Last day of blogging and “I’m sweating a lot by now” which is a line from O’Hara’s tribute to Billie Holiday and arguably the best elegy about jazz ever written (“The Day Lady Died”). In my less than grand finale, I want to throw some tunes at you: Ballads, sad tunes that acknowledge the love affairs, troubled or done for, seeming deprivations and losses that plague us, feelings elegiac or just those inexplicable moments where a dark spot shadows us and that feelihng needs to be expressed and shared.
I count myself among the multitudes of jazz fans who love Holiday’s late recordings (52-56 especially) where her voice and heart are broken.She has maybe an octave left in her voice, but she’s so incredibly expressive it hurts all the more. She accomplishes so much with her phrasing and the grainy quavering in her pitch that you’d swear, even when singing Ellington tunes like “Sophisticated Lady,” she was singing her autobiography. Ben Webster, maybe the greatest balladeer, plays behind her. Skip the ten second ad when you can.
Though I’ve been extolling the virtues of adventurous jazz this week I don’t want to forget that I also love jazz and poetry of yore (how’s that for diction), art that speaks to the heart seemingly more directly with melancholy or longing. When someone else’s sadness speaks to mine I don’t generally feel “down” but rather I feel less alone. I frankly don’t understand people who don’t listen to music that’s sad or who avoid movies that deal with difficult (as in real) emotions. And I see no contradiction in being transported by art that grows out of another time just because I aspire to write adventurously. After all, we love to listen to Bach and Mozart, and who but the most rigid formalists would think we should still compose like them (for a less glib response, my HISTORY MATTERS confronts some questions about composition, time and flux).
So I’m open to the “breath-taking” solos of Ben Webster, in tunes like “Where are You?” and “Ill Wind” and let them break my heart(again and again). You’ll have to put up with 10 seconds of an ad for dishwasher ads in a number of these cuts (I swear: this is such a great country) to listen to this beautiful version of “My Romance.”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6l7xYNbunXU And no one can play “Laura” like Don Byas (I alluded to his work in the James Carter entry yesterday).
Then there’s Dexter Gordon, though I think he coasted through his later years: the tunes are still pretty. There’s Benny Carter’s “Flamingo” and “Blue Star” (he was lively right to the end), Gene Ammons’ “Goodbye”; there’s any ballad by Lockjaw Davis; late in his life Stan Getz became a beautiful ballad player, and Ike Quebec’s tear-jerker, “Blue and Sentimental” with guitarist Grant Green in the background could melt an iceberg.
But perhaps no one can play more sweet and sensitively and noir-like than Johnny Hodges. Here’s “Daydream,” but he plays an infinite number of beautiful ballads and you should hear them all.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoBhmxHgHig Slightly more contemporary ballads? I love the ballad playing of Chico Freeman in SPIRIT SENSITIVE. Here’s his “Autumn in New York,” from that album.
Coltrane’s an amazing ballad player (“Out of This World” and “I Want to Talk About You”) and composer (“Naima” anyone? )and his accompaniment of Johnny Hartmann (alias Billy Eckstine the second) is rightfully legendary. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of Marion Brown’s version of Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” the throaty Archie Shepp at Montreux in 1977-8, and Abraham Burton’s Punta Lullabye” from CAUSE AND EFFECT (god he should be better known). Here’s that cut.
On the trumpet there’s of course Miles and Chet Baker before drugs take over his life, and Bakida Carroll, and so many others. And to end where I started, there are the vocalists: Sarah Vaughan’s beautiful instrument darkens, there’s Shirley Horn (a special romantic place in my heart that involves a certain person) and early Betty Carter; there’s Sheila Jordan, and the more extreme and dramatic and over the top singers I really love like Helen Merrill and the late work on Muse by Morgana King.
There are too many other lifelong pleasures to name. Such joy in that sadness.
This blog entry momentarily makes me think I should have continued my career as a disc jockey. In college I had an all-night jazz show on WRNJ, high above the Ritz Carleton in Atlantic City New Jersey – this before Donald Trump did such wonders with the town. But then I remember I had to walk the streets knocking on merchant’s doors asking them to buy ad time on a third-rate FM station. I got one account and even that didn’t bring me real money. I just got one meal a day at a fish(y) restaurant. Maybe it was all those scallops and not my conscience that turned me into a vegetarian the very next year!
I’ll end with this acknowledgment page: Thanks to BESTAMERICAN POETRY for giving me the opportunity to share my passions. I’ve enjoyed for so long the joys of other poets’ thoughts and I’ve been remiss in not writing to some of them to thank them. It’s a great blog.
OK, jazz is an African-american art. White folks surely can play the music and listen with pleasure, but the art’s more meaningful when we understand something about the tradition and the history that informs it. Like any art, the more you know, the more you can hear and appreciate (yes you do have to read poetry endlessly if you even have a prayer to become a good poet). Jazz is almost uniquely a communal, improvisatory, art: it builds on tunes that have histories in that community, it speaks from the heart of gospel and the black church, it’s a close cousin of the blues. It acknowledges, inhabits and transcends centuries of oppression. Jazz responds to that history, in its rage and melancholy and resignation, in its happy blues, and its other-worldly aspirations. If we don’t have a more lively jazz world today it’s because so many of the clubs where musicians used to learn their trade are gone; listeners had so many more opportunities to hear the art live (which is the art at its best. There are many reasons for those closings, our culture’s current devaluation of art in general, the cost of maintaining a club in cities given the cost of living and inequities of late capitalism. You can put some of the blame on jazz as an academic activity. And I’m leaving out a thousand other reasons for how jazz has been marginalized in the culture. So here’s to places like the Village Vanguard and more to those little clubs opening up even now to give young players a chance to show their wares.
Finally, thanks to readers of the blog -- though the community I dream of consists of is sitting in a chair and listening together, putting on one CD or record album (I still have them) after the next. Better still sitting at a rickety-table and sharing personally that passion with the artists only feet away from us, with a good glass of wine and, as we aspire for our own art, taking in the pleasure of feeling. Deeply and often.