The State of The Blues, Part Six: Gabrielle Stravelli’s solo on ‘Karma Medley’

Gabrielle Stravelli is a New York City based vocalist and songwriter who I had the honor of performing with in 2016.  She has recorded jazz interpretations of a wide range of songs, from the ‘standard’ jazz repertoire of Berlin/Porter/Rodgers/Ellington et. al. to composers less often found in the jazz canon such as Bob Marley and John Fogerty.   With her most recent release, ‘Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli sings Willie Nelson’, she became perhaps the only artist to devote an album to exploring the jazz potential in the songs by this country icon, and the results, thanks to her gorgeous singing as well as great arranging by bassist Pat O’Leary and great playing by musicians including saxophonist Scott Robinson and pianist Art Hirahara, are beautifully surprising.  Gabrielle has a seemingly effortless ability to execute acrobatic melody lines; this can be heard in the song Little Zochee from her 2017 album ‘Dream Ago’, an O’Leary composition on which she sings both a complex melody and a complex vocalese section doubling a Thomas Chapin flute solo note for note.  On another tune from ‘Dream Ago’, Bicycle Blues’, she adapts the vocalese approach to a duo setting, doubling Art Hirahara’s piano solo with with vocalist Kenny Washington.  A live video of ‘I’m Just A Lucky So And So’ is a good example of her ability to ingeniously reshape the melodic line of a well-traveled standard tune. 

The Karma Medley from ‘Pick Up My Pieces’ is made up of three Nelson tunes; two of these (‘A Little Old Fashioned Karma’ and ‘Nobody Slides’) use the 16 bar ‘gospel blues’ progression which also is found in jazz tunes including Sonny Rollins’s ‘Doxy’, Horace Silver’s ‘The Preacher’ and Jerome Richardson’s ‘Groove Merchant’.  (I’ll be sharing my own entry in the ‘jazz gospel blues’ category in an upcoming post.)  In this performance, after singing the first two tunes, Stravelli demonstrates her mastery of the scat vocal solo.  This solo is a model of a swinging eighth-note based line; Gabrielle maintains a sense of forward motion by beginning phrases on the upbeat, and uses a wide variety of syllables to achieve a wide range of articulations.  The first sixteen bars of the solo land clearly on the large-scale goals of the chord progression (I, IV and V chords). In the second chorus Stravelli outlines the G7 chord, which in this context is more of a passing chord.  She does this with a phrase at m. 22-24 in which the last eight notes match m. 5-6 of Denzil Best’s ‘Move’, but with one note removed and two notes reversed. For me, this is a great example the kind of creativity with standard patterns that the musical Scrabble game of bebop requires. (Duke Ellington has been quoted as saying: ‘Playing ‘bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.’) Versions and fragments of this standard piece of improvisational language can be heard throughout jazz history from Louis Armstrong’s ‘Hotter Than That‘ vocal solo to Miles Davis’ solo on ‘Oleo‘ (from ‘Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants) solo to Clark Terry’s ‘Perdido Line‘.  (All the linked examples are cued to the use of this melodic idea.) I hope the samples of Gabrielle Stravelli’s music in this post will lead you to check out more of her videos, albums, and live performances which are always adventurous and rewarding listening. Her YouTube show The Early Set, where she interviews fellow musicians, is also well worth checking out.

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In praise of hibernating, returning to old challenges and (sometimes) choosing a slower pace

Glenn Gould’s iconic 1955 recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ was followed by a concert and recording career that accelerated at a feverish pace for the next decade, leading to his abandoning of live performance in 1964.  It is fascinating to compare Gould’s rendition of the first Goldberg variation from the 1955 recording, made in the midst of a public performing career, with the version from his second recording of the piece over 25 years later, after decades of self-imposed studio hibernation. The slowing of Gould’s tempo is the most obvious and striking change, but the change in piano sound and interpretation is also notable.  These two recordings document not just a musician who has grown older, but one who has matured through choosing a path of intentional isolation as an artist.  (As the biographical movie ‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’ dramatizes, Gould stayed socially engaged through his years of artistic isolation, although often through socially distanced means like extended phone calls.)  Gould’s influence on jazz can be seen in reinventions of the Goldberg Variations that have been made by a number of jazz pianists, including John Lewis and Dan Tepfer, whose most recent performance of his ‘Goldberg Variations Variations’ was in a socially-distanced virtual concert setting during the Covid 19 pandemic. 

In March of this year, with about two weeks notice, I suddenly had to begin teaching online jazz piano lessons during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Where only weeks before I had been sitting in the same room with my students, watching their hands on the keyboard and commenting from a few feet away, I now watched from many miles away as they played their pianos and keyboards at home, listening to the way the FaceTime app made their instruments sound as though they were at the bottom of a swimming pool. As I contemplated how to continue encouraging students to practice in this challenging situation, I made a list of great jazz pianists who had gone through a three-stage process similar to Gould’s with the Goldberg Variations:

1) making a well-known recording of a particular piece at an early or middle stage of their career

2) Going into some kind of hibernation later in their career (in some cases connected with a hiatus from performing), during which they continued their artistic development through studio recording

3) Returning to the previously recorded piece during their hibernation-era recording and finding a significantly different interpretation of it.

What follows are some of my own reflections about the historical context of musical revisitations by Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Keith Jarrett, followed by analysis written by three of my UVM students, Matt Nemeth, Karina Aliyeva and Harrison Massing.  I also added ‘coda’ of my own on vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn and her exploration of slow tempos.  Below is a list you can use to navigate to the different sections of the post, in the event that your interest is more in the history of each tune (addressed in my sections) or analysis of the recordings (addressed in the sections by my students.)

Bill Evans’ return to Young and Foolish (TC)

When The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album was recorded in 1975, both Bennett and Evans had been established as leading artists on their respective instruments for more than twenty years.  While the album did not represent a period of literal hibernation for Bennett and Evans – both continued to perform extensively with their own groups during the time the album was recorded – it was an intentional retreat from the ensemble settings in which they had most often been heard (Evans with his trio and Bennett with his band led by his pianist and musical director Ralph Sharon.)

A quote from Tony Bennett about the making of the album suggests that this unusual musical combination was also recorded at an unusual time of day: ‘The best records I ever made are the duos with Ralph Sharon and Bill Evans,’ Bennett said, ‘We just went in there at two-thirty in the morning and went to work.’  A quote from Evans suggests he chose the duo format as an intentional challenge: ‘It was my idea that we make it only piano, though it kind of scared me,’ Bill said. ‘it seemed to be the best way to get that intimate communication going.  A lot of the public wants that big sound – the studio orchestra, highly produced or over produced.  So I thought we’d go all the way in the other direction, and I think it’s timely because a lot of young people are looking for that personal quality.’ 

Evans could have been referring to the popularity at that time of younger artists like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young who often mirrored their first-person, confessional lyrics with arrangements where their voices were accompanied by only one or two other instruments, as in Mitchell’s album ‘Blue’ and Young’s album ‘After The Gold Rush’.    On The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and its successor, Together Again, Evans and Bennett chose to revisit a number of songs that both of them had interpreted before in larger group settings.  ‘Young and Foolish’ is a good example of how Evans’ arranging for the duo stands in fascinating contrast to his earlier trio recordings of the same material.  Matthew Nemeth breaks down the musical details of how Evans built his original trio arrangement of ‘Young and Foolish’ and how his approach to the tune evolved in the duo with Tony Bennett:

Analysis of two Bill Evans recordings of ‘Young and Foolish’ – by Matt Nemeth

Bill Evans made studio recordings of the tune “Young and Foolish” by Arnold Horwitt and Albert Hague on two separate occasions, each time with notable collaborators. His first recording of the tune from “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” was with Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and the second was a duet recording with vocalist Tony Bennett. On the trio recording, which opens in the key of C major, Evans begins with a rubato statement of the verse and establishes a strong downbeat and strict time at the top of the form. The bass and drums play flexible jazz ballad time at a very slow tempo. Even within the context of a slow, steady tempo, Bill Evans takes his time with the melody, adding some fills and countermelodies but still leaving large spaces.  In contrast to
many of the other performances on ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’, Evans stays
focused on the melody throughout ‘Young and Foolish’.  He plays through the melody twice, modulating up a half step for the second chorus. He doesn’t play the last two bars of the melody on the first time through the form, but rather he modulates up a half
step to Db major and begins the melody (at 3:16) in the new key on the same
beat where last note of the previous chorus lands.  For the first eight bars of the tune in the
new key, Evans halves the harmonic rhythm, and the returns to the original
harmonic rhythm in the B section. He would further develop this technique in
his version of ‘Blue on Green’ two years later on Portrait In Jazz. 

Evans’ duo recording of the tune with Tony Bennett starts right off at the top of
the form (although other releases of the record include a take where they play through the verse preceding the form.) In contrast to Evans’ earlier version with its complex manipulations of the form, this version is a less altered and consequently more relaxed version of the tune.  During Tony Bennett’s vocal, the piano plays strict time in quarter notes in a fashion very similar to the LH pattern in “Peace Piece” (and in the same key). Bill Evans remains in the background until the first B section, where he plays fills between phrases of the melody and breaks his strict quarter note feel.  In his piano solo following Bennett’s introduction of the melody, Evans sticks to the form and the changes, but he
frequently changes his time feel and method of expression of the changes. He
starts with a melodic right hand line and comping with rootless voicings in the
left hand as if there were a bass player.  It’s interesting to note how the absence of
the chord roots doesn’t lead the performance to sound incomplete, as Evans is so
skilled with maintaining a sense of inner voice leading in his chords.   Later
in the solo he pulls back from the bebop style improvisation and arpeggiates
chords. Although he isn’t playing a single note of the melody, his soloing remains melodically grounded. Tony Bennett comes back in to sing the last B section of the melody. While Tony holds the last note, Bill Evans briefly goes back to the stride quarter note feel fromthe beginning, once again closing with an allusion to his ‘Peace Peace’ vamp  (this time between Cmaj7 and Abm6).                                                                                                                                                  

Billy Strayhorn’s unhurried return to ‘Take The A Train’ (TC)

Billy Strayhorn’s recording of his solo album ‘The Peaceful Side’ was a rare venture outside the world of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the ensemble to which his composing and arranging was largely devoted.  Unlike his other projects outside the orchestra which used subsets of the group (such as a two-piano recording with Duke Ellington and a small group record with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges), The Peaceful Side includes no Ellington Orchestra players.  Thus this album was a retreat from Strayhorn’s musical world in the U.S. to a different location, Paris, and a different group of players (including the Paris String Quartet and the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes). 

In addition to being a different scene for Strayhorn geographically and musically, Paris was an important haven in his personal life as well. On the website, Matthew Asprey writes that ‘In Paris, Ellington was a major celebrity. The city was more of a refuge for Billy Strayhorn, a quiet gay man who gave Ellington credit for much of his work. Strayhorn’s former lover Aaron Bridgers was the house pianist at the
gay-friendly Mars Club on Rue Robert Estienne near the Champs-Elysées. Bridgers
appeared as a pianist in the film Paris Blues (miming to Ellington or Strayhorn’s track)… When in town, Strayhorn sat in at the piano. He’d often remain in Paris during the band’s annual European tour.’ 

In a filmed version of ‘A Train’ from a 1965 concert in Copenhagen, Strayhorn, at Ellington’s beckoning, walks onstage with humorous reluctance and takes a solo that sounds artistically constrained but yet still technically brilliant.  Strayhorn’s own version of ‘Take The A Train’ on ‘The Peaceful Side’, by contrast, shows a very different musical personality, and a greater level of control, inspiration and individuality that he was able to inhabit in Paris, away from his role in the Ellington organization. 

Analysis of three versions of ‘Take The A Train’ – by Karina Aliyeva

‘Take The A Train’ was written by Billy Strayhorn in the early 1940s for the band of his longtime collaborator Duke Ellington. The title refers to the directions Ellington gave Strayhorn on to get to his home in New York, Strayhorn wanted this piece to be reminiscent of the style of the era- at a tempo and length conducive to swing dancing, and prominently featuring trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.  The first recording of ‘Take The A Train’ by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in 1941 pushed this piece into history and forever cemented it as a must-learn for jazz players. With a driving tempo and
great big band energy, this tune became a radio hit and was featured, along with the
Ellington Orchestra, in the 1943 film Reveille with Beverly.  

Not until 1963, on his album “The Peaceful Side”, did Strayhorn record his own arrangement of the song, revealing a very different approach. On this album, Strayhorn was focusing on his unique piano style, unencumbered by the need for fame,
money, or praise. Strayhorn is known to have first aspired to be a pianist and composer
in the classical music world, but due to the racism present during his lifetime
this would have been nearly impossible.   ‘You know, he didn’t play in the swing band,’
Strayhorn’s high school band director Carl McVicker says of his high school
years in David Hadju’s biography Lush Life. ‘He wasn’t interested.  He was a serious pianist and concentrated strictly on the concert repertoire.’ After moving decisively into to the jazz world through his collaboration with Ellington, Strayhorn continued to incorporate elements of classical music into his style and playing. His recording of Take the A Train is reminiscent almost of Chopin. This is no surprise, considering that shortly before the recording of ‘The Peaceful Side’ Strayhorn had been delving into his lifelong affinity for classical music, contributing arrangements to the Ellington Orchestra recording of The Nutcracker Suite.  On his 1963 version of ‘A Train’, Strayhorn plays long stretches of reflective, quiet, and meticulously technical solo piano, joined on the bridge by a shimmering string quartet and double bass.  It is much slower and definitely less dance-oriented than the big band version. This quiet, more insightful version, while it stays close to the melody throughout, includes many improvised fills, tangents, and retinutos – perfect
for listening to when in a reflective mood. 

Keith Jarrett’s return to ‘Blame It On My Youth’ (TC)

While he was in the fourth decade of a career as one of the most successful jazz pianists in the world, Keith Jarrett became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome in the fall of 1996 while touring Europe. As an article in SFGate described it, “He was suddenly overcome by such a profound sense of fatigue that he told his wife he felt as if aliens had invaded his body.”  In a Time magazine article, Terry Teachout wrote that Jarrett ‘staggered off the stage after a concert in Italy, completely exhausted and wondering whether he would ever be able to play again.’ 

One of the effects of Jarrett’s condition was an aversion to music. “My body was telling me that I couldn’t even listen to music if I wanted to maintain at least some level of health,” Jarrett told SFGate. After a year of convalescing, Jarrett’s return to the piano came in the form of short visits to his practice studio.  These visits also included short recording sessions, initially intended for a very small audience, but which eventually became Jarrett’s comeback album, 1998’s ‘The Melody At Night With You.’

“I started taping it in December of 1997, as a Christmas present for my
wife,” Jarrett recalled in an interview with Terry Teachout for Time
magazine in 1999. “I’d just had my Hamburg Steinway overhauled and wanted
to try it out, and I have my studio right next to the house, so if I woke up
and had a half-decent day, I would turn on the tape recorder and play for a few
minutes. I was too fatigued to do more. Then something started to click with
the mike placement, the new action of the instrument–I could play so soft–and
the internal dynamics of the melodies of the songs. It was one of those little
miracles that you have to be ready for, though part of it was that I just
didn’t have the energy to be clever. Also, I’d just stopped drinking
coffee.” He laughs. “So the album ended up being about how you play
melody without cleverness. It’s almost as though I was detoxing from standard
chordal patterns. I didn’t want any jazz harmonies that came from the brain
instead of the heart.”

Harrison Massing analyzes the version of Oscar Levant’s ‘Blame It On My
Youth’ that Jarrett plays on ‘The Melody At Night With You’, an earlier version
of the tune Jarrett recorded with his trio, and an iconic rendition of the tune
by Chet Baker from the late 1980s. 

Analysis of three versions of ‘Blame It On My Youth’ – by Harrison Massing

Chet Baker’s 1987 recording of ‘Blame It On My Youth’  is in the key of Bb major at a tempo of around 40 beats per minute. He sings the melody very softly in a low register. His phrasing is extremely relaxed, loose, and often falls behind the beat, drawing
out every phrase — especially “blame it on my youth” so as to bring a meditative poignancy to the lyrics and the tune as a whole. The context of the recording — being a year before his death — makes his interpretation of the melody seem much more haunting, because it sounds like he recorded the tune knowing he didn’t have much time left.

Keith Jarrett’s 1991 version is in the key of F major and comes
in at around 60 beats per minute. Jarrett’s interpretation of the melody
— played on piano — stays within a range about 2-3 octaves above Baker’s.
His phrasing is faster, making each phrase distinct; whereas Baker’s phrasing
is harder to divide into clear segments, Jarrett plays each phrase (such as
“blame it on my youth”) rather quickly and leaves a significant space before
moving on to the next. His interpretation is also more complex; he incorporates
more flourishes and accents, while Baker’s notes were bare and unembellished
(except for tasteful vibrato).

Jarrett’s 1998 recording is also in F, but slower, at around 50 beats per minute, although the rubato in this version makes the tempo hard to pinpoint. His interpretation of the melody in this one reminds me much more of Chet Baker’s version than Jarrett’s 1991
version does; like Baker, his phrasing is much more drawn out and much simpler,
although still in a higher range.  Jarrett’s second version of the tune also resembles Baker’s in its focus on the melody and its intentional lack of ornaments and fills. This version feels meditative, and has some of the poignancy of Chet Baker’s recording, although without the lyrics and context of Baker’s version, it doesn’t have quite the same level of incredible

Coda: The Quantum Mechanics of the Ballad: Shirley Horn on ‘How Insensitive’ (TC)

Like Gould, Strayhorn and Jarrett, the iconic jazz vocalist and underrated jazz pianist Shirley Horn often managed to find new meaning in familiar pieces through returning to them and choosing slower tempos.  Horn’s  1981 version of the Antonio Carlos Jobim tune ‘How Insensitive’  is radically slower than the version by Joao Gilberto, who likely introduced the tune. In a 1999 version of the tune, Horn not only took an even slower tempo than her own 1981 version, she began with a rubato intro as well.  One of Horn’s career goals seemed to be the exploring of increasingly slow tempos, which she used to draw new levels of meaning from songs. While the slower tempo of Horn’s 1999 version can be challenging to listen to at first if one is used to Jobim’s tempo, it does allow her to isolate particular notes and lyrics, revealing them to be worlds within themselves, much like a physicist exploring an atom with an increasing levels of magnification and discovering previously unseen particles. 





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From Watermelon Man to Cantaloupe Island and beyond: Herbie Hancock’s ingenious reinventions (featuring ‘Caves of the Island’, an original tune based on ‘Cantaloupe Island’)

Herbie Hancock and I after his February 2019 show at the Flynn Center

 In 1962, the first film in the James Bond series, ‘Dr. No’, was released.  As ‘Dr. No’ was a great success at the box office, Bond films continued to be released almost annually over the following decade, each one using a number of elements that had been introduced in ‘Dr. No’.  These included character of Bond himself (always introduced through an opening sequence featuring the opening Bond theme), and the archetypes of the ‘Bond girl’ and the ‘Bond villain’.  The third Bond movie, ‘Goldfinger’, added the trope of the Bond vocal theme song to the formula, a franchise which over the years has passed through a long list of pop song composers and performers, including Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong and most recently Billie Eilish.

1962 also saw the release of ‘Takin’ Off’, the first album by jazz pianist (and future film composer) Herbie Hancock.  As Hancock recalls in his autobiography, Possibilities, the album “climbed to number 84 on the Billboard 100.  At that time Billboard didn’t have different charts for different genres, like pop, jazz and R&B.  There was just one chart for all the records released, so for a jazz record to reach the top 100 was considered pretty good.  ‘Watermelon Man‘ was the single that propelled the record, and when I started hearing it on the radio, it was really cool.”  Hancock goes on to describe how the success of his version of ‘Watermelon Man’ was eclipsed when a version by Cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaria reached number 11 on the Billboard 100.

Much as the success of ‘Dr. No’ led to a series of films that sought to capitalize on its success, I would argue that the success of ‘Watermelon Man’ led to a series of tunes, many by Hancock himself, that focused on not so much replicating the original as reinventing various aspects of it.  Far from being ‘cheap knockoffs’, Hancock’s follow-ups to ‘Watermelon Man’ show his evolving resourcefulness as a composer.  Blind Man, Blind Man, from Hancock’s 1963 album My Point of View, borrows the drum groove and the signature melodic rhythm from ‘Watermelon Man’, but in the context of a tune based on a single chord (rather than the four chords of the original.)  On his 1964 album ‘It’s All Right’, Wynton Kelly (who by that time Hancock had replaced in the Miles Davis Quintet) recorded a tune called Escapade which uses a very similar chord progression to that of ‘Watermelon Man’, but with a different melody and what might be called a surf-rock drum pattern rather than the ‘funky’ backbeat Billy Higgins concocted for the original. 

1964 also saw the release of Hancock’s concept album ‘Empyrean Isles’, which included ‘Cantaloupe Island‘, the title of which hints at its kinship with ‘Watermelon Man’.  This tune, like ‘Watermelon Man’, has a 16-bar form and a similar bassline and piano accompaniment figure.  The drum groove, while still ‘funky’ and based in straight eighth notes, is considerably different, and the chord progression is modal and uses predominantly minor 7th chords in contrast to Watermelon Man’s dominant sevenths.  As Hancock’s website tells it, “The track was somewhat popular in the mid-60s, but it was not until the Hip-Hop band Us3 sampled the track and incorporated it into their mega-hit “Cantaloop” that anyone really took the song seriously.” Hancock’s 1973 album ‘Headhunters’ featured a completely transformed ‘Watermelon Man’ which reimagined the tune in the 1970s concept of funk, retaining only its progression (expanded to include one more chord, Ab7) and a vestige of its melody and otherwise completely transforming the tune with a new intro (which, percussionist Bill Summers explains, he composed and performed on a beer bottle), a new groove, and electrified instrumentation. 

With this series of tunes, one can hear Herbie Hancock going through a methodic and yet highly creative process of building new pieces on different elements of the original ‘Watermelon Man’ – first the groove with ‘Blind Man’, then the form with ‘Cantaloupe Island’, and finally the chord progression with the electric ‘Watermelon Man’.  While it makes sense that Hancock’s goals with these tunes were partly commercial in the sense of wanting to repeat or approach the chart success of ‘Watermelon Man’, each of these tunes was in my view also an artistic success, as Hancock, like Duke Ellington, as well as composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms who were masters of the theme and variations form, has the gift of creating music based on an earlier piece which is totally new and not derivative.

During the period when this music was released, Herbie Hancock also scored the music to two films with plot lines roughly similar to the Bond films, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973).  One of the themes from Hancock’s soundtrack to ‘The Spook Who Sat By The Door’ would, with the addition of a clavinet played through a wah pedal, become the tune ‘Actual Proof‘ from the album Thrust, released the year following the film (1974).  The Blow-Up soundtrack is notable for including the outtake ‘Bring Down The Birds’, the intro of which was used prominently in the 1990 hit ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ by Deee-Lite.  Here, as on ‘Escapade’ and ‘Cantaloop’, we can hear another artist building an entire piece on the strength of a Hancock idea.  While these pieces all cleverly transplant Hancock’s ideas to other musical settings, they don’t display the ability that Hancock shows in ‘Blind Man, Blind Man’, ‘Canteloupe Island’ and the Headhunters ‘Watermelon Man’ to reinvent and transform musical ideas. 

My tune Caves Of The Island is based on the chord changes to ‘Cantaloupe Island’, but uses a half time drum groove, different bass line and a chromatic, bebop-type melody.  (A piano chart for it, including a scale outline, is below.) I was able to give Herbie Hancock a score to the tune when I met him backstage after a performance in Burlington.  I handed him the chart, mentioned that it was a sort of bop tune, and was delighted when he began sight singing it immediately (after having played a two hour concert with no intermission!).  Like many of my tunes based on existing progressions, this tune works both on its own and as a countermelody to ‘Cantaloupe Island’.  Like many countermelodies, the line in ‘Caves of the Island’ often harmonizes with the melody to ‘Cantaloupe Island’ by moving the opposite direction from it (or in ‘contrary motion’, to use a common musical term.) 

The liner notes to Empyrean Isles, by Canadian novelist Nora Kelly, describe the album as a depiction of a fantastical remote world that includes a mysterious mountain called ‘The Egg’, the ‘mythical Oliliquoi Valley’ which casts a hypnotic power on visitors, who during their hypnosis learn a dance called the ‘One Finger Snap’.  (All these elements are represented by different songs on the album.  ‘Oliliquoi Valley’ has a possible kinship with ‘Cantaloupe Island’, as it opens on a similar – although more chromatic – F minor tonality, and its opening bassline and chord pattern is a kind of two-bar variation on that of ‘Cantaloupe’.)   I imagine ‘Caves of the Island’ as depicting part of the ‘upside down’ of Cantaloupe Island (in the sense in which that phrase is used in the Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’ to refer to a parallel world.)   

I encourage anyone reading this post to respond in the comment section with any examples they can think of where ‘remakes’ have been attempted in literature, film or music, or to post a link to a piece of their own that seeks to ‘rewrite’ an existing tune or reinvent an element of it. 

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‘Winter Sun’ – a tune on the changes to ‘Summertime’

Like George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ and W.C. Handy’s ‘Saint Louis Blues’, the song ‘Summertime’, composed in 1934 by Gershwin with lyrics by DuBose Heyward (originally for the opera Porgy and Bess), has been a standard throughout nearly all eras of jazz.  Listening to versions of this tune by great jazz players in chronological order from earliest to latest can provide a mini-history of jazz, from Sidney Bechet’s version recorded in 1939 not long after the tune’s publication, to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s version from 1958 with an arrangement using some of Gershwin’s original orchestration, to Miles Davis’ version from the same year with an arrangement by Gil Evans that epitomizes the modal jazz style (which would gain wider exposure the following year on ‘Kind of Blue’).  Herbie Hancock’s version featuring Joni Mitchell’s vocals and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica playing, from his album ‘Gershwin’s World’, demonstrates a late-twentieth-century modern jazz approach to the tune, rife with altered dominant chords.  ‘Summertime’ has also been interpreted by many artists in the wider popular music world, notably Janis Joplin whose version with Big Brother and The Holding Company casts the tune in 6/8 swing feel with baroque-style counterpoint between two guitars.  A version by Prince from a soundcheck shows his lesser-known skills with jazz piano comping and soloing.  (Prince’s posthumous autobiography, ‘The Beautiful Ones’, devotes a considerable amount of space to describing his father as a working jazz pianist.)  In Shulie-A-Bop, Sarah Vaughan uses the ‘Summertime’ chord progression as the basis for her original wordless scat vocal line which avoids referencing Gershwin’s melody.  A further development of the ‘Summertime’ chord progression can be heard in Wes Montgomery’s Four on Six, which retrofits Gershwin’s basic harmonic structure with a number of additional ii-V progressions and adds a new melody .

The chart below for my tune ‘Winter Sun’, which is also based on the chord progression of ‘Summertime’, may be played two ways.  While it can be played as a ‘two-hand comp’ (with the single note roots shown in the bass clef with ‘down stems’ played in the left hand, and the three- and four-note voicings shown higher in the bass clef in the right hand), I recommend first learning the treble-clef melody in the right hand and the three- to four-note voicings on the upper part of the bass clef in the left hand.  (In this melody and chords version, the left hand would obviously not play the roots shown lower in the bass clef along with the chords.)  I would recommend starting by learning the left hand voicings at a very slow tempo and then practicing them along with Chet Baker’s quartet version of Summertime at .75 or .5 speed on YouTube.  Baker’s version, more than most of the versions mentioned above, shows the common practice of how the tune is played in most jazz situations. To help you learn the melody, here’s a link to an informal solo piano recording of the tune from a very fun gig I played recently for the opening of The Piano Gallery, a new retail piano outlet run by piano tuners and dealers Justin and Emily Rose.  As I was playing the tune from memory on this recording, some of the voicings are different than those shown on the score; I also made a slower recording of just the melody which demonstrates the written voicings.  Like a number of my contrafact tunes, ‘Winter Sun’ also works as a countermelody to ‘Summertime’.  It also includes a reference to the melody of ‘Autumn Leaves’ (with one inverted interval) and a reference to Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic ‘Blue Skies’ solo – see if you can find them!

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An excerpt from Shirley Horn’s solo on ‘What Would A Woman Do?’ (The State of the Blues, part 5)

The great jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn was best known for her unmistakable vocal sound, her ability to re-invent songs, often at unusually slow tempos, and her ability to accompany herself on piano. She also showed herself to be an equally distinctive jazz piano soloist on the few piano instrumentals she recorded.  Horn’s recording of ‘What Would A Woman Do’, from Curtis Lewis’ ‘Garden of the Blues’ suite on her album of the same name, is a six-chorus piano solo at a moderately slow tempo that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) begin with or refer back to a composed melody.  (Horn seems to be the only artist to have recorded the tune.) I’ve chosen to transcribe the second and third choruses of this solo because they are a model of a number of concepts that make the playing of Horn and her jazz piano contemporaries, such as Wynton Kelly, so swinging.  In the first six bars of the solo we can hear a conversation between the ‘calls’ in Horn’s left hand chords and the ‘responses’ of her right-hand phrases.  Although her left hand takes on a more supportive role at other points in these two choruses when the right hand line becomes more continuous (such as m.7-8 and 10-11 and 16-17), her use of left hand voicings constantly creates a slower-moving inner line which is just as melodic in its own way as the more active line in the right hand.  Whenever the left hand moves during breaks between right hand phrases, as at m. 21-22, the distinctive voice leading in Horn’s left hand creates meaningful melodic movement.   The connection between Horn’s left hand comping and her melodic phrases in the right hand during this solo has the same breathtaking balance of melodic strength and contrapuntal independence that can be heard in her piano/vocal performances. 

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A history of the chord progression from Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’, and an original tune based on it (‘Eye On The Sky’)

I began writing this post on November 23rd, 2o19, one day after the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.  According to an interview with composer Bobby Hebb, it was that event, as well as the murder of his own brother the following day, that led him to compose his song Sunny as an antidote to the shadow these tragedies cast over his life.  ‘It was dark when I started working on the song, and the sun was rising,’ Hebb says.  ‘Everybody was feeling rather negative at that time, and I think that we all needed a lift.’  Although Hebb composed the tune in 1963,  and a version by the Japanese vocalist Mieko Hirota with pianist Billy Taylor was apparently recorded in 1965, Hebb himself did not record the song until 1966.  Besides Hebb’s version being a major hit record, and the song being recorded by many different artists, there are many jazz and pop tunes from the following decades that appear to be built from elements of the ‘Sunny’ chord progression.

In Hebb’s original recording, the song begins with four-measure, five-chord loop (Em7-G7-Cmaj7-F#m7-B7) which is expanded into a sixteen-bar form by playing the loop twice and then following a slightly different third phrase (Em7-G7-Cmaj7-F7) with a different final phrase (F#m7-B7-Em).  A version in A minor by Frank Sinatra with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (from the 1967 album ‘Francis A. and Edward K.’) expands the second chord into a ii7-bII7 progression, Gm-Gb7 (i.e. a ii-V progression with a tritone substitution for the V), and changes key only once, in contrast to the three half-step key changes in Hebb’s original.   

One of the earlier songs to borrow the ‘Sunny’ progression is Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, recorded in 1970, in which the solos are based entirely on the first four-bar phrase of the ‘Sunny’ progression, transposed to C sharp minor but  incorporating the added major ii-V progression heard on the Sinatra version. 

On the album ‘Pat Martino/Live!’, recorded in 1972, the guitarist plays an extended version of ‘Sunny’ (over ten minutes) in the same key as Sinatra in which he eliminates the half-step key changes between verses heard on vocal versions.  Keeping the song in a single key allows Martino and keyboardist Ron Thomas more flexibility to apply bebop melodic concepts in their extended solos.  Martino has reprised this arrangement of the tune a number of times, notably in a live version from 2000 with fellow guitarist John Scofield and fellow Philadelphians organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Byron ‘Wookie’ Landham. 

My tune ‘Eye On The Sky’, which uses the changes to ‘Sunny’, (a downloadble pdf chart is below) is partly inspired by Martino’s bebop approach to the tune.  Here is a link to an informal solo piano recording I made of the tune.  For those interested in learning to improvise on the changes and/or building their own line on the tune, I have also created a ‘chord line’ based on root position patterns from the tunes ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘I Can’t Get Started’.  The melody to ‘Eye On The Sky’ is what I call a ‘voicing-based line’.  I learned this concept from pianist Mike Longo’s book, The Technique of Creating Harmonic Melody for the Jazz Improviser, which shows how to build melodic lines from chord voicings that employ efficient voice leading (i.e. avoiding wide leaps and voice crossing when possible.) 

On the song If You Want Me To Stay from the 1973 album Fresh, Sly and The Family Stone move one step beyond Freddie Hubbard and base an entire tune on the first four bars of the ‘Sunny’ progression.  This song is somewhat remarkable for not having a chorus or refrain section and yet managing to avoid excessive repetitiveness through intricate variations on its opening four-bar melody phrase and the addition of horn lines more varied than the chord progression.  (The intro to the tune includes a reference to ‘Sunny’ in the guitar part.) 

Stevie Wonder recorded his own version of ‘Sunny’ (featuring a classic James Jamerson bassline) in 1968, which leads me to think he may have begun writing his 1973 song Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing by expanding the third phrase of the song’s progression.  Wonder extends the opening minor chord to two bars instead of one, keeps the extended chord from sounding static by adding a chromatically descending root, and adds a Latin accompaniment figure referred to alternately as montuno or guajeo.  In his tune Angela, recorded in 1978 (also the theme to the TV series ‘Taxi’), Bob James bases the solo changes on an eight-bar progression in which the second four-bar phrase is nearly identical to the opening phrase of ‘Sunny’. 

It seems somewhat possible that the progression for the 1980 Bill Withers/Ralph MacDonald/William Salter song Just The Two Of Us might have been devised by halving (i.e. speeding up) the harmonic rhythm of the first phrase of Sunny, so that it lasted only two bars instead of four, and then reversing the order of the two bars.  Even if this is not how the song was conceived, it is what I call a useful ‘creation myth’ – an origin story which can help one notice a resemblance between the two progressions, which can in turn help with memorizing the two songs.  Bassist Christian McBride recorded a version of this tune with his band Philadelphia Experiment, including a solo which is a great example of using bebop language in a funk context.  (Thanks to Lara Cwass for recommending this version to me.)

In her 2013 song Electric Lady, Janelle Monae moves one step beyond Sly and the Family Stone, basing an entire song on the first four measures of the ‘Sunny’ progression, but creating two distinct melodies, a lower-pitched line for the verse and a higher-pitched line for the chorus.  It is an impressive display of the composition skills of Monae and her collaborators that they manage to create a chorus which uses the same chord structure as the verse and yet remains distinctive through its melody and orchestration alone. 

Finally, Ariana Grande’s 2018 song Thank U, Next also has a chorus which uses the same chord structure as the verse, but in this song it is variation in melody and bassline which distinguishes the chorus from the verse.  The chord progression from the chorus stretches the chord progression of ‘Just The Two Of Us’ from two bars to four, and the verse uses a clever variation on the bass notes from the older song’s progression.  While none of the composers of ‘Thank U, Next’ have said they were consciously borrowing from ‘Just The Two Of Us’, there is an ironic appropriateness in a break-up song (albeit an upbeat one) having a similarity to an older song that is an anthem of a couple’s commitment to each other.  (Thanks to Sam Mark for recommending this song and pointing out its relationship to ‘Just The Two of Us’.)

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‘Outer Peace’ – a blues in G

‘Outer Peace’ is a melody line on the twelve bar jazz blues progression in G. I wrote it originally as a countermelody in an arrangement of Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison’s blues ‘Centerpiece’. Edison’s original version in A flat major is the slowest version I have heard of the tune. This is a good practice tempo or even goal tempo for ‘Outer Peace’. Edison also plays the tune as a ‘riff blues’ – a four-bar melodic phrase repeated three times over the twelve bar chord progression. A useful tool for practicing the chords to ‘Outer Peace’ is the version of ‘Centerpiece’ in G by saxophonist Scott Hamilton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. It may help to set the YouTube speed control (accessible by clicking on the gear icon at the lower right hand of the YouTube video screen) to .75 or .50. The recording opens with a chorus of piano solo by Tamir Hendelman, which gives you time to get ready to play along with the melody, and Scott Hamilton begins playing the melody on tenor saxophone at :25.

I’d also suggest using this recording to learn the melody of ‘Centerpiece’ by ear, using the way Hamilton plays the second phrase at :32 as a model. Hamilton plays the first note of the melody as a concert D, but to match Edison’s version, change this to an E; he also makes the next to last note of the phrase, on the third beat of the third bar, an F natural; to match Edison’s version, change this note to an E as well. I would play all three phrases of the melody this way, to match the three identical phrases of Edison’s version. Another good model for the tempo of for ‘Outer Peace’ is the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version of ‘Centerpiece’. Finally, here’s a link to a solo piano version of Outer Peace that I recorded, demonstrating an approach to pedaling and one way of using the scale outline to improvise a solo. I hope you enjoy learning this tune!

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‘Ella’s House of Tonic Tones’ – another tune on the solo changes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent-Up House’

I composed the tune below, ‘Ella’s House of Tonic Tones’, while teaching a class called ‘Ella-vated Improvisation’. It’s based on the ‘solo changes’ (the chords used for improvising) to Sonny Rollins’ Pent-Up House. Below you’ll find a keyboard video of me playing the tune, along with sheet music for piano, and Bb, Eb and bass clef instruments. In ‘Ella-vated Improvisation’, we studied a number of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat solos from the album ‘Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington Songbook’. On this album, in addition to singing Ellington’s tunes with lyrics, Ella functions like a horn player in the band, singing along with soli sections and improvising, both in extended solos of her own and in trading fours and twos with other soloists. Ella’s solos on ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘In A Mellow Tone’ from this album were the inspiration for the melodic line in this tune. (Thanks to Amber deLaurentis for her transcription of the ‘Satin Doll’ solo and Carly Flatau for her transcription of the ‘Mellow Tone’ solo.) ‘Ella’s House’ could be described as an imaginary Ella melody line on Rollins’ chord progression. In this sense it could also be described as a work of musical ‘fan fiction’ (the term for writing by fans of well-known books, films, etc. that creates new adventures for well-known characters. A portal to various kinds of fan fiction can be found here.) As with any piece of fan fiction, it is crucial to know the original sources that the variation is based on, so it is crucial to listen to the three tunes I linked to above before learning ‘Ella’s House’. Here is a link to a three chorus playalong at a slower tempo that will allow you to play the melody, one chorus of improvised solo and a return to the melody.

I have found Ella’s improvised solos very useful for vocalists and instrumentalists alike. Besides being very ‘playable’ instrumentally, learning to speak or sing an Ella solo with her highly evolved language of scat syllables can often show students more about how to phrase a melodic line with swing feel than traditional ways of notating articulation. (For a more advanced melodic line on these changes, check out ‘Birdhouse’.) ‘House of Tonic’ is also a reference to Charles Ives’ song ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge‘, the lyrics of which describe a river that, much like Ella’s singing, is in constant motion and yet exudes inner peace. An astute member of my class pointed out that the river in the title is actually pronounced ‘hoosatonic’. In any case, Charles Johnson’s lyrics for me provide a visual analogy for the way Ella’s voice is both captivating and medicinal: ‘what eye but wanders with thee at thy will, contented river?’ I encourage you to check out the transcribed Ella solo excerpts in my post Rhythm Changes and Trading Fours and see if these melodic shapes remind you of the river that Johnson describes.

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The Art of Duo

The following is a list of recordings by great improvisers who chose to collaborate in duo settings, often with one chord instrument (bass, guitar or piano) combined with a melody instrument (trumpet, voice, saxophone). Other duos combine two chord instruments – bass and guitar, or bass and piano. All of them are demonstrations of how great players can play an accompanying role with their instruments to the extent that traditional rhythmic accompaniment – drums or percussion – is not necessary. Duo playing is not just a specialty of virtuosic players, however; it is an essential skill for all jazz players, as it is a very typical situation in which working players find themselves, sometimes due to financial and space constraints of music venues, but also through artistic choice by performers who want to challenge themselves in a ‘less is more’ setting. I encourage you to listen to these recordings, and also to add comments mentioning great duo recordings in any style that you think should be added to this list.

Vocal / guitar duo

Ella Fitzgerald (voice) / Joe Pass (guitar) – Take Love Easy

Piano / guitar duo

Bill Evans / Jim Hall – Undercurrent

Fred Hersch (piano) / Bill Frisell (guitar) – Songs We Know

Piano/vibes duo

Gary Burton / Chick Corea – Crystal Silence

Bass / trumpet duo

Clark Terry (trumpet) / Red Mitchell (bass) – To Duke And Basie

Tenor saxophone / guitar duo

Zoot Sims (tenor saxophone) / Joe Pass (guitar) – Blues For Two

Blues for Two


Pennies From Heaven

Take Off

Vocal / bass duo

Sheila Jordan / Cameron Brown – I’ve Grown Accustomed to The Bass

Piano / bass duo

Duke Ellington / Ray Brown – This One’s for Blanton

Charlie Haden (bass) / Kenny Barron (piano) – Night and The City

Dave Holland (bass) / Kenny Barron (piano) – The Art of Conversation

Michel Petrucciani / Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – Live

Kenny Drew / NHOP – Duo Live In Concert

Hank Jones / Red Mitchell – duo

Cedar Walton / David Williams – duo

Kenny Barron / Buster Williams – Two As One

Fred Hersch / Matt Kendrick – Other Aspects

Guitar / bass duo

Jim Hall / Ron Carter – Alone Together

Trumpet / piano duo

Weather Bird – Louis Armstrong / Earl Hines

Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie

Oscar Peterson (organ) and Roy Eldridge

Saxophone / bass duo

Archie Shepp and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – Looking at Bird

Saxophone / piano duo

Kenny Barron / Stan Getz – People Time

Frank Morgan – You Must Believe In Spring

(alto sax/piano duets with Roland Hanna, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron)

Many great examples of various duet formats:

Conversations with Christian (bassist Christian McBride with many duo collaborators)

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A message from the future of jazz: Camille Thurman and her solo on ‘Sassy’s Blues’ (The State of the Blues, part four)

(The title of this post is borrowed from a video narrated by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a figure whose achievements in the political world have more than a few parallels to Camille Thurman’s achievements in the jazz world.)

Camille Thurman is a groundbreaking jazz musician in more ways than one.  Along with a small number of younger players such as Bria Skonberg and Esperanza Spalding, she is reviving the tradition of the instrumentalist who is an equally adept and serious vocalist.  Although this tradition goes at least as far back in jazz history as Louis Armstrong, it has always been somewhat rare and seems to have all but died out around the bebop era, when (at least according to most historical accounts) the chief innovations in the music were occurring in the instrumental world, leading the separation between instrumental and vocal jazz music to became even more pronounced than during the swing era.  In an NPR interview, Thurman mentions she was shocked to discover that Sarah Vaughan’s considerable skills as a pianist remained a secret during most of her vocal career:  “I remember when I first found out Sarah Vaughan was a pianist and it blew my mind away…I was like, ‘How can you just put one part of a person or an artist’s gift out there when there’s a whole person?”  (Although Vaughan was originally hired as a second pianist in the Earl Hines big band, her piano skills stayed largely out of sight during most of her vocal career.  It was only in her later years that she revealed her piano skills in live concerts such as this one and the Marian McPartland show which can be heard by clicking on Vaughan’s name above.)

As one can see by listening to Thurman’s solo on ‘Sassy’s Blues’ from her album ‘Inside The Moment’ (my transcription of the first two choruses is posted below with her permission), she is a masterful improviser who demonstrates both a deep knowledge of jazz melodic language and the ability to make it her own.  Her ability to begin phrases on the upbeat, as well as her ability to ‘make the changes’ in her solo locate her melodic language firmly within the bebop idiom. Her ability to lend an instrumental quality to her scatting and the range of syllables she chooses both give the solo a distinctly modern flair. 

In the NPR interview I mentioned above, Thurman explains that while she has been singing informally since she was a child, she began to get more serious about singing when she found it a helpful way to learn saxophone parts (during a time in her life when she received a scholarship that required her to play the saxophone.)  Each of her three albums gives a slightly different answer to the question of whether she identifies more as a vocalist or an instrumentalist; while ‘Origins’ and ‘Inside The Moment’ contain mostly instrumental pieces with the occasional vocal feature, last year’s ‘Waiting For The Sunrise’ highlights her singing on most tunes, although on many tracks Thurman alternates with seeming effortlessness between playing and singing.  This remarkable feat, combined with the album’s ballad-heavy tune choices, makes it reminiscent of the classic ‘John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’ album, but with the two masterful soloists rolled into one performer.   (Perhaps the most succinct demonstration of Thurman’s ability to alternate between the two skills is an astonishing ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ from 2013.)  I hope that Thurman might be a model for a new kind of jazz student, one who rejects the false choice between playing an instrument or singing and instead realizes that if one can develop both these skills, they can powerfully support and strengthen one another (regardless of whether or not one’s goal is to be a multi-instrumentalist.) I also hope that the increasing and increasingly visible ranks of professional female jazz instrumentalists, younger players such as Thurman, Spalding, Skonberg, Helen Sung, Linda May Han Oh and Tia Fuller as well as veterans such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Joanne Brackeen, and Jane Ira Bloom will lead aspiring female instrumentalists to stay in the game despite so many jazz scenes being male-dominated. The recently founded Women In Jazz Organization is also an important development in the jazz education scene. It is crucial that role models for female instrumentalists remain visible in the versions of the jazz world projected by the media and by educators because, as Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘It’s Hard To Be What You Can’t See.’ (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gives her own version of this statement in the video mentioned above.)

Over the past year, Thurman has made a particularly momentous and groundbreaking move; she has been appearing regularly as a tenor saxophonist and vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a group in which female instrumentalists have been historically and inexplicably absent from the roster of permanent players.  As her website biography relates, she has become ‘the first woman in 30 years to work an entire season with the world-renowned orchestra (2018-2019).’  This careful wording manages to avoid mentioning that the group has never had a female player among its regular lineup.  The group’s website mentions that it includes ‘15 of the finest soloists, ensemble players, and arrangers in jazz music today’, and many, myself included, would go further to say that it has been the leading jazz big band in the country since its inception.  In its sense of prominence and mission, including its educational work in the Essentially Ellington competition, as well as a diplomatic functions representing the U.S. in performances around the world, the JALCO is a kind of jazz parallel to the U.S. Congress.  As recently as last year, however, trumpeter Ellen Seeling, chair of the advocacy group Jazzwomen & Girls Advocates, was quoted as saying of the band that ‘“They travel the world and have for years, sending the message that there are no women good enough to be in this organization.”  In light of the JALCO’s well-earned and deserved prominence, as well as the challenge it has had with including female musicians, Thurman’s breakthrough makes her a kind of jazz parallel to both Jeanette Rankin, the senate’s first female member, and Shirley Chisholm, its first African-American female member. (Strangely, despite having played more than a season at this point with the band, Thurman is still not listed on the JALCO website among either their regular members or on their list of substitute players.)

I am a longtime fan of the JALCO and its musical director, Wynton Marsalis.  I have seen the full band twice in concert, seen Marsalis’ small group live, listened to them many more times on recordings, and have used the excellent scores from the Essentially Ellington competition with many student bands I’ve led.  In an earlier blog post, I transcribed a characteristically ingenious solo Marsalis took on ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ during his commencement speech at UVM in 2013.  I’ve also experienced Marsalis’ legendary resistance to recognizing the talent of female instrumentalists firsthand.  When a female student of mine asked him in a question and answer session at UVM around 2005 whether the quality of female jazz players in general was improving, his answer began with silent head-shaking, which was followed with a short verbal answer that boiled down to ‘No.’ 

In a Village Voice article published earlier in the decade, Marsalis’ response was somewhat more hopeful.  The article, written in 2000 by Lara Paragrenelli, first acknowledges that ‘The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra… has never had a female member’ and then goes on to quote Marsalis (I have included Paragrenelli’s interstitial comments as well): “ “I hire orchestra members on the basis of merit,” says artistic director Wynton Marsalis, implying women do not yet make the grade. “The more women we have playing jazz, the higher the level of playing gets, the more they audition, and the more women are going to be all over. It will be just like classical music.” Marsalis also cites slow turnover in the band of 15, limiting the availability of positions.”  Paragrenelli goes on to quote historian Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, who tells her that “The argument that women will eventually be good enough is very old.”

I have been thrilled and enlightened for many years by the sound of the JALCO’s performances, but in recent years I’ve increasingly noticed how it is full of age and culture diversity, symbolizes hope and excellence to many, and yet doesn’t include qualified women among its regular members, as one would expect from such a representative body.  To have noticed this imbalance, and then to see the footage on Marsalis’ website of a performance including Thurman from earlier this year, alongside the National Symphony Orchestra of Romania, carries for me a taste of the thrill humans worldwide must have felt seeing Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969.  The contrast between the Romanian group, which includes female players in every section, including multiple women among the woodwinds, and the JALCO with its single female member, dramatizes how the most recognized U.S. jazz group is just beginning to catch up to representative organizations in many fields in its gender diversity.  Marsalis and the JALCO deserve long and loud accolades for finally recognizing in a prominent way the deep well of female instrumental jazz talent that has been in existence for many years. Here’s hoping that it is a sign of many more such changes yet to come. 

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