Giant Steps – January 2018 edition
By Ron Wynn

A. Denise LaSalle Appreciation
Denise LaSalle was a magnificent ambassador for blues and soul, a wonderful performer and consistent, relentless touring professional with a great career that stretched from the ’60s until illness felled her in recent months. She forged a distinctive identity as a singer/songwriter who was equally at home doing risqué numbers that hearkened back to the days of the classic blues era, contemporary soul tunes that addressed topical situations, and updated covers of classics in her own fiery manner. LaSalle died in January at 78.

She grew up in Leflore County, near Sidon, deep in the Mississippi Delta as Ora Denise Allen. Though blues and country tunes were mostly what she heard on radio, LaSalle’s first entry into professional music was as a gospel singer. She was a member of the Chicago ensemble the Sacred Five while still a teen,  making her way around the Chicago area. Although she even had a story published in “Tan” magazine, ultimately LaSalle decided utilizing her writing within a musical rather than straight literary framework would be her best move.

LaSalle had one mild regional hit in the late 60s, the single “A Love Reputation,” and another as a writer, when Bill Cody covered her tune “Get Your Lie Straight” in the early ’70s. But she truly made her mark with some landmark singles that teamed her with the great Memphis producer Willie Mitchell. “Hung Up, Strung Out” and most notably “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” would forever establish Denise LaSalle as a dynamic vocalist who also wrote stark, poignant, brutally honest commentaries about matters of the heart. Among the host of earthy classsics she penned and/or performed in the ’70s, “Married, but Not To Each Other” would be both a soul smash and a country hit for Barbara Mandrell.

LsSalle built an audience of both blues and soul fans who faithfully followed her throughout her career, and kept her relevant and popular even though she was ignored by the pop world, and among a legion of artists abandoned when black radio switched from soul and R&B to funk, urban contemporary and disco. Still her Malaco LPs (a label where she recorded over three decades) were steady sellers, never platinum but always reliable earners. She was also a hugely popular attraction at numerous festivals, including the 2014 Jefferson Street Jazz and Blues Festival. There she was honored with the National Museum of African American Music‘s (NMAAM) inaugural Rhythm & Rhapsody award, and proved one of the Festival’s biggest sensations.

A year later LaSalle was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. Sadly, she didn’t live to achieve her goal of having a foundation devoted to helping music students in her adopted hometown of Jackson, Tennessee come to fruition, but there remain plans for that to happen. The Rhythm & Blues Foundation Board’s Chairman Damon Williams released a statement last week after LaSalle’s passing.

“Denise LaSalle was a one-of-a-kind Blues singer and a great person. Her music catalog truly speaks for itself. We had the pleasure of enjoying her music and developing a deep relationship with her and her husband James Wolfe after meeting them in 2014. It was that year when J.U.M.P. (Jefferson Street Merchants Partnership) and NMAAM asked that we join them by including a financial stipend to go along with her inaugural Rhapsody & Rhythm Award, which we were pleased to include and support. Ms. LaSalle will be sorely missed as it is truly a sad day, and great loss for the music community.”

Yes, she will be missed, but her dynamic, engaging and provocative songs remain and will be enjoyed for decades to come.

(Some of this material was included in an earlier appreciation published in the Nashville Scene).


B. The Year in Jazz 2017

Jazz hasn’t gotten anywhere near the coverage it deserves for decades now, and 2017 was no exception. As more daily newspapers continued cutting or totally eliminating cultural reporting, only a handful bothered to chronicle noteworthy jazz concerts, recordings and events in their cities or region (a prime example right here in Nashville is the Tennessean, which most of the time acts like jazz, blues, indeed any music except country, rock, pop and the most commercial of rap doesn’t merit mentioning, let alone covering). But fortunately through a patchwork conglomeration of specialty stations, websites, three major publications, and occasional articles that appear in such places as “The New Yorker” or ‘Esquire,” jazz did maintain a degree of exposure and attention in the mainstream press.

Unfortunately, some of that was negative. There were some major jazz names who found themselves implicated in and/or accused of sexual misconduct. During a year when the #MeToo movement blew the lid off years of deplorable, inexcusable actions and conduct, there were those in the jazz world either exposed or charged. From the 11 faculty members dismissed at Berklee following a series of Boston Globe articles spotlighting widespread allegations of sexual exploitation and misconduct to controversial Internet columns and heated public exchanges, it was clear that jazz not only has issues with sexism, but hasn’t remotely yet adequately addressed them. This will be something to watch throughout 2018, with more allegations and incidents no doubt coming down the line.

On the good side, despite fears that the Trump administration was going to eliminate not only the National Endowment for the Arts, but the Jazz Masters program, there were five new NEA Jazz Masters. Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Dave Holland, pianist/composer Dick Hyman, organist/bandleader Dr. Lonnie Smith, and longtime critic Ira Gitler became the latest members of this distinguished group.

There were also centennial celebrations galore, with 10 of jazz’s finest having their 100th birthdays marked. Those musicians included pianist Tadd Dameron, singer Ella Fitzgerald, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, singers Lena Horne and Dave Lambert, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Buddy Rich, bassist Curley Russell, percussionist Mongo Santamaria and singer Jo Stafford.

The outstanding vibist Gary Burton, who back in the ’60s cut some pioneering jazz-rock sessions in Nashville, retired at 74. Sadly, Sonny Rollins no longer performs, but at 86 still made major impact by donating to New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture his personal archive. The Center later announced it will eventually make this treasure trove, which includes everything from hundreds of hours of rehearsal and practice session records to a classic Selmer sax that Rollins used dating back to the ’50s, publicly accessible. Rollins also designated a huge gift to Oberlin College to create “The Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble fund” to support “exemplary conservatory musicians and service efforts.”

The great Rollins was also honored in his home city. A bill was introduced by Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin to rename the Williamsburg Bridge, where he practiced during his two-year hiatus from 1959-1961, in Rollins’ honor. And a new development on Manhattan’s Lower East side will be called The Rollins. Only fitting since its construction required decimating the tenement where he once lived.

There were two Rollins-related initiatives in New York City. Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin introduced a bill calling to rename the Williamsburg Bridge after the saxophonist, who practiced on the span’s pedestrian path during a two-year hiatus that began in 1959. Also, Essex Crossing, a billion-dollar new development on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that decimated a walkup tenement at 400 Grand Street where Rollins once lived, announced it will honor him by naming a new 15-story tower in his honor. That new building at 145 Clinton Street will be called The Rollins.

On a column personal note, the superb author, journalist (and musician) Ted Gioia received the 2017 Jazz Journalist Association lifetime achievement award in jazz journalism. Gioia has written numerous acclaimed books on jazz, blues and popular music, and was nice enough to do an interview last year for this column. The celebrated musician/composer Tyshawn Sorey and vocalist/musician/composer Rhiannon Giddens, whose singular approach and incomparable style have made her a star in the roots music world, were among those who received MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” for 2017. Wayne Shorter joined Sting as a recipient of Sweden’s prestigious Polar Music Prize, honored as a “composer and virtuoso musician.”

On the broadcasting front, sadly, column friend and distinguished broadcaster Ruben Jackson announced he will end his popular “Friday Night Jazz” show heard on Vermont Public Radio in April. But until then, his show continues its weekly exploits on Fridays from 7-10 p.m. CDT (8-11 EDT). The Internet, even more so than satellite radio, remains the saving grace for jazz fans. Such stations as WBGO, WDCB, WKCR, WPFW, WWOZ, and locally WFSK (to cite just a handful) keep jazz, blues and other idioms alive 24/7.

Also we must always recognize the homefront, including of course the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society, as well as the folks at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, Rudy’s Jazz Room (a new venue whose 2017 opening was certainly a highlight), the weekly jazz and roots music shows done at Acme radio by Greg Pogue and Barry Mazor respectively, the TV show Music City Roots, and the contributions of specialty radio shows on the stations WXNA, WRFN, and WVOL-AM. I was especially thrilled at the arrival in 2017 of 102.1 The Ville, a new classic soul station that also has found room to air music from local artists. And a big salute to musician/bandleader Jason Esktridge, whose twice-monthly Sunday night soul celebrations at the Five Spot have become not just locally but regionally acclaimed as a haven for soul acts and fans alike.

As much as I remain disappointed by their decision to abandon fulltime jazz programming, WMOT-FM has also been a place where you can hear (occasionally) some outstanding blues and soul that’s found its way into the Americana format. I also salute those working the local blues, soul and R&B communities, even as I wish some of those active in these various societies could unite and join forces with the jazz world to help improve things for all these genres.

The jazz world will be watching closely to see if Qwest TV, a new video platform launched by Quincy Jones late in 2017 that spotlights high-quality video content from across the jazz spectrum really takes off. Thus far I’ve heard little about it locally, but I remain hopeful. Cautious optimism indeed is how I view 2018. Always I’ll try to maintain a hopeful but realistic posture, while recognizing that jazz, blues and much of the music valued by us won’t be viewed with the identical degree of respect or admiration by many who control the cultural gates.

C. Interactions with Gene Seymour

Gene Seymour is a prolific and versatile writer, someone I read religiously for many years before getting to know him a bit via the Internet. He’s written for a host of publications, most notably New York Newsday, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the Hartford Courant. He’s currently featured as a reviewer for USA Today as well as CNN, and there are probably many other places he writes I don’t know about. Gene is super busy, yet he took time to respond and do this interview, and I am thrilled to have him as the first Giant Steps interviewee of 2018.

(1) When did you initially get interested in jazz and what provided that spark?
When you share a four-bedroom apartment in a housing project & your dad’s an incurable, compulsive audiophile, you don’t have much choice except to be lulled to sleep by the music he plays in the evening and, as it was the 1950s, that music was jazz. Most of the stuff that drifted into my consciousness was classified as the “West Coast Sound” with a surfeit of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Paul Desmond & Dave Brubeck. (“White cats with soul” as my dad liked to call them.)

But there was also a whole lot of Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Ahmad Jamal (“Live at the Pershing” from 1958 was the first LP that swallowed me whole) Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Stitt & looming above them all, Count Basie with Joe Williams. I especially remember losing myself, at about age 12 or 13, in a boxed LP set (the name escapes me, but I’m thinking whoever was behind the Roulette label put it out), which was an inventory of postwar jazz from Parker, Gillespie, Powell & Tatum to Blakey, Shorter & Newborn.

This would lead to my taking a zooming leap past my father’s aesthetic preferences & towards what were, for him, the relative netherworlds of Coltrane, Coleman, Mingus& Monk. I’m still not quite sure why, of his three children, Dad’s eldest ended up being the jazzophile in the family. I always had Big Ears, I suppose. Not literally David Janssen-sized ears, but you know what I mean, right? The way somebody like, say, Al Foster means it.

(2) When did you begin to consider writing about it as a career?
Never did I ever, as a child, imagine myself making a living at this. (Or anything else. Who does when they’re 12 years old? “Growing up” is the only thing you’re vaguely expecting to do.) I guess I liked writing about things I was interested in. Period. And it was only when I read Hugh Hefner’s glossy little monthly at or near the peak of its ring-a-ding-ding influence that I discovered you could include records.

Yes. I really did read Playboy for the articles way back when & in my impressionable teen years, it wasn’t just the stories by Charles Beaumont, Roald Dahl, Evan Hunter & Ian Fleming that grabbed my attention, but the articles by such myriad music critics as Ralph J. Gleason, & the ubiquitous Nat Hentoff.

I wasn’t yet familiar with Down Beat & other, even more esoteric music publications, but I was aware that the Artist Formerly Known as LeRoi Jones, whose poetry & plays I’d begun devouring in high school, was writing jazz journalism as were other black poets & artists. I was many more years away from imagining myself making a career out of such writing & I was never certain you really could. (Less so now. More on this later.) But I started to think one could make money writing articles about the music one loved at just about the time I graduated high school – though I had lots of other fish to fry before then. Or so I imagined.

(3) What writers or critics inspired you, and which ones do you admire today?
I’ve already mentioned Baraka, Gleason & Hentoff. (But then again, didn’t everybody learn from them?) I also became a fan of A.B. Spellman through his still-invaluable Four Lives in the Bebop Business &learned a lot from the likes of Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Ira Gitler, Leonard Feather & Dan Morgenstern. My horizons were lifted, however, when I’d read Ralph Ellison’s essays about music in Shadow & Act, which in turn led me to Al Murray & his myriad books about culture, identity & music, which could be, in his view, so tied together as to be all the same thing.

Gary Giddins became important to me for the way he would seamlessly bring observations & elements from other art forms into his jazz reviews; he could make a left-field reference to Borges& Nabokov into a music essay, which opened vistas as to how one could bring one’s full range of knowledge about many subjects into a breakdown of a jazz performance. As my musical tastes broadened, my wandering attention span was draw to critics in other genres & subgenres, notably Tim Page & Allen Kozinn in classical music; Bob Christgau, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, R. Meltzer & Greg Tate in pop-rock-funk music; Chet Flippo & Alanna Nash in country music & so forth.

My curiosity also flashes back in time to find sustenance in such contentious, but still useful figures as Virgil Thomson& a pair of Frenchman to whose eclecticism & inventiveness I have become indebted: Andre Hodier & Boris Vian. As for today….I have to pause& think: Francis Davis, Ted Gioia, Gene Santoro, Larry Blumenfeld, Eugene Holley & Howard Mandel remain diligent & illuminating presences on the scene & though he records as often as he engages in criticism, Allen Lowe has become one of my favorite musicologists; even when he’s attacking something or someone I like, I always learn from him.

Will Friedwald is a constant touchstone, especially when it comes to jazz vocals. That’s pretty much where it stops now, though I’m quite certain I’m leaving a lot of folks out. I’m still on the lookout for a young, strong, passionate & (above all) imaginative voice to infuse some energy into this ongoing dialogue. But for reasons that will be made plainer down below, I’m less & less optimistic that one will surface anytime soon.

(4) You have written for a number of daily papers over the years. How would you assess the state of arts criticism at newspapers, and especially in regards to jazz?
It was limited & unsettled when I was allowed to publish articles about jazz & it’s worse now. As in too many other areas of American life, the arts are regarded in news publications as a side dish at best, a condiment at worst. People are still curious about books, movies, theater, dance & music, but not enough of them are as curious about qualitative judgments about them, unless they can make them.

The question that was always hanging in the air when professional critics were the only ones allowed to spout in public is even more pronounced in the age of Facebook & Twitter: What gives your opinion more weight than mine? (I didn’t have an answer that satisfied either me or others & I really don’t have one now.) Also, in those rare instances when something in the arts becomes An Event, editors will be moved to cover it. Or at least, they used to be.

(5) As a music writer did you also cover other idioms besides jazz, and are you also a fan of blues, gospel, etc?
My situation as a “special writer” at Newsday between 1990 & 2008 was one where I more or less came into my regular duties mostly because there were vacancies there. As somebody much wiser than I (whose name I can’t remember now) has said, few people actually set out to become movie or TV critics. It’s something you fall, or stumble, into.

The Newsday editors liked the way I expressed myself on jazz music& allowed me to cover it for as long as they were interested in covering it. Wherein lies the rub: As the percentage of profits made by jazz records reduced to below 10 percent, that’s precisely how much editors were interested in regular coverage, even in the “jazz capital of the world.” So movies took up a larger percentage of my time to the degree that I was a full-time movie critic by 2002, or so. As for the other “idioms”… nowhere near enough to even matter for discussion here.

(6) How important do you consider radio today to jazz, either in terms of more exposure for the music or in terms of building or growing an audience for the music?
It’s tremendously important & the up-to-the-minute wave of podcasting has opened all manner of possibilities, though I regret to say I haven’t probed as deeply as I’d like into what’s out there to download. During those intervals when I find I can afford to listen to it for a while, satellite radio has impressed me with its reach & range of material & concepts.

(7) What shows would you recommend or consider important?
Christian McBride’s weekly live “hang” with his peers on Sirius XM is infectious in the best possible way. When I was living in DC, the jazz programming at WPFW (89.3 FM) was delightfully varied& its jocks, especially Larry Appelbaum, Rusty Hassan, Nancy Alonso, Willard Jenkins & others were for me a murderer’s row of heavy hitters. Back in NYC, I am of course back in the WBGO (88.3 FM) fold & I didn’t know until I returned to Dah Apple how much I missed Phil Schaap’s morning doses of Charlie Parker on WKCR (89.9 FM), even when his obsessive attention to detail makes my head hurt.

(8) Do you still cover concerts on a frequent basis?
Not at all frequent. I could say not at all, period. But once in a very great while, somebody somewhere is willing to buy a ticket for me so I can contribute a small review to a web site. Not often & not in a long while.

(9) The New York Times recently decided to eliminate record and concert reviews from their coverage. Do you consider either or both of these still important?
On some level, I get it. The music business is in a state that’s wildly outsized and oddly attenuated at the same time. Who knows where the money’s going anymore, or to whom? Nobody gives a crap about compact discs anymore, even though they continue to be marketed on- & off-line. Vinyl is back, big-time, only who knows for how long? So where do editors & writers place their emphasis? Digital downloads?

Here’s what I’m guessing: Most listeners aren’t choosy about where & how they get their sounds dropped& in the digital world, musical tastes, as with everything else, can be as insular & private as one’s social-media page. It only becomes a Big Deal to news managers when Taylor Swift starts leaking hooks onto You Tube or Twitter as a prelude to her next big album. So the journalists & marketers seem to find themselves at exactly the same impasse e.g. where is the buzz best isolated on everybody BUT Queen B & Taylor S.? There are several things wrong with that question.

In the first place, I don’t think journalists & marketers should be anywhere near each other, but facing different directions. In the second place (& I hope I’m not repeating myself, though I probably am), music journalists shouldn’t squander the few resources they have trying to out-market the marketers. The modus operandi for covering ANYthing is to get yourself ahead of a moving crowd to find somebody doing something that speaks cogently to the present day & not (necessarily) who’s going to make the most money.

But because even the all-powerful, still-omnipotent New York Times is fighting for “eyeballs” as much as any information-gathering entity, mainstream publications everywhere don’t really care to find a Next Big Thing unless there are dollar signs looking back at them. Maybe that was always the way things have been. But let’s put it this way: If a new loft scene, drawing upon the wayward energies of hip-hop, bebop & harmolodics were to begin taking shape in some all-but-abandoned Rust Belt community or nondescript suburb, how long do you think it would take the Times & by extension anybody else to find out about it?

A lot longer – a whole lot longer than it used to. In that kind of environment, what chance do even the best recordings or the more arcane concerts have of getting noticed? I’ll take my answer over the air, assuming you have one. (And by the way, I’m not giving up any of my CDs. Yawl lied to me before about vinyl. Yaw’ll lie to me again if it suits your purposes.)

(10) Who are some of your favorite musicians?
Dead: Pops, Duke, Bird, Sarah, Miles, Ornette, Monk, Brownie, Prez, Trane, Charlie Christian, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Glenn Gould, Joe Turner, Brahms, Dvořák, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams (SENIOR!!!), Ray Charles, Prince. Living: Aretha, Randy Newman, Wayne Shorter, Rosanne Cash, Henry Threadgill, Tony Bennett, Jason Moran, Kendrick Lamar, Cecil Taylor, Cecile McLoren Salvant, Chucho Valdes, Emerson String Quartet, Jane Ira Bloom, Rhiannon Giddens, Maria Schneider, Bill Frisell, Ron Carter & last, but in no way least, Joni Mitchell.

(11) What are your favorite writers?
Too many to count, so I’m just going to mention Samuel L. Clemens here to save time & space. One name…& one reason for it: Most writers affect you so much that they dare you to try & write like they do. Mark Twain’s style inspires writers to write most like…themselves. He’s like bottled spring water for parched throats.

(12) What musician do you regret either not having seen, heard or written about in your career?
I feel as though I just missed meeting Miles Davis face to face just as he was becoming more open to interviewers & I was settling into my first full-time music journalist gig. I saw him perform plenty of times in my life to make up for it.

(13) Would you encourage others to enter the field of arts journalism?
As long as they know at the outset what’s in front of them, why not? But then, we’ve already gone over the pitfalls up top. Recently, a young fellow from London, a newly minted musician, was talking about getting into journalism & reviews. The fact that he asked at all was enough to imply that he had the fortitude to deal with anything that came his way. What I told him: What you need to do, first & foremost, is to get yourself noticed& there are few, if any, mass-circulation publications that offer you that space. Fanzines, indie publications, etc. will allow you room to strut your stuff. But really, your best chance is to pitch camp somewhere on the World Wide Web & make sure you feed your blog beast enough so that it’s too big& phat (sic) to ignore. No assurances, in any case. But there never were, as I said, even in the best of times, whenever they were.

(14) Do you still enjoy reading hard copies of newspapers and magazines, or have you opted totally for the digital marketplace? Likewise, do you still listen to vinyl albums, or is everything digital for you in that regard as well.
I’m a print guy, first, last & always. So I will prefer getting my hands dirty with fresh ink above all other considerations. Also, like a digital version of David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine, I wander, rest when I can, through the Net’s offerings to try staying current. As for records, I’m intrigued with the vinyl resurgence enough to see where & how it – ah – plays out. I download more out of self-defense. (It’s cheaper, though the sound quality is never the same as through analog speakers.) As for what I think of CDs, see above. Nobody’s touching them except me. Which is how I like it,

(15) Are you optimistic and pessimistic about the future as regards to jazz?
You’ve caught me at a time when I’m assembling my annual Top Ten jazz recordings for the year & once again I find myself gobsmacked by the level of quality product in a musical genre most people consider, at best, moribund. I no longer accept the plaints from consumers & “tastemakers” (whoever the hell they are) who insist jazz “left” the masses causing the masses to “leave” jazz. If Jazz is so “dead,” why is so much of it so stirring, inventive & open enough to possibility to even reach out to those yearning for the comfort of the familiar e.g. swing, funk, bop, etc.

I mean: Have you heard or, better, seen Cecile McLoren Salvant? How could anybody anywhere believe jazz is lost or dying as long as she (AND her band) exist? Somehow, jazz, as with Jeff Bridges’ Dude, abides. Someday, it may even prevail again. Capsule summary: About the music, I am optimistic. About the public (for many reasons having nothing whatsoever to with music), I am deeply pessimistic.

D.Rest in Peace

2017 was a brutal year, not just for jazz. This nation lost so many wonderful, vital musicians. Here’s a list of some of them:
William Onyeabor, Junie Morrison, Al Jarreau, Clyde Stubblefield, Larry Coryell, Misha Mengelberg, Dave Valentin, Joni Sledge, Chuck Berry, Arthur Blythe,. J. Geils, Gregg Allman, Geri Allen, Barbara Cook, John Abercrombie, Walter Becker, Charles Bradley, Grady Tate, Fats Domino, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jon Hendricks, Sunny Murray, Roswell Rudd, Jesse Boyce.

Sylvia Moy, David Leviston, George Avakian, David Axelrod, Leon Ware, Nat Hentoff.