Thursday, November 29, 2007

Watchin' McKinley Morganfield

Or, Watchin' Muddy "Mississippi" Waters
Watchin' Muddy Waters!
Great God Almighty!
And at the time I was watchin' him he was sixty-six; he had about 3 more years to live before he would die in his sleep in Westmont, Illinois, right outside of Sweet Home Chicago.
Muddy was sittin' on a stool to play by then but he was still playing the guitar still in his wild way, his wild way not stilled yet, his pure-field-holler-hollerer way of pickin' and slide'n the amplified guitar to accompany himself on his shur' 'nuff way of singin' the blues.
As Muddy said then, "I'm a true blues singer. I'm 66 years old now and I been singin' the blues and playin' the guitar since I was 3, so don't that make me a true blue singer?"
What else would?
Muddy left out he was black since he was born.
So why would anybody want to go up against Muddy Waters in any way?
According to Rolling Stone, Muddy only made it up to #15 in their 100 Greatest Musicians of All Time. Wow, only #15!
Muddy'd be up close to #1 in my way of thinking--certainly right up there with Robert Johnson, Big Joe Turner, Mingus, and Thelonious Monk.
They say Muddy had champagne every morning with breakfast. They say he had a special silk smoking jacket he wore while he sipped his cold champagne and ate his steak and grits and runny eggs.
Muddy liked to cook. Ham hocks. Fried bologna snacks. Breaded pork chops.
Tough life before arriving? Arriving? Being discovered by white people?
(I found it strange back in them thar days that it seemed OK for the Brit white boys to mimick black-American blues singers--and all of them did it; Mick Jaegger sings mock-black; Eric Clapton plays mock-black; even poor old anemic Elton John struggles to sing mock-black. I find that very strange.)
So hell yeah Muddy had a tough life gettin' to where he got to.
Born as a sharecropper's kid on a plantation in Mississippi. Raised by his grandmother. From the same hot-spot of the blues as Charlie Patton and Tommy Johnson and Son House and Robert Johnson--hell, the same area all of them to come were from, including B.B. King, Alec "Rice" Miller, all of 'em, Jimmy Reed, except they all came after Muddy.
Muddy was the first after Robert Johnson.
From that Mississippi Delta of horrid cotton fields and levees, the home of King Cotton and his bossman, Mr. Charley, cotton the product which made Southern planters aristocrats (plantation owners were planters--where the name Planters peanuts comes from, too; plants; row after row after row after row of cotton plants; row after black earth row of King Cotton and row after row of the King's slaves, men, women, children, pickin' it; and little Muddy was sittin' on the porch of his grandmother's shack pickin' the blues out like the slaves were pickin' the cotton bolls out, 'cept by the time of Muddy's time original slavery was over but sharecroppin' slavery was in--Jim Crow's world of white denial of fellow human beings being human beings because the white man (the Planter) had to keep them savages--base animals--remember the Constitution, written by a Virginia planter and slave holder, said blacks were only 3/5th human beings--lower than the sorriest of worthless animals--like a strong black man was a buck not a man, or just a "boy" if not a buck--same as a mule to a Planter.
I'm sure many a Planter for sport used slaves as mules--human beings pulling huge ploughs.

That's what Muddy came singin' the blues out of.
A white man can't imagine it really--no matter how close he or she may feel to the African-American situation,
No matter if you grew up with a family of blacks living next door to you as I grew up in Enid, Oklahoma; no, growing up living next door to a black family did not give me any understanding whatsoever about being black because even though blacks lived next door to my family and other white families, the whites shunned them on the grounds they were cursed by the white god, Jehovah, a very racially prejudiced god.
I remember to this day teasing the little black neighbor girl while I played in a sandbox with a couple'a white girls who weren't near as attractive as the black girl.
Uh-oh, I should have thought when as a little child I looked admirably on that pretty little black neighbor I had, what a chance, right?, but, nope, I followed my white mores and looked down my tacky white nose at her--just because she was black.
Of course, I had no idea why I had to treat this girl like that; my parents didn't help either--in Texas it was the law (racial prejudice) and in Oklahoma it wasn't a law but the Oklahoma whites followed Texas law, so, that was my parents response to my wanting to "love" the little black girl next door (she couldn't have lived next door to me in Texas).

Remember my parallel lines reasoning?--parallel lines can never connect and this is a country of parallel lines that can never connect (and fuck fractile geometry here, too, M set be damned)--there are parallel lines running even through black society--none of We the People will ever connect.
Perhaps that's why religions are so popular: they give people the illusion that parallel lines are connecting or if not on earth surely in this fabulous place called "Glory" that place all religious paths supposedly lead us to.

As a little white boy I took white piano lessons in Dallas "Right Wing Heaven" Texas after WWII when my family were finally on their feet enough to afford a used upright piano.
First I learned piano basics, then a little Bach and then onto beginner's Chopin (I played a Chopin Etude my first recital--I still remember it and can play it).
I wasn't happy playin' that shit (I didn't know it as "European" music then, just "classical" music).
I wasn't happy with that slow draggy music, 2/4 shit just didn't rock it for me, because I'd suddenly discovered late night radio don't ya see--late night, my time, after my parents were sound asleep.
And I would creep up out of bed quietly and very quietly tip-toe and then shut my room door (a sin that wasn't allowed by my mother).
Then I would hustle into bed under the covers with my little Emerson Bakelite radio my brother'd left for me after he returned from China.
I would surf all over that compact AM dial looking for a particular kind of music I'd started hearing and digging--getting infected by it--the first "star" I remember diggin' was Joe Liggins, the Honeydripper, and the tune "The Honeydripper," and I still remember that tune, too--and he also had a hit with "Siboney," a tune long lost in the historical dumpster of time along with "Frenesi," "Begin the Beguine," "Canadian Sunset," and "I Cover the Waterfront" (Louis Armstrong introduced me to that old tune on that great film of him singing it in Holland in a time so long ago now)--
And "tune" is where "toon" comes from, or did you know that? Cartoons are simply "drawn" (French carton) + "tunes"--and that's what the early Loony Toons and Merry Melody cartoons were, drawings of tunes--I remember one where a bunch of funny dog-like characters sing, "A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother" while a little ball bounces along keeping time over the words.

One night, out of Nashville, Tennessee, a big-watted radio station town with WLAC (Western Life and Casualty Insurance Co.), I heard this next-step-up-from-Joe-Liggins music comin' through the speaker, monaural, baby, mono--Wow--and my little boy's heart was pumpin' 12/4--kind'a slow and mule-walkin' like--you know, that kind'a slow drag beat, now called "a shuffle"--but we didn't call it shufflin' yet--shufflin' was still a white view of the way blacks moved--remember old Step'n Fetchit, the best shuffler there was--Step'n once drove around Hollywood by lining his 12 Rolls Royces up in a row and then driving one up a few feet, going back to the next one and driving it up behind the first one, and then on and on until he got to his location.
And on that WLAC-AM radio station out of Nashville, Tennessee, I first heard Muddy "Mississippi" Waters.
The blues. But I knew the blues. My brother was a hepcat and he had all kinds of records, swing, jazz, be-bop, all blues, but night-club blues, big-band blues, Fats Waller, Woody Herman, Count Basie playing jump blues on piano with Freddie Greene, Jo Jones, and Walter Page, the "All American Rhythm Section," on the Decca label...
So I knew the blues.
I knew boogie-woogie. Albert Ammons. Roll 'Em Pete Johnson. Meade "Lux" Lewis.
Did'ja ever hear Pete Johnson's "Minuet Boogie." Whoooa.
And boogie-woogie was just blues banged out smoothly eight to the bar and soon I had developed a boogie-woogie left hand and soon as a little tyke I was pushing boogie woogie all over my Jesus-loves-even-boogie-woogie white Christian home, my "heavenly" music, their "Hell" music; my blessed music; their Devil music.
But boogie-woogie was the blues. A hustling blues that boiled up out of the big-city streets.
And then I heard Muddy Waters.
The blues boilin' right up out of the ground.
Pass me some breaded pork chops and some ham-hock-jammed red beans over some of that nasty rice.
And, yes, I'll have a glass of that champagne, too, if you please.

And I was watchin' this video of Muddy Waters back when he was 66 years old, in 1981, made in Iowa by Iowa Public Television, "Maintenance Shop Blues" the show was called, and there was muddy in Iowa with a pick-up band of locals it looks like, one a red-headed white boy sticking out sore-thumb-like among them.
But when you get a chance to play with Muddy Waters you suddenly turn very hip and cool and alert and shit and you play way above your head.
And there was Muddy "Mississippi" Waters and he started off singing about how he was goin' back to the Delta...and then he stayed in the Delta and did James Moore's "I'm a King Bee"--and by then I'm socked in and caught in the twangs of Muddy's blastin' guitar overrulin' the pick-up boys and Muddy's calm voice just spellin' things out for me.
And I looked into Muddy's thick-volumes-of-blues-history face and watched him easily sing, "I'm a King Bee/Always buzzin' 'round your hive...." Tumblin' right along ("Rollin' and tumblin'" a real old-good-ole-good-way of kickin' ass blues back beatin'). "And we can make honey, baby/If you'll let me come inside." And by now I'm pray-zin the lardy lard and kickin' off my shoes and jitter dancin' all around my room.
That's real music to me, folks.
That's where I come from.
From Muddy I heard it real.
From Muddy I learned how to phrase it my way.
From Muddy I learned how to let my natural thing shine through; let it write and arrange the music as it's being performed.
You've got the beat given to you.
You've got the clue to how to feel the blues's hard-drivin' softly bumpin' back-beat.
The blues are too subtle and simple for high-speed, complicated, neurotic white brains.
Blacks know how to pace themselves--
I mean blacks know high blood pressure--
"The pressure drop, mon"
Don't let the pressure drop on you...
No, just roll and tumble with the blues.
Muddy Waters in Iowa.
Find it. It was issued originally in VHS.
1981, when Muddy was 66.
April 4, 1915 Muddy was born.

Lost Another Master
I only learned tonight that Jay McShann had died a year ago, December 2006, at 91.
Jay McShann was a typical rollin' and tumblin' blues and boogie piano-playing bandleader out of Kansas City at the same time the Basie Band was forming at the Reno Club.
And what made Jay McShann so special? He had Charles Parker, Jr., in his band at one time. He had one hell of a great band at one time.
A great man, too. A wizard.
"Confessin' the Blues," by Walter Brown out of Jay's band, is one of the great ole great ones, as Louis Armstrong would say. of all jazz time.
So, Goodbye, Jay McShann.

for The Daily Growler

Pianist, singer and bandleader Jay McShann died Thursday, one month before his 91st birthday. Fittingly, he passed away in Kansas City, Missouri, his adopted hometown and one of the most significant incubators of modern jazz.

Born in Oklahoma, where he taught himself piano, McShann moved to Kansas City in late 1936.

Eventually, McShann would fill the void Basie left in Kansas City with a swing orchestra assembled from local musicians, including, most notably, a teenaged Kansas City native and budding alto saxophonist named Charles Parker, Jr. In the opinion of many jazz aficionados—including this writer—Parker would become the greatest improviser in jazz history and the largest single influence on its subsequent development, despite his struggle with substance abuse and premature demise at the age of 34.

In later interviews, McShann relished telling his version of how Parker got his famous nickname “Yardbird”—later shortened to “Bird. “ Supposedly, a car in which they were both riding to an engagement killed a chicken, and Parker insisted they pull over, so he could retrieve the “yardbird” and have it cooked for his dinner.

The Jay McShann Orchestra made its first recordings—without Parker—in late 1939. Parker rejoined McShann the next year and stayed until he became a member of pianist Earl Hines’ band in 1943, a group that included Dizzy Gillespie and several other jazz modernists. In 1945, Parker and Gillespie made the seminal early recordings of bebop-style jazz, which overwhelmed the conventions of the large swing orchestras and transformed jazz into its modern form.

The five 78 rpm records of the McShann band featuring Charlie Parker solos—made for Decca Records’ “Sepia” series, aimed specifically at black audiences—are among the most important in jazz history because of Parker’s tremendous impact on his peers. They make great listening today. “Hootie Blues” (the title refers to McShann’s nickname), for example, includes all the best elements of the Kansas City style, McShann’s skillful piano introduction, a chorus of riffs from the band, Parker’s passionate blues solo, an excellent vocal by bluesman Walter Brown (“Well, hello little girl, don’t you remember me?”) and a final riff chorus.

Unfortunately, although the Jay McShann Orchestra excelled at popular songs, the success of Brown’s vocal on “Confessin’ the Blues” led Decca management to pigeon-hole the band as “The Band that Plays the Blues.” Live recordings, unearthed decades later by collectors Frank Driggs and Norman Saks, reveal a much broader repertoire than those on the commercial recordings, exemplified by an astounding Savoy Ballroom performance of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” a hoary 1919 popular song featuring an extended, and extremely modern, Parker solo.

McShann was drafted in 1943, bringing his classic swing band to an end. He unsuccessfully attempted to establish a viable jazz orchestra after his discharge, but times had changed. While bebop took leadership of the jazz world, McShann became a more commercially oriented rhythm-and-blues performer. He scored a huge hit backing vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon on a cover recording of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”

McShann returned to Kansas City in 1950, where he raised his three daughters and performed regularly in local establishments. He toured sporadically, including a highly rewarding 1969 European trip, made occasional recordings and settled comfortably into the role of an elder statesman. He was prominently featured in the excellent 1980 homage to the Kansas City golden age, “Last of the Blue Devils,” was interviewed in Ken Burns’ uneven 2001documentary “Jazz,” and performed during the piano segment of Clint Eastwood’s 2003 PBS mini-series “The Blues.”

On recordings, McShann displayed a high degree of piano skill, with elements of boogie-woogie underlying his always imaginative melodic improvisations. He never developed the more modern sound of his Kansas City contemporary, Mary Lou Williams, however, and sounded increasingly dated as the years rolled on. Eventually, he began singing as well, sounding remarkably like Walter Brown.

McShann was a tireless advocate of his musical tradition. “You’d just have some people sitting around, and you’d hear some cat play, and somebody would say, ‘This cat, he sounds like he’s from Kansas City,’” the Associated Press quoted McShann as saying in a 2003 interview promoting his CD “Goin’ to Kansas City,” which received a Grammy nomination in the traditional blues category. “It was the Kansas City style. They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up north, and they knew it down south.”

McShann performed live until last year, when deteriorating health made it impossible for him to continue. It was only a few days before his death, however, when he entered St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City complaining of a respiratory infection.

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