Sunday, January 17, 2016

Listening to Prestige part 163: Jackie McLean

This music makes me happy. For all sorts of reasons. Some of it is the happiness of nostalgia, the kind that Donald Byrd brings back. Part of it is the joy of discovery--so much of it, like this particular session, I had not heard before. Combine that with the saisfaction of making new acquaintance with the familiar, like this version of Gershwin's lovely "A Foggy Day." More than anything else, perhaps, it's the deep sense of wonder and bliss that comes with opening oneself up to great art.

And it wasn't necessarily supposed to have that effect. The hipster ethos (I mean the real hipsters, not these bozos of today) was about cool, not bliss. And the heroin epidemic that took so many of these great don't use heroin unless you have some pretty serious pain that needs to be masked.

The jazz of the 40s and 50s was not meant to be danced to--it was considered undanceable, as opposed to the swing of the previous decade. Actually, though it might not have made it onto Dick Clark's American Bandstand, much of it has a good beat--you can dance to it. I've described watching teenagers boogieing to the idiosyncratic rhythms of Dave Brubeck at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

And then there was the association of modern jazz with menace...the Peter Gunn Effect. Mad Comics' Harvey Kurtzman parodied that with a private eye named Thelonious Violence.

The undanceable quality of bebop was deliberate in a couple of ways.

First, there was the cabaret tax put on establishments that allowed dancing. Eric Felten gives an account of those days in the Wall Street Journal:
In 1944, a new wartime "cabaret tax" went into effect, imposing a ruinous 30% (later merely a destructive 20%) excise on all receipts at any venue that served food or drink and allowed dancing. The name of the "cabaret tax" suggested the bite would be reserved for swanky boƮtes such as the Stork Club, posh "roof gardens," and other elegant venues catering to the rich.
But shortly after the tax was imposed, the Bureau of Internal Revenue offered this expansive definition of where it applied: "A roof garden or cabaret shall include any room in any hotel, restaurant, hall or other public place where music or dancing privileges or any other entertainment, except instrumental or mechanical music alone, is afforded the patrons in connection with the serving or selling of food, refreshments or merchandise." 

The big dance palaces like Roseland could afford it as part of the cost of business. The smaller clubs like the 52nd Street places couldn't, so they encouraged a kind of music that relied on the appeal of virtuoso soloists, whom people would want to sit and listen to.

You go back and listen to that music -- the music I call swing-to-bop. People like Zoot Sims. Of course you could dance to it. But that became not the point. You could certainly dance to Stan Getz if you wanted to, but the hip response became to listen. Maybe not to the far-out inventions of musicians like Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, but to much of it.

Also, those cats were intellectuals. And they were stung by racism. They were stung by artists like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong -- and those were just the famous ones. There were others who weren't that good, but they were still putting on what the beboppers perceived as a coon show. Read Arnold Shaw's Black Popular Music in America. Look at Ernest Hogan, who wrote "All Coons Look Alike to Me," and made a fortune off it, and never forgave himself for having written it. What was the stereotype of happy darkies? "They sure can sing and dance." Well, the beboppers weren't having it.

 But times change, and while I may not be getting up and dancing (well, I'm typing), I'm still blissful.

James Baldwin, in his great short story "Sonny's Blues," talks about "the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph" -- a tale that "is never new, [but] must always be heard." The delight is always a part of it.

The first number on this recording session (not the first on the album) is Gershwin's "A Foggy Day." I started listening to it without looking closely at the session lineup, but the remarkable piano work, first melancholy, then joyful, as with the message of the song, brought me back to the printed word, and I discovered that it was Elmo Hope.

I've talked about Hope before--the pain in his life, and the joy that leavens the pain in his music. He's at his best here. Accompanying two great soloists, he's supportive and inventive at the same time.

What's a piano player in a jazz quintet supposed to do? Miles Davis famously wanted Thelonious Monk to lay out while he soloed, and it led to words between them, if not to blows. Max Roach said that what they most wanted in a piano player was to stay outta the way, and he admired George Wallington for his ability to do just that--but then, Max said, when the time came to solo, he'd "fill it up."

Not everyone wants the same thing in a piano player. If you're hiring Thelonious Monk to play in your quintet, you're probably not getting a cat who'll stay outta the way, as Miles discovered. And Elmo Hope, here? He doesn't exactly stay outta the way, but he's always supportive, always discovering and adding new possibilities, and filling it up when he solos.

In addition to Gershwin, the composers here are Byrd ("Lorraine" and "Kerplunk") and McLean ("Lights Out," "Up," "Inding"). We know that McLean was a good enough composer to inspire Miles Davis to steal "Dig" from him. Byrd is new on the scene and making his presence felt. He's ready to play with the big boys, and compose with the big boys, and everyone knows it. Between the two of them, you have some five o'clock blues to remember.

"Lights Out" was issued on two sides of a 45, as well as being the title cut for the album.

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