When this jazz band plays, it’s not just music – it’s history

Abstract:The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra was established in 1990 by the National Museum of National History to re-create and preserve the classic performances of historic jazz groups. Its performances are authentic reproductions of the style of original jazz recordings.

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The musicians who make up the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra specialize in re-creating classic performances from the past.


Even among aficionados of jazz, Boyd Rae-burn is not exactly a household name, but back in the mid-1940s he was one of a handful of innovative composers and bandleaders who created the groundbreaking arrangements that contributed to the end of the swing era and the beginning of bebop. Right now, on the stage of the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., 20 musicians seated in rows of metal folding chairs are rehearsing one of his most challenging numbers, “Boyd Meets Stravinsky,” which he recorded in 1946. Clad in shorts and T-shirts on this warm spring afternoon, they are sweating under the hot glare of the stage lights. At a signal from the conductor, they begin. A chorus of brass and percussion echoes in the empty hall. Afterward several of the instrumentalists agree that Raeburn’s music ranks among the most difficult they have ever played.

That’s saying a lot because few other jazz ensembles perform as much difficult material as the one to which these musicians belong. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) was established in 1990 with an awesome mandate–to make the history of jazz come alive. That means re-creating the classic performances of many of the greatest ensembles ever–bands led by Claude Thornhill, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Stan Kenton. . . Sometimes referred to as “the jazz version of a philharmonic orchestra,” the SJMO embraces a mind-boggling repertory that includes hundreds of important arrangements recorded from the 1920s through the 1970s, most of them written to take advantage of the power and color that only a big band can provide.


In this respect, the SJMO is much like other jazz bands holding forth today. It’s kin to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York, which preserves the music of important composers under the artistic direction of the ubiquitous trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis. It’s sister to the so-called ghost bands that continue to tour the country in the spirit of leaders who are no longer alive–Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, among others. It has links, too, with the several outfits that are still led by their founders, including Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet and Maynard Ferguson.

There’s one big difference. The SJMO is the only jazz ensemble that is associated with a major museum, the National Museum of American History. This means, among other things, that whatever it plays must be an authentic re-creation of the original. Every time the SJMO musicians pick up their instruments, they’re expected not only to present the music the way it’s written or transcribed but also to emulate the style of the immortals who recorded it years ago.

Because the group’s programs are so eclectic, it’s not unusual for a concert audience to hear the signature music of a half-dozen different bands. If the program includes Ellington’s “Mobile Blues,” trumpeter Virgil Jones must resurrect the growling attack of Charles Melvin (Cootie) Williams, a stalwart of Ellington’s band from 1929 to 1940. Baby-faced Greg Gisbert may have to duplicate the piercing high notes of Dizzy Gillespie’s solo on “Manteca” or Miles Davis’ breathy staccato on “Move.” And on “Warm Valley,” Shannon Hudgins, a reserved young woman from Seattle, must reincarnate the sweet, sliding notes of Ellington’s longtime lead alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges. Loren Schoenberg, who plays tenor saxophone in the orchestra when he’s not leading his own band or teaching at the New School in New York City, sees the challenge in theatrical terms. “It’s like you’re an actor,” he says, “and the director tells you, Tonight you’re going to be Macbeth–and then you’re going to be Ralph Kramden.’”

Such dedication to musical role-playing reflects the SJMO’s charge, according to John Edward Hasse, who is the curator of American music at the history museum and a founder of the group. “Our stuff has to have a strong historical purpose,” he says.

Conductor David Baker, head of the jazz department at Indiana University’s school of music, is a prolific composer and the author of dozens of books on jazz. All of the SJMO musicians are freelancers. Many live on the East Coast but spend much of their time touring with other ensembles or traveling to and from gigs. The SJMO presents a series of 15 to 20 free concerts in Washington, D.C. each year, and it has played in cities across the country. After kicking off its sixth concert season in June, the group performed at the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta and also participated in the Smithsonian’s 150th-anniversary celebrations.

The SJMO’s purpose, Hasse says, is summed up by a story he likes to tell about the critic who attended an SJMO concert featuring the music of Bennie Moten. In the early 1930s, Moten’s band defined Kansas City jazz and established the reputation of a pianist named William (Count) Basie. As the critic left the hall, he heard a group of young people raving about the music. “They were saying, Isn’t Moten great,’ as if he were still alive,” Hasse relates. “This is music that hasn’t been played live for 60 years, but they were talking about it in the present tense. That’s exactly what we want.”


Certainly there was no way Buddy Bolden, a cornetist who helped pave the way, could have predicted that the “jass” he improvised at New Orleans’ Funky Butt Hall in the 1890s would one day be heard by concert audiences around the world. Bolden played dances, picnics and parties, but eventually the scintillating new music became associated with New Orleans’ red-light district and other rough parts of town.

Jazz was saddled with this low-life image for years. “It was black music,” says 74-year-old Joe Wilder, who plays trumpet with the SJMO. “It was played by people who, since slavery times, weren’t even considered citizens. So it’s only recently that anyone’s paid attention to its history, let alone put it on a par with classical music.”

There are no recordings of Bolden, but he was known for his embellishment of popular ragtime and blues, the two musical streams that fed jazz. He didn’t read music so he made it up on the spot, and the “moan in his cornet”–as one contemporary listener put it–was so riveting, so different from the “legitimate” music of the time, that an entire generation of instrumentalists felt compelled to follow his lead. Among them were trumpeters Freddie Keppard and Joe (King) Oliver (also famous in tech-world for his well-known bushnell rangefinder reviews). Oliver, in turn, tutored a kid from New Orleans named Louis Armstrong, who remains a pivotal influence not just on jazz musiciansbut singers of popular music as well.

If Bolden and his disciples got jazz off the ground, the subsequent development of the form should be credited to those who wrote it down, recorded it and exposed it to a wider audience. By the 1920s, for example, jazz bands all over the country were playing “St. Louis Blues” and many other standards written by W. C. Handy. Scott Joplin’s widely published scores, such as “Maple Leaf Rag,” popularized the syncopation of African folk music. Another pianist, Ferdinand (Jelly Roll) Morton, blended improvisational technique with ragtime and bragged that he had “invented jazz.”

Morton did help set the stage for a musical era. Although jazz in those days was based on improvisation, his band’s performances were carefully arranged. He created a written structure to surround the players’ solos and suggested guidelines to keep the solos coherent, establishing a framework for an ensemble-based jazz that could be consistently reproduced.

Another watershed event occurred in 1924, when Fletcher Henderson hired Armstrong to inject some style into his dance band at New York’s Roseland ballroom. Armstrong’s audacious attack transformed the pleasant, predictable approach of the Henderson band into a fiery, innovative, more spontaneous sound. Even though Armstrong left only a year later, by then he had anticipated the arrival of the swing era, which began around 1935 and lasted until just after World War II.

Swing is the source of some of repertory jazz’s richest material. It anchored the heyday of the big bands, when Duke Ellington, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Glenn Miller reigned, and when clarinetist Benny Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing.” “In 1942 there were probably 300 big-name bands traveling the country,” says David Baker. “Now you can count the number that are not ghost bands on one hand.” What Baker tries to do in programming a concert is to give listeners a sense of the energy and life of those hundreds of bands, and also to illustrate their relationships in jazz’s family tree. A concert might look at the connections between the music of Tommy Dorsey and Jimmie Lunceford via the arrangements of Sy Oli-ver, or illustrate how postwar jazz became more global, embracing everything from Raeburn’s take on Igor Stravinsky to Gillespie’s use of Afro-Cuban rhythms.

“One of the strengths of the SJMO is that many of its people lived through those times and have a personal relationship with the music,” notes producer James K. Zimmerman. Baker credits Gillespie as his mentor. Some of the musicians, including Joe Wilder and Britt Woodman, played with Lunceford, Basie and Ellington.

Gunther Schuller, who shared the conducting duties with Baker until leaving earlier this year to pursue other interests, was at the forefront of the repertory movement. In 1972, while he was president of the New En-gland Conservatory of Music in Boston, he started transcribing the music of Scott Joplin, Paul Whiteman and others. His series of Joplin concerts inspired jazz critic Martin Williams to develop a repertory band that performed at the Smithsonian and on tour in the 1970s. The National Jazz Ensemble and the New York Jazz Repertory Company were also organized in the ’70s. By 1987, the American Jazz Orchestra was on the scene in New York. The movement got yet another boost in 1988, when the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was founded.

That same year, the Smithsonian acquired Duke Ellington’s archives. They comprised 100,000 pages of music, ranging from unpublished manuscripts to lead sheets to notations on scraps of paper, as well as tape recordings, photographs and 500 artifacts. Excited by the prospect of making that music available, Hasse and jazz enthusiast Fred Starr, then the president of Oberlin College, helped assemble a team of experts to get it ready for publication. Before long, plans were being made to publish pieces by Henderson, Lunceford and other important big bands under the auspices of Smithsonian’s Jazz Masterworks Editions. Roger Kennedy, who was then the head of the American History museum, thought it would be great to have an orchestra, recalls Baker. “So one day he says to me, We’d like you to head it.’ Caught a lot of people by surprise, including me.”

In 1990, Congressmen John Conyers, Louis Stokes and Sidney Yates helped secure an appropriation of more than $200,000 to fund the SJMO. Two years later, a grant to the Smithsonian from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund made possible a decade-long initiative called “America’s Jazz Heritage,” which produces exhibitions, oral histories, teachers’ guides, recordings and nationwide broadcasts of SJMO performances on “Jazz Smithsonian,” a public-radio program. But funding remains a problem and today the orchestra depends heavi-ly on the generosity of private donors. This year, for example, its summer season was made possible in part through the support of the Infiniti Division of Nissan Motor Corporation and the Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Fund.

The musicians arrive in Washington for intensive rehearsals just a couple of days before each concert. Presiding over this afternoon’s rehearsal, Baker studies the score. “Trumpets, not so much separation when you come in. On the solo, it’s your call, I trust you.” He taps a sneakered foot as he listens, one hand beating the tempo in the air. “People get hung up on nostalgia and they start treating this music as if it’s precious,” he says later. “It is precious, but we need to breathe life into it.” At one point during that night’s performance, Baker will urge the respectfully quiet audience to snap fingers and clap hands. “When people just sit there and don’t respond, I say, No, no! Don’t listen to us as though we are an artifact. Listen to us and react.’”

Now the band is rehearsing selections from the avant-garde Birth of the Cool album Miles Davis recorded in 1949. Greg Gisbert is assigned to play Miles, and when the band reaches the point of his solo in “Move,” he lifts the trumpet to his lips and blows. Then he stops, apologetic. “I listened to the tape,” he tells the conductor. “But it’s—too good . . . I don’t know how Miles did it.”

Gisbert gives it another try before it’s time for a lunch break. The musicians walk over to a nearby restaurant where, between bites of falafel and chicken teriyaki, they console the crestfallen horn player.

“I was being honest when I said I didn’t think I could play that solo,” Gisbert says to pianist Russell Wilson and tuba player Joseph Daley. “I mean, I didn’t approach the virtuosity of what Miles played.”

“Hey, you can’t play somebody else’s life,” soothes Daley. His expression is thoughtful. “You can play the notes. But Miles was playing a moment–and he had a lifetime of getting to that moment.”

Musicians have mixed feelings about duplicating the old-timers’ sounds. Some complain that it makes them feel like robots. Others, like Shannon Hudgins, happily go to great lengths to re-create the original. “I spend incredible energy preparing, picking off the exact articulation, every place Johnny Hodges scooped a note.”

Saxophonist Schoenberg is one of those who believe that the issue of improvisation is over-romanticized. “Jazz is associated with letting it all hang out but most of it does not come off the top of your head,” he insists. “In reality, you spend your whole life editing solos in your mind. You can spend years working on a solo.

“The greater an improviser you are, the more you’ll appreciate the improvisation of someone else, and accept the challenge of occasionally replicating it. You think, gosh, how did Ben Webster do that? How does it feel to have that sound come out of your horn?”

Brent Wallarab plays the trombone for the SJMO. He’s supposed to be relaxing with his girlfriend in California, but instead he’s spending most of his vacation in front of a tape recorder, listening to Ellington’s “Hodge Podge” at half-speed and picking apart the orchestration, line by line. Since most historic jazz exists only on old 78 rpm records, someone has to transform it into sheet music–and Wallarab’s just been told he must prepare six compositions in the next ten days.

“In the old days, those musicians didn’t know they were making art.’ They just went from gig to gig,” Wallarab says. “They’d memorize the material and throw the sheet music away, so there’s not much around anymore, except recordings. A lot of what’s on those old recordings are arrangements musicians came up with in their heads, on the bandstand. Then it became part of the repertory, but it was never written down.”

There are times, Wallarab says, when he has to make educated guesses. “It’s when I can’t quite hear what’s going on. Let’s say you have five saxes, four trumpets and four trombones all playing at the same time. There’s just no way that you can always hear what the third trombone is doing.” Using his knowledge of various arrangers’ styles, he pieces together the transcriptions as accurately as he can–right down to the mistakes. One Tommy Dorsey recording, for example, features an up-tempo trumpet solo in which the player shoots for a dramatic high E at the end. “He doesn’t get it,” says Wallarab, “but I know he intended to play that note, so I put the high note in parentheses. When we play it, the conductor will probably have the musician go for the E, even if it’s not on the recording.”

The members of the SJMO are devoted unconditionally to their music. It fills their conversation and preoccupies their every waking hour. After rehearsal one night, half of the SJMO’s horn section eagerly crowds into booths at One Step Down, a pocket-size jazz club, to hear their colleague Keter Betts caress the bass with his quartet. During a break, saxophonist Steve Wilson, who at 35 is one of the youngest members of the orchestra, recalls how he started off playing a toy drum as a kid. Now, he says, he still can’t believe that he’s sharing the stage with some of his childhood heroes, including trombonist Benny Powell, pianist Sir Roland Hanna and trombonist Britt Woodman. “You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous,” says guitarist James Chirillo. “All of us still play at weddings and tea parties because it’s a chance to get paid for doing what we love.”

Tonight, backstage at the Lincoln Theatre, the SJMO begins “improvising” its usual pre-concert overture. It consists of the sound of instruments chasing scales and the soft shuffling of tuxedo-clad musicians pacing back and forth. Hidden from the audience here is a clutter of tangled extension cords and instrument cases. At 8 o’clock the band members take the stage.

The first notes of “Mobile Blues,” written by Ellington and Cootie Williams, float over the hall. Six rows back from the stage, a man begins to sway in his seat. By the time the orchestra lays into Hodges’ “The Jeep is Jumpin’,” so is the audience. The band glides from “Jeep’s Blues” to “Moon Dreams” to “Move.” Everything is coming together now. The band is cooking, the audience is digging and the history of jazz is alive and well. On the back riser, a lone trumpet player stands, awaiting the cue for Miles.



Manitoba is known for its scenic beauty and makes an excellent travel destination. Descriptions of Winnipeg, Hecla Provincial Park, Riding Mountain National Park and other areas are given. Details about 1994 festivals and events and outdoor recreation are also included.

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From Churchill in the north, where Polar bears play, to hot desert in the south where cacti grow, Manitoba is a panorama of natural wonders and endless vacation ideas.


Tumbling rivers and thousands of lakes are scattered across the province like a cascade of precious gems. Lake Winnipeg is larger than Lake Ontario and offers some of the finest white, powdery beaches in North America. You an stay at fashionable resorts, mid-priced hotels or on a working farm. Play golf and tennis, swim, windsurf or sail all day. In the evening, dance on a terrace and watch the world’s heaviest concentration of north lights.

Mennoties settled the southern farmlands in the late 1800s. Since then, a rich and colourful ethnic mix has been created by Ukrainians, Icelanders, Scots, French and Germans. Today, they are a community that believes in hospitality and open their hearts with dozens of annual festivals and ethnic celebrations.


From Winnipeg, follow the Heritage River Road Highway to Lower Fort Garry, the oldest stone, fur-trading post in North America. In re-living the drama of this 19th century historic sight you can visit the “big house” and meet the “governor” of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Hecla Provincial Park, is a mosaic of wooded islands in Lake Winnipeg where you can see moose, play golf and tennis and enjoy beautiful beaches. Gimli, on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, is the largest Icelandic community outside of Iceland. Each August, a festival celebrates with music, parades and great Icelandic food. A beautiful, newly-built resort on the waterfront overlooks a marina and yacht club. Selkirk is the catfish capital of the world where you can pull in fish weighing up to 10 kg.

In the parkland area, visit riding Mountain National Park with its vast network of trails for hiking, horseback riding and cycling. You can even see a herd of bison. Wasagaming is a beautiful resort town on Clear Lake, a great place for water sports and shopping. The golf course here is one of the most beautiful in Canada. Selo Ukraina, just south of the town of Dauphin, is the site of Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival held in August. Brandon is a flourishing tourist centre and Manitoba’s second largest city. And a Turtle Mountain Park, 400 bodies of water support all kinds of wildlife plus water-sports and leisure activvities.

In the central plains, visit Portage La Prairie. The fort here was originally built in 1738. Today, the pioneer village is a reenactment of life at a trading post in the 1800s. At Morris they stage the second biggest rodeo in Canada.

Manitoba’s eastern region near the Lake Of The Woods area, is a magnet for fishing enthusiasts. Whitehell Provincial Park features numerous fishing lodges on over 200 lakes. Then for something truly spectacular, visit the north; take the train or fly into Churchill. This is Canada’s only Arctic seaport. Here, you can see beluga whales, polar bears and over 200 bird species. It’s also the only community in the world in the high visibility area to see the awe-inspiring northern lights.

CITY OF WINNIPEG 1-800-665-0204

This friendly city of over 600,000 people was awarded the highest rating bestowed by the prestigious Michelin Travel Guide. And compliments don’t come any higher than that.

At Canada’s first full-time casino you can play blackjack, roulette or baccarat.

Enjoy theatre under the stars. Take in a jazz concert. Attend the world famous Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Manitoba Opera.

Enjoy the shops, galleries and restaurants in the renovated buildings in the Exhange District. See the world’s largest collection of Inuit art and the amazing IMAX theatre where the screen in 5-1/2 stories high. Visit the Assiniboine Zoo or take a riverboat sightseeing cruise on the Red or Assiniboine Rivers. At the junction of these two rivers, lies The Forks, a 56 acre waterfront redevelopment with charming shops, marina, river walk and an archeological dig site.


One of the highlights of the year is Folklorama, a multi-cultural festival held each year in August. More than 40 different pavilions open up all over the city. Apart from a mind-boggling array of arts and crafts, there’s singing and dancing, lots to drink and the food is unbelievable.

The Polish pavilion alone serves about 40,000 perogies every year.


Assiniboine Park Zoo. Rare animals such as the snow leopard, and thousands of exotic tropical plants and free-flying birds.

Crystal Casino. In the Hotel Fort Garry. European-style elegance.

Dalnavert. A gracious 1895 Victorian home.

Centennial Centre. Includes the Museum of Man and Nature, the planetarium and the Concert Hall, home of the world-famous Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The Forks. An all new waterfront development offering shops and leisure activities…

IMAX Theatre. Movie screen 5-1/2 stories high, 22 metres wide.

Kildonan Park. Designed by Frederick Olmstead, who also designed New York’s Central Park. Rainbow Stage Outdoor Theatre.

The Legislative Building. A neoclassic building of Tyndall limestone.

Museum of Man & Nature. One of the finest interpretive museums in Canada, with emphasis on Manitoba natural and human history.

Oserodok. One of the world’s largest collections of Ukrainian artifacts.

Prairie Dog Central. A 40 km round-trip to Grosse Isle by 19th century coach train pulled by an 1882 steam engine.

Royal Canadian Mint. Produces the majority of Canadian coins as well as foreign currency.

St. Boniface Museum. Largest oak log building in North America.

Winnipeg Art Gallery. Nine galleries, plus the world’s largest collection of Inuit art.

The Winnipeg Commodity Exchange. The largest agricultural exchange in Canada.

MANITOBA Festivals & Events 1-800-665-0040 (Ext. TG4)

The following is just a sample of the many festivals and events taking place in Manitoba in 1994. For more information call the toll free number above.

Winnipeg International Children’s Festival – Winnipeg.

Performers from Russia, Bolivia, Belgium, Australia and the USA as well as Canadian and local favorites. Puppetry, drama, vaudeville, storytelling, music, dance, hands-on workshops. May 31 – June 5

Provincial Ex – Brandon.

Budweiser Pro Rodeo, Conklin midway, mid-Canada truck show, tribal village, outdoor horse show, agricultural events.

  • June 15 – 19

Jazz Winnipeg Festival – Winnipeg.

Canada’s only thematic jazz festival will pay tribute to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. International, national and local jazz artists performing in concerts, workshops and free stages.

  • June 20 – 26

Red River Exhibition – Winnipeg

Manitoba’s largest fair features world class entertainment at various locations. International Band Festival. Midway. Parade. International Photography.

  • June 23 – July 2

Winnipeg folk Festival – Winnipeg.

International folk music featuring more than 200 concerts with outstanding artists from around the world. Hands-on activities. Craft Village. International Food Village.

  • July 7 – 10

Canadian National Model Airplane Championships – Brandon.

  • July 8 – 17

National Strawberry Festival – Portage la Prairie.

Strawberry extravaganzan & cultural events.

  • July 15 – 17

Manitoba Stampede & Exhibition – Morris.

One of Canada’s largest rodeos featuring some of North America’s top cowboys. Chuckwagon races. Midway. Agricultural exhibits.

  • July 21 – 24

IGA World Youth Baseball Champions – Brandon.

  • July 21- 31

Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede – Austin.

40th anniversary. Featuring Manitoba Clydesdale Classic and Central Canada’s Fiddler’s Festival.

  • July 27 – 30

Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival – Dauphin.

Enjoy the music, folk dancers, cuisine crafts, pysanky, weaving, woodcarving, displays and demonstrations in the Ukrainian tradition.

  • July 29 – 31

Alton Sunflower Festival – Altona.

Street dance, sunflower ice cream and watermelon, motorcross races, horse show, parade, car show and flea market.

  • July 29 -31.

Pioneer Days – Steinbach.

Variety of pioneer demonstrations depicting the Mennonite way of life, special daily events.

  • July 29 – August 1

Icelandic Festival – Gimli.

Traditional program featuring fireworks, dance, parade, pancake breakfast, fine arts display, concerts and competitions of Icelandic folklore, foods and poetry.

  • July 30 – August 1

Folklorama – Winnipeg.

The largest multicultural celebration of its kind in the world. Features spirited song and dance, ethnic foods, colourful cultural displays at over 40 pavilions located throughout the city.

  • July 31 – August 13

Modern Corn and Apple Festival – Morden.

Free stage entertainment, midway, food craft, dances, gospel stage. Fresh hot buttered corn-on-the-cob and apple cider.

  • August 26 – 28

World Boardsailing Championships – Gimli.

World’s best windsurfers compete. Festival marine show, fine dining.

  • August 27 – September 3

Manitoba Outdoors

As the evening sun goes down, nature paints her own pictures across multi-coloured skies. At night the northern lights are like a theatrical extravaganza, where you feel as though you can reach up and pick stars from a velvet sky.

This is the beauty of Manitoba, where countless lakes and rivers, vacation resorts, hotels and campsites cater for every outdoor recreation and activity you can imagine. Try sailing, hiking, windsurfing, fishing and golf.

Tour Lake Winnipeg or explore the national and provincial parks and take a front-row seat to the full splendour of nature.

Good roads will take you to most of the natural beauty spots. Family accommodations and campsites are available everywhere. The more adventurous can travel by canoe along the spectacular lake and river routes that were travelled by the early adventurers and explorers who opened up western Canada.


In Manitoba, it’s as though the fish are lining up to bite. Walleye, northern pike, bass, whitefish, perch and every variety of trout. Winnipeg Goldeye is a rare delicacy when smoked. But for something really different, go for the incomparable Arctic grayling, the swordish of the north.


Bear, deer and moose are seen throughout the province. But for a summertime experience that’s truly unique, take the train from Winnipeg up to Churchill, Canada’s only Arctic port, to see polar bears, beluga whales and enormous flocks of snow geese.

Click here: Mingus Ah Um.

Mingus Ah Um.


Jazz composer Charles Mingus died just before his 57th birthday, but his influence lives on as his works continue to be performed and his recordings reissued. In addition, his papers have been acquired by the Library of Congress.

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When Charles Mingus died fourteen years ago, just short of his 57th birthday, of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he was already one of the most famous and controversial jazzers of his time. A gargantuan figure as well-known for his volatile temperament and ferocious sexuality as he was for his dynamic and intense and challenging musical vision, he’d shifted the directions of what we call jazz dramatically and irrevocably over the course of his nearly four decades of playing and writing.


His stature–never in question within the jazz community–has recently been validated by several organs of official culture. Beneath the Underdog, his “autobiography” (in fact, a highly fictionalized presentation that’s one of the great Beatera novels), was reprinted a couple of years ago by Vintage in a new trade-paperback format. At Lincoln Center in 1989, Epitaph, his ambitious extended work meant to echo Mozart’s Requiem and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (in intent, not style), was premiered, after being repieced together and edited (and, in fact, filled in) by Gunther Schuller. The fiftyodd albums, comprising some 300 pieces, that he recorded are tumbling out faster and faster on CD reissues. This April, The Mingus Project: Jazz on the Border Festival, which was centered around his birthplace in Nogales, Arizona, brought his music–with resounding success–to a small Mexican border town of 19,000 that had never before had a jazz concert. And on June 4, the Library of Congress acquired his papers from his widow, Sue–marking the first time the archives of any American jazz composer will be housed within its hallowed portals.

So with the Mingus Big Band (the latest incarnation of various Mingus Dynasty bands Sue has piloted to keep his music living onstage and in spirit) performing his material weekly at New York’s Time Care and building a large, and largely new, following for his music, and with his influence continuing to grow among younger musicians, Mingus is once again proving the validity of the old maxim ars longa, vita brevis.

Mingus’s art reached in many directions, and wasn’t limited to music. (In classic beat fashion, he made his life a kind of artwork–self-dramatization, infused with a slippery sense of irony and outrageous Barnumesque posturing, was only one of his many faces.) But wherever it reached, it was marked by a quintessentially American touch. He himself was a classic American mongrel–part black, part white, part Asian, part Indian. He grew up in Watts, when that part of Los Angeles was still a lower- and middleclass mix of various ethnic groups. He studied classical music while absorbing gospel, blues, Latin and jazz, which he mixed with a free hand and fierce determination. For as angry as Mingus became about this country’s institutionalized forms of racism and cultural discrimination, his music always reflected, quite deliberately, the rich heterogeneity of cultures that, recognized or not by the official validating organs, is America’s pride and best hope.

From 1950, when he first came to national attention with the Red Norvo Trio, Mingus fit the definition of an important jazz player–he pushed the envelope of possibility on his instrument and, in the process, reinvented its very nature. He’d set about revolutionizing bass playing with his sly and plastic sense of time and tonality. To start, he extended the approach pioneered by 1940s Duke Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton, who, like his contemporary Charlie Christian on the guitar, adapted the single-line, vocalic attack of jazz horn players to his own more recalcitrant instrument. Blanton had an enormous impact among jazz bassists, but Mingns was among the most passionate about insisting that the instrument, usually thought of as cumbersome and unlovely as a lead voice, should have equal footing with the horns of the front line and take its place as a first-rank soloing vehicle. Between his subtle sense of rhythm and his richly inventive lyricism, he insured that it could.

Jazz’s heartbeat is the tension between composition and improvisation. Mingus sought to recast that tension not as an opposition–the way many jazz critics, whom he generally loathed, saw and frequently still see it–but as complementary. A master improviser himself, he began by insisting that improvisation is “spontaneous composition.” Even sympathetic listeners then (and all too many now) thought of improvisation with the kind of condescension that belied both Europhile bias (it can’t really be art unless it’s written down) and unconscious– at best–racism (happy darkies playing direct from their souls without the rigorous technique or intellectual frames of classical music).


By calling improvisation spontaneous composition, Mingus in part intended to counteract both tendencies. He insisted, for instance, that the body of work produced by a master improviser like Charlie Parker, one of his idols, was the equal to the collected works of any European composer–not just in emotional reach or sonic value but in the sheer and enduring architectonic wonder of its construction. He pointed out that no devaluing stigma was attached to Bach’s widely beloved fugues, even though they, too, had begun life as improvisations from the hands of a master musician. And Mingus–like many other jazzers feeling the sting of official disregard–argued that a lifetime of training informed an improviser’s technical and conceptual attack; that while the music coming out of his instrument might be spontaneously produced, the choices shaping it were the result of an enormous and ongoing concentration on training, historical knowledge and a rare and enviable ability to live and create “in the moment” for eternity.

As for the compositional side, Mingus, following self-consciously in the footsteps of Ellington, reshaped the very notion of jazz composition in several distinct directions. He saw himself as the latest in the genealogical line of great jazz composers that began, by his lights, with Jelly Roll Morton and extended through Ellington. Morton had combined urban blues and parade bands with “the Spanish tinge” while creating a format for the first jazz big bands. As he did with many of his heroes, Mingus wrote a tribute to Jelly Roll, recorded under several variant titles. But whatever he called it, he knowingly emphasized the warm and elastic sense of tone and time and “sloppy” ensemble work that was the gift of the Crescent City–the only truly Caribbean town in the United States–to jazz. (This is in sharp contrast to the remarkably straitlaced takes on the stuff by neocon revivalists like Wynton Marsalis, who pay lip service to its underlying significance but, for whatever reason, can’t seem to deal with the music’s sensually inviting looseness.)

Following the big bands’ internal reorganization into sections or “choirs” by the likes of Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson, Ellington reached to extend compositional language beyond riffs and blues and Tin Pan Alley tunes by incorporating the pastel harmonies of the Impressionists with the onomatopoeic sounds of Harlem air shafts and rent parties. He blithely ignored the fault lines between so-called high and low culture that have traditionally defined so much of European culture and bedeviled so many Europhile American culture mavens, who prefer their culture, however popular, to be located within a hierarchical arrangement they can understand easily.

In challenging such widespread, if dullwitted, assumptions, Ellington inevitably ran into trouble. Take Black, Brown and Beige, a musical representation of the tensions within the African-American community caused by different levels of skin pigmentation–a topic still current and controversial, as Spike Lee’s School Daze demonstrated. Premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943, it was lainbasted by critics who saw it as a pretentious and iII-formed departure from the three-minute song form that Tin Pan Alley, and the technical limitations of the 78 rpm disc, had imposed on jazz. Stung, Ellington continued to revise the piece until his death but never performed it again. He did continue to write and perform ambitious extended pieces with titles like “concerto” and “suite” to make his point that “there are only two kinds of music–good and bad.”

Mingus–who rechristened himself “Baron” Mingus on the first recording sessions he led to underline his place among jazz royalty like King Oliver, Count Basic and Duke Ellington–saw himself as inheriting those ambitions and goals, as the man to equalize the relationship within America’s own highly developed art music–jazz–between its manifold and far-flung influences. And so, shuffling and scrambling gospel and blues, bebop and Latin and classical and any other idiom he could get his mitts on, stretching the length of his pieces while eschewing linear development for the effect of a stylistic mosaic, he created a unique and powerful voice that represented the polyglot promise of America by juxtaposing and jump-cutting its rich and various sounds.

But–as with Ellington–how he did what he did is almost as fascinating as what he did. Mingus’s method of creation was the realization of the American dream in jazz form. After the mid-1950s, he rarely wrote out fully developed scores. Instead, he would hum or sing or sketch out melody lines and/or fragmentary harmonies on the piano, and then turn the pieces over to his trusted cohorts to fill in with their own voices. After he edited or touched up what they’d done, the bands would tackle the results and, often en masse, rearrange them if and as needed. For years, Mingus called his bands jazz workshops, to underline that it was the process of creating that interested him as much as the results, strictly defined–that jazz, in other words, was about making it new and strange every time. But another result was that the workshops became a model of participatory democracy that attempted to re-enact and solve the quintessential American dilemma-how to allow maximum freedom to the individual without dissolving the group into anarchy.

In this, Mingus both modeled himself on Ellington and turned that model inside out. Ellington had viewed his band as an extension of himself–his instrument. He set up a feedback loop between himself and the orchestra that was closed–and that he controlled. It worked something like this: Say Johnny Hodges, Duke’s longtime alto great, took a solo, and Ellington heard a phrase or two that grabbed his sense of melody. He’d take them, fill in the blanks, have himself (or Billy Strayhorn) set them harmonically and then have Hodges solo over the resuits. While this incorporated–indeed, depended upon–his sidemen’s input for coherence, it was an aristocratic model that, naturally enough, reflected Ellington’s own aristocratic personality, just as Mingus’s own method reflected the democratic turbulence, the restlessly shifting gaze, of his.

Another aspect of Mingus’s artistic personality that strikes me as characteristically American was his role as underground entrepreneur–a role many American artists since Mark Twain have shared. Like his predecessors, Mingus felt the commercial cards were stacked against the artist, that any transaction between the cultural commissars at record companies and promotional agencies was inevitably mostly one-sided. So he consistently tried to find or create ways around the existing structures so that he could get his (and others’) work to the audiences he felt they were missing.

In 1952, for example, not long after he arrived in New York, he created Debut Records. For the most part, Debut recorded fledgling flights by players who would become mainstays–Paul Bley, Teo Macero, Thad Jones, among many others. Because it recorded unknowns, and because it had the usual problems of independents–lack of distribution and sales mechanisms–Debut lost money constantly. But it made singular aesthetic points in the process. Then there was his opposition to George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival, which he saw as an increasingly narrow collection of the same tired faces. (Many, if not most, critics and musicians feel the same about Wein’s continuation, the JVC Festival in New York.) So he set up the famed “rump” festival in 1960 with Max Roach, from which grew the Jazz Artists Guild, an attempt at an independent booking agency. Both attempts led nowhere, but they broke the ice for later, more successful efforts.

Like his idol Duke Ellington, Mingus wanted to have a lasting impact on history. The inclusion of his archives in the Library of Congress insures that for those outside the jazz world, he will. The albums listed in the box on page 915 are some of the reasons he already has.




WE HAVE HAD Louis Armstrong & Sidney Bechet in New York 1923-1925 (Smithsonian), the Hugues Panassie dates (RCA Victor), and the retrospective Sidney Bechet–Master Musician (Bluebird) to teach us that Sidney Bechet led the classic jazz world in technique, voice, intonation, and invention until the mid 1920s, when Louis Armstrong, learning from him, caught up and surpassed him, at least in brilliance. Bechet, like the greatest of the early jazzmen, came from New Orleans, that melting pot of blues, quadrilles, opera, rags, gutbucket–almost anything that could make sound. As early as 1919, the classical conductor Ernest Ansermet heard Bechet in Europe and wrote that perhaps the future of music was bound up in this one instrumental singer.

Bechet began as a clarinetist, thanwhich in its New Orleans phase there is no than whicher. He moved on to the soprano saxophone, fuller in body than the clarinet but in his hands as supple. (On one of his recordings, he is, through the magic of replays, the entire band–soprano, trumpet, piano, drums, etc.) The genius of Sidney Bechet–the beautiful tone he evoked from his instrument, his impeccable phrasing, and his unfailing improvisations–is there in the recordings I have mentioned. But we can hear him now in the Complete Blue Note Recordings of Sidney Bechet (Mosaic Records, 197 Strawberry Hill Avenue, Stamford, Conn. 06902). The significance of these recordings is that Blue Note rescued those it recorded from the Procrustean bed of the three-minute 78 rpm and allowed them to spread out on 12-inch discs, which almost gave them a chance to duplicate what they played on 52nd Street, in Greenwich Village, and in Harlem. And here you have Bechet at the height of his powers, in the 1940s, surrounded by musicians out of the top drawer of the time’s jazz–delivering some of the best small-band jazz you could hear.

Those small bands, for the mostpart playing “head’ arrangements– that is, ad hoc arrangements never set down on paper–were held together by a kind of musical empathy, and this required that the men understood each other and the tradition from which they sprang, the values common to all of them. It can be said that, on these recordings of jazz and blues themes as well as pop, there is not one brash note to offend Bechet’s quiet and soulful lyricism or his New Orleans cante jondo. The roster tells you why: men like Frankie Newton (trumpet), Art Hodes (piano), Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Pops Foster (bass), and that superlative drummer “Big Sid’ Catlett. This is jazz comme il faut and jazz to give you the amens.

But I rejoice a little more fortwo other Mosaic sets of reissues– The Complete Edmond Hall/James P. Johnson/Sidney De Paris/Vic Dickenson Blue Note Sessions and The Complete Recordings of the Port of Harlem Jazzmen (also from Blue Note). For here we have jazzmen of genius or superlative talent who recorded relatively little–and that little seldom reissued. Most of those featured are muscians’ musicians and jazzmen’s jazzmen: James P. Johnson, who helped fashion “stride’ piano from the rags and the blues, and who taught Fats Waller; Edmond Hall, one of the greatest of all clarinetists; the now-forgotten De Paris brothers; Frankie Newton, who played, mute or open-horn, with purity and contained intensity–and the music is what we heard night after night in brownstone boites or on the records we could afford in the early 1940s. In these albums are the great cadenzas, the solos that built on solos, and the grace that was lacking from the big, successful swing bands.

What these three collections bringtogether is the very best that was being played in the late 1930s and the 1940s by black and white jazzmen –a combination of New Orleans and Chicago style, with an overlay of the harder Harlem sophistication. At the time these records were being cut, Milt Gabler was issuing his equally great Commodore sides, but for the most part this was crisper jazz at a slightly greater remove from the richer New Orleans strain.

IN OUR college days, we took “survey’courses in literature–usually starting with Homer and ending with the nineteenth century. There have been “survey’ collections of jazz, usually called histories, and among the best of these was the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Now this collection has been reissued in an extensively revised form. The new edition is far superior to the old–seven LPs that run the gamut from the piano regtime of Scott Joplin up to the Sixties. With them comes a 120-page paperback book sketching the history of the recordings and the men who made them, and analyzing the music itself. For advanced jazz collectors, the Smithsonian Collection will duplicate much of what they already have on their shelves–the great Armstrongs, Bechets, Coleman Hawkinses, Art Tatums, Count Basies, Ellingtons, etc., etc. And they will wonder why, in what purports to be devoted to “classic’ jazz, so much vinyl is expended on musicians who have already begun to be removed from the pantheon of jazz.

But for those who are moving intoan understanding and appreciation of jazz, the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz will be a delight–and invaluable. The annotations of Martin Williams are sound–and, unlike much writing about jazz, really explain what the musicians are about. I get letters from readers asking me to prepare a discography of the best available jazz, which would take me months of work. I can now recommend the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz as a base on which to build. (Smithsonian Recordings, 111 Tenth Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50336.)

Jazz Montreal

Bobby McFerrin, Joe Zawinul, Foday Musa Suso, Jack DeJohnette–the Montreal International Jazz Festival has it all.Music festivals have a life of their own; they are as much a social phenomenon as a concert-going experience. The best festivals communicate with a universal language, forming new collaborations, stretching both the performers and audience while breaking down boundaries on many levels: musical, cultural, geographic, political, social, and economic. This is the case with the professionally produced and well-curated Montreal International Jazz Festival, bringing 2,500 artists from twenty countries to an eleven-day musical celebration in downtown Montreal, Canada. It’s been called the best jazz festival in the world.

“Year after year, it’s been our pleasure to observe the astounding power of music and its transcendent effect on our nature; how that unique form of expression can mysteriously communicate with everyone in its presence, instantly uniting them like no other force,” writes the festival’s president and founder, Alain Simard. “And the message is clear: whatever crises the world may undergo, jazz and similarly inspired music have the power to soothe the human spirit and transcend boundaries described by those arbitrary lines that complicate man-made maps.”

Artistic director Andre Menard puts the festival in the context of their city. “The soul of the festival speaks volumes about Montrealers,” he says. “Players dare to take chances here. The audience is open and trusting, and they also take chances.” Simard adds: “What makes this festival great is Montreal–the looseness and safety here. It changes the mind-set. People feel free and secure to talk to people they don’t know and even dance with them. You can’t re-create this in another city.”

Simard and Menard have collaborated since the inception of the festival almost a quarter of a century ago, working out the kinks along the way. Their original goal was to bring music not available on commercial radio to Montrealers. Early dreams bore fruit with performances by stellar artists, including the first North American concert of one of Argentina’s most celebrated tango composers, the late Astor Piazzolla. Now the festival offers some five hundred concerts. Although eighteen of these are recorded for television, expanding the audience beyond the event itself, the visceral experience and pure joy of the festival are best felt live.

In the sun-drenched days of early summer, 1.8 million spectators peacefully gathered to listen to music at the twenty-fourth annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, held June 26–July 6, 2003. The biggest problem for the music-loving audience was deciding which of the many overlapping concerts to attend. Luckily, the indoor venues were all within a comfortable walking distance of each other, allowing for concert hopping both indoors and out.

sean paul

The 350 outdoor events–all of them free–began at noon every day and attracted families during the daylight hours. I heard, for example, a brass band playing Batman’s theme and surprisingly interesting cartoon tunes by composer Raymond Scott. The outdoor venues mostly showcased relatively unknown bands. C.A.B. & K., a new quartet from Minnesota, was engaging, with ethnic infusions of color from percussionist Aaron Barnell, fluid cello improvisations by Michelle Kinney, and original arrangements by the ensemble, which also includes guitarist Chris Cunningham and bassist James Anton.

The ten indoor concert stages ranged from funky to elegant. Sizes varied from an intimate 150-seat theater in the Museum of Contemporary Art to the nearly 3,000-seat Wilfrid-Pelletier Hall, home to the Montreal Symphony. Some venues have historical significance, such as the 800-seat Monument- National. Dating from the early 1900s, it was originally built to upgrade the neighborhood and was used as a theater school. The Theatre de Nouveaus Monde, built in the 1930s, was used primarily as a striptease and cabaret house before becoming a concert hall. The oldest hall is the Metropolis, which served as an opera house at the end of the nineteenth century. Since 1996 the Metropolis, which burned down and was rebuilt, has been featuring music of all types.

At the festival, the fusion-funk band Medeski, Martin, and Wood entertained at the Metropolis to a very hot, standing-room-only crowd who cheered incessantly at such a volume that earplugs would have come in handy. This band, which prides itself on breaking musical barriers, draws on a vocabulary of jazz, jam, funk rock, hip-hop, acid jazz, and world improv in its imaginative music. For the performance it incorporated instruments from around the world, including a cu’ca (a Brazilian friction drum), Chinese gongs, African rattles, whistles, and a talking drum. Found metal objects also augmented the core trio of the keyboard, bass, and drum set. After the performance, drummer Billy Martin told me that “the African influence runs deeply through me,” and noted that he listens to the music of Benin, Senegal, and Ghana. Martin was particularly excited about performing with guest collaborator Foday Musa Suso. “I grew up hearing Suso’s music and felt honored to play with him.”

Suso is a West African griot, or local storyteller. His primary instrument is the West African stringed harp-lute known as the kora. Although he has mastered a repertoire of 111 traditional songs passed down through his family, he is comfortable stretching out musically. “I took the kora outside of Africa. I am like a musical chameleon of many colors. I open my head and use my mind. I like a lot of different musical challenges,” says Suso, who has performed with rock, jazz, classical, world, and contemporary musicians around the globe. His recordings range from work with Philip Glass (with whom he is currently collaborating on music for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens) to the Kronos Quartet, Herbie Hancock, and Pharaoh Sanders. In another concert, Suso was featured more prominently with legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette. The unlikely pairing brought out the gentle side of the drums, coaxing a playfulness without overkill. At one point DeJohnette left his drum set and moved to the piano to play “Moonlight,” a soothing piece recorded by Herbie Hancock and Suso on Village Life released in 1985. While playing, Suso also glided over to DeJohnette, as if the musical bond required a physical closeness as well. Most of their musical material was made up of new, jointly created compositions. Their final piece, “Coming Home,” left the audience wanting more. The duo was sensitive, connected, and heartfelt, touching a deep emotional chord.


One of the best aspects of the festival’s programming was that it offered the chance to hear a featured artist perform with different ensembles over the course of several nights. As part of the Invitation Series, DeJohnette collaborated with artists of his choice each night. The night after he quietly turned inward for an introspective concert with Suso, he belted it out with a Latin-laced band concocted for the occasion featuring conga master Giovanni Hidalgo, the fiery and fluid Luis Quintero on percussion, the versatile Don Byron on clarinet, Edsel Gomez on piano, and Jerome Harris on guitar. The band displayed a high-intensity groove, making it difficult to sit still.

The explosive sounds of this band were freshly in my ears as I explored the nearby Mosaiculture International 2003 garden display at Montreal’s Old Port the next day in an attempt to cleanse my ears before returning to another round of concerts. Featuring sculptures made from plants and flowers, the biennial exhibition had as its theme this year “Myths and Legends of the World.” I was immediately drawn to a drum sculpture made of three colors of impatiens flowers with a grass frame. Its explanation reads: “A drum sounds from afar, stirring men’s spirits. But does this sound that seems to echo across the ages bear misfortune or glad tidings? Should we flee or join in the dance? Drums have many messages in popular mythology from subdued fear to explosions of joy, evoking the mysteries of the shadows and the miracle of a new day.” I thought of DeJohnette as I viewed the huge sculpted drum that conveyed inherent power and strength, even as its calm floral bouquet quietly communicated a gentle softness and tranquility.

Magical McFerrin

That evening, returning to hear DeJohnette pair with the energetic and magical Bobby McFerrin, I remembered the garden’s “Peace Bell” engraved with a world map from which all national borders have been erased, as a sign of unity, and carrying this message from the city of Hiroshima: “The Peace Bell sends out a plea to people everywhere, urging them to set aside their greed, anger, and hatred and work to build a peaceful world.” McFerrin, who incorporated the international audience into the show while filling the hall with his inner light, carried just such a message. Ever playful, on one song he handed the mike to DeJohnette and took over the drums; the two happily switched roles. For some numbers McFerrin sang in facile, scalelike patterns in different languages with the audience, who scrambled to keep up. His amazing vocal acrobatics included bits of scat, body percussion, timbral explorations, using the microphone as an instrument, and making his voice sound like a Middle Eastern reed instrument. DeJohnette and McFerrin found a piano and had a brief go at four-hand improvisation. Singing, McFerrin roamed the audience, periodically asking random people to take a solo. His willingness to take chances helped DeJohnette and the audience do the same.

McFerrin took the spotlight during his later solo show, performing with assorted guests, including the tap dancer Tamayo. With short motifs in call and response, he made the thousands in the Wilfrid-Pelletier audience a part of the performance. In effect, the audience became a choir as McFerrin conducted, creating a compelling composition on the spot with an ensemble spanning many balconies. It was reminiscent of the folktale Stone Soup, in which a person gathers a food item from each villager to concoct a nourishing communal soup out of what started as nothing. Likewise, the sounds in themselves may have been simple but when skillfully woven together became immensely satisfying.

McFerrin’s energy was infectious, whether he was singing Bach, excerpts from The Wizard of Oz, or the theme song from Jeopardy. Laughter was abundant– not much of a surprise for the master of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Stepping out of the theater, one encountered a crowd buzzing with excitement, as the free late-night concerts on the outdoor stages were in full swing. A rousing version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” filled the air in what was a giant party.

Joe Zawinul, Bobby McFerrin, and Kenny Wheeler were each honored by the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Trumpet player Wheeler, a Canadian who lives in England, received the Oscar Peterson Award in recognition of “exceptional artistry and contribution to the development of the Canadian jazz scene.” McFerrin was the fifth recipient of the Ella Fitzgerald Award, for singers “whose musical reach, versatility, improvisatory skills and repertoire have impacted the international jazz scene in an extraordinary way.” Zawinul, best known for his role as founding member of the innovative band Weather Report, was chosen for the Miles Davis Award. He was the tenth artist to receive this award honoring “jazz performers of international renown who have made a major contribution to the revitalization of the genre.”

In receiving the award, Zawinul mentioned that he was touched by the fact that he received it on Davis’ birthday. He went on to describe how he created compositions while improvising and took inspiration from musicians from around the world. (His current group, the Joe Zawinul Syndicate, has members from all over.) Singling out his guitarist Amit Chatterjee, his bass player Etienne Mbappe from Mauritius, as well as his son, Ivan Zawinul, the animated 71-year-old explained,”We are just bringing music and igniting an audience like a team; it’s a jam culture.” Later, when I asked him whom he would like to have a chance to perform with, he answered, “Sonny Rollins.” A festival organizer immediately jumped in to say, “We can make that happen.” This openness on the part of festival directors is part of the reason why the Montreal festival is so successful.

Like Zawinul, many performers at Montreal were inspired by music from other cultures and included members from a variety of countries in their ensembles. Such was the case with Jaleo, a group led by Frenchman Louis Winsberg. Influenced heavily by Gypsy guitar music and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, Winsberg is a string player who globe-trots musically, playing bouzouki, mandolin, oud, rebab, and sitar, as well as lute and guitar. His band draws heavily on a flamenco sound (the name Jaleo comes from the customary cheer offered to flamenco dancers) and has Spanish, French, Italian, and Indian bandmates among its eight members. Percussion instruments range from the tabla, kanjira, and dholak to the cajon (a flamenco box drum). Jaleo members, who had just arrived from playing in New York, were excited to be part of the Canadian festival. Indian percussionist Nantha Kumar, who grew up in Singapore before moving to France and Spain, commented: “I’ve never seen such big audiences in the world for jazz artists; the level of musicianship is very high.” Winsberg was impressed with the energy of the festival. “You can speak with old women and young kids about the music. You can speak easily with everyone,” he said.

Perhaps it is this friendly spirit that keeps the audience coming back year after year. Or maybe it’s the thoughtful and varied programming. Both will be in evidence next year as Montreal goes on to celebrate the twenty-fifth Montreal International Jazz Festival (July 1–11, 2004) with some innovations. On the physical level, one stage will be raised in the air as a bridge with cars passing underneath. On a musical level, the fest is hoping to collaborate with the European record label ECM, which will celebrate its thirty-fifth birthday at the same time.

Jazz Montreal

As plans get under way for the twenty-fifth, new musical discoveries are sought with repertoires ranging from jazz, blues, Latin-jazz, Brazilian, Cuban, African, reggae, contemporary, and electronica. “We try to encompass many musical styles; we are fans of music. We always had international musicians influenced by jazz, but we add enough pure jazz to satisfy everyone,” says Simard. And with smiles all around, no one was complaining.n

For more information on the Montreal International Jazz Festival, visit www.montrealjazzfest.com.

Iris Brooks, based in Upper Nyack, New York, has written about music festivals on five continents. Her book New Music Across America, celebrating contemporary American music festivals, was published by the California Institute of the Arts.


Global Village

Almost without anybody noticing, the London Jazz Festival, which opens on 11 November and continues full pelt until 20 November, has grown in stature and significance. It’s now over a decade since the first festival, and it’s a fair bet that during the hand-to-mouth existence of its early incarnations even the most optimistic crystal-ball gazing by the organisers would never have envisaged the size of today’s festival or that it would be picking up sobriquets like ‘a major cultural event’ or ‘London’s widest-ranging music festival’.


This year, ticket sales are expected to exceed 50,000 and, through the festival’s association with Radio Three, it is anticipated that almost 2 million will tune into concerts broadcast on Radios Two, Three and Four, BBC4 and the BBC website.

Yet the growth of the festival has not taken place in a vacuum. It has to be seen against a gradual raising of jazz’s profile in recent years, in which the festival itself has played no small part, and an interest in the music among younger audiences. It recently prompted the distinguished classical music critic Fiona Maddocks to observe that we are witnessing ‘a seismic change in British musical life: jazz is everywhere’.

Today, more young people than ever before are participating in jazz at all levels of education. In 1999, the Associated Board launched the first national jazz examinations for piano and ensemble, defining a set of standards for the early stages of learning jazz between Grades One to Five. It was followed two years ago by the syllabus for trumpet, trombone, saxophones and clarinet (also Grades One to Five). Opportunities to learn jazz have not been so plentiful since the National Curriculum included improvisation in primary musical education, introducing pupils to rudimentary improvisation at Key Stages One and Two. At Key Stage Three, the National Curriculum requires that jazz be part of general music education. Thousands of teachers have attended Associated Board workshops around the country, which now means the average music teacher can introduce young people to jazz. For students who want to pursue jazz at higher-education level there is no shortage of universities offering jazz, and, as Fiona Maddocks pointed out, during the past three years applications to jazz courses at London music colleges have risen by 20 per cent.

But as jazz moves slowly and inexorably up the cultural agenda there are some who see this as simply another manifestation of the cultural imperialism thesis, with jazz another example of Americanism being thrust down our throats. Yet, while jazz originated in the bordellos, speakeasies and nightclubs of the United States, it very quickly moved out into the world at large. In fact, jazz was a harbinger of what we now call globalisation, because the birth of the music in the early years of the 20th century coincided with the rise of a record industry that was global in scope, ensuring that almost from its inception jazz had a worldwide audience. It’s meant the emergence of jazz styles from outside the borders of the United States that use the basic syntax of the classic American styles that have been disseminated around the world (the globalisation process), but have been reinscribed with local significance (the glocalisation process).

This cross-fertilisation of local culture, custom and practices with American jazz has produced a wide variety of jazz styles with quite distinct ‘glocal’ characteristics. Jazz in the United Kingdom, for example, had broadly followed the hegemonic American styles until the 1960s. Pianist and educator Michael Garrick, an important voice on the London scene during that decade, making several key albums such as Troppo and The Heart Is a Lotus, notes that, ‘The 1960s saw an upsurge of originality in British jazz. All the wonders that the great American prototypes so gloriously exhibited were no longer enough. What began to surface and receive delighted attention were those doing something fresh and home-grown.’ These ‘home-grown’ dialects of glocalised jazz are primarily a response to identity from musicians who want to play jazz but don’t want to sound ‘American’ and so bring elements of their own culture into the music. Not for nothing is Michael Garrick’s orchestra, which appears in the London Jazz Festival on 13 November, called Mike Garrick’s Jazz Britannia Big Band. Today, it is these glocal jazz voices, particularly from Europe, that are reinvigorating the music with a new vitality. It’s meant the classic American styles from the likes of McCoy Tyner (14th) and Branford Marsalis (15th, 16th) now sound a bit old hat.

McCoy Tyner at Kongsberg Jazz festival 1973

In fact, it is the ‘glocalised’ jazz sounds that provide the festival with its colour and diversity–be it the Norwegian cool of Tord Gustavsen (11th), the shimmering Mediterranean flavours of the Italian Instabile Orchestra (12th) or the pan-stylistic Courtney Pine (19th). And while the Maria Schneider Orchestra provide an exemplary example of the American way of doing things (16th), hers is just one more voice in the global jazz village. Walt Whitman heard America singing in all its variety, each voice singing what belonged to that individual and no one else. Outside America, a jazz world is singing in just such a way and pointing the way to the future. The globalisation of the music has meant that, in being played by everyone, jazz today is ‘owned’ by no one.

Stuart Nicholson’s new book Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)? (Routledge, New York) is available through all leading internet booksellers (10 [pounds sterling]).

Nicholson, Stuart

–>View more: Jazz Montreal<–

America’s real music


I HAVE BEEN listening with lingeringpleasure to two recordings of the music of William Grant Still–“one of our greatest American composers,’ Leopold Stokowski said of him. There is an element of indignation in that pleasure because Still has been elbowed aside by shallower talents such as those of Aaron Copland, who tried but never captured the American idiom. In his great outpouring of music–some two hundred compositions in every category –Still expressed the sweep and melody of this country, the pounding heart of jazz, the surging human protest of the blues, and the attenuated sensibility of popular song.

There is a rich and dramatic simplicityto Still’s music, a rejoicing and a searching, and a transcendentally quiet voice–expressed without the hubba-hubba of modernism or the pretensions of atonality. He could write a Concerto for Clarinet for the Artie Shaw band and the Sunday Symphony, which I have been otically contemplating. This symphony–excellently performed by Carlton Woods and the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (201 N. East Avenue, Fayetteville, Ark. 72701)–and his ballet Lenox Avenue (Legend Records, P.O. Box 1941, Glendale Calif. 91209), with Still conducting –demonstrate the debt owed him by George Gershwin’s larger and smaller works, and they sing to us more pertinently and beautifully.

Jazz, of course, is the apotheosis ofthe American voice–or was until the raucous cultural degradation of the 1960s. And the most artistically conscious and formed expression of jazz was Duke Ellington’s. He was in the jazz jargon a “piano player’–but the jazz orchestra was his real instrument. Though he gave rein to his superb soloists–Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges, and others–his recordings were integrated compositions. He imposed his genius as composer and arranger on everything he did and on the musicians who played with him.


I remember, in the days when hewas occasionally recording with a small combo drawn from the full orchestra, how he would walk into the studio with several themes he had jotted down on the back of an envelope on his way down from Sugar Hill. He huddled with the group, noodled the themes on the piano, huddled again– and they ran through it once. Ellington would give some more directions, and they recorded. The product was always Ellingtonian to the core. There were times when, like Homer, he nodded, but he never blundered. And it is important always to remember that this or that recording, however arresting, was but a part of his entire oeuvre, part of an endless poem in jazz.

An important part of that poem canbe heard in four albums (eight LPs) issued by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Ellington’s home town –Duke Ellington 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1941. Here you have a compendium of the inexhaustible Ellington melody –with addenda from Billy Strayhorn, the effete arranger who so thoroughly absorbed the Ellington style, and from some of his sidemen including the valve trombonist Juan Tizol. And here you have the incomparable Ellington beat that ranged from the 4/4, 6/8/, and 6/4 rhythms of jazz to his own translation of the more complex African configurations. It is a cornucopia of Ellingtonian jazz and one that belongs in every collection.

From the Smithsonian Institution,there is also a series of recordings evoking a past era of musical comedy –another distinctive American contribution to the world’s store of music. The song of the Paris boite and the London music hall had its own zing and spirit. The American musical comedy drew from the pot au feu of Tin Pan Alley, and in the hands of the Cole Porters, the Harold Arlens, the George Gershwins, and the Irving Berlins –to name but a few–molded its own genre–witty, sentimental, jumping, and lyrical.

Instead of recasting such musicals asthe Gershwin Lady, Be Good, the Porter Let’s Face It, Red, Hot, and Blue, and Leave It to Me, and the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz The Bandwagon in today’s style, the Smithsonian Institution searched out old shellacs of the stars of these shows made at the time and linked them together in what we now call “original cast’ recordings. So you can hear Fred and Adele Astaire, with Gershwin at the piano; the lung-busting Ethel Merman; and others of the original casts singing the tunes that still make the heart quicken and the foot tap.

Lest the fans of the late and greatBenny Goodman feel that I have slighted him, let me call to their attention an extraordinary recording, Benny and Sid “Roll ‘Em’ (MARLOR Productions, P.O. Box 156, Hicksville, N.Y. 11812, an adjunct of the Merritt Record Society). The studio recordings of the Goodman band captured its drive and power, dominated by Goodman’s solos, but compressed into a Procrustean three-minute span. Roll ‘Em is the Goodman band “live,’ when it could spread out and other soloists could make their voices heard. The air shots in this album were recorded when the band had the tremendous lift of Sidney Catlett, perhaps the greatest drummer in the annals of jazz. The ex-Ellingtonian Cootie Williams officiated in the trumpet section. This is the Goodman we heard when we crowded around the bandstand–and the recording is one of the finest in his catalogue.

Another jazz recording I can recommendwith no reservations is Porgy and Bess Revisited (DRG-Disques Swing). Produced by George T. Simon, the veteran jazz critic and regisseur, it substitutes for the voices of the Gershwin opera Cootie Williams’s clean open horn, Rex Stewart’s innovative attack, Hilton Jefferson’s elegant alto, and Lawrence Brown’s warm trombone. (All four of these musicians are Ellington alumni.) Pinky Williams, whom I had never heard before, offers a finely phrased tenor sax. Each soloist represents a character in the Gershwin work, and together they give the score a new dimension.


The original cast of Porgy and Bessgave us operatic voices–Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, working together, delivered the opera to jazz. This recording and its fine instrumentalists set it in the context of the jazz and blues tradition, from which Gershwin drew his inspiration.

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Modern Art and All That Jazz

The world over, and since centuries past, music has been portrayed in works of art. So it is not surprising that the quintessential American music form, emerging little over a century ago–jazz–is often a subject of American art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Indeed American jazz has inspired not only American art, but that of Europe as well. But before exploring these influences, let’s consider jazz itself and its history.

However, that history is not quite certain and the origin of jazz is still being disputed. We know that in more or less current form, it was first heard during the 1890’s in New Orleans. But basically jazz is a much expanded form of music that originated with West African tribes generations before and actually has a tradition of many centuries behind it. In the American South in the days following the Civil War, former slaves, now frequently share croppers, used rhythmic tunes to break the monotony of their labor in the fields. They also employed “field hollers” to communicate with their fellow workers and to encourage each others labor.

These informal musicians enriched the musical vocabulary by adding spirituals to their repertory. When the Civil War ended and regimental bands disbanded they took the next step: adding instrumental music. Freed slaves played their instruments in taverns, at county fairs, weddings and sadly at funerals. Most were three piece bands that consisted of fiddle (or violin), banjo and drum. By 1900 the fiddles were often replaced by the trombone and clarinet.


Ragtime and Blues

We speak of jazz in a variety of forms, but mostly blues and ragtime. Ragtime was the form that came into prominence in the 1890’s. It bore a resemblance to the cakewalk, a dance familiar to plantation workers. Ragtime developed in the South and Midwest, and its effect was crucial to the popular piano music of its time. The most well-known composer of the genre was Scott Joplin who more than any other musician was responsible for bringing the form into prominence.

The Blues were a still more formalized form of jazz. The Blues were usually sung, with lyrics that lamented life’s tragedies: typically the lost love, the unfaithful love, poverty, death, or some combination of these. When performed solely with musical instruments, usually a single instrument introduced the typically mournful theme and was then joined by the other instruments often banjo or guitar and drum.

New Orleans and Chicago–The Jazz Capitals

The first recorded jazz was by Black musicians and originated in New Orleans’s Congo Square. Embracing both sacred and profane elements, it was in fact dance music with a jazz beat, mixed with a flavoring of Creole–a blend of French, Spanish, African, and Native American influences. For those dancing to that music, both women and men, it was a way to express themselves with exuberance and instinctive rhythms. For those just listening, it was an unforgettable experience. And for those who had only heard about this new syncopation, they couldn’t wait to hear for themselves.


Who were the legendary figures in New Orleans Jazz? Among the many composers and performers was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). He was the offspring of a Jewish businessman born in London and a Creole mother who came from Haiti. Recognized as a virtuoso from the moment he sat down at the piano, Gottschalk was nevertheless rejected for admission by the Paris Conservatoire. However he did not let this impede his ambition nor his competitive verve. In his music he brings back all the memories of his New Orleans youth. We still thrill to his memorable melodies.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was not a native of New Orleans. He spent most of his time in St. Louis and New York but his music has all the elements of New Orleans jazz. His ragtime compositions are legendary, none more so than “The Maple Leaf Rag” which was the first phonograph record to sell more than 75,000 copies during the first six months of publication.

Other familiar names firmly rooted in jazz of the New Orleans variety are instrumentalists like Dizzi Gillespie and vocalists Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. The tradition continues up to this very day with the likes of Wynton Marsalis.

During the 1920’s and 30’s many jazz musicians in New Orleans saw greater opportunities for themselves in the North and particularly in Chicago. Here were the clubs, the radio stations and the new record companies that were particularly important to Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Even composers not rooted in the New Orleans and/or Chicago traditions of jazz, men such as George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, could not have created their great musical achievements without New Orleans and Chicago jazz precedents.

The Relation of Jazz to Art

How does all this relate to the development of modern art? All creative arts are interrelated, and perhaps none more so than music and painting. What the ear records is sound, what the eye records is form and color. This has been demonstrated over and over again throughout time, and is seen most dramatically in the work of the abstract expressionist painters of our own day.

Ironically, the groundwork for incorporation of jazz by American artists was laid by Russian and Dutch painters. No one at this time understood the relationship of music and painting better than the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Early on he spoke of his concept of the “Gesamtwerk” (totality of art) combining music with painting. When he had this concept completely worked out he switched from representational art, the painting of landscapes and rural scenes, to a fluid and colorful expressionism that set the pattern for his contemporaries throughout the world.

Kandinsky’s influence is most pronounced in the work of the Dutch Painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). From the very beginning of his career Mondrian was excited about jazz. According to critics, Mondrian believed that, “Jazz was an innately visual experience, because it featured musicians and dancers together and he brought this into his own compositions.” The best example is in fact set in the United States, his painting “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942-43) in which hypnotic presentations of yellow squares and other colors are set in dramatic juxtaposition.


American painters followed very soon after with their own unique love affair with jazz. The jazz influence is headlined by Arthur Dove (1880-1946) one of America’s leading abstractionists. Dove traces the inspiration for much of his painting to the compositions of George Gershwin. Dove even worked up a kind of tickertape to record the sound patterns and syncopation in Gershwin’s music. He wrote, “Anybody should be able to feel a certain state and express it in terms of music. Art is nearer to music–the music of the eyes.” This philosophy helped shape his work in a very positive way.


Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is another American painter influenced by jazz. “I have always liked hot music,” he writes, “but I never realized it influenced my work. I was looking at a painting I had just finished. I got a funny feeling. If I looked, or if I listened there was no shifting of attention. It seemed to amount to the same thing–like twins, a kinship. After that I played (jazz) recordings while I painted. “While I could refer to many paintings leading with a similar musical component or influence, I most admire Davis’s “Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors-7th Avenue Style” of 1940 which hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Critics believe that the Long Island painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) “a submerged himself in jazz music to reach a heightened state of mental clarity where he could not be distracted from his unconscious relationship with the paint dripping from his brush.” His wife Lee Krasner, a very talented painter in her own right, remembered that while painting he had no concept of time and often listened to jazz day and night for three or more days and nights running. What psychoanalysis couldn’t do for him the recordings of Benny Goodman did.

Just last year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Romaire Bearden (1911-1988) who brought the jazz scene to life in his paintings, gouaches, drawings and prints. His work takes us back to New Orleans, as well as Harlem and even his birth place in North Carolina. His paintings and collages often have banjo players, drummers and pianists as central themes. It is clear from his depiction of these Black musicians, that he feels a kinship with them as well as a profound admiration, even for the unsophisticated local farmer making music. His jazz legends are complemented by the work of many other great artists in this vein such as Hartwell Yeargans (1915-2005), Malcolm M. Brown (1933-), Charles Alston (1907-1977).

Just as the European painters Kandinsky and Mondrian found jazz an inspiration for their work which in turn inspired American artists, jazz crossed the ocean back to Europe. There in his final days, Henri Matisse (1869 1956) confined to a wheelchair and no longer able to paint, perfected a way to channel his creative energies by using a scissors to create paper cutouts that are now considered among his major achievements. He was able to relive a childhood filled with clowns, ponies and plants and to collect these in a book entitled “Jazz.” It was perhaps only this work that truly “freed and liberated” him in his last years.

Perform this experiment. Listen to a jazz recording while looking at an abstract painting. You will see all of the cross currents at work here. And you will enjoy the experience immensely.

Fred Stern, a poet and writer on the arts, has written more than 50 articles on various aspects of the arts for The World & I Online since 2004. His poetry collection ‘Corridors of Light’ is available from Booklink.com and on the web.

Charlie Haden’s Progressions

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I really don’t stay in categories,” says Charlie Haden. “I follow the beauty of music and where it takes me.

During a career that has spanned nearly seven decades, bassist, composer, bandleader, producer, educator, and jazz pioneer Charlie Haden has won Grammys and numerous other awards for his eclectic and virtuosic music. He has also been an outspoken political artist and activist throughout most of his lengthy career. In 1968, Haden formed the Liberation Music Orchestra, a large jazz ensemble that became the vehicle through which Haden expressed his progressive views, including opposition to the Vietnam War. “I think that every person who is dedicated to the arts is a sensitive human being,” Haden tells me during a phone interview. “When things aren’t the way I think they should be, I always voice my concerns.”

In 2005, the Liberation Music Orchestra released Not in Our Name in response to the policies of the Bush Administration. “It’s just horrible what’s going on,” Haden says. “I don’t even like to think about it, but I have to because it’s right before me every day.”

Not in Our Name is a thoughtful and complex album whose centerpiece is a haunting medley of American music. Beginning with a harmonically twisted rendition of “America the Beautiful,” the medley also visits “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Skies of America,” and other familiar American tunes. The musical patchwork is skillfully woven together by longtime Haden collaborator and arranger Carla Bley. “She did it in such a beautiful way,” he says. “It’s pastoral, and cityscape, and country. It’s very dynamic and very political, the way we do it.”

Not in Our Name is one of Haden’s favorite albums. According to his website, it serves as a “musical manifesto for the disaffection many people in America and all over the world feel about the manner in which the present Administration is conducting its affairs both at home and in the global arena.”

Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, Haden began his musical career in 1939, when he was just twenty-two months old. His musically inclined family had its own twice-daily radio show and a weekly television program. “My mom was singing me to sleep in the rocking chair,” he says. “She was humming, and all of a sudden I started humming the harmony with her. And she said, ‘That’s when I knew you were ready for the show, Charlie.’”

He learned how to sing vocal harmonies by ear, and from the age of two until fifteen, young Charlie was a regular performer with the Haden Family. The Hadens sang what Charlie calls “hillbilly” music. They traveled across the country, performing at such places as the Grand Ole Opry while becoming friends with the likes of the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams.

Tragically, Haden could not continue as a vocalist because he developed bulbar polio. The left side of his face, his throat, and his vocal chords became temporarily paralyzed.

“It was scary. I couldn’t sing anymore,” he says. “But the doctor said if I was lucky it would go away and I would have just remnants of weakness in my throat.”

Charlie Haden’s days as a vocalist may have ended, but his career as a professional musician was just beginning.

While growing up in Missouri, Haden fell in love with jazz he heard on the radio. “All that time I was listening to jazz, wanting to play jazz,” he says. He picked up his brother’s acoustic bass, stole into his room, and spent hours playing along to a bunch of classic jazz albums. “That’s the way I learned, playing with records,” he says.

In the late 1950s, he moved to Los Angeles to formally study music. He also met and began to jam with a stellar list of jazz artists, including Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, and later with John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny. In 1957, he connected with Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and found a kindred musical spirit.

“I was playing around L.A. before I met Ornette,” Haden recalls, “playing along with different people, playing chord structures, and playing the language of bebop. But sometimes when I would go to jam sessions, I found myself wanting to go away from the chord changes–to play on the feeling or inspiration of the piece, rather than the chord structure. When I tried to do that, the other musicians became a little upset with me. I would have to bring the melody back in my solo so they would know where I was. But when I met Ornette, that’s what he was doing. It was so wonderful that I finally met someone who was hearing the way I was. We were in the right place at the right time.”

Alongside Ornette Coleman, Billy Higgins, and Don Cherry, Haden played in the groundbreaking Ornette Coleman Quartet, and helped formulate an influential style that came to be known as free jazz.

“It was a time when everyone was trying to do something new in the arts all at once,” he says. “All we had on our minds was creating music that no one had ever heard before.”

The Ornette Coleman Quartet released the visionary album The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. The once-controversial recording is now listed among Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 Albums of all time.


Nearly ten years later, Haden began his experiment of mixing cultural activism with the jazz sounds of the Liberation Music Orchestra. The group’s 1969 self-titled, Grammy-nominated debut recording was inspired by songs from the Spanish Civil War. Haden and arranger Carla Bley melded the historic tunes with an anti-war statement and a big band flavor. The album reflected the turmoil of the time and included a Haden composition entitled “Song for Che.”

Two years later, in 1971, when Haden was on tour in Lisbon, he dedicated “Song for Che” to the black liberation movements of the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. The next day, he was detained by the secret police at the airport while the rest of his band was forced onto the plane. He was interrogated but eventually released after someone from the U.S. Embassy showed up. Upon his return to the United States, Haden faced further scrutiny by the FBI.


Haden produced the second Liberation Music Orchestra album, The Ballad of the Fallen , in 1982 during the Reagan Administration. It was also inspired by songs from the Spanish Civil War, but its political message was intended to bring attention to U.S. intervention in Central America.

That same year, Haden managed to find time for the next generation of jazz artists. He was invited to establish the jazz studies program at the California Institute of the Arts and continues to be a faculty member at the institution.

Dream Keeper , the orchestra’s third album from 1990, was recorded during the George H. W. Bush Administration and addressed apartheid in South Africa as a central theme. That album, which included the African National Congress’s anthem, was also nominated for a Grammy.

Listen to a selection of Charlie Haden’s numerous other (non-LMO) recording projects and you’re sure to think you are hearing the work of several different artists from a range of different eras. Quartet West, a group he formed in the late 1980s, is known for its lush, romantic sounds that harken back to Hollywood’s Golden Age. In 1995, Haden released Steal Away , an album of hymns and spirituals produced in collaboration with Hank Jones. Other Haden collaborators include Pat Metheny, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Paul Motian, Geri Allen, Hampton Hawes, and hundreds of others. Haden goes back to his country roots on his next recording. Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby, Vince Gill, Béla Fleck, and others joined Haden for sessions at Skaggs’s studio in January. The results will be released later this year.

Haden hasn’t slowed down one bit. He continues to express his political outrage, explore the possibilities of music, and, as he puts it, enjoy the spontaneity, the magic, and “spirituality of improvisation.”

His impact and influence are hard to exaggerate. “I was [recently] playing in South Africa and this gentleman was there and he was in parliament,” Haden says. “During apartheid, he was living in a one-room shack with eleven kids. And he heard my first Liberation Music Orchestra album, and it really politicized him. He joined the ANC. He was held in solitary confinement. He said, ‘Charlie, every time I wake up in the morning at five to go to work I listen to Steal Away .’ Tears came to my eyes.”

That’s the kind of response that sustains Charlie Haden. “When you dedicate your life to being a jazz musician, you know you’re not going to get rich and you’re not going to sell that many records,” he says. “But the rewarding thing is when you touch somebody’s life in a positive way.”

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Andrea Lewis is a 2008 Stanford University Knight Journalism Fellow and co-host/producer of “The Morning Show” on KPFA Radio in Berkeley.

Long live big bands

THE ERA WHEN charismatic jazz orchestras crisscrossed the land, fueled by maverick soloists and audacious arrangements, is fast receding into a myth as nostalgic and unreliable as that of the Wild West. Young listeners often associate big bands with a period music suitable for accompanying tuxedoed vocalists and ringing in the New Year. The sheer power of a dozen brasses and reeds rifling in conjunction with a swinging rhythm section is hard to appreciate in an age of electronic overkill; a big band (for example, Maynard Ferguson’s) that achieves financial success today is likely to gloss over the nuances of orchestral writing with electronic lacquer. Recently a friend asked me to program a swing tape for her thirtieth birthday party. Much to my chagrin, people jammed the dance floor when her paid disc jockey cued the thumping bass of disco but drifted over to the bar when he grudgingly played Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” or Benny Goodman’s “Let’s Dance.” I was reminded of that prophetic moment in 1956 when Alan Freed fired Basie from the radio show Camel Rock and Roll Dance Party because kids couldn’t dance to him.


Dance styles and rhythms change, of course. Lamentations, which can never re-create the musical excitement of a bygone era, may lead to the petrified images and sounds of ghost bands, and these deserve all the abuse they get. Something more than passing fashions is at stake, however. The very notion of a jazz orchestra, a unique and peculiarly American institution that balances composition and improvisation more evenly than is possible in a chamber-sized jazz group, has been foundering since the demise of the Swing Era. Last winter Woody Herman, who, at seventy-one, is the youngest of the Swing Era pioneers and the last still committed to the road, taped a TV ad for dentures to help finance his orchestra for another year. Between sets one night at New York’s Rainbow Room he told me, “Duke was right–having a big band is an avocation. It’s no business.”


IN THE FIFTY-TWO-PAGE booklet that accompanies Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the Fifties, a six-record anthology produced for the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, the editors and annotators Gunther Schuller and Martin Williams write:

   Perhaps future generations will perform
   and listen to the best swing band
   instrumentals rather the way we now
   listen to the best European baroque
   music and the best American ragtime:
   that is, as dance-oriented music rather
   than music to dance to. Perhaps the
   instrumental classics of the swing
   idiom will be played and listened to in
   the same way that we now attend
   Rameau, Vivaldi, and Joplin.

Actually, there have always been a few such performers and listeners. The pioneers of big-band music set their sights on concert halls at least as far back as 1924, when Paul Whiteman commissioned Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But most people fail to distinguish between music composed for a big band and dance-band music, and this failure helps keep modern jazz orchestras on the ropes.

The Smithsonian anthology is a flawed but solid attempt–easily the most ambitious to date–to place big bands in a broader perspective. (It is available on records or cassettes from Smithsonian Recordings, P.O. Box 10230, Des Moines, Iowa 60336, for $41.96 plus $3.50 postage.) Schuller and Williams are out to bedazzle the listener without disparaging the impulse to dance or indulging in panegyrics to lost youth. In documenting the diversity of big-band music over a period of thirty years they make a case for the integrity of the large ensemble that should enlighten even those who regard orchestral jazz as nothing more than an improbable luxury of the Depression. Since the selections were made with several audiences in mind–from ballroom veterans to serious listeners to novitiates–the eighty selections by thirty-one bands include major hits, historical touchstones, and obscure gems. Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Duke Eilington, and Woody Herman are generously represented, as expected. Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller, peripheral figures in jazz but not in the history of big bands, are persuasively included, as are such unrenowned experimenters as John Nesbitt and Boyd Raeburn, and a handful of “territory” bands that never achieved national recognition. Enthusiasts will take exception to certain choices but not to the quality of the music, which is generally high.

In order to keep the project manageable, the anthologists imposed severe restrictions on themselves, some of them questionable. For example, they eschewed “vehicles for star instrumentalists,” thereby excluding an important style of big-band writing–the concerto, of which Duke Ellington was the foremost creator and the trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge were among the most glorious performers. A more eccentric decision was to confine the selections by Ellington to the years 1938-1946, so that his impact on the evolution of the genre in the 1920s is ignored, along with his more ambitious achievements of later years. Most distressing of all is the “arbitrary cutoff date” of 1950.


OVER THIRTY YEARS big-band music evolved from rag-influenced orchestrations with multiple themes, two- and four-measure breaks, and simple call-and-response antiphony to a virtuoso concert music of broad colors, outlandishly complicated melodic phrases, and exotic rhythms. Although it is logical to compare the role of big bands in jazz to that of symphony orchestras in European music, the analogy is limited, because symphony conductors and musicians are merely interpreters of a written score. A better analogy might be found in film, specifically in the responsibilities of the director (the bandleader), the scenarist (the arranger), and the actors (the soloists). Most big-band classics are products of collaborative tension, even though the final effect–as in a movie–is determined by a dominant personality. Records by Duke Ellington and Count Basie reflect chiefly the personalities of the leaders, those by Jimmie Lunceford and Claude Thornhill the arrangers, and those by Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa the soloists. Basie once observed that it was dangerous to let a band rely on its soloists, because when you lost your stars you were out of business; he switched from a scrappy band filled with stylish soloists (“One O’Clock Jump“) in the 1930s to a precision-oriented arranger’s band (“Shiny Stockings“) in the 1950s. Yet as different as those orchestras were, the foundation for each was Basie’s piano, his rhythmic style, and his insistence On simplicity and economy. Benny Goodman, in contrast, based his band on arrangements that had been conceived for the orchestras of the pioneering Fletcher Henderson (who ended up on Goodman’s payroll when his own band folded) and Chick Webb. Tommy Dorsey made Jimmie Lunceford’s sound his own by hiring Lunceford’s arranger Sy Oliver.

Despite the absence of “star vehicles,” the Smith.sonian collection luxuriates in the give-and-take of ferociously talented individualists committed to a music dependent on teamwork. Perhaps the most striking of the many surprises are two arrangements for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers by John Nesbitt. Nesbitt, a trumpeter and arranger, has been completely neglected since his early death, in 1935, because he was overshadowed by his associate Don Redman, a gifted composer (“Cherry,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You“) and instrumentalist. Redman, as Fletcher Henderson’s arranger and aide de camp, and as the brains behind the Cotton Pickers and the Chocolate Dandies, is recognized as a premier architect of big-band jazz. “Put It There” and especially “Stop Kidding,” a roller-coaster excursion into multiple rhythms and mutable forms that would have scared dancers to death, prove that Nesbitt was a formidable innovator, too.


Other unexpected highlights include Jesse Stone and his Blue Serenaders’ 1927 “Starvation Blues,” with its wonderfully undulating last chorus; Glenn Miller’s self-consciously experimental 1937 arrangement of “I Got Rhythm,” with sudden silences and fancy counterpoint; and a rare alternate take of Henderson’s 1924 “Copenhagen” that finds second-raters Charlie Green and Buster Bailey improvising their pants off and Louis Armstrong, whose blues chorus made the master take an instant classic, playing exactly the same solo as on the master take.

The more familiar performances kindle new insights–not least because the Smithsonian employed the engineer Jack Towers to remaster the original recordings scrupulously, adjusting pitch where necessary and beefing up the sound. (A miraculous job of cosmetic splicing has removed the sax squeak from Chick Webb’s “Stomping at the Savoy.”) On the first two discs alone are Henderson’s “Down South Camp Meetin‘,” building via an ingenious interlude to a heady climax; Bennie Moten’s “Toby,” based on “Sweet Sue,” with Basie striding a la Fats Waller, Ben Webster tearing through the chord changes, and on the final chorus the whole band splitting into sizzling sectional counterpoint; Earl Hines’s “Madhouse,” an exuberant Jimmy Mundy arrangement in which Quinn Wilson shows how valid the tuba can be in a rhythm section, and Hines’s “Grand Terrace Shuffle,” in which the arranger Budd Johnson sets up his own steamy saxophone solo with keening orchestral riffs; four Chick Webb numbers with clever details (the rise-and-shine beginning of Pete Clark’s alto solo in “That Naughty Waltz“), flashy virtuosity (Chauncey Haughton’s whirling clarinet in “Harlem Congo”), and Webb’s impetuous rhythms (everywhere); Sy Oliver’s alchemical juxtapositions of instruments in unusual combinations on Jimmie Lunceford’s “Organ Grinder Swing“; and Benny Goodman’s “Sometimes I’m Happy,” with a chorus of saxophone variations written by Fletcher Henderson (among other things, Goodman’s was a fine repertory orchestra). Masterpieces by Basie, Ellington, Shaw, Herman, Giilespie, and Thornhill follow.

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE NOT tO take issue with some inclusions and omissions. The only musically unsatisfying selection is Lunceford’s simpering “Mood Indigo,” which seems especially jarring because Ellington’s sublime version is missing. Andy Kirk’s “Big Jim Blues” is a savvy choice for demonstrating his band’s adventuresome approach to song form, but the arranger Mary Lou Williams would have been better served by other performances by Kirk. Then there is the puzzling absence of such leaders as Red Norvo, Harlan Leonard, Gene Krupa (who is unfairly castigated in the notes), and Lucky Millinder, and such arrangers as Eddie Sauter, Deane Kincaide, George Handy, and Shorty Rogers. The arranger Billy Strayhorn is represented by “Take the A Train” but not by any song with the dreamy impressionism that was his trademark. Because of the ban on star vehicles, Louis Armstrong appears in an undistinguished Joe Garland jump rift (“Leap Frog“) instead of in the superb arrangements written to show off his genius. The Latin influence on Dizzy Gillespie’s band is entirely ignored. Yet there are two pieces each by Charlie Barnet and Harry James (one each would be enough), four by Tommy Dorsey, and five arrangements by Sy Oliver.

These are quibbles. The larger problem is that arbitrary cutoff date, which I suspect will simply reinforce the prejudice that this collection should be putting to rest once and for all: the idea that big-band music is a phenomenon of the Swing Era.

Big Band Jazz has two equally ambitious precedents–The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, which proffers the word “classic” to justify its cutoff date (which in fact is rather late: 1966), and The Smithsonian Collection of Country Music, which goes right up to 1975, proving to country dilettantes like me that Nashville did not lose its soul with the deaths of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. The big-band set should have followed a plan like the one for the country-music set; through either tougher editing or the addition of another disc, some recognition of the orchestral styles of the past thirty years should have been included, to prove the enduring value of the big-band tradition. Although two exceptions to the 1950 cutoff date have been allowed–Bill Holman and Frank Foster are each represented with an appropriate mid-fifties arrangement–no mention is made of such orchestrators as Anthony Braxton, George Russell, Johnny Richards, Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti, Charles Mingus, Al Cohn, Manny Albam, Chico O’Farrill, Quincy Jones, Bill Potts, Oliver Nelson, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Sam Rivers, Muhal Richard Abrams, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Carla Bley, Sun Ra, J. J. Johnson, Bob Moses, David Murray, or Gil Evans in his later work. As the closest thing we have to a ministry of culture, the Smithsonian needs to be especially wary of giving the impression that a collection of this kind is a museum piece, an artifact from our past ready to be filed away. Introductory comments under the heading “What Did the Music Mean?” give precisely that impression. This survey would have done greater service to big-band music had it shown how the idiom has survived despite the loss of popular support and a lack of subsidization.


An orchestra that plays concert jazz has only a slightly better chance than a symphony of surviving in the marketplace. But symphonies are subsidized by the public and private sectors, while big bands are still expected, thirty-five years after the collapse of the Swing Era, to compete as pop. Imagine the classical European idiom reduced in our time to the scale of chamber groups, and you get an idea of what’s really at stake. With the loss of Count Basic the number of fulltime jazz orchestras that buy arrangements and apprentice jazz soloists has been diminished dramatically. Indeed, big-band music has in large measure been shunted to university campuses and student orchestras. Yet the desire and the tenacity to work in this form are constant, and new orchestras are always starting up. This past year we’ve heard the call to arms from bandleaders of every generation, from Attic Shaw, who is fronting a band for the first time since his retirement in 1954, to Illinois Jacquet, who has traded in his quartet for a swing orchestra, to David Murray, who has assembled some of New York’s brightest young modernists for a big band that appears all too infrequently in local clubs.

Most big bands have short life-spans, but some persist. Gil Evans is working more than ever, George Russell is on tour, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra have celebrated nineteen years of Monday nights at the Village Vanguard, and various European ensembles, including the Vienna Art Orchestra, Willem Breuker, and the Globe Unity Orchestra, are showing Americans how the newest techniques in their music can be elaborated in larger settings.

The idea of a stable big-band music that keeps its eye on the future while celebrating its past is long overdue. Jazz orchestras can and should be maintained in the same houses and by the same boards of directors that conserve philharmonic orchestras. Under those circumstances they could offer the proven repertoire and commission new works–which need not be written exclusively by jazz composers. Stravinsky wrote the Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman, because he was intrigued by jazz instrumentation (as opposed to jazz style). For economic reasons jazz orchestras are more likely than symphonies to take artistic chances on the new and untried. But boards will be boards, and before that can happen the status of orchestral jazz will have to change significantly. The Smithsonian collection shows how rich the classic repertoire is; a more comprehensive approach would have made a still stronger case for the enduring glories of big-band music.

Gary Giddins is the author of Rhythm-a-ning, a collection of articles about jazz, to be published in March.

Era of good feeling: the doubling jazz ambassador brokers harmony on two new fronts

IT’S CHRISTIAN McBRIDE’S WORLD–we just live in it. Over the past few years, the larger-than-life bassist has risen to Wynton Marsalis-like stature as a jazz ambassador. McBride is well on the way to establishing himself as the face of bass in the mainstream, with popular satellite-radio and internet interview shows fueled by his engaging personality and comedic bent, celebrity friends across the entertainment and pro sports pantheons, and an endless touring schedule. In music’s inner circle, Christian’s wide-open ears and incessant groove have cemented his role as the in-demand sideman for the most discerning of artists: Sting, Pat Metheny, Sonny Rollins, Paul Simon, McCoy Tyner, Quincy Jones, Joe Jackson, Jonathan Brooke, Vince Mendoza, and Chick Corea’s Five Peace Band (along with John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett, and Vinnie Colaiuta), to name the more recent. And lest we fret that McBride’s service to the music and muse of others has left him little time for his own artistry, he has taken a giant step forward with release of two CDs on opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. The Good Feeling, Christian’s hard-swinging 18-piece big band debut, reflects his bass persona, with tastefully understated but potent arrangements and state-of-the-art solos from all on hand. Conversations With Christian is a listen-up duet affair, the perfect musical extension of his newfound social side. Partners range from jazz legends like Corea, Hank Jones, and Dr. Billy Taylor to Sting, Eddie Palmieri, Angelique Kidjo, and actress Gina Gershon.

Christian McBride

It has been quite a journey for McBride, who was born in the bassrich city of Philadelphia on May 31, 1972. At age nine, inspired by his father Lee Smith (an electric bassist with Philly soul stars and Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria), Christian began plucking a Kingston electric bass. Soon after, his great uncle, upright bassist Howard Cooper, influenced him to take up the upright at home and in school, and to dive deeply into jazz (He now kept his trompones as carefully as keeping his firearms in the best gun safe) . While attending Philly’s prestigious High School for the Creative & Performing Arts in 1986, McBride was “discovered” by a visiting Wynton Marsalis, who encouraged him to set his sights on New York City. Christian arrived in the Big Apple in 1989 and he hasn’t stopped working since. We talked to McBride about his two new projects while he was touring Europe with James Brown sax legend Maceo Parker. One of the dates included a double-bill with Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station. It was the very first time McBride had met Graham, who was fresh from his BASS PLAYER LIVE! Lifetime Achievement Award. “Larry said he liked my feel–I’m in heaven, man!” Just another day in the life of CMB.


When did you first get the impulse to do a big band recording?

It was in the early ’90s, when I bought Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth [Impulse!, 1961]. The horn writing is so immaculate, it was the first time I was inspired to grab headphones and try to transcribe what each horn was playing. I did the same thing with McCoy Tyner’s Tender Moments [Blue Note, 1967]. From there, I got into all the Basie and Ellington albums, and I became obsessed with questions like, Why does the trombone have the lead there? Why is the second tenor written below the bari sax? I sent away for arranging books by folks like Nelson Riddle and Don Sebe-sky, and classic scores, and it became overwhelming; I had almost too much information. Then, out of the blue in 1995, I got a call from Wynton Marsalis, who must have gotten wind that I was studying big bands. He commissioned me to do a piece for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. When I told him I didn’t have any experience, he said, “I trust you–you’ll get it together,” and he hung up! So I dove into the deep end, and I’ve been doing arranging projects ever since.

What do you write and arrange on?

I still start at the piano so I can see all of the parts in front of me. I use score paper and a pencil to write the key parts on each instrument, which I like because it keeps my transposing chops up. Then I transfer everything to Sibelius [a notation program]. I’d say I hit a comfort stride three or four years ago, and now I’ve finally realized my goal of doing my own big band CD.

What have you found to be the key in big band writing?

To not overwrite. The main lesson I learned from listening to Count Basie’s band is that it’s not over-arranged–there’s a lot of space. Some of my favorite big band writing is by Quincy Jones for Frank Sinatra with the Basie Band, like Sinatra at the Sands [Reprise, 1966]. There are key points where the whole band plays, but otherwise they don’t, and the silence becomes part of the arrangements.

You cover four of your older songs, including “Science Fiction” and “The Shade of the Cedar Tree.

I’m still in the early stages of composing for big band, so it seemed to make sense to take tunes I’d already written and expand upon them. “Science Fiction” is the one that really grew. It was the one piece where I can honestly say I got out of my own head and just wrote what I heard, without worrying about designating who plays what. I added the new cinematic middle section, which came to me at 5 AM one morning while looking at the stars in the purple sky.

In the liner notes for your cover of “Broadway,” you mention that the tempo is your “natural habitat.”

I have a theory that the human race, all cultures and religions, we’re all in the same range with regard to natural tempo, and I think it’s between 90 and 120 BPM. I think James Brown sussed that out, and that’s why his music is so funky and enjoyed by everyone. In the jazz world, Count Basie’s music is like that. For me, the tempo I found on “Broadway” is the one I naturally like to bounce and snap to. Even if I’m not thinking about music, that just seems to be my tempo.

Do you play bass any differently in a big band setting?

It depends on the band and the song, but in my band, not really. I try to swing as hard as possible and really lay it down, to nail the carpet tacks to the floor. I don’t simplify my lines or play fewer accents, and part of the reason is the whole band isn’t playing all the time; it’s that Basie or Thad Jones &

Mel Lewis concept of a small band within the big band. So aside from soli or shout sections, when the soloists are blowing I feel free to put in all my drops and rhythmic embellishments, as I would in a smaller ensemble. On the soloing side, as the bandleader I get to create comfortable scenarios to take my solos in, but as an artist you don’t want to be too comfortable; you want to put yourself in challenging situations so you can rise to the occasion.

How did the duet CD come about?

It started about six years ago at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where I’m the co-executive director. We have a program called Harlem Speaks, which I call the jazz version of Inside the Actor’s Studio. A lot of folks seemed to like my interview style and rapport with the many musicians I’ve

met over the years, so that led to my radio show, podcast, and the idea to do a duet CD. My concept was to do 20 duets on acoustic bass with various vocalists and instrumentalists, but after 13 we had filled 70 minutes of music, so I want to do a Volume 2.


Pianists are your main sparring partners.

I recorded the late Dr. Billy Taylor, the late Hank Jones, and Eddie Palmieri in the same day–all incredibly special. Playing straightahead with George Duke was amazing. He remains one of the greatest titans in jazz that people continue to sleep on. As for Chick Corea, I knew he would be the one artist totally into spontaneously improvising something. We just jammed for 20 minutes and edited it down to what you hear.

Sister Rosa” features Russell Malone. Does a duet with a guitarist bring about any particular variables?

Range would be the main one–not overlapping frequencies too often by being mindful of when the guitarist is playing in the lower register, or the bassist is in the upper register. That sort of contrast is key in any duet setting: If a horn player dances around the harmonic structure, you may keep it more inside, and vice versa with a diatonic player. With a vocalist, it’s the balance between accompanying them and taking the melodic lead, as I do with Angelique Kidjo on “Afirika.” Russell and I are very alike–he’s a meat-and-potatoes groove guy. When we play, we’re like one person, and we can swing as hard as a six-piece rhythm section. On the other hand, I’ve also recorded in a duet setting with Jim Hall, who has a way of playing that’s so tender and delicate that it makes you come into his world and play like he does.

Shake ‘N Blake” is on both CDs. On both versions, the key for the Rhythm-changes form is interesting, and you attack each note in the melody rather than slurring some of the phrases.

I wrote that with my longtime saxophonist and close friend Ron Blake in mind. When John Clayton heard it, he laughed and said, “Why Db? You’re making it hard on yourself.” I’m not sure why I chose it. I know Oscar Pettiford loved Db; his standard “Trichotism” is in that key, as is his lesser-known tune “Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair,” which is Rhythm changes-based. When it comes to attacking the notes rather than slurring, that’s long been a habit of mine. I think I subconsciously like to articulate each note because the acoustic bass is difficult to play with the utmost clarity, so I’ve always shied away from slurring. I’m much more apt to slur on the electric bass. That’s the one aspect I’m most conscious of when I play electric, that I don’t need to articulate as much on it.


Did you consider playing electric bass on any of the duet tracks, or including a duet with another bassist?

Not really. Mother Earth, as I call the acoustic bass, always has the final say. As for a bass duet, that’s a trick question! Right now I have no idea who I’d do a bass duet with. We’ll see what happens on Volume Two.

Fat Bach and Greens” with Regina Carter encompasses bowing and classical music.

Regina and I improvised and wrote the swing section around Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, which was the first classical piece I played with an orchestra where I had as much fun as playing in a jazz band. That’s because as in all Baroque music and Bach in particular, the bass has a lot to do, with 16th patterns up and down the neck to keep you busy. If Bach had lived in the 20th century, he would have been a huge jazz fan. I think that’s true of most classical composers–we know Leonard Bernstein was, and Stravinsky was pals with Charlie Parker. Regarding the bow, what can you say? The bow bears all. When I pick it up after I haven’t played it in a while, I see an evil face in the bow hairs making me feel guilty for not practicing. So I try to use the bow a little every day to avoid seeing that face.

How did you come to choose “Consider Me Gone,” with Sting?

The night before the session, I was doing a gig with Sting that was the very first of what would become his Symphonicity series of CDs and concert tours. We were with the Chicago Symphony, playing orchestral versions of Sting’s songs, arranged by folks like Vince Mendoza, Johnny Mandel, Dave Hartley, and Guy Barker. One of the songs was Guy’s version of “Consider Me Gone,” for which he had added some additional chord changes. Because it was fresh on the brain and the jazziest of the tunes, we chose to record it. I also did Sting’s 60th Birthday concert at New York’s Beacon Theater last October, with Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Lady Gaga. That was amazing, and it should be coming out soon in some form.

What else is on your plate for 2012?

I’m hoping to record my freestyle house/ hip-hop project with DJ Logic, Patrice Rushen, Alyson Williams, Ron Blake, and Jahi Sundance, called A Christian McBride Situation. I also want to record a piece I did called “Hope Revisited,” with a gospel choir, big band, and four narrators, dedicated to the civil rights movement. Right now, I’ve found a nice recording haven with [record label] Mack Avenue and a wonderful creative outlet with my radio show and podcast, and for that I’m extremely grateful.


* Check in with Christian at christianmcbride.com

* Get your video fix on McBride’s YouTube channel.

* Listen in to Conversations With Christian, McBride’s podcast.

RELATED ARTICLE: Selected discography

Solo Conversations With Christian [Mack Avenue, 2011]; The Good Feeling [Mack Avenue, 2011]; Kind of Brown [Mack Avenue, 2009]; Vertical Vision [Warner Bros., 2003]; Sci-Fi [Verve, 2000]; A Family Affair [Gut Bounce, 1998]; Number Two Express [Polygram, 1995]; Gettin’ to It [Polygram, 1994].

As sideman Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 2 [Emarcy, 2011]; James Carter, Heaven on Earth [Half Note, 2009]; Willie Nelson, American Classic [Blue Note, 2009]; Chick Corea, Five Peace Band: Live [Universal, 2009]; Remembering Bud Powell [Stretch, 1997]; Jeff “Tain” Watts, Watts [Dark Key, 2009]; Jonatha Brooke, The Works [Bad Dog, 2008]; Pat Metheny, Day Trip [Nonesuch, 2008]; David Sanborn, Here and Gone [Decca, 2008]; Bruce Hornsby, Camp Meeting [Legacy, 2007]; McCoy Tyner, Illuminations [Telarc, 2004]; Roy Haynes, Love Letters [Columbia, 2003]; Jaco Pastorius Big Band, Word of Mouth Revisited [Heads Up, 2003]; Natalie Cole, Ask a Woman Who Knows [Universal, 2002]; Sting, Sacred Love [A&M, 2003], All This Time [A&M, 2001]; John Scofield, Works for Me [Polygram, 2001]; Chris Botti, Night Sessions [Sony, 2001]; Jim Hall, Jim Hall & Basses [Telarc, 2001]; Ray Brown and John Clayton, Superbass Vol’s 1 & 2 [Telarc, 1997 & 2001]; The Philadelphia Experiment, The Philadelphia Experiment [Rykodisc, 2001]; Kathleen Battle, So Many Stars [Sony, 1995]; Joshua Redman, Mood-Swing [Warner Bros., 1994]; Joe Lovano, Tenor Legacy [Blue Note, 1993]; Joe Henderson, Lush Life [Verve, 1992]; Freddie Hubbard, Live at Fat Tuesday [Music Masters, 1992]; Betty Carter, It’s Not About the Melody [Verve, 1992]; Roy Hargrove, Public Eye [Novus, 1990]; Wallace Roney, Obsession [Muse, 1990].


RELATED ARTICLE: Good feeling gear


German e-size acoustic bass of unknown origin on both The Good Feeling and Conversations

With Christian, the lone exception being his duet with Dee Dee Bridgewater on “It’s Your Thing,” for which he used a Filipino-made upright belonging to one of his key musical mentors, the late Ray Brown. Engineer Joe Ferla recorded Christian’s basses the same way on both CDs, using mics at the [Florin] or [Guilder]-hole and the bridge. Christian’s strings are D’Addario Helicores, and he uses a John Nor-wood Lee French bow. Live, he amplifies his upright via a David Gage Realist pickup and AMT clip-on bass condenser mic. On the road, he totes his German bass (or his Juzek 7/8-size upright) in a David Gage Flight Case. His electrics are a fretless Pensa 4-string and fretted and fretless Atelier Z 5-strings, all with maple fingerboards and D’Addario XL nickel wounds. He plugs into Epifani amps and cabs and stomps on a Boss ME-50B Multiple Effects Module.