Mary Lou at the Savoy

‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ is a tribute to the great jazz pianist, composer and educator Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981), whose career spanned most of the twentieth century and who influenced and contributed to every major era of jazz, including swing, bebop, modal, funk and avant garde.  The progression is borrowed from ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’, the title of which commemorates the Savoy Ballroom, where many swing era bands performed.  The composers of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ include Benny Goodman and Chick Webb, each of whom led major bands of the swing era.   (After his untimely death, the leadership of Webb’s band was taken up by its singer, Ella Fitzgerald.)  Another somewhat lesser known but still successful group of the era was Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, which included Mary Lou Williams in a role she described as ‘composer, arranger and first-class chauffeur’.  She also often sat in with the band on piano.  As she described in an interview with Melody Maker, the Kirk band’s first performance in New York City was at the Roseland Ballroom, and from there ‘they moved to the celebrated Savoy Ballroom, where they faced Chick Webb’s orchestra. The Savoy was a place of tremendous enthusiasm, a home of fantastic dancing.’  Williams says the Kirk band ‘faced’ the Webb orchestra, emphasizing how the two bands were in competition as they alternated sets.

The melodic line for the A section of ‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ is inspired by Williams’ piano solo on one of the pieces she composed for the Kirk band, ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’.  This piece is also often acknowledged as the source for her friend Thelonious Monk’s iconic tune ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ (the phrase borrowed by Monk can be heard at 1:13).  The inspiration for the bridge melody comes from a later Williams piece, ‘Rosa Mae’ from her 1974 album ‘Zoning’.  This tune demonstrates her gift and passion for astutely absorbing the musical style of any era in which she found herself and transforming it into a personal expression. In ‘Rosa Mae’, she finds a fresh harmonic alteration of the blues progression (something she did as frequently and brilliantly as Duke Ellington) and combines it with a rock/funk groove that would be at home on albums like Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ or Herbie Hancock’s ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’.  Another example of William’s remarkable stylistic breadth can be heard on her album ‘Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes’, which combines exploratory jazz piano duo and trio music with music for choir and jazz ensemble that is at once both spiritual and universal, and accessible while still being utterly original and modern.

‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ should be practiced along with my Scale outline for Stompin’ at the Savoy.  It is also important to listen to some of the many great versions of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’, including the original recording by the Chick Webb Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal version from ‘Ella and Louis Again’, featuring the lyrics by Andy Razaf, Ahmad Jamal’s deconstruction of the tune, and Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Relaxin’ with Lee’, which uses the tune’s changes but not its melody.

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‘Birdhouse’ – a tune on the changes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent-Up House’

My tune ‘Birdhouse’ (click on the title to hear a recording by my quartet Birdcode) is based on the chord changes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent-Up House’ and is inspired by melodic language from a particular group of tunes and players associated with Charlie Parker.  (In addition to the original recording of Rollins’ tune, which can be heard at the link in the previous sentence, interesting versions of ‘Pent-Up House’ have also been recorded by vocalist Sheila Jordan, pianist Hank Jones and trumpeter Chet Baker.)  It might have been more accurate to call my tune ‘Bud’s House’, as this group of tunes and players, who I discuss in another post, was associated even more closely with Bud Powell.  ‘Birdhouse’, however, has other useful resonances beyond the immortal nicknames of jazz history.  As the operator of two backyard birdfeeders, I enjoy watching the arrivals and departures of my avian visitors, and I consider them fellow musicians.  The podcast Birdnote has pointed out that robins, for instance, think like jazz players when they sing, creating longer songs from a large vocabulary of short phrases.  ‘Birdhouse’ draws on this tradition of composition which the human musical community and the natural world have in common.

The charts below represent the initial 16 bar theme that is heard at the beginning of the recording by my quartet Birdcode (hear it clicking on the title above) played in unison by my left hand, bassist John Rivers and vocalist Amber deLaurentis.  On the recording, this is followed by a section in the style of Bach’s two-part inventions or Charlie Parker heads like ‘Chasin’ the Bird’, where the first theme is repeated by my left hand and joined by a second theme, played by my right hand and also sung by Amber.  In my imaginary music video for the tune, this section might be accompanied by footage of wonderful moments like this one where two birds arrive at different levels on the same feeder.  The head out might be described as the same two birds returning to the feeder but switching levels: the second theme is played first by the left hand and vocal and is then joined by the first theme.

The charts below skip all the contrapuntal activity and focus on the first theme, which could be performed on its own as a head in and head out with improvised solos in between.  I’ve included a written scale outline which can be used as the basis for soloing.  Keep in mind that the challenge of a written scale outline is that each scale needs to be plundered for ideas, like a collection of Scrabble letters, not played literally as the notation seems to imply.  The written scale outline that follows the tune models a way in which improvisers can hear a chord change (or a region of a chord progression) as a harmonic ‘question’ which they can listen for and then respond to (starting around beat two of a chord change) with a melodic ‘answer’.  (The solos of the pianist Wynton Kelly, such as those on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ and his own versions of ‘Green Dolphin Street’ and ‘Do Nothin ‘Til You Hear From Me’ are full of examples of this kind of improvisational dialogue, with his left hand as the inquisitor and his right hand as the respondent.)  Another scale outline I created for the tune, which uses scales starting on the downbeat, can be heard here (following a statement of the Sonny Rollins tune.) 

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Swingin’ with some empathy: thoughts on jazz accompanying

My students often ask me: ‘how can I get better at comping?’ or ‘how can I get better at playing with singers?’  In developing my response to these important questions over the years, I’ve found that it’s fascinating to look at the iconic pianists of jazz history, the undeniably great soloists and ensemble players in instrumental settings, and investigate which of these players demonstrate the strongest skills at the very different demands of being the primary collaborator and accompanist for a soloist, particularly a vocalist, in a duo or ensemble setting.  It is also important to look at the lesser known players who excelled at accompanying.   The players I’ll be looking at in this post include Oscar Peterson, who was best known as a soloist but had major collaborations with singers, Ellis Larkins, Carl Drinkard and Jimmy Jones, who were lesser known but were very fine accompanists, Wynton Kelly and Duke Jordan, who recorded both as soloists and accompanists, and Bud Powell. Powell’s collaborations with singers are little known, but the few recordings of that were made of them, as well as some of his live recordings with Charlie Parker, illustrate that although he was a revolutionary soloist and composer, as an accompanist, he occasionally made some classic accompanying mistakes.

Despite being an undeniably important figure in the evolution of instrumental jazz, Powell’s accompanying in some settings starkly and even humorously demonstrates a lack of empathy with the soloist. I will be discussing excerpts from the accompanying work of Peterson, Larkins, Drinkard, Jordan, Jones and Kelly which I think have much to teach aspiring accompanists about the craft, as well as a few excerpts from Powell’s accompanying which simultaneously illustrate his genius as a soloist and some accompanying pitfalls to avoid.  (I do not intend any of the criticism of Bud Powell’s accompanying in this post to detract from the fact that he is a hugely important soloist, composer and ensemble player in instrumental contexts, and that his music is crucial to all jazz listeners and players.   I urge anyone who doubts my reverence for Powell’s playing to consult my posts Six Degrees of Bud Powell and Six Degrees of Bud Powell, Part ii-V-I.)

Pianists who are great soloists and improvisers in instrumental settings are able to carry the melodic narrative of a piece in a way that clearly articulates the starting parameters of the piece (tempo, dynamics, style, etc.) and closely follows the various ‘changes’ of a piece (including chord changes, key changes and lyrics).   Pianists who are great ensemble players in instrumental settings are able to create accompaniments that show an acute awareness of those parameters and changes.   While good accompanists must have all these skills, they also have responsibilities which require an additional level of skill with interpersonal communication and musical understanding.  They must establish and maintain a working relationship with a particular soloist, develop a detailed awareness of the soloist’s aesthetic and artistic goals, and assist the soloist in achieving these goals through both long-range planning in rehearsal and through verbal and non-verbal communication in the moment of performance.  While a skilled ensemble player can stay aligned musically with a soloist and perhaps react musically to the soloist’s choices, a skilled accompanist can anticipate the soloist’s needs.  Accompanists acquire this ability both through making explicit plans (such as an arrangement) with the soloist, as well as accumulating enough experience in rehearsal and performance with the soloist to be able to anticipate their needs and intentions.

While becoming a proficient soloist and ensemble player in instrumental setting involves a great amount of personal practice time, great instrumental soloists and ensemble players often develop a musical connection with other players with little or no ensemble rehearsal time.  I remember hearing Dave Brubeck announce during a performance in Burlington with the bassist Michael Moore that it was their very first time playing together.  I have heard many great instrumentalists make this kind of announcement during a performance, as a celebration of the spontaneity of jazz.   It often takes a greater amount of rehearsal time for a jazz vocalist and accompanist to develop an effective working relationship, often because accompanying vocalists is considerably different and arguably more challenging for the accompanist than accompanying jazz instrumentalists.  For example, vocalists often sing tunes from outside the instrumental jazz repertoire.  When they do sing tunes from that repertoire, they frequently require different keys than instrumentalists, and often add sections (such as the introductory ‘verse’) that aren’t part of a typical instrumental ‘head arrangement’ of the tune.

In addition to familiarity with the significantly different vocal repertoire, there are a number of other skills that a pianist needs in order to accompany vocalists.  In the following paragraphs, I will discuss skills that relate to sections of a typical jazz small group arrangement.

Intro skills

An accompanist must be able to play an intro in a way that leads a soloist to their first note and leaves space for the melody’s opening phrase.  A classic example of this is Oscar Peterson’s intro to Moonlight in Vermont on the album Louis and Ella.  Peterson vamps the opening four chords of the tune twice, while improvising with the pentatonic scale that the melody uses.  He ends with a phrase that approaches Fitzgerald’s opening note via its chromatic neighbor tones (i.e. a half step above and below) and its diatonic neighbor (a whole step above).  It is an opening gesture that is at once sophisticated and simple, and leaves a clear opening for the soloist’s entrance.

An example of what can happen when an intro does not clearly tell the soloist when to enter can be heard on Bud Powell’s intro to ‘Ornithology’ on the live recording One Night at Birdland.  As documented by Ethan Iverson in his article High Bebop, Powell plays four bars that begin in the distant key of A flat major.  While Powell’s intro does return to the tune’s key of G major and hints at the opening motive, his left hand chording obscures the downbeat enough that Parker enters on what Iverson identifies as Powell’s ‘and’ of two, and treats it as the ‘and’ of four.  Parker’s entrance, which demonstrates that Powell has managed (perhaps intentionally) to confuse an otherwise unshakeable fellow musical giant, is followed by Art Blakey’s cymbal crash on what Parker has established as beat three of bar two, and Fats Navarro’s entrance on the pickup to bar three.  Powell creates so much instability with his intro that Parker is forced to intervene before more confusion ensues.  A ripple effect of Powell’s intro is that Blakey and Navarro to enter in a later and much less coordinated way than they normally would.  The genius of all these players keeps it from sounding like a ‘train wreck’ opening and allows the performance to continue smoothly afterwards; but it is still a moment that could easily lead to an aborted tune with players any less gifted than these.

An accompanist needs to be able to handle a rubato section which may involve simply following the soloist, or may involve the accompaniment and soloist taking turns leading and following.  These often occur in the opening of a tune at the ‘verse’ (a narrative opening section in a jazz standard.)  An example of this is Jimmy Jones’ accompaniment of Ella Fitzgerald on the intro to ‘Let’s Do It’ from the album ‘The Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington Concerts at Cote D’Azur’.  Ella speeds up and slows down throughout intro in order to maintain the conversational approach appropriate for Cole Porter’s lyric, and Jones follows her throughout, sometimes running to catch up but always ending each phrase with her.  I have found that the best way to develop this level of rhythmic empathy is to know the tune, both melody and lyrics, well enough to mentally ‘sing along’ with the soloist while accompanying.  Jones’ skill at following Fitzgerald here suggests to me that he is doing this.  It is a testament to the unique challenge of vocal accompaniment that the only songs in the concert where Duke Ellington steps aside to let another pianist play with his band is when it comes to the vocal solos in the concert.

Skills for accompanying the ‘head’ (melody)

 An accompanist needs to be able to improvise fills in the breaks of a melody in a way that supports the soloist but does not overshadow them.  On Billie Holiday’s live version of I Cover The Waterfront from 1954, pianist Carl Drinkard leaves space for each vocal phrase in the first A section of melody (‘I cover the waterfront/I’m watching the sea’), accompanying each phrase in the lyrics with chords and then responding with an overlapping improvised phrase.  While Drinkard’s fills do start to move more simultaneously with the melody as he accompanies the second A section (‘I cover the waterfront / In search of my love’), he leaves space, appropriately enough, for the word ‘patiently’ in the phrase ‘Here am I / patiently waiting’ which opens the bridge.  His accompaniment for the tune is orchestral in that each fill occupies a specific range of the piano, evoking an arrangement where instruments with different ranges take turns in the sonic foreground.  Drinkard’s improvised fills during Holiday’s vocal contrast the melody both by moving in a different rhythmic subdivision than the melody uses (often 16th notes), and sometimes by providing a simultaneous counterpoint to it.

An alternative approach to adding melody fills is demonstrated by the sublime Ellis Larkins in his accompaniment to ‘What Is There To Say?’ sung by Ella Fitzgerald.  Larkins fills only in the breaks of the melody, and his fills are often ingenious developments of the melody phrases that they follow.

A collaboration which is less successful to my ear is a version of I Cover The Waterfront heard in a short film where Bud Powell accompanies the otherwise unknown singer Trudy Peters.  Where Drinkard sensitively surrounds Holiday’s vocal phrases with melodic activity, Powell often allows his virtuosity to upstage Peters’ vocal performance.  Although Peters holds her own in the sonic balance with Powell, her tone, vocal phrasing and physicality suggest that she is a Billie Holiday admirer who is still in an imitative stage.  For much of the performance, Powell does not so much accompany as he simply takes an almost fully formed solo during Peters’ vocal, and it should be said that the solo on its own is comparable to his best ballad playing on tunes like I Should Care.  The effect of this pianist-ignores-vocalist situation is sometimes hilarious, as when Powell plays a fill that spans nearly the length of the entire keyboard as Peters sings ‘Here am I, patiently waiting’ in the bridge.  Although he is playing phrases of characteristic brilliance that would be perfectly at home in a trio performance, it sounds to me like Powell is marking time until this vocal solo is over, but not patiently.

Skills for accompanying an improvised solo

 Another awkward moment in Powell’s comping occurs in the first chorus of Charlie Parker’s solo around 1:07 on ‘All The Things You Are’ from the album Jazz At Massey Hall.  Powell plays continuous quarter notes behind the first sixteen bars of Parker’s solo, but rather than the quieter and melodically minimal quarter notes of Freddie Green’s guitar or Erroll Garner’s left hand, Powell’s quarters are full of the kind of harmonic invention heard on trio tunes such as Sure Thing.  This does not fit with Parker’s busy and virtuosic line, or perhaps the density of his double-timing is a reaction to Powell’s harmonically ‘out’ and rhythmically relentless chords. Bird’s frustration builds audibly in the solo until the bridge when, just as Powell starts to relent and play longer chords, Parker plays a phrase which is likely a quote from a children’s song with a skipping 12/8 rhythm, but which he fills with irony.  I think it’s likely that Parker’s expresses the frustration of trying to battle Powell’s accompanying. As in ‘I Cover The Waterfront’, it sounds like Powell may not conceive of his playing and that of the soloist in the same context, or may hear his own playing as a lead part and the soloist’s line as an accompaniment.

Parker’s soloing on the Massey Hall ‘All The Things’ is similar in rhythmic concept to an earlier recording of his which uses the same progression, Bird of Paradise.  On this recording, the pianist Duke Jordan leaves Parker much more space than Powell does.  Jordan’s accompaniment indicates he understand that Parker’s double-timed phrases need sparse punctuation rather than a constantly active accompaniment.  Another more empathetic approach to comping on this tune can be heard in Wynton Kelly’s comping behind Johnny Griffin on ‘All The Things You Are’ from the album A Blowing Session.  Griffin has a level of frenetic activity in his solo similar to Parker’s, and Kelly comps around Griffin’s phrases in a way that is more active than Jordan, but more responsive than Powell.

Jazz accompanying, and particularly piano accompaniment of jazz vocalists, is less often identified as a discrete skill, as the literature on jazz piano (like the jazz education world in general) is more focused on skills related to playing instrumental repertoire.  It is becoming gradually more common, as represented by books like Mike Greensill’s, which are still fairly rare in the jazz book market.

The lack of recognition in jazz education for jazz vocal accompanying as a discrete skill is reminiscent of a situation in the scientific world that Alan Alda describes in a recent book titled ‘If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?’  Alda describes his efforts to convince science educators of his belief that scientists, particularly those who go into fields where fundraising is important, are often lacking in communication skills, and as a result have trouble explaining their work to non-specialist audiences.  He tells fascinating stories about teaching theater improvisation games to scientists and helping them develop skills which greatly improve the effectiveness of the presentations they give on their work. He describes a conversation with a college president who was unconvinced of the need for science students to learn communication skills and ‘seemed to feel that students would pick up the fine points of communicating just by listening to good communicators.’  Alda invokes a musical metaphor to express what he wishes he could tell the administrator:   ‘…just listening to good communicators doesn’t work.  It takes training to learn how to do it.  I’ve been listening to good pianists all my life and I still can’t play the piano.’

To adapt Alda’s conclusion, I believe the excerpts from Powell’s comping above demonstrate that it’s possible to have been a great jazz pianist all your life and still not have the skills to be an accompanist.  The excerpts from Peterson, Larkins, Drinkard, Jones, Jordan and Kelly above are examples of empathy.  This includes being aware ahead of time of the soloist’s part, both what they are doing in the moment and in coming moments, as in Peterson’s intro and Larkins’ fills to Fitzgerald’s eminently accurate yet still fresh interpretations.   It also includes being able to react in the moment to spontaneous changes they may make to the parameters of the piece, as in Drinkard’s fills to Holiday’s less predictable phrasing, Jones’ tracking of Fitzgerald’s unpredictable rubato, and Kelly’s comping for Griffin’s solo.

My experience as an accompanist and a teacher has led me to believe strongly that training in the skills that I’ve described above from a teacher who has experience as an accompanist can be beneficial to all jazz pianists, and is crucial for some.  I also strongly believe that while the skills described above can help highly skilled players create highly refined performances, they are also crucial to helping any jazz accompanist give a performance with basic coherence, i.e. one that moves from start to finish of an arrangement with no ‘train wrecks’.    I have learned immensely from teachers who listened as I accompanied a soloist in my student days and gave me important feedback, sometimes even while the music was in progress.  It is so important when collaborating to have the collaboration heard by a informed listener who can offer suggestions on how dynamic balance, rhythmic alignment and creative interplay can be improved, and who can listen as the suggestions are tried.  I am thinking of using a new phrase to congratulate accompanist-soloist duos who are ready to perform: sing, swing and empathize!

In future posts, I’ll hope to discuss skills for ending a tune, as well as one of the most highly evolved piano-vocal duo collaborations, that of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans.

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Look who’s Bartok-in’: folk song reinvention from Bela Bartok to Chick Corea and beyond

I recently watched a PBS documentary called ‘The American Epic Sessions’,  which features the producer and guitarist Jack White resurrecting a Western Electric recording lathe from the early twentieth century for modern-day use.  ‘The American Epic Sessions’ is the concluding episode of the PBS series ‘American Epic’; earlier episodes focus on early twentieth century U.S. musicians who used this technology when it was new, such as the Reverend Gary Davis, while final episode focuses on current pop, blues and jazz performers who re-record the earlier artists’ songs under White’s supervision.  Rev. Gary Davis’ ‘Candy Man’, for example, is performed in ‘American Epic Sessions’ by a contemporary singer-guitarist with a vintage name, Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton.

While ‘American Epic Sessions’ includes artists such as Paxton who faithfully recreate an earlier artist’s work, it also includes performers who compellingly update the earlier songs with a more modern sound.  When Elton John visits the studio, the old recording equipment is used to record a new song which he composes on the spot from a sheet of new Bernie Taupin lyrics, and which showcases the high level of technique and what might be called ‘blues literacy’ in his piano playing.  Although the use of antique recording equipment makes ‘The American Epic Sessions’ look almost like a project of ‘reenacting’ the earlier songs (in the sense of Civil War reenactments), the shrewd decisions White makes in combining songs and performers (such as Alabama Shakes covering Memphis Minnie) often results in a re-invention which gives the song new life, rather than just a higher-fidelity recording.  Even the more historically faithful performances, such as Paxton’s, are for me a musical demonstration of the Uncertainty Principle, which was developed by the physicist Werner Heisenberg around the same time as many of the earlier recordings featured in ‘American Epic’ were made.

In the process of studying small particles such as the electron, Heisenberg posited that ‘It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.’  In other words, Heisenberg posited that in his area of study, the act of observation itself changes the event is being observed.  Even though Paxton’s singing and guitar playing are modeled on that of Davis, and he is playing a similar guitar and singing into a similar microphone to the one Davis used, there is a modern swagger and vitality to his performance that helps the song reach a twenty-first century listener.

The Western Electric recording lathe used on ‘American Epic Sessions’ is also a star of the documentary; the camera shows how the machine’s slow lowering of a concrete block governs the three and a half minute limit of its recording capacity.  A Wired magazine article mentions that this time limit had a direct effect on the development of folk and popular music, as it led musicians who recorded on the early machines to devise shorter songs.

A piece of recording technology which predates even the Western Electric lathe, the Edison Recording Phonograph, played a central role in the music of pianist and composer Bela Bartok.  In the very early twentieth century, Bartok used the Phonograph to record folk music from a number of Eastern European countries (including Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) on wax cylinders.

In Bartok’s field recordings, melodic lines are in the extreme foreground and the accompaniment is sometimes close to inaudible.  It seems likely that this is one of the factors which led Bartok to create piano music from the recordings in which the right hand plays a folk melody (often transcribed from his recordings) and the left hand plays a significantly altered (or in some cases, completely different) accompaniment.  Some of this music can be found in Bartok’s multi-volume collection entitled ‘For Children’, which has been beautifully recorded by my colleague Sylvia Parker. (Her CD ‘Peasant Jewels’ can be sampled on YouTube and purchased from Amazon.) One could say that in these pieces Bartok, like Jack White, had an artistic mission to  modernize the folk music he studied.  On the other hand, he was also responding to a practical need, using his considerable musical imagination to supply an accompaniment that was either missing or obscured in the recordings he made.  Bartok may well have also created the ‘For Children’ out of a need for attractive and appropriate pieces he could use to teach basic piano skills to his own children.  This is a long tradition among keyboard-playing composers; Bach’s ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach’, Schumann’s ‘Album for the Young’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Les Cinq Doigts’ were created for the same purpose.

For me, some of the more affecting of Bartok’s pieces in ‘For Children’ are those in which he first sets up an ostinato (repeated figure) in the left hand.  After adding the folk tune in the right hand, he then works subtle variations in the left hand figure, creating a hypnotic effect.  Two of these pieces in Parker’s collection which are accessible to beginning pianists are ‘Rondo (There is an old witch)’ (titled ‘The Old Witch’s Sons’ in other collections) and ‘I lost my handkerchief’.

In other pieces from ‘For Children’ such as Song of the Rogue, the two-note chord voicings Bartok uses in the left hand (which usually combine the root of a chord with the third, fifth or seventh) have similarities to the two-note voicings used by jazz players such as Thelonious Monk (which I discuss in an earlier post, ‘The Neighborhood Hang and the History Hang’.)  While in some editions of ‘For Children’ the pieces are identified only with numbers, the titles given to the pieces in collections such as Parker’s provide enticing glimpses of stories, perhaps from original folk song lyrics, which may be hidden in the music.

In a 2013 piece for Harper’s Magazine titled ‘Bartok’s Monster’, Jay Kirk gives a vivid description of the process through which Bartok first collected the distinctively rough-sounding folk music of Eastern Europe and then transformed it into something of his own.  ‘Like Rumpelstiltskin,’ Kirk writes, ‘[Bartok] hurried back to Budapest to spin the bales of itchy straw into chaotic threads of Lydian gold.’  In addition to giving elements of Bartok’s story a phantasmagorical edge, Kirk gives a vivid account of his own trip to Hungary, where he visits a Bartok museum as well as some of the same villages in which Bartok made his recordings.  Kirk weaves all this into a compelling personal narrative, describing what he sees and what he hallucinates with equal lucidity.  I highly recommend ‘Bartok’s Monster’ as an absorbing read and a fascinating look into Bartok’s use of early recording technology.  Kirk has also been working on expanding the article into a forthcoming book, ‘Avoid the Day’, which I eagerly await.

I think Bartok’s piano pieces that combine folk tunes with ostinato accompaniment were likely a source of inspiration for jazz pianist Chick Corea in composing his tune ‘Children’s Song’, which has become something of a jazz standard and eventually led Corea to compose a whole set of similar pieces.  The version Corea recorded on his legendary duo recording with vibraphonist Gary Burton, ‘Crystal Silence’ includes only the composed melody, while version he recorded with his band Return to Forever includes improvisation.

Like Bartok in a number of the ‘For Children’ pieces, Corea creates a hypnotic effect through pairing a repetitive left hand figure with a folk-like melody in the right.  One of the more recent adaptations of ‘Children’s Song’ was made by the jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer, who recorded it in an arrangement by pianist Fred Hersch.

I hope this blog post inspires you to listen to and practice either some of Bartok’s music from ‘For Children’ (the edition available from Dover Publications is a useful starting place) and/or Chick Corea’s ‘Children’s Song No. 1’, which is available (along with some other pieces from his ‘Children’s Songs’ collection) from  I also, as always, welcome any comments of any kind, particularly on any of the thoughts or links above, as well as any other links that this post might inspire you to share.  Is there other music based on ostinato patterns or folk tunes (or both) that you like to play or listen to, or which you’d like to learn?  Have you ever learned an existing melody and given it a new accompaniment, or do you have a favorite piece or song where that happens?

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That Thing You Said: a line on the changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love”

‘That Thing You Said’ is a bebop-style melody line that I composed on the chord changes to Cole Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’.  (Thanks to jazz singer Linda Oats for coming with the tune’s title after hearing it on a gig where I solicited name suggestions.)  It is inspired by the melodic language of the great pianist and educator Barry Harris, particularly his solos on ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby‘ and ‘Woody N’ You’ from the album Barry Harris At The Jazz Workshop.  It is also based a scale outline of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ which I made following Barry Harris concepts.  For more on Barry’s concept of the minor ii-V-i progression, see my post ‘What Is This Scale Called?’.  A solo piano recording that I made of the tune can be heard here.  My solo version has a samba feel inspired by Fred Hersch’s piece Duet, which he originally recorded solo but which he has more recently reworked as a duet with guitarist Julian Lage.  However, ‘That Thing You Said’ can also work in swing feel.  In the tradition of ‘Ornithology’, ‘Donna Lee’ and ‘Groovin’ High’, all of which work as countermelodies to the tunes from which their progressions are borrowed, I composed ‘That Thing You Said’ as a countermelody to ‘What Is This Thing’.  (Also in the tradition of the aforementioned tunes, however, I do not use it this way in my recording.)  I hope you enjoy listening to and/or practicing this tune, and I welcome comments of any kind in the comment section. 

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‘Silverbird’ – a tune on the changes to ‘There Is No Greater Love’

‘Silverbird’ is a melody line I composed on the chord progression of the jazz standard ‘There Is No Greater Love’.  This line is meant to demonstrate key aspects of the bebop melodic style, including its balance of arpeggiation and step motion, its eighth-note-based, upbeat-oriented rhythms and its use of chromaticism.    The title alludes to my sources of inspiration for the tune, which are the melodic languages of pianist Horace Silver and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (whose most common nickname was ‘Bird’.)  (As it turns out, there is a bird species native to Eastern Africa called Silverbird as well.)  The tune is intended to help aspiring players incorporate bebop concepts into their improvising.     A solo piano recording that I made of the tune can be heard here.  Charts for my tune in all standard transpositions are below.  (For the second note in m. 17, I recommend going with the concert D in the chart rather than the concert G on the recording.)  Before learning a complex line such as ‘Silverbird’ based on a standard progression, I always ask students to learn the tune’s original melody and chord changes.  One source for the melody and changes of ‘There Is No Greater Love’ is the Jamey Aebersold collection Jam Session, where it is referred to on the cover as simply ‘No Greater Love’.  (Students who are preparing this tune for the Vermont All-State Jazz Ensemble auditions are required to bring an original copy of this Aebersold book to the audition.)  I also usually ask students to learn a basic scale outline of the chord progression; here’s a link to my latest scale outline of ‘There Is No Greater Love’. My recording of the outline demonstrates a conversational approach on the piano to integrating left hand chords and right hand scales, but single-line instruments can also learn the right-hand line alone.  There are also differences between how each of the three ‘A’ sections of the AABA form are outlined, as distinguishing between these sections is one of the challenges of improvising over this type of form.  The bass and drum accompaniment continues for a number of choruses after the scale outline, which can be used to practice improvising.

It is well known that many bebop tunes re-use chord progressions of popular songs and replace their melodies with more rhythmically active lines.  My study of the influential bop tunes written by the trumpeter and composer Benny Harris,  as well as Douglass Parker’s article on ‘Donna Lee and the Ironies of Bebop’ (from the collection ‘The Bebop Revolution in Words and Music’), have made me aware that bop tunes were often melodic crazy quilts in which aspiring improvisers took phrases they had learned from players and practiced using these fragments to create a coherent melodic story of their own.  This is what led me to base my melodic line on aspects of Silver’s and Parker’s melodic style.

As Pete Rugolo’s version of Ornithology and Karrin Allyson’s version of Donna Lee demonstrate, some bop tunes can also work as countermelodies to the tunes from which their chord progressions are borrowed.  Although we have no way of knowing whether Benny Harris designed ‘Ornithology’ as a countermelody to ‘How High The Moon’ or whether Miles Davis intended ‘Donna Lee’ as a countermelody to ‘Back Home In Indiana’, these contrapuntal combinations work well enough to suggest that the counterpoint was at least partly intended by the composers, even if they never used it themselves in performance and left it for future generations to discover.  Studying the contrapuntal aspects of these tunes led me to design ‘Silverbird’ as a countermelody to ‘There Is No Greater Love’ (although I don’t demonstrate that aspect in my recording of the tune.)

Pianist and composer Fred Hersch mentions in his recent memoir Good Things Happen Slowly that listening to multiple versions of a song by various master jazz players can help one develop a sense of the song’s possibilities as an improvisational vehicle.  When I worked on ‘There Is No Greater Love’ recently with a combo at Vermont Jazz Camp, we listened to versions of the tune by Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis.  These three versions suggest the universe of possibilities which jazz players can find within a seemingly simple tune.  Baker sings the tune at a ballad tempo, adding slight diatonic ornaments and more radical rhythmic adjustments to the original melody.  On his version of ‘There Is No Greater Love’ from the album ‘Four and More’, Miles Davis takes the tune at a much faster tempo and regards the original melody with his trademark sense of detachment, departing more radically from the melody line than Baker does (starting at the fifth measure) and in other places leaving significant chunks of the melody unplayed (such as the third and fourth bars of the bridge.)  Miles’ interpretation of the melody questions the traditional hierarchy that places a soloist in the foreground and accompanists in the background, and shifts the focus toward the unique group interaction that was occurring in Miles’ ‘Second Quintet’, which featured the adventurous young rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.  Sarah Vaughan’s version from ‘Live In Japan Vol. 2’ uses the tune as a virtuosic display of her skills at improvising and interacting with her trio, dispensing with lyrics and soloing first with bass and voice only, then drums and voice only, then with piano and voice only before bringing in the whole group.

I hope that listening to these great versions, learning the original melody and changes to ‘There Is No Greater Love’ and practicing ‘Silverbird’ will give you some ideas of your own about how you’d like to interpret the melody of this great standard and improvise on its chord progression.  I encourage you to share any thoughts in the comment section, particularly about practicing ‘There Is No Greater Love’ and/or ‘Silverbird’, or about other versions of ‘There Is No Greater Love’ that you find particularly original, unusual or inspirational.


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The neighborhood hang and the history hang (including ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’, a tune on the changes of ‘In Walked Bud’)

Above: Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Orent around the piano at Mary Lou Williams’ apartment / Below: the same group in a different order around the phonograph (i.e. turntable)


The title of my tune ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’ refers to a group of now-legendary jazz pianists, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Elmo Hope, who hung out together in the early 1940s, before any of them had reached their greatest prominence. Much like an earlier generation of New York pianists (including James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith), the interests that Monk, Powell and Hope shared led them to become a kind of informal club.  In his biography of Monk, Robin D.G. Kelley quotes Monk’s sister Marion as saying that once the three musicians “started hanging out together, they were at Monk’s mother’s house ‘all the time’ ”.  In his biography of Powell, Peter Pullman quotes saxophonist Johnny Griffin, who recalls “nights when the three pianists, ‘like brothers’, roamed the streets, going from house to house in search of pianos that they could play.”  Griffin also comments on how the relationship of the three, who sometimes played four and even six hands at one piano, was competitive in a musical sense, but not a personal one.

The recorded output of all three musicians makes it clear how much they influenced each other. Comparing the versions that Monk, Powell, and Hope recorded of the standard ‘Sweet and Lovely’ reveals how Monk, as the eldest of the group, generated many foundational ideas (such his trademark chromatically descending reharmonization of the tune’s first four measures and his Art Tatum-style right hand runs) which were then adapted by his younger proteges Powell (who uses the runs but stays closer to the tune’s original progression) and Hope (who works his own variation on Monk’s reharmonization.)  A comparison of these three players soloing on the blues progression in B flat – Monk’s solo on Straight No Chaser, Bud Powell’s solo on Bud’s Blues (or ‘B flat blues’ from the album Bud Powell in Paris) and Elmo Hope’s solo on St. Elmo’s Fire – also shows a similarity in their approach to left hand comping.  All three solos prominently feature what are sometimes called ‘shell’ (i.e. root and 7th voicings), in contrast to the preference of later players such as Wynton Kelly for two, three and four note rootless voicings located closer to middle C.

Just as comparing different versions of a standard can reveal similarities between players of the same period, it can be useful to compare different versions of a single tune by great jazz players from different eras of jazz to gain insights about the differences between periods and the evolution of the music. In his recent memoir Good Things Happen Slowly, pianist Fred Hersch describes  one of his early methods of educating himself about jazz. After a less than successful experience in college sitting in with a local jazz group on the tune ‘Autumn Leaves’, Hersch was introduced by a fellow musician to the concept of learning about time through listening to great jazz recordings. Hersch writes that he visited a record store that same week and ‘rifled through the jazz bins, working my way from A to Z, and bought every album that had a version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ on it: records by Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Chet Baker – thirteen in all. I brought the pile home and played each version of the tune, skipping all the other tracks…it was a revelation. Some were subtle, some were virtuosic, some brisk, some meditative. They all had a mastery of time. I realized each version was unique, and all of them were great.’

If we call Monk, Powell and Hope’s get-togethers ‘a neighborhood hang’, one might say by contrast that Hersch, after doing the jazz hang in his neighborhood, did some ‘hanging with history’.   In my view, the ‘neighborhood hang’ (i.e. hanging with other jazz players of the same or similar instrument, interest, age and/or ability) and the ‘history hang’ are both essential for the aspiring jazz musician.  One place that both kinds of hanging went on in the mid- to late forties was at the residence of pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, whose apartment (pictured above) was a gathering place for many of  the bright lights of the bebop period.  By many accounts,  Williams provided important musical knowledge to her visitors, either intentionally or surreptitiously, as in the case of Monk’s borrowing the A section of his tune ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ from Williams’ tune ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’; Kelley also documents Williams’ influence on Monk’s tunes ‘Criss Cross’ and ‘Hackensack’.

Like ‘Autumn Leaves’, the Irving Berlin tune ‘Blue Skies’ has been reinvented by players and arrangers in many eras of jazz. Mary Lou Williams’ arrangement of the tune for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, recorded between 1946 and 47 as ‘Trumpet No End’ , was one of the pieces that built her reputation as an arranger; Ella Fitzgerald also created one of her better known scat solos on the tune for the 1959 album Get Happy. Thelonious Monk created his tune ‘In Walked Bud’, dedicated to his protégé, by using the chord progression from the A section of ‘Blue Skies’ and adding a different bridge. Monk made well known two studio recordings of his tune; the 1947 original features an interesting chorus split between trumpeter George Taitt and alto saxophonist Shahib Shihab which includes quotes by both players from the Dizzy Gillespie tune ‘Bebop’.  (The recording dates of ‘Trumpet No End’ and the original ‘In Walked Bud’ being so close in time suggests that Monk’s choice of the ‘Blue Skies’ progression might have been influenced by his hanging with Williams.)  Monk’s version of ‘In Walked Bud’ from the 1968 album Underground features remarkable solos by both Monk and vocalist Jon Hendricks. While Blue Skies has continued to be reininterpreted by historically conscious players such as Bill Charlap, ‘In Walked Bud’ has in turn became a jazz standard in its own right.  In recent years it has been reinvented by players including Fred Hersch, Helen Sung (the version linked here is a duo with Ron Carter, but her combo version from the album ‘Going Express’ is also highly recommended) and Kenny Barron.

My tune ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’ is based on my scale outline for In Walked Bud.  It also uses shell voicings, as in the blues solos by Monk, Powell and Hope.  Piano players should also learn the scale outline and the original head of ‘In Walked Bud’ in the right hand by memory and combine them with the left hand voicings in the piano arrangement.  My tune also can work as a countermelody to ‘In Walked Bud’; it works particularly well to combine ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’ played by the right hand and/or a treble clef instrument and ‘In Walked Bud’ played by the left hand and/or a bass clef instrument.  (The A section of ‘In Walked Bud’, like the bop standards ‘Ornithology’, ‘Anthropology’ and ‘Donna Lee’, is one of those melodic lines that either coincidentally or intentionally works as a countermelody to the tune from which its chord changes originate.)


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A Wrinkle in Time: Joe Davidian’s solo on ‘Straight, No Chaser’ (State of The Blues, part 3)

Joe Davidian is a highly talented jazz pianist and native Vermonter who is currently living and playing in New York City. I’m proud to say that I watched Joe grow up as a player in the Vermont jazz scene, and I have followed his work with interest.  Below is my transcription of Joe’s solo on Straight No Chaser’, Thelonious Monk’s B flat blues, from a version of the tune on Approved’, an album Joe recorded in 2013 with a trio led by the drummer Chester Thompson, perhaps best known for his work with the band Genesis.

One of my goals in this series of posts called ‘State of the Blues’  is to demonstrate that innovative improvising is still being done with standard left hand rootless chord voicings and with a sense of conversation between left hand chords and right hand melody. In the first two choruses, Joe combines sparse, conversational use of left hand voicings with an increasingly active right hand line, which for me recalls Wynton Kelly’s conversational style. In the third chorus, the left hand takes on a more active and supportive role.   Joe’s solo both outlines the chord progression with great precision and makes wonderfully inventive use of Monk’s melodic motives while still managing to be fresh and surprising.  Notice how Joe takes the one-bar idea he introduces in m. 8, moves it down a whole step in m. 9, and then creates what might be called ‘a wrinkle in time’ by playing a more stepwise version of it on the ‘and’ of beat one in m. 10 and on beat 2 in m. 11.  Here the concept of multiple rhythmic repositionings of a single motive, which is a key element of the head to ‘Straight No Chaser’, is ingeniously used by Joe in his solo.  It is worth noticing that Joe first applies Monk’s concept in the first chorus using an idea of his own, and then moves on in the second chorus to developing an idea related to the opening motive of the tune.

                                                                                                                                                                       Monk’s tunes are based on such strong, short and seemingly simple motives that they are great points of departure for motivic improvisation, i.e., improvising based on short melodic gestures.   In a column archived at (the online remnant of the late, lamented  Keyboard Magazine), pianist Fred Hersch wrote about soloing on Monk’s I Mean You’ with a motivic approach, including a notated example with his own development of Monk’s opening motive. In the time between Hersch’s column and Joe Davidian’s solo, pianist Jon Batiste also recorded an interesting version of Straight No Chaser’ which expands on the melody’s motives, both more abstractly in the fascinating intro (the bassline of which is almost a twelve-tone row) and the solo which, like Joe Davidian’s, elegantly models the concept of a relaxed conversation between left hand chords and right hand melodic lines.

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Root Systems, Part 1: Join the ii-V-I Club

The exercise above combines one-octave major scales using a ‘seven up and down’ pattern with a progression that could be called the two-bar ii-V-I or ‘short’ ii-V-I.   Briefly, a major ii-V-I progression is a series of three seventh chords built off the second, fifth and first steps of a given major scale.  Building seventh chords on these roots results in a succession of three qualities: a minor seventh chord, followed by a dominant seventh chord, followed by a major seventh chord.  The exercise below shows a way of voicing these three chords in close harmony by using a rootless inversion of the middle chord of the progression (the V7).   The ii-V-I progression can establish the tonic key of a tune or the arrival of a new key, or the end of a phrase or the entire tune.  A ‘ii’ chord, as jazz players define it, does not necessarily have to be built of the second step of a tune’s major scale; in fact, any place in a chord progression where there is a minor 7th chord followed a dominant 7th chord with the roots moving up a perfect fourth is commonly referred to by jazz players as a ‘ii-V’.

A few of the many jazz tunes that are based on the two-bar ii-V-I progression and the one-bar ii-V progression include Charlie Parker’s ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ (recorded fairly recently by the fantastic Jon Batiste and Stay Human), Bud Powell’s ‘Strictly Confidential’ (eight bars of which is used by Diana Krall in her version of another two-bar ii-V-I tune, ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ from Live In Paris), Clifford Brown’s ‘Joy Spring’ and Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’.  (The last two tunes can be found in The Real Book Volume One, Sixth Edition, published by Hal Leonard.)

In Vermont, there is an organization called The 251 Club whose members aspire to visit all 251 towns in the state.  Some of the members who have actually visited all 251 towns are listed on the club’s website.  The Club’s website has a wonderful mission statement, some of which I think also applies to the jazz player’s lifelong pursuit of building a repertoire of  tunes: ‘Travel at your own pace, in a season or in a lifetime, by…whatever conveyance suits your style…The expectation is that you will be inventive and adventurous in following the road less traveled to Vermont’s little known corners, as well as its more popular destinations.’  Jazz players who have tunes to learn for imminent gigs, concerts and exams do not always get to travel at their own pace.  I find, however, that outside the short-term schedule of each individual performance I give, there is a slower process through which I’ve found the tunes that stay in my memory and under my fingers.  I have chosen some of these tunes, but others have chosen me or have been chosen for me.  I play the music of Bud Powell, for example, because I have always been drawn to it, but I now also know a number of Wayne Shorter tunes by heart because of how many times Ray Vega called them on gigs I played with him.  My personal repertoire has been expanded in similar ways by working with many other collaborators.  While the ability to learn a tune list on a prescribed timeline is an important skill for all musicians, the lifelong process of finding and curating a personal  tune list has its own pace, which you might also call ‘your own pace’.  I also like the 251 Club’s emphasis on being ‘inventive and adventurous’, and visiting both ‘popular destination and little-known corners’, all important reminders for the jazz tune hunter (or perhaps ‘tunehound’.)

While the membership fees are reasonably priced, an implied requirement for being a member of the club is that one has access to a mode of transportation.  Maybe there should be an informal musical organization called ‘The ii-V-I Club’, made up of aspiring and practicing jazz players who seek to learn the ii-V-I progression in all keys or expand their knowledge of it, and to learn tunes that use this important musical building block.  If there were such a group, the voicings and scales above are one ‘vehicle’ that can take you through many tunes that are based on the ii-V-I progression – maybe not two hundred and fifty one tunes, but quite a few.  Besides the list of tunes earlier in this post, more ii-V-I tunes can be found in  the next post in this series, Take Three At A Time, which shows how to assemble a list of six tunes from The Real Book Volume One that take you through ii-V-Is in all keys.  My posts Give It Up for The Root (position pattern)s!  and Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris also show a number of one-bar ii-V and two-bar ii-V-I melodic patterns from bop tunes that are based on that progression.  I wish you a happy, lifelong adventure through the byways of the jazz repertoire, full of lots listening and reading, and encourage you to prepare for the journey by learning the ii-V-I progression in all keys.

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Music of Hope in Action (a meditation for Martin Luther King Day)

This is the text of a talk I gave on January 21st, 2018 at All Souls Interfaith Gathering’s Music and Spirit service.  The service also included performances of the music discussed in the talk. 

In an issue published in late November 2016, the New Yorker magazine featured a series of essays by a range of writers and thinkers on the recent presidential elections and the feeling of hopelessness that they brought to many Americans. The contribution by the writer Junot Diaz was an essay titled ‘Under President Trump, Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon.’ In the essay, Diaz wrote that hope is ‘not so much something you have, but something you practice.’ Diaz acknowledged that one his sources for this idea is work of the philosopher Jonathan Lear and his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. In the book, Lear refers to the experiences of the Native American Crow nation after they were confined to a reservation, and writes that they had to ‘imagine for themselves a very different future than the one that was their current reality.’ Lear defines radical hope as being ‘directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’ This kind of hope, Lear says, is fueled by ‘imaginative excellence’.

Lear spends much of Radical Hope reflecting on the life and sayings of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Native American Crow nation, who lived from 1848 to 1932. Lear’s reflections draw on an account of the chief by a Montana ‘trapper, hunter and cowboy’ named Frank Linderman, who spent time with the chief in the late 19th century. In Linderman’s account, Plenty Coups gives the following description of the time when the Crow were confined to a reservation: “ ‘when the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,’ he added sorrowfully, ‘you know that part of my life as well as I do.‘ “

Lear notes that at first, this quote seems to imply that the reservation was a place where the Crow people lost all sense of selfhood and even all sense of time moving forward. He also notes that the Crow were no strangers to the threat of cultural devastation, as they were confined by the U.S. government to an increasingly small geographic area after having lived under the constant threat of being conquered by their traditional enemies, the Sioux nation. Lear notes with particular interest that the chief describes early reservation years as the period when ‘nothing happened’, and yet, during this time, ‘there was a kind of enthusiasm in [the chief’s] activity that belies this interpretation.’ During the time that the Crow were first confined to the reservation, Plenty Coups ‘avidly took up farming life’, defended the rights of the Crow during several trips to Washington, donated his own home to a state park as a monument and ‘encouraged young Crow to be open to the white man’s education and even their religion.’

For the chief to have led such an active life during a period when his people were under the threat of cultural devastation is a phenomenon Lear describes as ‘radical hope’. Plenty Coups’ activity during his people’s time of confinement re-imagined his own culture’s definition of courage. Lear’s research indicated that the Crow’s definition of courage had previously centered on various battle rituals they used to defend their land, such as the the ‘coup stick’ which a Crow warrior used to define his territory before engaging with a warrior from another tribe. In Lear’s analysis, Plenty Coups widened his culture’s definition of courage to include acts in the arenas of politics, modern agriculture and cross-cultural dialogue. This new definition abandoned the struggle to return to an idealized past, and instead chose to work toward a future that could not yet be fully comprehended. It is significant that many of the acts with which Lear says the chief redefined courage showed an acute concern for the well-being of future generations.

Lear explains that Plenty Coups’ radical hope originated in a dream he had at the age of nine. As a young boy, the future chief dreamed that he was accompanied by a buffalo who changed into a man, and with whom he watched ‘bulls and cows and calves without number’ scatter across the plains.’ His companion in the dream then pointed out ‘the lodge of the Chickadee’ and advised him on how to be a ‘Chickadee-person’. (Lear also adds that the Chickadee has great significance for the Crow people, as many of them claim to have heard messages from the bird.) The chief’s dream companion explained that a ‘Chickadee person’ ‘never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed.’ Lear writes that while some dreams can be a denial of reality, the chief’s boyhood dream was the kind which responds to reality by expressing communal anxiety and communal wishes. ‘The radical hope that Plenty Coups‘ dream generated.’ Lear writes, ‘was itself a manifestation of imaginative excellence. It enabled the tribe to face its future courageously – at a time when the traditional understanding of courage was becoming unlivable.‘

Lear’s reflections on Plenty Coups‘ life and thinking bring to mind a number of pieces of music from the jazz tradition which, for me, embody the concept of radical hope. As I write this close to Martin Luther King Day, I think first of all of two pieces, ‘Alabama’ by John Coltrane and ‘I Have A Dream’ by Herbie Hancock. In these two pieces, the composers reacted to catastrophic events by finding the music in King’s words, and in the process also moved beyond their typical range of musical influences. I also find the concept of radical hope embodied in the song ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’, a composition by jazz pianist Billy Taylor which became an anthem in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and was by some accounts a favorite song of Dr. King’s.

On Sept. 15th, 1963, four young girls were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. At a funeral for three of the four girls, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a eulogy which is now acknowledged to be a turning point in the civil rights movement.  Both the text and the audio of King’s eulogy are available online.  After a shamefully long interval, one suspect in the bombing was finally convicted in 1977. Two more suspects were brought to justice in 2001 and 2002 by attorney Doug Jones, who recently became Alabama’s newest Senator. At the time of the bombings, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane was of course cognizant of the events as a native of a Southern state and a socially conscious individual. Where I believe Coltrane showed what Lear would call ‘imaginative excellence’ was in the way he responded to this tragic event by widening the compass of his musical thinking.

In 1963, Coltrane was still riding the wave of popularity that had begun with his 1961 recording of ‘My Favorite Things’. From the beginning of his career as a bandleader, Coltrane drew his musical repertoire from sources typical for jazz players: compositions by the major figures in the jazz and popular song worlds (such as the Richard Rodgers tune which he so powerfully reshaped.) To these tunes Coltrane gradually began to add compositions of his own, some of which were re-workings of tunes he had played in his career as a sideman, like ‘Impressions‘ (based on Miles Davis’ ‘So What’) and ‘Countdown’ (based on Eddie Vinson’s ‘Tune Up’.) Coltrane had also begun to explore world music on recordings such as Africa/Brass. For me, all these examples suggest that up until the early 1960s, the most evident sources of inspiration for Coltrane’s work had come from inside the world of music and musicians.

In the liner notes to one of his best known works, the 1964 album ‘A Love Supreme’, Coltrane described a major life change he had undergone some years earlier. ‘During the year 1957,’ he wrote, ‘I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.’

Just as Lear theorizes that it was the great Crow chief’s vision as a young boy which made it possible for him to respond to his tribe’s catastrophic displacement with courageous acts of radical hope, it seems possible that Coltrane’s spiritual awakening laid the groundwork for his piece ‘Alabama’, in which he was able to respond ingeniously to the Birmingham catastrophe by drawing on a source of inspiration quite different from those he had pursued up to that time. The recent documentary ‘Chasing Trane’ claims Coltrane told pianist McCoy Tyner that the melodic line of ‘Alabama’ is a musical interpretation of Dr. King’s eulogy. Scholars of Coltrane’s music are divided on whether the connection between Coltrane’s notes and King’s words is abstract or literal. One radio documentary, ‘Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone’, goes as far as to superimpose excerpts from King’s speech over Coltrane’s saxophone playing.

The documentary (viewed together with the lyrics displayed in the YouTube video accompanying it) suggests that there is a close parallel in the opening of Coltrane’s melodic line to a sentence found near the beginning of King’s eulogy: ‘These children, unoffending, innocent and beautiful, were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” The documentary also suggests that Coltrane makes a more abstract musical translation of the following excerpts from King’s text: “And so, my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil…The death of these children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood…” King closes by saying: “as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare ‘good night, sweet princesses, good night, those who symbolize a new day…may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.” The documentary suggests another literal connection between this last phrase of King’s and a repeated motive in Coltrane’s piece. I also hear an echo of ‘good night, sweet princesses, good night’ in Coltrane’s closing section.

In his memoir ‘Possibilities’, pianist and composer Herbie Hancock writes: ‘Like most black Americans, I was shattered by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 and Bobby Kennedy two months later…Yet although I’d been emotionally involved in the civil rights movement, until now I’d never made any overt moves to get involved in it.’ He then goes on to explain that ‘most of the songs’ on his album The Prisoner, recorded a year after King’s death, ‘were about Martin Luther King Jr.’

For me, Hancock’s composition ‘I Have A Dream’, the first track on The Prisoner, is a musical parallel to Junot Diaz’ idea of hope being ‘not something you have, but something you practice.‘ Rather than set King’s iconic phrase ‘I have a dream today!’ with just one set of notes and harmonies, Hancock uses it as the basis of what music theorists call a development section, where the initial six-note motive is not repeated exactly but transformed musically in a number of different ways. The resulting musical journey suggests to me that a truly hopeful person does not simply repeat an idea (like the baby bird in the children’s book ‘Are You My Mother?’), but carries that idea into many different contexts where it undergoes fundamental change and yet maintains its essential structure. It is also significant that Hancock eulogizes King not with a harmonious anthem, but with a piece that alternates sections of placid yet unsettled harmony with more dissonant sections, a vivid portrayal of the tumultuous period that followed King’s death.

In contrast to the ‘Alabama’ and ‘I Have A Dream’, both of which are text-driven instrumental pieces, Billy Taylor’s composition ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ was first recorded by Taylor in 1964 as a funky, uptempo instrumental piece, but had its greatest impact four years later when it was recorded by Nina Simone, who sang the lyrics by Taylor and Dick Dallas.  Simone often performed the tune live, including in a spellbinding version from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival which showcases her underappreciated piano chops; I’m also a fan of this version by Taylor with his trio in the 1980s.  In an interview with journalist Marc Myers, Taylor mentioned that his daughter ‘came home from school one day singing a spiritual. But she didn’t really know what it was and didn’t have the proper feel behind it.’ Taylor told his daughter: ” ‘Kim, this is a part of your heritage. You can’t be singing a spiritual like that. You have to have more feeling.. I sat down at the piano and said, ‘The spiritual is so much a part of our tradition that I can sit here and make one up on the spot.”

Taylor told Myers that the title came from the melody, because he thought lyrically when composing, but he also describes the tune as ‘taking fifteen minutes to write and a year and a co-writer to finish.’ This was because, as Taylor says, ‘I struggled with the lyrics… My words weren’t saying what I wanted the song to say. Dick helped me finish the lyrics.’
Taylor and Dallas’ lyrics provide a concise and powerful description of a radical hope which is, as Jonathan Lear puts it, ‘directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’ They do not say simply ‘I Wish I Felt Free’. They do not convey the sense of certainty found in songs like ‘Down By The Riverside’ or ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ that the stated goals, the laying down of swords and shields, the joining of the heavenly band, will definitely come to pass in some yet-to-be-revealed way. One wonders if this was the kind of simplicity that Taylor heard in his daughter’s after-school spiritual and sought to remedy with his own tune. He told Myers: ‘Spirituals suggest things about who we are and what we’re about and what we long for.‘ I read this as Taylor stating the values he thought spirituals ought to convey. I would argue that in this quote Taylor is rejecting the idea that spirituals can do more than simply project ancient scriptural imagery into an idealized future: they can and should also speak about the identity and aspirations of living people and their struggles in the present moment, as his song certainly did in the 1960s and still does today.

Taylor’s tune has become a standard, interpreted recently by artists including the Tedeschi/Trucks Band and John Legend.  Dallas and Taylor’s choice of the word ‘would’ – ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel’ – implies, to my ear, an admission which is unusual in the world of hymn texts: that the goals being stated are far from being achieved. When the lyrics are combined with Taylor’s triumphant and swinging music, however, the overall message of the song goes beyond simply acknowledging unrealized potential. It does not merely evoke future possibilities in a symbolic way, it states that there is a future goodness that transcends our current ability to understand what it is, if only we can find the means, the bridges, the portals, the teachable moments that will make that possible goodness a reality.

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