Friday, August 6, 2010

Ralph J. Gleason's "Jazz Casual"

I apologize if my last post was a little gloomy and perhaps confusing. I don't want to to drive you away. There is not yet any logical sequence or rhythm to the way I have been posting. I don't know if there ever will be. But in every post I am trying to write essays or stories or synopses that you will read to the end. If I have done that, I am satisfied. Here goes another:

Ralph J. Gleason

From 1960-1968, the jazz and pop critic Ralph J. Gleason created and hosted a TV show called "Jazz Casual," broadcast on the NET network. (He was also a founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine.) Gleason cared immensely about jazz and wanted to share it with a wide audience while showcasing the jazz (and blues) musicians he so respected. Such artists as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, B.B. King, Carmen McRae, John Handy, and Keith Jarrett performed for this TV show which would yield 31 episodes, but of which only 28 are available today. The first episode, not yet available, featured Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. These episodes are relics, as important for jazz's posterity as Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" or Arthur Taylor's "Notes and Tones."

Many are available on YouTube. The following video, featuring Jimmy Witherspoon and Ben Webster backed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, is one of my favorites. Witherspoon and Webster are both direly delicate, letting their phrases trail off with the subtlest traces of vapory vibrato. It seems, as Witherspoon sings, that he is, heroically, coming to terms with the lyrics as he arrives at each new word. But listen for yourself:

Ain't Nobody's Business

(Jimmy Witherspoon and Ben Webster)

I'll leave you with an excerpt from an article, written by the great New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, of the best description of Ben Webster's sound I have ever come across:

He would start a medium-slow blues solo very softly with a weaving five-note phrase, pause, play a high, barely audible blue note, and duck back to his opening phrase, still as soft as first sunlight. He would harden his tone slightly at the start of his next chorus, issue an annunciatory phrase, repeat it, insert a defiant tremolo. . . . His tone would grow hard, he would growl and crowd his notes, he would shake his phrases as if he had them clamped in his teeth. . . . As the years went by . . . he would close certain phrase endings by allowing his vibrato to melt into pure undulating breath—dramatically offering, before the breath expired, the ghost of his sound.

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