Friday, November 26, 2010

Shiny Heads Talk Jazz

One of my fantasies has always been to be a jazz DJ. I sort of got my chance, for the second time, this week on Chet Hanley's Jazz in the Modern Era. We put together a play list based upon my nove, Now's the Time, and then talked about the music and the book. Check it out:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mood music

It is easy to argue that straight ahead jazz, with its complexity and energy and spontaneous invention is the great jazz music and that the electronic soul jazz of the 1970s is somehow inferior. It's all too easy, too smooth. It just couldn't be anything too special. But when a sound can transport you--when simplicity is a small beauty, is a desert rose on a thorny day--then how can we deny its greatness.

MFSB--the soul ensemble responsible for, among other things, the Soul Train TV theme music--has never been taken very seriously as a jazz entity, but if a piece of music can capture a mood, can capture a time and place, the gray skies of those bleak days in the 1970s when urban American seemed to be dying of a soul sickness but with enough good people, dazed good people stumbling around believing in their communities, believing in the future.

For me, My Mood isn't just a personal statement. It's political. It's a revolution of hope against dispair, of seeing beauty in the gray sky backlit by the sun.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lost and Found in the Digital Age

Ben Ratliff’s recent feature in The New York Times reminds us all how much great music might still be out there on recordings buried away in boxes, attics, garages. In this case unreleased jazz gems by Coleman Hawkins were discovered amid in a collection of recordings donated by the estate of William Savory, a recording engineer from the 1930s.

In my novel, Now’s the Time, protagonist Didi Heron finds a twenty year old reel of vintage bebop—the last recording made by her father and the legendary trumpeter with whom he played. She finds it in the discarded trench coat of a man the world has presumed dead for more than a decade. In a sense, the man and music he’s carrying have ceased to exist—except that they haven’t exactly. Recording technology

It is hard to imagine any current work of recorded music—great or not so great—ever being lost, even for a moment. Digital technology has given us the means to preserve pretty much any image or sound we want. I wonder if this gargantuan sum of recordings will help us appreciate all the great performances that occurred before it was possible to record, reproduced and ultimately digitized and burned into the permanent memory of human culture.

There have been science fiction stories involving time machines—from HG Wells’s book to last years Hot Tub Time Machine movie. To my knowledge, not a single one of these stories finds the time traveler bringing a video or audio recording device to the globe theater for opening night of Hamlet or to 18th Century Vienna to hear the premier of Don Giovonni, etc.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Enlarging the Musical Canvas

Latin jazz began almost at the inception of bebop, but Horace Silver brought in some many other rhythms and musical shapes from around the world and helped make our great American art form a universal collage.

He used Brazilian influences in Cape Verdean Blues--

And Song for My Father--

He gave us the Baghdad Blues--

The Tokyo Blues--

He played the world on his piano--and put in a musical prayer for what the world needs--

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ray Bryant: Griot at the Piano

My father, John Strauss, won a grammy award for best classical album of 1984. That album was the sound track to the film Amadeus, which he was credited as producer. He had supervised the music of the film and ran the dubbing session for the LP for film producer Saul Zaentz who never exactly paid him for the extra days work. What he did offer him was any album in the Prestige Records library, which he had purchased several years before for $1 each.

My father brought me the catalogue and I went nuts checking off what I wanted. So much Coletrane, Miles, Monk, and on and on. My father made a few selections of his own, including a little known jazz/blues pianist named Ray Bryant. Someone had recommended him. Somehow, the company ended up sending two copies of that one and I ended up with one.

I never listened to it until years later when I was teaching James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” to an 11th grade English class. It frustrated me that my students couldn’t hear the music in the story, especially the last scene when Sonny is at the piano and his brother is finally listening. Having been into jazz for what was then half my life, it all seemed so obvious to me. I played my students some Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Monk, Miles, Bird, Coltrane to give them the feel of jazz—but none of that music quite illustrate what the fictional Sonny is playing in the climactic moments of the story. Hours at my CD changer and record player and I finally cracked the seal on my copy of Ran Bryant, Alone with the Blues. And that was it. His solo piano, the transcendent sound of the blues as a statement about the vast life spectrum of joy and pain, was like a painter’s stroke rendering a room full of suddenly introspective young faces.

I read that last scene of “Sonny’s Blues” for them with Ray Bryant playing in the background, pausing to let Ray say what needed to be said, what needed to be emphasized, letting his cadence work with Baldwin’s narrative poetry—and when it was over my students and I understood that something really special had happened. All at once we all seemed to realize the point of the story—that Sonny was telling the family history at that piano.

I don’t believe Ray Bryant was thinking about “Sonny’s Blues” when he laid down those tracks.

I don’t think he had to.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Imposing Order

It’s kind of a stupid question but I wonder still—why is it that men with such disordered lives could impose such order on the air with their music?

The obvious answer might be that the disorder in their lives probably inspired the musical order. Still, it’s a remarkable dichotomy, I think. These sounds seem to make everything make sense. For me they make life seem simple and beautiful. And make me believe that Tina Brooks and Blue Mitchell, Kenny Drew and PC and AT all understood that.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Still Listening Out

Long before digital downloads there was the public library. In Santa Monica you could borrow twenty LPs at a time and I always checked out the max. Some were fairly new and clean copies but most of the good stuff was old and frayed and a little scratched up. The scratches sometimes added character to the sounds. Some of the album covers were faced. Others were completely destroyed, the vinyl exiled to a blank sleeve and tiny handwriting half-explaining what was inside. A few compilations said nothing anywhere about the music. I always sampled a few of these at a time and some became my favorites. I’d dub them onto a cassette tape for the car and them until the tape jammed or snapped. Then I’d try to find those same blank cardboard record covers in the library’s jazz racks.

Sometimes I’d catch one of those favorites on the radio—usually an upbeat, uptempo thing, horns harmonizing over a tight rhythm section. I’d listen out for the who and the what and sometimes I got it:

Benny Golson, Stablemates.

McCoy Tyner, Contemporary Focus.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Down Under.

I remembered those cuts and when I had a little money to spend in the record store I’d find the albums on which those tunes were originally recorded.

Over the years, I think I’ve picked up most of those sides but there are still a few I’ve never heard, never been able to identify. I wonder sometimes if I’d even remember them now, thirty-plus years later, if I heard them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Song For My Father

The first time I heard the Horace Silver classic I was in a self-imposed time-warp of my own ignorance. I thought Horace had "borrowed" those opening chords from Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."

Either way, I dug both tunes--and when I heard Leon Thomas slowing down Silver's rockin melody and putting it to words, I turned up the radio dial. I had no idea what was coming.

Thomas intoned the lyrics--

If there was ever a man who was generous, gracious, and good... it was my dad, the man A human so true he could live like a king 'cause he knew... the real pleasures in life To be devoted to And always stand by me So I'd be unafraid And free. If there was ever a man who was generous, gracious, and good... it was my dad, the man

A little schmaltzy, but not coming from Leon's deep inflection.
And nothing schmaltzy about what came next--

First jazz yodeling solo I had ever heard.
Not just yodeling--the dude seemed to be channeling the souls of a thousand pigeons.

Nothing in my life--not even growing up in New York City--had prepared me for that sound.

It bothered me. I wanted to turn it off. But I didn't. Something made me listen. Something important in the rawness of that sound, the jagged edges of emotion slashing against the sweet melody and the sentimental message. It said the ties we have with our parents, the legacy of our past that reaches all the way back, it's not always a pretty sound or a coherent sound but it's a sound we need to recognize if we want to know who we are.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Implied Soul

I think that my grandparents believed my father to be a prodigy. They made a big fuss about the way he played the piano and discouraged sports or anything else that might jeopardize his previous hands. His training was strictly classical—but I wonder if the dominant influence on him musically came from his teachers or from the trepidation with which his family regarded his fingers.

John Strauss never quite became a virtuoso of the instrument, though he was good enough to accompany night club singers (including my mother), tour in the music pit with Broadway-bound musicals and, on one occasion, to perform a Beethoven sonata live on New York’s WQXR classical music station where his older brother was an announcer.

When my father came back from World War Two, he studied music and music theory on the GI Bill at Yale University with composer Paul Hindemith. He wrote an opera and a piano concerto but after marriage and two sons, John Strauss turned to television for a steady income. He composed the theme songs for Car 54 Where Are You? And The Phil Silver’s Show though his bread and butter was in the cutting room—first as a sound editor, then a music editor. He eventually became one of the most sought-after editors in New York, working on three of Woody Allen’s early films as well as The Heartbreak Kid, Little Big Man, and Slaughterhouse Five.

When my mother’s career brought our family to the west coast, my father got himself hired onto Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong remake, but local editor’s union politics forced him off the movie. Unable to get hired on a west coast union movie, my father considered his options—work back in New York and separate himself from his family or find something else to do. He was in his early fifties and wanted a career change anyway so he turned back to his first love, music.

He bought a Fender Rhodes and some amps and set about joining a fusion jazz group. He met some guys through the local musicians union and started jamming with them. I think they even got a few gigs in some clubs out in the desert. But my father told me he was struggling with the improvisational aspects of the music.

He took me a Tower Records on Sunset and asked me to guide him through the jazz aisles. I was no expert but I knew a little about the great keyboard players. We listened to some of those records together. Oscar Peterson, my father described as “frightening.” Said he was exhausted just listening to him. Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis intrigued my father, but I could tell he just didn’t think he could pull that kind of soul out of himself. He’d been raised to be a cautious man and it was costing him as an improvisational musician. He didn’t think he would ever get out of the desert, musically speaking.

Then I spun an Ahmad Jamal record. Live at the Pershing Square Lounge, 1958 and together we marveled at the poignant understatement, the implied soul of his music. “But Not for Me,” "Moonlight in Vermont." Ahmad would make you hear the melodic statement without quite playing it. He'd tease rapture out of a few tones. “Woody ‘n You,” “Poinciana.” My father smiled and said, “Yeah.”

“You can play like that,” I said.

“Not like that,” my father said, respectfully. “But I think I understand what I need to do.”

A few weeks after that, on a Friday night, he took me with him to the desert night club where he and his fusion combo were playing. It was a funky little place on a quiet flat stretch of highway. My father and his cohorts called themselves With the Flow and they were pretty good. I watched my father—who was at least fifteen years older than the bassist, drummer, and the very versatile horn player—trying to let loose on the keyboard. He did seem more relaxed than I was used to seeing him. He even, at one point, let out a groan during a solo and swung his head back and forth. He seemed to be letting his hands and his heart find the music.

A month or so later, the club they were playing in went rock and a week after that With the Flow broke up. My father was offered an editing job on a New York-based movie. He sold the Fender Rhodes but kept all the jazz vinyl. He brought the Ahmad Jamal records with him to New York. Years later he told me that those records had inspired him in ways beyond music.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Relaxing @ Camarillo

I hate to admit this but when I first heard Charlie Parker, I didn’t get him. Maybe it was the poor quality of the recordings. They didn’t have the richness of sound to which I’d become accustomed. Or perhaps I just couldn’t keep up with the speed and fury of the music. I sense that now from my students when I play them Bird for the first time.

When I was their age, I did most of my jazz listening in the car. KBCA FM or cassette tapes I dubbed off the radio at home or off LPs from the library or the few I could afford to buy.

Mostly I made short trips around town—to the junior college where I played student in a few classes or the part time jobs from which I sketched an income. A few times a month I made the 50 mile drive up the PCH or U.S. 101 to Camarillo State Hospital where my older brother lived. Autism and schizophrenia had institutionalized him for most of his life but my parents had always made frequent visits and taken him on overnights at least once a month. When I’d gotten my drivers license in 1975, I began sharing that responsibility.

I’d pack a few tapes for each trip.

Camarillo State Hospital was a sprawling island of Spanish-style buildings in a sea of vegetable fields. Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli in rows that stretched to the jagged horizon. The smell of fertilizer was overwhelming. People shuffling along the grounds in faded robes would hold their noses against the stench while they talked to themselves.

My brother lived in the hospital’s developmental center. Camarillo also had buildings that housed the mentally ill, others where drunks and addicts detoxed and tried to rehabilitate. Usually, the residents kept to their own areas but occasionally someone strayed.

One afternoon, parking my car next to Building 8, a man stepped out from behind a tree. He wore a robe that looked burnt and sunshades that slid down his nose as he bopped his head to the beat of Dexter Gordan’s Fried Bananas still going on my car stereo.

He asked me for a cigarette and when I told him I didn’t smoke, he asked for a dollar. His hair jutted off his head in about five directions and he smelled of rancid oil and tar. Had a toothbrush behind his ear. I gave him 50 cents and he said, “Thanks, jazz man.” And disappeared around the side of the building.

Three weeks after that, as I pulled into the same parking spot, there he was, reciting a slightly delirious rendition of the Carole King song: “When the jazz man’s testifying a faded man can see. He can sky like a foaming angel or climb up in the trees….”

I handed him a dollar before he could ask and thought that would get rid of him, but he followed me inside. Seemed to think he owed me his company now. He said, “I talked to Charlie Parker. When he was here back in 1946. He ain’t have too much to say but he said it to me. Do you know about Charlie Parker.”

I kept walking. This guy didn’t seem old enough to have been in this place for more than thirty years.

He followed me up the stairs to the long empty hallway. It was always like that—like the building was deserted. The floors shined, the walls were dull and dusty. The windows framed in rust.

“This building used to be for junkies,” he said, and pointed to a closed door we were passing, said that was where he’d first met Bird. Just standing there, looking around, thinking. "We had a few words a few times. About how relaxing it was there. About how Bird liked picking lettuce and playing easy in the hospital band. Man,” the guy said, and this stopped me: “Bird went out and wrote a song about it— about what we talked about.”

He asked me if I’d ever heard that song.

I shook my head.

“I never heard it either,” the guy said “Don’t even know what it’s called. But would you find me a copy? Could you please? I’ll pay you for it,” he said, and showed me the dollar I’d just given him.

I didn’t think much about it after that—until the next time I was at the library going through the jazz bins. I came to the P’s and found it pretty much dominated by the recordings of Charlie Parker. I snagged them all and read the tune selection on the back of each plastic-covered jacket. Ko-Ko, Out of Nowhere, Moose the Mooch, Now’s the Time, Groovin High, Cool Blues Klact-ovesede-tene. Nothing that fit that dude’s description. I moved on through the bins, ended up with a dozen or so LPs—a variety of things known and unknown—to check out at the circulation desk.

When I got home, I played through each side of each album. One after another, impatiently, my nervous hand lifting the stylus off of what I didn’t like or understand, studying the album covers.

I came to a compilation with a blank gray cover, laminated in clear streaks. On the library sticker it said, Saxophone Serenade. Taped to the back was a paper line-up of tunes. Wardell Gray, Clifford Jordan, Booker Earvin, Lester Young, Charlie Parker. Parker’s first tune on that compilation was, “Relaxing at Camarillo.”

I listened and tried to imagine the place where Parker stayed, picking lettuce and playing in the hospital band—the place where my brother now lived—those long deserted hallways and all the chaos and loud confusion that went on behind the locked doors, but for me “Relaxing at Camarillo” seemed like just another frantic tune in a hurry to be over.

I listened to the tape on the way up to Camarillo the next time and imagined the dude and me listening to it together. Sitting in my car, looking up at the Spanish roofs and the trees and the dusty hills thinking about the chance meeting he'd had with Bird, and all their conversations that were now, somehow, in this melody and in all the improvisation flowing from it. I imagined the tears welling up in the man’s eyes as he remembered his brief friendship with this tragic genius and I felt as if I’d been with them that day, taking about how relaxing the place was.

I rewound the tape a second time as I slowed my car and navigated the narrow road that fed the parking lot, thinking I’d just let the guy hear it from outside and see how long it would take him to figure out what it was.

But the guy never showed up that day. Or the next time I was up there—or the time after that.

I always looked out for him—even after the place was closed and then turned into a state university and my brother and his unit were moved 100 miles away to Costa Mesa, I still expected to see that guy every time I got out of my car.