Giant Steps

June/July edition, Part 1

A. Commentary

Column expansion – It has been and remains a great pleasure to do this column each month. One of the things I have maintained is in my experience most of the folks who love jazz and blues, particularly those who grew up in my time frame (the baby boomers), enjoy a wide variety of music, and it is enhanced by their devotion to sounds too often ignored by those who control this nation’s cultural agenda. Having worked for many years in the mainstream, alternative and black press worlds, I’ve experienced firsthand the ignorance and exclusionary tactics of gatekeepers who only want publicity and attention given to a handful of generic artists, most of whom will be forgotten months after whatever in vogue single or album they’ve released has run its course. That’s not to denigrate or demean those artists; everyone’s free to pursue and perform the music of their choice. But music coverage should never be limited only or mostly to those fortunate enough to be deemed “pop,” and thereby given the necessary forums and attention to ensure big sales and extensive hearings of and sales for their music.

So, we will continue in this column to include in addition to jazz and blues releases what we consider worthy “roots” recordings: R&B/soul, gospel, country. We’re not going to start raiding the Top 40, and there won’t be any coverage of trap rap, heavy metal, or any of some other genres that already are getting ample attention elsewhere. But we consider jazz and blues to be “roots” music as well, and the improviser’s touch that makes jazz so special can also be heard in the best blues and roots music. Ultimately, we hope to bring our readers a diverse and far-reaching column that alerts them to numerous artists and recordings they may otherwise have missed. Beginning with this column, we’ll also be running a lot more reviews, though some may be in capsule form because while there are no space limitations in cyberspace, folks’ attention spans still have their breaking point. However, any title we feature we feel is significant and worth your attention.

Our goal is always to make this column informative, entertaining, compelling, and sometimes provocative, though never to cause controversy just for controversy’s sake. I’ll leave that to Twitter and other online media. Giant Steps will hopefully make you think, tell you something you didn’t know, and provide enjoyment for our readers, whom we truly appreciate.

B. Appreciations

  1. Dave Bartholomew

Trumpeter/bandleader/composer/arranger/producer Dave Bartholomew was a transcendent figure in American music. His sound, influence and impact extended across almost every genre of the 20th century. Bartholomew, who died June 23 at the age of 100, began as an instrumentalist, and played in big band/swing and traditional jazz combos. But he played a huge role in shaping the New Orleans R&B sound and helping trigger what would be the rock and roll revolution, so much so that some have nicknamed him “The Father of Rock and Roll.” His partnership with Antoine “Fats” Domino in the ’50s was one of the greatest in music history. The two co-wrote more than 40 hits for Imperial Records, among them “Ain’t That A Shame,” “Blue Monday,” “I’m Walking,” “Let The Four Winds Blow” and many others. Interestingly. the one number one hit Chuck Berry ever enjoyed was a Bartholomew number he’d essentially thrown away titled “My Ding-A-Ling.” Bartholomew began on the tuba, then moved to the trumpet. He played in local jazz and brass bands as a teenager, and later was in both Jimmie Lunceford’s band and the U.S. Army Band, where he also mastered writing and arranging. 

He began working with Texas musicians in the late ’40s, playing at a club owned by Don Robey. There he met Lew Chudd, the founder of Imperial Records, and subsequently ended up recording at Cosimo Matassa’s New Orleans studio in 1947. His first hit was “Country Boy.” Eventually he became Lew Chudd’s A&R man in New Orleans. He wrote and produced hits for Jewel King before Fats Domino’s first smash “The Fat Man” in 1949, which was a redone version of “Junker’s Blues” with new lyrics. Bartholomew would later have a falling out with Chudd. He’d move on to work and record at multiple labels, among them Decca, King and Specialty. He’d produce hits for Lloyd Price, Earl King, Smiley Lewis, Chris Kenner, Robert Parker, and many others. He also had compositions covered by other artists ranging from Elvis Presley and Rick Nelson to Pat Boone and Gale Storm. Bartholomew returned to jazz in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the traditional New Orleans variety.  But his array of R&B and rock and roll hits earned him induction into the Songwriters, Rock and Roll and Louisiana Music Halls of Fame.

A message song he wrote in the ’50s “The Monkey Speaks His Mind” remains a political classic. It’s been recorded by a host of artists from Dr. John and Andre Williams to Mutabarauka. It is emblematic of the things that made Dave Bartholomew an American music legend and icon. His music was and is timeless and will always be a big part of this nation’s cultural legacy.

  1. Dr. John

Pianist/bandleader/composer Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., much better known as Dr. John, was a master at blending and merging various New Orleans musical sounds. Rebennack, who died June 6 at 77, took all these vintage styles and combined them into a presentation that was uniquely his, yet quoted and referenced many vintage elements. He was so identified with his New Orleans hometown many forget it was actually in Los Angeles that he shaped and honed the vocal and instrumental approach that made him so beloved.

Still, it was his ’70s releases that made Dr. John a popular and vital figure. He teamed with the great producer/arranger/composer/pianist Allen Toussaint and remarkable rhythm ensemble The Meters for two albums, with “In The Right Place” giving them a Top 10 pop hit.  He would later explore many other idioms. They included “Triumvirate,” a 1973 rock super session summit with Mike Bloomfield and John Hammond Jr., the 1989 pop LP “In A Sentimental Mood,” that included a duet with Ricki Lee Jones on “Makin’ Whoopee,” and various forays into jazz with the “Bluesiana Triangle” that matched him with Fathead Newman and Art Blakey, and tribute albums dedicated to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He also had the memorable “City That Care Forgot,” a 2008 homage to the city in the wake of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina.

His projects as a sideman included collaborations with B. B. King, Van Morrison, Harry Connick, Jr., Gregg Allman and Levon Helm among others. He also appeared in various films, notably “The Last Waltz” in 1978 and “Blues Brothers 2000” in 1998. He was a regular guest star on HBO’s “Treme” from 2010-13, and a 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

C. Jazz Plus Conversations

Our latest Jazz Plus Conversation is with a prolific and versatile writer whose work has been featured in many places. I am also happy to say he is a good friend as well as a colleague. Barry Mazor, based in Nashville, is a long-time music and media journalist, author and, since 2016, host of the weekly “Roots Now” music and interview show streaming on AcmeRadioLive.

He’s the author of multiple books. They include “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music” (Chicago Review Press, 2014) and “Meeting Jimmie” (Oxford University Press, 2009). His book on Country Music Hall of Fame singer Connie Smith accompanied the Bear Family Records box set “Connie Smith: Just for What I Am” in 2012.  Barry Mazor’s been writing on roots and country music for The Wall Street Journal since 2003, succeeding Nat Hentoff in that role, first mainly as an arts reporter/interviewer, and today, as a critic and commentator. He was a senior editor and columnist for the alternative country music bible No Depression magazine for a decade.

His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, American Songwriter, The Oxford American and Crawdaddy. His profile of the 1940s R&B artist Little Miss Cornshucks appeared in Da Capo Press’s Best Music Writing, 2004.  He’s contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Grove Dictionary of American Music, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, and the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Blues, and been a script consultant to both Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary series Country Music and the T Bone Burnett-Robert Redford-Jack White produced PBS series on early recording,  American Epic. He was the chief researcher and writer for the State of Mississippi’s Country Music Trail.

  1. What was the first music that caught your attention and why?

“I guess there are two ways to answer that, Ron. I grew up in a fairly musical family; my father was a New York swing kid who caught shows at the Paramount theater, and my mother and my aunt– her sister– had been singers and dancers in vaudeville as kids; your readers would probably be interested to know that my mother performed with Cab Calloway on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City at about the age of five. She told me he could palm her head!  My aunt went on with related work, founding the Ramblerny summer performing arts school for young professionals in New Hope PA in 1960, and there were talented performers from jazz dance and ballet, Broadway shows, and an expanding jazz school part that had the likes of Phil Woods teaching there. His stepson, Charlie Parker’s son Baird, was my roommate there one summer. I wasn’t destined to be a performer, or interested in being one, but I grew up comfortably “performer adjacent”—which would turn out to be my musical role.

“With all that you might think I’d spent my life especially focused on Broadway and sophisticated modern jazz, but that gets to the other side of the answer to your question.  When I was 5 or so myself, my treat was that I could pick out a 45 to buy at the local supermarket, and while some of those were just by people I saw on TV (this was the mid-1950s), I also gravitated, even then, to “roots meets pop” singles by Patti Page, Burl Ives, and Eartha Kitt. Those modern dancers at Ramblerny included a lot of amateur sideline folksingers, and I discovered, through that, that simple chords and deep stories with roots in history and place spoke to me. How does anybody ever know exactly why—but that’s what struck real chords with me, and moved me, and I had an inquisitive head, so by the time I was a teenager I was well into looking for the real deal, where the folk rock and so on of the day came from—Hank Williams and Howlin’ Wolf and Flatt & Scruggs.”

  1. When did you begin to think about this as a career?

“Well, what I thought about first was writing—that I was going to do that, fiction maybe. But I’d followed up on my love for the music by taking some broadcasting classes as George Washington U in DC—and I hosted a radio show on the college station there that basically had an Americana format, circa 1969-’71, though there was no name for that then and  a “Flying Burrito Brothers meets Jerry Lee Lewis, the Mississippi Sheik and George Jones” playlist puzzled some people! I moved to New York City after college, and while I got work in publishing, as a freelancer, it was music writing that I discovered people would take from me—so I was doing interviews and reviews for Crawdaddy and the Soho Weekly News there by 1974. Maybe I should have stuck with that from then, straight through, but I was equally interested in film, wanted very much to work as a screenwriter in movies or TV, I went to the NYU Graduate Film School for an M.F.A.  Between trying to get somewhere in film—which got just so far and no farther, and related high-tech business magazine editing, where I could make a living, it turned out, I didn’t write about music professionally from 1979 through 1999. I’d never stopped following the music, I couldn’t! —and meeting like-minded music writers and fans online led me to the alternative country scene and to writing for No Depression, as a sort of cross-generation roots music translator. When the tech magazine editing gig ended in 2001, that’s actually when I decided writing about music was what people wanted from me, and I loved doing it, and it was time to get on with it, so I’ve been at it for 20 years straight at this point, as a full-time freelancer since 2001. Moving to Nashville in 2003, made that more viable as a way to live.”

  1. What is there about certain personalities, musicians or executives, that you seek in deciding to do books about them?

“That’s a lot like deciding who should be a guest on “Roots Now,” or who I’d done profiles on for print—only more so —more so enough to commit to years of research and writing and prepping and promoting the story!   There have to be aspects of the project that grab me as a good story, and for me, it needs to be fresh; I’m not that big on revisiting big stories already told by other people. We’re basically talking about Jimmie Rodgers, where the book was not a biography, which had already been done well by Nolan Porterfield, but a dive into how he’s mattered, the life story of Jimmie’s   music in a lot of directions, and then what was a biography, of Ralph Peer, the A&R man and publishing executive who got so much going to popularize roots music in the first place. Those trails—critical or biographical—had the serious benefit of really fascinating me. The work in each case involved pretty constant feelings of exciting discovery—and I’ve learned over time that I need that to see a big project through, and to deliver something maybe other people will find involving, too.”

  1. What have been some prevailing myths about certain musicians that you’ve found untrue once you begin delving into their lives and backgrounds?

“I’d like to answer that one generally, if that’s okay:  If there are prevailing myths, it’s probably because somewhere people cared enough to further one—or had some pressing need to see the artist a certain way. That need and how it’s filled is of interest to me in itself.  And that’s not to ignore the pretty obvious fact that there’s all sorts of myth-generating machinery out there at work to “adjust” our ideas about music makers, or to get those established in the first place. But if you’re a writer—or interviewer—of enough substance to actually delve into those lives and backgrounds, you’re going to learn pretty fast that there’s as often as not a  substantial gulf between who a performer may seem to be, and who they are, and you have to go in understanding you probably don’t have a full handle on it—any more than somebody knows what goes on in somebody else’s house, or marriage. I’m interested only—not just for the “uncovering,” because I’m not in the hot celebrity news business, as you’re not either, Ron. Plenty of people are!”

  1. You have written pretty extensively about roots musical forms. Do you consider jazz either a roots music or connected with it in any way?

“I think it can be—but has no obligation to be! For me “roots music” has to have those strong connections to place, and to history, to musical turns that have come before and worked for people in some culture before. And certainly jazz started out that way, just like a bunch of other genres—out of ragtime and vaudeville and blues and Tin Pan Alley tunes, too, and for the most part rooted in cities, where things mix together, and it toys with all of those, comments on them musically, but it also it took off in its own directions.  So, for me, jazz has those tools when it wants to evoke and use them, as, say, Oliver Lake has done when he feels like it, and when that happens, it might be part of my beat, and included in what I write about or put on a playlist, but otherwise, there are more qualified people to deal with that and they don’t need me to interfere with their work!”

  1. As you’ve watched the growth of the Americana movement, what are the things you find good and not so good in regard to its evolution.

“I think things have gone in a pretty positive direction there, on the whole. I was one of those around at its organized  origins who held for seeing it in expansive terms—that it could further a space where a variety of American music that fell  between the already organized genre benches could find home—not just the then hot “alt.country rock” mixed with Texas singer-songwriters and people who were no longer played on mainstream country charts, but artists on the borderline of blues and R&B and bluegrass and Tejano and Hawaiian and—well, all of it. The Americana Association  used the slogan “We walk the line” in the early days, as if that meant everybody in there was more honest and pure and uninterested in a career than other people, but I thought the slogan should be “We cross the lines, because the future would be in the under-tended borderlands, and in very impure combos that could be exciting and fresh—new contributions to the chain.. And I do think that in 2019, there’s a lot more inclusiveness there, including African American and Latino artists as interested in exploring how “this relates to that” and to musical history as others already in Americana. The danger spots today, I think—and this is the same as for a lot of other established genres—is that people will either dig in and insist it stay “like it was in the old days when it was real,” or that it all gets over-tended by any sort of clique in a way that stifles more startling incoming and keeps highlighting a short list of favorites.”

  1. Likewise, you’ve been a follower of country for many decades. What are your feelings regarding some current controversies like the lack of exposure for women performers on radio, the impact of the bro-country sound, the impact of rap and rock on country?

“The deliberate marginalizing of women performers there has been real, in my experience, based on supposed research that’s mainly baloney, and doesn’t really show lack of interest in women country performers when you get into it. That has, with beautiful irony, resulted in a growing group of amazingly strong female country performers and songwriters, some of the best now working, who you can hear in many, many places (streaming radio for instance) without help from “take what we give you” short playlist radio.  As for rap and rock affecting country, my favorite answer there is the old and true line “Country’s not what it used to be—and it never has been.” For me, the field has always gotten a boost and a boost of excitement from being impure, taking in other current sounds along the way There is not just one exact sound, best described as whatever they were playing when you were in high school, that’s the “real” stuff. All potentially good if done well and boring if not. (The “outside’ influences all come and go too, of course!).  What I would hate to see is country be so derivative in sounds or limited in themes that nobody that’s been outside of it finds anything valuable to borrow from it! In that sense, the recent “Lil Nas X invasion” story strikes me as a good sign of country’s strength! Just as rock turning to country for themes and licks did in the country rock or alt/country days.”

  1. Who were or are some of the writers whose work influenced you or whom you currently enjoy?

“I think like most writers, those I’m taken with I’m taken with for different reasons—and I’ll just stick to music writers for my answers, because “Melville, Nabokov, Edith Wharton, William from Stratford Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett, Ursula LeGuinn and Gay Talese” is not a helpful answer here. I love Gary Giddens’ clear and riveting Bing Crosby biography, for one, with all of its restraint—or Nick Tosches Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin bios for their lack of it.  The late Paul Williams’ “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist” books for their emphasis on how performance matters as much or more than originating songs all the time—and his insights into that. I’ve been struck by essays from writers as varied as Robert Palmer, Ellen Willis, and Albert Murray. And people reading this who haven’t read my buddy David Cantwell’s insightful Merle Haggard book, The Runnin’ Kind, really ought to.”

  1. How long have you done the show on ACME radio and what is its focus?

“The very first pilot episode was late in 2015, and it’s been essentially weekly, since then; over 150 episodes by now, all reachable online at https://www.acmeradiolive.com/shows-roots-now .Each episode we play tracks from a few new releases I like, there’s a so-far unique segment called “Play It Forward,” where we’ll follow some roots music song or theme as it’s been taken up and altered by very varying artists over 50, 60, 80 years (again, stressing how performance counts)—and then most of the show is a conversation with guests and playing from their  recorded music. The guests are from anywhere in the roots music spectrum as defined, for once, by me! So, there are artists who cross lines, bounce off some sort of pop or other “not necessarily roots” firm in what they do, mix things-or stick to their knitting. We’ve had artists on who are in their 80’s—Bobby Rush, Bobby Bare, Bobby Osborne, all sorts of Bobby’s—striking newcomers who are barely 20—Jontavious Willis in blues or Dee White in country, Molly Tuttle in and out from bluegrass (check them out!), and a wide variety of celebrated or less celebrated  accomplished musicians of all ages in between—plus the occasional music writer.”

  1. You have a good forum for coverage in the Wall Street Journal, but as we both know, many papers have either cut back on arts coverage or abandoned it altogether. Do you see a future for music journalism and arts coverage?

“Yes; I’m immensely fortunate and grateful to have the WSJ as a national, even international outlet for all these years, when there are so few outlets like that left and thriving still now. Even there, space is tighter than was once the case, and the competition for space in arts coverage, let alone music coverage and my defined role in that, is pretty fierce. I have no doubt that there will be music journalism and arts coverage going forward, and that publications will continue to find their way well after the last tree-crunching stops. What concerns me is the growing and for some very convenient-to-spread misimpression that arts reporting, music profiles and interviews, reviewing or serious criticism, can be done by just anybody, that it takes no particular sense, experience, or skill to do them–, so why pay? If anybody finds it all that easy, they may not be doing it right, and while it’s usually a pleasure for professionals to do, too, it’s genuinely work, professional work, that takes skills and should be paid for. (If it were all just fun and self-expression, we would, of course, have to pay people to get to do it!)   Music journalism will have a future, one way or another; but it won’t be a very interesting or reader-rewarding one if it’s too simply a free-for-all where people have to sift through 10,000 volunteered reviews on their own to find a few enlightening ones. Filter, like editors, are helpful.”

  1. Who are some emerging stars that you think are destined for greatness and people should be paying more attention to?

“Well, that’s a tough place for me to go without feeling too-self-conscious, because I’m bound to momentarily forget and leave out people I think could be described that way—or as already being pretty great but demanding more attention.  In the past couple of years, I’ve been struck by the British singer and songwriter Yola, as one of the strongest singers of roots music, mainly American roots music, all variations, I’ve heard in years. I’m very taken with the Asheville NC Americana singer-songwriter Amanda Platt and the Honeycutters.  And I hope people will get to hear more from some of Nashville’s most talented who’ve been more or less assigned to the “songwriter” column, but in a fairer world would be major country stars right now —Natalie Hemby (about to get noticed in the “Highwomen” supergroup, I wager) and Adam Wright, for instance—and Waylon Payne, who’s due to break out, at last, I think, when his next album surfaces.”

  1. Finally, what are some career plans in terms of a next project?

“Well, after ten years straight working on the last two, Ron, I’ve been taking a voluntary recuperation break from that for a while—which may be a truly creative thing to do! But looking ahead, it could be that I’m meant to turn to a subject that arises where two fascinations of mine meet—country music on the screen, from the silent hillbilly feud movies to YouTube, with some personal takes on the various on-screen eras, and how country was portrayed and used and the screen images affected the music. We’ll see.  That might be it.”