Category Archives: Jazz and blues

The Rebirth Brass Band

In a city where music traditions are held sacred, the Rebirth Brass Band, anchored by leader Philip “Tuba Phil” Frazier alongside his brother, Keith “Bass Drum Shorty” Frazier, occupies a unique place in New Orleans culture.

Over the course of three decades, the group’s R&B and funk motifs have redefined the standard for brass band music without losing sight of the music’s heritage. Rebirth’s profound influence on brass band musicians endures during second line parades and jazz funerals, and in classrooms and rehearsal spaces citywide.

This according to “Rebirth Brass Band: Keep it goin’ like a heartbeat” by Jennifer Odell (DownBeat LXXXI/9 [September 2014] pp. 44–47).

Above and below, Rebirth in action.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream

The critical reception of John Coltrane’s saxophonic scream—an incredibly high-pitched, raw, and intense explosion of timbre—demonstrates how our precognitive reaction to sonic timbres can invoke tropes of masculinity and race.

A perceptual/cognitive approach that focuses on the degree to which the listener identifies with the sound, citing recent research on the neurophysiology of audition, locates a biological reason for the phenomenon of musical empathy—the perception that in listening to a sound we also participate in it. Our participation, however, is culturally conditioned.

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream was variously interpreted by music critics as the sound of black masculine violence and rage or as a sign of the jazz icon’s spirituality, a transcendent sound. Music critics’ visceral, embodied interpretations of Coltrane’s saxophonic scream turned on their reactions to the birth of free jazz in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement.

This according to “Theorizing the saxophonic scream in free jazz improvisation” by Zachary Wallmark, an essay included in Negotiated moments: Improvisation, sound, and subjectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 233–44).

Below, the Coltrane’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966.

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Performers, Reception

Blind Willie McTell’s legacy

The Atlanta bluesman William Samuel McTier, who performed and recorded as Blind Willie McTell, is known today for his iconic songs and Piedmont fingerpicking 12-string guitar playing.

When he died in 1959 he passed like a vague shadow, missed only by a few friends, family members, and some scattered blues fans, his music consigned to one of the dustier back shelves of Southern Americana. But that same year the renowned folklorist Samuel Charters published his Country blues, with passages that raised McTell to the status of blues master. In the years since he has risen from his obscurity in stunning profile, as enduring as the vibrant music he left behind.

This according to “Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta’s 12-string minstrel for all seasons” by David Fulmer (Blues access 11 [fall 1992] pp. 30–35).

Today is Blind Willie McTell’s 120th birthday! Below, his much-covered Statesboro blues.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Lionel Hampton and the Sanctified Church

Some jazz critics and fans who admired other aspects of Lionel Hampton’s musicianship criticized him for his raw blues riffing, hard backbeat, screaming and honking saxophones, and stunts like marching into the audience with his horn players or getting the audience to clap along.

“I learned all that in the Sanctified Church: the beat, the hand-clapping, marching down the aisles and into the audience” he explained in a 1987 interview.

“When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she’d take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time. They’d have a whole band in the church—guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums—and they’d be rocking. I’d be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she’d get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I’d grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me.”

This according to “Lionel Hampton, who put swing in the vibraphone, is dead at 94” by Peter Watrous (The New York times CLI/52,228 [1 September 2002] pp. 1, 35).

Today is Hampton’s 110th birthday! Below, performing Flying home, which is widely cited as a forerunner of rhythm and blues.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Fletcher Henderson, composer-arranger

While there is no question that Fletcher Henderson had substantial compositional impact on the development of jazz, the term composition, with its overtones of singular artistic control and privileged aesthetic and legal status, fits only a small proportion of his creative work.

Henderson’s career is best understood from the broader perspective of a composer-arranger; indeed, distinctions between composer and arranger—and composition and arrangement, with their implied hierarchy—are precisely the kinds of differences that African American music making continually challenges.

This according to “Fletcher Henderson, composer: A counter-entry to the International dictionary of black composers” by Jeffrey Magee (Black music research journal XIX [spring 1999] pp. 61–70).

Today is Henderson’s 120th birthday! Below, Wrappin’ it up, one of the works discussed in the article.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Popular music

Jazz and unexpected stimuli

Creativity has been defined as the ability to produce work that is novel, high in quality, and appropriate to an audience. While the nature of the creative process is under debate, many believe that creativity relies on real-time combinations of known neural and cognitive processes.

One useful model of creativity comes from musical improvisation, such as in jazz, in which musicians spontaneously create novel sound sequences. A study used jazz musicians to test the hypothesis that individuals with training in musical improvisation, which entails creative generation of musical ideas, might process expectancy differently.

Researchers used EEGs to compare the brain activity of 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the examples followed typical Western chord progressions, while others followed atypical ones.

Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progressions, indicating that they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.

This according to “Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity” by Emily Przysinda, Tima Zheng, Kellyn Maves, Cameron Arkin, and Psyche Loui (Brain and cognition CXIX [December 2017] pp. 45–53).

Below, the Miles Davis Quintet plays Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, a work often cited for its use of unexpected chords; above, Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock in 1964.

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Science

Mose Allison and “Parchman Farm”

In November 1957 Mose Allison recorded what would became his most celebrated and requested piece: Parchman Farm, a wickedly clever blues written from the viewpoint of an inmate at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary. But by the mid-1960s Allison had ceased performing the song, reportedly disturbed by audience reactions to it.

The adverse reactions were prompted by the song’s surprise ending, where the seemingly sympathetic prisoner-singer suddenly declares “I’m a-gonna be here for the rest of my life, and all I did was shoot my wife.”

Such responses to a song whose title evokes the Jim Crow South, and whose author is a white performer whom many listeners have assumed to be black, are worthy of closer scrutiny. In addition to its surface appeal, Parchman Farm possesses subtextual layers replete with complex, troubling questions about race, gender, and power, particularly as these manifest in popular discourses about blues.

Allison returned to the topic in 1964 with New Parchman, which offers an implicit critique of the ideology informing the 1957 work.

This according to “One Parchman Farm or another: Mose Allison, irony, and racial formation” by John Kimsey (Journal of popular music studies XVII/2 [2005] pp. 105–32).

Today would have been Mose Allison’s 90th birthday! Above, recording in the mid-1960s; below, the original Parchman Farm and its sequel.

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Filed under Jazz and blues

Dizzy Gillespie, cultural ambassador

In early 1956 Dizzy Gillespie was playing with a small group in Washington, DC, when he received a call from Adam Clayton Powell, who asked him to stop by his office the next day.

Gillespie arrived to find a group of reporters waiting, and Powell made a statement to the press: “I’m going to propose to President Eisenhower that he send this man, who’s a great contributor to our music, on a State Department sponsored cultural mission to Africa, the Near East, the Middle East, and Asia.”

Although Gillespie had a stellar international reputation, the proposal was daring: the U.S. South was in wide disarray over segregation, and the suggestion that a black man should represent the nation abroad was bound to be highly controversial.

Nevertheless, in February of that year the State Department announced a ten-week tour of South Asia, the Near East, and the Balkans by Gillespie and a group of some 20 people—in Gillespie’s words, “an American assortment of blacks, whites, males, females, Jews, and Gentiles.” The U.S. government wanted to send a signal that bigotry was waning at home, and, again in Gillespie’s words,

“They [foreign audiences] could see it wasn’t as intense because we had white boys and I was the leader of the band. That was strange to them because they’d heard about blacks being lynched and burned, and here I come with half whites and blacks and a girl playing in the band. And everybody seemed to be getting along fine. So I didn’t try to hide anything. I said ‘Yeah…we have our problems but we’re still working on it. I’m the leader of this band, and those white guys are working for me.’ That’s a helluva thing.”

This according to “Jazz strategy: Dizzy, foreign policy, and government in 1956” by Scott Gac (Americana IV/1 [Spring 2005]).

Today is Gillespie’s 100th birthday! Above, playing for snakes on the tour in Karachi, Pakistan; below, World statesman, an album recorded with the historic touring group.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Politics

Thelonious Monk’s syntactic dissonances

Thelonious Monk has long been celebrated for his playing as much as for his compositions, but his pianism continues to occasion critical unease; a defensiveness is detectable in discussions of his technique even today.

Considerations of Monk’s playing tend to avoid or finesse peculiarities that raised questions about his ability in the first place; these include the jarring dissonances that strike some listeners as mistakes. An examination of his dissonance usage suggests two analytic categories: timbral dissonance and syntactic dissonance.

Monk’s 1968 solo recording of ’Round midnight exemplifies his use of syntactic wrong-note dissonances. Neither errors nor merely facets of Monk’s tone, their significance is bound up with their wrongness: They make sense because they sound wrong in a meaningful way, as significations on musical norms.

This according to “The right mistakes: Confronting the old question of Thelonious Monk’s chops” by David Feurzeig (Jazz perspectives V/1 [April 2011] pp. 29–59).

Today is Monk’s 100th birthday! Above, in 1969; below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Reception

Faulkner and blues

Although the story of blues was never his direct subject, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha chronicles obliquely address the processes through which mainstream America embraced, dismissed, romanticized, adapted, and came to respect blues and other forms of traditional and popular music.

From the scenes of white people dancing to an African American band in Soldiers’ pay through the country blues guitarist emerging out of the flood in Old man to the symbolic engagement with a broad multicultural tradition of popular song in The mansion, Faulkner’s writings reflect shifting social attitudes toward southern roots music.

This according to Yoknapatawpha blues: Faulkner’s fiction and southern roots music by Tim A. Ryan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2015).

Today is Faulkner’s 120th birthday! Above, the author with Billie Holiday in 1956; below, Charley Patton’s High water everywhere, a recording linked to Old man.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Literature