Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Charlie Chan Played Toronto With a Piece of Plastic

It's 1953. Bebop is in full. . . well. . . bebop. Diz and Bird are kicking it hard. A group of Jazz fans in Toronto decide to sponsor a concert at Massey Hall that ended up being Jazz legend. According to the story (as I heard it--and there are many versions) Charlie Parker was a pretty notorious, unreliable junkie at the time. Habit had got the best of him. Started to get a rep for showing up all junked up to the gig. So to make sure he didn't show up incapacitated, the band takes his money and just gives him a ticket for travel. This seems Urban Legendish--but I am just relating the story as I have heard it a million times. The idea was that if they leave him with no dough, he can't fix. No cash, no stash. As the legend goes, Bird shows up in Toronto as planned, only it is clear that he has fixed. And then the horrible realization hits home that Parker has in fact hocked his horn to fix before leaving NY.

Everyone is in scramble mode looking for a horn. It's after hours and one of the guys sponsoring the show has a music store and is a rep for these new saxophones made of plastic. Parker ends up playing what many refer to as the greatest jazz concert of all time on a plastic saxophone. In 1994, Christie's held an auction where they sold the actual legendary plastic saxophone that Bird played on that night(it eventually sold for over $144,000.00). They hired another legendary player to demonstrate its sound. Here is Pete King playing the Grafton Plastic Sax. He actually plays one of the tunes that Parker and his cohorts played that night, "Wee".

The lineup for the Massey Hall Concert was as follows:

Parker--Plastic alto
Bud Powell--Piano
Charles Mingus--Bass
Max Roach--Drums

Now that is a lineup. The event was recorded and released under Roach and Mingus's co-owned Debut label. Since Parker was contractually obligated to another label at the time, he had to be listed under a pseudonym. They chose "Charlie Chan" possibly because of Louis Armstrong's famous critique of Bebop where he said it sounded to him like Chinese music.

Now to Bud Powell. What a tragic story there! In 1945, the cops just beat the living crap out of him, and from that point on, his mental state was questionable. In '47, he went to the mental institution and stayed for more than a year. The doctors repeatedly zapped his brain with electroconvulsive shock which lead to severe memory loss. Here's Bud:

From then he was erratic (Hell, who wouldn't be?). He was an alcoholic, and according to many of his colleagues, it just took a little bit of the sauce to make him very aggressive. I often wonder how much of his trouble was a mental disorder, and how much was just a rational response of a genius level artist to the indignities of Jim Crow. In '51, he was busted on a Marijuana charge which lead to another prolonged stay in the mental hospital--almost two years. So at the Time of Massey Hall, he was fresh out of the mental hospital but had been released to the owner of the Birdland club and was being basically held prisoner in an apartment! It was not until a few months later that his playing started to really suffer from the effects of taking the drug Largactil for his supposed schizophrenia. Massey Hall was a good show for Bud; he is sharp and nimble and perhaps full of energy from having just been released (sort of). Beginning around '54 he started to really slip. The composing was still good--the performing, not so good.

Two years later in '55 there was a partial reunion of this legendary lineup at a New York club. Only Diz was absent. Bud at one point could not play and became totally incoherent having to be lead from the stage. Parker gets in the mic and starts saying Bud Powell...Bud Powell...over and over like he is paging the incapacitated pianist. He takes it WAY too far and just keeps repeating it. Mingus is so pissed, he gets in another mic and says "Do not associate me with this; this is not jazz."

Charlie Parker was dead from drug abuse within a week.

But back to Massey Hall. And to Mingus. Mingus was always a tough looking dude to me:

Mingus had a strange early career that left him with a sizeable chip on his shoulder. There was a tradition in Jazz where many of the top cats adopted titles of nobility. King Creole, King Louis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, etc. Early on and still visible on some labels you can see Mingus referred to as Baron Mingus. Anyway, Mingus was of mixed race. He had some serious run ins with racism early in his career that left him bitter. He had played with Louis in the 40's and then with Hampton. He even got some of his own compositions played. And in certain lineups, Hamp's band was interracial. Mingus also had worked in Ellington's band which was also interracial. He was involved in a famous incident in that band involving racial conflict. According to other members of the band, Mingus had a conflict with Juan Tizol, Duke's valve trombonist. Tizol was the composer of Caravan and Perdido--two of Duke's biggest hits. Anyway the story goes like this. Tizol shows Mingus a piece of written music and asks him play it. Mingus plays it but not exactly as written--he spins it or whatever. So Tizol announces to some of his white bandmates, "See, I told you these niggers can't read."

Here is Juan Tizol:

Mingus becomes so angry that he shoves Juan Tizol from the wings, and Juan Tizol goes sprawling all the way across the stage into the other wings! Duke fired Mingus. Supposedly he is the only musician that Duke ever sacked (although some say Soprano sax player, Sidney Bechet was also canned once).

Then in the very early part of the 50's, Mingus hooks up with legendary vibraphonist Red Norvo and guitar viruoso Tal Farlow to form the Red Norvo Trio. They are brilliant and inventive and critically acclaimed. The have trouble gigging because Mingus is black. Incidentally, Red Norvo was really something to see. Watch him go crazy with Benny on "The World Waiting for the Sunrise" only a decade or so after his period with Mingus.So here we are in 1953 and Mingus is playing with the biggest names in Bebop and the concert of the century. When he goes back and listens to the recording, his bass part is barely audible. He ended up overdubbing his bass part for the recording that ended up on the record.

So in 1953, a legendary lineup takes the stage. Many of them battling their personal demons, whether they be race, mental illness, or junk. And they channel all of it into jazz magic.

Here is a recording from that historic night in 1953. It is Dizzy's classic composition "A Night in Tunisia".

Here is another Bebop classic from that same night, "Salt Peanuts":Dig.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Getting There Twice

Imagine yourself at the top of the musical ladder. For whatever your instrument at the time you are playing, you are the man. You've got the chops that no one else has. You do the things that no one else does, and you make it work. Your technique is just dead solid. You have reached that level of virtuosity where what you play is only a matter of choice. What you think is what you play. You are not hampered by your hands or your lack of understanding or your clumsiness or your stamina or a lack of nimbleness. You are only limited by your imagination. Got that? Great--just being able to wrap your head around that concept and what it means in terms of human expression is quite a feat in itself. I am still struggling with what that would even mean--let alone actually being able to achieve anything close to it.

Ok now imagine that you are not like Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey (who are certainly virtuosos) in that you have taste. I mean you not only CAN play anything that occurs to you; but also you happen to choose things to play that are classy and knowing and cerebral without being elite or unapproachable. You are most of all Musical.

Now add to that the fact that you are experimental. You are developing new ways to approach your instrument. You are composing in new ways. Your imagination is inventive. It's inventive to the point that not only are you reinventing the approach to your instrument, you are playing with the definition of what a song is. And on top of it all you are playful.

Now imagine that at the peak of all this, you have a brain aneurism. The doctors give you little hope. You are going to die. You have intense brain surgery and you actually make it. You wake up from the anesthetic and you are not sure who you are. You don't recognize your parents. You remember nothing about your musical career. You don't know how to play anymore. Nothing. Just nothing.

This is what happened to Pat Martino.

For the guitar world he was like a Coltrane, a Parker, a Tatum, a Peterson, a Dizzy. And then not. Clean slate.

So he relearned it all. He started relistening to everything he ever recorded. He started relearning the instrument from scratch. He relearned how to read music. He learned to read his own compositions. And using all that, he clawed his way back. He still has missing information--missing parts of his childhood. But hell--Who doesn't. Most of college is blank for me!

Before the surgery one of his experiments that I found especially cool was the album Baiyina: The Clear Evidence.

Here is an Amazon link:


Ok see if this makes sense. Imagine a scale of notes. For the sake of argument, just imagine the major scale--Do Re Mi etc.

Now imagine that you line up those notes over and over like this:

Do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi

Ok? Now suppose that you pair each note with a letter of the alphabet like this:

Do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi fa sol la ti do re mi

(If those don't match up on your computer, use your imagination!)

Now you have a code. You can spell anything with notes. The weird, chaotic heads of a lot of the tunes on this album are an experiment with translating text into notes in this fashion. If I am not mistaken "Israfel", the third cut on the album is a note-translation of a Poe poem of the same title or some phrase of it. On the album cover, where it says that it is a psychedelic excursion into the magical mysteries of the Koran--I think phrases from the Koran (and Poe's poem referencing the Koran) are played with in this way.

And you can put any repeating scale against the alphabet this way. Modals like mixolidian or Dorian or Aeolian. This will of course completely change the feel of the phrase. Go to that amazon link and listen to a few samples. Crazy.

And he lost it all around 1980.

Here is what All About Jazz had to say about it:

One of the greatest guitarists in jazz. Martino had suffered a severe brain aneurysm and underwent surgery after being told that his condition could be terminal. After his operations he could remember almost nothing. He barely recognized his parents. and had no memory of his guitar or his career. He remembers feeling as if he had been “dropped cold, empty, neutral, cleansed... naked.”

In the following months. Martino made a remarkable recovery. Through intensive study of his own historic recordings, and with the help of computer technology, Pat managed to reverse his memory loss and return to form on his instrument. His past recordings eventually became “an old friend, a spiritual experience which remained beautiful and honest.” This recovery fits in perfectly with Pat's illustrious personal history. Since playing his first notes while still in his pre-teenage years, Martino has been recognized as one of the most exciting and virtuosic guitarists in jazz. With a distinctive, fat sound and gut-wrenching performances, he represents the best not just in jazz, but in music. He embodies thoughtful energy and soul.

Here is Pat Martino in a recent clip playing "Oleo". I think you'll see he's doing ok.

Here is a short little rambling interview with Pat about his experience:

For us guitarists, Pat is like our Lance Armstrong.

Friday, October 10, 2008

How James Dickey Thinks the Same Things I Do, Only Before Me and Better

I am rereading what may have been my first great read. It was around 1979 or 1980. I was in an English class, and it was taught by a woman who may well have been the first true love of my life. She was young, gorgeous, and just passionate about reading and ideas. She taught me to read. She was unaware of it at the time, but that is exactly what she did.

She would come in on a Monday and talk about whatever she read over the weekend in this cool, hipster way. I wanted that world--that mindset. I would go out and find whatever she mentioned and try to read it, AND I would try to read it with the goal of having something to say. She opened my head wide. Now true, it was all mixed up with my adolescent sexuality, but that wonderful woman largely affected the way I feel about the two most important things in this world, women and books. To this day I have never been attracted to a woman since that was not brilliant.

One book she lent me was a book by James Dickey. I had seen Deliverance and had read a few poems, but I had no idea what was in store. She lent me Sorties. It is a collection of his Journal entries. It touched on everything--art, books, ideas, guitar, poetry. I was most attracted to the guitar sections. He had such a great way of describing guitar playing.

Anyway, I just picked up another copy of it, and started reading and ran across this passage where Dickey describes the death of his father. Having just gone through that myself, it struck me.

Check this out:

Long deathwatch with my father. Nothing in his wasted and loveable life has ever become him so much as when he moved close to death. It is astonishing to understand that one's father is a brave man: very brave. The only thing he worried about was me seeing him in that condition. he cannot ever understand, whether he lives or whether he dies, how much better he looked with his arms full of tubes, with one of those plastic hospital things in his nose, and the rest of it, than at any time I have ever seen him before. He was a man up against an absolute limit, and he was giving as well as he got and he was not afraid of nothing in this world or out of it. God bless that man. No matter how I came from him, I hope that it was in joy. For the end is courage.

Nice bit of writing.

Here is the cover:

And here is an amazon link:

Friday, October 3, 2008

Early Satch

I have listened to Jazz for something like 30 years now. For the longest time, I would hear people go on and on about Armstrong. Of course the images it called up for me involved Louis being very gentlemanly--all suited up maybe doing a duet with some white woman singer. It would usually be saturated with strings or soft horns. You know what I am talking about. And I just never got what made him great. It was all sentimental, and frankly kind of, well, tommish. Nice and all--sweet, classy, soulful--sure, but worth the hype? I saw Louis like this:It wasn't until years later that I got hip to the early Satch and its boldness. I guess I had heard some of it, but to my then untrained ear, it just sounded like dixieland. It wan't until I saw the raw power of the visual image of King Louis that it began to make sense to me. Seeing him young and in his prime, at times struggling to control his power--strutting all over the stage unashamed--the beast unleashed that it was like a kick in the face. Watch Louis play with "Dinah" here. Kicking the rhythm all around like a four legged ninja. Look at the raw attitude. And remember this is in 1933.

Yeah. Now if you want to see Louis get full on hip hop and totally non PC and with even more crazy frenetic energy, check out Rhapsody in Black and Blue from a year earlier. The actual song is "I'm Glad You Dead You Rascal You". Then he ramps it up even more with "Shine". This is the energy and power that I had missed. Later on it was all about class and style. Early on it was pure unadulterated power in the face of Jim Crow.Starting to make sense to you?

Cartoon Jazz

My one time drummer, David Burks, once turned me onto one of my all time favorite jazz acts, The Raymond Scott Quintet. His main connection to popular culture is through cartoon music. I think Warner must have had a deal with the guy because much of his music was later incorporated into Warner cartoons. But then come to think of it I seem to remember a few early MGM cartoons who used it as well. It was used again in the Ren and Stimpy cartoons from Nickelodeon--particularly in the Wrestling episode. The casual listener will be most familiar with "Powerhouse" which is full of chromaticism. Scott was a product of a very industrial society and it shows in his composition and his general approach to sound. Nowhere is this more evident than in "Powerhouse." It is used most often in cartoons to back mechanical, machinelike behavior. Here is "Powerhouse"Now as good and as strange as that clip is, my favorite Scott footage is "Wardance of the Wooden Indians" because it centers on my favorite musician in the band, Drummer Johnny Williams. Bit of trivia here--he is the father of composer John Williams. I think Johhny Williams is among the most underrated jazz drummers of all time. Love those mounted Indian Tom Toms! Also notice Scott is moving towards using instruments as effects and blocks of sounds to create tension--I am specifically referring to the trumpet part that centers on one prolonged vibrato note. And check the insane clarinet part. When Burks first introduced me to this stuff, he described it as the speed metal of 40's Jazz. Not bad. And after listening to this stuff, think how the Star Wars bar band sounds. Homage to Dad? Here is the Wooden Indians Clip with apologies to any Native Americans who interpret this to be mocking their culture. (Incidentally, I have never understood why the term Native American is preferable to Indian. I mean sure the term comes from Columbus's mistake thinking that he had discovered the sea passage to the East Indies--hence the term Indian. But if that is not PC, why do we still insist on referring to them as "Americans" which is a reference to the obscure Italian 15th Century mapmaker, Amerigo Vespucci, Columbus's mentor? Is that really less insulting? Just sayin') Enough blather, here is the wardance:

Is that not awesome?

Raymond Scott later became a pioneer in Electronic music developing early oscillators and other instruments that ultimately evolved into the synthesizer. Once he even created a set of albums in the fifties that were entirely electronic and marketed to young space-age parents as electronic lullabies for babies.

Here is the cover of Volume one. I think it got more complex for older babies.

He actually later collaborated with Robert Moog to create some of the very earliest synthesizers. Also carved out a niche for himself in the advertizing world adding electronic sounds to early radio and TV advertising

Here are a few pics of Raymond Scott and amazing early synthesizers he personally created.

All those machines create music like this:


update: I have some new Raymond Scott to share!! Here is a nice lengthy trailer for a documentary about Ray.

And here is another great Raymond Scott clip (again check out Johnny Williams on the drums):

And here is a later clip of electronic music created by Raymond Scott for Nescafe:And Finally another supremely surreal commercial by Ray:

Thursday, October 2, 2008

How is it even possible?

Ok perhaps this is just rank sentimentalism, but after downloading Brubeck's Time Out and giving it a good relisten, I am just feeling all nostalgic. (See my Meadowlark post). SO I decided that it might be cool to have a copy of the print on the cover. I do a little research and find that it is a painting by S. Neil Fujita, who is apparently a legendary graphic artist. He also did the album cover for Mingus Ah Um, which is among the greatest jazz albums of all time IMHO.

SO I start looking for this guy online. I find all these articles and books that make reference to him and that he was this legendary, influential graphic artist, but I cannot find any prints. No websites dedicated to his work. Only one image. How is it even possible that this guy who was this legendary figure in his field has less of a web presence than I do. Maybe he doesn't own his art? Anyway here are cool images.
Oh and How is it that one of the most accessible to the mainstream jazz albums starts with a tune in 9/8 (Blue Rondo a la Turk)and the most familiar tune on the album is in 5/4(Take Five)? So complex and weird, yet not jarring in the least. And that drum solo that stretches and contracts to time signature? Solid gas and groove, daddy.
Here's Dave and the boys playing "Blue Rondo a la Turk" going back and forth from 9/8 to 4/4. Crazy. The 4/4 kicks in at 1:54.

And if you're interested, here is a clip from Jazz Casual of "Take Five" in 5/4.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pitching the Wang Wang Doodle with Whitey

I wrote this in 1995. I think I was trying to sound like Tom Wolfe or Nat Henthoff.

I first met Willy at Burly Earl's. Burly Earl's, or Burly's as it is usually called, is a Deli on Seventh Avenue. It used to have a big mural on the side that featured a large, crazed-looking cartoon character about to devour an enormous pita bread sandwich. I was always under the impression that the character depicted on the side was a caricature of a guy named Earl who really loved sandwiches--probably the owner. But somewhere along the line, perhaps because of a management change, Burly's decided to class-up its image. The mural is gone, and the sign hanging out front pictures a man dressed in 16th century European garb. I assume he is supposed to be an earl since they changed the sign out front to read "The Burly Earl" instead of "Burly Earl's." He bears no resemblance to the atmosphere inside. I miss the crazy sandwich-eating man.

The music at Burly's was lame, usually some guy with a cheap acoustic guitar singing Jimmy Buffet or Cat Stevens. One night, David Burks, the drummer for my band tells me that I need to come down to Burly's to hear a blues act he is playing with. The name of the band was Willy King of the Blues Liberators with the 47th Street Blues Band. Actually, it was two bands. Willy King and the Blues Liberators were an all black blues band from Pickens County, Alabama, and the 47th Street Blues Band was an all white blues band from Birmingham. Willy is probably in his late forties or early fifties. It's hard to judge the age of blues players since many of them look pretty weatherbeaten and/or lose teeth early.

Willy is on stage with his trusty sidekick Kenny, a young singer/tambourine player, and they're both wearing this kind of African dashiki and one of those brimless African hats. When I see him, I'm thinking "This guy looks African, but he sure don't sound African." He is playing down home Delta blues. When I studied Black American Literature in college, I remember the professor talking about the theme of the struggle for identity in Black American Literature. At least according to this professor, many Blacks in America are constantly wrestling with their cultural identity. You know, they're thinking "should I be like an African, or should I embrace White American values and customs? I don't think Willy did a lot of conscious identity wrestling. I'd be willing to bet that Willy just thought the threads looked cool.

Willy is playing a cheap Strat copy, a Fernandez I think, through a low-end solid state amp, the knobs of which have long been lost. He is not using a pick (pretty common among Black blues players of Willy's generation), and he is getting a great sound. Good equipment adds polish to your sound, and I believe that the lack of good equipment is one of the reasons that Black players sound so raw. Lesson: Cheap = Raw, and raw fascinates white middle-class audiences.
Later that evening, I had the good fortune to have my first opportunity to sit in with Willy. I get on stage, plug in my guitar, and look to Willy for some hint as to what to play. He just gives me this look as if to say "Well? Let's see what you got, man." He just starts the tune without even giving me the key or the progression or even a 1,2,3,4. Well, I guess I did o.k. because I ended up kind of displacing the guitar player for that band, which I've always felt bad about because he was a hell of a nice guy. Many blues players are not nice guys, or at least they don't let on that they are nice guys. Groucho Marx once said that audiences should be treated with utter disdain. Many blues players cop this attitude and even extend it to other musicians. I guess it's a way of asserting one's self.

There's this cat named Topper Price--one of the best harp players I've ever heard. He's not a bad vocalist either. He's got the blues attitude. You look at this guy, and you know you're looking at the real deal. He doesn't split his life in two--no stage persona. He's gone whole hog. Audiences may not consciously be aware of such things, but they sure do respond to it--at least white audiences do.

A lot of young, white blues players complain justifiably that guys like Willy can get in front of a microphone, strap on an electric guitar, play the most elementary nonsense--badly--, get the lyrics all wrong, and still get a standing ovation. A young white guy could get on stage and do the exact same thing note for note and be laughed right off the stage. The reason Willy gets the response is because white audiences coming to see Willy don't want precision. They want to see Whole Hog. Topper Price is young, white, and about as Whole Hog as they come.
He's got a boldness that few white players ever get hip to. A blues player has to proclaim his greatness. Humility ain't hip. But a blues player should never be serious about his boasting. It's got to be done with a smile. Muddy Waters says "I'm A Man" and then he spells it out for you just so there is absolutely no misunderstanding as to his manliness. Topper also seems to have zeroed in on the fact that the blues is not sadness; it is catharsis. Its function is to effect the proper purgation of pitiable and fearful events from the soul of the man on stage. That is why good blues is not maudlin; it is very matter of fact. I respect Topper.

I wrote a song once about Topper. Actually it is more a song to Topper. It's kind of a boasting jab at him telling him that his time is up because I'm making the scene. I say to him that I'm going to "trim his hedge." Hedge trimming is a cool blues metaphor that I copped from an old blues cat named Johnny Shines. Suppose some guy is playing in a club and he's really givin' it to 'em. If I start playing in the place across the street, and a bunch of those folks walk over and check me out, then I've just done a little hedge trimming.

Well my band starts playing this song for a couple of months, and it gets a pretty good response. One friend of Dave's named Mike particularly likes the tune. He's heard us play it at practice and in the clubs and always comments about it. We're playing the Nick one night, which is a very dirty club in Birmingham, but one of the few places bands can play anything they want, and we're about to do the Topper tune, and he walks in the door--Topper Price in all his scraggly glory. I look over at Dave, and he knows what is next on the list. He just kinda smiles as if to say "Whaddya Yella?." So I start it up. Topper sits down, and Mike immediately goes over to him to explain to him that the song is about him. I sing the song looking directly at him, kind of asserting my self, and I'm thinking about Muddy singing "I'm a Man." We finish the song and call Willy up to the stage to do his thing. As Willy comes up, I see Topper leave. I remember feeling a little disappointed that he didn't even acknowledge my jab at him. So we start into Willy's first song, and in Topper comes again carrying his bag. The notorious bag-o-harps. He walks up to me and holds up the bag as if to say "Mind if I play." I signal him to come on up. Topper is not smiling. Willy gives him a solo, and he starts soaring into some of the most beautiful tones I've ever heard. When the song is over, he shakes everyone's hand but mine and walks off the stage. He leaves the bar before the set is over. The man is undeniably cool. He rose to the occasion and picked up the gauntlet. Totally put me in my place.

One time somebody booked us for a gig playing for a Postal-workers Union party. Well, I show up ready to do my usual thing, which is to fill in the gaps, take solos and do my best to try to fix Willy's weird timing. I walk up, and sitting there is George. George is older than Willy, and is the other half of the Blues Liberators. He is sitting there wearing a bright orange polyester suit with a matching hat and a printed shirt. I can't help but think to myself, "Who in the hell made this suit, and what were they thinking? Has there ever been a market for such a garment?" I mean the shirt collar reached his shoulders. All he needed to complete this package of nonfunctional threads was a pair of platform shoes and a Bolo string tie--and perhaps a really enormous belt buckle. But that's just the thing. George is whole hog. The white audiences come to see the whole hog suit in all its horrible, shiny, bright-orange beauty.

George is a hog (I use hog here in the sense of one who is very possessive of the attention focused on the band). He takes every guitar solo. Some old players are like that. They want to prove to you that you ain't got nothing, whether you do or not. They aren't interested in what you got, and they expect you to be real interested and complementary of what they got. I guess it's like when you tell your kids that they have to sit in the back seat of the car. They can carry on all they want, and your response is that grownups sit in front. When they grow up, they can sit in the front. But until then, they take a back seat.

This guy is really aloof.

There is a horrible song that Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder did together called "Ebony and Ivory." The lyric goes something like:

Ebony and ivory
Live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard
Tell me why don't we?
Well Paul and Stevie are kind of stretching the truth a bit. You may be able to get perfect harmony with black keys and white keys on a piano keyboard but they won't be side by side. The only thing you get playing adjacent black and white keys is tension and discord. In fact there is no more discordant combination of keys on the keyboard. The great Thelonious Monk would, however, use these combinations in improvised solos. At first the listener might think they were klinkers or mistakes. But if you imagine the music without them, it would seem antiseptic. It would sound like elevator music. These discordances make Monk's music interesting and alive. I guess it's kind of the same strategy that prompts women to use beauty marks. You put a mark on your face to attract attention and at the same time force people to think "Man, she would be a babe if she didn't have that hideous mark on her face." Interestingly, Monk called these discordances "blue notes."

I think the screw-ups that Willy makes serve the same purpose. The audience never can seem to get the timing exactly right because there is no timing. White listeners try to intellectually analyze what he is doing. They say things like "How is he doing that--is he adding in an extra half beat?" or "It sounds like he's playing a thirteen bar blues instead of a twelve bar." And they're smiling all the time like they've solved the morning crossword. The big joke is that Willy doesn't even know. He couldn't play the same song twice with the same timing if his life depended on it. He plays like James Joyce writes. Only if you look at Joyce's writing enough, you'll eventually figure it out. The best you can hope for with Willy is to kind of "tune in" to his conciousness, try your best to anticipate him, and pray everyone else does too.

The other part of Paul and Stevie's metaphor is the black and white thing. Willy's band at that time was bi-cultural. The big stars of the show were black. We were all white. At some point Willy felt he needed to address that issue, and he did so by writing a song called "Come together." Like Paul and Stevie, he longs for racial harmony. But if we played "in perfect harmony" as Paul and Stevie suggest, the music would be one big audio barbiturate. There's also something about playing black music for a predominantly white audience that is interestingly tense. The average white audience member is fascinated by black culture, but doesn't want to go to a black club and be immersed in it. Willy is therefore akin to the friendly ambassador. He, like adjacent Ebony and Ivory on the keyboard and Monk's blue notes is able to create just the right amount of tension. Tension is cool, and cool gets gigs.

My guitar playing is not innovative. That is not to say that I'm not a good player. On the contrary, I'm the best there is. By saying that I'm not an innovative guitarist, I'm merely saying that my playing is more nostalgic than ground-breaking. The chops and licks I play are subconciously tied to memory. The things I play sound slightly familiar. That's usually because half of it is stolen from other songs. I lift other player's licks frequently. All players do it. I may hear a little snatch of something in a Buddy Guy solo that strikes me, so I steal it, put my own spin on it, and use it in my own context--maybe even build a whole song around it. The blues is largely creative stealing.

There are lots of tricks to being a good blues player. Rock and rollers have trouble getting the hang of the blues sometimes because they don't understand the attitude. I try to gently ease people into my music like I'm setting them up in a nice old chair that is good and broken-in. Only just as they are getting all nice and comfortable, I kill them with something that is all mine. Of course the most important trick to learn about blues playing is economy. You got to learn to make 'em wait for it.

You know, I've talked about race and tension and their relationship with the blues, but for me, there is one overriding tension, and at times it can be crippling. The problem is that I'm a white, upper-middle-class kid who has never been in dire straits finacially, and virtually all the women I've ever been with have treated me with respect and conducted themselves with dignity. I am and always have been pathtically content. I listen to the blues; I understand the blues; I love the blues; but I don't identify with the blues. When I read interviews with blues players, I constantly come across the same statement: "the blues is universal." I'm not so sure that this is true. I mean, when I hear Howlin' Wolf sing "You mix my drink with a can of Red Devil Lye," I inevitably come to the conclusion that his reality is pretty far removed from my own. The question that I keep asking myself is do I have a stage persona, or am I whole hog? Does a guy like me belong singing the blues? Is my show the genuine article, or is it just "The Bluescapades?" The sneaking suspicion I have is that I'm just a historian, not an artist-- like a guy who knows all about a subject, maybe as much as anyone, but can never be a true part of what he studies.

Maybe I'm the one with the identity crisis. What the hell is white, suburban, middle-class culture anyway? Wonder bread? The Brady Bunch? Not exactly rich. Maybe it is that emptiness that defines us. We are the great bourgeoisie. In the great scheme of things, am I defined by my lack of any sort of defineable culture? The central question is this: Does an artist have to be of a particular culture to produce the art of that culture? If not, then what's left for a guy like me who comes from a bourgeois background? What culture do I have available draw upon for inspiration? "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" I don't think so. Should I just write cookbooks?

I'm beginning to ask questions that I have no answers for. Maybe it is beacuse of this sense of emptiness that the white middle class is attracted to the blues in the first place. That's why they want to see the orange suit. That's why they are fascinated by the raw blues sound. That's why they love the boldness and the assertiveness of the blues. That's why they love the whole hog. It is to fill a cultural void, the same void that the beat generation felt. Maybe that void is the root of my blues.

Here's a little clip of Willie King, long after I played with him.

Topper Price died a few years back. Broke my heart. Here's a clip:

Mark Kimbrell Plays the Toaster

A couple of things you should know first. Let me introduce you to one of my all time favorite musicians, Mark Kimbrell. He is the son of a sort of Birmingham Jazz Legend, Henry Kimbrell. Henry was a player's player. My parents knew him pretty well. The old man used to say that Henry could play like anyone. He was like this genius piano mimic. He could play like Peterson, Tatum, Monk, Powell--you name it. I think it was like part of his act--play the same tune as different people. He is an inductee in the Alabama Jazz Hall Of Fame. So anyway his son, Mark, is this jazz guitar phenomenon.

He is one of those guys that has the twelve tone brain. Nothing is against the rules. I have played with him many times, but it is like every time I do, I find myself mesmerized by his playing to the extent that I have trouble with my own chops! It's like his backup is cooler and more interesting than my lead when it is my turn to solo. I cannot count the number of times that I have gigged with other jazz guitarists when after the gig the conversation drifts to Mark's playing.

Here are my thoughts on why I love the man. His playing is just courageous. As unassuming and shy as he is in conversation, his playing is full of courage. He does things that the rest of us are afraid to do. He will lock in on a lick in a solo and repeat it while everyone else pedals around him. This is a pretty common thing to do playing jazz, but Mark just takes it to that next level. He will do it until it creates this tension in the room. He will do it until the squares in the room bristle. Then seemingly when his playing has gone around the room and slapped everyone, and even the people who are just there to flirt and try to get laid are looking up to the stage to see if someone is having a stroke, he releases it. Storytelling with notes. Tension and release.

Sometimes his playing is like watching a really smart standup act. He is slipping in allusions all over the place. In the middle of something lyrical, he'll toss in a piece of King Crimson's Red. The hipsters all smile.

But among the most delightful things about the guy is the way he says things between sets in conversation. One night I had seen him play this really quirky set with Matthew Devine. They had played this great version of "Epistrophy". Maximum quirk. So I go up to him and say "nice set, Mark." His quick unhesitating and self depricating reply was, "Sometimes, it feels like a guitar in my hands; and sometimes it feels like I am playing this weird toaster."

A toaster. Classic.

Once we were playing together, and it was actually my gig. Mark was nice enough to pull me out of the fire when another guitar player cancelled on me at the last minute. So at one point we are going to play "Donna Lee" by Charlie Parker. It is this fast bebop number loosely based on the chord changes to "Indiana"--only the head is really complicated and Parker-crazy. So I call out that tune, and Mark leans over to me and says "Learning that head gave me back trouble."

There's just a perfection in so many of the things he says and plays. What can I say? I just love the man. Here's the man playing with Otiel. He's playing the red guitar and taunting the audience at the end.