Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Southern Journey

A book arrived in the mail today, a copy of the autobiography of Morris Dees, a white Alabaman and highly regarded civil rights attorney; A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris Dees Story (expanded from the earlier version, 1991's A Season forJustice) tells how Dees and the legal organization he founded in the early Seventies (the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery) waged successful battles against the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist groups and also helped gain the release of several wrongfully jailed black prisoners.

The coincidences one encounters in life are always a bit of a surprise. Here's how I came to obtain the book...

Some weeks back, my wife and I traveled to Montgomery for a few days (I'll explain why in a moment). Two days after our return to Seattle, I received a printed solicitation on behalf of the SPLC, signed by Nobel prizewinning author Toni Morrison.

Almost 40 years ago now, I spent most of a day with Ms. Morrison in New York City when we were both involved in educational films; chatting about our personal lives over lunch, she told me about the book she was writing--which became her debut novel The Bluest Eye--and how she hoped it would launch her as a writer. Wonder how that worked out...

Anyway, the conjunction of Morrison, Montgomery, race issues, and the work of that law group caught my attention. I sent some money to the SPLC, received a letter of thanks from Dees, and was then inspired by an open invitation on the organization's website ("Share your story of fighting hate or promoting tolerance") to send the following email:

Hello. Please bear with me as I write this...

A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited Montgomery to share in our son Mike's graduation from one of the Maxwell air base colleges there. For nine months he had been living in a small house on the ranch of well-known cattleman and Montgomery social figure John "Bubba" Trotman; across from Mike is the similar house of longtime Trotman family server Ruthie Sankey, a black woman who lovingly took Mike under her wing during his stay. Over the few days, we enjoyed the company of both Bubba and Ruthie, but could easily see the surviving paternalism of white Montgomery on display.

The visit was my first return to your city since living there during 1955-56, the year of the Bus Boycott. During those months, my father and mother gave rides to many walking black people, helping them get to work or shopping or whatever. Mom was a south Georgia woman who never completely escaped her racial upbringing, but Dad was an AF officer from Illinois who easily supported the integration of the services.

I grew up about equally North and South and so have always (maybe erroneously) believed I have a better understanding of black/white issues than the typical anti-Southern liberal, even though my own politics are certainly progressive if not radical at times. I believe that Dick Gregory got it right: "Down South they don't care how close you get, just so you don't get too big. Up North they don't care how big you get, just so you don't get too close."

I remember fondly (maybe foolishly) late-Forties, early Fifties visits to my Mom's parents on the Spivey family farm near Mystic, Georgia, where I had no playmates other than the black kids my age, and where I eventually worked for a few days as the only white boy in the tobacco barn's black crew. But I also know I was seeing (even if not yet understanding) various subtle forms of white racism.

This rambling story does have a point. Just after we returned from Montgomery, your SPLC solicitation coincidentally arrived in the mail. I decided I definitely had to send a small contribution. Then Mr. Dees' detailed letter thanking me arrived just this morning, again by coincidence on a day when I am actively commenting (via blogs) on racial issues past and still present in Jazz music.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Sadly, race still matters. Keep up the important work!

All best regards, Ed Leimbacher

And the book? An unnecessary extra gift thanking me for the small contribution. But--wheels within wheels--it arrived just when I was pondering what to blog about next. Now I serendipitously have assembled this, and I can look forward to reading about the work of Dees and other real heroes and heroines of the (post-Martin Luther King) Civil Rights struggle--still being waged today by the SPLC and others, in Alabama and elsewhere.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Art of Gil Evans

Bandleader Maria Schneider chose a dozen great Gil Evans tracks on a recent post at Having served as Gil's assistant for several years in the Eighties, she definitely could provide a unique perspective on his skills as arranger and re-composer (original composer only rarely) in a career lasting fifty years, from his early work with Claude Thornhill's Orchestra, through famous albums with Miles Davis and on his own, to the final rock/fusion/avant garde work with pick-up orchestras assembled around the world. Ms. Schneider--no mean composer and orchestra boss herself--offered a textbook study in the Art of Creative Arranging a la Evans, as she detailed the ins and outs, the roundabouts and airy astonishments, of each selection.

I wouldn't presume to dispute any of her detailed analysis or personal reminiscence, but I will note that she could easily have chosen another three or four dozen equally memorable pieces. Evans was that major a force even if still surprisingly unprolific, apparently somewhat reticent to record. (He even notoriously failed to save the stacks of sheet music from his classic arrangements, and he almost never asked for a share of any shaped-by-Gil album's royalties, choosing to do contractual piece work instead--which kept him scuffling for bread for much of his working life.) What I can offer is an ordinary listener's perspective...

Like many other fans, my knowledge of Evans' very existence came via the five near-perfect albums released in the late Fifties and early Sixties--the first three with Davis (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain, all of them standard buys for Kennedy-era college kids), then two by Gil and his orchestra minus Miles (Out of the Cool and The Individualism of Gil Evans). Though some critics fault the Gershwin and Spanish albums as not really "Jazz" enough, I say call it something else then--G'Evanzz with French G sound maybe--and be glad it happened to the world. All the outtakes and false starts and known edits from those Columbia albums (first revealed in Mosaic's Davis-Evans box set) show just how tough it was to get his charts and the performances right--significant information, that, but no listener should allow such arcane stuff to get in the way of simple enjoyment.

The subsequent no-Miles pair presumably required some studio fretting too to achieve their beauty and brilliance--maracas and busy drums, blatting 'bones, fleet sax solos, earthy bass moments, judicious flickerings of harp and guitar, all working to make the orchestra sound (as Miles remarked of Sketches) like "one big guitar," or a sole mournful horn. "La Nevada," "Where Flamingos Fly," "The Bilbao Song," "Stratusphunk," "Time of the Barracudas," "The Barbara Song," "Las Vegas Tango": that extraordinary blend of Jazz and Kurt Weill, a sound he carried over to tunes not by Weill, was a match made in Evans...

Towards the end of my half-decade of discovery, I also sought out the earlier Birth of the Cool sessions as well as Gil's Boppish charts for Thornhill (where he first began working the "cool" sound of French horns and tuba, keening flutes and reeds), piece work for Johnny Mathis, a lovely set with Helen Merrill, several tracks with Kenny Burrell, and his two early Pacific Jazz albums reinventing great Jazz standards.

But Gil then seemed to fade into some sort of obscurity--or maybe self-imposed exile. He shifted his emphasis as bandleader to feature more improvisation and less arranging, so his pick-up bands that played New York and elsewhere during the Seventies and Eighties would investigate Jimi Hendrix tunes, Free Jazz steps outside, fusion excitement and fusion noodling as well, synthesizer overload, and so on, and sometimes go on, excessively. An Evans evening at the Sweet Basil club, for example, might be brilliant, or just as easily boring, as he let his players (all of them first-chair musicians capable of soloing) take charge, which meant that each tune might ramble on for 15 or 20 minutes or more.

I was fortunate to catch an Evans orchestra live in 1985 at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen--a first-rate, albeit hurriedly rehearsed English/European band similar in skills and willingness to the groups he could assemble in the States. On the night I was present, I'm fairly certain that reeds greats Billy Harper and John Surman were two of the favored soloists, but what I recall most vividly is the quiet joy Gil radiated just sitting at the piano and gesturing minimally--and how easily one could get caught up in long and winding numbers that probably grew from a late-Mingus chart or a few jotted notes on a lead sheet. That mesmerizing concert lasted for maybe three hours, and it remains a highlight of all my experience of live music.

As Evans grew older and even more ascetically thin, he kept working as called on--a remake of the Merrill album, uncredited assistance to funk-fusioneer Miles, work with rock star Sting, East Coast performances that Maria Schneider possibly assisted (and might one day comment on). Plus two sort-of Gil albums that I actually like a lot, resulting from a near-the-end collaboration with French bandleader Laurent Cugny and his Big Band Lumiere, which produced the little-known releases Rhythm A Ning and Golden Hair.

Using mostly Gil's charts and with Cugny conducting and a fragile Gil providing his usual minimalist piano, the French musicians (plus a couple of ringers like Andy Sheppard and Marilyn Mazur) with almost no rehearsal time played their... culottes... off, giving performances just as freed-up and free-to-drift as other Evans ensembles, but also anchored in solid tempos and tunes like the Monk title track, Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues," plus in-the-groove Cugny originals "Golden Hair" and "Charlie Mingus's Sound of Love," as well as Gil's own "Zee Zee," "London," and classic "La Nevada."

Mercy, Mr. Gil! Merci, M. Cugny...

Together they made a brief, serendipitous duo too cool and too hot not to be better known in the Gilded Annals of Evans.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Max and Monk

Recently I wrote about hearing Dave Brubeck for the first time (see post). It was 1957 and I was a young teenager living over in Izmir, Turkey, and soon, courtesy of a mysterious older guy in the small circle of military dependent kids, I was also made aware of drummer Max Roach (and, through him, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie). But the connection was only verbal; I wasn't listening to those BeBop giants yet, just hearing about them from Jim (last name long forgotten).

Jim was 17 and a rebel. Oh, the school had a couple of would-be j.d.'s in jeans, with cigarette packs rolled in their t-shirt sleeves, but Jim was different. He was a hipster, wore his long hair slicked back, and also had grown a small mustache; he dressed nattily in a sportcoat and tie while most of us wore whatever casual clothes the local PX could provide--and he played the drums. His drum kit was substantial and his talent astonishing to us music novices. Sitting behind that expansive set, he'd play rolls and paradiddles, hit snare and cymbal combinations faster than the eye could follow, and generally unleash all the tricks of a solid jazz drummer (so far as we knew anyway). And he would tell us about his role model Max Roach--Max's softer way of using brushes, of shaping a story with his solos, but also of how he powered the great Diz and Bird--who?--tracks of the Forties. ("Koko" was Jim's favorite, and he sure persuaded us with his own fast and furious examples.)

We were mesmerized even though we had no idea what he was talking about. To my recollection, we never asked to hear the actual records; we just wanted to watch and listen to Jim. That was also because his cool hipster stance was even more intriguing: he actually smoked marijuana--casually, right in front of us younger guys--and following in the steps of his Bop heroes, he was rumored, or maybe even claimed himself, to be using heroin! I was always a bookish, straight-arrow kid, so I wasn't willing to follow Jim's lead into the drug experimentation that was seemingly easily available in Turkey back then, but I sure did love to watch him get around those drums. And I know his tales of Roach and the others eventually led me some years later to seek out their challenging music.

Jim's father and family rotated out before us, and I have no idea what became of Jim and his dreams. Was he a working Jazz musician later? Did he become a drug addict like so many of his heroes? Did he settle, like most people, for something less than his original dream? Is he still alive? No clues...

But I do know what happened to my next unexpected Jazz mentor. In the fall of 1960 I was a freshman at Northwestern University, living in a men's dorm; and assigned right across the hall was fledgling Jazz pianist Don, a Beat hipster of sorts sporting a scraggly goatee. Don played Jazz records on his room phonograph day and night, and even with the door closed those sounds drifted out and around our floor--lots of saxophone, Hawkins and Rollins and even some young guy named Coltrane, musicians we other residents started absorbing mostly by osmosis.

But Don's main man was this weird cat named Thelonious Monk, and Don would sit for hours downstairs at the dorm piano, drifting around the keys, fingering odd chords, trying to get Monk's staggered, angular attack just right. And he would talk about the quirky pianist to anyone who asked (I was one). He showed me stride piano and then demonstrated how musicians like Duke and Monk took that rhythmic method and simplified or altered it to help build their own styles.

I wasn't ready for Ellington yet (I wasted too many years treating orchestra Jazz as an unwelcome reminder of my parents' listening habits), but Monk's music was strange and cool and fascinating, and I soon bought some Monk LPs. I had to have that one with the pianist sitting in a child's red wagon (Monk's Music), and luckily also chose the one with him smiling from a trolley car, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, which quickly became--and remains--one of my short-list favorite records.

Don's playing and his choice of albums literally changed my world, set me finally on the lifelong listening path that Brubeck's cheerful music had only pointed to. Over the years I followed that twisty trail back to Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson (and, yes, the Duke), and ahead to Archie Shepp and Air, and past them to musicians today as diverse as Bill Charlap and Cassandra Wilson and Bill Frisell.

Yes, Jazz periodicals may die, or go on-line, but Jazz in all its bewildering diversity still remains.

I just wish I could say the same for my dorm mentor-become-friend. In a tragic confluence of fate and injustice, Don and two other guys from the floor were driving on a Chicago freeway during Christmas break a year later, and their small car was literally run down and crushed flat by a massive 18-wheeler that lost its brakes...

Play in peace, Don. And thanks.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Dark Fields of the Republic

Faced with the last few pages of a deeply satisfying novel, some readers pause for a moment, almost subconsciously... "Man, I love this book; shall I hurry on to the end now? No. I think I'll read more slowly, savor the final scenes, delay leaving this wonderful imagined world."

Of course, there are people, whatever their rationale, who will read the ending of a novel first. Others proceed straightforwardly, first to last. Still others choose to re-read the final paragraphs, to appreciate the graceful receding-into-reality the author has constructed.

Most professional writers have favorites among the works of their peers and those of previous generations, and they routinely revisit these books--Austen's Pride and Prejudice, say--whether for inspiration or simple pleasure matters not a whit (as some 19th century author might have said). We know that Hemingway inspired many would-be writers to take up the pen--now keyboard--and mimic his controlled, apparently simplistic prose, using the exercise as a learning device. Much-honored Ross Macdonald, a master of not-so-hardboiled detective fiction (his hero Lew Archer portrayed by Paul Newman and others in sadly inadequate films), casually admitted he would reread Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby every year to enjoy the prose and gain new insight into the art of fiction.

Like so many others, Macdonald likely took special pleasure in the last few paragraphs of Gatsby:

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further.... And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

And not just bootleg-era Gatsby--his reach foolishly exceeding his grasp--but a whole nation of striving individuals trapped now, 80 years later, in the snares of big corporations and greedy bankers, medical insurance madness and the collapse of the middle class.

Recently, contemplating the end of a particularly fine novel (see the previous chapter on Krueger's mysteries), in a wise-guy attempt to be ludicrous and profound and Zen-koan obscure, I jotted down a few sentences spinning out from that moment:

Some think The End is a New Beginning.
Others shrug, imagining a Temporary Hiatus.
Still others contemplate a Permanent Termination...
Hitting the wall. No more.
Me, I say it's just six letters and a space, and the blank
holds The Answer. (Or do I mean The Question?)

Yeah, yeah, so it's philosophical baloney, but I thought it might be apropos in this Year of the Grim Regression, on a noisy, money-wasting, often dangerous, forced-patriotic holiday requiring spectacularly empty grand finales...

This is how America ends, not with so many bangs but with an infinite chorus of whimpers. Or will our "best government that money can buy" be whipped into rewriting The End?

POSTSCRIPT: Apt that The End should have a Postscript, I suppose... has posted my Dozens reviews of Jazz Americana, which include some social commentary along with the music discussed. Find them here if interested.