Black Music Sunday: Remembering musicians who left us in 2023, part 2

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Eric Grode wrote Jamal’s obituary for The New York Times.

Ahmad Jamal, Whose Spare Style Redefined Jazz Piano, Dies at 92

He was known for his laid-back style and for his influence on, among others, Miles Davis, who once said, “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.”

Ahmad Jamal, whose measured, spare piano style was an inspiration to generations of jazz musicians, died on Sunday at his home in Ashley Falls, Mass. He was 92.

The cause was prostate cancer, his daughter, Sumayah Jamal, said.

In a career that would bring him a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, a lifetime achievement Grammy and induction into France’s Order of Arts and Letters, Mr. Jamal made a lasting mark on jazz with a stately approach that honored what he called the spaces in the music.

That approach stood in marked contrast to the challengingly complex music known as bebop, which was sweeping the jazz world when Mr. Jamal began his career as a teenager in the mid-1940s. Bebop pianists, following the lead of Bud Powell, became known for their virtuosic flurries of notes. Mr. Jamal chose a different path, which proved equally influential.

The pianist and composer’s ideas had a decisive effect on the history of an art form.

Born Frederick Russell Jones, in Pittsburgh, in 1930, Jamal was a piano prodigy, playing, he said, “orchestrally almost” at the age of five and memorizing, in early childhood, a vast quantity of Broadway and movie songs. He had many years of formal piano study; at the age of eleven, he was the pianist in a high-school big band. He intended to go to Juilliard, but instead, at seventeen, he was hired to go on the road with a major regional jazz band. He moved to Chicago at the turn of the nineteen-fifties and took the name Ahmad Jamal when he converted to Islam. After several years of wide-ranging gigging in a variety of groups and settings, he became a leader, at twenty, of a trio called the Three Strings (joined by bass and guitar). His musical vision was already sharp, precise, and confident; he was working with the bassist Israel Crosby and the guitarist Ray Crawford when, in 1955 or 1956, after an incident in a New York club (a patron spilled red wine on his keyboard), he and Crosby indignantly returned to Chicago. There, Jamal quickly fulfilled his intention to replace the guitar with drums, and soon hired the drummer he’d long had in mind, Vernel Fournier. That trio made history, and it did so in large measure because of Jamal’s expansion of his role as pianist and leader to become something like a director, an auteur of his own art, with a unique and personal method of production.  

First, Jamal got the trio installed in an extended residency at a Chicago club called the Pershing Lounge, and he made use of their ongoing public performances both to hone their material and to note what went over with the audience. Then he persuaded a sympathetic and ambitious record-company owner, Leonard Chess, to record the group—at the Pershing, live, with remote equipment. Moreover, Jamal himself produced the recording sessions at the club, choosing the repertory himself—notably, an extended version of the ballad “Poinciana,” which he’d recorded altogether differently in 1955, and for which he, Crosby, and Fournier worked out an elaborate, fixed, hypnotically alluring rhythmic pattern, one that seemed to spin variations out beyond the horizon of its musical landscape. Jamal was sure that he had an impending hit on his hands, and he was right. (Once the arrangement was worked out, he stopped playing it publicly, fearing that another musician would steal it.) The single charted, and the album, “But Not for Me,” spent two years on the charts and brought him both money and acclaim. (Interviewed recently, Jamal said, “It’s been the thing that has paid the bills for the last 61 years.”)

Here’s a live performance of “Poinciana,” from the album “But Not For Me.”

The jazz world also lost one of its preeminent bassists, Richard Davis, in September.

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Davis was a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, where he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1977 until his death. Madison’s Channel 3 News covered his death and legacy.

Andrey Henkin wrote his obituary for The New York Times.

Richard Davis, Gifted Bassist Who Crossed Genres, Dies at 93

He was best known for his jazz work. But he was also heard on Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” and with orchestras conducted by Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein.

Richard Davis was born on April 15, 1930, in Chicago. His mother died in childbirth, and he was adopted by Robert and Elmora Johnson. He was exposed to music through the records his mother had collected in her native New Orleans and the hymns Mr. Johnson would sing around the house.

He attended DuSable High School in Chicago, where he studied music under Walter Dyett, who mentored many future jazz stars, and he started playing the bass at 15. As he recalled in a 2013 interview published in the American Federation of Musicians magazine Allegro: “I was just enthralled by the sound. The bass was always in the background and I was a shy kid. So I thought maybe I’d like to be in the background.”

[…]

His first major gig was with the pianist Ahmad Jamal in 1952. He then went on the road with another pianist, Don Shirley (whose story was told in the movie “Green Book”); this led to his initial recordings and eventually to his move, in 1954, to New York, where he worked with the singer Sarah Vaughan from 1957 to 1962.

John Fordham’s obit in The Guardian continues his story.

It was in the 60s and 70s that Davis’s freelance career really took off, as he worked with the multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Eric Dolphy, the cutting-edge composer Andrew Hill, in classical ensembles conducted by Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Boulez, and on many pop and rock recordings.

Davis’s resilient yet buoyant bass sound graced hit songs, including Frank Sinatra’s Watertown (1969), Paul Simon’s Something So Right (1973), Bruce Springsteen’s Meeting Across the River, Laura Nyro’s Smile and Janis Ian’s At Seventeen (all 1975) and he played with pop and rock musicians such as Morrison. He was also a founder member and regular participant (from 1966 to 1972) in the advanced and exciting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

In 1977, however, a call came that transformed the second half of Davis’s life. The University of Wisconsin in Madison wanted a bass teacher, and he took the post, not just because the examples of his childhood tutor Walter Dyett, and of Martin Luther King Jr, had inspired a love of teaching in him, but because he was ready to ease the pressures of being a freelance musician.

Give a listen to Davis’ 1980 album, “Way Out West.”

Bassist Paul Thompson describes the “baddest upright bass break ever,” which Davis recorded with Astrud Gilberto in 1969. 

From the YouTube notes:

Let’s check out a little-known Astrud Gilberto Verve recording from 1969 and the genius of bassist Richard Davis. It’s a double bass break like you’ve never heard before!  I’ll break down why it’s so special and how it contains those magical trademarks from Mr. Davis’ unique and amazing style.

Gilberto, best known for introducing bossa nova to the U.S. via “The Girl from Ipanema,” also died this year, on June 5.

Jim Farber wrote her obituary for The New York Times.

Astrud Gilberto, 83, Dies; Shot to Fame With ‘The Girl From Ipanema’

It was the first song she ever recorded. And it played a key role in making the Brazilian sound known as bossa nova a phenomenon in the United States.

Ms. Gilberto enjoyed a four-decade recording career, cutting albums with celebrated musicians like Gil Evans, Stanley Turrentine and James Last as well as working with George Michael and others. But her biggest success came with “The Girl From Ipanema,” written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel, which she sang on record with the American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz.

When Ms. Gilberto recorded that song, she was married to João Gilberto, the Brazilian singer and guitarist often referred to as the father of the bossa nova. In 1963, the two of them traveled from Rio de Janeiro to New York City, where he was set to record a joint album with Mr. Getz, who had already released three albums that mixed jazz with samba and bossa nova.

Exactly who had the idea to involve Ms. Gilberto, an untested singer, on the album, later released as “Getz/Gilberto,” is unclear. Some credit its producer, Creed Taylor; others credit Ms. Gilberto. The singer herself credited her husband.

“While rehearsing with Stan,” Ms. Gilberto said in a 2002 interview for her official website, “João casually asked me to join in and sing a chorus in English after he had just sung the first chorus in Portuguese.”

“Stan was very receptive, in fact very enthusiastic,” she continued. “I’ll never forget that while we were listening back to the just recorded song at the studio’s control room, Stan said to me, with a very dramatic expression, ‘This song is going to make you famous.’”

It did indeed make her famous. Here’s a live clip from 1964:

 

RELATED STORY: Music as resistance: When Brazil met jazz, and jazz met Brazil

Saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Wayne Shorter joined the ancestors on March 2. He also was connected to Brazil via his jazz fusion work with Milton Nascimento on his album “Native Dancer.” Give it a listen.

Wayne Shorter, Innovator During an Era of Change in Jazz, Dies at 89

His career as an influential tenor saxophonist and composer reached across more than half a century, tracking jazz’s complex evolution during that span.

His career reached across more than half a century, largely inextricable from jazz’s complex evolution during that span. He emerged in the 1960s as a tenor saxophonist and in-house composer for pace-setting editions of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet, two of the most celebrated small groups in jazz history.

He then helped pioneer fusion, with Davis and as a leader of Weather Report, which amassed a legion of fans. He also forged a bond with popular music in marquee collaborations with the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, the guitarist Carlos Santana and the band Steely Dan, whose 1977 song “Aja” reaches a dynamic climax with his hide-and-seek tenor solo.

Mr. Shorter wrote his share of compositions that became jazz standards, like “Footprints,” a coolly ethereal waltz, and “Black Nile,” a driving anthem. Beyond his book of tunes, he was revered for developing and endlessly refining a modern harmonic language. His compositions, sleek and insinuating, can convey elegant ambiguities of mood. They adhere to an internal logic even when they break the rules.

Here’s the iconic “Footprints.”

I absolutely love this Jack C. Gregory illustration of Shorter as a comic book hero.

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Back to the distaff side, no year-end musical In Memoriam would be complete without a nod to the amazing Tina Turner, who passed on May 24. “Black Music Sunday” recently paid tribute to her in “’Simply the Best’: Remembering Tina Turner on her birthday”:

On Nov. 26, 1939, Anna Mae Bullock was born in Nutbush, Tennessee to a factory worker mom and a Baptist deacon dad. Nutbush, at the time, had a population of 239. From these humble beginnings, Anna Mae would go on in life to be known and celebrated around the world as Tina Turner.

Often dubbed “the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Turner also sang rhythm and blues, soul, and pop in the course of a career spanning over five decades. The list of awards she won is long, and includes eight Grammys.

She also set world records: In January 1988, Tina set a Guinness World Record for the ‘largest paying concert attendance for a solo artist’ by performing in front of approximately 188,000 people at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil” and “in 2000, Guinness World Records announced that Tina sold more concert tickets than any solo performer in music history. Her career also extended into acting roles.

Though she passed from this life in May, she will always be remembered as “simply the best” by her fans (and I am one of them).

This lovely portrait accompanied the announcement of her death:

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I love this illustration.

Few think of Turner as a jazz artist. However, her career actually spanned multiple genres. After hearing her vocal on Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters”—a 2007 album featuring Joni Mitchell’s songs—I wished that we could have heard her do more.

Sidebar: Prince reportedly recorded an uncredited guitar part on this tune.

Turner talked about her connection to Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in a 2021 interview with Alison Beard.

When I was going through some of the hardest times in my life as a solo artist, some of my jazz friends, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and their families, took in me and my sons and helped me get back on my feet. We would sometimes chant together for several hours, and I would dream about a future in which we’d all be happy and successful. So winning the Grammy for album of the year for River: The Joni Letters with Herbie and Wayne was very sweet.

Pop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B: It’s too hard to limit Turner and her music to one category. Given that there are far too many Tina Turner songs I love from her 60-year-plus career to include them all here—and that I also genuinely adore my editor (Editor’s note: Mutual.)—I’ll share one of her concerts instead. This one is from the “Twenty Four Seven” Tour, recorded live at London’s Wembley Stadium In London in July 2000.

She sings new songs and also reaches back to her beginnings, all with incredible energy for someone of any age, much less 60 years young!

Here’s the set list:

I Want To Take You Higher – Absolutely Nothing’s Changed – Fool in Love – Acid Queen – River Deep Mountain High – We Don’t Need Another Hero – Better Be Good to Me – Private Dancer – Let’s Stay Together – What’s Love Got To Do With It – When the Heartache is Over – Baby I’m A Star (or Hot Legs) – Help – Whatever You Need – Sittin on the Dock of the Bay – Try a Little Tenderness – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (or Steamy Windows) – Addicted to Love – The Best – Proud Mary – Nutbush City Limits – Twenty Four Seven (occasionally)

Phew! That’s it for our first-ever two-part edition of Black Music Sunday! Please join me in the comments for even more great music from folks we’ve lost, and to add some of your favorite tunes from talented artists we lost in 2023—whose musical “acquaintance” shall never “be forgot.”

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