Monday, January 09, 2017

Listening to Prestige 229: Gil Melle

What happened to jazz? it was America's popular music in the 30s, made by big bands that filled dance palaces like Roseland and were presented live over the radio for people to dance at home.

Then all sorts of things happened. The economics of the music business changed. The Petrillo strike of 1942-44 meant that union musicians could not record, but singers, who were not member of the American Federation of Musicians, could, and suddenly the singer, formerly an adjunct to the big band that was
the featured attraction, became the star. Frank Sinatra or Doris Day or Jo Stafford were big enough draws on their own--they no longer needed the name of Tommy Dorsey or Harry James. Margaret Whiting, who came of age in the 40s, was remembered later in her career as a big band singer, but actually she never sang with a band.

The record companies thought that the new breed of singer didn't need to compete with jazz soloists and jazz arrangers, and they were probably right. Jazz purists of the 50s, while sort of grudgingly recognizing that Frank Sinatra was a pretty good singer, grumbled that he would only reach his full potential if he sang with jazz musicians. But later, in his third career, with Reprise Records, he did sing with jazz musicians, and today everyone pretty much agrees that the Capitol recordings, with Nelson Riddle and Billy May creating arrangements that directed all the focus to the singer, are his greatest. Margaret Whiting did make her most successful records with a  jazz great, Billy Butterfield, but Butterfield understood his role and performed it beautifully.

And jazz was moving away from the dance music of the 30s to the challenging, intellectually stimulating sound of bebop.

This was, of course, going to narrow the audience. There are always going to be more people who want to dance than to be intellectually stimulated. But if jazz had lost the Dionysian excitement of the dance palace, it was creating a new kind of excitement, and that was not entirely Apollonian. Jazz was adventurous, it was on the cutting edge/ With its new emphasis on the virtuoso soloist it offered the unparalleled excitement of being up close and personal to a creative artist at the moment of creativity.

And modern jazz had an edge of danger, as it morphed from the music of the bobby soxer to the music of the hipster (the real hipster, not these guys in pony tails selling designer chocolate). It was Jack Kerouac on the road, it was Anatomy of a Murder and  Peter Gunn. Another shot-lived TV show brought the jazz-danger connection even closer, with John Cassavetes playing Johnny Staccato, a jazz pianist/private eye.

And of course, it was dangerous because it was black. All American music, even country and western, has its roots in the blues, but modern jazz was different. It was made by black musicians who consciously rejected the role of entertaining the white folks. If you wanted to listen to modern jazz, you had to go out and meet the black experience on its own terms, in the thorny personae of Charlie Parker or Charles Mingus or Miles Davis.

Or not. Jazz was a small niche in a world made by white men, as Miles Davis found out one summer evening when he had just finished recording what would be the best selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, and was playing a gig at Birdland.
I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day broadcast, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights.
He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”
I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!” He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back. Now, boxers had told me that if a guy’s going to hit you, if you walk toward him you can see what’s happening. I saw by the way he was handling himself that the policeman was an ex-fighter. So I kind of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head. He stumbled, and all his stuff fell on the sidewalk, and I thought to myself, Oh, shit, they’re going to think that I fucked with him or something. I’m waiting for him to put the handcuffs on, because all his stuff is on the ground and shit. Then I move closer so he won’t be able to fuck me up. A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on.  Then I remember [journalist] Dorothy Kilgallen coming outside with this horrible look on her face — I had known Dorothy for years and I used to date her good friend, Jean Bock — and saying, “Miles, what happened?” I couldn’t say nothing. Illinois Jacquet [the saxophonist] was there, too.
It was almost a race riot, so the police got scared and hurried up and got my ass out of there and took me to the 54th Precinct where they took pictures of me bleeding and shit. So, I’m sitting there, madder than a motherfucker, right? And they’re saying to me in the station, “So you’re the wiseguy, huh?” Then they’d bump up against me, you know, try to get me mad so they could probably knock me upside my head again. I’m just sitting there, taking it all in, watching every move they make.

If you were white, and a modern jazz fan, you felt a closeness to that abyss--it could happen to you, too. Though, of course, it couldn't. And I'm not putting down white jazz fans of the 50s. I was one. Just saying there was a jazz culture that it felt exciting to be a part of.

And al that would change too. Not the racism, but the perception of jazz. Most art forms follow a pattern: folk art to popular art to high art. Jazz did it faster than most, but that's the pattern. I was going to say "follow an arc," and in a way that's right: the middle stage is the apex of popularity. But one could equally call it a trajectory: as an art form matures, it gains, subtlety, complexity, richness. Or so one hopes. But anyway, it can't stand still. Nothing can.

Perhaps the handwriting started to appear on the wall when Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall instead of the Palladium. Certainly it was growing bolder on that same wall when John Lewis and his cohorts put on tuxedos and called themselves the Modern Jazz Quartet, a name that demanded serious attention in the way that Miff Mole and his Little Molers or Terry Gibbs New Jazz Pirates or J. J. Johnson's Boppers did not.

Anyway, the progress was inexorable: out of the raffish smoke-filled clubs, out of the mob-controlled joints where Louis Armstrong played in Chicago, out of 52nd Street where jazz groups alternated with strippers, into the concert hall, and into Jazz at Lincoln Center. It had to happen, and jazz is the better for people like Wynton Marsalis and the foundations that keep jazz alive.

All of which is a free-flying digression, pushing the limits even for me, and I've probably said a lot of it before. I promise I will get to Gil Melle eventually. But there's a reason why it's on my mind now, and that is that all of this is simply history repeating itself, as I discovered when reading a fascinating book, The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning.

The same thing was happening in the18th century. Just as the hipsters and beatniks of the 40s and 50s dismissed the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey fans as moldy figs, so the avant garde of that era, the aficionados of the new, challenging music made by people like Franz Lizst dismissed the fans of Gioachino Rossini's wildly popular operas as Philistines.

And then, as now, an element of fun was fading. Blanning quotes Fanny Burney's eponyous heroine Evelina:
About eight o'clock we went to the Pantheon. I was extremely struck by the beauty of the building, which greatly surpassed anything I could have expected or imagined. Yet, it has more the appearance of a chapel, than a place of diversion, and though I was quite charmed by the magnificence of the room, I felt that I could not be as gay and thoughtless there as at Ranelagh [a pleasure garden], for there is something in it which rather inspires awe and solemnity, than mirth and pleasure.
So, getting back to the subject at hand. Does Gil Melle inspire awe and solemnity, or mirth and
pleasure? Melle was working out of a slightly different pushcart than some of his contemporaries, although not entirely different. His rhythm section was made up of mainstream jazzers, and you don't include two Ellington compositions, particularly "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," if you're planning to do something really weird. Melle, like Teddy Charles, kept one foot in the avant garde and one in the mainstream.

His avant garde foot was mostly set down later, when he moved to Hollywood, indulged his fascination with electronic instruments, and began writing movie TV scores. In that capacity, he was one of those who changed the musical voice of suspense for soundtracks. Just as Ennio Morricone completely upended the Dmitri Tiomkin (out of Ferde Grofe) convention for scoring a Western, so the electronic composers replaced jazz scores as the motif for suspense, Melle would write the music for TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker and Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

This stands more on the mainstream foot, with some surprises."Walter Ego" begins with what could almost be a Gerry Mulligan arrangement. As an instrumentalist, Melle was no Mulligan or Pepper Adams, and he knew it, but he was a brilliant musical mind, and "Walter Ego" soon goes in surprising different directions.

As much as Melle would become known later for his film scores, "Rush Hour in Hong Kong" was not an audition for a movie to be made twenty years later, though it almost could have been. And his version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" really does swing, with outstanding solos from George Duvivier and Shadow Wilson in addition to Joe Cinderella.

"Quadrama" became the title song for the album.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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