Sunday, November 4, 2007

I Witnessed Music (Part 1)

Over a 50-year stretch of time, I've managed to see a goodly number of historically important musicians. Writing about a few of them may be of interest...

As I noted in an early blog chapter, I was living in Montgomery during the Bus Boycott and the rise of Elvis, whose original rockabilly music and later more pop-oriented records I still love today. But sadly, stupidly, I never managed to catch him live until his sorry, unhealthy later days. Still, by the mid-Fifties I was buying Long Play albums rather than 45s (Fats Domino's great Rockin' n' Rollin', The Johnny Burnett Trio's amazing lone release, the first Little Richard and Bo Diddley LPs, and Elvis's first two are a sample), but living overseas from 1956 to 1958 kept me away from the classic concerts and tours that were crisscrossing much of the U.S. in the first great explosion of rock 'n roll.

By the time I returned to the States, music was already moving on into its Folkie period, with the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte, and others (I did catch Harry live then but I don't remember anything besides his fine voice and polished stage show). The most satisfying of my first live events instead was a pair of high school dances, one with Tacoma's original Wailers of "Tall Cool One" fame playing--two Wailers were students at the same school I was attending--and the other a Prom night with the astonishing, brass-blaring Stan Kenton Orchestra alternating between (to my uneducated ears) dissonant Jazz and simpler music for dancing. Also, while in San Francisco, briefly checking out the Beat Scene (I was 16), I did venture into the Hungry i for an evening of Lenny Bruce, back when he was still uproariously funny rather than stridently political, plus Barbara Dane and Glenn Yarbrough (pre-Limeliters).

Came Fall 1960 and I was off to college in the Chicago area, where I soon heard Bob Dylan on the radio, but didn't actually see him live until a serendipitous few minutes at a Joan Baez concert a couple of years later, when the pure-voiced singer brought him out from the wings for a few duets. He was cool and Chaplin-charming in his cap and black leather gear that night, vindicating (so I arrogantly thought) my early interest in his records.

I still hadn't learned enough to know Chicago as the center of urban, electrified Blues, so the only concerts I remember from that scholarship-student, 1960-1962 period were a pair situated in an odd warehouse-like venue I had heard about somehow. A ticket holder arriving at this North Side location saw a brick building with windowless facade and a ground floor door, minimally signed, which led to a long, narrow flight of stairs heading up to a large, echoing open space filled with folding chairs. But once there I got to see both ends of the popular Black Music spectrum: Ray Charles and His Orchestra, and The Modern Jazz Quartet! Margie was still a Raelette then, and the band's arrangements were brilliant and oh-so-soulful, with Ray doing his patented swaying on the piano bench. Greatness. And I loved the elegance and carefully arranged chamber Jazz of the John Lewis-led MJQ. (Saw Milt Jackson alone many years later, but his mallet control had diminished some by then.)

I soon transferred to the University of Washington, and then began writing rock criticism, so my live-music outings increased fourfold. Best to organize these "greatest hits" by genre maybe, starting with rockabilly originals I saw over the next decade or so: Jerry Lee Lewis tearing up the place, pounding the piano with his feet, dancing on top of it, and kicking his bench across the stage; garbed-in-black Johnny Cash in his great heyday touring with boppin'-the-blues Carl Perkins, June Carter Cash, and the Tennessee Two; plus Eighties wannabes like Robert Gordon and the Stray Cats.

Blues greats... While I missed out on Chicago, I did see Muddy with Johnny Winter years later, and Bo Diddly (I actually cut a commercial with Bo); and over the years I caught powerful sets by Bobby Blue Bland (his choke/snort vocalizing a soulful treat), B.B. King (in fine voice, still on his feet in those days to wrest bluesy cries from Lucille), and Ice-cool guitarman Albert Collins--Robert Cray too when his album with Collins enabled Cray's own breakout. But more importantly, in the mid-Sixties, thanks to the U.W.'s Ethnomusicology Department, a handful of Country Blues giants journeyed out to Seattle, and I got to stare flabbergasted at separate performances by elders Son House, Bukka White, and Furry Lewis, all still up to much good. (These shows were videotaped and many years later became major archival sources for Blues historians.) Lightnin' Hopkins was in there too, lazily drawling his crafty story-songs. And gravel-voiced Blues-revivalist Taj Mahal still comes to Seattle yearly.

The U.W. also hosted some amazing Jazz concerts over the decades, with the two standouts being the Charles Lloyd Quartet back when Keith Jarrett was the pianist, and the stunning earth-to-space music of the post-Ornette Coleman group known as Old and New Dreams, that great quartet of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell, plus Dewey Redman valiantly filling in for Ornette. In a similar Free Jazz vein, I swung and swayed through a rousing, high-stepping performance by the World Saxophone Quartet--David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Hamiett Bluiett--at a U.District tavern.

For some reason Seattle has always been a good place for Jazz--starting way back with Jelly Roll Morton, through Big Band visits in the Swing era, to Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, both of whom lived here for periods of time, to Stan Getz who got arrested here in his Fifties junkie days, and still later to local-boys-made-good Larry Coryell and Jimi Hendrix (who could play Jazz as well as every other guitar sound). Many clubs came and went over the years, but Jazz Alley's three different locations (starting back in 1979) make it the longest-lived holdout now. As a newly divorced man (1980 on), I spent many a night hanging out at the Alley in all its locations, eyes and ears opened wider, mesmerized by sets from Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner... and many many others over the ensuing three decades of the club's existence.

But I'll end today's jaunt down music's Memory Lane with two remembrances of Miles Davis... The first time I saw him was in the mid-Sixties, at a basement club in Seattle's Pioneer Square area, his backing group the famous second quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams--titans all. The music was complex and sometimes stop/start jagged, but it swung me into better health, even when Miles amusingly pulled his regular stunts of turning his back on the audience, leaving the stage during other players' solos, and so on.

The second event was even better, or maybe I just mean stranger: this was about 1969 or '70, and Miles had moved on, helping to solidify Fusion Jazz. His group by then had Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Michael Henderson, Airto, and other now-familiar names--basically the band that played the famous Cellar Door Sessions. And in retrospect, now familiar with those players, I remember most of them here for his concert at Seattle Center's original Arena, with the band set up theater-in-the-round fashion.

When the lights dimmed, all the cats strolled out one by one (no Miles yet), sat down or settled into place, and started tuning up, just tootling around--or so we thought--except that they continued on, found a groove, and then out came Miles, joining right in with his spare tone and few notes placed... just... so. The one tune went on and on, maybe 40 minutes without pause. And then Miles stopped and sauntered off, and one by one so did each player, until drummer DeJohnette hit a final snare or whatever, got up and left.

The concert was over. No bows, no encore, the end! Just so cool. Miles always knew how to play a crowd...

((Next time the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and whoever--Cream to Clash, Marley to Emmy Lou.))

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