The attack on jazz

Sam Smith – A strange thing is going on about jazz, of which John Halle, director of music theory at Bard College, makes an interesting FB comment:

John Oliver last night: “Congress is like jazz in that most people hate it and anyone who says they don’t is lying.” Someone needs to get to the bottom of all this. My provisional take: jazz is a proxy for Obama buyers’ remorse. All the smart people (often the same people) told us we should wave the pom-poms. But just as Obama turned out to be just another politician so too is jazz just another form of music. Some of it great, some of it appalling, most of it mediocre. Lord knows I wish we got the political backlash instead of the musical one, but that’s the way things roll right now-for reasons which should be discussed and better understood.

My own thinking is that music and culture are so intertwined that music outside of a contemporary culture can sometimes be as alien as fashion that doesn’t reflect the times. And there is a tie with politics, too,  i have, for example, long listed the disco drum machine, along with the Harvard Business School and Yale Law School, as major causes of the collapse of the First American Republic.

There have been times when the popular taste in music has been far more eclectic.When I had a radio jazz show in college back in the 1950s, for example, the tension between the classical, jazz and folk DJs mainly consisted of bad jokes. This is clearly not such a time, due in no small part to the way the monopolistic music industry currently runs the show and controls what we hear.

But it is the duty of any artist is not to be cowed by the tyranny of the present. And about the time that we start to get out of our current cultural disasters we will undoubtedly be aided by new sounds many would not tolerate today. As Louis Armstorng put it once, “If they act too hip, you know they can’t play shit.”












Louis Armstrong and the civil rights movement

Sam Smith – Louis Armstrong, given his great popularity among whites, would, from time to time, come under criticism for not doing more for civil rights. Ben Schwartz in the New Yorker sheds some interesting light on this in a new article, including Armstrong’s response for not having taken part in a protest march:

“My life is my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn … They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”

In fact, musicians vary markedly in their activism and often express it in their own most familiar language: music. For example, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a song about lynching, became popular more than a decade before the modern civil rights movement. And we forget that musicians on the road in integrated bands were among those who ran most directly into the walls of segregation. It was, for example, one reason Armstrong didn’t return to New Orleans for years.

And then there are the stories, that get missed, like this one in Schwartz’ article:

One example, of too many, came when Armstrong was arrested by the Memphis Police Department in 1931. His crime? He sat next to his manager’s wife, a white woman, on a bus. Armstrong and his band were thrown in jail as policemen shouted that they needed cotton pickers in the area. Armstrong’s manager got him out in time to play his show the next evening. When he did play, Armstrong dedicated a song to the local constabulary, several of whom were in the room, then cued the band to play “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Old Rascal You.” The band stiffened, expecting another night in jail, or worse. Instead, he scatted so artfully that, afterward, the cops on duty actually thanked him. Armstrong most likely never quit smiling that night. His subversive joke was not understood by anyone except the African-Americans in his band.

Schwartz also writes:

Armstrong chose his battles carefully. In September, 1957, seven months after the bombing attempt in Knoxville, he grew strident when President Eisenhower did not compel Arkansas to allow nine students to attend Little Rock Central High School. As [Terry] Teachout recounts in “Pops,” here Armstrong had leverage, and spoke out. Armstrong was then an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Armstrong stated publicly that Eisenhower was “two-faced” and had “no guts.” He told one reporter, “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” His comments made network newscasts and front pages, and the A.P. reported that State Department officials had conceded that “Soviet propagandists would undoubtedly seize on Mr. Armstrong’s words.”….

When Eisenhower did force the schools to integrate, Armstrong’s tone was friendlier. “Daddy,” he telegrammed the President, “You have a good heart.”

Unmentioned by Schwartz is an example of Armstrong, like Holiday and other musicians, helping to frame an issue well before political activists. Here are the lyrics to “Black and Blue,” written by Fats Waller in 1929 and later an Armstrong standard:

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feels like ol’ Ned wished I was dead
What did I do to be so black and blue

Even the mouse ran from my house
They laugh at you and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue

I’m white inside but that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face

How would it end, ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue

How would it end, ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue

It was a song, incidentally, that helped turn me, then a young white high school student in the segregationist 1950s, not only on to jazz, but towards the civil rights movement when it arrived a few years later.

Music can work like that.

Black and Blue

Thelonius Monk

Born Oct 10, 1917

Sam Smith, MultitudesJust as the Harlem Renaissance has been treated mainly as a literary phenomenon, so it was with the beat era.

After all, it is writers and not artists and musicians who get to tell the story afterwards. I never paid much attention to the writers and poets. While a couple of my friends mounted teletype paper rolls behind their typewriters in imitation of the author of “On the Road,” for me it was Miles and Bird and Thelonious who were the epitome of beatness, not Kerouac or Ginsberg. And even Kerouac described his writing as “spontaneous bop prosody.”

Besides, Miles and Thelonius actually came to Boston, the former once playing most of a concert with his back to the audience and the latter once sitting silently at the piano as his partners turned the introduction into a endless bass solo punctuated by a single note on the keyboard.

“Play something,” a man sitting at a front table demanded. Thelonious let the cigarette fall from his mouth to the stage and then kicked it onto the man’s table. Rising slowly, he stepped down from the stage and began to circle the perimeter of the room staring blankly at his audience. He eventually left the nightclub and headed for the airport.

Years later, Time Magazine would report: “In Boston Thelonius Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation. He was quickly released without strings, and though the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again, he now tells it as a certification of his sanity. “I can’t be crazy,” he says with conviction. “’cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.”

Much of the confusion about the state of Monk’s mind is simply the effect of Monkish humor. He has a great reputation in the jazz world as a master of the “put-on,” a mildly cruel art invented by hipsters as a means of toying with squares. Monk is proud of his skill. “When anybody says something that’s a drag,” he says, “I just say something that’s a bigger drag. Ain’t nobody can beat me at it either. I’ve had plenty of practice.”

Upright falldown

Your editor at his upright with clarinetist Don Rouse

Sam Smith – This is not a good year for Steinway. First the company was taken over by a hedge fund. Now David Jenson, my piano tuner tells me that the wood on my 115 year old Steinway upright has dried out and isn’t holding things like screws like it once did.

I asked David how my piano compared in age among the ones he tunes. He said he had one older up in the Rangely Lake area, about a hundred miles from here.

I bought the 1898 Steinway in the early 1970s when uprights were not popular. The guy at Kitt’s Music Store in DC told me that I should just come in and get whatever they had that day. The afternoon I followed his advice the Steinway was the only upright in the shop. And so I bought it. For $300.

For years it was cared for and refinished by James Shadd, a pianist and band leader who had backed up Josephine Baker during WWII among other things. Shadd started his piano hospital in 1941 and one of the delights of having him tune your piano would be that he would tell you some great stories and, when he was through, let loose with a few jazz numbers. Once he told me that his mother had a band that Doris Duke used regularly. Doris Duke gave his mother a white Cadillac, “but, you know, my mama drank that Cadillac right up.”

James Shadd

When James Shadd passed, his son Warren took over. His firm sells and fixes all sorts of pianos, ad was the first to bridge acoustic pianos with new technology that includes touchscreen monitors, built-in audio, Internet access, DVD/BluRay Drive, MIDI and so forth. Warren, whose mother was a stride piano player and aunt was Shirley Horn, not only is deep into pianos but started playing drums when he was four. .He’s serviced pianos for Herbie Hancock, Tony Bennett, and Aretha Franklin. and performed or recorded on drums with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Dizzy Gillespie.

So my upright has had some pretty wonderful attention.

Upright being introduced to Maine

It even survived being moved to Maine with us four years ago thanks in no small part to the fine attention of piano tuner David Jensen.

But now the end is in sight, especially thanks to a bad E in the octave below middle C, It’s hard to explain to non-musicians but losing a favorite instrument is like losing an arm or a leg. It allowed you to do things you never could have done otherwise.

I don’t have any idea what I’ll do now, but while I figure it out, I’ll just work on avoiding that E below middle C, and cling to one of the best relationships I ever had.

Jocko Henderson

Sam Smith

More often than should be the case, I get distracted by Google and start looking into something or someone who just happens to cross my mind. Most recently it was Jocko Henderson. 

By the late fifties, the hounds of change were on radio’s traces. Television was seizing for itself the stories, the vaudeville and the sense of being there that had been the heart of radio. And into the void was moving a new kind of music called rock ‘n’ roll.

To be sure rock ‘n’ roll already existed, but it was known as “rhythm ‘n’ blues” or “R&B.” In the jargon of white broadcasters, it was “race music,” although some white teenagers, myself included, listened almost surreptitiously to stations like Philadelphia’s WDAS, where DJ Jocko Henderson proto-rapped:

Get a little cash from out of your stash,
And make like a flash in the hundred yard dash
Right down to my man John Kohler at 4th & Arch
And tell him Jocko sent you!

Years later Jocko Henderson would be recognized as one of the fathers of rap and hip hop.

The SilhouettesDouglas “Jocko” Henderson, “The Ace from Outer Space”, was a pioneering radio broadcaster whose career spanned five decades.

Born in Baltimore in 1918, Jocko began his broadcasting career in 1952 on radio station WSID. The next year he moved to WHAT in Philadelphia, adopted his enduring nickname, and a few months later went to WDAS, developing a rhyming style of delivery that can be seen as a forerunner of many later rap artists.

“This is your ace… from outer space… not the duplicator… not the imitator… not the impersonator… but the originator!”

Jocko played rhythm and blues music – with no station-imposed playlist – and his Rocket Ship Show was immensely popular. As his fame spread he did shows that aired in Boston, Detroit, Washington DC, St Louis and Miami, and at one time regularly did a daytime show in Philadelphia and an evening one in New York.

Jocko Henderson died aged 82 in July 2000.

Broadcast Pioneers “Hello, Daddy-O and Mommy-O, This is Jocko” was all the rage in Philadelphia and later in New York City. His thing was rhyming words like, “eee-tiddlee-yock, this is the Jock,” or “oo-papa-doo, how do you do.” While not the first to do this, it worked. Word has it that his fan club numbered 50,000 people at one time.

…After running unsuccessfully for the United States Congress in the Second District in 1978, he spent much of his efforts promoting his “Get Ready” program for school districts around the country. Jocko made records of himself teaching our youth everything from math to American history with rap lyrics.

In August of 2001, we received an e-mail from Raymond Witter of Great Britain. He writes in part:

   I’m from England. I’m England’s first rapper, the original English rapper. The first rap that reached England was ‘rapper’s delight’ then ‘christmas rapping’ then ‘rhythm talk’ by Jocko…. All I remember is the bits you quoted plus ‘I’m the middleweight champ at 163, you’ve gotta be bad to hang with me’.

A visitor to our website identified as Professor D, e-mailed:

   I can still here him saying, and me hanging on his every word, “HICKORY DICKORY DOCK; THE MOUSE  RAN UP THE CLOCK BUT AT 12 05 TO HIS RADIO HE DIVED AND SAID.LET’S RETURN TO THE JOCK.”

 Recording of Jock Henderson