Duke Ellington was once asked what he thought jazz was all about and he answered “It’s all music.”
There are people who live and breathe jazz. Some of them have whole walls of vinyl records of the greats and the more obscure in their living rooms. There are folks who can tell you who played with who and when. Some have met jazz musicians in their lives and have formed personal relationships with them. Some might even feel that they are part of a small unofficial club. At best, jazz has a small market place. It isn’t kid’s music and requires more attention. To play the music requires a lot of skill. It is almost impossible to fake.
Like most other baby boomers, I grew up on rock and roll. A few years later it was folk music. Then came the British invasion. For me personally, rock started to fade away in the early 1980s although there were still some good tunes every now and then.
I was always aware of jazz growing up but never really looked at the music in any depth. Occasionally on TV in the 1950s and 1960s I would see some of the jazz greats but most often they were doing tunes in the pop music fashion, Peggy Lee singing Fever, Sarah Vaughan singing Broken Hearted Melody, Louis Armstrong and Hello Dolly. On a rare occasion you might see Dave Brubeck and Take Five or Erroll Garner playing Misty.
Montreal, where I grew up, was part of the circuit for great jazz musicians over the years. Maynard Ferguson, Oscar Peterson, and Oliver Jones all grew up in Montreal. I remember once listening to a radio interview with Billy Eckstine. I think Montreal had a warm place in the hearts a lot of black jazz musicians as it was an open city with not much racism.
In 1968 I lived in a boarding house in the west end of Vancouver for a few months without a TV and only a radio. Every night I would listen to a guy named Jack Cullen. He had one of the largest record collections in the world. If anyone was an authority on music other than rock and roll this guy was. His musical knowledge stretched all the way back to the late 1920s. He was a big fan of big band music and crooners and he was great at telling stories about musicians he had met or seen over the years.
In late 1971 I was living in Toronto and we used to get drunk at a Holiday Inn sometimes after work while watching a really funny and dirty Irish comedian. One evening I staggered out of the washroom and heard some music coming from a large room nearby. I stumbled in and found a seat. A small jazz orchestra was playing. I was only a few feet away. One guy caught my eye. There was a highball glass by his feet and every so often he would take a nip. When his turn came, he brought the horn up to his lips and played incredibly. At least I thought so. His drinking alcohol and his musical talent left an impression on me. A lot of jazz musicians have obviously had problems with alcohol and hard drugs over the years.
About a year later I was living in an attic room in a downtown Toronto rooming house and had borrowed a record player from a guy from across the hall. One day I was in Sam The Record Man`s leafing through some albums when I came across one I decided to buy. It was a double album of big band music. I can still remember some of the tunes, Artie Shaw`s Begin The Beguine and Frenesi, Duke Ellington`s Take The A Train, and Bunny Berigan`s I Can`t Get Started. I was hooked on big band music from the 1930s and 1940s.
Some years later I became fascinated with Artie Shaw. There is no doubt that in his personal life he was one damned ornery individual but there is no doubting his musical genius. The guy led one amazing life. Married some of the most beautiful women in the world, was at the top of his game for close to 10 years, lived in exotic places, and packed it all in trying to find some sanity in it all. There is a rumour that he made a lamp out of his clarinet. On top of all that he lived into his nineties and was teaching music up until his death.
The first live jazz I ever saw was around 1975 in Hamilton, Ontario, the high octane Maynard Ferguson. His orchestra was made up of mostly college kids. It kept the overhead costs down I guess. Man oh man Maynard could blast it.
It wasn`t until the early 1980s that I started to buy jazz records and really get to see a number of live jazz groups. One weekend we were down in Seattle Washington for a weekend and staying at a Holiday Inn in Bellevue. We decided to grab a cocktail before bed and wandered into a tiny bar. A black guy was tinkling on the piano. We didn`t know it at the time but the place, although small, was full of regulars. People sitting at the bar were called over individually to join the piano player and sing a song or two. It was one of those sweet memorable evenings for me.
I started to delve into jazz. I tried to break it down a bit. I knew most of the names of the greats but I was interested in the music also in a historical sense. I bought a number of compilations and discovered a lot of great tunes. I also got my hands on a number of books about jazz.
I love swing and big band music and really don`t give a shit about jazz perfectionists who think this music was too plastic and contrived. I could listen to a lot of Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman any old time. Smooth or jump it all had a sweetness to it. I am not embarrassed to say I liked Tex Beneke, Helen Forrest or The Andrews Sisters.
I can`t say I was always a big fan of Bop. I prefer music with a melody even if the musicians wander away from it for a while. I can appreciate Miles Davis but sometimes he lost me. Dizzy Gillespie too. Not always. Just sometimes. It isn`t hard to see the genius in Charlie Parker.
Over the years I have been a big fan of crooners.
Billy Holliday was haunting. Peggy Lee was simply amazing. Blues In The Night and Why Don`t You Do Right are as good as it gets as far as I am concerned. Ella Fitzgerald is in a league of her own. She had such a pure clear voice and was one hell of a scat singer. Dinah Washington and Anita O`Day could always deliver. I always had a soft spot for Dinah Shore but there were better women singers.
My kids grew up listening to Sinatra in the car. They
still know a lot of his lyrics. I loved most of his music although he could get
a bit corny at times. Nat King Cole was a damned fine piano player aside from
being a great singer. Tony Bennett can still cut it. Mel Torme was probably the
best male scat singer but could be a bit on the hokey side. Sammy Davis Jr. had
a great voice but was terrible at picking songs. Lou Rawls with his baritone
voice and Dean Martin were good singers but you could count on one hand good
songs that they sung. Loved Chet Baker but he wasn`t someone a depressed person
should listen to. Luckily for me I am not the depressed type. I know jazz buffs
like to bring up the name of Johnny Hartman but unfortunately the guy didn`t
ever have a real signature tune.
I`ve always been partial to up tempo lively Latin jazz
with that scratching sound in the background. I`ll take me some Stan Getz
anytime. If I have choice between happy and reflective I`ll take happy.
I saw Michael Buble when he was starting out at a club
called BaBalu in the basement of a hotel on Granville Street. I had no idea he
would become so big. I can`t think of two better crooners to have the jazz
torch passed to than Michael Buble and Nanaimo`s own Diana Krall.
I got to see Ray Brown, the great jazz bassist, on his
last trip through Vancouver when he appeared at Rossini`s in Kits. Also saw the
Five Blind Men From Alabama at a big church in Burnaby one night. As an
atheist, even I was carried away in the fervor. I was half expecting to see
John Belushi doing summersaults.
In the mid 90s I split up with my wife and found myself
with more time to go out and explore Vancouver`s nightlife. I didn`t want to be
the old guy hanging around a younger crowd kind of joint and I kind of
naturally gravitated to places where I might fit in. Most of these places were
jazz places. I hung around the Fairview Pub on Broadway a bit on jazz nights. I
warmed a stool from time to time at Rossini`s in Kits. Linton Garner, the
brother of Erroll Garner, was the house piano player.(Erroll often mumbled
while playing the piano.)
In the 1980s and 1990s I found that I could afford to go and see pretty well anyone I wanted in the jazz genre when they came to Vancouver. I saw Paul Horn at a joint on 4th Avenue. We sat about 5 feet away. We saw The Manhattan Transfer at the QE Theatre and Earl Klugh and Maceo Parker at the Commodore Ballroom. I saw Frank Sinatra the last time he came through Vancouver out at the Pacific Coluseum. Sammy was the only one left with a voice. Dean was out of it. His son had died a year or two before. Old blue eyes, old red eyes, and old one eye….hey it`s a joke!
I saw Kenny Coleman a number of times including at the revolving restaurant on top of the Sheraton Hotel on Robson. Had a few brief chats with him, once in a club he owned and once when I was having lunch in Richmond with my ex and he was sitting at the next table. This guy truly has had an amazing life. He is pretty decent singer too.
I started going to jazz festivals in the 90s including The Vancouver Jazz Festival. I even went to one on the Hood River in Oregon. Mostly I saw musicians that were not big names. There are some amazing not so well known talents out there.
I moved over to Vancouver Island (semi-retirement) and a place I owned in Fanny Bay in 2005. I took in the North Island Jazz Festival in Courtenay, BC. I think it has ceased operation. They had a pretty formidable venue, two different buildings and something going on in both buildings at the same time. A couple of things really impressed me. One was the first zydeco band I had ever seen. (A few years later I saw Buckwheat Zydeco at the Queens in Nanaimo.) The other thing that stuck in my mind was watching a young high school gal singing and being accompanied by a clarinetist who seemed to be in his eighties. There are no age barriers in jazz.
After a couple of years in Fanny Bay, I decided to move down to Victoria. The best jazz joint in town was and probably still is, is a place called Herman`s. Spent a number of nights in that place. Also took in the Victoria Jazz Festival. A lot of these festivals bring in musicians and groups from Europe. Jazz is truly a universal type of music.
The last jazz concert I attended was one with pianist Oliver Jones (from Montreal) and a combo at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo. That was about 2 or 3 years ago.
I have a damned good music system but I hardly ever use it. I have wide collection of jazz CDs but I hardly ever listen to them. Wynton Marcalis, Eddie Daniels, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, David Sanborn. That kind of stuff.
A couple of years ago I discovered what some top quality
speakers can do with a computer. About once or twice a week I take a musical
walk through You Tube. Sometimes I listen to jazz. Sometimes I listen to other
music. Sometimes we light up a joint and listen for hours. Call me an old fool.
I’ve been called worse.
I expect to see and listen to a lot more jazz in my life. I’m just not obsessed with it. I certainly don’t want to sound preachy but…I firmly believe that variety is truly the spice of life. There are times when music is a focal point or a great background and other times are good without any music at all. There is also something to be said about absence makes the heart grow fonder. It is nice to know that it can always be pulled out of the bag.
My jazz all stars….
Sax: Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, David Sanborn, Jerry Mulligan, Bud Shank
Trumpet: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker
Trombone: J.J. Johnson, Tommy Dorsey
Clarinet: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Sidney Bichet, Bud Defranco,
Piano: Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole
Drums: Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Shelley Manne, Louis Bellson
Bass: Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Stanley Clarke
Vibraphone: Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Cal Tjader
Guitar: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, George Benson
Singing Groups: Manhattan Transfer
Female Singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, Diana Krall, Holly Cole, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, Blossum Dearie
Male Singers: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Michael Buble, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Al Jarreau, Chet Baker
25 recommended jazz tunes……
#1 Take Five…..Dave Brubeck
#2 Blues In The Night…..Peggy Lee with Tommy Dorsey
#3 I Can’t Get Started…..Bunny Berigan
#4 Let’s Face The Music And Dance…..Frank Sinatra
#5 Take The A Train…..Duke Ellington
#6 Desafinado…..Stan Getz
#7 God Bless The Child…..Billy Holiday
#8 Salt Peanuts…..Dizzy Gillespie
#9 A Night In Tunisia…..Charlie Parker
#10 Feeling Good…..Nina Simone
#11 St. Louis Blues…..Louis Armstrong
#12 Ain’t Misbehavin…..Fats Waller
#13 Misty…..Erroll Garner
#14 On Green Dolphin Street…..John Coltrane
#15 Sunday Kind of Love…..Dinah Washington
#16 The Look Of Love…..Diana Krall
#17 Frenesi….Artie Shaw
#18 Everything Happens To Me…..Chet Baker
#19 Cry Me A River…..Ella Fitzgerald
#20 Honeysuckle Rose…..Anita O’Day
#21 The Sheik Of Araby….Django Reinhardt
#22 Dark Eyes…..Jack Teargarden
#23 Try A Little Tenderness…..David Sanborn
#24 Straighten Up And Fly Right…..Nat King Cole
#25 Am I Blue?.....Hoagy Carmichael
Saw the great Tony Bennett one night at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver with a trio of musicians. Bass, drums, and piano.