Apr 20, 2012 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
Here’s a book that should be required reading for Jazz 101 courses worldwide.
“Why Jazz? A Concise Guide.” By Kevin Whitehead. (Oxford University Press, New York; 172 pages; $17.95/hardcover; 2011.)
While aimed primarily at novice jazz fans, more experienced aficionados will also enjoy the author’s easy-to-read prose style as he succinctly outlines the basics of the genre, from its New Orleans origins through the Swing Era, bebop, avant-garde and the postmodern period covering the last 30 years.
The writer, Kevin Whitehead, is a graduate of nearby SUNY Oswego and now reviews jazz for National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” Although he now lives near Austin, Texas, Whitehead dedicated this book to CNYers Anne and Dave Tiffany.
Though his personal tastes lean toward the music’s experimental edges, Whitehead does a yeoman job of summarizing the contributions of traditional artists such as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. But the author revels in his own milieu when writing about the creativity of avant garde artists such as Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn and Cecil Taylor.
Along the way, he examines often-overlooked recordings and provides pithy definitions of terms such as syncopation, the circle of fifths and the flatted fifth.
As suggested by its title, one of the most interesting things about “Why Jazz?” is that it’s formatted as a series of questions which the author answers. For instance, “Are jazz solos really improvised?” and “Why do jazz people go on so about Louis Armstrong?”
The short answer to the latter is “He influenced everybody. Of all the 1920s jazz soloists, he had the surest grasp of the subtleties and refinements of swing.”
Comparing Beiderbecke to Armstrong, Whitehead points out that Bix’s “tone set him apart, and he’d linger over odd notes that Armstrong might hit only in passing. His lines were more wistful and ethereal… but in truth his influence, profound as it is, has been nowhere near as extensive.”
The answer to “Who was the first great jazz saxophonist?” is, of course, Sidney Bechet, but Whitehead really did his homework. First he identifies the obscure Six Brown Brothers who recorded “Down Home Rag” in 1915.
“Why Jazz?” also describes the Dixieland revival of the 1940s, deals briefly with the civil rights movement’s effect on the music and explains Wynton Marsalis’ role on the current scene.
In his introduction, Whitehead answers the oft-heard query, “Isn’t jazz old-fashioned?”
“No,” he writes, “because music with substantial improvised content constantly updates itself.”
That’s an encouraging observation.
Reading Whitehead’s book is one way to celebrate April as Jazz Appreciation Month. Another way is to buy a ticket to Cat Russell’s April 28 show at the Palace Theater.
The Grammy Award-winning vocalist is a native New Yorker and a graduate of American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Cat’s father, the late Luis Russell, was a pioneering pianist who led his own orchestras and worked extensively with Louis Armstrong. Ms. Russell has toured the world, performing and recording with David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein and Rosanne Cash. Since the 2006 release of her debut album, “Cat,” she has issued three acclaimed albums including her latest, “Strictly Romancin.’”
Cat sings at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at the Palace Theater, 2384 James St., in Eastwood; $20/general, $15/WAER members, SU staff and students; 463-9240. Russell’s appearance here is hosted by WAER-FM 88.3.
The NYC singer will be accompanied by pianist Mark Shane, guitarist Matt Munisteri and bassist Lee Hudson.
An earnest cast of more than two dozen gives a reverential reading of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Our Town,” running through April 22 at the Catherine Cummings Theatre at Cazenovia College.
Directed by artist-in-residence David Lowenstein, a graduate of Syracuse University, the production adheres faithfully to Wilder’s minimalist vision. The lack of props and scenery keeps the focus squarely on human interaction. In fact, Lowenstein actually augments Wilder’s humanism with two daring alterations.
First, he does away with the male stage manager – that meaty role so well-fulfilled by actors such as Hal Holbrook and Paul Newman – and replaces him with five varied actresses who converse with us casually to set each scene.
Then, with a nod to modern America’s increasingly diverse population, Lowenstein casts several actors of color in primary roles. While this choice initially strains the audience’s suspension of disbelief, those reactions fade as soon as the actors show how well they fit their roles.
The two most central characters are the young couple Emily Webb and George Gibbs played by Kendra Valliere and Jedai Stevens, respectively. Stevens’ performance is deep and measured, as his character faces the challenges of household chores, career decisions and a blossoming romance. Valliere’s Emily also runs the gamut, from wild-eyed romance to fear of commitment to the resignation of mortality.
“Our Town” runs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, and closes at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at the Catherine Cummings Theatre, 16 Lincklaen St., in Cazenovia. Admission costs $10 for adults; $5 for students 18 and younger; and $3 for Cazenovia College students; 655-7238.
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