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The alto saxophone is an amazing instrument. The whole range of saxophones were only invented in the 1840s. Wikipedia tells me they gained popularity first with military bands, but leaves out any mention of circus music. Jazz history tells me that the saxophone was prominent in circus music and that the sax was oft considered a novelty instrument in the early 20th century. The alto saxophone has been the saxophone of choice for some of Jazz’s greatest innovators and performers.

This week, I give focus to three alto players…and perhaps one or two more because it’s fun to do that. There are controversies around or connected to some of these guys, but one thing is for sure; they don’t come much bigger in Jazz: Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Adderley, and this other guy some people like to call Bird.

Take one step through the orange squiggle towards Jazz and Johnny Hodges will take two steps towards you

If Im going to post clips of alto saxophonists and talk about alto players…)

Not much to say that would add anything)

It’s a fundamental to Jazz as math is to physics)

And props to Phil Schaap Phill is the master archivist of the life’s work of Charlie Parker. He hosts a program called “Bird Flight” on WKCR 89.9 in NYC-- Colombia University’s radio station—that is dedicated to Parker’s recorded works. Phil is a great living historian of Jazz. His own site contains past radio shows he has done. Many are familiar with Phil as a DJ. If you are not, be forewarned, Phil likes to talk.  

Office website Charlie Parker

This next one has Miles on trumpet. Miles has said that it was the moment that he discovered he had “perfect time” as he was the only one who could keep the beat during Bird’s break.

Charlie Parker, August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955.

Any and all deaths that are either directly or indirectly caused by heroin are a tragedy and a crime. And to the people directly affected by the most recent celebrity casualty, I offer nothing but sympathy and love.  But this bullshit has been going on for more than 60 years. Mr Hoffman will be greatly missed. I certainly enjoyed his work. But the entirety of the Dramatic Arts will not still be feeling the influence of his life 60 years or more into the future. The entirety of American music, however, has been affected by the life of Charlie “Bird” Parker. Without him, everything is different.

OK, that said……

The moment I started these diaries, I watched the free jazz guys come. I like you guys, its cool. I can get with your thing, absolutely. However I am concerned with frightening people away and reconfirming their preset assumptions about what jazz is. But I also did a diary three weeks ago about jazz musicians alive and over 80 and I forgot Ornette. And last week I did try to meet the “we like strange jazz!” crowd halfway with Mingus and Dolphy…but of course I forgot to notice that it was Ornette’s birthday.

And, dammit, I like Ornette! And without him, maybe everything is different too.

Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden )

It really does not sound too strangely dissonant or cacophonous. But I was born in 1967 to a jazz pianist and composer father and a poet and linguist mother. I was fed Mozart in the womb and given Prokofiev as a 3 year old birthday present. (Don’t worry, ive done my share of therapy). I was listening to 1966 Coltrane when I was 15 and doing jam sessions of ‘industrial music” with my punk rock friends when I was 16. I have a fairly high tolerance for the dissonant!

Ornette could take it out…)

So whats the problem? Free jazz, avant guard jazz is dual edged sword.
To the musicians who felt constrained by traditional harmony and were seeking new ways of expression and collective group improvisation, Ornette is like a Prophet leading the way into new forms and new ways of thinking about music and Jazz. Swing low, sweet Cadillac.

To the musicians who felt that there was still much to be explored and revealed through so called “traditional” harmony, Ornette was an auditory assault that was disorganized and largely charlatanism. Mingus was dismissive of Ornette. Max Roach is said to have gone onstage and punched him. As far as Ornette is concerned, I think all of them would have come around eventually, or actually did if they lived long enough.

But the problem is, and remains, that for people who dont really know how to play, “Free Jazz” becomes a kind of cop out. People who don’t know what they are doing who are just making noise and calling it Jazz. Which undermines one of the most important facts of Jazz: Jazz is not easy to play. Jazz requires legitimate instrumental skills and a detailed understanding of music theory that must been internalized to become completely intuitive. It takes hard, focused practice over a long period of time to become a jazz musician. Ornette knows this and did this.

In fact, there is a documented story about how Ornette wanted to be castrated so that he wouldn’t think about sex and could focus on practicing. The nurse talked him out of it.

Ornette can play. Albert Ayler, Artie Schep can play. The Art Ensemble of Chicago are excellent. Their music may be avant guard and too strange for some, but these players know exactly what they are doing. Other people who really couldn’t play a blues or rhythm changes try to play free jazz and are the charlatans that Ornette was suspected to be. And then, next thing you know people are arguing over what is jazz and not just listening to good music.

Not to mention the novelty aspect of free jazz. It starts with Ornette in 58/59, but it becomes a big thing into the 60s and the 70s. It has had an appeal to rock roll crowd open to higher level music. This is not a bad thing per se and it could be an entry point into higher level music for some. But it also can affect the market expectations of jazz. And since its easy to fake, rockers might try it and then create inaccurate conceptions about what actually makes jazz.

Also, the avant guard that Ornette ushers in also speaks to the avant guard in the classical world. Is Ornette like Varèse or Schoenberg to Coltrane’s Stravinsky, Bird as Beethoven, Duke’s Mozart and Armstrong’s Bach?  Quite possibly. Oh Yoko…..

As I do these blog diaries and look at other stuff about jazz out there on the web, I am beginning to better understand that free jazz didn’t kill or hurt jazz at all. Surprise, surprise, it was neoliberalism and all sorts of ideas that today we trace back to the good ole Ronnie ray-gun years. Or as Q-Tip has stated: “Industry rule #4080. Record people are shady”

Quick story with names withheld to protect the innocent. A good friend is connected to the free jazz network and knows a few of the significant players. One of these players got a phone call from Ornette a year or two to come and hang out. Excited, he made his way in Manhattan from Jersey to spend some time with Ornette. Ornette took him to the White Castle in Penn Station under Madison Square Garden.

Apparently, Ornette likes to sneak out of his apartment and eat white castle because his wife wont let him have any.

For our final spotlight artist of the week, someone who seemed to have an entirely different conception of the music business…

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, September 15, 1928 – August 8, 1975.
Official Website

Cannonball Adderly grew up in Florida and resisted the initial invitations to join Miles Davis’ first quintet in NYC. Cannonball did not rush to move to NY from Florida as he suspected that upon arrival to NY, he would no longer have the time to practice and work hard on his own approach to playing. He came to NY around 1955 and made a few records which are good, but didn’t garner too much notice. In 1958, he joined the quintet and made it a sextet and then history was made.

Cannonball recorded extensively with his brother Nat, November 25, 1931 – January 2, 2000. I was fortunate enough to see Nat perform a few times. He liked to tell a story about Cannonball’s record date for Blue Note records. Nat expected to play on the record, but Cannonball told him no and that Cannonball wanted to use this other guy on trumpet.

Cannonball is on a few recordings with Miles and Trane, including the watershed record “Kind of Blue”. He leaves to start his own band which is really one of the most successful groups in jazz. I really admire Cannonball’s approach. His music is accessible and swings harder than almost anything, but contains an incredible amount of substance.

The great sextet led by Cannonball featured the multi-instrumentalist, Yousef Lateef, October 9, 1920 – December 23, 2013, and Austrian pianist Joe Zawinul, July 7, 1932 – September 11, 2007. Both of these men contributed to Jazz throughout their lives. Zawinul would go on to form the 70s iconic fusion band, Weather Report.

George Duke later plays in the band and he is followed by the amazing and insightful, although underrated and under respected, Hal Galper. Hal Galper is one of the most important voices of descent in the jazz world today as well as being a brilliant pianist and excellent educator. He is an avid critic of the music industry and he is rarely, if ever, wrong.
Hal Galper

There is much Cannonball to hear. He performed extensively until his death in 1975. Its all good. But we cant leave Cannonball without hearing his “hit.” Here’s a tune Im sure that nearly every musician who reads this has played….

But there are too many alto players for one diary

Johnny Hodges

Phill Woods

Lou Donaldson

Gary Bartz

Oh…and pure nepotism…here’s a good friend of mine. He’s in Rome this weekend performing with trombonist Steve Turre: Bruce Williams.

Remember, there are probably excellent Jazz musicians who live near you. Go and see them play! Thanks again everyone, I am really really happy with how these diaries have been turning out. I know so many good musicians that Im going to start putting up random videos of some of them in the coming weeks and I do encourage everyone to post clips of themselves playing and/or of your friends. Just please keep it to Jazz and keep the funk beats and distorted guitars to a minimum (there will be a fusion diary or three eventually and a “smooth jazz” diary never).

Originally posted to Evolution on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 03:38 PM PDT.

Also republished by An Ear for Music, Protest Music, and Community Spotlight.


Who is your favorite Alto player?

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