Thinking about Patti Smith

When friend and fellow Mountain Music Club member Dan from coastal Massachusetts recently sent a link to The Guardian newspaper’s Patti Smith profile, the powerful poet-singer came into sharper focus than that background awareness her 1970s work earned. It’s a good overview, in the U.K. paper’s ongoing series recommending entry points into recording artists’ work.

I came late to that party, but the admiration of others, particularly musician friends brought me back to her like the Guardian story. Link, below.

One musician fan, New Yorker City kid Tom Dimopoulos, led a highly theatrical 1980s punk band here called bx721, after its post office box. He told me about seeing her early on, in lower Manhattan. Coming up out of the subway into the light of daybreak on his way home, uplifted by her show, he felt inspired to believe more strongly in himself and his possibilities than he ever imagined. That feeling has powered his art ever since. bx721 was a hoot, fronted by Jack Nemier who wore an electric suit – conventional office garb glittering with hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights. Dimopoulos now lives in Saratoga Springs, works mainly as a scribe and shows up often at the same concerts I do.

Another musician/Patti Smith fan is Michael Eck, sometime music writer, former publicist and now marketing writer for the Oregon musical instrument crafters Two Old Hippies. He revered her and once got to play a show with her. More than the late great Greg Haymes, more than I, Eck was a tough crowd when writing about music for the Times Union. After seeing Billy Ray Cyrus in his “Achy-Breaky Heart Days,” Eck wrote, “I bet Billy Ray Cyrus voted for the fat Elvis stamp” – best lead I ever saw on a concert review. He said Patti’s close-up presence empowered him in much the way Tom D. describes.

Michael Stipe (ex-R.E.M.) is another fan. He turned up, surprising the audience, at her show last year in New York’s Webster Hall. Stipe told Ethan Kaplan of a Smith fan site that he discovered Smith at 15 when her “Horses” album hit him hard. The album, he said, “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order. I was like ‘Shit, yeah, oh my god!’ then I threw up.”

Now, that’s a fan.

As Rolling Stone reported in January, Stipe also has objected to trump using R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as his rallies and that he once told trump off for talking during Smith’s set at a late-90s benefit at Joe’s Pub in New York. Stipe told him to “shut up” and trump left instead. But I digress.

I’ve seen a handful of Smith shows, most notably at MASSMoCA in N. Adams, Mass., early in that venue’s history; and at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. MASSMoCA was really lucky, or discerning, setting the stage for Wilco’s Solid Sound and FreshGrass festivals. Their first-ever show was by Los Lobos. I wrote in the Gazette that, “Los Lobos played the first-ever concert at MASS MoCA on Memorial Day weekend in 1999, masterfully christening a performance space that shouldn’t work half as well as it does. They played in a (13-sided) courtyard surrounded by brick and glass walls that I expected to echo the music in all directions, a cacophonous blur.” 

Smith’s show there a year later confirmed the place worked for music. Her setlist: 

One Voice

Beneath the Southern Cross

Boy Cried Wolf

Dancing Barefoot

Lo and Beholden

Spell

Dead city

Don’t Say Nothing

Because the Night

Pissing in a River

Gone Pie

Strange Messengers

Be My Baby

Glitter in Their Eyes

Free Money

Dancing Barefoot

Pissing in a River

Be My Baby

Free Money

Land/Machine Gun/Gloria

As for Patti Smith at Jazz Fest, I love seeing stuff happen there that’s outside the New Orleans tradition or sound, and watching it work anyway; including Richard Thompson and, surprisingly, Tower of Power. Both debuted there in 2008, my first Jazz Fest; I saw Smith play there in 2013.

Patti Smith at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, May 2013. Michael Hochanadel photo

However, I missed a mid-70s Smith concert at Union College Memorial Chapel. Michael Patnode (class of 1977), reported in a college mag, “Another concert we booked was Patti Smith, whose appeal we thought was more confined to the New York City area. A large number of black-clad audience members appeared on campus, showing us there was a hunger in the area for a diverse range of programming.”

I like the moral force of Smith’s shows. I’ve always liked the band, too. Maybe the most New York ensemble this side of the Ramones, Willie Nile borrowed some of her guys for his first albums and tours. She has that thing I admire most. When she steps onstage, you know in your soul that she means it. And she somehow gives other artists (Stipe, Dimopoulos, Eck) permission to mean it, too.

In this, I see her as a sort of lesser Bob Dylan – professional poet, amateur rocker, masterly persona, towering inspiration – until they welded those parts together so tightly we can’t see the seams any more. Dylan may be better – or, was – at the creative component of myth-making, but she became his equal in self-promotion.

I haven’t kept up with her records since the earliest ones. When I get them in the mail, I put them on the listen-shelf for later and sometimes take years to retrieve and listen to them. Maybe she deserves more immediate attention, as Stephen, host of the Mountain Music Club, has suggested.

Though I’ve enjoyed her books “Just Kids” and “M Train” maybe more than her later albums, when I grabbed some recently she opened my ears again.

I started at the beginning and leaped forward with “Patti Smith Horses/Horses – Legacy Edition.” This two-CD set stands her original 1975 album alongside a 2005 live show of the whole album in London’s Royal Festival Hall – to thrilling effect. 

The original has the home-made fervor that made punk so exhilarating, inspired amateurs blowing past rules of composition, arranging and performance they hadn’t taken time to learn yet.

The live versions, 30 years later, retain all that adrenaline, plus assurance. We hear obvious differences in craft. Her voice has thickened some but still soars and she whips it just as hard. The band plays better but respects the original arrangements. 

Both versions of her first songs stand tall with undiminished conviction, a now-weathered but still defiant optimism. The originals rise from the lower Manhattan CBGBs funk-frantic fog on the effortless faith and impatience of youth. The later live ones carry something harder and smoother, polished by effort and endurance, stoic and earned over time.

If the deluxe two-CD decades-apart “Horses” testifies to her enduring relevance; so do “Trampin’” (2004) and “Twelve” (2007) – in effect another two-fer. “Trampin’” is originals, “Twelve” is covers; both made with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, with her from the first; plus bassist Tony Shanahan. (Original bassist Ivan Kral [1975-78; “Horses,” “Radio Ethiopia,” “Easter” and “Wave”] died in February. Guitarist Tom Verlaine [Television] and bassist Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers] guest on the live “Horses” 2005 tracks. Guitarist Oliver Ray joined the Patti Smith Group on “Trampin’”. But we digress.) 

Here, let me yield to Robert Christgau – greatest record reviewer in print. 

Trampin’ “No, she hasn’t regained her sense of humor, but aren’t you fast losing yours? ‘I’m no Sufi but I’ll give it a whirl’ makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like ‘Trespasses’ or over-generalize like ‘Jubilee,’ the boho reminisce of ‘In My Blakean Year’ represents where she’s coming from, the sweet solemnity of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of ‘Radio Baghdad’ speaks poetry to power. It won’t prevail. But it’s a comfort. B+”

The stand out “Trampin’” songs for me have a lighter touch than the machine-shop rockers: the guitar chiming “Cartwheels,” the relaxed stroll of “Gandhi” and “Trespasses,” the cozy atmospherics of “Peaceable Kingdom.”  “Radio Baghdad” gives both, a Cowboy Junkies intro to a punchy build echoing “The Other One,” down to a recited lament, then a re-rant, then back to Cowboy Junkies’ tree-lined Toronto. The title track maps a pilgrimage to hard-won peace.

Twelve “Three decades after Smith made the transition from poet to rock & roller, we still don’t think of her as a singer, exactly — more a reciter who can carry a tune, kind of. So a covers album showcasing her interpretive gifts is a questionable vehicle. And like most such albums — there are dozens by now — it’s somewhat hit-or-miss. But when Smith hits, it isn’t just a bull’s-eye — the arrow splits the apple and then brings down the bad guy hiding behind the tree. It takes a poet to extract the lyricism of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ from its guitaristics and an avant-gardist to validate a middlebrow tour de force like Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble.’ And though other winners are more obvious, you’ll be convinced that this woman felt ‘Gimme Shelter’ very deeply — and many years later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ too.”

OK, these are can’t-miss tunes, time-tested by a billion radio plays; but that doesn’t mean every cover will work. These do, for the same reason the 2005 live “Horses” tunes are good as the 1975 originals. She means it, in an act-her-age way. That’s more important and powerful than how she pans her voice left to right in the same cheap-trick-but-it-works way that Hendrix does in “Are You Experienced?” – great guitar noise, too – оr sings a mix of pinched pop staccato and poet’s flow in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” against Kaye’s Jerry Garcia-like curls and swirls. We might quibble with her mannered, too-on-the-nose Neil-isms on “Helpless,” but she can do Mick all day long on “Gimme Shelter” and even gets the soul bounce of “Pastime Paradise” – love Shanahan’s James Jamerson bass-isms there, too. 

She knows just what to do with these songs she loves as much as those who made them, and those of us who wore out our vinyl originals.

We’ve talked mostly about the sound of her music, but what about the sense of it, the message and meaning?

Four words: “Power to the people!”

Patti Smith is still a punk, a poet, a provocateur. She still feels like coming into the sunlight from the subway – or up from troubles, from confusion, from doubt. 

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/10/patti-smith-where-to-start-in-her-back-catalogue?

Where… was he?

When I first picked up this new megaphone to yell about music, I promised – teased, really – some particular episodes and anecdotes. I teased, “What veteran soul singer answered my impulse-driven phone call having just signed his first record deal in years?

It was one of those “where are they now” musings, of the wistful sort that seldom leads anywhere. And it happened on a slow day in the teletype office – the “wire room” – at the old Gazette building on State Street in downtown Schenectady. 

This was actually the second wire room for me, a windowless room on the back of the building, noisy with machine clacking, where the news from outside first came into the newspaper. My job was simple. For 13 hours a day, three days a week, I cut apart the stories printed on long rolls of thin paper and delivered them to editors in the newsroom who edited them. I rolled type-setting tape corresponding to those stories and placed them on a pegboard, waiting for delivery to the composing room for typesetting. The 17 machines around me ran smoothly in good weather, less so when the air grew humid. 

The first wire room was on the third floor at the front of the building, a floor above the newsroom, so I dropped news stories down a chute to land behind its horse-shoe shaped desk. It was a pleasant enough space, apart from the clatter, with wall-to-wall windows offering a view of Baum’s Newsroom (Harry Leva, proprietor) across the street. There, bookies awaited the racetrack results to see which bets they’d have to pay*. Next door, radiating class, was the Imperial, a fancy women’s fashion mecca. Both are gone now, the Imperial converted into a restaurant called Mexican Radio, Baum’s leveled for its patio. Passenger and freight trains rattled on elevated tracks over State Street to the left, just past the Press Box – an adjunct staff office, with booze. Reporters and editors went out the Gazette door after their shifts – after the paper was put to bed – and into the Press Box just steps away. One woman, a comprehensively Gazette person, worked in the Gazette composing room, then at the Press Box and dated several editors in succession.

To the right from the Gazette and the Press Box, State Street passes with straight-line efficiency through a block of retail and restaurant energy; then, between two churches, it curves up hill past the Plaza, an ornate cinema still showing first run fare when we moved to town. It still housed goldfish in its lobby fountain, but stood defunct that day in 1978 when I picked up the wire room phone. 

One summer night around then, State Street was filled with yelling, marching men. An early wave of layoffs hit GE, among the first salvos of cost-cutting that “Neutron Jack” Welch aimed at the workforce. Like a neutron bomb, he “killed” people with layoffs, leaving buildings intact. Our longtime car mechanic Belechew Emaelaf then worked at GE; he escaped being laid off since his supervisors considered him so essential they hid him for nearly two years. 

Thousands of hourly union workers paraded down State past the Gazette that noisy night, having fun, not angry yet. Protesting but mostly playing, they laughed and joked around, like very big little boys headed into a bowling alley or baseball stadium. If they’d known how doomed they were, they might not have hunched in mock-clandestine crouches to peel off from the demonstration-march and pour into the Press Box. 

Above that straight block where I saw that oblivious throng sat Veteran’s Park where, in the ‘Nam years, demonstrators stood stoic behind signs. Drivers honked in support or spat in derision. Steep enough to sled down, the park widens around a fountain. One surprising night, when I was too briefly home on leave from the Navy, years before, I waded there with the first woman I ever loved, both of us blissfully drunk. 

That first wire room, speaking of love or the search for it, was on the same floor as Classified Advertising, a room of phone-bound young women. Some career types worked the day shift, others came in after high school. One afternoon, one of those high school girls, from a longtime Gazette family, brought in a thermos of whiskey sours to share. I had to pass Classified, then through the Sports Department – quiet by day when its editor took the longest lunches in journalism history, bustling and full of cigarette smoke by night – to get to the wire room. Those newspaper people were my social life until I met the dozens of working class hippies at Stereo Sound on Jay Street a block east.

State Street in the late 1970s was busy; there was lots to watch; so I did, between reading science fiction books borrowed from the library a ten minute walk away. To see directly below to the sidewalk, I had to perch on the desk. I was on all fours once when a touring school group – a handful of high school kids and two nuns – came in behind me, so silent under the complex treble roar of 17 teletype machines that I never heard them and was startled to turn around and find them silently gawking at my ass.

No such fun in the second wire room; no spectacle of State Street flowing cars and walkers in fluid parades, no demonstrations, no whiskey sours, no chance to watch the loitering eccentrics of the sort Schenectady indulged then.

That second wire room was all brick echo and isolation. So, I was bored one uneventful day; when the machines were all running in cooperative smoothness and I didn’t have to phone the Associated Press and United Press International offices in Albany to request repeats or repairs. 

I wondered: “Where is Wilson Pickett now?”

Once a big deal, he’d charted radio hits since 1963, my junior year at Bishop Gibbons High School. But his best years were behind him, that day I wondered about him in the wire room. From 1965 through 1968, “In the Midnight Hour,” “634- 5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.),” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “I’m In Love,” “Stagger Lee,” both “Hey Jude” and “Hey Joe” climbed both Hot 100 and R&B charts.

Born in Alabama, raised in Detroit, and first heard in Gospel groups, he made most of his music in Memphis. Southern soul-style, Pickett’s records layered wild Gospel-y shouts on funk grooves that hit hardest on the two-beat after Jerry Wexler suggested this rhythmic shift. Pickett sang raw, the studio band – Booker T’s MGs, without Booker T – cooked hot. As MGs guitarist Steve Cropper recalled for Kevin Phinney’s liner notes for a Pickett compilation album, “Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.”

Hits put Pickett on the radio and on the road. He played here as the Union College Concert Committee, linked to the school’s radio station WRUC, brought top pop, rock and jazz groups to campus. The girl-group Shangri-Las and British Invaders Eric Burdon and the Animals once played here on the same show; jazz genius Louis Armstrong played on campus the next night. Shows on campus were for students only then, so I only heard about them years, decades, later. As I reported in the October 22, 2018 Gazette, when Little Richard played on campus, WRUC DJ Jeff Hedquist recalled their in-studio interview was wild as the stage show. Also in Union’s 60s hit-parade, as Hedquist and his Concert Committee colleague Bob Saltzman told me: the Kingston Trio; the Beach Boys; the Buckinghams; the Blues Project (featuring Schenectady guitarist Steve Katz); Otis Redding (seven months to the day before his fatal plane crash); B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix in an all-star revue. Saltzman said they paired Wilson Pickett with comic Flip Wilson as “Wilson Weekend,” April 27, 1968, in the Memorial Fieldhouse, which then had a dirt floor. Pickett’s single “She’s Lookin’ Good” was no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 that week.

Pickett made a big noise, then left a big hole.

Where was he now? Why no hits in more than a decade? Was he alive? Had he lost that exuberant claxon of a voice?

In 1978, years before Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, years before the internet, finding out such things took more work than now.

I think I reached out to somebody with more show-biz industry savvy than I and found “The Billboard Guide” was the go-to source for information on music stars. A fat compendium, published annually, it listed performers by their agents and managers.

So, I phoned Billboard, in Manhattan, and asked. I doubt I knew enough to request contact information on Wilson Pickett as a free sample, pending possible purchase; but I did manage to persuade a kind young guy on the other end of the phone at the magazine to tell me Wilson Pickett was represented by one Jimmy Evans, in mid-town. I don’t recall the street or the number, but I do remember I dialed it right away.

A laid-back sort of guy answered, a southern black man from his drawly, molassess speech cadence. I asked for Jimmy Evans, the guy on the phone acknowledged he was the man, Wilson Pickett’s manager; and he told me he was with Wilson Pickett at that very moment. 

Evans reported that they had just walked into the office, five minutes before, and that they were happily toasting, with a good champagne, their elation at having just signed a new record deal. This was Pickett’s first chance to record in about two years, with Big Tree, an Atlantic Records affiliate. “Hold on,” said Evans amiably. Then, way too soon for me to collect myself and in any sense get ready, that astounding voice boomed through the telephone: “Hel-LO!”

I was so astonished by THAT Voice – the voice that launched 1,000 dances, that energized many a “Midnight Hour” – that I stood right up. I stayed on my feet throughout the conversation, and I addressed him as Mr. Pickett, which still seems only proper. He was in the best possible mood and talked at length about his career and his life. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember very clearly a strong feeling of awe. When I told him where I was, he told me he used to come up there, to hunt and fish.

He told me about his new album and claimed – convincingly – that his voice was just fine and all there. He’d recorded it in Alabama, with cats who’d rocked his earlier records, and he felt comfortable making it and proud of the result.

Later that year, Pickett’s A Funky Situation album came out, exploded out, really. It erupted with the best-ever version of the Rascals’ “Groovin’” – as good as his Beatles cover, “Hey Jude.” “Lay Me Like You Hate Me” packed a similar R&B punch. In my “Electric Music” Gazette column in February 1979, I wrote “’A Funky Situation’ finds Pickett growling, howling and crooning with his old irresistible gusto – backed by super-funky instrumentals.”

When he sang those songs, he sounded as he had on the phone with me, confident, strong, having fun with it – just as he looked in the album photos. On the front, he’s in full force-of-nature sing-down-the-house glee; on the back, he’s more contained, gloating a little, maybe. “I’m back, deal with it – or, not.” In addition to the foghorn strength of his voice, Pickett always sounded happy to be singing, and that feeling came through the music.

The rest of the “A Funky Situation” album was OK, but it was clearly designed to hitchhike on the disco wave. It didn’t sell much; I think there was a follow up album that I never got my hands on. 

Next thing I heard, he was getting busted for a drunkenly destructive drive across the lawn of some small-town Jersey mayor. In another mishap behind the wheel, a man died. I heard there were problems with drugs and drink.

Best thing I heard about his later years: in 1991, he was – quite properly, belatedly – inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. For some, that’s a green light to renewed career momentum, a fame transfusion that energizes them, often as some younger star takes up the cause of an elder hero and sponsors a new album. Bruce Hornsby brought back Leon Russell, who expressed gratitude for being rescued from “the rest area.” Tom Petty produced Del Shannon’s last album, his first in eight years; while Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen recharged Darlene Love’s battery before David Letterman and Paul Shaffer made her combustible “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” an over the top holiday tradition.

But that comeback train didn’t stop for Wilson Pickett, Mr. Over-the-Top, himself. He died in 2006 at just 64, before he could complete a Gospel album he’d worked on for years in a return to his church-shout roots.

Little Richard preached at the funeral. In an interview around the same time, Little Richard told me he was proud that Pickett dubbed him the “Architect of Rock and Roll,” a title he cherished.

Now, Little Richard is gone, too – two matchless voices wielded by thrilling wild men giving us intoxicating musical fun. Thinking about them and mourning them both – Little Richard recently and Wilson Pickett more than a decade ago – I realized they both sang happy; Pickett with a raucous but engaging growl, Little Richard in an anarchic spirit, spiced with danger.

How grateful I felt that I got to see them sing, and to hear those voices over the phone.

We’ll take up some other teases later:

What hard-rock singer asked about the size of my unit?

What pre-show bet with my wife Ellie turned into a backstage mini-concert for her alone?

*Race results from the “New York track” – the horse-racing facilities operated by the New York Racing Association, Saratoga, Belmont, Hialeah – produced the “number” – a three-digit calculation that multitudes bet daily before the NYS Lottery began. Betting the right number paid 600 to one, though the odds were 1,000 to one. It worked this way: dropping all the zeroes, adding the digits of the win, place and show results of last three races in order yielded a three digit result. Payoffs for the 7thrace produced the first digit; the sum of 8thrace results yielded the second digit; the 9thrace calculation provided the third and last digit. Gambling lore legend has it that the wire-room staffer would drop the race results out the window to gamblers below who’d dash across to Baum’s and place a bet they knew had won. I never saw this happen, but loved the idea.

Ben Lomio’s Broadway News, half a block from Baum’s and the Gazette, was numbers-betting headquarters. Daily cash pickups required a two-car convoy an hour after the last race. The money car came first, carrying the collectors; then came the gun car, carrying protection. When I told my dangerously witty friend Henry Hunter about this, he immediately hatched a robbery plan. Henry had one arm, and his plan involved wearing two artificial arms. He figured the gun guys would first canvass the area for three-armed stick-up specialists. This wouldn’t take long, but bracing all the two-armed robbers would, before going after the one-armed miscreants. Relating this over lunch to the late, great cartoonist John Caldwell, I concluded my account of Henry’s plan this way: “The key to the caper was his ingenious disguise.” Caldwell lost it, laughing. He sprayed a mouthful of diet Coke across the table and all over Ellie, next to me in the diner booth. To this day, when somebody laugh-sprays a mouthful over their table-mates, THAT’s a “Caldwell.”

Swing Sweet; Jimmy Cobb, and Miles Davis

During the February meet up of the Mountain Music Club (reported in the March 5 Gazette, if you’re scoring at home), we talked some about Miles Davis but never got around to watching the PBS “American Masters” profile, whose release had prompted the conversation in the first place.

The death of Jimmy Cobb, last surviving member of Miles’ late-50s Kind of Blue band, and Miles’s birthday May 26, reminded me again that Miles was a giant who walked our earth and marked it. 

Miles is the most common name on my record shelves: 45-plus albums; and I’ve spent more time listening to him and discussing him than any other artist. I’ve listened to “Kind of Blue” at least once a month for 40 years. I wore out two vinyl copies, despite carefully observing the once-a-day maximum listening limit to avoid vinyl fatigue, an effect audiophiles call the “buttering over” effect. But I digress.

Years ago, when one of our Zak’s friends, then in high school, took up the fad of swing dancing, I was fascinated to see how this opened the door to jazz for him. One day, he came into our record room, the vinyl- and CD-clogged “Temple of Music,” as my late friend Harvey Bornfield called it. He walked over to the jazz department of the album shelves, eyed the spine copy for artist and album titles, then asked, “Who’s Miles Davis?” I jumped up and hugged him and shanghai’ed his evening to play many Miles sides.

Brandishing album after album and playing many, I raved to (at) him that Miles may be the most diversely powerful figure in jazz, but also one of its most divisive. He’s the chameleon giant who hit after Louis and Duke and attained comparable stature by running wild in all directions rather than mapping out and following a particular style as they did. Miles’ albums comprise a condensed education in jazz history from 1950 through his death in 1991 at just 65. Everybody in the Mountain Music Club is older than Miles.

In our family, “Kind of Blue” isn’t just the Greatest Hit in the Temple of Music; it’s purposeful, too, by custom and convention a healing tool. When I was wheeled into the “Cath lab” at Ellis Hospital after an episode that might or might not have been a heart attack, I was in a soaringly optimistic mood, which I held through the procedure by bringing in “Kind of Blue” to play there. The docs and techs liked it. When one of us catches a cold or flu, we listen to “Kind of Blue” and we feel healed, or at least on the way there.

When I saw the PBS Miles bio, I thought about Miles in that framework and recalled the two Miles shows I saw.

When I got out of the Navy in Seattle in the warm fall of 1970, I fell in with a friendly crew of hippies living in a big Victorian next door to a daycare center and across 50thStreet from the Woodland Park Zoo. One was the younger brother of Jimmy Fred Bowman, a fellow Navy-in-Japan vet. Jimmy Fred was our ticket into the place, via introductions to Ed. Jimmy Fred drove a VW bug so ancient its turn signals were arms that levered up from the door-posts; its rear bumper was a 4 x 4 painted green and with holes spelling “Thunderclap” drilled into it. Always parked in front was a yellow-tan International Harvester Army ambulance converted into a camper by its owner, dubbed Tuna, who dubbed the truck “Grasshopper.”

In three months there – I left when winter came, wet and drab – I saw some cool shows, including the second or third version of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, with Flo and Eddie (from the Turtles) singing; Jamie Brocket opened, singing about the Titanic. And I saw Miles lead the Bitches Brew band, the electric rock-and-rolling crew he put together after watching Sly Stone make SO much money.

The show was in the same big oval sports arena where the Supersonics played; saw THOSE guys there, too; I remember how dominant Bob Rule was in that game. Miles’ show was full of 1950s and 60s fans, dads in suits mostly. They were surprised to find Miles in electric shiny hippie clothes, fronting a big, very noisy, high funk band: Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, keyboards; Jack DeJohnette, drums; Harvey Brooks, electric bass; John McLaughlin, electric guitar; Dave Liebman, saxophone.

They were WAY more than the jazz dads ever expected – loud, complex, driving, powerful, rock and roll, but supercharged. They looked left and right, sharing outrage, cultural disorientation and sonic overload. They expected “Kind of Blue” or “Birth of the Cool” and they got a funky thunderstorm. Many left, grumbling,  shaking their heads.

I loved it. It was SO intense, so fresh, so fun – so wonderfully uncomfortable for those guys. The music had splendor, muscle, a beautiful arrogant insistence that this was the coolest, and hottest, thing happening on earth at that moment. 

Years later, I saw a somewhat lesser example of the same thing happen at the Union College Memorial Chapel in Schenectady on Homecoming Weekend. Saxophonist Charles Lloyd brought his new quartet to play before a mixed audience of students and parents. Now, the old quartet was about as cozily conventional and traditional as Miles’ Kind of Blue band (John Coltrane, tenor sax; Cannonball Adderley, alto sax; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Wynton Kelly or Bill Evans, piano; and Jimmy Cobb, drums). Lloyd had made mellow hippie late-60s jazz including “Forest Flower” and “Love-In” and played rock and roll dance halls in San Francisco including the Fillmore and the Avalon. His quartet was powerful but smooth: DeJohnette and Jarrett, with bassist Ron McClure. 

In late 1967, I  got to see that band purely through the power of the camera as ticket. When my photographer friend Jock Sturges and I went to see Lloyd in a cozy theater at San Jose State College, we found the place sold out. Sturges said, “Here, quick; put this on,” handing me one of his cameras. We got to the door looking like photographers, and the students doing “security” let us in without tickets, for a blazing show.

Charles Lloyd at San Jose State College, 1968, by Jock Sturges

The same thing happened at Williams College when they presented Stevie Wonder in its gym. The students took one look and waved me in, then assigned one of their number to guide me to the stage, ducking under the girders supporting the bleachers along the side of the gym. We popped out behind the stage and he waved me toward the stairs, turned and left. I climbed up onto the stage and found myself five feet from Steve Wonder. But I digress.

Stevie Wonder at Williams College gym, May 1973, by Michael Hochanadel

The new Charles Lloyd Quartet that brought such delicious culture shock to the Union College Memorial Chapel featured feisty, assertive youngbloods: Blackbird McKnight, Hendrix-y guitar; Celestial Songhouse, electric bass; Transcending Son Ship, drums.

And they brought the same sort of reaction as Miles inspired/detonated in Seattle. The dads (and moms) glanced around in growing alarm, seeking affirmation from fellow adults that this was as weird as they feared. They looked to the door, hoping to draw their kids out with them. Some parents literally tugged their kids from the room; others left them there and fled; the students digging it and digging it.

I loved it. I loved seeing music having such a profound effect.

I didn’t love the last time I saw Miles – in Boston, at Paul’s Mall or the Jazz Workshop. The two clubs were in the same building; I don’t recall which was upstairs, first floor; or in the basement below the other. And I don’t recall who played in the band; it was nondescript, loud and electric. So was Miles; and he didn’t connect with the crowd any more than with the music, or the band. He faced them, not us; he played most of the show with his back turned. Disconnected as it was, it still had something. It had the gravity and force of Miles; but it felt mythic more than musical.

I loved the place, though; I saw several of the shows promoted in posters collected in a FaceBook page, including the Miles show just aforementioned; and a Larry Coryell show that I thought was pretty cool but Coryell didn’t like. He led the same band as on the epic “A Call to the Higher Consciousness” on his “Barefoot Boy” album, which I used to listen to almost as much as “Kind of Blue” in the 70s. Chick Corea’s parents sat at a front table through Coryell’s set; afterward, the band scattered without the brotherly residue of warmth that lingers after a good show. Coryell clearly thought this was the other kind. He shook his head as he came off the bandstand, sat down with the Coreas and said, “You guys were right: I never should have left Gary Burton’s band!” But I digress, 

Years after Miles passed in 1991, I got a phone interview with Maynard Ferguson, a contemporary of Miles. For all his eminence, Maynard was humble, but careful about pronouncing his name correctly: “MAY-nahrd.” As we talked about composing and improvising, he sometimes moved from the general to the specific, recalling sessions and gigs. He brought up a twin-bill at Birdland in New York in the mid-50s. Without boasting, he noted he was top-billed; the marquee read “Maynard and Miles.” The two trumpeters hung out, they talked on their breaks. I asked about the stereotypical comparison between them: Maynard, the polite rumpled looking white Canadian who mastered the whole horn and could play way up high; Miles, the angry black rebel, lean as a blade, who didn’t: Miles played in the middle register and so fans of high-note fireworks considered him the lesser talent. Ferguson wasn’t having it. He defended Miles. He said Miles played in the middle range of his horn because that’s where his hearing was most acute and precise; where he could be most expressive.

Maynard also explained, in Miles’ own words, his willingness to challenge his audience with the bold “Bitches Brew” music in Seattle, to play with his back turned to us in Boston. Maynard said Miles told him how he felt about the audience. “He said, ‘Never give them a fucking thing.’”

In this, Miles failed.

He gave us everything that music could give.

Jimmy Cobb gave us much more than the tasty, swinging mostly brush work beats on “Kind of Blue.” That album arguably type-cast him as much as the character of Eddie Haskell in “Leave It to Beaver” did actor Ken Osmond, who died May 18 at 76, a week before Cobb died on May 24, Bob Dylan’s birthday, at 91. His playing is so soft, so subtle, so closely welded to the relaxed ease of the groove, that we feel more than hear it. 

Cobb played on eight other Miles albums, on hundreds of others as a sideman with John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, both Adderley brothers and too many more to list here; and he made 17 albums as a leader.

Surviving his fellow Kind of Blue alums by nearly 30 years, he returned to that album in a 2011 tour that played The Egg. As I reported in the Gazette, Cobb faithfully kept its flame.

            ALBANY – Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band filled big shoes at The Egg’s (smaller) Swyer Theatre stage on Thursday. Now 82, Cobb is the last survivor of the Miles Davis band that recorded the iconic “Kind of Blue” album and the keeper of its flame. Named for the album’s lead track, the band celebrated the music he helped make on just two spring days in 1959.

            Jazz-fans nearly filled the Swyer to hear Cobb and company reconstitute “Kind of Blue,” each bringing questions or expectations. Would trumpeter Jeremy Pelt replicate Miles’ simple phrasing and the buzz of his Harmon mute on the ballads? Would Javon Jackson (tenor) and Vincent Herring (alto) weave their saxes into and across each other like John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley? Would bassist Buster Williams play as unobtrusively as Paul Chambers? Would pianist Larry Willis lean toward Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly? – both soft-spoken, sweet players. How many steps has Cobb lost in 50-plus years? None, it turned out, but it really boiled down to: How much would Cobb and the newcomers echo the originals? And, how much of their own personalities would they dare or manage to bring to this iconic music? Both questions turned into a big “so what” when they started.

            The heads of the “Kind of Blue” songs may sound simple to play, but the So What guys made the tougher task of improvising on them with personality seem easy. They could have played like a reel-to-reel tape-deck, replicating the original renditions every jazz fan knows by heart. Instead they played like the E-Type Jag of tribute/legacy bands. They played this music – ahead of its time in 1959 – with elegance at any speed, fast enough when they wanted and without any nods to nostalgia.

“So What” seemed a bit ragged until its familiar cadence kicked in; Pelt playing busier and with more vibrato than Miles, Cobb switching his snare stick from tip to butt, Jackson starting slow then building up steam and Herring matching him for force and grace – setting the pattern for the whole show.

            Cobb pushed “Freddie Freeloader” into funkier neighborhoods than Miles did, Williams’s bass walking low and slow and Herring echoing Cannonball’s phrasing as closely as Pelt did in following Miles’ roadmap through “Blue in Green” that followed. Pelt started “All Blues” muted but his open solo hit strong and high. “Flamenco Sketches” featured Willis in his most Bill Evans-like solo all night: otherwise he often echoed McCoy Tyner.

            After wrapping up “Kind of Blue” with “Sketches,” they breezed through “The Theme,” Miles’ longtime break song – a brisk hard-bop number in which Cobb played his only solo all night. This two minute burst of full-on energy was punctuated by fan shout-outs, but he was impressive in quieter ways throughout; the way he pushed “Flamenco Sketches” with just one hand, Blastix on the ride cymbal; the way he stiffened the spine of “Freddie Freeloader.”

An impromptu encore everyone knew as well as “Kind of Blue,” “On Green Dolphin Street” brought the players together at their swinging best.

– 30 – N.B. That’s newspaper-ese for “end of the story.”

Decades before his Egg show (early 70s), I first saw Cobb play with the Last Poets at the old SUNY Albany gym. Precursors of rap, the Last Poets were vividly confrontational spoken word agit-prop artists. Gil Scott-Heron wouldn’t have been possible without their searing example; nor would hip-hop as we know it today. 

At SUNYA, they brought the fire, Cobb brought the funk.

Unlike his self-effacing supporting role in Miles’ band, here Cobb pushed and pumped the music hard. At one point, he lifted his snare in one hand and hit it as hard as he could, swinging his stick in arms-length arcs, ending in forceful blasts.

The sheer aggressiveness of his playing was worlds away from “Kind of Blue” – more like black and blue. It hit me like a revelation, that Cobb carried other worlds within him, different from the music we always associate with him. All other musicians, too?