Sunday, November 18, 2018

Never The Same Tune Twice

Anyone who understands jazz knows that you can't understand it.
It's too complicated. That's what’s so simple about it.”
Yogi Berra

The mighty nimble fidgety digits of Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982)

Thelonious Monk & Bob Dylan

Never The Same Tune Twice

by Jamie Jobb

Those of us who grew up in Ohio River towns of the 1950s know there wasn’t a whole lot to do for entertainment: the library, comic books, 45 rpm records, double-feature movies, distant radio static and fuzzy monochromatic tv. Nothing could be “time-shifted”. You had to be there “at rise,” as playwrights say. The nearest “city” for any kind of “show” was Huntington, West Virginia (population 86,353) two hours away.

Many small-town families – including the Totally Tone Deaf – entertained themselves at home with music and song. Finer homes contained a piano, some had “piano rooms”. Sheet music of popular tunes was for sale most everywhere. Anyone with a dime could buy the score to her favorite song.

Claiming Hoagy Carmichael as her inspiration, my mother always wanted live music around our house, so she enrolled me in piano lessons right across the street. I’ve mentioned these lessons in a previous essay on Hoagy. I didn’t really ask for them, but mom insisted. Boogie-woogie was the only piano style my dad could play. And that got old very fast.

Norma Lewis Hecox taught piano on her magnificent lustrous black Steinway Grand, a graduation present from her parents after completion of her studies at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Hers was the house with the big rounded front porch on the corner of Main and Third Avenue. My friend Tom Rall, who lived up Third past the Carnegie Library, also took piano lessons from Mrs. Hecox and remembers that we could see both the Methodist Church and our house from her piano bench.

As to her lessons,” Rall recalls, “I didn’t last very long. After a few times going, she suggested we play dominoes.”

Mom insisted I stick with the Steinway and I knew she could look across the street to see if we were playing dominoes instead. I tried to get enthused about these once-weekly after-school sessions so convenient to mom. And I persisted through a season of study until all of Mrs. Hecox’s students reached the point where we could give our own recital – a public performance.

I had only one tune to play, “The Irish Washerwoman”, and it was second on the bill. One of a dozen players, my part would be over quickly, my tune was “Level One”. But I had to read the music while I played it – a tough task for any ten-year-old. Mrs. Hecox was a stickler for respecting The Score and playing it Exactly Right Every Time – especially in the holy sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, where we were congregants.

Mrs. Hecox had her Steinway moved to the church for the occasion. “Everybody will be there.” she said. “And The Good Lord won’t want to hear any wrong notes.”

* * *

As our recital date approached, The Irish Washerwoman” haunted my sleep. The score danced through my dreams, notes rearranging themselves into some crazed atonal geometric workout but during the day of performance, I was fine. And when my time at the Grand Piano came, I arose to the occasion.

The sanctuary was brimful of family and friends. My first moment on stage had arrived. I sat at the polished Steinway. The sheet music opened up there, waiting. The keys – ebony and ivory – glistened in anticipation … my fingers approached them.

Unfortunately for the Tin-Pan-Alley career mom envisioned for me, I made four lousy mistakes – striking four Exactly Wrong Notes in the two-minute composition! Mom tried to smile, but she knew I’d messed up my simple Level One tune. Taken To The Cleaners by The Irish Washerwoman!

After the recital was over, I fled the church in shame. I recall thinking at the time that piano lessons in someone’s home across the street is nothing like “putting on a show” with everybody in town actually listening intently. We lived in a village of 2,500 people. Nothing stayed secret for long, especially when it involved Four Mistakes In Public. Everybody in town knew about me hitting those wrong notes!

After that recital, I quit Mrs. Hecox’s piano lessons and never tried to play music in public ever again. Tom Rall speaks for both of us: “I never learned how to play the piano, much to my mother's dismay.”

Tom’s failure to learn was further fueled by this irony: “My mother, by the way, was an excellent pianist, who took theater organ at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, sadly for her, just as the talkies were being introduced.”

Piano-Avoidance is a strange personal punishment to inflicted upon oneself … however, my fear of playing music for people encouraged me to befriend later in life many incredible musicians who had no trouble at all with stage fright. They knew how to play over their mistakes and keep moving right through every tune.

As Jerry Pfeiffer, my piano genius friend from college, often said: “Hang any wrong notes, go with the flow!”

Indeed, I’ve learned that some musicians actively try to make wrong-note “mistakes” – on purpose! In fact, a few of them never seem to want to perform the same tune the same way twice.

Thelonious Monk lost at keyboard, choosing spur-of-moment chords in Paris 1965

* * *

If you play the wrong part, its right.

If you play the right part, it might be
right – if you play it wrong enough.

But if you play it too right, it's wrong.”
Yogi Berra

* * *

Where to Start with Thelonious Monk

The Wrong Notes Right”

After Ohio we moved to Miami, where young sun-tanned teens had lots of live opportunities to hear music. Rock and Blues bands played in clubs and dance halls all around town. We also flocked to Folk in coffee houses in Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. By the time I went away to college, I’d had my fill of Folk Rock Blues tunes so I ventured into Classical and Jazz upon the urging of my mentor and photojournalism instructor, John Lindstrom. He was a big fan of the off-kilter hipster in skullcap, bamboo-framed shades and goatee, The Genius of Modern Music, Thelonious Monk.

First time I heard Monk I didn’t get it. Everything seemed off key, half the notes seemed to be mistakes that Mrs. Hecox would not tolerate! Lindstrom told me that’s what happened to him when his ears were first exposed to Thelonious. “Eventually it’ll come to you,” he said.

It didn’t. I kept asking myself when I ran into a Monk tune somewhere What’ s his deal with all these Wrong Notes? It’s impossible to find a tune of his that repeats note for note because that’s not what he could ever do. Monk’s mind seemed to be constantly searching for the “note between the note” … always wandering “around” the edges of chord progressions, searching for sounds in the spaces between the keys! Punctuating things with his left hand when he couldn’t seem to think of anything else to do!?!

I still couldn’t get Monk’s music for many decades – until well after the dawn of the 21st Century, when I ran across an ear-opening essay by David Inman called “Where to Start with Thelonious Monk”. Inman’s approach allowed me to abandon my stringent Steinway box, by thinking my way out of it. Let Inman explain why listening to Monk can be so dang daunting:

His angular compositions and odd habits have left jazz critics and listeners befuddled over the years. Luckily, Robin D.G. Kelley’s 2010 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original, is helping to shift the conversation from his eccentricity to his intellect. Kelley, compares Monk’s role in the formation of bebop to the mercurial New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden’s similar role in developing the first strains of jazz. They were both, Kelley writes, ‘that missing link who started it all, but then disappeared.’

And, like Bolden, who was committed to an insane asylum in 1907, Monk had mental-health issues. In Clint Eastwood’s 1988 documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, Monk’s son, T.S. Monk, manager Harry Colomby, and late-period collaborator Charlie Rouse all testify to his schizophrenic episodes and manic depression. By the 1970s, as jazz-fusion was becoming the order of the day, Monk gave up music and went into seclusion, further complicating his legacy.”

So Monk eventually went nuts, but there were more than a few music theorists who could comprehend what Thelonious was trying to accomplish with his unconventional strident playing style. David Inman advocates the following essential keys for a systematic listening approach which certainly helped me comprehend the music of Monk:

First, start with this “gateway” Riverside Record of 1955: “Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington”. Specifically listen to the following classic, which should be familiar to anyone who knows Ellington’s tunes. Note how Monk and his bandmates noodle around the main melodic progression of this famous song: It Don’t Mean a Thing … If It Ain’t Got That Swing” (4:39). Listen to the “hesitation” in rhythms from Monk’s hands.

Next, move on to Monk’s renditions of other standards which he recorded early in his career. Here are two familiar tunes which Thelonious reworks in his own style: “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (4:16) and “April in Paris” (8:01). Listen to both tunes through to the end. Monk wanders into new melodic pastures a whilebefore he eventually bounces back to the theme at hand.

After Monk’s surprising hesitations and side-tracked syncopations start to settle in, then it’s easier to move on to his more adventuresome creations which tend to “sound out of key and in key at the same time” – as one astute YouTuber commented on Monk’s wacky 1964 version of “Lulu’s Back In Town” (9:53). Take a listen to that and keep reading.

* * *

Question: What’s syncopation?

That's when the note that you should hear now
happens either before or after you hear it.”
Yogi Berra

The heavy rhythmic element of Monk’s style harkens stride piano players like Art Tatum and James P. Johnson who influenced Thelonious, particularly in terms of his comprehension of a piano-man's left-hand “rhythm section”. This Stride Style stretched traditional Marching Band music into something that sounds more akin to Ragtime.

Once a listener can tolerate Monk syncopating himself at will, then it’s time to graduate to his more unique efforts. Here, from this 1963 live performance in Japan he offers an edgier, punched down sound – percussive and atonal – while hitting all the wrong notes right in this rendition of his classic "Epistrophy”.

The key to “getting” Monk’s flow is attuning both mind and ear to anticipate What Happens Next! Anyone who wishes to go further, should check out What Makes Monk Sound Like Monk (31:57) which breaks down Monk’s sound on his composition “Friday the Thirteenth”. Exuberant YouTuber Aimee Nolte dissects the rhythmic, harmonic, melodic and structural elements of Thelonious’ “unmistakable” sound. Anyone serious about Monk may wish to invest the half hour this video requires.

Otherwise there’s Princeton’s musical theorist Vince di Mura who dramatically dissects Monk’s musical math in this short but informative at-the-keyboard video where he explains how Monk makes “wrong notes right” (5:53) using something called “the tritone” or “The Devil’s Interval”. Here’s di Mura:

On the guitar, which is the primary blues instrument, the guitarist allows himself to bend the strings. He can find the pitches between one note and another note. I give the illusion (on the piano) of that same kind of raunchy bending by playing what we call a ‘cross-relationship’ where the major third and the minor third coexist … but they happen to coexist an octave apart. We call it a ‘Sharp Nine’ ...”

At his keyboard, di Mura demonstrates how that fractional math structure sounds and how Monk elaborates on the right/wrong note feel of major/minor thirds in coexistence – playing it out in examples which punctuate Monk’s offbeat stylings.

Thelonious spent the first five years of his life on Red Row in Rocky Mount N.C, living next to an Atlantic Coast Line rail-yard junction. Certainly his developing ears grew accustomed to the sudden clattering clanks and whining grinds of trains recoupling in the incessant industrial improvised percussion session outside his window.

From there, his family moved to San Juan Hill in New York City at the start of The Roaring Twenties. James P. Johnson, the stride genius, lived in the neighborhood. Young Thelonious was surrounded by the sounds of big bands, pianomen, crooners on the radio mixing with the street sounds of gospel. Monk found a piano and taught himself how to play. Later he sought formal training and ended up at the Juilliard School of Music. But he favored the compositions of the jazz masters of his time: Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bob Tatum. During The Depression in the mid 1930s, Thelonious landed a gig as house pianoman at Minton’s Playhouse, center of the bebop revolution of the time featuring the unique sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Clearly, moody genius hangs out at its own tempo.

* * *
All the broken notes and syncopated fractions of chords flowing from the flat fingers of Thelonious Monk bespeak without words the offbeat verbal gymnastics of modern song-poet Bob Dylan. And while Monk never seemed to perform the same tune the same way twice, the same goes for Dylan’s performances.

Of course, each composer has amassed a huge body of work. Dylan continues to perform, still playing on his Never Ending Tour – thirty years running after it began in 1988.

Although Thelonious rests in peace, many of his incredible live performances are available in various YouTube reiterations for current piano students to study all those wrong-notes-rightfour decades after his passing.

Both Monk and Dylan could be accused of relentless reiteration – restlessly reworking around the bones of a tune. So when they played that tune again (and again) it’s ...never the same song the same way twice.

Both composers always altered programs to suit current conditions. But Monk never expressed his “love songs” in words, so he gets no scrutiny in the lyric department.

Of course, Dylan does not write simple Hoagy boy-meets-girl lyrics. But despite his lyrical complexity, Dylan keeps repeating himself there too! Some might say plagiarizing himself. See the similarities in these lines from two of his tunes, written 27 years apart!

Tight Connection To My Heart (1985):
You’re the one I’ve been looking for
You’re the one that’s got the key
But I can’t figure out whether I’m too good for you
Or you’re too good for m

Long and Wasted Years (2012):
Is there a place we can go?
Is there anybody we can see?
Maybe what’s right for you
Isn’t really right for me.

* * *

Joan Baez in 1965 envisions Bob Dylan, foresees “Diamonds and Rust”

* * *

On the right night, Bob Dylan is
the greatest rock’n’roller that ever lived.”
– Bill Graham

Yes Bill, but:
How do we know we’ll
catch him on the right night?

* * *

Don’t Think Twice, I’m Sick of Love

If they know him at all – and a lot of 21st Century folks have never heard of the guy – people recall Bob Dylan for his Folk protester roots. To much of the world, he seems a strange and estranged lone ranger: a guy meant to wander … “not from around here”.

In the syllabus for his continuing studies program, “Like a Rolling Stone: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan”, Stanford University instructor Ken Berman traces “the unlikely evolution of one of the greatest songwriters of our time” from humble middle-class origins in Minnesota to his Never Ending Road Show, still touring as he approaches 78 years of age. Bob’s initial tunes recall Woody Guthrie’s focused rabble-rousing songs and that placed him at the vanguard of the budding Folk movement focused in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. But Dylan soon proved that he defied easy classification.

Many of my generation have wondered what the world might have become had star-crossed lovers Bob and Joan Baez stayed together, like Ozzie and Harriett. What if they’d had kids --- all musical geniuses – who also toil for NGOs and/or the United Nations? Instead their pop-star union perished in flames and Joan wrote these lines to bury it in her haunting ode to their time together, “Diamonds and Rust” (1975):
Now you're telling me
You're not nostalgic
Then gimme another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
'Cause I need some of that vagueness now
It's all come back too clearly
Yes I loved you dearly
And if you're offering me diamonds and rust
I've already paid.”

After splitting from Baez, Dylan switched to electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, obviously reaching for a larger popular audience. Although many considered Bob a Judas” for abandoning” his acoustic guitar, he continued to play “unplugged” as well. Dylan was well on his way to becoming the Blues/Rock/Folk icon who now plays piano -- not guitar -- at the end of his career.

A1974 motorcycle accident forced Dylan into retreat at Woodstock, where he recorded the notorious “Basement Tapes” with The Band. He then went on to headline first-of-their-kind arena traveling shows like The Rolling Thunder Revue. While living the life of an LA rock star in the mid 1980s, the songwriter also worked with playwrights Sam Shepard and Jacques Levy before eventually heading out on what evolved into his Never Ending Tour.

* * *

Sometimes I throw in a word ‘cause it sounds good.”
Bob Dylan

* * *

When, if ever, can a song written by Bob Dylan be considered "finished"? And what are we to make of long lost tracks of Dylan songs that were greenlit for release and then later discarded – after the auteur decided they somehow didn't quite capture the totality of what he was trying to express … at the time?

An obvious riddle among singer/songwriters is aimed at Dylan: How can you recall all those intricate and hard-to-remember lyrics!?! The strict answer is … Bob doesn’t. Not because the lyrics are too complicated, but because the song is never reallydone”.

While Dylan is known to endlessly and brutally edit his lyrics until the very last minute in the studio,” The New Yorker’s Jeff Slate writes. “It’s a guilty pleasure of Dylanologists to trainspot the tweaks—both large and small—that Dylan makes to the lyrics from year to year, or sometimes from night to night. Still, when I was presented with Dylan’s latest revision, written in his own hand … it was like seeing an old, dear friend, whom you know intimately, but who’s no doubt changed and grown over the years, adapting with the times.”

Pick any tune from Dylan’s incredible songbook – The Lyrics; 1961-2012”and read along while it plays. After a while it becomes clear that Dylan seldom matches any song in performance word-for-word as originally written. Indeed, Bob rearranges his tunes so much on stage, it’s difficult to tell if it’s the same song.

Few Dylan fans have stuck with his interminable international Never-Never-Ever-Ending Tour – now in its thirtieth year. Fewer still can tolerate hearing Bob’s recent hazardous flirtation with Frank Sinatra’s standards. Dylan is no Sinatra, vocally speaking, and Bob proves it convincingly.

* * *

I’m sick of love.”
Bob Dylan

* * *

His ex-wives and lovers also will attest that Bob Dylan is a bad mate: a hot spotlit Casanova. Never comes home, always late, distracted, always on tour. Aside from anything else Joan Baez could write, we also easily can glean this viewpoint from Dylan’s incredible frank love songs … too terse for normal love verse. And yet, Dylan seems to be somewhat overlooked as a balladeer primarily because of his roguish reputation. Sarah Paolantonio of Entropy Magazine, puts it this way:

I was happy to sing along to “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” … That song tells us everything we need to know about Bob Dylan: that he will never belong to anyone. He certainly doesn’t belong to women. He treats us, historically, like shit. It doesn’t mean we won’t or don’t love him. Sometimes his misogyny makes it harder to love him, yes. That is true for many male artists. But I find myself forgiving him over and over. The lyric I love is an early declaration, originally recorded in 1963, of “no:” I gave her my heart/but she wanted 
my soul/don’t think twice it’s alright.

Love has always been a bitter pill in Bob Dylan’s mouth, and he spits it out in song after song. Let’s look at a recent new book on that very subject, “Seeing the Real You At Last: Life and love on the road with Bob Dylan” by Britta Lee Shain, who elaborates on Paolantonio’s observation from the perspective of a Dylan lover.

Shain’s name-dropper memoir bares all her broken sadness as she got Tangled Up In Blue with Bob during his world tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in fall of 1987, just before The Never Ending Tour began. Shain is certainly a brave writer to drag herself through all this misery again … three decades later: Bob the Furtive Lover. Bob the Casual Cad. Bob the Genuine Genius. Bob the Still Suffering -- no not Me Too!

Britta’s book charts the celebrity, privilege, massive LA party scene in the 1970s: Bob’s cars, motorcycles, late-night window shopping sprees and roadside strolls in the wilds. Bless her heart, Shain’s story is filled with an endless Hollywood cycle with lots of name dropping and hot shopping for that right tiny thing to wear to the parties where all the names show up. She takes a good third of the book to rid herself of that burden.

Britta (pronounced, as she says, Bree-TAH) fell in love with Dylan’s image when she was 17, and couldn’t quite get it out of her head. She learned to walk and talk and sing and play guitar and write songs just like him. It got confusing, certainly for those around her. Especially after she became Dylan’s manager’s girlfriend. Their furtive affair was silent as long as it could last, before, as Bob writes, “then one day the bottom fell out.”

Things got confusing for her and she shares her bewilderment with her reader. Was she a gender-bent doppelganger? A budding songwriting talent in her own write? Or was she just a “groupie” as others in Dylan’s entourage believed? Or is she just an overlooked woman out to make a life in public on her own?

Shain bares it all in brutal detail. And if she didn’t knowingly admit it was written ten years before she ever met him, Britta might think this 1975 Dylan song is about her: “People tell me it's a sin/To know and feel too much within/I still believe she was my twin/But I lost the ring/She was born in spring/But I was born too late/Blame it on a simple twist of fate”

* * *

The world could come to an end tonight, but that's all right
She should still be there sleeping when I get back.”
Bob Dylan

* * *

In recent months, a new forum has opened for Dylan’s work: the “legitimate stage”. “Girl from the North Country”, a musical based on fourteen of Dylan’s most dramatic tunes, premiered last year at The Old Vic in London. After moving to the West End, that show recently opened in New York at The Public.

Another venture, a film by Luca Guadagnino based on Dylan’s seminal “Blood on the Tracks” album, is also being developed from a script by Richard LaGravenese. The film will follow the album’s story of Dylan’s split with his sad-eyed-lady-of-the-lowlands, Sara his first wife.

Tom Moon of NPR’s First Listen points out that the tunes on this album add up to one strong and intriguing storyline:

One protagonist confides he only knows of careless love; another follows a cold trail in vain hope of reconnecting with the woman who made things make sense. Several songs share what happens when the angry words of a former lover reach into the psyche at the cellular level, coiling around the valves of the heart until they change a man's perspective, his sense of identity. One song is bitter and astringent; others are wistful, tender, nostalgic. Heard front to back, these pieces form an inquiry into the shifting dynamics of relationship that has no parallel anywhere in the history of popular song.”

Theatrical restorations of his works are forcing a reevaluation of Dylan’s worth as a love songwriter. Someone might want to ask: Is this the same blowin'-in-the-wind “unwashed phenomenon” as Joan Baez once observed?

Despite his numerous Grammy, Golden Globe, Pulitzer, Oscar, Nobel Prize and Hall-of-Fame awards, a recent pair of Big Time theatrical productions can only elevate Dylan’s lyrics into another rung on the stratosphere of public recognition. Old fans may suddenly realize upon hearing these reworked tunes: So THAT’S what he was saying? Sung as they are by vocally astute stage professionals who’ve devised new ways to convey his love songs so the lines land well beyond Dylan’s raspy carnival-barker arrangements of his own work. See for yourself: Sheila Atim singing “Tight Connection” from “Girl from the North Country” from the original Old Vic show (5:55); then see Dylan’s music video of the same song (5:16)

Tight Connection To My Heart

Well, I had to move fast
And I couldn’t with you around my neck
I said I’d send for you and I did
What did you expect?
My hands are sweating
And we haven’t even started yet
I’ll go along with the charade
Until I can think my way out
I know it was all a big joke
Whatever it was about
Someday maybe
I’ll remember to forget

I’m gonna get my coat
I feel the breath of a storm
There’s something I’ve got to do tonight
You go inside and stay warm

Has anybody seen my love
Has anybody seen my love
Has anybody seen my love
I don’t know
Has anybody seen my love?

You want to talk to me
Go ahead and talk
Whatever you got to say to me
Won’t come as any shock
I must be guilty of something
You just whisper it into my ear
Madame Butterfly
She lulled me to sleep
In a town without pity

Where the water runs deep
She said, “Be easy, baby
There ain’t nothin’ worth stealin’ in here”

You’re the one I’ve been looking for
You’re the one that’s got the key
But I can’t figure out whether
I’m too good for you
Or you’re too good for me

Has anybody seen my love
Has anybody seen my love
Has anybody seen my love
I don’t know
Has anybody seen my love?

Well, they’re not showing any lights tonight
And there’s no moon
There’s just a hot-blooded singer
Singing “Memphis in June”
While they’re beatin’ the devil out of a guy
Who’s wearing a powder-blue wig
Later he’ll be shot
For resisting arrest
I can still hear his voice crying
In the wilderness
What looks large from a distance
Close up ain’t never that big

Never could learn to drink that blood
And call it wine
Never could learn to hold you, love
And call you mine

Further Sources:

Kelley, Robin D.G. Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original. New York: Simon and Schuster (2010).

Shain, Britta Lee. Seeing the real you at last: Life and love on the road with Bob Dylan. London: Jawbone Press (2016).

Ward, Geoffrey C. and Burn, Ken. Jazz: a History of America’s Music. New York: Knopf (2000).

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. Clint Eastwood documentary (1988).
First of five parts – stride piano tutorial (6:40)

Yogi Berra on jazz:

THANKS for helping me flex these memories:
Tom Rall, Cinda Abbott, Susan Baker, Krista Wingo, Margie Harris Blake,
Charlie Hickox, Jerry Pfeiffer, Art Crummer, Bob Shipman, Doran Oster, Oz Bach,
John Lindstrom, Ben Howell Davis, T-Bone Davis, Aimee Nolte, Vince di Mura and The Unknown Cellist from the University of Florida orchestra, 1966.

* * *

"It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play."
Miles Davis

* * *