What are the greatest names in bop? Many would readily answer Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Another great name is rarely mentioned. Theodore “Fats” Navarro died tragically young, but left his mark on the emerging jazz form. A victim of chronic tuberculosis, Navarro’s health spiraled toward his death at the tender age of 27. But what a legacy he left us!
I had the luck to first hear of this phenomenon on Ed Beach’s “Just Jazz” show, a daily feature of Riverside Church’s late great FM service, WRVR (which, now sold, appears, alas, to be “continuous soft rock.”)* It took a stint abroad for me to see my first Fats Navarro LP. The cozy little record store in Oxford, England, which I frequented weekly, had two volumes of a “Fats Navarro Memorial.” Finally I could study the trumpeter and ponder his impact on jazz. The liner notes writer, Ken Barnes, lays it on the line:
My dear friend, Paul Zaiser, was a master of the mixtape. Miriam and I must have close to a hundred cassette tapes curated by Paul. It is a testament to his skill that we have held on to them all throughout the Compact Disc and MP3 eras. In the years before his untimely death, Paul became intimately involved in his family’s service project among schoolchildren in a poor village in the Philippines. This good work effectively ended our steady stream of tapes. While I sent him CDs of my music, Paul never gave us any compilation in digital media.
Paul’s tapes were mixed to work well with conversation among friends, and they have graced many a party or informal gathering. Ideally Paul himself would be in our presence during our first encounter with the contents. I liked to listen “blind,” without referring to Paul’s meticulously-penciled list of titles and artists on narrow-ruled school paper, torn just right to fit in the cassette shell. That way, I could make (frequently wrong) guesses about who the artists were, and ask follow-up questions at the feet of the Master. How I miss those days! How I miss Paul Zaiser!
My third grade buddy, Gary Griffith, invited Jeff Brekke and me to his house after school to hear a cool new single. He proudly set Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve on his 45rpm player and pointed out how you could hear the sound of real tires screeching in the song. Jeff and I were really impressed. Inspired, I suggested we next go to my house, since we also had gotten a cool new record. I plopped side one of Monk’s Dream on the turntable and fully expected Gary and Jeff to be as thrilled as I had been when I first heard it. To their credit, my 8-year-old friends stuck it out through the first piece. When “Body and Soul” started, Gary said to Jeff, “Want to go outside and play?” They walked outside, leaving Thelonious and me alone to ponder: “Why are we so outside the mainstream; just for celebrating all the basics of music in a brand new way?”
With its truly horrifying cover and an arguably deceitful sales angle*, Things We Like could be a thing we don't like. After all, by 1971, there were legion Cream fans, wanting fresh rock material from what is considered the original supergroup. Those fans did not need to be sold a Jack Bruce album where the guy doesn't sing a note nor even touch an electric bass. Worse yet (from one point of view) the whole thing is not rock at all, but jazz.
If you happened to purchase this album under false pretenses, you have my condolences. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic. On a clue from Erik Jothen, I heard about a session from 1968 with the great Miles Davis sideman John McLaughlin on guitar, where Jack Bruce plays not just passable acoustic bass, but plays like a monster. I found it immediately in the used record bin. No doubt a disappointed rock fan or deejay had sold it.
Given the relatively strict and limited structure that underlies the African-American genre known as the blues, it is nothing short of astonishing how versatile and fresh the blues can be.
It's simply a matter of educated sleuthing to uncover how blues has informed both jazz and rock and roll from the beginning of each. Even a few symphonic works owe their inspiration to the blues or represent collaborations with an actual blues band.
There are various blues traditions or schools. Chicago Blues is particularly celebrated, particularly the post-war scene recorded by Chess Records and other labels. Major artists recorded in Chicago include Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.
All these musicians are worthy of study, but this week I wish to focus on a particular Chicago blues artist: J.B. Lenoir. My brother brought home from his college radio station a reel-to-reel tape he had jam-packed with Chess classic albums. And as I absorbed the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Shines , and Little Walter, I was especially taken with J.B. Lenoir.