Though billed as “Bug Music for Juniors,” both the seven-year-old child and the fifty-something-year-old man on either side of me at the Raven Theater smiled and bounced their heads last night as Don Byron launched into “Siberian Sleighride.”
The youngster was thrilled that the cartoons were back up on the movie projector screen in the form of Meatless Flyday, a wacky 1944 Warner Bros. cartoon, and the man was thrilled at hearing one of Raymond Scott’s bounciest compositions revived by Scott’s greatest acolytes.
Holding court on a demonstrative jazz concert, meant mostly for kids, Byron spent equal time explaining chords, syncopation, and why musicians write on piano as he did playing the part-klezmer, part-swing, part-avant-garde jazz that’s his trademark. Watching the New York clarinetist explain jazz to kids, however, was a performance in itself.
“So you can kinda hear it, right?” Byron asked the kids, after playing select passages from both Raymond Scott and John Kirby. “Raymond Scott’s all wild, but John Kirby’s more elegant. He’s like, chillin’ at the club, drinkin’ Cristal. More slick, smooth, and cool. He’s like P. Diddy—you know, the way P. Diddy would hang—draped in nice clothes, clean clothes.”
One by one, Byron introduced the instruments in his sextet, conducting the proceedings like a game show announcer and ending with a drum solo that turned into an off-the-cuff version of “Shaft.” During “Powerhouse,” Scott’s most famous tune, a toddler danced in front of the stage, and Byron played off of its vocal noises during the breaks.
Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry cartoons screened in the background, as did old film reels of jazz bands; Byron also spoke at length about the Cotton Club and Duke Ellington, whose “The Mooch” opened up eventually into a free-for-all blowing session—and into the Byron that fans of records like his excellent Ivey-Divey are used to.
After a few solos during “The Mooch,” and after applauding for each one, the seven-year-old next to me turned and said, “We’ve already clapped, like, four times for this song!”
“Do you know why?” I asked.
“Because they’re not reading from music. They’re making it up as they go along.”
“You mean they don’t know what they’re playing? Why do they do that?”
I was stumped. “Because,” I told him. “It’s jazz.”
I’ve had quite a few people ask me for recommendations on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and what I’ve found is that most people in the world are interested in jazz but simply uninformed. There’s no better place to brush up on your jazz than this year’s festival, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a grand slam as far as festival booking goes. Every show’s a winner, but here’s a quick run-down of the shows that I personally am planning on attending; keep in mind that everyone has their own idea of what’s cool and what blows.
First of all, any newcomer to jazz is virtually required to see Mark Cantor’s Jazz Night at the Movies (June 1 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater). The impact of Cantor’s amazing collection of 16mm jazz reels (he’s got over 5,000 at this point) is incredible, providing a cinematic history of live jazz from almost every era. Cantor’s personal introductions provide connect-the-dots context, and every single clip is moving in its own way; either hilarious, like Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang trading call-and-response eights, or downright poignant, like Billie Holiday singing “My Man” from a 1950s television special. Plus it’s only $10!
I’m stoked on finally seeing Charles Lloyd (May 31 at 7:30pm, Jackson Theater), who’s been making interesting records on ECM lately with a great group. He’s got this really great pianist, Jason Moran, and an excellent, rock-solid drummer in the form of Eric Harland. He’s getting older, but he’s an innovator from within, and those people never run out of ideas, regardless of age. Charles Lloyd was lucky enough to be booked onto Fillmore shows in the late ’60s by Bill Graham, and his searing solos fit in nicely with the psychedelic scene in San Francisco; if you’re looking for envelope-pushing jazz, check this one out.
The show I can fully recommend to everyone—and especially those with kids—is the suave-lookin’ guy pictured above, clarinetist Don Byron (June 2 at 1pm and 7pm, Raven Theater), whose Ivey Divey was my #1 jazz album of 2004. Combining klezmer, jazz, and classical styles, in a word, Byron’s music is fun. The show he’ll be presenting is great: old Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons get projected on the Raven Theater’s screen while his group plays music from his 1996 album, Bug Music. Both Raymond Scott—whose music will be represented in great supply—and Byron have that element of surprise that kids love, but he’s innovative enough (and has a great band, with Billy Hart on drums) to appeal to anyone. It’s $25, but bring a kid and it’s only $15 for the both of you!
One of my all-time favorite jazz musicians is Eric Dolphy, who played the saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute like no one else who walked the planet. He died in 1964, but his music was so great that it takes two people to resurrect it properly: saxophonist and clarinetist Bennie Maupin and flutist James Newton (June 6 at 8pm, Raven Theater). Maupin played on Miles Davis‘ Bitches Brew, and most people only know Newton from his highly publicized Supreme Court case with the Beastie Boys over sampling rights (“Pass the Mic”—the Beasties won). Newton is a hell of a flute player, on par with Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and he and Maupin have unearthed some sheet music that Dolphy left behind. It’ll be out there, but in the best sense—Dolphy never wanked for wanking’s sake—making this the show I’m probably most excited about.
How can you go wrong with the lineup for ‘A Night in the Country‘ (June 7 at 7:30pm, Raven Theater)? Charlie Haden is one of jazz’s most intuitive bassists, having helmed the Ornette Coleman quartet, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the Quartet West (he’s also a great interview). Kenny Barron is the one pianist that no one I know hates, and saxophone superstar Joshua Redman is going to thrive in this setting. Also on the bill is Julian Lage, who I cannot say enough good things about (and that’s not just because I sold him his copy of Everybody Digs Bill Evans when he was 12). Simply put, Lage is a miracle, a supremely talented guitar player with gallons of taste. He’ll be playing with monster bassist Ray Drummond to boot!
Jazz has always been nighttime music to me, but if you can hang with the sunny outdoors at a winery, then by all means, go see Bobby Hutcherson (June 8 at 3pm, Rodney Strong Vineyards). Always terrific, Hutcherson is also a complete crowd-pleaser, hovering over his vibes and making wild body movements as he plays. He’s played on some seminal albums, including Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, and he was the saving grace of Freddie Hubbard’s disastrous performance last month at Yoshi’s. Also on the bill is Cedar Walton, who played on the John Coltrane album Giant Steps, and Craig Handy, an outstanding tenor player from Berkeley who always blows me away.
The complete Healdsburg Jazz Festival lineup is here. Say whassup if you see me around.