Fire Music: Jazz and Civil Rights

“… you must listen to me on my own terms. I will not let you misconstrue me. That era is over. If my music doesn’t suffice, I will write you a poem, a play. I will say to you in every instance: ‘Strike the ghetto! Let my people go!'” — Archie Shepp (taken from liner notes to The Magic of Juju, 1967)

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Archie Shepp has long been a familiar artist in my collection. Before I knew him for his politically-charged poetry, plays and activism I knew him for his stirring brand of music on the Impulse! record label. He came into his own in the early-60s on various recordings on the Savoy and Delmark labels with forward-thinking jazz notables; Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, John Tchicai and Bill Dixon. His record contract at Impulse! in the mid-60s began a new era of self-discovery in support of the burgeoning New Thing movement, a school of jazz based on the inventions of mid-century, avant-garde musicians. His ten-year relationship with Impulse! would prove fruitful for both label and the socio-political climate of a very tumultuous decade.

fire_music_cover
Fire Music (1965) isn’t Shepp’s first recording for Impulse!, but it’s the first to showcase his unique talent as a composer, performer and poet, independent of John Coltrane. The album, as a whole, can be interpreted as part and parcel to the soundtrack of the Black Power movement of the era.

“There was a poem I did to Medgar Evers and to Malcom. It’s the same poem. I call it ‘To Medgar’… and sometimes I call it ‘To Malcom’, I may change it from Malcolm to somebody else—the next person they murder. It’s to Medgar. It’s to my people. That’s all.” —Archie Shepp (taken from liner notes to Live in San Francisco, 1966)

Shepp’s spoken-word poetry, referenced above, has always been a major draw for his albums and a good reason for repeated listenings. “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” on <a href="http://Fire Music (1965), “Skag” on New Thing at Newport (1965) and “The Wedding” on Live in San Francisco (1966) are testaments to his writing ability, wit and political insightfulness.

attica-blues-5260c18a21c93
Attica Blues (1972) was a watershed album for Shepp. Large ensembles and complex arrangements are centered around the title piece based on a deadly 1971 confrontation between rioting prisoners and police at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. In an effort to end the standoff, police gunned down 39 inmates and hostages and wounded several others.

To be sure, Archie Shepp was not the only performing artist of the 60s to address civil rights issues—far from it. But, to these ears, he was one jazz musician to consistently deliver an intelligent, entertaining and varied offering in different mediums over a span of several decades. And his message, even though he tackled different aspects of inequality such as drug addiction or violence, was always raw and honest. This approach may be less desirable in today’s homogenized circles, especially with major record labels, but it’s an approach that pushes the envelope and opens peoples’ minds—at times with a push rather than with a nudge.

As for Shepp’s instrumentals, he owed much to John Coltrane’s legacy at the onset of his career. A firebrand, especially to those new to the New Thing sound, Shepp was both volatile and versatile and proved it on just about everything he recorded for Impulse! From hard-edged avant-garde blowing sessions to bluesy funk to big band ensembles reminiscent of Charlie Mingus, it’s safe to say one wouldn’t get bored with his recording output. A couple favorites of mine are The Way Ahead (1969) and Kwanza (1969), both featuring Grachan Moncur III, trombonist, composer and longtime collaborator. Both albums offer infectious post-bop blues, angry blowing and genre-bending arrangements—all the while remaining firmly rooted in Black tradition with nods to both Africa and Ellington.

the_way_ahead_cover
The Way Ahead (1969) is another eclectic offering from Shepp and company, showcasing avant-garde music bathed in Afrocentric blues, gospel and swing. This album also signals Shepp’s first time use of a piano in his ensemble, creating a more conventional configuration for an unconventional sound.

“It is my opinion that music born of the emotions will always seek to serve the highest level of legitimate ‘popular’ taste; and it is precisely that music which lasts, simply because it communicates something to people.” —Archie Shepp (taken from liner notes to Mama Too Tight, 1966)

With so many critically-acclaimed recordings, including many non-Impulse! sessions and concerts, Archie Shepp has secured his spot in jazz history and Black culture. During these difficult times it’s beneficial to look back at past accomplishments in the name of civil rights—there is a treasure to be unearthed for the uninitiated, full of anger, deservedly so, but also full of hope. And for those who are familiar with these recordings—don’t forget about them and let them languish. Don’t forget about the artists, the open-minded record executives and their supporters, the fans and most importantly the victims. And don’t forget the message and the rage that stoked these fires.

Donate to JazzSherpa

Help support this jazz blog and make a small donation to help purchase material to review.

$5.00


Please visit the JazzSherpa Bodega for great looking jazz merch and support jazz wherever you are.

Prime Cuts: Gil Evans & “Where Flamingos Fly”

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

I revisited some of my favorite albums on the Impulse! label and decided to take another look at Gil Evan’s thought-provoking 1961 release, Out of the Cool.

out_of_the_cool_album_cover_japan
Out Of The Cool (Japanese remastered edition), 1961

Although many people may prefer the lengthier and more complex “La Nevada” or the upbeat throwback of “Sister Sadie”, I, historically, have always been drawn to the quiet simplicity of “Where Flamingos Fly”. Let’s start with the title — and what a title! Already, it evokes a sense of mystery and noir. What was Evans imagining when this track was arranged and performed? Seemingly, it’s a very moody and somber place where these brightly-colored birds dwell.

Seemingly, it’s a very moody and somber place where these brightly-colored birds dwell.

vivek_doshi_unsplash_flamingos

Evans’ mastery of arrangement and timing is brought to life in this 5-minute masterpiece. It could be described as a concerto for trombone. Which leads us to another curiosity — the selection for lead voice: trombone. It may have worked with a trumpet or, even more so, a flugelhorn. However, Evans’ choice in a trombone sets the mood beautifully here. There is an understated melancholy in the sound of Jimmy Knepper’s playing which also displays an uncanny grace and humility. After listening to this track countless times I can’t really see any other instrument playing this all-important role.

There is an understated melancholy in the sound of Jimmy Knepper’s playing which also displays an uncanny grace and humility.

ron_carter_bass
Ron Carter, double bass. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

A solitary piano repeating the same 4 notes opens the track, soon woodwinds join in the theme and Ron Carter’s strong arco double bass picks up the bottom end with slow, melodic lines. The drama conjured up by the short introduction is staggering. Knepper’s trombone rises out of nowhere to start off his sad, lengthy solo. As the trombone winds around slow-moving turns the sound of hushed percussion and brass begin with fills. But through it all we hear that lonely trombone as it courses through the track. It ends with a return to the 4-note theme and it gently expires — as if vanishing into thin air. It’s an achingly beautiful composition that rarely gets much play these days.

sketches_of_spain_album_cover
Sketches Of Spain, 1960

When Gil Evans is mentioned it’s hard not to look back at his historic stint on Columbia with collaborator Miles Davis. Albums like Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain are the usual suspects in most playlists. But as far as creativity and raw emotion go it’s hard not to give Out of the Cool, and more specifically a gem like “Where Flamingos Fly”, a spin or two.

Donate to JazzSherpa

Help support this jazz blog and make a small donation to help purchase material to review.

$5.00


Please visit the JazzSherpa Bodega for great looking jazz merch and support jazz wherever you are.

A Houston House of Jazz

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

An unassuming mid-century bungalow in southwest Houston holds a jazz horde to be reckoned with. Local musician, photographer and jazz aficionado, Lindy Pollard, has turned his small but tasteful home into a living jazz museum. Some 5,000 titles grace his walls in custom-built shelving installed by the owner and his brother. Upon entering this treasure trove a visitor is oftentimes overwhelmed at the sheer volume. His collection spans decades as well as formats. Pollard will occasionally spin an LP but the bulk of his collection is of the compact disc variety. As neat and precise as the surroundings with its modern appointments, each album is arranged alphabetically by artist and is easily accessible. Pollard is quite literally ensconced in jazz whenever he sits to listen to one of his recordings or play with his cats. Seven-foot tall, vintage Klipsch speakers anchor his living room and offer a surround sound experience to be coveted by any audiophile. It’s safe to say this Houston native will never run out of things to listen to. His musical tastes run the gamut, from Brazilian jazz to vintage ECM releases to hard bop staples. Row upon row of out-of-print and rare releases sit waiting for an eager listener to happen by. Just standing amidst the volumes makes a jazzophile feel anxious.

Upon entering this treasure trove a visitor is oftentimes overwhelmed at the sheer volume.

DSCN8007
Pollard’s dining room, one of many rooms surrounded by his massive collection.

Having grown up in the 50s Pollard has held such virtuosos as Paul Desmond and Sonny Stitt in high regard. As we talked about the artists that fill his walls, he fondly remembers attending a Paul Desmond concert as a young sax student back in 1963. He recalls racing a classmate backstage to grab one of Desmond’s used reeds — one man’s treasure. His enthusiasm for jazz hasn’t wained one bit over the years. Having so many titles at his disposal helps to maintain a learning environment. “There’s always something new on a recording you haven’t heard before,” Pollard points out.

agharta_album_cover
Agharta, 1975. Miles Davis is a staple in Pollard’s collection.

Aside from being a long-standing Bayou City multi-reedist Pollard is also an accomplished jazz photographer and graphic artist. Boasting several hundred originals, he has attended countless venues showcasing some of the most notable icons in the history of the genre. Many images catch artists in candid and even reflective poses. Artists such as Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Duke Ellington are only some of the mainstays you’ll see in his portfolio. His love for the artform is apparent in his attention to detail — each shot a special moment in jazz history. His photos have been exhibited at local galleries over the years to much acclaim. As of recent, Pollard has taken up nature photography as well. With trips to state parks, and even to his own backyard, he has begun to fill new photo albums with his boyish love of nature.

DSCN8018
Despite being ensconced by CDs, Pollard still likes to spin vinyl.

Having visited this personal jazz vault several times over the years I never tire at slowly perusing the titles, wishing today’s circumstances would still allow me to do the same at local retail outlets—those were the days.

Donate to JazzSherpa

Help support this jazz blog and make a small donation to help purchase material to review.

$5.00


Please visit the JazzSherpa Bodega for great looking jazz merch and support jazz wherever you are.

Big Band Horsepower: Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Fuel-injected and testosterone-drenched are not descriptions usually associated with big band music. Enter Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson. These prominent big bands of the late-60s and 70s throw convention and easy listening out the window. Each band had a fearless leader who was a virtuoso on his respective instrument.

big_swing_face_album_cover
Big Swing Face, 1967

Buddy Rich, known the world over as the best drummer of all time, heads up his band from the rear with fireworks and showmanship. On several live sessions you can hear Rich shouting orders like a gunnery sergeant. He was notoriously hard on his players and it paid off in spades — leaving behind numerous recordings, most on the Pacific Jazz label, teaming with hard-driving, turn-on-a-dime tracks. Rich usually supplied a mix of compositions, both contemporary and jazz standards, on his albums. Some tracks dipped in to the WWI-era swing bag. However, it’s Rich’s contemporary tracks that really offer his band’s full pyrotechnic potential. A favorite of mine is the album Big Swing Face from 1967 on Pacific Jazz. On this release we can hear some true modern gems like “Mexicali Nose” and “Willowcrest”. The band roars in focused unison while Rich lays down superhuman drum solos. On 1969’s Keep The Customer Satisfied Rich pays tribute to the score from the film Midnight Cowboy with a lengthy medley that just about brings down the house. To have seen this band live would have been an opportunity to witness perfection.

mf_horn_3_album_cover
M.F. Horn 3, 1973

Maynard Ferguson, oppositely, lead from the front on both trumpet and trombone. He was best known for his “stratospheric” playing on trumpet having had the ability to hit a triple C in his trademark upper register. Ferguson was also known to dance on stage — achieving his usual euphoria by his band’s infectious swing. By 1970 he honed his players into a contemporary sound machine with the uncanny ability to play anything and everything. He sometimes covered pop themes such as the title track from 1974’s Chameleon or “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” on 1977’s Conquistador without reservation. He made the “Theme from Shaft” on 1972’s M.F. Horn Two swing like nobody’s business. Some of his staples have aged very well including the moody “Eli’s Comin'” and the 10-minute epic “Macarthur Park” both from the excellent 1970 release M.F. Horn. Ferguson proved to be a genius at arranging — making familiar tunes wholly original and relevant. If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

Next time you need a soundtrack to a formula one grand prix or a jumpstart to your day try spinning some Rich or Ferguson — seat belts are optional.

Donate to JazzSherpa

Help support this jazz blog and make a small donation to help purchase material to review.

$5.00


Please visit the JazzSherpa Bodega for great looking jazz merch and support jazz wherever you are.

1958 Album of the Year: Porgy and Bess

By Justin Scoville, Guest Contributor

Wow, I have had a tough time with this one. Although 1959 was certainly a watershed year for Jazz, 1958 wasn’t too shabby either. A Great Day in Harlem, the famous photo taken by Art Kane, was captured in 1958. (And yes, this photo is hanging in my living room). Many pivotal albums were released in 1958, including these personal favorites:

  • Deeds, Not Words Max Roach’s innovative piano-less group that featured Ray Draper on tuba and a stunning, 20 year old Booker Little on trumpet. My mom bought this for me when I was a teenager and that was the start of my fascination with Booker.
  • Somethin’ Else Miles Davis’, er, Cannonball Adderley’s sublime Blue Note album which offers the definitive, most swinging-est versions of “Autumn Leaves” and “Love For Sale”.
  • Moanin’ If you had to choose one Jazz Messenger’s album that encapsulated all of Art Blakey’s mission as a musician, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.
  • Cool Struttin’ Man, Sonny Clark swung hard. Love that guy. He was out of the Bud Powell school with a lighter touch and infused his solos with blues and wit.
  • Looking Ahead One of Cecil Taylor’s first forays into the New Thing.
  • Milestones An absolute classic. Trane, Miles, and Cannonball as a front line… Wow. The title track foreshadows Modal Miles.
  • Everybody Digs Bill Evans: Keepnews Collection Recorded in 1958 but released in early 1959, this album saw Evans conceptualizing his modal approach in the hypnotic Peace Piece.

Anyways, my choice for 1958 is Porgy & Bess, Miles Davis’s second of three collaborations with Gil Evans in a large ensemble setting. (I’m cheating on this one… Porgy and Bess was actually released in 1959 but recorded in 1958. The field for 1959 is too crowded).

miles_davis_porgy_and_bess_banner
Miles Davis at the Porgy & Bess sessions, 1958

Miles Ahead (1957) augmented the Birth of the Cool’s nonet into a full-blown big band, allowing Miles to pontificate against an obtuse instrumental backdrop. 

Sketches of Spain (1960) was, at the time of its release, a radical departure from jazz convention and stirred up controversy about what was and wasn’t jazz.

miles_ahead_album_cover
Miles Ahead, 1957

Porgy and Bess falls in the middle of Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain chronologically and musically. Gershwin’s conglomeration of the American Folk tradition and European Classical harmony made a perfect musical playground for Evans. His complex yet melodic voicings, brought to life by a top-notch group, laid the foundation for Miles to advance his pioneering style away from Bebop and into the Unknown. Evans also captures the drama of the opera in his adaptation, along with Miles as the lead soloist. Both Evans and Davis were fascinated with the nascent modal innovations of George Russell, and although Milestones captured some of what was to come in Kind of Blue, I feel like Porgy and Bess is the first full realization of the modal approach in Jazz.

porgy_and_bess_album_cover
Porgy And Bess, 1959

“Buzzard Song”, “Summertime”, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are clear historical favorites from this album. For me, from a strictly musical standpoint, “Gone” and “Prayer” are the standout tracks. “Gone” opens with ragged but spirited ensemble passages sandwiched between brilliant drum fills from Philly Joe Jones. The centerpiece of the song is Miles blowing chorus after chorus over a minor mode with Philly Joe and Paul Chambers. The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man. Prayer builds from a mournful blues statement from Miles into a wailing climax. (I always love how Cannonball plays during the crescendo; his levels are so high he must have freaked out the recording engineers). Prayer is a radical departure from the Head-Solo-Head structure of most jazz songs from then and now, with the ensemble building organically together with Miles’s melodic improvisations.

The absence of a chordal instrument doesn’t hinder Miles at all; instead, he sheds his old Bebop skin and emerges a new man.

Porgy and Bess is a beautiful masterpiece and a lasting monument to Gil and Miles, whose musical partnership would span several decades, not to mention genres, of Jazz.

Donate to JazzSherpa

Help support this jazz blog and make a small donation to help purchase material to review.

$5.00


Justin Scoville is a Denver-based trumpeter and jazz blogger.


Please visit the JazzSherpa Bodega for great looking jazz merch and support jazz wherever you are.