A Messenger shares his passion for jazz Music: Teacher-musician loves America's musical art form, and he'll help you appreciate it, too.

September 22, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Bill Messenger, teacher, pianist and fan of American music, hunches over a keyboard and plays a few bars from a Schumann march, plays it straight, the way the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, would have liked it. Then he adds the syncopation of a cakewalk. He smiles. That's how jazz was born.

"Have you ever noticed the difference between a good white [marching] band and a good black band?" he asks, reinforcing his point. "It's the difference between playing what's written and playing with the rhythm."

Over the years, Messenger has brought his passion for jazz to classes at the Children's Guild, Towson University and the Peabody Conservatory. He also has written a book, "The Power of Music," and recorded an eight-part series of lectures called "Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion."

This month, he'll condense those lectures into "Roots of Jazz," an evening class at Roland Park Country School. There will be plenty of stories, demonstrations and a few of Messenger's own compositions. He also plans to use a xylophone to give his students a chance to improvise.

"I have a great deal of fun," says Messenger, a one-time English teacher. "I think that's why I gravitated to this. I love it. I absolutely love it."

"Roots of Jazz" is one of several evening adult classes and lectures offered at the Roland Park school. Abby Lattes, school spokeswoman, said a resurgence of interest in jazz fueled the idea to bring in Messenger.

"We had heard about his courses through the Elderhostel at Peabody, and heard people raving about them," said Lattes.

Messenger, a thin, balding man with a hawkish nose, grew up in Baltimore and now lives on a Harford County farm with his wife, children and grandchildren. He has played throughout the Baltimore area and in all styles, from rock and roll to jazz. When he talks about music, he is all energy and excitement. Words tumble forth. There are digressions, allusions to other art forms.

"To me, Thelonious Monk is like the Mondrian of jazz composers. His stuff is truly original. It comes from no place else," he said. "It's playful, beautiful and full of unexpected turns."

He admits that shrinking jazz's history into four 90-minute classes won't be easy. More than a few eras and personalities will get short shrift. Duke Ellington might get a half-hour, not nearly enough, says Messenger. But what's to be done when the lords of bop and modern jazz have to be squeezed in and still leave room for such songwriters as Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Harold Arlen?

History and opinions

The journey through 100-plus years of music history begins with the Southern plantations, the cakewalks and ragtime pieces, New Orleans in the days of the notorious Storyville district. Along the way, Messenger will dish out his own insights and opinions.

He prefers the compromise between improvisation and arrangement in the bands of Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford to what he calls the stark anti-swing found in the bop groups of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He's a traditionalist, perhaps even an elitist.

"You know what I consider most fusion? Easy listening. It may be loud, but it doesn't demand for the listener to be able to appreciate subtleties," he said. "The best jazz demands the same as a Beethoven string quartet."

Messenger could end up in a lively debate with John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and the ghost of Miles Davis over that idea.

He came to jazz while growing up in Highlandtown. Four piano lessons at age 10 left him cold. They were filled with Carl Czerny exercises, absolute drudgery to a child hungry for a boogie-woogie beat.

Two years later, his family bought a piano. But what really turned him on, he says, was the playing of John MacCraw, a blind pianist from Cherry Hill.

MacCraw played at the Jolly Post, a bar the Messenger family owned at Oldham and Fleet streets. Bill Messenger used to meet MacCraw at the bus stop and walk him to the Jolly Post. Later, he would sneak out of his bedroom window next door and watch MacCraw beat out a boogie-woogie piece called "The Hucklebuck."

He should have been doing his homework, instead of sneaking out of bed to watch a blind piano player. The late hours took their toll. By the end of the school year, Messenger had failed seventh grade. But he could play "The Hucklebuck" note-for-note.

On Pennsylvania Avenue

He received a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory and later earned $5 a night playing piano at the old Peabody Bookshop on Charles Street. For entertainment, he and a friend headed for the jazz clubs and night life along Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Our parents would say: 'Don't go to that part of town.' But there was a wonderful community there," said Messenger. "I always felt great being on Pennsylvania Avenue because I was a musician."

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