Monday, February 17, 2014

The Tao of Ron (On Tribute Bands)

Ron Samworth
I'm writing this post in response to two things.  First, I've got the flu and can't do much except lay in bed with a computer on my lap.  Secondly, and much more important, this is a response to Facebook post by my friend, Ron Samworth.  Ron is a great guitarist and composer here in town, a musician of striking originality and invention. He simply wrote:

"I'm putting together a tribute band to pay tribute to my favourite tribute bands in Vancouver. Cool idea, huh?"

I and others thought this was pretty funny. Very pithy.  But it is not so funny in some ways. It seems to me that the number of tribute bands/projects in Vancouver has grown exponentially over the years that I have been playing music.

In classical music this 'tribute act' thing has been a feature for more than 100 years. They might not do "Tribute to Beethoven", but a performance of his Ninth amounts to the same thing and is likely to attract a huge audience compared to a presentation of "Violin Concerto by Joe from East Van". In the pop world, this starts as cover tunes and extends further to Elvis tribute artists, Beatles tribute bands and on and on.

I suppose the attraction of the "Tribute to So and So" is that it makes an easy point of access for a public.  It seems that, despite the massive variety on offer, the listening public is interested in safer and safer entertainment accessed, if at all possible, at the effortless click of a mouse.(I'm listening to a live broadcast of a Peter Bernstein gig while I write this...) We at Cap U are certainly part of this 'tribute inflation' with our annual January tribute series. The Brubeck tribute this year was sold out and we turned away many, many people. I'd like to think this is because everyone loves our students (I'm sure they do) but I don't think that is the only reason. Even though we creatively reinterpreted and rearranged Brubeck's music (I arranged “Blue Shadows in the Street” for the big band) it still felt in some ways equivalent to an orchestra playing greatest hits from the Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. That is not a bad thing of course! It was actually a really worthwhile and challenging project for faculty and students, as the shows in this series always are.  It was an easy sale for the folks promoting the show (a whole other department at the U) and I'm glad they sold tickets. I'm glad people heard our students play so well. Truly, I am happy about these things. At the same time, I am a bit sad that this same huge and receptive audience didn't hear the amazing tunes of my students like Jesus Caballero, Bronson Wright, Mike Allen, Nikko Whitworth and others who are writing such original and engaging music that reflects their own unique experience and position as musicians at the beginning of a new century. I don't think we could have sold out without the established, proven popularity and genius of Brubeck.

I dig the tribute thing for what its worth. Many of you may know that my friend Cory has used it to some benefit in getting bums in seats at the Cellar and I don't take issue with that at all.  I'm not suggesting that marketing is a primary motivation.  Musicians usually engage in such projects out of love and reverence for music and musicians of the past. An audience listening to Cory's Hank Mobley tribute is going to hear some great music played by wonderful players (Olly Gannon was in the band - you can't do better than that) and that is clear a benefit to our community of musicians and listeners, even to society as a whole.  It isn't that tribute bands can't be creative.  In jazz at least, the tribute in the title generally refers to a source of repertoire and general style. The solos and improvised band interactions are going to be relatively fresh and new every night.  This is a noble motivation to be sure. There is a lot of music of Monk, Ornette, Ellington, that I use over and over again in various ways and it is a massive challenge and a lot of fun to try and put one's own stamp on music of that calibre. Lots of good music is made in this way. The latest development in the tribute trend seems to be that if you can find someone obscure or unlikely to whom to pay tribute (Nick Drake or Liberace) then that is the hippest way to go.  I have seen tribute bands with stunning musicians and musicianship and sometimes with creative and original approaches to the material. 

On the other hand, I think about Charles Mingus. Mingus loved Ellington and honoured him, but he'd never have made a “Tribute to Ellington” band. He wrote “Duke Ellington's Sound of Love” instead. That tune feels like Ellington heard through Mingus' ears, but it belongs organically to Mingus. I think about John Coltrane's love of Johnny Hodges. He didn't do a Hodges tribute band, but he did display that influence to great effect on “John Coltrane Ballads”.  I have my Grandpa's (large) nose and bald head. If you knew him you'd know where I came from. But you wouldn't really know much about me. 

The proliferation of tributes makes me a wonder and worry a bit (not too much worry – I'm too optimistic to get really hung up on it...). The tribute band is, essentially, a move toward a classical view of an art form that used to be part of the avant garde. When I got into jazz, in the late 80s, the big deal for me and my friends was to hear local people doing their own thing.  I'm thinking of many shows at the Glass Slipper hearing Ron, Tony Wilson (including Tony's Albert Ayler and Monk tributes that were both totally original, unique, and beautiful) Claude Ranger, Paul Plimley, Lisle Ellis, Bruce Freedman, Gregg Simpson, and hoping I could come up with my own thing too one day.  When I got my first gig at the Slipper, I fully expected that it was my responsibility, nay, my divinely appointed duty and destiny to write and perform something that was somehow an honest reflection of me, at the very least an attempt at an original contribution. Maybe that way of thinking is ebbing in the jazz world or some corners of it? The tribute band can be a great creative vehicle. You can buy a cake mix and make a great cake. You can grow a plant from a seedling you buy at a shop and it can be a great plant. 
I  just think I would rather hear something cooked from raw ingredients or grown from the seed.

Thanks for the inspiration, Ron!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Locker-room Conversations and the Power of Music

I swim a few times a week at a pool near the University.  Conversations in the locker room tend to be quite limited; perhaps a nod or hello here and there.  Nudity among groups of men seems to demand a certain anonymity.  Despite this, one does hear interesting exchanges between friends at times and, occasionally, strangers strike up a conversation.  So it was yesterday.  An old gentleman in his nineties engaged me in small talk that quickly became much more.   Fortunately, my memory for scenes and conversations is extremely good so I'll present this story as he told it to me.

Dennis:  The best part of a work out is when its over, eh?

Me: Yeah.  It feels that way sometimes.  I really look forward to it, and then find once I'm doing it, it can feel like I want to quit pretty fast.

Dennis: Ya gotta do it though.

Me:  Yes.  I really need it to take out my frustrations.  It helps me deal with problems at work.  I guess just helps me be happier overall.

Dennis:  You know I was at a sort of talk the other day.  A bunch of retired guys from all walks of life.  It was at UBC.  I was a student there way back.  There was this fellow called Helliwell (John Helliwell) who is a real famous economist.  He goes around measuring people's happiness with numbers and such somehow.  He had all of us singing that song, "If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands".  You know what? Pretty soon everyone was doing it and clapping and singing and smiling and laughing.  It was great.

Me:  Wow.  That is really neat.  I actually just co-authored a paper in that field with my friend Clyde, who is also an economist.  It is all about how improvised music performance can teach people how to interact with each other and how it can help them be happier by understanding relationships with each other.  As it happens I know a little bit about this fellow, Helliwell.  He is an important figure in this field called the Economics of Happiness.  What an amazing coincidence that you should mention this to me.

Dennis:  Are you involved with music then?

Me: Yes.  I teach music at Capilano University, just up the hill.

Dennis:  I don't know much about music.  Know the white and black keys on the piano? I'm always there in the cracks.  No kidding!

We both laugh briefly. After a second or two, he fixes me intently with his one good eye, the other cloudy with a cataract.  His face flushes and tears begin to form.

Dennis:  I want to tell you a story about the power of music.  There we're two times in my life when I learned about the power of music

I nod.

Dennis:  If I go on too long just stop me.

Me:  I'm not in a rush.

Dennis:  We were in a landing craft waiting to go to France.  Off the south of England somewhere. It was dark and there were three boats there, all anchored close together.  You could see the men in the other boats and hear 'em. There was a boat of Poles, you know, from Poland?  All the men were pacing around pretty nervous and smoking cigarettes.  Everyone smoked back then, or just about everyone. We didn't know what was going to happen in the morning when we got to France. D-Day, you know?  So these Poles start singing Lili Marlene.  In Polish, and then some other languages.  Everyone was laughing and singing.   One of the other boats was English guys.  Mostly miners I think. Well they got into singing their songs and had some kind of routine going too. Everyone was having a great time. And you know what?  When they were done singing, one by one you saw the cigarettes go out and everyone went below deck and slept.  we slept like babies.  Can you believe it?  With all that going on.

Me:  That is amazing.  Beautiful.  I guess the music just relieved all that stress that everyone was feeling.  Everyone must have been really nervous.

Dennis:  Yup.  I'll tell you another time when I understood the power of music.

Me: Ok. Sure.

Dennis:  This was in Europe.  A place called Leopold Canal.  Ever heard of it?

Subsequent research has taught me that Leopold Canal was an important turning point in the Battle of the Scheldt.

Me: Is it in Holland or Belgium or...

Dennis: Yeah. Well were were stuck in a hole there for fifteen days playing catch with hand grenades at Leopold Canal.  Fifteen days, ya know?!  Stuck in the mud throwing hand grenades across the canal. We didn't have hardly anything to eat. Everything was filthy. Covered in mud.  Well, after fifteen days we finally got some relief.  Those Buffalos came in, ya know? (Buffalos are amphibious landing craft in the picture).  It was all over and we started walking out of there.  We were in a village and somehow one of the boys found a piano.  Just in a house in the village.  He went in and started to play that piano.  Beautiful music.  Classical music I guess.  It was so beautiful. We all just sat down right there in the mud and listened to him play that piano for hours.  Forgot all about getting a shower or food or anything.  Just listening to that beautiful music.  That's the power of music, ya know?

Me:  Wow.  What an amazing story.  Thanks for telling me about that.

Dennis: So what kind of music do you do?

Me:  I play the guitar.  I play a lot of jazz, some classical music.  I compose.  I teach people.

Dennis:  That is really wonderful!  To make music every day.  What a wonderful thing.  You must be very happy in your choice. To be a musician that is.

Me:  I guess I am pretty happy, yeah.  It beats a lot of other things I've tried.

Dennis:  Yup.  The power of music.  That is really something, boy. I'll never forget.

At this point I look at the clock and realize I'm almost late for work....

Me:  Thanks for sharing those stories with me.  I really appreciate that.  I have to get to work now though.

Dennis: No problem.  See ya later.

Me: Have a great day! Bye!

Why did he take the moment to talk to me?  Why not someone else? With the passing of Pete Seeger last week, I've been thinking a lot about what music means and what it can do.  I learned a lot from this experience.  In relating the story to my wife, I found the whole thing very emotional and moving.  Some things happen for a reason and I'm grateful that they do.

UPDATE: This week I got some more stories about D-Day and the liberation of Holland. Dennis is an amazing guy.