For the last several years when at home or in the car, Friday and Saturday night around ten o’clock was time to tune into Jazz, with Bob Parlocha . Or as he would say, “Jazz…with mmmBob Parlocha.” I grew up with rock and roll and pop (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Lesley Gore, that crowd) and for the most part jazz never knocked on my door. Probably because it doesn’t have hands. But I liked Bob’s playlist and his mellow presentation. Not a hashish mellowness, more of a twelve-year old brandy mellowness.
And so this has gone for the last decade at least. I could always depend on Bob to be there on the radio Friday and Saturday night. Recently I tuned in and had to ask of the disc jockey, “Who the hell are you?” It wasn’t Bob. Sensing something wasn’t right I immediately got online. Bob had died. He was 77.
And that was a drag. No, it was it sad. No, it was life. Actually I’m not sure what it was, at least not in regard to my pinhead sized universe. I do know it was strange. I didn’t know this person. I knew a friendly disembodied voice on the radio that was there last week, had been there for ten years, and now wasn’t there. I could turn it on and I could turn it off. And I did. So was this a person in my home or was it just the radio? Can a disembodied voice be a friend? Maybe Bob was the best disembodied friend I ever had and I just never thought about it before because I never considered it a category.
Anyway, I liked the 50’s and early 60’s style of jazz that Bob played. Smooth, cool, and melodic with only a pinch of “Doing my own thing here, boss.” In contrast, back in the 70’s I had a friend, who I will call “Joe” so as to protect his anonymity and also because that was his name, who was into fusion jazz at the time–people like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. I remember him introducing me to these people and me responding, “That’s awful.” I think the biggest problem I had here was with their unfortunate choice of playing an electric piano, an instrument that never should have been invented which is why you hear it today as often as Ben Franklin’s Glass Harmonica, another invented travesty. That and their propensity for excessive busyness and doodly-doodly. Yes, I’m a stuffed shirt-“Girl From Ipanema”-kind of guy. Sue me (note Lesley Gore reference above in case you missed it the first time).
Although, there was one piece from this fusiony group that I liked a lot. It was by John McLaughlin, called “Hope”. John played electric guitar (12-string, radical) so his music was easier for me to access. Anyway, “Hope” has this really cool progression that climbs upward and upward. Unfortunately it only lasts for fifteen seconds and John didn’t seem to know what to do with it afterward so he just kept repeating it for a minute and fifty six seconds, hoping something next would come to him. But nothing did. And so it just kind of slips away, under a rock. Sad. It’s kind of like Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which opens the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (and is the best thing about the movie) where you’ve got this really killer, cool, dark opening that concludes with a thunderous TA-DAAAAAA! but then is immediately followed by thirty minutes of pastoral bunny crap that has nothing to do with the opening. I give McLaughlin credit for knowing when to quit and just giving us the killer cool opening and omitting the thirty minutes of crap.
At this same time “Joe” had another musical discovery that he really liked and was anxious for me to hear. This was Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. And as I recall, upon its conclusion, I said at the time, “That’s awful.” I think the difference between us was that “Joe” gravitated to chaos, whereas I gravitated to order, both musically and–years later–the storage of Tupperware. How he got to be senior class president and I didn’t I’ll never know. But he did.
Truth being truth, The Rite of Spring is a seminal work. It’s brilliant. For the last one hundred years composers have been slipping it into their works either by accident or on purpose because they couldn’t help themselves. And in all fairness to me, it should be pointed out that at the time of this introduction, my idea of classical music was “Greensleeves” (also note reference to Lesley Gore above).
But historically I’m not alone here with this initial negative opinion of The Rite of Spring as it has been said (even by the New York Times the next day) that when this ballet premiered in 1913 there was a riot. Really. A riot. The story is legendary.
I had to wonder, though, if this riot story at the premier of The Rite of Spring wasn’t apocryphal. I mean, a riot? Over symphonic music? Really? A riot? Where was the opening held, Alcatraz?
And so I was always just a wee bit skeptical about the riot story–until I actually saw the ballet. Yes. The original ballet, with the original costumes, and original choreography, and the story line where the lead female–the chosen sacrifice to Woden or somebody–dances herself to death, which I didn’t think was actually possible.
This was, if I may say it, awful. One might even say riotous. People weren’t upheaved by Stravinsky’s music, they were upheaved by dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s stab at choreography. The musicians may have hated the music but the dancers hated the choreography even more. There were no tutus, no elegant leaps, and no grace. There was only flannel and funny hats (nothing helps a ballerina lose ten pounds for the purpose of getting down to a svelte eighty more than dancing in flannel). And it was ugly. And primitive. Swan Lake it wasn’t. Ballet it wasn’t. It was co-ed rugby. There wasn’t so much dancing as there was pronounced walking and stomping. It was a depiction of prehistoric people, seemingly choreographed by a gorilla, or in the case of Nijinsky, a schizophrenic who would be committed to a mental institution six years later and there spend the remaining thirty years of his life. It was in a word, horrible.
I love it.
I didn’t love it the first time, of course. But the second time it was, “Hm.” And then the third go round produced, “Whoa.” I was fascinated by my own bias towards that which was initially alien to me. It’s like really expensive brandy that’s all smokey and musty. And you turn up your nose to it because it’s “wrong.” And then it just kind of gets you. And it draws you in. When I was a kid I would watch monster movies–the big monsters that were awakened after some atomic testing. I loved those too. They put me in a different world that was creepy, mysterious, and fascinating. Same here. This is great.
The Joffrey Ballet reconstructed the original in 1987. The Kova ballet does the original too. Other ballets have other versions, more modern, which are also cool. You should YouTube it. And just for the record, it wasn’t really a riot as much as it was a rudeness. At the end, half the people clapped and half the people booed. I would have been one of the booers back then but today I’d be out of my seat clapping enthusiastically.
I can’t say the same for the Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock fusion jazz, though. I still kind of hate that. I’m pretty sure it’s the electric piano thing.
Which is why I liked the stuff Bob played. No electric piano. Had he titled his program No Electric Piano with Bob Parlocha I might have tuned in sooner. Some of it could get on your nerves, though (just because one can make their saxophone sound like a tortured balloon doesn’t mean one should) but for the most part you could say, “Oh, I know that song.” Which is sort of important; if your trio is playing a song and it takes me five minutes to figure out it’s “Hello, Dolly”, then you’re missing the boat somewhere.
The other thing I liked about Bob was that he was complimentary towards the musicians (he himself being a fine musician), which added to the evening’s positive vibe. And Bob programmed all his own music so it wasn’t like he had somebody else’s agenda to follow. Consequently you’d never hear him say at the end of some piece, “Wasn’t that awful?”
I remember one time, Bob must have been sick or something, and there was some young guy filling in for him. This was Christmastime. And some people were calling in making requests, because it was Christmas. And somebody requested “Linus and Lucy” which pretty much everybody knows as “The Peanuts Theme” because it turns up in the Charlie Brown specials, and was written by Vince Guaraldi. I really like this piece. Everybody likes this piece. South American dictators like this piece. But it gets done and Mr. New Guy says, “Well, that’s not my idea of jazz, but I guess it is for some people.”
Hey! This song is an icon of American Christmas–and it’s jazz because there are two breaks where Guaraldi is doing his cadenza thing which is what jazz is. Twit. Excuse us in the rest of the world just because we don’t like music that sounds like twenty dogs barking at the same time, like you do. And if there isn’t now then there should be a law that says you can’t say rude things about “Linus and Lucy”. It’s delightful. Or any of the Peanuts Gang in general. Or the Muppets, who are sort of the same thing as the Peanuts Gang except they’re real. You can’t say rude things about the Muppets, even if you thought their show leaned too heavily on vaudeville schtick. Hey, they’re the Muppets, not the Algonquin round table. And a lot of times they would really hit the mark.
As a matter of fact I remember this one sketch in The Muppet’s Show with Rita Moreno where she’s trying to do a torch arrangement on “Fever”, except Animal’s playing drums behind her. This is great. You should YouTube it. It’s on my top ten musical moments of all time.
Coincidentally, Rita Moreno shows up in another one of my top ten musical moments of all time, and this one is especially good since it’s accompanied by a dazzling big dance number. This would be “America” by Leonard Bernstein from the movie version of West Side Story. Rita plays one of the molls in the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. The producers actually put dark makeup on her so she’d look like a real Puerto Rican, as opposed to an Italian which apparently MGM thought she was. She won the Academy Award for this performance for best supporting role. She was also the only Puerto Rican in the entire cast of “Puerto Ricans.”
Now, I’m not getting up on a politically correct soap box here and saying that if Hollywood wants to cast someone to play, like, a corpse, that person actually has to be dead: If Egyptian Omar Sharif wants to play a Jew in Funny Girl, or Anthony Quinn–who has an English last name but is actually Mexican–wants to play an Arab or a Greek, or Marlee Matlin wants to play a deaf woman when we all know she hears perfectly well, fine. And I thought lead Shark-guy George Chakiris was sufficiently convincing as a Puerto Rican. But Natalie Wood? Seriously?
I really like Natalie Wood and I would watch her in anything–I grew up with her, and I watched her grow up–but her playing a Puerto Rican is just too much of a stretch (apparently some people thought her playing a Caucasian was too much of stretch as she was voted Worst Actress of 1966 by the Harvard Lampoon, but that’s beside the point. She did accept the award personally, though, which I thought was a class act).
But that said, I still get a little misty eyed when she and Richard Beymer sing “Somewhere (There’s A Place For Us)”. This is in my top twenty musical moments of all time. It would be way higher up on the list if Richard Beymer was actually singing instead of being dubbed by somebody else, and if Russian-American Natalie wasn’t portraying a Puerto Rican who also can’t sing and is consequently being dubbed by Marni Nixon who is using a fake Spanish accent. Who cast this movie, Rube Goldberg?
But “Somewhere” is a great song, and if it doesn’t give you at least a little bit of an emotional twinge, whether you’re watching it unfold in the movie’s finale or just listening to it being played or sung, then you’re not human. Or you’re not a Muppet. One or the other. And I’m not alone in that opinion. This song has been covered by a hundred people including Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Adderley, Bobby Darrin, Etta James, Dave Koz and Anita Baker, all people I never really knew before, and consequently never appreciated, until ten years ago, when I started listening to Jazz, with Bob Parlocha.