Music, Freedom, and Form

I read yesterday that Pharoah Sanders had died. By most accounts he was a kind and gentle man, though his music explored the limits of sonic tolerance. His work in the ‘60s with John Coltrane and Albert Ayler “helped pioneer a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.”

So says Marcus J. Moore in The Nation, then going on to render an appreciation of Sanders’ development in later years, pointedly with Promises in 2021, an album I haven’t heard in which Moore finds greatness. I do have a couple of albums wherein Sanders and Coltrane are apparently searching for Karma or God on their horns. They are hard to listen to today.

When I was music critic for The New Leader in the late ‘60s I went on a couple of rants about free jazz—how screeching and emotive self-indulgence had taken over the music. Since I’ve become old and crotchety I haven’t much changed my opinion about free jazz though I’ve mellowed a bit. It’s not popular anymore for a lot of reasons, but Pharoah was one of the few to try keeping it relevant, and we salute him for that.

Free jazz proponents talked a lot about freedom. Yet when jazz tends to anarchy it can sink into expressionistic bedlam. John Coltrane’s music in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a revelation to me. When he later focused on his intense spiritual quest I simply couldn’t follow him.

For me, music must have some form or purpose or content its listeners can relate to. Free jazz leaves most musical norms behind, and “all notes are created equal!” It began as protest music and, in my opinion, evolved to self-indulgence. There’s more to it than this, of course. Below is a very good, somewhat complicated explanation of how free jazz takes different forms. I’ve never heard a better one.

When forms like serialism in classical music die out, as free jazz mostly has, what comes next? Ornette Coleman, a unique kind of free jazz musician, showed us one way. Hear “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come, 1959:

The impulses—musical and social—that created free jazz were not always noble. Mingus and Miles used to say that these folks were jiving the public, trying to make money off black protest. Mingus was very vocal about this: “if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . .”

When Mingus or his band “played free,” as they often did in his later music, they never got lost in their explorations. There was always a tonal center or a melody or chords to come back to. Mingus was also a master of the many modes and moods of jazz. These traditions and roots were his stock in trade. I’ve always felt that the free jazz people never cared much for these things.

Vinyl Reincarnated

Record store in Oaxaca

The great viny comeback: is it a music, technology, or cultural story? Or a who-cares story? For me, a longtime vinyl lover, it’s always been just a better way to hear all the music that was recorded. Others find it satisfies different needs. Here’s a piece about vinyl’s psycho-social appeal.

I moved so many times before coming to Mexico—each time sorting and boxing some 1,500 records (classical and jazz mostly, some rock and blues)—that people used to think I was nuts. The process of keeping vinyl clean, the necessity and cost of a good hi-fi system to properly render it, the cumbersome ritual of playing it: for years now these have been impediments to vinyl’s widescale acceptance.

Before CDs and streaming audio captured the market, vinyl was always the default medium of choice for music lovers. Around 2005-2006 it began to stage a comeback. Today there’s a small but still rapidly growing market for “records,” mainly to younger buyers. London’s Financial Times, an unusual source, tells us that vinyl sales for 2021 went over a billion dollars, the highest level in 30 years.

I grew up with stacks of my father’s 78-rpm shellac recordings, then graduated to vinyl and later CD. I’ve talked about this here. Vinyl LPs became

the medium I depend on for my musical fix. It’s also, given the vagaries of my collection, one person’s version of the history of music and, certainly, a history of my taste.

As to the sound, CDs have gotten generally better in the last few years, but vinyl still has the edge in terms of warmth and fullness. It’s closer to the sound of live music, and that after all is the goal of musical reproduction. As to streaming and most online music, well, one writer put it this way: “Streaming is much like fast food, it’s not the greatest but the convenience is really nice. Records are more like cooking a really nice meal at home, you enjoy the whole experience.” I do cook a lot at home.

My father had a decent vinyl collection, and the two of us always enjoyed the musico-technical pleasures of hi-fi. But when the CD arrived, around 1982, he was captivated by the new technology and gave away all his records to the guy who serviced his stereo setup. His son was not pleased at this musical perfidy, which repeated his giveaway of all those stacks of 78s when the LP arrived (around 1948).

The way we listen to music has begun to change in the last few years. Particularly in the ‘90s people became addicted to hearing specific tunes, never a whole album. The convenience of Walkmans, downloads and cell phones made it so easy to hear one’s music that it began to function as background, almost like Muzak.

This didn’t happen for classical and jazz lovers. They never gave over the values of the concert hall—deep listening and abstracting oneself from the nonsense of the day. So, albums and LPs began to come back as preferred vehicles. I guess the moral is slow down your life and listen.

A Wizard of Jazz

Sy Johnson, Lois MIrviss, Dan Morgenstern

I wrote recently about my associations with Sy Johnson, jazz’s Renaissance man. Now, in a slightly overdue but well-crafted obit, the New York Times pays its respects. All jazz fans should take notice. Sy and I had many conversations about doing a possible book together, and I’ve transcribed a few excerpts below.

SJ: I was trying to be an avant-garde player, like Monk and Cecil Taylor, but I could play perfectly conventional piano too. But then I could not stop myself from being Monk or Cecil Taylor. There were also times when I couldn’t make a mistake. Which brings me to something we should talk about—it’s the zone, suddenly you surrender control of your mind and hands and they behave like they are somebody else’s. And you’re amazed at the music coming out. It’s a really, really profound thing. Playing with Gary Peacock, my onetime roommate, we would hit the first chord and immediately we’re playing things we never thought of, never heard before. . . .

First weekend I was in NY I resolved to go to the Museum of Modern Art, very important and high on my list, and I turned a corner and was confronted by Jackson Pollock’s Abstraction No. 5, or whatever, and it was a revelation. Because it confirmed that the things I was trying to do as a jazz musician entered into other abstract forms of art. I had lots of recording sessions, hanging out with Paul Bley, later with Ornette Coleman, and wanted to find my way into that kind of music. It was a confirmation that, yes, not only could I do that, but other people had gone there before.

Later, we were sitting in Sy’s apartment listening to some CDs I had brought for him to comment on. One was a 1954 Thelonious Monk version of the classic “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” 

SJ: Monk’s solo piano playing was very much out of the stride piano tradition. Secondly, his arrangements never vary far from the melody. Furthermore, once he made an arrangement it was the same in every rendition of the tune–like Art Tatum playing “Tea for Two.” You hear pretty much the same solo all through. Monk loved to play solos, and I would steal from them; I used to play with the same kind of attack he had, couldn’t stop myself. So I was playing pretty strange stuff in jam sessions. What becomes distinctive is the idiosyncratic parts of a Monk solo, that’s what’s interesting. It doesn’t sound like anybody else. You suspend your feelings about what a conventional romantic ballad might be, how it might be played because it’s Monk and he’s a genius and it’s inimitable and also a key to understanding Monk playing his own tunes. You hear tritones and flatted fifth kinds of fills he plays in the middle of things, whole tone runs. And he doesn’t do a lot of that in the standard songs. And when he has something more complex to play, he stops his left hand. Plays it in the right and then picks up the oom-pah thing in the left. He loved to play standards and played them all day long, 8 hours a day.

People would walk in and find him playing the piano at home and he’d talk while he was still playing. So what we just heard is a very conservative representation of the Jerome Kern classic song. Another thing I noticed is that he doesn’t really hit the bridge right. I mean the bridge changes key, what’s called a common-tone modulation, and it’s about the third bar here before you really do hear the modulation. Not a clean break into the new key, sort of muffed a bit. But this is a classic performance of a great American songbook song, and it’s inimitable.

JG: What can I say? . . . A couple of things: I love that record, think that for all the reasons you stated it’s a classic, conservative piece—and it represents the essence of Monk.

SG: Because it’s not a Monk composition you don’t have to figure out where the song is going next, you’re dealing with a song that you know. It’s part of your inheritance, you’ve heard it forever, and so you can begin to see Monk’s style in context. Because you’re looking at it as a known landscape, like the lake in Central Park. You also remember that Central Park was a very different place when they hung all those orange banners up; it was fascinating what Cristo did, both man and wife, the park was transformed. The landscape had its molecules changed in a way that you could see, transformed in winter. The banners weren’t significant in themselves, they were a means to an end, ingenious as an engineering problem, very well thought out.

But none of Monk’s tune here is really an improvisation—he never takes off from the chord changes or theme—you’re hearing an arrangement, decorated with Monkisms. No rhapsodic effects, no sentimental baggage. He takes it clinically, strips it of all the Broadway schmaltz. I see this as one of the bridging songs from the tradition of Sigmund Romberg, who was a brilliant melodist but part of the florid operetta tradition. Before Monk got his hands on it Jerome Kern had taken that tradition and made it into very characteristic compositions of his own. Kern was a different kind of composer, far more lyical, bordering on the ecstatic. His songs are romantic but modern in development.

We began to talk about “All the Things You Are,” perhaps Kern’s greatest creation. Sy sat down at the piano to illustrate its chord changes and then played a tune he wrote based on them. Maybe an audio clip of that soon.

Jiving about Race

You see a picture like this, and what comes to mind? Robert Colescott, who painted it, is gone but there’s a new show in New York featuring some of his most confrontational works. Says WaPo’s reviewer Philip Kennicott, work like Colescott’s “confounds almost every piety about race and gender in operation today, sometimes with humor, though not the kind of humor that makes you laugh.”

What I immediately flashed on was Charles Mingus’s great sendup “Eat That Chicken,” from his 1962 album Mingus/Oh Yeah. I still have the original vinyl that was instrumental in turning me on to Mingus. “Eat That Chicken” features another musical prankster, Roland Kirk, whose hokey, honkey-tonk solos perfectly complement Mingus’s vocal antics.

In the ‘60s and ’70s I was privileged to spend time with both of these gents and learned a lot about how black humor works. (I don’t have to capitalize “Black,” do I? Do we capitalize “White”?) Colescott brought another, more discomfiting aspect to it in his paintings. These include such gems as “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” which portrays the great black scientist in a boat full of cast-offs and stereotypes—including “a mammie figure performing a sex act on the flag bearer standing just behind Carver.” This is heavy blackface satire executed by a black man.

It’s a bit like what Jewish comedians over the years have done with Jewish culture: they appreciate it and often make fun of it. But for a black man (he was half-black, actually) like Colescott to produce art like this was to categorically pierce the sanctity of black identity, at least as it’s vouchsafed to us in our prevalent cultural politics. We need more of that.

Mingus’s “Eat That Chicken” was supposedly done as a tribute to Fats Waller. I don’t know if that’s true. Fats wrote funny “novelty” tunes like “Your Feets Too Big,” which I heard on the radio as a kid and loved. But “Chicken” has more of a happy bite to it, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. It makes a nod to Jelly Roll Morton and some of his novelties, the Dixieland tradition, and the earthy gospel-ish stuff that Mingus grew up with.

Anyhow, we surely could stand a little less sanctity about race in America.

Homage to Sy Johnson

Some people get under your skin and stay there. So it was with Sy Johnson, the person connected with Mingus to whom I was closest in the jazz world. We met years ago when I was doing interviews for Mingus Speaks. Sy was a great talker, and after maybe a half hour I realized to my utter dismay that the batteries on my tape recorder had died. Sy said, “Jesus, I feel like I’ve been making love to a mattress!” And so we started over and soon got to be friends.

His comments were an invaluable addition to my book and to my thinking about music. And, since he was a dedicated photographer, I got him to contribute a whole series of Mingus photos to the book. When my publisher and I arranged for a book party at the Jazz Standard, Alex Foster, the dork who was leading the great Mingus Orchestra that night, called out Sy as the author. My nephew, who is a big guy, leaped out of his chair and was about to charge the stage. Cooler heads intervened, including Sy’s, and the evening went on to be a success.

We had many subsequent meetings, breakfasts and drinks in New York. I taped a whole series of our conversations, and soon I’ll try to go through them. Besides music they touched on culture, sports, quantum theory, and more. The best times were when I joined him and Lois, his better half, at the Jazz Standard for Monday nights with the Mingus Big Band. He was still writing for them and the other Mingus aggregations. His charts adorn most of their recordings.

Mingus gave Johnson Let My Children Hear Music to arrange, which featured two Mingus pieces, “Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife (Are Some Jiveass Slippers)” and “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clowns Afraid Too”. The album’s emergence was heralded with a live concert, Mingus And Friends At Philharmonic Hall, also arranged by Johnson and released as an album. Johnson continued to work with Mingus until his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1979. Mingus recorded two of Johnson’s compositions, “Wee” and “For Harry Carney”, and nominated Johnson for a Guggenheim Award following his own in jazz composition.

Sy spoke fondly about being part of the last Mingus session with Joni Mitchell. He wrote for many jazz greats ranging from Ben Webster to Benny Goodman, even Frank Sinatra. There’s a good short bio from the Mingus website here.

Sy passed on last week. He was 92. My son Ethan died at 52 the previous week, also in New York, after a long mental illness. For convergences like that there are no words.

Happy Birthday, USA

Richard Serra: “Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure”

For a change let’s talk about two of the good things in America. One of them is its art; the other its music. In my opinion they have nothing to do with patriotism or with politics, really. Protest art for me is almost a contradiction in terms. The fact that great art can still be created in America is one of the few promising elements in these days of retraction, reaction, and neo-fascist propensities.

Writing in The New Yorker, critic Peter Schjeldahl called Richard Serra’s work (shown above) “a tuning fork to gauge the degree of fact in other aspects of a world awash in pixelated illusions.” I take that to mean an assertion of solidity and truth against the world of illusions (pixelated and otherwise) that we too much live by.

The Matter of Time

With Serra’s art, says Schjeldahl, “You’re knocked sideways out of comparisons to other art in any medium or genre.” Great art always makes you fight for comparisons. It almost mocks language. Those of us who have written about music know this. Sviatoslav Richter, a Russian, played Bach like no other pianist.

His artistry has nothing to do with our present or past conflicts or with politics. Richter played to great acclaim in America and around the world. We appreciate and love his playing in ways that have nothing to do with nationality or policy. Art, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

Great art is certainly no antidote to all the problems now facing the United States. Nor is it any kind of panacea for the many ills that plague us. The fact that America could create a music like jazz is, still, extraordinary. Composers like Gershwin and Ives, pianists like Monk, and newcomers like Cécile McLorin Salvant should be celebrated.

Like Richard Serra’s work, their creativity is part of America’s remarkably rich artistic culture, still surviving though always under one threat or another. Right now we could use a few celebrations.

More on Vinyl

Collecting vinyl is a disease, according to a few women I’ve known. (Most women don’t tolerate music played loud either—but you knew that.) In quantities vinyl is heavy, it’s fussy to play, and it scratches easily. Trying to move a big collection takes strong backs, a lot of boxes, and a truck. Vinyl fanciers do have to admit to these charges.

These attributes plus the advent of streaming music killed off vinyl for a long time. Now it’s having a renaissance as witnessed by growing sales numbers and lots of Kumbaya cyber celebration. Google News tells me in the morning about new vinyl pressing plants going online.

So what’s the appeal? I wrote earlier about the better sound of vinyl and how, for me, that makes all the fussiness worthwhile. With the advent of fairly cheap plug-and-play turntables, vinyl becomes accessible to a growing audience of mostly younger fans who relish its kind of tactile connectedness to their music.

But the physicality of picking up a record and placing it on a platter—and the need to get out of my chair to flip it when it hits the run-out groove on side A—has me appreciating each song all the more. Plus, the wonder of seeing a spinning disc with grooves producing harmonic sound never fades.

I’m too old and long in the tooth with vinyl to get a rush like that. For me it’s the warm sound, plus the psycho-physical need to focus on the music, as if you were in a concert hall. Streaming audio (even with expensive high-resolution downloads) forces music to fit into the mental background of what you are doing. The writer of the above quote gets this, and it’s a big factor: “The music isn’t hiding in the background, as it is when I’m streaming digitally. Instead, it’s front and center.”

London’s Financial Times, an unusual source, tells us that vinyl sales for 2021 went over a billion dollars, the highest level in 30 years. Investors rush to acquire music catalogs and copyrights. The calculus of payoffs to all artists (not just the superstars) changes for the better, and that’s been a long time coming.

A band with 1mn fans, each streaming their new album 100 times in a single month, need only get 20,000 of them to buy the vinyl record to gross the same amount. For consumers, vinyl albums resuscitate a culture of gifting and compilations that used to drive a fifth of all transactions.

So it’s not just the big stars but all the scuffling musicians who make out better with vinyl. And so do the listeners.

Mingus at 100

As Duke Ellington said about the people and music he loved, Charles Mingus was “beyond category.” Now there’s been a flood of media recognition honoring Mingus’s centennial, and he may be more famous now than when he was alive. Yet the man was so prolific and complex that it’s impossible to do him justice in any short tribute. Nate Chinen gave that a good effort on NPR.

Since I spent a lot of time with Mingus and wrote a book about him, let me give you a few excerpts that reflect something of the true flavor of the man. In 1972, I taped him on one of his favorite subjects, the hoax of electronic music. He was talking with an Italian journalist who inadvertently evoked a lot of Mingus’s aversions.

Electronics are doing the same thing in music as elsewhere: They’re replacing people. Push a button, it sounds like an oboe, but not a good oboe player; another button, sounds like a French horn. The guy who plays this stuff is a nigger because he can’t afford to get a violin player or a French horn or oboe player. He might like to have the oboe—I would—but will go to the commercial extreme because it’s popular to use electric instruments.

And the great men like Charlie Parker and men who played legitimate instruments would laugh at these guys because they’re not in it for the love of music but because they think they’re going to make a lot of money—like Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t even need to make any money; he was already rich, or his daddy was rich. . . . But I know he’s an electronic man, and eventually somebody like me is going to make him come back and start playing again, put that bullshit down and play his horn. He’s gonna have to because [otherwise] he’ll be laughed out. Because you can get a little kid to push a button, and with these machines they got now, it’ll sound like they’re right.

Of course I fell in with that, as I did with many of Mingus’s opinions. Jazz lovers are often purists to a fault. We also spent much time talking about classical music. Mingus was deeply into that, as I found out later in our talks on Beethoven.

Kids should be educated to music, man, [classical is] not bad music. Our society should be listening to operas and everything else by now. It’s just noise to them, they can’t relax for a minute, it makes them sick. If a guy came in and played a beautiful violin for two-three minutes, they’d go crazy—over an ordinary microphone or no microphone.

Don’t you think they could appreciate Pablo Casals if he was young today? Sure they could, man, if this damn country would push it. I don’t know why they don’t want the kids to hear good music. Is it because it would make them healthy? They might throw their pot away. They might, man. You going to print that? And the young Casals, they’re stopping them.

And of course he hit on the avant-garde, another source of his strong opinions:

If Bird were here today, he wouldn’t be still playing bebop. You think he’d let Albert Ayler or somebody like that cut him? He’d do the squeek-squawk too but only a few bars of it. He wouldn’t do every tune like that. He would be avant-garde at the end of the composition or in the middle as a laugh and then go back to playing the music. . . .

You don’t just eliminate the beat. Music is everything—the beat and the no-beat; jazz wants to beat, emphasize the beat, so you don’t cancel it entirely. Especially if you call yourself black, because African people ain’t gonna never stop dancing. Puerto Ricans, the gypsies, Hungarians, they all have a dance music. You know? But they also have mood music that don’t have a beat to it sometimes, Indians don’t have a beat to it, but when they dance to it, they got a beat to it. I don’t see why these cats are ashamed to have a beat to their music.

Mingus was about so much more than angry protest, though I would finally type him as a turbulent man who saw through the many follies of our culture, and not just in music. But his music is what made him great if not famous. We’ll talk about that another time.

My Vinyl, and Why I Collect It

I started picking up on this stuff when I was old enough to buy records, maybe 14 or 15. There were one or two record stores in Highland Park, the Chicago suburb where I grew up. I learned the joys of browsing and being picky about surfaces. I was in love with jazz (recounted in a memoir here), and the LP (long-playing record) had just come out to displace the 78-rpm shellacs that my father had stacks of.

Vinyl LPs gave you lots of music on one disc and much better sound, though the first discs were recorded in mono, not stereo. To appreciate that sound, however, you had to have good audio equipment which, then as now, was not cheap. In high school and college I got my father involved in hi-fi, and we had some pretty elaborate setups, including reel-to-reel tape.

I bought a lot of New Orleans jazz in the early ‘50s, then got into Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and bebop, and then Monk and Mingus, who introduced me to the “modern” sounds I still treasure. My hoard grew and later incorporated many classical sides. My father dumped the LPs from his collection when the CD came out in the early ‘80s. Big mistake on his part.

When I began to review music as a critic for Playboy and others, my assemblage of albums grew apace. I continued buying records, mostly jazz, while I was reviewing classical and rock for the magazine in the ‘70s. And, yes, I kept some good ‘70s rock. The collection now consists of about 1,500 LPs and maybe 1,000 CDs. I’ve moved it too many times to count.

Which means, I guess, that I can’t do without it. The appeal of vinyl for me is not sentimental or faddish. It’s the medium I depend on for my musical fix. It’s also, given the vagaries of my collection, one person’s version of the history of music and, certainly, a history of my taste.

As to the sound, CDs have gotten generally better in the last few years, but vinyl still has the edge in terms of warmth and fullness. It’s closer to the sound of live music, and that after all is the goal of musical reproduction. As to streaming and most online music, well, one writer put it this way: “Streaming is much like fast food, it’s not the greatest but the convenience is really nice. Records are more like cooking a really nice meal at home, you enjoy the whole experience.” I do cook a lot at home.

People ask about the pops, clicks and scratches. I’ve always handled records with great care and kept them clean, and I have a vacuum machine for the scruffy ones. Clean sound is worth the effort.

A friend who owns a multi-CD player asked, “Isn’t it a drag to turn the record over every twenty minutes?” My answer was that in the days of 78s, you turned the record every three minutes. So it’s what you’re used to—and how much you value clear and full sound.

The great days of music can be reheard if you take the trouble. Likewise, your own great days of music can be brought back to you, and that’s worth a lot.