Blind Willie McTell and 1928

9 Nov

A local public radio station has spent the last few week promoting a contest to determine the greatest year in music, a silly if fun exercise trying to measure that which is unmeasurable.

Their on-air, and maybe off-, personalities have volleyed back and forth, like dueling jazz saxophonists trying to woo the audience, on whether Dylan’s Highway 61 (1965, ninth) is greater than Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991, 13th) which is greater than Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979, 15th) which is greater than Prince’s 1999 (1982, 19th).

The winning year was 1969 (The Who’s Tommy, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, The Doors’ Soft Parade, The Band, Abbey Road), which no doubt didn’t offend the sensibilities of any of the Baby Boomers who are the dominant audience demographic. It’s safe to say 1969 didn’t win for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Don Cherry’s Mu or Jan Garbarek’s debut album as a leader, Esoteric Circle.

Instead of The Greatest Year in Music, it was really The Greatest Year of the Music We Listen To, and 1969 was selected for the same reason political viewers watch either MSNBC or Fox: it reinforces what they already think they know.

It’s akin to the sports fan of a certain generation who thinks Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete ever, because ESPN did a documentary on him. If Jackie Robinson (baseball MVP, major-college football player, Olympic-caliber track athlete) was as good, he’d have been featured. To say nothing of Jim Thorpe.

We’re the product of the times we live; I grew up not listening to Sinatra or Billy Eckstine or Louis Jordan because who would want to when The Kinks had a new album. Forget about Duke Ellington or Tchaikovsky.

Roll over Beethoven indeed.

There wasn’t much support for 1959, which jazz historians identify as that genre’s greatest year (Miles’ Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Horace Silver’s Blowin’ The Blues Away or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come) or 1824 (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) or 1875 (Carmen).

I’m not sure what’s the greatest year for music or even the greatest generation for it, but my favorite vote in the aforementioned contest was author/record producer Josh Rosenthal’s. He chose 1928.

That year had as much chance of winning as Al Smith did of beating Herbert Hoover in the ’28 presidential election (and look how that turned out). But Rosenthal’s essay (link here) wins by a landslide.

“… in 100 or 1000 years, if there are still human ears to hear,” wrote Rosenthal, “the distance between the earliest blues, country and jazz recordings and the music of the 60’s, or of today, will become so compressed that the seemingly wide chasm between 1928 and 1969 will become non-existent. There are only 39 years separating Zep’s ‘The Lemon Song’ and Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor.’ The distance between this week’s new Neon Indian record and Led Zeppelin’s debut is 46 years. Yet, presumably because of its scratchy, archaic recording quality, Skip’s song seems ancient, while Zeppelin’s seems perfectly modern and relevant.

“So stop your dismissive harrumphing when I state that 1928 was the best year in recorded music history.”

Maybe it was, because of Jimmie Rodgers and Tommy Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt or the Carter Family or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Blind Willie McTell or Charlie Poole or Lonnie Johnson, all of whom Rosenthal linked to and only some of whom most of us know,  or because of Ellington’s The Mooche or Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, whom he didn’t.

As Rosenthal wrote in introducing Blind Willie McTell: “As Dylan said, no one sings the blues like BWM (except maybe Tommy Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.”)

I’m not sure whether Rosenthal is right or wrong, or if there is such a determination to be made. But music is infinite, and nothing against 1969, which may have been a great year for music and for the Mets, but I’d rather learn about Charlie Poole than listen to that which I’ve already heard over and over and over.

Steely Dan: Things I Miss the Most

3 Aug

Streely Dan: Everything Must Go

To date, Everything Must Go is the most recent Steely Dan album of new work, released 12 years ago.

Steely Dan is in town tonight, which you’d know if you listened to the oldies station.

If you’re a longtime fan, that should be as arresting as the first notes of Kid Charlemagne. Steely Dan, which once sang about the most unsavory of characters, is now promoted on the most normal of stations.

It’s as if there’s a romance novel in the hidden papers of Hunter S. Thompson. Or as if Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch is a racist.

Somebody’s not reeling in the years, because they’ve completely lost track of them.

There’s a  clear demarcation in the Dan’s work, and the after part has become the norm. That’s unfortunate.

In the first decade, they were about defiance and rebellion and the underside; beginning with Aja and for 30 years after, they’ve been music to move a shopping cart to. The Dan went from non-conformity to acceptance to a a reserved seat at the head table. Sort of like John McEnroe at Wimbledon.

Their second act may be enduring, but I’ll take Don’t Take Me Alive over Hey Nineteen.

Steely Dan concerts — tonight is No. 5 personally, but the first by Groupon — are usually mixed: some of the post-reunion collaborations, dabs of Becker’s and Fagan’s solo work, not enough early stuff, too much Aja and even more Gaucho. More fans perk up when they hear the introduction to Babylon Sisters and Deacon Blues than they do to King of the World, and the reaction from the oldest of fans is akin to that of seeing someone reading a trashy novel on public transportation: at least they’re reading, or listening.

Maybe Haitian Divorce will register.

Woody Allen recently said he’s not too old to do his best work at 79, and maybe neither are Becker and Fagan  at 65 and 67. It’s hard to know since they haven’t released a new album in more than a decade.

That’s OK, though. They’ve already done Pretzel Logic, Royal Scam and Katy Lied. Or Countdown To Ecstasy. And that’s plenty good enough.

Joe Bonner: Impressions of Copenhagen

15 Dec
Joe Bonner New Beginnings

Joe Bonner’s album New Beginnings

Joe Bonner died at age 66 last month, and if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve probably never heard his best-known song Impressions of Copenhagen.

There aren’t one-hit wonders in jazz, but Bonner was most-easily recognized by his beautiful song about a beautiful city.

The 1981 album of the same name sold 35,000 copies in its first printing, according to a piece on Bonner’s death at the blog, but good luck to anyone searching for any of Bonner’s other albums. I know, because I did, and I spent more nights in Copenhagen (two) than I found additional Bonner albums (one) in the bargain bins in the 33 years since.

Joe Bonner

Joe Bonner at the piano, from the inside cover of New Beginnings

Bonner is only the second-most famous pianist born in Rocky Mount, N.C., behind Thelonious Monk. It’s indicative of Bonner’s lack of fame and appeciation that Monk is listed as a notable resident on Rocky Mount’s Wikipedia page, but Bonner is not.

But the pianist Bonner was most often compared to was not Monk but McCoy Tyner. Scott Yanow’s review of Impressions of Copenhagen said Bonner’s piano playing was “McCoy Tyner-inspired.” Bonner’s admittedly biased drummer, Tom Tilton, even felt Bonner surpassed Tyner. “Joe Bonner has all the power of McCoy, he has all the capability of McCoy, but he’s so much more romantic,” Tilton said, according to “I mean, I’ve been there time after time where there were tears running down people’s faces when he would play a ballad. He could captivate a room like nobody I’ve ever experienced before.”

Bonner did most of his playing over the last two decades in Denver, where he was beloved and appreciated. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper was a Bonner fan. “He was without question, the most talented piano player I’ve ever heard,” the governor told the website in a remembrance of Bonner. “… I want people to know that I loved Joe Bonner.”

On the inside cover of the CD version of New Beginnings, is a poem by Devorah Major:

some nights
ivory keys
must echo through his dreams
while the wooden piano frame
creaks inside his belly
waking him up, demanding to be played

Below is a link to Bonner’s Impressions of Copenhagen. Wrote Yanow: “Bonner is an underrated talent, and this is one of his finest recordings,” and he’s right on both counts.

Jack Bruce: Folk song

27 Oct

Eric Clapton was the most famous musician in the band Cream, though Jack Bruce supplied more of the voice and the music. In rock and roll, fame can apparently be a fickle mistress.

The band lasted 18 months and made four albums, which were good enough for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which makes Cream the Sandy Koufax of its genre.

Bruce did 14 solo albums, the last just seven months ago, and collaborated with countless big-names with differing styles. Yet most of the news of Bruce’s death this weekend focused on his time with Cream or his place among bass guitarists, which was pretty high. Folks who wouldn’t know a bass guitar from an air guitar said Bruce was the best ever, although Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who knows a thing or two about bass guitar, said Bruce was “the most gifted bass player who’s ever been,” according to Rolling Stone. That’s credible.

But Bruce could leave his bass in the corner, as he does on the link above, play the piano, put music to Pete Brown’s words and produce a beautiful song.

That his weren’t as popular as Clapton’s, or a lot of lesser musicians, is one of the disconnects of art. Popularity often has little to do with quality.

“Bruce slowly disappears from rock history over the following decades,” wrote Neil McCormick in a appreciation of Bruce for the Telegraph. “He made a lot of music in a lot of different set ups, but none of it made much of a commercial impact. … He was probably too esoteric for his own good, shifting his musical attention too often, never really pinning his flag to any particular post.

“In a way, he was too famous and too restlessly creative just to become a bit player in another band, but too musically complex for the mainstream.”

Away from the mainstream can be a fertile place to listen. Songs For a Tailor, Harmony Row and Out of The Storm were all quality work, done in the aftermath of Cream’s breakup (Harmony Row, if I had to pick one, without conviction; Bruce cited it as his favorite in the liner notes of the 2003 re-release). Folk Song, the link above to a solo Bruce performance of it, is from Harmony Row.

From Joe Viglione’s review of the album: “Harmony Row is the album that combines many flavors of Bruce’s experimentations, making it courageous, adventurous, and hardly the product for a mass audience. “Folk Song” is barely a folk song; it is a progressive pop tune with that elegant, Procul Harum-like, sweeping, mystical statement. … it’s a song which should have made him the darling of underground FM radio.”

It didn’t make him a darling, and it barely made him an acquaintance. Songs for a Tailor, which was released first, reached No. 55 and Out of The Storm No. 160, but Harmony Row barely sold any at all; it didn’t even crack the charts (I’m sure my copy came from the discount bin with a cutout in the side and the store was happy to get$1.99 or $2.99 instead of nothing at all).

And maybe that’s why it was Bruce’s favorite. It wasn’t popular to a wide audience, but it was wildly so for the small one it reached.

From on the album’s cover: “‘Harmony Row’ was a street of slums, now demolished, close to where Jack spent part of his childhood (in Glasgow). The building pictured was famous for being the longest unbroken tenement in Europe, at just over one mile long.”

Miles Davis: All Blues

7 Aug

The jazz group Mostly Other People Do The Killing is recording Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and The Jazz Times asked: “What’s Your Take?”

My take? Why bother? If you want to hear Kind of Blue, there’s plenty of ways to hear Miles Davis and his group do it.

I don’t get the point of cover bands or tributes. They’re music’s version of decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer. The real thing is better and has the intended impact.

Good for MOPDK if they want to play Kind of Blue, and good for the group for bringing attention to the album. But why settle for a copy when you can get the original?

Said Quincy Jones, according to Ashley Kahn’s book on the album, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece: “I play Kind of Blue every day—it’s my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday.”

You think Jones wants some artificial orange drink instead? Kind of Blue is 55 years old. If Quincy Jones hears the copy rather than Miles, he’ll be likely to spit out whatever he’s drinking as if it was 55 years old.

It may be that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And that the album is meant as tribute. But if they copy it note for absolute note, timed to the tenth of a second, it’s no more jazz than Kenny G. Doesn’t that miss the point of the music?

I’m not sure how Miles would feel about it, whether he’d be flattered or slighted.

My guess? He’d turn his back on it.

That’s good enough for me.

The link above is to All Blues, song one on side two of the album. From “‘All Blues’ was a live staple throughout much of Davis’ career, and it’s easy to see why – the tune is built upon the melodic brilliance of Davis’ trumpet, which even Coltrane fails to upstage during his solo. ‘All Blues’ is also a testament to Jimmy Cobb’s light, fluid drumming, a rather unsung hero of the Kind of Blue sessions, but a most vital member of the group.”

Idris Muhammad: Kabsha

4 Aug

Idris Muhammad died last month at age 74 and the bassist Christian McBride asked shortly thereafter: “Does anyone realize what a true drum hero this man was?”

Apparently not, if the dearth of news — from points other than Muhammad’s native New Orleans — was any indication.

The careers of some jazz musicians, like Dave Brubeck and Charlie Haden, are appropriately celebrated. Others, like Muhammad, are barely acknowledged widely, the acclaim faint, like a note not played loudly enough.

Muhammad was 16, and still known as Leo Morris when he played with Fats Domino on Blueberry Hill. In the next half century he accompanied scores of jazz musicians, led his own band, delved into funk and R&B, produced Turn This Mutha Out and grew to appreciate hip-hop, according to an interview Muhammad did with

“Even though hip-hop musicians appropriate your music? And you’re not necessarily getting paid for it?,” he was asked by interviewer Eothen Alapatt.

Answered Muhammad: “It don’t really belong to me, man; I’m only the creator. If you take something I create, and you do something with it, then someone else will take it and move it to another stage. And this is what happened with hip-hop. This is in my aura. I’m doing stuff for people to put out there so people can grab it. The gift the Creator has given me, I can’t be selfish with. If I keep it in my pocket, it’s not going to go anyplace. It doesn’t matter if a guy stole from me. I’d say, ‘Well, what did you do? Okay, let me show you this.’ This is how I live.”

The New Orleans radio host George Ingmire said he’d put Muhammad on his “Mount Rushmore of New Orleans drummers along with Smokey Johnson, Johnny Vidacovich and Herlin Riley,” according to

It might be worth checking the other three out, especially since New Orleans gave us Muhammad, and in no particular order Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, the Marsalises and Louis Armstrong. Muhammad said in the interview his father played his banjo with the latter.

Said Muhammad, in an interview with, on his music: “Well, you see, man, it don’t belong to us. Secretly, whatever you have is gonna come out anyhow. If you think you are hiding something—you have a private vault that you have stuff in—when you leave this world your wife is going to open it up and sell everything. She’s gonna sell everything in that vault! It’s gonna come out anyway. So why not be free with it while you’re here and share it with other people? ’Cause it don’t belong to you.”

Kabsha, the cut above, is from Muhammad’s 1980 album of the same name. From the review by’s Scott Yanow: “Muhammad, who had often been heard in funky or more commercial settings, really excels in this sparse setting, showing off what he learned from hearing bands in his native New Orleans.”

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.


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