Wednesday, March 31, 2010

for avotcja (14)

for avotcja
1941 --

melodies, rhythms, & timbres arise from
the immersive environs of spanish brooklyn.
a girl child is born, swaddled in the wafting
cuerpo de espíritu of laguerre velez, the
crónicas of jesús colon & the deific
conversations of tito puente. u came
to us,
avotcja, addicted to sound, even the
white noise
released from the kinetic crashings
of cultures,
the new sonorities of loneliness.
passing thru
spanish harlem's liminality, thru
its screens of
specified mesh growing up
latina in new york —
u landed in & bounced
around the avant garde
spaces of los angeles'
central avenue & the
influence of horace tapscott.
no one had to tell
u of the inseparability of
music, dance, rite &
poetry, my sister. like
most african-derived artists, u knew
that such separations were but artificial
of academics trying to stretch their thoughts
goat skin over the membranophonic frames of
heart & soul
. yr ideas word, rhythm or song
grew organically from the nature of yr spiritual

timbre. yr poems are polyphonic choirs of wood,

skin, & metal; yr rhythms, melismatic inducements

for spirit trance. yr dance, acrobatic virtuosity

wed to explorations of multiple percussive
color & rhythm. these were yr meat; sustained
you thru the fire & blood of watts, thru yr
sojourn in europe & return to california to play
with rahsaan, john handy & so many others.
u have always known, my dear
poet sister,
percussionist, olorisa, just like u
know the
source of earth, wind, fire & water, that
music erupting from the fissures in yr heart
& soul, is the same
as the dance of the claves
in yr hands, the rippling, cascading twinkle

of tuned wind chimes, the urgent slap/strike
of yr ocean drum & idiophonic wood
blocks &
cowbells, the contained rainstorms of yr rain
the reco reco's rasping counterpoint,
the life rattle of the shekere & the stark
tintinabulations of yr temple gongs. the
poignant poetry of the words condensed
yr deep water body through which all
feeling (draining from the soul of the world)
flows,or from the magic theater of yr sobriety,
where one learns to do the next right thing
one day at a time;
produces its own validity;
is validated again &
again in yr rich creative
spell-weaving that celebrates
the ever
resurrecting goodness in us all.

©Joseph McNair; 2010

for melba liston (13)

for melba liston
1926 -1999

sliding from bebop to motown was
for u like moving from kansas city
to l.a. -- no change in direction. u
were arranger/saavy & yr sound did
not break, yr movements clearly
mapped & every pitch had the same
harmonic number. yr portamento
life, was full of restless intervals, had
its salient recurring figures, but u,
melba, resolved yr augmented 4ths
into sweet minor sixths picking the
‘bone as yr axe not because it was
what finishing school girls did, but
because the thing was so damn
beautiful; falling in & out with music
teachers who meant well because u
knew yr own musical mind, had a
great ear & could write like a crowning
muse. the great bandleaders found u -–
gerald wilson in ’43, johnnie griffin
in ‘45, diz in ’48 & ’56, billie holliday
in ’48-’49, Q in ’57, clark terry, &
mingus thru the sixties & randy weston
in the sixties, seventies,eighties &
nineties. although u slow played yr valve
trombone, a sensitive virtuoso blues &
ballad stylist, blending motivic & linear
improvisations to make yr solos lyrical
& gay or mysterious & warm, u are
remembered best for possessing like a
loa the musical ideas of others, filling
them with the aşẹ of hidden & secret
things,writing vital pieces for combo &
big band alike, moving from ballads &
standards to funky grooves; melodic &
polyrhythmic motifs with extended tonal
vocabularies, so rich in altered harmonic
voicings, layered to the bone with due
dissonance, & the deep variations & subtle
shadings of africa.

©Joseph McNair;2010

for clora bryant (12)

for clora bryant
1930 –

rise up, rise up,
&, as the trumpet blowing
chases the dreams of men...
edward thomas

u played so sweet yr dad broke down & cried;
his texas girl could never be the same.
a lady with a trumpet u became
against all odds & practice true & tried.
who knew what fickle deities betide,
or how a colored girl would earn her fame.
that u might play with bird or diz, declaim
the feminine & change the tide
or break thru gender barriers to play
with men, exert yr forceful horn on jazz,
embrace & improvise on change --
no real surprise just history today!
a light beneath a bushel? no. in jazz
a bebop lighthouse beacon & phalange!

© Joseph McNair;2010

Sunday, March 28, 2010

for jutta hipp (11)

for jutta hipp

u never ceased to believe that real jazz happened in
small clubs, wrought by superb musicians whose talents were
eclipsed because they refused to push themselves into
the bright lights. & u stayed zoned in the comfort of small
quartets & quintets nourishing yr talent with
count basie, teddy wilson, fats waller & later
the hard bop, blues inspired rhythmic propensities of
horace silver until u emerged as the only
widely known, much respected female jazz pianist
in germany & europe’s own first lady of jazz.
u stayed true to yr beliefs, eschewing the spotlight
playing with a lean, low-key percussive, swinging style
then stopped playing in ’58, too through, all too through!

©Joseph McNair;2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

for lil hardin (10)

for lil hardin
1898 -- 1971

what was it about jellyroll’s
playing that got to u, lil?
was it his abrupt breaks or
stop-time passages, how he
swung the eighth & sixteenth
notes, or his break-neck
tempo? u said his piano rocked,
the floor shivered & the people
swayed when he played, while
he beat out a double rhythm
with his foot on the loud
pedal. what did you expect
from the man who claimed to
have invented jazz? he probably
knew he gave u a bit of a thrill,
even amazed u a little bit, but
when u threw rachmaninoff's
prelude in c sharp minor on
him, just to give him a little
sumpin/sumpin. i’m sure he
didn’t know what to think.
but he showed u something
that day in jones’ music store
on chicago’s southside, & u
started embellishing those
sheet music scores u showed
off to sell, jellyroll-like & with
yr own ideas. yep, ole jellyroll
coaxed the kitty out the bag.
that little taste he gave u grew
into a mighty thirst. a thirst
that took u to the de luxe café
where u were conscripted to
play in sugar johnnie's new
orleans creole orchestra.
yo mama didn’t like it one bit!
didn’t want u on beale street
or anywhere near the jazz,
the drugs or the whores. but
$22.50 a week was more than
she made. thus did needmo’
assuage her doubts. enter hot
miss lil who played like a man
but dressed like a sunday school
teacher. from sugar johnnie to
king oliver at the dreamland
where u met destiny in too-
chicago louis armstrong,
bought him some new clothes,
made him cut the bangs out of
his hair &finally married him.
cajoled himaway from king oliver
into astellar career of his own.
uhelped make him, little brown
girl; booked his gigs, wrote his
music & led his band while he
pranced & clowned on the band
stand. u were among those
featured players on some of the
first jazz ever recorded. u even
wrote some of those first great
tunes. but true to yr own vision,
u had to leave louis, not so much
because of his infidelities or his
capricious ways, but to become
the most prominent woman in
early jazz; to lead yr own bands,
male, mixed & all female, to sing,
do musicals, write, conduct, stretch.
but that didn’t keep you from
following his career like a
hound on a scent until he died.
i guess you got lonely for him
because you followed him out
that same exit seven weeks later.
its just as well, lil, for though
you have carved for yrself a place
in the history of jazz, yr rightful
& significant place, anyone
looking for louis will find u close
by, a footnote to his towering

©Joseph McNair;2010

for hazel scott (9)

for hazel scott
1920 -- 1981
i'm a woman
phenomenal woman,
that's me.
maya angelou

sitting bronze, bare-shouldered & beautiful
at the piano, café society, new york’s first
integrated nightclub, held its collective 1939
breath as nineteen yr old hazel scott confidently
sashayed like a stunningly attractive woman
accustomed to admiring eyes thru the
pronounced lyricism, expressive breadth &
structural ingenuity of the opening movements
of rachmaninoff’s valse in d flat major to suddenly
translate along an aural axis away from the
plane of familiar focus thru a looking glass of an
african gumption; into the tonic/chordal striations
of stride, the seductive left hand decadence of
boogie & the emotional modulations of the blues.
[she would later break national sales records for
decca with her “bach to boogie”repertoire.]
her music was the space wherein she kept the
source of her power hidden in plain sight. a
cyclonic force to reckoned with, neither racism,
husband adam clayton powell nor the vicious
slanders of the petty little men of the house
un-american activities committee could stop her
from cresting, from drawing attention to her
unabashed genius for fifty odd years. when one
door closed,she kicked another wide open &
crossed its threshold like a trinidad carnival
street parade. Not even death, the midnight
robber, nor jab molassie could stop her --
was just another threshold to cross; were just
two more in a long line of characters to get by.

©Joseph McNair;2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

for marian mcpartland (8)

for marian mcpartland
1918 --

flexible, complex, impossible to pigeon-hole
is what some say of yr musical style. like the song,
i might say, u really are “too marvelous for words” –-
a prodigy still at ninety-two. u made leonard
feather very wrong about that tall, laughing chick who
was english, white &… a girl. three deadly strikes, he said,
limiting yr success in new york & the jazz world
at large. but u found a nest in the hickory house
with its high ceilings, oval bar & cozy bandstand,
& learned yr craft from a nightly procession of stars
who came to hear u; play with u -- ellington, hawkins,
shaw, goodman, strayhorn, even oscar peterson,
teaching u, growing u up & loving u madly.

©Joseph McNair;2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

for joanne brakeen (7)

for joanne brakeen
1938 --

do they call you the picasso of jazz piano
because u boldly paint yr musical ideas from
different aural points, independently? because
u pendulum from brilliantly colored, loosely
structured tonal poems of intense emotion
to the monochromatic, faceted abstractions that
whimsically hint of melody. or perhaps like
picasso, u had yr own époque negre which
vitalizes u still, yr amazing chops, the crystalline
geometry in yr virtuosic & unpredictable playing.
u must have been one bold white girl to beaugarde
yr way into art blakey’s jazz messengers in ’69
& u have certainly come a long way from the
self-taught slip of a girl imitating frankie carle,
bud powell & charlie parker. when i listen to u
i run the gamut from being buffeted like a ship-
wrecked sailor on a flimsy fragment of raft by
towering tidal swells & torrential winds driving
yr keyboard attack that strains my faith to its
limits [that inspite of all u will bring me safely
to shore] to a magical depiction of sound that
eschews the aural replication of nature, but
exaggerates & distorts notes, forms, & colors
that massage my soul like a forty-fingered
masseuse. the greatest among today’s players
acknowledge u peer; the tyners, the jarretts,
the hancocks, brubecks & matsui’s. even
tatum were he alive would throw you a
respectful nod. here are my heartfelt flowers,
joanne, the kind that won/t wilt or fade on
paper. impress them, please, on yr heart so
that like yr trills & figures on mine, they will
remain eternally fresh.

©Joseph McNair; 2010

for shirley scott (6)

for shirley scott

miss shirley, mambo asogwe
of the hammond b-3, oh how
u loved to preserve the rituals
& songs linking the spirits &
our people; blending in yr
m'bugi cauldron an aggressive,
deftly rhythmic attack steeped
in triplet related swing, intricate
bebop harmonies minus post-
coltrane modal voicings. with
bluesy melody lines undergirded
by a gospel worship chord or
two, to let the spirits flow.

u rocked us & hard bopped us,
shirley, scored our lives between
the commercials with jazz, crisp
but relaxed in tempo & full of
diverse spirits, like miles who
came clean in ’54, walkin’ in out
of a deep jones into the arms of
his shapeshifting muse. but u,
shirley, unsullied & singleminded,
fused exquisite harmonic conception
with funky lufuki sensibility, just
outside of mainstream jazz but
ever true to yr blue loas/muses.

©Joseph McNair;2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

for toshiko akiyoshi (5)

for toshiko akiyoshi
1929 --
in the spring sea
waves undulating & undulating
all day long
yosa buson

to swing like teddy wilson, the whimsical
go-between to fatha hines (who lively lurked
in impenetrable lounges of negro)
was one of a few jazzy thoughts a gifted,
piano loving japanese girl, late from
manchuria, might hold fast while seeking to
fashion out of her own sound & style a jazz
orchestra made in her image & steeped in
mirin, soy sauce & fresh ginger, dry rubbed &
marinated in coarse ellington spices,
boppish lines, bluesy seasonings…& cooking!

©Joseph McNair;2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

for turiyasangitananda (4)

for turiyasangitananda
aka alice coltrane

why hang'st thou lonely on yon withered bough?
unstrung for ever, must thou there remain…
henry louis vivian derozio

does it really matter who u were
before, swamini? before everything
turned saffron, when the very air
bore the fragrant scent of god’s
anointed mercy & no less than u
found yrself on a fated journey,
in a glorious galaxy -- in satchidananda,
in the energetic state of non-duality.
does it matter that yr music, even
then, yoked life, mind & matter
with sublime states -- in & thru yr
piano’s ten thousand moving parts?
in & thru yr harp’s neck, sound
board & strings? in & thru yr raw,
blistered & calloused virtuosity. no,
it matters not at all, for u are with
that, turiyasangitananda, in the
supreme abode of the adorable,
the formless, passionless & unborn;
swimming in that existence, in that
consciousness & bliss -- in that sea of
milk. & should your beloved harp
hang on some withered bough,
unstrung, fear not. yr music, yr sacred
selfsong, yr chaitya purusha will
incarnate again in new bodies;
resonate in new harps & hearts!

©Joseph McNair;2010

for dorothy ashby (3)

for dorothy ashby

u coaxed a syncretic hard bop out
of the perpendicular positioning of a
plane of strings; in a love object/
instrument squeezed between yr
knees, in a long, graceful wooden
neck resting lightly on yr shoulder.
yr austere, imposingly fleet fingertips
pushed by pistoning arms & hands
picked & plucked strings of silver,gold
nylon & gut. a glissando flourish here, an
infectious groove there, that cut right
into the flesh of blues that bled
buddhist—that bumped & skipped
a peripatetic meditation, opening &
extending bebop to let the gospel in,
to let the boogie in, to let the hemistech,
quatrain & the spirit of khayyámi in.
to become radiant & reveal the
heavenly perfection in yr soul.

©Joseph McNair;2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

for dorothy donegan (2)

for dorothy donegan

“her reputation as a lounge entertainer has virtually buried the fact that she is potentially the greatest jazz pianist playing today."
john s. wilson

u, lady dynamite, not peterson, was tatum’s
true protégé. yr stride left hand played a four-beat life
pulse with a single bass note, a shrill octave, sassy
seventh or tentative tenth interval on yr first
& third beats; an orchestral chord on yr second &
fourth. we all knew that this "baby got bach! ” when u dressed
a standard in polyphonic structures,when u struck
the notes in that melody & listened to their long
decay, when u placed yr uncommon accents in strange
& unusual places, often before the down,
& then swung gently like marylou, bringing the halves
of yr genius, like tatum & williams together –
we witnessed adroitness never again to be seen .

©Joseph McNair;2010

for marylou williams (1)

for marylou williams

jamming with mckinney's cotton pickers at harlem's
rhythm club, u caught the eye of no less than satchmo.
he heard u out, then picked yr skinny fifteen year old
butt up & kissed you. the rest is unrevisionist
herstory. who’d a thought that mary elfrieda scruggs
from buttermilk-bottom, the little piano girl
smuggled into pittsburg’s juke joints & gambling houses
under her stepdaddy’s overcoat & who played for
pittsburg’s sporting man coin, would not only go on to
write for goodman, dorsey & lunceford, play with the duke
but mentor the likes of diz & monk; pass bebop thru
her birth canal, all the time swinging, writing as she
played, showing us what real jazz comping was all about.

©Joseph McNair;2010