Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts

Thelonius Monk – born October 10, 1917

October 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Happy 100th Birthday!

Musicians often refer to songs by jazzers as “tunes.” Whose tune is that?” one musician might ask another who has just played something that’s not entirely familiar?   Standards (by Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers, Arlen, et al.) can be “songs,” maybe because they come ready-made with lyrics. But  numbers by jazz musicians are usually “tunes” – Bud Powell tunes, Bird tunes.

The works of a few jazz greats are spoken of as not just tunes but also as “compositions.” Ellington, of course, who wrote works that lent themselves to full arrangements for his orchestra.  But also Monk, even though most of his compositions were originally vehicles for a trio or quartet or even just solo piano. Most of these are in the standard 32-bar format, but for some reason I cannot quite explain, while Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia” is a tune, “Round Midnight” is a composition.

It’s fairly easy to understand why a tune is a composition when it has notes in addition to the melody that are essential. “Ruby My Dear,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Monk’s Mood,” and others. But even Monk’s tunes that can be written as a single-line lead-sheet are thought of as compositions. “Well, You Needn’t” is a 32-bar AABA tune, and the A section has only two alternating chords, F and G-flat. Yet it’s a “composition.”

Here’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” recorded in 1957.


The album is “Monk’s Music” – Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Gigi Gryce alto, Ray Copeland trumpet,Wilbur Ware bass, Shadow Wilson drums. I wish I knew more about this recording date. Except for Coltrane and perhaps Shadow Wilson, these were not people Monk was playing regularly with.

Hijacking Charlie Parker on His Birthday

August 29, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I suppose I should feel elated that a New York Times op-ed features both Charlie Parker and Emile Durkheim. But what Arthur Brooks (here) really wants to do is not to celebrate Bird on his birthday but to caution us all against too much individual freedom.
“To be truly free to enjoy the best things in life, set proper moral standards for yourself and live within them as undeviatingly as Charlie Parker did in his music.”
Of course, when Bird, along with Dizzy Gillespie and others, started playing what came to be known as bebop, most listeners rejected the music as too free, too far outside the constraints of the melody and chords. Some musicians felt the same way. When Diz was in Cab Calloway’s band, Calloway told him to “stop playing that damn Chinese music” or leave the band.

What was “too free” yesterday is today conventional. Read what people said about Ornette in 1960, and you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Bird is not the only one that Brooks wants to play his arrangements. There’s the paradox-of-choice riff: “The ‘paradox of choice’ is a well-established phenomenon,” he says. Maybe. It certainly makes for an interesting TED talk. But a lot of research doesn’t support it. I also note that every supermarket I’ve seen in the past few years still stocks a staggering variety of jams and jellies.

As for Durkheim, Brooks has him play this line:
“[The] results were clear: Individuals are less likely to hurt themselves in communities with more clearly articulated moral boundaries.”
I’m not a Durkheim scholar, but I’d be curious to see if a text search of Suicide turned up anything about moral boundaries. I’d put it differently. The most relevant types of suicide Durkheim outlines are anomic and egoistic. “Anomic suicide” rises when the socially distributed means are out of proportion to socially induced desires. “Egoistic suicide” is highest where people are more individualistic and less attached to social groups and the society as a whole. If this involves morality, it’s a morality that de-emphasizes the collective in favor of the individual.

Brooks apparently was a decent sax player in his day, and he currently heads a successful right-wing think tank (American Enterprise Institute) whose work can include good social science. But Charlie Parker does not belong in the AEI. Why not let him rest in peace?  Bird’s music was about music – the sounds, the tunes, the chords and notes and rhythms. It was not about morality.


Here’s Bird’s 1953 recording of Confirmation, probably his best composition. (I was going to choose “Moose the Mooche,” also a fine tune based on “I Got Rhythm” changes. The Mooche was not a presidential adviser. He was Bird’s connection.)



Chasing the Dragon

August 6, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Three weeks ago, I posted this photo on my Facebook, adding that apparently KEEPOFF had a solid fan base at the Jersey shore.


A former student (Thomas Springsteen, no relation) commented: “Their early stuff was way better.”

Perfect. It’s what people always say. At least, it seems that way to me. Is there systematic evidence of the earlier-was-better bias? Well, sort of.

Philip Cohen asked people to rate performers twice on a scale of 1 (“terrible”) to 5 (“great”):
  • how good were they in the 70s?
  • how good were they in the 80s?
Here are the results.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Most groups are on the 1970s side of the line of equality. And of those few who were better in the 80s, except for Pat Benatar and perhaps Prince and Michael Jackson, the degree of improvement is small.

Philip’s explanation (here)  is that his respondents are accurate reporters – music really did go downhill in the 80s, along with the whole damn Zeitgeist.

As I look back on these events – Reagan, the Cold War, sell-out music – in the context of what I thought of as my emerging adulthood, they seemed to herald a dark future, in which loss of freedom and individuality, the rise of the machines, and runaway capitalism was reflected in the decline of rock music.


Maybe. But maybe the results in this graph might not be so fixed in the historical moment. My guess is that he would have gotten similar results no matter what dividing point he chose. And not because of some inevitable law of musical entropy. It’s not the music, it’s the audience. The sound of a group or performer when they first becomes popular defines who they are. And that’s what we want to hear. We think: that’s what they sound like, and I really like it.

But what happens after a few years? The group can keep turning out music that sounds pretty much the same. We the fans think: yeah, it still sounds like them. But we don’t get that same thrill we had when we first heard them or saw them in concert.

Or the performers get bored and search out new sounds. They then risk losing their audience. A few can bring their audience along with them in these new explorations, like Dylan when he went electric or the Beatles with “Sgt. Pepper.” But these, I think, are exceptions.

My guess is that the graph looks the way it does for the same reason that we have oldies stations. We want to hear the songs that made us fans to begin with. Their early stuff was way better.

Giant Steps - by Jerome Kern

July 17, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Coltrane died fifty years ago today. (The rest of this post is a bit technical. My apologies.)

The “Giant Steps” album of 1959 was a turning point in jazz. The title tune represented a new idea in chord sequences.  “What are those chords, man?” everyone seemed to be asking.  “B D G Bb Eb - how do you play through that?” Even the great Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the “Giant Steps” date, seems to be struggling with the changes.

As Wikipedia says, “The ‘Giant Steps’ cycle is the culmination of Coltrane's theories applied to a completely new chord progression.”

Instead of the usual progression (C, Am7, Dm7, G7) and its small variations, “Giant Steps” is based on the augmented triad B, G, Eb, with passing chords in between. Wikipedia charts the usual ii-V-I sequence against the Coltrane version.

That progression soon became part of the jazz vocabulary.

Of course, nothing is totally new. One night as I was sitting at the bar at Bradley’s, the guy I was talking to said, “You know, the ‘Giant Steps’ are in the verse to ‘Till the Clouds Roll By.’” That song was written by Jerome Kern (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse) in 1917 – the earliest days of the golden age of the American popular song.  I was skeptical. Coltrane’s revolutionary changes. Eventually I found the sheet music, and there they were.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Here’s the classic recording, with Coltrane’s solo transcribed and animated.

Ella

April 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is Ella Fitzgerald’s centennial – she was born April 25, 1917 – and this my only Ella story.

One night I was sitting at the bar in Bradley’s with two pianists who had been accompanists for great singers – Dave Frishberg, who worked briefly with Carmen McRae and Anita O’Day, and Tommy Flanagan, who for many years was Ella’s musical director.  “I can’t play in sharp keys,” Frishberg said, exaggerating, and Tommy agreed. Jazz musicians prefer flat keys. That’s what they’re familiar with.*

“Did you ever try to change a key with Ella?” Frishberg asked.

“Yeah, if she did a song in A, sometimes I’d try playing the intro in A♭” Tommy said. “And she’d look over at me. ‘Is that my key?’”

In addition to everything else, she had perfect pitch.

Here are Ella and Tommy doing Errol Garner’s “Misty.” Ella does the first eight bars in B♭ but then moves up to the key of B (five sharps) for the remainder of the song.




------------------
*Rock, folk, bluegrass and other guitar-based music is usually in sharp keys – G, D, A, E. Anyone who starts guitar learns those chords; they’re easy because of the open strings. But jazz is horn-based. Jazz musicians are more likely to be playing tunes in five flats (D♭ major) than in one sharp (G major).

Still Standing By

October 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

An op-ed in the Times framed the first debate, and by implication the entire presidential election, as “The Minivan vs. the Maserat.” I preferred David Plotz’s take – Bart vs. Lisa.


Like Bart, Trump is often the impish devil, the bad boy. He does things his supporters would like to do were it not for the stultifying forces of political correctness. He doesn’t care about being offensive. He lives to offend. He mocks and insults those who would try to inhibit him. He pranks the smugly superior. And he never apologizes.

This persona plays well to White working-class men. An ABC News poll from Sept. 22 shows that support growing.



If White working-class men were the only voters, Trump would be a shoo-in. Nothing can alienate them. As Trump himself said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” Well, he wouldn’t lose any of that core demographic.

But what about White working-class women? The ABC News poll shows them favoring Trump 52% - 40%, still pretty strong, but that poll was taken before the first debate. I have not found any post-debate data about those women, but I wonder how they will respond to Trump’s latest – defending his fat-shaming of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, then tossing some slut-shaming on top of that.

Will the Wal*Mart women appreciate Trump’s views on a woman carrying few extra pounds? Or will they sympathize with Ms. Machado? Might they see this as Trump’s version of political correctness? In both cases, working-class people are being measured against the standards of some cultural elite, and they resent it. If men resent having their attitudes characterized as “racist,” maybe women will resent having their bodies characterized as “disgusting” (one of Trump’s favorite adjectives).   

I also wonder how they will react to the new anti-Clinton strategy Trump just announced.  “She’s nasty, but I can be nastier than she ever can be.” What is he going to be nasty about?


Will White working-class women appreciate nastiness the way men might? And will they support nastiness directed at a woman because her husband strays? Trump thinks so.

Trump defended his choice to bring up Bill Clinton's sexual infidelities by speculating it would steal away female voters from his opponent. (NY Times)

I have absolutely no poll data on how Trump-supporting women feel about other women whose husbands cheat. But I did find this document – a song that spent three weeks at #1 on the country charts and rose to #19 on the pop charts (behind, among others, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”). That was in 1969, but in the song had many subsequent covers. I am referring, of course, to Tammy Wynette’s classic “Stand By Your Man.”

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man
You'll have bad times, and he'll have good times,
Doin’ things that you don’t understand.

But if you love him, you’ll forgive him
Even though he’s hard to understand.
And if you love him, oh be proud of him
’Cause after all he’s just a man.

Stand by your man, give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
When nights are cold and lonely.
Stand by your man, and show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can.
Stand by your man.

Here is a very recent performance – Kellie Pickler at the Grand Old Opry last year.




Gone is the Tammy Wynette big hair and big mascara of nearly 50 years ago. But the sincerity of the performance and the reaction of the audience suggest that the underlying sentiment still resonates, especially in Trumpland.* Will Trump win votes by reminding women that Hillary stood by her man?

----------------------------------
*The song is such an emblematic cultural artifact that I have used it before in this blog here) and here.)


An Old Stand-by

August 30, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post about Ann Romney’s speech, I left out something important.  I had remembered a 1978 sociology article, but there was something else in the speech, something familiar that I couldn’t quite bring to the surface.  Then I read Amanda Marcotte’s Slate article, “Ann Romney Acknowledges, Embraces Sexism.”  Says Marcotte, Ann Romney
offered up a . . . list of the very injustices feminists have worked, with some success, to eliminate. . . .There Ann Romney was, acknowledging that even conservative women know it to be true: Women work harder for less pay and less respect. She described sexism in fairly blunt terms.
But while Mrs. Romney aptly described the sexist inequality,
she framed it not as a problem to be fixed but a trial that women have to endure. . . . Instead of demanding equality, she encouraged her female audience instead to take their payment in martyrdom.
Then I remembered.  Not a 1978 article but a 1968 hit song. 


Yes, just as Mrs. Romney says, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. 

I blogged this song several years ago , making essentially the same point that Marcotte is making.  On the surface, the woman is offering support for the status quo.  But the text is actually a critique of the system.  (My post, including the full lyric, is here,)

The contradiction is clearer if we imagine a Saudi version
Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,
Sharing your man with three co-wives,
And knowin’ that you ladies
Get lashed if you drive the Mercedes
And wearin’ clothes that only show your eyes.
Stand by your man, . . .
When I’ve mentioned “Stand by Your Man” to students, I get only blank stares.  But it might be big this week at the False Consciousness karaoke bar in Tampa.