The saddest song ever – ever – is supposedly “Gloomy Sunday”, a.k.a. “The Hungarian Suicide Song.” The song’s reputation was so solidly dark that the BBC banned Billie Holiday’s version during World War II. Presumably, it was bad for morale. If you ask me, it’s hard to believe that anything Billie Holiday sang could be bad for the spirit, unless she sang a song about her life story from her death bed. Holiday was bounced around from home to home as a child, sentenced to Catholic reform school, given back to her mom, raped by a neighbor, sent back to the same Catholic school as a witness in the case against rapey-neighbor, and learned some songs while she and her mom worked at a brothel. Oh, and while she was on her death bed, cops were storming her hospital room to bust her on a drug charge. Curiously, none of that shit is in “Gloomy Sunday” and it still manages to depress.
Did you have to have a fucked up life to be a great jazz vocalist? I’ll report, you decide. Nina Simone’s bipolar disorder was first diagnosed as multiple personality disorder and then schizophrenia, but it was kept a secret until after her death in 2003. Also, her unforgivable blackness kept her out of her music school of choice, despite her obvious talent. However well known she is (I don’t really know), it’s not well known enough. Simone’s voice could reach down to a baritone when she wanted it to, giving her a distinct, mournful, and at times quite sultry tone that is impossible to replicate (actually, the closest modern comparisons I can find to Nina Simone’s voice are TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons). For me, that voice defines American soul. As you celebrate whatever you think America is this weekend, do yourself a favor and listen to some goddamn Nina Simone.
Say, what’s more American the electric guitar? If you answered “Fucking nothing,” you are correct. I guess. Anyway, let me tell you about America’s first electric guitarist, a man who lived but a quarter century, which was apparently enough to pioneer the idea of the guitar as a solo instrument and inspire the likes of Les Paul. So if you celebrate the 4th of July by plugging in and rocking out, raise your glass to Charlie Christian, the genius of the electric guitar. Christian was dead before Nina Simone was even rejected from her first music school (the Curtis Institute), but his audition for John Hammond (the John Hammond who launched the careers of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, to name but a few. Also, the father of Tom Waits’s pal John Hammond, who has made a career of preserving the dignity of the blues) was good enough to earn him an audition with Benny Goodman. Goodman was initially unimpressed with Christian, but Hammond was not to be denied. He surprised Goodman by sticking Charlie Christian on the bandstand at a gig here in Los Angeles. In an effort to fluster the young guitarist, Goodman told the band to play “Rose Room”, assuming Christian wouldn’t know it. In one of the all-time great moments of unflappability, Christian launched into his solo at exactly the right time and proceeded to, ark-of-the-covenant-style, melt the faces off of everyone there. (Christian had learned the solo playing with pianist Edward Christian and guitarist Bigfoot Ralph Hamilton back in the early 1930s). It is said that Christian’s first time playing “Rose Room” with Benny Goodman turned into a forty-minute jam that no doubt had an effect on the audience that was the spiritual equivalent of a Cialis overdose.
Since we’re on the topic of mind-blowingly awesome jazz musicians, let me talk to you a bit about John Coltrane. “Genius” is a word that gets tossed around a lot on the internet and I won’t use it to describe John Coltrane’s music. Because it’s an in-fucking-adequate word for what Coltrane could do with a saxophone. Inspired by the only other saxophone player you need to listen to, Charlie Parker, Coltrane was so good at the sax that he was awarded a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2007. Say what you want about jazz, but your favorite band has never won a Pulitzer. Like David Bowie in the 1970s, if John Coltrane had something to do with your album back in the 1950s and 60s, it was probably awesome. He played with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue and appeared frequently with Thelonius Monk. Oh, and he recorded Blue Train and Giant Steps and fucking A Love Supreme, an album that is basically a giant, jazzy love letter to God and I’ll tell you this: if church ever sounded as good as A Love Supreme, I’d probably go more. Still prefer Kenny G? Well, Mr. G doesn’t have his own cycle of chord progressions named for him, unless there’s a jazz “snooze cycle” out there that I don’t know about.
If Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz in the early twentieth century, then Coltrane and Miles Davis and a few others perfected it in the mid-twentieth century. Miles Davis was one of the few major figures in jazz who didn’t have terrible parents and managed to make it almost to old age (he died at age 65, which is still better than ‘Trane, who kicked off at 44. Which is better than poor Charlie Christian, who died at 25). On the way, he put himself at the forefront of several major movements in jazz, including bebop and fusion. Davis recorded Kind of Blue in 1959 and it went on to become the bestselling jazz album of all time, which only proves that sometimes, very rarely, several million people can get something right. Think of the number of platinum albums Nickelback has made and you’ll get a sense of how rare it is for a “bestselling album” to actually be a “good album.”
Another face that belongs on the Jazz Mt. Rushmore is that of Charles Mingus, the Angry Man of Jazz, known for a fierce integrity and a foul temper. Mingus was one helluva composer and one helluva bass player (do you know how hard it is to distinguish yourself as a bass player? Think of all the great – truly great – bass players you can name. You thought of five, and Mingus damn well better be on the list). There’s no point telling you more about him – what you need to do is run out and get your hands on a copy of Mingus Ah Um and hear Chuck slap the strings the way he probably wanted to slap Orval Faubus.
At some point (let’s call it “tomorrowish”), we’ll have to move into the 1960s and, obviously, that means we’ll talk about Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground. And then shit’s gonna get dark, but don’t worry – I’ll tell you what was worth listening to in the 1970s and 80s and why. It’ll be all right, I promise.