Arthur Blythe, Alto Saxophonist of the Avant-Garde

Arthur Blythe Quartet at the Jazzfestival Berlin (1980) – Watch on YouTube

In the opinion of critic Chris Kelsey, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe came close to bringing avant-garde jazz into the mainstream through a series of albums for “hype-heavy” Columbia Records. (From the 1960s through the early 1980s, Columbia always had great packaging; check out the album cover below for Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown.)

But Blythe was still too “out there” for a mass audience, according to Kelsey, and the label turned to its more palatable young star Wynton Marsalis. (Speaking about “out there,” I liked that a tuba was part of Blythe’s quartet.)

Still Blythe managed to bring a new edge to older, more familiar jazz compositions. He did so quite literally in In The Tradition, a 1979 album that included four songs from the 30s, 40s and 50s with two original compositions. Here’s a comparison of Blythe’s versions with famous earlier recordings.

“Jitterbug Waltz” – Fats Waller  & Blythe

“Caravan” – Duke Ellington & Blythe

“In a Sentimental Mood” – Duke Ellington with John Coltrane & Blythe

“Naima” – John Coltrane  & Blythe

Arthur Blythe, July 5, 1940-March 27, 2017

“Lenox Avenue Breakdown” on Spotify


David Axelrod, Blending Jazz, Soul, William Blake & Hip-Hop

“The Edge” Live at Royal Festival Hall–Watch on YouTube

David Axelrod (April 17, 1931-February 5, 2017) was a composer/arranger/producer who came out of the LA jazz scene in the late 50s. He was a prolific producer in the 60s. Among his notable projects were a Lou Rawls cover of the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and an album with Man from U.N.C.L.E. star David McCallum. (The above live performance features the title track from that album.)

Axelrod began putting out albums under his own name in the late 60s, beginning with Song of Innocence, an album inspired by the poems of William Blake.* The album featured notable LA-based musicans, such as Carol Kaye, the bassist you may remember from the documentary The Wrecking Crew. Kaye was among a group of super talented session musicians (Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, etc.) who were behind the sounds of our favorite hits. Were it not for Kaye, we wouldn’t have the memorable opening to “The Beat Goes On” or the sophisticated bass lines in The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.”

Axelrod’s albums have become a go-to resource for an impressive lineup of hip-hop artists in search of samples. Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, De La Soul and Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) are among the artists who have sampled Axelrod. In the above video, Axelrod expresses his conflicted views of this aspect of his career: he hates sampling for putting musicians out of work, but is grateful for how it’s personally benefited him.

*Not to be confused with U2’s Songs of Innocence, which was forced on millions by the band and Apple.

“Holy Thursday” on Spotify

Bobby Freeman, Wrote And Sang “Do You Wanna Dance”

“Do You Wanna Dance” on Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show (1958)–Watch on YouTube*

I read Bobby Freeman’s obituary right after this year’s Grammy Awards. It made me wonder: would any of the songs that were up for 2017’s “Song of the Year” endure in the way that Freeman’s 1958 classic “Do You Want To Dance?” has?

Freeman’s song, written and recorded while he was still a teenager, would go on to be covered by The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, John Lennon, The Ramones and Bette Midler. You can accuse me of Baby Boomer fuddy-duddyism, but it’s hard to imagine Adele, Beyoncé and all the pop machine behind them producing a tune still worth humming 60 years from now.

“Do You Want To Dance” didn’t win at the 1st Annual Grammy Award Show in 1959, the year it would have been eligible. It wasn’t even nominated. The honor that year went to “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” by Domenico Modugno.

Freeman (June 13, 1940-January 23, 2017) is considered San Francisco’s first rock-and-roll star. His 1964 hit “C’Mon and Swim” was written and produced by then-19-year-old Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone).

*This rather strange video begins with host Dick Clark talking to actor Tony Randall, apparently on leave from the Navy.

“Do You Wanna Dance” Original & Covers–Listen on Spotify


Bobby Hutcherson, Jazz Vibraphonist Who Bridged Bop and the Avant-Garde

The Bobby Hutcherson Quartet “Delilah”–Video

Mention the vibes, and Lionel Hampton is the first name that may come to mind. But it was Bobby Hutcherson, perhaps more than any other vibes player, who stretched the range of the instrument, using it to create more tones, more moods.

Of his nearly 40 albums in The All Music Guide to Jazz, five receive top, five-star ratings. Components, his 1966 release on Blue Note is among them and is also included in Tom Moon’s 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. “Tranquility,” a track on the album, has over 3 million streams on Spotify, a high volume for a jazz track and a sign of the artist’s enduring appeal.

Hutcherson (January 27, 1941-August 15, 2016) recorded many albums on the Blue Note label between 1965 and 1977, and Component features frequent collaborators: Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Freddy Hubbard on trumpet, James Spaulding on alto sax and flute and Joe Chambers on drums. Hutcherson composed the tracks on Side 1, which are mainly done in the hard bop style. Chambers is responsible for the arrangements on Side 2, which go in a more experimental direction. “Little B’s Poem,” which I provide a link to below, is a tribute to his then 3-year-old son.

“Little B’s Poem” on Spotify

Natalie Cole, Grammy Award-Winning Vocalist


I’m struggling to think of successful music artists who have followed in the paths of their music legend parents. Roseanne Cash comes to mind, albeit on her own, independent terms. Hank Williams, Jr. is a stretch, but, OK, he did score the Monday Night Football theme if that counts.

“Miss You Like Crazy”

But Natalie Cole was a true force, selling over 30 million records worldwide in the 1970s and during her resurgence in the 1990s. Her album Unforgettable…With Lovea re-recording of her father’s standards sold seven million records on its own and earned her numerous Grammy Awards.

A Natalie Cole Medley

Cole (February 6, 1950-December 31, 2015) started her career as an R&B singer and over the years moved toward pop and jazz. Her parents were both singers–Nat King Cole and Maria Hawkins, who performed with both the Ellington and Basie bands.

Scott Weiland, Singer for Stone Temple Pilots, Velvet Revolver

Stone Temple Pilots “Creep” Official Video

As a lead vocalist, Scott Weiland helped move grunge rock from garage to sold-out stadium. He was a multi-platinum artist for Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver, as well as the winner of several Grammy Awards.

Velvet Revolver “Slither” Official Video

In a eulogy on the Smashing Pumpkins’ website, Billy Corgan called Weiland (October 27, 1967-December 3, 2015) one of the distinctive voices of his generation along with Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain. Weiland’s husky voice was sometimes turbo-charged through the use of a megaphone in front of his microphone.

Scott Weiland & the Wildabouts “Modzilla” Official Video

For an overview of Weiland’s work, view Rolling Stone’s “Scott Weiland: 20 Essential Songs.” At the time of his death, the artist was touring with his current band, Scott Weiland & the Wildabouts, and preparing to play a concert in Rochester, MN.


Cynthia Robinson, Trumpet Player and Co-Founder of Sly & the Family Stone

“Thank You (Faletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” on Soul Train

Cynthia Robinson is the one and only woman trumpet player to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor she received as a member and co-founder of the ground-breaking funk/soul/psychedlic band Sly and the Family Stone.

“Dance to the Music”

“She was a KICK ASS trumpet player,” wrote Questlove in an Instagram tributeHer play-it-loud horn parts are a distinctive component to the Sly and the Family Stone sound. She took the same approach to vocals–that’s her shouting out the intro to “Dance to the Music.”

The Family Stone at Jazz San Javier 2014

After Sly and the Family Stone stopped performing, Robinson (January 12, 1946-November 23, 2015) continued to work with fellow band members in Graham Central Station and the Family Stone. She also appears on albums by George Clinton, Prince and Robert Cray.

I was fortunate to have seen Robinson in 1973, when Sly and the Family Stone performed at the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, WV.

Louis Johnson, Bassist of The Brothers Johnson

The Brothers Johnson Strawberry Letter 23

Every once in awhile my friend Jim will  single out a song for review via a YouTube link,  a copy of a CD, or when you’re a captive audience in his car. It’s a pretty random assortment–“In My Room” by The Beach Boys one time; “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve, the next.

One evening, as I rode shotgun on our way to a birthday celebration, he tested my music knowledge with a song I couldn’t name. Another friend, Brian, piped up from the backseat with the answer: “Strawberry Letter 23,” a Shuggie Otis song recorded by The Brothers Johnson. Brian and Jim are older than me–5 and 8 months respectively–so they’re entitled to have musical memories that we don’t share. What’s more, they both grew up in Minnesota, while I grew up in West Virginia, and their knowledge may reflect geographic differences in radio DJ taste.

The only flaw in those theories is the song came out in 1977, the year I moved to Minnesota.  So I guess I can’t use my “youth” or origins as excuses.

Anyway, this car-ride quiz sent me on a mission to discover the music of The Brothers Johnson and Shuggie Otis, both of whom I’ve come to love.

In the summer of ’77, The Brothers Johnson shot to #1 on the R&B charts and #5 on the Billboard charts with their cover of Otis’s single.

Louis Johnson (April 13, 1955-May 21, 2015) was a bassist, known as “Thunder Thumbs.” He and his brother George fronted an LA-based R&B/funk band, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. They backed up Bobby Womack, The Supremes, Billy Preston, and others, and were taken under the wing of Quincy Jones, who produced their debut album Look Out for #1 and its followup, Right On Time.

The group split up in the 1980s to pursue independent projects. Louis played bass on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and for a host of other artists, including Earl Klugh and George Benson. He released a gospel album with his band Passage and later, Evolution, an album under his own name.

Passage I See The Light

He is known for his slap-bass style, which he taught through a series of instructional videos.

Louis Johnson bass lesson intro

The Brothers Johnson I’ll Be Good To You

Guy Carawan, Helped Popularize “We Shall Overcome”

“We Shall Overcome” is an old song with no single known author, and it was altered and added to over many years. The form we know it by today was shaped in part by Guy Carawan (July 27, 1927-May 2, 2015).

In an interview with Pacifica Radio, Pete Seeger shared the history of  the song. Mentioned in a 1909 letter about striking tobacco workers, it was picked up in 1947 by Lucille Simmons, another tobacco worker, who revived the song in a slow, no-rhythm way (Seeger called it “long-meter style”). It was heard and learned by labor organizer Zilphia Horton who  in turn shared it with Seeger. He printed it in People’s Songs in 1947, and tried to perform it but had a hard time accompanying it on the banjo.

13 years later at a workshop at the Highlander Folk School (which Horton had co-founded), Seeger heard Carawan sing it with the addition of rhythm, a contribution for which he gives Carawan and Frank Hamilton credit. (Carawan, Hamilton, Seeger and Horton are all listed on the copyright for the song.) The timing was right, as the American Civil Rights movement was beginning to gain momentum, and Carawan, who had become music director of the school, taught it to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As they organized groups throughout the South, they took the song with them. As evidence of the power of the song, President Lyndon Johnson quoted it in his televised address on the voting rights law.

Carawan was a multi-instrumentalist, who played the banjo, guitar and hammered dulcimer. He often performed with his wife, Candie Caraway, and sometimes his son Evan.

Milton Delugg, Accordionist and TV Bandleader

Before Doc Severinsen, before Paul Shaffer, before The Max Weinberg 7 and certainly before Questlove and The Roots, there was Milton Drulegg (December 2, 1918-April 6, 2015), the bandleader for the archetypal late-night show, “Broadway Open House.”

In the early 1950s show, Delugg set the stage for late-night music directors to come. In addition to providing the musical glue that held disparate acts together–from comedians to singers to movie stars–the musical director could even serve as a good foil for the host’s comedy, as Delugg did for “Broadway Open House” host Jerry Lester. He led the band not behind a keyboard or a trumpet or a guitar, but an accordion.

Delugg moved on to other shows–“Dagmar’s Canteen,” “The Gong Show,” and even a year with Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show” between the reigns of Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen.

In the 1960s, he veered into the space-age-monster-comic genre, recording versions of popular TV monster shows like “The Munsters.” He contributed “Hooray for Santy Claus” to the 1964 cult classic film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”

Perhaps less known was his co-writing credit on “Orange-Colored Sky” for the decidedly unmonstrous Nat King Cole. He also co-wrote “Hoop-Dee-Doo” with lyricist Frank Loesser, a polka that has been covered by Perry Como, Lawrence Welk and Weird Al Yankovic.