Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Here is a gorgeous solo piano version of "Solitude," written by Duke Ellington and performed by Duke Ellington. It is accompanied by some apt black-and-white photographs.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It just struck me that Sun Ra was a big band leader, too, despite his extraterrestrial orgin.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Music in The World To Come

In my restless, eager, and perhaps exorbitant pursuance of all things Ellingtonian, I at times lament that much of Duke's early music was recorded on less than stellar equipment. The exquisite arrangements and virtuoso soling are muted, distorted, or improperly balanced--and not in stereo. Yet, the beauty speaks through it all, nonetheless--so my search continues.

Given my eschatology, I believe that the best of human culture--from every tongue, and tribe, and time--will somehow be conserved in The World to Come. I was convinced of his years ago when I read Richard Mouw's short but compelling book, When the Kings Come Marching In (now out in a second edition by Eerdmans). The chapter addressing "true beauty" in Truth Decay underscores this as well, for what it is worth.

If this is so, then, one glorious day, in the presence of the Triune God and all the redeemed (and I hope Duke is among them), we shall in some manner listen to the aesthetic apex of Duke's nonpareil orchestra form every period, whether badly recorded, well recorded, or not recorded at all. Surely the ears of heaven cannot forget such beauty--or hoard it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Advice from Duke

In an interview, Duke Ellington said that my "first job is to listen." See James 1:19.

The Maestro

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Duke with the Boston Pops

Duke Ellington played several of his centerpieces with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood on a recording I found on vinyl today. Each piece is short, with little elaboration and no extended solo work. This is no blowing session. However, the live date has its own charm: these infectious and mellifluous melodies are augmented by a full orchestra, which adds lawyers of lustrous color. As Duke said, "It was a good day for the piano player," and, I must add, to all who listen with a Dukish soul.

This recording is also available on a three-disk CD called "Live and Rare."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Duke on CD

My Duke Ellington collection is swelling to a tremendous size. You see, compact disks are going out of style, and much of Ellington is out of print. Yet there are hundreds of used CDs available on line, often for excellent prices. I do not want to lose these gems of jazz history.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Duke's Flaw

For the past two years, I have been progressively initiated into the majestic world of Duke Ellington. The Maestro held together his big band for nearly fifty years, pioneered new jazz sounds, and kept developing as an artist. It is all so wonderful that I cannot stop getting Ellington CDs and books about the man.

However, to my mind, Duke has one fairly large musical flaw: hiring trumpeter, William "Cat" Anderson. Anderson was known for his high notes and bright tone. He could hit some remarkably high notes, but often attempted notes he could not hit (unlike, say, Doc Severinsen). Further, his highest notes sounded little like a trumpet, but not unlike a dying animal (a cat, perhaps). Duke gave Cat a lot of solo room, and often cringe at this attempts to hit the stratosphere. He almost managed to cancel out the beauty of the entire rest of the band at times.

Duke's other trumpeters were another matter: Ray Nance, Clark Terry, and so on. But Cat...I just do not understand it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Epiphany at Twist and Shout

It does not take long. When I walk into a store that is play jazz on the sound system, I immediately listen intently. Before long, I can usually ascertain which artist is playing. Today, after walking into Twist and Shout (the best store in Denver for jazz CDs and albums), I heard a small combo with an insistent saxophone taking the lead. After a few minutes, I realized it was the legendary Miles Davis Quintet live in a newly released recording. Miles is joined by Tony Williams on drums (then about 20), Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on bass, and Herbie Hancock on piano. This is the free-bop, pre-electric Miles, with lyricism, telepathic coordination, and an open sky in which most anything could happen.

I marveled at the timing, and at the quality of the old JBL speakers (similar to one's I had in high school) bringing this sublime music to me there and then. You never know what you may hear at Twist and Shout. I have cringed at rap, been hammered by heavy metal, and generally sickened by other defective forms of music. But today, it was pure stereophonic magic.

I stopped, looked into the old, open-faced speakers--and thanked God for the beauty.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Now, so many years later, having not watched TV on a regular basis for over a decade, I realize that one of the best things ever on TV was the old Tonight Show Orchestra, led by Doc Severinsen.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Big Bands Today

I have been luxuriating on the big bands of Duke Ellington and, to a lesser extent, those of Count Basie and Stan Kenton. Do any of you recommend any contemporary jazz big bands?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jazz Language Chop

Jazz vocabulary:

Dukish: the quality of being of or resembling the work of Duke Ellington.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tony Bennett's painting of Charlie Parker.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jazz and Apologetics

Today, in Defending Christian Faith at Denver Seminary, I played two pieces of classic jazz: "Sophisticated Lady," by Duke Ellington and sung by Rosemary Clooney, and "Passion Flower," an instrumental, featuring Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. These were from "Blue Rose." We reflected on aspects of this music and how it pertained to the virtues required for Christian apologetics. What great fun that was! And our new classrooms have stereo speakers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review of Duke Ellington, The Private Collection, Vol. 5: The Suites: New York 1968 & 1970

This long CD (over 71 minutes) is taken from Duke's capacious "vault" of recordings not released during his lifetime (d. 1974). The band would gather between gigs to rehearse new material and rework old material before taking it on the road. Duke was the producer, unlike his "official recordings." And unlike some of the other vault recordings, this has a polished and finished feel to it, rivaling that of "Such Sweet Thunder."

The first suite was composed for a film about the painting of Degas, which was never completed. However, we are graced to have the music. It is multi-layered but unified in expression. Both the ensemble work and the solos are impeccably executed. This clocks in at over twenty-minutes and is a delight.

"The River," originally composed for a ballet, is the second suite is longer and much more modernist or even avant-guarde. It texture approaches chamber music at times and takes some wise chances with melody, meter, and harmony. It can swing, but not always. The "Whirlpool" movement is quite adventuresome. It startled and amazed me the first time I heard it, and continues to do so. I risk sacrilege here, but it reminds one a bit of some of Frank Zappa's best instrumental work.

A world with Duke Ellington cannot be absurd. This is a sufficient (but not necessary) condition for defeating nihilism. This work is objectively beautiful; created by a great soul. Therefore there is meaning and goodness in the world. Thank God.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Duke, Monk

A few days ago, I walked into a Starbucks that I seldom set foot in. I heard a piano, jazz piano. Nearly instantly, I knew it was Thelonious Monk. However, having not listened to Monk lately and having inundated myself in the richness of Duke Ellington, I heard for myself something I had only read about before: There is Duke in Monk. Now I know. Despite their vast differences, there is Duke in Monk.

Jazz is endlessly fascinating.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jim Hall in Denver

Jazz guitarist Jim Hall will be in Denver in late October at the famed Dazzle Lounge. It is worth the $40 cover charge, to be sure, especially since Greg Osby will accompany him on alto saxophone.


The move from
sound into
can be beautiful--
especially in music.

The wondrous note
fades into nothing and finds its home
in the quietness surrounded by

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jazz Grace

Walking outside and toward a local Starbucks, I cannot mistake the jazz saxophone greeting me from the speakers. Now, who is it? Is it Coltrane? Not quite. That means it is probably Dexter Gordon, although I have not heard the particular piece he is playing.

I asked the worker (who was my age, I wager) behind the register to tell me who was playing. She eagerly went back to check, and replied with a smile, "Dexter Gordon!"

"I have been listening to a lot of Dexter lately," I said. "Are you a jazz fan?" (One can sense these things.)

"Yes, I love the way jazz emotes one's feelings..."

We exchanged a few more words of jazz talk (not small talk) before I left. "My mother saw Duke Ellington in New York in the 40s and 50s," I bragged. "Oh!" she exclaimed with a smile while touching her heart with her hand.

Jazz grace strikes again (when needed; as it was).

Friday, August 19, 2011

Duke Alone

In all my years of listening to, savoring, and comparing jazz pianists, my ears and soul have never heard anyone play the instrument as did Edward Kennedy Ellington. Yes, his orchestra was his instrument, but so was his piano--and no one could touch his touch, his humor, his spacing, his quirky perfections. I marvel and am thankful to you, Duke Ellington wherever you are.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Monk and Miles in Frisco

Two superb paintings in a coffee shop in Frisco, Colorado called Rocky Mountain Coffee Roasters. What a pleasant surprise to find them. The paintings are by the owner, Tim Adrian.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Moon Maiden"

I just discovered this idiosyncratic, but delightful piece by Duke Ellington called, "Moon Maiden" (from "The Intimate Ellington"). Duke recites a poem with the backing of a keyboard of some kind, not regular piano. Perhaps it is a harpsichord.

Notice how perfectly Duke intones the lyrics--having fun, ahead of the beat, behind the beat, on the beat. It is "beyond category" once again.

My link to this music features a video created to accompany it. I suggest you not watch it, at least the first time you listen.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ah, Jazz as it Should Be!

I just listened to side one of jazz guitarist Pat Martino's 1972 recording, "Footprints," on vinyl and through a tube amplifier and courtesy of my old, steady, ready 1973 Pioneer turntable. Some high-level, noise-cancelling headphones gave me a more modern assist. The back cover was a long essay by the gifted jazz writer Gary Giddens on the life and art of Martino, plus his comments on each number on the album. I read as I listened. I purchased this recording for only $3.00 at a used record store in Denver.

The sound quality was superb: only one small pop, an immaculately clean and present acoustic bass, perfectly mixed drums, and two guitars. The music was jazz at its best: fine melodies, individual improvisation within a structure, and interplay between musicians.

There is a time--for me, call it today--simply to sit and listen to artistically excellent and acoustically brilliant jazz; and to thank the Giver of every good and perfect gift for it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monk's Patron

David Kastin has written a new book on jazz pianist Thelonious Monk's exotic patron, Nica Koenigswarter, or "the jazz baroness." It is called Nica's Dream. I have yet to give a full review of a jazz book here, but I will try. The book should be fascinating. Monk's son, T.S. Monk endorses the book as a "must-read" and notable jazz writers such as Robin D. G. Kelley and Ashley Kahn hail it as well. I doubt we will find Nica a saint (she left her family to come to America and support Monk), but jazz personalites often paint a rich, if flawed, picture of humanity.

Lil Greenwood

Lil Greenwood, a singer for Duke Ellington's band, has died at age 86. A good friend described her as “a woman who loved God ... She never drifted from it.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

James Farm

National Public Radio, which is superb in covering jazz, has a short piece on the new jazz group, James Farm, which includes one of our best contemporary saxophonists, Joshua Redman. I have not yet heard the recording, but do not doubt its excellence.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Historic Site at Risk

John Coltrane's home was saved from demolition a few years ago, but is now in bad shape and needs restoration. Please read this article about the situation. Sadly, someone broke in and sprayed graffiti there as well.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mike Abbot Trio at Dazzle

I saw these gentleman play a tribute to Wes Montgomery at Dazzle on May 31, 2011. Mr. Abbot narrated the highlights from We's life and art and the trio smoked and swung hard throughout the night. Mr. Abbot played directly through his amplifier without effects, just as Wes did. It was a nice and classy touch. (He did not need any special effects.) I led cheers for an encore. Jazz fans will want to experience this tightly-knit and talented group.

Listen to another performance of Wes's "Jingles" here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins is no less than a towering and legendary hero of jazz, with well over fifty years of jazz artistry to his credit. Born in 1930 in New York, Rollins was a prodigy on the tenor saxophone, beginning his recording career at the age of 18. He quickly established himself by playing with the luminaries such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson, and Charlie Parker. Rollins is known for his rich tone, rhythmic sense, and brilliant improvisations—often inflected with humor and quotations.

As a serious and self-critical artist, Rollins has never settled into cliches or allowed himself to be boxed in by his music. He is also an accomplished composer of works for small jazz groups, many of which have become jazz standards, such as “Oleo,” “St. Thomas,” and “Sonnymoon for Two.” While he prefers live settings to the studio, Rollins has recorded classic jazz albums such as “Saxophone Colossus” (1956) and “The Freedom Suite” (1958). He continues to record and tour, delighting audiences with his flights into the saxophonic stratosphere.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Why are so few people interested in jazz today? One reason is that the best jazz is subtle; it does not bowl you over with special effects or acoustic tricks. It, rather, invites listening. Few truly listen to anything today. Instead, souls are saturated with various sounds engineered to produce certain effects. People consume readily, but listen infrequently. Our ears are buzzing; our hearts are empty; our tastes are uneducated and crass.

But you must listen to jazz, let it penetrate into your sensorium. It is a deep and rich well, but one must decide to drop the bucket in and to pull it out.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End is Near

The signs are everywhere. The end is near--the end of the compact disk. My on-line CD store is going out of business, and I cannot resist buying a few at $4.99, shipping included. Borders and Barnes and Noble have drastically reduced their CD selection. Borders no longer has a discrete jazz section for CDs. I can think of only one Denver-area store with a rich selection of CDs--Twist and Shout.

What does all this mean for music and culture? Music has been increasingly miniaturized and made more portable in recent decades. It has also dematerialized. The preferred form is the MP3, which is a cluster of data stored in various devices. Now the link of the medium and the music is gone. For many years, album art and liner was as significant as the music. CDs retained this to some extent, but on a smaller scale. With MP3 files, there is no container for the music. It just in--somewhere in cyberspace.

Further, music becomes more de-contextualized. The play listreplaces the order of pieces on a recording. We shuffle on through. The idea of a concept album--a coherent body of work establishing and developing a set theme--is nearly dead. (In 2007, Neal Morse created a concept album based on the struggles of Martin Luther, but this is now very rare.)

I am reluctant to go the way of the iPod. I do not favordematerialization, however economically expedient. I cannot bring myself to think of dematerialized books at the moment.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Duke and Billy

Today, at Twist and Shout music (which has the best music selection in Denver, despite its funky atmosphere), I found a recording that I previously did not know exited (and I am an Ellington fan): "Great Times: Piano Duets," by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, which makes up the only such recording of these two giants of jazz. It was originally released in the early 1950s, but was issued on CD in 1984. It is still in print.

Duke and Strayhorn composed music together for three decades, although Strayhorn rarely performed publicly on piano. The two had a deep sympathy and understanding of one another musically, which is evident in this recording. Sadly, the fidelity is quite bad, since the session had to be reconstructed from old disks, but the interplay and new angles they bring to Ellington/Strayhorn compositions more than makes up for that.

I doubt we will ever see the likes of this duo again.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Beauty and Desecration

Although he does not write directly about jazz, Roger Scruton considers beauty and desecration in this profound essay in City Journal. Sadly, some jazz fits under the category of desecration, not because it is innovative or path-breaking, but simply because it is ugly for ugliness sake. This, to my experience, is extremely rare, but I must put much of Pharaoh Sanders's playing with John Coltrane (who never played in an ugly fashion), in this category. Sanders more recent playing has abandoned this pointless quest.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Seize the Beauty

If an older jazz legend comes to your town, take in the show. You do not know how much time the artist has with us under the sun. I regret not seeing Elvin Jones when he was close to Denver about a decade ago. Seize the beauty while it lasts.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Blog Supreme

While listening to NPR today, I discovered a jazz blog called A Blog Supreme, which looks quite interesting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jimi Hendrix and Jazz

Some may not realize that the last number Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock (before the encore of "Hey Joe"), was a short improvised instrumental that was very jazzy. It included some beautiful octaves and had a haunting melody.

Hendrix was moving more toward jazz toward the end (he died young in 1970), and even set up a jam session with Tony Williams, Miles Davis, and David Holland. Sadly, it never materialized. However, Jimi did play with jazz organist, Larry Young on "Electric Lady land." Some called Young, "the John Coltrane of the organ."

Further, there was always a jazz sense when Jimi played with Mitch Mitchell, who managed to swing while playing rock. Jimi once referred to Mitch as "my Elvin Jones."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

New Ideas for Jazz Appreciation Month

1. Listen to a classic jazz recording and do nothing else but listen. Here are some possibilities:

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
Duke Ellington, Ellington Indigos

2. Listen to some jazz on vinyl, if you can find the equipment. Notice the difference in sound from CDs or MP3 files.

3. Learn some jazz language: chops, gigs, time in the woodshed, etc.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Jazz Appreciation Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. I have been hearing jazz musicians speak of this on KUVO in Denver, the best jazz station I have heard. These announcements have suggested several ways to enjoy this month. Here are a few with a few of my own:

1. Explore a new area of jazz if you are already a fan.
2. Go to a jazz club, taking a friend who does not know much about jazz.
3. Purchase a jazz recording and give it to a friend.
4. Watch a jazz film with some friends.
5. Read a thoughtful book about jazz, such as Kevin Whitehead's new introduction, Why Jazz?
6. Read some of the essays on this blog and tell a friend about it.
7. Ritually destroy any Kenny G CDs you might have.

Jazz: made in America, enjoyed worldwide.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Rock Drummers and Jazz

Mitch Mitchell, the drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was, to my mind, the best of all rock drummers. This is because of his sophistication. sense of swing (even in rock--listen especially to the last several minutes of "Third Stone from the Stone," especially), innovation, subtlety, and fire.
I've been listening to him since I was a teenager, and still cannot get over it.

My general thesis is that the closer a rock drummer is to jazz, the better he is. This why I place Ginger Baker in the number two spot of rock drummers: he was very influenced by jazz. Further, the the live improvisations of Cream were very jazz like. This thesis also puts some famous rock drummers low on the list, particularly John Bonham, who had no finesse at all.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Jazz Anthology

Ben Ratliff, an excellent writer on jazz, reviews the Smithsonian's new anthology of jazz--and finds it not jazzy enough.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

For Charlie Parker

you flew high,
crashed hard,
and left a legacy
of how
and how not
to live.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Against Background Music

Why is there background music? Music should be serious. It can stir the soul, sharpen the mind, provoke the imagination, engage the will. Or: it can sicken the soul, dull the mind, or impede or pollute the imagination. It brings joy, pain--and boredom.

Music is nothing to play with, then; but play with it we do--all the time; it is inescapable, or nearly so. In days or yore, background music in public was limited to elevators; hence, the phrase "elevator music." This mean bland, colorless sounds to perhaps sooth the catastrophic or impatient. One could tolerate this, especially if one was infrequently in elevators.
Now, however, music--uninvited and often quite blaring--is everywhere. This ought not be for at least two reasons.
First, silence helps us recompose our souls and focus our thoughts on some one thing. Music always take up part of our precious--and very limited--consciousness, thus taking something away from other concerns: reading, praying, conversing. If I am trying to curb my fears and rehearse my speech in a doctor's office, I need silence, not distraction or irritation. Yes, I have heard Kenny G these environs.
Second, with the expansion of musical styles available for public broadcast, the odds of one enjoying the invited music are quite low--in my case, the chances of this eventually occurred are vanishingly small, given my esoteric (jazz, of course) tastes. If one has worked to develop one's musically sensibilities, bad music can be acutely painful. It becomes a rude intrusion into one's sensorium.
Of course, many people compensate by engaging in sonic warfare. You isolate and insulate yourself by your own music system: noise-cancelling headphone or ear buds. This will fend off the musical intruders, but it will also make you an island amidst the living. Common space and conversation is attenuated, if not obliterated.
On a recent flight from Atlanta to Denver, I suffered through horrible background music, and insufferably comedic flight attendant, and cramped seating. I turned to talk to the women next to me only to find that the ear buds were in, so the conversation was out.
What can we do about this plague? Not much, I suppose. However, in environments that we control, we can prize silence and good music. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard can be our guides. Nietzsche wrote that life without music would be a mistake; and the melancholic great Dane said ..."create silence."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ellington Band in Anchorage

A Duke Ellington tribute band will be in appearing in Anchorage, Alaska, this week end. From what I read, it looks very good. It is my home town, but I cannot attend, unless someone wants to sponsor me!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Duke's Unique Gift for the Queen

I read in Harvey Cohen's meticulously-researched volume, Duke Ellington's America, that the American Duke met the English Queen in 1958 while he was on tour in the United Kingdom. As was his wont with women, Mr. Ellington was quite captivated by her elegance and regal charms. The queen, however, could not attend any of the band's performances.

Instead of being bitter, angry, or merely disappointed, Ellington wrote a suite for her, "The Queen's Suite," and recorded it with his legendary ensemble. But something was quite different from other compositions and recordings. Duke made but one pressing of the piece and had it sent to Her Majesty. Ellington performed an achingly-beautiful solo piano section of the suite, "The Single Petal of a Rose," on occasion (as he did in London in mid 1960s), but nothing else. The full suite was only released after his death. Then the gift was made available for all to experience.

This event helps mark a remarkable, although very flawed, man, whose sentiments could themselves be quite regal.

What moral or lesson might you draw from this touching vignette?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Comparisons Three

Kenny G is to jazz
What Thomas Kinkade is to painting and
What Barack Obama is to governance.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Achingly Beautiful

Often when I listen to Duke Ellington's big band work I am nearly overwhelmed by the force, feeling, and beauty of it all--a deep and resonating goodness comes forth and enters in. I am sure many others have experienced this as well. Let me know if you have.