Note: we’re a bit late getting this posted, so some of the things mentioned have already occurred, but the ideas contained here are relevant as ever. Contents: Commentary, Appreciations (Clora Bryant, Harold Mabern, Richard Wyands, & Larry Willis), Marcus Finnie Interview, & Nick Nixon tribute.
Need for a Jazz Awards ceremony
The Grammy nominations were recently announced, and there’s a decent list available that cites those jazz and blues performers who were nominated. But it will be an enormous surprise if the upcoming CBS show devotes any significant time (indeed any part of the program) to jazz and blues. The folks who run the production are looking for big ratings, and they want names that are familiar to the wide audience, which is understandable to the extent that they are focusing on the television/show business aspect, and the music portion is both secondary and almost beside the point.
It’s a waste of time at this point for anyone to think protesting to CBS will change things. No the only solution to this is something that I remain mystified as to why it hasn’t happened up to now. Let the jazz and blues communities join forces and produce their own awards program. Just use the people already nominated by NARAS as the focal point. I remain convinced there are enough people out in the world with knowledge of television and broadcasting to do it. With the advent of streaming and the Internet, you don’t even need a network partner any longer.
Now I know there’s plenty of logistical territory that has to be navigated. You have to pick a date, a host or hosts, a locale, then you’ve got line up engineers. You’ve also got to try and co-ordinate the schedule for artists who make their living on the road, figure out a way to get all the different award nominees at the same location, etc. There’s plenty of reasons why it hasn’t happened before now, and I’m sure anyone with even a basic knowledge of how television and awards shows work can suggest far more reasons NOT to to do it, than to have it.
But I’d suggest a compromise. First, let’s devise some sort of jazz/blues awards ceremony that isn’t televised. Let the first five or so lay the groundwork for eventually getting this into some sort of broadcast format/setting. This would take enormous co-operation between the jazz and blues worlds, and the blues people already have the Handy Awards in place and might not want to have them incorporated within some other framework.
Whatever the case, jazz and blues are never going to get their fair shake in a commercial/corporate TV landscape. We’ve either got to create an alternative or just resign ourselves to future decades of great music being overlooked, ignored or obscured.
A couple of weeks ago in the library I literally stumbled across a book titled “Classic Albums By Women.” Its author was listed as “Classic Album Sundays,” which turned out to be British writer and record collector Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy. The book is an outgrowth of something she began in 2010, a weekly listening session “Classic Album Sundays.” Folks would assemble and listen to various albums of their choice in full. Murphy saw the exercise as a way of celebrating the album, which she felt was being devalued in the era of streaming and the resurgent focus on singles.
Then as part of the activities for International Women’s Day 2018 she asked a varied list of contributors to cite their favorite albums by women. The participants were both men and women, and ranged from engineers and artists to other writers and collectors. They were different ages and races. Some wrote short essays, others a bit longer, that explained their choices and selections.
But the most intriguing part of this for me was the idiomatic variety. So many times in American projects of this kind you get a majority of rock/pop releases and very little of anything else. There are 188 entires here and they range from pop and rock to jazz and blues, folk, gospel, avant-garde and traditional classical, even electronica, disco and opera. American music list compilers should learn a lesson from a book like “Classic Albums By Women.”
Clora Bryant’s importance as a trailblazer and masterful trumpeter should not be understated. Bryant, who died in August at 92, was a vital member of many ensembles that featured exclusively women instrumentalists, most notably the International Sweethearts of Rhythm throughout the 40s and into the early 50s. She would later have a successful career playing in Las Vegas and touring with vocalists like her brother Mel Bryant and Billy Williams.
Though born in Texas, Bryant built her reputation on the West Coast, in particular Los Angeles. Though she only had one LP issued under her name, 1957s “Gal With A Horn,” Bryant would make history in multiple ways. Along with her performances with the Sweethearts, she became the first woman trumpeter to ever tour what was then the Soviet Union in 1989. Her friends and collaborators included Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry and Harry James. Bryant initially let UCLA in the ’40s because she wanted to focus on performing. But she ultimately returned and earned her degree in 1979. Though not as well known she should be, Clora Bryant still made valuable contributions to jazz’s legacy as a player and bandleader.
Harold Mabern: Memphis has a lengthy legacy of fabulous pianists, and Harold Mabern was without question a sterling part of that history. Mabern, who died in September at 83, excelled as a session player, providing essential contributions to a host of albums over an impressive 60-plus year career. His style perfectly blended blues and swing, with superb melodic interpretation and fiery, energetic improvisations and phrasing. He played with such greats as Lee Morgan, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Jackie McLean, Sarah Vaughan and fellow Memphis giant George Coleman among numerous others.
Mabern also taught at William Paterson University in New Jersey from 1981 until 2017. He also was featured on more than 30 albums as a leader, and kept working gigs as well. In any musical situation, whether he was the bandleader or a contributor, Harold Mabern’s presence always enhanced it.
Richard Wyands: It’s often easy for outstanding musicians who don’t make many albums as leader to be overlooked, but musicians never underrated pianist Richard Wyands. Wyands was featured on numerous releases throughout a distinguished career, so many that while he only made seven albums he was well respected and admired throughout the jazz world. From his teenage days until his passing in September 91, Wyands was often playing live dates.
He didn’t even begin regularly recording until he was 50, but he certainly made up for lost time from that point. He was equally comfortable in swing, hard bop or blues settings, working with Charles Mingus, Kenny Burrell, Illinois Jacquet and Gig Gryce among others. But for many on the East Coast, he’ll be remembered most fondly for his many dates at area clubs and venues, particularly in New York City. He was the epitome of the working professional, who loved playing and was always happiest whenever he was on a gig.
Larry Willis: Many of the obits that were written immediately after the passing of pianist, composer, bandleader and keyboardist Larry Willis focused on the fact he was a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears. While his time with them certainly got him more mainstream exposure than at any other time in his prolific career, it was far from the most important or memorable part of his musical life. Willis, who died in September at 76, appeared on more than 300 recordings, 22 as a leader. His list of collaborations ranged from Hugh Masekela and Woody Shaw to Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean and Stan Getz.
Willis was also stylistically flexible, at home inside or outside, with blues, the avant-garde, hard bop, funk, blues and pop. In fact as a youngster he began as a classical vocalist, before switching to piano. While jazz was his foundation, he loved a variety of genres and excelled in all of them.
Drummer and bandleader Marcus Finnie is a topflight contributor to the Nashville jazz scene. His list of collaborations is impressive and extremely varied idiomatically. They include tours with Kirk Whalum, keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Lady Antebellum, Larry Carlton, Donna Summer, India Arie, Billy Preston, and Earl Klugh among many others. He has recorded with multiple Grammy and Stellar Award nominated and winning artists. Besides Whalum, the duo of Mo & Taj Mahal, and Arie, the list also includes Michael McDonald, Lalah Hathaway, Smokie Norful, Donnie McClurkin, American Idols’ Ace Young, Rodney Crowell, Vickie Winans, Rachel Lampa, and several others. He’s also featured on an instructional video “180 Drums,” that’s gotten over one million views.
He’s also an adjunct instructor of commercial percussion at Belmont University and has a fine new album “The Marcus Finne Band Live At Layman.” He took a few minutes off from his busy schedule to answer our questions.
1.What got you initially interested in music and when did you decide you wanted to pursue it as a career?
“In Memphis, I started playing at the age of 2. My mother Mable Pleasure who plays the Hammond B3 played at church and still plays now. I’m not sure I ever made a conscious decision to pursue it as a career per se. Although when I saw that you could make money doing it, I wanted to get better and find a way to tour, record and write (in no particular order).”
2. Were the drums your first instrument?
3. Were you always interested in or drawn to jazz, and did/have you played other styles?
“The albums I remember as a child are Earth Wind and Fire “Shining Star”, Douglass Miller “Unspeakable Joy” and Billy Cobham “Warning”. As far as swinging, that came along much later in Jr. High when I saw a video tribute to Buddy Rich. That was the start of it. Eventually Art Blakey became an influence. His way of playing dynamically, and drive and putting together incredible bands helped me begin to find my voice.”
4. Who would you consider either influences or favorites?
Steve – Gadd, Jordon and Ferrone
5. What are your favorite albums?
Uh oh. Ok here’s my shortlist…
Bobby McFerrin “Vocabularies”
Art Blakey “Moanin”
Mint Condition “Definition of a Band”
Kirk Whalum “Hymns in the Garden”
Average White Band “Person to Person Live”
Wynton Marsalis “Black Codes”
Al Jarreau “Jarreau “
Herbie Hancock “Mr Hands”
Bill Withers “Still Bill”
Michael Jackson “Off The Wall”
Stevie Wonder “Songs in the Key of Life”
Sting “Brand New Day”
Buddy Rich “The New One”
Chaka Khan “Naughty”
Israel Houghton “Timeless Christmas”
Charlie Puth “Voicenotes”
6. How would you characterize the Nashville jazz scene, both in terms of good things and things that need to improve?
“The growth has been great. It’s actually Music City now in my opinion. In terms of cultural diversity. I think we need another jazz club bigger to promote the culture of culture of improvisational music even more. The Nashville Jazz Workshop was the first place you were able to play jazz without competing with talking and cocktail mixers and a televised sports game. Rudy’s opened up an actual market seven days a week which has never existed since I’ve been here 20 years. Rudy’s is by far my favorite place to play because we are unrestrained stylistically in the vein of improvisational music, whether groove, swing, hip hop, Latin, folk or whatever.”
7. You also do some teaching. What are some of the things that you tell aspiring drummers and/or your students?
“Your first instrument is and always will be your ears. Which are like wisdom. You hands/chops are knowledge, and that’s useless without wisdom.”
8. Do you like working in small combos, larger bands, or does it matter?
“Definitely contextual for me. I love them all.”
9. As a percussionist, what would you consider the biggest differences between African and Latin percussion and rhythms?
“The dance. A friend from Nairobi once told me America writes music then we dance to it. But in their culture, the play music to the dance. Same applies in Central and South America. Just a difference in the function of the clave.”
10. What other types of things career wise have you not yet done that you’d like to do in the future?
“I’d love to do some orchestra dates with my band!
Perhaps open a small restaurant.”
Jazz/blues Memories -Chapter II
James “Nick” Nixon
Humility and deference to others were a major part of James “Nick” Nixon’s personality. He may have been the least boastful great musician I’ve ever encountered . Yet over an exceptional career that spanned five decades, Nixon’s exploits as a player, bandleader, advocate, educator and producer were seminal. When he passed Feb. 26 of 2018 at 76, the loss to Nashville’s music community was immense. He was a marvelous vocalist, excellent guitarist, and the type of person who could work with anyone. Indeed the list of greats that he worked with included Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox, the legendary rock and roll guitar hero Scotty Moore and gospel luminaries The Fairfield Four. His production of their 1989 LP “Revival” put them back on the national map.
Nixon and his equally vital musical mainstay and cousin Marion James were devoted to Nashville music, and to making certain that people understood that country wasn’t the only thing that made this Music City. He spent many years working with the Jefferson Street Jazz and Blues Festival. With the possible exception of Nashville Sound Museum owner and impresario Lorenzo Washington, he was the most knowledge person around about the history of Jefferson Street’s musical scene. He also seemed incapable of bitterness, even when he would recite the names of places no longer around, or talk about the impact of “urban renewal” on what was once such a busy and productive scene.
He was trained in both spiritual and operatic music, two distinctly different idioms that still provided him with some exceptional background. He applied those lessons to his early days as a lead singer for the groundbreaking group King James and the Sceptres. They were integrated in an era when the city itself was far from it. Later he’d lead a rare integrated ensemble in an era when Nashville as a whole was from it. Later he’d lead the groups Past, Present and Future and the band NTS Limited. He also worked for many years in the New Imperials.
Nixon made both blues and gospel recordings. His finest spiritual performances may be on the 1997 LP “Me, Myself and the Lord.” His 2002 “No End To The Blues” and “Live In Europe” from 2010 are recent gems. Nixon also appeared in the Mario Van Peebles film “Redemption Road,” and his masterful vocal on the tune “Rising Son Blues” is on the film’s soundtrack. He was also a key member with Andy Talamantez in the Andy T- Nick Nixon band. They had three albums between 2013 and 2015, “Drink Drank Drunk,” “Livin It Up,” and “Numbers Man.” Though his health began failing and eventually forced his departure from the band, Nixon’s also featured on six of the 2017 release “Double Strike’s” 13 selections. Sadly, he’d left before its release.
But many Music City residents remember Nick Nixon more for his role as an educator and advocate. He spent 35 years as a music instructor with Metro Parks. His devoted to Nashville’s blues’ heritage and the history of Jefferson Street fueled his desire to ensure that future generations would know the real and accurate story That devotion was nationally rewarded with a Keeping the Blues Alive Award from The Blues Foundation in 2000.
James “Nick” Nixon never concerned himself with side issues like whether blues/rock or soul/blues should be considered “authentic.” Nor did he concern himself with anything other than whether someone could play the music with vitality, soul and intensity. He is sorely missed, but his contributions endure.
(Some of this material previously appeared in a different format in the Nashville Scene).