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Phil talks about 1959 and John Coltrane’s GIANT impact on the world of jazz
Gerard Cox talks about social media, history, and being an ally as a non-POC jazz musician
What’re You Spinning features a journey which involves the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, Byron Stripling, Deborah Brown, the European Jazz Scene of the 1980s and James Baldwin.
But to start:
Verity Rhythm // Dionne Custer Edwards
As Phil Sees It // Phil Maneri
Monday March 2 1959 was a chilly 40°, clear sky, not quite spring day in New York City. John Coltrane with his Tenor sax stepped into “The Church” ‘on Manhattan’s lower east side.
This was Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio where he joined Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. There, in a huge 100 year old converted Armenian church with a beautiful high ceiling they laid down “So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, and “Blue in Green” for the now legendary Miles Davis record “Kinda Blue”. Perhaps the most famous jazz recording in history, and certainly the best selling jazz record of all time. They had another session booked there for the other two songs, “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” that took place April 22, 1959, some 51 days later.
In between those two dates on an unusually cold 30° March 26, 1959, John Coltrane brought his new charts, Naima and Giant Steps into Atlantic Studios up by Central Park on Broadway. They would become anther jazz monolith record “Giant Steps”. That studio was small and spartan compared to “The Church”. There he cut tracks with Cedar Walton on piano and Lex Humphries on drums with Paul Chambers again on Bass. They had rehearsed those charts together a month or so before, but the sessions were underwhelming and eventually scrapped. Walton recounts thinking the charts were too hard so he declined to solo on the session. He regretted that choice thinking it lost him the gig and a place in iconic jazz history.
Coltrane again entered the same studio on May 4 and 5 of 1959 with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor and then Jimmy Cobb on drums to track what would be the final masters for the epic “Giant Steps”. Flanagan took a now famous solo instead of waiving off like Walton. The result made Flanagan the butt of jazz jokes for all time given his seriously underwhelming take on the tune.
Meanwhile back in The Cathedral late April the last two tracks from Kinda Blue were cut. The players were in a jovial mood. On outtakes you can hear them joking about the noise of the floor when they moved around on their stools. Very different than the fear of the chart Giant Steps.
Within two month two of the most iconic records in Jazz history were made within two and half miles of each other with a couple of the same players. One could argue that while “Kinda Blue” is the most important jazz record with jazz fans, “Giant Steps” may be the most important record to Jazz musicians. Nobody escapes the trial by fire that is Giant Steps somewhere in their jazz education. The release dates were 6 month apart separated by a year with Kinda Blue being released in August of 1959, and Giant Steps February of 1960. By casual glance one wouldn’t know how close in time and space those sessions were and how cross pollinated.
John Coltrane and Paul Chambers are the common denominators. Coltrane is the axis they swirl around while Chambers is the anchor. True, Miles Davis and Bill Evans were the Architects of Kinda Blue with Coltrane a sideman; but Coltrane’s composition “Giant Steps” was far more complex, it mystified everyone when it came out. Is it an extension of Kinda Blue? Perhaps, but more accurately it’s an extension of the years leading up to it.
Just two years prior to the first Kinda Blue session Coltrane was fired by Miles for his continuous drug issues. That was enough for Coltrane to kick the habit. After detoxing himself he began a two year stint working with Thelonious Monk. This is documented on Riverside Records “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, The Complete April and July Riverside Recordings”. His cleaner mind and intense collaboration with Monk launched his understanding of his music that would lead to his contribution to Kinda Blue and his compositions on Giant Steps as a leader.
No one knew after Coltrane was fired in 1957 that 10 years later he would be dead. In the interim he would assemble one of the greatest quartets in Jazz; John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Together they pushed each other from 1962-1965 creating some of the greatest ensemble jazz ever heard including the masterpiece “A Love Supreme” in December 1964. His 10 years stint from cleaning up after being fired by Miles was a flash in the pan that morphed jazz forever.
In a chilly spring of 1959 in New York City, two month and two miles apart, Jazz exploded and would never be the same.
How White Jazz Musicians Can Be A Part of the Solution // Gerard Cox
During the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd I happened to see a post on Facebook by a musician asking “What can white jazz musicians do to help fight racism in this country?” The way commenters responded was mostly advice that would be relevant to any white person: “listen”, “don’t center yourself”, “think about the ways you are passively complicit”, etc. I think the question is actually worth engaging with more specificity to the role though. As I see it, there are things specific to being a white jazz musician in America in 2020 that I think would invite ways of helping on a day-to-day basis that are actually particular to their reality and the context they find themselves in. The thrust of this article isn’t even so much about the present moment but that point at which musicians really go back to playing gigs and there’s an active scene again. At that point I am hopeful that with not only jazz but so many other things that there can be a true “reboot”- a chance to develop new habits of thought and action that may be helpful toward racial and social justice. So this article is an attempt to try and chart a course in that respect. I don’t expect the things I suggest here are things that no one has thought about or tries to act upon. I think there’s value in putting a lot of these issues on the table at once though, not only because a lot of them are related issues but also because we will often talk about one or the other but not see them in totality where we really get the wider view.
1) Go deeper with the history of this country, be a sponge for the oral history of jazz– I could sit here and tell you that jazz is an African-American art form or that it was a miraculous creation born in no small part out of the history of white oppression, but it will be so much more meaningful to you if you actually read lots of history and come to see this on your own. We don’t need people saying this because they just think it’s the right thing to say or they are afraid to say otherwise. We need people saying it because they have frankly learned it to be the truth for themselves. And the history is all there. If this were merely an ideological conviction and not something born out through tons of actual, documented history, I wouldn’t offer this challenge. As well as really knowing and understanding the history of this country, I also would like to see all white musicians make a point of soaking in all the oral history of jazz that they can. This is where you really find out about the CULTURE of jazz. Jazz education might do many things well but one thing it doesn’t do very well is in transmitting the oral history of the music. And truth be told, it’s not so easy these days to find older musicians who can lay all kinds of heavy stories and wisdom on you. The loss of jazz greats in the past 20 years has been immeasurable. If you can’t find elders to talk to though, there are plenty of resources which try to fill the gap. PLEASE check out The Fillius Jazz Archive on YouTube: it’s an amazing compilation of musician interviews where the interviewer does a good job of staying out of the way and just letting the musicians speak on their own terms. Please also read some of the great jazz interview compilations and biographies that have been published over the years. Art Taylor’s “Notes and Tones” and AB Spellman’s “Four Lives in The Bebop Business” (about Ornette, Jackie McLean, Cecil, and Herbie Nichols) loom large in my mind.
2) Don’t be passively complicit in self-segregation. I accept that people from different backgrounds can often have some different aesthetic values and that you can’t just throw together a bunch of talented black and white musicians together for the sake of integration and expect some great band will necessarily result. I also accept that there’s a level of social comfort that people have with those who have similar backgrounds to themselves and that this is a factor in bands coming together and in staying together. At the same time though, I do know it’s a point of pride for many jazz musicians to feel strongly that they are “all about the music” and so will readily partake in any band or project they find musically fulfilling no matter who, where, or when. I also don’t know any white jazz musicians who think it’s in any way cool to only play or mostly play just with other white guys. And yet, we all know this is still really, really common. Perhaps then, social comfort is sometimes having the last word over “being all about the music”? The thing is too, we don’t even have to look at this just in terms of black and white musicians either. There are people who still clearly play mostly with the people they went to college with and rarely deviate from that circle. There are people who only play with others from their very same generation, or only with other men. Brandon Scott Coleman often talks about the unfortunate divide between “academic” and “street” or self-taught players and how there’s very little intermixing and it’s really to the detriment of each– how some really cool music might happen if they could get together more. People just get ensconced in their circles though and because there’s such a level of comfort and ease involved, don’t feel motivated to break out of them. If you’re uncomfortable with the self-segregation that you see though, then instead of being passively complicit, take the lead in trying to put together mixed bands that not only account for race/ethnicity but gender and age as well. As it turns out there is not only a great social reason for this but a creative one as well. Different perspectives can and often do enrich a musical situation.
3) Be mindful of not centering white musicians and their aesthetic values. “Mindfulness” is the key here. Ethnocentricity- or the tendency to see things more or less entirely through the prism of your own culture’s values, is not an evil in and of itself and not anything specific to white people. Not examining it critically and assuming it is righteous however IS a problem though and is often what leads to one culture co-opting something that another people came up with. A topical example of ethnocentricity is how when we are children it’s extremely common to have posters of athletes and musicians on our wall “who look like us”. I think this is a fairly innocent thing that kids of all backgrounds go through. It is actually the same reason there’s an impetus for Black kids to have Black heroes in film and in comic books. As a child that kind of ability to readily identify with role models and heroes through image is really important to developing self-esteem. As an adult though, we’re completely capable of identifying with people who don’t look or talk like us based on the substance in them that we find appealing. So if you as a white jazz musician were to tell me that most of your favorite jazz musicians are white guys, if you rattle off “Chris Potter, Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chad Leifkotwitz-Brown” well- I’m honestly going to raise my eyebrows a bit. No I don’t think you’re a bad person, no- I don’t automatically assume you are a racist. I do however, instantly wonder whether you may be unaware of your own ethnocentricity though, because to be into all white musicians or mostly white musicians would seem to suggest that so many great black musicians don’t truly speak your language (in spite of the fact that the vast majority of stylistic pioneers in jazz have been Black musicians). I accept that there are differences in aesthetics and today’s jazz is more “pluralistic” than in the past, but frankly if you don’t have ANY favorite musicians who are black like, it makes me wonder if you really like jazz writ large or just what white people have done with it. This issue is also totally relevant to what gets pushed and promoted in jazz. If you think that the fact the vast majority of jazz writers and publicists are white has no bearing on what is deemed “important” and the consensus that emerges around different musicians and bands, then respectfully I just don’t think you’ve been paying enough attention. Look at who makes magazine covers, who headliners are, who wins polls. It may not be as bad as it was in 1952, but it’s absolutely still an issue. White jazz musicians need to question ethnocentricity and bias in jazz education as well. Dr. Michael Goecke has a dissertation about this subject that is available online and I highly encourage you to read it and reflect on the issues that he raises.
4) Be mindful about not essentializing and other-ing jazz played by black musicians. A few years ago there was a scandal at Berklee when some white jazz students were spotted on an internet forum mocking and deriding the music of Kenny Garrett and Branford Marsalis as “brotha jazz”. This is not only completely upside-down (black musicians invented this music, they didn’t create some sort of weird “spin”on it after the fact. If anything that’s white people…)- it also underlines what I think is actually still a fairly common attitude that white people have towards jazz played by black musicians. It’s super bluesy and “churchy.” It’s “soul-drenched”. It’s virtuosically rhythmic. All of these cliches and then some. I think many white people, even those who are educated and consider themselves non-racist and open-minded, are still low-key swayed by the old racist “noble savage” idea, e.g. that when they play/sing something that is either deeply “soulful” or hyper-prodigious (think Charlie Parker, Art Tatum) that it’s not something they even have any real control over- like it’s just this unconscious native genius taking hold. I think this idea is just engrained in our culture. It’s the reason people tend to talk about a black musician’s “talents” or “gifts” instead of wondering how hard they’ve had to work at it. The bottom line though is that it is perceived as something “other”– something so different in nature that it’s looked upon as exotic and both completely natural and somehow “unnatural” in the same breath. A related issue is how white people feel about white musicians playing in a very bluesy and gutbucket kind of style, or how anybody feels about black musicians who don’t have any interest in playing in an overtly bluesy or “soulful” manner. Are both of these kinds of musicians doing something they’re somehow “not supposed to do”? Do we look at the way people choose to play as somehow showing either cultural allegiance or disloyalty? Is that right? Are we more interested in personal expression or being able to typecast people based on what they seem like they should be about?
5) Be aware of who you’re not acknowledging, unintentionally or not. In running Filament the last few years, I observed all kinds of different interactions between musicians and audience members; most of them very positive and nothing out-of-the-norm. We would have mixed audiences fairly often though and something I noticed over time is that on set break or after the show many white musicians would solicit conversations with white audience members who were in attendance, but for the most part wouldn’t extend themselves to the black audience members present nearly to the same extent. Do I think they were being racist or purposely ignoring the black audience members? No, I don’t think so- it was more likely just the ethnocentric and social comfort thing at play again. I think one of the most important day-to-day things white musicians and presenters can do though is to make the first step: to extend a greeting and a friendly smile even when you don’t know how the interaction is going to go or if it’s going to awkward in some way. Think about how often black people are in a majority white environment, and think how you would feel if everyone ignored you or didn’t try to engage you in any meaningful way. The fact is, most jazz audiences anymore are majority white and it’s probably a pretty bizarro scene for the few black patrons to feel like a distinct minority when they know the music came from their own people. Would one musician introducing themselves and thanking the black patron sincerely for coming out make all the difference? No, probably not- but I do think simple gestures of engagement and humanity like this make way more of a difference than we tend to think about. Bottom line too is that no black patron at a jazz show should ever feel like they are somehow not welcome or out-of-place. Stop and think about how crazy that is for a second.
6) Find meaningful, respectful ways to be inclusive. If you are a white jazz musician in some position of power, it’s incumbent on you to try and be inclusive in your programming or your coverage. However, while there is an understandable urgency to be corrective- to make sure that black artists are being represented now and not “later”, it’s also important to do this in a way that is meaningful, respectful, and sustainable. To this end as I see it it’s all about building strong and viable relationships with Black artists. What I’ve noticed fairly often is that arts organizations and presenters, in the desire to have “diversity”, will basically engage in tokenistic inclusion. It’s always pretty transparent when this is the case. It usually just screams “last-minute addition” or round peg in a square hole. Working relationships are by definition not transient or awkward like this. Instead of obligatory “strange bedfellows”, find the Black artists that you respect so much that you naturally want to advocate for them and build relationships with them. This is a much stronger basis for inclusion. Instead of- you’re on this festival committee and you realize the program is way too white so you scramble to find a Black perfomer or two, you were already making plans from the outset with the people you’ve built relationships with.
7) Last but not least, please for the love of God stop getting butthurt over Nicholas Payton and #BAM. I had to mention this one before I go; I think it’s actually a very teling microcosm. So..if you haven’t already seen this rerun played over at least 25 times- whenever Nicholas Payton issues a new blog that asserts the primacy of Black expression in jazz or discusses all the ways he thinks white people have co-opted Black American Music- it predictably causes TONS of defensiveness and anger with many white musicians. The main thing as I’ve perceived it over time in this is that they feel threatened or like their validity as a jazz musician is being called into question. The way they read Payton’s views is that if Black expression and Black aesthetics are at the heart of jazz, then by definition you as a white “jazz musician” are basically just a second-rate imitator. Inauthentic. This isn’t actually where he’s coming from at all, but this is how a lot of white musicians seem bent on hearing it. It’s the same when you have somebody laying out who they think all the greatest jazz innovators are and they end being almost entirely Black. There are always the “what about?” people who take umbrage at this and want to claim that Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Mel Lewis, whomever- are being unfairly excluded and that a list like this is somehow intended to make white musicians feel small. Here’s the thing though. Do you feel like your people are being unfairly excluded? Feel like you don’t quite belong or aren’t quite welcome? Feel unduly judged because you’re just trying to play the very best you can? Hmmmm…so maybe this is actually a great and necessary learning experience! – as any white musician having these feelings might start to appreciate more what it’s like to feel like “the other” and to feel discriminated against for reasons that they believe aren’t fair or which discount their good intentions. So instead of lashing out and directing that anger and frustration toward the author, instead of riding the wave of your self-righteous indignation, just allow yourself to experience those feelings and think about what it must be like on a daily basis. And as far as being kept out or being unwelcome? Please. That’s utter paranoia. Black musicians and audiences have always tended to be very accepting of any white musicians “who can play”. That’s always been the ethos and the bottom line and it’s as fair as fair gets.
What’re You Spinning? // Alex Burgoyne
This week, I wanted to share a bit about the journey I had discovering this album:
Through an archiving project at work, I’ve been unearthing some old Columbus Jazz Orchestra recordings (if you’d like to check them out, do so on INSTAGRAM and then on YOUTUBE). This past week, we featured one from 2004 featuring Deborah Brown and artistic director Byron Stripling in a show titled “Ella and Louis – Together Again.”
I’ve heard Byron doing the Louis and Ella thing a bunch through my work with the CJO and in his performances online, but I hadn’t ever heard Deborah Brown.
Deborah hails from Kansas City, but has travelled extensively to perform. Like many jazz musicians of the time, Deborah spent much of the 80s and early 90s touring, culminating with a 12 year residency in Europe.
The European scene, starting as early as the 60s, was always more welcoming and lucrative for black musicians. Because of the rich tradition of classical music there, and the diverse collection of cultures and traditions, the mixing of American jazz resulted in a new audience and a real demand for singers and horn players to play. Jazz musicians, particularly black jazz musicians, were consistently undervalued and underpaid in America. In Europe, they were in high demand, and welcomed with open arms.
“The 80s represented a virtual explosion of interest in jazz with more combinations of European and American musicians. There had always been a tradition of an American soloist (usually a horn player) playing with a European rhythm section. That trend increased during the 80s when even lesser known musicians were being invited to play with Europeans.”Dave Liebman
Byron became aware of Deborah during this time, but didn’t play with her until a few years later for an Ella and Louis concert (I can’t find information on this concert online anywhere, but Byron Remembers it preceding Deborah’s CJO appearance by a year or two). He had only been named Artistic Director for the CJO one year before.
At some point, Deborah met a man named David Linx, a singer, composer lyricist, producer and multi-instrumentalist from Belgium. Linx had a career in Europe working with both American and European jazz stars in the 80s.
During the 80s, Linx met novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, activist, James Baldwin, who had for the most part lived in Paris since the late 40s. . (HERE is a NY Times article about the re-release of “A Lover’s Question” from 1999 which features a story about their meeting.) There’s quite a bit about Baldwin in Europe, and his time with Linx, whom he would begin to see as an adopted son. Much like the jazz musicians of the time, Baldwin felt that Europe was more welcoming to him, and many of the thinkers and writers who for a variety of reasons didn’t get the attention or respect they were looking for in America (HERE is a great interview of Baldwin by Richard Goldstein, the subject of homosexuality and European-ism at the forefront).
In 1987, Linx and Baldwin with Belgian jazz guitarist, Pierre VanDormael wrote and recorded (with more than 10 additional performers) “A Lover’s Question.” Featuring American Saxophonists, Steve Coleman and Byard “Thunderbird” Lancaster, the great composer/arranger/trombonist Slide Hampton, and the aforementioned Deborah Brown, to name a few.
The album was released on an independent Belgian label, Les Disques Du Crépuscule in 1990. The idea was to have, “Baldwin read poems while Linx and company built a funky, elastic jazz backing.”
“Baldwin’s writing lends itself well to the improvisational nature of jazz. ‘His writing was very close to jazz,’ affirms Linx. ‘James had a sense of improvisation and with him, as with many writers, there was the wish to be a musician.’ Indeed, Baldwin once wrote that he had modeled himself on jazz musicians rather than other writers – especially on Miles Davis and Ray Charles – who ‘sing a kind of universal blues’.”Garth Cartwright, Independent
The thing I liked about the journey of finding this record is the same reason I liked the record: I didn’t know much of anything going in to it and was completely shocked at every new detail. The music is up my alley in a way most music from the 80s is not. And Deborah’s singing alongside Baldwin’s poetry, and Steve Coleman’s saxophone playing is a perfect combination.
Do yourself a favor and spend an hour with this piece of art. Baldwin, like nearly everything I’ve read by him, paints a picture of life through prose like nobody else. It’s beautiful and strange and as powerful then as it is today.