Monday, April 13, 2009

jazz profiles

So here are some NPR Jazz
Profiles I've been listening to.
I didn't realize that they even
existed until now. They're mostly
interviews with people about the
musicians with their music in the
background. I've enjoyed them so far.

Continue reading

Charles Mingus: 'Fables of Bass,' Part 1, April 23, 2008 - One of American music's greatest innovators, Charles Mingus was a powerful bass player, an accomplished bandleader and an extraordinarily inventive composer. The ever-impassioned Mingus was a prolific writer of intricate, highly personal music which greatly expanded the palette of jazz. And in leading dozens of his own groups, he brought a fiery virtuosity to hundreds of original compositions.

Born in 1922, Charles Mingus, Jr. was raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif. His earliest musical influences came from the choir and gospel singing of his local church, though he was deeply affected by jazz he heard on the radio, particularly the records of Duke Ellington. Mingus got his musical start learning the trombone and cello, before high school friends and future collaborators Buddy Collette and Britt Woodman introduced him to the bass.

Mingus studied with bassist Red Callendar, an in-demand sideman in his day, and honed his technique while working with orchestral musicians, at the same time developing a classically-influenced compositional voice. Mingus was also landing important gigs with L.A. groups. In 1942, he performed with Barney Bigard, a clarinetist with Duke Ellington's band, and Kid Ory, a New Orleans trombonist. Soon afterward, he toured with Louis Armstrong.

Having earned a reputation as a bass prodigy, Mingus went on to play with drummer Lionel Hampton's band in the late '40s, and the group performed and recorded some of Mingus' compositions. At the same time, he began to emerge as a leader of small groups, often recording under the name Baron Von Mingus. Still, it would be years before Mingus achieved commercial acclaim as a bandleader, and until then he was in and out of music. But by the early '50s, he was again performing regularly, featured in an acclaimed trio with vibraphonist Red Norvo and guitarist Tal Farlow.

Mingus wound up in New York, where he played gigs with many of the city's finest musicians. With drummer Max Roach, he launched a small independent record label to document young musicians. Debut Records' most famous release, however, captured music from a 1953 live concert at Toronto's Massey Hall, featuring Mingus, Roach and bebop superstars Charlie Parker,Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell.

Despite these accomplishments, Mingus is most remembered as a composer, and Debut Records also provided Mingus with an avenue to develop and record his own compositions. Duke Ellington's music had the most obvious and profound influence on Mingus the writer — Mingus viewed Ellington as an idol, and very briefly joined Ellington's ensemble in the early '50s. Oddly, the legendarily short-tempered Mingus was also the only person ever directly fired by Ellington, an incident resulting from a confrontation with longtime trombonist Juan Tizol.

By the mid-'50s, Mingus had emerged as a composer of renown in his own right. His 1956 song "Pithecanthropus Erectus," a bluesy 10-minute tone poem issued on an eponymous album, widely signaled his arrival as an important compositional voice. In the coming years, Mingus would lead a series of incredibly-talented bands through adventurous musical territory, establishing his legacy as a major creative force in jazz.

Thelonious Monk: 'Thelonious Himself', October 10, 2007 - When you hear his name, you can expect to hear some of the most original and challenging music of the 20th century. Whether it's his dissonant chords or his uncanny sense of space and syncopation, pianist and composer Thelonious Monk's sound is easily recognizable. He left behind a legacy that has had a lasting influence on modern music and fellow musicians.

Born Oct. 10, 1917, Monk grew up in Manhattan in the '20s and '30s, with great stride pianists such as James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington within earshot. Monk loved stride piano because it allowed him to infuse his playing with surprise and humor. Critic and writer Stanley Crouch calls Monk "an abstracted stride piano player ... he played it in a way that made it funny."

During the '40s, Monk was dubbed "The High Priest of Bop," and along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker he led a generation of musicians through the bebop era.

Monk was almost as well-known for his unpredictable behavior as for his unique musical techniques. He would get up from the piano and dance around the bandstand, and was often labeled as aloof, eccentric and weird. Even Monk's son, drummer T.S. Monk, described his father as an "unusual guy." Critics dismissed Monk, and even ridiculed him, but he persevered despite the bad press.

In 1951, after doing jailtime for drug possession, he was banned from performing in New York clubs. With the help of jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he was able to win back his right to play again.

Monk's career took off with the recording of Brilliant Corners, and his work at the Five Spot in New York also helped win him a new following and reputation. He landed a contract with Columbia Records — at the time, one of only a handful of jazz artists to do so — and was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Almost six years before his death, Monk stopped playing. No one knows why, although some speculate that there were health reasons. He spent most of those final years alone at the home of the Baroness. Monk died of a stroke on Feb. 17, 1982.

It took years for the jazz world to understand Monk's contribution to the genre, but now his tunes rank among the most-played jazz compositions; his classic ballad "'Round Midnight" is one of the most familiar themes in all of jazz. With numerous tributes and awards for his work, as well as legions of faithful fans, Monk has earned a unique place in the pantheon of American music.

Charlie Parker: 'Bird Lives!' Part 1, August 29, 2007 - It's safe to say that without Charlie Parker, the music we now call bebop might never have existed. While other musicians in New York — Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell among them — were creating the musical building blocks that would later become part of bebop, it was Parker's innovative phrasing on alto saxophone that provided the glue that brought it all together as a new jazz revolution. In the first of a two-part Jazz Profiles, we explore Parker's formative years and his arrival in New York.

Regardless of the velocity or intricacy of his solos, Parker never left behind the basic blues of his hometown, Kansas City, Kansas. Born August 29, 1920, he grew up in the notorious, mobster-ridden town that was also a haven for jazz. His father abandoned his family when Parker was just a child, so his mother worked nights to support the family. This left Bird the perfect opportunity to sneak into the local bars to listen to jazz artists like saxophonists Lester Young and Chu Berry, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge.

In Kansas City's jazz scene, after-hours jam sessions filled the night air. After gaining a reputation as an aspiring saxophonist, a teenaged Parker joined in a jam session with top-notch players like drummer Papa Jo Jones. The session was far out of Parker's league, leaving the hopeful musician humiliated after listeners laughed at his inchoate playing. In a rare radio interview with fellow saxophonist Paul Desmond and disc jockey John McClellan, Parker revealed that the experience sparked his intense practicing regimen, which often found him playing as much as eleven hours at a stretch.

Eventually, Parker began working with Kansas City saxophonist Buster Smith, who according to jazz historian Phil Schaap was known as "Prof" for his work with young musicians. Parker had to travel to New York to find Smith. Upon his arrival he took a job as a dishwasher at a Harlem club called Jimmy's Chicken Shack, where piano virtuoso Art Tatum played regularly. According to writer Gary Giddins, the then-nineteen year old Parker received his first musical vision there in New York. As trumpeter Wynton Marsalis notes, it was from Tatum that Parker first learned how to solo. Whenever he could, Parker played in neighborhood jam sessions and one cold night, in December 1939, he had a musical revelation. When he used higher chord intervals while playing the Ray Noble hit song, "Cherokee," he found that he could resolve the resulting tension with a complex shower of just the right notes. In the words of a Down Beat feature, Parker said that he had came alive.

Before his twentieth birthday, Parker returned to Kansas City. He took a job with the Harlan Leonard Band, but quickly left to join pianist Jay McShann's big band. While travelling through Nebraska with the group, Parker hit a chicken while driving and according to McShann, this is where Parker got the nickname "Bird." The band eventually came to New York City to play the legendary Savoy Ballroom. Phil Schaap points out that this was Parker's first real performance in New York City, a significant milestone in the history of jazz.

Parker wasn't the only bebop innovator in McShann's big band — Dizzy Gillespie was also in the group. The two horn players had met previously back in Kansas City, when Dizzy was touring with Cab Calloway's big band. In his radio interview with Paul Desmond, Parker recalls the first time he met Diz, while Gillespie reveals how influential Parker's phrasing was on Diz's own playing.

After finding a musical soul mate in Dizzy, Parker found himself working with the trumpeter again in 1942, with pianist Earl Hines. Two years later, Bird and Dizzy joined Billy Eckstine's Band, with bebop pioneers such as trumpeters Fats Navarro, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and drummer Art Blakey; unfortunately, that particular group of musicians folded before recording with Bird.

During this time, New York City's 52nd Street was ablaze with jazz, but it was Uptown in Harlem where bebop was on the rise. At Harlem after-hour clubs like Monroe's and Minton's, Bird and Diz played their freshly minted solos at a blistering pace, a clear challenge to the swing-oriented 52nd Street sound. At Minton's, the two friends formed a house band with pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke. As jazz historian Stanley Crouch says, "[they] were really trying to find a way to play that was interesting to them"

In January 1945, Parker and Gillespie entered the studio together for first time to accompany singer and trombonist Trummy Young on a song called, "Sorta Kinda." The first landmark bebop recording session took place four months later, when Diz and Bird recorded "Shaw Nuff," and before long Savoy Records came knocking and offered Bird the opportunity to record on his own. When the day arrived, a pianist scheduled for the session couldn't make it and Bird asked Dizzy to fill in. The result is one of Parker's most beloved classics - "KoKo." Gary Giddins describes this song as perhaps Bird's greatest recording, and both "Shaw Nuff" and "KoKo" are now viewed as the birth of recorded bebop.

In early 1946, Diz and Bird accepted a two-month engagement at Billy Berg's nightclub in Hollywood. At that time, Parker's heroin addiction was getting as much attention as his musical talent. Dizzy was commissioned to bring a quintet, but he brought seven musicians due to Bird's unreliability. Once the engagement ended, all the musicians returned to New York except for Bird, who cashed in his airplane ticket and stayed in California.

Stranded in California with a serious drug addiction, Parker's need for cash led him to Ross Russell of Dial Records. There, Parker recorded four classics: "Moose The Mooch," "Yardbird Suite," "Night In Tunisia" and "Ornithology." Parker's addiction was rapidly debilitating him, and by the time he recorded the "Lover Man," session with Howard McGee, he could hardly stand up to play.

After the "Lover Man" session, Parker suffered a nervous breakdown. This led to his arrest, and subsequent treatment for drug addiction at the Camarillo State Hospital, where Parker later wrote a song called "Relaxin' At Camarillo." Six months after this stay at Camarillo, Parker returned to New York with a new vitality. Bird's legacy continues in part two of this special edition of Jazz Profiles.

Remembering Max Roach, Rhythmic Innovator

(This 75th birthday tribute originally aired in 2001.), August 16, 2007 - Drummer Max Roach died on August 16, 2007 in New York after a long illness. He was 83. A primary architect of the bebop revolution, Roach was one of the most innovative and influential musicians in jazz. He was also a composer, a bandleader, an activist and a teacher. His transcendent musical contributions also ranged from collaborative works for theater and dance, to his groundbreaking percussion-only ensemble, M'Boom.

Roach was born on January 10, 1924 in a poor North Carolina town called New Land. Seeking better opportunities, his parents moved the family to New York City. During the 1930's, New York was teeming with outstanding bands and musicians, and Roach saw stars like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford on a regular basis. He recalls what powerful role models these great musicians and bandleaders were to the youth of his day. Roach was captivated by the surging rhythms of drummers like Papa Jo Jones, Sid Cattlet and Chick Webb and decided to take up drums in the boy scout marching band.

In high school, Roach was gigging at Coney Island sideshows and after hours joints when a club owner recommended him to Duke Ellington, whose drummer had fallen ill. That night, Roach played at the Paramount Theater with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Soon, legendary saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young also sought his abilities. Roach made his first professional recording backing Hawkins at age nineteen. He recalls these early experiences with such influential musicians as his "classroom."

Roach was attending Manhattan School of Music in the 1940s when he met trumpeter Miles Davis. The two were in awe of virtuoso alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, who was working with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to push harmony, melody and rhythm beyond all limits. Roach and Davis also displayed innovative techniques and were soon invited to work with Parker and Gillespie.

These four, along with pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell formed a core of pioneers who developed the styled called bebop. Gillespie commented that, "Max was the leading delineator of that music. He was one of the originators of the style, like Charlie Parker was the style on the alto saxophone."

Roach's style supported experimentation, improvisation and interaction between members of an ensemble. Drummer Kenny Washington said that Roach shifted the emphasis from keeping a simple, steady beat to facilitating a conversation between the drums and cymbals and the other musicians. Roach set the standard for the modern jazz drummer with his melodic approach to rhythm.

In the mid-1950s, Roach led a legendary quintet with trumpeter Clifford Brown before a car accident took Brown's life at the age of 25.

Later, Roach turned his attention to the Civil Rights Movement and composed his Freedom Now Suite, which chronicled the African-American struggle from slavery to the present. Roach collaborated with poet Oscar Brown, Jr., vocalist Abbey Lincoln and a dance ensemble; they toured the show as far as Tokyo. He continued composing theater and dance, for which he has won an Obie award. Beginning in the 1970s, Roach began teaching at the University of Massachusetts, where he passed on his jazz tradition to students and young musicians while helping them explore new ideas.

Roach remained at the forefront of rhythmic innovation. He established an entire orchestra of jazz percussionists called M'Boom, and composed numerous compositions exclusively for the jazz drum set. Meanwhile, he continued working with his jazz quartet, which included Odean Pope on saxophone, Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet and Calvin Hill on bass. The group often collaborated with his daughter Maxine's Uptown String Quartet to form the Max Roach Double Quartet.

Roach gave new meaning and respect for the drums. His quest for innovation was unrelenting and he will always be recognized for his contributions to the aritsitc community. From the poverty of the inner city to co-creator of one of the most revolutionary and infuential styles in music, Roach believed that creativity and determination could make opportunities for anyone, no matter how difficult their circumstances. Roach wanted future generations to know, "It can happen, you can beat anything."

Miles Davis: Miles' Styles, July 3, 2007 - Miles Davis was the personification of restless spirit, always pushing himself and his music into uncharted territory. He was an innovative lightning rod for musicians from all genres — particularly the brightest young players. Davis created some of the 20th century's most challenging and influential music.

Born May 25, 1926, in Alton, Ill., Miles Dewey Davis began playing the trumpet as a youngster in East St. Louis, Ill., and soon showed promise. At the age of 17, Davis sought out bandleader Eddie Randall for advice, but as soon as Randall heard the teenager play, Davis was hired for his first real gig.

Just a year later, Davis was invited to sit in when the Billy Eckstine Big Band played St. Louis. In that setting, Davis was able to play with two of his idols, bebop pioneers saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The Eckstine experience left Davis determined to make his mark in the band's home base, New York City. Fate intervened when Davis was accepted at New York's Julliard School of Music. Davis moved to New York, but never really made it to the classroom, spending his time instead on 52nd Street listening to Diz and Bird.

Charlie Parker's speed and technique were beyond Davis' reach at the time, but the young trumpeter still jumped at an offer to replace Dizzy Gillespie in Parker's band. For Davis, it was both a dream come true and a nightmare of technical challenges. When Davis first recorded with Parker in 1945, his playing was tentative compared with the hard-charging leader, and Davis often just filled in with harmonies behind Parker's powerful alto sax. But Davis' sense of time and space is a direct result of this apprenticeship. The sheer velocity of Parker's technique forced Davis to take a more measured, introspective tack.

In the late 1940s, Davis emerged as a leader himself, and he and arranger Gil Evans organized a nonet — including baritone saxophone, French horn and tuba. With arrangements by band members Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis, they recorded the classic, The Birth of the Coolin January 1949. The nonet soon fell apart for lack of work, but the sound it created worked its way west to be reborn as "cool jazz." Davis, however, was rooted firmly in bebop. In 1951, he began recording for the Prestige label and enlisted some the most talented beboppers of the day.

Sonny Rollins was the first in a long line of stellar saxophone players whom Davis signed up. From his time with Charlie Parker, Davis had developed an affinity for the partnership of trumpet and saxophone. A few years later, Davis discovered the Harmon mute and the otherworldly quality it lent his tone. What soon became a Davis trademark made its first appearance on the song "Solar," recorded in 1954.

At the same time that he was expanding his sound, Davis took care to build his repertoire throughout the early 1950s. He was composing, but he was also applying his style to popular songs such as "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "My Funny Valentine," helping to make those tunes and others jazz standards. He often mixed young lions with bebop veterans during loose, improvised recording sessions.

Davis dropped out of the scene for a while with drug and personal problems, but in the summer of 1955, he made a strong comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival. His playing there convinced Columbia Records to sign him as a solo artist.

The label insisted that Davis put together a solid touring band. Davis, with his ear for talent, hand picked a group of virtually unknown players: 20-year-old bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Red Garland, drummer Philly Joe Jones and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Garland had a hard, driving swing and was a boxer, as was Davis.

Jones was well-respected in jazz but essentially unknown to the public. The same was true of the young Coltrane, who had played with Gillespie's Big Band but was not an established name. In fact, many critics disliked Coltrane's playing at the time.

This classic quintet recorded the album Round About Midnight in 1955, and it was an immediate success. Two years later, Davis reunited with arranger Gil Evans, and the two of them built on the "cool" jazz sound. The pair first produced Miles Ahead, with Davis in front of a big band conducted by Evans. A year later, they triumphed with George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Yet, Davis remained restless. In the late '50s, he added another voice to his successful quintet — the alto saxophone of Cannonball Adderley. Many people were surprised by the move because the quintet was so balanced.

In the spring of 1958, the band produced Milestones. The recording marked the beginning of Davis' exploration of modal music, where improvisation is based on a single "mode" or scale instead of chord progressions. Davis began to look for something else in his sidemen, too, and was moved by the classical music approach of the young pianist Bill Evans. Evans' style was different from Garland's hard swing and was akin to the subdued, introspective music Davis had been crafting.

With Jimmy Cobb on drums and Bill Evans on piano, Davis recorded the landmark Kind of Blue, which furthered the modal experiments of Milestones. In a simple unrehearsed, two-day recording session, the group created some of the most enduring music of the 20th century. The record was a high-water mark for Davis, but even so, he could not keep the talented group together, as Evans, Coltrane and Adderley each had become leaders.

Once again, Davis relied on his instinct for finding the most talented musicians available. He found a rhythm section of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams and, with George Coleman on tenor for a time, the new quintet began to explore the outer reaches of harmony and rhythm.

By 1964, Davis had added the final member of his classic 1960s quintet when young Wayne Shorter replaced George Coleman on tenor. Shorter, who possessed an accomplished book of tunes and arrangements, immediately took the quintet to another place. He says the players seemed to be more attuned to each other than any band in memory. They were immensely influential.

Shorter recalls that the first tune Davis saw in Shorter's book was the first one the group recorded: "E.S.P." Davis, spurred on by Shorter's creative instincts and compositions, reached a new level of intuitive ensemble playing in his '60s quintet.

Davis would not relax, however. In the late '60s, he began to pay attention to the rock revolution, and he liked what he heard. Guitarist George Benson joined the Miles Davis Quintet for the 1967 album Miles in the Sky. Davis also was drawn to the music of James Brown and Sly Stone, and he began to use driving funk rhythms in his own music.

Again, Davis' embrace of other traditions necessitated a larger canvas on which to paint, and he sought out the right musicians for a bigger group. Using guitarist John McLaughlin and a three-keyboard ensemble of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, Davis recorded In a Silent Way in 1969. That same year, Davis recorded an album that became the standard for the nascent jazz-fusion movement: Bitches Brew. The double album was an abrupt commingling of jazz, rock and funk.

Although he had created yet another musical genre, Davis left it behind — along with everything he had created before — in 1974 when he dropped out of music because of fatigue and other health issues. But in the early 1980s, Davis emerged again, and as fusion sputtered, he returned to an aspect of his approach during the 1950s bop years. Davis bravely began to embrace and reinterpret popular songs like Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature."

Davis died Sept. 28, 1991, in Santa Monica, Calif. By stretching boundaries and keeping an eye out for like-minded musicians, he crafted an array of sounds that were all distinctively "Miles."

Miles Davis: 'Kind of Blue', July 3, 2007 - The best-selling jazz record of all time is a universally acknowledged masterpiece, revered as much by rock and classical music fans as by jazz lovers. The album is Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue brought together seven now-legendary musicians in the prime of their careers: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and, of course, trumpeter Miles Davis.

Davis and his cool, measured trumpet style had been attracting attention in the jazz world since the mid-1940s. By 1958, at age 32, Davis was an international jazz star whose playing set the standard for jazz musicians of the day.

And just as younger artists looked to Davis for guidance and inspiration, he looked to them for raw, new talent and innovative musical ideas. In the mid-1950s, Davis discovered gold in the subtle sounds of 25-year-old pianist Bill Evans, whom he recruited into his late-1950s sextet. Evans would prove an essential contributor to the Kind of Blue sessions.

Even before Kind of Blue, Davis was experimenting with "modal" jazz, keeping the background of a tune simple while soloists played a melody over one or two "modes," or scales, instead of busy chord progressions — the usual harmonic foundation of jazz.

In addition, Evans introduced Davis to classical composers, such as Béla Bartók and Maurice Ravel, who used modalities in their compositions. Davis also drew on his knowledge of the modal qualities in the blues.

With Evans, Davis worked up a few basic compositional sketches, and when the musicians arrived at the studio on March 2, 1959, they were given the outlines. Davis wanted to capture the musicians' spontaneity — and he wanted to capture it on the first take.

The first tune recorded, "Freddie Freeloader," is representative of the "first take" magic on the record, and it features the happy, swinging playing of pianist Wynton Kelly, who had recently joined Davis' sextet.

The second tune recorded that day ended up as the lead and probably best-known album track. "So What" took an unusual tack: bassist Paul Chambers stated the opening melody, and with Evans playing rather unorthodox chords underneath, the song serves as somewhat of a fanfare or overture, hinting at what was in store for the listener.

Davis was at a musical peak in the 1950s and had been preparing the ideas that would become Kind of Blue for years. A year before the recording, Davis slipped Evans a piece of paper on which he'd written with the musical symbols for "G minor" and "A augmented."

"See what you can do with this," Davis said. Evans went on to create a cycle of chords as a meditative framework for solos on "Blue in Green."

The second day of recording did not take place for seven weeks. When the band finally gathered again, this time minus pianist Kelly, the first tune recorded was essentially a series of Flamenco- and North African-derived scales.

Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, says that the resulting recording possesses an almost spiritual quality as the musicians — particularly Coltrane — seemed to take a reverent approach to the composition.

For the tune "All Blues," Davis again played with the simplest of elements. He took a standard 4/4 time blues and gave it a waltz feel in 6/8. Evans said that was part of Davis' genius — creating a simple figure that becomes much more. The setting allowed alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to return to his big-band roots.

To the musicians who recorded it, Kind of Blue was just another session when it was released in August 1959. But the disc was quickly recognized by the jazz community as a classic. Jazz musicians were startled by the truly different sound on an album that laid out a clear roadmap for further modal explorations.

"So What" became the tune, the one that every musician — not just the practitioners of jazz — simply had to know. The other tracks also quickly became standards, and the individual solos throughout the record continue to inspire musicians to this day.

Musicians from all genres perform, record and study the album's songs, and the influence of the songs on culture beyond music continues to grow. Drummer Cobb says it all comes down to simplicity — the reason Kind of Blue has remained so successful for so long. And because of its inherent balance, historian Dan Morgenstern adds, the album never wears out its welcome.

Zoot Sims: 'Brother' of Swing, March 19, 2008 - Starting in his youth, saxophonistZoot Sims fashioned his seemingly effortless sound from the music of early masters Lester Young and Ben Webster. Playing alongside some of jazz's great bandleaders, accompanists and soloists — and eventually as a leader himself — Sims then refined that sound over a long and productive career. Never a musician to chase trends, he always kept two classic jazz principles in mind: Always play with indomitable swing, and have faith in the infinite variety to be gleaned from a familiar set of chord changes.

Born John Haley Sims, in 1925, Zoot grew up in California as the youngest child in a family of vaudeville performers. Before long, Sims took up the only instrument left in the house, a curved clarinet. His interest in jazz was sparked when he explored his older brother's record collection, which included recordings featuring Ben Webster and Lester Young. The recordings had such an impact that within two years Zoot hit the road, performing with the big bands of Bobby Sherwood and Ken Baker.

Sims' signature sound formed in the early 1940s, when he surfaced in Los Angeles' fertile Central Avenue scene. Clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodmandiscovered him and immediately recruited him for his band. In 1947 Sims landed an even higher profile gig when he joined Woody Herman's famed Second Herd, along with fellow saxophonistsStan Getz, Herbie Steward and Serge Chaloff. Together, the quartet of sax players was known as the Four Brothers, after a Jimmy Giuffre composition written for them, and became famous for their deft unison lines and the novelty of their dark, sweet sound.

After leaving the Herd and turning up in New York, Sims went through a period of freelancing and unsteady work. In 1953 he joined the Stan Kenton band, which provided a regular paycheck. But the band's music — emphasizing tightly-knit group passages that allowed for only short solos — and Kenton's stern, top-down leadership didn't mesh well with the easygoing, yet musically hard-driving Sims. He didn't stay long with the band, quitting on the spot after their bus wrecked along a Pennsylvania highway.

Zoot retreated to California, but he found few performing opportunities and wound up working as a house painter. Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan rescued Sims from his day job when he invited Zoot to help expand his well-known, pianoless quartet. As trombonist and band member Bob Brookmeyer remembers, Sims and Mulligan were "connected by the bone" as both players and improvisers.

In the mid and late '50s, buoyed by his success with Mulligan, Zoot would release many recordings as a leader — 10 in 1956 alone. Nevertheless, he remained a great collaborator and team player, and he inevitably returned to winning partnerships. In 1957, Zoot hooked up with an old friend, tenorman Al Cohn. Together, they formed perhaps the most successful partnership of Zoot's career, co-leading an ensemble for many years.

Later in his career, Sims continued to evolve as a player. According to saxophonist and composer Bill Holman, Zoot's tone aged and became gruffer, and he expanded his repertoire thanks to the influence of pianist Jimmy Rowles. But he never gave up on what many consider his greatest asset: his incredible sense of swing. "No matter what he played, it was perfectly in time," said saxophonist Harry Allen. "If you were making your own perfect saxophone player up in your head, that's where you'd put the notes. And [Sims] managed to do that without fail."

By the early '80s, a weakened liver forced Sims to quit drinking. His health improved at first, but he soon learned that he had cancer. "If I can't play, then what can I do?" he asked bassist Red Mitchell in an interview only a few months before he died. Zoot Sims continued to perform up until his death in 1985, and he never lost touch with the swing that had always enlivened his playing.

Art Tatum, 'The Musician's Musician', June 20, 2007 - One of the greatest improvisers in jazz history, Art Tatum also set the standard for technical dexterity with his classic 1933 recording of "Tea for Two." Nearly blind, Tatum had artistic vision and ability that made him an icon of jazz piano, a musician whose impact will be felt for generations to come.

While Tatum's skills were undeniable, his style continues to stir controversy on whether he was an "official" jazz musician. Some jazz critics dismissed his playing as so much ornate window-dressing and the pianist himself as a novelty instead of a serious jazz artist; others saw him as the new and improved second coming of stride legend Fats Waller, one of Tatum's idols.

His extremely calm demeanor as his nimble fingers raced up and down the ivories made Tatum's music even more astonishing. According to a radio interview with "Voice of America" host Willis Conover, however, Tatum was never fully satisfied with his amazing deftness.

Born Arthur Tatum Jr. on Oct. 13, 1909, in Toledo, Ohio, the pianist had lost most of his sight by the age of four. He received some formal training on the piano at the Toledo School of Music, learning to read sheet music with the aid of glasses and then in Braille. But Tatum was primarily self-taught, cribbing from piano rolls, phonograph recordings and radio broadcasts while learning what he could from musicians he encountered.

By 19, Tatum was playing with vocalist Jon Hendricks at Toledo's Waiters & Bellman's Club, a popular local jazz venue that hosted national acts as well. A few of those national acts — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Andy Kirk among them — took notice of the young house pianist, often stunned by his speed and dexterity.

In 1932, Tatum traveled to New York with vocalist Adelaide Hall. His reputation preceded him, and some of New York's finest jazz musicians were eagerly awaiting his arrival. The following year, Tatum cut his first sides, for the Brunswick label. The first song was the aforementioned "Tea for Two," which became his signature tune.

Tatum's stay in New York was brief, and he returned to the Midwest, playing in Cleveland and Chicago through the mid-1930s. He made a triumphant return to New York in 1937, playing at several clubs and appearing on national radio shows.

The following year, Tatum toured England, and he began appearing regularly in New York and Los Angeles in the late 1930s and early '40s. Taking Nat "King" Cole's successful jazz trio as a model, Tatum founded his own influential trio with Slam Stewart (double bass) and Tiny Grimes (electric guitar) in 1943. Grimes left the following year, but Tatum continually returned to the format, playing with guitarist Everett Barksdale in particular.

Tatum was not only a favorite among jazz musicians, but also among European classical musicians, including Conductor Leopold Stokowski, composer Sergei Rachmaninov and pianist Vladimir Horowitz. But as Tatum's virtuosity continued to awe his fellow musicians, many music critics vilified his playing as being overbearing.

Although Tatum was not considered a bebop jazz musician, he had a legion of bop followers, including alto saxophone icon Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell, and he became a mentor for pianists Billy Taylor and Oscar Peterson. His obsession with music didn't prevent him from indulging in his other favorite activities: sports and cards.

As bebop began to take control of jazz in the early 1950s, Tatum continued playing variations of the stride piano style, mostly at small clubs throughout the country. In 1953, Tatum tracked a record 124 solos for noted producer Norman Granz, and while the sessions were hasty, they yielded material for 13 albums.

Soon after, Granz assembled an all-star group of jazz musicians, including vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, drummer Buddy Rich, saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, to record with Tatum. During those sessions, many musicians were just as amazed at the amount of beer Tatum drank as they were about the amount of musical virtuosity continued to stream out of Tatum's hands.

Although his excessive drinking didn't affect his playing, it did unfortunately affect his health. Tatum began showing evidence of euremia, a toxic blood condition resulting from a severe kidney disease. On Nov. 5, 1956, Tatum died at age 47, and although his career was relatively short, Tatum's brilliant playing remains unparalleled and highly influential.

John Coltrane: Saxophone Icon, Pt. 1, June 18, 2008 - More than 40 years after his death, John Coltrane remains the most influential tenor saxophonist in jazz history. Whether it's his patented "sheets of sound," his rapid-fire improvisations or his bold, cathartic wails, all aspiring jazz saxophonists know the music of Coltrane. His career was characterized by a constant, exponential advancement in improvisational technique and ideas.

Born Sept. 23, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C., Coltrane grew up in a working-class family — his father was a tailor and amateur musician. Both of Coltrane's grandfathers were ministers, and he was first introduced to music in church. The family moved with one of his grandfathers to High Point, N.C., when Coltrane was a teenager, playing clarinet and listening to big band music.

After graduating from high school in 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia hoping to play music professionally, but still taking jobs outside of music. He switched his instrument first from clarinet to alto saxophone, then again to tenor sax, and the city's bustling jazz scene offered many opportunities for both learning and playing.

Coltrane entered the Navy in 1945 and made his first recording the next year, with a Navy band called the Melody Masters. When he returned to Philadelphia after his service, Coltrane played with a number of local R&B and jazz groups, including a two-year stint with Jimmy Heath's band in the late 1940s. By decade's end, Trane was playing in New York, but he returned to Philadelphia in the fall of 1949 and was recruited, along with Heath, by trumpeterDizzy Gillespie to play in his big band.

With Gillespie, Coltrane made his first commercial record, "You Stole My Wife, You Horse Thief." Due to financial constraints and the changing trends in jazz, Gillespie trimmed his orchestra to a septet that included Coltrane on tenor.

Trane seemed to be starting to hit his musical stride when a heroin addiction knocked him off balance. Fired from several bands in the early 1950s, including Gillespie's, Trane found a kindred spirit in former heroin addict Miles Davis, who brought him into his quintet in late 1955. It was during this period, in the mid-1950s, that Coltrane developed his signature voice and began to mature as an artist. He still had problems with drug abuse — even Davis fired him, but soon took him back into the group — until he finally kicked the habit for good in 1957.

Coltrane was then signed as a solo artist on Prestige Records, but his next career stop was an apprenticeship of sorts with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Under Monk's guidance, Coltrane extended his solos and explored multiphonics.

Toward the end of the 1950s, Coltrane again teamed with Davis, contributing to classic albums like Milestones and Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album in history. Davis was investigating modal jazz when Coltrane rejoined the group. While the trumpeter was exploring a more minimalist approach to music, Coltrane seemed locked into playing as many notes as possible. Coltrane's long, feverish solos became the pillars of his legacy; jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the phrase "sheets of sound" to describe Coltrane's playing during this period.

A few months after Kind of Blue, Coltrane recorded his first masterpiece LP, Giant Steps. The album didn't just mark a new musical plateau for Coltrane — it also heralded a new era for jazz.

Click here to see the playlist for this show.

Milt Hinton: The Ultimate Timekeeper, November 12, 2008 - For more than seventy years, Milt Hinton lit up the bandstand with his warm personality while laying down infectious, rhythmic bass lines. Those who played with Hinton affectionately referred to him as "the Judge," because he was considered the ultimate timekeeper. As trumpeter Clark Terry once put it, "When you work with the Judge, you know you're gonna get some time."

Hinton provided the rhythmic foundation for many of jazz's greatest artists, including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie,Count Basie and Cab Calloway. Though not a big man, his presence always loomed large, as his buoyant tempos and fat, booming sound left leave an imprint on every performance. Hinton took his supporting role as an accompanist in full stride, noting, "It's necessary that you have enough humility to make somebody else sound good."

Starting in the 1950's, Hinton became the most recorded bassist in New York City. He worked hundreds of sessions with some of the biggest names in jazz, soul and pop music, including Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bobby Darin. Together with pianist Hank Jones and drummer Osie Johnson, Hinton formed The New York Rhythm Section, an ensemble famous for bringing out the best in every performer. The trio had an uncanny ability to enhance any arrangement in the studio, and their innovative harmonies propelled Darin's rendition of "Mack the Knife" to the top of the charts.

Hinton's road to success began in Vicksburg, Miss., at a time when lack of opportunity and outright oppression forced many Southern black families to seek a better life in the North. In 1919, at age nine, young Milt and his grandmother moved to Chicago to join his mother, Hilda. On Chicago's South Side, Hilda rehearsed her church choir and taught piano lessons in the household. She bought him a violin at age thirteen, paid for him to take lessons and enrolled him in the National Black Music Association. Later, Hinton attended the Wendell Phillips High School, where he learned to play a variety of instruments.

The benefits of rigorous musical training were realized when Hinton was hired by violinist and bandleader Eddie South at age 21. Hinton said that South taught him how to play with more feeling, and Milt got his first recording experience with South's band. Hinton had just returned to Chicago, after finishing a six month stint with South in Hollywood, when Cab Calloway asked him to join his famous band.

Hinton had to fill the big shoes (and oversized band uniform) of former Calloway bassist Al Morgan, who stood 6 feet 6 inches tall. Hinton recalls his anxiety at first playing Morgan's famous bass solo on "Reefer Man." Milt overcompensated, playing every imaginable note, and fondly recalls "the guys [in the band] were laughing...and Cab Calloway was holding his side. When the band came in, I was scared to death!"

Hinton solidified his reputation during 16 years with Calloway's band. He became the undisputed king of the "slap bass" technique, where a bassist plucks the strings out from the fingerboard and allows them to snap back, adding a percussive element to the sound while amplifying the tone.

Hinton's prosperous studio career began in 1953, when bandleader and entertainer Jackie Gleason invited him to record with his orchestra. One of only of two black musicians in the 65-man ensemble, Hinton's outstanding musicianship, versatility and professionalism led to countless studio bookings over the years. He became a television staff musician, working regularly with Gleason and later Dick Cavett. Also a fine photographer, Hinton documented many great jazz musicians in photographs he took over the course of his career.

Through his success, doors were also opened for many other black musicians to get more studio gigs. Hinton was known to mentor to dozens of aspiring young bass players. He also had a strong sense of passing on the tradition. As bassist John Clayton noted, "He's the kind of person that's always anxious to share."

A search of The Jazz Discography reveals Hinton as the most-recorded jazz musician of all time, having appeared on 1,174 recordings. Hinton died in 2000 at the age of 90.

Click here to view the playlist.

A Hard Look At Hard Bop

Hear Five Songs Here

Art Blakey (300)

WDUQ, January 26, 2009 - Evolving out of 1950s bebop, hard bop incorporates elements of gospel, soul and R&B. One of the style's biggest supporters, Blue Note Records, celebrates its70th anniversary this year, and is represented by three albums here.

Although popular jazz progressed into other forms in the 1960s and beyond, hard bop never died out altogether. It's still heard today in many modern jazz recordings. Listen to five classic recordings here.

For more entries in the Take Five series, click here. And don't forget to subscribe to the Jazz Notes newsletter.

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