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On Jazz

Reprinted from Dither, which is a fanzine sometimes carefully crafted and hand-stitched especially for the discriminating eyes of the Vegrants by yours truly, Ross Chamberlain, but more often slapped haphazardly together at the last minute on those Saturdays when they gather. You decide about this one. Ta!

With a topic like Popular Culture, it's hard to know where to begin. Fortunately, when Joyce called to remind me about the Vegrant's meeting and mentioned that the option to include something in Apa-V was still open, I happened to have been listening to KUNV, UNLV's campus station, which has taken on an all-jazz format. This apparently occurred some time ago, but I only recently became aware of it.*

Now, I've never really been a major fan of jazz, though as with other varieties of music, I've enjoyed some individual works in the genre. I have some LPs of Stan Getz (playing with the Sauter Finnegan Band), Coleman Hawkins, and others, and a couple of Dixieland albums. Here, I have a CD of the Dave Brubeck Quartet with "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and others, and I have another, Manhattan Transfer's Vocalese, including "Another Night in Tunisia" and "That's Killer Joe." Joy-Lynd brought home a CD of the B Sharp Jazz Quartet from a CES party last year, where they had performed live, which I listen to occasionally. It's cool, if sometimes a bit too avant garde for my taste.

Heading in the direction of big band stuff, my collection includes a Glen Miller 3-CD set I picked up at Costco, a CD with familiar big band themes (yeah, well, it's called The Greatest Big Band Themes of All Time, and it's another production of Enoch Light and the Light Brigade, but we can't all be perfect), Duke Ellington Orchestral Works performed by the Cincinnati Symphony under Erich Kunzel, and I also have, somewhere, a cassette of Ellington things by the Duke Ellington band, under the direction of his son. Not his fault I never got into it. Then there's Swing Swing Swing done by John Williams with the Boston Pops, which has some great stuff on it. Really. It also has a piece by him (the title tune) which he wrote for 1941. It's supposed to be a tribute to Benny Goodman; Williams calls it a pastiche, but the reality is something less than that.

I'm pleased that big band music is making a comeback, resting largely on the broad shoulders of the original giants and pursued not too awfully by such as Harry Connick Jr. (I know this will elicit scoffs and sneers from some who read this, but I stand by that statement — I like young Connick, both as a musician and as an actor). And I've enjoyed the tributes to them by a variety of variety shows (when there were such things; see TV Land today) and even David Lee Roth (sorta) and Buster Poindexter. Of course, the big band stuff is nostalgic for me in many ways—I vas dere, Sharlie, sorta, at least by way of radio, and I vasn't—er, wasn't—very old at the time, but Jimmy Stewart and Steve Allen brought the era to life for me in movies like The Glen Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story.

Even Xanadu did a nice evocation, with a couple of great scenes in which Gene Kelly's character reminisces about his days as a band member and, later, imagines the new roller palace, "Xanadu," showcasing a band while his young pal (Michael Beck?) similarly imagines a very 80s rock band—and the two scenes merge spectacularly. Okay, okay— I liked it!

But of course, while big band and swing music is associated intimately with jazz, needless to say it's not in itself the improvisational stuff that we currently associate with the term.

When I was growing up in College Station, Texas, I used to occasionally pick up a program called "The Original Jazz Hour" from New Orleans' Loyola University radio station. It had to have been a late night show (whatever was "late" for me as a new teen or pre-teen those days). That music certainly did something for me then, though of course I hardly understood what was going on with it; it simply spoke to something inside me (aided and abetted by the sense of tuning in on the wicked world that existed out there after bedtime). What I later learned to call Dixieland music is not quite what I heard then, though certainly reminiscent of it. As mentioned earlier, I have a couple of Dixieland albums, and used to enjoy them, but I never really felt satisfied with them, as though something were missing. It's possible that this is at least in part because the bands were white or at least mixed— Come to think of it— are there any black bands per se that call themselves Dixieland bands? I don't know; I really haven't researched this area.

Arnie and Joyce have been delving into the blues lately, another area I haven't explored very deeply. What I used to associate with the blues is the kind of orchestral jazz that one associates with film noir: muted trumpets wa-wa-ing in the echo-chambered background as the narrator wallows in hyperbole. "St. James Infirmary" at its wailingest— Which reminds me, one of my favorite LPs was David Rose's The Stripper, which included the title tune (which is probably based on something by another name), "St. James Infirmary" and other things ripped off from Duke Ellington like "Satin Doll." But, yeah, I know better what blues is now — it's hard to miss, what with it also returning to popularity, Houses of Blues springing up like Hard Rock Cafes, and thank God I stuck around for BB King and Eric Clapton's jam on the Grammies. [This last sentence was added much later than the rest of this article.]

And then there's boogie woogie. Oh, man, when I first heard that sound my soul dived right in. I've never heard a good recorded collection of what I think of as real boogie woogie music, though another of those LPs I hope I still have was so titled. Of course, I suppose my sense of the term and what musicians consider the real thing may be at variance; for me it's got to have some upbeat variations on a real walking bass— That same walking bass, I fear, that along with the monotonously repeated upper register piano keys appeared to be the public's idea of what constituted rock 'n roll in the early years.

Lately, as I drive home from work at five, I've been listening to a show on KUNV hosted by Winton Marsalis, called something like "What Is Jazz" or "What It Is" (no, that's not what it is called!). It's a very educational program, with musicians "breaking down" (analyzing and discussing) well-known (in the jazz community) recorded works. I almost think I'm beginning to get a handle on jazz from these discussions, though it's still largely esoteric to me.

For example, I was grateful that they essayed to explain what bebop was as opposed to other types. Until then I only knew it was a kind of revolutionary variety of jazz that the Beats particularly dug. Now I know that it was in part a style that introduced bunches of grace notes into the melody line, creating a difficulty level that challenged a whole new generation of musicians ("Practice, man— Practice!") ...and on a deeper level it was the break-off of the whole jazz ethos from pop, as jazz playing developed into a self-contained artform.

If I heard the story right, the name came from when Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis or one of those cats (see, I'm still woefully ignorant—and bad on short-term memory—but it wasn't Bird) was asked about the music he was playing, and he, thinking he was being asked what the name of the piece was, replied "Bebop."

A week or two ago, Winton Marsalis led a jazz orchestra (that I understand was directly associated with Lincoln Center) in one of the "Live From Lincoln Center" concerts on PBS. The stuff was pretty abstruse to me, yet fascinating. I watched most of the program (I came in late, and remained to the end), listening to it through my somewhat cobbled-together version of a theater-surround system. He and some other musicians did a little educational kind of thing about jazz in the intermission which helped a lot to understand and appreciate what they played, afterward, at least. In this case, it was a long work that filled out the whole last half of the concert, Marsalis' composition, "Big Train." If it hadn't been for that show it's possible I wouldn't have hung around for the KUNV radio show in more recent weeks.

I've enjoyed other jazz programs on TV in the past, including a series on Bravo of which I only caught a few episodes. One of them I was watching under enhanced circumstances (uh huh) and discovered that I was (or thought I was) really getting into some of the underlying patterns of what was going on. A pianist was doing a solo bit and took a glissando chord progression down the keyboard that turned wonderfully weird at the end. I was thrilled, and the audience applauded. I'd understood it! Something I'm convinced would not have been the case had I been straight at the time. I could and can certainly see why some musicians think it helps to be high. But I never recaptured that kind of insight, though I tried any number of times... So I understand, too, now, why it doesn't necessarily pay to rely on that kind of help...

So, well, anyway. Jazz encompasses more than just one kind of music, thank goodness. That lets me keep my eclecticity intact. And I'm glad I still have some capacity to learn, about some things at least.

Later (and slightly updated) notes from a subsequent edition of Dither:

The title of Winton Marsalis' program on KUNV is Making the Music, and he leads the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. How 'bout that! Marian McPartland and Nancy Wilson also host shows (Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz and Jazz Profiles, respectively) in which they talk with jazz musicians, and, after glancing through NPR's web site, I see Branford Marsalis also has a show, Jazz Set with Branford Marsalis. Oddly enough, Wynton's show is not listed in the NPR schedule; KUNV may get it from some other source.

* KUNV converted to an all jazz format in May, 1998. I only know this because as I write this in Mid May, 1999, they are conducting a pledge drive and celebrating the first anniversary of the conversion to this format.

Later (and considerably updated) notes: KUNV continues in 2013, but its schedule barely resembles that noted above, and I tend to listen to the station much less regularly. Check it out at listen to KUNV Jazz Radio
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