Friday, December 31, 2010

Legendary jazz pianist and educator Billy Taylor, a D.C. native, 
dies at 89 

Courtesy Tom Marcello 

D.C. native Dr. Billy Taylor was an NEA 
Jazz Master and renowned educator. 

by Giovanni Russonello 

Dr. Billy Taylor, a D.C. native as famous for his work as a educator and proselytizer as for his formidable skills as a pianist, died yesterday at 89. 

Taylor grew up in the District, attending Dunbar High School and taking piano lessons from Henry Grant — the same local legend who taught Duke Ellington to play the keys. After graduating from Virginia State College in 1942, Taylor headed for New York City, where the bebop revolution was about to sweep across the city and the entire jazz world. He quickly earned a spot playing with saxophone legend Ben Webster and an apprenticeship with the great Art Tatum. Eventually, he became the house pianist at Birdland jazz club in Midtown Manhattan, where he played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and numerous others. 

Taylor expanded his repertoire as a Broadway musician, a player in Machito’s famous Afro-Cuban band and a member of the Don Redman Orchestra’s European tour in 1948 — the first such venture by an American jazz group since the end of World War II. 

But Taylor’s strongest legacy is as a jazz teacher and international spokesperson: He earned a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s, and performed hundreds of free concerts across the globe throughout his life. He also frequently took to the airwaves to spread the jazz gospel. His work in media started in 1958, when he was musical director at The Subject Is Jazz, a National Educational Television show and the first dedicated to jazz. He did profiles of musicians on CBS’ Sunday Morning, and was a frequent producer for PBS. His most famous work in radio was probably the National Public Radio program Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center, which he broadcast weekly from the hometown venue where he long served as artistic director for jazz. 

Taylor penned over 300 compositions, including the classic civil rights rallying cry “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and received the National Medaof Arts, among scores of honors and prizes. 

Taylor is survived by his wife, Theodora, and his daughter, Kim Taylor-Thompson. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The attack of the sonic mistletoe - holiday music is everywhere!  But have you noticed how even the most banal, hackneyed Christmas song - (and I say Christmas because The Klezmer Dreydle has yet to hit the mainstream...) sounds so much better when put in a "jazz context"? One might consider that when playing holiday music for broad appeal such as on the radio (hearing Louis Armstrong on the local "Light FM" greatly improved my opinion of "Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer") or as accompaniment to holiday cheer in  a social setting.  Where to start? These are among the best...

Duke Ellington Orchestra - The Nutcracker Suite: Ellington Strayhorn Tchaikovsky - Columbia
As the saying goes, "start here" because it doesn't get any better than this - Ellington and Strayhorn at their creative and organizational plateau; an orchestra that is uniquely suited for the material; the blessing (and watchful eye) of Peter Illych himself. Many consider this Tchaikovsky's greatest work and you can hear the love and respect Ellington and "Strays" have for it ; the composer's intended pageantry & mirth are augmented by the requisite Ellingtonian imagination and depth.  The original recording is out of print but you can find the music on a CD release called "Three Suites".

Verve Remixed Christmas - Various Artists - Verve

Crazy imaginative and entertaining reinventions of Louis Armstong's "Z'at You Santa Claus", Shirley Horn's "Winter Wonderland" and Jimmy Smith's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" (unusual to begin with!) along with songs that evoke the season - "Chilly Winds Don't Blow"(Nina Simone) "Good Morning Blues" ( Count Basie) and an outlandish reggae remix of "I Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" by Billie Holiday.

GRP Christmas Collection Vol 1-3

The collection shows how incredibly deep the creative juices flowed at GRP Records;  every possible jazz avenue is explored commendably by a prominent cast in 28 tracks - Acoustic Alchemy, Patti Austin, B.B. King,  Chick Corea, Ramsey Lewis, Arturo Sandoval, Tom Scott, Diane Schuur, Spyro Gyra and Yellowjackets, to name a few.

Ledisi - It's Christmas - Verve

As to be expected, Ledesi finds new territories in the holiday musical repertoire with her breathtaking gift for re-imagination;  Don't start the party without it.


 Jingle Bell Jazz - Various Artists - Columbia

 A Windham Hill Christmas - Various 
 Jazzy Wonderland - Various - Columbia 
Stan Kenton - A Merry Christmas - Capitol
Spyro Gyra - A Night Before Christmas -  
Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Wishes You A Swingin   Christmas - Verve

Jimmy Smith - Christmas Cookin' - Verve

Chris Botti - December - Columbia

Ramsey Lewis - The Sound Of Christmas -      

Booker T And The MG's - In The Christmas Spirit  

Boney James - Christmas Present - Concord

Tony Bennett/Count Basie Big Band - A Swingin Christmas   

Bob James  - Christmas Eyes - Koch

Yule Struttin - Various Artists - Blue Note

Latin Jazz Christmas - Various - Concord

Luis Villegas - Guitarras De Navidad - Tenure

Dave Koz and Friends - Smooth Jazz Christmas - Capitol

David Benoit - Remembering Christmas - GRP

Peter White Christmas - ARTizen

Kenny Burrell -  Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas - Verve

Friday, December 10, 2010

JAMES MOODY: 1925-2010

He will be missed. Read Peter Keepnews' New York Times obit....  and this story on the NPR music page.
 Something else to remember him by - a video of James with The WDR Big Band...more words and music to come.

James Moody & WDR Big Band - There I Go
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Sunday, November 21, 2010


*Tuesday in Washington DC: Dexter Wansel and The Sound of Philadelphia Band - Blues Alley 
DexterWansel.jpgA surprising and rare opportunity to check out the keyboardist who contributed heavily to the 1970's soul music phenomenon known as "the Sound of Philadelphia"; big hits from Teddy Pendergrass, The O'Jays and Patti Labelle include Wansel's handy work, which was an important element in the Gamble & Huff recipe for success.  and he had a few hits of his own including "Life on Mars", which was emblematic of Wansel's popular "sci-fi jazz funk" of the late 1970's. Another jazz/funk keyboardist takes residence at Blues Alley this week - Alex Bugnon,  Friday-Sunday.

*Thursday in New York: A Thanksgiving Celebration with Ken Peplowski and Bucky Pizzarelli - Jazz at Lincoln Center; a world class quintet featuring Peplowski & Pizzarelli augmented by a 3 course meal.

*Friday in Tokyo:  Bassist Stanley Clarke launches a Japanese tour with 3 nights at the Blue Note and he's joined by old friend Lenny White on drums and pianist Hiromi who is also a member of Clarke's regular band. Check out this video of their work on "No Mystery", which was recently nominated for a Grammy Award.

*Friday in L.A.: A birthday celebration for legendary trumpeter Jack Sheldon who played on a number of 1950's recordings that introduced a "west coast" sound to the jazz world; Sheldon's bio also lists a who's who of collaborators - on records with Sinatra, Gillespie, Clooney, Goodman, Bennett, Mancini etc and on numerous TV shows including Dragnet and The Merv Griffin Show, for which he is best known.  Jack Sheldon turns 69 on Nov 30th, the celebration takes place at Catalina Jazz Club.

*Saturday in London/NYC:  Brubeck is in full effect as brothers Chris, Darius and Dan take the stage at London's Ronnie Scott's - in a show that has been sold out for weeks. The man responsible for all of this, their father Dave also has a long-sold out engagement at the Blue Note in NYC on Saturday and Sunday.
Here's an excerpt of Dave's Kennedy Center Honors performance with his sons...

B0043SS250.jpg*Kevin Eubanks - "Zen Food" - Mack Avenue Records; the former Tonight Show bandleader celebrates his 53rd birthday (Nov. 15) with a new record label and an exceptional new release. Check out this interview that appeared on All About Jazz recently.

*Vince Mendoza and The Metropole Orchestra - Fast City: A Tribute to Joe Zawinul - BHM Productions;  Already out in Germany, the CD debuts in America this week. The amazing compositions of Zawinul (co-founder of Weather Report) with stirring orchestrations by Mendoza and stellar performances by Weather Report alum Pete Erskine, Victor Bailey, Alex Acuna, recorded live in Amsterdam, 2008. Below is a video excerpt, the song is "Nubian Sundance."

*Chet Baker in Italy 1961-1988The DVD chronicles Baker's 1961 performances in Sanremo and in Rome on two separate occassions, in 1976 and just a few months before his death in 1988.

cov_where_the_dark.jpg*A provocative article in the new issue of Jazz Times - "Rhapsody in Rainbow: Jazz and the Queer Aesthetic"; John Murph has written a thoughtful piece on how jazz musicians and the jazz community deals with the thorny issue of homosexuality.

*A new book, "Where the Light and Dark Folks Meet" (Scarecrow Press), written by trumpeter Randall Sandke, addresses another contentious subject among jazz fans - race, and along the way dispels many time honored myths and misconceptions.

*Just in time for Thanksgiving dinner, Jazz Cooks - not a new book (1992) but it's filled with recipes favored or created by 90+ jazz luminaries; Smooth Cooking, a part of chef Sharon O'Connor's Music Cooks series of cook books, has favorite dishes from George Benson, David Benoit, Dave Koz and Tom Scott among others and it comes with an 11 track CD featuring music from the contributing artists.

For more music to compliment the cooking, check out this playlist of jazz recordings with thanks giving in mind, prepared by Chicago-based journalist Neil Tesser

Finally, in the spirit of giving thanks, take a moment to remember all the wonderful music given to us by saxophonist James Moody, who announced last week that he has been suffering from pancreatic cancer for quite some time.  Moody's family and friends are encouraging fans to reach out to James with a written "thank you" for his many contributions; you can send him a note via his Facebook page. 

Monday, November 15, 2010


Hello Tomorrow       

Just finished listening to saxophonist Dave Koz’s captivating new issue – “Hello Tomorrow”;  I follow Dave’s work but wow… I didn’t realize he hadn’t offered a program of original pieces in seven years!  Thusly, my attention is drawn toward the only “cover” on the release, a version of “This Guy’s in Love With You” with a guest visit from the multifarious Herb Alpert, who originally recorded the song in 1968; The fact that both versions feature rare and strikingly similar vocal performances by each individual respectively got me to thinking about more similarities between the two jazz icons….

*Both were born in the last week of March and both are college educated, Jewish guys from Southern California… Alpert went to USC and played in the marching band, Koz graduated from UCLA, where you’ll find the Herb Alpert School of Music…

*Both Alpert and Koz have older brothers , talented musicians who provided the impetus for each to pursue careers in music..

*In 1966 Alpert co-founded A & M Records, Koz co-founded the record label Rendezvous Entertainment three decades later.

*Alpert owns a LA restaurant that serves fine wine…    

*Koz lends his name to 3 varieties of wine from Napa Valley….

*Both Alpert and Koz are exceptionally philanthropic;
The Herb Alpert Foundation and the Alpert Awards in the Arts with The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) supports youth and arts education as well as environmental issues and helps fund the PBS series Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason; For the past 15 years, Koz has served as Global Ambassador for The Starlight Children's Foundation, which helps children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses and life-altering injuries. 

*Koz and Alpert are successful media figures –  Koz is the host of radio & TV shows, was the leader of the band on the Emeril Lagasse Show and was a member of bands employed by the Arsenio Hall show and The Pat Sajack Show – which aired on CBS in the 1980’s;  the first of many Herb Alpert TV specials also aired on CBS in 1967.  In fact,  Alpert sang This Guy’s in Love With You to his first wife, Sharon Mae Lubin,  in a 1968 CBS TV Special (his current wife is singer Lani Hall). The song was not intended to be released, but after the television special, thousands called CBS to rave about the song which in turn convinced Alpert to release it as a single, just two days after the show aired (ahhh… those were the days….).  The single topped the national chart for four weeks and ranked among the year's biggest hits.   

And by the way, “This Guy’s…” is one of many songs written for Herb Alpert by Burt Bacharach; in 1998, Bacharach would appear as a producer and performer on a Dave Koz release called “The Dance”….  

Check out a video of Dave's updated version of "This Guy's In Love With You..."

And this video of Herb Alpert's original version.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I’m in Washington DC, the home of Ellington…waiting for a train :-) and suddenly, in my head I'm hearing the melody of one of Duke's most revered compositions written with Paul Francis Webster (and probably Strayhorn too), "I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good.” Why? well your opportunity for a little investigation, right?  Here's what I found out.

The song is a rite of passage for any singer or player with a passing fancy for jazz, and it’s absolutely everywhere, beginning with this film “shortie of Ellington’s original 1941 performance , featuring Ivie Anderson,

DukeEllington 1941-I got it bad
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and later, with Ella and Sarah and Louis and Billie and Nina and Dianne et al. Eventually we find out that Ellington, Webster (and probably Strayhorn) wrote one for the ages - a classic that has touched the collective consciousness in places where you would least expect; with Cher and Gladys Knight and Carly Simon and in a delicious twist, Frank Sinatra, who adds confident masculinity to a song originally written with a feminine lead in mind. The amazing orchestra led by Nelson Riddle doesn’t hurt Frank's effort either.
As I listen to Sinatra’s version, from a 1957 album called "A Swingin' Affair", curiosity is peaked and I start to poke around. Fittingly, "I Got it Bad…" was the cornerstone of a pioneering theater production called “Jump For Joy” – conceived and staged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1941. The music and the story behind it provides a fascinating glimpse into the giddy days of exploding and new found world-renown for the Ellington organization just a few months before Pearl Harbor, the war and all the life-changes that ensued.
Ellington and Strayhorn
Jump For Joy was, in the parlance of the day, an “all black musical review” and as Ellington expressed, was intended to be “a show that would take Uncle Tom out of the theater, eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood…and say things that would make the audience think.” One minor detail - that kind of thinking in the 1940’s (50's, 60's, 70's etc) was at best, incendiary – at bottom, it proved to be life threatening for many blacks , including the cast member who was beaten up after one performance and even Duke himself, who received death threats and a place in the FBI files.
Even so, the production had a seismic effect in the artistic community - its director was Nick Castle a famous choreographer for 20th Century Fox. Charlie Chaplin gave advice at rehearsals, Orson Welles offered to make the show a Mercury Theater production and Mickey Rooney wrote a song featured in the production - “Cymbal Rockin’ Sam”. Langston Hughes was asked for a contribution and promptly wrote “Mad Scene from Woolworth’s.” Financial backing poured in from a long list of movers and shakers including film producer Joe Pasternak and actor John Garfield.
Opening night was July 10th 1941 at The Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles with 60 cast members, including The Ellington Orchestra, many Hollywood notables, and soon to be stars, including 19 year old Dorothy Dandridge.
The Mayan Theater - Los Angeles
Upon entering the theater you were handed a detailed program complete with a glossary of “hep” terminology translations; “groovy” was transformed from “in the know” , “fellow” became “cat” and so on. What followed was an evening of, as Ellington put it “no crying, no moaning, but entertaining, and with social demands as a potent spice”, all in rebellion against traditional representations of blacks on stage and screen. The Ellington Orchestra featured in the show is considered to be the best in the organization’s 83 year history; at the creative core were Ben Webster, (the orchestra's first regular tenor saxophonist and one of the most influential musicians of his generation) and Jimmy Blanton, who is arguably the most important jazz bassist ever. It was during this time that Blanton contracted the tuberculosis that took his life in July 1942. He was only 22.

After 3 months and 100 performances, Jump For Joy was essentially retired in the fall of 1941, until the release of a 1958 recording by Cannonball Adderley
which stripped away the theatrical aspects and added strings and a remarkable supporting cast that included Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb – along with Adderley, Cobb and Evans were members of the Miles Davis Quintet at the time and the 3 recorded Kind Of Blue a few months prior; The Jump for Joy sessions were completed just two days after they had taken part in Miles’ recording of George Gershwin's opera “Porgy and Bess”. Ironically, Ellington’s Jump For Joy was in many ways an antithetical reaction to Porgy; consider the juxtaposition of the Porgy's "Bess You is My Woman Now" and Jump for Joy's "Uncle Tom's Cabin is a Drive In Now."
Cannonball also condensed the original 31 piece score down to ten fabulous tracks and the thrilling solo he plays on "I Got It Bad..." is inspired to say the least. But did he know the story behind the song? Who knows…but without a doubt Cannonball Adderley joined the generations of music lovers who have kept and will keep this important work of art playing for generations to come. SW