September 14, 2017

Frank Capp, 1931-2017


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Drummer Frank Capp passed away after a long and successful career on September 12. Frank had an arc to his career that was similar to many interviewees from the Fillius Jazz Archive collection. Musicians like guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, pianist Dick Hyman, and saxophonist Ernie Watts began their career playing jazz and swing with big bands and small combos. When the big bands faded from the scene in the 1950s many of these musicians found lucrative work in the recording studios on both the east and west coasts. Their versatility enabled them to play on every kind of recording imaginable. The drums you hear on Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and “I Got You Babe” were played by Frank Capp. He could go from a rock & roll date to a movie soundtrack stage, and in our interview he described such a session:
MR:   Give us a little idea of what a typical studio date would be like.
FC:   Well let me example something like a motion picture session. You’d be given a call by a contractor to be at Warner Brothers Studio or Universal or MGM, whatever, and you’d go to the studio at 9 o’clock in the morning, and there would be 60, 70 musicians, depending. It could be a small group too, but a lot of pictures used at that time, large orchestras. And you walk in, and the librarian hands out the music. You open it to page one and play. Here it is: one-two-three play. And you have to play that music like you wrote it, or like you’ve been playing it for — rarely in those days did you get a chance to play it more than twice. Maybe three times. You’d run it down for notes, to make sure there was no copying errors. And then you begin recording. And if it was a tight budget picture, which is the case now, you don’t get a second chance. You’re on the edge of your seat at all times.
Around 1976 Frank left the 9-5 recording studio life and returned to his first love, which was big band jazz.  His passion was shared by his friend, pianist Nat Pierce. The well known big band named Juggernaut came about serendipitously as many musical ventures do.
FC:   Our first album was just called Juggernaut. And the reason it was called Juggernaut is because Nat and I put the band together for a one-night situation to help a guy who was running big bands at a club called King Arthur’s in the San Fernando Valley. And he had hired Neal Hefti’s band and Neal disbanded before the engagement came up. And I was contracting for Neal, so the club owner asked me to put a big band together. I did. I got Nat, we went out, and we called it “A Tribute to Count Basie.” And we worked that first night, and that was all it was going to be. And the crowd liked it so much, and the club owner liked it so much, he said, “You’ve got to come back next week.” Well we did and we came back subsequent weeks for a couple of months, and Leonard Feather, the jazz critic for the L.A. Times at that point, came out to review the band. And the next day in his article it said, “A juggernaut on Basie Street.” That was the title of the review. So at that particular time, everybody had a name to the band. Buddy Rich had the Big Band Machine, and Louie Bellson had Big Band Explosion, and everybody, they were putting a tag on all of it. So I said, “Nat, let’s use the name ‘Juggernaut.’” So we subsequently recorded that first album, and Carl Jefferson from Concord said, “Let’s call the album ‘Juggernaut.’” I kind of wish that we never used the word quite frankly, because people don’t know how to spell it. They are forever asking me what is a Juggernaut, and a lot of people call it “Juggernauts” and it’s not a plural.
The Webster dictionary defines Juggernaut as “an irresistible force” and the Capp-Pierce big band was certainly that. Their second album, “Live at the Century Plaza,” featured our favorite singer, Joe Williams, in an spontaneously-created 11-minute tune called “Joe’s Blues.”
Frank was a man of strong opinions, especially about the role of music, and jazz in particular:
FC:   This country’s got its values all screwed up. Musicians who spend and devote their life to become really facile on their instruments and help create pleasure for people, make nothing. And some athletic dummy, you know, goes out and bangs his head against somebody else’s helmet and they make millions and millions. But that’s another story.
MR:   Well we feel that this music is such a big part of this country.
FC:   It is, it is. Thank God — I could kiss you for saying that. I mean it’s America’s heritage, you know?
From the Fillius archive, here is a link to the full YouTube interview I conducted with Frank on September 3, 1995.

September 6, 2017

Musician, Know Thy Gig


The first gig I can remember being paid for dates back to 1968, my senior year in high school. I played with fellow classmates in a sax-keyboard-drums trio. The gig was a Spanish Club banquet, and the faculty coordinator of the club gave us $12 to split between us. It was my first experience getting paid to play, and I liked it! Since that time I’ve played every imaginable kind of gig, in various ensembles, at assorted settings.
One type of engagement I play regularly is for alumni functions at local colleges. Most of these gatherings are sponsored by the development office; the most recent one celebrated the grand opening of a remodeled campus building while simultaneously honoring major donors. Though the atmosphere and setting were casual, the college staff were highly motivated to stage a flawless event.
After all these years I still was playing with two other musical partners. This particular trio consisted of keyboard, guitar and drums. Our contract stipulated that we be ready to play at 5:45, and to expect a 20-minute break while speeches were made at the podium.
As we were setting up, a good half hour before the beginning of the event, our contact came up to the band and in good humor deliberately looked at us and counted, “One, two, three,” pointing to each member in succession. It was a way of saying, “I see you are all here, you’re dressed appropriately, and that you will be ready to play at the appointed time.”
Three songs into our set the contact again approached the band and I could tell a comment was forthcoming. Musicians have a short list of complimentary audience observations they like to hear, including, “Nice tunes, terrific guitar solo,” etc. What we heard was, “The volume is perfect.” At that moment I was reminded that the most important thing on this engagement was that people could congregate and have a conversation without shouting over the music.
I am lucky to play with two guys who already know this. Our drummer wisely played with brushes, and our guitarist brought his smallest amp. Some rooms are difficult to gauge, but a glance around the room will make it clear. If people are leaning into each other to talk, it’s time to turn down. Curiously, some of our best musical moments occur in these intimate situations.
Some musicians might be mildly offended by the volume remark, as if that was all that mattered. But you can take pride in yourself and in your fellow musicians that you are capably filling your role, and likely to get called again for another event.
Musicians should take note of the non-musical aspects of performing professionally. This does not mean that what you play does not matter. The very next day I received feedback from this same person remarking on the positive comments he received about the trio. If you want to work more than one time in the same location, keep in mind what’s important to the individual with the checkbook.

August 24, 2017

John Abercrombie, 1944-2017


 
John Abercrombie, in 2001
One of the finest guitarists in jazz, John Abercrombie, passed away this past Tuesday, August 22, 2017. John’s recording career was as varied as his early guitar influences, which included Chuck Berry and Barney Kessel. His work ranged from heavy fusion with the band called Dreams, to introspective recordings on the ECM label. John explored the possibilities that electronics offered, employing the guitar-synthesizer combination, but eventually found that his guitar and one amplifier was all the resources he needed. In our interview conducted before a concert at Hamilton, he took note of the proliferating number of young musicians entering the market, and offered sage advice for newly minted music school graduates:
MR:         If you had the opportunity to address those thousand plus guitar students at Berklee, what would you say to them about how to prepare for the future of where this music is at?
JA:         Oh man, I mean you could just tell them don’t quit your day job, you could say, I mean the hardest thing is with a lot of players, and what I always tell the ones, I mean and I can’t address a thousand of them at a time, but even with the students I have, if they play really good I just tell them look, I hope you really like this music, because if you don’t I mean there’s a lot of you guys around right now. I mean there’s a lot of good young players. I have a couple of students at the New England Conservatory where I teach now about eight times a year. I mean they can really play.  I’ve had a few that you kind of go wow, this guy can play. Really play. And when he gets out in the real world and he’s more of a — he’s really going to be able to play. But where are all these guys going to work? And I always try to tell them, I always try to say look, keep yourself open to all the aspects of music, whether it’s being a jazz player or maybe it’s writing songs, maybe it’s as a producer. I mean there could be a place in music for a lot of people but there’s only so many places that people who are going to be quote unquote performers, especially jazz performers, are going to be able to play. I mean the amount of venues haven’t changed dramatically since when I was starting to play and there’s like a hundred times more players out there. I’m lucky I have a record label and a reputation. To be a young musician coming now, it has to be tough from that point of view, because there’s so many guys and there’s just not enough places to play. So I just tell them make sure you really love this stuff because you’re going to have to be doing it for that reason if you want to be a jazz player because there’s not going to be, and don’t even worry about anything else. Just only do it for that. As long as you can get by and then if you’re really true to what you do things will come your way probably, you’ll make a living and you’ll be able to play your music and hopefully maybe you’ll get very successful.
Fresh from the Fillius archive, here is a link to the full YouTube interview I conducted with John on April 19, 2001.