Three Birthdays Today : Mississippi Fred McDowell; Jay McShann; Morton Feldman

When Mississippi Fred McDowell proclaimed on one of his last albums, “I do not play no rock & roll,” it was less a boast by an aging musician swept aside by the big beat than a mere statement of fact. As a stylist and purveyor of the original Delta blues, he was superb, equal parts Charley Patton and Son House coming to the fore through his roughed-up vocals and slashing bottleneck style of guitar playing. McDowell knew he was the real deal, and while others were diluting and updating their sound to keep pace with the changing times and audiences, Mississippi Fred stood out from the rest of the pack simply by not changing his style one iota. Though he scorned the amplified rock sound with a passion matched by few country bluesmen, he certainly had no qualms about passing any of his musical secrets along to his young, white acolytes, prompting several of them — including a young Bonnie Raitt — to develop slide guitar techniques of their own. Although generally lumped in with other blues “rediscoveries” from the ’60s, the most amazing thing about him was that this rich repository of Delta blues had never recorded in the ’20s or early ’30s, didn’t get “discovered” until 1959, and didn’t become a full-time professional musician until the mid-’60s.

He was born in 1904 in Rossville, TN, and was playing the guitar by the age of 14 with a slide hollowed out of a steer bone. His parents died when Fred was a youngster and the wandering life of a traveling musician soon took hold. The 1920s saw him playing for tips on the street around Memphis, TN, the hoboing life eventually setting him down in Como, MS, where he lived the rest of his life. There McDowell split his time between farming and keeping up with his music by playing weekends for various fish fries, picnics, and house parties in the immediate area. This pattern stayed largely unchanged for the next 30 years until he was discovered in 1959 by folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax was the first to record this semi-professional bluesman, the results of which were released as part of an American folk music series on the Atlantic label. McDowell, for his part, was happy to have some sounds on records, but continued on with his farming and playing for tips outside of Stuckey’s candy store in Como for spare change. It wasn’t until Chris Strachwitz — folk-blues enthusiast and owner of the fledgling Arhoolie label — came searching for McDowell to record him that the bluesman’s fortunes began to change dramatically.

Mississippi Fred McDowell
Fred McDowell

Two albums, Fred McDowell, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, were released on Arhoolie in the mid-’60s, and the shock waves were felt throughout the folk-blues community. Here was a bluesman with a repertoire of uncommon depth, putting it over with great emotional force, and to top it all off, he had seemingly slipped through the cracks of late-’20s/early-’30s field recordings. No scratchy, highly prized 78s on Paramount or Vocalion to use as a yardstick to measure his current worth, no romantic stories about him disappearing into the Delta for decades at a time to become a professional gambler or a preacher. No, Mississippi Fred McDowell had been in his adopted home state, farming and playing all along, and the world coming to his doorstep seemed to ruffle him no more than the little boy down the street delivering the local newspaper.

m2FHtq3n0R5QZ27kFEg0bOgThe success of the Arhoolie recordings suddenly found McDowell very much in demand on the folk and festival circuit, where his quiet, good-natured performances left many a fan utterly spellbound. Working everything from the Newport Folk Festival to coffeehouse dates to becoming a member of the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe, McDowell suddenly had more listings in his résumé in a couple of years than he had in the previous three decades combined. He was also well documented on film, with appearances in The Blues Maker (1968), his own documentary Fred McDowell (1969), and Roots of American Music: Country and Urban Music (1970) among them. By the end of the decade, he was signed to do a one-off album for Capitol Records (the aforementioned I Do Not Play No Rock ‘N’ Roll) and his tunes were being mainstreamed into the blues-rock firmament by artists like Bonnie Raitt (who recorded several of his tunes, including notable versions of “Write Me a Few Lines” and “Kokomo”) and the Rolling Stones, who included a very authentic version of his classic “You Got to Move” on their Sticky Fingers album. Unfortunately, this career largess didn’t last much longer, as McDowell was diagnosed with cancer while performing dates into 1971. His playing days suddenly behind him, he lingered for a few months into July 1972, finally succumbing to the disease at age 68. And right to the end, the man remained true to his word; he didn’t play any rock & roll, just the straight, natural blues.  (Allmusic Artist Biography by Cub Koda)

The great veteran pianist Jay McShann (also known as Hootie) enjoyed a long career and it is unfair to primarily think of him as merely the leader of an orchestra that featured a young Charlie Parker. He was mostly self-taught as a pianist, worked with Don Byas as early as 1931 and played throughout the Midwest before settling in Kansas City in 1936. McShann formed his own sextet the following year and by 1939 had his own big band. In 1940 at a radio station in Wichita, KS, McShann and an octet out of his orchestra recorded eight songs that were not released commercially until the 1970s; those rank among the earliest of all Charlie Parker records (he is brilliant on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Lady Be Jay McShannGood”) and also feature the strong rhythm section team McShann had with bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Gus Johnson. The full orchestra recorded for Decca on two occasions during 1941-1942 but they were typecast as a blues band and did not get to record many of their more challenging charts (although very rare broadcasts have since surfaced and been released on CD by Vintage Jazz Classics). In addition to Bird (who had a few short solos), the main stars were trumpeter Bernard Anderson, the rhythm section, and singer Walter Brown. McShann and his band arrived in New York in February 1942 and made a strong impression, but World War II made it difficult for any new orchestras to catch on. There was a final session in December 1943 without Parker, but McShann was soon drafted and the band broke up. After being discharged later in 1944, McShann briefly re-formed his group but soon moved to Los Angeles, where he led combos for the next few years; his main attraction was the young singer Jimmy Witherspoon.

McShann was in obscurity for the next two decades, making few records and mostly playing in Kansas City. In 1969 he was rediscovered and McShann (who had first sung on records in 1966) was soon a popular pianist/vocalist. Sometimes featuring violinist Claude Williams, he toured constantly, recorded frequently, and appeared at many jazz festivals, being active into the mid-’90s. Jay McShann, who recorded through the years for Onyx (the 1940 radio transcriptions), Decca, Capitol, Aladdin, Mercury, Black Lion, EmArcy, Vee Jay, Black & Blue, Master Jazz, Sackville, Sonet, Storyville, Atlantic, Swingtime, and Music Masters among others, was a vital pianist and an effective blues vocalist who keept a classic style alive. A live album, Hootie Blues, recorded in 2001 in Toronto and released in 2006 by Stony Plain, showed that McShann could still bring it at the age of 85. He died at the age of 90 on December 7, 2006. (Allmusic Artist Biography by Scott Yanow)

Recorded: KFBI Radio Studio, Wichita, Kansas November 30, 1940.
Personnel:
Charlie Parker – Alto Sax
Bernard “Buddy” Anderson – Trumpet
Orville “Piggy” Minor – Trumpet
Bob Gould – Trombone, Violin
William J. Scott – Tenor Sax
Bob Mabane – Tenor Sax
Jay McShann – Piano
Gene Ramey – Bass
Gus Johnson – Drums

Morton Feldman was born in New York on January 12th 1926. At the age of twelve he studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, who had been a pupil of Busoni, and it was she who instilled in Feldman a vibrant musicality. At the time he was composing short Scriabinesque pieces, until in 1941 he began to study composition with Wallingford Riegger. Three years later Stefan Wolpe became his teacher, though they spent much of their time together simply arguing about music.

johncageThen in 1949 the most significant meeting up to that time took place – Feldman met John Cage, commencing an artistic association of crucial importance to music in America in the 1950s. Cage was instrumental in encouraging Feldman to have confidence in his instincts, which resulted in totally intuitive compositions. He never worked with any systems that anyone has been able to identify, working from moment to moment, from one sound to the next. His friends during the 1950s in New York included the composers, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, the painters, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg and the pianist, David Tudor. The painters in particular influenced Feldman to search for his own sound world, one that was more immediate and more physical than had existed before. This resulted in his experimentation with graphic notation, Projection 2 being one of his earliest scores in this idiom. In these scores the players select their notes from within a given register and time structure.FeldmanGraphicScoreBecause these works relied so heavily on improvisation Feldman was not happy with the freedom permitted to the performer, and so abandoned graphic notation between 1953 and 1958. However, the precise notation he used instead during this period he found too one dimensional and so returned to the graph with two orchestral works: Atlantis (1958) and Out of Last Pieces (1960). Soon after these a series of instrumental works appeared called Durations in which the notes to be played are precisely written but the performers, beginning simultaneously, are free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo.

1967 saw the start of Feldman’s association with Universal Edition with the publication of his last graphically notated score, In Search of an Orchestration. Then followed On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969) in which he once more returned to precise notation. From then on, with the exception of two works in the early 1970s, he maintained control over pitch, rhythm, dynamics and duration.

In 1973 the University of New York at Buffalo asked Feldman to become the Edgard Varèse Professor, a post which he was to hold for the rest of his life.

From the late 1970s his compositions expanded in length to such a degree that the Second String Quartet can last for up to five and a half hours. The scale of these works in particular has often been the cause for the controversy surrounding his works, but he would always be happy to attempt to explain his reasoning behind them:

My whole generation was hung up on the 20-25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about the form, but after an hour and a half its scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things.

Nine one-movement compositions by Feldman last for over one and a half hours each.

BunitaMorty_300x208One of his last works, Palais de Mari from 1986, is unusual for a late composition in that it is only twenty minutes long. This came about from a request from Bunita Marcus, for whom it was written, for Feldman to sum up everything he was doing in the very long pieces and to condense that into a smaller piece. Knowing his sense of time, she asked for a ten minute work, knowing that it would probably be twice that length.

On September 3rd 1987 Morton Feldman died at his home in Buffalo aged 61.  (Universal Music Biographical Note)

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