By Scott Yanow
The lineup for this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival, which takes place over a June weekend, is the strongest in years, particularly from the jazz standpoint. Held at the Hollywood Bowl, Playboy is very much a party but this year there is an excess of riches.
Saturday June 10 (3-10:30 p.m.) has Gypsy Swing from the Django Festival All-Stars, a tribute to the late Bobby Hutcherson with vibraphonists Stefan Harris, Warren Wolf and Roy Ayers, and Arturo Sandoval’s Latin Big Band. All three of those sets will certainly be memorable. John Scofield, John Medeski, Larry Grenadier and Jack DeJohnette form the all-star group Hudson, Marcus Miller will bring his jazz/funk band and TajMo’ teams together the blues/r&b innovators Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo.’ Wandering away from jazz and blues will be Jacob Collier in his one-man band audio-visual production, the California Honeydrops (r&b and funk) and singer/songwriter Connie Bailey Rae. The CSULB Pacific Standard Time Vocal Jazz Ensemble opens the marathon day./night.
Seven out of the ten groups on Saturday are jazz and the percentage is the same on Sunday June 11 (3-10 p.m.). One has to certainly wonder what the rapper Common is doing on Sunday’s bill although a case can be made for Lelah Hathaway and Cory Henry’s Funk Apostles. Gregory Porter makes his triumphant return to Playboy, the always-passionate altoist Kenny Garrett has a full set, and drummer Carl Allen leads a group paying tribute to Elvin Jones. The DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Mike Mosely’s West Coast Get Down, the Hamilton De Holanda Trio and the LAUDS/Beyond The Bell All-City Jazz Big Band will also be featured.
Not a bad way to spend a June weekend. This will be my 39th!
HERB WONG AND RALPH GLEASON
Herb Wong (1926-2014) and Ralph Gleason (1917-1975) both made major contributions to jazz, and new books bring back some of their best writing.
In a career that included working as a teacher, an educator, a disc jockey on KJAZ for 30 years, the head of two record labels (Palo Alto and Black Hawk), and a journalist/reviewer, Herb Wong kept busy for decades. The only thing that seemed to be missing from his accomplishments was a book. Shortly before Wong passed away from cancer, Paul Simeon Fingerote (a disc jockey and the marketing director of the Monterey Jazz Festival for many years) worked with him against time to put together the 238-page book Jazz On My Mind (McFarland & Company). The work includes many of Wong’s best liner notes, articles and interviews. Each chapter, which focuses on a few subjects who played a particular instrument, begins with a bit of Wong’s reminiscing and memories. While I wish that this was a full autobiography, the little glimpses at his life (including remembering meeting Joshua Redman when the tenor-saxophonist was just five) are invaluable. Among the artists who are profiled (and who Wong knew personally) are Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard,
Max Roach, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, Milt Hinton, Oscar Peterson, and Dave Brubeck among many others. I hope someday there is a volume two but I am thankful that Paul Fingerote put together this work just in time. Jazz On My Mind is available from www.mcfarlandpub.com.
Ralph Gleason started out loving bop and traditional jazz. He kept up with the times and by the late 1960s he had co-founded Rolling Stone and was writing with great credibility about the more important rock groups while never abandoning jazz. He may be best remembered today for his Jazz Casual television shows but Music In The Air – The Selected Writings Of Ralph J. Gleason (available from Yale University Press at www.yalebooks.com) shows what a well-rounded journalist he was during the 1960s and [70s. The first half of the book has some of his best articles on jazz including liner notes ranging from Billie Holiday to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, performance reviews that were published in the San Francisco Bay area, and lengthy obituaries on Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges that are filled with fascinating stories and opinions. The second half of the book has reviews and summaries of rock, folk and pop groups (from the Beatles and Joan Baez to Jefferson Airplane and Hank Williams), comedy (including Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce) and politics of the era, highlighted by a pre-Watergate plea in 1972 to get Richard Nixon out of office. While the topics are sometimes dated and there are occasional inaccuracies (better sources exist today than in 1965), Music In The Air is a fascinating time capsule of an important era in American culture, and a fine tribute to Ralph Gleason’s passions.
Lee Morgan was one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time starting when he was a teenager in the mid-1950s. His life was cut short on Feb. 18, 1972 when he was murdered by his jilted wife Helen Morgan. Why did she do it and what happened to her? I Called Him Morgan, a 91-minute film directed by Kasper Collin, tells the full story. Helen Morgan was interviewed by her adult education teacher Larry Reni Thomas on tape in 1996, just one month before her death. Her voice is heard throughout this riveting film.
Both Lee and Helen Morgan’s lives are covered through interviews, brief performance clips, footage of the era and their own words. They met during a period when the trumpeter was scuffling, on drugs, and barely playing music. Helen helped him get his life together and was a constant presence during the second half of the 1960s. Eventually Lee (who was 14 years younger) began to wander and was not shy about his other relationship. One night he had Helen thrown out of the New York nightclub Slug’s. She came back with a gun and shot him dead. Somehow Helen Morgan only spent a relatively short time in jail after pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter. She returned to her hometown and worked in the church in her later years.
For this film, many of the key survivors of the time were interviewed including Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, bassist Jymie Merritt, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Helen’s son, and even Lee Morgan’s girlfriend Judith Johnson. A little more time should have been spent discussing the trumpeter’s childhood and the development of his music (“The Sidewinder” is not mentioned at all) but there is not a slow moment in the film.
I Called Him Morgan, which is being shown at festivals, is not yet on DVD but hopefully will be in the future. It is a film that all jazz fans should see.
THE AMAZING RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK
There was no one like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He was a masterful musician who had his own sounds on tenor sax, flute, clarinet and two obscure horns that he found in an instrument shop: the manzello and the stritch. Kirk often played three horns at once, functioning as his own horn section, and he was a master at circular breathing. He could play in any jazz style from bop and free to New Orleans jazz, and was a colorful performer who provided witty and insightful commentary. He was also blind.
The 87-minute documentary The Case Of The Three Sided Dream (available from the Austrian Art Haus Musik company at www.arthaus-musik.com) is a film directed and produced by Adam Kahan. While it mostly does not follow Kirk’s career chronologically or attempt to analyze where he got his musical genius from, it is filled with bright moments. Performance footage (mostly excerpts), interviews (including of Rahsaan), animated graphics and subject-oriented sections give viewers a strong sampling of Kirk’s music and accomplishments. Among those interviewed are Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s wife (Dorthann Kirk) and son (Rory Kirk), bassists H. Mattathias Person and Michael Max Flemming, pianist Rahn Burton, cellist Akua Dixon, poet Betty Neals, his friend Mark Davis and trombonist Steve Turre, who emerges as the star storyteller.
One learns about how a young Kirk cut a garden hose so he could get a sound like a trumpet, his belief in the power of sound, Turre remembering that Rahsaan could make music out of anything even a calculator, and how he considered dreams to be his religion. Of the performance clips, some of the highlights are seeing Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing on a BBC television show in 1964, performing “Satin Doll” in 1970 on two horns, singing through his flute on “Serenade To A Cuckoo,” leading an all-too-brief New Orleans jam on “Just A Little While To Stay Here,” and blasting his way through “Volunteered Slavery.”
Most interesting is the story of the Jazz & People’s Movement which sought to get more jazz on television. Its biggest accomplishment was having Kirk lead an all-star group that included Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1971. The full eight-minute performance (“Haitian Fight Song” and a brief New Orleans section on clarinet) is shown. The last part of the documentary details Kirk’s stroke of late 1975 and his heroic comeback, performing in 1977 on a specially-designed tenor-sax that allowed him to play with just his left hand. He passed away later that year at the age of just 42. There are also twenty additional minutes in the bonus section that is comprised of an interview with producer Joel Dorn and Rahsaan in 1977 playing “Bright Moments.” The Case Of The Three Sided Dream is quite memorable and a fine tribute to the often-astounding Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Ruth Price’s Jazz Bakery has a dazzling schedule of jazz greats scheduled during the next few months. Coming up at the Moss Theater are Tessa Souter’s birthday celebration (Apr. 8), and quartets led by Russell Malone (Apr. 15), Peter Erskine (May 12), Billy Childs (May 26) and Ambrose Akinmusire (June 16). The Gordon Goodwin Little Phat Band will be at the Kirk Douglas Theater (June 9) while Buster Williams’ quartet (June 24) will be presented at the Nate Holden Theater.
April also includes significant performances by Doug MacDonald’s Jazz Marathon (Apr. 4 at the E-Spot), Corky Hale’s tribute to Billie Holiday (Catalina’s on Apr. 6), the Bob Mintzer-Peter Erskine Big Band (Apr. 7 at the E-Spot), Barbara Morrison’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (Catalina’s on Apr. 9), 90-year old Doc Severinsen and his big band (Apr. 13 at the Valley Performing Arts Center) and Charles Lloyd (Apr. 14 at UCLA’s Royce Hall). It makes one very happy to be in Southern California!