Many of you know my background in watch & clockmaking. People who’ve met me might not think the avocation fits my personality, but in reality it does. As a youngster (heck, even as an oldster) my view of the universe was conceptually very much like that of Aristotle: ordered, unchanging. No, I didn’t believe in crystal spheres, but I did have a rather linear view of things; chaos, in the entropic sense, was something foreign to my existence. Watches and clocks are perfect instruments if you’re into an ordered universe.
It wasn’t until high school, when a physics teacher explained Lorenz Time Transformations, did I start to understand that time was not what I thought it was.
Then came the space-time continuum. Some of the ideas were so conceptually difficult that I think a bunch of my brain cells - the more regimented ones - committed suicide rather than have their view of the universe turned inside-out. I’m not alone, as I’ve discovered; many people have trouble getting their heads wrapped around the topic.
I recently read an article about a “mathemusician” named Vi Hart. She has a unique way of explaining complex topics that’s resulted in a rather rabid YouTube following. If you’re a music or math geek, and particularly if you’re an educator, you should check out her videos.
She recently did a video on the topic of space-time. The theoretical physicists in the audience (don’t laugh, I know of at least one) will point out that what she’s demonstrating isn’t exactly space-time, but she’s got a neat method to get you into the frame of mind where you can start to understand the underlying concept.
(Oh, Stan Kenton recorded a terrific chart by composer Hank Levy titled “Of Space And Time”, from whence this post gets its title. Sadly I couldn’t find a decent rendition of the tune, for free, on the ‘net. You can, however, download it from both Amazon and the iTunes Music Store.)
It was the summer of 1974. Our school district, overcrowded but short on money to build new facilities, had a couple of years earlier come up with an idea to stretch the useful life of our elementary school building: go to a year-round schedule, with students split into four staggered 'tracks' in a 9-week-on, 3-week off pattern.
As a result I spent most of the summer of '74 in a classroom, getting to and from home via the district's buses. Our bus driver was cool, though - he always had on a local radio station, KGW-AM 620 (their bumper sticker: "sixtytwokaygeedoubleyou!") which played the most popular tunes of the day.
It was on that bus I first heard a plaintive folk-rock song from a local group called Blackhawk County. Titled "Oregon (I Can't Go Home)", it was the story of an Oregon girl who had been sentenced to death in a Turkish prison for allegedly smuggling hashish. Oregonians, being pretty liberal even back then, generally felt that whether she was guilty or not was immaterial; death wasn't a commensurate punishment for drug smuggling. Her story was front page across the country, and Blackhawk County wrote a song about her desire to simply go home, back to Oregon.
The song touched a lot of hearts, not because of the story behind it - few people knew who the song was for or why it was written - but because it expressed what all true Oregonians feel about our beautiful state. It became an instant hit in the Pacific Northwest, staying at #1 for over nine weeks and even managing to place #16 on the Billboard charts. Not bad for the first recording from a new band!
It turned out to be the group’s only hit, and soon most people had forgotten about it and gotten on with their lives. The girl for whom the song was written eventually returned to the U.S. in the 1980s, and the tune went into the archives of musical history. It affected many, though, including me; for my entire adult life, whenever I've been out of the state for more than a day or two, the song will run continuously through my mind on the trip home. For me the song was synonymous with the state, synonymous with home. I never had a copy of it; I just remembered it.
Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century, and “Oregon” had become an almost mythical piece. My own memory of it had faded a bit; I remembered the melody, but not all of the lyrics. I couldn’t buy it anywhere, because the master tapes were lost shortly after it was recorded. The only copies left were those albums and singles that had been pressed and sold during the time it was a staple of the airwaves.
Luckily, a few years back one of the composers - Bill Coleman - found an unplayed copy of the album in his grandmother's house and transferred it to MP3. Then he did something only an Oregonian would do: he put it up on his website, free for anyone to download. I did, and for some time now it's been in my iTunes rotation.
A YouTube user named George Washington downloaded it too and shot some video of a river in Oregon's Coast Range to go with the song. Here it is for a new generation of Oregonians (and those not fortunate enough to live here) to appreciate!
It's Labor Day Weekend, and the unofficial end of summer. Many of you will be having picnics, perhaps some of you taking a short trip, and what better way to start a holiday weekend than listening to some music?
A few weeks back I linked to a rare video of a performance from the Wolf Trap Dizzy Gillespie tribute, and today I have another from that event. This one is a performance of "Fiesta Mojo", and features an....eclectic group of musicians.
Standouts include Arnie Lawrence, one of the most underrated and sophisticated saxophonists in jazz; Sam Rivers, the pioneering free jazz improviser who gives a suitably restrained (for him) solo here; David Amram, the multi-instrumentalist who surprises everyone with a dual pennywhistle solo; and at 7:50 is Candido, who brings the house down with a conga solo that serves as a master class on how drums can be both percussive and musical at the same time. Immediately after him is a drummer whose name was immortalized in the film "Blazing Saddles", and I'll leave it to you to figure out how. (For some, this may be the first time the joke has ever made sense!)
With that, here's Dizzy and Fiesta Mojo. Have a great weekend!
Back in 1988 there was a special Wolf Trap concert held in Dizzy Gillespie's honor. Broadcast on PBS, it featured a veritable "who's who" of the jazz world at that time. I videotaped the broadcast, but over the years that tape has become unplayable. Too bad, as it contained some truly wonderful performances.
A small subset of the musicians invited would gather together in a group and perform a song or two from Dizzy's repertoire, then the next group would do the same, and so on - for nearly three hours of broadcast, if memory serves!
One such group consisted of Flora Purim, Freddie Hubbard, Airto Moreiro, Nicky Morero, Eddie Gomez, Kei Akagi, Michael Shapiro, and Dave Valentin playing an exciting arrangement of Dizzy's famous "Tanga".
Their video was up on YouTube a couple of years ago, but was pulled because the PBS station which recorded it objected to copyright infringement (as if they were making huge sums of money selling DVDs that no one knew existed if not for the YouTube file!) Someone recently put it back up, and I encourage you to catch this great performance before it once again gets removed by short-sighted bureaucrats.
I received news last weekend that one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century had died. I'm willing to bet that you don't know who it was.
Don't feel bad, because unless you were a devotee of classical music - and particularly music of the baroque era - you would have no reason to know.
Confused? That should clear up momentarily.
I'm speaking of the great trumpeter Maurice Andre. Andre was born in 1933 in a French commune northwest of Marseilles. He showed early musical talent and was sent to the conservatory, but his career there was not terribly impressive - he was thrown out for a certain lack of dedication to his studies. He roared back just a few weeks later and gave an amazing performance of Arban etudes (some of which I've played, and they ain't easy!) He went on to win the Geneva music competition, and from there his fame grew quickly.
Although a virtuoso on all trumpets Andre became an early proponent of the piccolo trumpet, an instrument pitched an octave higher than a standard trumpet. They were originally designed to make playing the tough parts in certain Bach and Handel pieces a little easier, but outside of those specific pieces were not in wide use. Andre realized the potential of the piccolo trumpet in the broader field of Baroque music, and became known for playing it in his performances. He also commissioned transcriptions of flute and oboe pieces for play on the piccolo trumpet.
His career spanned a little more than fifty years, during which time he made a very large number of recordings. His tone, the bell-like clarity of his playing, and his technical facility astounded audiences the world over. It's fair to say that by the 1970s he was the most important trumpet player in classical music, with the possible exception of Timofei Dokishizer in the Soviet Union. He was the trumpet equivalent of Luciano Pavarotti - only with far greater consensus on his talent. (Yes, that was a dig at Pavarotti.)
I was privileged to attend one of Maurice Andre’s concerts in the early '80s, when he appeared with the Oregon Symphony in Portland. It was a highlight of my musical life and one which I remember to this day. His playing was always joyful; he was at his best in baroque music, which most closely matched his natural style.
Here he is playing the first movement of Haydn's "Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat". This showcases the wonderful tone and phrasing that made his playing instantly recognizable:
After all the talk about piccolo trumpets, I have to leave you with this - Maurice Andre playing the finale of George Philipp Telemann's "Sonata em Ré M para Trompete." This is superb piccolo technique; most players produce a thin, reedy tone on the instrument. Andre’s tone is full and solid, yet he still manages to play in the light, airy style that brings the piece to life. That was Maurice Andre in a nutshell. Enjoy!
Though I'm an admitted fan of jazz and certain eras of what is colloquially called "classical" music (I’m especially fond of Baroque and much of what is labeled "20th Century" music), I also like to listen to marching bands (good ones - a rare commodity), bluegrass, Scottish pipers, and lots more (you can keep the hip hop/rap stuff to yourself, however.)
I'm also a fan of unknown local music, as that is where one finds new artists and musical styles, new interpretations and compositions regardless of where that “local” happens to be. One of the Oregon bands I've listened to for a while, mainly because I like their sound, is called simply Amelia. Have a listen, and check out more of their songs on their YouTube channel.
This week I got the sad news that Pete Rugolo has died. Rugolo was a composer, arranger and bandleader, and an influential figure in modern jazz.
Rugolo is probably best known for his iconic work with Stan Kenton. Rugolo's tenure marked the band's transition from playing simple dance music to being one of the most progressive big bands in the history of jazz. Rugolo wasn't alone; Bill Holman and Bill Russo were also actively writing for Kenton in those years, but it was Rugolo who became perhaps most closely associated with the "Kenton sound" of that era. He combined elements of jazz and 20th century symphonic music to produce works that were quite sophisticated and complex.
When June Christy left the Kenton organization to pursue a solo career she called on Rugolo to do the arrangements and lead the band for her first album, “Something Cool”. Rugolo's distinctive style was as important to her sound as it was to Kenton’s, and they recorded a number of albums that together define her best work.
He also worked with Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Mel Torme, and many other notable performers during his long career.
Rugolo did a stint in Hollywood doing film scores and television themes. One of his most well known arrangements was a jazzy reinterpretation of the "Leave it to Beaver" theme song, used for that show's final season. His Hollywood work was not as inventive as what he did for the great jazz bands and singers, but they still stand out amongst the tepid work normally associated with that town.
One of my favorite Rugolo arrangements for Stan Kenton was "Love For Sale." He did the original arrangement in the 1950s, and Kenton would perform it regularly over the years. Here is Kenton's 1977 version of Rugolo's work:
In this arrangement of "Lazy Afternoon" for June Christy you can clearly hear the influence of modern classical music on Rugolo's work:
Here's a sample of some of his Hollywood work, "Who's Sam" from the television show "Richard Diamond":
Here's Rugolo's modernistic interpretation of Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun", performed by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra:
Finally, one of Rugolo's most well known compositions for Stan Kenton, "Artistry In Percussion":
The latter part of September marks the birth - and the death - of an immensely influential, if not terribly recognized, musician: Hank Levy.
Hank started out as a baritone sax player but made his mark as a composer/arranger for Stan Kenton, Don Ellis, and Sal Salvador. His specialty was 'odd' time signatures that often changed during the song, making for very complex compositions. It was his association with the extremely forward-thinking Ellis that perhaps most influenced his love of unusual times, where Ellis was a true pioneer.
Ellis' compositions tended to be raw, obviously difficult yet still exciting, still 'swinging'. Levy took that same energy but put it into compositions that were a bit more subtle. I remember reading a comment that Levy was the 'commercialized' version of Ellis, a criticism I think unfair particularly given the number of his charts that Ellis recorded. Take 'Chain Reaction', from Ellis' 'Connection' album:
Levy wrote quite a number of songs and the last few Kenton albums were heavily populated by them. I featured a live Kenton version of 'Chiapas' in this blog some time back, but that was far from his only contribution to the Kenton legacy. One of his more sedate compositions for the Kenton orchestra, in the unusual-for-Levy-becuase-it's-not-unusual 4/4 time signature, transforms from a plaintive ballad to an absolute burner: 'A Smith Named Greg', from the superb 'Kenton '76' album.
Some of his compositions are rare; I'm still looking for a copy of his only work with Bill Watrous, titled "Bread and Watrous". Luckily, though, the bulk of his work with Ellis and Kenton is generally available. I'll leave you with my favorite Levy tune and one of my all-time favorite Kenton recordings, 'Time For A Change' - which (if memory serves from personally playing it back in '79) was actually notated as 6+3. Enjoy!
The reaction to last week's Surprise was, well, a little surprising. I had no idea there were so many June Christy fans out there, and not all of them old geezers like yours truly. (Can someone of barely 50 years legitimately call himself a geezer?) I'm really quite happy about that, as it shows that perhaps the unadorned human voice may yet win out over AutoTune!
In reality there aren't many singers I like listening to, making her one of a very select few. I should clarify: there aren't many jazz singers I like listening to, because jazz to me is about the music, not the lyrics. It therefore takes a very special vocalist to capture my attention and make me focus on the voice rather than the instruments. June Christy did that.
Another who can do that, and more consistently even than Miss Christy, is Stacey Kent. Stacey is an American who lives (with her musician husband) in Europe. She ended up there not because she intended to become a singer, but because she had just graduated with a degree in comparative literature and decided that England would be a nice vacation.
While there she started singing informally and, buoyed by the reception, enrolled in London's famous Guildhall School of Music. There she met tenor saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, whom she would later marry, and started singing with him. Her unusual voice and phrasing quickly garnered a devoted fan base and won over critics. She's been recording and performing non-stop ever since.
Stacey's style is unique and instantly recognizable. I can't recall ever hearing anyone quite like her, and I think she’s one of the best things to happen to jazz in a long time.
Her first albums were mostly of standards that were simply done incredibly well, making even an old Cole Porter tune like "It's Too Darn Hot" sound fresh and interesting:
A couple of weeks ago I talked about the movie "State Fair"; one of the best tunes to come from it is also one of my all-time favorites: "It Might As Well Be Spring". I wrote an arrangement of it in college, but my version was utterly forgettable; hers isn't. It's set with a bit of a lilting bossa nova beat that is incredibly effective (and something I wasn't creative enough to think of):
Kent doesn't just do the familiar; here she is singing "The Ice Hotel", an original collaboration between husband Tomlinson and novelist Kazuro Ishiguro. It's fast becoming one of my most-listened tracks:
Very few singers can take on the signature tune of another artist and make it their own. Stacey does just that on a song nearly synonymous with Louis Armstrong, who first recorded it in 1968. Fans of the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam" will instantly recognize "What A Wonderful World", but you've never heard it quite like this:
Kinda makes you forget ol' Satchmo completely, doesn't it?
There's lots more of her work on YouTube, and of course iTunes has her albums. Give her a listen, and I think you'll become a fan like me.
In 1945 Stan Kenton's capricious vocalist, Anita O'Day, quit to rejoin Gene Krupa's band. Stan needed a singer, and out of the auditions he held one stood out: a girl name Shirley Luster. He hired her and after a name change to the more stage friendly June Christy, she would become the singer perhaps best associated with the avant-garde Kenton orchestra.
In the beginning the young Christy looked and sounded a lot like her predecessor, but without the drug problems and erratic behavior issues that plagued O’Day. Her resemblance (and reliability) may have had a lot to do with her being hired, but she soon found her own unique voice and became a favorite of both the band and the fans. Though she stopped touring with the band in 1953, she would sing with Kenton off and on until the mid-60s.
After her retirement in 1965 she recorded only a single album, a hard-to-find work that was released in 1977. She died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 65.
I've read interviews with her in which she downplayed both her abilities and her importance to the jazz world. She simply didn't believe that her work, both with Kenton and solo, was of great musical value and that attitude no doubt had a lot to do with her decision to quit singing. The ironic thing is that she was not only the singer perhaps most associated with Kenton, but her solo debut album "Something Cool" is today regarded as one of the seminal vocal albums of the cool jazz movement that swept across the country in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Not bad for someone who insisted she wasn’t a jazz singer!
This 1963 recording of "Fly Me To The Moon" showcases her unique style most effectively (despite the bad audio quality of the YouTube upload):
Gone but hardly forgotten, her most recent gig was on the show 'Family Guy', where her recording of the song "Give Me The Simple Life" was presented to a new generation:
I haven't talked much about music lately, despite it being an important part of life -- not just mine, but everyone's. It's because of the importance of music to our social and intellectual development that I despair for the musical literacy of our country; American Idol has conditioned the population to consume the musical equivalent of fast food, substituting quantity and glitz for quality and interpretative insight. (It’s sad when a vocalist vying for national attention can’t sing in tune, a basic requirement that seems to elude virtually all of their contestants. Hey, but they look good on camera!)
While most apparent in the pop music genre, this lessening of audience discernment occurs in the classical and jazz worlds as well (though to a lesser extent.) There are musicians and singers who become sensations despite not being at the top of their game, and others whose prodigious talent goes unfathomably ignored.
An example of the latter is jazz trumpeter Claudio Roditi. Originally from Brazil, he moved to the U.S. in the '70s and has been hard at work ever since. Virtually unknown to the casual jazz listener but held in high regard by other musicians, he continually surprises with the complexity of his improvisation. While some players can concoct equally sophisticated solos, Roditi does it musically; in other words, his playing is still listenable, still "swings", while having great depth and displaying superb technique.
Still he remains a somewhat obscure. This might be because his subtle style gets lost when relegated to mere background music. To appreciate what he's doing one must actively listen (which is, in my never to be humble opinion, the case with all good music.)
Here for your active listening pleasure is Claudio Roditi at his best: "Gemini Man", from a great 2007 live session with pianist Helio Alves, bassist Leonardo Cioglia, and drummer Duduka da Fonseca. Happy weekend!
I've mentioned before my annoyance with shooting videos that are accompanied by crappy heavy metal music. Apparently, simplistically repetitive bass lines played at ear-splitting volume keeps those with short attention spans from realizing they’re watching vapid footage. (Not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular...*cough*patrickflanigan*cough*)
It's not just shooting vids, though -- take a look at any random 'extreme' sport video and you'll probably hear the same thing. Skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, it’s the same tired formula: often good video ruined by sophomoric music. I usually switch the sound off, which seems somehow counter to the producer's intent. Their loss.
Imagine my surprise when I got turned onto a biking video featuring not some synthesized garage band rock licks but original acoustic music -- written and played by a local group, no less!
The video in question is of Scottish rider Danny MacAskill, and features some of the most amazing bike riding I think I've seen. Here in the valley we have the nationally acclaimed Black Rock mountain biking area, so we have lots of really talented riders around, but MacAskill's street trials work is just in a different league entirely. He is scarcely believable.
The music is supplied by Loch Lomond, a Portland-based group that plays "raw symphonic chamber pop". Trust me, that doesn't begin to describe their unique sound! They were a perfect fit for the images of the Scottish towns and countryside in which MacAskill does his magic.
Watch the video, enjoy the music. Gee, what a concept!
Not being triskaidekaphobic, I normally don't pay much attention to Fridays that happen to fall on the thirteenth of the month. This particular Friday, however, is a little different: it was Friday, May 13th in 1988 that the jazz world lost one of its more talented members in a very odd manner.
Chet Baker was a trumpet player of uncommon talent. His phrasing, often chided as being 'feminine', stood in stark contrast to the edgier playing of many of his contemporaries. His solos were deceptively simple to the uninitiated, but showed a sophistication that is intriguing even today. Miles Davis got all the attention, but it was Chet Baker who was more interesting to listen to.
Chet also sang, and in later years tended to do that more than play his horn. His singing was what attracted the crowds, but wasn't nearly as inspiring as what he could do with his horn.
He struggled with heroin addiction for most of his adult life, which drained him physically and landed him in jail on numerous occasions. He managed to get himself thrown out of a couple of countries, and at one point was reported to have lived on the street. Like Charlie Parker, he was known for pawning his horns to buy the drugs he craved. Despite all that, he managed several comebacks -- the most notable being in the late 1970s.
He fell to his death on this day in 1988 from a second-story hotel room in Amsterdam. The death was apparently accidental, and it was determined that he was high on both heroin and cocaine at the time.
Here are two clips -- one early, one late -- showing Chet at his best. Happy Friday the Thirteenth!
Today is the birthday of Giuseppe Torelli. The 353rd birthday, to be precise.
Torelli was an Italian composer who was a key figure in the development of the concerto form as we know it today, and particularly so with regard to the solo concerto -- where a single instrument is accompanied by an orchestra.
Up until the mid-17th century the concertino form was the norm, wherein a small group of solo instruments was accompanied by the orchestra. The solo concerto, which today is the dominant form, put a single performer into the spotlight. It was the new thing in Baroque music, and Torelli was one of the leaders in that movement.
Torelli authored a large number of major works, over a hundred of which are fairly well known, and was the most prolific Baroque composer of trumpet works (which is why he's a hero to me!) I've never been to the basilica of San Petronio to look at his archives, but I understand it contains many works which are no longer activel published.
Here's a great video of a performance of one of his best-known works, the Concerto in D Major for Trumpet and Orchestra. This is a performance recorded at the 15th century church of Chiesa del Carmine in Cagliari, Italy. The soloist is Giorgio Baggiani, one of the (oddly) few well-known Italian trumpet soloists. It's refreshing to hear his interpretation of this sometimes overdone piece. Note his rotary-valve trumpet, an instrument not commonly seen in this country:
Finally, a much rarer piece: the Sinfonia for 4 Trumpets, Strings, and Continuo. Torelli composed this just around 1702, and it went unpublished until after his death in 1709. He wrote it specifically for the basilica of San Petronio, and that is where this recording was made.
Back in the '60s and '70s Maurice Andre was the preeminent trumpet player in the classical world. Those of us who seriously studied the trumpet held him in the highest regard for his light, airy tone and great technique, not to mention his promotion of the piccolo trumpet as a serious solo instrument. I had many of his records (yes, records - remember those?) and even attended his only Portland appearance. It was everything I'd expected from The Master.
When I got into college I gravitated to the record section of the library. There I was able to find obscure recordings that were unavailable from the record stores, even the massively stocked Tower Records. (Ahh, the good old days!) One of the records I found was an odd-sized LP from the Soviet Union featuring a trumpet player I'd never heard of.
Just to set the scene: this was 1979, and the Cold War was still raging despite overtures like 'Detente'. 'Glasnost' was still years away, and everything coming from the Evil Empire was viewed with a nationalistic revulsion.
(I can remember attending the 1974 World’s Fair and going through the Soviet Pavilion. Dad was curious to see it - no doubt influenced by the incredibly lovely young ladies that comprised their tour staff - but Mom wasn't as eager. There seemed to be more people outside the pavilion shooting pictures than at any other venue, and it wouldn't surprise me to find a shot of my family in some CIA file! That was the suspicion with which anything from the USSR was held.)
The recording I found was of the first chair trumpet in the Bolshoi Orchestra. His name was Timofey Dokshizer, and despite the incredibly poor recording technology (seriously - didn't the Russkies have electricity in their studios?) it was clear that this was a musician of stupendous talent.
After the USSR broke up more of his recordings made their way into this country, and we could finally get a good feeling for what Dokshizer could do. He started making more international appearances, though I'm not aware of any in the U.S., as well as better recordings. Though he never achieved the star status of Andre, he was held in the highest regard by those of us who knew the instrument.
Dokshizer was particularly known for championing the work of modern Russian composers. Beyond arranging solo parts for trumpet, he also commissioned many original works. One of his signature pieces was an arrangement of the haunting Concerto for Coloratura Soprano & Orchestra op.82 by Reinhold Glière:
The comparison between Andre and Dokshizer couldn't be more stark: Andre always played his solos in a manner that left him still a part of the orchestra; Dokshizer played as a standout, proud of the trumpet's ability to rise above the rest of the instruments. Andre was subtle; Dokshizer was powerful. Andre's interpretations were prototypically French; Dokshizer bared his Russian soul.
Listening to Andre makes me happy; Dokshizer is the only trumpeter whose playing can bring me to tears.
Timofey Dokshizer was born during this week in 1921 and died in 2005. He left behind a fraction of the recordings made by Andre, and finding them is complicated by variants in the spelling of his name: you'll see Timofey and Timofei, as well as Dokshitzer, Dokshizer, and Dokshutzer. It's worth the trouble to find his works, as very few trumpeters are capable of his kind of musicianship.
I'll leave you with a live recording made during a Japanese concert tour. Enjoy!
Twenty years ago this week a major figure in American culture died. So important was he to the musical history of this country, and of the American people, that I think it worth a moment to reflect on the work of Aaron Copland.
Whether you know it or not, you've heard Copland's music - from the opening ceremonies of political conventions to commercials for food products. Even if you've missed his actual works, you've probably heard his legacy through his many students, from Michael Tilson Thomas to Elmer Bernstein. Copland, it seems, is everywhere, even in death.
Why? Because Copland was at the forefront of a sea-change in serious music. Until Copland (and a few of his contemporaries) came along the symphony was a European property. We certainly had American orchestras and American composers of symphonic works, but their music sounded like that of their European peers. The symphony at that point was an elitist musical form, set on a pedestal and seemingly the province of only the cream of society.
These young lions approached the symphony form (and, by extension, all symphonic works) with a distinctly populist point of view. Together they’d forge what would become known as the "American sound" and bring music back to the people to whom it really belonged.
While a number of composers like Virgil Thomson were part of this movement, it would be Copland who would become most closely associated with it. His compositions were the most true to how America saw itself, because Copland’s style wasn't just about the American sound - it was about capturing the American attitude.
Copland's compositions are marked by an almost minimalist use of notes, in stark contrast to the comparatively florid works of his European contemporaries. He uses only enough instrumentation to convey the essence of the message, yet this sparseness is often incredibly powerful. His music is open, warm, and speaks to the large spaces and towering achievements that marked the United States of the 20th century.
His western ballets - Billy the Kid and Rodeo - evoke the vastness and ruggedness of the American west in a way little else did. How was a kid from Brooklyn able to write music that so perfectly captured the spirit of the West? Copland once said something to the effect that it was because every American boy simply knew what the West was like, and he composed to match that collective consciousness.
(Rodeo's lasting legacy is probably due to a particularly rowdy clip used as background music in the "Beef - it's what's for dinner" commercials. You know the music, and even if you've never heard the full piece you picture cattle and the West when you hear it. That's why it was chosen for the commercials, and I doubt there's another piece of music that evokes such strong images.)
From his Symphony No. 3 to Appalachian Spring to Lincoln Portrait to Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland's works are simple but never simplistic, stirring but not maudlin, patriotic but not nationalistic. I defy anyone to listen to any of his music and not feel the essence of this great country. Even if you're not be a fan of serious music, you'll find something in his work to stir your soul.
This week marked the 235th birthday of the United States Marine Corps! They've been around a long time, and by now we're all familiar with the rank and file as well as the various special units - RECON, Scout/snipers, FAST, MEU, SOC, and I'm sure I've forgotten a few.
One you may not know about, however, is assigned to the President of The United States. The members of this unit, constantly selected from the very best candidates from around the country, serve as a constant reminder of the dedication to excellence for which the Marine Corps stands. No, I'm not talking about the guards or pilots of the President's helicopter, or any of his security staff in or out of the White House.
The unit I'm referring to, one which you've no doubt been exposed to but have never really noticed, this elite group of seasoned professionals, is the official United States Marine Band.
Now every Marine base has a brass band, but only one represents the Corps as a whole. Often referred to as "The President's Own", the United States Marine Band is America's oldest continuously active professional musical organization, having been formed by an act of Congress in 1798.
If you've never heard the United States Marine Band, you should. It defines excellence for the genre. I find it distressing to listen to even the best brass bands; there is always a certain percentage of players who are slightly out of tune or slightly off beat, and though most people would never notice these things bug me to no end!
The United States Marine Band, in contrast, is perfect. Every time. On pitch, on time - would you expect any less from a Marine? (Do you know how hard it is to play a piccolo in tune? The Marines can do it.) They're a joy to listen to, and I envy the President for getting to see them live on a regular basis.
Getting into the United States Marine Band is not an easy task. I've seen their audition requirements, and there are some symphony orchestra tryouts which aren't as thorough. This really shouldn't be surprising - the Corps has always been tough on recruits, and they don't let down their standards for any of their jobs. They also field chamber ensembles and a chamber orchestra of the same high caliber.
The United States Marine Band does a limited tour, every year traveling in a different part of the country. (They're sadly not scheduled for an appearance on the West Coast until 2014. Drat!) Tickets are usually hard to get, and they're often hosted as a fundraiser for a worthy cause. The typically reasonable admission is always a bargain for the quality of performance you'll experience.
Since this is a holiday weekend, the customary end of summer, I thought a little more music was in order. Why not celebrate with another Stan Kenton piece?
This one, recorded in 1977, features my favorite incarnation of the Kenton group - with a number of local (to me) connections.
Lead trombonist Dick Shearer, as I mentioned last time, retired to my hometown - where I'd gone to high school with the brother of Kenton's baritone sax player, Alan Yankee. Stan's drummer, Gary Hobbs, also settled in Oregon. The trombone soloist on this piece, Jeff Uusitalo, eventually made his home just across the river in the Vancouver (Washington) area - where the sax soloist, Terry Layne, grew up and went to high school.
Small world. But, as Steven Wright reminds us, “I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.”
Have a good weekend, and don’t be surprised if I take Monday off!
When I was in high school my dream was to play trumpet in the Stan Kenton band. Kenton's organization was for years the most progressive, innovative big band in all of jazz. Their sound was decidedly different than any other big band, and that alone attracted fans (of which I was one) and detractors (of which there were many.)
Narrow-minded jazz listeners complained that Kenton didn't "swing", that you couldn't dance to his music. Musicians, though, understood what he was doing and were the backbone of his fan base.
Kenton made it a point to seek out the most progressive composers and the most difficult music with which to demonstrate the sheer power of his orchestra. Over the course of nearly four decades, no matter what the prevailing jazz style was Kenton would turn it on its ear and make it sound fresh.
As a result of his uncompromising attitude toward the advancement of America's indigenous music, Kenton attracted the best and brightest musicians. A list of his personnel over the years reads like a who's who of jazz, and I hoped that I could someday make the grade.
Then, thirty-one years ago this week, Stan died - and with him, the legendary band that he led. My own dreams suddenly vanished. (Not that I would have made it; frankly, in retrospect I wasn't nearly good enough. Youthful enthusiasm served to mask that reality until well into adulthood.)
To give you a taste of what Kenton's band could do, here's a video from 1972 featuring a Hank Levy composition titled "Chiapas." The musically inclined will notice the tune was written in 5/4; odd time signatures were something of a Levy trademark. (The trombone soloist is Dick Shearer, who ironically would retire to the small town where I had grown up listening to recordings of him with Kenton. He spent the last years of his life within sight of my childhood home.)
My sister is an organist, and one of her ambitions is to someday build a custom house - around a pipe organ. If you aren't familiar with what that entails, let's just say it would need to be a big house.
Pipe organs, even modest examples, are large instruments. As they increase in complexity, though, they grow seemingly exponentially. A large organ can have thousands - even tens of thousands - of precisely tuned pipes that produce notes when fed with pressurized air. Just the valving to make one of these behemoths work is mind-boggling in complexity.
Even the part you can see - known as the console - can make a 747 look positively simple:
If you ever get to attend a major shooting match, one thing that will impress you is how accessible the top competitors are. If you want to meet Rob Leatham or Jerry Miculek, no problem - they're usually happy to shake hands and talk.
The same is true for the top jazz musicians. Jazz is a personal music, and because of the smaller fan base getting to meet even the biggest names is relatively easy. Imagine being able to walk up to a well-known pop or rock artist and being able to do that. Unless you're a buxom groupie with a purse full of cocaine, their security staff isn't likely to let you get within a country mile of the star! Jazz musicians aren't like that, and I've had the experiences to prove it.
My interest in jazz matured in high school, which is also where my first brush with fame occurred. I went to school with the brother of Alan Yankee, who at the time was a saxophonist in the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Kenton was my idol, then and now, and meeting Alan was a highlight of my young musical life. Little did I know that it was only the beginning.
When I was attending college in Portland (Oregon) in the early '80s, there were a bunch of jazz clubs in the city. Portland was known as a jazz town, and major players would often make a stop on their way between San Francisco and Seattle. We had not one but two jazz radio stations (one commercial and one funded by a local college), as well as an internationally regarded jazz festival. Life was good for a jazz musician and lover of the genre.
By the turn of the century, the Festival had been reduced to a weekend in one of the city parks, one of the radio stations was gone and the other played more blues than jazz, and virtually all of the jazz clubs were no more. I was lucky enough to meet quite a few notable jazz musicians before jazz disappeared from Portland.
Freddy Hubbard played a single set at one of the local clubs, to a packed house. Despite the cramped surroundings, he made sure that he got around and shook people's hands before jetting off to who-knows-where.
One of the high schools managed to snag the great Clark Terry for a benefit concert. The school was in a bad part of town, and the concert was not well promoted. Still, I was surprised at the sparse crowd. For a city with a jazz reputation, it was embarrassing. That didn't stop Clark from putting on a great show, and I told him as much when we met afterwards. "I"ve played bigger crowds, but that's not important - I'm just happy that people appreciate my music." Clark is known as a consummate gentleman, and his reputation is well deserved.
One summer a local college held a small jazz festival, and the headliners were guitarists Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel. During a break between acts, I went to use the facilities. Standing at the next urinal was Herb himself, and we started talking. I normally wouldn't remember a conversation from almost 30 years ago, but the surreal setting burned this one into my mind: gardening. After finishing our respective business, we went outside and sat at a bench, still talking gardening. Nice guy, that Herb. (For those who think the sun rises and sets on rock guitarists like Van Halen, check out the link - Herb is the gray-haired gentleman. Perhaps you'll learn something.)
The Woody Herman Big Band, one of the most popular in the history of jazz, made a surprise visit to Portland one year. I don't remember the details, but for some reason they unexpectedly found themselves in town. Somehow they managed to find a venue at one of the colleges, which had an open auditorium that day. Word went out on the jazz radio stations that tickets were available for that evening - dirt cheap, with all proceeds going to some charity. The place was jammed, and the band was in top form. Later I got to thank Woody for the unexpected treat, and expressed my appreciation to number of the band members as well. One of them was Frank Tiberi, who would later take over the organization after Woody's death.
Trumpeters Pete and Conte Candoli appeared in Portland one year, and of course I saw their show. At the time the Candolis were at the top of their game; it was virtually impossible to find a big band that hadn't had one (or both) in their trumpet section at one time or another. I got to meet Conte, but Pete disappeared somewhere after their set was over. The next day The Oregonian newspaper had a review of the show. The writer, who apparently knew nothing of jazz, lamented that when they soloed together they often hit "clashing notes." I wrote a letter to the editor that said something along the lines of "yeah, that happens with simultaneous improvisation, you moron!" They didn't publish it, which wasn't a surprise.
I remember taking my buddy and roommate, Ed, to see a then-unknown Diane Schuur. Between sets I introduced myself and told her Ed was dying to meet her. She giggled and I motioned Ed over; he was quite taken with her. That was understandable, as she was a terrific singer and a wonderful person. I hope she hasn't changed in the intervening 25-odd years ; she certainly still sings well.
Of course, there has to be the exception that proves the rule, and in jazz that was Maynard Ferguson. I found him to be the single rudest person I'd ever met in music. That attitude had rubbed off on some of his band members, as the rest of his trumpet section was as obnoxious as he was. (His sax players, who apparently didn't get as much attention, were nicer. I almost felt sorry for them.) I originally chalked the snub up to his having a bad day, but have heard from many people since who tell me that it was SOP with him.
If memory serves it was the second Mount Hood Festival Of Jazz that featured an appearance by a young and highly touted Wynton Marsalis. I ended up (unintentionally) running into him around the venue, and though he was polite enough, I frankly didn't find much in his music to be impressed with. I haven't heard anything from him since which changes that impression. My contrarian opinion hasn't seemed to hurt his record sales, though, and I hope he doesn't hold it against me!
My favorite trumpet player is the late, great Red Rodney. In the early '80s he had a quintet with the phenomenal Ira Sullivan, a group which to this day gets my vote as the most overlooked in jazz. They showed up in Portland once, and my buddy Bob and I were there front row, center. Between sets Red ambled over and introduced himself, and asked if I was a trumpet player. Confused, I asked him how he knew; he said that I was the only one in the audience who "got" what he was playing. I never did quite understand what he meant, but he sat down at our table to chat and eat his dinner. It remains my favorite jazz experience, and on that note I'll leave you with this video of Red at his best.
Kodachrome They give us those nice bright colors They give us the greens of summers Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, Oh yeah I got a Nikon camera I love to take a photograph So mama don't take my Kodachrome away
Kodachrome wasn't the first time the company had influenced musical history, however. It's true that Kodachrome was invented by a couple of amateur chemists who were also professional musicians, but the influence I'm thinking of goes far deeper.
As it happens George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, was an aspiring flutist and music fanatic. His love of making and listening to music led him to found the Eastman School of Music, cementing his place in American music history.
Now you're probably thinking "Eastman School of Music? Never heard of it!" Most people, when asked to name a prestigious music school, immediately think "Juilliard." While Juilliard is a fine school and better known to the general public, those with a deep knowledge of musical education will often quietly refer you to Eastman. Since 1921, Eastman graduates have enjoyed a solid reputation for being "musician's musicians", which persists to this day - it is often ranked as the top music school in the country in major media surveys.
George Eastman was a remarkable individual who also gave major grants to engineering and technical schools such as MIT, and involved himself in a range of social and business innovations. It could be argued, though, that giving the world both Kodachrome and Frederick Fennell would have been enough for any one person.