(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘improvisation

“Playing bop is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing”*…

Jazz as a form of wit…

Jazz, like wit, can be broadly defined as surprising creativity. So does it follow that jazz musicians are a witty bunch?

I’ve wondered about this for longer than Kenny G has held an E-flat (45 minutes, for the record) but lacked a way to prove it. 

There was some promising neuroscience research on the subject back in 2014 that linked conversation to trading fours. Both jawing and jamming involve “an exchange of ideas that is unpredictable, collaborative, and emergent,” the paper hypothesized. In other words, a riff is a riff.

That said, all the actual data was pretty flat. The researchers brought the musicians into the lab, wired them up, and let them noodle around while they watched the blood slosh through their brains via a functional MRI machine. It went to the same spots it would go in a conversation, they found, which was interesting as far as it went but didn’t go all that far.

So when I came across the book Jazz Anecdotes at Sellers & Newel, I knew this was what I was looking for. I immediately flipped my fMRI machine on Kijiji and grabbed a copy.

Jazz anecdotes, like jazz itself, aren’t usually transcribed. In the words of drummer Shelley Manne, “We never play anything the same way once.” 

But bassist, writer, and editor Bill Crow combed through hundreds of interviews and biographies to pick just the juiciest bits, and the best display a virtuosic level of verbal dexterity. The book really slaps, as they say. There’s a whole chapter on pranks, and in said chapter there’s a whole section on Limburger cheese. (You can flip through a digitized version over at the invaluable archive.org here.)

Start with the nicknames, which alone are worth the price of admission. Fats, Shorty, and Slim were all physical descriptors. Cannonball Adderley was originally called Cannibal because of his voracious appetite — but one problem took care of the other as he rounded out.

William Randolph Cole was known as Colesy, which evolved into Cozy. Cozy, in turn, couldn’t remember names so he called everyone “Face” if they looked familiar, and then added the name of the instrument they played for Bass Face, Sax Face, and so on. Bassist George Mraz was called Bounce because he was a baaaad Czech. And bassist John Simmons got a rise out of trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page by announcing at the bandstand, “Lady there at the door sent this letter to Mr. Warm Jaws.”

The greats get a chapter each, and they’re at their best when they’re playing off one another. Once John Coltrane started playing a solo, he’d just play and play —which irritated those who shared the bandstand. “I get involved in this thing and I don’t know how to stop,” he told Miles Davis, to which Davis suggested, “Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth.” Why did he play so long, Davis asked? “It took that long to get it all in.”

The pianist Errol Garner had a similar issue at a recording session in 1969. The red light in the booth flickered off, but he kept right on playing. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I wanted to find out how it would come out.”

The difference between live wit and recorded repartee is like the difference between fresh squeezed orange juice and the frozen concentrate. So leave the last words to Louis Armstrong, who refused to describe exactly what he did so well.

How did he define jazz, exactly? “Jazz is what I play for a living.”

Would you describe it as folk music? “Man, all music is folk music. You ain’t ever heard no horse sing a song, have you?”

Making it along as you go up: “The wit of jazz, and vice versa,” from Benjamin Errett (@benjaminerrett)

* Duke Ellington

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As we improvise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that Sarah Bernhardt became the first woman to portray Hamlet on film…

The French actress was certainly a force to be reckoned with. In 1899, she took over the Théâtre de Ville in Paris and renamed it the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, which is, as one Lit Hub editor once put it, “basically cell phone providers in the early ’00s levels of confidence.” That same year, she premiered a new production of Hamlet, with herself in the title role—a production that she would eventually also take on tour. Critics were divided—not only was she a woman, but she was a woman in her mid-fifties!—but audiences were largely enthralled, and if nothing else, the performance is now legendary.

Bernhardt may not have been the first female Hamlet—that was probably 18th-century actor Charlotte Charke—but she was the very first to play the Prince of Denmark (a bro who didn’t even like sex, mind you) on screen. On October 1, 1900, the audience of the Paris Exposition (also known as the Exposition Universelle) was treated to Le Duel d’Hamlet, the very first known film adaptation of Hamlet—albeit one that is only a minute and a half long, comprising a single scene: the Act V duel between Hamlet and Laertes. The short was filmed only a year after Bernhardt first played the role; in it, she is 56. “She’s somber, quick, natural—easily expert with her sword and clearly used to dueling,” Robert Gottlieb wrote in a biography of the actress. “There’s nothing campy or feminine about her; she’s manly and she’s coolly resolved. This isn’t an exhibition of virtuoso acting—it’s modest, in fact. But it’s certainly a vindication of her right to perform the greatest of male roles, and a welcome clue as to how she pulled it off.” Indeed. Luckily, we have even more female Hamlets in our future

LitHub

“There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and Sarah Bernhardt.”  – Mark Twain

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 1, 2021 at 1:00 am

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