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Steven Halpern at Rhodes

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January 2017

Healing Power of Pop Music? Happy 50th, Chicago!

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 ©2017 Steven Halpern

I don’t often write about this aspect of popular music, because there’s usually not that much to write about.  Pop music is not generally created with the intention of promoting healing, and certainly not relaxation.

But 50 years ago, there was a brief moment in time when a number of creative musicians were inspired to explore pop song forms that could get radio play with innovative arrangements combining the rhythms of rock, pop, the improvisational creativity of jazz, and consciousness-raising lyrics. It’s high time to acknowledge this forgotten road not traveled by many bands.

About 50 years ago, I got a midnight call from one of my best friends to come over to his apartment to hear the LP he had just bought. “It’s the Paul Butterfield Blues Band…with horns! Let’s start our own band, and you’ll be able to play trumpet again, instead of just guitar!”  We did, with a line-up that included Joe Ford, who went on to play with jazz legend McCoy Tyner, but that’s another story.

As soon as I heard the textures of horns, guitars and keyboards, I was hooked.  About the same time, Blood, Sweat & Tears released their first album, spawning in short order Michael Bloomfield and The Electric Flag, Larry Coryell, Gary Burton and the Free Spirits. Even Manfred Mann and Rick Derringer released an album in this genre. I know this, because I had a direct connection with them all in 1969.

But only one band that was formed in February 1967 built on their initial success, through many ups and downs, and continues to be vital today. That band is Chicago. Their first release (as Chicago Transit Authority) was a double album, with many familiar hits.  I wore out my copy learning all the parts. That album inspired my own 8 piece jazz/rock band with horns, and played many of these songs. 

CNN aired an extraordinary documentary on January 1 that took me, and I’m sure many others, on a wonderful ride down memory lane.  I’m sure the quantity of natural, music- assisted highs resonated around the country. But it was more than that. As I watched, I could feel the accelerated flow of sound-stimulated endorphins (feel good hormones our own bodies produce that contributes to healing feelings) coursing through my body. I even dusted off my trumpet and held it in my hands for the first time in ten years.

Déjà vu and Flashback Central

It’s amazing how music can trigger such specific memories.  No senior moment fuzziness in the house. If you saw the show, I’m sure you had your own. If you didn’t, I recommend checking out "Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago" this month.

One of my sharpest flashbacks was when I interviewed the band Chicago backstage at their concert in Buffalo, summer of ’68. I spoke mostly with Jimmy Pankow, the dynamic trombone player who did most of the horn arrangements. He told me and my band’s phenomenal sax player, Joe Ford, how he was planning to write more horn parts inspired by the great Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

That never happened, of course. If it had, their band would not have been as successful as they have been. The documentary details the personalities and reasons they shifted their approach.  But there are a few songs that they’ve done over the years that reminded me of that conversation when I first heard them on the radio.

I remember exclaiming out loud, “Hot damn, Pankow. You finally did it!” when I heard the dynamic horn parts on “Free”, “Feeling Stronger Every Day”. It reminded me of the San Francisco Bay Area’s own Tower of Power.

And of course, their huge hit, “Beginnings,” featured the horn section, ‘sounding like one pair of lungs’, as Jimi Hendrix said to Pankow.

Listen with attention and intention, beyond the words, and you will more deeply appreciate the healing power of the uplifting resonance of the trombone, trumpet and sax. No synth matches the real deal. “Beginnings” also included Peter Cetera's brilliant bass lines, and segued into an African percussion section that broke new ground on pop radio.

Thank you, Chicago, for a lifetime of inspiration.

Steven Halpern