Monday, August 21, 2017

Sadik Hakim: A Remembrance by David Ouse

Our thanks to JazzProfiles Dave Lull for bringing this information about Sadik Hakim to our attention so that we could present it to you as another feature in our “Forgotten Man” series.

Interestingly, Sadik has a discography of eleven recordings which you can locate by going here.

And you can also check out an extensive JazzJournal piece on him by clicking on this link.

All Content © Copyright X-Communication & Zenith City Press - Story by David Ouse. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017); used with the author's permission.

“In 1982, the music world lost a legend with the death of Thelonious Monk. At Monk’s funeral, thousands gathered to pay their respects. One of Monk’s former colleagues sat at the piano and played, according to legendary jazz writer Ted Joans, “a sad but soulful” version of Monk’s own “’Round Midnight.” That pianist was Duluth-native Sadik Hakim, who played and recorded with jazz icons from the 1940s to the 1980s. Down Beat magazine described him as “one of the unsung veterans who helped forge the bebop revolution.”

Born Argonne Dense Thornton on July 15, 1919, in Duluth, Hakim was raised—and trained—by his grandparents. His mother, Texas-native Maceola Vivian Williams, married mailman and St. Paul-native Luther Matthew Thornton at Duluth’s St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church in Duluth on October 9, 1916. They lived on Park Point at 3720 Minnesota Avenue, but the marriage had its problems, perhaps due to their age difference: Luther was 18 years older than Vivian. By January of 1922, they had separated and Luther was charged with non-support. That July Luther filed for divorce, alleging desertion. Both parents left Duluth by 1925, and young Argonne went to live with his grandparents, Henry and Jessie Williams.

By the 1890s Henry Williams—born in about 1865 in Natchez, Mississippi, to a slave mother—had landed in St. Louis, where he worked as a porter and studied music under several teachers. While in St. Louis, Henry organized a concert band that became very popular, performing in city parks. He moved to Duluth about 1904 and worked as a barber and later as an elevator operator in the old U.S. Government Building and Post Office at 431 West First Street. Henry also operated the Williams Violin School, where he taught violin to about 400 children over the years. He composed numerous spirituals and patriotic songs now forgotten (including “Bells of Emancipation” and “NRA March”) and sometimes conducted his own compositions with the local WPA band and the Duluth Civic Band. The family often performed as a chamber group—Henry played violin, his wife Jessie played cello, daughter Maceola played violin, and younger daughter Lucelia played piano and violin. Henry also wrote a radio play entitled The Rising Sons of America. In later years, he published a small monthly newspaper called the Progressive News Review. Henry and Jessie lived at 125 West Palm Street in Duluth Heights.

While Argonne attended Washington Junior High School and Central High School, he learned to play music through his grandfather’s lessons, beginning with trumpet but soon switching to piano. Argonne was drawn to jazz, but Grandpa Henry disliked the newly emerging form—he called it “ragtime” and wanted Argonne to strictly play classical music. Argonne had to wait until has grandfather had gone to work before he could listen to his jazz records.

Argonne left Duluth around 1937 and travelled to Los Angeles to visit his father. He returned to Minnesota and lived in the Twin Cities for a while, and in 1938 he went to Peoria, Illinois, to perform with trumpet player and singer Fats Dudley. By 1940 he relocated to Chicago and found work there playing with Jesse Miller, A. K. Atkinson, and Ike Day. He also met and played with Charlie Parker and performed on radio with Ben Webster.
In 1944, Webster invited him to New York. There he met up with Parker again and for a time roomed with him in an eight-room Harlem apartment. The apartment attracted musicians like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Dexter Gordon; Billie Holiday also lived there for a while. Argonne accompanied Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the legendary 1945 Ko-Ko Jazz Session for Savoy Records. Argonne toured with Lester Young from 1946 to 1948, and was involved in several memorable recordings for Aladdin Records, including the famous “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” (which Argonne composed), named for the New York disk jockey Symphony Sid Torin.

In 1947, Argonne embraced the Muslim faith and changed his name to Sadik Hakim. He toured with the James Moody Orchestra from 1951 to 1954 and in Buddy Tate’s band from 1956 to 1959. Sadik composed over 80 pieces of music in his life, including (along with Idrees Sulieman) the song “Eronel,” which for a long time was incorrectly credited to Thelonious Monk. The title is the backwards spelling of Lenore, an old girlfriend of Sadik’s. In 1961 he made his first record as the lead instrumentalist in East Meets West.
In 1966, Sadik moved to Montreal where, except for a tour of Europe in 1972 he stayed for 10 years. In Canada, he recorded two albums for Radio Canada International, London Suite and Sadik Hakim Plays Duke Ellington. He returned to the United States in 1976 and his trio, which consisted of Sadik on piano, Dave LaRocca on bass, and Al Foster on drums, appeared in a concert at the University of Minnesota Duluth on May 26, 1976, as part of the Duluth Public Library’s Celebrate Duluth’s Heritage Bicentennial program. Returning to New York, he made several recordings on the Progressive label, including Memories and A Bit of Monk, and toured Japan in 1979-1980 where he played large concert halls before enthusiastic crowds.

Back from Japan, Sadik moved into a lower Manhattan apartment and played in local jazz clubs. He died in New York on June 20, 1983, a year after he performed at Thelonious Monk’s funeral.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Biography of Fats Waller by Maurice Waller and Anthony Calabrese

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"My father [Fats Waller] had a unique system to reward inventiveness in improvisation. Pop kept two bottles of gin on a table during the rehearsals. One bottle was for himself... The other bottle was the 'encourager,' as he called it. When one of the band excelled in an improvisational section, Dad would stop the rehearsal, pour him a healthy shot of gin, and the two of them would toast each other."
- Maurice Waller

“Both Fats Waller and his principal tutor, James P. Johnson, lived lives of aching frustration. Johnson ached openly because he could find no audience for his serious compositions, but Waller's desire to find acceptance as a serious musician was buried under a heavy coating of pervasive geniality. And while Johnson plodded steadily downhill in puzzled despair, Waller's blithely ironical attitude carried him up and up and up in the material world — eventually to a level that even his enormous energy could not cope with.

He was one of the most massively talented men who has ever turned up in the world of popular music — an inimitable entertainer whose charm has, if anything, grown in the nostalgic decade and a half since his death; the writer of some of the great evergreen songs in the popular repertoire ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'"); a jazz pianist whose playing was a landmark in the development of that instrument and whose influence on pre-bop pianists was surpassed only by that of Earl Hines; and a section man who could swing an entire band as no one else could.

All of these gifts were his and yet, like the inevitable clown who wants to play Hamlet, he had a consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ. His need to offer this gift and have it accepted was almost childlike and, childlike, the hurt when it was rejected was deep and long.”
- James S. Wilson, Jazz author and critic

“Fats Waller, one of the most enduringly popular figures in American music, is a state of mind. Jazz has always claimed him (what idiom wouldn't claim him?) and yet he spent most of his abbreviated career cavorting through, and contributing to, the Tin Pan Alley canon—applying a determined jazz accent, perhaps, but with the sui generis detachment of a free-floating institution. He wasn't witty, if that word is taken to imply a kind of humor too subtle to engender belly laughs— he was funny. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask as fixed as that of Bert Williams or Spike Jones. It consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”
- Gary Giddins, Jazz author and critic

I never knew what to make of Fats Waller. His music happened way before my time and I could never seem to reconcile the views some held of him of him as little more than a musical buffoon with those that labeled him a keyboard stylist and composer of the first order.

In attempting to make up my own mind about his music, part of the problem was that most of what I had access to was derivative, in other words, what other Jazz musicians had to say on Fats’ Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose [upon which Charlie Parker’s Scrapple from the Apple is based], Squeeze Me, The Jitterbug Waltz and Black and Blue.

It really wasn’t until the reissue mania associated with the advent of the compact disc in the 1980’s that I had the opportunity to sit down and listen to the collected works of Fats which helped me finally understand what the fuss had been all about concerning his playing and his music.

One of the great joys of recorded Jazz is being able to go back in time and listen to the music of the Jazzmasters of yesteryear.

And recently, thanks to the kind folks at The University of Minnesota Press who sent along a preview copy of Fats Waller by his son Maurice and co-authored by Anthony Calabrese, I now have a narrative reminder to revisit Fats and his music.

This month [August, 2017] The University of Minnesota Press [UMP] is releasing a paperback version of the Waller-Calabrese biography of Fats which was originally published in 1977 by Schrimer Books.

As was the case with the original hardbound publication, the UMP paperback version of Fats’ bio benefits immensely from the inclusion of a Foreword by Michael Lipskin that places Waller and his music in the broader socio-cultural context of his times [Fats died in 1943 at the age of 39!].

Michael Lipskin is a veteran stride pianist and former protege of Harlem stride piano master Willie “The Lion” Smith and his Foreword contains many insights and observations about Fats including the following:

“Like most artists, Fats possessed a very complicated personality. On the surface there was the sense of humor that pervaded any situation, be it in a private party, hotel room, or concert hall. His humor always managed to get a laugh. But, on another level, it subtly pointed out the basic contradictions and deceits that he saw around him every day. There was the rampant sensualist, with tall tales of how many steaks, hamburgers, pies he could eat at one sitting. And there were the women who wanted Fats, whom Fats had trouble resisting. Above all, there was the tremendous drinking that the man could do, and did for too many years. His gargantuan capacity for life was in many ways responsible for his premature death.

Occasionally, when the party stopped, there appeared a sadness, increasingly apparent on the later slow-tempo compositions cut at private sessions, on his London Suite, and in his last Associated Program Service transcriptions. Conjecture as to specific reasons for this disparity is pointless, but conflicts in his upbringing appeared early. Fats' father, a Baptist deacon, rejected the young Waller's music, Fats' moral support coming from his mother, whose death, in Fats' fifteenth year, was a tremendous blow to him. In those times, before mass black consciousness, Negro families frowned upon jazz, and certainly did not like their children playing a music that they felt demonstrated the worst aspects of their society.

Although he took pride in what he did, and had a healthy attitude toward his music, in some small way Fats never got over the feeling that what he was contributing was not an end in itself; that his real artistic success would lie in the creation of "serious" or "classical" music. Like James P. [Johnson] and the highly individual Willie The Lion, Fats admired the "serious" tradition. The Lion's own wonderful compositions referred constantly to impressionists of the late nineteenth century, and this influence rubbed off on Fats. Consequently, Fats never quite appreciated the fact that his own contributions were different but equal in value. But it is the rare artist who has a proper perspective on his place in history.

What Fats and those around him did was create a beautiful and whole music, on both an extended intellectual level and a sensual level, many years before there was anything approaching equal opportunity for formal education, the end of segregation that would allow proper exposure to the tools of Western tradition, or the existence of a collective black ego.”

Fats Waller's death in December 1943, accelerated by his habitual overindulgence, was a worldly exit fully in keeping with his flamboyant lifestyle. His clowning and infectious capers disguised a top-ranking musical genius whose importance lay in two distinct areas: the development of the STRIDE style of piano playing to its limits of virtuosity, and the promotion of jazz as a medium for refined popular entertainment.

Waller's early keyboard training was as a church organist, an experience that enabled him as a teenager to gain employment playing in the cinemas and theaters of New York. (In later life he shocked the musical establishment by playing jazz on the organ of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.) His skills as a pianist were fostered by James P. Johnson, whose own piano concerto Yamekraw Waller performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Waller's astonishing keyboard facility and compositional fluency resulted in a steady succession of fine works for solo piano characterized by a combination of dazzling virtuosity and harmonic ingenuity, including Smashing Thirds, Alligator Crawl, and Handful of Keys. Among his admirers was Al Capone, who allegedly had Waller kidnapped at gunpoint in Chicago in the mid-1920s, just to get him to play at the gangster's birthday party.

Waller's incomparable aptitude for songwriting was developed in collaboration with lyricist Andy Razaf. Many of their numerous hits began life in stage shows, including Ain't Misbehavin. popularized by the vocal talents of Louis Armstrong, on whose gravelly tone Waller partly modeled his own singing voice.The peak of Waller's achievements came after 1934 in a series of recordings on the Victor label, made with a versatile combo billed as "Fats Waller and His Rhythm." In this context he found full expression for his remarkable comic talents, interpreting his own songs with infectious wit and a strong dose of satire. Among the most celebrated numbers in his vast repertoire was Honeysuckle Rose, which became an indispensable standard for later jazz musicians, not only in its original form, but as a harmonic skeleton on which other compositions were based.

As a keyboard technician, Waller formed an essential link between the first generation of STRIDE performers and the innovative work of later pianists such as Art Tatum  and Thelonious Monk.”

Thomas “Fats” Waller is a Jazz immortal and I for one couldn’t be happier that the UMP has sought fit to reissue in an affordable paperback format his biography by his son Maurice in conjunction with Anthony Calabrese as a reminded of that fact.

You can obtain order information on The University of Minnesota website by going here.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pops – Dave and Iola Brubeck – The Real Ambassadors

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“… in 1961, when Dave and his wife lola wrote The Real Ambassadors, which featured Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross as well as the quartet, ‘lola wanted Carmen, and we were very flattered when she agreed to do it, because she chose her material very carefully,’ Brubeck said of the singer who recorded a subsequent album with the quartet.

‘But Louis' road manager wouldn't give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis' hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered “Hi, Louis” when the door opened. Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the sessions, he was the first one in the studio and the last guy to leave.’”
- Dave Brubeck

“Why was Pops’ performance in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors such a moving and meaningful experience for him? Does this project have a special significance in Pops’ life beyond the music itself?”

“I think it does.  First, there was the challenge of learning an entire score of new material, something he really had never done before.  Even on Verve albums with Ella such as “Porgy and Bess,” I’m sure he was at least familiar with some of those great songs.  But the Brubeck’s wrote all these new songs with Louis in mind and Louis rose to the challenge by nailing it.  Also, there was the subject matter, songs about race, politics, religious, etc.  This was deep stuff and Louis responded with more seriousness and sensitivity than even Brubeck imagined bringing tears to those who heard Louis in the studio or those who witnessed the only live performance of The Real Ambassadors at Monterey in 1962.  I really think he considered it one of the highlights of his life (he dubbed it many, many times on his private tapes, right up to the end of this life) and proudly told reporters that Brubeck had written him ‘an opera.’”
-response to JazzProfiles interview question by author Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years

I got so caught up in listening to the music on The Real Ambassadors [Columbia CK 57663], that I delayed writing this piece for days. Hearing the CD again after all these years just left me spellbound, and, at times, listening to Pops really tugged at my heartstrings.

The artistry on the recording is resplendent to such a degree that it becomes all-absorbing.

And, the music is in places very reminiscent as nine of the twenty songs that make up The Real Ambassadors were previously recorded by Dave’s quartets under the same, or, different titles. Dave and Iola later added lyrics and incorporated them into the larger framework of their Jazz opera [the libretto is there but the theatrical setting is missing].

So listening to The Real Ambassadors sends you off to the record collection searching for when you first heard these tunes by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. [Just to prove, of course, that either you’ve still got it, or you’re not losing it – depending on your point-of-view.]

For example: I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me, a feature for Carmen McRae with Pops harmonizing the ending, was originally Curtain Time from the quartet’s Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. about which Dave wrote:

Curtain Time is like a pencil sketch of Broadway, a mere suggestion of what the full-color painting should be with strings, brass and the full complement of a theatre orchestra. All we have here of the real pit band is the soft tinkle of the triangle in the opening bars. The rest of the or­chestration is for you to paint as the four of us try to conjure some of the excite­ment and glamour of a Broadway musical at curtain time.”

The piece retains its lightness and gentleness when Carmen performs it as I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me and having Pops do the harmony at the end is so unexpectedly perfect – a moment in time.

Carmen also is the primary vocalist on In the Lurch, which adds lyrics to Dave’s Two-Part Contention, previously performed on Brubeck Plays Brubeck [Columbia CK-65722] solo piano album and is also a featured piece by the quartet on their recording from the group’s 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival [Columbia CL 932; SRCS 9522].

Mercifully for Carmen, the structure of In the Lurch is revised a bit from this description by Dave of the more complicated original:

"Two-Part Contention is divided into three sections, marked by three tempo changes. The first is a medium tempo; the second, slow; and the last, a fast tempo. The written portion of this tune is heard in the opening 32 bars. These two melodic lines are repeated throughout the piece. In the second section (slow tempo) I introduced a pattern of answering the right hand with the left hand, abruptly changing the register of the piano. In the third (fast) section, I tried to improvise within the limitation of two lines in the first chorus.”

Everybody’s Comin’, the tongue-twisting, jaw-cracking opening track is based on Everybody’s Jumpin’ from the Time Out album [Columbia CK-65122] with the 6/4 time signature of the original replaced by a straight 4/4 call and response between Pops and the LHR that serves to summon the faithful to the celebration.

To my ears, one of the great surprises on The Real Ambassadors is Pops’ performance on Nomad. The original version of the tune is contained on Jazz Impressions of Eurasia [Columbia CK 48351] and features a sultry, very Middle Eastern sounding alto saxophone played by the late Paul Desmond over Joe Morello’s use of tympani mallets on tom toms.

As described by Dave, the effect he was trying to achieve in Nomad was “the intricacies of Eastern rhythms … suggested by … superimposing three against the typical Jazz four.”

This Nomad is taken at a slower tempo to give Pops a chance to enunciate its clever lyrics. Clarinet replaces the alto and Joe’s tom toms are subdued while the beat is carried on a tambourine. Pops sings the first and third choruses and then takes an instantly recognizable Satchmo trumpet solo on the middle chorus which switches to straight 4/4 time.

Yet, despite these changes, The Real Ambassadors’ Nomad still evokes Dave’s intent when he originally wrote the piece: “I tried to capture the feeling of the lonely wanderer. The steady rhythm is like the ever-plodding gait of the camel, and the quicker beats are like the nomadic drums or the clapping of hands.”

It’s a credit to Pops’ genius that he could take music that is so recognizably Brubeckian and make it his own without changing the inner spirit of the piece.

Other previously recorded tunes that were converted by Dave and Iola for use in The Real Ambassadors include My One Bad Habit [My One Bad Habit is Falling In Love from The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe]; You Swing, Baby [The Duke from Jazz Red Hot & Cool, Brubeck Plays Brubeck and The Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival]; Swing Bells [Brubeck Plays Brubeck], One Moment Worth Years [Brubeck Plays Brubeck]; Summer Song [Time Signatures].

The music on The Real Ambassadors was performed once – in September, 1962 at the Monterey Jazz Festival – which would make this year’s MJF bash at the Fairgrounds in Monterey, CA the 60th anniversary of that momentous event.

The 20 tracks that comprise this “musical production by Dave and Iola Brubeck” [5 of them previously unreleased] were recorded exactly one year earlier in September 1961 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios in NYC.

Can you imagine – Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, Carmen McRae, Lambert Hendricks and Ross and a rhythm section made up of Dave Brubeck on piano, Gene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums – all gathered together in a recording studio?

Talk about a fantasy come true!

For various reasons, The Real Ambassadors almost didn’t happen and, given the circumstances under which it eventuated, it is a miracle that it came off so well.

We wanted to do justice to a feature on The Real Ambassadors so we asked Ricky Riccardi, author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years [New York: Pantheon, 2011] for permission to use the following excerpts on the evolution of the concept behind its recording and performance.

It is the most detailed description about the event that the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has been able to reference.

You can locate order information for Ricky’s What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by going here.

© -  Ricky Riccardi/Pantheon Books, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with permission.

“In September, the All Stars settled in New York to make one of the most challenging records of Armstrong's career. Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck and his wife, lola, had collaborated on a musical project titled The Real Ambassadors, which was informed by social protest suggesting that jazz musicians would make better politicians than those then in charge. It touched on many issues of the day, especially race, and the Brubeck’s had conceived of the project with Armstrong in mind after his incendiary Lit­tle Rock comments. "I think that's what we really tried to overcome when we wrote The Real Ambassadors," lola Brubeck remembered, "because before we got into this project we didn't really know Louis that well, but we sensed in him a depth and an unstated feeling we thought we could tap into without being patronizing, and I think that's why he took to it."

While they intended eventually to stage a play, the Brubeck’s wanted to record the score first. Singer Carmen McRae and the vocalese group Lam­bert, Hendricks and Ross agreed to participate, but Armstrong proved difficult to get hold of, as Dave Brubeck related. "Louis's road manager wouldn't give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis's hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered, 'Hi, Louis' when the door opened . . . Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the session, he was the first one in the studio and last guy to leave."

Brubeck's demo tapes of the material are at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. Listening to them today, one hears a very polite Bru­beck explaining the nature of the project and what Armstrong means to it. It is possible, that Brubeck gave Armstrong the demo tapes of the songs in the summer of 1961 before an All Stars' four-day tour of Germany, for Brubeck is heard saying, "I've just talked to Joe Glaser and he's told me how difficult it will be for you to record any of these things before going to Europe. But I'm hoping you can figure out the backgrounds with my group playing and me singing the songs like you asked me to do."

To his meeting in Chicago, Brubeck had brought along the lyrics to a song called "Lonesome." Without knowing the melody, Armstrong gave an impassioned reading that greatly affected Brubeck. "Now I told my wife about the way you read the song 'Lonesome' in Chicago," Brubeck says in the tape. "You didn't sing it, you just read it, and it was such a mov­ing job that I thought maybe you would be able to read this on tape and send that back to us because this wouldn't involve you singing or trying to match your voice with the backgrounds that I've sent you by my combo." Brubeck went on to tell Armstrong about lola's regard for him: "She's always considered you the greatest ambassador we've ever had." lola herself then tells the trumpeter: "I saw you tonight on [the television program] You Asked for It and I was very, very impressed with your performance on the show. It thrilled me particularly because I heard you deliver some lines in a way that I knew it was possible for you to do some of the scenes in the show I had written for you. Now, I had the feeling all along that you could do them, but I had never heard you do anything like that before, and when I saw you tonight and saw the sincerity with which [you spoke] some various lines, it impressed me terrifically." The rest of the tape fea­tures Brubeck and his trio playing the show's originals with Brubeck sing­ing the melodies ("I'm ashamed of the horrible way in which I sing," he tells Armstrong at one point).

Armstrong practiced the Brubecks’ material whenever he had the rare luxury of free time. "Louis told everybody that we had written him an opera," Brubeck remembered. The only problem was finding someone who wanted to record it. "All of the producers I took it to, thought it was great, but they'd give me all these excuses . . . You weren't supposed to have a message. I forget the word they used, but it meant you weren't entertaining. We couldn't lecture the American public on the subject of race."

Eventually, Brubeck's own label, Columbia, agreed to take on the project, which was completed over the course of three sessions in Sep­tember 1961. The first song recorded was "They Say I Look Like God," a mournful piece that pitted Armstrong's blues-infused singing against Gregorian-chant-like lines delivered by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The Brubeck’s intended the song as satire, with Armstrong wondering if God could be black. "If both are made in the image of thee," he sings, "Could thou perchance a zebra be?" Expecting Armstrong to deliver the line with his usual jocularity, they were shocked and moved by Armstrong's chilling seriousness. Armstrong had tears in his eyes when he got to the song's final line, "When God tells man he's really free"; he repeated "really free" with haunting sincerity. "Goose pimple, I got goose pimple on this one," Louis said after recording it.  For me, this is arguably the most emotionally wrenching recording of Armstrong's career—a performance that dispels any notion of Armstrong as merely a clown in his later years.

Not every song on The Real Ambassadors is quite so serious; some, such as the romping "King for a Day," are full of good humor. The first session ended with the title tune, "The Real Ambassadors," on which Armstrong sang autobiographical lyrics:

I'll explain, and make it plain, I represent the human race And don’t pretend no more.

The next day, Armstrong was joined by Carmen McRae for heav­enly vocalizing by both singers. "I Didn't Know Until You Told Me" is mainly McRae, but Armstrong harmonizes with her sublimely at the end. Next up was a vocal version of Brubeck's well-known instrumental "The Duke," re-titled "You Swing Baby." The performance was left off the original album, but it contains some stunning trumpet, with Armstrong interpreting the tricky melody made famous by Miles Davis after his own fashion. "One Moment Worth Years" features an absolutely gorgeous mel­ody, Armstrong and McRae demonstrating deep chemistry, in one of the most charming performances of Armstrong s later years.

The highlight of the day, however, was "Summer Song," a heartbreak­ing ballad that would become the album s most lasting track. "On his poi­gnant performance of 'Summer Song,' you can hear the elder Armstrong accepting the inevitability of death and looking ahead towards his final peace, even as he casts a parting glance at all of his remarkable achieve­ments," writes Chip Stern in the liner notes to the CD reissue.56 Dan Morgenstern was present at the recording session and vividly remembered that "Summer Song" was accomplished in one take, before which Brubeck at the piano had played the song for Armstrong as he mastered the lyrics. In the documentary The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, Morgenstern said, "Brubeck was totally overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, tears came to his eyes when he heard Louis do this thing, and the record of it is marvel­ous." Jack Bradley, who was also present, described the session as a "a love fest, especially between Dave Brubeck and Louie. Dave would run up and hug and kiss Louie after every take. It was a wonderful session, and it went well, considering they didn't have time to rehearse."

The lack of rehearsal led to Armstrong having trouble with some of the Brubecks’ tricky lyrics. One song, "Since Love Had Its Way," required fifteen takes to get the lyrics right. After take one of "King for a Day," Armstrong remarked, "That was a real tongue twister." Brubeck asked, "Pops, what do you want to do next?" A game Armstrong replied, "I don't care, you call ‘em." Brubeck said, "I was thinking of your lip." Armstrong answered, "It ain't the lip, it's the lyrics. You don't have to worry 'bout my chops." After another tricky lyric on "Nomad," Bradley remarked to Armstrong, "You'll get your tongue worn out with those lyrics." Armstrong replied, "More than that, I’ll get my brains worn out."

But in the end, the hard work was worth it. At the time of the sessions, Brubeck exclaimed, "This is a miracle that it came off. I didn't think it would come off, without even any rehearsal." On the final night of the ses­sions, Bradley watched as every musician left until the only ones left in the empty studio were a satisfied Brubeck and Armstrong. "Boy, oh boy, what a night we've had," Brubeck said. "We've done everything on schedule. God, boy, we had such a ball."

While in Germany the following year, Armstrong was interviewed on television by Joachim-Ernst Behrendt. "The latest thing I've done is with Brubeck," he told Behrendt. "It turned out nice. Yeah, I told a guy, I just made a record with Brubeck.' 'Brubeck!?' I said, 'Yeah! I'll play with anybody, man, you kidding?' That's my hustle. Good, too!" (Nor was Armstrong kidding about playing with anybody. Only two weeks after the Brubeck session, he had reunited with trombonist Kid Ory at Disneyland.)

Having recorded the tracks for The Real Ambassadors, the Brubeck’s set about staging the play, but could not get it off the ground. But by the time Armstrong was interviewed by Behrendt, things seemed more promising. "We're going to do a concert with everybody that was in this session, right from the stage," Armstrong said. "It even might be on TV. . . And we're going to have the ranks and everything, same as opera, you know what I mean. It's going to be all right. We're doing it at the Monterey Jazz Festival."

On September 23,1962, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, The Real Ambas­sadors had its first and only performance, complete with costumes and scenery. The performance opened with a speech read by a narrator that showed no doubt that this work was written with Armstrong in mind:

Our story concerns a jazz musician not unlike the musicians you have seen on this stage the past three days. The personal history of our hero reads like the story of jazz—up from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to Chicago and beyond—from New York to San Francisco, London to Tokyo and points in between. The music which poured from his horn became his identity—his passport to the world—the key to locked doors. Through his horn he had spoken to millions of the world's people. Through it he had opened doors to presidents and kings. He had lifted up his horn, as our hero would say, and just played to folks on an even soul-to-soul basis. He had no political message, no slogan, no plan to sell or save the world. Yet he, and other traveling musicians like him, had inadvertently served a national purpose, which officials recognized and eventually sanctioned with a program called cultural exchange.

Brubeck remembered a funny story about the Monterey performance. "At dress rehearsal, I said to Louis, 'You're the real ambassador, will you wear this top hat and carry the attaché case? The audience will imme­diately identify you as the real ambassador,' and he said, 'Dave, I'm not wearin' a top hat and I'm not carrying that case.' It came time to open and it was time for the concert to begin, Louis to make his entrance, and he came in, there's the top hat, the attaché case and he struts right by me and he says, 'Pops, am I hammin' it up enough to suit you now?' " There was no hamming when Armstrong reprised "They Say I Look Like God." Before an audience, Brubeck still expected the lyrics to get a laugh, but once again Armstrong remained completely serious. "There wasn't a smile in the audience, Louis had tears," Brubeck remembers. "He took those lines that we thought would get laughs right to his heart and everybody in that audience felt what he felt."

The Real Ambassadors was a triumph for Armstrong, but because of Joe Glaser no film of the live performance survives. "Well, the reviews were fantastic," Brubeck said. "[Ralph] Gleason and [Leonard] Feather—to give you an example of two people who weren't too kind to me—they flipped over it. They had tears in their eyes after the concert, and said they felt it was the greatest thing ever done at Monterey. But Glaser wouldn't allow me to have the TV crew turn the cameras on—and they were stand­ing right there."62 Glaser's insistence on not filming The Real Ambassadors has deprived jazz fans of the chance of witnessing one of the most impor­tant evenings in the careers of both Armstrong and Brubeck, but the stu­dio recordings are still in print and grow in stature with each passing year. Armstrong remained proud of the project, telling Feather, "It was five years ahead of its time and the big shots that buy shows for Broadway were afraid of it... I had to learn all that music, and I'd never done nothing at this kind before. Brubeck is great!"  And Brubeck wrote: "When The Real Ambassadors was performed . . . the most critical jazz audience in the world rose as one body to give Louis Armstrong and the cast a standing ovation. It was an electrifying moment.

With the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles developed the following video montage which has as its audio track, Pops’ beloved Summer Song as sung by him to the accompaniment of Dave Brubeck on piano, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums. [Click on the “X” to close out of the ads should they appear.]

Friday, August 18, 2017

On "Expedition" with Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Our goal has been to approach the music without a score or any preconception; to be as fully present as possible, "riding the moment," and allowing the music to go where it wants — without any constraint of genre, or fixed harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic structure. We hope that what emerges are spontaneous compositions that have freshness, beauty, excitement, internal logic, new sounds, and a sense of journey — an "expedition."”
- Denny Zeitlin

This piece gets it title from the recently released Sunnyside CD Expedition [SSC 1487] that features keyboard artist Denny Zeitlin and percussionist George Marsh, which is a follow-up, or perhaps a better way to phrase it would be a follow-on to their critically acclaimed Riding the Moment which was issued by Sunnyside in 2015.

The common element in both of these recordings is spontaneous improvisation [or what Denny refers to as “spontaneous compositions”] by Denny and George in a quest for new sounds, what Stan Kenton termed “neophonic” music some years ago. Of course, the entire history of Jazz could be considered the ultimate neophonic musical progression as the sound of the music was constantly in flux due to the changing styles in which it is played.

The same holds true today and alterations in Jazz are even more dramatic now that it has assumed international proportions.

But while Kenton’s neophonic Jazz was predicated on arranged and written out compositions that select soloists used as a point of departure for their improvisation, Denny and George have opted for a more immediately responsive, almost reactive, basis for their improvisation by essentially interacting with one another while playing their instruments over a span of time or what Denny refers to as “real time.”

There are compositions on Expedition, thirteen of them, in fact, but I suspect that their real purpose is to basically set the mood for what is referred to as the duo electro-acoustic improvisations.

This is mind-centered music, which is not as redundant or obvious a description as it might seem, in that all musical performance requires a mental preparedness to execute along with trained muscle memory and breathing techniques depending on what instrument is being played.

Heard in the mind or intellectual music seems to be the central orientation of the music on Expedition which makes it no less interesting than that which is generated from the heart or the emotions.

This emphasis on the mental process of what author -journalist Arthur Koestler termed “the Act of Creation” is not coincidental because paralleling Denny Zeitlin’s career as a Jazz musician has been his professional life as a former Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco and currently as clinical psychiatrist in private practice.

The Process of Creation is one that Denny has taken part in personally and professionally so he is on intimate terms with Koestler’s axiom that
creative activity can be described as a type of learning process where teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.

He and percussionist par excellence George Marsh continue to explore the dynamics of creation at an exciting level of interaction on Expedition. And what’s more, while doing so, they heed bassist Bill Crow’s admonition about the purpose of Jazz - they have fun. You can sense the thrill of adventure in the music they are making as the music is alive; boundless; unpredictable - just they way it should be at this stage of their long careers in music.

You know they know the rules, the conventions, the patterns associated with making Jazz, and the follow them to some extent to keep their bearings in the musical journey that they are undertaking together. But what you don’t know is where the music is going because you’ve never heard music that sounds like this before.

The luxury of being able to create unfettered music in this manner is as it should be at this point in their respective careers: these men have paid their dues; they have become accomplished musicians; the least we can do is accord them the privilege of listening to their not inconsiderable, yet unconventional, musical musings.

Interestingly, I found that of the thirteen tracks on the CD, I could listen to them as self contained units or as a suite in 13 parts; in other words, individually or as a continuum. These are not melodically memorable pieces but they do evoke moods some of which are almost introspective and meditative.

Track sequencing is a matter of taste so while I deferred to the manner in which the music is arranged on the CD during my first listening, I subsequently tried listening to it using the Random feature on my disc changer and this revealed further surprises in the music.

While listening to the music on Expedition, I became aware of the level of technical mastery that Denny and George have on keyboards and percussion which allows them to maintain an inner core of discipline in order to keep such freely created music from becoming a train wreck.

There is a constant balancing going on in the music - a tension and release - that requires Denny and George to come together at times, pull apart at other times and also parallel one another at other times as the music evolves through spontaneous improvisation.

Denny offers more insights into the “how and why” the music on Expedition came together in the following insert notes to the recording.

A Note From Denny Zeitlin... In the two years since Sunnyside's 2015 release of Riding The Moment, George and I have continued our expedition into new territories of spontaneous composition, and this CD chronicles what has been an exciting and enriching evolution. For listeners having a first contact with our duo, I'll repeat my remarks from our first album, since the set and setting remain the same.

This album, like Riding The Moment, has roots going back to the late sixties, when I began a decade of exploring the electro-acoustic integration of jazz, classical, funk, rock, and free-form music. My trio included Mel Graves or Ratso Harris on bass, and throughout, the incredible drummer/percussionist George Marsh. We recorded and toured the West Coast, concluding this period with my electro-acoustic-symphonic score for the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I then returned to a focus on acoustic solo, duo, and trio music for a couple of decades, and George went on to numerous other projects. With the passage of the millennium, synthesizer and recording technological advances lured me back into a major and ongoing studio upgrade.

Both/And(Sunnyside 2013) was devoted to the electro-acoustic domain as a soloist. And since 2013, George and I have musically re-united, and have been exploring the potential of duo electro-acoustic free improvisations — the co-creation of what we often refer to as "sound paintings."

Our goal has been to approach the music without a score or any preconception; to be as fully present as possible, "riding the moment," and allowing the music to go where it wants — without any constraint of genre, or fixed harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic structure. We hope that what emerges are spontaneous compositions that have freshness, beauty, excitement, internal logic, new sounds, and a sense of journey — an "expedition."

Over 95% of this music was recorded in "real time" with one pass. On those occasions where I didn't have enough hands to play what I was hearing, I over-dubbed some orchestration or a solo voice. And in those instances, I typically went with the first take, to preserve the spontaneity of the project.

I believe you will hear in our interaction that George is a full partner in the co-creation of this album. To preserve acoustic separation during recording we were unable to see each other; we were carried by our shared musical vision, trust, and a rapport that seems telepathic. We often feel like we are some kind of galactic orchestra.”

And Bret Sjerven at Sunnyside sent along the following media release about Denny, George and Expedition:

“For longtime collaborators Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh much of their enthusiasm for music lies in exploration of new terrain. Their recording Expedition finds them continuing their journey into the worlds of sound and spontaneous composition.

Pianist Denny Zeitlin has long been in the vanguard of musical innovation. His 1960s acoustic trio was one of the first to advance beyond the concepts of Bill Evans, and his genre defying electro-acoustic experiments were some of the most intriguing from a jazz musician.

Zeitlin always wanted to develop his ability to be more expansive with his sound. As a child, the pianist dreamed of being able to control an orchestra with a single device. Zeitlin was obviously ready for the advances in synthesized sounds that developed, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, which put an orchestra at his fingertips. He quickly adopted synthesizers and sound design into his musical language, creating classic records like Expansion and the soundtrack to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Innovative percussionist George Marsh was there through all of these electro-acoustic professional musical excursions, offering a sympathetic and advanced sense of what percussion could add in these widely varying situations. His egoless approach makes him a perfect partner for Zeitlin, as everything they do together serves the music.

During the past four years, Zeitlin and Marsh's collaboration has been reenergized. Meeting regularly at Zeitlin's home studio, the two have explored new topographies in collaborative music making. They both see their meetings as a privilege, as there are no pressures of time, finance or extraneous purpose to impede their enthusiastic music making.
Zeitlin's studio, with its array of keyboards, synthesizers, grand piano, pedals, outboard gear, computers, and monitors, evokes images of Mission Control at NASA.

Setting up to preserve track separation while recording, Zeitlin and Marsh are unable to see each other, and depend upon a rapport that seems telepathic. They have focused on free improvisation — spontaneous compositions that arise with no preconception. With their shared vision, the music is allowed to bloom on its own accord; there is a fluidity within the sound as harmonic and rhythmic textures weave themselves in and out. Times signatures often do not apply, as many of the pieces find the collaborators switching and blending continually.

The initial presentation of some of the fruits of their labor was the critically acclaimed Riding The Moment (Sunnyside, 2015.)

Two years later, their follow-up recording. Expedition, shows just how profound their relationship has become. The music demonstrates the very feeling of delight that the musicians take in the freedom they have in conjuring their music.

The music presented is inspired and stylistically varied. There are atmospheric pieces, like "Geysers" and the quietly surging "The Hunt," and ballad-like ruminations, like the ambient "Thorns of Life" and "Spiral Nebula." The pulsating uptempo tracks are rhythmically fascinating, like the skittery percussion highlight "Shooting The Rapids" and the driving "Sentinel." The triumphant "Expedition" is a perfect example of the duo's goal of creating a succinct composition with direction and arc, all spontaneously in the moment.

Zeitlin and Marsh's forward-thinking collaboration spans 50 years. Their connection has only gotten stronger as they have invested themselves in expanding their vocabularies in electric-acoustic and improvised music. Expedition brilliantly displays what two highly attuned and flexible musicians can create on the fly.”

You can locate order information about Expedition and sample the music on it by visiting Denny at