In one of those often unitentionally goofy attempts of an older, established artist trying to be hep with the young cats and kittens, the great Ella Fitzgerald recorded a live set in 1969 with Ernie Hecksher’s Big Band and the Tommy Flanagan Trio in San Francisco where she mixed some pop standards of the day with some perhaps more avant garde choices. Well, at least one…
It’s fairly innocuous stuff for the most part (Bacharch and David, Lennon McCartney) but who would have expected the First Lady of Song to cover Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”? And yet cover it she did. It’s not too bad, either. In fact, Fitzgerald made it the album’s title and a part of her live act for a while, even performing this improbable number during her concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival that year:
Two of the greatest home-grown American inventions—indeed, grassroots institutions—are jazz and baseball. The consensus greatest practitioners of both pastimes—Louis Armstrong and Babe Ruth, respectively—were in their prime at the exact same time, the 1920s, and both men were raised in orphanages. Shit, it’s jazz and baseball, I’ve just accidentally named two Ken Burns PBS series, that’s how freaking iconic those two things are. You can tell the story of America through baseball, or through jazz. They’re both rich mines of meaning.
And if you have something that combines the two, well, that’s something I want to know about. Smithsonian Magazine recently came up with some truly remarkable footage, dating from around 1941, of the legendary jazz bandleader and composer Duke Ellington playing a little bit of baseball during an off moment with a few of his bandmates, namely cornetist Rex Stewart and valve trombonist Juan Tizol. For the record, that’s the Duke pitching and then swinging the bat from about 0:15 to 0:30. (That’s tenor sax man Ben Webster in the bathrobe at the end, clearly communicating something along the lines of “You guys can play out there if you want, I’m hung over and I’m staying right here.”)
This fantastic image actually has nothing to do with the footage. That picture was taken sometime in the mid-1950s—the massive slogan on the bus, “Mr. Hi-Fi of 1955,” in addition to being my own future nickname if I have anything to say about it, surely puts us pretty close to that year. The appearance of the neon word “Colored” at left certainly suggests that this little game of pickup ball took place somewhere in the South.
Vitaly Komar and Alex Melemid’s first collaborative art show at the Blue Bird Café, Moscow, USSR, 1967.
“Today he is playing jazz and tomorrow he’ll betray the Motherland.” - Soviet era saying
The Blue Bird Café (Sinyaya Ptitsa) on Chekhov Street in Moscow opened in 1963, one of two jazz enclaves in the city. Students, nonconformist artists, writers, and musicians gathered there to listen to jazz and hold small unofficial art shows. A well-known quartet that frequently played there featured sax player Igor Itkin, pianist Mikhail Kull, bassist Alexander Chernyshev and drummer Vladimir Lesnyakov.
Painters Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who founded Retrospectivism, held their first collaborative show at the Blue Bird in 1967 upon graduating from the Stroganov School of Art and Design. Other artists who displayed their paintings and sculpture at the Café in the 1960’s were Erik Bulatov, Igor Shelkovsky, Oleg Vassiliev, and Ilia and Emilia Kabakov.
Komar and Melamid described their Retrospectivism movement as featuring “three-dimensional abstract paintings in the style of the old masters and reflects a typical search for spirituality on the part of nonconformist artists working in an oppressively atheistic state.” According to the description of Melamid’s exhibit of life-size hip-hop icons in Detroit, “Komar and Melamid often faced government opposition and harassment.” So much opposition that in 1969 government censors removed their work from the 8th Exhibition of Young Artists in Moscow.
Jazz was tolerated to some degree in the USSR (unlike rock music) and had even been the music of the stilyagi (stylish) youth subculture in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. But jazz came under a new round of unwanted scrutiny in 1968 as ideologically troublesome. In Red Hot and Blue: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union 1917-1991 author S. Frederick Starr describes the Soviet establishment’s hostility toward jazz:
“There was no formal campaign against jazz. Indeed, Brezhnev applauded a modern jazz quartet that performed at his dacha outside Moscow in 1970. But many protectors of Soviet orthodoxy wanted to settle old scores. The jamming of foreign broadcasts, suspended in 1963, was reintroduced in 1968. Fearing unwholesome assemblies of young people, Komsomol [the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, the officially sanctioned youth group for people 14 and older] abolished jazz evenings at the Dream in Kiev and at similar youth Cafés in other cities. The Blue Bird (Siniaia ptitsa), which had opened only two years before on Chekhov Street in Moscow, dropped jazz entirely, and the Molodezhnoe Café cut back jazz to two nights a week. The Pechora was opened on Moscow’s Kalinin Prospect to replace these dens of iniquity; brightly lit and colorless, the Pechora at least provided a setting for open jam sessions, although it closed early.”
Gorbachev’s perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a proliferation of nightclubs and the Blue Bird’s elevated status as a “jazz centre.” The Café continued to be a revered attraction for jazz fans until its closure in 2010.
Above, UB40 jamming with local musicians, including Roman Suslov from polite refusal, at the Blue Bird Café, Moscow, USSR, on October 16, 1986.
Luckily we have BBC4’s 2009 documentary, 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz to do just that. Produced by documentarian Paul Bernays and UK jazz DJ Jez Nelson, 1959 scrutinizes the impact of Brubeck’s classic Time Out album alongside three others from that year: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus’s Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come.
The main Brubeck segment starts 12 minutes in, and the doc explores both the racial politics inherent in the Brubeck phenomenon, and the influence of his band’s groundbreaking 1959 tour of the Soviet Bloc, Mideast and South Asia on Time Out. But the whole hour is worth watching, if only for the compelling close-readings of masterpieces like Davis’s iconic “So What,” Coleman’s intense “Lonely Woman,” Mingus’s firey “Fables of Faubus.” The doc’s juxtaposition of Brubeck’s ascendance to Mr. Cool-ness against Coleman’s Cold War-tinged urgency is also a nice touch.
With an interview roster that includes Hal Wilner, Lou Reed, Stanley Crouch, Charlie Haden, Sue Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Nat Hentoff, 1959 offers up some crucial background as to what made Brubeck and his contemporaries what they were.
Nina Simone was born 79 years ago today, on February 21st 1933. Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of her passing, but for now let’s remember one of the greatest artists of the last century with her jaw-dropping performance of Morris Albert’s “Feelings” from her controversial set at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. Nina looks stoned here, and apparently she didn’t feel the crowd at this show were reacting appropriatley, explaining some of the tense spoken word interuptions. Still, if any doubts exist about Nina Simone’s skill or talent, watch this clip then tell me she is not one of the great artists of modern times:
Nina Simone “Feelings” Live at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1976
Beth Gibbons, vocalist of both Portishead and Rustin Man, turns 46 today. Here’s to one of the best, most soulful, female voices English music has ever produced. After the jump a selection of her best clips, but let’s start with this haunting cover of the Velvet Underground:
Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man “Candy Says”
Thanks to Grizz Gom Jabbar Robinson.
After the Jump, videos for “L’Annulaire”, “The Rip” and “Glory Box” (live)...
Music that has a sense of humor tends to get a hard time among people who consider themselves “serious” music fans. Why is this? Is it because music itself has to be seen to be serious? That the music makers have to mean it (maaan) and it’s impossible to wear your heart on your sleeve if it’s matched by a raised eyebrow and a smirk?
3iO are an acoustic jazz band who last year released an album called Back To New Roots, which features jazz-style covers of a host of big dance tunes from the last 15 years. LOL!! Right? Or is this an acceptable style of guffaw on a par with coffee table favourites Nouvelle Vague? Here’s a bit of info on the band via the Soundcloud page of their excellently named record label Hell Yeah:
Let’s keep it simple, this dance meets jazz concept started as a joke: take a bunch of friends, discover that they are highly talented jazz musicians and propose them to do something a bit different, play and perform your favourite E-dance / alternative hits / chill out timeless classics into their contemporary jazz style…. shake it as it was your cocktail of choice and you have Serotonin Fuelled Jazz Covers.
3iO are Richard Maggioni (piano), Juan Manuel Moretti (double bass) Matteo Giordani (drums), they are not newcomers in the italian jazz circuit, they have already two albums on their back and with BACK TO NEW ROOTS they challenge themself with a new repertoire: Fat Boy Slim, Groove Armada, Chemical Brothers, Royskopp, Underworld, Spiller, DJ Shadow… just as you never heard them before.
So is this “serious” music? Or is it just a big joke that can be easily dismissed as not being worthy of much attention? While there is definitely a smirking knowingness about this project, the lol-factor is not all that great and I think some of this album actually sounds really good. But I will leave it up to you to decide whether this is “real” music or not (bearing in mind that we’re big fans of both Zappa and Sparks here, two acts who feel no fear of adding humor to their work):
3iO “Right Here Right Now” (original by Fat Boy Slim)
3iO “Born Slippy (nuxx)” (original by Underworld)
3iO “Organ Donor” (original by DJ Shadow)
You can hear (and purchase) 3iO’s album Back To New Roots in full here.
By now you’ve probably heard that assisted suicide advocate, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, AKA “Dr. Death,” died this morning at the age of 83.
But what you might not know is that Kevorkian was an accomplished painter and jazz musician.
Yep, it’s true. One day I was crate-digging in some record store in New York City and I came across his jazz CD, Kevorkian Suite: Very Still Life for a buck, so I bought it. The CD booklet has several full-color reproductions of his paintings, and as you can see in the video below, the subject matter of his paintings often pertained to rather macabre things, as I am sure will come as no surprise. And yes, that’s his music, he’s playing flute and organ. Not bad, but it wouldn’t be the last thing I’d want to hear…
Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born 77 years ago today in the tiny town of Tryon, North Carolina. As Nina Simone, she’d go on to become the most powerful singer/songwriter of the Civil Rights era, blending the rawest aspects of jazz, blues, soul, and gospel into a unique style that buoyed her message of liberation.
Pianist Billy Taylor died yesterday at age 89, leaving a lasting legacy as America’s consummate jazz advocate.
Soon after getting his degree in Music Education, the Washington D.C.-raised Taylor became the house pianist at New York’s legendary Birdland, where he stayed throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, playing with Bird, Dizzy and Miles and solidifying his role as a fixture and statesman in the city’s jazz scene.
But Taylor is perhaps best known as this country’s premier jazz educator, among the first to declare jazz “America’s classical music.” His long-running Jazzmobile project has produced concerts and educational programs throughout the American Eastern seaboard for 45 years.
Taylor was also the first to bring jazz thought and theory to mainstream American radio and TV. He was the jazz correspondent on CBS News Sunday Morning and on NPR.
But before all that, as the McCarthy era faded and Jim Crow was on its last gasp, Taylor was music director on an NBC show called The Subject is Jazz, which ran in 1958.
After the jump: Watch Nina Simone sing the Taylor-penned Civil Rights movement anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”…
Jazz photographer Herman Leonardhas died. Leonard’s black and white photographs of jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington were masterpieces of lighting and mood. He captured moments in time that became an indelible part of jazz culture. Like the musicians his camera chronicled, his photographs sang.
Abbey Lincoln died today at the age of 80. She mattered in the world because she was a female jazz singer who stood up and became active in the civil rights struggle in the ‘60s when she could have remained neutral and safe.
She made great art. Nat Chinen wrote an excellent obit for her in the New York Times.
Let’s remember jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy, who would have turned 88 today. Over his 30 albums as a bandleader, Dolphy showed an amazing versatility and development, emerging from his be-bop roots into some wonderfully accessible avant garde creations, like his last, Out to Lunch, for Blue Note.
People celebrate that album as a classic of new jazz for good reason. It’s innovative and gritty instead of abstract and simply free for its own sake, as Dolphy seems to transfigure the idea of melody rather than rejecting it out of hand. It’s simply beautiful and compelling, and worth having in your library if you don’t yet.
Dolphy’s death at 36 from diabetes in 1964 in Berlin was especially tragic because it wasn’t from typically regarded circumstances—he was substance-free and didn’t even smoke.
“He was a musical centipede,” notes drummer Han Bennink in the documentary below. “I could hear that he could do everything.”