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Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane

June 3, 2014 | by

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A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.

I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.

Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions. Read More »

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Elegy for Lee

October 23, 2013 | by

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In 1965, celebrated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan released the song “Speedball” on his album The Gigolo. A year earlier, the title track from his album The Sidewinder had become the biggest hit in Blue Note Records’s history, reaching number twenty-five on the Billboard LP charts, even appearing on a Chrysler TV commercial during the World Series. Although “Speedball” never attained the commercial success of “The Sidewinder,” it endures as one of Morgan’s best-known originals, and, with the possible exception of Art Pepper’s album Smack Up, its title serves as the most barefaced allusion to the monkey on midcentury jazz’s back.

Drugs, risk, rebellion—this unholy trinity seems more evocative of rock-and-roll longhairs than clean cut men in suits, yet these dark elements remain central to the jazzman archetype established by Charlie Parker. Between the midforties and early sixties, tons of talented players were strung out: Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane. If Coltrane later provided a countervailing archetype—the sober, spiritually aware, gentle genius—then Parker embodied creativity’s menacing, consumptive side. Morgan got lost between these poles. A promising, prodigy it-kid, he received his first trumpet at age thirteen. Five years later, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. That same year, in 1956, he recorded his first Blue Note album as a leader, and soon after played on now legendary recordings such as Coltrane’s Blue Train, at age nineteen, and Arty Blakey’s Moanin’, at twenty. His own early output ranks as nothing short of astonishing—eleven albums as a leader by age twenty-two—which is why his 1961 departure from Blakey’s Jazz Messengers takes on the sinister weight of an omen. Read More »

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Driving Mr. Murray

September 12, 2013 | by

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The author Albert Murray died, on August 18, after a long illness. He was ninety-seven. Among Murray’s eleven books are the essay collection The Omni-Americans, which infuriated the African-American intellectual establishment in the early seventies; the novel Train Whistle Guitar, likely headed for a classic’s long life; the essay South to a Very Old Place, not just as funny as anything written in last century’s second half, but a searching investigation of black-and-white relations; the jazz treatise Stomping the Blues, another probable classic and a life-changing text for musicians, and The Hero and The Blues, Murray’s bracing exposition of his aesthetic.

In the mid to late nineties, writer Tony Scherman spent a good deal of time with Murray; these memories are drawn from that period.

In 1996, having read most of Albert Murray’s published books, I decided to write about him. We spoke once or twice to arrange a meeting, and I drove in from the country to the middle-class Harlem apartment complex at 132nd Street and Lenox Avenue where Murray, his wife Mozelle, and their daughter, Michelle, had lived since 1962.

Ringing the doorbell, I got no response. Finally the chain was unfastened, the door swung open, and it was plain right away why it had taken Albert Murray so long to get to the door; he could hardly walk. Two spinal operations and severe arthritis had cruelly reduced his mobility. He inched along, entirely focused on the task at hand: reaching his destination. His condition must have been maddening, but in my three-hour visit, he never complained. Yet when his speech grew querulous and his patience short, I’m sure that such behavior came not merely from impatience with interlocutors who didn’t think as speedily as he did, but from being in permanent pain. I came to see his big, handsome grin as something designed to show that bad luck and trouble would never set him back. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Rutu Modan, Cartoonist

June 27, 2013 | by

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I have no idea how this happened, but apparently I’ve agreed to give a talk to the entire pre-K and first grade at a local school. A total of seven classes.

While I do, in fact, also illustrate children books, it’s really due to my interest in books and less to my interest in children. It’s not that I don’t like children—I’m quite fond of mine—but speaking to children is a bit scary. They don’t know they’re supposed to hide it if they’re bored.

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I show the kids books I’ve illustrated, share my work methods, and even throw in a professional secret: I can’t draw horses’ feet. During the Q&A, a curly-haired girl persistently raises her hand and when I call on her she says, “My mother looks much younger than you.” But all in all, I realize that between these kids and my students at the art academy there is no big difference in understanding. Read More »

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Saved

January 3, 2013 | by

Ten years ago I was on the highway from Tennessee to Kentucky—can’t even remember the reason for the trip—but I kept the car radio on the AM band, set to “Scan,” because I’d noticed, over several years’ driving around this part of the world, how almost every small town you pass has at least one little church that’s broadcasting a low-wattage radio show, and you often hear fascinatingly crazy preaching on those transmissions and, less frequently, fine singing. That particular Sunday in January it was raining, and I was somewhere north of Memphis, passing depressing roadside storage buildings, when a remarkable live signal came across. The sound at first was like that of a giant wet towel rhythmically slapping on somebody’s back. After a minute I realized it came from hundreds of rain-soaked shoes stomping in unison on a concrete floor. I tried to imagine the inside of the church. It must have been cavernous. Or maybe—more likely—it was a warehouse, where this Pentecostal group had been forced to convene. Slap … slap … midtempo, it filled the car, as the people chanted a single line, “If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo … If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo,” a three-note melody, simple to the point of crudity, but with a strange elegance. Folks got up and started testifying. A woman thanked God because on Christmas Eve she’d gone to the welfare office to get food stamps, and there’d been something wrong with her forms—a paper she hadn’t known was expired—“but the man give it to me anyway,” she said. “God softened his heart.”

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Speaking the Language

August 15, 2012 | by

Occasionally, when my mind is feeling overrun, flickering and buzzing like a dying electric light, I go down to Fat Cat on Christopher Street, in the West Village. Of the standard venues one goes to see jazz in New York City, Fat Cat is not one of them. The club is a huge recreation center, a dark and boozy suburban fantasy basement packed with pool tables, Ping-Pong tables, foosball tables, plush couches, dusty rugs, shuffleboards, chess boards, and booths where skinny NYU students play Backgammon or Scrabble. If the alcohol were removed, it would be a perfect place for a children’s birthday party. Above the music swirl youthful, exuberant screams of delight, punctuating either a winning serve or an eight ball sunk in its intended pocket. And off to one side, like an afterthought, is a makeshift bandstand, and at a certain late hour on most evenings there is a jam session in progress. Most of the drinkers busy themselves with games, but a few hang around and listen to a group of nomadic musicians riff on, say, “Polkadots and Moonbeams.” Nearby, expectant bass players hug their encased, cumbersome instruments, impatiently tapping their feet, waiting to get in on the action—they’ve just come from a low-paying gig across town, seeking a real payoff.

It is a high-art frat party, a safe zone where all kinds of New Yorkers can, for a night, indulge in what they may loathe, but perhaps long for: a sense of cultural superiority on the one side, or a bit of dumb Greek fun. No one seems particularly interested in jazz, save for the sidelined musicians, who are restless because they have talent to burn, if only they were given the opportunity. Because I’m myself restless, a writer waiting his turn, I have, more than once, gone to the club alone to stand with them in an improvised support group. Together we watch those musicians onstage take up their instruments. We watch them get acquainted and blunder and stumble into the opening bars of the tune, trading insecure glances, wondering if they’ll find the groove. We watch the trumpet player step forward for the first solo, puff out his chest, and raise the bell of his horn. We hear his first notes, typically tentative, as if he’s dipping his foot in the melody, just testing it out. And we hear him finally dive in, headlong, committing to the sound.

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