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.