Writings about Music
Keeping the History of Jazz Real
And With It the Present and Future of Music
I wish to focus in on one aspect of this interesting discourse I find misleading. But I don’t wish to single out the author alone for being part of a mindset taught in academia that has misunderstood and continues to misrepresent history.
“… historically black genres such as hip-hop and jazz …”
Why does the author and others find it necessary to deny the central contribution to jazz of those who supplied it with the actual material for improvisation? If one focuses on jazz from the swing period up to modal jazz (my favorite jazz with some notable exceptions), it simply doesn’t exist without the songs that became jazz standards, predominantly composed by artists who happen to be Caucasian, and even mostly Jewish. It was the genius of the music and lyrics of these songs that synergized with improvisers of genius to create something uniquely American; a country made up of diverse races and peoples. Not only that, but key improvisers who help define swing and modern jazz include Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Stan Getz, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Levey, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and on and on. Why does the author and others find it acceptable to insult the memory of artists like Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis by patronizing a great art form, jazz, by insisting upon such a distorted view which they thoroughly disagreed with, wrongfully feeling that those great artists require to be artificially bolstered by excluding their essential colleagues of different racial and cultural backgrounds.
Miles Davis and Bill Evans
Davis was inspired to record his greatest album, Kind of Blue, largely due to the hypnotic presence of Bill Evans on piano together with compositions Evans supplied for the date.
In a 2013 comment in The New York Times, in response to The President of the Cool by Ishmael Reed, singled out in NYT Picks, I noted that jazz “…came about through a confluence of displaced ethnic groups: African Americans from Africa (taken against their will as slaves) who became the primary improvisers of “modern” jazz, and Jewish Americans from Europe and Russia (escaping pogroms and the Holocaust - UCLA historian Jay Winter stated that Hitler saw the Armenian genocide and did it again) who became the primary composers of the songs used for improvisation. There are many important exceptions to these generalities, of course.”
Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern
Two of Charlie Parker's greatest improvisational vehicles were by this lyricist and composer team (All the Things You Are and The Song Is You), and two of John Coltrane's greatest vehicles were also by lyricist Hammerstein II with music by Sigmund Rombert (Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise) and Richard Rodgers (My Favorite Things), whose birthday is today.
John Coltrane's recording of Invitation by Bronislaw Kaper and Paul Francis Webster remains a pinnacle of jazz ballad performance achieved through a profoundly subtle yet ecstatic recognition of the song's unique rasa (essence) filtered through the prism of the tenor saxophonist's personal temperament.
If the author or someone else in academia or elsewhere wishes to argue that jazz standards don’t matter and that jazz would have been the same or just as great without those songs (in addition to the blues form), well, I suppose we could build a time machine and go back, perhaps beginning by asking Charlie Parker where he would be without Cherokee, All the Things You Are, Just Friends, Embraceable You and Lover Man, all just a few of the works of genius that ignited his prodigious imagination. But be careful, Bird might also mention how he memorized Artie Shaw solos (in addition to those of Lester Young), revered the music of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, and was inspired to achieve new levels of instrumental virtuosity after hearing Jimmy Dorsey. (We won’t even get into how European classical composers of the time influenced him as well.)
Lee Konitz and Charlie Parker
Konitz, Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were at one time in the fifties all featured soloists with the Stan Kenton Orchestra simultaneously. The consensus among the musicians, including Gillespie, was that Lee was shining the brightest. Konitz's recordings from the fifties include a version of You're Clear Out of This World that clearly influenced John Coltrane's sixties recording of the song.
I believe the author is correct in describing hip hop as historically black, but he sadly perpetuates an unfortunate misnomer in the case of jazz, which is absolutely an art form created by black and white peoples.
Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden
All three transformed their respective instruments of piano, trumpet and trombone for others to follow, with Armstrong transforming jazz itself too.
I love African American artists as much as anyone, and Snoop Dogg is more gifted than anyone of his generation and younger in jazz today (at least). I wouldn’t dare insult my African American brothers, such as Richard Davis, by pretending that their contributions are so weak as to be threatened by the inclusion of their colleagues from different backgrounds. Quite the contrary: the truth of collaboration makes the music and us all stronger.
Shelly Manne, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Levey
Drummer Stan Levey unleashed a torrent of swing unsurpassed by anyone, as captured on the For Musicians Only album.
Is it against the law of some imaginary, nightmarish phantom jazz police force to keep it a secret, for example, that Cecil Taylor reveres Dave Brubeck and Anthony Braxton reveres Lee Konitz, or that Lester Young and Miles Davis revered Stan Getz? Are African American jazz artists not allowed to love and be inspired by other jazz artists who don't share the same heritage? Because I'm completely smitten by Jackie McLean does that mean I'm to deny my insight that Art Pepper is the alto saxophonist closest in sound and feeling to Charlie Parker? Or because Michael Jackson sends me should I disallow my passion for Laura Nyro, Judy Collins and Janis Joplin?
Stan Getz and Lester Young
Lester Young's nickname for Stan Getz? "Prez".
Stan Getz, Ralph Burns and Miles Davis
On a sixties published blindfold test, Davis excoriated almost all the music played for him with the exception of giving Stan Getz and his new Getz/GIlberto album the highest possible praise.
The author is correct in suggesting that an understanding of jazz is central to understanding composers of our time, and that is why I have focused in on what I feel is his erroneous description of jazz. Without knowing jazz one doesn’t really understand composers as diverse as Milton Babbitt, Steve Reich, and myself too.
Lastly, terms like New Music and contemporary music bore me to tears. I am only interested in individual composers whose work transcends time.
- Michael Robinson, June 2016, Los Angeles
Postlude: Caravan Paragon
I had the desire to hear Lee Konitz play Caravan and A Night In Tunisia because they are two of the most exciting jazz standards ever, and made that request to the great alto saxophonist together with Nancy (with the Laughing Face). His reply astonished me: “I want to play Jewish music”; meaning the songs that had become the jazz standards he preferred, originally mostly intended for Broadway shows and Hollywood films, but adopted for improvisational vehicles by various artists from Artie Shaw to John Coltrane. Konitz was suggesting that he felt a particularly deep connection with these songs because of the common ethnic and cultural background he shared with the composers and lyricists.
My sense is that Lee would agree with me that what he and his peers play is an art form known as jazz, which includes essential contributions from all the peoples who have mastered both improvisation and the creation of vehicles for improvisation. It’s possible that Lee’s spontaneous reply to me was partly based upon the frustration he’s sometimes felt at being criticized for not copying the styles of African American greats. Regarding that subject, Lee once told me that he thought musical genius occurs when someone attempts to copy his or her idol, is unable to do so, and instead brews something new.
Michael Robinson and Lee Konitz
I guess we were in the right place at the right time because my shirt matched the flower display purely by coincidence.
The summer after my first year of college, Lee invited me to hear him play at a small club on Long Island, a performace that was sparsely attended. Concluding with Cherokee, Lee played something like thirty choruses of brilliant originality and complexity at a tempo so demoniacally wild one might imagine angels weeping. Afterwards, he expressed surprise that more people hadn't shown, nonchalantly preparing to leave for his Manhattan home. My date just stared at Konitz with her mouth ajar, not believing the level of invention she had just witnessed, and that I was on speaking terms with this unassuming apostle of music.
Still, it would have been fantastic to hear Lee traverse Caravan, which he also claimed to dislike because of its Middle Eastern tinge. Sometimes its good to push people a bit in a direction that’s unexpected. For example, one night at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, I was sitting in the front row, and in-between pieces, noticing the musicians conferring about what to play next, I found myself speaking out Kary’s Trance, which I have long felt is the greatest jazz composition ever. Surprised that anyone even knew of his song, Lee asked the others if that was acceptable, and their collective extemporization became the highlight of the evening.
Nonetheless, I would have liked to have heard Lee do Caravan too because I’m certain he would have created something that would have astonished Duke Ellington, Juan Tizol and Irving Mills within the framework of their masterpiece. (There has been controversy regarding the contributions of Mills, and seeking clarification, I once did some research, including corresponding with Mills’ granddaughter, but that’s another conversation.) Same for Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night In Tunisia, which would appear to be partly inspired by Alone Together. I wonder how Lee would have handled the famous break and Near Eastern or Arabic feel.
Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz and Art Blakey
Lee bears some resemblance to Woody Allen here, but we are a long way from Michael's Pub, this being Birdland in the late forties.
Lee Konitz, Woody Allen and Bob Dylan form a triptych of American Jewish artists who have enriched their respective disciplines and the world immeasurably. Their creative lives share an inexhaustible appetite for eventful adventurousness together with an inablity to compromise.
As for Nancy (with the Laughing Face), given that Lee, along with Miles Davis and Lou Levy, are among those who regarded Frank Sinatra as the greatest jazz vocalist, it would have been thrilling to hear how Lee’s version would compare to both Sinatra’s and John Coltrane’s stellar renditions. (My favorite jazz singers include Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Helen Forrest, Tony Bennett, Betty Carter and Ray Charles.) The lyrics to that song are particularly ingenious and powerful, written by none other than comedian Phil Silvers with music by Jimmy van Heusen.
Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman and Count Basie
Pandit Jasraj taught me about how different ragas traverse rainbows of varied forms of love, and Nancy (with the Laughing Face) is about a father’s love for his daughter.
No one has ever suggested that the history of Indian classical music is understandable without making central acknowledgement of the grandly sublime ragas improvisation is based upon. There is a powerful parallel between ragas with Indian classical music and the songs that became jazz standards in the swing period through the modern jazz period (with some important overlapping into the sixties and seventies especially with Latin jazz), those being the jazz periods that have best stood the test of time for myself, along with some essential modal jazz (which is largely inspired by Indian classical music, of course) and avant garde jazz.
Interstellar Space, the John Coltrane and Rashied Ali album of tenor saxophone and drum duets, left me charged and in pursuit of new musical frontiers.
Together with a background of Western classical, rock, and American jazz, I eventually added elements derived from the classical music of India into my compositions for Meruvina where I become composer and performer at once.
So, just what is the music I compose and perform? Is it a new evolution of Western classical music? Is it a new evolution of American jazz? Is it a new evolution of Indian classical music? I prefer not to categorize it by any technical term other than Meruvina music because what I’m about is part of a world instrumental music continuum going back to antiquity inspired by an even older vocal music continuum.
Perhaps Michael Robinson music is the best description, and from there one may consider individual compositions, or characteristics of compositions manifesting at different times of my life. Given how I just juxtaposed Sinatra and Nancy (with the Laughing Face) with Coltrane and Interstellar Space, you may perhaps taste a new flavor, or even experience, hopefully, something like fly me to the moon and let me dance among the stars. I wish.
A scientist once pointed out to me that the names of the compositions on Coltrane's album fall within interplanetary space. There's also intergalactic space. The way things are going let's hope there's another place where humans may eventually dwell.
- Michael Robinson, July 2016, Los Angeles
© 2016 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).