Archive for Wynton Marsalis

Praise Songs for a Master Musician

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by playthell
MODELE ARMSTRONG
Louis Armstrong: His horn and voice changed the world of music

A Fitting Tribute to a Great Artist on the Centenary of his Birthday

On the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong a celebration in his honor was held at Columbia University, one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning. Titled The Artistry of Pops: Louis Armstrong on his 100th Birthday,” three of the nation’s most outstanding intellectuals and artists – Robert O’Meely, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis – conducted an ancestor veneration ritual in memory of Louis Armstrong, a great American original.

Robert O’Meely is a Professor of English at Columbia, Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies and a serious Jazz scholar who wrote an important book on Billy Holliday; Stanley Crouch is the nation’s premiere Jazz critic and biographer of Charlie Parker; and Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – the most important Jazz performance and education venue in the world – and leader of the internationally renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, an aggregation of great musicians who can play every genre of jazz without accent.

It is a certainty that almost anyone who takes the time to view this video will be greatly enlightened by the experience.  My certainty lies in the fact that I was enlightened by it and I have been writing about Jazz for over 20 years and have published essays about the music in some of the most prestigious journals in the English language.  The video begins with an opening address by Dr. O’Meely, rich in eloquence and erudition, it paints a complex portrait of Louis Armstrong that demolished the stereotypical view of him as a simple minded entertainer and borderline clown.

What emerges from Professor O’Meely’s succinct but learned lecture is a compelling portrait of a great artist who changed western music and won devotees among musicians and music lovers all over the world.  We learn that the ability to play and instrument and also sing well enough to have a lasting influence on both arts is a very rare feat; the province of genius.  Yet, he tells us, this is precisely what Louis Armstrong did.

       Pop’s Armstrong Singing
                         Louis Armstrong singing
Recording with the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitgerald

                    One of Pop’s many artistic “children”

In his professorial fashion Dr. O’Meely cited a scholarly text to provide evidence of the influence of Louis Armstrong on the major singers who dominated American jazz and pop music for most of the twentieth century and set the standards many singers still emulate. The Book, “Pops Children,” lets us hear it from the horses’ mouths through the author’s interviews.  Among those who pay homage to Pops as an artistic inspiration and guide are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day, et al.

O’Meely’s lecture was the ideal introduction to Louis Armstrong, because he enumerates the many facets of Armstrong’s interests and talents and defines the elements that characterize his style and innovations in western music. Although he teases us with glimpses of Armstrong’s multi-faceted personality and varied interests, he reminds us they are laboring under the tyranny of the clock and thus must confine their discourse to the matter of music.

Despite the fact that he is a Professor of English Dr. O’Meely is a fine music critic.  Like Crouch and Marsalis he is a protégée of the novelist, essayist, musician Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, the recently departed Harlem sage and blues philosopher whose masterpiece, “Stomping the Blues,” is a canonical text on Afro-American music…especially Jazz. Thus O’Meely’s analysis is well informed by a broad knowledge of the history and nature of artistic creation and innovation, and his discussion of Louis Armstrong is conducted within the comparative context of all great art.

As a literary man beguiled by the blues in its many splendored guises, Dr. O’Meeley conjures up the memory of Professor Sterling Brown, a Harvard educated pioneer blues poet and longtime Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, who had jazz musicians play for his class live and who is called out by name as the hippest intellectual in the nation’s capitol in Ledbelly’s famous song “Washington is a Bourgeois Town.”  

It was Professor O’Meely who was called upon to make the keynote speech at the dedication of the monumental statute “Invisible Man,” created by Elizabeth Catlett, outside of Ellison’s residence on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia’s campus. Unlike Sterling Brown, O’ Meely does not need jazz musicians to play for his class because just a few blocks down Broadway from campus is Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the greatest Jazz musicians in the world perform nearly every night.  O’Meely is immersed in the Jazz milieu being centrally located in the Jazz capitol of the world he has seen it all, which makes him an ideal critic fully equipped to evaluate the place of Louis Armstrong in American music.

I got a taste of the depth of his erudition when we debated an essay on music and literature written by Albert Murray in a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Debating the Learned Professor O’Meely at the Sorbonne
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        A Joint Meeting of the US and European Associations of American Studies  

At the conclusion of his learned commentary on the character and contributions of Pops Armstrong, Professor O’Meely turned the floor over to Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis after reading their impressive bonafides to the audience, calling them “two of the smartest people talking about Jazz.” Crouch was introduced first to tumultuous applause, but when Wynton walked on stage, trumpet in hand, the crowd went wild.

In an extended discussion Crouch compared the heroism of people who invent major movements in art or intellectual ideas to those in classical Greek mythology, and Wynton dazzled with his in-depth knowledge of the art of trumpet playing and the history of its development in the USA. As always, his lecture became a “show and tell” when he would demonstrate his point on the trumpet.

This video is a wonderful portrait of Pops which require no further comment, since we have the film. However it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work that O’Meely, Crouch and Marsalis are doing by institutionalizing Jazz in elite, well funded, American cultural and academic institutions such as Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

It is both fitting and proper that this effort should be led by Afro-American artists and intellectuals.  Jazz is, after all, Black America’s gift to the nation and America’s gift to world culture.  Look, listen and learn about one of the greatest artists and most interesting American men of the 20th century, the trumpet virtuoso that invented both the extended Jazz solo and a distinctly American approach to singing… the Jazz song.

Pops At Carnegie Hall with Kate Middleton 1947
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_
                      A Sartorial Trend Setter Always sharp as a Tack
The Axe with Which Louis Conquored the World!
Louis Arnstrongs trumpet presented to him by King George V of England in 1933
This Trumpet was a gift from King George V in 1933
Double click on link to see the video Tribute
http://youtu.be/G0X24dJHYq4 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 4, 2014

Afro-American Jazz and Black South Africans

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 19, 2013 by playthell

 Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masakela: A South African Original

 

 On the Transformative Power of Black Jazz

Growing Up in Mantzi I have been Fortunate enough to come from a Township of Soweto that in the early sixties and all the way to the rule of the ANC had electricity and telephones in our community.  Why is this important?  I grew up with uncles who were playing 78 rpm dicks on a gramophone, and we gradually upgraded to what was called Pilot FM radio (big and huge like caskets which contained a turntable and a FM radio.  Eventually we came to be exposed to Hi Fi systems in the late 1960’s and 70’s and graduated to more sophisticated name brands like Marantz and the like.

Music was the driving force in the evolution and American Jazz was one of the most powerful influences that we were exposed to.  Our elders, uncles and big brothers collected all of the great artist such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the seminal figures Playthell Benjamin cites in his essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art, as the produced this music. And we sought to get in their favor by our recognition and approval of the importance of their treasure troves of LP vinyl Jazz albums.

Furthermore, we were living amongst musicians who played Jazz and formed big bands here in Mzantsi; we were also imbibing a lot of South African Jazz that embodied all the diversity characteristic of South Africa in its sound.  As we grew older we extended our listening and appreciation of the music by forming Jazz Clubs in the late Sixties whilst still in high school.

Our weekends were spent getting together bring new vinyl recordings we might have bought on Friday, and sample it with other members.  If they could not identify the record one was made Jazz Appreciation King for the day and it lasted the entire week until we met again.  Exposure to American Jazz was very important for us and it affirmed and solidified our beliefs that we were not mere “Kaffirs” (niggers) who were backward in all we did or were – African American Jazz told us, that those who looked like us, that those who looked like us, were the best in the world in this art form.

The Great Edward Kennedy “Duke Ellington”
Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance 
Composer, Pianist, Bandleader, Paragon of Male Elegance
Dollar Brand
Dollar Brand
South African Pianist, Composer

This told us too, that we are the better people in the world, just from the Jazz perspective.  We imbibed art forms and so forth from our African American brothers, but Jazz was paramount in entrenching and embedding beliefs about ourselves.   Some of us went as far as to walk, talk, and dress like our Afro-American brothers.  Others named themselves accordingly.

As we became more mature and refined in our understanding of the wide world of Jazz, we began to travel overseas to Jazz concerts all over the states, Canada and Europe.  This expanded our horizons beyond the brutal apartheid world of South Africa.  We became well marinated in the Jazz Milieu, which knew no national boundaries because of the recording industry.  What has all this to do with Wynton Marsalis, the subject of Playthell’s recent essay?  Everything!

Playthell’s analysis of the heroic role of Wynton in the advancement of Jazz as a vibrant art form supports the fledgling arguments of those among us here in South Africa, who have been insisting that Wynton has advanced Jazz beyond what the hard core Jazz classist here in Mzantsi think of a real Jazz, in fact they insisted that Wynton was not playing Jazz at all.

Wynton Marsalis

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The Most Versatile Trumpeter in the World

I think the fact that he came from the Baroque side of classical music was lost to these detractors here for they knew nothing about the fact that Wynton had become the Master Jazz/Trumpeter /Composer/Innovator of the art and literally lifted and elevated Jazz into the 21st century.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around that fact.

I also suspect that they have lost touch with what Wynton was doing and saying, and hung on to the old ways of understanding Jazz.  Wynton blew some of us away when he merged modern Jazz with African drummers on the same stage.  We were amazed and fascinated as we watched his rehearsal sessions with these Africans, especially the way that he was able to show the similarities and the origins of Jazz as an African art form.

Conducting the performance of Congo Square
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The Lincoln Center never witnessed anything like it!

Soul to Soul

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The Rhythmic circle remains unbroken

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The drum choir blended perfectly with the band

This edified us and lifted our long held beliefs that the music we were listening to called Jazz had melodic signatures which can be found in our own traditional songs and Jazz music here in Mantzsti.  Playthell’s essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art,” is for me and Jazz Aficionados of kindred spirit, is so filled with erudite analysis about the art of Jazz and Wynton’s role in preserving and advancing the best of the tradition, that I feel compelled to post it on all the African sites I have access to.

There are some pretentious self- proclaimed Jazz gurus and avid fans who cannot accept anything new in Jazz.  Not since Babatunde Olatunji took his “Drums of Passion” orchestra to Carnegie Hall – industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s gift to New York City and the art of music –has anyone achieved that.  Wynton, however, took it a step further; many levels higher in fact, by merging both ensembles – African American musicians and a choir of African master drummers – on the same stage as part of one group.  To me it was one of the things Wynton did that silenced the howling jazz dinosaurs in the Appreciators here in Mzantsi.

THE GOAT

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 Greatest of All Times!

I concur with all that Playthell wrote about Wynton Marsalis….and then some.  I have learned so much from reading this article that I immediately went over to my collection of Wynton’s records and have been following on some nuggets he doled/dropped in the essay.   This kind of study will upgrade one’s understanding, appreciation and listening skills; enabling you to better grasp the techniques Wynton is employing to make such marvelous music.  I am happy to have found Playthell’s article, for it confirmed what we had long believed.   Jazz is an African art form and it resonates loudly with us here in Mzantsi and wherever it is played.

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Double Click to see Dollar Brand 

http://youtu.be/FSPq4AZ2GAI

Double click to see Dollar Brand in a clearer video

http://youtu.be/UcBHhkw8_fQ

Click to see Hugh Masakela  perform tribute to Mandela

http://youtu.be/h9JTuaC-x2Q

Double Click to see Wynton conduct Congo Square with Orchestra and African drums 

http://youtu.be/sKmaWqKV5aA

Double Click to hear the Winston “Mankunzu” Ngozi Quartet

http://youtu.be/Rt-rlAHEE0M

 

Skhokho Sa Tlou

Mzantsi, South Africa

August 19, 2013

 ** All Photos of Wynton and Congo Square Concert 

by: Frank Stewart, official photographer for JALC

Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 18, 2013 by playthell

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 Conducting his innovative suite “Congo Square” with Ghanaian Drummers

 I have written about Jazz in the New York Daily News, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian- Observer of London, he Village Voice et al.  And I have major essays anthologized in books.  I have also covered the New York Jazz scene on WBAI FM.  I have written about Wynton in all these venues and interviewed him on radio. I am about to put those interviews online. I have also appeared with Wynton and Ellis in a lecture/demonstration on Jazz and wrote the program notes for Jazz at Lincoln Center Concerts.  Hence I have firsthand knowledge of the jazz milieu and I have paid close attention to Wynton’s career.

The Jazz scene in New York had become so dismal by the late 1970′s that I published an essay despairing over the future of the art form – See: “Will Jazz Survive: Notes on the State of the Great American Art ” in the Freedomways Reader – because the last commercial jazz station in New York, WRVR, had suddenly gone off the air.  I wondered how the tradition could survive if the jazz community in the Mecca of Jazz couldn’t even sustain a single radio station devoted to this quintessentially American art. How could you produce new stars if young musicians couldn’t even hear the music on the radio?

Then I heard this young trumpet player from New Orleans perform with the Herbie Hancock VSOP orchestra…and my spirit danced.  I knew he was going to be the next big thing the anointed one – having seen all the great innovators from Pops Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard live, I felt qualified to make the judgment – and history has proven me right…as it often does with my political prognostications.

Later I heard Wynton play the classical trumpet; a magnificent art that most jazz fans no know nothing about and many jazz musicians can’t play….I was amazed.  As a failed trumpeter I understand the technical requirements for performing the masterworks by the great European composers.  I know what embouchure is; I understand the difficulties of triple tonguing and circular breathing; I know how hard it is to achieve great intonation, and the complexity of fingering.  All of which a trumpeter must master in order to play the European classical repertoire. Yet Wynton makes it look so easy people who have no hands on experience trying to play the trumpet are clueless as to the degree of difficulty involved.

It’s not surprising that music for the trumpet is so difficult in European art music, especially the Baroque music Wynton is so fond of; the trumpet is, after all, their instrument.  I am presently writing a piece about Wynton’s influence on the great young classical trumpeters.  Most people will be shocked to discover how many of the principal trumpeters in the great symphony orchestras were inspired and tutored by Wynton’s performances.

Yet the classical trumpet is Wynton’s second language on the horn.  He is first and foremost a jazz trumpeter, who was raised by Ellis Maralis – a great pianist who is so devoted the art of Jazz piano that he named his son after a piano player, the marvelous Wynton Kelly, who was of Jamaican background – and he was tutored in the art of jazz by Alvin Bastise, a New Orleans clarinetist who is a master of Jazz and European classical music.

I watched as a member of the New York media as Wynton became the most sought after musician /commentator for the art of Jazz by virtue of his unique “skill set” as a bilingual trumpet virtuoso who was also a serious student of the history of Jazz and European art music; he was erudite, articulate, charming and funny.  Plus he was good looking and a fabulous dresser: he was a television producer’s dream! That’s how it happened; the role was thrust upon him even as other’s would have given anything to play the role.  That’s the real reason for all the hatin.

Much of Wynton’s style on and off the stage  came from his tutelage under the great writer Albert Murray, author of the single most important book on Afro-American music: Stomping the Blues,” and whom Duke Ellington said was “The hippest cat I know.”  In 1996 I presented a paper at a conference on Afro-American music held under the auspices of the European and US Associations of American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris exploring this relationship titled: “The Influence of the Writings of Albert Murray on the Musical Compositions and Sartorial Style of Wynton Marsalis.  But the point is that for all of these reasons I have cited here, i.e. his myriad virtues, Wynton became a favorite of television producers and hosts: And it is the best thing that ever happened to Jazz.  In fact, I believe Wynton’s advocacy for the form as artist and advocate resurrected classic acoustic jazz – which is the highest expression of the art form.  And I am prepared to argue this point with anyone!

Wynton Conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

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A Master of his Trade

As a former history professor and co-founder of the first degree granting, freestanding, black studied department in the world – the WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at U-Mass Amherst, which awarded full Professorships in black music to Jazz Masters Max Roach and Archie Shepp – I know something about the history and cultural development of Afro-Americans, and I would argue that the Jazz at Lincoln Center program here in Manhattan is the most important cultural development in the history of black America!

And it definitely would not have happened without Wynton Marsalis.  In order to get a Jazz department in the Lincoln the first task was to convince the Princes and Powers at the Lincoln Center – the world’s greatest performance emporium – that Jazz was an art form worthy of inclusion in a cultural warehouse that was stocked with classical European arts: Ballet, Grand Opera, Chamber Music, and the New York Philharmonic.  Wynton was the ideal person to sell them on the artistic merit of Jazz precisely because he had won Grammy’s for the best Jazz and Classical instrumental performances – an incredible feat that no other musician in the world has repeated!  And they bought what he was selling to the tune of 150 million dollars.

That’s why Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents the district, said on opening day of the 150 million facility – “If Yankee Stadium can be called The House that Babe Ruth built, then Jazz at Lincoln Center will henceforth be known as the House that Wynton built.”  As for the criticism of other musicians: I say bring them on!!!!!!  Like the late great Sugar Ray Robinson I love a good fight, although, I must confess, that thus far they wither like snow balls in the sun when they cross swords with me on this question.  However I would like to conclude this little discourse with the following observations about musicians and Wynton.

All of those I have heard criticize him are clearly his inferiors as musicians and promoters of the music.  I could name names but I won’t….unless my veracity is called into question …but I’d rather not go there because my intention here is to set the record straight about Wynton not rag on other musicians.  But if properly provoked I’ll sing like a canary.  For the moment I a representative anecdote that is characteristic of what I found investigating the gripes of Wynton’s critics among musicians will suffice.

There was this very well know jazz trumpeter who used to dog Wynton’s playing; said it didn’t have enough ‘grits’ or some such inexplicable foolishness.  So Wynton issued a challenge for him to come down to Lincoln center during a concert and “cut my head,” which is Jazz parlance for engaging in a competitive duel called “cutting sessions.”  After the challenge was issued Wynton told me “That joker ain’t gonna show up…I’ll bet money on it.”  He seemed so sure about this prediction that I hesitated to accept a wager that at first looked like easy money.  So I declined the offer and instead asked him how he could be so sure the other trumpeter wouldn’t show.  “Because he can sell all the Woof tickets he wants out in the streets,” said Wynton, “but he and I have practiced together and he knows the truth!”  As Wynton predicted the dude punked out!

The affect that Wynton has on other trumpet players reminds me of the way flute players responded to Hubert laws when he first showed on the scene, another ambidextrous musical genius.  Hubert scared everybody to death and it resulted in people saying dumb stuff like “his tone is too pretty,” or “he does not make enough mistakes” or “he plays like a machine.”  I recognized it as the baseless slander of jealous peers back then, and the criticism I have heard of Wynton today does not rise above that level in my estimation.  THEY ARE ALL JEALOUS HATERS!!!!!!!!!

The World’s Greatest Trumpeter?
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Gerald Wilson Thinks So!

However let me conclude on the upbeat.  While Wynton has his detractors he also has many ardent admirers among musicians.  Dr. Billy Taylor, the Dean of musician/critics, loved the ground Wynton walked on and considered him the best hope for the music’s survival and growth.  He told me that because of Wynton’s efforts to promote the music to a wider audience many of the musicians who criticize him are working more than ever.

When I wrote a big feature story for the Sunday Times of London on Betty Carter and the jazz youth festival she was hosting at the Majestic Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music titled “School For Cats,” all of those brilliant young musicians – which included such virtuosi as pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Adonis Rose – told me that one of the main reasons why they were seriously playing Jazz was because “Wynton came to my school and gave a talk on Jazz.”

At the time Wynton was in a little feud with Miles Davis, whom Wynton tells us in the interview with David Frost was his major influence.  I asked the Empress of Swing, who had seen and heard them all, what she thought of the beef.  “Miles is just jealous!” she said.  “I knew Miles when he was Wynton’s age and has never been the trumpeter that Wynton is.”

Maestro Wilson Conducting JALC Orchestra
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A Swinging Octogenarian

When I interviewed the legendary bandleader/arranger/composer Gerald Wilson – who also happens to be a trumpeter of long standing – I asked him what he thought of Wynton’s playing. He said without a moment’s hesitation: “Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpeter in the world!    One of the virtues of writing in this new digital medium that is not enjoyed by writers in print publications is the ability to create multi-media presentations.  Hence by virtue of You Tube I can demonstrate Maestro Wilson’s Claim.

I have selected two performances by Wynton Marsalis: a classical European composition and a wholly improvised jazz performance.  Both performances were chosen because of the technical demands on the artist, which require the highest level of virtuosity in each genre.  The extent of the difficulty an artist must overcome is the measure of their mastery of the horn.  In the first video Wynton performs “The Carnival of Venice.”  When the great composer of martial music John Phillip Sousa formed the US Marine Corps band he billed it as “The greatest Brass Band in the World!”

The brook of fire trumpet and cornet players had to cross in their auditions was to perform the Carnival of Venice,” a composition that contain myriad pit falls into which a hapless player will be devoured.  It is a piece that demands mastery of all the elements of trumpet performance.  The second video features Wynton playing Cherokee at break neck speed.  It was the composition that those who aspired to share the bandstand with the elite players had to perform, often in a jam session when all eyes were on you.

Whereas in European art music all solos are composed, with improvisation allowed only in cadenzas, a kind of extended ornament, in jazz extemporaneous coherent musical statements is the rule.  This demands the ability to create music at the speed of thought.  Thus the more complex the musical statement – which must be negotiated within the restrictions of complex harmonic changes and polyrhythmic pulses – dictate the level of virtuosity required to perform it.   To the untutored ear it may all sound the same but, as a matter of fact, they are vastly different.

Check them out, and you need not be highly tutored in musical performance in order to recognize the Genius on display here. And you will lose any desire to argue with Maestro Gerald Wilson when he declares: “Wynton Marsalis is the best trumpeter  that I have ever heard and I played with all the greats,” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….I say fuck the haters!!!!!

 

He is the best that I have ever heard and I played with them all!!!” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….fuck the haters!!!!!

Me and Dr. Robert O’Meely Droppin Science at the Sorbonne

Me and Robert O'Mealy

Exploring the relationship between Wynton and Albert Murray 1996
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Double click here to see Wynton Perform Carnival of Venice  
http://youtu.be/0-jDld11jhw
This video has a million and a half views!
Double click here to see Wynton perform Cherokee
http://youtu.be/9OtZrIjQuwA
Double click to see Wynton interviewed by David frost 
http://youtu.be/mFNIvo-tx2s
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Text by: Playthell Benjamin

All photos by: Frank Stewart – except pic from the Sorbonne

August 17, 2013

Jazz Meets Clave!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on November 29, 2010 by playthell

The Original CuBoppers

Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody And Cuban Congero Chano Pozo

 

The JALC Orchestra

Maestro Marsalis Strikes Up the Band!

The concert at Lincoln Center last Saturday night was aptly name Jazz Meets Clave; it was like a replay of that halcyon era in the 1940’s, when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza – Afro-American and Afro-Cuban master musicians – put their heads together and decided to experiment with a new sound that has become world famous as “Latin Jazz,” a distinct genre in the lexicon of Jazz music.  Since this music was a mixture of the musical traditions of the two cultures, the Son Montuno and Jazz, and was concocted by Afro-Americans and Afro-Latin’s in Manhattan when the Bebop style invented by Bird and Diz was au courant, this new synthesis became known as Cubop. The music played in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s beautiful Rose Hall by the great orchestra that resides there, on last Saturday night, can be considered an extension of that experiment.

 

Machito and his Afro-Cubans

The Cuban Side Of Bop

One of the highlights of the evening was a composition by Carlos Enriquez, the bassist in the Lincoln Center Orchestra, who is Puerto-Rican, or more accurately Nuyorican.  The piece was inspired by the Orchestra’s recent trip to Cuba. In his introduction of the composition Carlos explained how the trip to that culturally rich Caribbean isle was a musical and cultural revelation.  He was first of all surprised to discover the high level of musicianship displayed by the young musicians of Cuba, as well as the educational system that trains them.

Frankly I was astonished by his surprise, because all one need do is look at the musicians who have migrated from that Island to New York City, or simply come here to perform – like Chucho Valdez, whom I consider the greatest pianist in the world, to know that something rare and exciting is going on musically in Cuba.  Chucho is not alone at the top of his game; the same argument can be made for the contrabassist Carlos Del Pino, the multi-reed virtuoso Paquito de Rivera, or the trumpeter Autoro Sandoval – the only trumpeter in the world who can potentially rival Wynton Marsalis in his multi-lingual virtuosity. And there are so many great Cuban percussionists they defy tabulation.

In an eloquent and erudite monologue Carlos told us how the different movements of his composition were based on various rhythms and song forms that are integral to the Afro-Cuban style, and explained how they would alternate with the swing of Jazz.  Unlike some ill fated attempts to synthesize musical genres, this composition was a rousing success.  The result was a performance of great drama, as the musicians interpreted this inspired and original score constructed on complex poly-rhythms and poignant blues voicing’s of various shades. This composition also featured an extended solo on the timbales, and instrument that offers far less to work with than the drum set preferred by jazz drummers; yet it is critical to the Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Consisting of only two tom toms on a stand, with two cowbells mounted on it, plus a ride cymbal, the Timbales are a minimalist version of the Jazz drum kit.

 

David Hernandez Of Zon Del Barrio!


The Art of Timbales

 

The Jazz drum set is the most complex percussion instrument in the world, and by far the most difficult to play when performing in the modern jazz context.  While I am not prepared to say who played this instrument first, African American drummers in the United States created the great virtuoso tradition and are its greatest artists.

To understand the complexity of the jazz drummer’s art, let’s examine the art of precision rudimental trap drumming alone.  Here I am referring of the art of the snare, or trap drum.  This kind of drumming is common to military style marching bands, including high-school and especially the great college marching bands.  The rhythmic compositions to which the band marches called “cadences’ are constructed on twenty eight “rudiments.’  These rhythmic exercises, such as five stroke rolls, seven stroke rolls, flams, ratamacues, paradiddles, flam paradiddles, etc are very precise rhythmic statements, sort of like etudes for drums. A wonderful recreation of what it was like to try and make the great Florida A&M drum section can be seen it the movie Drumline.

 

A Grand Master of The Drum Set

Max Roach Playing Five Drums and Four Cymbals

Most jazz drummers had the benefit of this kind of rudimental training on the snare drum, having grown up playing in marching bands, but in the set the snare is only one of four or five drums, depending on the drummer’s taste.  It is however the lead drum from which all rhythmic configurations is initiated. The standard set is snare, small tom tom, and floor tom tom, plus the bass drum.  In terms of the human voice it would be like soprano, tenor, baritone and basso; if they were viols it would be violin, viola, cello and conta-bass.  When the jazz drummer tunes these drums – and some fine tune them to the pitch of the piano – a variety of percussive voices are possible.

That’s why the great Jazz drummers with musical imaginations – like Max Roach, Art Blakey or Jack De Johnette -sound as if they are playing melodically.  Aside from the drums however there are at least three cymbals.  Two are mounted on stands – some drummers prefer three – and the sock cymbal is played with the foot.  The essence of the art of playing the drum set is to be able to play a different rhythm with each hand and foot.  Hence the Jazz drummer creates a complex polyrhythmic statement by his lonesome.

The timbales are sparse in comparison, but unlike the jazz set the timbale player is not expected to carry the percussion rhythm alone; timbaleros are  accompanied by the conga and bongo drummers, guido or clave and the big cow bell.  When each instrument is in the groove they produce a poly-rhythmic sound that compels the listener to dance. Thus the timbalero usually has help from other percussionist while the Jazz drummer is expected to supply all the percussion functions in the band.  On this occasion the timbalero was a true master of his instrument and rendered an electrifying solo!   When I first saw Afro-Cuban musicians play at Florida A&M I wasn’t at all impressed with the timbales.  But that would change once I began to understand the nature of the instrument and the skill required to play them.  And when I started to study the congas I came to admire, respect, and even love them.  Part of the genius of the art of timbale playing is that they do so much with so little equipment.

Conga, Timbales and Guido

The Heart of the Afro Cuban Rhythm Section

 

The Bongo Player

The bongolero also doubles on the big cow bell

The Cow Bell Anchors the Rhythm

Everybody Plays Off The Big Cow Bell

 

Every part of the timbales can be played.  Whereas jazz drummers play only on the skins of the drums – with the occasional rim shots – the timbalero plays all over the drums; the rims and the sides too.  The skins are used accent the rhythms that are steadily played on the sides or the cowbells, and for dynamic solos.  The Afro-Cuban rhythm section is so precisely worked out that every rhythm fits perfectly in its “pocket.” Which is another way of saying each man to his station in the rhythmic jig saw.

JALC Bassist Carlos Enrique

 

After a swinging interlude in which Ali – the trap drummer with the JALC – announced his presence like rolling thunder,  Marcus Printup gave a solo of great sensual beauty, playing with a wide vibrato; the influence of his Cuban sojourn could clearly be heard as he conjured up memories of the great Afro-Cuban trumpeter Chaputin. The composition, and the set, ended with an impressive solo from Carlos on the bass.

 

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The second set began with the audience being shown how to clap the clave rhythm, and Ali soloed on the drum set as they clapped in time.  Then Carlos started walking the bass and Ali began swinging hard.  The music is a movement from Wynton’s Third American Symphony, and it is very modern.  Moving at the frantic pace of rush hour traffic on the West Side Highway, which is clearly visible from the piano where Wynton composed it, the influence of environment on the way musicians imagine music is very clear.  In any case it’s clear to me; I don’t know if Wynton thinks of it that way, which is to say that he is conscious of the influence…but it is there.

Ali Jackson

All around Musician and Virtuoso of the Drum Set

 

As in all of the performances the solo work was marvelous.  First there was a kind of rapid fire interplay between Wynton and the trombonist.  Wynton played magnificently, even though he had just been back in his dressing room suffering with aching eyes.  Walter Blanding Jr, my favorite tenor prayer of the younger generation, gave a spellbinding solo on the soprano sax.  Obviously by his choice of horns he is following in the footsteps of John the Prophet.

The next composition was also written by Carlos, who was obviously smitten with the great musical tradition of Afro-Cubans.  This composition is based on the Songo form created by the Cuban master musician Chungito. The tune utilized the 6/8 time signature which is the rhythm of the most sacred of Afro-Cuban religions societies like Santeria.  However being afro-Latin raised in New York he hears both traditions in a marvelous way. His orchestrations were fresh and highly inventive.

 

The Great Gerald Wilson Conducting His Music

The JALC Orchestra Saxophone Section

Carlos is extremely fortunate to be in a musical organization like JALC, because it allows him to fully exercise his musical imagination as a composer. Like the Ellington Orchestra, the gifted musicians around whom he is surrounded are capable of playing anything he can invent.  This gives all the members on the band an added incentive to write, thus contributing to the bands book of original compositions.  Again the solo work by the trombonist was breathtaking.  Surely when John Phillip Sousa chose trombonists for his band he never imagined anybody playing the instrument with such lyricism and imagination.

The next tune was a Cuban Standard – the Peanut Vender.  However Carlos explained the history of the tune then delighted the audience with the announcement that this particular arrangement was done by the great Duke Ellington. This further establishes the long standing  interest Afro-American musicians had in Cuban music.  To listen to the JALC perform this music with the standard Afro-Cuban Rhythm section was a wonder.  You could not tell they were not a Cuban orchestra.  Another trumpeter took an extended solo that captured the flavor of the tune. The Latin percussionists were right in the pocket all night. Dukes arrangement was intoxicating, with those unique Ellington voicing’s for the different sections.

The trombonist Vincent Gardner – a former member of the FAMU marching band – wrote the next composition titled “Afro and Cubans.”  A somewhat strange title, which made me wonder if it was a reference to the fact that race conscience black Cubans do not consider themselves “Hispanic,” which they see as the proper designation for those Cubans who descended from the Spaniards.  They are quite aware of the fact that they are neo-Africans of the west.  When I asked Vincent hom much is composition was influenced by the cultural redefinition that is occurring among black Cubans, which is rife among Cuban hip hop artists, he said it was this Afro-Cuban perspective that inspired the work.

The Conga drummer was featured in an extended solo on this tune. He was playing three congas, all tuned to different keys, and he sounded like he had six hands!!!  He was accompanied  only by other rhythm instruments. His solo was followed by an extended solo on the timbales.  It was an impressive demonstration of the art of Afro-Cuban percussion. I continue to be amazed by the level of virtuosity achieved by performers on these percussion instruments.

The final tune of this historic concert came from the song book of the late great Tito Rodriquez.  While its rhythms were typical Afro-Cuban and it was dance music, the horn arrangements display the advanced knowledge of blues harmonies and jazz ensemble arranging that is the hallmark of the New York Salsa sound in its big band Latin /Jazz expression begun by Machito and elaborated on by Nuyoricans.  Wynton soloed on this tune and he used a mute, which allowed him to scream, laugh and cry on his trumpet.  His sound was majestic!

The rhythm was an up-tempo Mambo of the sort made famous at places like the Palladium and all those fantastic nights at the Village Gate.  The bongo drummer got his moment on this tune and he thrilled the crowd with his virtuosity on those two little drums that look like toys.  I have watched bongo players for years – including the best ever, Mongo Santamaria – and it remains a mystery to me how they do what they do.  When the last note was sounded the audience rose to its feet in a prolonged and boisterous ovation!   Viva la musica!

 

Hangin With The Master Drummers!

Their Timbale and Conga Drumming Fired The Band

 

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 29, 2010

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-mU08nKt9M

Double Click to cee the Jazz ay Lincoln Center in Cuba, featuring the Cuban flautist Michel Herrera soloing.  The artist of traditional Cuban percussion instrunebts are also native Cubans.

 

Double Click to See The JALC Orchestra  at “Jazz Meets Clave” Concert

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnblSeb76L0

 

Double Click to hear Machito and his Afro-Cubans playing Cu-bop

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqeks0gDaF8

Double Click for Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra play Cubop

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nxthSkRT6g

This performance is at Lincoln Center in 1982,

Almost four decades  after he and Mario Bauza invented Cubop

An Evening Of Wynton Marsalis With Strings

Posted in Music Reviews with tags , , , on October 4, 2009 by playthell

The Best Ever

DSC_0582 Match 

 A Match Made In Nirvana

Of the many gifts that the beleaguered Crescent City has given to the world – Gumbo, Tennessee Williams and Ellen Digeneris among them – Louis Armstrong, who introduced the art of extended solo improvisation to the world, and Wynton Marsalis, multiple Grammy winner in Jazz and European concert music, holder of the Pulitzer Prize for composition, and Artistic Director of Jazz At Lincoln Center, are unique.  Not only do their life’s experiences demonstrate the claim that great artist can rise up from anywhere – Armstrong from the whore houses, dives and mean streets, while Wynton, like Mozart, was forged from an extended apprenticeship with a musically accomplished father, and later did stints at the prestigious Tanglewood music festival and Julliard School of Music – both of these New Orleans trumpeters extended the range of what was previously thought possible for performers on their instruments and enriched the vast tradition of western music with new ideas.

 This was, to say the least, no picayune accomplishment because the art of perfectly ordering and cultivating sound to produce the beautiful vibrations that we call music reached it’s apotheosis in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries with the rise of peerless geniuses such as – Bach, Vivaldi, Hyden, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Chopin, Schubert, et al – who composed the European classical tradition of instrumental music which set the standards for instrumental virtuosity.

 After the achievement of the European masters many serious students of music thought there was little of value anyone could add in the realm of organization, esthetics, or creative ideas.  And since the European system of melody and harmony performed on piano, viols, woodwinds, brass, etc produced the most beautiful and versatile sounds ever heard on this planet, for a while they were right.

 Until the ascendancy of the African American musician in the twentieth century, the dominance of European classical music as the sole art music of the western world went unchallenged. As the mid-twentieth century New York Times music critic Henry Pleasants – who was based in Europe for most of his career – points out in his uniquely learned and insightful book Serious Music and All that Jazz, no one had even added a new term to the lexicon of western musical terminology, largely invented by the Renaissance Italians, until the jazzmen came along.  Although Pleasants was the first “serious music” critic to recognize that Jazz was the classical music of America – a new music for a new civilization – it should have been obvious to anyone who was learned in music and not blinded by artistic or racial prejudice. 

 Like American civilization itself, Jazz is rooted in the European tradition but flowered into something different in the wilderness of North America. It is the sound of a civilization whose character – as was shown by the innovative historian Frederick Jackson Turner – was formed in the experience of constantly expanding frontiers.  It was an environment in which improvisation, personal initiative, and democratic decision making were indispensable to survival and progress. 

 Thus it is in the logic of things that the quintessential art form of such a civilization would be democratic, value individual liberty, promote innovation, and pulsate with the clockwork poly-rhythms of a machine age milieu.  Having grown up under the roof of pianist Ellis Marsalis – a master musician and teacher of the genre – surrounded by virtuosi such as the great clarinetist Alvin Batiste and legions of others who dwelled in New Orleans, then attending finishing school in the  Art Blakey band, Wynton swings like jazz is in his genes.

 As one of the world’s foremost trumpeters in the European tradition – one need only listen to his recordings of the most difficult masterworks of the European classical repertoire in order to recognize that this is no exaggeration – he has performed with some of the greatest string ensembles of this era in western music.  Thus Wynton is ideally suited to perform jazz music with strings, an idea that was once considered blasphemous!   But the recordings of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown with strings changed all that.  Yet as beautiful as these collaborations of idioms were, Wynton has taken it to a new level. 

            I think there are two reasons for the stunning artistic achievements we are treated to on Hot House Flowers and The Midnight Blues, the two Jazz albums that he recorded with strings.  First there are the superior arrangements; although “Brownie” and “Bird” sang with a soulful lyricism the arrangements were often corny and the strings were sometimes too loud.  But Wynton, in collaboration with his arrangers has solved those problems and given us some sonic masterpieces that entertains and enlightens, soothing the soul while stimulating the intellect.  

 Speaking of Hot House Flowers, Stanley Crouch, the peerless jazz critic and moving spirit behind the creation of JALC, obliterates the boundaries that separate prose from poetry in his description of the music.  “Yes, it all comes down,” he writes, “the harmonies full of idiomatic dissonance or siren sweetness, the notes that might as well have been stenciled with stardust on the night sky, the rhythms so celebratory, then the conjoined memories and dreams of the magic at the core of intimate majesty.”  Here we have art as critical statement, a comment worthy of its subject.

 As I listen to The Midnight Blues I hear a unique technical brilliance and the sensual eloquence of the blues moan unite in the service of song. The plaintive wail of Wynton’s trumpet on After You’ve Gone conjures up memories of the bitter sweet passion and pain of lost loves, I Got Lost in Her Arms inspires me to dance the Tango, It Never Entered My Mind makes me want to squeeze somebody gently and shower them with kisses, and The Midnight Blues makes my spirit strut.  It is my fondest hope that you will feel these things too when Maestro Sadin strikes up the band and we join Wynton in celebrating a quarter century of  accomplishing great things in this tempestuous business of music.  It is with but little alteration and no exaggeration that I paraphrase Shakespeare’s description of Othello “The elements so blended in him that all the world could see here stands a trumpet master.” For my money no one has ever done it as well, never mind better.

 

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Jazz At Lincoln Center

New York City

 

The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra!

Posted in Music Reviews with tags , , on September 23, 2009 by playthell

The Great Gerald Wilson!

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A Swinging Octogenarian  Leads the Band!

 

 Avatars of a Great Cultural Tradition

 Born in a period when the last radio station devoted to  programming classic acoustic Jazz, WRVR, had unceremoniously gone off the air  and replaced with Country Music here in the Big Apple – the jazz capitol of the world – and the art form itself seemed in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been the vehicle by which the Jazz department at Lincoln Center assumed it’s place as the pacesetter and savior of this quintessentially American art form. 

Thus it is no exaggeration to say that this aggregation of virtuoso musicians have served as the avant garde in the effort to rescue American culture from drowning in a sea of esthetic mediocrity and commercial banalities.  From the outset the mission of the orchestra was to breathe new life into a grand musical tradition that had evolved to a stage where it could rightfully take its place among the great art music of the world; but, alas, was being slowly starved to death by a lack of institutional support from the American cultural establishment. Who were far too busy genuflecting before the cultural artifacts of Europe to notice the impending death of the great American contribution to the classical culture of mankind.

Not only dose Jazz music require the highest standards of technical virtuosity from those musicians who aspire to master the form, but unlike the symphonic musician, who plays musical ideas notated by their composer, the jazz musician must also create the score as he conceives it at the time.  Hence the musician that would master the art of Jazz must be prepared to conjure up complex musical ideas – “blues and the abstract truth” as the great arranger Oliver Nelson called it – at the speed of thought. 

Furthermore, Jazz is the only arena of American culture that embodies the fundamental values of American civilization.  Jazz is democratic, values individual freedom, promotes innovation and invention, swings to the clockwork rhythms of a machine age world, and is infused with a sensibility shaped by the tragi/comic sensibility of the blues; that most American of musical modes.  Such a marvelous art is certainly worth preserving and taking its place as an integral part of the heritage of all mankind. 

There are special moments in the history of art when the birth of an important aesthetic movement can be traced to a specific time and place.  For instance Da Da, which emerged in the aftermath of the disaster of World War I and reflected the disillusionment of the European intelligentsia with modern technological civilization and the way it resolves international conflict, was born in the Café Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland.  And New York will surely be remembered in the history of art as the City in which Jazz was reborn.  Jazz at Lincoln Center will be remembered as the venue in which this act of cultural heroism occurred, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will be duly noted as the band of cultural warriors who rescued American culture from ignominy with their swinging axes.                                             

The Greatest!!

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 Master Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis

At the opening ceremonies of Jazz at Lincoln Center Manhattan Congressman Jerome Nadler celebrated the importance of the occasion with the pronouncement: “If Yankee Stadium can be called “The House that Ruth built, Jazz At Lincoln Center shall henceforth be known as: The House That Wynton Built!”   And the centerpiece of Wynton’s handiwork is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, of which the great  multi-Grammy wining bi-lingual trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize winning composer is Artistic Director and Conductor. 

 Wynton Conducting The Boys In The Band

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 The Lincoln Center Orchestra and Ghanaian Percussionist

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Deep In the Groove Soul to Soul!

 This band of peerless jazz virtuosi are the reigning masters of what the great cultural historian, theorist and musical critic Albert Murray -author of the seminal study “Stomping the Blues” and a artistic consultant to JALC at its inception – called “The fully orchestrated blues statement.”  From the outset the mission of this band of cultural warriors was not only to make great music, but also to do battle in defense of the art of jazzing by institutionalizing the mysterious alchemy by which the Jazz tradition has been able to produce world class musicians in the absence of musical conservatories. 

After correctly analyzing the process of educating the novice jazz musician by placing them under the tutelage of masters of the genre, much as master craftsman tutored apprentices in medieval guilds, they created an institution to accomplish this: the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  Aside from its incomparable musicianship this Orchestra is distinguished by its ability to play Jazz music from any era or style with authenticity.  I heard the Ellington Orchestra many times, and Basie too, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, to name a select few.  But none played this music better than the JALC Orchestra.  For my money they are the best ever:  the Muhammad Ali of Jazz bands: The Greatest!

 

Playthell  Benjamin

Winter Season, 2009

 * Photos - by Frank Stewart

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