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The Smiling Drummer

Old skool jazz musicians, outside of Louis Armstrong, didn’t smile much. Miles Davis and John Coltrane looked like they were going to kill someone right after the show, for instance, or maybe halfway through it.

Jazz musicians wanted to be taken seriously.  They dressed like businessmen, and meant business, generally. Even the showoff fellows like Buddy Rich seemed manic, not happy. Jo Jones was different. He was serene and smiling, and looked like he was having way more fun than the rest of the band and the audience combined. His sunny demeanor was more than a pose. He sounded just like his glowing, mischievous smile. He’s the only one of two drummers I can stand a solo from.  Joe Morello and Jo Jones. Making the world safe for drum solos, one lounge at a time.

Hank Mobley Comes Up The String

You don’t need your mind blown every minute, do you? Sit in the sun in the kitchen. There’s a round table by the tall windows, and the snow shines like the wing of an airliner when you look out the window. You’re flying high over the back yard. There’s a cap of snow on the birdhouse. The birds have gone to Miami for the winter, missing all the fun of not being cold for a few minutes.

Put on a pot of coffee and listen to Paul Chambers swing a bit. The occasional thunderstorm on the snare. Hank Mobley won’t make you wonder what’s going on, so you can wonder what’s going on in your house, instead. We gave the little one a yo-yo for Christmas. He loves it above all things. A yo-yo. He makes it go up and down, and that’s it. It’s sublime. It goes down the string. It comes up the string as if by magic if you snap your wrist just right.

Hank Mobley makes the morning come up the string.


There’s really nothing I can do but warn you. You’re bound to be blindsided. There’s no way you can see this coming. There you are, bumping along, listening to Adrien Moignard and Rocky Gresset lay waste to the Jazz standard Cherokee by Ray Noble, and you’re wondering exactly how inventive a person can get on the guitar, and then, like a turd in the fondue pot, THERE’S A BASS SOLO AT FOUR MINUTES, AND IT LAST FOR TWO, MIND-NUMBING, SOUL-DESTROYING MINUTES, WHILE ACTUAL MUSICIANS LOOK ON IN HORROR.

The State Of The Art In 1959: The Ahmad Jamal Trio

Ahmad Jamal isn’t as famous as he might be. He’s not obscure, exactly; he’s just not universal. Maybe he made the mistake of being too accessible. You didn’t have to attend night school while smoking Gauloises and wearing a beret for a decade to listen to what he’s doing. It’s hardly unsophisticated, but it’s not as challenging to listen to as Village Voice writers might like. Many of his contemporaries decided that being deliberately too obtuse and atonal for the general public was the way to make their name in jazz. But honestly, you’re only displaying those Ornette Coleman lp’s from the seventies next to your mid-century modern hi-fi to impress people, aren’t you? There’s no way you’re listening to them.

He’s still young enough in the video to be considered a phenom. Twenty-nine. Started playing the piano when he was just three. It seems fairly common for minds like his to exhibit themselves early. He’s still working now, at age 83, and looks twenty years younger than he is. Clean living. The music business has flipped 180 degrees in his lifetime, and he led the charge a bit. It used to be that the bandstand was filled with disreputable drunks and drug addicts, womanizers, and plain bums, and the audience was filled with staid drones, dressed for Easter, who instructed their teenage daughters to stay away from musicians and marry a nice accountant, maybe. Nowadays it’s more likely for the audiences to be filled with disreputable cave people, higher than a kite and all dressed like a roadie for Metallica, while the stage is filled with the hardworking, sober people. And the only work for an accountant these days is counting a musician’s money. No one in the audience knows where their next meal is coming from.

Lots of cool cats in attendance in the video. Music used to be more intimate like that. The world would be a better place if you could get dressed up like you’re going to be buried, take the chariot down to a supper club, slide into the banquette, and listen to jazz made fresh daily over the sound of your glasses clinking. It sure beat today’s version of a concert: getting groped by amateur TSA diddlers, then standing three hundred yards from a stage, looking at the TFT side of ten thousand crummy phones pointed at the replacements for the bandmembers that died in bizarre gardening accidents.

Ahmad even smiles from time to time. I don’t think that’s even allowed anymore.

Joe’s Shoes

Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalacqua, better know as Joe Pass.”He looks like somebody’s uncle, and plays like nobody’s business,” according to New York Magazine. We’ll let it rest there. Sometimes things are said properly right out of the gate, and require no filigree.

The cameraman has the distinctive traits so common to his tribe. He will point his lens at any goddamned thing but what you want him to. I half expected him to lay down on his back and point the camera at the ceiling for a spell, to forestall boredom. There appeared to be, by my watch, one-hundred-and-fourteen minutes of footage of Joe’s patent leather shoes in the middle of the proceedings. This is only meet, and just. They’re really nice shoes. First-rate. Joe’s wife has shined them, it’s evident. Joe keeps them in good repair. Joe is solicitous of his appearance in this regard. There was a chance — dare I call it what it was: a danger — that we would not have gotten a good, hard, stare at Joe’s footwear, had not the cameraman had the presence of mind to ignore Joe’s hands, and face, and torso, and uvula, and his guitar, and his aura, and his shakra, and various other trivial aspects of his performance and persona, in order to fill our desperate need to see Joe tapping his feet.

I have an award for that cameraman, which he could pick up if he comes within arm’s length of me.

Round Midnight

A kind of perfection, I think. Right time, right people, right material — firing on all cylinders.

It’s eminently accessible. Overlooked a bit for that. Jazz aficionados occasionally veer into audio habanera territory. Eventually you end up pretending to like some atonal pigpile because it seems more complex than something with a recognizable string running through it.

The smile at the end out of favor, too. It’s not cool to be happy, is it? 

Newport 1958

Hep cats.

The Train and the River. Jimmy Guiffre Three.  Probably the last time anyone played a valve trombone in public. Probably.

The movie Jazz on a Summer’s Day documents the Newport Jazz festival in Newport Rhode Island in 1958. I like watching it to see people in an audience looking well turned out. Fast forward a decade and it’s all patchouli and B.O.

The fifties were supposedly a vast cultural wasteland. I don’t see it. There were challenging and interesting things happening in music, film, fashion, books, and every other stripe of intellectual folderol. People still tried to look and act like adults. I’d rather be plunked into that movie than Woodstock. Waking up in a mud puddle that’s only mosty mud while Sha Na Na performs isn’t my cup of tea. And I imagine the drugs were better in Newport, anyway. The gin and tonics most definitely were.

My older brother once mentioned to me that a trombone and a saxophone is the best horn section you can muster. Trumpet’s too, well, brassy. They sure sound wonderful together here.

Dutch Treat

Wes Montgomery plays in Holland sometime in the sixties by the look of it.

The smile was genuine. Wes Montgomery had a perfection in demeanor for his job. Serious and genial in equal measure.

I think it came for his background. He was a real person. Too many entertainers are born to the ermine of prodigy treatment almost from birth. Hothouse flowers. Wes Montgomery was more of a florist delivery van driver than a hothouse flower.

Wes played with his thumb instead of a plectrum or his fingertips. I’ve heard that he started playing like that because he worked as a machinist all day to support his family, and had to practice in the middle of the night, and strumming with his thumb was quieter and allowed his wife to sleep. One’s eye pauses over such minutiae when considering a man’s life, and wonders if you’ve discovered something sublime abroad in this world of pain and heartache.

To be successful after toiling in obscurity for a long time is a remarkable thing. It makes people smile to be popular among strangers instead of sneering at their publicist and audience alike while demanding your M&Ms get sorted. You are a fully-formed human person before the world gets its chance to deform you with celebrity.

It’s almost a half-hour of good music, with the end the best of all. Wes goes over what he’s playing with a bunch of strangers who are game and capable but not hip. This is often what the highest levels of music instruction look like: the chance to play with someone like Wes Montgomery, and talk to him. Wes already offered the highest level of instruction on being a proper male human being with his machinist thumb.

Interview with Wes Montgomery in Guitar Player Magazine. He passed away in 1968.

A Voice That Would Scarcely Reach The Second Story Of A Dollhouse

My MP3 player freaked out at some digital outrage, probably visited on my Fronkenshteen pixelbox by my inquisitive son, and I had to press the big button that goes all Carthage on its ass. I lazily swept the dustbin of songs on my desktop back into it, and the juxtapositions are jarring, to say the least. My wife says if she hears “Freddie’s Dead” one more time, Freddie’s going to have company.

I don’t need a lot of entertainment while I’m working because I never hear much of it. The machines and the earmuffs drown it out, so I can listen to the same old stuff over and over.

Blossom Dearie appeared during a ceasefire, and I actually stopped for a moment and listened to it. It’s like applause, except she’s dead and I just glued something instead of clapping. But the sentiment was there for a fleeting moment. Hope it carries her another furlong through the hearafter… er, hereafter.

I like the mistake better.

Tag: jazz

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