Thursday, September 1, 2011

Between Chops and Ears

It’s been awhile since I last blessed you with my ramblings and pontifications. I expect your anticipation must be at it’s keenest, for sure. I occupied my last month with a not-so-minor obsession with Sidney Bechet. I was asked to provide a presentation on the great jazzman for the OLLI Cats. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has a special group that grew out of a jazz history class, and has been meeting regularly for several years now to, among other jazz activities, listen to folk like me orate. I was extra pleased to be able to put my love of jazz history to work.

I’m not going to give you the whole Sidney spiel. It would encompass a lot more information than I believe blog etiquette allows. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of Sidney that I find fascinating, and which also made me examine my own playing and music philosophy closely. It was his competitive nature, always brewing up excellence or acrimony, or both, often in equal parts. 

But first, there may be those of you who are saying, “Sidney who?” Let me tell you how you may have crossed paths with his music recently, other than in front of one of my bands. If you took yourself to see Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, Bechet’s recording of his own composition, “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” was what you heard during the entire opening sequence of shots of modern Paris. Sidney knew a lot about Paris from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, where he spent a good portion of his life off and on. He began life in New Orleans, a clarinetist who was so determined, and worked so hard to be the best from those earliest beginnings, that by 1911, at the age of 14, he was already considered a phenomenon. And not one of those, “Isn’t that cute how the kid can play his horn?” kind of phenomenon. His dedication to his craft made him a professional musician even before he became a teenager. He certainly was a great clarinetist, and he would play it throughout his career. The instrument on which he gained the most fame, however, was the soprano saxophone. He began playing one in 1920, influencing saxophonists then and now. Let’s hear that soprano in on that old tune, "China Boy," from quartet recordings with cornetist Muggsy Spanier. The Bechet/Spanier Big Four:

Many people say he was an equal to Louis Armstrong in his musical prowess. By the early 1920s the two of them were so far ahead of other musicians in terms of their facility for improvisation, that they forever changed the roll of the soloist in a band. We are fortunate to have these two jazz giants on record together. Several sides were recorded in the mid-1920s, and a reunion album in May of 1940. This finally meanders me around to the point of this piece. The competition. John Chilton wrote an excellent biography called Sidney Bechet, the Wizard of Jazz. In it he describes the meetings of Louis and Sidney: “Whenever Armstrong and Bechet met, each man knew instinctively that he was facing his closest rival in the jazz hierarchy. In those days they always greeted each other effusively but they made no effort to meet socially. They might share an animated conversation about the merits of New Orleans food, but such talk never took place around a meal table. No one ever recalled seeing them out on the town together.”

Both men were competitive, but Sidney took it to some eye-popping levels. And not just in his music life, but in EVERY aspect of his life.
On Cooking
Sidney’s friends said that if he had ever decided to abandon music as a career, he could have been a chef. Trombonist Clyde Bernhardt: “He liked to cook different kinds of Gumbo, Creole Beef Gumbo, Chicken Gumbo Spare Ribs Creole Style. Sidney Bechet didn’t like to hear me say that John Marrero or Simon Marrero, or any other New Orleans people could cook good Creole food. He wanted to be rated the best Creole Food cook!”

On Women
1928 in Paris, Sidney and another musician got in a gunfight over what one witness described as an argument over a chord progression. Other witnesses suggested, however, that the chord progression dispute was just the last straw for Sidney, who didn’t appreciate the other musician’s good looks and smooth ways with the fairer sex. Clarinetist Claude Luter, with whom Sidney worked throughout the fifties, told this story: “He loved to find the girls, but if anyone in the band found a girl that Sidney liked the look of, he would show his displeasure by cutting out all of that musician’s solos, often for nights on end, sometimes for a whole week.”

On Dogs (yes, I said dogs)
The summer of 1926, Reed-player Garvin Bushell: “At 5 a.m. in Berlin there came a knock on my door at the hotel. I asked who it was, the reply was, ‘Sidney, open up!’ With all of that talking my Great Dane, Caesar, began to roar then another dog began barking out in the hall. Sidney had brought his Doberman to challenge my Great Dane to a fight. I thought it best not to let Sidney and his dog in; he left making all sorts of threats to me and my dog if ever we met again, so I made it my business to stay out of his way while he was in Berlin.”

How does all of that affect my musical philosophy? It doesn’t. I’ve never had a need to best another man in the kitchen, or to worry about the size and strength of my dog over another man’s dog, or to punish a man for liking a woman to whom I took a fancy. And, so far, I haven’t pulled a gun out on one of the Southside Aces over a chord progression. Where I’ve learned something these past few months is through Sidney's main expression of that competitive urge, his music.

That scoundrel I described above managed to be an extraordinarily poetic scoundrel with his descriptions of jazz and the jazz life. His autobiography, Treat It Gentle, read like an epic poem. “New Orleans, that was a place where the music was natural as the air. The people were ready for it like it was sun and rain. A musicianer, when he played in New Orleans, was home; and the music, when he played it, would go right to where he sent it. The people there were waiting for it, they were wanting it. That music, it was like where you lived. It was like waking up in the morning and eating, it was that regular in your life. It was natural to the way you lived and the way you died.”

But I beautifully digress. I was about to explore the musical side of his competitive urges. I took that side road, however, to show you something of the depth and warmth of his love of the music. He was no mere ice-cold gunslinger, as the stories below may seem to suggest. Here's another example: “When you’re really playing ragtime, you’re feeling it out, you’re playing to the other parts, you’re waiting to understand what the other man’s doing, and then you’re going with his feeling, adding what you have of your feeling.” That was a man professing his love of the ensemble playing in traditional jazz. Right? It's a wonderful description. I would agree with him. To me, it’s the highest point of this art. Solos give me satisfaction, but in the middle of great ensemble play is where I soar. Perhaps the point could be made that if I possessed the skills of a Louis or Sidney, it might be that I would take more of a shine to soloing. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Almost all of my hair-raising thrills in music have come as a result of the whole band swaggering around, chasing each other, each man leaving space and filling space at the exact right moments, with the occasional collision only adding to the excitement. I know that Sidney knew that feeling; he describes it more than once. And he even said words disdaining the practice of “cutting contests,” where two or more musicians go after one another in musical one-upmanship. So how does it come to be that Chilton can tell this story about Sidney's early days in New Orleans? 

“Bechet and his friend, Emile Barnes, used to operate together in seeking out any challengers; Barnes called these musical contests ‘cutting hay.’ Barnes and Bechet went to dances with their clarinets hidden in their back pockets. Barnes usually sat in with the band first and proceeded to cut his opponent with a display of superior skills, but if the home clarinetist proved difficult, he would then have to face the overwhelming power of Bechet’s playing.”

Or the time somewhere around 1924 that Coleman Hawkins made statements to the effect that New Orleans musicians didn’t know how to play jazz. Sidney sent him a note naming the time and place; it was a duel! Duke Ellington said it was a duel that went on all night. According to bassist Wellman Braud: “Bechet blowing like a hurricane embarrassed the Hawk. He played and continued to play as Hawkins packed his horn, and as he walked out angrily Bechet followed him outside and woke up the neighborhood; it was six o’clock in the morning.”

Or in the mid-1930s when Sidney played with the Noble Sissle orchestra. Pianist Charlie Lewis: “Bechet was not sociable, he often argued with other musicians because he thought they were stealing one of his choruses.”

Stories the likes of those are scattered liberally throughout his career. Yet I believe in the last years of his life, when he said those words about ensemble playing, he fully meant them. The man possessed an uncanny ability to hold two seemingly contradictory truths inside himself at the same time. I would bet that he loved wholeheartedly to play ensemble. He just was going to make sure that everyone within earshot knew who the best player was in that ensemble. Sidney did not suffer any cognitive dissonance with this. You either kept up with him or you didn’t, usually the latter. But even if a musician couldn’t quite run with his musical company, that musician’s level of play might rise just for trying. If you did keep up with him, some stunning music could be produced. Let’s go back to that May, 1940 session with Louis Armstrong, when Sidney picked up his clarinet again on “Perdido Street Blues.” This recording is one of my absolute favorites. Listen to Sidney swoop and growl, and Louis build a fantastic blues over the riffing front line! 

My lesson in all of this has been simple. Play hard, listen hard. I have to be careful that my innate Midwestern politeness, such a fine thing in other arenas, isn’t a deterrent to good jazz. It can be a dangerous thing for a musician’s development to sublimate everything to the ensemble. You won’t get in anyone’s way, sure, but you’ll also be forgetting to contribute. On the other hand Sidney, on an occasion or six, musically stomped all over another man or a whole group. This I also wish to avoid (and maybe I have a ways to go before I need to worry about that particular pitfall). Where’s the middle? Somewhere between Chops and Ears. Somewhere between “Listen to that clarinetist!” and “Listen to that band!” I say go after it! Don’t “save” your best playing for a solo. Whether you’re keeping up or lifting up, the band’s going to sound better. 

1 comment:

  1. First time caller, and as it happens first time reader. Man, I enjoy this. I don't know squat about jazz, and especially not these cornerstones. I am reconciling the cognitive dissonance of two very different ways of "stomping". One would be like a clave gone rogue, or cowbell, or any horn or drum, just playing 'off'. The other would be playing like a monster, on and in the music, but hogging the light, and maybe the air. In one scenario, I picture other musicians letting their horns down, eyebrows raised, stepping back, and saying, ok, then, you go. Just a little dissonance really, on the two meanings of stomping and the danger -or not- of either. I know which one I am more than in danger of, and it would be the opposite of the one you are, which is the one you referred to, and which would be alright by me to witness, if.... Sometimes the spirit catches you "and you fall down", or you stand writhing on a box with a snake in it, or something. If you are truly possessed you are not supposed to stop, right? The only trouble is if the bandstand is not framed to support possession. Which brings up another cognitive dissonance, or really more of a mystery. New Orleans jazz and possession seem like perfect bed-fellows, but musicians can't all be having their own freaks out (spelling intentional) all the time, for chrisake. For my answer, and I will suggest one, cause I am riffing. (hey, this is just a "comment"). Maya Deren, in Divine Horsemen, talks about how the Vodoun drummers, although never priests, were in fact inducing the trance with particular beats and by nature of this occupation, it was necessary for them to remain outside of the effect of trance, thus the one she saw who was taking a break from the drums, leaning on a post smoking a cigarette as people were being possessed nearby. As for skill, they were as technicians. As for clarinetists, I suspect they are maybe playing with fire, and snakes.