Aurora Nealand & The Royal Roses: A Tribute to Sidney Bechet

Aurora Nealand has a new recording out. GO BUY IT!...

[This is not a review. I will get to that in a different way shortly, hopefully in an audio interview with Aurora Nealand.]


I am never sure why people are doing re-creations, but it does seem that at the moment many listeners like music dripping with nostalgia for a bygone time. It's almost as though they need to be able to envision others than themselves, and add in a few extra-musical elements besides the presented sounds by the musicians in front of them; seemingly seeking information about what people wore; what they ate; how they danced; what they drank.  What is the necessity for the extra cultural baggage?

Perhaps, and this is just a thought, that to be with the unpredictability of what is in the present might have to mean that what any one person, listener, player, or group in a room might do is a little scary; it might require forming one's own opinion and coming up with a response.

Watching behavior in relation to the arts, music included, can be very indicative of the of shifting social dynamics in groups. It appears, looking into the preponderance of imitators of past style [and even businesses that promote it] that we may be going through a sort of regressive phase relative to those times of jazz creators such as Sidney Bechet. Both audiences and musicians now strike me as a little afraid of their own, unbridled self expression; as if it had less validity than in those earlier times.  Now, it's as though people are afraid of their own shadows, where shadows envelope passions, impulses, desires, attractions; their own animal.  Can this be where we are at 100 years after Freud, vanguard art, jazz, and a whole world of stuff that seems like it was there to tear the very underwear off the Victorians?

Paradoxes jump up when making comparisons between the earlier 20th century artists that created those musical inventions that are known as jazz, and their modern worshippers. Bechet for instance, was a huge, bold, figure and you can still hear it in his sound from the recordings. He is New Orleans saxophonist number one and embodies all that goes with that; a trademark sound, innovation, critical and rebellious personality, excitement no matter what the cost. He was even the saxophonist and clarinet player that Ellington most wanted for his own orchestra but he was turned down, allegedly because Bechet felt he could do it just fine himself and, listening to Bechet's recording of The Mooche would not lead one to disagree. Bechet's refusal is how Ellington came to hire Johnny Hodges and, luckily, that refusal, in hindsight, wasn't harmful. In fact, it was a classic case of serendipity for Ellington and for the world that listened to his music. These were both strong willed innovators and we are forced now to look outside of the musics that call themselves jazz in this era to find that level of popular, modernizing, force. Bechet was even involved in the early examples of multi-track recording (check the Bechet recording of Sheik of Araby where he plays everything including the drums and bass.)

On her new recording, Aurora stuck the following quote from Sidney Bechet in a position of prominence which probably means it stands out to her as a motivator in some way:

"New Orleans, that was a place where the music was natural as the air. The people were ready for it like it was sun and rain. A musicianer [note that term!] when he played in New Orleans, was home; and the music, when he played it, would go right to where he sent it. The people there were waiting for it, they were wanting it."

The giveaway line that could give us some direction or bearing is in the last line- "The people there were waiting for it, they were wanting it." These were clearly audiences of a different cultural period because it is evident that they didn't require nostalgia as a motivator; they were looking for novel, high, excitement from boundary breakers like Bechet.

I often wish that New Orleans, indeed many places in the US, could get back to that sort of expressive freedom and stop being afraid or so conscious of their own shadow. Our artwork might again have lasting significance in the world of ideas and learning again rather than the fleeting chance of a fast commercial win at a low payoff that will be unmemorable in the long run.  

I recently read a couple more interesting anecdotes, in this context, about Bechet in John Szwed's biography of Miles Davis, So What. The first relates to a French festival that Miles Davis participated in with an all star band from the US. It was one of the first exposures of post-war developments in jazz to French audiences. This was 1949. Szwed writes of Miles-

..."On the last night, he was chosen to be part of a blues jam with Sidney Bechet, Toots Thielemans, Parker[Bird], Max Roach, and the other stars of the festival. (Miles allowed that he had never heard Sidney Bechet before, but that Bechet's playing reminded him of Duke Ellington's lead alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges.)..."

That is interesting because Miles is never considered as anything but a great innovator and, like Bechet and Ellington, nobody would question whether or not he was an important jazz voice. (Ben Sidran remarked in Talking Jazz that if Miles ate a hamburger it would become by definition a jazz hamburger. The style itself was being fashioned by those creators and Miles was one of it's most essential.) Miles already was a star by 1949, the time of the concert mentioned by Szwed. It seems to not be a problem to anybody that miles hadn't heard every previous player in music, however nowadays it seems that proving your knowledge of old records is more important than creating or contributing some ideas of your own.

The second anecdote that mentions Bechet from Szwed's is real fun. The passage is talking about the position of Bop in 1950.

..."In New York, people were still debating whether bop was jazz. Charlie Parker said no; Dizzy Gillespie said yes. In an interview with Down Beat reporter Pat Harris, Davis went to some pains to agree with Gillespie. Surprisingly, he also defended dixieland music and said that bop was just one form of many styles in jazz. He insisted that all modern jazz musicians had been influenced by earlier forms of jazz and illustrated his point by saying that while he was in Paris, he heard Sidney Bechet play a musical figure that he'd first heard from Charlie Parker when they were recording "KoKo." When he asked Bechet about it, Sidney told him it was from an "old New Orleans march" ("High Society")"

 I put this in because it shows how many types of musical painting and ideas were swirling around at that time as contemporary to each other. Nowadays, we like to see this type of jazz history in a linear way whereas the more accurate picture seems more like vast clouds of related but sometimes very distinctive musical ideas. The linear track is convenient but it seems to be causing grave misunderstandings in young artists that often lead to a waste of time and life while they stand around doing endless demonstrations of their authenticity in relationship to an invented history.

Although it's neither here nor there, I had misgivings about Szwed's book but I confess a serious enjoyment at reading it because I like the subject matter and the anecdotes.

Pick up a copy of Aurora's new CD.