Touring the Jazz Museum


Is jazz a dead historic thing, or is it simply homesick for another era, any other era? The first concert hall ever built to house jazz is about to go up at Columbus Circle; the academy is rapt with attention, building new departments, endowing chairs; statues will follow. But what exactly is being honored: a music of unceasing innovation and achievement, or an archive parsed into its historical components? If jazz in the 21st century is to become what classical music became in the 20th century, an art of reconnaissance and interpretation, then last month’s 2000 JVC Jazz Festival may be remembered as a key transitional event. For the first time in its history, JVC looked backward every night. Two concerts by modern players, Don Byron and Dave Douglas, were canceled for lack of audience interest. But, then, Byron was scheduled to play his score for a silent picture and Douglas has been exploring Mary Lou Williams. It’s as though we were strapped into a time machine without the lever that moves it forward or back: Time marches on, but we are stuck—with our memories.

So let me blur the matter by adding that this was the most satisfying JVC in several years. It was especially eventful for singers João Gilberto, Cesaria Evora, and Cassandra Wilson (no surprises there); Diane Reeves, Diana Krall, and Joan Osborne (plenty of surprises there). It raised the question from night to night, even from set to set, of whether you can go home again. And the resounding final answer was: Some can, some can’t. It also raised questions about racial authority, as James Williams and Don Byron essayed Bill Evans and Benny Goodman, and Mike Halby and Joan Osborne attempted Big Bill Broonzy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Perhaps the most characteristic evening was the supremely peculiar “From Spirituals to Swing,” an attempt to replicate the 1938 and 1939 Carnegie Hall concerts produced by John Hammond. I think the way to be true to Hammond’s vision is to violate it: honoring his gift for recognizing innovation and genius, while acknowledging his limitations. Hammond’s goal was not didactic. He wanted to make a case for music he loved by presenting its finest exponents. Associate JVC producer Danny Kapilian showed courage in going beyond the usual jazz rep suspects, but was unwilling to dispense with the original instrumentation and repertory.

Nor could he let go of a bewildering self-consciousness about race, telling the audience that color blindness is a good thing as though he expected an argument. He did, in fact, get a lot of mumbled arguments when he claimed that the original “From Spirituals to Swing” was Carnegie Hall’s first integrated concert, forgetting Benny Goodman’s milestone (also produced by Hammond) almost a year before. Besides, assertions of color blindness often raise embarrassing questions. Like: Was the evening’s emcee, Danny Glover, who bungled every introduction, hired because of his love of music?

The concert began well enough with transplanted African Angelique Kidjo, accompanied by ace studio percussionist Danny Sadownick, singing and strutting and getting the audience to clap in time. She was followed by Dr. John, paying homage to “Boogie-Woogie Masters,” who the host said had something to do with New Orleans and stride pianist/Broadway songwriter James P. Johnson—yet more creative history. No matter: Dr. John didn’t quite raise the head of steam pumped out by Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson, but he held his own, interpolating “Sheik of Araby” into a blues. Don Byron and Steve Wilson joined with him for a trio that was supposed to suggest Sidney Bechet, but probably would have made him reach for his pistol.

Then came David Hidalgo and Mike Halby to confirm every possible prejudice against white guys singing the blues. Their dull-edged electric guitars turned the sound system to fog, and their interpretations were humorless and inept. Big Bill Broonzy had gotten big laughs with every punch line of “Just a Dream”; Halby never got a chuckle, except when he conceded that he and his partner felt “like a couple of midgets.” Race aside, you cannot sing blues without Authority. Glover returned to ask, “Do you feel Robert Johnson at the crossroads?”: A witty rejoinder would have been too easy. So while I was thinking, “Stevie Ray notwithstanding, color blindness is not always a virtue, especially when so many good, authentic, black blues guys are around,” out came Joan Osborne, who sexily cocked her hip and—backed by Wendell Holmes, a genuinely rocking guitarist—did two Sister Rosetta Tharpe numbers so effectively that, being color-blind, I figured Osborne was light-skinned. Later, I learned she is a Caucasian from Kentucky who apprenticed on the blues circuit and scored a rock hit. Her contralto rang true and clean, without affectation or fake humility, and seemed no less at home when she joined with the 11 singers of the SRC All-City Chorale for Tharpe’s “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down,” the choir shadowing her like an orchestra.

Color was less the point than attitude when Don Byron allegedly paid tribute to Benny Goodman’s sextet; Byron’s band, like Goodman’s, was integrated. Now if Kapilian had recruited someone like Ken Peplowski, we might have heard Benny through the looking glass, but in hiring Byron he was aiming for a more interesting take and got it, though I did not get the point of the unswinging “Flying Home” or the “Memories of You” with a Latin vamp that ignored the melody until the last chorus. Drummer Joey Baron smashed his cymbal on every beat, as though packing bricks; his lack of elegance was reflected in inchoate solos by everyone but vibist Stefon Harris, who played with a direct, relaxed, melodic sparkle. By the third number, though, “Tuskegee Strutter’s Ball” (Byron’s “I Got Rhythm” variation), the group came into its own. Baron calmed down, and the leader delivered a good, chancy solo, quoting Monk and others, that wiped away the last vestiges of homage in favor of his own brave new world.

Another sextet followed, this one modeled after the Kansas City Six, with Geri Allen and with Steve Wilson’s alto instead of Lester Young’s (or Buddy Tate’s) tenor. Twenty-year-old Bilal Oliver tried to get a rise out of “Going to Chicago”—a departure from the original program—but was too eccentric and whimsical (e.g., falsetto scat) to make his case. What came next, however, was the week’s unexpected triumph. Dianne Reeves joined the band to do two Ida Cox blues, and while I would like a tape for confirmation, it seemed to me she was more enchanting than Ida herself. I reviewed Reeves in the ’70s, when she was in her teens, and raved—thinking I was in the presence of a young Sarah. Every performance and record since has knifed my expectations. I have invariably found her mannered, showy, superficial, overproduced, whatever. I am now smitten once again.

She counted off a dangerously slow tempo on “Low Down Dirty Shame,” coolly limned by Geri Allen, and attacked the song as though she’d just come in from a TOBA vaudeville tour, mining the lascivious wit in every line and getting all the laughs. She commanded attention with her nuances and unfailing time, inspiring Steve Wilson to his best solo and Randy Sandke to a sympathetic Shad Collins-style obbligato. “Four Day Creep” was even better. Without suggesting anything in the way of mimicry or overt homage, she captured the old blues diva aesthetic: natural, funny, and sure, incarnating the blues as short stories with coquettish punch lines. In a duet with Dr. John, she zeroed in on “Come Rain or Come Shine,” dramatizing it to the hilt.

By contrast the Basie band, directed by Grover Mitchell, merely sounded great (the dynamics, the tuttis), when the Basie band should be more than that. It was nice to hear Kenny Hing and Doug Miller trade choruses on “9:20 Special,” but no sooner did they start than they had to sit—each number was expeditious and short, except “One O’Clock Jump,” which featured nine or 10 choruses by Don Byron, his most adventurous outing of the night, particularly when the band riffed at him like a hot poker. The finale consisted of the McCollough Sons of Thunder from Harlem—a tailgate trombone brass band, led by Elder Edward Babb—which marched down the aisles to the stage for an exhilarating close.

If “From Spirituals to Swing” was peaks and valleys, “Porgy and Bess & Sketches of Spain” was level and emphatic—maybe the best case made for jazz rep since Maurice Peress and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band revived “Black, Brown and Beige.” The names Miles Davis and Gil Evans appeared nowhere in the playbill and were not mentioned onstage. Small point, but a program would have been nice. Last year, JVC presented a performance of Kind of Blue, so Miles continues to be a major draw. Yet conductor Maria Schneider and soloist Jon Faddis did more than offer a robust and faithful rendering of two classic albums; they argued by example that here are two of the great concerti of our time. It would be a shame to put them back in mothballs.

The presentation was immaculate—no emcees, no talk of any kind. Just bam! right into the roaring, weirdly Asiatic chords of “The Buzzard Song,” and no rest for the weary. Schneider produced a hugely persuasive orchestral sound. Only the recollection of Paul Chambers’s magnificent bass was shortchanged, especially on “My Man’s Gone Now,” which tends to flaccidity even on the original; fidelity to the text does not mean you can’t kick the tempo a little if warranted. Still, for the most part I was happy to forget the records. Jon Faddis remains one of jazz’s enigmas—an outstanding trumpet player and guaranteed crowd pleaser who is rarely cogent on records, partly because he cannot resist the Faddispheric climaxes that are his signature. He scrupulously avoided the high notes, and did not attempt to imitate Miles. Playing flügelhorn and trumpet, he finessed on its merits, delighting in the sliding two-pitch blasts that identify “Solea.” It will be interesting to see if he can translate such Milesian caution into something more personal.

The audience was wonderful. At first, it refrained from applause between movements, as though paying respect to the rituals of classical music. But after “Gone” (excellent drumming by Dana Hall and a pointed Faddis solo), it said the hell with protocol: no obligatory applause, but no restraint when something merited an ovation. Faddis was almost too understated at times—I missed Miles’s sobs and cries—but, working closely with Schneider, he kept both works on target, and may have surprised even himself with his hard-bitten eloquence on “Saeta” and Rodrigo’s adagio. Carnegie, too, responded in kind; every instrument, from tuba to harp, rang clear, as did the shimmering woodwinds on “I Loves You Porgy,” the building riff of “Prayer,” and the Tchaikovsky-like colors on “Pan Piper.”

Other moments during the week were no less memorable. Even a dreadful Bill Evans tribute at the Kaye Playhouse, which attempted to honor him as a composer and produced an arid, fat, and comfortable music, had a couple of brief privileged moments: Renee Rosnes captured none of his drive or touch, except on “Epilogue” (from the 1966 Town Hall concert), a fleeting glimmer of his genius; and James Williams brought artful voicings to Evans’s arrangement of “My Man’s Gone Now.” The first of the Carnegie Hall concerts, a Cliffs Notes history of tango called “Passion and Swing!” whet the appetite for more of Pablo Ziegler’s piano and Julia Zenko’s voice—she sang a startling passage from a 1968 Astor Piazzolla opera that consisted of constantly rising phrases, allowing few discernible rests. No less appealing, in a collaboration with Ziegler, was Gary Burton, whose playing burbled with melody and whose lightning four-mallet technique remains wizardly. Another nice touch: dancers.

Cesaria Evora’s band, with its Djangological guitarists and meticulous arrangements, was as enchanting as her slow, subtle, midregister Cape Verdean blues. Cassandra Wilson was as shoeless as Evora, whose encores she followed with a smaller and more cohesive band than usual. A highlight of Wilson’s engaging set was a duet with Cyndi Lauper, bearing a dulcimer; Lauper sang “Blue in Green” (Kind of Blue) while Wilson sang “Blue Skies” (Irving Berlin) and why it worked I do not know, but it did. João Gilberto had an attack of nerves and arrived at Carnegie an hour late to sing a 95-minute set that was like listening to a waterfall; Warren Vaché’s big band at Kaye Playhouse was practiced, and offered a rare chance to see Jake Hanna, one of the swingingest drummers alive; Diana Krall at the Supper Club pretty near made me a believer, but I’ll save her for another time.

I can’t do justice to the concert that was the most fun—the tribute to 90-year-old Milt Hinton at Kaye—because it was an uncontained and unembarrassed lovefest; reviewing it would be like evaluating a family affair. Still, a few things: John Clayton managed an intricate program with incomparable savoir faire; everyone played well; Byron Stripling’s vocal on “Minnie the Moocher” was a riot and so was Jay Leonhart’s song-memoir of knowing Milt Hinton; Ron Carter’s unaccompanied “Willow Weep for Me” reminded me why he is revered. On “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” Jimmy Heath reached back into his bag of riffs and, even amid the hustle, made the place sit up a little more. It was the kind of dyed-in-the-wool moment that obviates, for the time being, questions of jazz’s vitality and relocates the music where it lives best—in the spontaneous exertion of a great soloist touched by the spirit.