Some pupils of Nadia Boulanger—real and alleged

Boulanger with Stravinsky

With Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York“), 1937.

Just in time before it was deleted, I viewed a suggestive wiki page listing well over two hundred distinguished pupils of the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979; cf. my post on her sister Lili). The wiki editors may have decided it would be shorter to compile a list of musicians who didn’t study with her.

Sure, one might suspect that some of them just popped in for a pot of tea and a macaroon, à la Alan Bennett. The allure of Paris may have played a certain role in Mademoiselle’s popularity—dare I surmise that her wisdom might not have been in quite such demand had she been based in Scunthorpe.

Prominent in the populous Boulangerie were renowned WAM composers and performers—such as Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Philip Glass (cf. Ned Rorem, “Am I the only living expatriate American composer who never studied with Nadia Boulanger?”); Darius Milhaud, Jean Françaix; Thea Musgrave, Lennox Berkeley; Shanghai composer Ding Shande; [1] Igor Markevitch, Dinu Lipatti, Idil Biret, Joseph Horovitz, Daniel Barenboim, Clifford Curzon, Kenneth Gilbert, John Kirkpatrick, Kathleen Ferrier…

As would be the case later (see here, under “Performance practice”), new composition and early music went hand in hand. Boulanger’s performances of Monteverdi and Bach were legendary—At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular. In the later HIP scene, she was a formative influence on performers such as John Eliot Gardiner and Robert Levin.

I like this story from Philip Glass’s memoirs:

After proffering his 20-page manuscript, Mademoiselle (as she was known) placed it on the piano’s music rack and cast her eyes over the densely written pages. At a certain point she paused, drew breath and enquired after his health.

“Not sick, no headache, no problems at home?”

“No, Mlle Boulanger, I am really fine.”

“Would you like to see a physician or a psychiatrist? It can be arranged very confidentially.”

“No, Mlle Boulanger.”

She wheeled her chair around and screamed “Then how do you explain this?”

She had found “hidden fifths” between an alto and bass part—a heinous crime, if ever there were one. After upbraiding him for his slackness and lack of commitment he was dismissed and the lesson was over.

Boulanger with Piazzolla 1955

With Astor Piazzolla, 1955.

Intriguing too are those names outside the world of WAM, notably jazzers—Donald Byrd, Quincy Jones, Astor Piazzolla, Michel Legrand, and so on. Most poignantly, Noor Inayat Khan and her siblings—on whom, do please read this moving post.

Here’s a precious 1977 film by Bruno Monsaingeon (cf. his films on Rozhdestvensky), showing evocative vignettes from her salon:

* * *

Descending into fantasy, I only began to wonder about some of these names when I switched on Football focus to hear Wayne Rooney claiming to be a disciple:

Emm… yeah Gary, me legendary hunger for the ball round the edge of the box—that’s all down to Mademoiselle, like… She taught me everything I know about Renaissance polyphony—[2] mind you, I taught ‘er everything she knows about dribbling, fair dos like. [3]

Perhaps it goes back to the popularity of a CV-writing manual that states “most importantly, always claim to be a pupil of Nadia Boulanger”.

This trend has also influenced historians, such as recent biographers of Genghis Khan (“under her tutelage, he became almost docile”) and Jane Austen—citing a recently-discovered early draft of Pride and Prejudice:

But I was not to be deterred by Mademoiselle’s stern rebukes pertaining to the supposed clumsiness of my chordal voicing on the pianoforte.

(Seriously though folks, do read this interesting article on music and class in Austen’s works).

YAY! Wayne Rooney, Genghis Khan, and Jane Austen—now there’s another great guest-list for a fantasy dinner-party. For some unlikely reviews of my own ouevre, click here.

Left, 1910; right, 1925.

 

[1] Meanwhile, other students were beating a path to the door of Olivier Messiaen, including the great Chinese composer Chen Qigang.

[2] See his little-known thesis: Wayne Mark Rooney, The art of counterpoint in the late Masses of Josquin des Prez, with special reference to penalty-taking, like (PhD, Université Paris-Sorbonne/Birkenhead Polytechnic, nd).
Note also the (real!) Improvisation for Michael Owen on the qin zither.

[3] Cf. the Harry and Paul spoof interview with S-Simon Rattle, introducing a fascinating (and otherwise earnest) post on Conducting from memory.

Miles meets Bird

Bird and MIles 1945

Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, (Max Roach,) Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, August 1947.

After recent posts on Mingus and Trane, while I’m in a jazz mood:

Miles Davis‘s autobiography is brilliant anyway (cf. his thoughts on vibrato), but one of the most inspiring passages in all musical literature is his intoxicating account of how he arrived in New York in 1944 to track down his hero Charlie Parker, in a quest for enlightenment that has a long tradition in China

Having briefly met Bird and Dizzy earlier in 1944 when they were playing in St Louis, at this stage Miles was still an innocent 18-year old. It was only in 1949 that he fell prey to the heroin lifestyle of his idol—due in large part to his depression on returning to the racism of the States after feeling respected on a great trip to Paris and a beautiful affair with Juliette Greco.

I arrived in New York City in September 1944, not in 1945 like a lot of jive writers who write about me say [YAY!]. It was almost the end of World War Two when I got there. A lot of young guys had gone off to fight the Germans and Japanese and some of them didn’t come back. I was lucky; the war was ending. There were a lot of soldiers in their uniforms all around New York. I do remember that,

I was 18 years old, wet behind the ears about some things, like women and drugs. But I was confident about my ability to play music, to play the trumpet, and I wasn’t scared about living in New York. Nonetheless, the city was an eye-opener for me, especially all the tall buildings, the noise, the cars, and all those motherfucking people, who seemed to be everywhere. The pace of New York was faster than anything I had ever seen in my life; I thought St Louis and Chicago were fast, but they weren’t anything like New York City. So that was the first thing I had to get used to, all the people. But getting around by subway was a gas, it was so fast. […]

I spent my first week in New York looking for Bird and Dizzy. Man, I went everywhere looking for them two cats, spent all my money and didn’t find them. I had to call back home and ask my father for some more money, which he sent me. I still was living clean, not smoking or drinking or using dope. I was just into my music and that was a total high for me. When school started at Juilliard, I would take the subway to 66th Street where the school was located. Right off the bat, I didn’t like what was happening at Juilliard. The shit they was talking about was too white for me. Plus, I was more interested in what was happening in the jazz scene; that’s the real reason I wanted to come to New York in the first place, to get into the jazz music scene that was happening around Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, and what was going on down on 52nd Street, which everyone in music called “The Street”. That’s what I was really in New York for, to suck up all I could from those scenes; Juilliard was only a smokescreen, a stopover, a pretense I used to put me close to being around Bird and Diz. […]

Then I was finally able to get in touch with Dizzy. I got his number and called him up. He remembered me and invited me over to his apartment on Seventh Avenue in Harlem. It was great to see him. But he hadn’t seen Bird, either, and didn’t know how or where to get in touch with him.

I kept looking for Bird. One night I found myself just sort of standing around in the doorway at the Three Deuces when the owner came up and asked me what I was doing there. I guess I looked young and innocent; I couldn’t even grow a moustache back then. Anyway, I told him I was looking for Bird and he told me he wasn’t there and that I had to be 18 to come in the club. I told him I was 18 and all I wanted to do was to find Bird. Then the dude start telling me what a fucked-up motherfucker Bird was, about him being a dope addict and all that kind of shit. He asked me where I was from and when I told him, he come telling me that I ought to go on back home. Then he called me “son”, a name I never liked, epsecially from some white motherfucker who I didn’t know. So I told him to go fuck himself and turned around and left. I already knew Bird had a bad heroin habit; he wasn’t telling me nothing new. […]

Miles meets Coleman Hawkins, who tells him, “My best advice to you is just finish your studies at Juilliard and forget Bird”.

Man, those first few weeks in New York were a motherfucker—looking for Bird, and trying to keep up with my studies. Then somebody told me that Bird had friends in Greenwich Village. I went down there to see if I could find him. I went to coffeehouses on Bleecker Street. Met artists, writers, and all these long-haired, bearded beatnik poets. I had never met no people like them in all my life. Going to the Village was an education for me. […]

One day I saw in the paper where Bird was scheduled to play in a jam session at a club called the Heatwave, in 145th Street in Harlem. I remember asking Bean [Coleman Hawkins] if he thought Bird would show up there, and Bean just kind of smiled that slick, sly smile of his and said, “I’ll bet Bird doesn’t even know if he’ll show up there or not.”

That night I went up to the Heatwave, a funky little club in a funky neighborhood. I had brought my horn just in case I did run into Bird—if he remembered me, he might let me sit in with him. Bird wasn’t there, but I met some other musicians, like Allan Eager, a white tenor player; Joe Guy, who played a great trumpet; and Tommy Potter, a bass player. I wasn’t looking for them so I didn’t pay them hardly no attention. I just found a seat and kept my eye fixed on the door, watching out for Bird. Man, I had been there almost all night waiting for Bird and he still hadn’t shown up. So I decided to go outside and catch a breath of fresh air. I was standing outside the club on the corner when I heard this voice from behind me say, “Hey, Miles! I heard you been looking for me!”

I turned around and there was Bird, looking badder than a motherfucker [the ultimate accolade—Ed.]. He was dressed in these baggy clothes that looked like he had been sleeping in them for days. His face was all puffed up and his eyes were swollen and red. But he was cool, with that hipness that he could have about him even when he was drunk or fucked up. Plus, he had that confidence that all people have about them when they know their shit is bad. But no matter how he looked, bad or near death, he still looked good to me that night after spending all that time trying to find him; I was just glad to see him standing there. And when he remembered where he had met me, I was the happiest motherfucker on earth.

I told him how hard it had been to find him and he just smiled and said that he moved around a lot. He took me into the Heatwave, where everybody greeted him like he was the king, which he was. And since I was with him and he had his arm around my shoulder, they treated me with a lot of respect, too. I didn’t play that first night. I just listened. And, man, I was amazed at how Bird changed the minute he put his horn in his mouth. Shit, he went from looking real down and out to having all this power and beauty just bursting out of him. It was amazing the transformation that took place once he started playing. He was 24 at the time, but when he wasn’t playing he looked older, especially off stage. But his whole appearance changed as soon as he put that horn in his mouth. He could play like a motherfucker even when he was almost falling-down drunk and nodding off behind heroin. Bird was something else.

Anyway, after I hooked up with him that night, I was around Bird all the time for the next several years.

One can’t help feeling nostalgic for those heady days; yet Miles himself recognised the need to move on constantly (see under The spiritual path of John Coltrane).

We hardly need a reminder of the traumas taking place in Europe at the time (see e.g RavensbrúckSachsenhausen, Noor Inayat Khan; cf. The Celibidache mystique).

 

The spiritual path of John Coltrane

Coltrane 3

Having written about various jazz greats—Billie Holiday, Chet Baker (here and here), Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and so on (see also jazz tag)—my recent post on Charles Mingus reminded me to explore further the genius of

John Coltrane (1926–67)

Coltrane 2

Like many jazzers, he was dedicated to practice, studying technique and harmony, disciplined and constantly exploring. And while he too went through a heroin phase (managing to get clean in 1957), he seems pure, gentle, mature, without anger—unlike other greats such as Bird, Miles, and Mingus.

On film, Chasing Trane (John Scheinfeld, 2016) makes a good introduction—here’s a trailer:

as well as Ken Burns’s film Jazz (with the book). Also worth watching is the BBC documentary Saint John Coltrane (Alan Yentob, 2004). And among a wealth of biographies, I’ve been re-reading J.C. Thomas, Chasing the trane: the music and mystique of John Coltrane (1975). More importantly, I’ve been listening attentively.

Like so many others, Trane was inspired by Charlie Parker: hearing him for the first time in 1945, “it hit me right between the eyes”. Other major early influences were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young; and he had much in common with Sonny Rollins.

Coltrane 1

Trane with Dizzy.

Before going on to lead his own bands, Trane worked with Dizzy from 1949, and with Miles from 1955. That year he married Juanita Naima Grubbs, who was the inspiration for his intimate ballad Naima, that he often played—such as on Giant steps (1959):

Naima may have become reified for us, but by contrast, here’s an extended, wild version from Live at the Village Vanguard again! (1966—with his second wife Alice on piano):

Miles Davis’s autobiography—one of the great works in the genre—has many insights on his protégé (indeed, on the whole scene). From 1955 Miles brought out Trane’s creativity, but

after he moved to New York his habit got worse, and real quick, too. I didn’t have no moral thing about Trane and all of them shooting heroin, because I had gone through that, and I knew that it was a sickness that was hard to get rid of. So I didn’t give them no grief about doing it. What I did start to get on them about was coming late and nodding up on the bandstand; I told them I couldn’t tolerate that. […]

If it had been some other player I would have fired him again after the first couple of times. But I loved Trane, I really did, although we never did hang out too much like Philly Joe and I did. Trane was a beautiful person, a really sweet kind of guy, spiritual, all of that. So you really couldn’t help loving him and caring about him, too.

Getting sacked by Miles spurred Trane to get clean after four years of addiction. As he said in the notes to A love supreme:

During the year 1957 I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

From 1957 he also worked with Monk, another seminal influence.

Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way—sensually, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would show me the answers by playing them on the piano. He gave me complete freedom in my playing, and no-one ever did that before.

And McCoy Tyner noted:

I once saw John with Monk, and I think he learned an incredible amount of harmonic background from him. Monk opened him up to the point where he was able to compose complex tunes like Giant Steps. I learned a lot myself just by listening to Monk play. His concept of space alone was one of the most important things he taught Coltrane; when to lay out and let someone else fill up that space, or just leave the space open. I think John was already going in that direction, but working with Monk helped him reach his goal that much faster.

Trane was ever studious. Among the books of exercises that he consulted daily was the Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky—whose A lexicon of musical invective is a hilarious reminder of the constant shock of the new (see here, including a documentary on his life). Meanwhile, like many jazzers, Trane listened to Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky. And he constantly sought out saxes and mouthpieces that would better suit his sound ideal.

In 1958 Trane led his own band for Blue train, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums—the bland opening chorus soon blown away:

Coltrane Miles Kind of Blue

After Miles took him back, he took part in the immortal Kind of blue (1959, virtually unrehearsed!!!)—along with Bill Evans (for the exquisite Ravelian Blue in green, see here), Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb on drums:

Meanwhile Trane was recording Giant steps (1959). On the album My favorite things (1960) they transform the title song “into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance” (for the live 1965 version, see here). And then came Live at the Village Vanguard (1962):

including Chasin’ the trane and Softly as in a morning sunrise (Paul Berliner analyses a version of the latter in his brilliant Thinking in jazz, pp.689–708).

Like Miles, Trane went on to explore in radical directions. But their paths were very different: while Miles was shrewd alongside his own thirst for innovation, Trane was hardly concerned about commercial potential. The last time they worked together was on a tour of England in March 1960—just as I was learning violin and Chinese villagers were starving… In 1961 Trane led his own quintet on a tour of Europe.

In 1963 he played Alabama in response to the KKK church bombing—reminiscent of an Indian alap:

This playlist has many other fabulous tracks:

Apart from the great horn and bass and piano players that Trane worked with, the drive of drummers—notably Philly Joe Jones, and later Elvin Jones—was crucially important to him.

Alice
After parting with Naima, in 1963 he married Alice McLeod, who played piano in his later bands, and herself went on to develop her own style of spiritual jazz. They had three sons together—including Ravi (named after Ravi Shankar), who himself became a fine sax player.


A love supreme
and the late albums
Trane had been drawn to Eastern mysticism (whatever that is) ever since working with tenor player Yusef Lateef in Dizzy’s band in 1949. It was Lateef who directed him to Krishnamurti, and Hazrat Inayat Khan‘s Sufi treatise on the mysticism of sound.

Gradually, by way of the Cool and his 1957 epiphany, he felt able to move away from the frantic vibe of bebop in search of a deeper spirituality.

The towering result of his epiphany was A love supreme (1964), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums:

In Psalm, the whole of the final section (from 25.59) again reminds me of an alap.

That may well be as far as many people want to follow him. Rather like late Beethoven (just a reminder: I’m not supporting the admission of jazz to the elite club—such genres take their place alongside all human musicking!), as Trane’s quest became more mystical, his style became more extreme; with its squawks, honks and howls, it’s far from the fabled Oriental Tranquillity.

Like many others at the time, Trane was drawn to Indian philosophy and (through the influence of Yusuf Lateef) music (under the Indian tag, note this post); in 1961 he began corresponding with Ravi Shankar. As Shankar recalled after their first meeting in 1965:

Meeting John was a great surprise. Most jazz musicians I have met were not interested in anything outside of their own musical world, but here was a humble and self-effacing man with an interest in other people and their cultures like few I have ever met.

But much as he admired Trane, Shankar found his music perplexing, too full of turmoil.

As he worked with Pharaoh Sanders, Trane’s style began to resemble the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. While developing new melodic styles along with Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra’s saxman John Gilmore, he became more immersed in Sufism, the Kabbala, and the polyrhythms of African drumming, influenced by Nigerian percussionist Olatunji; from 1965 he added Rashied Ali to his line-up on drums. (Again, Miles is worth reading on free jazz, and everything…)

As the early miniaturist bebop style receded, Trane gravitated to longer and longer improvisations. Even in his earlier days with Miles, as the latter questioned the increasing length of his solos, when Trane responded, “I don’t know how to stop”, Miles came back with “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” He wasn’t into Trane’s late style, finding it monotonous. Indeed, maybe it doesn’t always work: as Bill Russo commented,

Coltrane lacks the spirit of the idiom he attempts. He gets stuck, repeating figurations again and again, as if such repetition could somehow improve what little the first two or three times they occur. It doesn’t, obviously.

Anyway, Trane’s late work rewards attention. Here are some examples—Om (recorded 1965):

Ascension (1966) is exhilarating, even if I find the sheet of big-band sound more engaging than the solos that emerge from them:

Meditations (1966) (as a playlist):

On a gruelling tour of Japan in 1966, when he was already terminally ill, he played Peace on earth:

Expression (1967):

Trane’s early death may make such albums seem like a postscript, but tempting as it is to bask in the “classic” albums like Blue train, Kind of blue, and A love supreme, just imagine where he would have gone had he lived longer. If only I had been able to share all these creations with Natasha.

As ever, Miles has perceptive comments (p.384):

One of the reasons I like playing with a lot of young musicians today is because I find that a lot of old jazz musicians are lazy motherfuckers, resisting change and holding on to the old ways because they are too lazy to try something different. They listen to the critics, who tell them to stay where they are because that’s what they like. The critics are lazy, too. They don’t want to try to understand music that’s different. The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit again and again. Then they run around talking about electronic instruments and electronic musical voicing fucking up the music and the tradition. Well, I’m not like that and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep on creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.

I needn’t burden you here with yet another lament about how limited our outlets for creativity are in WAM. But awed as I am by the creativity of jazzers generally, I’m all the more astounded by Coltrane—and the horn players, pianists, bass players, and drummers who worked with him. It takes me back to Berliner’s Thinking in jazz to try and understand in more depth what they’re all doing.

John Coltrane died at 40, yet another shooting star in the jazz world of the time, with its high rate of early deaths—such as Bird (34), Billie (44), Fats Navarro (26), Clifford Brown (25), Lee Morgan (33), Eric Dolphy (36). Chinese shawm players (comparable in some ways to jazzers: see also Deviating from behavioural norms) also often died early. Elsewhere, Mozart died at 36, Schubert at 31, and Mahler was only 50; Amy Winehouse only 27.

Mingus

Mingus cover

Charles Mingus (1922–79; see website, and wiki) was not only a great bass player (and here’s a jazz bass joke), but also (like Bach) an inspirational composer and bandleader—perhaps the least celebrated of the “Three M’s”: Miles, Monk, and Mingus.

Jazz biographies rarely stint on the sensational, and autobiography can never be “objective”. Deep in a dream, a life of Chet Baker, is mainly a chronicle of his constant sordid search for fixes; by extension, Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! is a work of art. Miles Davis’s autobiography, though far from comfortable, is relatively sober, evoking his constant musical explorations alongside the gritty details of the lifestyle.

But Mingus’s own take on his life—mainly on his first three decades—is highly novelistic, impressionistic, fantastical. Probably what I need is

  • Brian Priestley, Mingus: a critical biography (1984), or
  • Gene Santoro, Myself when I am real: the life and music of Charles Mingus (1994).

Instead, I’ve been reading his curious quasi-autobiography

  • Beneath the underdog (1971/1995/2005), written in the early 60s and mercifully abbreviated for publication—well reviewed here.

While Mingus offers few details of his musical journey, the book does at least expose the psychic ravages caused by racism. The opening sets the tone, with the first of sessions with his psychologist, splitting his childhood personality into three. Throughout he refers to himself in the third person as “my boy”.

Punctuating the tortured self-analysis and catalogue of degrading sexual encounters are occasional vignettes such as his early experience of learning the cello without notation. His itinerant teacher

would teach anyone how to play anything even looking like a musical instrument that poor folks might beg or buy second-hand or on the instalment plan. Maybe he didn’t even admit to himself that he cheated his pupils but the truth was he took no time to give the fundamental principles of a good musical education [sic!]. His short weekly sessions had to result in satisfying sounds that proved to parents their children were really learning something in a status-building money-making field. So Mr Arson by-passed the essentials that even the most talented child must master if he is ever going to learn to read music well, and the parents, as usual, were paying for something their children were not getting.

Mr Arson saw at once Charles could sing the sounds he saw on paper. Without bothering to name the notes, he showed him where to put his fingers on the cello to make that sound. It was as if a bright child who could easily and rapidly pronounce syllables was never taught how syllables fit into words and words in syntax. I’m sure Mr Arson hadn’t any idea his shorthand method would turn out to be great for jazz improvisation, where the musician listens to the sounds he’s producing rather than making an intellectual transference from the score paper to the fingering process. Using simple scales and familiar tunes, Mr Arson would count as he bowed his muted, gypsy-sounding violin with its resin-caked surface and Charles would follow as best he could by ear, knowing only how it sounded and having no conception of the technical processes he should have been learning at that time.

He goes on to play in the LA Junior Phil, where he meets the angelic Lee-Marie. Through their teenage years it was a rather chaste relationship; later she came to embody his Madonna–whore complex.

Still in his teens, Mingus emerges from being bullied while becoming ever more disturbed by racism, and also discovers mysticism. He moves onto bass:

Not even knowing the names of the strings or how to tune his instrument, Charles began practicing hour after hour standing by the RCA Victor console radio in the front room and after a few weeks he began to get the feel of it.

He studies with Red Callender, learns piano with Lloyd Reese, and begins getting gigs. A constant parade of demeaning sexual encounters is graphically described in passages of explicit porn worthy of the Bad Sex Award. In a rare interlude, while working with Bird and Miles he discusses the world of sax mouthpieces with Lucky Thompson (cf. Keef’s rhapsody on open-string guitar tuning):

“Let’s catch a smoke outside, Mingus.”

“I wonder if Buddy still thinks Merle Johnson mouthpieces give a bigger sound. Some teacher’s been telling him that coloured cats don’t get big sounds with open lay mouthpieces.”

“Haw haw, Mingus! It takes effort is what they mean. Work. They don’t like to sweat. The white man ain’t satisfied till they take all the human element out. Like Bird—they made it this far and they give him horns with soft action. He says, “What for? Too late.” He likes working. He plays an old Conn with a number thirty open lay mouthpiece. I remember some kid telling Bird he heard Negroes used trick mouthpieces to make things easier. Bird reached in his case and said, “Here, try this Berg Larsen, son.” The kid put it on his horn and blew. Wheee! Nothing came out but air. He turned red and blue in the face. Not a sound came forth. Bird said, “Give it here, let’s see what’s wrong with it. Oh, the reed’s too soft.” He took out a fifty-cent piece and held the reed to it and burned around it with a cigarette lighter—burned it down almost to the stem. The he tries it out. “Plays beautiful,” Bird said. “Still a little soft but it will do.” If that kid had tried to blow a reed that stiff he’d passed out or died before he got it to play. You know who that was? A kid named Lee Konitz [R.I.P.]. Ask him when you meet him if you ever get to New York…

In 1947, working for the Lionel Hampton band, Mingus meets Fats Navarro, whose early death in 1950 deprived him of a soulmate.

Meanwhile, like Miles, he becomes a more or less inadvertent pimp, with a little help from Billie Holiday. Meeting up again with the erstwhile angelic Lee-Marie, he recruits her to his harem. Still his encounters with Bird, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge take a back seat to all the relentless balling.

Mingus finds a sympathetic friend in Nat Hentoff, “one of the few white guys you could really talk to in your life”. He checks himself into the psychiatric facility Bellevue, begging the guard to let him in. While there he digs a radio broadcast of the Juilliard quartet playing Bartók. When it turns out to be even harder to get out than in, he turns to Hentoff rather than his psychologist to help him get discharged.

Here’s Lock ‘em up (Hellview of Bellevue, 1960):

After another session with his psychologist, the book ends with Mingus going all mystical on Fats Navarro. But his most creative years were yet to come.

Now here’s a thing:

When Dizzy Gillespie ran his spoof presidential campaign in the early 60s, he nominated Duke Ellington for Secretary of State, Miles Davis for head of the CIA, Max Roach for Minister of Defence, Malcolm X for Attorney General, and Mingus for Minister of Peace.

If only the current lineup were so well qualified…

* * *

After such a pitiless exposé of Mingus’s troubled psyche, it comes as a relief to retreat to the amazing freedom and energy of his music—here’s a fabulous playlist, starting with the extraordinary Moanin’ (1959):

Hog callin’ blues (1962), starring Roland Kirk, is Something Else too:

Going back, here’s his legendary 1953 Massey Hall gig with Bird, Dizzy, Max Roach, and Bud Powell:

Miles Davis’s own autobiography always has vivid and illuminating comments (p.83):

After Bird went off the scene, I would rehearse with Mingus a lot. He wrote tunes that Lucky and him and me would rehearse. Mingus didn’t give a fuck about what kind of ensemble it was; he just wanted to hear his shit played all the time. I used to argue with him about using all those abrupt changes in the chords in his tunes.

“Mingus, you so fucking lazy, man, that you won’t modulate. You just, bam!hit the chord, which is nice sometimes, you know, but not all the fucking time.”

He would just smile and say, “Miles, just play the shit like I wrote it.” And I would. It was some strange-sounding shit back then. But Mingus was like Duke Ellington, ahead of his time. […]

Mingus was something else, man, a pure genius. I loved him.

And it’s always worth going back to Paul Berliner, Thinking in jazz—not only for the social aspects of learning and performing, but for technical analysis of all the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic detail of the various instruments.

Mingus’s life and music are well evoked on film, notably Triumph of the underdog (Don McGlynn, 1998):

as well as Charlie Mingus 1968 (Thomas Reichman):

Do follow up with The spiritual path of John Coltrane!

 

 

 

Chicago blues

blues

In The blaze of obscurity Clive James (R.I.P.) compounds his paltry efforts to represent Japanese culture on film with a candid and fatuous account of filming a blues session for his Postcard from Chicago:

But Chicago’s expatriated European art would have been an unduly quiet story if it had not been offset by something noisier, and our candidate for that was the blues. Unfortunately, much as I loved jazz, I had only a limited tolerance for the kind of blues number in which the singer sings the same not very inspired line twice (or even worse, three times) before capping it with a third (or even worse, fourth) not very inspired line, followed by a peremptory wail from from that least disarming of all jazz instruments, the amplified harmonica. I spent a long, harrowing night in a blues club where I had to look fascinated by the cacophonous remains of a famous blues shouter called something like Slow Dirt Buncombe (I remember his real name but his lawyer might still be alive) while he gave a string of examples of how a song with less than a minute of material could be stretched to thirty minutes if you made the same line and stanza sound different by mangling them in a different way each time. Yelled at cataclysmic amplification, “Well mah woman she done leff me” was a recurring motif. “No bloody wonder” was the obvious continuation, but he never sang that. Thanks to the unnecessary volume—the sure sign of inadequate music—I was never completely clear what he was singing, but I could rely on a maximum air of drama when he pulled back from the microphone, slanted his polished ebony head to shield it from the blaze of the heavenly splendour he had created, and suddenly leaned forward again to give a long blast on his hellishly resonant harmonica. The desirable and necessary ideal of racial equality should, in my view, allow us to say that there is the occasional blues artist whose parade of desolation amounts to an acute pain in the neck. Slow Dirt Buncombe was one of these. Unfortunately Nobby, the deaf sound-man who was once again on the case, caught every line of Slow Dirt’s act with perfect fidelity, and some of the results got as far as the final cut, accompanied by cutaways of my enchanted, lying face.

Maybe he was just unlucky—although one wonders why the BBC scouts wouldn’t be able to find a good band. And sure, it’s a typically funny account. But rather than making an effort to identify what it is that makes blues so effective and using his own gift for words to encapsulate it, he chose here to disguise his incomprehension beneath glib cliché.

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of fine documentaries about Chicago blues, like this:

Not to mention more general histories, such as:

Or Blues America (here and here). And of course there’s a vast treasury of live performances online.

So to exorcise Clive James’s experience, here’s the great Junior Wells with Buddy Guy in 1970:

 * * *

Still, despite Clive James’s cultural blind spots, I am eternally grateful for his priceless evocation of Barbara Cartland’s face:

Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.

Some jazz fiddling

Having given a little introduction to some styles of world fiddling (see also fiddles tag), I must confess that I often find jazz violin underwhelming. Country fiddling is amazing, but whereas sax and trumpet are made for jazz, the violin seems to struggle to adapt to the bebop revolution.

Much as I love Nigel Kennedy, I prefer his electronic excursions, where he seems less bound by classical” conventions. His own taste for jazz goes back to his teacher Menuhin’s collaborations with Stephane Grappelli.

But I am totally in awe of Chris Garrick—and I’m pleased to see that Maxim Vengerov is too:

I want to learn to play like Chris Garrick!

Just a taster—but do explore the variety of his soundworld:

Besides pioneers like Joe Venuti and Eddie South, Stuff Smith had a distinctive style:

They were followed by classically-trained fiddlers like Jean-Luc Ponty and Regina Carter.

Further from mainstream post-bebop, east Europe and Turkey, along with their more traditional string bands, also make fruitful breeding-grounds for new styles. The Paganini lookalike Nedim Nalbantoğlu is great—here he is playing acoustic with oud:

And this session at his Paris café:

Here’s Félix Lajkó:

He’s not always as frenetic as this:

Still more of a melting-pot for folk styles is Tcha Limberger:

And pioneers of fiddling in Polish jazz were Zbigniew Seifert and Michel Urbaniak.

How I envy such creativity…

Polish jazz, then and now

 

Further to my post on improvisation, it’s been a while since I heard live jazz, so I went along to the splendid POSK Jazz Cafe in Hammersmith for a gig in the London Jazz Festival with the creative young sax player Krzysztof Urbanski (based in London since 2010) leading his Quintet, driven by the dynamic, sensitive drummer Asaf Sirkis, a regular on the world music scene.

I love the intimate atmosphere of live jazz—chamber music with the relationship between performers and audience so much more tangible than in modern WAM. And I reflect not only on the complexity of the jazz language and the interplay of the instruments, but the way that audiences somehow identify with it, the timbre of the sax in particular making the perfect medium. How I envy jazzers their creativity.

Here’s a playlist with some of Urbanski’s earlier work:

And a couple of weeks later at the same venue I heard the great Zbigniew Namysłowski (b.1939), veteran of the jazz scene in Poland since the era of state socialism. I’ll return to him shortly, but first some background.

Polish jazz is an absorbing theme (on the useful Culture.pl website, see introductions here and here). As the latter post observes, perhaps what makes it significant is its reflection of the country’s own quest for freedom and democracy—a feature that Poland shares, of course, with alternative cultures elsewhere in the Soviet bloc (e.g. the GDR; cf. Musical cultures of east Europe, and note the Iron Curtain tag).

In the “catacomb” period after the utter devastation of war, a leading early band was Melomani (who “hung out at the Łódź YMCA, one of the centres for independent thinkers in the late 1940s”—I just love sentences like that):

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, jazz emerged more boldly, marked by the Sopot jazz festival, which was held even after the unrest of 1956. Dave Brubeck performed in Poland in 1958. The trumpeter Tomasz Stańko was active from 1962, sometimes working with pianist Krzysztof Komeda (who provided film scores for Polanski and others). Amidst continuing political unrest, Miles Davis performed in Warsaw in 1983. The collapse of communism gave rise to the transgressive Yass style of bands like Miłość.

Jazz fiddle doesn’t always do much for me (Nigel Kennedy was based in Poland for some years, teaming up with local jazzers), but Zbigniew Seifert (1946–79) sounds great:

Another funky fiddler is Michel Urbaniak—here he is with his band live in Oslo in 1972:

On a different tack, also intriguing are Andrzej Jagodziński’s jazz reworkings of Chopin.

Meanwhile Zbigniew Namysłowski had been exploring modern jazz since 1960, and began touring internationally. Here’s his 1964 album Lola, recorded in London:

and he appears along with Tomasz Stańko in the Komeda quintet’s 1965 album Astigmatic:

For aficionados of chinoiserie, in the gig he also featured Jasmin Lady.

In this interview Namysłowski reflects on his career and the influence of Polish folk. Here’s his amazing 1973 album Winobranie (instructively reviewed here), featuring additive metres and even an original take on Indian music:

And in this recent video he takes a back seat to the highland string band Kapela Góralska (another entry in our list of world fiddles, cf. Musical cultures of east Europe; for more on Polish folk, see here and here, as well as Songlines):

So it was great to hear Namysłowski at POSK, still in fine form at 80, along with his son Jacek on trombone. And Polish jazz continues to thrive.

* * *

Polish jazz, long roaming free beyond the confines of the Łódź YMCA, is also enjoying a certain international vogue with Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Cold War (2018):

Just in case you thought the Chinese invented everything, I like this story from Jozef Tischner’s A Goral history of philosophy [History of philosophy according to Polish highlanders, 1997]:

People from all over the world were coming to Biały Dunajec, a town in the Tatry mountains, to learn about the Polish Highlander’s music… Even the Blacks from Africa came one day to learn of the new music. A famous Polish Highlander philosopher Władek Trybunia-Tutka taught them how to use fiddles and play basses. Unfortunately, on their way home to Africa they encountered a storm and all of their instruments were washed overboard. Arriving home with just their bows and no fiddles or basses, they used the bows to strike any kind of objects, creating the rhythms from which jazz was born.

Despite London’s chronic lack of a dedicated venue for world music, just in my Neck of the Woods I can sally forth to POSK, the Bhavan, and occasional flamenco in Chiswick.

For the Polish immigrant experience in the USA, see under Accordion crimes; for delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, here.

Mary Lou Williams

 

MLW

Laudably, in his fine BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the week Donald Macleod often features female composers and performers (Hildegard of BingenÉlisabeth Jacquet de La GuerreLili Boulanger, Meredith Monk, to name but a few; see also The T-shirt), who have been generally neglected. In jazz, female singers have featured more prominently than female composers and instrumentalists; so last week’s programmes (here) on Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) are all the more welcome.

From the Composer of the week website:

A prolific composer and arranger, she was also a gifted pianist. A master of blues, boogie woogie, stride, swing and be-bop, Williams was quick to absorb the prevailing musical currents in her own music, naturally able to exploit her ability to play anything she heard around her. It is this restless musical curiosity that defines her own compositions, and led her to become friends with and mentor many younger musicians, among them Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born around 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination and the disadvantages of an impoverished family to realise her musical ambitions. Learning to play entirely by ear, she was performing locally by age six. Barely into her teens she was touring professionally as a pianist, living proof that—contrary to the prevailing views—women really could play jazz as well as men. But her artistic success came at some personal cost, with instances of domestic abuse, two divorces, a gambling addiction, and the ongoing strain of trying to support her extended family, all taking its toll over the years. After taking a spiritual path, she spent some years trying to rehabilitate addicted musicians, and developed an interest in writing sacred jazz pieces, and after a long career of some sixty years she took on the mantle of educating future generations about the cultural roots of jazz.

Over the course of the week Donald Macleod follows Mary Lou Williams as her life and musical pathways intertwine, from the early years playing Kansas City swing, to embracing be-bop, religion and modern jazz.

When she was around three years old, sitting on her mother’s lap as she played the harmonium, suddenly Mary Lou Williams reached up and replicated exactly what she’d just heard her mother do. It was a defining moment. Williams’ future had just been decided, and in her own words, “I never left the piano after that.”

MLW
The Composer of the week survey features a variety of fine music, with her style constantly evolving. Programme 4, “Music for the soul”, explores her spiritual epiphany—complementing that of John and Alice Coltrane—with works such as Hymn to St Martin de Porres and Mary Lou’s Mass—note the 1964 Folkways album Black Christ of the Andes. And here’s a Greatest Hits album:

See also the documentary Mary Lou Williams: the lady who swings the band (Carol Bash, 2015)—trailer here:

 

Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!

LB

Among the controversial, countercultural icons who drove themselves to an early grave was Lenny Bruce (1925–66), “America’s No.1 Vomic”.

With my penchant for jazz biographies, in a similar vein [sic] is the extraordinary book

  • Albert Goldman (from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller), Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974). *
    (Do read this most perceptive review by Wallace Markfield—interestingly garbled in the course of digitisation.)

The opening chapter, “A day in the life”, is a dazzling, graphic, blow-by-blow reconstruction of his arrival in New York in 1960 for a gig at the Blue Angel. Just a taster:

Around ten, a yellow cab, somewhat unsteadily driven, pulls up before a narrow gray dilapidated building on one of the crummiest sidestreets off the Square. Above the spattered pavement an extinguished neon sign flaps patches of cold hard shadow across the stone steps: HOTEL AMERICA, FREE PARKING. The cab opens with a jolt, back doors flying open so that two bare-headed men dressed in identical black raincoats can begin to crawl out from the debris within. […]

The night before, they wound up a very successful three-week run in Chicago at the Cloisters with a visit to the home of a certain hip show-biz druggist—a house so closely associated with drugs that show people call it the “shooting gallery”. Terry smoked a couple of joints, dropped two blue tabs of mescaline and skin-popped some Dilaudid; at the airport bar he also downed a couple of double Scotches. Lenny did his usual number: twelve 1/16th-grain Dilaudid pills counted out of a big brown bottle like saccharins, dissolved in a 1-cc. ampule of Methedrine, heated in a blackened old spoon over a shoe-struck lucifer and the resulting soup ingested from the leffel into a disposable needle and then whammed into the mainline until you feel like you’re living inside an igloo. […]

The America is one of the most bizarre hotels in the world: a combination whorehouse, opium den and lunatic asylum.

LB club

As Lenny honed his act at strip clubs, Goldman explores his background in

the fast-talking, pot-smoking, shtick-trading hipsters and hustlers who lent him his idiom, his rhythm, his taste in humor and his typically cynical and jaundiced view of society.

He describes Lenny’s connection with comics like Joe Ancis, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin. Joe

insisted on schlepping Kenny and Lenny to the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, taking them on whirlwind tours of both collections with his rapidly wagging tongue doing service as a catalog, guidebook and art-history course. “The fuckin’ Monet, schlepped out, half dead, in his last period, you dig? Painting water lilies—is that ridiculous! Water lilies, man, giant genius paintings, man, like the cat is ready to pack it in, but he has to blow one last out-chorus!

The book’s gory details of drug-taking and its paraphernalia, a staple of jazz biographies (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker (here and here), John Coltrane, and so on), are unsurpassed, and as Markfield observes “could easily serve as basic text in a graduate seminar on mainlining”.

Much as I love Chet’s ballads, he seems to have traded on his early angelic, melancholy image merely as a means to the end of a constant supply of drugs; whereas for Lenny the drugs and the performance went hand in hand, evoking the explorations and discipline of Billie and Miles. Amidst all the squalor, the book evokes the technique of Lenny’s creativity, the way he played the room (cf. Stewart Lee’s labyrinthine footnotes):

Suddenly, he lowers his head and shoots a bold glance into the house—a real arched-brow zinger. “Looks like some faggot decorator went nuts here with a staple gun!” Bam! He’s in, they’re tittering. Then he goes for the extension: “Whoo-who!” (high fag scream) “It’s just got to flow like this!” (big wrist flap and faggy, camp gestures as he dances around triggering off staples with his thumb). They’re starting to laugh. Now for a quick change-up. Take them into his confidence. “You know, when I was a kid, I always dreamed about going to a nightclub.” Nice, easy mood, nostalgia. Then into the thirties movie bits with the George Raft takes and the Eugene Pallette club-owner pushing back the panel in the office to get a view of the stage and the little shaded lamps on the tables and the tuxes and the deep-cleft gowns and the hair on the guys bayed back at the temples and Lenny home from the movies standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a scissors cutting away the hair from his temples so he’d have a hairline like Brian Aherne or Robert Taylor and then his disillusionment years later when he went to the Copa for the first time and everything was so tacky and there wasn’t even a men’s room attendant and they had whisky bottles right on the table like a Bay Parkway Jewish wedding and … and … and … By the balls! They’re hanging on his words. Eating out of his hand! Kvelling because it’s their experience—but exactly!

Indeed, not just Lenny’s lifestyle but the techniques of his free-flowing stage routine have aptly been likened to bebop:

He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there—from recall, fantasy, prophecy.

A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn’t plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up—as if he were a spectator at his own performance!

In another passage, Goldman comments:

The ghetto idiom was far more than a badge of hipness to Lenny Bruce: it was a paradigm of his art. For what the language of the slums teaches a born talker is, first, the power of extreme linguistic compression, and, second, the knack of reducing things to their vital essences in thought and image.

Jazz slang is pure abstraction. It consists of tight, monosyllabic that suggest cons in the “big house” mumbling surreptitiously out of the corners of their mouths. Words like “dig”, “groove” and “hip” are atomic compactions of meaning. They’re as hard and tight and tamped down as any idiom this side of the Rosetta Stone. `if any new expression comes along that can’t be compressed into such a brief little bark, jazz slang starts digesting it, shearing off a word here, a syllable there, until the original phrase has been cut down to a ghetto short.

The same impatient process of short-circuiting the obvious and capping on the conventional was obvious in jazz itself. […] Listening to Be-Bop, you’d be hard put to say whether it was the most laconic or the most prolix of jazz styles. At the very same that it was brooming out of jazz all the old clichés, it was floridly embellishing the new language with breathtaking runs and ornaments and arabesques. Hipster language was equally florid at times, delighting in far-fetched conceits and taxing circumlocution. A man over forty, for example, was said to be “on the Jersey side of the snatch play”.

LB arrest

But whereas for jazzers music made a pure, abstract language transcending their mundane lifestyle, Lenny’s act was inevitably entangled with it. He was getting busted for his act as well as his medicinal habits, becoming ensnared in a series of obscenity trials. But he was at his very best for the midnight gig at Carnegie Hall on 3rd February 1961, again brilliantly evoked by Goldman—riffing on topics such as moral philosophy, patriotism, the flag, homosexuality, Jewishness, humour, Communism, Kennedy, Eisenhower, drugs, venereal disease, the Ku Klux Klan, the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly Berman. Had he lived on, an invitation to today’s White House seems unlikely. Goldman reflects:

What else is this whole jazz trip? You take your seat inside the cat’s head, like you’re stepping into one of those little cars in a funhouse. Then, pulled by some dark chain that you can’t shut off, you plunge into the darkness, down the inclines, up the slopes, around the sharp bends and into the dead ends; past bizarre, grotesque window displays and gooney, lurid frights and spectacles and whistles and sirens and scares—and even a long dark moody tunnel of love. It’s all a trip—and the best of it is that you don’t have the faintest idea where you’re going!

Here’s one of several video clips of his live act (more here, as well as many audio recordings online):

London
Chapter 10, “Persecution” describes Lenny’s 1962 sojourn at Peter Cook’s new London club The Establishment—designed to elude the censoring scissors of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, “maiming English stage plays since the 16th century”. Indeed, this was part of an exchange of hostages that led to the Beyond the Fringe team’s long run on Broadway—International Cultural ExchangeYAY!

Lenny in London! Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Like James Brown at the Bolshoi. Or Little Richard at La Scala.

(Nice idea, but not so bizarre—neither London, Moscow, nor Milan are so culturally monochrome…)

Here’s an intriguing prequel to the misguided vinegar advertisement, and indeed Always look on the bright side of life:

The Establishment was preparing a skit that depicted Christ Jesus as an upper-class gent hung between two cockney-talking thieves, who complain in their petty, rancorous way: “ ’E’s getting all the vinegar sponges!”

Goldman goes on:

Lenny’s notions of England—compounded from old Hollywood flicks and Alec Guinness imports—were queer, to say the least. As Jonathan Miller summed them up, Lenny saw Great Britain as “a country set in the heart of India bossed by a Queen who wore a ball dress. The population had bad teeth, wore drab clothes and went in for furtive and bizarre murders”.

Not all of this was so wide of the mark.

As Lenny’s apostle Kenneth Tynan observed,

If Beyond the fringe was a pinprick, Mr Bruce was a bloodbath.

As ever, critical responses were polarized. Brian Glanville later wrote in The Spectator:

Bruce has taken humour farther, and deeper, than any of the new wave of American comedians. […] Indeed, the very essence of the new wave is that one hears an individual voice talking, giving vent to its own perception and, in Bruce’s case, its own obsessions. An act such as this requires a good deal more than exhibitionism; it also need courage and passion. Essentially, it is not “sick” humour at all. The word is a tiresome irrelevance—but super-ego humour: a brave voice calling from the nursery.

He was denied entry the following year as an “undesirable alien”.

I’d be curious to learn what Alan Bennett thought of Lenny, but his influence on Dud ‘n’ Pete can be heard in their later foul-mouthed Derek and Clive recordings. Christopher Hitchens wrote a fine article on these transatlantic comedy genealogies.

Goldman devotes a perceptive chapter to “The greatest trial on earth”, a high-profile obcenity case over six months in Manhattan in 1964. Despite support from an array of prominent literati, Lenny was sentenced; freed on bail pending an appeal, as his mental and physical health went into a tailspin, exacerbated by paranoia over litigation, he died in squalor.

The only flaw I find with Goldman’s brilliant book is that it lacks an index. See also Doubletalk.

* * *

All this is a far cry from the bland hagiography of Chinese biographies. And the book reminds me again that the post-war era before the Swinging Sixties wasn’t entirely drab and conformist (see e.g. Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder). It also highlights issues of free speech, which are so urgent today. By comparison with Lenny, the challenging routines of Richard Pryor, or Stewart Lee, seem almost genteel. Still, the latter’s travails over Jerry Springer: the opera, detailed in How I escaped my certain fate, and his ripostes in “Stand-up comedian” (2005) and ” ’90s comedian” (2006), richly deserve attention; while Lee too highlights his debt to free jazz, his art is acutely disciplined (for his thoughts on Lenny, see here).

 

* The title’s punctuation reminds me of Mahler’s fondness for exclamation marks!!!

Alternative Bach

Bach

In a new three-part series on BBC Radio 3 (hurry!—only available for a limited time), harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani challenges mainstream ideas of what’s “right” or “wrong” in how Bach’s music is performed, with some fascinating early and recent recordings.

In Programme 1, “Traveller” (as a successive migrant himself, an evocative theme) after nods to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, he includes Wanda Landowska, Leonid Kogan with Karl Richter, and Ralph Kirkpatrick; makes a case for a Karl Münchinger rendition (by which I am underwhelmed); and features the first-ever recording of  Bach’s early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden—from 1931 Barcelona (pre-Franco), in Catalan.

Programme 2, “Outsiders”, features a 1946 Klemperer recording of Brandenburg 2, with the solo trumpet part on soprano sax (which to my ears is its only virtue), and Grigory Sokolov (though I don’t think anyone is claiming that you can’t play Bach on the modern concert piano). The Christ lag in Todesbanden theme continues with another rare Nadia Boulanger recording from 1937 (and in the years following World War 2, still before the “early music” movement, the cantata was among several to be performed and recorded).

Programme 3, “Innovators”, begins with Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesiser. This confuses me. I like the sound; the album has been praised for its “amazing sensitivity and finely wrought nuances, in timbre, tone, and expressiveness”, and Glenn Gould approved too. But I just hear mechanical metronomic monotony, devoid of nuance—or is that the point? Just as no-one said it’s enough to play old music on old instruments, it’s not enough to play it on new ones either. We also hear the curiosity of Emil Telmanyi’s misguided “Bach bow”; Sigiswald Kuijken playing the 6th cello suite; and Anner Bylsma on viola da gamba. Esfahani ends with Schoenberg’s 1928 arrangement of a Bach partita conducted by Essa-Pekka Salonen—and almost relevant here is the charming story of the board of the LA Phil succinctly dismissing the maestro’s choice of repertoire.

Of course, for innovations there’s a lot more potential material for further programmes, from Jacques Loussier and beyond. To complement my own rendition of the Goldberg variations and my many posts on stammering, here’s Uri Caine:

* * *

Much as I enjoyed the series, surely the notion of “authenticity” has become something of a straw (um) person—doctrinaire Ayatollahs are not so common in early music as outsiders imagine.

Indeed, I think most of this can be dispelled by reading Richard Taruskin and John Butt, and listening to John Eliot Gardiner’s renditions (even if the former has trenchant reservations about the latter). Fine as the recordings of Gardiner’s teacher Boulanger are, in the energy and intensity of his performances he develops her tradition with the benefit of later insights. Christ lag in Todesbanden has remained one of his signature pieces over several decades, always reinvigorated. Here’s their Easter recording from Eisenach during the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage:

For an introduction to the cantata, click here.

So questioning supposed orthodoxies still makes a stimulating theme, but I suspect we can now only appreciate early interpretations with the benefit of the bedrock of later HIP style, which has brought us so many invigorating new insights.

The post-war period that led to the establishment of so-called HIP orthodoxy in early music was one of great experimentation. It’s worth citing from John Eliot’s recollections of his studies with Boulanger and his own early experiments with period style (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.3–12):

The person who crystallized all these ideas for me was Nadia Boulanger, justly recognized as the most celebrated teacher of composition in the 20th century. When she accepted me as a student in Paris in 1967, she had just turned 80 and was partially blind, but with all her other faculties in tip-top order. […]

As he formed his own choir and orchestra at Cambridge, he was underwhelmed by the Bach style prevailing there:

How had the wonderfully exultant music that I had known since I was a child come to be treated in such a precious, etiolated way?

And he found the “oppressive volume and sheer aggression” of Karl Richter’s Munich performances “a world away from the mincing, ‘holy holy’ approach of King’s or the Bach Choir in London, but hardly more inspiriting.”

Here, as in most of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, sombre, po-faced,  lacking in spirit, humour, and humanity. Where was the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music?

He describes his early experiments with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, and how by 1978 they had “hit a brick wall”:

The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-19th- and early-20th-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire- or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful—and yet to scale things down was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, called for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the well-spring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments.

As he goes on to explain, “more intrepid pioneers” got there rather earlier. But such experiments were based not on orthodoxy but innovation, expression, joy.

People were quick to realize that there really is a difference in performance between those who are committed to re-making music and inhabiting it afresh, and those just bent on dispatching it with efficiency and technical skill.
[…]
As Richard Taruskin was quick to point out, sound scholarship does not necessarily result in good music-making. At a time when a fashion for “under-interpretation” was beginning to take hold in England among certain early-music practitioners, Taruskin was also one of the first to question what he called “the naive assumption that re-creating all the external conditions that obtained in the  original performance of a piece [excluding people’s ears, minds, bodies, and social conditions, of course!] will thus re-create the composer’s inner experience of the piece and allow him to ‘speak for himself’, that is, unimpeded by that base intruder, the performer’s subjectivity.” He also identified a danger in an over-reverential attitude to the concept of Werktreue (“truth to the work”), one that inflicts “a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had previously been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.”

In the UK and elsewhere in the 70s, the personnel of early and contemporary music scenes often overlapped (see here, under “Performance practice”)—both seeking to innovate, to escape the confines of received conventions.

Now, it’s great to rediscover the radical nature of early recordings, and I’d be the first to lament the bland auto-pilot knit-your-own-yogurt sackcloth-and-ashes of the HIP fringes. But Esfahani almost seems to be indulging in PC gone mad gone mad. The early music scene that evolved since the 1960s was anything but fusty: what drove musos to it was seeking to communicate with an energy that would speak to modern audiences. So, much as I like many of Esfahani’s examples, I like a lot of HIP renditions even more.

* * *

I’ve touched on related issues in several posts, linked in Reception history. On a lighter note, see here; and for vignettes on my days in the English Baroque Soloists, here and here.

Two recent themes

*UPDATED!*

Two images from the 1950s.

Recently I wrote a mini-series of posts on the fortune of expressive culture through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and the intrepid scholars who documented it—worth reading along with my tribute to the great Yang Yinliu:

And further posts followed:

This happens to be an important period for the relationship of politics and culture—the Maoist decades are a crucial bridge from the “old society” to the current reform era—but that’s not the only reason for studying it. One always seeks to gain a picture of change over the lifetimes of informants; if we had visited in the 1880s, or indeed the 880s, we would also have asked them how their social and cultural life had before the cataclysms of the Taiping uprising and the An Lushan rebellion respectively. While I’m critical of reified studies that are limited to the “salvage” of an idealized past, a diachronic approach is always valuable. For a recent volume on doing fieldwork in China, see here.

* * *

I followed up that series with Great Female Singers Week (cf. A playlist of songs):

Again, these are part of larger series, in this case on gender (for a roundup, see here), jazz, and Mediterranean culture—to which you’ll find links in the above posts.

Expressive culture (both popular and elite) always makes a revealing prism through which to view social change—whether for China, Puglia, New York, or Vienna.

Billie Holiday

So far I’ve struggled to resist devoting this site entirely to Billie Holiday, just rationing myself to her captivating 1957 TV Fine and mellow and a few tracks in other posts. Of course she is one of the stars of my Playlist of songs (indeed, everyone’s). *

But to follow Barbara Hannigan singing a Berg-tinged Embraceable you, I just had to go back to Billie singing it—both 1944 and 1957 versions here:

Among my all-time top songs of hers, You’re my thrill is strangely neglected, as she herself lamented. Again, apart from the extraordinary nuances of her voice, intoxicating and intoxicated (surely this is her ode to heroin), note the chromatic melody and disoncerting leaps (I’ve extolled the magic of the major 7th, and now I feel a paean to the minor 7th coming on) and the brilliant noir orchestration—smoochy strings, wind arabesques, languid swaggering brass interlude:

You’re my thrill
You do something to me
You send chills right through me
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

You’re my thrill
How my pulse increases
I just go to pieces
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

Mmm
Nothing seems to matter
Mmm
Here’s my heart on a silver platter

Where’s my will?
Why this strange desire
That keeps mounting higher?
When I look at you
I can’t keep still
You’re my thrill…

It was also natural that Chet Baker, not to be outdone in the shooting-up department, should perform the song:

Generally Chet’s singing has an intensity that matches that of Billie, but for this song I’d always choose her (not that we have to choose). In Chet in Italy I’ve also included two versions of These foolish things sung by her.

In Lover man the orchestration again complements Billie’s vocals:

Meanwhile in 1944, far from the turmoil of Europe (just as ethnologist Germain Tillion was composing Le verfügbar aux enfers for her fellow Ravensbrück inmates), a young Miles Davis was combing the New York streets for Charlie Parker, as he describes in one of the great passages of jazz writing.

Billie’s Don’t explain is amazing too. The lyrics, meekly tolerating infidelity, may now seem as dubious as Stand by your man (and dodgy lyrics are by no means the prerogative of popular music), but as always Billie somehow transforms the song:

And whereas she looks radiant in the 1957 TV broadcast, here’s her harrowing live performance of Don’t explain the following year, with more pain than joy:

To learn more about how all this works, apart from the innumerable books on Billie, I keep learning from Berliner’s Thinking in jazz.

 

* I learn to my chagrin that I’m not the first to discover either Billie or Aretha—but perhaps I can claim credit for the first recording of Dona Rosa.

Barbara Hannigan

BH

Photo credit: Musacchio and Ianniellos.

Having been spellbound by the great Barbara Hannigan singing Let me tell you, as well as her f-f-flabbergasting Gepopo, I just attended another LSO concert in which she both sang and conducted in Berg and Berg-tinged Gershwin (programme notes here).

I became immersed in Berg’s first opera Wozzeck in my teens, but at last I got to hear Hannigan in a suite from Lulu, one of her signature roles. While only featuring two brief but mesmerizing arias, it gives a taster for the complexities of Lulu’s psyche.

Lulu has long seemed to embody all the inherited archetypes of diva/femme fatale, madonna/whore, victim, elfin waif, destroyer/destroyed (see also Madonna and McClary[1] and the “cute psychopath” of Killing Eve), both in the original Wedekind plays and Pabst’s 1929 (silent!) film Pandora’s box:

Hang on—these were all created by men…

All these myths may have gone largely unchallenged until quite recently, but Hannigan doesn’t buy it. So despite Lulu’s common image as abused, manipulated, and degraded, Hannigan finds her inspiring “as a musician, an actor, and a human being”, with her “instinctive emotional intelligence that tends to drive the people around her up the wall”; rather like her remoulding of Ophelia, she regards Lulu as the architect of her own destiny—angry, resistant, and triumphant. As Paul Griffiths wrote,

Hannigan sees her as a spirit of freedom, who breaks loose from the plays, the opera, and the films in which she would seem to be contained. Refusing taming or limits of any kind, she scorns death, even while longing for it. Murdered in one scenario, she simply finds herself another. She is a deity with innumerable avatars.

Hannigan makes her case brilliantly here—describing her passionate relationship with Lulu as well as her her own Stockholm syndrome and survivor guilt, and unpacking gender issues:

Now I welcome new visions, and changing reception history, but I’m still not sure we can simply “celebrate” the lives of women like Lulu without acknowledging the tragedy of their situation in societies where they are constantly hampered—and without keeping the iniquities of patriarchy to the fore (cf. China). Surely the role model here is not Lulu but Hannigan’s vision of her.

She ended the concert with an arrangement of Gershwin’s Girl crazy suite. At first one might think, uh-oh—not another cheesy crossover in the vein of “Dame Kiri Sings the Sex Pistols Greatest Hits by Candlelight“? Far from it: Hannigan “wanted to have a suite with songs from Gershwin musicals, but to look at them through the prism of the Second Viennese School, and especially from the perspective of Lulu and the Countess Geschwitz.”

As Griffiths observes, the link is by no means far-fetched:

Gershwin admired Berg and welcomed the opportunity of a meeting when the American was in Vienna in the spring of 1928. This was a year before Berg began work on Lulu, with its jazz-age touches, and two years before Gershwin was writing songs for Girl crazy. It might be hard to hear Berg’s influence in Gershwin’s own score, but that can be arranged. You just have to find an arranger.

Bill Elliott, who won a Tony award in 2015 for his orchestration of Gershwin’s music in a new show, An American in Paris, was an obvious first choice, and created a 13-minute score on which one could imagine the two composers had worked side by side. Berg sits back to admire the course of a melody Gershwin is writing, then leans forward to add harmonies here, a wandering counterpoint there. *

So the resulting suite, transforming But not for me, Embraceable you, and I got rhythm[2] makes a stimulating and exhilarating piece that inevitably gets a standing ovation. Here’s an earlier performance:

With her magical voice, her expressive arms, her whole body, Hannigan totally inhabits all her roles.

BH2

Photo credit: Jag Gundu.

Now we can also admire Hannigan’s recent Vienna fin-de-siècle CD, including Zemlinsky, Berg, and Alma Mahler. See also The rake’s progress.

 

* For good measure, a couple of quaint vignettes on Gershwin’s friendship with Berg’s teacher Schoenberg in the USA:

Gershwin asked Schoenberg—whom he also painted—for composition lessons. Schoenberg refused, reportedly saying “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”

And in a charming foretaste of the Monty Python Beethoven LP,

Gershwin enjoyed playing tennis with Schoenberg once a week. Gershwin’s playing was described as “nervous” and “nonchalant”, “relentless”, and “chivalrous”—while Schoenberg was “overly eager” and “choppy”.

 

[1] Indeed, Leo Treitler compares Madonna and Lulu in “The Lulu character and the character of Lulu”, ch.10 of his Music and the historical imagination (1989). For a general introduction to the opera, see Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.224–31.

[2] Hiromi‘s manic piano version of the latter is amazing, but I always fantasize about a Bulgarian aksak version…

Bach as bandleader and arranger

As I observed in a post on Bach and the oboe,

Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say.

All four orchestral suites are wonderful. In the 3rd suite—like Mahler’s Adagietto in the context of his 5th symphony—Bach’s Air deserves to be heard in context, after the exhilarating overture. For a change, here’s Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (including some stars of the London scene) in 1989:

The 4th suite is astounding too:

Bill Evans would have loved those harmonies over a pedal (from 1.48/3.20, and again from 8.12):

Bach 4th suite

And everyone gets in on the act—brass, woodwinds, strings, even the bassoon with its funky break (from 9.45). It beats me how anyone can possibly be expected to sit still through pieces like these.

* * *

I only noticed recently that the overture of the 4th suite is a version of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, which Bach unleashed on his Leipzig congregation on Christmas Day 1725, in both the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche (cf. the Christmas Oratorio).

For musicians today, as John Eliot Gardiner comments (Music in the castle of heaven, p.445),

the piece emerges new-minted, alive with unexpected sonorities and a marvellous rendition of laughter-in-music, so different from the stiff, earnest way it is often played as orchestral music. When they are suddenly doubled, as here, by voices singing of laughter, instrumentalists have to re-think  familiar lines and phrasing. Reciprocally, the singers need to adjust to the instrumental conventions of a Fremch overture.

Unser Mund sei voll Lachens                          May our mouths be full of laughter
und unsre Zunge voll Rühmens.                     and our tongues full of praise.
Denn der Herr hat Großes an uns getan.     For the Lord has done great things for us.

And there’s another amazing solo for oboe d’amore (from 10.41).

The cantatas are an inexhaustible treasury.

* * *

I don’t think the Leipzig congregation would have heard the orchestral suite—it’s not even clear if Bach had written it by then. Nor did they have the luxury of hearing it on CD or online: they were lucky to hear any of his works more than once.

Still, they were blessed beyond measure. And just imagine being in Bach’s Big Band, playing dazzling new music every week…

Sure—their ears, teeth, bodies, sanitary arrangements, and whole life experiences were entirely different to ours when we perform or listen to Bach’s music (see here, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”). They hadn’t heard Duke Ellington or the Rite of Spring; and rather than having to take taxis to Heathrow for an early start or hurriedly checking into a hotel before trying to find a quick pre-rehearsal snack—they were there all the time, in a provincial town still recovering from traumatic warfare. All of which makes the constant aural bombardment from their kappellmeister–bandleader even more remarkable.

Cf. Charles Mingus!

Trumpets, wind and brass bands

Trumpet chart

As this blog features a growing number of posts on trumpeters (both jazz and WAM), wind bands, and brass bands, here’s a handy list. I’ve already awarded trumpet its own tag in the sidebar. My usual proviso: all these genres belong within changing social life!

The list might begin with Chinese shawm bands (e.g. herehere, and here)—I won’t try and index all the shengguan wind ensembles here, but they’re a constant theme of posts under Local ritual, for instance. Both types feature in the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.

Some great jazz trumpeters:

wind band

Also on jazz, starting from African musicians at European renaissance courts, is

Jumbo

WAM trumpeters featured include

  • John Wilbraham
  • enchanting versions of Handel‘s Eternal source of light divine by Alison Balsom, Wynton Marsalis, and David Blackadder (WOW).

For folk bands, see

  • the high trumpets punctuating ritual saeta songs in Andalucia, here and here.

And whatever you do, don’t miss

  • the amazing wind and brass turbo-folk bands of east Europe!

fanfare

Roaming the clouds: Miranda Vukasovic

 

Left: Beijing, 2017 (photo: Samantha Camozzi). Right: Cannes, 2018.

On my returns to Beijing from the countryside, much as I miss Li Manshan, I oscillate between encounters with inspiring Chinese scholars and glimpses of the expat life. Following my fleeting introduction to Miranda there, she deserves a separate homage.

You can explore her varied talents online—as singer-songwriter, poet, and designer (notably jewellery).

Photos: Wu Hujun.

* * *

Like a Daoist priest, Miranda roams the clouds 云游, a free spirit, finding evanescent soulmates. In her exuberance she’s more Italian than the Italians. Her company—”red-hot sociality” more akin to Mediterranean fiestas than to Chinese temple fairs—is both enchanting and exhausting; but she lives with her energy all the time.

After her early life in wartime Croatia [1] (and even here, she stresses love, not trauma), Miranda spent periods working in architecture in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Mexico 
City, London, and New York before coming to live in Beijing in 2011—always exploring spiritual and physical landscapes, spreading her wings.

Do read her chapter in the fine collection

* * *

Radiance poster

I’m particularly drawn to Miranda’s music. In Beijing she formed the Radiance band in 2015. While I’m keen to avoid the trap of sexist vocabulary like diva and femme fatale (ha!), as a singer-songwriter Miranda creates compelling music “through a kaleidoscope of fragile emotions” in multi-media performances.

From a 2016 gig in Beijing—Beginning of the end:

Soft machine:

Beijing, 2017:

With Nina Simone, David Bowie, Bach, and Astor Piazzolla among her inspirations, Miranda is working with Chinese and international musicians (as has been common since the 1980s, or, to take a longer view, since the Tang dynasty)—constantly exploring.

Beijing gig, 2016.

Miranda—“to be marveled at”, indeed. Beijing is just the kind of creative environment in which she can thrive; she feels an “energy and a flow of young ideas, always in motion”. But wherever she lands, she will always find like-minded people and stimulating projects.

 

[1] For some other roving female prodigies from East Europe, see here and here.

Chet in Italy

*Sequel to Deep in a dream*
(posts on a variety of trumpeters are listed here)

Chet

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni (who gave me such a wonderful image for that Bach cello prelude), far more “deep in the dream” of Chet Baker than I, has given me her own playlist. She and her brother Fabio inherited their passion for Chet from their father Enzo (1925–98, R.I.P.), an avid participant in the modest yet passionate jazz scene in Verona.

In March 1959 Chet was busted again in Harlem, spending four months in Rikers Island gaol. Soon after his release he was touring in Europe, and in October he recorded the iconic Chet Baker in Milan. Not long after Paola was born, her father went to see Chet’s new film Urlatori alla sbarra (see below) in Milan, hearing him live there too.

As Paola notes, 1950s’ Milan was still a world of factory workers, the Fiat 1100, merry-go-rounds, and suburban dance bands. Local jazzers were keen, but way behind the USA. Franco Cerri recalled,

We should go back to the end of the war in 1945. We were playing for Radio Tevere, which had to sound like a Roman programme even though it was made in Milan—there was fascist propaganda at one end of the studio, with our group Smeraldo at the other.

This was the world onto which exploded the divine druggie Chet—so “cool” that deep down he envied Cerri his little apartment and his Fiat 1100!

Umbria 75

In 1975, when Paola was 17, she went to hear Chet at the Umbria jazz festival. Later she played recorder and cello in the early music scene in north Italy, going on to devote herself to jazz, teaching, and her funky string quartet, always exploring. In 2007 she wrote a thesis on Chet in Milan. Paola’s brother Fabio, a flautist, is also active as a writer on music and organizer of contemporary music in Verona.

 * * *

Of all Chet’s disciples around the world, it was surely in Italy that l’angelo maledetto was most idolized.

Whereas Miles fell in love with Europe (particularly Paris and Juliette Greco), for Chet Europe seems never to have been much more than a useful source of drugs. His tours read mainly as a squalid litany of dodgy dealers, dope busts, and duplicity. But it’s worth noting the many fine local jazzers who worked with him on his European tours—in what were often trying circumstances.

While I’m adjusting our focus on the American scene, it’s worth mentioning jazz behind the Iron Curtain, like Tomasz Stańko in Poland—where the counter-cultural message of jazz felt still more significant (cf. punk in the GDR).

Chet in Italy
Chet’s first European tour began inauspiciously in Milan over New Year 1955, followed by Perugia, Rome, and Genoa, ending in Germany.

By 1959 audiences were drawn to langelo like a moth to a flame. He took a role in the film Urlatori alla sbarra:

For all his romantic image, Chet was truculent and prone to tantrums, as he smuggled in pills, checked briefly into rehab, blagging dodgy prescriptions, and alienating his most devoted followers. He had a devoted following in Lucca, home of Puccini. He was finally busted there in summer 1960, languishing [as you do—Ed.] in jail until his trial in April 1961, where he received a rather light sentence.

Another romantic image now emerged as the tones of his angelic trumpet wafted from behind the prison walls. He was released early in December, even managing not to get deported. He resumed touring; briefly drug-free after his release, he soon resumed the habit. Meanwhile other jazzers kept dying (Deep in a dream, pp.153–83—sordid and depressing as the book is, it’s brilliant, do read it!).

He was welcomed back as a returning hero for a gig in Pescara in 1967 (Deep in a dream, pp.252–3):

The Rimbaud of jazz, often defeated but every time rising … the sweet and fragile boy grown in the slums of New York [sic!] … a bird whose wings are always broken, the defenseless victim of every violence in the wild city.

Always running from the law, he spent summer 1976 in Rome, doing another troubled gig there in 1978. Through the 1980s he did further tours of Italy for adoring audiences, spreading chaos all around his circle. His last gigs in Rome in 1988 were punctuated by street busking to pay off his dealer. By May he lay dead on an Amsterdam pavement; the only mystery about his death was its circumstances.

* * *

But again, utterly dysfunctional as Chet’s life was, the tracks are mesmerizing. For Paola’s thesis she interviewed Renato Sellani and Franco Cerri, who appeared with Chet Baker in Milan in 1959. This is their version of My old flame:

And don’t forget the 1959 video of My funny Valentine, which I already featured.

So here’s a fine selection from Paola:

Indian Summer (Milan, again from 1959)—Paola: with a long, sweet, elegant solo that I LOVE)

Well you needn’t (a boppy version of the famous Monk standard):

These foolish things (whose lyrics Eric Maschwitz wrote as a love song to Anna May Wong!), with René Thomas on guitar:

Here I can’t resist playing two versions by Billie Holiday too—first from 1936, before the literal shot in the arm of the 1940s:

and then from 1952:

Back to Paola’s playlist—Autumn Leaves, with Paul Desmond on sax:

There will never be another you (Chet’s first solo here is a classic study piece for jazz trumpeters):

Ballata in forma di blues (Rome, 1962):

Paola’s selection is based on Chet’s genius as a trumpeter, but she also led me to another searingly intense sung ballad live on video, Almost Blue (also featured in the Let’s get lost film). While he was eminently capable of sounding befuddled and morose, this is on a par with his heart-rending My funny Valentine. His cover of an Elvis Costello song inspired by Chet’s The thrill is gone, it’s a late version from 1987, not long before his death:

There’s another, longer, version in his amazing Tokyo set, also from 1987:

If only I could have shared all these ballads with Natasha.

Listening to these late gigs, perhaps I was wrong to conclude:

Whereas most of the jazz greats, through their similar struggles with addiction, were constantly learning, honing their craft, Chet seems to have been gifted with his dreamy cool style very early, and then traded on his angelic image (largely for substances) for the rest of his surprisingly long life, settling for melancholy—without the constant explorations of the other great jazzers.

Even with those standards that he’d been playing year in, year out since the 1950s, he couldn’t help exploring, both in melodic invention and in the depth of his pain.

I often observe that notation is overestimated; still, many jazzers were obsessed with chord sequences, and often consulted scores. There’s discussion (e.g. here) of how familiar Chet was with theory and notation. As Gerry Mulligan observed, “Chet can read, but he doesn’t have to.” Anyway, his sense of harmonic melody was largely aural.

Chet appeared less often in England, but late in his life he was in fine form for a week at The Canteen in London in March 1983. His 1986 appearance at Ronnie Scotts, with Elvis Costello, was also great:

To think that I could have been there… 1986 was my first stay in China, but I now add this to the list of great gigs that I kick myself for missing—Amy Winehouse, Tennstedt doing Mahler, and so on.

Lastly, another of my favourite ballads, Time after time—the 1954 recording:

and live in 1964—deep in the dream:

 

Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan
To follow Fats Navarro, Chet Baker (here and here) and Clifford Brown, it’s worth adding Lee Morgan (1938–72) to our list of great jazz trumpeters (NB also trumpet tag). He was shot dead by his wife at Slug’s Saloon when he was only 33, before he could finish himself off with heroin—on which, do listen to this fine programme on the Lexington Narcotics Farm.

Trumpet chart

First, to pursue the theme of lineages, I remember Clifford (1958):

Still with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, among stiff competition, here he is with Wayne Shorter playing A night in Tunisia in 1959 (even the percussion intro is amazing):

Another ballad, from 1958:

And just listen to him with Coltrane in Blue train (1957)!

Here’s a video from 1961:

With Wayne Shorter again (1965):

Oh all right then, here’s The sidewinder (1963):

Hidden histories

The current BBC Radio 4 series

hosted by the engaging Clarke Peters, introduces a treasury of recordings illuminating the social history of Europe.

The first series covers the period from 1900 to 1930—notably Black Europe, a richly-documented 44-CD set from Box Family Records.

From the series website:

Received wisdom has it that black popular music arrived in Europe with the Empire Windrush in 1948, but Clarke brings us black sounds recorded in Europe from as far back as 1900.

Programme 1: Focusing on early commercial discs made in the recording studios of London, Paris and Berlin, we hear from dozens of different performers, including African American travelling entertainers, traditional African musicians, black British classical composers and more.

Clarke discovers a huge variety of black music recorded in Europe at the start of the 20th century, including very early examples of blues harmonica, scat singing and stride piano. The programme also includes some of the earliest African music ever recorded, from Senegalese war songs captured at the Paris World Fair in 1900 to the music of a troupe of Congolese pygmies who toured Britain in 1905-07.

Programme 2: Clarke explores the music of black Europe at the time of the First World War. The sounds of what would become jazz start to emerge, including African American banjo bands who entertained London high society, and the military music of Harlem bandleader James Reese Europe which enthralled France. The programme also includes music by captured African Prisoners of War, recorded in camps across Germany.

Programme 3: Clarke explores the sounds of Zonophone records, a pioneering label that recorded a huge amount of early African popular music. Many of these discs were made in London for export to West Africa, including several Nigerian hymns recorded in 1922 by Fela Kuti’s grandfather. The programme also includes the sounds of African American jazz in 1920s Paris, especially the work of Josephine Baker, the world’s first black superstar.

For James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, see also

and this short Channel 4 feature.

Series 2 and 3 are now available, taking the story through World War Two, the 60s, and the 70s—antecedents of what even then was still not called “world music”. These programmes too are full of gems, such as hot jazz in Weimar Berlin, calypso in Cardiff Bay; underground bands in Hitler’s Germany, black American trumpet stars in occupied Paris, Caribbean swing bands playing through the Blitz in London; and in the post-colonial era, on to Ambrose Campbell and his West African Rhythm Brothers, Sterling Bettancourt, Lord Kitchener, and the emergence of the Notting Hill Carnival sound; Ghanaian highlife, Congolese rumba from Brussels, Algerian chaabi in Paris, Surinamese jazz from Holland, the songs of Cape Verde—and black flamenco. To Name But A Few…

Here’s Sam Wooding’s Orchestra playing Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin:

For Algerian chaabi, here’s Dahmane El Harrachi’s Ya rayah:

And here’s Ronald Snijders live:

All these diverse cultures have made up a major part of European social history over the last century. It’s a really ear-opening series, providing many leads to explore.

A stunning keyboard break

The work of Susan McClaryboth for its ideas and its lively language, has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).

McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).

Meanwhile, listening again to Brandenburg 5 recently after my post on his fawning letter to its churlish recipient, I was reminded of one of McClary’s most famous accounts, from her 1987 article “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”.

Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).

She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:

At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
[…]
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.

Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.

She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”

The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
[…]
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.

McClary concludes provocatively:

 The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.

McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).

With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.

It makes a suitably awe-inspiring opening to The chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, all the more exhilarating in Gustav Leonhardt’s restrained version:

* * *

And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962—don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 8.06ish:

Reception history and performance practice are always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:

And here’s Furtwangler in 1950 (cadenza from 8.54ish)—praised by Richard Taruskin, no less:

But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century. So now, despite a rearguard action to rehabilitate the Golden Age before HIP (see Alternative Bach, and Playing with history), modern ears may find such early versions heavy going.

Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights (from 6.30ish):

Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.

Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.

Yet more jazz: Clifford Brown

Still exploring the trumpet genealogy (for list of posts, see here), another fine player, influenced by Fats Navarro, was Clifford Brown (1930–56):

And the only known film footage of him:

Here’s a tribute from Ken Clarke.

* * *

I also have to single out the most stunning solo from Roy Eldridge (following a plaintive one from a dying Lester Young) inspired by a spellbound Billie Holiday on their utterly gorgeous 1957 TV session.

That’s in a class of its own, but other early videos (despite the arid studio setting) give a feeling of jazzers relishing each other’s creativity, like this clip of Bird with Coleman Hawkins (and later, with Buddy Rich on drums):

I’ll leave Bird, Dizzy, and Miles for another time—so much material…

As I keep saying, if only we had such a wealth of video footage for Yanggao shawm bands and Daoists in the 1940s—or Bach’s band in the 1720s, for that matter.

Wind, ethnicity, gender

My time with Chinese shawm bands (most ubiquitous of performers for rural ceremonial) leads me to dabble mildly in studies of early European wind bands. So I’m struck by this detail of a 1520 Portuguese painting:

trombone

The Engagement of Saint Ursula and Prince Etherius,

It makes an alluring image for reviews of Miranda Kaufmann’s new book Black Tudors: the untold story, though it’s familiar to musicologists on the period—leading me to a glimpse of some of the fine work that scholars do for early European organology. See these images—Keith McGowan’s groundbreaking work on wind bands (which we await, um, breathlessly) encompasses social aspects of early European players of ethnic minority backgrounds—who, as in China, were generally low in status. And the painting is included in a survey by Will Kimball on early sackbut grips (and I thought my work was niche…)

That image comes from Portugal, but Kaufmann opens her book with a vivid account of John Blanke, trumpeter at the Tudor court.

John Blanke (rear, centre), from Westminster tournament roll, 1511.

As she notes, African musicians (mostly wind players) had been playing for European monarchs and nobility since the 12th century. More commonly represented in painting are Middle-Eastern shawm bands, as in Carpaccio’s Baptism of the Selenites.

So if the 1520 Portuguese painting is the earliest surviving representation of a black trombonist, then when was the next, eh? Before the 20th century?

Moving laterally (like a trombone slide), here’s Melba Liston:

While we’re about it, any excuse to cite Some like it hot:

And Vermeer’s The art of painting attracts as much interpretation as Las meninas:

* * *

Now, much as I admire Chinese music historians and the many fine collections of early iconography of Chinese instruments, I wonder if the Confucian habit of merely citing early written sources without discussing them applies in that field too: beyond merely displaying images, we need to interpret them.

While I’m on the subject, citations of early texts by Chinese scholars seem to assume we all know what they mean; they feel no need to translate them into modern Chinese. Yet when I query how to translate such passages, even the best scholars aren’t necessarily clear—and the uncertainty is precisely why we need to discuss them.

* * *

On a topical note, I caught a glimpse on the news recently of a shawm band playing for a demo in troubled Catalonia. Among the amazing regional variety of folk culture in Spain, folk Catalan double-reed instruments include grallatarota, tible, and tenora.

For a handy list of posts on trumpets, wind and brass bands, see here. See also trumpet tag.

 

Fats Navarro

As I noted in my post on Chet Baker, among the innumerable delights of Paul Berliner’s book Thinking in jazz is his exploration of trumpet styles and links between them.

Most of these players can be explored, miraculously, on youtube—here’s Fats Navarro (1923–50, yet another distressingly short life):

God, I wish I could do all that…

It’s gratifying that Anthropology is not only one dry textual approach to bebop, but (thanks to Charlie Parker) a real living piece:

Cf.

Lady Bird:

Casbah, again with Tadd Dameron, and Rae Pearl (Harrison) singing:

And savour Guilty, a rare male-voice ballad featuring Earl Coleman:

From his last gig, with Bird on 30th June 1950—a week before Fats died:

The treasures of youtube are inexhaustible, but as a change, the 4-CD set The Fats Navarro story is instructively annotated, like other gems in the Proper Records series—and it ends with two further searing tracks from that last session.

Deep in a dream

Chet
Delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, in my little sample of jazz biographies, I didn’t mention

  • James Gavin, Deep in a dream: the long night of Chet Baker, [1]

which goes well with Bruce Weber’s remarkable film Let’s get lost (for the making of which, do read Deep in a dream, pp.328–42):

Born in 1929, Chet somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 58—this quote seems tailor-made for him:

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!

(Like Daoist ritual texts, this has been diversely attributed—to Eubie Blake, Mae West, Adolph Zukor, and so on.)

We don’t expect any artist to be a paragon of moral virtue—and in jazz, there were few angels. The “straight” WAM scene also had its bad boys—not least, trumpeters.

Before we get onto Chet’s iconic slow ballads, I like his early bebop playing:

And here he is with Charlie Parker in 1952:

I often wish someone would do a study of the styles of Chinese shawm players or Daoist guanzi masters like that of Paul Berliner on instrumentalists in Thinking in jazz. He cites John McNeil’s impressive genealogy (more taxonomy!) of jazz trumpeters (p.137):
Trumpet chart
But whereas most of the jazz greats (Billie, BirdMiles, Trane, Bill Evans, and so on), through their similar struggles with addiction, were constantly learning, honing their craft, Chet seems to have been gifted with his dreamy cool style very early, and then traded on his angelic image (largely for substances) for the rest of his surprisingly long life, settling for melancholy—without the constant explorations of the other great jazzers.

Donald Byrd, 1959.

Still, taken individually, ignoring the degradation of Chet’s life, his songs are captivating. Apart from his trumpet playing, Chet is one of few male jazz singers I can relate to (that’s my own weakness—the late great Amy Winehouse was devoted to Tony Bennett, for instance); maybe what distinguishes his singing is the way he dispenses with masculine bravado. But the critics are divided: while Chet’s followers revered him as a god, regarding his solos as “models of heartfelt expression, as graceful as a poem”, others were less enchanted, describing him as “a singing corpse”, “a withered goat”, “a hollow-cheeked, toothless, mumbling, all but brain-dead relic”, and “a drug-ravaged ghost” (Deep in a dream, p.5).

But let’s just forget the film, and the book, and wallow. These songs almost add up to a potted biography in themselves:

As with My favorite things, everyone has their favourite versions of My funny Valentine, but this one (live from Turin in 1959 [1] —at the height of Chet’s celebrity in Italy, and just as his substance-abuse was rocketing) is heart-rending:

Another lesson from jazzers in how to use vibrato. And let’s hear it for Lars Gullin on sax…

This next recording (evidently achieved through some editorial sleight-of-hand) contrasts with Bille Holiday’s You’re my thrill—which Chet also sang:

For a sequel, with a yet more informed playlist, see here.

 

[1] I also look forward to reading Jeroen de Valk, Chet Baker: his life and music.
[2] Short of undertaking a global survey, 1959 is widely known as the year of Kind of blue; and in China, for the escalation of famine—still not widely enough known.

 

Ute Lemper

In My Time I’ve heard a few divas live in concert (Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming)—indeed, I’ve accompanied some (Monserrat Caballé, Cecilia Bartoli). In this blog I also praise outstanding male singers like Michael Chance and Mark Padmore.

In Italian the term divo is occasionally used, but elsewhere there’s no male equivalent of the diva, or the related femme fatale; both terms reveal male anxiety—dangerous, damaged women meeting (and luring men to) a bad end (cf. Lulu). Male behaviour, more intrinsically fatal, is not advertised thus. The chanteuse is a similar archetype. And the skewed language continues with prima donna—as if male performers are never temperamental, self-important, and demanding (yeah right).

Susan McClary opened the way for later unpacking of such stereotypes in both opera and popular music, such as Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance, Disruptive divas: feminism, identity and popular music (2001). And the use of these terms in English adds xenophobia to sexism—our impeccable moral virtue threatened by these loose foreign women (“They come over ‘ere, with their dramatic genius, and their perfect control of phrasing and diction…”).

Anyway, “that’s not important right now” (Airplane clip, suitably in a post on solfeggio!)—

I can’t think when I’ve been so entranced by a singer (that’s the word we’re looking for!) as hearing Ute Lemper in concert at the Cadogan Hall last week. I thought I could consign her to a comfortable old Weimar pigeonhole, but her music is endlessly enchanting. Never mind that I wasn’t quite convinced by this latest project based on Paolo Coelho, with a world music sextet—she keeps exploring. Her sheer physical presence is irresistible—as with Hélène Grimaud, it’s an intrinsic concomitant of her musical magic. Audiences hang on her every breath, every inflection of her slender wrist… I’d love to hear her in a little jazz club.

As with Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, the variety of dynamic, timbre, and vibrato that “popular” singers can command is all the more moving by being deeply personal. Once again, I rarely find perfect distinctive vocal artistry in the world of WAM. They’re all building on their respective traditions, but it’s harder for WAM singers, more burdened by formality, to convey such intimacy. Of course, Ute Lemper is also somewhat polished and controlled—less destructive than Billie and Amy; that may make her slightly less moving, but it also helps her stay alive. Her stage presence is breathtaking.

For a recent incarnation of the femme fatale, see here.

Chords

All in a chord is a stimulating series of short programmes on BBC Radio 3:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b088tzkv/episodes/guide

including the horrifying Scream from Mahler’s 10th symphony (above); The Rite of Spring; and an exploration of the minimalist style through Terry Riley’s In C. Making connections between them, Ivan Hewitt and his discussants provide fine social context, to boot—”harmony as a reflection of history”.

Meanwhile, most of the world’s societies have always got along perfectly well without harmony. “But that’s not important right now“.

I’ve always understood harmonic language more by instinct and experience than by theory. I trust plenty of other orchestral musos are more erudite about chords and harmony, but it is jazzers who are most deeply imbued in the language—and not just the keyboard players.

A Swedish psalm

Following my thoughts on musical complexity, and the taxonomy of singing:

While I rejoice in the intensity and economical language of much popular music, generally I’m underwhelmed by the upright Victorian simplicity of Christian hymns—although of course Bach’s chorales are in another league.

The Swedish psalm Härlig Är Jorden, sung a cappella, is Complete Perfection, Pure Simplicity:

Glorious is the Earth
Glorious is the Earth, glorious is God’s heaven,
Beautiful is the pilgrimage of souls
Through the fair kingdoms of the Earth
We go to paradise with song

 Ages come, ages go
Generation follows generation
Never is the sound from Heaven silenced
Of the soul’s glad pilgrim-song

 The angels sang it first for shepherds of the land
Beautifully it rang out from soul to soul
People, rejoice, the Saviour has come
The Lord bids peace upon the Earth

BTW, notwithstanding the critiques of Alan Lomax’s ambitious Cantometrics project, this does seem to illustrate one of his notable insights:

that sexually restrictive and highly punitive societies correlated with degree of vocal tension. The tendency to sing together in groups, tonal cohesiveness, and the likelihood of polyphonic singing were all associated with fewer restrictions on women. Multipart singing occurs in societies where the sexes have a complementary relationship.

The Real Group sings the psalm divinely, but it can be just as moving in less polished amateur versions. This is nothing to do with our recent British penchant for Scandi noir. Of course, not being Swedish, I can’t assess what layers of association it may have for various strata of Swedish society today. For me, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, another likely image of religious purity (and another of those changing traditions à la Hobsbawm), is highly conflicted—Dudley Moore expressed this well, if not entirely reverently. I doubt if all young Russian liberals are so entranced by Orthodox liturgy as I was on Mount Athos.

So as with Bach, there is no “correct” way to experience a piece like this: it will vary by class, time, region, and so on.

While we’re relishing the singing of the Real Group, I can never resist a bit of Bill Evans:

For a wonderful a cappella Bruckner motet, see here.

Back to black

For the anniversary of Amy’s death

Sure, for me to write about Amy is like a football journalist discussing ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe.

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good.

A song full of brilliant lines like

And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. If Billie isn’t considered a blues singer, Amy isn’t necessarily linked with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at least since the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. To listen to all her different versions of the same song with the aid of YouTube, no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.

Back to black is one of the all-time great songs:**

Sifting through different versions of her songs is instructive (more so, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe):

The whole album is a masterpiece. This BBC film by Jeremy Marre in the Classic albums series is a fascinating insight into the process of creation and recording—great contributions from producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, instrumentalists, friends, with Amy always a moving presence.

For all the craft that went into perfecting the studio album, Mark Ronson comments,

Sometimes I’d even go to her shows and I found it a little maddening, cos I was like, “We worked so hard and these are the songs and people wanna hear it this way, but everything is slightly improvisational. She would never sing a melody the same way twice, because it’s almost like, “Why would you do that? I already did it that way.”

She was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.

Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall, with her home crowd:

Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:

A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) (update, June 2020: currently on Channel 4 for a month only!). A recent programme in the Soul music series on Radio 4 also shows how much she moved people.

I’d love to be reincarnated as one of her backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.

 

**  “The all-time great songs” is generally used in the limited sense of “favourites of Anglo-American pop since the 1960s”, but here I am indeed happy to rank her oeuvre alongside the likes of Orpheus, Hildegard von Bingen, or Niña de los Peines. See also my playlist here.

From Bosch to Stańko

The labyrinthine crime novels of Michael Connelly are brilliant—set in L.A., packed with gritty procedural, historical, and psychological detail, with their protagonist Harry (short, indeed, for Hieronymus) Bosch.

A tangential delight permeating the series is Bosch’s fine taste in jazz. Continuing my trumpet theme, it was through Nine Dragons (a murky Triad case) that I learned of Tomasz Stańko, “the Polish Miles Davis”.

To remind us of the jazz scene under state socialism (see e.g. Pickham and Ritter, Jazz behind the Iron curtain), here are versions of First song from 1976:

And even a recording from 1970:

WOW… His ballads are great too:

For more Stańko in a post on Polish jazz, see here.

Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!”
—John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.”
—John Wilbraham (Jumbo) on Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Noddy)

(For more orchestral nicknames, see here).

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,

“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”

“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.

My favorite things

As if my musical life hasn’t been stimulating enough lately, BBC Radio 4’s fine series Soul music recently broadcast a lovely programme about My favorite things—one of the great jazz standards, a seemingly saccharine song whose complex harmonies have provided inspiration for musos, um, down the ages:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08r1vzc

Coltrane’s versions are justly renowned, like

OMG, Bill Evans too:

It’s almost too perfect to be vocalized, but here’s Sarah Vaughan, changing the mood again:

The Li family Daoists in France

Paris gig poster

First concert yesterday on our mini-tour of France, our fifth foreign trip since 2005. Not least, we haven’t seen each other for a year, so it’s great for us to catch up.

After a procession leading the audience through the circus ground on campus at Nanterre, the gig was unforgettable—profound and exhilarating. The audience went wild, and I’m proud for them. They’re right up there with Bird and Dizzy’s band; or with a senior string quartet who have been working together for decades, playing the Heilige Dankgesang on long tours, constantly delving deeper into the inner meaning.

Living the reclusive life that I do, this sudden lurch into serving as their minder, roadie, and stage manager is an invigorating shock to the system. They appreciate all my work—but since I always depend on them when I’m in Yanggao, it’s great for me to able to repay them a bit by looking after them for a change.

In my book (p.335) I wrote about our foreign tours:

Once we’re on the road, looking after the Daoists is an infinitely rewarding full-time job for me. Between sorting out daily logistics with our hosts, shepherding the Daoists round airports, stations, hotels, and restaurants, explaining how things work (showers, coffee machines, and so on), interpreting, helping them buy souvenirs, and keeping everyone in good spirits, I manage to find time to ask further questions about their life stories and rituals. Apart from working as their roadie, I enjoy being stage manager too. Li Manshan observes that they all want to do good concerts for my sake, so I won’t “lose face”; but they take pride in the gigs for themselves, irrespective of my pedantic concert professionalism. Elsewhere I note their high standards back home despite the careless attitudes of their village patrons, and here too they really care about adapting to the demands of a concert. We constantly discuss how to refine their stage presentation, and they get more polished at taking their final bows.

If course one of the insights in spending time in the ”natural habitat” of their home environment is to reveal their humanity. But touring, outside the narrow field laboratory, further helps me relate them to the hubbub of the global bazaar.

They’ve brought me a couple of bottles of Fenjiu “white spirit” from Shanxi, so after our gig we all polished them off over a convivial meal. At midnight Li Manshan knocked on my door and we ended up sharing loads more stories, “having a meeting with Teacher Wang”, and fondly recalling Li Qing, reflecting on this whole amazing story since my first visit in 1991.

Back in Paris tomorrow for our last gig at the Centre Mandapa (see Upcoming Events in sidebar)—for anyone at all nearby, not to be missed!!!

The windmills of your mind

While we’re on the wonderful melody, harmony, and orchestration of Michel Legrand, how about The windmills of your mind—again with English lyrics from the Bergmans:

and I continue to be belatedly impressed at the good taste of Dusty Springfield:

But though the lurch to the bombastic is only fleeting, I still prefer to maintain the tranquil mood of the original.

For Francis Lai, see here.

You must believe in spring

After blithely adducing French film music for Zerfließe, I’m reminded of You must believe in spring—for those tricky moments when you seek inspiration and the Resurrection of Our Lord doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Composed by Michel Legrand for Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), its English lyrics were then written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I just adore Cleo Laine’s 1974 version—all the more moving for being recorded live:

Tony Bennett and Bill Evans make a magical team too:

The song, those harmonies, made perfect material for Bill Evans—here’s an instrumental version from 1977, released after his death in 1980:

When lonely feelings chill
The meadows of your mind,
Just think if winter comes,
Can spring be far behind?

Beneath the deepest snows,
The secret of a rose
Is merely that it knows
You must believe in spring.

Just as a tree is sure
Its leaves will reappear;
It knows its emptiness
Is just the time of year.

The frozen mountain dreams
Of April’s melting streams,
How crystal clear it seems,
You must believe in spring.

You must believe in love
And trust it’s on its way,
Just as the sleeping rose
Awaits the kiss of May.

So in a world of snow,
Of things that come and go,
Where what you think you know,
You can’t be certain of,
You must believe in spring and love.

For another brilliant Michel Legrand song, see The windmills of your mind.

Gems from the farm, or Crumbs of comfort

CCF film

Still giggling at Stella’s resumé of The Flayed, I must just return to celebrating the original Cold comfort farm.

You might think it would be one of those books that could only be spoilt by being Made Flesh (or at least celluloid, or whatever they use these days, with their new-fangled ungodly ways). But the 1995 TV film is highly regarded, and at a tender age, having recently read the book, I found the 1968 serialization most drôle—such as Alastair Sim as Amos, perfect:

“Ye know, doan’t ye, what it feels like when ye burn yer hand in takin’ a cake out of the oven or wi’a match when ye’re lightin’ one of they godless cigarettes? Ay. It stings wi’ a fearful pain, doan’t it? And ye run away to clap a bit o’ butter on it to take the pain away. Ah, but” (an impressive pause) “there’ll be no butter in hell!”

Then there’s the herd of Jersey cows—Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless; and Aunt Ada Doom’s regular use of the dilapidated Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide to smite anyone within reach.

The book also exemplifies the clash of urban and rural cultures that is a major theme of anthropology, not least for China. The Li family Daoists sum it up brilliantly in their joke after the final credits of my film.

Flora takes on the project of Meriam the hired wench, in labour yet again:

And carefully, in cool phrases, Flora explained exactly to Meriam how to forestall the disastrous effect of too much sukebind and too many long summer evenings upon the female system.
Meriam listened, with eyes widening and widening.
“ ‘Tes wickedness! ‘Tes flying in the face of nature!” she burst out fearfully at last.
“Nonsense!” said Flora. “Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy.”

Meriam’s mother (wife of Agony Beetle, no less) has a plan for her daughter’s growing brood:

“Come another four years and I can begin makin’ use of them.”
“How?” asked Flora. […]
“Train the four of them up into one of them jazz-bands. […] So that’s why I’m bringing them up right, on plenty of milk, and seein’ they get to bed early. They’ll need all their strength if they ‘ave to sit up till the cows come ‘ome playing in them night-clubs.”

Lastly, statuesque sullen ravaged Judith:

I am a used husk… a rind… a skin.

Fragrant Flora’s own personal bible, The Higher common sense by the Abbé Fausse-Maigre, isn’t always up to the challenge posed by the Starkadders. (BTW, one wonders if the Abbé lived at 7 bis, rue du Nadir-aux-Pommes.)

Judith gives a classic rebuke to Flora’s gentle probing:

“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.”
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
“Curtains?” she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. “Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.”

Filming techniques

Like I’d know…

Following my naïve reflections on the general plan for filming, here are a few hallowed film techniques that Get my Goat:

1) The Ken Burns effect. Don’t get me wrong, his series on jazz is like (sorry) the greatest documentary series ever??? But zooming in slowly to focus on the eyes of a photo is such an insistent habit—bludgeoning the viewer into sharing a profound experience of which the object is innocent.
My brilliant editor Michele Banal (or Michele trivial as he is now known) has educated me in the value of movement in showing photos, but he’s obligingly worked round my wish to keep it subtle and avoid such sentimentalizing.

2) Closeups of hands. In a similar vein, lingering shots of the interviewee’s hands are to be avoided. It may be a desperate measure to paper over a dodgy edit, but again it corrals us all into a conspiracy of profundity. Gnarled, clasped in anguish, elegantly manicured, or not, they’re just hands.

3) Slow-mo. I mean, what’s the point? Sure, used subtly it can sometimes be a useful way round a dodgy bit of filming, but why would we want to see people doing stuff at the wrong speed?

3) Filming while moving backwards as the subject walks towards you. It’s a cliché of many movies, often satirized in the standard corridor scene. Watching most dramas I am quite able to suspend my disbelief, but here I keep thinking, “Hey, how can they not have noticed that there’s this film crew moving backwards in front of them?”
No less irritating is the documentary presenter walking into shot, addressing some earnest words to camera, and then floating off again reflectively. Again, this is well satirized.

For voiceovers, see here.

OK, enough. Next I shall pontificate on canine dentistry…

Walking shrill: shawm bands in China

Walking Shrill CD

In extreme contrast to the image of glamorous female soloists on the concert platform, male shawm bands are by far the most common form of instrumental music in China. They perform mainly for life-cycle and calendrical rituals—as you do…

Bands are widely known as “drum music bands” (guyueban 鼓乐班), the members as “blowers-and-drummers” (chuigushou 吹鼓手) or just “blowers”. In Yanggao they are called “drum artisans” (gujiang 鼓匠).

Indeed, these bands are more ubiquitous and indispensable at funeral and temple fairs than groups of ritual specialists. In Yanggao the Daoists and the shawm bands alternate, and often go on procession together.

Such groups are common throughout China—not to mention the Islamic world and early Europe. To give you an idea of just how common, take the Anthology volumes on instrumental music for Liaoning province. There are no solo pieces, nor any pieces for strings; instead it contains four wind ensemble genres:

  • the music of the shawm bands (guyue 鼓乐);
  • shengguan 笙管 pieces (here a subsidiary repertoire of the shawm bands)
  • yangge 秧歌 pieces (again played mainly by the shawm bands); and
  • “religious music” (sic), with subheads for Buddhist and Daoist music, including vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan pieces.

But this overview for one single province contains 1,491 pages, of which 1,113 are devoted to the shawm bands—and as ever, the material published on them was only a tiny proportion of that collected.

That’s an outline for one whole province. In 2001, within the single county of Mizhi in Shaanbei, a local band boss estimated that there were 138 bands working at least part-time there. Again, contrast the qin, with its tiny elite coterie of players, and its vast media presence.

Further south many bands play a rather light repertoire, though there are some fine genres, such as the longchui of south Fujian (#15 on playlist in sidebar, with commentary here). But it’s the majestic timbre, heterophony, and complex repertoire of long suites of northern bands, played on XXL shawms, that appeals to me particularly.

While my main focus has always been Daoist and Buddhist ritual, its vocal liturgy accompanied by shengguan ensemble, I realized I had to give serious attention to the shawm bands too. So from 1999 to 2005 I took some lengthy time out to document them.

My two books Ritual and music of north China are largely about such bands, in north Shanxi and Shaanbei respectively; both include DVDs. [1]

Status and disability
Shawm bands were always at the bottom of the social pile. Virtual outcasts, they were often illiterate, bachelors, opium smokers, begging in the slack season, associated with theft and violence. Freelance like household Daoists and carpenters, they had difficulty adapting to the straightjacket of the commune system, but revived by the 1980s.

At least until recently, shawm players often had some disability, notably visual. In north Shanxi, in Yanggao town alone, blindmen Liuru (c1931–2007), Erhur (b.1946), and Yin San (b.c1947), were all fine players and delightful people (for more on blind shawm players in Yanggao, see here; for posts on blind musicians, here).

6 LR,YS

Liuru (left) and Yin San, 2003.

In China and much of the world, blind musicians are thought to have special musical gifts. Erhur learned, and loves to sing, the gongche solfeggio, but pointed out playfully, “Only a stupid musician needs notation”! Take that, qin players (see also here)!

7 Erhur

Erhur, 2003.

Elderly Liuru, living in pitiful conditions, was also devoted to the gongche of the suites.

9 shack

Liuru’s shack in Yanggao county-town, 2003.

I also met several stammering shawm players. Like the fraternity of one-legged men in The third policeman, as a stammerer myself I naturally identified with fellow sufferers like Yuanr, the young shawm band boss in Zhenquan township, Shaanbei—bluntly known as “The Stammerer” (Jiekazi). When I introduced myself he thought I was taking the piss. Both his colleagues and mine had a terrible time trying to conceal their mirth once we got ch-ch-chatting. Imagine the number of tapes you’d need to record the interviews.

Blind boys also often become itinerant bards. For Shaanbei, see here; for a harrowing tale of blind bards in Zuoquan, Shanxi, here; and for blind bards in Gansu, and great songs on the Coronavirus by stammering folk-singer Zhang Gasong, here.

North Shanxi
I studied the Hua family shawm band in Yanggao county (also home of the Li family Daoists) on and off from 1991 to 2005. Over the years I got to know many other bands in Yanggao too; since 2011 it’s been a pleasure to continue meeting them at funerals. Yang Ying, a regular dep for Li Manshan’s Daoist band, is also the leader of his own family shawm band, one of the finest in the area. Shi Ming, Li Qing’s friend from their days in the regional troupe, led a great band in Wangguantun just west.

8 Shi Ming band

Shi Ming’s band, Wangguantun 2001.

The Hua band played magnificently, despite being totally dysfunctional as a family. Led by two senior brothers on shawm and drum who were barely on speaking terms, they played in perfect ensemble, with complex heterophonic melody, and meticulously graded tempi. I still admire their artistry as much as I admire the Li family Daoists.

We did some great tours together (Washington DC, Holland, England), and made the most spectacular CD, Walking shrill, that should be part of everyone’s collection. Go on, order it—it’ll blow your head off.

While we’re about it, I wrote a long detailed analysis:

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), pp.25–112.

Only slightly less complex is this intriguing excursion—and there are two tracks (#5 and 11) on the audio playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.

Here the classic style consists of long suites for large shawms. But since soon after I began visiting (“Typical!”), as my books show, such majestic music has largely become a casualty of the “big band” pop style adding trumpet, sax, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. Hey ho.

Shaanbei

CWZ big band

Chang Wenzhou’s big band at village funeral, Mizhi 2001.

Further west, the barren loess hills of Shaanbei, heartland of the revolution, is renowned inter alia for its shawm bands (chuishou). We met many bands there.

1981 photoShawm players from Mizhi county, assembled for a regional festival in 1981.

Scholar Huo Xianggui, who began collecting Shaanbei shawm music as early as 1971 (!), had regular contacts with some of the great players, including Jin Wenhua, Hao Yongfa, and Chang Wenzhou. In another a revealing story about status, revealing the chuishous’ own sense of inferiority, he tells of an incident with the great shawm player Li Daniu—a poor illiterate opium-addicted bachelor. The Party hoped to cultivate Li’s talent by recruiting him for a state troupe, but he found it hard to adapt. One morning Huo invited Li Daniu to his room, and wanted to take him out for breakfast, but Li wouldn’t go. As Huo was about to go off to get food to bring back, Li insisted on squatting outside to wait for him, with the room locked; only half-joking, he said, “How am I supposed to explain if something in your room goes missing?”

By the 1990s, most distinguished of shawm players in the area was Chang Wenzhou, also a fine luthier, though he could be almost as difficult as the Hua brothers. Li Qishan’s rival band was also very fine.

By contrast to the mercenary atmosphere in Mizhi county-town, I enjoyed my time in the hill village of Yangjiagou with the lowly and unsung village band there. Of no great technical distinction, they merely supplemented their livelihood by doing occasional funerals. The two leading shawm players there, Chouxiao and “Older Brother” (on the left of the photo), semi-blind, were delightful unassuming people.

YJG band

The Yangjiagou band playing for a village funeral there, 1999.

The 1999 funeral sequence from Yangjiagou is one of the highlights (§B) of my DVD Notes from the yellow earththat comes with my 2009 book.

The northeast
As a kind of footnote, both to this post and to my account of our 1992 fieldwork, in summer 1992, just after our trip to Shanxi, we visited southern Liaoning province to seek shawm bands there.

Northeast China is also renowned for its majestic bands with large shawms. [2] The editor of the Anthology for Liaoning (see above), Yang Jiusheng 杨久盛, had a rare grasp of the material—like his fine colleague in Jilin province, Li Laizhang 李来璋.

Through Yang Jiusheng we found a wonderful young scholar in Panjin county called Li Runzhong 李润中. He was himself son of a fine shawm player—so he had already done rather well for himself.

Besides making the usual transcriptions from his recordings, he had diligently collected rich material on social contexts (including photos, maps, and diagrams), and written brief biographies of some of the leading shawm band players and ritual specialists in the county. Locally published in several thick volumes, his work, like the music of his county, is likely to remain unknown.

This was a period when the Anthology was in full swing, but it was also an insecure time after the chipped “iron rice-bowl” of the commune era. Under Maoism people, in their villages and secure work-units, knew they were screwed; now they had to go out and fend for themselves, and would probably still get screwed. But Li Runzhong, like our friends in Hebei, was passionate about doing the fieldwork.

A vast archive of precious recordings for the Anthology languishes unpublished. Perhaps it was then that I realized someone would have to document this major aspect of Chinese musical life for outsiders.

Liaoning

Liu Yongqing (b.1922) at funeral, Liaoyang city, 1992.

Here are two pages of images from the Anthology volume on Jilin province:Jilin 1

Jilin 2Technique
Using circular breathing, the two shawms play continuously in heterophony, often an octave or two apart. Home base (cf. the sheng) is the lowest note, do in the basic scale; the upper player often “walks shrill” with soaring and searing high notes. With drum, cymbals, and gong thwacking away too, the sound is deafening even from a hundred metres away, but sitting in the band is a serious yet intoxicating challenge to the ears.

Our SOAS shawm band
Now from the sublime to the ridiculous:

Having taken part occasionally, and sketchily, in the ritual associations of Hebei on yunluo gong-frame and even sheng, I eventually took the plunge with the shawm too. Shawm music is much harder to learn than either the ritual shengguan ensemble of the Daoists or their vocal liturgy; the instrument itself is a challenge (certainly for a baroque violinist…), and the wild improvised decorations can only be learned through prolonged exposure from young. But hey—I knew it would help me get a handle, however rubbish I was.

13 me and band

I accompany Hua band for funeral, Wangzhuang village 2001. Photo: Chen Kexiu.

At first I didn’t try taking part with the Hua band, but when I got to Shaanbei in 1999 I thought I might have a go on the shawm. Chang Wenzhou showed me the ropes, and I tried a few pieces out with Dage and Chouxiao in Yangjiagou.

FXP 2001

With Feng Xiaoping’s band, Yulin 2001.

In 2001, after more fieldwork in Shaanbei with my Beijing colleagues, I spent some time alone in Yulin, the regional capital. Putting aside my scruples about such a culturally inappropriate context, I went for daily “lessons” several times a week, one-to-one with a younger folk player, Feng Xiaoping. He got his band together for an informal “graduation concert” in his courtyard for bemused neighbours (well, they didn’t have much choice). After getting through a little suite I was completely knackered. The place names used at the dentist sprung to mind. As in Teach yourself Japanese, I drank a little beer.

In Yanggao with the Hua band in 2003, I mainly stuck to cymbals or gong—like their sons do from aged six!

In 1999 I had come down from the mountain, like Moses (also a stammerer, I note), with a whole set of instruments made by Chang Wenzhou. At SOAS I now had a little coterie of like-minded ethnos: Rachel Harris, Simon Mills, Manuel Jimenez, and Morgan Davies, all fine musicians, experts in their own various genres (Uyghur, Korean, Indonesian, Indian), and great mates. So, just for fun and our own instruction, we boldly decided to have a go at learning a few pieces. This is not like learning the erhu in a conservatoire—they are wild complex long semi-improvised pieces.

We made enough progress to give the occasional gig for suitably uncritical audiences—at CHIME conferences in Venice and Sheffield (not Scunthorpe), at SOAS, and even on procession (aha!) at the Lord Mayor’s Parade. We strung a few pieces together in little suites, and had a lot of fun.

Later I also bought a set of instruments in Yanggao (like “the music itself”, they vary from region to region—it’s no good playing Shanxi repertoire on Shaanbei shawms, or vice versa!). We all loved the Hua band’s wild repertoire, but it was considerably more daunting than that of Shaanbei. Still, I had all my recordings and videos, and I was making transcriptions anyway, which served as a useful crutch—another compromise, since picking it up entirely by ear would have been a challenge too far for us. Rachel, Simon, and I took turns on the two shawms, and since the drum is always an anchor, we relied heavily on the intuitive brilliance of Manuel Jimenez.

SOAS shawms

Then in 2005 I managed to get the Hua band invited for a tour of England. My old friend Bureau Chief Li, from the Datong regional Bureau of Culture, who had acted as “group leader” on the band’s 2002 DC trip, came along for the ride again.

Bureau Chief Li has always been most tolerant, nay supportive, of my fascination for folk culture—like a bemused dad baffled by his son’s obsession with Aston Villa. On the National Mall in DC, taking one look at all the performance tents set up for a mind-blowing array of groups from all over the Silk Road, he exclaimed, “Hey Steve, you bring us all this way and they’re supposed to play for another bloody temple fair?!” In England our most delightful gig was in Portesham Village Hall in Devon, home to a great jazz series. This time Bureau Chief Li chuckled, “WTF?! You’ve gone and done it again, Steve—this time you’ve got us a gig in the sodding village brigade headquarters!”

Anyway, during this visit, SOAS impressively invited the Hua band for a brief residency. We solemnly assembled daily in a little recording studio in SOAS and took turns joining in with the band on all the various instruments. One evening Morgan and I took a couple of the youngsters to a blues bar—though no strangers to the considerable vices of Yanggao town, they seemed a little nonplussed.

Now that we’re dispersed to the far corners of the globe, or at least of England, we’re all deeply nostalgic about those years. It’s not that we did it at all well—it could sound excruciating—but we learnt a lot, and it was the perfect way to work up a thirst for a good session in the nearby art-deco bar of the Tavistock Hotel, not least in memory of  hosting the Hua band there in 2005.

Alas, the Hua band has since gone the way of many “blower-and-drummer” families. Drummer Hua Jinshan survived a stroke onstage in Amsterdam later in 2005. Falling ill there doubtless saved his life: if it had happened back home in Yanggao, it would have been curtains. As he recovered in hospital, I could only obey his pleas to wheel him daily to the courtyard for sneaky fag along with a motley crew of inmates. But his younger brother Hua Yinshan died of cancer, and Wuge, Yinshan’s son, was stabbed to death in an unsavoury brawl.

My usual rant
(For a similar one, see here; see also this). If you’ve heard me go on about this before, then go and pour yourself a large G&T.

None of what we tried at SOAS could possibly happen in a Chinese conservatoire. Sure, plenty of folk musicians have become professors there, but once enshrined in the big city they have to develop a more, um, “scientific”, more breezy repertoire. No-one there would dream of learning long suites of up to an hour, in the style of local folk genres, or emulating a bunch of peasants.

The brief of anthropologists/ethnomusicologists is to study people in all levels of society, and to show that all kinds of music-making are valid aspects of social activity, local cultures, in constant flux. Different genres have different aesthetics, all based on social practice.

So we mustn’t assume that state education is the norm. Among all the kinds of music in the world, WAM is rather exceptional, in its notation-based classroom training system and its domination by “concerts”. But that’s the ethos of the conservatoire. All kinds of musicians learn in different ways.

Vocal music too is rarely dependent on the state educational system. In England, aspiring bluespeople, like Mick and Keef, learned their art in art schools. Jazz was only seriously institutionalized since the 1980s, though school bands were always an influence. Elsewhere traditional music may be adopted in similar fashion: there are schools for flamenco, Irish music, muqam, and so on, but often they change the flavour of folk style—and anyway they only represent a miniscule tip of the iceberg.

My old friend Matt Forney, long-term Beijing resident whose towels I have often darkened in between my trips to the countryside, is a fine old-time banjo player. How do spirit mediums in Guangxi, or indeed punks in Beijing, learn? Such folk performers have no need of notation, training classes, WAM theory, and so on. It may be a continuum, but we shouldn’t confuse one for the other.

As to instrumental music: solos are rare in China, as you can see from the Anthology. Solos for erhu, pipa, and zheng are neither a norm nor an ideal. Notable aspects of traditional music-making include oral transmission, versatility, flexibility, and not performed for “concerts”. Folk instrumental music remains male-dominated, whereas since the 1980s the conservatoires have become dominated by women.

So look at these differences between local shawm bands and conservatoire suona soloists: different society, different values, different aims, different music. Even the names of the instruments are different: the urban term suona (found in historical sources) is rarely heard in rural China: instead they use a variety of local names, like weirwa, wazi, or laba. That’s why I fall back on the English word shawm.

Shawm bands
(chuigushou 吹鼓手, guyueban )
suona soloists
By far the most common form
of instrumental music in China.
Not so numerous, even in conservatoires.
Weddings and funerals. Concerts on stage; film sessions.
(formerly) Family training, from young;
largely oral training, in course of rituals.
Some blind or disabled; they may beg
in the off season.
Partial to liquor and drugs.
Even if from a rural background, they now learn with a “teacher” in the conservatoire.
Notation plays a role.
Upwardly mobile!
(formerly) Long complex suites derived
from imperial tradition.
Short simple pieces derived from 20th-century modern urban values.

The upwardly-mobile conservatoire suona soloist will never aspire to the social context of the blowers-and-drummers. The most one can hope is precisely what does happen: maybe the former will pick up a few techniques from the latter.

Learning in a classroom, whether in China or elsewhere, is very different from the participant observation of the ethnographer. This difference is clear in China, where the former is done in conservatoires, the latter not at all.

If we learn shawm pieces, we’re unlikely to do it for the same reasons that a young boy in a shawm band family does; his reasons are not the ideal for us—we don’t want their lives. The rural bands may be occupational, but it’s not the kind of professionalism to which conservatoire musicians aspire. Suona soloists in conservatoires learn with a view to doing concerts on stage, or making money in pop/film studio sessions, not doing weddings and funerals.

I should stress again that notation may be a badge of elites, but is not so common either in China or elsewhere, nor is it a criterion for superiority! Notation is not at all important as a learning tool in China or elsewhere, though it may be a totem/fetish for those seeking to establish a “canon”. Of course it may be a useful tool for our analyses…

Yang Der-ruey’s study of a Daoist training school in Shanghai (anyway an exceptional case: most Daoists learn through hereditary family training in the course of rituals) shows the school’s break with tradition, and its irrelevance once they begin working in the real world, collaborating with temple patrons and spirit mediums. Even for amateur genres like Shanghai silk-and-bamboo, the point of learning isn’t to win prizes or even to “perform” in stage “concerts”; it’s a social activity, not to be judged by conservatoire standards.

The kinds of music promoted in conservatoires are very selective: mainly solos that can be taught, with precise scores, one-to-one, like a Brahms concerto or a Chopin étude. The flexibility of traditional ensembles, folk-singers, or a spirit medium, is not required here. But this gives people a very narrow picture of what Chinese music is about, both musically, socially, and historically. One may attempt to create a “canon”, but within the whole field of Chinese or world music it will be no more significant than that of WAM. Such a discourse may even play into a dangerous nationalistic, patriotic, narrative.

In China some examples of the chasm between folk and conservatoire aesthetics are the rare attempts by conservatoire musicians to render traditional music; in failing to subscribe to its aesthetic, they entirely lack the “flavour” that makes it effective, as with their polished stage renditions of the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple, or silk-and-bamboo: meticulously rehearsed from fixed parts, with graded dynamics, and so on.

In general, though, conservatoire musicians neither want to nor could learn local folk traditions. They learn a fixed version of “the dots”, overlooking style, and entirely removed from the social context that nurtures it. They may consider this superior, “improved”, more “scientific”. The musical style of rural shawm bands is also ridiculously difficult—but the point is that there’s no reason at all why conservatoire students would want to learn long shawm suites like this.

In sum, the conservatoires do what they do, and that’s fine. It’s just that as ethnomusicologists we seek to offer a broader soundscape and a broader social range. And anyway, for a sensitive musician, the intensity and grandeur of the folk style will be far more rewarding than those cute little conservatoire pieces.

So after all this discussion of urban (and urbane) concert performance, we should return to the rural ceremonial setting by watching the Hua band playing their hearts out at a funeral—see my lengthy analysis here.

On shawm bands elsewhere around the world, see e.g. south Asia, Iran, and Xinjiang.

 

[1] See also my Folk music of China, ch.10, and its CD, as well as the 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. In Chinese, my colleague Zhang Zhentao has also written well on them. See also my “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Gender in Chinese Music, pp.112–26.
[2] See my Folk music of China, ch.10, and §4 of the CD. Note also two CDs from François Picard: Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, musiques de la première lune, and Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, la bande de la famille Li (Buda, Musique du Monde, 1995).

Chinese mouth-organs and Irish flutes

Whilst I was writing with affection and awe on the sheng mouth-organ, I recalled that Ciaran Carson has a similar passion for the tactile minutiae of Irish flutes and their human custodians (Last night’s fun, “Hard to fill”, pp.49–57). Each chapter takes the title of a tune, and (like life, and like jokes!) each tune leads into another.

A few excerpts to give a flavour:

He picks up the foot-joint and prises out the little brass pins which hold the C♯ key in place; he turns it over, and there, under the touch of the key, are the initials “A.L.”, the hidden mark of Alexander Little who spent some time with D’Almaine and later set up shop on his own at 24 Chenies Street (1847–54) and then at 35 Devonshire Street (1854–73).
This is a six-keyed flute of Jamaican cocus-wood, weathered to a rich dark chocolate brown with oxblood striations glinting under the immediate surface. […]
We are in Sam’s workshop at 1 Exchange Place, Belfast. Exchange Place is, in Belfast parlance, an “entry”: a narrow lane between two streets, a backwater or a short-cut, a deviation from the beaten path. Exchange Place is an entry: we talk and breathe in an exhalation, a many-layered scent of shellac, beeswax, raw and boiled linseed oil, tallow, almond oil, aromatic blackwood shavings, nitric acid and ammonia. I believe you can smell the blue steel blades and boxwood handles of the antique tools: gravers, gouges, chisels, pliers, diamond files and flat files, pincers, chasers. You pick one up and feel its oily-sharp edge with grainy specks of sawdust on it.
[…]
And this is not to speak of the unspeakable archaeological layers of things strewn and assembled on every available surface in the workshop: pins, papers, screws, tobacco tins and and coffee jars, thread, waxed paper, empty bobbins, walrus, tusks, billiard balls, sealing-wax and string, envelopes, cigar-boxes, empty glasses, tannin-encrusted teacups, bus tickets, knives, a bottle of Angostura bitters, a drawing-plate, a bicycle repair-kit, two old trade tin trays (Ross’s Mineral Waters and Buckfast Tonic Wine) with rusted pocks in them, bills, invoices, a blue tin of Vaseline, Christmas cards and postcards, a blowtorch, fluxes, solders, coils of silver wire, brass tubing, wine corks, an old cardboard advertisement for Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, brass plate, a Swiss Army knife, dust, unaccountable detritus and filings of long-gone operations, a Bo-Peep matchbox which rattles with brass thumb-tacks when you pick it up, washers, drill-bits, oil-cans, tea-pots, files, gimlets, scissors, a copy of the Irish News from last year, a shrivelled chip, Kirby grips, bulldog clips, Jubilee clips and paper-clips, a square damp packet of Saxa salt, Blu-Tack, bits of putty, sealing-wax, a little paper packet of cigarette-lighter flints, a candle stub, a Zippo lighter, cotton-wool, a sticky tin of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup, wisps of steel wool, and the blue glint of methylated spirits shivering in a glass square-shouldered glass-stoppered bottle against a stained, scarred patch of the workbench; on a window-sill, three little tinker-made tin inkwell-shaped receptacles with milled brass screwtops, containing pumice, tripoli and rouge, each bearing the original early Victorian price of three shillings (3/-).

And he’s just as wonderful on performance practice. His recollection of Pakie Duignan reminds me of Wu Mei:

His way of breathing was a joy: it had economy and grace and power; his management of time was perfect. He had the time to hit whatever note it was that came next, then to extend the breath into the next phrase like a sudden almost-visible extension of the room, as if this phrase had yearned to be united with its predecessor, and now they were together. Then he’d cut the end of that phrase and wander off into the split chink of a twilight zone, momentarily. Normal business would resume some time, but in this instant he had gone down steps he’d never seen till then, that led down to a dark harbour where water clucked against the boats and rocks and a constellation could be seen reflected.

Astounding—go on, read the chapter, and the whole book!

Like Carson’s amazing fantasy on the role of the Irish breakfast in musical life (“Boil the Breakfast early”, pp.15–21), that’s just the kind of loving detail, mutatis mutandis, that we need for China, and Chinese ritual. Indeed, I linked Chinese and Irish music before.

As with the syncopated cadential pattern of the Li band’s hymns, we need to evoke all the practical insider’s detail and the embedding of ritual with daily lives—not just grandiose theory and ancient mysticism. If we’re going to write about music—and ritual—at all, then along with Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, Carson’s book is a paragon.

Yet more Ravel: an update

 

Ravel

Along with the many entries under the Ravel tag, and I’ve been adding to the main page dedicated to him as well:

cliquez ici!

Besides great recordings of Shéhérazade, L’enfant et les sortilèges, the piano concertos (with Kind of blue as a bonus!), the Introduction and Allegro, and so on, you can now find Münch’s classic 1955 Daphnis and Chloé, and a 1954 recording of the piano trio.

Jazz solo

bass solo

As an entr’acte between all the WAM stories (sallying forth, perhaps, from here), here’s a jazz joke.

A marriage guidance counsellor is having a tough time at a session with a couple reluctant to make any effort—sullenly refusing to speak to each other, only addressing their bitter comments through the counsellor.

So he whips out his double bass and starts playing a convoluted solo. At once the couple strike up an animated conversation.

 

Intrepid early-and later-music bass player Pete McCarthy told me this one on a long coach ride on a US tour, c2001.

Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys

CMB

Under the rubric of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, having just added a meretricious page on Gregorian chant, I now offer an equally piecemeal post on punk.

Further to Lives in jazz, Viv Albertine’s memoir

  • Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys [1]

(to give it its full title—her mum’s reproach to her as a teenager) is a beautiful inspiring book, full of sincere humanity and insight. We can draw a veil over the story of her messy “dalliance” (dunno why I’m suddenly coming over all Jane Austen) with Johnny Rotten. The account of her post-punk life is no less compelling than that of her time in The Slits, with their amazing singer Ari Up (RIP). Women, and sexism, in punk are justly favoured topics in musicology and glossies alike—more so, I note, than Daoist ritual (funny, that). For female punk band Vulpes in Madrid, see here.

slits

For Viv Albertine’s next book, see here.

I was sadly unaware of all these brilliant singers at the time, except (for some reason) for Nina HagenNaturträne (1978) has long been one of my favourite songs:

You can, and must, watch her singing it live on video too, but that recording is astounding. I was busy being a Boulez groupie… OK, there’s room for technique in punk too, but it’s not quite the point; I could presumably square that song with my snobby sensibilities long before I also learnt to rejoice in the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. Or Daoist ritual…

Just as much as the Matthew Passion, or Wozzeck, it makes want to learn German:

Natur am Abend, stille Stadt
Verknackste Seele, Tränen rennen
Das alles macht einen mächtig matt
Und ich tu’ einfach weiterflennen

We can save punk in China for another time—but again, it’s all part of the rich ethnographic tapestry. Not quite punk, but Cui Jian’s classic song Nothing to my name

prompted a fine complaint from Wang Zhen, veteran of the Long March:

“What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?”

Mutatis mutandis, Thatcher might have concurred.

 

[1] Pedantic note: most superior reviews abide by the title’s lack of punctuation.

The shock of the new

Rite

“Knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.

Though The Rite of Spring has become standard, a classic, since the 1970s, it remains overwhelming today, whether or not you’re familiar with it. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life. Never mind that it’s the kind of imagining of “pagan rites” that academically I would dispute—it’s a world away from the cultural pundits’ romanticized view of folk culture! (For a “pagan” ritual performer among the Cheremis, see here; and for the New Year rituals of Gaoluo in China, here.)

Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music—the recreation (from 25.40) following this documentary gives an impression:


Pina Bausch’s version is amazing:

For an intense series of posts on the ballet, see here.

Among endless discussions, try this. And here’s an attractive quandary:

Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.

But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection). I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands! There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.

Not only do concert-goers “share intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”, but they have to keep still; the Rite is one of many pieces where this should be an impossible demand. And another where conducting without a score yields fruit:

If Stravinsky really said that Karajan’s version

sounded like someone driving through the jungle in a Mercedes with the windows up,

then good for him.

And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:

This version for organ, far from silly, is just awe-inspiring:

A harpsichord rendition has also appeared on YouTube. Jazz tributes include the Bad Plus arrangement:

In her recent exploration of The Rite, Gillian Moore also observes:

My feelings of creeping feminist unease in writing a book on a ballet about the sacrifice of a young woman created by three men were at least partly relieved when I came across the Russian folk metal band Arkona and their frontwoman Masha Scream.

On a lighter note, here I imagine the Danse sacrale as a suitable riposte to the haka.

By the way, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.

Lives in jazz

Billie

Billie Holiday‘s 1957 TV appearance must be among the most moving videos ever, with Billie in rapture, showing the depth of the rapport between great musicians (for the making of the film, see here). Don’t miss the final trumpet solo from Roy Eldridge!

For my personal Billie Holiday playlist, see here. As to books on her, don’t get me started…

Apart from the experience of listening, jazz biographies are just as captivating as jazz photos. If only I could bring the Li family Daoists to life with such detail as we find in books like

I discuss Chet Baker here, and here. And for a brilliant biography of Lenny Bruce, click here.

More academic, but (sic) masterly, is

  • Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz.

In books like this, it’s not just the social and personal detail that impresses, but the technical aspects of their constant musical strivings—the musos’ obsession with chords, timbre, and so on. From Charlie Parker’s use of the Rico number five reed (Russell pp.10–13) to Keith Richards‘ sheer exhilaration at discovering the open five-string tuning (in Life p.270ff., no less captivating than the many gaudy experiences throughout the book).

We could compile lists of similar excursions in world music, but jazz leads the way…

While I’m about it, don’t forget

  • George Melly, Owning up.

* * *

Here’s a fun party game. When reading Life, be sure to read it in Keef’s voice—his inclusive conspiratorial chuckle is one of the great primeval sounds of nature.

Conversely, Miles’s autobiography should be read in the voice of the Queen, Brian Sewell, Jacob Wee-Smug [aka The Haunted Pencil]—or (for yet older readers…) the presenter of Listen with Mother. If serialised on Radio 4, it could be called Listen with Motherfucker.