ZAPPA AND JAZZ: DID IT REALLY SMELL FUNNY, FRANK?
By Geoff Wills
Matador. 173 pages. £8.99. ISBN 978-1-78462-391-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Frank Zappa’s music contained what some people might view as a wide, even bewildering range of cultural influences, among them jazz. But Zappa was often quoted as being dismissive of the music and its practitioners, despite ample evidence to show that many of the musicians he employed had strong involvements with jazz. That didn’t stop him saying, “jazz is not dead…..it just smells funny,” and “I was never involved with jazz. There’s no passion in it. It’s a bunch of people trying to be cool, looking for certification of an intellectual community.” And the blunt, “I don’t like jazz.”
So, why this insistence on a suspicion of jazz? Geoff Wills in his detailed look at the jazz aspects of Zappa’s music suggests that the roots of his antagonism towards many things besides jazz could be found in his experiences in the 1940s and 1950s. Zappa was always something of an outsider. As an Italian-American schoolboy he met with hostility from fellow-pupils because Italy had been an enemy during the Second World War. And Wills points out that jazz wasn’t the only thing that seemed to annoy Zappa. He expressed a dislike of schools, teachers, politicians, musicians, and people in general.
Wills thinks that when Zappa claimed not to like jazz he was actually venting his feelings about a jazz establishment and the snobbery that many jazz fans could often display when encountering other forms of popular music. I have to say that my own experiences in the 1950s might give substance to this argument. As well as being an enthusiast for the modern jazz of the period I also had a great affection for records of the kind of raucous rhythm-and-blues performed by the likes of Wynonie Harris and Tiny Bradshaw, with their shouting vocals and virile tenor saxophone solos. Other jazz fans often looked askance at my interest in that sort of music, especially if their own tastes ran to the West Coast “cool” sounds of the period. It wasn’t “hip” to enjoy records like Bloodshot Eyes and Breaking Up The House.
I was intrigued by the fact that Zappa not only liked to dismiss any suggestion of an interest in jazz, he also denigrated film music, despite being a friend of the composer David Raksin who had written first-rate scores for films such as Forever Amber, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Laura. And when asked about literature, he said “books make me sleepy,” though Wills reckons he was actually “well read.” Was there some kind of personality flaw that inclined Zappa to be contrary, and to want to appear to be uninterested in things which he actually was prepared to incorporate into his own music and experiences? Some people do enjoy being perverse.
Of course, the way to demonstrate how much Zappa, all his denials to the contrary, was influenced by jazz, and employed musicians with impeccable jazz credentials, is to study the many records that he made. I have to say that Wills appears to have listened to virtually everything available, and to have read just about all the printed material that relates to Zappa’s excursions into jazz. He also had personal communications of one sort or another with musicians and others who worked with Zappa. The studio owner Paul Buff recalled that Zappa in 1961 or so was “very jazz oriented……..He played clubs and, and played all the jazz standards.” Did he come up against opposition from more-established jazz musicians and narrow-minded jazz fans? As Wills notes, some jazz musicians could be notoriously cliquish, and as mentioned earlier, some jazz fans could be intolerant in their tastes. Buff further stated that “if the jazz community shunned him it was natural that he would give them the finger and do his own thing……it’s clear he didn’t abandon jazz – he refined it with his own signature.”
Zappa was aware, too, that playing jazz was not always a good way to make a decent living or achieve any measure of popularity. Paul Buff was of the opinion that, in Wills’ words, “he switched from making jazz-oriented to more novel records in order to get on the Steve Allen TV show as a means of furthering his career.” He called jazz “the music of unemployment” and sometimes cited an incident when he saw Duke Ellington being rebuffed when he asked for a ten dollar advance from the road manager of a tour both Zappa and Ellington were part of. It seems to have had an effect on Zappa in terms of demonstrating how unlikely it was that he would ever have financial stability playing jazz. But, as Wills points out, Ellington may not have been the best example to use when talking about the uncertainties of the jazz life. He was notoriously spendthrift in financial matters.
The jazz musicians who had links of various kinds to Zappa were drawn from various eras, and not just from a pool of younger players who might have been expected to have an awareness of jazz-rock and jazz-fusion styles. I won’t mention them all, but Wills refers to pianist Mel Powell, a veteran of the swing era when he was in the Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller bands. There was Jimmy Zito, a trumpeter who had also worked with a variety of big-bands. And tenor-saxophonist Jay Migliori, who in the 1950s played alongside Charlie Parker in Boston clubs and a little later took solos with the Woody Herman orchestra. Billy Byers, a trombonist and arranger, had worked in jazz groups in New York and Paris. The trumpeter Buzz Gardner had also spent time in the French capital in the early-1950s, and had appeared on records with local modern jazzmen.
There’s a brief, but interesting discussion of the development of jazz-rock, with Wills indicating that, contrary to some other writers’ opinions which maintain that it perhaps came into being around the late-1960s, there had been earlier indications of a blending of the two forms. He refers to Ray Anthony’s 1958 recording of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” theme as an example. It’s of interest to note that Anthony, mainly known for his swing influenced, but commercially-inclined recordings, had been aware as early as 1952 of the potential for mixing styles when he brought a well-known California rhythm-and-blues tenor saxophonist, Maxwell Davis, into the recording studios to perform stomping versions of “Idaho” and “Blow, Man, Blow” with the Anthony big-band.
Zappa and Jazz packs a lot into a short space. Fans of Frank Zappa’s music will be intrigued by the many close inspections of the jazz influences that Wills perceives in the various recordings he analyses. But Wills also offers commentary on the relationship of Zappa’s compositions to those of classical composers such as Edgar Varese. I can’t claim to be too familiar with the musical and general cultural world that Frank Zappa inhabited, but Zappa and Jazz certainly gave me an insight into it, and I would guess that it will be a useful addition to the library of material about him. I should add that it has a handy bibliography and discography.