Sunday, April 27, 2014

Baritone Sax Seduction and The Merits of Good Band Directors

NOTE: An update to this blog is added in the ADDENDUM at the end!

Okay, I've finally had to admit it to myself. I've been seduced by the baritone saxophone. That's me in the picture on the far left when it began when I was 13 back in 1969. Today, as I look at my other three saxophones, soprano, alto and tenor, I feel ashamed that it's been over a week since I last touched them. Yet I've played my bari every single day! What is it about the baritone sax that I like so much? That is the subject of this blog as well as giving kudos to the influences, teachers and band directors that gave me my first taste of it.

First off, have you ever really looked at this sucker? It's a big, beautiful piece of metal work, huh? As early as I can remember, I've always been fascinated with the look of the saxophone. Such a beautifully timeless creation that Adolphe Sax made. It seems both ancient and futuristic in design. No other musical instrument created by man is quite like it. The first sax I ever laid eyes on was my brother Guy Fielder's Mark VI Selmer alto sax back in 1962. Selmers are the highest quality saxophones ever made and he had bought it brand new back in 1958 for $500. That was big money back then. Keep in mind you could buy a new car for $500 then. And his friend, noted Pittsburgh saxophonist Phil Celli, my future sax teacher had a Mark VI Selmer tenor. They'd lay these horns across the bed in the room I shared with my brother and I'd hear these seductive sounds from all the records they brought back from their trip to Lomakins Music Store in Pittsburgh 30 miles away. I'd look at these pictures on the album covers of Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Mobley etc. and recognized that Selmer "S" on the neck-piece of their Selmer saxophones and was entranced. I could not wait to get old enough to get one of my own! Finally when I was 9 years old and entered 4th grade, my brother's friend, Phil opened up a music store in my hometown and provided instruments for rental to all the local schools. To my horror, they told me I couldn't have a saxophone. They recommended that I take up clarinet for one year, my brother saying, "this will make you a better saxophonist. If you stick with it for one year, I'll tell mama and daddy to get you the saxophone." I was horrified and so disappointed but did as my brother said. I looked at that ole black stick and hated it. I did well with all my clarinet lessons, even learning how to "jazz them up". But all I could think of was next summer getting a saxophone.

When I entered 5th grade, finally, my parents brought home an alto sax for me. But something was wrong . . . this ain't no Selmer! (what an ungrateful brat, eh?) It didn't look like Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson or Jackie McLean's alto. This alto was so ancient, it looked like a civil war horn. And it being made of nickle, oh it was all wrong. Real saxophones have gold lacquer! But to my credit, I didn't make too much of a fuss, at least it was a saxophone, and I settled down to the business of learning how to make those sounds I heard on the records come out of my instrument.

Finally I was entering the 7th grade at my high school. We were such a small town that the junior high and senior high was combined. By then I had learned how to play and improvise the easy jazz standards: "Bye Bye Blackbird" "Tune Up", "Billy's Bounce". I was regularly playing in a local R & B Band during the weekends. I was ready! I got to play in the marching and concert bands even though I was in 7th grade. When I entered, my parents had contacted the band director to make sure I had a "proper" instrument. They earmarked a Buescher Aristocrat tenor sax for me. A great horn and that's what I started with. Now, I was playing the instrument my heroes Coltrane and Rollins played. But it still wasn't all the way there yet for me because they weren't Selmers. One day, that year I was fooling around in the band room's instrument room. Way up on the top shelf was a huge shaped case I hadn't seen before. Being a lover of instruments, it was my habit to pull out all the various instruments and check them out up close. I had a very encouraging band director, who would let me take any instrument into a practice room with a fingering chart and beginners book and I'd learn the instrument. I pulled this behemoth down and dusted off the case and to my astonishment, the label said "Selmer". I couldn't open the case fast enough. What I saw inside made me utterly speechless: a brand new Selmer Mark VI baritone sax! The finest saxophone ever made. So well made that they appreciate in value the older it gets. And nobody was playing it! Keep in mind how expensive of an instrument this is. A new one today costs anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000. For some reason, my band director was out for a few days, sick or something and I needed his permission to have that horn assigned to me. I couldn't sleep for the next few days waiting for him to come back to school. I cut out this really cool Selmer ad in the 1968 Downbeat Yearbook that showed all the new Mark VI saxophones with the baritone in the foreground. I hung this picture up on my nightstand dreaming of having that Selmer baritone sax. Each day at free period, I'd go to the band room, take that horn out and get me a practice room and blow until the bell rang for the next period.

After about the second day or so, Mr. Schor, the band director was back and unbeknown to me, he had been listening to me practice the baritone sax. He had gathered all the players to come out into the main room to rehearse as a ad-hoc ensemble. I really didn't want to go and leave this bari to get my tenor sax and tried to ignore his call. Maybe he won't call me to come out. But he surprised me by knocking on my practice room door and told me to bring the baritone sax. When we assembled, he blew my mind by passing out, "Salute The Duke", a medley of Duke Ellington compositions! The seduction was complete by the time I played the 'Satin Doll' portion of the suite. Of course by then I had heard several versions of Duke's orchestra playing this tune. I was hooked as I played Duke's baritone sax great, Harry Carney's part on it. Afterwards, Mr. Schor and I talked about Duke, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and jazz in general as he knew I loved jazz and could improvise. But instead of stressing that I should concentrate more on 'legitimate' playing as I thought he would do, he encouraged me to keep improvising as a jazz player! He said, "I wished I had your ear. Keep with the jazz!" Then he blew my mind by rolling his eyes up in his head and said how much he admires trombonist Urbie Green! "Boy that guy has it all! He can read and improvise. He can play anything!" he said. Needless to say, I brought in Dizzy Gillespie's "Gillespiana" LP the next day where we both sat down and listened to Urbie Green play a fantastic solo. This was my thanks to his answering in the affirmative when I asked could that Selmer baritone sax be assigned to me the day before!

I am so appreciative to the people and teachers in my formative years who shared and conveyed their love of music to me that enabled me to become the musician I am today. Last but certainly not least is my last band director, Mr. Versella, "Mr.V" as we affectionately called him. He came in during my junior year. He was fresh out of the University of Pittsburgh, --Pitt, what was to be my future alma mater where I went on to study with sax great Dr. Nathan Davis. Mr. V, was in his twenties, so he was closer to our age and really understood us and the music we liked. He was an open sky and let us try everything we wanted. He gave me my first experience writing for an ensemble where I would transcribe soul and R&B hits of the times for our Pep Band. This was no little deal as our basketball and football teams were highly touted, won state championships and performed in the big arenas. I remember our 'hit' with the fans was my transcription of Mandrill's "Fencewalk"! Mr. V also let me improvise with that baritone sax with the Pep Band where I also would make up riffs for the guys to play. But more importantly, Mr. V. let me keep that baritone sax all the way thru my senior year even though my primary instrument was the tuba in marching season and oboe and bassoon in concert season. He would give me solos with the marching band at half-time shows and knee-knocking, nail-biting (for me) oboe overtures in symphonic band. He even tried to ask the powers that be at the school to let me take the horn with me upon graduation, as I was voted Best Musician and had successfully competed in district and regional band and choral competitions, representing my school. However we were unsuccessful. As I've mentioned, that was an expensive instrument. So my seduction by the baritone sax started at age of twelve and temporarily ended in my 17th year. I would not play the baritone sax again until 2002 when I finally got my own Jupiter Artist baritone sax and recorded the "Howling Monk" CD. But that, as they say is a whole 'nother story . . .

This blog was written several years ago.  I wish I could find the exact date it was posted.  I had an 'accident' on my blog site that wiped out all my blogs and I've been asking Blogspot how to re-post them in date order to no avail.  What is it with these internet sites like Facebook etc. that never get back to you or refuse to offer good customer service? Anyway its been several years ago since I wrote the above.  In May of 2013, I  partially tore a tendon in my right arm and was unable to play the baritone sax for a whole year!  Luckily I was able to play alto with virtually no pain; soprano and tenor with varying degrees of 'acceptable pain'.  Soprano was the worst!  I could only play it for about 10 minutes at a time.  But the Universe is so merciful! Exactly one year later, in May of 2014, I went to see the legendary saxophone repairman Manny at his Horn Connection store in Hollywood to find a new ligature for my soprano.  While trying out ligatures (and I did find a killer one!)  he directs my attention to this baritone sax displayed on the floor.  "See this horn Dale?  I poured my LIFE into it's restoration.  And I'd like someone like YOU who would appreciate such a good horn like this to have it!"  I looked at it and my heart almost skipped a beat.  It was a Selmer Mark VI baritone sax, -Low Bb.  Just like my old horn I had in High School all those years ago.  Perfectly restored as if it was brand new!
I laughed because I knew I couldn't afford a horn like that.  I had seen a horn like that the other day on Ebay going for $14,000.00.  More importantly I didn't even think I could play it because of my torn tendon, totally forgetting that it had been a year since the accident.  I came back the next day to try it and discovered NO PAIN!  I had finally healed enough to start back playing my beloved baritone sax. Needless to say, Manny offered me a deal I could not refuse and made it so easy to purchase this horn.  So the baritone sax seduction began again in EARNEST!  Having the finest crafted saxophone on the planet just doubled down on the seduction.  I can't keep it out of my hands.  It is just pure pleasure to play.  More importantly, playing this horn now for almost 6 months re-affirms my realization that my most original and true voice is on the baritone sax.  There are just things I can do on it that I just cannot do on the other saxophones.  So a whole new world of discovery about myself and my musical expression just opened up for me as 2014 comes to a close.  In playing the baritone I seem to "hear music" better.  Not only has my playing improved, but my writing has opened up as well.  Yeah, I'm lovin' this sweet seduction and in it, with it, look to the future at endless possibilities in the joy of discovery and musical expression.

Jazz . . . . . . WTF Happened!!!!????

[Author's Note: I am in the process of re-posting some of my previous blogs since they were lost in an 'act of God' by BlogSpot.  Attempts to contact them to fix this were to no avail, so hence the re-posting.  This is my very first blog originally written during the summer of 2009 after the death of Michael Jackson.]

Today here in LA I happened to overhear an announcer on 94.7 The Wave announce "we got some great jazz in store for you after this break, Greg Adams, Boney James and some straight ahead jazz with Lonnie Liston Smith! So stay tuned!" Also today, LA Weekly jazz writer, Brick Wahl sent a post out on Facebook saying that he just heard Kenny G on 88.1 KJZZ, supposedly the last bastion of straight-ahead jazz radio in America. Someone aptly responded to Brick's post saying, "Kenny G on KJZZ?? It's the sign of the apocalypse!" Indeed! And well said! Anybody with any understanding of music knows that what Boney James, Kenny G and Greg Adams are playing is as remote from jazz as the earth is from the center of our galaxy. And I like Lonnie Listen Smith as much as any music lover, but since when did his music become not only jazz (in the singular) but straight-ahead jazz? Come on! The problem is the changing of the guard in terms of a newer generation coming to the fore. Unfortunately, it seems like jazz to them is ANY kind of instrumental music. They can’t distinguish the variety of differences in music, because in their lifetime, music isn’t about the art of making great music. Its about money and conforming to formats that make a great deal of money through music. As a result of this emphasis on things extraneous to music, their ears have become sort of de-sensitized when it comes to music. To them, music by itself is not enough; there must be a gimmick of some sort: dancing, gangsterism or some other form of iconism. They never heard artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway or James Brown in their prime, nor do they have musical artists of equal depth. They certainly never knew what it was like when Miles, Coltrane or Mingus walked the earth or they would know that Kenny G and them aren't playing jazz. And please let's get this straight: SMOOTH JAZZ AIN'T JAZZ. IT'S INSTRUMENTAL R&B. And that's cool!  But that's what it is.

The Smooth Jazz Cognoscenti say that the roots of smooth jazz goes back to the fusion movement of the 1970s in an attempt to legitimize smooth jazz. But to me and my ears, the roots of all this is simply the making of money. As Bird said, "I can always tell when a man is playing for money." I think of the scene in the movie "Bird" where Bird snatches the horn out of an R&B saxophonist's hands and says "I just wanna see if this horn can play more than one note!" The problem we jazz enthusiasts have (and yes, I am not ashamed of the word ‘jazz’) is that for us, jazz is the highest form of music created by humankind. The highest evolution of the art of manipulating sound and vibration down through the ages, culminating with the emergence of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Unencumbered with the racism that American whites had, the Europeans immediately understood and embraced jazz when they heard the first black artists perform on European soil like Sidney Bechet or James Reese Europe's bands when they arrived during World War I. For jazz is the perfect melding of the left brain (analytical and intellectual) with the right brain (emotion and creative). After all to master jazz, to even be in the ball park, you first have to have the musical understanding and technique of a classical instrumental virtuoso (left brain) and then have the ability to use that theoretical knowledge to create or make up what you feel in your heart (right brain) as pure musical expression of your own emotions moment after every moment as you play until you stop. The music is meant to be profound, because it is; -improvising and creating your own melodies as an expression of what each player held in their heart. The impact of that is that it always had the ability to move hearts. Now THAT'S challenging! Unlike these artists nowadays that people can take or leave, if you heard Billie Holiday, Nina Simone or Carmen McRae live I guarantee you truly would not, or could not just take or leave them! That's the kind of magic that's been lost.

Now, in the age of technology and computers, music and especially jazz isn't as magical as it once was because there is a whole generation of so-called artists lacking that kind of depth. It’s not their fault. For they been distracted away from that kind of perspective with the chase after the almighty dollar. It’s even divided artists amongst each other. The competitiveness over work, money and success has made it difficult for artists to enjoy each other’s work. Musicians today are over concerned with their own music to the point that they have little to no interest in each other’s work. An atmosphere of fear pervades among musicians that another artist who is as good may eclipse one’s own chances, so many won’t even acknowledge another’s work. Thus the development of the music stifles as it has for the past 20 years. Growth and evolution in music happens with the exchange of ideas among musicians and composers etc. This happened back in the day and is why there were not just great artists, but also many innovators among them. Their music is still vital today. Can we say that about today’s artists? That’s why the loss of Michael Jackson was so important. What might he had accomplished with his upcoming tour? However I’m afraid that even if he had created something innovative, people would lack the ears to appreciate it. The public today is more interested in Michael’s behavior and iconism than his music. Prior to his death, when’s the last time you heard talk of the greatness of his work? All you heard was criticism of his lifestyle and being weird. The man had to die for people to go back and listen to his work.

Yes, I remember a time when jazz was truly magical and important. When you said you were a musician, people didn’t look at you as if you were the scum of the earth. Back then, it seemed that every artist was magical and had something unique to say, no matter if it was jazz, pop, rock or country-western. Back then jazz was really something special. This would be back in the mid-60s. I had got my first subscription to DownBeat Magazine in 1964 when I was eight to fuel my listening sessions with my older brother's records. You couldn't even imagine the sounds and sense of those times, when giants like Miles, Trane, Wes and Mingus walked the earth! I'd look in the When and Where section of Downbeat and saw that these greats were actually out there performing. Man! Look at THESE cats: Duke, Pops, Coltrane, Miles, Bags, Hawk, Ella, Oscar Peterson, alive and a vital force in the world. You had Earl Fatha Hines, Count Basie. Jazz was a force for freedom in the world, breaking barriers down as it broke racial barriers that existed too long in our society up to that point. Even the white cats were cool: Pepper Adams (I mean, how much cooler can you get then him?), Bill Evans, Art Pepper, Dave Brubeck, Eddie Costa, Woody Herman. Such a magical time in music. We all took it for granted and thought it would always be like this. Boy were we wrong!

As I went to publish this, I was informed of the passing of writer/activist Iskandar Langalibalele to who I am dedicating this blog entry to in his memory. He would have liked this . . .

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Piano Magic of Jane Getz


I am honored to write this musical appreciation of Jane Getz whom I've had the privilege to share the bandstand with for over 20 years.  She is not only one of jazz's most accomplished pianists, but is my personal favorite as well as being one of my closest and dearest friends.  In the onward march and advancement of our human society, much complexity and new deterrent realities are created along with that advancement.  While on the one hand, this may be the best period in jazz history as more people are aware of it than at any other time, I can't help but bemoan the fact that it has also made us all unwillingly into base-competitors.  The deterrent force created out of all this, has made us so preoccupied with our own paths to the point that we can't find the space to enjoy each other as we used to in 'gentler' times.  In essence we miss so much that is absolutely wonderful and amazing that is going on right now in the world and the so-called jazz world in particular.  Jane Getz is a monolithic case in point.  Jane Getz is a bona-fide genius and has been one since childhood.

Me & Jane
Originally born in Rusk, TX, Jane moved with her family at pre-school age to Chicago briefly, then to Los Angeles and settled on Alvarado Street near downtown LA when she was 3.  At this young age, she began picking out melodies on the piano and soon developed the ability to memorize any and everything she heard and re-play it perfectly note for note, including memorizing an entire 86 page Mozart concerto by the time she was 6.  Soon, her arts-conscious mother recognized her talent and took her to every variety of musical event the city of Los Angeles offered, including a live-in person Billie Holiday performance when she was few years older.  Inspired by Holiday and later Bud Powell recordings, Jane began absorbing and exploring the magical world of jazz music.  By the time she was 13, she began cutting classes to play in all the jams sessions and gigs around Los Angeles, and eventually came under the watchful and encouraging eye of Billy Higgins.  At 15, Jane left school and after a brief move to San Francisco, settled in New York City.  Literally within hours of arriving, on the street Jane secured a gig after running into saxophone great Pony Poindexter whom she met when he stopped previously in LA.  Living in Greenwich Village, Jane continued her intense practice regiment, hung out with jazz greats like neighbor saxophonist Jerome Richardson who helped introduce her and showed her all the ropes.  Soon Jane found herself working with all the greats of the era like Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Lloyd, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  She jammed with the great Jimi Hendrix, became Chick Corea's first call sub and began working with the legendary Charles Mingus whom she began touring with.  I remember calling Jane after reading a Sonny Fortune interview in Downbeat magazine where Fortune recalled his first gig after moving to NYC with the Elvin Jones Quintet.  He spoke of being in awe of all the New York "cats" who were members of the band that included Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Jane Getz!  When I asked Jane, she recalled in her inimitable voice: "Yeah, I remember that gig!  It was at a place called Poobies!"  All this and more is coming out in a book by Jane entitled: "Running With The Big Dogs"So I'll leave all these great stories Jane has told me for you to read in her upcoming book.  I'll just concisely say that after getting a producer contract with RCA Records, Jane moved back to LA, bought a lovely house in the Hollywood Hills (where she still lives) and began a 20 plus year career as a producer working with greats like John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Don Henley and Harry Nilsson.

Somewhere around 1994, Jane began to get the "itch to play some real music", -jazz again and began going back out and sitting in at all the jazz sessions around town.  This is where our paths crossed.  I had recorded 2 successful CDs that drew national attention and was getting some buzz and I was getting a great deal of work at the time.  I had an amazing pianist in Greg Kurstin but made the mistake of referring him to my mentor, Charles McPherson who need a pianist for a gig.  So needless to say, Greg went out on the road with Charles and stayed in that band for quite a few years.  So I was in the market for a piano player.  However, I was spoiled in this area.  Not just any pianist would do.  I grew up with the legendary late Mark Taylor in Pittsburgh and and was tutored by the great Carl Arter whom young Coltrane, Jimmy Heath and Kenny Dorham sought out earlier in their careers.  I later worked with the great Geri Allen and Marsha Frazier as members of my bands as well as theirs.  So I was looking for a distinctive piano voice.  I remember clearly it was late November of '94 after Thanksgiving and I was 3 years into my decade long residency at Leimert Park's 5th Street Dick's (we were Richard Fulton's first band and started the music policy there, played there from 1991-2000 and it's amazing how we are written out of the history of that place, but I digress and will save that for another story).  On our break, as was our custom, bassist Bill Markus and I walked over to the The World Stage to check who was playing.  I can't remember who's band it was, because I was enthralled with the young lady playing piano.  There was my first siting of Jane Getz, this cute little lady at the piano with a mink stole stretched around her shoulders playing the bejeezus out of the piano!  This was the kind of piano playing I was looking for.  They broke before we had to go back at Dick's and I immediately approached her for an upcoming gig I had on New Year's Day 1995 as part of the Leimert Park Jazz Festival.  I was charmed by her easy-going, approachable manner and she told me she had been hearing about me and would love to play with us.  So New Year's Day 1995, Jane appeared as the pianist with the Dale Fielder Quartet and has remained with us ever since! 

The following year, 1996 our first recording with Jane, "Dear Sir: Tribute To Wayne Shorter" was released and immediately soared to #7 on Gavin Jazz, the national jazz chart of the time and remained there for nine weeks!  That recording put all of us on the jazz map and garnered both national and international attention.  We were hot as any independent jazz group could get at the time.  Sales were hot and gigs were flowing in, eventually leading to our first international appearances as well as TV appearances such as winning the 1999 BET Jazz Discovery award.  I think a large part of it was due to the re-emergence of Jane Getz back into the jazz world.  At that time I constantly heard "I wondered what had happened to Jane Getz!  She still is playing fabulously" by jazz writers, critics and fans. I've felt honored to be able to help bring Jane back to the consciousness of the jazz public, so-called 'bringing her back from obscurity'.  But in truth, Jane never left or dropped out.  She has always been here doing just fine thank you and continued growing as an artist.  She has evolved beyond just being a jazz pianist, but also as a vocalist and writer of country-western, rock music as well as jazz.

Right now I'm involved with listening to material we recorded for our upcoming 20th Year Anniversary project next year.  When you listen to both of us soloing, it's almost like its the same person playing different instruments, the repor and approach Jane and I have to improvising is certainly similar.  There's a definite resonance we have with each other's playing.  I find myself playing little things I've heard her do etc.  During an interview for our CD "Baritone Sunride" in 2004, I spoke on this:

 "Jane coming into the quartet was the big factor for us both. We compliment each other very well: --a perfect foil for each other. I attribute this to the fact that we both feel the same way about music, and jazz in particular. Her primary influence is Bud Powell, mine is Charles Parker. We both aren’t afraid of being traditionalists in the sense that in the new millennium this seems to be a bad word. Our influences and sources of inspiration are pretty direct. When you hear Jane play bop or a standard, it sounds completely authentic, relevant yet up to date and of the present time. Not standing still in time sounding dated, you see? Even though we are coming from sources in the 1940’s and ‘50s, we have still learned from everything that has happened since in the music. You hear McCoy Tyner and Tommy Flanagan in Jane’s playing, Coltrane in mine. There’s a certain magic that happens when Jane and I play together and we’ve been smart enough to explore this and let it develop for all these years. It’s still fun for us after all these years.  We all are not afraid of the word jazz and relish each opportunity to perform it together. The passion and dedication each member of this band has is beyond any words I can say except the word “love”. We really love what we are doing together. It doesn’t happen quite in the same way when we play with anyone else. We naturally create a very ego-less and supportive musical environment for each other every time we play. And because of this, there is a tremendous amount of love, respect and esteem we hold for each other that has been enjoyed for ten years and hopefully many more to come."  

Indeed!  Wait'll you hear Jane's playing on these upcoming series of recordings.  It will be a 4 volume CD set entitled Saxophone Standards to celebrate the 20th year anniversary of DFQ~Dale Fielder Quartet featuring Jane Getz.  Volume I is already recorded and in the can and Jane's playing is utterly amazing, certain to turn some heads!  She was particularly inspired that night.  So there will be a lot more Jane Getz to listen to in the future and I feel blessed to have a front row seat!