So near, so far: The Standard Bearers

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A mischievous raconteur relives an old jazz great in intimate settings and wonders whether to kiss and tell...

Jazz music dies hard so long as there are legacy bands.

It must have been the wine. The glasses had been clinking away like a crescendo of shimmering cymbals in between the bands at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, NCPA. I had gone there to catch the Clifford Brown Legacy Band, and the great Bennie Maupin would be playing tenor, but I’d quaffed a couple of real quick ones, winking back at the beaded bubbles. A major who wore his reading glasses over his orange-coloured shades had been telling me that he had fought in all three wars and had taken retirement way back at ’72. He looked young enough and fit enough to fight another three so I told him it was thanks to him I was able to drink wine without bothering about the Pakistanis, the Chinese and the Tamil Tigers, here so near where Ajmal Kasab had trod water. Now the emcee was saying, before the band came on, that he had overheard a conversation between a couple of women in the corridor that he found pertinent to mention to us.

He had heard one woman tell the other, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain was her favourite ‘make-out music’. At first I thought he’d said ‘make-up music’ and I wondered if the woman would look different if she put on her makeup after listening to say, ‘Bitches Brew’ or ‘Kind of Blue’. But no, he said ‘make-out’ again. The other woman had responded that she preferred John Coltrane while she made out. I waited for the album name, and it did not come. I tried to think about Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, an album that came out two years before I was born, but couldn’t recall the tune, but the album is 41 minutes 19 seconds long. Long enough I guess. Neither did the emcee give out their ages or telephone numbers. Discreet fellow. Then he asked the audience, how many of you prefer Miles Davis? A willing show of bedroom hands went up. How many John Coltrane? A more loving show of hands. How many Kenny G? Amidst the swarm of titters that lit the auditorium like fireflies, the emcee seemed satisfactorily disappointed that no one — not one soul in the 1,100 audience — ever made out while Kenny G blew. I was sitting way out back, third row from the last, and he was way out front, down there at the bandstand, but even from that distance I swear I could see him wink, even without my eye-glasses, and say, conspiratorially, I know out there there are some out there who prefer Kenny G, I just know. Then, he got serious.

 

 

Clifford Brown, he was saying, died young. Not because of the usual natural causes that claim jazz musicians in the end. Not alcohol. Not drugs. Clifford was an exception. He lived clean but played dirty. He died at 25. Car crash. Then Clifford Brown’s son came on. He hadn’t known his father too well; he had been all of six months old when his father died in the crash which killed the group’s bassist, George Morrow, as well. The pianist Richie Powell’s wife had been at the wheel when the car came off the turnpike. Clifford had not cut a lot of albums, and died before he’d made music for a decade, so his body of work is only a speculative index of how great a musician he might have grown to be had he lived longer. Louis Armstrong had told Clifford Brown Jr. there were many reasons — many many reasons — why Clifford’s legacy had to be kept alive. “But the biggest reason is that your father did something that even Dizzy Gillespie couldn’t do. He taught me to love Be-bop!”

Clifford Jr. spoke about Max Roach and Art Blakey, who took an endless line-up of promising youngsters, one after the other, under their wing before they began flying around like crazy on their own. Lee Morgan. He died young too, at 33. The woman he’d been living with, who had extricated his trumpet as well as his coat from the pawnbroker — he had pawned them to support his habits — and set him on the road to musical rehabilitation, put a bullet into him in an ironically named New York club called Slug’s. By the time they could get him to a hospital he’d bled to death.

In the legacy band there are also Clifford Brown’s nephew, Rayford Griffin (drums) and his grandson, Clifford Brown III (trumpet, what else?), all uniquely placed to carry forward his legacy — play tunes he played, tunes he liked, and those his torchbearers carried forward. Griffin released an album three years ago (Reflections of Brownie) containing souped-up retakes of tunes Brown broadcast. How do you keep the legacy alive if not through concerts, tribute albums, official websites?

Not many musicians are lucky to have their legacy taken forward into the future by their progeny. Art Blakey, for example, married some four times and had maybe ten children, but I haven’t heard of a single ‘Art Blakey legacy recordings’ via his children. I’ve heard plenty from his Jazz Messengers who include, among others, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis and his bother Branford. The older he got, the younger his musical proteges were — Geoff Keezer was barely eighteen when he began playing piano for Art in 1988, two years before he died; there is a Messengers Alumni page listing 217 musicians, a who’s who of jazz kind of listing. Ellington’s son Mercer Ellington (whose album Digital Duke, which had some Duke cohorts playing, made grammy) was able to do so. Duke, when he died in 1974, left a wide and enduring body of work — musicians far younger and across genres have embraced his music making his legacy rich and vibrant. Check out ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ by Steps Ahead (Magnetic); Michael Brecker, Mike Manieri, 1986) or by Chico Freeman (Tales of Ellington, 1987) or even Billy Joel (Collected Additional Masters, 1997).

 

 

Charles Mingus, Duke’s contemporary, when he passed on in 1979, had a legacy band his wife started (Mingus Dynasty), and they are still around. Thelonius Monk’s son (of the same name, a drummer) is the standard bearer for his father’s music, although his music has permeated wide. Even Andy Summers (of the erstwhile Police, guitarist) has recorded a tribute album, Green Chimneys: The music of Thelonius Monk, 1999, twenty years after Monk’s demise. Distance between a musician’s passing and the tribute is always a good indicator of the vitality of the legacy. Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, son of Woody Shaw the trumpet player and the stepson of the late great influential Dexter Gordon (nominated for an Academy Award for ’Round Midnight, 1986) is in the unique position of steering the legacies of two stellar musicians. Woody Shaw, incidentally, died when he was 44. His eyesight failing (retinitis pigmentosa) and health flailing from drugs, he stumbled on a staircase in a Brooklyn subway and a passing train took away most of his left arm. He died some months later in hospital when his kidneys finally gave up. I still remember him tearing through the roof of the Music Academy in Chennai, with a searing Ronnie Burrage on drums egging him on. Maybe 1986, not sure of the year.

The Clifford Brown Legacy Band began the set not with a tune associated with Clifford Brown but with a Roy Hargrove tune. Throughout the performance Benny Maupin would sit down after playing his bit, taking his solos, never too long. He must be 78, age catching up. A far cry from his playing with the Headhunters in the ’70s. Clifford Brown Junior told the audience that just a couple of weeks previously Hargrove had died, and the tune was in his memory. I was so shocked to hear it, I omitted to make a note of the tune. Yet another one had bitten the dust, and this one had been damn good too. After the set I asked Clifford Brown’s son how Roy Hargrove had died. He was diabetic; kidney failure, he said. I asked if Bennie Maupin would come out of the Green Room, would he join the jam later. I was told let’s wait and see? Bennie Maupin did not join the jam that night, and I didn’t see him again. That night when I went home I looked it up. Roy Hargrove. Cardiac arrest brought on my kidney failure. For over ten years he had been on dialysis. All these years, when his music gave so much joy, hearing his beautiful playing, I never knew. Never could tell. And he was only 49.

 

 

Those years, fresh out of college, I had two Clifford Brown albums, Shades of Brown and A night at Birdland (Art Blakey), both on either side of a green TDK tape, before cds came along. But one song the legacy band played at the NCPA that night I hadn’t ever heard before. Clifford Brown Jr. explained it best. Growing up, he would often lay down on the floor listening to his father through records. One song that got to him, and he did not know quite why it drew him so was ‘Delilah’, a Victor Young tune written wrote for Cecile B Demille’s Samson and Delilah, starring the staggering Hedy Lamar (and in technicolour), as the temptress. It begins seductively, the bassline voluptuously walking, the drumbeat insistent, the trumpet sinuously weaving its quivering, mersmerising melody, and the saxophone, a warm arm with hot breath, beckoning seductively, seductively. No wonder Samson fell. Make-out music?

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