Tuesday, April 29, 2008

OK, so maybe I am old...

Well, my last post wasn't intended to be anything more than just a thought put to screen. I didn't expect some of the responses. I certainly wasn't looking for compliments. Q and Stealth think I don't act my age (which is probably true, and they've seen first-hand!). I even got nutritional advice about aging. And I've got others depressed about the prospect of getting older. Let me make it clear here--in no way did I mean to imply that they were turning ugly or something... Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I just noticed the wrinkles.

However, I might be old. I have found a new obsession. Well, an old one rekindled. Some of you may remember that my cable company gave me a free upgrade digital on-demand. I've had it now for over 6 months, and have yet to order a movie. I pretty much ignore movies that I can get. I have no use for the HD stuff, which I can't get anyway. But my fingers slipped while pushing buttons one night and I ended up in the music channels. I landed smack in the middle of the Latino pop channel. While that caught my attention for the moment, I thought I'd try out the other channels. And on channel 934, I've been stuck.

Channel 934 is the Big Band and Swing channel. I am in heaven! I LOVE big band music. I've loved it since high school when my mother forced me to dance with her in the living room. Hated it at the time, but it has served its purpose well over the years! When I was in college, our jazz band director owned a VERY large book of dance music. The original arrangements--not the glitzier versions of more recent years. A distinction should be made at this point. The traditional big band (think Glenn Miller) was formed for the playing of dance music. Similar to your neighborhood rock band, they would play their own songs, and then also play the popular music from other big bands. But make no mistake about it--they were formed for, and survived because of, dance. Stan Kenton's band (and others) started playing arrangements that became less danceable, and over time, big bands moved from the dancehall to the concert hall. Today's big bands (the few that exist) rarely play dances, and almost all music written for them now is intended for concert listening, or at home on a music system. Of course, it's not that cut and dried, but it's a good generalization...

Back to college. A couple of times a year, we would play for various functions, and get to play those original dance arrangements. My education was served in these situations as much, if not more, as they were in the classroom. And it continued in smaller groups too. I was a member of the "Stardust Five"--we played standards, and had a regular Friday night gig at the local Elks club. May sound hokey, but we would fill the place with the members, and a large number of college kids too. And the money wasn't hokey! I miss those days. And I consider myself fortunate for the opportunity to play in those groups. It's a "going back to the roots" sort of thing. Most young jazz musicians today have never played in a dance band and don't grasp the concept or tradition.

Back to channel 934. The recordings playing 24/7 are wonderful! Most of them are original recordings of the old bands. Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Lionel Hampton...the list goes on and on... In the couple of weeks that I've kept it on (shunning my iTunes!), I'm not sure that I've heard more than one or two songs repeated. My only complaint is that the still shots they have in rotation in the background are too repetitive, as are the single sentence trivia blurbs with each of them. But it's meant to be listened to, not watched, per se. And the sound quality--there's something about the slightly tinny, low fidelity sound from the originals that makes it "warmer". There's a few remake or tribute bands that make their way in the rotation, complete with their perfect high fidelity, and frankly, I don't like the sound. But that's a small sacrifice to pay to be washed over with this wonderful music.

I often have told my mother that I was born 30 years too late. But that means I would have been born before her and that just seems messy in a time/space continuum sort of way... I would have loved to live during the heyday of the big bands. Listening to all this music has gotten me to thinking of its origins. The musicians playing didn't go to college to learn how to play swing or jazz or the other forms of the day. They learned by listening. By experiencing. By asking questions of those who were doing it. And then playing for them. Over and over and over. True education. Not sitting in a class you don't want to be at, but actively seeking out those who can teach you, and by actually doing it. In a way, that's how it was with the dance band in college, and the "Five". Doing it. There's no better way to learn.

I've been fortunate enough to have seen a few of my favorite bandleaders in the sunset of their careers. Stan Kenton's band was in the state during my sophomore year in college. We were jacked because we were very much into his music of the past ten years. What we got was not a concert, but a dance. Going back to what started it all. And it was interesting to hear "In the Mood" (a Miller signature tune). Not the Miller arrangement, but the Kenton arrangement. And to hear the other old hits of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Not a single "concert" arrangement all night, but still mesmerizing (and my mother's dance lessons came into play!). I've heard Woody Herman and Buddy Rich (many times!). I've heard the Ellington and Basie bands, both shortly after the deaths of their leaders. I've seen the Maynard Ferguson band, who has adapted the sound from the early days to current jazz fusion (also known for the best version of the "Rocky" theme!). Most recently, it was Harry Connick, Jr., and his band. All sort of like getting to see the Stones a few years ago before they start dying off...

Damn. I thought I was going to be able to tie up these half-dozen thoughts into a nice coherent package, but I can't. Must mean maybe I am old.

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