BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

From New Orleans to New York: On The Care and Feeding of Jazz Culture

On a muggy Thursday evening in Manhattan last week, six musicians formed a loose brass band, with sousaphone, snare drum and such, and stood before a banner that read “Justice for Jazz Artists—Fairness. Dignity. Respect.”

Trumpeter Kevin Blancq, who grew up in New Orleans and has lived in New York City for 30 years, led the musicians through “Li’l Liza Jane,” a brass-band and traditional-jazz standard. This was a rally organized in cooperation with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians to promote ongoing efforts to get Manhattan’s key jazz clubs to contribute to a pension fund and to secure other rights, such as recording protections.

As they left Madison Sqaure Park, the musicians formed a miniature mock second-line parade, turning north on Park Avenue South and played “Bourbon Street Parade,” another standard of New Orleans repertoire. When they arrived at the Jazz Standard club, leaflets were handed out to the strains of “Mozartin’” composed by a Crescent City clarinetist and educator of great renown, Alvin Batiste.

Few would argue against the idea of pensions and other benefits for jazz musicians who play New York’s clubs. However, this particular initiative is complicated, folded as it is into an effort to expand the union’s scope of representation.

As James C. McKinley Jr. reported in a 2011 New York Times piece, after similar rallies were held in front of the Blue Note jazz club:

The disagreement between the union and club owners dates back to 2005, when union leaders joined the nightclubs to lobby the State Legislature for a reduction in the sales tax on tickets because the extra revenue would be used to pay for pension and health benefits…. The tax break was passed in 2006, but the union never hammered out a formal pact with the club owners.

As McKinley’s piece described, clubs have resisted the proposal for a variety of reasons.

That initiative is specific to New York City. Yet as I work on a book about “The fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means for America,” the rally’s choice of repertoire pointed, for me, to more than coincidence. Continue Reading

New Orleans Trumpeter Lionel Ferbos Dies at 103

I arrived in New Orleans the night after trumpeter Lionel Ferbos celebrated his 103rd birthday, which was July 17, at the Palm Court in the French Quarter, where he’d held a longstanding gig. On Saturday morning, word quickly passed that Ferbos had died.

As Keith Spera’s obituary in the Times-Picayune explained:

His life in music spanned the Roosevelt administration to the Obama administration, the Great Depression to the Internet era. Louis Armstrong was only 10 years his senior, but Mr. Ferbos outlived Armstrong by more than 40 years.

Mr. Ferbos was the personification of quiet dedication to one’s craft. Few people in his 7th Ward neighborhood realized he was a musician — they knew him as a tinsmith who had taken over his father’s sheet metal business. That occupation sustained him and his family for decades.

But he always nurtured a musical career on the side.

And there were some lovely quotes in there from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield:

“He proved that the greatness of the city of New Orleans is that ordinary people can be extraordinary on a daily basis…. Everyone has an opportunity to be something special. The culture gives us the opportunity. He was an example of that.”

Ferbos liked to say that he was “a melody man,” which is to say that he knew a lot of tunes and the correct way to state each melody. Continue Reading

Speaking Truth to Power, and Embracing Beauty: Bassist Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

Bassist Charlie Haden in 2010/photo by Steven Perilloux

In conversation as on the bandstand, where he played his bass with graceful authority and achieved great renown, Charlie Haden was both soft-spoken and outspoken. In his life and his music, he was exceedingly gentle, drawn to simple beauty yet also at home within wild complexity and unafraid of controversial ideas and hard truths.

Haden, who died on Friday morning at 76, was a towering figure of American music. His influence and appeal reached into all quarters of jazz, and well beyond that genre. His ability to innovate helped sparked at least one musical revolution, as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. His unerring sense of time and love of melody anchored and focused many distinguished bands, some of which he led. His radiant humanity and stalwart voice for social justice was both rare and powerful in any field.

As Nate Chinen reported in a New York Times obituary:

His death was confirmed by Ruth Cameron, his wife of 30 years. For the last several years he had been struggling with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, related to the polio he contracted in his youth.

Charles Edward Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, on Aug. 6, 1937 into a distinctly musical family, and grew up in Springfield, Mo. Long before he helped seed what is known as “free jazz” while in his early twenties as a member of Coleman’s group, along with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, before he spent a decade in another landmark quartet led by pianist Keith Jarrett, alongside saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Paul Motian, before he formed his Liberation Music Orchestra, which blended avant-garde, big-band jazz, Latin American folk traditions with bold political statements, and showcased the compositions and arrangements of pianist Carla Bley, before his Quartet West, which played noir ballads inspired by Raymond Chandler novels and movie themes, before he worked with nearly any musician one could name on jazz’s radar and good many off that screen too, he was known as “Cowboy Charlie,” singing his way into listeners hearts at the tender age of two on his parents’ country-music radio show, “Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family.” Continue Reading

New Film Captures Nat Hentoff, Still Gloriously Out Of Step at 89

Nat Hentoff at work in his office in Greenwich Village, 2010. Photo by David L. Lewis

Nat Hentoff likes to say he was an “itinerant subversive” from the beginning. Growing up in a then predominantly Jewish Roxbury neighborhood within an otherwise largely anti-Semitic Boston, he grew defiantly individual and developed a strong sense of social justice while still quite young. In his memoir, “Boston Boy,” he recalled his defining moment of rebellion at age 12—eating a large salami sandwich on Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement, while sitting on his family’s porch. He enjoyed not so much “that awful sandwich” as the experience of rebellion, combined with the knowledge of “how it felt to be an outcast.”

That sentiment is amplified by a phrase from one of Hentoff’s memoirs that provides the title for a wonderful new documentary about Hentoff by director David L. Lewis: “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” (There’s also a companion book, published by CUNY Journalism Press.)

On the film’s website, Lewis describes the film and its subject:

Pleasures profiles legendary jazz writer and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, whose career tracks the greatest cultural and political movements of the last 65 years. The film is about an idea as well as a man – the idea of free expression as the defining characteristic of the individual.

Hentoff is a pioneer who raised jazz as an art form and was present at the creation of ‘alternative’ journalism in this country. Pleasures wraps the themes of liberty and identity around a historical narrative that stretches from the Great Depression to the Patriot Act.

In his recent New York Times piece, Larry Rohter provided some good context: Continue Reading

New Orleans—Not Disney & Not Williamsburg

A new tourism campaign promotes “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”

As I sit and wrestle with the issues that swirl beneath the working title of the book I’m writing—“Marching With Saints: The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Since the Flood, and What It Means for America”—I’m forced to reflect on fears many of us shared in 2005 about the future for New Orleans, and to consider the ironic manifestations of these worries.

I recall feeling uneasy about the title and subtitle that Salon placed atop an October 2005 essay of mine—“America’s New Jazz Museum! (No Poor Black People Allowed): Jazz musicians warn against the Disneyfication of New Orleans.”

Yet eventually I warmed to such sensationalism; there were truths in there.

The idea of a Disneyfied New Orleans was a common theme then and now. In the December 2007 issue of The Journal of American History, an essay by J. Mark Souther (whose excellent book, “New Orleans on Parade,” I’m working my way through a second time) considered the matter in great depth. Here’s how he opened:

The idea of a “Disneyfied” New Orleans is not new. Walt Disney, referring to the city’s Bourbon and Royal streets, once remarked, “Where else can you find iniquity and antiquity so close together?” Sharing the assessment of the local author Harnett Kane that the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, “means New Orleans to the outside world,” Disney added New Orleans Square, a cleaner, shinier replica of the city’s most noted district, to his southern California theme park in 1966. New Orleans leaders, developers, and preservationists, meanwhile, were producing an urban space that, if not as controlled as its Disneyland counterpart, nevertheless invited comparisons.

Souther ended by sounding this warning:

…. Such continued attention to the tourist hub, along with discussion of a “reduced footprint” for the city, conveniently salvages the Disneyfied facade seen by tourists, while writing off the hidden areas where tourism’s laborers lived and its culture thrived. Indeed, Katrina’s flooding consumed the 80 percent of New Orleans that tourists rarely saw, including the notorious Lower Ninth Ward and part of Tremé. Perhaps the countless tourists, trying to make sense of a national tragedy in their own way by straying from the well-worn paths scripted by promoters, may compel New Orleans leaders to recast their city in ways that educate, enlighten, and encourage reform. If not, New Orleans, with its French Quarter ever at the forefront, may well recapture its pre-Katrina reputation as a “Creole Disneyland.”

A post from Sarah Chase titled “The Disneyfication of New Orleans is an Actual Thing” at the NOLA Curbed site made mention of Souther’s essay, as well as the “DizneyLandrieu” brochure that was, as she put it, “the throw of Krewe du Vieux this year” during Mardi Gras season. (That brochure bore the subtitle, “Mitchey Mayor’s Gentrified Kingdom,” the implication being that this was something less than the “happiest place on earth” for locals and lovers of all things New Orleans.)

Chase’s real point was to alert us to some unwelcome irony: “….But for New Orleans to actually use a Disney character to tout tourism? Oh, it’s happening.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune described “a new collaboration with the Walt Disney Company using the character Tiana from the film ‘The Princess and the Frog’ to pitch the city as a family destination…. The campaign presents family attractions as recommended by Tiana, giving people a view of “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”

“So where does this Tiana chick like to go?” Chase asked. “Jackson Square, Cafe du Monde, the zoo, Audubon Park, City Park, the Steamboat Natchez, St. Louis Cathedral, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.”

The animated Disney film “The Princess and the Frog” did introduce theatergoers to a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis, whose horn was actually played by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, thus acknowledging meaningful New Orleans musical tradition. Still, the whole idea of this promotion seems tone deaf to the fears and hopes of anyone steeped in that sort of music and what it stands for and reflects.

I recall standing at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Alex Rawls, then-editor of the local music monthly Offbeat and who now blogs at My Spilt Milk. Rawls told me:

“The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. But the danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing.”

Which brings me to a piece by Joah Spearman for Huffington Post titled “Will New Orleans Reach Its Potential?” Continue Reading

Not Their Fathers’ Afro Latin Jazz: Yosvany Terry & Arturo O’Farrill

Arturo O'Farrill (left, Courtesy Afro Jazz Alliance), and Yosvany Terry (photo by Victor Strannik) via Wikicommons

Arturo O'Farrill (left, Courtesy Afro Jazz Alliance) & Yosvany Terry (Victor Strannik via Wikicommons)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The most exciting storyline right now in New York City jazz and the most invigorating music  most often comes from players with Afro Latin roots. That fact, and the specifics of these musical projects, says much about a broadened landscape for what used to be called (but thankfully no longer can) ”Latin jazz,”  its elemental value to whatever we call “jazz,” and to the cultural melting pot that is New York. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, my review piece discusses new CDs from alto saxophonist and composer Yosvany Terry (who also plays a mean chekeré) and pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill, whose Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is my favorite large ensemble in this city. In my 900 or so words, I couldn’t possibly do justice to the fine details of each recording—the breadth of the compositions, created by composers with roots throughout this hemisphere, on O’Farrill’s “The Offense of the Drum,” for instance, or the all-star pedigrees of the players in Terry’s Ye-Dé-Gbe group on his “New Throned King” that lend wonderful cohesion to his blend of arará ritual (from the former West African kingdom of Dahomey) and modern jazz improvisation.

Terry has digested the full range of alto-sax jazz language; his horn sounds with an elegant force and forms an unusual complement to the sung chants from Pedrito Martinez, who is both a master of Afro Cuban folkloric vocal tradition and, to me, one of the world’s great voices in any idiom. He’s also a master percussionist who here functions as part of trio of masters (with Román Díaz, whose brilliance I know well, and Sandy Pérez, who I hadn’t heard before. Listening to Terry’s new CD was a revelation for me, for both the further ascent it represents in terms of his talent and for its reflection of his deepened investigation into arará, a tradition that is not so well known in the U.S. Catching the CD-release performance at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard was an even more stirring experience, with dancer Francisco Barroso, in traditional costumes, bringing home the fact that this music is meant for dance, and has a functional value. In Terry’s hands, modern jazz is a ritual music, and traditions like arará invite sophisticated innovation.

O’Farrill’s CD is an outgrowth of his orchestra’s concert season, which is the best if not the only place to hear newly commissioned works from Afro Latin composers for big band. Good as O’Farrill’s title composition for this CD is, there’s an even better one O’Farrill presented recently during an Apollo Theater concert called “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite”: Through trumpet fanfares and other details, O’Farrill made reference to “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark work by his father, the late Chico O’Farrill, within a piece that exploded a previous generation’s aesthetic in something beyond genres borders.

You can find my review of these two new CDs here, or simply continue reading:

Continue Reading

Harvey Pekar, Paul Shapiro & Me: No Garden-Variety Jews

It was a distinct honor and the oddest of pleasures to edit Harvey Pekar’s work for Jazziz magazine in the late 1990s. When I saw the film based on his life and celebrating his work, “American Splendor,” I wondered if I was part of the composite editor Harvey referred to simply as “asshole” in a scene wherein Harvey can’t find his Ornette Coleman recording, and needed to file his review. I remember well the phone call in which Harvey called me a “garden variety Jew” in a combative tone when I queried his commentary about Sephardic musical themes, in a review about a John Zorn album.

Which brings me to Paul Shapiro, a wonderful tenor saxophonist I first heard during his long tenure with the Microscopic Septet. Shapiro is a player Harvey would love; I imagine Harvey wrote about him at some point. My point of connection for all of the above is that Shapiro has a new album, Shofarot Verses within the Radical Jewish Culture Series of Zorn’s Tzadik label, which interprets last of three sections of the Musaf (additional) service recited on Rosh Hashanah. Here, as in his other work, Shapiro reflects the seriousness of musical purpose, natural sense of humor and essential Jewishness embodied in Harvey’s work, too.

To celebrate, there’s a comic strip in the tradition of Pekar (this was his favorite mode of communication), written by Jeff Newelt, and drawn by Joseph Remnant. (both worked with Pekar on his final graphic novel “Cleveland”).

If you’re in New York City, there’a a “Shofarot Verses” launch concert June 19, 2014 at Eldridge Street Synagogue.

And all of this gives me good excuse to pull out an short piece in memory of Harvey that I filed for Jazziz after his death, in 2010, below: Continue Reading

Dr. Billy Taylor Way Honors A Pianist Where He Lived

Credit: William Gottlieb/ Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr

New York City has quite a few streetsigns that honor iconic jazz musicians where they once lived. The corner of 88th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan is “Arturo ‘Chico’ O’Farrill Place,” for the Latin jazz bandleader and composer who died in 2001. My favorite, at the cul-de-sac on West 63rd Street, off West End Avenue, is “Thelonious Sphere Monk Circle” (though it took a while for the city to get that one right).

Perhaps no musician is more deserving of such an honor than pianist Billy Taylor, because he quite literally brought jazz to New York’s streets in exalted and empowering fashion. Taylor will get his due when East 138th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, near where he raised his family, gets dubbed “Dr. Billy Taylor Way” through a ceremony from 4-6pm on June 21. (The page on the Harlem Cultural Archives website says “bring your lawnchair and enjoy the festivities.”)

That’s just the sort of invitation Taylor offered New Yorkers in all five boroughs through JazzMobile, the nonprofit music organization he founded in 1964 with arts patron Daphne Arnstein. Jazzmobile’s annual Summerfest stood as the city’s oldest continuous summer event devoted to jazz, reaching 100,000 listeners annually, mostly where they live. A wheeled float transported by pickup truck served as the stage at most sites, setting up shop for a night in one community or another.

Taylor, who enjoyed a storied musical career (he was house pianist at Birdland during its heyday) and served as arts correspondent for CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning” and for National Public Radio), reflected on all that in 2010, just months before his death, for a Wall Street Journal piece.

As he explained, in 1964, after hearing of plans to reduce arts programs in New York schools, he used his then-daily radio show on local station WLIB as his pulpit. Continue Reading

A Son’s Tribute to the Father of Many Things: Celebrating Ornette

Ornette and Denardo Coleman, in 1969/ photo courtesy of the artist

The musicians who’ll gather Thursday evening (June 12) at the bandshell in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for Celebrate Ornette: The Music Of Ornette Coleman” come from all over music’s landscape.

Such range is fitting, as is the concert’s site. Coleman is most clearly identified as an iconic jazz master and a founding father of free jazz (a term that, despite its muddied meaning today, signified something as the title of Coleman’s 1961 LP). Yet as an alto saxophonist (as well as on trumpet and violin), and as a bandleader and composer, it’s fair to say that Coleman, now 84, is father to the ideas that drive and distinguish the best modern jazz (maybe even what makes it ‘modern’), and the most innovative music across a range of other styles. His music befits the rolling hills and trees of Prospect Park: It, too, is an engineered environment brilliant enough to celebrate what is natural and organic.

Ornette Coleman is also father to Denardo Coleman, a drummer who first played on one of his father’s recordings at age 10. Now 58, Denardo still generates from his trap set the firm but subtle pulses that define his father’s rhythmic sensibility; he’ll do so at the helm of a quintet that will serve as Thursday’s house band.

Denardo also projects both the air of compassion and dismissal of convention that are bedrock attitudes of his father’s work. Those two qualities more than any stylistic sense form the logical thread through the list of musicians on this program, presented jointly by Celebrate Brooklyn and the Blue Note Jazz Festival: Henry Threadgill, James Blood Ulmer, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Ravi Coltrane, Bill Laswell, Bruce Hornsby, Flea, David Murray, Geri Allen,  Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka and Thurston Moore, among others (perhaps including Ornette).

As a critic and journalist, I’ve written about Ornette Coleman’s music and interviewed him many times through the years. (Here’s one Wall Street Journal piece from a decade ago.) As a father, I’ve been able to share Ornette’s music with my boy, Sam. As a human being, I just like to live in the world this music calls up whenever I can: This concert promises to be a communion, onstage and off, of folks who feel the same way.

Continue Reading

New York’s Vision Festival Honors Its Heroes And Gathers Its Tribe

Charles Gayle will be honored for Lifetime Achievement on the opening night of this year's Vision Festival.

To call New York City’s annual Vision Festival this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians is both true and incomplete.

The music is world-class, sure, and never predictable or rote. As bassist William Parker, one of the event’s founding figures, told me for a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece: “The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define. Nobody does notated pieces. There is improvisation in each band, which sometimes comes out of jazz, sometimes blues or world music or European music or just what I call the X-factor.”

So there’s that X-factor.

There’s also dance, poetry, film, visual art, not to mention the one thing absent from most of the festivals that dot New York from June through August—a true and deep sense of community.

That community is filled with musicians who defy easy description. Some, like Cooper Moore, design and build their own instruments. Some, like Parker, don’t so much bend rules as craft their own systems for musical development. Even in such a context, this year’s honoree for Lifetime Achievement (there’s one showcased at each Vision Fest), Charles Gayle, stands out—for the peculiar beauty of his music and his unwavering pursuit of elusive truths through art. Not to mention his versatility: Gayle, a singularly expressive saxophonist, is also a compelling player on piano and bass.

On opening night of this year’s festival, which runs from June 11 through June 15 at Brooklyn’s Roulette, Gayle will play all three instruments in separate sets during an evening in his honor. The last of these features an all-star “Vision Artist Orchestra” that includes tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Jordan is revered as an educator and mentor in his hometown, New Orleans, yet his music is rarely heard and not often genuinely appreciated there. At the Vision Festival each year, Jordan is received in deserving fashion, as a conquering hero. Continue Reading