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Saturday, January 15, 2011

An Instrument I Wish I Could Play

While in high school and college, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in the trombone section of the jazz band, honking on the bass trombone. It was quite satisfying to blow low tones and anchor the brass section. And I had several opportunities to play in unison with my brother low-register specialist, the baritone saxophonist. This is how I fell in love with the bari sax.

A good bari player can really throw down a bass line. He/she can make it pop in the low register, rumble and growl, adding bottom to jazz, funk and rock music. A virtuoso baritone saxophonist can blow like Coltrane and Bird, but in the bass tone zone. There is a soulfullness to the sound of a bari - gruff, yet warm and it grabs me every damn time I hear it. And bari sax players tend to be a tad on the geeky side, which I really like. They aren't the movie stars of the music world.

I have a list of bari players that just knock me out -
  • Gerry Mulligan: Gerry left us in 1996, and he was one of the greatest bari players in history. His tone was different - lighter and cooler than the typical rollicking baritone sax sound. He was bari guy on the Miles Davis "Birth of Cool" record. He played with Duke, Monk, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck. He put the bari in the jazz spotlight. Here is a clip of Gerry playing a wonderful old standard, "Satin Doll."

  • Harry Carney: Mr. Carney was probably the first major performer on the baritone sax. He played Conn saxophones with a very large-chambered mouthpiece, which produced a huge, rich tone that most bari players try to replicate to this day. Carney ran away from home at the age of 17 to join Duke Ellington's orchestra! Wow! And he was one of the first practicioners of "circular breathing," a technique that allows a hornplayer to hold a note indefinitely. Check out this youtube clip and you will hear Harry's artistry and experience the incredible tension and release that the cicular breathing technique can create.

  • Pepper Adams: Pepper was the "anti-Mulligan." Gerry was light and cool; Pepper was sharp and hot. They used to call him "the Knife" in honor of his attack and cutting tone. Pepper was a "hard bopper" and recorded with Mingus, Coltrane, Donald Byrd and a long list of other greats. He died of lung cancer at the age of 56 (which happens to be my age....). He played with a joyous ferocity that few musicians have ever attained. Here is a clip - wonderful stuff!

  • Ronnie Cuber: This guy is still alive and kicking ass! He can do it all - harp bop, soul, funk and every damn thing. In addition to playing with stars like Joey DeFrancesco (Hammond B3 organ superstar), Randy Brecker, Maynard Ferguson, and Lee Konitz, Ronnie has also played with a bunch of pop stars seeking that magical bari sound, including Paul Simon and Chaka Khan. I love this guy - he looks like a paunchy accountant, but he is one of the funkiest horn men alive today! Check out this clip...

  • Stephen (the Funky Doctor) Kupka: Doc has anchored the Tower of Power horn section for almost four decades! Imagine that! He introduced an entire generation to the robust bass honk af a well-played bari sax. He was a soulful, nerdy white kid back inthe 1970's; he is a distinguished-looking senior playa now. I still can't get enough of this guy - he has anchored TOP and defined its sound since its inception. Doc is a section player - not a soloist. And that is cool - here he is with TOP on the Letterman show some time back.

  • Dana Colley: Dana is a bari guy that nearly achieved rock superstardom. He was a member of the odd-ball power trio, Morphine, in the 1989-1999 period. The instrumentation was electric bass, drums and baritone saxophone. This band was led and driven by the late, great Mark Sandman (bass and vocals); Mark died of a heart attack on stage in 1999. Dana played some amazing bari and opened a new frontier of the baritone sax as a frontline voice in a rock/pop context. The music was incedible, rumbling with funky darkness down in the bass register. Even Sandman's voice was a baritone-bass instrument. Here is a particularly mesmerizing tune by Morphine, recorded in a small club - wicked!!!

I could add many more names to this list. Here in Chicago, we have a few local Baritone Sax Studs - Bob Centano is the guy that leaps to mind immediately. Bob plays the entire range of woodwind instruments, but seems to spend most of his time on the bari. He is no spring chicken - well into his retirement years. Bob worked in the Federal courts - clerking for Federal judges was his "day job" for many years. He is back to being a full-time musician in retirement. He also leads a big band around the Chicago area, and it is an excellent ensemble. Bob's playing is deeply soulful and full of surprises.

I am always amazed when a talented musican plays a big, intimidating instrument like the baritone sax and generates such marvelous sounds. I wish I could play that damned bari sax!

Monday, January 10, 2011

More Randomness

I just finished reading a good book that was published in the late 1990's, "A Beautiful Mind." As you might recall, this was the story of John Nash, the genius mathematician who was also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia (the movie version of the book starred Russell Crowe). Dr. Nash miraculously was able to recover from this debilitating condition, and committed no violent acts while he was struggling with the malady. Young Jared Loughner of Tuscon AZ was unable to control his diseased brain, and he committed mass murder and grieviously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Nineteen people were shot; six died. The confluence of random events that brought these people together are boggling to consider. One generally doesn't worry about being murdered when heading out to an outdoor event hosted by one's local congressperson. It is a very rare occurence.

What triggered this mentally ill person? Was it his internal hell, the screaming of incoherent delusions? Was it the environmental noise, the political invective floating about our communities? Loughner's motivation was his disease - any other theory seems silly to me.

Remember Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Polytechnic Institutie shooter who killed 32 people? Loughner and Cho have very similar mental disorders. There are many people walking about with undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental illnesses. They can't be shoved into a locked psychiatric unit against their will unless some legal authority declares them to be a threat to themselves or others. That is not an easy path to tread; most family members don't have the heart to take the action necessary to send their loved one to a locked unit.

When you cross the street, you risk being hit by a bus - if you randomly fail to look before you step off the curb, it can happen. When you go to any public event, you risk being shot by a parnoid schizophrenic who randomly decides to show up and start firing. These are not big risks, but they exist. If all guns were outlawed, would that reduce the risk of a mentally ill person killing lots of people? Probably (although illegal guns would certainly be available no matter what laws are passed). But it appears that the citizens of the United States prefer to bear the slight risk of random killing rather than accept the elimination of the right to bear arms.

You can't identify all the people who have the potential for committing psychotic acts prior to their psychotic actions. Our country wants its guns. This combination of facts means that psychotic people will own guns, and will occassionally blow away a bunch of people. But, hey, its not THAT big of a risk, right? And it is a random event. So grieve for those lost and those injured, deal with the perpetrator of these evil acts, but realize that eliminating a low-liklihood fatal risk entails costs that our country is unwilling to bear.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Chicago Blues Fest Might Cost You This Year

This is a shot of me and Piano Willie at the 2005 Chicago Blues Festival (photo by my friend Alex Cuevas aka Big Alex). This event has been the largest free blues event in the world (I think) for many years. I just caught a press report that the City of Chicago is thinking about out-sourcing the management of all of its free festivals (including the music events and Taste of Chicago). Here is a link to the Sun-Times article on this situation.

Remember what happened to parking fees when the parking meters were privatized in Chicago? Well, the same deal will be struck on the festivals. No more free blues, folks - at least $10/day for the Blues Fest (and the Jazz Fest will charge admission, too). The city's finances are so messed up that it is willing to kill off some of the things that contribute to Chicago's civic excellence. The Blues Fest is still a bargain at $10/day, but of course the attendence will drop significantly. The size of the event would therefore have to be cut, the number of big-name acts would decline and a spiral would begin. I suspect that it would be the beginning of the end for the Chicago Blues Festival - it would eventually shrink away to nothingness. I hope I am wrong and that privatization will improve the Blues Fest. SummerFest in Milwaukee charges admission and it does well. But Summer Fest is huge and covers all types of music - it isn't a niche event like the Blues Fest and the Jazz Fest.

Of course, the lame duck Daley administration is moving so slow that the entire festival season is at risk. No acts have been booked yet, so I hear. Without privitization, there may be no festivals at all.

These festivals lose about $7MM/year. It would be nice if the foundations in the Chicago area would fill the gap so this civic treasure could be maintained. If it goes private, I fear that the Chicago Blues Fest will end up dead.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica

We humans like to flock together in groups that are organized by passionate interests. Bowling leagues, book groups, trade associations, fan clubs - the list is very long. One such sub-group is the Society for the Preservation andAdvancement of the Harmonica, or SPAH. Every instrument has at least one organized group of passionate players/admirers. There is the International Trombone Association, the Guitar Foundation of America and, of course, the Ukelele Guild of Hawai'i ("UGH" for short). I have not hung out with the members of all those groups. I have hung out with the members of SPAH, because I chew on the dang tin sandwich (translation - I play the harmonica).

So the members of SPAH roughly break into three groups:

1. The Traditionalists: These folks are trying to keep a dying musical tradition alive - the harmonica group. The basic traditional harmonica group is a trio - a chromatic harmonica player that carries the melody, a chord player that provides "rhythm" harmony backing for the lead (using a three-foot long instrument), and a bass player that honks on the harmonica equivalent of a tuba. If you are old enough, you might remember the Harmonicats - that is the musical style that the Traditonalists treasure. It is damn hard to play this type of harmonica music. It harkens back to the vaudeville era - harmonica bands were big in the 1920's and 1930's. As you might imagine, the Traditionalists tend to be a bit older than the average SPAH member.
2. The Blues Crowd: I fall in this group. Playing mostly diatonic harmonicas (small 10-hole instruments), these folks worship Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, George "Harmonica" Smith, Kim Wilson, Junior Wells and the rest of the folks that made the harmonica sound part of the American pop soundtrack.
3. The Monsters: These are the folks that have become true masters of the harmonica and all of its possibilities. Most of them play jazz, but there are also classical monsters and Irish music monsters. Howard Levy, Toots Thielmans, James Conway are three players that come to mind that fall into this category. Howard Levy is a terrifying player - he must have sold his soul to the Devil to get the wicked talent that he displays on the diatonic harmonica.

SPAH has one major blow-out every year - the annual convention. The 2010 event was in Minneapolis; 2011 will be in Virginia Beach. I have only attended one of these events. They are really quite remarkable. The top players hang out with the beginners and teach, provide tips and encouragement. This would be like the Major League Baseball All-Star Team hanging with the softball team sponsored by Joe's Bar & Grill, providing companionship and coaching. People tend to stay up all night for three nights straight, blowing harmonicas and acting strange. It is a gloriously joyful event.

Check out some harmonica music when you have a chance. Stevie Wonder is a great entry point. Dig into Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Chase down Howard Levy. You will be amazed.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


I suppose one of the signs of aging is length of one's New Year's celebration. This year, we were actively enjoying the last day of 2010 with great music (a performance of Beethoven's 9th) and self-care activities (family luncheon, sauna, massage, hot tub soaking). We were done before dinner time. I was mysteriously afflicted with a wicked headache, so I had to lay down for a bit until it went away. I arose at 10 PM, enjoyed a bit more family time with my wonderful wife and 2 youngest daughters, shared a champagne toast with my wife, and went back to bed. No inebriation, no noisemakers, no dancing, no party for this aging Boomer. I woke up at 5AM on this first day of 2011. It is very quiet here.

Those of us born in the mid-1950's are in the fat part of the Baby Boom demographic bulge. Our older brothers and sisters, born in 1946, will turn 65 this year, so 2011 will be the first year in which Boomers start to move into the "old age" category. This has been a large, messy, wonderful, terrible generation. I took a gander at the New York Times this morning and found this article on aging Boomers. It is fair to say that we are more egotistical and self-indulgent than past generations of Americans. As the Times said this morning. "The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity."

When I am feeling especially important, or especially discouraged, I find it useful to consider the immensity of geologic time. The earth was formed around 4.6 billion years ago; the oldest stuff discovered on our planet are zircon crystals, found in Australia, that scientists estimate are 4.4 billion years old. Single-celled life forms emerged 2.5 billion years ago; it took another 2 billion years for shelled mollusks to show up in the fossil record. Arachnids ventured onto dry land about 430 million years ago; amphibians followed them 60 million years later. In the Permian period, 248 million years ago, the Earth experienced its largest mass extinction ever - 95% of marine species and 70% of land animals were wiped out (the suspected cause was rapid climate fluctuation). Dinosurs died off 65 million years ago; hominids descended from the trees 6-8 million years ago. Modern humans appeared in east Africa about 190,000 years ago and began venturing across the globe about 70,00 years ago.

So we humans are a blip, a successful species that hasn't been around for very long in the grand scheme of things. The joys, ambitions, fears, dreams and disappointment of an individual human are quite insignificant when measured against the scope of our planet's life. We are simply creatures that live and die. Our big brains force us to think too much about the details of it all.

So 2011 will unfold, a blink in goelogic time, and we humans will focus on the daily crush of events and thoughts. Let's try to focus on one over-arching concept - it is a joy and a privilege to be alive.

Happy New Year.