“Vatican is Asked to Rule on Jazz”

     In the April 30, 1957 New York Times article headlined “Vatican is Asked to Rule on Jazz,” Paul Hoffman reports on the attack on jazz music made by Catholic leaders who felt that it was “music of materialistic and Dionysiac orientation,” and how this view might result in a curtailment of radio time devoted to serious jazz music.  This was of particular interest as jazz music was beginning to infiltrate the services of the 1950’s, which was, unsurprisingly,

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June 19th, 2018

William Gottlieb’s “Elusive Pianist”

Jazz photography has played an important role in the development of jazz, and, along with the art found on the record albums of the 1940’s – 60’s, is a visual window into the history of the culture.  The work of photographers like Herman Leonard, William Claxton and Lee Tanner impacted me pretty deeply, and led me deep into the record bins in search of the music they so effectively portrayed.  Leonard and Tanner, in fact, were major influences on my work on this site, and Tanner was indeed a personal mentor whose voice of encouragement remains in my head long after his 2013 passing.

Among the first interviews I ever did was in 1997 with William Gottlieb, best known as a

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June 1st, 2018

Artie Shaw and his “chamber-music group in a house packed with jitterbugs!”

     In an historic December 2, 1939 “rags to riches” piece in the Saturday Evening Post titled “Music is a Business,” Artie Shaw writes about his participation in what was billed as “New York’s…first Swing Concert” — presented at the Imperial Theater on May 24, 1936 — and how his formation of an unusual ensemble for the evening resulted in only short term opportunity, but ultimately led to wild success.

     “I had always felt that a string background for a hot clarinet would wed the best of sweet and swing as it was being interpreted at the moment,” Shaw wrote of the ensemble idea he had for the “Swing Concert” performance. “At least, it would be novel and might attract some

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April 12th, 2018

“Rate it? How can I rate that?” — the Miles Davis “Blindfold Test” June 1964

In this June, 1964 Down Beat Blindfold Test hosted by pianist, composer, producer and journalist Leonard Feather — who created this famed feature and first published it in the late 1930’s in Melody Maker  — the ears of Miles Davis are tested. 

Although Feather writes in the introduction that Davis “does not have an automatic tendency to want to put everything down,” he appeared to be in rare form on this date.  His remarks are brilliant, blistering, biting, sarcastic, insulting…and that’s just in his comments on the first record!  Miles take aim at artists and record companies, musical styles and

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November 27th, 2017

Quincy Jones on the marketing of jazz and the likelihood of success of a “properly-backed chimpanzee”

I came across a classic August, 1956 piece in Down Beat, “A Tribute to Brownie,” in which none other than Quincy Jones pays homage to the recently deceased Clifford Brown, and expresses a critical eye on the business of jazz – and his fellow performers – at the time…Here is the prominent and most entertaining section of the piece:

 

Here was the perfect amalgamation of natural creative ability, and the proper amount of technical training, enabling him to contribute precious moments of musical and emotional expression.  This inventiveness placed him in a class far beyond that of most of his poll-winning contemporaries.  Clifford’s self-assuredness in his playing reflected the mind and soul of a blossoming young artist who would have rightfully taken his place next to

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November 1st, 2017

The December 1960 Down Beat story on Bill Evans

I’ve been on a Bill Evans kick of late.  Call me “crazy” but I just find his music an island of hope and reason in a world fraught with daily “craziness.”  And, it is wonderfully low-tech in today’s frantic environment that requires seemingly constant and needless stimulation, created by bots and provocateurs.  His music is so…human.

Simultaneous to my kick on Evans is my renewed interest in the writings of the late jazz critic Gene Lees, whose award-winning career included that of biographer, songwriter/lyricist, and editor of Down Beat.  His 1988 collection of essays on jazz – Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s – is loaded with remarkable insight laced with knowledge, charm, and appropriate sentimentality (his piece on Woody Herman, for whom Lees gave the full biography treatment in 1995, is noteworthy in that regard).  A standout piece worth reading is the tragic story of the trombonist Frank Rosolino, who suffered greatly from depression and whose desperation was so intense that he ultimately shot his two sons before killing himself.

In Lees’ essay “The Poet:  Bill Evans,” he writes of his discovery of the great pianist in 1959, as editor of Down Beat, when he noticed, “among a stack of records awaiting assignment for review a gold-covered Riverside album titled Everybody Digs Bill Evans…I took the album home and, sometime after dinner, probably about nine o’clock, put it on the phonograph.  At 4 a.m. I was still listening, though by now I

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October 1st, 2017

James Baldwin writes about the 1959 film Porgy and Bess

In this September 1, 1959 essay in Commentary, James Baldwin writes of filmmaker Otto Preminger’s treatment of George Gershwin’s revered opera Porgy and Bess, expertly weaving film criticism and social commentary, addressing the film’s shortcomings and the complexity of racism of the era — much (actually, most) of which still exists…

 

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Grandiose, foolish, and heavy with the stale perfume of self-congratulation, the Hollywood-Goldwyn-Preminger production of Porgy and Bess lumbered into the Warner theater shortly before the death of Billie Holiday. These two facts are not, of course, related in any concrete or visible way. Yet, at the time I was watching Bess refuse Sporting Life’s offer of “happy dust,” Billie was in the hospital. A day or so later, I learned that she was under arrest for possession of heroin and that the police were at her

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September 14th, 2017

Satchmo’s Stamp

During a recent stroll through the Internet, I was reminded of the story of Louis Armstrong requesting the use of Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mask during a 1960’s State Department tour of South America, “to fend off,” according to Armstrong’s widow Lucille, “the [enthusiastic South American] fans who wanted to touch his face and lips.”

Lucille’s recollection was disclosed in a December 10, 1981 letter to the U.S. Postal Service as part of a 14-year effort to have a postage stamp created in her husband’s honor.  Duke Ellington’s stamp was issued in 1986, and the likes of Elvis Presley, Bessie Smith, Nat Cole and Billie Holiday had commemorative stamps well before Armstrong.  How come?  Was it politics?

To read about it, check out the two stories below…The first is the letter of advocacy

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April 4th, 2017

“To Russia, Without Love”

You may have noticed that Russia is in the news a bit these days. (It is tough to avoid). So, while revisiting James Lincoln Collier’s 1989 biography Benny Goodman and the Swing Era, the story of Goodman’s 1962 U.S. State Department sponsored tour of the Soviet Union caught my eye.

Collier reminds us that Goodman and his group – the first American band to tour the Soviet Union since the 1920’s – was considered by many to be too “old fashioned” for the times and that “many critics felt that the Ellington band, playing a more complicated and perhaps more worthy kind of music” should have been chosen for the tour instead. Nonetheless, given Goodman’s popularity around the world, he was considered a

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March 21st, 2017

Revisiting “An Experiment in Modern Music”

The February 12, 1924 concert by Paul Whiteman at New York’s Aeolian Hall was billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” As reported by New York Times critic Olin Downes, who attended the event, “the concert was referred to as ‘educational,’ to show the development of this type of music [jazz].” The concert is now best remembered for being the setting for the world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, with composer George Gershwin at the piano. As Times critic John S. Wilson wrote in 1987, “this concert is today considered a defining event of the Jazz Age and the cultural history of New York City.”

In this excerpt from Whiteman’s 1926 autobiography Jazz – written with essayist Mary Margaret McBride – Whiteman writes about his Aeolian Hall concert experience, and in particular the appeal of Rhapsody, which he described as

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August 21st, 2016

“Ornette’s Permanent Revolution” — a 1985 essay by Francis Davis

While hunting around the Internet for tributes of Ornette Coleman (a collection of which I will attempt to point readers toward tomorrow), I was reminded of the critic Francis Davis’s essay titled “Ornette’s Permanent Revolution.” Originally published in the September, 1985 edition of The Atlantic, Davis, now the jazz critic for the Village Voice, writes eloquently about the complexities of the great saxophonist’s “clean break from convention.” It is a worthy and timely read…

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All hell broke loose when the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman made his East Coast nightclub debut, at the Five Spot Cafe, in Greenwich Village on November 17, 1959—twenty-five years ago last fall.

The twenty-nine-year-old Coleman arrived in New York having already won the approval of some of the most influential jazz opinion makers of the period. “Ornette Coleman is doing the only really new thing in jazz since the innovations in the mid-forties of

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June 17th, 2015

“Jazzing Away Prejudice”

Writing that the “good” African-American orators of the day (“spellbinders”) do for lifting up the “Race” is “nil,” this 1919 Chicago Defender editorial makes the case that the music of James Reese Europe could have a significant political impact on race relations of the time.

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With the ringing down of the curtain at the Auditorium last Saturday night there closed a remarkable period of band concerts. If you were not fortunate enough to attend you missed a rare treat. This band had made a wonderful record with the American expeditionary forces in France and with its jazz music had proved a source of great entertainment wherever it went. When it returned to the United States it was given a great ovation by the people of New York City, and Chicago found it equal to advance notice. It has all the artistic finish of any band that has invaded these parts in many years.

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July 24th, 2014

Liner Notes — The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall, by Orrin Keepnews

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960’s and early 1970’s afforded me access to incredible, cutting-edge radio. It was the height of the progressive FM radio era, and no station in the country understood its market opportunity better than KSAN, rock radio legend Tom Donohue’s creation that gave a musical platform to breaking local and national acts who remain the backbone of the “classic rock” radio format.

international acts who remain the backbone of the “classic rock” radio format.

While the bulk of the programming exposed rock and roll recordings introduced by the local hip DJ (the voice of Bob McClay referring to KSAN as the “Jive 95” lives on in my unconscious), for a year or two I looked forward with great enthusiasm to the Sunday evening jazz show hosted by Orrin Keepnews, the co-founder of New York’s Riverside Records — by then long in bankruptcy but whose recordings were already a staple of recorded jazz history. His shows weren’t solely responsible for introducing me to the artists on his labels (including Milestone at the time — an offshoot of Berkeley’s Fantasy Records, where Keepnews was head of A & R), but they were a culprit for perpetuating my curiosity of them.

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February 28th, 2014

Revisiting “The Jazz Problem”

In 1924, jazz was becoming popular in the major cities of New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and New York, and with Paul Whiteman’s Aeolian Hall performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, it was being judged in some critical circles as a serious musical art form. That wasn’t the opinion of everyone, of course.

“‘Jazz’ has created a ‘malarious’ atmosphere in the musical world. It is abnormal. The air needs clarifying.” So wrote popular music composer Robert M. Stults in the August 1924 edition of The Etude magazine, an issue dedicated to what they defined as “The Jazz Problem.”

The Etude was published from 1883 – 1957 and was a popular music publication of the era. Its primary audience was made up of popular music teachers, and the debate of the time of this particular edition was the legitimacy of this controversial new music known as “Jazz.” To solicit opinion about jazz, The Etude posed the question “Where is Jazz Leading America?” to composers, educators, musicians, members of the clergy, playwrights and novelists.

The debate inspired by this question featured fascinating perspectives,

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February 27th, 2014

The Beatles — post Ed Sullivan appearance critical reviews, a Charles Mingus rant, and perspective

With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan prominently in the news this past week, it is interesting (and entertaining) to revisit some of the critical perspectives of their music following the performance.

On February 10, 1964, Theodore Strongin, music critic for the New York Times (who Wikipedia describes as a “champion of new music”) wrote that “The Beatles’ vocal quality can be described as hoarsely incoherent, with the minimal enunciation necessary to communicate the schematic texts.” Three days later, acknowledging the phenomenon that hit our shores, George Dixon of the Washington Post wrote, “Just thinking about the Beatles seems to induce mental disturbance. They have a commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning, yet people hereabouts have mentioned scarcely anything else for a couple of days.”

Months later, William F. Buckley, the era’s chief conservative voice and founder of the National Review got into the act, writing

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February 11th, 2014

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People at 50

The recent death of Amiri Baraka gets us looking back at the 1963 publication of his important and enduring study of jazz and and blues, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Two pieces to turn interested readers to…The first, “The Blues,” by Ralph Ellison, first appeared in the February 6, 1964 edition of the New York Review of Books, and features Ellison’s classic line of criticism, “The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give even the blues the blues.” The second, “Black History Meets Black Music” ‘Blues People’ at 50″ is a July 26, 2013 piece by Eugene Holley, Jr. published on NPR’s “A Blog Supreme,” in which Holley seeks opinion on the book from key contemporary critcs and musicians, including Harvard educator Ingrid Monson, who says that “Blues People is a brilliant and path-breaking book, not because all of its factual information is correct, or because all of its interpretive perspectives are unassailable, but because of the sheer audacity, scope and originality of its interpretive perspective.”

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January 19th, 2014

“Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!” — conservative opinions about jazz in 1921

There was a time when jazz music was considered “dangerous” and a threat to “our way of life.” Consider the words of Fenton T. Bott of Dayton, Ohio, described by John R. McMahon in the December, 1921 edition of Ladies Home Journal as an “expert in the dance and professional dancing master”: “It [jazz] is degrading. It lowers all the moral standards. Unlike liquor, a great deal of its harm is direct and immediate. But it also leads to undesirable things. The jazz is too often followed by the joy-ride. The lower nature is stirred up as a prelude to unchaperoned adventure.”

Conservative opinions were so strong about the “dangers” of jazz and the dancing it provoked that jazz dancing was being regulated. Bott told McMahon that “Municipal regulation has been started and applied to some extent in something like sixty towns and cities. The best-regulated cities are probably Cleveland, Detroit and Omaha. The movement began not long ago in Cleveland when officials asked my brother, who is a professional teacher, to assist in the regulation of public dance halls. They asked what he wanted for his services, and he told them he would be glad to do the work for a dollar a year.”

Bott, of course, wasn’t alone in his thinking.

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January 5th, 2014

Remembering music critic Ralph J. Gleason

Few music writers had the resume of San Francisco’s Ralph J. Gleason: Columbia University School of Journalism; critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, where, in 1950, his criticism of popular music was the first such column in an American daily newspaper (before Gleason, newspapers regularly reviewed classical music only); produced the Jazz Casual television show for public television; witnessed and reported on all of the happenings of San Francisco during a time now known as the “San Francisco Renaissance,” when Gleason effectively connected the diverse endeavors of the era’s progressive musicians, literary figures, and comedians into an artistic aesthetic; co-founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival; writer on many a jazz record liner note (the next time you pull out Miles’ Bitches Brew, check out Gleason’s poetic description); contributing writer to Ramparts; co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine.

John Gennari, author of Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics – itself an important history of jazz journalism – described Gleason as “the jazz critic who

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December 14th, 2013

Duke Ellington, 1944 — “The Hot Bach – I”

Richard Boyer’s entertaining and candid New Yorker profile of Duke Ellington first appeared in the June 24, 1944 edition under the title “The Hot Bach I.” (Parts “II” and “III” were published in subsequent weeks). Described by Ellington biographer Terry Teachout as “the most comprehensive journalistic account of Ellington’s life and work to appear in his lifetime,” the feature is filled with now well-known Ellington history (for example, his approach to composition and his appetite for food, women and the Bible), social history (Boyer’s casual description of the racial discrimination the band encounters on the road is notable), and some humorous interplay between Ellington and writing partner Billy Strayhorn, described at the time by Boyer as a “staff arranger.” The piece is a terrific companion to Teachout’s book, and another reminder of how important The New Yorker has been to the arts over the years.

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December 10th, 2013

In This Issue

Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, talks about her book, and the complex life of her late husband.

Also in this issue…A new collection of jazz poetry; "On the Turntable," a new playlist of 22 recommended recordings by seven jazz artists; three new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Great Encounters”; several short stories; the photography of Veryl Oakland and Charles Ingham; a new Jazz History Quiz; and lots more…

On the Turntable

This month, a playlist of 22 recently released jazz recordings, including those by Chris Potter, Sons of Kemet, Stephan Crump, Brittany Anjou, Julian Lage, Joey DeFrancesco and Antonio Sanchez

Poetry

Seventeen poets contribute 21 poems in this month’s edition…

The Joys of Jazz

In new podcasts, Bob Hecht tells three stories; one about Miles Davis’ use of space in his music, one on the mutual admiration society of Sinatra, Lady Day, and Lester Young, and the other about the train in jazz and blues music.

“What are some of your all-time favorite record album covers?”

Gary Giddins, Jimmy Heath, Fred Hersch, Joe Hagan, Maxine Gordon, Neil Tesser, Tim Page, Veronica Swift and Marcus Strickland are among the 25 writers, musicians, poets, educators, and photographers who write about their favorite album cover art

Art

“Thinking about Ida B. Wells” — a photo narrative by Charles Ingham

Jazz History Quiz #126

In 1964, along with the orchestra of arranger Lalo Schifrin (pictured), this flutist/alto sax player recorded one of the first “Jazz Masses,” and soon after studied transcendental meditation in India. He would eventually become well known as a composer of music for meditation. Who is he?

Great Encounters

Dexter Gordon tells the story of joining Louis Armstrong’s band in 1944, and how they enjoyed their intermission time.

Art

In this edition of Veryl Oakland’s “Jazz in Available Light,” photographs of Red Garland, Dizzy Gillespie and Rahsaan Roland Kirk are featured.

Short Fiction

"Strings of Solace," a short story by Kimberly Parish Davis

Interviews

Romare Bearden biographer Mary Schmidt Campbell discusses the life of the important 20th century American artist

Cover Stories with Paul Morris

In this edition, Paul writes about jazz album covers that offer glimpses into intriguing corners of the culture of the 1950’s

Short Fiction

"And so we went to Paris," a short story by Sophie Jonas-Hill

Coming Soon

National Book Award winning author for non-fiction Jeffrey Stewart is interviewed about his book The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke

In the previous issue

The question “What are some of your all-time favorite record album covers?” was posed via email to a small number of prominent and diverse people, and the responses of Gary Giddins, Jimmy Heath, Fred Hersch, Joe Hagan, Maxine Gordon, Tim Page, Veronica Swift and Marcus Strickland are among the 25 writers, musicians, poets, educators, and photographers who participated...Also, the publication of the winning story in our 50th Short Fiction contest; an interview with Romare Bearden biographer Mary Schmidt Campbell; a collection of jazz poetry; two new podcasts by Bob Hecht; the March edition of "On the Turntable," and lots more...Click here to be taken to the issue.

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