Posts Tagged ‘Vince Guaraldi’

The demise of Gilligan’s Island in 1967 left us with many questions. Most of these questions are about Ginger and Mary Ann. The rest are about the radio.

How was it that on this “uncharted desert isle,” somewhere in the middle of the Pacific or perhaps an ocean we have yet to discover, radio reception was in English and crystal-clear? How did the castaways get news reports that were relevant to them, decades before you could do that online? And where did they find that jazz station?

Forget uncharted desert isles. Whole cities don’t have jazz stations. Even here in super-enlightened Portland, Oregon, our local jazz station helps to pay the bills with programs of the blues, “roots,” and a sort of synthetic jazz-fusion that’s almost danceable. Let’s admit it: Jazz by itself is not a money-maker.

These days it’s not much of a crowd-pleaser, either. Jazz was the people’s music right through the end of World War II. One of the many things the Brits fumed about during the war was that American G.I.’s brought their jazz with them. Jazz answered an emotional need in people, but by the end of the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll had become a better answer. This was about the same time that jazz became more intellectual and more of an art form.

Joey The Lips in The Commitments put it best:

It’s anti-people music. It’s abstract….It’s got no soul. It is sound for the sake of sound. It has no meaning. It’s musical wanking, Brother…

It seems to me that jazz haters (naturally, I married one) hate jazz for two reasons:

1) Why listen to Miles Davis when you have ZZ Top? Try dancing to “’Round Midnight.” OK, stop acting like a spaz and give “Sharp Dressed Man” a try. No contest.

2) Search-and-destroy instruments.

Honk your alto sax if you love jazz
I can think of few musical works as dramatic as Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song,” as gorgeous as John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” as raucous as the Rebirth Jazz Band’s “I Like It Like That,” as haunting as Upper Left Trio’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” or as soulful as Davis’ entire Kind of Blue. Where would I be without Vince Guaraldi and A Charlie Brown Christmas?

But to reach these plateaus jazz made a few alterations, the main one having to do with the melody. When the horns leave the melody line and start flying around like go-karts in your bathtub, the jazz haters change the station. My studies of jazz and jazz haters has helped me rank jazz instruments based on threat level:

Horns: Saxophones, trombones, trumpets, tubas, bugles, French horns, dirigeridoos, and anything that can play the Lone Ranger theme or “Charge!” at a baseball game. The sax is public enemy #1, the instrument most likely to blow itself out the airlock. This is fine by me but you’d be surprised how many people would rather go to Vegas and pay $200 to see Celine Dion’s tribute to Gordon Lightfoot.

Piano: Alas, too many jazz outfits follow the same format. If the sax takes a solo, the piano takes one, too. And then the trumpet takes one. Next track: Same deal. And of course the soloist is never playing what the neighbors are playing. I can see how this might prove indigestible to anyone expecting a three-minute song with a story, a hook, and a catchy lyric.

Guitar: I’m talking electric guitars here, though you could throw in banjos on principle. Guitars are a lot less likely to trip your startle reflex. They generally mind their own business, or else the guitarist pretends the guitar is an organ (see next entry). And even when a jazz guitarist hits the afterburners, he or she isn’t playing much we haven’t already heard from Queensrÿche or Korn.

Organ: On the spectrum of jazz instruments, the organ is right in the middle. Like Switzerland. The organ is pleasant to listen to but an hour later I can never remember what I heard.

Drums: People like drum solos, though the drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is taking things too far. I think the drum solo connects us with our John Philip Sousa/high school marching band souls. In jazz, the drum solo means you get a break from the intellectual exertions of the horn players. It also means the drummer is still breathing.

Xylophone: Guaranteed to lift your spirits, perhaps because we all played one when we were too young to go to school, go to work, or go waste time blogging.

Bongos: Are bongos the optimum jazz instrument? Judge for yourself with the Irving Fields Trio’s pioneering Bagels and Bongos (1959). But even if you never intend to give that masterwork a spin, tell me this. How can you not smile when someone is playing the bongos? Especially when you know they’re not going to practice at your house?

My research indicates that, for a jazz band to reach the widest possible audience, they have to outlaw horns and pianos and resort to guitars only on holidays. I’m not sure the world is ready for a jazz band composed of an organ, a xylophone, bongos, drums, and maybe a bass player or somebody armed with a ukulele. But why not? I love jazz. I’d give it a listen. Though a certain jazz hater might ask me to wear headphones.

News from Steveworld
I have a new post at The Nervous Breakdown. This one is a rewrite of my music-and-sex survey. This post is making as big a stir at TNB as it did here at Run-DMSteve, which is to say I’m not yet one of the lucky 10% who own 90% of the U.S.

More news from Steveworld
Portlandians: Do you look forward all year to Wordstock? You don’t? Illiterates! Get yourself down there this October and buy a damn book. And I know which one you should buy.

This summer I entered the Wordstock short-fiction contest and finished in the Top 10. (In fact I was the runner-up to the grand prize winner – the person who actually got the money. If for some reason that person cannot serve out his term, I will don the tiara. Though I suspect he will have spent the money by then.) Wordstock will publish a paperback anthology of the Top 10, available at the festival.

There were 400 entries in this contest, from writers as far away as Singapore and Ireland, so right now I’m feeling just like “Some Kinda Rush” by Booty Luv. (How I wish John Coltrane was around to take that one apart!)

If you’re going to set up shop as a music writer, you will eventually have to write about The Beatles. I can’t put this off any longer, so let’s get right into it with a few words about Babe Ruth.

Babe Ruth changed baseball in almost every way. In 1920 he hit 59 homeruns. In case your memories of the 1920 baseball season have grown dim, the man in second place hit 19. There were eight teams in the American League that year and only one of them managed, as a team, to hit more homeruns than Ruth.

Babe Ruth sparked a conceptual leap in how baseball should be played, and within a couple of years other players were hitting almost as many homers. The long ball is still the name of the game today. You could say we’ve been copying Ruth for 90 years, but I say we’ve been covering him.

Befuddled TV producer after meeting George: “Do you think he’s an early clue to a new direction?”
The Beatles changed pop music in almost every way. They were a guitar band that covered other people’s songs until they started writing their own. That was unusual. Rather than ride a popular groove all the way to to retirement, they experimented with new grooves. That was extreme. They remained relevant right up until the day they broke up and went to court.

The Beatles had more hits in one week than most bands have in a lifetime. In early April 1964 they placed 12 songs on the Billboard 100 including all five of the top five: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Please Please Me.” Sinatra and Elvis had been popular but no one had seen anything like Beatlemania. (Children loved Babe Ruth, Yankee fans loved Babe Ruth, and Hollywood starlets really loved Babe Ruth.)

Of course The Beatles also gave us the prototype of the Boy Band, afflicting us with The Monkees, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men, *NSYNC, and Coldplay, but that’s a small price to pay. Plus I like The Monkees.

Every guitarist starts out with “Smoke on the Water” or “Stairway to Heaven,” but every band learns a Beatles song.

Manager: The train station is surging with girls!
John: Please sir, please sir, can I have a girl to surge with, sir?
Bands began covering The Beatles right from the beginning and the first band to do so was The Beatles: They recorded German versions of “She Loves You” (“Sie Liebt Dich”) and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”). The Knickerbockers hit the charts in 1966 with “Lies,” which is so good and so Beatles-like it could easily have been the B-side of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” And then something interesting happened: The music of The Beatles escaped the pop genre.

Aretha Franklin raised the gospel roof with “Let It Be.” Al Green sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and though he’s obviously not working too hard, still, he’s Al Green. (A dozen of these gems were collected recently on Soul Tribute to the Beatles.)

Jazz artists loved The Beatles too, as you can see on The London Jazz Four’s Take a New Look At the Beatles (1967), particularly their superfun version of “Things We Said Today.” My jazz hero, pianist Vince Guaraldi, performed “I’m a Loser” on Vince and Bola (1966). Not only is this a beautiful work, at one point he wanders into the “Let It Be” melody, which Lennon and McCartney didn’t write for another three years. Only the man who composed the immortal music for the Peanuts specials could cover a band before they’d written the song he was covering.

I draw the line at 101 Strings Play the Beatles and Salsa Tribute to the Beatles.

Paul’s grandfather: I’ve been in a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room!
Today, as part of the public service I perform here at Run-DMSteve, I present four more entries in the panorama of Beatles interpretations.

Backbeat (1994)
This is the soundtrack to the movie about The Beatles in Germany. The band standing in for The Beatles is a supergroup of alt-rock giants:

Mike Mills (REM)
Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth)
Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs)
Dave Grohl (at that time, Nirvana)
Don Fleming (produced my favorite Screaming Trees album)
Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum)

Back then The Beatles were still playing American music, so the Backbeat band is covering The Beatles covering The Isley Brothers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and etc. Party on, alt-rock giants! The Notorious S.M.A.L.L. gives this four paws up.

The Double White – A Tribute Hommage to the Beatles (2010)
Giacomo Bondi & Apple Pies
The Italians surprised me in my roundup of Rolling Stones covers and they’ve done it again here. You’re not going to like every song on this double-disc juggernaut and in fact I mostly listen to three: “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Check out the bagpipes. Grade: Solid B.

Meet The Smithereens! (2007)
The Smithereens

My favorite story about The Smithereens (“Only a Memory,” “A Girl Like You”) is that in the 1980s, while they were still scrambling to make a living, they toured with largely forgotten ’60s folk-rock icons The Beau Brummels. They are still together and they’ve found a way to make music and still make a living: They’ve turned themselves into a tribute band.

Meet The Smithereens! is their interpretation of Meet The Beatles! We get all 12 songs from the 1964 U.S. release. Unfortunately, 11 only make me want to listen to the originals. This isn’t because they’re bad; I don’t believe this band can play one bad note. It’s because those 11 sound like The Smithereens.

But the 12th  song, “Don’t Bother Me,” is the reason to own this CD. “Don’t Bother Me” was, I think, George’s first song recorded by The Beatles. It’s morose:

But ’till she’s here please don’t come near, just stay away.
I’ll let you know when she’s come home. Until that day,
Don’t come around, leave me alone, don’t bother me.

Fortunately, the Smithereens are all about morose. They wade into this song like they own it, and they do!

“I Should Have Known Better”
Volume One (2008)
She & Him
“She” is actress, singer, and composer Zooey Deschanel. “Him” is low-fi soft-rocker M. Ward. “Car sick” is me. On this unappetizing album they give “I Should Have Known Better” the Hawaiian treatment, which would have been intriguing if they had recruited Israel Kamakawiwo’ole to perform it for them. Ms. Deschanel’s voice is flat and she giggles. M. Ward is game but uninteresting. This is the kind of doorstop that hangs around in record shops for decades.

Pompous businessman: I fought the war for your sort!
John: I’ll bet you’re sorry you won!
The subheads this week are my favorite lines from A Hard Day’s Night. Stay tuned as Run-DMSteve looks at what women have been up to in rock ’n’ roll and takes the Rush challenge. Any rebroadcast, retransmission, or account of this blog without the express written consent of Major League Baseball is prohibited.

Special D’s a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say. Special D’s a pretty nice girl but she changes from day to day. I want to tell her that I love her a lot but I can’t hear myself over the dog’s hysterical barking. Special D’s a pretty nice girl some day I’m going to make her mine oh yeah, some day I’m going to make her mine.

George Frideric Handel

Since today is Christmas I’d like to have a few words with you about Christmas music. And of course when you’re rummaging around in the Christmas music cornucopia you’ll straightaway find that only one character can go the distance for you, and that would be Mr. George Frideric Handel.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, and rightly so in my view, what are my credentials for dissecting Christmas music? I am, after all, Jewish. And if you’re not asking this you’re probably asking yourself how you ended up here.

Let me reassure you and the rest of the reading public that I am extensively credentialed in this area. I was born before diversity was invented, which meant that I was forced to sing Christmas carols in the public schools. I could’ve refused, but if I had they would’ve beaten me up on the playground immediately after we were done with our Yuletide yodeling. And by “they” I am referring of course to the teachers.

As a young adult I was able to give the whole business of Christmas music a swerve, but then I married one of you pagans. Special D enjoys a healthy diet of holiday musical cheer, beginning December 1 and galloping on full-tilt over the fence until New Year’s. Being the classy little number that she is, one of her chief delights is that happy-go-lucky juggernaut known as the Messiah. So let’s have a crack at Handel’s masterwork and see what we might turn up.

S’wonderful! S’marvelous!
Handel, who was of German and British extraction, was a composer of the Starbucks Baroque Blend era. He’s probably dead today – he was a very old man when I knew him – but one thing I remember him going on about was how he invented the show-stopper. In Handel’s case, that would be the “Hallelujah” chorus. And quite smug he was about it too.

Rolling Stone ranks Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus third on their list of the “100 Super Explosive Classical Music Smash Hit Show-stopper Explosions,” behind Rossini’s “Lone Ranger Theme” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” but ahead of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.”

The “Hallelujah” chorus is, of course, staggeringly popular at sing-alongs, probably because it can be learned by any moderately talented bumpkin with a spare afternoon up his sleeve. 17% of the total wordage in the “Hallelujah” chorus is “Hallelujah” and the rest is mostly kings and lords.

This mighty hymn was given a significant boost in the public consciousness in 1967, when the Red Sox won the American League pennant and their left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, won the Triple Crown. The result you will no doubt remember was this Handel/Yastrzemski mashup:

Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
The man they call Yaz. We love him!
Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
What power he has!

Yaz played baseball for 23 years, which is worth a brag or two but still short of biblical prophecy: “And he shall bat for ever and ever.”

His Yoke Is Easy (like Sunday morning)
You could never accuse Handel of being subtle and so the thundering hooves of the “Hallelujah” chorus fit right in with the story he tells in the Messiah, which involves martyrs, prophets, a miraculous birth, persecution, resurrection, and other burning issues of the day. The Messiah is a ripping yarn and though it has sometimes been mistaken for Tommy with the odd bassoon moonlighting in the string section it is probably the most often performed choral work in Western music. However, I’ve encountered a problem with the Messiah that has hindered my total assimilation by all things Handelian and that would be my lifelong tendency to mishear lyrics.

For example, and this is only one example, I can produce more if it pleases the court, I only recently discovered that the line our man Handel jotted down was “Every valley shall be exalted.” I thought it was “Everybody shall be exalted.” I should’ve known better, as “everybody” knows that only Normie said “Everybody!” when he walked into the bar on Cheers and I’m willing to bet that Handel never saw this program. He was probably watching the Three Tenors.

Other aural miscues on the part of your current correspondent have led to fractures in the sacred institution of marriage, as you can glean from the following illustration:

A Jew Copes With Christmas
By Run-DMSteve
Act I, Scene 1
(The setting: A suburban living room in December. Snow is falling outside. A corgi is shedding inside. Special D is playing guess what on the stereo. Run-DMSteve is puzzled.)

Run-DMSteve:  What does cheese have to do with the birth of Christ?
Special D:  What?
Run-DMSteve:  Cheese. What did the Wise Men bring baby Jesus, a cheese wheel?
Special D:  What are you talking about?
Run-DMSteve:  They’re singing, “And we like cheese.”
Special D:  Are not.
Run-DMSteve:  Are too.
Special D:  They’re not singing “And we like cheese,” they’re singing “And we like sheep.”
Run-DMSteve:  (Pause.) They like sheep?
Special D:  They don’t LIKE sheep, they ARE LIKE sheep!
Run-DMSteve:  They don’t like sheep even a little?
Special D:  I’ve got a gun.

Ready or not, the Messiah has become an inextricable part of Christmas hereabouts. I would miss it if Special D stopped playing it. I would especially miss it if she replaced the Messiah with The Grateful Dead Go Caroling. So when I catch myself wondering if I can listen to the Messiah shake the shack yet again this season or should I find something to do on the other side of the Moon, I remember what my good friend Rudi once wrote me: “Keep singing the Messiah. Builds fiber.”

Wide world of Christmas
Next year at this time we’ll give some thought to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was composed by the one melody-maker who can give Handel some headaches in the 100-yard dash: Vince Guaraldi. Until then, enjoy your holiday, whichever one you subscribe to, there are plenty to go around, and here’s hoping that Santa, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Molly Ivins, Patron Saint of Secular Humanism, brought you everything you desired. Hallelujah.