Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2019

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 7:25 pm

“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes”, a documentary directed by Sophie Huber, opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. If you are not a jazz fan, the name Blue Note might not mean very much to you but as analogy, it is to jazz as Sun Records is to early rock and roll or Chess Records was to the blues. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany and Max Margulis, another Jew who put up much of the seed money for the label, it was unlike the commercial labels like Columbia that were always looking for a way to get over on Black musicians. While it will be obvious that I found the film to be an essential contribution to the jazz documentary genre, it is unfortunate that it did not even mention Max Margulis, who reviewed music and wrote for left-wing periodicals, including the Daily Worker in the 1930s and 1940s, under the pen name Martin McCall.

The film gives the impression that Francis Wolff, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany, just like Lion, was a co-founder of Blue Note when in fact he was not. However, he soon assumed responsibility for co-managing the company and serving as its photographer. As Wolff was a commercial photographer in Germany, all of the cover photos that were done by him remain as iconic as the music on the vinyl, with this being an exemplar of the combined art forms.

For his complete portfolio, go here.

Lion and Wolff were jazz fans primarily and little interested in getting rich. They started off recording stride piano players like Meade Lux Lewis but on the advice of big band tenor player Ike Quebec turned to bebop in the early 50s. Among the musicians that Lion introduced to the jazz aficionado was Thelonious Monk. As happens through much of the film—and gloriously—we see footage of recording sessions with Monk who was not a commercial success at the outset. Eventually, he moved to Prestige Records but perhaps he would have remained in obscurity if Lion had not taken a chance on him.

The film is graced by interviews with two elderly figures who were key to the Blue Note story. First is long-time recording engineer Rudy van Gelder, who died 3 years ago at the age of 91. Van Gelder lived with his parents in a typical suburban home in New Jersey. A jazz fan like Lion, van Gelder persuaded his parents to allow their living room to be used as a recording studio for Blue Note in 1959, not even objecting to an adjoining room being turned into a control room. As Blue Note grew commercially, it eventually funded a professional studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey where 400 Blue Note records were made.

We also hear from Lou Donaldson, a 92-year old alto saxophonist who was one of Blue Note’s best known musicians. Donaldson has a great command of the Blue Note story and relates it with relish and great humor. Listening to him is a treasure for jazz fans and one of the film’s biggest selling points.

The heart of the documentary is devoted to reviewing the body of work that most people associate with the label, namely hard bop. In the late 1950s, many jazz musicians began to dig deeper into the blues and soul heritage of Black America and synthesize it with bebop that was focused more on harmonic innovation. Musicians like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley all expressed this latent Black nationalist tendency. Within a few years, as the civil rights movement failed to fulfill the Freedom Now aspirations of the early 60s, jazz became much more consciously political and musicians like Archie Shepp set the tone for the New Thing with songs like “New Africa” on the 1969 album “Kwanza”.

The final fifteen minutes of the film is an attempt to connect the hard bop style with hip-hop that seems like a stretch to me, despite the fact that some hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest sampled Blue Note musicians from the 50s and 60s. Historically, hard bop ran its course over forty years ago and jazz as an art form struggles to keep an audience. I have been attending “Highlights in Jazz” concerts organized by Jack Kleinsinger at the Borough of Manhattan Community College this spring that reflect Kleinsinger’s love of classic jazz. The audience consists mostly of elderly white people like me and probably reflects the market for straight-ahead jazz nowadays.

Blue Note no longer exists. It has mutated into something called Blue Note/ArtistShare that is based on crowdsourcing, something the documentary does not even mention. Most of the artists have little to do with jazz.

Probably the best outlet for the kind of music Blue Note made popular is WBGO, a jazz station in Newark that is the best in the country. It mixes hard bop with both older and newer sounds, all selected with impeccable taste. For my readers who are not familiar with jazz, I invite you to listen to the station here. Couple that with a trip down to the Metrograph, a movie theater devoted to great film art in the same way that WBGO is devoted to great music, and you can’t go wrong.

 

July 12, 2018

Milford Graves: Full Mantis

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

At the Left Forum in June, I had the great fortune to attend a panel discussion on the the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when I entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it.

I have had the even greater fortune to have just seen “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” that opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. In March 2017, I reviewed a documentary titled “I Called Him Morgan” that I described as the best film ever made about a jazz musician, in that instance trumpeter Lee Morgan who died tragically much too young after his girlfriend gunned him down in Slug’s in a fit of jealousy. He had rebounded from years of addiction, largely through her support, and was enjoying a revival. His loss was a crushing blow to the art of jazz.

I can now say that “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” is just as great a film but one that is filled with joy. Although they were contemporaries, Lee Morgan belonged to the hard bop school that preceded the Free Jazz movement percussionist Milford Graves pioneered. If heroin addiction was an epidemic during the bebop era that lasted roughly between WWII and the mid-60s, the Free Jazz movement was much more about finding transcendence through Black nationalism and spirituality, with Milford Graves a prime example.

You realize that you are about to meet an extraordinary figure as the film begins with the camera panning over Graves’s bookcase in his house in Queens. Coming into the foreground are Friedrich Engel’s “Dialectics of Nature” and Hermann von Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music”. Most of my readers will undoubtedly know who Engels was but Helmholtz loomed large in Graves’s evolution as a musician and a medical researcher. Wikipedia describes him as a researcher who sought to provide a theoretical basis for human physiology:

In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism in the physiology of perception.

In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics.

In terms of the “mechanical foundation of thermodynamics”, you can obviously understand why Graves would keep a copy of “The Dialectics of Nature” alongside Helmholtz. Key to Graves’s approach to our world is the interconnectedness of all living things. In his backyard garden, he makes the case that plants are not passive organisms. Photosynthesis is a process that has much in common with our own biological cycle. Drawing close to a plant, he states that its leaves waving in the wind create low-frequency sounds that can be heard with the right equipment.

For Graves, equipment is not just the drum kit that he performs on throughout the film. In his exploration of the sonic aspects of the human body, he has built up an elaborate array of electronic measuring devices including an electronic stethoscope. Browsing in the medical shelves at Barnes and Noble many years ago, he stumbled across an LP titled “Normal and Abnormal Heart Beats” that led him on a journey to discover the affinity between heartbeats and drum rhythms. Even more remarkable, he discovered a kind of harmony in heartbeats based on their oscilloscope variations. These explorations led to a Guggenheim grant in 2000.

The best way to describe Milford Graves is as a Leonardo Da Vinci of our time. In all of my encounters with larger than life figures over a sixty year period, I have not seen anybody with as restless a mind and as gifted artistically as Graves. A case can be made that he is the most influential musician of the Free Jazz movement with his full-time professorship at Bennington College from 1973 until becoming Emeritus in 2011 as a sign of his stature.

“Milford Graves: Full Mantis” consists almost entirely of filmed performances of Graves and interviews at his home in Queens. At the age of 76, his intellect and his philosophical acumen strike me as the benefits of living a life in which your talents are matched to your ambitions. If we didn’t live in such a warped society, most people would be able to enjoy the kind of life that Graves has led if only on a more modest scale. The other reaction one might have to this film is a deepening sense of the injustice in this world where a Black skin precludes developing the kind of career that he has enjoyed. Probably the worst thing about capitalism is that it robs us from benefiting from the other Leonardo Da Vinci’s that the Black, Latino and working class world might have produced.

Finally, tribute has to be paid to director Jake Meginsky who has made a film that rises to the Olympian stature of its subject. For aspiring documentary film makers, this film bears repeated viewings since it shows how sensitive camera work and fully engaged interviewing techniques can produce great art. Meginsky is a drummer himself who was an aficionado of Milford Graves and later became a technician assistant to Graves at Bennington. This is the first film he has ever made and has the inside track for my NYFCO ballot as best debut as director of 2018.

 

 

March 8, 2017

I Called Him Morgan

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Opening in NYC on March 24th and in Los Angeles a week later, “I Called Him Morgan” is the greatest film about a jazz musician I have seen. Although it is a documentary, it puts to shame narrative films that have fallen flat such as Don Cheadle’s on Miles Davis. Even if you are not a jazz fan, this is a compelling and informative work that might even motivate you to buy Lee Morgan CD’s. The film benefits from an almost nonstop score made up of his performances that are a reminder of how much of a loss his death at 33 years was. Combined with some amazing still photos of Lee Morgan and his contemporaries, this is a feast for both the ears and the eyes.

Not only is this a chronicle of one of the great trumpet players of the 50s to the early 70s, it is also a love story about Morgan and Helen, the woman who loved him. On February 19, 1972, when Morgan was playing at Slug’s on the lower east side, a club I used to haunt in the mid-60s when I was living in NYC, Helen Morgan came there to confront her husband. He had been spending far too much time with a younger woman who was in the club that night. In an altercation involving the three, Helen was evicted from the premises into the snowy night. She stormed back into the club and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest. The blizzard, which had left more than a foot of snow at that point, kept an ambulance from arriving for more than a hour. He died in the hospital. I could not help but think of the pop tune written in 1912:

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’, Out the back door he did scoot
But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot
He was her man but he done her wrong

In an introduction to his new class in an adult education program in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas began by referring to his past gig as a jazz DJ. Later on one of the students, an elderly woman who he considered very street-smart but without a formal education, mentioned to him that her husband had been a jazz musician. When Thomas found out that it was Lee Morgan, he invited her to sit down for an interview. The audio tape of that interview forms an important strand in the narrative of “I Called Him Morgan”, including the film’s title. Helen Morgan didn’t care for the name Lee, preferring to call him Morgan.

Lee Morgan was a leading member of what has been referred to as “hard bop” movement that emerged in the mid-50s. Trumpet players like Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard were strongly influenced by Clifford Brown who died tragically in an auto accident on his way to a gig on June 25, 1956 at the age of 25. Born in 1938, Morgan was Clifford Brown’s student in Philadelphia and an acknowledged prodigy who joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at the age of 18.

After Dizzy’s band folded, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958, a group that was considered the foremost exponent of the hard bop style. That year they recorded “Moanin’”, a tune that is considered one of the great jazz anthems of all time. It epitomized the synthesis of bebop chord changes and traditional “soul” music in the Black community found in the blues, gospel music and r&b. Listen to it here to get an idea of what jazz sounded like in its glory days:

You can see the band performing this number in “I Called Him Morgan” as well as many other classic performances on the Steve Allen Show and other vintage television shows before TV became corrupted with formulaic pop music.

Side by side, as we learn about Morgan’s musical evolution, we get Helen Morgan’s story, an all too familiar tale of racial and gender oppression in the Deep South. She had her first child at the age of 13 and another a year later. In her late teens, she married a man who would die a couple of years into their marriage. Soon afterwards she moved to NYC where she was welcomed by her late husband’s relatives and into a hip, urban environment. As she tells Larry Reni Thomas early on, she hated the country and doing chores on her father’s farm.

In no time at all, she became celebrated by jazz musicians for her quick wit, feistiness, sex appeal and opening her apartment up to the community as a kind of salon where they could always count on a fabulous meal and each other’s company. To pay the rent and other expenses, Helen Morgan worked for an answering service by day, a job more easily available to Black women.

One day, she ran into Lee Morgan at one of her get-togethers and figured out immediately that he was strung out on heroin. Since it was a cold winter’s day, she asked him where his coat was. His answer: the pawn shop. She took his arm in hers and went to the pawn shop to get his coat out of hock. This was the beginning of a May-November romance (she was 13 years older) that gave her great happiness and him a second chance on a career after she nursed him back to health and kept him on the straight and narrow. The tragic ending to this marriage was not inevitable but as is so often the case, murders are the result of domestic quarrels that get out of hand. With the easy availability of handguns (Lee had bought one for her Helen for her own protection), it is no wonder that such killings take place routinely—but usually it is the woman who dies.

Among the breakthroughs in this film made by Swedish director Kasper Collin, whose last documentary was on Albert Ayler, is the assembling of interviewees who had played alongside Lee Morgan, including Wayne Shorter, “Tootie” Heath, Larry Ridley, Charlie Persip and others. Now mostly in their 70s, they are knowledgeable about Lee Morgan as a person and a musician. Shorter comes across as true savant of this world and a musician whose biography (much more of an “as-told-to” memoir) is going on my must-read list for 2017.

I urge you to put this film on your must-see list for 2017. “I Called Him Morgan” opens on Friday, March 24 at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center andt will be followed on Friday, March 31 at NYC’s Metrograph Theater and the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles with a national expansion to follow.

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