Archive for June, 2010

The Jazz Loft Project in Brooklyn, July 7

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Tidmore’s Sauce and Thomas Pynchon

Recently Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo played a concert with blues harp player Phil Wiggins and some old time string musicians in Raleigh.  Branford said it worked because blues and old mountain music came from the same source.  So maybe that makes this post relevant to the Jazz Loft Project.


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Eugene Smith, Thomas Wolfe, and John Coltrane

This weekend I was in Asheville, N.C. for a private Jazz Loft Project event and on Friday my wife and I went to Riverside Cemetery to check out the grave where Thomas Wolfe was buried in 1938 (we’ve been to the Wolfe home before).

Everything about Wolfe was excessive – he produced some of the largest, most over-flowing manuscripts in literary history – including his physical size; six-foot-six, two hundred and fifty pounds, which in today’s terms would be seven-foot, three fifty.  So without really thinking about it I expected a huge grave stone.  It surprised me to see his stone dwarfed by the one for his parents, like it was tacked on (see below).

Eugene Smith compared himself to Wolfe in several letters during his never-ending Pittsburgh odyssey in the 1950’s.  He wrote:

“Part of it (his Pittsburgh work) is like Thomas Wolfe being the greatest of our writing failures because he tried with such tremendous talent and tried so hard, harder than the rest of us.”

Faulkner once wrote that Wolfe was trying “to put all the experience of the human heart on the head of a pin.”  That description might fit Smith’s enterprise, too.

Today Smith and Wolfe have something else in common:  They aren’t as exalted as they once were.  Wolfe was once mentioned in the same sentence as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.  Not anymore.  (Anne Trubek had an interesting piece on Wolfe’s decline in the Oxford American last year).  Same with Smith; he used to be mentioned with Evans, Lange, Hine, and Cartier-Bresson.  Now, the sentence includes Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Arbus, and Frank, sometimes Winogrand and Friedlander, but not Smith.

The jazz analog to Smith and Wolfe is John Coltrane, who similarly erupted with boundless artistic expressions, “sheets of sound” as Ira Gitler famously put it.  Yet, Coltrane’s effort is appreciated as a tenuous human soul (Coltrane died in 1967 at age forty) expressing something profound and exotic, dangerous and alluring.  Since 1980 every budding saxophonist has absorbed Coltrane note for recorded note.  When I’m at the gym I often crank the 15-minute title track from Coltrane’s late album Transition as loud as I can stand it.  It helps me reach a higher level of cardio work.  But in photography and literature today such excess, the wearing of passion on the sleeve, is considered self-indulgent and undisciplined, even naïve.

In my travels researching Smith over thirteen-plus years I’ve met or heard of countless photographers that came along before 1980 who revered him (including Robert Frank).  Last week I was listening to a loft tape from around 1965 and a photographer named David Brooks (who had an image in Steichen’s Family of Man at MoMA in 1955) wandered into the loft, unannounced, to pay homage.  Smith didn’t know who Brooks was, but he wasn’t surprised; this happened all the time.  Now, though, if there are any photographers that came along after 1980 who claim Smith as a primary influence I haven’t heard of them.

There is isolated anecdotal evidence suggesting that the presentation of Smith’s unknown Jazz Loft material is helping his reputation.  In the May issue of The Believer magazine, published by the cutting edge McSweeney’s, Suzanne Snider has an intriguing interview with photographer, filmmaker, writer, and publisher Lawrence Schiller.  In the narration of Schiller’s career, probably written by The Believer’s staff, it says, “He worked with the great W. Eugene Smith on Minamata, a book of photos related to mercury poisoning in Japan.”

This may seem like a minor thing.  But I’ve been following things like this for a long time and this simple reference – the great W. Eugene Smith – made me blink.

I wonder if Wolfe’s reputation will ever be restored to previous levels.  The proliferation of writing workshops, where tastes and markets are arbitrated and created, seems to be an obstacle.  It’s hard to imagine roundtable encouragement of Wolfe’s process – prodigious, rhapsodic manuscripts that require painstaking edits.

wolfe grave

-Sam Stephenson

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Whitney Balliett’s Studio

Last week a man named Frank Baker from Raleigh came over to my office at the Center for Documentary Studies to see the bowels of the Jazz Loft Project.  My older brother Steve, a business associate of Frank’s, introduced us by email a few weeks ago.  Frank runs a family roofing business that goes back a hundred years.  He helped grow it into the third largest roofing company in the nation, an indication of good management and the burgeoning New South.  But he was here to talk about jazz and literature.

Frank got hooked on jazz one night in 1976 when he wandered into Bradley’s on University Place at 11th Street, NYC, and Tommy Flanagan was playing.  I told him Flanagan at Bradley’s might have ruined things.  You can’t do much better.  I later learned that Frank was a student of Phyllis Peacock, the legend of Raleigh’s Needham Broughton High School, who taught Anne Tyler, Armistead Maupin, and Reynolds Price.  He knew how to find the good stuff.

Steve was with us and so was Frank’s son-in-law Sean Thomas, and while the three of us were jabbering, Frank gazed at our floor-to-ceiling case of books, mostly jazz history, New York, and photography.  He pulled two off the shelf and raved.  They were by Whitney Balliett and Joseph Mitchell, two longtime New Yorker magazine writers, two of my beacons.

There’s a decent chance that Balliett would have been at Bradley’s listening to Flanagan that night in 1976 (Balliett published a long piece about Flanagan in 1978).  Balliett’s listing for the gig in the New Yorker could have been what sent Frank there.

Meanwhile, Mitchell was probably in his home on 10th Street three blocks away, having spent another day collecting broken doorknobs and jars, rusty kitchen utensils, and vials of dirt and other strange objects around the city, his wife, photographer Therese Mitchell, shaking her head bemused.

I’ve written about Mitchell before and will again.  I’m tracing the shared roots of Mitchell and Thelonious Monk in North Carolina’s coastal plains, and their paths to NYC fame, looking for overlaps, even if random (Mitchell’s apartment was just a few blocks from both the Vanguard and Five Spot).  I might even work on a Mitchell biography if a promising one in the works by Tom Kunkel doesn’t get done.

Balliett is one connection between Monk and Mitchell; he loved Monk and Mitchell was a key literary influence.  But with him I’m pondering something else.

I’d like to see everything Balliett wrote published in chronological order, 1954 to 2001.  Most of his work, some seven hundred pieces, is collected in three books; his long profiles of musicians in American Singers and American Musicians II, and his shorter reviews and reportage in Collected Works: a Journal of Jazz.  These books are wonderful, but something more dynamic happens when you read his work in sequence as it was originally published in the New Yorker, rather than forked out and reassembled by topic and format in these books.  When his seminal long portraits are blended with his shorter album reviews and reports from gigs, concerts, and festivals, what unfolds is a panoramic, novelistic chronicle of post-War America.  Everything reverberates and gains value.  Fifty or a hundred years from now this new publication would be the most important single document of twentieth century American jazz outside of the recorded sound.

When Balliett died in February 2007 I wrote something similar to the last two sentences of the previous paragraph on an invitation-only jazz history listserv that includes many of the top jazz scholars in the world.  I was blasted by a few.  One said my comments were “offensive.”  It didn’t help my cause, I learned later, that Balliett once wrote, “jazz scholars are nonpareil at unearthing irrelevancies.”  (I believe jazz scholars are pareil: a few are great, some good, some not as good, like any group of scholars).

What Balliett did better than anyone is write about everybody, not just the iconic albums and bandleaders and superstars.  He wrote about bass players and drummers and forgotten singers and lost piano players, plus festival impresarios, bar owners, and tap dancers.  He even wrote, movingly, about Zoot Sims’ widow Louise, who wasn’t a musician but who had an intimate view of a quintessential one.

To indicate the vital variety of Balliett’s contribution, let’s look at some numbers:

In 1960 Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler published the second edition of their remarkable Encyclopedia of Jazz.  It contained biographical entries for two thousand working musicians, including their home addresses.  It’s as good a group portrait of the heyday as we’ll ever have.  I went through the book recently and here’s how it breaks down by the individuals’ primary instruments:

327 pianists

230 trumpeters

206 drummers

180 bassists

179 tenor saxophonists

171 vocalists

136 trombonists

111 guitarists

106 composers

97 clarinetists

88 alto saxophonists

69 various (harmonica, accordion, banjo, etc.)

55 band leaders

33 baritone saxophonists

28 vibes

It makes sense that there would be more pianists.  It’s the only instrument you can get a gig playing by yourself.  Plus, before television many households had pianos – including middle and lower classes, rural and urban – or there was one in the neighborhood or at church.  But look who comes in third and fourth on the list, drummers and bassists.  Almost every combo has one of each.  Yet, like catchers in baseball, they are under-sung in the annals, unless they happen to be rare iconic bandleaders like Charles Mingus or Art Blakey (for catchers the ones who hit 300 home runs make the Hall of Fame, not champions like Jason Varitek or Jorge Posada).

One of the most (rightfully) acclaimed writers in jazz history has a seven-hundred page opus with seventy-nine chapters focusing on eighty-nine different musicians but only two bass players (Mingus and Charlie Haden) and two drummers (Blakey and Chick Webb).

Flipping through Balliett’s work, these are just a few of the bassists and drummers that jump out:  Big Sid Catlett, Joe Morello, Jo Jones, Sonny Greer, Freddie Moore, Davy Tough, Zutty Singleton, Elvin Jones, Connie Kay, Jimmy Blanton, Eddie Gomez, Michael Moore, and Percy Heath.

Joseph Mitchell once said that the least interesting people to interview were business leaders, society women, and successful authors.  These types were required to talk so much that their stories inevitably became canned.  Miles Davis is going to tell you the same stories over and over; he’ll be bored stiff; and the stories probably won’t be true.

Figures such as Jimmy Rowles, Errol Garner, Marie Marcus, and Pee Wee Russell were portrayed in Balliett’s work, and Art Farmer, Jess Stacy, Dorothy Donegan, Ellis Larkins, Mary Lou Williams, Gene Bertoncini, and Vic Dickinson; not to mention club owners like Barney Josephson, Max Gordon, and Bradley Cunningham, and tap dancers like Baby Laurence.  Balliett wrote well about icons like Ellington and Armstrong and Bird (the Mount Rushmore of Ken Burns’ 20-hour PBS series), but his writing on neglected leaders and sidemen (and more women than any other male writer that I know of) makes his work soar.

Nobody on staff at the New Yorker wrote sentences more beautifully than Balliett, which Adam Gopnik confirmed in his 2007 obituary in the magazine.  Even so, Balliett regularly represented his subjects in their own voices, with quotations running in blocks of 1000 words, describing more than just the latest gig or recording but their personal lives, parents and childhoods, favorite foods.  He didn’t pepper his subjects with questions, he sat and listened.

In 1971 Balliett wrote a piece on the Modern Jazz Quartet in which he offered a 500-word introduction followed by 10,500 words of revolving quotations from the four musicians, talking about everything from their rural Southern church and Cherokee backgrounds to the most sophisticated techniques in jazz, which the quartet exemplified.  It is the greatest portrait of a working band in the literature.

Balliett learned his technique from Mitchell, who published masterful profiles of underground characters with quotations sometimes running two-thirds of the piece, and from Lillian Ross, another New Yorker writer who did the same thing with actors and actresses.

To give you one example of this style, here is a quotation from Balliett’s 1963 piece on trumpeter Charles Melvin “Cootie” Williams, a career sideman:

“I was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1910 – not 1908 like the history books say.  My mother was a church organist, and my father ran a gambling house along with a man named Son Coin.  When I was around three or four, my parents too me to a band concert in the park, and on the way home they asked me what did I hear.  I said, ‘cootie cootie cootie.’  It stuck.  I took up the drums when I was about five, and later, in the school band, I wanted to switch to trombone.  But my arms were too short to reach the lowest position on the slide, so the bandmaster told me, ‘You play the trumpet.’  I said I didn’t like trumpet, so he gave me a whooping, and I played the trumpet.  Louis Armstrong has always been my idol, and I saw him first one summer when the school band went up to Chicago. A little kid, I stood outside the fence of the Oriental Garden, I think it was, and listened to Louis in King Oliver’s band.  When I got back that night, I got a whooping for that.  I worked around Mobile with Holman’s jazz band and Johnny Pope’s band, and then Edmund Hall, who was with Eagle-Eye Shields’ band in Jacksonville, Florida, told Shields about me.  Shields wanted to hire me, and Hall got hold of my father to see if it was all right.  Well, Son Coin had relatives in Jacksonville, so my father said OK.”

This two hundred and fifty-two word quotation, rich in character and American history, goes on for another eight hundred words in the published piece.  Balliett did this week after week.  It’s a bygone era when this kind of work could get published in a high profile magazine.  “Where’s the writer’s voice?” a flabbergasted editor screeched when I tried it once.  This spring the New Yorker and the Oxford American – two of our very best magazines – published competing profiles of a fascinating, nomadic Chinese chef who currently roams the South making whatever strip mall dive he chooses to work for the best Chinese restaurant in the region.  There wasn’t a single quote from the chef in either article.  It’s all about the writer now.

Some contemporary commentators tend to portray Balliett as a conservative traditionalist.  This is false.  Just because he loved Pee Wee Russell and Red Allen doesn’t make him conservative.  He embraced Monk, Mingus, Roland Kirk, and Cecil Taylor, often earlier than anybody else.  In 1959 when Ornette Coleman scandalized the jazz world, including many former bebop pioneers, Balliett wrote, “Listen to Coleman; he is unique, he is new.”  A year later he wrote this passage:

At first hearing (Coleman) sounds inflexible, crude, and even brutish.  His tone appears thick-thumbed and heavy.  He plays insane and seemingly purposeless runs.  His intensity is apoplectic.  But once Coleman’s ground rules have been absorbed, the strange timbres and dervish rhythms become less imperious and even tend to point up the blueslike passages and snatches of often beautiful melody that occur more frequently than one had first thought.  More important, Coleman’s work is bound tightly together by a passion associated more with the Romantic composers than with jazz.  However, his music is not Lisztian; rather, it falls in that zone where compassion is levelheaded and sound of heart.

This passage is a lesson in paying attention.  It transcends music.  When you have this kind of poetic writing in sequences with the oral histories, it rises to the level of our best documentary novelists, many of whom, like Dickens, originally published in periodical serial.

I don’t agree with everything Balliett wrote.  He wasn’t crazy about Coltrane, for example, and he dismissed one of my favorite musicians, Roy Haynes, as a “champion chatterer” on drums.  Also, there are a couple of gaps in his record.  He didn’t cover the drug scene (the elephant in the room) and he never wrote about race except by implication of the skin color of his subjects (which some think is the best way).  Two writers who come close to Balliett’s approach and who broach the tricky topics of drugs and race are Nat Hentoff and A.B. Spellman.  But these two greats weren’t as prolific in writing about jazz, didn’t create the kaleidoscopic chronicle that Balliett did.

One of Balliett’s secrets, shared by Hentoff and Spellman, is he didn’t rely on the recorded music.  Thus, the people who populate his work are living, working human beings.  Later in his career Balliett wrote more about musicians who had passed away – Ellington, Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Sims, Ella Fitzgerald – and such writing, poetic as always, wasn’t what made him unique.  He bumped up against the conundrum all documentarians eventually must solve:  What happens when you become older than your subjects?  If you count Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen as documentarians, as I do, this could explain why Goodfellas and Husbands and Wives were the ends of their primes (Scorsese’s Oscar for The Departed was a career award, he should have won three by then). It also may explain why Joseph Mitchell went silent at age fifty-six; he cherished subjects older than him, then he became their age.  It may explain why Nat Hentoff moved on to politics.

At his peak in the 1960s and 70s Balliett published pieces in the New Yorker every other week on average.  One year he had pieces in all but two issues.  By the 1990’s, however, he and the magazine were fading apart.  He felt unappreciated by Tina Brown and, in an inexplicable oversight, David Remnick didn’t include any of his work in a collection of New Yorker profiles spanning the history of the magazine.  Perhaps William Shawn would have encouraged Balliett to apply his gift to another realm, theater or art or classical music (he increasingly loved the Met Opera Orchestra’s straight concerts).  It wasn’t a proper ending to an extraordinary career.

A new opus – the Complete Works of Whitney Balliett – is called for.  It would be 1500-2000 pages and two or three volumes.  It would be financially risky, probably requiring a benefactor to get published.  It would stand the test of time.

Sometime after Balliett died in 2007 his widow, the artist Nancy Balliett, asked her sister’s husband, photographer Robert E. Klurfield, to come over to the East Side apartment she shared with Whitney and make a few pictures of his writing studio.  One of the resulting images is here.

Photograph by Robert E. Klurfield

Photograph by Robert E. Klurfield

-Sam Stephenson

Postscript:  The framer of Nancy Balliett’s paintings is David Rothman, whose father, collage artist and frame maker, Henry Rothman, employed original 821 Sixth Avenue jazz loft resident, painter David X. Young, in his shop around the corner.  David Rothman lived in 821 Sixth Avenue in the 1970s after W. Eugene Smith was evicted.  When Rothman attended the opening of the Jazz Loft exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in February he saw film footage of Smith working in the loft and he told me he recognized the kerosene space heater he inherited from Smith.  New York City is a wonderfully small world.

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Charleston All-Stars

The Jazz Loft Project was down in Charleston last week to take part in the 2010 Piccolo Spoleto Festival JAC Jazz Series. On Thursday June 10, Ron Free made an in store appearance at Blue Bicycle Books alongside copies of The Jazz Loft Project signed by Sam Stephenson and hand delivered by me. It was nice to spend a couple of hours in this amazing bookstore. Owned by Jonathan and Lauren Sanchez, the store has a great staff and book selection (that includes some of Jonathan’s writing and an extensive selection of low country history). They also lead a cool looking young writer’s camp in the summertime.

Blue Bicycle Books also joined us the following night at McCrady’s Upstairs for the JAC Jazz Series closing show, billed as the Charleston All-Stars featuring Ron Free. Ron played 2 sets, with this ensemble and a few guests, and signed books during the intermission. This event was hosted most ably by writer and MC extraordinaire  Jack McCray, who spoke wonderfully about the Jazz Loft Project and the musicians before I said a few words to the sold out house. The thing I concentrated on in my brief talk was the community and spirit of these Charleston musicians, festival staff, and concert goers and how that makes the music so joyful to experience. What does that mean? Please allow me to backtrack.

On Thursday, after a fine afternoon at Blue Bicycle Books, where I got to meet Ron Free’s nephew, Ron took me on a brief tour of Charleston. As a native son and one time tour guide of the city, it was a treat to get a sense of what a Ron Free Charleston tour might have been like back in the day. I even got to hear some of the Charleston brogue and accurate Gullah accent  he used to enrich the historical tours. After dinner, we headed over to Charleston Grill to catch the Quentin Baxter Ensemble. Hear them there Monday-Saturday. Shortly after their first set, Quentin insisted on letting Ron sit in with his band mates, Tommy Gill on piano and Jake Holwegner on bass. Ron sounded great and got a chance to synch up with Tommy, who would join him in the Charleston All-Stars on Friday. The generous way Ron was received was touching. The energy in the music benefitted both from Ron’s addition to the band and Quentin’s subsequent playing, which had sounded really good from the start. As Ron sat down to play, Quentin made a humble remark about how he was about to get a lesson from Ron. I learned a lot by listening to both of them play and talk about jazz.

After rehearsal on Friday, I met up with Ron and fellow all-star Tommy Gill You can read about how he studied with Jaki Byard and played with 821 Sixth Avenue loft veteran Jimmy Knepper, and like Quentin, he was a great guy whose appreciation for the music was clear. It was a pleasure to hang out with him before the show and hear some of his stories and insights. Then it was on to the venue, Upstairs at McCrady’s.

The space above McCrady’s was similar to the loft space with the deep room, wooden floors, and high ceilings. It was a lot more pleasant to be there than the time Ron and I met with a BBC crew at 821 Sixth Avenue several summers ago to film Ron’s interview for the Paul Bernays and Svetlana Palmer Mose Allison documentary Ever Since I Stole the Blues. McCrady’s upstairs was about 40 degrees cooler, with an impressively efficient service staff and some nice tables. We were lucky to have the presence of Ron’s nephew, nieces, their partners, and especially Ron’s sister Joan who told me how much it meant to her to see him play. It was great to meet them and to smile and laugh along with them as they appreciated Ron and the great scene there.

Shortly after arriving, I was also able to spend a few minutes talking with bassist Kevin Hamilton. Jack McCray wrote an article about him and he wrote about Kevin better than I do below. Read it here. In this article, Jack really got at the heart of what I was feeling in the presence of these musicians and throughout the trip.

The band sounded great onstage, too: Ron Free, drums; Tommy Gill, piano; Kevin Hamilton, bass; John Odin, guitar; and Robert Lewis; alto sax.  The first set included a Monk tune,  a couple of Tommy Gill originals and Ron Free recited his poem “The Parade” to his own drum accompaniment. It was fantastic to them taking risks onstage, improvising new material and challenging themselves as Ron did by recalling this poem from memory while accompanying his narration for the first time ever before an audience. And there was a free form improvisation that gave Kevin Hamilton some room to stretch out on the bass, with great technique and style on his solos. Like the other musicians I was fortunate to talk with, he was modest offstage and generous with his playing, but also created impressive and imaginative solos. There were several solos and fours that Ron took that really blew me away, as well. He has an uncanny ability to play the drums harmonically melodic, with masterful simultaneous restraint and power, using the whole kit and a variety of techniques.

Ron signed some books sold by Blue Bicycle during the break. It was fun to hear the stories of people from different times in his life who remember Ron and his music favorably. I got to talk more with Jack McCray about how wonderful the festival had been. Then there was a whole set of music, jam session style. At one point someone requested “On Green Dolphin Street” and Tommy quickly led the musicians into that tune. As a frequently occurring 821 Sixth Avenue standard, it was amazing to hear Ron Free, 50 years later, jamming to that tune and sounding as good as ever, if not better.

We’re hoping to get some photographs from the event. When we do we’ll post them in a subsequent blog entry and identify all of the musicians who played. I can’t say enough about the energy and dedication of the Jazz Artists of Charleston staff and volunteers. Everything ran smoothly and it felt like a family, this community. The sound was incredible in that room, well produced. And after the show, everyone mobilized to break things down with alacrity. It  felt like a celebration and a well deserved one after such a great series and final event.  So if any of y’all are reading this, thanks very much! For everyone else, I highly recommend checking out the music scene down in Charleston and going to the festival next year. The crowd seemed to have a great time and engaged the music with warmth and appreciation for the gift of this music. Hear it live for yourself and seek out recordings from these fine people and great musicians,  and drop in to Blue Bicycle Books if you ever get the chance.

-Dan Partridge

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Track of the Week – “Joe’s Bolero” by Joe Henderson, 1980

mirror mirror

This 1980 recording comes from an album, “Mirror, Mirror,” which has three loft veterans on it: saxophonist Henderson, who lived in the loft in the fall of 1961, drummer Billy Higgins, and pianist Chick Corea.  Ron Carter is on bass to round out the quartet.

I was introduced to Henderson in the summer of 1992 when I was living in Washington, D.C.  One hot afternoon he joined Wynton Marsalis’ band under a broiling tent on the Mall.  The gig was part of the Library of Congress Folklife Festival.  I was new to jazz, having been steeped in blues for the previous few years, and it was the Marsalis name that drew me out to this event, but I left with Henderson’s image and sound permanently imprinted.  Henderson was a small man (a couple of Wynton’s sidemen were enormous) and his stage demeanor was peaceful and kind, like your favorite school principal, or like the traditional farmer who goes to church every Sunday and sits on the back row and never says a word, gently smiling at everyone who walks by.  Henderson sported a gray beard, glasses, and a pressed shirt, tucked in.  You might say his stage presence was light, even wispy.  But when he blew air through his horn the sounds that came out were among the heaviest I’d ever heard.  Some of this impression came from his contrast with Wynton and his band, young and outwardly strong willed.

A year or so later I found the CD “Mirror, Mirror.”  I love the whole album but the band’s performance on “Joe’s Bolero” is stunning.  Higgins sounds like a popcorn popper, Corea sounds like Corea – controlled in an almost manic manner.  Henderson’s first notes on the track are a quick, strained wail before a simple, dry one-up one-down pattern emerges.  For the next eight minutes there is melodic pandemonium.  The band seems to drive itself up against a wall, motor still churning in place, then they turn the wheel, break free, and move toward another wall made of different material.


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Spilling Ourselves

How is the BP oil tragedy related to the Jazz Loft Project?  I’m not sure.  But I felt like we should share this powerful piece by John Sullivan from Paris Review’s revamped website.  John finds a way to evoke Roman Polanski and Buddy Bolden.

I relate to water.  Almost everything I love has something to do with water.  Sitting somewhere and looking at water is paradise for me.  I get depressed if we go a week without rain.  For those of us lucky enough to grow up on the coast – I grew up on the Pamlico River, N.C. and Thelonious Monk’s relatives used to swim next door (there’s a loft connection) – this kind of story slowly pounds you to the core.  We humans are going to progress toward mass extinction sooner or later, aren’t we?  Almost every religious tradition has a Noah’s Ark motif in which things get so bad the only way to make them better is to start over from scratch.

Gene Smith used to say, “We’re becoming the most educated morons in history.”  Amen.


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Undead Jazz

Ben Ratliff has a piece in today’s Times on the inspiring new Undead Jazzfest in New York.  I strongly believe that jazz isn’t dead but the models for presenting it might be.  Making people sit in their seats and pay attention like 5th graders (“class…CLASS!”) isn’t the answer, at least not every night.


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The Return of Henry Grimes

Here is a piece documenting the discovery and resurgence of bass player and loft veteran, Henry Grimes, from the new issue of Current Research in Jazz, an on-line journal published by former Jazz Loft Project archivist, Michael Fitzgerald, who is now an archivist with the libraries of the University of the District of Columbia.

In the summer of 2003 I flew into San Francisco, rented a car, packed a styrofoam cooler, and spent 2 weeks driving up and then back down the West Coast interviewing fifteen or twenty veterans of 821 Sixth Avenue.  With the help of Fitzgerald and others mentioned in this article, I picked up Henry Grimes at his hotel in downtown Los Angeles and we drove around town listening to cd’s from the initial transfers of Smith’s loft tapes.  Henry was recorded on a few of those reels.  I remember him telling me, “This sounds like one of those planned sessions.”  He told me that not all jam sessions were ad-hoc.  Many times somebody called around and organized a session, not unlike a poker game.  He’s been a good friend of the project ever since, and I included this quote from him in the book.  We hope to include some of his poetry on this blog in the future.  At this blog entry there is a photo of Henry from a JLP event in NYC in December.

Go to Henry’s site to gain access to his excellent recent recordings.  I also recommend his 1965 recording, “The Call,” with another loft veteran Perry Robinson on clarinet.  It is one of the hallmarks of “free jazz” from the period.  I also recommend “Out of the Afternoon” by the immortal loft veteran Roy Haynes, with Henry on bass, and the great loft veteran Roland Kirk on various horns, and Tommy Flanagan on piano.  This quartet of heavyweights was Roy’s working band at the time.  Are you kidding me?  Roy is the most undersung band leader in jazz history.  If you only buy one jazz album this year “Out of the Afternoon” would be a good choice.


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JLP at New Mexico Jazz Festival

We’re proud to be on a thoughtful bill of the upcoming New Mexico Jazz Festival organized by Tom Guralnick.  One JLP event is at Outpost in Albuquerque on Saturday July 17 at 8pm.  The next day, Sunday July 18 at 2pm there is another JLP event at Verve Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe.

The Festival is closed by the great Japanese composer and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi.  She and her husband, saxophonist Lew Tabackin, overlap with Eugene Smith in a manner not related to Jazz Loft.  In the mid-1970s Toshiko composed a 22-minute big band piece inspired by the Minamata mercury-poisoning tragedy which Smith and his Japanese-American second wife Aileen Mioko Smith documented to profound effect a couple of years earlier.  I once met Lew at Small’s in the West Village, NYC, and he told me the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band played “Minamata” at Avery Fisher Hall in the mid-1970s and Smith attended and made a photograph of them backstage.  I need to follow up to see if they can find the print Smith later gave them.

-Sam Stephenson

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