Archive | November, 2011

Cecil Payne: Bringing Up Father

27 Nov

Remembering saxophonist Cecil Payne on the anniversary of his death at age 84 in 2007.

Payne was rarely a band leader, but that hardly meant he was a follower. He was well-known and well-regarded as a sideman for several musicians, perhaps most famously for Brooklyn childhood friend Randy Weston (but also Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and others).

When he was younger, Payne’s parents, according to Wikipedia, had hoped he would pursue a career in medicine, particularly dentistry. Payne pointed out that his name, Dr. Payne, wouldn’t be the best way to build a practice.

Payne brought plenty of joy with his saxophone, and built a surplus of karma when he needed it most. As he aged into his 70s, Payne’s sight faded because of glaucoma, according to jazzfoundation.org, and he grew increasingly reclusive.

Able only to reach the corner 7-11, he subsisted for more than a year on “two cans of Slim-Fast and a package of M&Ms a day,” according to the website.

A representative of the Jazz Foundation of America talked Payne into allowing Meals on Wheels to deliver: “I forgot greens were green,” Payne said, according to the website.

Payne returned to performing before he died of cancer less than a month before his 85th birthday.

 “Cecil Payne was one of the truly great human beings on this Earth,” wrote Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America. “His positive attitude and his endlessly optimistic nature, no matter how bad things were, always got you a, ‘It is what it is’ and ‘Everything is everything’ and never a complaint or a negative word was uttered from his mouth. The Earth is a little emptier from his passing.”

sources: bittersuiteband.com, wikipedia.org, jazzfoundation.org, allaboutjazz.com

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Dr. John: How Come My Dogs Don’t Bark (When You Come Around)

21 Nov

Birthday greetings to Dr. John, born Malcolm Rebennack, who celebrates No. 71 today.

Rebennack was a guitar player known by his given name until two events in the 1960s altered his course: a gun accident injured a finger and detoured him to the piano, and he changed his name to the identity that would soon make him famous. His namesake was John Montaigne, a 19th-century doctor, whose treatments apparently were more in line with voodoo than the American Medical Association. The first Dr. John was once arrested, according to Tom Aswell’s Louisiana Rocks: The True Genesis of Rock and Roll, for prostitution, with a woman named Pauline Rebennack. The modern-day Dr. John, according to Aswell, thought the surname too much of a coincidence to overlook.

Most casual music lovers know Dr. John for 1973’s Right Place Wrong Time, but he never lost touch with his roots as Malcolm Rebennack, or as a session player (on Rickie Lee Jones’ debut 1979 album, for example, Rebennack — not Dr. John, who was by then famous — is one of six listed keyboards players).

“Doc has been my name all my life, and John is my middle name. I’m proud of all my names — Malcolm John Michael Creaux Rebennack,” Dr. John said in an interview on npr.org. “I’m proud of them names.”

Dr. John once said, in a Rolling Stone interview with Andy Greene, he always liked Johnny Cash because Cash “remembered my real name. Not many people do.”

In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s enshrined as Dr. John, although his bio pays homage to his given name. His 2011 induction was the right place at the right time.

“See, I don’t know nothing about singing,” he told npr. “I never wanted to be a frontman. Frontmen had big egos and was always crazy and aggravating. I just never thought that was a good idea.”

Ideas, Dr. John had, most of them provided by his native New Orleans, and many of them outlandish. But he attracted attention not just for the show, but for the substance of the music, too.

“. . . many are the coats,” wrote Ashley Kahn, in an essay that originally appeared in the program from the 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induiction program, “he’s worn: riff-master, R&B guitarist and boogie-woogie piano professor. Psychedelic voodoo rock shaman and stately New Orleans musical ambassador. Bandleader of top-tier talent and A-list sessionman/producer. Player of downhome blues and singer of uptown jazz standards. ‘Ain’t no difference,’ Dr. John said of himself a few years back. ‘It’s all one sucka in there however you want to break it down . . . ‘ ”

Dr. John was music’s Dr. J long before Julius Erving became basketball’s. He’s still going, of course. Asked by Greene about retirement, Dr. John said: “I think it’s only proper that I play until the last note of a set, then fall over and die. The band won’t have to play an encore and they’ll still get paid for a gig.”

sources: npr.org, answers.com, nitetripper.com, rollingstone.com, rockhall.com

Gordon Lightfoot: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

17 Nov

Birthday greetings to folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, who celebrates No. 73 today.

Lightfoot’s birthday falls exactly one week after the 36th anniversary of the event memorialized in one of his most famous songs: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship, which for 17 years carried iron ore across the Great Lakes, sank during a storm on Nov. 10, 1975 in the Canadian waters of Lake Superior; all 29 members of its crew perished.

The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Lightfoot read about the disaster in Newsweek magazine, according to multiple accounts, and put the events to words and music. “Of the hundreds of songs he’s written,” wrote Bill DeYoung in 2010 on connectsavannah.com, “Lightfoot is most proud of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which uses the structure of an old Scottish folk tune to tell the true story of a bulk freighter that sank on Lake Superior . . .”

Lightfoot is even more proud of it now than ever. Because in 2010, aided by new evidence, he updated history. The original words to the song included lyrics that, thanks to the inquiry, implied some fault on the part of the crew:

At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in,
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.’ ”

A 2010 History Channel documentary (Dive Detectives) cleared the crew of fault, and Lightfoot changed the lines, in live appearances according to torontosun.com, to:

“At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said,
‘Fellas it’s been good to know ya.’ ”

“. . . I’ve been in touch with these people for years,” Lightfoot said, acording to the Sun. “The mother and the daughter of two of the deck guys who would have been in charge of that have always cringed every time they’ve heard the line. And they will be very pleased. And they know about it and they’re very happy about it.”

According to the website Lightfoot.ca, the official inquiry had blamed “human error, saying the rear hatches had not been properly closed.” Thanks to the documentary, the wreck is now blamed on more natural causes — its “most likely cause . . . was a rogue wave, a giant wall of water that could have toppled the ship,” according to the website.

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.

Much of  what happened that night is a mystery. The ship sent no radio calls of distress. No bodies were ever found. The legend lives on, as Lightfoot wrote about Superior, for many only from Lightfoot’s haunting account. 

They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

In 1995, the ship’s bell was found, and it is displayed at a Michigan museum, according to the website ssefo.com. Each year on Nov. 10, according to the website, the bell is rung 30 times — once for every man who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald, and once for everyone ever lost in wrecks on the Great Lakes.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Sources: wikipedia.org, ssefo.com, connectsavannah.com, torontosun.com, lightfoot.ca, findagrave.com, markandwalt.com

Neil Young: Far From Home

12 Nov
Neil Young's album Prairie Wind

Neil Young's 2005 album Prairie Wind

Birthday greetings to singer/song writer Neil Young, who celebrates No. 66 today.

Young comes by his song writing abilities naturally — his father Scott was a prolific writer, and authored books at the pace Neil has produced albums. Among the elder Young’s 45 books were A Writer’s Life (1994) and Neil and Me (1984), the latter, obviously, about his relationship with his rock star son.

Scott Young’s newspaper career began at age 18, according to Wikipedia, when he was hired in Winnipeg as a copy boy in 1936; he died at age 87 in 2005.

“Reporters today, with degrees in everything from journalism to law, wouldn’t recognize the way into journalism that shaped my life and the lives of others,” the elder Young wrote in A Writer’s Life, according to Neil Davidson’s 1997 story on sportsmediacanada.ca. “I worked six nights a week from six till two in the morning. If anyone wanted a paste pot cleaned, or a page of a story rushed to the city desk or a sandwich from across the street . . . he (it was always a ‘he’ in those days) simply called ‘Boy’ and I ran.”

He left the Winnipeg Free Press in 1941, according to his obit at the star.com, when an editor told him, “You will never be worth more than $25 a week to the Winnipeg Free Press.” Before the year was over, Young broke the story of a 1941 escape by German prisoners from a POW camp; he was 23.

“I’m amused today remembering how I self-promoted myself because of that story,” Young said in a 1994 interview available at cbc.ca. “I wasn’t about to do some fantastic newspaper job and let the world just not know about it.

“One of the favorite events in my life was when Charley Bruce . . . he was running (Canadian Press) at that time . . . he sent me this message . . . Did I want some help? Should he send another reporter? Something like that. And I replied something like, ‘The Star has just added two or three men and the Winnipeg Free Press is here and I added two or three more opposition people who had come in and I wound it up by saying, ‘But I do not feel outnumbered.’ And Charley sent the message back, ‘Struggle manfully on.’ ”

Scott Young did more than that for years; besides his books, he was renowned for his coverage of hockey, in print and on Hockey Night In Canada broadcasts. “Several generations of Canadians have grown up reading Scott Young. Reading his books, reading his columns, and reading more of his books,” Davidson wrote.

Later generations grew up listening to Scott Young’s son, who had a similar impact. And now Neil Young plans to write his own autobiography, to be released next year. “I felt like writing books fit me like a glove,” he said according to the nationalpost.com.

Naturally. According to Davidson, the younger Young was once asked to name his favorite writer. The answer should have been obvious.

sources: wikipedia.org, neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.org, cbc.ca, sportsmediacanada.ca, thestar.com, nationalpost.com

Rickie Lee Jones: On Saturday afternoons in 1963

8 Nov
Rickie Lee Jones album The Evening of My Best Day

Rickie Lee Jones' 2003 album The Evening of My Best Day

Birthday greetings to singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who celebrates No. 57 today.

She’s more than three decades past Chuck E.’s In Love, but no less cool than when she posed for that first album cover, beret on tilted head, mini-cigar in mouth, a few strands of hair falling over her eye. And though Chuck E. might not have really been in love with the little girl singing this song, a lot of album-buyers were. Including this one.

(According to wikipedia, in real life Chuck E. wasn’t in love with Rickie Lee, who added that line to the end of the song. Literary license).

Over the years she’s been compared to various artists, but none fit. Only Rickie Lee could make music sound like a poetry reading (or vice versa), only Rickie Lee could make one note sound so soft and the next so sultry, only Rickie Lee could make you cry to Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying. If On The Road was a generation later, Kerouac would have been writing paens to Rickie Lee Jones.

“She’s got a smoky saxophone voice, and she also sounds like a little girl, and she’s dealing with very dark things. I find it an irresistible combination,” Emilylou Harris told the New York Times in 2008.

(On a personal note, I bought a CD player a decade after mostly everyone else only because I couldn’t get Jones’ 1993 album Traffic From Paradise on vinyl; I spent $10 on the CD and $150 on the player, and still consider the $10 the money better spent. Rickie Lee’s Stewart’s Coat, off that same album, was one of two songs that was part of my wedding; by the time she got to Just give me many chances, I’ll see you through it all, Just give me time to learn to crawl, the groom’s eyes were moist).

Her life in song and out is well-chronicled — from running away from home to Chuck E. Weiss to Tom Waits to the substance abuse to motherhood to today. Here’s hoping she remembers the words she penned  so long ago for that very first album’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 (link below):

So hold on to your special friend
Here, you’ll need something to keep her in:
“Now you stay inside this foolish grin . . .”
Though any day your secrets end
Then again
Years may go by

Sources: rickieleejones.com, nytimes.com, vanityfair.com, wikipedia.org

Art Tatum: Humouresque

5 Nov
Art Taum

Art Tatum's 1992 compilation: Piano Genius

Remembering pianist Art Tatum on the day of his death 55 years ago.

It’s hard to say which is greater — the quality of Tatum’s piano playing, the obstacles he overcame to attain it, or the many stories — even if they’re apocryphal — of the respect of his peers.

Tatum was born in 1909; by the age of four, according to npr.org, he had lost “most of his sight;” he read music as he grew up by Braille. You couldn’t tell it by Tatum’s playing or the reaction to it. Praise and adoration were as commonplace as encores, even from those more used to accepting the former than bestowing them.

It’s possible, over the years, that the anecdotes paying homage to Tatum have been exaggerated or fabulized. Which makes the appreciation of his fellow players no less credible.

Consider:

  • Fats Waller — one of Tatum’s early influences — was performing in the ’30s when he saw Tatum walk into the club, according to a Tatum biography at duke.edu. Said Waller to the audience: “I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight.”
  • A young Oscar Peterson was so discouraged when his father played Tatum for him he stopped practicing; Peterson couldn’t believe there was only one piano player.
  • According to the liner notes on a Tatum compilation, pianist Hank Jones thought: “Here’s something new . . . ” when introduced to Tatum on the radio in 1935, ” . . . they have devised this trick to make people believe that one man is playing the piano, when I know at least three people are playing.”
  • Charlie Parker, from pianist Teddy Wilson’s liner notes to the compilation album STILL MORE of the Greatest Piano of them All ART TATUM: “Parker whispered to me, ‘He’s like Beethoven.’ ” Parker also famously said he wished he could play like Tatum’s right hand.
  • Count Basie, according to wikipedia, called Tatum the eighth wonder of the world.

“In the past,” wrote Wilson in the aforementioned liner notes, “when piano playing discussions arose, many of us, as pianists and fans, would agree to put Tatum completely out of the conversation, in a class by himself, and then talk about the rest.”

Tatum had critics, of course. Those who can, do; those who can’t, nitpick. “You know, people used to criticize Tatum,” critic Gary Giddins told npr.org, “and they would say things like, ‘Well, it’s too ornamental . . . there’s too much decorative stuff.’ That is the essence of Tatum. If you don’t like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That’s where his genius is.”

His genius, while not part of the be-bop movement directly, was used as influence and inspiration by those who were.

Tatum was 47 when he died of kidney failure in 1956.

sources: wikipedia.org, bittersuiteband.com, duke.edu, npr.org

Lou Donaldson: Blues Walk

1 Nov
Lou Donaldson's album Blues Walk

Lou Donaldson's 1958 album Blues Walk. He's kept up the pace ever since.

Birthday greetings to alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who celebrates No. 85 today.

Don’t expect Donaldson to tweet out any birthday announcements. Donaldson has no “My Space, Facebook, or other social networking site,” according to the website Loudonaldson.com, although Donaldson does thank his fans who maintain what modern means of communication do exist.

Not surprising, given why Donaldson, a native of North Carolina, was dissuaded from baseball so many years ago: what point was there in pursuing a career in a segregated vocation?

“But back then, if you were black, you couldn’t play professional baseball,” he said in a 2010 interview on jazzwax.com. “You couldn’t even go in the ballpark. We had to peep thorough the holes in the fence.”

Donaldson’s baseball career — semi-pro after stints at North Carolina A&T and the navy, both segregated institutions in the 1940s — ended for good three years after Jackie Robinson’s major league baseball debut in 1947, according to another interview on the amiagency.com. “I thought I was the best third baseman in the world, and I wasn’t too far off,” he said in the interview, but he injured a finger and when it healed, he saved it for the alto sax. Too bad. If he handled the bat anything like he handled the musical instrument, baseball lost a pretty good infielder.

It was a good trade for music, and not bad for Donaldson; music’s been very, very good to him, and vice versa. “By now, Lou has been around a while,” wrote Joe Goldberg on the liner notes to Gravy Train. If Mr. Goldberg only knew — that was in 1961, 50 years and more than 30 albums ago. In 2007, Will Friedewald of the New York Sun wrote: “My first impulse is always to describe Lou Donaldson as the greatest alto saxophonist in the world.”

Compare that to praise from 53 years ago. “The Donaldson horn represents a musician who has matured in his chosen field past the point of mere competence,” wrote Ira Gitler on the liner notes to Blues Walk in 1958 (cover above, link to the title track below). “Lou just plays jazz in a straightforward manner without resorting to gimmicks.”

We’re just going to guess that the man who doesn’t need “social networking,” doesn’t need his praise to hit too high a note, either.

sources: loudonaldson.com, bittersuiteband.com, the amigency.com

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