Happy Birthday Jimmy Raney and … other stuff

Today, August 20th is Jimmy Raney’s birthday. Dad would’ve been 84. Let us celebrate the legacy of his genius once again by listening as much as possible to this underappreciated genius – and anyone else for that matter – deserving of attention that the general listening public doesn’t seem to give enough to. Maybe even WBGO will play a cut or two, who knows (hopefully before Brian Delp’s 3am slot)…

Yesterday, I took a stoll through the park with my dog, BJ while tuned in to the local jazz station WKCR (89.9 FM) listening to serial music without knowing who or what it was. And I thought, wow, is that some experimental jazz or something? It was just wonderful. I had no preconceptions or expectations. I had the sense it was pushing the limits yet I could still follow it. The goal was to not be grounded to the prior tonality while still being musical. Why don’t all experimental jazzers follow this approach? Why must they unrelentingly bury their hands in tons of notes with their fists? Does pushing the limits mean this intolerable density? The sparse #9 and other dark chords. Then I listened more and realized it not improvised and that it must be Anton Webern (Although half a me expected to hear it was some cutting edge jazz artist that escaped my attention).

My thoughts then turned to Dad. I recalled the record collection he left behind. In addition to all the original scratched jazz classics, Parker, Konitz, Getz and his own records as a leader and a sideman, he also had a great classical collection with Webern, Bartok, Bach, Ravel, Mozart and Beethoven with some of the finest performers like Robert Casadesus, János Starker, Walter Gieseking, Frederic Goulda and the Julliard Quartet just to name a few. I thought about his own Bartokian Suite for Guitar Quintet. I also recalled the months I spent with him in 1985 in Louisville. He rarely listened to jazz. He mostly listened to classical, in particular Beethoven. And he had a book of scores that he would look at while listening. He had a retiring life style but he was still tuned in to things that mattered. We often discussed music during that time. And one of the topics was the universality of Beethoven’s music. How it didn’t seem confined to the period of music it was in. It didn’t seem like when we listened to Beethoven we were listening to the “past” or a “style” (i.e. classical period composers, as defined by Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Clementi et al).

I then thought about how this universality relates to Dad’s legacy, thinking about my recent viewing of the video from 1987 with Cal Collins. They were playing on “Billie’s Bounce” tranposed (by Cal Collins request) to the key of G. Dad had the first solo. There was some blues phrases and stylings. But it was through his unique prism and them there was these chromatic phrases, the harmonic sidesteps and his general staunch commitment to pushing the harmonic and rhytbmic limits of the style. Starting a phrase on the “and” of two when you think it should be the “and” of four, or his characteristic polyrhythms and long lines. I recalled recent board conversations I had where I had to defend my father’s style. Some dumbass posters had the audacity to condemn Jimmy’s approach as not being bluesy enough or having bad time or put other players at or above his level. Dad didn’t play clichés. If you wanted your requisite blues licks you needed to listen to someone else. He didn’t see the need to play blues licks that everyone else was playing or do idiomatic tricks to satisfy the musical Nazis that required certain ideas as “required” to be playing the song. The dumb thing is that people view the omission of these ideas as inability to hear or play such things. C’mon. Get real. Nothing could be easier than to imitate common ideas at Jimmy’s technical level. Dad used the forms of the music as a vehicle to define it in his own way. This is the mark of any great artist. They create a system around themselves and make it seem like “that” is the way to play. And makes anybody else near them question their own fundamental understanding of what it is to play on the tune they’re playing (at least if they were honest with themselves). He heard himself over the vehicle. Many good ‘ol boy artists do what’s required or what will get a “yeah” out of those easily pleased. The “yeahs” he would get were of a different order. He used the commonality with existing players to keep with the listeners but he built his own system. There are many good players out there. But Jimmy was something of a completely different order. And I fear that very few people understand the vast difference between him and other guitarists deemed to sound similar to him. I run into the same type of arguments about Bill Evans. People just don’t get when they are listening to a poet. They get the surface but not the substance.

and now on to the other stuff…

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