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  • Writer's pictureJOHN OSLER'S UPBEAT Admin


“Once you become predictable, no one’s interested anymore.”—Chet Atkins


We are most comfortable when we are in familiar surroundings. We can relax and kick back when we have been assured that there is nothing but calm flat water ahead. We all need moments filled with certainty and calm. However there comes a time when we miss seeing a thunderstorm on the horizon, a time when boredom sets in,  We are strange creatures who need challenges. We need to be a little untidy, unpredictable, and sometimes imperfect like jazz.

We all find ourselves being thrown a curveball that we didn’t see coming. Outside forces and obstacles rise up at the most inopportune time. We are tested. How do we react? Do we flee or do we seize the opportunity to make the best of it? Can we adapt to changing circumstances? Bacteria have adapted over billions of years, insects over millions of years and animals and humans over thousands of years. Jazz artists adapt in a fraction of a second.

Last week I spent five days at an island in Canada off the grid. This meant that I had to adapt to not having electricity and running water. I have been doing this every year for fifty years. Everything around me has had to adapt to deep winter cold, warmer and warmer summers, fire, and ferocious winds. They do. Stunted cedars cling to steep rock faces. Mosses wait for rain while jack pine cones lie on the ground waiting for a fire. The fish learn to stay alive by staying away at dinner time from the shiny lures that I spend hours casting into the lake. This is a place that shows us what change looks like. The rock that I sit on has been around for over a billion years and probably won’t include my brief stay in its diary. It hasn’t moved since the glaciers came through. Everything else is on the move, adjusting to the winds, the currents, and getting away from the things that want to eat it. Stand still and perish. Adapt and survive. A few days after I arrive I stop rushing from task to task and I am content to sit and watch nature’s subtle show.


Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was in Germany back in the 60s when she decided to try a new tune Mack the Knife. Half way through the song  she blanked on the words. Ella being Ella just made up some words, scatted a little and ended up with two Grammy Awards for the performance. What happened was done spontaneously and was fortunately recorded.

“When the music changes, so does the dance.”—African Proverb

Jazz can be messy and chock full of uncertainty. Changing directions on the fly is what jazz musicians do. They take risks. Suddenly a bunch of musicians surrender spontaneously to the possibilities in the music. We think it is magic and it is what we come to a club to hear. You will want to thank them for courting disaster and they will  want to thank their mates for going along, for adapting to new ideas.

Taking risks and adapting to situations are all part of life. Not panicking is a gift. A jazz group not panicking is what we expect. Jazz is by nature somewhat unplanned, and successful jazz artists flirt with disaster most nights. Unplanned mistakes are accepted and  elaborated on often on a regular basis.  Pretty nice people love to go to a jazz club to see some of our favorite people risk everything. Jazz players accept these challenges and thrive on uncertainty, even drummers

“We never play anything the same way once.”  –Shelley Manne

“Never play anything the same way twice.”—Louis Armstrong

I am knocked out every time I listen to someone in the rhythm section change their style to accommodate a soloist, jazz drummers especially.

Before I went to Canada I heard Paul Keller’s group honor the music of George Shearing. Sean Dobbins was on drums that night. There is no doubt that Sean is a great drummer. He is known for his ability to motivate any band to raise their level. Sean is a force.

He can elevate the energy in the room. This was not the case when Sean tackled the Shearing arrangements bassist Paul Keller brought to the Dirty Dog. Sean helped create a delicate pocket that was noticeable different from the last time I saw Sean play. His playing was complex and brilliant. After the gig I asked him about his ability to adapt his style of drumming so drastically. He shrugged and said that it was “what he does”.

One of Sean’s heros,  the great Art Blakey, knew they he had to  play one way for Dizzy and then adapt and play another way for Miles. He said “I try to play in the rhythm section to make the soloist play, make him feel like playing. The rhythm section can make the soloist play over his top, play things he never dreamed he could play, if you get behind him. You can’t have a battle up there and see how much you can play, because if you make too much noise behind him, he can’t concentrate on what he wants to play.”

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ROBERT FRANK 1924 – 2019 artist, photographer

Robert Frank was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose visually raw and personally expressive style was pivotal in changing the course of documentary photography.

I never met Robert Frank, a Swiss born photographer who showed me America in a new way. His images were grainy, sometimes out of focus and out of kilter, yet they were sharply accurate and honest. He changed my way of thinking about photography and America with his offhand style, as he captured the look and feel of spontaneity in an authentic moment. He changed the way I should think about my subjects and the way  I should frame the picture.

The great art writer Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker “Tri-X film! So fast: 400 A.S.A., forgiving of movements of the camera and its targets. It could seem as if Frank threw his Leica into the world and let it catch what it could, which happened, without fail, to be something exciting—fascination, pain, hilarity, disgust, longing. . . . No limit to the variety of feelings, with the one uniform rule that they be bleedingly raw.”

Charlie LeDuff wrote about Mr. Frank in Vanity Fair magazine in 2008. “Myth was important then. And along comes Robert Frank, the hairy homunculus, the European Jew with his 35-mm. Leica, taking snaps of old angry white men, young angry black men, severe disapproving southern ladies, Indians in saloons, he/shes in New York alleyways, alienation on the assembly line, segregation south of the Mason-Dixon line, bitterness, dissipation, discontent.”

“That crazy feeling in America,”Jack Kerouac wrote, “when the sun is hot and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with agility, mystery, genius, sadness, and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film.”

“Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey,” from “The Americans,” 1955.

Photograph by © Robert Frank / Courtesy Pace/MacGill

“Trolley—New Orleans,” from “The Americans,” 1955.

Photograph by © Robert Frank / Courtesy Pace/MacGill

“Charleston, South Carolina,” from “The Americans,” 1955.

Photograph by © Robert Frank / Courtesy Pace/MacGill

Robert Frank was to photography what bebop was to jazz. They came along and we had to adapt to something new. I am thankful that we did.

John Osler


September 25 – 28

SCOTT GWINNELL brings you “Something To Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn”

Arranger, lyricist, and pianist Billy Strayhorn was Duke Ellington’s alter ego. They partnered for 30+ years in writing both popular and artistic jazz compositions; “Take the A Train”, “Lush Life”, “Day Dream”, “Isfahan”, are examples of tunes written by this quiet jazz composer and lyricist. The Scott Gwinnell Quintet will revisit these masterpieces through a contemporary lens, with the help of some of Detroit’s most talented jazz musicians. They will explore this virtuoso’s library in the way that only Detroit musicians can, combining energy and sophistication to present a unique vision in a way that Strayhorn would’ve appreciated. The group is led by pianist Scott Gwinnell, Emma Aboukasm on vocals, Janelle Reichman on tenor sax, Rob Bickley on bass, and Pete Siers on drums.

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