Monthly Archives: May 2012

Lost In the Stacks: Notes on jazz finds at the Jacksonville Public Library

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The title of this piece is stolen from the name of a radio show on WJCT-FM, 89.9 in Jacksonville, Florida. “Lost In the Stacks” is hosted by Matthew Moyer and Andrew Coulon, two of the librarians at the Jacksonville Public Library downtown. The show revolves around music that can be found in the library’s collection, and I was fortunate to be invited as a guest one week in May 2012, as we previewed the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. I’d intended for this to have been online by then, to supplement the material discussed on that broadcast—that did not happen, but better late than never.

SDH at the WJCT studios, May 10, 2012. (Note that I’m holding a set of drum-sticks hand-crafted and signed by the legendary drummer/teacher Von Barlow, who left them there for someone else.)

The tracks referred to here were all obtained via compact disc, and almost all of it can still be found at there. The JPL held a pretty extensive stock of vinyl records, archival-preserved, augmenting that as the CD era took flight in the 1980s. By the early-‘90s, when I first started browsing those stacks in a serious way, the library had one of the most extensive holdings of choice material to be found anywhere—be it a storefront or a private collection. And bear in mind, there was plenty to go around: WJCT had a literal ton or two of records and CDs; UNF still has an excellent collection (in part because they kept their vinyl); local record stores still thrived, and there remained solid commercial chains like Coconuts.

When Barnes & Noble opened in Mandarin, they hired saxophonist Joe Yorio to stock their music section, and he might have ended up doing the same at Borders; I always appreciated his recommendation of Coltrane’s Afro-Blue Impressions, which were the first album I’d heard by him that I loved almost as much as the singular Interstellar Space. It was at places like that where I caught up on the new stuff; at local record stores like Stripmine Records, I’d fill in the gaps of the more obscure labels and musicians—your Hat Art, Tzadik, Black Saint, Leo, Enja material. But my main sources remained the radio and the library.

Like WJCT, the JPL began divesting itself of vinyl as the century turned. I recall buying a dozen first-pressings of Glenn Gould from the library for, I think, seven dollars—since misplaced, but worth a couple hundred if ever found. The jazz stuff had already been liquidated, all for 50 cents or a buck each. But the library has nonetheless continued to thrive in the digital future, or present, whatever. A large portion of my life was spent on the second floor of the old Haydon Burns building, which housed the library’s main branch for 40 years, walking up and down the stacks, neck craned 45 degrees to the right while edging slowly sideways, scanning the discs lined up vertically, efficiently. Back then, it took about 15 minutes to look at everything once, without touching anything, which is not possible; 15 minutes really meant an hour, for practical purposes, and you couldn’t bring coffee in with you.

Now, the music collection is split—the classical stuff (which is pretty nice) is on the third floor (closer to the reference books relevant to that subject), and the rest is down on ground level. It is situated perfectly, in the back; one must walk through the jazz section to reach the Young Adults section, and that’s a good thing for the youth, because it’s their birthright, anyway. Now the CDs are lined up in such a way that you have to flip through each disc, or grab a handful at a time to scrutinize them; it takes a little more time, but you can bring coffee now. Now, as then, folks often come prompted by Bob Bednar of WJCT; his playlists are some of the best ever, anywhere. Everyone has their favorites—stuff they heard there that might have otherwise gone unheard for years, if not forever. The web has facilitated a much faster route to learning about jazz, but there is nothing more holistic than a good public library, and Jacksonville is lucky to have a very good one. My picks (randomly listed) would include:

Charlie Christian, “Waiting On Benny”: Charlie Christian wasn’t the first great jazz guitarist in history—there was Eddie Lang, Les Paul, Freddie Green, Django Reinhardt, Oscar Aleman and others. He was not even the first to electrify the jazz guitar; he was, however, the man who made it stick. He was a game-changer in every aspect of his short career. The library doesn’t have much of his stuff—not the epic take of “Topsy” from Minton’s, nor his sessions with Lester Young—but his run with Benny Goodman’s sextet is well-documented. The high point was, in fact, an afterthought, hence the title: the leader was late, so the remaining five jammed out for five minutes until he showed up. It’s one of the greatest examples of small-group jazz in the immediate pre-war era, ruthlessly swinging the 4/4.

Lennie Tristano, “Turkish Mambo”: The music of Lennie Tristano was a revelation for me from the very first second, as it remains. The library has a CD of Rhino’s repackaging of two Tristano records made for Atlantic Records about 50 years ago. His was a very mathematically precise sort of jazz; he trained Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Bauer and Sheila Jordan, among others, and was friends with people like Charles Mingus, Max Roach and George Russell. I was a big Anthony Braxton fan, and I’d gotten a copy of an album of Tristano songs he did from the late great Stripmine Records (its second incarnation, in Five Points). So I grabbed the Tristano disc, which contains some of the most sublime piano music you’ll ever heard. Folks who say the man played without feeling are delusional. On the first album he plays around with tape-speed, speeding-up and slowing-down certain tracks for effect; the second is straight-ahead solo piano. “Turkish Mambo” is a masterpiece—Tristano overdubs three (or four?) tracks of himself, each in a different time signature. Multi-layered, but seamless. Even the metronome swings!

Sidney Bechet, “The Sheik of Araby”: I remember wondering why the library would bother to have two copies of an old Bluebird compilation of tracks by a man largely unknown outside of musicians and critics—but then I heard it, and understood. Bechet is one of the great characters in jazz, and the comp cut a wide swath, leading off with the definitive version of “Maple Leaf Rag”. The track cited here features Bechet overdubbed on all the instruments using the primitive technology of the monaural era, literally cutting new tracks onto the disc, step-by-step. Any mistakes he made could not be fixed, so he didn’t make any. This was the beginning of so much of what we take for granted, in terms of how music is made today.

Sidney Bechet, “Sweet Georgia Brown”: Fast-forward 17 years, and Bechet is in France, a leader of the vibrant expat jazz scene in Europe. Bechet would be dead in a year, but this track, recorded live in Paris, shows that he retained his absolute mastery of the soprano saxophone until the very end. Never has this tune been swung at a faster tempo, never were more notes stacked against the harmony; it was the intersection of Bechet’s NOLA roots and the modernism he spawned. The credible solos of trumpet, trombone and piano are just scenery—the song belongs to Bechet, and drummer Francois “Moustache” Gallipedes.

Django Reinhardt, “Blues For Barclay”: When one speaks of jazz in Paris, thoughts go immediately to the gypsy who changed the game singlehandedly—literally. In 1947, Django Reinhardt brought his quintet into the studios of Blue Star Records and made his first serious recordings on electric guitar. He’d risked death by continuing to perform in occupied France during the war, caught the bop bug, came to New York and was basically rejected by the modernists; his sound was too soft, too dependent on syncopation, too acoustic to be heard in a bop setting. So he came back to Paris with a chip on his shoulder, haunted by not having gotten to assert himself as the rightful heir to Charlie Christian, and you can hear it in damn near every note he played for the remaining six years of his life. The CD Peche ala Mouche collects the cream of electrified Django from 1947-53. To this day, it remains the most slept-on aspect of the man’s legacy, and the CD is out-of-print; I was lucky enough to cop a disc of the 1947 stuff in Chicago, and some of the rest is on YouTube. The song mentioned above was written for Eddie Barclay, who produced the session and was, overall, an invaluable supporter of jazz in Europe, and European Jazz as well. Note the presence of silky clarinetist Hubert Rostaing and Andre Jourdan, one of three amazing French drummers who put in work on these sessions. This is the sound of a man playing for his life, and succeeding.

Larry Coryell/Elvin Jones, “Stiff Neck”: Even five years after first hearing this, it’s still usually the first thing I listen to in the morning; it’s like orange juice for your ears. Elvin Jones was bulletproof for years; his run with the Coltranes (John and Alice) cemented him as the kind of drummer who could do anything—trios with Sonny Rollins, orchestras with Gil Evans, the Pawnbroker soundtrack with Quincy Jones, whatever. He could show up in a movie and just randomly solo in a cowboy outfit, or run through 10-minute fusion workouts in a mesh t-shirt, white leather shoes and disco pants, and it was all good.

Lionel Hampton/Gene Krupa, “Air Mail Special”: It would be impossible to pick one person as my favorite jazz musician ever, but if I were pressed I’d defer to Krupa, since my studies of jazz music initially began as a quest for Gene Krupa records. Damian Lee sold me a Columbia repackaging of Krupa’s epic post-war trio, and it was off to the races. A common fallacy holds that Swing Era icon Krupa, who was in the 1930s the go-to guy for both Benny Goodman and George Gershwin, failed to adapt to post-war modernism, that bop left him in the dust. Untrue. While he could never be construed as a bebopper proper, the man carved his own highly relevant path through that era. Gene Krupa’s 1950s recordings are exceptional.

Sonny Rollins, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”: I’ll be honest—the music of Sonny Rollins took a while to grow on me. I became familiar with his work first through connection to Max Roach, who co-led the quintet with Clifford Brown where Rollins first became a big name in jazz. Rollins’ solo career had already begun before Brown, Richie Powell and their wives were killed in a car accident in summer 1956, but it really began in earnest as well after that; he and Roach both emerged from that tragedy as different, better musicians. Some of their best work was done together in the subsequent two years: Max Roach +4, Jazz In ¾ Time, Saxophone Colossus, The Freedom Suite. All this was nice, and moreso later, but for me what really set me straight about Sonny Rollins’ genius was his awesome 1957 double-album A Night At the Village Vanguard, which is arguably the best recording ever made at that historic NYC establishment. (Similar arguments can be made for the albums made there by John Coltrane and Bill Evans, both of which were made four years after Rollins’. The Cole Porter standard, which is taken full-bore for nearly 15 minutes, also marks one of the first real displays of Elvin Jones’ genius as a drummer. In the mid-50s, Rollins got to work with Roach, Shelly Manne and Art Blakey, among others, but it’s Jones who stands out as maybe the most versatile jazz drummer ever. The whole album is great, but it starts on the best foot possible.

Chick Corea, “Matrix”: Blue Note’s Best of Chick Corea compilation features highlights of his run fronting mostly acoustic trios for the label. I’m not the biggest fan of his stuff, but I like that era, and “Matrix” (from the 1968 album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs) is one of my favorite piano trio recordings ever. Much of the credit is due to his colleagues, bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes.

Machito, “Tanga”: The library once had a Verve CD entitled “The Original Mambo Kings” (taking off from the movie released around that same time in the 1990s), and it remains my favorite Latin-Jazz album ever, even though I haven’t heard it in 15 years. A lot of material would just disappear from there, and this was one of them. I don’t really blame them, because it was a great album that, like Peche A La Mouche, is ridiculously hard to find even now, let alone back in the days of special-orders. Still though, they could have just taped it, and not robbed all the rest of us of its pleasures.

Don Byas/Slam Stewart, “I Got Rhythm”: I’d heard a little Slam Stewart’s stuff with Slim Gaillard, whose nonsensical “Vout” style of slang reportedly remained a favorite with the Reagans well into their dotage. Stewart was known for vocalizing along with his with upright bass, sounding much like a bow being dragged across the low strings, creating its own sort of harmony alongside the string-plucking. It was an acquired taste, one that frankly didn’t resonate with me most of the time. But there were two occasions when Slam Stewart was The Man, and this five minute duet with pioneering bop tenorman Don Byas (who can also be heard on the Charlie Christian bootleg sessions) was one of them. The other was a gloomy, ethereal solo version of “Angel Eyes” (written by Matt Dennis, and old running buddy of my old friend, the late great Robert Eskew, whom I met through Alan Justiss).

Gil Evans Orchestra, “La Nevada”: Having noted the supreme versatility of Elvin Jones earlier, here’s another example. Out Of the Cool (Impulse!, 1961) was the greatest Gil Evans album; the man best-known for arranging Miles Davis’ big-band epics was a star in his own right, and “La Nevada” marks the peak of his compositional and orchestral achievements—15 minutes of swirling, throbbing, pulsing perfection from an all-star band driven by Jones, with some assistance from Dizzy Gillespie alumnus Charlie Persip. (Incidentally, the two also turn up together, along with Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, on the impossible-to-find Gretsch Drum Night At Birdland album.)

Turtle Island String Quartet, “Milestones”: In the 1980s, Turtle Island String Quartet took jazz to new levels by arranging a number of classic tunes for their group. Songs like “A Night In Tunisia” and “On Green Dolphin Street” not only opened the door to new perceptions of jazz, but crucially made the classical world more accessible to my young ears—a process accelerated shortly after by Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich. Among the classic TISQ efforts of that era are their versions of Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit” (which is hard enough, arranged for solo piano, let alone a string quartet) and the track I consider their masterpiece, “Milestones”, a song that always lends to excitement. They played the song at a much faster tempo than the original version, and the finger-picking is just brilliant. When I got to see them perform at the Church of the Good Shepherd (as part of the Riverside Fine Arts Series), it was like a pilgrimage, and one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

Joe Lovano/Ed Blackwell, “Modern Man”: For me, all this music represented seismic shifts in my cultural consciousness, but almost all of it was classic material from the Swing Era on through 1950s post-bop and the broader explorations that would culminate with Free Jazz in the 1960s. If the library had a weakness, in terms of their jazz collection, it was that there just wasn’t much new stuff; it was not the place to catch up on the innovations of my own time; that’s why places like Barnes and Noble and Borders became so useful. But, as one might expect, the little bit they did have was the best. Joe Lovano’s album From The Soul (1991) was the point of a spear being thrust by a resurgent Blue Note Records into the future, and it’s one of the finest jazz albums ever recorded, in any era. It was a lineup of future hall-of-famers, most of whom had yet to make their greatest contributions to the music, and one aging legend who took that moment to make a final stand that will never be forgotten. Lovano was joined by bassist Dave Holland, who went on to lead arguably best large jazz group on the planet, and pianist Michel Petrucciani, whose legacy as the heir to Bill Evans’ absolute dominance of jazz piano remained unimpeached until his premature death in 1999. The opening track, “Evolution”, catches the whole band on fire, but neither Holland nor Petrucciani appear on “Modern Man”. Instead, that track is a duet between Lovano and drummer Ed Blackwell, who was probably best-known for his work with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp and Mal Waldron.

Dinah Washington, “Cry Me A River”: No one sounded like her—maybe the purest, most resonant voice in the entire history of music. Like all the great singers, hers was an utterly unique vocal instrument. Dinah Washington died way too young, but the stuff she left behind will last until the end of time, starting with “Cry Me A River”. It defies my ability to explain why’s it such a game-changer.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; May 30, 2012

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Quick notes on the massacre in Syria

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Although I’ve never been to Syria, and can’t claim to be an expert on their affairs by any measure, I feel obliged to comment on the current situation, for three reasons: 1) The recent massacre(s) rise, in my opinion, to a standard of universal evil and should be condemned immediately. 2) The situation in Syria has direct implications and ramifications for US policy, and the ongoing efforts being waged in the United States to redirect the thrust of these policies away from the prevailing modes of industrialized warfare that we’ve seen to such devastating effect in this century so far. 3) The situation, and adjacent matters, do touch on some points of great relevance for all of us, regardless of whatever particular feelings one may have for Bashar Assad and his so-called “resistance”.

I say “so-called” not out of disrespect for their cause, because it’s one I generally support: neutralization or nullification of despotic regimes. No matter who you are, or who you’re connected to, mass-murder of your own civilians on-camera is mad-dog action, and the “Old Yeller” solution comes into play at that point. We saw that last year with Qaddafi, whose grisly death was the result of cooperation of multiple governments, intelligence agencies and military/para-military assets. It turned, ultimately, on a Judas Goat in Qaddafi’s own camp–he trusted someone who sold him out, just like Saddam did, and he got lynched for it, just like Saddam did. And hey, bravo–that’s the business.

The rat-fink who gave up Qaddafi was, one presumes, at cross-purposes, like most traitors are. To sell out your benefactor is cold-blooded–a compromise of the soul that usually guarantees a similar end. (Insert NKVD joke here.) It wasn’t just the money, but self-preservation, because Qaddafi had himself already crossed the point of basic decency or sanity. Even by his own standards, he’d gone too far, and he had to go before he brought down the whole thing. That is the position being faced now by Syrian insiders who saw what happened the other day and recognize the potential for–indeed, the certainty of–lethal blowback. Methods evolve to suit the purpose, and the Syrian resistance understands now that failure probably means death for all of them.

The tragic subtext is that had the international community levied real consequences for the blatant assassination of Rafik Hariri and dozens of innocent bystanders on Valentine’s Day 2005 (a massacre that even Al Capone would balk at), the 108 bodies laid out in mass-graves across America’s TV screens would still be animated. Collectively, two thousand years of unlived life were snuffed out in a couple of hours, and the atrocity will probably be repeated any day now.

Assad could have just let up, had some rigged elections and claimed a narrow mandate for the status quo, but instead chose to escalate. If he didn’t order the killing of all those women and children and harmless unarmed civilians, then he should be serving up the bodies of those who did as blatantly as they butchered those people in front of the entire world. The notion of a globalized, comprehensive revolution directed by unknown forces for unknown ends may or may not be true, but what is indisputable is that Bashar Assad’s termination will likely precede that of the Mayan Long Count calendar. And when it happens, expect an inside job.

 

“She Who Is Without Sin”: Notes on Angela Corey

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She Who Is Without Sin

Angela Corey’s Folio dis merits greater scrutiny

[Full disclosure: I voted for Angela Corey in 2008, and will probably do so again.]

As a general rule, writers spend Sunday morning asleep—phone calls sent in their direction are, in a word, doomed. But there are exceptions. Case in point: May 20. This writer was enjoying the only day of the week with no pressing business, when a reader called up at 9:33am to report that perpetually-embattled State Attorney Angela Corey had taken the opportunity to opine with vigor on Folio Weekly while appearing WJXT’s Sunday chat-fest, “This Week In Jacksonville”. Because, of course, the best time to criticize someone is when they’re asleep.

In the pro-wrestling business, it’s called “cutting a promo”; in her business, it’s called “hearsay”. Without naming Folio specifically, she noted that “[I]t’s a small paper, not many readers because they aren’t saying much, no one buys it. In fact, they have to give it away for free.” First of all, all that is fair game. She had every right to say those things; Folio hasn’t been exactly nice to her in its reporting, which is a consistent complication of telling the truth. Any critiques she has are worth listening to; in fact, her every public utterance is always worthy of intense focus—for entertainment value, if nothing else. But, given that an elected official was willing to characterize this publication using words designed to denigrate and delegitimize its work, one feels compelled to analyze her statement in greater detail—especially as it offers some useful insight into the thinking of Northeast Florida’s leading legal light.

When Corey says Folio has “not many readers”, that’s an impossible charge to rebut. Our current readership stands at just over 127,000, and like any business the publisher would like to see that number increase, because there is certainly room to grow. As for the idea that we’re “not saying much”, the industry insiders who give out Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awards tend to disagree, several times a year, for as long as we can remember. However, if she meant to imply that our readership makes us somehow obscure or not credible, she should note that 127,000+ readers equals double her vote total in 2008. There were 495,316 registered voters that year; almost 80% didn’t even show up, so her mandate basically amounts to about 8% of the city’s population—which may explain why she draws so much heat.

Is Folio Weekly the most-read print publication in Northeast Florida? Certainly not. That honor goes to the Florida Times-Union, which has been bleeding both staff and money for over a decade, leaving a franchise worth, at best, half of what it was 20 years ago. Nothing wrong with that; thinning-out a paper before sale is a lot like fattening an animal before slaughter. Is it given away for free? Of course—that has been the alt-weekly tradition since the industry’s flagship, the Village Voice, was founded in 1955. Many publications in this region are free, because they have developed a business model that allows them to do so. Folio can’t just raise the cover price to close gaps in revenue; it has to actually make a product people want.

While the daily papers are like commercial music, overpriced and trading on bad-faith, losing money on CD’s every year, the alt-weeklies are like vinyl records, slowly but steadily picking up market share every year, while stimulating the kind of broader changes needed in the industry. Alt-weeklies are showing print media how to remain relevant and vital in the Internet age, and the lack of a cover price makes their achievements all the more explicit. And during an era where even alt-weeklies have lost readers, Folio has only gained in circulation. Our coverage of Angela Corey’s hijinks has certainly helped—thank you!

It’s hardly surprising that Corey has little love for Folio, as our coverage hasn’t always put her in the best light, but one would think she could at least appreciate some of the things we have in common. We both began serving this city in the 1980s, we are both local institutions, and we both share the contempt of the political establishment. Despite whatever flaws she may have, the fact is that Corey never had a chance to prove herself; the basic caricature that most citizens mistake for the real Angela Corey was not created by the media—it was created by her fellow attorneys, then leaked to the media so we could feign loyalty while the sharpened daggers stayed firmly tucked into their sleeves. But when the next election comes, look for them to unbutton their French cuffs and do their best impression of the Roman Senate.

The election that installed her as State Attorney was a debacle. It marked the dissolution of Harry Shorstein’s legacy, as he came off as someone without the authority to ensure a smooth transition of power, which would have sent a strong message at a time when this city’s identity is built largely around violent crime. Instead of running a clean campaign and presenting a unified front to the bad guys, Shorstein’s underlings, Corey and Jay Plotkin, took the “scorched-earth” approach, which ensured that the credibility of whomever won would already be compromised by the time they took over. If the job were about competence and credibility, our State Attorney would be Bernie de la Rionda, who is not only undefeated in murder cases but has no record at all of saying ridiculous things into live microphones.

For voters, it was a harsh lesson in the reality of our judicial system, in which the only thing that matters is who your friends are. If you have the right lawyer, who knows the right people [names omitted, for legal reasons], you’re getting off, no matter what you did. But if you’re one of the poor saps stuck with a public defender, you might as well just hang yourself—and some of them do, allegedly. It’s not Corey’s fault that she was put in such a bad position, and it must have sucked to know how little regard her own mentor and colleagues had for her. She purged her office of veteran prosecutors because they backed the wrong candidate; some of them are now working against her, in the private sector.

The Marissa Alexander situation is a case in point. If Corey is so adamant that justice was done in this case, and that the 20-year sentence was justified, then why was she willing to let Ms. Alexander plea-out to a three-year bid? Same reason that many of the killings here are done by people who should have still been locked-up for previous violent crimes: Because justice serves political interests, not the other way around. Corey’s appointment to run the prosecution of George Zimmerman was, too, motivated by politics: Our weak, embattled governor (who’s only there because of the fecklessness and treachery of state Democrats) made his smartest move to date by picking someone with even more of a knack for controversy than he, to serve as the scapegoat for the inevitable fiasco. Put simply, Angela Corey is his Katherine Harris.

All of this is by way of clarification. At the end of the day, it’s no big deal what Angela Corey says about Folio Weekly, or what Folio Weekly says about her. It’s about a jail that’s almost full, with no possible short-term solution short of giving more plea-bargains to more violent thugs, so they can get out earlier and kill people sooner. It’s about a courthouse that the Mayor and judiciary are treating like a child in a custody hearing between two drunk parents. It’s about a citizenry that feels vulnerable and unprotected, and a criminal class that feels empowered to violate people by the perceived weakness and corruption of our justice system. It’s also about a tourist market, worth millions to local businesses every year, whose decision to mostly bypass Northeast Florida is partly based on what they see of us in national media—which is to say, a steady stream of preventable tragedy, and a nonexistent response to it. It’s not about Angela Corey. The sooner she realizes that, the better off we’ll all be.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; May 20, 2012

Book Review: Bill Banfield

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Representing Black Music Culture: Then, Now and When Again? By William C. Banfield. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 263 pp, illustrated.

Professor William Banfield, director of the Africana Studies Center at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, is what one might call a “Renaissance Man”; “Harlem Renaissance Man” is more like it. This book is, first and foremost, a book about William Banfield, and that’s a story well worth telling. Born in Detroit, 1961, his matriculation was shaped by his local music scene, which was then one of the world’s best. He was playing guitar in bands as a teenager, writing his own music in college, and released his first recordings in the early ‘80s. As such, he knows a lot of people, and he doesn’t mind dropping names; it’s pretty cool. The index runs ten pages, and includes many of the leading figures in Black Music over the past 40 years; odds are he knows anyone who’s living among them. In fact, there’s probably a picture.

While most of the narrative transpires in native haunts like Boston, New York and Minnesota, it was a pleasant surprise to see that pages 58-65 relate to events in Jacksonville, where William Brown died in October 1994. Banfield was a longtime friend and collaborator of Brown, who sang tenor at high-end spots around the country (ending with a run at Friday Musicale) while teaching at the University of North Florida and other places. Banfield’s only trip to the city was for the funeral; it was the second time in three days that he had to bury a close friend, which is the hard part of being a creative artist in any field. Life is short, and one is constantly reminded of that in that business.

The selections from Banfield’s journal entries offer slices in the vital life of a full-time academic and veteran musician. The rest of the book consists of Banfield’s essays on matters related to the art today, and they’re fine enough. The author’s prose modulates from pedantic to ponderous; the second half doesn’t read quite as breezily as the front. There are some splendid interviews that he conducted with artists like Don Byron, Wynton Marsalis, Nnenna Freelon, Maria Schneider and Dr. Billy Taylor, and an awesome section near the end with sketches of key colleagues and concepts built around photographs. The pictures are, in general, a real highlight here. Mr. Banfield is only 50 years old, but has already had a tremendous run in the business; this new book looks back on that past, while laying the groundwork for a prosperous future.

 

sheltonhull@gmail.com; May 10, 2012

One Man’s Treasure: Sonny Sivack, painting his way up.

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[Update, July 5, 2012: I received word earlier today that Sonny Sivack had passed away following a three-week stint in the ICU at St. Vincent’s Hospital. My condolences to his friends and family, and my thanks to him for the handful of conversations I got to have with him. He was a good guy. RIP]

Objectively-speaking, there is nothing about the art of Sonny Sivack (not to be confused with SAVAK) that gives any indication of his amateur status, other than his preference for recycled paper and other found materials. It defies belief to appreciate that he hasn’t even been doing this for six months yet. Now, his presence at places like First Wednesday ArtWalk, First Friday in Five Points and the Riverside Arts Market promises to take his creativity to new levels.

All this marks a dramatic shift in Sivack’s personal fortunes, while opening the door for positive changes to a life that has been, for lack of a better word, difficult. A Duval native, the 51 year-old Sivack is a regular fixture in Riverside, as is his Korean-born wife of 26 years, whom he describes as “more American than Korean”; some call her “the Ghost Lady”, but the hipsters who predominate in the neighborhood call her “Yoko No-No”. It is unclear how that moniker strikes her, or if she’s even aware of it, but he says she’s been “very supportive” of his art career, which began completely by accident.

Sivack’s life began falling apart many years ago, after sustaining serious head injuries during a training accident while serving in the US Army. “I hear ringing and stuff all the time,” he says. “I have to take medicine and stuff to calm it down and all.” The resulting permanent disability, along with other health problems, makes it difficult to find or keep a regular job; he can’t walk or stand very long, so whenever you see him, he’s probably sitting down.

Husband and wife are both long-time members of the city’s homeless population, which currently numbers nearly 5,000, with more joining them every day. It turns out that this part of his story—the “back-story” to this art-related “angle”—has been documented before, by the estimable Florida Times-Union back in October 2005. “They use the surrounding brick walls to dry their clothes and socks. A grocery cart sits off to the side, serving as the chest of drawers that holds bags of clothes, bottles, newspapers and styrofoam cups. Sometimes they eat. Sometimes they don’t.” That story was about the Hope Team, an outreach project for the Sulzbacher Center that delivers bagged lunches and other essentials to the displaced in downtown Jacksonville. (Maybe Sivack’s art will prove useful to future fund-raising efforts.)

These days, Sivack pushes a baby-stroller that functions as much as a walker as it does as a cart for transporting possessions, sometimes including a dog but more lately his art supplies. He found the materials—paints, colored pencils, paper—beside a dumpster in Avondale late last year, and that may well turn out to be the most interesting stories of “bonepicking” (collecting found objects thrown away by others) you’re likely to ever hear.

Less than a year into his new career, and Sivack has already picked up one powerful and influential patron in the local art scene: the infamous Lee Harvey, who is himself undergoing a sort of creative renaissance following a successful battle against cancer. “I think it’s a fascinating story. Sonny is very talented,” he says. Sitting at a Starbucks, within a few yards of Sivack (his wife was not around), Harvey held court like he does, while watching him add to a painting he did on an ancient pull-down projector screen (a piece he ended up selling for $300 a couple weeks later). Sivack is particular—he only paints with watercolors, and he only paints on either recycled or found materials.

“If Sonny was selling in a gallery, he’d be making money,” he adds. “Given more time, and the materials, Sonny could be a professional artist—and this is the right neighborhood to be doing this in. He’s a very nice man; he’s having a rough time, but it just goes to show that just because someone is going through a rough time, they can still make beautiful art. “It’s a blessing that he found those art supplies—things happen for a reason,” says Harvey, whose attitudes toward religion are well-known.

Having discovered this newfound talent, Sivack is wasting no time. By his own account, he has already completed about 60 paintings in the first four months of his career. Storing them would be a huge problem, if not for the fact that he’s already sold them all to collectors around the neighborhood, at prices ranging from $25 to $100; he keeps pictures of them all on a flash drive. “It’s been a real eye-opener, I tell ya—it’s been a 180-degree turn,” he says. “I used to have a bunch of free time on my hands, being disabled and all. Now I wake up in the morning, clock-in and join the world, you know?”

Even if Sonny Sivack doesn’t prove to be the next great folk-art sensation, art itself has already transformed his life, in a way that nothing before was able to do. “[Disability] set me back for a while,” he says, “then I gave it all up, really. No family, local boy; I’ve always been out by myself, like a traveling nomad. I pretty much gave up on life, and look what God’s given me!” We often hear the old cliché about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure; Sivack is here to remind us that, trash or treasure, it’s ultimately about the man.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 24, 2012

Jazz Festival Preview: Sonny Rollins

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The Lion In Winter: Sonny Rollins, the last best hope of Hard Bop

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Sonny Rollins, who headlines this year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival, was born in New York City on September 7, 1930. His arrival is a triumph for local jazz fans who’d lobbied for his inclusion for years, perhaps as long as the festival itself has been in existence. I know that, in my ongoing conversations on the subject of jazz with Bob Bednar, host of WJCT’s “This Is Jazz” program (and recently a member of the festival’s Hall of Fame), Rollins’ name was in circulation since the late-1990s. We’ve both mentioned his name repeatedly, not that doing so was necessarily necessary, due to his legend status—but, then again, it’s only happening in 2012, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have had the chance for so long.

In the years just after Charlie Parker’s premature death in 1955, Rollins emerged as the dominant new saxophone star of the jazz world. He was then a member of the great Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, sharing the front-line with Clifford Brown, whose meteoric rise was halted by a 1956 car-wreck that also killed the group’s pianist, Richie Powell—whose older brother Bud Powell was in fact one of Rollins’ old employers. When Max Roach pushed through his grief to reemerge with a new band, just a few months later, Rollins was key to its sound. Max Roach + 4 found Rollins out-front with Kenny Dorham, one of the most underrated trumpeters ever, with Roach now taking unprecedented amounts of solo space; the Max Roach that most jazz fans think of today really began in 1956.

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Rollins’ work on Roach’s seminal Jazz In ¾ Time helped cement the drummer’s place as a leading figure in the jazz mainstream, while adding further shine to Rollins’ reputation, which even then, in his 20s, was approaching mythic status. The years 1956-‘62 saw him cranking out a string of perfect records: Sonny Rollins+4, Newk’s Time, Tour de Force, etc. For the newcomer who wishes to hear the purest distillation of Sonny Rollins at his peak, one is advised to immediately get ahold of Live At the Village Vanguard. It was his first time recording in what would become, in time, his ideal setting—the trio.

Also, Tenor Madness featured a rare recorded meeting between Rollins and John Coltrane, who was also then beginning to get a serious push as well. Theirs was not a rivalry, so much as it was a case of two relentless perfectionists evolving on parallel tracks. Saxophone Colossus was the Rollins sound encapsulated; “Blue 7” features a solo by Roach that is a masterpiece of minimalism. Way Out West sees Rollins reinventing shopworn tunes of the Old West, while drummer Shelly Manne turns in one of his all-time finest efforts.

The Freedom Suite marks Rollins’ first experiments recording in a more expansive style, a form he’d return to often in later years. His trio includes Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford, in one of his last major efforts before dying just a couple years later. It also led to a favorite musical curiosity: While waiting for Rollins to arrive at the studio, Roach and Pettiford jammed on the standard “There Will Never Be Another You”, which is 1) the high-point of Pettiford’s recorded legacy, 2) one of the greatest bass solos ever recorded in jazz, and 3) one of only a handful of recordings documenting Max Roach’s singular style when playing brushes.

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Rollins returned from sabbatical with a new band built around the sumptuous harmonies of guitarist Jim Hall, who’d spent the previous period making key contributions to two of the most unique groups (in terms of their sound and approach to composition—Chico Hamilton’s quintet and the original Jimmy Giuffre Trio. The title-track of the group’s first record, The Bridge (1962), sounds exactly like what it is: a formal announcement that Sonny Rollins was back, and ready to reclaim a tenor crown that Coltrane effectively abdicated with his brilliant but polarizing excursions in the stellar regions of free jazz.

One of the true jewels in Rollins’ output, and one that doesn’t get enough attention, is his 1966 collaboration with master post-bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, East Broadway Rundown. The 20-minute title track evokes “The Freedom Suite” with its length—which wasn’t nearly as big a deal by then, just four years later; credit Coltrane for that—but the sound was completely different. Typically for Rollins, there is no piano; he probably became convinced of the value of this approach while working with Roach, who abandoned the piano chair entirely in ’58. This quartet also includes bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, who were at that time also the backbone of Coltrane’s quartet—surely no coincidence. The sound is also reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s quartet, circa Change Of the Century.

Incredibly, there may be many jazz festival fans for whom Sonny Rollins is actually an unfamiliar name. When dealing with a man who’s recorded at least 38 albums to date (not counting the copious live sets, bootlegs and sideman gigs), one may be challenged to find an appropriate jumping-in point. While any record makes for a good jumping-off point, the essence of Rollins’ artistry can be gleaned from an excellent double-disc set released by the Concord Music Group to commemorate his 80th birthday in 2010. The Definitive Sonny Rollins on Prestige, Riverside and Contemporary includes 21 of the key tracks recorded between 1951 and 1958, including “Blue 7”, “Tenor Madness” and “the Freedom Suite”.

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Rollins’ most recent album is Road Shows, Vol. 2, released last September. Rollins has continued to record and tour into his ninth decade, winning three Grammys in the 21st century so far. For those of you who are truly newbies to Rollins’ music, there is no better place to start than the Main Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library, which has almost every major recording by or featuring Sonny Rollins; you can check out his entire career, fit it all into a canvas tote, and (if so inclined) load it all up onto your computer. It’s some of the best music ever made.

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sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 16, 2012

Jax Jazz Fest preview: Madeleine Peyroux

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[For the May/June issue of Arbus.]

The Pop-Jazz Prototype:

Madeleine Peyroux: A Musical Change-Agent

 

For years, Madeleine Peyroux (born April 19, 1974) has been a darling of public radio, a perdurable presence in every Starbucks, Borders and Barnes & Noble—a singer-songwriter who anticipated the massive shift in the music industry over the past decade. Her evolution from anonymously busking on Parisian streets to global acclaim is a story she’s told herself, in songs written for five albums on three different labels. The reason it took so long for Peyroux to get over in the business is that it simply was not possible when she started, 20 years ago; there was no market structure to support and sustain her artistry.

In a sense, the story of Madeleine Peyroux can be viewed the story of seismic shifts in the industry itself. Her presence as one of the top acts at this year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival can be also viewed as a shift in the festival, which is making more of an effort to embrace the traditional jazz artists favored by fans and critics alike. Peyroux has always been one those artists hard-core jazz fans would have loved to see here, but never thought they actually would. When her name popped out from the lineup sheet, it was like a pleasant hallucination.

After three albums for Rounder, Standing On the Rooftop is Peyroux’s first for Decca Records, a legendary British imprint founded in 1929 and now owned by Vivendi/Universal. It holds a special place in the hearts of jazz fans for its early advocacy of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, but it has also been a major contributor to the American vocal tradition, in all its many forms. The Decca catalog is, arguably, the most extensive cross-section of American and British indigenous music ever compiled. (This year’s jazz festival’s headliners, Sonny Rollins and Chick Corea, are also currently signed to Decca.)

Decca has maintained that tradition into the present. Peyroux, an early auteur of the new hybrid style, joins a roster featuring Melody Gardot, Sarah Harmer, Sonya Kitchell, Imeda May, Jane Monheit, Krystina Myles, Hayley Westerna, Laura Wright and Nikki Yanofsky, in addition to a whole crop of up-and-coming crossover classical talents.

These ladies are the latest in a line that has included many of the all-time greatest female singers of jazz, blues, pop, gospel, country and classical music, people like the Andrews Sisters, Tori Amos, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Judy Garland, Connie Boswell, Jenny Lou Carson (first woman to write a #1 hit country song) Patsy Cline, Rosemary Clooney, Kathleen Ferrier, Ella Fitzgerald (youngest woman to lead a big-band), Jane Froman, Marilyn Horne, Kathy Kirby, Brenda Lee, Peggy Lee, Ute Lemper, Annie Lennox, Loretta Lynn, Vera Lynn, Dolly Parton, Leontyne Price, Lita Roza (first British singer to chart #1, with “how Much Is That Doggie In the Window?”), Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kitty Wells (the first female country star) and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh. Note also that Billie Holiday, to whom Peyroux’s voice has been so frequently compared (although it’s changed so much over the years), recorded one album for Decca, The Lady Sings (1956), at their famous studio at Manhattan’s Pythian Temple.

For this album, Peyroux—who started out singing alone on streetcorners—has assembled a sterling cast of collaborators, including pianist Allen Toussaint, violinist Jenny Scheinman, guitar master Marc Ribot and Meshell Ndegeocello. Listeners will by now have an established idea of Peyroux the singer, but she challenges those perceptions with her most adventurous album yet, taking bold risks with an already-lucrative commercial brand. Producer Craig Street is best-known for his work on Norah Jones’ first album, arguably the most important record of the 21st century, as well as people like John Legend and Cassandra Wilson. He crafted a great sound, dense and haunting, but clear—a fine sonic foundation for Peyroux’s voice.

Peyroux wrote or co-wrote eight of the album’s 12 songs. Scheinman co-wrote two, as did David Batteau; “The Kind You Can’t Afford” was co-written with Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. The album opens with “Martha My Dear”, a Lennon/McCartney chestnut. “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” is a sleek, sophisticated lullaby for grown-ups, written by Ribot and Wyston Hugh Auden. The title-track sounds almost like indie-rock—anthemic affirmations over dissonant chords. When she sings “I have conquered all my fears”, the listener believes her.

For this writer, the album peaks with Peyroux’s lurching, ethereal cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”—one of the finest things she has ever recorded. Even experiments like the soft summery funk of “Meet Me In Rio” come off nicely; it’s iPod-ready for beach runs. But through it all, that voice is like the center-line on a road stretching and winding through past eras of music history, on into those unfolding as we speak. With a serious new album on a major jazz label, the years ahead may be her best yet. And even if she never quite eclipses the brilliance of Dreamland, to simply survive, thrive and progress is a victory, in and of itself.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 16, 2012