Newport 1956, Pt. 2

The outstanding Times writer Nate Chinen responds in part here to my previous blog post regarding the 1956 Times write-up by John S. Wilson on George Wein’s Newport festival that year.

I’m sure Nate is right about how Wein would respond today to Wilson’s quotes of him fifty-four years ago.  Nate knows Wein better than anyone.  I’m wondering, though, if Wein had a point back then, not in terms of Armstrong or Gillespie, but in terms of issuing a challenge to the artists and audiences in general.  Wein had vested interests on both sides of the equation, interests he measured as well as anyone over a half century.  In 1956 rock-n-roll was starting to encroach upon the jazz market, especially the youth market.  Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album by RCA Victor came out in March 1956 and spent ten weeks on top of the charts.  We all love good rock music now – or many of us do.  But maybe Wein’s comments were necessary jabs in the guts of both the jazz artists and audiences during this fluid period, just to make sure both were awake?

In 2006 I was working on a long story about Branford Marsalis that I never finished (for various reasons).  I followed him on the road to several cities and I attended all of his quartet’s sets one week at the Jazz Standard in NYC.  His extraordinary album Braggtown had just come out.  Opening the first set of the week, at 7:30pm on a Tuesday night, the quartet erupted into a blistering version of “Jack Baker,” the opening tune of Braggtown.  It was a raging, desperate, yet calculated performance, maybe based on the opening, title tune of Coltrane’s pinnacle 1965 recording, “Transition.”  The sweaty, fearless explosion was almost twenty minutes long.  It was merely the first tune in the first of twelve sets that week.

As most people reading this blog know, the Standard is a white cloth napkin, table cloth, candle light establishment featuring ribs, pork, slaw, baked beans and more from Danny Meyer’s upstairs restaurant, Blue Smoke.  The cover charge was $35 per person that night and the food and drinks were probably another $35 per person on average.  Braggtown contains a beautiful, supple seventeenth century British hymn by Henry Purcell that might have been perfect for this early evening set.  As far as I’ve heard in American music today only Branford can touch the plaintive and outrageous extremes so effectively.  Two weeks earlier, at a similar hour, I had seen him make an audience’s knees buckle in ballad emotion at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.  But at this Tuesday happy hour in NYC he gave the Standard’s dining room the nastiest works he had to offer.  Nobody I saw in the crowd was digging it.  Nobody.  A good many seemed completely perturbed.  After the set I approached Branford, who knew I was working on the article, and I said, “Man, the patrons were barely sitting down for a fine meal and you chopped their heads off.”  Branford bellowed, “Eat this, motherf@$%&^s!”

I’m not sure this is exactly what Wein had in mind in 1956 but on some levels it overlaps.  The people paying to hear Branford that night wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.  They wanted the Marsalis name.  They wanted the amiable Tonight Show personality.  Branford went the other way.

What I keep thinking about is, what would you play if there was no audience at all?  As a writer, what would I write if audience had no bearing?

Smith’s loft tapes provide a glimpse of that kind of thing.  The truth is that some of the loft music Smith recorded is just plain awful, worse than mediocre.  But even then, it’s instructive, worthwhile to hear.  As one woman wrote to us regarding our audio playlists on the JLP website, “Even the silence is interesting.”

Live music is like cooking:  The next day the results are merely a memory, no matter how unforgettable.  What does Thomas Keller cook at home for himself, when he doesn’t have patrons paying $150 per person at French Laundry?

The greats strive for something unique regardless of the consumers.  That’s what puts Thelonious Monk and Zoot Sims at the top of the regulars we can hear on Smith’s loft tapes.  They always played well, always were themselves.

-Sam Stephenson

1 Comment

  1. Steve Provizer Said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    For any improviser, there’s always a balance between experiment and “sure-fire.” The balance between those two changed dramatically with Trane, who, of course, was chastised for self-indulgently practicing on stage.

    Recording limitations had made conciseness in the studio necessary, which made soloists cut to the bone, but air checks and other evidence shows that jazz musicians in live situations stretched out much more.