Monday, April 29, 2013
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Thursday, March 7, 2013
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Hal Smith, esteemed jazz drummer, is clearly one of the great experts on the origins of jazz. He knows a lot about it and he knows a lot about how to play it.
“You really prefer Shaw to Goodman?” he quizzes me. He knows in advance that he has a fight on his hands.
Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman
Let me tell you, I think that these arguments, so common among jazz nuts, are mostly hot air. Hal prefers the Coca Cola. I’ll have a Pepsi, please! Most of the time, that’s how silly this stuff is. But, for old time’s sake, we go at it.
Shaw vs. Goodman! Of the two, Shaw thrills me more.
“No comparison!” I say, “Shaw wins in all the ways I can measure.”
Hal fires back, “How could you measure so that you prefer Shaw?” He lists numbers of Benny’s early recordings.
We might go on like this for days – especially if we are on the road.
The Shaw vs. Goodman battle was first waged by the jazz weirdoes during the late 1930s. A tidal wave of jazz, newly re-packaged as “Swing” had young Americans by their throats. A performance by one band or another would ignite passions never known before in American music. The jazz camps lined up. The excitement about Shaw and Goodman caused one of the biggest battles. Mainly Benny won out. He was the most popular of all swing-era figures and generally he eclipsed all other clarinetists.
However, Shaw began to challenge Goodman’s preeminence, and between the two of them, a high water mark of jazz clarinet performance was set.
Goodman and Shaw
For my money, no one ever played the clarinet more beautifully than Artie Shaw. As much as I admire Benny, here are reasons I admire Shaw more:
1) Shaw’s tone is a little darker – I think it is more mellow and richer and more interesting than Benny’s. In a few words, Shaw’s tone is unique, recognizable and gorgeous. 2.) Shaw is more careful about picking out the most interesting notes. This may be small potatoes, but I don’t think there are quite as many surprises in Benny’s playing.
When you listen to Shaw, think of Bix and listen that way. Shaw’s sound is special like Bix’s and he doesn’t waste many notes. He is like Bix in telling the story. Somehow the Bix influence is in there. Maybe it is accidental. But I suspect that Shaw had been very impressed by Bix. Both Beiderbecke and Shaw had special tones and both tended to find unexpected patterns.
Shaw had heard Bix play at his peak. He was amazed by the sound. “The whole horn vibrated,” he said.
A few years later Shaw roomed with Bix for a while.
After another 60 years, an aging Shaw attended the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival at Davenport, Iowa. He discovered that the Beiderbecke home where Bix was born and had grown up was becoming dilapidated and the roof had failed. Shaw began to yell about the condition of the house.
In the end, the whole place was well restored. This was a big deal. To the hardcore devotee, the Beiderbecke house is a Mecca.
I suggest that when you listen to Shaw, listen to the similarities to Bix.
Shaw possessed and often displayed more technique than Bix. But don’t let that confuse any point about their similarities.
Goodman, also considered a kind of genius by many, swung just as hard. His playing was always perfect, flawless.
But Shaw is where a special, individual art lies. Listen to Shaw that way and see what you think.
Great though it is, I do not recommend another round of “Begin the Beguine.” Rather get into Shaw in depth. There is a huge wealth of recorded material, and Shaw, who retired early, was always at the top of his form.
“So if you’re so smart,” Hal asks, “who are your fingers-on-one-hand favorite jazz musicians?” You know the bit − whose records do you take with you to a desert island, when there can only be five artists?
I am ready for him. “Here you go,” I say. And I toss them off, for I have played this game for a lifetime: “Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Artie Shaw, and there is a 10-way tie for 5th and last place.”
“That 5th place is a cop out,” Hal says.
“Why are you worrying about my 5th place, anyway? We’re talking about Goodman and Shaw. You go figure out your own 5th place choices.” This is the way these jazz arguments have been going ever since Buddy Bolden, having finished with the waltzes and schottisches, came on with a slow, grinding blues.
There are some strong similarities in the Shaw/Goodman comparison. 1.) Both were unique and brilliant musicians. 2.) They were eccentric in the extreme. 3.) They were driven by their egos and their talents and the clear rivalry that was between them. 4.) They took great advantage of the rising tide of the swing era to carry the form to a high art.
If you can find it, try the double CD set of the Artie Shaw “At the Blue Room, At the Café Rouge” air checks. To my ear, big band swing just does not get any better. Shaw’s hands are all over this stuff. He wrote or directed the writing of the arrangements. He set standards for solo quality. The result: everyone in the band absorbs much of Shaw’s taste, and solo notes are not wasted. Ensemble precision is amazing. The rhythm section, with young Buddy Rich on drums, is as good as it gets.
If you do find this CD, I suggest that you experiment with turning down the high frequency response. In the transfer from LP to CD, the audio has become a little too edgy to be faithful. But I think you’ll like it – really like it!
I enjoy this size band too: four rhythm, three trumpets, two trombones, four saxophones, plus Shaw (14 pieces in all). Benny’s band had the same instrumentation.
I never cared as much for the later swing bands – often with nine brass, five reeds and usually only three rhythm.
If you hear a swing band today it is usually extra large and more about volume than it is about swing. Often you will see 20 mikes on a band already loud enough to peel the paint. Rock starts to creep in on some numbers.
Or, sometimes there is the other extreme − moo cow, slavish imitations of Glenn Miller.
Of course it would not be impossible to create a swinging band like Shaw’s. But it would take an obsessed genius like Shaw to drive it. And the market is not there. To realize full potential, a band like this must actually work every night for hundreds of nights.
PS. A tip-
The other night I saw a movie, “Dancing Co-ed,” starring Lana Turner and Artie Shaw. The movie is terrible, but Shaw plays a lot, and his playing is magnificent. You can find all this on your computer. I can’t − I am computer challenged. But you can find it, you lucky dogs!
Monday, December 6, 2010
A lady I know has cats under her house. She makes no attempt to neuter or spay them. They constantly produce new litters of cats.
For the moment, they are just under the house, not bothering anyone. The lady gives them some food every day.
If things continue this way the multiplying cats will, in about five years, increase from two cats to about 5,000 cats. This is a pretty good example of exponential growth. Eventually, the smell will take over and the house may begin to rock on its foundation.
Here in the U.S. we depend on serious growth. We just gotta have it. Without it all the wheels really start coming off, as in the current recession. For most of our history, we have been able to grow and grow.
Generally, the vast majority of our citizens have wanted as much growth as we could wring out. Damn the torpedos!
And with exponential growth comes exponential change. Here is a tiny example you might enjoy:
The other day, I took my granddaughter Eloise for an ice cream cone. Eloise is three years old. These days, as you know, getting her in the car requires strapping her in a plastic chair which must first be strapped in the back seat. So I drive to my daughter's home, where I must remove a car seat from the back seat of one car, take it back home and install it in still a third car.
I am gadget-challenged. There is a learning curve that sets in. So, I have a hard time getting the child seat properly anchored in the back seat of the car. Most people have no trouble at all.
The next step is to get Eloise into the thing and she has grown a little large for the chair I am using. To make it all go I must get in with her and squeeze with everything just short of putting my knee on her.
I am thinking the typical things such as, "The guy who invented that chair should be condemned to a lifetime of struggling with them." (This as his punishment).
Ah, these gadgets. You will remember when the Wizard of Oz is finally revealed to be a funny old snake oil salesman, and he accidentally pre-launches in the helium balloon -- "Come back! Come back" Dorothy yells, and the Wizard leans out over the basket: "I can't, I can't," he says. "I don't know how it works!"
Finally we do make it to the ice cream store, get Eloise out, get the ice cream, make a mess of it, get her back in--sticky this time--get her home, undo the seat, get Eloise and the seat in the house, get wet cloths, wipe Eloise off--the car seat, too, and the whole ice cream ordeal is finally over.
In early 1948, at age six, I moved with my family to Caracas, Venezuela. We lived there for two years.
If I pleaded, my mother might drive me to downtown Caracas to have an ice cream cone.
She would say, "Okay, get in the car and I'll be along," and pretty soon we would take off. I would stand on the front seat next to her.
The car was a one year old 1947 Ford four-door sedan. As we cruised through the Caracas streets she, with complete ease, would, in her high heeled shoes, work the clutch, brake and gas pedals, steer the car, and make hand signals out the window with her left arm. The car was not equipped with turn signals. She would shift gears with her right arm and hand. When she came to a stop sign or a red light, she would extend her right arm out to the right to keep me (standing on the seat) from falling into the dashboard! Through all this she would casually smoke a cigarette!
This must seem absurdly dangerous, particularly to anyone under 50. But, we all rode around this way all the time. Everyone's mother held her right arm out to keep the children from sprawling into the dash. And cars had no seat belts.
Caracas in the 40's
However, there were no freeways. That was one of the huge changes started by the war. The country was transformed in many ways. Before the war, two-thirds of Americans lived on farms or in small towns. The cities were smaller. There was one car per family, not one car per person, and generally, cars were driven more slowly. Much of the time, people walked. (As a result, obesity was minimized). Our mothers were quick on the draw.
But now, get ready in the change department! You are going to see so many changes going faster and faster. The change rocket ship is just starting its blast off.
One theory, outlined in a recent book, The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, attempts to measure the rate of this exploding change and more or less predicts that soon we'll arrive at a singular point when we will be largely able to fix all of our problems. This assumes we won't blow up the planet in the meantime. Ray is saying that we are closer to a new technical "big bang" than most of us realize. a lot of this is about computers and chips and how powerful they are becoming and this very rapidly. I recommend Ray's book.
Isn't it nice, however, to have some things, like the jazz band, around where almost nothing changes? We are still using some of our original 1963 arrangements. The band is still mostly a seven-piece ensemble. The only change that has occurred during the last 48 years is that the band is better! The most recent additions, Hal Smith, drums, and Steve Pikal, bass, have added more swing and power to the Rhythm Section.
Unlike the rest of the world, we in the band have stubbornly avoided electronics. You hear the real sound -- not one that has been filtered through microphones and speakers.
There is no reverberation system -- no amp on the bass, etc.
When your head is spinning with data overload, and you are cursing your computer, close the laptop and come to the Landing We will fix you up!