Fantastic presence in jazz from the 20s until his death In 1973. My first E was wild and busy but it was wrong. He never was wild but always busy. I remember Geoff Dyer’s book But Beautiful where he and Harry Carney are driving through the night towards the next gig. Harry driving, Duke writing, listening to the radio. I think this E is smart, formal even, but not quite containing the musical magma inside. He was a giant and his talent was inexhaustible.
I made a tribute earlier to this sophisticated man-about-town, musician, genius and show-off. He and his brother Ira were one of the celebrated pre-war songwriting partnerships making the American Songbook truly and invincibly great. George died suddenly in 1937, at, or possibly before, the height of his powers; a phenomenally creative musician whose music is full of sophisticated joy. Rhapsody In Blue is probably his best known work. It’s music that is inseparable from New York; a sound that I was aware of even as a young child. It was just there. His output was considerable and marked by a melodic gift that incorporated a flair for hitting the right commercial vein with an infusion of European Impressionism.
His first hit was Swanee with words by Irving Caesar. Al Jolson heard George play it at a party (there was never a party without a piano; never a party without George playing it). He was 21 and already a seasoned arranger and Tin Pan Alley operative. He turned out hundreds of piano rolls under assumed names, one being Bert Wynn. (Fun Fact)
Musicals included Porgy And Bess, full of perfect songs, which was recorded by Miles with Gil Evans in the 50s. Considered a classic now, it wasn’t a hit at the time, the audience not knowing if it was an opera or a musical.
Early in 1937 he showed symptoms of panic and confusion and complained of smelling burning rubber; he was much later rushed to hospital with what turned out to be an advanced brain tumour. But it was too late.
John O’Hara, the writer, said, “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
An epitaph as heartfelt as they come.
What a terrifying ordeal it must have been to grow up like she did, but somehow, for the benefit of history, she got noticed by John Hammond (the super-wise and influential talent scout who, years later, at CBS, signed Bob Dylan). He saw, even at her tender age, an incredible talent, a natural musical genius with a gift for improvisation, phrasing and a voice like nobody else. That still stands. Miss Jones To You might be a good place to start, but her catalogue is heavy with commitment and emotion. There was never a truer singer. She was Frank Sinatra’s favourite; Lester Young, her soulmate and another genius who fell into hardship – his gentle nature not strong enough to survive the changing times – died the same year, 1959.
Her descent and tragic loss of health and wealth can only be read with helpless anger. She was under arrest for narcotics possession as she lay on her death bed in hospital. Just before she died, she was released from her handcuffs.
Oliver was dead of overwork they say by 1975. He was only 43 but had already established himself as a composer and arranger of rare talent. My mate Chris Howe thought he heard a bit of Miles underneath a scene from the BBC’s long-suppressed documentary on Jeremy Thorpe. It was Miles-ish, because it was extremely cool and sophisticated, but it happened to be a track from Oliver Nelson’s 1961 album The Blues And The Abstract Truth which is the work of a magnificent sextet. Check it, dudes.
What made the music so perfect, apart from the mood of it, was the title: Stolen Moments, which got me thinking. This is almost too good. But every so often something happens to restore your faith in humanity: In the edit suite, back in the day, someone, maybe the director, or maybe a Radio 3 producer popping in for a chat and watching the rough cut said, “I know what you should play with this.”
He came to prominence with the Count Basie band in the 1930s. He started what was to become the cool revolution in American jazz. There was nothing bombastic or brash about his playing; he was quietly reinventing the music and by the age of 27 he recorded Shoe Shine Boy with the Basie small band. The giant tenor of the time was Coleman Hawkins. This was Lester’s calling card.
He was an enchanting, graceful player and suffered at the hands of the army during the war; his invented language and humour was seen to be a defence against an uncaring world.
He and Billie Holiday were very close; she called him Pres, short for President, he called her Lady Day.
He probably invented the term ‘cool’, he had his own language and his own style: the porkpie hat, the sax played at an angle. After the war he was interviewed in Paris. He began to feel neglected: all the ‘ladies’ were getting rich and he wasn’t. His style was now the sound that came from every bar du jazz.
He was one of the most mysterious and elusive figures ever to get on a stage; he shone beautifully and brightly before the war; but in 1959 he wandered off into the wings. He’d had enough. He was 49.
I probably first heard of Roland Kirk (as he was) as the composer of a tune on the first Jethro Tull album, Serenade To A Cuckoo. Then, on meeting my first mate and jazz fan at college, Geoff Appleton, I suppose I pretended I was a bit more familiar with Kirk’s oeuvre than I actually was. He could see through me like the wannabe hep I cat I hought I was, but the music was a revelation.
I think he had one of his early 60s records, and the sound of his flute playing was so intense, so earthy and delicate at the same time. He was a brilliant improviser, and critically regarded as a worthy successor to Eric Dolphy, whose work was groundbreaking.
His trademark was his singing in unison, and in harmony with the flute, (and his Mingus-style shouting) giving it a joyous, scatty sound. He was known for playing tenor and soprano sax simultaneously; this wasn’t a gimmick, it was a convincing demonstration not only of his prowess, but the world of sound that filled him, from Bebop to Varése – like Moondog (a forthcoming M), he was blind from a very young age – he was highly regarded by Frank Zappa, and worshipped by Jimi Hendrix, whose untimely death apparently deprived us of a planned collaboration.
Everyone on the planet has heard Soul Bossa Nova a tune from 1964 that was composed by Quincy Jones (another J, for another Jones in the making), from the Austin Powers movies.
Start From there and work your way up. He also made Rip Rig and Panic, an outstanding record, which features a heaven-sent rhythm section of Richard Davis, Elvin Jones and Jaki Byard. It gave the name to the band formed in 1980 by two members of post-punksters The Pop Group which included Neneh Cherry. You’re My Kind Of Climate is a beautiful salute to Kirk. It’s not dinner party music, but what on earth is? It needs listening to.
She was a jazz singer of real rhythmic talent as well as being well respected by her band mates. She used to sing with the Gene Krupa band and got quite famous with her Let Me Off Uptown with Roy Eldridge when she was just out of her teens. She is the epitome of 50s cool at the Newport Jazz Festival In 1958. She cuts a beautiful figure in her gloves and hat. NY chic to the letter and she is on exquisite form. .
The most famous figure in post-war American jazz. He and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as Thelonious Monk took music to another level. He played an alto saxophone; and stood motionless on a stage that was barely big enough to contain him and his ideas, that seemed to come unbidden in a relentless wave of sound that must have had other musicians feeling that they had only just started. He was a genius whose experience tallies with the definition: 90 percent perspiration (years of 17 hours a day practice) and 10 percent inspiration.
If you ever want to read an account of seeing him live, you must read Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning.
It starts as the Jay McShann band after a long tour, arrive wearily in New York ready to play at The Savoy Ballroom. The tension is almost palpable, because there’s another big band on that night; maybe the mighty Chick Webb who’d demolished the Count Basie band a few years earlier.
Stanley paces it well. We know what’s going to happen; the other band, fresh, confident and nicely dressed, unlike the poor McShann gang, stand in the audience probably smirking at the tour-stained stage clothes. The music starts, and then Bird takes his first solo… I don’t need to tell you the rest.
An R that’s supposed to resemble a painted advertisement on the side of a French building. A still thriving art form I think. There’s a couple of other letters from an earlier time: an E and an A for Ellington and Armstrong.
He’s the fabled guitarist who led the Quintette du Hot Club de France. It included the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, with whom he played from 1934 until the outbreak of war in 1939. Louis Armstrong: “I met Django Reinhardt during that time in Paris, when I first went over there. He knocked me out. Ooh boy! That cat sure could play!”
He was a gypsy (Manouche), born in Belgium in 1910. His playing is almost indescribable, but within this lovely swing ensemble, he and Grappelli played ravishing melodies in style they made their own, and just to shake things up a bit, a bar or two of guitar played so quickly and perfectly that you’d need a high speed camera (you know the ones that do bullets and apples) to study the flurry in detail. It looks as though he’s wiping the fretboard lightly with an invisible rag but produces about a hundred gleaming notes. It’s musical sleight of hand of the highest order.
Jeff Beck, who played with Stevie Wonder on Talking Book, plays a wonderful waterfall of notes on Lookin’ For Another Pure Love that owe a lot to Django who is his all-time guitar hero. There’s nobody who can touch him according to Jeff, the master of the Stratocaster.
Anyway check out Minor Swing and Nuages. It’s all perfect. Better, even.
S is for Horace Silver. I first saw him on a programme called Jazz Goes To College when I was at school. I can’t remember the lineup but I do remember the drummer being amazing (not flashy, just cool in a way that jazz players all were), so it might have been Billy Cobham. Anyway Horace was bathed in sweat, head down playing his melodic riffy hard bop piano. This is a bit of an obvious letter, adorned with its fragments and chrome highlighting but sometimes even obvious stuff hits the mark. Especially when it gives off so much warmth. .
The only person I could think of without going to a Music Directory. He started playing with Ornette and still belongs to the avant, or post-avant or whatever the niche is where you put genuinely creative musicians who are still striving (Coltrane’s secret recipe for life) to make today better than yesterday and he’s had a few of those. He’s brilliant and as mysterious as his name. He plays a beautiful Gibson Byrdland and has devised a way of tuning it so most strings are in A.
Frank Sinatra is supposed to have said, “Whenever I hear Sassy sing, I want to cut my wrists with a dull razor.” Which has to be as good a definition of a class act as you can get.
She was a Newark girl, and started out as a piano player before realising that her gifts were vocal; she was such an effortless, confident singer, a smoky contralto who could push her voice to give astonishing emotional colour to her phrasing. She was definitely a paid up member of the bebop crew; a real musician’s musician, as comfortable with them as she was with her own considerable talent.
Gary Giddins, the brilliant Village Voice jazz critic, said in an interview, that after a lot of thought, she was his favourite, and there was a quite a large field of gold to consider.
Check out Black Coffee from 1949. She absolutely owns it, as well as the perfect April In Paris; there’s a little bluesy twist as she steps up to tell us,”I never knew the charm of Spring…” She could be singing about a painting she loves, of a memory that hurts.
It’s just so perfect, and the late Clifford Brown (a contender for trumpeter of all time, had he lived beyond 25) gives it some bebop chops to cheer her up.
She’s unbelievably believable. .
Obviously not her surname, but the X component is what’s important. I was searching for someone to fill the 24th letter slot, and I came across this wonderful pipa player; it’s a Chinese lute. She’s classically trained and also incorporates Monk into her repertoire. I’ve been listening to some more of the classical Chinese music lately and the atmosphere is unearthly and spellbinding. The New York City Jazz Record said that she interprets Monk, unfettered by the usual baggage, in the same way that Monet treated water lilies. You get the picture.
Catch her playing Misterioso on YouTube. Maybe the best known pipa player is Wu Man. She’s undoubtedly the Django of the instrument. She was part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble who produce music of an astonishing emotional punch. Jie Ma is a free jazz exponent. This is such a wondrous discovery; it’s a massive world of music, and labels, handy as they are, serve only to impede us. Our only enemies are walls. .
He was the poster boy of the anarchist-cum-hippy, which would have shifted record sales, but to a public who had no idea that this bowler-hatted long haired Rasputin never touched drugs and was allergic to flower power. He was by far the most articulate 20-something to express his irritation at the whole system that controlled us; the dumb consumer society that turned out the Flakes he despised.
He professed to hate jazz; but he would. Of course he would. Duke Ellington (afflicted by the same work ethic) refused to countenance the labelling of music. They were both railing against laziness.
Check the exquisite Watermelon On Easter Hay to get the full flavour of his craft. Dweezil, his genius son, plays it beautifully but is always close to tears.
His dad grew up on RnB and doo-wop; and he absorbed everything he heard. His favourite word to describe that early stuff was ‘nasty’, then he discovered Edgar Varése, the avant-garde European composer whose music he revered. He was still in his teens, but he knew what he liked.
I was thinking this Z should be this ochre-ish colour because of his last album Yellow Shark. There’s too much to say and too little time. But when he died at 52 his funeral music was The Green Fields of America by the Chieftains. I think he secretly loved everything.
Cecil was a poet as well as a composer of ballet music. He first came to light in the 50s. He is credited with bringing free jazz to The Five Spot in 1957, two years before Ornette.Coleman His band then included Steve Lacy, who played on Cecil’s debut Jazz Advance in 1956. A good start would be from 1962: Live from the Café Montmartre. Jimmy Lyons on alto and Sunny Murray on drums.
I love him because he was such a committed soul.
Garry Giddins said that classical music students took to him much more readily than their jazz counterparts. His bursts and bombs of notes were all perfectly played but perhaps it helped to have had a more conventional and restricted grounding in music to feel the liberation and ecstasy of his playing.
He and Walter Becker seemed to appear fully formed and ready to deal in 1972. They were modernists in a world of louche pisstakers or so it seemed. I liked Roxy Music, still do, but the Dan had weapons-grade intelligence and a precocious sense of themselves in a world of music that had a history they saw first hand. This F is a view of the wild possibilities of life in a city of dreams. Everybody they love is there: Charlie Parker, Mingus, Billie Holiday and every other sacred soul in whose footprints they were placing theirs.
Fagen is possibly the most underrated voice in the world. Any Major Dude is an early tune, but one with a soft and tender heart but still a song of the city. .
I first saw him on a programme called Jazz Goes To College when I was at school. I can’t remember the lineup but I do remember the drummer being amazing (not flashy, just cool in a way that jazz players all were), so it might have been Billy Cobham. Anyway Horace was bathed in sweat, head down playing his melodic riffy hard bop piano. This is a bit of an obvious letter, adorned with its fragments and chrome highlighting but sometimes even obvious stuff hits the mark. Especially when it gives off so much warmth. .
I first heard Escalator Over The Hill In 1972 and it still fascinates. Six sides of vinyl, apparently about expatriates in a hotel in Pakistan. It featured the hippest musicians that the worlds of jazz and rock could offer, it seemed. There’s a libretto crammed with photographs which document this sprawling and beautiful epic. Highlights for me were the Gato Barbieri free blowing on the first side and Jack Bruce’s haunting blues coda which brings it to a close with Don Cherry (I think) yodelling as if from a lost horizon. Plus Carla’s trademark descending chords on the Hammond. It’s a sad thing to realise that Jack Bruce slipped away from the sublime path that this record represented. He was, or seemed to be, so comfortable in this magical world of creativity. I used to will him to get a loft and settle where I thought his heart belonged. But Carla has always been fantastic and her music with Steve Swallow is really what this letter is about. Quiet and astonishing. Full of love. .
This should have been in black and white but there will be a monochrome version to represent the rhythmic conundrums he sets up for us. I’ve placed two sets of dots and shifted one of them slightly to represent his subtle changes. God knows how a percussionist can do it without distraction. It’s a moiré pattern and the subtler the shift of register, the wilder the effect. Anyway, Steve’s a clever dude. .
The classic one of Miles Davis from the 60s probably. They were edging towards a new electronic jazz age. You might think of Miles as the heart of cool and you’d be right, but listen to the outtakes from the Freedom Jazz Dance cd; all taken from 1966-68 as they recorded Miles Smiles, Nefertiti and Water Babies.
The band are functioning on sense and instinct, and seem to be having the time of their lives. Especially Herbie Hancock, shrieking with laughter at Miles’ good natured obscenities at poor Teo Macero.
It’s electrifying fun just before it got to be electric. .
His 1964 album Out To Lunch! is beyond brilliant. Someone told me it was their second favourite jazz album of all time; the favourite might change from day to day, but Dolphy’s masterpiece stays up there. He was a genius and his work with Charles Mingus is a perfect marriage of discipline and inspiration. Mingus never had a bad word to say about him, this incredibly gifted multi instrumentalist, tragically died of a misdiagnosed diabetic coma in Berlin only a few months after his benchmark record was completed. .
Miles might have thought that his music lacked swing but Dave Brubeck was one of the first jazzers I was aware of, passing a record shop every day back from school. I think I remember a Miro painting was used for one of his album covers, which my letter tries to echo.
My mate Jonathan Madden reminded me of the gorgeous Donald Fagen lyric (a true sophisticate) from Nightfly:
“He’s an artist, a pioneer, we’ve got to have some music on the new frontier”
My dad wouldn’t have known much about jazz, so I first heard Take Five at a friend’s place and was smitten. Our house was overrun with Mantovani and other easy listening misdemeanors. Weirdly, he got into Led Zeppelin just before he died, which may have been a step in the right direction. .
In his brief time, the most physical tenorist on earth.
He tore the heart out of his music in a way that made it compelling and beautiful, as well as being completely original.
This spiritual, solemn and wild player was largely ignored during his brief stay here. He was found in New York’s East River in 1970. He was 34 years old and apparently jumped from the Staten Island ferry. He was amazing. .
More than that, even.
Kind Of Blue. The best known and highest selling jazz album of all time.
Part of a jazz alphabet. This is Miles Davis’ most famous album and it’s still as fresh as paint. It was a game changer without doubt, and the only survivor of that session is the drummer, Jimmy Cobb, who still sounds as though he was in the session last week.
As if you didn’t know. I might do another one, this is a bit ordinary; a bit corny, but he was a fantastic musician. I was listening to Naima yesterday and really couldn’t undestand how anyone could conceive of such a perfect tune.