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Jazz in the Key of Bob: Jazz & Bob Dylan

On Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, Tom Wilmeth muses on the legacy of his music in the world of jazz musicians

Ben Sidran by Roch Armando
Keith Jarrett

Bob Dylan turned 70 today. That statement alone is a mind-bender. That he is still on the road more than 100 nights of the year is amazing. Yet it’s true. I noted with interest Rolling Stone magazine’s new issue, which celebrates Bob’s 70th birthday with a list of his best 70 songs, as chosen by their editors. The issue also contains lists of Bob’s most inscrutable lyrics (“Gates of Eden”) and what they consider overlooked jewels (“Dark Eyes”). These lists put me in mind of a tape I compiled ten years ago, for Bob’s 60th birthday. Inspired by the famous bootleg Elvis Presley’s Greatest Sh*t, my idea was to create a set-list of Dylan recordings that would make a hilariously bad collection.

It sounded like a fun plan, an inverted exercise in fan devotion, and so I set to work. I drew, of course, from the notorious 1970 double album Self Portrait and from various back-roads of the Dylan canon. My final list included such original jewels as “Wigwam,” “Billy 4,” “Handy Dandy,” and “New Pony.” The tape also featured Bob’s covers of “Let It Be Me,” “Froggy Went a-Courting,” “You Belong to Me,” and “This Old Man.” All officially released tracks.

But damn-once completed, the tape was not the humorous artifact I had intended. I instead discovered what perhaps I had known from the start-that even a set spotlighting Bob Dylan’s strangest odds & ends held interest, and that the very selections I had intended for comic value held up well to repeated listening.

One of the songs I included came from the 1970 album New Morning. This was supposedly the album that Bob quickly recorded after the debacle of Self Portrait in order to shore-up a sagging reputation and to appease stunned fans. The song I used was not chosen because I thought it to be bad, but because it was like no other in Dylan’s canon. “If Dogs Run Free” is as close as Bob himself has come to recording a jazz tune. The number is a spoken work of hipster monologue, a la Kenneth Rexroth. Scatting in the background behind Bob’s narrative is Maeretha Stewart, along with the single-note improvisations of Al Kooper’s tinkling piano accompaniment. I am not arguing here for Dylan to be viewed as a jazz artist, of course, in spite of this one-song genre exercise.

The reason “If Dogs Run Free” stood out for me is because the concepts of Jazz and Bob Dylan are not often linked. While not obvious matches, they are also not mutually exclusive. Dylan has certainly had songs that do not adhere to traditional folk, blues, or rock chord changes-his “Too Much of Nothing” is interesting for its ascending chromatic chords, while other songs from this same era, such as “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” and “Tiny Montgomery” each use only two chords.

Yet no matter the simplicity or complexity of the songs’ structure, few musicians seemed to have taken interest in arranging Dylan melodies for a jazz setting in the 1960s. This, even as Beatles’ melodies were making tentative inroads into jazz with albums like Basie’s Beatle Bag (1966) and George Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970). Still, there were a few.

Among the first jazz renditions of Dylan’s material is Bud Shank’s 1963 release Folk & Flute, which included 3 songs credited to Dylan-“Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Although a jazz player, Shank was apparently riding the still-expanding Folk Music wave, as he had previously done with albums of jazz arrangements of Brazilian, Bossa Nova, and Broadway music. As such, even with an album title with the word Folk in it, a quartet including Joe Pass on guitar, Charlie Haden’s bass, and session leader Shank on alto sax and flute, this LP must be seen as an outing for jazz musicians.

Perhaps surprisingly, baritone sax-man and cool jazz pioneer Gerry Mulligan was another established jazz musician to record Dylan early-on. In his tellingly-titled 1965 album If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, Mulligan included an unusual, piano-dominant version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The first full album of jazz arrangements of Dylan songs appears to be Dylan Jazz, from 1966. One can argue about whether these arrangements are truly jazz charts, but with high caliber session cats like a then-unknown Glenn Campell on guitar, Jim Horn on reeds, and Hal Blaine on drums-it makes for some interesting interpretations. Also of note, this album was co-produced by Leon Russell.

Like Shank’s inclusion of Dylan’s then-unreleased “Quit Your Lowdown Ways,” Dylan Jazz also includes an original which had not yet been issued by Dylan, “Walkin’ Down the Line.” I believe that this is a clear indication that these musicians are making some of their song choices from publisher’s lead sheets and not necessarily from listening to Dylan’s albums.

This same theory can also be used to demonstrate that Elvis Presley was not extremely familiar with Dylan’s actual recording of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” since Presley follows the published Witmark sheet music version of the song. As such, Elvis sings the verses in an incorrect order-inverting verses two and three as performed by Bob on the Freewheelin’ album. A big deal? Well . . . Yes! By the way-Dylan has said that his favorite cover version of any of his own songs is Elvis’ version of “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” a song that, like some jazz arrangements, was released before Dylan’s own recording of the song. This too indicates song selection chosen from sheet music over album awareness, just like other albums of Dylan songs interpreted by performers from Odetta to Sebastian Cabot. Honorable mention must go to the 1972 release Lo & Behold by Coulson, Dean, McGuiness, Flint. The album contains this quartet’s renditions of ten then-unreleased Dylan originals, three of which remain unreleased by Bob to this day!

Music genres were in the midst of radical and unprecedented cross-pollination in the mid-1960s. One who was quick to grasp the possibility was Willie Nelson, who in 1966 would slyly slip The Beatles’ “Yesterday” into a live set for a rough Houston crowd by introducing it as a song by “a little country quartet you may have heard of.” Two years later vibraharp virtuoso Gary Burton plays Dylan’s “I Want You” at his 1968 Carnegie Hall concert. After the melody is introduced by Burton and guitarist Larry Coryell, this brief number becomes a solo feature for bassist Steve Swallow.

Dylan’s melodies seemed to lend themselves well to bass features for Bob’s early jazz arrangers. The same year that Burton played “I Want You” with his quartet, Keith Jarrett’s 1968 live trio recording of “My Back Pages” also becomes a bass feature-again for Charlie Haden – on the album Somewhere Before. This take of “My Back Pages” was used by Vortex Records as the B-side of a Keith Jarrett single. The A-side is an instrumental studio recording of another Dylan song, “Lay Lady Lay.” The song did not chart, and Vortex failed to include it any of Jarrett’s albums.

It’s hard to know whether the pianist himself had any input on the release of either side of this single, but what is unmistakable is Jarrett’s appreciation of Dylan’s music and of his lyrics. In an 1987 interview for the NPR radio show Sidran on Record, Jarrett tries to express to host Ben Sidran some of the indefinable aspects of music. At one point he attempts to sum-up his feelings by quoting, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge.” He repeats the line and tells Sidran that this type of beauty is what he is trying to create at each performance and on every recording. “Beauty walks a razor’s edge” is a line from Dylan’s 1974 song “Shelter from the Storm,” whose imagery clearly had an impact on Jarrett. [Editor’s note: An interview with Ben Sidran about Dylan’s influence on him is here.]

The Dylan numbers selected by Burton and Jarrett are interesting choices. I recall talking between sets to Texas guitarist Jimmy Raycraft. His band had just performed an instrumental medley of Dylan’s “I Want You” and The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” I mentioned to Raycraft that the Bob song was a good choice for such a workout because Bob’s “I Want You” is so melodic. He immediately countered, “No man! It has no melody. That’s what makes it so great! All of those lyrics are sung on one note.” And after reflecting on this for a while, I saw that he might be right. He sure thought so. There are chord changes to the tune, and the bright accompaniment provided by Nashville’s studio A-team is infectious. But the memorable vocal passages of “I Want You” do not follow the melodic accompaniment.

In the late 1960s, Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett were among the young lions of jazz. They were arguably looking at music in a different way than their respected elder statesmen, most of whom were certainly not interested in Bob Dylan. Bassist Rob Stoner encountered this situation head-on when he accompanied Dylan to Chicago in December 1975 to be the closing act on the PBS special The World of John Hammond. The program was to bring together many of the music legends who Hammond had signed to Columbia Records. Among those performing on this two-part tribute were Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Milt Hinton. While Stoner does not get specific with names, he says that none of the jazz performers would even talk to him because he was associated with Bob’s band. These had been his “heroes,” laments Stoner, who was crushed by their collective snub.

It was rare for the old guard of any musical genre to embrace Dylan’s work in the 1960s. Flatt & Scruggs-the most famous of all bluegrass duos-broke-up their act because of Earl Scruggs’ fascination with Dylan’s songs. This may sound like an over-statement, but if Dylan’s music was not the cause for the split, it certainly embodied the different paths the two wanted to take. On their later albums, guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo master Earl Scruggs recorded enough Bob Dylan songs to fill a 60-minute tape. I know; I compiled one. Earl loved the new directions; Lester couldn’t relate. They parted.

No less a player than the great country guitarist Chet Atkins was never one to reject a melody because of genre. Atkins recorded instrumental versions of several Dylan compositions and even performed a medley of three Dylan tunes on a 1970 episode of Porter Waggoner’s syndicated television show. Atkins always seemed to have his ears wide open. I saw him play in St. Paul in the early 1980s, during one of his first visits to the Prairie Home Companion radio show. Seated alone on stage, he concluded tuning and said to the audience, “Well folks, you take a good song where you find it.” And with that he played a beautiful version of the recent #1 pop hit, “Heart of Glass” by Blondie. When I later spoke with Atkins, he voiced dismay over those among his fans who dismissed new music. Atkins had obviously held an unbiased view of melody for some time, as he recorded an instrumental version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as early as 1965.

Another supremely gifted guitarist, Jim Hall, brings us full circle to jazz versions of Dylan songs. Unlike the late 1960s examples I cite from Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett, Jim Hall has released a 2008 recording of Dylan’s “Masters of War,” another jazz arrangement featuring bass, this time Bill Frisell.

Known as a superlative wordsmith, it seems clear that Dylan has also worked hard on his melodies and song structures. In the first volume of his Chronicles autobiography, a somewhat defensive Dylan asks, “If my songs were just about words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock-and-roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs?” Probably unaware of Duane Eddy, some jazz musicians would nonetheless soon follow his lead.

If most of the jazz community was slow to hear Dylan, he had certainly been listening to them. Also in Chronicles, Dylan remembers his early days in New York. “I’d listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records,” and to the arrangements of Gil Evans. “There were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music.” Dylan then lists several Ellington compositions, including “Tattoo Bride” and “Tourist Point of View” and concludes that, to him, “They sounded like sophisticated folk music.” It is also in this section where Dylan talks of the influence of jazz records by Roland Kirk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian’s sides with Benny Goodman. Living and working in an early1960s New York City, Dylan attended various jazz clubs, being taken with the music of Thelonious Monk and speaking briefly with him. When Dylan introduced himself as a folk music performer, Monk would tell the young man from the Midwest, “We all play folk music.”

This article does not attempt to be comprehensive in its examination of Dylan jazz arrangements. Certainly many other artists of this genre have offered interpretations of Dylan’s work, from Duke Ellington’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to guitarist Michael Hedges’ cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Surprisingly few jazz vocalists have waded in to this interpretive stream, although genre-crossing Janet Planet has recently released an entire CD of Dylan’s work. We should be surprised by none of these jazz interpretations. As Bob himself explains, “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians.”

Originally Published