Friday, March 06, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 89: Modern Jazz Quartet

The 1956 12-inch LP that contained this session, Django, was in my collection and on turntable a lot. I don't remember when I bought it -- certainly not 1956, because I wasn't listening to jazz that early. Probably 1959 or so. By that time, the Django LP had been out long enough to become a classic, and the original releases on 10-inch, 45 and 78 had been out even longer, so I don't know what the first critical reaction was. I'm guessing they hadn't heard anything quite like "The Queen's Fancy" before.

But they had, really. It's still Dizzy Gillespie's rhythm section, guys who'd been around since the birth of bebop, guys who were present at the creation of modern jazz and were playing modern jazz--who had, in fact, even named themselves after modern jazz. And if "The Queen's Fancy" starts out with a fugue that could have been written by Bach, why not? The musical tradition that these great musicians came out of was everything that came before them, the music they were looking to make was everything that lay ahead. Dale Turner, the fictional jazzman played by Dexter Gordon, surprises his French host when he acknowledges his debt to Debussy, but there should be no surprise there, either, any more than a debt to Louis Armstrong, Russian Jewish immigrant composers, or the blues. Duke Ellington was exactly right when he said that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad.

So these beboppers developed something beautiful. Tadd Dameron said it always has to be beautiful, and Lewis, Jackson, Heath and Clarke knew that too. They made beauty out of a fugue, and out of a bebopper's tribute to the hot jazz of the Hot Club of Paris, and out of compositions by Vernon Duke and George Gershwin -- transforming beauty into beauty, which may not sound alchemical, but it surely is.

You take what you know, and take it somewhere new. If you're like John Lewis and his cohorts, you know a lot, and you can see the road ahead with clarity and excitement. I interviewed the poet Billy Collins some years ago, and he described what he did as “a kind of travel writing, a genre in which the poet can take the reader on vicarious trips to places that may be otherwise inaccessible...[I find] a common ground that the reader and I can both stand on...and try to deliver pleasure by taking the reader into a state of suspended animation, where the subject matter is left behind, and other explorations begin." The Modern Jazz Quartet does something very similar, and for that experience to be happening for the reader/listener, it has to be happening for the artist as well, whether that artist be a poet like Collins, a composer like Lewis, a master improviser like Milt Jackson.

This comes from a total involvement with your art. Larry Audette, himself a fine jazzman, told me of a conversation he recently had with Tootie Heath about his brother. Percy, on his deathbed, was still listening to music through headphones. Finally, when it was time, his wife took the headphones off, and he slipped quietly away.

"The Queen's Fancy" and "Autumn in New York" were released as a 45 RPM single. The other two songs weren't, although all were released on 78, in a different configuration -- "The Queen's Fancy" b/w "But Not For Me," and "Delaunay's Dilemma" b/w "Autumn in New York." Odd to think that in 1953 the 78 was still the dominant format, but 78s lasted well into the 50s. According to the Yale Library's guide to music cataloging, the 78 was pretty much phased out by 1955, although there's no exact record of the last 78 to be issued -- in fact, according to Yale, some children's records came out on 78 as late as the 70s. I bought my first record in 1954. I was 14, and it was rock and roll -- "Bazoom," by the Cheers, the first rock and roll hit by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, whose songs I would come to worship with a passion. I think that by the end of that summer, I was buying more 45s than 78s, and by the next year nothing but 45s, so my personal history pretty much tracks the Yale Library, The four songs also came out on a 45RPM EP, which seems to have been a form favored early by Prestige, before they'd really embraced the 45 RPM single. There was a 10-inch LP, and then the classic Django in 1956, and many later repackagings and reissues.

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