My feature article on drummer-composer-bandleader Gerald Cleaver ran in the November 2013 issue of JazzTimesthe link to the online excerpt is here. I also wrote a concluding section that didn’t make it into the magazine and wanted to share it for posterity. See below.


1285669975_519g4dy1anl__ss500_[Gerald] Cleaver debuted as a leader in 2001 with the moody Adjust, a quasi-electric statement from his band Veil of Names (a James Joyce reference). Taborn played keyboards and organ; Reid Anderson made his first appearance on electric bass; Ben Monder played scorching guitar alongside Mat Maneri on viola and Michigan-based Andrew Bishop — Cleaver’s “secret weapon” — on reeds (Bishop plays in Violet Hour and Uncle June as well). “Hover,” the opening track on Adjust, reappears in a slower, elongated form to lead off Life in the Sugar Candle Mines. Cleaver mentions the idea of “covering” one’s own song, in the manner of Thelonious Monk and Bill Frisell.

Since his debut, Cleaver has made increasing use of spoken word. During a late May showcase at SEEDS, Ohad Talmor’s space in Brooklyn, Cleaver and the rest of Black Host all read aloud from different books. Alto saxophonist Darius Jones continued reading after the others fell away, though Cleaver would still shout or murmur isolated lines from what he’d spoken earlier — “whatever came to mind, I just followed my own story,” he says. “I like that speech or song modifies our expectations: everything is reframed.”

Cooper-Moore, who plays piano and fantastically haunting synth on Sugar Candle Mines, remembers the SEEDS gig: “That actually hurt. It’s a loud band, a big sound — it’s like a rock band. I think it’s a new way of feeling and thinking.” Speaking highly of his Black Host colleagues Jones, Brandon Seabrook (guitar) and Pascal Niggenkemper (bass), Cooper-Moore adds: “I’m the old guy in the band. I’m 67 next week, and that’s how you don’t get old, man. You don’t get old if you play with young cats. You might think you’re cutting-edge but there are young cats coming behind you. You learn from young people by listening to them, not telling them. That’s what’s in this band. People who are learners.”

black-host-cover-square500_1“I’m not trying to get wilder,” Cleaver says of Black Host’s experimental vibe. “Things are getting clearer, sound in general is getting clearer, and I just want it to be more powerful. Not necessarily louder, but clearer.” The name Black Host holds no special significance, but Sugar Candle Mines is loosely inspired by the early 20th-century anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl. “Vienna at that time was a real progressive place,” Cleaver says. “There was a lot of cross-pollination between the arts and sciences, way more than we experience now. I was reading about Zuckerkandl and his wife Berta, who ran a salon from their home, and the name just popped out at me. … [‘Sugar Candle Mines’] relates to the unconscious, going beneath the surface and getting to something much deeper than what you see or hear.”

Cleaver’s albums project a sense of mystery as well as narrative — they’re never simply an assortment of tunes. Taborn compares it to “putting together a book of poetry.” On the foldout jacket of Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit are black-and-white photos of the city, old and recent, bleak but with an odd grandeur. The back cover of Be It As I See It has band-member portraits interspersed with Cleaver family snapshots from long ago.

“Memory is not what it seems,” Cleaver says. “So another aspect of Uncle June is I’m not remembering, I’m experiencing the people as if they were alive right now. The continuum is free-flowing. I might have a picture of my grandfather as a boy but I want to be that boy in 1910, or the retired autoworker in 1972. That’s why I say the record is dedicated to everybody, because the experiences are real and continuing for all of the ancestors. Our ancestors’ experiences are lived through us today.”

Gerald Cleaver Uncle JuneJeremy Pelt included a ravishing ballad of Cleaver’s, “From a Life of the Same Name,” on his 2010 release Men of Honor. It’s also the final cut on Be It As I See It, where Tony Malaby’s tenor sax, Maneri’s viola and Bishop’s bass clarinet crookedly interweave, leading into beautiful solos from bassist Drew Gress and then Taborn. “I feel like I’ve had a couple of lives,” Cleaver says. “They feel like different lives, from being young in Detroit, never thought I would live in New York, then fast-forward to 2007 when that was written. That song is a bookend, in the same way the Detroit album is a certain kind of bookend. Everything I write definitely speaks to me. I have to get them out and then they speak to me. They have very specific things they have to say to me.”

I interviewed John Pizzarelli the other day, for an upcoming feature story in JazzTimes. Among other things, we talked ’70s pop — my favorite subject — and the conversation inspired me to learn Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind,” a longtime fave. I’ve always been obsessed with the instrumental bridge, beginning precisely two minutes in. For some reason I couldn’t rest today until I wrote it out, so here it is [click image and click again to enlarge].



My report for JazzTimes here — I’m told it’ll reappear later in a print issue of the magazineas a sidebar to a Jack DeJohnette feature.

My feature article on Michael Feinstein, in the December 2011 print issue of JazzTimes, is now online.

Inevitably, a firestorm erupted on Twitter and Facebook after trumpeter Nicholas Payton published this post, titled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” And then this follow-up, “An Open Letter To My Dissenters.”

In the second post Payton writes, “‘Jazz’ is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no parts [sic] of it.” This sounds similar to Fred Ho’s assessment: “I don’t use the term ‘jazz’ because I consider it a racial slur. Professor Archie Shepp from UMass Amherst asserts and I agree with him, that the word jazz comes from the French verb jaser, which means to chatter nonsensically or gibberish. So from the very beginning, its classification was a form of debasement.”

And yet the etymology of “jazz” is far more ambiguous than these statements suggest. Historian Lewis Porter has a helpful blog post here, and his book Jazz: A Century of Change contains a chapter on the topic, from which I quote:

“None of the linguistic theories about jazz has been proven — not the theories that relate it to African words, or the one that relates it to the French word jaser (to chatter), or the one that relates it to the slang word gism, which meant ‘enthusiasm’ but also may have meant ‘semen.’ All of the derivations from foreign languages are speculative because they are purely based on the sound of the word, and etymologies based on sound alone are notoriously unreliable.”

Fred Ho, following Archie Shepp, puts forward the jaser argument as if it were established fact. It is anything but. The truth is that no one knows precisely how the word “jazz” came to be applied to music.

The musical term “jazz” was widely in use by 1918. Needless to say, many years have passed. Whatever negative or possibly racist connotations that came with the word have surely been overtaken and decisively buried. Meanings change. As Lewis Porter observes in his book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the surname “Coltrane” is actually an inheritance from slaveholders. And yet now, the word “Coltrane” could not be more African-American.

I won’t get into Payton’s many other assertions, some of which have to do with jazz cutting itself off from popular music — a very complex and valid subject to explore. I would, however, like to print another comment from Payton, which was on the record but did not make it into my recent JazzTimes feature [pdf]. It was back in July that Payton told me:

My issue has become that a lot of jazz today doesn’t swing, doesn’t feel good, doesn’t have a blues sensibility, it’s just become this word that has been bastardized and able to be used for things to me that don’t represent the best of what this music is. So I’ve just sort of distanced myself from the word because it’s come to carry a negative connotation. People say jazz, that music where cats stand up onstage and play solo after solo of self-indulgent, self-important stuff – that’s really not what I feel the music is supposed to be about.

Also it’s become acceptable in jazz, if there aren’t too many people in the club it’s cool, if the music alienates listeners it’s cool, if it’s above their heads — this whole elitist attitude that has served to the music’s detriment.


The music has gotten far too much away from itself – so to me, if that is jazz, then you guys can have it. I want to do something else.

That, it seems to me, is very different from the “oppressive colonialist slave term” argument. The latter strikes me as purely ideological, while what I’ve quoted above doesn’t seem far off from Jason Marsalis’s much-discussed “Jazz Nerds International” argument.

To close, I will quote the epigraph to Horace Silver’s website: “I have been blessed to walk among and perform with some of the great geniuses of this music we so lovingly call jazz [my emphasis]. I hope that I may inspire some of the youth of today, as these musicians inspired and still do inspire me.”

If Horace Silver is using the word “jazz,” and even doing so “lovingly,” then I really have nothing to add.

I’ve just gotten around to posting PDFs of my JazzTimes features on Donny McCaslin and Nicholas Payton. In other news, looking forward to end of semester, when I hope to start posting more often on this blog.

My feature on saxophonist Donny McCaslin, in the June 2011 issue of JazzTimes.

My writeup of the “Guitar Heroes” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the new issue of JazzTimes (May 2011). I’m happy to report that Anthony Wilson’s April 10 premiere — with Julian Lage, Steve Cardenas and Chico Pinheiro — was completely amazing. There’s a live album in the works.

My Overdue Ovation column on bassist Kermit Driscoll, in the April 2011 issue of JazzTimes.

I have a brief news-oriented piece on Fred Hersch in the September 2010 JazzTimes. It struck me long after submitting the story that the word “gay” does not appear in it, despite the fact that Fred has been out for well over a decade. At first I thought I should have corrected this, but ultimately I’m glad that it didn’t even occur to me while writing. Gay artists don’t exist in some category apart, or at least they shouldn’t, and I’ll wager that Fred agrees. What does bear directly on the subject, however, is Fred’s recent battle with AIDS, which is a main focus of the article. And Fred’s willingness to deal publicly with his near-death experiences in “My Coma Dreams” is of a piece with his decision to come out and set a courageous example back in 1994.

Given the space, I would also have mentioned that Fred’s Whirl album and Paul Motian’s Lost In a Dream both contain versions of Motian’s ballad “Blue Midnight,” giving us a chance to hear the same tune played by Hersch and Jason Moran. Hersch and Moran, we should also add, are both disciples of the late Jaki Byard. On Whirl, Hersch pays tribute with Byard’s “Mrs. Parker of K.C.,” while Moran, on his latest disc TEN, offers Byard’s “To Bob Vatel of Paris.” Tributes within tributes. Hersch told me during our interview that he’s played the Bob Vatel piece as well.

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