The Jazz Band in the American Psych

This doesn't mean that the laws of the universe have been changed by music, for eventually the members of the string quartet will die and add to the entropy of universe. But it is an interesting thought that order is transferred by the string quartet composition, perpetuating a state of low entropy. But then, information and entropy are related, hence the question of what happens when information falls into a black hole. And perhaps that is the thing; sometimes when playing in a string quartet and everything goes wrong – hopefully during rehearsal and not during concert – entropy increases, disorder prevails and it is rather like falling into a black hole.

Other aspects of jazz that fit the American psych is the love happy endings, be it in novels and films. Because what is a happy ending? It could be a vague promise of future happiness, a kiss, a cuddly feeling at the end of a TV programme; in other words, no ending at all. Americans on the whole don't like endings. Americans like progress, like to forge on. Don't dwell on things like doom or destiny. And as such not only jazz, but the skyscraper, tap dancing in the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire here, the comic strip roll without the ending, the ending that so important in the classical symphony or string quartet. What I'm suggesting here is of course the America of the jazz era, where jazz was born and created, not particularly the America of today where reality has hit hard. Not that that is maybe going to make any difference, because the great depression of the 1930s certainly hit hard, but it didn't kill off jazz. Jazz rebounded in the form of the big bands through the Second World War. And of course this is all just a generality, because some of the greatest classical composers of the more recent decades have been American, so here I am talking about the popular arts. 

A good hot jazz band is impulsive, creates an unexpected and is vital. The vitality of the jazz band, just as with a good ceilidh band or barn dance band, is what it's all about. Never mind perfectly played music, all the niceties that are so important with the string quartet performance, it's the vitality of the performance the matters that makes it good or bad. Regrettably, this is sometimes so removed from the string quartet culture that many string quartet performances lack any form of vitality, they just lose with smoothness and elegance, but without the contrast of vitality and excitement the performance to me is nothing. That's why like Eastern European string quartet so much, perhaps they are more close to the gypsy, Arabic hence Indian and Afro American jazz, that they haven't forgotten entirely the importance of invention and vitality. 

Jazz can be said to be a form of folk music, but it isn't folk music in the same way as a ceilidh band or barn dance band plays Scottish or Irish music. Although this kind of music has to some extent become popular, it hasn't created the popular mass hysteria that jazz created during the swing craze in America. It hasn't had such an effect as jazz as on the whole development of pop music to this present day. Folk music hasn't provided the mainstay of a large number of recording publishing houses throughout the world as jazz did and it's heyday and its descendants in the pop music world still does today. Folk music and folk dancing remains a minority sport, but one with great sustaining power. Although the public ceilidh is a rarity compared with 50 years ago, the barn dance and ceilidh have had a resurgence for weddings and parties, where it can provide an evening's entertainment that involves absolutely everybody from tiny tots to grandparents, all without deafening them. Whatever pop music can do, it can't do this, it can't be the all-inclusive highly social entertainment for the barn dance and ceilidh can be. Jazz in the jazz band was partway between the two, not so all-inclusive as the barn dance but certainly more inclusive than heavy rock band.

The attempt to reconcile jazz and classical music has led to some strange things. I said earlier that I'd been to a concert of Stephane Grappelli with his jazz trio in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. Although it was very enjoyable, it was a strange experience. There was this amazing jazz trio whose natural environment would have been a jazz cafe or small intimate jazz venue, here playing in a magnificent and enormous concert hall designed for a hundred piece symphony orchestra or the performance of an offer with a large cast. This was a jazz trio who would have been communicating with their music, not only orally but by intimate visual communication and physical presence to a small audience clustered around them, here in the Usher Hall set in the centre of something the size of a Roman amphitheatre waiting to be by the alliance. I doubt they'd have been much intimate communication going on between a doomed Christian or gladiator and the audience waiting to see them die. It was totally wacky situation and only the brilliant musicianship of Grappelli and his colleagues turned what could have been a complete disaster into enjoyable concert.

Composers of traditional classical music have also tried to get in on the jazz act. American composers in particular have written jazz symphonies, jazz concertos and jazz fugues. Even the Russian composer Shostakovich has written a jazz suite. But were any of them really successful rather than just being interesting compositions? Not sure that they are. One interesting fusion of jazz and classics was with the Indian classical music tradition, with the band called Indo Jazz Fusion, which I think was around in the 1970s or thereabouts. I had a recording of this which I've sadly lost, but you can hear just one of their LPs on Spotify. But most attempts at combining classical music and jazz is not jazz at all, has its formalised musical structure prohibits the very type of improvisation that makes jazz fun to listen to. It remains a classical composition with jazz style timings. An exception to this is possibly Gershwin's slightly jazzy opera Porky and Bess and Leonard Bernsteins West Side Story.

If Jazz Is a Form of Folk Music, the Difference between Folk Music and Artistic Music or Classical Music Is Almost Absolute. Folk music just grows unattended, as few intellectual complexities but has a direct and emotional appeal that can be felt by anyone, even those who aren't interested in music as an art form. Folk music is often wonderful to listen to, whether it's jazz or whether it's music at a Scottish ceilidh or English barn dance. Classical music though is an intellectual art of great complexity. It takes over where folk music ends in terms of creating music that is the creation of a specific artist (composer). The whole business of creating music as a composer or as a classical musician, for example in the string quartet, relies on a long history of knowledge and techniques that been passed on through history in the same way as the laws of physics and the techniques of engineering. Whereas Sir Isaac Newton formulated the laws of motion, Faraday and Maxwell the laws of electromagnetism, Einstein the laws of relativity, all of which were passed down to enable the creation of everything from television to the atomic bomb, so composers like Byrd, Hyden, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok have passed down their skills and knowledge to enable new and evolving piece of music to be created, which are the result of centuries of civilised intellectual music of thinking. Not only have the composers been to compose through tradition, but musicians have been trained to play in styles that are handed down by tradition and audiences are trained to listen and understand through tradition. It's clear this the case because the whole thing breaks down when some new avant-garde string quartet is played at a concert to the completely blank looks of almost all the audience. Most people have no idea whether it is a good piece of music a bad piece of music and only time will tell. If it was bad, it will die, but if it was good it will become easy listening music on the classic FM in the year 2100.

I mentioned before that the blues and jazz is harmonically very simple. Almost every blues number use exactly the same harmony as every other blues number. Rhythmically, jazz is rather clever, but not very much more varied. In its original form it was limited to 4/4 or 2/4 time, and although there's the odd piece in 5/fall time like Dave Brubeck's Take Five, this unusual. Jazz is very much about beautiful and original melodies, which is what folk music is about and is clearly evident if you go to a barn dance and ceilidh. It is tunes that involve, rather than themes as in classical music. The tunes are simple and self-contained, rather like TV adverts are simple and self-contained, little films of absolute perfection designed to get over just one message. They can be repeated, sometimes with variations and ornamentation, but they're not extended. There is none of the development of a handful of simple and often not very attractive little themes into complete half our string quartet or one-hour Symphony.

The jazz band musician just like the ceilidh band musician creates their one-shot TV advert like Melody and repeated over and over again. The classical composer on the other hand may start with the one-shot TV advert like melody, more often than not are extremely simple washes whiter than white type TV advert melody, but treated merely as raw material on which to work and weave a technicolour dream coat. Quartet, Symphony or few.

Classical music can also be rather like an obstacle course. The composer creates a piece of music aimed to show off the virtuosity of a performer, such as on a violin or piano concerto. The way to show off the athletic virtuosity, and it is athletics in many cases, is to make the musician jump higher, run faster, the former pentathlon or marathon where other musicians can only jog. Then there of the members of the audience for their to observe the musician taking part in this SAS style obstacle course, only mildly satisfied if they complete it, but overjoyed if they fall into the mud from the top of the clambering wall.

Such audience members will invariably hate jazz or hate the ceilidh or barn dance. At a jazz concert or barn dance there is no laid out obstacle course that has to be tackled in precise order. Inspired by the mood, the jazz band for the ceilidh band will play music of great beauty or great excitement, sometimes exhibiting amazing musicianship, but out of fun, joy, great sorrow, and other emotions which they are sharing with the audience and asking the audience to share her back to them in a feedback system that takes the music to greater heights on the audience to greater depths of experience. A ceilidh or barn dance can be a fairly ordinary affair if the audience don't want to dance don't want to listen to the music. It becomes just like a classical music concert with the audience sit there, no expression, no interaction and the musicians perform. That's all there is to it. But when the audience reacts to the jazz band or to the ceilidh band, and feedback that reaction to the band who play to it, then that feedback loop comes into action and the whole event rockets skywards.

I have talked a lot about jazz, and the most common jazz instruments are trumpets, pianos, double bass, clarinets and so on, but as a violinist myself (who can't play jazz to save his life I'm ashamed to admit, although I do play very good pseudo-jazz with my string quartet, but that really is quite different from the true improvised jazz), I thought I would really pay homage to Joe Venuti,  Jazz violinist extraordinary.

Joe Venuti was the godfather of the jazz violin. He achieved fame in the 1920's leading various bands with his childhood friend, guitarist Eddie Lang. Both were visionary pioneers discovering the hitherto unexplored territory of jazz on their respective instruments. Their guitar-violin duets and Blue Four and Blue Five sides of the late 20's are considered classics of 'chamber jazz'.

It seemed that the guy had a bit of sense of humour as well and was also an irrepressible practical joker and many are the strange but true stories of his antics. In fact in some ways you have to have a sense of humour to play jazz on a violin, because in some ways it's just the wrong sort of instrument for it, but didn't get it right, it sounds fantastic. During the filming of the Paul Whiteman film King of Jazz (1930), he emptied a bag of flour into the bell of the tuba and the band seemed to disappear under a white cloud. When the management refused to turn the heating up on a cold night, Joe emptied a van of firewood on the dance floor and served hot dogs to the customers. Now, this is something that I should have done on many occasions with my string quartet when we are asked to play for church wedding ceremonies in the winter. Churches can be the coldest places on this planet in the middle of winter, when you're asked to sit there half an hour waiting for the late Bryden guests to arrive, then try to play beautiful music as the guests awaiting, then play with great elegance and commitment as the bride walks up the aisle, the antics of Mr Venuti seem to be very sane.

Another occasion it appears that he threw a piano out of a studio window betting on what chord it would play when it landed. He gave one-armed trumpeter, Wingy Manone, (one trumpeters aren't so uncommon as you may think, in my sons when the local county youth orchestra, there was an absolutely superb one armed trumpet player in the orchestra, and it is one of those rare instrument that only needs one hand to play, so it's perfect), a birthday present of one cuff-link. On stage he nailed a drummer's foot to the floor because he was playing the bass drum too loudly. (Ouch, not so funny, though I guess he was probably careful just to nail the shoe down)

Apart from his own classic Blue Four and Blue Five records with Lang, Venuti appeared on many records by Red Nichols, Frankie Trumbauer, the Dorsey brothers, Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden. Depressed by Lang's j sudden death in 1933 (from a botched tonsillectomy) his career faded for a period.

During the '40's he performed regular on Bing Crosby's radio show and in the '50s he appeared in clubs and began to record sporadically.

He was deformity red with Tony Romano the guitarist, actor singer, arranger and composer who wrote songs for such people as Louis Prima, Vic Damone, Anita O'Day and Johnny Mathis, worked as vocal arranger for Cole Porter, play-j ing guitar for Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, acting in films with Errol Flynn and Katherine , Hepburn and playing jazz with Benny Goodman and Stan Getz.

During the '60s and '70s Venuti began recording more as a leader with Earl 'Fatha' Hines, George Barnes, Sims, Barney Kessel, Red Norvo and others.

Here's a quote from something Romano said about Venuti "One day in 1934 I was stopped on the street by an Italian with a violin case. This was not long after pn tion so I thought he was a Mafioso, and he had a voice to match! He opened the large guitar case of my Gibson Super 400 and played a C chord and an F chord. I was a Venuti fan but had no idea what he look like. Thinking this was a terrible musician, and probably dangerous, I took my guitar and left for a radio"

"We met three years later in Hollywood on the set of the film Garden Of Music. Our mutual friend Johnny Mercer introduced us at 3pm. I had grown up listening to Joe's records, wearing many out trying to figure out what Eddie Lang was playing! Joe and I played for four hours on the set, then went over to a hangout called The Blue Evening and played 'til 2 in the morning! We continued to play together at clubs, private parties, on my T.V. series Tony Romano's Musical Nightcap, or at each other's houses when we would meet for 'spags and hot peppers', Joe's favorite food."

Venuti's ability to play jazz in the way he did an instrument, wasn't just improvisation that came instantly out of head, it was the result of the most rigorous practice and development of technique, only after which the inspiration and innovation come. This was his personal training to be able to do what he did, but he didn't like to rehearse with other musicians. Another quote from Romano, "Joe hated the word 'rehearsal', saying it was an activity only indulged in by 'empty suits with tin ears'! This album was created with the assistance of 1 microphone, 2 bottles of red wine, 4 hot pepper sandwiches and about 40 of Joe's friends, including his optometrist who brought the mandolin!", So there is a big difference between being able to spontaneously create music and improvise, and the process of getting oneself into that state of being able to do it. If you listen to what he plays on recording, and then listen to a transcription of it into notated form that somebody has laboured over many hours, the result is virtually unplayable. It is merely an intellectual exercise of what he had trained his brained to spontaneously and automatically. Such an exercise brings home how much work and sweat and focus and dedication must have gone into developing his abilities. He doubtlessly could play hide and Shostakovich string quartet heavy a mind to it, and I've no idea of what classical training he went through, though he must have been a competent classical musician to have developed the technique necessary for playing his spectacular and gymnastic jazz style, but whereas most people spend a lifetime to become a competent string quartet player, he must have spent a very small part of his lifetime doing that because there was a whole lifetime's work in going beyond that to playing jazz on his instrument in the way that it did it.

But I'm not a jazz musician, though I do enjoy and appreciate good jazz, so I turned to the Jazz critic Leonard Feather, to the praise on this masterly musician when he wrote wrote on the record's 1979 reissue, "Simple guitar backing was all the violinist needed to trigger a supreme performance and that is what Romano gives him. This is music of the highest and purest order, to which today's so-called jazz violinists should turn in respect and envy. No musician now living is in a class with Venuti or with Art Tatum or the handful of other instrumental geniuses jazz has produced." (L.A. Calendar, 1979) As Romano's son I might be considered biased, but Guitar Player magazine wrote, "Romano's skilled playing behind the legendary violinist is a textbook for acoustic jazz guitar accompaniment, with spirited comping, chord melody, and occasional single note lines and tremelos." (Feb. 1980)