Archive for the ‘Music – Jazz’ Category

PostHeaderIcon “Yardbird” Soars High

It’s ironic that the story of jazz  bebop pioneer, Charlie Parker, should be presented by Lyric Opera. Yet, it seems fitting in another respect. Parker, an icon of jazz’s hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, was also a keen fan of classical music. He wanted to incorporate jazz with classical elements and recorded an album of ballads with a string section in 1949 for producer, Norman Granz.

Last week, Lyric mounted Parker’s story as a chamber opera at the Harris Theater with a highly appealing score by composer Daniel Schnyder and a compelling libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly.  Although a learned man, he hadn’t had time to write an autobiography or little else about his life. Parker died at the age of only 34.

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Brownlee as Parker and Angela Brown as Addie.l  Photo by Todd Rosenberg


Wimberly situates the opera in Birdland, the New York nightclub named in Parker’s honor. He played his final gig there on March 4th, 1955, eight days before he died. The opera imagines Parker returning to the club after his death while his body lies unidentified in New York’s Bellevue morgue. He wants to compose the masterpiece he was unable to write during his lifetime before the news of his death goes public.  Yet, people and demons from his past–particularly alcohol and heroin–keep intruding.

Prior to the performance, I had little inkling of how much Parker had suffered in his life beyond his drug addictions. The libretto gave me a fuller picture of this troubled genius’ struggles: with his two wives, the death of his young daughter, Pree, and his commitment for six months to a mental hospital in California.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee delivered a magnificent vocal and dramatic portrayal, capturing both his genius and torment. He was supported by a cast of outstanding singers in every role, especially Addie, his mother, sung by Angela Brown and Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, his patron and lover, sung by Julie Miller. Will Liverman, as Dizzy Gillespie, Parker’s fellow bebop pioneer, is accomplished in his relatively small role. At one point, Gillespie sings, “Come on, Yard! Let’s get out of here! We still have to write that music down”. Unfortunately, those scores never got written.

I have two fairly significant caveats about the score. By having the singers deliver their lines in recitative mode, the modern wont, the score keeps the dramatic action trapped at ground level, unable to soar to the lyrical heights reached by Parker’s horn. I also found it frustrating that Brownlee kept carrying his saxophone case around throughout the opera but never once do we hear a solo by the band’s alto saxophonist to recreate a taste of Parker’s genius. There was a fine set after the performance of Parker’s music by Orbert Davis’ Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra but it seemed a little too late. Many in the audience had left by then.

Lyric Unlimited is the company’s bold initiative to expand opera’s reach into new audiences and musical arenas. “Yardbird” is the fifth in the Unlimited series and, while I haven’t seen any of the earlier ones, I’d say “Yardbird” could easily be the most successful to date. Credit must go to Lyric’s General Director and CEO, Anthony Freud, for his out-of-the-box experiment. Let’s have more!




PostHeaderIcon Chicago’s Preservation Jazz Band

Bill Russo

Bill Russo

The Chicago Jazz Ensemble has had only 3 music directors in its 47-year history.  Bill Russo, an esteemed jazz composer/arranger, who played in Stan Kenton’s orchestra in the 1950s, was the first director.

Russo founded the CJE in 1965 which, since its earliest days, has been the jazz orchestra in residence at Columbia College. Jazz fans and all Chicagoans owe Columbia a large vote of thanks for its continuous support through thick and thin economic times. Only the Jazz Showcase has been around the jazz scene longer.

The 17-member band built its repertoire around classic jazz performers with an early emphasis on Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington and later, Benny Goodman and Miles Davis. The band also featured many of Russo’s own compositions.

When Russo died in 2003, trumpeter Jon Faddis (regarded as the stylistic heir to Dizzy Gillespie), was chosen as his successor. Faddis raised the quality of CJE’s musicianship. He expanded the playbook with more contemporary jazz works and new commissions and arrangements from such giants as Frank Foster, Slide Hampton and young lions Ed Wilkerson and Jim Gailloreto.


Dana Hall

Acclaimed drummer Dana Hall became the third director last season. A busy sideman, he has appeared on more than 20 albums including his 2009 debut album as a leader, “Into the Light”.  He has put his own mark on the ensemble this season with two new features: concerts that feature the playbook of more recent jazz giants and alternating smaller ensemble outings with the regular big-band concerts.

Last month, Hall led a driving performance by a quintet that paid tribute to drummer and mentor to many, Art Blakey (1919-1990), titled “Buhaina’s Delight” (Blakey’s Buddhist name).  Hall said of Blakey, “He kept the music happy.”

Hall opened with a ferocious roll of rimshots and tom-toms. Like Blakey, his playing during the rest of the concert was emphatic and often upfront but appropriately subdued in trio settings.  I regretted that the set included several, more recent, arrangements by Wayne Shorter but overlooked works by pianist, Horace Silver, an important member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Hall’s experiments with programming are worth supporting. The CJE’s next outing by the full ensemble is this Friday (January 20th) at the Harris Theater.  It features two of jazz’s most promising young stars: bassist Christian McBride and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello paying tribute to one of jazz’s larger-than-life figures, bassist/composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979).

I hope to hear McBride play such Mingus classics at “Better Git It in Your Soul” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.  Ndegeocello will perform much later songs Mingus composed in collaboration with Joni Mitchell.

Another Hall innovation is two noontime “Listening Room” sessions prior to Friday’s concert. McBride will perform on January 18th and Ndegeocello will be featured on Thursday. I heartily support this attempt to present the artists in a more intimate atmosphere that allows for listener interaction.

Chi Jazz Ens -2

Chicago Jazz Ensemble

These are not easy times for jazz and particularly large ensembles like The Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Institutional and government funding has been cut. Yet its mission to honor the music’s pioneers and maintain our link with jazz history, is more important than ever.

All attenders of the Green Mill Lounge, Jazz Showcase and Jazz at Symphony Center should add Chicago’s own Preservation Jazz Band to the list. The musicians are among Chicago’s top jazz performers and Hall is injecting the troupe with a shot of high energy and imagination.

To purchase tickets and see the remaining schedule of CJE performances, go to

While on the subject of jazz, I recommend a new book about a heretofore unexplored side of the music. “Blue Notes in Black and White: Photograph and Jazz” by Benjamin Cawthra (University of Chicago Press). This highly-readable book is based on the idea that “photographs not only show stories but also shape them.”


"Blue Notes in Black and White"

Cawthra, a historian, writes with elan about the vital role jazz photographs played in capturing African American culture during a time of tumult, from the swing era of the 1930s to the rise of black nationalism in the 1960s.

Over the past two decades, I became very interested in the work of these great photographers —especially William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard and William Claxton—from seeing small shows of their work.  I wanted to know more about the people behind the lens. We now know the fascinating story, thanks to Cawthra.

His book is an in-depth look at the multiple contributions of these artists: capturing now-legendary performers live at club dates, helping record labels sell magazines and albums, crafting musicians’ public images to further their financial and political goals.

I learned a lot about jazz history and the important partnership these two art forms forged during a key period in the music and black culture. It’s good to see these photographers finally getting their due.

PostHeaderIcon These Hills Are Alive

Vence, France

Vence, France

I landed in this lovely hillside town of Vence, France on the famed Cote d’Azur uncertain on what I’d find in terms of musical offerings. I’ve happily discovered that these lovely hillside towns are alive with the sound of music.  It ranges from pop to classical to jazz and local genres, such as chanson, French accordion and religious chant.

Every week, Vence’s billboards, cafes and tourist office are covered with ever-changing posters and flyers promoting upcoming concerts, These events can be local fare–such as Vence’s month-long pop festival, Les Nuits de Sud” (Southern Nights)–or in neighboring villages between 5 and 25 miles away.

Music is very much a vital part of French cultural life. July featured two internationally-recognized jazz festivals, one at nearby Juan-les-Pins (over 50 years old) and at neighboring Nice. I attended closing night of the Nice Festival and enormously enjoyed a concert that lasted over four hours and featured brilliant trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s Quintet, the ageless Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in fine form.

I had wanted to catch one of the performances at the 4-day Festival of French Accordion but failed to make it. This coming weekend, however, I am looking forward to a concert by an a cappella group from Corsica singing Gregorian and other chant music at a Trappist abbey on an island off the coast of Cannes.

I’ve discovered that, for the French, music is a necessary ingredient for having a good time and stoking one’s joie de vivre. Since my arrival in June, there have been three occasions in Vence that brought out the local population (all ages, not just teenagers) for socializing and dancing.

Fete De Musique

Fete De Musique

On June 21, France celebrated Fete de Musique,” a national celebration now 30 years old where every village decorates its town square and bands of every description (provincial French, rock, blues) entertain all evening while folks mingled, sat at sidewalk cafes and danced. Pauline and I had a great time reveling in the party atmosphere.

Then, of course, on July 14th, all France celebrated Bastille Day, the French Independence Day. And, just last weekend, this town’s medieval square (dating from the 14th Century), erupted with revelers dining and dancing for the centennial feast of St. Elizabeth.  I’m not sure why that produced such revelry but why let a good saint’s feast day go to waste.

Besides a full calendar of summer concerts and feast days, I’ve also enjoyed getting my music fix via French radio.  While I’m at a loss when it comes to fast-talking hosts on television or seeing “House” or “Gray’s Anatomy” dubbed in French, music serves as the universal language.

I roam the dial and land on either of two classical or jazz stations. While neither classical station approaches WFMT’s excellence, they are quite good AND commercial-free. As for jazz, having two 24-hour stations puts Chicago to shame though WDCB and WHPK do their best to fill the crater-size void.

One of the classical stations programs mainly opera and song, befitting France’s vast “chanson” repertoire. I usually favor the other station which plays more instrumental and orchestral performances. My only quibble is that, unlike America, where announcers announce performers, selection and recording date before and after each selection religiously, the stations here play back-to-back cuts that can last nearly an hour without any artist identification.

And both jazz stations exhibit a very French take on American jazz. You never hear modern groups.  No jarring free jazz or hard-bop selections. I have yet to hear Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk or other modern masters. Rather, the selections favor Ella, Ellington and a lot of Louie (Armstrong)! And a pre-1950s songlist. Not exactly American “Smooth Jazz” but a close cousin.

Let me close with two sidenotes. None of the summer concerts, usually out-of-doors, start before 9 or 9:30 p.m. You may wonder why. Well, I learned that’s because the noisy cicadas don’t stop their infernal chirping until that time.

Finally, at “Fete de Musique”, the closing ensemble was a blues band who had the audience rocking. As their final number at close to midnight, they played a polished version of the blues anthem, “Sweet Home Chicago”. Amen, I say!

PostHeaderIcon The Jazz Loft Project

smithIf you’re a jazz lover, like me, particularly the be-bop sounds of the 1950s and ‘60s, then I urge you to not miss the new exhibit, The Jazz Loft Project, now at the Chicago Cultural Center. It’s a photography exhibit capturing a special time in jazz with a fascinating back story.

The exhibit’s brochure tells that story best. “In 1957, W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated former LIFE photographer, walked out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York and moved into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth Streets) in New York City’s wholesale flower district.”

Abandoned lofts were common in that run-down industrial area in those days. Smith took over the apartment on the fourth floor from his artist friend, David X. Young. The rent was $40 a month for a bare bones room with crumbling staircases, no running water or electricity.

Smith turned the studio into his living room, darkroom and photo perch. He  set up a tripod to clandestinely shoot scenes of street life below.  He also wired the building, creating a surreptitious recording studio, and from 1957 to 1965, he recorded the midnight jam sessions that rocked the apartment above. It became a favorite haunt of New York musicians.

Jazz-Loft-Project.- 2jpgThe sessions usually began after the clubs closed and ran until 5 or 6 a.m. the next  morning. They featured some of that era’s jazz giants: bassists Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow, pianists Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, saxophonists Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman and  guitaritst Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney.

Smith said that his ambition was to produce a book “about the building itself…out the window and within the building, because it’s quite a weird, interesting story.” The photographs and tapes were unknown in Smith’s lifetime (he died in 1978) and only the indefatigable efforts of researcher, Sam Stephenson, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, brought Smith’s photos and recordings to light in 1998.

Digging through Smith’s archives, Stephenson discovered that Smith had developed 1,447 rolls of film at the loft (roughly 40,000 pictures) and made 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes. Besides the jazz jams, Smith recorded radio and TV programs of the day to produce a kaleidoscope of time and place within 821 Sixth Avenue’s walls.

I was fascinated when I came across the exhibit by accident in New York this March and am thrilled that the Cultural Center is hosting it through September 19th in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery on the Fourth Floor.

My only complaint is that the installation hangs the photos in a hodgepodge manner so that evocative street scenes are placed alongside the jazz photos. Since Smith’s intention to focus on the building had a two-fold purpose, capturing the world both inside and out, it would have been better to divide the jazz and city shots for greater viewing clarity.

Upon entering the Yates Gallery, turn right immediately and enter a private hearing room where you can listen to some of these historic tapes and radio broadcasts.  A must-listen are the rehearsal tapes of Thelonious Monk’s ensemble preparing for their historic Town Hall concert of 1959.

This private listening space is a distinct improvement over the New York installation. It’s the best way to gain a proper orientation for what you’ll view on the walls.

The Jazz Loft ProjectTo date, Stephenson and staff have documented 591 persons who appeared in Smith’s photographs and tapes. In addition to the musicians who came to 821 to play, many other cultural figures passed through its ramshackle stairways and studios. Among them were artists Salvador Dali, Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline, photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, actors Paul Newman, Zero Mostel, Jackie Gleason, writer Norman Mailer and dance choreographer, George Balanchine. Only Dali and Mailer appear, however, in the exhibition photos.

Stephenson has also published a book on the project: “The Jazz Loft Project, Photographs and Tapes of Eugene E. Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-65 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Stephenson will give a Gallery Talk on Thursday, August 26th at 12:15 p.m.  A film featuring jazz pianist/composer, Jason Moran, and commemorating Monk’s Town Hall concert with Smith’s audio and visual documentation of the original rehearsals will be shown on Sunday, August 8th at 1 p.m. and again on Friday, September 3rd at 6:30 p.m. in the Claudia Cassidy Theater.

PostHeaderIcon The Carnegie Hall of Jazz

Village vanguardWhile visiting New York City, my hometown, two weeks ago, I got the idea to pay my respects to the club where I received my initiation in jazz, the iconic Village Vanguard. A week before I arrived, the Vanguard had celebrated its 75th anniversary, a millennia in nightclub years. The other clubs around during my youth—Five Spot, the original Birdland, Half Note, Village Gate, Eddie Condon’s,  Jimmy Ryan’s, the Metropole Bar—are all gone now.

My reason for heading to 178 Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village was to commemorate a personal milestone: the 50th anniversary since I, a lad of 16, first entered that special, triangular-shaped  room to hear four classy musicians in tuxedos, the Modern Jazz Quartet, play. It was the first of many Sunday 4 p.m. all-age matinees to come.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, I had the privilege to hear other jazz royalty there like Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Jim Hall, Gerry Mulligan, Keith Jarrett and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band that played a Monday night gig for over 20 years. So, on March 5th, I descended the familiar 15 steps and entered jazz’s cathedral.  Al Foster’s Quartet was the evening’s headliner. As soon as I passed the doorman collecting the entry charge, it felt like going home.

Not much had changed since my last visit almost 10 years ago. The small room seats 120 “legally”, the manager told me. Both forest-green walls were lined, like an art gallery, with photos of jazz musicians who had played the club. A tuba hung on one wall and an ancient horn on the facing wall. Everyone of a certain caliber wants to play the Vanguard. A gig there signifies a coveted rite of musical passage.   Pianist Jason Moran has called it “the Carnegie Hall of jazz…it’s the place where Moses, Mohammed and Jesus walked.” The club has had only one set of owners in its long history, the much-loved Max Gordon and his widow, Lorraine, who oversees the club nowadays

The Vanguard exudes a pure spirit where the music is king. No opening acts, no glitz (just a modest intro for the band), no food service and no annoying chatter during sets. Just drinks and straight-ahead playing. The only change from the old days: no rising curlicues of cigarette smoke. I sat back enjoying Foster and his sidemen’s solos, reminisced and thought of the musicians whose spirits remain in the room. When the set ended, I climbed the stairs out into the night air, happy to know that the Vanguard was still there and still setting the standard.

To sample the Vanguard’s history, view a You Tube video of yesteryear artists, visit its website,