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?

Rock in Peace, Little Richard

Late in Sean Rowe’s 80s-themed live-show-from-home Sunday afternoon, a lyric grabbed me by the throat. 

In his now-familiar dining room festooned with tiny hanging lights, he stepped to the mic right in front of the camera, strummed quiet chords on his Takamine acoustic six-string, decorated with bold bars of colorful duct tape and sang this:

“For seven years I could not cry, but that has left me now.”

Me, too.

I hadn’t wept since my parents passed, until last Saturday night when I sat next to my son, stream-watching “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and sipping the good stuff. Then, for no reason relating to the movie or the Woodford Reserve bourbon, I started thinking about Little Richard.

And the dam broke.

And I sat weeping, gasping, shattered.

There was no stopping this, no way to rationalize away the devastating sense of loss I felt. 

Sitting here now, trying to make sense of it, I reach back almost in vain for some predecessor moment that felt anything like this. 

The first time I mourned a star going out as a personal loss was Nat King Cole, who passed in 1965. But this had a delayed impact for me. In spring 1968, I sat by myself in a barracks on Goodfellow Air Force Base in west Texas, a closed SAC base where I was training in electronic intelligence. Gacked on Dexedrine smuggled from Ciudad Acuna, I wrote a fast blurt. I addressed it to Nat Cole’s spirit, telling him how I felt the world now had a huge, aching hole in it, left by his departure and the silencing of his elegant, polished music. 

Now, Nat’s smooth sound was anything but rock and roll.

He chose songs and sang them in such a restrained, mainstream, low-pressure way that our parents could dig him, and did.  

Yet there I sat, a year after Monterey, when music grew hair and mighty moral force to become a giant noise, and I mourned Nat Cole in words I wrote right to him.

No other loss hit me so hard, not Bob Marley, not John Lennon; not the holy trinity of the Iowa crash: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. I was in Seattle when its neon native son Jimi Hendrix died, in the rainy sadness of a whole city in tears. I don’t recall where I was when Janis Joplin followed just a month later.

But I’ll always remember I was quarantined in my house by the trumpandemic when Little Richard died.

Is that it? I thought at first that maybe I felt his loss so acutely because of all the other loss we all feel and fear now.

But, no.

I realized it’s really all about him, the Georgia Peach, the self-proclaimed Architect of Rock and Roll. 

Where Nat Cole was slick and cool, Little Richard was hot, a human high explosive. He came onstage (or screen) with his eyes wild, wide in joy and mischief. You knew on sight that he was trouble of the most delicious, shocking-to-our-parents power. Just check the clothes. Nat wore tastefully narrow lapels, Richard’s reached out to grab you, to cut through the air and close the distance to your pleasure centers. Hair heaped high in a sculpture of challenging effrontery, he was more than bold. He was a walking, strutting, howling, piano-pounding outrage – exhilarating and uniquely empowering, whenever and however I saw or heard him. He was raw, a shout of possibility. He made me feel free, or at least free-er.

At first, I didn’t quite understand it; I knew how his music made me feel, but at some point I wanted to know why. Wikipedia reminded me the answer was New Orleans.

Little Richard’s father was both a deacon of his church and a bootlegger who owned a nightclub; so how could Little Richard have turned out any other way? 

He preached a gospel of forbidden fruit, of in-your-face-transgression that felt righteous because it was so inescapably real. He toggled between the uplift of the divine and the dive bar all this life. His was the church of raw exultation, his nightclub one where forgiveness lived. 

In an early 90s phone interview, Little Richard told me of his famous re-conversion to devout Christianity aboard a plane to Australia as if it had happened to him yesterday. He spoke of the joy of performing with the same immediacy, and I wish I’d known to ask him about meeting Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When she heard him singing her songs outside a Macon concert in 1947, she asked the 14-year-old singer to open her show. Little Richard said he’d decided to play piano after hearing Ike Turner play “Rocket 88;” so he learned from perhaps the two most influential pre-rock and roll giants of his time.

When Little Richard started recording, producer Bumps Blackwell saw him as a new Ray Charles, but Little Richard instead wanted to sound like Fats Domino. So Blackwell recorded him at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studios in New Orleans with drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen and others from Fats’ band. When I pilgrimaged there during Jazz Fest, I found the building was a laundromat, as shown in “Treme.” When those records didn’t hit, Little Richard wrote “Tutti Frutti” in the Dew Drop Inn, but Blackwell had to hire songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up his sex-charged lyrics. In September 1955, Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” and cracked open the radio.

Of course, he went to New Orleans to make that music. 

I should have recognized its Fats-inspired rolling swing right away, but I thought of it then as fully Little Richard’s invention, totally original. I didn’t know for years that it came from South Rampart Street just outside the French Quarter. I just knew how it made me feel. For me, after “Tutti Frutti,” nothing was the same. It was the Big Bang that let that wild, raw, explosive, brash and beautiful man and his music out of the bag, loose into an uptight world where Elvis was just starting to make his mark. Little Richard’s stardom was even more startling, a blast of joy, at once engaging and confrontational.

Others could play his songs – even that whitest of white-bread imitators Pat Boone. But even his most ardent and talented admirers couldn’t sound like him.

I didn’t know until I read Charles White’s authorized biography that Little Richard was gay or, as he described himself, “omnisexual.”  But I wondered if ignoring conventional gender borders liberated him to become the person he invented. 

He arguably invented others, too. Paul McCartney learned his scream from Little Richard and the first song he ever sang in public was “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard’s follow up to “Tutti Frutti.” As “No Direction Home” shows us, Bob Dylan wrote in his yearbook of his ambition: “to join Little Richard.”

However wide his influence has been, even in those years when McCartney was learning Little Richard’s scream and Bob Dylan was learning his fearlessness, we somehow knew we’d never see another one.

In a moment of humble self-awareness, Elvis once reflected that he’d been fortunate to come along when there was no trend. Little Richard came along when there was nothing like him, and there never will be.

Getting back to Sean Rowe for a moment, let’s give another original his due: the Troy-born troubadour of bottomless voice and spooky resonant guitar.

Rowe was doing house concerts long before quarantine time, so he moved easily into performing from his own dining room. These shows feel all the more human for those moments when he pauses to adjust something; using the clasp of a pen to clip a folded bill into his guitar strings, say; or visiting the bathroom.

As he wrote on his website:

“This is why I do house shows: I want to connect…I want to take you on an intimate musical journey that you and your friends will remember forever. Do I love club shows? Hell, YES. I love the vibe, the energy, the lights, the heat. I want to see you out there, too. But this is a different beast. Maybe a gentler, more homey beast.”

In his May 10 show, Mother’s Day, he sang 1980s pop and indie rock songs, and his own.

And the one that hit me with a vivid evocation of Little Richard – though Rowe writes and sings nothing like him – is “Flying.” Little Richard performed with big bands in matching outfits. A human trumpet himself, he surrounded himself with saxophones. In dark t-shirt and two-tone beard, Rowe is a bass, a cello; and he sounded glorious singing these tunes, familiar or not. He helpfully listed them for his listeners in an email after he put his guitar away.

Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes)]

With You or Without You (U2)

Surprise

Wrong Side of the Bed

Lady in Red (Chris DeBurgh)

We’re Not the Same

I’ll Follow Your Trail

Squid Tattoo

Never Tear Us Apart (INXS)

You Don’t Have to Worry

A Forest (The Cure)

Psycho Killer

Tornado Head

It’s hard, if exhilarating, to imagine Little Richard singing in your house, in ANY house. 

As young confined Catholics, brother Jim and I would imagine a loud rock and roll takeover during mass. The Rolling Stones or the Mothers of Invention would burst onto the altar, elbow the priest aside and rock the joint, to the gaping horror of the pious multitude. 

Now, I believe that seeing prime and primal Little Richard do that would be even better. In clothes you could see from Vancouver, hair up to THERE, pounding the piano as if to demolish it, howling octave over octave, he’d give the congregation something to worship, all right.

In June 1995, Little Richard played here for the last time before retiring. A bit incongruously, he was on whatever SPAC’s Jazz Festival was called that year, a non-jazz box office classic-rocker added to the line-up to sell tickets to mainstream fans; like Chic this year before that Fest, like all fests, was canceled. Though he had to grab a band member’s hand for stability, Little Richard still climbed on top of the grand piano. He was still a force of nature. All the voice was still there – like the clothes, like the hair – and he seemed likely to pound the piano down through the stage. 

It wasn’t 1955, or even 1975, but it was “Tutti Frutti,” and it was glorious.

I didn’t know then that I’d never see Little Richard again.

And so, when the full, awful wrenching pain of that recognition hit me – beside my son on the couch in my quarantined house – I had no way to dance past the grief. 

There’s no hiding from our loss of Little Richard. There’s only gaudy, funny, fierce memories of his brilliantly engaging and noisy nonsense, blurred through tears.

A wop boppa looma, a wop bam boom.