Category Archives: Jazz

The Novel I Have Not Yet Written

Tonight my daughter was crying a bit more than usual when I put her to bed. She hadn’t finished her dinner, so I decided to take her out of her crib and give her a bottle while the lights were still off. In the dark, I looked up to see the large framed Billie Holiday poster on the wall (maybe not the most common decor for a child’s room). And with that I began to sing, “Someday we’ll meet / And you’ll dry all my tears / Then whisper sweet little things in my ears . . .”

Then my mind traveled to a novel I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, one I would call “The Afternoon Sun” based on the following lines from the Cavafy poem of the same name:

One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only . . . And then-
that week became forever.

Sometimes I know the basic facts of the story, sometimes how it will begin and how it will end. I just haven’t figured out how to fill in the narrative.


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Filed under Digressions, Jazz, Literature, Parenthood

Max Roach, Death, Jazz and Malcolm X

After giving up podcasts on my commute and spending an entire month listening to nothing other than Beyoncé’s Lemonade (that’s for another post), I decided to go back to my jazz listening days.

One day on shuffle, my iPod hit two Max Roach pieces back-to-back, the first one with trumpeter Clifford Brown and the second with trumpeter Booker Little. Both Brown and Little were perfect, innovative fits for Roach’s style, yet died tragically young. In fact, Roach — one of the great (if not greatest) Jazz drummers and pioneers– had close musical relationships with many promising Jazz musicians whose lives were tragically lost to substance abuse, car accidents, or disease. From the top of my head I can think of these Roach sidemen and leaders he played with who died young:

  • Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
  • Clifford Brown (1930-1956)
  • Rich Powell (1931-1956)
  • Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960)
  • Booker Little (1938-1961)
  • Douglas Watkins (1934-1962)
  • Herbie Nichols (1919-1963)
  • Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)
  • Bud Powell (1924-1966)
  • Paul Chambers (1935-1969)
  • Wynton Kelly (1931-1971)
  • Kenny Dorham (1924-1972)
  • Charles Mingus (1922-1979)

Apparently, the sudden deaths of Clifford Brown and Rich Powell in a car accident in 1956 sent Brown in a deep depression that lasted for years. Back in the late 50s and 60s, I doubt anyone talked about depression, let alone PTSD or Survivor’s Guilt. So one can only imagine how Roach must have handled so many of his bandmates dying so young in such a short space of time.

On a happier note, my iPod would also shuffle to some less well-known gems that I had almost forgotten about:

  • Out of the Afternoon led by Roy Haynes on drums with Henry Grimes on bass, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Roland Kirk on every wind instrument you can imagine (and some you cannot).
  • Someday My Prince Will Come led by pianist Wynton Kelly with Paul Chambers or Sam Jones on bass, Billy Cobb on drums and the track “Wrinkles” with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter on trumpet and tenor sax respectively
  • Point of Departure by pianist Andrew Hill with Eric Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor sax and flute, Richard Davis on double bass, and Tony Williams on drums
  • Blue Serge by baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff with Sonny Clark on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Leroy Vinnegar on bass
  • Where? led by bassist Ron Carter (playing both the cello and bass) with Eric Dolphy on alt sax, bass clarinet, and flute, Mal Waldron on piano, George Duvivier on bass, and Charlie Persip on drums.
  • Unity by organist Larry Young with Woody Young on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor sax, and Elvin Jones on drums
  • Contours by Sam Young who plays tenor sax, soprano sax, and flute, and with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Cambers on drums
  • The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy with Charles Davis on baritone sax, John Ore on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.

I recommend all of these!

Talking about Jazz, I just finished the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley. What’s the connection? Besides the fact that like Jazz, Malcolm X was ironically very popular on white college campuses, he also spent a significant part of the 1930s and 40s as a hustler in Harlem, dancing at the Savoy and befriending many of the Jazz legends. While I really enjoyed the first third of the book where you get this amazing historical insight into Harlem life in the 30s and 40s, I found reading about Malcolm X’s entrance into the Nation of Islam and his relationship with Elijah Muhammad much less interesting. Politics aside, this could be due to the fact that I was frustrated to see the hustler getting hustled.

I recently read Claude Brown’s fantastic autobiographical Manchild in the Promise Land which is also about a young black man finding his way coming up in Harlem and which I have to admit I enjoyed more. But when I got to the end of Malcolm X where Malcolm returns from his pilgrimage to Mecca and has definitively broken with the Nation of Islam, you can clearly see what a gifted and charismatic thought-leader he had become. What earns the autobiography the full four stars is the afterword where Haley discusses how the book was written and his relationship with Malcolm. There you get the full sense of the times and Malcolm’s intensity and intellect. But for Malcolm’s talent in action, I can only recommend watching his speeches on youtube.

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“How Much Do I Love You”

Parents shouldn’t fool themselves: it’s not that their child is a genius, it’s that all children are brilliant. It’s simply the nature of childhood.

So even though my kid, almost two years old now, may not be exceptional, it sure feels like it.

My wife speaks to our son in Moroccan Arabic, I speak to him in English, and we live in Spain (and he’ll probably go to French school). He is already able to completely distinguish between Arabic and English, and he instantaneously translates conversations between himself, my wife and me. So for example, I will tell him to ask my wife, “are we going outside” and he will immediately replicate what I have said in Arabic. When he asks my wife for something in Arabic and she says no, he’ll turn to me and repeat the question in English. And when he picks up the phone, he says, “Hola, muy bien, muy bien”.

One of the rituals my son and I have established is that every night when I put him to bed, we read three stories and sing a handful of songs. These songs change over time. Right now his favorites are “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer“, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, and “Jingle Bells”. Amazingly just after two weeks of singing Christmas songs, he already knows all of the lyrics and insists that he sings them all by himself.

We’ve already gone through a wide range of song phases that have included variations of “The Wheels on the Bus”, “Old MacDonald”, and the “Farmer in the Dell”, where I am required to change the lyrics to include different vehicle types (firetrucks instead of buses, etc) and include different family members — at his insistence — on the farm. When he was a little younger, I even sang him a host of my favorite “bedtime” tunes from Bob Marley, Billie Holiday, The Beatles, Jim Croce and Cyndi Lauper. Because I could never remember all of the lyrics, I would upload them onto my Kindle which I would then use as a cheat sheet while I sang to him. This didn’t last too long because first, the light on my Kindle became a distraction, and second because he was starting to learn more vocabulary, he wanted songs he could “understand” (ie, ones with trucks and animals).

So once I had to give up my Kindle cheat sheet, the only song that I could remember all of the lyrics to was my favorite Irving Berlin standard, “How Deep is the Ocean (How High is the Sky)“. But, he never much appreciated this song (once again, no wheels going round), so I always used it as the last song, just as he was starting to fade.

But I hadn’t sang “How Deep is the Ocean” in over two months.

Until last night. Out of the blue, he interrupts “Grandma goes to sleep, Grandma goes to sleep, hi-ho the diary-oh, Grandma goes to sleep” to insist that I sing …. “How much do I love you”, as in “How Deep is the Ocean”:

How much do I love you
Let me tell you know lies
How deep is the ocean,
How high is the sky

How many times a day do I think of you
How many roses are sprinkled with dew
How far would I travel to be where you are
How near is the distance from here to a star

And if I ever lost you,
how much would I cry
How deep is the ocean,
How high is the sky

And just now as I was telling him that we’d finished the last song, he once again insisted, “How much do I love you.”

Note my favorite version is the one by Joe Williams.

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Filed under Jazz, Married to a Moroccan, Parenthood

BLUES ette

Blues Ette

It’s that “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” when I am normally driving my family and neighbors crazy with Christmas music. While I’ve already got the tree up and probably exhausted my Christmas playlist, I have been more flexible this year and have found a little room for some non-festive tunes.

I just picked up trombonist Curtis Fuller’s BLUES ette, featuring Benny Golson, Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Garrison and Al Harewood. And it’s highly recommended hardbop, if that’s your sort of thing. Also, if you are a Haruki Murakami fan like me, you’ll probably recall that the song “Five Spot at Dark” from this album was heavily featured in After Dark.

But if you would rather listen to Christmas music, the song I can’t get out of my head this year is “What Are You Doing New Year’s Evesung by Ella Fitzgerald.

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More Moroccan Oud

Following up on my last post on the Moroccan oud, I recently found this video of outdated hairstyles and Hamid Zahir, a Moroccan singer who plays the oud with a more authentic (for lack of a better word) Moroccan style.  It’s fun stuff, even though, I much prefer his song “Ach dak temchi l zin“.

And if you are interested in the oud, here is a video of  Uncle Said (an in-law) playing with some friends in Italy.

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Filed under Jazz, Married to a Moroccan

Le Oud Marocain

Some time last year my mother-in-law gave me a CD of Moroccan oud music with the title “Awtare d’or” on the cover. The CD contains seven tracks:

  1. maquamat
  2. taquassim
  3. nagumate chaâbya
  4. atlassiyate
  5. ahazij
  6. awtar chaâbiya
  7. Mizane

But there is no indication of who the musicians are. It is a shame because this is really fantastic music. What is so nice about this CD is that it combines the traditional Arabic oud with Moroccan drums, making for a great, upbeat sound. I have put together this little video of the first track so I could share it with you. I hope you will enjoy.


Filed under Jazz, Married to a Moroccan

Hard to Find the Time


Now after little over three months of being a father, I would think that what I missed the most from my pre-parenthood days would be alone-time and sleep.  But actually what I miss the most are (in no particular order):

  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Jazz

In a sense, I have learned to compensate for each. For example, instead of writing in Grave Error, I have followed the Twitter trend (btw, follow me) . Just as “video killed the radio star”, Twitter has killed blogging (which previously killed journalism). Now I tweet what I used to blog, just in a dozen words.

While I no longer have any justifiable excuse to lay in bed and read a book (or the news for that matter) instead of sharing the parental responsibilities of an infant, I have learned to do all of my reading almost entirely on my metro commute to and from work, at the expense of listening to podcasts. Surprisingly for only a 30 minute commute, in just three months, I have already finished Jonathan Frazen’s Freedom, Ryu Murakami’s 69, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and believe it or not, Tolstoy’s War and Peace! And I am about to finish Rafael Yglesia’s A Happy Marriage. Not bad. Meanwhile, my consumption of other written media has been relegated to merely previewing what others post on Twitter.

Finally, with regards to Jazz, unfortunately, my baby’s ears are simply not ready yet for the angular sounds of Coltrane, Monk and Dolphy. Nonetheless, with his confusing daily exposure to Arabic, English, French and Spanish along with his multiple nationalities, I am forcefeeding my boy healthy doses of that other great and uniquely American, American music genre: Motown and old school R&B. He gets lots of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and others. His favorite songs, I have decided, are “People Get Ready”, “Me and Mrs. Jones”, and “Where Did Our Love Go”. Almost every Motown song that exists seems to have the word “baby” in the lyrics, making singing them to him appropriate at almost any time.

But regardless of those three sacrifices, I more than delighted with the lack of mobility that parenthood has forced on mommy and daddy — meaning no more weekend commutes to and from Paris. And, of course, there is my favorite substitute past time — when not changing diapers and soothing a crying baby — seen in the photo above (though now at three months he barely fits anymore).

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Time for the Piano Trio

Here in Spain everyone celebrates the Christmas Season all the way up until the Epiphany on January 6th. Nevertheless, instead of letting Christmas drag on, I strictly follow the day-after-Thanksgiving to December 25th schedule. So while I will keep the Christmas decorations up until January 1st (maybe even until January 6th if my wife gets her way), starting yesterday, December 26th, there is no more Christmas music until Black Friday 2011.

As a result, for the past two days I have been listening to a random selection of my favorite Jazz piano trios (piano, bass and drums), a good transitional genre for what’s left of the holiday spirit: Ahmad Jamal, Andrew Hill, Barry Harris, Bill Evans, Bobby Timmons, Brad Medlhau, Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor, Chick Corea, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Herbie Nichols, Horace Silver, Jaki Byard, Kenny Kenny Drew, Kenny Drew Jr., McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn Jr., Red Garland, Sonny Clark, Thelonious Monk, Tommy Flanagan, and Wynton Kelly.

And of these, Herbie Nichols always surprises me both because of his virtuosity and lack of notoriety. For anyone interested in Jazz piano, I definitely recommend Herbie Nichols’ The Complete Blue Note Recordings (with Al McKibbon or Teddy Kotick on bass and Art Blakey or Max Roach on drums).

As a farewell note to my favorite Christmas tunes, I would like to recognize the perpetual greatness of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (also a piano trio album). They just don’t make music like that any more. And a special mention goes to the quasi-Christmas song “The River” from Herbie Hancock’s 2007 Joni Mitchell tribute album with vocalist Corinne Bailey Rae. Although I don’t ice skate, I do love the imagery from the song: a long frozen river to fly away on . . .

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A Little Monk Coincidence


This morning before leaving the house, instead of uploading podcasts onto my Ipod Shuffle for the daily metro commute, I opted for two Jazz albums dedicated to Thelonious Monk compositions that I had acquired earlier this year: Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk recorded in 1958 and Anthony Braxton’s 1987 Six Monk Compositions.

While listening in shuffle mode on the metro on both legs of my commute, I was really digging the pianists but couldn’t identify who they were and couldn’t recall who had been the sidemen for either recording. Just now I checked, and much to my surprise, both albums share the same pianist and bassist, Mal Waldron and Buell Neidlinger respectively, with almost 30 years separating the two recording dates. Also, both albums share the same following compositions: Reflections, Four in One, Ask Me Now, and Skippy. Ask Me Now, fantastic all around. I had not picked up on any of these facts at all when I purchased the two albums, coincidentally at the same time: 52 and 23 years respectively after each was recorded.

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Adding to the List


I have recently finished reading The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West by Christiane Bird and Geoff Dyer’s ode to Jazz, But Beautiful. The Sultan’s Shadow was slow at the beginning, often with great emphasis placed on things that had little interest to me (like the details of the Sultan’s palaces in Zanzibar), but overall was a compelling read about a time and place in history that I know almost nothing about: Eighteen Century Zanzibar and East Africa, Omani control over the region and the entrance of European Colonialism, the East African slave and ivory trades, and the British fascination with locating the source of the Nile.

But Beautiful was more of a mix bag. At times, I felt that Dyer was simply trying too hard or that his fictionalized vignettes of the historic accounts of famous Jazz musicians did not always add to a greater understanding of musicians or their craft. For example, the story related to Thelonious Monk reads identical to the Straight No Chaser documentary. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the portrayals of the Lester Young and Charles Mingus. If there was an overall theme it was that the the underlying tragedy of the Jazz musician — beyond even that of racial oppression — was addiction, vitally affecting each character and, instead of enhancing their performance, ultimately inhibiting it (maybe with the sole exception of Mingus whose addiction and principle personality trait was to devour everything in his path). Finally, although I did not particularly enjoy the piece on Chet Baker (mainly influenced by the haunting Let’s Get Lost documentary), I found Dyer’s analysis of Baker’s aesthetic as a sign of his inability to express either beauty or compassion as quite interesting.

And now – due mainly to the fact that for a number of personal reasons I am in a rush to read as much as possible by the end of the year – I have continued to add new books to my list. Like an insensitive ex, I have shamelessly moved on. I have already started David Mitchell’s new The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, about the Dutch trading post at Dejima, Japan at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. As always with Mitchell, the beginning is slow as I adjust to whatever vernacular he has created for his story, and then it picks up very quickly. New on my roster are:

These, of course, fighting on deck with the books I have yet to get to from the previous lists.


Filed under Jazz, Literature