a site by John Cobley

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Whitney Balliett and 1960s Jazz Musicians

Whitney Balliett's attitude to 1960s jazz musicians in his New Yorker columns

Recently I returned to Whitney Balliett’s 700-page Collected Works to see what wrote about Chick Corea. Balliett wrote regularly for The New Yorker from 1957 to the 1990’s; his columns were widely regarded as the height of jazz criticism. What I quickly discovered was that many of the major jazz musicians who like Corea rose to prominence in the 1960s were either ignored or deftly put down by Balliett. Index entries of these musicians generally referred only to mentions; rarely was their music discussed. Balliett frequently used lists in his columns to illustrate influence of style.

Duke Ellington: The Private Collection

Analysis of the 10 CDs of The Private Collection by the Duke Ellington Orchestra

This 10-CD collection has been overlooked in recent books on Duke Ellington (Teachout, Tucker, Nicholson, Hasse). It deserves attention. Jazz critics have often asserted that Duke Ellington had two instruments—the piano and his orchestra. There was always a piano available for practicing his keyboard skills, but it was a different matter when it came to honing of his orchestral skills. Rehearsals helped, but he only got to hear the finished product one play-through at a time. A better, though expensive option arose in the late 1950s. He would rent a recording studio and record new compositions and new arrangements. This way he could “hear how it sounded” and through repeated listenings analyse the music away from the distractions of the recording studios and of rehearsals. His longtime trumpeter Clark Terry has written how important listening was to Duke: “He was very firm about us listening…listening to the totality of the music. The texture. The timbre. What each section meant to the total piece.” (Clark, p. 133)

Stan Getz, Sweet Rain: Must-Have Jazz Album #2

Jazz Album description

Stan Getz, for me, is the Orpheus of jazz. I have been continually spellbound by his playing—as the wild beasts and even the trees were spellbound by the music of the mythic Orpheus. That’s 50 years of being spellbound because I bought this album when it was issued in 1967! (And the LP still sounds good.) From 1937 to 1990 Stan Getz recorded so many brilliant albums that I could list a dozen that would be worthy of being in my must-have list. However, I consider Sweet Rain to be his finest album. Recorded in 1967 when he was 40, this Verve album shows Getz at his very best, playing in a style that was to continue to the end of his career. This style had evolved from his earlier soft alto-like playing. The change came in the early 1960s when he was playing bossa nova.

John Dankworth: A Definitive Concept Album

Arguing for a narrower definition of a concept album

John Dankworth leads his big band. With the appearance of the LP (long-playing record) in the 1950s, the idea of a unified album gradually emerged. Rather than a loose collection of songs or short pieces of music, record labels gradually moved to albums based on a unifying theme. Of course the LP was ideal for symphonies and other larger works created before the invention of the LP. Of course the LP was also a perfect vehicle for a focused collection of songs from an opera or a musical. But the format also called for original music. Jazz composers, who generally wrote with recordings in mind, began to look to the LP as a vehicle for a unified work of 30-40 minutes. Such LPs were the early so-called concept albums. One of the first was conceived by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1957; Such Sweet Thunder was a suite written with the LP in mind. It was original music inspired by characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Gil Evans, though not using original music, was moving in the same direction with Miles Ahead (1957) and Sketches of Spain (1960). The former album was a carefully sequenced composition designed to showcase the trumpet of Miles Davis. The latter was organized around Spanish music from Rodrigo and de Falla to folk songs. Despite these and other early jazz albums based on a single idea, the concept album wasn’t firmly established as a genre until a decade later in 1967 when The Beatles issued Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This LP was the start of a widespread trend of concept albums.

Wayne Shorter: The Blue Note Albums (1964-1970)

Survey of Shorter's eleven Blue Note Albums

Wayne Shorter’s long and distinguished recording career can be tidily divided into four parts: 4 ½ years with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; 5½ years with Miles Davis; 15 years with Weather Report; and 10 years with his own quartet. Of course, he recorded in many other formats, notably with John Coltrane, Lee Morgan and VSOP. One of the most interesting series of recordings is the eleven LPs he made under his own name for Blue Note Records from 1964 to 1970. These LPs, dating from the end of his Blakey tenure through his Miles Davis years, are important examples of his own music, of the way he wanted to compose and solo. They show how he moved away from the hard bop style of the Blakey years and into his own very individual style.

Bob Thiele, Record Producer Extraordinaire

Thiele's career and contribution to jazz

The history of jazz generally focuses on the musicians. Rightly so, but it should also include the record producers. These often-forgotten producers ensure that the music is not lost. Eric Dolphy had forgotten them when he said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air; you can never capture it again.” Record producers have been able to capture a music that is otherwise ephemeral, leaving posterity a rich legacy of improvised jazz.  One of the most important producers was Bob Thiele (1922-1996). He started working in the recording industry as a 17-year-old and continued to the end of his life for a total of 56 years. His drive, affability and musical sensitivity enabled him to record countless great jazz musicians. We are so fortunate that we can still hear these jazz musicians today.

Benny Carter, Further Definitions: Must-Have Jazz Album #1

Must-Have Jazz LPs series: description of Further Definitions LP and justification for selection

Impulse Records, November, 1961. Benny Carter, Phil Woods, alto sax; Coleman Hawkins, Charles Rouse, tenor sax; Dick Katz, piano;  John Collins, guitar; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Jo Jones, drums. The initial idea for this unusual but very successful album was producer Bob Thiele’s. The 39-year-old had just taken over the Impulse label, and he was looking for additions to its catalogue. He learned that California-based Benny Carter was in New York, working as Peggy Lee’s arranger, and he managed to sweet-talk Carter into doing an album with Coleman Hawkins and Jo Jones, two of his contemporaries who also happened to be in town.

Willis Conover: Music as Propaganda

Conover's VOA broadcasts during the Cold War used music to promote the USA.

The emotional power of music has been exploited throughout human history. Many traditional religious ceremonies depend on music. Today it is used in shopping malls, gyms and restaurants, at the beginning of sports events, and for advertising and film. Armies went to war with marching bands and bagpipes, and public events are started with national anthems. Even political propaganda, which is mainly verbal, has successfully exploited music. One of the best examples of music as successful propaganda can be found in the jazz broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA) during the Cold War.  VOA was a short-wave radio station that was originally set up by the American Office of War Information for propaganda purposes during World War Two. John Houseman, more famous as a theatre producer and actor, was the first director of VOA. He established its policy and programming. At first the material was largely verbal, but Houseman’s view of propaganda soon changed: “We found ourselves using music as an instrument of propaganda.” (Terence M. Ripmaster, Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz to the World, p. 23) During the war, VOA began to broadcast American popular music, which was predominantly big-band jazz at that time. Such music had been banned in Axis countries.

Dinner with Mingus

Account of a 1960s dinner with Charles Mingus

This is a recollection of an encounter with one of the great jazz musicians. It shows a side of Charles Mingus’s character that goes against the common depiction of him as an angry man.  Although the dinner party took place 40 years ago, Sue Mitchell remembers it as one of the most embarrassing events of her life. In the mid-70s, she and her husband Stan Meisler were visiting New York from Mexico. Her journalist husband had contacted an old New York school-friend, Paul Ash, and he had invited them to dinner.

The Jazz Review: Why So Short-Lived?

The Jazz Review lasted only a few years. Editorial idealism was one cause of its demise.

“Most people who publish a little magazine do so with big intentions.” J.C. TLS, May 8, 2015 -One of the most interesting jazz magazines ever published has now appeared on the Internet in a PDF version. The Jazz Review (TJR) began publication in 1958 and ceased just 23 monthly issues later in 1961. Co-edited by two young but already respected jazz writers, Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff, TJR seemed likely to succeed; its serious approach was timely as younger university-trained jazz musicians were seeking artistic recognition and jazz had evolved from dance music to serious music for listening. However, TJR was soon embroiled in controversy because of its strong opinions. Musicians were particularly offended by some of its judgments, and I suspect there was some kind of unofficial jazz-musician boycott of the magazine.

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