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Discovering Jazz through Pretzel Logic


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Casual fans might not be aware of it, but make no mistake, without jazz, Steely Dan as we know them would never have existed.
It's a good bet that most of us have heard people say they don't like jazz, or even worse, drop the H-bomb, "I hate jazz." If you choose to engage, the key is to tread lightly and tailor an approach that considers the tastes and sensibilities of the other person. The "So You Don't Like Jazz" column explores ways to do just that.

Steely Dan

If you dig down in the music collection of many people who claim not to like jazz, you'll likely find jazz connections. Of course that fact alone won't turn someone into a jazz fan, but it gives you an opening. Thanks to Steely Dan's multi-generational appeal, and their many millions of fans, they are often a promising starting point. Casual fans might not be aware of it, but make no mistake, without jazz, Steely Dan as we know them would never have existed.

On the other hand, serious Danfans, as they refer to themselves, are well aware of Steely Dan's jazz connections. In their youth Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were bohemian hipsters trapped in the suburbs outside New York City. Fagen went to the Newport Jazz Festival at age eleven and became, in his own words, "a jazz snob." Thereafter he began to venture into Manhattan on his own and saw legendary jazz artists perform: Earl Hines, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and a slew of others.

Becker and Fagen met in college and formed a few bands, including the Don Fagen Jazz Trio, but their first real break came from peddling their songs at the Brill Building in Manhattan. After Gary Katz, one of their contacts there, got a job with ABC/Dunhill Records and moved to Los Angeles, he promptly signed Fagen and Becker and brought them along as staff songwriters.

Katz clearly had a good ear, recognizing that the pair's material was idiosyncratic and too complex to pitch to other artists. As a result, he suggested they start their own band. Thus the band was formed, named after a steam-powered sex toy from Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs' book Naked Lunch.

From the outset Fagen and Becker's main focus was on writing and recording. This led to friction because the other band members didn't share in the writers' royalties, so understandably they wanted to tour and make money. On top of that, in the studio Fagen and Becker were legendary for their perfectionism. Thus over time band members left and were replaced by top session players—Steely Dan's album credits read like a Who's Who list of great session musicians, along with some major jazz players.

Steely Dan was an unusual band, musically Fagen and Becker had assimilated and internalized black music: jazz, rhythm & blues, soul, and funk. They fused that with sophisticated pop and rock into something that was truly their own. In addition to their sound, their lyrics also set them apart from their contemporaries. Owing to their alienation from their suburban middle class roots, and their seemingly contemptuous view of mindless youth culture—they became cynical and mordant observers of the world around them. Their lyrics could be challenging and occasionally came across as phrase-salads—stringing together clever non sequiturs, obscure references, and inside jokes. Even if you didn't get every reference, you felt it, they were painting with words.

They formed in 1972 and despite their initial aversion to touring, Steely Dan became a highly influential force in popular music from 1972 until 1981, releasing seven albums during this period. Twelve years after going their separate ways, they joined forces again in 1993. They continued to perform together until Walter Becker's death in 2017.

As we celebrate Charlie Parker's 100th birthday here on All About Jazz, let's note that 46 years ago Steely Dan celebrated him on their album Pretzel Logic, 1974 ABC Records. Although they didn't make it explicitly clear for rock music lovers that the song was about Charlie Parker, they certainly left enough clues for avid fans to follow:

Savoy sides presents a new saxophone sensation
It's Parker's band with a smooth style of syncopation
Kansas City born and growing
You won't believe what the boys are blowing
You got to come on man And take a piece of Mister Parker's band

You'll be riding by, bareback on your armadillo
You'll be grooving high or relaxing at Camarillo
Suddenly the music hits you It's a bird in flight that just can't quit you...

"Parker's Band" as written by Walter Carl Becker Donald Jay Fagen Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

In their live shows they often did versions of their songs to spotlight their great supporting musicians. Here is "Parker's Band" with the background singers doing the vocals which makes it considerably easier follow the lyrics, and this clip gives you a chance to experience the caliber of the musicians with whom they worked. Of course, this song also provides a convenient segue to acquaint the uninitiated with Charlie Parker.

By the way, the 1927 recording of "East St Louis Toodle-Oo" composed by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley also appeared on the Pretzel Logic album. To help someone truly understand Fagen and Becker's connection to jazz, I highly recommend sharing their 2002 appearance on Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland backed by Jay Leonhart on bass, and Keith Carlock on drums. Marian McPartland at the time was 84 years old, so Fagen and Becker dialed back their customary sarcastic wit and gave her straight answers about their jazz influences. To give you an idea of what to expect, it starts with Steely Dan performing another Duke Ellington tune.

Entire Episode on YouTube

Finally, here is something for serious Danfans. In 2013 I interviewed all the members of a band called The Ringers which included drummer Keith Carlock and guitarist Wayne Krantz. Carlock is playing drums on both of the video clips above, "Parker's Band" and Piano Jazz, and he's toured and recorded with Becker and Fagen. Guitarist Wayne Krantz has also toured with Steely Dan and recorded with Donald Fagen. The Donald Fagen video below features a guitar solo from Wayne Krantz backed by Keith Carlock and bassist Tim Lefebvre. During the interview (only available in audio, listen here) both speak about Steely Dan.

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