WHAT IS IN A NAME?
I respect all authentic art that is the result of genuine purpose and effort, but I am in abject awe of all artists who can play jazz well. I don’t understand how they can do what they do, remember what they remember, express what they feel, start and end a tune together and still be friends. I have always trusted that they knew what they were doing. I am seldom disappointed after a live performance. Music lifts me up. Jazz shows me what is there. Because I can’t comprehend how great artists achieve what they do, I discount the amount of effort and time that they invest in their craft. I know that a lot of an artist’s life is spent alone with their instruments, They will spend hours a day hunched over their charts and sheet music. They will write notes on old tunes and compose new music. Then they name them. Sometimes this is where they lose me. I have often wondered why jazz musicians pick the names of their albums, bands and tunes. I sometimes think that they just want to scare off timid customers. Jazz musicians probably think everyone knows what they know. Not all of us do.
Last week when Michael Zaporski played at the Dirty Dog he brought some pals to play in a band he called “Future Visions”. I look forward to Michael’s gigs at the club. He is only predictable in that the music he plays is intelligent, rooted, complex and often created in the moment. I have tried to photograph Michael looking like he is having a good time. This is important to me so that I can later promote the club as a good place to be. Most of the images on my camera screen show a dour man playing the piano. His hands however are all over the piano, spinning yarns and telling mystical stories of his travels. We hear pathos and joy in his playing, yet his face remains a stolid mask as if he were made of granite. His comrades seem to know the stories and pick up his themes when it is their turn to speak. Their heads bob and weave as they play, giving us a clue to what was on their minds.
After the set I asked a grinning Michael Zaporski why after a tune or gig he can bubble with joy and can’t even give us a grin while playing. He said that he is under serious pressure thinking about keeping up with the other players. I can picture him in a more relaxed moment when he labeled his band “Future Visions” and when he came up with his names for the tunes he has written.
Why are jazz artists so free to name their bands, albums and songs?
The easy answer is that nobody tells them they can’t, and they seem to be good at it. You can usually tell when someone else has named an album. It will not have the same soulful impact as when the author of a piece labels it. It will look like Ella Sings Gershwin, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery or Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown. It won’t have the same pizzazz as Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um or Coltraine’s A love Supreme or Art Blakey’s Moaning.
The last thing that I want to do when I finish a painting is to put a label on it. Only when I want to show it to others am I forced to name it. I can’t imagine having to stand in front of an audience and explain my art. A jazz artist will freely let us know what was on their mind. Musicians seem more comfortable with this process, like pianist and composer Michael Zaporski did last week at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café. Michael has written tunes with titles that predict the music like Summer Daze, Sonny’s Hustle and Distant Yearning, whereas I have no idea what to expect with his songs Pysch- Loan, Two Worlds, and Persistent Memory. It doesn’t matter if I ever figure out what the connection is between the song titles and the music that follows, as long as I find myself immersed in the experience.
I have listened to Michael playing Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing. This title choked me up even before I heard it played. I thought that the tune was called A Flower Is A Lonesome Thing and conjured up an image in my mind of a beautiful flower all alone in a desert of nothingness. I was ready to get my paints out. Then I heard Ella sing the words Strayhorn wrote for it and found out that the song is about the wonder of beautiful flowers.
Billy Strayhorn wrote more than 1,000 works, most of them for Duke Ellington. He is best known for his tunes” Take The ‘A’ Train,” “Lush Life” and “Satin Doll,” He was a smart, impeccable and sensitive man whose musical universe ran from classical to bebop.
Billy Strayhorn’s life in the mid-20th-century United States was challenging. He was a gay African-American jazz artist. David Brent Johnson wrote this for NPR “Despite everything he lived as he pleased, with quiet courage and an aesthetic sophistication underlined by beauty, loneliness and love. In 1967 Ellington, devastated by Strayhorn’s death, delivered a moving eulogy that praised his friend and writing partner as an artistic cosmopolitan suffused with humane grace”
“He spoke English perfectly and French very well, but condescension did not enter into his mind. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.”
Billy Strayhorn’s freedom of expression can be seen in the names of his songs, along with the trajectory of his life.
“Take the ‘A’ Train” Strayhorn’s and Ellington’s partnership lasted 30 years. Take the “A” Train was their most famous song. In 1939, Ellington offered Strayhorn a job with his orchestra and invited him to relocate to New York City. As the story goes, Ellington then gave Strayhorn directions on how to get to his Sugar Hill apartment with the first line reading, “Take the A Train” Strayhorn got to Harlem safely and the resulting song would end up serving as an unofficial theme song for the Ellington Orchestra.
“My Little Brown Book”
“Lush Life” Strayhorn was just 16 when he began writing this song. It is a haunting ballad with personal heartbreak.
“Something to Live For” This tune was Ella Fitzgerald’s favorite song.
“A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”
Then as his career and life was coming to an end he wrote and named these tunes
“U.M.M.G” ” UMMC was named for the Upper Manhattan Medical Group—the medical practice where his and Ellington’s doctor worked’
“Blood Count” This tune was Billy Strayhorn’s final contribution to the Ellington orchestra, completed as the first part of an intended suite while he was in the hospital, slowly succumbing to esophageal cancer. This tune was featured in a memorial album of Strayhorn compositions and arrangements called. And His Mother Called Him Bill. Bill while lying in the hospital facing death still made beauty out of life.
SPEAKING OF NAMES FOR TUNES/ ALBUMS
The Tao Of Mad Phat: Fringe Zones / Steve Coleman And Five Elements
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume 1 / Sun Ra
Theme From the Third Movement of Sinister Footwear/Frank Zappa
Great name for a tune
You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish / Reo Speedwagon
COMING THIS WEEK TO THE DIRTY DOG JAZZ CAFÉ
January 15 -18
Ian Finkelstein is a Detroit-based jazz pianist and producer. He has been an active member of the Detroit jazz community since the age of 14, performing alongside artists such as Benny Golson, Patrice Rushen, Robert Hurst, Karriem Riggins, Louis Hayes, Curtis Fuller, Phil Ranelin, and Shahida Nurullah.