Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Portrait of New Orleans

February 25, 2020

Since this is Mardi Gras, and while listening to appropriate music on downhome grassroots radio WNCW. . . I slipped into reminiscent mood about days gone by . . . re when I lived in Luzianna back in the day, long time ago, in the days of my youth and . . . remembering that a few years ago–2008– I got a wild hair and wrote a novel about genetic engineering and buried treasure back in that fabled bayou state. The story takes place in and near that historic Miss’ippi River Crescent city of N’Awlins.

In this scene, clipped from chapter 26, we find the silverspoon banker reprobate bad guy, Mick Basker, as he is recovering from a gun shot wound that he had gotten only because he stabbed the protagonist, Robby, in a moment of poor decision enflamed by a not-small nip of wine.

Now he’s laid up in a hospital room, until he receives a visit from Ophelia, a nice anthropologist lady (long story) and he asks her to give him a ride back to his warehouse where he has some stealthy business too attend to before it is too late. So Miss Ophelia obliges him. In this scene he is giving her the driving instructions to . . .

             “Turn right out of here. Take this street to Carrollton. Then turn right again.”  He slid the seat back as far as it would go, and stretched his right leg out. It was obvious Mick was dealing with some pain.

“You might have rushed it a bit, checking out of the hospital so soon,” said Opelia. Mick didn’t say anything. Driving the Jaguar was a new experience for Ophelia.  I could get used to this.    When they reached Carrollton Avenue, she turned right.

“Go up to the expressway, and turn right onto it.” They rode in silence for a few minutes.  Mick was nervous.  And so was Ophelia, not knowing what she had gotten herself into.  She had entered his room on an impulse about an hour and a half ago.  Now she was breezing along in control of a Jaguar on a concrete ribbon that stretched eastward, just a little higher than the funky city below.  It was about four in the afternoon. The city was hazy, like the unclear sort of agenda that seemed to hang over their expedition.  Or maybe the unclear agenda was in her mind. Ophelia had no idea where they were headed.   Over to the right were the brown and grey, dated, middle of the pack skyscraping obelisks of an old city whose glory days had checked out about 1965 or so, leaving generous tips for the bellmen and the cab drivers and the dancers and the jazzmen on the street and providing suitable gratuities for the artists and fortune tellers on Jackson Square, but no guaranteed income for those citizens born into the metropolis where every man is a king, and the queen of hearts trumps spades with the everpresent  half-empty glass in her hand and a gaggle of Mardi Gras beads coiled around her neck while the jack of diamonds stands outside  a strip club on Bourbon Street summoning desperate souls.

But it wasn’t entirely dicey.  New Orleans’ irresistible character  and native nobility was—in  spite of the worn-out rehearsals of a painted lady personsa whose playbill was perpetually posted on that old streetcar named desire—despite all that hurley-burley girly exploitation, its future  hung  upon, still, the solid hopes and noble dreams of a million creole souls whose thin checkbooks and postage stamp  domiciles sheltered them from the same deluge of disaster that lapped upon the levees or bridges or subways or suburbs or cul-de-sacs of any city in the wounded, wound-up  world.  Furthermore, there was still a place there where you could hear old colored men and young, hopeful white guys and gals who had a thing or two to learn about authentic music sing   Just a Closer Walk with Thee. There’s always hope. There’s always hope for a great city.  And I told him that.

“Take this exit,” said Mick.

GlassChpic

One more note about that New Orleans: have a listen:  When the Saints Go Marchin’ In!

Glass Chimera

The two great between-war Rhapsodies

November 10, 2018

The greater rhapsody is the American one.

Composed by George Gershwin and performed in 1924, Rhapsody in Blue embodies the merging of our native black-born jazz with highbrow classical European instrumentation.

RhapsClarinet

The other great rhapsodic composition of that time, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, created by the immigrant Sergei Rachmaninoff, represents a Russian music-master’s exploration of an Italian violin virtuoso’s experiments. It is also a great piece of music.

   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c33q87s03h4

Both rhapsodies are experimental, ground-breaking. Both are bouncy in their beginnings, disruptive in some transitional phrases. But both works resolve, rather suddenly, 2/3 of the way through development, to an exquisitely lush romantic theme.  The listener’s endurance in earlier discordant excursions through frantic forte poundings is unexpectedly rewarded with a sudden soothing melody. In both pieces, the earlier tensions disappear as they resolve,  melting into an absolutely beautiful melody.

And yet, both works return again to a frantic piano part before resolving again at the end.

Gershwin’s 1924 opus was intentionally concocted as a music experiment; it was commissioned by pioneering bandleader Paul Whiteman, and subsequently orchestrated by his jazzy arranger, Ferdy Grofé.

It turned out to be an extraordinary work of profound importance in the history of music.

By the 20th century, the hundreds-of-years old tradition of European classical music had reached an impasse. Composers were running out of ideas; they needed to break new ground. A morose preoccupation with dissonance and atonality threatened to turn orchestral music into academic drudgery.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Sergei Rachmaninoff fled Bolshevik Russia in 1917; in so doing, he also began a long process of escaping the heavy gravitational pull of a Continental musical death wish.

Europe’s rapid descent into World War I and wide-scale mechanized destruction was tragic.

America, on the other hand, was wide open with possibilities. Sergei traveled here and performed more and more frequently, accompanied by popular acclaim; ultimately he acquired US citizenship shortly before his death in 1943.

Before finally establishing residency Stateside, he had spent significant time in Dresden, Germany, and in Switzerland. While in Switzerland during the summer of 1934, he composed Rhapsody on a Theme by Pagnini.

It’s a marvelous piece of work.

Taking his inspiration from the great Italian violin virtuoso of a hundred years before, Sergei spun Niccolo’s multiple variations into an energetic iteration of thoroughly European rhapsody.

It was quite well done. . . profound, a notable accomplishment.

But Sergei did not have the benefit of one powerful influence that George Gershwin had been born into: a wide-open America with an entirely new beat, and worldview:

Black America.

America had given birth to Louis Armstrong, and  Louie— along with his ground-breaking black compadres— gave birth to jazz.

American jazz is what the Old World had been waiting for—though nobody knew—to get a new lease on creative life:

all that Jazz!

Atlantic City NJ honky bandleader Paul Whiteman was the pioneering musician who crossed the jazz bridge  that changed the world; later, he commissioned George Gershwin to compose Rhapsody in Blue, because Paul knew that something symphonically jazzy was needed.

And so Gershwin came up with Rhapsody in Blue.  The rest is history.

   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH2PH0auTUU  

And that’s why I say the greatest rhapsody was the American one, the Blue one, written by an American, in America. It changed the world of  music forever.

King of Soul

My great jazzified orchestral adventure

June 14, 2015

I had worked my 63-year-old body to a point of exhaustion last Wednesday afternoon, and so I took a little break from pressure-washing. The green mold that likes to grow on vinyl siding had now been blasted from two more high gable ends of the apartment buildings for which I am responsible. I am, you see, a maintenance guy.

So I slid slowly down the ladder and slogged over to my little shop. Plopping wearily into the padded chair, I activated the radio with expectations of easing for a little spell of time into some fanciful musical escapade. Alas, I was not disappointed. My favorite radio station, WDAV,   http://www.wdav.org/  immediately came through in classic style to whisk my overworked mind far beyond the ladder-heightened adventures of blasting H20 onto doomed algae colonies.

And then, strains of unfamiliar, though strangely captivating, orchestral sound came wafting to my ears. The music was soothing, with an elegant piano that stroked my worn-out being, but it was punctuated occasionally with bursts of symphonic divergence in a fashion that indicated some orchestral work of the early 20th century.

These impressionistic, mildly jazzy strains seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I could not place them. Surely it’s Gershwin, I wondered; the snappy snippets erupting here and there reminded me of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is one of my favorites. The very rhythmical slow-to-intense piano allegrettos landed me in a bewildered ponderance of trying to identify the composer. It was Gershwinesque, for sure, spicy with dynamic thrusts of emergent jazz, and slashing staccato poundings on the keyboard, while rambunctious woodwinds answered in the background, followed by lush strings that tamed the composer’s carefully-constructed disruptions into interludes of pure repose.

Then that captivating first movement energy slid languidly into an adagio second movement that soothed my weary soul like balm in Gilead. I had a few moments of unparalleled restorative calm, a true respite from my pressurizing labors.

Now comfortably installed at my shop’s work table, I began replacing the inner parts of a removed toilet tank, one of the 94 that I regularly maintain.

Suddenly, rapid bursts of precise piano, then bravissimo winds and sassy brass, were bursting forth in the last movement’s Presto prestissimo, affirming  my ruminations that surely this incredible piece of music was the work of some great composer. A few minutes later, sure enough, Joe Brant’s vocal coda identified the opus as Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_(Ravel)

Composed during 1929-31, it was a musical opus that Ravel had said “nearly killed him.” I learned this a day or two later on Wikipedia.

That 25-minute concerto took him two years to write. The piece’s intricacy and innovative energy, with brief boogie-woogified left hand in the last movement and all that jazz, convinces me that the composer’s desperate statement is “nearly” true. This intricate piece of music took a mountain of work. It was an exhaustive labor of love, the outcome of which was to to unify two great traditions of music, old European orchestral and new American jazz, in such a work as this.

Here’s pianist Helene Grimaud performing it with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbNoqzpbc0U

George Gershwin was doing similar renovations in classical music at about the same time as Maurice Ravel. And I was curious about this. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is, I think, so similar in feeling and era-sensitive timing to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I was wondering who came first. I was thinking that Gershwin’s Rhapsody had premiered in 1934. Yesterday I learned on Wikipedia that Ravel’s upstart, jazzified Concerto in G was first performed in 1932.

So Ravel’s groundbreaking innovation scooped Gershwin’s?

Actually, not. As it turned out, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924!  not 1934, as I had thought.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhapsody_in_Blue

Which only makes sense–that the American, being born and raised in the land of the blues, the western continent of jazz’s birth, with Louie Armstrong blowin’ his horn down in N’awlins, King Oliver movin’ up in Chicago, Duke Ellington finessin’ in New York, etc etc., it only makes sense that George would scoop the Frenchman Maurice Ravel in this musical transition from one golden age to another, one old continent to one new one.

Here’s a contemporary YouTube of pianist Makoto Ozone performing Rhapsody in Blue with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. But warning! to you classical music purists out there: this is Ozone’s jazzed up version of Gershwin’s jazzed up original composition! George Gershwin would, I believe, be impressed:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxowOVIdnR0

But the discovery of this jazzed-up symphonic scoop is not the end of my story. A little further research early this morning online took me to one of the many black prodigies of American early jazz, Willie “the Lion” Smith. He was ticklin’ the ivories in Harlem and over on 52nd Street back in the day, early ’20’s, before George caught a vision for his blue masterpiece, and before Maurice grabbed hold of his jazzifyin’ Continental groundbreaker Concerto long abouts 1929-31.

Willie the Lion was an amazing, transitional piano impresario, and a legend back in the jazz age. Now this is where my great musical adventure, having begun in a moment of repose on Wednesday, and then morphing through Ravel and Gershwin, right into now, in the midst of Sunday morning’s research-driven blogfest. Are you ready for Willie?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBhbCjSnemE

Listen on!

 

Smoke