Thursday, August 18, 2016

“Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”

During the first half of the Eighties, I had a condominium in a high-rise building not far from the train station in Stamford, Connecticut. One of the perquisites at this time, when cable was just beginning to become a major industry, was that the building had a strong FM antenna on its roof with feeds into all of the units. This allowed me to discover the campus radio station at Columbia University and the serious attention it paid to jazz recordings. This was particularly the case at the end of August, a significant time of the year because Lester Young was born on August 27, 1909 and Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920. WKCR-FM (Kings College Radio, named after the university’s original name) would air an annual three-day festival, all-Pres on August 27, all-Bird on August 29, and a well-balanced mix of the two on August 28. That meant 72 hours of seldom-interrupted airing of some of the finest jazz recordings made during the twentieth century.

(By way of clarification, some might question my spelling Young’s nickname with an “s,” rather than a “z.” The nickname came from Billie Holiday; and she intended it to be short for “President,” in recognition of Young’s authority as a saxophone player. Thus, my choice of spelling reflects the “original intent!”)

This morning I learned from my RSS feed of the Arts section of The New York Times that the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival has become “one of the more generous rites of summer in the city,” apparently taking place during the final weekend in August. I cannot argue with those concerts being free, nor with the fact that they are distributed across different parts of the city. On the other hand I cannot say that I am particularly happy about Pres being pushed into the background. The good thing about the WKCR broadcasts was that, particularly on that middle day, the curious listener could come to appreciate both the convergences and the divergences of the paths of these two saxophone giants. (Those who know their saxophone history can appreciate that the noun “colossus” would arise in a subsequent era!) Those broadcasts played a major role in escalating my ability to listen to jazz from the casual to the attentive, even if several decades had to elapse before I felt that I could write about that subject with even an elementary feeling of competence.

Judging from the description of the Festival lineup in the online New York Times article by Nate Chinen, Bird’s legacy is unlikely to play much of a role in the programming. Granted, jazz festivals in general, particularly those with outdoor stages, are more social gatherings than serious listening occasions. At best they pique the curiosity of those who had previously given little, if any thought, to listening to jazz players. Still, if you are going to name a festival after a saxophonist whose iconic status cannot be questioned, should not some of that curiosity be directed towards his legacy? Admittedly, Chinen’s piece was a brief one; but Bird’s presence in his two paragraphs was only in the name of the festival itself!

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