Saturday, September 24, 2011

Gil Evans: Here 4A Weill

(Lengthy Part 4 is now divided for readability, with second half in a day or two.)

There was something in the air. Or maybe it was the water. But from the Twenties to the late Sixties there was this spectrum--invisible, imaginary, whatever--of oddball anarchist music (well, quirky anyway) being created and released on record and film. Aural symptoms might include sound effects, irregular rhythms, changing tempos, tuneless tunes, uncommon instruments, eccentric, possibly amateurish playing, an alien musical conception withal.

Each artist would exhibit only certain of these traits. At one end of the spectrum you’d find, chronologically, the barnyard sounds and seemingly uneducated playing of the Original Dixieland Jass Band; the wild and woolly, wacky-woo-woo, musical bits and pieces strung together with split-second timing by composer Carl Stallings for Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies” cartoons; and the bizarre combinations of music and dialogue and sound effects good-humoredly smushed together on the records of Spike Jones. (The near-musical, carefully timed, rapid-fire routines of comics like the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello fit in there somewhere too.)

The opposite end of the spectrum is much more musical, though still strange-sounding when first sprung on a casual, unsuspecting listener. I hope there’s no need to belabor the point (racially or otherwise), but I’m thinking of the choppy, hammering, stride-piano playing and eccentric, brilliant-corners compositions of Thelonious Monk; the slightly west-of-caterwauling, hues-of-blues originals issuing from Ornette Coleman’s plastic sax (love the “ugly beauty”; still not ready for Prime Time); John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” reflecting his unshakeable, inner-space determination to blow every possible note and combination of notes arrayed in the infinite field of any piece of music (and do so all at once!); and the antic hijinx--the combs, brooms, costumes, dreams and drums--the delirious music unleashed on a suspicious world by the world-is-our-playground-and-oyster, con-kniving knaves known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

One end “light”… one end “serious.” And most groups and Jazz bands somewhere along the line between. You can supply your own candidates and placement, or you can dismiss the whole fanciful thing as Hog-warts, but I ask that you just amble with me a ways further.

Edging toward the bizarre would be the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra mixing BeBop and Stravinsky, while the working groups and session bands organized by Gil Evans would be drawn more to the blues’n’boogie, Hard Bop portion of my diagram. And the odd balance of Jazz, opera, and Broadway pop would deposit Kurt Weill (his friend Gershwin not far off) right on the invisible midpoint, flanked by tubas and tangos!

Kurt died in 1950, with only his American show-tune hits of the Forties still having any currency. But two stubborn fans (maybe three) versed in his forgotten European works were having none of that. I wrote a bit last time about Lenya’s revived career and tireless publicizing of Kurt. Time now to introduce George Avakian: writer, producer, scholar, proselytizer, bon vivant, and great good friend of Jazz. The fact that he knew and loved Weill’s early masterworks was the cake under all that frosting.

Avakian and Lenya teamed up to create most of the famous Columbia Records LPs starring her and resurrecting Kurt’s songs and German theatrical works with and without Brecht—excellent if not quite perfectly definitive productions of Mahagonny, Threepenny, his German and American theater songs, Seven Deadly Sins… all but Happy End, which was a later addition after George had moved on from Columbia. (Avakian shows up time and again in this fable.)

Parallel to this were developments in the career of arranger/re-composer/conductor Gil Evans. Claude Thornhill’s bands of the early and later Forties, with beaucoup arrangements by Evans, occupy a special “Beautiful Music” spot on that spectrum chart. Gil fashioned a strange but lovely sound by blending high woodwinds, low brass, and Thornhill’s soft-as-snow-falling piano… which oddly worked on BeBop adaptations as well as ballads and semi-Classical numbers.

When the band was off the road, Evans stayed on in New York City, and his door’s-always-open bachelor pad became the philosophic bull-session center (circa 1948-1951) for a select group of musicians and fledgling arrangers: Evans, John Parisi, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, John Lewis, and several others including Gil’s new pal, Miles Davis. Fresh from his high-profile time with Charlie Parker, Miles soon became the frontman/leader, and Gil the central force behind the scenes, as the group gradually experimented with a stripped-down version of Thornhill, all the rich chords and strange harmonies vested in nine players only (including tuba and French horn)—just the sort of musical challenge Weill once thrived on.

So there they were, the Evans crew gradually rehearsing, road-testing audience response via a two-week gig at the Royal Roost, and slowly edging into the recording sessions that became known years later as “The Birth of the Cool”—and Kurt doing much the same: writing, orchestrating, rehearsing, moving on from Street Scene to shape new shows Love Life and Lost in the Stars. I’d love to believe that Gil and Kurt each had a chance to catch the other’s work; it’s just barely possible. Certainly Weill’s music became a source for Evans’ magpie curiosity and skillful re-composing a few years later, but Gil’s interest might have started in the Forties.

Here’s that chronology told simply:

Miles' (and Gil’s) Nonet recorded very slowly, with sessions in 1949-50. Among the changing roster of players, Konitz, Mulligan, Miles, and tuba whiz Bill Barber made all dates, joined variously (as available) by J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, John Lewis, Junior Collins, Al McKibbon, Gunther Schuller, and (in place of Johnson during the Roost gig) trombonist and writer Mike Zwerin.

Evans’ conception and maybe even his handiwork seem evident in several arrangements though he claimed only “Moon Dreams” (often cited as the perfect Nonet cut) and “Boplicity.” Some selections were released on 78s with minimal publicity and minimal response, but reissued c. 1954 and then 1957 on LPs with the “Cool” claim—light textures, subtle rhythms, disciplined arrangements; some of them including “Moon Dreams” aren’t too far from what Weill was composing and imaginatively orchestrating at (and on) all stages. (Tangos seemed one of Kurt’s special fortes. Intriguing then that Evans’ own best-loved original was “Las Vegas Tango.”)

Kurt died in 1950, the Nonet soon after. Players dispersed to become leaders elsewhere. Miles and Gil stayed in touch. Then in 1956 Columbia’s producer and a&r great George Avakian not only began issuing the Lenya-Weill albums, but also signed Miles to a major label contract. Gil came aboard to help with arrangements for the Davis Quintet’s ‘Round Midnight debut, which turned out so well that Avakian decided to put Gil and Miles together for an orchestral Jazz LP.

Which became the brilliant and famous album titled Miles Ahead, though not without a struggle: several three-hour recording sessions and countless hours of cut-and-splice tape editing by Avakian and overseer Gil. But the result… ah, the bountiful, beautiful result… “Springsville.” “New Rhumba.” “The Duke.” “The Maids of Cadiz.” “Blues for Pablo.” The title cut. And leading into that track, because the LP really is one big suite of linked, disparate tunes and themes, Kurt Weill’s song superb, fleet of foresail and fancy, “My Ship”… the track routinely discussed as one of Evans’ masterworks of melody and motion. (Yes, Kurt and Gil, together again for the first time, documented.)

And so onward, to Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain and more, as Davis and Evans went deep into the dark center of Catfish Row and the deepest song of flamenco--wailing Jazz soloist against richly textured orchestra, slipping closer to a kind of opera. And the reawakened Sephardic soul of Kurt lingered a Weill, smiling


Steve Provizer said...

Nice. It's always interesting to conjecture how much is "in the air," to be developed by different musical minds. The word "viral" seems obvious now, in this Facebooked and Tweeted environment, but there has always been some (more ineffable) process of cross-pollination.

The history of jazz musicians (especially black ones) has remained grossly under-investigated. While many if not most of the protagonists of that era are dead, some of them are still with us. I'd like to see the jazz academic community grind out less meta-level "textural analysis" and get down to some nitty-gritty oral historical/reportorial work.

IWitnessEd said...

Hear, hear, and well said. I hope other folks hear, hear, and take heed.

Alan Kurtz said...

I'm not sure I agree that "the history of jazz musicians (especially black ones) has remained grossly under-investigated." Which musicians do you gentlemen have in mind?

Surely we don't need yet another bio of Louis or Duke—there must be hundreds by now. And apart from being an exercise that advances a scholar's career, what purpose would be served by "nitty-gritty oral historical/reportorial work" from the jazz academic community?

It's hard to think of anything more dull.

IWitnessEd said...

A-ha! I thought a bland response, if anything, would flush out the elusive Kurtz. Well, Alan, it's good to hear your tender snarl once more. Can't speak for Steve, but as in the case of most of the originators of the Blues, who died before the Robert Johnson boom woke many fans and scholars, so too are the elders of Jazz nearly gone, with succeeding generations being winnowed as well. Of course no one needs more aimless reshuffling of the Pops and Duke data, but why not compile oral histories for folks like Curtis Fuller, Ellis Marsalis, Frank Wess (?), Blossom Dearie (?), Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd, Roy Haynes, John Handy, Roswell Rudd, and many many more? (And I freely admit that my instant list, unchecked, may well include some who are gone already, so too late to gain their stories.) Of course, you are likely just epateing us bourgeoisieses as is often your wont... so how did you like the play otherwise, Mr. Kurtz?

Steve Provizer said...

Sounds like a rhetorical response to me. Dull? Really? Look at just the trumpet players we've missed the deadline on just in the last dozen years-Doc Cheatham, Woody Shaw, Nat Adderly, Sweets Edison, Art Farmer, Red Rodney, Conti Condoli, Ruby Braff, Freddie Hubbard, Maynard Ferguson.

As noted, there are still people around who have seen much in their long careers...

Alan Kurtz said...

What intrigued me about Steve's first comment was the insinuation of racism: "the history of jazz musicians (especially black ones) has remained grossly under-investigated." Yet when asked to name names, each of you includes several white artists. So I guess racism isn't really key.

Rather, what you'd like to see is more oral histories of aging musicians by, as Steve puts it, "the jazz academic community." That's the part that strikes me as dull. I've read some of their work. It puts me to sleep. As much as I love all the artists you list, an oral history of any of them by a card-carrying member of the jazz academic community is a recipe for tedium.

Moreover, you haven't done your homework. Ed includes Frank Wess and Roy Haynes among his candidates for oral history. Yet each is already a part of the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz Oral History Program.

Steve laments the absence of oral histories for, among others, Doc Cheatham and Sweets Edison. Yet each is represented in the oral history project at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies.

Let's get real, fellas. A Google search for "jazz oral histories" yields over 2 million results!

How many more do we need?

If only there were 2 million readers interested in jazz, then we writers would be getting somewhere. Or, hell, 2 thousand, for that matter.

What am I saying? I'd settle for 200!

IWitnessEd said...

OK, AK, now you get the "well said"--as always, you've done the homework and research to back up your remarks, while I as always postponed any evidence gathering.

But "2 million results"? Did you also examine them all to eliminate the nearly 2 million typical duplications included? Were there any names on either quick list that had not been given the OH opportunity? Just as lief start with them.

No one can convince me we don't need to hear from the older guys as much as possible, even if already signed in at some academic collection. We need their stories, they deserve the attention, Jazz needs the publicity... some of which might help attract those readers and listeners that Jazz also needs.

Steve Provizer said...

Of the people I listed, 6 were black and 3 were white.

My point was that the "jazz academic community" should stop churning out turgid, self-referential material and do something useful. AK seems to say that all they can do is boring dreck, so why bother to even make a point of it. These bios never sell enough to support a writer. It seems eminently reasonable to try to get people who are invested in jazz and have some kind of sinecure to undertake it.

The picture out there is far from a rosy one if you look closely. Ya go to the Tulane archive-there are a whole bunch of names listed and no links. Ya go to the Rutgers site and there's a bunch of people listed and almost no links. Ya go to the Smithsonian site and they have a grand total of 36 interviews. Ya go to U. of Chicago. They have about 30 people listed and no links.

Alan Kurtz said...

I think you're both being obstinate. Of course I did not examine all 2 million Google results. Nor did I suggest that the picture is rosy. I merely pointed out that there are already lots of jazz oral histories.

Are most of them publicly available online? Neither of you previously mentioned that criterion. I got the impression that Ed just wants more stories "from the older guys." And while Steve said that such oral histories ought to be compiled by the academic community, he did not specify where—if at all—those should be published. I accordingly inferred that you both had in mind documents that would necessarily reside in institutional archives to be pored over by scholars.

If your goal is to simply collect oral histories from aging jazz artists as a tribute to their musical accomplishments, those documents might as well reside in paper archives gathering dust.

However, if you're now saying that the Provizer/Leimbacher Oral History Project should be hosted online, then I'm more convinced than ever that accredited academics are the worst possible choices to write those stories. That's because posting on the Internet is only 50% of making them accessible; the other half, equally important, is a matter of style. Oral histories written by academics who, as Steve puts it, "have some kind of sinecure" will do little to promote jazz to the general public. Scholars speak to other scholars, not to ordinary people.

IWitnessEd said...

Jeez, Alan, parse as you will, i kind of thought we all agreed that Jazz needs a boost, however that's to be accomplished. In academia, in coffee shops, on line, off color, after midnight, by the dawn's early light... just let it happen. Put the Umbrage pills back in the drawer; have a beer or a martini (I'm buying) and work on the solution: a second book, fewer colleges offering stolid Jazz degrees, an alternate recording industry, mini-tape decks handed out to musicians to further dictation of their life stories... or a better and realistic idea that you have and I don't.

And just for laughs, any thoughts on Weill?

Steve Provizer said...

I didn't make my populist orientation explicit, but I think it's pretty clear. The point in doing this stuff is so that interested parties can see it or hear it.

I don't think that the argument about the incorrigibility of academics can be settled between me and AK, but I do think it's worth trying to get a reality test. I think we can agree that at least some good stuff has come from academia. Robin Kelley's "Monk," for example.

Weill is among the rare breed that can do something interesting in the traditional song form and also do the higher brow stuff. I haven't heard everything, but for me, Mahagonny is the top of his game.