A. Randy Weston
It has long been a point of contention in some circles over whether there’s been significant African influences on jazz. Some like Stanley Crouch have long insisted that there’s no connection or ties. But the great pianist, composer and bandleader Randy Weston spent the bulk of his esteemed life refuting that claim. Weston, who died September 1 at his Brooklyn home at 92, not only consistently incorporated rhythms and sensibilities from African music into his playing and writing, he repeatedly traveled to and frequently lived on the continent. He also lectured and wrote often about the pronounced impact of African sounds on the formation and evolution of jazz.
His distinctive piano style was much looser and unpredictable, both harmonically and rhythmically, than many of his peers. He had a very percussive, attacking approach, but one no less riveting or beautiful in its use of penetrating chordal flurries and driving octave leaps.
One of the taller jazz musicians at six feet, seven inches, Weston embraced the African connection from the start of his recording career. Among his earliest most memorable releases was “Uhuru Afrika,” (Roulette) released with 1960 with lyrics from Langston Hughes that couldn’t even be sold in one of the nations to whom Weston dedicated it (South Africa).
Weston felt Africa had contributed to the total fabric of jazz, and his advocacy for that viewpoint didn’t always sit well with those who viewed jazz as strictly or mostly an American music phenomenon. “Wherever I go, I try to explain that if you love music, you have to know where it came from,” Weston told All About Jazz in a 2003 interview. “Whether you say jazz or blues or bossa nova or samba, salsa — all these names are all Africa’s contributions to the Western Hemisphere. If you take out the African elements of our music, you would have nothing.”
Besides becoming a member of the United Nations Jazz Society in 1958, Weston would eventually relocate to Morocco in 1968 and remain there for five years. His African Rhythms Center promoted concerts and exchanges with musicians, and helped foster a growth and appreciation for jazz in Morocco. Weston also enjoyed a vibrant set of interactions with Gnawa musicians, frequently working their influence into his compositions.
But he never overlooked or forgot the great American jazz masters, releasing critically acclaimed recordings for Verve that paid tribute to such giants as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Among his greatest latter day recordings were “Blue Moses” (CTI, 1972), “Tanjah” (Polydor, 1972) “Self Portraits” (Verve, 1989) and “The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco” (Verve/Gitanes 1992),
He was given a National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award in 2001 and voted into DownBeat magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2016. Longtime Washington D.C. jazz radio host, journalist and promoter Willard Jenkins penned the definitive volume on Weston “African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston” (Duke University Press) in 2010.
Though no longer with us, his example will certainly live on via his music, and serve as a response to those who want to whitewash the Africa’s impact and influence on jazz. While it is debatable whether you can accurately call jazz African music, trying to deny there’s a connection and link also strikes me as inaccurate, even if the extent can often be difficult to trace. Just listen to Randy Weston’s music and there’s no way to deny it’s there.
B. Mike Panico
Though never having the pleasure of knowing Mike Panico personally, I was well aware of his importance as an advocate and record label owner. Panico, who died last month at 53, was the co-founder and co-owner of Relative Pitch Records. They took pride in recording avant-garde musicians other companies avoided or felt weren’t commercial enough to merit releasing discs, Some of the artists on the label included pianist/composer Matthew Shipp, guitarists Mary Halvorson and Susan Alcorn; bassists Joëlle Léandre and Michael Bisio; and saxophonists Evan Parker, Vinny Golia and Matana Roberts. The celebrated guitarist Bill Frisell was featured on two Relative Pitch releases: “Just Listen”, with drummer Joey Baron, and “Golden State,” with bassist Greg Cohen.
Sadly, there’s lot of mystery surrounding Panico’s death. His body was found fully clothed floating in a Queens marina with chains wrapped around his legs. A man passing by noticed it in the early morning hours and notified police. “I am in complete shock,” Shipp told NPR. “He had a broad, broad knowledge and taste of music — he had complete respect for musicians and the process we went through to make the CDs.”
Relative Pitch was founded by Panico and Kevin Reilly in 2011. The label’s most recent is “Utter,” by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey, who have two previous duo albums on the label. In an email, Laubrock said she last saw Panico at one of her performances in New York, two days before his death.
“He smiled and waved at me, and in retrospect I wish I had had a moment to talk to him,” she said. “The news of his death has shocked me to the core and highlights how little we often know about people we interact and work with. It makes me realize yet again that one should not make any assumptions about anyone, and not take each other for granted.”
Cornetist and composer Kirk Knuffke, who has made several albums for Relative Pitch, described Panico as a close friend. “He and I met all the time for a beer and we would trade CDs,” Knuffke said. “He also constantly kept a bag of things he knew I’d like.”
Knuffke added that he and Panico had just gone to see an experimental show in New York. “And I just exchanged texts a few days ago because he had just produced a Michael Bisio Trio [album] that I played on and we were talking about a new CD of mine he wanted to do.”
Reilly and Panico forged a bond roughly a decade ago as volunteers at The Stone, John Zorn’s nonprofit performance space, which then occupied a spartan room in the East Village. Both were inveterate concertgoers with exploratory tastes, and they decided to form Relative Pitch as a labor of love and a manifestation of their mutual enthusiasms.
“I fully intend to keep the label alive,” Reilly said in an email, “but out of necessity I will be cutting back some. There were two of us, both working full-time jobs, and the label probably required the work of four people but we managed to pull it off between us. But this is definitely not the end of Relative Pitch by any means. And I have no doubt that he would have wanted our work to continue.”
Shipp, like several other musicians I contacted, described Panico more as a colleague than a friend, but emphasized his inexhaustible passion for, and devotion to, the music. “He always seemed positive about his mission,” Shipp said, “though he was often down about how hard the jazz market was.”
In an era when labels, especially American ones, have far more interest in reissuing what’s already happened rather than exploring what’s still being created, Mike Panico was a champion for artists who want to keep forging ahead. He will be missed.
C. Otis Rush
Despite never having the mainstream exposure of a B.B. King or a Muddy Waters, Otis Rush’s legacy and impact on a host of contemporary rockers was every bit as big as theirs, if not bigger. In addition to being a powerhouse, soulful vocalist, Rush’s jagged chords, impassioned phrases and inventive tuning was absorbed by players ranging from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Michael Bloomfield and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, to cite just a few. Both Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton were also huge fans, while Stevie Ray Vaughan named his band “Double Trouble” after a ’50s Rush classic.
Though he didn’t have the biggest discography among blues musicians, he definitely had his share of gems. His emphatic rendition of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was covered on Led Zeppelin’s debut LP in 1969. As a left-handed player, he strung his guitars in reverse, putting the low E on the bottom. He also was among the masters of Chicago’s “West Side Sound,” an approach to soloing and accompaniment that brought some of jazz’s sophisticated edges into the vaunted Chicago blues style.
It took a long time, but Rush did finally win a Grammy. His last album, “Any Place I’m Going” took the honors for Traditional Blues Recording in 1999. He was also inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984. Rolling Stone magazine put him at 53 on their list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time, but among the people who love, play and sing the blues, Otis Rush was far better than 53.
Jazz Book Reviews
While Washington, DC might not be a city as associated with jazz as New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Detroit or even Los Angeles, it boasts a rich and diversified, if lesser known, history as both a performance site and an origination point for some highly skilled and accomplished performers. The new volume “DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC) addresses that book from multiple perspectives, covering not only important artists from the city, but events and venues that have played key roles in its jazz heritage.
Jackson’s an associate professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown University while Ruble is vice president for programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. They’ve crafted a book that combines authoritative scholarship with a conversational writing style, and just enough photographs and tangential discussions about everything from radio shows to related scene personalities to give the reader an excellent survey of the extent of jazz activity and its impact on the national and international scenes.
There’s also detail that links the music’s evolution to the equally compelling story of the struggle for equality and social justice blacks waged in DC. While the city certainly had and still has a sizable upper and middle class, there were plenty of injustices and the same barriers to opportunity that were more overt in more Southern states, but were also present in DC.
Besides exploring the growth of city jazz education, the establishment of jazz clubs and the development of jazz radio, there’s also discussion about seismic political happenings that occurred starting with the 1968 riots and moving on through the current problems with gentrification and the ongoing problem of affordable housing and its impact on the city’s black population. There’s also a look at the State Department’s “Jazz Ambassadors” programs, the importance of museums and exhibits in creating a jazz archive, the impact of various festivals held in the area, and lastly continuing efforts to ensure that new generations hear and enjoy the music along with older audiences.
“DC Jazz” provides a lot of information without overdosing on stats, facts and figures, and it is thorough and comprehensive without being overly lengthy.(just under 200 pages). It’s a wonderful overview of a city known for many things, but whose imprint on jazz hasn’t gotten anywhere near the attention it deserves until the publication of this outstanding book.
B. “Tony Bennett: Onstage And In The Studio”
By Tony Bennett/Dick Golden
At 92, it seems that Tony Bennett wouldn’t be able to continue an extensive series of tours, keep making new albums, nor still have a resonant, wonderful sound. But he indeed has succeeded in all those areas, and manages the trick of remaining current and relevant without doing anything drastically different stylistically, nor resorting to cutting songs that don’t work in order to get his music played and heard. Not many people could credibly pull of duets with people 40 or 50 years younger from different backgrounds and approaches, yet make them sound seamless and brilliant.
The new book “Tony Bennett: Onstage And In The Studio” was written with longtime Bennett fan and radio host Dick Golden, who plays plenty of Bennett music every weekend on his show “GW Presents American Jazz,” heard on both Sirius XM and WBGO-FM in Newwark. It is a follow-up to the 2007 book “Tony Bennett: In The Studio.” That one was devoted to Bennett’s art career, which has also continued to flourish over the years.
But this one focuses on a variety of topics, while spotlighting 2016, the year he turned 90. Bennett reflects on favorite songs, key artists and mentors whose advice helped shape his career in the beginning, and both tunes and performers who’ve been influences throughout his amazing career. He still sings “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which was a hit back in 1962. He also recalls both ups and downs, while maintaining that he learned early in his career never to underestimate his audience, something he feels at times record labels do and even some artists who are unable to sustain their careers.
He also was able to find in his son Danny and his longtime band collaborator Ralph Sharon kindred spirits, people who know and understand his music inside out and have nurtured and aided it and him for decades. Golden periodically adds insights and nuggets from his four-decade plus association with Bennett, providing the final element to what is a fine combination retrospective and commemorative collection that expertly chronicles the life and career of a legend.