Archive | December, 2011

Fats Waller: The Joint is Jumping

15 Dec
Young Fats Waller

Young Fats Waller: Rediscovered Early Solos (a compilation)

Remembering Fats Waller, born Thomas Wright Waller, on the anniversary of his death 68 years ago.

Though Waller played thousands of engagements in his too-short career, presumably none was more memorable than one in Illinois in the late 1920s. Waller was the guest of honor at the birthday party for the gangster who had almost everything, according to the, invited by Al Capone’s men at the point of a gun.

According to the independent’s account, Waller “found himself bullied into a black limousine, heard the driver ordered to East Cicero. Sweat pouring down his body, Fats foresaw a premature end to his career, but on arrival at a fancy saloon, he was merely pushed toward a piano and told to play. He played. Loudest in applause was a beefy man with an unmistakable scar: Al Capone was having a birthday, and he, Fats, was a present . . .”

The party lasted three days, according to the website, which is a lot of encores. And tips. It was a tough crowd, perhaps, but a good time was had by all; we can be sure Waller wasn’t misbehavin’ with that audience.

From the Independent: “By the time the black limousine headed back . . . Fats had acquired several thousand dollars in cash and a decided taste for vintage champagne.”

Fitting since, Waller’s tastes and appetites for life, like baseball’s Babe Ruth of the same era, were reportedly as large as he was. He died in 1943 just months before he was to turn 40; history says his lifestyle contributed to his early passing, which in turn, enhanced his “larger-than-life” reputation.

“Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,
 His fiftieth cigarette of the day . . .

 wrote Michael Longley in his poem Elegy For Fats Waller.

“He plays for hours on end and though there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin,
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty . . .”

Like Ruth, Waller yearned to be taken more seriously; the Yankees never made Ruth manager, and it’s largely — no pun intended — after Waller’s death that appreciation for his musical talents outweighed (ibid) his comedic ones. Richard S. Ginell on “Waller did have so-called serious musical pretensions, longing to follow in George Gershwin’s footsteps and compose concert music (but) it probably was not in the cards anyway due to the racial barriers of the first half of the 20th century. Besides, given the fact that Waller influenced a long line of pianists of and after his time . . . his impact has been truly profound.”

From Orrin Keepnews’ liner notes on the compilation album Young Fats Waller: Rediscovered Early Solos: “Surely it must be no longer ago than yesterday that he crowded his bulk onto a piano bench and began to cut the inflated lyrics of some insipid pop song down to size with the robust irony of his voice, or to extract every possible ounce of strength and of jazz out of whatever music was at hand.”



Steve Forbert: Steve Forbert’s Midsummer Night’s Toast

13 Dec
Steve Forbert: Mission of the Crossroad Palms

Steve Forbert's album Mission of the Crossroad Palms, released in 1995, which would make him at least 40 on this cover, though it's hard to tell

Birthday greetings to Steve Forbert, who celebrates No. 57 today.

Once upon a time, Forbert was anointed “the next Bob Dylan,” if for no other reasons than they both wrote music, played harmonica and came from states that started with Mi. (Minnesota and Mississippi).

Of course, this made them no more similar than William Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis because they both wrote books. Forbert’s songs were simpler, peppier and younger; Forbert often wrote about his world, with “a young man’s ear;” Dylan wrote about the world around him with an old man’s eye.

“Being called the next Bob Dylan wasn’t exactly a good thing . . .,” wrote Steve Leggett on, “first because who on earth would want that hung around his neck, and second because his approach and style were nothing much like Dylan in the first place. It was a recipe for perceived failure . . .”

A career letdown for sure. Forbert’s Romeo Tune, on his second album Jackrabbit Slim in 1979, peaked at No. 11, but he never got that high again; of course he wasn’t the next Dylan because there’s no such thing, anymore than there’s a next Ali or Sinatra or da Vinci.

 “It was just a cliché back then, and it’s nothing I take seriously,” Forbert said in a 2009 interview with NPR ( “I’m off the hook — I don’t have to be smarter than everybody else and know all the answers like Bob Dylan.”

Many of Forbert’s early songs were coming of age, and having come of age, material wasn’t as prevalent. He’s continued to write and perform, and his work has matured, even if you can’t tell it by looking at him. It’s hard to believe the artist staring back at you from 2009’s The Place And The Time, his most recent album, was then 55.

Or maybe age is in the eye of the beholder. Young and hopeful, Forbert went down to Laurel for love  with “just a touch of madness in my eye” (“I’m glad to be so young talkin’ with my tongue, Glad to be so careless in my way”). He still looks young and hopeful, although even Forbert’s optimism didn’t spare Laurel (“It’s a dirty stinkin’ town yeah”).

(On a personal aside, we once wandered into Laurel, Miss. during the heyday of Forbert’s popularity on an overnight ride to New Orleans. I asked our server at the all-night diner if she knew that Forbert had written a song about her town. When she said no, I figured it best to spare her the details lest she spill the coffee. And though my memories are bleak, I don’t remember Forbert’s description being wrong).

A link to Steve Forbert’s Midsummer Night’s Toast below:

 I got my fingers a-tapping on the hard,
stone steps.
I’m waiting for lightning and the rains to fall.
Young lovers are loafin’ with their sidewalk smiles
And all their rainbow dreams.


McCoy Tyner: Fly With the Wind

11 Dec
McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy

McCoy Tyner's 1967 album The Real McCoy

Birthday greetings to pianist McCoy Tyner, who celebrates No. 73 today.

Tyner is still best known for his association with John Coltrane, though that was — chronologically — a short part of his career and a long time ago. It’s been 46 years since the two split — Tyner left two years before Coltrane’s death in 1967 — and 51 since Tyner first became a member of Coltrane’s most famous quartet (with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones).

“(Coltrane) wasn’t dictatorial at all,” Tyner said in an interview with “He didn’t tell you what to do, he left the playing up to you. If he had something specific he wanted out of the melody, he would tell you, and the rest was up to you. So, we had fun!

“It was because it was like that, that we had that sort of freedom, we would surprise ourselves, we would reach certain points together . . . Jazz is a very good moral teacher. You have to respect the other guy who is on stage with you in order to achieve what you are looking for. You have to respect the music and the person that is next to you, that way you can get the best out of the situation.”

You can suggest Tyner’s best came after Coltrane, even if it’s not his best-known, or even best-appreciated by audiences. I can remember seeing Tyner some 30 years ago as the second half of a concert bill with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; a third or more of the spectators vacated the venue after Blakey was finished.

“McCoy Tyner, so thoroughly identified with the rolling muscularity of Coltrane’s rhythm section, experienced a dry spell after he parted company in 1965,” wrote Gary Giddins on the liner notes to La Leyenda de La Hora (The Legend of the Hour). “. . . Many people wondered how and if he’d be able to sustain a career on his own. Tyner wondered, too, and there was a moment when he contemplated leaving the music scene.”

Fortunately, the moment passed. Like an actor most renowned for a role early in his career, Tyner’s name goes with Coltrane’s, even if he has long since evolved in his art.

“I asked McCoy in what direction he wanted his music to go from this point on,” wrote Nat Hentoff in the liner notes to 1967’s The Real McCoy. ” ‘I don’t think in those terms,’ he said. ‘You see, to me living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life. I play what I live . . . I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.”

A link to the title track of Tyner’s 1976 album Fly With the Wind below:


Tom Waits: Georgia Lee

7 Dec
Tom Waits: Mule Variations

Tom Waits' 1999 album Mule Variations

Birthday greetings to Tom Waits, who celebrates No. 62 today.

If you’re wondering why Waits recently released his first new album in five years, the answer is on his website: Said Waits: “There’s only one reason why you write new songs: You get sick of the old songs.”

Waits might, even if his audience doesn’t. For that we can be thankful, because a new album means a new round of interviews, and a new round of witticisms. Waits’ website even has a listing of  his best through the years; some, but not all, of those that follow are from there:

  • On being inducted into the Hall of Fame: “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with . . . like it’s a bad thing.” (New York Times)
  • On corporate influence in rock and roll: “If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn’t he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?” (wikipedia)
  • On helping his kids with their homework: “The other day I overheard my older kids talking to my younger boy and they were saying, “Don’t ever, don’t ever ask Dad to help you with your homework.’ They said I made up a war once.” (
  • On giving up drinking: “I didn’t know what to do with my hands.” (Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross,,
  • On his parents: “My father was an exhaust manifold and my mother was a tree.” (David Letterman interview;

If there was a They Said It for musicians, as there is for sports figures in Sports Illustrated, Waits would be omnipresent.

(That’s before we even delve into his lyrics: “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk;” or “If I exorcise my devils. Well my angels may leave too.” or “I don’t have a drinking problem ‘cept when I can’t get a drink.”)

If Oscar Wilde’s wit is present in music today, it’s best evoked by Tom Waits, in the voice famously described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding “”like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

And yet Waits can use that voice to  emote vulnerability, too, or tenderness, as he does in I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You or Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love).

The New York Times once called Waits the “poet of the outcasts.” Thankfully, there’s a whole lot of outcasts for him to reach.

“I guess I’ve always lived upside down,” Waits told Terry Gross in an interview this fall with NPR’s Fresh Air. “I want things I can’t have. My wife, actually, thinks that I have a syndrome, it’s called reality distortion field. You know, it’s kind of like drugs, only you can’t come back from it, you know. Reality distortion is almost a permanent condition. So I guess to a certain degree, I did that with myself.”


Dave Brubeck: Three To Get Ready

6 Dec

Birthday greetings to pianist Dave Brubeck, who celebrates No. 91 today.

One of the advantages to growing older is the increased likelihood to have things named for you. Brubeck’s alma mater, the University of the Pacific (College of the Pacific when he matriculated before World War II), named The Brubeck Institute after Brubeck and his wife Iola; it includes the Brubeck Collection (of his music and correspondence) and the Brubeck Festival each spring, which normally features the Brubeck Jazz Quartet.

Irony is, one of the professors there tried to keep Brubeck from graduating not quite 70 years ago because Brubeck couldn’t read music, but only play it, according to Hedrick Smith’s story on 

“The piano teacher in my senior year figured it out in about five minutes.” Brubeck said, according to Smith. “And that piano teacher went right downstairs to the Dean and said, ‘That kid can’t read anything.’ And the Dean called me in and he said, ‘We can’t let you graduate with your class.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ ”

According to Smith, it wasn’t OK with other teachers, who lobbied to allow Brubeck to graduate. “The ear training teacher went to (the Dean) and said, ‘You’re making a mistake. Brubeck’s one of my best students,’ ” Brubeck said, according to Smith’s account. “And the Dean called me back in and he said, ‘You know, I’ve heard some rather interesting reports on you. If you promise never to teach and embarrass the school, I’ll let you graduate with the class.’ And I said, ‘I promise, I’ll never teach.’ ”

Brubeck was 21 years and a day old, still in college, on Pearl Harbor Day. He graduated in 1942, married Iola and joined the army, making it to Europe in the days after D-Day.

“. . . we went to Verdun,” Brubeck told Ken Burns in an interview on, “(and) if you (turned) left you’d be in (Omar) Bradley’s Army, if you (turned) right you’d be in (George) Patton’s Army.”

Brubeck turned right and was in Patton’s army; Smith wrote, “Music literally saved Brubeck’s life.”

“. . . a Colonel heard me play (piano) and he said, ‘This guy shouldn’t go to the front. We want to keep him here and form a band.’ ”

Brubeck’s wartime band was called The Wolfpack, and Brubeck told Burns, “It might have been the first integrated unit in World War II, and maybe in the Army . . .”

After the war Brubeck returned home, went to graduate school, met Paul Desmond, made the cover of Time Magazine, took off with Take Five (written by Desmond), and kept most of his promise to the dean. He never embarrassed the college, and he taught only by example.

A link to PBS’ Dave Brubeck IQ test below:

Dave Brubeck trivia


Egberto Gismonti: Cego Aderaldo

5 Dec
Egberto Gismonti: Zigzag

Egberto Gismonti's 1996 album Zigzag on the ECM record label

Birthday greetings to guitarist/pianist/composer Egberto Gismonti, who celebrates No. 64 today. Or in the Portuguese of his native Brazil: ”Parabens.”

Though Gismonti’s parents were Sicilian- and Lebanese-born, and he himself studied in Europe (as well as Brazil), his music is rooted in the multiculturalism of the country of his birth.

“I have a large interest in Brazilian culture, and I have been preoccupied with its development for a long time,” Gismonti said in an interview with Bruce Gilman on the world, Brazil represents a real mixing of races. I’m not talking about living together but about breeding together — Brazilians, Indians, Europeans, Africans. Because of this merging we are closer to the broader picture of life and to a more aesthetic horizon.”

Given that, it’s ironic that one of his most famous and groundbreaking collaborations — with countryman and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos — was accidental. Gismonti planned to do the 1977 album Danca Das Cabecas — Dance of the Heads, if our translation is correct — but, according to, Brazil’s military government placed a restrictive tariff ($7,000) on citizens leaving the country. The musicians Gismonti was to record with couldn’t afford to depart.

Already in Europe, where the album was to be recorded for the ECM record label, with the deadline nearing, Gismonti met Vasconcelos, who was living there. “Having to record the album in three days, he decided to have Vasconcelos into it, and asked by (Vasconcelos) to describe the album’s concept, (Gismonti) explained that both of them had a common history, and he proposed Vasconcelos use that album for telling it,” wrote Alvaro Neder on “It was the history of two boys wandering through a dense, humid forest, full of insects and animals, keeping a 180-feet distance from each other.”

The album won several awards, and according to Neder’s review for, “changed both artists’ lives.”

“I had known his music from Brazil before and I really admired him,” Vasconcelos told N. Scott Robinson in a 2000 interview at “But when we started to play together, it was a big change for his music. Because it was something he had never experienced before. He was used to playing with a quartet . . . When he started to play with me . . . the Afro-Brazilian element was in his music for the first time. Egberto was coming from a schooled concept; he went to the conservatory in Vienna to be a classical musician. I come from the street so I brought those elements to his music. We both realized, how that was so different, but at the same time it was together, because of the way we think.”

Danca Das Cabecas was the first of Gismonti’s many albums for ECM, despite a competing offer — “The main problem,” he told Gilman, “was making a decision between Atlantic’s very substantial contract versus ECM’s very artistic purpose.” Gismonti committed to ECM and the indigenous cultures of Brazil, according to Neder.

“In the heart of the Amazon forest, Alto Xingu, he tried to make contact with the Yawaiapitì tribe, playing his flute for two weeks until head chief Sapaim invited him to his home,” wrote Neder for “They shared no common language other than music and Gismonti spent about a month living and learning with them, upon the condition of spreading the forest people’s values.”

They could have no better advocate. Through the years, Gismonti seems equally comfortable recording with fellow Brazilians Vasconcelos, Nando Carneiro and Zeca Assumpcao, with ECM’s international stars Charlie Haden or Jan Garbarek, or even solo (the favorite here is Gismonti’s work with Garbarek and Haden on ECM’s 1981 release Folk Songs; a link to one of its songs below).

According to, Gismonti taught himself to play the guitar at 21; today his son Alexandre, 30, performs and plays with him. Congratulations, indeed.


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