Ten Most Influential Albums: A Night at Birdland

This is post #5 in a 10-post series.  If you missed the earlier posts and would like to read them, here they are:


He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper

The Low End Theory

Forever My Lady

I was lucky to attend Pulaski High School when I did.  Pulaski is a town of about 2,000 people 15 miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin.  There are probably more people now, but I haven’t paid attention to the population sign recently.  Let’s say 2,500.  Small town, friendly people, safe, everyone knows everyone, etc.  You’ve heard it all before.  One benefit of going to PHS I appreciate even more now than I did then was how supportive everyone seemed to be about the music program, specifically band.  I wasn’t aware that being a band dork was considered a bad thing until I met people from other places.  If those of us in the band at PHS were being mocked they successfully hid it from me.  I don’t remember it.  I mean, I was mocked plenty, but I don’t recall it having anything to do with being in band.

When American Pie hit theaters five years after I graduated, I remember thinking, “What the hell is this?  Why are they making fun of the band kids?”  It was like a bucket of cold water in the face.  I’ve had my adult friends from other places make fun of me for it.  When I tell them, “No, people thought band was cool,” they laugh at my naivete and remind me that people definitely thought we were dorks, they just weren’t in our face about it.  I refuse to believe it.  I try to make the nuanced argument that at Pulaski being in band didn’t necessarily make you cool, but it didn’t make you uncool either.  Does that even make sense?  It does in my mind.

I think of the people who would traditionally be considered the cool kids in school at other places and they were in the band, too.  The best “jocks” were in the band.  My brother was the best basketball player we had at our school in the four years I was there.  He was also first chair drummer in the band.  The best football player I saw in my years there, a stud running back by the name of Chad Van Laanen, played trumpet.  Also, one of the nicest dudes you’d ever want to know.  He was first chair trumpet as a senior when I was a sophomore and he had every reason to dismiss an underclassman like me sitting at the other end of the trumpet section, but instead he couldn’t have been cooler.  I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.  I was fortunate to love music and grow up in an environment that encouraged it.

We were also fortunate to have the greatest teacher and band director who ever lived, Mr. Don Siegrist.  That’s not hyperbole.  Ask anyone who participated in PHS band in the 80’s or 90’s.  Being in a band directed by Mr. Siegrist was an honor and a privilege.  Everyone in the area knew about our marching band and pep band and being a part of it was a blast.  We got to perform at the girls’ state basketball tournament at the field house in Madison twice during my four years there.  We performed at Lambeau Field…for the summer fireworks, not a Packer game, but still.  Lambeau!  We played at Disney World, Mount Rushmore, and the Polka Days Parade.  Being in the band and a part of those trips and performances was the best thing I did growing up.  All of that said, my favorite part of band was being a member of the jazz band.

Jazz band didn’t get the recognition that the other bands did, but I loved the music we were playing.  It just felt cool to me.  I loved it so much that I started to buy some so I could become more familiar with it.  As usual, my brother had introduced me to a few albums.  The two that stick out in my mind were Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis and Blue Train by John Coltrane.  I bought a set of Miles Davis CDs that included Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, which is basically a Miles Davis album with Cannonball’s name on it.  If you had asked me back then, there were only two jazz artists in the world.  Miles and Trane.

My senior year our new jazz band director, Mr. Leggette (apologies if I spelled the name incorrectly) took us to see trumpet great Maynard Ferguson at St. Norbert College.  He played “A Night in Tunisia” and I fell in love with that song.  That night I discovered that there was jazz outside of Miles and Trane.  I went to Best Buy to purchase my first jazz CD that wasn’t Miles Davis.  It had to be a trumpeter because that’s what I was.  I had no idea who to pick because I hadn’t heard of any of them.  So, I did what we always did with hip hop CDs back then: I chose the CD purely based on how cool I thought the cover looked.  Also the price.  I was on a budget.  That night I bought Brown and Roach Incorporated by trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach for $5.00.  I thought the cover was cool because it was just a couple guys hanging out in what looked like a band room playing music.  It was grainy antique looking black and white.  Something about that album called out to me and I’m still glad to this day that I chose it.  It was refreshing to discover someone new.  I had no idea I was listening to one of the greatest jazz drummers who ever lived and a trumpet player who could’ve been one of the all time greats himself if he hadn’t been killed in a car crash at the age of 25.

I’ve written about this numerous times on the blog, so I’ll keep this short, but another influence on my love of jazz was our deer hunting camp.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In the Northwoods the only radio station we could get was Wisconsin Public Radio.  When the hunt was over on opening day we’d enjoy one of Uncle Dave’s feasts, do the dishes, then play cards while listening to Garrison Keillor, followed by old jazz.  I consider myself something of a writer – I am writing this, after all – so I should be able to describe the scene to you, but it was kind of one of those “you had to be there” situations.  We were miles from civilization in Florence County, Wisconsin.  The last several miles of the trip to the shack were dirt road.  We had no electricity, so we were sitting in an old cabin lit by Coleman gas lanterns.  There was an inferno burning in the corner woodstove that Marv kept roaring 24/7.  No mobile phones at that time, so we could’ve been the only people left on Earth for all we knew when we were there.  We drank and played cribbage well into the night.  The jazz I remember being played was up-tempo, late-50s hard bop.  It was the best.  Family, friends, cribbage, great music, a million laughs, and not a care in the world.  Some of the best times of my life.

Shortly after I bought my first Clifford Brown album I came across a deal somewhere.  I don’t remember where.  They were selling CD box sets for a 50% discount or something.  I didn’t usually buy box sets because I was a high school student with no money.  However, I found The Complete Blue Note & Pacific Jazz Recordings of Clifford Brown at an insanely low price, and I must’ve had some Christmas money or something because I was able to afford it.  The first few CDs were kind of annoying because they were loaded with alternate takes.  It’s a pet peeve of mine when you hear the same song on an album four times in a row and they’re all alternate takes.  I enjoy hearing alternates, but they could at least mix them up.  The first two discs in that set were full of that.  The second two discs changed everything.

Discs 3 and 4 in the box set were A Night at Birdland Vol. 1 and 2 by the Art Blakey Quintet.  Two discs of the exact kind of jazz we’d listen to at deer camp.  Hearing it now still takes me back there.  The kind of music I would dream of performing as a trumpet player.  I can only imagine what it was like to get in the pocket like Art Blakey (drums), Clifford Brown (trumpet), Curley Russell (bass), Lou Donaldson (tenor sax), and Horace Silver (piano) did during those sessions.  A smoking version of “A Night in Tunisia” was part of Volume 1 which only made me love it all the more.

Streaming music has changed my ability to jazz now.  It used to cost money every time I wanted to check out different jazz album.  Now I can say, “I really like the pianist on that Art Blakey record.  Oh, that’s Horace Silver.”  Search his name and I’ve got dozens of records to listen to.  Then I find out Horace Silver played on a Miles Davis record with Sonny Rollins on tenor sax.  I better check out Sonny Rollins now, too.  Turns out he played on some records with Thelonious Monk.  Monk played on Genius of Modern Music Vol. 2 with Lou Donaldson.  Lou Donaldson played sax on the Art Blakey record.  I would’ve never been able to listen to all of this amazing music without streaming, and I always find a way to tie it back in to that Art Blakey record.

One last thought on jazz.  Another album I considered adding to my Most Influential list even though I only heard it for the first time a few years ago is Idle Moments by Grant Green.  The title track is the most hypnotic music I’ve ever heard and the ultimate laid back soundtrack for dimming the lights and chilling with a drink.  Until I heard Idle Moments any jazz I listened to had to consist of drums, piano, bass, and horns.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Anything else wasn’t “true” jazz to me, whatever that means.  Grant Green is a guitarist.  Green’s guitar inspired me to find others like George Benson and Wes Montgomery.  Idle Moments also features the great Bobby Hutcherson on vibes.  Have you ever listened to jazz with vibes?  It’s fantastic.  Listening to Hutch led me to Milt Jackson and current vibraphone phenom Joel Ross.  Pretty soon I was intentionally seeking out guys who didn’t play the traditional instruments just to see if there was anywhere I would draw the line.  I enjoy all of it.  I have records by Jimmy Smith, Baby Face Willette, and Lonnie Smith on organ.  That Lonnie Smith Live a Club Mozambique album Blue Note just reissued last year is a beast.  I have a jazz harp album that I thought my brother bought for me as a joke, but it’s actually really cool.  Idle Moments introduced me to jazz outside of the traditional form I was used to.  It might not have made the top 10, but no album has influenced my music listening more in the past ten years.

I’m officially halfway to the finish line in my journey through my most influential records.  I was well into high school at this point and it’s been I listened to nothing but hip hop and R&B with a little bit of jazz, which is still pretty much what I listen to now, if not in that order.  So, what could possibly be next?  Three insects from outer space who split to Earth to resurrect the funk.


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