By March 28, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Jazz humor?

Above is a video of comedian Pete Barbutti telling one of his signature jazz stories on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, from some time in the 1980’s. At least conversant on several instruments, Barbutti has functioned for years in the same role Victor Borge did for classical music. Barbutti is essentially the jazz version of Borge, a player not quite talented enough to pursue a career in the art form, but good enough to pull off a career making fun of it. More of a Vegas staple than an insider on the jazz scene, Barbutti nonetheless captures at least some of the nuances of being a professional jazz musician, and his humor never fails to kill us. Dead. Like jazz.

Jazz, at least to the uninitiated, disinterested or otherwise disenfranchised, seems like the least humorous of musical forms. Only European concert music seems more abjectly humorless to a listener more accustomed to American popular culture, and jazz seems to exude all manner of piously grim reserve. For those who invented the stuff, however, the opposite couldn’t be more true.

Jazz is rife with self-deprecating humor, and its best practitioners, especially those who came of musical age before the 1950’s, never took the music or the music business all that seriously. After World War II, with an increased emphasis on conservatory training and a budding radicalism and racial pride among African-American practitioners, jazz did become less fertile ground for the silly and the inane, but sophisticated, urbane humor survived. The best improvisers, then and now, even inject humor into their musical creations, apparent only if one is willing to dig deep enough to hear what might be perceived as the ultimate “inside” joke.

Once upon a time, even the broadest humor pervaded live jazz performances. Great humorists in jazz include the always entertaining raconteurial humor of Louis Armstrong, the oblique zaniness of Dizzy Gillespie, the wise-guy remarks of Eddie Condon, Clark Terry’s jokes and funny songs and the dry, sophisticated humor of Paul Desmond. Even the most morose of players would lighten up among peers like these, so beyond these publicly funny musicians, some of the best jazz humor was reserved for non-public discourse.

Sometimes, a musician’s observational commentary was so biting as to be hilarious when analyzed later. A good example is Miles Davis‘ advice when asked by John Coltrane how the saxophonist could best limit the length of his famously long solos. Davis replied, simply, that Coltrane should “try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” Coltrane had asked in all sincerity. Whether Davis intended his response to be as mean-spirited as it seemed, or whether he instead wanted to impart some wisdom through dry humor, remains unclear. Miles was certainly capable of both tacks, but Coltrane was reportedly crushed, rather than amused, by this particular comment. In a similar vein, Lester Young—while working with a local pick-up rhythm section for a road gig—was asked by his drummer to remind him when they last worked together. Unimpressed with the drummer’s work, Young replied, “tonight”.

Bassist and author Bill Crow, in his great 1990 “Jazz Anecdotes” book, attributes the following joke to percussionist Teddy Sommer, but it made the rounds for years. We first heard it at a jam session somewhere in the early 1980’s, and it’s still funny, whether you love or hate the mechanics of jazz solos. As Sommer recalls it:

“Deep in the African jungle, a safari was camped for the night. In the darkness, distant drums began a relentless throbbing that continued until dawn. The safari members were disturbed, but the native guide reassured them: ‘Drums good. When drums stop, very bad.’ Every night the drumming continued, and every night the guide reiterated, ‘drums good. When drums stop, very bad.’ Then one night, the drums suddenly stopped. The guide looked frightened. ‘When drums stop, very, very bad,’ he said. ‘Why is it bad?’ asked a member of the safari. The guide replied, ‘when drums stop, then bass solo begin!'”

Check out a copy of “Jazz Anecdotes” by clicking the image below.

Posted in: Jazz, Odds & Ends, Videos

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