JAM, XXII: Early Bird with Jay McShann

Every weekday this month I posted new content in observance of Jazz Appreciation Month (J.A.M.), so-designated by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History beginning in 2001. International Jazz Day, so-designated by UNESCO in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is today, the 30th of April; it was first celebrated in 2012. Debating the relative merits of designating specific days or months for celebrating heritages, traditions, and the like aside, Jazz Appreciation Month was at the very least an excuse to dig into some material that I've been interested in for a while on the blog. 

Yesterday's installment featured a couple blazing versions of "It Don't Mean a Thing" in honor of the 116th anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth. Tomorrow is May.

†If you enjoy the content on this blog, please consider supporting my band's homegrown effort to get our record through the final stages of mastering and production. It's all recorded—you can listen to it now!—but we just need a bit more help to get to the finish line. We appreciate it. </self-promotion over>

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That's Bird, all right—three from the left, digging what Jay's laying down on the keyboard or else pondering.
The following three takes were recorded on this day in 1941, when jazz was still a word you'd hesitate to use around polite company, in Dallas, Texas (Leonard Feather says New York), for Decca. Jay McShann and his Orchestra. In Ross Russell's Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, he notes that although Bird is featured on three tracks, the fourth and last track, where Bird doesn't solo, ended up being the sleeper hit: "Confessin' the Blues" featured rhythm section and vocalist Walter Brown and sold over 500,000 copies. Russell writes: 
The unexpected success of Confessin' the Blues changed the entire course of events for the band...[it] ended any ambitions entertained by McShann of creating another Kansas City orchestra in the Basie image...After Confessin' the Blues, the Jay McShann became a blues band and Walter Brown its leading attraction.
"Dexter's Blues" is notably un-Bird-like; as my roommate pointed out upon first listening, the voice leading is there, but the vibe is clearly more along the lines of what was expected of a soloist in that context. By comparison, "Hootie Blues" and "Swingmatism" grant early tastes of much greatness to come. Many of the phrases are instantly recognizable, and it's still unthinkable how Bird went from playing that to playing this in four years, but he did. 


This would seem to be a fairly opportune time to mention Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning (2013). I received a copy as a graduation gift from a generous tutor in college and read it in no time over the summer, but never got around to writing more on it. The narrative, scene-by-scene style of the work is satisfying, even if much of the research in the book has been already published elsewhere. Considering its focus on Bird's early days, I was pleased to hear about some names that were completely unknown to me, such as Tommy Douglas, a Kansas City altoist whose technical grasp of altissimo impressed Bird early on, and guitarist Biddy Fleet, whom Crouch dedicates significant space to in explaining the musician's impact on Bird's development. Fleet's description of Bird as a fast learner accords with Steve Coleman's notions of "hearing something and being able to play it the first time," a.k.a., spontaneous composition, although he seemed to have picked that up directly from Von Freeman:
The thing that I loved about Bird is this: he wasn’t one of those who’s got to write something down, go home, study on it, and the next time we meet, we’ll try it out. Anything that anyone did that bird liked, when he found out what it was, he’d do it right away. Instantly. Only once on everything. Nearly everything that I did that he was interested in, I’d show him once—he had it.
If there's any controversial points to made about the book, they'd be about the place of literary stylistic choices in a biographical work. I'd have to reread the book again, but I do remember feeling distracted for a while reading Crouch's characteristically magniloquent prose. To illustrate, a dramatic imagining of a scene that appears early on:
The rhythm section lit out. The band came in and played the song’s ensemble chorus, sixty-four bars of a tune notorious for its complex harmony, all those holes you could break your musical legs in. This was one of those times when the griddle was hot and nothing came up except steam. Arrogant and proud of themselves, the rhythm section reared back and pounced on Charlie’s back when he put his horn to his mouth. And his saxophone, in turn, became a flamethrower of rhythm, melody, and harmony. They pushed and drove, chorus after chorus. Then, as professional experience had taught them, they lulled, let him get a little stronger, went back to their basic strategy, and let him dance his hot-footed dance with subtle support. Then they tore into him again, setting fire to his tail. 
The rhythm section had him by the tail, but there was no holding or cornering Bird. Disappearing acts were his specialty. Just when you thought you had him, he’d move, coming up with another idea, one that was as bold as red paint on a white sheet.

Personally, I prefer Pynchon on Bird, but after reading a few other readers' takes, I did come to agree with a major point I had somehow overlooked: although not necessarily a singular or unprecedented achievement of historical scholarship, there really haven't been many books written on this Black American icon from the perspective of the Black American literary tradition. I haven't read enough Crouch to say whether I'd put him in the same league as, say, James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, but among jazz writers he's somebody you've got to deal with if you're investing in the world of criticism.

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Whew! That was a lot. For posterity's sake, here's the "A Horizontal Search: Jazz Appreciation Month 2015" compendium:
  1. Henry Threadgill on "Weeping Willow Rag" – Scott Joplin (d. April 1, 1917)
  2. John Coltrane on "I Want to Talk About You" – recorded April 2, 1965
  3. Scott LaFaro on "Crazeology" – LaFaro (b. April 3, 1936)
  4. Gerry Mulligan on "Sunday" + Charlie Rouse/Paul Quinichette's "Tender Trap" (Mulligan/Rouse b. April 6, 1927/24 respectively)
  5. Freddie Hubbard on "Big Foot"– Hubbard (b. April 7, 1938)
  6. Bob Berg on "I Loves You, Porgy" – Berg (b. April 7, 1951)
  7. Clifford Brown on "After You've Gone"
  8. Vijay Iyer on "Actions Speak" – performance at Regatta Bar (April 10, 2015)
  9. Eric Dolphy on "Take the A Train" – recorded April 12, 1964
  10. Harold Land on "Crazeology" 
  11. Hampton Hawes on "Crazeology"
  12. On "Ko-Ko" – exam results returned April 16, 2015
  13. Liner Notes to Dialectics, Curtis Nowosad – album released March 17, 2015
  14. On A Treatise on The Music of John ColtraneAndrew White at The Jazz Gallery, April 25, 2015 
  15. Joe Henderson on "On the Trail" – recorded April 21, 1968
  16. Joe Henderson on "Passport"
  17. Charlie Parker on "Passport" (rare)
  18. Johnny Griffin on "Let's Cool One" – Griffin/Henderson (b. April 24, 1928/37, respectively)
  19. Teddy Edwards and Early West Coast Bop, I – Edwards (b. April 26, 1924)
  20. Teddy Edwards and Early West Coast Bop, II
  21. "It Don't Mean a Thing" — Dizzy, Getz, Sonny
  22. Early Bird with Jay McShann, ca. 1941
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As a result of the above, it's likely that I'll be on an A Horizontal Search hiatus for a while. I've been meaning to book some gigs for the pending GOP EAST COAST TOUR in August, as well as work on the fundraising effort to get the album mastered and released (Won't you take an eight minute and 52-second or shorter break and check out the music? What's the worst that could happen?). 

We'll be performing at The Jazz Gallery in New York City on August 13 for certain and more than likely be making an appearance on home turf in Boston, but D.C., New Jersey, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and a few other cities would be nice, too. If you've got any tips, don't hesitate to reach out to me.

In the meantime, I recently wrote a short, jokey-yet-serious testimonial ("On IGW," or "A Conservative Forecast of the Creative Musical Economy, ca. Early Q2, 2015") for Fundamentals of Guitar, a mind-bending work of staggering dedication (10+ years of it) by Miles Okazaki that I highly recommend for anybody looking into the creative, improvisational and compositional possibilities of pitch and rhythm (that should be everybody reading these words). 

I also encourage you to read this invaluable interview with Nicholas Payton, conducted by Ethan Iverson, transcription de moi. It was immensely gratifying to take down such honest words by an artist who's often polarizing but just as often misunderstood, I think. It was also immensely gratifying, tnotto mention flattering, to read Ethan's words of praise for this humble website:
A Horizontal Search Kevin Sun Jazz Blog — "Best Jazz Resource" Award 2015 (joking)
I owe more than a small part of A Horizontal Search's very existence to reading Do The Math as an undergrad, so, yeah, all the more effort to keep going with this thing. 

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One final plug before I unplug: for Bostonians, this Sunday at 4 p.m. at the New England Conservatory, I'll be presenting a challenging program of original compositions and compositions by esteemed teachers and older musicians, including Miguel Zenón, Miles Okazaki, and Steve Coleman. It's free, so if you're around, consider coming by.