Who the Hell Am I?
I was tooling around the Internet this morning and I came across the World Music Central site:
Boy, the time some people have to construct great sites that get a lot of hits! I find doing this "hitless wonder" blog takes at least 3 or 4 hours of my day to hack it out and a lot of times I find when I think it's finished and then I reread it--the conclusion: a hack job. I sometimes have to stop and asked myself was I ever a top editor in the Big Apple? You couldn't tell it by my blog. Am I the same guy who once cursed poor slobs out for not being able to spell, or as I used to bellow, "Let me introduce you to a book of correctly spelled words--also containing info on the proper usage of the word you can't spell, it's called the dictionary." And now I read back over my blogs and I can't believe the grammatically garbled phrases and the MISSPELLED words all over the damn place. I can tolerate garbled phrases, but I can't tolerate misspelled words.
I surely can't imagine having to keep a world music site like World Music Central totally up to the moment. I mean World Music! I can't even keep up with USA music much less the rest of the world's musics. And what the spinners call "World Music" today is seemingly any ethnic form of music, whether it's Scottish bouzouki playing or African rapping. Yes, in the WMC fine obituaries, I read about a popular African rapper--his picture showed him doing the right hand moves and everything--who recently was stabbed to death. Another African musician, a Mozambican singer or something, was murdered in Johannesburg. Did you know there are 20,000 murders a year in South Africa? That's what I read in the Mozambican's obituary on WMC. That seems like one hell of a lot of murders per year. In the US, a much larger country isn't it?, there are 16,500 murders per year. According to statistics most murders are committed by people who know each other--especially among family members or marital partners and in-laws. Marvin Gaye got killed by his own preacher daddy (a Washington, D.C., Church of God preacher) simply because God told Brother Gaye, after a normal bitter argument with his son, to blow his son away to save him from the hell of being a big millionaire American recording star, made even more richer by his just having released his comeback hit, "Sexual Healing," a damn good tune by the way; next to "Flying High (in the Friendly Sky)," it's my favorite. Poor ole Marvin. There's a hell of a story in his life. His group the Marquees just happened to be picked by Harvey Fuqua as the Moonglows...Harvey Fuqua who just happened to be married to Gwen Gordy--get the name?--and then Harvey and Gwen just happened to take Marvin with them to Detroit where Gwen introduced Marvin to her brother, who just happened to be Berry Gordy, whose sister, Anna, Marvin would just happen to later marry, and they just happened to have had a daughter, Nona, who just happened to capitalize on her old man's fame and become a soul star herself. Still, all that "just happening" didn't do Marvin any good. The IRS, those rotten bastards, drove him to Europe to live, where he developed a cocaine habit that made him manic depressive. He'd started as a session drummer at Motown and had his first singing hit with the Marvellas backing him up--that was on the Tamla label, another of Berry Gordy's lucky moves. From there on it had been high flying for Marvin, but a flight full of pains and confusions, lots'a good drugs and more confusions--Tammy Terrell passed out in Marvin's arms while they were on stage in 1967 doing a duet tour of their hit Ashford and Simpson songs ("No Mountain High Enough" etc.) from the brain tumor that would kill her three years later. Don't you hate life being so full of death?
World Music Central seems to focus mostly on world folk music, except, and this bothers me no end, within that genre they include blues and jazz. I have never considered blues or jazz folk music. Folk music to me is very primitive. If you are a folk musician, I don't think you probably even like blues or jazz. Folk music to me, in America, is basically white to the bone. Yes, there have been designated "black folk artists." Josh White comes to mind. Even Hudie Ledbetter. But though it wasn't down and out blues in terms of modals and things like that, still to me it was blues. Pete Seegar, however, I have never considered a blues singer. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard Pete Seegar sing a blues. Yeah, I know, all you music experts are stomping all over my ass by now. Folk music in its primitive state in the US runs the gamut of all the various ethic music influences echoing about from "the old country" in their genes, but blues and jazz, nope, it's born and bred US, and it is a developed music, not a primitive folk music. My friend, Major Contay of the famous Canebrake Rattlers from the rye fields of Queens, New York, treats all music as the blues. The Major, commander of one of the largest world recording collections in the world, will play you a Pyranees singer from Spain and tell you to listen and tell him what you hear and if you are a blues aficianado, you immediately say, "Hey, Major, that dude is singing the blues." And then the Major will go into how these dudes in Spain call each other over the mountain dales with signalling songs that, yes, goddammit, they are blues, but they're not either. And that's where the Major and I part company. Yes, the Major hears the basic blues changes in all the primitive musics of the world, including his special favorites the Tuvan throat singers, of which, one of the best ever was an American cat, but I don't though. I, by the way, was throat singing when I was a young kid; I discovered it one day while trying to get the sound of a jazz quartet out of my mouth. You know, I could mimic a trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax well enough, but putting them all together to form an ensemble in my mouth led me to discovering I could at least make two-part harmony using the two sides of my mouth--the right side for my trumpet and the left side for the tenor sax, dividing the sounds back in my throat so that one sound came out the right side of my mouth and the other came out the left side of my mouth, the harmonizing of the two voices performed in the throat as I divided the sounds there. Whew! Does that make sense? It did to me as a kid, though I had never heard of a Tuvan throat singer back then.
You know, to me, even blues and jazz don't mix that well, even though blues is one of the basic steps in creating jazz (or else it once was before the British invasion of rock and blues and jazz copy cats came along and Europeans, not understanding the basic tenets of blues or jazz (because it ain't natural to them, dig?), began to create a jazz that to me never swung because it lacked that certain "American" flavor that is just natural to a US kid growing up amongst it, in my case, growing up at a time when blues was in a revolutionary transition from acoustic (Robert Johnson) to electric (McKinley Morganfield) and jazz was evolving innovately from boogie-based swing (Benny Goodman/Artie Shaw) to 4/4 be-bop (Bird and Diz and Monk), with the white boys attempting to move jazz over into the European classical mode, expressly Dave Brubeck who tried it very successfully though it never appealed to me; it was too commercial for me. [Note: in the swing era, a white guy, Raymond Scott, tried to meld swing and classical music, the outcome being a very special strain of American music that never developed into a school but remained in the "novelty" category, where a lot of innovative music ends up. Also, a Brit, Spike Hughes, tried to blend the two together with strange success--it's interesting music with one exception, IT DOESN'T SWING. At least, Raymond Scott's stuff swung. Also, the cartoon sound track composer, Carl Stallings, wrote some interesting jazzy background music to Bugs, Porky, Daffy, and Elmer Fudd. Remember, too, Louis Armstrong was used in a Dave Fleischer Betty Boop cartoon--and it's a dilly, too; a weird phantasmagorical thing that has Betty chased by skeletons and cannibals through a Hollywood cartoon jungle, of whom Louie is the main chaser--I can still hear Louie singing "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You." "You ate up all my red beans and rice and now you're messin' with my wife, I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you."] Even a white boy as steeped in Delta blues as Mose Allison admitted he had been classically trained enough that Bach and Bartok influenced his blues-foundated jazz playing a lot.
I learned to play jazz piano listening to my older brother's collection of 78s. At the time, my brother, who was 15 years older than I was, was off fighting the Japs in the Mariana Islands, while I was having a charmed life listening to his records and playing his harmonicas and eventually taking piano lessons thanks to his sending my mother something like $3 a month for them from his Marines pay. My brother's record collection was huge, in 4 big fruit crates--my family were collecting fools; I had a one-eyed uncle who made his living his whole life as a "trader." He'd fix your plumbing and then rather than cash, he'd look around your house and barter with you over a vase, or a painting, or some silverware, whatever the hell his nose and eye told him was worth more than the plumbing he'd done. His garage down in Beaumont, Texas, he was half Cajun, was like a museum. He even had a huge sleeping lion cast-iron statue out there--he said it weighed a ton, and it weighed 1,000 tons to me, a little curious kid who actually got interested in the piano as an instrument when my uncle's kid, my cousin the sailor boy, dropped by our house one summer on his way back to the Navy from being on a furlough and he sat down at our piano and played a hell of a vicious boogie-woogie. From that day on, I was hooked on the piano; just looking at a piano made me want to play one; and play it like my cousin the sailor boy. I loved boogie, which was the musical basis of swing, which was then slowed down to 2/4, or what they called a "Fox trot." Old 78 record labels used to have the style of music it was printed on them--like "Waltz" or "March" or "Irish ballad" or "Fox trot," actually a horse trot, but really actually a "two step" way of dancing (in the box), which is why a guy like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys could easily adjust their two step (fandango) beats to swinging fox-trot beats--or weasel trots as per the Nortena bands around San Antonio, where Bob resided during his blessed years and eventually where he fell on bad times, too many cigars, whiskey, and wild, wild women finally his old musician ass kicking the bucket and ending up in the cold, cold ground, though the ground in San Antonio is seldom cold (Bob was married maybe 8 times or so--I remember in those days a guy named Tommy Manville (his daddy gave him money enough from his ASBESTOS business (Johns-Manville) that he had plenty of time to be a playboy) held the record for number of marriages, something like 10 or 11 by the time he was 50 or so, a lot of them actresses. Mickey Rooney, also, was a marrying fool; he's still kicking by the bye and married again, which must be his 10th or 11th wife. Mickey was quite a little lady's man--he had 'em all from little precious Judy Garland and little precious Liz Taylor (once so luciously enticing now a big tottering cow) all the way up to the top of the sexual ladder with Rita Hayworth, whose marriages, too, were numerous, including her best catch, the Agha Kahn, who claimed he was jaded from having banged so many famous beautiful women by the time he was 44; the Agha gave Rita her only daughter, Yasmine, who is a big provider in the Alzheimer's world, her mother losing to Alzheimer's and beauty degeneration in her final years). See where music leads me?
My very favorite record of my brother's was an Artie Shaw vehicle called "Traffic Jam," featuring newcomer drummer, Traps the Wonder Boy, or Buddy Rich as he became known the richer he got from the music business (I defy anyone nowadays to play drums like Buddy could, even though, yes, Buddy was a total asshole as a bandleader. It was a though he hated band musicians; yet, he realized that that was really all he was originally). Artie Shaw and my brother became close friends in both of their later lives; in fact, my brother told me one time after visiting Artie out in the Hollywood Hills, that not only was Artie the smartest man he'd ever known, and he now considered him his best friend. I would love to read their correspondence, but it's locked up down in a Texas university's archives and I have no reason to go anywhere near Texas at the moment. I did, however, on the death of my brother write Artie and tell him how deeply I appreciated his friendship with my brother--at the same time, I got to tell him what "Traffic Jam" had meant to me. Artie said "Traffic Jam" was a head job they just simply came up with at that recording session.
As to the piano, the first true jazz pianist I heard was Count Basie, my brother having the Count's first most popular album at the time on the Decca label--the 78 rpm era gave us the "album" connotation--"78 albums" were a set of usually 6 two-sided (where A and B sides come from) shellacks--what 78 records were called by the DeeJays--"disc jockies"--coming from old radio music shows played off transcription disks, big vinyl disks that sometimes could hold a whole radio show, that were played at a slower speed than 78 rpms on special turntables that turned around at about the same speed a race horse would run around a horse track--dig it? The guys who "spun" these discs were called "disc jockeys." Check it out, I may be wrong! NO. I'm never wrong; and that's what's wrong with me.
That Basie album was just super blues made jazz by the Count's marvelous crisp exact playing backed in perfect rhythmical attachment by his rhythm section, called the "All-American Rhythm Section," consisting of Papa Jo Jones on drums (the first drummer to ride on his ride cymbal), bassist Walter Page (of Blue Devils fame), and guitarist Freddie Green or Greene as he sometimes was listed, who Billie Holliday said was the handsomest man she ever had as a lover. Lucky Freddy. Jo Jones was a master brushman, too. I haven't seen or heard a drummer use brushes in 20 years maybe. Off that album, I learned to play ever one of those tunes with first my mouth--and I was 6 years old at the time--but then later when I learned to play a wooden thing called a "piano"--I knew Leroy Carr's "When the Sun Goes Down," the Count's "The Dirty Dozens," the popular "Little Red Wagon" ("Just keep draggin' your little red waggin' a-long."), the old "How Long, How Long Blues." Oh what a swinging little jazzy album; it wasn't swing, dammit; the Count played jazz, jazz from off the streets of Dallas, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri; I mean, just think, when the Count took over Benny Moten's Kansas City band, Charles Parker, Jr., was a kid hanging in the back alleys behind those KC hotspots digging the music through open windows (they had no air-conditioning in those days--heat was simply agreed upon in those days and taken in natural stride--and musicians wore suits and ties to gigs in those days, too) or through the open door of the club kitchen.
Then I heard Bird and Diz one night thanks again to my brother, who after WWII moved in with my family in Dallas and brought with him a portable Emerson radio and for a month or two, he slept in my room with me, and like a lot of soldiers just back from WWII, he listened to the radio late into the nights, but especially he liked the club remotes coming out of New York City over the Mutual Broadcasting Network, and they broadcast live remotes from Birdland, from the Royal Roost, in NYC, and one of those remotes that one night long ago in the late forties on a night in Dallas, Texas, I first heard Bird and Diz on one of those remotes, it might have been Symphony Sid doing the chatter, and that music simply just blew my little mind away. My brother explained to me that these hep cats were new on the scene and zooty-er than any of the original zoot suiters. Be-boppers were first called "hep cats"--"hep" jazz slang for "with it" or "in the groove" (hear Dizzy's "Groovin' High") and cats being jazz male musicians because of their feline-like coolness, dig? Notice how softly a cat walks; how utterly cool they always are...until they start to blow--like two tomcats fighting over the same beautiful pussycat in the back alley or down an airshaft. Cats and kittens. There were dogs, too, but all men are dogs according to some women I know. And we all know what a woman dog is, right? Don't bitch if you can't figure that one out.
So that's the blues and the jazz I have been Americanly faithful to since my youth. It's all I know, but, dammit, I know it musically more progressively than the most progressive folk artist has ever progressed. Jazz vaulted over conformity, over executing someone else's compositions in an exact note-and-measure-following adherence to that composer's supposedly intentions. In jazz, hell, all of the intentions were yours to make up as you pondered the riff or riffs that were joining together in your solar plexus to come out totally improvised, and not a la Bach, but I mean--originating in sound just seconds after it was freshly created. A folk artist has to learn his folk music by ear, but correctly following the patterns set before them orally or demonstratably by their elders.
Another thing that really scalded my ass was the way they listed the deaths of American musicians who deserve more than "legendary" status, which WMC calls nearly every whomever in their obituaries: 1) R.L. Burnside, one of the last of the old true Delta bluesmen with an uncanny way of playing a guitar and singing that almost Skip-James-like way of Delta singing that is an octave above the norm--same as the great J.B. Lenoir, also from Mississippi; and 2) Raful Neal of Baton Rouge; and 3) Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, one of the most remarkable musicians I've ever sat in front of and heard--with his wild black sheriff-style of playing the violin or his wonderful Houstonic guitar style--all those Houston cats, Johnny "Guitar" Watson...whooo-man, John Lee Hooker, or Larry Williams, the pianist/bandleader who wrote and recorded his great, great "Slow Down," which the Beatles used on their first album, a total cover album of American music, by the bye, and totally ruined by putting it into, to me, that nonswinging Brit church modality. The Lydian mode? Listen to the Beatles tunes in terms of British Classical music; it's the same boring meters, timbres, shadings, colorings, and shit you hear in Elgar or in Ted Heath's horrible big band efforts of the fifties; or even the Brit black stars, like Cleo Lane, who I hate...blah, blah, anglophobic blah. It's tinkle-tinkle music, or as we cats used to say, "That's droopy drawers music, man." It's funny how in jazz when you're talking to a cat, you call him "Man." Even when your talking to a jazz kitten, you call her, "Baby," like "Hey, baby, man, you sure are singin' good tonight." Or you could call the ladies "Darlin'," too, that was cool. "Man, darlin', where'd you get that chopstick piano player? He's holdin' you back, man." The WMC listed these blues kings as though they were simply "blues men"--well, they did call Gatemouth legendary, so I take back some of my bitchin'--but what really pissed me off was their calling Long John Baldry, a Brit blues fakir, a BLUES LEGEND. Kiss my ass. But then, I've never heard any of Baldry's work, but I have heard a lot of R.L. Burnside, Gatemouth Brown, Claude Williams, Raful Neal, people I consider BLUES LEGENDS and not Long John Baldry--he's a Brit copycat artist to me, just like Eric Clapton, who unfortunately, I'm afraid, may go down in history as a more famous and legendary blues guitarist than any of the above mentioned true geniuses. That's too bad. Eric Clapton to me is still a Brit copycat who wishes he were American, and who really thinks he knows more about American blues than do Americans. Like Elvis Costello insults jazz by calling himself a jazz singer now and marrying a jazz pianist and singer. Screw him. Hey, B.B. King didn't give a shit; he made an dog-shit record with Claps-in-the-Ass and even though B.B. is now old and sedentary he can still evoke more blues passion from his guitar than Eric Clapton ever will.
My list of Great American Blues Legends (Now Mostly Forgotten):
1) Jimmy Reed
2) Ike Turner
3) Chuck Berry
4) Willie Dixon
5) Chester Burnett
6) Rice Miller
7) JB Lenoir
8)John Lee Williamson
9) T-Beau (T-Bone) Walker
10) Harry Byrd (Professor Longhair)
Work on those ten and I'll give you ten more next time. I put Ike Turner in there because Ike Turner was a disk jockey in Greenville, Mississippi, who made it all happen, who started playing the records and then recording his own records, even being called over by Sam Phillips to master records at Sun Studio. He started rock and roll, a black music, too, by the bye. Nobody was like Ike in those early days; he played piano, guitar, anything, and he produced 'em the best. It was after he formed the Ike and Tina Turner Review that life got ahead of Ike and fame pushed him over into a toilet bowl full of cocaine. They said at the height of Ike's fame and fortune, in his studio in L.A., he had bowls of pure coke with straws stuck in them all up and down the halls and all around the walls--everywhere you went, a bowl of blow and a straw to blow it up with. That's what did Ike in; that's what made him throw that shoe at Tina, his worst nightmare it turns out--though Tina owes her fame to Ike. What a F-ing band Ike had in those "Rolling on the River" days--and how much more powerful did Ike and Tina do it than its originators, the droopy drawer Credence Clearwater pack of folkies gone rock.
A very interesting old book, Really the Blues, takes you back into the original jive and scat world of jazz in twenties and thirties Chicago. It's written by a Jewish man from Chicago who decided one day he wanted to be black so he started "goin'" black, even to the point of moving into black neighborhoods and filling out applications and union papers and shit saying his race was black (or "colored" as it was so colorfully put in those days) (yeah, and whites have no color and that's their problem), mainly through selling the best pot in Chicago and by playing a ratty but intentionally interesting clarinet. He called himself Mezz Mezzrow, "mezz" being a word for pot, a "mezzroll" being a well-rolled stick of pot. "I's'a viper," meant you were a mezzhead--the sound you used to make when smoking a mezz joint, sucking that roll up with a hissing of wind making you sound like a hissing snake as you sucked that good smoke down into your lungs. I think Mezz wrote Really the Blues high on his own stuff, but it's a hell of a good look at early day jazz and how totally "other life" becoming a true jazz person was back in those glorious beginning days when Kid Ory, Papa Joe, Louie, and Jelly Roll took New Orleans jazz up to Chicago and started a whole new kind of Chicago fire [which was the name of a pretty good NYC band a few years ago, Chicago Fire, that an old band friend of mine played the violin (to a jazz man it's a fiddle) with].
for The Daily Growler