Saturday, December 27, 2014

Miles Speaks to the Kid, and Other Stories

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Remember the Buddhist/Hindu/Sufi parable about the blind men describing an elephant? Characterizations of Bruce Boyers, my newest contributor to Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing), would likely follow a similar path if you were to ask five different people to tell you what they know about him. When he and I first met a couple decades ago, he was running the in-house marketing division of a large, successful software company. Currently he makes his living as a freelance writer. And when he was six years old he began playing the piano and composing songs. It goes from there. -- CLH

Miles Speaks to the Kid
and Other Stories

By Bruce E. Boyers

I should probably be more of a jazz fan than I am. I was born into a jazz family—my Dad a jazz pianist and my Mom a jazz singer. For a while they even had their own combo, my Mom playing the vibes in addition to singing.

I don't remember much of that (I was pretty young), but I do remember my Dad practicing on the old upright they got from my Mom's mother (I still have that incredible piano). I demonstrated a very precocious musical ear at age six, when I asked my Dad if I could please play the piano. He said I could but there were two rules: I couldn't bang on it, and I couldn't play any of those horrible things that everyone else who couldn't play the piano always played: “Chopsticks”, “Heart and Soul”, or “Knuckles.” I agreed—and with two fingers picked out the melody to a Latin piece he was practicing at the time. I even came up with an intro to it, which he ended up incorporating into his arrangement.

But mostly the jazz that my Dad played didn't reach me at all. It sounded like a bunch of way complicated chords that I couldn't decipher and didn't really want to. Years later I listened to his main influences—George Shearing primary among them—and understood him a lot better.

But what kind of jazz can get through to a kid? Well, in my case it began with an album my mom had recently purchased: Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin. At that tender age, I fell totally in love with Ella Fitzgerald. I couldn't get enough of that record. Ella's sense of pitch and her unbelievable level of communication came through to my very core. Over 50 years later, that's still one of my all-time favorite albums, and Ella is my all-time favorite female vocalist (Aretha Franklin runs a very close second).

Years passed in there where I didn't encounter jazz much, with a few exceptions. My Mom had some jazz 45s that I played repeatedly: Vince Guaraldi's Cast Your Fate to the Wind, Ramsey Lewis doing "The In Crowd," and a Cal Tjader recording of "Cool" from West Side Story on red vinyl (that thing's got to be worth some bucks today—too bad I don't still have it!).

My Mom also purchased an album called Comin' Home Baby! by Mel Torme. Interestingly, Mel had been hesitant to record the title track, as it was more of a rock-and-roll song than a jazz song—but he sure didn't complain when it was such an enormous hit. The
rock-and-roll side of me loved the song, but I ended up listening to the rest of the album which, Mel being Mel, was really a jazz album. His voice, his sense of pitch (like Ella's) and his perfect timing really grabbed me, even if I didn't know what was grabbing me. I played the album many times when my Mom wasn’t home, and that’s yet another album I still own today.

Other than those exceptions, my tastes ran pretty much along the lines of any other kid’s: to rock and roll. I was an enormous Beatles fan. I died for the soul music coming out of Detroit (Motown) and Memphis (Stax). I really dug the psychedelic music coming out of England and San Francisco—and thankfully was too young to engage in the excesses which came with it.

Jazz would always find a way of sneaking back into my range of hearing, though. At age 12, that happened in a seriously major, but very intimate way.

The public television station PBS didn’t have commercials, so they used to do this thing in between shows where they'd have like 10 minutes of some musical artist performing, just the artist and the camera. Once when I was home alone (that happened a lot as I was growing up) they aired one of those, featuring Miles Davis—totally unaccompanied, just him and the horn. He played for probably eight minutes or so, and for me, time... just... stopped.

If you can imagine one of those exquisite solos Miles played in the Kind of Blue days, it was like that—only there was no band. I leaned as closely as I could into that little black-and-white TV screen, totally hypnotized. Every single casually blown, yet perfect note, seemed to take me far off into some other land—where there were no cares, no school, no alcoholic parents, only agonizingly beautiful music—and then bring me back again just in time for the next one to do the same thing. I think that when it was over, I sat staring at the TV set for some minutes, not even seeing what was there.

Like any other form of music, jazz works
for me when it communicates extremely well. That performance certainly did. And whenever I listen to a Miles album, I remember that one moment that was just me and him—personal.

O Holy Hell

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Christmas music. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Today, at a safe remove from the event, Jeff addresses the auditory challenge -- CLH

O Holy Hell
By Jeff Fitzgerald

I love Christmas, I really do. I love it even in spite of the crass overcommercialization, the hackneyed TV specials, and the current PC battle to eradicate any semblance of Christianity in society, up to and including Mexican guys named Jesus.

I love Christmas even though I worked in retail for many years. Nothing will beat the holiday spirit out of you more thoroughly than spending 84 hours a week in a store with stressed holiday shoppers, overworked employees, and worst of all, the insipid and incessant Christmas songs piped in through the overhead speakers.

It isn’t so much the idea of Christmas music, of which I’m generally in favor. It’s the kind of holiday music that gets piped into the stores (and, in my later career, onto car lots). The same small handful of shopworn tunes, done and redone so many times they now exist as a vague homeopathic essence of themselves.

It is a corollary to Warhol’s 15-minutes-of-fame dictum that everyone, during that quarter hour in the spotlight, will make a Christmas album. Every Top Forty pan flasher, every minor TV celebrity, every C-list movie star who honestly believes that he or she is more of a singer than an actor (and not much of either, usually). Hell, these days, even a YouTube viral sensation famous for playing “Super Freak” on a nose flute will have a go at “Jingle Bell Rock” before the last seconds of fame tick off the clock.

Christmas, in its secular form, has been about tradition since at least the 18th century. This was, of course, after the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in New England because it gave people an excuse to make merry. Because if anything pissed off the Puritans, it was the thought of people somewhere having fun. Tradition comes from doing the same things more or less every year, and the American experiment allowed us to mix and match bits of other cultures’ traditions and incorporate them into our own. We took the Christmas tree from Germany, Santa Claus from 4th century Lycia (now part of Turkey—or at least it was the last time I checked on it), and getting drunk and starting a fight with the in-laws from the Irish.

By repeating these small rituals year after year, we soon developed a coherent American version of Christmas. Borrowing richly from our European heritage, we took almost everything from the Old Country and Americanized it. The lowly ham, eaten by the farmer class in England who couldn’t afford delicacies such as turkey or goose, came to my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia and became the decadent Smithfield country ham. Various versions of St. Nick and Father Christmas were amalgamated into Santa Claus, an altruistic and supernatural giver of gifts and pitchman for a magical sugar water made in Georgia.

It wasn’t long before these traditions were incorporated into our popular music. Americans came together and longed for chestnuts roasted on an open fire, even in places where they would be more likely to eat boiled peanuts or pecan pie. We didn’t know what figgy pudding was, but we wanted some, and we wanted it RIGHT GAHDAMNED NOW! We rooted for Rudolph and were fans of Frosty. We became aware that Santa Claus knew when we were naughty and sometimes guiltily listened for a telltale burp from too much Coca-Cola to give away the spying elf. Even those of us who had never even seen a horse-drawn open sleigh pictured ourselves laughing all the way, in spite of the bitter cold and horse flatulence. We swore to be home for the white Christmas of our dreams, because we knew it would be a blue Christmas without us. We saw mommy kissing Santa Claus, and were prepared to tell Child Protective Services about it in case of divorce proceedings, or recover the memory for our therapists in case we had daddy issues that caused us to pierce our noses and date assholes later in life.

And all that was merry and bright, until everybody who thought--true or not--that they could carry a tune in a dump truck, started rehashing the same small handful of classics over and over until even deaf people were sick to death of them. A radio station could go a whole day playing nothing but different renditions of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” And it feels like some of them actually do.

If there is an upside to the digital revolution which has thrown the hubristic too-long-monolithic music business into a panic (and also, unfortunately, is right now screwing the artists even harder than the record labels ever did), it is that we are free to choose what we do and don’t listen to. I have satellite radio in my car and uncountable options at home through the miracle of broadband. I don’t watch network TV, except for sports, so I don’t have to risk hearing annoying pop on some lame sitcom or warmed-over drama that wasn’t good enough for cable. I have become, as so many have these days, an island unto myself, at least as far as the import end of it goes. Nothing comes on my island without a specific invitation.

But this time of year, it is virtually impossible to avoid the tsunami-strength wave of the same damned Christmas songs. Whenever something new manages to sneak into the lineup, such as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” or Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” it is quickly played ad nauseam until we’re just as sick of it as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” Elmo and Patsy, a plague on both your houses.

It is just possible, though, that the yearly musical crime wave of overplayed Christmas songs does serve some purpose. As I said, we are increasingly becoming islands unto ourselves; even the most time honored traditions are fading in the Age of The Perpetual Now. Perhaps there’s adequate magic left in Christmas that this inescapable torrent of holiday-themed corporate detritus can knit the generations together just long enough for us to remember the whole e pluribus unum thing. Now more than ever. Because if the terrifying ordeal of Roseanne Barr squawking her way through “Santa Baby” can’t bring us together, then all hope truly is lost. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sticks and Stones and Christmas Jeer

Meet our newest contributor to Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing), Jeff Fitzgerald, photographed here at the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest, tasting--what else--a craft beer brewed somewhere in Virginia. You could reasonably ask if there isn't a more appropriate photo for introducing Jeff. The answer is, nothing is more appropriate.

Jeff Fitzgerald has talent that can inspire jealousy in other writers—not all writers, just the good ones—and he’s one of the few who can make me actually laugh out loud (not simply LOL). He lives in Roanoke, Virginia, where he writes about music as well as topics like Southern (as in Dixie) cooking, in a way that makes me want to grab a tenor saxophone in one hand and plate of barbecue and coleslaw in the other, and commence to shouting. Here in his debut piece for Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing), he renders his pithy take on the serious topic of Christmas jeers, the newly fashionable trend among hipster killjoys and thin-skinned libertines. – CLH

Sticks and Stones and Christmas Jeer

By Jeff Fitzgerald

We live in contentious times, here in the land of purple mountains majesty and fruited plains (whatever the hell that means). People who wish to divide us into querulous, perpetually offended microgroups that can be easily manipulated, have been chipping away at us for decades. And they've used our primary form of communication, language, to do so.

They've weaponized speech for their own ends, turning almost every word into a “microaggression” or a “trigger event.” They've played upon most everyone's desire not to deliberately hurt someone's feelings, and used it to create subgroups upon subgroups of victims. It’s a microaggression towards me, as a lefthander, when someone uses the word “right” instead of “correct?” Of course not, don't be silly.

Which is the whole point. Let us all take a step back for a moment and get over ourselves. Remember that playground rhyme, which our parents and our teachers (those of us who are of a certain age, of course) taught us? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Call me whatever you want. Call me a fat, crippled, crazy bastard. Call me a bubba, redneck, hillbilly, or a grit. Doesn't bother me. I'm a grown man, after all. If I let stuff like that bother me, then I give someone else power over me. It's that simple.

So let's fight back at these divisive, censorial, would-be martinets. But let's do so with a smile, to let them know they can't get to us no matter how they try. This time of the year, if you should wish someone a Merry Christmas and they get all huffy and indignant and accuse you of forcing your religion* on them, just smile and say:

"Please, I didn't mean to offend you. If I had meant to offend you, I would have told you to go ____ yourself. Know the difference." Then, go on about your day with a song in your heart.


* In my experience with the Jews, Muslims, and Hindus I've met, they do not take offense at being wished a Merry Christmas, and take it in the spirit in which it is offered. And I don't mind being wished a Happy Hanukkah or Eid Mubarak in return. I just smile genuinely and say "Thank you," glad to have made a human connection.