Jazzin’ the Apple

The Heath Bros, Cannonball Legacy Band, Dianne Reeves in film and Ron Carter.
Jazzin’ the Apple
by Bob McMurray

When my boss came up to me last month and said, “Bob, there’s no other way around it you have to go to New York for a week and work Toy Fair”, I said to myself, “Let’s see: free nights in Manhattan and a per diem…hmm…maybe I could make this work after all”. I immediately started checking the Internet to see who was going to be playing in New York’s jazz clubs that week. I had a nice little itinerary set up before I even left Chicago. Of course, the Village Vanguard would head my list regardless of who was playing.

So let’s get started – let me show you my week in the jazz capital of the world!

The Heath Brothers
at The Village Vanguard

My colleague Peter and I hopped the subway from Times Square where we were staying to Greenwich Village, had some fine “country” French at a hip place in the Meat Packing district, and then strode on over to the Vanguard. Having used our jazz clubbing strategy (so successful in Chicago) of getting there at just the right time to get the proper seating, we were second in line waiting for the doors to open. It didn’t take long for me to learn that New York was different from Chicago. After we descended the famous narrow stairs down to the basement location we were stopped dead in our tracks with a very simple question.


Umm…Reservations. At a jazz club? What is this world coming to?!? It was time for my negotiating prowess to take over. There was a line of people 20 feet long right behind me on those narrow stairs. We weren’t going anywhere.

“Please, we’re from out of town, please, please, puleeeeze let us into your jazz club.”

“How many?”

“Two – we promise not to take up much room.”

“Ok. You can sit over at those tables on the elevated railing or in the back.”

We chose a table along the railing. Whew.

Well, we were in and quite comfortable too. Ah, the hallowed ground at last. Monk, Powell, Coltrane, Gordon, Blakey, you name it. More than 100 live recordings made right here. I was looking for ghosts, a glimpse of owner Lorraine Gordon, and soaking in the atmosphere. Tonight’s show was the Heath Brothers with Jeb Patton on piano and Carl Allen on drums. Bob McMurray at the VanguardI’d seen the Heath Brothers, Jimmy, Percy, and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath twice before in Chicago. I knew they wouldn’t disappoint and it was somehow appropriate to me that such all-time great players with so many legendary accomplishments between them would be the act.

As the set got going, as Jimmy and Percy displayed there comfortable showmanship and interplay, as Percy soloed, as the crowd was treated to Jimmy’s evergreen, ‘Gingerbread Boy’, it became ever increasingly clear to me that it was the Vanguard’s romance that was the main act. The very first thing I felt was the family atmosphere. This wasn’t just a jazz show like I’ve done a hundred times before. I felt like I was at a family party in my Aunt’s living room and the Heath Brothers just happened to be the featured guests. As I looked around I didn’t really see strangers I saw my cousin Chuck and his family or my brother-in-law Mike or my Aunt from Michigan. Everyone was comfortable being there, being together as a group and participating together.

The next thing that I noticed was the sound. Yes, there is something unique and magical about the sound at the Village Vanguard. Maybe it’s the harp shaped room. The space itself approximates the shape of a grand piano. Most rooms are rectangular with harsh corners. The Vanguard has softer wall contours and the fact that it’s in the shape of a musical instrument couldn’t hurt. Then there’s the physical location. This place is deep underground. I got the feeling of being surrounded by earth. There really isn’t any place for the sound to dissipate. The room soaks it in and retains every sweet and supple note that is played and offers it, by hand, for you to savor. To me the term, “acoustics”, doesn’t adequately describe this room.

There was one more element that at first was kind of distracting but became more humorous and added to the club’s uniqueness. Every night there seems to be an extra special guest that contributes that certain something to the harmonies – the subway trains. I would say I felt the rumblings of the New York transit system 3 or 4 times during the set.

After a while it didn’t bother me, the Vanguard had entranced another dreamer.

The Cannonball Legacy Band
at The Sweet Basil

After the scare at the Vanguard I was better prepared this time. I called and got reservations for Sunday night at The Sweet Basil. The Sweet Basil, also located in Greenwich Village, is a little different from the Vanguard in that it serves food and indeed has a very good menu. The stage sits in the back corner of the room and we got a table directly in front of the left-hand side of the stage. The Sweet Basil is a very hip jazz club, as their logo tells you, and I was very impressed with Peter Leitch’s black and white photography of jazz musicians who have played there that is exhibited on the walls.

We had managed to order our appetizers (the carrot soup was great) and have our meals served to us by the time the band took the stage. Drummer Louis Hayes was the leader of the newly formed and named Cannonball Legacy Band. Peter Litton  on the Sweet Basil's stageThe band is comprised of Hayes on drums, Vincent Herring on alto saxophone, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Rich Germanson on piano, and Vincente Archer on bass. We were catching the very last night of their first week together as the Cannonball Legacy Band.

When this band hit they came with a vengeance and with purpose. Right from the opening note they challenged the full-house audience. Their power, their fire, they came straight at us and into us. Herring and Pelt tag-teamed and relentlessly strong-armed every listener to join them on their meteoric rides. “Have you got what it takes to come along with us?” they asked. We had to be able to take a punch. We defended ourselves ready to take on their cyclone of sound.

I immediately forgot about my grilled shrimp in mushrooms, lemon, and capers. Peter’s Spaghetti Basil could wait until lunch tomorrow. During one of Pelt’s sweet rampages Peter’s unlucky glass of water was caught mid-lift, unfulfilled in its mission to appease thirst, and hung forgotten like yesterday’s laundry on the line.

Watching this blazing quintet I’m not reminded in a nostalgic sense, as I might have been at the Vanguard, of Miles Davis’ 50’s quintet or his sextet with Cannonball Adderley or even to Brown-Roach but to the immediate viability this quintet would have in all of the clubs and performing centers across the country. What a band! Comparisons with other modern quintets with strong rhythm sections and explosive front lines came to mind. Bands I’m a fan of such as Nicholas Payton’s, Irvin Mayfield’s, Roy Hargrove’s, and Terence Blanchard’s. This band was playing like it wants some of that action.

After our waiter had wrapped up the leftovers, all Peter could say was “I’m tired”.

Jazz in Film – Dianne Reeves and Jazz Vocalists
at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center

The new shoes that my wife had gotten me for this trip were really starting to bother my feet by Monday night. No matter, I chalked it up to all of the blocks of New York City pavement I was walking. For these experiences, a few blisters were a good investment.

Lincoln Center is a wonderfully impressive complex that must be considered a crown jewel of American performing arts. I don’t profess to be an expert on all things Lincoln Center but I do know that jazz is a major force in its agenda. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, for example, is a must for anyone to experience. In addition, there are special concerts such as the wildly successful ‘Jazz at the Penthouse – Duets on the Hudson’ and of course the nationally broadcast radio series, ‘Jazz from Lincoln Center’. But it was for one of their educational lectures, ‘Jazz in Film – Dianne Reeves and Jazz Vocalists‘, which I was risking my feet since I didn’t know exactly where within the sprawl of Lincoln Center our show was.

Dianne Reeves, who is a terrific performer and important jazz singer, hosted and took us on a chronological journey through her career as she documented all of the singers who had been notable influences on her development. The film clips, for the most part, were jazz performances documented on video. They were generally not scenes from motion pictures or movies about jazz nor were they really music videos in the MTV sense. They are best described as jazz performances caught on film.

The program started by both featuring some of the classic early influences on Dianne Reeves as well as illustrating what “influence” means as Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald were all shown performing the same composition, ‘Round Midnight’, in their own unique styles. Reeves showed us many perspectives of herself as she time and again revealed insight into her growth and related each story to a different jazz vocalist such as Billie Holiday or Betty Carter. It was truly fascinating.

In addition the lecture was a terrific history lesson as Reeves chronicled jazz vocals from Sarah Vaughan to Billie Holiday to Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Joe Williams, and Cassandra Wilson. Many of the clips were very exciting and illuminating. Billie Holiday’s moving rendition of Fine and Mellow with Lester Young on CBS’ The Sound of Jazz television special was included in full and was particularly touching. One of my personal favorites, Johnny Hartmann, who I’d never seen live was a special treat for me. There were a few artists, such as Milton Nascimento, whom I was seeing for the first time. I have to say none of the clips were long enough!

At the end of this incredible two hours I realized how much I had been exposed to. Most importantly, I learned that the artist’s search for her own voice isn’t always about inventing a sound that no one has heard before but can also be creating a personal perspective from multiple influences and turning it into your own unique combination.

Bob McMurray at the IridiumThe Ron Carter Quartet
at The Iridium

My last night in New York and one last chance to check out a different jazz venue. I made sure I got reservations again but this time I had to get them for the 2nd set. Say what you will about New York but they sold out the first set at the Iridium on a Wednesday night. Jazz is alive and well in the jazz capital of the world.

The Iridium is like the Sweet Basil in that it doubles as a restaurant and a jazz club. Like the Vanguard we had to stand in line and jockey for position to get a good table. I was very excited because The Ron Carter quartet was playing, as I had never had the pleasure of seeing the legendary bassist before. He had just released a new album and was touring with Stephen Scott on piano, Steve Kroon on percussion, and Harvey Mason on drums.

I like my bass players to be strong and clear. I like to feel the bass beating in my chest that’s when I know the bass player is speaking to me. There have been quite a few that have really impressed me over the last few years: Avery Scott, Ugonna Okegwo, and Rodney Whitaker just to name a few. But Ron Carter showed me there is a whole new level to playing the bass. Bob McMurray with Janet Schweitzer and Jaime Dow at the IridiumIt didn’t hurt that the set was a nice combination of high energy modern playing with songs containing more of a Cuban jazz rhythm including Jobim compositions. It was really beautiful.

After my long work week (yes I did go to work) in New York it was nice to sit back, relax, and be entertained and even serenaded by such masters of jazz. When Stephen Scott completed an artful reconstruction of ‘Take Five’ in a Cuban jazz theme I turned to my friend Jaime, proud that I still recognized the song and feeling personally affected by the music I guess, and said, “I can play that song…but not like him!”

The next evening, after the last day of Toy Fair, my week was over and I was happy to be heading home to see my wife and three children. Peter and I fell asleep in our limo on the way to the airport. The limousine driver had to wake us up at LaGuardia; I swear he could have been Dexter Gordon’s younger brother. That’s how remarkable a jazz town New York is; even the limousine drivers get you thinking about the greats!