Billy Taylor, a Jazzman to be Missed

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

Another great one:

Exercises and Etudes for the Jazz Instrumentalist

Exercises and Etudes for the Jazz Instrumentalist

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.

Commander Trombone Classic: WWW Veterans

Wally Kerber and an associate

Wally Kerber and an associate

Today, there are lots of things we take for granted on the internet, but what’s hard for most people to imagine is that back “in the day” things were much different. Below, Wally Kerber remembers the early “fly by the seat of your pants” days of the early World Wide Web.

“Before the powerhouse website we know today as Commander Trombone existed, the internet itself was like an infant left on our collective front porches by the defense department. The defense department knocked and ran away. What did we do with that baby? We cooed at it. We tickled its nose. Fortunately for all of us, a little gentle patting on the back by Tim Berners Lee made that baby burp up the World Wide Web.

an early podcasting device

Promo for an early internet
broadcasting device

Those of us on the “early web,” as we like to call it, were horribly naive, but that naivete led to great creativity. If we needed sound effects, for example, we’d tell our sound man Jack to run a line down to the bathroom. There, he’d use the acoustics of the toilet. Slowly unscrewing the lid from a mason jar inside the bowl would simulate the sound of an alien spacecraft door opening. It frightened people, many of whom lived in New Jersey. We soon realized that the power of the web was truly awesome and we needed to treat that power with a great deal of respect. We treated the web as a public trust. We worked long hours. My lovely wife made us lots of frozen ginger ale salad to keep us going. We smoked lots of cigarettes; we didn’t know they were harmful!

How to view or “browse” the web was an ongoing concern. Several methods involved high voltages. An early “information helmet” or “thinking cap,” that beamed sounds and images directly into the brain proved unfeasible. To make matters worse, squirrels would find their way onto our makeshift power grid and electrocute themselves, blowing the whole system out. When we finally saw NTSA Mosaic, an early web browser, we were stunned by its simplicity, but nonplussed by its 256 nodes of color output.

It’s difficult to say exactly when everything on the web went south, but whatever it was, it was not the “web bubble.” Our team engineered the “web bubble.” It was good work. It cannot burst. It was our bubble, and we worked on it happily even though we never received a dime of royalties for it.

Perhaps trouble arrived in the form of a corporation called Microsoft. Bill Gates tried to convert the web to his own use in the dead of night when no one was looking. Even prior to that, Apple Computer tried to make things user friendly that shouldn’t be made user friendly. You don’t make a fighter jet user friendly, after all. We admired Apple though. We registered http://www.liveinthefuture.com and it still points to Apple Computer to this day. By the way, the iPod and podcasting are nothing new, we invented at least seven different internet broadcasting devices, one of which could broadcast on the 19 meter shortwave band in synchronicity with the internet.

Certainly the CSS fanboys, who came later, did not help in the progress of our innovations on the web. There was an army of them: Eric Myers, Jefferey Zeldman, Cameron Moll, Dan Cedarholm and we regarded them as drippy-nosed, self-congratulatory young upstarts who were trying to make a free wheeling web into a fascist mini state. Their ilk just wanted to make the Ruby On Rails run on time. Others, who also claimed to know it all, eventually made the web “scene,” but they could barely converse on a subject other than Chuck Norris.

As time went on, however, we who created the early web realized that change was inevitable and were forced to “get over it,” to use the parlance of our times. For those of us who were present at the creation, it’s certainly sufficient to look back on a solid record of accomplishment. The upstarts may not acknowledge—or even be aware of—how things were back in the summer of 1991 when we first rolled up our sleeves and pinned our hopes on the early web, but nevertheless, it is on the “shoulders” of our accomplishments that the web users of today now stand.”

Aurex Jazz in Translation

Out of the randomness that makes up YouTube content these days, real surprises occasionally surface that don’t have to do with dogs riding skateboards or cats playing the piano. One such find is the “Aurex Jazz Special” that aired on Japanese television in the 80s, apparently concurrent with the Aurex Jazz Festival. In the clip below (click movie to start play), J.J. Johnson explains his early musical influences:

There’s also a version of Jay and Kai playing It’s All Right With Me with a rhythm section that includes Tommy Flanagan on piano and Roy Haynes on drums. On what seems to be the same occasion, Dexter Gordon and Clark Terry join for I’ll Remember April, and Milestones. There are a few awkward Lost in Translation moments during the show as the musicians smile and “play along” with whatever is being said by the show hosts.