Music Performed (Part 2)

In the previous entry in this blog, I recalled some of the most memorable live music performances I’ve attended.  Most of my early musical experiences, both with recordings and concerts, were with popular music—rock and folk along with music from some Broadway shows and movie soundtracks.  In the early 1970’s, I came to appreciate that musical genre known as jazz and a new musical frontier opened for me.

I found new joy and new musical heroes in the music of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.  Unfortunately for me, I never got to attend live performances by many of these.  On the other hand, as I got more deeply into this music, I found I was fortunate to be listening at a time when it was undergoing some profound changes.  The beauty created by the master improvisers of the genre in the early years of jazz, as they spontaneously created melodic solos and new harmonic explorations, was being taken in new directions.  The 1970s were a fruitful decade for jazz and the live music scene in New York City was a prime showcase for the music.

Ornette Coleman’s music had already taught me to hear beyond the “solo-over-the-changes” tradition.  In his music, there was no background of repeated structure over which the soloist took musical flight, no regular rhythmic pulse or pattern of chords.  Listening to Ornette’s records, I learned there were other means by which the players could move the music forward.

In 1971, I first heard the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which took the idea of spontaneity to a large ensemble.  This was a recording of Michael Mantler’s pioneering efforts with a studio full of all-star players of the day, including Cecil Taylor and Larry Coryell.  But the impact of the concept really came home for me when the JCO held a series of weeklong open workshops at Columbia University in New York City.  During the course of the week, the leader/composer would show the orchestra members the work and in the ensuing evenings, go over the different parts of the piece with the players, until the final night when the orchestra performed it for the audience.  I was fortunate to attend during the week Don Cherry was teaching the orchestra his “Relativity Suite”.  I had been a Don Cherry fan since I first heard him on Ornette Coleman’s albums.  Being present as he brought forth “Relativity Suite” with a roster of top level players, is one of my fondest musical memories.

In contrast with the stupendous power of a full jazz orchestra, another special concert event I’ll always remember was a more intimate experience.  This was a duet performance at a church in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Sitting on a foam pad on the floor, I watched and listened as Karl Berger and Dave Holland, both only a few feet from where I was, created musical magic as the colors from their instruments filled the space.

This was the time of the loft scene in Manhattan’s SoHo district and among the more famous sites was Sam Rivers’ Studio RivBea.  I will never forget the night I attended the performance by drummer Sonny Murray.  It remains indelibly engraved in my heart and mind, not only because of the leading edge music performed that evening but also because I met the love of my life that night and it was the first musical event we attended together.

In the days that followed, we would frequent the Village Vanguard in the West Village, for many evening performances by Keith Jarrett and his bandmates Charlie Haden (whom I also knew from Ornette Coleman’s records) and Paul Motian.  Other memorable shows at the Vanguard were those by George Adams and his band, which included Charles Mingus alumni Don Pullen and Dannie Richmond.

It was 1972 when Miles Davis came out with “On the Corner” and when I heard there was going to be a concert at Carnegie Hall, I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets.  As he was always seeking new directions, the music Miles delivered that night wasn’t exactly like that from either of his justly famous quintets.  If there is a line between jazz and rock, the ensemble crossed it frequently.  I vividly remember the red, black, and green grill cloths on the wall of amplifiers behind the players.  And I recall all the instruments, including the congas, being played through wah-wah pedals.  Even if it was one of the best rock concerts I ever attended, I finally got to hear Miles live.

More than a decade later, I finally got to hear another jazz hero live.  Ornette Coleman had just released “Song X”, his collaboration with Pat Metheny.  I attended the performance at New York’s Town Hall where Ornette and Pat were joined by Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman.  A few years later, I had the pleasure of attending another Ornette Coleman concert, this time at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

I love the fact that jazz happens everywhere, from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to clubs like the Vanguard in the city, to the streets themselves and well into the suburbs.  For many years, there was a small club north of New York City up in Westchester county, where the owner, Al Defemio, would sit in on drums with guest players ranging from amateur musicians to seasoned professionals.  Al’s handmade onion rolls were famous among the players and audience alike.  The players also loved that Al always made sure they were well fed.

On one occasion, I had the very good fortune to attend a Benny Golson performance at Defemio’s.  In the close quarters and relatively small audience that would fit in the club, it was as though Benny was playing for us alone.  We sat spellbound as we listened to him play “I Remember Clifford”.  In between sets when my wife and I went over to tell him how much we enjoyed his music, he invited us to sit down and join him.  We talked about musical composition and how he went about creating the pieces he played.  In combination with the music performed, who could ask for more?

Music: In Gratitude

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the vehicle by which Music first came to me.  It was a small, tan and reddish brown, all-in-one record player, which had one speaker, perhaps 3 inches in diameter, located between the light brown platter and the base of the tonearm. The “needle” assembly was the type that had a small extension going to the side, which could be used to flip the assembly over in order to expose a second needle. One side was used for LPs and singles, the other side for “78s”.

The records it played were a mix of some classics (I can distinctly recall the green label on a 78 rpm set of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”), several “33s” of original cast recordings, and a few pop albums (Elvis’ Gold Records stands out in memory) but mostly, the “45s” filled with the street corner harmonies of rhythm and blues based late ‘50s Doo Wop, as well as other R&B.  I can still see the pale blue and tan colors on the label of a single by Little Anthony and the black and red label on the single of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”

As music took hold of my spirit, I became increasingly interested in both how music is made and later on, how recordings of music are made.  At age nine, I started piano lessons, then guitar lessons.  We didn’t have a piano at home but I did have a guitar. Guess which one stuck. (Many years later, once on my own, a piano did come but guitar had a good head start.)  I had a set of drums too but growing up in an apartment building set limits on when they could be played.  A few years later, some school friends and I started getting together to “jam” on Saturday afternoons.  I started recording our jams using my brother’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and found I could play drums, then add a guitar part.  It would be several years later that I would hear the terms “multitracking” and “overdubbing”.

If listening to music (of all types) was becoming an important nourishment for the deepest parts of me, the “minimum daily requirement” increased significantly the day I first heard the Beatles on the radio.  While other music seemed to have pre-existed, to have been there waiting for me to find it, the Beatles felt like the moment.  Their music brought a good many firsts to my experience.  I’d never before anticipated an artist’s next release – and each new Beatles release seemed to present a new musical world.  I’d never concentrated on the lyrics to this degree.  (Actually, for the first several listens to any song, I still hear sung lyrics as another instrument.  Only after I’ve digested the vocals as raw sound do I find myself hearing the meaning in the words.)  It is amazing to consider how much musical ground this ensemble covered in a very short amount of time.  There is probably much more I can say about the Beatles and the impact their music had (and has) on my life.  For now, I’ll just say they added value to it.  I know of nothing greater any work of art can accomplish.

Some years later, I was turned on to jazz and with it, radically expanded musical horizons.  Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and countless other artists simply opened up the way I heard music, providing musical landscapes I couldn’t have imagined before.  Charles Mingus could put so much passion in his compositions, the rhythms themselves might warrant an “R” rating.

Ultimately, music is the performance.  It is played and then it is gone.  While there is certainly nothing like being in the presence of the players when the music is created, the overwhelming majority of the music I’ve heard came to me through recordings.  How else could I have experienced the music from so many who had already passed by the time I heard them?  What magic!  No wonder I became fascinated with records from an early age.  Music of the ages, music for the ages, all available at the listener’s whim.  Those early experiences with the reel-to-reel recorder were just the first tentative steps.  I didn’t know it at the time but I was just getting started on a long, wonderful journey.