Sunday, February 10, 2019

On the Toronto New Music Ensemble

Back in November 2018 I was alerted to an eBay item which included the text "new music ensemble". This one was a new one for me though, based in Toronto. The cover was striking:

More images at

The record names only two performers: Ron Sullivan and James Falconbridge. With this information, I went on a deep dive to see what I could find out. A Google search for the "toronto new music ensemble" sullivan falconbridge yields the following results (Repeat the search and to see one additional result)


Notice the final link: Full text of "The Varsity, September 19, 1966 - March 17, 1967". I went searching through this raw data and found one historical document, which I want to share with you all. It's all jumbled up, so I'm mirroring it here. I think you'll find Doug Pringle's description of "New Music" vivid and inspiring.

New Music

• New Music moves toward the ectsatic state.

• Things and people bathed by the music are beautiful.

• New Music moves the listener by physical force; it is an attempt to communicate by setting mind and body in vibration together, unseparate; an act of force, but not of violence, of love.

• The understanding reached is not intellectual, and not emotional, in the sense that we understand these modes in art. Its significance is spiritual, it moves the mind and body together.

John Cage in 1966.
Photo: Victor Drees / Getty
• New Music is pure music, in the same sense that new painting is pure plastic expression: the material and formal properties of the medium which determine the expressiveness of a piece of art have consistently been disregarded in the past in favor of the literal subject matter, which is much more easily verbalized because it is drawn from literary sources. As color and composition are the base elements in visual expression, melody (in the broad sense as a linear arrangement of sounds) and texture make the sense in music. (Cage's disparagement of the tradition of harmonic structure in Western classical music from Beethoven to Schoenberg as a denial of the essence of world music, melody, is interesting in the context of this polyphonic improvised music.)

Miles Davis in 1966 at Newport.
Photo: Joe Alper
• The best jazz in the past has attained the same kind of spiritual feeling beyond the normal emotional range, in the same way that most great painting in the past has been expressive in pure plastic terms. The development of painting in this century ha been rooted in self-criticism, which has led to art which is fully conscious of its elements. Similarly, self-criticism in improvised music ha led to its refinment and increase in expressive scope through the recognition of its essential strengths.

• Miles Davis synthesizes; new musicians realize.

• The point is not getting hot, or getting excited; these assessments of behaviour are part of a scale of values which are inapplicable to the music and its state of mind.

• The music seems frenetic and harsh, yet the sense of the music is cool; it is an attempt to open up the mind so that stimuli are freely exchanged. The accelerated tempo is an effort on the part of the musician to match musical realization to the rate of conception; thus conscious with-holding of ideas is to a large degree eliminated, and the music is a measure of the mind. Criticism must follow the performance, and discipline and self-knowledge must precede.

• The synchronization of conception and expression makes the music a form of automatism; many analogies are to be made with abstract expressionism and De Kooning and Pollock's working methods, although the painter remains a solitary figure in a way that is undesirable for the musican who feels the common mind.

Albert Ayler, 1966. Photo: Jan Persson
• Albert Ayler; "You have to really play your instrument to escape from notes to sounds".

• The form of the performed music is strong, and improvised passages often sound like composed music, when sympathies are strong. Sound relationships are deduced and intuited. Recordings change the involvement of minds entirely, but lead to understanding in a differ- ent way, as cross-sections of a continuous thing.

• New Music is not sexy, in the sense that it imitates sex; musical expression is another aspect of the erotic impulse.

• New music is not a calculated experience; it is a simultaneous knowing.

• Getting out of your mind is not out of the question

• Playing new music is like singing until your lungs ache.

The author is a member of the Toronto New Music ensemble which played four engagements at the Penny Farthing in the past month under the leadership of Michael Snow. The band consisted of Snow (trumpet), Harvey Brodhecker (trombone), Jim Falconbridge (soprano sax), Stu Broomer (bass), Ron Sullivan (drums), and the author on alto sax. The New Music is a New York-based development of the jazz tradition. Further engagements are planned, including campus concerts.

- The Varsity, Sept 30 1966 (p. 4 and 5).

 To the sponsors of Perception '67 at UC a word of warning: refrain from linking the projected 'new music' concert with 'jazz'. Stu Broomer should have made this clear by billing his group as The Stu Broomer Kinetic Ensemble, with an emphasis on the word 'kinetic'. I have searched all over for an English translation of that particular title, but the best I came up with is this: "Those Of Us Who Play (Hung-Up) Musical Instruments And Make Noise According To The Principles Of Hypersensitivastronuclearsolarplexusphysica". In other words WATCH OUT! I talked to composer-arranger Broomer last night, and he has tentatively arranged to perform an original composition called 'Holy Communion'.

The Varsity Review, Jan 20 1967 (p 2)

Further Reading:

A really touching example of how the music and the Internet can bring people together:

A "Jim Falconridge" turns up on a Dixieland revival disc in 1964:

Monday, December 17, 2018

Don Ellis Updates

My earliest online project was the Don Ellis Web Archive, which I began in about 2000 or 2001, and last updated in about 2011. Don Ellis's music captured my imagination for many years, and while there's still a great deal to love about his music, I've just been overtaken by other interests. But that hasn't stopped me from the occasional Google, JSTOR, and search for more information. And on the 40th anniversary of Don's passing, I thought it was fitting to make a post about him.

Don Ellis' first album as a leader was 1960's "...How Time Passes..." with Charlie Persip, Jaki Byard and Ron Carter. But he actually recorded one prior to this, for the record label Enrica. There was an entry for this on Gord McGonigal's Don Ellis Info Sheet as far back as 2001, and more information was found on the UCLA Don Ellis Collection holdings page (scroll down to "Enrica Date"). The entry in Lord's Discography [E2449-16] is lifted from my site:

(My words were used verbatim for the Note: I'm okay with it, the internet is a place for the free exchange of information. But as always, a little bit of credit is always nice. I'd include the picture but the formatting broke Blogger in a draft...)

Anyway, the reason for this post is that I wanted to share some corroboration that I recently came across. In the 22 February 1960 edition of The Billboard (p. 26), we find that "Teddy McRae of Enrica and Rae-Cox Records, has signed trumpet player Don Ellis for an Enrica album":

So while the recording itself is still in hibernation, here at least is independent verification that Ellis was, in fact, known by the music industry press to have signed a contract with Enrica. The Discogs page shows Enrica LP's 2001 and 2002, and a number of singles. Of course it would be cool to hear the record after all these years, but the backstory would be interesting to know as well.

Bonus: I just found this concert by the Hindustani Jazz Sextet. I had an entry for this show years ago, but didn't know anything about it. It was recorded March 24 1966, just 6 months before the Don Ellis Orchestra's break-out performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Steve Bohannon, probably my favorite member of the early Ellis groups, can be heard in great form.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Herbie Nichols' "The Jazz Life" - Part 2

Part Two (articles 4-7)

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

Saturday August 16, 1941 (p. 10)

It is very seldom that a musical giant flashes across the horizon to have his contemporaries and followers acclaim him the way the classic jazz pianist Art Tatum has done. And it is once in a lifetime that one may be privileged to listen to a pianist who has a phenomenal technique coupled with an inexhaustible fund of musical ideas such as he has. This is a combination that can't be beat.

Art Tatum is now appearing at downtown Cafe Society as a solo act. He is known mostly to the cafe crowds not having played any of the bigger theatres to date. However, his public following is constantly growing, via his Decca recordings.

In Oscar Levant's book, "A Smattering of Ignorance," the story is told of some in the exclusive parties Art Tatum has played for. Levant says that the great George Gershwin once listened enthralled while Tatum took twenty different choruses with endless variations on "Liza" and "I Got Rhythm," two of his (Gershwin's own) compositions.

Leopold Godowsky was also an interested listener to this musical feat. And then Levant goes on to relate how some of his guests began to tire of this music after listening to it for an hour and a half. Chopin, famous pianist and composer, was wont to improvise for great lengths of time. My guess is that anyone who could tire of Tatum's music after listening to it for an hour and a half would in all probability tire of Chopin's music after listening to it for a similar length of time.

The piano is a musical palette to Art Tatum and he is able to paint any musical thought that comes to mind. Listen to his recording of "Humoresque" and "Indiana." For sheer coloring and novelty they remain musical gems. For technique listen to "Tiger Rag" and "Elegie." If you want to hear him play in the blues style, lend an ear to "St. Louis Blues," this last number done in conjunction with Kansas City Joe Turner, shouting blues stylist. He tackles a Spanish rhythm on "Begin The Beguine." And then if you want to hear some solid jazz to top it all, listen to "Rosetta," "Tea for Two," "I've Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm" or dozens others.

Barry Ulanov, in an article in the Swing Magazine, Metronome, quoted Art Tatum as saying that among classical pianists one of his favorites was Vladimir Horowitz. Surely, he follows classical music closely. He will take a number like "Chloe" or "Deep Purple" and after adding his own embellishments and harmonies to it, the whole thing begins to sound more like a Chopin etude than the mere hack tune that it is.

Art Tatum has long been the man of mystery in jazz. Long before he became well known in the East, his name was legendary to musicians. He first came to New York in 1931, as accompanist to Adelaide Hall, returning to points west about 1934. Prior to this period he toured Chicago, Los Angeles and other mid-western and West Coast cities with his own band. He returned to the East Coast in 1935 as a solo act.

In 1938 Tatum traveled to London where he played at Ciro's and other spots, also broadcasting over the British networks. Soon after he returned to the States to appear at the Famous Door, 52nd street night club. He has now been a featured attraction at Downtown Cafe Society since October, 1940.

Tatum's hometown is Toledo, O. Contrary to popular belief, he is not blind and is able to see quite well out of his good right eye. He is a man of medium height and build and moves about in a deliberate manner, which undoubtedly is due to the aforementioned handicap. You will always see him accompanied by his good friend Mr. Hicks.

How to acquire and maintain a surefire technique such as his is a question that always bobs up whenever he is talked about. Many persons I know will refuse to discuss the subject - as if such a discussion belongs only to leads* beyond the veil. In any case, his music can be enjoyed and if there are any questions arising from it the one to see is Art Tatum himself, twentieth century wizard of the ivories.

* I'm not sure about this word, since the source material is damaged at this point in the article.

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

Saturday August 23, 1941 (p. 10)

Of all the ways for a young Negro to get a financial foothold in life, the jazz racket is easiest. All that is needed is a little common sense and a desire to get ahead. Make one mistake and then make the same mistake no longer.

It's important that one be able to mix in society. Gin mills, theatres, rehearsals and parties are the order of the day. It is to the advantage of the entertainer to become a master of small talk and to acquire his own line of jive for he will soon learn that most of his time will be taken up doing just that.

If you keep a good front and remain hard on the inside you're definitely suited for what lies ahead. The jazz racket is pretty good to colored musicians. With a commensurate amount of learning in some other field they would probably remain broke and out of a job for indefinite periods. But fortunately for him in this instance, while America continues to look to him for a highly touted form of primitive entertainment that can't be had elsewhere. Colored entertainers should take advantage of this situation.

Colored bands have got to keep traveling in order to make money. They are unable to to get sufficient commercial and location spots in order to remain stationary and so must keep on the move. Playing the road is more tiresome than working a location spot any day. There are a million more headaches, anyway.

Playing the smaller towns is much different from playing the bigger urban centers. A lot of the plush and streamlined comfort found in the big cities is missing in the smaller tank towns. In some sections a band may have to change its style definitely in order to satisfy the patrons. Country people take it for granted that the big bands rolling through their burgh always have plenty of money to spend and they don't think it all irregular to jack up some of their prices around town.

After a long tour the average musician looks forward to the vaudeville dates in the large metropolitan theatres of the country. This is where the big money is made. During this period they play three to six shows a day and may be compelled to get in a good deal of rehearsing, meanwhile. That is work calling for a twenty-four hour schedule.

When a big band appears on the stage togged in multi-colored monkey jackets and taped trousers and playing a fine arrangement, your first impression is that everything has been rehearsed well and that all is quiet backstage. However, there are many other problems that must be worried about. All sorts of acts are jumbled together on these bills, and if the house manager chooses his acts unwisely, the featured band may suffer.

A controversy that has been raging for years from coast to coast is the question of the colored musician's tone. Some fellows claim that they haven't any tone and that is the reason why they miss out on hotel jobs and commercials; and that if they acquire a good tone such lucrative jobs will be forthcoming. It is true that the acquisition of a good tone on a wind instrument calls for the proper kind of study for a sufficient length of time. It is also true that many of our musicians are lacking in this respect. However, I don't think it has much to do with the present difficulties facing him.

The jazz life is ninety percent sham and front. There is always a quick turnover - in money and in personnel. The trouble is that most of us consider it an end in itself when it should be regarded as merely a means to an end.

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

Saturday August 30, 1941 (p. 10)

The very interesting drama of small-time club life that goes on in Harlem year in year out, supplying happiness and succor for a hard working and hard living people.

These include many hundred musicians who depend on club dates (gigs, one-night stand of what have you) for the chief source of their livelihood. Managing the Savoy Ballroom or Renaissance Casino is very big business compared to running one of these small clubs.

At most of these small affairs the entertainment will follow a set pattern. This includes the free flow of all kinds of alcoholic beverages that must be bought on the outside. It's an old story that many clubs in the past have been shuttered on account of some enterprising and unsuspecting waiter trying to sell the wrong party the wrong kind of a drink.

As I said before, the entertainment usually follows a set pattern and oftimes is spontaneous. Take the case of Rudy and his dancing partner, erstwhile troupers. The average club member and musician may recall the many times that the Shiek, as he is sometimes called, has made a pompous entrance into a dance hall, replete with cane, gloves and derby and the times when just as he was about to begin his dance (I say his dance because the specialty he performs, defies copying) the way he would solemnly doff his gloves. And then just as he was about to enter upon the dance floor, he would in all seriousness endeavor to rub off any extraneous increment from the soles of his shoes by working his two feet up and down in the manner of a prize fighter trying to get a foothold in a sea of resin. Rudy, his side-burns, attire, dancing partner and ballroom routine are all out of a bygone era and will surely be missed as time passes by.

The seasonal traits in this business remains fixed - a tough scuffle ensues during the winter months followed by a complete slow-down in the late spring and summer. Clubs may rent any of the smaller halls for a very small sum, with an additional fee for use of the bar where soft drinks are sold. The check rooms are where the profits are made and these are sold to a concessionaire by the owner.

The bloodhounds of the music game, who are the union delegates, perform their thankless tasks in as unobtrusive a manner as they know how. They cover all these affairs to see that only Local 802 men are on the job and also to remind the boys of the tax which must be paid into the union, a matter of 3 cents on every dollar earned.

In the summer time some of these delegates police the excursion steamers to prevent any union men from playing on unreported jobs. Many times they will meet a boat before it leaves the pier and return to meet it when it docks at night. At times the situations resulting from this "cops and robbers" game become ludicrous.

Whenever a lodge or fraternal order gives a dance, there is always a greater showing of camaraderie among the crowd. The grand march always climaxes the night's entertainment. During the time the introduction of the officers and members of a club is taking place, the audience is always noisy, making a difficult job for the emcee. When these halls finally acquire mikes, I believe the evening's proceedings will be more business like, but a lot of fun will be missing just the same.

In most lodge affairs, there is less restraint in their efforts to have fun, and I think they justify the existence of the small clubs.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Herbie Nichols' "The Jazz Life" - Part 1

[Minor updates made 16 Oct 2018]

Although practically ignored during his lifetime, Herbie Nichols is now widely regarded as an innovative and original composer, with a style reminiscent of Thelonious Monk or Andrew Hill. Nichols was famously profiled in Black Music: Four Lives (later reprinted as Four Lives in the Bebop Business) by A. B. Spellman, who gave extensive and valuable biographical info. He hinted at Nichols's literary inclinations, mentioning that he began writing poetry in the 40's.

In addition, Nichols contributed at least 7 articles to the legendary Black newspaper The New York Age in 1941. These articles were titled "The Jazz Life"; the first four are published below. The rest of them will follow in another post. They provide a fascinating glimpse into New York show business, and especially the Black experience in this business, during the mid-late swing era. Nichols, born in 1919, was 22 years old when these articles were published.

The New York Age ceased publication in 1960, three years before Nichols passed away.

Disclaimer: I am not aware of whether Herbie Nichols' intellectual property is currently being managed by an estate or any legal entity. By publishing them here, I do so for educational purposes only. I am not claiming ownership of, and am not making any money from, his writings. If you have a legal claim to these writings and would like them removed from this blog, please let me know and I will oblige.

In the mean time, please enjoy these writings with the following music:

For further reading, check out Ethan Iverson's blog, which features an article of Nichols's from 1946 in Rhythm.

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

Saturday July 5, 1941 (p. 10)

The average person goes to the dance hall, cabaret, musical revue or party for a good time and returns home exhausted. The musician is the composed person you meet on arriving and the composed one you leave when you make your departure. Aside from playing the part of the capable entertainer his appearance must remain impeccable and he too, must at all times appear to be enjoying himself. (His real attitude toward any proceeding, of course, is seldom made known to the public.)

Jazz, (or swing music,) is the prevalent type of music dispensed for dancing in the United States today. Few of us know how it evolved to its present state. One thing that is quite certain - and unfortunately so for the colored musician - is the fact that the incorruptible American jitterbug apparently believes that the supreme haven of this musical art lies in the hands of the colored bands. The overwhelming and repeated financial success that we have enjoyed in this field, I believe, proves this to be true.

Jazz artistry reigns supreme in our group. It has been this department's contention that when it comes to jitter-buggin' and swing music we stomp louder and more often than the other fellow, and apparently find more pleasure in so doing.

The jam session has finally come to the attention of our swing magazines. Some musicians would rather miss their sleep than pass up a chance to hear Roy (Little Jazz) Eldridge or The Hawk at a jam session. If you haven't heard pianists Art Tatum, Kersey, Marlowe or Phipps at such a session then you have missed a lot of powerful piano playing. To the jazz musician who wants to learn more about syncopation and who wants to stay in the groove, these sessions are more in the nature of attending school.

Every group of people in the world is exponent of some particular type of music or dancing. Naturally, if this music or dancing catches on with the public there is going to be many imitations. The people of Lapland, who have their own musical dances, ordinarily would not attempt to make lasting reforms either in the music or the dance form of the rhumba. However, if it were a matter of radio commercials, big time vaudeville dates, hotel jobs, moving picture work, fat recording contracts and other million dollar considerations one wouldn't regard the situation as ordinary any longer. As a matter of fact with this always in mind the average Spanish person would be better prepared for the ensuing mutilation of his beloved rhumba.

Jazz is a big business and cannot be divorced from the Negro. It is still a lucrative field and if taken more seriously by some can be made to yield even more of that green stuff - yes indeed!

Saturday July 26, 1941 (p. 10)

The mainstay of the night-life world is the night club. For the most part these are tinsel palaces that glitter and hold forth with much seeming gayety. From the quaint glass stirrers to the quaint inhabitants, these institutions belie their real purpose - that of making money.

Some old-timers impressed me very much with one statement: "In the night club racket," they said, "the ends and the means are never confused as in the case of other businesses." Here's a situation where the salesmanship is so all-inclusive and so much remain at stake that only a hawk - a night hawk, a hardboiled one at that - can reap a profit and stay in business for any length of time.

Night club operators had their heyday during the bustling "twenties" and "thirties". This was the period that witnessed prohibition with its speakeasies and bath-tub gin. Money flowed freely and was made all up and down the line.

How it was made is another matter. Earnings came under the heading of various fees. How else could they be explained? Many bootleggers owned speakeasies and supplied these with their own liquor. This was an illegal but highly profitable and effective example of the vertical combination. On looking back on all this you wonder how it all came to pass.

There are two ways that a night club may take in money: by means of a cover charge and by selling various services. A night club is allowed to charge you its own fixed price for services rendered. This is legal. The government does not control retail prices, except in cases of emergency.

To start a night club you get in touch with License Commissioner Moss. Right away you're fingerprinted and mugged (photo taken). You'll have to take out cabaret and liquor licenses. There is also a license issued for the sale of cigarettes. The fire, health and police departments must give you a clean bill of health. And then there are the musicians' and performers' unions that may compel you to sign contracts with them. Bear in mind that we have only cited the licenses that must be gotten, which also call for periodic renewals. It is no wonder that some clubs blackball roustabouts and other ne'er-do-wells. They simply aim to insure a good night's receipts.

Many cliques are formed in this business. Because of the higher rents that are expected of night clubs and the seasonal rise and fall of business, a dependable clientele must be assured. Whatever is made during a good season which in some instances lasts for several weeks or months may have to be depended upon to tide one over a slack period which may last several times as long.

The night club visitor looks forward to the floor show as the climax of the night's entertainment. To the manager, this comes as an anti-climax. He depends on eagle-eyed, sure-footed waiters with a gift of gab to bring in large orders between those periods of loud entertainment. All that he seeks in a floor show is brevity, bounce and balance.

A successful operator strives for individuality in his club. From the tableware to the way the band stand is set up, nothing is overlooked. This calls for a versatile person who may be called upon at times to play the role of interior decorator and stage hand, accountant and efficiency expert, chorus director and dancer, and who, moreover, is expected to be the social glad-hander on all occasions.

Night club operation is a singular vocation. The main commodities are glamour and gayety. Fashion and style changes are first seen in the niteries. They are the show places of the nation - the social marts. It is the night club operator's business to supply the fanfare and to reap any and all possible profits.

Saturday August 2, 1941 (p. 10)

War is a boom time for songwriters. We recall that it was during and following the last war that the jazz life came into being. Entertainers did all right for themselves during that period. It was the goal of the average musician to cross the big pond, and many of them did just that. And it was during that period that Harlem became known as the bohemian section of New York. This situation almost brought a permanent vogue in literature. Such writers as Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay did much to publicize this era.

It was during that era that the first efforts to organize Negro musicians got under way. Local 310 was a Negro Musicians' local. The Clef Club was on the downgrade, but still maintained its headquarters in West 53rd Street. Such other clubs as the Bandbox and the Rhythm Club, operated by the late Bert Hall, came into being.

The parlor social era, which followed, won't be soon forgotten. During that period the kazoo became a full-fledged instrument, right alongside the venerable violin. At the average party you would find the kazoo player teamed with the pianist, the drums or some other instrument being added if the sponsors felt like oversporting themselves. The great parlor social piano player was "Fats" Waller. If you listen to his Bluebird recording of "The Joint is Jumpin'" you'll see what I mean.

The whole complexion of show life has changed in a few years. From dramatic stock, the Lafayette went to colored musical revues, with such names as Leroy Smith, Sam Wooding, Drake and Walker, the San Domingans and the Smarter Set Shows featured. The old Lincoln Theater brought out Mamie Smith and other blues singers of that day.

The small cabarets and dance halls were twice as active during this period. Everybody had a job and belonged to some social club. Some of the orchestras that catered to these groups were the Congo Knights, Ernie Ferguson and his Midnight Ramlers, Gus Creigh.

Harlem used to hum in those days with the social activity centered in the neighborhood from 133rd to 136th street - Baron Wilkins Club, the Pirates Cove, the Dunbar, the Nest, the Turf Club, the Checker Club, the Saratoga Club, Connie's Inn, the Bronze Studio, and the 101 Ranch are a few of the night spots that are no more.

Will history repeat itself in this direction?

Saturday August 9, 1941 (p. 10)

Chappie Willet, head of the only Negro booking agency on Broadway, would like to see colored sets multiply and become more varied in text. From his advantageous position in the heart of the downtown theatrical district he is able to realize and appreciate the growing bemand for colored acts more than anyone else.

The "Bye Sisters," young singing and dancing trio now appearing nightly at the Elks Rendezvous, are under his personal management. In a fast stepping revue, headed by the inimitable Willie Bryant, they more than hold their own. These girls have personality plus, and after you hear their hep musical version of "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" and "It's Hurry, Hurry, Hurry with a Solid Jive" you'll agree that they are a welcome addition to the entertainment world.

Chappie Willet's business office and studios are located at 156 West 44th street. Besides the booking agency angle, which takes up a lot of his time, he personally supervises a recording studio and a music school. All this in addition to being [among] the most prolific arrangers in the music business. Because of his policy of treating the little fellow and the big fellow alike, he has been able to build a reputation for himself that is unique in music circles.

He has kept pretty busy these last few years. He has written the music for many musical comedy shows and night club revues, including those of the Cotton Club, the Plantation and "The Hot Mikado." He has had wide experience with bands, having done much arranging for Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder and many others. He has also done work for Gene Krupa, including the writing of his theme song.

Chappie Willet does most of his arranging for stage acts, practically dominating this field in particular. Such acts as the Nicholas Brothers and the dancing DeMarcos got Chappie Willet for new arrangements whenever they're in town. Whenever you hear the famed Peters Sister or Avia Andrew bringing down a critical Broadway audience with applause, the chances are that the fine accompanying arrangement to which they are singing was written by and rehearsed in conjunction with Chappie Willet.

Mr. Willet deserves a lot of credit for his pioneering efforts in many fields of the jazz life, also for his avowed interest in all newcomers.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Strange Case of Ella Malone

By the late 19th century, improvisation in "classical" music was relegated to composers, organists, and a few virtuoso performers. In general, it was not taught as a part of standard music education, until Emile Jacques-Dalcroze began his influential work in Switzerland. So for most Americans it was quite a spectacle to hear someone improvise music, especially if the end result sounded as if it had been planned all along.

I recently searched for the phrase "improvises music" and turned up the interesting story of Ella Malone from San Jose, CA. Ella was a teenager who was first reported in the San Jose Mercury as having extraordinary experiences in which she channeled spirits while playing the piano. Her story is worth quoting at length (author is unknown)
"She goes into a trance, in which she claims to be, not Ella Malone, but a man named Charles S. Evans, who died several years ago, but who was, while living, a musician and a member of a minstrel troupe. While in this state she is said to execute difficult music on the piano with her eyes closed, she being evidently in an abnormal condition. After a few performances of this kind she is able to give the same music in her normal state. In this way, in less than a year, without any previous knowledge of music, and without any present knowledge of written music, she is able to execute many difficult pieces with the skill and precision of an artist. At times her 'control', as the influence is called, improvises music, and has composed several pieces in which Ella plays in her normal state. In this way she is acquiring her musical education independent of books of earthly instructors."
Malone's story made a small splash in the fall of 1877, with her story being retold in newspapers in Reno NV, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Holton KS, Davenport IA, and Pulaski TN. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dismissively wrote that "If the spirits' music is no better than their literature, she might do better to learn from a dog with a tin kettle tied to his tail."

Ella Malone is known to have given a concert at Little Music Hall on 19 September 1877, which was very well reviewed. The Batesville Guard (Batesville, AR) reprinted the report from the San Jose Mercury (author, again, unknown) :
"The so-called trance medium, Miss Ella Malone, of this city, assisted by the Parkman family, gave a concert at Little Music Hall last evening. The attendance was not large. Shortly after 8 o'clock, an overture having been played by Professor Parkman, the medium was introduced ... she rubbed her eyes a few minutes, after the style of Fannie Allyn and other "trance mediums" who have appeared here in public, turned to the master of ceremonies, who bound her eyes with a handkerchief, after which she was apparently seized with a fit of trembling and jerking. This continued a minute or two and the agony was over; she was then, as the Spiritualists say, "possessed, or under control." Without more ado she turned to the piano, a Weber furnished by Morton & Co., and commenced her execution, and, in the language of a bystander, proved before five minutes had passed that she was a "lightning striker." Her movements were all characterized by the same irresistible nervous twitching, and the way she clawed the keys while executing some of the lively Irish reels, was simply marvelous ...
She then executed a piece which she informed the audience was the "Wrecked Daughter," and another entitled "The Soldiers Crossing the Plains," followed by the "Arkansas Traveler." The latter was perfect. After this she played a piece not in print, called the "Spirit March," which came from the "Higher Powers," whoever they may be. After this exertion, she asked that the band would play while she rested ...
At the close she asked that the boy violinist play what he pleased and she would accompany him. He did so, and gave a musical medley which in the main was accompanied correctly. At times she was at fault as if finding the keys, and in one instance she failed, and listened for the time to end. She then sang "Come to that Beautiful Shore," with much expression. The "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," was next, but the lines were given as if by spasmodic effort. The "Blue Danube Waltz" and "John Brown's Body" followed, both of which were rendered in first-class style.
A Mr. Hughes, a violinist, in the audience then asked to be permitted to take the boy's violin and see if she could accompany him, and the test was satisfactory. We allow all who were present to draw their own conclusions, as to whether the girl is an expert musician, figuring to be controlled, or is controlled, by a supernatural power. Suffice it to say that, taken throughout, the entertainment was pleasing and well worth the admission fee."
I was unable to find any information about "Professor Parkman" or "Charles S. Evans".

An Ella Malone was reported to have committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1907. Perhaps it's the same person. In any case, I couldn't find any other leads to what happened to her. If this is the same Ella Malone, it is a tragic end to what could have been a remarkable career.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Extempore Music - A Precarious Survival (1920)

Earlier this year I came across this piece from the Times of London, written in 1920. Prompted by an upcoming visit by the great French organist Marcel Dupré, the anonymous author takes the opportunity to write a bit about improvisation, its similarities and differences to the creative process involved in composition, and its decline as a practical part of a musician's toolbox by the early 20th century. It was clearly written from a perspective of familiarity and sympathy with improvisation, and it's especially interesting that it was written before improvisation became a "hot topic" for composers, yet foreshadows some of the discussions which continue to this day.

 Here are some TL;DR highlights.

  • "Composition is one thing, extemporization another. The one is a man's considered thought independent of the circumstances of any given moment; the other is his comment on circumstances, is influenced by his environment and by the sympathy of his hearers."
  • "[T]he pleasure of real improvisation, like real conversation, is that it is not foreseen by the creator of it. It surprises him as much as the listen. It may develop in sonata form, or fugue, or any other strict style - that depends on how far the artist's mind has been disciplined by the externals of musical design. It will certainly have form of some sort, because form is the musician's means of communication with others."
  • "Improvisation [is] clearly carried on by an altogether different mental process from that by which the same man acts when he sits down to his music-paper to compose, although the initial impulse towards musical invention may be the same."
  • "Composers have their rights, and the first of them is that what is performed as being by them should be what they have really written. Yet there was something generous about the old plan of the concerto in which the composer, having developed his theme to his heart's content, said in effect to his interpreter, 'Now what do you think about it?'"
(Disclaimer: I mulled for a while about whether to make this available. Obviously I didn't write it, so I don't claim authorship. But I think its historical importance to the subject of improvised music, and organ improvisation in particular, make it worthy of sharing in cyberspace. To me, the internet is about sharing information with other interested parties. I don't, and never will, monetize this blog. If you claim a copyright and would like this content removed, feel free to contact me.)

(Also: The author, in keeping with the sexist parlance of his day, assumes that all people involved with music are "men", and exclusively uses the male-gendered pronouns. I transcribed the article as-is, but I do not condone this kind of speech.)

Extempore Music - A Precarious Survival

The Times - London - Saturday 4 December 1920

Author unknown

Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)
The report of M. Marcel Dupré's skill in improvisation on the organ, which London is to have the opportunity of appreciating at the Albert Hall next Thursday [9 Dec, 1920 - ME] naturally raises the question of extempore music, and its place, actual and possible, in the developed condition of modern music.

A correspondent writes to us to tell of an improvisation by Mr. Alfred Hollins, the well known blind organist, which was recorded on a mechanical instrument and subsequently transcribed and replayed by another organist, Mr. Arthur Sims, at a recent recital. We seem to remember that years ago, before the gramophone records were the commonplace they are to-day, the phonographic record of some improvisations by Mr. E. H. Lemare, then organist at St. Margaret's, Westminster, caused a similar sensation.
Edwin H. Lemare (1865-1934)
We do not know whether M. Dupré has ever submitted his art to the same ordeal, but no doubt it will be demanded of him sooner or later. It may be that mechanical reproduction is going to attack the last stronghold of improvisation by making it permanent. One can well understand why an artist of this kind will be shy of the recording room. 
Composition is one thing, extemporization another. The one is a man's considered thought independent of the circumstances of any given moment; the other is his comment on circumstances, is influenced by his environment and by the sympathy of his hearers. If it is recorded for future use it runs the risk of becoming inapt. A good improvisation may or may not stand the test of reproduction for permanent use, and the artist who improvises with the knowledge that whatever he says will be expected to stand this test is acting under a restraint which may be fatal to the spirit of his work.

The Royal Albert Hall, London. Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum.

We remember once hearing a learned musical professor improvise in strict sonata form before a class of students. As he did so he analysed his own work, calling out in a high-pitched voice, "This is the second subject," "Now the development begins," "Now the reprise," and so on. The result was something exactly like a great many sonatas; it was fluent, expected, apparently foreseen from first to last. But the pleasure of real improvisation, like real conversation, is that it is not foreseen by the creator of it. It surprises him as much as the listen. It may develop in sonata form, or fugue, or any other strict style - that depends on how far the artist's mind has been disciplined by the externals of musical design. It will certainly have form of some sort, because form is the musician's means of communication with others. Listening to M. Dupré and watching him at the organ, one is convinced that at the beginning of an improvisation he is as unconscious as anyone else of where the thought may lead him. He is starting out on an adventure.
Samuel Wesley (1766-1837)

The same was the case with S. S. Wesley, greatest of English church musicians in the last century. Those who remember him in the organ loft say that Wesley would extemporise the most unheard-of-things, harmonic progressions which he would never have written, but through which he groped his way almost as though he were under the control of some hypnotic influence. Whatever it is, in such an instance improvisation clearly carried on by an altogether different mental process from that by which the same man acts when he sits down to his music-paper to compose, although the initial impulse towards musical invention may be the same.

When the art of music was in a comparatively primitive condition, there was much more room for the exercise of this faculty [extemporization] than there is to-day. Even after notation had made it possible for composers to express themselves with fair accuracy, and printing had secured a wide distribution for their ideas, they were still loath to forgo the fascination of yielding to the impulse of the moment. The scores of Corelli's violin sonatas, for example, merely contain as much of the music as will keep the solo player and the accompanist in touch with one another. Both are free to improvise the details.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Corelli and other artists of his generation were generally their own interpreters, but even after the point when the process of specialization had separated composer from performer is was felt that a solo work of any size would not be complete in expression unless the latter was given an opportunity of giving rise to his own imagination at some point or other. Hence the cadenza. Brahms was the last of the great composers to leave this open door, but Joachim shut it by writing his own cadenza to the violin concerto and by his own frequent performance associating it with the work. It would be a bold fiddler indeed who would stand up in Queen's Hall today and improvise a cadenza before the coda of Brahms's first movement, or, indeed, in any other classical concerto, but it is the refusal to attempt it which has made that point in the concerto the futile thing it is. It places all the great virtuosi of the concert-room in the absurd position of pretending to improvise something which they have really learnt by heart beforehand. Of course, there is no actual deception; every one knows that they have learnt it by heart; sometimes they have written it themselves, sometimes it has been composed and published by somebody else, but in any case it is an effect carefully arranged to suggest a counterfeit spontaneity.

So it comes about that improvisation has been forced out of the concert-room altogether, as at an earlier stage it was forced out of the opera-house when autocratic composers insisted that singers should confine themselves strictly to the notes written down for them. Composers have their rights, and the first of them is that what is performed as being by them should be what they have really written. Yet there was something generous about the old plan of the concerto in which the composer, having developed his theme to his heart's content, said in effect to his interpreter, "Now what do you think about it?" The practical position is that the only class of executant who has any opporunity of using his powers in this direction is the organist, and the example of M. Dupré and others of the French school shows that it is a power which thrives on opportunity. If it is strangled by the conventions of modern music, it will be so much the worse for the art.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lennie Tristano - What's Right With The Beboppers

After two and a half years I have finally gotten my hands on the July 1947 issue of Metronome Magazine, which has the sequel to Tristano's What's Wrong With The Beboppers. It provides an interesting glimpse into the pianist's thought process. Tristano's characterization of "Dixieland" is unfair, but it gives us an idea of how sharply divided some members of the jazz community were over the new music of Parker, Gillespie, Davis, and Tristano. This is also of historical importance due to Tristano's foreshadowing of free improvisation: "Perhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plane because the individual lines will be more complex."

What's Right With The Beboppers
the provocative pianist concludes his evaluation of a provocative school of jazz

by Lennie Tristano

Tristano, mid 1950's. Source:
The music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker constitutes the first major break with Dixieland. While bebop is not an end in itself, it is unquestionably a great means.

Though Dixieland presents a single and crude form of counterpoint, its contrapuntal development ends in a blind alley. Each line is governed by the end result which is collective improvisation. Collective improvisation is limited by a small number of chords, perhaps six or seven. A good melodic line is sacrificed completely. The music strives to induce an aphrodisiac mood which for many years has been considered the essence of jazz. Anything that requires a degree of intelligent comprehension is ruled out. Therefore the means becomes the end. Artistic development is unnecessary - in fact, detrimental. This is precisely why Dixieland music is so appallingly stagnant. Like French Impressionism, it destroys itself.

The soloist emerging from this idiom plays with the same disregard for artistic development. Though his style is somewhat individualized, and his facility is increased, his music is merely an elaboration of the part he played in collective improvisation.

The boppers discarded collective improvisation and placed all emphasis on the single line. This is not unfortunate, since the highest development of both would probably not occur simultaneously. Perhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plan because the individual lines will be more complex.
Charlie Parker, late 1940's

Bebop has made several contributions to the evolution of the single line. The arpeggio has ceased to be important; the line is primarily diatonic. The procedure is not up one chord and down another, nor it is up one scale and down another; the use of skips of more than a third precludes this seesaw motion. The skillful use of scales fosters the evolution of many more ideas than does the use of arpeggios, since an arpeggio merely restates the chord. Instead of a rhythm section pounding out each chord, four beats to a bar, so that three or four soloists can blow the same chord in arpeggio form in a blast of excremental vibrations, the bebop rhythm section uses a system of chordal punctuation. By this means, the soloist is able to hear the chord without having it shoved down his throat. He can think as he plays. A chorus of bebop may consist of any number of phrases which vary in length. A phrase may consist of two bars or twelve bars. It may contain one or several ideas. The music is thoughtful as opposed to the kind of music which is no more than an endless series of notes, sometimes bent.

The Dixieland idea of a ballad is a hot melody with the bends. The tempo ranges from just a little to slow to just a little too fast, generally skipping the happy medium. When Diz plays a ballad, he makes full use of altered chords and substitutions in a series of well-articulated phrases. This is not to be confused with a superficial use of altered tones which results in an embellishment rather than an integral part of the style. His complex melodic structure becomes more intense because of the intricate rhythm patterns which are its basis. The melody does not bog down under a vulgar load of sentiment, bravado, and vibrato.

Given a long series of eighth notes, the Fig would play them as dotted eighths and sixteenths, which effects an underlying shuffle beat. A bopper would accept every up-beat, producing a line which pulsates with a modern, a more exciting feeling. This type of accenting also prevents the soloist from stumbling into a boogie groove, a musical booby-trap.

Thelonious Monk, ca. 1947
Bebop is a valiant attempt to raise jazz to a thoughtful level, and to replace emotion with meaning. It is successfully combatting the putrefying effect of commercialism. It has been called mechanical, "over-cerebrative," sloppy, technical, and immoral. Beboppers have been accused of willfully promoting juvenile delinquency. These studied inanities of the pseudo-psychiatrist have created ill-feeling against musicians. All this prattle is due to a lack of understanding not only of the musicians who play bebop, but of the emotionally immature listeners.

It is true that the younger musicians have gone overboard in attempting to emulate their idols, the originators. They need re-direction and guidance. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the so-called giants of jazz have remained untouched. They have absolutely refused to be influenced. The feeling of security which comes from playing in a well-worn and worn-out groove, and an unwillingness to admit that jazz has advanced beyond their personally-generated auras suggest an imminent degeneration. The big names are important because they command large followings. If they persist in retrogressing, the inevitable result is the concomitant stagnation of the listeners.

The development of jazz must be the concern of every musician who attempts to play it. Jazz is not a form of popular entertainment; it is art for its own sake. Its popularity or unpopularity is coincidental. The man who plays to entertain is not as objectionable as the man who plays to entertain and at the same time protests that he is playing jazz. This overwhelming pleasure that some bandleaders experience in pleasing the people is a rather poor camouflage for their desire to increase their bank accounts. Perhaps if the people had more opportunity to hear good jazz, they might learn to like it.

And here society has a real obligation. It must foster the arts and encourage the artists even if understanding is not immediate. Bebop, one of the more mature levels of jazz, must be listened to, scrutinized, supported. That way it will assure progress and all the inevitable maturation of jazz will be one large step further along.