Friday, 31 October 2014

Jazz, cats and puns

One of the reasons I like jazz is because it sounds unpredictable and ungovernable. In the 1940s – the early days of bebop - jazz players often called themselves “cats”. Cats – like jazz players – are individuals who choose to keep company while retaining their freedom. No wonder when we say that a task is “like herding cats” we mean it is virtually impossible.
jazz player

The pleasure of hearing live jazz is that each performance is going to be different – each musician in turn improvising part of the performance. There is excitement in improvisation – it’s unforeseen by the player and the audience.

But it is not random.

In 1997 Ornette Coleman in conversation with Jacques Derrida described the difference between composing for an orchestra and composing for a jazz band.
Image of Ornette Coleman by Geert Vandepoele
Ornette Coleman by Geert Vandepoele

For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores.

But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What's really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a "framework" as a basis for improvising.
The framework is the composition – the expected melody or tune – so that what is provided gives the improvisation its springboard. Listening to the improvisation gradually return to its melodic foundation is the other pleasure of listening to jazz.

Jazz at Oberlin

In 1953 the Dave Brubeck quartet recorded live at Oberlin College.
Listen to it here Youtube Jazz at Oberlin

Cover of Jazz at Oberlin
Cover of Jazz at Oberlin
In Perdido Paul Desmond on alto-sax and Dave Brubeck on piano improvise in a thrilling and remarkable way – bringing other tunes into the track, improvising within those tunes – returning to the original melody and improvising on that.

Improvising with words.
Paul Desmond was an anarchic wordsmith as well as an inspired musician.

Cover Meet me at Jim and Andy's
Meet me at Jim and Andy's
In Gene Lees book Meet Me at Jim & Andy's (1988), we learn about his pranks with words and his literary allusions.

Like musical improvisation puns and plays on words rely on a basic structure to provide the fun of departure. A pun sounds like the original with enough changed to be recognisable and give a comic meaning - hopefully.

However pun artists often change things for the sheer hell of it.

Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan and Judy Holliday were well known for their delight in wordplay.

Dave Brubeck was often driven to gigs by Paul Desmond who liked to drive fast to beat the traffic lights. Although he was the passenger Brubeck would keep his eyes on the road while Desmond would read every single road sign backwards – just for entertainment.

Desmond and Mulligan invented an album Jazz goes to Ireland
containing such songs as Fitzhugh or No-one, Mahoney a Girl in a Gilded cage and Lovely Hoolihan.

Paul Desmond was never short of female company – he was attracted to and attracted beautiful fashion models. These relationships did not last long – embarked upon casually and often ending even more casually. Several of Desmond’s girlfriends went on to marry richer and more respectable men. Paul was out with Brubeck one day and saw one of his ex-girlfriends with her new husband. "There she goes, not with a whim but a banker" (a reference to T.S. Eliot's "This is the way the world ends - Not with a bang but a whimper").

Judy Holiday was smart and loved to play with words. She lived in the Dakota Building where she preferred to fill her living room with ferns rather than flowers. Judy liked to say to visitors
“With fronds like these who needs anemones?”

But Desmond’s most extended and convoluted pun was based on the words for Ragtime Cowboy Joe. It involved this story.
A boy of Italian parentage called Carbaggio was born in Germany. He felt a misfit amongst all those Teutonic blondes, so he tries to be even more German than the Germans. In late adolescence he flees to Paris where he steals a brass miniature of the Eiffel Tower. Arrested by the police he is given the choice of going to jail or leaving the country. He boards the first outbound ship and arrives in New York. Looking for a career in communications he goes to the RCA Building in Rockefeller Plaza. He walks in to the office of General Sarnoff who tells him the only job available is strikebreaking – so he takes it. At the end of the strike he goes to work for a sonar equipment company owned by a man called Harris. Later he gets a job on a radio station as a disk jockey. His show is called Rock-Time.

He’s fulfilled his destiny as a -
routine Teuton Effeil-lootin’ Sarnoff goon from Harris Sonar, Rock-Time Carbaggio.

As Gene Lees says “I used to wonder what kind of mind would expend the effort of working out something like that. – Paul’s kind.”

But no-one has ever really worked out the origin of Paul’s affectionate name for Gerry Mulligan.
G. Emily Guncloset

Maybe an improvisation of an acrostic anagram?


Gene Lees: Meet Me at Jim & Andy's (1988) 
Jim and Andy’s was a bar in New York where the jazz fraternity hung out. Lees gives an account of some of the goings on and an insight into the lives and thoughts of some of the top jazz musicians of the 50s and 60s – including Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman.

Gene Lees also wrote about racism in jazz music in Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White (1994)

Judy Holliday
 (June 21, 1921 – June 7, 1965) was an American actress, comedian and singer.
Judy Holliday wikipedia

Jazz at Oberlin - Dave Brubeck Quartet
Oberlin College Ohio, a liberal arts college noteworthy for having been the first American institution of higher learning to regularly admit female and black students in addition to white males.

The words of Ragtime Cowboy Joe
He's a high-falutin', rootin', shootin',
Son of a gun from Arizona,
Ragtime Cowboy Joe.


  1. Hi Jude
    Great post.
    I don't know much about jazz, apart from having a vague feeling that I like "trad" jazz and not the sort that has no tune! This must be the difference between "melody" and "improvisation". So I obviously need to listen more!

    1. Thanks Jane
      You don't need to know anything about jazz - just enjoy it. Another jazz player who played "trad" jazz and loved playing with words - Humphrey Lyttleton. Presented "Sorry I haven't a clue" - BBC Radio 4