he was known as “the Dark Prince.”  she “the Little Sparrow.”  (“Piaf” means “sparrow;” songwriter Randy Newman might call her a “short person.”)  they never sang together.  they never met.  he saw her perform in Paris.  she liked jazz.  yet there they were being honored jointly on U.S. and French Postage stamps pictured below (courtesy USPS), Miles Davis, an icon of America’s musical artform, and Edith Piaf a tragic national French symbol.


When Miles passed we gave him a quasi-private send off at St. Peter’s Church.  when Piaf went they shut down Paris as a spontaneous outpouring of emotions erupted.  neither were pillars of virtue; their art transcended it all.

this was the third co-issuance between the United States Postal Service and France’s La Poste, the 100th anny of the Statue of Liberty and a Revolutionary War stamp being the other two.

there were two celebrations: one the official issuance ceremony at the Rubin Museum of Art, the other sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America at the Bogardus Mansion, an historic building in the shadow of another tragic icon, the World Trade Center.

after a red carpet ceremony with many family members and musicians there were the usual talking heads nicely corralled by host Mark Ruffin and others.  highlights on the Piaf team included hitmaker Mike Stoller (Lieber and Stoller), biographer Carolyn Burke and surprisingly producer George Avakian who knew them both at Columbia Records but chose to speak on Piaf.

Piaf acolyte Maria Elena Infantino delivered some of her songs most dramatically.  Infantino has all Piaf’s moves down pat.  her dramatic poses, her famous vibrato, so perfectly evoked by others as diverse as Eartha Kitt and Sidney Bechet were moving as she sang Mi Lord, La Mer, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regrets), La Vie en Rose (later translated and covered in the U.S. by Louis Armstrong) and Two Loves Have I.  one observer said it didn’t give her the expected goose flesh; it did me.

my mother, who barely achieved five feet in height, loved this diminutive singer/actress.  we heard Piaf recordings scattered throughout our early lives.

on the Miles side there were his scions: daughter Cheryl, son Erin, nephew Vincent Wilburn, Jr., as well as producer now Blue Note head Don Was, who never met or knew him, and added nothing.   and former wife Cicely Tyson and bassist Ron Carter, who did.  Carter’s repeated mantra of “Miles wanted something different” was so effectively delivered that is was followed by a standing-o.

i was hoping that Avakian would retell the tale of Miles’ honorable side.  seems that Columbia (under a & r director Avakian) signed and recorded the landmark ‘”Round About Midnight” prior to the trumpeter’s release from his contract with Prestige Records.  Miles refused to allow the Columbia LP to be released until he fulfilled a three-record-monty.  he went into the studio and in two sessions recorded what turned out to be “Steamin’,” “Relaxiin’,” and “Cookin’.”  in addition, while the tunes on those historic recordings remained in his repertoire, Davis never played them the same way twice.  but that’s another story.

a tandem of three trumpets plus rhythm from Julliard played arrangements by Julliard Jazz Director Carl Allen of famous Davis tunes closed the proceedings.

among the missing was any mention of Davis’ infamous producer Teo Macero, who made sure that Miles Davis’ name was not forgotten when it appeared that Davis would not come out of a self-imposed musical exile.  Macero recorded Davis’ comeback LP when he did play again.   he was also the precursor of Davis’ electric period, utilizing the new techniques of cutting-and-pasting tape to produce different sounds.  he once told my New School class that Davis got sick over the studio floor during a session and Macero took 17 minutes of tape and made two LPs!   sounds like cheating to me.  now they do it digitally.  to these older ears, it still smacks of lazy short-cut.

it was Macero who facilitated my only interview with Davis, an afternoon affair during his “retirement” period which lasted well into the evening in Davis’ W. 77th St. townhouse.

later on the stamp premiere night the JFA reservation-by-invitation do was held.  the invitees included some members from Davis-led groups.  i would have liked to have seen first quintet, and sole survivor, drummer Jimmy Cobb.  but alas no former members were in attendance.

there were lots of hangers-on, press, and musicians galore (see photo).  host for the evening was WBGO’s Rob Crocker, who helped me identify the younger players.

the assembled multitude (photo Earl Gibson courtesy Jazz Foundation)

JFA Prez Jarrett Lillien welcomed the jammed room.  the family unveiled the Miles Davis part of the stamps issue.  then Erin Davis presented the first group led by trumpeter Gabriel Johnson.

the second was led by saxophonist Michael Gough.  both were high energy electric fusion bands.  i missed why Gough was dressed in 18th century couture from powdered wig to buckled shoes.  in any case no matter how hard Crocker tried for decorum neither group could be discerned to any great effect over the din in the room.  i will say this: all those young cats had chops for days.


in addition to gourmet restaurants amid gentrified blocks Boerum Hill in Downtown Brooklyn houses a recently opened venue.  called Roulette it is located in the YWCA on Atlantic and Third Avenues.  the musical fare bends towards the forward looking and eclectic.  one night latin bands; another jazz-rock; other times just plain noise dangerous for aging lobes like mine.

during the 2012 Vision Fest Roulette hosted an entire evening (7p-post midnight) of avante-jazz.  i caught the opening set of vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton.  backed by Jack Wilkins and Cameron Brown, guitar and bass, respectively, the pair traded off on a brooch of selections dubbed “Bebop To Freebop.”  the admixture was  standards,  jazz tunes –one by Brooklyn’s Kenny Dorham– and some blues.

there was more Brooklyn history represented on that stage.  Jordan was married to Brooklyn’s Duke Jordan. (“I loved Charlie Parker so much that i married his piano player.”)  when Clayton and i met decades ago she was living in Dumbo.

but it wasn’t about repertoire nor Brooklyn so much as it was about presentation.  Jordan’s pure jazz improvsations played well against Clayton’s use of vocal intervallic leaps, free verse and a voice splitter, or “looper,” as she calls it.

Whitney Balliett might have said that this was “the sound of surprise.”

- © arnold jay smith

June 2012




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