Jazz Conversations II

A. Rusty Hassan
Rusty Hassan has been a jazz collector, broadcaster, educator and historian since the mid-’60s. As with many others who’ve participated in this series, we initially met online, though I had long been a fan of his radio show on WPFW in Washington, D.C. (it now airs Thursday nights from 9 p.m. – 11 p.m. CDT, 10-12 midnight EDT and can be heard online at wpfw.org). He is also among the contributors to the outstanding new book “DC Jazz,” which will be reviewed in an upcoming edition of “Giant Steps.” Rusty took a few minutes from his busy schedule to answer our questions via e-mail.

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1. What got you started as a fan of jazz

“I got started as a jazz fan as a kid growing up in Connecticut in the 1950s listening to the radio. Frequently, jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong with “Mack the Knife” or Jonah Jones with “On The Street Where You Live” would get airplay. I remember hearing Al Hibbler singing “When The Lights Go Down Low” and Sarah Vaughan with “Broken Hearted Melody”.

“On New Year’s Day 1958, while making a model airplane, I heard someone feature the entire Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert with guest artists Count Basie, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges.. I soon purchased the two LP volumes from the local Woolworth’s. I don’t remember how I discovered Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, but the third album that I got from that Woolworth’s was Diz ‘N Bird on the Royal Roost label. I must have found Symphony Sid on the dial by that time.”

“On New Year’s Day 1958, while making a model airplane, I heard someone feature the entire Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert with guest artists Count Basie, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges.. I soon purchased the two LP volumes from the local Woolworth’s. I don’t remember how I discovered Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, but the third album that I got from that Woolworth’s was Diz ‘N Bird on the Royal Roost label. I must have found Symphony Sid on the dial by that time.”

“I had a friend whose older brother was in the Air Force and left his albums at home. We would listen to Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz & Sonny Stitt, “For Musicians Only,” “Ellington Indigos” and “Jazz Party,” Ahmad Jamal “But Not For Me,” albums I would soon add to my collection. My friend Butch and I made our way to the Daily News Jazz Festival at Madison Square Garden in ’62 where we heard Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck with Carmen McRae, Maynard Ferguson with Slide Hampton. In 1963 we told our parents that we were spending the weekend at each other’s house and drove to Newport for the Jazz Festival where we saw performances by Thelonious Monk, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Teddy Wilson, Herbie Mann, Jimmy Smith and John Coltrane. A pretty good start as a jazz fan.”

2. When did you begin as a broadcaster?
“In the fall of 1963 I took my jazz albums with me to Washington DC to attend Georgetown University. During my sophomore year (64-65) I started hanging out at the jazz clubs, especially the Bohemian Caverns, where I heard John Coltrane, Miles Davis and was at the recording session for Ramsey Lewis doing “The In Crowd.”

“One day during my junior year I was with friends at an off-campus bar/ lunch room when I noticed that a guy ordering at the counter had jazz albums under his arm. I asked to check them out. We got into a conversation and he told me these were albums he had played on his radio show on the campus station, WGTB-FM. He said he had to give up the show to take a class and would I take it over? He said come by the studio next Monday, he would show me what to do, and the program would be mine. I did and have been on the air almost consistently one day a week ever since. This had to be early 1966.”

3. What also got you involved in jazz education and history?
“Sometime after I graduated I heard there was a jazz history course at Georgetown University. Curious, I went to the campus to check out the class. The instructor, Dick Webster, interestingly enough, was not a jazz musician, but a bassist with the National Symphony. I had a bass at that time and he gave me a lesson. I figured I didn’t have the time, discipline or talent and played records much better, so I gave it up. But Dick and I hit it off, and sometime later he contacted me and said he was in a bind. The symphony was going on tour and he needed someone to fill in for him with the class. And by the way, the Summer and Continuing Education program is looking to have a noncredit jazz history class at night and his day job was at night. I did his class and soon thereafter started teaching the evening class.”

“Sometime in the early to mid-80s I was contacted by the music director at American University and asked if I would take over the undergraduate jazz history course there. The course was titled “The Evolution of Jazz and Rock.” I soon had it changed to “The Evolution of Jazz and Blues,” and taught it for 18 years. I also taught at the University of Maryland University College, some short courses at the Smithsonian. I currently teach at the University of the District of Columbia. For most of those years my full-time job was as a union representative for the American Federation of Government Employees.”

4. Who are some of your favorite artists?
” Almost impossible to answer who are my favorite artists. So many– Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Tommy Flanagan, John Hicks, Rene Marie, Jimmy Heath, Miles Davis, Freddy Cole, Shirley Horn, Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk.”

5. What do you consider some of your favorite albums?
“Likewise for albums. The Savoy LP that includes Charlie Parker doing “Koko,” “Now’s The Time,” “Billie’s Bounce,” because they were recorded on the day I was born. John Coltrane “Newport 1963” because I was there. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “People In Sorrow,” which I haven’t replaced as a CD, so I don’t play it much anymore, but (I) wore it out after Joseph Jarman gave it to me in Paris in 1969. Roberta Flack’s “First Take.” Hampton Hawes “At The Piano,” where he does a killin’ version of “Killing Me Softly.” The Ellington album “At His Very Best,” the RCA LP that contained the early 40s Webster-Blanton material. “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy.”

6. Are there broadcasters, writers or historians who you consider influences?
“Symphony Sid was not an influence,  but he introduced me to a lot of jazz when I was young. Billy Taylor when he was broadcasting in New York. Loren Schoenberg once called me the Ed Beach of DC. I’ll take it. A.B. Spellman has been a friend for decades, but I read “Four Lives In The Bebop Business” long before I met him, and the book had a strong influence on me, as did Baraka’s “Blues People.” Martin Williams was idiosyncratic, but I guess he influenced me.”

7. How has jazz education changed, either positively or negatively, since you got involved in it?
“Jazz education has become very credentialed. Programs are requiring advanced degrees for teaching positions. I wonder if Jimmy Heath would be hired today, or Eric Jackson, who has been teaching for decades. On the other hand, programs have been producing a lot of very talented musicians. My emphasis has been to get the musicians in my class to learn the lives of the musicians they emulate and the history and culture in which the music developed, but, perhaps more importantly, to get the non-musicians to not only learn about the history but to continue to listen to the music after the course is over. It is always a thrill to have someone come up to me at a concert and tell me they got into the music from a course they took with me years ago.”

8. Do you think there is still a place in jazz for conventional broadcasting and how important is it?
“There is definitely a place in conventional broadcasting for jazz. A knowledgeable programmer will tell you something about the artist and who the soloists are on the session. And with streaming, local stations can be heard worldwide. The streaming services provide the music but not the information that a Willard Jenkins or Reuben Jackson can.”

 9. Would you favor a separate Grammy Award broadcast show for jazz and blues artists?
“I guess the Grammy Award broadcasts haven’t included jazz and blues for decades. I haven’t watched. It would be nice to get a broader recognition for the genres.”

10. Do you enjoy other genres of music besides jazz?
“Blues, jazz, soul, R&B are all connected. I  listen to Aretha as easily as Shirley Horn. Hip hop, rap not so much. I do listen to European classical music. I was very eclectic in my youth. I do have LPs by Joan Baez, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers (the blue yodeler singing brakeman), Chuck Berry, Doc Watson,  but no Beatles, unless you consider Wes Montgomery’s “A Day In The Life” as having one.”

11. Would you consider yourself optimistic or pessimistic regarding the future of jazz?
“I am bipolar. A manic/depressive about the future of jazz, but mostly optimistic, particularly with the programs that Jason Moran has initiated at the Kennedy Center. I get depressed when only a handful of fans turn out for a performance, or when WAMU drops Rob Bamberger’s “Hot Jazz Saturday Night.” I got to be optimistic to keep on doing what I’m doing.”

12. Finally, who are some current artists you feel people should know something about?
“Two young saxophonists from DC, Elijah Jamal Balbed and Braxton Cook will be making names for themselves. Sharon Clark is a vocalist from DC who is better known in Russia than in the United States.”

Jazz Book Review

A. “Major Dudes – A Steely Dan Companion” Compilation edited by Barney Hoskyns (Overlook Press, 2018)
It’s safe to say there wasn’t quite a pop or rock duo like Steely Dan before keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen and bassist/guitarist  Walter Becker joined forces in the early ’70s and there hasn’t been anything like them since. The two met at Bard College and shared a love of jazz, blues, R&B, literature and science fiction among other things, as well as a desire to make popular music vastly different from what any other group or performer was making.

 

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They didn’t like to tour and in fact quit the road totally only three years into their successful careers, not touring from the mid-’70s into the early ’90s. They dissolved their regular band early on and opted for a rotating crew of top session and/or jazz musicians. But by 1981, Fagen and Becker had grown weary of each other, and Steely Dan ended. But it returned in the early 90s, though each man also did other things, including releasing solo discs.

“Major Dudes – A Steely Dan Companion” offers a comprehensive guide at perhaps the most unlikely hit-making duo of the modern era. They were utilizing jazz samples long before it became an in thing for rappers, and most of their best albums were spiced by contributions from top players ranging from Phil Woods to Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman and several others. Barney Hoskyns, co-founder and editor of the online rock journalism library “Rock’s Backpages” as well as several acclaimed books, has compiled the definitive guide to Steely Dan.

He includes both positive and negative reviews of Steely Dan LPs and live shows, as well as their solo releases, plus some compelling, edgy and occasionally offbeat interviews. From a jazz fan’s standpoint, the pieces that will prove most interesting are those penned by people like the late Robert Palmer or Geoffrey Himes, writers with both extensive jazz and pop music knowledge. This book also doesn’t overlook some low points in their tenure, from Becker’s recurring drug problems and the overdose death of his girlfriend to Fagen’s bouts with depression and writer’s block.

 

“Major Dudes” is a delight for Steely Dan fans, and a valuable look at an unusual, gifted, intriguing and zany musical pair.

 

Classic Jazz Journals

A. “The Penguin Jazz Guide” Brian Morton/Richard Cook compilers
(Penguin, 2010, updated in 2011)
“Jazz On Record: The First Sixty Years” Scott Yanow compiler
(Backbeat, 2003)

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Anyone either seeking comprehensive introductions to jazz history, or a quick way to build a jazz collection will be well served by either of these books. But they are NOT for casual or occasional listeners, nor those uninterested in critical assessments and lots of specificity. “The Penguin Jazz Guide” features the viewpoints and opinions of British jazz writers, historians and broadcasters Brian Morton and Richard Cook, while “Jazz on Record: The First Sixty Years” is longtime writer/critic Scott Yanow’s exhaustive guide offering a six-decade overview of the music.

The 2011 edition was the eighth version of the popular Penguin Jazz Guide, and the late Cook’s “Jazz Encyclopedia” is equally thorough in spotlighting the music’s various eras, key figures, neglected players and vital recordings, both known and unknown. The guide’s major advantage is it spotlights the author’s choices of 1001 critical albums.

While one can argue why stop there, that’s a broad enough number to ensure both volume and variety. They also have sequenced the information into decades, with this edition stopping at 2010. Though that leaves an additional eight years, for anyone starting from scratch there’s a ton of material, while the veteran listener/collector may certainly find things they missed, particularly given the amount of recordings deleted in this country but still available in England.

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Yanow’s “Jazz On Record” tops the Guide in scope, not only in terms of recordings surveyed, but in terms of approach. He examines not only styles and periods, but musical techniques, impact and influence, and overall presents more source material. There are timelines to denote developments, with albums referenced within them. It is slightly longer at 800 pages than the Penguin, although that’s over 700. But the Yanow book is more an overall look at jazz than an overview of recordings, even though it also provides reviews and critiques of numerous vinyl LPs and CDs.

 

I recommend both of these without reservation to anyone who either hasn’t read them, or just wants one or two books to give them a full portrait of jazz’s many historic jazz events, personalities, and recordings. While there are certainly newer encyclopedias out there if someone wants the period from 2010 to the present covered, it’s hard to beat either of these in terms of the territories and individuals they have chosen.

 

B. “Jazz Singing – America’s Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop And Beyond   By Will Friedwald
(Da Capo 1990, updated in 1992)

This comprehensive survey of jazz singers is my favorite Friedwald book, mainly because while greatly enjoying most of the content from his recent book dedicated to the great jazz and pop albums, that one, at least for me, contained a bit too much space devoted to the likes of Doris Day, Robert Goulet, etc.

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That’s not to demean those folks nor deny their talents within the world of Broadway, theatrical or cabaret singing, but it just wasn’t or isn’t my particular cup of tea. Friedwald narrowed the field much more in this one and presented as detailed and incisive an analysis as possible of what makes a jazz singer, what distinguishes the great ones, and the vital contributions made by the idiom’s finest stylists.

As with his great jazz and pop volume, Friedwald doesn’t shy away from what might at times be deemed overstatement or exaggeration. But he’s also unafraid to take a stance, which always makes for good reading, agree or disagree. His broad knowledge, wit, sense of humor and willingness to attack sacred cows is welcome, while his respect and admiration for jazz singers, coupled with his desire to see them given the same status within the music as instrumentalists is commendable. “Jazz Singing” may not be the first or last word on the art form, but it’s one of the most important volumes responsible for shaping critical assessments and evaluating legacies and impact within that valuable genre.