Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Quiet Fire

Originally Posted on February 13, 2010

I played a week at Birdland with Jim Hall recently and on some nights, as a result of Jim’s direction, a large part of our sets was played very softly – almost to a whisper. It was an effective choice for many reasons. Not only did the audience find it to be captivating and were naturally drawn in by the dramatically reduced volume in order to hear every minute and subtle nuance, but as a musician, I found myself confronted with an entirely new set of challenges, given the volume impositions. Some of my most treasured and reliable ideas and approaches were simply not effective when played at hush tones and I had to adjust and compensate on the spot, in the moment. In short, it wasn’t as simple as I would have thought, even at this point in my career and development.

Interestingly enough, I used to have tremendous issues with saxophonists in particular and all musicians in general that played with what some of us called a “no-balls” approach, which was our description of anyone without a huge (loud) sound. Many a player’s effectiveness was (erroneously) determined by the sheer brawniness or bravura in their sound, and we were misled into believing that volume and power were the ultimate definitions of “a big sound”.  I’ve since realized just how much content during a jazz set is fatalistically obscured by the sheer lack of dynamics. And as a player, it has become tiresome for me to continue to try to put my best musical foot forward within a perpetual wall of relentless sound. I have lost interest in musicians who are obsessed with the utilization of loudness as an indicator of strength or as a measure of superiority – I’ll leave that to musicians whose egos require constant reinforcement, gained when drowning out other members of their ensembles or when creating such a dynamic imbalance that all but guarantees that all ears are on them at all times – by default.

I feel that it is imperative that we should consider a broader range of dynamics in our music (now more than ever before) as a measure that will more accurately represent our truest intentions as artists. Our music is far more rich and complex than the very erroneous placement of triple fortissimo/lack of dynamics approach on every single performance or the stigma that has been attached to us by those who think that playing recklessly and loud is all that we’re capable of. Playing softly appropriately and effectively is just as difficult as playing fast tempos or negotiating alternative meters (notice that i didn’t write “odd”, which perhaps suggests that there’s something wrong with it). It is entirely possible to maintain intensity and passion in a performance without a sustained, wild, raging and oftentimes, immature failure to communicate, musically speaking, happening throughout.

This subject reminds me of many fond memories that I have from listening to Billy Higgins play in New York in the early 1980’s at Bradley’s and other Greenwich Village clubs. Never inordinately loud or inappropriate, his touch was impeccable and he played with refined grace, finesses and power, yet he never fought the natural dynamics of the groups and there was never any question that he knew that his role was to elevate the music as a whole and to make everyone sound and play better. I was in my early 20’s then and I would watch and listen in awe at how he could drive the band so effectively without drowning anyone out. My friend, author and journalist, Stanley Crouch and I used to call  it “Quiet Fire” and we would often have lengthy, and sometimes heated, discussions concerning who was or wasn’t adhering to volume and accompaniment principles. I miss those wonderful musical moments and also, the arguments. Good times.

And so it all has come around full circle, this subject, which again raises the question of what defines great playing and ensemble interaction. is it all simply a matter of taste, interpretation, good decision making and musical judgement? Maybe one remedy is to simply play just a little softer, please.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Jazz Bums 2

I’d like to attempt to clear a few things up before I find myself caught at a performance, sans suit or proper attire, by a reader of this blog who might be looking for justified reasons to call me a hypocrite. First of all, of course the clothes that a musician wears don’t affect the quality of the work. We know this. That wasn’t my point. My point was to address the problems concerning the visual aspects of performance preparation and presentation. If you wish to close your eyes at live performances, it may suit you better to stay home and listen to CDs. I never thought I’d actually live to experience people defending musicians-as-slobs in such a supportive fashion, as if it should be the objective of  any performer to deliberately look that way. It’s far beyond reason to me to know that some folks believe that the ideal of musicians dictating what’s hip is representative of “old folks music”, a statement so recklessly offered by a previous post. Tell that to any orchestra member. Their music is WAY older and yet, they show up for work CRISP, and ready to deal. Why anyone would go so far to suggest that improvising musicians should look like hillbillies on stage is beyond ludicrous. There’s nothing hip about deliberately looking unkempt.

And just to make myself clear, It’s not just about the suits, per se. It’s about the attitude and attention to detail by the musicians, who are unnerved when audiences don’t provide them with full attention or the level of respect that they feel their sacrifices to present good music should yield. I personally don’t feel respect is warranted when the stage is inhabited by a group of sloppily dressed bums who should do better than to present themselves in such a disrespectful manner. Let’s face it, when you go to a quality restaurant you wouldn't expect your food to be served on a plate with remnants of a previous dish or smeared with fingerprints, would you? For a master chef, presentation is essential to the dining experience. The palette is primed by means of inviting visual stimulation.With this in mind, how can a live performance be considered complete when the musicians themselves havent primed themselves for VIEWING presentation? Of course opponents of this perspective will offer that one can’t see how musicians dress on a recording, but that is not the focus of my argument. I’m not challenging anyone’s right to dress as they please. I’m speaking from the perspective of a bandleader as well as from that of an ardent fan of live jazz concerts, and I feel that artists should present themselves appropriately for a paying public. Performing for an appreciative audience is a privilege, and I certainly shall, to the best of my ability, treat anyone who pays for my art with the utmost consideration and respect by means of a TOTAL presentation – and not just good music played while wearing jeans and dirty sneakers.

Let’s parallel an evening of music to that of having a great a dining experience.  Some people prefer, when eating out, to settle for sloppy Mom & Pop diners, fast food chains, and greasy spoon type establishments. They have no problem if their food is served on unwashed tableware, that the chef openly picks and scratches various body parts and NEVER washes his hands or any of the serving utensils, that the wait staff openly talks over the food or coughs without covering themselves, or bothers to dress in server’s apparel. It’s also no problem for them at all that the fried chicken tastes like fish because each was cooked in the same oil. It’s certainly no problem at all that none of the chairs or seat cushions match and have holes in them where visible springs and tacks prick you where the sun doesn’t shine. The fact that the place hasn’t been painted or remodeled in decades doesn’t factor into how the food tastes to them at all …. all they care about is the VIBE of the place and they would contend that, to them, the food tastes better in these types of joints than when dining in a well tended establishment, which is also known as having a dining EXPERIENCE – and not simply grabbing a sloppy meal somewhere. Yes, the food may indeed taste decent, but the preparation and presentation is highly suspect. People who eat at these places regularly are perhaps the same folks who also don’t seem to mind to have their music served to them by jazz bums. To this I say, “Bon Apetit”. For me, music, like food is a complete experience and I feel no obligation to close my eyes during a performance and to pretend that I’m listening to a recording. Performance ethics and concern towards appearance are not disposable factors where my idea of a total live musical experience is concerned. But that’s just me. I don’t expect everyone to agree nor comply with my taste in this matter, because I’ve realized how futile it is to debate with individuals who won’t budge on a subject. We could volley back and forth forever and there will be those that will maintain their position that the manner in which musicians dress has no importance at all – and that’s fine with me. I respect differences of perspective and opinion. I will maintain my position that I won’t hire slovenly-dressed musicians that dress down my bandstand.

Bill Cosby told me once that in his circle of friends in the 50’s, jazz musicians were considered the very definition of style. He and his friends would, as best as they could afford, try to emulate the look of the musicians on the covers of the lps. He said that his favorites were Miles (of course) and Lee Morgan. Unfortunately, many of the current musicians have somehow bought into the lame argument that the music is more important than garb. I would tend to agree, if all they ever did was to play inside their homes. Once an artist demands payment for his craft, then that product needs to be packaged properly. One doesn’t buy food that is haphazardly packaged either. Proper presentation makes food taste better, just as it can enhance a musical performance as well. Of course, it’s a matter of taste and preference. Some folks don’t mind drinking fine wine from a mayonnaise jar….

BTW, there’s this online blog of a truly bitter and misguided individual, that no one has ever heard of, who, along with his tired bunch of loser friends,  has taken it upon himself to attack me PERSONALLY with his “writings”. His problem with me has nothing to do with the current topic but instead stems from a series of sensationalized misquotes that I allegedly said during an interview in a music publication from over 20 years ago (!). (Anyone who doesn’t know that magazine articles are chopped up, edited and embellished beyond recognition immediately after the actual interviews have taken place truly doesn’t know how the game is played.)  I don’t know who this guy is and he has every right to disagree with my views, but he’s taken web wars (bold jabs at strangers under the veil of anonymity) to an entirely different level. He claims to be a saxophone player and "critic" and yet no one that I  know has ever heard of him, read his writings or have even heard him play.  Many so-called critics and self- proclaimed authorities on music and art are little more than frustrated hack musicians who spread poison in online forums. Their (his) writing offers little resolve or insight to solving proposed problems and issues at all. Just rants of pure hate and jealousy. That said, I hope that we never meet in person. I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll conclude by suggesting that performance stage attire should be venue and genre specific. When I toured with Phil Lesh and the Dead, I wore jeans, sandals and appropriate garb for the gig. Actually, when i did wear jeans for those shows I considered myself to be dressing appropriately for the gig because it was something that I would never wear at one of my own shows. In fact, it was a stretch for me to even wear jeans on a gig at all. But that was what was expected and I went with the flow.

So do your thing and do it well. It wouldn’t hurt to try to look great for a paying public while doing it either. Add to that, a kind word to bring the audience up to date about what is going on would also be more than helpful. Music writer Willard Jenkins prefers to call it exercising proper STAGECRAFT.  I fully intend to exercise that term freely from now on.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jazz Bums

Somewhere along the way, I haven’t determined exactly when, it became acceptable for some musicians to think showing up for live (Jazz) performances wearing the same clothes that they wear anywhere else is the thing to do. These days it isn’t that uncommon that a patron of the music, with hard-earned cash in hand, will venture out for an evening with hopes of enjoying some high art but instead will be offered a gig where some of the cats who perform will actually show up and get on stage with prominent holes and stains in/on their jeans, wrinkled and tattered t-shirts, dirty sneakers, saggy trousers and visible underwear, greasy, unwashed hair (or bodies), dirty fingernails, or worse…. What the hell happened? When did it become acceptable for performers to look like they don’t give a s—t? A quick look at any vintage photograph featuring the champions of the music reveals how much detail went into how they looked as well as how they sounded. Neither was any accident. (For that matter, look at the early photos of the Beatles….SUITS.) So why must the prestigious and noble face of the music be tarnished now with this mass nose thumbing at one of the more important aspects of performance etiquette? Improvising musicians once were the very model for contemporary style and cool behavior. Performers graced their own stages in appropriate attire and projected dignity and respect.

MILES. Needs no explanation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, in my private life, I’m just as casual and relaxed in my dress as anyone else. Sometimes I would even classify my look at home as “homeless chic.” But once I step outside my house and venture into the world where simple minded people sometimes size you up immediately before you even have a chance to speak… well, let me just offer this to any of you who happen NOT to be a Black man who is always followed and eyed suspiciously whenever he decides to peruse the items in any retail establishment..if this was an element of your reality that went back as far as you could remember, then you would understand why it would be absolutely imperative to appear in public at all times as if you mean business. I certainly don’t want to be mistaken for a thug, degenerate or anyone else who doesn’t want to be taken seriously or respected. (Side note: Each and every single time that I travel with casual or sportswear , I am detained and searched thoroughly at airport security and customs. EVERY time. They call it a random secondary search but I know better. This is obvious character profiling, of course, but the odds would be lessened if my garb and external profile didn’t resemble that of a hellraiser.)

The Duke. Always sharp.

But where musical performances are concerned, jeans, baseball caps, sneakers and t-shirts and other extreme casual wear just doesn’t cut it for me in terms of stage apparel. Not in my band, it doesn’t. The exception, of course, would be some of the summer outdoor music festivals where we’re often found performing in sweltering heat, or situations where we’ve had to rush to the bandstand directly from the airport after a day of hectic travel and near-missed flights. Sometimes there is absolutely no time that will allow for the band to “get it together” and one must perform “as is”. But dressing as if you just woke up from falling asleep with your clothes on should not be an acceptable norm. I’m constantly surprised to find the number of Jazz musicians who feel that it’s no big deal and argue that they’re merely “dressing for comfort”. I doubt very seriously that any member of any philharmonic orchestra would agree, or think for one minute that their job would be secure if they didn’t appear for work dressed appropriately.

Lee Morgan. tailored flair.

Once in or around 1983 or ‘84, during a break on a gig with Jon Faddis' quartet at a location that I can’t immediately remember, Dizzy Gillespie who was our guest, complimented me on the sharpness of my suit and relayed to me some stories about how meticulous some of the musicians had been about their “vines” (Jazzspeak for suits – hanging on your body like vines). He told me that a hip suit (and hat) were essential to “the look” and that they would have never even considered performing in anything less. He concluded his story with the same phrase that I’ve heard said countless times when referring to the audience: “They SEE you before they HEAR you”. I agree wholeheartedly with this and have to confess that I base my total enjoyment of any given performance on a multitude of factors – appearance and stage presence being two of them.

Mr. Hank Jones. Style and grace.

I would further contend that this slacker mode of dress has contributed to the devaluation of the music in terms of visual presentation and a steadily increasing lack of respect for an art form whose very participants sometimes don’t appear to have much respect for anything other than subjecting their audiences to 10 chorus length solos and songs that last 30 minutes each – AND looking like derelicts while doing it!

In my own experience, I would have to admit that not only do I feel better about my presentation when I’m secure that everything is in place both with the music as well as with the business, but I also notice all too well how different I am treated and respected when I am dressed like a “grown-ass-man”. In music, as well as in every other aspect of life, respect for oneself and the rich lineage that we’ve inherited deserves ample consideration and attention to every facet of the art form – not just being a “bad ass” on your instrument. So to those to whom this would apply: Clean up your act!

Perhaps it’s time for musicians to, along with the refinement of their craft, begin to reinvestigate the value and immediate benefits (WINK!) of being “clean” and “sharp as a tack” once again. I know, quite personally, a number of people who would support the music with a bit more enthusiasm if the musicians themselves didn’t appear so aloof and disheveled. It’s not so much to ask.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Big Brother, Big Thief?

I’ve recently been at odds about just how much I should disclose publicly on online blogs, newsgroups and bulletin boards about my personal approach and composition methodology. Call it paranoia, or reverberations from shady dealings of the past, but it’s no secret that Black musicians have been guilty of being generous to a fault – only to get shafted by the very personalities that they allowed into their circle of trust. Throughout history, time and time again, many innovations, brilliant ideas and glorious conceptual offerings have been adapted or outright stolen and used for insidious purposes that bore no reflection of the genius that initiated them or their true intent. Observation of such has made many, myself included, both wary and suspicious of alleged “information seekers” who grill me for my hard-gotten wares. This is most unfortunate, as most are genuine in their pursuit of informative higher learning. And yet, some are obviously on a quest for that “pot of gold” that will transform them from drifters with no true career objectives to overnight sensations who’ll rock the world with a momentous eureka-type discovery that they had no part in the development of.

My current state of mind is not without precedent. In my developmental years, I’d often been in the presence of many great musical contributors: some of whom were been so paranoid (or even jaded) that they made me vow to never reveal the gems of light that they bestowed upon me. Several were of a generation and era where they were literally and unabashedly robbed of their gifts outright with no apologies. They commonly bore witness to seeing the careers of their white counterparts who miraculously, came out from nowhere and ascended to dizzying heights as beneficiaries of dubiously-acquired information. These practices, as commonplace as they were, makes it unbelievable that any information and discoveries would have been voluntarily shared at all. And yet, as I have also witnessed, it was a joyous occasion when these very personalities, through their suspicions, actually have “given up the goods” and untold amounts of questions were miraculously answered with the dissemination of a few choice verbal treasures and anecdotes. One simply can’t buy information or experience of this sort anywhere – anymore. This is evidence that sharing is indeed important. I firmly believe in extending a lifeline to anyone who is sincere and earnest in their inquiries.

But before I fully comply with any such requests, I first have to question motives and intentions of those in want. I also have to think of what the result of my disclosures would ultimately mean on a broader scope. For instance, there’s already a bit of grumbling going around about there being too many white artists representing and speaking authoritatively on behalf of the music. This, in reaction to the current documentary “Icons Among Us”, of which I am also a participant. The criticism is that the Brothers have been systematically displaced in order to make room for a new generation of successful white guys who haven’t payed any real dues – meaning that they didn’t play with any of the greats, and yet are held in high esteem and dominate the bookings of all of the most prominent festivals and tours. It’s not entirely how I feel, but I certainly have questioned how some current artists got to their present stature so quickly and easily, when their track records don’t include having played with any important contributors in the music. I’ve never heard of several of them and certainly wouldn’t classify some of their presentations as Jazz or even Jazz-based. Improvisational, psuedo-classical or experimental, yes, but containing almost no Jazz elements whatsoever. However, none of this is a criticism. Much of the same has been said of my own music. And some of it is accurate.

But would I be wrong to fear that by maintaining an “open book” policy on the workings of my craft to anyone who inquires, I would be setting myself up for those very persons to use my discoveries for their own purposes and in the meantime, leave me in the dust?

Makes me wonder… but I don’t want to turn into a musical Howard Hughes or Marlon Brando in the process. Paranoia can be overwhelming as well as debilitating. So, for the time being I’ll simply try to step lightly, trust my ability to read people and attempt to make wise decisions.

With this said, I may still have to sleep with one eye open – so to speak.


Friday, March 7, 2014


Just a small observation: I find that many saxophone players have very little or no punctuation process in their playing. For some, there isn’t a well enough defined attack at the beginning of phrases and sustained tones – at least to my ears. Sometimes complete lines are slurred throughout, which does little to detail the separation between statements. Listening to this kind of playing is similar to reading text written by people who construct sentences without commas, periods, question marks, exclamation points, or any other important punctuation elements. Everything tends to run together.

Many of my current students come to me directly from other teachers who actually discourage any type of tongue or breathing articulation whatsoever. I won’t criticize this approach, but my opinion differs entirely and I feel that it can be debilitating in some cases. Many of these very students have a great deal of difficulty in playing certain passages which require more defined attacks. So I feel that instructing them to eliminate ANY approach is wrong and limits their ability to execute specific articulation requirements. Long story short, I feel that it’s a teacher’s responsibility to present a broad and diverse variety of materials to students and then allow them to process the information and make good use of the material while in development of their individual voice. I don’t consider it to be my job to force them to comply with my ideas of what’s right and wrong – and by that I mean telling them NOT to address things which may be necessary for them to master in order to be a contender in this competitive world of music performance.

So, to any student that has articulation problems, please make a point to inquire to your teacher about specialized tonguing and finger coordination exercises which will help your timing, attacks, breath control, air stream evenness and phrase definition. Every teacher has their methods and if you feel that your progress is slow or if you don’t find their direction and instruction to be very helpful, don’t hesitate to go elsewhere for other opinions from educators and players that you respect. No one knows everything and if your teacher were a doctor and you weren’t satisfied with their diagnosis, you’d probably want a second opinion then as well.