Sunday, September 25, 2011

TALES TOLD OUT OF SCHOOL 3.0: in which we hear a jazz great

(Third in a series of tales told out of school, both literally and figuratively, how my Swiss Cheese brain remembers such events which may or may not be accurate at all. Preface: I attended a girls' private prep school in the 1960s with a student body who often mimicked the creativity of that era with its own high spirits, a pendulum reaction to the heavy course load and voluminous homework from which many of us still haven't caught up on lost sleep some forty-plus years on and from which many of us still retain permanently stooped posture via carrying heavy textbooks. Well, it's not like there existed alternatives to those heavy textbooks. We didn't have personal home computers because no one on this particular planet in this galaxy had them yet. So let's roll back the roiling mists of time to The Pleistocene of my youth.)

Shhhh, I'm trying to reconstruct a memory here, as there's no verification online, nor in the pertinent school yearbooks nor amongst those left alive to tell the tale.

I really think it was Les McCann who gave a performance/seminar on jazz piano-playing for one of our school assemblies (meeting hall-type confluence of the entire student body for mandatory entertainment: "chapel" was the morning intel gathering for same.) It was a friendly, powerfully funky, improv-jazz pianist with massive groove to spare that I recall, the timeline fits, and hey, like, who else?

Further clarification: chapel featured the procession by music of the entire school into an auditorium for announcements, all to live piano accompaniment of Protestant Christian hymns. The one time I was asked to play, I proffered "Mellow Yellow" by Donovan (a very druggy chart hit of the 1960s) in order not to be asked again. McCann aside, school assemblies followed more along the lines of the pictures below (photographers unknown) mixing lectures, travelogues, science talks or humorous skits. Wooly Bully!

Although this was a lilly-white exclusive private school for girls
at the time, Mr. McCann would have been the epitome of a good sport for even showing up much less wanting to entertain us. Or maybe it was his sense of humor at play, as he was associated with the Westlake School of Music (no relation.) He was witty, gracious beyond comprehension, and so very engagingly warm to a student body 98% bereft of jazz knowledge (the percentage reflects the smallness of the school, the 2% sole exception being "Ms. R.F." whose senior yearbook personal profile description included "Yusef Lateef...Pensativa...A Love Supreme...the melodic, lyrical, powerful sounds of jazz" and for bonus points of a good topical, Malcolm X-ish fervor, "...Burn, baby, burn!" [motto of the Watts riots.])

Now you can un-shhhh, turn up the sound and listen*: fuckin' A this is great!! Sit back, enjoy, and don't let those uncontrollably stompin' to the beat feet knock over your furniture. There's two Youtubes forthwith for your Eddification ( hah hah, more later ) the first being the actual performance, and the second just a still photo for visuals but with far better stereo sound. ( Amazing backstory follows both. )

The cut was recorded live at the 1969 Montreux, Switzerland Jazz Festival pretty much ad hoc when its promoter brokered a jam combining separate acts. This band had never played together with all heard here--Les McCann: piano, vocals; Eddie Harris: tenor sax; Benny Bailey: trumpet; Leroy Vinnegar: bass; Donald Dean: drums,--had no sound check whatsoever, and didn't know the material planned for the set. McCann really hadn't been a full-time singer in his musical forays at all. And Eugene McDaniels' song of casual frustration from the African-American community boiling over into rage at society at large had been written two years before by a former pop crooner (then Gene McDaniels recording "100 Pounds Of Clay," etc.) turned activist, and only previously recorded as a sincere but plain piano, midtempo ditty by Roberta Flack.
And yet...this erupted. Wowza! Lashing, slashing, hunk of funk stabbing staccato beats born of righteous indignation and talent delighted to be playing with fellow superstars. So instantaneously classic at its inception that the album of same, "Swiss Movement" charted bigtime immediately and this cut became an improbable crossover singles hit. This was the first mainstream radio broadcast song I for one ever heard with curse words left intact within. And I even love it despite its stray anti-dog-owner lyric. Such remains the power of its torrid groove.
McCann, much constrained by the infirmities of old age, still performs live with a band, bless his heart. And now, for some conjecture concerning the late Eddie Harris (no relation.)
Insofar as we visual artists often try on another's style to see how it's done, I've always suspected musicians do the same. It can be unknowingly ( i.e., George Harrison having to cough up royalties to "He's So Fine" for his similarly tuned "My Sweet Lord," ) or completely unsubstantiated, obscure, subjective speculation such as my contention that "Sister Ray" by the Velvet Underground might have been influenced by Eddie Harris' "Listen Here."** Again, the timeline certainly fits. The Harris' also improbable crossover singles hit here:

and below***, for brevity's as well as humor's sake (the original V.U. "Sister Ray" runs about 17 minutes) is the clever Lawrence Welk mashup with the Velvet Underground (with John Cale a much changed man...)


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