frank hewitt /
out of the clear black sky

 
 

Misty (Garner) 12:10
The Girl From Ipanema (Jobim) 10:42
This Isn’t New 8:10
Manteca (Gillespie) 14:10
Lover (Rodgers/Hart) 10:19
I Married An Angel (Rodgers/Hart) 10:43
Misty (Garner) 8:29

Total time: 64:43

Recorded 4/11/00 (#1-5) and 10/18/00 (#6-7) live at Smalls, NYC

Frank Hewitt - piano
Ari Roland - bass
Jimmy Lovelace - drums

 
Available Feb. 2008
   
 

This volume of recordings of the late pianist Frank Hewitt comes from the evenings of April 11, 2000 and November 19, 2000 – two Sunday nights out of at least four hundred Sunday nights that Hewitt played at Smalls. A previous release in this series, Four Hundred Saturdays (SRCD-0010), pays homage to Hewitt’s corresponding eight-year long weekly run on Saturday nights. Strictly speaking, though, Hewitt’s Saturday and Sunday gigs happened literally in the same day. By the time the Saturday night set began, it was already 3am Sunday morning. But you just don’t tell Saturday-night revelers that it’s really Sunday morning, so we agree to self-deceive.

The rollicking Saturday night gave way to a more sober house on Sunday night. Hewitt would play a long set at 10pm, followed by Across 7 Street. Both groups epitomized the underground New Bop sensibility, playing a dark-edged and sophisticated music that is enjoyed by many, but yields a rare kind of experience to the careful listener. The audience gathered for Hewitt and Across 7 Street was generally serious, often consisting in other musicians.

In the four years since Hewitt’s posthumous debut on the world’s stage, there has been some time for reflection. The central question, first posed by Thomas Conrad in Jazz Times (June 2005, p.30), was to ask: How could an artist of this importance, who did not die young, who retained his creative powers to the end, who lived and worked his entire life in the jazz capital of the world, remain so unknown in his lifetime?

Of the various explanations that have been offered since, most seemed to focus around habitual stereotypes. I am not satisfied that explanations having to do with intransigence or drug and alcohol use were decisive to the outcome. My suspicion is that such explanations are largely ad hominem and do much to perpetuate myths. Saying “this is just the way things are” is a part of what makes resignation and complacency into enduring institutions. The larger, more important causes, I think we’ll find, are less salient, and involve subtle, hidden factors and invisible agency.

The present hypothesis centers around the Cabaret Laws of New York City considered as a set of de facto race laws. First adopted in 1926, the by-laws governing instrumental music (as opposed to dancing) forbade the use of brass or percussion without a Cabaret License, and required working musicians to carry a Cabaret Card.

The real mens rea that made the Cabaret Laws into de facto race laws lay in the racism implied in the way they were written, and in the capricious way in which they were administered. In the first part, brass and drums were hallmarks of the new jazz sound in the twenties, and any law targeting those instruments would be implicitly biased towards black music and black musicians without explicit reference to race. In the second part, the institutionalized practices of restrictive licensing, selective enforcement, and police harassment were weapons wielded by city pols, and these practices have been viewed by opponents of the laws as being used intentionally, sometimes tacitly, to prevent mixing of races. A thoroughgoing examination would be in order, but one important point I think can be established: Venues for hosting jazz in the jazz capital of the world were made very scarce relative to the amount of talent available and the demand for it. The impact of the Cabaret Laws might have been felt differently at different points in history. During the heyday of jazz as a popular music in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, there was significant money to be made featuring the music in nightclubs. The supply of jazz clubs plausibly fluctuated with demand, but this seems to go hand-in-hand with attempts to actively suppress the number of such clubs and restrict their locations.

The passage of the US Civil Rights laws in 1964, based on the argument that racial segregation was unconstitutional, cut a broad swath, and led to the abolition of many explicit Jim Crow laws. But the tacit forms of racism endured, being harder to identify and root out by virtue of their tacit nature and the difficulties in establishing legal intent. The Cabaret Laws, lacking explicit reference to race, lingered on the books, and even in cases where these laws might have been administered in all innocence, their racist underpinnings were still to be felt.

As interest in jazz as a popular music waned during the 60s and 70s, the scarcity of jazz venues was perhaps most acutely felt, because most of the jazz musicians working heavily in the 40s and 50s were still active in the 60s and 70s. During this period, the existence of a large New York jazz underground community seems most evident in the activities at unlicensed venues, after-hours clubs, private spaces (such as lofts), and not-for-profit cultural and religious institutions (such as the University of the Streets, the Jazz Cultural Theater, and St. Peter’s Church). Most members of the listening public were not acquainted with these venues, and many of the artists who performed there and the musical explorations undertaken therein went largely unknown outside of the people in attendance.

It was not until the mid-80s that the Cabaret Laws were finally brought under direct attack. NYU law professor Paul Chevigny, working in conjunction with the Musicians Union argued that music was a form of protected speech, and that the Cabaret Laws thereby violated the First Amendment. Chevigny’s novel and powerful argument prevailed, and in 1988, the laws were overturned.

We increasingly see the consequences of musical segregation all the more clearly in retrospect. The flourishing of a multitude of new clubs presenting jazz and improvised music in New York City since 1988 lends considerable support to the belief that the music had been greatly suppressed prior to that. The emergence in these new clubs in the early to mid-90s of major talents known mainly in the New York jazz underground – Frank Hewitt being one such – should have taught us something right away, but it didn’t at first.

What should have been a major revelation for anyone with a serious interest in the art of jazz passed pretty much unheralded. A multitude of causes might be considered, but in general, neither the musicians nor their music had been assimilated by the listening public to the point where any significance could be recognized or assigned. This was exacerbated by the public’s preconceptions about older musicians, and difficulty in following the complex harmonic and melodic forms of the native jazz. What’s more, this music ran contrary to current fashion.

Bebop was dead, hadn’t you heard? The further away from New York you got, the more you heard that from people. And in a way, who could blame them? The conservative hard-bop sessions of the early 90s were more like athletic outings than modern art. What came out of the underground was superficially similar, but deep down it was different—bolder. Who was expecting that? You’d have to unravel the local story a bit further to see it.

The fact is that bebop remained a living music on the New York underground scene. You will hear continuity between the final recordings of Elmo Hope in 1966, and the work of such artists as Gil Coggins, C Sharpe, Junior Cook, and Frank Hewitt in the 70s, 80s, & 90s. You will see continuity between the work of Frank Hewitt and the work of younger musicians such as Ari Roland, Chris Byars, Sacha Perry, William Ash, Dwayne Clemons, and Zaid Nasser. In these hands, bebop has been anything but a conservative music; it is vital, often dark and urgent, and this is especially evident in the new compositions by the later players. But the mood of the country was more oriented towards cheap and complacent rebellion with superficial novelty. The major jazz labels that had long ago lost their way sought out young, photogenic musicians, and crossover music. And the increasing availability of all the world’s music within a few clicks beckoned eclectic tastes.

How deceptive, then, that on tunes as overdone and even parodied as “Misty” or “Girl From Ipanema” Frank Hewitt could be so bold. But the real pathos is there knit up in a bit of extraordinary and complicated thematic improvisation. It’s like hearing those tunes for the first time. And Hewitt lays himself completely bare. Now that is being unafraid.

Luke Kaven
November 2007

The producer would like to thank Tom Currier, Marcy Granata, Michael Ornstein, Debbie Millman, Jeffrey Brown, Minnie Cho. We would like to give special thanks to Dr. Eddy Arnold, who graciously provided the means to produce these historical documents.