Reflections on jazz, improvisation, and the New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2014.
Original art by Annelise Capossela.
By Thomas Larson
During Jazz Fest’s two weekends, one hears on the three or four stages devoted to New Orleans music that redoubtable party spirit Rebirth is famous for. But don’t believe such revelry cinches the elastic waistband of New Orleans’ musical trousers. Yes, jazz fans cherish the groove. But local musicians, especially those who’ve left, have built mini-mansions on top of the old familiar styles. I think of native-born singers/players as diverse as the Boswell Sisters, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Lil Wayne, and others who have re-Latinized or re-Africanized the sound and, where necessary, tow the audience along with them. That’s trad too.
Mid-afternoon of the second Jazz Fest Friday, I’m ringed round a hotel lobby table with Steven Bernstein and Henry Butler, the eponymous core of the new New Orleans-New York meld, the Butler-Bernstein Hot 9. Bernstein, composer-arranger-trumpeter-bandleader, has been in the music biz four decades, most notably for eight years with Levon Helm. Bernstein arranged the horns and reeds on Helm’s Grammy-winning Electric Dirt. On it, Bernstein’s quick and broad accents bristle with swagger and funk. Blind since birth, Butler is fluent in ragtime, stride, and boogie piano, and just as adept with soul-jazz, hard bop, or a Schubert or Prokofiev sonata—and he holds a master’s degree in music from the University of Michigan. In the halcyon days of 1950s R&B, Butler, his feet not touching the pedals, had lessons with Professor Longhair, the dean of New Orleans pianists. Sadly, Bernstein and Butler are all but unknown outside the NY/NO city-states.
Their collaboration, which can be heard in the spaciously recorded studio CD Viper’s Drag, on the re-resurrected Impulse! label, is deliciously original. To get it going, Bernstein taped or transcribed Butler’s piano riffs, improvised idiosyncrasies Bernstein calls “Henryisms.” He then wrote horn and reed lines based on Butler’s phrasing for tunes like “Henry’s Boogie” and “Dixie Walker.” When Henry recognized his patterns, he had, as he tells me, “to reinvent myself, think of something new to play.” In a sense, he was forced to uncork (again, the jazz player’s negotiation with “what’s going to happen”) an undiscovered part of himself, on the spot/in the studio, a challenge many musicians avoid.
“You give up a lot,” he offers, “so you gain a lot.”
Bernstein’s speaking voice is oaky, and infectiously enthusiastic like a collector in a record store. I notice his lower lip, trumpet-pursed puffy, and his three hoop earrings glinting a nearby light. A self-described “music historian,” Bernstein says that though he’s not the first to write parts for a player’s sensibility (Duke Ellington is unmatched in that department), he knows of only one precedent for showcasing Butler’s largesse: Earl “Fatha” Hines. Along with Art Tatum, Hines was the king of the fearlessly swinging keyboard improvisers. He created a big band where brass and reeds went on the back-burner while his piano grabbed the central role. This colorist technique, worshipfully clear with modern recording, is the driving engine of the Hot 9, one that elevates Butler’s orchestral style—the effect not incomparable to, say, Mozart’s piano concerti. The piano is raised acoustically to a soloist against and a partner with the orchestra or band.
My glance falls from Butler’s wraparound shades to his splayed fingers, worn yet fine like wooden-handled chisels. I ask him about his life, post-Katrina. The story is that he took eight feet of water, lost a prized piano and all his stuff, the house moldy and uninhabitable. He moved to Colorado, then New York. How does a forced-out New Orleans musician stay in touch with his New Orleans-ness?
The no-drama master says it’s true: he once felt secure here. “My own home, my own studio, my own gym, tons of recordings and scores. In a sense I haven’t recovered from all that.” And yet, he’s been strengthened by the blow. “You give up a lot,” he offers, “so you gain a lot. The doors open—and you go through them.” Case in point, Louis Armstrong. “When he left New Orleans,” Butler says, “he gained a lot more confidence, a lot more savvy,” traits Satchmo would have had to “manifest differently if he’d stayed behind.”
Suddenly animated, Bernstein leaps in, identifying New Orleans as the taproot of American music. “You know, all of it—everything—comes from this place.” Every jazz lover knows that enslaved and later freed Africans voicing their woe in Congo Square took up European musical instruments and forms and birthed the blues, gospel, and jazz (as well as the ego of one Jelly Roll Morton, who bragged that the majority of the then-new music was his invention). Butler agrees, calling the Hot 9’s music, “New Orleans and beyond.” An out-loud culture, in the wards and the French Quarter, persists in his imagination. He recalls hearing a tune like “Down by the Riverside” in church, club, parade, or concert if, for instance, Mahalia Jackson came to town. This orality extended to the music he heard on radio when radio programs were live.
“You listen, you play; you listen, you play.”
The next day, a thousand of us in the Blues Tent rumble at our seats and in the aisles as Bernstein directs the Hot 9 (actually numbering 10) in a sixty-minute set of shoulder-shaking grooves. During Bernstein’s roomy arrangements, he barks directions to Butler or conducts his six-member horn/reed section. Most of the time they’re reading parts (transcribed Butler riffs). On occasion, Bernstein attempts what he calls “spontaneous arranging”: he cues players to solo or teases out a bit of sectional funk, provoking pairs and trios. His gestures encompass finger-counting, arm-swooping, and palm-halting; he’ll even shush the audience if they get too loud. When Butler hears something unexpected, he adapts to the style at hand, ripping something fresh.
On stage, each tune——from the boisterous “Viper’s Drag” to Billy Preston’s funk classic “Will It Go Round in Circles” to Professor Longhair’s anthem “Goin to the Mardi Gras”—opens up to Butler’s inventiveness, spotlighting his wild sheets of blue-noted arpeggios, suddenly the double-time double-timed. On occasion, Bernstein takes the reins with a devilish slide-trumpet or euphonium solo. The pulse underneath each number, mesmerizingly supple, is laid down by Herlin Riley, an extraordinarily solid, New Orleans-bred behind-the-beat drummer. When the sassy Butleresque horn gusts start to pop, Butler widens his stride, the space between his hands opening in simultaneous boogie riffs. That widening of the piano’s midrange, with Butler’s hands playing octaves further and further apart, reminds me of Rachmaninoff’s writing, had Sergey found the funk in his trunk.
Back in the hotel lobby, I quote a line Miles Davis used to whisper to his bandmates in the early 1970s, when he pushed his all-electric ensemble into fusion, or jazz-rock. That experimental era typifies what Ted Gioia calls in his book, The Imperfect Art, jazz’s “perpetual romanticism,” the “manic quality in which the music’s inherent vitality threatened to run away with itself.” Which it did—in stadium venues and on Davis’s mad locomotive. Davis said, apropos of the group’s total free improvisation (no common tune among them), “You listen, you play; you listen, you play.” My reading of this, I tell Butler, is that Davis wanted to slow the musicians down so they would be more in the moment.
Butler says he thought Davis was as much slowing the musicians down as trying to get them “to catch up to the music. If you [as a player] slow down enough, then you can tap into more of it. That’s true. But that music is always there—whether you are or not.”
Any music—its restlessness in and freedom from each moment it occupies—runs afoul of my urge to represent it in a realm (words) in which the music is not heard.
What I think Butler means—the interview had to end so I got to muse on his line—resonates with Plato’s theory of forms. Improvised music already exists because its form is always going to happen, not read like a score but created on the spot, hinged to each arriving moment. A musician finds his way to the music that’s always already there—in his head, in his hands, passing among players. It’s in the tradition, and in the breaking away from tradition. The music that’s already there is what’s going to happen to the music. Jazz is ever ready, ever willing, to occupy these unending, just-now-arriving and just-as-quickly-passing alreadys.
“Just Like Democracy”
So here’s another spacetime exchange blown in by the musical trade winds, a post-Katrina re-crossing of Bernstein’s New York with Butler’s New Orleans. This amalgam of regional styles—America is a big, messy poly-vocal country and musicians naturally want to mix with a geographical other to reseed their own turf—is also what jazz musicians are negotiating. In the final episode of Ken Burns’ ten-part series, Jazz, Wynton Marsalis defines the genre with a common, but apt, simile:
“In American life, you have all these different agendas. You have conflict all the time. And we [jazz musicians] are attempting to achieve harmony through conflict. It seems strange to say that. But it’s like an argument you have with the intent to work something out—not an argument you have with the intent to argue. And that’s what jazz music is. You have musicians, and they’re all standing on the bandstand. Each one has their personality, their agenda. Invariably, they’re going to play something that you would not play. So you have to learn when to say a little something, when to get out of the way. So you have the question of the integrity, the intent, the will to play together. That’s what jazz music is. You have yourself, your individual expression, and you have how you negotiate that expression in the context of that group. It’s exactly like democracy.”
Any music—its restlessness in and freedom from each moment it occupies—runs afoul of my urge to represent it in a realm (words) in which the music is not heard. Writing (about) New Orleans jazz is a futile translation. (Reader, I hear you: no one ever claimed it was anything but.) The sense that the writer can never quite get to the music is also, in Butler’s parlance, always there. It’s one I feel powerless to unpack, facing more than 120 years of New Orleans music, which, again, occupies the fingers of every musician who falls under its spell. That spacetime is so vast the city cannot hold it in its clubs or street parades, nor can any one player. It’s imperial reach stretches into rhythm and blues and rock and roll, world-conquering exports like tea from India. The music needs this annual twelve-stage, eight-hour-a-day, seven-day festival so the returning admirals of its fleet can decompress. It’s no wonder that Bruce Springsteen, on a sun-puckered day, in front of 30,000 arm-pumping fans, sounds for the length of his three-hour set (he ends with a meditative version of “The Saints”) as if most of what the New Jersey native has written first docked at this southern port of call.
One variety of the New Orleans musician is the player who breaks free of his jazz hometown, and becomes, ironically, his staying true to its tradition. That’s what I hear in 26-year-old Nick Sanders, a Phenom and native, who got away to the New England Conservatory and has returned to play his first Fest. Post-set, backstage, I sit in awe of his Adonic charm; he’s fussed over by a proud father, “an ex-musician myself,” who marveled at his son’s insistence during adolescence (“even then”), of practicing four to six hours a day.
All sorts of precursors pour through Sanders’ fingers during his live set and in his adventuresome 2013 debut album, Nameless Neighbors: the pointillist touches of the Second Viennese school, the polytonal counterpoint of Darius Milhaud, the hard swing of Horace Silver, the watery texture of Bill Evans, the quartal harmonies of Herbie Hancock, the wide-handed chordal palette of Brad Mehldau, the atonal flights of Cecil Taylor, the stylistic collisions of Charles Ives. (Sanders was no doubt the only musician at the Fest to play a tune by the avant-garde composer, Anthony Braxton.) The kid does have his own tack, however. His compositions state a complex motivic figure that he shifts suddenly and rhythmically, so its melodic mark drains from memory. The idea, bolstered by his trio, freshly graduated bassist and drummer from NEC as well, feels like endless invention. And yet he’s not afraid to stay with an elegant riff, its sentiment modally mysterious, and then move out from it—doggedly, introspectively, atonally—as he does on the album-title tune, “Nameless Neighbors,” or the mercurial “Calliope.”
One element I hear in some contemporary players is their self-surprise at landing on a fresh theme while improvising and then returning to it…
After the set, Sanders is still vibrating with the music. His hands seem to tingle, as does his voice, with surprise, almost, that I’d be interested in interviewing him. Sanders explains his upbringing, one that, as his dad says, was run by his desire. He began playing at 7, had classical music chops (lots of Mozart) by 12, and started improvising at 17. For high school, he went to NOCA, the now-famed New Orleans Creative Arts charter, and found his calling in the jazz department. He was home-schooled, too, because, he says, “You can’t” want to practice “five, six hours a day in America”—and be a teenager. Prescient, he “knew how much work it would take” to be a jazz pianist. To learn to improvise, he listened to hundreds of records, studied a method book, and played most Fridays at NOCA with a trio. One man he studied with, the great clarinetist and teacher of generations of New Orleans musicians, was Alvin Batiste. Sanders played with Batiste at Snug Harbor, a club which borders the French Quarter, before Batiste passed away.
So how’s he connected to New Orleans music? He is among the furthest out of the city’s players who remains, if distantly, in its orbit. “I can play the traditional tune,” he says, “but it’s not what I want to do.” I ask him to talk about his harmonic language, which, to my ear, sounds as much like 20th-century composers, Gunther Schuller, for example, as it does jazz stalwarts like Monk or Gil Evans. He stumbles at the question, in part, I suspect, because his thinking with his hands is so fluid, so changeable: “I can’t pin down an exact harmonic system.” Perhaps he hesitates because, like Jungians with a dream, pinning it down might deplete it of its magic. Though he thinks about chord structures and harmonic off-ramps, it’s “all very intuitive.” One element I hear in some contemporary players is their self-surprise at landing on a fresh theme while improvising and then returning to it, to structure a chorus or two around that serendipity.
Sanders’ trio’s closing number, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” captures his harmonic slant. Right off, Sanders topsy-turvies the G minor tune to G major, the familiar swing melody re-voiced and lifted enigmatically. Such a twist slaps the tune awake. Sanders reconstitutes a standard that’s rarely been “improved” on in the many times, times a million, it’s been played. This is what he’s very, very good at—and, barring too many of life’s potholes, will continue to roll with as composer and pianist.
One Last Chorus
Everywhere you go in New Orleans people say that the city and its culture (heat, floods, parades, gumbo, Catholicism, voodoo, Creole, Cajun) is unique in America. To which the music attests. New Orleans jazz closes the gap between virtuosi and audience; it’s audience-reliant, not audience-transcendent. New Orleans jazz stays local, despite its global range. New Orleans jazz holds fast to companionable improvisation in spaces where musicians hear, create, and negotiate individual identity. New Orleans jazz favors live over recorded, the outdoor noise of a jazz fest over the intimacy of a concert hall, but can be found, especially if the paycheck’s decent, at both. New Orleans jazz stacks its effusive tradition (1890 to 2014) into old and young players alike. One in-betweener, Kermit Ruffins, says with a rakish smile in the HBO show Treme that he’s content to play his trumpet and barbecue every Thursday night at Vaughan’s bar, leaving for a gig only when the bills have piled up. Another in-betweener, Gregory Davis, founding member of the Dirty Dozen, introduces his band by saying, “Wherever you live, we either been there or we comin’ there.”
New Orleans does what no other music city can: send out and call back its players, with round-trip tickets. Having an inextinguishable ebb and flow of improvisational talent, the hometown audience remains as hungry as they are full.
This is the second in a two-part series. Read the first here.
Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books, the most recent, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader and Book Reviews Editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His blog, “Mysteries of the Heart,” runs at Psychology Today. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.