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Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

This one isn’t really about my grandfather; but at least it’s not about me, either.

At some point late in his college career, my dad decided that the life of a corporate worker was preferable to the life of a professional musician.

He could have done either. But he knew about the grind of paying one’s dues as a professional musician. And he knew he could always be an engineer by day and a musician by night … but not the other way around.

So he took the more comfortable, lucrative, and mutually rewarding of the two paths.

I wonder if he had already come to that major life decision on Nov. 27, 1965 — during Thanksgiving break of his last year in college — when he found himself in a recording studio on Long Island.

Most likely, he was already walking away from one path and toward the other:

November 27, 1965.

November 27, 1965.

Today, my dad has no memory of the session:

 I think I vaguely remember being in a famous jazz recording studio in Long Island, because  I remember being surprised there was a famous jazz recording studio in Long Island, but I cannot remember whom I would have been there with.

Unfortunately, there’s no record to refresh his memory. Whatever he played wasn’t done for a record company, and thus didn’t come out.

Before packing in full-time music for the corporate world, my dad played a variety of recording sessions — all of which came to naught, commercially.

There was a demo tape of Christmas tunes done jazz-style in 1964, which landed my dad a meeting to play the tunes for Dave Brubeck. The great pianist was friendly and receptive enough, but his record company wasn’t interested in the music.

There were demos for songs my dad’s high school music teacher had written and hoped to sell.

And, most hilariously, there was a demo session for a young singer from Greenwich named Buzz Stillinger, who was apparently being groomed as a teen idol. (Buzz eventually did get to record a teenybop single called “My First Love;” my dad didn’t play on it, and from the sound of things, he’s not too put out about it.)

I would imagine that anyone who’s ever been a serious musician has dreamed about making a record.

Some people skip the hard work in their dreams, and go straight to driving a Lamborghini and having a mansion. But it must surely also be a popular dream to imagine a record jacket with your name on it.

My dad didn’t choose that path. I don’t know whether he regrets it or not.

Probably not; he’s managed to carve out a long-lasting and reasonably rewarding musical career without ever making a commercial recording under his own name.

I found out while researching this post that my dad does appear on one commercially released CD, though he’s not the leader. He plays stride-style piano on one tune of jazz singer Nancy Kelly’s CD “Swingin’ and Singin’,” released by Buffalo-area record label Amherst Records in 1997.

One tune on one regional CD. It’s not a lot, but it’s more than nothing. And it’s kinda cool to think that there’s some commercial record of his playing in somebody’s hands, somewhere.

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Not long ago, on my other blog, I declared my intention to see Todd Rundgren when he goes out on tour later this year.

It embarrasses me to admit that my tastes in live music are, chronologically speaking, less hip or current than those of my grandparents.

This week’s calendar entry finds my grandparents going out to hear a legendary performer — a clarinet player whose musical style seems as ancient and distant to me as saddle shoes, ration cards and mock apple pie.

(A clarinet player, for Chrissake. Is there any instrument so redolent of soft-focus, geriatric Music Of Your Life as the clarinet?)

But fairness compels me to admit that Benny Goodman‘s commercial peak was 20 to 25 years behind him when my grandparents saw him perform on February 7, 1963.

If I see Todd Rundgren this summer, it will be (gack) a solid 40 years past the days when he was a rising young hitmaker.

For that matter, I already have a ticket to see Graham Parker and the Rumour in April — a group that, until last year, hadn’t recorded together in 32 years.

Game, set and match, grandparents.

February 7, 1963.

February 7, 1963.

Just to add to Benny Goodman’s hip credibility, he was the first bandleader to successfully and regularly employ an electric guitarist, Charlie Christian.

He was also among the first to integrate his band.

In 1938, Goodman headlined the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall — a breakthrough for the music into mainstream society. Oh, and he was also capable of playing classical pieces for clarinet and orchestra, too.

In other words, he wasn’t the syrupy big-band smoothie I tend to think of him as. He was an innovator, a giant figure in his style. (Rather more so than the performers I will probably see this year.)

Goodman was also a Stamford resident, which might explain why he happened to be playing at my dad’s alma mater, Stamford High School.

I’m not familiar enough with Goodman’s career and oeuvre to guess what he performed that night. My sense is that he either did the classical stuff or the swing stuff; I don’t know which side he was leaning toward in early 1963.

(Whatever it was, I imagine it was well-performed. Goodman’s Wiki profile indicates he didn’t have much tolerance for musical sloppiness. Neither did the Blumenau family, before I came along. So I’m sure my grandparents were satisfied with the quality of the performance.)

Here’s a sample of the sort of thing that might have been played. Christian, who died young, wouldn’t have been at the Stamford High gig. But the standard tune “Rose Room” might well have been on the menu:

Sounds — cough — pretty — choke — hip to me.

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“The Reverend, Rabbi and Rod” sounds like the start of a walks-into-a-bar joke.

In real life, it was a minor chapter in the long history of community radio … a small part of a nationwide movement to bring popular music into the church … and a curious footnote to a long-ago Christmas.

Put aside your last-minute wrapping, then, and switch on the Wayback Radio. (Are the tubes glowing? Good. We’ll proceed.)

December 25-26, 1964.

December 25-26, 1964.

“The Rev” mentioned above was Rev. E. King Hempel of the North Stamford Congregational Church. The rabbi’s name is lost to history, at least among the Blumenau family.

Together, the men of the cloth hosted a weekly talk show on WSTC-AM, Stamford’s longtime local news and talk radio station.

This sort of Upstanding, Thoughtful Community Programming was once a staple of America’s locally owned, community-focused radio stations. I’m sure this kind of show carries on today in the world of low-budget local radio, interrupted only by the occasional teenage jokester calling in to request “Free Bird.”

(The Interwebs tell me “WSTC” stood for STamford, Connecticut, as indeed it probably did. Radio call letters are a marvelous topic of discussion … there is a station in Massachusetts that will forever be known to me as Wet Porno Love Music. But I digress, big-time.)

“Rod” was my father, a sage 21 years old at the time. He wasn’t a regular panelist on “The Reverend and the Rabbi,” not having the necessary qualifications.

Instead, he was in front of the mic as a special guest, discussing a most contemporary topic — the marriage of worship and popular music.

The day after the Rev., the Rabbi and Rod rocked the mic together, my dad led a special jazz worship service at North Stamford Congregational Church. He pulled together a small combo to play music he wrote himself. (Today he dismisses it as “lousy.” No recording survives.)

An ad for the jazz service. Presumably this hung in Stamford's hipper hangouts.

An ad for the jazz service, courtesy the Rod Blumenau Collection. Presumably this flyer hung in Stamford’s hipper hash dens.

My dad, in a small way, was part of a nationwide movement of musicians looking for ways to combine faith and jazz.

By the mid-’60s, Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi were composing and performing in church settings, while John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others were cutting music that was deeply spiritual, if not directly intended for performance in church.

Tenor saxophonist Ed Summerlin is often credited with pioneering the movement with his 1959 composition Requiem for Mary Jo, which he followed up with similarly themed pieces like Jazz Vesper Services.

Summerlin appeared on national TV in 1960 to discuss his “liturgical jazz,” which leaned more toward the cerebral than the gutbucket. (He also performed, around the same time, at the Methodist church across the street from my grandparents’ house on Hope Street. My dad attended.)

The idea of jazz in church spread quickly. My dad’s band director at Stamford High, Russ Martino, performed a local jazz service in the early ’60s. And Herb Hodgson, the Protestant chaplain at the college my dad attended, was enthusiastic about new ideas. My dad remembers him as “a really cool guy,” a rare accolade for a man of the cloth.

So, in 1963, with Hodgson’s encouragement, my dad rounded up some musician friends at college and performed a musical service of his own at a church in downtown Troy, N.Y. He reprised the music, with some of the same musicians, in Stamford in December 1964.

The idea, he says now, was to promote the legitimacy of jazz as a music capable of expressing spirituality and connecting with a 20th-century audience. (This was much the same point he made on the radio with the Reverend and the Rabbi, too.)

In his words:

I didn’t believe in a religion that said you have to say the same words in the same language as Jesus did, or people in Rome did. I thought you could express your feelings in a modern way. … I thought, “Jazz is legitimate, serious music with which one can contemplate the meaning of life just as much as Bach or Beethoven. Why not?”

There was no burning bush or flash of light … I just thought it would be kind of fun.

# # # # #

The service in Stamford was a special event held in the evening and was promoted as a “Demonstration Service,” which rubbed my dad wrong:

That suggested even E. King wasn’t convinced of my position. In Troy, we did it in a downtown church, and it was their Sunday morning service — take it or leave it.

The faith-jazz trend, as it turned out, would have larger obstacles to overcome than the misgivings of local reverends.

While the movement would produce some memorable recordings, such as Ellington’s first Sacred Concert, jazz’s niche popularity limited its penetration into mainstream church services. By the Seventies, the guitar, not the tenor sax, would become the chosen weapon of preachers trying to reach the masses in Their Own Language.

My dad says:

The fallacy of my reasoning, which I did not realize at the time, is what a small minority of the U.S. population jazz lovers were. I thought jazz represented youth, modernity; in actuality, that died with WWII. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry represented youth and modernity!

Today many churches feature house bands which play their (amateur) stylistic interpretation of the “music du jour.” Probably a large percentage of their congregation views this music as their own, and therefore, this does a better job of making liturgy more meaningful than jazz ever did.

That doesn’t stop musicians from continuing to bring jazz into churches. My dad performed jazz services many times when I was growing up. Those were blowing sessions, rather than formally programmed liturgical music. And they usually drew a full house or close to it.

The Sixties vision of jazz as a link to the common man will probably never come true.

But if every man prays in his own language, then there seems no reason why jazz can’t be one of them.

# # # #

As a side note, check out my grandpa’s Christmas calendar entry: A record high of 63 degrees on Christmas Day, 1964, followed by 60 degrees the next day.

I doubt that’s still the record, but it’s warm, even by today’s standards. (As I write this, the National Weather Service is calling for a high of 36 degrees in Stamford on Christmas Day 2012.)

My grandfather’s illustrations try to capture a sense of holiday gaiety. I love the intricate blue-and-white ornament; he put some time and effort into that. But the green grass underneath the tree makes it clear this was no white Christmas.

Thanks for reading and have happy holidays, whether they’re green, white or somewhere in between.

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I’ve written before about my dad being in the same room as jazz royalty when he was a teenager.

This week, we’re going to leave my grandfather behind and once again travel with my dad as he goes into New York to see some of jazz’s most legendary musicians.

August 27, 1961.

Randall’s Island, in the East River, is part of the borough of Manhattan. Over the course of human history it has been home to an orphanage, a rest home for Civil War veterans, the New York Fire Department’s training academy, the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field, and a team in the risible World Football League of the 1970s.

It also has a pretty distinguished history when it comes to live jazz.

On May 29, 1938, the island hosted the “Carnival of Swing,” a festival of 25 big bands including those of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Carnival of Swing has been described as America’s first outdoor jazz festival, and newsreel footage makes it seem like a happenin’ event.

In the 1950s and ’60s, even more of the biggest names in the business turned out to play a series of annual festivals at Downing Stadium, a small WPA-built facility on Randall’s Island that has since been replaced.

Just look at the lineup for Aug. 27, the day my dad went: Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Art Blakey, to name some of the performers. Those taking the stage on other nights included Basie, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan and Cannonball Adderley.

I asked my dad what he remembered, and he offered the following:

“I distinctly remember hearing Stan Getz with his quartet.  Stan was recently back from living in Europe for a while, and was allegedly the backstage buzz (as well as the audience) buzz in terms of “what’s he sound like now?” 

Randall’s Island was clearly in the flight path of one of the Big Apple’s airports, and periodically planes would go over.  Stan wryly introduced one tune: “It’s about time for a plane to go over, so I think we’ll play a ballad,” which got a good laugh and assured everyone that his humor was intact.  I believe the consensus was that Stan still had it; this was a couple years before the Bossa Nova craze which brought him his widest popularity.

My other clear memory is the Count Basie band.  Lou and I were hundreds of feet away from the stage, maybe even the length of a football field.  The Basie band was cookin’ along when the sound system went out totally.  To this day I remember that you could still clearly hear the brass section (esp. trumpets) and drums, and they were swingin’!  Outage didn’t last long, luckily.”
(This memory may be a little unclear after 51 years. My dad and his friend believe they only attended one day. But the program linked above shows Basie and Getz playing on separate days. It is possible my dad is mixing memories from two different years of festivals, or that the running order of the shows changed after the program was printed.)
I’m not a huge jazz fan, but I recognize the performers at Randall’s Island as giants in their field. It must have been phenomenally cool for a young jazz fan to have easy access to events like this — much cooler than being a jazz fan in, say, Omaha.
My dad was a couple weeks away from starting his freshman year at college when he went to this show. I still have a ticket stub from a show I saw the summer before I started college. And I have to admit, my teenage dad had cooler taste in live music than I did.
I’m not quite sure how long the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival lasted. A quick Google search turns up a reference to a 1962 version of the festival, but not 1963.
The island was later host to a three-day “New York Pop Festival” in 1970 that featured performers like Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull and Grand Funk Railroad. It was one of Hendrix’s last U.S. performances; archival footage suggests he was not at his sharpest.
And just a few weeks ago, Randall’s Island hosted a music festival called Catalpa, whose performers’ names — TV On The Radio, Zola Jesus, Polish Ambassador and the Aviation Orange, to name a few — would have had my teenage dad and his friend scratching their heads as they tapped toes to Count Basie.
But, no matter. It’s good to know that, all these decades later, people are still flocking to Randall’s Island for a day of live music.
Maybe someday someone will blog their dad’s reminiscences of being in the second row for Zola Jesus.

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A little thematic music, for the old-school swingers and those who prefer it Seventies-style.

Some time ago, I described my dad as a good sport. This week I’m going to raise the ante.

I will go so far as to say that, many years ago … before the plaid pants and the Reliant K wagon  … my dad was pretty cool.

Well, OK, that might be pushing it.

But I am impressed to know that, as a young man, my dad spent some time at one of America’s most celebrated nightspots — a place practically synonymous with jazz, and equally synonymous with cool.

January 26, 1963.

This particular visit to Birdland, the famous New York City jazz club, appears to have been cancelled — perhaps due to the snow and frigid weather.

But my dad confirmed that he and other jazz fans from Stamford High made the drive into New York several times to dig the scene at Birdland:

We didn’t consider going to NYC to hear jazz a big deal.  It was only a 45-60 minute drive from Stamford (probably another 15 to find parking), we never had any safety problems (we always went as a small group), and jazz was more commonplace than it is now (I’m not including Kenny G and the like).  Probably only the relatively high expense for us high-schoolers prevented us from going more often!

To translate this for the rock n’ roll fans in the audience: This is kinda like finding out that your dad saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club, or Jimi Hendrix at a club in the Village, or the Ramones at CBGB’s.

Everybody who was anybody in the jazz business played the original Birdland between 1949 and its closing in 1965. Miles? Trane? Duke? Dizzy? Monk? Yup, all them and then some. (A partial list is here.)

When musicians weren’t playing there, they went to hang out and listen to whoever was onstage.

Legendary keyboardist Joe Zawinul told Jazz magazine in 1977: “To me Birdland was the most important place in my entire life. I met everybody including my beautiful wife in this club. I met Miles, I met Duke Ellington. I met anyone I ever cared for in this business. I used to hang out there every night.” (Quote taken from the excellent Weather Report Annotated Discography website.)

Birdland attracted more than just famous musicians. Jack Kerouac, for instance, made reference to the club in his writings. I doubt he was there when my father was. But it’s still kinda cool to imagine the angelheaded hipster saint of American literature in the same room as my dad.

Anyway, my dad’s recollections of the setting at Birdland:

 It was below ground (e.g., down cellar), dark, dank and cellar-like (e.g. with support columns in inconvenient places), quite low ceilinged, and surprisingly small.  No memorable decor, just very functional.  Doubt if the tables and chairs matched.  Lots of sound-absorbing material so the sound was very dead.  As our visits were all before we could legally drink (even tho’ drinking age in NY was then 18), we were seated in the less desirable seats and sipped coca cola.  But I think even the WORST seat was only about 30 feet from the stage, which was not really big enough for a big band (grand piano sat on the floor next to the stage).

Unless I’m mixing up my venues, there was a diminutive black man who met you at the door and took your money, circulated about, and ended up being the announcer.  Maybe PeeWee something, or some such…  He was allegedly almost as much of an institution as the venue itself.

(My dad is correct in his memories of Pee Wee Marquette, the house emcee at Birdland.)

The two artists my dad specifically remembers seeing at Birdland are Eric Dolphy — an innovative saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist who died too young — and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.

Ferguson’s band included sax players Joe Farrell and Lanny Morgan and pianist Jaki Byard. According to my dad, the musicians were just as close to the crowd offstage as they were on the bandstand:

 I remember seeing several of the guys in the street – and chatting with them – before the performance.  We usually found our jazz “idols” very accessible.  (A buddy of mine had a great conversation with Dizzy Gillespie in the mens’ room of the Village Vanguard once.)

(OK, I’m gonna amend my assessment of a few paragraphs ago. This is like finding out that your dad shared a smoke break with George Harrison outside the Cavern Club, or ran into Hendrix wandering through the Village. Pretty cool, in other words.)

I asked him if he knew at the time that he was hanging out in a legendary place. His reply:

Maybe “legendary” is a little strong, but we knew it was THE happening place for jazz.  I mean, the same sort of feeling you have when you go to Fenway!

Nice comparison, I thought. Dank, crowded, small, support poles in bad places … yup, that’s Fenway.

My dad has some pretty good live jazz stories from other places, too. Maybe some other time I’ll share his story about seeing Chick Corea take a screwdriver to his malfunctioning electric piano while Miles Davis stared bullets at him from across the stage.

But for right now I’ll leave him at Birdland, sipping intently on a Coke and watching Eric Dolphy take an unaccompanied bass clarinet solo … and probably not appreciating that, in the eyes of future generations, he will seem like the epitome of cool.

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