Archive for June, 2010

The Cult of Frailty

You might check out this podcast of an intriguing conversation between Times’ writers Ben Ratliff and Ben Sisario concerning the new posthumous release, “November,” by the saxophonist and loft veteran Steve Lacy.  This solo recording was made in Switzerland in November 2003, three months after Lacy was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He died seven months later.

Ratliff and Sisario discuss how in jazz appreciation aging is okay.  Musicians are appreciated for gaining wisdom and new expressions over time.  Ratliff mentions a “cult of frailty” in jazz.  In other words, infirm jazz musicians are seen to expose primordial human conditions otherwise hidden in “normal” people.  A dying master can express profound new things.  Can you hear evidence of this in Lacy’s late recording?  That’s part of Ratliff’s and Sisario’s discussion.

The cult of frailty also pertains, of course, to musicians who have addictions and other pathologies; they offer access, perhaps dangerous, to the tormented soul.  This might help explain why African-American pianist Sonny Clark, who died of a heroin overdose at age thirty-one in 1963, sells hundreds of thousands of records in Japan.  (This isn’t about Japan; it is about the exotic unknown.  There are excellent French philosophers who are rock stars in American universities but they remain frumpy and obscure in France).

According to Blue Note Records, Clark’s 1958 album “Cool Struttin’” has sold more copies in Japan in the last twenty years (since Soundscan was invented and sales became more traceable) than John Coltrane’s 1957 “Blue Train,” or Horace Silver’s 1965 “Song of My Father,” or Herbie Hancock’s 1965 “Maiden Voyage.”  In fact, “Cool Struttin’” has sold more than “Song of My Father” and “Maiden Voyage” combined.

Sonny Clark’s right hand on piano made some of my favorite sounds in all of recorded American music, but in my view his best music was made as a sideman, not a leader (see Grant Green’s “The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark,” or Serge Chaloff’s “Blue Serge” or Dexter Gordon’s “Go” or his work with Buddy DeFranco’s quartet on Mosaic if you can find it).  I don’t know anyone who mentions “Cool Struttin’” in the same sentence with the iconic records by Silver and Hancock (both of whom are still alive, by the way).  In America Silver and Hancock sell many times more records than Clark.  Does the cult of Sonny’s frailty make him more popular in faraway Japan?  What does this mean?

The cult of frailty is something we’ve had to deal with in the Jazz Loft Project from the beginning.  There is real frailty in the story.  The building itself was weak and decrepit, contrasting with the hallowed halls of Hall Overton’s Juilliard and Eugene Smith’s LIFE magazine.  Smith died at age 59 when he could have passed for a man three decades older, his body ravaged by alcohol and amphetamines and poor nutrition.  Hall Overton died of cirrhosis at age 52.  Sonny Clark overdosed in the loft several times.  Wilbur Ware disappeared into the bathroom and didn’t come out for three hours.  Ronnie Free tells about moving to New York and being lured into the drug scene because many of his heroes were mired in it.  Steve Swallow remembers a loft jam session in which Zoot Sims spit blood into a coffee can all night.  Look at the picture of saxophonist Lin Halliday at the bottom of Gin Wald’s blog.  Lin personifies frail.  Gin looks great.  They are only six years apart in age.

The tortured artist romance is something I need to handle well in my biography of Smith.  His father committed suicide and a psychiatrist told me last week that kids of parents who commit suicide are four times more likely to be suicidal.  That is real stuff, not superstition or romance.  But Smith may have benefited from his legend as a self-destructive maverick and there’s evidence that he fueled it.  Where do you draw the lines?

One day I’ll write something extensive about Sonny Clark.  I’ve got enough material for a long article or small book already.  His two surviving sisters are helping me.  Their parents were both from Stone Mountain, Georgia.  Father Elmer Clark worked in the rock quarries before moving north for good paying work in the Pennsylvania coal mines during WWI.  The six Clark kids grew up in a rural coal “patch” thirty miles east of Pittsburgh.  Elmer died of pulmonary disease, almost certainly black lung, in 1931 when Sonny was an infant.  The family stayed in place until mother Ruth Shepherd Clark died of cancer in 1953.  Sonny moved to Los Angeles where a beloved aunt had relocated with her family some years before.  He made his name on the jazz scene there and then moved to New York City in 1956 where he rose to the top, becoming a house pianist at fabled Blue Note Records.  Thelonious Monk’s son, T.S., who was thirteen when Sonny Clark died in January 1963, said that Sonny taught him how to make a slingshot out of weeds and brush you could find in any ditch or roadside.  When I told that to Sonny’s older sister Gladys she smiled and said, “That’s the country.  It was still in him.”

My wife grew up about seven miles from the Berwind-White coal mine where Elmer Clark worked and every time we visit her family I do a little more research on Sonny.  One summer day a couple of years ago I was driving through the remnants of that old coal patch.  I was checking out the abandoned company store where little Sonny bought hard candy and bottled sodas, and I saw an elderly African-American lady sitting out on a nearby porch.  I walked up and asked, “Do you remember a kid named Sonny Clark who used to live here?”  She said, “Sure.  We went to school together.  His best friend’s sister still lives across the street.”  Then she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Cherrrryl!  Cherrrry!  Cheryl!”  They didn’t have air conditioning and their windows were all wide open.  I walked across the street to Cheryl’s house and they had a faded scrap book of articles about Sonny and photocopied liner notes from his records.

-Sam Stephenson

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Pannonica, Lin, and Gin

by Frank Amoss

Recently I viewed an HBO documentary entitled “The Jazz Baroness.”  It was the story of the relationship between Thelonious Monk and Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswater, daughter of Charles Rothschild, which endured from the mid-50’s until Monk’s death in 1982.  Nica was the namesake of Monk’s composition “Pannonica” and Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” as well as many other jazz tunes dedicated to her by various artists.

It was in Nica’s Fifth Avenue apartment that Charlie Parker died in 1955.  It is very likely that Nica attended rehearsals, which took place in Hall Overton’s loft in 821 Sixth Avenue, for Monk’s big band concert at Town Hall in 1959.  I didn’t live there at the time (I lived in 821 in 1961) so I can’t know for sure.

During the 1960’s the north side of 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Ave. consisted of (starting at the corner of Broadway and going west)  Sam Goody’s Record Store, the Alvin Hotel, Junior’s Bar, Charlie’s Tavern, a Chinese Restaurant, Roseland Ballroom, the American National Theatre Academy and Local 802 Musicians’ Union.  This was the bare remnant of the famous “Street that Never Slept,” one block to the east, which housed a number of jazz clubs in the 40’s and 50’s and had since become skyscrapers.

In the late summer of 1961 I was hanging out in front of Charlie’s Tavern.  To the curb pulled a Rolls Royce.  The doors opened and out stepped (saxophonist) Lin Halliday and Gin (Virginia McEwan, Lin’s teenage girlfriend).  Lin was grinning from ear to ear.  The two of them had been receiving the benefits of the Baroness’s patronage.  She had taken them off the streets for a little while, provided a few good meals and probably left them with some cash in their pockets.

The Rolls Royce pulled away.  Lin returned to his junkie scuffle and Gin soon fled New York forever.  Nica continued to lend her support to Monk and other jazz musicians until her death in 1988.

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Frank Amoss is a drummer originally from Baltimore.  He lived on the fifth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue in 1961.  Today he is retired from a long career as president of the local musicians’ union in Orange County, CA.

Previously, Virginia “Gin” McEwan, now Virginia Wald, contributed a long blog entry here called “1961 in the Loft.”  Today she lives with her husband, bassist Ted Wald, in Port Townsend, WA.

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CD of the Week – Andrew Hill’s “Time Lines”

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Needing to shake up my iPod and the collection of cd’s in my car over the weekend, I grabbed Andrew Hill‘s 2006 release “Time Lines” off the shelf.  I’ve listened to it about seven times since Friday.  Whoa.  This might be my favorite jazz recording of the last ten years, right up there with “Braggtown” by Branford Marsalis.  Hill’s recording has Jazz Loft friend Charles Tolliver on trumpet, Greg Tardy on various reeds, and a wonderful rhythm section of Eric McPherson on drums and John Hebert on bass.  Evidently this band had played together frequently before this album was recorded.  You can hear the familiarity and trust and confidence the players have in each other and in Hill’s compositions.  The band achieves an edgy, mezmerizing poetry of sounds and rhythms.   The title tune has a Monk-like repetitive quality bringing playfulness and obsession into just the right balance.

-Sam Stephenson

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Le Tresor Cache’ D’ Eugene Smith

polka magazine cover

“Le Tresor Cache’ D’ Eugene Smith:  Jazz Loft Project.”

Jazz Around the Corner.

From the summer issue of Polka,  the new journalism magazine in Paris, France.

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A Jazz Loft Project Event in Brooklyn, July 7

Wednesday, July 7, 7pm.  A Jazz Loft Project event outdoors at Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., part of New York City’s summer Park Lit project, sponsored by the Brooklyn-based literary journal A Public Space, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, and Greenlight Bookstore of Brooklyn.  Sam Stephenson will give a presentation and a jazz combo will perform.

More soon.

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