Saturday, August 31, 2013

Played Twice (Part One)

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

How many times do you come across a book so good you want to read it twice?  That perhaps best describes my feeling about Peter Leitch's dazzling new memoir, Off the Books (Vehicule Press). It's simply the best jazz book I've read in many years, and it's been a joy to "play" it again.

I've known Peter since his 1984 Uptown date with Pepper Adams, and I've listened to his recordings many times over the years. Apart from interviewing him about Pepper many years ago, hearing him at a very memorable late-1980s gig at the Willow in Cambridge MA with pianist James Williams, and running into him once at the New York jazz club Visiones, and I hadn't spoken with him in a very long time until last year's Pepper Adams Week in New York City. During that amazing series of concerts promoted by Motema records, I took a bunch of friends to Walker's to hear him play a few Pepper tunes. Thankfully, in a way, reading his autobiography makes up for not staying in touch.

I've always admired Leitch as a player. His A Special Rapport date on Reservoir, to name one recording, is sensational!  But reading his autobiography gives you a whole different sense of this wide-ranging, very important artist. Besides being a great musician, who has performed with many of jazz's most influential players, Leitch is also an accomplished photographer, a keen observer of the world, and a great writer. Leitch's book is beautifully crafted, gripping, a real page-turner.  His observations about jazz, life, politics, drugs, the music scene, and, in some ways most importantly, about himself, are sincere, direct, funny, touching, poignant.

The book is divided into three sections: "Montreal in the 1950s and 60s," "Toronto 1977-1982," and "New York 1982-."  I will discuss each part individually over the next three weeks to, in my way, give tribute to Leitch's very important contribution to jazz history and life writing. 

Generally speaking, chronologically presented biographies or autobiographies are the norm, and, as such, quite cliched. But in Leitch's memoir, the format works well for three reasons.  First, the content is so fresh and alive, and the prose is wrought in such a concise, forward-moving style, that the format becomes meaningless.  Second, helping the narrative are the author's flash-backs and flash-forwards to themes throughout the book, unifying it in that fashion. Third, the three sections of the book correspond to major shifts in Leitch's life, so they make sense as an overarching organizing principle.

Part One of the book is a discussion of the author's first 23 or so years based in Montreal.  The author immediately emerges as a sympathetic figure, as he establishes the contradiction of being an English-speaking Protestant in a French-speaking, Roman Catholic town. This dichotomy, beautifully developed like one of his solos, serves as  a metaphor for his alienation in working class Point-aux-Trembles, the refinery area of Montreal's east-end.  

Although Leitch learned to speak French by osmosis, his early education took place in English-speaking schools, and by high school, he was bussed downtown for two years--a welcome relief from the neighborhood.  As an outsider, he coped, despite being bullied by gangs. He discovered his nihilism quite young, and this reinforced his detachment, as well as his growing confidence and individuality, amid the pressure of not conforming to the prevailing culture.

Some poignant stories about his family are included, and perhaps it was decided that, in a 200-page memoir, less is more. Still, I was left wanting to know more about his parents. The lack of information about them only reinforces Leitch's sense of alienation, wandering the city's underbelly, making sense of things on his own.

Always the photographer-observer, really memorable are Leitch's descriptions of his neighborhood: multi-colored industrial waste running down the street on his walk home from school; smokestacks burning gases "like religious icons;" sidewalks "caked with thick ice," Catholic priests in long black robes spitting on the sidewalk; the hegemonic, gray stone, mental institution with the red watchtower and chain link fence.

Just as poignantly, Leitch teases the reader on Page One with a hint of his future heroin habit that the author picks up midway in the chapter. But first, Leitch writes about his early exposure to jazz and how difficult it was learning how to play jazz in this milieu.  A few record stores had the current Prestige, Riverside, and Blue Note releases, but there weren't many method books available, and his neighborhood prepared kids to work in the factories, not as aspiring jazz musicians. Leitch, self-taught, spent hours transcribing solos, often slowing them down an octave to 16 rpm, and if necessary, putting coins on the tonearm to slow them down even further.  

Fortunately, the Montreal of his youth was still on the "jazz circuit," so all the major players came through and Leitch played hooky and heard as many as possible.  Implied is that Montreal was a cosmopolitan, open city that, unlike Detroit, for example, didn't restrict minors from visiting jazz clubs. Leitch befriended the legendary guitarist Rene Thomas, who lived in Montreal from 1957-1962, and he studied with trumpeter Herbie Spanier.  From there he met aspiring players like himself and other jazz elders living in town.

Leitch's descriptions of his early gigs, relationships, and growth as a Canadian musician is an important contribution to the jazz history of Montreal--really fascinating to read and loaded with amusing anecdotes. Importantly, Leitch writes about the black jazz scene that was centered around Mountain and St. Antoine streets.  Here, Leitch heard the influential guitarists Nelson Symonds and Sonny Greenwich, among many other great musicians.

The second half of Part One discusses Leitch's use of heroin, begun in the mid-1960s. Leitch was a user until 1973, when he relocated to Quebec City for two years to work full-time for a CBC TV talk/variety show.  Leitch describes this aspect of his life in vivid detail, focusing on how he coped with the habit while growing as a musician. His first wife was also a user.

During the mid-60s, Leitch noticed the difference between how many blacks and whites approached jazz:

Among the black musicians, even the not-so-good ones, there was a
sense of the music being a matter of life and death, which it was. With
some of these old guys if you played the wrong chords, you might get
a trumpet blown in your ear (or worse!). On the bandstand it was
serious.  With a lot of the white musicians, even though they might be
really proficient musicians doing a really great job, you sometimes got
the feeling that they were thinking about their mortgages, or dinner, or
something else. 

I pre-ordered Off the Books because I knew that the author would discuss Pepper Adams. I wasn't expecting to read the book, but I wanted the Adams references for my work on my Pepper Adams biography.  Quite frankly, with a day job, I only have time to seek out books that help me understand Pepper's life, because time is so limited, and I'm trying to work my way through a Pepper Adams screenplay, then get to the full-length biography. Leitch's memoir was impossible to put down, and it has given me several important things that help me understand Adams' life in greater detail:

1. The description of Montreal's Stanley Street Beat Scene in the late 1950s- early 1960s--surely an important contribution to jazz scholarship in its own right--gives me a sense of that place where Pepper performed, mostly notably at the Little Vienna.

2. Pepper denied using heroin, kind of the way Bill Clinton denied having sex with Monica Lewinsky.  Pepper did, however, have a few experiences in New York shooting up, and Leitch's in-depth portrayal of the physical and emotional effects of heroin help me understand why Montreal pianist Keith White talked about heroin and the way it leads to insight.

3. Playing unusual gigs, like strip clubs puts into relief the very strange gigs Pepper worked too, when coming up, including gigs at strip clubs with Roland Hanna in New York City, soon after they arrived in the mid-50s.

4. As I expected, specific descriptions of Pepper are very memorable, especially the passage that Leitch "was in awe of him" and why that was so.  More about that next week in my second installment of this review.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Tony and Ernie

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

This past Thursday I drove into midtown Manhattan in the rain to get Tony and Ernie.  British arranger Tony Faulkner and British percussionist Ernie Jackson were waiting for me at 2:30 outside their hotel on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street.

The New York theater district was abuzz with traffic and construction.  Summer tourists were dodging the downpour.  I was steering away from taxi cabs and amped-up, inattentive drivers. Uptown, the Yankees game was piling up traffic, and, across the Hudson, the Barclays golf tournament was adding another dimension to the congested urban landscape.

Tony and Ernie had flown into JFK from England on Wednesday. Their visit was scheduled to coincide with the mixing session I'd booked at Skyline Studios in Warren, New Jersey.  It also kicked off their two-week vacation in New York.  After more than a year of working together via email and Skype, this was Tony and my first time together, and we had considerable work to do, mixing our big band date.

Back over the George Washington Bridge, the rain had slackened and the sun was beginning to peek out from behind the clouds. The three of us drove to drummer Tim Horner's house in nearby Teaneck, New Jersey, where we met Tim and trumpeter Ron Horton.  Along the way, it was interesting to hear Tony and Ernie comment about the area's jazz history, things I take for granted, such as the road sign for "Hackensack."  

The reason for the meeting was to give Tony a chance to meet Tim and Ron and discuss our upcoming live recording. Over wine, Kentucky bourbon, and snacks, we explored the various aspects of the project.  Tim is one of the nicest people I've met in the industry, so it's always a pleasure being involved with him in any capacity.  

Our live tentet recording (Volume 7 of my Motema series) will be taped on November 9-10 in New York and Teaneck.  The esteemed jazz historian Dan Morgenstern will function as emcee.  Tony is writing new Pepper charts for the ensemble, though some will be adapted from his unrecorded big band Pepper arrangements.  Apart from the co-leaders, the band will include multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, bassist Martin Wind, and guitarist John Hart.

At about 5:30, Tony, Ernie, and I left Tim's place and drove to Little Falls, New Jersey to meet pianist and bandleader Diane Moser.  Diane had recommended a small Italian bistro, Bivio, that's owned by alto saxophonist Tommy Colao. Before Diane arrived for dinner, I took Tony and Ernie to a local pub, so they could get a pint of their beloved Guinness.  (Not deliberately a contrarian, I got the last bottle of my beloved Leffe.)  

On our walk to and from the pub, I noticed several Art Deco structures in town, one a small diner with a zig-zag roofline motif that had been converted into a pizzeria,  It was one of four pizzerias we saw on our short walk.  We also walked by a Chevrolet dealer.  This is the way it used to be in New Jersey in the sixties, before more and more car dealerships were built near malls or on major highways.

We all met Diane for the first time and she was an engaging dinner companion. Our meeting gave us a chance to discuss the November 13 concert of Tony's big band Pepper charts that's taking place at Trumpets in Montclair, New Jersey.  Since Diane is a regular at Bivio, she ordered for us.  The food at Bivio is superb and we had a great time!  Please support Tommy, if you're in the area.

After dinner, I drove Tony and Ernie to our hotel in Parsippany, formerly the "Sheraton Tara." The design of the building is modeled after an English castle.  Tony and Ernie were amused, since they know a thing or two about castles.  I left Tony and Ernie at the bar, with their pints of Guinness and a newfound compatriot from England.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On the Road

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I'm in coastal Maine, licking my wounds after the grueling Kickstarter campign to raise funds for the big band CD of Pepper Adams compositions.  The funds settled on Sunday, 12 August--just about a week ago--and it almost seems a distant memory.  That's the point of a vacation, of course.  Get some distance and heal the mind and body.  That's been the agenda.

I've been with my family in Boston, Quebec, and Southern Maine, enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery, eating some great food, and taking a break from all things related to Pepper Adams.  But next week, on my long drive back home to Atlanta, I'm back at it.  I'll be at long last meeting Tony Faulkner in New York City and we'll be mixing his big band arrangements for our forthoming CD.  

Tony and I have had many Skype calls, and we've exchanged countless emails, since we began working together over a year ago.  We're already pretty good buddies, but it will be great to be with him in the U.S, especially in anticipation of our month-long Pepper Adams tour, starting in late October.  Here's our Fall schedule thus far.  We hope to see you on the road:

T, 10/29: Cincinnati  8:30: Contemporary Jazz Orchestra at the Blue Wisp.

W, 10/30: Cincinnati  4:30: Faulkner clinic at Cincinnati Conservatory.  

Th, 10/31: Champaign IL   8:00?: Concert Jazz Band at the Iron Post.

F, 11/1: Champaign IL  1-2: Carner lecture at U of Illinois, Smith Hall, Rm. 25.  
Macomb IL  5:30-6:30: Faulkner clinic at Western Illinois U, Salee 212; 
7-9: Carner lecture/book signing at Western Illinois U, Salee 101.  

Sat, 11/2: Travel day.

Su, 11/3: Detroit   1-4: Scott Gwinnell Dectet at the Institute of Arts.  NPR taping.

M, 11/4:  Off

T, 11/5: Detroit  12:30-2:40: Faulkner arranging clinic at Wayne State University.
6-8: Carner lecture at Wayne State.  

W, 11/6: Toronto   12:15-1:15: Humber College Jazz Band concert.

Th, 11/7: Toronto  11:30-1: Faulkner arranging clinic at Humber; 
11:30-1: Carner lecture at Humber. 
F, 11/8: Montreal   Afternoon: Concordia University lecture and arranging clinic.
Sat, 11/9: New York   8-11: Tim Horner-Ron Horton live Tentet recording at Zeb's, 223 West 28 St.

Su, 11/10: Teaneck NJ  4:30-7:30: Tim Horner-Ron Horton Tentet recording at Puffin Foundation.

M, 11/11: TBD
T, 11/12: TBD

W, 11/13: TBD

Th, 11/14: TBD

F, 11/15: Princeton  11-1: WPRB radio show with Jerry Gordon.
Sat, 11/16: TBD

Su, 11/17: TBD

M, 11/18: TBD

T, 11/19: Williamsburg VA    6:30-8: Faulkner-Carner clinic at College of William & Mary.

W, 11/20: TBD

Th, 11/21: TBD

Sunday, August 11, 2013

One More Day

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

About 2 hours remain in the Kickstarter campaign to fund my new Pepper Adams CD.  Just after I posted last week, much to my delight, I exceeded the $7,000 funding goal.  Again, many thanks to the 100 donors who believe in the project and believe in Pepper Adams.

Last week I was somewhat delirious from the fatigue of the fundraising campaign. Plus, I was having trouble with my iPad browser and the way it interfaces with Blogspot and Google.  I'm taking steps to correct that, so thanks for your patience.

The great Thad Jones disciple, arranger Tony Faulkner, is working furiously on finishing a new set of tenet charts that he can bring with him to New York City in a few weeks to show drummer Tim Horner.  Tim is co-leading the band (with trumpeter Ron Horton) that is recording live at Zeb's in New York on 9 November and again on 10 November at the Puffin Foundation in Teaneck, New Jersey.  This recording, produced by Tim Horner, will be Volume 7 of my Complete Works of Pepper Adams series of recordings for Motema.  I hope some of you can make the shows!  It's great to have an knowledgeable audience!

We're premiering the tentet material in Detroit, with Scott Gwinnell's Dectet, at a concert at the Institute of Arts on 2 November.  The instrumentation, replacing guitar with another trombone, is only slightly different from what we are recording a week later.  I'm pleased that the Detroit concert is being recording for broadcast on NPR.  I'll be sure to post the details, once known.

I'm meeting Tony Faulkner in New York on 22 August. He's flying in from England for two weeks.  After meeting Tim for coffee, and the bandleader Diane Moser for pizza, the following day we're driving out to Skyline Studios in Warren, New Jersey, about an hour west of Manhattan, to mix and master the big band date.  We'll be working with the very accomplished engineer Paul Wickliffe, who recorded the Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard, among his many accomplishments.  Wickliffe feels that we may have a Grammy contender.  Because of his vast experience, Tony and I are following his lead on how to make the best possible CD to achieve a nomination.

Saturday, August 3, 2013


© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I woke up this morning, as I have every morning for the last three weeks, hoping to see a Kickstarter pledge posted from somewhere east of here.  With just a little more than seven days left in my challenging Kickstarter campaign (to raise enough capital to produce my new big band CD of Pepper Adams compositions), nothing came in overnight.  With 94% of the campaign funded, I sit and wait; my celebration postponed yet another day?

Gary Smulyan, Neil Tesser, and others have told me that this is to be expected.  The normal rhythm for crowdfunding is that they successfully conclude in the last week of the campaign.  I had emailed Tesser several weeks ago to ask him if he would post an email to his readers in Chicago.  My CD features an all-Illinois based band, so it made sense to get local fans informed, with the hope that some might pledge their support.  He told me to wait.  In his experience, things always happen in the last week.  Smulyan said much the same thing to me a few days ago.

So I wait.  I wasn't too surprised when I looked at my Kickstarter page this morning--while trying to focus after a reasonably good night's sleep--because Saturdays in the summer haven't been good days for receiving pledges.  Sundays have been better.  Based on my experience, I'd deduce that no one should even bother with Kickstarter in the summer.  People are just too distracted.  Steve Cerra told me that a few weeks ago.

Noal Cohen was the first to articulate what I was starting to believe: that success on Kickstarter is predicated on an extensive social media network.  Kickstarter, you could say, is a young person's game.  I'm neither young, nor flush with "friends."  Neither are many of my colleagues, and some of Pepper's generation barely use a computer.  I'm a baby boomer, someone who grew up with LPs, the Beatles and the blues, not a laptop and gangsta rap.  For me, my first foray into Kickstarter was an intense game of catch-up.  I now understand Facebook and Twitter much better, but I wait.  7 more days.

94% in school was a pretty good grade. It was something you could be proud of, knowing that you did a good job.  94% at Kickstarter has the same resonance, because, like a 94 grade, it means a lot of work has paid off.  But anything less than 100% in Kickstarter is a failing grade, because you lose all the money.  So I wait.