The five live performances of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band at the Costa Mesa/Orange County Classic Jazz Festival were my first opportunity to hear this band in the flesh - thanks to festival director John Dieball's foresight in hiring this one-of-a-kind ensemble to share top billing with the traveling unit of the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the marquis of the Costa Mesa Doubletree Hotel.
From the first note of the first tune, I was baffled and puzzled by what I was seeing and hearing as these seven musicians went about their business in a calm and deliberate manner with no apparent verbal communication save for the marching orders (tempo countdown) from their leader after announcing the tune's name and short history to the audience.
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.
Their first set wasn't as well attended as I expected it would be, after the gang-buster start of the opening sets of the festival the day before. By their second set, the attendance was up and the proverbial light bulb came on in my consciousness, and my ability to appreciate what was developing became apparent.
My mind wanted to call them the Jim Cullum "S.B." Jazz Band - "Strictly Business." My first impression wanted to say - "These guys aren't having any fun" - it's just another gig like all the others over the years. And yet, the band included two newcomers: their 21-year-old drummer Mike Waskiewicz, who had been in the band for only five months, and a much older trombonist Kenny Rupp, a veteran of the New York musical scene over the past 40 years.
That impression just had to be (and was later proven to be) wrong. There's no way to play their repertoire of supreme originals and oldies (not necessarily "standards") and not have fun doing it! When I personally conveyed this impression to Jim Cullum in one of our conversations, he stood in utter disbelief of my remarks and quickly assured me to the contrary - "We love this music or we wouldn't be here to play it."
So what am I pointing to when I titled this story The Zen of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band? I'll begin with a rudimentary explanation of my understanding of the essentials of Zen, and attempt to flood the Jim Cullum Jazz Band with the light of those essentials.
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 word is practice.
When this practice (like in habit) is applied to one's chosen field of endeavor, the achievement of Nirvana (the ultimate goal - authentic inspired performances) is attained by the Sangha (in this case, the band) together with their Bodhisatvas (the choir of fans desiring to achieve Nirvana as well), and through their combined efforts in adhering to the ancient Dharma (the body of original historical traditional jazz) as taught to the original Sangha members by the traditions handed down from the Buddhas (elders and heroes of the past - the enlightened ones, Louis, Bix, etc.) who themselves became awakened (the term Buddha means the awakened one) discovered and preached (composed and played) the enlightenment path to achieve Nirvana (tapping toes and dancing feet) for the entire Sangha and Bodhisatvas (bands and fans).
The ultimate spiritual practice in Zen takes place in the form of meditation known as Zazen. Meditation as practiced by Zen-nuts (read, Jazz-nuts) usually in monastic settings (in venues) takes two forms: sitting and walking (listening and dancing). In both forms, the goal is to be aware of the present moment, breath by breath and step by step, thus overcoming suffering and grasping.
By the second set, I recognized something I hadn't already in the deliberate, no-nonsense, strictly-business style of Jim Cullum (Buddha) and his bandsmen (Sangha guys): The Zen Connection.
For instance, there is a principle in Zen which calls for awareness and interdependence. To best achieve this, a band must also play with interconnectedness (together, chant-like, groovy) by being aware of what's happening within the group (playing with balance, together, as an ensemble), avoiding to a certain extent an individual's tendency to see how many fast-fingered notes one can play in the next eight bars (showing off and standing out too much above the others.) Lest you get the wrong idea, believe me there were plenty of beautiful solos in the Jim Cullum Jazz Band performances - outstanding solos - but at the same time, they were subtly meditative rather than blowing out the back wall of the theater.
I expected Jim Cullum, as their leader, to be a ball-of-fire. But his quiet, studied remarks and introductions came as such a surprise that I had to search deeper for the flames of passion I was expecting. Jim Cullum is the Roshi (teacher, guru) of this Sangha (band). And I found these flames both in his gentle tones of speech and his deliberate, measured contributions to each different tune as created by the composer's intent - which was being interpreted as authentically as possible, based on personal research by him as well as other band members.
To give an example of the extent of their research: At two different times, John Sheridan offered piano solos of piano music composed by the legendary jazz trumpeter, Bix Beiderbecke - four pieces collectively known as The Modern Suite. Their separate title are: a) In A Mist, b) In The Dark, c) Candlelights, d) Flashes. During his Randy Morris dual-pianist set, John played In A Mist, and during a set with the JCJB he played In The Dark. Both of these Beiderbecke pieces were heavily influenced by Debussy and Ravel and are perfect examples of the breadth and length of research which underscored the JCJB repertoire.
These two pieces and many others the band played were tunes I had never heard of nor had I ever heard them played before. If others experienced the same first impression as I did, if there was not enough glitzy showmanship for them, perhaps this analysis will ease their understandable doubts. I had trouble living without that at first. But in the end, I was glad it was missing in the ways I had been used to. Instead, the showmanship of the JCJB was to be found in their togetherness, not in any rah-rah noisiness.
Take Jim's style - he's the boss, the leader, the Roshi. No one makes a move without his direction, and yet each man brings to the whole his contribution, with freedom of self-expression within each tune so long as the composer's intent and the composition's story-line is preserved. It became obvious from the fact that most of the tunes offered at this festival were not the familiar ones we've all heard till we're goofy, but rather were well-researched, important examples of tunes all those composers familiar to us via their "standards" left in their legacies, for whatever reason gathering more dust than their siblings. And if it were not for Cullum, Sheridan and the rest of the JCJB Sangha, we'd be goofier than we are for not having the benefit of hearing these seldom-heard and forgotten gems.
Jim Cullum's contribution as a playing member and the Roshi of the Sangha is as deep as it is broad. By this I mean, he leads by example: do as I do, but do it your way, too. Cullum's contribution was best expressed in the dynamics (loud/soft) of the band as a whole and individually. It was as if they all had a third eye in their foreheads and eyes in the back of their heads with extra ears that all went unseen as they watched and listened to his leads. His leading was evident in their togetherness (interdependence) both starting and stopping, in their ensemble phrasing, in their overall dynamics, in their individual solos, which could at times be so quiet as to be almost unhearable.
It has been said that the highest compliment is not expressed by the standing ovation, but rather by paying silent attention during a performance. The faithful audience of 1100 Bodhisatvas at 2:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon delivered on that compliment - they could feel the unhearable during those moments when the instruments and players were whispering in their ears.
The JCJB played in the same venue for all of their sets. These live performances of the JCJB were, for me, as if I was hearing an altogether different band than one hears on their recordings. For one thing, as with all live performances, the ambience of the listening room is missing from the recordings, and live bodies are present, visible and audible in the flesh.
I was especially impressed with the tightness of the band as Cullum from time to time moved himself and others into close physical proximity to create a desired aural effect - like placing himself behind the drummer and blowing over his shoulders and toward a cymbal. At other times, he would start a change in loudness from a crouch, moving glissando-like to standing on his tip-toes. His facial expressions of satisfaction with the outcome were worth the price of admission.
All in all, it was the sum total of all the little mostly unnoticed motions, adjustments and movements which added up to a total spiritual Zen-like musical and mystical experience.
Instead of causing the annoying sounds we're all familiar with when microphones are moved from time to time from the cradle holding them, Cullum's handling of the mike in those situations was soundless, with the delicacy of the Elevation of the Holy Eucharist during a Catholic Mass.
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 step at a time - Nirvana!
Don Jones is Owner/Publisher The American Rag newspaper, "the world's foremost newspaper covering Vintage Jazz and Ragtime."