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Frank Sinatra: The Last Crooner

Frank Sinatra: 1915–1998

By Gary Giddins

Nobody was shocked to learn of Frank Sinatra’s death at 82 — everyone was surprised he lingered as long as he did. Yet his leaving inevitably focuses attention on a shared history. High arts never unite us as intimately as popular ones, and Sinatra’s absence is unmooring on several levels, least of which is the mourning for a great artist, since he was no longer productive. We’re mourning the symbol of his generation, a guy who counts for far more in the patrimony of the baby-boomers who now control the media than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same year. He roamed in the gloaming of our mutuality for nearly 60 years, from 1939, when he recorded “All or Nothing at All” with Harry James, until last Thursday. His legend outstripped, as legends will, the details of its making. He was one of those outsized figures who so perfectly embody the experiences and outlook of his time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and herald of the future.

The generation he personified and transformed was the one that fought the “good war” and spooned to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore snap-brims and wide ties and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like heraldic crests; smoked guiltlessly; drank mixed holdovers from Prohibition (often made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope and ogled Rita Hayworth; thought movie musicals were an immortal idiom; gambled in Vegas to rub shoulders with wiseguys; put their kids through colleges they never would have dreamed of attending themselves; trusted in God and let cholesterol take care of itself; and quaked in horror at rock and roll — in short, the generation that spawned the ’60s the way day precedes night (or is it vice versa?). Ladies and gentlemen, Big Daddy has left the building.

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There was not much difference — you could look it up — between media coverage of Sinatra’s passing last week and that of Bing Crosby 21 years ago, when his brood ran the media. But there is a big difference in the DNA of their fables. Crosby’s was based on being the nicest guy in town; when posthumous rumors suggested he was something less than saintly, his historical standing took a nosedive. But Sinatra was a famous dickhead — we already assume the worst, no matter what posterity reveals, and we don’t give a damn. A richer testimony to his contemporaneity cannot be imagined. His danger level is part of what makes him attractive; he played the troubadour with as much bravado as François Villon. Still, to everyone born after Hiroshima, Sinatra remains always slightly alien, no matter how much we love his music — he recalls a style as antiquated as terms like “bachelor,” “divorcée,” “illegitimate child.” The revival of ’50s lounge drivel is no more than a lunatic kitsch trip and Sinatra’s artistry will outlive it — but not his style, which will be interred with his body in Palm Springs. If you don’t believe it, buy a tri-cornered hat and call yourself a revolutionary.

The music is another story, or more precisely another two stories, for early and later Sinatra are as distinct as early and later Billie Holiday. Where she went from flaming youth to clouded vulnerablity, he went the other way. Indeed, the jet-age Sinatra who makes us soar, and whom we dreamily emulate, could hardly be more different from the bony wartime crooner who clawed his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band to lay siege to the Paramount — the eager balladeer, his greased and wavy hair a mark of his defenseless youth. Not that his seemingly unaffected voice wasn’t recognized instantly as the magical instrument it was — intimate, earnest, and pretty; romantic and woebegone. It ached, but stoically. It swung, but reflectively. It caressed, and gently. Even the male factor — the pure baritone edge that shaped his every phrase — was equivocal. With men overseas and their women unattended, Sinatra allowed himself a measure of musical androgyny that underscored his identification with the women. The swooning girls his press agent hired astutely pegged Sinatra as a singer whose sexuality, in those years, stopped one step short of carnality — what can you do in a faint?

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The androgyny grew more pronounced as the bow-tied beanpole, his face as quizzical and angular as a marionette’s, learned to emote his ballads with daring operatic drama and design. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” one of several Sinatra classics by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, typifies his ability to combine genders as he brings bel canto to pop. Cahn’s lyric is characteristically simple:

I fall in love too easily.
I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last.

How is one to approach the title phrase? Is it rueful, knowing, complaining, ironic, diffident? Sinatra sings it like a frightened doe, but without a trace of sentimentality. He makes the lyric deep, an expression of the singer’s dramatic plight. We’re in act 3, scene 2. Queen Ava, having thrown the Prince’s betrothed (actually his daughter in disguise) from a castle turret, has hied to the barbarian king. Alone in his chamber, Prince Frank learns the terrible news and turns to his loyal jester, Dinoletto. “E strano,” he sighs, and sings, “I fall in love too easily.” The first two lines are small-voiced and quiet, but in an early example of Sinatra’s skillful technique, the third vents an unwavering, plaintive authority that glides upward along one unbroken breath, followed by a rest that heightens the poignancy of the final five words. For Sinatra, the words define the music and the music defines the words — so simple, so obvious, so why can’t everyone do it?

What women surely recognized in his oddly gentle baritone was a degree of tenderness and sympathy rare in the daily opera of radio. When he sang “Try a Little Tenderness,” Sinatra wasn’t merely a wise young man advising the world’s husbands on their love technique, he was identifying with women as someone who knew about the world’s brutishness. Crosby was, from the beginning, a model of virility; the young Sinatra was vaguely feminine, and consequently a bit subversive. You have to go to the records for his inventive highs in those years, because the movies and the fan mags cheapened him, marketing him as a naif, an innocent in a sailor suit in need of a strong, maternal woman. In 1946, a sexual confusion bordering on camp found its apogee in the climax of the disastrous Till the Clouds Roll By, as the camera arcs into the sky to catch a pristine and gleaming Frank, standing atop a column and missing only a ribbon in his hair to pass as a Ziegfeld adornment, as he sings “Ol’ Man River.”

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He needed a makeover, no question, especially with his idol turned rival, Crosby, now enjoying the greatest popularity of his life. Crosby had always been generous to him. “A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime,” he often said. “Why did it have to be my lifetime?” But postwar audiences pleased by Bing were tired of Frank. For a while he had a television show in which he wore a mustache and hustled cutlery. His movies declined, and so did his recordings — the heights he could still scale (“I’m a Fool To Want You,” “The Birth of the Blues”) vied with depths of commercial desperation. A faithful New Dealer, he was accused of Communist sympathies by rabid pundits, including Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra rapped in the mouth, bless his soul. It didn’t help.

And then, with alarming suddenness, Frankie grew up, reinventing himself on the threshold of 40. He left the mother of his three children for Ava Gardner, which cleared up the androgyny business fast. Soon he put on weight, parted his hair, and changed his music. Perhaps it was his reportedly suicide-prone marriage to Ava that did for him what hormones couldn’t — toughening his vocal edge, teaching him something about despair, resolution, bitterness, and hatred. The first recordings in his epochal new contract with Capitol stand as a definition of artist-in-transition. Even the cover of Songs for Young Lovers suggests the persona change. In one shot, he’s got the hat, the hankie, and the smoke — he’s Richard Widmark in Night and the City. In the other, he’s leaning against a streetlight while two entranced couples walk by, ignoring him; put him in a skirt and he’s poised to sing ”Love for Sale.” The performances, arranged with sly ingenuity (this begins the collaboration with Nelson Riddle), are suave, notwithstanding a few false steps and gauche embellishments. Perhaps the highlight is ”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” a song closely associated with the young Crosby, but no more.

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By the 1956 release of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, he had the accomplishment and attitude of an old master, as well as a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain — an accidental virtue of his pitch problems — and implacable. Recently, a fanatic Sinatraphile label issued running tapes from some of his recording sessions, illustrating the extent of his musicality. That he was an interpretive virtuoso who plotted his phrases with military efficiency was obvious, but I had assumed his arrangers or conductors ran the sessions. Not true. Sinatra ordains dynamics, tempos, and phrasing; the conductor hardly makes a peep. Still, a firm and unwavering control was always implied, which is one reason I especially treasure such anomalous recordings as his 1962 version of “Pennies From Heaven” with Count Basie, whose stamping four-beat is dramatically different from the thudding backbeat Sinatra preferred — it’s a wide-open range of possibilities. Rising to the challenge, Sinatra goes beyond the usual embellishments, and in his second chorus configures one canny melodic inversion after another.

He could not have continued in that vein forever, but I doubt there was anything he couldn’t do superbly every once in a while. Sinatra’s career on records spanned 54 years, during which time he enjoyed spectacular successes in movies and more modest ones on radio and television. The immensity of that body of work will fuel rediscovery and reassessment long after his iconicity has become vestigial and the controversies he inspired have faded from popular memory.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

PRIMARY COLOR
By Tom Carson

RONALD REAGAN has probably already forgotten where he was when Sinatra got shot. “For God’s sake, Ronnie,” Nancy must be prompting him right now, “the bald guy I used to take those long lunches with, remember? When you were in the East Wing rambling to Gorbachev about Harry Cohn, and thinking the whole time you were rambling to Harry Cohn about Gorbachev.” But between the two — and Reagan, not Bing Crosby (who dat?) or even Elvis, is Frank’s true competition — there’s no question which icon packs more oomph. In office, the older Reagan served as an emissary from a false history of his compatriots; the older Sinatra, who was never out of office, from a real one. It’s like the way World War II didn’t really end until Churchill kicked the bucket. Older Americans wouldn’t so keenly lament the peaceful death of an 82-year-old if he hadn’t been the last surviving embodiment of an era now all but unimaginable even to those who lived through it.

If future historians don’t come to grips with Sinatra’s bizarre status as a primary color in the postwar U.S. palette, they’ll never make sense of the canvas. What’s been mostly ignored in the obits is how even in his dotage Sinatra remained white America’s last completely satisfying definition of masculine style — to somewhat disconcerting effect, let me add, since its underlying values had been debunked by feminism and Mario Puzo a quarter century before his death. Yet however much Frank the swinger’s double standards tarnish Frank the singer’s standards, no comparably compelling image of male conduct has emerged to replace it. Aside from fitting right in at the fin de siècle garage sale, guyville’s chronic outbreaks of wistfulness about the Rat Pack — whose latest installment went into overdrive last Friday — testifies to the lack of alternative models that even most women, as pop fans if not politicos or human beings, have found palatable in the long run. Remember when Ms. was waggling Alan Alda at us like a remonstrating finger? So much for that.

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Although a taste for coarseness sometimes denotes sophistication — Billy Wilder comes to mind — Sinatra was the flip side, revering sophistication as only a coarse man could. That would make him just another case study in horse-headed upward mobility if it weren’t that, unlike most aspirants, he wasn’t intimidated by prevailing definitions of sophistication; his version of classiness strikes a peculiarly native chord because it’s an invented classiness, without a pedigree. One reason he did as much as Levittown to shape the mores of America’s postwar middle class is that they’d never been middle class before. It took a peasant to teach the midcentury’s new bourgeoisie how to comport themselves as aristocrats. So long as we’re stuck with class systems, America’s incoherent version is better than the coherent kind.

The voice didn’t hurt, of course. Over the weekend, I called my mom to offer half-joking condolences; like the ones about Nixon, our running gags about Sinatra date back to my college years. She laughed, and told me she was reading in her garden with a stack of his CDs for background music. “That sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday,” I said. “It is,” she said, holding up her phone to the speakers. “Listen.”

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

A PERFECT DAY
By Touré

ONE NIGHT years ago, a woman I’d long wanted was finally coming over and I put on a Sinatra album. When she heard it she laughed so hard she went out of the mood. That was the end of her, and the end of playing Frank for company. For women there were Marvin, Barry, Prince. Frank was for the best nights — the alone ones. I had discovered him in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen was just beginning to conquer Michael Douglas and Daryl Hannah and for one moment everything was as it should have been. In the background Frank sang, “Flyyyyy me to the moon/Let me plaaaay among the stars” — and I understood immediately. This was the sound of insurmountable confidence and cosmic rightness. I never knew whether Nancy was Frank’s wife or his daughter, or who Bobby was and why his socks mattered, or what Woody Allen’s wife’s mother had to do with any of it. I knew only that Frank had the sound of a man who would never lose. Could never. A man I could turn to long after midnight on Sunday, when I was all alone, the lights dimmed, steeling for another week of battle, and ask, What happens in the end, Frank? How does it all work out? And no matter how great the evidence to the contrary, he could convince me, “The best is yet to come/And babe, won’t it be fine.”

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Last Friday, the last day of the 20th century, I got into a cab, one of those roomy new minivan ones. It was the hottest day of the year, and the cab was perfectly air-conditioned — the cooled air grazed your skin like on Sunday afternoons in the Hamptons. But we got stuck in traffic by Union Square Park. I rolled down the window and looked out at two very young girls, maybe seven years old. They had been roller-blading circles around the park and were sweaty and worn out. One wanted to stop, but the other begged for one more go. “All right,” the first girl replied brightly to her little bestpal, “this is the last one.” She paused and then added, without a speck of doubt on her soul, “the best one.” She said it with an unquestioning certainty that if they so decided, then life would play out that way, in the best possible way. And everything could be as it should be. As Frank would’ve wanted. And in that moment I thought that between these two little New Yorkers and this cab and this beautiful day, Frank’s Homegoing Day, that maybe New York could be the greatest city in the world and could live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra. But now I think maybe, somehow, someday, life itself will be just right and as it should be, and life will live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

EITHER-AND
By Robert Christgau

HEY, FOLKS — Frank Sinatra and rock and roll aren’t mutually exclusive. Not that Mr. My Way could sing the music he once adjudged “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” as with typical elasticity of principle he eventually tried to. (Remember “The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won’t OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding”? How could you forget?) And not that his Northern, urban, assimilationist style had any rock and roll in it. But it wasn’t as antithetical as Rudy Vallee’s, Nelson Eddy’s, Mario Lanza’s, John Raitt’s, Eddie Fisher’s, or, shit, Tony Bennett’s. Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan’s, Carole King’s, or Rakim’s — probably more so.

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Pop is a cornucopia and a continuum. Either way, most of the music I adore is rock and roll. But not all of it. And none of it excludes any of the rest. So when a savvy young critic praises Sinatra for delivering her from punk’s canon of authenticity, I feel sad. When a broadly experienced older critic uses Sinatra’s genius to bewail the impersonality of contemporary pop, I pray my arteries hold up. Either-or is for Sidney Zion. I want the world and I want it now.

Many claim they don’t identify with Frank Sinatra — they just bask in his artistry. But that’s not how singing works. Sinatra the man’s gruesome amalgam of confidence and insecurity was configured in his so-called pitch problems — the way every line he sings seems to waver slightly as he holds it firmly in the grip of his technical command. More than anything else, it was the ambivalence built into his certainty that made him the century’s quintessential voice for so many of us. And it was the intelligence built into his body that made him just right for any rock and roller with a grain of sensibility.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater

Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater
Voice Jazz Special, June 20, 1995

Frank Sinatra will be 80 this year, on December 12, an event telegraphed by several commemorations, notably a three-concert salute at Carnegie Hall in July and a complete retrospective (24 CDs) of his Reprise recordings, scheduled for re­lease in the fall. Never before has the totality of his recorded work been so readily available. His complete Columbias and RCAs are boxed, the Capitol and Reprise albums have been reissued, as have various anthologies, and other performances of ambiguous legal standing — radio and TV broadcasts and the like. In recent years, Sinatra’s phoned-in Duets became his best­ selling album ever, his life was told in a miniseries, and he concluded what will probably be his last tour. He’s performed for several seasons with cue cards, and rumors of memory loss and mental confusion are rife; the nitwits behind the Grammy telecast felt sufficiently empowered to give him the hook, as though he were a Ted Mack contes­tant. Even his children are back in the news with cryptic messages — the for­mer conductor now singing to beat the band; the former “tomboy in lace” now flashing her 54-year-old pubes. Happy birthday!

Any other artist of Sinatra’s stature would be allowed to achieve octo­genarian status without the smirks, though who else would raise as much fuss in the first place? Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller share his year of birth: will attention be paid? Proba­bly nothing comparable to Dr. S. (honorary degree, Stevens Institute, 1985), who occupies the low, middle, and high ground of popcult, but eternally under­mines his undoubted genius with an edgy kitsch that verges on self-parody and pro­motes skepticism. That he is subjected to bad jokes at an age when his footfalls should be muffled with rose petals may simply sig­nify that he is no longer anyone to fear. For, puzzling as the fact may be to future gener­ations, Sinatra is one entertainer who in­stilled a sense of fear in paying customers as well as paid attendants; not a fear of physi­cal violence per se; though, yes, there have been a few such victims, but of a more gen­eral sort — fear of not qualifying for the vicarious ratpackery of the affluent society’s Peter Pan-on-testosterone club for middle-aged rakes, of which Sinatra was Chairman of the Board, not to mention boss of bosses.

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You can hear that fear stick in the throat before erupting in overeager guffaws during his amazing 12-minute monologue on Sinatra at the Sands, a deeply embar­rassing attempt at humor, replete with Amos and Andy-isms in which Sammy is dismissed as a custodian (after seeing him on TV, “I sent him a wire, ‘No you can’t!'”), Dean is lampooned as a drunk, audience members are heckled, his father is belittled, and so it goes. One imagines Sinatra paying good money for the jokes (“I was so skin­ny, my eyes were single file”), determined to make them work. But it’s one of the peculiar characteristics of Sinatra that as an en­tertainer he can do anything — sing, act, dance — except be funny. In Tony Rome, he asks a pet owner, “You got a pussy that smiles?” and you squirm like a worm on a hook. Maybe he’s just too self-conscious. If you want to be funny, it’s usually a good idea to let the audience laugh at you before you ask it to laugh with you. Sinatra, how­ever much he may protest to the contrary, doesn’t want to be laughed at. Les Paul tells a story of the first time Sinatra sang a duet with Bing Crosby on radio; the younger man missed a low note that Crosby in­stantly collared, interpolating, “Is this what you were looking for, son?” The king of bobby socks was not amused.

But there is another side of Sinatra, where parody doesn’t intrude, where he is in fact emblematic of sage maturity, where his interpretations of verses of varying qual­ity are evened out by a semblance of expe­rience that promises and often delivers rap­port, understanding, perhaps wisdom. That’s the Sinatra of our dreams. In song, the voice is honed with craftsmanship so knowing it doesn’t have to call attention to itself. Many people give no thought to his technical virtuosity until they sing along with a record and find themselves gasping fur air as Sinatra effortlessly plots a 16-bar phrase with one exhalation, too subtly manipulated for you to no­tice anything but the absolute dra­matic rightness of his decision. For this is a Sinatra who is above all else a great story­teller: in Ellington’s memorable phrase, “the ultimate in theater.” In the spell of his artistry, we forget the moral ambiguity as­sociated with a Gambino poster boy; and we know — even if he doesn’t — that the stalwart liberal of “The House I Live In” is the true Frank, not the disappointed favor-seeker who abandoned progressive politics for the Palm Springs militia.

Sinatra’s street-tough persona is irresistibly softened by an artistic control that is innovative, physical, and hard-won. The voice — or The Voice; as it was once known — is transformed, its extraordinary clarity and directness sharpened for ex­pressive purpose, so that even the old Hoboken inflections achieve eloquence. Although the vocal deliveries of most pop baritones (Crosby, Arm­strong, Astaire, Cole, Ecks­tine) follow readily from their speech patterns and timbres, the cynical diction of Sinatra’s Jilly’s-barfly mode contra­venes the beauty of his timbre; and not just in crass monologues. Yet when he steps into a song, the manners of a punk are instantly aban­doned for those of an alluring troubadour — almost as if the offstage Frank were chagrined by a perceived unmanliness regarding his profession. His pronunciations differ: he sings a short, English a, but he speaks a flat, nasal one. As Gene Kelly made movie dancing seem athletically heterosexual, Sinatra makes singing a manly art, but a compli­cated one — aggressive, physical, seductive, sexual, vulnerable, sadistic, masochistic, dis­turbing. It’s always difficult to reconcile the man who sings “Night and Day” on Sina­tra & Strings, to choose one of a thousand examples, with the concert performer who demeans women reporters as whores of the press, to choose one of dozens.

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Yet Sinatra is a superb actor. On a con­ventional level, he brought to ’50s cinema a wiry kind of naturalism that is most cred­ible when he plays small men, loners: Mag­gio, an assassin, a junkie, a cop. When he’s teamed up with another man or a woman, he loses stature. He was far more authen­tic as Nathan Detroit than Brando was as Sky Masterson, but as the prole in High Society, he was outclassed by Crosby (who, significantly, considered his duet with Sinatra, “Well, Did You Evah?” his fa­vorite movie scene). Sinatra’s real genius as an actor, however, has little to do with the movies, and is defined by the character he created in concert, on records and record jackets, and on TV. To look, at early photographs of the scrawny crooner who finagled his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band and laid siege at the Paramount is to be astounded at how little he had to work with — beyond The Voice. Skinny to the point of gaunt, he had a homely, lined face with a wide mouth and small obsidian eyes. His management could hire women to swoon as he crooned, but they couldn’t convince anyone he was Gable. So the original image that was sold to the fan mags and eventually Hollywood was of an innocent, more often than not in a sailor suit, in need of a mother.

It’s of interest to recall that Sinatra was born the same year as Billie Holiday, whose influence he has often acknowledged. Yet Holiday, who began recording at 18, is largely associated with the 1930s, while Sinatra, who didn’t record until he joined with Harry James — at 23, in 1939 (the epochal “All or Nothing at All”) — is a figure of the war years. Most of the male stars of that period were either older favorites, who couldn’t be drafted, or younger and often suspiciously undrafted men who in effect filled in for performers who went overseas. Sinatra was the first singer in a decade to challenge Crosby’s hegemony, but even he was vulnerable to the post-war reaction against a generation of makeshift stars. Re­turning soldiers were none too sure they wanted their wives swooning for anyone, and as late as 1949 Sinatra was still trying to get by with moonlit ballads (notwithstanding “Bop! Goes My Heart”), bow ties, and a sheepish grin. Soon he was begging for work — selling cutlery on television; playing dumb and dumber in movies with Jane Russell, an actress known mainly for her bra size, and on record with a TV celeb named Dagmar who was famous exclu­sively for her bra size. Boobs are forever (right, Nancy?), but Frank Sinatra wasn’t. Bobby-soxers were no longer swooning; they weren’t even wearing bobby socks. Be­sides, he was said to be a comsymp, which didn’t play as well in the early ’50s as it did a few years earlier or later.

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And that’s when Sinatra created the role of the century. He completely reinvented himself: parted his hair, put on some weight, changed his music. His famous performance in From Here to Eternity cer­tainly helped, reestablishing him as a commanding personality and restoring his vul­nerability — toughs reportedly threatened Ernest Borgnine for knifing him in the movie. But Frank couldn’t sustain a career as a likable Italian-American wiseass who gets killed every time out. So in Suddenly, he took the Borgnine role, playing an as­sassin and in Young at Heart, he took his turn as John Garfield. As a singer, he had to remake himself as a killer as well, a tran­sition presumably made easier by an ago­nizing marriage to Ava Gardner. The voice soon shook with sorrow, self-pity, and re­solve. He began to swing; indeed, he invented a new style of swing, an optimistic four-beat volley that in its way was as re­moved from the fussier rhythms of the ’30s as the contemporaneous developments in r&b. With Nelson Riddle and Billy May writing arrangements, he dressed basic big band instrumentation in the finery of flutes, strings, and harp. Some detractors dis­missed his rhythm as a “businessman’s bounce,” but the more assured Sinatra became, the wickeder that bounce. Rhythmic integrity is one reason his recordings of the ’50s and ’60s have survived as classics.

He now had everything but a person­al style. The attitude and outfit he needed was close by in the person of his friend Jim­my Van Heusen, the brilliant songwriter, who, until late in life, was a bachelor with the most envied little black book in town. He was beloved of Hollywood madams, one of the most prominent of whom is said to have bought him an airplane (he was a li­censed pilot) as a token of appreciation. Van Heusen was the kind of guy who kept an icebox on his porch empty except for rows of martini glasses and a pitcher to fill them. He was tall and hugely charming, not especially handsome, but catnip to women, and effortlessly stylish. Born Chester Babcock (Bob Hope adopted the name for movie roles), he took his nom de plume from the shirt manufacturer famous for ads that fea­tured one-eyed male models. He favored fedoras with wide bands and liked to sling his jacket or raincoat over his left shoulder.

If Van Heusen hadn’t lived, Sinatra would have had to invent him. Onstage and on album jackets, he played the part to perfection. The new Sinatra of the affluent generation was nothing like the beanpole crooner of the Paramount. He was riveting and sure, the embodiment of good times, the keeper of old songs that somehow no longer seemed quaint or sentimental when he sang them (consider the provenance of “It Happened in Monterey” in his hands a rigorous swinger, but previously a waltz warbled by the Brox Sisters, one of whom — coincidentally — would eventual­ly rob Jimmy Van Heusen of his bachelor­-hood). Above all, he was adult. He sang to adults. He had turned himself into an em­bodiment of all those returning servicemen who were redefining American society and business. He was their troubadour, just as Elvis was that of their children. He said to them: this is what we look like, this is how we sing, this is how we treat our women and are treated by them, this is how to re­lax, and this is how we age. Sinatra’s transformation was complete: he was hand­some, charming, at times quite dazzling.

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Not until the mid 1960s, when he was in his early fifties, did he attempt to elicit the good opinion of his audience’s kids, with two arguable exceptions: “High Hopes,” from Capra’s unholy film, A Hole in the Head, was an attempt to reach tod­dlers the way Crosby had with “Swinging on a Star”; getting Elvis to make his first post-Army appearance with him on TV was a patronizing if savvy bow to the Nielsens. Teenagers in the ’50s were often resentful of as well as bored by Sinatra, and as adults they are often surprised to realize that his peak years coincide with Presley’s. He wasn’t singing to them. He sang of supreme assurance, and teenagers are confident of little. He celebrated love the second time around when most teenagers are lucky to gave gotten there once. He idealized the comforts of booze. He sang about sex in the voice of someone who had been there — a lot. Teenagers are — or were — more comfortable with Doc Pomus laments and Norman Mailer essays.

In the course of redefining adult pas­times, he frequently made himself a candi­date for derision, along with those dopey adults who followed him to Vegas, actual­ly wanting to be part of the clan that gave us Ocean’s 11. He compensated for his hair-trigger temper with exaggerated hilarity. Occasionally, the grand performance was shaky, the meta-adult seemingly un­-moored. The smart Sinatra of the songs be­came unglued by the aroma of real politi­cal power. If he pimped for JFK, he gave better than he got. He was more himself in “the house I live in” than the Oval Office he allegedly schtupped in. The end of the beautiful fantasy of the affluent generation was embodied in rat pack insipidity a good two years before Dealey Plaza. Francis Al­bert Sinatra’s contributions to the American language:

“Sheesh!”

“Ring-a-ding-ding!”

“Clyde.”

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Forget his pop hits of the ’60s. His image was no longer tenable. He seemed somehow to deserve a daughter who sang like Nancy Sinatra. So in 1971, it didn’t mean all that much when he walked away; retirement at 56. But a few years later, he was back, preceded by a press campaign that saluted him as “Ol’ Blue Eyes” a so­briquet not earned with affection but bought from a publicity firm. At first, the comeback didn’t promise much. He was ensnared in his usual press feuds and was out of voice and overweight when he hit the Uris Theater (with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie), looking sullen and sounding defensive. The children of the ’50s took their shots. The idiot jazz critic in The Village Voice wrote, “I have never found his interpretations of popular songs more sub­stantial than those of most pop singers, who are usually content to hit the right notes and enunciate the lyrics, however moronic … Sinatra’s records are more catalytic than absorbing. For Sinatra is a great craftsman but not an artist.”

But Sinatra’s audience was changing, and so consequently was his standing. As his original audience pushed 60, he was at long last discovered by its children, who, no longer acne-scarred or bell-bottomed, finally understood what those songs were about. Lost love, one for the road? — hey, let me get this round. Now his champions were younger than Frank Jr., and they didn’t treat him with the casual admiration/contempt due a contem­porary, but with the awe reserved for a living … well, legend. His movie days were finished, and for a while nobody wanted to record him, and Garry Trudeau reminded everyone who needed reminding what a scumbag he could be. But Trilogy was a huge success, and so were his concerts, which now drew bi­-generational crowds. He em­bodied a major life lesson: Never dismiss an artist just because he plays golf with Spiro Agnew. And yes, an artist he was, not a craftsman. Like Garbo or Chaplin, he looms over the cultural life of the century, defying analysis, because every generation has to figure him out from scratch.

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And where do you be­gin? The list might change with the weather. But you wouldn’t want to miss his aching rueful lament, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” or ”Time After Time,” or “I Fall in Love Too Easily”; or the ecstatic duet with Louis Armstrong on “Birth of the Blues” (The Edsel Show, 1957); or the Metronome All-Stars’ “Sweet Lorraine.” Or the two studio albums with Basie, especially the first with its ingeniously embellished “Pennies From Heaven” (an inevitable ri­poste to those who insist Sinatra can’t sing jazz). Or the prolonged inspiration of Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Close to You, Come Fly With Me, Come Swing With Me, I Remember Tommy (with its improbably fast “I’ll Be Seeing You”), Moonlight Sinatra, Sinatra & Strings, and All Alone. Or ”Let’s Fall in Love,” “I Have Dreamed,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,”‘ and “I Had the Craziest Dream?” Or “Thanks for the Memory” from She Shot Me Down, his last great album. Or the neglected and deli­ciously dilatory Francis A. and Edward K.

Did I miss many of your favorites?  Mine too: I forgot the Dorseys and Only the Lonely and A Swingin’ Affair and a dozen others. It’s a vast legacy. The Sinatra achievement is not least a guide to modern orchestration — a how-to concerning the adaptation of old pop to postbop consciousness. And Sinatra, no less than his great arrangers — Riddle, May, Johnny Mandel, Sy Oliver, Don Costa, Neal Hefts, Quincy Jones, Gordon Jenkins, and the rest — knew all about reclamation projects. A peerless interpreter of our best lyricists, Sinatra is expected to demonstrate unexpected depths in the work of Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Burke, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin. But the real test of his transformative powers are those songs beyond redemption, an area in which his ability is at one with Armstrong, Crosby, Holiday, and very few others. Who else would sing “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” previous­ly the subject of burlesques by Fats Waller and Laurel and Hardy (in Blotto), but in Sinatra’s hands a joyous, straight-faced romp? Sinatra’s imperviousness to the song’s clumsiness is symptomatic. The generosity he hasn’t always been able to sum­mon in life is the very marrow of his gift to music. ■

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Charlie Parker: The Man and His Music

August 29, 1975, marks the 55th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth and follows, by five months, the 20th anniversary of his death. There will be the usual tributes on radio, a memorial concert at Avery Fisher, and acknowledgements in jazz publications. Yet to most Americans, Parker’s name means little and his music less. Critics and musicians have placed him in that inviolable musical trinity with Ellington and Armstrong, and still he remains the most elusive of our native-born geniuses. Some observers, having noted the belated recognition of Scott Joplin and Billie Holiday, suggest that Charlie Parker’s time will come as well.

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But this seems unlikely. True, Supersax, a band that plays transcriptions of Parker improvisations but without Parker’s expres­sive immediacy, is enjoying moderate popu­larity. Steely Dan, a rock group, has record­ed “Parker’s Band,” a stringing together of Parker cliches, which, in the absence of a liner annotation, is unlikely to be recognized as such by most of its fans. There is abundant movie material in Parker’s story and several books have been inspired by him, but there is little in his music to provide a foothold for mass acceptance, despite his own commer­cial recordings with strings and Latin rhythm. For that matter, the popular successes achieved by Ellington and Armstrong were unrelated to their best work. Moreover, if Parker was the pivotal figure in the founding of modern jazz, he was also the central force in moving jazz from the dance floor to a plateau where it had to be attended as an art or not at all. Parker was not a self-conscious revolutionary and though he evolved his music logically from prevailing jazz styles, he brought the music into an elitist arena where few swing fans were prepared to follow.

The music Parker innovated in conjunc­tion with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and others is still known by the onomatopoeia bebop. But bop was not created in a vacuum. Such epochal Parker-Gillespie masterpieces as “Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Koko” define a very different tableau from that imagined by Lester Young or Roy Eldridge, yet the styles of the younger players were originally mod­eled after their idols. Bop became a tradition unto itself when a new wave of players came along drawing exclusively on the achieve­ment of Parker’s generation. The originators of bop, however, were intimately involved with the playing of Young, Eldridge, Art Tatum, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Charlie Chris­tian, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Blanton, Teddy Wilson, and other masters of the swing period. They must certainly have recognized the falsity of some of the claims made on behalf of bop.

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It is easy enough to recognize bop as a style of music different from, say, swing or avante-garde, but attempts to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of bop can be treacherous. We hear a great deal about the complexity of bop, for example, yet nothing in its fabric was foreign to Ellington. Much has been made of the intensity and speed demanded by most bop compositions, but speed was also endemic to Eldridge, Tatum, and Armstrong. Bop musicians have been credited with first superimposing their own compositions on familiar chord progres­sions; but earlier examples of this practice include Benny Moten’s “Moten’s Swing” (based on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”), Sidney Bechet’s “Shag” (”I Got Rhythm”), and Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” (“Rose Room”). Most dramatically, bop musicians are said to have been the first to improvise on chords, rather than simply embellishing the given melody. Almost any handful of classic jazz recordings from the ’30s will refute this.

Another area of confusion concerns the relationship of bop to the big bands. The instrumentation of the Charlie Parker Quin­tet — sax. trumpet, piano, bass, drums — became the standard instrumentation for jazz until the ’60s, but it wasn’t the nature of the beast that required a small-group context nor did the musicians reject big bands entirely for musical reasons. The key figures in bop were actually trained in big bands: Parker with Jay McShann, Gillespie with Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon with Armstrong, Max Roach with Benny Carter. Economic considerations have played a de­cisive role in every phase of jazz. The shoestring labels that recorded bop were hardly able to offer a musician the freedom to hire 15 men for a record date. But bop, like most schools of jazz, aspired to larger en­sembles. Gillespie formed a big band as soon as he could get the backing, Woody Her­man’s second herd was a bop band, and Tadd Dameron, the preeminent composer-ar­ranger of the movement, wrote for orches­tras whenever possible. Parker himself toured with a string ensemble of his own vo­lition.

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The distinguishing characteristics of bop are immediately recognizable. The absence of vibrato and tonal coloration is necessitat­ed by the blazing tempos and the many-noted character of the solos. The techniques with which a bop solo is constructed might be discussed in jargon like flattened fifths, the higher intervals of chords, diminished scales, and chromaticism, but while the musician has to understand these terms, the listener doesn’t. In order to hear the melo­dies of a bop improvisation, one simply has to become familiar enough with the idiom to hear the component phrases of a solo. There is no greater melodist in jazz than Parker.

The central innovation in Parker’s music was rhythmic. Swing rhythm was exemplified by the Basie band’s brisk 4/4, with each beat evenly accented. The soloist seemed to be confined by the bar lines, or, in the case of an advanced player like Lester Young, to float above the chomp/chomp/chomp, knitting his melodies into four-bar phrases, and booting them along with riffs. Lester’s two choruses on “Honeysuckle Rose,” from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall con­cert, are representative of his alternation of rich, fluent melodies and repeated rhythmic phrases. By contrast, listen to Parker’s 1946 “Lady Be Good” solo, recorded at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. Essentially, he adopts blues diction to the pop song form, but in his use of space (the first phrase is followed by a full rest) and in his variety of note-values (from whole notes to 32nd notes), he opens up the time, establishing rhythmic freedom rather than coursing over the 4/4.

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With the arrival of bop, the bassist be­came the time-keeper and the drummer was free to dispense “bombs” in response to the soloist. Young improvised in a situation governed by the time, while Parker made himself the focal point around which the time coalesced.

Parker’s need for an alert drummer is seen in the performance of his blues, “Cheryl,” at a 1949 Christmas eve Carnegie Hall concert — available on several pirate labels but never legally issued. In the fifth measure of the fifth chorus, Parker ends his phrase on the third beat. He repeats this for several measures until the drummer, Roy Haynes, responds by accenting the third beat and suspending the fourth. They play in this fashion throughout the following chorus. Another aspect of his music — the sometimes satiric quoting of familiar melodies to en­hance his solos — is illustrated by the same piece: he paraphrases Armstrong’s “West End Blues” cadenza, an ingenious reminder that all styles of jazz are bound by the blues. (On the studio version of “Cheryl,” he quoted the New Orleans standard “High Society.”)

Neither Parker nor Gillespie considered themselves revolutionaries in the sense that they wished to destroy anything. If their music was rhythmically unsuitable for jit­terbugging, it was nonetheless an inevitable and heartfelt extension of the jazz they had grown up with and cherished. Critical feud­ing in the press, esoteric discussions of technique, and even the fashionable accou­trements of the period — goatees, berets, shades, and drugs — obscured, for many, the blues-based strain underlining their music. Parker might well have voiced the “confes­sion” once expressed by Stravinsky: “The novelty of the ‘Rite’ consisted, not in the writing, not in the orchestration, not in the technical apparatus of the work, but in the musical entity. I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself.”

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Parker’s mature style was intimated in his earliest recordings, with the Jay McShann orchestra. On “Swingmatism” he played 16 bars and a pickup measure replete with Lestorian triplets and a rounded intonation. With “Jumping Blues,” his personality became more apparent. His chorus begins with one of the many phrases that would become the meat, and eventually the cliches, of modern jazz. Little Benny Harris, the trumpeter-composer, extracted this phrase and extended it into “Ornithology,” a classic bop theme based on “How High the Moon,” (The first few notes in both are the same.) Parker’s recording of “Ornithology,” five years later, revealed his fully matured ability to dance into solos with rhythmic ideas that complemented those of the composition. Ironically, he brought the “Ornithology” lick back to the blues when he re-recorded “Now’s the Time” in 1953, tossing it into the theme statement. The solo on this version of “Now’s the Time,” an especially gay and insouciant invention, begins with another phrase which had become a cliche, the one he had used to begin the original version of that blues, in 1945. Parker knew he had become an “academy” and he enjoyed it.

Charlie Parker’s chief legacy is his records, and there is a sizable number of them considering the brevity of his career. Won­drous as the individual masterpieces are, the sum of his work is even more impressive. He was nothing if not an expressive player and the more we listen to him, the more vivid his vision becomes. For if there is a light side to his music — the clean order and virtuosic structuring of solos, the lovely ballads­ — there is also a dark, nightmarish side. Parker was a heroin addict most of his life. His body was so ravaged at his death that a doctor, filling out a report, estimated his age at 60 rather than 34. The horrors he lived were transfigured into music. The best known example is “Lover Man,” recorded during the breakdown which landed him in Camarillo for a year. He could hardly stand or fill his horn with air, yet he created fleeting moments of dynamic tension and surprise. In his 26th to 27th measures, he tenuously shapes a comely melody that sways and finally dips to the lowest note of the solo. This yearning, frustrated side of Charlie Parker is revealed more fully in some of the private tapes and broadcasts now surfacing. It is disgraceful that the work of a great artist should be shoddily pack­aged, indifferently treated, and unpaid for, but this emerging cache of tapes cannot go unattended simply because they’re being issued illegally. There is a newly discovered 1949 Brooklyn broadcast of “Cool Blues” which tells us much about the longing in Parker’s music, and prefigures the breakthrough in expressive techniques of Ornette Coleman.

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Even Parker’s legitimate recordings are in dubious hands. The Dial sessions have been expertly issued in a six-volume variorum edition by Spotlight, a bootleg outfit. The Savoys remain scrambled. Too many of the Verves, including “Lady Be Good,” are unavailable.

Charlie Parker’s music was delirious, funny, wise, terrifying, tragic, funky, sad, exultant, wistful, haunt­ing, electrifying. His is one of the monumental achievements in contemporary art, and still it is consigned to the shadows. ■

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Jazz Wars in the ’70s

It All Depends on What You Know

In the mid-’60s, someone — I’m not sure who, though Gabor Szabo sticks in the brain — declared that jazz was dead. The observation is made whenever jazz is mutating, but once again a tremor rippled through the music’s cloisters as scribes hastily prepared a de­fense. At least one expression of increduli­ty was predictable: “Jazz dead? Is Louis Armstrong dead?” It seemed almost taste­less to point out that jazz was in big trouble if its future depended on one mor­tal’s coil, even Louis Armstrong’s. Apostasy made great strides. Miles Davis said calling him a jazz musician was like calling him a nigger. Jazz became Jazz & Pop, the Playboy jazz poll went the way of narrow ties (which, come to think of it, are back), and Down Beat’s readers voted Jimi Hendrix into the jazz hall of fame. By 1975, the intimidation was so widespread that out of dozens of young musicians I interviewed for an article, only a few would admit to playing jazz or knowing what it was; an agent for Stanley Clarke insisted he not be included if the article was about jazz. Meanwhile King Louis died. So did Duke Ellington.

Then, about three or four years ago, a turnabout started. Jazz, it transpired, had not died, it had simply gone away; now, it was back — Time and Newsweek each came to the same conclusion. Internation­al jazz festivals proliferated (even Playboy sponsored one). Stevie Wonder and Jim­my Carter announced that they liked jazz. Fats Waller and Eubie Blake were carted back to Broadway (where their music was dejazzified, but let’s not quibble), Alvin Ailey choreographed hours of Ellington, Mikhail Baryshnikov danced minutes to Cecil Taylor, and Scott Joplin (who died in 1917, and whose relationship to jazz in this regard is more symbolic than real) won an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer. More significantly, young jazz musicians were willing to come out of the closet, especially after George Benson copped a platinum record for Breezin’. People who felt intimidated by the difficulties of jazz could now feel superior to its bourgeois sentimentality. Creed Taylor, Inc. had paved the middle of the road, and soon there were Chuck Mangione records for your maiden aunt and Maynard Ferguson records for your high school football coach. Herbie and Chick made jazz cute, Bob James, John Klemmer, Grover Washington, Tom Scott, and George Duke were on the charts, while the minions of Miles Davis took a trip down memory lane via V.S.O.P.; Keith Jarrett was baptized an Artist, Bobbi Humphrey a Flutist, and Donald Byrd an Ethnomusicologist. May­be Jazz had died.

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This heresy occurred to me on air­planes. I didn’t mind if the middle classes thought jazz was Mangione rapping with Merv, there was nothing new about that. Did I really want to see David Murray rapping with Merv? But when I studied the menu of Billboard horrors on in-flight “jazz” channels, I did worry about our adventurous, music-loving youth, and the impenetrable cloak of commercial red her­rings that kept them from the real thing. How could anyone become interested in jazz from the available samplings, the meretricious make-out music manufac­tured out of lulling rhythm tracks, impersonal solos, cooing voices, and glutinous strings. I wondered: If I were 15 and knew only the processed jazz of mass media, what would I think of jazz? I’d think it was corny and predictable, without spirit or spontaneity.

A humbling thought. For what was jazz to me if not a celebration of the individual, fueled with spirit and spontaneity, sparked with irreverence? Jazz was a challenge to the listener and a risk to the performer, an expression of freedom, in the phrase of Thelonious Monk, who went on to say: “Don’t play what the public wants — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you are — even if it does take them 15, 20 years.” Jazz was sublimely and lovingly seditious, and sometimes not so lovingly. But here it was splitting apart like a frazzled amoeba, jazz qua merchandise all but engulfing jazz qua jazz.

This was not entirely unprecedented or unexpected. Jazz hipness achieved total insularity in the ’60s, and a swing to the other extreme was inevitable. A dearth of interesting popular music served as a welcoming hand to jazz musicians who could cross over, and a tradition of easy-listen­ing-jazz provided models. So after the pained incantations of A Love Supreme came the Scientological doggerel of Return to Forever, after Free Jazz the CTI system of music in overdubbed layers, after Miles in the Sky Miles On the Corner, after the steamy crossrhythms of McCoy Tyner the portentous navel-gazing of Keith Jarrett, after the eccentric bombast of Tony Wil­liam’s Emergency! the wholesome treacle of Spyro Gyra and Jeff Lorber. Much rewarding jazz has resulted from the rec­onciliation of jazz and pop, from Armstrong’s “Star Dust” to Davis’s Bitches Brew, but Spyro Gyra — !

The historical relationship of jazz and pop mixes symbiosis with reproof. In the ’20s, ’40s, and ’60s, jazz was resolutely piloted by its avant garde, so much so that even today the Hot Five, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman are more heard of then heard. But in the ’30s, ’50s, and ’70s, a taming of the extremist impulses and the compromising influence of pop effected a cooler dialectic. The changeover of the past decade was particularly strenuous for two reasons. First, the avant garde of Coleman, Coltrane, Taylor, and Ayler posited the jazz equivalent of the white-­on-white canvas or the nonnarrative novel. Having discovered that melody, rhythm, and harmony were neither sacred nor pro­fane, but neutral and infinitely adaptable, jazz had to take the long road back to rediscover the richness of its past, ferret out new juxtapositions, and relearn the axioms (if any existed) of its tradition. This was done in the leaderless at­mosphere that constitutes reason number two. Jazz is an eternal wedding of im­provisation and composition, and the ’70s claimed its greatest improvisor, Armstrong, and its greatest composer, Ell­ington. When the royalty of an art die, a pall is cast that is no less real for being metaphysical. It’s as if those deaths place the art beyond the sustenance of history in an untethered present; eclecticism reigns as the past is raked for guidance and validation. Suddenly, Armstrong and Ellington were renewed sources of pride, and in the absence of a dynamic leader the entire tradition was renewed as an unplundered text. New standards had to be in­voked, and the ’70s might be described as a period of blind runs and free falls. The obvious places to look for those standards were the jazz past (rural blues to Cecil Taylor) and neighboring musics (rock, pop, Europe, the third world, etc.).

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I find symbolic forecasts of the un­moored ’70s in Lester Bowie’s “Jazz Death?” (1968) and the first side of Tony Williams’s Emergency! (1969). Each is prophetic on a number of levels. The Bowie recording (heard on Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptious) is an unaccom­panied trumpet solo, and if the ’60s had to accept the collective effusions of Free Jazz and Ascension, the ’70s capitulated to countless hours of the solo solo. After a brief parodic opening, Bowie, in the person of Dave Flexingbergstein of Jism maga­zine, asks if jazz “as we know it” is dead. Later, in the midst of a performance that includes a march figure, torrid balladry, raspberries, a bop riff, and a mocking wah­-wah rejoinder, Bowie cavalierly responds, “Well, I guess it all depends on what you know.” As it turned out, many musicians — especially those who, like Bowie, were involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and similar organizations — spent much of the decade showing us what they knew. The daffy eclecticism that made Jaki Byard a lone duck in the ’60s became everyday nourishment in the ’70s. Bowie’s cocky irreverence and the dry humor of his conceit also emerged as familiar traits of the decade’s hard jazz. Perhaps the most promising aspect of “Jazz Death?” was the assurance with which it marshaled half a century of jazz phrases and effects without a predetermined structure.

The first side of Williams’s seminal two-record set, Emergency!, shows the strengths and pitfalls of the fusion move­ment. To a degree, this album, issued before Bitches Brew and showcasing a trio of Williams, John McLaughlin, and Larry Young, made fusion a reality. The title selection fused jazz improvisation and en­semble interplay with the color and vi­olent energy of rock, and the result was jolting and savage; I can think of no subse­quent fusion endeavor that surpasses its flailing, nearly claustrophobic tension. It promised a startling, dangerous future. But with “Beyond Games,” the churning rhythms part for a Williams recitation of shocking banality and ineptitude. “Why don’t you say what you mean/you didn’t mean what you said,” he whines like a piker Bob Dylan, and in place of Bowie’s wit is a humorless will-to-profundity that would plague much of the fusion to follow. “Indeed, a comparison of Bowie’s and Wil­liams’s work in the ’70s establishes addi­tional prototypes: Bowie’s music remained constant and strong while Williams, smit­ten not only by the dream of fusion but of commercial success, vitiated his music to ­the extent that the promise of “Emer­gency” began to seem like an accident.

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So jazz in the ’70s boiled down to a debate between the non­compromising eclectics and the compromising eclectics, a debate that escalated into a class war. Monied groups with major record label affiliations played concert halls; a middle class of dependable mainstream-modern attractions monopolized the established jazz clubs; the new and avant were accom­modated briefly by the loft scene, and then by a network of new clubs and theatres. Numerous exceptions to this pic­ture don’t alter its veracity. Jazz radio became fusion radio, while the record in­dustry, puffing away at the jazz-is-back myth with one overproduced confection after another, steadfastly ignored serious young or mainstream jazz musicians, en­couraging by default the modest rise of independents. Some of the latter attracted cults and were leased by the majors­ — Pablo by RCA, ECM by Polydor and then Warners; Inner City, an outgrowth of Mu­sic Minus One, amassed an immense catalogue from European labels. Few of the ma-and-pa operations that attempted to replace the ignominiously slaughtered Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse labels achieved better than minimal distribu­tion, but by decade’s end Fanta offered its Galaxy line, Arista its Novus, and Columbia an occasionally adventurous signing. There was never a stir from MCA or Capitol.

If the most important developments centered around modernism and fusion, two subordinate movements also con­tributed to the period’s identity — the rise of jazz repertory and the continuous rediscovery of its forgotten ancients and not­-so-ancients, most particularly Eubie Blake and Alberta Hunter, though every year had its share of comebacks. These four areas suggest a period of fertility, but it must also be acknowledged that one very crucial area of jazz foundered on the critical list. I’m talking about jazz singing. The Bessie-Billie-Ella-Sarah-Dinah dynasty is without heir or heiress, unless it be Betty Carter, who in her late forties was widely acclaimed as the last of the Mohicans. Until the ’70s, it didn’t seem quite so certain that jazz singing would be a casualty of jazz evolution. But how could it be otherwise? The classic jazz singers were dependent on the very material jazz has generally abandoned, and Aretha Franklin has made soul the most attrac­tive idiom for expressive young singers. Thirty years ago, Millie Jackson might have been a superb jazz singer; today I can’t imagine her doing anything but what she does. Singers who are attracted to jazz tend to follow one of three avenues: they develop styles to complement the modern instrumental forms, sell themselves as fusion props, or nostalgically recreate the good old days. But there should be a fourth option, to fashion a contemporary setting for a time-honored idiom. This still means acknowledging an old repertoire (some of the best of which is practically virgin territory; for example, the Billy Strayhorn songbook), because most con­temporary pop songs are either too har­monically bleak or too self-consciously maudlin and hook-laden to suit the needs of the jazz singer, and a swinging rhythm section. I thought Dee Dee Bridgewater and Randy Crawford were most likely to make the grade, but jazz didn’t hold them and they’ve become versatile hacks.

Much of the tendency towards hackery can be blamed on fusion. In the notes to a debut album released last year, a pianist named Rodney Franklyn was quoted as follows: “When I was nine years old, I used to listen to Herbie and Chick and say, ‘I can do that!’ ” Whereupon he proceeded to recreate the funky superficialities of Tweedle-dee’s and Tweedle-dum’s styles, reserving one selection for the kind of acoustic piano romance that is presum­ably intended to please a kindly old piano teacher. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were ubiquitous, and it’s hard to tell why. Both were Miles Davis sidemen and pro­lific jazz musicians who aimed for smaller things in the ’70s. Hancock applied his compositional talent to fashioning riffs in a meticulous kind of funk that had little to do with jazz, and Corea used his similar talents to organize a band that did at­tempt to fuse jazz and rock, until the latter overpowered the former and only gaseous bombast escaped. Gimmickry aided them at every turn — perhaps the ultimate example is Hancock making himself a singer by talking into a vocoder — but with the possible exception of a bass riff on Hancock’s “Chameleon,” they’ve composed little as enduring as their early work (“Maiden Voyage,” Empyrean Isles, “La Fiesta,” “Crystal Silence”). Han­cock’s attempt to present himself as a shy Sly Stone and Corea’s insufferably adorable sense of humor have produced embarrassments, and their periodic forays into jazz during the last couple of years have been only moderately satisfying.

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It’s not irrelevant to note that Corea is a proselytizing Scientologist and Hancock a Shoshu Bhuddist, in that so much of the worst fusion music isn’t content with mere music, but with our spirituality. Imagine! — jazz musicians attaining the shallows of Rod McKuen. I’m reminded of Nietzsche excoriating Wagner (Stanley Clarke’s fa­vorite composer): “He repeated a single fact all his life long: that his music did not mean mere music. But more. But infinite­ly more! — ‘Not mere music’ — no musician would say that.” The tendentiousness of the fusion propagandists means less, in­finitely less — love, peace, L. Ron Hubbard, be real, learn to fly, have a nice day. Technique and sentimentality became ev­erything — there has never been a gener­ation that so worshipped technique for its own sake as this one. The music of the ’70s is rife with funny noises — either primitive (a table of Latin percussion) or sophisti­cated (tiers of synthesizer keyboards) — ­suggesting third world, exotica and extraterrestrial mysteries, much of it cheap and silly. References to science fiction are legion.

By decade’s end, fusion had de­generated into formula — even for compe­tent players: Al DiMeola, Brecker Brothers, Lonnie Liston Smith, the Crusaders, Pat Metheny, et al. — and it was difficult to believe that it ever had spunk. But 10 years ago it did. Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Tony Williams, Weath­er Report, the original Return to Forever, Larry Coryell, and Mahavishnu Orchestra all suggested a revitalization of space, color, and rhythm, an assimilation of the strengths of both schools. That paled quickly enough, as accessibility became the absolute goal. Instead of fusion, we saw gifted musicians lending their talents to the tepid excesses of an aesthetically failed movement — Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Cedar Walton, Blue Mitchell, and Raul deSouza among them. And how could the results sound fresh when the productions were devised by failed jazzmen and Hollywood hacks brought into the labels to create fashionable settings, arrangers like Don Sebeskey, Bob James, Dave Grusin, and Lalo Schifrin, who filched the worst aspects of rock and jazz — the polite, the weatherbeaten, the humorless. The for­mula took a predictable shape: im­maculate, tuned rhythms; hooky bass patterns; static harmonies. It was erotic but unthreatening, spontaneous in dollops, mindless, and meticulous — a Puritan’s dream.

Quite simply, the bottom line is this: jazz and pop are incompatible when jazz is subordinated to pop. When you strait­jacket jazz, it becomes a corrupted affec­tation, a seasoning. Where fusion might have incorporated rock sonics to bolster improvisation and slice through the mud­dle of Top-40 sentimentality, it turned to easy-listening sophistication, complete with doggerel, cloying guitar sonorities, pretentious interludes from 19th-century Europe, and synthesizer-replicated strings. The tonal and spatial adventures of Bitches Brew and the extravagant har­monies and instrumentation of Gil Evans were abandoned. The decline of Weather Report is indicative: Joe Zawinul is a composer of intimations, a master of at­mosphere and not of substance. With his Austrian sense of foreboding, he can com­bine rhythm, repetition, and color for menace; but he’s no melodist — his tunes are derivative, self-conscious, and dis­honestly chirpy — and his counterpoint is stilted. It isn’t fair to disparage Weather Report’s latest work for not being jazz and not showcasing Wayne Shorter in a way commensurate with his jazz abilities, yet the road from I Sing the Body Electric to Mr. Gone demonstrates an increasing capitulation to the Puritan ethic, as cleanliness and simplicity enfeeble the audacity that the group now reveals only in concert. No less disheartening is Michael Gregory Jackson’s Heart & Cen­ter, an undistinguished bandwagon effort even by the low standards of the genre, in which an intriguing young artist who had made interesting and personal statements now shows he can create lyrics as precious, melodies as unfocused, and rhythms as damp as anyone else’s.

It’s interesting to note that the cliché-­ridden improvisations of much fusion re­flect the immense influence of John Col­trane, incontestably the most imitated musician of the ’70s. The most challenging new saxophonists of the decade — David Murra, Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe, Chico Free­man, Anthony Braxton, and Oliver Lake, not to mention the increasingly personal acolyte of swing tenor, Scott Hamilton­ — have circumvented Coltrane, while the sound of commercial jazz is infatuated with his storming arpeggios. Miles Davis provided fusion with official approval and formal inspiration, as well as on-the-job training for just about everyone of im­portance in the movement, but Coltrane provided the soloists with their notes. Not since the legion of Lester Young and/or Charlie Parker followers in the late ’40s has a jazz musician attracted so large and rapt a band of disciples. But Young’s example inspired lyricism while Coltrane’s fosters scalar virtuosity, and virtuosity combined with crashing two-beats and aggressive sound systems is what fusion too frequently substitutes for ingenuity and feeling. The best of Young’s disciples evolved their own style’s eventually, and this will undoubtedly be the case with Coltrane’s — at the moment, Michael Brecker, for one, bears watching.

There were musicians who achieved commercial success without electronics — notably McCoy Tyner, the most influential pianist of the decade — but the in­evitable acoustic backlash made Keith Jarrett suddenly loom as a savior, an im­passioned American Chopin whose every contact with a keyboard was deemed holy writ. Jarrett lacked Chopin’s taste, gift for melody, and sense of overall structure, but it didn’t matter — he was decidedly a man of his times: music in the ’70s wasn’t out to freeze the moment, but to enchant and subdue it. “Trance music” was a part of every critic’s jargon, and no one was more adept at provoking the stony stare than Jarrett, a romantic sensualist of limited sensuality. Anyway, most jazz in the ’70s was acoustic; you just had to be in a big city to find it.

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The big news in New York was the invasion of outland forces, musicians from Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Mississippi, and elsewhere who were associated with the avant garde, but didn’t sound like Coltrane or Coleman or Taylor. Muhal Richard Abrams, the co­founder and first president of the AACM, was acknowledged as a guru, and by the mid-’70s was frequently encountered in loft settings, churches, and clubs, playing in every imaginable context. There were a few thrilling years there, because you nev­er knew what to expect. The atmosphere led you to expect the unexpected, and at almost every concert you were introduced to another musician with something to say. There were Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton with painted faces, appear­ing in a “happening” by artist Frederick Brown; and Hamiet Bluiett leading a dozen or more players in an Ascension-like revel for an audience half the size of the band; and David Murray playing bit­tersweet melodies with a fuzzy tone; and Chico Freeman alternating between thoroughbred swing and arcane tribal rhythms; and Arthur Blythe contrapuntally involved with a tuba or swaggering In the Tradition; and Julius Hemphill invok­ing the Gotham Minstrels or trading aphorisms with Oliver Lake; and Anthony Davis turning from impressionistic pastiche to Ellington’s “The Clothed Woman”; and Roscoe Mitchell repeating a skimpy arpeggio for 15 minutes; and Leo Smith picking his way through a forest of brass and percussion instruments; and Europeans like Willem Breuker and Evan Parker unveiling their own angles on post-­freedom freedom; and Steve McCall and Fred Hopkins establishing themselves as the all-purpose rhythm section; and Jack DeJohnette escaping the tepid Compost to forge New Directions; and Lester Bowie choreographing 50 musicians in the balconies of Symphony Space; and Blood Ulmer proving that a meaningful fusion of new wave jazz and new wave rock was still worth trying; and on and on and on. Some of it was frankly experimental, ephemeral and dull. Most of it was accomplished and enriching.

The loft scene, which started as a couple of playing spaces managed by Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers, mushroomed and peaked by 1976. It was exciting to get to know the work of all these musicians, and 50 more, by hearing them in a diver­sity of playing situations, but for the musi­cians the carnival atmosphere proved stultifying. They felt frustrated by all the obstacles to organizing working bands­ — many a cappella concerts were strictly a make-do situation — and the lofts simply weren’t conducive, economically or emo­tionally, to longterm leader-and-sideman commitments. When they were replaced by clubs and theatres, notably the Public, there was little mourning. The next step was musical organization. The most en­during and widely admired band of the decade was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which appeared infrequently in the first half of the ’70s, achieving greater economic stability in the second half and en­couraging the emergence of other groups. The Revolutionary Ensemble disbanded prematurely, but Air took off beyond its own expectations, the World Saxophone Quartet meshed music and theatre in an unpretentious and drily amusing style, and various cliques of musicians played together so frequently under rotating lead­ership that distinctive group identities evolved despite the absence of regular work. The struggle for recognition was exacerbated by the absence of strong, middle-level record labels. In the ’50s, companies like Blue Note or Riverside would have grabbed players of the caliber of Hannibal Marvin Peterson, Chico Free­man, or James Newton; the new inde­pendents, like India Navigation and Black Saint, did not have comparable distribu­tion or capital. An unprecedented number of the best jazz recordings were made in Europe and Japan.

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But it was enough to know that there was still an avant garde, a fringe on the fringe, musicians determined to keep their art honest. They inherited the total free­dom of the ’60s, and set about reapprais­ing their options. More than the fusion players, they succeeded in breaking down idiomatic constraints, but in the end jazz kept calling them home. Abrams or Jenkins or Hemphill might play a program of experimental pieces for a respectful audience, but when they invoked the blues or some familiar groundwork that could be freshened and renewed — the listeners really came alive. Swing was rediscovered as an axiom, and so was the repertoire. Hemphill found Charlie Parker in his “Kansas City Line,” Air reclaimed Joplin and Morton, Braxton structured a mili­tary march, Blythe formed a band just to invoke the Tradition, Brian Smith wrote a “Spanish Love Song” that Stan Getz might have played, only it was David Murray’s warming timbres that did it justice. Here, in short, was a large and de­termined generation of musicians sorting through the past to portend the future. Jazz dead? It all depends on what you know.

The reinvestigation of jazz repertoire had all kinds of benediction. Two major companies were formed, the New York Jazz Repertoire Ensemble and the Na­tional Jazz Ensemble; they left significant footprints but failed to survive. The no­tion, however, spread like wildfire, thanks in good part to Dick Hyman, who helped spirit Joplin, Morton, Armstrong, and James P. Johnson into the present with his transcriptions and recreations. Jazz repertoire was Eddie Barefield recreating Chick Webb, Panama Francis the Savoy Sultans, Richard Sudhalter the California Ramblers, Mercer Ellington his father, and Joe Venuti himself; it was Sun Ra recording “Lightnin’ ” and Lee Konitz ­”Tickle Toe”; and it was Aaron Bell reuniting Ellingtonians and Earl Warren Basieites; it was Soprano Summit, Mingus Dynasty, V.S.O.P., Andrew White, and numerous others. Jazz repertoire is still in its infancy, with few of its possi­bilities explored — we’ve yet to hear an orchestra successfully negotiate a range of styles. Jazz musicians are trained to express themselves, and it will take a different kind of jazz musician to play Coleman Hawkins–style on one number and Lester Young on the next; yet that’s the kind of musician who will make a genuine repertory company possible.

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I’ve neglected the most authoritative group of musicians to shape jazz in the ’70s, the group that provided the larg­est body of music likely to endure. I’m referring to all those who achieved recog­nition in earlier decades and held on; omitting them from any kind of survey of the ’70s is unfair and misleading. It was a time when Ellington gave us Afro­Eurasian Eclipse, New Orleans Suite, the third sacred concert, and his last work, “The Three Black Kings,” which Mercer Ellington performed impressively at sever­al concerts but never recorded. Sarah Vaughn recorded her epochal Live in Japan, but generally reserved her best work for the concert hall, as did Sonny Rollins, who was never more brilliant and energetic than in the last few years. Dizzy Gillespie, on the other hand, made the recording studio work for him: his style and tone changed markedly, and his encounters with Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Bobby Hackett, and Benny Carter, as well as two all-star bop contingents, rate among his best work. For all his elusive­ness, Ornette Coleman delivered himself of Skies of America and Prime Time. Basie survived a heart attack to return to the road, vying with Woody Herman for sheer stubbornness, and taking time off to pilot a series of small jam sessions. Cecil Taylor encountered Mary Lou Williams, Baryshnikov, and Max Roach, allowed his Unit to stomp, and produced some of the most exhilarating solo piano we have. Charles Mingus recorded Let My Children Hear Music, mounted annual concerts, and wrote prolifically and well in the face of a painful death. George Russell or­chestrated Living Time for Bill Evans and made modality boogie on his own terms. Gil Evans, Sam Rivers, and Jaki Byard organized wonderfully agile if shortlived big bands. Lee Konitz struck up a partner­ship with Martial Solal. Jimmy Heath struck up a partnership with Percy Heath. Sonny Stitt made two of the best records of his life, Tune Up and Constellation. Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin made dramatic returns from Europe, and Benny Carter and Joe Venuti made dramatic returns from obscurity. Jimmy Rowles dabbled with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz, while Hank Jones, recording more prolifically than Chick Corea, was finally recognized as a master. Charlie Haden conducted duets and joined in Old and New Dreams. Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines, and Vic Dickenson continued un­diminished by time

From the vantage point of classic jazz, it was a great decade. There were new places to listen and an endless stream of reissues. The popularity of fusion may have created a spurious focal point, but it spilled over to lift the whole music. Still, the losses were devastating: Armstrong, Ellington, Webster, Mingus, Garner, Hodges, Carney, Venuti, Dorham, Hackett, Garrison, Rushing, Krupa, Nance, Gonsalves, Ayler, the MJQ, Kirk, Tristano, Hawes, Criss, Ervin, Ware, Blue Mitchell, Larry Young, Eddie Jefferson, Desmond, Milt Buckner, Brew Moore, Ethel Waters, Crosby, Cannonball Ad­derley, Oliver Nelson, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie the Lion Smith, Kamuca, George Barnes, T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann, Hendrix, Presley, Kenton, and many others. Maybe the best that can be said of jazz in the ’70s is that it didn’t just survive. It established its own precedents and raised important questions about an art that was finally pushed beyond its golden age. The trends will pass, but the players who are brave enough to tap their own inner demons — from Eldridge to Bowie (who jammed together one night at Ryan’s)­ — will continue to pose fervent challenges in the ’80s. I hope we have the energy to respond.

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So Goodbye Already, but Why d’You Call it Weatherbird Anyway?

At first I thought the column would co-exist, unnamed, with other writings in Music. But, of course, it had to have its own heading; I objected to Jazz because I was sensitive to the implication—rampant at the time—that jazz and music were mutually exclusive, and reasoned: Let the banner be neutral and personal. I chose Weatherbird mainly because the Armstrong-Hines record’s humor, drama, finery, and thrills incarnate the essence and peculiar logic of jazz. It is also the greatest of jazz duets, and in my naïveté I thought of criticism as a dialogue between writer and reader—that’s the way it always seemed to me, the impressions of great critics fueling my own.

Dialogue aside, the name served as a quadruple-whammy pun, signaling Armstrong; New Orleans funerals (“Flee as a Bird to the Mountain”); Charlie Parker (Bird), the god of post-war jazz; and Bob Dylan (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), the swami of my generation, which I had vainly sought to engage. So much for my illusions. Yet singer-songwriter Joe Henry recently told me of an interview in which Dylan, upon watching Ken Burns’s Jazz, said, “It never occurred to me that Bing Crosby was on the cutting edge 20 years before I was listening to him. I never heard that Bing Crosby. The Louis Armstrong I heard was the guy who sang ‘Hello, Dolly!’—I never heard him do ‘West End Blues.’ ” Success at last! And with the swami himself! Not necessarily from my writing, true, but from a TV show, which is fine with me.

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Roll Credits

If newspaper essays came with movie-style credits, this one might read: Village Voice Media Presents a Gary Giddins Column; Written and Directed by Gary Giddins; Based on an Original Idea by Louis Armstrong and Samuel Johnson; Edited by Robert Christgau; Co-Produced by Chuck Eddy; Copy-Edited by Alex Press; Illustrated by Staci Schwartz; Designed by Jesus Diaz; Produced by Donald H. Forst—Associate Producer Doug Simmons, Executive Producer David Schneiderman.

In short, I have many people to thank for the best job any jazz critic ever had, beginning with Diane Fisher, who first published my weekly Riffs in 1973. A long succession of editors and owners refrained from firing me. An even longer list of copy editors and fact checkers saved my ass. Gifted photo and art editors made the page look good, except for the one who loved wide margins. How very grateful I am to art directors who facilitated the annual jazz sections, which began in 1975, especially Ernie Lynk in the early years and Jesus Diaz in recent ones. Those supplements attracted eminent writers I felt honored to work with.

My gratitude to my readers is limitless—they were encouraging from the beginning and illuminating even when annoyed. I’ll miss their letters almost as much as I’ll miss editing with Robert Christgau, about whom I’ve written elsewhere (see Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough) and of whom I’ll say only that, as the most incisive of line editors and the deviser of many felicities for which I got credit, he made writing an infinitely appealing and evolving craft. Working with him was the great perquisite of three decades at the Voice.

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Flee as a Bird

As Groucho Marx used to sing, “Hello, I must be going.” It’s time to move on when you begin to calculate a job’s duration the way children identify their ages. Whereas I used to think in round numbers, lately I found myself muttering, “29 and a half years,” “30 years and two months,” “30 years, seven months, two weeks, five days”—which is correct as of my pub date. Or am I confusing children with convicts? This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, and like Artie Shaw, who has a different answer every time he’s asked about quitting clarinet, I’m not sure why—except that I want to focus on books, I don’t like writing short, and it’s time. In jazz, time is all.

Shortly after I joined the Voice, Martin Williams swore off criticism for a spell (and produced a series of albums that forever altered jazz education). When I asked him why, he answered, “I’ve said everything I had to say.” Tough-minded fellow. I don’t feel that way at all. I’m as besotted with jazz as ever, and expect to write about it till last call, albeit in other formats. Indeed, much in the way being hanged is said to focus the mind, this finale has made me conscious of the columns I never wrote.

John Lewis and I had a joke about the end of projects. I once told him that I held certain musicians, about whom I knew very little, in abeyance—that when I ran out of everyone else, I’d turn to them and then know I was done. I cited, as an example, Stan Kenton. One day when we were planning American Jazz Orchestra programs, he said, “You know, we’ll have to get to Stan Kenton. He’s important.” I gave him a look. He said, “Maybe just one set.” I kept looking. He said, “Then we’ll know we’re done.”

It amazes me to realize that in all these years I never wrote a column on Booker Ervin, a great and neglected tenor saxophonist, and the subject of one of the first articles I ever published (elsewhere). Every time a new reissue came out, I’d swear I was going to write about it, and something else always intervened. I had the pleasure of meeting Booker shortly before his death, when I was a student and he was working midtown with Ted Curson’s quintet. I asked him about the “hidden register,” those squealy high notes that were the rage of the 1960s, and presumed to be the result of ardent virtuosity. He said, “That’s easy. You bite the reed”—and, sitting at the table, gave a numbingly funny demonstration.

I never wrote a column about Charlie Rouse—can’t explain it. When I first got to know Stanley Crouch, we bonded over our mutual outrage at how three favorite tenors had been critically disrespected when we were growing up: Rouse, George Coleman, and Paul Gonsalves. We set out to render justice. Rouse’s pithy, almost epigrammatic phrases; sandy timbre, by way of Wardell Gray; and uncanny ability to blend in with the tones of Thelonious Monk’s piano amounted to a rare oasis in a frantic era. Come to think of it, I never wrote a long-planned column on Wardell. What the hell was I doing? Nearly 650 Weatherbirds, maybe 400 Riffs, yet no Rouse, no Gray, no Ervin, no Tristano, no Dameron, no James P., no Teschemacher, no Lee Morgan. Mea multiple culpas.

Or blame Christgau. The Dean made it a point of professional pride that we write essays and not tethered briefs. Some musicians (not those mentioned above) only merit briefs, but the beauty of the Voice is that we had our page and could stretch out—less now than once upon a time, but still. Occasionally, exhausted, I’d rankle and hand in “Twelve Albums With Strange Covers” or “Five Bands I Heard Last Week,” though rarely more than once a year, not including holiday wrap-ups. Essays require deep immersion, the inhalation of an artist’s life and work. There’s also an obligation to concentrate on musicians who are alive; you can do only so many historical pieces without morphing into the ghost of jazz past.

Unexpectedly, 2003 closes a circle in that regard. The early ’70s were weak on new recordings, yet provided a bonanza in excavations: Lester Young rehearsing with Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington in Fargo, Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia, Art Tatum and Hot Lips Page after hours—practically every week something old that was new. (At this point, you might put down the paper, get Clifford Brown’s The Beginning and the End, and play the first 4:53 of “A Night in Tunisia,” the Dead Sea Scroll of trumpet solos.) Three of the best albums this year were also buried: Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Session of Stan Getz (Verve, 1989), Jaki Byard’s The Last From Lennie’s (Prestige, 1965), and Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships (Blue Note, 1969), to say nothing of the deconstruction of Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson (Columbia/Legacy, 1970). Hill’s inspired December 8 Merkin Hall duets with Jason Moran (one of the most musician-heavy audiences I’ve ever seen) provided ample proof that the torch has been passed and that—despite label mergers, a corrupt FCC, and a Congress that misprizes the public domain—jazz ascends. Weatherbird sees no paucity of subjects for others to explore.

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Midlife Bloom

Of the 70-plus tunes attributed to Thelonious Monk, the ballads occupy a singular plateau, none more so than “Reflections,” which he introduced at a magnificent 1952 Prestige trio session alongside “Trinkle Tinkle,” “Bemsha Swing,” and a riotously swinging “These Foolish Things” that begins with a condign borrowing of Johnny Ray’s “Please Mr. Sun.” Though acclaimed as an evocative melody, “Reflections” failed to attract a lyricist and so never found traction with singers. It is classic, paradoxical Monk, beautiful and memorable yet a minefield of odd intervals, each essential to its bricks-and-mortar structure. It gives the illusion of being readily singable, but it isn’t.

In the 1980s, Jon Hendricks wrote an impressive, poetic lyric for the tune as part of Carmen McRae’s last major project, Carmen Sings Monk. She takes it at a medium tempo, cannily interpreting the lyric from the vantage of a worldly lady who has seen it all, rushing the tag, “Thank God I’m one girl who knows,” as if relieved to have made it safely to journey’s end. She also finesses the tune, gliding over some of the knottier intervals. Well, that’s what jazz singers do, and when they embellish a pop song and make it better, we cheer. But like many of Ellington’s trickier melodies, “Reflections” ought to be sung as written.

Fifteen years later, Dianne Reeves has made Monk’s and Hendricks’s song a focal point of her new, best-ever CD, A Little Moonlight. It also shone at her stunningly effective October 21 concert at Zankel Hall. If singers continue to neglect “Reflections” from now on, it may be for fear of not matching her standard. At her best, Reeves has always been candid in channeling Sarah Vaughan and McRae; on the first cut of A Little Moonlight, “Loads of Love,” she suggests a serendipitous meeting between them, scatting the first chorus à la Vaughan, and reading the lyric (“I never have demanded much”) with a touch of Carmen. But she also exudes a quality of her own—a positive, midlife, blossoming, open-to-experience womanhood. This is poignantly expressed on “Reflections,” where, backed only by piano, she applies her good time and flawless pitch to a slow Monkian tempo fraught with pregnant pauses—none more effective than in her bold assessment of that tagline: “Thank God I’m a woman [pause] who knows [long sustain].”

For an indication of how successful this disc is, consider that Monk’s tune and Richard Rodgers’s “Loads of Love” both sound made for her, as does Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” handled in an unexpectedly high key and making the most of the bridge, an adventure unto itself. Sinatra once criticized Ella Fitzgerald because one can hear her breathe; the champion of sentence-like phrasing would doubtless disapprove of the gulps of air Reeves draws in a line like “won’t you [breath] tell me [breath] where my love [breath] can be.” Not being a jazz singer, he would be unlikely to appreciate the parallel rhythmic effect Reeves gets from those breaks. Then again, that Reeves is herself a jazz singer has not always been that easy to ascertain.

Earlier this year, her label, Blue Note, released The Best of Dianne Reeves, which, excepting a few tracks from her uneven Vaughan tribute, The Calling, serves as a sampler of the contrived, dated, and overarranged work that delivered her from astonishing youthful promise to virtuoso entombment. That she was recording beneath herself became thrillingly apparent when she stopped the reconstructed “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at JVC in 2000, singing two Ida Cox blues with a slow, cagey, sexy humor and rhythmic bravura and then chiming with Dr. John on “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

She stopped her Zankel Hall performance, too, with a slow grab bag of blues lyrics (“got the blues in the morning,” “got rocks in my bed”), punching every phrase in the pocket, drawing appreciative laughs in all the right places, using melisma with a sultry and (here’s a novelty) sparing cool. She is a tremendous blues singer, a natural—maybe she undervalues the knack because it comes too easy for her. Yet during that performance and during the 16 a cappella opening measures of “You Go to My Head”; a duet with brushes on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”; an authoritatively inventive mid-range scat solo on “I Remember Sarah”; an original evocation of childhood, “Nine”; and an even more expansive “Skylark”; and an even more reflective “Reflections” than on the CD, one had the sensation of being in the presence of a pantheon jazz singer.

Reeves’s trio—pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Greg Hutcherson, whose restraint in this context was as impressive as his full-throttle attack with Joe Henderson—was discreetly employed in full and in part, undulating with the singer’s every impulse. The arrangements are scrupulous, and Reeves respects what doesn’t need fixing. At the concert and on the CD, she also indulged a Vaughan-like Brazilian jones with guitarist Romero Lubambo, eschewing the samba rhythm only on “Lullaby of Broadway,” which overdoes a wordless refrain but otherwise achieves a fresh deliberation of words and melody. It took Vaughan and McRae years to escape industry compromises. It would be nice to think that if Reeves continues in this vein, Zankel Hall will no longer be sufficient to contain her audience.

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Silvery Guitarist Writes Engrossing Tunes and Plays Better Solos

The guitarist Liberty Ellman was born in London and raised in a Greene Street loft until schooling took him to California. There he hooked up with pianist Vijay Iyer and, in 1997, self-produced a noteworthy debut, Orthodoxy. Like Iyer, he returned to New York, attracting attention with his own trio and in projects with Iyer, Greg Osby, and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid. He has now released his second album, Tactiles, which is certain to turn heads. Ellman’s engrossing compositions employ seesaw vamps, eerie intervals, counterpoint, and tunes indistinguishable from the rhythms that ground them. The net effect is modern, even harmolodic, while remaining consonant and rhythmically charged. He likes moderate tempos and concise solos, emphasizing a feeling of measured exploration.

One might wish that he hadn’t composed the entire album (Orthodoxy finished with a luscious reading of Strayhorn’s “Blood Count”), because Ellman lacks a strong sense of melody—except as an improviser. His variations blend chromaticism, space, ringing chords, and a distinctive silvery tone, and always sustain interest. He suggests at times a cross between Grant Green (limber single-note phrasing) and Jim Hall (chordal punctuations and graceful caesuras). The album works as well as it does because his quartet is tight as a fist and his writing governs the texture and mood of each piece. Mark Shim’s tenor has never been more engaging, and bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Eric Harland appear to be monitoring and encouraging a conversation between the principal soloists. On three tracks, Osby joins them, mostly to beef up the ensemble. But he lets loose on “Ultraviolet,” which has everyone swinging into a shrewdly effective finish.

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All Duke’s Chillun Got Melody

At long last, Gerry Mulligan’s five Concert Jazz Band albums, recorded for Verve between 1960 and 1962, have been collected, though not by Verve. Mosaic (35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902, 203-327-7111, info@mosaicrecords.com) has done a consummate job with The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions. These much loved but long-unavailable records have never sounded better—even the muzzy Milan sides gleam. The integrity of the original LPs is preserved, with unreleased takes placed at the end of appropriate discs. From the first measures of Al Cohn’s arrangement of “Sweet and Low,” you know you are on enchanted ground, and the sense of discovery and triumph never subsides for long, partly because each album’s personality is distinct from the others’.

Mulligan became an overnight sensation with his piano-less quartet in the early 1950s, but big bands remained his first love and the CJB was his boldest attempt to initiate a venturesome orchestra—its very name warned dancers to go elsewhere. It was to be a workshop ensemble, an expanded version of the Miles Davis nonets (for which Mulligan had scored most of the music), allowing him and other writers to show what a full complement could do. His celebrity, plus the willingness of members to work cheap and Norman Granz’s deep pockets, made the undertaking possible. Another crucial component, as Bill Kirchner demonstrates in his illuminating notes, was the steady instigation of Bob Brookmeyer, the Mulligan quartet’s valve trombonist and ultimately the CJB’s most prolific arranger.

Eighteen months after the start-up, Granz sold Verve, dooming the project but for one last hurrah in late 1962, but the CJB’s influence was immediate and lasting. The first big band to play the Village Vanguard, it engendered what is now known as the Vanguard Orchestra, unleashing a tide of rehearsal or Monday-night bands. Its method of building orchestral constructs from combo outlines helped Mulligan retain a limber spontaneity; among the many bandleaders who elaborated on the idea were Charles Tolliver (see below), David Murray, and most recently Dave Holland. But Mulligan’s band had something no other band could rival—his stubborn, nostalgic, frequently inspired, occasionally cloying passion for melody.

Ironically, Mulligan was so preoccupied with the mechanics of bandleading that he wrote nothing for the project beyond an unreleased update of his Kenton classic “Young Blood” and a majestic “Come Rain or Come Shine,” recorded twice to feature Zoot Sims and, more successfully, himself. So in addition to Brookmeyer and Cohn, he enlisted Bill Holman, George Russell, Johnny Mandel, and a then unknown Gary McFarland. Mulligan and Brookmeyer were the primary soloists, spelled by Sims, Clark Terry, Gene Quill, Jim Hall, Willie Dennis, the forgotten tenor Jim Rieder, and the group’s unsung hero, trumpeter Don Ferrara, whose bursts of invention on “Out of This World,” “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” “Barbara’s Theme,” and “All About Rosie” place him in the Hasaan category of lost jazz noblemen.

A benign Olympian hovers over this material, and it isn’t Apollo. The blessings of Duke Ellington are everywhere; no other group of writers paid homage with more candor and creativity. The original notes to the CJB’s last LP specified Ellington’s impact on those pieces, but it was apparent from the first: symbolically in the first recorded number, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ ” (from Anatomy of a Murder), and wittily in the Ellington-meets-Clyde McCoy passages of “Sweet and Low.” Hats are tipped to Evans-Thornhill, Basie, Goodman, and Herman, while Russell’s “All About Rosie”—a superior update of the 1957 version—flies in its own orbit. Yet Ellington is invoked constantly, in voicings that include clarinet and in the interplay between soloists and ensemble.

There is so much to admire, not least the rhythm sections, especially the team of Mel Lewis and Bill Crow, which emphasize a relaxed capering that reflects Mulligan’s easeful swing. The contrast between Mulligan’s smoothly gruff lyricism and Brookmeyer’s gruffly smooth barking, hissing, chomping solos typifies the good humor that often rises to the top—as in anything by Cohn, notably the matchless double windup of “Lady Chatterley’s Mother,” or the last bar of Brookmeyer’s “You Took Advantage of Me” (a solo sigh that was played by the ensemble at a European concert released on European labels), or Mulligan’s whimsical “Emaline” intro to “Come Rain or Come Shine,” or his breakaway interpolation of “Blues in the Night” and Brookmeyer’s asthmatic entrance on “Sweet and Low,” or John Carisi’s orchestration of Miles Davis’s two choruses on “Israel,” to say nothing of Holman’s 6/8 arrangement of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” which turns it into a rocking counterpart of “All Blues.” The On Tour album qualifies as a de facto Zoot Sims concerto and a definition of mercurial wit.

Rumors of hours of unreleased material have proved untrue; the Vanguard tapes are apparently lost, and the 11 new alternates and otherwise unreleased items don’t add much, except for “Young Blood.” Mulligan would undoubtedly be relieved. This is desert island material, returned to life after more than two decades, in a limited pressing of 7,500 copies. Those should sell quickly enough; maybe then Verve (which now offers only the Vanguard set) will return this music to stores. Don’t wait.