Hal Higdon

Art - Art and All That Jazz

Carleton Alumni Adventure

By Hal Higdon

A weekend in Chicago combines visits to museums and jazz clubs

    "One-two-three-four!"

    "One-two-three-four!"

Carleton professor Steve Kelly was explaining the structure of seemingly an unstructured art form: jazz. If you look beneath what appears to be pure improvisation by musicians such as Louie Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie, you discover jazz has carefully controlled underpinnings. "Much traditional jazz music exists in two forms," Kelly instructed. "Either Song form, or Blues form."

Several dozen of us--graduates of Carleton College, spouses and friends-had come to Chicago on a May weekend for an "Alumni Adventure" that offered to take us to art museums and jazz clubs, providing insight and education along the way. Carleton College (my alma mater), located in Northfield, Minnesota is somewhat unique in this respect. On a regular basis, the College organizes activities for its alumni: visits to intriguing destinations with faculty members serving as guides and instructors. For Chicago, in addition to Kelly, who doubles as budget director, the College supplied Laurel Bradley, director of exhibitions and curator of the College art collection.

Speaking at the Hyatt Regency Hotel after breakfast on a Friday morning, Kelly continued: "Many Tin-Pan Alley songs consist of four 8-bar segments making a 32-bar chorus. The melody is stated, repeated, there's a bridge, then back to the melody. It's the classic AABA format."

    "I-got-rhy-thm!"

    "I-got-mus-ic!"

Steve Kelly demonstrates jazz techniqueGreat Improvisors

Steve Kelly demonstrates jazz technique

George Gershwin and other song-writers from the beginnings of the jazz era did not create this format. You find it in Haydn and Mozart. In his cadenzas, Beethoven was a great improviser on the piano, just like Fats Waller, who started out as an organist for silent movies. Shifting this thought to art, you might make a similar statement about the French Impressionists, also great improvisers. They didn't discover color; they merely used it in a different way than did Raphael or Rembrandt. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, the French Impressionists broke the bonds of what previously had been considered proper art, letting their vibrant colors shimmer on the surface of the canvas, painting pictures of haystacks and people walking the streets of Paris carrying umbrellas. Bradley later that day would lead us to the Art Institute of Chicago to comment on works by Caillebotte, Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Seurat. I've visited those galleries so often, but is it possible to spend too much time standing in front of Georges Seurat's "Sunday in the Park" painting, La Grande Jatte?

Definitely not, but in all honesty, though I had majored in Studio Art at Carleton, I was attracted more by jazz music. My class in Music Appreciation at Carleton had ignored jazz in favor of the classics. I could identify the sonata allegro form that most eighteenth and ninteenth century composers used for the first movements of their symphonies, but I was less knowledgeable about Songs with a capital "S."

Kelly continued his explanation of jazz to include The Blues, whose underpinnings are three 8-bar divisions

    "One-two-three-four!"

    "Two-two-three-four!"

Translate that into music:

    "I-got-a-right

    "To-sing-the-blues!"

Jazz music was an important part of my being when I attended college in the early 1950's. It was an era between the Big Band sounds of Goodman and Miller, but before Elvis and The Beatles forced later-day jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis onto the back shelves of record stores. Anyone who attended Carleton at that time recalls that Saturday night dances always ended with "In My Solitude," Duke Ellington's great melody.

    "In my solitude, you taunt me,

    "With memories that never die."

But sliding across the dance floor cheek-to-cheek with your best girl, it was not the best time to whisper that In My Solitude was a 32-bar, Tin-Pan Alley AABA song. Not even at Carleton! Save that for aging alumni.

Karrin Allyson sings the bluesThe Jazz Clubs

Karrin Allyson sings the blues

Jazz hearkened back to my youth. Each summer, I returned from Northfield to my parents' apartment on the South Side of Chicago. To earn money, I worked nights at R.R. Donneley & Sons, a printing company beside the Illinois Central tracks, near the current McCormick Place. In addition to Sears and Wards catalogs, we printed Time and Life magazines. Each Friday after we got off work at midnight, my friends and I headed for the Chicago jazz clubs, musical descendents of the Speakeasies from my parents' era.

More than a half dozen jazz clubs serviced our musical tastes, the ritziest being The Blue Note in the Loop, where I once had my picture taken with Benny Goodman. More often, we favored cheaper joints such as The Beehive on the South Side, where Dixieland musicians Jack Teagarten and Muggsy Spanier sometimes appeared. As the neighborhood around 47th Street shifted racially, the music shifted with it. New headliners included saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker.

As Jazz music in the 1950s moved inexorably toward the 1960s, its fans and practitioners tried to ignore the fact that rock 'n' roll had captured the public fancy. My friends and I spent Friday evenings hanging out at clubs at 450 North Clark, the 1111 Jazz Club on Broadway and a lounge on Howard Street near Evanston that frequently featured my favorite musician, soprano saxophonist Herbie Fields. Does anybody but me remember Herbie Fields? I only learned a half century later from Steve Kelly that Fields once had attended the Juilliard School of Music. So had Miles Davis, whose first record appearance was as a sideman with Fields. Winton Marsalis was not the first jazz musician with an acquaintance of Bach.

"We most often relate to music we heard growing up," Kelly claimed. For him, it was Miles; for me, George Shearing. My first date with my wife Rose was to a Shearing concert at Mandell Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago. She wore a black, sheath dress. Several months later, I asked her to marry me. So did jazz music bracket our lives. In the early years of marriage, we hung out at the London House on Michigan Avenue and Mr. Kelly's on Rush Street, the tinkling rhythms of Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner underpinning our love. "Play Misty for me" means more than a Clint Eastwood movie for us.

But children came. We moved around the bottom of Lake Michigan to Long Beach, Indiana. Jazz drifted out of our lives. Nursing a drink in smoky clubs no longer appealed. Decades later, when I learned Carleton College planned an Alumni Adventure blending art and all that jazz, it offered an opportunity to return to the music of my youth. Checking in at the Hyatt on a Thursday, we gathered for dinner at the hotel then walked to Andy's Jazz Club at 11 East Hubbard Street to hear the Mike Smith Quintet. Smith on tenor saxophone was backed by trumpet, piano, drums and bass player playing in a style reminiscent of Miles Davis. Interestingly, the first question at a breakfast lecture the next morning was how Smith had been able to play saxophone and chew gum without missing a beat.

Over the next few days we learned how jazz artists performed, how a musician can grab his instrument, step on a stage and play in synch with a group of other musicians he never has met before. Kelly, who plays saxophone in a jazz band, explained: "The first 32 bars, performed ensemble, is called the 'Head.' Sometimes, the band repeats the Head. Then each musician plays a solo, lasting 32 bars. The audience rewards each solo with applause. Sometimes two soloists get into 'trading.' One plays 8 bars; the other 8 bars; then the first, then the other. Finally, the ensemble returns to the head, 32 more bars, and the song is ended. Usually the bass player keeps the beat, serving like the conductor. All a new musician needs do is count to 32 to know when to begin and end his solo. Most do this by instinct."

Laurel Bradley discusses Chicago architectureReading the labels

Laurel Bradley discusses Chicago architecture

But the Alumni Adventure was not only about jazz. We learned about labels. Leading us through the Art Institute of Chicago, Laurel Bradley defined paintings by era and style, but also suggested we glance at the labels, which in addition to title, artist and medium also identified when the Art Institute acquired the work and with which donor's money. Some paintings, we discovered, had been acquired by collectors such as Potter Palmer in the nineteenth century, not too long after their creation. When his widow Bertha died in 1915, the Art Institute acquired the bulk of the Palmer collection. Collector Frederick Clay Bartlett offered Seurat's Grand Jatte to the Art Institute in 1925. In the 1930s, Martin Ryerson donated 227 European and American paintings to the museum. Other paintings had come into the museum's collection within the last few years, often out of funds contributed by a number of donors. In today's market where works by Van Gogh and Picasso attract prices around $100 million in auction, curators must draw on many donors when seeking new works.

After lunch Friday, most of our group including Rose went with Bradley on an architectural boat tour of the Chicago River. Pulling my slouch hat down over my eyes so as not to be recognized, I walked across the street to attend a Friday afternoon concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The program included two favorite works: First Symphonies by Sergei Prokofiev ("Classical") and Gustav Mahler. As a "Student" a half century before, I often attended matinee concerts paying $1 for a seat in the upper balcony. Bargains still exist. Now classified as a "Senior," I acquired a last-minute seat on the main floor for only $22. I couldn't help noting that the Prokofiev's third movement, a gavotte, used the AABA form Kelly identified as typical of jazz music. Analyzing Mahler proved more difficult, but who could not be stirred at the end of the final movement when all eight horn players rise from their chairs and blow the roof off Orchestra Hall?

And who could not be stirred later that evening by songstress Karrin Allyson performing at Jazz Showcase at 59 West Grand? We attended a private party at the home of Chicago Reader publisher Bob Roth, a Carleton graduate, and ate before the performance at Maggiano's Little Italy Restaurant at 516 North Clark Street. Only a half block away from the jazz club, this entitled us to a discount plus reserved table.

Kelly brought his saxophone to breakfast for a demonstration. When an instrumentalist backs a singer like Allyson, he is said to "comp" (as in compliment) her. Another term added to our musical vocabularies. After brushing our teeth, we met Bradley at the Museum of Contemporary Art, east of the Water Tower on Chicago Avenue, whose main exhibition featured work by Lee Bontecou. Critics considered Bontecou very avant garde when she lived in New York in the 1960s. Using cast-off parachutes, Bontecou worked as a scavenger artist, occupying a space between two-dimensional art meant to be hung on a wall and sculpture meant to stand on the floor. "Then she moved to a farm in Pennsylvania and vanished from the mainstream art scene," reported Bradley. "She hadn't stopped creating art. She simply was creating it out of sight of the art establishment. Thankfully, Lee Bontecou has been rediscovered."

That afternoon Bradley shepherded us around the Loop, pointing to buildings that defined urban architecture in the period following the 1871 Chicago Fire, when architects such as John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright were handed blank slates to create structures touching the sky. On a Saturday afternoon, many of the skyscrapers that emerged from their drawing boards were closed, but a knock on a glass door usually alerted a guard happy to allow us entry. Most impressive: gold-gilded decorations by Wright for The Rookery at 209 South LaSalle. So does a three-dimensional art work also have a two-dimensional expression. After circling the Loop, we boarded an elevated train to head south to the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, famous for its buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe, but we were more interested in Rem Koolhaas's recently completed McCormick Tribune Cultural Center, built below the El tracks to best utilize available land. A stainless steel tube circling the tracks dampened the sound of trains passing overhead.

We wanted no tube to dampen the sound of music flowing from the Green Dolphin Street Jazz Club at 200 North Ashland Avenue that evening. Vince Seneri's Band held the stage with flutist David Valentin the featured performer. Knowing I would encounter music to suit my taste at Green Dolphin, I was pleasantly surprised how tasty a meal I encountered too. The night was long. Most of our group left following the first show. Rose and I lingered well past midnight. I was drawn back to another evening on the campus of the University of Chicago and a girl in a black, sheath dress. We had been separated too long from the music of our youth. I suspect that another four decades will not pass before our next visit to a Chicago jazz club.

Alumni Adventure: Awash in the Arts

Running in the Dunes by South Shore Line

Books by Hal Higdon

Higdon's Home Page