Late last year, we lost one of the gems of jazz, Dr. Billy Taylor. So far, there have been numerous online tributes, like this one at A Blog Supreme, or this one at Jazz Wax. It’s been mentioned frequently that Taylor was an educator. While that’s certainly true, it ought to be pointed out that most of the people Taylor educated were non-musicians. For many who found jazz a little esoteric and might have wondered, “Where’s the melody?”, Taylor was about the best explainer and ambassador to the uninitiated you could possibly hope for. Not only did he respond to all questions about jazz music with incredible patience, he did so in way that suggested he truly savored the explanations. Given the same inquiries, Miles Davis might have thrown something at you.
It’s conceivable that you have heard Taylor talk about jazz more often than you heard him play it. His own playing sat comfortably in the mainstream, and while his style didn’t venture into the realms of say, Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea, it did what it needed to do — express Billy Taylor. To bring Miles Davis back into it again, Taylor once said of him that it’s much harder to play with simplicity than it sounds like it might be. So true.
There are many great clips featuring Taylor on YouTube. Below, Billy talks about National Educational Television’s pioneering show, The Subject is Jazz, that aired nationally on NBC in 1957-58. In the original clip, Taylor explains “Cool Jazz,” and the featured group performs a version of Tadd Dameron’s Hot House, and Miles Davis’s Half Nelson.
10.13.14 UPDATE: The video mentioned above was removed from YouTube
About a year ago — around Christmastime — a friend on Facebook sent me a message. The message was from Greg, a fellow trombonist from my undergraduate school days, and, previous to the Facebook friending, I hadn’t heard from him in something like 20 years. Greg is a good guy. At the University of Tennessee, we were in the trombone choir together. The trombone choir was probably one of the best and most fun ensembles I played in while at UT. Other ensembles weren’t so fun until I got out of them; then they were pretty funny in retrospect. In trombone choir, we played arrangements of jazz and classical music, and performed in and around Knoxville, as far away as Oak Ridge. It’s a good memory, and so I was happy when Greg popped up on Facebook. Anyway, I’m digressing. On to Greg’s message. It reads as follows:
chris, My mom paints gourds , she has ducks, geese ,turtles , and santa clause , if interrested let me know . No kidding ! greg
I read the message a few times. I kept reading it. In a way, it seemed like a poem. I read the message for other people. I experimented with different voices and inflections. Like any written work you consider a poem, there’s not one “correct” way to read it, but I’m going to share with you what I feel is a solid interpretation. An mp3 file is here below:
One year ago, the Ella Fitzgerald box set Twelve Nights in Hollywood was in short supply. Part of the reason was an article in the New York Times discussing its release. Soon, the box set was backordered everywhere.
The newly discovered recordings were taken from Ella’s 1961 (and ‘62) stint at the Crescendo, a small jazz club in Los Angeles. These joyful, lovely, and intimate performances languished in Verve’s recording vaults for years, mostly because Ella’s producer Norman Granz was focussing on other projects the singer was doing at the time. Which projects? Well, two were the Rodgers & Hart and Cole Porter songbook albums, which featured Ella in front of large studio orchestras. In contrast, on Twelve Nights in Hollywood Ella sings with her touring rhythm section, consisting of Lou Levy, piano, Herb Ellis, guitar, Wilfred Middlebrooks bass, and Gus Johnson on drums.
It won’t surprise anyone to hear that Ella is in fantastic form. On these recordings, she lines each tune up and knocks it out without seeming to try, with just a short and appreciative “I thank you” between each number. Ella covers her kaleidoscopic range: there are touching ballads, scatted swing numbers, and even the blues she wasn’t known for. Also, there’s a glimpse of Ella the entertainer, taking audience requests and being a little coy about whether or not she really knows the song, or whether there are in fact any lyrics to sing:
Someone, someone asked for Perdido …
Don’t know how the lyrics go
to this tune called Per-deeedo …
Well, it’s December 1, and you might wonder what The Commander has been doing. Well, suffice it to say, it’s a difficult charge to command all those trombones. Think about herding cats. Now, think about herding cats who are trying to play brass tubes. Think of these same cats riding horses. Think about The Cats who play with Count Basie. Actually, forget that. Commander Trombone is merely a nome de plume or pen name. Actually, no pens or cats are involved, only this web site.
Speaking of this web site, it’s been somewhat redesigned. It’s an ongoing project, so you may notice a few weird things here and there.
J.J. Johnson’s Exercises and Etudes for the Jazz Instrumentalist is probably not as celebrated an etude book as it should be. On the cover, the publisher Hal Leonard promotes it as “Easy to advanced,” and “Great for sight reading.” Certainly true, but J.J., after dedicating the book to Fred Beckett inside, makes this better explanation:
This method book is based primarily on my own personal experiences and career as a jazz trombonist, and therefore has very little to do with dogma or tenets…In my opinion, if jazz improvisation is the heart and soul of jazz music, then a clear and basic understanding of jazz syntax (or the language of jazz) is the necessary heart and soul of jazz improvisation. With this book I am committed to helping you get a basic and clear understanding of jazz syntax.
Naturally, it won’t be a surprise to see Johnson drawing on the blues as a musical form. He also sometimes uses the be-bopper’s idea of “contrafact,” or writing a new melody over an existing chord progression. You’ll have to guess — or hear — which tunes are used as underpinning, though. No chord progressions are given.
J.J. sneaks in good advice, too. Over one etude, a reminder:
“How do you feel? Don’t overdue it. When your body is trying to tell you something, LISTEN !!! AND OBEY !!!
To sum up quickly, this is a fun, worthwhile, and thoroughly modern take on the traditional etude book. It’s available for all instruments, and is highly recommended.