Keith Harris's Jazz

Jack McDuff, 1926-2001

Jack McDuff, 1926-2001

THIS IS JUST a test, a little exercise in self-restraint, if you will. I'm going to see if I can do you the favor of writing an entire column on jazz without mentioning a certain bloated, middlebrow PBS doc that's currently such a hot topic of discussion. In addition, I will also abstain from the following words that said doc seems to overdose on: greatness, artistry, unprecedented, gumbo. And I promise I will at no time refer to jazz as America's classical music.

Such a tame category hardly seems elastic and vibrant enough to contain the versatile, idiosyncratic work of Herman Blount, better known to this planet as Sun Ra (although he changed his name legally to the more formal Le Sony'r Ra). According to the local composer/performer/DJ Richard Paske, over the course of the pianist's career Sun Ra demonstrated "probably an even wider range of evolution than Miles [Davis]." And for the month of February, Paske has set about attempting to chart the course of that evolution.

Every year Paske sets aside Black History Month to spotlight a notable jazz performer on his KFAI-FM (90.3, 106.7) program Fresh Ears (Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m. to midnight). In past years he has lauded Ornette Coleman and Duke Ellington. This time around Paske is expanding his coverage: In addition to his February series, he will be returning to the music of Sun Ra on the first Tuesday of every month as part of a series he calls "A Year in the Sun (Ra in 2001)."

Paske reports that the programs will progress chronologically, beginning with recent Evidence rereleases from the Forties. "You can trace his evolution from bop to almost free jazz, just within four years," Paske says, noting "a tinge of exoticism in his compositions that make it not exactly bop." The 21 Evidence reissues return the music of Sun Ra's El Saturn label to the market. "He recorded everything: rehearsals, when he played strip clubs," Paske explains. He adds that the original LPs currently sell on eBay for figures in the neighborhood of $1,000.

Paske saw Sun Ra six times, but one performance stands out in particular. "I heard him play solo at the Whole Coffeehouse in Coffman Union in 1979," he recalls. For the first set, Sun Ra played piano, and Paske was unimpressed. "I was almost on the verge of bored," he says, adding that he almost left before the second set, which featured Sun Ra breaking in a new electric organ from Italy. "I closed my eyes and relaxed and saw some of those cosmic geometries he was talking about. He was sending out something on the music that was way beyond the music, waves that were manifesting themselves. Needless to say, I'm glad I didn't leave."

On a sadder note, Jack McDuff passed away last Tuesday at the age of 74. One of the premier virtuosi of the jazz organ, McDuff died of a heart attack in a Minneapolis nursing home. He had been ill for some time after suffering several strokes in past months.

McDuff had made Minneapolis his home for the past 12 years, after relocating here from Harlem. A master of the Hammond B-3, one of the most undervalued of jazz instruments, McDuff was fluent in numerous styles, often exploring a middle ground between jazz and funk.

McDuff hit the scene as "Brother" Jack McDuff, a bass player. Following World War II, he dubbed himself "Cap'n" and taught himself keyboards, recording with Jimmy Forrest in the early Sixties. He went on to cut more than 20 records in the first half of the Sixties alone. (If you can hunt down Tough 'Duff or The Honeydripper from that period, you won't be sorry.)

And finally--I can't do it! I have to talk about Ken Burns! Just for a minute, I swear. Unlike some partisans of the avant garde, I'm not super-offended by the way Burns slights the last 40 years. So what if Burns and his cronies idolize Armstrong and Ellington? So should all of us. And it's not as if hordes of swing converts are about to burn their Cecil Taylor records at the behest of Wynton Marsalis.

But all ideological cavils aside, Jazz is dull. Dull, dull, dull. After sticking it out with a good hour of the bop segment, I faded out around the time this brilliant pharmaceutical observation was delivered: "Marijuana had been a part of jazz almost since the beginning, but heroin was something altogether different." (You don't say!) With his painfully unswinging pace and the impending calamity of the narration, Burns seems determined to validate under-30s who had already erroneously dismissed jazz as their parents' music.

Music criticism that does nothing more than reiterate the importance of the artists under examination with platitudinous fealty is worse than useless. Who is the filmmaker arguing with? I mean, is anyone out there suggesting that Duke Ellington sucks?