Archive | July, 2014

Billy Eckstine: Rhythm in a Riff

10 Jul

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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 npr.com, 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 npr.com. “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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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 allmusic.com 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.”

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