Category Archives: Jazz

I Didn’t Get Fired

wrtilogo“I haven’t heard you on the air for a while. Did they fire you?” she asked. “It’s worse than that,” I said. “They promoted me.” Day One of my new job as Director of Content at WRTI is in the books; I officially started my new job yesterday.

Director of Content is a funny title. I was hoping for Director of Intent but I never did get that Masters in Mind-reading. Content, for a radio station, means responsibility over all programming (for us, classical and jazz), over everything on the website and social media, and over audio production. I’ve been telling my friends that, basically, whatever they don’t like about WRTI, from now on, is my fault.

They’d been talking about a Director of Content position for a couple of years; I just didn’t know they had me in mind for it. I had, I thought, been getting somewhat better in the afternoon on-air classical shift as I filled in since late Spring of 2015, and so I applied for that position when they announced to fill it permanently. I didn’t get it. They hired the consummate professional and wonderfully nice guy Kevin Gordon, who has already been a terrific addition to our staff.

No, I didn’t get that. I got this!, and already I’m having fun, enjoying looking under the hood of this great radio station, WRTI, and seeing how we can make it better than ever.

99 Years Ago, What Monumental Event Happened in Jazz?

[First published 22 Feb 2016 in WRTI’s Arts Desk and reprinted by permission.]

This week it’s the 99th anniversary of an important first for the WRTI family. It happened in South Jersey, and the significance of it extends to this day.

OriginalDixielandJassBandStyles of music change slowly over time, but sometimes there are clear landmarks. In Camden, New Jersey on February 26th, 1917, for the very first time, a clarinet, cornet, trombone, piano, and drum set played a song into something called a recording machine. It helped if the sound was loud, and this group, The Original Dixieland Jass Band, was loud.

The sound traveled down a metal horn to a piece of glass, which vibrated a stylus, cutting a groove into a wax disc. That would serve as the master to stamp out records. Spinning at 78 revolutions per minute on the right machinery, it would play the song for you over and over again.

The process had been used for some years at this Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, most famously with the opera singer Enrico Caruso, But the name of this song was “Livery Stable Blues,” and this was the first jazz recording, ever.

Jazz comes from spirituals, salon music, blues, and ragtime, and was changing even then. Every cornet player would soon switch to trumpet because of a young dynamo named Louis Armstrong. This Dixieland song, called “fox-trot” on the record, would soon fade away.

But recorded February 26th and released on March 7th, “Livery Stable Blues” is a landmark in jazz.

Frank Sinatra: Jazz His Way

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 4 Dec 2015.]

Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago on December 12th, and there have been any number of stars in the entertainment world during that century. But WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at what truly sets him apart from all the rest.

FrankOver all the music entertainers of the last hundred years, over the stars and the superstars, there remains one name: Frank Sinatra. Some were incandescent for a time; some innovated; some influenced; some were multi-talented; some sold, and sell, millions of records. But Sinatra had all this, and something more.

Frank Sinatra reinvented the entertainment world. He created a continental divide in the pop music industry by bringing jazz out of itself and into popular music, and making it stick.

Instead of being the singer with the band, he made himself into an instrumentalist—of the voice. He bent rhythms, he shaped time, he colored his voice, he even changed the words if he wanted to. And, he could swing anything.

But is it too much to call Frank Sinatra a jazz singer? Well, not according to jazz musicians. They recognize his professionalism and control, his musicality and poetry. He owned the stage, the studio, and the screen, but no voice exposed the emotion of a song like the care-worn and burnished baritone of Frank Sinatra.

For five decades he reigned as Chairman of the Board. Everybody felt his impact, whether they knew it or not. Over all the stars and all the superstars there is simply before Frank and after Frank.

Here’s a good article on what jazz musicians have said about Frank Sinatra and jazz. And here’s one from the BBC on why he’s still the best.

The Legacy of Dave Brubeck

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 30 Nov 2015.]

December 6th is Dave Brubeck’s birthday, and WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at the secret behind the legacy of this giant of jazz.

BrubeckPnoElbowsDave Brubeck may be the most unlikely of jazz pianists. He almost was tossed from college in his senior year, he related, because they discovered that he hadn’t learned to read music.

His style of playing also sets him apart, and some wished that he’d cut loose during solos like other pianists. But he wasn’t like other pianists, and his music isn’t like other music. His block chords and rolling ruminations lend themselves to the sometimes-punishing chromaticism of the tunes.

Dave Brubeck made music like no one else. He was always trying something new, looking for sonic breakthroughs that would illuminate the bones and sinews of a piece. That was his swing, and his jazz, and it works.

The secret of Brubeck’s music, though, and of his success, has nothing to do with style. His impact on jazz isn’t because he’s cool or West Coast. It’s not that Brubeck didn’t play standards (he did). It’s not even rhythm or time signatures.

No, Dave Brubeck’s secret is that his music is beautiful—unerringly, dreamily, laughingly beautiful. He wrote new standards. Jazz or no jazz, he wrote songs, and each solo within the song was also a song. That is his secret, and that is his legacy.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet performs In Your Own Sweet Way, live:

John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, and a Song for the Ages

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 5 Oct 2015]

coltranehartmanTwo Englishmen, Guy Wood and Robert Mellin, slipped it into the Great American Songbook just before it closed, just as rock rolled over sophistication. It begins from below, a slowly twisting Roman candle of a tune, and explodes in the top range of the singer, as the eyes of onlookers reflect the glory of what songs once were.

Sinatra recorded “My One and Only Love” right away, in 1953, but ten years later John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman made it a landmark of an age.

Coltrane’s tenor saxophone sounds as if it’s made of something not of this world, and yet it is uncannily apt. Every note is a discovery, every phrase an experiment that comes out exactly right.

Johnny Hartman sings the way every man wishes to sing—an everyman standing up in a room suddenly silent—sounding like a man, but a man who breaks his heart open, and yours. And just when he sounds like anybody, that voice turns into one in ten million.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman spread their mystic charms, especially in the high ranges of their low instruments. In “My One and Only Love” they made a song for the ages. Remember what songs once were.

 

Reviews of In This Blue Room

Sleeves High Res

Sleeves, by Laura Pritchard

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrick Stearns reviewed the first of the premiere concerts of In This Blue Room—the cycle setting four poets inspired by the batik paintings of Laura Pritchard—and in the Broad Street Review, Tom Purdom reviewed the second. Purdom had also written up a preview of the concerts in BSR after attending the preview party where four of the songs were presented.

Almost a dozen people have clipped out the Inquirer review to give to me, and almost without fail they say something like, “I’ve read this a couple of times, and still don’t know if he liked it.” You can make up your own mind by clicking the link above, but I’m going to go out on a limb to say that Stearns liked it and seemed to appreciate what it was attempting to do. But he also was somewhat puzzled by it.

That’s okay by me; I’m kind of puzzled by it, too. “Smith…pulled a large rabbit out of the hat: The last thing I expected was a jazz-hybrid idiom.” The songs “functioned in ways familiar to classical art song,” but with elements made up from “Sarah Vaughan-era jazz,” which is exactly right, as I explain in my notes here.

A surprise to me was his reference to “Leonard Bernstein’s late-period Arias and Barcarolles, with its wide range of compositional techniques, vernacular and otherwise.” He may be right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. But this happens all the time. People will hear things in my music completely distant from where I think the materials are pointing. I thought one old piece was right out of Hindemith, yet a friend heard Debussy. Composer colleagues of mine admit to similar experiences.

He noted places where the poems zig and I zagged; precisely so, and captured in one word the atmosphere of one song: “lounge-y.” Perfect!

I think that he was thrown by some passages of fast parlando, the vocalese-like writing mimicking instrumental improvisation, which the singers caught excellently. Laura Ward accompanied brilliantly but maybe I should have allowed her to “let loose” more? Hm.

I’m amused by how some look at my music. I started with vocal music and have written that for years. So it’s funny to me to read “Songs are not what Kile Smith is known for amid a high-concept output that includes sacred choral works and new music for ancient instrument[s].” Of course, I was toiling in relative obscurity, so it could be true that I’m not “known for” that. But it is funny to me, in the same way that people hear recent pieces I’ve written for The Crossing and think that all I write, after decades of writing for amateur choirs, is, well, hard stuff.

Tom Purdom’s preview includes an awfully nice compliment: “His work can evoke torch songs and jazz without actually being either, along with a spectrum of moods and styles that are uniquely his.” In his review, he went on to write that the songs “may or may not be pure jazz but they evoke the spirit of jazz and late-night clubs. The two singers who presented the premiere, mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis and baritone Daniel Teadt, captured that spirit with every bar they sang.”

He also mused over my wrangling of the 17 poems into a narrative of my own making, which sparked some interesting and perhaps humorous questions for him, before he concluded that this was an “unforgettable episode in Lyric Fest’s unpredictable journey through the world of song.”

I can say this without a doubt, which you make take with a grain of salt because the following is my review: with these musicians, this poetry, this artwork, and whatever this music was, the audiences were bowled over by In This Blue Room.

Seagulls In This Blue Room

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 3 Mar 2014, as Composing “In This Blue Room”]

LambertHendricksRossThey thrill me here, the seagulls. Above the Beneficial Savings Bank building on Broad at Chew Avenue, a block north of Broad and Olney, they weave and mull over a large billboard that sits on top of it. Rather, it’s the metal skeleton of a billboard, with remnants of once-confident ad copy disintegrating, the paper tatters dripping from its ribs, the sky growing in the spaces between, this colossus of conquered limbs astride the roof.

I suppose that the pieces of billboard, ripped by the same winds holding these birds aloft, have just fluttered down and fallen onto the old bank’s windows and ledges and “Available” sign, and blown onto the “Smooth Like That” men’s clothing store and pawn shop storefronts and SEPTA buses and cars and curbs and streets and girls of Girls High ascending stairs from the subway. Maybe workers dismantled the billboard but didn’t get all of it, leaving a few pieces hanging.

Driving by it these years on my way to WRTI, I’ve noticed the building shedding itself with impunity onto the city below, but mainly I’m wondering why the seagulls are here, and why they thrill me.

Broad&Chew

Broad & Chew. Photo credit: Google Maps

Seagulls, of course, are just gulls; we call them “seagulls” because at the edge of the ocean they’re ubiquitous. But gulls go wherever they like. Wherever they can eat is where they’ll live, and they eat just about anything, dead or alive, animal or vegetable. They scavenge like eagles, forage like juncos, and swipe bugs mid-air like barn swallows. They scoop up detritus from the water, steal eggs or chicks from nests, and drop clams and candy onto rocks or sidewalks to break and eat them.

Seagulls are everywhere. But in upstate New York or at the King of Prussia Mall or yes, in North Philly, I still get this odd shoreline thrill.

And so that’s why I put jazz chords into my song cycle In This Blue Room. I know there’s no such thing as a “jazz” chord, we just call it that. Anything from Cole Porter or John Coltrane you can find in Stravinsky or Debussy or Wagner or even Chopin.

But I don’t kid myself. As there are seagulls, so are there jazz chords, these packets of sound that we recognize as jazz, just as there are jazz styles, swing rhythms, bop feels. Just because there’s been rubato for centuries—where, to stretch the rhythm of a phrase musicians literally “rob” time from one beat and give it to another—doesn’t mean that a Viennese waltz isn’t its own thing, even though a Viennese waltz is just a waltz with rubato.

In This Blue Room has jazz, blues, pop standards, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocalese hovering over it. The chord progressions from “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Come Fly With Me,” and “There I Go, There I Go Again” (which are words to “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which is a sax solo over “I’m in the Mood for Love”) weave and mull during the 45 minutes of the cycle.

JimmySmithI worried, briefly, over whether this type of writing could be seen as beneath a composer who wants to be taken seriously, but two thoughts got me over it. One is that there’s never been a composer in the history of the world who wasn’t the kind of composer who wants to be taken seriously.

And then there was a criticism of a piece of mine from way, way back that scoffed at harmonies that were no more recent than the 1920s, reminiscent, probably, of Elgar. But I knew the music the critic (also a composer) admired, which was Schoenberg’s, a fine composer whose harmonic language is solidly, deliciously, from: the 1920s. And I knew that the critic’s own music was considered seriously modern. If you considered the 1950s modern, that is.

So, I haven’t worried since. Everything is dated, everything is past. The music of today is past as soon as “today” is spoken. Modern music, relevant music? I’ve thought about it a lot and to this day I have no idea what that is.

The poems for In This Blue Room and the paintings they’re based on have colors and character that called for a feel that’s both sweet and bitter. “Remembering, remembering,” sings the mezzo-soprano, “What darkness enfolds these planets,” and “On the 11th midnight bluest evening,” and I heard Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. The baritone sings “You are perplexed by sadness” or “In this blue room shadows swallow woven light” or “Eye shadow painted on with time” and it’s Jon Hendricks or Eddie Jefferson or Johnny Hartman or Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

KentonSilhouetteIt’s a world I know but don’t know at all, modern days from the ancient, relevant time when I was born and just before, the world of a moon-faced Jackie Gleason grinning over a reverberating Honeymooners theme of a million shimmering violins, the world of LPs my parents had and that I have now, of “The Incredible” Jimmy Smith, smiling from the rungs of a freight car, suitcase in hand, who I thought I ought somehow to be related to, of Harry Belafonte svelte and striding the stage of Carnegie Hall, of the very LP I now see leaning against blessed Bob Perkins’s desk at WRTI: a rumple-shirted Stan Kenton silhouetted against a black abyss, reaching to the sky…

Where, I may suppose, the seagulls are. These jazz chords, these swing rhythms, are my seagulls. I know, seagulls are everywhere: Coltrane, Chopin, King of Prussia, everywhere. But I put them in this blue room because, when I see them over an empty billboard and when I hear their keening, there I go again: I hear the surf and, even at Broad and Chew, see the edge of the ocean.