Sunday, December 21, 2014

Billy Berg: Los Angeles' Jazz Nightlife Ace - KCET's Artbound

Billy Berg's souvenir photo from 1946. (Courtesy of the Quincy Inara Collection)
Billy Berg was a nightlife impresario. He didn't just work as a promoter. He was a successful club owner, an MC and the grinning face of his franchise (he put it right on the matchbooks). The Berg brand meant music and dancing and drinking, a hip crowd and hipper bands. In less than twenty-five years, Berg came to own at least six different clubs in the Los Angeles area -- Trouville, The Swing Club, Waldorf's Cellar, Club Capri, The 5-4 Ballroom and the most famous, Billy Berg's.

Berg ran integrated institutions, one of the first to disregard the color barrier onstage and at the tables and he booked big jazz musicians. Lester Young returned to Los Angeles in the early 1940s to play lengthy residencies at both Trouville and the Club Capri with his brother Lee. Louis Armstrong spent a month with Jack Teagarden and Big Sid Catlett in the summer of 1947. Billie Holiday described the 5-4 Ballroom in her autobiography -- "a different kind of place, -- not high class enough to be high class and not low class enough to be a dive." Holiday also rang in 1949 at Billy Berg's, a gig that trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker likely did three years prior.

Source: Jazz Profiles
Gillespie arrived at 1356 Vine Street with his sextet on December 10 1945. The eight week gig at Billy Berg's was heralded as a big deal by the jazz scene. Berg even paid their way across the country (they were unable to find work anywhere else on the Coast if that is an indication of their draw at the time). The two horn players were the purveyors of a new sound called bebop that was mostly available to Angelenos through 78rpm records shipped hot from New York. Local musicians like pianist Hampton Hawes, bassist Charles Mingus and trumpeter Art Farmer had already embraced the sounds but were too young and inexperienced for the high-profile Hollywood gigs. They carpooled up from Central Avenue to see the gods in person and nurse a Coke for two sets.

The talkers, the partiers, the spenders wanted something hip to listen to but also wanted to be shown a good time for their investment. Bird and Diz were serious young men looking to elevate a musical genre and that wasn't conducive to selling drinks or souvenir photos for $1.50 per flash. It wasn't that Parker and Gillespie couldn't convince that crowd to bring a little high-art intellectualism to the scene. Nobody could.
Slim Gaillard | Source: Wikipedia Commons
Slim Gaillard | Source: Wikipedia Commons

A musician who succeeded at entertaining revelers at Billy Berg's was the flamboyant Slim Gaillard. Gaillard was a showman. He could play multiple instruments, sing, dance, he had his own hipster language with a printed dictionary. He worked extensively with a bass player named Slam. He was Chico Marx reimagined as a black beatnik and Berg's was a regular source of income for him.

Gaillard was the opening act for Gillespie and Parker when they arrived and records indicate that he kept the opening gig for at least a couple of months after the residency. He wrote pop hits ("Cement Mixer," "Yep-Roc Heresy," "Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy-Floy)") employing his goofy self-invented patois called Vout that attached "ooti" to nearly every word he sang. Audiences loved his wild clothes and stage gimmicks like playing the piano with his hands palms up. He worked steadily through his life as an actor and a generally fascinating character but was also one of the swingiest jazz novelty acts until his passing in 1991.

Berg knew how to market Gaillard's shtick. He hosted weekly shows on KFOX and KHJ from his clubs which often featured Gaillard alongside mainstays like Harry "The Hipster" Gibson and Frankie Laine. Gaillard even recorded a dual piano rocker called "Boogin' At Berg's" to immortalize the club.
1356 Vine Street today
1356 Vine Street today

Most evidence of Billy Berg's dries up by the mid 1950s. The current location is now Los Balcones Peruvian restaurant with no evidence of what had occurred there nearly seventy years ago. Berg passed away in 1962 but gave a lot of jazz musicians great opportunities in his short time on the scene. He put his unique stamp on Hollywood music history but he will probably be most remembered for losing a lot of money on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Jazz Elections At KCET

Remember that Peter Erskine interview about Whiplash? It's a few posts below. It has a chance to become a short documentary on KCET if it gets enough votes. Vote often and early.

A vote requires no emails, Facebook links or anything. Just a click and you're done. Check it out here:

Jazz Vote Battle Royale!

Thanks for your support.

Monk Gala at the Dolby Theatre - DownBeat

Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre is home to the Academy Awards. Despite its rather uninspiring surroundings, the theater has a perpetual association with Hollywood glamour and an enormous space to fill (the stage is large enough for a regulation-sized basketball court.). The Thelonious Monk Institute's annual competition and gala capitalized on both of those fronts, presenting a show heavy on extravagant celebrity cameos and more first-call players than it knew what to do with.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill won the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, held Nov. 9. The finals of the competition were part of a star-studded gala that featured performances by up-and-coming jazz musicians, first-call professionals and celebrity guests.

The competition aspect of the evening was presented early on with trumpeters Adam O’Farrill, Billy Buss and Hill performing two tunes each. Pianist Reginald Thomas, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen formed the unbeatable backing trio. O’Farrill and Buss opened their sets solo, waving flickering bursts of swing and rapid-fire bebop. Hill opted to close his set with a solo spotlight, showing a masterful command of melody with his rendition of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams.”

The three young finalists were then left to sweat it out until the end of the evening, when the winner would be decided by a “murderers’ row” of trumpet-playing judges: Quincy Jones, Randy Brecker, Arturo Sandoval, Jimmy Owens, Roy Hargrove and Ambrose Akinmusire, winner of the 2007 Monk Trumpet Competition.

Between the competition and the verdict, a cavalcade of jazz giants and Hollywood icons graced the stage in a glittering, nonstop parade. Actor Kevin Spacey kicked off his appearance with a competent and charismatic performance of “Fly Me To the Moon,” backed by an ensemble that included guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter Jon Faddis and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.

The concert continued with a performance of “Flying Home” that featured a front line of saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Herbie Hancock (who holds the title of Monk Institute Chairman).

At the gala, the institute honored President Bill Clinton with the 2014 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award, given to an individual who has made major contributions to the perpetuation of jazz and the expansion of jazz education. Past recipients include Heath, Shorter, Dr. David Baker, Clark Terry and Quincy Jones, who presented the award to Clinton.

“I fell in love with jazz when I was about 6,” Clinton said. “I started playing saxophone when I was 9. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was going to a summer camp and playing 12 hours a day until my lips bled. I would come home and sit in front of my old Victrola and watch those 33 rpms go around, and I would play the grooves off the record and wait for the next edition of DownBeat magazine to come out and read every article.”

Following his off-the-cuff speech, the president was slow to leave the stage, shaking hands with Burrell and talking for a moment to a seated Shorter. Clinton was clearly in the presence of his heroes. He walked to the wings to watch Dianne Reeves deliver a soulful rendition of “Our Love Is Here To Stay.”
A tribute to Horace Silver exemplified the marquee theme of the evening. Pianist Kris Bowers, the 2011 competition winner, had the honor of holding down the piano bench alongside Faddis and Redman but wasn’t given a solo, missing a great opportunity to showcase what Clinton had earlier described as the institute’s ability to find the “next generation of jazz giants.”

Hancock returned to the stage to provide what he called “this evening’s jazz lesson,” which was a surreal collaboration with pop artist Pharrell Williams, who appeared in his signature oversized hat. Along with bassist Ben Williams and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, the group stretched out on Williams’ mega-hit “Happy,” offering a cross-genre performance that was more novel than educational.

Two hours after performing, Hill, 27, was crowned winner of the competition, receiving a $25,000 music scholarship and a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. The award ceremony led to a blowout jam that closed the evening. Seventeen soloists, including Spacey and a neon-clad Hargrove, took a chorus apiece on “Every Day I Have The Blues.”

With the stage flooded by Hollywood stars (among them Goldie Hawn, Don Cheadle and Billy Dee Williams) and chart-topping pop artists (including John Mayer, Queen Latifah and Chaka Khan), musical giants like Heath, Burrell and Shorter served as the greatest house band any jazz artist could ask for. It was a flamboyant event befitting its surroundings in the home of the Oscar awards show, but worlds away from the day-to-day life of almost any jazz musician.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Schoolhouse Rock! : The Echoplex - LA Weekly

Bob Dorough looks back on the last 60 years. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINA LIMSON O'CONNELL
  • Photo by Christina Limson O'Connell
  • Bob Dorough looks back on the last 60 years.
Bob Dorough Presents: Schoolhouse Rock!
The Echoplex
November 24, 2014

Better than…paying attention to the real world for a few hours.

Songwriter Bob Dorough will be 91 years old in less than a month. Has anyone older ever headlined the Echoplex? If they have, they certainly weren’t performing for audience members 85 years younger than them. 

For more than two and a half hours, Cinefamily’s Animation Breakdown took over the cavernous Echoplex with a seated, all-ages show dedicated to children’s educational program Schoolhouse Rock!, with Dorough front and center for much of the evening.

Starting in the 1970s, Schoolhouse Rock! served as a prime source for teaching kids mathematics, civics and grammar with cute, succinct songs composed largely by jazzbo Dorough. They were used as interstitials during Saturday and Sunday morning children’s programming, proving particularly influential with a generation of rockers like The Lemonheads, Blind Melon and Elliott Smith, all of whom used Dorough’s tunes as B-side tangents.

Prior to his affiliation with the show, Dorough had been a successful singer-songwriter, recording his first album in 1956. His hep swing had a wide-eyed slyness that filled nightclubs and even earned him the honor of being one of the few vocalists to guest on a Miles Davis record. 

As he composed and performed the songs for the television show starting in 1973, he employed many of his jazz world friends, including drummer Grady Tate, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and vocalist Blossom Dearie, all of whom sang some of his world-weary paeans to numbers and bills. 

Alex McDonald (left) & George Newall discuss the Schoolhouse Rock! origin. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINA LIMSON O'CONNELL
  • Photo by Christina Limson O'Connell
  • Alex McDonald (left) & George Newall discuss the Schoolhouse Rock! origin.
Last night’s event opened with a half-hour interview with Schoolhouse Rock! co-creator George Newall. The charming former ad executive, prodded by Cinefamily’s Alex McDonald, dug into the shows origins. “Don’t talk down to the kids” was his motto in creating the show, which was inspired by his boss’s son’s inability to remember his multiplication tables, despite being capable of reciting Hendrix and Rolling Stones lyrics with ease. 

Newall’s PowerPoint presentation of the show’s history closed with a video displaying the broad influence Schoolhouse Rock! had on American education and pop culture. TV clips of Conan O’Brien, The Simpsons and Barack Obama made a compelling case that Dorough’s ditties had done more than anyone could have imagined.

The inherent goofiness of Dorough’s persona is kind of irresistible. He is a jokester poet with a great sense of swing and understanding of his audience, and at the age of 90 all of those talents seem completely intact. He was playful and quick, inserting references to Pitchfork and Wes Anderson into one of his co-writing gems, “I’m Hip,” and at one point declaring, “They said I’d go far, but I never thought it’d be the Echoplex.”

Dorough sat at an electric keyboard, joined by a local rhythm section including bassist Jennifer Leitham, who alternated between electric and acoustic. After an opening set that included Schoolhouse Rock! staples “Three Is the Magic Number” and “Figure 8,” Dorough took the opportunity to dig into half a dozen of his pre-TV tunes. Absurd, catchy songs like “Love (Websters Defined)” and “This Is a Recording” showed off his meta-qualifications for the Schoolhouse Rock! task, but were met with dismay by the kids in the crowd.

Bob Dorough closes out strong. What's your function? - PHOTO BY CHRISTINA LIMSON O'CONNELL
  • Photo by Christina Limson O'Connell
  • Bob Dorough closes out strong. What's your function?
Dorough closed his more than hour and a half set with more Schoolhouse Rock!, singing and playing “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” in front of a projection of the accompanying animation and with help from guest vocalist Skip Heller.

Throughout the night, Dorough was clearly fulfilling the sing-along dreams of many in attendance. As far removed as they may have been from their childhood, Dorough's still-strong voice could instantly transport them back to consequence-free weekend mornings and a crippling inability to remember their multiplication tables without the help of a piano player.

Personal Bias: I like those pre-Schoolhouse Rock! tunes. A lot.

The Crowd: Nostalgic Gen-Xers and their sleepy kids.

Random Notebook Dump: It's kind of difficult sitting on a folding chair for three hours at the Echoplex.

Schoolhouse Rock! @ LA Weekly

Monday, November 24, 2014

Drummer Peter Erskine Talks 'Whiplash' - KCET's Artbound

Drummer Peter Erskine began his professional career as a teenager, putting in three years with the famed California jazz bandleader Stan Kenton before making the generational leap to Weather Report, the fusion supergroup that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Joe Zawinul and electric bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius. He was with that band for four years and five albums before moving on to more than 600 recordings ranging from Barbra Streisand to Kate Bush. Last October, Erskine released "No Beethoven: An Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report" detailing his illustrious career on the stage.
For the last 10 years, Erskine has served as the director of drumset studies at USC's Thornton School of Music. This varied experience behind the kit and in front of the classroom has made him the perfect candidate to discuss the new film "Whiplash," the Sundance stunner about a young drummer (Miles Teller) under the inescapable and abusive lure of his band director (J.K. Simmons). Erskine recently participated in filming bonus features for the film's DVD release but his opinion of the film was not solicited until now.
Have you ever encountered an educator like JK Simmons's band director character before?
I've played under the baton of stern and demanding conductors, as well as the critical ears of some pretty tough bandleaders. I've always experienced equal amounts of praise and criticism from the toughest of them. A conductor or bandleader will only get good results if he or she shows as much love or enthusiasm as the discipline or toughness they dole out. Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals -- such bands will never win (the judges will see to that).
What impression of jazz studies do you think the general public will come away with from watching the film?
I'm disappointed that any viewer of the film will not see the joy of music-making that's almost always a part of large-ensemble rehearsals and performances. Musicians make music because they LOVE music. None of that is really apparent in the film, in my opinion.
Also, the misrepresentation of the Jo Jones throwing the cymbal at Charlie Parker's feet anecdote may well lead people to thinking that Jo Jones did indeed, as JK Simmons' character avers, try to decapitate Charlie Parker at that epochal jam session in Kansas City where a very real Charlie Parker attempted to play some of his double-time / new harmony improvisation and more or less flubbed it. Papa Jo eventually tossed a cymbal towards Charlie Parker's young feet in a "gonging" motion to get him off the bandstand. Jazz masters could be tough, but the movie gets that story all wrong.
What did you think of Teller's performance as a drummer?
It's a movie, and the actor did a good job. The drummer(s) who did the pre-record did a very fine job. Teller is a good actor. He's a so-so drummer: his hands are a mess in terms of technique, holding the sticks, etc., and no true fan of Buddy Rich would ever set up his or her drums in the manner that Teller's character does in the film. A 10" tom? Highly-angled? With a crash cymbal at that angle? Nope, doesn't wash. Besides, that "winning" drum solo performance at the end of the film is a very passé sort of thing. If the film takes place "now," any drummer playing like that at a competitive jazz festival --especially one in New York City -- would get a cymbal thrown at their feet by the ghost of Papa Jo Jones, or I'd do it for him. Now I know how professional photographers must feel when they see an actor portraying a scene like a photo shoot where the photographer never bothers to focus any of the shots he or she is taking.
What did you think of the visual presentation of jazz in the film?
Considering that the film was shot in a (reportedly) short amount of time, I think the director and editor did a very good job. A drummer crawling out of a major car wreck and then somehow managing to get himself on-stage to play, bleeding and injured, in that all-important regional big band competition (where there are no other bands apparent?) Hardly. Musicians sitting there all stony-faced while the bandleader or conductor raises his fist to stop the band over and over again. Jazz has too many free spirits for that kind of behavior to fly. I've never seen a band act like that, or "live" music sound so "drop the needle." Also: if someone wants to test my ability to play a tempo: give me 4 beats, not just two -- YOU don't even know the tempo with that kind of a count-off, Mr. Band Director.

What is the ultimate goal of a college band director?
To inspire his or her students to get the MOST out of music, by GIVING the most to music. To, yes, inspire and instill a sense of discipline and responsibility, but to show students the rewards of concentration and playing well and working as a team. At the same time, developing any latent improviser's confidence and belief in their own solo voice, all the while increasing the musicians' vocabulary and knowledge of the language of the music. That's what I try to do at the Thornton School of Music at USC, and I know that my colleague professors including Bob Mintzer, Alan Pasqua, Patrice Rushen and Chris Sampson all do the same. I can't imagine our dean Rob Cutietta putting up with an ounce of the behavior portrayed in the film. But, like I said: it's fantasy, it's Hollywood.
Meanwhile, the one very real detail in the film -- the big band chart titled "Whiplash" which serves as inspiration and background to the movie -- is a kick for me because the composer and arranger of that piece, the late Hank Levy, worked a lot with the Stan Kenton Orchestra (while I was a member beginning at age 18) as well as with the Don Ellis Orchestra (who recorded "Whiplash" back in 1974 or so; Ralph Humphrey was the original drummer on that). Hank was a lovely man and he got all of his student bands to sound incredible. 

Clark Terry Keeps On Mentoring at 93 - DownBeat

Jazz relies heavily upon oral tradition to stay vital. Its practitioners are just as frequently asked about who they studied with as who they listened to. The value of that firsthand exchange of knowledge is what ensures not only that the music lives on but the attitude too. The new film Keep On Keepin' On is about Clark Terry, an NEA Jazz Master who, at the age of 93, continues to mentor aspiring musicians though he is bed-ridden. He is a sharp, funny and unflinching subject for the documentary.

Terry started his career in the 1940s, playing trumpet and flugelhorn in the big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He has recorded numerous solo discs, embracing modern technology and developing his own distinctive, mumbling scat style. Throughout his career, Terry has shared whatever he could. Quincy Jones, at the age of 12, became one of Terry's first students. Some decades later, Terry was teaching at William Paterson University, which is where he encountered first-time director Alan Hicks and pianist Justin Kauflin.

"My original intention was to just have the film be about Clark and his life," said Hicks, who spent a couple of years on the road as a drummer with Terry. "Even if we didn't finish making it, I would've given the footage to an archive. After a year of shooting just Clark, we asked Justin if he would let us follow him around as well. Once we made that decision, the story between those two blossomed."

The film focuses primarily on Terry's mentoring relationship with Kauflin, a Thelonious Monk competition semi-finalist who is more than 60 years younger than Terry and lost his vision at the age of 11. Their bond formed as Terry began losing his eyesight due to complications from diabetes.

"The thing is, it's not blatant," said Kauflin. "Yes, I am blind. Yes, I have a guide dog. I appreciate that the movie doesn't call attention to it much. That's our lives. That's what we are dealing with. No need to make it anything more than it is. I knew that anybody could watch this movie. Everything Clark shares with me and his students is universal."

Keep On Keepin' On paints a sometimes brutal reflection of jazz life and examines the effects of aging and disability. As Kauflin's world expands, Terry's gets smaller and harder to navigate. According to Hicks, Terry permitted the film crew to document anything they wanted. This resulted in amazing footage of Terry in a hyperbaric chamber talking with Kauflin as well as late night bedside tutoring sessions that only hint at the lifetime of work required to become a master musician.

"When those health things were happening, it was really tough," Hicks said, alluding to his personal connection to Terry. "We weren't a hired crew. He was our mentor. It was a bit of a roller coaster." But for the most part, the time they shared was good. "We shot 350 hours of footage, plus [we compiled] 100 hours of archival footage. Clark is filled with so much great advice and wisdom."

Hicks struggled to keep the film rolling when a chance visit from Quincy Jones at Terry's house led to a new investor in the project.

"The most surreal moment was when I was at the table between Quincy and Clark, seeing their relationship after 770 years. To see them as people and see how much they love each other really brought everything home to me," said Kauflin. "Quincy is one of those students! I'm one of those students!"

Keep On Keepin' On is uplifting and heartbreaking, swinging and somber. The film is ultimately triumphant, providing a fascinating look at the beginning and end of a professional jazz musicians' career.

Keep On @ DownBeat

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Stanley Clarke Band: Up - DownBeat

The Stanley Clarke Band

This over-the-top meditation on Clarke's impressive career features 30 musicians. Many are drawn from the youthful well of Los Angeles up-and-comers but there are also plenty of Clarke's contemporaries making cameos. The first few tracks suffer from a funk that could only be categorized as "80s sitcom theme." The flash and intricacy of Clarke's arranging is present, but so is the overwhelming production and lack of vulnerability. Clarke's command of the upright bass finally takes control of the album five tracks in. He takes two solo snippets that are a beautiful glimpse to another, more appealing record. Clarke returns to a few catalogue hits, too, including "Brazilian Love Affair" (dedicated to the late George Duke) and the perennial crowd-pleaser "School Days." Chick Corea and Clarke close the album with a duo performance of "La Cancion de Sofia" that is as welcome as the solo bass tracks.

The Stanley Clarke Band @ DownBeat

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Angel City Jazz Festival - DownBeat

The Angel City Jazz Festival kicked off on Sept. 19 with a swinging set by Young Artist Competition winners the Interstellar Quintet and finished on Sept. 28 with a wave and a blessing from an ailing Arthur Blythe. Throughout the festival, which annually presents some of the boldest jazz you’ll hear anywhere in Los Angeles, multiple venues hosted a range of artists, from vocalist Youn Sun Nah to saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

The final day of the festival featured 10 acts on two stages around Hollywood’s Barnsdall Park. One of those was pianist Josh Nelson, who led his group in the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. Nelson made the most of the darkened room with help from video artist Travis Flournoy, who backlit the band with mostly black-and-white vintage film clips. Nelson and guitarist Larry Koonse conversed in hushed, gentle tones before Brian Walsh joined in on clarinet with a humming warmth built around Nelson’s right hand. A humorless tune dedicated to comic actor Peter Sellers played out like an “in memoriam” montage that featured a beautiful bass solo from Dan Lutz.

The theater’s house piano took a beating from Aruán Ortiz, who went deep with a cacophonous performance aided by bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Cleaver was the bedrock for the ensemble as they capitalized on a slow build. The trio at one point engaged in an extended collective clattering that sounded like a thousand bats trying to escape the stage.

Pianist Craig Taborn, who was third in line for the bench, delivered a rather impenetrable set. He attacked the instrument with an incredible range of dynamics and the deliberate touch of someone avoiding a few well-placed mousetraps. Like the previous two pianists, Taborn was not hesitant to stick his hands inside the strings and mess around a bit.

The multiple stages at this year’s Angel City Jazz Festival ensured that something was always being missed. Though the organizers encouraged listeners to wander in and out of venues to catch whatever interested them, the performers didn’t cater to the wristband-wearing vagabonds. To fully appreciate the breadth of most sets, it was necessary to commit to one choice and stay put.

On Barnsdall Park’s outdoor stage, trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom raised hell with his electrified quintet. Tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence followed with a straightahead quartet that included bassist Henry “The Skipper” Franklin and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Lawrence brought Coltrane-like heat, including a deep take on “I Want To Talk About You” that featured a meditative solo from Franklin in the shadows.

A supergroup that included saxophonists David Binney and Oliver Lake, marimba player Gust Tsillis, bassist Nick Rosen, pianist Andy Langham and drummer Alex Cline took the Gallery Theatre stage for the festival’s headlining event, a tribute and benefit concert for saxophonist Arthur Blythe. The core rhythm section was delightfully boosted early in the set by tuba player Bob Stewart, who busted out funky lines. Lawrence unexpectedly joined the tribute and seemed to throw the proceedings a little off-kilter, his presence onstage more of a distraction than an asset.

Things really got moving as the ensemble got smaller. The core trio backed Binney and Lake on blistering solos with ample space for Langham to get in some Erroll Garner-like rolls. Vocalist Dwight Trible, who had performed at the festival a few days earlier, delivered an impassioned swirl on “Faceless Woman” that was breathtaking in its unchecked exaltations.

When the band finished after little more than an hour, Blythe was brought on stage. Unable to walk and largely unable to talk, Blythe silenced the crowd as he gave a very brief “thank you.” It was a touching close to a festival that has done a tremendous job of engaging all parts of the Los Angeles jazz community.

Angel City Jazz Festival @ DownBeat

Monday, October 27, 2014

Toni Basil & the TAMI Show - KPCC

Audio available on link below
On Oct. 28 and 29, 1964, 50 years ago this month, thousands of screaming teenagers flocked to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to witness one of the most famous concerts in the history of American music. The T.A.M.I. show — short for "Teenage Awards Music International" or just "Teen Age Music International" — was a variety show featuring performances from some of the most important acts in pop music at the time: Jan and Dean, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones and James Brown, who gave a genre-defining performance.
On top of all the musicians, the shows' producers recruited some of Hollywood's best dancers to accompany the musicians, and that included 21-year-old assistant choreographer Toni Basil. Basil would later go on to record "Mickey," the 1982 hit single. But as she tells "Off-Ramp" contributor Sean J. O'Connell that the T.A.M.I. show was one of the most important moments of her career. 
For Basil, the highlight from the two nights was James Brown's performance:
"James was just amazing that night. He did, what, how long? How long did he do? At least 15 minutes? My god! Nothing short of Shakespearian.
"If you really think about what he did with that cape, falling to his knees, and Bobby Burnett and putting that cape around him, and getting him up. And walking him off in this extremely dramatic, theatrical way. And James threw the cape off and came back and dropped to his knees again!
"I remember when I saw James hit those steps, I was so perplexed by them I actually ran up to the second floor, where there was a full mirror in the ladies room. And I tried to do the step. And then I'd run back downstairs and look at the step — because he was on forever, doing that step. You know, there was no video like now where you rewind and look at it!"
Basil says the performance changed her dance career completely. "I look back at it and I see how fun and interesting and what a change dance was taking," she says.
TAMI Show @ KPCC's Off Ramp

Emil Richards: Six Decades of Music - KCET's Artbound

Odds are you have heard the work of percussionist Emil Richards. The 82 year old musician has contributed to hundreds of recordings including TV theme songs for Mission Impossible and The Simpsons as well as movies like Fantastic Voyage and nearly every soundtrack from Danny Elfman. He has been a fixture on the Los Angeles music scene since the first day he arrived in 1959.
Through the late 1950s, the Connecticut-raised Richards spent four years on the road with British jazz pianist George Shearing, taking one week off of touring per year. He was getting worn out and needed a change. Upon a chance encounter with arranger Billy May, Richards was convinced to head to the west coast. "Billy told me if I'm going to scuffle, I may as well scuffle where the sun is shining" says Richards calling from his home. "It went uphill right from there. My first gig was the first night I got into town. I worked that day on a recording session and at night I worked with Paul Horn at a club called the Renaissance. Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce were the two comedians working opposite of us. I learned all about the Nazz and all the different shtick."
Richards had the benefit of the sunshine and the work, finding his way into the film music scene and the occasional high profile tour. The same year he arrived in L.A. Frank Sinatra hired him for a tour of Mexico. Richards described the relationship simply: "He liked me enough to keep me around as long as I wanted." And that relationship lasted decades.
It was because of Sinatra that Richards began collecting what would become a legendary collection of percussion instruments from around the world. "It happened in 1962. Sinatra asked me to go with a sextet on a world tour. Jack Kennedy had asked Sinatra to do a tour for underprivileged children around the world. The state department would fund the trip. Frank says I'll go one better 'I've got my own jet. I'll pay for it myself.'"

With the blessing of the President of the United States and liberal duty free standards, Richards traveled the world. "Kennedy said 'I'll have ambassadors meet you in each country so you don't have to go through customs,'" recalls Richards. "I filled the belly of that plane. Every time I made a trip after that, other trips with Frank to South America and a lot in the U.S., I just started collecting."
He amassed more than two thousand percussion instruments as he criss-crossed the globe, dotting his home with delicate teak gamelan artifacts and Cuban hand drums. "My collection of percussion instruments was pretty vast, larger than anybody I can think of in the U.S. I certainly studied a lot of percussion instruments from around the world. I got to play them and learn from them and buy them."

As a result he became something of a specialist in unique percussion sounds. "Anytime I came back from a trip at least a half a dozen people would call and ask 'what's new? What've you got?'" says Richards. "I used to try to instruct the composers that you mix all kinds of saxes and clarinets to get different sounds why not percussion? But nobody mixed percussion. They wanted to hear a percussion sound out by itself. With so many instruments in the world of percussion, you marry the woods and the metals and the glass, you can come up with another array of colors that even synthesizers can't do."
Despite all of the time he has spent in recording studios, Richards has only sneaked out a few times to record under his own name. A partnership with Impulse! Records in the 1960s helped Richards share his new discoveries with the world. His Microtonal Blues Band introduced a wealth of new sounds that ran from killer to kitsch over the course of a few sides.

In the last few years, Richards has sold most of his collection. The Percussive Arts Society in Indiana took a large portion while a world famous film composer and frequent employer got first dibs on the bounty.
"I found a vibraphone that had double bars, one right next to the other that was an octave apart," says Richards. "I said 'what the hell is this for?' It was kind of cheating because you could make it sound like you were playing octaves really fast. There were only one or two of them made and one just happened to come to me. I guess when you are a collector things just happen that way. Well, Danny Elfman freaked over that one. He's got it now!"

Roberto Magris Septet: Morgan Rewind Vol 2 - DownBeat

Roberto Magris Septet
Morgan Rewind: A Tribute to Lee Morgan, Vol 2

Cut down at the age of 33, hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan made a sizable impact as a leader and Jazz Messenger, leaving a body of work that was artistically engaging and commercially viable.

Nonetheless, aside from a few big hits, Morgan's compositions have not entered into the standard language like many of his contemporaries' did. Italian pianist Roberto Magris is doing his part with his second volume of Morgan tunes but considering this album's length, the two-disc set could've just as easily been released separately as Vol. 2 and Vol. 3.

While 2010's Vol. 1 feature Tootie Heath on drums, Magris' follow-up septet does not feature any marquee names. Throughout the set, Magris sets a swinging tone, dispensing a strong left hand and confident lines. Trumpeter Hermon Mehari has the biggest shoes to fill and he does so admirably. He summons blistering chops for a hard-swinging performance that anchors the set. Dense tunes like "Zambia" from Morgan's Delightfulee are pushed by the twin rhythmic team of drummer Brian Steever and percussionist Pablo Sanhueza. While the original recording of "Gary's Notebook" from The Sidewinder revels in frenetic energy, Magris' rendition is a little too busy with his piano and Peter Schlamb's vibraphone rolling together but the tune rights itself with fine solo spots.

Magris even has the hubris to sneak in a few of his originals. Thankfully, they fit the Morgan mold with "A Summer's Kiss" reaching for a "Ceora"-like bossa vibe. This is a fun set of hard-driving swing that upholds the spirit of its honoree, shining a light on the trumpeter's lesser-known compositions.

Roberto Magris @ DownBeat

Mark de Clive-Lowe: Church - DownBeat

 Mark de Clive Lowe

A night at keyboardist-producer-beatmaker Mark de Clive-Lowe's "church" is a sermon through the history of popular music. He's as comfortable playing in a straightahead trio as he is remixing a bank of heavy beats. There are psychedelic dreamscapes like "The Processional," given wings by Low LEaf's harp and the blistering trumpet work of Josiel Perez Hernandez, while an impassioned guest spot from de Clive-Lowe's wife, Nia Andrews, on "Now Or Never" adds an r&b swagger. "Sketch For Miguel" explores shag carpet soul behind violist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's meaty bow, while the lone cover, Dollar Brand's "Imam," highlights the funky cymbals of Nate Smith. There is a bottomless undercurrent of groove on this recording but it isn't for purists of any genre. Sounds bend and fade, sharp horns blend with electronic fuzz and de Clive-Lowe keeps one hand on the keyboard and one on the knobs. One of his most impressive skills is his ability to do all of this live in small, dark rooms around the world. He doesn't take advantage of studio trickery but unfortunately that isn't apparent in this recording because the result has a professional polish.

Mark de Clive-Lowe @ DownBeat

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Remembering Gerald Wilson - KCET's Artbound

Bandleader Gerald Wilson used to tell his UCLA class that if he wasn't mentioned in a jazz history book, the book wasn't worth buying. As absurd and supercilious as that statement sounds, he was absolutely right. Wilson passed away earlier this month at the age of 96. He left an unparalleled legacy that stretched back to the 1930s and will likely never be rivaled in terms of influence, endurance, and sheer entertainment.

Wilson's class wasn't just for jazz majors. The attendance typically topped off at 400 and included musicians, football players, chemistry majors and everybody in between. He taught at UCLA for more than fifteen years, regaling thousands of impressionable minds with his first-hand experiences with music legends like Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie before retiring at the age of 90.

Saxophonist and Cal State Fullerton professor Dr. Charles Sharp worked as his teacher's assistant for several years. "Gerald was not teaching those classes for jazz majors. He didn't want to do a seminar for experts," said Sharp. "He wanted everybody together. He enjoyed being an expert and being kind of a spokesperson, a representative of jazz to the broadest possible audience and I think a lot of his music is that way too. His music is incredibly advanced but can also be pop-oriented at the same time."
Wilson got his start as a trumpeter with the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939. He honed his writing and arranging skills with the group, contributing infectious hits like "Yard Dog Mazurka" to the band's swinging book before setting off on his own. Though born in Shelby, Missisisippi, Wilson settled in Los Angeles in the mid 1940s and became a fixture on the Central Avenue scene.

His arrangements were unique, delving into dense, eight-part harmony that moved like the grasping mitts of a striding pianist, no fingers repeating the same note. He wrote more than a dozen arrangements for Duke Ellington and five times that for Ray Charles including a handful of riotous charts for Charles' landmark 1962 album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."
The 1960s were also a successful period for Wilson's solo career. He recorded several albums for the Los Angeles-based Pacific Jazz label and they are master classes in swagger and sophistication, samba and soul. His hit "Viva Tirado" became a frequent high point of his live performances through to last summer. The band El Chicano scored with their version of the tune in 1970 which helped to redefine and boost Wilson's cross-genre appeal.
Wilson's old school desire to entertain never left his side. Mid-tune he would approach the microphone and just scream with his fists raised and his abundant white hair protruding from under his baseball cap. At his best, he had the unhinged passions of an ecstatic wildman, a trait that is so rare but always hoped for from jazz stages.
Gerald Wilson and Kamasi Washington, 2013 Central Avenue Jazz Festival | Photo: Sean J. O'Connell
Gerald Wilson and Kamasi Washington, 2013 Central Avenue Jazz Festival | Photo: Sean J. O'Connell

Aside from the thousands of students he educated, he also employed hundreds of others in his big band over the years. Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington had the honor of being both a student and employee. At the age of 19, he joined Wilson's orchestra and immediately found his place as a featured soloist.

"As fiery and intense as he was, he was such a nice person," said Washington. "He always looked out for his band. I've played with so many other people since and they're looking out for themselves. Gerald would always make sure everyone else was cool and that's hard to do with a big band. He cared for people on a deep level."

Three years ago, Wilson was nominated for a Best Large Jazz Ensemble Grammy for his last studio album, "Legacy" (It was his seventh album since turning 80). He kept his big band active with regular appearances around Los Angeles including a spot headlining the Central Avenue Jazz Festival each summer. Last July, in the shadow of the Dunbar Hotel, Wilson led his band through one more romping "Viva Tirado" that was as full of energy as when it was first recorded in the early 60s. The next Central Avenue Jazz Festival will be the twentieth annual. It just won't be the same without him.