Sunday, May 31, 2009

Eurasian Impressions... and Mine

I was sick with the flu recently--a strain first diagnosed as Swine but eventually adjudged by the CDC as a different Type-A virus. But it reminded me that back in 1957, when my family was living in Izmir, Turkey, I actually contracted one of the first recorded cases of what came to be known as Asian Flu. This then-mystery illness gave me a hellacious fever, and I ended up dehydrated and then hospitalized, with a tube feeding me liquids.

I survived the new-found bug, obviously. What had a more lasting impact was the curious music I could hear playing somewhere down the hospital corridor... When I recovered enough to wander around, I went searching for the source--which proved to be the room of an airman cooped up with hepatitus, using his portable phonograph to play Dave Brubeck records.

Pretty much clueless at 14, I was at the time a total goner for r&b and rockabilly; Little Richard, Elvis, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, the Johnny Burnette Trio, were some of the cool cats whose discs I owned. So this weird, floating sax-and-piano stuff was a definite stretch.

But I couldn't get the sounds out of my head, and from then on I was a solid Brubeck Quartet fan, first the Fantasy albums I'd heard the airman spin, and thereafter all the popular Columbia releases too. As an AF dependent living overseas, I was especially intrigued that the Quartet had become Jazz ambassadors, regularly visiting many countries around the world. Dave's compositions "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (from Time Out), "The Golden Horn" and possibly "Nomad" (both on Jazz Impressions of Eurasia) were Turkish-inspired; and I felt an unlikely pride of kinship.

What the college fans had experienced when the early Quartet showed up in concert was what I was getting too, a taste of the excitement of improvised Jazz, which gradually led me to explore the recordings of other artists who became mainstays of my listening: Monk, Miles, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Clifford Brown, the MJQ, colossal Sonny, Stan Getz--pretty much all the usual suspects--and eventually Diz and Bird, Duke and Louis and Basie-Pres, from the earlier days as well.

But I never lost my love for Brubeck during the ensuing decades, and when I started writing for late last year, I made a point of reviewing plenty of tracks by Dave, Paul, Eugene, and Joe (and the Quartet's earlier rhythm guys too). You can read a sampling by going here; a search for "Dave Brubeck, Ed Leimbacher" yields a page of published reviews, with seven or eight pertinent to this story.

I tried to convince the boss--critic and author Ted Gioia--that an unexpected and distinctive Brubeck Dozens could be compiled from his innumerable originals, inspired by 60 years of global travel. But Gioia thought the idea too limited and frivolous (or maybe I just didn't convey the possibilities convincingly). Just as critic Doug Ramsey of Rifftides is an expert on Paul Desmond, so too Ted is a major proponent of Brubeck, from years of playing piano himself and of conducting interviews with Dave; and he is somewhat protective as a result.

But I managed to write several pieces that hinted at the possibility of a Brubeck-Around-the-World Dozens. (Maybe someone else will take up the torch.) Meantime, here's the first of two reviews I started but didn't finish--unused variations on that travels idea (with the intended tracks named in the copy):

As the Brubeck Quartet circled the globe--from India to Indiana, Austria to Australia, the USA to the USSR, and with more tours crisscrossing Europe than even he cares to recall--Dave composed dozens of tunes derived from the joys and ills the genial four encountered. A stop in India, for example, produced "Calcutta Blues," a moody piece that actually seems less gloomy than Dave's liner notes propose. (Let us note a passing irony in the nickname Paul Desmond bestowed on Dave--"The Indian"--acknowledging the pianist's part-Native American ancestry.)

Dave's Calcutta is a place of mystery and sinuous sax and cobra-setic drums...

And the second incomplete intro:

From its featured place in The Real Ambassadors, which never got much traction, the tune "Travelin' Blues" emerged as a theme Brubeck returned to occasionally. (Even a seasoned traveler like Dave gets the weary blues sometimes.) This live version recorded with one of his later groups shows a still energetic pianist who keeps on ticketing...

(Okay, so I never pass up a chance for an improvised pun. Maybe I was too frivolous for and its document-the-music mission.)

A Fiftieth Anniversary/Legacy version of Time Out has just been released--offering no outtakes from the studio sessions, but adding a long CD of fine, previously unissued live tracks from that approximate period. I bought a copy immediately, and was especially pleased by the bonus DVD with interview and on-camera solo piano by Brubeck (taped in 2003)--ol' Indomitable Dave, nearing 90 and still playing for people anywhere he can manage to travel to... and touring this summer as "Time Out--Take Fifty."

Beyond Brubeck, what matters finally is that I still crave the ever-renewing "sound of surprise" (as Jazz critic Whitney Balliet named it) that I first heard flat on my back in a Turkish hospital over 50 years ago--and which still lifts me up, sometimes, today.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Spivey Brothers Barbecue

Thinking of Kansas City and New Orleans and other cities known for spicy food as well as jazz, I concocted some barbecue baked beans a few nights ago for friends, creating a sauce on the fly from whatever was handy. They were a success (just as often not, when improvised). But if I weren't so lazy about it, I might could bake up some serious beans...

My mother's family was named Spivey. Her ancestors generations back had been plantation and slave owners but by Mom's time they were minor farmers in southcentral Georgia. She had a slew of brothers, many of whom left the farm to settle (for reasons I've forgotten) in Shreveport, Louisiana, followed eventually by Granny and Granddaddy too.

One thing the guys took with them was the Spivey love (and recipe) for barbecue, nurtured I suppose by the farm's mysterious smokehouse shed. Though the brothers held regular jobs in Shreveport, they also opened a small barbecue joint and took turns running the day-to-day operation: brewing up sauce, making amazing hot sausage, cooking the various meats, fixing heaping plates of barbecue. The "Spivey Brothers" shop became a local hit, and soon the guys were bottling and selling their popular sauce--which packed some serious heat but kept a bit of sweet there too--out of the shop at first, but then straight to Shreveport food stores, and slowly spreading out across the wider area too.

By the mid-Fifties, Spivey Brothers Barbecue Sauce was available throughout most of Louisiana. The shop was still there, but the volume of wholesale business would soon require a move to a big sauce-making plant. The brothers had also added a hot red-pepper sauce that was starting to challenge Louisiana-mainstay Tabasco (which had not yet become the worldwide phenomenon it is today). I remember riding with Granddaddy in a small silver-metal truck, delivering the sauces to stores from northwest Louisiana on down to Cajun Country.

By the early Sixties, the business had expanded further eastward, becoming a small Southeast Region success. But like many small businesses, Spivey Brothers got in debt trying to get too big too fast (by then my parents had some money invested in them too); and when Kraft Foods came sniffing around, the best financial decision--taken with much regret--was to sell the sauce business to Kraft. The brothers signed documents promising not to relaunch and never to manufacture or sell their barbecue sauce again.

This should be where the story gets even bigger, right? Kraft spreading the Spivey name across the nation? Sadly no--instead the conglomerate just killed the Spivey product line, eliminating the competition completely. I fantasized that maybe Kraft's own sauce would take on a hotter Spivey Brothers tinge, but no chance; the Kraft brand sauces have always been too sweet for my taste, at least until recently. (Present-day barbecue fans may be dictating a wider choice of heat; I haven't checked.)

And so Spivey Brothers Barbecue Sauce was lost to the world...

Well, not completely. Some of my Spivey cousins have kept the original recipe alive; and I have Mom's youngest brother Bobby's partly handwritten directions--makes serious stuff, nearly three gallons of sauce at a time, uses one good ol' Southern source for sugar (bottles of Coca-Cola!), might curl your toes and spice up your nights if you ever got to sample it...

Sorry, can't tell you any more. My sauce-singed lips are sealed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Missing the Bus

Marc Myers at had an intriguing post the other day (here), regarding Charles Mingus and his sometimes controversial jazz compositions (at least those exhibiting a boldly political slant). Marc focussed particularly on "Fables of Faubus"--its angry lyrics and churning music.

Yet we know that Mingus had a way of revising his pieces on the fly, again and again, his tunes and arrangements evolving continuously. And Sue Mingus says he never fixed on any one text when words were part of a composition too. "Definitive" Mingus performances aren't often that, but instead just a matter of a moment in time and of tape running in a studio.

Mingus was not alone, of course, in addressing racism and events of the Civil Rights era. Satch spoke out; Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone sang out; Duke wrote carefully; Rollins and Roach, Coltrane and Shepp and others issued their "freedom suites" and tributes with other titles. Marches and sit-ins and freedom rides, mounting tension in Selma and Little Rock, bombs in Birmingham, murders in Mississippi, the later assassinations of the Kennedys and King... the list of horrors and astonishing acts of bravery is endless and likely timeless, and jazz musicians have chimed in often over the decades.

But contemplating the albums and tracks and titles, I came up with none honoring the 1955-56 Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, when weary Rosa Parks was too tired to move to the back of the bus yet again, and a young church leader named Martin Luther King was soon decisively taking charge. (The Neville Brothers' "Sister Rosa" remains a fine r&b tribute.)

I was living in Montgomery for that one year (father in the USAF, stationed at Maxwell). Though I was a thoughtless pre-teen cowed by the South in general, I can well remember black people walking everywhere, and a few white drivers including my parents giving them lifts to work or the grocery or across town to some other destination.

The Brown v. Board of Education court decision of 1954 had opened the door to integration, but not many folks tried to walk through till Parks sat down and King stepped forward. Maybe the action was too diffuse, the racial tension largely absent, because those Montgomery folks were refusing something and not yet demanding, absenting themselves rather than getting in the face of the white establishment. Even so, surely the boycott merits some remembrances in jazz too...

It's likely such compositions exist and I just haven't come across them, or have forgotten titles once known, but until someone enlightens me further (and please do), I remain puzzled by such loud silence.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Beware the Jazzerwhack

My time at has ended with a sorry thud. I resigned a few days ago. Here's why:

For the first several months whatever I wrote was carefully read and occasionally improved by an editor named Alan Kurtz, one of those gents who works to better the writer's submission by asking questions, suggesting slight rewrites, finally polishing a bit if still necessary--shaping a better Ed-piece, as it were.

A month ago I was reassigned to a person I will now call Frumious Bandersnatch. He is the opposite sort of editor--the sort who slashes and rewrites to make the piece fit a prescribed length and sound more like the editor than the source writer. He asks no questions, gives no information, edits to suit himself, and then submits the finished product without allowing the writer a chance to read or object. Frumious has mangled eight or ten of my reviews now, and I finally got tired of bitching and getting nowhere, either with him or with mainman Ted Gioia, who quickly tired of my complaints.

So I quit. No loss to the website; a small, proud-but-useless gesture on my part. Too bad. I liked what was and is doing, just not what they were doing to me.

Probably only another writer will appreciate the rest of this story, but I have stubbornly now decided to post several of my last efforts in the original versions, here at my blog, along with links to the reviews as rewritten by Frumious. Readers are welcome to compare and decide for themselves if I am just oversensitive and egocentric, or maybe actually justified.

First exhibit is Gil Scott-Heron's "Winter in America," one of 12 Americana Jazz pieces I was compiling for a feature called The Dozens. (Ironically, this is the one review Frumious actually wrote me about, asking me to lengthen my original by 50 words or so, which I did. He then proceeded to cut the whole thing!) Here's the version I submitted:

Poet, vocalist, and proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron has experienced something of a career revival during the last decade. Eclipsed in the Eighties and early Nineties, he is now acknowledged as a major influence on several developments in Black Music and today's soul jazz as well. (It's easy to imagine that Cassandra Wilson, for one, considered Gil and the Midnight Band before finding her own path.) One of Scott-Heron's finest statements is "Winter in America," an image-driven portrait of the icy stasis gripping the nation in the early Seventies--after the assassinations and riots, after Watergate and Vietnam.

First there was an album of that name on Strata-East but no song (Scott-Heron considered the three words simply an evocative image, not a subject for music), then he composed an actual "Winter in America" for his Arista debut, The First Minute of a New Day. But this studio effort didn't really jell until tour performances (and some live recordings) crystalized its powerful message. Still, one version looms distinct. A bonus track on the New Day CD reissue, the "Winter" of 1978 is both cooler and stronger as Gil works alone, his voice and electric piano only. The keyboard work is basic, the rhythm mostly staccato, the melody slightly flattened out, yet a cold beauty and several hard truths obtain: "...a nation that just can't stand much more... democracy is rag-time on the corner, hopin' for some rain... peace signs that melted in our dreams... all of our healers have been killed or betrayed... ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

The picture is bleak but the music haunts and compels, and the verbal tropes still resound today, 30 years farther (or maybe no farther) on...

And here is the link:

Next is the final entry in the Americana Dozens, which I wrote carefully to end a certain way (the unnecessary rewrite adds poor grammer there instead):

After the sturm und drang of 80 chaotic years--wars and demonstrations, riots and space walks, Depression and recession and more, all of them reflected (and sometimes rejected) in the sound of jazz and the souls of musicians of each era--it's a momentary grace to come upon Charlie Haden's "American Dreams." In the Liberation Music Orchestra albums his political activism remains a resolute force. But here the statement is simply peaceful, a piano trio performance by Haden, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade, embraced by a 34-piece string orchestra. (Co-billed tenor man Michael Brecker lays out on this track.)

Low strings announce the heartbeat thuds of Haden's stately lift-and-settle-back melody, then the strings fall away and in a light 4/4 Mehldau plays lovely variants of the theme, Charlie staying quiet and Blade flicking and switching around Brad's resonating notes, till the bass and strings resume their calm, earth-coming-to-rest pulse. Both rise then in a slow crescendo... followed by a swift dying fall and Haden's deep time going silent. His song-without-words has conjured images of the shifting clouds and colors of a sunset under Western skies, and somehow an America once more worthy of the dreams of its people.

And the Bandersnatched revise:

Now the opening of a planned new Dozens devoted to New Orleans piano masters over the century of Jazz:

New Orleans piano didn't start with Jelly Roll Morton, who paid his own respects to such earlier Storyville habitues as Sammy Davis and Tony Jackson, but the self-styled "Inventor of Jazz" was first to record, and his subsequent decades of success probably helped inspire other Creole pianists like Joe Robicheaux and Armand Hug. Meanwhile, Morton's 1940 Library of Congress recordings (filling seven CDs) make for fascinating listening as he plays and sings and recounts the long and winin'-boy history of NOLA music.

The track titled "New Orleans Blues" serves double duty. It's a syncopated number with traces of ragtime and the sporting parlor amidst a flowing series of variations that eventually lead to a restrained stomp-it-off finish. Jelly Roll states that he pulled the tune together about 1902 (helped by older players Joe Jordan and Frank Richards), but on this recording he uses it to introduce a multi-part dissection of "the Spanish tinge" in jazz, that taste of tango/habanera rhythm that may actually date back to pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Yes or no, the "tinge" has been the bed-rocking foundation of New Orleans music ever since. Morton talks and plays, demonstrating how the semi-Latin beat needed to move from the right hand to the left, to create a solid base/bass for jazz (as the new music would come to be named), which would then allow the piano in the right hands to be brisk or bluesy or ballad slow.

As Jelly rolls on, we get to hear him interpret "La Paloma" as well as his own Spanish-tinged tunes "Creepy Feeling" and "The Crave." He may have been a braggart, but Morton was also a brilliant pianist (and singer) and prolific composer who lived his life con brio, and the LoC tapes are proof positive.

The Frumious link:

And finally the second piano review, this one of boxer-turned-bluesman Jack Dupree:

A New Orleans favorite since never-recorded pianist "Drive 'Em Down" (Willie Hall) played it in the streets in the Twenties, "Junker's Blues" was finally put on disc in 1941 by Hall's two-fisted protege, Champion Jack Dupree. Jack's rough barrelhouse style fit the down-and-dirty, drug-user lyrics to a T, and NOLA musicians have been casually borrowing lines or tune ever since that first 78 was issued (Fats Domino's debut single "The Fat Man," Lloyd Price singing "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," even "Tipitina" by Professor Longhair, plus umpteen versions reworked as "Junco Partner"). But the Dupree cut is still rawest and best.

"They call me a junco, 'cause I'm loaded all the time"--that's his cheerful opening line, and Jack keeps up the bouncy, pounding, percolating blues piano while he namechecks wine, reefer, needles, cocaine, and other junk, not to mention jail time. Your mom's melody and words this isn't, but the lines eventually find Jack's mother and father, even his grandma, trying to warn him off the stuff...

There's no happy ending, just some final flinty barrelhouse chords, and a blues song that became a hit and a template. The irony is that Dupree supposedly never used anything stronger than liquor, and not much of that. He just loved to clown and play the boogie and make "the peoples" smile. Startling as the subject still may be, "Junker's Blues" does just that.

And the rewrite that broke the camel's back (and notice the word and sentence deletions--why scrap "two-fisted," for instance, a perfect adjective for boxer/barrelhouser Dupree?):

So there's the stuff. One might argue that the revised versions still keep the meat and potatoes of each review. But the gravy is gone; that's how I see it--"It is a poor thing, but mine own." No doubt I over-reacted, but I just don't think any editor should treat a writer like chattel, some pest to be ignored. And I don't back down until persuaded of some error or ineptitude.

Editors...can't work with 'em, can't delete 'em.