Thursday, June 18, 2015

Hate Mail - OK, I'll Take Up That Challenge

Oh, if only you knew how unimpressed I am with the New Yorker as I am with so much about what you consider the hub of the universe,  you would probably be outraged.  As you seem to spend so much of your time being outraged.  Some people do that since it's easier than knowing what you're talking about.  I'd have thought you might have gotten a hint when you had a hissy fit when I dissed Strunk White last January.   I read the article you challenged me to read. [ See Update]

Looking at James Wood's bio, I don't see anywhere that he's a musician.  He's a friggin' Harvard literary scribbler who barely can be said to have practiced the art he merely writes criticism about*.  And, as I've pointed out before, Aaron Copland, no inconsiderable musician or writer, himself,  said it best, when a literary man puts two words down about music, one of them will be wrong.  I'd say that was a generous estimate.  Woods'  childhood fantasies of being a rock star, just like Moon, which he seems the most concerned with in the piece, are about as banal an evaluation of a musician as I've read recently.   You might consider it eloquent, I consider it relatively valueless as compared to what the top level of musicians choose to do in their professional career, who they choose to play with, who they learn from and who learns from them.  More about that in a minute.

I really have no interest in James Woods' childhood fantasies or the irrelevant name dropping that doesn't seem to have anything to do with Keith Moon's playing or his career.  If you deem that to be eloquence, well, maybe you're more interested in childhood fantasies like that than I am.  I wanted to play like Rudoph Serkin but I didn't fantasize about it.

Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey are all objectively better, more inventive and musical drummers than your hero.   Here's an interesting comparison of Moon to another famous rock drummer, Mitch Mitchell, from a website dedicated to drummers.

Mitch Mitchell...

As the drummer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell was one of the greatest rock drummers of the 1960s. Mitchell's style was a blend of the abandon of someone like Keith Moon with the jazz complexity of a sticksman like Elvin Jones. While no one, including Mitchell, could match Moon for sheer rock power, it's also true that Mitchell had the technique to handle some rhythms and patterns that were beyond Moon's abilities. Mitchell was drummer on all of the Hendrix Experience's recordings and some of his post-Experience solo outings, and was still in his touring band when Hendrix died in September 1970...

Also, Hendrix has been widely quoted as once saying Mitchell was "my Elvin Jones".  I don't know if he ever claimed Mitchell was his "Keith Moon".  I've heard Mitchell, he was far more versatile than most rock drummers, but he could only be compared with Elvin Jones and it was only partially true.

Anyone who listened to the demonstration of Jones developing a solo on "Three Card Molly" in the documentary I posted the other night and who knew anything about music would see what I mean.   "Sheer rock power" doesn't make up for inability and Jones' melodic inventiveness, to a great extent his innovation, is unsurpassed.   If you think it's dissing your idea of the greatest drummer of all time by saying he's no Elvin Jones, the same could be said for just about every other player of the drum set who has ever held sticks, even some really good ones. The other two great drummers I mentioned in the beginning of this piece are some of the few who were in the same league with him.  

The same website, specializing in drumming, gives this merely partial summary of Jones' career.

Jones was discharged in 1949, returning to a Detroit musical scene that was as vibrant as any outside New York. His first professional job was at Grand River Street, where things went well until the leader absconded with the receipts on Christmas Eve, Elvin began to frequent the Bluebird Inn, where he was sometimes asked to sit in. He always refused, thinking "it was presumptuous to sit in with these musicians, because... they were the greatest people I knew." In time, Jeader Billy Mitchell hired Elvin, and in three years at the club he backed up visiting stars including the legendary Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Grey, and, for six months, Miles Davis. In Addition, Monday nights there were jam sessions Elvin organized at his home, Tuesdays a concert series near a local university, and Elvin and his brother Thad promoted Sunday festival-style concerts. The long list of musicians Elvin played with during this period includes Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Tommy Flanagan, Pepper Adams, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Lou Hayes and Yusef Lateef.

Elvin made his move to New York ostensibly to audition for a new Benny Goodman band. Instead, he ended up with Charles Mingus, and in subsequent years he developed his style with Bud Powell, Miles Davis, the Pepper Adams-Donald Byrd Quintet, Art Farmer and J.J. Johnson. He also had his first experiences playing with Miles' tenor man and the increasingly celebrated recording artist John Coltrane. After leaving Miles in 1960, Coltrane was touring in San Francisco with his new group when he flew back to New York to seek out Elvin. Elvin joined one of jazz' most celebrated alliances in, of all places, Denver, Colorado. Through 1966, Elvin contributed to some of the most controversial, influential, and ultimately important music in jazz. Among the triumphant recordings from his great association are "A love Supreme" and "Coltrane 'Live' at the Village Vanguard". About this experience, Elvin comments: "Right from the beginning to the last time we played together it was something pure. The most impressive thing was a feeling of steady, collective learning... If there is anything like perfect harmony in human relationships, that band was as close as you can come".

In March 1966, Elvin left Coltrane. After a brief European tour with Duke Ellington's band he returned to New York to begin his distinguished career as leader, with a series of innovative piano-less trios featuring Joe Farrell on tenor alto and flute, and one of several bassists including Jimmy Garrison, Bill Wood, Charlie Haden and Wilbur Little. Also in 1966 Elvin married Keiko, whom he met in Nagasaki, Japan. Keiko has become Elvin's partner in every sense: besides providing inspiration, she is also his personal and business manager. Keiko is involved creatively as composer and arranger; Elvin has performed and recorded many of her works, including "Mr. Jones", "Shinjitsu" and "Zange". Elvin has been heard on nearly 500 recordings, with no end in sight. He also made a temporary detour to Hollywood in 1971 to appear as the character Job Cain in the ABC Paramount film "Zachariah". Reflecting his deep commitment to the music ("Playing is not something I do at night" he said, "It's my function in life").

I doubt there is anyone in rock whose career can compare with Jones' for having some of the greatest musicians who have ever played Western instruments asking him to play with them and choosing to play with him when he asked them.

Sometimes a very talented performer dies young.  You have to judge their place in music based on what they did while they were alive, not on what might have been because that might just as easily not might have been.  The probability that would have been the case isn't negligible, though even that is irrelevant in making an evaluation.   In rock, dying through your own self-indulgence is too often seen as a form of cheap validation, quite often by comparison to the tragic deaths of really fine musicians such as Jimi Hendrix who also died young.  In Jazz that's not considered enough.   It's about the music.

* Galen Strawson's review in Woods' own paper, The Guardian, ouch!

Update:  I originally had a long section that went in here that gave my reasons for doubting that you had read the piece you challenged me with.  I might go into that later.  As for now, I'm expecting to be shown the proof that you didn't read what I wrote.


  1. Well, that put you in your place, didn't it?

  2. I turn into a mean little bastard when I lost a night's sleep.