Wednesday, June 4, 2014

52nd Street and Birdland

Public Domain image from the Library of Congress's William P. Gottlieb Collection

Me at the same spot on 52nd Street and 6th. Ave. camera facing east

It's 1943 and you just arrived at Penn Station by train. You walk underneath the vaulted glass ceiling of the main concourse, jump into a cab and ask him to take you to "The Street." In 2014, that request would certainly earn you a weird look, but in 1943 the cabby knows exactly where you mean. After being dropped off at your destination, you proceed to a club called The Famous Door to hear Buck Clayton play with Count Basie's band. Then it's off to the Onyx to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford's new group. After that, you hit two or three more clubs until you finally stumble back out into the street during the early morning hours. You have probably heard more jazz masters in one evening than most people get to hear in a lifetime today. But, in 1943, this was just a typical night out on 52nd Street.

Beginning in the mid-1930's, 52nd Street was THE destination for live jazz. This two-block strip of brownstones between Fifth and Seventh Avenues featured famous musicians in clubs with snappy names like The Spotlite and The 3 Deuces. So why did this street become the center of the jazz world during this time? The origins of nightlife on 52nd Street dates back to the 1920's when the street harbored several known speakeasies, but things really took off in the late 20's when the city eased its residential restrictions on drinking establishments in that area. By 1930, it was the hub of a vibrant midtown entertainment district. On top of that, some of the white jazz patrons who had frequented the Harlem clubs uptown began to avoid the area after the 1935 Harlem Race Riots, which made this small strip of midtown bars an ideal location for new jazz clubs.

52nd Street was unique from a musical standpoint in that it served to dissolve many of the stylistic and racial demarcations that had been so prevalent in jazz throughout the 1920's and early 1930's. Until that time, jazz in New York was primarily seen as a music performed by blacks for predominantly white audiences in uptown venues such as the Cotton Club. But in the late 1930's, things began to change. The popular revival of early New Orleans jazz rekindled an appreciation for early jazz during a time when swing was enjoying its popular heyday. All the while, the first elements of bebop were also beginning to percolate in the music. On 52nd Street, all of these styles existed together. 'Dixieland' musicians played alongside swing musicians, who played alongside bebop musicians. On any given night, you could hear the entire history of the music. Clubs were also given more freedom to allow both integrated bands and audiences, which furthered to tear down the racial boundaries of jazz.

Just as importantly, the close proximity of the clubs fostered a strong sense of musical community. Musicians would play a set at one club and walk to another to either listen to or sit in with another band, and this steady musical exchange of ideas created a sense of solidarity. Through a natural process of musical exchange, jazz performers collectively decided the direction the music would take. Young musicians had to earn the respect of their peers by playing with established masters in order to move up within the ranks of the scene.

Sadly, this master/apprentice relationship has all but dissolved away. The heyday of 52nd Street represents a time when there was an important sense of musical democracy. That's not to say there wasn't infighting within the ranks of jazz, but there was always a sense in jazz of a collective evolution. Jazz always relied on its elder statesmen to reinforce certain musical priorities in the new generation of players; things like swinging, playing the blues and telling a musical story that speaks to people. It is these elements that have always tied the different periods of jazz together. In contrast, the every-man-for-himself mentality that exists today has created a kind of stylistic anarchy. I feel strongly that without an internal system of checks and balances, we are slowly losing the underlying musical DNA of jazz that dates all the way back to Africa. But I digress.

Alas, the 52nd Street of days past only exists now in recordings and in our collective memory. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, not even the brownstones that housed these legendary clubs still stand. All have been replaced by modern skyscrapers; that is, except for The 21 Club, which now operates as a restaurant. Fortunately, the music was captured on a few live recordings and radio broadcasts from various clubs here. So let's pretend we're back on "The Street" during its heyday, and let's peek our head into a few clubs to check out some of my favorite trumpeters of the time.

Our first stop is The Onyx Club to hear Miles Davis with Charlie Parker. This bootleg recording was made at The Onyx on July 6, 1948. Bear in mind that this is almost nine years before Davis recorded his Birth of the Cool album. At this time, he was still heavily influenced by Dizzy Gillespie. Unfortunately, this bootleg recording famously cuts out most everything but Bird's solos, so you only hear snippets of Davis's playing, but it gives a real sense of the atmosphere in the club.

Our next stop is The Yacht Club to hear Herman Autrey with Fat Waller's band. Autrey was an underrated composer and trumpeter who was mostly associated with Waller's band. This live radio broadcast from the club was made in 1938, and really gives the listener a sense of the vibrancy of a 52nd Street venue. Check out Autrey's tasteful playing behind Waller's vocals on "You Can't Be Mine."

Now it's off to the late set at The Famous Door to hear the Count Basie Orchestra. Recorded live from the club in 1939, this version of "Roseland Shuffle" features Lester Young on tenor sax. But check out Basie's trumpet section. Most likely, it would have included Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Shad Collins and Ed Lewis. No trumpet section swings harder than this one!

Although many associate 52nd Street with the bebop movement, bebop didn't actually make it down to midtown until the mid-1940's. By the time Gillespie and company arrived on 52nd Street, the area was actually in the start of a slow decline. As various jazz clubs fell to the wayside, bars and strip joints began to fill in the gaps, and the reputation and character of 52nd Street began to change, bringing with it drugs and prostitution. Although the area was fading away as a musical center, bebop continued to flourish in a number of new clubs that were popping up nearby, clubs like the Royal Roost, Bop City, and Birdland. These new bebop-focused establishments catered to a largely teenage audience, and some even went as far as to install bleachers and soda fountains. Eventually, even these clubs gave way to seedier establishments, and by the late 1960's, the police began to shut things down. For a detailed account of the decline of 52nd Street, check out this post from one of my favorite blogs, "Jeremiah's Vanishing New York."

The last stop on our trip is to the original location of Birdland. The original building still stands at 1678 Broadway, just around the corner from 52nd Street. Although Birdland moved from this location back in the 1960's (first uptown, then to its current location on 44th St.), this is the original basement club where so many famous recordings were made such as John Coltrane's "Live at Birdland" and Count Basie's "Basie at Birdland." The club was famous for its master of ceremonies, the four-feet-tall, high-voiced Pee Wee Marquette, as well as for its live broadcasts by Symphony Sid, the famous disc jockey on WJZ.

As you can see from the photo to the left, the front of the building has been modernized and is now a "Gentlemen's Club." In an area completely overrun by skyscrapers and corporate chains, I must admit, I'm glad that the club has hung on through the years, even if the form of entertainment presented there has changed a bit. Better it survives as a strip club than a new Chipotle. After all, maybe some of the magic is still there in the walls behind all of those mirrors and neon lights. My dream is that someone will restore the location to its original glory one day. One can only hope. For now, I leave you with one of my favorite albums ever recorded at Birdland. This album is Art Blakey's "A Night at Birdland " and happens to feature my favorite jazz trumpeter of all time, Clifford Brown. So sit back, let Pee Wee introduce the band, and let's take a trip together back to the glory days of Birdland.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Charlie Parker Residence

This next entry brings us to 151 Avenue B in the heart of the East Village. It would be easy to walk by this unassuming brownstone on the edge of Tompkins Square Park without knowing its historical significance. But if you stop to look, you'll see two small plaques designating the building as an Historic Landmark. This is due to the fact that none other that Charlie Parker lived there from 1950-1954 with his wife Chan Richardson and their three children. Today, it's known simply as the Charlie Parker Residence.

After Parker's death, the building was known among jazz musicians in the city as a sort of unofficial jazz shrine, but it wasn't until Judy Rhodes bought it in 1979 that the building was recognized for its historical significance. Rhodes spent the next several years lobbying to have her home designated as a National Historic Landmark, a goal she finally achieved in 1999. In the meantime, she also helped to get the the stretch of Avenue B between 7th and l0th Streets renamed "Charlie Parker Place" as well as help to establish the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.

In an art form already full of geniuses, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, in my mind, stand above them all. Both advanced this art form musically, intellectually and spiritually, and their influences on 20th century music are so large as to be nearly impossible to exaggerate. As this blog is about Charlie Parker, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the many great jazz trumpeters with whom he collaborated. When you think about it, Parker's band was one of the first launching pads for jazz trumpeters before the days of the Jazz Messengers or Horace Silver's quintet. Almost all of the greatest modern jazz trumpeters worked with him in some capacity at one time or another.

First, we'll start with Dizzy Gillespie, Parker's main collaborator. Dizzy was truly in a league of his own as a trumpeter, a musical innovator and an ambassador for the music. To this day, I don't really think any trumpeter has achieved the heights of trumpet mastery, musical daring and sheer innovation that he did. He brought a level of rhythmic and harmonic sophistication to jazz that had never been heard before and has rarely been matched since. He extended he possibilities of the instrument in terms of range and dexterity and, along with Fats Navarro, was one of the only trumpet players who could truly keep up with Bird on the bandstand. Gillespie of course went on to forge his own path in music. As he got older, his style became even more personal, and he began to experiment with both big bands and Afro-cuban music. He also had a style and personality that was all his own, from the berets and goatees of his earlier years to his bent horn and puffy cheeks, there was no mistaking who you were seeing or hearing when he took the bandstand.

Although we tend to get obsessed with the mechanics of music, the ultimate goal in jazz is to find your own voice. Miles Davis stands as the greatest testament to the value of that pursuit. After Dizzy parted ways with Parker, it would have been very easy for Parker to look to one of the many trumpeters of the day who were trying to imitate Gillespie's style. Instead, Parker went with a young trumpet player named Miles Davis, who had been working on a starker, more stripped-down improvisational style. And although Miles always had way more technique than people gave him credit for (Just listen to his live radio recordings with Tadd Dameron.), he was smart enough to realize he would have to define his own sound if he wanted to make a mark in music. By the 1950's, Davis had fully realized a new highly personalized style that emphasized timbre, mood and space. But it took a musical master like Parker to hear what he was trying to achieve and to give him the freedom to get there. Check out Davis in the clip below. Although he is still deeply rooted in the bebop language, you can already hear a more relaxed sense of refinement in his playing, as if he is trying to strip away the embellishments of this new style of music and find only the essential notes.

Next we have one of my favorite trumpet players of all time, Fats Navarro. Navarro is truly an unappreciated giant in the lineage of jazz trumpet players. A big man with a uniquely high voice, he was nicknamed "Fat Girl" by his fellow musicians. Navarro took much of what Gillespie pioneered and refined it into a logical, linear style of playing that would set the tone for so many jazz trumpet players who came after him. Although Fats had incredible high range and technique, his highly logical solos always sounded fluid and well-conceived. 

As a young player, I stumbled onto a Fats Navarro recording in a discount cassette bin at my local mall. When I heard him, I could not believe he wasn't talked about more among jazz musicians. Unfortunately, Fats did not record as extensively as his contemporaries, partly due to the fact that he came into prominence during the famous recording ban of the 1940s. Like Parker, Fats had his own health issues including his weight, a case of tuberculosis and an addiction to heroin, all of which would work together to claim his life at the young age of 26. Although Fats was not a regular member of Parker's group, he made a couple of great live recordings, the best of which is probably "Bird and Fats Live At Birdland 1950." His influence is best heard in the recordings of his main disciple, Clifford Brown, who further expanded on this style in the 1950s. 

Jazz musicians have been ahead of the curve in terms of race relations throughout the history of this music. Whether it was Benny Goodman with Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis with Bill Evans, or Louis Armstrong with Jack Teagarden, jazz musicians tend to put a premium on whether someone can play over anything else. In the case of Charlie Parker, not only did he hire a redheaded trumpet player in an otherwise all-black band, but he actually brought him along on a multi-state tour across the racially segregated south! Realizing this gesture of racial progressivism might not fly in Dixie, Parker found a workaround by billing the trumpeter as "Albino Red." I am, of course, referring to the great Red Rodney. Unfortunately, Rodney never reached greater heights after his stint with Parker, and his career took a bit of a downward turn due to a variety of factors including drug addiction, family tragedy and chop issues. But, he managed to make a comeback in the 1970's and recorded up until his death in 1994. 

The next trumpeter to play extensively with Parker is one of those figures who is universally loved by musicians, but perhaps was never afforded the wider recognition that he rightly deserved. Upon first listening to a Kenny Dorham solo, you might think what he is playing is easy. But any trumpet player who ever has tried to transcribe his trumpet solo on "Una Mas" quickly realizes that Dorham's solos are no joke. His formidable technique is masked behind a softer articulation and a beautiful round tone, allowing him play long poetic passages accented by moments of real fire. Dorham went on to help define the funky, soulful Blue Note sound of the 1960's, but his approach was always deeply rooted in his days playing with Parker and the other innovators of the bebop revolution.

Next up is Howard McGhee. McGhee was part of the modern jazz clique in the 1940's, but he has always been overshadowed by other trumpeters of his generation. He is perhaps best remembered as being the trumpeter on the famous (or infamous) Charlie Parker recording of "Lover Man." Although Parker was so ill, he had to be held up during part of the recording, McGhee shines on his solo spots. Take for example the recording below of "Max Making Wax," in which he shows of his ability to build lines well into his high range. Aside for his time with Parker, I also love his famous trumpet duel with Fats Navarro on "Boplicity." 

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention some recordings of other trumpeters who performed with Parker, although not necessarily as members of his band. Some of these honorable mentions are are:

Chet Baker: "Charlie Parker/Sonny Criss/Chet Baker - Inglewood Jam 6-16-'52"
Roy Eldridge: "Jazz at the Philharmonic 1949"
Rolf Ericsson: "Bird In Sweden"
Benny Harris: "Tico Tico / La Paloma"
Al Killian and Buck Clayton: "Jazz At The Philharmonic - Bird And Pres - The '46 Concerts"
Charlie Shavers: "Charlie Parker Jam Session"

Lastly, I will leave you with a recording of perhaps the most amazing trumpet section of all time: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro playing as members of the Metronome All-Stars, which also included Charlie Parker. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Death of Bix Beiderbecke

It’s August 6, 1931, a hot, muggy day in a Queens, New York apartment building. One of the tenants bursts into the hallway screaming and demanding to see his rental agent, George Kraslow. When Kraslow reaches apartment 1G, he finds the tenant standing in the middle of the room, trembling and ranting that two Mexican men are hiding under his bed with long daggers. To put his mind at ease, Kraslow bends down to check under the bed. As he begins to stand back up, the tenant collapses into his arms. A doctor living in the building is rushed to the scene, but the tenant is already gone. That tenant was legendary jazz cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke, dead at the age of 28.

While the official cause of Beiderbecke's death was lobar pneumonia, most historians agree that acute alcoholism was responsible for the decline in his physical and mental health in the last year or so of his life. According to some accounts, Beiderbecke died only a month or two after moving in to the apartment and never left the building except to buy bootleg gin. Of course, substance abuse in the jazz world is nothing new. Just look at Charlie Parker, Lester Young or Fats Navarro, just to name three claimed by their personal demons. (If you want to learn more about this morbid subject, read Frederick Spencer’s Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats)

For this blog entry, I jumped onto the 7 train and took a trip out to Sunnyside, Queens to the apartment building where Beiderbecke spent the last weeks of his life. Located at 43-30 46th Street, the building still stands, and probably looks much the same as it did in 1931. These days, a plaque can be found on thebrick exterior marking the building as a historical landmark. The plaque was installed in 2003 by The Bix Beiderbecke Sunnyside Memorial Committee to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Bix Beiderbecke is an interesting figure in jazz history. Like Buddy Bolden, he has achieved a sort of mythological status over the years. This isn’t surprising considering his life story plays out like an operatic tragedy: a young gifted musician leaves his small town home to venture to the big city, makes a name for himself, then succumbs to the vices of the musician’s life. So why does Beiderbecke’s life and music continue to fascinate people so many years later? Perhaps it was due to the fact that Beiderbecke's story has been so often romanticized in the years since. People seem to prefer to remember him as a tortured artist who died for the sake of his music. His life story was even the subject of a famous movie with Kirk Douglas, “Young Man with a Horn” as well as the Italian movie, “Bix.”

In reality, Beiderbecke’s story wasn't so glamorous. There are plenty of articles and books written about his life, but here are the Cliffs Notes: Born in Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke showed signs of being a prodigious musical talent at a very early age. In 1923, he left Iowa permanently for Chicago, the center of the jazz world in that time. There, he made some of his more famous records with the Wolverines including such classics as “Jazz Me Blues” and "Riverboat Shuffle." After a stint in Detroit with Jean Goldkette’s band, Beiderbecke joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, one of the most famous bands of the time. The music recorded with Whiteman’s music hasn't survived the test of time as well as his solo recordings or his sides with the Wolverines. In fact, the historical worth of the Whiteman recordings comes mostly from the fact that they contain Beiderbecke's solos. But joining Whiteman's band was a shrewd career move for Beiderbecke and served to showcase his talents to a wider audience.

It was also during this time that his infamous drinking problem began to spiral out of control, possibly exacerbated by the extensive recording and touring with the Whiteman orchestra. This self-destructive behavior was tolerated for a while, and Whiteman even supported Beiderbecke through a few failed stints in rehab, but eventually his behavior became more and more erratic. In 1929, Beiderbecke had a complete nervous breakdown and famously trashed a Cleveland hotel room. By 1930, his alcoholism began to adversely affect his playing and he had to leave the band. He was dead by August of the next year.

So that begs the question, for an artist with such a short career, why is he still so revered? Is this a classic case of an artist being declared a genius just because he died young? For younger jazz fans, Beiderbecke is one of those names thrown around in debates over race in jazz. Some argue that his importance in jazz history has been exaggerated and that he was a “great white hope” for white listeners uncomfortable with the notion of jazz as an African American art form. However, I don’t think this a fair assessment, nor do I think it a good reason to dismiss Beiderbecke’s contributions to the music. I would say that I don’t believe Beiderbecke’s impact to be anywhere equal to that of Louis Armstrong. To my ears, Beiderbecke never reached the same heights of innovation and technical achievement, and Armstrong was undoubtedly a greater influence on the music world and popular culture in general. So, I do think it is a bit disingenuous when people try to depict Beiderbecke as a figure of equal importance in history.

However, it is clear that Beiderbecke was one of the preeminent jazz cornetists of the 1920s and a supremely gifted improviser who influenced a score of musicians who came after him. It is well documented that Beiderbecke influenced his white contemporaries like Frank Trombauer, Hoagy Carmichael and Bing Crosby. But he was equally respected by black musicians, including Louis Armstrong himself, who in his autobiography “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans” said, “Every musician in the world knew and admired Bix...we all respected him as though he had been a god.” Or take Freddie Hubbard’s recording of Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist” on his 1972 album “Sky Dive” as another example of his continued influence in the jazz trumpet lineage.

A good way to understand exactly what Beiderbecke brought to this music would be to compare his improvisational style with that of his contemporary, Louis Armstrong. In the examples below, we hear two clips of Royal Garden Blues, one by Beiderbecke and the other by Armstrong. I should preface this by saying the Armstrong clip is from a later period in his career, so this isn’t the ideal comparison. Despite this, the difference is pretty striking. Both players are melodically inventive, but Beiderbecke’s style is much more understated. He seems more focused on creating a cogent, logical melody than communicating any overt emotions in his playing. Armstrong, on the other hand, incorporates the blues to a much greater degree, swings harder and plays all over the trumpet. Check out the way he ends the tune by effortlessly jumping up to a double G.

These differences aren't surprising when you look at the backgrounds of both musicians. Armstrong grew up in the ghetto of New Orleans and was immersed in the blues and ragtime of the Storyville bars and brothels. On a technical level, it isn't surprising that he would be the superior player, as New Orleans musicians have a long tradition of technical proficiency. This is due to the nature of musical life in New Orleans. The sheer number of gigs, the noise level in bars and parades, and the musical competitiveness all worked together to breed brass players who could peel paint off of the wall with their sounds. To this day, trumpeters like Nicholas Payton and Trombone Shorty continue the tradition of playing with a huge sound and tons of technical facility. Beiderbecke, on the other hand, grew up in white, middle class Iowa and spent a good chunk of his musical career playing with the classically influenced Whiteman Orchestra. Beiderbecke himself was famously influenced by European classical music as can be heard in his compositions. So it's not surprising the he would develop a more cerebral, relaxed playing style. There was a sort of unsentimental, unembellished beauty in his playing that wouldn't come along again until the so-called “cool jazz” of the 1950s.

In the end, one can't help but wonder what Beiderbecke would have achieved had he not self-destructed. Imagine the recordings he could have made had he lived into the big band era. Despite his folk hero status in popular culture, his music continues to captivate fans and musicians for his unusual purity of tone and clarity of ideas. And so what if his life story gets embellished a little as time goes on. The recordings he left us aren't going anywhere and will always be there to remind that it is his musical legacy that is important, not his personal foibles. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Ghosts of Harlem's Jazz Heritage

View Harlem Jazz Tour in a larger map

Recently, I decided to take a trip downtown from my neighborhood in Inwood to check out some sites in Harlem. While I've spent a lot of time in Harlem over the past four years, I realized that it never really jived with the Harlem that exists in my imagination.  The Harlem of my imagination is the Harlem of the 20's and 30's, in the height of the Harlem Renaissance. So I decided to do some investigating and find the original sites of some of the most famous jazz clubs in history. What I came to discover is that most of these sites are long gone, victims of urban decay or redevelopment. The good news is that there are efforts being made to preserve those few spots that still exist. 

Let's start our tour with one of the most famous clubs in jazz history, the Cotton Club. The club was originally opened as Club Deluxe by heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson in 1920 at the corner of 142nd St. and Lenox Ave. In 1923, a gangster named Owney Madden took over the club while imprisoned in Sing Sing and the club's name was officially changed to Cotton Club. It probably comes as no surprise that Madden's plans were to sell bootleg beer during the prohibition era, and the club was a successful speakeasy during those days.

The Cotton Club is perhaps known best for the part it played in launching Duke Ellington's career. In addition to Ellington, everyone from Fletcher Henderson to Lena Horne to Cab Calloway performed there, and its impact on jazz history is undeniable. But it's also a stark reminder of the racism of the times. The club's name alone should be a giveaway to the lingering stereotypes imposed on black performers of that era. The club, which operated from until 1940, featured black musicians and dancers performing for a whites only audience. The shows at the Cotton Club often depicted performers in a romanticized plantation south setting, or as outright jungle savages. The chorus girls were famously known as being "tall, tan and terrific." (The tan in those days really meant light-skinned, as white audiences found this more palatable.) In many ways, the club went against the values of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance movement, which criticized black performers who perpetuated old stereotypes to entertain white audiences. However, out of this environment, the music of Duke Ellington's music formed, a music that transcended its racist trappings. Eventually, Ellington's music reached national audiences through radio broadcasts from the club.

From a jazz trumpet perspective, I can't mention Ellington without mentioning people like Bubber Miley, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams. If you aren't familiar with them, be sure to check them out as well as all of the other famous Ellington trumpeters. In the meantime, I thought I'd include one of my favorite Ellington trumpet features of all time. It's a Mary Lou Williams arrangement of "Blue Skies" called "Trumpet(s) No End," and features Taft Jordan, Harold 'Shorty' Baker, Cat Anderson and Ray Nance. This is one of the most ridiculous displays of trumpet pyrotechnics I've ever heard. But notice it's not an empty display of technical ability. All of the players are absolutely swinging their butts off! (It's worth mentioning that this is from the late 40's, after Ellington's Cotton Club days.)

As you can guess from the photo below, that is not the original Cotton Club building. The history of the Cotton Club tells the larger story of most US cities in the latter part of the 20th century. By the 1960's the building was unused and in disrepair. New York, like most American cities, was reeling from the urban flight caused by automobiles and the subsequent rise of suburbia. The poorer areas of most cities were hit hardest, and Harlem was no exception. Eventually, the Cotton Club was torn down to make way for the Bethune Tower apartments, which were completed in 1970. This monolithic building was just one of many such towers constructed in New York during the period of Robert Moses's controversial urban renewal projects. Many felt that these projects tore apart the natural urban fabric of New York. And while the Cotton Club may have always been doomed for demolition, I must admit that the building there now is a pretty depressing alternative. 

It is also worth mentioning that the Cotton Club has moved twice since it originally opened, the first time in 1936 to 48th and Broadway. Many of the famous photos of the club are from this location, not the location in Harlem. After the midtown location closed in 1940, the Cotton Club disappeared until 1978, when it was resurrected by the current owner, John Beatty, in its new location at West 125 St. near the Hudson River (photo to left). While it's certainly nice that the club still exists in some form in Harlem, its only real tie with the original club is in name only. To visit the current Cotton Club's website, click here.

In the 20's and 30's, Lenox Ave. was the main drag for clubs in Harlem. Just down the block from the Cotton Club at what was 596 Lenox Avenue is the original location for the Savoy Ballroom, which operated from  1926 to 1958. The Savoy was ground zero for the Lindy Hop dance movement during the swing era.  The 10,000 square feet ballroom was housed on the second floor of a building that was an entire block long and was known by people in Harlem as "the Track," due to the fact that the floor was so long and thin. Legend has it that the club's floor saw so much dancing, it had to be completely replaced every three years.

Unlike the Cotton Club, there was a no-discrimination policy at the Savoy. Although the patrons were mostly Harlem residents, people of all races and backgrounds traveled to the Savoy to dance. The famous house band at the Savoy was led by Chick Webb, one of the most virtuosic drummers of the swing era. The Savoy became famous for its "Battle of the Bands" contests in which Webb's band would alternate tunes with some of the top bands of the day, including Benny Goodman and Count Basie. 

Like the Cotton Club, there's nothing left of the Savoy except a modern housing complex, another result of the mid-century urban renewal on Lenox Ave. There is however a plaque commemorating the original club that was erected in 2002. To find out more about the plaque and the organization behind it, click here.

Our walk through Harlem is also a walk along the timeline of jazz. Next stop, the early 1940's and Minton's Playhouse. Located at 210 West 118th Street in Harlem, Minton's was founded by tenor saxophonist Henry Minton in 1938. In 1940, the manager hired a house band which included Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke. Hill also instituted the Monday Celebrity Nights, during which many guest musicians would stop by, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, and Lester Young. Through these late night sessions, the musical revolution that later became known as bebop took shape.The trumpet duels between Gillespie and Eldridge became legendary. To get a sense of what this might have sounded like, check out Gillespie and Eldridge going at it along with a couple of other trumpet players, Teddy Buckner and Bill Coleman.

After the early 1940's, Minton's continued to serve jazz to Harlem, but the club never had the same influence that it did in the 40's, and in 1974, it finally shut its doors. But that isn't the end of the story. In 2006, Earl Spain, owner of the now defunct St. Nick's Pub,  finally reopened Minton’s in its original location. I visited the club during this incarnation back in 2009. Unfortunately, I was one of only a handful of people there, and the club seemed to be operating on a shoestring budget. Sure enough, it closed again in 2010. As of 2013, things are looking up again. Businessman Richard D. Parsons, who headed two Fortune 500 companies, has bought the club and plans to revive it as a jazz centerpiece of Harlem. Click here for more information for the future plans for Minton's.

Next up, the Lenox Lounge. Located at 288 Lenox Avenue, the club opened in 1939 and featured jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Everyone from Langston Hughes to Malcolm X were known to hang out there. Like a lot of businesses in Harlem, it fell into disrepair after the 50's, that is until Alvin Reid, Sr. purchased it in 1988 and restored the original Art Deco interior. The Lenox Lounge was a fixture on the Harlem landscape until just last year when a rent increase forced Reid out of the building. He made the announcement that he would relocate to a spot down the street at 333 Lenox Avenue, and that the new spot would retain the look of the original club. But to do that, he removed all of its Art Deco trimmings including furnishings, banquettes, wallpaper, doors and even the original neon sign. Reid claimed that the interior was his as per the original agreement with the building owner, but the owner of the original location claims that these items belong to him. To read more about the dispute, click here. Either way, the end result is that the location is now a bit of an eyesore. A new club is slated to open in the original location, but as gentrification continues in Harlem (a Whole Foods is due to open across the street), I imagine the new club will never quite feel the same. 

Named for its owner Edwin Smalls, Small's Paradise was opened in 1925 at 2294½ Seventh Avenue and, along with the Cotton Club, was one of the hottest spots for music in Harlem in the 1920's. Like the Savoy, Small's Paradise was a racially integrated club. As the house band, Smalls hired Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, which would serve as the house band for the next ten years and feature, among others, trumpet player Jabbo Smith. Smith was a technically gifted player and was often promoted as a sort of rival to Louis Armstrong, but his approach was a bit more flashy in comparison to Armstrong's effortless-sounding improvisations. Check out some of his playing in the clip below:

Unlike most clubs of the 20's and 30's, Small's stayed in business and continued to feature jazz well into the 50's and 60's. In fact some well-known albums were recorded there including Jimmy Smith's "Groovin' at Small's Paradise." Eventually the club succumbed to popular taste and began featuring rock and roll and later even disco acts.  In the 1960's, basketball star Wilt Chamberlain reopened the restaurant as "Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise" and booked musicians such as King Curtis and Ray Charles. The club was successful for several years, but eventually called it quits 1986. It is worth noting that another club called Smalls did open up in the West Village in 1993 and is still operating today. I've played there and it's probably my favorite club in the city, but it is unaffiliated with Small's Paradise. For more information on the original Small's Paradise, check out the excellent article in Harlem World Mag here as well as the excellent blog post by historian Mark Jones here.

As you can see today, all traces of the club are long gone, but the building is still standing. Unfortunately, it's now an IHOP. Not exactly an inspiring replacement for such a famous jazz landmark.

Also, check out this youtube clip of a former Small's musician who talking about what the club used to look like. Pretty interesting...

Next up is the famous Apollo Theatre. The building that now houses the Apollo Theater at 253 W. 125th Street originally opened in around 1914 as "Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theater," a segregated whites-only theater. In 1933 Fiorello La Guardia began a campaign against burlesque and the club closed briefly and then reopened as the Apollo with variety revues aimed at drawing the growing African-American community in Harlem. Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher took over the Apollo two years later and introduced an "Audition Night" to the club's offerings. This of course evolved in the club's famous "Amateur Night," which helped launch the careers of everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to the Jackson 5.

As with many clubs in Harlem, the Apollo fell into disrepair in the 1960's. The Schiffman and Brecher families continued to run the theater until the late 1970's, when it was forced to shut down. In 1981, it was purchased by Percy Sutton, who set out to secure federal, state, and city landmark status for the location. The theater finally reopened in 1985 and in 1991 and became part of the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit organization. To visit the Apollo Theater website, click here.

Finally we have the photo to the left. I stumbled onto this on while walking back to the train on 135th street. It's part of the Harlem Walk of Fame, which is a series of sidewalk plaques embedded into the street between  Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards. According to this website, the walk of fame is a somewhat abandoned project by the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce from about ten years ago. It was originally to be part of the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame, which never came into being.

Well, that's it for the tour. I hope you've enjoyed this long-winded blog entry, and hopefully you've learned something about Harlem's jazz heritage. I know I left out many hotspots like the Alhambra Ballroom, Clark Monroe's Uptown House and the Sugar Cane Club among others, but this blog entry is probably long enough as it is. If you live in the city, I urge you to visit any of these clubs that are still in business. I'm really hoping the best for Minton's. As one of the birthplaces of modern jazz, it's an important landmark. Also, if you're interested in visiting any of the other spots mentioned in the blog, you can find the locations at the top of the page in the embedded Google map. Till next time...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Art of Pitch Inflections

As I mentioned in my Teaching Philosophy section, most of the posts in this blog will steer clear of things like scales and theory, and focus more on the inflections that are crucial to jazz. This music was originally an aural tradition, and I feel we have moved a bit too far away from that in recent years as more and more people begin to look to books for instruction. I’m all for having an organized jazz curriculum, but as educators, I feel we have to find more ways to incorporate listening and imitation into the learning process. It’s also important to look at the cultural context of jazz. Jazz is an African American tradition, and the musical inflections used by its greatest players - from Louis Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard - were distinctly African American. Like all great music, jazz now belongs to all humankind. But if you want to honor the tradition of this music, you have to address its musical inflections.

Inflection is one of the things that give the music its spirit. Without it, your solos are doomed to sound sterile and antiseptic. I like to use language as an analogy for this. Imagine Martin Luther King’s great “I Have a Dream” speech in your mind’s ear. Now imagine that someone who had never heard this famous speech was handed the written speech on a sheet of paper. Do you think that person would be as moved by the words as someone who had heard it in person? Of course not! It was Dr. King’s delivery that elevated these pretty words on paper into a transcendent experience. The inflections and cadences he adopted from the African American church tradition gave the words an emotional depth that can’t be conveyed on a piece of paper. It is this emotional depth that speaks to something deeper in all of us, and without it, the most cleverly written speech will never make it past the brain to the heart. In the same way, the jazz solos of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis contain essential emotional information conveyed through things like articulation, rhythmic feel, and vibrato. These inflections are subtle and highly complex, and cannot be represented by notes on a piece of paper any more than the passion of Dr. King’s speech can be conveyed merely by writing down the words.

Since my last post had to do with Louis Armstrong, I thought I would talk about shaping (or bending) notes, a technique of which Louis Armstrong was a master. I’m not talking about extreme half-valve bending from one octave to another, which is usually used more as a novelty. I am talking about the subtle bending that all great jazz musicians employ. While pitch-bending goes all the way back to West Africa, it is one of the defining characteristics of all Black American Music (to use the apt moniker by Nicholas Payton). In the early development of jazz, musicians took European musical forms like marches and applied an African American aesthetic to them by incorporating vocal aspects of the blues and church music among others. On stringed instruments such as the guitar, pitch bending is easy, but when it came to the trumpet, musicians had to find creative ways to make it happen.

First, a little bit on how the trumpet works. The trumpet is essentially a glorified amplifier for the mouthpiece. However, it has one other important function. Unlike the mouthpiece, which doesn’t lock the player into any particular notes, the trumpet locks the vibration of the lips into distinct pitches called “partials,” which are basically the notes of the overtone series. The overtone series is the series of sympathetic pitches that make up any vibrating object. As a trumpet player, you can move up and down the partials by holding the same fingering and adjusting the vibration of your lips until the horn kicks up or down a note in the series. This happens because the vibrations of your lips are locking into place with the acoustics of the horn.

But what happens when you purposefully and artfully play “out of tune”? Early jazz players learned quickly that you can add expressiveness to your playing by lipping up so just enough so that the note doesn’t lock in with the horn, but not so much that the horn goes into the next partial. Suddenly, the possibilities of the trumpet opened up. In one instance, it could be an instrument capable of playing precise technical passages like the Carnival of Venice. The next moment, it could be a fluid instrument capable of imitating the human voice. Louis Armstrong in particular was the greatest at switching back and forth from these two roles. Just compare his highly technical introduction to West End Blues to the very vocal way he plays the melody. In this way, he gets the best of both worlds, the clarity and precision of an instrumentalist and the liquid expressiveness of a vocalist.

So let’s talk in more detail about how to actually do this. To get started, take a look at Figure 1 below. Imagine the horizontal bar as the sound of the third space “C” as dictated by your trumpet. In trumpetspeak, we call this “slotting.” Within this slot, you have some wiggle room in which the trumpet will allow you to play some version of a “C.” If you buzz in the center of the bar, the note will sound in-tune. Buzz a little high and it’s sharp. Buzz a tad low and it’s flat. Think of the lines at the top and bottom of this “C” is the threshold to the next note in the overtone series. Buzz any higher and the trumpet will kick the note up to an E. Buzz too low, and the trumpet will play a G. The trick is therefore to play around in the area of “C” without going past these thresholds.

Begin by playing a long tone on third space C, as you would in a classical piece. Imagine playing in the dead center of the pitch (as represented below in Figure 1) so that you get a nice broad sound. Next, play the C again and slowly buzz up to the next note, and then buzz back down to the center again (as in Figure 2). It will help to adjust your tongue position from the open “aaah” syllable to the “eeeh” position. As you practice this, you’ll get a feel for just how far you can push the note up before you go past the threshold line and the trumpet wants to kick up to the E above. The trick is to know what that threshold feels like. For help, listen to the audio clip below Figure 2. I’ll start by playing an open long tone “correctly” if you will, and then lipping up to create this effect.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Play Audio Clip

Let's hear how this actually used in music. We’ll start by checking out another clip of the master himself, Louis Armstrong. Listen to how he shapes each note of his solo on “Back O’ Town Blues”:

Now let’s break this down. In the clip below, I’ll play a lick in concert Ab (our Bb) similar  to one Armstrong used in the clip, first with no inflections (Figure 3), and then with some note bending (Figure 4). See Figure 4 for a visual representation:

Figure 3

Figure 4

Play Audio Clip

Again, this is all done by lipping up or down within the note as dictated by the trumpet. There's no half-valving involved. As you can see, I only lipped up on the first C#. On the second C#, I made a full arc pointing down to the last Bb. Lastly, I added some vibrato, which is basically the same technique done in fast motion. Some people prefer a hand vibrato, but that's another debate for another time.

This technique gives the phrase a sense of emotion and forward momentum that it does not have when it’s played in the traditional classical sense. As in the example above, you’ll find this type of bending works great on the “blue notes" of the key center, that is the b3, b5 and b7. I am always hesitant to call these “blue notes,” because the feeling of the blues happens not from the notes themselves, but from the space between these notes and their upper chromatic neighbors. The tension that comes from bending or reaching up from the dissonance of these notes to their consonant upper neighbors, the 3rd, 5th and 7th degrees of the major scale, creates a musical sense of longing that is totally unique to the blues. And while the blues has come to define the black experience in America, the music itself speaks to all people, because it conveys a sense of emotional struggle is part of the human condition.

Probably no other trumpet player in the history of this music has mastered the inflections of the blues better than Clark Terry. We’ll talk about some of the other techniques he employed such as tonguing techniques and growls in later posts. But for now, check out the clip below. No one could touch Clark Terry on a slow blues.

As with any idiosyncratic technique, there are always pitfalls. The technique of adjusting your pitch should only be used with a solid foundation of trumpet fundamentals. In other words, you should also be doing long tones and exercises that reinforce good intonation. If you don’t keep up with your fundamental trumpet technique, you’ll eventually lose your concept of “home base,” that is, the center of the note where it resonates best with the trumpet and is in tune. If your focus on being expressive to the exclusion of your basic trumpet skills, you’ll eventually find yourself playing sloppily and out-of-tune. So be warned!

It is also worth mentioning that certain horns have more room inside the note than others. The “slotting” as we referred to it earlier, is often loose on horns by makers like Martin Committee or Inderbinen. While this allows for more expressiveness, the tradeoff is that you have to be that much more accurate as a player to play classical or ensemble passages in tune, as the horn does less work in directing the pitch. It can also make fast passages sound kind of flubby. On the other hand, I have found that horns by makers like Yamaha are often too slotted for my tastes, and have less room for expressiveness, but sound very clean and precise in other styles of music. I prefer Bachs as they are a good middle-of-the-road horn in this respect.

We’ll that’s it. As I mentioned, this basic concept has been used in a million different ways by all of the great jazz trumpeters, but hopefully this will serve to get you thinking about how the pitch is manipulated when you hear a solo. Remember, it's not just the notes that are important, but how they are played!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Louis Armstrong House and the Mystery of King Oliver's Grave

I know. I know. It's been over a year since my last post, but a lot has happened since then. First and foremost, I got married! That took a lot of planning on its own. Between gigs and my day job, it hasn't bean easy to find time to blog but I'm happy to be back. As I have a backlog of jazz trumpet-related things I've been meaning to write about, I thought I'd combine a couple of them into one. Since moving to NYC three years ago, I have made a point to check out as many jazz landmarks as I can. In this post, I'll be talking about two separate trips to opposite ends of the city.

My first trip might seem a little morbid at first, but it actually proved to be pretty interesting. I'm talking about my trip to the Woodlawn Cemetery. One beautiful summer afternoon, I decided to take the 4 train up into the Bronx to the last stop, which happens to be right near the entrance of one of the largest cemeteries in New York City. At over 400 acres, Woodlawn Cemetary and is the resting place for more than 300,000 people, including some very famous jazz trumpeters. The most well-known gravesite probably belongs to Miles Davis, and it is a mecca of sorts for many jazz fans. I don't need to go on about Miles's contributions to 20th Century American music. I will say that it is worth coming to to visit this site if you are looking for a peaceful day of contemplation. The gravestone is located in a shady area just a few feet from Duke Ellington's grave. From what I have been told, the music on the bottom of the tombstone is from Davis's solo on "Solar".

But today's blog isn't actually about Miles Davis. It's about two of the most important trumpeters in the history of jazz. Both grew up in the Big Easy and made their final resting place in the Big Apple. I'm talking about Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong. As we all know, Joe Oliver was the mentor to Louis Armstrong. He was personally responsible for bringing Armstrong to Chicago, putting him in the national spotlight, and starting him on the path to stardom. But Oliver was a monster player in his own right, and is integral to the history of jazz.

The Mystery of King Oliver's Grave

The reason I mention Oliver is that I had been told he was buried at Woodlawn. Imagine my surprise when, after searching for an hour to find his grave, I came across a small inconspicuous headstone in a back corner of the cemetery. There I saw the name Joseph "King" Oliver on the same marker as a 5-year-old boy who died 13 years earlier named Godfrey Emmett Moody. Who was Godfrey Emmett Moody, and how was he related to Joe Oliver? I had to get to the bottom of this mystery.

The story begins in the last years of Oliver's life. Still in New York City, Oliver continued to lead groups and record, but dental issues made it painful to play the cornet. To make things worse, he eventually lost his entire life savings to a collapsed bank in Chicago during the Great Depression. The final straw occurred when his tour bus broke down in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Oliver didn't have money for repairs, so he called his friend and booking agent Frank Dilworth, Jr. to pick him up. Dilworth brought Oliver to Savannah, GA, and he ended up settling there until his death. By that point, he had lost most of his teeth, was unable to play the cornet, and had to work wherever he could in order to make ends meet. This included selling produce from a fruit stand, and even working as a janitor/attendant at pool hall. Sadly, Oliver died in a rooming house on April 10, 1938 at the age of 52 of arteriosclerosis. His condition was exacerbated by the fact that he had stopped taking his blood pressure medication due to a lack of money.

So how did Oliver end up in Woodlawn Cemetery? Cut to the 1990's when Bruce Gast, Treasurer of the New Jersey Jazz Society, took it upon himself to find Oliver's final resting place. He had heard that Oliver was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave. After some investigation, he discovered that Oliver's wife (who was separated from him at the time of his death) was able to pay the transport and burial costs from Savannah to New York, but could not afford a separate grave or a headstone. As a result, he was buried in the same grave as a young child who had died years earlier. A gravestone already existed for the child, but the cemetery would not allow two stones per grave. Generously, the family of Godfrey Emmett Moody agreed to allow the New Jersey Jazz Society to remove the original headstone in 1994 and replace it with one that would include both names. (For more information on this fascinating story, click here.)

The last years of Joe Oliver's life is an almost cliche ending to the story of so many great artists who die in obscurity only to be celebrated decades later. Even in the modern era this story continues to play out. I am reminded of Frank Foster, who passed away only last year. When he suffered a stroke in 2001, he could no longer travel or perform. Even with the help of his fans and fellow musicians, he struggled to earn enough money to live at a time in his life when he needed it the most. NPR actually interviewed Foster about his financial struggles as an aging jazz musician. You can hear it in its entirety here. If you would like to assist other musicians who are in the same boat, I urge you to visit the Jazz Foundation of America website, as they are a national organization dedicated to helping elder jazz musicians.

The Louis Armstrong House

Part of the legacy of Joe Oliver is his role as a mentor to Louis Armstrong, which brings us to my next trip. After a long ride on the 7 train out to Corona Queens, I found myself at 34-56 107th Street near, the former home of none other than Pops himself. Known today as The Louis Armstrong House, this home belonged to Armstrong and his wife Lucille from 1943 until 1971 when he passed away. The home was given to the city for the explicit purpose that it be turned into a museum honoring Armstrong's life. The Building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1988 and a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Without a doubt, the Louis Armstrong House is my favorite jazz landmark in the city. The home has been painstakingly restored to look just as it did when Armstrong lived there. When I first walked into the museum, I was greeted to a gift shop run by the museum's friendly staff. They also had a small exhibit in the back with memorabilia, including Louis's balanced action Selmer horn!

But the real magic happened when I entered the house itself. After purchasing my tickets, a curator lead our group up the front stairs and we entered Louis's living room. (I was instructed that there is no photography in the house, so I am unable to provide images.) To my surprise, the room looked just as it must have the day Armstrong died, complete with worn furniture. After a short introduction, the curator touched a button on the wall and I heard Louis's voice as it was recorded years ago in that very room. If you aren't aware, Armstrong loved to take his reel-to-reel recorder with him everywhere, and fortunately for us, he captured many hours of his personal life on tape. As I listened to his voice, I had the eerie feeling that I had walked into a time warp and that Armstrong himself might walk into the room at any moment.

We slowly made out way through the entire house, and in each room we heard a recording from Louis's personal life. Several of the rooms still had many of Lucille Armstrong's quirky design choices, including a walk-in closet with silver foil wallpaper and a Jetsons-like kitchen with turquoise blue cabinets. According to our guide, this color was chosen because of Lucille Armstrong's turquoise Cadillac. She loved the car so much, she ordered the same color paint directly from GM to use on her space-age metal cabinets. But my favorite room in the house was Armstrong's den. Unlike the state-of-the-art kitchen, the den was a small modest room with wood panelling and stacks of Armstrong's records and reel-to-reel tapes. It was clear that this room was Armstrong's personal space. I could just imagine him sitting in the den practicing with the window open as the neighborhood kids stood below listening.

In the end, the Louis Armstrong House confirmed my feelings on the importance of Armstrong's legacy as both a musician and a human being. Musical contributions aside, Louis Armstrong’s greatest legacy was the mark he left on the world as a human being. He devoted his entire life to traveling the globe to share his musical artistry and exuberance with people in dozens of countries and from all walks of life. He was a true musical humanitarian. The Louis Armstrong House is the perfect monument to a man who could connect with people from the entire spectrum of humanity, from the bawdy inhabitants of Storyville to members of European royalty. While he could have resided in a penthouse apartment, he chose to live with people in a working class Corona neighborhood. Although I didn't get a chance to visit it on my trip, it is also worth noting that Louis Armstrong was buried in Flushing Cemetery, which also contains the gravesite for Dizzy Gillespie.

To tie things all together, I leave you now with the interview below. In it, Armstrong talks candidly about his time with King Oliver's band. For a while, the lives of Armstrong and Oliver followed the same trajectory. Both worked their way from the rough streets of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago and New York. But the ultimate destinies of these two musicians could not have been more different.

The Louis Armstrong House
Woodlawn Cemetery

Sunday, June 12, 2011

My Lesson With Ingrid Jensen

It’s long overdue, but I’m finally doing an entry on my lesson with the Ingrid Jensen! I met Ingrid years ago, when I was first starting out as a jazz player and attending classes at the University of Tennessee. I learned that she was teaching at a jazz camp in Spartanburg, SC, so I jumped in my car and drove up to take a lesson with her. I ran into Ingrid again when I performed in the Carmine Caruso Competition in 2005. That was the first time I heard her perform live, and it absolutely blew me away. She played all over the trumpet, playing really original lines that I hadn't heard before. When I moved back to New York in 2009, I knew I wanted to reconnect with her to pick her brain a little more. As it happens, she was just about to participate in a new series of videos on a website called The site provides online videos of established players giving lessons, and Ingrid invited me to sit in on the video as her student. She did a great job with the lessons and the video is chocked full of useful information. It will be available soon as a download or as a DVD, so be sure to visit the website to buy a copy and to support Ingrid and this great company. After having a couple of on-camera lessons, I also met with Ingrid at her apartment in Astoria, Queens to follow up in more detail with what we talked about in the previous lessons. At the time she was well into her pregnancy and was playing as great as ever.
For those people who aren’t familiar with Ingrid Jensen, here’s a quick Cliffs Notes on her musical background. She was born in Vancouver and raised in Nanaimo, Canada where she grew up in a musical family and was exposed to jazz and classical music at an early age. When she finally left Canada, it was to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Like a lot of serious players, she decided to move to New York after her studies and jump into the musical fray. After years of hard work, she has built a name for herself as one of the new creative voices on the trumpet. Most people are familiar with Ingrid from her work with the Grammy winning Maria Schneider Orchestra. She is also involved with the IJQ with Geoffrey Keezer, Project O, Nordic Connect and a number of other projects. But, she is just as busy, if not more so, as a leader and has released several CD's for the ENJA and ArtistShare labels. (Be sure to visit her website here and support her music by buying a CD!) She continues to tour the world as a performer and clinician. Here is a feature on Ingrid on Canadian TV:
Ingrid is one of the few people around today with a truly unique playing style, but she also has her own personal way of practicing and teaching. As an educator myself, I find taking lessons from different players to be a fascinating study in how very different strategies can be equally effective. At the same time, I have found that at the core of any good teacher is an emphasis on fundamentals. It's just that different teachers package or present these fundamentals in very different ways. For instance, some players and teachers I have studied with are very methodical in the way they practice and organize their time, sometimes to the point of tedium.
Ingrid on the other hand has a much more Zen-like approach to playing the trumpet and to approaching music in general. Although the use of the word "Zen" has become a bit of a new age cliche in recent years, it really does describe Ingrid's approach to a T. Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes experiential knowledge and intuition over theoretical knowledge. Ingrid never mentioned the word Zen, but it was the first word I thought of when trying to describe her approach to music. We didn't talk a lot about method books or pedagogical philosophies. Instead, she showed me several simple but effective exercises are designed to naturally move the player in the right direction through focused repetition. Ingrid is a highly intuitive player and both her practice sessions and her playing style felt very fluid, flowing naturally from one thing to the next.

To give you an example of Ingrid's unique approach to practicing, she uses a drone machine to augment her warm-ups and lessons. When she first pulled this little machine out, I have to admit I didn't know what to make of it, but I soon found it added a whole new dynamic practicing. By providing just a single tone to play off of, I felt like I was creating music at all times, even when practicing things like mouthpiece buzzing, which seemed inherently unmusical before. All of a sudden, the note I buzzed on the mouthpiece became a part of a musical exchange with the drone. By changing my note, I was creating new intervals and thus forming musical ideas.
A lot of players tend to separate their time between practicing the trumpet and practicing music. Ingrid explained that her goal is to include music in all aspects of playing. She uses the drone for everything from mouthpiece buzzing to long tones to working out her ideas on the trumpet. The constant reference note that a drone machine provides can also alert players to mistakes in intonation and sound quality they might not have noticed while practicing on their own. On a more subtle level, the drone had an effect on the lesson as a whole in that it tended to put me in a sort of calm, receptive frame of mind. Of course, humankind has been using the drone for thousands of years to achieve this effect, and John Coltrane even learned to incorporate it into jazz, but I had never thought to incorporate into a practice session.
Once I saw how Ingrid practices and teaches, many of the unique aspects of her playing style that I wondered about began to make sense. Her approach to the trumpet is very similar to the way Kenny Werner plays the piano. Werner actually wrote a book several years ago called “Effortless Mastery,” and Ingrid’s approach falls right in line with many of concepts laid out in this book. Both have styles that are very chromatic and very fluid. They also seem to have an effortless command over their instruments. When Ingrid plays, it is obvious that her body is very relaxed. There is none of the tension or straining that most people accept as a fact of life when playing the trumpet. Over the years, she has learned to find the path of least resistance on the instrument so that she can focus on expressing her musical ideas instead fighting through her horn. She gave me pointers from everything from how to stand without tension to how to practice with a lead pipe to find the center of the note. All of the lessons focused on simple ideas that emphasize playing freely without unnecessary tension.
I found it fascinating how Ingrid incorporates some of the established practice methods into this philosophy. She has studied everything from the Alexander Technique to the Caruso Method (from trumpeter/teacher Laurie Frink). She even studied with Bill Adam himself. Instead of sticking religiously to these methods as they were originally presented, she has learned to bring them into her own style of teaching. For instance, both the Bill Adam leadpipe routine and the Caruso Six Notes can both be utilized with the drone to add a new twist on these already great exercises.

The same goes with her approach to improvisation. When I asked her about how she comes up with her highly original chromatic lines, she didn’t give me a heady diatribe about chord superimposition or scale theory. Instead, she showed me a simple exercise: Take a simple grouping of four notes and then practice playing just those notes in as many variations as possible. Next, play these notes over different drone notes to get a feel for how the character of that note grouping changes in relationship to different tonal centers. Add a few chromatic connecting notes here and there, and this note grouping will evolve into a series of unique musical ideas that you can use to move in and out of the chord changes. By creating these sorts of limitations, you will find you come up with lines and interval combinations you might never have discovered before.

Recently, Ingrid began investigating different ways to optimize her equipment. After many years of playing on a Bach, she has switched to a Monette horn. She explained that her goal is to have a trumpet/mouthpiece combination that plays in tune without relying on adjustments by the player. Because players tend to subconsciously adjust on certain notes that play out of tune, they end up reinforcing bad habits. These bad habits can make them prematurely tired as well as deaden the sound of the trumpet due to the fact that the player is buzzing off center to adjust for intonation. Ingrid explained that in order for your sound to really open up, you need to be playing in the resonating center of the note as dictated by the trumpet.
As you can tell, I learned a lot with my time with Ingrid. Here are some main points that I will definitely keep in the back of my mind as I practice in the future:
  • Always practice fundamentals: buzzing, long tones, lip slurs, etc.
  • Look for the path of least resistance in when dealing with the rumpet; focus on efficiency in your playing so that the trumpet is a vessel of your ideas, not an obstacle for them.
  • Stand with good posture to avoid tension in your body. (Too much tension can actually lead to injury.)
  • Make sure your equipment is working for you, not against you. Experiment with different equipment so that your horn blows freely with good natural intonation.
  • Create a practice session that allows you to focus in on your weaknesses while still making music at all times.
Remember, Ingrid's website is if you'd like more information on this great artist. Now on to the ten questions!
When did you begin to play trumpet and when did you begin learning jazz?

I began playing trumpet in 7th grade when I was living out on Vancouver Island and going to Cedar Elementary School. I started playing left-handed for the first three months until the band director noticed. I grew up listening to Louis Armstrong picking out solos like Basin Street Blues. I was pretty much improvising from the beginning. My house was a jazz house. My mother was a stride piano player. We had stacks and stacks of lead sheets around the house, so I was playing piano and trumpet from the beginning. I learned all of the standards in their original form with the verses. It was a really great way to grow up.
What is your practice routine?
My practice routine is very sporadic. The most basic is just a 20-minute drone through a few different key centers related to tunes I’m about to play. I also practice with the metronome at the tempo of one of the tunes I’m about to play so that my head is getting into the music immediately. At home, it’s much more involved. I play etudes and focus on areas I need to build on. So the work is never done and the more I get into it, the more I have to work on.
What traits of the great jazz trumpet players of the past do you value the most, and what have you done to address those aspects in your playing?
It’s about the character of the players that got me into wanting to pursue being me. Clark Terry asked me once if I’d ever met Louis Armstrong and I said I’d never had the pleasure. He said, “Pops would have liked you,” and that was huge information fro me. Here I was thinking I didn’t have a right to go on stage with confidence. That made me realize that if you’re a good person, and really open, and pursuing your character on the instrument, then you are following in the footsteps of the greats, because that’s what they were about. They were all serious voices of character resonating from within. I’m a fan of people who really go for it and are really honest when it comes to playing and are not trying to be someone else.
What have you tried to do to make your playing unique?
Striking out on my own as as leader has helped to force me to find my own voice. Michael Brecker came up to me one day and said “I heard a trumpet player on the radio on the radio the other day. I could not figure out for the life of me who that was. The announcer finally said it was you Ingrid Jensen!” I went beet red and I was so embarrassed and humbled. That was around the time I had stopped taking gigs I didn’t like and focusing on doing only what I really loved. And it made me pretty poor, but it was worth it.
Hakan Hakenberger is a good example of this. He listened when his teacher told him he didn’t have to be an orchestral player. He actually encouraged him to be a soloist. And for him to accept that responsibility and go forth with it is a lesson for all of us. I still don’t get calls from people I wish would hire me because I know I could play their music well. But I don’t use that as a discouraging factor. I want people to hire me for being me, not for being just a decent trumpet player. I decided one day, that I could either keep being a sideman and playing club date bands in Jersey for the rest of my life, or I could put myself in this position where I am now responsible for a band. I went through a phase of losing a lot of money. I survived from day to day but it was the best time of my life. It took a lot of time meeting people and chipping a way to build a reputation. Initially it was a real sacrifice, and we live in a culture of instant gratification.
What equipment do you play and how much does equipment play a factor in your approach?
I play a gold-plated Monette XLTJ STC trumpet. The horn was originally designed for another player, but I fell in love with it and ended up taking it instead. I love Dave Monette's horns and mouthpieces and feel like I've really settled on my horn. Of course a horn won't make you a great player, but it's important to find a horn and a mouthpiece that gives you the sound you want and makes an already difficult instrument a little easier.
Do you subscribe to any particular systems of trumpet technique (Caruso, Reinhardt, etc.)?
I studied the Caruso Method and Bill Adams, but I don’t subscribe to any one school.
Do you practice classical music, and if so, why?
I do practice classical music for endurance and accuracy. I’ll play Bach duets with someone else or play etudes. It also helps with focus.
Do you play any other instruments? If so, how do you think that impacts your conception of jazz trumpet playing?
I play some piano. I wouldn’t perform on I but it gives me a connection with harmony, melody and counterpoint.
Do you have any particular advice for aspiring jazz trumpet players?
Be patient. It’s one of those instruments that a lot of people give up on. Invest a lot of time on making the instrument speak. Work on your posture. Work on things outside of the trumpet to help you feel relaxed when you play.
What do you think of the jazz scene today?
I don’t know. I don’t really feel like I’m in the jazz scene anymore. I’m a little afraid of it because it seems to keep things boxed up. It’s very limiting and very political, so I’m just fortunate that I get to do crossover projects. I love doing classical things. It’s what I grew up with. I’m hopeful because there’s a new crop of musicians writing original music and really going for it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily jazz. Even Duke Ellington was hesitant about using the word jazz. These new artists are still making great music with improvisational elements that relate to swing and groove though. I myself am a swinger at heart. I will always play music that has the heart of Basie, the spirit of Louis and the effervescence of Clark Terry. That’s in my DNA. It’s what I grew up with and it has made me who I am. But at the same time, I will continue to play in odd meters and experiment with electronics. It’s part of what I hear now and it’s part of society. Whatever people thing about it. I don’t care. I’m too busy having fun.