This Week on Jazz Spectrum - 4/5

1959 – Just Another Year in Jazz

By Fritz Byers 

In 1930, Babe Ruth signed a contract with the Yankees under which he was paid $80,000 a year to play baseball. At the time, Herbert Hoover occupied the position of President of the United States. It is a measure of the quaintness of those days, and of the near-century of ensuing dislocations, that a journalist thought it apropos to ask Babe if he deserved to make more money than the President. Ruth’s rejoinder is captured variously in the accounts, but the essence was “Well, I had a better year than he did.”

In 1959, it’s widely thought, jazz had its best year. This label predates the maniacal vogue that infects so many current debates to name the GOAT, the Best, and so forth. As a spur to thought, the subject is a good one, but the notion that such a trophy has real meaning is just another folly of the hubris of presentism. 

But we can say a few comparative things about the year Jazz had in 1959:

it was better than Fulgencio Batista’s year, which began with his fleeing Havana; and also better than the year of many his murderous loyalists, such as Jesus Sosa Blanco, who was executed a month and a half later.
it was better than the year was for the owners, crew, passengers, and insurers of the Danish cargo ship, the MS Hans Hedtoft; the vessel and the 95 people on board sank on January 30;
it was better than Miss Able’s 1959; she was one of the primates who, without their consent, was shot into space aboard a Jupiter AM-18 rocket as some sort of cruel quasi-science experiment. After four days in space, Miss Able returned safely to Earth on May 28, but she died four days later during surgery to remove the electrodes that had been implanted in her. (Her companion, Miss Baker, survived.)
The sun, in contrast, had a mostly outstanding year, although on October 2, 1959, it was totally, although temporarily, eclipsed over the northeastern parts of the US and, oddly, also over West Africa. I’m not able to determine if the public schools, here or in Africa, closed for the occasion.

We could do this all morning. 

Unprovable accolades aside, 1959 WAS a good year for jazz. This week, to mark the premiere of Jazz Spectrum Friday, the newest addition to the Jazz Spectrum family empire, the debut show will showcase some of the highlights of that fertile year. As is set out elsewhere on the site, each of the three Jazz Spectrum shows has somewhat distinct features. Jazz Spectrum Saturday will continue its long-running Song of the Week segments; and Jazz Spectrum Overnight tends toward longer-form performances, and it flavors the four hours with a slight spicing of the avant-garde and of jazz artists who are just establishing their names.

The Friday night counterpart to the Song-of-the-Week segments, which air beginning at 10, will be an hour, also beginning at 10, that focuses on a particular theme – an artist, an album, an instrument, a style; or, this week, a year. We begin with the fabled 1959 blossoming of great jazz.

I believe that, sometime before it became completely dysfunctional, Congress passed a law mandating that every discussion of 1959 jazz include more than a passing reference to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. So, in a spirit of compliance, we begin with that recording’s opening track, the modal classic “So What,” which, not coincidentally, features masterly solos by, in order, Miles, the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and the pianist Bill Evans. The significance of this recording, as a liberation from the tyranny of chords and as a herald of ever-freer jazz, can’t be overstated.

Next, the monoaural version of “Autumn Leaves,” from Bill Evans’s trio date, Portrait in Jazz. Here, the group beautifully realizes Bill’s vision of a trio of co-equals in which the pianist, the bassist (here the great Scott LaFaro), and the drummer (Paul Motian) slide into and out of lead and supporting roles in an organic and utterly musical way.  Scott’s prominent bass on this recording suggests all that was lost when he died in a car accident two years later, just ten days after the trio’s classic live recordings at the Village Vanguard.

Abbey Lincoln’s 1959, recording, Abbey is Blue, can fairly be seen as a pathbreaking moment in jazz vocals. No one could really follow Billie Holiday, who died in July 1959, but with this recording Abbey hinted at how a singer might move Billie’s unparalleled way with a lyric into a modernist sound that had both deep musical appeal and a distinctive social relevance. Her overtly political work with the drummer Max Roach was just around the corner.

The bassist Charles Mingus released THREE marvelous recordings in 1959. We’ll hear his elegy for Lester Young, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” who, like his spiritual companion Billie Holiday, died in 1959 – two months before Mingus recorded his tribute. Mingus’s music was so diverse and inventive that it’s not possible to identify any single recording as representative, except in its brilliance.

The first set concludes with a classic of West Coast jazz, Art Pepper +11. Marty Paich’s arrangements of some of the most familiar and characteristic jazz tunes of the era are a beautiful harmonic bed for the alto saxophonist’s lead solos. This week we’ll hear Thelonious Monk’s timeless standard, “’Round Midnight,” done evocatively by Art’s small big band.

The second of the two 1959 sets begins with s a live recording of a unique evening – Thelonious Monk in front of an all-star octet, in performance at Town Hall, working out on Monk’s singular compositions. Their tour through “Monk’s Mood” opens the set.

From there: Ben Webster’s inimitable ballad style on “Time After Time;” Ornette Coleman’s profound comment on blues tonality and melodies, the unimprovably named “Tears Inside;” a piano trio led by Horace Silver in a remarkable, dynamic counterpoint to the Bill Evans recording we hear in the first 1959 set; and we conclude with the guitarist Wes Montgomery’s debut as a leader, a trio date on which, it can be said without overstatement, Wes redefines the guitar as a solo instrument in jazz.

Ten recordings from 1959. Each of them is a genuine hallmark of the music, but the two sets present only a slender cut of the music that jazz musicians contributed to the world during that vaunted year. As you’ll hear sometime down the line on Jazz Spectrum Friday, these musicians and a whole of bunch of other ones did it again in 1960. And so on.

Song of the Week - Easy Living

By Fritz Byers & Aly Krajewski

Hi Aly, 
Another week, another song.  Today is the exact date of the 35th anniversary of the first airing of Jazz Spectrum – April 1, 1989.  The first song I played that night was “I Feel a Song Coming On,” performed by the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, from Sonny Rollins Plus 4.  For this record date, Sonny occupied the tenor chair in one of the great bands in jazz history, the Brown-Roach quintet co-led by the trumpeter Clifford Brown and the drummer Max Roach.   It was the last recording for Clifford and the group’s pianist, Richie Powell (Bud’s brother) – they died in a car accident three months after the recording.  Last week, in one of our off-line exchanges following the blog post on hard bop, you mentioned your interest in learning about hard-bop.  This recording, and others by the Brown-Roach band, are as good an introduction as you’ll find.
It was true – 35 years ago, I did feel a song coming on.  And they’ve been coming, with pleasing regularity, ever since.  Somewhere along the way, I added the Song of the Week as a regular feature of Jazz Spectrum.  And as part of the anniversary celebration – another part is the addition of Jazz Spectrum Friday – you’ve graciously agreed to add your wit and insights to the feature, and I’m ever so grateful.
This week, to mark the anniversary of the birth of the lyricist Leo Robin (April 6, 1900), the song is “Easy Living.”  Leo wrote the lyrics to music composed by Ralph Rainger.  Leo and Ralph were both law-school drop-outs.  Do you want to make the jokes, or should I?  
Although I chose the song to mark Leo’s birthday, I had in mind as well the delight you will doubtless take in knowing the pair wrote this song for a Preston Sturges-written comedy, whose title the song shares.  I remember the lesson you gave me in Preston’s genius, although I could stand to hear it again.  Imagine: The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels in one year!  The movie Easy Living isn’t nearly as good; maybe Preston should have directed it.
But the song is a gem; I rank it with “Thanks for the Memory” and “If I Should Lose You” at the top of Leo’s and Ralph’s collaborations.  What’s your favorite?  And by the way, what’s your favorite Preston Sturges comedy?  And, by the further way, is there a mandate in popular culture that the phrase “screwball comedy” be included in every sentence describing Preston’s movies?
The first SotW set opens with the first recording, at least the first I know of, of “Easy Living,” which features three of the greatest musicians in jazz – a 1937 vocal by Billie Holiday, backed by the pianist Teddy Wilson and the tenor saxophonist Lester Young.   Good luck improving on that.
If anyone could, you might choose Clifford Brown, mentioned above.  So up next is a 1953 recording Clifford in a stunning three minutes of perfect ballad-playing.  Clifford played with an unmatched blend of power and beauty, and this is a marvelous illustration of that.
I never saw Peggy Lee perform, but a friend of mine who did said it was an unforgettable experience.  I think his description of the scene is what first drew me to her singing, and her version of “Easy Living” has been in my mind ever since.
The first SotW set ends with the tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec’s version, the title track from Ike’s 1962 album.  Ike has a bit of a Ben Webster way with this ballad, although his rich sound is his own.  Sonny Clark, Milt Hinton, and Art Blakey are one way to constitute a perfect rhythm section for a slow ballad.
The next set has vocals by Anita O’Day and the baritone legend Johnny Hartman, still flawless nearly twenty years after his famous recording with John Coltrane.  The instrumental versions are by the trumpeter Lee Morgan, whose 1960 version contrasts sharply with Clifford Brown’s, and a 2002 pairing of the alto saxophonist Greg Osby and the pianist Marc Copland.  The sound quality of this last recording is dazzling, and it captures both Greg’s engaging sound and Marc’s remarkably empathetic comping.  I’m happy to have the chance to play a track from this record – Round and Round – which was on my list of the 10 best records in 2003.
So there you are, Aly.  I’m eager to read your thoughts and reactions.
Yours for song,

Hey Fritz, 

First - and most importantly - a heartfelt "cheers" to celebrate the (belated) 35th anniversary of Jazz Spectrum! A commitment to anything for 35 years is worth a champagne toast at least; your clear dedication to appreciating and highlighting this art form is palpable. I'm giddy to see how you innovate the show over the next 35 years. While I'd love to regale you with the first time I heard Judy Garland sing "I Feel a Song Comin' On" at the tender age of 7, we'll have to save that for another day. For now, we have business to attend to – the business of Living.

It's fitting that we're in the mood for celebrating this week: Jazz Spectrum's anniversary, Leo Robin's birthday, my ham gravy recipe being the hit of the Easter dinner table...I could go on. "Easy Living" is undoubtedly my favorite of the Robin-Rainger hits. I do have my own personal favorites of the tune (I should chastise you for leaving Chet Baker's lovely version off this week's set, but I'll let it slide this time). But for this note, I would really like to focus on three particular vocal versions of the song you're featuring this week. 

The Queen Billie's rendition of "Easy Living" is a masterclass in emotional storytelling through music. With her unparalleled tone and phrasing, she captures the essence of the song's melancholic hue. Each note she sings carries a depth of experience; her voice draws me into a world of longing and nostalgia (a world I happen to love living in, believe it or not). I'm sure that Billie's personal struggles aided in her performance of this song. Her delivery is imbued with a sense of vulnerability and raw emotion, painting a portrait of heartache and yearning. When I need to hurt, I turn to this version – a timeless classic in the jazz canon. 

In stark contrast, I find Peggy's interpretation to be a smoother, more polished elegance. Her buttery-smooth vocals bring a sense of sophistication to the song, adding layers of depth to her performance. While both singers capture the essence of "Easy Living" with their own distinctive styles, Billie's version tends to evoke a deeper sense of pathos and raw emotion, while Lee's leans towards a more refined and polished presentation. I don't know much about Peggy, but I remember that towards the end of her career (very long after the Benny Goodman Band and “Fever” and Lady and the Tramp) she decided she wanted to do a one-woman musical. Lee certainly needed the money she’d hope to raise by it; A similar plot had recently worked out very well for Lena Horne. But, as much as she needed the money, Lee needed the audience. She needed the emotional high conferred by people ecstatic to be in the same room with her. Unfortunately, Peg, the Musical, closed three days after it opened in December 1983. I can't imagine the feelings she may have felt at that time in her life: embarrassment, anxiety, worry over not being relevant enough. And yet, for all of those fraught feelings, you never hear it in her own voice, in her songs. I tend to listen to Peggy's version when I want my music to melt into the evening – smooth, unobtrusive, but mood-setting. 

And let's not forget our friend Anita. Known for her "vivacious" stage presence and impeccable sense of rhythm, O'Day infuses her version with a playful, swinging energy that sets it apart from both Billie's and Peggy's interpretations. Anita's vocal style lends a sense of buoyancy to the song, creating a lively and engaging atmosphere. Her dynamic phrasing and improvisational flair add a sense of unpredictability to the performance, which keeps me captivated from start to finish. We don't need to rehash her post-war drug arrests too much; but it's easy to agree that life did not come easily to Anita. She fought for what she had, and she didn't stick around where she didn't want to be. I listen to Anita's version when I want to transport myself to another place, another time – a method of musical escape.

I can't help but think more about these women featured on this song this week – Billie, Peggy, Anita...hell, even Judy. I can't help but think about the irony of it all: the ease of this song, being sung by the best in the 'biz, knowing how fraught and difficult their own personal lives were throughout their careers and even in their relationships with each other. (There's an anecdote that Billie, who came to know Peggy a little, allegedly had to have a line excised from her biography: “She stole every goddamn thing I sing.”) 

Celebrity, in all its gory glory, can be vicious in its beauty. I will continue to pour over biographies and interviews to better understand these musicians and their intricacies, not only because I'm capital-N-Nosy, but also because I feel that it helps me understand this music better. Whatever hardships these artists went through, they certainly never let it diminish their own performances, and these renditions of "Easy Living" are no exception.

Goodnight & God Bless Preston Sturges, 


The New Jazz Spectrum Weekends

Jazz Spectrum began on April 1, 1989 as a weekly three-hour jazz anthology, showcasing the diversity of jazz and the virtuosity of the musicians who create it. The show has aired every Saturday since then, and over those thirty-five years it has traversed the full 100+ years of the music’s history, regularly presenting both legendary stars and overlooked or forgotten figures, both traditional classics and avant-garde innovations.

In conjunction with the 35th anniversary of the Saturday show, we are expanding to Friday night, and have launched a separate (although related) show, Jazz Spectrum Overnight.  Beginning April 5, Jazz Spectrum will air Friday and Saturday nights, from 8 to midnight; and on each night, it will be followed by Jazz Spectrum Overnight, which will air from midnight till 4:00 a.m.

The shows will be unified by the essential commitment to present the full spectrum of jazz, across the decades and spanning the music’s wide and evolving range of styles.  But the shows will be distinct, each with its own unique elements.  

Jazz Spectrum Saturday will continue in much the same vein as you’ve come to expect – a blend of new releases and timeless classics, familiar names and emerging artists.  And the familiar weekly feature – The Song of the Week – will continue to occupy two sets, beginning at 10pm Eastern time.  In this interlude, we present a variety of versions of a single song from the jazz repertoire as a way of highlighting the infinite variety of approaches to the materials of jazz.

Jazz Spectrum Friday will be similar, but with two slight differences.  First, the intervals between sets will present a bit more information about the music you hear – vignettes about the artists, commentary about the influences that led to the recording, and an occasional brief explication of the significance of the recording and the artists in the overall sweep of jazz history.  Second, the hour beginning at 10pm Eastern will be dedicated to a particular theme – a single recording, a particular musician, a specific instrument, or perhaps a selection of recordings from a single year.  

Jazz Spectrum Overnight will differ from the shows that precede it by placing a greater emphasis on long-form recordings; music from avant-garde artists who, from the birth of jazz, have helped propel the music forward and expand its sweep; and new recordings from jazz musicians who are just beginning to garner attention.

Across the sixteen weekly hours of Jazz Spectrum, these three shows will present you with the best of classic and current jazz.  Happy listening!

Jazz Spectrum