This Week in Music History: July 15 to 21

Jul 16, 2013

By David Ball

I’m a fan of most music genres and styles, and jazz is no exception. (Exceptions include drum circles and primary school band recitals).

The Newport Jazz Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious jazz festivals and the first to take place in the United States, made its debut on July 17, 1954. And talk about kicking things off with a big BANG! The annual summer event held in the historic Rhode Island town premiered with one of the greatest lineups ever assembled in any genre. I don’t want to undersell the awesomeness, so here is the entire lineup, in order of appearance.

Newport Jazz Festival 1954 program

Saturday: Eddie Condon; Modern Jazz Quartet (featuring the “lightweight” ensemble: Milt Jackson, Kenny Clarke, Percy Heath and Horace Silver); Oscar Peterson Trio (the piano great’s legendary backing band consisted of Herb Ellis and Ray Brown); Billie Holiday (the iconic singer’s self-titled hit album, with Peterson on piano, was released a few months prior to her Newport appearance); Dizzy Gillespie Quintet; and Day 1 capper The Gerry Mulligan Quartet (a fantastic talent to be sure, but methinks the puffy-cheeked trumpet phenom Gillespie should’ve been the closing act).

Dizzy Gillespie @ Newport Jazz Festival, 1954

Not to be outdone, Sunday’s bill was equally impressive: Tribute to Count Basie (featuring trumpet pioneer Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Philly Joe Jones, Milt Hinton and Teddy Wilson); Oscar Peterson Trio (the Canadian Music Hall of Famer and 2013 inductee onto Canada’s Walk of Fame was one of jazz’s hottest young lions in 1954, so it makes perfect sense to book him twice!); Johnnie Smith; Dizzy Gillespie Quintet; Bill Harris; George Shearing Quintet; Erroll Garner (with Philly Joe Jones and Milt Hinton); Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz; Gene Krupa Trio; and Newport 1954’s final performance by Ella Fitzgerald.

Duke Ellington (left) with George Wein and Erroll Garner @ Newport Jazz Festival, 1954

The Newport Jazz Festival, referred to as “the grandfather of all jazz festivals,” was founded by renowned impresario George Wein. Nearing its 50th anniversary, the event has played host to scores of celebrated performances over the years by leading and aspiring talents in both jazz and blues. Some landmark appearances include Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

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Neil Young and his manager Elliot Roberts formed their own indie label, Vapor Records, based out of Santa Monica, California, on July 18, 1995.

The background information on the company is a little light – make that a LOT light – and perhaps purposely so. For example, all I could find in regards to Vapor Records was its brief mission statement (“We are the sum of our parts. Please check out the music of our bands to understand what words can’t explain.”) and even briefer company overview (“We actually like the music we put out!”). That being said, some of the artists on the rock legend’s tiny label are not insignificant and speak to both quality and eclecticism.

Here are some of the acts that are under the Vapor umbrella: Tegan and Sara (the JUNO Award–nominated twin singer-songwriters from Calgary have produced five albums for Vapor, including 2013’s Billboard Top 5 hit Heartthrob); Spoon; Jonathan Richman (the ex–Modern Lovers front man has worked with Young and Roberts’ company since 1996); Vic Chesnutt; Everest; Pegi Young (Neil’s equally gifted sister); Victoria, B.C.’s Jets Overhead; and Neil Young himself, with the film soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s masterful 1995 psychological western, Dead Man (Native-Canadian character actor Gary Farmer steals every scene he’s in, which is saying something given he shares the screen with Johnny Depp, Robert Mitchum and John Hurt).

Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s album chart in 2013

Pitchfork gave this Jonathan Richman 2010 LP from Vapor Records a 7.8 rating, which is indeed impressive given that the reviews from this influential hipster music website can sometimes be harsh.

Neil Young’s experimental instrumental score is one of the highlights of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, one of the best psychological westerns ever made, right up there with There Will Be Blood, High Noon, William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident, 3:10 to Yuma (meaning the the 1957 Glenn Ford original) and Anthony Mann’s anti-hero epics starring James Stewart (The Far Country, Bend of the River, Winchester ’73 etc.).

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Archeologist Ivan Turk unearthed the world’s oldest known musical instrument in Slovenia’s Indrica River Valley on July 18, 1995.

The Neanderthal relic is believed to be between 43,000 and 67,000 years old and is made out of a bear bone with four artificial holes carved into its length. Canadian musicologist Bob Fink stated in a 1997 essay that the instrument, dubbed the Divje Babe flute, could have been used to play four notes of a diatonic scale (eight notes and seven pitches and a repeated octave). No doubt music lessons, even waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back then, were still pretty expensive.

Divje Babe flute artifact (dated 45,000 B.C.)

Bob Fink’s interpretation of an intact Divje Babe flute

Interesting side story: Also discovered in the same cave where the artifact was found are wall drawings depicting a man wearing animal skins playing the Divje Babe flute in front of a woman (perhaps his wife or mother), who appears to be telling him to, loosely translated from early Neanderthal: “SHUT UP!!!”

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Surprisingly, this next song was never the theme song for any of these noted sleight-of-hand tricksters: Criss Angel (he’s more into metal, makeup and tattoos), David Blaine, David Copperfield, Canada’s Doug Henning, or the greatest of them all: Arrested Development’s Gob Bluth.

“Do You Believe in Magic,” the first-ever single by New York City–based folk-rock quartet The Lovin’ Spoonful, was released on July 20, 1965. The tune, written and sung by bandleader John Sebastian, went on to reach No. 9 on the American pop charts.

The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965: Zal Yanovsky (bottom left, sporting a Beatles-inspired mop-top), John Sebastian (top left, looking a lot like the late Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek), Joe Butler (centre) and Steve Boone, wearing the T-shirt billboard.

From 1965 to 1966, the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees (class of 2000) would score an impressive seven Top 10 Billboard singles, all featuring founding member Zal Yanovsky, who is also a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The versatile Toronto-born guitarist (whose style was once described by Sebastian as a mix of bluesman Elmore James, Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer and Chuck Berry) would leave the group in 1967 after his infamous arrest on a marijuana-related charge, which led to his return to Canada. Yanovsky left the music business in the late ’70s to work as a restaurateur in Kingston, Ontario, a career he continued to do right up until his death in 2002. By the way, take Yanovsky’s two fine-dining establishments, Chez Piggy and Pan Chancho Bakery, out of Kingston’s historic downtown core and the loss to the city would be nothing short of catastrophic (take this as fact from me, a born and raised Kingston boy).

Next week: Guitar Hero (video game) and The Clash

“Dead Man (Theme Song)” by Neil Young