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Bill Milkowski: Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries

By Published: February 9, 2005
Index
About the Author
About Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries
Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries: Introduction
Excerpt: Interview with Jimmy Smith
Thoughts on Jazz by Bill Milkowski


About the Author

Bill Milkowski is a New York-based freelancer who contributes regularly to Jazz Times, Modern Drummer, Guitar Player, Bass Player, Jazziz, Audio, Pulse Guitar Club (Italy), Jazzthing (Germany) and (until its recent demise) Fi magazines. He has written more than 4,000 articles for these and various other magazines since publishing his first article as a freelancer in 1974 and has penned more than 250 sets of liner notes to date. He is also the author of Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries (Billboard Books, 1999) and JACO: The Extraordinary Life And Times Of Jaco Pastorius (Miller Freeman Books, 1995), which is being made into a feature film by Blue Rider Pictures out of Santa Monica, California.

Milkowski has also acted as producer and/or co-producer on several recordings including Pat Martino's All Sides Now (Blue Note), Phil de Gruy's Innuendo Out The Other (NYC Records), Come Together: A Guitar Tribute To The Beatles (NYC Records), Who Loves You: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius (JVC Records) and World Christmas (Metro Blue).

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 26, 1954, he began playing guitar at the age of 12 and naturally came under the sway of rock guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck along with blues icons like B.B., Freddie and Albert King. His earliest experiences with jazz guitar came via Charlie Christian (specifically "Breakfast Feud") and later Joe Pass (see his liner notes to Pass' 1998 Pablo/Fantasy release Unforgettable for some autobiographical insights). Milkowski studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1977. He became editor of the UWM Post campus newspaper in 1975 and worked as a summer intern at The Milwaukee Journal in 1976. Milkowski is the co-founder of Cityside, a biweekly tabloid publication patterned after the Chicago Reader and the Village Voice . The publication had a strong run in Milwaukee from 1977 through 1979. He worked briefly as the editor of the monthly glossy Milwaukee magazine before moving to New York City in September of 1980 to accept a position as managing editor of Good Times, a weekly entertainment publication based on Long Island. He worked there for two years, covering music, theatre and film, before striking out as a freelance writer in 1982.

In May of 1987, Milkowski was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery and following radiation therapy. A benefit to help defray the costs of his rehabilitation was held at the old Tramp's nightclub on 15th Street in New York. The evening was hosted by JJA's Howard Mandel and featured such artists as John Scofield, Michael Brecker, Danny Gottlieb, John Zorn, Mike and Leni Stern, Robert Quine, Elliott Sharp, Dave Tronzo, Bobby Previte and Jon Paris. Milkowski's own band The Pit Bulls also performed. From 1991 to 1992, he served as co-host for "The Other Half," a Saturday morning blues show on radio station WNYE.

In 1993, Milkowski moved to New Orleans, where he indulged in all manner of decadence and over-eating and second lining. During his three-year stay in the Crescent City, he served as the overnight dj on radio station WWOZ. His "Milkman's Matinee" program, which aired from 2-5 a.m., was a particular favorite with insomniacs and musicians coming home from their gigs. His daughter Sophie (pictured on the back inner sleeve in "Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries") was born in New Orleans on April 1, 1995.

Milkowski returned to New York in October of 1996 and presently resides in Washington Heights (so far Uptown that Harlem is Downtown).

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About Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries

In Bill Milkowski's Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries you'll find interviews with 30 of contemporary music's most outspoken and significant figures, from Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Wynton Marsalis and Keith Jarrett to Les Paul and Frank Zappa.

"The best things that I've heard are what the musicians have said themselves — anytime where a person interviews a musican and just lets the musician talk." — Steve Coleman, talking with Bill Milkowski on September 15, 1991

And that is exactly what you'll find in Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries. Musicians talking about their music and their influences, about the industry itself, its collaborators and its critics; about what annoys them and inspires them; about what their aspirations are and so much more. With wit and candor, uncensored and uninterrupted, contemporary music's most interesting and gifted artsits deliver what fans always want — the truth up close and very personal.

Music fans of every genre will savor Bill Milkowski's Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries, a unique compilation of 30 probing interviews conducted over the last 20 years.

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Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries: Introduction

I didn't set out to become a freelance music writer. But certain events conspired to push me in that direction. Number one, I had been an avid music listener all my life. Number two, I studied journlism in high school and college. Number three, the position of pop music reviewer at The Milwaukee Journal was magically laid in my lap in the summer of 1976 when the previous scribe, my good pal Steve Wiest, was busted for raping an old girlfriend and carted away to the Fox Lake State Penitentiary (where he once played checkers with Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsinite who inspired the ghoulish horror film Texas Chainsaw Massacre ). With a sudden vacancy in the feature department, the newspaper offered me the position. In my humble Midwestern manner, I replied, "Sure."

So there I was — 22 years old, working as an intern at a major metropolitan daily newspaper that bicentennial summer, suddenly finding myself reviewing concerts by everybody from Kiss and the Kinks to Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald. A few thousand bylines later and I'm still churning out copy on a daily basis for a dozen or so music magazines around the world. And my parents are still waiting for me to get a real job with regular paychecks, health insurance and a dental plan — the whole security package. Of course, they're still waiting for my juvenile fascination with New York to end so I can do the right, responsible thing and move back to Milwaukee. Sorry to disappoint you, folks. Or as they say in New York...fuhgeddaboudit!!

After migrating to The Big Apple in 1980, I worked for two years as managing editor at Good Times, a bi-weekly entertainment publication based on Long Island, before striking out on the freelance trail. It was extremely slow going at first but I finally made some significant breakthroughs with two magazines, Down Beat and Guitar World, both of which began feeding me cover story assignments in 1983. The workload picked up from there as I added Guitar Player, Music Sound Output and International Musician to my list of regular clients.

The magazine work, along with record company bios and liner notes, kept the rent paid for a few years. I was able to make a fiscal leap when I finally connected with a Japanese magazine publishing company, Rittor Music, which began reprinting several of my stateside stories and feeding me regular assignments on the side. My writing has since appeared in numerous publications, including Billboard, MIX, Interview, the New York Daily News, Swing Journal (Japan) and Fachblatt (Germany). I currently am a regular contributor to Jazz Times, Modern Drummer, Jazziz, Bass Player, Pulse!, Audio and Fi magazines. I also write a monthly column on New York happenings for Jazzthing in Germany and contribute regularly to Guitar Club in Italy.

I feel like I've developed a keen ear over the past 20-plus years as a critic, coupled with an ever-expanding grasp of music history, theory and vocabulary. And though I confess to becoming increasingly jaded about the rock scene — probably since the emergence of the Pixies, the Cranberries, Fiona Apple and other whining, no-playing charlatans — my appreciation for jazz, blues and the essence of improvisation has deepened tenfold. I began losing interest in rock as the players became younger than me. Oh well, I guess there's always The Rolling Stones.

My musical aesthetic may have been formed early by my older siblings. With my brother, Tom, being four years older than me and my sister, Sue, being six years older, I was naturally privy to the popular music of the day long before I came of age and could make my own choices about what was cool or hip. I was younger brother, so I just sat back and soaked it all up. I remember Sue being heavily into the Everly Brothers. She must've thought "Wake Up Little Susie" was written for her. And, naturally, she dug Elvis Presley. In fact, the first record I ever purchased with my own money was a copy of Presley's post-GI soundtrack, Blue Hawaii, a present for Sue on the occasion of her 15th birthday. She and her teenage friends were also into all the latest dances, often corralling me as a partner to practice down in the basement. So I had firsthand knowledge of the Twist, the Fly, the Pony, the Mashed Potato, the Philly Dog, the Continental, the Hully Gully, the Bristol Stomp, and every other new step of the day.

Sue eventually got into the surf music scene, via the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. I vividly recall her insisting that the family go en masse to see Beach Blanket Bingo with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello at the drive-in theatre (remember those?). It was a memorable event, not for the movie but the sexual epiphany I experienced during the coming attractions for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. It was somewhat reminiscent of that scene in the orignal Blues Brothers movie — John Belushi standing in the Baptist church, light pouring down on him from above, when suddenly he's hit with an epiphany: "The band!!! The band!!!" Only in my case it was more like, "The breats!!! The breasts!!!"

I was right there alongside sister Sue, gawking at the old black and white tv in the living room when The Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." I remember her crying. Naturally, she went for the cute Beatle, Paul. Mr brother Tom had much hipper taste in music. And because I slept in the same room (good God, was it the same bed?) with him for the first 12 years of my life, I had direct and immediate access to the sounds of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, The Coasters, Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds and Duane Eddy. He later introduced me to The Rolling Stones Now and 12x5, Fresh Cream, The Beatles' White Album, and Da Capo by Arthur Lee & Love.

I began to exert my own direction in music listening when Jimi Hendrix came out with Are You Experienced? Someting about the title track and "The Wind Cries Mary" held me transfixed. And Axis: Bold As Love put me over the top. Not having headphones at the time, I used to lie on my bed with the speakers from an el cheapo stereo system crushed up against my ears, cranking the volume to 11 and listening to "Little Miss Lover" over and over again, just to let that humongous low end seep directly into my brain as I convulsed on the bed. One day my mother barged into my bedroom, caught me in this compromising position and let out with a scream. I got so into Hendrix at one point that I actually concocted book covers out of a Jimi photo spread that appeared in Life magazine. While everyone else at Samuel Morse Junior High had The Monkees bookcovers, I had this psychedelic gypsy cat with eye shirts, a Fu Manchu mustache and a wild Afro do.

Ironically, Hendrix opened for The Monkees that year at The Milwaukee Auditorium. He was soon yanked from the tour for his overt sexuality and "dangerous" demeanor. Those 14-year-old girls screaming for Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz didn't know what the hell to make of "Foxy Lady" or "Purple Haze."

Around that same time, I benefitted greatly from a social experiment that began in Milwaukee — so-called "forced busing" to desegregate the public schools. Overnight, our lily-white junior high school was "invaded" by these black kids from the inner city. Through a mutual love of basketball, I began hanging out with Mack Bennett, Larry Buck, Richard Williamson and Michael Higgins. They in turn hipped me to James Brown at a time when he had come out with his anthemic "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." I was one of the few white kids in the audience that summer of 1968 (the year of the riots in Watts, Detroit, Milwaukee and elsewhere) to see James Brown get up and do his thing. And it was a major epiphany in my ongoing musical education.

Frank Zappa provided an important bridge from rock and blues into something a bit headier instrumentally, particularly Hot Rats with "Peaches En Regalia" and Weasles Ripped My Flesh with "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue." Jazz didn't begin to filter into my vocabulary until the early 1970s, via two sources — local guitar great George Pritchett, a Joe Pass-inspired player who gigged regularly with a swinging trio at a downstairs lounge adjacent to a bowling alley in the hippe part of town, and late night DJ Ron Cuzner, who went on the air at midnight and played unfiltered, unadulterated jazz until sunrise, five nights a week. Cuzner was my guru, sort of like a Wolfman Jack figure who served as the muse for the Richard Dreyfuss character in American Grafitti . He not only introduced me, via the airwaves, to everybody from Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and Larry Coryell to McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis, he also hipped me to Jaco Pastorius, Miroslav Vitous and The Crusaders. In 1975, I was the editor of the campus newspaper, the UWM Post. And during those frantic production nights when we were putting the semi-weekly paper together, we would invariably stay up until sunrise with the radio tuned to Cuzner's ultra-hip show, "The Dark Side" on WFMR. That show gave me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for jazz, as well as a hunger to learn more about it.

I also got a serious schooling by hanging out at the Jazz Gallery, a hip nightclub opened by Cuzner and Chuck LaPaglia. It was there that I got to see the likes of McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, Eddie Jefferson, Clifford Jordan, Dizzy Reece, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, and countless other jazz heavyweights — up close and in person. It made a huge impresion on me and helped formulate my aethetic.

Moving to New York in 1980, of course, opened my head up to a myriad of musical worlds. Not only were there regular doses of Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard and the Thad-Mel band at the Village Vanguard, but there was also a very vital "weird music" scene going on Downtown with renegades like John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Arto Lindsay, Christian Marclay, David Moss, Bill Laswell and Fred Frith who were making strange and wonderful sounds at joints like Armageddon, Roulette and Danceteria. I was open to it all, soaking up as much as I could — the "out" jazz thing with James "Blood" Ulmer, Arthur Blythe and Leroy Jenkins; the punk-funk thing with James White & The Blacks, The Contortions and Defunkt; the straight ahead jazz scene headed by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. I saw Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five perform "The Message" at the old Peppermint Lounge. I saw Devo at Carnegie Hall on Halloween night. I witnessed the first American performances by King Sunny Ade and the Bulgarian Women's Choir. I saw

The Clash at Bond International Casino on Broadway — the night the audience nearly trashed the place. I caught Don Cherry and Sun Ra together at a summer solstice sunrise concert in Battery Park. I watched The Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams smashing tv sets with a sledgehammer at the old Ritz. I was digging Tiny Grimes at Sweet Basil on the night John Lennon was murdered. In fact, it was Tiny who broke the news to me ("Hey man, they done shot that Beatle!"). And I watched a slightly crazed Jaco Pastorius play "The Star Spangled Banner" on the Fourth Of July — in the middle of the West 4th Street basketball court!

A few thousand interviews have flown by — at least three a week for the past 22 years. (For the record, my first published music piece was a Stanley Clarke interview appearing in a February ?75 issue of Milwaukee's counterculture mag, The Bugle American ). Compiling a mere 30 interviews for this book was no easy task. But for the sake of variety, I split it up into three sections — rockers, jazzbos and visionaries. The format here is strictly Q&A, although very few of the pieces originally appeared in that form. It was my hope to retain the language and cadence of the individuals as much as possible, which I feel results in some colorful and sometimes insightful storytelling. I have added new intros to all the pieces to update what these artists have been up to since the time of those interviews and also to provide some personal hindsight of my own.

I can't say that the life of a freelance writer is a lucrative one. On the contrary, it's a struggle. Sometimes the cash flow is poor, sometimes payment is late, sometimes magazines declare bankruptcy and screw you altogether. I've heard every delay tactic and excuse imaginable: "Sorry, our accounts payable person has...a) been on vacation b) been fired c) misplaced your invoice." Or how about: "The office where we keep all of our financial records burned down last week." I even got this one from a Japanese magazine I write for: "Honorable check in mail."

Sure, I could've stayed in Milwaukee and gotten a gig at the post office. But every day I witness something inspiring at the Village Vanguard or the Knitting Factory or Birdland or the Blue Note or any of countless clubs around town that continue to pump out live music on a continual basis, I thank God I'm still here. Recently, I've produced a couple of records (including Pat Martino's Blue Note debut, All Sides Now ) and I have a book that is being made into a movie (my 1995 biography, "Jaco, The Extraordinary And Tragic Life Of Jaco Pastorus, the World's Greatest Bass Player," published by Miller Freeman Books). I hope to get into more of that — producing and screenwriting — in the future. But I'm still a freelancer at heart. I'm still churning out the copy. And I'm still excited about the music.

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Excerpt: Interview with Jimmy Smith

I conducted this interview for Jazz Times (February '95 issue) on the phone from New Orleans. Jimmy was back home in California, no doubt watching cowboy movies on tv, a favorite pasttime of his. Our conversation was freewheeling and hilarious, and after it was over I realized that I had maybe five or six minutes of useable material. He did talk about the development of his trademark Hammond B-3 organ style and his current recording but the rest was a kind of stream of consciousness monologue that ran its own course. I remember thinking at one point during the interview, "This cat should be doing standup comedy albums." He was in that great X rated party humor tradition of Red Foxx, Rudy Ray Moore and Robin Harris...a born entertainer. At the end of our chat, I mentioned to Jimmy that I had just polished off a catfish dinner at my favorite New Orleans restaurant, Uglesich's. "Catfish? Ooooh, you dirty dog!" he moaned with envy. When I went on to describe the dish — chef Anthony's popular Muddy Waters catfish topped with jalapeno peppers and garlic — Jimmy made an unusual proposition. "I'll tell you what...next time I come to New Orleans, I think I might suck your dick if you treat me to some catfish." Unfortunately, I moved from New Orleans the following year and never had the opportunity to follow up on Jimmy's generous offer.



He is now and has been for the past four decades the king of the hill, the baddest of the bad, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Hammond B-3 organ. When Jimmy Smith jumps on an up-tempo groove and lets his right hand fly or when he digs deep into a greasy blues with real-deal intensity, practitioners and connoisseurs alike can only sit back in utter amazement, shake their heads in disbelief and mutter...Damn! , which also happens to be the title of his latest Verve release.

An all-out blowing session, Damn! confirms Jimmy Smith's status in the B-3 world; still the organist that everyone is chasing. For this fiery session, Smith's inimitable B-3 burn is highlighted alongside some of the hottest young horn players on the scene today. Challenged by Young Lions like guitarist Mark Whitfield, trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, saxophonists Tim Warfield, Mark Turner, Ron Blake and Abraham Burton, Jimmy rises to the occasion and wails with abandon. Teeming with energy, Damn! harkens back to Jimmy's landmark date from 38 years ago with a young Kenny Burrell, Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd, recently compiled and released by Mosaic Records as a three-cd boxed set entitled The Complete February 1957 Jimmy Smith Blue Note Sessions. The same intensity prevails.

From funky throwdowns like James Brown's "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie" and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" to scorching bop anthems like Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'N' You" and Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple," the entire session is marked by scintillating interplay. Anchored by bassist Christian McBride and drummers Bernard Purdie and Arthur Taylor (in his last recorded performance), Jimmy drives the session from behind his hulking B-3 like a seasoned quarterback taking his team downfield for a last minute touchdown in the Super Bowl. Simply put, the sparks fly on Damn!

James Oscar Smith was born on December 8, 1928 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Both of his parents were pianists and his father was Jimmy's primary teacher. At the age of nine, he won first place in a Major Bowes Amateur Hour contest playing boogie woogie piano. At the age of 12, he teamed with his father in a song and dance act, performing at various clubs and on radio shows in and around Philadelphia. Following a stint in the Navy, he used the GI bill to attend Ornstein's School of Music, where he studied bass and piano. It was in 1951, while playing in Don Gardner's Sonotones, that he became interested in organ. Soon after acquiring a Hammond B-3 organ, he went into a self-imposed period of intensive woodshedding that lasted nearly a year.

Since the release of his 1956 Blue Note debut, A New Sound...A New Star...Jimmy Smith At The Organ, Vol. 1 , few organists have received as much attention. A perennial poll winner since the late '50s, Smith redefined the cumbersome instrument while opening a new door in the process for generations of players to come. As the late Leonard Feather wrote in his Encyclopedia Of Jazz : "The first attempt to bring the organ into the orbit of contemporary jazz was undertaken by Jimmy Smith, an extraordinary musician who makes fuller use than other jazz organists of the variety of stops at his dispoal. Smith plays fast tempo jazz improvisations in a style that would have blended perfectly with Charlie Parker's combo, had Smith risen to prominence during Parker's lifetime."

With swagger and sass, Jimmy took the cumbersome 400-pound instrument to a new level beyond where B-3 pioneers like Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis had gone before him. Smith's new sound utilized the first three draw bars and the percussion feature of the Hammond B-3. He also cut the tremelo off and began playing fluid horn-like lines with his right hand, inspired by players like Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Arnett Cobb. As he once explained, "I copped my solos from horn players. I don't listen to keyboard players. I can't get what I want from keyboard players," although he also admits that Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner were important influences.

Jimmy, in turn, has influenced generations of musicians. His inspiration has been acknowledged by countless other organists including Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Booker T, Billy Preston, Larry Young, Lonnie Smith, Richard Groove Holmes, Georgie Fame, Joey DeFrancesco, Barbara Dennerlein and John Medeski. His continuing influence is reflected in today's acid jazz scene via sampling by groups like the hugely popular Us3, who regard Jimmy Smith as the godfather of soul-jazz.

Perhaps Clive Davis of The London Times put it best when he wrote: "Smith continues to extract an awesome degree of power from his keyboard. The slick walking bass lines laid down by the pedals and the cluster bomb explosions of blue notes from his right hand have been copied by admirers across the generations. His ability to build to a dramatic gospel climax remains undiminished."

That testimony rings true on Damn!

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Thoughts on Jazz

I am very encouraged by what's going on in jazz today, both on record and particularly in live performance. It seems to me that individuality has once again become the watchword in this post-Wynton phase, particularly when you look at some of the adventurous music coming out on smaller, independent labels like Palmetto (Dewey Redman, David Berkman, Matt Wilson, Ben Allison, Pete McCann, Joel Frahm), Arabesque (Dave Douglas, Ben Monder, Myra Melford), Intuition (Joey Baron, Michael Blake's Slow Poke ), Siam (Erik Friedlander, New Jakarta Ensemble) and Winter & Winter (why won't those cheap bastards send out any promos?). And, of course, perpetual upstart labels like Songlines, Knitting Factory Works, Nine Winds, CIMP and Tzadik remain defiantly on the case. Even the more established labels are loosening their ties a bit. Columbia Jazz, under the direction of Branford Marsalis and former scribe/pal o' mine Jeff Levenson, has issued some music (Sam Newsome's Global Unity , Mark Isham's electric Miles tribute,

The Silent Way Project , and bassist Richard Bona's debut) that is at odds with the label's Young Lions direction of 15 years ago. Blue Note has released some provocative, uncompromising music by Medeski, Martin & Wood, Charlie Hunter, Tim Hagans, Javan Jackson and Cassandra Wilson. And Concord Jazz has reinvented itself from a perennial repository for stodgy straight ahead to a label that has openly encouraged exploration and risk-taking by some of the artists on its roster (Chris Potter's Unspoken and Vertigo along with John Patitucci's Now are excellent examples of the more freewheeling aesthetic that prevails at Concord in its post-Carl Jefferson era).

So there is definitely a plethora of very challenging, creative music being made today, although it's not all being documented. To really hear what's going on, you have to go to the clubs (in New York) and seek it out. And by clubs, I'm not talking about overpriced tourist traps like the Blue Note, Birdland, Vanguard, Basil's, et al. You need to hunt around and find obscure places like the Dark Star Lounge, Baby Jupiter, Kavenholz, Zinc, Dharma, The Cooler, The Izzy Bar, Detour, the Internet Cafe, Shine, Kush, Tonic...places where talented and eager young musicians are creating a scene by the sheer force of their own will to express themselves. You won't see Jackie McLean or Tommy Flanagan or Barry Harris or George Coleman at any of these clubs. But you might see any of the following: Dave Fiuczynski playing fretless guitar in a trio with cello and drums; guitarist Adam Rogers playing in a swinging quartet with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and saxophonist Chris Potter; bassist Drew Gress leading his Jagged Sky band with guitarist Ben Monder, alto saxophonist Dave Binney and drummer Kenny Wolleson; Medeski, Martin & Wood playing in a Cecil Taylor-inspired acoustic piano trio setting; Bobby Previte's 9-piece band The Horse playing the music of Bitches Brew ; Other Dimensions in Music striking another spine-tingling invocation. There are a million gigs in the Naked City. Three, four a night, if you like. And many of these aforementioned joints charge a mere $5 to $7 at the door. If you seek out this exhilarating stuff, you will understand that the tradition of improvisation and intelligent, creative expression is alive and well (and I'm sure there are parallel scenes going on in Chicago, San Francisco, wherever).

The other thing that I am very encouraged by is an apparent fusion renaissance. Being a child of the early '70s fusion movement (I'm currently working on a book about its history and development), I came to jazz from rock via groups like Tony Williams Lifetime, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Pat Martino, Return To Forever and Weather Report. Those bands all appealed to my rock-fed ears (Hendrix, Cream, James Gang) while offering something more. I found the sheer instrumental virtuosity of it all intriguing rather than off-putting and went about to soak up as much information as I could, a path that eventually led me to investigate Miles, Trane, Bird, Dizzy, Cannonball, Dexter, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas....on and on, backward in time.

Of course, the fusion movement became codified by the late '70s to the point where it became a critical joke, stigmatized as 'the F word.' This continual watering down (dumbing down) process naturally led to smooth jazz, a horrible dumping grounds of instrumental mediocrity and insipid nursery rhymes being aggressively marketed as New Adult Contemporary. I repeat...HORRIBLE.

But fear not, a backlash is in process. There is a whole groundswell of musicians and listeners alike who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. Bored to tears by the same sing-song pablum that pours out of NAC radio, they are turning to more challenging fare. I am particularly encouraged to see people in the early '20s picking up on Columbia/Legacy's ambitious reissue program. All that volatile, uncompromising music released in the late '60s-early '70s — Miles' Live/Evil , Bitches Brew , Jack Johnson ; Mahavishnu's Inner Mounting Flame , Weather Report's Mysterious Traveler — is being heard again for the first time with fresh ears. And it's triggering a mini-movement in its wake. I'm hearing young Berklee College of Music grads coming to town and putting bands together that are taking their cues from this music that puts a premium on virtuosity. Concurrent with that, drummer Steve Smith (Jean-Luc Ponty, Vital Information) has joined forces with entrepreneur Mark Varney to form Tone Center, a label exclusively devoted to fusion music in the most ferocious sense of the word, including ripping new releases by guitarist Frank Gambale, Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman, Tribal Tech guitarist Scott Henderson and fusion pioneer Larry Coryell.

Meanwhile, former Return To Forever bandmates Stanley Clarke and Lenny White have formed Vertu, a real-deal fusion band with Rachel Z on keyboards, Karen Briggs on violin and rock guitar sensation Richie Kotzen. "We're trying to bring virtuosity back to the forefront," said White.

"The business tends to lean on something that's successful," Clarke notes, "and when it's copied over and over again and thrown out to the public, it sends a funny message to musicians...the wrong message. People who have leadership potential to create new trends end up following them. But you don't have to sound like Kenny G. You may have more success sounding like yourself. So many guys get ruined trying to emulate something that's popular. But we want to send a message to young musicians that it's OK to stretch again."

Yeah, I'm encouraged.

~ Bill Milkowski

Photo Credit
Jimmy Smith by Sue Storey



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