Billy Eckstine: Rhythm in a Riff

10 Jul


The 100th anniversary of Billy Eckstine’s birthday passed this week with far less fanfare than the singer once attracted.

Once he rivaled Frank Sinatra in popularity; today he’s remembered by niche jazz audiences, if at all.

Eckstine is to music what Jim Thorpe, once voted the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century, is to sports. Today Thorpe would be lucky if he were in the top 100. Eckstine’s centennial anniversary was barely acknowledged (Sinatra’s is next year, but we don’t need to wait to know what a difference it will be).

Eckstine sang richly, played brass, dressed nattily and taught Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie in his band. He had his own nickname, Mr. B, which is how the famous disc jockey Symphony Sid referred to him. At his peak, some music historians say he was more popular than Sinatra, That should be worth more than a footnote in musical history.

But according to his biographer, Cary Ginnell, who wrote Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine, Eckstine was a victim of his success, and the bigotry of 1950 America. A magazine feature of that time included a picture showing Eckstine and his fans, who were the same demographic as those who adored Sinatra and later, Elvis and The Beatles: white teenage females.

“If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent,” said Ginnell, according to, which had one of the very few remembrances of the 100th anniversary of Eckstine’s birth. “It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation — just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”

Sinatra got that permission, starred in movies, kept singing and died still an idol to many. Eckstine’s career ebbed and he became a guest on late-night talk shows. Sinatra played leading roles and was nominated for Oscars; Eckstine appeared in a cameo on Sanford and Son. Sinatra came back again and again. Eckstine faded, unable to hold the note of his popularity.

But his example hit a high note for many.

Said Quincy Jones to Billboard magazine in 1993: “I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, pattern my whole life as a musician and as a complete person in the image of dignity that he projected …”

“I consider Billy Eckstine the Jackie Robinson of popular music,” said Ginell to “Before Billy Eckstine came along, blacks, they would either sing blues or they would be in jazz bands, or they would sing in vocal groups, like The Mills Brothers or The Ink Spots. Or as a novelty singer. But they were not permitted to enter the domain of Perry Como and Bing Crosby. And Eckstine was the first one to successfully do that.”

In 1999, an Eckstine song was honored by the Grammys, six years after he died. No word on how many got the irony of it being I Apologize.

Horace Silver: Liberated Brother

3 Jul

Horace Silver, a pianist who watched Art Tatum play and whose music was played in tribute generations later, died last month at age 85.

I once saw Silver many years ago, in a tiny club on the beach near Los Angeles. I had little more idea of how to find the club than I did of who Silver was. I knew Silver only in the vague way you know of an author and a book title you haven’t read but should — say Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove.

I didn’t know Senor Blues or Song For My Father, or that Silver had once been a Jazz Messenger, or that he had once been a saxophonist, or that his father was from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa and that the island’s influence was in Silver’s music, or that Silver had seen Tatum as a youngster and said it was “like watching and listening to a miracle in progress.” I only knew it was a bit of a miracle to see Silver smile and play in such a small club.

At the intermission I wound up in the men’s room next to a member of the band. I asked him why Silver was playing here and why now. Silver had a home locally, he said (Redondo Beach?), and sometimes wanted to get out and play. Those of us in the audience were the ones who should have been smiling even more.

I can’t remember too much more of the specifics of that evening, but every so often over the last 30 years, I would hear something Silver played that night. And smile again.

“Horace Silver’s music has always represented what jazz musicians preach but don’t necessarily practice, and that’s simplicity,” the bassist Christian McBride said, according to npr. “It sticks to the memory; it’s very singable. It gets in your blood easily; you can comprehend it easily. It’s very rooted, very soulful.”

There’s a reason for that, of course, which Silver explained when he was asked about his music and his influences in a 2003 interview with All About Jazz.

“It’s like making a stew,” Silver said. “You put all these various ingredients in it. You season it with this. You put that in it. You put the other in it. You mix it all up and it comes out something neat, something that you created.”

Above is a cut of Weldon Irvine’s song Liberated Brother off the album In Pursuit of the 27th Man. Said Scott Yanow at in his review of the album: “. . . no matter what the instrumentation, the style is pure Silver, hard-driving and melodic hard bop with a strong dose of funky soul.”

John McLaughlin: Belo Horizonte

22 Jun

Belo Horizonte is one of 12 sites for this year’s World Cup in Brazil, a city whose name means Beautiful Horizon, which seems like a good spot for the beautiful game.

Perhaps not to the English, whose team was eliminated there in the 1950 World Cup by the United States — musically, this would be somewhat akin to the Monkees outperforming the Beatles — and whose team returns there Tuesday for the first time since, having already been eliminated from this one.

If the World Cup brings attention to the city, perhaps it could trickle down to the album of the same name by English guitarist John McLaughlin, which is beautiful music, as the title track of the album above demonstrates.

The album was released in 1981, shortly before Friday Night In San Francisco, which featured McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola. de Lucia plays on Belo Horizonte — the last song is dedicated to him — but all of the songs are written by McLaughlin and the band is mostly French.

“Belo features some of the best compositions John McLaughlin has ever written,” wrote Walter Kolosky in a 2002 review of the album. “It also showcases some of the most unbelievable acoustic guitar playing ever put onto record. ‘Stardust On Your Sleeve’ should be required listening for anyone who wants to know what a brilliant guitarist can do with his instrument. It is an outstanding piece that ranks among the higher moments of guitar history. This is not hyperbole. McLaughlin is literally able to bend time. Missing this tune would truly deprive you of a great pleasure in your life.”

John Kelman, reviewing for the same website two years later, called the album, “one of McLaughlin’s most enduring works.” He went on to talk about lightning-fast runs — those of McLaughlin’s, not on the pitch — and said “while undoubtedly influenced by the music of Brazil, (Belo Horizonte) also reflected a Mediterranean disposition and a new-found lyricism.” (A good formula for music, not bad for football).

“Belo Horizonte demonstrates another side of McLaughlin that, at the time, came as a bit of a surprise,” Kelman wrote. “Pat Metheny once said that ‘McLaughlin has changed the evolution of the guitar at least three times,’ and it is clear that refreshed, reinvigorated and relocated, he did it once again with Belo Horizonte, an album that sounds as fresh and important today as it did twenty-three years ago.”

Paco de Lucia: Playa Del Carmen

28 Feb
Paco de Lucia: Zyryab

Paco de Lucia said the 1990 album Zyryab, with pianist Chick Correa, is one of his few albums that he liked. It’s named for a Persian poet-musician of the eighth and ninth centuries. From “Zyryab —blackbird— nickname given to the Baghdadi-Cordoban Abu Al-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi who lived between the years of 789 and 857 AD and decisively influenced the development of traditional Arab music on the Iberian peninsula. To him are credited, variously: the invention of the plectrum using the front feathers of an eagle; adding the fifth string to the lute; and the establishment of a music school, which was without precedent. He is traditionally considered to have been the father of the music of Al Andalus, music that brought together the wisdom of that magnificent cultural melting pot.”

Paco de Lucia died this week of a heart attack at age 66, while on vacation in Mexico.

de Lucia was a Spanish Flamenco guitarist whose varied collaborations were reflected in the Facebook tributes: from jazz bassists Christian McBride and Charlie Haden to rock bassist and singer/song writer Jack Bruce (Cream) and many others.

Said pianist Chick Corea, according to the New York Times’ obit: “Paco inspired me in the construction of my own musical world as much as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or Bartok and Mozart.”

In 1981, de Lucia played on the album Friday Night in San Francisco with fellow guitarists John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, which jazz critic Walter Kolosoky called “a musical event that could be compared to the Benny Goodman Band’s performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938 … [it] may be considered the most influential of all live acoustic guitar albums.”

It introduced de Lucia to a new audience, much of it here in the States. But as he was being discovered by it, he was also being criticized “by flamenco die hards for his forays into other styles,” according to his website,, much as Dylan was when he went electric at Newport or Miles when he went fusion.

Said de Lucia, in a 2004 interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, according to the New York Times: “I am a purist within my aura of revolutionary, vanguardist or creator. I’m still a purist because I have always respected what I think is respectable. What I have is not the obedience the purists continue to have, but the respect for the essence, the old, the valid. Memory.”

(The original interview is in Spanish; we’re going to trust the Times’ translation).

According to, de Lucia’s final album will be released, posthumously in April. From the website: “This work, dedicated to the copla, the traditional Spanish song, will, without a doubt, be one last revolution.”

The cut below is from de Lucia’s 1990 album Zyryab. de Lucia on the album, in a 2012 interview with the Associated Press, according to his obit on “I am a perfectionist — sometimes it’s sick. I don’t like any of my albums. The ones I like, I mean, that I can stand to hear are Siroco and Zyryab, possibly because they are more flamenco and among the purest in my career.”

Sonny Rollins: Don’t Stop The Carnival

10 Jan

Jazz made an appearance last month on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. You can blame (or credit) the writer Ishmael Reed for this rare foray into the intellectual high-rent district.

Reed opined on jazz and cool and President Obama, and how the latter has it, and how the musicians both Reed and Obama watched at a 2013 event at the San Francisco Jazz Center had it, too.

The op-ed is unabashedly partisan: after all, JFK pardoned pianist Hampton Hawes, Jimmy Carter had Dizzy Gillespie over to the White House to sing Salt Peanuts and Obama honored Sonny Rollins.

Republicans and jazz? Well, Louis Armstrong, who famously said, “I don’t get involved in politics, I just blow my horn,” made one exception. He called Dwight Eisenhower “two-faced” and said Eisenhower had “no guts.” Less than a week later, the commander of World War II sent troops to Little Rock, Ark. Reed said Armstrong wasn’t cool until he was hot. Then he was cool.

Politics aside, Reed paid tribute in the piece to Rollins, now 83 and who made the Willamsburg Bridge famous.

“Like the president, cool musicians carried themselves with a regal bearing,” wrote Reed. “Some members of the generation before them had to engage in minstrel-like antics to make a living. Cool musicians demanded respect, and when attacked didn’t blow up, but, like the president, responded stoically. One of (Obama’s) favorite words is ‘persistence,’ the attitude of his hero, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the greatest surviving bebopper.”

In 2011, as Reed noted, Obama awarded Rollins the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, along with Quincy Jones and James Taylor. But among even those, Obama cited Rollins as an “inspiration.” That was cool.

“I speak personally here,” Obama said “because there are people here whose works shaped me. I’ve got these thumbworn editions of these works of arts, and these old records from when they were still vinyl, Sonny, before they went digital, that helped inspire me, or get me through a tough day, or take risks that I might not otherwise have taken, and I think what’s true for me is true for everyone here and true for our country.”

Reed is the poet laureate of the San Francisco Jazz Center, and his poem, When I Die I Will Go To Jazz is on one of the building’s walls.

The residents of Jazz are
Bopping in the aisles
As Diz and Bird swap
Fours with Miles
And spare me the sounds
Of celestial harmonics

I prefer something like
Jazz at the Philharmonic
Jumping with my boy Sid
In the city

That’s cool, too.

John Coltrane: Greensleeves

25 Dec

The song Greensleeves can be traced back more than 500 years, got a few mentions in Shakespeare and became a Christmas carol called What Child Is This in the 19th century, with words penned by William Chatterton Dix.

More recently, it made it into the 1962 movie How The West Was Won. That’s a journey of a few centuries and thousands of miles: from Elizabethan England to 20th-century Hollywood.

We can guess that no one made the song — whatever the name or origins — sound like John Coltrane, whose quartet played it on the 1961 album Africa Brass. It’s also included on the live Complete 1961 Village Vanguard recordings.

From Steve Greenlee’s 2007 review, on the latter: “Coltrane’s jukebox-friendly interpretation of the show tune My Favorite Things has always overshadowed his overhaul of the English folk song Greensleeves, also known as the Christmas song What Child Is This? but this is the superior performance. This wasn’t the first time he recorded it, but he really nailed it here. The first few notes out of Coltrane’s sax come crashing down more than an octave as he states the melody once and then sends it caroming all over the place, augmenting its simple beauty with squeals and phrases that seem gorgeously out of place.”

Click the link above to listen.

And Merry Christmas.

Yusef Lateef: The Plum Blossom

24 Dec

Yusef Lateef was born in the final months Woodrow Wilson was president; he died this week in the first year of the second term of the first African-American president, 93 years later.

Lateef’s life spanned 17 presidents, his music spanned the globe. Born William Huddleston in Tennessee, he died Yusef Lateef, his last name meaning gentle or kind, in Massachusetts, having migrated by way of Detroit in the ’20s (Coolidge).

Lateef, according to a 2006 (Bush II) Ottawa Citizen article by Doug Fischer, said “Islam has a saying that life from the cradle to the grave should be a search for knowledge.” Lateef’s was, as his listeners know.

Lateef released his first album as a leader in 1957 (Eisenhower); his most recent in 2012 (Obama), 55 years later. He converted to Islam in the early ’50s (Truman) and twice made a pilgrimmage to Mecca; musically he explored the globe.

From the late Gil Scott-Heron’s song Plastic Pattern People off the 1970 album (Nixon) Small Talk at 125th and Lennox:

“The third world arrives, with Yusef Lateef, and Pharaoh Sanders.
With oboes straining to touch the core of your unknown soul.”

Lateef didn’t always idenitfy himself as a jazz musician, but as an “autophysiopsychic” musician. He played tenor sax, flute, oboe, bassoon and instruments from around the world which he learned about in his musical travels. “He played world music before world music had a name,” wrote Peter Keepnews in his New York Times obit Wednesday.

In 1980 (Carter) Lateef stopped performing in clubs where alcohol was served. ““Too much blood, sweat and tears have been spilled creating this music to play it where people are smoking, drinking and talking,” he told the Boston Globe in 1999 (Clinton), according to Keepnews’ story.

In Lateef’s own words, from his website: “When the soul looks out of its body, it should see only beauty in its path. These are the sights we must hold in mind, in order to move to a higher place. Time after time in our hearts and soul we find love. No static, no pain – so pure, so happy to be alive. Waves of love consume us. We find no hatred – just love for all.”

The link above is from Lateef’s 1961 (Kennedy) album Eastern Sounds; Lateef plays a Chinese flute on the piece.


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