The Jazz Condition

The Jazz Condition

by Ken Franckling
United Press International/UPI Arts & Entertainment
September 18, 2001
copyright © 2001

One didn't have to stray from the television during the hellish aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks on America to see the power of music to bind us and soothe us -- and reaffirm the goodness in most of humankind.

If the opera singer Denyse Graves' mournful yet uplifting voice didn't bring you to tears during a service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Coldstream Guards no doubt did as its band broke tradition by performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other patriotic American marches during the traditional Changing of the Guard at London's Buckingham Palace.

"Anyone who heard and truly believes in this country surely had tears either in their eyes or strong pangs in their heart," said Smithfield, N.C., resident Marc Wallace.

Within the jazz community, players, broadcasters and listeners found their own solace in the music. But it was not always easy. Gigs were canceled, particularly near what became known as New York's "Ground Zero."

Musicians who wanted to play -- or were booked to perform in other cities -- couldn't get there with planes grounded across America. Others found it difficult to tear themselves away from the TV news, or were in no mood to listen, or perform. Or so they thought.

"I could not imagine playing music in this situation. I was nauseated, depressed, dazed and angered by what had happened," said tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, whose quartet was booked to open a week-long run at midtown Manhattan's Iridium jazz club that Tuesday night.

"The whole idea of playing music while people were going through this seemed foreign to me. But I realized as the days went on that perhaps we could provide some kind of healing," Brecker said. Clubs that were able to do so reopened by Friday.

Brecker and his band mates decided they would perform, and agreed with club management to donate all of the proceeds from the three remaining evenings to the American Red Cross disaster relief fund.

They raised nearly $15,000.

"I forced myself to go into the city and play. I had misgivings about it, but once we began to play, it was incredible. It had an incredible effect on the audience. This is the first time I have experienced an extra purpose with the music -- a purpose I hope I can keep in mind for the rest of my life -- to cleanse, heal and uplift," Brecker said.

He said the audience at Iridium last Friday night included two people who had been in the World Trade Center on Tuesday morning -- and escaped with their lives. "They thanked us profusely," he said, "for giving them a brief period to re-center their lives again. We felt the same way as a band."

On Monday, Brecker headed to California to begin a North American tour with keyboardist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. "I didn't want to leave my family but we made it here OK," he said Tuesday "We are playing this tour a day at a time. We will take each day and see what happens."

Pianist Tommy Flanagan didn't have far to travel -- merely downtown -- for his week-long run at the Village Vanguard. But the world's most famous jazz club, located on Seventh Avenue South in the heart of Greenwich Village, was also dark for three nights. The neighborhood was pretty much off limits for several days as rescue and recovery continued 20 or so blocks to the south. Owner Lorraine Gordon decided to reopen on Friday, giving Flanagan's trio a three-night run.

"Tommy couldn't stay home and twiddle his thumbs any longer. And people called us and said: 'Please, please, give us something to live by,'" Gordon said.

The triangular basement club her late husband Max opened in 1935 was barely half full any night, but that was immaterial, Gordon said. "The people who were there were so beautiful and happy, in a sense, to be in a place where they could be together without being maudlin, hearing some beautiful heartfelt music. People needed soft, beautiful elegant piano. And Tommy gave it to them. They were three of the most beautiful nights I have spent in the club."

All over the country, musicians were wrestling with emotions.

"I couldn't touch the piano. I walked into walls, cried at the TV, sent/received emails to friends. I wrote to my congressmen. It was the teaching, and showing my students that by playing music, they could find solace in themselves, that helped me," said Seattle jazz and salsa player Cindy Hughen.

By the weekend, she was playing at scheduled gigs. "People were dancing. My friends were smiling ... everybody felt better. It's OK to dance. It moves energy. It's important to play. I tell my shy students that whenever musicians play in front of anyone else, they are giving the listener a great gift. Now I know it's true," Hughen said.

Carlos Palomares, a guitarist from San Francisco, had mixed feelings about performing but decided he had to.

"Perhaps there is something I can play or some song that will strike a chord in that one person. Then all the years I have spent working on my craft will finally have meaning bigger meaning than I could have ever hoped for. I can't be in New York digging trying to save people but perhaps for one moment I can make someone not think about this horrible tragedy," Palomares said.

Violinist Mark O'Connor, whose talent and versatility have enabled him to cross with ease between classical, bluegrass, pop and jazz, flies several times a week between performances. "You stop the flights and you slow down the music. That is when the enemy wins, and we can't let that happen. Music and the arts are powerful. "We must rally behind what is good in this country, and that includes our collective, creative soul.

"Fear itself is what the terrorists would wish upon us. I am American and I will take to the skies immediately if that is what it takes, and I will perform music for people," O'Connor said.

Jazz broadcasters had their own challenges. Some were pre-empted by disaster coverage. Others altered their programming to fit the mood of the country and/or what their hearts told them to play.

Chuck Obuchowski was alone that morning at WWUH-FM in Hartford, Conn., a community station at the University of Hartford -- without a newsticker or public radio network feeds -- when the station hotline rang.

"Flicking on the television set in our office, I shuddered at the sight of the burning towers. Back in the on-air studio, I cued 'Say Peace' from pianist Jason Moran's new release. I determined to spend the remainder of my program focusing on positive musical vibrations," Obuchowski said.

"After admitting on mike that it would be difficult for me to 'carry on,' I assured my listeners that I would try to follow Albert Ayler's maxim: 'Music is the healing force of the universe.'"

Many broadcasters looked to the spiritual side of jazz -- Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" or "23rd Psalm" both featuring Mahalia Jackson and John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" were played a lot. So were jazz versions of Americana songs, including late saxophonist George Adams' hard-edged version of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Chicago-based jazz critic Neil Tesser simulcasts a weeknight jazz program called "Miles Ahead." "It was a challenge for me to just focus on putting the programs together, and then presenting them without letting too much of my own depression and torpor show. Not that I tried to hide it all," Tesser said. "How can you trust someone on the air who does not react, and in the most honest way, to events like this?"

His programming included Blossom Dearie's almost mournful version of "Manhattan" and other songs associated with New York, as well as hopeful music created by Middle Eastern jazz players. Tesser said he played a lot of what he needed to hear but listener feedback also convinced him "that the stuff I was sending over the airwaves was neither as futile or irrelevant as I had begun to fear. "

Boston jazz critic Bob Young was working on an advance piece for this weekend's Equinox Jazz Festival, built around the city's long-standing John Coltrane Memorial Concert. He didn't feel like interviewing musicians but said he found all that he talked to felt it was important to go ahead with the event.

"This is one of those times when we're particularly blessed to be part of the music world. And I believe it's more important now than ever to remind readers and listeners about an art form that can offer at least some solace, as well as nourishment for the soul," Young said.

Near Ground Zero and across the continent, musicians found last week that they were making a difference and helping heal battered psyches.

Last Saturday bassist Gene Perla worked with drummer Elvin Jones at a showcase event at Drummer's World in New York City. "Being in the hotbed of this tragedy, it came as no surprise to me that our music had a profound effect upon the listeners," Perla said. "Afterward, many of them came up to me and remarked that this is just what they needed. Something to take their minds off the horror and confirm their dream visions of a better world."

On Saturday night promoters went ahead with a concert at San Francisco's Masonic Auditorium in tribute to late bandleader Cal Tjader, a vibes player whose music set the standard for Latin jazz in the United States in the 1960s.

One featured artist, Mongo Santamaria, was unable to fly in from Miami, but percussionist Poncho Sanchez and his band drove 400 miles north from Los Angeles to perform. Many West Coast Latin jazz figures and Tjader alumni participated.

"As a musician, I have always believed in the power of music to heal, but never really experienced it in any way resembling an epiphany, until last night," pianist Mark Levine said Sunday.

From the very first note of the concert, the human capacity for joy was evident, even in the face of tragedy. We knew we were in the right place. Several versions of Tjader alumni performed, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, always with joy.

"Poncho's band played the second half of the program and burned as they seldom have before.

The audience went nuts for every tune, every solo, every musician. It is evident that people needed music once again in their lives," Levine said. "The concert was a big step in turning a corner and getting back to whatever the new version of 'normal' will be."

Ken Franckling is a writer and photographer, based in Providence, Rhode Island.

C o m m e n t s

Jazz After... 1 of 3
Gregg Juke
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October 06, 01

Well done, Ken.

One tune that Brecker played on (from the Steps Ahead days), that always moved me was "Beirut." I could see it, and feel it; the notes in Dave Samuel's solo just transported me to that place of sadness and hope... now that tune will have renewed resonance-- I think I'll try to dig out that album...


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