Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Last Piano Lesson

Eva Smith was my first piano teacher. She was a beautiful African American woman well into her seventies. Lessons were no more than fifty cents a pop yet came with so much history and joy. Her students were mostly the black children who lived on the fringe of our town. Everything about her in this piece of fact/fiction is spot on. I owe my world of music to her patience and love for piano.

The Last Piano Lesson.

Every Thursday after school, Charlene would arrive a half hour early for her piano lesson. Ms Evelyn’s sizable back lot, thick with ragweed, wildflowers and tall grass, was enough landscape for a young girl’s imagination run wild with fantasy. Charlene would quickly dash back of the stately wood frame manor, then disappear in the overgrowth, defying wind as she cut an Olympic path through tall blades of blue grass and goldenrod. Wind bowed Tea Roses slumped near the edge of a window box attached to Ms Evelyn’s makeshift conservatory.

Charlene would sprint past pretending to eavesdrop on their conversation then regain top speed. She made friends among the undergrowth, small beings who awaited her weekly arrival then collapse among dried leaves of deciduous plants, gasp for breath, close her eyes, then inhale the garden’s sweet confection. As moisture rose through the wall of her throat she’d guide each syllable through small passage producing the most glorious tone.

“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you, you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile. Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely, they have blamed you for that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile”.

It was three days beyond Charlene's fourteenth birthday. Up to now she held emotion in check growing from an awkward child into a young woman sleek of figure, skin polished to an ebony sheen. Hope, aspiration and a tremendous will would serve her well in the coming years.

“Are you singing something special for me Charlene?”, asks Ms Evelyn.

“Oh, Ms Evelyn, I’m coming,” she says, then hesitates. ”

“I can’t talk to you through that screen door. Come on in and let me dry you off.”

Charlene carefully slips past the rusted screen trying not to attract any permanent stain to her new birthday dress. Evelyn takes notice of the long trail of perspiration,.

“Don’t sit on the sofa child until I dry you off! Stand there until I get back.”

Ms.Evelyn quietly disappears into one of the unseen rooms of the manor and returns with a small white towel.

“Ms. Evelyn, I just don’t feel like the person that was here last week.”

“Of course you don’t feel like the girl who was here last week, you’re a young woman now. You’re fourteen and start to think things a woman thinks. .”

Evelyn lifts Charlene’s thick tightly wound braids and lightly presses the folded towel along the upper shoulders and slender neck then falls silent as if lured into a dream state by something familiar but yet faraway.

“You are the most beautiful creation mother of the universe has ever given. Look at you, your skin is as black as the coal my father lifted from the bottom of those hills in Harlan County and your eyes clear as mountain spring water.

Charlene listens then faces her teacher. “See how much I’ve changed.”

Ms. Evelyn lifts an eye pretending to examine the young pupil.

“Ms Evelyn, do you like Mona Lisa ?”

“Who don’t like Mona Lisa? Are you talking about the painting or Nat Cole’s Mona Lisa,” inquires Ms Evelyn.

“The song Mona Lisa! You know I just don’t think the songs you’re teaching say much. We’ve done played Hanon, Clementi, Czerny - it all exercised my fingers. You know I love Chopin, Brahms and Mozart but they’re just notes without words. When King Cole sings Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, I feel he’s talking about me - I am that painting on the wall.”

“Is this about music or have you fallen in love?” Evelyn asks.

“Ms Evelyn, I’m always in love. I can’t help myself - I’m surrounded by love. Mom calls me her Nubian princess and dad says I’m an African queen, daughter of the Pharaohs. Aunt Emma prays evil away, sings me spirituals. Sister Angie’s my best friend. How much more love can I take?”

Ms. Evelyn directs Charlene towards the old upright piano. “Girl, we’ll talk more next week but right now I’ve got to put some knowledge in your head.”

Charlene positions herself directly in front of middle C then arranges her slim fingers directly over ten partially chipped white keys she’d played a hundred times before. Ms Evelyn conducts the downbeat with an inch and half hook nail curled beneath the second finger. An arthritic hand unfolds exposing the strange appendage -making it look more like a falcon’s claw than human.

Charlene’s first encounter with the ghoulish joint sent her squealing all the way to papa’s lap. Dr. Logan soothed his six-year-old daughter then placed her back atop the oak veneer bench. Ms Evelyn just laughed, fetched some candy corns from a crystal jar, spreading a few along the keyboard. Young Charlene moistened her middle finger, tapped until one stuck, then lifted to her mouth. This pleased Ms Evelyn as she gradually acquired the young girl’s confidence.

Ms Evelyn was a beautiful woman in her early seventies. Both sides her cheekbones were covered in red rouge smeared in circular patterns. Cold cream rubbed deep in her silky brown skin making her look like an precious Christmas ornament. Every item of clothing hung at natural length on her diminutive frame. The signature red-rubber boots worn rain or shine were always polished to a reflective mirror finish. Whether sitting in front of Calvin’s Cafe waiting for the Utica bus or weeding her wildflower garden, the shiny red boots were Ms Evelyn’s calling card.

As Charlene depressed each note a hammer would strike three inharmonious strings. The sound was ungodly. If one could imagine dueling riverboat calliope’s you‘d begin to understand what Charlene was up against.

“Ms Evelyn why don’t you ever tune this thing?” Charlene begs.

“Its just like it was when my husband Pastor Wilkins was around young girl. He’d smoke his favorite cheery blend over there and smile approvingly. If it sound good to him, it sound good to me”.

“But Ms Evelyn how am I going to sound good to you if you never tune this tired piano?”

“Young lady, that piano will never be tired or fail to deliver if you play the notes correctly,” a rather taken Ms Evelyn responds.

Charlene quietly goes about her lesson. As she labors through Hanon exercise number thirty-five, she suddenly halts play, pauses, and then looks Ms Evelyn in the eyes.

“I’ll never be a great concert pianist. I could never memorize a book thick with classical notes. Ms Evelyn, what I want more than anything is to sing and play like Nat King Cole. I just can’t relate to these old men with bad hair perms.”

“Charlene, you know what you’re saying? ”

“Nat’s beautiful, Ms Evelyn. His face is so smooth. His manners, the soul in his voice touches me like no other man in them books.” Charlene, realizing what she had just said, buries her eyes in the pleats of her dress.

“Look at me, Charlene! Your words ring true. I see something in you so different from the other students. You hear, feel and breath music like God picked you special. It was the same for me when I was just a bit older.”

“Ms Evelyn, you like the blues too?”

“Charlene, when I was twenty-two I got a call from the father of the blues, W.C. Handy. He said his piano player got a temporary job at the world’s fair and I’d come highly recommended. He also said there’d be a train ticket waiting for me to Memphis and he’d be there to meet me . Do you know how scared I was?”

“Did you go?” Charlene asks.

“Of course I went! Do you know how many evenings we sat around my mother’s house singing St. Louis Blues? Oh, I love that song. People don’t play it right no more. It’s a spiritual! Scoot over young lady, let me show you what I mean.”

Ms Evelyn had never played a note for Charlene. She taught by waving her slender arms like a miniature Toscanini, then jabbing her pencil into a collection of Walter Thompson etudes and minuets. She’d say “No, no, no. Did I teach you to play like that? Start from the top ‘til you play it right.”

Ms Evelyn didn’t scare Charlene. She cared for the notes she was playing, even the bad ones.

Ms Evelyn placed her weather-beaten hands in G minor position, began rolling a sorrowful passage. Her voice opened with the phrase “I hate to see the ev’nin’ sun go down.” She paused, and then listened as if to hear a chorus of angelic voices repeat her words. “Hate to see--the ev’nin sun go down. Cause-ma baby, he done left this town.” She then skipped a couple verses and got to her favourite lines. “St. Louis woman, with her diamond rings, pulls that man around by her apron strings. Twant for powder and for store-bought hair, the man I love-would not gone nowhere.”

“Charlene, you hear that B flat, that’s the blue note. Come here child and put your middle finger on it.” Charlene slowly extended her lanky arm over Ms Evelyn and depressed the black note. “Honey, that’s you. That’s your history, that’s your sorrow, that’s your joy. That’s your grand folks. That’s community, Thats spirit. That’s your ancestors blood spread all along railroad tracks and over every field where the tall grass grow down south. You’re home young one, you’re home.”

Ms Evelyn rose from her stool, and walked to a cedar chest next to the china cabinet. She lovingly removes photographs of Pastor Wilkins, then folds each doily, carefully placing them on the dining room table. After lifting the heavy cedar lid, she dips her slender arm under an assortment of lace, crochet, Afghans and heavy quilts. Ms Evelyn pulls a magnificent tapestry up from the crowded storage. With the caution of a museum curator, she unfolds the scholarly find, drapes it across her lap. Gold tassels adorned the outer rim, with the name Evelyn Smith
embroidered in the middle over a picture of downtown St. Louis. Charlene kneels next to Ms Evelyn then gently massages the threads linking each letter of her name.

“Ms Evelyn, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The world should know about you. You’re probably the most famous person nobody’s heard about.”

“Charlene, Ms Evelyn don’t need to be famous. Mr. Handy told me all I need to know. If the music is inside you and you keep talkin’ it out, it will one day flow like an endless river releasing you from uninvited pain and sorrow, bringing God’s love. You’ve got to be aware of what it’s saying.”

“Ms Evelyn, that’s just what I’ve been trying to explain to you. I hear it so deep and true. There are times my soul weeps when I hear hateful words. The ones that try to shame the color of my skin,my mother, and her mother. There’s something in those piano notes that tell me I am the Mona Lisa in the painting, half smiling, half crying, and that God will look after me.”

“Charlene, you have African blood in your veins. You are part of a proud people going back to the beginning of time. All of our trials and tribulations flow like tributaries from the heel of your foot to the top of your head. You hear the blues, the screams of your ancestors, the laughter of children, the heartbeat in a mother’s stomach, prayers in testament. You are beauty, you are grace, above all very much alive. It’s time you move on.”

“Move on?”

“That’s right Charlene. Everybody’s got to face change”

“But Ms Evelyn, I’m just getting to know you.”

“Charlene, you come and see me anytime, and we’ll speak as women about all things, but there’s no more I can do to help you play the music you hear. I’m not a modern teacher. I don’t understand sophisticated harmony and complex chord movement. This you must find with someone more educated in contemporary thought. This will have to be our last lesson.”

Charlene begins crying uncontrollably. “What about your backyard?

I’ll miss the tall grass and the smell of wildflowers.”

“Of course you will, I’ve got to cut them sometime,” Ms Evelyn
responds. “Life is about change. Even I’m thinking about learning to drive a car. Every few years I’ve got to learn something new. That’s why my mind is always young even though my body keeps changing. I love you Charlene, you’re my most favorite student ever. Now go out and send in your dad, we’ve got to speak. Remember, you can come and visit anytime you want.”

“Ms Evelyn, are you sick?”

“Why do you ask that child?”

“Us women don’t need to keep secrets from each other, right?”.

“Charlene, you don’t need to know my personal secrets.”

“Ms Evelyn, you’re not feeling well. I can see that.

“Child, it’s really none of your business.’

“I knew it, you’re hiding something terrible from me, aren’t you.”

“Please Charlene, keep it to yourself. Nobody but me and you need to know. You saw my hands tremble on those notes. I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse; at least that’s what them doctor’s say. Remember, this is between me and you.”

“ But you said you’re going to drive a car?”

“I know what I said Charlene. There are nights I cover myself in bed and cry like a baby girl. Sometimes the pain is more than I can bear. This house has been dark all the years since Pastor Wilkins passed away. When you kids come its like someone switches on the sunlight, but when you leave darkness sits wherever it feels. I hear Pastor Wilkins’ sweet voice whisper , ‘just a little longer Eve, just stay a little longer, the children need you, I can wait’. They say you’ll know when your time comes, just like you know when it all begins. Charlene, my work is done. You’re my masterpiece. Go git your dad.”

“But Ms Evelyn”...

Charlene sits for a moment, then begins crying. She slowly rises, walks behind Ms Evelyn and curls her arms around the old woman’s neck, then presses the soft flesh of her lips next to her cheek. A steady row of tears meet the saliva from her mouth causing Evelyn’s makeup to spoil.

“Charlene, you’re making a mess of me.”

“I don’t want you to die. I’m scared for you.”

“Charlene, I’m not scared to die. I’ve seen all I need to see. The good Lord delivered me and my family from the fields of Alabama and showed us the way north. I met the love of my life and five grown children later I got to see the world. Singapore, Bombay, Istanbul, the Belgian Congo, all these places I can still hear the children’s voices laughing and taste the midnight air. How many will ever have such a beautiful complete life? And look at the past twenty years with all of the children who passed through that doorway and left with a song in their heart. I have nothing to feel sorry about or for that matter nothing to fear.”

“ I’m so sorry Ms Evelyn. You’re right, it ain’t none of my business, I think I’d better leave now. Can I see you next week?”

“A young woman can always make a social call.”

Charlene squeezes past the large presence of Dr. Logan then timidly walks back of the manor and climbs the decaying porch stairs. She studies the vast uneven terrain, closes her eyelids and savors the humid air. She then blindly walks forward as if summoned by a benign stranger. Her long arms unfold, cross, then rise gently over her shoulders . The overpowering fragrance of an isolated flower awakens her from a temporary dream state. One long thorny stalk of a single rose with petals curved by the sun’s rays hangs silently only inches from her face. The plant rising near eight feet seems to be conducting a rapacious movement to some unfinished symphony.

Charlene cautiously pulls the stem near and sinks nose and mouth deep into the petals, then dusts her face and neck before snapping the limb separating the flower from its life source. “Forgive me, it’s only one,” she says as if addressing a thousand jurors. Minutes pass as she walks slowly back to the front porch then places the broken stem holding the single rose in Ms. Evelyn’s wicker chair. She positions the flower so that it rests in the centre part of the thin cushion, then climbs into the back seat of Dr. Logan’s ‘58 Olds, rolls over and begins sobbing. Within moments her voice unleashes the most beautiful sentimental tone. “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa men have named you, you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile. Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely, they have blamed you, for that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile.” Charlene tucks her face deep into the warm leather upholstery and drifts peacefully to sleep.

Remembering Jaco

There are those in life who will never be forgotten. Whose brief existence offers so much promise, but whose life circumstances fix the odds against achieving continuance. A flame caught in an unforgiving draft, cast into eternal darkness. Such is the journey of bassist/arranger/composer Jaco Pastorius.

Pollock, Parker, and Pastorius walked much the same ground. Drive, genius, debilitating depression and uncompromising intellect. Each man understood just how magnificent they were and never hesitated to remind friends and acquaintances of that fact. Each man knew the art they were reinventing could undergo change, recover, and successfully bear new rewards.

Young Pastorius was all bravo. He swaggered, jeered, and stuck it in your face like the punk down the street who kept quick-stepping around you on the way to the hoop. Did I say hoop? Jaco was a court rat who spent as many hours playing one on one as laboring through a set of chord changes. This was life served at full throttle.

It was "Donna Lee" from Pastorius’s Epic Records debut that notified the music community of his arrival. Here was an unknown player doing things on electric bass never before conceived possible. Fleeting lines, harmonics, supremely crafted solos; lead, rhythm, everything on an instrument which had been traditionally assigned a supporting role underneath woodwinds, brass, percussion and most other equivalent strings.

I can’t recall the number of times I dropped the needle on the track for unsuspecting musicians, especially bass players. "Who the hell was that," was the usual response. "That sounded like a Parker tune? Are you sure that was an electric bass?"

It was a matter of days before I recognize some of the meatier originals on the recording. Then I discover a theme Jaco had been developing since he was eighteen. The unconventional use of harmonics as part of the composition was revolutionary. The phrasing, mood, tone, and close-textured symmetry made the piece his unspoken elegy.

Everything Jaco assimilated from playing in R&B and jazz bands in south Florida served him well the coming years. During a ten month road stint with white soul singer Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders he learned to read and write music through Cochran’s music director Charlie Brent. The strict rules imposed by soul singer Cochran, who’s 14 piece band was a virtual touring classroom, were ignored in order to accommodate the quirky player. Never one to adhere to Cochran’s dress code, which required tuxedo wear, Pastorius performed in street clothes off stage hidden behind a scrim.

Not long after leaving Cochran, Pastorius replaced Alphonso Johnson in Weather Report while the band was half way through recording Black Market. Evidently, Zawinul saw himself in Pastorius and gave the young player extreme latitude in matters of music and stage attire.

Now comes Heavy Weather. If ever there was a recording from the seventies that deserves the epigraph "For All Eternity," this would be it. Weather Report had been progressing towards this sound since "I Sing the Body Electric, Black Market, and Mysterious Traveler."

How many times and incarnations have you heard the epic Zawinul composition "Birdland?" Here’s a track in which every part can be isolated and committed to memory. It’s just that rich. Each individual pattern runs parallel, intersects, and unites at just the right moments. No cover band can successfully render the tune publicly without precisely duplicating each line of counterpart and interconnecting melodies. We were ecstatic knowing a track as good as this came from an idiom so under appreciated could achieve such universal acceptance. It made you consider maybe jazz fans and musicians didn’t emanate from the far side of Neptune after all.

One glorious night in the mid-seventies I attended a double bill featuring Chick Corea’s "Rerturn To Forever" and Weather Report at Massey Hall, the celebrated institution that gave us the "Greatest Concert Ever," with Parker , Gillespie, Roach, Powell and Mingus. The building bled an intoxicating mix of dust, mold, sweat, tobacco and hashish. A floating blue-lit cloud hovered below the rafters leading to the main stage giving the evening a ghostly surreal atmosphere.

Corea and band played an exotic blend of classical, Latin and rock injected pieces with conviction. Throughout the performance it was Corea’s stunning pitch-wheel bends and cascading lines arising from the Moog synthesizer and complex unison figures with guitarist Al DiMeola that steered the set to a gratifying climax.

You could sense the anticipation as the stage was being adjusted to accommodate Weather Report . I heard voices whisper "Jaco, Jaco, Jaco, which one’s Jaco," from behind and across the aisle. "I wonder if they’ll play "Birdland" first?"

As the lights dim, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul amble to their respective places like seasoned jazz musicians unaccustomed to the visual theatrics of rock arenas. The last to find himself in position was Pastorius who quickly acknowledged the approving shouts and whistles greeting his arrival by hoisting the bass upward then back for a final volume adjustment.

Unlike Return To Forever which hit with all the force of a category five hurricane, Zawinul and company built their set to a final resolution. Throughout Pastorius glided from one side of the stage to the other displaying a physical presence absent the other front line players. He was all head, hands and heart.

From "Teen Town" to "Birdland" the band played a smoldering brew of fusion inspired instrumentals exactly like their recordings leaving the crowd clamoring for more. At no time did Pastorius display the antics we were led to believe accompanied each performance.

As the years pass rumors of Jaco’s manic episodes began to consume any distant news of further revolutionary advancements to the art form. There were those who believed he had said all he had to say and his departure from Weather Report was further evidence of that.

He assembled Word of Mouth and recorded a brilliant album, "Invitation" quickly establishing himself an arranger and composer of the rarest abilities but there were cracks in the pavement ahead that would eventually derail the juggernaut.

For most fans, the details behind the sporadic solo efforts; the alcohol, drugs and growing depression were no more than private conversations between Jaco and those close to him and corporate types still trying figure out how to cope with a legion of "bad boy" rock messiahs.

When news eventually filtered out concerning Jaco’s declining stature and health he was by then a street urchin; homeless, rejected, addicted and a manic depressive. For many, it was hard to believe anyone with such gifts could so easily fall from grace and descend to such depths. Where was the musician’s union? Where were the public health services? How could this be allowed?

The most disturbing aspect of his decline was the violent ending that awaited. Jaco, was no stranger to confrontation. It was a martial arts blow that quickly shut him down. Within a few days he was removed from life support. Movies often afford a period of redemption; time to reflect, rehab and reassert. For Pastorius the end came quick without compensation or compassion.

When you replay the volume of music Pastorius recorded during his brief tumultuous career you hear none of the pain, conflict or consequence that followed him, instead a joyous reverence for new possibilities, innovation, experiences, and existence, few will encounter in a lifetime. Jaco, we’ll never forget you!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
(From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali)

I was captivated by the Mike Tyson documentary a few evenings past. Boxing is a brutal blood sport with millions of game voyeurs, me included. I can point a finger directly back in time to my father who parked his boys and 6’6” frame front of the old Admiral black and white television Friday evenings for the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports – Friday night fights.

Brother Wayne and I didn’t really get much kick back time. There was always a catch to these all male social gatherings – antenna duty. Reception in the late fifties was a constant challenge. No cable or satellite dishes just a crooked pair of rabbit ears. It was all about direction. Keeping the ghosts at bay and pulling in a definable image. This was never easy especially when punches were being thrown in flurries. With baseball you had hours to locate a receptive position. The only drawback – standing around like an under employed mannequin.

Throughout the Tyson documentary I was overcome with sadness. Tyson’s under lit face said so much about the man. From the beginning mercy was never a word in Tyson’s limited vocabulary. He truly wanted to inflict as much pain on his opponents as allowed. The blows came with such force and from a place inside the man - a forbidden zone most men choose not visit but are willing to watch another conjure near the darkest regions of the soul. The crushing impact distorted opponents’ faces. Eyes would sink back in the head and skin fly about as if made from a soft synthetic substance. You never knew if a downed fighter would ever stand again let alone function as the toned individual who entered the ring. As much as Tyson’s fights mesmerized they also sickened.

My first connection with the fight game passed through another local favourite and a man near the top of the welterweight division from Louisville, Kentucky named Rudell Stitch. Stitch had been Kentucky State amateur champion in 1951, 52, 53, 55, and 56. He’d occasionally appear on Friday Night Fights forcing brother Wayne and I into our customary position near the rabbit ears. Oh, how we loathed this gig!

As the months passed and Stitch began to fill out the local sports pages my affection for the man grew. He was a decent person in a nasty sport.

I lived on the Indiana side of the Ohio River. No matter which side you approached the running body of water was treacherous. Dad had a low rent cabin cruiser docked on the Indiana shoreline. It leaked pools of water. Any excursion up or down the Ohio meant brother Wayne and I earned coffee can detail – dipping and scooping water then tossing overboard. Occasionally, we’d get to steer the craft on the return sprint home.

The falls is a tourist draw. We’d bike down as kids and walk amongst the reeds and catch the scent of rotting fish decomposing under a blistering sun. This was the place fisherman inhabit. Below the falls there were connecting boulders where serious fisherman wore hip waders allowing them greater access to the prized fish flopping down from above. These small enclaves formed pools imprisoning some of the fattest game.

Near the falls the fishermen were mostly African American. The place was a source of food and good company.

On a late June afternoon in 1960 Stitch was fishing near the falls in his customary hip waders and heard the screams of a distraught voice - a fisherman had fallen into the swirling rapids. Stitch quickly dropped his gear and dove in rescuing the man then struggled to get a grip on the slippery rocks. The weight of the water logged hip waders - filled to the rim - carried him deep below the surface. Stitch drowned that night and so did the hopes for a boxing king from the area. He would go on to be awarded a Carnegie hero.

We usually gauged our commitment to sports heroes through the influential men around us. Dad loved the Boston Celtics with Bob Cousy – Boston Red Sox with Ted Williams –the Yankees with Mickey Mantle. Uncle Bob in Pennsylvania worshiped the Pirates and Steelers - and most everyone around us the Cincinnati Reds. Basketball and baseball are still big local items. Boxing was on the periphery yet it was still a right-of-passage in tenth grade gym class.

I for one wasn’t prepared for this. I could run indefinitely until someone took a plank to my head but protecting it from a well placed fist was a different matter. We’d lace on these oversized boxing gloves and dual it out as part of our grade. I remember getting hit more than plunking my opponent straight on. Plus, I had this tender spot inside that would never allow me embrace a gun or physically bring harm to another. It has got to be genetic. Too many boys around me seemed to delight in bringing the hurt.

By early 1960, a new face was rising in the local sports arena – a young man named Cassius Clay. He’d just won the heavyweight title in Rome and had returned home.

Clay was loud, proud and boisterous.

I was playing organ in a local rhythm and blues band when we got an invite to play at the R.J. Reynolds mansion for a party celebrating the birthday of a young son. The kid must have been around fifteen and out of his skull. We played on the ornate wood veranda and every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of the drunken teenagers rescue another from drowning in the family pool.

While we’re on break I saw this young black man carrying hedge clippers come nearby. He’d trim a bit and peek around to witness the festivities. The closer he got his distinct shape, form and features were unveiled. Under the soft porch light a familiar face began to shine through. It was Cassius Clay! I wanted to jump the railing and hug the big guy and wish him well and beg him drop in my gym class and beat the snot out of a few choice individuals.

Clay was financed and practically owned by a consortium of high end investors. These were some of the most prominent men in the state of Kentucky.

The civil rights movement was just beginning to challenge the local white temperament. Louisville was a progressive city with a great affinity and respect for the arts. There were sit-ins and banners demanding an end to segregation. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at a huge rally in Lexington and the serious inspirational tone of his message spread throughout the state. There were restaurants around the city that were still for blacks and whites only.

Clay would find this an affront to his growing popularity and core beliefs. He’d just beat the best athletes in the world and had brought the pride of that victory home for all.

The party ended when Clay was asked to leave a local eatery that refused to serve him. The disgraceful action sent him into battle. We were told he took his Olympic medal center of the bridge connecting Louisville and my home town Jeffersonville and tossed in the rampaging Ohio waters. I remember weeks later riding my bike to the spot where I believed it submerged and stared as if I could spot a reflection of the prized medallion from the river’s bottom floor.

I like so many other young people were beginning to get a feel for American justice, inequities, and the rotting effect of systemic racism.

As Clay began to work his way up the professional ranks beating every opponent along the way with clever footwork and quick hands whites began pleading for his demise. The greater the hatred the more in the face Clay stuck it to them. The poetry – round predictions – the speed at which he delivered blows frustrated his distractors.

Dad, despised and loathe him! He’d recite the garbled poetry and predict the next fight would shut him up. Early on, the fights came fast and ended just as quick. Dad would sit hunched over the radio and give a play by play - round by round narration. “Clay is getting his butt whupped.” Twenty minutes later the fight would be over and the room would still. The big guy now humbled would take the short walk to his bedroom - defeated once again. The silence was more than golden - most welcomed!.

Brother Wayne and I used to pass by Bales Motors car lot on the way to school -the best place to beg for a complete detailed model car. Every once in a while they’d give us a not-so-cool plastic Plymouth. On one occasion we noticed a pink Cadillac in the driveway. We quickly sprinted to the showroom window and noticed a large black man inside and finely dressed man behind the wheel of the Caddy. Wayne starts freaking – “It’s Cassius Clay – it’s him!” That was our cue to pester the champ.

We were both skinny chumps who did more running from fights than holding ground. We cracked the main door and start taunting Clay. “ I can whip you – come on over here.” For a brief period everyone ignored us. So I kept it up , “ Hey Cassius, I can kick your butt – you ain’t fought nobody until you fight us.” Those may not be the exact words but they sure come close. Bam! Clay turns around and runs towards the door and we scatter like a couple of parking lot cockroaches.

“Come back here and say that again,” says Clay. Wayne and I come out of our hiding place shivering as if the man were going to TKO us before we got home. We drift back to the door and slip it open. “ I can whip your butt – everyone knows I can.” Bam! Clay comes at us with wallet in hand. “ I have ten dollars that says you boys won’t step in this room.” He was right. We scattered across the road and found a clear observation locale and watched until the family clock ran out on us - time to go or meet dad in the next three-rounder.

Muhammad Ali was my hero for years to come – he stood against the powers that be and refused induction into the military on religious grounds. He spoke against the Vietnam War. He fought with smarts, class and dignity and celebrated the right causes.

I was thinking about the match-up between Tyson and Ali and know Ali would have beaten Tyson soundly. I’m sure he would have endured some devastating shots but he survived that kind of punishment with the hardest hitter in the ranks – George Foreman and defeated him with intelligence and a brilliant strategy.

I’ve watched those fight films numerous times - Joe Fraizer, Ken Norton, George Foreman - it’s as if I can see the man dodging and slipping punches most would freely collect. Fraizer hurt him and hurt him badly, but somehow Ali recovered and overcame. That big smile – kids all around and a world followed close behind – the planet loved him. Guys like Ali come once in a lifetime. I’m sure glad it happened during mine!

Unlimited Miles

I can’t think of an artist who has had greater influence over jazz the past fifty years than Miles Davis.

For music, style, language and business, Davis was at the top of the game. One to never step aside and let critics dissuade or impede his aspirations, he constantly retooled his band with the brightest most gifted young players of the moment. There are those who will argue that Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson were equals. But while these artists contributed mightily, Davis took note of what was happening outside the idiom and adapted his music to the world around him. He saw a useful role for electronics. He understood the potential of world rhythms. And he didn’t react like a dilettante to other musical genres. Instead, he embraced rhythm and blues, reggae, funk and hip hop, enhancing the flavor of his own music.

The first live jazz concert I witnessed was a somber evening with the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1962. By all accounts it should have been my last. I’d been listening in earnest to Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue’ sinking deeper and deeper into the various nuances and complexities of the music. With each spin came new revelations. Yet there I was, sitting like a prisoner at my first live jazz concert listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet playing a dry sophisticated style of jazz that felt like someone reading from the Yellow Pages. There was no swaggering, no highs or lows - just all the right notes correctly positioned. I wondered if all jazz was as dull as this.

A few months passed, and then Miles came to town (Louisville, Kentucky). Along with him were bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist George Coleman and pianist Wynton Kelly. Here was something to get worked up about. I’d been trying desperately to figure out the shifting sequence of chords over the pedal point at the beginning of “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Pianist Wynton Kelly was playing voicings I’d only heard Bill Evans structure. The intro seemed as if it covered the same distance as a normal solo. Kelly kept elevating the tension with each modified harmony. His right hand danced about lyrically, punctuating each tonal shift before segueing into Mile’s muted trumpet. The effect was breathtaking. From that moment it was a play for the heart. The rest of the evening spun through an array of Mile’s collectibles - “So What, Green Dolphin Street, Joshua, All Blues,” and on.

A year or so later Miles returned with an even more delectable unit, this one propelled by drummer Tony Williams. This concert was a sonic blast. People nearby commented on the seemingly radical personnel change and heated interplay. Even tunes like “My Funny Valentine,” had a new-found tension. Herbie Hancock’s keyboard harmonies were darkly dissonant textures that provided Davis with greater options. As the final cymbal crash faded you could sense a feeling of both relief and contentment.

Every band I worked with over the following decade—whether rock, country, pop, rhythm and blues, hippie tie-died, or whatever—the players packed copies of Miles Davis’ most recent recording. When Davis hit with “Miles in the Sky” in 1968, the transformation was underway. Drummer Williams began spinning hard rock rhythms, something unheard of in jazz circles. The next few recordings, “In A Silent Way “ and “Bitches Brew” would permanently alter the course of jazz, opening the gates to more experimental units like Michael White’s Fourth Way, and others. Like nomads in a desert caravan we waited until our point man signalled us forward.

Miles arrived at the now defunct Colonial Tavern in Toronto during the early seventies with a new band and a new sound: Jack DeJonette, Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous and company. The band played fierce, unrelenting fusion as Davis looked on from off-stage. Towards the set’s conclusion Miles came forward, blew a few notes and retreated. All in a days work.

Miles never retreated musically. “Star People, Decoy, Your Under Arrest, Amandla, Doo Bop,” brought new faces and new sounds. During live performances, Davis began to sink into the background, giving players like John Scofield and Kenny Garrett greater latitude.

The last Davis concert I witnessed was in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall. Scofield, Robert Irving, Rodney Jones, Bob Berg and a percussionist whose name I can’t recall were present. Davis, dressed in Zorro black attire, tucked himself in a crevice between the main stage speaker cabinets and the stage curtains. He’d occasionally bounce a few select notes from amplified trumpet into the brick wall. Most the evening he stayed buried in the shadows.

Near the end of the set Miles arrives center stage to an outpouring of crowd adulation. The band continues pumping a mesmerizing back beat interrupted at odd intervals by Irving’s synthesizer. Davis was on the prowl. First, he replaces Irving behind the synthesizer for a few stabs at the keyboard. Then he crossed in front of the band. He belched a few notes, paused, and then looked at Berg. Berg received the eye contact as a cue to solo. As soon as Berg unleashed a sheaf of notes Davis places a forearm on his mid-section, silencing the horn. It wasn’t a hard chop but rather, notice to remain in position until otherwise notified.

As if that move wasn’t strange enough, Davis then proceeded to lounge around the percussionist. The fellow sported a broad smile. Davis looked on approvingly then extended a hand in “low-five” position. The player kept smiling. Davis didn’t flinch. Once again he leveled the hand in front of the man. This time the guy accepts the bait. As the fellow goes to slap Mile’s palm, Davis grabbed and locked it in, leaving him to play one-handed. The one hand solo went on an eternity until Davis decided to release it. The scene was weird, but for Davis, nothing out of the ordinary.

Miles Davis’ music is just as popular in 2009 as it was forty years ago. With all of the advancements and innovations he brought to the idiom not much has changed since his departure. For the moment the Neo-cons rule.

How would Miles view the current state of jazz? I don’t think he’d be too approving. Gone are the “techno” experiments he forged with Marcus Miller, back are the post- bebop days of the early sixties. But then again, he may have warmed to the adventuresome duo of Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano. With him, anything was possible.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lights Out At The El Mocambo

As one of the first musicians to work the upstairs room, I have mixed feelings about the demise of the venerated night-spot The El Mocambo .

I first played the ‘Elmo’ in 1971 under my own name with a seven-piece fusion jazz/funk aggregate. I'd just released my first side with Capitol Records, "Goodbye Superdad." Who the hell knows what I was thinking with that title. I actually had people come up to me inquiring if it was a soundtrack recording for a Disney movie. The band played a hard-edge funk/jazz style with screaming guitar and bruising B-3 at the forefront. Our paycheck for the week was $2,400, a considerable sum in those early days. As the months passed and the prominence of the club escalated, the upstairs became an international showcase. We eventually slipped downstairs for the next four years--and steady work. The pay never matched the featured performance slot, fluctuating between $1200-1400 a week. Instead of performing for the usual industry and media types we played for college students, friends and neighborhood regulars. There was nothing humbling about that; in fact it was the perfect situation for introducing new bands, players and material.

Over the next couple years I abandoned fusion and introduced reggae music to the club. As usual, the patrons were receptive to change although some of the staff remained uncertain, to the point of bordering on racism.

Two personalities dominated the venue; Reggie Bovaird, the amiable bouncer/doorman/manager and Pat Joyce the crusty yet caring bartender. A third, Keith McCullough bridged the gaps between the more eccentric personalities, bringing a sense of normality.

One situation the El Mocambo had in common with other age-restricted Toronto venues was the depth of its unrepentantly hostile bouncers. A body-toss down the stairs wasn't out of character for some of the beef brains that stood watch over the club. More than a few of these thick-necks faced the courts on assault charges. It was Reggie who kept things under control and in perspective.

Reggie had come over from the Nickelodeon. Everybody knew and respected him - his love and devotion not only for the music but also the musicians. Whether it was Dylan or Zappa, Reggie held court and kept the social thing upbeat and integrated. Pat on the other hand divvied out rare compliments, usually coming only late evening after a full house and fat till.

What really made the El Mocambo such an attraction was the diversity of artists who filled the upstairs. Lord, if I only had a camera then! Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Guy, Asleep At The Wheel, Roomful of Blues, Ramsey Lewis, The New York Dolls, Howlin' Wolf, Downchild Blues Band; jazz, blues, bluegrass, country-you name it. In fact, I even worked the joint to an ecstatic house with comic Robert Klein. Speaking of comics, how about National Lampoon with Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner doing her best Patty Hearst?

By 1976, I left Toronto for pastures south. When I returned in late 1979, the Elmo had been christened a national shrine. An appearance by the Rolling Stones elevated the reputation of the club to that of a sacred institution.

The music policy had also changed. Jazz and blues were out. Power rock was in while aspiring punks hid in the crevices. Other than a few bright reggae moments and Stevie Ray Vaughan's memorable appearance in 1983, the place began to smell corporate.

It wasn't until I was part of China ( Kearney, King & McBride), a band born on the bottom floor of the club in 1980, that I learned an obscene lesson in booking policy. To play upstairs, bands were now required to pay a fee. CBS doled out $600 for our performance, to be deducted from future recording royalties. When word spread amongst the band members it was met with resentment and anger. We eventually played to a full house but walked away penniless from the gig. The Elmo cleaned up.

The following year I played a couple more weeks down stairs with my ska/reggae unit but the luster had all but faded. The pay in 1982? $1,200! Sound system rental, $750. Some things never change.

As the years advanced the names of bands became less significant. I'd pass the marquee and ask myself who the hell Zoo Flem, Butt Monkey, Violent Spoon, The Nauseous Snake, Toilet Boys, Duck Butter and the Pancakes and the likes were. Gone were tall names like Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Little Feat, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Tom Waits.

While sifting through a box of old cassettes I came across tapes of Kearney, King, McBride and LeBarge recorded downstairs in 1980 and transferred them to Sound Forge then over to CD. The energy and sounds in the room brought back wonderful memories of sweat- and smoke-filled evenings. There were few pickers locally who could match the guitar wizardry of Danny McBride and Bernie Lebarge back then or the cracking rhythms of Paul Delong and Gene Falbo.

One day in 1998, I thought for a moment about sticking my head in the grimy bar for one last sniff at infamy, remembering five wild fun-filled New Year's Eve's rocking the basement crowds. I made the usual right turn into the musty stench and recognized that the room in much the same condition it had always been. What struck me was how far I had come. I could no longer suffer the gruesome dour of stale beer or the sight of the soiled walls. There was little nostalgia here. It made me realize that to a musician, a gig is a gig. Few places ever truly capture the imagination. The Elmo came closest in Toronto solely because of the great musicians who'd preceded the latter day juvenile, inarticulate drones who rendered the institution laughable. Dance on!

Monday, September 21, 2009

JIMI HENDRIX (Deconstructing the Blues)

The spring of 1967 we rode the rails from Toronto arriving in Penn Station late afternoon. The trip had been a sobering affair after three months of playing such American landmarks as - Flagstaff, Arizona - Des Moines, Iowa - Minneapolis, Minnesota - Amarillo, Texas and Montreal, Michigan. The band, The Great Western Exhibit was about to face the same issues most impromptu acts encounter after weeks of highs then slow descent into group depression. Three out of four of the members discovered the band absent a heartbeat then bolted abandoning me just after an excruciating set at the Café Wha located at the epicenter of Greenwich Village.

In fact, a photograph of that fifteen-year-old chanteuse from Queens named Barbara Streisand stared back at all comers descending the stairway to the inner sanctum. It was here I would encounter Andre, “ The Singing Street Hustler.”

Andre was privy to everything going on up and down Bleecker and McDougall Streets. He knew the bands, shared the women, accompanied the hangers on and fleeced the hopeful. Andre would drag me through unknown night haunts into uncommon situations.

On one such occasion street cleaners were just finishing a morning sweep through the Village and I’d been up most the night starved of sleep - broke and homeless. From around the corner comes Andre dressed like one of those Carnaby Street window mannequins you’d see in a British Mod clothing storefront. With little else to do I match him stride for stride down McDougall ignoring narcissistic rumination and absorbing local gossip. As we turn on to Bleecker Street Andre suddenly pauses, spots this figure attached to two women moving slowly up the street. “Do you who know who that is?” he asks. I inspect in silence. “That’s Jimi James- I mean Jimi Hendrix now, the next big thing in rock and roll. He’s just finished his first album in London and it’s going to be a monster.” I knew nothing of the man other than he sported two fine looking women one on each arm.

Hendrix was dressed in what appeared to be crushed velvet, ornate military jacket, a loosely knotted scarf around the neck and wind-blown Afro. The girls looked as if they’d survived a vigorous shopping spree, every item seemingly purchased at some upscale Manhattan boutique.

Andre glances back and signals me to hang close while he approaches Hendrix. A few choice words pass between them before he summons me. “Bill, this is the man, the next great rock super star, Jimi Hendrix.” I shake ‘The Man’s’ hand and quickly direct my eyes towards the two attractive vixens then start the slow march up Bleecker. Andre asks Hendrix where he’s headed then invites the both of us along. A few minutes later we end up behind a large round oak table in an upstairs café called the Tin Angel next to the Bitter End nightclub. Andre banters on about the recording and release date - his own aspirations to perform while delivering a few sweet words to one of Hendrix’s entourage when a waitress arrives with scratch pad to book orders. This was my cue to exit. Let’s face it. I couldn’t even afford a cube of butter let alone a cut of bread, so I politely excuse myself.

A few weeks pass and I find myself living in a flat at 533 E. Sixth Street and playing organ nightly in the village at a psychedelic coffee house called the Underground. I was hauling down fifteen to twenty-five dollars a night and paying twenty-five a month in rent. “Are You Experienced” hit the streets in May of 1967 like a speeding asteroid with advance orders approaching a million. Everywhere I gaze Hendrix’s face stares back at me. “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” blare from basement record stores, radio and stereos from street level to tenement roofs. Andre was right, Hendrix would not only quickly impact the Flower and Peace generation but every young rock and roll lover across North America.

A year or so would pass and I find myself back in New York after a stint in California. I land a job with a band called the Chicago Loop which had a regional hit with a song of no consequence. The lead singer, Bob Slawson was a frequent visitor to Steve Paul’s Scene an uptown night spot where anyone who was anyone in the music business hung out - in great contrast to the chic patrons at Max’s Kansas City where Warhol and his gang of art warriors bunked.

After a featured band performed a formulated set the all night jam sessions kicked in. I dropped by a few times and sat in on Hammond B-3 organ - once with the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble - another night with a list of dreaded unknowns.

I happen to slip in one night when the Buddy Miles Express was winding down. Miles was a member of the Electric Flag eventually moving into Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies after drummer Mitch Mitchell’s departure. Miles had Mitchell playing alongside this night adding an extra degree of thunder to an already rampaging band. I waited until the group took a break and slipped in close proximity of the Hammond B-3 organ. Herb Rich, Mile’s organist had first crack at the drawn out jam session leaving me drooling in anticipation. Once Rich departed I began my slide onto the bench when I was abruptly met by Miles - who then shuffled me aside. By this time the front line unit was led by singer guitarist Terry Reid and guitarists Larry Coryell and Ron Wood. I waited patiently as Miles clung to the only two chords he knew before he relented.

With the door of opportunity open I lit up every groove with my best sonic licks. I twisted and bent notes then pumped out the ritual backing patterns all organist learn when playing roots rhythm & blues. With little fanfare a changing of the guard occurs just in back of me. Suddenly, a dangling frilly cuff from what looks to be some Edwardian garment brushes past my face. I quickly spin my head around for a glimpse. As if struck by an errant lightening bolt I do an instant double take. It was “The Man” himself, Jimi Hendrix about to play the same kind of probing bass lines he did on his own recordings. I couldn’t help notice Hendrix holding the bass upside down, strings facing the opposite way. Over the next twenty minutes or so I ride the pulse tossing in a few modal chords just to shift the tonal center. Coryell and Wood try one-upping each other even going as far as tossing in a few lines from Freddy King’s blues anthem, “Hideaway “. For one long exhilarating stretch it’s Larry Coryell, Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix and me deconstructing the blues.

The night ends with a few hand slaps and Buddy Miles offering to hook me up with a rhythm & blues band in San Diego, one he once propelled. For me the night would never end. Even after falling into the dark embrace of sleep I replayed each note and every missed opportunity until dawn intercedes wiping away all evidence I had shimmered during the night of stars.

Chuck Berry Scares Me!

I’d been hanging around the musicians local in Hollywood in 1968 looking for a gig or gigs when this guy named “Scooby,” if you can believe that, mentions Chuck Berry was in need of players for a concert at the L.A. Exhibition center.

“Scooby” was this older than most hippies guy who couldn’t get a handle on the love generation but liked the perks. He played saxophone and did a few pit gigs the most memorable being hired to play behind the Temptations. In fact, he was the only horn facing a fully orchestrated score calling for eight to ten horns. He professed it to be the scariest night of his life. “Just play the parts mofuck…” He’d been awarded this non job with the union to bring the rock guys back to camp union. Many could care less about being members.

Anyway, I wandered in hoping to find any kind of work – shoot pool–chat it up with the employed studio musicians who hung around between session calls and pretended to be in the middle of things. Scooby intervened announcing – Chuck Berry was in need of a band and Scoob was hiring.

I quickly got on the vine and called the players I’d been rehearsing with who were to be the foundation of Linda Ronstadt’s new band, me being the music director - that in itself another story. In short – Linda went to the beach a lot and I looked on like a mute smitten with Cinderella. Man was she a beauty!

I get the band to commit and show up ready to roar for Chucky. First band up, the original edition of Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, second – the Chambers Brothers. Forty minutes into the Chambers Brothers set I was ready to rip the throbbing cowbell out of the front man’s hand and scream “Time” ….is Up!” It may have been a cool song for a minute or three but a heavy dose of "Time" was more than this vagrant piano man could withstand.

Here comes Chuck! Give it up.

Now, you must keep in mind Chuck didn’t rehearse or spring a set list on you. So I stood back and watched the roadies haul his psychedelic stained Fender Dual Showman on stage in front of ten thousand screaming reefer-sucking teenagers.

Soon, an old upright piano is rolled in placed. I looked on and thought, “That must be for me. I asked myself if one could actually hear this thing beyond your mother’s living room. I scanned the crowd for sweet faces, something as gorgeous as Ronstadt.

Chuck shows side stage wearing this magnetic looking blue Nehru shirt. Now, I’d owned a dozen custom made Nehru’s with clean ribbon design – cut nicely for me from the Mercury Gift Shop in the East Village in lower Manhattan. Chuck had one that could have only come from the B.F. Goodyear Thrift Shop next door to Uncle Phil’s Process Parlor. Berry could have lit the heavens on this occasion with that shirt.

Just as we were about to climb into position pianist Barry Goldberg and drummer Eddie Hoh emerge. Goldberg cuts me off and announces he’s replacing me on orders from Chuck. This catches me off guard. I think for a minute then tell Goldberg to bring Chuck over and we’d work things out. Goldberg fires back, “Look man, Eddie and I played with Chuck last night in Chicago and flew all the way out here to play with him.” Another pause then I ask, “ How much is he paying you?” Goldberg shoots back, “ We’re here because we want to be and Chuck wants us.” I respond, “We’re here because we’ve been hired, get lost.” Case closed!

Goldberg sniffs around Chuck trying to draw him into the line of fire. Chuck looks back and says, “I don’t care who’s on the stage just long as they play the shit right.”

Goldberg loses it starts telling me how he’d make sure I’d be forever out of work in L.A. Hell, I didn’t even know anyone who had a job. Who could he tell, the folks at the Spot Dog Diner, the home of the ten-cent corndog - my favorite hangout? Eventually, Goldberg backs off and fades away.

Chuck kicks things off louder than a rampaging diesel. Berry’s amp was so distorted it was difficult separating chords through what must have been a busted speaker cone.

The next fifty minutes we hit nirvana. Every song had a piano solo and an approving nod from above. I can’t express how elated I was. The crowd stomped, hooted, rocked and rolled. Berry finished the dynamic set with “My Ding-A-Ling.”

I left the stage feeling like I’d conquered the west coast - from here, second keyboard with the Doors?

As we patiently wait to get paid a hundred crisp greenbacks I thought maybe conversation with Chuck would be appropriate. Three words in. No response.

Chuck continues counting “Four thousand one hundred and seventy, four thousand one hundred and eighty, four thousand one hundred and ninety. “Wait a minute, you shorted me ten dollars.” The ordeal repeats itself. Promoter A recounts the stacks to the dollar. Chuck counts his own way and comes up ten short. After an hour of haggling Promoter B says, who gives a shit - give the cheapskate another ten.

Now came our pay check. Chuck, without looking up lays four hundred dollar bills aside and begins scooping his personal stash. Like a fool I think the time is ripe to get acquainted so I say, “ So, I guess you’re taking the band out for steaks.” Berry gives me a look I’ll never forget to this day. Let me put it in words. “ Get lost loser before I torch your head - shrink wrap it in my vinyl Nehru shirt - and feed to starving pit bulls. Excuse me, I have a plane to catch.”

Suddenly, a gig panhandling seemed more realistic.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thoughts on James Brown

James Brown can take his rightful place alongside Coltrane, Miles, Ellington, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Otis and the giants. The guy had a remarkable music and business mind - a one of a kind way of hearing.

I first caught Brown live back in 1964 with cape - three drummers and two bass players. I was playing a prom at the coliseum in Louisville, Kentucky in a side room while Brown inhabited center stage in the sports arena. What a spectacle - the place burned with female shrieks and thundering rhythm. I'd never heard a band play with such precision outside the Basie band.

That summer we followed Brown into Club Cherry in Lebanon, Kentucky with the Shadows - a cover band playing mostly rhythm and blues classics of the day. Club Cherry was this black music venue residing next to a long stretch of railroad tracks. The decor was all things dim and walls sticky with tobacco stains and evaporating body sweat. Upon entry, one of the first sightings was two large glass canisters - one with three or four left behind pickled pigs feet submerged in what appeared to be pond water and the other showcasing a preserved pig snout in proximnity of the cashier. Posters of Arthur Prysock, Count Basie, Lowell Fulsom, Cab Calloway graced the walls. Bands shared dressing quarters with the owner who on this occasion failed to sweep away a recently spent condom. Soiled clothing and the smell of fresh pomade challenged the nasal passages.

The stage where Brown worked his magic was not at all the dimensions you'd expect, leaving one to believe floor space down front served that purpose. On this night two fights broke out that were swift and memorable. One guy took a solid shot to the backside from a kitchen chair and kick to the head. Justice served. I remember thinking how unruly and bizarre the week must have been with Brown in attendance.

The local white clubs were jammed with beer swilling teenagers more intent on inviting a ruptured liver than a shot of music. Club Cherry was all about sex and music. In which order depended on how magnificent the hair doo shaped up and smooth delivery. Over at Club 69 the white boys were like vultures hovering over potential sex meat waiting until the last chick fell unconscious after drowning in a vat of near beer.

Fast-forward to the mid-nineties when Brown was booked into the Masonic Temple in Toronto. The late Toronto impresario Gino Empry was Brown's PR man for the occasion. My wife Kristine and I jumped all over the offer to attend the press conference with cameras in hand. The place was dominated by television crews so we decided to split up and shoot from opposing sides.

Brown eventually held court. I snapped a few shots when suddenly Brown singles me out, "Who says you can be taking pictures of me ...did I ask you?" At first, I was startled by the remark then ignored him. He then turns to Kristine and says ." Pretty thing you can shoot as many pictures as you want." Needless to say - I copped as many indiscreet shots as I could.

Nothing matched the concert images. The room was a suffocating hundred degrees and hundred per cent humidity. Both Kristine and I shot from down front but the cramped surroundings sent me into near panic for air. We relocated upstairs and caught some wonderful concert frames and enjoyed one of the best concerts ever. The foundation shook.

The ensuing years I have found myself buying early Brown sides reacquainting myself with the complex rhythm patterns - the inside horn lines that are at the core of his sound. Brown camped on the offbeat's a most unusual place to inject a clever twist of a phrase. We used to play many of the ‘Live at the Apollo’ tracks in the sixties in various bands but few musicians ever played the arrangements note for note.
Prince is the grandest disciple of Brown. He uses the same measured techniques building from the bottom up.

It's funny how we collectively say - we will truly miss the man - but in reality he'll never be gone. Like Ray Charles the music will linger an eternity. Brown was crazy as hell and did some wild ass things but it's still the music not the silliness that was his strong suit. That's how powerful his impact on all of us has been.

I met several players around Los Angles in the 60's and 70's who worked as sideman for Brown. This was no picnic. The gig was demanding and paid a paltry sum. Brown carved out minuscule stage real estate for each band member. If one strayed outside allotted territory one could expect a fine and tongue lashing - the same for wrong notes, miscues and stage wear. The man ruled a tight kingdom and kept his bands in prime shape. He was never less than perfection.

JB dance in peace! Bill King -

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Session with Kinga Victoria: Pt.1

I’d been working weeks for this day. The day when I could draw drummer Mark Kelso, bassist Duncan Hopkins and guitarist Rob Piltch back in the studio for another go round.

I produced four sides on Kinga last season hoping to eventually put all of this together as a complete recording. The past year and half Victoria has been a cornerstone of the singing quartet Real Divas. She possesses are warm, soulful voice that could easily turn a blue note or play it straight. I’ve been encouraging her to hit the groove button and try for more rhythmic guided songs – tunes with solid meaning and flexible enough to both inspire and showcase her prodigious talent. This is new territory yet never once has Victoria flinched.

During our search we came across Randy Newman’s - “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” – James Brown’s version of - ‘It’s Magic” – Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” and Latin version of “What a Difference a Day Made” - Bill Wither’s - “ Ain’t No Sunshine.” These are songs set in stone. The real challenge is to bring something new to the table. These are songs Victoria feels, words she can play intimate. I could tell during our first practice sessions the voice fit comfortably around the rich melodies and could deliver a heartfelt interpretation of the lyrics. My chore was to craft arrangements with a slight bent that would offer fresh ground to cover.

The next few weeks were spent in the basement with piano, laptop, Finale 8, printer, headphones – YouTube, Kingston Data Traveler and all of the gifts morning brings. That’s my time to create – nothing enters the mind beyond the sound of music – harmony, melody, rhythm, possibilities. I love the immersion process. It’s quiet time – the brain only receives that which comes with color and potential.

I keep pads of manuscript paper nearby when a quick line or chord sequence needs documentation. Then I cram into the measures on the laptop. I never see anything with finality until a day before entering the studio. Everything is open to revision.

With six songs in preparation we were still in need of two additional numbers. These had to be compositions with flare and tempo. I just happen to have a duo CD set of Mose Allsion tracks from the late fifties and early sixties. We need go no farther.

Viva Cuba

Viva Cuba!

Photographers: Stephen, Smith, Kris King, Roger Humbert and Bill King

A couple weeks back I had the good fortune to team with fellow photo jockeys for an exhibition of Cuban images at Dundas Square, Toronto. This is in the heart of downtown produced by lens master Stephen Smith.

Smith had been plugging away for weeks organizing and printing. We even took a moment and dropped by Pikto for a most successful afternoon session of printing in the Distillery District.

Smith and a select gang of scribes and accomplices traveled to Havana together in the spring of 2006. The week long affair produced many respectable images and more laughs than guaranteed. Havana is one of those locales no matter which direction you point a camera something interesting gets stored away.

For Kristine and me it was a juggling game bouncing between concert photography and music demands. It all came together on a brilliant September Friday. I could tell from the early morning set-up this was to be a joyous occasion.

Most exhibitions occur in small controlled environments. Outdoors in a tent poses its own limitations. Much to do with hanging objects out of the path of a steady fall breeze.

Fortunately, the day became one of frequent visitors all inspecting every corner of the images. Fellow Cubans tracked neighborhoods pointing at intersections and houses – all too familiar. Others lost themselves in the dancing girls from the Tropicana – still others in the music and landscape.

I’ve attached a recent article describing the day. There’s nothing like sharing a bit of oneself with faces never seen. Most endearing!

True Compass Edward M. Kennedy

For autobiographies this one arrives with a soft touch. It's a boy's recollection of early life within a vibrant, competitive yet respectful family structure. Joy abounds as the youngest Kennedy experiences the day to day exchanges with sisters, brothers and a stern yet giving father. Much is expected. Humility abounds. I'm early on in this marvelous recollection of summers in Cape Cod - sailing and misadventures but savoring every passage.