[photo courtesy of Michael Hoefner]
If any jazz festival wanted to start off as declaring itself Not Your Gram-Gram’s Bippety-Skippity-Bop, it would be writer/moderator Greg Burk’s opening gambit at REDCAT on Saturday night: “Yo! Yo! Yo! Welcome to the Angel City Jazz Festival!”
Burk led a nonmusical, hour-long Symposium entitled “Honoring and Breaking with Lineage” for the ACJF’s second night (after an opening Friday at LACMA featuring Young Artist Competition winner Anthony Lucca's quintet and veteran trombonist Phil Ranelin) with an intriguing mix of scribes and musical alchemists that included Jazz Bakery maven Ruth Price, L.A. jazz historian Steven Isoardi and two generational picks from this years’ performers, young-lion trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (who easily won the Most Mispronounced Surname Award of the festival—even the program notes gave instructions: ‘ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee’) and local free-jazz godfather Bobby Bradford.
Isoardi, who coauthored the standard-setting Central Avenue Sounds book and CD project back in 1998, responded to Burk’s entreaty to “make a case for the L.A. scene” – and then some:
Proud Papa: Steve Isoardi signs his bio of Horace Tapscott
STEVEN ISOARDI: "One of the things that I learned from my teachers, many of whom were the musicians who played [on Central Avenue]...was that certainly they were connected enthusiastically with the music that was happening in New York and around the country in Post-WW II America…but to a large degree they were also their own people and their own artists. What’s interesting about that period was the different sounds and voices that were coming out of the Central Avenue scene, certainly in terms of bebop before Dizzy and Bird came out here at the end of 1945 to play Bill Berg’s in Hollywood. There was the Teddy Edwards-Howard McGhee Quartet. There was a young high school band that featured a tenor saxophonist named Cecil McNeely – later know as “Big Jay” – playing with Sonny Criss on alto sax and Hampton Hawes on piano—that was quite a band!...Also during that time you had people like Gerald Wilson, who created his first band in October of 1944 and he was making his own innovations, writing in six-part harmony, for example…You also had [drummer] Roy Porter, who put together the 17 Beboppers Big Band that featured a young lead alto player named Eric Dolphy who really was playing differently from the rest—some if the guys in the band used to tease him for playing bird calls….Buddy Collette and Charles Mingus and others put together a band called the Stars of Swing that had a very different sound, a tight ensemble sound, playing a lot of counterpoint; although that band lasted only a couple of months and played only one extended gig on Central, they nevertheless drew audiences that included Dolphy and Charlie Parker when he was in town. There were also younger musicians coming up around that time like Frank Morgan, Billy Higgins and Horace Tapscott who appreciated this music but also has a strong sense of self. Most of them attributed that to the fact that they were being schooled by community teachers like Samuel L. Browne and Lloyd Reece, who taught them to appreciate the music that was around but also encouraged them in their pedagogy to go their own way and find their own sounds."
Burk asked after how L.A. distinguished itself from the ubiquity of The Big Apple. "I think there was some kind of ethos in the community and among the musicians," said Isoardi. "Certainly being 3000 miles from New York played a role, but there was also other influences in California…Many of the people I interviewed referred to the fact that wasn’t this weighty critical establishment that imposed one style on an entire community and that might have played a role in it, but I think also that L.A. was so far from the East Coast and certainly from Europe and was subject to more influences – Latin influences, Asian influences – that gave the music a different sound and feel and showed people other options. Certainly this carries into the 1950s that L.A. was a place of tremendous musical variety…. One of the most interesting things to me about this period is this kind of churning of this variety of sounds, and the feeling that you could explore yourself, that you weren’t going to be pressured into one particular style. Most musicians I’ve talked to refer to that as one of the most important 'atmospheric influences' on their evolution as artists.”
Apropos that the word “weirdo” would be invoked, as that is exactly what most established L.A. jazz musicians called free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman as he plied his trade (i.e., getting kicked off of bandstands for perverting Tin Pan Alley standards with a plastic saxophone) around the same time Horn was relocating to the Left Coast. Bobby Bradford, who played cornet with Coleman on and off since the 1960s, aptly summarized Coleman’s plight/triumph in his trademark teacher-guru style:
BOBBY BRADFORD: "I knew Ornette Coleman back in Texas. I heard him play Tin Pan Alley songs and standards up on the bandstand. So he could play chords. He could also count. [laughter] But he was the first player I ever met who was prepared, willing and able to get up on a bandstand and play a free improvisation not based on a chord sequence…In my mind, Ornette Coleman is the first guy who made that work. I can’t say that he was the first guy to attempt it…but he was the first guy who could sustain it...If you play a strong Tin Pan Alley tune like ‘All the Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern, you just follow the regular chord pattern and you still got a pretty good solo goin’ for you…but if you let the chords go, there’s a big giant hole in the song that you gotta fill, so now you gotta be more resourceful…Rhythmically, you have to build everything on what that tune gave to you in terms of ‘melodic curvature.’ And a lot people heard Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles and dismissed him; he turned a lot of people on too! Before Charlie Parker came to town in 1945, there was already a bebop colony in place here. These guys had heard the records. And you only had to hear Charlie Parker for about five minutes and, man, that was the rest of your life right there! [laughter] Clearly, Ornette’s early music is tied to the blues and to Charlie Parker, but when you decide you’re gonna get up there and play a solo that makes no other reference to the piece you’re playing other than rhythmic or emotional – that’s a serious game-plan change. You have to change your whole mindset.”
Something New: Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden
Ruth Price offered a musician’s perspective directly from the bandshell, speaking about the “transitional period” in the 1960s when the West Coast was establishing its own post-Bebop identity: “Frankly, I’m one of those who was back east in New York and thinking Chicago was the West Coast, thinking we were all very above it all. The general consensus was that New York was very cool and the West Coast not so much.” Price changed her tune, so to speak, when she found herself stranded in L.A. after a recording gig fell though (something about Fred Astaire "not coming through with the money"). She met and later sang with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Shelly Manne, hanging around the latter’s Manne Hole club in Hollywood. “It didn’t take me long after being here to realize that there was a lot of music happening…Shelly’s Manne Hole really had a wide-open booking policy; I mean the array of people who came to play at this club because they admired him was just fantastic. And even though Shelly’s was a place [where] you could sit and have a drink or have some food, people actually listened in that club.”
The youngest member of the panel proved the most concise in his comments. When Ambrose Akinmusire was asked about the connection between his music and the music of the titanic free-jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, whom he was to play with the following evening, he responded in Quiet Storm style: “I try not to think about what my music is…I just know that it’s a by-product of how I live my life and what I believe, and those things are always changing. I can’t really make the comparisons between what I do and what [Shepp] does. I will say I am influenced by him and his generation because they seemed to be about ‘community,’ which is something that’s been lacking in my generation. In my opinion, there’s never been a really great contribution to jazz without a collective group: The Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry Quintet, John Coltrane’s quintet, Miles Davis’ quintet. When Archie Shepp first got signed in the early-'60s, it was part of a collective group with [trumpeter] Bill Dixon, and I think that’s really beautiful. I don’t think that would ever happen today.”
Hearing people talk about it made one thirsty for some actual music, which shortly after the panel table was cleared was provided by young guitarist Anthony Wilson and his trio. Wilson, son of the aforementioned (and still active) L.A. bandleader/composer Gerald Wilson, was like the group’s un-leader, sitting placidly on a stool and letting his lyrical, treble-free guitar lines mingle with Larry Goldings’ Hammond B3 organisms and the supple, skittery drumwork of Jim Keltner. Keltner, the evening’s “Legend” (per the festival’s theme “Artists & Legends”), has been a ubiquitous-if- anonymous presence on FM radio for the last four decades, playing on everything from Steely Dan’s “Josie” and The Travelling Wilburys to Randy Newman’s “Short People” and the “Flower People” incarnation of Spinal Tap. But like many sessionmen of his generation, Keltner started out in jazz. (This should have been obvious given his now-famous accessories: dark aviator shades, fuzzy thatch of beard, laconic expression.) Goldings’s B3 conjured up a “Swingin’ Cathedral” sound, equal parts Southern church and smoky soul-jazz cocktail lounge. One of the great surprises of the night was the Trio’s cover of “The Kiss,” an obscurity from the tragic, abbreviated oeuvre of ‘70s L.A. singer/songwriter (and music snob cause celebre) Judee Sill.
which a less-gray Keltner originally played drums on back in the day.*
*sorry, we fucked up; although if anyone knows differently...
Like we said: "Legends."
*sorry, we fucked up; although if anyone knows differently...
Like we said: "Legends."
Larry Goldings, Anthony Wilson, Jim Keltner