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?”
This is not a fantasy: Earl Hines' hands scan piano in vast swaths, Ferlinghetti reads beat poetry in The Cellar, Lucy Reed intones on translucent red, Gerry Mulligan stakes out new turf with trumpeter Chet Baker, Cal Tjader hammers mallets in hot mambo rhythm, Desmond and Dave play like crazy, and Greek Dance enhances the whole.
All for one ninety-eight! Fantasy Records Hi-Fi Sampler is a disc-shaped time-capsule from 1957. Caught just before records went stereophonic, the back of the album boasts Stereophonic Recorded Tapes available. Stereo cartridges and records began to be sold in large numbers in 1958. I'm betting lots of folks forgot this monaural release in all the excitement. But from the time I heard Uncle John Rockne's copy, I never forgot it. It's not just the translucent red plastic vinyl--though that was exotic to me--it was the chance to hear Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan in their formative stages, to hear Earl Hines pounding out an elaborate boogie-woogie piano solo, to be introduced to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, without whom Allen Ginsberg and the Beats might have fizzled out. There were things that struck me as bizarre, particularly the Baldwin Organ rendition of "Moonlight In Vermont," by Les Strand.
Yet, for all the solid recordings from these major talents, the prime reason I remember this disc is Lucy Reed's definitive version of "It's a Lazy Afternoon." What can I say about her voice? Think of a light charcoal-gray velour. Now imagine sliding your fingers across the fabric. This chanteuse, this "Singing Reed," is beckoning to me from a "place that's quiet, 'cept for daisies running riot, and there's no one passing by it to see. Come spend this lazy afternoon with me." My thirteen-year-old limbic brain ran wild with the possibilities. Perhaps it's fitting that Lucy Reed embodied my mythical Siren's voice: It turns out that "It's A Lazy Afternoon" is from a Broadway musical about the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.
But, wait. There's more. It seems some wonderful studio sound technician managed to enhance Lucy Reed's voice by completely acoustic means. At least that's my guess. Perhaps a secondary microphone captured early reflection from a nearby wood surface, or a small cabinet close to her voice was utilized. Even if it was accidental, the result is at once subtle and intimate. She could be singing to you in your own room.
Finally, the kicker: All these years I had admired the restraint and finesse of the jazz musicians accompanying Reed, particularly the pianist. In researching this blog entry, I was stunned to learn the pianist is none other than the great Bill Evans, one of the most influential and admired players of modern jazz. He was virtually unknown at the time of this recording. Reed went out of her way to make sure the young pianist was included on the date. In this way, Lucy Reed, who sadly never achieved much fame outside of Chicago, contributed to Evans' career, and sweetly enhanced jazz history.
Often we Americans have poked fun at traditions beyond our ken. This happened to four-part harmony since the mid-Sixties. Barbershop quartets were thought to be hopelessly square. The teaching of singing in parts was abandoned by schools. Of course we were content to listen to some great harmony singing from The Beach Boys, Beatles, Byrds, et. al., but the average Joe and Jill would have no clue if asked to participate.
I wonder if we shy away from four-part harmony in part because of its intensity? It can touch the brain and heart in equal measure. The ever-growing cohort of modern Shapenote singers have discovered this intensity, and many a secular humanist has been drawn to those expressions of stark theology--alongside believers of all stripes--simply due to the joyful power gained from singing with three other harmonies joining in.
Kalama's Quartette is, by those standards, powerfully masculine even as they proffer sensitive bardic beauty. Not one, but two steel guitars weave virtuoso accompaniment to Hawaiian songs of place and circumstance. These were recorded eighty years ago, but I always feel like these guys are whispering in my ear, serenading me through time zones and cultural difference as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Mike Hanapi's falsetto at the top, and the phenomenal bass vocal of Bob Nawahine, are filled in by William Kalama singing tenor and picking ukulele, and Dave Kaleipua Munson singing baritone and playing guitar. Together, they evoke an intimate scene of making music by serious moonlight. The steel guitars and voices bending from pitch to pitch mimic water's sinuous quality. The call and response style moves at the frequency of lazy waves repeatedly kissing the shore.
The group can take on humorous themes, but most of these pieces inspire a kind of gravitas, if not spiritual wonder. Caveat auditor: they could make you cry without warning.