Actor Howard Hesseman, perhaps best known (at least to my generation) as rock DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP In Cincinnati, died the other day. In a lovely remembrance post on Facebook, actor Wil Wheaton related a story that shows what a lovely person Mr. Hesseman must have been:
I also remember that one day on the set, we were sitting in cast chairs, talking, and the subject of jazz came up. I confessed that my familiarity with jazz musicians was ten feet wide and half an inch deep, but I enjoyed Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker. He asked me if I had ever listened to Charles Mingus. I told him that I hadn’t hear OF him, much less heard him play music, so Howard walked to his car, which he’d driven up from Los Angeles, and came back with a cassette of Mingus Ah Um that I still have today.
“You will love listening to this while you burn through the 5 on your way back to LA,” he said.I loved the image of burning through interstate, just setting it afire and letting it turn to ash behind you before it blew away, having served its (your) purpose. It was so much more romantic and rebellious than the reality of trudging through mile after mile of “are we there yet” and cattle yards during seven monotonous hours.“How can I get this back to you?” I asked him.“You won’t want to,” he said. “I’ll get another copy. Forget it.” I can still hear the glee and enthusiasm that was in his voice. He was giving me so much more than a cassette tape.
Anne, Nolan, and I listened to Mingus Ah Um on the way home, and Howard was right. We loved it. I still love it. And I have Howard Hesseman to thank for it.
I have to confess to not being terribly familiar with Charles Mingus, either, so I looked him up. I’d heard the name, but that’s about it, which is kind of a bummer, since Charles Mingus was actually one of the most important jazz musicians of the 20th century. His name is as important to jazz as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie.
While reading a bit about Mingus, I found that entire album, Mingus Ah Um, available online.
I honestly don’t have the familiarity with jazz to discuss it in any intelligent way at all, beyond “Hey, this is cool! I like this! It grooves!” This album is…well, it’s cool! I like it! It grooves!
I played in jazz bands in high school and college, but for some reason, despite my best efforts, I always felt like jazz was keeping me at arms’ length. There was always something about jazz, about the jazz approach and the way a musician has to think to be an effective jazz player beyond just being a decent section horn, much less being a good jazz player, that was just slightly beyond me as a musician. This used to bother me, and I would occasionally get irritated at my general inability to grasp jazz, but…well, I picture jazz itself, just standing there with its saxophone, smiling and saying, “Well, Kelly, that sounds like your problem, not my problem.”
And so it was.
In this album, beyond all the extraordinary virtuosity audible in the improvisatory work of these musicians who also have total control of their instruments, I hear harmonies of incredible complexity. Jazzfolk do things with chords that make my ear happy in that dizzy, “I’ve no idea what’s going on!” kind of way. I listen to something like the fourth track, “Self Portrait in Three Colors”, which drifts into and out of and back into ensemble playing and passages where it sounds like each player is doing something that is both entirely reliant on, and completely independent from, what the other players are doing.
I’m also struck by the tutti passages, where the whole group is playing. This album has some of the tightest ensemble playing I’ve ever heard. This is on par with what you might hear from the best string quartet playing Beethoven. Listen to the way everyone is on the same page in the first track! Amazing.
Often jazz musicians are working “on the fly”, thinking of what they want to say and how they want to say it, at the very moment they’re playing. This boggles my mind. Surely writing is partially improvisatory, you might object–and indeed it is, but even so, I have to spend long amounts of time thinking before I get around to execution. I was rather the same way in my music days, which might be a big part of why I was never able to really grasp jazz.
But you don’t always have to really grasp things, do you? I’ll likely always be unhappy with my general outsider’s view of jazz, but really, it’s perfectly OK sometimes just to say, “Hey, this is good! I like it! This grooves!”
Here is Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus.