Writings about Music
I Do, Too
During a phone conversation with Richard Davis, who I've long felt is the greatest jazz bassist ever, I told him how I found connections between the way he makes the bass soar and his ancestral African kora, an instrument he told me he never heard of before! Then, I mentioned also discerning stylistic similarities between his playing and sitarist Ravi Shankar, particularly regarding bent and sliding tones. Richard enthused that Shankar was a major influence on his playing, and that I was the first person to ask him about this. An inclusive awareness and curiosity is a virtue found in many of our greatest musicians and composers.
The above paragraph was given special attention, the sole NYT Picks from 351 comments, responding to the music essay by Wesley Morris from The 1619 Project commemorating 400 years after slavery in America began, an unbelievably horrific human event, truly incomprehensible. Among his many accomplishments, Morris won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 2012.
I just noticed that my mentioned comment, shown in the screenshot above as the only NYT Picks from 351 comments, has been deleted together with all the other comments, a number of which were highly erudite from prominent musicologists, so I'm glad to have made a screenshot. (MER August 2020)
What follows are a number of additional published comments I was inspired to make, including sharing several of my compositions pertaining to the subject at hand, all compiled here for your convenience. In some instances, I have added to my original comments. Other related music was a great pleasure to add here as well.
What a pleasant surprise to find this comment from an unknown person using the name "Election Inspector" from Seattle, referencing a famous song by Simon and Garfunkel: "Dear Mr Robinson, After reading several of your well reasoned, interestingly written, revelatory comments here, I would like to thank you for expanding the understanding and clarifying the limitations of Wesley Morris's piece. "God bless you please, [Mr] Robinson." And may the New York Times give a column to you one day."
There is much one may comment on here, including things I agree with, but I will limit myself to this statement: "Particular to black American music is the architecture to create a means by which singers and musicians can be completely free..." Together with blues forms, the ragas of jazz, focusing on modern jazz and swing, are known as Jazz Standards. These songs originated primarily from Jewish American composers and lyricists with notable exceptions, just as the primary improvisers from the periods in question are African American with notable exceptions. And, after the blues, “I Got Rhythm” by George and Ira Gershwin was the dominant form for jazz improvisation. The genius of jazz ignites when an improviser of genius encounters a composer and lyricist of genius. For example, two of Charlie Parker's favorite vehicles, "All the Things You Are" and "The Song Is You", and two of John Coltrane's personal favorites, "My Favorite Things" and "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise", all share one common denominator: lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, together with three different composers: Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Sigmund Romberg. Great jazz improvisers use awareness of a song's lyrics synergistically with the music for inspiration.
Here are some additional thoughts expanding upon my original comment, beginning with the last sentence: There are some other statements in this article I feel are inaccurate, too, but this represents a central misunderstanding of jazz; a general omission currently being taught in most colleges, and repeated in most book, blog, newspaper and magazine writings about jazz, something I definitely don't fault Wesley for because he is only one among many who have been misled by the aforementioned entities. Look, if the primary composers and lyricists of Jazz Standards had been Balinese or Swedish, I would say so, too. It's mostly the lack of intellectual acuity (or sheer mendacity?) that tasks me! Does anyone really think that a song like "Body and Soul" (one of myriad possible examples), used for a landmark recording by Coleman Hawkins, grows on trees, is of no significant consequence regarding the history of jazz, or that anyone could have created such an utterance at the drop of a hat, no problem?
We would likely still be dancing the waltz on our tippi toes if not for the musical influence of African Americans. Ray Manzarek said this, and I agree. But music is often most compelling when it combines different influences. For example, North Indian classical music developed after that region was conquered by Muslims, and the subsequent musical merger of Hindu and Muslim cultures resulted in something uniquely magnificent. So magnificent that hundreds of year later, after coming to the attention of America, John Coltrane absorbed the musical and spiritual basis of Hindustani music to the point of transforming jazz, rock and Western classical music at once.
During a lengthy conversation with George Harrison, I asked him who his favorite rock guitarist was, and he immediately indicated Jimi Hendrix. My choice, however, which surprised George, though he respected my opinion, was Johnny Winter, for I believe that for a brief period in the late sixties to early seventies, Winter ascended an unmatched pinnacle. Winter was an Albino raised in Texas where he interacted mostly with black musicians. Does the color of his skin diminish the authenticity and substance of his achievements?
An African American friend once brought me to a club I'd never been to before, The Mint, on Pico Boulevard. There was a black group from Detroit performing Marvin Gaye covers. Their performance of "Mercy Mercy Me", complete with hypnotic costumes and dance moves, remains one of the highlights of my musical life. Gaye captured how the earth is being assaulted by our indifference to God's creation, having a vision how we, like characters in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town", cannot see or hear what's really happening. And Laura Nyro's interpretation of Gaye's, "The Bells", collaborating with Labelle, is equally moving, singing about human love. Nyro was of Russian Jewish and Italian ancestry, feeling oneness with African American culture. I do, too. I hope we, all the world, unify despite horrors of the past to solve collective threats facing us now.
Here is an expansion of my last sentence: We, all the world, would do well to unify despite the horrors of the past to prevent the horror of allowing God's creation (or a miraculous accident of air, water, earth, fire and ether, or a science experiment conducted by a seventh grade class on a more advanced planet, however one prefers to understand it) to perish or simply exist with irrevocably compromised natural attributes. It's in our hands and in our ears that listen - that's part of the deal, apparently.
If a musician imitates someone else to the extent that it’s a bad or exact copy, "stealing" is a reasonable description. Conversely, Lester Young citing Benny Goodman and Frankie Trumbauer as his prime inspirations suggests a form of musical photosynthesis. Young preferred to address Stan Getz using his own nickname, Prez, recognizing how Getz had developed his own resplendent musical world inspired by Young, Jack Teagarden, and, once again, Benny Goodman. Focusing on musicians who qualify as original because this is the music that interests me, its overly simplistic and misleading to describe the vocal and instrumental quality of those who aren't African American as "clean". Sam Cooke exerted a potent influence on the Beatles from their time touring together, yet the individual voices of John, Paul and George are all distinctly original and kaleidoscopically multi-hued. Sometimes people from back East complain there are no seasons here in California, but what they are not acclimated to are more subtle variations, something to listen for in music, too. To use another analogy, when I began cutting sugar from my diet, I eventually discovered how amazingly sweet an almond may be. That said, the vocal styles of Stevie Nicks and Ray Charles possess a similar range of expressive intensities and timbral nuances while remaining worlds apart. There are many more examples I might cite to make my point.
Hearing from my late friend, Don Shirley, how he was denied the opportunity to perform classical music in America because of the color of his skin was heartrending, Shirley's fierce rage about the subject something I can still feel today. Unfortunately, this quality hasn't really been captured on recordings, but when I first heard Don perform at Carnegie Hall where he also lived, the tone he conjured from the piano playing transcriptions of Black Spirituals was unearthly, the sound seeming to rise up from the floor enveloping the audience in magical fashion. It remains the most incredible live piano playing I've ever experienced. If only there had been a tape recorder for at least one of our many conversations about music typically going on for five hours or more! During one of these marathon sessions, Don suggested we adjourn to his favorite restaurant in Harlem, which I was excited to do, but then he realized that my clothing, a T-shirt and jeans, was not appropriate. Instead, we ended up at a nearby diner where Don admonished me for picking up french fries with my fingers, something I found endearing. One of numerous fascinating stories Don told was how he participated in the original psychedelics testing conducted by Timothy Leary, the result being that he played better without the drugs.
There are distinct connections between the music of Shirley and Wladziu Valentino Liberace, a musical genius who was among the first to combine popular and classical forms, including influencing none less than Bill Evans.
When Richard Davis first came to New York City from Chicago, including Charlie Parker taking him out for hot dogs, Don Shirley was the visionary musician who hired Davis for his trio, making this move possible. If you wish to experience the full grace and transcendence of master musicians collaborating with a similarly gifted composer and lyricist, hear Sarah Vaughan and Richard Davis interpret the Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg masterpiece, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", live. Richard appears on screen near the two minute mark. "Samba Du Bois" is my personal favorite recording by Richard together with Phil Woods, Alan Dawson and Jaki Byard.
Jazz Impressions of Eurasia is my favorite album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, including several purely modal improvisations. Given how Brubeck and Miles Davis were good friends, and how this album preceded Kind of Blue, also featuring modal improvisations, its very possible Davis heard the Brubeck album before recording Kind of Blue, and, if so, that may have had a significant influence.
Lou Levy once told me that he believed Frank Sinatra to be the finest jazz singer, an opinion shared by Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and many others. However, Lou then went a step further, stating that he believed Sinatra was the finest jazz musician period, an assertion that surprised me given how jazz instrumentalists and vocalists appear to have varied if related disciplines. Improvisation is largely about capturing the moment, and subtle variations upon the material may be more significant than dramatic and voluminous elaborations dependent on specifics, of course. Perhaps this explains Levy's point of view - he's no longer here to elaborate. But no need. This is what I feel Lou Levy was essentially saying: Our greatest musical artists, irrespective of genre, create a world unto their own that we may enter into. Lou was simply saying that in the solar system of jazz, Frank Sinatra was his favorite planet to live on for all the apparent musical reasons, namely tone or quality of sound, phrasing, rhythm, expression, form, diction, and overall individual personality.
They lived in the same Manhattan building for a period becoming friends. One told the other that a new song of his had been inspired by his friend's improvisations. I was fortunate to study privately with the improviser in question, and also have some classes with the composer. People speak of a general jazz influence informing a larger work by that same composer, but it was more specifically from his friend's original jazz style inspired by Lester Young and Lennie Tristano. The song I'm referring to is titled "Cool"; the improviser, Lee Konitz; the composer, Leonard Bernstein; the larger work, West Side Story. And the lyricist was Stephen Sondheim, of course. During intermission of the show’s preview in Washington DC, Bernstein rushed back to the lobby to ask Lee if he thought it was any good so far! Lee's influence on Lenny is especially apparent in the instrumental middle parts of "Cool", something I've long felt is the purely musical highlight of the entire show if not one of the emotionally expressive highlights.
Music exists in-between the physical and metaphysical worlds, a unique realm where magic happens. Fifty years ago this very weekend, musicians and music lovers in Woodstock demonstrated how the spirit and soul of music might inspire us to correct our colossal fossil fuel party of the twentieth century and recover from the hangover in time by being smart enough to learn from our miscues. Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, The Who, and many others showed us then how its done in the dream-realm of music. God wants us to work things out, just like the Beatles said. Why not? Aren't we "Cool"?
An irresistibly sonorous tension arises when British singers delve into musical realms first suggested by African American vocalists. It's something about how proper the British sound speaking English, irrespective of class differences, contrasted with equally vibrant and less formal dialects from African Americans. Think Mick Jagger. His ballad recording of "Angie" is so impossibly tender and spiritual at once, establishing an intimacy beyond imagination, all reached like the wave of a magic wand with a few guitar strums and tones from Keith Richards seconds before Mick enters intoning a timeless passion. Or think "Sympathy For the Devil", so unnervingly Armageddon-like conjuring villainous covert missions haunting history. No one sings with MORE soul and feeling than Jagger at his best. Different, yes, think other giants like James Brown or Stevie Wonder, but not more. The British Invasion was more the British Rescue, bringing the English language full circle towards a new beginning. Even Bob Dylan had his socks knocked off by the fresh energy of the Brits while the rest of us are still swooning.
Here is another similar comment: An irresistibly sonorous tension arises when British singers like Mick Jagger, Ian Anderson and Robert Plant delve into musical realms first suggested by African American vocalists. It's something about how artists from the culture representing the actual inventors of the English language sound singing music in forms first visited by African Americans and their variations upon English translated into song. Thus, the British invented English, African American developed their unique variations upon that language taking flight in music, followed by the British adopting those cues and creating a new synthesis in the realm of rock. And, of course, “intermediaries” like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley were crucial catalytic agents for this evolutionary process, too.
Perhaps my three most potent musical memories include lying in bed on a school night when I was in fourth grade or so, hearing some sixties genuinely raw soul music on the radio, and feeling entirely disoriented by how wildly extroverted it sounded, qualities I'd never experienced before in music, another reality. But through more listening, including cultural bridges made by Cream, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and others, actual Black Music became a key component of the stuff I'm made of. How thrilling, for example, discovering for myself the miraculous rhythmic feel and style of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Another memory is attending a concert of Stravinsky music, again in grade school, and feeling bewildered by the "wrong", discordant notes. Years later, a splendid course on the Russian composer's music taught by Sarah Fuller at Stony Brook because a transformative experience on my journey pursuing the art of music composition, learning concepts that still inform my music today. Lastly, hearing the Kronos Quartet premiere music by Morton Feldman, I was hypnotized by the feeling of melodic and formal timelessness it conveyed, a sensation rediscovered hearing a performance by Hindustani vocalists in Manhattan years later. Tying all these influences and more together under the mantle of a personal musical vision is an exciting challenge one hopefully never tires of, always on the lookout for new "recipes, spices and vintages" to fuel our unquenchable appetites.
A major lie perpetuated against the most gifted music creator to walk the earth since Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, Charlie Parker, is that he took heroin to enhance his music, when the truth is he only became an addict after a car accident when he was sixteen that killed a close friend and severely damaged Parker's spine. Lee Konitz, a friend of Parker's, and one of the few altoists who didn't copy his style, told me that Charlie Parker was easily the most intellectually brilliant person he ever met, and Lee's other friends included Leonard Bernstein. Akin to Parker's creativity and intellect is how African Americans, after being denied musical instruments in schools as part of a horrific educational system, developed a new form of music using only their voices and the most elemental of musical instruments. This new form known as rap or hip hop, is where much of the most significant American music has emerged since then, becoming the signifying sound of recent times, one that any composer must come to terms with in order to be real.
Elaborating upon Charlie Parker's heroin use, hopefully to forever dispel the horrific ignorance still repeated endlessly by just about everyone, he was given heroin, or perhaps morphine that was soon replaced by heroin, to alleviate his physical pain from the accident so that he could simply function, and was never able to free himself from the physical addiction with the exception of the infamous trip to California, but by then a psychological addiction had also taken hold, and Charlie soon returned to opiates or sometimes desperately substituted alcohol. Without the benefit of proper medical care, including nonexistent Pain Management doctors, not to mention what I imagine were racist health care customs, Parker wasn't able to overcome his addiction in a brief life span that ended at 34, one year younger than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Pablo Picasso is widely quoted as having said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal”, referring to how African art both in concept and image centrally influenced his development of cubism in painting. So, when you think about it, the title of this essay is a form of compliment. In other words, it's acknowleding those artists who had the judgment to "steal" what was most noteworthy, and whether a new style came from that "theft" or a pale imitation is an afterthought. Significantly, an atmospheric coffee shop in Los Angeles I stumbled upon several years ago has only paintings and/or photographs of early African American musicians hanging on the walls, and the reputed owner titled one of his more recent albums "Love and Theft". There's also a photo of a musician who recorded "My Sweet Lord" hanging over where you may add sugar, honey and milk to your coffee.
Reflecting upon swing and modern jazz, there is a deep spirituality and shringara rasa expressed chiefly through the imposition of an overall syncopated triplet feel of transcendence over the duple feel of oppression and mundanity. One wonders about the role of Native Americans in the bloodline of jazz given the historical interweaving of cultures. Too often its overlooked how John Coltrane’s immersion into Indian classical music and its spiritual basis, synergizing those experiences with his pure jazz identity, created a potent synthesis that transformed Western classical, rock, and jazz at once. One unforgettable moment in my own musical life occurred when an African American gentleman from the audience approached me after a program I gave at California State University Dominguez Hills, relating with a soft, admiring voice how deeply spiritual he found my music for meruvina. My sense was he was connecting, in part, with those elements of Black Music I've been fortunate to assimilate into my being filtered through prisms of personal temperament and thought to reach virgin terrain born from spontaneous cultural intermarriage in the region between the physical and metaphysical worlds where music exists. We can hear music and see it performed, but it remains actually invisible, one reason exploring music without traditional musicians seems to beckon. So much fun improvising choruses using the theme of this inspired essay.
We have fallen into the place
– Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast
– Chuck Berry (1926-2017)
It was past midnight at an all night restaurant in Los Angeles, and while getting a pastry to go, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman assisting me, learning his uncle was jazz great Al Cohen. He then offered to introduce me to members of the Chambers Brothers band who were seated at one of the tables. Doing so, they graciously invited me to join them. After that, I took to joining them for late suppers a number of times that would go on for hours till 3 AM or so, moving at a pace like a slow blues, yet with lively conversation. It was thrilling to hear firsthand stories about their friends from the late sixties, especially Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. On one occasion, the house band in the bar area invited Joe Chambers to sing a momentous song he composed with brother Willie Chambers titled “Time Has Come Today”. I tagged along, sitting at one of the bar tables, and felt moved to participate, playing Hindustani rhythms using some improvised metal percussion while still seated. This got the attention of Joe who seemed to enjoy the new flavor, not thrown one bit by quintuple and septuple rhythmic patterns. There was no sense of white and black at all, only music.
A friend of mine was fond of going to the Whisky a Go Go at the tender age of 12, and one night found herself dancing with the charismatic lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison, during the instrumental parts of songs. Myself, it still doesn't seem real how I formed a friendship with the keyboardist from that band, meeting Ray Manzarek by chance at the Beverly Hills Library while distributing fliers for a concert. He’s the one who first said that if it weren't for African American music we would all still be dancing the waltz on our tippi toes.
The mentioned friend had this to say about Jim Morrison's dancing: "He was natural and wild." "He shimmied like he was doing backbends under a stick." And this about how he seemed as a person: "Relaxed and into what he was doing." "I never spoke with him just danced." Morrison was a magnificently original interpreter of the blues, leaving us "Love Me Two Times", "Backdoor Man" and "Roadhouse Blues" in the major tonality (the latter song is not strictly a blues), and "Riders On the Storm" in the minor tonality. "Backdoor Man" was composed by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin' Wolf. The Doors certainly did it justice, this being one of my absolute favorite tracks from their oeuvre. Ray Manzarek was born in Chicago, and Muddy Waters made his reputation there, being one of Ray's main sources of inspiration. Not many are aware of this, but if you listen closely you can hear how Jim's primary vocal influence was Frank Sinatra. And "The Girl From Ipanema" was the inspiration for "Break On Through To the Other Side", mostly from the rhythmic feel. One of the marvels of music is how far from the original source influences may land and flourish in entirely new directions.
Soon after meeting renowned ethnomusicologist Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, who founded the first ethnomusicology department in America, I was delighted to learn that his favorite jazz artist was Lee Konitz. Nazir found the thrillingly original, complex, subtle sophistication of Konitz's style comparable to Indian classical music. It is a colossal oversight not to have recognized the contributions of Lee Konitz with a Kennedy Center Honor. He is universally acknowledged for being one of the primary architects of modern jazz, someone who was revered by colleagues including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Perhaps those who decide have been misled into believing that jazz includes only black musicians, which is a completely erroneous assumption, of course. Thus, no matter how great a genius Konitz is - ask any jazz musician - is he disqualified for that honor because of the color of his skin or perhaps because his ancestry is Jewish? Leonard Bernstein was the host for the very first Kennedy Center Honors, and I'm sure he would agree that the musician who inspired his song, "Cool", and also, in my opinion, the musician who was the main jazz influence for West Side Story, is most deserving of this recognition.
One of the most unusual composers of all is Conlon Nancarrow. He wrote and programmed amazingly complex music for player piano, anticipating how computers are among the most significant musical instruments today, including how I find Conlon’s concept of not having musicians interact with his chosen instrument in any way during performance expressively and aesthetically preferable. Never had an ACTUAL understanding where Nancarrow’s music originated from until recently experiencing the piano music of Earl Hines for the first time. Doing so illuminated the expressive and technical basis of Conlon’s style, how he began emulating Earl’s joyous, super-gusto expression together with the jazz pianist’s dartingly percussive attack and articulation like a night sky adorned with rushes of glittering stars. At times, Hines sounds like he possesses more than two arms reminiscent of Shiva so multilayered are the textures. Indeed, the rhythmic and melodic labyrinths of Indian classical music were a contemporaneous influence on Nancarrow. Some of my earlier compositions, including March Wind and Trembling Flowers, have been compared to Conlon Nancarrow even though I wasn't familiar with his music before composing them. It will be interesting now to see how Hines' playing might influence me directly. Texarkana, Texas is not only the birthplace of Conlon, but also where the creator of ragtime, Scott Joplin, was either born or moved to at a young age.
I've long felt that the Innervisions album by Stevie Wonder is one of the greatest musical accomplishments in history, comparable in depth, scope, originality, expressive power and sheer musical fecundity to the finest symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. A number of Wonder's other songs reach comparable heights, too. Remarkably, Stevie not only wrote all the music and lyrics for Innervisions, but he also played a good deal of the instrumental parts in addition to singing lead vocals, including pioneering use of new technological instruments while exploring varied, sometimes shattering, aspects of African American experience in vividly etched detail to fully implement his vision. The transition from "All In Love Is Fair" to "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing" remains of the most dramatic moments we have captured on recordings. These few words in no way do justice to Innervisions, only suggesting the musical epiphanies there contained. There’s no telling how many Wonder has influenced. He’s simply part of our collective DNA.
Aretha Franklin exemplifies the supreme element of syncopation in music like none other. The glorious expanse of her voice, majestic as Kilimanjaro draped in shifting, amorphous cloud coverings, enacts a purity of Shringara Rasa, the Mother of All Sentiments, covering the spark of creation and eroticism at once, in stunningly fluid fashion. The songs, "Who’s Zoomin’ Who" and "Freeway of Love", together with the first three tracks of her Jump To It album, remain pinnacles of The Art of Music. Part of the feeling of freedom we have responded to in African American music is the removal of puritanical restrictions separating our bodies from our souls and intellects.
Where to take Western classical composition and jazz influences without repeating traditional and avant-garde styles of the past, instinct compelled me to focus more on anahata nada than ahata nada, finding the meruvina, a combination of software and hardware instruments, was uniquely qualified to perform my compositions rather than traditional musicians. Hummingbird Canyon creates lilas with a rhythmic motive derived from Charlie Parker's "A Night In Tunisia" improvisation.
Stars Blossom embodies musical lessons imparted from the many times I was fortunate to hear Pharoah Sanders at the Village Vanguard together with his luminous "Harvest Time" recording, both of our efforts stemming from a deep love for Indian ragas.
Rainbow Thunder uses authentic African rhythms voiced with Near Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and African drums together with a trumpet timbre inspired by Dizzy Gillespie contrasted with an African harp and Indonesian gender all under the umbrella of an Indian raga.
Conflagrating Rag and Tal: Jackie McLean and Jack DeJohnette from 2013 states: "It is the magic of a liberated sound that initially draws us to jazz, where the united spirits of improvisers, composers and lyricists collaborate to triumph over oppression in determined, fearless and joyful form."
Much of what I learned about jazz came from my teacher and friend, Lee Konitz, one of the architects of modern jazz who was close to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano among other leading figures. Many of my insights are developed independently, examining and reflecting upon the music on my own.
Very fortunate to participate in my own small way with the profoundly important scope of The 1619 Project, now reading the other extraordinary essays in addition to Wesley's inspired effort. Despite some possible differences of opinion, I'm grateful for his endlessly engaging thoughts exposing me to earlier forms of Black Music I've been unaware of, and for stoking my imagination to comment on more current realms - bravo!
Some additional essays related to this one are Pointers Becoming An Appreciation, President of the Cool, Black Connections, My Heroes, Into A Newborn Day: Words Inspiring Jazz, and Keeping the History of Jazz Real.
If Wesley wishes to discuss any of this with me on his podcast, I am there.
- Michael Robinson, August 2019, Los Angeles
© 2019 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).