Jump'n'Jive & the Absolute Sound

Although I was trying to earn a living playing in rock bands in the early 1970s, I occasionally used to drag my Fender bass over to a school canteen in the next town for an after-hours session with what used to be called a "rehearsal band." (I have no idea what the derivation of that name is, except that, with the exception of a couple of veterans of the Ted Heath Orchestra, we were certainly in need of all the rehearsal we could get.) I would set up my Marshall stack the other side of the drummer from the pianist and sit behind a set of trumpet players, a brace of trombonists, and a scrum of players of the common saxophone flavors—a couple of altos, three or four tenors, and a baritone wielded by a gentleman with the magnificent moniker of Albert Bags. We played Glenn Miller and Woody Herman charts, and, on one memorable night, a Stan Kenton arrangement. Our technical chops didn't match our musical ambitions, but the feeling that welled up inside us when we all reached the final measure at the same time couldn't be beat.

I hadn't thought of those 30-years-ago Thursday-night sessions in a long time, but just before this issue of the magazine was put to bed, my wife and I took her father to hear his idol Keely Smith perform in an uptown restaurant. Now 74 years old but with the breath control of a woman half her age, the pageboy-bobbed singer belted her way through a high-energy set backed by a nine-piece pickup band.

Other than vocal mikes, a discreet Aguilar combo for the double bass, and, of course, an amp for the string synth—this is the 21st century—the band was acoustic. The highlight of Keely's set was some of her late husband Louis Prima's jump'n'jive. The two trumpets, two saxes, and trombone—some of the players guesting from the Conan O'Brien house band—raised such a roar on "Just a Gigolo," the drums pushing the eight-to-the-bar pulse to the limit, that I flashed back to those '70s sessions. I had forgotten just how loud an unmiked big-band brass section with its pedal to the metal can be, just how explosively dynamic an unamplified drum kit really is—just how unnecessary so much modern sound reinforcement is.

Want to talk power? A typical moving-coil loudspeaker is around 1% efficient. When you're pinning back your ears with a 100Wpc amp running flat out, the speakers are putting out just two acoustic watts into your listening room. By contrast, a single trombone in full song pumps out as much as 35 acoustic watts! You'd need a 1750Wpc amp to energize the room to the same extent, assuming your speakers didn't go into terminal meltdown.

I experienced this raw power firsthand when I recorded Stereophile's Rendezvous jazz CD in 1998. To get adequate separation from the adjacent instruments, I had close-miked Art Baron's 'bone with a B&K omni about 12" in front of the instrument's bell. I started out with a moderate amount of gain on the Nagra-D's preamp, but once Art started rocking out on his solos, the mike was putting out volts rather than the expected millivolts. I ended up having to use both 3dB attenuation on the recorder's level pot and a 10dB external pad to avoid clipping the A/D converter. Even then, I had to get Art to back away from the mike on occasion.

In these days of ubiquitous miking of nonclassical music, even in small performing spaces, it's hard to see why acoustic instruments need amplification at all, given the sheer acoustic power they can deliver to their listeners. Don't get me wrong—I ain't no technophobe. The sound of a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster overdriving a vintage 100W Marshall is a thing of beauty. And my own instrument is just a mute plank of wood without electricity. But pundits from J. Gordon Holt onward have urged audiophiles to judge the sound of a system by comparing it with the sound of live acoustic instruments. Yet with the rare exception of that Keely Smith gig, the live sound we're supposed to worship as the paradigm of all we're trying to achieve is almost always of mere mid-fi quality, just louder.

"But, but, but..." I hear you splutter. "The venerable JGH didn't really mean bebop or big band, and especially not jump'n'jive. Wasn't your magazine's founder talking about classical music? And classical music concerts are almost never amplified."

Right on both counts. But as I've written before in this space, classical concerts these days too often resemble AARP conventions. If serious music listeners are a minority of the population, classical music listeners are a minority of that minority. Which is why, with the lack of wisdom demonstrated by organizations that have lost sight of their mission, NPR radio stations are rushing to abandon daytime classical music programming in favor of the talk shows they believe will increase their ratings.

Wes Phillips touches on this subject on p.19, in his "Industry Update" piece on satellite radio. Like Wes, I have for many years been a loyal contributor to my various local NPR stations' coffers come pledge-drive time. But I am reconsidering my unthinking support, given that my individual contributions seem less important to the station than the anonymous listeners who comprise the "ratings." And now that NPR has decided to transform Performance Today, hitherto my main means of keeping up with the live classical music scene, into just another program of recorded music, it's ironic indeed, as Wes points out, that Martin Goldsmith, for so many years the host of PT, is now in charge of the classical programming for new kid on the broadcasting block XM Radio.

In this issue's "Letters," Bob Bernstein wonders if classical music will once again become widely listened to. Not, apparently, if your local NPR station has anything to do with it, Mr. Bernstein.