August 2023

A Masterpiece by Midnight

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


    It's incredibly draining to start from ground zero every day and, and truly create something that's as close as you can humanly get to a masterpiece by midnight. —Ken Burns Jazz, ep. 10, intro.

In no other art form does Ezra Pound's dictum "Make it New" apply more powerfully than in jazz, particularly what is sometimes called modern jazz—the post-swing era, from the development of bebop through today. Although no two performances of any musical piece are ever identical, in jazz the imperative for improvisation, for taking apart a tune and putting it back together many different ways, creates much excitement for listeners every time a composition is performed.

For examples, acquire the four-CD box set Coltrane The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings. Pick any of the pieces that he played each night and listen to each performance in succession. Some of the differences are subtle, some striking, but all are worthy of hearing and the exercise is far from dull.

Or search out some of Trane's many versions of "My Favorite Things." You could start with the one that appears on the newly released Evenings at the Village Gate: John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. This CD is a good companion to the abovementioned Village Vanguard set, as it reveals Trane and Dolphy working out the modes of composition and performance that will come to full flowering at the Vanguard.

Coltrane recorded at least 18 versions of "My Favorite Things," some live and some in studio. According to bassist Reggie Workman, who appears on both the Village Gate and Vanguard recordings, "John took 'My Favorite Things' and put a vamp on it and was able to give people enough of the melody so that he could then give them a message in the open section of the tune. It worked so well that he said, 'Maybe I'll try that again later on, with some other things.' And he did, with tunes like 'Greensleeves,' 'Inch Worm' and 'Chim Chim Cheree.'" (1)

I myself have tracked down and listened to as many versions of "My Favorite Things" and have not yet exhausted the supply nor my joy in hearing it. The different settings, the varied contributions by supporting players, the audiences' responses to the live performances all combine to make each listening unique.

Another equally powerful manifestation of this improvisatory make-it-new spirit occurs when modern jazz masters take on a standard, a ballad from the Great American Songbook, say, or a well-known composition by an established maestro. One of the finest and most entertaining examples of this practice can be heard (and seen) in a live performance by Charles Mingus and an all-star band that includes Eric Dolphy (who left his mark everywhere in the music of the later 1950s through the early 1960s) of Duke Ellington's classic "Take the A Train.) (2)

To open, Jaki Byard flawless channels Ellington's familiar intro, then the ensemble runs through a straightforward rendition of the instantly recognizable melody, before Johnny Coles takes the first solo, a rather gentle presentation, backed by a quiet melodic backdrop by the two saxophonists, Mingus comping steadily, and drummer Dannie Richmond maintaining the rhythm with his signature energy and drive. Next, Byard returns and gives a three-minute history of jazz piano from stride and ragtime, through swing, to bebop a la Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. (Watching him smile, pound the keys, and holler, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the band, is a joy in itself—the camera catches Mingus smiling broadly with sheer pleasure. At this point, the serious improvisations begin as the group, led off by Eric Dolphy (again!), brilliantly and blisteringly deconstructs the tune through a series of solos and combined playing so powerful that you'll be propelled from your seat and compelled to testify as if caught up in a gospel whirlwind. Saxophonist Clifford Jordan rounds out the soloing and brings the band back to the theme. Twelve and a half minutes of sheer bliss.

The toll that this art took from these artists is, of course, notorious. The impact on their mental and physical health and their personal lives, coupled with the experiences of racism and other forms of disrespect, not to mention the damage inflicted by drugs and alcohol is tragic. All the more reason, then, to seek out their work, to celebrate their lives and venerate their art.


(1) From the liner notes for Evenings at the Village Gate.

(2) ?v=vAn_gyNcvN4&ab_channel=AllThatJazzDonKaart


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Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA.
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For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives.

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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