A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Jo Jones
Jo Jones in The Sound of Jazz                                           Courtesy of MVD

When an artistic experience truly and totally clicks with an individual, a special connection is made and a profound level of awareness is reached, one which stops time and renders it inconsequential. The proverbial light bulb goes on, or as Frank O’Hara once said in a poem, “Everything suddenly honks.” It might be a monumental painting like Picasso’s Guernica or a small Kurt Schwitters collage, a film like Citizen Kane or a Roadrunner cartoon, a Shakespeare play or a third grader’s haiku. The scope of the achievement doesn’t matter, what’s important is how it affects us personally, the impression that it leaves on our psyche, the way it makes us feel, and the understanding we take from it. When we connect with a piece of music in this fashion, the world looks and sounds different ever after.

Every jazz fan knows, or should know, The Sound of Jazz. Broadcast on the CBS television show The Seven Lively Arts in December 1957, it was in effect a relaxed, informal live concert featuring the reigning stars of mainstream swing—Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and a luminescent galaxy of supporting artists shrewdly handpicked by consultants Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff. But in addition to established swing players like Rex Stewart, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge, and Ben Webster, Balliett and Hentoff spiced the personnel with a few eccentric modernists—clarinetists Pee Wee Russell (was anyone playing as far out as early as the ‘30s?) and Jimmy Giuffre, and Thelonious Monk (still considered by many an outsider in ’57). To our great fortune, a decent videotape of the program was issued back in 1990. There have since been issued a couple of DVD transfers from Europe which I haven’t seen, but beware the DVD version from Music Video Distribution (MVD)—one entire segment, Monk’s appearance, has been removed, and the black and white visual contrast is so bad that faces are often washed out. And the faces of these great artists reveal as much about the emotion of the creative moment, and the pride and passion inherent in the process, as the music itself. For those of us born after World War II, filmed documentation like this is our only opportunity to have seen several generations of innovators at work, in the moment.

What makes The Sound of Jazz a classic is that it contains not just one but several of these undeniable time-negating moments. I suspect for most viewers one will be the sight of a gaunt but unbowed Billie Holiday offering an exquisitely phrased “Fine and Mellow,” especially the poignant moment when Lester Young stands to blow one soft, slow, simple blues chorus as Billie nods in empathy—two bodies sharing one musical heart. Ironically, Young’s face is on screen for just the first few measures of his solo (the rest of the time the camera lingers on the singer), and we see various shots of the other musicians throughout the performance, but his image otherwise appears only briefly at the song’s very beginning and very end. Though the other three saxophonists stand, he remains seated, seen from the back, bathed in shadow and unrecognizable. At this point in his life, suffering from the maladies that will consume him a little over a year later, he’s already a ghost; all that remains is his music echoing in the air.

Another classic moment, this one potentially confrontational, is when Count Basie literally gets in Monk’s face, sitting with casual audacity in the crook of the piano as if to say, “Okay kid, show me what you’ve got.” Monk of course, hidden behind shades, pays no attention and slices and stomps his way through an edgy “Blue Monk.” As he plays, reaction shots of Jimmy Rushing and Coleman Hawkins reveal various degrees of engagement, from bemusement to finger-snapping rapport, but it’s not until Basie’s face erupts in glee that the moment’s tension is released and we see an older generation willing to accept Monk’s abstracted chords and reconfigured rhythmic accents as part of the common vocabulary and not a foreign language.

Personally, I love the way Red Allen kicks off his ad-hoc group’s numbers with a “Watch it…whamp…whamp” and ends them with “Niiiice!” (And Pee Wee’s solo on “Wild Man Blues” is stunning.) But for me, the moment that clicks is the augmented Basie Band’s performance of Dickie Wells’ tune “Dickie’s Dream.” It is one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen. The performance is just over six minutes long, a sequence of solo after solo, but it is all of a piece, a single indivisible electrifying experience, a slice of life so real and so intense that it suspends the passing of time. It starts with Basie’s piano and the deceptively elfin Jo Jones behind the drums setting a deviously fast tempo with the tune’s introductory descending notes. The band kicks right in with Nat Pierce’s fierce orchestration of the minor-key theme that was originally recorded by Basie’s Kansas City Seven. What was in its 1939 incarnation simultaneously suave and mysterious here becomes rousing and suspenseful, a foreboding of potent things to come.

And they come quickly and without respite. Ben Webster emerges first from the ensemble with a gruff, almost antagonistic solo that serves as a challenge, a call-to-arms, to each of the players to follow. When he finishes, he nearly rips the tenor saxophone out of his mouth with a “take that!” gesture. Trombonist Benny Morton tries to sustain Webster’s vigor with cascading countermelodies, and trumpeter Joe Wilder substitutes multi-note flurries, but it’s the band’s riffing that keeps the music hot and the tension building. Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax grabs a nice phrase from the mix to start his solo, as he sways and rides the waves of energy the band is feeding him. Trombonist Vic Dickenson’s slippery initial notes elicit shouts of joy from Wilder and saxophone section leader Earle Warren—and suddenly the camaraderie and spirit that is fueling the music is palpable. Next trumpeter Roy Eldridge enters full blast, then tries some intricate figures, but soars out of them with sizzling stratospheric shrieks, forsaking pitch for pure emotion—a gesture so shocking that subsequent trumpeter Emmett Berry’s only recourse is a brief return to melodic restraint. But this doesn’t last long, as Coleman Hawkins—eyes squeezed shut in concentrated effort—takes over and sails through the changes, his tenor sax growling more aggressively with each connected phrase. Dickie Wells, ever the imp, naturally takes the opposite tact, his trombone muted, sliding to and fro with cool insouciance (but notice how hard bassist Eddie Jones is working behind him), followed by Joe Newman’s likewise muted but tart trumpet, precariously balanced atop the momentum of a ruthlessly driving rhythm section.

The band drops out, leaving Basie to rebuild the tension once more, alternately stabbing at and clawing out chords, jolting with characteristic stride feel—I wonder if watching Monk just moments earlier inspired Basie to dissect the chords even more surgically than usual? The full band reenters, punching and counterpunching, with stop-time chords visually punctuated by Jo Jones’ crisp, precise arm movements. Basie takes one final, tongue-in-cheek run up to the very tip of the keyboard, and the band shouts out one last relentless cadence until Warren cuts them off with a chop. In the next few seconds, the silence, as someone once said, is deafening.

No doubt, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. They couldn’t have captured lightning in a bottle twice—and the proof is in the studio recording made during rehearsals four days earlier (and issued by Columbia instead of the actual soundtrack), which is fine in its own way, and includes memorable solos by Lester Young and Harry Carney, who were not part of the televised version. But what is it that makes the latter transcendent? I’m sure it has something to do with the power of group dynamics and the uniqueness of this particular personnel and these special circumstances. I have no illusion that a description of the music can substitute for or explain the drama and exhilaration of this experience. I wrote this for selfish reasons—looking for the right words has helped me come a bit closer to understanding why I get chills whenever I watch it. If this piques your interest enough to check it out yourself, so much the better. Just be prepared to lose all sense of time.

Art Lange©2007

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