On the heals of the several major losses sustained to the Jazz community in 2013—especially the passings of Marian McPartland & George Duke, 2014 saw more big-name losses…again to our pianists: especially the likes of Horace Silver & Joe Sample; as well as the passing of bassist Charlie Hayden & guitarist Ronny Jordan, and of course many others. Since there are so many great articles already out there well-documenting the lives & life-works of these fine aforementioned musicians, I will instead just touch on a few things that personally come to mind for me about them–& of that which drew (& continues to draw) me to their music.
Marian McPartland (1918 – 2013)
In addition to being an accomplished & incredibly touch-sensitive Jazz pianist herself (who enjoyed a long & fulfilling lifetime of being exposed directly to many of the founding Jazz greats), Marian was also a recognizable radio voice—as the calm, sweet, gracious & humble host to an NPR broadcast program called ‘Piano Jazz’. For each show, she would feature an invited guest pianist (many times even more notable from genre-backgrounds other than Jazz), & interview them in great detail & musical relevance. She would also recount interesting stories of her own times, when she had met & hung out with many of the Jazz greats. She would then also trade turns with the guest artist at playing on-air impromptu tunes…& finally they would even ‘jam’ on a tune—4 hands & 2 pianos—together! Many of these great shows have been released onto CD for public purchase; my favorite being the one with Bruce Hornsby. Yes, I am admittedly already a very biased Bruce-fan, but interesting to note; about 10 years prior to this interview, Marian had apparently invited Bruce onto the show–& he declined. In the interview, Bruce explained that his reason for this was because he didn’t think he was ready for her yet; he felt that he still needed to work more on his left hand independence. He did so & 10 years later, he accepted her 2nd invitation onto the show. It just goes to show how well respected Marian was, even from the likes of a heavy-hitting musician like Bruce Hornsby.
George Duke (1946 – 2013)
George was an amazing Jazz-Rock fusion keyboardist who, in addition to his own successful solo career, also played on many other notable artists’ projects as a very versatile session musician. In attempt to draw more ladies to his concerts, George eventually & deliberately tempered his playing & writing styles towards the more melodic & romantic Smooth Jazz repertoire. Probably my favorite thing from George was his frequent collaborations with bassist-great Stanley Clarke. The radio-friendly hit ‘Sweet Baby’ is brilliantly sensitive, & came off the 1st Clarke/Duke Project, as did another R&B based song called ‘Touch & Go’. George also did a lot of work with vocalist-great Al Jarreau (another favorite of mine). Last year, Jarreau released an entire album dedicated in tribute, called, “My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke”.
Horace Silver (1928 – 2014)
Horace was by all standards, one of the important pillars & founding fathers of ‘real’ Jazz. His career & contributions are way too extensive to go into any detail here. However, one of the most interesting characteristics of Horace was that he was well known for having been incredibly organized. In a bohemian art-form lifestyle that is often stereotyped as being completely hap-hazard, Horace was considered meticulously structured. Over the years, many of his former band-members have often spoken out respectfully but in great detail during interviews, as to how insistent Horace was regarding how they played his music & how they conducted themselves while under his employment. However, in addition to being an accomplished pianist, innovative composer & longtime bandleader (he was also the co-founder of ‘The Jazz Messengers–with Art Blakey), the fact that he was also a very successful businessman in his craft probably comes as no surprise. He was a devote family man who dodged drugs & averted ever-changing fads. Having studied & played on many of his finely constructed compositions, some of my favorites worth mentioning here are ‘The Preacher’, & ‘Song for My Father’—which is famous for it’s groove also having been used by the band Steely Dan in the opening riff to one of their biggest hits, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number“.
Joe Sample (1939 – 2014)
Although Joe is best known in the Smooth Jazz / Contemporary Jazz field, his first real musical break came in the 70’s with a Jazz-Funk crossover group called ‘The Jazz Crusaders’ (& then later, just ‘The Crusaders’). Their radio hit ‘Street Life’ featured the distinct vocals of Randy Crawford while Joe tickled the ivories of a Rhodes electric piano. Despite a long & successful career as a solo artist, that classic song may still be remembered as Joe’s signature hit. Joe had a barrage of other great records though—Carmel, Ashes to Ashes, Spellbound, etc to name a few, all come to mind. His Jazz might have been ‘smooth’, but it was never ‘watered down’. His compositions were just the right amount of complexity & yet they were still tastefully melodic. His harmonic approach was sophisticated & yet it was not overdone. And his sound was distinctly that of the Houston Texas Jazz scene. He collaborated with many other Jazz greats: Al Jarreau, Michael Franks, Take 6, & Layla Hathaway, etc.
Charlie Haden (1937 – 2014)
I once read somewhere that Keith Jarrett commented, something to the effect, that there is a misconception in the music world—that there exists a long list of many great bass players; he argued that it is actually quite short & that Haden is at the top of that list. I’m not sure how his own long time & faithful bass player Gary Peacock feels about that statement, but since Keith is on my own short list of favorite piano players, I respect his opinion. I believe the above referenced comment is from the liner notes on ‘Jasmine’—an album that Jarrett & Haden had done in 2010 together; last year, Jarrett released another & final album of their collaboration, entitled ‘Last Dance’. Haden had gained respect as an upright bass player through his long term association with Ornette Coleman’s bands. Through Ornette, Haden would have crossed paths with guitarist Pat Metheny, & so they too collaborated on a monumental recording entitled ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)’. Through Metheny, Haden would have been introduced to Bruce Hornsby (also on MY short list—heading it, actually), & so there had been some great collaborative work there as well (Haden’s family album ‘Rambling Boy’, 2008). Although not necessarily affiliated with any particular religion, Haden was deeply spiritual through his bass playing.
Ronny Jordan (1962 – 2014)
I honestly don’t know much about Ronny. He was a guitarist from England & was part of the whole Acid-Jazz movement—which was a splinter-faction from Contemporary Jazz, Smooth Jazz, Chill music, etc. I really only got to know some of his music via the old CD101.9 FM radio station (from the NY City area) back in the 80’s & 90’s. My favorite tunes from him are: ‘After Hours’ (which has a sound very reminiscent to that of Norman Brown &/or Zachary Breaux, although I’m not sure exactly who actually came first) & ‘Tinsel Town’ (which has an infectious groove & catchy melody). For whatever reason, he was taken from this world too soon, but my life is definitely better for having heard his music. I plan to keep those 2 aforementioned songs with me in my playlist throughout the rest of my life.
I hope that my brief mentions here of these great artists may encourage you to check out more of their life-works. May they RIP.