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Grover Sales: Agent Provocateur  by Robert Tate

Jazz Historian Grover Sales

"Behind every successful black musician is a smart Jewish businessman." Jazz historian Grover Sales pauses in front of the class with a slight smile on his face, awaiting a retort from one of the students. He drops these bombs here and there throughout his lectures the way a bebop drummer will throw in random explosions to get things moving on the bandstand. Tonight, though, no one seems inclined to mix it up with him, so he goes on.

During a typical evening class, Sales will play a dozen or more selections from his extensive collection of recorded jazz classics. He introduces these with comments explaining the importance of each tune, and suggestions about what to listen for. While the music plays, he projects slides of the musicians, cutting back and forth to the appropriate one as each takes his solo. He also mimics playing a piano or bass, for example, to indicate which instrument the class should be listening to at a particular moment. The goal is to educate students in how to listen to and appreciate jazz through a inductive process of repeated exposure leading to understanding.

This term he is conducting a course on the history of jazz singing at The Jazzschool in Berkeley, a particularly congenial venue since he can be his provocative self without literal-minded undergraduate students taking him to task for it. Most of the students here know Grover and expect the outrageous from him.

An Infectious Enthusiasm and Love of Jazz

His saving grace is his love of the music. Of course he knows his subject, but unlike most would-be jazz historians he has lived through a substantial portion of the history and personally known a great many of the leading figures in jazz. And his enthusiasm is infectious. You cannot sit in his classroom for any length of time without feeling the excitement of watching high art being made on these old recordings. Over time you get the sense of jazz as a work in progress, an art form that has evolved through the years and continues to do so right down to the present moment — in which, as we all know, it lives.

At the end of a recent class, an older gentlemen who had said very little during the evening announced that he’d like to make a comment. He remembered hearing many of the bands as a youth and how excited he had been then. "You brought that all back to me, and I want to thank you for it," he said.

We will see that Grover disdains that kind of sentimentality, but for the moment, he's gracious enough about accepting the compliment. And his classes do tend to have that effect on people.

Grover comes from Louisville, Kentucky. It was on a radio broadcast there in about 1935, when he was sixteen years old, that he first heard the Benny Goodman band with Gene Krupa on drums. As he explains, "It was a religious experience. I’d never heard anything like it. I went to bed and had a high fever. My mother had to rub my chest with Musterol, and I’ve never been the same since. It took over my life."

Grover remained an outsider throughout his high school days in Louisville. "No one would speak to me because of the music I was listening to. They thought it was really strange, because the hippest things they were listening to were Hal Kemp, or Russ Morgan, or Skinnay Ennis, things like that."

Boston, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington

In 1938, Sales moved to Boston, where he ran with a jazz crowd and heard Benny Goodman and other bands in person. Then one afternoon, listening to the radio, he had a second religious experience when he heard Duke Ellington’s "Black and Tan Fantasy."

"I went out of my goddamn mind. I ran to the local record store and said, 'What have you got by Duke Ellington? I want all of it!'  He says, 'Son, you can’t afford it.' I said, 'How much could I get for fifteen dollars?' Records were thirty-five cents apiece in those days. So I got a whole bunch of Ellington records.

"From then on, I got a hold of books and magazines, and started to listen to the history of this music," recalls Sales these many years later. "I started to listen to early Louis Armstrong, the Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, and Fletcher Henderson bands, Art Tatum, and all the rest of them. That's how it got started."

When bebop came along during World War II, Grover was in India in the army, so he missed the new music.

"I was like a lot of my generation who were in the army and were occupied with other things when the war was over. I was a late-comer to it. But at least I made the transition, which is more than I can say for a lot of my generation. I run into that in the classroom all the time. I run into people my age, like my friend Herb Caen, who was a great Benny Goodman fan. But Herb Caen's interest in the music stopped with Benny Goodman and never got beyond that. Whenever he wrote anything about so-called modern jazz after that, it was kind of embarrassing.

"One time he wrote: 'I don’t understand why Erroll Garner keeps winning jazz polls 'cause he doesn’t play jazz.' The day that came out, the Modern Jazz Quartet was playing at the Blackhawk. Milt Jackson saw that item, and he comes up to me and says, 'What kind of piano do he think he play?'"

Catching Up to the Bebop Revolution

What with going to college and trying to earn a living, it wasn’t until 1952 or so that Grover caught up with the bebop revolution. "The first one that appealed to me in that group was Monk," says Sales. "That was the first one that really grabbed me. And from Monk I got into Bird and Dizzy, and then all the others."

Hanging out in the jazz clubs of San Francisco, Grover became acquainted with jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason. One day Gleason called Grover and asked him how he'd like to do the publicity for a new jazz festival Gleason and Jimmy Lyons were starting in Monterey. "I'd like it just fine," Grover said.

The Monterey Jazz Festival kicked off in 1958, and for seven years thereafter, Grover handled the publicity for the annual event. At the same time he was doing publicity work for a number of jazz clubs and artists, including the Club Hangover, which featured such artists as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Meade Lux Lewis. He also did a lot of publicity for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In 1969, Grover was living in Marin City next door to an old college chum, poet Lew Welch. As Grover tells it, "I called him up one afternoon, and I said, 'Coleman Hawkins died today.' He said, 'Oh, Jesus!' Then there was a pause, and he said, 'What are you doing in the next ten minutes?' I said, 'Nothing, why?' He said, 'How’d you like to teach my class at University [of California] Extension on Coleman Hawkins tonight? You’ve got five minutes to make up your mind.'

"So I grabbed a dozen Coleman Hawkins records off the shelf and went next door. He drove me to the Extension at Laguna and Market in San Francisco, and I taught a class in Coleman Hawkins. Just winged it. He said, 'You ought to be doing this all the time.' So he got me wired into teaching jazz studies, and I’m still doing it."

Political Incorrectness as an Art Form

Grover has taught at Stanford University, San Francisco State, the San Francisco Conservatory, and The Jazzschool in Berkeley. His academic career has not been all smooth sailing. He was fired from Stanford for what he calls political incorrectness when a delegation of students from an undergraduate class complained about him to the administration. "I would tell a joke that I thought would be innocent and that group would go to the office and say, 'This is a sexist attitude, and it's demeaning, and it's humiliating to women, it's humiliating to black people, it's humiliating to Jews.'

"When I was at [San Francisco] State — I was at State for 10 years — I had a lot of trouble. I applied for a professorship, because I was certainly qualified to do this, and the head of the department actually sat down and told me, 'We cannot hire anybody for this position unless they’re members of a minority group.' I said, 'Well, I'm a member of three minority groups. I'm old, I'm a Jew, and I'm an intellectual'. That went over big!"

Grover also teaches courses for the Elderhostel program, an international organization that provides all kinds of courses for senior citizens. "I teach them courses in things they'd be interested in, like big-band jazz, which they all grew up dancing to. I show them slides, so they all get dewy-eyed and teary: 'That’s Gene Krupa! Oh, that's Tommy Dorsey, sob, sob.' Unlike undergraduates, though, they understand my jokes."

Mastery of Jazz is Rooted in History

At root, I think, Grover’s cynicism stems from his passion for the music. He is adamant that without a grounding in the history of jazz, players can never become masters of their art, no matter how technically proficient they may be.

"I was always listening to the Stanford jazz band when they were rehearsing. They're playing arrangements of Glenn Miller, for God's sake, among others, and there’s no fire in this. They’re just competent, is all you can say about them. I've addressed these classes, and I've found out — well, first of all, Stanford music majors could not take jazz history and apply it toward their major... Then I'd address the members of this band collectively, and I'd say, 'How many here have ever heard of Fletcher Henderson?' Nobody. 'How many people have ever heard of Don Redmond?' No one. These are the pioneers of the music they’re attempting to play!

"They [the students] have absolutely no historical background in the music they’re attempting rather badly to play... And they write things on examinations like, 'The black people went into jazz for the art, and the white people went into jazz for the money.' So there’s a lot of racism that goes on. Wynton Marsalis is responsible for a lot of this. Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, they’re responsible for a lot of this. There was a lot of it in the Ken Burns series. They’re actually trying to write whites out of jazz as if they never existed."

Jazz History for Jazz Musicians

Hoping to improve the situation, Grover has suggested to Susan Muscarella, director of the Jazzschool where he currently teaches: "There’s a lot of people studying instruments. They should know something about the history of this music. Why don’t you open up my classes on a reduced basis or even a free basis to anybody who’s here studying a jazz instrument or jazz orchestration or anything to come in here and find out about how this music started and where it went?"

Grover has written a book called "Jazz: America’s Classical Music." "It’s used as a basic text in high schools and colleges all over the country," says Grover. "I wrote it for people like me that can't read music and don’t know the names of too many chords. It’s a very simplified, very brief survey of the music."

Grover contributes an occasional column to Gene Lees's very influential "Jazzletter," a periodical that accepts no advertising, is not offered on newsstands, and relies entirely on its subscribers to support publication. He's also written "The Clay Pot Cookbook" with his wife, Georgia, and he writes a monthly column on video sleepers, as he calls them, for the local Tiburon-Belvedere newspaper.

Opinionated as he is, Grover Sales may not be everyone’s ideal jazz historian. However, his love and knowledge of jazz are deep. If you can master what he has to offer, you will get beyond the pop-magazine, music industry, high-gloss version of jazz touted today and find out what the music really is all about.

After enduring nothing but country & western music in the Navy for 22 years, Bob Tate became a jazz convert, edited JazzNow magazine for six years, and is currently transportation coordinator for Yoshi's in Oakland.

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