This one has it all; a redheaded basketball coaching legend, a book review, and a jazz classic.
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair…
From what I remember, Coach Holzman didn’t have much hair either, and what he did have was gray. He of the ironic nickname was born William, but dubbed “Red” by his wife, Selma, back in the day when he sported a flaming red mane. Archived photos of Holtzman unfortunately are disappointing in their hue. Red Holzman guided the Knicks to NBA championships in 1970 and 1973, making him the most successful coach in their long history. Those teams were led by Willis Reed, Dave Debusschere, Bill Bradley and superstar guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
Clyde shared his nickname with infamous criminal Clyde Barrow, thanks to his tenacious opportunistic defense and to his sense of style. The age of superstar sneaker endorsements was born with the introduction of the Puma Clyde in 1973. Frazier took it a step further in 1974 with the release of his book Rockin’ Steady – A Guide to Basketball & Cool. No important detail was overlooked by Clyde; he detailed everything from applying deodorant “pit juice” to improving your reflexes by catching house flies. Clyde was, and will always be, the master of dishin’ and swishin’.
As great as he was, Clyde didn’t corner the market on cool. Miles Davis and the three classic 1949 and 1950 sessions with his nonet, that included Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, would become the 1957 Capitol release Birth of the Cool. Considering the technical limitations of the recording industry, including the three minute time limit of the 78 RPM disc, and the overwhelming influence of bebop, these recordings produced nearly 70 years ago are still fresh and revolutionary in their unique orchestration which emphasized the tonality of the ensemble over the back-and-forth trading by soloists featured in bebop.
Arranger Gil Evans and Davis shared a common vision and experimented with the new sound during informal sessions at Evans’s 55th street apartment, close to the 52nd street Manhattan jazz scene. A lot of thought went into the pairings of the horn section. Along with Mulligan’s baritone sax you hear the trombone, French horn and tuba, providing a rich low end not common in small jazz ensembles.
Lest you think this is classical music out slumming, don’t worry, this album swings. The sound is jazz with classical elements. Likewise, the terms “cool jazz” and “smooth jazz” are sometimes interchanged. In what has come to define smooth jazz, you have a generic rhythm section, with a featured soloist playing an instrumental version of a popular song. Improvisation, a key element of jazz, is limited as the musician doesn’t venture far from the core melody. This is not that; the melodies and arrangements on Birth of the Cool are original and challenging.
How to define cool? Besides laid back, one might think aloof, detached, disinterested. Ironically, these adjectives, with the exception of the last, were often associated with Davis. Throw away the stereotyped images of the smoky café or breezy Riviera inspired landscapes. Think of a fine suit, not something off the rack at Men’s Warehouse, or even the more expensive Armani inspired mass produced upgrade. Picture instead a custom hand sewn suit designed and tailored by an artistic, old-world craftsman. Made of the finest fabrics with timeless patterns, it fits you like a second skin, and you move like a cat when you wear it. That’s cool!
Birth of the Cool is the sound of musicians comfortable in their skins. The underlying structure of the arrangements are there to support, freeing the soloists to explore beyond the melody both individually and at times in unison. There is still plenty of up-tempo bop influence in Move and Budo, but the new school of cool is introduced in the opening bars of Jeru and Rocker, and culminates in the three minutes of perfection that is aptly named Venus de Milo. The opening theme and melody is so balanced in tone and expression that the first minute could stand alone as a finished work. Followed by the second act of thoughtful solos by Miles and Mulligan, again perfectly timed in the second minute, the stage is set for the final act as the ensemble restates and expands the boundaries of the new form.
There are the beautiful ballads Moon Dreams, Boplicity and Darn That Dream, that swing, maybe not in the traditional big band Basie style, but move and glide and dance in their own space. Deception begs for visual accompaniment; it’s like a backdrop to an urban exploration. Mulligan’s deep and rich baritone sound carries the opening bars of Godchild, and he, Miles and the entire band weave a masterwork of cool.
Since there have been several releases that include the songs mentioned here, but vary slightly with additions from the 1949 and 1950 sessions, I’ll let you search for your preference. Here is the complete personnel from the 1957 Capitol release: Miles Davis: trumpet, Kai Winding: trombone, J.J. Johnson: trombone, Junior Collins: French horn, Sandy Siegelstein: French horn, John Barber: tuba, Lee Konitz: alto sax, Gerry Mulligan: baritone sax, Al Haig: piano, John Lewis: piano, Joe Shulman: bass, Nelson Boyd: bass, Al McKibbon: bass, Kenny Clarke: drums, Max Roach: drums, Kenny Hagood: vocals.
Serial release of my short story Pops continues below. Hope I still have your attention…
Since that first day, the daily milk delivery became a fixed ritual, a ritual with rules known only to Pops and myself. I would enter the store prepared with a pencil and pad for Pops to write his order for the day. Returning it to me with a smile, he would announce, “I guess that should do it,” as I nodded in agreement. Pops was able to conceal his lack of cash, but not his frustration and disappointment as he watched his $20 milk order evaporate by noontime. The same was true of his potato chip order, which was delivered three times per week. Junk food went faster than milk in that neighborhood. Pops knew that he could sell as much as he could put on the shelf, but could never stock more than a few dollars worth of stuff at a time.
Despite his obvious problems, Pops always made me feel at home. Having nowhere else to go after finishing my route, I began spending my afternoons in the store talking to Pops and his customers. The store was always filled with music from a portable radio that Pops carried around with him. Pops played mostly jazz, which was his great love. He especially liked Cannonball Adderley and often commented that Cannonball plays a sweet sax. I liked Cannonball too, and agreed with Pops about a lot of other things.
Pops had the same effect on everyone who entered his store; after being treated like family, you couldn’t bring yourself to leave. There was a curtain hung across a doorway in the back of the store which concealed a small room where all of Pops’s friends would spend the day smoking and playing cards and checkers. Pops wouldn’t allow any drinking, but someone always managed to slip in a flask while Pops worked behind the counter. Most of the time that someone was Bobby, the biggest problem that Pops inherited with the territory.
Bobby had no job and no intention of finding one. At twenty-six, his black, whiskered face was already lined with the strain of living on the edge. His mouth was twisted in an eternal grimace, and he had the annoying habit of continually smacking his thick lips. His most disturbing characteristic was the wild, anxious movements of his eyes and limbs. His long, thin frame would jerk this way, then that, as though driven by a mad puppeteer. I always feared that the fine lines that held him would suddenly snap, sending him careening out of control. Pops said that Bobby lived with his mother, a hardworking woman who was a member of Reverend Davis’s church next door, but her son spent most of his time in or around Monk’s Bar with his friends Johnny and Leon. When they weren’t racing up and down Lincoln Avenue in Johnny’s gray Buick, they were either drinking, hassling passersby or ducking in and out of Pops’, Monk’s or the church. All three were a general annoyance and were avoided by everyone whenever possible.
Even with this precaution, Bobby always managed to get into a confrontation with someone. There wasn’t a day that went by without Bobby making some kind of trouble. The smallest inconvenience would set him off. Once, a young Puerto Rican woman made the mistake of trying to use Bobby’s “private phone,” which was the pay phone on the wall near Pops’s office.
“Yo man, get off the phone,” he shouted. The woman glared at Bobby and continued talking.
“Hey — lady, I gotta make a phone call!” This time he was much louder, attracting everybody’s attention.
“Just wait a minute,” the woman replied.
Bobby yelled to Pops, “Hey — old man, tell this lady I got an important phone call to make.” Pops looked like he was out of patience.
“Take it easy Bobby. Leave the customers alone. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Get off the motherfuckin’ phone bitch!” Bobby ignored Pops as he jerked toward the woman. The woman mumbled some obscenity quickly in Spanish and shoved the receiver into Bobby’s shaking hands.
“Here!” she spat, as she hurried past him and out of the store.
“That’s better,” he grunted, satisfied with himself. “Must be crazy, takin’ up my phone time.”
“What’s wrong with you boy?” Pops asked, shaking his head in disbelief, but Bobby was already talking animatedly with one of his buddies, his hands flying in every direction.