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ALL THAT JAZZ

Three Talents Make Fascinating Stories

June 19, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The jazz life is filled with odd twists and turns. And the music's history has a fair share of offbeat stories, with tales of unexpected shifts of fortune, frustrated dreams and, above all, urgent quests to experience and express irrepressible musical talents.

Billy Tipton, the female pianist who lived her life as a man in order to play jazz, was one. Despite skills that were never more than average, she--her real name was Dorothy Tipton--was busily active in the lower levels of the jazz and entertainment world from the 1930s. Described as a "classy" player by musicians who worked with her, she died in Spokane, Wash., in 1989 at the age of 74.

The Tipton tale has become so legendary that it is already the source of a recently published biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook ("Suits Me," Houghton Mifflin), with an opera reportedly in the works. And an all-female saxophone ensemble, the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet, has named itself in tribute to Tipton's memory.

But there are other fascinating jazz stories--two of them more contemporary.

Eva Cassidy would probably have been the last person to refer to herself as a jazz singer. She was so good, in so many different styles, that even her staunchest fans had a hard time labeling her work.

Still, a new album, "Songbird" (Blix Street Records), including tracks from two earlier albums released in the Washington, D.C. area, reveals that--although she clearly was an effective blues, pop and folk singer--Cassidy's essential talents had their roots in jazz. Playing guitar to accompany herself, she swings hard in a romping version of "Wade in the Water," a funk-driven "Wayfaring Stranger" and a soulful take on Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." Perhaps best of all, there are astonishingly intimate, musically imaginative versions of "Autumn Leaves" and "Over the Rainbow."

Listening to Cassidy's beautifully textured vocals, recorded in relatively fundamental settings, one can only wonder what impact her work might have had if she had been accorded the opportunity to perform with the kind of production accorded, say, Cassandra Wilson or Diana Krall.

Why the past tense in the description of Cassidy and her work? Because this painfully shy, unpretentious artist died of melanoma cancer in November 1996. She was 33 years old, and this album, along with enough assorted material for perhaps one or two follow-up releases, is the only chronicle that remains of her superb talent. Blix Street Records are available in all major record stores.

*

Violinist Christian Howes was on a fast-track music career in 1991. Eighteen and a college sophomore, he was the runner-up in a national competition sponsored by the National Federation of Music Clubs, and he earned scholarship after scholarship.

All that changed when Howes was arrested for selling narcotics to an undercover officer. Shortly after he turned 20 in 1992, he was convicted and sentenced to six to 20 years in prison. After serving almost four years, he was released in 1996 for good behavior, with a three-year probationary term.

As it turned out, the prison term had its enlightening aspects. Allowed to continue his education via correspondence courses, Howes also had many opportunities to continue to practice. But, most important of all, the opportunity to work and interact with other incarcerated musical talents dramatically expanded his musical perspective.

Howes first two post-prison albums, "Confluence" and "Ten Yard," are available locally in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, or directly from his Web site at http://www.christianhowes.com.

"Confluence" affords a fascinating view of the surprisingly high quality of music performed inside the London, Ohio Correctional Institute via four tracks recorded by Howes with a prison band.

"Ten Yard," a more professional album recorded earlier this year by Howes and his quartet, also reflects his prison experience.

The title, says Howes, refers to "a patch of land sitting adjacent to one of 10 warehouse-style dormitories at the prison. Ten Yard, for me, is a metaphor for the peace and inner freedom I found on this grassy lot . . . a spirit from which this music was born."

Howes' playing on both albums is exceptional. Fans often refer to him as the "Jimi Hendrix of Jazz Violin," and there are tracks in which he whips a Hendrix-like array of startling effects from his instrument. But Howes is a jazz player, first and foremost--one whose solid, classically trained technique provides the freedom to fully express an expansive improvisational imagination. Still little known (although he was present on drummer Lenny White's album, "Renderers of the Spirit"), Howes is an artist whose checkered past seems to be leading him to a promising future.

Fulbright Jazz: The Fulbright Scholar Program is offering an unusually interesting jazz opportunity for qualified candidates. Designated Award #9070, it is in the lecturing category and calls for the candidate to spend five to 11 months at the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. Responsibilities involve teaching undergraduate courses in jazz performance on any instrument, with priority given to saxophone, guitar, drums and bass (in that order). Other activities include assisting with small group improvisation, directing a big band and interacting with the local musical community. The start date is either August 1999 or February 2000. For catalog and information: (202) 686-7877.

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