17 July 2008


Jazz Profiles with Nancy Wilson

A recent search through the podcast section of the iTunes store brought me to Jazz Profiles, a weekly series on "the greatest performers who have influenced the history of jazz," according to NPR's website. I subscribed to the podcast to check it out. I was sure that since it is produced by NPR, it would be at least good enough to add to my podcast routine, and probably quite enjoyable. I have listened to three episodes so far, and am pleased to say that it exceeded my expectations. Jazz Profiles provides an in-depth portrait of a different performer every week, using interviews with the performer and his or her contemporaries and students, along with generous samples of music.

The first episodes I listened to were a two-part series on Charles Mingus. The episodes spanned a good portion of his career, from his early days in Los Angeles, to the Jazz Composers Workshop of the mid-1950s, to his later years and the posthumous debut of his massive work "Epitaph." The episodes also delved into his legendary personality, presenting a few interviews to describe his fights with sidemen Jackie McLean and Jimmy Knepper. Series narrator Nancy Wilson also delved into the particularities of Mingus' bass style, something that often gets lost in discussions of his compositions and place in jazz history. In between are plenty of great samples of Mingus recordings, sometimes running for five minutes without any commentary. Listeners are given the chance to hear what made Mingus so great without any commentary over the music.

I also listened to an episode featuring the legendary (if somewhat obscure to casual listeners) stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith. Like the Mingus episodes, the Smith episode is full of listening samples from Smith's long career. Nancy Wilson also describes the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s which incubated the stride-piano style of Smith and his contemporaries. This socio-economic context fills in the technical discussion of Smith's style presented by one of his former students, Dick Hyman. Again, I was treated to some extensive recording samples of Smith's playing, as well as audio clips of Smith talking about his upbringing and the development of his style.

The episode on Smith represents the most redeeming aspect of Jazz Profiles. Whereas jazz history is often depicted as a series of evolutions at the hands of Great Men, Jazz Profiles (though it spends time discussing musicians from the pantheon of Great Men) fills in the gaps, exposing listeners to lesser figures like Smith, Gerry Mulligan, or Tommy Flanagan, who provided bridges between different genres while filling out and diversifying the jazz community. These figures, which are often not even mentioned in other venues of jazz appreciation, are often just as captivating and entertaining as the Parkers and Coltranes that frame most histories of jazz.

Jazz Profiles is highly recommended to jazz listeners who have learned the basics of the music, but are yearning for more information. Nancy Wilson is a more-than-capable narrator, presenting the information in a pleasing tone without sounding pedantic. Jazz Profiles will not provide the definitive take on any the artists profiled, but the program serves as a very helpful introduction and resource to some of the most important, and least appreciated, musicians in jazz.

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