Sittin' in with Bill Kirchner


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Early yesterday morning I took the subway down to 14th Street and walked east to the campus of the New School University. I was on my way to sit in on Bill Kirchner's Jazz History class. Some weeks ago Bill had invited me to attend whenever I wished, and I specifically chose to hear him talk about Miles Davis.

In addition to being a terrific teacher (his students adore him), Bill is a renowned saxophonist and arranger, journalist and author. He recorded five albums as a leader plus others as a sideman, including one with singer Chris Connor. He edited the Oxford Companion to Jazz and A Miles Davis Reader. Bill also is a prolific writer of album liner notes, co-winning the 1996 “Best Album Notes" Grammy for Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (CD box/Sony).

Bill's two-hour class took his 40 students through Miles Davis' bio and recordings, complete with 13 prime audio examples. The sound system in the New School's fifth floor “performance space" is sensational. Each digital recording was vivid and exciting and rich with warm sonic detail. In between tracks, Bill filled in the blanks with authoritative notes:

Walkin' is credited to Richard Carpenter but it was really written by Jimmy Mundy and first appeared as Gravy by Gene Ammons in 1950" ... “I had an opportunity to study the original score for Porgy and Bess and was surprised to see that arranger Gil Evans used three bass clarinets" ... “On Porgy and Bess, trumpeter Ernie Royal was able to hit only a double high B-flat rather than the double high D that Gil had written for him. But as they say, that's good enough for jazz."

Bill also employed one of the shrewdest techniques for extinguishing rare instances of classroom chatter. Rather than say “shhh" or “Come on folks," he simply turned up the music, letting Miles do the schoolmarming. Pretty effective trick.

Best of all, Bill handed out a song sheet complete with personnel for the Miles Davis tracks he played. I've listed the songs below, along with the albums on which they appear. For me, the high points were Walkin', If I Were a Bell (it was great to hear those classics with eyes closed in front of a big sound system) and a live version of Human Nature. All are available at iTunes and Amazon:

1. Milestones (1947) -- Classic Years of Miles Davis

2. Israel (1949) -- Complete Birth of the Cool

3. Rifftide (1949) -- live in Paris, From Cool to Bop

4. Walkin' (1954) -- Miles Davis All Stars

5. If I Were a Bell (1956) -- Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet

6. Milestones (1958) -- Milestones

7. There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York (1958) -- Porgy and Bess

8. Flamenco Sketches (1959) -- Kind of Blue

9. Oleo (1961) -- In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Black Hawk

10. My Funny Valentine (1964) -- Miles Davis in Concert: My Funny Valentine

11. Masqualero (1967) -- Sorcerer

12. Directions (1969) -- Festival de Juan Pins

13. Human Nature (1988) -- Live Around the World

JazzWax clip: Here's Miles in 1985 performing Human Nature in Montreal. As with If I Were a Bell and Someday My Prince Will Come, Davis took this 1982 Michael Jackson pop hit (written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis), and turned into a funky metallic work of art...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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