The latest chapter in Bill Minor’s remarkable relationship with jazz and poetry.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Bill Minor has traveled to the far ends of the globe in his quest to understand how jazz has taken root far from its native soil.
His 1990 sojourn across the vast Soviet empire in the waning days of communism led to his book Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union (Temple University Press). And in 2004, he summed up a long-time fascination with Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (University of Michigan Press), a kaleidoscopic overview of a rich but long-overlooked scene.
“When I told people I was going to the Soviet Union, they said, ‘There’s jazz there?’” recalls Minor, 72, a Pacific Grove resident since the early 1970s. “There are 2,000 amateur big bands in Japan! The Japanese have a reputation as clones in pop art, but the jazz isn’t like that at all. I was fascinated to see how all these indigenous influences have taken root in the music.”
While Minor continues to monitor musical developments far afield, his latest journey is to a far more mysterious frontier. An incisive journalist, retired professor, poignant poet and skilled jazz pianist, he has turned his attention from the outer reaches of jazz to the inner landscapes of the soul. On Sunday, Minor celebrates the release of his new CD, Mortality Suite: Poems & Music, at Wave Street Studios with vocalist Taelen Thomas, flutist Richard Mayer and bassist Heath Proskin.
The project features a dozen poems set to Minor’s original music. The title might sound portentous, but his verse is consistently wry and emotionally open, full of heartbreak leavened by playful erotic innuendo. He writes of doomed Soviet poets in “ ‘It Is Good To Lie There,’ Marina Said,” and of a movie star doppelganger waiting tables in Pleasanton in “Dreaming of Sandra Bullock” (for an animated Minor recitation, check out www.cruziocafe.com/greenroom.html).
Rather than Beat-style poetry and jazz recitation, Minor has developed musical themes that match the contours of his keenly observed verse. The result is as much literary as musical. The overarching themes running through the album are the persistence of memory and the proximity of death, which isn’t exactly surprising for a guy who celebrated his mother’s 100th birthday last week.
“We’re going to follow the format of the pieces on the CD, from aging parents to Sandra Bullock,” Minor says. “I didn’t want the poems to be morbid. They’re a celebration, a tribute to our mortality, with as much humor as I could manage. Musically it’s much different than writing a tune or song. There’s a great deal of coordination involved. On Sunday, I’d like to just do some jamming, too. We might just take some time and take off on a couple of the pieces to see where they go.”
Born in Pontiac, Mich., in the same hospital as jazz legends Elvin and Thad Jones, Minor started playing piano professionally at 16, but never really considered music as a primary career. He trained as a visual artist at UC Berkeley and the Pratt Institute in New York City, where he soaked up jazz directly from legends like Charlie Parker and Art Tatum.
Minor devoted himself to creative writing in the early 1960s, returning to school for a degree in language arts from San Francisco State. He moved to the Peninsula in 1971 when he was hired to teach English and creative writing at Monterey Peninsula College, three years later, he published his first of six volumes of poems and prints, “Pacific Grove.” A creative polymath, his woodcuts and painting have been exhibited in leading museums and galleries. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and he’s performed widely in jazz combos around the region.
He first merged his passion for poetry and playing on his 2002 CD Bill Minor & Friends: For Women Missing or Dead, Poems Set to Music (Kanpai Music). Featuring his piano and vocals, singers Nancy Raven and Elise Rotchford, guitarist Karl, flutist Richard Mayer, tenor saxophonist Roger Eddy, clarinetist Joe Gallo and drummer Andy Weis, Minor added musical settings to poems he’d written in the 1970s memorializing past loves.
“I’d been married for a long time, carrying all these old girlfriends in my head,” says Minor, who is well into the fourth decade of wedlock with his wife, Betty. “In the book, I even included photographs, which was kind of audacious.”
His latest published work is the 2007 absurdist road trip novel, Trek: Lips, Sunny, Pecker and Me (Park Place Publications), but for many jazz fans Minor is best known as one of the music’s most artful chroniclers. He wrote Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years (Angel City Press), and his profiles of musicians have appeared in the top jazz magazines.
“I’ve played music professionally all my life but I had never thought about writing about it,” Minor says. “Buddy Rich came to town and I wrote a piece about him, almost a verbal drum solo, and Art Lang took it at Down Beat. Rich died and Art called it ‘Remembering Buddy.’ That was my first piece.”
Bill Minor performs on 8pm Sunday, Oct. 26, at Wave Street Studios, 774 Wave St., in Monterey. $15/general; $10/students. 655-2010, www.wavestreetstudios.com.