Dr. Vernick, I Presume

Note: Some of the links below will take you to the iTunes music store.

Recently, while searching the jungle of the iTunes music store, I came across an interesting iTunes U/Podcast by Dr. Gordon Vernick titled Jazz Insights.

Gordon Vernick

Vernick, who heads up the jazz studies program at Georgia State University, started Jazz Insights as a 10-minute radio show: short vignettes on the basics of jazz for the uninitiated. Since then, he’s continued the program by covering the work of individual jazz artists and their place in the history of the music.

On a series of shows about J.J. Johnson, an initial mention of the slide trombone’s recalcitrant nature is inevitable. Vernick says:

The Trombone is a very difficult instrument. It’s a very ancient instrument. It’s been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years…

It’ll come as no surprise that Dr. Vernick uses recordings as one of the vehicles to recount a jazz artist’s career and development. Continuing with Johnson — the only trombonist featured so far — Vernick begins with J.J.’s early swing-style playing on Lester Leaps In for Norman Granz’s Jazz At the Philharmonic. Johnson’s emerging be-bop style is illustrated by I Mean You with Coleman Hawkins and How Deep Is the Ocean? with Charlie Parker, before we hear classic be-bop dates with J.J. as the leader. By the end of the 40s, we hear how J.J. cooled off a bit.

While recounting his career in the 50s, Vernick discusses Johnson’s involvement in the somewhat short-lived idea of Third Stream Music (A Mix of Jazz and Classical Music) by playing us some of the rare recording Birth of the Third Stream,while getting to J.J.’s musical connection to Miles Davis. Naturally, there’s also discussion of The Eminent J.J. Johnson Volumes One and Two. Along the way, Vernick includes some other important Johnson recordings, including Jay and Kai + 6 (below, courtesy YouTube) and Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera House.

I won’t spoil it by recounting all of Vernick’s show on J.J. here. You really should go give it a listen yourself. Vernick’s presentational style is friendly and geared towards a jazz novice, but it’s still interesting if you happen to know more. In other words, Jazz Insights is aptly named. Plus, Dr. Vernick has recorded programs on Jackie McLean, Thad Jones, Scott LaFaro, Stan Getz, and other artists. Check it out.

Everything Must Go

Today is the day of the big rapture, so it might be fitting to consider a few tunes for the end-times. Of course, many people are familiar with REM’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It, but how many have heard Mose Allison’s Ever Since the World Ended?

And, let’s not forget man-made Armageddon. In the movie, Dr. Strangelove, Slim Pickens rode the atomic bomb down to the earth to Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again.

Dan Wynn: Art of the Cover

Last time, I wrote about the varying quality of digital transfers at the iTunes music store, specifically on some Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson recordings. The odd situation I mentioned was that newer cover art sometimes accompanies some digital transfers of the albums — even from a scratchy LP as the source ― while the original cover art sometimes accompanies separate digital transfers, which — possibly ― come from the original master tapes.

But wait — there are more geeky details: below is the original LP cover art for J Is For Jazz. Look familiar? The striking photo sets J.J. against a black background, head-on down the length of his trombone slide, just like the art for Kai Winding’s The Trombone Sound (See the last post, which appeared far too long ago).

J is For Jazz cover Art

What you can’t see on the iTunes cover art is the photo credit that exits on the LP versions. Not surprisingly, both of these album cover photos are by the same photographer, Dan Wynn, who died in 1995. Although he had training in art, Wynn began developing technical skills in photography while serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Out of the Army in 1947, he began focussing his photographic eye on fashion while working for Seventeen Magazine. In his subsequent career, he ended up photographing nearly everything — cars and scooters, food, models, movie stars, and, of course, musicians.

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:

Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood

Amazon

One year ago, the Ella Fitzgerald box set Twelve Nights in HollywoodAmazon 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 & HartAmazon and Cole PorterAmazon 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, you have to hear it.

This year, Ella Fitzgerald Twelve Nights in HollywoodAmazon is just as great as it was last year. Of course, it’ll be just that good in every year yet to come.