A Jazzman's Tale gives bebop lovers a chance to make jazz fun again, a well respected American art form; jazz has shaped the music industry spawning both the careers of various musical geniuses, and an abundance of elemental new music genres.
Just recently, I came across Miles Davis’ Grammy winning album Bitches Brew. The album cover suggests solidarity among women leading me to think a bit about this title – Bitches’ Brew. Maybe being called a bitch, especially by a spurned man is, nowadays, not an insult at all. Is it a sign of respect when a man calls a tough woman a bitch?
I looked at the tracks on Bitches Brew and realized they, somehow in some way, told the story of the #METOO movement, a push-back against the hell women must sometimes swallow in order to excel! And then I listened keenly to the album and came up with this re-interpretation of the album:
Pharoah’s Dance is the harasser’s tune by which he hopes to cast a spell on his co-workers.
Bitches Brew is the force of angry women the harasser must now confront as #METOO.
John McLaughlin is a quick tune with a brief – this is no laughing matter despite the spelling of the surname.
Spanish Key told of the body-language barrier – the harassers can’t read the Spanish they now say her body language spoke.
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down meant that no matter how long ago, women will never forget the offence and confront the accused no matter the passage of time, no matter how long ago – they will run it down!
Sanctuary speaks of the refuge women want at work, free of the dance of the Pharoah, somewhere they can get away from it all.
This tune opens with an enchanting melody, like a snake charmer convincing us that the snake is responding to the music, just like he thinks you too can be charmed into a response to his crude advances.
“I’m just kidding but you must want to go out with me. Your boobs are nice and so is your ass. Come on don’t be a pain, don’t be so serious. How can a pretty woman like you be serious all the time? Surely you feel complimented – don’t be a spoil sport.”
“I am just admiring you. you don’t have to listen if you don’t want to hear. Come on baby you know you have the looks for a man like me. We work together don’t tell me you don’t feel it too.”
The trumpet solo starts out gently and becomes more ardent, notes nearly staccato and leaves a deep impression of a snake charming melody, audibly outspoken. The bass clarinet sounds caution but the trumpet screeches, cajoling her with fifteen minutes of sounds, the trumpet begging for one last dance. She refuses.
“Come on you’re pretty you’re fine you’re beautiful, what do you expect me to do? Sit here and pretend I don’t notice?”
“Close your ears if you don’t want to hear but please I am a man allow me to say what’s on my mind and you are on my mind. You don’t want the difficult label, believe me.!”
“You ‘re pretty. You’re sexy and you are in my way baby. I have got all these feelings and I am expected to zip it up and just work with you? But you’re so sexy and you won’t even answer me. Come on baby let me know you feel it too, that you know I want you.”
“I am not gonna let up, I am gonna keep trying, we have to work together but maybe you can take some time off and see me or even after work? We work all day and you don’t want to share your body with me after hours? What have I done?”
The trumpet solo still asks for one more dance, politely, respectfully but its too late, the harasser hides in this tune: “Come on baby just let me cop a feel, kiss your lips and hold your hips.”
“Sound the alarm, guys, sound the alarm! Oh no! She complained! And it’s all over the news, they call it #METOO.” The panic is heard in the trumpet’s announcement of trouble.
“She said I hit on her when she was out of batting range! She said I harassed her, touched her boobs and her hips, now I am in big trouble. Hear the drama she has unleashed. The trumpet wails, it reverberates long notes, I am in big trouble now.”
“I did no such thing – listen to the quiet between the horns. I did no such thing. I may have said her blouse was pretty, her smile a joy. But I did not harass her.”
“And now they are all coming out with #ME TOO. So, it’s not only me but a whole bunch of us who just pay compliments to pretty women. Pretty women we work with, what’s a guy to do?”
“Now they are all over shouting ME TOO! We men must face the wrath of the collective female plaint – it’s a bitches’ brew in that trumpet blaring, followed by a few quiet bass sounds.
“My lips are not for your kissing, nor my hips for your touching, my hair is as I like it not meant for you to stroke, nor are my day off jeans meant as a joke. My breasts are not boobs and are off limits to you!”
“I say METOO and now that you’re caught and exposed, you call us all a bitches’ brew? ”
“Did you mean a witches’ brew? A witches’ crew, a bitches’ brew? We will take all labels that don’t spell compliant with you!”
“They’ve announced it to the world and the world likes this bitches’ brew of #METOO.”
The trumpet sounds for understanding, please see our point of view.
“We, the METOO, are not going give up or give in! We are going to bring to light all this stuff been done in the dark and all of us together, thousands, perhaps millions strong, are saying the same thing!”
“We love the label bitches’ brew! Or even witches’ crew! Just what do you expect us to do?”
The trumpet complains about your advances.
“You don’t get to ask me out. You don’t get to cop a feel and complain that I pout when your hands are all about, trying to cop a feel to see if they are real, or will make a good meal for your hungry appeal that you just can’t see for me is not real.”
“#METOO, are we just a slew of women, ladies, dolls and chicks, or are we together a bitches’ brew, a witches’ crew offending anyone who thinks you can take from us what is their due?”
“All we did was work with you, alongside you, not thinking you would miss the unwritten clue, I am me and you are you, no touching unless you want to make of us this bitches’ brew, this witches’ crew!”
And the trumpet wails again – “We can’t believe you took all this so seriously. We won’t make the same mistake again.”
The percussive introduction to this tune says it all, with that let-me-get-away-from-you melody on trumpet emerging from that line of drums and shakers. That blaring trumpet speaks for me, so I beg you lend an ear.
“That haunting look of brief anger and overwhelming sadness in my eyes as you’re taunting me – about my looks, my hair, my blouse, when my smile speak volumes of despair!”
“That unspoken look, pregnant with words, speaks English and Spanish too, so no fair of you to say you misunderstood because my body language speaks Spanish! Your words, your touches, your innuendo do offend me so it’s not fair to argue my silence encouraged you to hit on me.”
“Now that you have the power to speak the unspeakable, with a veiled threat that if I don’t comply, you may start to wonder why I have the job I do, when all the girls in high school scorned and wouldn’t look at you.”
“Listen as my eyes speak, my brow and lips articulate – that’s a frown and there’s no clowning around that unless I say no, you did not get it as my face spoke Spanish, a language about which you have no clue.”
“All that anger, frustration, shame and despair is spoken in my eyes, my cheeks, my lips and even if I have to go on working with you, my desire for you to stop with the teasing, taunting and harassing needs no second language.””
“My wish that you desist translates itself to any language you comprehend, what need of words when my face spells it all out word by word, syllable by syllable. Stop it now, I just want a relationship that is workable, not to be your girlfriend mistress or other unknowable – my body language needs no interpreter!”
McLaughlin’s electric guitar says this is no laughing matter.
“Despite the spelling of my name, harassing women on and off the job is just not playing, it is no game.”
“Women work and are smart too, if you have to work with one, no matter how pretty you find her to be, touching her is off limits, your compliments carry a big charge, she may be embarrassed at your attention because she is there to work and not play.”
“The bass clarinet says it all, no means no whether its to dinner a date or just a stupid comment seeking to get closer than she is willing to go. She came to work and you are no prince for her to quit working to be with you.”
“I say it short and I say it sweet, no harassing of women when they come to work.”
Miles Runs the Voodoo Down
“This harassment, this touching, this ‘complimentary’ way of relating casts a spell on women like pins in voodoo doll. We feel the pain of that encounter, no matter how long ago.” And the trumpet agrees, with its relentless melody of hurt and confusion.
There is strength in numbers and as all women are voicing their encounters with a man who spoke no body language or did not care to hear no – #METOO!
“Memories come churning out when another complains of what he did five, ten, twenty years ago and the prick of the pin in the voodoo doll hurts as if the attack, assault, verbal slights happened only last night. #METOO! “
“No matter how long ago it seems to onlookers, for the woman who was hurt, the pain is like yesterday. Your questions as to why she didn’t say no, tell the police or whack him over the head should be asked of him instead.”
“And to think some women who can only share the attack the assault with their older selves, too ashamed of what their younger selves accepted, swallowed and kept secret”
“Maybe now we want a voodoo doll of him to prick with pins right in the you know where, so distant is the perpetrator now, clothed with power but up to the same old dirt.”
“We need a sanctuary at work far from the groping hands, the slick speech of wilted tongues and the persistence in face of an expressive face saying no, not now, not ever, I just want to work, do my job and pleasing you in that way is just not part of my brief.”
The trumpet calls out for peace and harmony in a pleasant work environment, it seeks a refuge from the offensive suggestions and fake compliments.
“I can’t take sanctuary in my degrees, well earned, hard work and sacrifice because I am female and should welcome the advances of jerks on the job, boss jerks, colleague jerks and jerks all round.”
“My degree and work ethic will not protect me from the predations of he who thinks he is God’s gift to women. But we do not welcome his talk, his touching and one day perhaps far off, he will get the message – I am off limits to you!”
When I met Freeman, his coolness struck me most, as he approached, dressed like someone from a 1950’s jazz book. He was cool in the sense of relaxed, accepting, bobbing and weaving with life’s surprises, sharp as a tack on reading people’s intent and feeling their heart. His speech was that of a jazzman, laden with jazz slang, so when he said a “cat” my thoughts were no longer feline. A cat is a guy, a man, a dude, a gentleman so when he spoke of “black cats” superstitious thoughts about bad luck did not cross my mind.
Wilberforce University Collegians
Instead, I just listened to stories from his life at an interesting time in jazz music history with the Wilberforce Collegians of Wilberforce University or at Minton’s Playhouse or the Paradise Club. I was convinced that the insights from this jazzman’s life would make an excellent jazz book, so I decided to write about this jazzman that was there when the bebop revolution was unfolding.
Freeman no doubt regretted his involvement with heroin, which cost him a more prolific recording career and a more prominent place in jazz history, but he did not suffer from vanished splendor, even though he went from being at the heart of the bebop scene to a marginal player in his older years. He lacked bitterness about his failings and saw it all as part of the game of life where one wins some and one loses some, mostly because when one is young and dumb, one knows everything!
Freeman, bebop and Louis Armstrong
And Freeman loved bebop. He thoroughly enjoyed going out to “get” whoever was in town by showing them up”. As Louis Armstrong complained, “all they want to do is to show you up an any old way will do as long as it’s different from the way they played it before”. That “modern malice” as Armstrong called bebop, was threatening to him and other established musicians, and he predicted that the audience would tire of it, and want a melody to remember and a beat to dance to. But bop went on to claim an unparalleled place in jazz music history and became the modern sound that sixty years later, people still listen to. The exploratory sound of Thelonious Monk, Miles, Dizzy, Bird, and others of the bebop era, of course, made jazz history a place for everyone, and Louis Armstrong’s place in jazz music history endures even though he was not a bopper and was skeptical of this “modern malice”.
Jazz on Riker’s Island or do my ears deceive
And Freeman remained a bopper, changing keys on me during my interview with him so deftly, so cleverly, that I got lost before I recognized that he was just pulling one over on me. I was surprised when he told me something I never saw in jazz books – that musical activity took place on Riker’s Island where jazzmen often landed for heroin and where jazz musicians in jail, played shows for inmates and staff. I lost my interviewer’s distance and went native, incredulous at the idea.
Freeman, always a bebopper
The screenplay, written as close to Freeman’s voice as possible, is a short, funny read, and takes one back to a special time in the history of jazz when jazzmen started playing something that “sounded kind of modern” and bebop was born. The life choices Freeman made were his own and from the perspective of his years of experience, Freeman never forgot that nor made excuses about his illustrious career “blown” by poor choices and lack of sobriety. He nevertheless valued his time amidst the bebop greats and was sharply attuned to what other trumpet players were doing as they played the “hard changes” in the tunes that Big Nick (George Nicholas) called at the Paradise Club in Harlem, New York.
Jazzitude is a certain attitude to interpreting what is going on around us like a jazzman does every time he plays a jazz standard, a tune he the audience and every other jazzman knows well. Standards are part of jazz music history and played widely by jazz bands as part of their repertoire. While we, the audience, are delighted by the improvisation of the jazzman as he paints a complex, rich tapestry from the bare bones of the standard’s melody, when it comes to our lives we often seem determined to play it like it was played before, fearful lest we drift from the inherited, bought or borrowed script of our patterns.
What jazzitude is not
But make no mistake jazzitude does not mean creating on the spot without the knowledge of jazz music history that every jazzman has, from listening to renditions of jazz tunes by jazzmen who went before. Thelonious Monk’sRound Midnight is reputed to be the most recorded jazz standard but it is through practice made perfect that the jazzman can improvise, play it in a way he has never played it before, every time he sits down to play. In life, you must be hip to your emotional and physical surroundings, environment, and be clear as day that the way you played it before is not going to work and one must, therefore, dig into the jazz music history of one’s own life to know when and how to improvise and then to choose the wise.
Jazzitude in our lives
Jazzitude means that we like the jazzman, can be perplexed, angry or uncertain as to how to go forward with that tune. But when we listen to the tune’s rendition from a great jazzman, delve into jazz music history, release the valve and let out that worn out number so it can be replaced with something you create, then and there sticking to the truth, but improvising on the delivery. Yes, sometimes that is all it takes for others to know you mean business and you are not putting up with old worn out tunes from anyone, anymore.
“But yesterday you said…”
We are told to be consistent, reminded of what we said yesterday, when you may have changed your mind today on that same matter, not so much the substance but what you tend to add to it by mental projections cooked up inside a mind in a fixed position, unlike a jazzman, a mind lacking in an attitude of jazzitude. One look at jazz music history and the many ways to skin the cat, and one would be foolish to do it the way it was done before, without really exploring one’s options. Today, the feeling is different though the melody is the same, improvise at least part of it so the standard stays alive for jazzmen to thrive on that wish to play it like never before and that rendition to become a part of jazz music history.
Jazzitude in the world of learning and work
The importance of an improvisational attitude or inclination was noted in the strategic plan for one of the USA’s top ten universities, Duke University. In their 2006 Strategic Plan, after noting the impact and implications for learning of the increased interactivity of the world, the speed at which information travels and the increasingly international dimension to the world’s problems on its mission as a university, the strategic plan continued: “Through this accelerated and ever-more inclusive process of exchange, understanding itself is continually metamorphosing, so that no single body of learning is likely to supply the enduringly adequate base for a whole career, as was imagined in the not-so-distant past.In a world where challenges take this form, an educated person will need to be able to pull together and integrate disparate bodies of knowledge, and to do so not by some fixed formula teachable in advance but improvisationally, opportunistically, in response to changing arrays of facts and resources.”
So, in the end, jazzitude is about being nimble on one’s feet as new information, interaction, and changing circumstances demand of us in our personal, learning and working lives.
Music and improvisation – that comes naturally to our ears but what if we say life and improvisation? Huh? Well, life is improvisation is it not?
How do we deal best with that period of time between birth and death that we call life? Life is a strange dance partner – it offers one fun, friends, food, love, knowledge, discovery but lets you know throughout that death is part of this deal called life. Does improvisation sound more inviting now?
These are the questions that occurred to me as I sat to write my first column that we called Misterioso – a fitting tribute in Monk’s centenary year. But Misterioso is also about the mystery of life and I am sure Monk could have called the piece Mystery but something in the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, take your pick, Misterioso better framed the mood of the tune – the word is onomatopoeic.
Naturally, I listened to album – Monk Quartet at Five Spot Café and the cover bears the painting called The Seer by Giorgio de Chirico. The Quartet were Ahmed Abdul – Malik on bass, Monk on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor sax and Roy Haynes on drums, mostly recorded at the Five Spot Blues Café in New York, one of Monk’s first gigs after having his cabaret card and right to work restored.
I looked at the 8 tunes on the album I accessed and saw that the tracks told the story of the 2016 campaign – Nutty, Blues Five Spot, Lets Cool One, In Walked Bud, Just a Gigolo, Misterioso, Round Midnight, Evidence. Nutty – As I listened I thought of the parade of sixteen, where the melody Monk makes on piano is catchy, nearly retro swing feel to that melody, clear and easy to get. But the Griffin solo was the stand out and after following Monk’s melody for a while, he then set himself apart, his solo stood out for its lengthy domineering nature, one felt at times that he crowed, but he had some sweet parts where his quick sax notes mesmerized. By the end of the tune, I had forgot all about the criticism made of Griffin at the time – that he was out of place, didn’t belong, – but he took over the whole number! Blues Five Spot – if Nutty was the saga of the sixteen, Blues Five Spot was the battle of the trio that never really was. The tune said in its insistent melody led on piano then followed by the saxophone, “Here we go, here we go, here we go!”. The sax solo swings that “here we go” melody and ends with a warning that the Griffin lives, presides and intends to be well in the running. Monk comes back on piano with “here we go here we go, here we go” but even his solo acknowledges in the low notes that unseen undercurrents lurk and sure we can say here we go here we go but beware! Abdul -Malik’s bass tells the same story, with Monk chiming in, sure here we go here we go but beware. The drum solo had hints of steel drum and then Griffin came back in with here we here we go again, pulling us all back on the sure road, here we go here we go again.
Let’s Cool One – The Blues campaign opened with this tune’s distinctive melody that says “We’re gonna win this one, we’re gonna win this one, we’re gonna win! “Yes, we’ve won!” The first sax solo repeated this message and expounded on all things progress, followed by high noted promises and a riff of inevitability, an inexorable march forward, softer tones of the message then all join in and the piano – “we’re gonna win this one” into a piano solo, “look at the race isn’t it all really over already, just a formality – we’re gonna win this one were gonna win this one”, sax in on it to doubling of the message “we’re gonna win this one were gonna win this one, it’s inevitable!” The whole band does ‘we’re gonna win this one” to the end. In Walked Bud – What an opening! The melody is a spectacle with a retro swing feel, back to the 1930s, catchy, memorable, a perfect one liner! Griffin’s sax solo is confident, the notes insistent, a couple of warbles of notes, a high and then he gives everyone’s ears a lyrical tune. Thankfully maybe, our ears wondering if Griffin blew what we thought he blew, up comes Monk, back in on piano with a slower melody, just as catchy until he comes up to speed and we get that melody of the one liner again. Monk expounds euphony, same melody, a bit of diddling around with it, high notes, all ways, the same theme. Reticent, Abdul-Malik comes in on bass in lowered tones, this is not the time to shine so he kept the bass solo short and sweet. Haynes drummed a burst of energy and I could hear ‘lock her up, lock her up” for a couple strikes of the drums before it went on to shake things up a bit until the band joins in with that melody again – In walked Bud! Just a Gigolo – This tune was to me sobriety personified despite the name. While ad hominem jokes on Saturday night tv made fun of it all, this tune tells us that, suddenly, some people could see that this was not funny anymore, not funny at all. The ballots bear the names of the unlikely and many feared the unthinkable could occur and suddenly wanted to get sober. Voting is serious business and democracy is no joke!
Misterioso – The title track of the album fulfils all its onomatopoeic promise. Monk takes us with this tune on a stroll through a labyrinth, to some it feels like a long winding staircase with no landing, to others it feels like a stairway leading to the drama of the anticipated results. Monk is committed to that mysterious melody, the tension builds, and up and up and up one goes, and one hears a pause and hopes a vista will come into view, but no, up and up the stairs this mysterious melody goes. We hoped to see the land promised by this mesmerizing melody, up and up the stairs but the view is not clear, the melody strolls on and at the end of the tune, we have no answer and must wait. Round Midnight – Monk’s piano introduction portends the unexpected, ladies and gentlemen, viewers, in those sharp piano notes one hears you are watching…well, well, and a moody Griffin solo takes over, eloquent in sadness, just wondering what might have been or if it’s just not clear yet, things will turn right. “We never knew, we never knew and we just never saw we never knew.” “Whatever really happened here? We never knew just ne-ver knew, how we never knew”. Then Monk steps back in and asks a few questions, its late, let it all get sorted out, don’t believe all you see yet, but deep down the bass notes on the piano told the truth. Even if Monk goes on to tinker with, throw it up, play with it, look under it, above it, and all truth he says is truth no matter how you look at it. Griffin begs to differ – its more complex than that, things happened, I mean who ever heard of, days before the vote, and over his contentions, the sadness comes through even if he cannot make sense of it, a warble of supposition and “oh but if only” and Monk says “Really?”
Evidence – With Monk’s introduction on piano, the story is of the unexpected, unexpected evidence that confirms the result and the sax comes in and a plaintiff boy oh boy, boy oh boy, things have not gone as planned. The sax and piano say look look look, the evidence is clear we did not get the gig we had our hearts on, gather the facts and look them over “we really lost this one we really lost this one.” Griffin then goes lyrical and with a message of face up to facts in a complex riff. Monk too competes for our ears strumming notes to remind us that the hard evidence is just too much to overcome – “we lost this one.” A sax riff says oh this is the morning after the night before, it all did happen like we saw before we slept and dreamed, I beg you look at why, we cannot move forward, no this is a disaster for us.
Monk comes in and says it’s real though and the sax begs us to get that loss as real, we did not get the gig we wanted and in a clear throw back swing melody, Griffin says we lost and wrap your head round the evidence, gonna have to face reality of what is and not what might have been and why. The sax riff of high notes asks the tough questions, poses them in a series of seeming riffs, a warble of notes asking plaintiff introspect and blame inwards, extrospection is like mad and blame them! Monk gives us piano high and low but is clear that introspection is the only way to go, go where the evidence leads to the facts, the facts, the fact that we lost this one, we really lost. The high piano keys are struck for a new dream, take the evidence and put it in, “we lost this one and there is no spin.” Adbul Malik drums a short military beat, we live in a big world, we must adjust, make peace, explore new rhythms, the horse race is done – look at the evidence! Monk and Griffin jointly state the evidence cannot be overcome, we lost, we lost and congrats to you, hail the new Chief!
So, with this strut through the stories of these tunes, dare I suggest we now concede that this business called democracy- this government of the people, by the people, for the people – is sometimes a messy business after all? For years we trumpeted its merits as so obvious as not to be seriously questioned, we decried dictatorship, sent observers to poor foreign countries to “ensure they get the process right” to ensure results reflect the rule of law and the will of the people. Now we learn the lesson we so often teach – no such problems here in the good old USA, voting is open and no one cheats, but everyone, it seems or many I meet, question the defeat, when from all reports, the victory was by the books, fair and square, even if not sweet.
Which brings me to the title of my column Misterioso. When I listened to the track of the same name, I heard Monk telling us a story, which grabbed us from the first few notes and spellbound we listened as the story developed, building up and taking you up the stairs and for a while you wonder, it’s strange this but then you follow his storyline, listening and waiting, waiting to see the brave new vista promised by this never seen melody. And there is a problem, the stair case keeps winding going up and as you gasp at every landing in anticipation of the view, it cruelly eludes us and we see instead what we could never have imagined when the tune just started.
Or were we on the wrong staircase – did we get lost in that improvisation and take the wrong steps? Yes, did we make a misstep at that part where you hear the melody, somewhat, but then it goes off in a riff?