HAL SMITH HONORS “MISTER CHACE”

The splendid jazz drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith and I share certain serious devotions.  One is to the pianist Frank Melrose and his daughter Ida; another is to the clarinetist and brave explorer Frank Chace.

Hal has emerged with yet a third talent to share (generously) with us: he has created a beautiful and lively video tribute to Mister Chace, with a glorious soundtrack of SORRY — played by Marty Grosz and his Honoris Causa Jazz Band from the Riverside recording called HOORAY FOR BIX — as well as a panorama of rare, never-before-seen, highly evocative photographs that open the door to understanding Frank Chace a little wider.

Thank you, Hal!  Frank would be amused, perplexed, and I think pleased by your creative act of love.  Ultimately, he would be delighted that someone who understood the music so well — and played it with equal grace — had taken the time to honor him:

Hal and Frank can be heard together on two rewarding and illuminating CD sets on the Jazzology label — one with Butch Thompson, John Otto, and Charlie DeVore; the other with Tom Pletcher and Tom Bartlett, among others.  Winning music indeed.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGTIME AT THE LIBRARY with LAURA WINDLEY and the MINT JULEP JAZZ BAND

I haven’t had a librarian say “Shhhhhh!” to me since junior high school, so I know that stereotype might be long gone. But it’s lovely to see a library expand into sweet, swinging music, as it does here.

The wonderful musicians are the warm, easy singer Laura Windley and the Mint Julep Jazz Band: Lucian Cobb, trombone; Paul Rogers, trumpet; Aaron Hill, alto sax and clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor sax and clarinet; Ben Lassiter, guitar; Aaron Tucker, drums; Jason Foureman, string bass. They perform the magical time-travel of bringing a 1938 Cotton Club show with an Ellington small group to the library in Greensboro, North Carolina (videos shot by Our State magazine). I’m very happy to see and hear this, and I am sure you will like it / them, too.

SWINGTIME IN HONOLULU:

ROCK IT FOR ME:

and a rollicking instrumental invention (I think of the John Kirby Sextet in its 1943-44 guise plus gallons of coffee) called MIAMI BOULEVARD:

And here is the band’s website. If they come to the library, what could prevent them from coming to you?  Or the reverse.

May your happiness increase!

THE BLACK BUTTERFLY

In conversation, I have been known to say, “Music saved my life.” And the other person smiles and nods, sometimes saying, “Yes, I understand,” or “Me, too.” But very few people know how serious my four words are.

Although I am by nature optimistic and hopeful, before 2004 I was seriously unhappy for long periods of time — situational rather than biochemical despair. The reasons for my sadness are not relevant here. When I was most hopeless, I thought seriously of ending my life.  I checked out the Hemlock Society website (earnest but very complicated) and lay on my bed thinking of the items I would purchase from Home Depot that would do the job.

But one thought recurred in the darkness, “Is there any guarantee you will be able to hear music — Louis Armstrong first and everyone else you love — if you kill yourself?”  It kept me from putting my plans into action.

We know that music heals, that beautiful sound itself is a form of moving energy much like prayer. The Beloved thinks that the sustaining power of the jazz we love is in its rhythm, the way it connects our beating hearts to the rhythms of the cosmos, and I think she is correct.  Myself, I hear warm tender voices coming from the instrumentalists and singers I love.  Those voices send love deeper than notes or words.  They tell us, “It can get better.  There is beauty in this world, no matter how cold and dark it seems now.”

And the voices were and are right: the proof is that I am writing these words now, able to tell this story from a safe distance, and I have never been happier.

At this point, some readers might object to what they see as a logical flaw.  To them, music never “saved” my life in the way Lassie saved Timmy.  True. But the thought of an unfathomably silent existence was more frightening, more painful than my current ordeal.

A corollary: some years after I emerged from this emotional abyss I was in one of those philosophical discussions — simultaneously silly and profound — where the question was “If you were going to be deprived of one sense, which one would you choose?”  Immediately I said I prized my hearing, would choose to be blind rather than deaf (making the people around the table both incredulous and scornful of what they saw as bad judgment.)

Writing this post about the life-saving powers of music, I wanted to offer my readers a taste of the music that made me then and makes me now glad to be alive. You know that this is my unstated purpose in my travels with a video camera, my hours spent creating JAZZ LIVES.  I am sure I could compile a long list of songs and performances that delight me now and always, but that would be “favorites” rather than “miraculous healers,” a different thing entirely.

One of the recordings that kept me from leaving this earthly existence I can share with you now, three minutes of glowing sound, a recording I have known for forty years. I first heard it in the company of Michael Burgevin, my dear MB.

It said to me then and says to me now that the universe is filled with love and protection and compassion if we only open ourselves to them.

The record is BLACK BUTTERFLY, an Ellington composition played here with ardor and sensitivity by the trumpeter Joe Thomas and friends for a Keynote Records session in 1946:

Writing this post, I thought I would invite my readers to join in on the chorus, and ask them, “What music do you reach for, would you reach for, when Gloom puts his cold hand on your heart?”

My only requests are these: ONE song only, details as specific as possible.  I am not stepping on anyone’s desert-island-discs or ten-best-list, but those lists too often seem contrived, and often are ways for us to show how wide our range is, how much we know.  So please don’t comment, “Anything by X,” if you don’t mind. And, as you can tell, this inquiry is very serious to me.  So no small comedies. Simply, “If I wanted a cure for deep misery, what one record would do the trick?”

With luck, readers can send in a performance that has a YouTube video attached to it so that others can hear the saving beauty that sustains you.

I look forward to hearing the music that makes burdens lighter for you, and collectively I must say that this business of being alive — often fraught with deep dark surprises — is all we have, and we should be very very grateful that we are allowed to roam around in the meadow we call Life for our short span. And even in the blackness of our sorrow, there is the a butterfly of healing music.

May your happiness increase!

EVER GREEN! (July 25-27, 2014)

I know I am a very fortunate mortal, and am reminded of this every moment. One of the more tangible reminders for me is the Evergreen Jazz Festival in the Colorado city of the same name, happening very soon — July 25-27, in fact. Here is the link which tells you all the exciting necessary details. Tickets are still available.  Plane flights are still possible.  There is going to be so much lovely hot and sweet music that I know I won’t get to more than a small percentage of it.

The Festival is arranged so that each band plays eight sets over three days in five venues (is there a math major in the house?) ranging from intimate to large, with room for energetic swing dancing.

I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing artists whose music I admire greatly:

JAMES DAPOGNY’S CHICAGO JAZZ BAND (with Jon-Erik Kellso, Kim Cusack, Russ Whitman, Chris Smith, Rod McDonald, Pete Siers)

“IVORY & GOLD”: JEFF and ANNE BARNHART

BIG MAMA SUE (I know her as Sue Kroninger, and she’ll be joined by Eddie Erickson,, and Chris Calabrese)

PETER ECKLUND TRIO

and some bands new to me that come highly recommended:

AFTER MIDNIGHT (reminiscent of the Goodman Sextet)

QUEEN CITY JAZZ BAND with Wende Harston

BOGALUSA STRUTTERS

JONI JANAK and CENTERPIECE JAZZ

HOT TOMATOES DANCE ORCHESTRA

YOUR FATHER’S MUSTACHE BAND

If we’ve never met or if we have, come say hello!  I love meeting my readers in person.  I will be wearing brightly colored clothing; I will be intent and silent and beaming behind a video camera . . . while the music is playing. Otherwise I admit to a great deal of speech. Anyway, it would be lovely to meet more JAZZ LIVES friends in the mountains of Colorado.

May your happiness increase!

“A CONTROLLED, FEVERISH LYRICISM”: COLUMBIA AND RCA VICTOR LIVE RECORDINGS OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND THE ALL STARS

A musician friend of mine who is listening to this new set of rare Louis Armstrong music from 1947-58 wrote me that he has been waiting for this set for ten years. Without being competitive, I can say that I have been waiting for this Mosaic box set — a glorious and rewarding one — for almost fifty.

louis-armstrong-mosaic-records

Yes, I was introduced to Louis and his music through the sessions with Gordon Jenkins and THE FIVE PENNIES, but I treasured my copy of TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS and (later) AMBASSADOR SATCH, playing those records over and over. (When I bought my first Hot Five compilation — the Louis Armstrong Story, Volume One, with a bow to George Avakian — it sounded strange and distant, as did the Creole Jazz Band sessions.  But Thirties – Fifties Louis came to me like a vibrating force of nature.)

There are still too many listeners — and writers, unfortunately — who hold to the great myths we so love in this century — the great narrative of Early Promise and Later Stagnation.  Louis has been a true victim of such mythography: people who don’t listen think that he stopped being creative in 1929, that the All-Stars’ performances were simply crowd-pleasing note-for-note repetitions of perhaps a dozen tunes.

I do not write what follows casually: the music contained on these nine compact discs (over eleven hours of music) will be a revelation.

My title comes from Whitney Balliett’s review of Louis’ concert at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and it is so very true.  Louis plays, throughout this set, like a man on a fierce mission of joy. Forget the cliche of the small, stocky, tired man, sweating and grinning and mopping his face while he grins his way through some paper-thin song about what a wonderful world it is or some woman named Dolly or Mame.  What you hear on these discs is not tired, not ever.

Indeed, if you were able to take one of the performances on this set and play it for someone whose ears were open, whose mind and heart were wiped clean of stereotype and assumption, I guarantee that my imagined listener would be in awe at the powerful energies to be experienced here.  The Mosaic set is not a loving tribute to a failing Elder; it is an explosive package of evidence showing that Louis was truly powerful and energized in his forties and fifties, playing and singing wonderfully — full of life.  Although a well-known reviewer in a well-known jazz publication called Louis’ performances with his chosen band a “cage,” and others have created platitudes about “antebellum” music, the sounds on this box set transcend all such shallow reportage.

Here is some musical evidence.  And for those of you who might say, “Oh, gee, another version of BLUEBERRY HILL?  For goodness’ sakes, I’ve heard Pops do that song a thousand times,” I would ask only that you sit still, put the iPhone or other distractions at a safe distance, and listen.  Listen anew.  Listen once again. What you hear is not routine, not repetition, not rote — but subtle creations, music springing to life for the millionth time, a piece of metal tubing and a human voice sending gifts of love and wisdom to all of us.

Listening to Louis Armstrong is not only a pleasurable experience but a transformative one, because Louis reminds us to not get weary, to never say, “You know, I am bored with doing, with making, with being.”  Louis never tired of that “show,” of letting music pass through him so it could be aimed like a caress at every member of the audience.  And even though Louis’ mortal body is no more, those vibrations are still able to rattle us in the nicest ways.

Larry Eanet, pianist, trombonist, creative thinker, once said that a gift (1940 or 41) of a set of Louis Armstrong 78s changed his life.  “It hit me,” he said, “like Cupid’s arrow.”

The Mosaic set has the loving power of a whole quiver of such arrows.  They stick but they never wound.

The recordings that changed Larry Eanet’s life were produced (and in some cases unearthed) by the man who, next to Louis and his musicians, is most responsible for this joy: producer and jazz-lover extraordinaire George Avakian.  When Louis was signed by Columbia Records, his record dates were supervised, shaped, and imagined by George — still with us at 95.  It’s clear that Louis trusted George to help him get his message across to as many people as possible, and the idea of AMBASSADOR SATCH owes much to George’s expansive, playful imagination. Almost seventy percent of the music in this set was overseen by George, and the box is a vibrant testimony to the power of someone who never played an instrument to create art that will outlive us all.

There are other figures to be thanked: Mosaic guardian angel Scott Wenzel; heroic engineer Andreas Meyer, and Louis Armstrong scholar and enthusiast and biographer Ricky Riccardi, who first had his encounter with Cupid’s arrow some years back. (Ricky’s is a particular triumph, because he wrote the eloquent notes; he worked to get this project moving into reality for more than a few years; this music was his entrance to the Universe of Louis as well.  The set, not incidentally, makes the perfect soundtrack to his book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.)

It is tribute to all of these men that this set exists, and to Ricky’s dogged loving persistence that we can hear HOURS of previously unheard music in beautiful sound, exquisitely annotated, with rare photographs.

incidentally, in the name of candor, I contributed a rare photograph to the set and its liner-note writer thanks me.  I was honored to be even a small part of the effort — and the glowing result.

I could not leave out the Victor recordings on this set. And though the Columbia material pairs Louis with his most powerful front-line friends, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall, I have a personal delight in the 1947-9 All Stars because of the otherworldly playing of Sidney Catlett and Jack Teagarden — also the too-brief appearances of Dick Cary. The Mosaic set offers the twenty performances from the life-changing Town Hall Concert (it changed mine, so it’s not hyperbole) in the best sound, and then — an entire and previously unheard All Star concert (ninety minutes is all, but that’s a plenty) from Carnegie Hall that same year. And although the same songs are performed, don’t think for a minute these are identical performances.

I know that it is a critical commonplace to look down upon Louis as someone who traded in his vital jazz creativity for “showmanship.”  Louis thought that “pleasing the people” was a good thing, giving them soaring melodies, hot rhythms, and hilarious comedy was what he was on stage for.  I can listen to improvised music that goes in different directions, but the snobbery that puts Louis down is frankly inconceivable and intolerable to me.  Miles Davis, the enduring icon of cool disdain for the audience, loved Louis and was not ashamed to say so.  James Baldwin, too.  Louis had so deeply mastered the art of multifaceted and multilayered art that when he looked like he was “clowning,” he was delivering very subtle music and very deep performance.

A few candid words about Mosaic sets in general.  In my long experience of purchasing and listening, I think they have no equal. Rare material, issued legitimately for the first time, beautiful thorough documentation, wonderful sound. I know that box sets like this seem costly.  $149.00 plus shipping. But there are more than one hundred and sixty performances and interviews here. And I would propose that one purchases a Mosaic set in the same way one buys a new edition of Proust, of the complete Shakespeare, the Mozart symphonies. One is not expected to listen to the nine discs all at once, in one continual immersion, on the bus, while eating, and so on.  The music blurs and may even cloy.  One purchases such a set as a long-term investment: a wise listener would play ONE Louis track a day — that would take half a year — and savor each moment.  And then one could take a brief rest and begin in 1947, all over again.  This set has been produced in a limited edition of 5000 copies, and I can guarantee that when they are all purchased, they will appear on eBay for much much more.

And if you really want to say, “Well, I have heard enough (later) Louis Armstrong for my life,” I am afraid you will get no sympathy from me.  It’s rather like saying, “I don’t feel like laughing any more.  Been there, done that.”  And I am someone who, this last Friday, when a Louis record came on over the sound system at Cafe Borrone, I stood up and put my hand over my heart.  I wasn’t exaggerating my feelings at all. I don’t exaggerate them here.

Just for inspiration: Louis signs someone's telephone book in France.

Just for inspiration: Louis signs someone’s telephone book in France.

May your happiness increase!

WHEREVER THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY

Let me begin with a jubilant piece of music from the 1929 McKinney’s Cotton Pickers — featuring a wistful vocal by Don Redman, rousing solos from Coleman Hawkins and Fats Waller and beautiful ensemble playing from Joe Smith, Leonard Davis, Sidney De Paris, Claude Jones, Benny Carter, Ted McCord, Dave Wilborn, Billy Taylor, Kaiser Marshall:

That cheerful recording will seem an odd introduction to my topic, which is Death.

I think about that subject a great deal — not in a terrified way — because I am surrounded by reminders of those dear ones who have moved on (or away) and the Things that people leave behind.

When I go to an estate sale and I learn that the beautiful shirt I am wearing belonged to a man who is now dead, it is a spiritual lesson — intense and to the point.  When I go to Amoeba Music or the Down Home Music Store and find a dozen records all autographed to the same person — let us call him Dewey — I can safely guess that Dewey is no longer here, listening to those discs.

I feel grateful to be the recipient of objects that people cherished so when they were alive, yet sad that they are no longer here to enjoy them, and of course it makes me think of the finite shape of our lives.

So let us assume you have — as many jazz-lovers have — amassed a hoard, large or small, of objects related to the music you love.  Maybe they are records (cylinder to CD), autographs, photographs, ephemera (DOWN BEAT from 1939, a necktie that once belonged to _____): there are a thousand possibilities.

I wish no one of my readers of JAZZ LIVES to vanish, but I must ask them, collectively and singly, to imagine the possibility, and then to ask the question, “What will happen to my Treasures when I’m not here?”

For those who are prepared, the answer is easy.  “I’ve made a will.  I have an executor.  I have another name should that executor not be able to do what I’ve asked.  My executors have copies of the will; we have discussed what I have asked them to do. The will is recent; it was witnessed, notarized, and is properly done.  I do not like to think of my own death, but I have Taken Care of Business.”

Others say, “Oh, this is such a dreadful topic.  I don’t want to think about it today [this month, this year, ever, ever].  I know I should do something but I find it so depressing.  Besides, I have great plans for my collection of Tiny Parham Victors. And I think my infant grandchild Parham will want them when she grows up.  I’ll take care of it.”

I understand this.  It is very difficult for some of us to imagine the universe without us. But it will happen.

In my most kind voice, may I suggest that this pretending it will not happen is not wise. When the jazz collector dies, if (s)he dies without a will, the collection and all the deceased’s possessions have to be appraised — which costs money — before an item can be given away, disposed of, sold. This process isn’t quick, and establishing the value of anyone’s things — unless the dead person was a true minimalist — takes time and costs money.

If you have a partner or children, do you wish to add to their grief the burden of this legal and economic maze?  Or, if you have no one close to you, what will happen to your precious collection of deep-groove blue label Riversides?  My guess is that the landlord will haul them out to the curb or perhaps sell them to the local record store (not the worst thing).

Let me suggest an alternative, although I am not a lawyer nor do I pretend to be offering legal advice.  One can find an online form to create one’s own will.  Make it as specific as possible.  If you want your magazines to go to Clement, your 78s to go to Marjorie, and so on, put it in writing.  Such directions will not take the place of a will, but wills themselves need not be complicated, and I believe you can name someone (preferably somewhat younger and in good health) to be your executor, and then give that person a clear idea of what you would like.  “When I die, please check my email to see whom I have corresponded most frequently about the music.  Since we have spoken, you know the names of the people involved in jazz of whom I am most fond.  Invite them to the house; let them take home what they want.  Have a little party in my honor.  Save a thousand dollars from my savings.  Hire my favorite band.  Have they play FLEE AS A BIRD TO THE MOUNTAIN . . . and then DIDN’T HE RAMBLE.”

Of late, I am observing the partners of several friends who did not write wills, and their troubles are truly painful.  I am not talking about, “My goodness, I hear that all of Joe’s Paramounts went to Goodwill!  It was horrific!”  I am talking about the bereaved partner who not only has to deal with loss, but has to deal with The Stuff.

It is all too easy to say, “Oh, I think it should all go to this jazz institution or the other. They will want my Harry James and Benny Goodman 78s.”  Don’t be too sure. Libraries and institutions do not have infinitely expanding budgets, and to collect your beloved records, catalog them, store them in the proper fashion . . . all of this requires money and a staff.  Be sure to be sure — before saying, “I’d like my collection to go to ______,” that they really want it and will want it in some time in the future.

All this will sound too grim to some readers, and I apologize.

It was not easy for me to write a will, nor is it pleasant dinner conversation to discuss such things with the Beloved.

But benign neglect is a terrible — even a selfish — burden on the people who live on, and if you care about them, if you care about your Things, you might want to take what I am writing seriously.  (For me, my concern is with the people: once I am dead, I hope that my cherished objects go away in the most easy manner — ideally in to the hands of people I love and admire, but if my records go to Goodwill, it’s no disaster, since I bought many of them there.)

And I’m not just writing this to jazz collectors. Please pass this blogpost on to anyone you know who has more than a few of Anything — whether it’s copies of MARTHA STEWART LIVING in MSL binders or first editions or swizzle sticks.

Please do consider this yourself, though, and act on it, promptly.  I write these paternalistic nagging words with love.

May your happiness increase! 

MELLOW and DIVINE: LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO at CAFE DIVINE (June 15, 2014)

The final three duet improvisations by the masterful Leon Oakley, cornet, and Craig Ventresco, guitar, at Cafe Divine (1600 Stockton Street, San Francisco), recorded on Sunday, June 15, 2014:

SATURDAY NIGHT FUNCTION:

AFTER YOU’VE GONE:

MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND (with a particularly lovely rubato verse):

Leon and Craig will be back in their chosen spot on Sunday, July 20 — making their way, tender and brave, through the worlds of music.  Divine for sure. And the pizza was delicious.

May your happiness increase!