Notes From Underground

Let me tell you about some of the music I’ve been digging lately. First, there’s that burning set featuring Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones from Berlin, 1987. Joshua Redman’s recent double-trio engagement at New York’s Highline Ballroom and Ravi Coltrane’s Vanguard show from last December have received repeated plays, as have a killer Wynton Kelly-Wes Montgomery 1965 jam at NYC’s Half Note, a ’57 Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers gig in Philly and a steamy 1981 Tokyo meeting of Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen these for sale, it’s because they aren’t. These unreleased live recordings are among thousands that make the rounds on the Internet, available for free download to those who know where to find them. I mention this not to make anyone jealous or to rile music-industry types, but because to me the gray-area practice of making stealth recordings is validated by what’s discussed in Thomas Conrad’s Opening Chorus piece in this issue.

Conrad ponders the importance of “private” recordings, a category that includes Sonny Rollins’ compilation Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy), the album that earned the top spot in JazzTimes’ 2008 critics’ poll in the category of Historical/Reissues. Much of the album consists of soundboard recordings never originally intended for release. We’re all glad that, in this case, wiser minds prevailed and the music is now available; it’s only due to the diligence of those who keep the recorders rolling at concerts, sometimes surreptitiously, that those of us who weren’t in the room that night can hear the music.

The success of that album made me think about just how much goes on in general in the world of jazz that most fans are either unaware of or spend little time thinking about. And if there is a current running through this month’s issue, it’s one of well-kept secrets and elusive information that lies beneath the surface of the music. Andrew W. Lehren’s fascinating investigative report, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” reveals an uncomfortable truth that record buyers in the Cold War era never knew: Some of our greatest artists—Max Roach, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington among them—were hounded by overzealous FBI agents eager to prove these geniuses were political subversives.

Don Heckman’s profile of bassist Jennifer Leitham, meanwhile, unveils the pain and difficulties experienced by a respected musician who spent more than 40 years living in the body of a male until she made the bold decision to be who she really is.

In a way, even the arrangers featured in Josef Woodard’s cover story—Michael Abene, John Clayton, Gil Goldstein and Vince Mendoza—operate in the shadows. How many listeners, even those who do read the small print in the CD booklets, have really given much consideration to the essential contribution of these talented behind-the-scenes people? There’s also an underground aspect to Nate Chinen’s Gig appreciation of avant-gardist William Parker.

Now, if you don’t mind, there’s a 1992 Jimmy Giuffre/Paul Bley/Steve Swallow concert from Sweet Basil cued up in the CD drive.

Originally published in April 2009

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