I’ve got reasons for kicking off Black History Month a few days early: my February is going to be appointment-filled, something that’s likely to reduce new work for this project, and I want to participate in this observance of American history.
Why was I so determined to do this? Well, note this project’s subtitle: “Where Music and Words Meet.” I’m an American composer, and American music is disproportionally Afro-American music. Yeah, it’s a big country, and many musicians with heritages from every continent* have contributed, but if you compose or play American music, a lot of the notes are Black. So let’s get to today’s piece through three short, linked, tales.
The First Story:
Who’s this Sonny Rollins, and what bridge is he selling us back in the Fifties of all decades? It’s easy writing about poetry as I do here most often, to get used to a constrained fame; but I suspect more of the general Internet audience will know Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, or T. S. Eliot than know this man’s name and work. Mid 20th Century Americans, most often Black Americans, made a consolidated point of becoming masters of improvisation on the saxophone. Afterwards artistic accountants rank art and artists — and even if you think that’s wrong-headed, I’ll cite those who expend sincere effort in doing that and say that lists of great improvising saxophone players likely include Sonny Rollins.
But, just saying Rollins was good at it, a skilled musician, reduces him. For one thing, he had a dedication to the art of his craft, a need to expand the expression. So much so he famously spent a couple of years or so just dropping out of what was then still a viable commercial niche of jazz gigs and recording when he was considered to be one of the best and brightest on his instrument. To do what? To get better.
Insiders later learned some particulars of what he did. He went to a near deserted deck of a busy urban bridge and just played. And played. For months. For hours a day. In all kinds of weather. No, he wasn’t busking for spare change. Few noticed him. One of his records before this time was called Saxophone Colossus. This wasn’t ironic as a title, or laughable, or a piece of hopeless self-promotion. Once likened to a metal giant who could stride rivers, Rollins on the bridge was small and alone and unnoticed, one man in a wind-gap of a city’s gusts. Practicing there he was no more than a flea on the back of a colossus.
After around two years of this, he figured he found some of his new/better. If you’re writing a screenplay you know how the final scene plays out. Our hero walks off the bridge and into a recording studio. A selection of ominous natterers remind us of the stakes in quick cuts: “Was he kicking drugs, or failing to kick? Is he washed up?” “You know folks like it sweet and tropical, he should try to play bossa nova.” The next voice says, “Funky jazz is the thing.” And another says, “How can you be even more free than ‘free jazz?”
And you know the next beat in your screenplay: he emerges with a record or a concert or both — and all of a sudden everyone realizes that he’s found it, something great, unique, ground-breaking, resplendent and recognized.
Wait, you don’t know who Sonny Rollins is — or maybe you do, but you know the person next to you on the Internet doesn’t. The record that Rollins did make was called The Bridge in honor of the solitary workshopping he did over the East River. It was not a cultural event. Throw out your screenplay, the elevator doesn’t want your pitch. Even the experts then, the artistic accountants and grim critic-coroners were underwhelmed. Paging the Joseph Campbell who isn’t an under-recognized Irish poet, this is The Hero’s Journey that ends with a shrug.**
The Second Story.
Back in my youth you paid for music ala carte. Every bit you could access at will was on a material disk you had to pay for. A person like myself with more time and adventure than money might scrounge. One thing I liked to do was to go into charity and second-hand shops and look for used records that attracted me. I can’t recall the exact cost of a new LP then, but I think it was around $3 to $4 or so. Records in these dingy shops might be a dime or 25 cents. Those within cardboard covers gave you extra material to judge if it was worth your widow’s mite — but at those places and time, the most forlorn records were just bare black disks scuffing against each other in a bin, and sometimes those got an additional price break. Whenever I recall those naked disks, I think of those who cleaned up after someone died or skipped rent and town, who just shoveled it all off to Goodwill or the Salvation Army in whatever, Warholian, cardboard boxes.
That’s where I found Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge. I may have heard a bit about Rollins, how he was a particularly good improvisor because his improvisations had the logic of more considered compositions while retaining the flow of fresh idea after fresh idea.
Three things struck me about the record upon listening to it over and over and under its scratches and surface noise: that it mixed moods more than most jazz records. It wasn’t just a fast blowing session with a change of pace ballad or two, but that it was both angular and spare and hauntingly beautiful in both sorrow and joy.** That the guitar player, Jim Hall, on the record didn’t sound like “jazz guitar” as I had heard it then.*** Instead, Hall added unusual harmonic colors that Rollins would then carve from. Eventually I realized something else unusual about the record as I compared it to more jazz records: there was no piano or other keyboard instrument. I eventually learned that this was something Rollins’ made a practice of. Yes, Hall was giving pieces some harmonic framework, and bass players in non free Jazz contexts are often asked to, and then, play “the changes” indicating the chords; but keyboard players, even if it’s not their session, often dominate the harmonic and rhythmic structure of a track. Here there was none of that.
Poetry in Gray. I know this is a long post, and I value your time, but here’s 30 minutes of the same group that recorded The Bridge playing live with a short interview with the 32 year old Rollins.
The Third Story
I read this week an article by John Fordham in the Guardian that reminded me that Sonny Rollins went into the studio to start recording The Bridge on January 30th in 1962 — so, 60 years ago. Fordham remarked on the legend of Rollins’ time on the Williamsburg Bridge along with a new interview he did with Rollins.
Unlike almost every one of his mid-century saxophone contemporaries, Rollins is still alive. He’s 91 years old now, and I last saw him play when he was around 80. Rollins was performing in a trio on that night with just bass and drums, and for about an hour he tore it up covering so much sonic space with his monophonic but powerful instrument. I marveled then, and now that I’m approaching his age at that gig, my amazement increases. Rollins developed lung disease and can no longer play, but he seems to have retained his composer as improvisor ability to see the patterns and connections.
This month I’ve been trying to build up a little strength and chops on guitar again. Nothing like Rollins’ multiple hours each day on a bridge level of woodshedding, but enough so that I can play that instrument that requires some physicality to realize its sounds.
In the midst of this, in the middle of the night, I awoke with some thoughts I had been growing about Rollins and the task of being an American and Afro-American artist. I wrote a complete first draft of today’s text in that middle night awaking. Not quite a Kubla Khan dream, but still complete and formed enough to count today’s text as an improvisation. Wednesday, I came up with the song’s harmonic structure equally quickly. Yesterday I recorded it. Given that I’ve no access to other musicians — and I hardly make count-one-musician unless I beg the composer (who’s me, so I listen) to make things I can play — I had to play a track at a time. Today’s recording is a trio: drums and two guitar parts. I first recorded the chordal guitar part on a big archtop guitar (DeArmond X-155) along with the vocal. I’m no Jim Hall, but like Rollins’ The Bridge I let that instrument set the harmonic framework. I confess (though listeners have already convicted me) I’m not good at Jazz comping, a key guitarist’s skill in that genre. I pardoned myself and proceeded. I then did the drums, trying very hard to get them to play off the guitar’s rhythm feel. And then finally as my studio-space time was coming to a close, I got to “blow” with guitar for the lead part.**** I did four passes, and the third was the best, and there you are. No, it doesn’t sound like The Bridge LP, but then the point of The Bridge wasn’t to sound like what went before either. The player gadget to hear it is below. No gadget? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*I must pedantically interrupt in footnote form to note that the continent of Antarctica has done little for American musical culture! It may be because our human species only visits there? One man, one guitarist at that, stands (sinks?) as the submariner of Antarctic-American guitar: Henry Kaiser. Here’s a 90 minute example. Yes, that’s him playing guitar, and doing the under-ice diving too.
**Joy? “Without a Song. ” Sorrow? “God Bless the Child.” Angular? The title cut’s cascade of heterodox melodic ideas. Or the stubborn “John S.” I used to share a workspace with a 20-something guy who liked his progressive metal. He was perfectly tolerant of my King Crimson live tour ‘70s tapes. But the opening riff of “Jon S.” would drive him right around the bend to a burlesqued old-person-like rant about “take off that noise.”
***Jazz guitar at that time was represented to me by John McLaughlin in his Mahavishnu Orchestra years and others exploring that bag. Those guitarists were loud and very in your melted-face with their expression. Even quieter, older generation jazz guitarists often played more notes in one song than Jim Hall played on the entire The Bridge LP. Magazines would have “best of” polls back then for musicians, and I’d always vote for Jim Hall, who’d end up in the fine print of “those also receiving votes.” Then strangely enough as the 20th century started to end, Jim Hall became the model for a number of other guitarists who came up later, for example: Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell.
The Bridge itself has come to be recognized as more vital in retrospect. Oh, not necessarily to the raters who will need to get numbers down for Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, The Shape of Jazz to Come first, but to those who seek to learn new pleasures listening to music whose time has passed but whose timelessness remains. You may not like all of it if you just taste test it. Looking today, about eight times more Spotify listeners pleasantly listen to “God Bless the Child” than dig “John S.” By the way, the version on Spotify seems to be remastered, and to my memory Jim Hall’s parts are mixed up higher than they were in my vinyl memories.
****Should it have been saxophone? Yes, but I have a hard time wrangling any of my saxophone MIDI virtual instruments to get good expression, and Rollins is a master of saxophone expression. I stuck with my primary instrument for the lead instead. By the way, it’s the same jumbo DeArmond archtop that chopped the chords, but my little combo amp is turned up.