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Samuel Chell

Sam Chell is a champion of the composers of the American Songbook and the musicians who keep it alive.

About Me

I'll confess that I'm an academic and not an experienced journalist, jazz writer, computer wizard, or internet traveler (not even Facebook). If I remember to take the music seriously and not myself, it seems to work for me. Also, I've always admired Socrates, ever since reading as a college student the Apologia, where he claims he was wise simply because he could admit to himself that he knew nothing. His whole life was about asking questions, especially the ones that would lead him into new areas of discovery.

Many followers of this music talk about its presence and influence in their homes as kids. That's fine for them. But for just as many others, it's an identity thing. Growing up in the northern boonies of Wisconsin, I simply required an alternative to Dick Clark, Cousin Fuzzy, Elvis, the Beatles and Stones. So I taught myself to like jazz (all the easier because my parents hated it.)

Perhaps this background qualifies me all the more to encourage anyone who has refrained from submitting articles or accepting editing responsibilities out of a sense of inadequacy to become involved. Any teacher who is candid about his work must confront two humbling facts. The first is related to a quote sometimes attributed to Faulkner— the things most worth teaching can't be taught: they can only be learned. From this follows the second—teaching something, or simply writing about it, is the best way to learn it.

I wish more young people (in spirit as well as years) would take seriously the benefits of writing / editing for a publication like “All About Jazz.” First of all, it's a team effort to produce the biggest, most consistently awarded (and substantive) jazz site on the web, and the results are there for all to see on a daily basis. Second, it's a learning experience. I know of few great musicians who consider themselves ”experts.” Music may be a universal “language,” but it continues to challenge (and sometimes frustrate) its users; the same is true of a verbal language. But the more you read and write and edit, the more you push yourself to improve in your command of a language— and that's a satisfaction greater than any notoriety or monetary return.

Alto and tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt was as close to being an ”expert” on his horns as any musician I've followed closely, yet he understood that words like “creativity” and “originality” don't meaning anything without a point of reference. Sonny insisted that musicians should play to entertain people and, to that end, make their music ”simple...just like Art Tatum did”—and he wasn't being ironic.

If I can indulge in a bit of esoteric talk (forgive me, Sonny), Stitt appeals to the yang, or my Apollonian, left-brained logical- perfectionist side; Bill Evans the yin, or my Dionysian, right-brained emotional hemisphere; Coltrane the Promethean idealism and lingering theological anxiety that most of us carry. But that's verging on the academic. The challenge is to say it simply—and never take yourself seriously (despite appearances, no one else will).

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My Jazz Story

I was a preacher's kid in a small town in northern Wisconsin. AM radio alternated between Patti Page and the polka music of Frankie Yankovic. My classmates rushed home to watch Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." None of that was for me. Rock was one form of anti-cultural (i.e. youth) music. But so was jazz—except it was viewed by some as an art. I went to the library and read the first jazz history ("Story of Jazz," Marshshall Stearns, 1950), and I found "Down Beat" and "Metronome Magazine" on the newsstand. When the Columbia Record Club came out with 6 free LPs for joining, I found Dave Brubeck's "Jazz Goes to College." It sounded strange and cerebral to begin with, but with the help of the copious liner notes I listened and re-listened. Finally, it clicked. In '56 I took a train to Milwaukee to hear Norman Granz' traveling all-stars called Jazz at the Philharmonic. I remember Oscar Peterson Trio (no drums), Papa Joe Jones, and a drunk and lost Lester Young. In 1958 my parents took me with them to visit our Swedish relatives. We spent a couple of nights in Paris. I went to Le Chat qui Peche to hear Donald Byrd with Bobby Jaspar, Walter Davis Jr., Doug Watkins and Art Taylor—I'd never heard louder drums in my life. I talked to Byrd and mentioned my love of his recording for the Transition Label (with Watkins, Silver, Blakey). Then came college. I had memorized every transcribed Brubeck solo, But now I encountered a new breed of musician. These guys played their recordings of Stitt, Jug, Dexter, Rollins, even Bird, until they could play back those solos, note for note. Suddenly I appreciated the combination of discipline and talent required to play a "skills music" (quite different from the folksy phrases of amateur pop groups, which are featured nightly on today's network talk shows. But face it: the most productive year of the music was 1959 (Kind of Blue, Time Out, Getz/Gilberto, Mingus Ah Um, Giant Steps). Since then, I've heard a few changes but nothing better. But even more than records, it was the musicians I heard in Chicago who made the indelible impression. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break, I would change trains in Chicago on my way up to Wisconsin Rapids. But I made a point of missing the first connection so I could hear jazz. This was before I was aware of Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase. Instead, I went to the Blue Note (above the 24/7 Clark Theater on Clark St.) There I heard Duke or the Count along with a 2nd featured small group (Pete Fountain, Andy and the Bey Sisters), then I'd sleep the rest of the night in the Clark Theater and take the next morning's train home. But I was also fearless (and foolish) about exploring the Southside club scene. At 63rd and Cottage Grove was McKee's Disc Jockey Show Lounge. After a few small encounter I made it safely to the club and sat at the bar, just opposite the feet of organist Donald Patterson. The tiny bandstand accommodated Sonny Stitt (alto, tenor), Billy James (drums), Joe D'Oriole, grr. Sonny played the s...t out of those horns, freely downing the shots offered him by admirers. But the biggest cheer came when, after the first set, Jug himself (Gene Ammons), appeared in the doorway (recently released from Joliet prison). He didn't fit on the bandstand but his presence was no less powerful during his solos and exchanges with Stitt. When it was over, Sonny introduced the band, telling the crowd, when he came to d'Oriole, that despite appearances his guitarist "really wasn't white." (Suddenly I realized I was the lone minority.) The other jazz shrine was the Sutherland Hotel Lounge at 47th and Drexel. Roland Kirk made his first impression on me there (with the great Gloria Lynne as the intermission act—(check out her "Love, I've Found You"). But the greatest impact by Rahsaan would come two decades later at a concert in NYC at Radio City Music Hall, which was announced as a benefit concert for Kirk, who had been paralyzed by a stroke, and Rev. John Garcia Gensel (a Lutheran pastor at St. Peter's, whose chief congregation was the jazz musicians of NYC . But the shock of the evening came when, toward the end of the concert, we were told that Roland Kirk himself would perform. with half his body paralyzed, he came out with horns strapped to his body and he played every horn (5-6 altogether), individually and at the same time. It put every Marvel movie to shame. The real Superman was Rahsaan, who not only could play his horns (a miracle in itself) but blew everyone else away!! (Guys like Dizzy, Stitt and others I won't risk mentioning). The '70s was a decade when the "real" players were hurting for work (you had to belong to a "fusion group"—Weather Report, Head-Hunters, Return to Forever, etc.). The positive side of unemployable jazz greats was that Joe Segal at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, could hire from 2 to 4 boss tenor players to appear on the same bandstand every week!! Eg., Stitt, Jug, Dexter and Moody—all mixing it up on the same tune. Once in a lifetime opportunities. Thank goodness I took the initiative to drive in every week (providing my wife and budget were agreeable).

My House Concert Story

This is a new, most promising feature. Jazz—or, for that matter, instrumental music—is prohibited from airing on any of the late night cable and internet shows (Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert, Corden, etc.). The unspoken rule is that 30 seconds worth of music without a strummed amplified guitar and a vocalist is commercial death—an invitation for viewers to turn you off and sponsors to drop out. And the club scene outside of NYC is increasingly spare and lifeless. So if the music is going to be played, try elsewhere. Besides restaurants and banquet halls, I've played a lot of churches and given Elderhostel classes on jazz and the American Songbook. The "house concert" that I'll always remember was the only time—in over 40 years—that I've been applauded (a standing ovation!) at the end of a class. It was in Wartburg Auditorium at Carthage College, Kenosha, WI, 1990. My audience was the entire freshman class, and the program, which lasted for 3 hours—a regular "class"— was simply "Jazz: America's Indigenous Art." I bored the students into virtual "silent death" for the first two hours, using a combination of lecture, recordings and videos—lots of excerpts of Duke Ellington and other commercial jazz educational videotapes. I at least had the advantage of being close to my subject. Professors who talk about Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Bartok never met those guys or saw them "live." With the exception of Charlie Parker (who died too soon for me to catch up with him), I was very familiar with the Ellington Band, I'd seen Louis several times, the same for Coltrane (the three times I saw him after 1964—after Elvin, McCoy and eventually Jimmy had left the quartet—the music was so loud and interminable (with Pharoah and Archie brought in to reinforce the troops) that the crowd was sent into shock and eventually exited, happy to be out of earshot of the sonic inferno. Of course, I didn't share that story—or some of the depressing things I'd seen with the Ellington Band—or the horrific aspects of Bill Evans' non-musical life . All of that, and worse, can be found in the lives of Schubert and Schumann—or any Romantic artist, including Coleridge, Shelly, Keats and Byron. I was tempted to go sordid—if only to wake up the sleepers—but I stuck to the high ground, focusing exclusively on the music. The last hour was given over to live music. I had a Kurzweil 1000, which I supplemented with drums and bass and a frontline of trumpet, tenor sax and trombone. Since I had emphasized the African-American sources and identity of the music, I went outside the college to ensure an equal mix of black and white musicians in the band (as well as raise the level of musicianship). I had charts (Horace Silver transcriptions) but decided not to use them, esp. after emphasizing the music's "oral tradition." We played an hour's worth of blues and standards while I kept my head down, afraid to face my jurors. After our last tune (Silver's "The Preacher") I heard all kinds of clapping and looked up. My God! the entire Freshman Class (approx. 350 students) was giving us a standing ovation! Needless to say, word got around, and I lost a degree of credibility and popularity with some of my colleagues. Enough to persuade me not to try for an encore—though a couple of years ago I played a Sunday evening jazz service in our chapel—"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," "Work Song," and a couple of other things in the Aebersold book of Cannonball Adderley transcriptions. Attendance was sparse, and the worshippers acted as though we were predictable program music (should have had guitar and vocals). (Sometimes I think it's a miracle there are still players of wind instruments. But there's always hope. I was most cheered by Bob Dylan's recent interview where he listed his 7-8 "cultural heroes." Sinatra was at the top followed by 5-6 of the composers of his songs (Gershwin, Kern, Arlen, Cole Porter, Rodgers&Hart, VanHeusen, Berlin)—and then a final addition that absolutely no one could argue with: Shakespeare. Sure, the list omitted Ellington and Bill Evans (I have everything either recorded—though Sonny Stitt is the most prolific artist in my collection). But without those composers, jazz would have no repertoire, no basis for extemporaneous communication with one another and audience. Whatever your degree of interest in Dylan, Beatles, Stones (or Elton or Jack White), they didn't write music—most 32-bar songs— that could serve as the "standards" enabling us to measure the awesome talents of jazz' great improvisors. Strangely, the aforementioned composers didn't find that form any more "limiting" than Shakespeare found the Sonnet form, with its rigid requirements. After Louis played "Star Dust" every subsequent major player got a shot at it (Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, Brubeck Quartet). After Coleman Hawkins recorded "Body and Soul" in 1939, every major tenor player had better sound good (while adding something new) on the same tune (Sonny Stitt, on tenor, Coltrane and Dexter Gordon take honors on the same tune). The composers named by Dylan are the guys who made possible a "canon" without which an art can't exist as a subject of academic inquiry. (As I try to convince those women who think that English literature should be mostly female authors. Without Chaucer and Milton, without the Romantic poets, without Tennyson and Browning, Melville, Yeats, Joyce and Faulkner, English literature is no longer coherent enough to be an academic discipline. It's merely a bunch of guys and gals doing their thing—the equivalent of the block book club that my wife attends. But it won't attract the sponsorship that supports institutions like Harvard or even tiny Carthage (or tiny Augustana, the school from which I graduated and that delivered a franchise QB (Ken Anderson) to the Cincinnati Bengals.

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