Afro-Cuban Jazz is all sugar, drums and clave

This is the story of how sugar, drums and clave shaped the development of Afro-Cuban jazz … but a little history first. Columbus’ discovery of Cuba in 1492 led to Spain’s colonization of the island. Over the next 150 years, Havana became the way-station for ships carrying the wealth of Mexico back to Spain, while receiving the rich music and dance traditions of Spain. Becoming the first great music capital of the Western Hemisphere, Havana, along with New Orleans and New York City, were the only cities in the Western Hemisphere with opera companies in the 19th century. By 1900, it was the third largest city in the Western Hemisphere.

During the 19th and early 20th century people moved freely between Havana and New Orleans via daily ferryboat service. It was a time of musical cross-pollination as musicians soaked up the rich musical traditions of each culture. Not to be forgotten, the U.S. invaded Cuba to expel the Spanish and between 1898 and 1922 there were three separate extended periods of U.S. military occupations of Cuba with troops mustered in New Orleans at a time when ragtime music was evolving into jazz in the Crescent City.

The story of Afro-Cuban jazz, however, actually begins in Haiti in 1791 when the Haitian slaves revolted against their slave masters. The French colony was then producing 40 percent of the world’s sugar output, but by 1804, with the revolution successful, the sugar industry was in shambles. Cuba and Louisiana (not then part of the U.S.) jumped in to fill the void and dramatically increased the number of slaves brought to each area, with Cuba becoming the largest producer of sugar in the world by 1840. As a footnote, during the period of slavery in the Americas, more than 1 million slaves were brought to the small island of Cuba, twice the number of slaves brought to the U.S.

Both Spanish and U.S. slave masters lived in fear of revolt by their slaves and operated their plantations like prisons. However, they diverged in their approach by allowing slaves to make music. In the U.S., African drumming was prohibited for fear of the drummers communicating plans of an insurrection. An exception was in New Orleans’ “Congo Square,” where the slaves could play African drums on Sundays only. Cuban slaves on the other hand were allowed to play African drums and the clave, a pair of rounded hardwood sticks (dowels used in ship building) used to play polyrhythms that came from Africa. The primary rhythm is also known as clave, a five beat pattern (3-2 or 2-3) which is the foundation of Afro-Cuban jazz.

This is the proverbial “fork in the road.” Cuban slaves, significantly greater in number than U.S. slaves, retained a strong connection to their African drumming and polyrhythmic roots and melded them with a Spanish music tradition. The result wasn’t the same “gumbo” as in New Orleans, where a much broader and diverse European music tradition was fused with the slaves’ emphasis, out of necessity due to the lack of access to drums, to a music shaped by simpler African rhythmic patterns and vocal traditions. Also consider that Cuba didn’t abolish slavery until 1886, 21 years after the US and therefore the rhythms of Africa continued to be renewed in the slave population of Cuba much later in time than in the U.S.

“Jelly Roll” Morton, a New Orleans ragtime and early jazz piano player, was clearly influenced by the music of Cuba and the habanera (literally Havana) rhythm, which was one of the African polyrhythm patterns brought to Cuba by the slaves. He famously referred to it when he said: “You got to have that Spanish tinge” in the music. Without question, the Afro-Cuban musical motifs were influences as jazz began to evolve in New Orleans, but the branches of the jazz tree grew in different directions.

Fast forward to the early 1940s, Cuban bands are established in NYC playing popular Cuban dance music (mambo). Mario Bauzá, a Cuban trumpet player living in NYC since the 1930s, composes in 1943 the first true Afro-Cuban jazz tune, “Tangá” (African for marijuana), blending American jazz with clave. By the mid-40s, Afro-Cuban jazz is taking off and Dizzy Gillespie, the great bebop trumpeter, is searching for a new sound for his music. Dizzy is good friends with Bauzá, and in 1947 on Bauza’s recommendation, Dizzy hires Chano Pozo, a Cuban conguero (conga) virtuoso. Chano joins Dizzy’s world famous band as the first “Latin” percussionist and they jointly write the classics “Manteca” and “Tin Tine Deo,” fusing bebop and Afro-Cuban music. Unfortunately, their musical collaboration is short lived as Chano is killed at the age of 33 in a bar fight in 1948.

It is impossible to single out any one musician that should be credited with the development of Afro-Cuban jazz, but Bauzá, Dizzy and Chano, notwithstanding his early death, were seminal figures in the music’s creation.

An article about Afro-Cuban jazz would not be complete without a brief mention of the key percussion instrument used to make the distinctive sounds of Afro-Cuban jazz: congas, timbales, güiros (gourds played with a stick), bongos, and claves. Cuban musicians often joke that they get to play all of the above, but American jazz musicians only get to play the drum kit.

With the lifting of the embargo of Cuba by the U.S., Vail Jazz is pleased to present in concert Maraca and his Latin Jazz All-Stars lead by Cuban flutist Orlando Maraca on Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. in Lionshead as part of the 22nd Annual Vail Jazz Festival.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

Joey Alexander … Jazz Musician

A “child prodigy” is a young person endowed with extraordinary talent. When a well-respected music critic makes the pronouncement that a 6-year-old classical violinist is a child prodigy, he is opining that the young musician possesses the skills to produce a musical output comparable to what a very skilled adult violinist can produce. The critic is not saying that the prodigy is the best player the critic has ever heard (which would be a foolish statement about any musician, but it is regularly made), the critic is saying this kid is so good, he/she can enter the realm of adults who play classical music.

It should not be forgotten that possessing prodigious talent doesn’t necessarily lead to fame and fortune. The pressure placed on a youngster branded as a prodigy is enormous. The world of music (and other disciplines) is littered with kid virtuosos, who for various reasons didn’t make it in their chosen fields, or for that matter, didn’t live productive and balanced lives.

So, what if you are a true musical child prodigy, what does that lead to? It certainly puts you in the game at a very early age and many doors will be opened for you. Assuming you can successfully navigate puberty, stay focused, handle the media circus that swirls around you, deal with the expectations of family, friends, managers and agents, mature and develop as a person and definitively determine over time that you really enjoy making music, you then enter the challenging world of adulthood, where you are no longer a child, prodigy or otherwise. Hopefully the skills that you possessed when you were 6 have been honed and enhanced and you have “raised your game,” because the marketing edge of a being a wunderkind is gone.

Josiah “Joey” Alexander is a 13-year-old jazz piano player from Indonesia. Proclaimed by many to be a child prodigy, his meteoric rise to international fame is a compelling story. Born in Bali, not exactly the hotbed of jazz, he learned about jazz by listening to his father’s records. By the time he was 6, Joey had taught himself how to play piano on an electronic keyboard that his parents had purchased for him because he was hyperactive and they hoped that the keyboard would allow him to focus his outsized energy. Learning by ear the music of the giants of jazz, he also taught himself how to improvise.

He began playing in clubs in Bali while still 6 and shortly thereafter his family moved to the capital city of Jakarta, where he had greater opportunities to jam and begin formal jazz music studies. Home-schooled by his parents, his piano studies and the small world of jazz in Jakarta were the center of his universe. By the time he was 8, Herbie Hancock had heard him play and inspired him to continue. At 9, Joey competed against 43 musicians from 17 countries and won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Master-Jam Fest in the Ukraine. By 10, his fame had spread to the U.S. and in May 2014 he was invited to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC. “Down Beat” critic Allen Morrison wrote after his performance: “If the word ‘genius’ still means anything, it applies to this prodigy.” Thereafter, he began touring throughout Asia, Europe and the U.S., performing at some of the most prestigious venues in the world of jazz, including the Newport Jazz Festival, where last summer he was the youngest performer in the history of the event.

In 2015 when Joey was 11, he released, to great critical acclaim, his debut album, My Favorite Things. The album contains jazz standards that are some of the most complicated and nuanced music in the jazz canon, all of which he arranged. Also included was Joey’s own composition “Ma Blues,” establishing his standing as a composer. The album and his performances to follow have demonstrated that Joey is no longer a child prodigy, but that he is evolving into a great jazz musician without regard to age. For you see, to truly be a jazz musician is not about technical virtuosity, but it is the ability to bring to the music a creativity that is beyond, and frankly unrelated to, technique. It requires a creativity that is based upon a form of self-expression that is separate and apart from any endowed gift and requires the musician to have the ability to communicate with the listener. This musicality generally comes from a love and understanding of the music built over years of study and performance and a maturation generally shaped by the vicissitudes of life.

How did Joey go from being a precious child with prodigious talent to an accomplished jazz musician by the time he was 13? I wish I knew and I doubt that anybody does, including Joey. But I do know what Joey wants: “I know many people call me a prodigy; I mean, OK, I thank you, but I still want to be called a jazz musician.”

Vail Jazz will present Joey Alexander in concert on Aug. 4 as part of the 22nd Annual Vail Jazz Festival.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

Colorado High School Band Showcase kicks off this weekend

More free music to your ears is coming to Vail this Sunday. Every Sunday from July 31 to Aug.

21, Vail Jazz debuts a jazz band comprised of talented teens from around the state at 11 a.m.

Come early to the Vail Farmers’ Market and witness rising local talent from around the state.

 

The lineup of up-and- comers includes:

  • July 31 – Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts
  • Aug. 7 – Kent Denver School Jazz Band
  • Aug. 14 – East High School 6 th Hour Jazz Combo
  • Aug. 21 – Denver School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble

“Featuring high school-aged jazz musicians from our state is another way that Vail Jazz

showcases young musicians during the summer-long festival,” says Robin Litt, Vail Jazz

Executive Director. “Performing at the Farmers’ Market is the perfect opportunity for hundreds

of ears to soak up this pool of young talent.”

 

Performances take place at the Vail Jazz Tent, located on the west side of Solaris Plaza in Vail

Village.

 

Vail Jazz @ The Market continues through Aug. 28 each week, featuring Colorado-based

musicians and ensembles firing up a live soundtrack at the Vail Farmers Market from 12 to 3

p.m. The series continues on July 31 with The Hennessy 6, a talented sextet based in Denver.

The group, led by Sean Hennessy on trumpet, includes seamless interpretation of soulful

ballads, driving swing, Latin hard bop and more. The group has played together since 2012, but

collectively have appeared alongside Dave Liebman, Joe Walsh, Wycilffe Gordon, John Faddis,

Vince Gill and Amy Grant.

 

Also, Sunday nights never sounded so good. Local jazz legend, Tony Gulizia and drummer Brian

Loftus are joined by an exciting variety of visiting jazz musicians each week at the event’s new

home at the Four Seasons Resort. The series has been a big hit and takes place from 8 to 10

p.m. every Sunday through Aug. 28. On July 31, Sean Hennessy will join Gulizia and Loftus on

trumpet.

 

Free Sunday night performances and Vail Jazz @ The Market are part of the 22 nd Annual Vail

Jazz Festival, which offers more than 60 live shows in Vail throughout the summer and

culminates in the Vail Jazz Party, a five-day blowout of wall-to- wall performances over Labor

Day Weekend. For information, visit www.vailjazz.org or call 888.VAIL.JAM

Jazz Cats and Their Hats

A hat has great utility. It can keep the sun out of your eyes and protect your head. With flaps attached, it can even keep your ears warm. But we live in a society where hats really aren’t about utility anymore, instead they create the opportunity for us to show the world which causes/organizations we support and, of course, our favorite teams. The cowboy hat worn by non-cowboys is entirely another subject … but then I don’t understand quantum physics either.

The ever-present baseball cap which has morphed into a traveling billboard is a marketing manager’s dream come true. Many of us will actually pay to advertise someone’s brand. When I was a kid, adults wore hats not only for utility, but as fashion statements, to signify their social standing. Instead of announcing to the world the identity of your favorite team, your hat could say, “I can afford season tickets.” Down through history people have wanted to communicate their wealth and social status and hats have served them well. I happened upon a picture of Abe Lincoln wearing his famous stovepipe (top) hat. He was our tallest president at 6-foot-4 and the crown of his hat was seven inches high.  Rail thin, standing erect with his hat on, there was almost seven feet of vertical to observe. Some say it was his way to be seen in a crowd. Whatever his motivation, his top hat was his trademark and the top hat continued to symbolize authority and prestige well into the 1930s.

Lester Young

In 1934 a dapper Duke Ellington was photographed wearing a top hat, rakishly tilted to the side (as pictured above). The iconic image projected elegance and sophistication and in a very racist society, it was Duke’s way of saying “I am one of you.” The brand image worked. Duke was accepted by white audiences.

However, in the 1930s to 1960s, most other African American jazz musicians were seen as undesirable outsiders. Jazz had been labeled as the devil’s music, so jazz musicians took the path of least resistance, developing their brand based upon the concept of being part of a subculture – the hipster – outside of the cultural mainstream, but stylish and at the cutting edge of what was happening. They succeeded by talking in a hip way (“the cat wants his bread before he blows his axe”) and by wearing jazzy clothes, the oversized zoot suit, for one, to signify their hipness.  But it was their lids (initially, jazz slang for hats, not grass) where jazz musicians were able to set themselves apart.

The legendary tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young invented much of the hipsters’ jargon and was known for his ever present pork pie hat – circular low crown, flat on top with a brim slightly turned up. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was written as an elegy upon Prez’ death and has become a jazz standard.  Prez was so synonymous with being hip that Frank Sinatra wore a pork pie hat and today Marcus Miller’s trademark is the same style.

One of the most celebrated jazz musicians of all time was world famous trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, one of the “inventors” of be-bop and Afro-Cuban jazz.  In the 1940s, his trademark look was the bent trumpet, horn-rimmed glasses, goatee, puffed cheeks when playing … and a beret. The beret is a soft, round, flat-crowned hat with modern origins in the Basque country and France. The adoption by the beatniks in the 1950s of jazz jargon and the look of the hipster with a goatee and beret can be traced back to Dizzy.

Thelonius Monk

And then there was Thelonious Sphere Monk, an eccentric but brilliant jazz giant whose piano playing and compositions changed the course of jazz.  He had a cult following and was one of the few jazz musicians to ever be on the cover of “Time” magazine. Monk had a distinctive look with a goatee, sunglasses (worn in indoors) and was almost always wearing a unique hat.  Hats were his trademark and early photos show Monk sporting a beret, but the crown on his lid was taller than Dizzy’s and the jazz tune “Hat and Beard” was written in his honor. He, too, influenced the beatniks and was seem as an arty bohemian. He was once photographed wearing a Chinese coolie hat, but he went through periods when he wore fedoras, trilbies (a fedora with small brim and higher crown), fur hats and skullcaps. Monk wasn’t the only musician to wear a skullcap. Many jazz musicians who have converted to Islam wear skullcaps. NEA Jazz Master pianist Ahmad Jamal (Fritz Jones) is a convert and has worn a skullcap for decades.  The skullcap and the African kufi (brimless, short and rounded) are also worn by many African American jazz musicians who aren’t Muslims as a way to symbolize their connection to Africa.

Then there is Dr. Lonnie Smith, who wears a turban. He isn’t a doctor and he is not from India, but he sure can play the Hammond B-3 organ. What a trademark.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.
 

The Great Ladies of Song

VAIL JAZZ FESTIVAL PREVIEW: The Great Ladies of Song

 

This Monday (July 11), Vail Jazz will present the splendid vocalist Nicole Henry in her tribute to the “Great Ladies of Song.” On stage Nicole has a mesmerizing presence and is blessed with a unique gift as a performer that allows her to connect with her audience in a powerful way. When covering a classic tune, Nicole captures the essence of her predecessor’s brilliant treatment of the work, while telling the story in her own style.

At last year’s Vail Jazz Festival, she lit it up over two nights delivering tender ballads, up-tempo jazz standards, cabaret torch songs, down and dirty blues, soul stirring hits, awe inspiring gospel tunes and booty shaking R & B anthems. The audience was so taken by her extraordinary talent that we immediately made plans for her to return to Vail and it was agreed that she would pay homage to some of the great female vocalists who have shaped the music of today and whose collective body of work has entered all of our consciousness.

Before we explore the iconic singers Nicole will pay tribute to and why, it should be understood that Nicole’s goal wasn’t to create a “Top 10 List” of female vocalists. You can go to Google for that type of thing, but it is a foolish endeavor to compare singing voices, so that you can declare winners and losers in a popularity contest.

With that caveat in mind, Nicole has selected these Great Ladies of Song: Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan), Whitney Houston, Etta James (Jamesetta Hawkins), Nina Simone (Eunice Kathleen Waymon), Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington (Ruth Lee Jones) and Nancy Wilson. They were born between 1915 (Ella) and 1963 (Whitney), a period of time saw a great deal of change in American society, but nothing like the change that took place in the next 50 years. Unfortunately, many of them did not live to see the most recent changes in our culture, as only Aretha and Nancy are still with us.

Yes, they won Grammys and numerous awards, sold a lot of records, became world famous and performed for royalty and throughout the world. Some easily fit into categories such as jazz, R & B, soul, gospel and pop, but others defy classification as they effortlessly moved between different styles of music. Some amassed large fortunes, and in many cases lost those fortunes.

Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol shaped many of their lives and careers (Billie, Dinah, Etta, Whitney and Aretha) and in some cases, ultimately caused their demise at an early age (Billie, Dinah and Whitney). Mental illness was a constant companion for Nina for a significant number of her years. Many of them had failed marriages with Dinah holding the unenviable record of seven times to the altar. They had an array of voices – some limited in range (Billie, not much more than an octave) and in other cases quite expansive with an unbelievable range (Sarah: three octaves). Some had perfect pitch and technique comparable to instrumentalists (Ella). Some were virtuosic while others were limited in that category, but made up for it with expression and passion (Billie). Several got their start by winning talent contests (Ella, Sarah and Dinah).

However you try to make comparisons, though, what you discover is the one constant … that each was an ORIGINAL and brought to her performances real emotion and authenticity that allowed her to connect with the audience. It’s the kind of emotion that isn’t practiced, but comes from within, when the lyrics of a song touch your soul. And speaking of soul, one unifying factor for all of these women (with the exception of Ella) was that they started singing as youngster in their churches and gospel music was their first step into the vocal world. All of them had a strong connection to the blues and all were Black. Think of it – American Black women singers, singing gospel and/or the blues, during a time period (all started singing professionally between the1930s and 1960s, except for Whitney who start focusing on singing in the early 80s), when men dominated the music business and blacks and women were struggling to assert themselves in a prejudiced and unjust society.

Now we think of concert halls as the venues where great singers work, but for many of them, they started out in smoked-filled nightclubs and saloons where working conditions for a woman were challenging to say the least. It was a time when the plight of blacks and women had yet to take center stage in our political discourse and cultural values were ever so slowly changing. Ultimately these women were not only great singers but trailblazers who fought for their place in the spotlight and went on to inspire future generations of singers. Their gift was not just to sing a song, but to reach within themselves to craft their own style and tell a story in a convincing way. The pain that each of them endured had to be balanced with something, and for these Great Ladies of Song, it was by the joy of their music making. These women endured and we are the beneficiaries of their musical legacies.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

 

The bass groove

Once sound amplification started to take hold in jazz, the acoustic (upright) bass started losing ground to the other instruments in the band. While most instruments could be effectively amplified, not so with the bass. When amplified the bass produced sound that was distorted with undesirable “feedback” and produced “muddy” sounds without distinctive pitch. So during the 1930s and 1940s while the bass was present, establishing the beat, you really couldn’t make out what it was playing – it was being felt, but not really heard.

inventor Paul Tutmarc

In the 1930s Paul Tutmarc, a musician and inventor, tackled some of the shortcomings of the bass. Big and bulky, it had to be played in a stationary vertical position and was hard to play in tune. Voila!, the electric bass (bass guitar) was born – bigger than a guitar, but portable and easy to hold, it could be played horizontally and the player didn’t have to be stationary. By adding frets, it was easier to play in tune and with a long neck, the musical range was greatly expanded. Most importantly, with electronic pickups used to capture the sound produced by the vibrating strings, the electric bass could be plugged into an amplifier to produce sound without distortion or feedback.

Tutmarc may have invented the electric bass (and the electric guitar), but it was Clarence Lionidas “Leo” Fender who capitalized on the electrification of these instruments. Perfecting the “Telecaster” guitar in 1950, as well as the “Precision Bass” in 1951, Fender never looked back. The Precision Bass revolutionized bass playing and its sonic characteristics. Fender is arguably one of the most important people in the history of popular music in the last half of the 20th century – a rather remarkable achievement considering that he never learned to play the instruments he created.

the iconic Fender bass

Monk Montgomery (brother of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery) is credited with being the first jazz electric bass player – playing and touring with Lionel Hampton in 1953. Around 1957 Bill Black, Elvis Presley’s bass player, switched to the electric bass and as they say, “the rest is history.” With the explosion in popularity of rock music in the 1960s, the electric bass came of age and has had an outsized impact on popular music, leading to the popularity of genres such as metal, punk, reggae, funk, gospel, blues, hip-hop and jazz fusion.

Jazz musicians reluctantly adopted the electric bass in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s when rock was blended with jazz to create the music known as jazz fusion that the electric bass found a home in the world of jazz. In a fusion setting, the bassist has become a prominent soloist because the electric bass is much more suited ergonomically speaking for a player to play faster and more lyrically than the upright bass. Most importantly, the bassist can lock-in with the drummer and create a “groove” that is at the heart of fusion and funk.

What is a groove? Not easily defined, it is a rhythmic feel created by variations in the timing of the beat. Playing ever so slightly ahead or behind the metronomic beat shifts the rhythmic pulse of the music in a way that connects the listener to the music and makes the listener want to MOVE to the music. Hear a marching band play, you tap your foot in time to the music, but when there is a groove established, you FEEL it and involuntarily move to the music.

Like the guitar, the electric bass can be strummed, plucked or picked, but in the hands of a virtuoso, when a groove is called for, slapping it and thumping it creates an overpowering FEELING that can make you want to sway, move your head from side to side and dance.

No discussion of the electric bass would be complete without paying homage to Jaco Pastorius. The self-proclaimed “world’s greatest bass player” was audacious, but his virtuosic command of the electric bass ultimately caused many to agree with his pronouncement and while he died prematurely at the age of 35 in 1987, his impact on the world of music and the technical approach of how to play the electric bass and integrate it into a jazz setting is beyond dispute.

Marcus Miller interviewed on TV8 Vail

When discussing the greats of the electric bass, especially fusion and funk players, the name of Marcus Miller is always mentioned. The multi-Grammy® award winner not only has mastered the electric bass, but is a multi-instrumentalist (bass, guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone and piano), composer and producer who has played and recorded with the who’s who of the music business over the last 40 years, appearing on over 500 albums with musicians like Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, David Sanborn, Wayne Shorter, Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra and Elton John, to name just a few.

On June 24 Marcus will be in Vail as the headliner at Vail SummerFest, where Vail celebrates the summer season’s cultural offerings and activities, with food, drink and three bands performing. One thing is for sure, when Marcus plays in Vail there will be a groove, especially when he slaps and thumps his bass.

The event is sponsored by The Jazz Cruise, the Contemporary Jazz Cruise and the Town of Vail and produced by Vail Jazz.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

Jazz Ghosts and Yellowjackets

Jazz is truly a unique form of music, the hallmark of which is improvisation. But this article is not about what sets jazz apart from other forms of popular music. Instead, we focus on what it has in common with all popular music.

No, it is not melody, harmony and rhythm; it is the need for an audience. Yes, many musicians play music for the love of it, but let’s face it, if you are going to dedicate your life to making music, you need an audience. You can be a virtuoso and possess a compelling stage presence, but for better or worse, you need to have an audience, and they better dig what you do, so you can have a career, or you need a back-up plan, usually a day job.

Ah, the commercial side of things. How mundane and disappointing, but so important! In the 18th century, Franz Joseph Haydn was fortunate to connect with the wealthy royal Esterhazy family; he found patrons that provided him lifetime employment as a composer. Today, you need loyal (not royal) support — an audience that sticks with you.

FINDING AN AUDIENCE

So how do dedicated, talented musicians find and keep their audience? If you Google “finding your audience music,” you will get more than 19,000,000 entries of sure-fire, can’t-miss self-help guides and advice. Let’s say you are one of the fortuitous ones: You have the talent and perseverance to succeed, and you connect with like-minded, great musicians to form a band that rises to the top. Long odds, but doable, right?

Every day new names and faces, playing “new and old” music, enter our consciousness and vie for our attention in the hyper-competitive world of music. We marvel at their talent as they entertain us, and if they are truly special, they can have more than 15 minutes of fame, but it is extremely hard to stay at the top.

And yet for graying audiences, nostalgia is a powerful emotion and the number of bands that have lived off the glory of their past is testament to the powerful desire to reconnect with our youth. But to live off the past, you first need to have been very successful at building an audience — no past, no future.

In jazz, there are the “ghost bands” — the leader is deceased, but the band carries on in his name. Glen Miller went missing more than 70 years ago, but the band plays on. So, too, for the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Harry James ghost bands and many, many more. And, of course, there are the innumerable tribute bands that play the music of (insert the name of your favorite deceased jazz musician).

But we live in the here and now, and the question is: How does a successful jazz band keep its audience?

YELLOWJACKETS KEEP EVOLVING

For the answer we turn our attention to the Yellowjackets, the iconic, multiple Grammy Award-winning jazz quartet that has flourished over a 35-year period, recording 22 albums, while successfully touring the world and enjoying unparalleled critical acclaim — quite a run for a band, jazz or otherwise.

Founding member Russell Ferrante on piano and keys anchors the band. Bob Mintzer is on saxophone and joined the band 25 years ago. William “Will” Kennedy holds down the drum and percussion throne, having had two stints with the band — 1987 to 1999 and 2010 to present. And the newest addition is Australian bass player Dane Alderson, who joined the band in 2015.

So how have the Yellowjackets been able to stay on top all these years? By combining extraordinary musicianship with superb new compositions, while performing music that spans the worlds of jazz — straight ahead and smooth, R&B, funk, fusion and more — the band has continued to successfully reinvent itself, thereby staying connected to its fan base while continuously attracting new fans. Quite a feat!

As for the band’s name: Pressed to come up with a catchy name during the band’s first recording session, Russell Ferrante recalls being presented with a list of “just awful” names. Forced to pick one, the band members agreed upon Yellowjackets since it seemed to communicate “something lively, energetic and something with a ‘sting.’ That’s really about as deep as it went. Once you choose a name, you’re stuck with it.”

While the name has stayed the same for 35 years, the music keeps on evolving, allowing the Yellowjackets the opportunity to take their audience to new and compelling musical places. The Yellowjackets will appear at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Wednesday at 7:30 pm. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to be part of the audience to see and hear this great band!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which is partnering with the Vilar Performing Arts Center to present the Yellowjackets in concert.

Remembering Mezz, the Muggles King

Early this year I was in New York and dropped by Mezzrow, a new jazz club in Greenwich Village. It is the sister club to the very hip Smalls Jazz Club, located less than a block away. When I am in New York, Smalls is one of my go-to spots for great jazz with an appreciative audience that comes to listen. Mezzrow bills itself as a listening room and “a place for music lovers to have an intimate experience, … a musical environment run by musicians for musicians.” I thoroughly enjoyed the experience at the club and it got me thinking about the name “Mezzrow.”

I knew there was a musician by the name of Mezz Mezzrow who had played the clarinet, and my curiosity got the better of me, so I spent some wonderful time learning about one of the more fascinating characters in jazz who epitomized the early years of the genre and the legendary hipster image of long ago.

Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow was born into a middle class (some say impoverished) Jewish immigrant family in Chicago before the turn of the last century and died in 1972. His teen years were marked by brushes with the law and he was in and out of reform schools and prisons, where he first was exposed to jazz and blues. Inspired to take up the clarinet (he also played the alto and tenor saxophone), Mezz immersed himself in the jazz scene of Chicago in the ’20s.

Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Mezz Mezzrow and others at jam session

Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Mezz Mezzrow and others at jam session (photo Gjon Mili)

Hanging out with many of the giants of jazz, his circle of musician friends included King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and many other people of color. Embracing the culture of his African-American friends, he married an African-American woman and moved to Harlem. He explained later in his autobiography, “Really The Blues” (1946), that when he first heard jazz he knew what his calling in life would be. He “was going to be a Negro musician, hipping (teaching) the world about the blues the way only Negroes can.” He declared himself to be a “voluntary Negro.” Mezz can also be heard on six recordings with the legendary Fats Waller and many others greats.

THE MUGGLES KING

In a career that was probably more noted for off-the-band-stand activities than accomplishments with his horn, his friendship with Louis Armstrong led him to become Armstrong’s assistant and for a time his manager.

He organized, played in and financed many historic recording sessions with the black titans of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s and helped reignite an interest in New Orleans-style jazz. Ultimately, Mezz founded King Jazz Records in the mid-’40s, recording multiple “sides” with his friend Sidney Bechet, who is considered to be one of the greatest soprano sax players of all time.

Mezz can also be heard on six recordings with the legendary Fats Waller and many others greats. Notwithstanding the company he kept and recorded with, the consensus is that he wasn’t one of the top clarinetist of the day, but it was his devotion to the music and generosity with his musician friends that earned him their respect.

I would be leaving out an important detail of this story if I didn’t tell you about Mezz’s activities as a marijuana dealer. He was an advocate of marijuana as an alternative to alcohol and other drugs and he was a reliable supplier to many musicians. In fact, “mezz,” “the mighty mezz” and “mess-rolls” all became slang for marijuana in the jazz community. Mezz himself was known as the “Muggles King,” another slang term for marijuana at the time. In 1940, he was busted for his drug selling activities and sentenced to jail. When he was about to be placed in a cell block with other white prisoners he protested that he was black and was ultimately placed in the prison’s segregated black section.

Mezz was an outspoken critic of segregation and a proponent of equal rights for all, well before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Mezz was truly a complex one-of-a-kind character who lived at a time when the values and mores of the U.S. were undergoing a dramatic change and he was right in the forefront of it all.

After appearing at the 1948 Nice Jazz Festival, he joined many other ex-pat American jazz musicians living in France, making Paris his home during the last 20 years of his life, playing jazz and being Mezz.

Four in one … the story of how drummers came to be

Lowering your cost per unit of output is the goal of the savvy businessman. Why pay four people to do a job when with some equipment, one can do all the work? So this is the story of how one musician ended up doing the work of four and changed jazz forever.

After the Civil War, freed slaves in New Orleans organized marching bands to play at funerals and other events. Inspired by the marching bands of the Civil War era, they used brass instruments, a bass drum, often with a cymbal attached, and a snare drum. By the early 20th century, the bands had moved indoors and were playing for parties and dances and so-called “Dixieland” jazz was in its infancy. No longer marching, band members were seated and because of indoor space constraints, bands had fewer musicians. It is unknown whether someone had the “eureka” moment and said, “since our drummer is seated, let’s cut our payroll and have him play two drums at once,” but that’s what happened. The snare drum was placed on a chair or stand and the bass drum put on the floor with a cymbal attached, allowing one musician to play all of them.

Drumming techniques had to change because striking a bass drum is nothing like playing a roll on a snare drum and these new techniques began to influence the way the band played. It wasn’t too long until drummers were trying to figure out how to use one of their feet to play the bass drum and ultimately the bass drum pedal was perfected. Next came the “snowshoe cymbal beater” – two small cymbals each attached to a board and hinged together so that they could be compressed (clashed) by a downward foot motion to make the desired sound. Ultimately, the “beater” was enhanced by adding a pedal device to work the cymbals (the “low-boy”). By the 1920s, drummers were searching for new ways to express themselves and the modern “hi-hat” became (and has remained) one of the staples of a drum kit.  By raising the level of the cymbals on the low-boy, the drummer could strike the cymbals of a hi-hat with his sticks, while his foot caused the cymbals to clash or held the cymbals together or apart, thereby creating a whole new series of sounds that pushed jazz forward.

The result of all these innovations was the simple fact that the drummer was now capable of simultaneously using both of his feet and hands to play the kit.  Bingo – one musician instead of four! As drummers were gaining the ability to in essence, play four instruments at once, they began switching from being a simple time-keeper for the band to a more integral part of the music making. The musical possibilities were greatly expanded by adding to their drum sets other drums, notably various sized tom-toms (round drums without snares) and percussion instruments, including multiple cymbals (see below), as well as woodblocks, tambourines, slapsticks, cow bells and other “contraptions” (as these sound-effect instruments were known) and in fact, the word “contraptions” ultimately morphed into “traps” and today many people refer to a drum set as a “trap set.”

Along with the hi-hat, drummers added combinations of cymbals – crash, ride, splash, swish, sizzle, Spanish and Chinese – to create their own sound. Each cymbal had a distinctive sound and by varying its size (diameter), thickness, alloys used, appendages attached and where it was struck, a drummer could create a signature sound.

As jazz has evolved, drummers have been ready. With additional drums arrayed before the seated drummer (it is interesting to note that the drummer sits on a “throne,” which may be an insight into the personalities of many drummers) and many contraptions in the drummers arsenal within easy reach, the drummer has become a central interactive part of a small jazz ensemble, supporting the improvising soloist and in turn soloing and improvising.

But it isn’t the equipment that makes the music, it is the drummer of course and many drummers, including “Baby” Dodds, “Papa Jo” Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, “Philly Joe” Jones, Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, to name a few, have made important contributions along the way as jazz moved forward through the 20th Century and the new millennium has seen a new generation of drummers advancing the music with new and exciting sounds and rhythms.

On the evening of Sept. 5 at the Marriott Hotel, as part of the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Festival, the incomparable drummer Lewis Nash will present his Multi-Media Tribute to His Drum Influences, exploring the contributions that some of the greatest drummers have made to jazz. To read more about this performance, view pg. 63 of the Vail Jazz Festival Program online. Tickets are $75, to buy click here.

Jazz as a religious experience

When my wife Cathy and I began dating, I explained to her that I had loved jazz since I was kid and that something inside of me intuitively responded to the music in a way that I couldn’t explain. She in turn advised me that she had grown up with opera and classical music and she was equally as passionate about them as I was about jazz.

We agreed that if the relationship was going to survive (it has, 50-plus years and counting), each of us had to be willing to enter the other’s musical world. I remember one of our first dates when she took me to see and hear one of the greatest pianists of the mid-20th century, Rudolf Serkin. “Groovy Rudy,” as I instantly renamed him, played a concert of Beethoven sonatas on a Steinway 9 foot concert grand piano. When I left the concert hall I recall thinking that I had died and gone to heaven. Here was another world of music that I knew nothing about and was eager to learn about. Yes, I knew that the world of classical music existed. But I also knew that ice fishing existed and I, to this day, haven’t tried it yet and probably won’t in this lifetime.

Over the years Cathy has shared her vast knowledge and passion for opera and classical music with me and my life has been enriched beyond anything I could have imagined that faithful night when I heard Groovy Rudy play so sublimely. While I have grown to love opera and classical music, I am first and foremost a “jazzer.” I have to confess (pun intended) that when I hear jazz it is a religious experience.

Over the ensuing years, I have been extremely fortunate to have heard many different genres of music which have opened my ears and expanded my world and with each new listening experience I am so grateful to have entered a new domain full of exciting sounds and melodies. I now understand that music is a universal calling that transcends time and place.

When I am listening to music, especially jazz, my sub-conscious mind allows me to feel a sense of well-being and pleasure that transports me to another place. Is this a religious experience? I don’t know, but I know I love going there. On a conscious level, I constantly marvel at the creative processes of the geniuses that compose the music and I am in awe of the technical wizardry of the players who appear to effortlessly command their instruments to deliver up exquisite sounds. For me, when great music is being played, the supreme being is present.

I should confess at this juncture that I have tried and failed miserably to play an instrument. Actually I am a two-time loser. Starting with the piano as a kid, I actually advanced to Piano Book No. 6 by the age of 9. I had to abort my brief career as a pianist immediately following my debut in a recital with the other students of Miss Ione V. Fencestead. Unfortunately my lack of talent was all too obvious as I destroyed “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Re-starting with the alto sax when I was an adult, I had visions of standing shoulder to shoulder with Charlie Parker in the pantheon of great jazz musicians. I was not put off by the numerous requests from my family and our neighbors to practice at another location, but when our dog ran away from home, I knew I had to put my alto sax down for good. The truth is that I really loved that dog.

Ultimately, therefore, I have resigned myself to be a dedicated listener. Unfortunately in this world of multi-tasking I am afraid that this is becoming a lost art. When I attend a music performance and see someone in the darkened room with their eyes glued to the glowing screen of a cell phone, reading and texting away, I feel sorry for them. As the great Art Blakey said: “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.”

Amen!

This year the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Festival will present 52 separate jazz performances with hundreds of musician creating music for our audiences. Come join us and get the religion!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 21st year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.