THE MIGHTY MEZZ: A NEW NYC JAZZ CLUB OPENS (September 3, 2014)

MEZZROW club

Spike Wilner, pianist, clubowner, and a true Disciple of Swing, has another bold idea: a new New York City jazz club that presents genuine improvised music in kind settings.

Simple facts first: the club opens on September 3, 2014.  It will thrive in the basement of 163 West 1oth Street, steps away from the happily thriving SMALLS, co-piloted by Spike and Mitch Borden.  (For those who worry about such things, both clubs are a few minutes’ walk from the Christopher Street / Sheridan Square station on the Seventh Avenue subway line. And it’s a calm area to be in.)

The club is a “piano room,” which is a term that needs a little explanation.  I don’t mean a “piano bar,” where people accost the pianist at close range and insist (s)he play songs whose title they half know, or where sing-alongs explode like small wildfires — with much the same result.  No.

Once upon a time, New York City had a number of such rooms, usually small, with well-tuned pianos where solos and duos were what you came to hear.  I saw Jimmy Rowles at Bradley’s, Ellis Larkins and Al Hall at Gregory’s.  Although horn players might sit in, these rooms were meant for thoughtful improvisation. In this century, where patrons have a hard time keeping still, paying attention, turning their phones off, Spike’s determination to make such a spot possible is a beautiful and courageous act — in a city that prides itself on having every kind of entertainment and enlightenment in profusion, his new club is a rarity if not a solitary gem.  (Yes, there is the Knickerbocker, and thankfully so, but that large room is a different species entirely.)

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

Spike has named the club for one of his musical heroes, the clarinetist / saxophonist / organizer / man with plans Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. Mezzrow was a fascinating figure, someone whose deep-hued nearly-surrealistic autobiography REALLY THE BLUES made a profound impression on me when my sister gave it to me as a birthday gift (I was, I think, 14).  The dream of this century and the preceding one is “You can be anything you want to be if you only want it fiercely enough,” and Mezz — in his own way — exemplified that romantic notion.  Mezz was a White Jewish Chicago kid (those identifiers are important to the story) who was so entranced by the Black music he heard that he knew that was what he wanted to play.  More importantly, he knew that “that” was the person he wanted to be, the life he wanted to lead.

So, although he was never a great musician, he became a friend to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier; he heard and hung around Bix, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, and the rest.  He organized record dates with Teddy Bunn, Bechet, Hot Lips Page, Chick Webb, Frank Newton, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Benny Carter, J.C. Higginbotham, Sidney Catlett, Art Hodes, George Wettling, Zutty Singleton, and more.  He was deeply involved in a near-religious crusade to offer marijuana as a more healthy alternative to whiskey or hard drugs.

And he crossed the color line early and without pretense.  In an era when having mixed-race record sessions was rare, Mezzrow (like Eddie Condon) pushed this idea forward with historic results.  He led a band, the Disciples of Swing, where “white” and “colored” musicians played together.  And more seriously, he identified as Black — marrying a woman of color, and taking his convictions into everyday life.

I think (although I could be presuming here) that this latter figure — the man so deeply committed to a music and the ideas behind it: community, equality, creativity — is the man Spike honors by naming this new club MEZZROW.

Here is the club’s website, where you can learn more about it — the schedule, ticketing, about Mezz himself, and more. I don’t know when I’ll make my first visit, but since I see my friends Rebecca Kilgore, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Michael Kanan, Scott Robinson, Neal Miner . . . I expect to be there often, and it may well be a deeply needed oasis of quiet creativity in New York. And https://www.facebook.com/mezzrowclub is the club’s Facebook page.

Blessings on you, Spike.

May your happiness increase!

BACK IN NEW YORK / A CURE FOR SPIRITUAL JET-LAG

I arrived back in New York late last night. With no offense to my fellow urbanites and suburbanites, the word that would describe my return is RELUCTANTLY. Unfortunately, I couldn’t muster up the good cheer of this Hero as imagined in a beautiful drawing by Thomas B. Allen:

louis-back-in-new-york

Even in enhanced stereo (!) Louis looks young and healthy.

But it will take a while for me to look close to that. The Beloved is 3000 miles away. My apartment has serious water damage . . . precious objects became damp, musty — some can’t be repaired. I feel as if spiritual mildew is creeping up on me, which is not something that responds to ordinary curative methods. While I was slumping around the apartment, wondering what else had been ruined and whether I could ever find everything, I knew I needed serious help of a medical kind.

I called on my own medical group and they rushed to my aid. They are Doctors Warren, Dubin, Caparone, Barnhart, Barrett, Shaw, Cavera, Reynolds, and Reynolds:

I apologize for the swooping camerawork but I was trying to create closeups without a tripod, and I think I was so happy that my hand possibly couldn’t remain steady. Somewhere, Fats Waller and Bing Crosby smile approvingly, too.

This always makes me feel better, and I will now play it again while I do other domestic chores.

May your happiness increase!

HONORING JOE WILDER, THREE WAYS

JOE WILDER

When I learned that the magnificent musician and lovely man Joe Wilder had left us, I wrote this:

I’ve learned this morning (May 9, 2014) from his friend and co-author Ed Berger that trumpeter and jazz pioneer Joe Wilder has died.  He leaves a huge hole in the world.

There was a flurry of false information back in February, and I spread what was erroneous bad news, but now it is sadly true.

Joe was not only a shining example to other musicians; he shone for us all. He was a gentleman in the way the word is no longer used: someone whose concern for his fellow human beings was strong.  He expected men and women to treat each other kindly — he did this as a matter of course — and he was shocked when it didn’t happen.

He was the very model of grace — and I mean a quality that goes beyond simple politeness.

We met first at an outdoor concert in 1981 where I took some photographs of the band.  Later, through a fan of Joe’s, I obtained his address (this was perhaps ten years later) and we entered into correspondence about the photos and some tapes of him he had not heard.

Those letters were precious documents — evidence of how that gentle man faced even the most mundane things.  Later, when I had the privilege of meeting him in person, his kindness and good humor was immense: the Beloved and I cherish a chance meeting with him on the street outside Birdland, where our collective delight was memorable. We weren’t simply thrilled to meet Joe Wilder — let me make this clear — he made us feel as if we were his dearest friends, and the memory of that chance encounter warms me now.

I will let others tell Joe’s stories — a particular friend, Ed Berger, has done and will continue to do that, superbly here. And happily Joe lived long enough to celebrate his ninety-second birthday among friends and to see that book published.

Instead, I will present some of his music that I was fortunate enough to capture.  Joe lives on in our memory, not only for his brilliant warm sound, his elegant capers on trumpet and fluegelhorn, but as a model of how to live: with kindness, compassion, awareness, and amusement.  These videos are from 2010, late in his playing career.

and here is an early masterpiece:

Thank you, Mr. Wilder, for being.  You came to us on February 22, 1922, and gave generously of your self every day.  I write these words with sorrow and send love to your family.  But I think of you with joy.

And Joe was far too modest a man to present himself as a model of how others should behave, but I think if we had him in our thoughts as an embodiment of loving action, he wouldn’t mind.

JOE WILDER cover

Some time after this sad posting, I had the good fortune to read Ed Berger’s book about Joe, JOE WILDER AND THE BREAKING OF BARRIERS IN AMERICAN MUSIC: SOFTYLY, WITH FEELING (Temple, 2014) which I commend to you with enthusiasm:

Trumpeter Joe Wilder was admired and loved as musician and man. The new biography by Edward Berger, aptly titled, embodies Wilder’s deep gentle spirit, unlike many new biographies that document and magnify their subject’s flaws. Berger and Wilder met in 1981 and they worked on this book for nearly a decade. Wilder’s gentle presence is evident on every page, and the book is not a showcase for his ego (unlike some other biographies); rather, this book is a loving embodiment of teamwork between two mature individuals with a great respect for accuracy. Not all the stories are gentle — the book has a number of studies of focused unkindness and unfairness — but the book itself is not a settling of old scores.

The biography has three intertwining stories. One is Wilder’s growth as a musician, from his childhood in Pennsylvania to being one of the most respected trumpet players in the world, with associations with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Gunther Schuller, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Alec Wilder, Rudy Van Gelder, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Alec Wilder, Benny Carter, Ernie Kovacs and a hundred more. In his recollections of six decades as a professional musician, we observe jazz changing from a popular dance music played everywhere to a rarefied phenomenon in clubs, parties, and festivals. However, it is more than a listing of gigs and concerts, more than a series of anecdotal protraits. Joe was a rare individual, and the book properly lingers on his early life and development as a person, joyous, playful, but ultimately serious about his own place in the world and about the professionalism of his art..

The second strand is Wilder’s unheralded part in the long struggle to have racial equality in the United States. His stories (and Berger’s careful research) of discrimination and legalized abuse – personal and institutional – are painful. When we reach 1980 in the book and it is evident that the struggle is coming to a close, it is a relief.  In my encounters with Joe — he would not have wanted to be called “Mr. Wilder” more than once — he was down-to-earth, friendly, enthusiastic, welcoming, someone who did not draw lines between Musician and Listener, someone who made friends. But he had a deep and serious need to be treated fairly. Being taken advantage of — on the stand or off — infuriated him, and he told stories of being treated badly by musicians and non-musicians with a mixture of polite rage and astonishment.  A fair man, Joe simply could not understand why others would be anything but.

And the third is a sweet chronicle of Wilder himself, a delightful man: genuine, humble, witty, compassionate, “Mr. Social,” as one of his daughters calls him. He emerges as a remarkable man, who would have been so if he had never played a note: sensitive to injustice and ready to act against it, but a gracious, kind person.

Berger’s writing is worthy of his subject. The biography might make one feel as if Wilder is close at hand, fully realized. Berger’s research is superb but never obtrusive; his prose is understated yet effective. The book offers rare photographs (Wilder was also a fine photographer, seen in later decades with at least two cameras when not playing), and a discography full of surprises. Joe Wilder has been wonderfully captured in these pages, this loving, accurate portrait. All through these pages, I wanted to telephone Joe and congratulate him, even to say, “Have you read this wonderful book about you?  It is just like you; it sounds just like you!”  Reading it was a bittersweet affair: Joe is there for the ages, for people who never got to hear him in person or to share a word with him, but the book was so evocative that it made — and makes — me miss him all the more.

The third part of this tribute is yet to come.  Joe’s family, friends, among them Ed Berger and Warren Vache, have planned a memorial service for Joe — to be held on September 8, 2014, at St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan, begining at 6:30 PM.

I hope to be there, without video camera, and I expect there will be a line of people waiting to get in. When I asked Ed who would be playing there, he sent this very sweet pointed answer — very much in the spirit of the man who is being honored:

We all agreed not to announce the musicians in advance.  We want people to come because they want to remember Joe Wilder, not because their favorite musicians are appearing for free.  But, as you can imagine, those participating will be quite a stellar assemblage!

The one person we yearn to see there won’t be there, but we will certainly feel his presence in the stories and music that his friends and family share with us.

May your happiness increase!

PAPER EPHEMERA FROM THE CONDON EMPIRE: 1947 / 1960; December 5, 1942

This I know.  It’s an inscribed first edition of Eddie Condon’s 1947 autobiography, WE CALLED IT MUSIC. But beyond that.  “It’s warm here now,” Condon writes to Lou in 1947.  Then, thirteen years later, Lou inscribes the book to Woody or Woodie.  I don’t think this is Woody Herman, although the Lou could be Robert Louis McGarity:

$_57
Then, another (facing?) page from the same book:

$_57Some famous names: ME TOO, Bobby Hackett; Bob Wilber; pianist Graham Forbes.  Who was Thomas Golden? Bob Pancrost?

Any detectives out there, ready to leap on these clues?  (What was the weather like in New York City — a plausible guess — on October 20, 1947?)

The pages that follow aren’t at all mysterious: an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert program from December 5, 1942.  But in me they awake such longing. Why can’t I hear this band or these bands?

CONDON CONCERT 12 5 42

I want to be there. (Urban historians will note Thomas – Morton – Hall – Johnny Williams, a combination working under Teddy Wilson’s leadership at Cafe Society. In fact, some private recordings exist with Mel Powell taking Wilson’s place at around this time — not from this concert, though.)

May your happiness increase!

A NEW BIX PROJECT

Few jazz musicians stir up as much longing and yearning as Bix Beiderbecke. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment on his achievement as measured against anyone else’s, but I sense that he is so powerfully missed by so many people. Although his recorded legacy is not by any means the most brief, those who love his music both revel in its beauties and wish with all their hearts that there would be more. Nearly seventy-five years after his final appearance in a recording studio, it seems unlikely that more will surface — although more unusual events have happened.

So those who revere him and his music have turned to Alternate Universes — tributes that do more than offer beautifully recorded or more leisurely versions of Okeh, Victor, Gennett, Harmony, Columbia sessions — but attempts to recreate something unheard.  (The parallel experiment, and a beautiful one, has always been Bent Persson’s ongoing Studies in Louis, spread over many records and CDs, and always rewarding.)

Nearly fifteen years ago, the very imaginative trumpeter Randy Sandke and friends recorded a CD for the Nagel-Heyer label of music associated with Louis and Bix: here is Doug Ramsey’s 2000 review of that disc.  A few years later, Dick Hyman took a small group in to the studio for Arbors Records (with Tom Pletcher inventing new beauties) to consider what would have happened if Bix played Gershwin.  (A wonderful Stomp Off session paired Bent and Tom for, among other imaginative fancies, a Bix-meets-Louis romp on MAD.)

Now, a decade later, Julio Schwarz Andrade came up with this new imaginative venture and recruited the musicians, and Paul Adams of Lake Records is eager to record the results, so a CD will become reality with some support from you. It’s a continuation of Paul’s work over a number of years called Vintage Recording Projects — where he assembles wonderful idiomatic musicians, records them with a minimum of fuss (no baffles or headphones, just people playing in a suitable room) with delightful results. Here is what the most recent session looked and sounded like — heroically gratifying!

I’ll let Julio explain:

The premise is, of course, that there are many tunes that we know Bix played and was fond of, but never had the chance to record. So this is our humble attempt to right that historical / circumstantial wrong, and to recreate what could have been. The musicians are: Andy Schumm, cornet; Mauro Porro, reeds; Kristoffer Kompen, trombone; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Josh Duffee, percussion.  The list of tunes hasn’t been finalized yet, but the following are being considered (in no particular order): STARDUST / SKYLARK / WOLVERINE BLUES / WASHBOARD BLUES / SWANEE / I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN / LAZY RIVER / IT MUST BE TRUE / PANAMA / ANGRY / HIAWATHA’S LULLABY / NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT among others.

Now, projects like this don’t take shape without support, so we are asking people to help out. Here is the link to contribute some . . . money.  A £30 donation gets your name in the booklet. Anything more than that gets you a place in heaven and eternal salvation as well. And all contributions will win gratitude from the organizers, the band, and future listeners.

The session will take place right after this year’s Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, and I look forward to the results.

May your happiness increase!

ENDLESS SUMMER IN SWING: THE IVORY CLUB BOYS at ARMANDO’S (May 31, 2014): PAUL MEHLING, EVAN PRICE, MARC CAPARONE, ISABELLE FONTAINE, SAM ROCHA

Feeling low because summer’s lease hath all too short a date? When you go into Target and see the pencils and notebooks and back-to-school sales, do you feel blue?

Music can’t make the calendar stay in some desired place forever, but it can lift the spirits.  To that end, I offer a swinging composition by violinist / singer / bandleader Stuff Smith — rendered beautifully by the IVORY CLUB BOYS, Paul Mehling’s evocation of Stuff Smith’s delicious swing on Fifty-Second Street circa 1936-45. Paul, guitar; Evan Price, violin; Marc Caparone, cornet (subbing for Clint Baker); Sam Rocha, string bass; Isabelle Fontaine, guitar. This was created on May 31, 2014, at Armando’s in Martinez, California, and it made me happy to be there and equally happy to share it with you.

So (as the song title says), STOP.

LOOK:

May your happiness increase!

BECKY AND THE BOYS

BECKY MEN

The title of Rebecca Kilgore’s new CD for Arbors Records comes from a Peggy Lee song, I LIKE MEN — but the simple title belies the variety of expression the session offers. There’s delight that echoes the title (I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY, HE’S MY GUY); yearning for the relationship that hasn’t happened (THE BOY NEXT DOOR, THE MAN I LOVE); sorrow over one that has ended (THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY); an admonition to a puppyish too-eager fellow (DOWN BOY); comments on the possibilities of monogamy and other variations (AN OCCASIONAL MAN, FOR EVERY MAN THERE’S A WOMAN, ONE MAN AIN’T QUITE ENOUGH).

And more! — sharp-eyed contemplation of the movement from romance to marriage (MARRY THE MAN TODAY); a song balanced between yearning and annoyance at the Love Object’s inability to see what’s in front of him (THE GENTLEMAN IS A DOPE); songs that characterize both the Man’s desirability and his flaws (HE’S A TRAMP, HE NEEDS ME); a few unclassifiables (GOLDFINGER and an instrumental version of BALLAD OF THE SAD YOUNG MEN).

The recital by Rebecca, Harry Allen, Rossano Sportiello, Joel Forbes, and Kevin Kanner is emotionally and artistically varied; the disc moves easily from uptempo swing to sorrowful ruminations to light-hearted wit.  And although the title seems one-sided, it is really an hour-plus trip through the Land of Relationships, with Rebecca offering commentary on the foibles, rewards, and terrors that are part of the journey. She and the instrumental foursome fit the mood of each song without strain or artifice.

Here’s a song you will hear on the new CD, although with a different instrumental contingent.  HE’S A TRAMP comes from LADY AND THE TRAMP — written by Peggy Lee, and sung sweetly by Becky with superb accompaniment from Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Paul Keller, string bass; Ed Metz, drums. This performance took place at the 2014 Atlanta Jazz Party, on April 25, 2014:

If you’re anywhere near Cleveland, Ohio, September 18-21, this year (coming soon!) you can catch Becky, Harry, Rossano, and other luminaries at the Allegheny Jazz Party.

Becky and the Boys (known more respectfully as the Harry Allen Quartet — Harry, Rossano, Joel, and Kevin) will be offering an urban and urbane I LIKE MEN to a New York City audience on Thursday, September 25, 2014, at 6-7:15 PM at Birdland (315 West 44th Street: doors open at 5 PM).

Wherever you find Ms. Kilgore, she and her friends — male or female — create great music. A friend of ours, staying for dinner tonight, said, “I don’t like most of the singers you have on your blog.  But that Becky Kilgore!  She flies when she sings.”  True story.

May your happiness increase!