Notes from an Autobiography

Floyd Camembert Reports is dead, long live Transitional Technology. In the early days of the old newsletter, I put in a few autobiographical bits, which I’ll post again here:

I take kind of a personal interest in Scientology because my first job in New York in the fall of 1991 was with a group of Scientologists. Fresh of the haytruck from Wisconsin, I landed in a cult.

Actually “cult” makes it sound worse than it was. Everyone in the National Improvisational Theater was very nice, and some of the actors were extremely talented. Their show was every Monday night in Chelsea and it was improv comedy: skits, songs, and lots of audience participation. I learned a lot. If you’ve heard me improvise a song accompaniment for Reid at a TBP gig, that’s the sort of thing I first did with NIT.

NIT wasn’t that successful, the audiences were smallish, my pay was $20 for a gig. It was good money for me in those days, my main food source was a dozen day-old bagels for a dollar.

When I started at NIT I didn’t know about their connection to the religion. After a few months they revealed the truth and placed a fair amount of pressure on me to join. I didn’t want to become a Scientologist, but I wanted to keep playing the gig.

One of our one-off performances was at the midtown Celebrity Centre where I got tested by an E-meter. I recall this being one of the best gigs, with a nice-sized audience and lots of laughs. There were fancy photos of Celebrity Scientologists on the walls, including a big one of Chick Corea.

A few weeks later NIT offices received a letter to me from Corea. Or maybe it wasn’t from him, maybe it was from a minion, how would I know? At any rate it was a handwritten letter saying that he had heard that I was talented and that he was looking forward to meeting me someday, maybe on a Celebrity Cruise. Signed, “Chick Corea.”

I was 19…for about an hour I was like, “Wow, Chick Corea wants to hear me play!” before realizing that he just wanted to help get me in the church.

I left the NIT soon after, it was just too weird.

When I’ve had to meet Chick professionally over the years, I keep my distance, worried that he’ll ask me to join Scientology again.

———

During the 90’s I worked frequently as a dance class accompanist. Eventually I ended up trying out for Mark Morris. Mark is easy to play class for: he’s very energetic and fun, and all of the Morris dancers have good rhythm.

Eventually Mark asked me not to play just class but be the rehearsal pianist for a full Morris production of Rameau’s Plateé. I’d never done anything like that but how hard could it be? Just read a few bars of baroque music over and over at a time, right?

At the first rehearsal, nothing much happened except Mark playing everybody the complete opera on the stereo. It was nice music, and I followed along with the score, relieved that it wasn’t going to be too hard.

To my surprise, when I checked something against the piano, the piano’s A was more like an A flat on the record. I had heard that baroque performance used a lower tuning than modern A=440, but this was my first time encountering it in a professional situation.

At the end, I went up to ask Mark about the discrepancy between piano and the recording. He was changing, and I accidentally caught him right in between dance clothes and street clothes. Indeed, he was entirely naked when he got interested in my question, stopped doing anything else, and offered a learned and extended disquisition on 440, 415, and the varieties of contemporary interpretation of baroque pitch.

I listened carefully, and at the end said, “You know, Mark, I’ve never discussed intonation with a naked man before.”

Mark gave me a wicked grin and replied, “Stick around, baby!”

Which I did: Not long after the premiere of Plateé, I became Mark’s music director for over five years.

RIP Harvey Lichtenstein. I performed at his 1999 farewell party “The Harvey Gala” with Mark Morris. It was amazing night of stars including Paul Simon, Philip Glass, and Lou Reed, and there I was listed in the program: Zwei Harveytänze: choreography and performance, Mark Morris; music: Raskin (“Laura”), arr. by Ethan Iverson, Iverson (“Flatbush stomp”); music performed by Iverson. (My piece “Flatbush Stomp” was kind of a Monkish boogie woogie.)

I remember a lot about this event, even odd details about the people at the podium. When André Gregory (My Dinner with André) got up to take a turn as MC, he spent the first ten minutes off on a tangent about the time he wrote Audrey Hepburn a fan letter and she wrote him back. This made no sense in the context of the evening as a whole, maybe he was drunk. Then when Harvey himself appeared at the podium near the end he wheezed, coughed and huffed for a few long minutes before being able to speak; we were worried he was going to keel over.

As far as the actual performances: the most shocking thing during “The Harvey Gala” was just how loud Lou Reed and his band were. They horrified the whole audience except the true believers. I was also surprised how many wrong notes Philip Glass played in his piano etudes. (It’s easy to tell when there’s a wrong note in that repertoire.) Dave Douglas offered an all-star group backing Trisha Brown that night, but I remember better a full Brown/Douglas dance at Joyce the previous season, a very cool show. For me the personal highlight of the gala was watching Steve Gadd play with Paul Simon. I see from the list of performers at WorldCat that Chris Botti was in the horn section.

RIP Clyde Stubblefield. The fabulous Funky Drummer inspired James Brown on so many hits and had an unexpected second act when his beats were frequently sampled by hip-hop artists decades later.

I crossed paths with Stubblefield once as a youngster.

Wisconsin jazz violinist Randy Sabien hired me a few times when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. Sabien also played at Menomonie High with his regular quartet that included Stubblefield, who at that time was a jobbing musician living in Madison doing whatever paid (including, rumor had it, country music gigs). This was maybe 1988: I knew who Stubblefield was from James Brown but his fame as “the man who gave hip-hop its syncopation” was still slightly in the future (or if it was already happening I hadn’t heard about it yet).

Even more than the Harvey gala, I wish I could go back and hear that little high school auditorium gig again. What did Stubblefield sound like in that group, which was not “funk” but “jazz?” I remember having a really positive impression. As far as I know he’s not on any straight-ahead records. However, his famous 60s funk tracks with Brown were definitely on a small jazz kit and his touch was nice and light (at least compared to 70s funk drummers) so he was suited to be jazz drummer as well. At the least, Stubblefield was surely one of the greatest jazz drummers in Wisconsin at that time — which, admittedly, is not saying all that much. Still. Clyde Stubblefield. Damn!

Since I had played a bit with Sabien, he generously asked me to sit in on a blues. I can’t remember who else was in the band, I was just paying attention to Stubblefield.

So that is how it came to be that Clyde Stubblefield was the first Afro-American professional musician I shared a bandstand with, for one tune when I couldn’t have possibly been more green. Not only that, he gifted me with a little kick in the pants. For my solo, he and the bassist doubled the tempo. They clearly talked about it in advance: “When it’s the kid’s turn to play, let’s go twice as fast.” I stayed calm, played my Monk-type things fine and didn’t lose the form. Afterwards I remember Stubblefield gave me a smile.

A great lesson: When you go up to sit in, know that the band might not take it easy on you.

By the end of high school my constant imitation was too much. Thelonious Monk himself came to me in a dream and told me to quit the charade. Monk, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey (who had just passed) came back from the dead to play one last trio gig. Monk played many more notes than his living style, Coltrane many fewer notes than his living style, and Blakey was lighter and less theatrical, more like Billy Higgins. It was a great gig! (They sure didn’t need a bass player.) For the encore, Monk came out and played one of his utterly magnificent solo ballads, a cross between a hymn and sentimental love letter, stamped in burnished gold with his trademark acidic harmony. I was so moved by the encore I wept and went backstage. When I found Monk I interrupted him with his friends and begged, “How do you do that?”

He looked at me, his face nothing but irritation, perhaps even contempt. “You just need to go to church,” he curtly explained before turning back to his crew.

When I woke up, it was clear that the message was, “Better try to be yourself, because you will never be Monk.”

If you want to support Do the Gig and Do the Math and also get updates about gigs, masterclasses, and new DTM posts, subscribe to Transitional Technology.

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Ethan Iverson’s Home Page

Do the Gig is the weekly listing of everybody playing in New York.

Bio and press quotes are here. 

Subscribe to my newsletter, Transitional Technology, here.

Selected upcoming gigs of my own:

The rest of March and all of April: MMDG in UK. Guardian preview and interview.

May 3-4 trio with Ron Carter and Al Foster at Zinc Bar

May 8–11 Mark Morris Dance Group Pepperland at BAM in Brooklyn

Do the Math is over fifteen years old and runs over a million words. The most significant posts are “pages” and organized by topic.

Interviews: Over 40 discussions, mostly with musicians: Billy Hart, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Marc-André Hamelin, Carla Bley, Wynton Marsalis, many others.

Consult the Manual: Essays especially for students.

Rhythm and Blues: Jazz music essays, including major pieces on McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Geri Allen, Bud Powell, Lester Young, many others.

Sonatas and Études: Classical music essays, including major pieces on Glenn Gould and Igor Stravinsky.

Newgate Callendar: A look at a few of my favorite crime writers like Donald E. Westlake and Charles Willeford.

If you want to support Do the Gig and Do the Math and also get updates about gigs, masterclasses, and new DTM posts, subscribe to Transitional Technology.

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Deep Song

In New York City we are currently in the middle of Winter Jazz Fest, a time when the greatest musicians near and far swarm the city and play short sets in dozens of venues. This year the explicit mandate is “Jazz and Social Justice,” a phrase that has become popular since the last presidential election.

If “Jazz and Social Justice” has a theme song, it surely would be John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” a wonderful track originally included on Live at Birdland. Wikipedia claims that the composition, “…Was written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, an attack by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four African-American girls.”

Wikipedia is probably not wrong, but Coltrane wasn’t overwhelmingly explicit. In the original liner notes, Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) writes:

“Bob Thiele asked Trane if the title ‘had any significance to today’s problems.’ I suppose he meant literally. Coltrane answered, ‘It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.’ Which is to say, Listen.”

Reportedly the other members of Coltrane’s quartet did not know the title or the meaning of “Alabama” at the time of tracking. The only other time Coltrane played the piece seems to have been on the television show Jazz Casual, an occasion where Coltrane did not address the audience.

However, the point of just how much Coltrane himself tied the bombing to his composition is mostly moot, for every single glorious note recorded together by Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones strikes a blow for social justice. The story behind “Alabama” is actually told in any Coltrane performance. Whether they read about “Alabama” or not, any John Coltrane fan has a chance to embrace multiplicity and learn about American history simply by listening to his records.

Coltrane was sympathetic to Baraka and other civil rights leaders; he also supported the best players of ‘60s avant-garde jazz, some of which was explicitly tethered to civil rights protest. In 1965 a concert benefiting the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School was held at New York’s Village Gate. Baraka was deeply involved in the concert and then wrote the notes for the resultant album, The New Wave In Jazz.

All the musicians performing at Gate that night were fabulous, but Coltrane was the biggest star, and only his picture is on the cover of the LP. Coltrane could have played anything he wanted, but he chose to introduce a marvelous rendition of “Nature Boy,” a standard by Eden Ahbez (a real oddball in the in the history of American music) made famous by Nat King Cole.

The lyric to “Nature Boy” concludes, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”

18/19

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w. Dayna Stephens, Ben Street, Ingrid Jensen, Lewis Nash

Happy New Year!

I’m about to play in a new configuration with Eva Klesse and Phil Donkin in Germany. I heard Eva at a clinic last year and thought she was really swinging. To my delight she said that seeing Tootie Heath with Ben Street and me at the Vanguard was an important moment in her development. I haven’t met Phil yet but I’m sure these three nights are going to be at a high level.

January 3 Loft (Cologne)
Jan. 4 naTo (Leipzig)
Jan. 5 Jazz Club Tonne (Dresden)

January 7 I’m back working in NYC,  playing the Blue Note in Francisco Mela’s group with Hery Paz and John Hébert. On January 10 it’s the late night set at Smalls with Aaron Seeber and Simón Willson.

The Billy Hart Quartet with Dayna Stephens, Ben Street and me is part of the ECM stage at Winter Jazzfest on January 12. (Mark Turner will resume tenor duties with the BHQ starting the 29th of January at the Village Vanguard.)

January 19 I’m with Andreas Toftemark’s group at the Red Room in the East Village. January 25 I’m duo piano with Lewis Porter in Lexington, MA.

Last year, the first “freelance” year after 17 years with the Bad Plus, was surprisingly busy. The big projects included MMDG Pepperland, Concerto for Scale, Ethan Iverson in London, Bud Powell in the 21st Century, and the ECM release Temporary Kings with Mark Turner. I also realized long term dreams of playing with Miranda Cuckson and Al Foster. Thanks to all who tuned in.

2018 gigs in review:

JANUARY

11 panel on jazz and race with Wynton Marsalis at JALC
12 panel (moderator only) with Kenny Barron, Joanne Brackeen, Harold Mabern at JALC
14 Pat Zimmerli “Clockworks” w. Chris Tordini and John Hollenbeck at APAP
19-20 w. Houston Person and Chris Smith at Mezzrow
30 w. Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver at Korzo

FEBRUARY

8-11 Billy Hart 4tet (BHQ) w. Ben Street and Mark Turner at Jazz Standard
17-18 Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) Pepperland Seattle
21 MMDG Pepperland Portland
22 solo Portland jazz fest
24 MMDG Pepperland Toronto
28 BHQ San Antonio

MARCH

1 BHQ Outpost Albuquerque
2 BHQ Santa Fe
9-10 w. Joe Sanders and Jorge Rossy at Duc du Lombards, Paris
12-15 w. Joe Sanders and Jorge Rossy in Italy
28 Sophia Rosoff memorial concert

APRIL

6 “Concerto to Scale” with American Composers Orchestra at Zankel Hall
14 “Clockworks” w Pat Zimmerli at Merkin Hall
17 w. Billy Harper, Buster Williams, Billy Hart at Jazz Standard

APRIL 20 – MAY 5 tour with Martin Speake 4tet w. Fred Thomas and James Madden

MAY

10 MMDG Pepperland Santa Barbara
12 MMDG Pepperland La Jolla
17 w. Josephine Bode and Dodó Kis at Moers Festival

MAY 29 — JUNE 3 BHQ with Chris Potter at Village Vanguard

JUNE

15-16 w. Ron Carter at Mezzrow
21-22 MMDG Pepperland New Haven
24 w. Miranda Cuckson Spectrum
26 w. Dayna Stephens, Thomas Morgan, Eric McPherson at Korzo
28 – 30 MMDG Pepperland Dartmouth

JULY

2 Lorraine Gordon Memorial

4-25 BHQ featuring Josh Redman European tour
Getxo Jazz Festival
Noches del Botanico (Madrid)
Casa da Musica (Porto)
Funchal Jazz Festival
North Sea Jazz Festival
Umbria Jazz
Nice Jazz Festival
Montalcino Jazz & Wine Festival
Souillac en Jazz
New Morning (Paris)
Festival Jazz La Spezia
Langnau Jazz Nights
Dinant Jazz

SEPTEMBER

7-8 w. Dayna Stephens, Thomas Morgan, Eric McPherson at Jazz Gallery

13-20 duo w. Mark Turner
Baltimore
Chicago
Minneapolis
New York
Cambridge

27-30 MMDG Pepperland Berkley

OCTOBER

5 w. Miranda Cuckson Spectrum

10-18 duo w. Mark Turner
Denver
Santa Cruz
LA
Portland
New Orleans

23-31 duo w. Mark Turner
Paris
Milan
Florence
Ferrara
Rome
Madrid
Barcelona
Rikevorsel

NOVEMBER

10-11 Dance Heginbotham “Easy Win” Boston

16-18 “Ethan Iverson in London” Raising Hell with Henry Purcell, Ethan and the British Composers, Ethan’s Last Rent Party

23-25 BHQ w. Dayna Stephens In Mexico
Mazatlan
Mexico City
Cuernavaca

DECEMBER

5 The Year in Jazz: A Critics Roundtable led by Nate Chinen w. Kira Grunenberg, Matthew Kassel, and John Murph
7 w. Christian McBride and Al Foster at Zinc Bar
18 w. Dayna Stephens, Ben Street, and Eric McPherson at Korzo
29-31 “Bud Powell in the 21st Century” w. Ingrid Jensen, Dayna Stephens, Ben Street, Lewis Nash, and the Umbria Jazz Orchestra in Orvieto