The Scope of Jazz
I have a very tiny, very beautiful pony hair purse. Too small to be of any use, it hangs on a mirror as a decoration, a miniature, artistic representative of a functional necessity. That’s how I feel about the word “jazz.” It’s such a small word for so many things. So much music is labeled jazz that we always need that one word before it (“trad,” “latin”) to make sure we are all on the same page.
I looked up the definition and I thought it would lead with “improvisation” it did not. It was mentioned in all the definitions but it was not the first thing. The words bantered about within the various definitions were rhythmic, syncopated, and dance. The chasm between the types of jazz seem to me so wide that the very word almost becomes meaningless. When an artist has jazz in their soul the tempo and song are secondary to the form it takes.
The Hollywood Bowl
I went to the Hollywood Bowl three times this summer. Each concert fit into the vast jazz category. The first, which I was taken to, was Tony Bennett. The second, when someone who organizes large group outings to The Bowl offered me two tickets for $5, was “Ella and Dizzy: 100 years, 1,000 Memories.” The third, I was a guest again, and that was Jewel and Chris Botti. Parking at the Bowl is $20, the parking stacked, and the traffic is as legendary as the venue. Getting in and out is not a quick affair. Yup, The Bowl is like that old boyfriend who is difficult, and yet you can’t stay away. “He’s” just that good.
Built in 1922, you feel the history of the place. Not one person who plays there doesn’t say what an honor it is to be on that stage. And as a patron it always feels special. It is a landmark that people from all over the world recognize. If anyone ever says Los Angeles doesn’t have culture, I will throw them onto the 101 freeway with an identifying toe tag: “Destination: H’Bowl.”
The Bowl seating is very tight. Which makes going a community experience. The higher you are seated in the amphitheater the “higher” you get. It is an outside amphitheater and alcohol is allowed. As my friend Benny says, “It’s not The Bowl until a beer/wine bottle hits the concrete at the most reverential part of the evenings performance.” But as the sun sets on the Hollywood Hills and the cotton candy sky lights up with the last sliver of summer sun, you are reminded why you pay $20 to park. It’s a glorious experience. I saw Ella’s last concert at The Bowl. She was frail, she sat and the first two songs were a warm up, then she let us have it. It was an unbelievable experience.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga
Tony Bennett is first up. I confess that I’ve always been more in Sammy Davis Jr.’s camp than Bennett’s. But halfway through that concert that 90-year-old and his band swung so hard I needed a cigarette. (Our night wasn’t even over and I don’t smoke.) Mr. Bennett sang for an hour and a half with no banter. Nothing. I think the most he said was when he was joined by Lady Gaga for a few tunes. He just sang right through, swagger and stamina intact. His entrance was a bit of a leap (he literally left the ground) onto the stage in a buttery lemony colored suit. I would have liked to have heard a story or two. Anyone who has survived that long and is stilling playing to crowds that large has some stories.
I left that concert having a different appreciation of him. While he may not speak directly to me, his musicianship cannot be denied. His quartet was some of swingiest swing I have ever heard. The pocket had a pocket. We had decent seats that night and there are big screens. I got a glimpse of the drummer who was holding that time with a combination of strength and gentility. He was holding court with those drums. When I got home I looked him up it was Harold Jones, “Count Basie’s favorite drummer.” Enough said. Billy Stritch on piano, Gray Sargent, guitar and Marshall Wood on bass.
The LA Philharmonic sat behind this quartet occasionally adding some strings, but in truth that 18,000-seat venue was swinging hard with just those four guys. They have played together a while and it showed. Jazz is partially defined by its improvisational roots, but improvisation combined with musicians who play regularly together create something from the inside out. If it’s the right combination of musicians they create something that is larger than each musician’s individual talent. The irony being when the “swing” comes first the individuals shine even brighter.
Ella and Dizzy 100th Birthday Tribute
The Ella and Dizzy celebration was divided into two sections the first was the Dizzy tribute and the band labeled The Dizzy Gillespie All Star band put together just for this concert. The second was the LA Phil backing singers paying tribute to Ella. On this night, I was up as high as you can get in The Bowl seating. I lovingly call it “hanging from the trees” And while I did smell the wafting weed mom and I only had Diet Pepsi. It was fast paced and full of energy. These musicians are very well known cats in the straight-ahead jazz scene. Some with quite a bit of fame. Lots and lots of gifted musicians on that stage. I am sure that much of that audience loved every note of that big band. I may not be sophisticated enough to truly appreciate the discordant bliss. I’m neither a jazz scholar or critic, but when the sound gets very shrill my ears really hurt. (I did have several ear surgeries as a child, so there is that.)
The arrangements that came later played by the Phil were all played very legato. Some of those voices were technically spotless, yet that “thing” and that swing were really missing. One of my favorites that night was when one of the singers did a recreation of Ella doing “Mack the Knife” where she infamously messed up the lyrics at a live concert in Germany. Her faltering brilliance won her a Grammy. I understand that to honor a genius makes you err to the side of “precious” but I like to think Ella would have wanted them to get a bit dirty.
Jewel and Chris Botti
My final Bowl concert was Jewel opening for Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. I was a guest of friends, who are patrons of the LA Phil and we were in the boxes that are close to the stage. I only knew Jewel from her folk pop radio hits. I had no expectations of this evening. She took the stage and started with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (verse a capella) and my jaw dropped. She included several Gershwin tunes and her own hits and then at the very end of the night came out on stage to sing the encore with Mr. Botti (whose trumpet playing never hurt my ears) They did a rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” It was one of the best renditions of that song I have ever heard. For me it was jazz.
Her three-octave range, her nimble instrument, her improvisational abilities within the context of a melody were the things that inspire and delight me. Her vocal fluidity was completely unexpected. (I wish she had been at the Ella tribute.) I’m not a fan of scatting. There are a few giants (all passed) who I thought did it in a way where it wasn’t a voice laying on top of the music but woven into the tune. Jewel did a bit of it on one of her own composition and it was perfect. And like those who do it well she knows it’s a very potent seasoning you add just the right amount at just the right time.
If all that was not enough to make me fall in love with her she sealed the deal when the symphony started a song too fast. And about 3 bars in she said, “Can we just start that over just a bit slower?” (It’s not like you count the LA Philharmonic in.) She wasn’t a Diva in fact she went up on one of her own songs and she stopped (it was the only time she played the guitar) and said, “I played the wrong chord there. I saw all the lights and thought wow they are doing the camera thing and thought what chord am I playing and that brought me to here.” She then picked up the song from that point to the huge delight of the crowd.
Jazz encompasses more than any other musical form. And has enough fans of every type to keep the music going. But the beauty is that no matter who plays or sings it, if it stirs the soul of the listener you know it’s really jazz. Or…. really jazz to you.