My old friend Richard Greener was a business associate of James Brown for many years. In this interview we compare notes on the great rhythm and blues musician prompted by my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite” and the feature film “Get on Up” in CounterPunch.
December 7, 2014
November 16, 2014
Thanks to the kindness of an old friend and comrade, I was able to attend a concert that was one for the ages. Both in terms of the participants and the program, it was one that had special resonance for me.
It was the first time I ever saw Rubén Blades perform. For anybody involved in Central America solidarity in the 1980s, Blades was an iconic figure. Track one of Canciones Del Solar De Los Aburridos (Songs From The Tenements Of The Bored), the 1981 album featuring Willie Colon and Blades, was a song called “Tiburón” (Shark) that was a wake-up call to Latin Americans and solidarity activists alike. The shark was obviously American imperialism.
Like the abortive Sandinista revolution, Blades was part of my past through no fault of his own. He continued to make records over the past twenty years but I had not kept up with them except for “Caminando” (walking), the 1991 album that was a mixture of songs about personal experience and politics. “¡Prohibido olvidar!” left no doubt about his outrage over injustice in his own country and other dictatorships:
Prohibieron ir a la escuela e ir a la universidad.
Prohibieron las garantías y el fin constitucional.
Prohibieron todas las ciencias, excepto la militar.
Prohibiendo el derecho a queja, prohibieron el preguntar.
Hoy te sugiero, mi hermano, pa’ que no vuelva a pasar,
Forbidden to go to school and go to college.
Forbidden the guarantees and constitutional rights.
Forbidden all sciences except the military.
Forbidden the right to complain, and to ask questions.
Today I suggest, my brother , so that does not happen again,
Forbidden to forget!
Listening to the still powerful voice of this 66-year old singer reminded me to look into the Blades recordings on Amazon.com, a reservoir of art and politics perfectly matched to each other.
Blades was backed by the house band of Jazz at Lincoln Center that is led by Wynton Marsalis. I was not only richly rewarded by hearing one of the most important salsa singers of recent decades but accompanying musicians who hearkened back to the golden age of Afro-Cuban jazz. Blades mentioned some of the more memorable practitioners, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and Chano Pozo. In a very real sense, Afro-Cuban jazz united two disparate strands of the African diaspora both rooted in the mother country’s culture kept alive by slaves. In Cuba they bequeathed the distinctive clave (rhythm) that formed the basis for modern salsa and in the Deep South the blues and spirituals that found their way into New Orleans jazz.
Wynton Marsalis, a native son of New Orleans and a musician very much committed to the grand traditions, demonstrated a real affinity for the Afro-Cuban trumpet style, sounding very much like the legendary Chocolate Armenteros in his blistering solo on the opening number “Apoyete en Mi Alma”.
The concert was roughly divided into salsa tunes written by Blades for the most part and American standards that he learned at an early stage from the records that came along with the gargantuan record player his father won in a card game, including a Frank Sinatra album. Drawing laughter from the audience, Blades said that he did pitch-perfect renditions of such songs without having any idea what the lyrics meant. People who came by the house and heard the 11-year old breaking into something like “Begin the Beguine” thought he was out of his mind.
Weaving personal recollections such as these with thoughts about the need for continuing solidarity with movements for social justice in Latin America, Blades ended the concert on a fitting note—an encore called “Patria” that can be seen below (go to Youtube and search for “Rubén Blades” and Marsalis for other performancs):
October 24, 2014
Since I could not justify spending hundreds of dollars for tickets to “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, I did the next best thing, which was to take out a CD from the Columbia University library. Something told me that the work was a bit off, so I wanted to reduce my financial liability to a minimum—the price of a subway ride back and forth from my old workplace.
My goal was to come to terms with the opera as an artistic/political statement rather than comment on Zionist attempts to squelch it, as ably reported by Bill Dobbs in CounterPunch.
I first became aware of composer John Adams back in the 1970s when I was always on the lookout for works by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Since Adams was touted at the time as the new kid on the block, I made sure to pick up a recording of “Shaker Loops” when it came out in 1987, a piece like most of Reich and Glass that was calculated to appeal to the average listener as a kind of ear candy. As the classical music counterpart to Kraftwerk or Brian Eno, minimalism was about as close as you could come to the pleasure of pre-20th century classical music, joined on these terms later on by the neo-romanticism of composers like Henry Górecki.
September 19, 2014
Jackie Cain, who teamed with her husband, Roy Kral, to form probably the most famous vocal duo in jazz history, melding popular tunes and sophisticated harmonies for more than half a century, died on Monday at her home in Montclair, N.J. She was 86.
Her death was reported by the music writer James Gavin, a friend, who said she had been in declining health since suffering a stroke four years ago.
Performing and recording as Jackie and Roy, Ms. Cain and Mr. Kral, who was also a gifted pianist, created polished interpretations of Broadway standards, jazz tunes and even Beatles songs. They sang in a sophisticated bebop style, enunciating the lyrics crisply and playfully and often forgoing lyrics altogether for energetic scat singing.
Mr. Kral died in 2002.
“Such is their affinity that when they sing harmonies, her airy high tones cushioned by his supple, swinging lows, their notes could be holding hands,” Jon Sall wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times in 1997.
Their voices had similar ranges but were separated by an octave, which made for unusual harmonies. Their easy banter, and Ms. Cain’s striking good looks and sunny personality, added to the appeal of their music, which was routinely praised by jazz critics.
Ms. Cain’s admirers included fellow singers like Billie Holiday, who once said of her to Metronome magazine, “She’s my girl.”
Jacqueline Ruth Cain was born in Milwaukee on May 22, 1928. Her father sold office furniture and managed a community theater. Her parents divorced when she was a child, after which her mother took a job with a photo-imaging company and moved with her to a rooming house.
They could not afford a phonograph, but Jackie loved to listen to music on the radio. She also loved to sing: She was in the chorus in elementary school and an a cappella choir in high school, and she sang with a band organized by a local music store and on a children’s radio show.
“If people wanted someone remembered on their birthday, they’d send cards in or call the station with requests: ‘Please have Little Miss Cain sing this or that,’ ” she said in a 2009 interview with the writer Marc Myers on his blog JazzWax.
Ms. Cain’s first full-time job in music was with Jay Burkhart’s band, which she joined when she was 17. In 1947, a band member, Bob Anderson, took her to a jazz club in Chicago, where Mr. Kral was the pianist with the quartet that was performing.
Mr. Anderson approached Mr. Kral at the bar and suggested that he let Ms. Cain sit in. He said no. In the JazzWax interview, Ms. Cain recalled that Mr. Kral explained why: “Because they never know what they want to sing, and when they tell you their key, it’s usually in the key of Z.”
But she and Mr. Kral talked some more, and it turned out that she knew a song he also knew, “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.” He let her sing it, she said, and “the club went nuts.”
In an interview with The Sun-Times in 1997, Mr. Kral suggested that other factors besides music had influenced his decision. “She was a voluptuous blonde, right out of high school,” he said. “She was very convincing.”
Ms. Cain and Mr. Kral began to work as a duo in Chicago clubs. Their breakthrough came when the saxophonist Charlie Ventura hired them for his band. They worked for him for a year and a half and briefly again in 1953. In 1954, they hit the cabaret circuit on their own.
Their relationship was strictly professional, Ms. Cain told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, until one day “I leaned over and kissed him. A big, juicy wet one.”
They married in 1949. They had two daughters, Dana Kral, who survives her, and Niki Kral, who died in a car accident in 1973. Ms. Cain is also survived by two stepdaughters, Carol May and Tiffany Bolling-Casares.
The two went on to record nearly 40 albums for Columbia, Verve and other labels. They also sang jingles on television for Halo shampoo, Cheerios and Plymouth. Their repertoire contained more than 400 songs; among their staples were “Mountain Greenery,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” “You Inspire Me” and “It’s a Lovely Day Today.”
After Mr. Kral died, Ms. Cain occasionally performed as a solo singer. Her last performance was in 2007 at a concert celebrating the centennial of the birth of the composer Alec Wilder, a good friend.
In the mid-1950s, Jackie and Roy recorded a harrowingly poetic lament with music by Mr. Wilder and words by Ben Ross Berenberg, “The Winter of My Discontent.” Ms. Cain later remarked that the song (“Like a dream you came, and like a dream you went”) was beyond her life experience at that time.
After hearing her sing it in a nightclub, she recalled, Mr. Wilder asked her never to perform it in a club again. “That’s a song for your last day on earth,” he said.
September 16, 2014
September 9, 2014
Don Heckman, the author of the obit below, has had a distinguished career as a jazz musician and jazz historian and journalist. I organized a jazz festival at Bard College in 1965 that included the Don Heckman-Ed Summerlin band. I am glad to see that Don is still going strong.
Gerald Wilson dies at 96; multifaceted jazz musician
Gerald Wilson, a bandleader, trumpeter, composer, arranger and educator whose multifaceted career reached from the swing era of the 1930s to the diverse jazz sounds of the 21st century, has died. He was 96.
Wilson, who had been in declining health, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles, two weeks after contracting pneumonia, said his son, jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson.
In a lifetime that spanned a substantial portion of the history of jazz, Wilson’s combination of articulate composition skills with a far-reaching creative vision carried him successfully through each of the music’s successive new evolutions.
He led his own Gerald Wilson Orchestras — initially for a few years in the mid-1940s, then intermittently in every succeeding decade — recording with stellar assemblages of players, continuing to perform live, well after big jazz bands had been largely eclipsed by small jazz groups and the ascendancy of rock music.
Seeing and hearing Wilson lead his ensembles — especially in his later years — was a memorable experience for jazz fans. Garbed in well tailored suits, his long white hair flowing, Wilson shaped the music with dynamic movements and the elegant grace of a modern dancer.
Asked about his unique style of conducting by Terry Gross on the NPR show “Fresh Air” in 2006, he replied: It’s “different from any style you’ve ever seen before. I move. I choreograph the music as I conduct. You see, I point it out, everything you’re to listen to.”
That approach to conducting, combined with the dynamic quality of his music, had a significant impact on the players in his ensembles.
Wilson’s mastery of the rich potential in big jazz band instrumentation was evident from the beginning. Although he was not pleased with his first arrangement — a version of the standard “Sometimes I’m Happy” written in 1939, when he was playing trumpet in the Jimmie Lunceford band — he was encouraged by Lunceford and his fellow players to write more. “Hi Spook,” his first original composition for big band, followed and was quickly added to the Lunceford repertoire. Soon after, Wilson wrote a brightly swinging number titled “Yard Dog Mazurka” — a popular piece that eventually became the inspiration for the Stan Kenton hit “Intermission Riff.” It was the beginning of an imaginative flow of music that would continue well into the 21st century.
“His pieces are all extended, with long solos and long backgrounds,” musician/jazz historian Loren Schoenberg told the New York Times in 1988. “They’re almost hypnotic. Most are seven to 10 minutes long. Only a master can keep the interest going that long, and he does.”
In addition to his compositions, Wilson was an arranger with the ability to craft songs to the styles of individual performers, as well as the musical characteristics of other orchestras. It was a skill that kept him busy during the periods when he was not concentrating on leading his own groups.
“I may have done more numbers and orchestrations than any other black jazz artist in the world,” he told the Los Angeles Sentinel. “I did 60-something for Ray Charles. I did his first and second country-western album. I wrote a lot of music for Count Basie, eight numbers for his first Carnegie Hall concert,” he said.
He also provided arrangements and compositions for such major jazz artists as Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and others, as well as — from various genres — Bobby Darin, Harry Belafonte, B.B. King and Les McCann.
Wilson’s longstanding desire to compose for symphony orchestra came to fruition with “Debut: 5/21/72,” commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1972 by the Philharmonic’s musical director, Zubin Mehta. His “Theme for Monterey,” composed as a commission by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1997, received two Grammy nominations. In 2009, on his 91st birthday, he conducted the premiere of his six-movement work, “Detroit Suite,” a tribute to the city in which his music career began, commissioned by the Detroit International Jazz Festival.
Gerald Stanley Wilson was born Sept. 4, 1918, in Shelby, Miss. He began to take piano lessons with his mother, a schoolteacher, when he was 6. After purchasing an instrument from the Sears Roebuck catalog for $9.95, he took up the trumpet at age 11. The absence of a high school for African Americans in segregated Shelby made it necessary for him to begin his secondary school studies in Memphis. But a trip with his mother to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 stimulated a desire to move north, and he was sent to live with friends in Detroit, where he attended and graduated from the highly regarded Cass Technical High School.
An adept trumpeter while still in his teens, Wilson played at Detroit’s Plantation Club before joining the Chic Carter Band touring band. In 1939 he replaced trumpeter-arranger Sy Oliver in the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, then one of the nation’s most prominent swing bands.
Wilson served in the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center during World War II, then moved to Los Angeles, forming his own big band in 1944. Despite the band’s almost immediate success, with nearly 50 recorded pieces and a string of national bookings in its first years of existence, Wilson was not satisfied with his own personal level of craftsmanship. He disbanded the ensemble to spend a few years filling in what he believed were gaps in his music education. He also went on the road with the Count Basie Band and Dizzy Gillespie’s group.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Wilson was an established participant in L.A.’s busy music scene, arranging, composing for jazz and pop singers, big bands, films and television, while continuing to be active with his own orchestra. Eager to pass on his knowledge and experience, he taught jazz courses at what is now Cal State Northridge, Cal State L.A. and UCLA, and had a radio program on KBCA-FM (105.1) from 1969 to 1976.
As he moved into his 60s, Wilson viewed the commercial activity of his earlier years as the foundation that allowed him to concentrate on his creative efforts.
He had worked hard, he told the Boston Globe, so that in his later years he would no longer “have to go hustling any jobs. I have written for the symphony. I have written for the movies, and I have written for television. I arrange anything. I wanted to do all these things. I’ve done that. Now I’m doing exactly what I want, musically, and I do it when I please. I’m a musician, but first and foremost, a jazz musician.”
Besides his wife and his son, Wilson is survived by daughters Jeri and Nancy Jo, and four grandchildren.
July 12, 2014
Jazz great Charlie Haden has died after a long illness.
The NY Times has an exemplary obituary that makes sure to highlight his radical politics:
The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by the pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.
Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.
I strongly recommend reading the entire obit.
This is a tribute I wrote to Haden in 1999. It overlaps with some of the material in the NY Times obit but from a fan’s POV. I follow it with some prime performances by Haden with various groups at the early, middle and late stages of his career.
I have been moved to write about jazz bassist Charlie Haden after listening to his latest and greatest CD, “The Art of the Song”. It is consistent with a number of others that he has released over the past half-decade evoking a sort of romantic and retro approach to jazz, strongly influenced by a vision of the more innocent Los Angeles of post-WWII years and of movie culture.
The songs on the latest include some decidedly obscure tunes drawn from even more obscure films. Typical is “You My Love”, a ballad originally sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1954 “Young at Heart”. With west coasters Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Larance Marable on drums and Alan Broadbent on piano, vocals by Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson, and a 28 piece string section, the lush mood created is reminiscent of Charlie Parker’s famous (infamous to some) Verve records backed by string section and led by Mitch Miller.
I am not sure what led Haden to make these kinds of old-fashioned CD’s, but I have a feeling that it is the same impulse that leads me to buy each one faithfully when they come out. Haden, like me, is somebody who was deeply involved with the 60s radicalization but on the cultural front. Although his politics have not changed, his mood has become more wistful and nostalgic, not unlike my own. Perhaps this is what it takes to keep old time radicals going in a cold and heartless world, where cash seems to be the only thing that matters.
Haden, who is white, burst on the scene in 1959 as the bassist in a combo led by African-American Ornette Coleman, who played a white plastic alto saxophone. Ornette Coleman had completely redefined the jazz idiom by emphasizing his own highly original approach to melody in a departure from the typical bebop style of the time. The beboppers, still strongly influenced by Parker who had died only 3 years earlier, played superfast improvisations over tightly wound “heads” derived from popular tunes, scarcely recognizable from their source.
Coleman believed the bebop obsession with chords or key changes had led down a blind alley. He also had ideas about rhythm at odds with conventional thinking of the time. His drummers sounded more melodic; his bass players were freed from having to signal chord changes. Ultimately, this type of music gave more freedom to the players, but it also required more responsibility. Coleman was constantly evolving each tune during performances and demanded that the musicians’ listen to each other with much more attention than the beboppers were used to. In a typical bebop performance, each musician took lengthy solos and it was not unusual for one to walk off the stage in the middle to go smoke a cigarette until it was their time to blow. The collective improvisation of the Ornette Coleman combos was in some ways a throwback to the earliest days of jazz in New Orleans, before the solo had been invented.
After 40 years of avant-garde jazz, none of this sounds particularly controversial but in its day it unleashed tremendous passions. In 1959, when Coleman’s band made its first appearance in New York at the Five Spot, fights broke out between Coleman partisans and those convinced that he was perpetrating a hoax. One night, Miles Davis showed up and sat in; another night, a stranger walked up to Coleman and punched him in the face. Coleman was 22 and his bassist, Charlie Haden, was the same age.
For all of their connections to the avant-garde, both Coleman and Haden had roots in working-class dance hall culture. When Coleman was traveling around the country in the ’40s and ’50s with rhythm-and-blues bands and in tent shows, Haden was performing with his family, a country-and-western troupe from Springfield, Missouri. In the liner notes of “The Art of the Song,” there’s a 1942 photo of the Haden family standing in front of the American flag at country station KWTO. They are all wearing cowboy boots, including the 5 year old “cowboy” Charlie. A January 19, 1997 LA Times profile on Haden reports:
His father, Carl, was an itinerant Midwestern country singer who married another singer, Virginia Day. A country vocal group with echoes of the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers, they played the Grand Ole Opry. A little later, when children arrived, they became Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family. Charlie was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1937, a brief stopover before the family settled in Springfield. Carl began broadcasting daily radio shows from the Haden home. The house was full of country music and products from radio sponsors–Green Mountain Cough Syrup, Sparkalite Cereal, Cocoa Wheats with vitamin G. Chet Atkins and Roy Acuff performed on the shows with the family, and Charlie remembers the Carter Family visiting and Mother Maybelle singing him to sleep.
“My mom would sing to me at night, but she didn’t know that I wasn’t really sleeping,” Haden says. “I was checking everything out, you know? Then all of a sudden one day, I started humming with her, and then one day I started humming the harmony with her. This was like when I was 11/2 or something, and when I was 22 months old, that’s when they first took me to the studio and I started singing. Charlie Haden made his musical debut with a version of “Little Sir Echo.”
Brother Jimmy was considered the black sheep of the family, drinking as a teenager, spending a few nights in jail; he also played bass on the show and was a jazz fan who owned Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie records. When Jimmy was out of the house, Charlie would play his brother’s bass. When Charlie and his dad caught Charlie Parker on a swing through town, the Future Farmers of America lost a prospect.
Haden eventually moved to LA, where his jazz career began in earnest. Paul Bley, the famed pianist, remembers the country boy bassist showing up barefoot for his audition. One night Haden went to a club to hear Gerry Mulligan’s group. The LA Times reports,
“The place was packed; there was barely room to stand. And then a well-dressed guy carrying a white plastic saxophone squeezed his way to the front. This was how Ornette Coleman performed back then: a shy, deferential insurgent requesting to sit in.”
“He starts playing, man, and it was so unbelievably great I could not believe it. Like the whole room lit up all of a sudden, like somebody turned on the lights,” Haden says. “He was playing the blues they were playing, but he was playing his own way. And almost as fast as he asked to sit in, they asked him to please stop.” Spotting a kindred spirit, Haden ran out after Coleman into the alley, but the saxophonist had already disappeared into the night.
Haden eventually tracked down the musician with the white plastic saxophone. Haden describes the scene at Coleman’s apartment:
There was music blocking the door; you couldn’t get the door open. Finally it opened, and the place was filled with music. Manuscripts, things he had written out all over the rug and chairs and bed and everywhere. I got my bass out, and he picked up one of the manuscripts off the rug and said, ‘Lets play this.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ but I was scared to death. He said, ‘Now I got some chord changes written below the melody here that I heard when I was writing the melody. You can play those changes when you play the song, but when I start to improvise, make up your own changes from what I’m playing.’ I said, ‘With pleasure.’ Man, we played all day and all night. And the next day we stopped to get a hamburger and we came back and we played some more.
Coleman solidified his free-jazz ideas at the Hillcrest Club, which closed down years ago. Like many famous venues for jazz, there’s only a barred front door today and no historical marker. (These are the Buena Vista Clubs of North America.) The Coleman group’s Hillcrest perfromances earned Haden a reputation among Hollywood hipsters. Actors Dean Stockwell and Bobby Driscoll came to hear him, and Martin Landau advised Haden that he might do well to try acting. Coleman’s band caused a stir that led him to the East Coast where fame and notoriety awaited them.
Haden eventually separated from the Coleman band and hooked up with the thriving avant-garde scene in NYC, where his political beliefs took shape. He eventually formed the Liberation Jazz Orchestra, which was co-led by Carla Bley, Paul’s ex-wife, and an outstanding songwriter and pianist in her own right. The 1970 classic recording of this band includes Spanish Civil War tunes “Song Of The United Front and “El Quinto Regimiento (Fifth Regiment) as well as “We Shall Overcome” and “Song For Che.”
A January 31, Minneapolis Tribune article on Haden describes the willingness of Haden to act on the belief that “music can’t be separated from politics.” In 1971, while appearing with saxophonist Ornette Coleman at a festival in Lisbon, Portugal, Haden dedicated his “Song for Che,” to the black liberation movements in the Portuguese African colonies. The day after the concert, he was arrested at the Lisbon airport. “I would actually have done some time if Ornette hadn’t gotten the American Embassy to come and get me,” recalled Haden. “It was really a fascist government then, and this was the first jazz festival that they had allowed there. But as soon as I made this dedication, they canceled the rest of the festival. It was scary.”
“Music can bring people of all races together,” he said. “My mom used to take me into the African-American church when I was, like, 8 or 9, and we’d sit in the back row and listen to the choir. That was one of the most meaningful experiences in my whole life.”
This is from an Ornette Coleman 1960 album titled “Change of the Century”. Although described as “avant-garde”, I regarded the album as clearly in the Charlie Parker tradition, in the same way that Charlie Parker was in the Lester Young tradition. I love the tune.
This 1983 record was undoubtedly the most political made by jazz musicians ever. Plus, it is great music.
This is from 2007 and displays Haden’s command of his instrument. Along with another Charlie–Mingus–he was one of the greats.
“Jesus, I don’t want to die alone…” Charlie Haden, friends, and family performs a musical tribute to himself.
June 19, 2014
NY Times, June 18 2014
Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead
Horace Silver, a pianist, composer and bandleader who was one of the most popular and influential jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Wednesday at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 85.
His death was announced by Blue Note Records, the company for which he recorded from 1952 to 1979.
After a high-profile apprenticeship with some of the biggest names in jazz, Mr. Silver began leading his own group in the mid-1950s and quickly became a big name himself, celebrated for his clever compositions and his infectious, bluesy playing. At a time when the refined, quiet and, to some, bloodless style known as cool jazz was all the rage, he was hailed as a leader of the back-to-basics movement that came to be called hard bop.
Hard bop and cool jazz shared a pedigree: They were both variations on bebop, the challenging, harmonically intricate music that changed the face of jazz in the 1940s. But hard bop was simpler and more rhythmically driven, with more emphasis on jazz’s blues and gospel roots. The jazz press tended to portray the adherents of cool jazz (most of them West Coast-based and white) and hard bop (most of them East Coast-based and black) as warring factions. But Mr. Silver made an unlikely warrior.
“I personally do not believe in politics, hatred or anger in my musical composition,” he wrote in the liner notes to his album “Serenade to a Soul Sister” in 1968. “Musical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.”
And Mr. Silver’s music was never as one-dimensional as it was sometimes portrayed as being. In an interview early in his career he said he was aiming for “that old-time gutbucket barroom feeling with just a taste of the backbeat.” That approach was reflected in the titles he gave to songs, like “Sister Sadie,” “Filthy McNasty” and “The Preacher,” all of which became jazz standards. But his output also included gently melodic numbers like “Peace” and “Melancholy Mood” and Latin-inflected tunes like “Señor Blues.” “Song for My Father,” probably his best-known composition, blended elements of bossa nova and the Afro-Portuguese music of the Cape Verde islands, where his father was born.
His piano playing, like his compositions, was not that easily characterized. Deftly improvising ingenious figures with his right hand while punching out rumbling bass lines with his left, he managed to evoke boogie-woogie pianists like Meade Lux Lewis and beboppers like Bud Powell simultaneously. Unlike many bebop pianists, however, Mr. Silver emphasized melodic simplicity over harmonic complexity; his improvisations, while sophisticated, were never so intricate as to be inaccessible.
Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver was born on Sept. 2, 1928, in Norwalk, Conn. His father, who was born John Silva but changed the family name to the more American-sounding Silver after immigrating to the United States, worked in a rubber factory. His mother, Gertrude, was a maid and sang in a church choir.
Although he studied piano as a child, Mr. Silver began his professional career as a saxophonist. But he had returned to the piano, and was becoming well known as a jazz pianist in Connecticut, by the time the saxophonist Stan Getz — soon to be celebrated as one of the leading lights of the cool school — heard and hired him in 1950.
“I had the house rhythm section at a club called the Sundown in Hartford,” Mr. Silver told The New York Times in 1981. “Stan Getz came up and played with us. He said he was going to call us, but we didn’t take him seriously. But a couple of weeks later he called and said he wanted the whole trio to join him.”
Mr. Silver worked briefly with Getz before moving to New York in 1951. He was soon in demand as an accompanist, working with leading jazz musicians like the saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. In 1953, Mr. Silver and the drummer Art Blakey formed a cooperative group, the Jazz Messengers, whose aggressive style helped define hard bop and whose lineup of trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums became the standard hard-bop instrumentation.
After two and a half years, during which Mr. Silver began his long and prolific association with Blue Note, he left the Jazz Messengers, which carried on with Blakey as the sole leader, and formed his own quintet. It became a showcase for his compositions.
Those compositions, beginning with “The Preacher” in 1955 — which his producer, Alfred Lion of Blue Note, had tried to discourage him from recording because he considered it too simplistic — captured the ears of a wide audience. Many were released as singles and garnered significant jukebox play. By the early ’60s Mr. Silver’s quintet was one of the most popular nightclub and concert attractions in jazz, and an inspiration for countless other bandleaders.
Like Blakey, Miles Davis (with whom he recorded) and a few others, Mr. Silver was known for discovering and nurturing young talent, including the saxophonists Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker; the trumpeters Art Farmer, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas; and the drummers Louis Hayes and Billy Cobham. His longest-lived ensemble, which lasted about five years in the late 1950s and early ’60s, featured Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Junior Cook on tenor saxophone.
As interest in jazz declined in the ’70s, Mr. Silver disbanded his quintet and began concentrating on writing lyrics as well as music, notably on a three-album series called “The United States of Mind,” his first album to feature vocalists extensively. He later resumed touring, but only for a few months each year, essentially assembling a new group each time he went on the road.
“I’m shooting for longevity,” he explained. “The road is hard on your body. I’m trying to get it all over with in four months and then recoup.” He said he also wanted to spend more time with his son, Gregory, who survives him.
In 1981, Mr. Silver formed his own label, Silveto. His recordings for that label featured vocalists and were largely devoted to what he called “self-help holistic metaphysical music” — life lessons in song with titles like “Reaching Our Goals in Life” and “Don’t Dwell on Your Problems” that left critics for the most part unimpressed.
Jon Pareles of The Times wrote in 1986 that Mr. Silver’s “naïvely mystical lyrics” made his new compositions sound like “near-miss pop songs.” On later albums for Columbia, Impulse and Verve, Mr. Silver returned to a primarily instrumental approach.
Mr. Silver was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1995 and received a President’s Merit Award from the Recording Academy in 2005.
Many of his tunes became staples of the jazz repertoire — a development, he said, that surprised him. “When I wrote them,” he said in a 2003 interview for the website All About Jazz, “I would say to myself that I hope these at least withstand the test of time. I hope they don’t sound old in 10 years or something.”
Rather than sounding dated, his compositions continued to be widely performed and recorded well into the 21st century. And while he acknowledged that “occasionally I hear an interpretation of one of my tunes that I say that they sure messed that one up,” he admitted, “For the most part I enjoy all of it.”
May 26, 2014
NY Times, May 26 2014
Herb Jeffries, Singing Star of Black Cowboy Films, Dies at 100
Credit Stephanie Diani for The New York Times
Herb Jeffries, who sang with Duke Ellington and starred in early black westerns as a singing cowboy known as “the Bronze Buckaroo” — a nickname that evoked his malleable racial identity — died on Sunday in West Hills, Calif. He was believed to be 100.
The cause was heart failure, said Raymond Strait, a writer who had worked on Mr. Jeffries’s autobiography with him.
Mr. Jeffries used to say: “I’m a chameleon.” The label applied on many levels.
Over the course of his century, he changed his name, altered his age, married five women and stretched his vocal range from near falsetto to something closer to a Bing Crosby baritone. He shifted from jazz to country and back again, and from concert stages to movie theaters to television sets and back again.
He sang with Earl Hines and his orchestra in the early 1930s. He starred in “Harlem on the Prairie,” a black western released in 1937, and its several sequels. By 1940, he was singing with the Ellington orchestra and soon had a hit single, “Flamingo,” which sold more than 14 million copies after being released in 1941. (His name had been Herbert Jeffrey, but the credits on the record mistakenly called him Jeffries, so he renamed himself to match the typo.)
He moved to Europe and performed there for many years, including at nightclubs he owned. He was back in America by the 1950s, recording jazz records again, including “Say It Isn’t So,” a highly regarded 1957 collection of ballads. In the 1970s he picked up roles on “Hawaii Five-O” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” In the 1990s he performed at the Village Vanguard. In the 2000s he performed regularly at Café Aroma in Idyllwild, Calif.
Deep into his 90s, he was still swinging.
“He called me over once and said, ‘Is this your place, kid?’ ” recalled Frank Ferro, who runs Café Aroma in Idyllwild, Calif. “He said, ‘I’ve had two nightclubs in Paris, and let me tell you, kid, you’re doing it all just right.’ ”
Mr. Ferro also recalled Mr. Jeffries saying: “You know, I’m colored. I’m just not the color you think I am.”
Mr. Jeffries’s racial and ethnic identity was itself something of a performance — and a moving target. His mother was white, his father more of a mystery. He told some people that his father was African-American, others that he was mixed race and still others that he was Ethiopian or Sicilian.
In the crude social math of his era, many people told Mr. Jeffries he could have “passed” for white. He told people he chose to be black — to the extent that a mixed-race person had a choice at the time.
“He told me he had to make this decision about whether he should try to pass as white,” the jazz critic Gary Giddins recalled in an interview for this obituary. “He said: ‘I just knew that my life would be more interesting as a black guy. If I’d chosen to live my life passing as white, I’d have never been able to sing with Duke Ellington.’ ”
In 1951, Life magazine published an extensive feature on Mr. Jeffries that dwelled heavily on his racial heritage.
“Jeffries’s refusal to ‘pass’ and his somewhat ambiguous facial appearance have let him in for so many cases of prejudice and mistaken identity that he is practically a one-man minority group,” the article said. It described his “smoky blue eyes” and noted that he was frequently mistaken for Mexican, Argentine, Portuguese “and occasionally a Jew,” but that he had chosen to be “what he is — a light-skinned Negro.”
Mr. Jeffries cited his race as Caucasian on marriage licenses. (All five of his wives were white; his second wife was the stripper Tempest Storm.)
Late in life he said that his father, Howard Jeffrey, was actually his stepfather, and that his real father was Domenico Balentino, a Sicilian man who died in World War I.
In a 2007 documentary about him, “A Colored Life,” Mr. Jeffries said that the name on his birth certificate was Umberto Alejandro Balentino, and that he was born on Sept. 24, 1913, two years later than he had sometimes told people. The documentary included a mock birth certificate bearing that name.
Firm evidence of Mr. Jeffries’s race and age is hard to come by, but census documents from 1920 described him as “mulatto” and listed his father as a black man named Howard Jeffrey. They give his birth year as 1914, which matches what he told Life in 1951.
“It’s always been the big question, you know — where do we really come from?” Romi West, one of Mr. Jeffries’s daughters from his first marriage, said in an interview.
Herbert Jeffrey was born in Detroit on Sept. 24, in either 1913 or 1914. In addition to his wife, Savannah, and his daughter, Mrs. West, his survivors include two sons, Robert and Michael; two daughters, Ferne Aycock and Patricia Jeffries; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mr. Giddins, the jazz critic, noted that people tend to think of Mr. Jeffries primarily as a black cowboy star or as a man with a complicated racial story. But what was most remarkable about Mr. Jeffries, he said, was his voice.
“ ‘Flamingo’ was a really important recording,” Mr. Giddins said. “Partly because of that, RCA gave Ellington carte blanche in the 1940s. I don’t think he would have had that kind of complete authority in the studio if ‘Flamingo’ wasn’t making so much money for them.”
Mr. Giddins said Mr. Jeffries never seemed consumed with being successful. He noted that even as he became a star while singing with Ellington, Mr. Jeffries chose to leave to pursue other endeavors.
“He has these gorgeous tones, and he really knows how to phrase a ballad,” Mr. Giddins said. “The mystery is why that didn’t lead to a bigger career.”
May 10, 2014
New York Times, May 10 2014
Joe Wilder, Horn Player, Dies at 92; Elegance Was His Theme Song
His death was confirmed by his daughter Elin Wilder-Melcher.
Mr. Wilder, who played cornet and fluegelhorn as well as trumpet, lent his elegant tone to bands led by Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and Benny Goodman. In 1962 he toured the Soviet Union with Goodman. He also worked, in concert and in the studio, with Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte and many other singers.
A soft-spoken and stately man who never appeared in public without a tie, he developed a clear and even sound that reflected the years he spent studying classical performance as a young man. He aspired to a symphonic career but gravitated to jazz out of necessity.
“The opportunities for black musicians in the concert field were nil,” he said in an interview for the jazz archive of Hamilton College in 1996. His interest in classical music, he added, “inhibited my jazz playing a great deal” early in his career: “I was very stiff.”
Through the 1940s, Broadway was also off-limits to black musicians; few if any performed in the pit orchestras of musicals. It’s not clear who was the first, but Mr. Wilder was certainly one of the first — and even after he had crossed the color line he faced obstacles.
Fresh from stints with Lucky Millinder and Dizzy Gillespie, he was studying classical performance at the Manhattan School of Music and hoping to join the New York Philharmonic when he got a call to play in the band for the 1950 musical revue “Alive and Kicking.”
Shortly after that, he joined the “Guys and Dolls” pit band, which included two other black musicians, Benny Morton on trombone and Billy Kyle on piano. The three were accepted in New York, but when the show traveled to Washington it was a different story.
The pit band there consisted of local musicians as well as some key members of the New York ensemble. The producers had wanted the three black musicians to be part of the Washington band, but decided to keep Mr. Wilder and Mr. Morton out when the local musicians refused to play if they were in the horn section. (Mr. Kyle was allowed to be in the orchestra because, as a pianist, he did not sit with the other musicians.) Race was not an issue in 1955, when Cole Porter himself blessed Mr. Wilder’s choice as first trumpet in the orchestra for his show “Silk Stockings.” And race was rarely if ever an issue for Broadway pit bands after that.
Mr. Wilder played an equally important role, along with the bassist Milt Hinton and a few others, in integrating the studio bands of network radio and, later, television. Mr. Wilder, a member of the ABC ensemble from 1957 until the television networks did away with such bands in the 1970s, was heard on “The Voice of Firestone,” “The Dick Cavett Show” and other programs that used live music.
He later became a fixture in New York’s recording studios and on film soundtracks. In the 1980s he was in the pit band for the hit Broadway musical “42nd Street.”
Joseph Benjamin Wilder was born to Curtis and the former Augustine Brown Wilder on Feb. 22, 1922, in Colwyn, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He came from a family of musicians, and chose the trumpet over the bass, which both his father and his older brother, Curtis Jr., played professionally.
He was a regular on “Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air,” a weekly Philadelphia radio show that featured young black musicians, backed by all-star big bands led by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other stars. The show was broadcast live on Sundays, when jazz bands were prevented by Pennsylvania law from playing in public. (Reflecting the de facto segregation in the music industry at the time, another Philadelphia radio show featured only young white musicians.)
Mr. Wilder attended Mastbaum Technical High School, which was known for its strong music program but, like most programs at the time, did not teach jazz. After graduation he joined Les Hite’s big band as the first trumpet in a section that also included Dizzy Gillespie.
He worked with Lionel Hampton before serving in the Marines for three years during World War II, and rejoined him in 1946 after his discharge. He went on to work with Gillespie and others before migrating first to Broadway and then to ABC in the 1950s.
Mr. Wilder lived in Manhattan. In addition to his daughter Elin, survivors include his wife, Solveig; two other daughters, Solveig Wilder and Inga-Kerstin Wilder; a son, Joseph Jr., from a previous marriage; and six grandchildren.
Mr. Wilder did eventually achieve his goal of performing in a classical ensemble. After returning to the Manhattan School of Music and belatedly earning a bachelor’s degree, he performed occasionally with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s.
But he was content to be a sideman for most of his career. He released only a handful of albums as a leader, among them “Wilder ’n’ Wilder” (1956), “The Pretty Sound of Joe Wilder” (1959) and “Among Friends” (2003). A week at the Village Vanguard in 2006, timed to coincide with his 84th birthday, was his first New York engagement at the helm of his own group.
In 2008 Mr. Wilder was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician.
Mr. Wilder was often called “the gentleman” by fellow musicians, who respected both his musicianship and his generous, self-effacing demeanor. “He was trustworthy and honorable, and he would never curse,” his fellow trumpeter Warren Vaché remembered. “I once offered to pay him to say ‘damn it,’ and he wouldn’t take the money.”