If you’ll allow that inspirations come in all shapes, colors and sizes, I’ll share that for me March has already yielded bunches of them and we’re not even half way through it! First, the Monterey Jazz Bash by the Bay was held on the first weekend in March and, while the numbers were not yet back to pre-pandemic level, they were much larger than in 2022 and there was an encouraging number of “first-timers” in attendance, so the Board has decided to continue into 2024. With festivals folding near and far, I just feel very grateful to be able to share this news!
Moreover, I was inspired when I read our beloved editor’s “Static From My Attic” in the March issue to do a bit of sleuthing regarding a young lady who goes by the stage name “Bliss Blood.” In his editorial, Andy Senior shared a Facebook entry she posted lambasting those who follow early—“trad,” “classic,” etc— jazz (while he was unclear as to whether this polemic was aimed directly at him, the shoe certainly fits). I won’t quote the entire thing here—you can go read it in last month’s issue if you care to—but the pertinent bit, at least regarding my research, was her diatribe “How boring is jazz, especially trad retro retread jazz at this point? It was cute to hearken back to the Depression during the Recession, but we need some new ideas right now…”
Really? I went to my trusty encycloGoogleia to find out more about Ms. Blood. I found quite a few videos of her with her group (she’s the one playing ukulele) and noted that a decent portion of their repertoire consists of songs from the early to mid 1930s, including “Wiki Waki Down in Waikiki,” “Mission to Moscow,” “Me, Myself and I,” and “Take a Picture of the Moon.” There are some originals; the best one to me was “Racetrack Papa,” itself an homage to all of those “Mama, Papa” songs of the 1920s-’30s with clever titles such as “Sweet Mama, Papa’s Getting Mad,” “Elevator Papa, Switchboard Mama.” I’d postulate the ukulele lady’s diatribe might have bubbled forth from not having any attention paid to her in this newspaper, but her post was from 2017 when TST was under a year old. Perhaps she was just having a bad day; I prudently terminated my six-week sojourn on Facebook to avoid giving voice to my inner-ranter in the hopes of keeping the circle of people I alienate from expanding.
Someone I’m surprised WAS featured in TST
Last month, I read the dismayingly growing list of departed musicians in Joe Bebco’s “Final Chorus” and was intrigued to see the obit for Burt Bacharach. “Huh,” the anorak only interested in music from 1922 to January 7, 1935 (at 3:43 pm) in me grunted, “What’s he doing in here?” The inspiration this time was in putting aside my prejudices to find out more about Mr. Bacharach then was offered in Bebco’s very thorough and well-written entry and examine why I had them in the first place. I admit that prior to this exploration, I shared the opinion of composer Randy Newman’s Uncle Lionel (as recounted in Ben Yagoda’s excellent book, The B Side, which should be required reading for anyone interested the causes of Tin Pan Alley’s demise), a Hollywood composer and conductor who avowed “all Bacharach songs sound like the second oboe part.”
I’m inspired to say “Boy, was I WRONG!” No, it’s not early jazz, but many of his tunes are quite jazzy and have been interpreted by loads of mainstream and modern jazz artists—one particularly moving rendition of his biggest hit (and first Oscar win), 1969’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” is a solo take by the late, great Marian McPartland. As Joe Bebco mentioned, Dionne Warwick (originally a backup singer for the Drifters who recorded a Bacharach-Hal David tune in 1962 and adopted the misspelling of her actual name,“Warrick,” on the label…this tidbit again from Yagoda’s book which, really, you must read!) would record many of his tunes, but more, would become his muse and actually influence some of his future compositions: “I began to see her potential and realized I could take more risks and chances.”
While Hal David’s lyrics were rather mundane, Bacharach always went for the unexpected. Some of his tunes have odd meters and bar lengths thrown in (a measure of 7/8 here, a missing or added bar there) but his many outstanding songs have a strong melody and juicy harmonic changes perfect for jazz interpretations. His was an uphill battle until he’d gained some clout. For a year-and-a-half he “worked” at the Brill building in the 1950s, and couldn’t sell a thing (one notable story, again from Yagoda, is Connie Francis lifting the needle off the demo record of one of his songs after eight bars). Bacharach was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone wanted pablum and he couldn’t produce it. In his book Songwriters, Paul Zollo quotes him: “It looked simple, but writing something simple that sounded maybe a little derivative, or accessible, was not so easy or acceptable to me.” He’d exhibit this unwillingness to conform to the times, or the genre, by producing tunes that usually broke some established rule or other of the pop songwriting form.
The 1950s wannabe Brill song churner eventually came into his own in the 1960s, creating hits such as “Walk on By,” “What’s New, Pussycat?,” “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me,” “What the World Needs Now,” “Alfie,” “Do You Know The Way to San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “The Look of Love,” and in 1970, “Close to You.” An amazing achievement and this list only scratches the surface.
Every tune cited above, and many more, are simply first-class, quality tunes capable of myriad interpretations. So why was I so turned off by his music and his “look” when I first encountered them in my teens? Through a 40+ year lens of hindsight, I’d have to say that it was all too “slick” for me. The sound of 1960s arrangements and vocals of current pop or film tunes just sounded too “canned” to someone used to, and craving, the raw, unleashed power of teenagers playing hot on blaring horns and shouting vocals (of course, fast forward a decade or two and replace the word “horns” with “guitars” and I’m describing punk rock and heavy metal!!). So, my third inspiration this month arose from taking the time to more maturely analyze Burt Bacharach’s beautifully crafted melodies and sophisticated harmonies to discover that I, not his music, had come up short. I am now reformed.
My Constant Inspiration
The final inspiration I’ve recently enjoyed occurred at the Monterey Jazz Bash during the annual Patrons’ Party on the Saturday morning of the festival. My wife Anne and I were joined by the venerable (and viciously funny) banjoist/guitarist/vocalist Eddie Erickson onstage to provide a mixture of background music and the occasional hot jazz tune. It’s a very informal (and gustatorily remarkable) event and we were casually inviting requests from the attendees. We received a parade of expected tunes, and two surprises. One was for a tune I’ll discuss in length next month. The second was for “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head.” I’d never played the tune, so approached it gingerly, knowing it had some tricky bits. Anne said, “That’s a great tune, I’ll sing it.” Perplexed, but knowing since we were background that anything that went wrong would be unnoticed by the multitudes chewing omelets and bacon, I switched keys to accommodate her range and…she NAILED it!! Huge applause at the conclusion of the tune.
Afterwards, I asked her, “How did you just sing that very difficult song like you’ve been singing it all your life and I’ve never heard you do it?”
“You know I love Karen Carpenter,” she replied, “and she did it so I just sang her version.”
My initial reaction was: ?????????
But the more I pondered it, the more it made sense. Just as I have hundreds of Fats Waller’s renditions in my head, so can reasonably replicate the verisimilitude, if not the voice, of his version, why couldn’t my wife do that with Karen Carpenter, incidentally the artist after Dionne Warwick who had the second highest number of hits singing Bacharach tunes?
My daily inspiration, in many ways, is my wife. Relevant to this publication, Anne has gone from a virtuosic classical instrumentalist to perhaps the only flutist playing hot—rather than bebop or beyond—jazz, and can a belt out a Bessie or croon a Karen (Carpenter, please, not a member of the so-named “anti-woke” battalion). Her desire for growth and learning transcends the decades and will keep her forever young.
I’m celebrating reaching an age where I no longer have to pretend I know everything; where I can humbly, and gratefully, accept being wrong; where I no longer have to prove anything to anyone. It’s been a great run up to this point, and I’m truly inspired, on my brightest days, to realize the best is yet to come.