Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jazz doesn't know who's playing it

We are right to celebrate Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and the rest of the jazz greats, but often glorious music is performed by musicians who are obscure or even unknown to the jazz cognoscenti. For every 'West End Blues', featuring Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines at their early peaks, there is a fascinating record by nobody in particular. Perhaps these second-tier recordings are less innovative and polished, but they still reflect the admirable energy of musicians striving to play the best music they can. Often the results are exciting and unique.

A precious memory of mine: US/Australian jazz genius Tom Baker and I stood at the bar in an Australian pub at the conclusion of a weekend jazz festival, shortly before he was cruelly taken from us by a heart attack. The jam session tottered unsteadily nearby, fueled more by alcohol and enthusiasm than by skill and inspiration. The musicians were not well-regarded jazz players, but rather a collection of semi-competent 'weekend warriors'. As the predictably messy final chorus of Tiger Rag reached a crescendo, suddenly everything clicked into place musically and the tune finished in a blaze of driving hot jazz. Tom turned to me with a look of sheer joy and whooped his approval as the applause began.

He'd spent the weekend as featured guest, sitting in with any band he could find. At times, I'd wondered how he could bear the difference in competency between him and the musicians with whom he was performing. That miraculous few seconds of music, and Tom's reaction, taught me all kinds of lessons about music and life.

Here's a fantastic record by the breathtakingly obscure J. C. Johnson & His Five Hot Sparks, playing 'Red Hot Hottentot' with spirit and poise:

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