At the Prom

           I don’t know how old you are or if your high school had a prom, or if you went to your high school prom.  I graduated from high school in the late 80s, from a public high school in small-town New England.  And, although we did have a prom – that grand formal dance with a live band, tuxes and gowns and corsages and painful shoes – I didn’t go to mine.  I can’t even recall why, really – it had something to do with my high ideals of the time.  Maybe I had read Catcher in the Rye too seriously.  But, as a member of my school’s student council over the years, I had certainly planned and set-up any number of school dances, formal and informal, so I knew what I was missing.
            The formal dances at my high school were always held in the gymnasium – which was, like it or not, the largest available event space within an hour’s drive.  Starting on Thursday evening before the big event, an intricate arrangement of high-wires, crepe paper, and balloons would transform the rather boxy hardwood and cinderblock environment of the gym into a pastel-colored, elegantly shaped dreamworld.  We would have themes to the prom, usually based on some song had heard all those years on our favorite classic rock station:  “Octopus’s Garden,” “Dream On,” and, of course, inevitably, “Stairway to Heaven.”  We drove our own cars to the prom; we consumed food that we had brought and the punch we mixed; we arrived early and left late.  In short, we made the most of the time there, because there was really nothing better to do.
            A few weeks ago I was a chaperone at my first modern big-city prom.  Although I am rarely surprised by they way young people do things these days – well, I was rather surprised by the way young people do things these days, the way they do the prom.  First of all, no high school gym for today’s kids – no, prom was held at a very fine hotel ballroom right on Miami Beach.  For those who didn’t arrive in limousines, there was valet parking.  A catered three-course meal was served by waiters in tuxedos.  It was a very posh set up – except that instead of a live band, a DJ played music.  And boy did he ever, this DJ – played it at almost full volume all the way through dinner, loud enough so that not even the kids bothered much with talking to each other.  But once the plates were cleared away, everyone moved to the dance floor, and it seemed pretty much like the formal dances I remember – except we didn’t listen to hip-hop, but I have no problem with hip-hop in general.  I just don’t like any music played so loud if makes the lettuce in my salad lose its molecular structure.
            At times, I felt as if I were at a wedding reception that lacked a bride and groom, but, as the evening passed, there was much that seemed familiar – although many years ago I was experiencing the prom rather than observing:  How everybody looked a little awkward in their fancy clothes; the romantically hopeful singles at the start of the evening, and the heartbroken dreamers at the end of the night; those few kids who arrive late and leave early; the rumors of preparties and afterparties; the arguments between couples and friends, the gossip, the giddiness, the laughter, the futile attempts to hide bad behavior from the chaperones.  For the young people, caught up in the moment, it’s as if their entire lives are wrapped up in the evening – and, in a very real sense – their lives are just that.  They are, after all, still in high school.  Who am I to belittle that experience?
            I suppose, in the end, that was one of the reasons I didn’t go to my own prom – I felt I had outgrown it.  And maybe I had – but now, I kind of wish I could go back and talk to that eighteen year old me and tell him that, just one last time, put on the tie and jacket and the shiny shoes, pin that corsage on the front of your date’s dress, compliment her on her hair, and go have the most magical night of your life.

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Jazz Movies

            As part of my ongoing education in jazz – embarked upon several months ago when I started writing this radio feature – I’ve been working my way through the long list of movies about jazz and jazz musicians.  After many hours on the couch with a bowl of popcorn balanced on my chest, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what I like in a movie about America’s original musical form.  For the purposes of time, I’ll rule out documentaries and concert films – maybe we can address those some other day.
            Although it’s worth noting that the first sound motion picture ever made was in fact The Jazz Singer, aside from the musical shorts Paramount Pictures made in the 1930s, there isn’t much of a respectable treatment of jazz until the 1947 film New Orleans appeared.  Despite a forgettable story and simply awful acting by the main players, New Orleans is worth your trouble for the sake of watching Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Billie Holiday, and Woody Herman perform a number of times.  As with many of the early jazz movies, the theme of this film is the journey of the jazz form from a scandalous reputation to a respectable one.
            A surprisingly smart and slick film from 1955, The Benny Goodman Story, picks up on this theme.  With Steve Allen in the role of the gifted clarinetist and bandleader, the movie tells the story of Goodman’s rise to fame to the point of the now famous concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, when jazz was said to have been considered, finally, legitimate music.  Subtly if effectively dealing with the issues of race, class, and ethnicity, The Benny Goodman Story also features appearances by  Kid Ory, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Harry James.  And although Goodman himself never appears on the screen, his superb playing is featured throughout.
            I went for a couple of decades before I found another film of note, that being Martin Scorcese’s 1997 movie New York, New York.  Now it is a strange film, because Scorcese went out of his way to recreate the colorful, artificial sets and costumes of the musicals of the late 40s and 50s, but within that setting he has his actors – Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli as pair of poorly-matched musicians – working in a highly realistic, improvisational style.  The music is excellent throughout, and even though Liza Minelli might not be your cup of tea, New York, New York will reward a patient watcher in it’s ambition and cheer creativity.
            Bebop received a fair treatment in two films of the 1980s.  The first, 1986’s Round Midnight, is a dry, moody story based on the lives of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, and features a remarkable performance by the great Dexter Gordon.  Strictly European in its style and pace, Round Midnight offers excellent playing throughout, with a soundtrack by Herbie Hancock, who appears in the film along with musicians John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins and Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Freddie Hubbard.   Also worth noting from this decade is Clint Eastwood’s treatment of the life of Charlie Parker, Bird, released in 1988.  A technically accomplished if emotionally distant film, Bird showcases an edgy, complex performance by Forest Whitaker as the jazz legend, and Eastwood gives us an early taste of the dark toned movies we’ve come to know in Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.
            This brings me, at last, to the latest and best of all the movies about music and musicians I have seen – 2004’s treatment of the life of Ray Charles, Taylor Hackford’s wonderful film Ray, which, as everyone knows, features a tremendous performance by Jamie Foxx in the title role.  In its balancing of humor and pain, of entertainment and drama, and in its simple respect for the actual music of Ray Charles, you will hardly find a better movie – a real and proper movie – about a person whose story moved through that realm of music we call jazz.

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One O'Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils

          When most people think of places associated with the development of jazz, the short list of cities is easy: New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, maybe Havana and Los Angeles.  After that, even many experts would have a hard time figuring out where to go on the map.
            Professor Douglas Henry Daniels teaches black studies and history at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  He has written books about tenor saxophonist Lester Young and a history of African Americans in San Francisco.  Now, in looking over the geography of jazz, Professor Daniels has found a band and a city that, for a decade, was a home – or at least a waiting room – for much of the jazz talent to come out of the Midwest in the 20s and 30s.
            Daniels’s new book – One O’Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils – tells the complicated story of a legendary band that for a time was a home for musicians Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jimmy Rushing, and, most famous of them all, Count Basie.
            The Blue Devils played, with various formations of exceptional musicians, from 1923 to 1933, providing dance music for black and white audiences both inside and outside the borders of Oklahoma.  The Blue Devils were a “commonwealth band,” meaning that much of the time the musical collective was more important than any one player or leader.  They shared their pay equally and made decisions as a group. 
            For musicians in the Blue Devils, the lure of Kansas City’s big group, Bennie Moten’s orchestra, was too much.  Over the years, Moten raided the Blue Devils for talent – most significantly when he lured Bill Basie away in 1929.  Basie, still to become the Count, would take over the Kansas City when Moten died in 1935 from a botched tonsillectomy.
            Professor Daniels’s book presents a number of arguments, all well –supported through interviews and exhaustive print research.  He wants readers to understand that in Oklahoma City there was (and is) a well-established and prosperous black middle-class.  He wants readers to know that great musicians are more often products of cultural education and hard work than some mysterious force known as native genius.  He wants us to know that black entertainers can work together and are not all out to be solitary superstars.  He wants us to know that jazz was born as much in places like Oklahoma and Texas as it was in New Orleans and Chicago.  Daniels writes against the currents of history’s assumptions, and his arguments are solid and rooted.  One O’Clock Jump succeeds as a work of history.
            Where Daniel’s book falls short is as a story.  The author has chosen a somewhat haphazard plan of organization for his chapters.  Some are focused on community, some on character, and few on chronology.  What this history of the Blue Devils needed was a more clear narrative line – quite clearly the development of and changes in the band from 1923 to 1933.  Instead, too often Daniels takes too topical an approach, and we jump from 1922 to 1937 to 1926 to 1942 in the space of a single paragraph.  Then we do it again in the next paragraph.
            All in all, One O’Clock Jump is a useful book: meticulous, historically sound, and proper in its emphasis. It suffers only because, in a book about a group of musicians for whom the band always came first, the story of that band is overlooked.

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Listener's Notes - 'Medium Rare,' covers from Foo Fighters

Although I haven't heard the album yet, anything from the Foo Fighters gets my attention, and this time around it's an album of cover songs, Medium Rare, released on April 16, just four days after Wasting Light.  Medium Rare is a vinyl-only, limited release for Record Store Day, so call around and see where you might be able to get a copy.  Among covers you'll hear are 'Band on the Run' from Paul McCartney and Wings, 'Darling Nikki' from Prince, and 'Life of Illusion' by Joe Walsh.  That's 800 watts of fresh pots (with apologies to 2/3 of Them Crooked Vultures).  Get yer butt out to your local independent record store.

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Playlist - Jazz Cafe 4/10

Duende Del Mate, Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra, Cordoba

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