Babes in Bopsiland
One of the things I appreciate about the AJW project is how it encourages the presentation of types of music that may be outside my comfort zone as a player. I mean, we have done Monk, Gershwin, Jobim, Ellington, Rahsaan, etc. Now we’re doing Miles, which is to say four distinct musical movements as we trace his career from bebop to cool to freebop to fusion. But all these players have more similarities than differences. By far, the most challenging season for me as a player was Season Seven, “New Orleans & the Birth of Jazz”.
You wouldn’t think this to be the case necessarily, because everything that came after was built on the likes of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Scott Joplin, and Jelly Roll Morton. But what they played was as different to contemporary jazz as Shakespeare’s English is to today’s. You have to go back and study this stuff to play it meaningfully. But even more difficult—you have to ‘unlearn’ what you already know, or it just gets in the way.
Not that the early stuff was simple—far from it. To play Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, you need an appreciation for and an awareness of European dance forms, Sousa marches, the ‘Latin tinge’, the blues—it’s all there. You need to know where to improvise and where to ‘play the ink’. And when you do choose to improvise, you need to put away your Coltrane-inspired pentatonics and your Parker #9/b9 licks, because that’s a square peg in a round hole.
I used to wonder why Traditional Jazz musicians—who we call ‘trad jazz’–and other jazzers tend not to commingle much on the bandstand. After playing this stuff for a while, it makes more sense. To play music from the earlier part of the previous century and have it sound good, that has to be your focus. You stray, it goes away.
For me, the world began with bebop—which is to say, the 1940′s. Bebop is the closest thing we have in jazz to a ‘common practice’ period—that time when the harmonic and rhythmic language coalesced into something that both reflected the past and pointed to the future. So I think of Charlie Parker in the same way I think of Mozart. Besides the obvious fact that both died before their time and were incredibly prolific in light of that fact, they also share the distinction of almost single-handedly providing the foundation for successive generations of musicians to expand upon.
But to go twenty years BP (Before Parker)–well, time to unlearn. No more dropped bombs from the drummer, no more chord extensions or altered scales. The Bebopper’s Bible is off the table. You have to go back to Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, Sidney Bechet, and piece together something to say in that tradition. Sound simple? It’s not. From a bebop perspective, it’s virtually impossible not to overplay unless you are really paying attention. Then of course, there is the thorny question of what to play.
That’s why players who are dedicated to that tradition tend to not fraternize with other players—they don’t want to contaminate the well. They want to keep that voice pure, and that means sticking with the early years in terms of their playing and listening.
I respect that, though I could never do it. Too much vital music has happened since for me to live in the past. I mean, no Monk, Mingus, Bill Evans, Miles, Trane, Pharoah Sanders, Wayne Shorter, etc.? May as well go back to three channels and rabbit ears.
So somehow we had to play this stuff for kids and sound convincing, while still keeping it fresh and interesting for the musicians. My solution was a simple one: I found a tuba player with traditional roots, and used him for every show. No bass. Add soprano sax/clarinet, trumpet, and trombone, and you have your four-horn front line. Add drums and piano, and there’s your band. And if you have to play live on the street with no amplification—as we have done at least a dozen times since—just peel off the piano, hang a snare on the drummer, and you’re good to go. The sound is amazingly full even with just the horns, as long as everyone knows their assigned role.
My tubist was a fellow union member named Bob Alexius, who had the distinction of being from New Orleans and having once played an infamous live gig with Floyd Kramer, Boots Randolph, and some unknown hillbilly kid named Elvis Presley (2/25/1961, for those who just can’t let it go). Bob also plays bass, as many tuba players do, but I wouldn’t let him for these gigs. Poor guy had an old-school, full-size tuba also—weighed about 30 pounds, and he lugged it to every gig. He was a good sport about it. In fact, there were two times during the show where we marched—at the beginning, we came in from the rear of the room, and then at the end we replicated a ‘second-line’ New Orleans-style jazz funeral and led the audience around the room dancing our way back from the ‘cemetery’.
Trouble was, the bell of the tuba was so large that Bob couldn’t see around it while playing. He was, literally, flying blind. So we had to hold a tight formation, because if Bob began to freestyle, children were going to be trampled underfoot.
After some trial and error, and a handful of crushed 3rd-graders (collateral damage; that’s showbiz), we came up with a workable solution. We marched trumpet and sax together in front to clear a path; then tuba; then trombone in the rear. That way, if Bob started to drift, the bone player could gently correct him back with his slide and keep him to the straight and narrow. And if Bob got ahead of himself, the likeliest people to be maimed would be the sax and trumpet, and the world has plenty of them already. Two less wouldn’t be noticed.
Not much correction was needed, though. Even though Bob was pushing seventy at the time, he seemed to have some sort of genetic ‘bat-sense’ of tuba echolocation when he strapped that thing on. He always seemed to know where he was going, that’s for sure. Much more than I would have, hauling around that bathtub.
Bob brought a lot more to the band besides the exciting threat of instant death. He was also the only one of us to have direct roots in the New Orleans tradition, by virtue of his upbringing and time in the music business. Of course, he didn’t play directly with people like Kid Ory—he would have had to have been 120 years old—but at least, as a teenager starting out, he played with older musicians who bridged that gap. So he was worth his weight in authenticity.
The rest of us had some unlearning to do.