The holiday season is upon us once again, kids, and it is time once again to repeat those yearly rituals that we call tradition. These are the things that we do Christmas after Christmas that build a Pavlovian reflex of holiday cheer. Mention egg nog and mistletoe to the average individual, and immediately they will begin decking the halls with boughs of holly and wassailing (whatever in the hell that is) until they have to be sedated by public health officials. So ingrained in the American psyche are the traditions and rituals of the Christmas season that even recent events can't stem the warm, happy feelings they produce. If anything, the Christmas season will take on an even greater poignancy this year as Americans of every ilk join together and focus on what is really important during this most blessed of seasons-spending wheelbarrows full of money on Christmas gifts for everyone with whom they've ever exchanged more than two words.
Which is where your own personal Genius comes in.
As both Americans and jazz fans, we have a dual responsibility this Christmas. On the one hand, jazz fans are on average more affluent than the run-of-the-mill mullet-impaired AC/DC fans who control vital sections of our janitorial and 30-minute oil change industries. Therefore, we are in a better position to spur the economy with a veritable orgy of discretionary spending.
I'll pause for a moment so that you may give in to reflex and giggle like a schoolgirl at the word "orgy."
Now, as jazz fans, we are also responsible for ensuring the propagation of our music. It isn't enough that we simply listen to jazz and buy jazz CD's and related merchandise (inflatable Katherine Whalen
dolls, $59.95. With banjo, $79.95. Include $7.95 for shipping and handling. And oh! the handling...). It is up to us to spread jazz to as many people as possible. By rights, we should walk around with giant eighties-style boomboxes, blasting Coltrane and offering impromptu lectures on the history of jazz. Barring that, we should use the holiday season to further our music by giving jazz CD's and jazz-themed gifts to those we know and/or love.
"But how?" you ask, clawing desperately at my lapels. "How shall we know the proper gifts to give and where shall we find them? And why are we using the word 'shall' so much all of a sudden?"
Settle down, kids. Uncle Genius is here to help.Gifts for the Newcomer
Believe it or not there are a lot of people out there who, for one reason or another, are either ignorant of jazz or almost hostile towards it. Ignorance is easily overcome by gently introducing the patient to jazz in small doses. I recommend crushing up a Louis Armstrong CD and serving it to them mixed with a little applesauce. A small mortar-and-pestle set may be obtained from most pharmaceutical supply stores for this purpose. As for those who are hostile towards jazz, this may stem from the belief that jazz is some sort of esoteric highbrow music. This is in line with the trend of anti-intellectualism that has pervaded American culture since the invention of cable TV. Therefore, we can overcome the perception of jazz as too erudite by combining it with soothing images familiar to the patient. Try editing together a video montage of professional wrestling, Jerry Springer, and softcore pornography set to Duke Ellington's Newport Jazz Festival Suite
An appropriate gift for the ignorant but receptive newcomer would be the CD The Best of Ken Burns' Jazz , which contains a little bit of everything from the earliest days of recorded jazz to the point where Burns lost interest in the whole thing and started thinking about his next 20-hour film. In fact, there are several items from the Ken Burns' Jazz collection worth recommending, up to and including the Ken Burns' Jazz jar-and-bottle opener and the Ken Burns' Jazz flavored body oils. The entire 4-CD box set is probably a good gift for a more thorough introduction for those you feel close enough to that you would spend $60 on them, and the $170 10-DVD set of the entire documentary is probably only for those with whom you've exchanged bodily fluids.
For the outright hostile, it is important for us to present jazz with as little pretense as possible. Compelling arguments could be made for Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who certainly made accessible music. I tend to gravitate towards John Coltrane's Blue Train or Miles Davis' Kind of Blue as an introduction to jazz. Intimate, passionate, melodic but challenging, they represent to me a cohesive apex of everything jazz should be without being so deliberately oblique as to alienate even those predisposed to dislike jazz. And they both have the word "blue" in the title and everybody likes blue.
Another avenue to introduce newcomers to jazz is the magic of motion pictures. Movies like Anatomy of a Murder or In Cold Blood have specially-composed jazz soundtracks from the likes of Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones, respectively. The Last Time I Committed Suicide or Lenny feature jazz-laden soundtracks. Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues portrays the fictional life of a jazz musician, while 'Round Midnight portrays the lives of jazz musicians using actual musicians like Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock. Documentaries Straight, No Chaser about Thelonious Monk, and Let's Get Lost about Chet Baker are also compelling insights, but maybe better left to the more serious jazz fan. And movies like Billy Bathgate and Eyes Wide Shut , which feature nude scenes by actress Nicole Kidman, have absolutely nothing to do with jazz but I'm still a man, for goodness sakes.
Gifts for the Jazz Lover
For those of you fortunate enough to know someone who truly loves jazz, or are a jazz lover yourself wanting to give hints to your loved ones as to what to get you for Christmas, I have several suggestions for the more seasoned jazz lover. And it is no small coincidence that I managed to work the word "love" into that last sentence in one form or another four times, because this is the season (particularly this year) to love everyone we can, as much as we can. At least until the FBI gets involved.
One of my favorite things as a jazz aficionado is the ubiquitous box set. While some feel the box set is simply an overpriced collection of rehashed standards, near-miss oddities, aborted takes, and just plain recorded moments of aimless noodling, I find it to be a glimpse inside the creative process. And nowhere is this more fulfilling than in jazz, where the immediacy of the music can be seen more fully as you get inside the recording process. Hearing alternate takes of familiar standards gives a new appreciation of the representative version, and insight into the forces that shaped it.
Being a fan of John Coltrane, I can personally recommend three box sets worth having. The Complete Impulse Recordings is probably the choicest of the lot, capturing Coltrane's legendary quartet at the peak of their creative force. The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard is also a testimonial to that great quartet, with some help from the inexplicably underrated Eric Dolphy, and the relentless power of their live performances. The ponderous collection of Coltrane's Atlantic recordings Heavyweight Champion , which features every tune Coltrane so much as hummed softly to himself during that period, is probably only for the diehard 'Trane fan.
For fans of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I can recommend The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961. Virtually everything Davis and Coltrane ever recorded together (including their hilarious "Who's on Bass?" routine. Or am I thinking of Burns and Schreiber?), all in one attractive and unique package. A perfect testimony to two of the greatest musicians of all time, as well as the music that has been most responsible for 95% of the leg I've gotten since 1987.
As for non-box sets, there are several artists I feel have been underappreciated in the past few years. One is Danny Gatton, the late and lamented D.C.-area guitarist. While not officially considered a jazz guitarist (the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Jazz Musicians mistakenly labeled him a "distilled spirit"), he was nonetheless a jaw-droppingly gifted player and endlessly inventive improvisationalist. He is also one of the few guitarists I've ever heard with the cojones to attempt to play Harlem Stride piano licks on a guitar and actually pull it off. Look for Hot Rod Guitar, A Danny Gatton Anthology for some enjoyable off-the-beaten path music.
Some of my favorite jazz of the past few years has come from the Squirrel Nut Zippers and various combinations of musicians therein. A nifty amalgam of hot jazz, klesmer, cocktail jazz and Calypso, they produce a novel take on old sounds. Not content merely to dredge up worn standards, they actually write new music that sounds old. Issuing forth from the Zippers (and let's just pause for a moment to enjoy that turn of phrase) is the solo work of frontman James Malthus, whose Knockdown Society recalls Delta blues in the mix; violinist Andrew Bird, whose first two albums with his Bowl of Fire, Thrills and Oh, the Grandeur are among my all-time favorites; the aforementioned Katherine Whalen, whose sultry Billy Holliday-esque vocals can be found both on her solo album Katherine Whalen's Jazz Squad and as the soundtrack to virtually every current fantasy I have involving fishnet stockings.
Speaking of which.
Gifts from the Genius Collection
What a year its been, eh, kids? It seems like only yesterday, I came bursting onto the pages of AAJ a fresh-faced young Genius trying to prove that jazz could be funny even when Kenny G didn't have anything to do with it. Now, all these long, trying months later, here I sit as the dean of American jazz humorists. How can I claim such a lofty position, you ask? Because I called dibs.
In any event.
For those die-hard Geniusheads out there who want to combine your love of the Genius Guide, jazz, and displays of inappropriate behavior, I have a few recommendations that all bear my personal seal of approval. The links provided lead to some of these sites are ones that just happened to turn up on a Google search, and are neither affiliated nor endorsed by AAJ. To my knowledge, none of these sites provides inappropriate content. Or, at least, any less appropriate than this column.
Bullet Bra: Referenced in the very first Guide ( Prelude ), beloved by Geniuses everywhere, available at www.thebulletbrashop.com .
Hershey's: Referenced first in the May Guide, Rondo , this corporate confectionery giant still hasn't come through with a fat corporate sponsorship so that I can leave my workaday worries behind and concentrate on some serious drinking. No, wait. I meant writing. Still, I'm cutting them a mention because you never know. Their fine products make excellent gifts, and I'm not being paid a dime (yet) to say that. www.hersheys.com .
Cracker Barrel: Referenced in a fleeting parenthetical aside in the June Guide, Revenge of the Return of the Son of Ken Burn's Jazz , it is actually one of my favorite restaurants. My parents were from the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, and Cracker Barrel serves the kind of country home cooking on which I was raised. A visit there is like going back to Grandma's house, except without the constant sound of gunfire. Gift certificates available, as well as unique items from their country store. www.crackerbarrel.com .
Coca Cola: Mentioned in the July Guide, Bix, Bubber, and the Giant Lollipop of the Apocalypse , I am rarely at work on this column without a nice, cold, glass of Coke (well, it's mostly Coke) on my desk. Have a Coke and a smile, teach the world to sing, and tell them you heard it here first. And if you think I'm still shilling for that corporate sponsorship, well, you've spotted the trend. www.cocacola.com
Ray Bans: The August Guide, Terror in G Sharp (or, How to Attract Readers with Needlessly Sensational Headlines ), was about the saxophone. Few things are cooler in jazz than the warm, raspy sound of the sax. And few things are cooler than Ray Bans. Miles Davis wore Ray Bans. Just the picture of that image in my head is so cool I had to go put on a toboggan . www.rayban.com
Pabst Blue Ribbon: I wrote September's Guide, Ebony and Ivory and Ted and Alice , in the dead of August, listening to Art Tatum and trying to capture the spirit of the age by consuming life-changing amounts of his favorite beverage. I learned two important lessons: 1) Cheap beer is cheap for a reason. 2) It is probably no coincidence that Art Tatum is dead now. But that's no reason why you can't give copious amounts of PBR to your friends and loved ones this year. Give them an Art Tatum CD and a copy of the September Guide by way of explanation. www.pabst.com .
There was no October column, you understand, given the fact that my Herculean writing schedule (three words a day, like clockwork) sometimes requires more of me than events of the world allow. In the wake of the September tragedies, even your own personal Genius had to pause and absorb the cold facts of the new world in which we all now live. This Christmas, take a moment to remember what is important in this life. Take a break from the shopping and the hectic rush of the season to treasure home and family. Draw those you love close to you, put on some good jazz, and take stock of the gifts you already have. (But that doesn't mean you still shouldn't go out and buy stuff. Some of us still have a living to make.)
I'd like to thank you for reading the Guide over the past several months, and wish you and yours a warm, safe, happy, and blessed Christmas. Peace be with you.