Fall 1998 Volume XXVIII, No. 1
Rethinking the Rhapsody
by Richard Crawford
New Music Notes
Time to Remember Zez Confrey by Artis Wodehouse
Behind the Beat
Widening the Lens II
A Centenary Moment?
by Stephen Banfield
Gershwin on Disc
Country and Gospel Notes
Behind the Beat
with Mark Tucker
Much of the recent news from Washington, D.C. has been grim. One item that didn’t get extensive coverage on CNN was the Smithsonian’s decision to shut down its recordings program. Apparently a hefty budget deficit prompted the action. This announcement, I admit, hit me harder than any revelation in the Starr report. Ever since 1973, when Martin Williams got the Smithsonian into the record-producing business with The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, the nation’s museum has released a distinguished series of discs devoted to American musical traditions, including lavish compilations (blues, country, popular song), historic musical theater reconstructions, and single-artist retrospectives. These recordings have become invaluable for teachers of American music. Williams’s Classic Jazz set, for example, remains the most widely used anthology in jazz history courses today. This fall I assigned students in a Gershwin seminar selections from Lady, Be Good! and Oh, Kay!, both issued in the late 1970s as part of the Smithsonian American Musical Theater series. Apparently Classic Jazz will stay in print (though for several years I’ve experienced problems ordering it for my courses), and there are hopeful rumors that the old Division of Recordings will be resurrected within Smithsonian Folkways. For now, though, it’s dead as a dinosaur.
Which is why reviewing The Jazz Singers (The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, RD113R, 1-800-863-9943), selected and annotated by Robert G. O’Meally, is a bittersweet assignment. It’s hard to imagine any commercial outfit investing in a project like this, licensing over 100 performances owned by twenty-two record companies and giving a scholar like O’Meally (a professor of literature at Columbia University) free rein to assemble such a boldly imaginative set. O’Meally even refers to his anthology as a “museum without walls,” comparing the process of grouping and juxtaposing recorded selections to the way museum curators “hang” exhibits. The show is broadly inclusive, ranging beyond familiar icons (Fitzgerald, Holiday, Armstrong, Vaughan) to spotlight lesser knowns (Lorez Alexandria, Gloria Lynne, George Tunnell) as well as artists not usually associated with jazz (Aretha Franklin, Blind Willie Johnson, Mahalia Jackson, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye). To justify the presence of these latter figures, O’Meally cites common roots (i.e., the blues, gospel) and shared stylistic traits that make them just as much “jazz singers” as those usually tagged with the label. While provocative, the argument is not fully convincing; I can hear jazz-like phrasing and tone colors in Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” but not the “swinging, conversing, and rocking in the rhythm of a jazz beat” that O’Meally claims is fundamental to jazz singing. Even so, it’s instructive when anyone poses challenges to conventional wisdom and refreshing to find a critic more interested in dissolving borders around jazz than in policing them.
Instead of adopting a standard chronological overview, O’Meally divides the music into eight sections with descriptive captions: “Steeped in the Blues,” “Straight Out of Church,” “Let’s Have a Party,” “Swinging the Songbook,” “After Hours,” “Jazz Compositions,” “Scat and Vocalese,” “Novelties and Take-offs.” The categories are porous and overlapping, with some artists reappearing in several throughout the set. A few pieces are covered by different singers; a luscious, heartfelt “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” by Ella Fitzgerald is followed by Fats Waller’s comic assault on the banal lyrics: “I’ll always love you, darling, come what may/My heart is yours, what more can I say–you want me to rob a bank? Well, I won’t do it.” Surprising choices abound. Who would have thought to represent Joe “Every Day I Have the Blues” Williams with a suave, lightly swinging version of Rodgers and Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel”? Or to feature “Saturday Night Fish Fry” not by its creator Louis Jordan but by the duo of Pearl Bailey and comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley? Listening through the set is like spending a few hours with a passionate jazz fan and knowledgeable record collector who keeps pulling discs off the shelf and saying, “Have you heard . . . ?” There’s Betty Carter’s shimmery moonglow tone on “This Is Always,” Slim Gaillard’s surreal jive on “Babalu (Orooney),” Ella Fitz-gerald’s peerless scat on “Them There Eyes,” and Hot Lips Page’s harrowing blues sermonette on “I Won’t Be Here Long.” Truly astonishing is a rehearsal excerpt in which saxophonist Ben Webster sings instrumental parts to his arrangement “Did You Call Her Today?,” trying to get members of a big band to swing with feeling. It’s a powerful reminder that the voice has always been central to jazz expression–from trumpeter Buddy Bolden calling his children home to pianist Keith Jarrett reinforcing his solo lines in an eerie falsetto.
Instructive and entertaining, The Jazz Singers attests to the Smithsonian’s able leadership in curating this nation’s musical heritage. Now the institution needs to reinstate and rebuild a recordings program that will continue to play a vital role in its overarching cultural mission.
What are musical scores for “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” and “O Sole Mio” doing in a book about jazz visionary John Coltrane? No, these aren’t unissued outtakes from his album Interstellar Space. “Sweetheart,” it turns out, was his father’s favorite song, while the other was a tune Coltrane liked to sing in the car on his way to gigs. Trivial on the face of it, these facts are colorful dabs of paint on the immense canvas covered by biographer and jazz scholar Lewis Porter in John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 1998; $29.95). For nearly two decades Porter has been researching and writing about Coltrane and his music, in the process accumulating a wealth of information about the innovative and influential saxophonist. Much of it appears for the first time in the present study, including extensive genealogical work on Coltrane’s family in North Carolina (the book begins in the mid-1700s with Daniel Boone!), fascinating accounts of Coltrane’s musical apprenticeship and practice techniques, recollections of the man by friends and family members, and detailed style analysis. The volume includes many solo transcriptions, facsimiles of musical examples in Coltrane’s hand, and a chronology documenting every known Coltrane performance, from a 1942 high school band concert in High Point, North Carolina to a 1967 appearance at the Olatunji Center for African Culture in New York.
Porter’s biography is partly a triumphant labor of scholarship, partly an act of loving tribute to a great artist. The same may be said about John Coltrane: A Discography and Musical Biography (Scarecrow Press/Institute of Jazz Studies, 1995; $66), a massive work completed by Japanese businessman Yasuhiro Fujioka with the assistance of Porter and Yoh-Ichi Hamada. Valuable chiefly for its exhaustive discography, the volume lists all Coltrane releases in all formats up to 1993. It also offers a chronology of performances (superceded by Porter’s more recent findings) and reproduces hundreds of photographs, many of them showing the saxophonist in mid-performance, leaning back with eyes closed and possessed by the intensity of the moment. Coltrane clearly regarded music as a spiritual calling. The discipline and passion he brought to his art are audible in his recordings and now manifest in the painstakingly crafted scholarship of his latter-day devotees.
On Sol Na Cara (Gramavision GCD 79518), Brazilian singer-songwriter Vinicius Cantuaria fuses the whispering vocals of bossa nova and urbane pop sensibility of “Tropicalia” with the edgy electronics of composer-arranger Ryuichi Sakamoto. Produced by downtown music hero Arto Lindsay, the disc suggests that intimacy and spiritual serenity are still possible in a world of microchips, fiber optics, and multi-national mergers. . . . Just in time for the centennial party comes Herbie Hancock with Gershwin’s World (Verve VERCD37), one of those increasingly common tribute discs with the obligatory all-star cast (Kathleen Battle, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, et al.). Not to complain, though–Hancock has come up with inspired arrangements for Gershwin warhorses and everyone involved with the disc sounds happily engaged. Singing and playing harmonica, Stevie Wonder nearly steals the show on “St. Louis Blues,” while on Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter take “I Got Rhythm” changes to the outer limits of jazz harmonic practice and back again. . . . Astral Project is an earthy progressive jazz ensemble based in New Orleans. Elevado (Compass Records 7 4249 2) features catchy tunes, bluesy open vamps, and crisp Crescent City rhythms supplied by drummer Johnny Vidacovich (check out the percolating funk on “Gator Bait”). I only wish someone had given pianist David Torkanowsky a better instrument to play. . . . Adventurous saxophonist-composer, student of ancient civilizations, and prolific recording artist Steve Coleman unveils two extended suites on Genesis and The Opening of the Way (RCA Victor 74321-52934-2). Both feature churning ostinatos, bracing dissonance, layered textures, and impassioned improvisation. In his trenchant liner notes for the 2-CD set, poet and essayist Nathaniel Mackey sums up the total effect: “Epiphany rides rhythm and pitch in an often densely woven music of great propulsive beauty, multiple resonance and reach.”
For more information on Coleman and the musicians’ collective M-Base (“Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization”), see www.m-base.com.