Monday, February 29, 2016

Atlanta's Jim Alexander Brings His Photographic Jazz & Bues History to Georgia State University

Jim Alexander at GSU

This Thursday February 25, 2016 at the Georgia State University Student Center Art Room, the Atlanta based photographer JimAlexander spoke to a group of about fifty people who came to view some fifty-five of the artist’s photographs, the theme of the exhibit being photographs of jazz and blues performers.

 The spry eighty-one-year-old, beret doffed Mr. Alexander is a noted documentary photographer who was born in 1935 in Waldwick, N J. not far from the then happening city of Patterson, NJ. He started his career as a freelancer in Ridgefield, New Jersey in 1964. His work has been included as part of a Smithsonian exhibition on Duke Ellington, shown at the Sorbonne in Paris, at the Lunds Konsthall gallery in Sweden and at numerous other exhibits and one man shows throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The Georgia State show included photographs that were principally from Mr. Alexander’s work from the late nineteen sixties and early seventies.

The crowd listened intently as Mr. Alexander explained how he got his first camera-a Kodak Brownie box camera that he received as the bounty for winning a ten-dollar bet at a card game while he was in the service back in 1952. From there he started as a freelancer in 1964 and studied photography at the New York Institute of Photography in 1968. In 1970 he was hired by Yale University as a consultant for their Black Environmental Study Team. Many of the photos on exhibit at GSU were from his time in New Haven. CT.

Jim Alexander in front of his picture of blues legend Taj Mahal

It was in 1976 when Mr. Alexander came to Atlanta accepting a position with the Atlanta Office of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Alexander later went on to hold the position of "photographer in residence"  at the Atlanta Neighborhood Arts Center and later at Clark College. Mr. Alexander operated his own studio in Atlanta and has continued to teach, mentor and exhibit in many local schools, colleges and for civic organizations. 

Mr. Alexander spoke of his long time association with the late Gordon Parks, a notable Life magazine staff photographer and a director in his own right. It was a conversation that the two had that convinced Alexander to pursue documenting human rights, civil rights, the Black Experience in this country and African American inspired music, most notably jazz and blues. It was seeing how Mr. Parks lost ownership of some of his best work while on staff with Life, that led Alexander to work principally as a freelancer, so that he could always retain the rights to his own negatives.

Jim Alexander and Gordon Parks (credit unknown)
Mr. Alexander was asked which of his photos on display was his favorite. While he claimed difficulty in choosing just one, he ultimately settled on his picture titled "Jazz Jam," a picture that captured a who's who of jazz with four bassists sharing the same stage. The picture includes notables like Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillispie, Woody Shaw and Ray Brown. He said getting one picture with that much star power is rare and a special occurrence.
Jim Alexander's photo "Jazz Jam" ( used with permission)
It was a testament to Mr. Alexander's inspiration both as an artist and as a teacher to see some of his
former students present at this show, documenting the event for posterity.  If Mr. Alexander has passed on anything to the next generation, it is the need to develop an intuitive eye that can see the importance of what is happening around you in everyday life and memorializing it in the art of photography. The attending audience was a gathering of people who appreciated the work Mr. Alexander has dedicated his life to for the last fifty years. The City of Atlanta should be proud to have this vital octogenarian still working hard to improve our lives with his art and still getting his message out. This transplanted Jersey Boy has truly become one of Atlanta's treasured own.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Searching for Jazz in Los Angeles

The landmark Lighthouse sign 2016
Recently I was planning a trip to visit family and friends in Los Angeles. I always try to do some advanced homework to see if I can include at least one night of fine jazz on my agenda.  In late January  I flew across the country and hung out in the Playa Del Rey and Hollywood sections of Los Angeles where my children reside. I have two children living there and both are embedded into the lively, youthful scene that makes LA so vibrant and hip. My daughter is a successful singer/song writer and my youngest son is building his own successful career in the food industry as the sous-chef for one of the hotest new restaurants in LA. Their taste in music is quite a bit different from mine, but they humor their old man’s jazz obsession and when prodded by my enthusiasm they participate in my quest to follow my muse.
The Front of the Lighthouse 2016
I was compelled to take a ride one day to Hermosa Beach, which is to me synonymous with the famous Lighthouse Café. The Lighthouse is a celebrated haunt where in the fifties, sixties and seventies many of the West Coast’s mainstream jazz and studio musicians found a receptive audience for their breezy, laid back style of music. This West Coast Jazz became the antithesis of East Coast hard bop scene and took on its own personae, eventually coming to be known as the cool school of jazz. In 1949 bassist Howard Rumsey convinced then owner of the Lighthouse café John Levine to hire him and a group of musicians in the hopes that the music would drive business to the fledgling bar. 
The Lighthouse in its hey day ( date and photo credit unknown)
The bar was just steps from Hermosa Beach at 30 Pier Avenue and Rumsey’s group became known as Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars. The first All Stars came primarily from the Central Avenue music scene in downtown LA and included Teddy Edwards, Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes.  The band often morphed around Rumsey into different configurations, one including clarinetist/saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, trumpeter Shorty Rodgers and drummer Shelly Manne. News spread that this seaside bar was a happening scene and soon a host of others made their way to the Lighthouse stage. Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Russ Freeman, Max Roach, the Jazz Crusaders were also notable performers who made their mark at the club at various times, some even recording memorable “live” albums there.

Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars ( date and photo credit unknown)
This was a piece of jazz history and so I needed to see it while I was in the area. Unfortunately my time was limited. We took a ride on a Wednesday afternoon just to check it out and see what it looked like after all these years. The club had a small brick storefront, a tattered shingle roof and a wood framed picture window that would allow outsiders a look into the club’s dark interior. It was just a few hundred yards from the beach. The neon Lighthouse sign was off, but it could have been placed in the window of any beach town bar, and except for the aging landmark sign that stood proudly above the roof , there was little evidence that this place at one time was the West Coast Mecca of great jazz . It was early afternoon and the place was closed, but I walked around, curiously looking for hints of its past and perused the schedule posted in a glass enclosed case at the left side of the front entrance of the club. I didn’t recognize any of the upcoming performers and got the feeling that despite featuring the occasional jazz act, this venue’s once halcyon days of providing headline performances had long ago passed.  Everything has its time, and the Lighthouse was a beacon for jazz for a very long time. For me it was both magical and melancholic to bear witness to a place that was such an important part of jazz history.

After heading back to LA, I was determined to find some live jazz before I left for home. On a previous visit several years back, I had managed to make the trek to Van Nuys  to the now defunct Charlie  O’s and was glad I got to experience the rustic charm, smell the embedded history and enjoy the music in  that paneled throwback.

The now defunct Charlie O's in Van Nuys
I heard great things about the current LA jazz club scene -The Baked Potato, the Blue Whale and The Catalina Jazz Club were  all on my bucket list. After perusing the various club schedules I settled on the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood  on Sunset Blvd.

That Wednesday night,I took the kids and their significant others to experience the club that advertises “Nothing but the best in jazz.”  Owner Catalina Popescue and her late husband Bob were Romanian immigrants with a dream to open a restaurant that featured music. The original club, which opened in 1983, was housed in the shabby area of Cahuenga Blvd not far from drummer Shelly Manne’s  famous jazz club the Manne Hole, an institution in the sixties and early seventies until its demise in 1973.
Shelly Manne's long closed Manne Hole ( date unknown photo by Mrs Shelly Manne)
Music at the Catalina was ushered into the couple’s restaurant at the encouragement of friend and local musician clarinetist Buddy Collette. It was at Collette’s urging that Popescue would hire Dizzy Gillespie as the opening act for the club. Trumpeter Gillespie did not come cheap, but he liked the restaurateur and agreed to do the gig.  Dizzy’s presence virtually guaranteed a successful open and as predicted, Gillespie’s star power filled the place, establishing The Catalina as a real player on the LA jazz scene. The club moved to its present location at 6725 Sunset Blvd in the Hollywood section of LA in 2003.  The building is a non-descript storefront that you could easily miss if you didn’t know that it was there. The club seats about two hundred and fifty patrons with a generous stage panorama across the rear wall. The club serves dinner and drinks on linen covered tables and there is a minimum service tab required in addition to a cover charge.

Exterior of today's Catalina Jazz Club 
On the evening we were there, the music came from a band led by the keyboard artist David Garfield. Garfield has been an embedded part of the LA music scene since coming from his hometown of St. Louis in the early seventies. He has recorded or performed with a myriad of artists from George Benson, Freddie Hubbard and Larry Carlton to Boz Scaggs, Smokey Robinson and Cher. On this evening he was joined by an all star band that consisted of Eric Marienthal on tenor saxophone, trumpeter Rick Braun, guitarist Oz Noy,  John Pena on Electric bass and  Gary Novak on drums. Each musician demonstrated a easy virtuosity on their respective instruments and as a whole the group meshed with precision and refinement.

The group opened with Miles Davis' “All Blues” which set the mood for a great night of jazz. The group was driven by the strong pulse of Pena’s electric bass and Novak’s muscular drum work. The front line of trumpeter Braun and saxophonist Marienthal wove alternating lines in a sinewy exchange that was tight and disciplined. Garfield utilized a series of electronic keyboards occasionally  switching to acoustic  piano. The music was very groove orientated- strong back beats, extended solos, returns to the head and more solos often played with a virtuosity that was made to look deceptively easy.

David Garfield Band at Catalina (photo by Ralph A. Miriello)

Garfield started the set with one of my favorite songs Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments.” The two horn front line played the memorable melody in perfect unison. The song departed slightly from the original when guitarist Oz Noy gave a distinctively oblique extended solo that simply blew the audience away with its stark originality. Braun and Marienthal faced off head to head at center stage, trading licks - a gunslinger like standoff; each musician challenging the other with bubbling ideas and technical bravado. Not to be outdone, keyboardist Garfield and drummer Novak created their own furor providing a stirring exchange between their two respective percussive instruments.

The band flaunted its Latin credentials with the clave-inspired Clare Fischer song “Morning” that made the audience want to get up and dance. They followed with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s classic “Red Clay” -John Pena’s electric bass leading off with that memorable opening bass line. The two horns played the melody line in precise synchronicity. Eric Marienthal’s saxophone was featured on the Les McCann/Eddie Harris’s jewel “Compared to What” and the music turned appropriately funky with Marienthal doing his best Lenny Pickett imitation, reaching an impossibly high note  and  leaving the audience suspended  in awe. Braun had an opportunity to shine on the Hugh Masekela  classic “Grazing’ in the Grass.”

Garfield is a polished pro who is adept at both the acoustic piano and who can manage the myriad of effects that the electronic keyboards offer The program was a deft mixture of classics and crossovers that pleased the audience and my little entourage, and I came away with a sense that I had made a good choice for an evening of jazz that managed to entertain both the uninitiated as well as myself.

Although my exposure to West Coast jazz has been admittedly limited, I came away with a sense that there is a perceptible difference in the way jazz is played on the West Coast. Maybe it was just these particular performers, but having been raised on the jazz of New York I felt the music of the Garfield band was a bit slicker, more produced, less gritty and maybe even more broadly entertaining than what I have been used to seeing in New York. Could it be that New York jazzers are just a little less attuned to the entertainment aspects of a performance geared to a broader audience than their LA counterparts? There have certainly been times when I have been to concerts on the East Coast and wondered if the artist even knew he or she was playing for a audience at all. Surely this can only be judged on a case by case basis.LA is, after all, the center of the movie and entertainment industry and perhaps that vibe of trying to please the audience seeps into west coast jazz more than it does on the East Coast. That said our venture to the Catalina Jazz Club was a success and with a packed house of over two hundred on a Wednesday night, the club is obviously doing something right.