Mark Elliott, Wonder As I Wander
My first exposure to jazz was a tune by the fusion band Weather Report written by its leader and keyboardist, Josef Zawinul.
It was written to memorialize a nightclub named after Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, a saxophonist who played with Dizzy Gillespie some and, like Diz and other jazzmen of the late 40s and early 50s, was instrumental in the birth of Bebop, a style of jazz known for its insanely fast and intricate improvisations.
It was a perfect song to introduce me to jazz with its driving, rock-like drums and complicated but beautiful baseline (played by Jaco Pastorius who deserves a column of his own some day) and soaring sax and synthesizer melodies.
But mostly it was the title of the song that intrigued me—Birdland.
Now, I know what you’re thinking; here we go with the birds again, but this isn’t headed in that direction at all, although I’m sure I’ll write about birds a lot in future columns.
This was still my youth and I was just waking up from my childhood dream of being a musician.
A friend played Birdland for me (as well as the rest of the Heavy Weather album) and I was intrigued, not only by the fantastic music, but by the title as well.
I started trying to find out why it was called Birdland and that inquiry led me to discover jazz.
I had been exposed to jazz in my music studies at college, but this time I wanted to learn.
Zawinul also wrote the song Mercy, Mercy, Mercy when he played for Cannonball Adderly in the mid-60s.
Adderly had played with Miles Davis on his 1955 release Kind of Blue.
Zawinul played with Davis on his seminal fusion recordings In a Silent Way and B----es Brew in the late 60s and early 70s.
I never really became all that enamored of fusion, but the connection to Davis by both of these guys caused me to listen to Kind of Blue, an album made the in 1959 with Adderly, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. It’s still one of my favorite recordings.
Davis had first met Diz and Bird when he subbed for a sick trumpeter in Billy Eckstine’s band in 1944.
He later played in Bird’s quintet after Parker and Gillespie parted ways.
Davis pioneered the jazz fusion movement of the 60’s, which led to his hiring of Zawinul, a saxophonist by the name of Wayne Shorter, Keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin, all famous fusion artists.
Shorter and Zawinul formed Weather Report and we’re back to where we started.
Davis’s albums of the 50s and early 60’s are among my favorites.
It’s a period known as his “Cool” phase and he produced one of the greatest tunes of all time, a piece called So What, a song that defined me not only with its title but with its attitude.
Unfortunately jazz was really starting to lose ground to rock and roll and Davis began trying to fuse the two musical styles in order to recapture the youth market that had fueled jazz in the 30’s and 40’s.
This idea that jazz had been the music of youth surprised me and being all of 22 years old, I thought I knew everything.
So, I started listening to Duke and Satch, Goodman and Chick Webb and Count Basey (Goodman was the first white bandleader to hire a black musician, vibe player Lionel Hampton, who joined his quartet in 1936.)
I soon realized that the reason this music was young folk’s music was because it was dance music and music that you could dance to has always been the music of youth.
That’s also part of the reason for its decline, jazz of the 50s and 60s was no longer dance music.
It was now a music for the mind instead of the soul.
This lead to further enlightenment—our music grows old with us.
I had often wondered what I would listen to when I was an old man.
As a teen I couldn’t imagine myself listening to Sinatra or Dean Martin or Henry Mancini, which is what my Grandparents were listening to when I visited them in the summers.
Imagine my relief when I realized that the Stones and the Beatles would grow old with me (kids never think of people dying before they get old).
I still listen to rock and jazz and we all are getting older together.
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