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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #133
Pastels and Pointillism
David Gunn
When a youthful Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass opened for a curmudgeonly Arnold Schoenberg and the Pastels at the Las Vegas Hilton Copacabana Room on the 6th of December, 1951, it was indeed poignant to see the baton of pointillistic rhythm and blues pass from one generation to another. For, while Arnold could still blow a mean atonal melody on his Hohner Marine Band, it was clear that, at 77, his riffs were slowing down. He'd been touring for a dozen years with Jo Stafford and Paul Weston playing the idiot son in Jonathan and Darlene Edwards musical revues. His comic timing was superb, and the way he could make his eyeballs seem to pop out of their sockets always brought down the house. But he really shone during the big band finale, when he'd jam with the real musicians. No jokes, no sight gags; just good, hard, existential rhythm and blues. The chromatic improvisations he blew still gave the paying clientele lots of goosebumps, there was no doubt about it. But serial purists began to notice little flaws in the structure of his retrograde inversions. Sometimes Arnie would find a groove he liked and he'd just vamp on it, and to hell with 12-tone order, or, as he put it, "zu Hölle mit dem zwölfklange Ordnung." But when one night he found himself trading four-bar "Three Blind Mice" licks with the tenor sax, he realized that he'd finally exhausted his musical vocabulary. So he quit the Jonathan and Darlene revue and moved to Paris, where he taught master classes at Nadia Boulanger's école gymnastique. One of his students, a gangly, giraffe-necked Dave Brubeck, had just split with his own postwar pre-industrial jazz band called The Pastels. Arnold took an immediate liking to their performance costumes, which were loud and brassy in color and smelled vaguely of fish. He encouraged them to continue playing, and offered to sit in on their practice sessions. Without the Brubeckian influence, The Pastels sounded subdued, colorless, so Arnold taught them der zwölfklanger Wehklagen, or "the 12-tone wail." Some cats can play the wail, and some can't. The Pastels not only played it, but they cooked their axes, sounding as if they invented it. Revitalized, Arnold blew off the remaining three months on his teaching contract and returned to America, Los Angeles, taking the Pastels with him. Fronting the band at dinner theaters gigs and cartoon soundtrack recording sessions, he began to make a name for himself in the pre-modernist L.A. subculture. Atonal riffs flew from his horn like angry shrikes from a toxic sycamore. He was in top pointillistic form once again! Word of his newly incisored chops filtered to Las Vegas, and he was soon signed to play the infamous Copacabana Room at the Hilton where, 40 years before, Igor Stravinsky had floored a normally sedate gambling crowd with his 6-part a cappella arrangement of Le Flambeau du Printemps, precipitating a minor tsunami at the concession stand.

The day arrived, blue-black and insolent. Arnold was ready. The Pastels were ready. The audience was huge and expectant. First, though, there was the matter of the opening act: Herb Alpert, a French trumpeter who reputedly could make a kazoo weep. Could he ever! By the end of his first set, in which he seemingly serialized every known meatball melody, then artfully inverted their harmonic structures, the audience, The Pastels, even old Arnold sat stunned, unable to exhale. And as his concluding set was messing with Mr. Mahler, turning his Totenlieder to toast with spicy south-of-the-border canonic variations, Schoenberg realized that there was no reason for him to ever play another note. This Alpert cat could do it all. The audience agreed, and thundered its approval, during which time Arnold skulked away into the night, never to be seen again. The next day, in an Op-Ed piece, the LA Times revealed that Schoenberg had really been dead since July, and asked any eyewitnesses to his recent performances to explain what they thought they saw. No one could, of course, as can no one really explain the passing of the musical baton from week to week on Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, this 133rd episode of which is equally startled to open with an atonalistic rhythm and blues baton passing to Kalvos.