Giving Thanks for Jazz Musicians

I gave thanks to the many jazz musicians who have enriched my life over the years. Here are comments about those who have been most important for me.

Herbie Hancock[1]

As a student at Grinnell College, 1957-61, I started to become acquainted with jazz. This introduction was provided by a fellow Grinnell student, Herbie Hancock, who organized several jazz combos that gave concerts during his time at the College. This period is discussed in his memoir, Possibilities.

My sophomore year, Hancock frequently came to the floor of my residence hall to spend time listening to Miles Davis records on the high-fi of my classmate, John Scott, while John played along on his trumpet. The next year on campus John was the trumpeter in the Herbie Hancock Quintet, which played three pieces by John and another three that the two of them together had composed. At the time, Herbie regarded this as the best group he had formed at the College.

Immediately after leaving Grinnell, Herbie started a career as a professional jazz artist that has proved to be immensely successful and influential, and I started to collect many of his CDs. Now I have at least the following in my collection: Taki’ Off (1962); Maiden Voyage (1965); Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner (1976); The Piano (1979); Quartet (with Wynton Marsalis, Ron Carter & Tony Williams) (1982); A Tribute to Miles (1994); Herbie Hancock Quartet Live (1994); The New Standard (1996); Gershwin’s World (1998); Directions in Music (with Michael Brecker & Roy Hargrove) (2002); Possibilities (2005); River: the joni letters (2007); and The Imagine Project (2010).

Herbie’s career has gone through many different phases, and I have to confess that his earliest phase with Taki’ Off and Maiden Voyage is my favorite. In recent years I have attended his concerts at the Minnesota Zoo and the University of Arizona in Tucson, and although the music is still amazing, I do not like this style as well.

Hancock has received many well-deserved awards, including the following: UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador (2011); Kennedy Center Honors Award (2013); Harvard University’s Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetry (2014), when he gave the Norton Lecture, “The Ethics of Jazz;” and honorary degrees from Washington University in St. Louis (2015) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2018).

Miles Davis[2]

In 1963, only a few years after leaving Grinnell, Herbie joined the Miles Davis combo where he remained until 1968, and I started to learn about, and like, Miles’ music. My favorite Miles’ album, Kind of Blue, was recorded in 1959 before Herbie joined the combo; it features saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb. This album “has been regarded by many critics as the greatest jazz record, Davis’s masterpiece, and one of the best albums of all time. Its influence on music, including jazz, rock and classical genres, has led writers to also deem it one of the most influential albums ever recorded.” And it is one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.

Dave Brubeck[3]

Dave Brubeck was popular when I was in college although I do not recall his group playing at Grinnell during those years.

According to John Edward Hasse, curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, “In the 1950s, it seemed that Brubeck was everywhere—on college campuses and world stages, on records, radio and TV—becoming a household name. He forged a singular trail in American culture as a musical magnet, popular pianist, and—his supreme calling—composer. . . . In 1958, his quartet jelled as the now-classic foursome—the tightest of his career—with the supremely lyrical alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, the versatile drummer Joe Morello, and the solid bassist Eugene Wright.” (One of the reasons I especially liked Brubeck’s group was Desmond’s artistry on the saxophone, which I had played in my high-school band.)

Hasse continues. Before a “1958 concert in Istanbul, Brubeck encountered a folk dance in an unfamiliar rhythm. ‘I was on my way to a radio station to be interviewed in Turkey,” said Brubeck . . . . There were street musicians playing in 9/8.’ That unfamiliar beat inspired him to compose Blue Rondo à la Turk around the rhythm. His recording of it works magically, in part because of a contrast: Brubeck’s firm piano playing grounds the performance, while Desmond’s ethereal lines lift it skyward.” (This is another of my favorites.)

Brubeck’s Time Out album jacket says, “Blue Rondo A La Turk plunges straight into the most jazz-remote time signature, 9/8, grouped not in the usual form (3-3-3) but 2-2-2-3. When the gusty opening section gives way to a more familiar jazz beat, the three eighth-notes have become equivalent to one quarter-note, and an alternating 9/8-4/4 time leads into a fine solo by Paul Desmond. Dave follows, with a characteristically neat transition into the heavy block chords which are a familiar facet of his style, and before long Rondo A La Turk is a stamping, shouting blues.. Later the tension is dropped deliberately for Paul’s re-entry, and for the alternate double-bars of 9- and 4- time, which heralds the returning theme. The whole piece is in classical rondo form.”

My other favorite tune on this album isTake Five,” which is described in the jacket as a “Desmond composition in 5-4, one of the most defiant time signatures in all music, for performer and listener alike. Conscious of how easily the listener can lose his way in a quintuple rhythm, Dave plays a constant vamp figure throughout, maintaining it even under Joe Morello’s drum solo. . . . “Take Five really swings.”

To the surprise of all, the Time Out album “became a bestseller, earning a gold record, and spawning a radio hit with Desmond’s Take Five.” As Hasse says, this was the “first jazz album to sell one million copies, Time Out was a breakthrough—all-new material in meters that challenged listeners.”

More generally, Brubeck by “eschewing the prevailing bebop style, . . . developed his own piano sound, marked by block chords, a solid touch, polyrhythms, polytonality (harmonies in two different keys at the same time), and experiment. His music and career sparked frequent controversy—over his classicism, sense of swing, and commercial success. Yet, as a warm and gracious performer, he made many friends for modern jazz.”

The Modern Jazz Quartet[4]

 Another favorite jazz group of mine is The Modern Jazz Quartet. I have the group’s CD’s: La Ronde Suite (2001);; Paul Desmond with the Modern Jazz Quartet in Concert at Town Hall, N.Y.C. (1990); and Modern Jazz Quartet for Ellington (1988).

Keith Jarrett[5]

The piano playing of Keith Jarrett also has appealed to me, and I was shocked and saddened recently to learn that his last concert was in February 2017 at Carnegie Hall. That concert was previewed by the New York Times: “The regnant solo piano improviser of the last 50 years, Mr. Jarrett recently released ‘A Multitude of Angels,’ a set of four unaccompanied concert recordings. With a lapidary touch, Mr. Jarrett ranges from Romantic pastiche to Coplandesque major harmonies to runs of boisterous swing, often in one free improvisation. He is known for unsportsmanlike behavior on the bandstand (coughs from the audience have led him to stop a concert halfway through). But his rare concerts are worth attending just the same.”

That 2017 concert was opened by Jarrett’s “indignant speech on the political situation [the recent inauguration of Donald Trump] and . . .  relentless [political] commentary throughout the concert. He ended by thanking the audience for bringing him to tears.”

His next concerts were cancelled for “unspecified health reasons” and thereafter he has not had any other concerts. Only this October did he reveal that he had suffered strokes in February and May 2018 that had paralyzed him and left him unable to play the piano. Thus, he is likely never to be able to play the piano again. As he recently told a journalist, “But when I hear two-handed piano music, it’s very frustrating, in a physical way. If I even hear Schubert, or something played softly, that’s enough for me. Because I know that I couldn’t do that. And I’m not expected to recover that. The most I’m expected to recover in my left hand is possibly the ability to hold a cup in it. So it’s not a ‘shoot the piano player’ thing. It’s: I already got shot.”

Jarrett’s recording of The Koln Concert in 1975 in Koln, Germany, is “a sonorous, mesmerizing landmark that still stands as one of the best-selling solo piano albums ever made.”

In 1998 Jarrett rejoined DeJohnette and the virtuoso bassist Gary Peacock for a concert, the recording of which was released a decade later as After the Fall that captures a spirit of joyous reunion.

Other Jazz Favorites

 Other jazz favorites of mine include Gary Burton (vibraphone), Chick Corea (piano), Duke Ellington (composer, arranger, jazz orchestra leader, pianist), Bill Frissell (guitar), Nachito Herrera (Cuban pianist, combo leader and friend), Stan Kenton (pianist, composer, arranger and band leader), Gonzalo Rubalcabo (Cuban pianist) and Omar Sosa (Cuban pianist).

Conclusion

A prior post mentioned my pleasure at listening to pieces by Vivaldi and Rubinstein on SeriusXM’s “Symphony Hall” as I was driving on errands. My other favorite channel on SeriusXM for such excursions is “Real Jazz” and when it plays my favorite Hancock and Brubeck tunes, I love to hum along and even match their unusual rhythms.

Thank you to all of the jazz musicians who have make this possible. I also must express my concern for all the orchestral and jazz musicians who have been and still are being prevented by the COVID-19 pandemic from public performances (except for smaller group, usually free, virtual concerts) and from earning income to support themselves and their loved ones. All lovers of these forms of music should include them in charitable giving.

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[1] ‘Cool’ Five Plays Oldies, Moderns, [Grinnell] Scarlett & Black at 3 (April 22, 1960); Hancock, Possibilities a 24-29, 40, 72, 120, 146   (Viking Books 2014); Herbie Hancock [Biography], Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz; Herbie Hancock, Wikipedia; Herbie Hancock discography, Wikipedia; Wendell, Experiencing Herbie Hancock (Rowman & Littlefield 2018).

[2] Miles Davis, Wikipedia; Kind of Blue, Wikipedia; Miles Davis Discography, Wikipedia.

[3] Hasse, Dave Brubeck, Beyond ‘Take Five,’ W.S.J. (Nov. 28, 2020); Clark, Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time (DeCapo Press 2020).

[4] Modern Jazz Quartet, Wikipedia. Modern Jazz Quartet Albums, discogs.org.

[5] Chinen, Keith Jarrett Confronts a Future Without the Piano, N.Y. Times (Oct. 21, 2020); Pop, Rock and Jazz in NYC This Week, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017); Chinen, Keith Jarrett Commemorates a Great Night in Newark, and a Band’s Legacy, on ‘After the Fall,’ WBGO.org (Feb. 28, 2028). I still have the following Keith Jarrett CD’s: Works (ECM 1985); Bye Bye Blackbird (1991)(with Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnnette); La Scala (1995); The Melody At Night With You (1998); Inside Out (2001)(with Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnnette); The Out-of-Towners (2001)(with Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette); Radiance (2002); Jasmine (2007)(with Charlie Haden).

Jazzy Music at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

 

Westminster Sanctuary

Westminster‘s September 2nd worship service opened with a jazzy set of three organ preludes entitled “Organ, Timbrel, and Dance,” played by Melanie Ohnstad, the church’s Organist and Director of Music and the Arts.

The three preludes were based on German chorales as reinterpreted in jazz idioms. As a lover of German organ music and American and Latin jazz, I was fascinated and moved by the three pieces:

  • “Swing Five” used the rhythms of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” for the chorale “Erhalt uns, Herr” (Lord, Keep Us Steadfast).
  •  “Bossa Nova,” the Brazilian rhythms for “Wunderbarer Konig” (Wonderful King).
  • “Afro-Cuban,” the rhythms and melody of Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story for “In dir ist Freude” (In Thee Is Gladness).
Johannes Matthias Michel

The composer is Johannes Matthias Michel, who was born in 1962 and grew up at Lake Constance (Germany) and who studied piano, church music, and organ in Basel, Heidelberg, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. He has composed many pieces for organ, and his organ discography includes more than a dozen CD recordings. One is of these three preludes, and there is a YouTube video of Michel playing these preludes.

Michel teaches artistic and liturgical organ playing at the University for Church Music of the Protestant Regional Church in Baden (Hochschule fur Kirchenmusik Heidelberg). Affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the University is in the city of Heidelberg in the historical region of Baden on the east bank of the Rhine River. Baden is the western part of the Baden-Wurttemberg state of Germany.

Christuskirche, Mannheim

Since 1999 he also has been the director of music at Christuskirche in Mannheim, which also is located in Baden. This is a Protestant church in the Oststadt district of the city. The church’s building was built in the early 20th century in the Art Nouveau style with Neo-Baroque accents. It escaped major damage in World War II. At Mannheim Michel also conducts the Bachchoir Mannheim and the chamber choir Mannheim and teaches organ at the State Academy of Music (Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik) in Mannheim.

Melanie Ohnstad

Melanie Ohnstad has served Westminster as organist since November 1995. She received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She also holds the Master of Music in Organ Performance degree from Arizona State University and the Bachelor of Music degree from St. Olaf College.

A streaming video of the Westminster worship service is available on the web so you too can hear this amazing set.