Revisiting the Zen of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band

Revisiting the Zen of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band

The 2001 Costa Mesa Classic Jazz Festival offered new insights into the playing practice of this unusual band

by Don Jones
copyright © 2001 Don Jones

Perhaps we jazz festival fans can agree that our beloved jazz is food for the soul upon which we feast with the same delight as attending a family-style sit-down dinner where the food is brought out on platters and served without knowing exactly what's on the menu. We smell the aroma of what we're about to eat before we even see the food. It was with these notions that I approached my second experience listening to the Jim Cullum Jazz Band.

Prayers before meals are customary in Zen Centers and Monasteries, and here's a version of what Buddhists chant (Gatha) or recite before they eat:

First, 72 laborers brought us this food,
We should know how it comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering, we should consider
Whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order of mind, to be free from clinging,
We must be free of greed.
Fourth, to support our life, we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our way we take this food.
First, this food is for the Three Treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the three worlds.
Thus, we eat this food with everyone,
We eat to stop all evil, to practice good, to save all sentient beings,
And to accomplish the Buddha way.

A year has passed since my first opportunity to hear and listen to the playing practice of this unusual band of musicians of the highest caliber and singleness of purpose led by Mr. Jim Cullum. After their 10 p.m. set on Friday, August 3, 2001, I approached Cullum to request an interview the next day after their 2:30 p.m. set, which he promptly declined by saying, "Why don't we do it now?" We (Cathie and I, Jim and his long-time friend Sterling Nelson) headed for the elevator for the seven-floor ride to our rooms where we were able to sit down across a dining room table from each other to talk for 90 minutes in a relaxed atmosphere. The best talking seems always to be done in or near the kitchen.

Oryoki is the name for the formal ceremonial meal eaten in silence out of lacquer bowls carried by each individual into the Zendo (chapel). Oryoki means "containing just enough." Those attending gather in the Zendo where formal Zazen (sitting meditation) is normally practiced, but for this occasion, Oryoki, it becomes the dining room where the meal is ladled from the container in which it was cooked into each persons' bowls with rice portioned into one of the bowls and a second entre into the other bowl, with water into the cup.

Additional helpings are offered to those who require more to bring their meal to the point of "containing just enough" with the water being used as both a drink and as a means of washing the bowls. As the water is swirled from bowl to bowl, it is ingested so that every morsel of food is eaten and none is wasted. The bowls are then dried with the white cloth napkin they were originally wrapped in, and then re-wrapped for storage on the shelf in the anteroom outside the Zendo until the next Oryoki.

With formal dining as the metaphor for what is about to follow, let it serve as well to describe what I experienced again this year as I listened to the various sets of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Last year I wrote:

"Those first impressions of seven men with a mission were in such sharp contrast to the usual chit chat confusion and nervousness I am accustomed to from just about every band on the festival circuit that my visual, aural and mental expectations were left as if in a vacuum. I blinked my eyes, stuck my fingers into my ears to check for hearing loss, and slapped myself on the side of my head to make sure I was awake and aware of where I was."

This year I came prepared to listen more keenly and soak in the depth of the work these men put into their performances long before they show up to play.

From my conversation with Jim Cullum, I learned how dedicated all his men are to classic traditional jazz and how their approach to their interpretation of these "good old good ones" goes beyond mere imitation of what they found in their research of original performances and recordings.

Although they play mostly without written music to refer to, their newest member, trombonist Kenny Rupp, after one year on the job and 40 years on the New York musical scene, referred only occasionally to his book of charts, but even then, only for a moment's glance to refresh his recollection. His participation was otherwise flawless and his phrasing was smooth and oh so pleasing to my ears.

Their next-newest member, 22-year-old Mike Waskiewicz on drums, seems to have been born to play with this band. He was given the position about five weeks before last year's debut appearance of the JCJB at the Costa Mesa Festival, when their long-time drummer Ed Torres resigned on short notice. The stunned JCJB old-timers looked at each other in bewilderment all seeking an answer to the question, "Who are we going to get to play drums?" when someone suggested, "Hey, what about Mike, Ed's pupil?" With Jim's blessing and approval of the suggestions, Mike became their drummer and he's been their drummer ever since -- and a very good one at that.

Every member of the JCJB contributes to the totality of their repertoire, with the mainstay of most of their Sutras (arrangements) coming from pianist John Sheridan with more than 1,000 to date. For Buddhists, Sutras are narrative text consisting chiefly of the discourses and teachings of the Buddha -- for jazz fans, they are tunes by Satchmo and other ancient ones and ancestors in the pantheon of early jazz. "Sutras" and "Arrangements," are perfect words for John's work, because, unlike most of the output from most trad jazz bands on the circuit, his "Arrangements" are "Sutra-like," that is, of unusually long duration, making room for lengthy individual solos and ensemble improvisations within the framework of the original themes and variations -- with the basic arrangement as the guiding principle from which Cullum can call for variations as the moment dictates to deliver the ultimate Oryoki listening experience, "containing just enough."

One thing you will not hear at a JCJB performance is musical "quotes" (heresy) from other recognizable tunes superimposed within the tune they're playing. What you will hear are allthe musicians. The reason for this is Jim Cullum's tight control over the band members' on-stage demeanor, their impeccable dress, their lack of horsing around (which can be for some fans a distraction in itself), their extended use of the entire dynamic range from triple pianissimo to triple forte, and the uncustomary attention each member of the band gives to fellow musicians during their individual solo efforts by standing off to the side, intently listening with interest and enjoyment, offering discreet vocal encouragements urging the soloist to "go man go."

Another characteristic of the members of the JCJB is their total lack of ego-centric behavior. Their playing of their parts and their solos comes with neither fanfare nor self-aggrandizement of any kind whatsoever. Their acceptance of applause/appreciation for their work is done with a "Thank you, and I'm pleased you enjoyed my work" and not a "Thank you, wasn't I wonderful and look at me, aren't I great?" attitude/response.

Another thing was abundantly clear during the various sets, but particularly the one devoted to celebrating the 100th birthday of Louis Armstrong at 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Audiences for the Jim Cullum Jazz Band are for the most part very quiet and refrain from talking so loud as to be heard to interfere with the band's playing. Not so on Saturday during the half-hour before the 8 p.m. moment when all bands in all venues played the "Happy Birthday" song for Louis.

Prior to this moment, a group of very happy dancers were talking up a storm stage left of the bandstand when Jim Cullum pointed his cornet in their direction and offered them an exuberant blast within the tune to seek to quiet their noise making. When that didn't work, Connie Baker was alerted to the noise problem and she came to the microphone to remind the talkers that their disturbing talk was unwanted. The usual quiet returned for the remainder of the set, which consisted of an entire legacy of Armstrong's recorded favorites played as only the Jim Cullum Jazz Band can do.

Zen is a spiritual practice established on the basis of living and acting with conscious awareness of what one is doing at each current present moment. The operative words are practice and conscious awareness.

From my conversation across the dining room table it was abundantly clear that the focus of the JCJB players is Zen-like and this can also be realized by listeners who are "Zen-like-minded" as is the band.

In Zen centers and monasteries, the efforts put forth by students are both physical and spiritual, and consist of the search by students concerned with the ground of being, with fundamental questions of life and death -- Who am I? What is truth? What is reality? What is life? What is death?

In the Zen of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, their efforts and their searches are focused on: What is the truth contained in the works of the ancient ones? What is the reality of what they wrote and what they said about what they wrote? What is the life force contained in their tunes and how can we (the Jim Cullum Jazz Band) express that force for today's listeners? How do we do what we do in such a way that we prolong, if not prevent, the death of these truths? How do we make these tunes a "living truth" for our audiences?

As the historical Buddha transmitted the means of his succession 2,500 years ago to Mahakashyapa by holding up a flower before an assemblage of his disciples to which only the acknowledging smile of Mahakashyapa signaled his understanding of the purpose/meaning of this flower and his responsibility going forward, so too the Ancient Ones from the Pantheon of Jazz have given us, through their creative power and the originality of their Sutras (Tunes), the mind-to-mind transmission of their teachings and offerings 100 years later, because those who were there from the beginning are the jazz Mahakashyapas who impressed on those who followed them to cherish, protect, guard, quantify, collect, reproduce, venerate and faithfully perform those tunes with a genuine fervor and dedication to their authenticity with Zen-like Jazz of biblical proportions.

I ended my story last year with the following thoughts: "I'm glad I didn't give up after the first set. It's not often one meets the Buddha at a jazz festival with his Sangha in tow. The Darhma of traditional jazz is in the good hands of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and we Bodhisatvas are fortunate they've been invited to return to play the 2001 Costa Mesa/Orange County Classic Jazz Festival on August 2, 3, 4 and 5. What a ZAZEN that will be -- one breath after another, one tune at a time -- Nirvana!"

This year, I'll end by saying be careful what you hope for -- you're liable to get it!

Don Jones is publisher and editor of The American Rag.

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