Zappa and Jazz: Did it Really Smell Funny, Frank?

Geoffrey Wills By

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The following is an excerpt from "Chapter 2: Early Encounters with Jazz" of Zappa and Jazz: Did it Really Smell Funny, Frank? by Geoffrey Wills (Matador, 2015).

When, at the age of fourteen, Zappa entered Mission Bay High School in San Diego in 1955, his first exposure to the elitist snobbery of a certain type of jazz fan occurred. It was like a red rag to a bull, and was no doubt the source of all his later caustic comments about jazz. He recounted the experience in an interview with Dan Forte in Musician magazine in 1979: ..."at the time I was down there, there was a real definite division between the people who liked rhythm and blues and the people who liked jazz... The people who liked jazz would always go around putting you down..." These people were fans of West Coast jazz, at the time at the height of its popularity, and exemplified by Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars and Shorty Rogers and his Giants. Unfortunately, Zappa's ire at mindless adherence to a fashion spilled over onto the music. He commented... "to me, there wasn't that much emotional depth in listening to something like "Martians Go Home" by Shorty Rogers—that kind of stuff. It was just bleak."

Was Zappa being disingenuous here? "Martians Go Home" is not bleak—it is a piece of quirkily mischievous, Basie-inspired, small-group swing. Interestingly, Rogers, like many West Coast jazz musicians, also had a foot in the rhythm and blues camp. He supervised recording sessions by doo-wop groups and formed a publishing company with singer Jesse Belvin, publishing the latter's hit "Guess Who" (Rounce, 2004). Under the name Boots Brown and the Blockbusters he recorded a series of rhythm and blues instrumentals and reached number 23 in the charts in 1958 with "Cerveza" (Myers, 2013). It is not stretching the imagination too much to suggest that Rogers was the type of person that Zappa later sought to emulate when he worked with Paul Buff at Pal Studios in the early 1960s, where they produced rock instrumentals and used group names like The Hollywood Persuaders and The Rotations.

Jazz fans could be bigoted and snobbish. So could certain jazz musicians. On the other hand, many were prepared to be open-minded about different types of music. They were not all haters of rhythm and blues.

Johnny Otis, who, as Barry Miles states, Zappa first met in 1958 on a visit to his studio, was another musician whose feet were in the camps of both jazz and rhythm and blues. He had early associations with jazz, having played drums with Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet and (at least according to Tom Lord's 2004 Jazz Discography) Stan Kenton. His experiences are recounted in his 1993 autobiography. Fans created rigid categories, but for the pragmatic musician, the boundaries between jazz and other types of music were much more fluid. Session bassist Carol Kaye, in a 1998 article in Downbeat magazine, admitted that although "rock and roll was a dirty word among L.A. bebop musicians in the late 1950s... if it hadn't been for the huge hidden jazz influence in the 1960s hits, that musical era might never have happened..."

As described in the 1979 Musician interview, Zappa's first encounter with bebop was not a positive one. He said, "I didn't hear any bebop until I moved away from San Diego, and moved to Lancaster and I came across a Charlie Parker album. I didn't like it—because it sounded very tuneless, and it didn't feel like it had any balls to it." He confirmed these early impressions in later interviews: in "The Mother of All Interviews" (Menn, 1993) he said, "I didn't like Charlie Parker. I didn't like some other modern jazz things. Listening to these things, I would go, 'Why do people like this? I don't understand it.'" And in the Zappa Late Show Special on BBC 2 TV in 1993, in his interview with Nigel Leigh he said:

"I'd come into contact with Charlie Parker records and things like that, but they didn't hold my interest. I couldn't follow it. Same kind of argument that you'd get from people today: 'What are they doing? They're just noodling around,' you know. I mean, now I understand why they're noodling and where they're noodling and I can tell the difference between good noodling and bad noodling, but without certain musical clues, it just all sounded like noodles to me."

Zappa was only fifteen when he first encountered Parker's music. In "The Mother of All Interviews," he described how and why he struggled to understand and appreciate certain pieces of music, for instance "Chronochromie" by Olivier Messiaen:


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