Wednesday, October 14, 2009

God turns 100

Today is 100th anniversary of the birth of Art Tatum, who was certainly the best jazz pianist to ever walk the earth. I lifted the title from the name of the thread on a jazz e-mail list group I subscribe to. It comes from a story told about Bud Powell - another hall-of fame jazz pianist. He was playing in a club on 52nd street when Tatum walked in the door. Powell stopped cold, right in the middle of his solo, and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, God is in the House."

Happy Birthday, Art!


kevin quinn said...

Well, I stand -or sit, actually - corrected. Though I had always heard it attributed to Powell, a herd of independent (NOT) sources on the google tells me it was Fats Waller, who said, "Ladies and Gentleman, I am just a piano player, but tonight, God is in the house."

Shag from Brookline said...

Some years back, I bought the Jazz Piano, A Smithsonian Collection, of four double-sided tapes of great jazz pianists, including Art Tatum. Sad to say, I don't have a decent tape player any more. What's amazing is that each of these giants has a different sound, a different approach. My allegience shifts from time to time. Currently my favorite is Thelonious Monk. Here in the Boston area we have WHRB, 95.3 FM, also on the Web, with jazz M-F 5:00 AM - 1:00 PM and Sat. 5:00 - 9:00 AM. During exam periods on this Harvard station, orgies are presented, both jazz and other genres. I'm not sure, but there was probably an Art Tatum orgy that ran at least 24 hours straight. I've got to get a tape player.

Oh, every once in a while, I hear a Count Basie recording and marvel how much he does striking so few keys. But then I hear Oscar Peterson (before his stroke) and think he must have 20 fingers.

I glanced at the booklet with the Jazz Piano that discusses all of the pianists and the songs they play. I think that will be my reading tonight.

Shag from Brookline said...

WHRB has a lengthy feature on Theloneous Monk this morning based upon his role in a Carnegie Hall benefit concert (with other jazz stars) in 1957. The benefit was taped by Voice of America but the tapes were not "discovered" until 2005 at their then repository (Library of Congress? Smithsonian?). Monk's quartet included Coltrane. The only song the quartet played not written by Monk was Sweet and Lovely. The commentator made a comparison of Monk's skills on Sweet and Lovely with Art Tatum, high praise indeed.

I saw Monk many years ago here in Boston at the now defunct Boston Globe Jazz Festival. Monk let his sidemen get their licks in and often he would rise from the piano stool and "dance" quite simply, in place, as if in rapture of the performances of his sidemen.

The Voice of America employed jazz quite a bit during the Cold War to get the message across to the rest of the world about America and its freedoms. Maybe this Voice, with jazz, is in greater need today.

kevin quinn said...

Shag: there is a CD that was released last year, I believe, with the Monk/Coltrane portion of that concert. It's great. I love Monk's playing and his writing. His compositions are just amazing. I really don't know of a bad one in the lot.

Shag from Brookline said...

Kevin, yes, I later learned that WHRB was indeed playing that CD.

One of my favorite Monk songs is "Blue Monk." On Saturdays, WHRB's Jazz Spectrum is followed at 9:00 AM by "Hillbilly at Harvard" (George W. Bush's favorite radio show while he was attending Harvard Business School). One day I heard Willie Nelson sing "Living the Blues." It sounded to me like "Blue Monk." I checked and learned that Bob Dylan is credited with writing the words and music to "Living the Blues." I tried, unsuccessfully, to get WHRB to play "Blue Monk" and "Living the Blues" back-to-back - neither the jazz nor country cooperated. I'm not casting aspersions on Dylan, but the melodies do sound alike. Is it all in my head? Am I wearing sackcloth?

Jack said...

If you can find copies of the sheet music to each you might compare the chord structures. Many of the be-bop era "original" compositions were based on American songbook classic chord structures. Maybe Dylan waas clever enough to follow that method. He could hardly do better than Monk.

To truly appreciate the level of Monk's general genious note that he was admitted to Stuyvesant High School in the early '30s. That is the most competitive of the special public schools in NYC, and he's a black kid in the early '30s.

Also, check out anything you can find from the mid '40s in Coleman Hawkin's name. Monk played with him at some of those recordings. There are also a few DVDs of Monk with his regular quartet with Charlie Rousse on sax. Just watching these goys is inspirational.

Lastly, for a slightly different twist on the jazz piano check out Lenny Tristano. There is a CD of Tristano and Charlie Parker around.
It's a bit sparse, but exceptional.
Parker and Tristano, a rare coupling.

Shag from Brookline said...

In a bio of Dylan that I browsed recently at a local bookstore, Dylan mentioned that there were so many songs going through his mind over the years that he couldn't be quite sure if a tune he wrote was original. I can appreciate this. With "Blue Monk" there is quite a bit of improvising after initially laying down the melody whereas in "Living the Blues" the basic melody continues throughout.

And speaking of Charlie Parker, he liked to listen to country music. A lot of cats gave up the sax after hearing what Parker could do with it.

Jack said...

"With "Blue Monk" there is quite a bit of improvising after initially laying down the melody whereas in "Living the Blues" the basic melody continues throughout."

And there you have one of the major differences between modern (post 1940s and forward) jazz and other popular music. As I had said, many "original" jazz compositions were based on the chord structures of popular music.
Extending the range of those chords through improvisation was the intention of the musician. Monk was an exception to that trend, being wholly original in his own compositions and style for that matter. Coltrane was another good example of originality of composition. His technique on his horn is only rivaled by Parker, though they had very different styles.

kevin quinn said...

Shag and Jack: just wanted to mention the jazz e-mail list I am on to see if you were interested. It is called jazz-l for jazzlovers list. There is a website with info. It is much less active these days, with the advent of the web and blogs, than it used to be, but there are some very knowledgeable people. We would love to have you!


Jack said...

I'm not much of a participant in that regard. I hardly ever go back to which has multitude of threads regarding all manner of jazz topics. I'm more of a regular at the several jazz clubs in NYC. Listen and watch. if you enjoy the details of jazz history try WKCR-FM, 89.9 in NYC. Phil Schapp in the AM hosts Bird Flight. No one can talk about jazz more than Phil and no one is likely to be better informed of the most minute details of jazz lore. I'd venture to guess that he can tell us the color of Parker's underwear at a specific recording session in 1952. And he plays and discusses the best of jazz recordings.

If you need to know where to go in NYC ask me.

Jack said...

In case you're not yet aware, here's a link to a review of a new biography on Monk, in the NY Times Book Review: