The Wolfe

I would imagine many bass players feel like the underdogs of the band. It’s the instrument you normally have to struggle the most to hear. He’s not generally the frontline or headline cat and he doesn’t get a whole lot of solos and when he does solo, the unknowing “tune out.”

 A good bass player is usually the MVP of a band. When the bassist is not playing, there’s often a big hole, unless there’s some effect that’s being pursued. When you think of the great Jazz bands in history, it’s doubtful you could fathom Ahmad without Israel Crosby, Miles without PC or Ron, Cannon without Sam Jones, Trane without Jimmy Garrison, O.P. without Ray and so on.

Ben Wolfe has what I consider to be a true bass sound: it’s warm, full and fuzzy – like a big ol’ grizzly bear. Even the look of the bass resembles something ursidaen. (Totally Googled that.) He is certainly a valuable asset to a rhythm section. His contribution is not just musical; the knowledge and spirit he brings to the proceedings is invaluable. When you’re on the bandstand with him, you can see that he wants to be there. There is little worse than a musician on the bandstand “phoning it in” because he either doesn’t have his head in the game, doesn’t feel like “giving it up” or he doesn’t like the playing of somebody else on the bandstand. (Those cats can get stuffed.)

It’s no surprise that Ben is such a prolific composer; his bass lines flow like well-written compositions and not just notes that fit under chords. No doubt, it’s his penchant for the pencil that enhances his ability to support a band from moment to masterful moment.

Off the bandstand, Big Ben is equally as intense; never at a loss for conversation, his views and observations on music are always intriguing and sometimes controversial, but always insightful. This guy is a proud, bona fide Jazz musician and he sees not a damn thing wrong with it.

Lucky us

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MILLER VARIATIONS (III): A Glance at Mulgrew Miller in Three Parts

III. FAREWELL, DOGMAN

You gotta get your mind right before you attend a funeral: getting up that morning and knowing that part of the intent that day is to bury someone. The first, second and third things on your mind; all during the drive to the location of the ceremony. You’re there now and you have to get out of the car and walk into the building, not having any idea who or what you’ll see first. Funeral jitters.

It was unreal. I was kind of okay until I entered the church and saw Nat Reeves with tears in his eyes and – of course, crying is contagious. A compilation of a few of Mulgrew’s recordings was playing softly. The coffin was opened and I could see him, even though I knew that wasn’t really him. The stark reality of it all was, again – unreal. There was so much confusion as to exactly what was going on during the 4 days Mulgrew lay in the hospital, which didn’t make the anxiety of exactly how to respond any easier to endure. Yet, there was a horrible sense of the inevitable. But, the news of his death wouldn’t be as shocking as the funeral itself.

In the 2½ hours we droned through the observance, there were two awkward moments that, fortuitously, were quite necessary to take our minds off of the fact that one of Jazz’s greatest warriors was cut down on the battlefield. The first snafu occurred about halfway through the service, when one of the church officials introduced the playback of a live-recorded version of Mulgrew’s poignant Farewell to Dogma:

“And now, we’re going to have a CD by Mulgrew Miller entitled ‘Farewell, Dogman’.”

Now, as sad as we all were, we were ruined by that. But, it didn’t stop there…not by a long shot.

Most of you will know that a “homily” is a sermon delivered in a shorter amount of time than in a regular church service. In the context of a funeral, a homily briefly summarizes the life of the deceased. This particular homily did neither. Retired (or so we thought) pastor Dale Lind embarked upon a stroll down memory lane with the late early Jazz guitarist Lawrence Lucie, stumbling upon a minor treatise on candle ashes, finally wrapping up his 25-minute meander with a digression on The Wizard of Oz. With every passing minute, tears of sadness turned into tears of smothered laughter – some, barely controlling themselves. Someone’s cell phone kept ringing – I swore it was Mulgrew calling to shut it down. Ironically, the funeral was mildly indicative of how I used to see Mulgrew operate in minor conflicts – quietly letting the situation yield to its inevitable conclusion.

In addition to making us delve into a deeper level of feeling, great art inspires us to ascend to a higher level of consciousness. Hence, Mulgrew’s life embodied an immaculate painting or musical masterpiece. His music made us think, his words made us smile, his neglected career profile made us angry and his death made us cry. But, the sum and total of him should make us appreciative and glad that God loaned him to us, even if just for a short while. Mulgrew motivated us towards human betterment, but without him here in the physical, the Jazz scene is gonna have one hell of a time staying on point. Grown men cried in front of each other and hugs grew stronger and lasted significantly longer. Some said, “Let’s keep in touch, bro,” – but won’t. Some said, “Man, we need to get on that bandstand!” – but, won’t. Business as usual will resume and then we’ll see each other again at the next cat’s funeral – or our own.

If I could siphon a single word from this whole ordeal, it would be “live.”

MILLER VARIATIONS (II): A Glance at Mulgrew Miller in Three Parts

VARIATION II: GETTING TO KNOW ‘GREW

Back in 1985, I was sporting a 1980 brown Ford Thunderbird, which I spent more time pushing than driving around the city of Los Angeles. Keep in mind, this was right around the time compact discs had begun to flood the scene, but I had no such thing in my “hooptie”, just a radio/cassette player. The sound system was “tricked out” and actually cost more than the car itself, which I bought used (now “pre-owned”) from a vato down the street.

As I was getting ready to exit my ride to walk into the house, this blazing track came on KKGO 105.1-FM, which I recognized as the chord changes to The Days of Wine and Roses, but totally done in by some new composer’s wizardry. Halfway through the performance, I was back on the road, on the way to the nearest record store, because I knew once deejay Chuck Niles announced who this monster was murdering these changes, I was going to have to snatch that joint up. (No smartphones, no Shazam, no SoundHound apps.) Well, by the time I got to Sam Goody’s, the tune was over. Chuck back-announced it and I asked myself, “What the hell is a Mugloo Milner?!?” Needless to say, I got that straightened out and copped what is still a prize possession – “Keys to the City”, Mulgrew Miller’s first recording as a leader on the Landmark label. So, I popped the CD in my player at home and learned the entire album. (The tune, by the way, was Promethean.)

When I first met Mulgrew, he was playing with Tony Williams at Catalina Bar & Grill (back when it was on Cahuenga). I was the only Black teen in the house that night, so it was easy for him to zero right in on me with that big down home smile of his. After the gig, I wound up taking him to a Thai food place around the corner and then finally, to a nearby Holiday Inn, where he was staying for the week. By the time I got home, it was about 3am and moms was absolutely furious (again, no cell phones.) While she was reading my title clear, all I could hear was that ridiculous solo Mulgrew had just slayed the audience with on Arboretum. Mulgrew would continue to come to LA a couple of times a year, mostly with Tony Williams or sometimes Benny Golson. He knew to look for me and I certainly always tried to look out for him.

Musicians like to joke on stage when announcing each other: “My grandfather used to play his records for me when I was a kid”, etc. This is one of the oddities of the Jazz world; age doesn’t seem to be so apparent because the music and the musicians seem timeless. Mulgrew was 15 years older than me, but always addressed me as if I were his peer. You would think with the age difference, his vibe would be more avuncular, but he was really much more big brotherly. He was painfully humble and extraordinarily compassionate. Perhaps, it’s this disposition that kept him from the exposure he desired, but even Mulgrew might shun the idea that he was entitled to anything. However, he was hardly passive, rather, he just opted to pick his battles.

He became more than a musical hero to me; he became a mentor and a friend. And ironically, I always noticed my blood pressure decreasing when I was around him. Maybe he has nine lives…

MILLER VARIATIONS (I): A Glance at Mulgrew Miller in Three Parts

I. DIMINUENDO AND CRESCENDO IN ‘GREW

Every generation in Jazz contains a coterie of pianist/composers that influenced the idiom. On the short list, the 1920s yielded James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith; 1930s – Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller; 1940s – Nat Cole, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell; 1950s – Horace Silver, Bill Evans; 1960s – McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, etc.
(Again, this is a short listnot a comprehensive one.)

The 1980s produced extraordinary talents like Donald Brown, Kenny Kirkland and Mulgrew Miller. “Doctone” (Kirkland) was a super-versatile beast that could hear a butterfly breathe, “Silk” (Brown) composed music that became the soundtrack for the decade and “‘Grew” conjured up ridiculous “sideways” lines and a “wtf?!?” approach to melody.

Mulgrew’s most obvious influences were always apparent (Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner among them), yet he was still singular. You knew him the minute you heard him or if you didn’t know for sure who was playing, you thought you were listening to someone who had really checked him out. At some point or another, most pianists who came of age in the mid-1980s were stricken with Mulgrewnosis.

Quite simply – Mulgrew was, what the cats affectionately call, a monster. Nothing eluded his skills: harmonic ingenuity, fluid and articulate lines, velocity and clarity. His conception seemed to evolve out of his intense work and apprenticeship with the ill-fated Woody Shaw, much in the way McCoy Tyner’s conception was enhanced during his tenure with John Coltrane’s quartet. Like another well-respected journeyman – Hank Jones, Mulgrew was that rare musician whose knowledge of musical theory and standards combined with a unique approach to piano-playing made him a valuable asset on any project. A band or recording that featured him in the piano chair always had a fresh and edgy sound. These qualities placed Mulgrew on an elite tier of gentlemen alongside Hank Jones and Kenny Barron as the most frequently recorded pianists in Jazz.

I suspect that part of the reason that Mulgrew never gained wider access to audiences is because his concept was singularly musical. His enviable improvisational exploits flowed endlessly and effortlessly. But, when Mulgrew ascended to that higher plane, you had to have already been onboard for liftoff; this would have been especially difficult if you were not a musician. This also meant that whoever happened to be holding down the bass and drum chairs at the time were going to need to ably support ‘Grew’s fantastic flights of fancy, while neither constraining him or getting in his way. He had to have known all of this about himself; yet, he was the most humble man you’d ever want to meet. How could a guy with such influential musical prowess not have more career visibility? Looking back, I can see why this became a conflict.

As a sideman, Mulgrew didn’t ego-trip. He understood the supportive role of an accompanist and was very easy to play with (and get along with), not to mention being a musician of the first water. It may not have been his intention, but Mulgrew wound up inheriting the mantle of leadership from former employers Art Blakey and Betty Carter – the best Jazz institutions that ever existed. In his own bands, Mulgrew wasn’t into hiring the flavors-of-the-month, but rather cats with musical perspicacity. If the two were somehow combined, fine – but this was not his impetus. Some thought he made rather abstruse sideman choices at times, but if Mulgrew had a cat up on the bandstand, believe me, it wasn’t because he was doing anybody any favors.

Mulgrew was not a politician, nor was he a publicity hound. He wasn’t a stage hog and didn’t mind letting cats blow. Although he was full of personal and artistic integrity, this was often viewed as not playing ball by the powers that be. To fuel and maintain a high profile career, one is expected to hire the right musicians, play the right music, say the right things and kiss the right rings. Mulgrew possessed the kind of artistic authenticity of someone fully committed to the idea of Jazz. He wasn’t the type of cat who you could label as “limited” merely because he chose to do one thing amazingly well vs. dibble and dabble in a bunch of self-aggrandizing pursuits in some feeble attempt to convince people that he was diverse. The uninformed misappropriate “diverse” as not wanting to be labeled or stuck in one style, which essentially means, they don’t really master much. Somewhere in all the muck and mire, lies the explanation for a seven-year gap of no recordings of him as a leader between 1995 and 2002, save for a solo recording in 2000. Mulgrew remained hopeful and positive about the current state of Jazz; me – not so much.

Upon final confirmation of his death, I promptly whipped out my Mulgrew Miller-led discography (of sadly less than 20 projects) to reminisce and was reminded just how much he had influenced me. We bonded on such a human level; I hadn’t really paid attention to how strong an impact he had on me musically. Grew-vy is a tune I wrote that hints a bit at Grew’s Tune. When Kenny Kirkland died in 1998, I composed Doc’s Blues with a tip of the hat to Mulgrew’s Portrait of a Mountain. Honestly, these were things that I didn’t notice until well after the fact. Well, that’s how influence works – I digested so much of his work and then figured out a way to turn it into something from which I ‘grew. ;^D

Integrity

“Mulgrew [Miller] always played with integrity.” ~Russell Malone
“There are no rewards for disciplinarians – only consequences.” ~Ahmad Jamal

Sadly, the word “integrity” doesn’t generally inspire excellence these days. We are living in a time when words like “nobility”, “genuine” and “righteous” are associated with individuals touted as fanatical conservatives who oppress and judge. The inverse is some overly liberal, carefree existence where there are no rules, no definitions and no parameters. Even parenting has taken on an anarchic edge, as many parents are virtually letting their children raise themselves and select their own choice of consequences for bad behavior (or no immediate consequences at all.) We are rapidly deviating from any moral compass, devoid of the responsibility of making choices that require integrity.

Integrity costs. I watched a brilliant pianist like Mulgrew Miller get brushed aside for some 30 years. Essentially, Mulgrew was a quiet but warm individual, not controversial or outspoken and really not concerned for his own glory, but for the edification of others and their musical and personal wellbeing. One could say that he was largely ignored because he didn’t put himself out there; industry-wise, one could be right. But, Jazz (or any other art of this nature) is supposed to soar above the fray of greedy/thieving promoters, surly club owners, incompetent managers, jealous and mediocre musicians, publicity hounds and ignorant record executives that make up the crux of the “music industry.” We can take some solace in the fact that this venomous listing does not include every individual in the aforementioned factions, for there are a number of “angels” who serve the Jazz community well, of which Mulgrew Miller was certainly one.

Arts institutions do not exist in a Utopian vacuum; everyone has a fiscal bottom line. But, what of the artistic bottom line? Essentially, since we are the ones creating the music, the onus of integrity in the music is upon the artist, more so than anyone else. Once artists acknowledge that notion and subsequently function with this in mind, external entities would have no choice but to respond accordingly. We have to stop accepting whatever is tossed at us because our charge and mission are greater than that.

Look – nobody wants to be a “struggling artist”; we’ve spent many years eschewing the personal paths of Van Gogh, Mozart and Bird. But, in mentioning those geniuses in particular, I am moved and even terrified by the mere listing of their names beside each other; the amount of work they produced in their tragically short lives (not one of them reached age 40) – one could almost believe the myth that you have to suffer the worst of hardships and be self-destructive in order to pursue a higher artistic consciousness. We know this to be false, but we do know that there is definitely a struggle involved.

Part of the struggle includes making sacrifices that most of us are simply not willing to make. Though there is a high price to pay for excellence, these sacrifices don’t have to cost us our lives. Yes, an individual can excel artistically and take care of himself and his family – but, it’s by no means an easy road. What we have to accept is that most of us probably won’t be awarded the highest honors or “a little pin from the pope,” but look at Mulgrew Miller: quietly, he terrorized Jazz pianists with his abilities and was a beautiful human being – this is his legacy of integrity. I’m willing to follow that example.

“If the mountain was smooth, you wouldn’t be able to climb it.” ~Unknown

Response to Pop Matters’ Will Layman “Is Innovation Required in Jazz Today?”

Please read the content from the following links in order to follow the thread:

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/162520-branford-marsalis-quartet-four-mfs-playin-tunes/

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/163040-is-innovation-required/

The problem is we keep looking to outside influences to develop and create new sounds in Jazz music. When Grover Washington served notice with his CTI recordings, it was heralded as ‘good music’, but certainly nobody called this “innovative.” We only need to look to the courageous pioneers that went foraging through the vast depths of melody combined with ancient and contemporary experiences. How many trumpet players today can stand firm and declare that they’ve truly digested even what Booker Little spewed out of his horn – let alone Louis Armstrong…yet as important as Booker is, he’s left out of the running almost entirely.