The new book is welcomed by its future publisher

•October 31, 2013 • Leave a Comment

There are bittersweet moments in our lives. The sad news is that my father passed away. Only days prior, the editorial board at the University of Chicago Press voted to move ahead on my second book, tentatively titled “A Different Kind of Brew: Miles, Chick, Braxton, and Jenkins.” Its alternate title (no doubt just one of several to come) is “Revolutionary Ensembles,” a take off on the idea that the Miles Davis “Lost” Quintet is indeed a “revolutionary” ensemble. The book pursues the rarely noted kinship not only with Miles’s later, more funk-oriented bands, but also with contemporaneous groups, Circle (in a sense a spin-off) and “the” Revolutionary Ensemble. “Braxton” refers to Circle’s Anthony Braxton, and “Jenkins” Revolutionary Ensemble’s Leroy Jenkins.

I gave my first talk about the book topic two weeks ago. A second talk had to unfortunately be postponed due to my dad’s illness, but I had the wonderful experience of delivering it to him in his hospital room, a few days before I had any idea of the severity of what was unfolding. My niece Shira–who has been one of my editors–was present, which was very special.

I am now preparing to revisit the overall manuscript. It will then go out to a series of readers for comment, and subsequently into the next draft. This is now draft five. The tentative release date is Fall 2015.

One of the most interesting aspects of this project is its trajectory as a book. I presented an earlier draft version to my editor at the University of Chicago Press, but it failed to ignite sufficient interest. It was a “New York” book, an attempt to explore the early days of the downtown loft scene (the beginnings of Studio Rivbea and other venues), and look at a handful of bands, including the Revolutionary Ensemble. It also considered an additional New York scene in Chelsea, the neighborhood where founding members of Circle were living. The Miles Davis “Lost” band story was a subplot regarding the origins of Circle.

My editor made the suggestion that my book topic was really Miles’s “Lost” Quintet. I experimented with expanding that section. And it grew and grew and grew. And here we are, with the “Lost” at its center. A handful of chapters that were no longer relevant were spun off into other writing projects. One of them, about electronic music composer (then living in downtown NYC), Mort Subotnick, was recently published in New Music Box.

I look forward to writing more along the way!

One of the many wonderful condolence notes that I’ve received during the past week was one from Herbie Hancock. I think that he captured the essence of how the new book will be dedicated when he wrote: “I’m sure that he left this world with great pride in what you have accomplished.” I have great confidence that he indeed did and I look forward with both sadness and joy to writing the preface.

Completing the Mwandishi Band Circle: A Conversation with Fundi (Billy) Bonner

•September 15, 2013 • 5 Comments

While writing “You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band,” I extensively interviewed band members, their producer, recording engineer, and others. But I was unable to locate the person who drove and served as sound engineer on the road, Fundi. A few months ago, Fundi’s stepson Vince Ector contacted me and put me in touch with Fundi. My publisher was good enough to send Fundi a copy of the book. Last Thursday evening, the phone ring. It was Fundi. He had just received the book and a card I sent him. We talked for quite some time on the phone. It was a wonderful chat.

Fundi has lived a life embedded in the history of jazz in Philadelphia and beyond. The grew up in South Philadelphia, went to junior high school with such luminaries as Henry Grimes, Bobby Timmons, and (Albert) Tootie Heath. Tootie is the drummer of the famous Heath Brothers (saxophonist Jimmy and bassist Percy). Fundi (then Billy) was close friends with saxophonist Sam Reed and his band, The All Stars; he hung out with the band, traveling with them on out-of-town gigs. Reed led the house band at the Uptown Theater on North Broad Street, which was a major venue in the city for R&B and subsequently, jazz. One of Fundi’s memories about the All Stars is hearing McCoy Tyner sit in for Bobby Timmons. Fundi was present the first time that Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown played together.

Big band leader Tommy Roberts was an organizer of rehearsal bands for young Philadelphia musicians. (for more information about this, see Jeffery S. McMillan’s article “Musical Education: Lee Morgan and the Philadelphia Jazz Scene of the 1950s” in the Spring 2001-2002 issue of the journal Current Musicology). Fundi remembers Roberts not only creating opportunities for underage musicians to perform, but for them to also hear the major visiting jazz musicians and bands who played gigs at the City’s clubs. Roberts arranged for those musicians to also play a venue open to young people.

Fundi would later make soundboard recordings of the Mwandishi band, but as early as 1955, he recorded shows by Tommy Monroe’s big band, Johnny Coles, and other musicians, using a Webcor tape recorder he had acquired.

Here’s how Fundi’s life intersected with Herbie Hancock: Fundi moved to New York City in the 1960s and worked moving furniture, “which allowed me to have time to live my own life, spend time with musicians and hear them play. When Tootie Heath moved to New York from Philadelphia, I hung out with him. Tootie had told Herbie about me.” Heath was a member of Herbie Hancock’s original Sextet in 1969 (which included Garnett Brown, Johnny Coles, Joe Henderson, and Heath, plus just two members who stayed on into the Mwandishi era: Hancock himself and bassist Buster Williams). “When Tootie went to LA to play with the band, I checked in with his wife to be sure everything was ok. She told me that Herbie had sent a message that if I wanted to drive for his band, meet him at the airport with a van.  I did.”

During that 1969-1970 period, Fundi served as the band’s driver. Along with the others, he assumed his Swahili name given the band members by Heath’s nephew, Mtume. Mtume, a percussionist who later joined Miles Davis’s band, served as assistant to US Organization’s Maulana Ron Karenga, an organization that promoted reclaiming African heritage among African Americans; Karenga crafted the winter festival Kwanza. Heath, Mtume, Hancock, trumpeter Don Cherry and others made a recording during this period, Kawaida, that reflected Karenga’s philosophy. Fundi played a bamboo flute on the recording, one given him by Tootie Heath, who had purchased in Los Angeles.

Pivotal to the emergence of the Mwandishi band’s musical approach was a month-long November 1970 stand at a Chicago steak house, The London House. “I recorded the band every night at The London House. The band would listen after the shows.” Sadly, the cassette soundboard recordings were stolen when someone broke into the band’s van, parked in New York City next door to Nelson Rockefeller’s place. A propos of the recordings, Fundi remembers further details about a story recounted by Herbie Hancock in my book. There was a man who attended nearly every one of the shows. One night he went into a trance while listening to one of the recordings. That night, he “had just gotten married. He arrived at the show late and requested (Julian Priester’s tune) ‘Wandering Spirit Song’ but the band had already played it. So this was the only time the band played it twice in one show since they played it for him again.”

Fundi remains proud of his time with the Mwandishi band. “I made two trips to Europe with the band. We traveled across Europe once by train and the second time we drove.” After a period of time as driver, his role expanded to include sound engineer. Here’s how he describes this coming about: “I used to set up the band with the mixer right by Herbie so he could play and also do the mix himself. But at the Cellar Door in D.C., the bandstand was too small, so Herbie had me sit by the mixer and do the mix. It stayed that way ever since that night. The mixer had an Echoplex. I could listen for what was happening and turn on the Echoplex to effect the mic of any one of the musicians. During breaks I would ask how that was for them. They’d say: “do it more!”

The band was known for its elaborate quadraphonic sound system with elaborate capabilities. San Francisco Examiner critic Philip Elwood (August 9, 1972) wrote: “Fundi controls an impressive Maezzi built panel (from Italy) that looks like a surrealistic cigarette dispenser, and balances the sound pouring from the stage through Hancock’s own four speaker amplification system.” Pat Metheny remembers the system, which he experienced in Kansas City as a young man, being “incredible.” Onaje Alan Gumbs recalls Fundi’s abilities with the soundboard, its pans and effects from a show he heard in Buffalo: “It was like he had ESP with the band.” Mwandishi drummer Billy Hart adds: “He could throw the band into echo whenever he wanted … a guy could take a solo and all of the sudden his whole environment would change…”

Fundi vividly remembers how, when, and where the sound system was acquired: “Herbie had bought a Shure sound system. The band was in Yugoslavia and then flew to Bergamo, Italy. The gear never showed up. The band couldn’t do a sound check since the sound system wasn’t there. I walked down the street and saw the new sound system in a space nearby. The system was called “Hollywood 2000.” It was too late for that night, but I talked told Herbie about it. I asked how much it would cost and was told $5000. I talked him down to $2500. Herbie then talked him down to $2000. The band went next to Milan and picked up the sound system where it was sold. The store also sold guitars and other instruments. Pepo (Julian Priester) bought a guitar.”

After Fundi’s departure from the band, he went on to work with Hancock’s former employer, trumpeter Donald Byrd, right before the forming of The BlackByrds. He traveled with Byrd to Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe; Fundi also traveled with Freddie Hubbard to Japan.

Fundi particularly remembers his close relationship with Herbie Hancock and with other band members. “I once drove Julian to purchase his alto trombone. I used to stay at Jabali’s (Billy Hart’s) parents’ house in D.C. Buster would trust his bass to me. I was the only person he would trust with it. When he flew to a gig, I would drive it in the van.” Fundi’s affection and admiration for the Mwandishi band is captured in his aphorism: “I used to say that I get paid to listen to that band every night.”

Miles Davis – and Laura Nyro – at the Fillmore East

•August 4, 2013 • 6 Comments

I wrote this blog entry back in August, but somehow it was never posted. So, here goes.

I’ve been thinking about Laura Nyro recently. Why? She’s long been one of my favorite musicians and I periodically go through periods of heavily listening to her work. A few years ago, I played a couple shows of Laura Nyro songs, something I hope to revisit in the future (Billy Childs tells me that he always loved her music and is in fact working on a recording of Nyro songs).

So, why mention her in a book blog about my book projects about Mwandishi or Miles Davis? Well, it turns out that the four-night series of shows Miles played at the Fillmore East in June 1970, about which I have been writing, the band was the opening act for Laura Nyro.

What a fascinating juxtaposition. First came a high volume, tremendously intense two-keyboard (Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett), very electronic sounding show by Davis-Corea-Jarrett-Jack DeJohnette-Steve Grossman-Airto Moreira. This was followed at all eight shows by Nyro singing “Up on the Roof,” “Walk on By,” “Emmie,” and, presumably music from “New York Tendaberry” (1969) and “Christmas as the Beads of Sweat” (1970), which had been recently released.

Miles had made a friendly visit to the studio the year before, when “New York Tendaberry” was being recorded, but he declined to play on a track. Nyro was a big Miles Davis fan; he and John Coltrane were among her personal musical heroes. While this seems to go unmentioned, I hear hints of McCoy Tyner’s playing with Trane in Nyro’s piano during that period, particularly the pedal points and, amidst the triads and gospel-like suspensions, the fourth chords and that pop up. I could easily imagine a Coltrane version of “Lazy Susan” from her first album.

According to Nyro biographer Michele Kort, Nyro’s father Lou Nigro, remembers that the Fillmore was nearly empty for Miles’s warmly received sets, particularly in contrast with the tremendous ovations for his daughter. But then, so many important live recordings were made with few people in the house; Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” is a case in point. The reopened Five Spot, where I first heard Ornette Coleman play in the 1970s (the original Five Spot was in a different Greenwich Village location) was a tiny room; if there were 100 people in the house when I was there, it would have been overwhelmingly full. New York Times critic John S. Wilson wrote that Nyro’s performance “won a steady round of acclaim, as she sang a program made up largely of her wry, perceptive songs of contemporary life in a high, husky, bittersweet voice.”

It had been Miles’s hope that young rock audiences would embrace his music. In his autobiography, Miles reports a substantial audience at his Fillmore West shows in April. Certainly, hundreds of thousands were on hand for his August 1970 set at the Isle of Wight. However, my recollection of hearing Herbie Hancock’s Sextet in a rock setting (July 1970, at the Shaefer Music Festival in Central Park, opening for Iron Butterfly), parallels Lou Nigro’s report. I found the audience to be, at best, indifferent, certainly stoned, very noisy and wandering around. Band members recall these kinds of shows as being no fun. But they did get at least their leaders’ names on big selling marquees and documented on recordings. It was no doubt largely a rock audience that purchased many of the copies of Davis’s “Bitches Brew” as well as Hancock’s “Crossings” when they were released. If you consider how the record companies marketed these releases, this seems to have been their target audience (a New York Times Sam Goody ad placed “Crossings” alongside new records by the Grateful Dead and Arlo Guthrie… but also Frank Sinatra!).

The irony, of course, is that the legacy of these shows is found in the recordings that we have the great fortune to listen to, again and again. The same is true of Laura Nyro’s work, which never received the kind of attention during her lifetime that it so deserved. But on those evenings at the Fillmore East, and at so many other shows, her adoring fans packed the houses. My first trips to the Fillmore remained a few months in the future, so I wasn’t in attendance at the Miles Davis/Laura Nyro show. My opportunities to hear her came later, in upstate New York, in the late 1970s and again, during her final performances in 1994. And what wonderful shows they were.

Listening to Miles Davis’s “Lost Quintet”

•July 30, 2013 • 5 Comments

One can identify a truly creative musician by how that person changes, adapts, and innovates to respond to new information, new situations, and in-the-moment “changes in the weather.” The same holds for creative bands. As I listen closely to concert recordings of Miles Davis’s “Lost” Quintet, 1969-1970, one hears exactly this kind of dynamism. As the personnel gradually changed from the second great Quintet, 1963-1968—first Dave Holland replacing Ron Carter, then Chick Corea replacing Herbie Hancock, and then Jack DeJohnette replacing Tony Williams—the chemistry gets shaken up and morphs. Each player adjusts to the new mix, new input, new directions emerging.

The only recording I’ve heard with Tony Williams remaining in the mix (with Chick and Dave) is so very Tony; it is a virtuoso display, and maybe also a sign that an extraordinary drummer could take hold of the reins of an emerging new band–that hadn’t yet found its moorings as a unit. But soon, with a completely new rhythm section, new things begin to happen. And of course the prominence of riffs and vamps used as musical glue, the terms of engagement change… but not as much as some have suggested. This remains an exploratory, mercurial band until the very end, and continuing after Chick and Dave form Circle and Miles continues with Keith Jarrett and Michael Henderson.

I found 3 1/2 distinct stages in the “Lost” Quintet’s development: 1. In the first half of 1969, Chick and Jack become a musical unit within the band, exquisitely playing off one another; 2. In Fall 1969, on tour after the recording of Bitches Brew, Chick and Dave gel as a duo, in dialog with Jack, with Chick’s playing becoming increasingly angular, serpentine, and dissonant; 3. In Spring-Summer 1970, the sound becomes more electronic as Chick modulates his Fender Rhodes with a ring modulator and other electronic devices, plus Airto Moreira making rather electronic-like sounds on his (acoustic percussion instrument, the) cuica; 3 ½: with Dave playing electric bass, Keith Jarrett on second (actually two more) electric keyboard instruments—Dave and Keith play wah-wah-heavy sounds and along with Chick Corea, creating multiple layers, at times juxtaposed as much as in synch—and Gary Bartz on sax, adding an insistent, distinctly blues-inflected yet sliced and diced motivic layer into the mix. At all points through this development, Jack DeJohnette presents a marvel of multi-layered drumming, offering a clear pulse, but one that contains a constantly changing array of fills and rolls, self-contained interior journeys… all responding to or anticipating an answer from his band mates.

With all this activity, electronics, and high volume, you’d think that everyone find themselves on their own—or become so tightly in synch within the beat that individuality becomes lost. But nothing of the sort happens. The quality of listening actually grows. Not the same fragility of texture offered by the exquisitely close listening Hancock-Carter-Williams version of the Quintet, but something new and different, pointing a way towards how an open approach to improvisation might meet the groove, something that Miles would continue to engage through his first retirement in 1975.

Moving ahead on book two – Miles Davis electric band, 1969-1970, the band Circle…

•June 22, 2013 • 1 Comment

After a breather, I’m back to work on my new book. The title remains tentative, but the content continues to begin with Miles Davis’s electric band, 1969-1970, continuing with the formation of the band Circle. This unfolded in response to the growth of a very special kind of musical rapport and aesthetic within Miles’s rhythm section (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette). Circle joined Corea and Holland with Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton. The narrative also explores the breadth of Mr. Braxton’s activities during this period, and the work of his Chicago colleague, Leroy Jenkins, as he co-founded the Revolutionary Ensemble.

Like the Mwandishi book, this one has been a lot of fun to write – the music is great, the personalities interesting, and the stories not widely known. The book has successfully moved through the first of several stages in its review that will hopefully lead to publication.

As I work on some revisions, I’m continuing to listen to the music, simplify some of the musical writing, and rework the structure of the book—the story line (and it does have a story line)—is complex and requires some rethinking along the lines of how one might write a detective story.

Two portions of the original draft have now been spun off as articles. These include writing about Paul Bley’s Synthesizer Show, and about the work of composer Mort Subotnick. Hopefully each will be soon published in music journals. While these topics may seem to be off topic, this was not the case in the early drafts, when the book centered on music in downtown New York City, 1969-1971. My increasingly tighter focus on Circle demanded further thinking and writing, and a reshaping of the narrative flow. By listening to as many live recordings of Miles’s band as I could find, I was able to more effectively trace the evolution of the rhythm section following the departure of Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock, and then Tony Williams. A timeline and a clear image emerged of how the music changed. Tying the musical developments within the band to the musical relationships unfolding in the neighborhood where some of the core people lived moved the story forward. Here, saxophonist Dave Liebman enters the narrative, a few years before he, too, joined Miles Davis’s band.

Working on this book has been a really interesting process. Like my experience while writing the Mwandishi book, I am particularly grateful to musicians who have spoken with me, sharing their stories and perspectives. Most recently, I spent a few hours with drummer Barry Altschul, talking and listening to music together. The latter activity was particularly helpful, bringing into focus topics within our previous conversations. Since that visit, I’ve been listening to Altschul’s own latest trio recording, which is, I will add, fabulous. Recent exchanges with Chick Corea and Dave Liebman have also been quite enlightening.

I will have more to add about the book over the summer.

On Michael Gregory Jackson’s new work

•June 13, 2013 • 1 Comment

“Liberty” by Art Ensemble Syd with Michael Gregory Jackson

Embla Music & Experience (EME) 1302

I’m always interested in hearing music that reminds me that we are all somehow “Children of Ornette Coleman.” What I mean is musicians who may reflect differing aesthetic sensibilities yet share a common principle: multiple events can take place at the same time–not necessarily linked through shared harmony or pulse. In this musical world, players can share musical space, finding a way to conceptually if not literally remain “in tune.” From this perspective the idea of playing in unison might be taken non-literally, allowing each musician to start on a different pitch, each one expressing her or his individuality yet doing so in service of the collective. This is the democratic impulse of playing together as a group yet never sacrificing one’s unique voice.

As a general principle, I don’t write reviews of recordings. I think of myself as a musician who is interested in exploring the musical history of my colleagues. But when I received a writer’s copy of Michael Gregory Jackson’s new CD “Liberty,” performed by Jackson and Art Ensemble Syd, I thought that I might make an exception to honor such fine work that is indeed a “child of Ornette.” “Liberty” is alternately delightful and somber, sometimes displaying both qualities at the same time. The music is deeply touching and even heart breaking. It defies category (yay!). Michael Gregory Jackson’s aesthetic brings together such an eclectic array of styles and approaches that it is hard to imagine anyone not finding something here to love. And I cannot stop listening to this recording. It is that good.


The recording opens with the infectious energy of an anthem “Liberty part one.” As the tune unfolds, four band members simultaneously play interwoven solos, all sharing the same musical space. Guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson, saxophonist Simon Spang-Hanssen, and violinist Heine Steensen, and flutist Thorstein Quebec Hemmet deliver what might be thought of as one part New Orleans early jazz, another part Ornette Coleman “harmolodic” synchronicity, and a third part jam band party. This collective solo section gives way to a slow, dreamy violin solo, with the initial up-tempo pulse never departing from the background. The pulse gradually moves back up front, ultimately awaiting the return the original theme.

“Liberty part 2” presents the counter theme, a calm refrain played in unison by the horn players, backed by Jackson, who plays a series of arpeggiated chords, each note spaced broadly apart. (Think, maybe, of John McLaughlin’s comping on the early Mahavishnu Orchestra recordings). The pulse from “Liberty part one” continues–and after the opening “part 2” melody repeats–is ready and waiting to support Jackson’s fluid, angular guitar solo. The counter theme repeatedly returns as a refrain, ultimately bringing the tune to a close.

“Gimbals” begins with a sparse electric guitar and bass duet (Niels Praestholm on bass), each of the duet partners filling in holes left by the other. Occasionally the two come together.  Soon, Jackson and Praestholm are joined by drummer Matias Wolf Andreasen. The music begins to cook when the horn players jump in (and when I say “horns,” I’m generally including the violin), each playing variants of two-note figures. These all coalesce to craft a closing melody built upon and linking these tiny phrases.

“Undercurrents (a requiem for the victims of Hurricane Katrina)” is a somber ballad introduced by a violin solo. It is accompanied by repeated two-chord guitar gestures. A delicate melody follows, juxtaposed with light drumming, suggesting martial music. This is capped with a refrain, a winding, chromatic melody played in unison by the horns. The somber tone continues through Spang-Hanssen’s saxophone solo and then Jackson’s guitar solo, each spiced with hints of a more aggressive feel, rhythmically pressing against the beat. Each solo ends with the refrain, ultimately returning the melody. The juxtaposition of moods: somber and maybe pastoral and more rapid and forward pushing is unsettling. Surely this is the point.

The next two tracks offer a change of pace from what has preceded. “Citi” is a sparse, abstract sound collage. It suggests a very minimalistic collective improvisation, which heats up rhythmically towards the conclusion.  “Down” is a beautiful ballad, sung by Jackson. It begins with the words: “I’ve come to a place, where my hope is wearing thin, Where within my strength is crumbling, where I’m falling down again, I’m here in this place, all choices seem the same, Where my heart knows only pain, where I’m crying, in the rain, Washes over me, in a violent, tangled, swirling sea, I’m lost, Shadow in the mist, no will to resist, Down and down and down I fall, down.” The musical setting of the lyrics heightens the sense of loss and desperation.

“Clarity 4” seems as connected to the opening four tunes as it serves as a coda to “Down.” The angular stop-start melody has a somber feel and is played in unison. The melody is followed by overlapping, fragmentary duets, with ever-changing partners. Increasingly, larger numbers of voices are heard in the mix. After a while, the playing becomes more abstract yet is held together by a shared container. Tension periodically builds, each time ultimately collapsing into quiet unison or silence. The opening melody returns to close out the tune.

In contrast, “8-33” begins with a simple melody played in unison, so slow and fragile that it can barely be sustained. After a while, the melody is joined by a dramatically contrasting staccato guitar figure, suggestive of a detective thriller. Soon, the drums share the energy of the guitar and the horns show fractures in the unity of the melody. The texture breaks apart with a brief, rapid saxophone solo. Then, the horns take on some of the energy and pulse of the guitar, only to return to their previous slow pace. The opening melody returns, no less fragile than when we first heard it.

The set concludes with another ballad for solo acoustic guitar, “For My Mother.” This melody is ornamented with virtuosic solo runs and figures. They add depth without getting in the way of the elegance of the melody. This is a beautiful conclusion to a deeply affecting, often heart breaking and beautiful musical journey.

More info: Michael Gregory Jackson on Facebook:

The new book takes shape

•April 12, 2013 • 1 Comment

My new book has come together nicely in recent weeks. With decent drafts of 9 1/2 of these chapters, I have two new candidates for a working title:

“Circles and Connections: Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins”
“Revolutionary Ensembles: Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins”

Here’s the gist: music history requires a new narrative about the legacy of Miles Davis during the Bitches Brew period. This narrative privileges sonic and structural openness, surprise, and experimentation. In Miles’s music during the period, musical values of openness coexist, not always easily, with the groove. When viewed in this way, new webs of musical interconnection can emerge and suggest a broader musical context. Miles Davis’s aesthetic during this period becomes interlocked with Ornette Coleman and the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), as well as with funk and rock, music that emphasizes the beat. Coleman was already an important model for Davis’s Quintet of the 1960s. A broader view brings saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, and even Music Elettronica Viva into this larger interconnecting web of influences and people.

And here are the chapter headings as of this week. Still, a long way to go… but we’re getting there!

1. Introduction: End of the 60s and into the early 70s
2. Formation of the Miles Davis “Lost” Quintet
3. Evolution and unfolding of the Miles Davis “Lost” Quintet
4. Chelsea: Corea & Holland, Dave Liebman & Free Life Communications, Studio WIS
5. Trio: Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul; Meeting Anthony Braxton
6. Anthony Braxton in New York: Peace Church Concert and MEV Tour
7. Circle: Musical Process and Form
8. Circle on the Road, and the Critics
9. The Revolutionary Ensemble
10. After Circle: Sam Rivers, World Band & Chick Corea, electric again
11. Musical Affinities: Ornette, Miles, AACM & MEV

Fat Albert, the Bill Cosby Pilot Show, with music by…

•February 18, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Last week, my four months of Mwandishi band book talks wrapped up with two events in the New York Metropolitan area. All of the talks have been recorded and I’m in the process of preparing segments to make available on the web to help people explore the book.

While in New York, I finally had the opportunity to view the pilot for Bill Cosby’s animated “Fat Albert” series. This first episode, for which Cosby commissioned Herbie Hancock to write a score, was aired first on November 12, 1969 and maybe at the beginning of the actual series, in April 1970. The NBC series itself, but not the pilot, is available on DVD. Thus, it was a real treat to see this original segment, which is part of collection at the Paley Center For Media.

I’ll tell you, it was really interesting. The animation is quite unusual. The backdrop throughout most of the episode is in a dark blue and gives the viewer the impression that s/he is seeing documentary film footage. This “wallpaper” offers the illusion of a three dimensionality, as well as the bleak quality of Cosby’s North Philadelphia childhood neighborhood.  There is a long (probably overly long) football sequence, which is of an action-packed football game.

In the foreground are the Cosby kids characters, drawn in bright pastel colors. The outlines of the characters, however, are fuzzy as if they are in motion. This offers an artistic and dynamic quality to the characters. Think about the dust floating around Pigpen in the Peanuts television animations and transfer this quality of motion to the boundaries of each of the Cosby characters and you get the idea.

Herbie Hancock’s music includes some of the most R&B inflected tunes included on his 1969 recording “Fat Albert Rotunda.” This was Hancock’s first Warner Brothers release and the one that led to “Mwandishi” and “Crossings.” Actually, Warners interest was in seeing more popular music (although the reviewers who dismissed “Fat Albert” as popular fluff that was “not jazz” miss the fact that the vamps at times set up extended improvisation and that the recording also includes classic Hancock ballads “Jessica” and “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”). Thus the record company assigned a rock record producer, David Rubinson, to work with the pianist. As it turned out, Rubinson was quite in sympathy with Hancock’s far more adventuresome inclinations, it it took work for him to sustain Warner’s interests for as long as they were willing).

Some of the vamp-based tunes provide the music for the opening introduction and major scenes.  These include “Fat Albert Rotunda,” “Wiggle-Waggle,” and “Oh, Oh, Here He Comes,” which of course introduces Fat Albert himself. He first appears as a huge balloon-like purple blob from which the actual character emerges, dressed in a blue suit and tie.  The main story line, of course, is about how the kids make fun of him, thus hurting his feelings and alienating him. They do so when they need him most, during a football game against a much more athletic team of larger players (while the serious team’s uniforms are marked “Al’s Market,” the kids refer to them as “The Terds;” The underdog Cosby team, of course of course the Eagles, is dressed in their street clothes). Fat Albert decides to come through on his own initiative and becomes the team hero after routing the bigger guys.  The heroics are accompanied by further sections of “Wiggle-Waggle.”  The pilot ends with Fat Albert falling while being carried by his fellow victors, crushing them and causing the collapse of a neighboring building.

Herbie Hancock’s score is not all R&B. There are abstract solo piano passages, particularly during more emotionally heightened scenes. Piano clusters and Bartok-like or maybe Rite of Spring era Stravinsky harmonies, followed by ringing cymbals, accompany the screening of a Wolfman film. The moving image appears as an authentic silent film inserted within the pastel-drawn theater where the kids are watching. Another segment related musically to the theater scene occurs while the kids are walking home and feel frightened. Pointallistic piano gestures accompany the walk across a bridge. A stray cat crosses the children’s path and scares them. The images and sounds become more abstract before calm returns, as they walk back through the dark blue background of the City and into their apartment. A colorful and melancholy musical section with a lyrical trumpet solo (similar to what we will hear a decade or so later in Hancock’s score for the film “‘Round Midnight”) accompanies the scene when Fat Albert overhears the children talking badly about him.  

The pilot’s scenes are wrapped around several Mattel commercials, blond haired “living” Barbie (her wrists and other joints can be rotated and moved), “Whizzer” spinning tops, Chatty Cathy, Hot Wheels cars and accessories, and Talking Storybooks. The scene taking the episode out has the Cosby kids – Fat Albert, Rudy, Bill and his younger brother, Weird Harold (but I don’t recall seeing here the single female character, a love interest) – wearing shirts marked “Mattel” on their backs. They sing over a vamp “de-bee-lie…”

Thanks to John Cottrell for tipping me about where to view this pilot show, and to Shira Gluck for accompanying me on the trip. Shira was also one of the readers of the book.

Remembering James DePreist

•February 14, 2013 • 2 Comments

Tonight is the last of the current round of talks about “You’ll Know When You Get There…” While I look forward to tonight, this morning I have something else on my mind. It is a personal memory of a great musician whose loss I am feeling.

Noted conductor James DePreist died this week. I personally mourn him because he made a difference in my life when I was an adolescent. Mr. DePreist, or, as he suggested we might call him, Jimmy, was the orchestral conductor and chamber music coach at the Westchester Music and Arts Camp. At that time (1967), it was housed at Croton Point Park, along the Hudson River.  I arrived at the Camp in his second year. Mr. DePreist bore a significant pedigree having just served as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.

What was most striking about Mr. DePreist was his modesty and musical smarts. He was completely unassuming, despite his level of virtuosity and knowledge. He clearly desired to be treated no differently from anyone else, be s/he a camper or administrator. The excellent New York Times obituary, a substantial one at that, was given the unfortunate headline “Pioneering Conductor Whose Legs Were Paralyzed, Dies at 76.” Indeed, when I knew him, Mr. DePreist was only four years out from having contracted polio, and when standing was always supported by extensive leg braces. Yet watching him, one was never aware of the braces or of his disability. He didn’t want to call attention to it and he didn’t want it to factor into his life any more than necessary.  This was in keeping with his message of resilience, hard work, and desire to call as little attention as possible to one’s limitations. This was paralleled by his insistence on not calling attention to one’s demographic or racial identity.  He did not want to be identified as a “Pioneer,” even though as a black man, he was in a distinct minority in the classical music world. What mattered to him was kindness, excellent, and perseverance.

If one had to weigh the significance of these three attributes in his mind, it was clear that the most important was kindness. The summer of 1967 was my first time away from my parents.  My grandmother was dying of brain cancer, and my family had moved recently to the suburbs, where I was deeply unhappy. I was among the youngest group of campers in a setting filled with drugs, sex, and bragging about one’s artistic gifts or connections. I knew nothing about the former two. Some of my fellow musicians saw themselves as upper echelon musicians due to their connections with our instrumental performance teacher, or to the particular repertoire they were attempting. Most notably this meant that they played technically challenging Romantic piano concerti. But Mr. DePreist found none of this particularly interesting.

One of my clearest memories of Jimmy took place on an afternoon. I was sitting on a bench outside a practice room, probably looking as forlorn as I felt. In the background I could hear the sounds of one of my fellow pianists charging away at the Grieg or Schumann piano concerto, I forget which. My own teacher, at Julliard, wasn’t particularly interested in her students doing a limp job at showpieces. Mr. DePreist rolled up nearby in his wheelchair, sat down and put him arm around me. He asked me how I was, told me to pay no mind to what I was hearing or the fact that it was being rehearsed by a camper on the piano teacher’s own piano, and encouraged me to get back into the practice room.

As a chamber music coach, Mr. DePreist was equally encouraging. He suggested but never imposed musical ideas, realized that adolescents are a moody bunch, but could on the balance figure things out with time and support. Our piano trio and quartet performances were probably less than stellar, but they felt good. I always felt like there was someone holding me aloft, no matter how unsettled I was or whether or not my coach could, himself, stand unassisted. What a fortunate encounter this was.

Book touring continues

•December 10, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This week, I will be doing two book events on the West Coast.

The first is Thursday, December 13 in Seattle, where I’m really pleased to be joined by band member Julian Priester. On the Facebook event page ( I wrote:

“On trombone was Seattle’s own Julian Priester, whose musical sensitivity and virtuosity was well suited to a band in which, as Priester recalls, “we had to sort of react on the spot to the changes the directions that the music took.” This night’s talk is dedicated to the creativity and humanity of this great trombonist.”

The talk is at 7pm Pacific, at Elliot Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, Seattle, Washington.

The second event is in Los Angeles, Friday. So far I know that at least one band member will be coming. The talk is at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, California. Info on the Facebook event page:

Hope to see you at one of these events. Next up on the East Coast are talks in the New York Metropolitan Area (Feb. 8 at 92YTribeca, and Feb. 14 at the Chappaqua Library).