Three Gifts of Music

There’s jazz and there’s JAZZ. Charles Mingus encompasses both. His basslines transcend the staff they’re nominally written in, the two dots in the clef mere symbols of where the music might begin. In 1972, Mingus had a lineup arguably as formidable as any other group of musicians he ascended the stage with. A young Jon Faddis on trumpet, a seasoned Charles McPherson who had played alto sax on and off with Mingus since 1960, an even older Bobby Jones on tenor sax and clarinet, John Foster on piano and veteran percussionist Roy Brooks on drums and musical saw. Yes. Musical saw. That ensemble recorded two nights at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London on August 14th and 15th, 1972. Those recordings were finally released earlier this year; 2022 being the centenary of Mingus’ birth. It is an understatement to say the music here approaches some of his best work. As most who appreciate jazz know, live performances are where the music truly soars. That statement is not meant to diminish studio work with its overdubs and mixing best takes. Nor is it meant to diminish other forms of music like blues or rock. It’s just a statement of fact. Improvisation tends to achieve its greatest synchronicity when musicians are called on to create in front of an audience, especially one already engrossed by the potential in the performance they are about to be a part of. The music on this set of discs illustrates that statement completely. More than that (if such a thing is possible) are Mingus’ sentiments commenting on Black oppression and Black celebration, reflected in his composition nominally about Arkansas governor Orval Faubus of Little Rock Nine infamy “Fable of Faubus” and the tribute to Louis Armstrong titled “Pops” that follows.

In 1976, Patti Smith and her group played three shows in Washington, DC. The first two were at the cozy club on Georgetown’s M Street called the Cellar Door. It seated less than two hundred. Consequently, most of the seats for those shows went to people in the know–reviewers, DJs, industry folks and a couple lucky fans and hangers–on. The shows were also broadcast on the syndicated King Biscuit Radio Hour. Later that year, Smith and her band played at Georgetown University’s McDonough Arena. The latter venue was essentially a basketball court. Bleachers lined the sides, the floors were made of wood and on hot days it smelled like a gym locker room. It was a perfect place to see down and dirty and raw rock and roll. In 1976, the Patti Smith Group played that kind of music. I went to the Georgetown concert with a friend of mine. The opener was a newish group called Bebop Deluxe. To say the least, the pairing was interesting. Most attendees were there to see Patti and her guys. By the midpoint of their set, there were only a handful of folks sitting down. Everyone else was on their feet, shaking their bones and sweating in the overheated gymnasium. Patti’s oversize t-shirt hung off her slender frame, dripping with sweat. So did mine. When the band kicked into the song “Horses”, the crowd sang along on the refrain “Horses, horses, horses….” Lenny Kaye’s guitar crescendoed up, up, up with the vocals of the crowd and Smith jumped like a frenzied wildcat, her fist pumping the air in a challenge to the gods.

Anyhow, a recording was recently released of the two Cellar Door shows. The energy of the McDonough Arena show is present and barely contained. My guess is this is because of the cramped space the Cellar Door must surely have been that night. This is Patti Smith and her band near its garage band best, wedding three-chord rock with poetry, physical energy and just enough sarcasm (in the best tradition of Bob Dylan) directed at the industry representatives and their money and overpriced haircuts. In other words, it is rock music in the 1970s, with all its contradictions, energy, despair and delight. Punk and poetry. Desire and dollar bills.

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s and 1980s there were two harmonica players I used to catch as often as I could. The first was Will Scarlett, perhaps best known for his work with the rock blues combo known as Hot Tuna. I would catch him in bars around town, sitting in with various bands. He also played at free concerts in Berkeley’s People’s Park–when the police didn’t shut them down.

The other harpist was the bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, who has played with everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to John Hammond. Musselwhite moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1960s after his influential Vanguard release Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band gave him some well-deserved notice. He quickly became a popular sideman in the burgeoning San Francisco music scene and a friend of the accompanying counterculture. One particular performance I remember that featured Musselwhite was at a campaign fundraiser for Gus Newport, a CPUSA member running for re-election as Berkeley’s mayor. I don’t remember who was in his band, but I do remember his harp playing.

In the spring of 2021, Musselwhite and a group calling themselves the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers released their second disc, titled Volume 2. The group includes Cody and Luther Dickinson and Chris Chew of the North Mississippi All Stars, plus the (now deceased) Jim Dickinson on piano, Alvin Hart Youngblood, Squirrel Nut Zippers ‘ Jimbo Mathus, and washtub bassist Paul Taylor. According to various sources, the name came from something Luther Dickinson said while Musselwhite and he were on tour. The music is the product of a few days of playing and jamming in 2007. Although Jim Dickinson had finished the production work before his death in 2009, the tapes were left in storage. After some studio work in the early months of the COVID shutdown, Volume 1 was released in 2020, with volume 2 following.

The music here is the blues. Some of the songs are rock tunes with a blues take, while others are straight-out blues. From the frolicking “She’s About a Mover” to “Greens and Ham” and a half dozen or so more, the tunes lure the listener in and don’t let go. Simultaneously casual and polished, the music is the proof of these folks’ abilities, talents and years of playing. Although every song here gets my feet tapping, my tongue singing and my soul stirring, the one that sticks with me the most is actually a reworking of jazz composer Charles Mingus’ “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me.”

Enough said.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.