Monday, August 24, 2009

Mad About Thad...Thad Jones and Ralph Lalama

Jazz is a story of continuity, that of one generation passing on its knowledge to the next. Like the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," one can trace the lineage of one great player to another, whether through direct artistic influence or simple opportunities for exposure. Some great musicians take it upon themselves to actively mentor other young players so as to preserve and extend the future of the music. There are well-publicized examples, like that of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. But many others have thus far escaped notice, and one of those is that of Thad Jones and Ralph Lalama, the latter of whom is seeking to repay that debt and do the same in return of other young musicians...

Most people in the jazz world are familiar with both men. Thad Jones is a legend, a distinctive voice on the trumpet and one of the most influential composers and arrangers since Duke Ellington. He was also a member of one of jazz’s most famous families (he was the brother of Hank and Elvin Jones). Probably his most well-known achievement was the big band he founded with drummer Mel Lewis in the 1960s. The Thad Jones- Mel Lewis Orchestra as it was known played weekly at the Village Vanguard and became sort of the “Saturday Night Live” of jazz—a ground-breaking artistic endeavor that helped spawn the careers of countless great jazz players. Though the founders have since passed, the group lives on as the Village Vanguard Orchestra, selling out every Monday night, winning Grammies, and continuing to play Jones’ charts (among others) for aficionados and tourists alike. Ralph Lalama currently holds the second tenor chair, as he has done for over 25 years…

Ralph is one of the top saxophonists in the world and an excellent educator, a staple on the New York jazz scene as well as an internationally renowned performer. I met Ralph this year as a student of his at NYU's jazz program. One of the things that impressed me with him, aside from his obvious technical prowess and distinctive sound, was the breadth of his knowledge of this music's history. I don't mean from a "timeline" perspective either-- it's more that he has studied and thought about the styles and approaches of so many great jazz players that each lesson is like a (colorful) history lesson.

But there was a time when Ralph was a young unknown saxophonist with no contacts whatsoever on the New York jazz scene. In 1975, he was just a senior at Youngstown State University in Ohio playing in his final school band concert. The college brought in one Thad Jones as the featured guest artist, and Ralph got to play in front of him. More importantly, Ralph got to hang out with him a little bit, driving him to and from the performance. Jones gave the younger musician encouragement and told him that if he wanted to really pursue jazz, he should move to New York City and throw himself into the most intense scene in the world…

Shortly after graduating, Ralph took Jones’ advice and headed to New York. He called Jones upon arriving, and in October of 1975 Jones gave Ralph his first New York gig—3 nights playing with Jones’ quintet. Getting to play with one of his heroes was more than just a thrill for Ralph: “I learned more on that gig than anywhere else.”

By his own admission, when he first moved to New York, Ralph was far from the polished force on the sax that he is today. Jones’ early guidance and support made a huge impact on Ralph, who says simply, “he was my mentor.”

Ralph soon began touring with Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, but continued to receive calls from Jones to sub in on tenor for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Ralph joined the band for good soon after Jones moved to Europe to finish his career and to live out the rest of his life. So the first follow-up to this story took place about a decade after Ralph moved to New York. The now Mel Lewis Orchestra went on a European tour and had a mini-reunion with Thad Jones. After Jones heard Ralph play again, he went up and put his arm around him and said, “Sounds great, you booger!” (a Jonesian term of endearment) Ralph knew then that he had truly arrived…

The second follow-up to this story is unfolding now. Ralph is seeking to honor Jones’ memory and music—as well as increase recognition of Jones’ role in jazz history—by producing a large concert for the public that will feature Thad’s music in a combo setting. He’s calling it “Mad About Thad.” I’m constantly on the lookout for fascinating jazz projects and I was extremely intrigued by the conversation I had with Ralph about this one. Most tributes to Thad Jones focus on his big band work, but Ralph’s project is unique in that it is designed for a small combo—much like that first quintet gig Ralph played with Thad 35 years ago.

There’s more to this than mere sentimentality, however. For Ralph, jazz improvisation ultimately boils down to melody (that’s one of the reasons we hit it off so well in my lessons with him—we’re both “melodicists” :-)) And Ralph wants people to hear Thad’s melodies in a very pure fashion, without the sound of the big band distracting them from the essence: the songs themselves and their harmonic movement.

As Ralph explained to me, Thad was both “ahead of his time and in his time.” Jones melodies utilized the concept of the upper extensions of the chords not just as accompaniment but as an integral part of the melody. While other jazz composers at the time were working with similar concepts, Jones “really explored and put his personal stamp on it…to the point where it just really flows.”

But there is still more to this project than the intricate beauty of Jones’ melodies. Ralph wants to show his audience the kind of person that Thad Jones was, how a few words from him could alter the life of a young musician because of Jones’ obvious sincerity in everything he said and did. Ralph recalled one of his first impressions of Jones upon picking him up in Youngstown. They drove by a playground with a bunch of kids playing and Jones laughed with obvious delight and exclaimed “look at all those little boogers.” Ralph feels that Jones’ love for children reflects in his music (for example, some of his most famous compositions are “A Child is Born”, “Kids are Pretty People”, and “Little Rascal on a Rock”), so Ralph wants the audience to leave with a “nice, happy feeling of childish delight” in addition to a better understanding of Jones’ melodies and harmonies. A tall order, perhaps, but Ralph is the perfect combination of artistry, knowledge and charisma to pull it off…

Is Thad Jones under-appreciated? "Maybe," says Ralph, "but only because nobody knows about him." Lest you think that Ralph is channeling the great Yogi Berra, he elaborated on this: "People who know Thad's music love it-- his charts have changed the lives of band directors all over the country. But the general public isn't aware of what he's about. The same goes for Thad as a player...I hope to change that a little with this concert."

As for when this concert will take place, that's still in the works-- the truth is that putting together a jazz program, especially one with such a non-typical twist, is a pretty thankless task. So I'll put my two cents out there and ask anyone reading this to please pass along any ideas you have for potential funders/interested parties, etc...or send Ralph an email directly at Maybe we can make the web work for jazz yet :-)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Sound and the HTML: Introducing the AAJ Orchestra :-)

The All About Jazz Orchestra. Photo credit: Bernard Ente

In many discussions about Jazz's future, people have argued that the Internet will be the next 52nd Street for the music. Sadly, like many things Web, there has been more sizzle than steak. But not always-- this past weekend I played a gig with the All About Jazz Orchestra (AAJO), a group that existed purely in binary code up and until the moment we performed.

The orchestra grew out of the lively online forums on the All About Jazz website, probably the oldest and definitely the largest jazz website in existence. It's a tremendous resource to the jazz community, a place to learn about the music's history, recordings, new releases, venues and individual artists. One of the best features of the site is the "forums" section, where hundreds of jazz musicians at all levels of development contribute, as well as many aficionados too (the influence and popularity of of online forums has been well-documented already). Want to know the difference between "hard bop" and "post-bop"? Having trouble with your Hammond keyboard? You've come to the right place.

However, behind the avatars are real people/musicians. One of the regular contributors, Jay Norem (a drummer from Atlanta) is probably the "father" of the the AAJO. A little over a year ago, Jay threw out the following challenge to the All About Jazz forum community (almost directly quoted :-))

"Okay I'm inspired. What could it possibly take to get every player on this board to participate in a mammoth session? I mean everyone.
There are at least four, five drummers here. Lots of guitar players (no shortage of guitar players), many bass players, keyboard players, a great many brass and reed players.
And a world-class arranger.
Can you imagine what it would sound like if we all got together and played some music? Goddamn! That would be the sickest [stuff :-)] ever heard!
I don't mean next week or anything. But come on. This would be absolutely f*$%&*g historic.
I'm putting this out to the AAJ staff and to every member who plays an instrument. Let's just do it."

The response was overwhelming. Over the next year-- and through dozens of forum threads-- the group began to coalesce around a few key contributors, and Jay, Jerry Engelbach (a pianist from Brooklyn) and trombonist Ed Byrne (though he had to pull out before the actual performance) took the lead logistically and musically. With the help of the AAJ website, and particularly through the efforts of Bernie Ente, the group secured a performance space and date: August 14, 2009 at Pier 66 in New York City.

By the time I got involved with the project it was already in its final stages (no pun intended). Jay, Jerry and Ed wrote and arranged roughly half a dozen pieces for a large combo/big band, though with flexibility in the parts given the difficulty of guaranteeing the attendance of a full big band :-) They also reserved a web page where members of the band could go and download and listen to the final versions.

So, armed with that elaborate web preparation (and one brief rehearsal the night before), 11 musicians from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life showed up at Pier 66 this past Friday, having never played together or even met outside of a jazz website. It was a great night for it-- one of the hottest days of summer, at sunset on the Hudson River (at least I think it was the Hudson, I still haven't figured out my NYC geography yet), and one of the best-looking crowds in the history of jazz. No kidding. I could have sworn that I saw Lara Croft...although the light may have been playing tricks on me...well, either that or the boat motion. We were playing at "The Frying Pan" an old barge turned into a restaurant, and it was rocking a little with the waves. Or perhaps the music :-)

Visual and perceptual distractions aside, it was a great set. The final roster of the AAJO included Chris Thompson and Scott Forrey on trumpets, Pat Clare on guitar, Alex Clough and Jerry Engelbach on piano/keyboards, Jay Norem on drums, Jeff Koch on upright bass, Yaron Elyashiv and Charles Lee on tenor saxophones, David Wise on tenor saxophone and flute, and myself (Peter Cobb) on alto sax. Our set featured 6 original compositions: One for Mike (by Ed Byrne for Michael Ricci), Riffraff (Byrne), Estrada Seguinte (by Jerry Engelbach), Small Ruse (Byrne), What Have I Done (by Jay Norem) and Shoulder of Fortune (Engelbach). The Byrne pieces were all variations on the blues and served as great vehicles for the overall group dynamics as well as some fun solos. Jay Norem's piece was a sophisticated modal tune that offered the soloists a perfect canvas on which to construct their improvisations. Finally, Jerry Engelbach's two songs were delicately crafted sophisticated latin songs-- easy to listen to but with some challenging parts to play! I know that I walked away humming the main theme from "Shoulder of Fortune," and I'm sure that many others did as well. As for the soloists, well, all I can say is that everyone up there was a superb craftsman on his instrument and brought an impressive enthusiasm and creativity to the stage...I hope that someone recorded it, because these guys played their butts off...

I should also add that the Vector Trio (featuring AAJO's own Scott Forey) began the evening with a set of totally original music. It was a change of pace from the style of the big band, but was nonetheless very beautiful and cutting edge music. I'd urge you to check out their site or find their videos online!

Finally, after the official set of the AAJO came to a close, the organizers opened up the stage for a jam session. Many of the original players stayed to play a fun set that featured Horace Silver's classic "Song For My Father" and the Joe Henderson staple, "Recordame." One wonderful feature of the jam session was that Ian Anthony was able to play electric bass during it. Ian is an exceptional musician and long-time contributor to the AAJ forums, and was also an integral part of forming the AAJO. Due to a hand injury he was unable to fully participate, but attended the rehearsal nonetheless and was a huge factor in getting the entire project off the ground. It was great to hear/play with him even on a limited basis!

So, kudos to Jay, Jerry, Michael Ricci, and to everyone else who participated in this project. The survival-- and growth-- of this music will depend on the efforts of those who love it to find one another and create a community. You all just did that through the web, and have taken a step that goes far beyond putting together a great show and evening of entertainment. Thank you all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Just Let 'em Play: Jazz and Copyright Law

This entry is brought to you by the Department of Lose-Lose Situations: welcome to the world of copyright law and jazz :-) If you are looking for a game where none of the participants understand the rules and everyone walks away a little worse for having played, well, you've come to the right place...

Quick disclaimer: As an attorney, let me state once and for the record that I am not speaking as an attorney on this issue :-) I took a grand total of one intellectual property course in law school and left more confused than when I with that huge block of salt, please read on!

Anyway, in anticipation of a long bus ride I was recently digging through some old papers in search of reading materials when I came across a Harvard Law Review article entitled, "Jazz Has Got Copyright Law And That Ain't Good." Much like "Snakes on a Plane," the title here says it all. It's actually a fascinating and well-written piece (the copyright one, not "Snakes...") and the author has clearly done a lot of research on how jazz is played--or was a musician him/herself.

If you're going to analyze the copyright system and jazz, you need to start by acknowledging that while there have been thousands of wonderful original compositions written by jazz musicians, the most compelling/defining characteristic of jazz is that musicians take popular songs and improvise over the underlying structure (the "chord changes"). The author's premise is that copyright law (at least as it was structured in 2005) simultaneously hinders jazz musicians and fails to give us adequate protection. The major issue stems from the fact that copyright law is composition-oriented and thus protects the underlying composition rather than the subsequent improvisation. This becomes a big problem when you consider how much of jazz music involves playing over "standards"-- songs from the Great American Songbook, for example, that have been reinterpreted by jazz musicians for generations (and given that jazz has so much respect for tradition, certain songs have stayed in the "canon" for decades):

"One major source of tension between copyright law and jazz is the law’s insistence on characterizing the underlying composition as an expression rather than an idea. The law essentially values the initial creativity and originality more highly than the subsequent work created by the jazz artist. This skewed valuation results in the mistaken treatment of the jazz standard as a creative work that is merely interpreted by the jazz musician. But the standards, while independent, creative works at one time, take on a different role when employed by the jazz musician. In jazz, the underlying composition is simply raw material — it is not intended to be the end product that reaches the listener or consumer, but is simply the idea from which the predominantly improvisatory expression flows." 118 Harv. L. Rev. 1940, 1948 (2005)

Ok, so what does this really mean for jazz musicians? After all, the author correctly notes that on a practical level, only the melodies themselves are copyrightable-- the chord changes are not:

"The application of the idea/expression dichotomy is not simply theoretical. It turns out that jazz standards’ harmonic progressions are only given a “thin” copyright. So long as the jazz musician changes the melody, the new piece is considered original. For example, many new jazz songs are merely new melodies played over existing chord patterns. [For example, t]here are literally hundreds of jazz compositions considered original that are in fact based on the chord progressions in “I Got Rhythm.” While no case explicitly holds that this is permissible, the failure of any court to find it impermissible squares with the above analysis." 118 Harv. L. Rev. 1940, 1948 (2005) (citations omitted)

Given how abstract this all is, let me give a couple of real-life examples. One of my former teachers wrote an instruction book (and for obvious reasons, I won't be using any names in this post :-)) where he talked about some techniques for improvising over a number of the classic standards, including "Autumn Leaves." The book also included a "play-along" CD so that students could practice the techniques. The copyrightable melody was never played and totally irrelevant to the lesson, but he (or his publisher) did not want to take a chance on violating the law so they simply changed the name of the track to "Fall Foliage". Most people knew what he meant, but those unfamiliar with the genre were no doubt confused...

Ok, no big deal, it's just a book. So how about this-- in 1999 I worked for Americorps in Paterson, New Jersey, and helped start a community jazz program with the focal point being to teach kids from low-income households about jazz. To raise money for the program we made a recording with local musicians and students playing jazz tunes over which we had taught them to improvise. But the licensing fees to use the songs would have probably exceeded any profit we would have generated, so I just wrote a bunch of new melodies over the traditional chord changes and we used those. I wish that I could tell you that my "compositions" were lovingly crafted works of art, but the truth is that I wrote them all in a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot a few hours before the recording...

One might reasonably counter these examples by arguing that my teacher should have paid to license the songs and thus produced a better product, and that he would have recouped any costs by selling more books. One could make the same economic argument about our fund-raising CD. And it's also possible that we could have contacted an attorney (this occurred prior to my attending law school) and found some sort of charity loophole or got the copyright holders to waive or reduce the fees...

But this brings up another issue, that of "transaction costs" -- basically, additional costs to everyone involved to resolve an issue or undertake a transaction. Hiring a lawyer or attempting to negotiate with another party generates transaction costs. Given that both economic and legal policymakers frown on high transaction costs as wasteful, the copyright system has attempted to ease these by setting basic fees and handing over most management of copyrighted musical compositions to the "Harry Fox Agency." This theoretically allows musicians to pay for the rights to use songs on their recordings by just dealing with Harry Fox. But problems still arise when it comes to jazz. The licensing scheme usually makes the musician pay a set fee for the use of the song, then pay an additional based on the length of the recorded song. So assume that you're a jazz musician and you record a version of "Autumn Leaves." You play the melody for one chorus (copyrightable), then you and everyone else in the band improvises over the chord changes (not copyrightable) for 15 more choruses, then you play the melody one more time to end the song (copyrightable). Assume also that each chorus takes 30 seconds and that you play an original intro and ending for a total 9 minute recording. Finally, assume that you are making 1000 copies of your recording. Here are your costs:

First 5 minutes: 9.1 cents x 1000 = $91
Second 4 minutes: 7 cents x 1000 = $70
One time licensing fee: $15
Total: $176 (for 1 song)

In this case, the jazz musician has to spend $176 just for the privilege of playing the melody-- which only comprises a little more than 10% of the total piece. Imagine now that your album has four standards on it. You are looking at spending about $700 in licensing fees alone, and most of that is for a tiny portion of the overall work. Even more frustrating is that your fee is based on the length of the entire work, which includes original improvisations over the chord changes (which are not copyrightable in the first place). Of course, you are welcome to try to negotiate with the estates of Cole Porter or George Gershwin or whomever...remember the transaction cost issue?

Those of you who know me know that I am the last person to argue against anyone's right to profit from his/her work. But copyright is a weird corner of the free market-- it's a government-granted protection that exists to promote creative productivity, and in the case of jazz it achieves the opposite result. Without trying to play the sympathy card here, there's just not that much of a market for (new) recorded jazz. The overwhelming majority of musicians self-produce their own albums with little hope of meeting their expenses even if they use their friends on the recording, find a cheap studio and get a decent production package from CD printing company. Throwing an additional $700 expense can actually sink the project. Sometimes musicians say "screw it, I'm judgment proof anyway," but others either don't make the recording or make significant changes to their music to avoid copyright problems...and creativity-- as well as the further development of the art form-- is stifled. Nobody wants to take this to court and rely on a judge (who has no understanding of jazz's relationship to standard songs) to rule in their favor (for that matter, the judge probably doesn't want to wade into a policy fight over an obscure area of already complicated law either). So everybody loses, including the copyright holders as 100% of nothing is still nothing...

I'm don't have a proposal on how to fix this. I think it would be best accomplished through a legislative change rather than a gradual chipping away through judicial opinions. On a practical level, I think that restructuring the licensing fees to better reflect the actual amount of time that the jazz musician spends using the copyrighted material in the recording would be a good start. I think that most musicians would be willing to go ahead and spend $100 to use standard melodies. But honestly, making this kind of change would require policymakers to understand that a jazz rendition of a standard tune is a distinct artistic work, as well as a more flexible view of the economics behind art on the fringes. So I don't know-- maybe it's time to get your local congressperson to sit in at a jam session :-)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pay More Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: A Profile of Dave Schroeder

It's the paradox of jazz that its greatest story is its vast collection of untold stories. Great players finish their careers largely unknown. The reasons differ, though usually it's a function of the jazz "market" being unable to sustain more than a handful of "stars". Other times it's due to extenuating life circumstances (take Frank Morgan, for example), but on rare occasions it's because the musician is so good or successful at something else that the rest of the world simply never notices what he/she has to offer artistically. Such is the case with Dave Schroeder, the director of NYU's Jazz Studies Program, a top-flight saxophonist, composer and bandleader (he's also not a bad racquetball player). Anyone remember that great scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy discovers the real Wizard hiding and operating everything from behind a curtain? Dave Schroeder is sort of like that, only in reverse...he is an administrative wizard on the outside, and largely masks his artistic brilliance.

First things first: Dave is truly an anomaly, because in a town full of people who can play at an amazingly high level, the ability to translate that skill into something tangible (a concert, a recording, a grant, a new performance venue, etc.) is surprisingly rare. Dave has done more to promote other musicians and foster a jazz community than anyone I've ever met. He has built up NYU's jazz program from almost nothing into one of the premier undergraduate and graduate level jazz departments in the world (seriously, when I was in high school NYU wasn't even on my radar screen-- 15 years later it was my top choice). He has done that by attracting some of the biggest names in the jazz world (John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Ari Hoenig, Chris Potter and dozens more) and providing them with a creative environment in which to share their art. He serves on the boards of a number of prestigious arts organizations, including the New York Foundation for the Arts. Dave is also an accomplished academic-- he has written numerous articles and he and Kenny Werner will soon be publishing a comprehensive guide (and new approach) to jazz theory. During the academic year you can find him teaching courses on jazz theory, composition and the history of American music.

But when it comes to promoting himself, he does virtually nothing. Literally. I mean, the guy doesn't even have a Myspace page, let alone a website. The closest he comes to publicizing his abilities is through his critically-acclaimed group Combo Nuvo. Combo Nuvo is an extremely innovative group of musicians (members include Lenny Pickett, Rich Shemaria and Mike Richmond among others) who craft complex-yet-accessible compositions and arrangements, and who perform regularly at top New York venues like the Blue Note and around the world. But this is not a post about Combo Nuvo (though you should really check them out to hear a new voice/take on jazz and its intersection with other forms of music) except to note that, even here, Dave bends over backwards to promote the band as a whole while the performances feature a group concept-- I doubt he's ever taken a gratuitous solo...

...and this is kind of a shame, though his respect for the music's integrity is to be admired, because Dave can flat out play. In jazz the best judges of talent are usually one's peers, so I vividly remember being in a master class with Kenny Werner and hearing him give advice to another saxophonist-- it wasn't so much the content but rather the lead-in, where he said "you don't have to be a Joe Lovano, Chris Potter or Dave Schroeder to make great music..." At that point I only knew Dave as the guy who ran the program and signed off on our advisement forms, so I was floored to hear him mentioned in the same category as two of the greatest saxophonists ever, and by no less a discriminating a source than Kenny Werner!

Ever since then I've made an effort to hear Dave play, and all I can say is that, as a sax player myself, I am really glad that I did. He is a master musician with prodigious command of the horn, but it goes well beyond that. He is a unique voice that is sorely in need of more attention from critics and audience alike. Unfortunately you're going to have to work a little to find him. I did it by going to hear him live, but I've searched for some web material and found a few things. Check out this clip of him playing soprano sax with Combo Nuvo in Italy last year (and yes, he is also playing the harmonica in the beginning of the song):

A couple of things jump out at me from this recording. First and foremost is his sound on the soprano-- a lush soprano sound is not an easy thing to achieve, and Dave manages to both cut through the other instruments as the clear lead while also blending with their timbres. The song itself is melodic and plaintive, and he captures that sentiment with the very first note he plays. But unlike many players, he maintains the mood of the piece throughout his improvisation, extending the song rather than showing off his technique. If you pay attention little hints of his virtuosity bleed through-- there are a few "runs" towards the middle of his solo-- but for the most part he is composing while he plays. For me, at least, that is the mark of a real artist, because when you have lots of technique it's very tempting to use it! If you were to pick a date at random in art history (in any genre), you would find a number of high-level technicians who exhibit considerable skill, and they were probably held in high esteem in their day. But we don't remember most of them-- we remember the Van Gogh's, the artists who explored places beyond what was comfortably accepted. And that doesn't only apply to artists who took "outrageous" risks. There is daring in beauty as well...

I'll close with an anecdote from a recent meeting I had with Dave. Obviously he's a very busy person and his time is at a premium. However, last week I had encountered several technical problems with my saxophone and was searching for a good repair shop, so I figured I would swing by the Dave's office and get some advice. He was in the middle of coordinating a summer jazz guitar program at NYU but his door was still open. Rather than just give me a name, he took the next hour and a half to sit down and try out my saxophone, then let me compare it to his alto and gave me roughly a dozen mouthpieces to test as well. The amount of knowledge he has about the instrument is a little scary-- in testing out the horn, he cycled through a number of different (and difficult) saxophone styles. For a moment, I thought I was listening to Cannonball Adderley, then James Moody, then David Sanborn, then Charlie Parker, then Joe Lovano. It takes most people years to absorb even one style-- Dave seemingly has access to dozens. It gave me an even greater appreciation for the way that he plays in the Combo Nuvo setting, because I realized that every one of his notes was his own stylistic choice. Often jazz artists develop their styles to accommodate their limitations, but Dave appears to have developed his style in the face of his limitless technique...

So, there's my effort at unmasking at least one great artist :-) Seriously, treat yourself and look up Dave and Combo'll be enriched for it. And we all need to do our part to keep an eye out for more under-the-radar-screen art and promote it...