COVID CONVERSATIONS, Number 8: Delfeayo Marsalis

On a recent Sunday afternoon, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis led his Uptown Jazz Orchestra in a live-streamed online concert—a “Double Nickel Birthday Bash,” he called it, marking his turning 55 and, more importantly, the launch of the new non-profit organization he spearheaded in his hometown—Keep New Orleans Music Alive (KNOMA).

“My dad dedicated his life to growing and promoting New Orleans musicians,” Marsalis said of the patriarch of his celebrated musical family, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, who succumbed to Covid-19 on April 1, at the age of 85. “Today, the global health pandemic presents a threat to New Orleans’ culture bearers like none before.”

Despite such a dire statement, Marsalis’s band exuded joy more than anything else, as it has on Wednesday nights at the Snug Harbor club on Frenchmen Street—that is, until the lockdown came. The same can be said of “Jazz Party,” Marsalis’s seventh album as a leader. That suave and smart release showcased the tight big-band Delfeayo leads, including some the Crescent City’s best players, exemplifying an approach to music that involves updating traditional New Orleans repertoire with modernist touches as well as playing modern-jazz classics in a hometown style aimed first and foremost, he says, “to make people happy.” With his big-band, Marsalis revels in the culture in which he was raised yet also flashes adventurous urges. (He’ll likely reveal more of the latter while playing solo, streamed live on August 6, in connection with SideBarNOLA’s 5thanniversary webathon.)

Delfeayo and I talked on the phone recently about his new initiative, the legacy he inherited from his father and his city, and making people happy even in the direst of times.

Have you been in New Orleans through this whole pandemic? Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Number 8: Delfeayo Marsalis”

Throwback Monk

This shirt arrived as a promotional item for what was then the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, back in 1997, when Monk would have turned 80. It reminds me of my favorite game, which I can’t play right now, and my favorite musician, who I’m getting to hear anew.

Palo Alto,” a previously unreleased recording, comes out July 31.

It documents Monk, in 1968, leading his quartet (tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley) at a high school in Palo Alto, California.

I’ll have more to say about it soon in the Wall Street Journal. For now, you can hear a track here (just ignore the “visualizer”).

COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill

COVID Conversations is a series that  looks back through my talks with musicians since we first got locked down and moves forward as long as we’re stuck where we are.

At the Passover Seder I attended last month, the Four Questions came and went without the usual fanfare. Zoom meetings can be like that. Yet that first question—Why is this night different than all other nights?—struck me with fresh, COVID-era implication.

All questions are newly timely right now.

The title track of Arturo O’Farrill’s new release, “Four Questions” are drawn from the W. E. B. Du Bois’s book, “The Souls of Black Folk”:

What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?

O’Farrill was moved to consider these questions by the author, activist and theologian Dr. Cornel West, via West’s 2014 speech  to a packed house at Seattle’s Town Hall a few days before his 10/13 arrest at the “Moral Monday” Civil Disobedience Actions in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. O’Farrill met West at another protest against police brutality, and again at a symposium where they both spoke. The two got to talking—about shared commitments to social justice and swinging rhythms. O’Farrill ended up composing a piece, which had its premiere performance at The Apollo Theater in 2016, for which his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was joined by Dr. Cornel West as a guest soloist, conductor, and percussionist. As recorded, “Four Questions,” the centerpiece of an album devoted exclusively to O’Farrill’s compositions,  is dense and intense, by turns angry and celebratory; it’s about ancestry, shared inheritances and a common sense of purpose.

O’Farrill typically splits his time between New York City, where he leads the nonprofit organization he founded, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, and Los Angeles, where directs a program in Global Jazz Studies for UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Now, he’s holed up in L.A. for the foreseeable future. We talked about his collaboration with West, and about what this extended moment means. Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill”

Terence Blanchard’s Caravan Rolls On

When I heard that Terence Blanchard named his latest tour “Caravan,” I figured it had to do with the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington tune that Blanchard must have played again and again as a young trumpeter in drummer Art Blakey’s band.

Nope. It was meant more to suggest “a group of like-minded people moving around the country with a message,” Blanchard told me.

As I worked on a long piece for The Daily Beast about Blanchard—on connections between his band’s current tour and the aftermath of senseless violence, and on his ambitions as both musician and concerned citizen—I kept having to update the story to reflect breaking news: Blanchard gets nominated for a Best-Score Oscar; another black man gets shot by another white cop; Trump tweeted what?; the Met Opera announces Blanchard’s opera as its first presentation composed by an African American…

Here’s what I came up with, thankfully not behind any pay wall, under the headline “Can A Trumpet Silence a Gun?” Continue reading “Terence Blanchard’s Caravan Rolls On”

Now Batting, Marcus Shelby…

Marcus Shelby at San Francisco Giants Spring training. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Twenty years ago, when bassist Marcus Shelby formed a 15-piece jazz orchestra, he began to think big and thematically.

“I have been on a mission for the past 20 years to compose and create music about African-American history,” he says. These pieces have included an oratorio on Harriet Tubman and a suite about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

Shelby, in a different sort of uniform, playing bass. Photo courtesy of the artist.

On “Transitions,” released on his own MSO Records, Shelby’s lush arrangements of classic tunes by Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter frame the album’s centerpiece: “Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues,” his smart, slick and soulful four-part suite inspired by the history of Negro League Baseball.  Here, Shelby merges his mission with his two driving passions—jazz and baseball.

While working on my next column for Jazziz magazine, I spoke with Shelby about these passions. Continue reading “Now Batting, Marcus Shelby…”

Monk Kicks Off His Own Centenary: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet Private Collection.
Photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet Private Collection.

Any day that brings a music recorded by Thelonious Monk that I haven’t yet heard is a glorious day, indeed.

That’s how I felt when I received “Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960” (Sam Records/Saga), Monk’s soundtrack recordings for Roger Vadim’s film, released for the first time.

And what better way to kick off what I hope is a wide-ranging celebration of the late, great pianist and composer.

Here’s how I began my Wall Street Journal review: Continue reading “Monk Kicks Off His Own Centenary: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960”

Radicalized, Part 3: Remembering Nat Hentoff, The Itinerant Subversive

PHOTO: NANCY KASZERMAN/ZUMA PRESS
PHOTO: NANCY KASZERMAN/ZUMA PRESS

With each passing day, I keep thinking of Nat Hentoff, who died two weeks ago.
I keep thinking Nat would know what to write…
Onstage the a few nights ago at Symphony Space, emceeing a “Musicians Against Fascism” concert, I invoked Nat’s legacy and felt his presence through a sense of purpose that linked ideas, action and music.
Here’s how I began my own remembrance of Nat at The Daily Beast:

The death of Nat Hentoff at 91 on Jan. 7 was, to me, one final act of defiance.

According to his son Nicholas, Hentoff left us in the company of that which he loved dearly—surrounded by family, listening to Billie Holiday recordings.
And I suppose that Hentoff, who wrote with as much passion and insight about the Constitution as he did about Holiday’s music, simply refused to stick around to see Donald Trump take the presidential oath of office.
I imagined Hentoff whispering something like: “I fought against the Vietnam War. I spoke out during the Reagan administration, against George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and in defense of true liberalism and the Bill of Rights. This fight is yours.”

As an author, journalist, jazz critic, and civil libertarian, Hentoff’s intensity was matched by his productivity and range. He inspired me early on through his voluminous essays and books. And I was lucky. I got to know the man, who, by then, had a weathered face bordered by greying hair and beard, his piercing eyes softened only by his easy smile.

And here’s a 2004 interview I did with Nat for Wax Poetics:
Here’s the pull-quote I’d use now:
“I was an itinerant subversive from the start.”
Some of the references are dated but Nat’s messages—about music, cultural identity, fundamentalism, and the Supreme Court—are timely as ever.
Continue reading “Radicalized, Part 3: Remembering Nat Hentoff, The Itinerant Subversive”

Best Jazz of 2016

20160307-paa-jason-moran-veterans-room-091_cp-640x447
First, my contrarian uncool confession: I don’t love lists. I just don’t think music is a competition. Nor is writing about it, for me, a ratings game. (I prefer telling stories and reviewing each recording in its own context.) Still, I see the point, know the drill and have my choices, which honor worthy recordings and form a guide to satisfying listening. And this time of year is about giving: What readers want is lists, so critics need give accordingly.
Truth is, I’ve found that the making of these lists—the consciousness, conversations, even arguments they generate in the context of the many other lists made by critics, bloggers and even musicians—does in fact add up to meaningful context. That point was best driven home or me by actual public conversation at a “Year in Jazz” panel hosted by my colleague Nate Chinen and presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem a few years ago.
Most of colleagues love lists—especially year-end ones. Few have gone about compiling lists with the rigor and passion of Francis Davis, who, a decade ago, corralled 30 writers to create a list of the finest jazz albums of 2006 for the Village Voice. Now, Davis’s poll lives on as the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, and he has more than quadrupled his forces — 137 voters.
Im honored each year to answer Davis’s call.
You can find this year’s results here. Continue reading “Best Jazz of 2016”

Never Wanted a Blog, Never Expected a Trump…

220px-liberation_music_orchestra-1I never wanted a blog. I resisted having a blog. The only thing I hated more than that invented word, blog, was its bastard form as a verb.

And then I found myself doing that, blogging.

When Artinfo.com asked me to create a jazz blog in 2012 I said yes. I knew my stuff—about jazz and culture, about New York and New Orleans, about ideas beyond those categories and places—would get read by folks outside my usual music-world echo chamber, owing to Blouin Media’s broad international reach and visual-arts focus. Plus, the site looks terrific. The things that I couldn’t fit into The Wall Street Journal, of which there were many, spilled into “Blu Notes.”

Still, I really never wanted to blog.

And until the blog disappeared in late October—a problem since resolved by Artinfo’s tech gurus—I didn’t think I’d miss it.

For month or so, I felt like I’d evaporated from the digital sphere. The distressing “page not found” message made it seem as if I’d been ripped out of a binding or blown away by a stiff wind.

To a degree, I was not found: I felt lost.

I guess I did, and do, want to blog.

So now I’m back in business: Blu Notes rides again. Please saddle up with me once more… Continue reading “Never Wanted a Blog, Never Expected a Trump…”