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?

My First Jazz Fest

I was ready to love Jazz Fest when I first pilgrimaged there in 2008

The first music I ever loved was traditional jazz, called Dixieland everywhere but New Orleans, where Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong and other street kids, rebels and inventors devised it from African, European and Caribbean roots.

Then came the jovial bounce of Fats Domino, the fierce glee of Little Richard – I know, he’s from Georgia but made his best records in New Orleans – the zooming accordions of zydeco… I could go on, and I think I have, as guitarist Leo Kottke said once onstage at Troy Music Hall.

Crowd enjoys Kirk Joseph’s four-Sousaphone band at Jazz Fest 2008. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

Jazz Fest would happen right soon in normal time: the last weekend of April and first weekend in May. It’s cancelled this year, like almost every other cultural expression that depends on and rewards gathering. But New Orleans public radio station WWOZ presents a virtual Fest on the air.

Here’s how it hit me, my first time, as I reported in my column:

People said for years that I had to go, and they were right; but they also warned me it’s instantly addictive, and I’m afraid they’re right about that, too. My first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – “Jazz Fest,” as attendees call it, though there’s less jazz than of everything else – was the biggest, best, mellowest music experience I’ve seen since the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Words fail, mostly, by which I mean, here are some snapshots.

Jazz Fest may be the only place on earth where I would leave a perfectly fine – well, up and down, really – Stevie Wonder show to see trumpeter Terence Blanchard lead his jazz band and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in his “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).” Raindrops big as crab cakes fell during Stevie’s set, but a rainbow formed – I swear! – as he sang “Ribbon in the Sky” and the sun shone like Blanchard’s trumpet into the jazz tent as he etched an eloquent message of loss and hope.

The enormous devastation of what people call “the storm” was every bit as overwhelming in the direction of heartbreak and desolation as Jazz Fest is in its exhilaration and sheer fun. 

The only possible complaint about Jazz Fest is there’s too much that’s too good, all at once. Asked on my return if choices arose between two good things at once, I said, “Hell no!” – There are usually about five good things at once on its 12 stages. I saw 26 acts in four days at Jazz Fest including two bands with two sousaphones each, one with three drummers (Jason Marsalis’s mighty Max Roach tribute) and ten groups I’d never heard of, and everything was at least good. There’s no wrong choice among Richard Thompson, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, John Boutte, D.L. Menard & the Louisiana Aces and the Ebenezer Baptist Church Radio Choir, but no easy way to choose, either. How could piano fans choose among keyboard killers Art Neville, Henry Butler, and Ethan Iverson with the Bad Plus, all playing at the same time, while the astounding Trombone Shorty was simultaneously playing perhaps the hottest set of all?

The return to Jazz Fest of the Neville Brothers in their first hometown show since Katrina for the closing set promised and delivered a powerful catharsis of sheer homecoming joy that brought tears to many. Guest Carlos Santana played way looser and wilder with the Nevilles than in his own set preceding them.

Randy Newman provided a compelling Jazz Fest anthem with “Louisiana 1927,” singing it in deep sadness after proclaiming New Orleans “my favorite place on earth.” Others sang it there: Marcia Ball, the great but unknown-outside-the-city John Boutte, and Aaron Neville in his reportedly sky-splitting set in the Gospel Tent. 

Late addition Alejandro Escovedo made the most of his too-early slot after thunderstorms drenched the place, playing fierce and touchingly sweet Texas rock to a sparse crew happily standing slack-jaw-dazzled in puddles before the Accura main stage, one of three stages that accommodate SPAC-sized crowds.

Playing solo, as Newman had on the same big stage, Richard Thompson said he’d represent “the northern European tradition of complex poly-rhythms,” his wryly arched eyebrow visible at 100 yards. His musically straightforward but lyrically dark songs connected surprisingly well in the hot sun.

Discoveries worked both ways: Musical pilgrims from afar were knocked out by Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove or the Melody Clouds – New Orleans acts that don’t play out of town – and it was fun to see New Orleanians get hip to Thompson or to the Oakland funk of Tower of Power, both in their Jazz Fest debuts.

The 1960s era soul singer Bettye LaVette just tore up the Jazz Tent, singing great at 62 and reveling in a comeback she is working hard to earn. Fans fanned out in rapt, dense deltas outside the doors of the mobbed Gospel Tent during a tribute to Mahalia Jackson by Irma Thomas, Marva Wright and Raychell Richard.

 The food at Jazz Fest is famous as the music, and the T-shirts and other fashions are cheerfully outrageous. Best Fest foods I found were a giant Cajun duck po’boy and a steaming bowl of crawfish etouffe. Best T-shirts: “Boudreaux’s Butt Paste” (for diaper rash and other afflictions of one’s nether parts), “Bowling for Concubines,” and one promoting a beer: “Polygamy Porter: Why Stop at Just One?” A woman in a barely-there black bikini, cowboy hat and white rubber shrimp-boat boots to mid-calf walked arm in arm with a guy in a white suit, starched shirt and tie, pants rolled to his knees and red alligator shoes tied around his neck, both trudging happily through ankle-deep mud with drinks in hand.

For many, Jazz Fest is just the beginning. There’s dinner, and a throbbing club scene. Waiting for a table in the great cajun restaurant Cochon on Tchoupitoulas Street, my two fellow musical pilgrims (Jazz Fest vets since 1995) and I spotted Diana Krall and her band at the neighboring stand-up cocktail table. Actor John C. Reilly bumped into me in the Jazz Tent without spilling his beer or mine.

At Mid-City Lanes, the famous Rock & Bowl (you’ve seen the shirts) offers 24 lanes, on-the-spot embroidery of your bowling shirt and, the night we went there, four zydeco bands playing at 10 p.m., midnight, 2 and 4 a.m. The next night at Southport Hall, a J.B. Scotts-like place tucked against a levee, the subdudes welcomed a parade of old friends to the stage. And the next night, pianist Jon Cleary jammed the Maple Leaf so full that, standing just 20 feet away, the only person I could actually see onstage was the huge guitar player Derwin “Big D” Perkins. Next door, Jacques Ymo’s restaurant was still serving at 1 a.m. An ancient pickup parked in the street and on the sidewalk was part of the restaurant: In its bed sat a couple delighted with the choicest table in town.

The only night I got to bed before 1 a.m. was before a 7 a.m. flight home when the airport was full of hung-over, sunburned, sometimes still muddy but really happy people. 

The deepest funk experience of a supremely funky four days was a visit to Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. (Check Neil Strauss’s NY Times story “All Dolled Up in His Lounge and Shrine.”) K-Doe parlayed his 1961 No. 1 hit “Mother-In-Law” into this cozy two-room tavern, with an apartment upstairs where his widow Antoinette K-Doe lives. In the corner of the bar lounges what Antoinette calls “the statue:” a manikin that uncannily resembles the late singer, dressed on the day we visited in a garish red suit, rhinestone shoes and meticulously tended wig. Warmly hospitable, Antoinette spoke of her late husband as if he were still alive, explaining that his caretaker changed his clothes “when he needed that” – for public appearances. She often takes “the statue” around, in a hearse, to her cooking demonstrations, and to Jazz Fest. 

See, people go to Jazz Fest, at least in effigy, even after they’re dead.

Daily Gazette May 16, 2008

Re-reading this now, during the Big Ugly, reminds me of how Jazz Fest ALWAYS delivers a miraculous experience on your first visit – a peak of surprise fun that is addictive as any drug and brings you back again and again.

Randy Newman sings “Louisiana 1927” at Jazz Fest 2008. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

That’s also why Fest veterans love bringing newbies: to be nearby when that novice Fest-goer gets that miracle.

Mine came in that visit to the Mother-In-Law Lounge in the Treme. We were driving by when Mike* shouted, “Look, SHE’s out there!” Dennis* hit the brakes, gliding to the curb before the scabby lawn alongside the Lounge where Antoinette K-Doe and her sister sat at a picnic table sister snapping beans into a big bowl. Nobody was a stranger to Antoinette who immediately invited us to the dinner she was preparing. She told us she’d also invited Dr. John but he was still up in the air. Literal-linear me, I thought this meant his flight from New York hadn’t landed yet. 

She took us inside the Lounge and showed us around, mixing reverence with a matter of fact directness as she brought us to “the statue” – the garish enduring representation of her late husband. Unmoving but not inert, it radiated a presence, a power – conferred and preserved by her devotion to him. Not it, him. She spoke of “the storm, which many surivors won’t, recounting how she hid in the dark, sweltering second floor of the bar, announcing to intruders she heard below that she had a shotgun and would come down and use it. They left. As we left, Mike shook hands with Antoinette. Spotting the sneaky-subtle way he pressed a bill into her palm, folded small, considerately discreet, I wish I’d been as alert to the opportunity to help.

Antoinette’s lesson in the persistence of devotion, through anything, and the permanence of powerful personalities, was worth more than I could ever have paid. Her love had outlived him; just as the Mother In Law Lounge out-lived her. She died of a heart attack, in the Lounge, on Lundi Gras, 2009 – the year after Mike and Dennis and I met her there.

Ernie K-Doe didn’t write “Mother In Law” about Antoinette’s mom. He also liked his first mother-in-law, by all accounts. Antoinette rescued him from living on the streets and helped him buy and run the bar. Get famous in New Orleans, and you stay famous.

We didn’t go back to Antoinette’s dinner that night, just as we didn’t board the converted schoolbus to infinity – “Interstellar Transmission” painted on the side – that roared past us on Esplanade Avenue. It carried a band and fans; happy young black men making music inside, bringing the funk as they rocked the bus, the whole block, as they passed. They waved to us on the sidewalk, inviting us in. The rear emergency exit of the bus was gone and we could see the drummer, just inside, sweat gleaming in the streetlights’ glow as they roared past Buffa’s Lounge, bound for outer space. Mike Gondek and Dennis Bidwell are my Jazz Fest guides, inviting me along on my first (2008) expedition there via Nashville and Houston, then on four returns thereafter. I owe them VERY big. Regulars since 1995, they’d attended the first resumption Jazz Fest after “the storm,” when Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band folk-rocked musical messages of defiant, resilient resolve, on April 30, 2006.

We’ll see what Dennis has to say about the “interstellar Transmission” in an upcoming post.