The wit of jazz, and vice versa
Or, making it along as you go up
Jazz, like wit, can be broadly defined as surprising creativity. So does it follow that jazz musicians are a witty bunch?
I’ve wondered about this for longer than Kenny G has held an E-flat (45 minutes, for the record) but lacked a way to prove it.
There was some promising neuroscience research on the subject back in 2014 that linked conversation to trading fours. Both jawing and jamming involve “an exchange of ideas that is unpredictable, collaborative, and emergent,” the paper hypothesized. In other words, a riff is a riff.
That said, all the actual data was pretty flat. The researchers brought the musicians into the lab, wired them up, and let them noodle around while they watched the blood slosh through their brains via a functional MRI machine. It went to the same spots it would go in a conversation, they found, which was interesting as far as it went but didn’t go all that far.
So when I came across the book Jazz Anecdotes at Sellers & Newel, I knew this was what I was looking for. I immediately flipped my fMRI machine on Kijiji and grabbed a copy.
Jazz anecdotes, like jazz itself, aren’t usually transcribed. In the words of drummer Shelley Manne, “We never play anything the same way once.”
But bassist, writer, and editor Bill Crow combed through hundreds of interviews and biographies to pick just the juiciest bits, and the best display a virtuosic level of verbal dexterity. The book really slaps, as they say. There’s a whole chapter on pranks, and in said chapter there’s a whole section on Limburger cheese. (You can flip through a digitized version over at the invaluable archive.org here.)
Start with the nicknames, which alone are worth the price of admission. Fats, Shorty, and Slim were all physical descriptors. Cannonball Adderley was originally called Cannibal because of his voracious appetite — but one problem took care of the other as he rounded out.
William Randolph Cole was known as Colesy, which evolved into Cozy. Cozy, in turn, couldn’t remember names so he called everyone “Face” if they looked familiar, and then added the name of the instrument they played for Bass Face, Sax Face, and so on. Bassist George Mraz was called Bounce because he was a baaaad Czech. And bassist John Simmons got a rise out of trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page by announcing at the bandstand, “Lady there at the door sent this letter to Mr. Warm Jaws.”
The greats get a chapter each, and they’re at their best when they’re playing off one another. Once John Coltrane started playing a solo, he’d just play and play —which irritated those who shared the bandstand. “I get involved in this thing and I don’t know how to stop,” he told Miles Davis, to which Davis suggested, “Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth.” Why did he play so long, Davis asked? “It took that long to get it all in.”
The pianist Errol Garner had a similar issue at a recording session in 1969. The red light in the booth flickered off, but he kept right on playing. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I wanted to find out how it would come out.”
The difference between live wit and recorded repartee is like the difference between fresh squeezed orange juice and the frozen concentrate. So leave the last words to Louis Armstrong, who refused to describe exactly what he did so well.
How did he define jazz, exactly? “Jazz is what I play for a living.”
Would you describe it as folk music? “Man, all music is folk music. You ain’t ever heard no horse sing a song, have you?”
Quick quips; lightning
“When are you gonna dance something we can play to?”
—Sonny Russo’s retort to an audience member who’d asked the trombonist the opposite question.
“The basic difference between classical music and jazz is that in the former the music is always greater than the performance — whereas the way jazz is performed is always more important than what is being played.”
— André Previn
“Playing bop is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing. ”
— Duke Ellington
That was Get Wit Quick No. 116 — which calls to mind a clever graffito perpetrated by guitarist Jim Raney: At a particularly quiet New York nightclub where the sign on the wall read “Occupancy of these premises by over 116 people is unlawful,” he added underneath, “AND UNLIKELY.” The image at top features Lester Young and Roy Eldridge and is the cover of both Jazz Anecdotes and Young’s 1958 studio album Laughin’ To Keep From Cryin’, which is just great. Next week: EDM wit, just as soon as I find the associated anecdote collection. If you’ve been poisoned, Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting contains the anecdote. Tap the ❤️ below to the time signature of your choosing.