Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stealin', Stealin': Blues, Jazz, and Reggae

I was half-hearing some other car's radio while waiting in the ferry boat line recently and thought I was listening to one of those obscure Reggae albums I'd been touting a few weeks back. Then I realized I was actually hearing Los Lobos play and sing their excellent tune "A Matter of Time." This unlikely confluence of melodies and arrangements got me to thinking about borrowing in the arts versus outright theft, from the parodies of Pope and maybe Byron, to Joyce building Ulysses on the plot of The Odyssey; from the Broadway musical On the Town too quickly recycled as Hit the Deck, to Spartacus battling back as Gladiator; from Picasso incessantly reworking Velasquez and Goya, to Warhol and Lichtenstein craftily copying comics and Pop culture.

Versions of such impoverished copycatting came at us from all directions as the twentieth century clumped along, Hot wars or Cold (or undeclared), exploration turned exploitation, advertising morphed into franchising, Gehrig and DiMaggio traded for bobbleheads with agents, statesmen replaced by corporate lobbyists, your neighborhood bank become a global vault of greed (was crazy Ezra Pound right about the immoral influence of usury all along?), giants of the past diminished by Post-Modernist irony (and Right Wing revisionism), politricksters of the present reduced by their own actions to the height of stupidity.

But I'm supposed to be talking about the arts. So think of Gershwin versus Connick. (Better to compare him with composer/player George than with standard-setting vocalist Frank.) Consider either Hepburn yielding her role to, say, Lindsay Lohan; or Tarantino lionized rather than Hawks or Hitchcock. Ella gone GaGa. Kenny G more popular than Charlie P. If that's too passe, then the Marsalis clan replacing those Jones boys, Elvin and Thad and Hank. Even standing on the shoulders of past heroes, the current stars don't really measure up.

But let's examine some comparisons in more depth. I mentioned Pound. Well, T.S. Eliot famously dedicated the Ezra-edited version of The Waste Land to him, thanking Pound as "il miglior fabbro," which loosely translates to "the better fabricator" or "craftsman," but some said in slang it really meant "the better thief." (Early drafts released in the Seventies revealed that Eliot was even more of a cad and bigot than previously known; Pound had cut the poem by half.) The Waste Land became hugely popular and a template for the century's literature, suggesting that outright quotations, lines borrowed from other authors but deftly rewritten, not-very-subtle mockery and put-downs of others (women, Jews, the working class maybe) were all now fair game in serious writing.

Joyce agreed, apparently. At least, his big novels are rich with parodies of famous authors, fiction tropes and writing styles, ad slogans and political speeches and what-you-will. (The earlier Will indulged in some of the same, three hundred years before.) Around 1941, English poet Henry Reed (whose lovely and comical "Naming of Parts" and the others in his "Lessons of the War" group are often considered the best poems to come out of World War II) wrote the most famous parody poem of the century, titled "Chard Whitlow," gently mocking Eliot's later, more philosophical style. Reed's poem opens drolly: "As we get older we do not get any younger./ Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,/ And this time last year I was fifty-four,/ And this time next year I shall be sixty-two." (Eliot later declared that Reed's poem sounded more like Eliot than he did himself!)

I may have subconsciously drawn on Reed's example--in the mid-Sixties he was my mentor in poetry at the University of Washington and also godfather to my daughter--when several years later I became the producer and chief writer for the regionally famous series of Rainier Beer ads, especially the radio spots (my personal pride and joy), less familiar to beer fans because Rainier booked them only on smaller-market stations. (The Rainier ad campaigns ran from 1972 until the late Eighties, and were hugely popular, admired for being creative and amusing, unique at the time, and cheaply produced.)

Our modus operandi for Rainier was a mix of parody and homage: revisiting Casablanca and Merrill Lynch and Archie Bunker, Rose Marie and The Waltons and 20-Mule Team Borax, and much more (on television); plus Elvis and DEVO, Tom Waits and Ray Charles, the Johnny Burnette Trio and the Supremes, among a score of other radio spots. My own forte was writing a witty, beer-related storyline paralleling the original song and using its rhythm; and then the musicians could work out a tune reminiscent of that same original but not copying it note for note. For better or worse, we got away with such careful mockery--some would say theft--for a dozen years!

But not long after that, the rules governing parody and pastiche and copyright got a whole lot stricter. There were some new wrinkles still to come... but first we need to rewind to 1902 or so.

Black musician W.C. Handy heard some guy on a railroad platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi, singing an eerie but catchy number and playing it on his guitar using a piece of metal; Handy made a mental note. A few years later he recreated that melody for use in a political campaign, and then someone else added lyrics, and Handy copyrighted it as "The Memphis Blues," the first Blues tune to be acknowledged as such.

Imitation being the sincerest form of cashing in on another's success, this quickly led to many more Bluesish numbers, and after that to the City Blues singers named Smith (Mamie and Clara and Bessie and maybe more), and then to the whole era of Country Blues performers, from the many talented Johnsons to the prolific and genre-straddling players with names like Broonzy and Wheatstraw, Patton and McTell. They were all "Singin' the Blues," but often because that's what the White record-label folks requested. The adaptable Black entertainers searched their memories for lyrics and general storylines, juggled songs they'd heard others sing, et voila, presto, another remarkable, "historically important" 12-bar Blues number waxed--whereas in truth they were all borrowing from a common pool of phrases and from each other. The Blues back then was pretty much a collective endeavor.

Jazz developed gradually, often utilizing some Blues structure or other, and new bandleaders like Duke Ellington were at first happy to use common tunes and lines. But Duke had other fish to fry, determined to be recognized not only as a premier Black entertainer but as a serious composer, using the musicians and material he had at hand. Soon he wrote the musically elaborate "Black and Tan Fantasie" and chose to end it with a passage from Chopin's Funeral March--no copyright to worry about, and an amusing but pertinent musical quote. And Duke did this trick from time to time thereafter, reworking tunes like "Tiger Rag" and "Old Man River" and claiming them as Ellington compositions. He also became known for taking a few notes one of his Ellingtonians had played and turning those into a whole new number, with copyright ungenerously assigned to the leader only. (Was it theft or was it Memorex?)

Nor was he the only borrower. Other bandleaders and arrangers casually lifted background riffs from Basie or Henderson and turned them into new foreground flagwavers benefitting, say, Goodman or Miller. Nor was it only Whites stealing from Blacks. Pres learned from Frankie Trumbauer, and Tommy Dorsey was a favorite of Black brass, trombonists and otherwise. The Big Bands begged, stole, or borrowed from one another routinely--whether ideas or charts--till popular and ubiquitous numbers like "King Porter Stomp" and Duke's "Mood Indigo" began to seem as familiar as Public Domain folk tunes.

The BeBop cats showed their instrumental mastery by zipping through barrages of 8th, 16th, even 32nd notes, and finding new passing chords and altered harmonies in the process. But where did all their hip tunes come from? From rewrites on the changes--and sometimes a quick snippet of tune--of various malleable melodies. Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" had already yielded Ellington's "Cotton Tail"; now Gillespie ("Salt Peanuts"), Monk ("Rhythm-a-ning"), and Charlie Parker ("Anthro- pology," "Moose the Mooche," and other head-arrangement numbers) raided it too. "Ornithology" came from "How High the Moon," "Ko Ko" from "Cherokee," and "Oh Lady Be Good" (Gershwin again) was prologue to Monk's somewhat obscure number "Hackensack." Dizzy even managed to warp the corny warhorse "Whispering" into "Groovin' High." Clearly the "Blue Skies" were unlimited once Monk found "In Walked Bud" drifting there.

It got so confused that the a&r guys or label owners made a point at recording sessions of listening hard to be sure the old standards were unrecognizable, carefully retitled, escaping pesky royalties. Hard Bop and Cool and Free Jazz and such all made less use of Bop's tricky alterations, relying more on the Blues, the feel of Gospel and Soul, and original compositions. And today there are still clever rewrites being copyrighted in Jazz and Pop, but so long as not blatantly obvious, it's evidently become an acceptable practice--with the occasional odd exception like George Harrison getting sued for "My Sweet Lord," deemed too close to "He's So Fine"...

And that quick dash through a century of music brings us to the newest versions of borrowing--i.e., Hip-Hop sampling, and that thieving magpie called Reggae. Rappers and deejays of the Seventies and Eighties brazenly stole a few notes or a brief turnaround from hits by James Brown or Sly Stone or Horace Silver, and casually dropped them into their own jagged, chanted productions. It seemed harmless and amusing at first, but the record companies and sampled artists began objecting and consulting copyright attorneys--and suddenly rappers had to state the source and pay a royalty for any borrowed chunk. (It's usually a mistake to call in the lawyers. During that same stretch of time, the courts were challenged by lawsuits objecting to parodies of established scenes and familiar characters, even to caricatures of the physiognamies of actors and celebrities. In no time at all, parodies and pastiches and homages were squeezed hard and usually ruled off-limits unless, again, royalties were paid.)

So the law has been laid down. But down in Jamaica, artistic theft goes on. I wrote recently about Reggae producers' casual penchant for reusing, again and again, familiar rhythms (riddims) and recorded tracks and favorite tunes. (Producer Lee Perry would typically cut a half dozen versions and variations--vocal, instrumental, and dub--on a single rhythm and melody.) Due to a lack of copyright agreements, this has also extended to blatant thefts of whole tunes from U.S. hit recordings.

A vacationing Neil Diamond or Curtis Mayfield or whoever might suddenly hear one of his own songs being played on the radio or sound system, but with new lyrics in place of the original, and no royalties being paid. However, while the illicit reworking of tracks created by Motown or Aretha Franklin or Los Lobos or whoever has been going on for 40 years at least, I don't actually know the present status of Kingston-style borrowing; the rewrites continue, but maybe the copyrights are being honored somehow. In this Brave New I-Pod World, as listeners get downloads rather than down, who knows whose rights will be honored?

It doesn't really matter. Call it theft, call it homage--creative people love to subtly acknowledge, or rudely tweak, each other's accomplishments, and to stand on one another's shoulders as they scramble to the top. The cave painters in France and Spain did it, and Picasso followed suit. Bach wrote his Cello Suites, and Benjamin Britten heard other melodies. Elvis copied the way Jackie Wilson danced, and the Cullums and Bubles are still working on their Sinatra.

They all hoped to steal a march on Time. Or at least borrow a few more minutes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Photographer William Claxton, sometimes called Clax, was a major force in record album jackets--fashion and advertising as well--for 50 years. Some of his covers for Pacific Jazz and a fine reminiscence he wrote were recently featured at Steven Cerra's splendid Jazz Profiles blog, here. I wrote my own small tribute, with some of Claxton's classic photographs as visuals.

I see a forest of umbrellas dance
in the second-line strut of many brass bands.

Alto spiked deep in his arm, Art trudges
up the steep street: Jazz's
weary junkie Sisyphus. Click.

In the silent bell for Round Seven,
Red hears Heaven's
black keys instead: click.

Chet and... what was her name?
... curled into their separate dreams,
and yet they clicked.

Monk grinned from the trolley.
Sonny leaned like a Joshua tree.
Ornette stubbornly stared, and I clicked.

I shot from the Haig to Bourbon Street,
to Manhattan's top salons, a fete
of photos. And each shot clicked.

I was West Coast most, I was
the Lighthouse and Pacific Jazz.
My lenses decried the cliques

invented by fool critics;
I worked both coasts, and in my Rolleiflex
the twain met, clickety-click,

like the U.P. tracks. Five decades.
A million photos. Nikon, icons; heads
of the state of Jazz, heavenly bodies. Click.

Click. Click. Paul goofing at the piano, Zoot
rapt in sax and smoke, and always Chet--
his hair, his thousand-yard stare, clicks-

distant ghost. I snapped Trane
stepping up and Dinah getting down,
Cannon at the Apollo and Pres on the edge... click,

gone. Shadows and light, all of my days.
But at night I worked cameraless, eyes
trapping an image with each blink:

Billie bright-eyed and Max suddenly still,
Gerry's big horn at rest, and all
of Ben focussed, and Duke... beyond. Blink,

blink, a photographer's dream,
eye am the REM cam
flickering... blinking...

till I wake back
in Shorty's world, me, Clax,
still alive and clicking.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Summertime, and the List'nin' Is Easy

Consulting the heavens somehow, the ancients knew to celebrate the arrival of Summer. Extra warmth, days running long, rich green growths a-plenty, foods accumulating for the cold months ahead. "Sumer is icumen in, Llude sing cuccu!" is how they phrased it a couple of millenia ago; a cooler, post-Modernist phrase for 2010 might be "The Summer Knows..."

But Western Washington is wet. Grey skies from November till... well, till the clouds finally part, which is usually, finally, about mid-July. Spring here is an unexpected burden: lots of rain, speckles of sun, days getting longer and longer but still no real relief from the grey. Suicide numbers rise. Calendar Summer begins, and still it's raining. It's all anyone can talk about as the irritation mounts: "When's this crap going to end? Damn it, the days are already getting shorter--where the hell's the sun?"

But suddenly it's Summer, a glorious brightness stretching all the way from, say, July 10 to mid-October and beyond. (Yes, that's the tourism secret: September is a great time to visit Seattle.) And one benefit of so much grey for so much of the year is that whenever the sun does come out--mid-morning briefly or just near sunset (during the grey seasons), or for a whole Summer day--life becomes perfect. Shoulders straighten, faces smile, eyes shine. Sun--yes, sun!

Even the radio stations celebrate; all the great pop hits for Summer fill the airwaves for a time. Foremost is the Gershwin classic "Summertime" and those familiar lyrics: "...the livin' is easy; Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Your daddy's rich and your mama's good-lookin', So hush, little baby, don't you cry." Usually a Jazz version, you'll likely hear Sidney Bechet on clarinet, or Miles trumpet it with Gil Evans, Ella from the Porgy and Bess sessions with Satch, or maybe Sarah Vaughan freely interpreting early or late. There are scores, maybe hundreds, to choose from (and most of the pictures I've posted represent a selection of Porgy and Bess jackets).

The Rock music playlists showcase a few other faves as well. For simple (okay, almost simple-minded) joy it's the Jamies sing-chanting over and over, "It's summertime, summertime, sum sum summertime, summertime, summertime, sum sum summertime... etc." before the voices finally arrive at sum, I mean some imagery: "Well, shut those books and throw 'em away, Say goodbye to dull school days, Look alive and change your ways, It's summertime."

Adequate only. For a more challenging view of things, check short-lived rockabilly hero Eddie Cochran speeding through his great "Summertime Blues" (shredded nicely also by Cochran fans The Who), which rather than grim is actually exhilarating!

Well, I'm gonna raise a fuss, I'm gonna raise a holler,
'Bout a-workin' all summer just to try to earn a dollar.
Well, time I called my baby tryin' to get a date,
The boss says, "No dice, son, you gotta work late."
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a-gonna do,
'Cause there ain't no cure for the summertime blues....

Gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fine vacation,
Gonna take my problem to the United Nations;
Well, I called my congressman, but he says, "Whoa,
I'd like to help you, son, but you're too young to vote."
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a-gonna do,
'Cause there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.

Though some lyrics are available for it, the all-time Summer pop hit is usually heard as an instrumental--and that description couldn't point to anything but "Theme from 'A Summer Place'," attempted by many (from Billy Vaughn and Andy Williams to The Ventures and The Lettermen), but a huge seller and chart-topper and Grammy award-winner as played by Percy Faith and his Orchestra. As a teen in 1960, I enjoyed many a slow dance pressed close to one scrumptious female or another thanks to transplanted Englishman Percy, one of the high kings of Easy Listening. And "Summer Place," i' Faith, was still #18 among the 100 Best Pop Hits (or some such category) as recently as 2008, and it still holds the record for instrumental at the top of the charts for the most weeks.

In fact, I'd venture the guess that people who've never heard the tune before could listen today and feel the warmth and ease of Summer sweep over them. As those neglected lyrics promise, to lovers and novices alike:

There's a summer place
Where it may rain or storm
Yet I'm safe and warm
For within that summer place
Your arms reach out to me...

Sounds like a true Puget Sound Summer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Now?

This is going to ramble a bit as I work out what's meant...

Thinking of crass materialism circa 1810, Wordsworth wrote: "The World is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

I'm worn down; I've spent over a week now trying to reclaim, relocate, and intelligently re-organize thousands of CDs and records--a decade's worth of excessive acquisition--that had overwhelmed the allotted space and recognized alphabet. With the bulk of all music now relegated to new shelves in our storage area, the library suddenly is resembling a book room once more rather than a warehouse in the midst of a desperation move.

No blog writing attempted or even contemplated during those days, aside from the usual time-consuming remarks left as comments at other good, readable sites. But I did ponder the fate of this odd duck called I Witness.

I live on Vashon Island in Washington State's Puget Sound, a sort of free-spirited suburb of Seattle reachable only by ferry boat--where millionaires and bigtime lawyers rub elbows (hell, live cheek-by-jowl) with artists, retired folks, and ex-hippies grown Green. I'm semi-retired but I do maintain a sales presence on the Internet for collectable books and LP records. Business is slow these days (of course), but I can't give up on trying to find and list some object somebody somewhere wants even now.

At the same time I write this mixed bag of a blog, trying to keep things interesting and not too single-subject. Finding a topic is usually easy since I am hooked as a listener on Modern Jazz, Reggae, Southern Soul, New Orleans R&B, Deep Blues (more Country than City Electric), English and Celtic Folk, Old Timey and Bluegrass, certain aspects of Classical, lots of Alt.Country and Americana, Movie Soundtracks, Progressive Talk Radio... well, there are probably more sub-genres I could point to, but you get the idea. My ears take a major pounding every day.

Yeah, my taste in music is pretty eclectic, and that's actually a bit of a double-edged sword. Does eclecticism really just prevent my blog from building an identity? Every week I wonder, Just what do I write about next? Brand new live album by Richard Thompson, or some great tracks arranged and played by Lennie Niehaus 50 years ago? Forgotten works of composer Joaquin Rodrigo, or comeback CD, say, by that-was-no-Lady Madonna? (Forget Lady Gag-Gag; entirely too risible.) The classic Reggae I play eagerly every day, or the rigid Classics I feel obligated to sample? In my scrambled, non-commercial life there are no sponsors and damn few regular readers. That doesn't stop me from blogging, but there really is no pressure to perform.

I study with some envy the varied stories and burgeoning readership of top, changing-almost-daily sites like Rifftides and JazzWax and the amazing, multi-varied, piecemeal autobiography currently being posted by producer/photographer Hank O'Neal. I find myself torn between wanting to compete with those top blogs and feeling the doubts I first experienced back around 1975 when I gave up writing Rock criticism, convinced that I really had nothing worth saying and not wanting to inflict my trivial opinions on the readers of Rolling Stone and Ramparts and other publications of that time.

Anyway, I'm not quite ready to call it quits yet, but I am perched on the fence hoping for a sign. Should I post less, cut back on the attempts to range so far and wide? Would it be wise to solicit ads and focus the writing on a single broad subject? Or am I just kidding myself... time to hang up my rock 'n' roll shoes.

I'd love to hear from anyone who cares or has an opinion to offer.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Spartacus and All That Jazz

Think Bill Evans and Gabor Szabo and Yusef Lateef, Regina Carter and Ramsey Lewis and... Alex North? Now hold that thought...

At this late date in the recorded history of humankind it must be obvious that we of the collector bent will hoard and protect just about anything. Archeologists have their specialist experts in ancient dung, and there are those in the world of collecting who will similarly sample and save--or smoke--practically any old shit.

One better-quality specialty niche is filled by collectors of movie soundtracks--not the ordinary citizens who see a picture and like it enough to buy the commercial soundtrack recording (usually shortened, simplified, even rearranged), but the deadly serious folk who demand the complete score of a film, or at least all of its music, in order, and whatever was recorded for the film whether used in the final cut or not. Huge flurries of excitement and commentary circulate in this shadow world when one of the labels that issue these richer, closer-to-complete, resurrected versions (Intrada, La-La Land, Screen Archives Entertainment, Varese Sarabande) announces some major project, usually presented in CD limited editions of 1,000-3,000 copies--on the order of: everything Elmer Bernstein ever composed for some Hollywood studio; ten obscure and forgotten Westerns suddenly given star treatment; Miklos Rosza's discarded cues and crumpled-up, handwritten notes to himself regarding the conducting of some grand score... but more often an alternative package as "simple" as the 2CD set devoted to every note Jerry Goldsmith composed for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At any rate there are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 of these remarkable film score obsessives located around the world, and they are incessantly vociferous on certain portions of the Internet.

One so-called "holy grail" among soundtracks, a masterpiece of music only ever available heretofore in a too-brief LP issued circa 1960, has been the famous film Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas as the disgraced general who leads an unsuccessful revolt of enslaved gladiators against Rome and is then crucified for his hubris (details may be off; I only ever saw the movie during that initial release). The amazing music for Spartacus--melodic, complex, changeable; cherished, cited often, held up as exemplar and more--was written by Alex North, whom many soundtrack experts consider the master guru among Modern film composers, from his early and significantly influential scores (A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata!); through the career-bursting big films like Cleopatra and The Misfits, The Agony and the Ecstasy and Cheyenne Autumn; to later, lesser-known efforts like Carny and the trilogy he scored for John Huston (Under the Volcano, Prizzi's Honor, and The Dead) as well as the unique fantasy film Dragonslayer and, a near-mythic item for years, his excellent but rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Through them all, as a myriad of admiring fellow composers say, North maintained his always-recognizably-Alex, Classically trained but Jazz-influenced composing style, sparking and burning creatively, reaching deep down into the interior lives of each movie's characters and then expressing them in music. Nominated for the Film Score Academy Award 14 times but never actually the winner, North was finally accorded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar by the Academy in 1986. (Only two have ever been awarded, with Ennio Morricone the second recipient.)

And then there was Spartacus, a film and score that for five decades has lived more in the imagination of fans than on the screen or phonograph (much less CD player). But Varese Sarabande will soon change all that by at last releasing a 6CD and single DVD box set purporting to contain absolutely every mono or stereo note considered, recorded, re-recorded, forgotten, or rescued (that would be the first four CDs), plus a two-hour documentary allowing other composers to discuss North, plus a 160-page book, and finally also--yes, you thinking Jazz fans--two individual CDs devoted to newly recorded and older classic performances of the single most famous portion of North's score, that beautiful melody usually called "The Spartacus Love Theme." The CDs will house 22 versions played, or arranged and led, by Jazz musicians and soundtrack people alike, ranging from Bill Evans' amazing overdubbed-pianos take (and a second Evans performance with flautist Jeremy Steig), to the new 12-flute arrangement by film composer Alexandre Desplat.

Shades of that Fifties LP devoted solely to a dozen performances of "Lullaby of Birdland"! (Or was it "... Broadway"?) And of the "one-drop" rhythm-and-tune albums common to Reggae that I've written about lately. Well, there should be something for every film score buff or Jazz fan when the line-up reads like this: Jazz musicians Yusef Lateef, Ramsey Lewis, Jeremy Steig, Gabor Szabo and, of course, Bill Evans; Jazz-oriented player-composers Nathan Barr, Dave Grusin, and Lalo Schifrin; crossover artists Regina Carter, Carlos Santana, and Richard Stoltzman; working soundtrack composers John Debney, Alexandre Desplat, Patrick Doyle, Mark Isham, Diego Navarro, and Brian Tyler; distinguished conductors John Mauceri, Joel McNeely, and Eric Stern; plus a few others whose categories I don't know. (The DVD documentary also adds David Newman, John Williams, Christopher Young, and a host of others eager to praise Alex.)

So: an auspicious occasion, North's 100th birthday and the approximate 50th anniversary of the film, answered by his friend, producer Robert Townson (whose 1000th album produced this is!) with the most elaborate presentation and package ever accorded a single film score. Townson had promised North that someday he would restore and release the Spartacus soundtrack (as he managed to do for the 2001 music), but the soon-to-be-available result must surpass all imagined possibilities.

I'm willing to pay the hundred-dollar freight to see and hear this astonishing tribute and restoration. Anyone curious or similarly convinced should go here to learn more.

Spartacus Lives!