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Fanfare Contributor Bio

Michael Ullman

I suppose the first adult music I heard was from my dad’s radio and the stack of 78s he had (anachronistically) taken from his father. I noted mostly the pompous dullness of the announcers carefully enunciating the names of classical pieces on the radio, but I was more intrigued with the 78s. He had Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony conducted by Toscanini, and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The latter made me choose the clarinet as the instrument I began studying when I was eight, which was also the time my dad started taking me to the Boston Symphony concerts. I heard one opera, which I loved but cannot identify, and the occasional ballet.

The clarinet led me to jazz. I struggled with the instrument’s upper range: Benny Goodman’s fluency and accuracy up there thrilled me. The decisive factor was hearing Louis Armstrong. My first LP was a record whose high spots I still adore: “Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.” Armstrong stuck close enough to written melodies so that I always knew where he was, and yet his variations and magnificent tone made them his own. He seemed so humane! My adoration was clinched when, around 14, I saw him live. He appeared in a tent on Boston’s North Shore. Before the concert, I wandered around back to a trailer where Armstrong was warming up by playing for himself—and with astonishing depth of feeling—a series of blues phrases. It was the most beautiful thing I had heard.

I liked the blues songs he and others did. So when, in junior high school and high school, I heard on the radio a musician I liked, I bought the album with blues in the titles. I was lucky: I was drawn to Mingus’s “Blues and Roots,” to Thelonious Monk, and to an Atlantic anthology of blues that included the Modern Jazz Quartet, Jimmy Giuffre’s Three (Two Kinds of Blues), and Dizzy Gillespie. By the time I finished high school, I had heard and talked to Armstrong and Ellington, heard Miles Davis, Brubeck, Jimmy Rushing, the Herb Pomeroy Big Band, Pee Wee Russell, and in a thrilling concert, Ray Charles. In the blues world, I was able to hear in Harvard Square coffeehouses Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. I loved Mahalia Jackson’s gospel singing (on the Ed Sullivan show) and started a collection of gospel music with Jackson and with Clara Ward.

My clarinet teachers would not hear a word about jazz. So I learned the Brahms and Mozart clarinet works, and foundered finally on Stravinsky’s Three Solo Pieces. I had a single professional gig, in the pit band for The Three Penny Opera. A revelatory experience was the live performance of Mozart’s K 467 with the BSO and pianist Christoph Eschenbach.

In college and beyond, I heard Rubinstein, and later Fischer-Dieskau at Symphony Hall, a young, unheralded pianist named Pollini in Sanders Theater (I almost fell out of my seat at this free concert), and the then-new Guarneri Quartet. My tastes expanded. I was an eager student of the new jazz. I followed Miles Davis’s every twist and turn. Coltrane was easy to my ears: the rhythms of Ornette Coleman posed a challenge. By the time I finished my dissertation (on Dickens) I was looking for every note by Charlie Parker and every significant piece by the major composers.

I decided to write about it. My first article on jazz appeared in Boston Magazine. The editor of the New Boston Review asked me for a series of articles, and a year later I was the jazz critic of The New Republic. I wrote for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Atlantic Monthly. At one point, I was writing for six magazines, including the online Salon, on classical as well as jazz music. I have two books, a collection of my articles from The New Republic, and a history of jazz for Prentice Hall. I am working on a third, while teaching in the English and music departments of Tufts. I am less purist today, okay with Sinatra and Nat Cole’s pop music, and interested in Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. I haven’t outgrown any of the key figures I loved as a youth: Mingus, Monk, Sonny Rollins, Armstrong, Ellington, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Coltrane. But now, rather than wind instruments, I play piano badly.


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