Old Country Jewish Blues & Ornette

There’s a country music song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” of which I never tire, and it jumped to mind as I was reading an advance copy of Ben Ratliff’s characteristically illuminating new book, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (Times Books). The publication date is November 11. You may have seen some of them in Ratliff’s “Listening With” series in The New York Times. He not only has a deep, far-ranging knowledge of jazz, but like Count Basie comping his band, Ratliff leaves breathing and feeling space for the musician with whom he’s talking.

He asked 15 musicians for a list of five or six pieces of music he or she would like to listen to with him, among them Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Paul Motian and Maria Schneider.

Ornette Coleman’s first request startled me into freshly realizing—like that country music song—how central jazz has been to the unbroken circle of my life for more than 70 years. Ornette’s choice was a recording by Josef Rosenblatt, a Jewish cantor (chazan) in a 1916 (that’s not a typo) recording from the Sabbath services in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue (a shul). Ornette’s selection jolted me back to when I was a boy, sitting next to my father, in a shul in Boston’s Jewish ghetto.

The first music that went all the way through me was the soul music of the chazan, both in that shul and others I kept going to just to hear what I described in this column’s “Jazz and Deep Jewish Blues” (JazzTimes, February 2002): “The cry, the kretchts (a catch in the voice), a cry summoning centuries of hosts of Jews … a thunderstorm of fierce yearnings that reverberated throughout the shul and then, as if the universe had lost a beat, there is sudden silence, and from deep inside the chazan, a soaring falsetto.”

This was during the so-called Great Depression, and by the time I was 11, working as a delivery boy on a horse-drawn wagon, I had enough money to buy three-for-a-dollar records by Louis Armstrong, Peetie Wheatstraw (“the devil’s son-in-law”) and Josef Rosenblatt.

Ornette told Ratliff he first heard a Rosenblatt recording some 22 years ago when, in Chicago, a young man asked him to come by and listen to what he thought would interest Ornette.

The reaction by Ornette: “I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing, and praying, all in the same breath. And none of it was crossing each other. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You can’t find those “notes.” They don’t exist.’”

That’s what early listeners of Ornette’s used to say. I first heard him at one of his first recording sessions in Los Angeles for Lester Koenig’s Contemporary label. The penetrating human sound as he sang through his horn made me feel I’d found a soul brother. I didn’t know then that Josef Rosenblatt was part of our troika.

Also in Ratliff’s new book is a listening session with Roy Haynes. I first heard Roy live during a Sunday afternoon jam session at Boston’s Savoy Café, which was my second home. My parents thought it was where I really lived. A kid in his teens walked into the club and asked if he could sit in. He was a student, I later found out, at Roxbury Memorial High School, near where I lived.

That kid lit up the room with a propulsive beat that lifted everybody up, including the bartender. His name was Roy Haynes. Many years later, Roy and I were in the same class of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters (all I could play was the electric type-writer), and I told him of that session at the Savoy. He laughed and said, “You know, when I was in school in Boston, I used to listen to you on the radio.”

On the air, while a staff announcer at WMEX, I got a jazz show in a time slot management couldn’t sell. And during a series on jazz history, I played Louis Armstrong recordings with Baby Dodds on drums, including a 10-inch “instructional” recording Dodds made (I think for Moe Asch’s Folkways label) on topics including “Playing for the Benefit of the Band.”

There was Baby Dodds, brought back to life during Ben Ratliff’s interview with Roy, who said, “I used to travel with that [Baby Dodds] record.” And Ratliff included in the excerpt from the record: “You must study ... a guy’s human nature. Study what he will take or what he will go for ... that’s why all guys is not drummers that’s drumming ... You can’t holler at a man, you can’t dog him. Not in music. It’s up to me to keep all that lively. That’s my job.”

Livelier than ever—that’s still Roy’s job.

Roy spoke of his idol, “Papa” Jo Jones, who, as Ratliff notes, “was proud of his ‘kiddies,’ the musicians whom he influenced.” When I was still on Boston radio, doing remotes from the Savoy, Jo Jones stunned me when he decided I was to be one of his “kiddies.” I couldn’t play anything, but I had a radio show and was writing about the music, so I had to be instructed in the calling I’d become marginally involved in.

One night, Papa Jo sat me down at the Savoy, and until the club closed, told me where the music had come from, where he had come from, and how to listen to this music by paying attention to what’s really inside the players, because that’s what the music was all about.

In his introduction to The Jazz Ear, Ratliff explains what he learned by listening to musicians as they were listening to other players: “What are the things they notice? What are their criteria for excellence? What makes them react involuntarily? The answers indicate what a musician values in music, which comes to connect what a musician believes music is for in the first place. And that is the big thing, the big question, from which all small questions descend.”

That’s why The Jazz Ear will be a permanent part of learning how to listen inside the musicians playing. Jo Jones never stopped keeping an eye on his “kiddies.” From time to time, he’d let me know if he felt I needed more instruction. Papa Jo would be proud of “kiddie” Ben Ratliff.

Clearly, jazz has also been at the center of the unbroken circle of Ben Ratliff’s life all these years—and we’re all fortunate that The New York Times recognizes his value.

Originally published in September 2008

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