Some 80 years ago, in a small North Carolina town, Eunice Waymon, a musically gifted, nine-year-old black girl, began taking piano lessons in the home of an exacting Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich.
At first, young Eunice — the given name of jazz superstar Nina Simone — felt intimidated, recalling in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, that they “only played Bach and he seemed so complicated and different:”
In those first lessons, it seemed like the only thing she said was, “You must do it this way, Eunice. Bach would like it this way. Do it again.” And so I would.
As time went on I understood why Mrs. Mazzanovich only allowed me to practice Bach and soon I loved him as much as she did. He is technically perfect… Once I understood Bach’s music I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music.
Her talent, commitment, and progress were such that other citizens of Tryon, North Carolina pitched in to help her afford a summer session at New York City’s famed Juilliard School, prior to auditioning for Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.
“I knew I was good enough, but (the Curtis Institute) turned me down,” she says in the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?“And it took me about six months to realize it was because I was Black. I never really got over that jolt of racism at the time.”
And yet, she persevered, becoming active in the Civil Rights movement and using the proceeds from her debut album, Little Girl Blue, to further her classical training.
On September 11, 1960, Simone, who had scored a Top 20 hit the previous year with a cover of “I Loves You, Porgy” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, made her national television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Performing before an all-white studio audience, she paid tribute to both her early training and the genre that would make her a star, imbuing the 1928 jazz standard “Love Me Or Leave Me,” above, with a counterpoint solo in the style of Bach’s Inventions.
It was a skill she had developed during a standing piano gig at Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar and Grill. Its owner demanded that she sing as well as play, and she agreed out of necessity, improvising, experimenting, and occasionally allowing herself flights of classical fancy that did not go unnoticed by local music aficionados.
She prided herself on bringing a classical musician’s absolute concentration to these performances, and expected the audience to abide by a similar code, taking her hands off the keys if a rowdy drunk talked over her, noting that “if they don’t want to listen, I don’t want to play:”
When you play Bach’s music, you have to understand that he’s a mathematician and all the notes you play add up to something — they make sense. They always add up to climaxes, like ocean waves getting bigger and bigger until after a while so many waves have gathered you have a great storm. Each note you play is connected to the next note, and every note has to be executed perfectly or the whole effect is lost.
Throughout her storied career, she found ways to weave Bach-like fugues and other classical references into her work. Witness her 1987 performance of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” at the Montreux Jazz Festival, below.
Jazz pianist Bob Dorough recalled how an ad exec at a New York ad agency pitched the idea:
My little boys can’t memorize their times tables, but they sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, so why don’t you put it to rock music and we’ll call it Multiplication Rock?
Dorough, whose compositional preferences ran to “extravagant love songs” and vocal challenging numbers, realized that his first order of business would be to write a good song:
I hit upon the idea, let’s pick a number. Three! That’s a good number. And I sat down at the piano and started fooling around. It took me 2 weeks.
In his hands, three became a magic number, an ear worm to bring even the most reluctant elementary mathematicians up to speed in no time.
Eventually, Dorough was able to bring many of his jazz world friends into the fold, including, most famously, trumpeter and Merv Griffin Showsidekick Jack Sheldon, whose one-of-a-kind delivery is the hands down highlight of “Conjunction Junction.”
(Many Schoolhouse Rock! fans, viewing the excerpt of the duo’s mid-90’s live appearance on the KTLA Morning Show, above, professed disbelief that Sheldon’s soul was of the blue-eyed variety, even though the animated engineer who serves as his avatar in that three minute episode is white.)
When we made Conjunction Junction, it was me and Teddy Edwards and Nick Ceroli and Leroy Vinegar and Bob Dorough played the piano. That’s a jazz band…it was really nothing to do with rock. It was always jazz, but we said rock and roll, so everybody loved it for rock and roll.
Another memorable collaboration between Sheldon and Dorough is the much parodied “I’m Just a Bill,” in which a weary scroll loiters on the steps of the Capital Building, explaining to a wide eyed youngster (voiced by his son) the process by which a bill becomes law.
(It) made me want to gamble and win.I got hooked when I heard Bob’s jazzy rasp of a voice breaking the rules even as he explained them… this guy had a wild mind, which I figured out later equaled creativity.
She also paid the perpetually sunny Dorough, whom she first encountered “glow(ing) with health and good cheer, spreading sunshine wherever he went on the campus of East Stroudsburg University, the supreme compliment:
Lou Reed’s idea of hell would be to sit in heaven with Bob Dorough.
Colin Browning, assistant editor of The Bluff, a Loyola Marymount University student newspaper, has some kopasetic casting suggestions for a hypothetical feature adaptation of the “Merriam-Webster classic.”
He’s just muggin’, of course. Still, he seems like a young man who’s got his boots on.
In that case, you’d best acquaint yourself with the only cinematic dictionary adaptation we’re aware of, the Mr. Hepcat’s Dictionary number from Sensations of 1945, above.
Musical team Al Sherman & Harry Tobias drew directly from Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: a Hepster’s Dictionary, a lexicon of Harlem jazz musicians’ slang originally published in 1938 ’ when choosing terms for Calloway to define for a young protégée, eager to be schooled in “the lingo all the jitterbugs use today.”
In between, Calloway, lays some iron in white tie and tails.
By the time the film came out, Calloway’s Hepster Dictionary was in its seventh edition, and had earned its place as the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library.
As Calloway wrote in the foreword to the sixth edition:
“Jive talk” is now an everyday part of the English language. Its usage is now accepted in the movies, on the stage, and in the song products of Tin Pan Alley. It is reasonable to assume that jive will find new avenues in such hitherto remote places as Australia, the South Pacific, North Africa, China, Italy, France, Sicily, and inevitably Germany and wherever our Armed Forces may serve.
I don’t want to lend the impression here that the many words contained in this edition are the figments of my imagination. They were gathered from every conceivable source. Many first saw the light of printer’s ink in Billy Rowe’s widely read column “The Notebook,” in the Pittsburgh Courier.
And now to enrich our vocabularies…
A hummer (n.): exceptionally good. Ex., “Man, that boy is a hummer.”
Ain’t coming on that tab (v.): won’t accept the proposition. Usually abbr. to “I ain’t coming.”
Alligator (n.): jitterbug.
Apple (n.): the big town, the main stem, Harlem.
Armstrongs (n.): musical notes in the upper register, high trumpet notes.
Barbecue (n.): the girl friend, a beauty.
Barrelhouse (adj.): free and easy.
Battle (n.): a very homely girl, a crone.
Beat (adj.): (1) tired, exhausted. Ex., “You look beat” or “I feel beat.” (2) lacking anything. Ex, “I am beat for my cash”, “I am beat to my socks” (lacking everything).
Beat it out (v.): play it hot, emphasize the rhythm.
Beat up (adj.): sad, uncomplimentary, tired.
Beat up the chops (or the gums) (v.): to talk, converse, be loquacious.
Beef (v.): to say, to state. Ex., “He beefed to me that, etc.”
Bible (n.): the gospel truth. Ex., “It’s the bible!”
Black (n.): night.
Black and tan (n.): dark and light colored folks. Not colored and white folks as erroneously assumed.
Blew their wigs (adj.): excited with enthusiasm, gone crazy.
Blip (n.): something very good. Ex., “That’s a blip”; “She’s a blip.”
Blow the top (v.): to be overcome with emotion (delight). Ex., “You’ll blow your top when you hear this one.”
Boogie-woogie (n.): harmony with accented bass.
Boot (v.): to give. Ex., “Boot me that glove.”
Break it up (v.): to win applause, to stop the show.
Bree (n.): girl.
Bright (n.): day.
Brightnin’ (n.): daybreak.
Bring down ((1) n. (2) v.): (1) something depressing. Ex., “That’s a bring down.” (2) Ex., “That brings me down.”
Buddy ghee (n.): fellow.
Bust your conk (v.): apply yourself diligently, break your neck.
Canary (n.): girl vocalist.
Capped (v.): outdone, surpassed.
Cat (n.): musician in swing band.
Chick (n.): girl.
Chime (n.): hour. Ex., “I got in at six chimes.”
Clambake (n.): ad lib session, every man for himself, a jam session not in the groove.
Chirp (n.): female singer.
Cogs (n.): sun glasses.
Collar (v.): to get, to obtain, to comprehend. Ex., “I gotta collar me some food”; “Do you collar this jive?”
Come again (v.): try it over, do better than you are doing, I don’t understand you.
Comes on like gangbusters (or like test pilot) (v.): plays, sings, or dances in a terrific manner, par excellence in any department. Sometimes abbr. to “That singer really comes on!”
Cop (v.): to get, to obtain (see collar; knock).
Corny (adj.): old-fashioned, stale.
Creeps out like the shadow (v.): “comes on,” but in smooth, suave, sophisticated manner.
Crumb crushers (n.): teeth.
Cubby (n.): room, flat, home.
Cups (n.): sleep. Ex., “I gotta catch some cups.”
Cut out (v.): to leave, to depart. Ex., “It’s time to cut out”; “I cut out from the joint in early bright.”
Cut rate (n.): a low, cheap person. Ex., “Don’t play me cut rate, Jack!”
Dicty (adj.): high-class, nifty, smart.
Dig (v.): (1) meet. Ex., “I’ll plant you now and dig you later.” (2) look, see. Ex., “Dig the chick on your left duke.” (3) comprehend, understand. Ex., “Do you dig this jive?”
Dim (n.): evening.
Dime note (n.): ten-dollar bill.
Doghouse (n.): bass fiddle.
Domi (n.): ordinary place to live in. Ex., “I live in a righteous domi.”
Doss (n.): sleep. Ex., “I’m a little beat for my doss.”
Down with it (adj.): through with it.
Drape (n.): suit of clothes, dress, costume.
Dreamers (n.): bed covers, blankets.
Dry-goods (n.): same as drape.
Duke (n.): hand, mitt.
Dutchess (n.): girl.
Early black (n.): evening
Early bright (n.): morning.
Evil (adj.): in ill humor, in a nasty temper.
Fall out (v.): to be overcome with emotion. Ex., “The cats fell out when he took that solo.”
Fews and two (n.): money or cash in small quantity.
Final (v.): to leave, to go home. Ex., “I finaled to my pad” (went to bed); “We copped a final” (went home).
Fine dinner (n.): a good-looking girl.
Focus (v.): to look, to see.
Foxy (v.): shrewd.
Frame (n.): the body.
Fraughty issue (n.): a very sad message, a deplorable state of affairs.
Freeby (n.): no charge, gratis. Ex., “The meal was a freeby.”
Frisking the whiskers (v.): what the cats do when they are warming up for a swing session.
Frolic pad (n.): place of entertainment, theater, nightclub.
Fromby (adj.): a frompy queen is a battle or faust.
Front (n.): a suit of clothes.
Fruiting (v.): fickle, fooling around with no particular object.
Fry (v.): to go to get hair straightened.
Gabriels (n.): trumpet players.
Gammin’ (adj.): showing off, flirtatious.
Gasser (n, adj.): sensational. Ex., “When it comes to dancing, she’s a gasser.”
Gate (n.): a male person (a salutation), abbr. for “gate-mouth.”
Get in there (exclamation.): go to work, get busy, make it hot, give all you’ve got.
Gimme some skin (v.): shake hands.
Glims (n.): the eyes.
Got your boots on: you know what it is all about, you are a hep cat, you are wise.
Got your glasses on: you are ritzy or snooty, you fail to recognize your friends, you are up-stage.
Gravy (n.): profits.
Grease (v.): to eat.
Groovy (adj.): fine. Ex., “I feel groovy.”
Ground grippers (n.): new shoes.
Growl (n.): vibrant notes from a trumpet.
Gut-bucket (adj.): low-down music.
Guzzlin’ foam (v.): drinking beer.
Hard (adj.): fine, good. Ex., “That’s a hard tie you’re wearing.”
Hard spiel (n.): interesting line of talk.
Have a ball (v.): to enjoy yourself, stage a celebration. Ex., “I had myself a ball last night.”
Hep cat (n.): a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive.
Hide-beater (n.): a drummer (see skin-beater).
Hincty (adj.): conceited, snooty.
Hip (adj.): wise, sophisticated, anyone with boots on. Ex., “She’s a hip chick.”
Home-cooking (n.): something very dinner (see fine dinner).
Hot (adj.): musically torrid; before swing, tunes were hot or bands were hot.
Hype (n, v.): build up for a loan, wooing a girl, persuasive talk.
Icky (n.): one who is not hip, a stupid person, can’t collar the jive.
Igg (v.): to ignore someone. Ex., “Don’t igg me!)
In the groove (adj.): perfect, no deviation, down the alley.
Jack (n.): name for all male friends (see gate; pops).
Jam ((1)n, (2)v.): (1) improvised swing music. Ex., “That’s swell jam.” (2) to play such music. Ex., “That cat surely can jam.”
Jeff (n.): a pest, a bore, an icky.
Jelly (n.): anything free, on the house.
Jitterbug (n.): a swing fan.
Jive (n.): Harlemese speech.
Joint is jumping: the place is lively, the club is leaping with fun.
Jumped in port (v.): arrived in town.
Kick (n.): a pocket. Ex., “I’ve got five bucks in my kick.”
Kill me (v.): show me a good time, send me.
Killer-diller (n.): a great thrill.
Knock (v.): give. Ex., “Knock me a kiss.”
Kopasetic (adj.): absolutely okay, the tops.
Lamp (v.): to see, to look at.
Land o’darkness (n.): Harlem.
Lane (n.): a male, usually a nonprofessional.
Latch on (v.): grab, take hold, get wise to.
Lay some iron (v.): to tap dance. Ex., “Jack, you really laid some iron that last show!”
Lay your racket (v.): to jive, to sell an idea, to promote a proposition.
Lead sheet (n.): a topcoat.
Left raise (n.): left side. Ex., “Dig the chick on your left raise.”
Licking the chops (v.): see frisking the whiskers.
Licks (n.): hot musical phrases.
Lily whites (n.): bed sheets.
Line (n.): cost, price, money. Ex., “What is the line on this drape” (how much does this suit cost)? “Have you got the line in the mouse” (do you have the cash in your pocket)? Also, in replying, all figures are doubled. Ex., “This drape is line forty” (this suit costs twenty dollars).
Lock up: to acquire something exclusively. Ex., “He’s got that chick locked up”; “I’m gonna lock up that deal.”
Main kick (n.): the stage.
Main on the hitch (n.): husband.
Main queen (n.): favorite girl friend, sweetheart.
Man in gray (n.): the postman.
Mash me a fin (command.): Give me $5.
Mellow (adj.): all right, fine. Ex., “That’s mellow, Jack.”
Melted out (adj.): broke.
Mess (n.): something good. Ex., “That last drink was a mess.”
Meter (n.): quarter, twenty-five cents.
Mezz (n.): anything supreme, genuine. Ex., “this is really the mezz.”
Mitt pounding (n.): applause.
Moo juice (n.): milk.
Mouse (n.): pocket. Ex., “I’ve got a meter in the mouse.”
Muggin’ (v.): making ’em laugh, putting on the jive. “Muggin’ lightly,” light staccato swing; “muggin’ heavy,” heavy staccato swing.
Nicklette (n.): automatic phonograph, music box.
Nickel note (n.): five-dollar bill.
Nix out (v.): to eliminate, get rid of. Ex., “I nixed that chick out last week”; “I nixed my garments” (undressed).
Nod (n.): sleep. Ex., “I think I’l cop a nod.”
Ofay (n.): white person.
Off the cob (adj.): corny, out of date.
Off-time jive (n.): a sorry excuse, saying the wrong thing.
Orchestration (n.): an overcoat.
Out of the world (adj.): perfect rendition. Ex., “That sax chorus was out of the world.”
Ow!: an exclamation with varied meaning. When a beautiful chick passes by, it’s “Ow!”; and when someone pulls an awful pun, it’s also “Ow!”
Pad (n.): bed.
Pecking (n.): a dance introduced at the Cotton Club in 1937.
Peola (n.): a light person, almost white.
Pigeon (n.): a young girl.
Pops (n.): salutation for all males (see gate; Jack).
Pounders (n.): policemen.
Queen (n.): a beautiful girl.
Rank (v.): to lower.
Ready (adj.): 100 per cent in every way. Ex., “That fried chicken was ready.”
Ride (v.): to swing, to keep perfect tempo in playing or singing.
Riff (n.): hot lick, musical phrase.
Righteous (adj.): splendid, okay. Ex., “That was a righteous queen I dug you with last black.”
Rock me (v.): send me, kill me, move me with rhythm.
Ruff (n.): quarter, twenty-five cents.
Rug cutter (n.): a very good dancer, an active jitterbug.
Sad (adj.): very bad. Ex., “That was the saddest meal I ever collared.”
Sadder than a map (adj.): terrible. Ex., “That man is sadder than a map.”
Salty (adj.): angry, ill-tempered.
Sam got you: you’ve been drafted into the army.
Send (v.): to arouse the emotions. (joyful). Ex., “That sends me!”
Set of seven brights (n.): one week.
Sharp (adj.): neat, smart, tricky. Ex., “That hat is sharp as a tack.”
Signify (v.): to declare yourself, to brag, to boast.
Skins (n.): drums.
Skin-beater (n.): drummer (see hide-beater).
Sky piece (n.): hat.
Slave (v.): to work, whether arduous labor or not.
Slide your jib (v.): to talk freely.
Snatcher (n.): detective.
So help me: it’s the truth, that’s a fact.
Solid (adj.): great, swell, okay.
Sounded off (v.): began a program or conversation.
Spoutin’ (v.): talking too much.
Square (n.): an unhep person (see icky; Jeff).
Stache (v.): to file, to hide away, to secrete.
Stand one up (v.): to play one cheap, to assume one is a cut-rate.
To be stashed (v.): to stand or remain.
Susie‑Q (n.): a dance introduced at the Cotton Club in 1936.
Take it slow (v.): be careful.
Take off (v.): play a solo.
The man (n.): the law.
Threads (n.): suit, dress or costume (see drape; dry-goods).
Tick (n.): minute, moment. Ex., “I’ll dig you in a few ticks.” Also, ticks are doubled in accounting time, just as money is doubled in giving “line.” Ex., “I finaled to the pad this early bright at tick twenty” (I got to bed this morning at ten o’clock).
Timber (n.): toothpick.
To dribble (v.): to stutter. Ex., “He talked in dribbles.”
Togged to the bricks: dressed to kill, from head to toe.
Too much (adj.): term of highest praise. Ex., “You are too much!”
Trickeration (n.): struttin’ your stuff, muggin’ lightly and politely.
Trilly (v.): to leave, to depart. Ex., “Well, I guess I’ll trilly.”
Truck (v.): to go somewhere. Ex., “I think I’ll truck on down to the ginmill (bar).”
Trucking (n.): a dance introduced at the Cotton Club in 1933.
Twister to the slammer (n.): the key to the door.
Two cents (n.): two dollars.
Unhep (adj.): not wise to the jive, said of an icky, a Jeff, a square.
Vine (n.): a suit of clothes.
V‑8 (n.): a chick who spurns company, is independent, is not amenable.
What’s your story?: What do you want? What have you got to say for yourself? How are tricks? What excuse can you offer? Ex., “I don’t know what his story is.”
Whipped up (adj.): worn out, exhausted, beat for your everything.
Wren (n.): a chick, a queen.
Wrong riff: the wrong thing said or done. Ex., “You’re coming up on the wrong riff.”
Yarddog (n.): uncouth, badly attired, unattractive male or female.
Yeah, man: an exclamation of assent.
Zoot (adj.): exaggerated
Zoot suit (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.
That’s solid murder, gate!
If you’re not too beat, Jazz Night In America builds on Calloway’s dictionary with some additional vocabulary in the video below. Watch it for the meanings of stank, ictus, swoop, and scoop, defined collectively by drummer Ali Jackson as the sort of colloquialisms you use when you “don’t want everyone to know what you’re saying, but you want to express a point.”
Listen to poet Lemn Sissay’s BBC history of Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionaryhere.
Like American jazz, Japanese jazz started with earlier styles like foxtrot and ragtime. Jazz was an international music, spreading across the Atlantic to London, Paris, and Berlin and across the Pacific to Shanghai, Manilla, and Tokyo. Luxury liners crossed the ocean and their house bands ferried new styles of dance music with them. “There was precious little improvisation,” in early Japanese jazz, “but that wasn’t as big a deal, as you know, in American jazz of the 1910s or ’20s,” historian E. Taylor Atkins tells NPR.
Japan even had its own jazz age. The word first entered the country in a 1929 “popular song attached to a movie called Tokyo March,” says Atkins. “The lyrics refer to jazz, and … that’s sort of where it came into mass consciousness. It was associated with dance halls, it was associated with ‘modern girls’ and ‘modern boys’ — the Japanese version of flappers and dandies — and the urban leisure classes: excess, and dogs and cats sleeping together, and all those sorts of portents of future calamity.”
When calamity came in the form of World War II, jazz was banned in Japan as the music of the enemy. On August 15, 1945, when the Emperor went on the radio to announce Japan’s surrender, Hattori Ryoichi, “Japan’s premier jazz composer and arranger,” found himself stuck in Shanghai, “the city that since the late 1920s had served as the jazz Mecca of Asia,” Michael Bourdaghs writes in a history of Japanese pop music. “From now on,” Ryoichi supposedly toasted his fellow musicians upon hearing the news, “we can carry out our musical activities in freedom.”
How little Ryoichi could have predicted the kind of musical freedom Japanese jazz would find. But first there was a period of imitation. “In the early postwar years, Japanese musicians were essentially copying the Americans they admired,” notes Dean Van Nguyen at The Guardian. Some of the most popular bands on TV and film were comic acts like Frankie Sakai and the City Slickers, a big band formed in 1953 in imitation of Spike Jones & The City Slickers. Another popular jazz comedy act, Hajime Hana & The Crazy Cats “are significant,” writes Atkins, “for capitalizing and purveying an image of jazz musicians as clownish, slang-singing ne’er-do-wells.”
Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was “the first Japanese artist to break away from simply copying American artists and develop a distinctive sound and identity that incorporated Japanese harmonies and instruments,” Van Nguyen writes. By the later 60s and 70s, economic development led to a “renaissance” of Japanese jazz, writes the Sabukaru Guide to 1970’s Japanese Jazz. “The unique creative landscape in the jazz community, along with Japanese music as a whole becoming simultaneously more experimental and mainstream, led to an abundance of excellent Japanese jazz music in the 1970s.”
In the four playlists here, you can hear hours of this groundbreaking music from some of the greatest names you’ve probably never heard in Japanese jazz. These include trombonist Hiroshi Suzuki, “one of the most-revered Japanese jazz artists,” notes the blog Pink Wafer Club, “even if most listers are only familiar with his work thanks to the number of times his music has been sampled.” Suzuki’s 1975 album Cat is one of the funkiest jazz albums from any country released in the decade.
These playlists also include fusion keyboardist Mikio Masuda, saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, and other musicians who, like Akiyoshi, helped spur “young artists to evolve away from Blue Note mimicry towards free jazz, fusion, funk, spiritual, modal and bebop,” writes Van Nguyen. “These daring virtuosos implanted rock and electronic elements, or took influences from Afrobeat and flamenco music.” Their international influences reflected 1970s jazz experiments around the globe. The music also benefitted from the excellent recording quality of Japanese studios and the rise of smaller labels, which allowed for more experimental artists to record and release albums.
It’s what Ketchens, a world renowned clarinetist and music educator, who has played for four US presidents and busks regularly in the French Quarter, would advise.
“You have to practice and be ready to perform at the drop of a hat” she told The Clarinet’s Ben Redwine, when he asked if she had any advice for young musicians hoping to make it professionally.
She’s also a strong advocate of listening robustly, not throwing in the towel when someone else gets the job instead of you, and letting your personality come through in your playing:
You don’t want to sound like you’re playing an etude book. This is for all types of music – even classical. You want to move the audience, you want to touch them.
Trained as a classical clarinetist, Ketchens cozied up to jazz shortly after she cozied up to the tuba player who would become her husband. “All of the sudden, jazz wasn’t so bad,” she says:
I started to listen to jazz so I could learn the tunes and fit in with his band. I started listening to Louis Armstrong. He is my biggest influence. Some people call me Mrs. Satchmo, I guess because that concept is in my head. I’ll hear something he plays, which I’ve heard thousands of times, and I’ll think, “What? How did he do that?” Then, I listened to the clarinetists who played with him: Edmund Hall, Buster Bailey, Barney Bigard. Those cats were awesome too! Edmund Hall had this thing he could do, where it sounds like he was playing two tones at the same time. People today might hum while they play to achieve something similar, but I don’t think that was what he was doing. Buster Bailey had a similar background to me, starting out with classical music, then learning jazz. Early on, I emulated Jerry Fuller, clarinetist with the Dukes of Dixieland. I would steal so many of his solos just so I could keep up with my husband’s band. Eventually, I realized what he was doing, and it translated into me being able to improvise. I’d start out transcribing solos, then playing by ear, copying what those clarinetists were doing. I don’t remember those solos now, but I’m sure that I still play snippets of them that creep into my improvisations.
However she got there, she possesses a singular ability to make her instrument growl and her command of 32nd notes makes us feel a little lightheaded.
Clarinetists abound in New Orleans, and they probably all cover “The House of the Rising Sun,” but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more exciting rendition than Ketchens’ on the corner of St. Peter and Royal, with husband Lawrence on tuba and daughter Dorian on drums. Here’s the full versions, sans transcription.
His transcriptions, and those of collaborator Tom Pickles, are available for free download here, unless the artist sells their own transcription, in which case he encourages you to support the artist with your purchase.
If you’re a music nerd who would like to discuss transcriptions, give feedback on others’ attempts, and upload your own, join his community on Discord.
Duke Ellington once called Oscar Peterson the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” for his virtuosity and ability to play any style with seeming ease, a skill he first began to learn as a classically trained child prodigy. Peterson was introduced to Bach and Beethoven by his musician father and older sister Daisy, then drilled in rigorous finger exercises and given six hours a day of practice by his teacher, Hungarian pianist Paul de Marky. “I only first really heard jazz somewhere between the ages of seven and 10,” said the Canadian jazz great. “My older brother Fred, who was actually a better pianist than I was, started playing various new tunes — well they were new for me, anyway…. Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, who frightened me to death with his technique.”
Despite his own prodigious talent, Peterson found Tatum “intimidating,” he told Count Basie in a 1980 interview. He responded to the fear by learning how to play like Tatum, and like everyone else he admired, while adding his own melodic twists to standards and originals. At 14, he won a national Canadian music competition and left school to become a professional musician.
He recorded his first album in 1945 at age 20. “Since his ‘discovery’ in 1947 by Norman Granz,” wrote International Musician in 2002, five years before the pianist’s death, “Peterson has amassed an incredible legacy of recorded work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, among countless other greats.”
In the video at the top of the post from the Dick Cavett Show in 1979, Peterson shows off his elegant technique and demonstrates the “stylistic trademarks” of the greats he admired, and that others have heard expressed in his own style. He begins with his albatross, Tatum’s “stride piano,” a style that requires a good deal of left hand articulation and which, done right, can “put the rhythm section out of business,” Cavett jokes. Peterson then shows off the “the two-fingered percussiveness of Nat Cole,” the “lyric octave work of Erroll Garner,” and double octave melody lines, a very difficult two-hand maneuver.
It’s a dazzling lesson that shows, in just a few short minutes, why Peterson became known for his “stunning virtuosity as a soloist,” as one biography notes. In the video above, producer and YouTube personality Rick Beato explains why he thinks Peterson played the “Greatest Solo of All Time” in the 1974 rendition of “Boogie Blues Study” further up. As David Funk, who posted the Cavett video clip to YouTube, puts it, “What more can you say?” To understand why Louis Armstrong called Peterson “the man with four hands,” we simply need to watch him play.
People do not understand how hard a jazz musician works for a living. I’m not putting nobody down, but I’m telling you nobody understands how hard jazz musicians work. Jazz is not big in the US, because the States are too worried about Pac-Man and The Police. — Jaco
When Jaco Pastorius uttered the quote above in a typically entertaining and insightful interview with Guitar World from 1983, he meant no disrespect to the members of The Police. It’s safe to say, in fact, that Pastorius significantly influenced crossover subgenres in punk, New Wave, and No Wave, through compositions like “Punk Jazz” — “a real jazz players stab at a brave new music,” writes Guitar World’s Peter Mengaziol. In general, Pastorius’ music was “a fusion with energy but without overkill.” He absorbed influences from everywhere, and nothing seemed out of bounds in his playing. “I am not an original musician,” he says in the same interview:
I am a thief…. You see, I rip off everything. I have no originals. Only animals and children can understand my music; I love women, children, music, I love everything that’s going in the right direction, everything that flows… I just love music. I don’t know what I’m doing!
It’s not that Pastorius necessarily thought of jazz as a more elevated form than rock or funk or soul or pop — hardly. He regarded Hendrix with the same worshipful awe as he did Motown bassist Jerry Jemmott, and both equally informed his playing and showmanship. Yet he seemed to feel under-appreciated in his time, and that is probably because he was, even though he was acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest bass players during his brief 35 years, and he radically altered the sound of popular music on albums by Joni Mitchell and other non-jazz-world stars.
But Pastorius knew that few understood what he was trying to do with jazz-rock groups like Weather Report and Blood, Sweat & Tears and in his solo work. He knew he could sell records and sell out performances, but he didn’t care about commerce. (He spent the last few years of his life sleeping on park benches.)
Warner Bros. refused to release his third solo album, Holiday for Pans — a selection of original compositions and tunes by the Beatles, Coltrane, and Alan Hovhaness, centered around the steel drum playing of Othello Molineaux — on the basis that it was “extremely esoteric.” Described by The Penguin Guide to Jazz as “by far the most imaginative project Pastorius ever undertook,” Holiday for Pans received a release in Japan in 1993, but remains unreleased in the US, perhaps validating the bassist’s opinion of his country’s cultural limitations.
The fan-made documentary at the top, Jaco Pastorius — The Lost Tapes Documentary, first appeared “on a somewhat obscure French channel called ‘Realcut’,” notes the site Jazz in Europe. The title refers the interview footage with choice subjects like Marcus Miller, Joe Zawinul, Peter Erskine, Dave Carpenter, and Paco Seri, all shot while the musicians “were on tour in France back in the mid noughties.” In 2008, “the images were definitively lost,” the filmmakers write in their description, only to surface again on a hard drive in a dusty attic last year.
Tying these interviews together with archival Internet footage of Pastorius, the makers of The Lost Tapes Documentary have done an excellent job of introducing the man and his work to a broad audience through the words of those who knew and played with him, and they’ve done so with “no budget, no financial aid or no image purchase.… The people who worked on this project did it voluntarily, out of passion and love of music, and the film will in no way be monetized on the platforms.” Pastorius would have approved. “I don’t want to sell shit,” he told Guitar World back in 1983. “I want to do what has to be done.” For him, that meant constant innovation and change. “I’m not a magician, I’m not a politician, I’m a musician,” he said. “I have no goal. You don’t get better, you grow. I am a musician, and I finally realized it!”
In the 1950s and 60s, one record label stood “like a beacon,” writes Robin Kinross at Eye, among a host of Civil Rights era independents that helped jazz “escape the racial-commercial constraints applied by White Americans, and find its own place, unpatronised and relatively free of exploitation.” That label, Blue Note, ushered in the birth of the cool—both cool jazz and its many hip signifiers—as much through graphic design as through its meticulous approach to recording.
Blue Note album covers may seem principally distinguished by the photography of Francis Wolff, whose instincts behind the camera produced visual icon after icon. But the label’s style depended on the layout, graphic design, and lettering of Reid Miles, who drew on minimalist Swiss trends in “over 500 album covers for Blue Note Records,” designer Reagan Ray writes. “He pioneered the use of creatively-arranged type over monochromatic photography, which is a style that is still widely used in graphic design today.”
As we noted in a recent post on Blue Note’s legendary design team, Reid’s lettering sometimes edged the photography to the margins, or off the cover altogether. Jazz greats were given the freedom to create the music they wanted, but it was the designers who had to sell their creativity to the public in a visual language.
They had done so with distinctive typefaces before Reid, of course. But the art of lettering became far more interesting through his influence, both more playful and more refined at the same time.
Nonetheless, it’s a formidable visual record of the various looks of jazz in lettering, and the visual identities of its biggest artists over the course of several decades. Ray does not name any of the designers, which is frustrating, but those in the know will recognize the work of Reid and others like album cover pioneer Alex Steinweiss. You may well spot lettering by Milton Glaser, whom Ray previously covered in a huge curated gallery of the famous designer’s album art.
The names behind the big names matter, but it’s the musicians themselves these individualized typefaces are meant to immediately evoke. Consider just how well most all of these examples do just that—representing each artist’s music, period, and image with the perfect font and graphic arrangement, each one a unique logo. Somewhat like the music it represents, Ray’s gallery is, itself, a collective tour-de-force performance of visual jazz.
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