I first heard jazz when I was a child. I can't put an exact age on it because my father used to play Fats Waller records by my crib, my "baby bed," as my parents called it, so I was listening to jazz before I was even cognizant of what I was and certainly I had no idea what time it was or how old I was. I do remember those records, however--"Your Feets Too Big" was my dad's favorite and he played that the most around me. He would bring his portable Victrola in from the livingroom and put it on a diningroom chair. His Victrola was a machine first manufactured by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) using the word Victor in their recording field products because of the US's "victory" in WWI, "the war to end all wars" (yeah sure!). The Victrola was great because it was small, lightweight, and easy to carry about, thus giving it its "portable" designation. Victrolas, like the Edison machines, the first record players, worked by winding them up with a crank, like you wind a manual-wind watch, and then controlling their speed. The speed of their turntables at full wind was 78 revolutions per minute. Usually, one full wind would play one record easily; you knew when it was time to rewind because the record would start slowing down until every instrument and voice on it, no matter if it were Mary Garden's voice, would slowly go deeper and deeper into the bass clef until alas the whole sound would melt deeper into nothing...NADA.
The Fats Waller records my dad played were made for RCA Victor, and were made to be played on one of RCA's Victrolas.
So I listened to jazz in my crib, which ironically later became "jazz" for where you lived, your "pad," or your "crib." The word "jazz" was originally used in the Storeyville whorehouses in old New Orleans, and "to jazz" meant "to fuck" and "jazzin'" was "fuckin'" and you jazzed where? Why in a crib, a whore's stall, a small cell in the whorehouse containing a bed and a shelf for the whore's personal items, like always a candle to a saint, or maybe even a photo of their mother, but anyway, that was where you jazzed a whore, in her crib, so it was only natural that crib came to mean in jazz lingo "your room" or "your pad," for "padded cell," dig, since a lot of early jazz dudes, like Buddy Bolden, were legally insane or being driven insane by having to always be lookin' out for the cops and the paddy wagon (which means it's full of "Paddies," or Patricks, you know, the bloody Irish, who came over here during the Potato Famine without a bloody Queen's penny to their names and they took whatever jobs they could, especially the low-labor ones that needed mostly brawn and very little brains, though a bit of wit and a lot of Paddy's best to give 'em courage, so they took the cop and fireman jobs in this Great White Father nation's biggest cities, especially its port cities because most of the dockworkers were Irish after the Civil War, so the port cities filled to the gills with immigrant Irish. Irish cops were crooked as snakes at night but so were the New Orleans madames, and, besides, the backdoors were always open to the most respectable white men in the whole Gulf Coast area, judges, doctors, lawyers, capitalists, and, oh yeah, politicians and their appointees, which always including the police commissioners on down to precinct captains..."Come on in, boys, the high-yellow gals are expectin' y'all, but first, how 'bout a bottle'a champagne in the parlor...we got the Jelly man playing in there tonight--Jelly Roll Morton himself." "Ah, yes mam, Miss Josie, we know Jelly; why it's hard to tell he's a neegrow boy he's so high yeller himself he could pass back East, I swear."
And it came on down to me through my dad. He thought Fats Waller hung the moon on his piano, plus my dad, a clown of a man himself, loved Fats's repartee, his quick witted retorts to sexual innuendo situations, and his out-and-out love of shimmying women, the younger the better. And one afternoon, while my dad was playing his Fats Waller records by my crib, during one of them, during one of Herman Autry's trumpet solos, I started blowing out my puckered lips a sound that to my dad was a sign of my coming musical prominence, "Listen, VV, this boy's gonna be a musician;look he's blowin' his little trumpet just like the cat in Fats's band. Look at him go."
That was my first contact with jazz, with that kind of music. And it did, it stuck in my craw and stayed with me as I grew up, as my ear developed and groped for the right sounds of music it liked and attached to, stopped at, and did some concentrated listening to--and the sound it always stopped on most and listened to the most was jazz, and any music I associated with jazz, boogie-woogie, acoustic blues, field hollers, W.C. Handy--that was the music I began to crave, man, crave, craving it deep down in my solar plexus. And I began absorbing this music into my energies, trying to make it a part of my everyday life. And that's what it became, especially after I started taking piano lessons in Dallas, Texas, when I was 9 years old, out of the John Schaum theory books, and there were a whole set of them, the early ones with the green covers, the more advanced ones with the orange and red covers, and the Schaum method [I have an autographed photo of John Schaum hanging in my music studio] was easy as pie to me and I learned his theories of reading music and then composing music--his composition books were fun to me--and then I advanced into performing on the piano, first by having to memorize a Czerny Book of Scales and Practices...do-re-mi-fa-so-fa-mi-re-do...over and over, moving up a note, C scale, C# scale, D scale, over and over, starting with your little finger in your left hand, your 5 finger, and starting with your thumb in your right hand, your 1 finger, and then you went, in your left hand 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and 1,2,3,4, 5 in your right hand, over and over, then complete 12-note scales, using your fingers correctly on a full do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do-ti-la-so-fa-mi-re-do--or 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 3,2,1, 2,3,1,2,3,4,5 in the left hand and blah, blah, blah, over and over. Practice makes perfect and practice allowed me to play jumbo-noted Chopin etudes, even the Grand Polonaiase, then moving on up to Bach WTKs in regular notation with the fingers marked over each note--difficult shit, like crossing hand playing, difficult fuging, with both hands interacting as Bach progressed note and scale and measure by blah, blah, blah. And that's when I rebelled and told my teacher, "I wanna learn to play like Fats Waller, lady, not Freddie Chopin...I wanna play like that Art Tatum cat, man, not like Johannes Sebastian Bach, nor that silly von Weber thing you want me play at my recital, which I will do because of your hot girl students I like, especially that tall wondeful brunette Dorothy whose name reflects the Keys of the piano and I love watching her strong arms blast out the 'Moonlight' sonata--God, she's hot looking when she's playing Beethoven...and that Sally, that little blonde transfer from Michigan...God, I could watch her play the piano all night, so that's it, I do this silly von Weber waltz at this recital and then it's 'quits' for me; I'm gonna start playin' like Nat 'King' Cole plays the piano on this Lionel Hampton 78 rpm my aunt just bought me, with 'Jack the Bellboy' on one side and 'Central Avenue Breakdown' on the other side, with the King Cole Trio backing up Lionel who plays the drums on 'Jack the Bellboy' and two-fingered piano on 'Central Avenue Breakdown,' that's the way I wanna play." And she started crying and said, "Oh, but you're so talented and I want Mrs. Cliburn to hear you and maybe Little Van will come over with her and I think you have the same potential as he does and he's absolutely breathtaking playing Chopin and I wish you would play Chopin at your recital, but oh, I can't believe you want to play that 'neeegrow' music, that degenerate whorehouse and cathouse and roadside juke joint music..." "Sorry, mamma, but I'm hip and jive and not square like Choppin'--no siree, babes, I'm bookin'." And I did. Gave up the Euro Classics for what I thought was my music, shit, it was my music roots, so I had no trouble playing the piano just like I thought Fats Waller played it, then Art Tatum, lucid playing, crisp swinging playing, broad-scopeful playing, building, slow crescendo-ing music that let you solo and solo, more free than a Bach cadenza, to improvise and fly as far out as you could on that slow crescendo until, BANG, you hit the wall and the melody line came back in to bail you out of the section of Chaos you had chanced into. All jazz solos end in Chaos--the Utter Chaos. God, there's Duke Ellington's 50s vehicle called "The Happy-Go-Lucky Special," a reversion of Jimmy Forrest's jazz standard train riff, "Night Train." And when that Happy-Go-Lucky Special reaches the station at the end of the line, the station becomes Utter Chaos when Cat Anderson extends his cadenza solo into an unknown height, a range only trumpetable in Utter Chaos.
Jazz is the most wonderful music ever invented by Americans, black Americans, yes, Americans with the rhythms and riffs, beats and measurements of African musics from all over Africa still reverberating in their memories and instincts, naturally blending with the melodies of all-America, taking white church music and swinging it closer to heaven than any white musician had ever been able to take it. I mean when you were standing on the Jordan River banks with Brother Joe May the Thunderbolt of the Midwest, you were standing on the same banks Jesus stood on when he got the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove coming out of Heaven's brilliant spot lite--and there wasn't nothing like standing in a spotlite and being on the banks of the Jordan River and singing and playing about it as thought you were walking right smack-dab on those peaceful river waters--and the Sallie Martin Singers were there, too, and so was Fats Waller playing his pipe organ, and so was Raashan Roland Kirk playing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," or Stevland Morris playing "Fingertips" parts 1 and 2...Lard have mercy, mercy, mercy...how can you not want to learn how to play so freely and imaginatively and intellectually a music! Damn right jazz is intellectual music. Jazz players are their own composers; their compositions sit tight in their heads, their head arrangements are their charts, their sheet music...Lester Young said you had to know the lyrics to the songs you were playing since lyrics are a part of every piece of music, even the instrumentals--yes, instrumentals have words connected with them, even if it's simply their titles, like Dizzy's classic "A Night in Tunisia." You can put lyrics to that easy; in fact, Carmine McCrae did put lyrics to it. Music is MATHMATICS but its PHYSICS and LANGUAGE, too! It can only be described via language, the language of the lyrics or the language of the instruments. Bee-oodly-be-bop, be-bop, be-bop/da-scooby-oooby/bop, beee-bopppp-beee-bopppp/ bloomdido, bloomdido, bloooommmm-deee-do.
I scat therefore I scat. A scat is a scat is a scat.
But Then I Read
One day, a drummer friend of mine asked me if I'd ever read Art Taylor's Notes and Tones and I had to say I hadn't, so he gave me a copy for Xmas or my birthday or something.
Art Taylor was a very way-back be-bop drummer in the J.C. Heard-kind-of playing who worked with everybody in the early days, especially on Blue Note records with Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Monk, Horace Silver--I could keep mentioning stars's names that Art worked with, but then, like a lot of black jazz artists, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, Benny Bailey, Bill Coleman, he up and expatriated to Europe, Paris in particular, though they all made it to Copenhagen, too, a sanctuary for American black artists--Kenny Drew the pianist; Jimmy Gorley, a guitar player; Jimmy Woode, a bass player; I could go on and on.
While in Europe, Art Taylor decided since he was working with and in contact with every great black jazz musician there was alive at that moment, including Miles, Dexter, Ornette, Philly Joe, Don Byas, Erroll Garner, Max, Dizzy, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, Klook, Mother Hubbard, Elvin Jones...there's too many to name them all, he'd start cornering them at clubs, after gigs, at concerts, or at his own gigs and asking them if they'd mind him interviewing them--I'm sure he used a tape recorder but then maybe he didn't. He had a set of stock questions he asked each of these jazz greats having to do with influences, first gigs, stars you got to play with, union stuff, music stuff, but inevitably the questioning bagging it all up in black versus white terms of who plays jazz and who controls it--the result that all of these stars say is that "It's our music but the whites think they own it..."
Here's some excerpts from A.T.'s interview with Randy Weston, a pianist who was born in Brooklyn and grew up with Max Roach, and at first was simply a blues pianist, but then he went to live in North Africa, in Morocco, and began playing with more African influence culminating in an album called Uruhu Africa in which he used musicians from Africa, Cuba, and the USA, with lyrics by Langston Hughes and arrangements by Melba Liston and readings and vocals by Brock Peters and Martha Flowers, an concert singer, because he said his intention was "to show that all the black people of African descent are related to one another." This album came out in 1961 amidst controversy because the Roulette people didn't like it because it didn't fit what they thought jazz should be--especially the fact that there were no standards on it and all the tunes were Weston originals. Randy says, "At the time it [the album] was a bit unpopular, especially with white people--even white people who were friendly to me." Then Art asks him "How do you like the Beatles' music?" Randy says, "I don't listen to the Beatles because I don't like what happened to the music called blues when the white artists got involved in it. I just sort of cut myself off from the whole rock'n'roll scene. I've been told by people that the Beatles have produced some very beautiful things, but when the white man starts singing the blues, I just cut him out. Because I know that all he can do is imitate."
Or here's an excerpt from A.T.'s talking to Johnny Griffin, master saxophonist who replaced John Coltrane in the Thelonious Monk quartet and recorded live with Monk from the Five Spot in 1958, that utterly breathtaking album called "Misterioso" on Riverside Records with Abdul Malik on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. One of the best god-damn live albums ever made to me--especially "In Walked Bud." Here's a quote from A.T.'s interview with Johnny, "They got all black musicians on the run [Johnny expatriated to Europe because the American jazz scene was killing him...drugs, drinking...the life]. Black musicians all over Europe [the year is 1969--jazz was on its last legs in the USA in '69], running away from America. But that's part of the white power structure that's killing us and our music. Just like they killed it with all that so-called cool school. West Coast jive. They sold us down the line. Took the music out of Harlem and put it in Carnegie Hall and downtown in those joints where you got to be quiet. The black people split and went back to Harlem, back to rhythm and blues, so they could have a good time." Then he goes on talking about "avant-garde whites," "Those poor boys can't blow their way out of a paper bag musically. But the white power structure said they were geniuses."
Reading that sort of criticism makes me feel bad. I didn't realize jazz was black music until the early fifties when I started reading Downbeat and Metronome magazines, both all white publications that featured all white writers and critics discussing jazz and what was jazz and who was who in jazz and who knew more about jazz than anyone else and then one little running argument, "Can you tell the difference between a black and a white the way they play jazz?" "Can a white person play jazz as well as a black person?" "Should whites play jazz?" Later Metronome went under and Downbeat became the official jazz publication until the Beatles came along and put jazz out of business and Downbeat, like good little Capitalist assholes turned their jazz magazine into basically a "rock" magazine--yeah, they kept a jazz core to their leanings but gradually even that gave way to white musics, like the horrible Spiro Gyro or the rock band Chicago trying to play jazz; or even Frank Zappa trying to play jazz.
I never liked singing blues. I never felt comfortable singing the blues. My most success in music has come from singing the blues though I consider myself more a free-form "jazz-based" composer and if I sing I like to sing my own songs...or I like to put poetry to music, like I've done a whole CD of putting some Charles Bukowski poems and just recently I put some Jack Spicer poems to piano music. But if I get gigs these days, it's with a blues band, a white blues band, yes, and, yes also, there are never any black people at these gigs, and I've gigged up in the Boston area all the way down to Baltimore, and there are never any black people digging the blues in these basically blues clubs but with basically all-white blues bands. Black bands if they're famous, like Walter Washington out of New Orleans, or any of the old Chicago guys that are left alive--and I can't think of any still alive now that I found out R.L. Burnside died. Most of the white boys who play the blues are serious about it. They certainly know a hell of a lot of tunes and this one band I work with has a book, arranged blues originals and covers, including reggae and Bob Dylan, but nobody comes to hear this band and we play to empty houses or we play to packed houses that unpack the minute we take the stage.
It pains me to know blacks don't want me even trying to play their music. I understand it. Everybody knows I hate the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Everybody also knows I'm an American music purist and that includes all musics I consider American, like Cajun, Nortena, C&W, hillbilly, rock, r and b, hip-hop, salsa, cumbia...hell, it's all American music; all music is American music.
I'm going absolutely hebephrenic and turning into a white wolf to boot.
But it hurts me to read that blacks can't listen when they hear me trying to sing the blues...or play jazz piano, I guess, too. And I so love Monk, Mingus, but I'm sure they wouldn't of loved me. I'm seen Mingus dumped a glass of booze on an adoring white couple; and I've heard that Miles loved insulting white people at parties and things...but surely not if they knew me better. My second most-dearest friend ever in life was a black man, a photographer, a beautiful man who women of all races swooned over, but I know how he hated white people, especially white men, and how he ridiculed white women he dated saying they had a sour taste to them whereas black women were sweet and chocolatey--and he was absolutely right about that and I had just been involved in a divorce where I lost interest in my sweet young, young wife of ten years and therefore fell out of love with her simply because of her body odor.
I am too embroiled in this subject...I think I'll go stick my head in a bucket of ice water and write somemore about it tomorrow, though one never knows, do one?
for The Daily Growler
The Daily Growler Sports Extra With Marv Backbiter
I'm almost at the point where I'm sayin' F soccer. I watched Switzerland and the Ukraine playing today and I didn't give a shit. You know what I mean? I didn't even know Switzerland and the Ukraine were still in the rounds. I did see how good Portugal is; the Nederlanders were mean but no match for the Tawney Port drinkers. I liked their playing a lot.
1) Brasil, Argentina--they beat Mexico, that's good enough for me, Germany
3) England--Beckham sucks, by the way, I don't care how much trumpeting they give the bastard.
4)Spain? Italy? I'm confused. I'll catch up because I can't wait to see Brasil and Ghana; that'll decide me one way or another about Brasil.
for The Daily Growler