The Modern Standard: What Is It?

Inspired by Spring’s indecisiveness a couple weeks ago, I decided not to brave the wind and rain this particular day, but to do some season-inspired cleaning instead. Thumbing through my music library, I settled on some classic Blue Note repertoire to help me through my chores: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Three Blind Mice, to be specific.  As the gorgeous and fittingly titled Freddie Hubbard waltz “Up Jumped Spring” played, it got me to thinking about the layers of musical camaraderie jazz music has always had.  Not just the cooperative nature of performing the music, but also in terms of what music was performed.  The vast landscape of jazz repertoire which includes Blues, Tin Pan Alley songs, show tunes, and pop songs, is most enriched by original compositions from jazz musicians themselves, which through the social contexts of the music, became standards in their own right.  Songs from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter had become modern jazz standards of their times because of their popularity and exposure within the jazz community.  I then started focusing on today, and my experiences at jazz performances.  Yes, the headliner is playing his or her original work, and yes the band, on some occasions, may feature a tune or two from a bandmate, but what were the odds that they would play a tune by a musical peer beyond their own band?  Slim to none, as far as I could tell.  Which got me to thinking: What is the modern jazz standard?

I began looking through the several Real Books laying around the house.  I couldn’t seem to find a song that was written in the last twenty years or so included.  With the plethora of prolific writers in jazz over this span of time, I found it odd.  What does this mean?  I started asking musicians for their take on why songs aren’t becoming popularized within the genre, and how this could affect their mark in history, if at all.

“People are so ensconced with doing their own thing, and don’t realize that it helps the music when we promote each other’s songs.  It helps the mentality,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.  “For a long time, people have regarded standards as the test of one’s mettle and that tradition has stood the test of time for years and years and it was also something that was meant to rope in somebody who hadn’t heard you before, so that was the paradigm of which all modern jazz players were based off of, before you get into your own thing.”

Doing one’s own thing has never been easier.  The collapse of crucial major jazz labels, and a shift in the art of record producing has birthed a DIY era of record making which, while incredibly liberating, also has its share of considerable consequences.  “What’s interesting about the industry in any musical [genre] is that years ago — and I mean in our time — it was special to make a record,” says Pelt, who has just released his ninth album, Soul; a gorgeous blues and ballads project.  “Nowadays, I could put together a record right now on my Mac Book in an hour.  I don’t need a label to do anything for me, I just put it together, get my Logic going, and put it right up on my website and I will have a bona fide record.  So, the change in the industry and the mentality is such that it’s not a special thing anymore, and that’s, in essence, what makes it very competitive, number one.  You would think it’s less competitive now, but it’s actually more competitive because nobody’s shit is special anymore.  It’s all very ego-driven, and I think that a lot of young composers are always in a rush to push their agenda, and everyone is guilty of it at some point.  I think that with me, I made it a conscious decision, after doing records of my own material, to really cast light on some of my comtemporaries’ songs.”  Pelt, who has one of the few long-established quintets in the business, has recorded the music of Anthony Wonsey, Myron Waldon and Eric Reed. “If there was something I was drawn to in a song, I would record it and I think that it benefits the community at large.  I think people are afraid to do it because they feel like it will take the spotlight away from their compositions, which is a valid feeling if you’re insecure like that, but realistically, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of spotlight on the [jazz] industry in general [laughs].”

Pianist Orrin Evans, who is bringing a sense of community back to the jazz scene with his big band, Captain Black, is one of the few bandleaders today proactively featuring original music of not only his peers, but his proteges alike. “There’s such a need now for branding,” says Evans, “that even if you sit down with the best publicist in the business now, the word that’s going to come up is ‘branding’.  If you sit down with a manager, everyone is talking about branding, and that whole package becomes so self-serving.  A lot of people, when they get that moment, it’s like, ‘I gotta play my music, and do my stuff.’  But I honestly believe that I can still be who I am by how I interpret other people’s music.  It doesn’t need to be my music.  Who I am isn’t all about my songs or how I play my music, but also how I interpret music.”

Evans, who paid tribute to his mentor, saxophonist Bobby Watson, on his 2010 release Faith In Action, believes firmly in honoring his influences while they are still here; a philosophy which jazz has struggled to reckon with for the last several decades.  The genre seems to be contented (for better or worse) between two musical polars: an homage-obsessed one, and the other which seems, at times, completely musically isolated.

Guitarist Mike Moreno illuminates another set of possibilities of why artists’ tunes aren’t making the rounds as they did years ago.  “Today, there are far less jazz musicians being asked to record albums within a constricted period of time by record companies. Years ago, more musicians had record contracts that required them to record more often, demanding more material. So the artists might have been looking for more material if they didn’t have enough tunes written themselves for their next date. And now, for some of us, we write far more tunes than we have a chance to record. So we always end up playing what we wrote and don’t really have time on the date or gig to play so many of our peers’ original music. But another big reason, I think, is that jazz tunes have become more labor intensive to learn. Most of the music written now by musicians of my generation requires some pretty heavy rehearsing.  And there just isn’t enough time most rehearsals to rehearse your own music, and then another person’s hard music too. It’s better to just go with a standard that everyone knows to break the monotony of reading on every song during a gig or record date. Usually after about eight original tunes the band members start to hint at, ‘Yeah, and we can just throw in some standard tunes in between these.’  There is far more reading going on, on gigs now. And since most gigs today are mostly one nighters as opposed to playing for weeks at a time at the same venue, as back in 40’s 50’s and 60’s, with less sets, the opportunity is just not there to play a wider range of repertoire on gigs. But regardless, an original tune back in the day was no more than 32 bars, with maybe an intro, then the head, solo on the melody form, head out. Now a four or five page tune is no surprise. And the road maps through the sections can be really tricky. There is only so much of that, you can put in front of the band each gig.”

Moreno recently released his stunning fourth album, Another Way (World Culture Music), which features all original compositions, but is known for his uncanny ability to interpret standards, and has released two standards albums on the Criss Cross label.  “Before the Real Books came out there was a good grace period that determined what should be in there. Classic records were already classic.  The Real Book didn’t make Monk’s music popular, for example. Who would decide what should go in the newer real books if the records haven’t had a chance to become something yet? It would be nice if there was something like it, but who would buy it? I’m not sure publishers are really interested in that. After all, who buys Real Books anyway? Students who don’t really have the ear yet to learn the tunes from recordings and also need a guide of what to learn from the history of the music, or local musicians that just play background gigs with standards that they haven’t committed to memory.  That market of consumer usually buys the first editions Real Books to learn and play the “standard standard” material at their gigs.  The more advanced musicians usually have already studied that material, and then when they do want to play more modern stuff just transcribe it themselves and write out the charts rather than spending the money on a entire book to get a few tunes out of it.  I don’t think Real Books with newer music would make very much money for publishing companies, especially with current access to artist websites, in which the artists have taken their music into their own hands.  Fans or musicians who really want a newer artist’s original sheet music can just go to that person’s website and purchase the tunes they want now, or write the artist personally saying, ‘Hey, I really love this one tune, or this record, can you send me the lead sheets?’ I get those emails all the time. But, you can’t do that to Cole Porter, Miles, Monk, or even someone still current like Wayne Shorter or Herbie.  But a lot of times my favorite tunes were not in Real Books. I always transcribed myself. It might be more profitable for publishers to just put out individual songbooks by current artists. Few already exist. But, I don’t see any publishing companies really wanting to jump at this anytime soon, maybe down the line sometime. Then it might have an effect on the scene overall, making the records of today that will end up as classics documented as such. I think it is still too early.”

It just may be.  Yet, to Moreno’s point about the way the music of Monk, for example, was already popularized pre-Real Book era, I could not help but think about why and how much of the reason had to do with community and the role musicians play in getting their peers’ music out into the world.

“If you think about it, the Real Book hasn’t changed since probably 1993,” says Evans. “I haven’t bought one in a long time, but…that’s twenty years.  In that amount of time, we’ve had some monumental records, despite what people want to think or say.  We’ve got Crazy People Music from Branford [Marsalis], we’ve got Jason Moran’s records, Robert Glasper’s records, Kenny Kirkland’s records, which came out all within that time span.  Christian McBride’s first two records, during the time when the young lions — Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton — all of them had killing records, and you don’t see hardly any of those tunes in any of the Real/Fake books.  We have to keep playing the music.  Because if you stop playing it, for the next kids who come along, there’s no book.  I mean, granted, the reality is if we’re going to deal with it musically, all the old heads would say they should be learning it by ear anyway, but I’m talking about the business of it.  We’re not represented. Two decades of music is not represented in that book.”

“There isn’t really a linear sense of the scene in terms of progression, and in terms of community,” says saxophonist John Ellis, whose southern tinged Double-Wide quintet will be a part of the Newport Jazz Festival line-up this year.  People don’t necessarily  expectantly wait for so and so’s record, like they did for Miles.  We’re not connected to that era.  The people within the scene are disconnected from each other.  And I think all of that fracturing puts people in a whole different place.  I mean, that being said, I think Terence [Blanchard] has done a great job, very similar to Blakey, of showcasing his band members’ music.  I think there are isolated instances most certainly of that: of people building community within smaller groups.  When it comes to standards, for the most part, we’re talking about the Great American Songbook.  The ideal that there was a general, cultural knowledge of this music that jazz musicians interpreted, basically everybody knew those songs.”

“I mean, when I moved here there weren’t too many incubation bands in the first place that you could learn from,” adds Pelt, sighting the importance of musicians having experience not just playing music outside of their own, but also stretching out in bands beyond their own.  “Betty Carter was still alive but was getting ill, you still had Elvin Jones, we still have Roy Haynes, so there were a handful.  But there weren’t that many bands of that calibar to where you could get in and learn something.  So even now, fast forward almost fifteen years later, it’s like well now who is there really to play with?  And it forces today’s musicians to have to come up wtih their own situations because who else are they going to play with that they’re really going to learn from?”

“With the collapse of the major record label options for jazz for most people, it has made it such that everything is so diffused and spread out and then you juxtapose that with this incredible change of everything becoming institutionalized,” says Ellis who pointed out to me through an illustration about the cultural climate of jazz when the music was in Harlem, that the audience used to play such an important role in keeping the music contemporary and popular.  This begs the question: Who is the modern musician playing for?

“I think there is definitely something about Facebook and Twitter that makes people narcissistic, or encourages there inner narcissism, like everything I’m saying and doing is so important,” says Ellis. “Social networking…there is something sort of strangely anti-social about it, but on the other hand there is real potential to organize; it’s all about how we use it, I guess.  I do think there is some tension between this crazy connectivity and access to so much information and then how kind of isolating it all is.”

I guess there’s no easy or right answer or solution to the dilemma, and in fact the subject sheds more light on just how many achilles heels our musical community is plagued from. However, I do think we could benefit from more documenting and collective publishing of modern jazz compositions.  Collectivity has always made the music what it is.  The music being more than just the sum of its parts, as NPR producer Becca Pulliam said to me in a recent interview.  I just hope that by the time my son is in college, he’s learning the music of Jason Moran alongside the music of Art Blakey.  We can’t keep using the word “modern” to describe jazz, if we’re really referring to 1965.  That being said, I think at some point, it may be worthwhile to publish an updated book of modern compositions and start creating a rightful place for our generation in the spectrum of contributions.  There’s too much at stake to be overlooked in the end.

I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Last Holiday’

“One of the things that was evident to me way back when I’d gotten into John Coltrane’s music was that you had to keep reaching.  I think when you stop reaching, you die.”  Gil Scott-Heron’s words are powerful when you think about the impact of the poet, author, musician and activist, (who would have been 63 years old this month), which produces a list as extensive in range as the profound gifts he shared with the world.  His social anthems “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, “The Bottle” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” not only elucidated the plights and resilience of Black Americans, but were progenitorial inspiration for hip-hop’s modern messengers like Public Enemy, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and fellow Chicago native, Common.  That his impact is perhaps even greater than we may have understood during his lifetime is what is most resounding in his posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday (Grove Press).  The book’s title refers to Scott-Heron’s experiences as the opening act of Stevie Wonder’s 1980 tour which primarily served as a vehicle to create awareness and garner support of a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King.  The first and only federal holiday honoring an African American, Scott-Heron gives a touching and vulnerable account of the experience, as well a reminder of the integrality of Wonder’s work. “Somehow it seems that Stevie’s efforts as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten,” he says.  “But it is something that we should all remember.”

Scott-Heron devotes much of the text to his 20s and the women who greatly impelled him.  Raised by his fiercely confident grandmother in the Jim Crow South, Scott-Heron was one of three Black students to integrate his junior high school, and broke similar barriers in high school when he and his mother moved from Jackson, Tennessee to New York in the mid 60s.  His views of America undoubtedly shaped by these experiences, they also gave young Scott-Heron tremendous insight to what was possible, evidenced by his becoming a critically acclaimed novelist and recording artist before his college graduation.

Throughout the book, he seems to purposely clarify that his first and greatest love is writing.  The words on each page make a perfect argument for his passion as a mix of prose, poems, alliterations and vibrant analogies make for total assimilation.  His words glide right off the page as he describes highly inspiring accounts of time spent at Lincoln University, turning down his first book publishing offer, and his ingenious method of gaining a writing fellowship at John Hopkins.  We see his earliest signs of activism his freshman year at Lincoln, when a bandmate of his future longtime collaborator, Brian Jackson, died an avoidable death when the ill-equipped and poorly run campus medical facility failed to aid the student who was suffering from an asthma attack.  Scott-Heron led a school standoff which subsequently shut the school down until a list of personally crafted administrative requests had been met.

Fans of Scott-Heron’s music will appreciate details shared about his relationship with Jackson, whom he credits throughout the book, describing him as both friend, and essential and talented partner.  Recalling the studio session to record “John Coltrane and Lady Day” he writes, “All I’d had for that song at first was a bass line and a chord thing with it.  I never would have been able to really hook up that progression properly if Brian wasn’t there…I didn’t know anything about suspended fourths and all that.”

Although appropriately credited for his influence on hip-hop,  Scott-Heron seems most purely connected to jazz.  “I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music.”  His mentions of Miles Davis are noteworthy, and there is a definite sense of adoration for him as a cultural figure.  His words are boyishly charming as he tells stories about first hearing a Fender rhodes on Miles in the Sky, or how meeting Michael Jackson some years before he would make a surprise appearance on the MLK tour was “not as electric” as meeting the trumpeter icon. Scott-Heron also must have admired Davis’ band.  Asked who he wanted to work with on what would become the seminal Pieces of a Man, by veteran producer Bob Thiele, Scott-Heron’s wish list of Ron Carter, (along with Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie) was materialized.

There are a few frustrating points in the book in terms of resolution.  Readers may be left wondering what happened to his relationship with Brian Jackson, or why he grazes over the last 20 some-odd years of his life, making little to no mention about his personal, yet public struggles.  It’s hard to tell if this is a matter of editing, or Scott-Heron exercising his right to let the reader in on as much as he is willing to divulge.  Either way, the areas that he chooses to delve deep are well worth the read, and diminish any gaping.  Though Gil Scott-Heron died last May, he will be remembered as one who never stopped reaching, and through this memoir, for the man who “didn’t want to get stuck doing just one thing”, that reach may become longer than ever. ♦

A Message In Our Music Part 1: Jason Moran

Courtesy of Jason Moran

After digesting the phenomenon which is Jason Moran, his eminence in music is even more mind-blowing once you consider the fact that he is just 37 years old.  In addition to receiving just about every award, acknowledgement and accolade within the jazz spectrum, he is also recipient of the 2010 MacArthur fellowship, and has just recently filled the imperial shoes of the late Dr. Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz.  Leading one of the most relevant and longstanding piano trios of our time, Moran has also performed and recorded with contemporary and legendary artists like Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Charles Lloyd.  He’s a special guest on drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new release, Sound Travels; a stellar album with an array of artistic powerhouses like Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Lionel Loueke, and fellow Manhattan School alum, Ambrose Akinmusire.  (Moran also produced Akinmusire’s critically-acclaimed Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening.)

His impressive resume aside, Moran’s influence as a pianist and composer is tremendous.  The Houston native’s love for the visual arts has led to endeavors well beyond the mere “unexpected”.  It was a no-brainer for me to implore Mr. Moran’s participation for this project; a special opportunity to explore the mind of the man who is, as Rolling Stone magazine puts it, “shaping up to be the most provocative thinker in current jazz.”

Check it out, as Moran and I share some of our thoughts based around three pivotal social albums.

Charles Mingus Ah Um

“Mingus is…I think he’s related to me [laughs],” says Moran when asked about his decision to pick this album as part of our discussion.  “Only because I studied with Jaki Byard.  That’s how I think of my family.  Jaki Byard makes a lot of other people my relatives because I was really under him.  So, considering that Jaki was playing with Mingus was when they were playing much of this political music, I always think about what Mingus represented as sort of a much more hard-edged Duke Ellington, you know?”

An artist who has brilliantly utilized multi-media platforms to express himself as a musician, it’s no surprise that Moran would rely on more than the music to impact his students when teaching a Master class at Manhattan School.  “I showed 45 minutes of [an episode of the PBS series] Eyes on the Prize.  It was the episode when they discuss the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and Governor Faubus and…how crazy he was.  So I showed them the film for about 45 minutes, then at a certain point I just turned on a live version of “Fables of Faubus”.  It was around 12 minutes long…and then I watched the students react.  Because [for] most of them, “Fables Of Faubus” is just words or something that maybe Mingus made up.   There was a student from Finland in the class, and he said after watching it and listening to Mingus’ song, ‘Well, now it makes a lot more sense.  Because being in Finland, my friends and I used to always wonder where that energy came from.’  I said, ‘Yeah, exactly.’  This is an entire segment of the population whose life is dealing with stuff like this.  And we’re just watching an edited excerpt of people’s everyday lives.  You can’t imagine what that does to a population mentally and physically.  And we’re still trying to cope with all of that…even now.  So it broke down a lot of people’s understanding of society and the affects it has on music.  That everything is not just about a chord, or a melody or the greatest groove…it wasn’t about that.  It was therapy.  People were using the music as therapy.”

“You know, sometimes I go to these museums all around the world and they have portraits from the 1600s and 1700s, during the Victorian era [etc.].  Bunches of portraits…so we kind of get accustomed to seeing portraits of people other than us.  And in music, it doesn’t exist in the same way, but it’s part of the reason [my wife] Alicia and I are embarking on writing a series of portraits for artists we know, most of whom are African Americans, because for me, as a composer, I mean, I’ve written a song for my parents, and my family in Texas, but wow, maybe I should continue trying to explore that even further because what if you started to document your community?  Photographers document their community, writers document their community, or you’re doing it right now through an interview.  And musicians, what do we document?  How do we document our lives and the people who are around us?  That’s how you kind of put a date stamp on where the population is.  You take that moment to snapshot everything that’s around.  So Mingus does that.  He snapshots how crazy America is in the 1950s and 60s.   People won’t know that history so frequently, but here we are still talking about it.”

John Coltrane Live at Birdland

Personally, I will never forget the first time I heard John Coltrane’s “Alabama”.  It was haunting and spiritual on impact, way before I would learn of the gruesome events from which the song is inspired.  Spike Lee transports us to the height of tension in the Civil Rights movement in Malcolm X, when the song is a backdrop to footage of the brutal Jim Crow South, where four black girls Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Written and performed by Coltrane just weeks after the tragedy, I have often wondered about how he dealt with something so devastating, so I was very excited when Moran suggested we talk about this album.

“I was at an event at Princeton and there was a panel discussion of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members,” says Moran.  “They were talking about how crazy it was to be down there in the South. Some of them were from up north and someone asked if there was a difference between how racism feels up north, versus how it feels down south.  The panelist said the first day he got down south he was driving from the airport, and a cop pulled him over and told him, ‘I know why you’re down here, you need to get out of here.  You’re down here to make trouble.’  And that cop is not only the cop, he’s the sheriff, he’s the mayor, he has the biggest businesses in town.  It was that massive and overwhelming sense of danger.  Also, Nasheet [Waits] gave me some interviews of Kenny Clarke, and he’s talking about being down south with Louis Armstrong. When he got fired by Armstrong’s manager, they just kind of left him down in Georgia with his drums.  A black cab driver was like, ‘What are you doing down here, you better get in this car’ and he took him someplace where Kenny was able to find his way back north.  I mean, you can’t actually imagine this kind of trauma that people were feeling personally, and as a community.  Then put it in the context of hearing about this bombing when Trane plays that song up North in New York…it’s like a hymn or a low moan.  It’s impacting, it’s mourning, it’s most dark, you know?  This is something real.  It’s something prominent and it sounds like this.  And it’s a collective moan of African America at that point.”

Nina Simone Live in Concert

Nina Simone is someone I was late to discover.  Growing up, I was enthralled with the “singer’s singers” of jazz, and had not really given much thought to the magnitude of Nina Simone until I had, as my elders would say, “done some livin”.  Now that I have done just that, and more specifically, become a mother of a son who will become a Black man in America, the significance of Nina Simone in my life has increased exponentially.  Moran suggested we talk about this album in particular because of “Young, Gifted and Black”, which for me,  feels more like the Black National Anthem than the actual one.  It is the anthem which spoke to the time, and I think this makes it personal to me.

More from Moran…

“Sometimes I think the stylist — and there are lots of stylists within this canon — they change the context of the songs that they’re playing.  So Art Tatum adds all this dazzle and this sparkle and just feels like…I don’t know, like these really intricate chains from West Africa, you know?  Like these amulets of gold that kings and queens would wear, and now he’s paying a song like “When Sonny Gets Blue”, and he’s adding all of this to it, which is not there when the composer wrote it.  Same with someone like Earl Hines, where he’s adding these chords.  So Nina is the same way.  She sings these songs, and she’s totally changing the context.  Certain songs never sounded so real and pertinent to African Americans until they came out of Nina Simone’s mouth.  You feel like it’s talking about your experience, so I think in a way, those kinds of artists also curate the kinds of songs that they think may have an abstract relationship to something political, but then she also does this boldly by writing these other songs.  So here are these songs that honor these great people like Lorraine Hansberry with “Young, Gifted and Black”.  It’s a statement that marks the time in which it was written and Black Pride is kind of at its peak in the movement.  So even the use of the word “Black” puts a date stamp on where we are. I remember my grandmother being in quoted in an article where she says she was colored, negro, black, and African American, all in one lifespan.  So it date stamps it, which I think is just so important for the form.  That you can look at the lexicon of African American songs that way.  And also Nina as a pianist and how she accompanies herself, the kinds of chords that she uses, and how those sounds mix with the timbre of her voice…she was just unique all the way around.”♦

Watch a clip of IN MY MIND, the feature length documentary of Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon’s take on Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall recording. 

Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing On Jazz

An Open Letter, A Thank You Note, and Pulling the Card On Jazz Journalism and Gender Bias

I’ve never really been one to write rebuttals, or counter-statements to articles that have peaked my interests or plucked at my sensitivities. However, when I read music journalist Nate Chinen’s recent piece on the lack of women writing critically about jazz, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Not to rebut, as he’s actually a strong proponent for women journalists, and a thoughtful querier of why there is such inadequacy in the field, but to offer my perspective in hopes of shedding some light on the matter. Characteristically, most of the responses to Chinen’s article, thus far have been from men, underscoring his point. The male response has been positive and in line with Chinen, agreeing that the lack of women jazz critics is not only fundamentally disturbing, but a disservice to the documentations and observations of jazz as a whole. I concur. I don’t suppose that I can diagnose the entire problem; it’s an intensely layered and webbed subject. But as a woman, a writer, and a jazz obsessor, I can certainly put my hand on a few maladies.

I got my first taste of working in the music business when I was about nineteen years old, and I knew immediately that I would never do anything else. I’ve always loved jazz, and I’ve always loved to write. Separately, these loves are relatively harmless, but put them together and I am suddenly playing a man’s sport. In fact, throughout my career, before writing became my main focus, once it became obvious to my colleagues and associates that, accompanied by my love for jazz, was a deep understanding of jazz, I went from being a novelty to a threat. Not only do I know “All the Things You Are”, but I can groove to Mehldau playing it in an odd time signature, and “Ooh and Aah” in all the right places over those ridiculous chord progressions in the vamp. Being Black added a complexity. Now they were utterly confused. How dare I know anything about my heritage? Nothing feels creepier than a huddle of White guys having musical orgasms over Mark Turner, and turning their noses up at me and my attempt to casually join the conversation. There is an odd love/hate dynamic when it comes to Black culture, and Black people. Somehow, in the eyes of some, they are different. The assumption? I’m not cultured enough to appreciate my own damn culture. But I digress, a little.

Unlike any other genre, jazz is described for better or worse, as an intellectual art form. And just like there are issues with accepting Black culture and Black people as synonymous, I think there are still stigmas that make it difficult for people to view women as critical thinkers in such a male-dominated art form. Much like the sports industry, where jokingly or not, the all too often assumed capacity of a woman’s understanding is that, “the green team is beating the yellow team,” and that “#42 sure knows how to fill out a pair of shorts”, I think the jazz police have summoned women to the microphone and the audience. Non-vocalist women jazz musicians have it hard enough, let alone someone who actually wants to critique the music.

But I find it that more women are writing about jazz in other contexts. Women like Michelle Mercer and Farah Jasmine Griffin are both compelling authors, who write about jazz. Analytical, probing, and thought-provoking? Yes. However, critical? Not as much. The “bully pulpit” that Chinen passionately encourages women to stand behind is likely less appealing to women. It is for me. I think the reason many musicians don’t like jazz critics is not because they may have received a less than glowing review from one, but because of the presumptuous, unwarrantedly authoritative opinions, which I find are often riddled with reflections of their own personal insecurities. This is not to lump all critics in a jerk pile. There are no anomalies in life, and certainly none in this conversation. Like Chinen, and John Murph, and some others, there are journalists who are informed, respectful, and tactful.  Yet, we have not gotten away from the historically hyper-judgmental jazz critic model. This may be another reason women are slim pickings in this profession. To begin, motivationally, I don’t think many women are coming from this seemingly bitter standpoint. I think women are quicker to ponder than they are to pummel, and unfortunately jazz critics have created that sort of bad rap which women may find to be a bit of a turnoff.

I find myself in the middle of these two styles.  I’m not a critic by any means, but I am pretty fearless when it comes to writing about uncomfortable yet imperative subjects within jazz, which is motivated by my own experiences coming up in this industry, and the glaring issues within it that get talked about behind the scenes but rarely on a public platform.  Writing about these topics is healing, for one.  But beyond my own edifying gratification, the real benefit is when folks are willing to have an honest dialogue, which can be tough.  But that’s when there is growth.  If the music has to grow, then surely we have to.  Jazz journalists cannot stay in a bubble.  And just like the modern jazz musicians of today can’t (and should not be expected to) compete with their deceased predecessors, some journalists have to move on from the fact that they may have interviewed some of them.  It doesn’t give their work any more credence, especially when they think those fortunate experiences equal a right to be imperious and egotistical.

In his article, Chinen sites trumpeter Nicholas Payton as one of the notable musicians who hires and collaborates with a significant number of women (for his big band) without patronizingly doing so.  Chinen follows up this point with the question, “Have we seen a well-considered review of Payton recently from a female jazz critic?”

Ironically, I’d say, “Yeah, from me!”  Well, it’s not a review per se, but it’s a gutsy ass piece, nonetheless.  And at the end of the day, that’s what Chinen is really calling for…(right Nate?)  Although critics, by very nature of the definition, don’t exactly evoke warm and fuzzy thoughts, they don’t have to make us cringe. Criticism, when done right, should actually inspire, inform and intrigue.  It doesn’t have to be wrapped in a big, pink bow…the idea is not to love everything, of course.  But taking the time to seek out the interesting aspects to write about is what separates a critic from a jerk.  (For example, don’t slam someone because you don’t know what else to do!  Trust me, I’ve seen it).  Simply put, let’s do an overhaul of what it means to be a critic by finding inspiration in the really good ones, and I’ll bet we’ll see more women.  And that would be great.

Thanks, Mr. Chinen, for inspiring me to think about this subject a little harder.

This is a blog post, and not a study.  I kindly ask that you not assume that I am making any sweeping judgments about any one group (women, men, critics, Black folks, White folks, etc.)  I am not.  I welcome your feedback.

John Coltrane @ 85: A Jazzy Girl’s Retrospective

There isn’t a person outside of my immediate family that has had more of an indelible influence on my life than John William Coltrane.  Sounds weird, right?  But it’s true.  I never knew him personally…but I’ve known him spiritually since I’ve been alive.  You see, my first memorable musical encounter (at about 18 months old) was hearing John Coltrane.  In fact, my earliest memory at all is hearing John Coltrane.  I remember the feeling I had when I first heard his music.  My mother would play two Trane records the most: Ballads and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.  In fact, I am named “Angelika” after the tune of the same name (different spelling) on the latter mentioned record.  I thought that she was doing something magical when those albums came on.  As soon as the needle hit the record, and the sound would travel through our Bronx apartment, I was transported to another world.  Sometimes the music would move me to tears.  My family would come over, and they’d think I was sitting off to myself crying because I couldn’t have something I wanted, or because it was time to go to bed and I was objecting, when what it really was, was taking in how beautiful Trane played “It’s Easy to Remember”.  I was a pretty different kind of toddler, to say the least, and I still marvel at how 2 minutes and 45 seconds can bring that much beauty into the world.  But it didn’t end there…the music of John Coltrane would follow me throughout my life, and see me through every good and bad thing.

I guess some would call it an obsession.  Maybe.  But if I had to name it (which I’d rather not do) I would be more inclined to label it as a connection.  I think in some way, we are all connected to something bigger than us…and that is not to say that John Coltrane, the man, was larger than life.  I read that a man once compared him to God, and it really upset and disturbed Coltrane.  He did not think of himself as above any man.  But his art…that is what is larger than life.  And that is what I fell in love with, and remain in love with.

When I was seventeen, I bought two albums: Ballads, and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind.  I had grown up hearing both of these, but now I was a senior in high school, and I could buy my own music.  This was a big deal to me!  Somehow, hearing Ballads on my own…it was a rediscovery of sorts.  I felt more alone…more of myself…maybe I was just getting older.  A huge Stevie Wonder fan, I remember laying out on my living room floor, listening to “Send One Your Love” from The Secret Life of Plants album, and flipping out when I heard the Coltrane influence in the song, known sometimes as “Trane Changes”.  At around 19 years old, I was into Giant Steps BIG TIME, and I was obsessed with the changes, the legends upon legends of stories about how he came up with them, how long he worked at developing them, and all of the inflated but majestic stories about the recording, in between.  At about 20 years old, I had this incredible full-circle moment.

I was working as a P.A. at the Essence awards, and Stevie Wonder was one of the artists slated to perform.  I was determined to see his rehearsal, and did!  So he’s warming up, right?  All of a sudden, he segues into “Giant Steps”!  I lost my head!  Here was my favorite musician, playing the music of my favorite, FAVORITE musician…without an audience…stripped of any fanfare, or glamor.  And I was there to witness it.  Incredible.

From my late teens, and throughout my early-to-mid twenties, I listened to Coltrane religiously.  New Prestige box set coming out?  It’s mine.  New book coming out?  I’m all over it (until I get pissed at the author for saying some dumb shit.  Thanks, Lewis Porter, for getting it right, though).  I would listen to My Favorite Things on the train on the way to and from school ev-er-y day.  I loved to listen to Mr. Day on the train also…the energy and pulse of that song used to make me feel invincible.  I listened to and absorbed this music like my life depended on it…and I suppose in a way it did.  It was my spiritual food. But then in 2004, I had a tremendous opportunity to give thanks for all that I had received.

Me, psyched! (2004)

I don’t remember exactly how I found out, but somehow I learned that Coltrane’s last home in the Dix Hills section of Long Island, NY, was in danger of facing demolition.  There was a contact name and number to call and an email address for the public, if they wanted to get involved and help.  I was working at a recording studio in Manhattan, and I remember sending that email at the first chance. This was the home that Coltrane and his family lived in from 1964, where he conceptualized A Love Supreme.  This was a looming travesty that needed immediate attention.  I corresponded via email, and then by phone with a gentleman named Steve Fulgoni, who was heading up the grass roots efforts to contact the town officials and make the case for the home to be deemed a historical landmark.  Letters and support poured in, and I was overwhelmed to be getting involved.  This was a big deal. I wrote my humble little letter, and thought that my contribution would end there.  But when I was asked to read the letter in front of the Huntington Historical Preservation Commission… WHAT???  Well, you know I did.  There was a wonderful showing of support, including that from Ravi Coltrane, and Matt Garrison (bassist Jimmy Garrison’s son).  I got to meet Mr. Fulgoni, and his lovely wife, and most importantly witness when the board voted for the home to be saved and deemed a historical landmark.

You see, it’s kind of funny sometimes.  I think the beauty of art is that it is not to be simply received, it’s to be shared.  And that sharing can come by way of a lot of opportunities.  I’m so grateful that even in some small way, I helped make a difference in the honor of someone who made all of the difference for me.

I think ultimately the biggest impact that Coltrane has had on me is how to be a dedicated person.  When you listen to Trane, whether it is one song, or an entire anthology, you hear his unfailing dedication.  And that is something that has come to me more and more as I get older.  Coltrane’s life was very short, unfortunately, and because of that, it’s really easy to see how unbelievable he was.  I think about what he was accomplishing at the age I am right now…he was only a few years from his death at my age.  Yet, he was changing the world.  If that’s not inspiration…

It’s beyond the ridiculously killingness (yep, that’s a word) of his talent and gifts.  I think his sense of commitment is ultimately what makes Coltrane so incredible.  On this day, John Coltrane’s 85th birthday, I’m really thankful.  And still awe-inspired, like the little toddler sitting off in the corner.

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This song is dedicated to the memory of Troy Davis.

Nellie & Thelonious — A Love Supreme

In the recent and definitive biography of Thelonious Monk, author Robin D.G. Kelley describes the jazz icon’s’ relationship to his wife Nellie as true love personified; something that is seemingly rare between Black folks, if you let jazz “historians” tell it.  Black love, and Black women in particular, have been calculatingly omitted from the history of jazz as lovers, wives, caregivers, and backbones of the art form.  Mrs. Monk is no exception…that is until now.  In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley seems to purposely set out to straighten the record.  “There would be no Thelonious Monk without Nellie,” he plainly stated in our recent conversation.  “That is the most important fact I took away from the decade and a half I spent working on Monk’s biography.” 

In Thelonious Monk, Kelley debunks, and clarifies several myths that have been perpetuated about Monk, his music, his mental condition, and his capabilities as a musician.  But perhaps most intriguing is the amount of care and depth he takes in re-introducing Nellie Monk to the history of jazz.  Further, describing Thelonious as a “committed father and family man”, Kelley expounds upon the nature of their relationship which included a romance of over forty years, marriage, children, family and one of the most unique bonds in jazz.

I could not have been happier and more thankful for Kelley’s emendation.  While the media and implausible journalism have gone above and beyond to place Mrs. Monk in the shadows of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, (“Jazz Baroness” and close friend of the Monks), Kelley deflates the fantasy that Thelonious and Pannonica were ever romantically involved or that she was a savior or sorts.  I still find it curious that writers and critics devote so much ink to the support Monk enjoyed from the Baroness and yet barely mention Nellie.”

It is my feeling that we can chalk this attempt and so many others up to America’s incessant need to display the relationship between Blacks as anything but coherent, most devastatingly, on the subject of love and romance between man and woman.  Throughout history, we have seen Black men forced to fight to legitimize not only their own manhood, but also their love for their women.  In music, we see one of the greatest examples of this in Miles Davis’ beautifully audacious move to insist that the women who would grace his album covers be Black, in a time where Black women were not only fighting to be a recognized standard of beauty, but also fighting against a stigma that said they were not even desired by their own men, but second best to White women.  However, it is clear that Thelonious not only adored Nellie, but if we let the music speak, he certainly thought highly of Black women, and cherished his family.  In addition to “Crepuscule With Nellie”, his love ballad to his wife, Thelonious endeared his music to his sister-in-law, niece, and daughter with tunes like “Skippy”, “Jackie-ing” and “Boo Boo’s Birthday”.

Overall, the lack of Black female presence in jazz is still a problem today.  The purposeful divide that puts Black women in a precarious position to defend their role is still evident.  Other than the images of entertainer or addict, Black women are not well documented in the overall jazz landscape.  Any role of power or leadership is almost always attempted to be obliterated from the fabric of America’s original art.  But they were there, and many of jazz music’s biggest names would not be, without these unsung heroines.  “She was so much more than a ‘helpmate’ or ‘backbone’ or any of the other adjectives often bandied about to describe Nellie,” Kelley proclaims.  “Besides being an incredibly supportive wife and devoted mother, she was his very best friend, at times his business manager, road manager, accountant, breadwinner, critic, sage, confidant, nurse, protector, and lover, among other things.  I’m convinced that theirs was one of the great romances in jazz; unlike the stereotypical image of Nellie as the submissive helpmate.  She was Monk’s equal with a mind of her own and aspirations to match.”

This public and purposeful correction about Mrs. Monk is such a prolific stride in Black history, because it informs the much larger issue of the importance of Black women in America. It also proves the importance of having a broader spectrum of historians writing about jazz.  (But that’s a topic for another post – and will be).

Thanks Dr. Kelley.  Finally, another deserving Black woman has emerged a hero.