate Gary Thomas, a true monster of a changes player. Presumably my students are aware of the late great Mulgrew Miller, who is on the first few Roney Muses, but Donald Brown is on Obsession. Like Gary Thomas, Donald Brown was and is a great player, a great composer, a great all-around musician, but — also like Thomas — Brown has remained a bit underground in the fickle jazz industry.

The originals on the album are certainly charismatic, but I chose to highlight “Donna Lee” since it definitely doesn’t sound like the original version by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell. It sounds just like a hard-hitting Young Lions version from 1990, with the harmonic know-how of musicians like Shorter, Hubbard, Hancock, Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw being the predominant influence.

On bass is Christian McBride, all of 18 years old and sounding totally assured. On drums is Cindy Blackman, who, it must be said, is playing in a rather fusion-y style with VSOP-era Tony Williams as the predominant influence.

Tony Williams clearly loved English rock drummers like John Bonham and Ginger Baker, and Tony even helped establish the English rock/jazz guitar heroes John McLaughlin and Alan Holdsworth as important to the development of American music. I always wondered if Tony wanted to play in more rock bands. In a way, Cindy Blackman did that for Tony, as her next high-profile gig would be with Lenny Kravitz, where she played the biggest rock stages in the world.

5. Ellis Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, “Just You, Just Me/Evidence” video, 1986.


Ellis Marsalis passed yesterday at 85.  Ellis was a celebrated teacher and local hero in New Orleans, where he steadily gigged his whole life. His name doesn’t come up as an influential stylist all that often — overall he’s better known for fathering Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason — but Ellis was certainly a great jazz pianist.

Kenny Kirkland was important to Wynton and Branford. Kirkland is so charismatic that some people collect all the Wynton and Branford records just for the Kirkland piano solos. Black Codes (from the Underground) is a fabulous disc and a key document of the era. For me the highlight of that famous LP is Kirkland’s contribution.

Kirkland was older than Wynton or Branford. He’d been around the block and done top-tier gigs with personalities as diverse as Dave Liebman and Miroslav Vitous. Ellis Marsalis was also a well-rounded musician: He co-led a group with Alvin Batiste and Ed Blackwell in the 1950s; later on he made a duo record with Eddie Harris that included some strikingly avant-garde touches.

Wynton and Branford were lucky to have two experienced pianists to lean on. I wasn’t at any rehearsals, but I suspect Ellis or Kenny generally told the younger horn players what chords to use, not the other way around.

Ellis and Kenny performed duo piano for the gala concert, “Celebrating a Jazz Master: Thelonious Sphere Monk” in 1986. The pianists meet comfortably in the middle. I don’t hear any agenda or fuss, they both just play themselves, and that’s the way it should be.

On the head in of “Just You, Just Me,” an old standard from the days of yesteryear, Kenny plays descending whole-tone offbeat triplet thirds copped from Thelonious Monk’s arrangement. I personally wouldn’t do this; it is a bit blatant of a cop considering the rather mellow surroundings. Kenny uses another pure Monk-ism, a repeating whole-tone figure, at the end of the first chorus before he starts blowing. Again, not my taste, although I’m not as great a jazz player as Kenny Kirkland, so what do I know?

At any rate, these explicit borrowings bring out not just something Thelonious, but also something Afro-Cuban. Kenny really knows his Afro-Cuban, and plays those licks with that kind of attack. Of course Monk also uses Afro-Cuban music as a source, but Monk’s sound and touch are really connected to the Swing Era. Indeed, Monk’s records remain perfect for someone dancing a Fox Trot. The sound of Kenny inserting those blatant Monk-isms makes me think of Jerry Gonzalez and the Apache Band doing Monk, or Danilo Perez’s PanaMonk.

Kenny solos first, and it takes the audio engineer half a chorus to turn him up. Ellis goes second. I gotta say, Ellis is really playing great here. He’s totally unflustered by the whole deal, like his kids suddenly being superstars and playing exposed duo with the most virtuosic young blood and being onstage at the Kennedy Center. Kenny isn’t taking it easy on him, either! Indeed, the aggressive Kirkland comping borders on distracting.

Ellis is a modern jazz pianist but knows his Teddy Wilson. That’s really the difference between Ellis and Kenny. If Kenny were playing with a peer — well, Kenny Kirkland didn’t have any peers, really, but someone else of the era — there might not be enough bass motion for the song to make sense. Ellis keeps that Teddy Wilson/Hank Jones/Mary Lou Williams thing in the left going the whole time. It’s perfect.

Kenny blows again — whoa, check out some of those double-time phrases — and Ellis starts the Monk head “Evidence,” which is based on “Just You, Just Me.”  If you don’t already know: “Just You, Just Me” = “Just Us” = “Justice” = “Evidence.”

Amusingly, Kenny doesn’t want to take it out, he keeps going, so the pianists keep interacting for a few more choruses. It’s seriously swinging despite the absence of bass and drums. A joyful performance.