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Jazz Corner: Miscellaneous Jazz Musings

From being jailed for listening to jazz to recovering from an illness and excelling at the genre and more

Sunil Sampat Dec 23, 2021

Cuban-born jazz trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. Photo: Courtesy of Perfect Relations

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For this month here are some random views on various jazz subjects, mainly dealing with the way the human spirit rises above adversity, in this case applying to jazz musicians and how they got the better of their troubles.

On top of my list at this time is the passing away of a jazz musician, Pat Martino a few weeks ago. He was one of the leading jazz guitarists of recent years and the story of his musical journey is quite amazing.

Martino was a fine jazz guitarist who was on top of his game in the 1960s. He had several successful recordings to his credit and was in demand on the jazz club circuit. Then he suffered a brain aneurysm that required delicate surgery. The surgery was successful, but Martino lost most of his memory; he also forgot how to play the guitar.

However, nurtured by a caring wife and family, Martino’s memory gradually recovered. His guitar playing resumed and his wife hit upon the idea of playing Pat his own earlier recordings! This worked out well and he was gradually able to play at his earlier caliber. It was nothing short of a miracle that Pat Martino’s later recordings were no less brilliant than his earlier work.

In an earlier era, Oscar Peterson was struck with paralysis and lost a lot of control in his left hand. But he persevered with his playing, developing his right hand playing to an extent that he sounded very good again. Each avatar of Peterson was brilliant; his genius shone through, either way!

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Both Martino and Peterson had reinvented themselves to the level of their past playing standards. Their examples are truly inspirational.

During the cold war between the West and the Soviet Union and their satellite countries, jazz was, interestingly a focal point of attrition on the artistic front. The Soviet bloc had banned the playing and even listening to jazz by their citizens. At this time, the U.S. decided to use jazz music as a tool to reach those behind the “Iron Curtain.” American jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and others were named Jazz Ambassadors. But their biggest thrust on the jazz front was a regular and long-standing broadcast on short-wave radio called “The Jazz Hour” on the state-run Voice of America. This was broadcast worldwide and is arguably the biggest and the most popular jazz broadcast/show of all time. A great benefit from this program was the knowledge about jazz that was imparted by its legendary announcer, Willis Conover. His booming voice, great choice of music and the details about that music has created several generations of jazz followers, all over the world. Many Indians have learnt the ABC and beyond of jazz from Conover. Incidentally, Conover was invited to be the emcee of the very first Jazz Yatra in Bombay in 1978. Such was the impact of Conover’s radio show that he was cheered as much by the audience as any of the great players who had assembled for the festival.

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The impact of the VOA Jazz Hour was felt worldwide. In Cuba, the great jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was recruited for his mandatory service in the Cuban army in Havana. He was already an accomplished musician. However, playing or even listening to jazz was illegal. Arturo was “caught” listening to the VOA Jazz Hour and jailed for three months.

Bizarre as that might sound, a recent news report out of Pyongyang in North Korea was far more terrifying. A few ordinary citizens were arrested for listening to jazz and K-Pop. They were tried and executed by a firing squad for their “crime.” Now we know the opposite of freedom.

Actually, jazz legend and brilliant trumpet player John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie had a wonderful thought about jazz, human freedom and peace. He said in all seriousness, “If all people heard jazz, we would never have another war. We’d all live in peace.” Amen to that thought.

Fortunately, there is no law against listening to jazz in most of the world. Get your fair share of it! Let’s make this world a better, more peaceful place.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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