It’s funny how you can sometimes mature backwards. Let me explain:
Back when I just starting to really get into music, my taste buds told me that the History of Jazz started somewhere in the mid-1950’s , with the Miles/Coltrane band, the Jazz Messengers, etc. And that the History of Great Jazz Piano started about ten years after that, with Bill Evans leading the way into the likes of Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. Sure, I learned to play Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” as a novelty, but I didn’t think that Ragtime had any connection to the jazz that I knew. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
I then discovered that the real heyday of the great jazz pianists was about 30-40 years earlier than I’d first thought, after I heard recordings of the amazing Fats Waller and Art Tatum. This led me to the likes of James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and even young Count Basie. These folks were all over the keyboard: prodigious two-handed pianists whose style could be easily traced to Joplin’s Ragtime. Who knew? Well, now I was starting to.
Still, though, for a long time I only admired that pre-Swing stuff from a healthy (or not) distance, doubting that it had any relevance to what I was into. After all, I was smitten with the jazz styles of the early Sixties: you know, Miles with Herbie, Coltrane with McCoy, never really minding that even those recordings were already a quarter-century old.
In the early 1980’s, while sitting in my Brooklyn apartment and waiting for that phone call that would make me a Famous Jazz Star, the phone did ring one day, but it wasn’t Miles, Joe Henderson or Sonny Rollins on the other end (darn that phone). It was a guy I didn’t know; his name was Vince Giordano and he was offering me a gig. Vince seemed like a nice enough guy as he described what was involved with the offer: his band (the Nighthawks) played jazz from the 1920’s-1930’s, and there was some reading that I’d need to cover. If I was open on that date and had a tux, then the gig (for that night) was mine.
I honestly don’t recall precisely there that first gig was; it was likely at one of the many clubs at which the Nighthawks have had steady engagements over the years. I do remember a few things that immediately struck me, though: First, I was amazed at the high level of musicianship that was displayed by these guys. Like any great large group (this one was usually 13 pieces), each section (reeds, brass, rhythm) was able to blend into one seamless unit, despite the complexity of the music. Second, these guys were amazing readers. Vince’s library consisted of more than a thousand tunes, and a lot of them had transcribed solos that were extremely difficult to pull off. Third, I was thrilled to share the bandstand with such great improvisers. Vince would usually feature about half of the band on one jazz tune each set, providing a chance to stretch out on some solos (these were often tunes that I didn’t really know and had to figure out on the fly). And, finally, I was completely blown away by the degree to which this music jumped out at me; here were a bunch of guys playing like the stuff was brand new, with energy and urgency.
In the ensuing decade or so, Nighthawk gigs made up a very large percentage of my workload. Those hundreds of gigs are fodder for another blog entry, and I really should have kept a journal during those years; every engagement seemed like a chapter right out of Bonfire of the Vanities. But I digress: what you’ve just read is an overly-lengthy setup for what I will try to fashion into a brief wrap-up.
When my family and I relocated from New York to Chicago in 1993, my tenure as a Nighthawk came to an end. And I was pretty much okay with that; I was excited to return to my hometown and to try to carve out a niche for myself as a professional musician away from NYC. I was pleased with the move, as I found a lot of great players in Chicago in addition to a quality of life that was less nutty than it was in NYC. But I didn’t encounter anything remotely similar to what I’d experienced as a Nighthawk, and I gradually came to the surprising realization that I missed playing that music. I guess I’d played so much of it that it had managed to seep its way into my core. I would usually have one CD of that style of music in my car’s rotation, shuffling with five others. Watching the CD player randomly decide where to land after a tune was over, I often found myself secretly hoping that it would land on that CD: Jimmy Noone, Jack Teagarden, Adrian Rollini, whomever. These were names that were completely unknown to me in my pre-Nighthawk existence.
Now that I think about it, Jazz, Pop and Dance music were much more snuggled together back in the Twenties and Thirties than they are today. Partly as a reaction to its popularity, Charlie Parker and the Beboppers took a serious left turn with the music by making it much more about impressing other musicians and much less about appealing to a wide audience. Don’t get me wrong: there’s been a ton of tremendous music since this occurred, and I’m happy to participate in many of these styles that emerged post-Bop. But, when Jazz musicians grumble about disappearing audiences, the answer is pretty obvious to me. Most consumers of music are non-musicians, and they are too frequently ignored by improvising musicians. The players from the early days seemed to have a good grip on making the music accessible, but allowing for artistic expression at the same time. Neat trick; one that should be a priority with any musician.
But I digress. Let me attempt to get back on track with my line of thought…..blah, blah, blah we moved to Chicago in 1993. Flashing forward to 2011: my son found himself enrolled at a college in Western Massachusetts, and this necessitated making the drive out there to pick him up (along with his stuff). Since Mariana and I still knew a lot of people in NYC, a little detour seemed in order. And, hatching a secret plan after a long gestation period, I was able to book myself on one of the Nighthawk’s gigs while we were there.
It really was a little fantasy I’d long been carrying around: What would it be like to play with the band with whom I’d spent ten years? And what would it be like to do it after an eighteen-year hiatus? And what would it be like to do it on the Nighthawks’ home turf of NYC (I’d done one “Nighthawks” gig in Chicago where Vince had come in and hired local players to fill out the band, but a lot of the players weren’t up to the task; nothing like the gigs that I remembered from the old days)?
The answers to these questions came soon enough, as I donned the old Monkey Suit and headed to the gig, located in a little boite in the Edison Hotel’s basement. I was disappointed to learn that Vince wouldn’t be there that night (he was playing at a function honoring Martin Scorsese; he probably calls him “Marty”) but was glad to see my old buddy Brian Nalepka taking his place. I was also thrilled/shocked/amazed to find that more than half of the band remained from the old days: drummer Arnie Kinsella, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and reed people Dan Levinson, Dan Block and Mark Lopeman. It made for a joyful reunion (as least from my vantage point).
Listening to how great these guys played, it struck me how fortunate they were to have the chance to keep digging into this music over such a long period of time, and that their respective rapports with the stuff had grown significantly deeper since I’d last had the chance to play with them in this context, even though it was unlikely that any of them really thought about it in that way. After all, that’s really what a musician strives to do: continue to hone the craft so that it evolves into a deeper grasp. But to notice the microscopic changes, to wake up one morning (or afternoon, depending on the musician) and say “Gee…my understanding of this genre has certainly come a long way in the last 18 years.” That strikes me as a bit pompous. On second thought, maybe these guys’ playing had stayed pretty much the same and I had just forgotten how heavy these guys were. Who, indeed, knows? It suffices to say that everyone was playing their asses off, and I had a ball reuniting and music-making with my old band. It was kind of fascinating to feel my old muscle memory kicking in: slightly dusty from years of disuse, but still part of me as the result of many hundreds of Nighthawk gigs.
Is there a point to this somewhat Proustian reminiscence? I suppose that you can draw your own conclusions, but this is what comes to my mind: Regardless of what you think you are, always be open to new and unexpected influences. Even if you don’t consider these influences to be part of your Inner Circle, they will still contribute to who you are. And don’t be afraid to look to the past for ideas and inspiration; it won’t render you less Hip or Cutting Edge.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to some Pee Wee Russell.