“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


The Art of Swinging: Everybody Has to Be Doing It

The club opens. The people enter. The band hits the stage and everybody is ready to swing.


The servers pour water, the band starts the first tune, the people are getting into the groove. Everybody is swinging.


What I love about the Jazz fan is that they know what’s happening and they know when it’s nothappening, but they’re still gonna groove with you. What I love about the person who may not be an aficionado, they might not know exactly what’s going on, but they’ll bob their heads, pat their feet or sway to the feeling of whatever their hearts and minds are sensing. They’re just as hip, you see – in order for swing to be effective, everybody has to be doing it. When my sister yells out, “Woo!” and someone else goes, “Ah!” and the drummer goes “Blam” and the server stops what he’s doing to look up at the band – everybody is swinging, y’feel me?


The band is now on fire. They’ve been at it for about 4 songs and somehow 40 minutes have passed and the leader looks at the setlist and realizes he still has 8 more songs to go in a 75-minute set and what the hell am I supposed to do now?!? I got all this good music and I can’t play it all. Danny Jankow tells me we could have played another hour and it would have been cool. It was getting late and the leader wasn’t too sure about that…


I skip a few things to interrupt the “lull” and wind things down, but finish big, wishing there could have been another set. Not this night. Not this town. Not these days. Not this economy.


Next era for sure – everybody will be doing it

(Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 3:08am)

In Remembrance of Dave Brubeck

images-7But, it’s about so much more than that…

When I was 4, my Aunt Barbara gave me an inch high stack of used vinyl records that she purchased for a quarter from a flea market. Included in that stack was Dave Brubeck’s “Time Further Out”, recorded May/June 1961. When I put on the first track, “It’s a Raggy Waltz”, it struck a chord with the funny, adventurous side of my “old soul.” That’s all I knew; here’s what I DIDN’T know then:

I didn’t know that this record was over 10 years old.

I didn’t know that Mr. Brubeck was a leading force in the “Cool Jazz” era.

I didn’t know that he, along with Max Roach, was a master of odd time signatures.

I didn’t know that Dave Brubeck was White and Modoc.

I didn’t know ANY of that and didn’t care.

Here’s what I do know: we have to stop guilt-tripping young musicians into playing Jazz. They’re not going to find their place that way and ultimately, this is what freedom of choice is all about as an artist.  If they have to ask too many questions and don’t have the innate desire to consume this music with love and burning passion, then there’s a good chance they weren’t meant to play it. If there is a contingency that wishes to label swinging as “old hat” and “outdated” – I can’t do anything about that, except to keep being pro-swing. “Anti-“ is going to get you nowhere – fast.

The only way to “preserve” the music is to keep playing it. History gets written down – we learn about it. We’ll never forget wars, inventions, catastrophes – largely because these events have been documented (with some accuracy) and re-told over the ages. For those of us that love swinging, we have to simply continue in that vein. If we allow ourselves to get discouraged because of who’s on what magazine covers, who’s on whose gigs, who’s in which venues – we become bogged down in the mire of bullshit that has absolutely nothing to do with being artistic: performance, creativity and the edification of others.

Let’s find our way back home.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012