Tag Archives: jazz

Celebrate Music: Two Quick Picks

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If you’ve been to the library, its webpage, or its social media presence lately, you’ve probably noticed that our Black History month theme, Celebrate Music, is in full effect throughout the library system. With so many great sounds floating around, it can be difficult to pick just one to explore, so here’s a sampler duet of music-related materials you might enjoy.


hendrixStarting at Zero, Jimi Hendrix. Alan Douglas (his producer) and filmmaker Peter Neal took it upon themselves to edit letters, interviews, random napkin scribbles, and other writings Hendrix left behind into a coherent, poetic facsimile of an autobiography. As he walks us through his early life, time in the Army, and first forays into musicianship, Hendrix reveals himself to be a thoughtful, passionate young man with a vision larger than his abilities could express. After leaving for England and becoming part of the scene there, his writing grows more confident and sure, and his dedication to his practice begins to produce the results of those wild, extraordinary visions. Reading this book will make you want to sit down and listen through the entire Hendrix catalog again (we can help you with that), and wonder what rock music would be like today if he had lived even a little longer. The book’s companion website is equally stunning, too.

Kansas City Lightning, Stanley Crouch. Turning from the crouchScreaming Eagle, we go back through time to the man called Bird and the musical community that nurtured and influenced him. Crouch’s book, the first of a two-part biography of Charlie Parker, mingles tales from the musician’s childhood and growth to maturity with the stories of the men who became his mentors, comrades and rivals, a list that includes–but is not limited to–Lester Young, Chu Berry, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and Walter Brown.  This alone would have been terrific, but Crouch takes it a step further and a generation back to paint the entire portrait of the Kansas City jazz scene, with such luminaries as Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Walter Page and their legendary bands. If this book doesn’t keep you hopping back and forth between the page and the library catalog–and/or YouTube–you might want to check to see if you still have a pulse, because this book swings. Hard.

It’s really difficult to pick just two musicians to talk about when your choices range from Jelly Roll Morton to Janelle Monae, but I’ve always been partial to jazz and classic rock. Luckily, other library workers throughout the Carnegie system have created a dazzling array of music-related programs, including a screening of ROCKSTEADY: The Roots of Reggae on 2/18/14,  that explores your full range of choices. Which African American musical artists are you celebrating this month?

–Leigh Anne

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Contrasting Early and Late Art Pepper

Many musicians’ careers go like this: early efforts bristling with rawness and urgency, a successful creative peak where a bit of polish is added but doesn’t overwhelm, and then a long downward slope where earlier ambition is replaced by simply refining or just plain simplifying one’s sound.  A case in point might be the progressive rock band Rush who after their late 70s/early 80s peak mostly abandoned odd-time signatures and epic-length works to concentrate more on songwriting.  Boo.

Anyway, it’s exciting to look at an early and a late recording by an artist and see the reverse happen.  Take saxophonist Art Pepper (1925-1982) and contrast his Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section album from 1957 with his Complete Village Vanguard Sessions from 1977.  The former showcases Pepper’s facility, brevity and clean tone while the latter documents more sonic experimentation with longer songs, longer solos, and an exploration of the noisier potential of his instrument.

Of course, some of the difference can be attributed to one being a studio recording and the other being a live album.  But also in the interim between 1957 and 1977, the influence of soul-searching, sonic explorer, saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) can’t be denied.  Pepper’s use of Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones (1927-2004), for the gigs at the Vanguard further reinforces the Coltrane connection.  Also certainly, Pepper’s mental illness and drug problems affected his process, both creatively in manic episodes where he would write new material all night in his hotel bathroom or destructively where years of his career were lost to addiction and prison.  Read his memoir Straight Life: the Story of Art Pepper or watch Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor if you want to know more, but for now, I’ll advise concentrating on his music and avoiding any romanticizing of troubled artists.

Check out those two worthwhile recordings (and others) and hear what Art Pepper was able to accomplish despite his troubles.

— Tim

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Discovering a New Drummer: Marcus Gilmore

Lately I’ve been listening to Vijay Iyer’s 2005 album Reimagining.  Even though Iyer is a one-of-a-kind pianist, since I’m a drummer, let’s be honest, I’m paying lots of attention to the drummer, Marcus Gilmore.  Instead of the standard, swingin’, ding-dinga-ding ride cymbal pattern of traditional jazz, Gilmore chops up the time to follow Iyer’s quirky lines.  Yet he still drives the music along.

According to Jazziz magazine, “Gilmore started playing in the rhythmically complex environments of Vijay Iyer’s trios and quartets in 2003, when he was a 16-year-old high-school student.”  (Jazziz, Summer 2011, Vol. 28, Issue 6, p.78)  Wow.  And that was after Gilmore had played with saxophonist and odd-time innovator Steve Coleman.  It reminds me of whiz kid Tony Williams (1945-1997) joining Miles Davis’ quintet at age 17 after playing with saxophonist Jackie McLean.

It’s natural that Gilmore (b. October 10, 1986) would gravitate towards great drumming since he is the grandson of still-living, mind-melting, master drummer Roy Haynes (1925- ) and nephew of cornet player, Graham Haynes.  But perhaps more importantly, it’s Gilmore’s practicing and the opportunities he got while a student at the famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts that set him on his way.  And in his mid-twenties, Gilmore is already a well-established figure in the world of jazz drumming.

Bill Milkowski sums him up well in Modern Drummer:

…it’s his talent alone that has led Marcus Gilmore to be considered one of the most gifted young drummers on the New York scene.  Blessed with an abundance of chops, flawless time, a penchant for intricate subdivisions, and a remarkable sense of independence on the kit, Gilmore also exhibits rare poise and a quiet intelligence on the bandstand — a natural-born drummer indeed. (Modern Drummer, March 2008, Vol. 32, Issue 3, p. 110)

— Tim

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Check Out Claude Thornhill

You might be somewhat familiar with the biggest names from the big band era of the 1930s and 40s: Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie and perhaps even the uncompromising Stan Kenton.  They’re all good.

But I feel like one of my jobs as a librarian is to preserve and promote the work of the deserving yet overlooked.

So I’m simply recommending that you check out Claude Thornhill and his orchestra.  They did more ballads than jumpin’ numbers so it’s not the bombastic blaring of powerhouse big bands.  It’s a more subtle sound that’s often dreamy without being too syrupy.  If you need any more convincing, consider that the cool sound that Miles Davis and Gil Evans “birthed” in 1949-50 was largely indebted to Claude Thornhill.  Evans was a former arranger for Thornhill.

A few more tidbits:

  • To see the connection between Claude Thornhill and one of my favorite Pittsburgh jazz vocalists, Maxine Sullivan, check out this post.

Enjoy the music of Claude and his contemporaries!

— Tim


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Reservoir of Jazz

Jazz performers in Highland Park

Once or twice I’ve written here about Highland Park – either the neighborhood or the park itself,  because where I live and the paths that cross there provide for some quality moments in time.  Every Sunday in August the Highland Park Community Club and Citiparks presents Reservoir of Jazz; a series of free jazz concerts in the park adjacent to Reservoir No. 1, the uncovered one with the walking path around it.  While the concerts start at 5:00, if the weather is good people begin arriving as early as noon, staking out the better parking along the loop in the park and on Highland Ave. By 6:00 we can sit on our porch and enjoy both the aural and visual stimulation.  We get to hear the music and watch the bee like ballet of cars inching up and down Bunker Hill Rd., turning onto our street, backing out, three point turns, all in the vain attempt to find that hidden spot that precludes a 500 yard walk uphill to the park.

Depending on the performance, the music itself is the gamut that is jazz; electric, Dixie, be-bop and swing, or Afro-Caribbean.  Some of it I truly enjoy while others are lost on me.  That doesn’t mean I don’t stay outside to listen and watch.  This is Pittsburgh.  Outside of the neighbors on our block, there are always friends and acquaintances walking or driving up and down Bunker Hill going to the concerts; there’s always someone to say “hi” to.  Perhaps the funniest episodes are the double-takes from library users who pass by.  We have that disconnected moment that happens when you meet people out of context – at the store, while they’re walking to a Sunday jazz performance, or sitting on their porch in sandals and shorts drinking a beer.  “You’re the library guy.”  I think I enjoy these Sunday afternoons more for their social and community value than for the music itself.

I tend to like my jazz slow, dark, smokey and relaxing.  I didn’t go to my senior prom; instead about 6 of us went to a club in NY called Sweet Basils and listened to Ron Carter play bass all night – back when smoking indoors was legal and you could be 18 to get a drink.  My other favorite jazz memories are from late nights in the garage listening to Israel Radio’s equivalent of WDUQ’s “Nightside” program with Tony Mowod.  Me, a fleet of John Deeres and Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins and all was right with the world.  Here are some of my favorites, new and old that sometimes take me back and always leave me content.

  • Last Call at the Balcony.  A mournful mixed set recorded at a Shadyside landmark the last night it was open in 1997.
  • Jazz for a rainy afternoon.  A compilation of 19 pieces by some of the greatest performers of the last 50 years.  It’s what you’d expect and want to hear at 2 am on a rainy November night.
  • Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.  A beautiful warm session of 5 works by Ellington, one by Coltrane and one by Billy Strayhorn recorded in 1962.  It’s musical honey when you hear it.
  • One night with Blue Note preserved.  A two CD set (originally 2 LPs) recorded in 1985.  A veritable Who’s Who of New York’s preeminent jazz men of the day.  A most ambitious effort if you’re new to jazz.

– Richard

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On Babies and Bebop

This post commemorates a special event in my life: this morning, perhaps just as you’re navigating your way to Eleventh Stack for your daily dose, I will be joining my wife at an ultrasound to learn the sex of our first baby. Don’t worry, I’m not going to blather on about the joys of fatherhood and recommend baby care books. No, this post is actually about jazz drumming.

Though the baby is sort of included.

You see, I picture myself telling my grown up kid this story some years from now: “While your mother was busy gestating, I was doing what I could to help out, but was otherwise helpless with worry about your future. Like any other sensible father-to-be, I found an escape from the worry by teaching myself jazz drumming.”

Max Roach, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Max Roach, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“I played drums for years before, mostly John Bonham-inspired rock and assorted heavy metal, and I was a bit out of practice. But just a couple weeks before I learned you were going to be a boy/girl*, I heard your heartbeat and it sounded like a bass drum keeping a steady 140 beats per minute. For whatever reason, it made me think of great jazz drummers like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Roger Humphries, and inspired me to pick up my sticks and play something new. So, I borrowed a copy of John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming from the Carnegie Library Music Department (thanks, Tim) and started swinging.”

“It was akin to relearning how to ride a bicycle. But fortunately I stuck with it, and as you know my quintet has now sold enough records to pay for your Ivy League education.”

Ok, ok, fine, I’m daydreaming a bit. I’ll probably never be a world-renowned jazz drummer and sell lots of records.

But my kid will.


*Check back later to see which one I’ve crossed off.


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Researching Race Relations in Pittsburgh Music

For his quartet of the 1930s, clarinetist Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, “the first black musicians to perform regularly in public with a white band.”¹

What was the situation in the Pittsburgh jazz scene?

If you explore the Oral History of Music in Pittsburgh (OHMP) collection housed in the Music Department, you’ll find race relations touched upon by a number of interviewees such as journalist Frank Bolden, drummer H. B. Bennett, union member Philip Slaugh, and organist Charles H. Heaton.

Another great resource would be the almost 100 interviews conducted by the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh (AAJPSP) that are housed by the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center.   The AAJPSP has also done tremendous research and archiving of the African American branch of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 471, which remained separate from the rest of the union until the mid 1960s.

Carlos Peña’s research into Pittsburgh jazz recordings interestingly revealed that “aside from African-Americans, Italian-Americans seem to be the most highly-represented ethnic group.”   In an interview by Peña, keyboardist Frank Cunimondo “indicates that ethnic backgrounds never figured into the dynamics of the scene on a conscious level, and that the musicians, Black, Italian, or otherwise, generally had good relations.”

One might expect or, at least, hope for a fair amount of integration and respect when white musicians were playing and enjoying a musical genre created by African Americans (that itself was an adaptation of European musical forms).  And this was the case, albeit temporarily, in the Hill District in the 1950s, the black cultural center where whites partook of the nightlife.  Or in East Liberty, Italian American jazz musicians lived in close proximity to African Americans before the 1960s.  Then such things as urban renewal projects and an economic shift away from manufacturing drastically changed these neighborhoods’ demographics and certainly affected Pittsburgh’s music history.

It’s a complicated story and worthy of further research, not just during Black History Month, but year round.  The above-mentioned resources and many others are available at your library.

— Tim

¹ Teachout, Terry. “Swinging with Benny Goodman.” Commentary 105.5 (1998).

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Pittsburghers Sing to Spring Pt. 3 — Maxine Sullivan spotlight

In my last post, I guided you through some springtime jazz made by Pittsburghers. Now I’m going to stop and park right in front of one of my favorite spring time songs: Maxine Sullivan’s version of “It Was a Lover and His Lass.”

Maxine Sullivan (1911-1987) was born in Homestead, PA and performed in the jazz clubs of Pittsburgh, but her career really took off when she left for New York. In 1937, she and bandleader Claude Thornhill (1909-1965) scored a hit with their version of the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.”

Then, in 1938, Thornhill and Sullivan created another wonderful jazz arrangement from Anglo-European sources, “It Was a Lover and His Lass.” The song appears in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but was composed by Thomas Morley (and scholars debate whether the song was commissioned for the play or whether Shakespeare simply decided to use Morley’s song — see Ross W. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook for the story and the sheet music).

“Loch Lomond,” “Annie Laurie,” “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” and even Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” demonstrated that Sullivan’s graceful, sophisticated singing was a fine fit with old-fashioned songs. With its refrain of

in spring time, in spring time, the only pretty ring time, when birds do sing, hey ding a ding a ding, hey ding a ding a ding, sweet lovers love the spring

it’s a perfect ditty for the season. And a perfect introduction to an underrated Pittsburgh jazz musician.

— Tim

P.S. While reading the CD liner notes, you can use this website to see that another Pittsburgher, saxophonist Babe Russin (1911-1984), played in Sullivan and Thornhill’s group when they recorded “It Was a Lover and His Lass.”

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Pittsburghers Sing to Spring, Pt. 2 — Jazz

Last year, I posted about the springtime sounds made by Pittsburgh classical musicians.  Now I’d like to guide you through this season with music by many talented jazz musicians from Pittsburgh.

Almost Spring

Start with “Almost Spring,” written by a Pittsburgh bass player named Mickey Bass and performed by pianist John Hicks.  Although he was born in Atlanta, Hicks played in Pittsburgher Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and is accompanied here by Pittsburghers Dwayne Dolphin on bass and Cecil Brooks III on drums.  The track appears on a tribute to Pittsburgher piano pioneer Earl “Fatha” Hines, one of Hicks’ many albums dedicated to Pittsburgh pianists: Sonny Clark, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, and Mary Lou Williams.  I hereby proclaim John Hicks as an honorary Pittsburgher.

Up Jumped Spring

Jump up and get Pittsburgh vibist Steve Nelson’s delightful recording of Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring.”

Spring is Here

Two of the most influential jazz pianists ever, Pittsburghers Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner,  recorded the Rodgers & Hart standard “Spring is Here.”  Check out Garner playing it solo and then listen to Jamal’s duet with bassist Israel Crosby to hear two different and equally masterful interpretations.

Memories of a Pure Spring

Garner and Jamal’s wistful playing could be followed by the somber “Memories of a Pure Spring” by trumpeter Dave Douglas.  He is accompanied by well-versed Pittsburgh accordionist Guy Klucevsek.

It Is Always Spring

Somber memories now give way to joy as Leon Thomas yodels and Pittsburgher Mary Lou Williams plays piano on “It Is Always Spring,” from Smithsonian Folkways Mary Lou’s Mass album.

But no matter the season, it is always the time to explore great Pittsburgh jazz.

— Tim

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Mingus, Mingus, Mingus!

Charles Mingus is one of a handful of the most important jazz composers of the 20th century.  He  was a giant of jazz, an innovator whose music blends classical, bop, and free jazz to create something else again.  In addition, in the volatile time that he lived, he was an unapologetic advocate of civil rights in the United States. 

Today we celebrate the anniversary of his birth, April 22, 1922.

Two distinctive documentaries have been made of his life: Mingus: Charlie  Mingus, 1968 and Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog.  The former is currently out of print, but was issued in both VHS and DVD formats (maybe you’d like to try to interlibrary loan it). Shown by many PBS stations across the country, Mingus 1968 chronicles a harrowing eviction  from his East Village apartment, during a particularly troubling period of his life, as well as some perfomance highlights.  Some of this footage was used in the later Triumph video, which presents a good, balanced view of his career with some fine performance footage.  If you’re jonesing for a more complete live performance on DVD, check out  Charlie Mingus: Live in ’64 (with the incomparable Eric Dolphy) for concerts in Belgium, Norway, and Sweden.

Mingus was no stranger to the written word: his Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus is an excellent autobiography, well worth the read.  Also on the personal level, there is Sue Graham Mingus’s Tonight at Noon: a Love Story by wife and keeper of his legacy.  For perhaps more objective points of view, there are Myself When I am Real: the Life and Music of Charles Mingus by Gene Santoro (2000), Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs by Janet Coleman and Al Young (1989), and Mingus, A Critical Biography by Brian Priestly (1982).

Ultimately, it is the music that matters; there is plenty to be had in library collections throughout the county and more performances seem to be discovered every year.   In the last year and a half, three excellent concerts have been released: Charles Mingus in Paris: October 1970, the Complete American Session, Cornell 1964  (perhaps his finest live set ever) and Music written for Monterey, 1965: not heard – played in its entirely at UCLA, September 25th, 1965Music written for Monterey was originally issued on vinyl on Mingus’s own label, one of the first independent releases of its kind and a precursor of today’s thriving indie music movement.  The breadth and depth of Charles Mingus the man and Charles Mingus the musician are immeasurable; in an era of giants, such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, Mingus stood very tall, indeed. 

And, oh, yeah, let’s not forget Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus: “Better get hit in yo’ soul!”

– Don


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