How I finally learned to love jazz
Growing up in the 60s, a child of the pop era, jazz barely touched me. There was Acker Bilk, who had a number one hit in the US with “Stranger on the Shore”. Kenny Ball’s “Midnight in Moscow” was a family favorite in both directions of the Light program, and in the background Chris Barber and Humph Lyttelton walked away, to the delight of people in cardigans that looked terribly old.
In the late 1960s there was something called jazz rock, a skirmish of contrasting styles that pitted Nucleus and Soft Machine in England against Miles Davis and his friends in the United States. There was also, I painfully remember the fall of 1971, a fleeting liaison of jazzers and progressive rockers called Centipede, of which “Septober Energy” was not fleeting enough. In a teenage years of imperfect choices, it was the worst record I have ever bought, the length of the Great North Road.
These groups continued to claim riches beyond the dreams of the old guard. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter assembled Weather Report in 1971, a year that brought the first stirrings of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, conducted by John McLaughlin of Whitley Bay. Assembled Corea chick Back to forever, and Herbie Hancock hit the jackpot with Head hunters. I caught Weather Report and Mahavishnu’s ‘second XI’ in Manchester, although I wouldn’t want to see their recordings again, which display the kind of empty virtuosity that impresses uneducated ears. Steely Dan, whose caustic songs have been perfumed by distinguished sidemen like Phil Woods, the loyal viola player, provided the soundtrack for those years, though their records sounded too smart, and far too cold, from that distance. Little by little, I moved towards the classic American songbook, from Berlin to Sondheim via Kern, Rodgers, Porter and Gershwin. Johnny Mercer, Larry Hart, Johnny Burke and Dorothy Fields also dazzled, with words.
Jazz was a thing from time to time. I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet in Manchester – a strangely unforgettable evening. At the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – with a young trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis – were much more attractive. In London, there were occasional getaways to Ronnie Scott’s, and Manhattan meant a variety of clubs, best of all the Blue Note, where I leaned against the bar to hear Dave Brubeck. There were also records. Lots of Stan Getz and the Ellington band with Johnny Hodges on viola. You didn’t need an expert’s ear to recognize that Rabbit’s passionate lyricism was unique.
How did I finally enter the temple? Through Ellington, the alpha and omega of jazz: pianist, composer, arranger and conductor. By Bill Evans, whose piano linked the Parisian salons to 52nd Street. Particularly through Geoffrey Smith’s university programs on Radio 3, which amounted to a weekly tutorial.
[see also: Ronnie Scott understood that for some people music is the only outlet – so he opened a club]
Last year, as I was traveling around England to write a book steeped in the rhythms of the cricket season, turned out to be a liberation. In addition to the usual CDs of Sibelius symphonies and Beethoven quartets, I filled the car with jazz and wallowed in wonder with renewed enthusiasm. Everything did not work out. Only the auctioneer is equally interested in all art schools, and I wouldn’t feel deprived if I never heard another bar from John Coltrane, a fine ballad player who disappeared into his own beak as he went. that he was moving away from the discipline of melody. Young Coltrane, who supported the Davis quintet of the mid-1950s, is doing well. Listen to Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and smile. Coltrane’s ending, with these so-called “sound sheets”, is downright ugly. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a lie.
If Louis Armstrong and Ellington are the great pioneers, the second rank is raised by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of the tenor saxophone. “Prez” Young named Getz as his successor and was not disappointed. For a different tone, from hickory to Getz cedar, try Dexter Gordon. There are few self-portraits more tender than his reading of “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry”.
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In this car, as I drifted from county to county, the musician who brought the first teams together was the drummer I had heard in Sheffield when there was still a steel industry. The recordings that brought me home were Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station” and Julian Adderley’s “Somethin ‘Else”, with Art Blakey alternately propelling and supporting these tenor horn and viola masters. Add in “Moanin ‘” with his own band, those famous Messengers, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Benny Golson on tenor and composer Bobby Timmons on piano, and you’ve got a packed house.
There’s always a caveat: Jazz might never match the sublimes of real great classical music. (Beethoven also knew how to swing. In his last sonata, Op 111, he declared himself the first jazz composer.) But there are compensations. Hear Evans play “But Beautiful,” recorded live at Village Vanguard in January 1974. He provides a preview of Jimmy Van Heusen’s great piece, unwraps it and then puts it back in place, restored, before offering it to the listener with the bow attached. It’s a gift for all of us, to unwrap whenever we want.