2012 was supposed to be my year of Jazz.
I was raised on rock music, my parents being products of the ‘60s and ‘70s culture. There was never a lack of music around, I knew how to properly handle a vinyl record before I knew how to tie my shoes. My father’s record collection was mostly centered on what we now consider the classic rock canon. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Who were pretty complete in their discographies. The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead were there along with 4 or 500 of their closest friends. For David Bowie, it was Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down that i remember, though to my father’s credit, Aladdin Sane and Heroes were in there. I had to discover the vastness of his back catalog on my own.
I tried to play music as early as I could. I wanted to play Saxophone (because it was cooler) but got stuck with my Mom’s old clarinet. I played for 7 years and got pretty advanced as far as that goes. By the time i actually got a saxophone i wasn’t really interested anymore. By high school it was art and girls.
I really came of age in the ‘90s though, a time of some of the worst music in the recorded era. For me it went from MC Hammer (what 10 year old white kid didn’t love Hammer) to Boyz II Men to Seal to Blues Traveler & Live to Nine Inch Nails and that’s pretty much where the trajectory stopped. In Nine Inch Nails (and specifically, the Broken EP) I found something that was unlike anything in my Father’s record collection and by default anything i’d ever heard before. I absorbed all the associated artists, Marilyn Manson, Ministry, Prick, if it had guitars and synths i was in. That progressed to the metal bands of the era but that petered out pretty quickly. I can’t say that Korn or White Zombie get much play from me these days. Concurrently, i had discovered Bowie for myself and by genre association, Roxy Music. Brian Eno said that you didn’t really need to be a musician to make music. I got myself a guitar somewhere in there and started making bad cassettes, but it never came naturally. 15 years later, I have much better toys but if i’m honest, i’m only marginally a better player.
By the early 2000s i had discovered “Indie Rock” and by that i mean the kind of records you think of when I type it (Modest Mouse, Death Cab For Cutie, Interpol, The Strokes Etc) but I also mean all the bands in vans playing to 20 people in tiny clubs. That lead to punk rock. Somewhere I got tired of seeing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in the top 10 albums of all time lists and having never heard it myself. Hearing this masterpiece lead me to Motown, Stax and R&B/ Soul in general. I never realized that I knew a lot of those songs from Beatles era records. I also didn’t see why someone who likes Black Flag and The Weirdos couldn’t be into Otis Redding or The Miracles. Which brings us to Jazz.
“Bitches Brew” was the first one I had, a Valentine’s gift from a girlfriend that would eventually become my wife. It was too prog rock and weird for me really. Also, i had mixed feelings and reservations from my own time with woodwinds in band. The next one was more of a impact, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. For me, it started with a project digitizing the record collection of a friend. Among all the folk records was an original mono pressing of the record. A lot has been said about “A Love Supreme” but it’s beauty and power are hard to argue and impossible to ignore. . Patti Smith has said that whenever she’s in a record shop and sees a copy she has to buy it, despite having dozens of copies at home. She can’t bare to see it sitting there going unplayed. The record is that good. It was like getting hit by lightning the first time I played it. All the crackles of a well loved record scattered over the sounds. There may have been tears, there certainly were goosebumps. It was magical. For that reason i came to the conclusion that i would need to put in some concentrated effort on the genre of Jazz and see what I could find. See what spoke to me. See if I could decipher it’s cryptic meanings and form. I told my wife that 2012 would be my year of Jazz.
I started chronologically more or less. The Jelly Roll Morton compilation, “Birth Of The Hot – The Classic Red Hot Peppers Sessions 1926-27” played as soundtrack to notable historian Alan Lomax’s bestselling book, “Mr Jelly Roll”. A work obviously more fiction than fact, but what do you expect based on the transcriptions of interview recordings of a man born too late to actually have created the Jazz he claimed to. The music didn’t do much for me either, short awkward novelty tunes that end suddenly. Their primitive recording techniques that sound their age. It IS amazing that they exist though, forks gathered around 1 microphone or a lathe with a horn on it, positioning based solely on whose part should be loudest.
Next up was the mighty Louis Armstrong. Certainly one of the most notable characters in the genre with a career spanning from the 1914 to the early 70s. Armstrong was both a great player and a charismatic personality. He was a career musician, playing public figure on occasion and making Television appearances, Armstrong didn’t quit performing until he physically couldn’t anymore. Notable in his early years for his dynamic and revolutionary horn playing, he would later mainly play bandleader, singing in his trademark scat style mostly and breaking out the occasional incendiary horn solo. I enjoy his recordings more but it still plays for me in a bit of a cartoonish novel manner.
Around this time I discovered that Ken Burn’s Jazz series was available on Netflix. I am generally pretty inclined to like documentaries and will watch pretty much anything in that field with little regard to personal interest involvement. It didn’t take me long to burn through it, and it certainly filled in some general knowledge gaps.
In February I hit my favorite Los Angeles record stores, Amoeba and the smaller but often more interesting Rockaway Records. I left both with stacks of moderately to cheaply priced Jazz cds. It seems that the supply vs demand works in this genre. Instead of 7.99 to 14.99 for used discs they’re more in the 3-7 dollar range. It didn’t take me long to pick up 20 or so “essential” titles. I combed fan sites and music news pages for top 50 kinds of lists and picked up titles based on placement or artist association. For example, I already knew I liked John Coltrane, so my dive into Thelonious Monk was a compilation with Coltrane, “The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings” and his “Genius Of Modern Music Vol.1” anthology. Around this time I also paid a visit to The Illiad a fantastic used book store in North Hollywood. I picked up the aforementioned “Mr Jelly Roll”, a couple Coltrane books, “Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker” and “Milestones” a hefty Miles Davis biography.
I picked up a remastered version of “Bird And Diz” a 1950 recording by “bop” masters
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (with Thelonious Monk sitting in on the session). This is a pretty phenomenal recording and is stylistically what you might expect of 1940s style playing, if you’ve only really heard jazz in films. It’s both atmospheric and what you might imagine Jackson Pollock or Calder were listening to when doing their famous works.
A selection of Miles Davis recordings were next. The absolutely essential “Kind Of Blue” topped his titles. There is a reason it is the best selling Jazz album. Also grabbed “Birth Of The Cool” for some earlier 1949-50 era material. There was also a compilation of earlier session work, but it was so unremarkable to me that I cannot recall it’s title. More recently I thought to try out his later period again with the “Live – Evil” album. Purchased mainly for it’s cover art, It’s much more listenable than “Bitches Brew” for me and proves to be a fantastic soundtrack for L.A.’s often brutal traffic.
I reduced Charles Mingus output to be a mere three albums. 1959’s “Mingus Ah Um” with it’s cover recalling Guernica to me. “Fables Of Faubus” caught me the heaviest, a track about a racist Arkansas governor who fought against integration. The track was originally recorded with a scathing vocal that the label refused to release, you’ll have to do a bit of digging to find it. A pair of 1963 recordings rounded it out. “The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady” is a dark and brooding masterpiece originally composed to be performed as a ballet. “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus” was the third I picked up. The least memorable of the three save for an updated version of Mingus’ standard ”Goodbye Porkpie Hat” now retitled to “Theme For Lester Young”. I dig Mingus’ bass playing the most, from virtuosic to impressionistic it carries things around when it needs to and sits back when it doesn’t. Truly a master of the form.
John Coltrane was the heaviest and the most in depth of my interest. I read 3 biographies including “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album” a in depth look at the creation of that record and the life events that lead to his spiritual awakening that that record signifies. Compilations of his early work as a sideman show off his work ethic and dedication to practice and playing. 1957’s “Blue Train” show this titan composing his own work and growing in leaps and bounds. 1960’s “Giant Steps” is undeniably iconic. At least 2 of it’s 7 tracks have become standards of the genre. And then there is “A Love Supreme”. I picked up the deluxe edition cd that includes the sole live performance of the piece from the 1965 Festival Mondial du Jazz in Antibes, France. It also has a couple of alternate takes with an expanded lineup rescued from a mono reference reel.
Finally, the last major artist I checked out was another dynamic saxophone player, Ornette Coleman. A 2 cd import compilation with 1958’s “Something Else!!!!” album and 1959’s landmark “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” album. Coleman’s work on these is overly dynamic and borders on the spastic. Clearly the work of a young man with something to prove. I followed that up with a later release “The Complete Science Fiction Sessions” which is the basis of the 1971 & ‘72 albums “Science Fiction” and “Broken Shadows”. This record is more along the lines of “Bitches Brew” prog-y and experimental for no noticeable reason.
I touched upon a a few other artists Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins for examp le that didn’t get delved into too deeply. I learned to look for a couple of names on the back of records; Bob Thiele and Rudy Van Gelder. Two of the most highly regarded producer/ engineers in the Jazz field. Their recordings are almost universally impeccable.
The biggest problem I found was oversaturation. All of the above happened in a pretty short period. By March, Leonard Cohen had released his first new album in several years, “Old Ideas” and i was well on my way to a period of obsession with his work. By Summer I was on to Hot Chip and their latest, “In Our Heads”. By fall I circled back to Seal before discovering Gary Clark Jr. My listening habits tend to be cyclical, with over a hundred years of recordings to investigate, I predict 2013 as my year of Jazz.