Ad Infinitum — for Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, etc…
Mr. Ron Davis, the father of deceased 17 year-old Jordan Davis, made a beautiful post-trail statement this evening. Which got me thinking…
I do not believe this country will ever recover from its self-concocted racism, the fuel of the tormented Black men and women who worked to build this nation, and the life-blood of the system that enabled it to accrue the wealth necessary to establish an industrial revolution and beyond.
I have love and hope in my heart, but when I continue to see re-organized and re-energized examples and extensions of that same racist mind-set in laws such as Stand Your Ground and drug possession laws that disproportionately devalue the lives of Black people (especially to financially support the Prison Industrial Complex, the latest lucrative and effective form of enslavement), I must throw up my hands.
At some point, those in power must admit evil and those transgressed must demand that admission and quit praying to “overcome.” I’m not afraid to say “I hurt.” Even if nothing has happened to me personally, it hurts me to see these things that have happened and continue to happen to Black people—to my father and his; my mother and hers; my cousins, or friends…
Yes, there are many other wrongs and so many victims in every sector and walk of life. But I don’t want to hear about injustices to any other group right now. Let’s talk about this, just this right now. I need your attention.
But I’m afraid it will never happen. How can it? It would be like the light of God. Too bright. Too right. And so another black mother and father accept the untimely death of their son at the hand of a gun and are watched by the nation as they face and bear this greatest of tragedies with strength, grace and dignity. And we all relearn how to accept this and things like it, like the good people that we are. (more…)
My Friend, Jef Lee Johnson
I can’t remember the last time I had such a profound reaction to a guitar player than when I heard Jef Lee Johnson in 2010. Not in 30 years or more had a fellow guitarist made me feel like I had discovered the musical Holy Grail. Yes, I’d had lesser seismic stirrings as a kid upon hearing, Benson, Wes and Pat Martino, …but—this was the musical motherlode!
What struck me most as I delved into the world of Jef Lee Johnson, the vast body of work that is his musical legacy, is that it seemed limitless in its embodiment of all things Black Music. Much like the aesthetic itself, its extentions reached in and firmly gripped classic and acid rock, while titillating other styles as the free-spirited composer saw fit. And what a composer he was! Not bound in any way stylistically (within the aesthetic realm that he inhabited), his compositions always contained enough of him—his dreamy, thoughtful lyrics, Pop-defying musical idiosyncrasies, life-or-death urgency in feel or groove, authenticity to the style and deft guitar and bass playing—that no two songs, regardless of polarity, sounded out of place or in opposition.
I first heard Jef while trolling the web late one night. I stumbled on some guys playing a version of Herbie’s Watermelon man on the old Black Entertainment Television show, Studio Jams, where they would assemble random musicians… Who was this guitar player who seemed more interested in keeping his part nice and tight and was gently overseeing the band to make sure that the whole presentation was right? Then seemingly out of nowhere, he takes this most unassuming, yet most killing solo, playing a little of this and that and in the most personal way, saying a little something that any and everyone would want to play. From there I was just about hooked, so I downloaded his recording “Blue” (1995) and that sealed the deal. Fan for life! On that record, his first, there was anthem-rock, folksy, bottle-neck slide blues, single-line and chord solos over funky, jazz changes and more. A music critic’s dream or nightmare, depending on their intentions! Then and there he became my all-time favorite, all-around, genre-splitting guitarist. He played like, “aww, what the heck,” and to me, he sounded like everyone of the best of them would sound if they were all one and could be that free.
After checking out his bio (McCoy Tyner, Billy Joel, Quest Love, Chaka Khan, Erica Badu, Paul Shaffer’s David Letterman Band, Esperanza Spaulding, George Duke, Terrence Blanchard, DeAngelo, Stanley Clarke…) and speaking to my musician friends who travel in those circles, I felt like the odd man out. Why hadn’t anyone told me about him??!!! I proceeded to make up for lost time by acquiring several of his recordings under his own name. I’m only about halfway through with 6 or 7 records. Although his known recordings as a leader weren’t released until he was in his 30s, he managed to be quite prolific, releasing several ‘double-record’ sets, sometimes with as many as 30 songs.
There is so much of Jef Lee Johnson to discover musically—so many vistas he invites you to imagine and ideas to mull over. Over the past 3 years, I became intimately aware of these landscapes and airwaves of his, yet as with all great artists, his music always invites me to go deeper to find its newfound parts—his lyrics so vivid and so vast.
She’s got the whole thing covered,
all day, all night, all things to me
So much yet undiscovered,
as far as every eye can see
(from Hype Factory‘s, “Sky”)
When he died last year I felt as though I had lost a loved-one. It was really uncanny how deeply I felt the “loss” of somebody I’d never known, let alone never met. I kicked myself because I’d had an opportunity one summer earlier which I passed up on due to excuses. “I’ll meet him another time…”, I reasoned. The feeling of sadness seemingly would not go away that easily after he passed. And then one evening I eagerly sat down to read a newly republished, 12 page interview of his on the internet. Way into it on page 11, the interviewer asked how he got the gig with McCoy Tyner and Jef Lee went on to explain the circumstances and process, when he says “…McCoy was looking for a guitarist…Bobby Broom did a gig, I remember…” For the record, I have never, ever played with McCoy. But for me, reading that statement from him was the weirdest form of closure. It was as though the universe was telling me through him, it’s okay, it’s not over, we’ll meet again.
Thanks Jef Lee Johnson for being the best at accomplishing the purpose of music and for reminding me that great music cannot be measured in notes, words or accomplishments.
Bearing Standards – The Current Significance of Jazz Standard Repertoire
written for Jazziz magazine’s Coda section, fall 2012
Recently, I had an exchange with a jazz impresario about a fan’s preference for jazz standards over original material — a preference, I believe, shared by many other jazz fans. I have no statistical data to support that assumption, but I do have a wealth of empirical knowledge gained from years spent following jazz as a fan and many more years spent playing the music professionally. From my perspective, it’s safe to say that standards occupy a special place in the jazz canon, as well as in the hearts and minds of fans. No piece of music will ever acquire the same nostalgic value as a standard unless it becomes popular enough to itself be performed by jazz musicians with regularity.
For the sake of clarity, let’s define “jazz standard” as a popular song that is frequently played — interpreted and reinterpreted — by jazz musicians. Sometimes these songs are penned by jazz artists themselves. For example, Thelonious Monk left us many, including Straight, No Chaser and Round Midnight. There’s John Coltrane’s Impressions and Giant Steps, and Wes Montgomery’s Road Song and West Coast Blues. (Actually, I’ve always thought of standards written by jazz musicians as the indelible mark of their legacy.) In any case, jazz musicians have all learned to play jazz by performing these popular songs. Through that process, they become familiar with improvisation and interpretation. Furthermore, the knowledge they glean from practicing and playing standards helps to both validate and develop their musical aesthetic, gives them the ability to use that awareness as a tool, and informs their improvisational and compositional skills. Non-musicians who listen closely to standards develop a finer appreciation of jazz.
Jazz standards allow both non-musicians and musicians to contrast and compare the playing styles and techniques of different performers in familiar musical environments. They also help to set general and specific guidelines for songs and styles in the minds of musicians and listeners. Without rules, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to establish or codify any art based on individual expression. In jazz, rules facilitate communication and understanding among musicians. On the common ground where musicians meet, compositional and improvisational reference points have been established and transferred from one generation to the next over the last hundred years. Likewise, certain songs have become “standards” because of a time-tested general consensus of their worth. They are not the only valid jazz material, but they are essential to the learning and development of jazz students — and they provide a rich proving ground for professional jazz musicians. I know that my ability to play jazz is a result of the value I placed on learning and continually practicing standards.
For young musicians, a strong familiarity with jazz standards breeds a deep appreciation for pleasingly simple and memorable melodies. Maybe it’s corny, old-school or simply passé for musicians today to want their melodies to be memorable and their songs to draw the attention of as many people as possible, but I don’t think so. Jazz musicians from all eras — including this one — have wanted people to embrace their music.
If musicians can continue to create music as compelling and captivating as the timeless standards that currently constitute a significant portion of the jazz canon, such as Benny Golson’s Stablemates and Dizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma, then jazz will surely continue to live and thrive.
Farewell to Hiram Bullock (1955-2008)
written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column
Hiram Bullock probably became best known as the barefoot guitarist in Paul Schaefer’s band for the Late Night with David Letterman show during the early eighties. But he amassed a massive resumé playing alongside many of contemporary music’s brightest stars including James Brown, Miles Davis, The Brecker Bros., Paul Simon, David Sanborn, Kenny Loggins, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Burt Bacharach, Roberta Flack, Steely Dan, Spyro Gyra, Eric Clapton, Al Green and James Taylor. Hiram’s hybrid style was an unabashed, organic blend of rock, blues, funk and jazz that has and will continue to influence like-minded guitarists for generations to come.
I first heard Hiram live when I was still a teenager in New York City. He was playing at a club called Mikell’s, located in my upper west side neighborhood, with a band comprised of veteran and future all-stars that included Lenny White on drums and Marcus Miller on bass. I remember that I recorded the gig on my big, hulking cassette player/recorder and recall enjoying reliving the band’s funkier version of George Benson’s hit Breezin, which featured the alternatively spaced-out, echo-laden, blues-rock from Hiram’s guitar replacing George’s classic part. As huge a Benson fan as I was, I wasn’t so blindly faithful that I’d miss the beauty of what took place on that tune that night. Confidently using his personal style like a singing voice, Hiram’s reading of the melody and his solo stood apart from the Benson recording and moved me just the same. It was probably 1977 and Hiram was just 22 years old.
I’d hear about him often as the years passed and his reputation and associations grew. I’d also see him around New York from time to time – sometimes at that most popular – hang – for us musicians at that time, 55 Grand Street. This was he jazz club/after hours spot in the village where a who’s who of musicians would gather to play music, recreate, or both. For example, I remember being on stage there one night jamming with Benson and Mike Stern. Anyway, for whatever reason, Hiram and I never really hit it off as friends, but I hope there was an inherent feeling of respect toward him coming from me, because if I had had the burning desire to pursue that style, Bullock’s playing definitely would have been one interpretation of jazz-rock guitar that I would have tried to follow.
At the time we were all still in our twenties and most likely trying to figure out just who we were or wanted to be, musically and otherwise. For me there weren’t many young, up and coming hollow body jazz guitar superstars to chase after, so I was kind of on my own in my passion and pursuit of the clean tone. And really, this style of classic, jazz guitar was not very popular at all in 1982, so to remain a viable candidate as a modern jazz guitarist for hire I was experimenting with my sound and style a bit, trying to take and incorporate some of the essence of what John Scofield was doing. It was clear that Mike Stern and John Scofield ruled the roost as far as what modern jazz guitar was supposed to sound like back then. But Sco was playing closest to my sound – not fully distorted – as opposed to Stern who would stomp on that ‘purple haze’ pedal as the highlight of his three-tiered improvisational process (clean-toned blues and bebop, then distorted everything).
I can’t say unequivocally, but it seemed that during that period in the early eighties Hiram may have been looking to Mike Stern for musical inspiration in a similar way as I looked to Scofield. Stern had more of a command of the bebop language and I remember getting the impression from seeing their interaction that Hiram wanted a little more of that for himself. Funny stuff if you add the fact that Hiram was already a ‘first-call’ session guitarist having played on hundreds of record dates and jingles with some of music’s biggest names. He also had the David Letterman Show job. His particular guitar style was already highly sought after.
By 1992 I had moved to Chicago and was pursuing my own sound and style. This was the year that Hiram released his third record as a leader, Way Kool. This record immediately became one of my favorites and is still to this day. The searing fusion of blues, rock, funk and jazz that makes up Hiram’s sound is a perfect blend of styles that becomes unique unto itself in his hands. His guitar playing is impeccable and incredibly soulful. The songwriting and production leave nothing to be desired. Even his better-than-adequate vocal work and the placement of those vocal songs in the sequence are just right. I can’t remember the last time that I listened to a record from start to finish, repeatedly, before I did with Way Kool a couple of weeks ago. I imagine that this record has got to be a perfect representation of Hiram Bullock’s lifework. I know I will enjoy it forever – Thank you Hiram!
Here’s an excerpt of Hiram’s tune, Never Give Up from the Way Kool CD
Sonny Rollins: Living the Grace and Mystery of Jazz
written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column
People often ask me what it’s like to work with Sonny Rollins: what he’s like, what he practices, if he hangs out with the band, et cetera. Well, forget all that. My relationship with Mr. Rollins has been so important to me on so many levels that to approach it so trivially in writing would be disrespectful. He has been mentor (musical and otherwise), colleague and friend to me and I have always treasured this relationship and my good fortune of being able to work with this jazz master. Here are some thoughts, memories and observations that I’ve taken away.
One of the earliest lessons I learned from Sonny, and the one that most influenced me, is that jazz is an honorable and estimable life journey. What I mean by that is, those of us who choose (and are fortunate enough!) to play jazz music for a living, must recognize it as a very respectable kind of work (if you can get it). Granted, until the 1980s, there were good reasons to have reservations about “the jazz life” and the sordid reputations of jazz musicians and the nightlife in which the music lived. Because for its first fifty years jazz existed and flourished in that environment, it remains difficult for some to imagine how it could possibly be a serious art form and profession. In the past, this attitude often resulted in second-class treatment of jazz musicians in every way imaginable. And although at times jazz and its musicians are still not treated optimally or equitably, the stature of jazz music and the conditions under which it operates are, on the whole, better than before. And more than ever, jazz music is viewed by the general public and its institutions as a creative and intellectual art deserving of credit and celebration as a cultural treasure. The varied environments it occupies and endowments that jazz receives reflect this evolved mindset. We musicians have our predecessors’ (like Sonny Rollins’) hard work, tolerance, strength and perseverance to thank for these advances.
By the time I began working with Sonny he was a jazz figure who by choice no longer played nightclubs. In my early years with him (the 1980s), we would occasionally play large supper-club or showcase-type venues like New York City’s Bottom Line (a venue akin to Martyrs or the Park West in Chicago), but mainly we played theaters, concert halls and open-air, festival stages. At that time, most often the ‘nightlife’ for us musicians consisted of transporting the band back to the hotel to rest for an early lobby-call the following day to go to the airport and off to the next city. During those years, I watched as we traveled the world in this respectable style that befitted how diligently Sonny had prepared and continued to practice his craft, and how seriously he took his art and his work. As a young jazz musician observing these things, I was inspired and emboldened.
Growing up in New York City, Sonny had access to musical icons and personalities that he could look to for inspiration and aspiration. I recall his stories about being a kid listening to Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Louis Jordan records; and sitting on the front steps of Hawkins’ Harlem apartment building waiting for the jazz star to come home so he could get his autograph and talk to him. Of course at that time Sonny probably didn’t suspect that he would one day play with his tenor saxophone idols and had no idea of the impact that he would ultimately have on jazz music and on the art of jazz saxophone playing. He just had a burning desire to play. Sonny was very fortunate to have been prepared to emerge in a place and time when, as before the swing era, the climate was right for musical contributions by him and his peersâ€”a group of talented and creative young men, bursting with enthusiasm to musically express themselves. Their music was a reflection of the environment and the social conditions from which they came. These young men were ready to play active roles as virtuoso musicians as jazz music shifted away from the Swing Era and toward newer sensibilities.
By the time I became enamored with jazz it was 1975 and, according to some jazz purists, the greatest moments in the music had ended with the advent of jazz-rock-fusion and electric instruments. At the time, I had no knowledge of this sentiment, but while listening to records from the 1940s to sixties and pining and dreaming about being involved with jazz music and connecting with some of the great musicians that I was hearing on these records, I did feel that maybe I’d been born in the wrong era. I wondered if, due to bad timing, I’d simply missed out.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the practice room. I learned that there were other forces at work directing the flow of my life. There was no logical reason why at sixteen years old, three or four years after picking up the guitar, I should be learning tunes and about playing jazz from Al Haig, one of Charlie Parker’s favorite pianists, especially not on his bandstand during performances! Playing Carnegie Hall with Sonny Rollins at sixteen was even more nuts. These and other moments served my intuition with subtle messages, and moved me further toward the direction of my dreams, showing me a different look at the relationship between possibility and reality. All I had then was talent, desire, an intense love of music, and a good work ethic and attitude. Apparently, the other details of who, what, when, where, how and why were not totally under my control. My hands were full with practicing anyway, so it was not hard for me to accept just pushing the pedal but not steering.
Now thirty years later, after having reconnected with my mentor and friend, I am at times almost more amazed than the first time around at the mystery of life. I continued along my musical path trying to keep the pilot light lit even through some extremely cold and windy Chicago winters. I met and played with many more great people in jazz, recorded, composed, educated (myself and others) and made a career for myself. When the opportunity came for us to play again I suspect that Sonny felt good about his earlier investment of time in me and about the chance to get further returns.
It has been real interesting for me to be able to reconnect with Sonny Rollins so intimately through music after so many years away. Now, after forming my own ideas, methodologies and opinions, I’ve had the opportunity to compare notes with him so to speak, both directly and indirectly, and to affirm some ideas at which I’ve arrived over the years, which has often been particularly gratifying.
It’s also an inspiration to see him, at seventy-seven years old, still practicing. I’ll call him sometimes and have to hold while he puts his horn down. He’s still, as he says, “a work in progress”, as are his ideas and desires about his musical presentation. He is mindful about not getting stuck in jazz’s past methodically and continues to reach toward what he is hearing for himself and his band to play. It’s pretty cool to be able to hear him now and to observe his playing – the changes he’s made, what’s remained, been added, deleted. It would have been so easy for him to have simply stopped at 1962, settling for what some fans still feel is his greatest period. He could still be playing the same things, the same way, and some would be happy, but not Sonny. While, because of his pedigree, he is a traditionalist in many ways, he knows like all of the music’s greats before him that jazz, like life, continues to change and move in one direction or another. Sonny Rollins has remained open to embracing the mystery and opting for forward motion in life and music.
Audience Participation – Gimme Some Mo’
written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column
I sometimes wonder if jazz needs a competition akin to the Olympics in order to move towards meritocracy in the field. The competition categories might be: harmonic inventiveness, time feel, solo structure – One thing I’d bet all jazz musicians would agree on is that audiences could use a handbook, especially those at casual venues.
It is seriously not easy for musicians to come to terms with the fact that many audience members at casual jazz engagements are not there to enjoy the music. In the Chicagoland area there are a fair number of establishments that are primarily bars or restaurants but that also offer music. According to a recent study done by the Chicago Music Commission on the economic impact of Chicago music, our city ranks fourth in the nation in its number of small venues and clubs, two percent of which are jazz venues. Before you get all negative, that percentage is comparable to New York (2.6) and surprisingly, Chicago beats out New York three-to-two in small venues per thousand people. (Incidentally, not surprisingly, New Orleans doubles Chicago in number of jazz clubs, as does Atlanta.)
Being a transplanted New Yorker, I’m still amazed when live jazz is offered for no cover charge. I’ve also been struck by some customers’ hesitancy in paying even the most nominal cover charges. Could it be that the lack of cover charge has conditioned patrons in certain ways? Does not charging customers lessen the credibility of musicians and their music? No doubt, there’s an ignorance and lack of awareness and understanding in the general public (through no real fault of their own) of just what jazz music is – that it’s an art form with a uniquely American cultural history; and that it is also a commodity that can provide entertainment for listening, dancing or general mood setting. But as it stands, most people probably don’t think of any of these things when they think of jazz. I’d love to know what some of them are thinking when they walk into a place and there’s a jazz band playing.
Last night at the Green Mill (one of Chicago’s most popular and well-known jazz clubs) three young ladies in their twenties walked in. It was late and we were playing our last ten-or-so minutes. The girls decided to sit right up front next to the stage, where I could hear their conversation and they could hear my grunting and groaning. Of course, they had to shout to hear each other over the music, so the question is: if you know you’re going to talk… a lot… then why choose to sit in that spot? The girls did come around after a few minutes, quieting down during a guitar solo (maybe it was the groaning or facial contortions!). Then the band hooked them with Michael Jackson’s old hit, “The Way You Make Me Feel.” One of them wanted to sing, but fortunately wasn’t so lubricated that she would press the issue or try to come up on stage.
I believe that it is a customer’s responsibility to assess an entertainment situation and behave accordingly. It is a common courtesy to fellow customers as well as to the musicians to not be a disturbance, especially if there are individuals (even if there are only two or three) who seem to be intently focused on the musicians on the stage.
One pet peeve I have is when folks approach the bandstand with questions or requests during the middle of a tune. Believe it or not, I’ve had people come up and try to talk to me during a guitar solo! Sometimes in these casual social settings customers feel entitled to certain “services” that they feel the musicians- “the band” -should provide for them. They want to hear their favorite tune, or the birthday song for their friend, or their “sister’s a singer, can she sing a tune?”. It’s a bandleader’s responsibility to gauge when to acquiesce and when to decline in these situations; and sometimes we’ll make mistakes in these situations too.
If there were such a thing as an audience/customer manual, a general rule would be: don’t treat the musicians like you own them unless you do. If you’ve hired them to play your wedding or social function, then have at it! Sure, your aunt can sing as many tunes as she’d like and the hired music should be whatever you want it to be. But in a club, or even a bar or restaurant, where you are fortunate enough to have the gift of music provided gratis, please don’t be demanding or condescending to the musicians. Realize that these are performers who have most likely worked really hard to prepare for this presentation. If you aren’t aware or don’t care who they are, or what they are playing be mindful that perhaps someone else does care about them and/or their music.
Musicians, like everyone else, want to feel appreciated. It is a precarious position that we are placing ourselves in when we occupy the stage in order to make an offering to an audience. We know that we are risking the possibility of rejection, but we hope that we will be able to connect with youâ€“that you will like and even appreciate what we do. Because I’ve been fortunate to play such a wide range of venue types and for such a long time, I’ve become somewhat conditioned, learning that various stages will yield different responses. When I’m playing in a bar or restaurant I don’t expect much attention, especially compared to a club or concert hall. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want it – But I’ve found that this low expectation serves me well, and the fact that the intention behind my performance remains constant no matter the setting works for me as well.
Finally, this is obvious stuff, but it bears repeating: The most rewarding thing that musicians can receive is your applause. If for whatever reason that is not doable, respect will do.
Jazz Fun In the Summer Time
written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column
Ahhh, those summer daysâ€¦ They make me think of freedom and fun and an escape from the constraints of the classroom.
As a high school jazz student, after music had become the focal point in my life, I recall summers meaning I had a lot more time to practice and listen to records. In the morning I would hurry to get my daily English Comprehension Workbook assignment done. My Mom couldnâ€™t bear the thought of my complete freedom from schoolwork, but the rest of the day was mine and I certainly had plans for it.
I recall one summer when every morning I would play two or three Sonny Stitt records that Iâ€™d gotten my hands on. Iâ€™d listen to every note and then start the record over again. This is such a vivid memory for me because of the nerdy-cum-cool ritual Iâ€™d established â€“ English comprehension, then jazz comprehension.
The great thing about having my summer freedom to pursue jazz was that no one was monitoring me, pushing me, testing me. I was able to ENJOY the â€œlearningâ€ that I had chosen to do totally on my own. Little did I know that I was actually studying! I guess the course couldâ€™ve been called Jazz as a Second Language.
The fact that there was ostensibly absolutely nothing to gain from my Sonny Stitt obsession other than self-enjoyment, satisfaction and perhaps more musical self-motivation makes the activity still seem a bit odd to me, or at least a rather interesting pursuit for a teenager. However (and also unbeknownst to me), this self-motivation is the most pure way and perhaps the only effective means by which to pursue the personal work of learning to play jazz music.
The following summer I learned about a jazz camp in New Jersey that I decided I wanted to go to. My parents agreed, and so I attended with another jazz student/high school buddy of mine. I think it was around a two-week stay. When I look back, the desire to go away to further immerse myself in a chosen interest seems like a pretty passionate thing to do. But jazz music had incited (and still does to this day) such emotion in me that this was simply my response to those feelings: to meet them equally.
That summer trip was great! A time away from my parents (and chores and workbooks) and a way to reaffirm my passion by being with peers who felt the same ways I did about music. Since then Iâ€™ve learned that thereâ€™s nothing better for establishing an inner comfort level than being around people who are basically just like you. There will usually be others in the group that will allow you to stand out or to be invisible, according to your needs. Which reminds me that it was at this jazz camp that I met what I believed at the time was the epitome of a jazz-obsessed teenager. This guy, pianist Dave Kikoski, was way more far-gone about jazz than me. It stands to reason that he is a great player today â€“ he already was then. But itâ€™s also funny for me to think that the realization of my own sense of balance in my young life was somehow a necessary and soothing thing for me to feel at the time.
The camp was arranged typically; like a cross between a sleep-away camp with a jazz-education curriculum. My guitar teacher was a guy named Ritchie Hart. I remember that he had studied with George Benson and so that fact alone probably made the price of admission seem worth it to me. Another instructor who made a great impression on me at the camp was drummer, John Riley. Iâ€™ve always adored a good drummer, and boy could he swing! He went on to play with John Scofield and the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra). So itâ€™s good to know that aesthetically I was already onto something that I could translate between vinyl and flesh. That jazz comprehension home schooling was working!
The other thing that I remember about the camp was the lack of pressure on me to excel in an academic sense. Because there were no grades and no accreditation involved, I was present to enjoy a getaway, which at its core was centered on the instructional, performance and social aspects of jazz music. Unlike a music conservatory or university, I was not beholden to my long-term education; there was no institution or administration requiring that I meet any official standards. Any measuring of excellence came in the form of level placement in performance classes and ensembles. This indirect grading system established a hierarchy among the musicians involved and provided the motivation that I needed as a serious music student to practice and to advance my craft.
The process of self-motivating via comparing and contrasting is a key component to the progress of the developing jazz musician and is encountered early on as they begin to excel. It is also an issue that they have to learn to reconcile personally due to the emotional baggage that it can produce. Often, learning to maintain a healthy balance of humility and fire in the belly is what makes for the biggest strides in learning and contributing for musicians. The capacity for balanced responses to situations that will affect our perception of self can be the difference between faith and determination and fear and giving up. The need to maintain a balance of this nature never really goes away for the jazz musician, regardless of how far along they are in their career. Imagine, for example, how Sonny Rollins felt when John Coltrane usurped his place among the jazz media as jazzâ€™s premier saxophonist.
The jazz camp can be the perfect way for a student to become thoroughly familiar with and involved in the social and performance areas of the jazz milieu, while also partaking in valuable instruction in an informal classroom setting. With a more casual approach to learning jazz, and through group activity and interaction, jazz camps foster the most important kind of inspiration and motivation for the developing jazz musician.
Northwestern University’s Jazz Blues – Postscript
I am actually happy to eat crow after having erroneously accused Northwestern University’s School of Music of altogether disregarding America’s, or more accurately, African-Americans’ great contribution to world culture: jazz music. I was pleased to learn of the appointment of Victor Goines, former Director of Jazz Studies at The Juilliard School, as Northwestern’s new Jazz Studies chief.
And now, here’s my tasty serving of fried crow:
Please accept my sincere apology for points I made in error in my Chicago Jazz Magazine Jazz Voicings column of a few months ago. In that article, entitled “Northwestern’s Jazz Blues”, I suggested that it was the Music Department’s intention to permanently extricate the jazz Program from the university’s curriculum.
As a recent Northwestern Master of Music graduate in jazz Pedagogy, a twenty-five year college-level jazz educator and a jazz performer and recording artist of thirty years, I was truly pleased to learn of Victor Goines’ recent appointment to Director of Jazz Studies at Northwestern.
Though I stand behind my article’s statements that jazz has been and continues to be underrepresented and misrepresented in our country’s institutions, as well as its business and social arenas, I am pleased and hopeful that Northwestern now has the opportunity to make a fresh start in becoming a part of the solution to this cultural and social problem.
Thank you for your help and concern.
The Joy of Jazz In Education
written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column
College Jazz Studies programs have placed so much emphasis on the academics of jazz that the spirit behind the music – its essence – has been purged from both the curriculum and from the music being performed by students. As a university jazz educator, I’m alarmed by this realization.
I’ve listened helplessly as freshman and sophomore college jazz studies program students try to explain and make sense of a newfound dismay that they are feeling for playing music. For them it seems as though the spirit that compelled them to pursue the music in the first place has been zapped from them by the very jazz studies mother ship that they have turned to for guidance and nurturing.
Among the major complaints that I hear from students are:
1) Disappointment with the lack of truly inspiring performance environments within the university programs, 2) Lack of camaraderie between both fellow jazz students and faculty members and 3) An inability to reconcile the approach and mindset of academia with that required of actual jazz performance. I have encountered students expressing these feelings on enough occasions recently that I believe this is an issue that warrants some discussion.
It can be a somewhat normal occurrence for a musician having entered the field of jazz and trying to sustain work and begin to forge a career, to experience fear and doubt at the prospect of earning a living. I have seen these feelings manifested in self-doubt and resentment toward the music business in general. A prolonged or heightened result can be discomfort or depression associated with being involved in music and/or a loss of the joy of playing. It’s one thing when this kind of dismay and confusion happens to someone who has tried their hand at a music career and is having some difficulty, but it’s really disappointing when I hear about a talented twenty-year-old going through this.
It’s sad because their relationship with music has really only just begun. It is especially during these early years that every opportunity to play one’s instrument should be embraced simply for the sheer joy of and fascination with the act of music making. There really is no other reason that will ever be meaningful enough to sustain one’s most intimate relationship with their instrument and music through life’s ups and downs. For a youngster, playing music should never be a chore, but rather a hobby run amok.
My understanding is that the environment that exists in the college music programs of these young and disheartened musicians is not one which supports their real love and affinity for jazz, their pursuit of true knowledge and understanding in the field, nor their natural growth process in it. It should be understood by all involved in academia, students and teachers, that the art of jazz cannot (and should not) be measured in degrees meted out at the universities. The true meaning of the music, which can only be experienced during performance, lies in the act of playing one’s instrument within the group. The functionality within the group and musical contributions offered therein, are the only barometers of how developed a musician is. Can he or she render a melody that captivates, or accompany only for the sake of providing support? Does a solo display depth of emotion and invention, as well as harmonic insight and an honest command of jazz vocabulary? Is it a self-indulgent display or a peek into one’s soul during a moment of musical creation and exploration?
True, it is as difficult to capture the essence of jazz in words as it is to measure it mathematically. But jazz is art, much to the chagrin of some academics. Until university administrators and professors relate to the subject of jazz with a sense of awe and humility, there will always be incongruities in jazz programs. When jazz is accepted and heralded on the bases of its own merits by those who will nurture and foster a coexistence with it, then it will thrive in the light of its own truths.
Perhaps the first thing that needs to be understood by university faculty is that jazz has separate and unique skills and knowledge bases that apply exclusively to the jazz art. Jazz should not be taught in the same way or using the same standards as a classical music curriculum. Universities must stop judging, measuring and qualifying jazz in classical music terms. Once this is understood, the admissions practices of many jazz studies programs, which often either allow access to students who are unqualified by jazz standards or deny access by requiring jazz students to meet classical qualifications, will change. Jazz Studies programs should not be “hideouts” for students that play styles other than classical music. Both students and teachers should be an embodiment of the most talented and accomplished performers of jazz on their instruments’ just as it is in classical music departments.
Having laid the ground rules for a ripe environment within the program, the stage is now set for high-level performance, which should involve students and teachers. Students must view the their highly talented peers and instructors as a gateway to the real world of jazz performance. There should be jam sessions everyday or night, along with a general atmosphere of excitement and an earnest desire for learning to perform. The emphasis on the discussion of music and its over-analysis should be replaced by more performance and listening requirements. There should be a spirit, fueled by jazz music performance, that permeates the university program politics and transcends the drudgery of bureaucracy, classwork and other responsibilities that may deter from the joyful spirit of the jazz art.
Students should be reeducated to understand that this spiritual element is as important as any other in the music–even though it cannot be notated–and that within this spirit lies much more than notes, technique and the resulting applause. Furthermore, the pressure of competition to stand out or excel, inherent in most college music programs, is far removed from the spirit necessary to making great music. Rather, the spirit itself is the reason to get together to share this music with one another–a common ground. That’s why a veteran jazz musician will accept and nurture a fledgling, not based as much on what he or she can or cannot play, as much as on what can be felt from the youngster. The jazz musician knows that if a student is aware enough to understand the importance of this vital component and has worked enough to try to acquire it, then they are well on their way, because technical ability and proficiency is a matter of the same kind of practice–it just takes more time to accumulate.
Teachers should be familiar and comfortable in expressing this intangible element as best they can, and should refer to it often. Because it is elusive in essence and so difficult to talk about, it is easier to ignore this thing that has made jazz what it is. But without its spiritual element, jazz becomes a lifeless, over-analyzed science, or a technical exercise devoid of depth of emotion and feeling. If we instructors/mentors can take a more humble approach to teaching this highly spiritual music by showing no fear in displaying our sometimes-limited grasp of this vast and ever-flowing art, our students may become less inclined to succumb to their ego-driven emotions and notions of becoming masters by graduation day.
Bobby Broom Picks Five Instrumental Jazz guitar CDs
written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column
After hearing George Benson play Paul Desmondâ€™s â€œTake Fiveâ€ on his Bad Benson record, I was off on my personal journey of jazz discovery. I bought as many records as I possibly could within the budget of my allowance. That usually amounted to one or two records a week â€“ not bad for a fourteen year old.
I began to make sense of the jazz idiom and language by connecting the dots between musicians on records, reading the liner notes from those records and casually investigating other written history of jazzâ€™s storied past. Learning about the big names in the music was a way of discovering what I liked as far as styles and categories were concerned. But regardless of a musicianâ€™s proposed jazz stature, their all-star associations, or their tainted reputation as a sell-out, the music always had the last say in determining what I liked.
Itâ€™s interesting that on my journey I consistently landed on the islands of the clean-toned jazz guitarists rather than the distortion or other effects-laden six stringers who were certainly more in vogue during the 1970s. These cool jazz guitar sounds became some of my favorite getaways.
When asked to pick five recordings by jazz guitarists that had the most profound effect on me during my formative years, the first that comes to mind is George Bensonâ€™s Breezinâ€™. I had become familiar with Benson when I finally decided to look into jazz after hearing crossover hits by Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington, Jr. In fact, as stated earlier, hearing Benson was what set the jazz wheels in motion for me. Around two years had passed between the beginning and Iâ€™d become â€œhipâ€ to Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Wes, Coltrane and many of their colleagues. I was enamored with and ever changed by modern, straight ahead jazz; but when I heard Breezinâ€™ I was elated!
The jazz guitarist had done exactly what Herbie and Grover had done in creating a crossover, jazz/pop hit; but not only that, heâ€™d managed to play some of the most compelling jazz guitar ever recorded while doing so.
I didn’t care to think about whether it was jazz or not. No funky backbeat from Harvey Mason’s drums, thumpin’ electric bass, keyboards or strings can erase the creativity of George’s ideas on the changes of â€œAffirmationâ€ and â€œSo This Is Love,â€ or his fire and dead on technique on â€œSix to Four.â€ I didnâ€™t know what to do first, groove along or get busy trying to figure out what he was playing on those songs!
The fact that Breezin’ is great jazz was never in doubt to me, and the possibility that it could also be popular was an exciting bonus for this kid in bell-bottoms.
My other hero at the time was Pat Martino, the six-string slinger from Philly. When I heard his version of â€œSunnyâ€ from his live recording I was lying in my bed in agonizing pain awaiting a hernia operation the next day. But by mid-solo I had to find a way over to my stereo to turn up whoever that was! After that I was forever a Martino fan.
The record that epitomizes his power for me is his We’ll Be Together Again, a duet with pianist Gil Goldstein on Fender Rhodes. It was released in 1976, the same year as Breezin’ and couldn’t have been more different.
The first tune, a suite in three movements, is chockful of music that was way above my head at the time. So I just listened to the rest of the record, which was full of beautifully haunting versions of standard tunes. While writing this piece I revisited that first tune on the record, â€œOpen Road.â€ I didnâ€™t know what I was missing! It struck me that this composition is a comprehensive example of all of the best of Martinoâ€™s musical attributes at their height.
The vibe that record has is due to the instrumentation, the duoâ€™s interaction, the recording quality and Pat’s superior playing. On each tune he first makes the ultimate statement by playing the melody with the accuracy and nuance of a master. He goes on in his solos to dissect the progression of chords, playing one idea after another but never repeating himself. He had the perfect balance of technique, subtlety, authority, and sensitivity. In 1976 Pat and George gave super-power to the art of jazz guitar. They were the kings of that era. I’m sure Wes Montgomery would’ve been proud.
Montgomery set the stage for 1970s jazz guitarists and future generations to come with the groundwork he laid in the sixties. He made sophisticated and swinging records with his organ trio in the late fifties and early sixties where he introduced two revolutionary approaches to the instrument in playing melodic lines either in octaves or bolstered by chords. Wes would use these techniques flawlessly during his solos as well, without at all diminishing the content of his improvisations.
And so, during the first two-thirds of his recording career Montgomery further documented the fact that the highest level of jazz could also be achieved on the guitar. In the mid-sixties he teamed with the Wynton Kelly Trio and various other jazz luminaries to record, ply his craft and further establish his hierarchy in the jazz world. My first encounter with Wesâ€™ music was on a live album from 1969 called Willow Weep For Me, which tracks would later be included on the favorite Smoking at the Half Note sessions with the Wynton Kelly Trio. Wes was in full bloom here, blowing and swinging hard and stamping his trademark on every tune.
In the late sixties Wes signed with Verve Records (and later A&M) and producer Creed Taylor. Together they formulated a template for his commercial success. Playing popular songs, exploiting the use of his trademark and distinctive octaves, employing string sections and integrating the improvised solo more within the framework of the whole arrangement, became elements of Wesâ€™ A&M recordings which would make him popular beyond jazz circles.
My favorite of these later records is Bumpinâ€™ from 1965. Out of eleven tunes it contains only three standards: â€œCon Alma,â€ â€œThe Shadow of Your Smileâ€ and â€œHereâ€™s That Rainy Day,â€ each one heavily arranged by Don Sebesky. You wonâ€™t hear Wes play any burning solos on these tracks. (For just one example of that, see â€œDearly Belovedâ€ on his Riverside release, Boss Guitar.) On Bumpinâ€™ there are his gorgeous sounding octaves playing the melodies and his captivating chord solos announcing the last of the â€œthree tiersâ€ of his perfectly constructed solos, after the single lines, then octaves.
Wes made some beautiful music for listening on the Verve and A&M records. Although they were not â€œblowing sessionsâ€ (a moniker for records in which jazz musicians display their mastery via extensive soloing), his musicality was as intact as ever as he embraced the role of artist, painting his fully developed style through the canvases that Sebesky and company had created. Additionally, he introduced the sound of the jazz guitar to the general public by entering their lives through the airwaves, while also making it safe for future jazz guitarists to explore beyond the boundaries of what is thought of as jazz purity.
Two current-day jazz guitar heroes come to mind and must be included on this list of guitar records that informed my stylistic direction. Pat Metheny and John Scofield both came to the fore during the 1980s.
Scofield first came to my attention through his work with jazz-fusion pioneers (drummer) Billy Cobham and (keyboard player) George Dukeâ€™s, Cobham/Duke Band. By his 1980 trio recording, Bar Talk, his playing style was matured and displayed via his flourishing compositional skills. What intrigued me about this record was Johnâ€™s clear grasp of and respect for the jazz guitar tradition, which he seemed to integrate with an honestly chosen gritty tone, which hints at blues and rock guitar styles. His jazz vocabulary, fanciful improvising on chord changes and use of octaves and chords, combined with his biting tone and bluesy bends and wails, all on glorious display on this record, would eventually capture a legion of fans while inspiring a new generation of wannabe jazz guitarists. John Scofieldâ€™s Bar Talk is one of my personal favorites.
Pat Metheny is arguably one of modern-day jazzâ€™s most popular guitarists. He has certainly taken advantage of the extraordinary opportunity to perform and record that he has been given over the past thirty years. I first heard of Pat as a result of his 1976 trio record, Bright Sized Life, with bassist Jaco Pastorius. But I became a fan with his 1982 release, Off Ramp. This record became an instant classic with its radio hit, â€œAre You Going With Me?,â€ which was a total anomaly, having no actual melody, but just a hook-like chordal vamp. On this tuneâ€™s extended guitar solo, Pat introduced his guitar/synthesized trumpet-like sound, which would be one of his trademarks for years to come.
Metheny, like Scofield is a prolific composer and has used this gift as an impetus for growth as a jazz guitar player over the course of years. In fact for me, and I suspect many listeners of Off Ramp, the attraction was as much about the songs as it was Methenyâ€™s then still developing playing style. He would continue to grow as a jazz guitarist while taking thousands of fans along for the ride.
Pat, like all the other players mentioned here, inspired jazz guitarists to dream, practice and imagine and develop.