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lester young

Some smart folks insist Nat King Cole doesn’t get enough credit for his vital and historical role in Jazz trio piano playing. Hell, I’ve often said it. In point of fact, it’s been said so often that it isn’t true. We should qualify as such: Nat King Cole gets plenty of credit as the revolutionary pianist who gets no credit. He’s like the underrated ball player who keeps getting called the underrated ball player and has his face plastered on Time as well as Sports Illustrated. We might even call such a ball player: “the most overrated underrated ball player.” As for Cole, he is not underrated, and he did far more than pave the way for Jazz trios and small forces (though paving the way for smaller ensembles is a good enough thing considering post-war music union strikes and the rise of the crooner which made big bands expensive and anachronistic). Cole, besides making the small jazz combo viable (then becoming a crooner in the post-big band era himself) presages as much of the bebop style as exemplified by Monk as Lester Young presages Charlie Parker and bebop. Here’s some tiddy biddies on the matter:

1. Unlike those who went before him (and after him), Cole did not seek to make his instrument or his voice imitative of the other. Satch sounds like his horn. Almost all the singers who were players have a sympatico between their voice and their instruments–not Cole. Cole’s piano style is surprisingly and beautifully abrasive–far more percussive than melodic, far more angular, lean, clean, and with hardly a rubato or damper pedal heavy romanticism to be had–the opposite of his voice. The closest his voice and piano style come is on “Route 66.” Otherwise, it’s like Cole the singer and Cole the pianist inhabit totally different spheres.

2. Though Cole knew stride and boogie techniques better than most, he does not play his solid percussive piano along those traditional lines, but has his own sort of “Swing.” His left on ” Somebody Loves me” with lester Young affords a good example of this: though he is playing stride with an occasional boogie passacaglia, he does something in right/left hand co-ordination that sounds a hell of a lot like Monk–odd but inevitable dissonances, quirky “allusions” to stride, stomp and boogie rather than actual adherence to them (Cole, like a good postmodernist, knows how to quote the tradition without getting trapped in it). Like Monk, he is referencing, tweaking, and parodying the entire jazz piano cannon (and blowing it up at the same time)–and in the space of a single number! After hearing him play with Lester and Buddy Rich, I went back to other Cole piano bits, and found out it wasn’t a fluke. His left hand work was already free from the limits of stride and boogie and swing (before the boppers and Parker), but it is also free of the chord clusters and chunks of future post-swing players, and he is doing intervals of 2nd’s at times–something Monk was given credit for innovating. Amazing. As for his right hand, it never tries to impress, but has what I call “bubbling bel-canto.” A sort of singing tone that bubbles, and perks, and moves like brook water–swift, effortless, and with neither loyalty nor slavishness to the melody. His right hand can be leggiero while his left is staccato–more water freedom, than breezy freedom. Cole can flow more than swing, and flow is the greater attribute. Amen.

So I have come full circle: Cole does not get enough credit for his piano playing, but then again, how do you give genius enough credit?

I don’t make any claims to be an authority on Jazz. This is my personal take from what I’ve been listening to and hearing for my entire life. My definition of Jazz is pretty wide. Any syncopated or swung music that likes brass and uses blue notes as well as sampling from many sources fits this category for me. Jazz is another word for stew–cool or hot.

In all cultures that are oppressed, forced to go underground, made to wear two faces, there is a mythology of night and day–the day world and the night world divided. This division exists as a projection of the divided soul, that which is enslaved, and that which is free. It was true of the early Christians. This was true in Ireland after the British occupation. It is true in all Creole and African diaspora cultures–the soul divided which can find genuine release and a modicum of dignity through a union of music, story, art and folk ways in which the tension between day and night, good and evil, the spirit and the letter is ongoing. This meets commodity when it enters the urban sprawl and is patronized by a ruling elite who have never thrown off two tendencies that both sustain and often distort the folk: the myth of the genuine (what fed the romantics and continues to feed both pop and so called art cultures) and the need for novelty, for slumming, for the “primal.”

We make a mistake if we believe the primal is simple. In terms of form, nothing is more contrived than the primal, more tied to the idea of showing off, strutting chops, because it is a release of power and ferocity, of spirituality and sex/death; true power and ferocity calls for the ecstasy of precision–never sloppiness. Such forms become simplified only when they are turned toward the marketplace: blues, for example, was heavily chromatic, and based on line rather than chord changes. If you listen to early blues, it is not only chromatic, but micro-tonal, falls into the I/IV/V chord patterns only as it is being re-interpreted for mass consumption. It is not inexactitude, or inferior tunings, though the instruments may be home made: it is a sound come from traditions in which communal call and response and the counter-point of that call and response is poly-rhythmic.

At the same time, these musicians pick up sounds on the fly, and they took as much from so called sophisticated (actually simpler) European ideas of melody and structure, especially marching bands, and certain forms of choral singing. No truly musical ear is ever pure. It steals freely and often, and this is where blues, jazz, and, later, rap comes into conflict with middle class ideas of property values. Musicians rip each other off constantly, and their ears are whores. If their ears are not whores, I don’t trust them. Someone truly musical listens and hears whatever moves him or her. Lester Young liked good polka tunes. He loved the sweet, decidedly un-Lester clarinet of Dorsey. He also cried shamelessly when he watched the 1939 movie version of Wuthering Heights. He didn’t sit around saying, “I’m Lester Young; I’m inventing cool as we know it. I can’t listen to polka and I can’t like Puccini.” That’s the bullshit of gatekeepers, snob asses–not musicians.

If you’re going to get into jazz, do some research and listen to marching bands–New Orleans and Sousa. Listen to the cut time of Jazz dance music because it’s a little like syncopated polka. Listen to early black gospel, but also the innovations made on Catholic traditions in New Orleans. Showing off, bragging, gangster styling, spiritual lament and celebration does not begin with rock and roll or rap.

Jelly Roll Morton worked as a bouncer, a gambler, and a pimp. He was also a 15 year old boy who played his first professional gigs in a New Orleans brothel. When his grandmother found out (he told her he was working nights in a warehouse), she threw him out of her house for playing “devil’s music.” The spiritual terrain of the outcast, the slave, the bonded lives on intimate terms with both God and the devil. But one must not begin therel; instead, begin with two different versions of faith–the faith of priest/genteel, and the faith of prophet/outsider. Both are equally important to Jazz and both could be found mixing it up in New Orleans for over a hundred years before Jazz was known. The dynamic between the spirit and the letter, the spiritual release of the night, and the longing for respectable life during the day is an ancient mystery. The two fuel each other as often as they fight. Not only is the divide between good and evil, night and day, but it is also between respectability and the raw dignity of that which must find its fortunes through a gravitas the world cannot bend to normative standards. There is a centuries-long dynamic between the whore house and the church.