CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Best of Before & After: #TimesUp Edition

For our 50th anniversary, we selected our favorite excerpts from listening sessions on jazz’s distaff side

Our Before & After listening sessions have always been big reader favorites; according to our surveys, B&A is consistently one of the first sections of the magazine read by subscribers. Leonard Feather developed its predecessor, the Blindfold Test, back in 1947 for Metronome magazine. The premise of the column was not so much to trick or embarrass musicians, but to show that jazz musicians were not primitives or idiot savants, a common notion during that time. Among his first subjects were Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and Dizzy Gillespie—and, yes, he actually blindfolded them during the sessions. When Metronome folded, Leonard took the column to DownBeat. In 1989, he brought it over to JazzTimes (where he’d been a contributor since the mid-’70s), but adapted it to include the comments of the subject after learning the details and the selection. He renamed it Before & After, but the basic premise remained the same.

Leonard was truly a friend to JazzTimes beyond his regular contributions of features and reviews. In the days before emails, when copy would arrive by mail, Leonard would include a letter containing all kinds of requests, as well as a concise critique of the last issue. When I first came to JazzTimes in 1990, I remember being taken aback by his often blunt feedback, but I soon realized how lucky we were that he took the magazine so seriously. Indeed, it was Leonard who suggested that Ira Sabin change the publication’s name from Radio Free Jazz to JazzTimes back in 1979, and he was active at many of JazzTimes’ conventions. When Leonard died in 1994, the magazine and the jazz community lost one of its passionate supporters.

Leonard’s MO with Before & After was to elicit candid feedback from artists about the music of their peers, and thereby themselves. Although he naturally leaned toward mainstream artists as subjects, Leonard loved to throw the occasional curve in the form of an avant-garde selection. A favorite breaking ball of his was Sun Ra, who never failed to evoke a strong and impassioned response. Artie Shaw simply said, “Messy,” after hearing Sun Ra play “But Not for Me.” Over the years, JazzTimes has continued Leonard’s legacy with a rotating cast of contributors such as Larry Appelbaum, Ashley Kahn, and David R. Adler.

For this anniversary issue, we decided to cull tracks from past B&A columns with women as subjects, reflecting on legends, heroes, and inspirations. Interestingly, nearly every one of them was uniformly positive in their judgment and opinions. Then there was Anita O’Day, who didn’t have a good word for just about anybody.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this special Before & After:

Toshiko Akiyoshi, March 1997
Toshiko Akiyoshi, March 1997 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI (January/February 1991) by Leonard Feather

Duke Ellington
“Eque” (Latin American Suite, Fantasy). Ellington, composer, piano; Johnny Hodges, alto sax; Paul Gonsalves, tenor sax. Recorded in 1968.

BEFORE: I don’t think I’ve ever heard this music; it sounds like the Ellington band. Sounds like Duke playing, if it’s not a recreation or something! Tenor sounds like Paul Gonsalves. Is this a re-release?

JT: I’ll tell you later.

Oh, okay [laughs]. It had all the characteristics of what Ellington might do and because of the horn players and piano playing, I’d say it was Duke. It was kind of cute. I don’t think it was meant to be a major work. I’d give it three and a half stars. The solo in the middle had its own personality. I think it was wonderful.

AFTER: He wrote a suite for a live concert once that I loved, and of course Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue is a favorite. He was definitely an influence on me. He was the jazz orchestrator. I think no one has come close.

Anita O'Day, 1992
Anita O’Day, 1992 (photo: Tad Hershorn)

ANITA O’DAY (September 1992) by Don Heckman

Shirley Horn
“How Am I to Know?” (Here’s to Life, Verve). Horn, piano and vocals; Johnny Mandel, arranger. Recorded in 1992.

BEFORE: I like to hear things that I can learn something from. Nothing like that here. [O’Day briefly loses interest halfway through the song and begins to talk about her rhythm section for an upcoming gig.] I think the engineer on the deal was terrible. It’s got no bottom; no rhythm section. The singer tried for a thought [O’Day sings a line “How am I to know…”], but the song’s not that strong. It just wasn’t that much for her to work with. The material was terrible, the band was a good band, but whoever did the arrangements just didn’t quite catch it. But I’ll be nice: two stars.

AFTER: Who’s Shirley Horn? [Heckman offers a brief description of Horn and her early association with Miles Davis.] Well, that’s nice. Of course, he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, so she couldn’t have learned much from him.

Dorothy Donegan, 1994
Dorothy Donegan, 1994 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

DOROTHY DONEGAN (March 1993) by Leonard Feather

Oscar Peterson Trio
“Song to Elitha” (Saturday Night at the Blue Note, Telarc). Peterson, piano, composer; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Bobby Durham, drums. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: I liked that melody. It sounds like “Beautiful Love,” one of the things Art Tatum used to do, but I identify the wonderful pianist, Dr. Peterson. That big fat man sure can play. I liked his changes. I could recognize some of the things he played. I heard him groaning and grunting. I liked the bass player. Who was the drummer? I hoped it would have been Ray Brown on bass. The guitar should have been … Herb Ellis? And the drummer… oh … Jeff Hamilton. Might be somebody else? Somebody from England? Well, maybe you can set me straight.

I like the big fat man. He has great chops. One article said him and me had more chops than in a butcher’s shop. Sometimes we don’t have the best taste, but they said we had more chops. Give the big fat man a 5.

AFTER: Bobby Durham? From Philadelphia? The bow-legged drummer. I like Bobby. I’m the only woman that made him play a back beat.

Eliane Elias, August 1998
Eliane Elias, August 1998 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

ELIANE ELIAS (January/February 1997) by Bret Primack

Art Tatum
“Yesterdays” (20th Century Piano Genius, Verve). Tatum, piano. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: He’s doing all this Art Tatum stuff but it’s so modern. It must be Tatum or Oscar Peterson. That’s the basic school of solo jazz piano. I know the tune, “Yesterdays.” I love this, sounds like a live recording.

AFTER: He plays with four hands. Tatum is such a genius, what he does with the piano is incredible, especially on this piece. Harmonically speaking, this is more advanced, more adventurous than the other things he’s done. That’s what made me think Oscar Peterson, because of the chordal things. Incredible. I have to get this.

Marilyn Crispell, May 1999
Marilyn Crispell, May 1999 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

MARILYN CRISPELL (December 2000) by Bill Shoemaker

Bill Evans Trio
“Knit for Mary F” (The Last Waltz, Milestone). Evans, composer, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Joe LaBarbera, drums. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: It sounds like Bill Evans. It’s a very beautiful piece, but the introduction was extremely romantic, almost rhapsodic in a way that I haven’t heard in his playing. If it’s not him, it’s a really good imitation.

This was recorded a little more than a week before he died and he knew when he recorded this that he didn’t have much time.

AFTER: That’s incredible. He has such a reputation for being introspective and brooding that it’s amazing that he would create that type of romantic beauty in those circumstances.

You’ve recorded a few Evans tunes. How has he influenced you?

It’s more a matter of aesthetic and sensibility than the manner of playing. I use chord voicings that didn’t come directly from him, but came from a teacher I studied with in Boston. I think those voicings came from a book by John Menegon. Maybe he got those voicings from Evans. I don’t know the chronology, but they are the kind of voicings Evans uses. More directly, there’s something about Evans’ aesthetic and sensibility that influenced me.

Jane Bunnett, August 2002
Jane Bunnett, August 2002 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

JANE BUNNETT (June 2002) by Christopher Loudon

Paquito D’Rivera
“On Green Dolphin Street” (Blowin’, Columbia). D’Rivera, alto saxophone; Hilton Ruiz, piano; Russel Blake, electric bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Daniel Ponce, congas. Recorded in 1981.

BEFORE: Paquito!

AFTER: [Laughing] Don’t hold back! Play what you really feel! Well, I really love Paquito. He is one of the greatest living musical spirits on this planet. He totally gives of himself, 100% of the time. Not only on the bandstand, but even when he finishes. One of the things I like so much about Cuban people is that they’re able to explode musically, but also they’re great communicators as human beings. Paquito is totally that way. He’s out there hooking people up, and I know for a fact that he helps a lot of young musicians. He’s the first one at a jam session. When he comes to Toronto, if he hears we’re playing somewhere he’s always there with his horn, ready to play. He’s not only a great musician who’s constantly challenging himself musically, but also a total participator in life. He’s always doing 15 million things at once. He has boundless energy, and I have tons of respect for him.