The 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Benny Goodman

goodmanToday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of jazz legend Benny Goodman.

Goodman put jazz on the pop charts, commissioned classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky to write music for him, brought the first jazz band to Carnegie Hall, and helped break the jazz color barrier.

Rather than offer my own thoughts and reviews, I want to direct you to a wonderful appreciation I heard this morning on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, done by Tom Vitale.

The audio looks back over what brought Goodman from poverty to a superstar, and Tom discusses Goodman with clarinetist Anat Cohen, who is transcribing Goodman’s solos for his centennial celebration next month at the Village Vanguard.

Click here to hear and read Tom Vitale’s appreciation. Enjoy!

Remembering Duke Ellington on his 110th Birthday with Clark Terry

dukeWhen your name is Duke Ellington, it doesn’t really matter what anniversary of your birth it might be, or how long you’ve been dead, there always seems to be a stream of celebrations and remembrances every April 29th. On this, the 110th anniversary of Duke Ellington, one of the greatest musicians and composers in history, I chose to remember Duke in a different way.

Ellington died five years before I was born, so for me to “remember” him might be a little out of place. Instead, I invite you to click the link below and listen to a portion of my 2007 interview with legendary trumpeter Clark Terry.

Terry spent years touring and recording with Duke, and in the audio Terry remembers Duke, talks about his attitude towards compositions that just didn’t quite work, and compares Ellington to Count Basie.

To hear this audio blog, click here. Enjoy!

Henry “Red” Allen

henry-red-allenToday marks what would be the 100th anniversary of the birth of trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen.

One of the more difficult things, no doubt, of being a trumpet player at the same time as Louis Armstrong is that no matter how good you might be, you might seemingly always be in a shadow. This could be why Red isn’t necessarily a household name, despite being a wonderful performer.

Red was always in good company, performing seemingly nonstop from the time he was eight until he passed away at age 59. Not only sharing the company of the likes of Fletcher Henderson, King Oliver, and Coleman Hawkins, he always managed to bring a wonderful, modern sound to whatever group he was playing with no matter what the era.

His big band solos often became transcribed and written into supplemental charts. He also had a distinct, earthy singing voice which he featured from time to time.

A wonderful musician, watch a fantastic performance of Henry “Red” Allen doing St. James Infirmary below.

In Remembrance of Freddie Hubbard

It had barely been a few hours after I finished my Eartha Kitt remembrance when I received the news…

freddie-hubbard

I showed up to college thinking that “audition music” was simply a formality, and that when I did finish my trumpet audition for one of the most prestigious jazz programs in the country, that I would then and there be offered a music scholarship that I simply hadn’t applied for.

I went to the music building and grabbed the packet of audition music. Of the three tunes inside, one was Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike, to be performed before members of the jazz faculty and the department head at recording tempo.

I’ll spare you the embarrassing details of my audition, and just let you know that I was given the fifth chair in the second of two big bands, which I was convinced was given to me simply because they felt sorry for me. A sample of my improvisational skills to get into one of the small groups was not requested. I was offered a music scholarship however…of sorts. The school payed for me to take more lessons.

But it was the tune Birdlike that changed my trumpet playing world. Because I’m such a tragic sight-reader, I had to buy the recording, which, in my ignorance, I had never heard before. Freddie flew through the head of the song with such ease, why my fingers tripped over themselves and the valves. Freddie soloed and soloed…and soloed…without repeating a lick. I seemed to play the same few licks containing the same few notes limited by a botched homemade embouchure change that destroyed my range…over and over.

Over the next few years, I could not get my hands on enough Freddie Hubbard recordings. And I could not tell you how many hundreds of hours I spent practicing my trumpet, wanting to play just like Freddie (much to my roommates chagrin). I would fumble through the changes on Red Clay or Straight Life while listening to Hubbard play extended solos on live recordings of those tunes. I tried desperately to play Here’s That Rainy Day as sweetly as Hub did, only to realize that not only would I never possess his tone, but by copying him I was only being unoriginal – the exact opposite of what Freddie Hubbard was.

Make your own list of the top five jazz trumpeters of all time and you will likely find Freddie Hubbard among the group. In his prime he was so superior on so many levels. For anyone who might put as much time dedicating themselves to the same craft as him, playing the trumpet, his recordings and abilities would only make you that much more appreciative of what he contributed to music. I had heard a variety of stories as to what happened to Freddie Hubbard’s chops, and frankly, none of them really make a difference. He is still one of the greatest, if not the greatest influence on me as a musician.

It had barely been a few hours after I finished my Eartha Kitt remembrance when I received the news. I didn’t even know that Freddie had suffered a heart attack around Thanksgiving. He had died Monday, December 29th, 2008 from complications of that heart attack.

I tried to explain to people around me, typically people who weren’t big jazz fans, why Freddie Hubbard was so important to me, the same way I did in January of 2007 when my other musical hero Michael Brecker died. I tried to explain, while choking up, by using analogies and metaphors in terms that they might be able to apply to their own life. “It’s kinda like if you wanted to be a professional basketball player and you spent hundreds of hours watching and studying and practicing to be Michael Jordan”, I would say.

I felt like it wasn’t the point I was really trying to make, and whatever point I personally was trying to make wasn’t likely made. I told the same people that I would be playing some Freddie Hubbard songs on my radio program that night to remember him. I’m not sure why, since the people I told weren’t jazz fans, nor listeners, nor did I expect them to listen, nor did they know who Hubbard was until I told them.

The next day, three of them (none of them jazz fans) all came up to me and said the same thing. They had listened to my program, and all said that Here’s That Rainy Day might have been the most beautiful recording they had ever heard.

Once again, Freddie Hubbard had been able to do what I only what I could only try to do. He made people fall in love with his music.

Watch Freddie Hubbard play I Remember Clifford:

Watch Freddie Hubbard play Birdlike:

Watch Freddie Hubbard play Straight Life:

Remembering Eartha Kitt

eartha-kittToday we remember the great presence of screen and stage, Eartha Kitt, who died this last Thursday on Christmas Day of colon cancer. She was 81.

Many remembrances that have been released since Eartha’s passing have offered a wonderful list of her accomplishments and talents. Singer, dancer, star of movies and television including her role as Catwoman on the ’60’s television show Batman, and her legendary recording of Santa Baby. They’ve made note of her sizzling personality on and off stage, be it her vocal come-ons in nightclub performances, or her relationships with the like of Orson Wells who described her as “the most exciting woman alive”. We’ve read about charts, awards, and her difficult childhood, struggling in poverty until her break came at age 16 when she won a dance scholarship after an audition with Katherine Dunham’s dance school.

In this case, as I feel it is typically appropriate when remembering someone who has passed, I would like to share my personal account with the great Eartha Kitt.

As student of jazz, but also a person under the age of thirty, I’m often told that I missed out on truly experiencing performances of those who made their musical careers in the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s. As a consequence, I’m simply limited to their recordings, or at best, live performances of these artists today well past their prime.

I had the pleasure of meeting Eartha Kitt a few years ago on Valentine’s Day when I was invited to emcee her show at Jazz Alley in Seattle. Tragically, I was not what you would have called an Eartha Kitt fan. I didn’t own any of her records, and couldn’t tell you much more about her other than the previously noted Santa Baby recording and her run on Batman. In preparation for the concert I did my research and prepared my notes, but no matter how impressed I became with her biography, what I saw and what I heard was nothing that I could have imagined from a then 78 year old woman.

I was on a first date, or was soon to be, as my date was running late. She had missed my entire introduction of Ms. Kitt, which disappointed me, as I thought it might impress her to see me up on stage introducing a legend. Truthfully I was far more excited for the mere fact that I had a Valentine rather than being at the show.

The attitude quickly changed. Eartha, in her late 70’s, needed no assistance finding her way on stage. Far from it. Even after discovering she had colon cancer, she continued her regular workout regime, consisting of running and weight lifting. This, no doubt, resulting in a figure that girls in their 20’s would be jealous of. With that figure came a seductive and sexual strut, attitude, and energy to match. Her voice seemed to have not lost a step either, producing a throaty, provocative tone. She would slowly move around the stage, purring, smiling and making eye contact.

The eye contact more often than not was directed at the young men in the audience. As she seduced them, seeming speaking directly to each man she looked at, she might suggest that they introduce her to their fathers. It was a room half-filled with men, the other half filled with their Valentine dates, being entranced by a woman nearing eighty, far more focused on her than their dates. It was easy to become one of those men, as (and I say this respectfully) my date rapidly lost my attention.

Eartha Kitt was the complete package as far as entertainers went. Following her show, it became far more important for me to seek out performances that would offer a complete entertainment package rather than just a big name or current popularity. Few managed to rise to the level that Eartha did that night, no matter who I ended up seeing in concert. Eartha Kitt was a treasure and someone I was blessed to see perform live. Far from a performance past her prime, as the abilities of Eartha Kitt never seemed to deteriorate.

Watch Eartha Kitt sing Santa Baby in 2006:

Watch Eartha Kitt sing C’est Si Bon in 1962:

Watch Eartha Kitt Sing Love For Sale: