Sunday, October 31, 2010


Goblins and specters and scares, oh my! Since Hallowe'en is a time for ghost stories, here's mine:

In July of 1966 I was cramming hard for the comprehensive exams for my Master's Degree in English Lit, reading and studying night and day. Wife and kids had been exiled to my parents' house so I could stay focussed at all hours. But of course there came a night when I was almost ready and needed a break. I checked the television listings and settled down on the couch to watch something called The Haunting, which turned out to be a black-and-white movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris.

The film was quietly excellent--all eerie, raise-the-hackles stuff without any need for shock cuts or special effects; just subtle things going on, strange drafts and sounds, atonal music and deep-focus camera work showing slightly creepy characters in an old, definitely haunted house. I was completely engrossed...

The couch hugged an inner wall which higher up had a pillared shelf that my wife was using to control some sort of indoor ivy plant, its leafy tendrils wrapped around the pillar, held in place by clear tape.

At a very suspenseful moment in the film, suddenly the tendrils pulled free from the pillar, skittered down the wall and wrapped themselves around my neck! Without using hands or feet, driven by shock and adrenaline I levitated several inches straight up as though momentarily sitting in mid-air. I probably yelped or screamed too, but all I remember is bouncing down on the couch and then right up on my feet, turning towards the wall in confusion and scrabbling at my neck to break free of that damned--truly damned--plant. I had ripped the tendrils into pieces by the time I understood what had happened.

Well, though I calmed down, I just wasn't prepared to resume the movie, so I only saw The Haunting complete some years later. But it still lingers in my brain and maybe in the skin at my throat. And I know the film and shock helped flavor a poem I wrote some time later titled "All Hallow's Eve." I'll only quote the last few lines:

But if November's daylight breaks the spell,
What lingering scream sounds in the head for days?
What dark wooden stake splits the heart two ways?

I commend The Haunting to you. Just don't sit near any plants.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bulletins from Bob and Olivia

An interesting day...

At the post office box, I found my eagerly awaited copy of Bob Dylan's latest official Bootleg Series release, Vol. 9, The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964, offering 47 songs he wrote and put down on tape early on, attempting to persuade other singers to record his songs. Many of these appeared over the decades on illegal bootleg LPs and CDs, but this 2CD set supposedly improves and completes all others--offering the original Bob-and-guitar versions of tunes as familiar or obscure as "Rambling, Gambling Willie," "Oxford Town," "Seven Curses," "Gypsy Lou," "Paths of Victory," "I'll Keep It with Mine,' and "Farewell." (But what of "Percy's Song," "Dusty Old Fairground," "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," and a few others that we fans had always assumed were songs Dylan only recorded as demos?)

Hey, I don't care--what's here is great early Dylan and a major slice of folk-rock music history. God bless Bob; long may he live and write and croak out the songs on whatever form of electronic recording device comes next. Yes, buy this set.

Meanwhile, moving from demos to Demos, in brilliant and timely contrast to this look at 50 years past, and the early, more political Dylan, via email I also received an hour ago the brand-new video extravaganza, this one a science fictional message, from the supposed 50-years-distant future, after the Repugnants have won the 2010 elections because too many Progressives--including me and maybe you too, each person somehow singled out for censure--refused or forgot to vote. A panicking Olivia Wilde (slender actress in a cluttered room) beseeches us, contacted back here in 2010, to get up off our butts and save the U.S. and world from Palin, Boehner, and other genetic mistakes-turned-political misbegottens.

The video is amazing, and is sure to ignite another silly media firestorm (as the fools like to call such folderol), but really it's a hoot, a cosmic goof, and a serio-comic call to action. Frag 'em if they can't take a joke!

I'll try to embed the MoveOn vid (never done that before), but if I fail, no worries: you'll be seeing it everywhere as the talking heads and bleating asses attack. (Go here.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Perkins and Kamuca: Two of a Kind

Considering the popular acclaim accorded Stan Kenton's various orchestras during the Forties and Fifties, critics and Jazz historians since then have rather cavalierly dismissed the bulk of his recordings as stodgy or pretentious or brassily shrill. Yet scores of fine Jazz musicians passed through his ranks--and the various herds of Woody Herman too--and these band players regularly built successful small-group careers as well. Maynard Ferguson, the several "Four Brothers" saxophonists (Getz, Giuffre, Chaloff, Cohn, Sims, and others), the Candoli Brothers, Bill Holman, Bud Shank, Mel Lewis, Shorty Rogers, and Art Pepper are just a few obvious names among the many.

I'd like to salute two of the players who never really captured much public attention, but who recorded much of improvisational interest, even occasional greatness--Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca, tenor sax guys predominantly, who proved capable of both hard-bop excitement and Hollywood cool. The two have fascinated me for many years as rarely mentioned working-class heroes of the Left Coast Jazz scene.

Both men began as Prez disciples, but each found his own way to move beyond Lester's light-toned lyricism. They perfected their own versions of the "Four Brothers" sound during a shared stretch in Woody's Third Herd--Richie maybe simpler and more robust, always looking like a happy kid, and Bill the serious one (but called "Perk"), his playing more thoughtful and varied. Both were sort of go-to guys from the Fifties to the mid-Sixties, but good jazz gigs were lacking by the Seventies, so Kamuca spent several years in Merv Griffin's studio orchestra, while Perkins worked as a sound engineer and then joined the Tonight Show ensemble. But rather than turn this into a lengthy bio/critique, I'd prefer just to call attention to a few of their career-highlight recordings.

Kamuca graced both the Kenton and Herman bands, worked some with Rogers and Holman, cut classic albums with Perkins, Al Cohn, the Howard Rumsey Lighthouse gang, Frank Rosolino, and by 1960 was a major man among Shelly's Men. On the way to that career peak (the several Live at the Black Hawk recordings of 1959, and some further work thereafter), he left a trail of solid sideman solos. For example, Richie featured opposite bass trumpeter Cy Touff in the 1955 half-concept album casually known as "Keester Parade" (the opening tune that became an instant classic) but officially titled Cy Touff, His Octet & Quintet--Side One of the original LP arranged for the eight by Johnny Mandel, and the down side offering the core five just winging it.

Eight or five, Kamuca and Touff made happy, hard-swinging, somehow witty music that also demonstrates the Herman and West Coast love for the Basie sound, for Pres, Sweets Edison, Buck and Buddy, simple riffs, carefully placed piano. While the East Coast went for BeBop and then Hard Bop, the cats who migrated West (from Sweets, Lee Young and Wardell Gray, to Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Okie Chet Baker and Kamuca) and the few natives (Dexter Gordon and Buddy Collette, Holman and Perkins) generally lingered a while in happier Mainstream Swing Jazz, even though they admired and could play either style of Bop and embraced both eventually.

Some evidence along those lines: not too long after Bird and Diz were getting a cool reception in Hollywood (the infamous 1945-46 visit), Basie was in the process of rebuilding his band, back up to 16 men swinging, once again dominating a certain portion of the scene. Also consider the cheery, mid-Fifties riffs-interwoven works of master composer/arrangers like Lennie Niehaus and Shorty Rogers (before their muses faltered); pre-fade, Shorty made his Courts the Count album, and Buddy Rich paid homage on LP too. Then Bob Brookmeyer revisited Basie's Kansas City. And before he cast a wider net, Norman Granz stayed busy signing and recording every Basieite and Mainstream player he could find. Even Brown-Roach, after they'd been playing around Southern California for a couple of years, took a softer, more melodic version of Hard Bop back east with them.

Meanwhile, Kamuca's warm and rhythmic sax also enlivened ensembles assembled by Holman; those tasteful, sometimes impassioned results grace ("en-Rich" might be a better verb) standards and new originals alike on the albums In a Jazz Orbit, Bill Holman's Great Big Band! (Perk shows up too), and especially West Coast Jazz in Hi Fi, for which Richie received special billing and more tailored solo spots (best cut: "Star Eyes"). Then he hooked up with the West's main-man drummer for several years--trading Holman for Shel Manne, you might say--playing and recording up and down the Coast, from the Black Hawk in SF to Shelly's own LA club The Manne Hole.

Not just marking time, Kamuca instead met the challenge; he blows hard to keep pace with the fiery rhythm section (Manne the merciless, smart-swinging Monte Budwig, and Brit vibesman Victor Feldman who proves unexpectedly un-shy at the piano) plus heated, tragically short-lived trumpeter Joe Gordon.

Though Richie holds his own on all five records gleaned from the Black Hawk dates--soloing strong, supporting/counterpointing Gordon from the lower end, trading fours and eights occasionally--he is most memorable on ballad features like "This Is Always," "Whisper Not" and "Summertime," and the up swingers that allow some expressiveness ("Our Delight" and "I Am in Love") and not just hard-driven solos running the changes ("Poinciana" and Manne's set-closer theme, "A Gem from Tiffany"). Gordon locks right in the pocket while Kamuca does more responding to the trio section's fierce push-and-pull, whether blues or waltz, standard or original; and the 18-minute "Black Hawk Blues" is the culmination.

The five albums are a classic highwatermark of, not Hollywood cool, but West Coast Hard Bop! And there's a splendid but scarcely known sixth album too that appeared 30 years later (on Pablo rather than Contemporary), the band recorded live in Europe, touring with JATP a year later. No mere add-on, Yesterdays shows no loss of intensity or beauty, though the performances are briefer and Manne's regular keys-man Russ Freeman had replaced Feldman (no wonder these guys were known as the "Men"). Just take a listen to the walking "Bags' Groove," the chugging "Straight, No Chaser," and Richie's superb feature, robustly yet tenderly swinging through, and marking the end, "Yesterdays."

Then came the leaner years--blowing gigs with Roy Eldridge back in New York, a decade with Merv Griffin on both Coasts, some decent, slightly nondescript leader dates on Concord, but all halted by his unexpected death in 1977 on the day before he turned 47. But I'd rather mark his passing by pointing to the recently issued CD of a previously unknown live date from Donte's, recorded back in 1974, with Kamuca on prowling tenor and Lee cool-as-ever Konitz on alto. (The rhythm section: Dolo Coker, walkin' Leroy Vinnegar, and Jake Hanna.)

The differences between their styles shows just how far Richie had moved on from Pres by then--Lee jittery and dry, close to Paul Desmond; Kamuca calmer, more synched to the rhythm. But Richie too winds up blowing often in the higher parts of his horn, drawn back to the cool side. The choice of tunes is causal (maybe too casual too): Basie's "Baby, Baby All the Time" and a lively "Lester Leaps In," plus Bop stalwarts "Star Eyes" (back to his early days with Holman) and a lengthy and splendid "All the Things You Are," with room for the tenor to ride high and dig deep.

The sound is acceptable rather than pleasing, but worth hearing anyway; this is where Kamuca might have settled if not for the adventurous year-and-some with Shelly. Meanwhile... more to come in Part II of the escalatin' essay when I tackle Bill Perkins' longer, more varied career--including a pair of classic albums with both men squaring off. (It'll be a couple of weeks since I've got lots Perkilatin'!)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jazz According to Hegel?

The philosopher Hegel is still frequently credited with the theory described as "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"; but his version was actually more internalized, both simpler and more complex. Yet whoever originated it, the idea of differing opinions, even rival philosophies, leading to a better compromise solution easily took hold in popular thought, and was soon applied not only to human endeavor but to natural forces as well. Evolution was pondered and revolutions begun, history reexamined and trilogy novels penned...hell, even our useless, disfunctional Houses of Congress once operated according to such principles!

Life may be more complex than the triadic system allows, but the general idea refuses to disappear. Recently I was going through several shelves packed with children's picture books, and I was pleased to find three devoted to Jazz greats. Then I realized the three formed a perfect "Hegelian" argument. As odd as that probably sounds, allow me to explain...

The books were intended as simple introductions to individual musicians--Duke Ellington, published in 1998 by the writer-and-artist, wife-and-husband duo of Andrea Davis and Brian Pinkney; Chris Raschka's 1997 solo gem introducing Mysterious Thelonious; and from 2001, Lookin' for Bird in the Big City by Robert Burleigh and illustrator Marek Los. All three are brilliantly colored and beautifully rendered, but their overall approaches are as different as night and day and "magic hour" (i.e., the golden light pre-sunset).

The two antithetical works are those presenting Duke and Monk. Both pianists took their basic styles from Harlem's great stride players, but their individual techniques drifted worlds apart. Yet that's not the governing antithesis of these books; instead it's the look and "sound" of the non-musician artists involved. The Pinkneys appear to be verbal and visual traditionalists. The woman writes well enough, but at misjudged length, self-consciously mixing historical statement and stylized slang as she tries to entertain but be biographically factual too, telling the Ellington story from his birth in 1899 up to 1943's highbrow success at Carnegie Hall. Here's a sample of her prose (note that the book is supposedly aimed at ages 6 to 9):

Yeah, those solos were kickin'. Hot-buttered bop, with lots of sassy-cool tones. When the band did their thing, the Cotton Club performers danced the Black Bottom, the Fish-Tail, and the Suzy-Q. And while they were cuttin' the rug, Duke slid his honey-colored fingertips across the ivory eighty-eights.

Another passage (I'm excerpting from several paragraphs) points to husband Brian's stylized illustrations and use of vibrant colors, and in effect alerts the reader to let his pictures speak louder than her words:

Duke painted colors with his band's sound. He could swirl the butterscotch tones of Tricky Sam's horn with the silver notes of the alto saxophones. And, ooh, those clarinets. Duke could blend their red-hot blips with a purple dash of brass from the trumpet section... Most people called his music jazz. But Duke called it "the music of my people"... Duke composed a special suite he called Black, Brown, and Beige. A suite that rocked the bosom and lifted the soul... Outside, the winter wind was cold and slapping. But inside, Carnegie Hall was sizzling with applause. Duke had become a master maestro.

Ms. Davis Pinkney is simply outclassed, by the size of the subject and the look of her husband's candy-swirl paintings.

In opposition to the Pinkneys' over-worked solution--however accidentally--is Raschka's tribute to Monk published a year earlier. Oh my, it is a sight for bleary eyes and a song for weary ears, all peripheral stuff stripped away, the pages become fields of color with minimal illustration, the words mostly reduced to repeated syllables. Cool Papa The, onliest Monk man himself, dances across the pages, bopping up, dropping down, popping back with signs showing a single syllable, as the "text" does the same (allowing just four syllables/words per page), all the while working to make visible the up-down single-note melody of a Monk piece ("Misterioso" maybe; I haven't checked):

This is a stor-
y a- bout The-
lon- i- ous Monk
and his mu- sic.
There were no wrong
notes on his pi-
a- no had no
wrong notes, oh no.
This is a stor-
y a- bout the
love- ly mu- sic
of Mis- ter Monk.
He played not one
wrong note, not one.
His pi- a- no
had none, not one.
He played the mu-
sic of free- dom.
Jazz is the mu-
sic of free- dom.
This is a pic-
ture a- bout his
mu- sic...

The jacket flap explains the intent thus: "To create the art for Mysterious Thelonious, Mr. Raschka matched the twelve musical tones of the chromatic scale, e.g., do, re, mi, to the twelve color values of the color wheel, then set paint strokes for notes and color washes for harmonies to see what it would look like."

It looks great--suitably weird, and note perfect; a work of Monk and a work of art.

The spare simplicity of Raschka's book may be an extreme opposite of the Pinkneys' Duke but finally it seems aimed less at kids than at art-loving adults. The middle ground that most modern-day picture books aim for has been synthesized by Burleigh and Los. Their solution is to tell a single anecdote rather than a life story--with some boppish scatting added for fun--and to allow the paintings of Los to convey most of the history. Lookin' for Bird portrays the fabled trip to New York City by a certain teenage trumpeter from St. Louis... yes, young Miles Davis journeys to the Big Apple to find Bop mainman Charlie "(Yard)Bird" Parker, searches high and low, on fire escapes and bridges, at subway stops and basement clubs, even accosts people on the street (52nd Street, that is, known as "The Street That Never Sleeps" in its Jazz-rich heyday) to ask where Bird might be found. Although several of the illustrations show Parker in the distance, Miles doesn't spot him and usually lingers somewhere playing his trumpet regardless. Then just when he's ready to give up, he finds Bird appearing at yet another club, gets to sit in, plays well enough that Bird invites him to take a solo... and the rest is history.

Burleigh's words are rhythmic, rhyming here and there; lightly witty, yet kept simple enough for a third grader to grasp. And the paintings by Los, slightly soft-focus, somewhat amorphous, offer moody cityscapes and empty concrete canyons, vibrant reds and yellows and, of course, blues. The two are well-matched, just like Miles and Bird. Here are two passages that link up well:

I was lookin' for Bird,
lookin' for Bird,
lookin' for Bird,
and heard
he might be jamming at a place
called Triple Doors.
But no.

Dip-dip, da-dee, bop-bop-daweeba, dooby-do...

"Bird been here?"
I asked the doorman at the New Cafe.
"Not today," he told me,
and so I waited under the awning,
in the rain,
and felt my horn in my hand,
and dreamed I was playing
notes for all the faces that went past,
hurrying, heads bent,
this way and that way,
'cause just like Bird,
from first to last,
I wanted the whole world in my music.

Dop-dop, skitteree, tic-tic, do-do-be-do.

"Bird, Bird, Bird,
where you gone?"
Don't know, don't know.
And so,
I sat up in my room
and watched the darkness coming on,
with notes as blue
as shadows on the walls,
and jazzy as the blink
of yellow building lights,
'cause I knew he was out there,
listening, too.

Ubadee, scat-skit, bopereebop, bop, ba-do.

With the Los illustrations riffing on Burleigh's verse, it's maybe the hippest that New York has looked across the sorry decade, and a solid example of what children's picture books can aspire to be.

Bird lives. Miles smiles. (Do-be, dop-bop, dawoo.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fall in America

On the road again... but without Jack Kerouac, or Willie Nelson, or Charles Kuralt or William Least Heat Moon.

We'll be staging our own mini-March on Washington late this week, squeezed in between the massive Mall rallies of early and late October. And if I happen to spot any Right Wing Activist Supremos, I'll be sure to spit on the sidewalk for luck--theirs, and may it be all bad.

But I prevaricate. We're really going to that muggy swampland city to attend the interment of my wife's father in Arlington National Cemetery, where a myriad fallen American soldiers lie among the headstones, row on row, marking our nation's great propensity for war. More happily, we'll also get to catch up with family and a few friends, and to sightsee the region. Besides, what else is there to do in D.C.--watch Congress acquire cash and argue through another day? (Oh, where are the filibusters of yesteryear, when Jimmy Stewart showed us what a real Senator would do?) Maybe we could catch a Redsk... oops, better not use that word, offensive to many. Hmmm... maybe we'll just paddle down the Potomac to Mt. Vernon and pretend it's all been a bad dream, and our Democracy is just beginning, with a whole Continent to explore from sea to shining sea, and a second chance at building a Land of the Free with Liberty and Justice for all...

Not likely. Our playing-for-change President has proved himself no Franklin Roosevelt, not even a George Washington, but more a, God save us, Calvin Coolidge, supposedly smart but tragically aloof, positioning himself above the fray, away from the fraying public trust, the frayed retirement savings, and the restive, frazzled citizenry--and I don't mean the shameless Supremos' "citizens" of the world (of global corporate greed, that is), but the people (yes), afraid of senseless wars and a scarily diminished future.(The amazing deja-vu-all-over-again editorial cartoons are both copyright 1994 by the great Pat Oliphant.)

Anyway, we're headed East for several days, and to fill those absent hours I'll be posting a small piece on some Jazz books for kids.

(And coming soon, when I find time to focus, a too-long-delayed tribute to a couple of tenor stalwarts, Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Robert Johnson: Love in Vain

For new readers, if such there be, I thought to mention a past and on-going source of both pride and disappointment. Please read the following:

The story ain't half been told...

In the early Sixties, cued by Dylan's first album, the Blues at Newport releases on Vanguard, Columbia's issue of great selections by pianist Leroy Carr and Blues guitarman Robert Johnson, the RBF anthologies edited by Samuel Charters--all those and more--I began a lifelong fascination with the Blues, and particularly the more Rural forms. At first I tracked down every album and every related book I could lay hands on, which was still doable and affordable then because so few items were available. For the rest of the Sixties and into the early Seventies, I could literally buy a copy of every single Blues item that appeared.

This deep immersion in the music--especially the acoustic versions found in the Delta and Memphis region and the Piedmont on down to Georgia--and in the stories told by Charters in his groundbreaking book The Country Blues (1960) and Paul Oliver's great Conversations with the Blues (1965, from 1960 interviews, published only in England), plus the few interview articles in DownBeat (Johnny Shines, Howlin' Wolf, and others) and the subscription I had to England's amazing Blues Unlimited (a fanzine, but fully professional), convinced me that someone should write a Blues movie, maybe centering it on Robert Johnson, who seemed to be the most important and mysterious and tragic figure among the main musicians recorded back in the Twenties and Thirties. Because so little was documented about his life, I figured I could create a believable story line incorporating the myths and the few facts.

After a couple of years of researching and hesitating, of dipping and dabbling, I finally got down to business, wrote and rewrote and polished further a feature-length script I named Hellhound on My Trail after one of his most potent songs, and by '68-'69 had a solid enough piece that I could show to a few friends. But I won't bore the reader by continuing this blow-by-blow; suffice to say, after some feedback and further revision I had a script to take to Hollywood, registered, copyrighted, and all. Hellhound got a decent response as it made the rounds for several months... and then years... and then two or three decades; I received praise, with-strings-attached offers, invitations to write something else, phone calls out of nowhere from producers ready to launch an attempt, and so on--but never an actual production or sale.

Meanwhile I worked the project too. Excerpts from my script were published in a Boston magazine called Fusion. The movie Vanishing Point suggested a possible lead actor (Cleavon Little), and then Sounder persuaded me that Taj Mahal would be a good candidate for the other-than-Robert film score. I got generally favorable response from writers like Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus; and folks ranging from actor/director Ozzie Davis to record producer Jerry Wexler, and from cinematographer Fouad Said to Taj (or his manager maybe), all read it and expressed interest and their willingness to participate. But... finally... nothing ever developed beyond talk. Cut to 2008:

Forty years had passed; and one day during a storage shuffle I came across a copy of the forgotten screenplay. I had been writing I Witness for a year or two by then, and I suddenly had the notion to publish my Hellhound script on-line--to post it, that is, for all to read (and for someone unscrupulous to steal perhaps). So I typed it up anew, making a few changes and painstakingly shaping chapter-like divisions out of the original scenes, with some photos added to suggest the visual possibilities, and then posted all these elements piece by piece on a new blog site. (Read it here if you are interested.) I also attempted to add a sentence or two verifying its existence, to the Wikipedia article on Johnson, but was thwarted by some confused rule prohibiting self-promotion. (As explained to me, it seems that ANYONE else could submit the information and it would be accepted, but the author himself could not be trusted to be disinterestedly accurate.)

There have been some later developments in the Johnson saga (photos found, relatives interviewed, more alternate takes discovered, court suits over copyrights) and a good many scattered projects generally dating from the mid-Eighties to the present, including partially factual biographies, documentaries "in search of," and related films skirting the edges of his story; but no feature-length fiction movie, with the itinerant Bluesman life and mysterious death of Robert as its main focus, has yet been made.

I doubt now that I'll live to see a Hellhound film ever produced, but I do wish I could claim a sentence or two--a brief footnote, even--in some valid book about the Blues. I think I was there first, but the world seems blissfully indifferent.

So I'll just sit here and listen to Johnson sadly sing:

When the train left the station,
There was two lights on behind:
The blue light was my blues,
And the red light was my mind...
All my love's in vain.