Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Rating System for The Jazz Clarinet

In general, I've shied away from rating performances on this blog, especially when it comes to those that leave me less than enthusiastic. This has been a matter of policy: since its inception, my hope has been to promote great music through this blog, rather than heckle, and I've taken as my model the approach of Buddy DeFranco, who when asked to comment on a jazz clarinetist whose playing he didn't care for, simply answered "Pass."

This policy remains my basic orientation. I don't want to tread into the waters of commenting on my colleagues in the very small field of jazz clarinetistry. I firmly believe that we all need to stick together and encourage interest in our art, rather than lob insults. Likewise, assigning grades to performances is antithetical to approaching music well, in many ways. This is especially true when evaluating new art: no one really knows the staying power of an album until it has been tested by time. As a creative artist myself, I would want others to allow for that maturing process before passing judgement--and anyhow, there are other publications out there who are set up to critique new releases. They play an important role in the promotion of new artists, but this blog isn't the place for such criticism.

Having said this, some of you might have already noticed a new rating system, begun when I gave Danny Kaye's A Song is Born Four Broken Reeds.

I then retraced my steps and gave Lana Turner's Dancing Co-Ed Four Good Reeds.

While this was done purely as a joke, it dawned on me that it might be helpful too. I've known several players who dismissed Benny Goodman, for example, because they had never heard Benny's best recordings--having only heard reunion gigs often made on sub-standard recording equipment and/or hastily released on budget labels. I've also known great jazz musicians who have never heard Pete Fountain's serious records dismiss him as an "easy listening" clarinetist on the basis of a single LP they might have heard from the early 1970s.

I've been frustrated by this for years now, until yesterday when I jokingly added those movie ratings. It occured to me that if there was a place to go on the web, honestly discussing these albums from a jazz player's point of view, with an easily navigated rating system, that those wanting to find good jazz clarinet would have a quick and helpful resource.

So it is with this in mind that I'm introducing a rating system of ten grades. Everything from Five Broken Reeds to Five Good Reeds. I doubt I'll spend much time on the broken reed side of the spectrum, but readers should be aware that a "one good reed" rating isn't to be read like a dismal "one star" rating in DownBeat. In short, all "good reed" ratings should be understood as performances that serious players should hear.

The Jazz Clarinet's  Reed Rating Scale

Here is a general key to my ratings:

5 Reeds

Classic performance, essential for players and aficionados of jazz clarinet. Usually important for historical significance, technical and tonal reasons, and sometimes 'definitive' versions of tunes.

Examples: The Last Recordings of Artie Shaw, The Complete Victor Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman.

4 Reeds

Great performance, just short of five reeds--usually because the artist in question has several performances like this, of a very high quality, some of which might trump it for historical value.

Examples: Stan Hasselgard, California Sessions; Pete Fountain, 'Pete's Place'

3 reeds

Very strong performance, with some mitigating factors: maybe the ensemble isn't quite as strong or the song material not up to greater classic performances, but the jazz clarinetistry is still excellent.

Example: Edmond Hall Live at Club Hangover, 1954

2 reeds

Two reeds says this is great, but I want more, either from the player, the recording engineers, the set selection, or otherwise. There are many albums that fall into this category--having a few tracks that are great, but several "fillers."
1 reed

Soulful and worthy of a serious listen, but technically deficient, or technically brilliant but lacking in sufficient soul.

1 Broken Reed

An album by a great player that I wouldn't recommend buying, because there are better options out there of similar material--this was an off night.

2 Broken Reeds

The worst performance by a great player committed to record, so far as I know. Paradoxically, I would only use this rating for a truly great artist--as a sort of public announcement so that people do not reject a great artist on the basis of one bad recording. The hope is that people will check out other material, through the labels on posts, and get to know the genius who might have missed on one particular project.

3 Broken Reeds

A classical player doing jazz karaoke to sell albums. These include, but are not limited to, albums made by clarinetists playing transcriptions of Artie Shaw taken down the octave, using "conservatory tone", performances of the Shaw Concerto that contain no improvisation and bad glissando technique, Benny Goodman tribute albums that don't swing and are obvious attempts to cash in, etc, etc, etc. I will probably never review any of these albums here, so you probably won't ever see this rating. Instead, I'll say here: you know who you are, you karaoke frauds: and the rest of us do too. Stop it now, or we'll have to push back.

4 Broken Reeds

A jazz movie that betrays it's subject on many levels, promising a great performance by a great jazz clarinetist only to deliver nothing! Take that, A Song is Born!

5 Broken Reeds

The Guckenheimer Sauerkraut Band. Neither good nor funny. (Okay...maybe a little funny.)
The policy of The Jazz Clarinet will be to honestly evaluate the vast catalogue of great jazz clarinet performances of the past century. Contemporary players will generally be avoided, for reasons stated above, with some notable exceptions. Buddy DeFranco, Bill Smith, and Eddie Daniels, who are still with us and cranking out great jazz (hopefully for years to come), have each released albums that should already be considered classics. I won't shy away from discussing those here.

Needless to say, these ratings will have no "official" value in any capacity. They are solely my opinion, formed over many years of playing, reading, researching, and loving jazz clarinet. I hope this little system will help others interested in the subject to find more of what they like--or to introduce them to great music.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie Review: A Song is Born * Danny Kaye * Benny Goodman * 1948

When I saw that TCM was airing a Danny Kaye movie featuring Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet, and when I read that the plot was based on the premise of a musicologist falling in love with a mobster's fiancee, I thought to myself "This might be the most brilliant and artistically satisfying movie ever made." As readers will soon discover, the operative word was "might."

By the end, I was wondering a) how I'd watched the whole thing, b) why I'd watched the whole thing, and c) how this unfortunate piece of theatre, with such a humiliatingly bad script, was accomplished without muppets.

The plot of 1948's A Song is Born is tantalizingly zany. Danny Kaye is a musicologist at a privately funded institute, consisting of six other scholars, one of whom is played by a mustachioed Benny Goodman. Some window washers, portrayed by black actors who dance across the line between eye-rolling and offensive stereotype of the era, introduce the cloistered bunch of 'long hairs' to jazz. Kaye decides to investigate his own culture that evening, running into red headed chanteuse Honey Swanson, played by Virginia Mayo, who, despite her obvious talent and brave effort, cannot rescue this film.

Because of her involvement with the notorious mobster, Tony Crow, Swanson needs to temporarily seduce Kaye and his musicological cronies, who end up seeming like a bizarre parody of the Seven Dwarfs (we'll call them Danny, Chubby, Benny, Boring, Schnelly, Verdi and Germany) to her slinky Snow White.  Trouble ensues when she actually falls in love with her dupe. Of course, someone should have warned her that this happens to every red head in every Danny Kaye movie. But then again, Mayo also played most of them, so she should have known anyway.

The final scene is either one of the worst ever concocted, or an ingenious, if sinister template for every Muppet Movie ever made. Parents who have suffered through these 'extravaganzas' (and I use the term loosely) will know what I mean.

Now, in the annals of swing-era movies, there are many zany plotlines that obviously serve as mere excuses to feature great musicians. Some of these are so well done that the over-the-top musical scenes come as true spectacle--moments so improbable yet enjoyable that they make us smile and think "wouldn't it be nice if life was a little more like that?" Fred Astaire suddenly breaking out into a dance routine with Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus, Gene Kelly teaching Parisian kids to shim-sham in An American in Paris, and even the Harry James band straying through a parlour to serenade a soldier and his girl with "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" in the supremely low-production-value war film, Private Buckaroo-- these moments have a bit of magic about them. While they aren't real, they charm us. There are no such moments in A Song is Born.  

Musically speaking, we hear Benny playing rather thin, insipid bits of the Brahms Quintet and Beethoven's opus 11, only to join the "hep cats" for a "jam session." His tone remains weak, his playing 'stiff' in an unfortunate bow to his character in the movie. Chief among the hep cats is Lionel Hampton, who seems to have been just about the only musician in the film to actually attempt real music. The other notable is Mayo, whose opening song, while not the calibre of a true crooner of the era, nevertheless impresses as being actually musical. Dorsey gives us a sweet, predictable snippet of "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You", Satchmo sings and plays a bit--solidly professional, as usual--but not inspired, and Charlie Barnet honks his way through 'Cherokee' without ever seeming synchronized with the film. Benny's "jam session" scene likewise seems almost entirely out of sync.    

Some of the humor seemed to have great potential--there is a need for a substantial parody of musical academia and ethnomusicology, for example, which this movie nearly falls into. But as with everything in this film, whenever its falls into anything, the script and acting do a collective face-plant, and the humor becomes fatally injured.   

I'm giving this movie a rating of  Four Broken Reeds. It was spared a fifth broken reed on account of Virginia Mayo's valiant attempt at acting, and Danny Kaye's moment near the end when he seals his legendary status with the template for Ralphie's fight scene in A Christmas Story. In short, any movie whose most convincing supporting actor is Benny Goodman is in deep trouble.

If you're looking for a night to watch "Mystery Jazz Theatre 3000" with your friends, this might be your flick. If not, to spend the evening alone while solemnly contemplating the demise of our culture would be both more constructive and more artistically satisfying.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mouthpiece Review: Vandoren B40 (c. 1991)

I've always felt the Vandoren concept favored a warm, slightly diffuse sound that nevertheless held shape consistently throughout the various registers of the clarinet. For jazz playing in particular, I'm a fan of the B40 as an all-purpose "utility" mouthpiece.

This particular mouthpiece was chosen from a few, and plays very well in tune from the bottom of the horn to double C, produces a solid, warm tone, and can be used in a wide variety of settings, making it a pretty good mouthpiece to keep in the case as a backup. I've owned it for just about twenty years, and though it's never been my primary mouthpiece, I feel better having it around.

For those who like a full-bodied sound, but prefer a softer-edge than the cutting clarity of a Selmer C85, the B40 might actually turn out to be optimal. It doesn't articulate as cleanly as my Selmers, but the two seem complimentary mouthpieces in basic response--they take the same reeds and react almost identically, save for final tone quality.

There has been a big movement in the clarinet world over the past decade and a half, especially, towards very expensive custom mouthpieces. I have several in my collection, and have even recommended certain models to players--there are many good reasons to work with a custom mouthpiece designer. By the same token, there are horror stories of players breaking their one, perfect, custom mouthpiece and not being able to perform well without it. My personal philosophy is that a player ought to be able to play 'standard' equipment if needed. If your custom, deluxe, $700 mouthpiece shatters, you should be able to pull out a Vandoren or a Selmer and comfortably play a gig. This won't be everyone's attitude, but for me it makes sense--I wouldn't be comfortable if the only equipment I could reasonably handle had been altered to the point that it behaved like no other 'piece.

For that reason, I recommend that players know how to play on Vandorens and Selmers. As far as mouthpieces go, they are pretty consistent, intonation is solid, range is solid, and they are economical.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Birth of the Goodman Quartet, from the Autobiography of Lionel Hampton

Before August 19, 1936, one could argue that the vibraphone was a novelty instrument of uncertain future. After that date, the vibes would rapidly become a central instrument to the development and history of jazz. This change in the fortunes of an instrument's history was strongly influenced by two tunes recorded that day by Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, and the remarkable ensemble they created with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. The tunes were "Moonglow" and "Dinah", both of which were to become classics, forever afterwards associated with Goodman.

"Moonglow" remains a testimony to Goodman's style. Perhaps only "Body & Soul", recorded earlier with Wilson and Krupa, reveals as much of Goodman's unique gift for song: no matter how simple the melody, because of Benny's tonal depth and interior sense of swing, the notes resound with meaning. What most musicians would call 'phrasing' is a hollow description of what actually occurs, which is a very subtle use of variable tone color, minute portamento, and impeccable timing. I've read critiques of the Goodman style which suggest 'scoops' and other such tonal devices weren't central to his style--he's often portrayed as 'classical' clarinetist inserted into jazz. But this is simply not true, and a careful listening to 'Moonglow' reveals how constantly Benny was engaging in extra-classical inflections. These weren't grafted on, but part of an organic 'speaking' approach to the instrument founded in the aural/oral tradition of jazz. Part of Goodman's brilliance as a player stems from his near complete timbral control of the horn. Like Edmond Hall, he could employ a variety of growls and gritty tones throughout the entire range of the horn; but unlike Hall (who confessed such techniques were difficult to stop once they'd started), Benny could seemingly turn them on or off at will. Many players miss the beauty and genius of Goodman because they are overly focused on harmonic innovation. Benny's style, however, like many of the New Orleans masters, was founded in timbral speech.

Jazz clarinetists who have subsequently covered 'Moonglow' have generally been smart, not trying to reproduce the tune in the same key or register. Shaw recorded it in the clarion, Pete Fountain lower in the chalumeau, and Eddie Daniels took the tune up-tempo. The only folks who regularly fall into the trap of playing it as a transcription are classical players putting out a tribute karaoke-style album, usually with cringe-worthy results.

But this recording session was important for more than Benny's performance: it was the beginning of a group which set a new standard for small group jazz. Whereas other small "bands within a band" such as Tommy Dorsey's "Clambake Seven" and Bob Crosby's "Bobcats" basically reproduced the New Orleans/Chicago line-ups popular since the days of King Oliver, the Goodman Quartet charted new territory. The timbral balance, the fleet lightness, and the range of mellowness to brilliance that resulted from these four men collaborating under Goodman's leadership created jazz's answer to the classical string quartet. While the choice of instruments was nothing short of brilliant, the choice of men was even more important. Because there was no bass in the ensemble, Wilson had to provide it via stride piano. Combined with this effervescent keyboard approach, Goodman was able to play either in a sustained and mellow style, or jump fleetly, weaving in and out of Wilson's lines, without a muddy texture weighing any of it down. Hampton added a smooth, placid light on ballads; fire and ice on up tempo tunes. Krupa's brushes and drive likewise pushed and pulled, allowing Benny to fall back and provide the swinging tension.

In short, it sounded as though these men were born to play with each other--a feeling echoed by Hampton himself. In his autobiography, Hamp, (Warner Books, 1989), he discusses the formation of the Quartet:

    It was John Hammond who thought [Benny] should get a more exciting sound--and who decided my sound might be what Benny needed.  
Now, John Hammond knew that I was black, and by recommending me to Benny, he was leading Benny into uncharted territory--an integrated band. Benny did have Teddy Wilson traveling with him, but Teddy didn't play with the band. Teddy only played intermission piano. By recommending me, John Hammond was pushing Benny into a completely different arrangement.  
Benny was busy, so he sent his brother Harry out to the Paradise. Harry must have brought back a good report, because the next night Benny came himself. He sat at one of the front tables, and I remember thinking he looked familiar. But I didn't try to place him in jazz circles. With his granny glasses and his business suit, I thought maybe he was a politician or somebody whose picture I'd seen in the papers. Then, during a break, Sam Ervine whispered to me that Benny Goodman was in the audience, and then I knew why the guy looked so familiar.
After the break, he got up on the bandstand with me, pulled his clarinet out of his case, and we started to jam. We jammed all night and into the morning--it must have been six o'clock when he finally said, "Pleased to meet ya," and left. For me, it was a night to remember. I had all his records and had copied his solos and his riffs. But he was white and we moved in different circles. I was honored to jam with Benny Goodman.  
The next night was even more exciting. I'm up onstage playing as usual, and I hear this clarinet player playing next to me, and I turn and there is Benny Goodman, playing right next to me. He had brought Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson along, and the four of us got on the bandstand together, and man, we started wailing out. We played for two hours straight, and Benny liked the sound we made so well that he said, "Come on and join me at a recording session tomorrow at RCA Victor, out in Hollywood."  
Well, I was so excited that I couldn't sleep. I didn't get to sleep until about seven or eight o'clock the next morning. Around eleven, [my mother-in-law] shook me awake and told me that a Mr. Goodman had called and he was waiting for me at the RCA Victor studio. I was wide awake in an instant. I jumped out of bed and into some clothes and hailed a taxi for the Paradise to pick up my vibes. [...]  
When we walked into the RCA Victor studio, Benny gave me a look, but he didn't say anything. Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa were there. We didn't do much rehearsing before we started to record. We did two numbers--"Moonglow" and "Dinah." I had a great time. I felt as if I'd been playing with those guys all my life. That was August 19, 1936, and I'll never forget it. [ pg. 52-53 ]
Hamp's comments regarding Benny's character throughout the book are a welcome tonic to some of the more envy or grudge-driven accounts of other musicians and scholars. While Benny was certainly no easy man to work for, and undoubtedly earned his share of negative reviews, when dealing with the life of a celebrity, one thing is certain: rivals and detractors will have their say. Jealousy and hard feelings find their way into print very quickly after major success, and Benny Goodman's life story is no exception. But with this in mind, no one's life portrait is complete without the assessment of those who have appreciated their finer qualities. One of Benny's was a commitment to Teddy Wilson's and Lionel Hampton's safety when they were on the road during a deeply and openly racist era. Once when heading to Texas, Benny hired escorts to ensure their well-being. So many precautions were taken by Goodman that Hampton later wrote:
People said to me "Why you goin' down south? Those white folks will kill you." And I'd say "They'll have to kill Benny Goodman first." [ pg. 64]
This classic quartet only lasted for a few brief years. Soon Hampton, Krupa, and Wilson all left to lead their own bands, and Goodman expanded to a Sextet that was to remain his standard format for small groups for a couple of decades, sharing the stage and solo time with jazz luminaries as notable as Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams, and Stan Hasselgard. In some ways, though, this quartet was the most revolutionary. The freshness of their musical approach, the naturalness of their musical camaraderie, remains invigorating over three quarters of a century since they first formed.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Artie Shaw's Clarinet Method

Artie Shaw was reluctant to talk about clarinet technique, and throughout the long course of his musical retirement, tended to stress an indifference to the clarinet itself. In many interviews he compared himself favorably to Benny Goodman, referring to the latter as a technician, while emphasizing his own, ostensibly more musical concerns. "I played music, he played the clarinet," is a famous summary of Artie's thought. Those who have listened critically to both men can only come to the conclusion that this was more of a Shavian evasion, or a continuation of the rivalry, than anything else. Both of them played the clarinet musically, neither was anything close to a mere technician, and neither of them was anything less than technically brilliant.

Yet of the two, and despite his protestations, Shaw was actually more revolutionary in a technical sense. His range was superior to Goodman's, his control of the instrument more complete than any clarinetist on record, and his technique seemingly unprecedented. In the clarinet repertoire preceding him, one might find demonstrations of range comparable in the Spohr and Tausch concerti, but never the use of glissandi--the near complete flexibility that was Shaw's trademark. Accompanying this was a consistency of tone and fluidity of approach that seems to defy the rules of normal clarinetistry.

Because of his expressed ambivalence towards the clarinet and technical discussions, I've often wondered if he even realized, fully, the degree to which his playing surpassed the models before him. We have no record of the great virtuosi of the 18th and 19th century, and therefore can't know what Heinrich Baermann or Franz Tausch would have sounded like--perhaps they also had Shaw's flexibility, and perhaps the use of portamento was common and unreported in solo repertoire. By the time Shaw hit the scene, though, there seems to have been no player able to do what he did.

With these persistent questions (which are unlikely be fully answered), I was lucky enough to stumble across and purchase a copy of Artie's 1941 book on clarinet technique. These are so rarely on the market that, as of this writing, the only copy available on Amazon is offered for $295, a hefty price for a relatively slim, 89 page volume.

Almost half of this book is still in print, in the form of two volumes entitled Artie Shaw's Jazz Technic. Volume 1 is a facsimile of the original Method's pages 38-63, while Volume 2 collects fourteen etudes found on pages 64-77. Missing from the current volumes are the opening exercises dealing mostly with diatonic scales and chords, and six transcribed solos with piano accompaniments at the end.

The opening exercises are very instructive. While I don't possess an encyclopedic knowledge of method books prior to 1941, my collection has quite a few, and I've never seen one that works through each key by starting on each scale degree, successively, in modal style (even if this is not explicitly stated). In many ways this book looks like a harbinger for the later, popular saxophone method written by Joseph Viola.

Also telling are the selection of transcribed solos, especially the inclusion of "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" which contains Shaw's most open reference to Klezmer. This is made all the more significant for the odd fact that Shaw was later to disavow the tune as silly--and to distance himself from klezmer as such. Anyone who has read his autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella, however, knows that Artie wrestled with his Jewish identity. This more or less constant contradiction in his life--boldly and even proudly putting forth obviously klezmer rooted music, such as Dr Livingstone and Nightmare--only to evade analysis of it as such should be treated, in my opinion, as neither disingenuous nor dishonest on Shaw's part. Instead, I believe he was a man who struggled with the weight of his own brilliance, and who didn't always understand the roots of his genius. The result was often that his explanations seemed to contradict his work. Seeming contradictions are often paradoxes in disguise, though, and the more we get to know Shaw's work, the more paradoxical it inevitably becomes.

This aside, the volume also contains a least a little bit of prose from Shaw regarding clarinet technique, unavailable elsewhere. Early on, he thanks Arnold Brilhart, the musician, mouthpiece maker, synthetic reed pioneer, and collaborator on the volume. It's likely that Brilhart served as a sounding board and perhaps even primary notator of the volume (perhaps even penning the opening exercises and transcriptions no longer available in the current facsimiles).

On page 2, however, we are given something a little out of the ordinary: a glimpse at why Shaw bothered writing a book on a subject he seemed so little interested in discussing afterwards. I believe it is proof that he did know how extraordinary his own approach to the horn was--and that it was worth suggesting to others, even if only in truncated form. Some quotes show his concerns:

This book is not intended to replace any of the standard clarinet methods now in  use. [...] [But] is to provide a different type of exercise for the student whose aim is to play not in the symphony but in the dance band. 
[There] are certain idiomatic and technical differences between [classical and jazz playing]--certain arbitrary and traditional criteria that should be stripped away from the former--that make the publication of such a book as this not only permissible but desirable.
There are several conceptions regarding the so-called "proper" way to play the clarinet. Most of these exist because of the rigidly academic approach to the subject. It is in the hope of clearing the air of a few arbitrary prejudices, as well as providing the student with a system of exercises designed to promote the freedom and flexibility of technique vital to unhampered performance in the jazz band, that I am offering this new CLARINET METHOD.
Freedom and flexibility are hallmarks of Shaw's style, not found in classical techniques. It is nice to see that he recognized his achievement consciously, even if he was ambivalent to it or less interested later in life.

Tellingly, this is not a jazz method book--it has nothing in it to suggest instruction in the art of improvisation. Instead, it's meant to expand the player's approach to the clarinet in order to gain flexibility of expression. Thus it is a rare glimpse behind the veil of a man who denied much interest in the mere means of expression, so preoccupied was he with the result. Ultimately, this method only scratches the surface of Shaw's approach. To me its main value is its proof that Artie knew how unique that approach was. In the end, to get such a glimpse is a rare enough thing when dealing with a mind so enigmatic, and so worthwhile, as Artie Shaw's.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Treat It Gentle: The Autobiography of Sidney Bechet

To this day, even the very name of Sidney Bechet evokes intense images and stories. Feisty, explosive, operatic, mellifluous; his blazing, intelligent eyes staring back at us from photos: we know all the stories of his temper and his prodigal career. If Bix Beiderbecke was the prototypically alienated young man with a horn; the distanced aloof genius; Bechet was the first of the unyielding, spiritually restless reedmen who found themselves at odds with the crass commercialism of the music business. His abandonment and intense re engagement of a musical career, multiple times, was to echo through jazz history in the careers of Artie Shaw and Sonny Rollins. Likewise, his expatriation to Europe became the template for later luminaries such as Dexter Gordon and Kenny Dorham.

We know this Bechet: Bechet the misunderstood, under appreciated icon. We also know the Bechet Duke Ellington referred to as the "symbol of jazz", preeminent over even Louis Armstrong as the foundation of jazz itself.

We can listen to all the old recordings, hearing a sound that shakes us internally, sometimes soaring lyrically, sometimes shouting, often pushing the bounds of whatever group he is playing with: Bechet the master; Beethovenian Bechet.

Then there is the Bechet of the mugshot. Bechet the violent, who got in a gun fight at rush hour in Paris. Bechet the deported. This is the Bechet of the Documentary Videos: Bechet of the Ten O'Clock News.

But there is another Bechet to know: a reflective, older Bechet. This is the Sidney Bechet described by Desmond Flower as "warm, wise, kind and gentle." A Bechet whose words rolled like warm poetry, who humbly sought to place his journey in perspective of the music. This is the Sidney Bechet whose wisdom radiates from what might be the finest autobiography of any musician, and an essential work of American literature.

To write a real analysis of Treat it Gentle would require a book length study longer than the brilliant text itself. Some quotes here will have to suffice as an introduction to a work that has the potential to change our understanding of America, jazz, and the nature of music itself. From the very beginning of the book, he sets out to shift our understanding, to give us something (the concept of giving, united to music, is a central aspect of Bechet's philosophy of music). So I'll start there:

You know there's people, they got the wrong idea of Jazz. They think it's all that red-light business. But that's not so. And the real story I've got to tell, it's right there. It's Jazz. What it is--how it come to be what it is.

People come up to me and they ask me 'Are you going to play Tin Roof Blues?' They ask me, 'What's bebop?' or what do I think of some record Louis Armstrong put out. But if I was to answer that, I'd have to go a long way back. [pg. 1]

On what Jazz is:

Bechet was once told by an enthusiastic man in Paris, "This music is your music."

But, you know, no music is my music. It's everybody's who can feel it. You're here...well, if it's music, you feel it--then it's yours too. You've got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It's that way with music too.

The man persisted, however. He wanted to know what would happen when men like Bechet passed on.

..you know, Jazz isn't just me. It isn't just any one person who plays it. There'll always be Jazz. It doesn't stop with me, it doesn't stop anywhere. You take a melody...people can feel a melody...as long as a there's a melody there's Jazz, there's rhythm. [pg 2]

But here's what I really mean. All God's children got a crown. My race, their music...it's their way of giving you something...of showing you how to be happy. It's what they've got to make them happy. The spiritual, that's sad; but there's a way in it that's happy too. We can be told: 'Maybe you don't belong in Heaven, and you haven't got a place on this earth; you're not in our class, our race.' But somewhere, God's children wear a crown, and someday we're going to wear ours too. [pg 3]

On inspiration and the reason to play music:

The real reason you play...it's just because you're able to play, that's all.

Inspiration, that's another thing. The world has to give you that, the way you live in it, what you find in your living. The world gives it to you if you're ready. But it's not just given...it has to be put inside you and you have to be ready to have it put there. All that happens to you makes a feeling out of your life and you play the feeling. But there's more than that. There's the feeling inside the music too. And the final thing, it's the way that life-feeling comes from in you...even if you start playing a number from a love-feeling, it has to become something else before you're through. That love-feeling has to find the music-feeling. And then the music can learn how to get along with itself.

But drinking and reefers and all that stuff, most times they just mess up all the feeling you got inside yourself and all the feeling the music's got inside itself. When a man goes at the music that way, it's just a sign that there's a lot inside himself he don't know how to answer. He's not knowing which way he needs to go. He's not going anywhere at all. [pg 128]

On contracts, the music business, and commercialism:

My answer--all I can say of it--it's just to be giving, giving all you're life, finding the music and giving it away. God maybe punishes a man for wanting too much, but He don't punish a man for giving. Maybe He even fixes it so that what you give away, it's the mostest thing you've got.

And maybe there's another thing why so many of these musicianers ended up so bad. Maybe they didn't know how to keep up with all this commercializing that was happening to ragtime. If it could have stayed where it started and not had to take account of the business it was becoming--all that making contracts and signing options and buying and selling rights--maybe without that it might have been different. If you start taking what's pure in a man and you start putting it on a bill of sale, somehow you can't help destroying it. In a way, all that business makes it so a man don't have anything left to give.

I got a feeling inside me, a kind of memory that wants to sing itself...I can give you that. I can send it out to where it can be taken, maybe, if you want it. I can try to give it to you. But if all I've got is a contract, I've got nothing to give. How'm I going to give you a contract? [pg 124]

 On the Blues:

And it was when I was in jail...that I played the first blues I ever played with a lot of guys singing and no other instruments, just the singing. And, oh my God, what singing that was! It was my first experience that way, hearing someone right next to me start up singing...Got a life so full of punishment, Got me a feeling. Come down Jesus. Oh why don't they put God on this earth where you can find Him easier. Hearing someone else come in after a minute, just hearing his voice in the dark and knowing right away his life has a long way to go. Seeing someone hungry and beat up, seeing his face all bloody and knowing he can't speak your language to tell you what it is, knowing that the only way he has to explain himself is being human, suffering, and waiting....

I'll never forget what those blues did to me. I can't remember every single line, but some I remember. And how it was, the thing it was saying inside itself--I remember that entire. This blues was different from anything I ever heard. Someone's woman left town, or someone's man, he'd gone around to another door...then there was something that took every thought I had out of my mind until it had me so close inside it I could taste how it felt...I was seeing the chains and that gallows, feeling the tears on my own face, rejoicing in the Angel the Lord sent down to that sinner. Oh my God, that was a blues. The way they sang it there, it was something you would send down to earth if it had been given you to be God. What you'd send to your son in trouble if he was on earth and you was in Heaven. [pgs 106-107]

[Both] of them, the spirituals and the blues, they was a prayer. One was praying to God and the other was praying to what's human. It's like one was saying 'Oh God, let me go,' and the other was saying, 'Oh Mister, let me be.' And they were both the same thing in a way; they were both my people's way of praying to be themselves, they had a kind of trance to them, a kind of forgetting. It was like a man closing his eyes so he can see a light inside him. That light, it's far off and you've got to wait to see it. But it's there. It's waiting. The spirituals, they're a way of seeing that light. It's far off music; it's a going away, but it's a going away that takes you with it. And the blues, they've got that sob inside, that awful lonesome feeling. It's got so much remembering inside it, so many bad things to remember, so many losses. [pgs 212-213]

There have been countless books written on the Blues, countless interviews with experts on the matter, but these quotes constitute the best explanation I have ever read or heard in words of what the blues actually do, what they are, how I experience them, and what they're meant for.

I could keep quoting until the whole book was reprinted on this blog...these have only scratched this surface of Bechet's wisdom. Just as Bechet is foundational for jazz clarinet, and jazz itself, I believe his musical philosophy and analysis ought to be treated as a foundational hermeneutic for jazz

Treat it Gentle is a book to be returned to, regularly, through the course of one's musical life.