A Christmas Jazz Tale

December 23, 2013

A Christmas Jazz Tale

by Don Heckman

‘Twas the night before Christmas and the gig was running late;
No sugar plums, no candy canes, just another overtime club date,
Holidays are work days in a jazz musician’s life,
A chance to make some extra bucks to take home to the wife.

Chanukah’s over, Kwaanza starts tomorrow,
The Ramadan fast just ended,  and I’ll forget the others to my sorrow.
If you want to make a living in the music world these days,
You’d better learn to celebrate in many different ways.

The clock slowly turned toward the midnight hour,
As we played a jazzed up version of the “Waltz of the Flowers.”
We labored on, “White Christmas,” “Frosty” and “Silent Night”;
And I wondered if we’d still be jamming “My Favorite Things” at first light.

But we finally got lucky, as the leader kicked off the last medley.
The singer mauled “The Christmas Song,” a version Mel would have found deadly,
We did the “Jingle Bell Mambo” and the “Drummer Boy Bossa Nova,”
And wrapped it all up, with a rock “Hallelujah” coda.

I packed my horn, gave the guys my best wishes and headed into the night.
The streets were dark and quiet, the stores closed up tight.
Not that it would have mattered, since the gig barely paid the rent,
And whatever I could afford for presents had already been spent.

I walked through the falling snow, filled with memories of Christmas past,
Of marching bands and Christmas parades, of lighted trees and times too good to last.
And I wondered if my kids, when adulthood beckons,
Would remember their holidays with the same sweet affection.

My footsteps led me home to a house warm and cozy,
Where my wife and my children lay innocently dozing.
So I sat for a while in the late night still,
Watching the snow fall gently on the hill.

When I suddenly heard a familiar sound in the distance,
A rhythm section swinging with hard driving persistence.
But this one was strange, something I’d never heard before,
A brisk and spirited clatter I can only describe as hoof beats galore.

Then a new sound, one both familiar yet odd,
Called out through the snowflakes, like a leader commanding a squad.
“On Trane! On Dizzy! On Monk! On Duke!
On Sonny! On Bird! On Miles! On Klook!”

The next thing I heard was just as amazing,
A set of riffs, hard-swinging and blazing,
Played on an instrument that was new to me,
The sting of a trumpet, the silk of a sax, the tone of a bone, all blended with glee.

I ran to the window to see what was coming,
And was met with a sight incredibly stunning,
What looked like a bright red ’57 Chevy,
Pulled through the sky by eight reindeer in a bevy.

They landed in my yard and the driver leaped out;
Grabbing a pack from the back he quickly turned about.
I blinked my eyes at this strange apparition,
His cheeks like Dizzy, his smile like Pops, as natty as Miles, a man on a mission.

“Call me Father Jazz,” he said as he came through the door, “musicians are my specialty.
I’ll even make a stop tonight with a little something for Kenny G.”
Then, opening his pack, he lightly danced to our tree,
Placing presents beneath it, ever so gently.

“There’s a drum set for Alex,” he said, “that kid has great time.
And a guitar for Allegra, ’cause the songs she writes are so fine.
And the books and the wristwatch you wanted for your wife,
That you couldn’t afford, living a jazz musician’s life.”

This is way too weird, I thought, it must be a dream;
Something like this is too good to be what it seems.
“Oh, it’s the real deal,” said Father Jazz, with a riff-like snap of his fingers.
“You’re on my list of serious jazz swingers.”

Moving to the doorway he turned back for a final review:
“And if you’re wondering why no box has been left for you,
It’s because your present has already been given.
You know what it is? It’s the spirit that makes your imagination so driven.”

“Musicians like you know that the gift of music is the gift of love.
It’s a gift that can only have come from above.
And those non-jazz Beatles had it right, for all our sakes,
When they said, ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’.”

He bounded lightly through the snow to his flying red Chevy,
Blew a celestial riff on his amazing horn — so heavy!
And urged his team forward with a rallying command,
“On Dizzy! On Bird! On Miles! On Trane!”

As his eager steeds rose into the winter sky,
Father Jazz called out one last stirring cry.
Looking down with a radiant smile and a farewell wave:
“Stay cool, Bro’ and keep the music playing.”


Here, There & Everywhere: Sing! Sing! Sing!

December 23, 2011

By Don Heckman

Christmas caroling was a regular seasonal activity in my young life.  Growing up in an Eastern Pennsylvania rust belt city, singing carols while slip-sliding our way across icy sidewalks was as necessary to the holiday as going to Mass on Christmas eve.  In a way, it was an equally necessary counter to the darker side of what we’d done on Halloween, when enacting tricks was a lot more common than  asking for treats.

All of which went through my mind last night when Faith and I took our lovely ten year old granddaughter, Maia, to the Victorian Mansion for “Candlelight Carols” by Judy Wolman, Howard Lewis and “Sing! Sing! Sing!”  And one couldn’t have asked for a more delightfully atmospheric setting to join in a holiday music singalong than the elegant wood-paneled room that jazz fans will recall as the former site of the much-missed jazz club, “The Vic.”

At the beginning, Wolman reminded me that she, Lewis and their group of singers had been doing these holiday celebrations for 20 years.  Not only that, of course, but also their continuing programs of participatory jaunts through the rich musical landscape of the Great American Songbook.  (Programs devoted to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael and others are already scheduled for 2012.)

The “Candlelight Carols” program characteristically reached out to embrace the Songbook – with selections from Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — as well as a collection of traditional carols.  And the format was as comfortable and inviting as a holiday evening in a close friend’s living room.

Lewis introduced each number with some fascinating background, often including nuggets of insight into the song, as well as its creators.  Then Wolman — a superb piano accompanist, backed by Chris Conner’s bass, Dick Weller’s drums and some warm melody-making from harmonica player Ron Kalina – led the way into the song.

Maia

The audience, using lyric sheets provided by Wolman, sang along enthusiastically, sometimes even more than that.  And our granddaughter, Maia, not especially familiar with all the standards, nonetheless applied her already burgeoning musicality to every song, singing, smiling, enjoying every minute of this engaging new experience.

And what a collection of songs it was: “It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “My Favorite Things,” “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”  As well as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “The First Noel” and much, much more.

Between the singalong segments, individual singers from the Sing! Sing! Sing! vocal ensemble – Chuck Marso, Anita Royal, Jackie Manfredi and Ruth Davis – soloed.  And songwriter Jim Mann presented a brand new Christmas song, “Cheers! Cheers! Cheers!”

The sidewalks weren’t icy, and there was no snow in the forecast as we left the Victorian.  But the wind was blowing, and, as we walked hand in hand to our car, the words to one of the evening’s songs – with their perfect holiday sentiments — kept coming to mind.

           “The wind is blowing

           But I can weather the storm

            What do I care how much it may storm?

            I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”


Live Jazz: The Johnny Vana Big Band Alumni at Las Hadas Mexican Restaurant and Cantina

December 22, 2010

By Don Heckman

Every Tuesday morning, at an hour in which jazz is rarely heard, a remarkable event takes place in Northridge, in the upper reaches of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.  At  Las Hadas Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, the Johnny Vana Big Band Alumni play a program of hard-swinging, big band classics for an audience of listeners and dancers.  That’s right, dancers.  Because Hadas’ large dance floor, surrounded by tables and booths, is filled with lively Lindy Hoppers and joyous jitterbuggers, grooving to every number in the Vana Band’s set.

That alone would make the programs fairly unique, at a time when dancing and jazz are not words one often sees in the same sentence — or in the same room. But they’re finding common cause at Las Hada’s every Tuesday at the odd time of 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.  And yesterday’s celebratory Christmas program, filled with buoyantly swinging holiday classics, offered a prime remembrance of the deep connections that have in fact always existed between jazz and dancing.

The Big Band Alumni group is aptly named.  Virtually every member of the seventeen piece ensemble has credits reaching from Jimmy Dorsey and Glen Miller to Stan Kenton, Count Basie and beyond.  Despite their silver hair, however, they played such jazz staples as “One O’Clock Jump” and “String of Pearls” with an irrepressible blend of easygoing familiarity and high spirited youthfulness.

The soloists, especially tenor saxophonist Dave Pell – a bandleader in his own right – delivered with similar effectiveness.  Like many of the Alumni’s arrangements, their phrasing and rhythmic accents traced to Swing era roots that had grown to maturity in the rich blossoms of bebop.  At their best, the Alumni were offering music that offered far more than nostalgic re-creations of the past.

Singers Bonnie Bowden and Bill A. Jones provided the perfect vocal balance for the driving instrumentals.  Bowden’s airy timbre, soaring range and convincing versatility were at their best in everything from a gently swinging rendering of Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You” to a rollicking take on Fats Waller’s “This Joint Is Jumpin’.”  And on Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings,” she virtually became a member of the band, applying her focused soprano to the high note, lead trumpet line.

Jones’s warm baritone, brisk rhythmic flow and easygoing phrasing brought life and substance to everything he sang.  In his version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” sung to Nelson Riddle’s memorable arrangement, he found the Sinatra magic and applied it in his own unique fashion.

The floor, meanwhile, was filled with dancers of every imaginable age and shape.  Many were as silver haired as the Big Band Alumni, but both the skill and the intensity level of their dancing seemed to have a lot more to do with sheer enthusiasm than it did with longevity.  More to the point, there was a feeling of togetherness in the room, a feeling of sharing the life and the spirit of the music, that was everywhere present, among dancers and non-dancers, young and old.

And that, as much as anything, is what made this seemingly unlikely, brunch-time performance by Vana’s Big Band Alumni into such an enjoyable experience.  No wonder so many in the crowd were repeat visitors.  If the word gets out, one day a week may not be enough to accommodate all the lovers of dance and jazz out there.


The Holidays

December 20, 2010

A Christmas Jazz Tale

by Don Heckman

‘Twas the night before Christmas and the gig was running late;
No sugar plums, no candy canes, just another overtime club date,
Holidays are work days in a jazz musician’s life,
A chance to make some extra bucks to take home to the wife.

Chanukah’s underway, Kwaanza starts tomorrow,
The Ramadan fast soon ends, and I’ll forget the others to my sorrow.
If you want to make a living in the music world these days,
You’d better learn to celebrate in many different ways.

The clock slowly turned toward the midnight hour,
As we played a jazzed up version of the “Waltz of the Flowers.”
We labored on, “White Christmas,” “Frosty” and “Silent Night”;
And I wondered if we’d still be jamming “My Favorite Things” at first light.

But we finally got lucky, as the leader kicked off the final medley.
The singer mauled “The Christmas Song,” a version Mel would have found deadly,
We did the “Jingle Bell Mambo” and the “Drummer Boy Bossa Nova,”
And wrapped it all up, with a rock “Hallelujah” coda.

I packed my horn, gave the guys my best wishes and headed into the night.
The streets were dark and quiet, the stores closed up tight.
Not that it would have mattered, since the gig barely paid the rent,
And whatever I could afford for presents had already been spent.

I walked through the falling snow, filled with memories of Christmas past,
Of marching bands and Christmas parades, of lighted trees and times too good to last.
And I wondered if my kids, when adulthood beckons,
Would remember their holidays with the same sweet affection.

My footsteps led me home to a house warm and cozy,
Where my wife and my children lay innocently dozing.
So I sat for a while in the late night still,
Watching the snow fall gently on the hill.

When I suddenly heard a familiar sound in the distance,
A rhythm section swinging with hard driving persistence.
But this one was strange, something I’d never heard before,
A brisk and spirited clatter I can only describe as hoof beats galore.

Then a new sound, one both familiar yet odd,
Called out through the snowflakes, like a leader commanding a squad.
“On Trane! On Dizzy! On Monk! On Duke!
On Sonny! On Bird! On Miles! On Klook!”

The next thing I heard was just as amazing,
A set of riffs, hard-swinging and blazing,
Played on an instrument that was new to me,
The sting of a trumpet, the silk of a sax, the tone of a bone, all blended with glee.

I ran to the window to see what was coming,
And was met with a sight incredibly stunning,
What looked like a bright red ’57 Chevy,
Pulled through the sky by eight reindeer in a bevy.

They landed in my yard and the driver leaped out;
Grabbing a pack from the back he quickly turned about.
I blinked my eyes at this strange apparition,
His cheeks like Dizzy, his smile like Pops, as natty as Miles, a man on a mission.

“Call me Father Jazz,” he said as he came through the door, musicians are my specialty.
I’ll even make a stop tonight with a little something for Kenny G.”
Then, opening his pack, he lightly danced to our tree,
Placing presents beneath it, ever so gently.

“There’s a drum set for Alex,” he said, “that kid has great time.
And a guitar for Allegra, ’cause the songs she writes are so fine.
And the books and the wristwatch you wanted for your wife,
That you couldn’t afford, living a jazz musician’s life.”

This is way too weird, I thought, it must be a dream;
Something like this is too good to be what it seems.
“Oh, it’s the real deal,” said Father Jazz, with a riff-like snap of his fingers.
“You’re on my list of serious jazz swingers.”

Moving to the doorway he turned back for a final review:
“And if you’re wondering why no box has been left for you,
It’s because your present has already been given.
You know what it is? It’s the spirit that makes your imagination so driven.”

“Musicians like you know that the gift of music is the gift of love.
It’s a gift that can only have come from above.
And those non-jazz Beatles had it right, for all our sakes,
When they said, ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’.”

He bounded lightly through the snow to his flying red Chevy,
Blew a celestial riff on his amazing horn — so heavy!
And urged his team forward with a rallying command,
“On Dizzy! On Bird! On Miles! On Trane!”

As his eager steeds rose into the winter sky,
Father Jazz called out one last stirring cry.
Looking down with a radiant smile and a farewell wave:
“Stay cool, Bro’ and keep the music playing.”


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