Jazz has led the way in integration as a social and cultural model at least since 1938

George Shearing, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich, at the Madison Square Garden Jazz Festival in New York, in 1959. Photo: Herb Snitzer /MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY

Sure, pianist George Shearing (pictured, above left) was literally blind, to color and everything else (and once made an album with all three Black Montgomery brothers –Wes, Buddy and Monk). Nevertheless, this photo – which prompted this brief essay – signifies, for me, the pan-racial solidarity of jazz as a social model, including brash, super-egotistical Buddy Rich — in 1959. 1

I’m no Rich expert but, a cursory examination of his noteworthy 1967 album Speak No Evil, reveals how integrated his sensibilities and practices were by then. The title tune is by the great African-American saxophonist composer Wayne Shorter. The album also includes compositions by black artists Earth, Wind and Fire; Natalie Cole; The Pointer Sisters; and The Isley Brothers. His band at the time featured these black musicians: arranger Richard Evans, piano soloist Kenny Barron, bassist Bob Cranshaw, tuba player Howard Johnson, and vocalist Retta Hughes. Speak no evil, indeed.

There were certainly plenty more of integrated jazz bands by 1967, but let’s especially note examples of pioneering pre-’60s white bandleaders whom one might assume could travel and work easier in racially charged regions of America without the “white man’s burden” which is actually “the black man’s burden,” (as author/editor Greg Tate has eloquently documented 2.) of conforming to societal restrictions on integration, and thus helped advance the burgeoning civil rights movement.

The integration saga begins with Benny Goodman who hired star soloists from the Ellington and Basie Orchestras for 1938 at his epic Carnegie Hall concert, and his contemporary quartet with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibist Lionel Hampton. Earlier in the ’30s, he’d hired Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and arranger Fletcher Henderson. In the ’40, Goodman hired guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and saxophonist Wardell Gray.

Among notable 1950s Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz musicians and bands and musicians were Chano Pozo, Machito, Chico O’Farrell, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Prez Prado, Astor Piazolla, Xavier Cugat, singer Harry Belafonte and, yes, that the eclectic Brit George Shearing.

Then in the ’50s, among the most noatable integration developments came from Milwaukee-native and big band leader Woody Herman. He hired a variety of African American musicians in the 1950s, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeters Ernie Royal, Reunald Jones, Nat Adderley, and Howard McGee, and bassists Keter Betts and Major Holley bass. Charlie Parker was guest soloist with the band in early ’50’s.

Herman also hired (white) trumpeter-singer Billie Rogers, one of the first female instrumentalists in a male-dominated band who wasn’t a singe or pianist. *

Speaking of women, in the 1940s, we can’t forget the integrated all-woman big band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

The saxophone section of the 1940s tri-racial orchestra The International Sweethearts of Rhythm Courtesy Rosalind Cron 

Besides Shearing, Herman and Buddy Rich, integrated bands with white leaders included The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lennie Tristano, Art Pepper, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Stan Getz, the black and white co-leadership and integrated personnel of the standard-setting Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and The J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quartet.

Among integrated black leaders of the late 1950s: Miles Davis (famously on Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue), Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, 3 John Coltrane, George Russell, Sarah Vaughan and Bud Powell, who recorded with Buddy Rich back in 1951.

Also, pioneering Black pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams worked with white trombonist Jack Teagarden, and had arranger Milt Orent assist in arrangements for her ambitious 1940s Zodiac Suite.

I know I am forgetting other “integral” leaders from both races.

l’ll just touch lightly on matters of early modern jazz “influence.” Bebop rose as a virtuosic, self-consciously Black-innovated style (like most all major jazz idioms) to deter whites from “stealing” and profiting by mimicking and marketing their style — as happened profligately with swing. Still, bop had a few notable Bud Powell-influenced white pianists, such as Dodo Mamarosa, Joe Albany, and Al Haig. Among 1950s white pianists influenced by Thelonious Monk (and perhaps Herbie Nichols) was the tragically-short-lived Richard Twardzik. 4.  

Perhaps an efficient way to enhance and conclude this brief historical integration story is to note the 1950s phenomenon of “cool jazz,” and here I’m plucking straight from Wikipedia, to dispel the notion this popular genre was the exclusive realm of white West Coast musicians: “Some observers looked down upon West Coast jazz because many of its musicians were white, and because some listeners, critics, and historians perceived that the music was too cerebral, effete, or effeminate, or that it lacked swing.[12][13][14] However, African American musicians played in the style, including Curtis CounceJohn LewisChico HamiltonHarry “Sweets” EdisonBuddy ColletteRed CallenderHarold LandEugene Wright and Hampton Hawes.”

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* Thanks to Curt Hanrahan, music director of The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra, for information on Woody Herman.

  1. Thanks to my good friend, Stephen Braunginn, formerly jazz program host of WORT-FM radio in Madison, and of the Jazz Enthusiasts Facebook group, for posting this photo (at top).
  2. Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, edited by by Greg Tate, Broadway Books 2003. This book addresses what is now known in P.C. terms as cultural appropriation. But it seems to me that white jazz artists who cover and pay royalties to black composers, and who fairly hire black musicians are, as Spike Lee would put it, “doing the right thing.”
  3. Though most famous for his piano-less “free jazz” Ornette Coleman used white pianists on his important earliest recordings, the Live at the Hillcrest date with Paul Bley (a true quiet giant) and Walter Norris on Coleman’s Contemporary label recordings, recently re-released as a 2-CD box set.
  4. Twardzik’s composition “Yellow Tango,” is a Latin-flavored small masterpiece of offbeat jazz, well represented on The Chet Baker Quartet featuring Dick Twardzik Live in Koln.

Pianist Tim Whalen brings his powerful tribute to Bud Powell to the Jazz Estate

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Cover design for Tim Whalen’s “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell” by Jamie Breiwick for  B-Side Graphics. Courtesy www.timothywhalen.com

Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell – Tim Whalen (WayHay Music)

The Tim Whalen Trio will perform on Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee.

“Oblivion,” the title of a Bud Powell tune, might be the single best word to describe the great pianist’s sad legacy. His name is in need of desperate repair, ravaged by the winds of time and his own peculiar fate. Pianist-composer Tim Whalen has gone a considerable distance in accomplishing that with his album Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell. But we must backtrack a bit to understand the title’s significance.

It remains a matter of bald historical fact that Bud Powell was the mid-and-late 40s bebop era’s most sought-after pianist, yet he remains to this day probably the most underappreciated, given his true stature.

His direct contemporary Thelonious Monk has had his day in the sun, something to be celebrated, thanks significantly  to a composing style apart from, and more easily congenial, than the hard-core bebop that Powell excelled at. And their stories interwtine and lead to perhaps the most fateful day of Powell’s career, which also speaks to present-day concerns about police brutality against unarmed black men.

It’s unfortunate that Robin D.G. Kelly’s largely impeccable and voluminous 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, doesn’t note the cruelty and neurological damage done by a police officer on the night of January 21, 1945 to the man that Kelley calls Thelonious Monk’s best friend.  According to Duck Baker, album annotator of Bud Powell Paris Sessions (Pablo 2002), “Bud was foolish enough to interfere with some Philadelphia flatfeet who were getting rough with his best friend, Thelonious Monk.” The bludgeoning Powell suffered for his loyal courage “changed the course of his life, as Bud was led to a series of mental ‘hospitals’ where he was pumped full of pills and given shock treatments.”

Powell’s life generally spiraled downward after that, though he managed a resurgence in 1946, as evidenced by several recordings and, after being readmitted to a mental institution in 1947, by his celebrated Blue Note recordings (especially 1951’s The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 1.) Also excellent are recordings in Europe in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a late reunion with Dexter Gordon on the saxophonist’s superb Our Man in Paris. His career ended in “scuffling obscurity,” says jazz historian Alyn Shipton, due to his complicated mental problems and issues with drugs, and ironically to his return to New York in 1964. This was a man who, in his early 20s with the Cootie Williams Orchestra, had accompanied stage acts “so brilliantly that he outplayed the dancers he was supposed to be accompanying,” bassist Ray Brown recalls in Shipton’s book.1

Regarding the deleterious effects of shock treatment, I can attest, as it has been still used in recent years in sophisticated hospitals and clinics. I witnessed shock treatments given to my late ex-wife who suffered cognitive damage after undergoing them at the Mayo Clinic and other facilities.

Monk, for one, remained much attuned to Powell’s travails. “Bud was a genius, but you know, he was so sick, and now he’s fragile,” Monk once recalled. Another time, Monk commented, “Bud is beautiful. But he’s not doing so well in America, he’s sleeping in the gutter.” Those are both quotes from Kelly’s copious Monk biography, which amounts to a new sort of definitive history of the bebop era.

Nor have I done Powell justice over the years, having become enamored of the late recordings he did of Monk’s music for Verve Records (and his Portrait of Thelonious on Columbia), to the neglect of Powell’s earlier work. Those Monk recordings somehow managed to be marvelous but were recorded long after he had lost his prime bebop musical facility and suffered from many medical peaks and valleys. 2.

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Pianist Tim Whalen at the recording sessions for “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell.” Courtesy timothywhalen.com

All of this underscores the importance and value of Whalen’s recording, which he will be playing from when he performs Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee with bassist Jeff Hamman and drummer Dave Bayles.

Comprising all Powell compositions except one by Whalen, Oblivion opens appropriately enough with “Hallucinations.” It conveys how much Bud possessed a spirit as high as his tragic bop kindred Charlie Parker. Whalen’s solo pushes hard, as if pressing to make a point about the tune’s odd juxtaposition of exuberance and sense of suffering. His heavy percussive attack recalls another bop-era pianist Eddie Costa, although he negotiates the knotty changes with aplomb.

What follows is one of Powell’s dazzling masterpieces, an impressionistic miniature comparable to Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express.” After a fine chordal intro, Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” glitters with an ensemble line evoking a bustling street scene, with the band sounding like a crazy chorus-line of dancing cabs in a Folies Bergere fever dream.

Whalen finds fresh inlets of light by carving out spaces and adding garlands, a sort of blending of street smarts with Francophile ornamentation. Tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed is a modern post-Coltrane player with a rich yet grainy texture to his tone that alludes to classic tenor players and adds an offhanded gravitas to his playing. Guitarist Paul Pieper proves a swift co-conspirator in Powell’s most challenging harmonic gauntlets. Drummer Sharif Taher here has a powerful chugging style reminiscent of Tony Williams.

“Kind Bud” is a deeper, darker aspect of Powell’s bebop and for its blues lament, almost intimates a political statement about the tragic fate of such a gifted artist, especially regarding his awareness of his place in society as a black man in a white man’s world.

“Un Poco Loco” is another ironic commentary on his own afflictions and perhaps the album’s hardest swinging tune, especially on Balbed’s surging sax solo. Whalen, by contrast, allows the music to breathe a bit, while never betraying the tune’s structural integrity.

The CD’s ensuing “Blue Pearl” is a rather glimmering beauty with a slight Latin tempo. The comparatively little-known tune has a lapidarian quality, reflecting a craftsman of precise discipline that begets beauty. Here and elsewhere, bassist Eliott Seppa’s harmonizing with the piano-guitar-saxophone frontline recalls the Heath Brothers at their peak.

One would expect the title tune “Oblivion” to sound as abject as say, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” but the band understands it as a “bouncing with Bud” blues that signifies a devil-may-care attitude. That suggests Powell’s peculiar brilliance as searingly self-possessed in the knowledge of how his black genius was betrayed. Yet he’d never let on, never let you see him pitying himself.

Bud photoBud Powell during the years he recorded with Blue Note Records. Courtesy estaticos 02.elmundo.es

Sometimes Powell’s themes and solos can be almost overwhelming, but you get a heaping helping of bop at its most modernistic and visionary and yet with a long shadow cast over it, as the CD cover’s noirish watercolor landscape superbly conveys. So perhaps even now, this music isn’t for everyone, but there’s no doubt it’s a bracing and historic statement of an art form evolving to extraordinary artistic heights.

Whalen offers his own ode to Bud, in “I’ll Keep Loving You,” a brooding ballad that feels like a stealthy suitor stealing into the beloved’s heart even if the lover’s been long gone, off in another world.

Still, Whalen and company assure that Bud Powell has returned, in hallowed honor.

Whalen is a distinctly ambitious musician who has led both a popular R&B/funk jazz ensemble and a nonet, largely of Madison-based musicians, for a number of years. Among numerous accomplishments since moving to Washington DC in 2010, he orchestrated the string arrangement for the Oscar-winning song “El Otro Lado del Rio” by Jorge Drexler from the film The Motorcycle Diaries.

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1 Alyn Shipton recounts Powell’s triumphs and tragedy in his A New History of Jazz on pages 491-495.

2. Despite Powell’s apparent loss of top-end technical facility in later years, the musical relationship between him and Monk remained crucial and vital. Some argue that Powell was Monk’s best interpreter. Seminal bebop drummer Kenny Clarke reputedly said, “Monk wrote for Bud. All his music was written for Bud, because he figured but was the only one who could play it.” https://www.amazon.com/Portrait-Thelonious-Bud-Powell/dp/B000002AHT