Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Time Machine

It’s a fool’s game to try and copy Bix. Go and listen to “Somebody Stole My Gal."

It’s not just his solo. It’s the whole record. He just kicks the whole band in the ass and makes them play. I can tell you that this is something that no mere mortal can accomplish – only the occasional genius like Mozart.

I don’t try to copy Bix. I hear the kind of things he did and let them mingle with all of my musical ideas. There’s a melancholy – a kind of suffering or depression- that is hard to describe in Bix’s playing. When you listen to him you hear the madness of his life, the romance, the mood swings. The same characteristic is in Hemingway, Lincoln, Churchill and other great figures whose melancholy became famous parts of their lives.

While listening, I feel almost as if I were there with Bix, even though I was born ten years after his death. I’ve felt a spiritual connection with him since I was 13 years old. At the time, my father was completely absorbed and preoccupied in fixing his life, which had been destroyed by alcohol. He didn’t pay the slightest attention to me and I listened to record after record. I listened to them so many times it was easy to memorize. I was like a teenage girl who sang along with the radio.

Bix, like all artists, had limitations that defined his style. The great artist shapes what he is saying and that’s how he talks to you. Often, when someone talks with way too many words and with so much command of the language, the true meaning is lost. Bix was the antithesis of this. He used very few words – or notes – to make his point shrewdly.

The greatest jazz musicians can be recognized instantly after playing only a single note. Bix’s sound has been described by others as striking a chime with a soft, padded mallet. The big sound starts with a little explosion – but it was more than the sound – how he strung the notes together, the way he searched for a new, interesting way to twist the phrase.

There were characteristics in his music that are found nowhere else in music. Bix is one of a handful of great, original, American musical artists. That’s what I think.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

No More Daylight Savings Time. What?!

I am opposed to Daylight Savings Time. We need more music of the night. How about Night Savings Time?

This is true, baby. It is night time when you hear the beautiful music. The world’s great concert halls and the symphony orchestras that pour out the banked up work of our musical geniuses of the centuries do not happen at mid-morning.

The great music of the night goes off after dark.

The jazz player will tell you that it’s damned hard to get the creative juices going at noon. We go hear jazz after dark – at night clubs! That is when it happens! Right? Count Basie’s Band was built playing this schedule at the Reno Club: start at 9 pm and play until 4 am.

A lot more than the music happens after dark, you know. You look across the table and search deeply into her eyes and there is a thing in there that causes you not to be able to look away for she is giving you something you have never known before and you don’t know what it is yet, but whatever it is you are not nearly as likely to see it at the coffee shop at 7:30 am with the hard sunlight blinding you through the plate glass.

No, this kind of thing, and every human hungers for it, almost always happens at night. For the night is when we drink the fine red wine in the delicate bowl-shaped stemmed glass. And we also drink up what she is saying with her eyes. All this stuff that goes into the big container we label “romance” happens almost always at night.

To get down to it – the love-making is not going to be happening at mid-morning either. At least, not much!

How about the candle light, the great dinners, the phases of the moon, the searching of the stars in the heavens? I can go on. You get the idea.

At mid-summer, we jazzers start up the first hot tunes at 8:30 pm and it is still daylight at the night club. You know, we set our clocks back to make the daylight stretch. But we all know the good stuff happens after dark. Maybe more daylight is what some of us want. I think it is a bad idea. It just happens to us, and I’m not sure anybody much thinks about the why of it.

They say it started during the World War II when the country was absolutely back-to-the-wall desperate for more production. But the war has been over for 65 years!

Why are we so anxious for more daytime hours? What happens in the day anyway? Most of us struggle and beat ourselves up in the traffic and feel bad and are not in happy moods and work frantically, talking constantly on our cell phones and driving while we do it. In the daytime, we eat standing up, sling down one more cup. The only music we might hear is on the car radio, or if you are a kid you may have it pumped through “Apple” gadgets straight into your ears. This is between text messages, and you’re certainly never hearing it straight from a Stradivarius as the practiced master’s hand guides the bow across the double stops, the perfect intonation making the violin speak with a soft growl.

Now, I am not saying that making it get dark earlier will fix everything so that we prioritize for music and for love.

No, I’m not saying that. But I am saying that if we didn’t mess with the clock and hold off the night, life might be a little more fun and that is worth a lot!

Maybe we should move the clock the other way, so that it got dark even earlier.

If we did that, life just might, in a generation or two, get to be a lot more fun with more of the good stuff such as real jazz bands playing in night clubs.

How about it? What do you think?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Keep Austin Weird

The “Jazz Disease” has always been the carrot dangling in front of my nose. All during my hot and heavy-breathed pursuit of it I have enjoyed what has been for me the extra charm of life in South Texas.

Huckleberry Finn said that his story was told to us by Mr. Mark Twain, “who didn’t tell no stretchers” – at least not too many stretchers. But this isn’t about Huck– only about jazzers – people so entertaining that the stretchers are left at the sideline. In the meantime, I will act as your scout and advance man.

If you take the time to read these blogs, I will hopefully make it worth the regular computer struggle. Probably the best parts of my story are about how jazz emerged here, fighting hard against the cowboy stereotype. But I love everything about San Antonio. Everything, that is, except the relatively new and quickly expanding suburban sprawl.

Today, let’s get out of town.

To the north and the west there’s the Hill Country. Famed Barbeque joints lie in the East. The beach is to the South (and who knows what will happen there with the oil all over the place? Don’t throw away and burning cigarette butts. Whoosh.). Still, there are lakes and rodeos and beautiful lost maples and tubing on the rivers and ranches and so much so that one could never see it all. Drive two-and-a-half hours and you can be at the Rio Grande, beyond which Mexico stretches for 1,000 miles.

To the north, like a beacon, is Austin – its Bohemian lifestyle constantly beating back modernity.

In Austin, there are more tattoos per capita than anywhere. Austin is flooded with artists of all kinds. In fact, you could say that it has more just plain weirdos per capita than anywhere in the world. There are also lot of musicians in Austin – some not so hot – but we can all learn from elementary school math books. The law of averages has given Austin a number of good Jazzers.

People actually go out and dance to good music in Austin. Amazing! They even step to “The Balboa”, a dance from the 1940s. Live music is everywhere, and, you’ll find it at unexpected places.

I often drive to Austin on Monday nights and play at a restaurant called Quality Seafood. There, I am constantly confused for an Italian man by the name of Luigi Spimoni il Capo del Mondo. I go along and speak with an Italian accent I learned from “Life with Luigi,” a radio show from the early 1950.

The Quality Seafood Band is named Aunt Ruby’s Sweet Jazz Babies. The bandleader is “Frankly Divine,” and a sometimes-present cornet player is named Pesci Pete Backbiter. One Aunt Ruby’s “babies” is Tarrton Poúrri who plays clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones (I belong to a cult in which we don’t say “soprano saxophone.” We say “Torture Tube.” It’s always said with a smile and the comment, “Of course, there was always Bechet.”). Other members of Aunt Ruby’s are “The General” on bass and “Speedy” on the trombone. I mention these cats and their unusual names because they are typical of the weird ones who prowl around Austin.

Anyhow, last Monday I was in Austin to have dinner with bassist Ed Wise and his wife, Lizzie, who were visiting from Philadelphia. I’ve known Ed for many years, and, since he’s from out of town, he isn’t weird at all. He’s actually pretty normal, distinguished, in fact, by his swinging bass playing.

So Ed, Lizzie and I are kicking around in the land of the tattoos when we ran into cornetist Pesci Pete Backbiter, who directs us to a new joint in town: The East Side Showroom, 1100 6th Street.

This joint is the cat’s pajamas. No fooling. I am recommending it to you!

Everything about it is pleasing. It is owned and run by two young gals. They serve first-class food and have a full bar, with bottles set check-by-jowl and floor-to-ceiling with creative lighting that highlights every liquor bottle and their time-honored contents.

There is always music at the East Side Show Room. Pesci Pete Backbiter himself plays there one night a week.

According to “The East Side Show Room is a mother and daughter owned Bar and Restaurant inspired by the Cafées and Delicatessens from eastern Europe to Texas in the pre World War II era, the turn of the century Music Halls of Berlin and Vienna, and the 1920’s avant-garde Theatres of NYC; Offering patrons a stimulating, artistic, and social environment to enjoy vintage cocktails, gourmet cuisine, fine wine, eclectic beer, coffee, live music and art.”

I was there three-and-a-half hours in a listless daze. When I die, this is where I want to go. For most of the evening, a screen played Charlie Chaplin silent movies. At 11:00 p.m., the crowd had been stirred into a frenzy by a four-piece Gypsy band. That was followed by a 15-piece ensemble of Austin weirdness that began outside.

The “Minor Mishap Marching Band” blasted in with two snares, a bass drum, gigantic cymbals, three cornets, two trombones, a baritone saxophone, accordion, violin, clarinet and a couple of old alto horns. Out-of-tune insanity ensued. The Minor Mishap marched out 45 minutes later – and kept playing outside, most likely to the last man.

The effect on the crowd was powerful. Grown people stood on their chairs and stomped and clapped. There was dancing and singing along around the tables.
“Wow!” shouted my dinner guest, Ed Wise, who thought he had done all and seen all.

As the Minor Mishap faded, the owners walked amongst the crowd, passing hats and encouraging patrons to tip the marching band. In these Austin joints there is a lot of playing for tips.

But above the tips, Austin musicians keep the wolf away in a heretofore unheard of fashion: The City of Austin works hard to support the arts in general, and some of these starving artists in particular, with medical insurance and grants.

Acting as one of the lynchpins in “Keep Austin Weird,” my daughter, Bonnie Cullum, is a shining example. Having received her Master’s degree in drama in 1988 from the University of Texas at Austin, Bonnie dug in, and, in 1989, set up the Vortex Theatre and the Vortex Repertory Company.

In 1993, after trying some temporary venues, Bonnie began meticulously searching the east side – east of I-35. The east side was continuing its age-old pattern of being a black-only part of town.

A little white-owned repertory company, doing original and strange “Keep Austin Weird” comedies, dramas and musicals was just not supposed to happen over there.

Some told Bonnie: “Whites just won’t come over here and see your oddball productions.”

She’d reply: “Guess we’ll find out if you’re right or I’m right!”

Bonnie set herself up in a derelict, leaky building and did the impossible. Every year, the Vortex, the pinnacle of Austin weirdness, sweeps the Austin Critic’s Awards. The older black neighbors who live around the Vortex have supported Bonnie like crazy.

The reward is a thriving little arts center located on Manor Road, one mile east of I-35. In Bonnie’s wake, about eight restaurants and nine other theatres (many have come and gone), new houses and apartments have sprung up.

Bonnie, who sports no tattoos, is plenty weird in many other ways. She leads the charge. Last year she was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame. This is the highest local achievement for an Austin artist. Bonnie didn’t receive the award for being weird but for being good at what she does. You can be weird and good at the same time.

Here are your marching orders: Go see a play at the Vortex. Occasionally there is nudity, but never pornography. The Vortex has a beer and wine bar and a café with a limited menu.

After the show, go to the East Side Showroom. On Mondays go to the Quality Seafood Company – music and dancing and eating, 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

There is a lot more going on around there. For example, in the afternoon (free at night), there is swimming at Barton Springs. It is been loved by many as the best swimming hole in Texas for more than 100 years. Beginning in the 1960s, a few female bathers started removing their tops – a tradition that continues now and then.

When and if you’ve had enough, float down to San Antonio and we’ll play you some really hot jazz. Lots of the Austin lovers will be there with you.

The Austin swing dancers show up once in a while at The Landing. After a couple of stomping-swing tunes, the dancers leave the floor panting. I buy them a drink or two and we salute Austin’s weirdness.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bow Ties and Jazz for the World

I went recently to a wedding reception. Everyone there was very dressed up – many little black dresses. All the gentlemen wore sport jackets or suits.

But I was the only one there wearing a necktie. You may think, “Oh, thank God! No more ties,” and, if you do, it is obvious that most of the world is on your side on this.

Personally, I like ties. I wear them a lot – even when I don’t have to. Usually, I wear bow ties.

That really gets them: “Bow tie? And you tie it yourself? No! That must be a clip-on bow tie,” they say. I pull on one end and it comes undone and hangs there looking like Sinatra or Dean Martin at Las Vegas.

My cousin says that ties chafe his neck. I blew him off. At one time we all wore ties and I don’t remember anyone having neck problems.

Here is the real deal: Ties aren’t cool anymore. My cousin, whose neck has become sensitive in his old age, says that ties are for the elite and, while he is elitist down to his toenails, it’s my opinion that he doesn’t want to appear to be elite. So, no ties and he lines up with the elite – the type that attended the wedding. They were all very cool guys – too cool for ties.

Now I especially like bow ties for the following reasons:
  1. They don’t bother my neck. In fact, no tie bothers my neck.
  2. Bow ties don’t get in your soup.
  3. If you wear a bow tie (and a jacket) out into the world, it sometimes, and in strange ways, helps with things like getting a clerk or a nurse to pay attention to you. Maybe that is just my imagination, but I don’t think so.
  4. Bow ties seem to have helped me talk my way out of traffic tickets.
  5. If you are called to jury duty and you show up in a bow tie you are very unlikely to be placed on a jury. A lawyer friend of mine, who happens to be a fellow bow tie wearer, insists that it usually works this way, because they know if you are eccentric enough to show up in a bow tie, you may dominate the jury, and this would be bad.

I have become expert at tying bow ties. I will give a tying lesson to anyone who asks me. I think I am very good at teaching an easy to remember formula that will have you tied up in no time flat.

Here are good bow tie sources:

  • Carrot and Gibbs – Boulder, Colorado. These guys make very classy bow ties, the length of which is controlled by four buttons and corresponding buttonholes at the back of the neck.
  • Beau Ties of Vermont. Their ties are great and Beau Ties of Vermont publishes a monthly catalog that presents excellent photos of their ties.

If you do go for a few bow ties, try turning them upside down. (What?) I mean turn the tie so that the label, which is sewn at the center of the back, is upside down – this before you tie the tie, you know. And the next time, try placing the label inside out, away from the back of your neck. The label, of course, will not show because it is under your shirt collar.

This is all getting pretty complicated. The reason for it is, however, that if you switch a bow tie around all the time, it will last four times as long. If you don’t, you will eventually wear some holes in the fabric right where the knot goes, but probably you won’t live that long.

Another advantage which you might welcome is that bow ties, particularly brightly colored ones, bring forth a host of favorable comments from young women. I can’t tell you why. Maybe bow ties are cool after all.

Come and see me at the Landing. I’ll show you how to tie your new bow ties.

And listen – jazz sounds better when you are there with a date, who will quickly figure out that bow ties make you completely different from all the previous men in her life. Maybe they were too dull for bow ties!