[JPL] Bob Dylan's Talkin' Jazz

Louis Erlanger louisx at myfairpoint.net
Tue May 24 11:46:58 EDT 2011

Dylan 's mind is a musical encyclopedia. My two favorite covers are Aaron Neville's "Times They Are A'Changin'" and C.J. Chenier's "Absolutely Sweet Marie". 
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Tom Reney 
  To: jazz programmer's list 
  Sent: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 8:29 AM
  Subject: [JPL] Bob Dylan's Talkin' Jazz

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  I wrote a review of Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One for Downbeat in 2004.  If you haven't read the memoir yourself, you may be surprised to know that Dylan makes numerous references to jazz and blues throughout this episodic narrative.  7 years later, one wonders about the status of Volume 2?  Bobby, please!

  -------- Original Message -------- Subject:  Bob Dylan's Talkin' Jazz 
        Date:  Thu, 02 Dec 2004 09:59:46 -0500 
        From:  Tom Reney <tr at wfcr.org> 
        To:  tom reney <tr at wfcr.org> 

  Ed Bradley's interview with Bob Dylan will be shown on 60 Minutes this Sunday, December 5 (2004).  Given Bradley's interest in jazz, I'm curious to see if Dylan is questioned about the substantial jazz content that is included in his memoir CHRONICLES, VOLUME ONE.  As a longtime listener to Dylan and reader of numerous interviews and biographies on him, I've been very pleasantly surprised at the numerous mentions he makes about the music.  

  He recounts playing "The Water Is Wide" with Cecil Taylor, who "could play regular piano if he wanted to", and another occasion at the same "creepy but convenient little coffeehouse on Bleeker" in which he played with Billy Higgins and Don Cherry.  

  He relates this about seeing Thelonious Monk at the Blue Note on 3rd Street. "Sometimes he'd be in there in the afternoon sitting at the piano all alone playing stuff that sounded like Ivory Joe Hunter-- a big half eaten sandwich left on top of his piano.  I dropped in there once in the afternoon, just to listen-- told him that I played folk music up the street.  'We all play folk music,' he said.  Monk was in his own dynamic universe even when he dawdled around.  Even then, he summoned magic shadows into being."

  He mentions many records, including relatively obscure Ellingtonia like Tourist Point of View and the Tattooed Bride, and the Gil Evans recording of Leadbelly's Ella Speed.  "If I needed to wake up real quick, I'd put on Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac or Umbrella Man by Dizzy Gillespie.  Hot House by Charlie Parker was a good record to wake up to.  There were a few souls around who had heard and seen Parker play and it seemed like he had transmitted some secret essence of life to them." 

  He's downright rapturous in his appreciation of two Harrys: Arlen ("In Harold's songs...the cosmic Somewhere Over the Rainbow... I could hear rural blues and folk music"); and Belafonte ("He had ideals and made you feel you're part of the human race...that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope some of it rubs off on you...You know he never took the easy path, though he could have.").  And hyperbolic towards Sinatra's Ebb Tide: "I could hear everything in his voice-- death, God, the universe, everything." 

  Even though it wasn't released until several years after Dylan's conversion from folk music to rock'n'roll, he relates the controversy that ensued to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, "a piece of music that didn't follow the rules of modern jazz, which had been on the verge of breaking into the popular marketplace until Miles's record came along and killed its chances. Miles was put down by the jazz community. I couldn't imagine Miles being too upset."

  In the only musically technical passage in the book, albeit a cryptic one, he credits Lonnie Johnson with showing him a guitar style that was "more active with more definition of presence...I had the idea he was showing me something secretive."  (Coincidentally, I just read an interview with Stones' bassist Bill Wyman in which he recounts a significant encounter with Lonnie J on a NYC street when the Stones first came to the States.  And there's some great footage of Lonnie in the new DVD series of the 1960's American Folk Blues Festival concert tours; Lonnie's shown being introduced by Sonny Boy Williamson, playing solo and with Victoria Spivey.)

  He devotes several pages to Robert Johnson, the initial impact of hearing the 1962 release of Johnson's 1936-1937 recordings, King of the Delta Blues Singers.  "From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up....When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have been sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor....The songs weren't customary blues songs.  They were perfected pieces...They were so utterly fluid....short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story-- fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic."  And upon seeing the photographs of Johnson that appeared only in the past 20 years. "He looks nothing like a man of stone, no high-strung temperament...wearing an unusual gilded cap like Little Lord Fauntleroy.  He looks nothing like a man with a hellhound on his trail.  He looks immune to human dread and you stare at the image in disbelief."

  His adoption of the name Bob Dylan is tied not only to Dylan Thomas, but, in typically convoluted fashion, to jazz singer Dave Allyn, whom he mistakenly describes as a saxophonist.

  And in language that echoes Ralph Ellison's insights about how black musicians often gave whites a key to their own identities, he describes an amazing odyssey in which he leaves a rehearsal session in San Rafael, CA in complete dejection only to wander into a barroom where an unnamed jazz singer and combo are performing.  "Something was calling me to come in and I entered, walked along the long, narrow bar to where the jazz cats were playing in the back on a raised platform in front of a brick wall.  I got within four feet of the stage and just stood there against the bar, ordered a gin and tonic and faced the singer.  An older man, he wore a mohair suit, flat cap with a little brim and a shiny necktie.  The drummer had a rancher's Stetson on and the bassist and pianist were neatly dressed.  They played jazz ballads, stuff like Time on My Hands and Gloomy Sunday.  The singer reminded me of Billy Eckstine.  He wasn't forceful, but he didn't have to be; he was relaxed, but he sang with natural power.  Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul.  It was like he was saying, 'You should do it this way.' All of a sudden, I understood something faster than I ever did before.  I could feel how he worked at getting his power, what he was doing to get at it.  I knew where the power was coming from and it wasn't his voice, though the voice brought me sharply back to myself. I used to do this thing, I'm thinking.  It was a long time ago and it had been automatic.  No one had ever taught me.  This technique was so elemental, so simple and I'd forgotten.  It was like I'd forgotten how to button my pants.  I wondered if I could still do it.  I wanted at least a chance to try.  If I could in any way get close to handling this technique, I could get off this marathon stunt ride...This was revelatory...I had that old jazz singer to thank."

  Tom Reney
  "Jazz à la Mode"
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  Public Radio for Western New England
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  tr at wfcr.org



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