bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.

We’re off this week, but if you missed last week’s show with bassist Linda May Han Oh, head over to our archives. For an extended preview of Oh, we’re streaming her just released Walk Against Wind as our next Listen. Hear. entry. You can stream the entire CD for a limited time as well as our previous entry with saxophonist Clare Daly’s 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

Now let’s get to this week’s listings.

Director John Scheinfeld’s John Coltrane documentary film Chasing ‘Trane is showing at the IFC Center in Manhattan through Thursday April 27. See our review of the film for a preview.

Also playing in New York City is Kaspar Collin’s Lee Morgan documentary I Called Him Morgan, which has been held over at the theaters at Lincoln Center. You can see our review of that, too.

Trombonist Craig Harris and Saxophonist David Murray are at the Jack Tilton Gallery in Manhattan on April 24 from 5:30-8 PM for a book release party for Butch Morris’s The Art of Conduction.

Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is at WNYC Radio’s Greene Space for an Ella Fitzgerald tribute on April 24.

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela will be at the Town Hall on April 27th with the Jazz Epistles.

Pianist Onaje Allen Gumbs is at Aaron Davis Hall on the City College of New York’s Harlem campus on April 28th.

Saxophonist Ahmed Abdullah leads his Diaspora ensemble in a jazz opera titled Sun Ra Returns at Sista’s Place in Brooklyn on April 29th.

Poet Abiodun Oyewole is at the Brooklyn Folk Festival with The Last Poets at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn on April 30th.

Saxophonist David Murray leads the Class Struggle ensemble at the Village Vanguard from May 2-7 with trombonist Craig Harris.

Finally, we announced this year’s Vision Fest a few weeks ago, but the full schedule is now up! Head on over to their site for the full schedule. We’ll return with our standard cheat sheet festival preview as the dates get closer.

That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is scheduled to be back on WBAI‘s airwaves on Sunday April 30. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.

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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

chasing_trane_banner
Words by Hank Williams

Veteran documentarian John Scheinfeld (The US vs John Lennon; Who is Harry Nilsson) took on a major task with his latest film: charting the legacy of the late saxophonist John Coltrane, who has nearly mythical status in Jazz and is a cultural icon. Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane wrapped up the 2016 DOC NYC Festival and is in limited release nationwide.

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Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld (center) with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers (L) and DOC NYC Programming Director Basil Tsiokos (R) | Photo by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

Aside from the obvious pitfalls of dealing with a musician of Coltrane’s stature and renown, much of his life and musical legacy has already been well documented and analyzed. That’s not to say that there’s no more to discover, but rather that the obvious parts of the tale have already been covered. However, the existing The World According to John Coltrane and segments in Ken Burns’ Jazz both leave room for improvement, which opens the door for the current film.

Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work

Indeed, Chasing Trane largely treads familiar ground, tracing Coltrane’s life story from the family’s southern roots through the migration north and the development of his career. There’s not much that’s new here — certainly not for jazz fans — but Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work, so its probably fairer to ask how well the film accomplishes the task it sets out to do. And it’s a monumental task considering the subject, even when accounting for the inevitable compromises necessary for any film, much less one tackling such a large subject.

Scheinfeld had several points in his favor from the beginning by gaining the blessing of Coltrane’s estate. This is a huge advantage, especially when the subject is a musician because of the frightfully high cost of obtaining music rights. The Coltrane family’s assistance resulted in getting favorable deals and made it possible to use a stunning amount of music. Chasing Trane largely uses songs on the soundtrack to set moods for specific scenes, rather than as primary objects of study themselves. The strategy works well, especially combined with Rudy Gutierrez’s impressive animation and visuals, though more identification of songs would be useful considering Scheinfeld’s aim at a broad audience that likely can’t name songs by ear. Simple captions would suffice.

Scheinfeld assembled a star-studded cast of interviewees to add context to the film and tell the story, including former president Bill Clinton, philosopher and writer Cornel West, and rapper/actor Common. West adds some valuable historical insight and interesting reflections on Coltrane’s wider social influence. Unfortunately, Clinton’s contributions, while thoughtful, add little to the narrative. Common appears to be in the film solely for name recognition, as his points are rather obvious and totally forgettable. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis appears, too. While Marsalis does have the musical background to discuss Coltrane, his contributions are minimal and don’t feel particularly necessary.

Much stronger insight comes from Coltrane biographers Ashley Kahn (A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album; The House That ‘Trane Built) and Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music) who provide the film’s narrative structure and Coltrane colleagues saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson. Several of Coltrane’s children appear in the film including his stepdaughter Antonia Austin (also known as Syeeda, the name used for ‘Trane’s tribute on Giant Steps) and sons Ravi and Oran.

Another coup for the film is securing Denzel Washington for narration. Coltrane did very few recorded interviews in his lifetime and, unfortunately, Scheinfeld found the audio quality poor enough that they couldn’t be effectively used in the film. (Pacifica Radio Archives still provides the most famous and lengthy audio interview done by Frank Kofsky.) Instead, Washington’s excellent narration of Coltrane’s printed interviews is weaved throughout the film. Scheinfeld reported that Washington “was mimicking Coltrane’s persona through the words” during the recording and he indeed perfectly captures Coltrane’s understated spirit in his delivery.

Chasing Trane proceeds in chronological order, beginning with the family’s beginnings in North Carolina and northern migration to Philadelphia, mirroring that of hundreds of thousands of African Americans. Coltrane’s service in the US Navy, where he played in a band, is the next focal point. This furthered his musical development and gave him his first commercial recordings as part of the naval band. At this point, he was working on developing a distinct sound on the instrument. Like an entire generation of saxophonists, Coltrane recalled that “the first time [he] heard Charlie Parker [he] knew that [jazz] was the thing” he wanted to pursue seriously.

Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and started gigging after a year in the Navy and traveled with Dizzy Gillespie from 1949-51.

As anyone familiar with the story knows, however, all was not well. Saxophonist Jimmy Heath recalls playing in nightclubs that were hangouts for pimps and hustlers and being exposed to the scene of drugs and hard drinking. Writer Ashley Khan also points out that there was the misguided notion that drugs would enhance playing. Heath recalls getting high with ‘Trane and being fired from Dizzy Gillespie’s band after getting caught, though Coltrane was able to gain a temporary reprieve with promises to straighten up.

Coltrane’s big break was securing a spot in 1957 with one of the hottest working bands around: that of Miles Davis. Bassist Reggie Workman recalled that “you could hear that [Coltrane] was going somewhere and Coltrane could tell that he was going somewhere.” Indeed, the opportunity wasn’t wasted on Coltrane either, who revealed that “It was Miles who made [him] want to be a better musician.”

Unfortunately, Coltrane’s heroin addiction (Davis was addicted also, as were scores of others in that generation) worsened and he became unreliable enough that Davis had to fire him.

Coltrane heeded the wakeup call of getting fired and seeing his life beginning to spiral out of control and made the decision to quit drugs and alcohol: a process done (similar to Davis) at home with the help of his first wife Naima. Antonia Austin provides recollections of the process, remembering the struggle involved for her stepdad. Indeed, her interview is one of the strengths of the film and serves to draw a fuller picture of Coltrane beyond the confines of the bandstand.

According to Kahn, Coltrane was a man on a mission after quitting drugs and sobriety increased his energy level and focus. Pianist Thelonious Monk then hired Coltrane for his band, which signaled the saxophonist’s return to the jazz scene at a high level.

Coltrane’s return also meant another shot at playing with Miles at end of 1957: a key career move that placed him on Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue album. Biographer Lewis Porter also points out that Davis gave ‘Trane a lot of space to improvise: something that would define his career.

coltrane_giant_stepsColtrane was able to sandwich recording his own Giant Steps in between recording sessions for Kind of Blue. His own release established ‘Trane as a writer and bandleader of his own and signaled that he had outgrown Davis’ band. His breakthrough was an adaptation of a simple Broadway pop tune from The Sound of Music. Coltrane’s cover of “My Favorite Things” was a radio hit and became a song he would return to throughout his career, although the familiar melody would become simply the starting point for improvisation: shattered, run through the shredder, and reassembled as a colossal sound collage with scant connections to its namesake.

a_love_supreme_300pxColtrane’s next chapter is familiar to many: the classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison with an expansive ensemble marshalled to live up to the task of bringing Africa Brass to life. The core quartet developed into a well-oiled machine that also reflected (and apparently shared) Coltrane’s developing spiritual approach to the music. Tyner is the only living member of the core group and, fortunately, is interviewed for the film. While he doesn’t say much, capturing almost anything from him is valuable considering his advanced age. Tyner asserts that the quartet felt their music was sharing a “gift that came from the almighty.”

A nice touch is the coverage of Coltrane’s last tour in Japan which included a concert at Nagasaki where “Peace on Earth”, the second song of the set, was dedicated to victims of the US nuclear bombing. Coltrane insisted in stopping and praying at the site before the concert to ground himself spiritually and imagine sound of the planes and pain of the people in an effort to incorporate the feeling as part of his sonic approach. They’re small details, but speak very much to not only Coltrane’s humanity and sensitivity but also his political commitment and leanings and even artistic approach. While it’s true that Coltrane was not as overtly political as some musicians of the era (especially those on the avant garde/ free jazz end of things), his politics seemed to emanate from the deeply spiritual place that his art came from and a deeply felt sense of right and wrong.

So how well does Chasing ‘Trane cover its subject and accomplish its mission? It’s a good introduction to neophytes, very entertaining viewing, and does indeed present Coltrane’s life in an accessible fashion. While it avoids the trap of ignoring the more technically challenging and (to some) controversial music of his last recordings, the treatment here is cursory. This is a shame, as Coltrane’s last period is one area that warrants more attention.

A notable absence is that of saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, a collaborator on several of Coltrane’s late albums who also played with Alice Coltrane’s ensemble after John’s death. Sanders is one of the few musicians living who played extensively with Coltrane and indeed the last living member of his late career groups. Sanders still tours and plays actively and his comments on Coltrane’s legacy could only be an asset.

The section of the film covering the latter part of Coltrane’s career is where writer Ben Ratliff might’ve been put to more use, as his Coltrane: The Story of a Sound explores some of this territory, with an eye toward Coltrane’s evolving musical approach. In the film, John Densmore, former drummer of The Doors, recalls seeing half of the audience walking out from later concerts: a sobering reminder that the Coltrane of 2016 exists in a form and level of adulation far removed from the contemporary views of his work. Deeper and more nuanced investigation of this era would be helpful.

The end result is a film that’s reception–like most films–will depend largely on the prospective audience. For those who Scheinfeld primarily aims to attract, Chasing ‘Trane provides a good, if understandably brief, overview of Coltrane’s life and work with the emphasis on the former. There’s value in that, as it’s easy to forget that John Coltrane has now been dead longer than he was alive and it’s the constant reintroduction of the sheer joy, beauty, and virtuosity of his work to new audiences that will keep his spirit alive and hopefully inspire some to see how they can take it further.

The impressive array of visuals, excellent production, and music make for an enjoyable experience. Fans steeped in Coltrane lore will probably wish for more depth, but the film’s not primarily for them. That said, if one loves Coltrane, it’s still difficult to resist what’s on offer. At minimum, Antonia Austin’s insightful reflections as a mature adult on her stepfather’s life and McCoy Tyner’s thoughts will be new to many.

The above strengths make some of the narrative decisions in Chasing ‘Trane disappointing because of the possibilities given the strength of the subject: Coltrane’s story has built-in drama, tension, and triumph at the center that make for an automatically compelling tale. It may be personal bias, but this reviewer wishes the film leaned more toward deeper investigation. These are judgment calls, but a strong story can be trusted to provide compelling viewing for the audience, and that’s the case here.

Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers?

Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers? Maybe. But maybe it could stand on its own and eliminating some of the fluff would keep the storyline tight while creating enough space for some of what’s missing. At the very least, more screen time with Benny Golson (who is still clearly deeply affected by Coltrane’s passing) and Jimmy Heath would be valuable additions. Golson’s continuing emotional connection speaks very much to why Coltrane still matters.

Chasing ‘Trane works because of its subject and Scheinfeld’s competent handling of the story. Asking it to do much more than it does may be unfair. But a subject who seemed to believe that anything was musically possible prompts one to ask all sorts of questions and demand more. Maybe that’s the point.

(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity and updated to add screening information. Original publication date of 12/19/2016)

Chasing ‘Trane is playing at the IFC Center in New York City through April 25 and in limited release nationwide. See the film website for upcoming screenings in other areas.

Related: For a deeper dive into the film’s backstory, see Joyce Jones’s radio interview with Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld in the Suga’ in My Bowl audio archives.
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.

This week’s show features bassist Linda May Han Oh. Her CD release event for the brand new Walk Against Wind will be on Wednesday April 19 at the Jazz Standard. You can also see her on Tuesday April 18 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club with Jaleel Shaw or on the 21st at Cornelia St Café with Chris Dingman’s Trio.

For an extended preview of Oh, we’re streaming her just released Walk Against Wind as our next Listen. Hear. entry. You can stream the entire CD for a limited time as well as our previous entry with saxophonist Clare Daly’s 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

Now let’s get to this week’s listings.

We start with Director John Scheinfeld’s John Coltrane documentary film Chasing ‘Trane. It’s screening at the IFC Center in Manhattan through Thursday April 20. Also see our review of the film.

Saxophonist Gary Bartz is at The Blue Note on April 17th with pianist McCoy Tyner.

Pianist Harold Mabern leads a trio at Smalls on the 19th.

Bassist Christian McBride is at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to talk about his recording and performing career for the third installment of the Session Stories series on April 20 and at Newark’s NJPAC on April 23rd with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding.

Saxophonist Oliver Lake leads a big band at the Jazz Gallery from April 21-22nd.

Looking a little further ahead, drummer and percussionist Will Calhoun is in Montclair NJ at the Wellmont Theater with Paul Shaffer’s band on April 21 and at the Theatre at Westbury in Long Island on April 22nd.

Trombonist and seashellist Steve Turre leads a qunitet at Smoke from April 21-23.

Trombonist Craig Harris is at Sista’s Place in Brooklyn on April 22nd.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter is at Newark’s NJPAC on April 22-23rd.

Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is at WNYC Radio’s Greene Space for an Ella Fitzgerald tribute on April 24.

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela will be at the Town Hall on April 27th with the Jazz Epistles.

Saxophonist Ahmed Abdullah leads his Diaspora ensemble in a jazz opera titled Sun Ra Returns at Sista’s Place in Brooklyn on April 29th.

Saxophonist David Murray leads the Class Struggle ensemble at the Village Vanguard from May 2-7 with trombonist Craig Harris.

Finally, we announced this year’s Vision Fest a few weeks ago, but the full schedule is now up! Head on over to their site for the full schedule. We’ll return with our standard cheat sheet festival preview as the dates get closer.

That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is scheduled to be back on WBAI‘s airwaves on Sunday April 30. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.

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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

Suga’ in My Bowl debuts a new feature: Listen. Hear. We’ll be able to stream fresh new music from featured artists for a limited time right here. Check back periodically for new selections or subscribe via email to new blog posts to keep up to date. (Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the “Follow” button.)

The art of mime, with its embrace of silence and pure physical expression, may seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for a jazz musician. But in “Walking Against the Wind,” one of Marcel Marceau’s best-loved pieces, bassist/composer Linda May Han Oh found a stunning metaphor for the life of an artist. Linda has chosen to release this album under the name, “Linda May Han Oh” as “May Han” is her birth name and the name “Linda” was given to her at three years of age upon moving to Australia in order to assimilate. Marceau’s graceful but frustrated motion, which also inspired Michael Jackson’s iconic moonwalk, found the legendary mime fighting against invisible but pervasive forces while also embracing the beauty and pleasure to be found in taking the paths in life that offer greater challenges – but also richer rewards.

On her fourth album, Walk Against Wind, Oh explores both the challenges and the rich rewards of an artist’s journey. “Walk Against Wind is about the paths that we choose,” Oh explains. “Sometimes they end up being the harder paths, but in the long run they prove more fruitful.”

The album, released April 14 2017 by Biophilia Records, is the spiritual successor to Oh’s acclaimed 2013 release Sun Pictures, with returning saxophonist Ben Wendel (Kneebody, Snoop Dogg) joined by guitarist Matthew Stevens (Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding) and drummer Justin Brown (Ambrose Akinmusire, Gerald Clayton). In addition, keyboardist Fabian Almazan (Terence Blanchard) and Korean traditional musician Minji Park appear as special guests with the quartet, which has been workshopping Oh’s compositions at a variety of New York hotspots including the 55 Bar, The Jazz Gallery and Minton’s Harlem.

Beyond the inspiration to be found in Marceau’s preternaturally elegant and moving work, Oh looks up to the mime for the way he used his art for the benefit of humanity, joining the French Resistance and saving Jewish children from the concentration camps during World War II. “In my experience teaching, I always think it’s important to give the students a bigger picture perspective,” says Oh, who teaches in Manhattan School of Music’s precollege program as well as various camps and workshops including the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music and Stanford Jazz Workshop.

“It doesn’t mean that you have to do volunteer work 24 hours a day or donate all your money to charity; it’s just about thinking bigger picture about what you can give back to the community with your music. It’s definitely appropriate for these times given the uncertainty of what’s to come and the feelings of division, lack of unity and the climate of intolerance that’s arisen in the last few years.”

Empathy and building bridges are key to the music on Walk Against Wind. “Mantis,” which is based on a traditional Korean rhythm called “ochae chilgut,” was inspired by an experience the Malaysian-born, Australian-raised, New York-based Oh had collaborating with an international group of musicians at the 2013 Gwang Ju World Music Festival in Korea. “Speech Impediment,” meanwhile, is a narrative piece that sonically relates the story of a man afflicted with a stutter who struggles to profess his feeling to the woman he loves. The piece was sparked in part by a talk given by Australian singer-songwriter Megan Washington about her own battles with stuttering, which Oh saw as a powerful example of people’s tendencies to overlook the depth of someone’s character in favor of more superficial, surface-based judgments.

A core idea that carries through all of these pieces – whether sharing musical experiences with collaborators who don’t speak your language, finding ways to speak when words fail, or finding the profound emotions in a mute performer’s work – is that of non-verbal communication, a crucial element in jazz that Oh has discovered in deep and meaningful ways with this group of gifted musicians.

Walk Against Wind features Oh expanding her palette in numerous ways, from an increased use of electric bass to her use of wordless vocals (both of which harken back, in embryonic form, to her earliest days playing Red Hot Chili Peppers and Joan Jett songs in Australian cover bands). Both can be heard on the frenetic and rubbery “Perpluzzle,” whose Escher-esque twists and turns prove an engaging challenge for the quartet.

Stevens and Oh illustrate the trudging steps of “Walk Against Wind,” which spins a more determined, commanding variation from Marceau’s title to epitomize the tune’s ultimate soaring triumph against those unseen obstacles. The melody of “Firedancer” traces the dazzling steps of a Brazilian dancers and their whirling torches, which Oh witnessed through the images of sociologist and filmmaker Sabrina McCormick, for whom she’s contributed soundtrack music. Film also became the source for “Western,” which was born from Oh’s experience in the Sundance Institute’s Composers Lab, held at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, and traces its roots to spaghetti western films – both their grit and ruggedness but also their near-operatic absurdity.

A bedtime hymn for the 18-and-over set, entrancing opener “Lucid Lullaby” combines nostalgia and catharsis to sing more mature listeners to sleep, while “Ikan Bilis” – the Malay word for “anchovy” – is Oh’s wistful reminiscence for her mother’s cooking, particularly the cherished Malaysian anchovies-and-rice dish Nasi Lemak. The lovely, recursive ballad “Mother Reason” offers another look back, this time reflecting on the way that a mother always knows when something’s wrong with their child, circling again and again from crisis to reassurance.

The evocatively-titled “Deepsea Dancers” was inspired by personal loss, weaving around an insistent melody with the determination and resolve that comes from grief, gilded by the beauty of a life touched and impacted by those we’ve lost. The crepuscular “Midnight” strikes a dark-tinged but ultimately hopeful note redolent of the witching hour.

The compelling, memorable compositions and thrilling improvisations on Walk Against Wind exemplify why Linda May Han Oh has become one of the most in-demand bassists of her generation. Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents and raised in Western Australia, Oh arrived in New York with a love of jazz, early training in classical bassoon, and an adolescence spent playing electric bass in Aussie rock bands. She recently joined guitar giant Pat Metheny’s newest quartet and remains a key member of trumpet great Dave Douglas’ quintet as well as the Sound Prints band Douglas co-founded with saxophonist Joe Lovano. In addition, Oh has worked with pianists Fabian Almazan, and Kenny Barron, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Jaleel Shaw, and drummer E.J. Strickland.

Personnel:

Linda May Han Oh: Bass
Ben Wendel: Saxophone
Matthew Stevens: Guitar
Justin Brown: Drums
Fabian Almazan: Piano (tracks 2, 6, 10), Keyboards
Minji Park: janggu & kkwaenggwari (track 8)

Walk Against Wind is available from Biophilia Records (via Bandcamp) as downloads or with or without physical artwork.

Enjoy the full album right here. For a deeper dive into Oh’s music, listen to our April 16 show with an interview and more of her music. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Director Kaspar Collin’s excellent I Called Him Morgan film documents the interconnected life and downfall of the late, brilliant trumpeter Lee Morgan and his common law wife Helen Morgan and is getting an impressively wide release for a documentary film on a jazz musician. We published a lengthy review of the film, too.

One of the film’s standout features is the amount of interviews with musicians who knew and could give firsthand accounts on their remembrances of Lee and Helen. That drove Suga’ in My Bowl host Joyce Jones into the digital archives and she dug up excerpts from previous shows with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and pianist Harold Mabern for snippets on Lee Morgan. Check them out below.

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.

We’re off this week, but will be back next week with an interview with bassist Linda May Han Oh. Meanwhile if you missed last week’s show with saxophonist Claire Daly, you can listen in our archives. Also, don’t forget to listen to Daly’s new 2648 West Grand Boulevard release, streaming here for the next 2 weeks thanks to our friends at Glass Beach Jazz! Now let’s get to our listings.

Former Suga’ guests vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Dave Holland, and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith are among the 2017 class of NEA Jazz Masters! Although they won’t be performing, they will be in hand for the tribute concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and will likely say a few words in addition to having their work interpreted by performers on hand. Former Suga’ guest Dianne Reeves performed and you can view the archived  video stream.

Bassist Christian McBride is at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club  with the New Jawn quartet from April 11-16.

Pianist Vijay Iyer is at WNYC Radio’s Greene Space on April 13 performing selections from his Mutations CD and a new work called Time, Place, Action.

Pianist Billy Childs leads a quartet at the Jazz Standard from April 13-16th.

Saxophonist Kenny Garrett leads a quintet at the Blue Note from April 13-16th.

Saxophonist Oliver Lake is at Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts Media on April 13-14 and leads a big band at the Jazz Gallery from April 21-22nd.

Pianist Harold Mabern is at Smoke with a quartet from April 14-16th and leads a trio at Smalls on the 19th.

Blues vocalist Alexis P. Suter is at Daryl’s House in Pawling NY with Ministers of Sound on April 16th.

Saxophonist Gary Bartz is at The Blue Note on April 17th with pianist McCoy Tyner.

Looking a little further ahead, drummer and percussionist Will Calhoun is in Montclair NJ at the Wellmont Theater with Paul Shaffer’s band on April 21 and at the Theatre at Westbury in Long Island on April 22nd.

Trombonist and seashellist Steve Turre leads a qunitet at Smoke from April 21-23.

Trombonist Craig Harris is at Sista’s Place in Brooklyn on April 22nd.

Bassist Christian McBride is at Newark’s NJPAC on April 23rd with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter is at Newark’s NJPAC on April 22-23rd.

Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is at WNYC Radio’s Greene Space for an Ella Fitzgerald tribute on April 24.

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela will be at the Town Hall on April 27th with the Jazz Epistles.

Finally, we covered this year’s Vision Fest a few weeks ago, but the full schedule is now up! Head on over to their site for the full schedule. We’ll return with our standard cheat sheet festival preview as the dates get closer.

That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is scheduled to be back on WBAI‘s airwaves on Sunday April 16. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.

—-
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot


Words by Hank Williams | MAIN PHOTO: Lee and Helen Morgan

Director Kasper Collin’s documentary film I Called Him Morgan on the late trumpeter Lee Morgan opens and closes with the beginning notes of the subject’s “Search for the New Land”. Morgan’s plaintive, sensuous notes on the trumpet stand in counterpoint with Grant Green’s shimmering guitar. It forms an appropriate frame for a musical life that ended too soon.

Early on, Lee Morgan’s wife–and killer–Helen Morgan informs the viewer via an appropriately fuzzy interview that she’s not to be taken lightly. It’s an ominous yet appropriate premonition that helps frame the narrative around a story that attempts to add richness of detail to a tale where the outcome is a foregone conclusion but the reasons remain murky.

Helen shot Lee on February 15, 1972 in between sets at the famed Slug’s Saloon in front of a club full of astonished guests and his own bandmates then waited–sobbing and clutching his prone body–for the police to arrive.

Indeed, as the story unfolds, one is constantly reminded that Helen is as much of the story as Lee.

Lee Morgan lit up the jazz scene in the 1950s with his bold, evocative voice on trumpet. His big break was entry into the band of legendary drummer Art Blakey, who took it upon himself to mentor and develop generations of young musicians through his Jazz Messengers bands.

These were the the days when jazz was king. Fast cars, women, and lots of money were all on offer for the jazz musicians of the era, who were some of the biggest pop stars of the time.

Lee, supremely confident–almost cocky–with his skill as a trumpeter and youthful energy, was at the center of all of it and and relished the attention, fast life, and everything that came with it.

Although one of Lee’s childhood friends is interviewed, one doesn’t learn much about the trumpeter’s background or what leads him into the jazz scene at such a young age: he was barely out of his teens when he became a rising star. Instead, in somewhat of a jump in the narrative, viewers get a snapshot of Lee’s rapid ascendancy in the jazz world, though how he gets there is left for viewers to ponder.

In contrast, Helen’s childhood is examined in slightly more detail via an interview with a childhood friend and an interview with herself, conducted by radio host Larry Reni Thomas only a month before her death.

Thomas’s interview with Helen is one of the film’s key pieces of documentary evidence and is one of the few pieces of the film that attempts to answer the question of why Helen shot Lee. Like much of the film, even this is frustratingly vague: a promise for a follow-up interview comes to naught when Helen dies before the second part, where she might have gotten comfortable enough to give deeper answers.

To Collin’s credit, the film avoids the current trend toward handing over valuable screen time to celebrities who contribute little to the storyline and are seemingly present just for name recognition. Those who appear on screen have a direct connection to the Morgans or are musicians who played with Lee. This is a direction more documentarians should take: trusting the strength of the story and characters enough to let them tell the tale.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, for instance, remembers that Lee “was always digging back into his roots, his history” for musical inspiration, following the advice of drummer Art Blakey to tell his story while soloing. It’s one of the film’s small details, but indeed reveals a lot about the legendary bandleader and Lee’s approach. Blakey’s prodding seems to illuminate Lee’s trumpet style that juxtaposed boldly stacatto notes with brash, impeccably phrased bursts on the open horn, yet made space for plaintive melodies.

Indeed, Lee’s time with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is presented as somewhat of a high point. The youthful exuberance and carefree confidence of Lee and the rest of the band is infectious and provides a beautiful portrait of the artists.

Much of the above is done via still photos, music, and interviews of surviving band members. Lee’s voice only appears via an early 1970s interview with writer Val Wilmer and snippets of video. As with the recent Chasing Trane documentary on John Coltrane, there simply isn’t much audio or video of either Lee or Helen: a stark reminder that capturing and broadcasting even minute details of daily life is a very recent phenomenon.

Aside from the technical limitations, the strategy also helps to freeze the dual subjects into the time period. Life ends early for Lee; Helen lives on, but returns to a relatively nondescript life in North Carolina far removed from the speed of New York City’s jazz scene after a short stint in jail followed by time in a mental institution.

The film does reinforce the invariably intertwined nature of Lee and Helen’s relationship.

Lee became addicted to heroin, which wrecked his career and almost took his life. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin recalls seeing Lee on a subway platform while on a passing train and not recognizing him at first: “he looked like a homeless person,“ Maupin remembers ruefully.

I Called Him Morgan doesn’t flinch in describing the depths of despair Lee fell into while gripped by addiction: he got his teeth knocked out, spent a lot of time on the streets, and was once roused by the smell of his own skin and hair burning: he’d passed out next to a radiator.

Collin does an admirable job of balance, however. Wayne Shorter and other friends of Lee who didn’t succumb to drugs are interviewed and show the genuine concern they had for their friend and fellow musician. Shorter’s overall reaction seems to be a mix of frustration and bewilderment at the inability to save Lee. It’s a thoughtful touch that helps highlight the fact that while a lot of musicians (and some very prominent ones) from the era did fall into drug addiction, not all did.

This is the point where Helen re-enters the story. She’d moved to New York City from North Carolina at a young age and gotten herself a job and her own apartment on 52nd St during the time period when it was still the epicenter of the jazz world. She began hanging out in the clubs and became known for her parties, which drew an eclectic crowd from the jazz scene. This is where Lee and Helen meet.

The couple became inseparable. Helen, who was several years older than Lee, took a motherly interest in him; intently supporting him and encouraging him to resume his career. Lee was perhaps at his lowest point, having sold his horn and even overcoat for drugs.

Bassist Jymie Merritt recalls that “Lee’s life’s was restored by Helen and it was a joy to watch”.

Collin’s noir style and indirect storytelling fit the subject well, though force close attention to details. While less impressionistic than his earlier My Name is Albert Ayler, Collin prefers to draw his characters in broad strokes.

Along the way, viewers find out that Lee has a girlfriend and is spending less and less time at home with Helen: details which become central to the tragedy at the heart of the story.

Lee’s fatal final night at Slug’s seemed to be dogged by bad omens. New York was gripped by a blizzard and his girlfriend Lena Sherrod wrecked her car in the snow while driving him to fetch his trumpet for the club date. Ironically, his renewed commitment to being a responsible bandleader drove him to appear at the club, as he was aware of his previous reputation for unreliability while addicted to heroin.

Helen followed downtown as well, though only meant to stop by Slug’s briefly before catching a different show in Greenwich Village.

I Called Him Morgan is a deeply unsettling film because it calls to mind the fragility of life and ironic elements in Lee and Helen’s interconnected lives. Without Helen’s help, it seems unlikely Lee would’ve made a successful musical comeback or even quit heroin. If Lee hadn’t been driven by the musician’s credo to make the gig no matter what, things might have ended differently. Lee, like novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s doomed protagonist in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, hurtles toward a seemingly inescapable fate while evading several possible turns that might change it.

Saxophonist Billy Harper remembers that the police came immediately after the shooting to arrest Helen, who surrendered quietly. Slug’s—and the Lower East Side neighborhood—was well known to police at the time because of crime and drugs. The atmosphere of the club itself merely mirrored the surroundings. Because of the blizzard, the ambulance took an hour to arrive. One can’t help but be haunted by the mental image of Lee lying on the floor of a dive bar for an hour, his life slowly dripping into the sawdust-covered floor for an agonizingly long time as musicians and patrons alike look on in horror.

The film doesn’t fully answer what drove Helen to shoot Lee and hints that she possibly isn’t exactly clear on the motivations either. The suggestion is that a combination of disrespect and humiliation at the hands of Lee’s womanizing drives her over the edge, but the only one who could answer that question for sure doesn’t give a straight explanation.

James Gavin’s account in a 2015 Jazz Times profile of Slug’s Saloon notes that Lee had fallen back into heavy drug use and as his addiction got worse, so did his abusive behavior toward Helen, who still served as his manager.

Lee Morgan’s end came in a dive bar that was home to some of the most brilliant musicians of the generation–including himself–and he died a junkie’s death.

Harper’s lament of the tardy ambulance seems a metaphor for Lee Morgan’s life. Had Lee been gotten medical attention sooner, Harper opines, “I think he could’ve been saved.”

(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity.)

92 Minutes. Playing at Metrograph and Lincoln Center Theaters in Manhattan and select theaters nationwide. See the film website for screenings.
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.

This week’s show features saxophonist Claire Daly! She has no immediate NYC area shows, but we’ll let you know when she does. We also have a special treat: thanks to our friends at Glass Beach Jazz, we’re streaming Daly’s new 2648 West Grand Boulevard release for the next 3 weeks! Scroll down or go directly to our post. Now let’s get to our listings.

Former Suga’ guests vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Dave Holland, and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith are all receiving the title of NEA Jazz Master in 2017! Although they won’t be performing, they will be in hand for the tribute concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and will likely say a few words in addition to having their work interpreted by performers on hand. Former Suga’ guest Dianne Reeves is scheduled to perform at the show. Best of all, you can watch the live stream for free–and it’ll be online for a while afterwards.

Bassist Christian McBride leads a big band at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club from April 4-9 and returns with the New Jawn quartet from the 11-16.

Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is at Newark’s Gateway Center for a free lunchtime concert on April 5th.

Pianist Randy Weston leads the African Rhythms Quintet with Alex Blake on bass at the Jazz Standard from April 6-9th. Howard Johnson joins them on tuba as a special guest on the 7th.

Pianist Michele Rosewoman leads the Quintessence ensemble at The Cell Theatre in Manhattan on the 8th.

Pianist David Virelles is at the Jazz Gallery with drummer Marcus Gilmore on the 8th.

Looking a little further ahead, Pianist Billy Childs leads a quartet at the Jazz Standard from April 13-16th.

Saxophonist Kenny Garrett leads a quintet at the Blue Note from April 13-16th.

Saxophonist Oliver Lake is at Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts Media on April 13-14 and leads a big band at the Jazz Gallery from April 21-22nd.

Pianist Harold Mabern is at Smoke with a quartet from April 14-16th and leads a trio at Smalls on the 19th.

Blues vocalist Alexis P. Suter is at Daryl’s House in Pawling NY with Ministers of Sound on April 16th.

Saxophonist Gary Bartz is at The Blue Note on April 17th with pianist McCoy Tyner.

Finally, we covered this year’s Vision Fest a few weeks ago, but the full schedule is now up! Head on over to their site for the full schedule. We’ll return with our standard cheat sheet festival preview as the dates get closer.

That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is scheduled to be back on WBAI‘s airwaves on Sunday April 16. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.

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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot


Suga’ in My Bowl debuts a new feature: Listen.Hear. We’ll be able to stream fresh new music from featured artists for a limited time right here. Check back periodically for new selections or subscribe via email to new blog posts to keep up to date. (Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the “Follow” button.)

2648 WEST GRAND BOULEVARD is the address of the original Detroit headquarters of Motown’s Records. Under the leadership of Berry Gordy, “Hitsville USA” reliably churned out tunes that topped the pop charts and shaped the sound of a generation.

Claire Daly, the multi-reed instrumentalist, educator and composer, has reimagined 11 classic tunes from those early days at Motown and renders them as modern jazz compositions for her release that takes its title from Motown’s street address. Daly takes tunes made famous by Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five and others and gives them fresh, new interpretations while remaining faithful to both the Jazz and Pop genres.

Daly is joined on this project by her longtime musical compatriots, each of whom are well known leaders in their own right:

Claire Daly: Baritone Sax & Flute
Jerome Harris: Guitar
Steve Hudson: Piano
Mary Ann McSweeney: Bass
Peter Grant: Drums

2648 West Grand Boulevard: Jazz Interpretations of Classic Motown 45s can be purchased from Glass Beach Jazz Records. as a physical CD or MP3 downloads as singles or the entire album.

Or album preview’s ended, but instead we’ll point you to the Suga’ in My Bowl audio archives where you can  listen to our April 2 show with an interview and music by Daly, including several tracks from the album.

bandstand_picPhoto Credit: Hank Williams

Welcome to Suga in My Bowl radio‘s weekly feature, On The Bandstand, where we collect upcoming NYC area shows from current and past Suga’ guests. We’re online weekly and on the air on NYC’s WBAI-FM radio alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM -1 AM. Keep up with us via Facebook, the blog here, or our main website, or Twitter and we’ll keep track of the schedule for you.

We’re off the air this week, but if you missed last week’s show with flutist Nicole Mitchell, head on over to our archives and check it out. Be sure to tune in next week for saxophonist Claire Daley! Now let’s get to our listings.

Flutist Nicole Mitchell is at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on March 29.

Trombonist/ seashellist Steve Turre is at Aaron Davis Hall on the City College of New York’s Harlem campus on March 31 with Elio Villafranca.

Harpist Brandee Younger is at Newark NJ’s Bethany Baptist Church on April 1.

Bassist Christian McBride leads a big band at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club from April 4-9 and returns with the New Jawn quartet from the 11-16.

Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is at Newark’s Gateway Center for a free lunchtime concert on April 5th.

Pianist Randy Weston leads the African Rhythms Quintet with Alex Blake on bass at the Jazz Standard from April 6-9th. Howard Johnson joins them on tuba as a special guest on the 7th.

Saxophonist Oliver Lake is at Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts Media on April 13-14 and leads a big band at the Jazz Gallery from April 21-22nd.

That’s all for now. Suga’ in My Bowl is scheduled to be back on WBAI‘s airwaves on Sunday April 2. We’ll also have another edition of “On the Bandstand” online next Sunday with a fresh set of listings.

—-
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

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