Saturday, January 17, 2009

Marian McPartland Meets Ira Sullivan

When two jazz greats had an encounter back in December of 2000 ...

[An earlier version of this article was formerly posted on the Butterfly Lightning website. The program aired on NPR sometime in April of 2000, but unfortunately is not available in their online archive at present.]
While the Butterfly Lightning readings went on in another part of our fair city, a bunch of us lucky contributors to WLRN were at Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami watching and listening spellbound as Marian McPartland taped an episode of Piano Jazz with local jazz legend Ira Sullivan.

Marian may be starting to walk a little like an elderly person (she's said to be eighty-something) but she sure doesn't play like one. We also found that she has the ability to communicate with facial expressions and the smallest gestures to a whole room full of people so they become willing slaves.

More than once she exhibited that astonishing musical memory of hers. For example, while they were discussing the "jazz alphabet," a list of song titles beginning with each letter, Ira mentioned an obscure song starting with the letter Z, and she immediately played the first two bars and attributed it to Noel Coward. Sheesh!

I've been following Ira, who's only seventy-something, for many years now, and he just keeps on getting better. He was wearing (you won't see this on the radio) baggy white pants, a saggy blue nylon jacket, and a flat cap, looking every bit the old bebop hipster -- especially when he leaned back, pushed his hips forward, shut his eyes and blew.

Blew what, you may ask? As usual, the gifted multi-instrumentalist traded off between several of them -- both tenor and soprano saxes, and muted trumpet. That leaves only the flute and flugelhorn that we didn't get to hear him play. (I've seen him sit down at the piano and drums, too, but he doesn't claim them as his own.)

Once long ago, after one of his evening jam sessions at the local Unitarian Church, I ventured to ask Ira which instrument he had taken up first. "It was the horn," he said with a nod, meaning trumpet. Then he added, "I've really only been messing around with the flute for a few years now." All I can say is that it is darn hard to tell the difference. Whatever is in his hands at the moment seems to be his intended voice.

He has also played and recorded with so many notable figures in the jazz community that the list of the ones he has not played with would be much shorter. Notables include the likes of Red Rodney, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Jocko Pastorious, and on and on. I witnessed a New Year's Eve bash at the old Bubba's jazz club in Fort Lauderdale back around 1978 when Ira appeared with Stan Getz, and in my humble opinion blew rings around him. What a night.

As you probably know, Piano Jazz is part performance but also part interview, and here Ira showed off his gift with words. Apropos of "Green Dolphin Street," for example, he reminded us how important it is to have a porpoise in life. (Ewww!) He described the generation that grew up with "bebop poison," the belief that things would never be better than in that era when they were in their twenties. He even unearthed the old gag where someone asks the rehearsing musicians, "Do you know there's a lady trying to sleep upstairs?" To which they reply, "No, but if you sing a few bars, we can fake it." (Nyuk nyuk.)

But my favorite bit verged on poetry. He was talking about learning tunes -- how many there are, and the way he tells students to learn one a day so that even with weekends off they pick up a couple of hundred per year. Among these must be included the "golden one hundred," a collection of standards written as long ago as the 1920's, which have been played and recorded by virtually every jazz artist to come along since.

Waxing lyrical, he spread his hands and said that by this point in his life they were all becoming the same, "the one big song that God gave us, and if you're lucky you get to where you can put it all together."

And on that note ...

[There's a great article about Ira Sullivan's career and a more recent appearance with Eric Alexander and Harold Mabern at All About Jazz. Marian McPartland is still playing and broadcasting at age 90.]

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