Monday, April 16, 2007


Watermelon Man: the importance of context

You may remember that I'm someone who is profoundly ignornant of and indifferent to jazz.

For example, until last night, I would not have been able to tell you the name of the song Watermelon Man (1962) or the artist who created it (Herbie Hancock), even though I'd have instantly recognized it as a song I've heard approximately 6,000 times. (Listen to it here, if you share my jazz ignorance, so you'll follow my point.)

Watermelon Man is one of those jazz standards that had too much success, if that's possible. Played so often in its 45 years of existence, it is now an insufferable musical cliche.

Interestingly, though, the version we've heard the most was a cover by Afro-Cuban Latin jazz giant (I've never heard of the guy -- that's from Wikipedia) Mongo Santamaria. Listen to this version for a few bars, and it cries out "documentary about the early '60s" or "TV commercial."

The radio show last night played the Latin version as part of a set list of otherwise nondescript Latin numbers (mambo? samba? I dunno...) that get your hips moving in spite of yourself. In that context, hearing how Watermelon Man must have arisen as a riff on a Latin musical idiom, you can catch a glimpse of its brilliance, before it recedes into musical cliche once again.

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