Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Jazz Narrative in Four Parts

As a young college student, once I became conscious of language, I quickly tired of the lyrics in rock music, which struck me as simplistic, riddled with clich├ęs, and repetitive. I also began to place greater value on what I let enter my head—that is, by avoiding television and by discriminating in my choice of music, books, and movies. Acquiring a heightened sensibility caused me to begin looking for alternatives to traditional rock music.

Initially, I took delight in the instrumental passages of certain rock albums, preferring, for example, Traffic’s The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys and one side of the Grateful Dead’s Live in Europe ‘72. A friend at the community college I was attending in Concordia introduced me to Frank Zappa’s more recent albums. I had heard Zappa’s music when I was in high school, but I didn’t continue to follow his music after I left high school and while I served in the Air Force. Thanks to my friend, I began listening to Zappa’s Waka/Jawaka, the Grand Wazoo, and Hot Rats. Even though thirty-three years have now passed, I continue to find delight in these Zappa’s albums, occasionally playing them in the car when I’m commuting or running errands. Over the next year, as I continued to attend the community college, I discovered the intensity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the complexity of Miles Davis Big Fun.

In my own fashion, after I moved to Wichita, I approached jazz by paying attention to what some of the local record stores were recommending and by listening to KMUW, the local public radio station. Fusion remained extremely popular in 1974 and 1975. One record store on Harry Street introduced me to the music of Michal Urbaniak, who credited Zappa and the Mahavishnu Orchestra as influences and incorporated traditional Polish melodies while his wife, Urszula Dudziak, scatted, sometimes running her voice through an echoplex. The ECM artists were growing in popularity at this time as well, and I found the work of Bobo Stenson, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, and Gary Burton appealing and imaginatively liberating. My own discoveries proved more fascinating and provided more listening pleasure than the work of someone like Chuck Mangione, who achieved popularity at that time and who received a lot of airplay in Wichita. In fact, I have only attended one concert of live jazz, apart from the free concerts in Hartford, Connecticut, and that was when Gary Burton came to Wichita State University in 1975. Pat Metheny was a member of Burton’s band at this time, and they played music from Ring, a great album. Oddly, half of the audience left the auditorium during the intermission; they were probably only there to earn credit for one of their classes. Jan Garbarek was supposed to perform in the Bay Area when I was living in San Francisco in 1977, but his concert was cancelled, and no one at the ticket office knew anything about it when I called about tickets.

Over the next ten years, I continued to follow the work of those musicians that I had discovered during my initial forays into jazz, occasionally making a new discovery by reading the reviews in Downbeat or by browsing through the record racks at area record stores. Through one of the ads in Downbeat, I ordered a catalog from Daybreak Express Records, a company that once specialized in jazz mail-order, and in my reading the offerings, I discovered how little I knew about jazz and how seldom the musicians I knew were represented. There weren’t any good guides to jazz available at this time. I didn’t discover the Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide until 1989.

Once I moved to Hartford, Connecticut, after earning my undergraduate degree, I made a few purchases through Daybreak Express. I also started frequenting a record store that specialized in jazz. Although I didn’t have much money at this time, I managed to get Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Coltrane’s Sound, two classic albums, before I later left Connecticut for graduate school in Kansas. My education in jazz was temporarily on hold during the next three years. When I was working on my master’s thesis, and as I was attempting to show the influence of music on my poetry, however, I read Len Lyons’ The 100 Best Jazz Albums. This book, combined with the Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide, which I stumbled on when working in Lawrence, helped me in exploring the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Davis created so much music before Big Fun; it was almost embarrassing to know that I had missed out on so much.

Over the next ten years or so, I made discriminating purchases occasionally as I explored bop, post bop, soul jazz, and free jazz. I have mostly limited my choices to Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus. Through my reading of several more recent record guides, such as The All Music Guide to Jazz, Jazz: The Rough Guide, and The Penguin Guide to Jazz, I also sought out selections by Pepper Adams, Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Wayne Shorter, Bud Powell, Gene Ammons, Lee Morgan. I have gotten to the point now, thirty years after my initial desire to explore jazz, of understanding some of the musicians whose work has received critical acclaim and of understanding the major movements in jazz. I don’t always agree with the critics regarding someone like Bud Powell, perhaps because I have not trained myself to hear well enough. During these thirty years or so, I have essentially been training my ears to listen even though the nuances sometimes escape me.

Desert Island Picks

Gene Ammons, Blue Gene
Gary Burton, Ring
John Coltrane, Ole
John Coltrane, Coltrane’s Sound
John Coltrane, Giant Steps
John Coltrane, Lush Life
John Coltrane, Traneing In
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Miles Davis, Big Fun
Miles Davis, Filles de Kilimanjaro
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles
Jan Garbarek, Dis
Jan Garbarek, It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice
Jan Garbarek, Places
Joe Henderson, So Near, So Far
Dexter Gordon, Go
Dexter Gordon, Our Man in Paris
Keith Jarrett, My Song
Stephen Micus, Twilight Fields
Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um
Charles Mingus, Mingus at Antibes
Thelonious Monk, 5 by Monk by 5
Thelonious Monk, Misterioso
Mike Nock, Ondas
L. Shankar, Song for Everyone
L. Shankar, Vision
John Surman, Upon Reflection
Michal Urbaniak, Urbaniak
Eberhard Weber, Little Movements
Eberhard Weber, Yellow Fields

As a young naval officer, my father, after having moved up through the ranks, was tutored in music by his commanding officer. Almost nightly, his commanding officer walked down to our house with an armful of classical music, Vivaldi, mostly. Only eleven and twelve at the time, I didn’t pay much attention to their talking. From what I remember hearing, Captain Thomas told my dad what to listen for in those records. Those lessons also probably included what to drink because my dad eventually acquired a taste for sherry. I have often wondered why Captain Thomas didn’t introduce my dad to jazz when we were living in Istanbul, Turkey. There was a lot of good music available then; much of what we consider as classic jazz had already been released, such as Kind of Blue and the last four releases on Prestige that Miles recorded, i.e., Steamin’, Cookin’, Workin’, and Relaxin’. Jazz probably didn’t seem to have the intellectual challenge of classical music and could have prohibited one’s upward climb among Annapolis trained officers who might have thought of jazz disparagingly.

I find it unfortunate that some of the music I have discovered remains unavailable on CD. Sure, I have learned that it is possible to plug a turntable into the sound card of my computer; similarly, I have heard of stereos that burn CD’s. Even so, I still think that Inner City, Columbia, Atlantic, Galaxy, and even Affinity in Britain need to release or have someone else release more of their catalogue. I would like to see more of early Michal Urbaniak available on CD, such as Atma, Fusion III, and Urbaniak. Zbigniew Namslowski and Urszula Dudziak are under-represented on CD. Arif Mardin’s Journey is another loss. Art Pepper’s second and third LP’s of his Maiden Voyage concert in 1981 are a part of a two hundred dollar boxed set, but neither Art Lives nor the Art Pepper Quartet have been released individually; only Roadgame, the first LP of that concert, has been released on CD. Jazz, as an American art form and probably the best of our exports to other countries, needs to be supported by both record companies and the public.