As 2016 Winds Down, Remembering The Jazz Giants We Lost | KUOW News and Information

As 2016 Winds Down, Remembering The Jazz Giants We Lost

Dec 2, 2016
Originally published on December 5, 2016 8:44 am

2016 has been a time of great loss for music: Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones all passed away this year, just to name a few. The jazz world was no exception. Christian McBride, host of Jazz Night In America, joined NPR's Audie Cornish to discuss the lives and legacies of three jazz giants who we lost in 2016 — Toots Thielemans, Victor Bailey and Bobby Hutcherson.

All three musicians were known for unusual decisions that paid off. Thielemans was a jazz harmonica player who became known for crossover moments like his feature on the Billy Joel song "Have a Tender Moment Alone." Bailey, a jazz fusion pioneer, worked with pop artists like Sting, Madonna and Lady Gaga. And Hutcherson carved out a place in jazz history on an unexpected instrument — the vibraphone.

McBride recalls how Bailey made an immediate mark when he replaced the virtuosic Jaco Pastorius as bassist in the fusion band Weather Report. "Not only did he fill those big shoes, but he carved those shoes out to fit his own feet," McBride says. "Victor ... said, 'Hey, I'm here. This is my gig now, and you are going to love me.'"

As for Thielemens and Hutcherson, McBride praises their ability to break into the jazz mainstream on relatively unpopular instruments. "They were dedicated to melodies and beautiful chords and telling the story," he says. "And when you can do that, it doesn't matter what instrument you play."

McBride shared these and other stories about the late icons. Hear the full conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen - we've lost some musical giants this year, and, sadly, the jazz world has, too. Several legendary musicians passed away in 2016, like the harmonica player featured on this famous tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV THEME, "SESAME STREET")

CORNISH: That is, of course, the "Sesame Street" theme song with Toots Thielemans on harmonica. Now, to remember him and other jazz greats we turn to our friend, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night in America, Christian McBride. Christian, welcome back to the program.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: How you doing, Audie?

CORNISH: Pretty good. You know, listening to this song, I realize for a generation of people this might be their introduction to the harmonica and certainly jazz harmonica.

MCBRIDE: That's correct. Toots Thielemans was one of the greatest musicians of all time. He transcended his instrument, and almost everything he played on he became the central figure of that piece.

CORNISH: Right. He was a big crossover artist. We have a song here that I'm sure many people will recognize in a partnership he did with Billy Joel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE A TENDER MOMENT ALONE")

BILLY JOEL: (Singing) Even though I'm in love, sometimes I get so afraid...

CORNISH: Oh, the harmonica's practically the star of that song, though.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, I'm telling you...

CORNISH: Sorry, Billy Joel.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE A TENDER MOMENT ALONE")

JOEL: (Singing) Just to have something to say. I know the moment isn't right...

CORNISH: I understand that his breakout hit was in 1961, "Bluesette," right?

MCBRIDE: Yes, that song became a jazz standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

CORNISH: And he was not playing the harmonica. What's going on here?

MCBRIDE: Well, you know, Toots was one of these crazy talented people. Not only was he a great harmonica player, but he was also a great guitarist. And he was also a great whistler. And he was very good at accompanying himself on the guitar while he whistled.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

CORNISH: Aww...

MCBRIDE: Such a sweet sound...

CORNISH: Yeah...

MCBRIDE: ...Right?

CORNISH: ...It's quite sweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

CORNISH: So he has such a gift for melody.

MCBRIDE: Yes. He was pretty much known across the board to every pop star to every jazz star, obviously. And he rightfully was the star he became.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

CORNISH: The next person I wanted to talk about was a bassist and someone you knew personally, Victor Bailey.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT SONG, "MOLASSES RUN")

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: Now, he died just a few weeks ago - right? - in November. He was just 56 years old.

MCBRIDE: Correct. I was very, very sad to learn of my friend's death. And he was such a dynamic and fiery musician, one of the most respected musicians that I can think of. When he joined Weather Report in 1982, he was coming in on the heels of Jaco Pastorius. He was already a legend. He was a living legend. And to replace someone like that in a group as popular as Weather Report, not only did he fill those big shoes, but he carved those shoes out to fit his own feet.

CORNISH: Right. That's a 1980s jazz ensemble. And for a generation of people, this again was a moment where they were kind of introduced to jazz, in this case jazz fusion. I want to play a song of theirs called "Molasses Run."

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT SONG, "MOLASSES RUN")

CORNISH: How does a bassist fit into a sound like we heard from the Weather Report - because I think it's really saying something that Bailey's reputation grew the way it did.

MCBRIDE: Yes. Well, certainly, you have to have the utmost confidence in your own playing. You can't go in there thinking, oh, man, you know, I hope I do a good job. Victor jumped in with both feet and said, hey, I'm here. This is my gig now, and you are going to love me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTOR BAILEY SONG, "BOTTOM'S UP")

CORNISH: And I understand that he became a solo artist and at one point actually collaborated with pop stars - right? - like Sting, even most recently Lady Gaga.

MCBRIDE: And I remember when he got the gig with Madonna. That was big news in the jazz world. Everybody was thinking, hey, man, did you hear? Victor and Omar are going with Madonna. And most of us went what? (Laughter). And so he did a great job on that gig for many, many years.

And I've also really appreciated Victor's artistry because when he became a solo artist, it was during a time in the late '80s where you were either a - sort of a Wynton Marsalis protege, the resurgence of straight-ahead acoustic jazz, or smooth jazz was booming. So that fusion sound, that was sort of fading away in terms of popular recognition. So Victor was able to plant his flag in that middle ground when not a lot of people were able to do that at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTTOM'S UP")

VICTOR BAILEY: (Singing) Bottom's up, base is on the top. Play that funky music. Don't you ever stop.

CORNISH: Well, Christian, finally, you've brought us some music from Bobby Hutcherson, the vibraphonist. And help me remember vibraphone, what this means.

MCBRIDE: Well, when most people see it, they tend to say xylophone...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY HUTCHERSON SONG, "WHO'S GOT YOU")

MCBRIDE: ...Or bells, you know. So the vibraphone or the vibraharp is a much different instrument, but it's from that same percussion family. And Bobby Hutcherson, of course, was an innovator, very much like Toots, a singular voice in the history of jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY HUTCHERSON SONG, "WHO'S GOT YOU")

CORNISH: And I know that you knew Bobby well personally. And I wanted to...

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Play one song that is known for being quite personal for him, actually one of his most famous. It's called "Little B's Poem," which...

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...He wrote for his son Barry, right?

MCBRIDE: That's correct. I believe that's Bobby's most well-known song.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY HUTCHERSON SONG, "LITTLE B'S POEM")

MCBRIDE: It's funny in that we would listen to the song along with the music of Toots because when we were talking about Toots, you mentioned how he always was committed to melody and so was Bobby. And I find it interesting that this great man who played the harmonica and this great may play the vibes, two very unusual instruments, they were able to transcend their instrument because they were dedicated to melodies and beautiful chords and telling a story. And when you can do that, doesn't matter what instrument you play. And Toots and Bobby very much had the same sort of joyful exuberant personality that came across in their music without question.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY HUTCHERSON SONG, "LITTLE B'S POEM")

CORNISH: Well, Christian McBride, thank you so much for remembering these people with us. I appreciate it.

MCBRIDE: I always love speaking with you, Audie.

CORNISH: Christian McBride is the host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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