Thursday, August 1, 2019

Playing Free in Nebraska

Here's another post about the scene that orbited around Randall Snyder's Lincoln Improvisation Ensemble. Randy was kind enough to share his archival copy of EAR, which contained Playing Free in Nebraska, a first-hand account by Mike Bergstraesser of his work in the region. (Like everything on this blog, I share it for educational and research purposes only.)

This is from EAR, July/August 1978 (p. 8)
Playing Free In Nebraska
by Mike Bergstraesser
It is a pleasure to share with you some of the esoteric music currently happening in Nebraska. First, let me give you a brief history of the improvisational and experimental music being performed in the state, particularly in Lincoln.

In September 1974 Randy Snyder, Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL), and Noyes Barthalomew [sic] formed the Lincoln Improvisational Ensemble (LIE). LIE, which is part of the UNL School of Music curriculum, offered less structured formats and more spontaneous improvisation than any previous ensemble.

Over the past four years LIE has consisted of many talented musicians including Paul Bendell on cello, Bill Buntain on trombone, Molly Baldwin on piano, Bob Reigle on tenor sax, and Preston Koch on synthesizer. Several of these members have gone on to organize improvisational ensembles in Oregon, Wisconsin, and Oxford, England.


Lincoln Improvisation Ensemble performing in Temporal Matters by Barbara Ball Mason.
From left to right: Mike Bergstraesser, Warren Schaffer, Tom Malone, and Randy Snyder

About one year ago several members of LIE formed a new improvisation ensemble in Lincoln called SurRealEstate (SRE). SRE was not University-based, allowing exploration outside the school system. Currently both LIE and SRE perform in Lincoln and Omaha, each band sharing several musicians.

LIE's music runs the gamut from spontaneous improvisation to highly structured formats. LIE has accompanied poetry, plays, and dance. Most of the music and many of the dances, plays, and poems are written by members of the ensemble. LIE has also accompanied several works by a variety of artists outside the group.

SRE's music is as diverse as LIE's but emphasizes sonic exploration and spontaneity. SRE utilizes extensive percussion, sound-sculpture, and theatrics. SRE performs irregularly in Lincoln and has accompanied several dances by the Circle-Nicely Dance Company. Surrealestate Live is the title of SRE's first record, recorded late in 1977.

The instrumentations for LIE and SRE are very similar, since the groups share several members. All musicians play at least one instrument competently, and many players improvise on several different instruments. A typical piece may include flutes, saxophones, bassoon, brass, piano, synthesizer, tapes, electric guitar, and bass, and an occassional [sic] violin or cello. Percussion racks, toys, vocalizations, and spontaneous poetry round out the basic repertoire.


Multi-media format for Surrealestate and the Circle-Nicely Dance Company
An example of a format commonly used in the improvisation ensembles is illustrated. I wrote Proto for SRE and five dancers. The score integrates symbolic and graphic notation which is custom designed for both individual personalities and the group as a whole. Performance space has sometimes been a problem, especially for SRE, which does not have access to space at the University. Currently SRE practices in the homes of its members. LIE performs regularly at Kimball Recital Hall on the UNL campus and has played for several university and community fairs and festivals.

The musicians and composers in both groups finance their endeavors in a number of different ways. Several members are musicians in local commercial rock, jazz, or country bands, some are music students, and others work in a variety of non-musical jobs to support their interests in composition and improvisation.
Mike Bergstraesser writes about his work:
I have been active in LIE and SRE for the past three years and have written and performed about a dozen pieces for these ensembles. The flexibility and enthusiasm of both bands have been very valuable in the realization of my experimental music.

My compositions encompass many different genres including acoustic, electronic, and electronically modified acoustic music. Some examples of my music are:

Tree Music (1976) is a multi-media for Tai-Chi dancer, flute, piano, gong, cello, and photo-electric mixer. This piece integrates several ideas I have been working on including perspective, information theory, aleatoric notation, and gestalting.

The score consists of four different deciduous trees, one for each instrument. On the trunk and limbs of the trees I drew staves and on these staves I wrote the music which was a combination of very specific pitches and durations as well as aleatoric notations. The scores are laid on their sides when performed and the various angles of the staves in the limbs of the trees force the musicians to twist and contort, resembling real tree limbs.

A Tai-Chi dancer performs simultaneously with the music and when his shadow interrupts the photocell mixer, the instruments that are sounding at the time are amplified through the house P.A. system, dramatically projecting the sounds to the audience.

You've Got A Lot Of Nerve (1977) is a multi-media biofeedback composition for solo biofeedback performer, physician, electronic tape, and slides. This has been my most ambitious electronic composition and the only biofeedback piece performed in Nebraska. This piece consists of five movements, each combining different bio-potentials, different electronic textures, and different lighting and visual effects. An electronic program tape paces the performance and provides a central nervous system cleanse between each of the five movements.

So far in 1978 I have co-composed and performed the music for an originally choreographed dance entitled Temporal Matters by Barbara Ball Mason. This dance incorporates acoustic, synthesized, and tape music and was written and performed by LIE members Randy Snyder, Warren Schaffer, Tom Malone, and myself (see photo). This has been the most performed piece in the history of LIE and probably one of its most successful. 𝄇


-BONUS -

I also located a short promotional article about Bergstraesser, Reigle and Surrealestate. This came from Jazz Echo, a publication of the International Jazz Federation, Inc. (Vol 9, No. 39, January, 1979 - p. 9)

New music is alive and well in the heartlands of America. Surrealestate is an improvisatory ensemble working out of Lincoln, Nebraska, that was formed about a year and a half ago by tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Bob Reigle.

During the summer of '77, Reigle and several other musicians got together and played regularly, often six days a week. The result of these intensive sessions can be heard on the group's first album "Bob Reigle with Surrealestate," released on their own Aardwood label (available through New Music Distribution Service, 6 W. 95th Street, New York, N.Y. 10025).

Describing the album, Reigle emphasizes, "All of the music was totally improvised--no parameters or structures were discussed before we started playing." The group's flutist, Mike Bergstraesser, explains that the music is "dictated by experience, with minimum control exercised by reason, exempt from moral and aesthetic preoccuptation."


Both Reigle and electric bassist Mike Mansfield studied at the Berklee College of Music. Reigle, Bergstraesser, flutist Tom Malone and French horn player Warren Shaffer all worked together in the Lincoln Improvisation Ensemble before forming Surrealestate. Other members of the group include trumpeter Preston Klik and percussionist Rich Jones, who has a master's degree in composition.

Surrealestate has performed at the University of Nebraska, on a local radio station and has also presented several concerts in the Lincoln area.

Contact:
Robert F. Reigle
7640 Fairax
Lincoln, NE 68505
USA

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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Randall Snyder on the Lincoln Improvisation Ensemble


Randall Snyder.
Credit: Daily Nebraskan
I came across Randy Snyder in a rather unusual way. Using my subscription to Newspapers.com, I spent much of my spare time in 2016 searching for mentions of phrases like "improvised music", "improvisation ensemble", "ensemble improvisation", "music improvisation", and so forth. This search has, to date, borne much fruit, as longtime readers of this blog will attest.


With the phrase "improvisation ensemble", I struck a vein. In Lincoln, Nebraska, there was for several years a group called the Lincoln Improvisation Ensemble, under the direction of Randall Snyder. A Google search for "Lincoln Improvisation Ensemble" turned up a few curiosities, including an LP on Discogs, the liner notes of which mention the LIE:


From Bob Reigle with Surrealestate
(Aardwoof No. 1)

Other than this release, very little turned up. I decided to contact Randall and see if he could answer some questions I had about the LIE. He was very gracious with his time, and agreed to the publication of our conversation and some score excerpts.





Many of Snyder's scores are available for download here:



Here's a transcript of our conversation in mid-2017:


Can you talk about how the Lincoln Improvisation Ensemble came together?


RS: I started teaching at the University of Nebraska in 1974, and started the group up the very first semester, that fall. That iteration of the band went for about 3 or 4 years, and then it kind of petered out. Then I started it up a second time, [in the] mid ‘80s. And that had a slightly shorter lifespan, maybe about three years. So there were two groups really, of all different personnel - students.


How did you come to be interested in improvisation?


RS: My background was as a composer. I’d say for lack of a better description, kind of in the Elliott Carter tradition. And also a jazz musician. I was interested in trying to find an ensemble that could create chromatic improvisation. When I got my DMA at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), I played in an ensemble that was directed by Les Thimmig. That was one of the models for the group I wanted to start when I got the teaching position here in Nebraska. That group was a very orthodox group; it did not allow for even modal improvising, and I wanted to make this group slightly less strict, in terms of its aesthetic. So while we had chromatic free improv in the center, we went into lots of different directions, ultimately even getting into multimedia and theatrical pieces, with film, dance; it’s kind of hard to summarize. We did a lot of different kinds of things; it depended on the input of the players, where they wanted to take the group. While I was the director of the group, I wasn’t the leader, in terms of making decisions about repertoire. That was left up to the players. So we had a couple good years. I get it’s kind of hard to characterize it, because it was kind of all over the map.

Can you say more about the place of free improvisation in the LIE?
RS: It was the center of it, really. We used some “formats”; some pieces we would just walk out on stage without any preconceived notion of what was going to happen. Then other pieces had “formats”, which might have pitch classes that were selected ahead of time, or some generalized notions of things. Some of these got to be very elaborate, in terms of graphic notation for example. Some of my students were influenced by Stockhausen with his Seven Days in May, and modular improv. I think the 80’s group was more prone to using guidelines. I would say in general that group was a little more “conservative”, if I could use that expression. John Link was a member of that group; he’s a composer in New York, and teached at William Paterson. Several players continued in this vein, one was Robert Reigle, he had a group called Surrealestate. He’s been teaching in Ankara, Turkey, and he signed this petition against President Erdogan, and he was summarily fired. And he had tenure.
TIME, SPACE(d), COLOR - A format by Snyder
One of the purposes of the group was for my composition students to try out ideas. These “formats” a lot of times were like compositional plans. I stressed that a composer, before they start writing a piece, should have an idea of what’s going to happen in the piece; to draw a kind of roadmap, often using pictorial or graphic notation, just to give a sense of the overall disposition of the piece. And these would be brought in separately as these kind of roadmaps. Have you ever heard of the magazine EAR? There was an article called “Playing Free In Nebraska”; one of my students contributed the article. There was a West Coast EAR and an East Coast EAR; this was the West Coast magazine. I imagine that came out in the late 70’s. It was a nice article; it talked about various ensembles in Nebraska that specialized in free playing.

Did the LIE make any recordings?

RS: We recorded every concert on reel-to-reel, but [there were no] recordings that were good for public consumption. I guess we felt that was beside the point of the group, to make documents like that. There are recordings available, I think mostly at the archives at the UN Lincoln, and I retired from there about 7 or 8 years ago, so I don’t know what’s going on there now. I doubt that there’s any interest in this sort of thing.

Did you have a hard time getting the LIE accepted as a part of the U-N curriculum?

RS: The chairman was a composer, a very cool guy. He welcomed the idea, which was amazing in retrospect. That was the first group, and after a year or two, we mostly played gigs. It was a gigging band, basically. Then it became part of the curriculum, as an elective ensemble. The players in the 80’s band, they got 1 credit in lieu of having to play in wind ensemble or something. I think the curriculum was revised later, and I don’t know if it’s still there as an option. It may be, I really don’t know. The school has turned in a direction toward more commercial jazz; right when I was leaving, it was heading in that direction, and I wasn’t that interested in that path.

Do you have any particularly fond memories of the LIE that you’d like to share?


A typical ad for an LIE concert. Several of these can be
found in papers from the period.
RS: I think the first band, it was my first year there, and the players in the band were almost my age, and they were applying using the GI bill. Some of them were Vietnam veterans, some outstanding talented people. That group in particular, we became like a club. It was like a rock band; we would rehearse and go out for drinks afterward. I recall some of the first gigs; we would play anywhere, for free of course. We played one performance at an arts fair, and a couple people complained about the noise. This was an indoor amphitheater, it sat about 2,000 people. They came and told us we had to stop. Some of my students were there, and they complained about this, so they wrote letters to the editor, and it became sort of a cause celebre for a while, it was funny. So there was a debate in these letters, about “What is art?” and all this kind of stuff. (laughs)

What paper were those letters to the editor in?

RS: Well there were two papers back then, there’s only one now. Either the Lincoln Journal, or the Lincoln Star. And now there’s just the one paper, called the Lincoln Journal Star. I recall there was a columnist who interviewed me about this.

These were students who were taking my History of Jazz class, they weren’t music majors; it’s not like our own people were sending in these letters. They just came to hear the band, and we were told within three minutes that we had to stop playing. It was astonishing, the anger that we aroused, which I suppose is one of the traditional roles of music. We weren’t that loud! We started out as primarily an acoustic band, but we used analog synthesizers. Near the end, we were keeping up with the changes in the technology.

One of my students was a medical student, and he created a biofeedback piece. And I was the subject: I was wired up, I wandered out on stage looking like Frankenstein. The galvanic skin response, I remember: when I started sweating, that would cause a signal to change. [Changes in] the heartbeat was monitored, and that would cause something in the electronics to reflect that. He said that, because there was some danger of a loop effect happening, that there had to be a doctor there, in case I fell upon some hard times! So one of his teachers was there, just to make sure that things didn’t get out of hand.

Did the LIE begin as a class, or was it an extracurricular group?

RS: We rehearsed at the school, but it wasn’t a class. I wanted to get to know the students better; we were out drinking one night, and over a beer we thought it would be fun to go in this direction. Some of the players envied jazz musicians. They couldn’t play jazz; at least, they couldn’t play bebop. They wondered if there was another way that they could experience playing improvised music, but not under even the strictures of avant-garde jazz of the ‘60s. So I’d say that, with one or two exceptions (we had about 10 people as a core group), most of them did not have jazz chops. So this was kind of an alternative way for them to experience playing non-written music.

Program notes from a concert on 22 April, 1986

When did the LIE begin to "peter out"?

RS: It was about the end of the decade, I’d say. We started in ‘74, we kind of reached a peak in ‘76, in terms of frequency of performances, and the excitement of the group. And then players left; I recruited some new players, but it kind of died a natural death, by the end of the 70’s. ‘79 if you want to put a year on it. Then it started up again: I had a new crop of people, and they had heard about [the earlier group], and wondered if we could reconstitute it. I started by using some of the more successful written formats as starting points. In that group, I think I was really more the “leader” than I was in the first group: I was older, they hadn’t had quite the richness of experience that the players of the first group had.


I’d say we had maybe 2, 3 good years. It didn’t last quite as long as the first group. And then there was talk of starting it up again, but I was in a different direction in the 90’s musically, so I wasn’t personally quite as interested as I had been in the past. 𝄇

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Toronto New Music Ensemble, and New Music by Doug Pringle

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 discogs.com

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)

google1

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
By DOUG PRINGLE

• 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)

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Further Reading:

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

https://cleanfeed-records.com/all-about-jazz-review-by-stuart-broomer-2/

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

http://www.new-orleans-delight.dk/Cliff%20Bastien%20Recordings.html

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 newspapers.com 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.

https://californiarevealed.org/islandora/object/cavpp%3A22016

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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Herbie Nichols' "The Jazz Life" - Part 2

Part Two (articles 4-7)

THE JAZZ LIFE
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.

THE JAZZ LIFE
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.

THE JAZZ LIFE
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.

THE JAZZ LIFE
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. 𝄇