Thursday, July 26, 2007


You may already have read Bob Moses's letter to the Boston Phoenix, as it dates from 2001. Actually, I think I've already read it, too. But I just chanced across it again and found it fun.

For those who've never read it and to refresh the memories of those who have, Moses wrote the letter in reaction to an article about "local saxophonist James Merenda." According to the article, the latter is "unsatisfied by the strict neo-traditionalist viewpoint offered by Wynton Marsalis and the anything-goes irreverence of John Zorn and his downtown crew, [so] he's carved out his own niche somewhere in the middle."

Moses is totally opposed to Merenda's repertory project. He even goes so far as to threaten to become a "powerful enemy" if this path is pursued and reminds Merenda of a certain Mingus composition with Charlie Parker in the title. As it happens, you can download Merenda's hard-charging live rendition of that very piece. The reasons Moses cites for his displeasure are: the band names chosen (Mingus Three among them), insufficient musical skill and, most deeply, because "what you like is not yours; only what you live is yours." He continues:

Here are some questions for Mr. Merenda. Do you intend to play Mingus' music for the rest of your life? After all there are many great composers. Two years from know is it going to be Herbie Nichols? Andrew Hill? Elmo Hope? Don't you see this trivializes the life and work of these singular innovators to something akin to changing a hair- style or way of dress every few years?
I can only wonder if any among those three did not study and play the music of earlier, dead or otherwise unreachable, composers. So as not to single out Merenda, Moses also blasts Branford Marsalis's take on A Love Supreme and puts down a future blogger:
On the same concert is the trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum who claims to "explore the concepts of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman". This is arrogance supreme! I haven't heard him play and perhaps he's a genius but this treats the life and work of these singular masters as lightly as two flavors of ice cream in the same cone because we feel like tasting both. The truth is that Miles and Ornette, both geniuses couldn't have played each other's music. Are we to believe that Taylor Ho Bynum can play both?
So, how is one supposed to learn? Moses prones a Mr. Miyagi/reinvent-the-wheel/school of hard knocks pedagogy:
Start at the bottom. Don't try to play Mingus, Miles, Coltrane etc., until you can play the more basic forms. Join an R&B or Gospel group. (Mingus was a master of these styles.) Play for non-white audiences. Do it for years until you can get the people dancing by yourself... Join a reggae band with Jamaicans (if you are good enough). Master several forms of simpler, but not simple black music, like zouk, calypso, reggae, samba, afro-cuban, funk, r&b or hip-hop. Then you might be ready to take on "jazz" the most harmonically complicated and virtuostic form of black music. Spend twenty years mastering that which for starters means knowing every standard and jazz composition in every key, at any tempo, without ever owning or looking at a Real Book.
At this point, I ask myself why it reduces lives to hair-styles, fashionable clothes or ice cream to go from playing Mingus to playing Hope every few years, but careening through all manner of Afro-Diasporic music is fine, because they are mere stepstones to the more complex and virtuosic forms. Not to worry, however, as after all that hard work (and is that final challenge attainable or mere myth? If not, is it a worthwhile way to spend one's life?), there is a pay-off, slim as it may seem:
If you do all that you might be ready to play a Mingus or Miles Davis composition convincingly. This I can do. Nevertheless, I choose not to because I know the master's dance is to always grow, move forward and create anew, not to look back and rehash what's already been.
But does the hypothetical Moses Method student make that choice before or after finally transposing that 1,274th standard to D# and articulating it clearly at 250, but also able to keep it sprightly at 60? Is it while reflecting on a lifetime of second-rate r'n'b and salsa gigs that he decides that he is now able to "move forward and create anew"?

Hal Galper adds a funny comment:
How many Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Monk, Duke, Armstrong tributes can wesuffer?

This has gotten so out of hand I made the following suggestion to Phil during a period when the band was almost dormant. We should fake Phil's death and start the "Phil Woods Tribute Quintet" Led by a Woods clone. Phil could sit at home and collect a percentage of the band's income. Then every Easter we could have a CarnagieHall concert where we resurrect him.

Last summer my quintet with Jack Walrath on trumpet had just returned from a week at the Estoril festival. I had never played with Jack before and was raving to her about his playing. I mentioned that he had played for years with Mingus's band. [My old lady Lillyan] asked "when he was dead or alive?"

A sign of the times?