Category Archives: Jazz Worth Reading

A LETTER FROM MR. WEBSTER

I know that reading someone else’s mail is supposed to be a great sin on many levels, but I don’t think that Claire Gordon (the recipient), Larry Rafferty (the eventual owner), and Ben Webster (the writer) would mind overmuch.  Claire, happily, is still with us; she was a dear friend of Rex Stewart.

BEN LETTER ENVELOPE

The envelope, please:

BEN LETTER ONE

and

BEN LETTER TWO

Sincerely.

BEN LETTER FOURI never met Ben Webster, and who knows how he would have responded to me?  But I miss a world where he might have been writing letters.

Here’s the Ben that can never go away:

May your happiness increase!

ESSENTIAL READING: “THE BALLAD OF GEESHIE AND ELVIE,” by JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN

I don’t write “essential reading” casually. I had no idea who Geeshie and Elvie were before I read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s extraordinary extended research piece in the New York Times Magazine Section: here it is, with the relevant music included.

The sub-headline of this piece is “On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.” That in itself piqued my curiosity, and a recommendation from the superb writer Amanda Petrusich urged me on.

I won’t give away the stories Sullivan and others have for us.

But it’s as engrossing a piece of non-fiction as you are likely to read this year or perhaps this decade: warmly human, full of unmistakable personalities, beautifully written by someone who keeps his story in full view, taking no detours into ideological warfare or autobiographical preening.

Jazz has had many “writers” and “critics” and “researchers,” but I wish it had another dozen with the beautiful tenacity and style of John Jeremiah Sullivan.

“Read this!” is all I can say.

May your happiness increase!

MAY WE? THE SACRAMENTO MUSIC FESTIVAL IS COMING (May 23-26, 2014)

Although I’ve been coming to California on a regular basis only since summer 2010 (which hardly makes me a native plant) I’ve been attending the Memorial Day jazz weekend at Sacramento every year I could.

In fact, I seem to have brought my video camera and notebook with me in 2011 and 2012, too.  Evidence below.

But before any reader gets engrossed in Recent Glories, may I direct your attention — as the attorneys always say in courtroom dramas — to what is happening in May 2014?

Here is the Festival’s site.

Jazz purists, please don’t be alarmed if you don’t recognize all of the headliners: the SMF has taken a broader view of “Americana” and “roots music” than it did in earlier years, but there is a wide variety of pleasing sound for all.  The complete list of artists is available here.

I’ll simply note a few JAZZ LIVES’ favorites (in an ecumenical alphabetical order): the Au Brothers, Gordon Au, Bob Schulz Frisco Jazz Band, Clint Baker, Dave Bennett and the Memphis Boys, Eddie Erickson, the Freebadge Serenaders, Grand Dominion, High Sierra, Katie Cavera, Kim Cusack, Meschiya Lake and the Lil Big Horns, Marc Caparone, Midiri Brothers, Mike Daugherty, Pat Yankee, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, Red Skunk Gipzee Swing, Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, Stephanie Trick, Vaud and the Villains, Vince Bartels All-Stars . . . and more.

The thought of all that, even spread out over multiple venues from Friday through Monday, is both elating and exhausting.  While I lie down, perhaps you’d like to peruse Years Gone By . . .

Hal Smith’s International Sextet

 
 
 
 
 
Come celebrate at the Sacramento Music Festival with us this year.
May your happiness increase!

MAX’S MOTHER

Recently I reread Max Kaminsky’s autobiography, MY LIFE IN JAZZ, which takes him from his birth in Brockton, Massachusetts (1908) to his then current life in 1962.  It’s a pleasant and revealing book, with sharp self-awareness as well as portraits of Max’s friends and colleagues — especially Billie, Louis, and Eddie Condon.

When I closed the book, the person who had made the greatest impression on me was his mother.  We don’t get to know her given name in the book: she is “Ma,” born in the eighteen-eighties in southern Russia . . . and she gives Max and his friends loving kindness and wise advice until her death at ninety. (Intuitively, she is a quick-witted compassionate friend / rescuer to Billie and Pee Wee Russell.)

Three sketches of Mrs. Kaminsky.  “Ma.”

When Max is in seventh grade (the very early Twenties) he rounds up other neighborhood children to form a “kid band,” which enjoys some success at the local vaudeville house until several members of the band turn on him and fire him:

I ran into the house and cried inconsolably until finally my mother came to my room and talked to me.

“People are bad,” she said, “but they’re bad to themselves and all the harm they do is only to themselves. Wait, and you’ll see this is true.”

and at the end of her life:

“Don’t mourn for the dead, take care of the living,” she had so often said to me. “And when I die, I want you to go out and see a movie.” 

. . . I kept remembering how I used to play Louis Armstrong records around the house night and day when I was home in the thirties and how my mother was convinced it was I on the trumpet. Nothing could shake her conviction. “That’s Maxie, but he doesn’t want to tell me because he’s so modest,” she’d say knowingly to [Max's sister] Rose, and then turning to me she’d say, “You needn’t be ashamed. In fact, it’s very good!” Everywhere I go, I still meet musicians who ask me about my mother.

I feel that I am lucky to have known — even in these tiny glimpses — such a person.

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ AGE PARENTS: HOT MUSIC FOR MARSHALL AND RUTH LORD, 1977

A number of small CD companies make available “historic” recordings of hot jazz — often with fabled players no longer with us.  One of the best of these companies is Dick Karner’s TradJazz Productions, and a particularly endearing CD issue (TJP 2145) is

THE CHARLESTON CHASERS 

(IN MEMORY OF RUTH AND MARSHALL LORD)

LORD PARTY 2

Son Jack Lord — banjo player and nominal leader of the ensemble captured here) tells the story:

“My mom was a real flapper. She and my dad met in high school, class of 1926. They loved jazz and were quite the dancers. They used to tell how everyone at a dance would stand in a circle around them and watch them do the Charleston (they especially liked to dance to Sweet Georgia Brown). Fast forward to 1953, and son Jack goes to Purdue and is introduced to a band called THE SALTY DOGS. After following them around for several years, I finally got the banjo chair. My folks were huge fans, never missing a Chicago job. So for their 50th anniversary in 1977, it seemed like a great idea to get as many of the old Dogs together and have a party at the Sabre Room where the band played many times in earlier days. Dick Karner drove up from Lafayette, and as luck would have it, Bob Rann and Leon Oakley were in Chicago from California for the Electronics Convention. The players from Chicago from the old days were Tom Bartlett, Frank Chace, and Jack Carrell. Much forgiveness is necessary for the quality of the recording as it was done on a little voice recorder. Intros are missed, tags are cut off, and to say the fidelity is poor is an understatement. However, I think it conveys the spirit of the evening with a very hot pick-up band.”

Jack was fortunate in his choice of parents, and having this band play for their party is a true expression of gratitude — not only for them, but for the generations in this century who can now hear the music. The personnel is Jack, banjo; Leon Oakley, cornet; Jack Carrell, trumpet; Tom Bartlett, trombone; Frank Chace, clarinet; Bob Rann, tuba; Dick Karner, drums.  The songs (some misidentified on the cover) are TISHOMINGO BLUES / SHAKE THAT THING / TROUBLE IN MIND / MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / BLACK AND BLUE / DOCTOR JAZZ / FRIENDLESS BLUES / SWEET GEORGIA BROWN / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / CANAL STREET BLUES / SEE SEE RIDER / AFTER YOU’VE GONE / JELLY ROLL / BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN.

Dick Karner adds a little bit to the story (as do the photographs by Reta Karner):

“Through the ‘50’s while we (Dogs) were in college, Mr. and Mrs. Lord were our hosts on all our weekend gigs in Chicago. Jack wanted to do something special for their 50th wedding anniv. They really loved the band, so Jack tried to round up as many of the ‘55 members (Dogs) as he could for a surprise party at the Sabre Room where we had played a lot. He partially succeeded with the exception of Jim Snyder, John Cooper, Bill Price, who were on other gigs the night in question. None of us had played together for years. Jack had a small portable cassette player he left on all evening. This was a fun time. We had a ball playing. A few months later Jack sent me a copy of the cassette tape. Sound was not very good, but I worked on it for a long time—used what was marginal at best, and we decided to go ahead and release the CD. Frank was outstanding and very relaxed in his solos as was Leon, Tom and the rest of us…even without a piano player. A true impromptu session of some great music and one hell-of-an-anniversary gift for Mr. and Mrs. Lord who loved it!”

LORD PARTY 1

Jack and Dick are correct but perhaps too severe in their assessment of the fidelity.  It’s far below official studio standards. What one hears in this slice of history is the party — from within the band.

And with no slight meant to the living members of this ad hoc gathering, any evidence of clarinetist Frank Chace in action is precious. I think none of the members of the band were (excepting Jack) particularly aware that a recorder was running, and certainly the partygoers do not sit in hushed silence, which leads to a particular kind of musical abandon. On a few occasions, a guest’s speech breaks in to the music (as happens in many live settings) — but in general, the recording is clear, the microphone placement effective.

I recommend it highly.  The level of inspiration is very high, and it is a true glimpse behind the scenes of hot jazz in action.  I wrote — during Frank’s lifetime, much to his pleasure, that one could learn so much about taking risks in solo playing and in ensemble work from any recording or performance of his, and THE CHARLESTON CHASERS is, in its own way, another graduate seminar in Chace — with thanks to Lord, Oakley, Bartlett, Rann, Carrell, and Karner, professors of Hot.

I miss Frank Chace, and this CD is both exciting evidence of what he did so often during his playing years and reason to feel that we lost someone rare.

The TradJazz Productions site is here – full of other clandestine and official marvels, featuring Kim Cusack, Bud Freeman, Hal Smith, the Salty Dogs, Bob Helm, Burt Bales, Birch Smith, Jim Snyder, Ben Cohen, Turk  Murphy, Lu Watters, the South Frisco Jazz Band, Gremoli, Ev Farey — and three dozen other luminaries — music you don’t see at your local record store these days.

May your happiness increase! 

JOURNEY TO UNMAPPED PLACES: “JAZZ LIVES: TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART” by JAAP VAN DE KLOMP

JazzLives Blog

Between 2005 and 2008, the Dutch photographer and jazz scholar Jaap van de Klomp began a series of soulful pilgrimages in honor of the men and women who had created the music he so loves.

The result is the lovely and often sad book of photographs, JAZZ LIVES, which takes its subtitle, TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART, from the words chiseled into Lester Young’s gravestone.

Yes, gravestone.

Every jazz lover knows the familiar photographs of our heroes and heroines: Billie Holiday with her dog; Louis Armstrong snappily dressed in London; Charlie Parker on the bandstand.  But where are our idols now?

The two hundred and more pages of JAZZ LIVES document where their mortal remains lie: with elaborate gravestones, unmarked plots of overgrown land, monuments proud and forlorn.  Jaap took his camera across the United States and Europe to capture these landscapes, resulting in a heartfelt pilgrimage to shrines of the dead. Each photograph is accompanied by a concise biography by Scott Yanow, and the book is organized by instruments once played.

The gravestones sometimes speak of posthumous reputation and fame: huge blocks of costly stone or unmarked areas of grass.  A monument for Ellington and empty space for Bud Powell.  An essay by Dan Morgenstern opens the book; one by the jazz musician and writer Bill Crow closes it. A simply written but evocative essay by the photographer himself explains something about his travels.

But the graves say so much — by presence and absence, reality and implication — about Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Serge Chaloff, Vic Dickenson, Andrew Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet, Django Reinhardt, Jack Teagarden, Britt Woodman, Al Grey, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, John Carter, Russell Procope, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Willie the Lion Smith, Gigi Gryce, Roland Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Wardell Gray, Stuff Smith, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Hank Mobley, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Herbie Nichols, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Milt Hinton, Jimmie Blanton, George Duvivier, Jo Jones, Zutty Singleton, Denzil Best, Billy Higgins, Sidney Catlett, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Ivie Anderson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Johnny Hartman, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn, Sun Ra, Bennie Moten, W. C. Handy, Tadd Dameron, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and others.

To give some sense of the breadth of his searching, the gravestones of trumpet players included in this book are: Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Hot Lips Page, Henry Red Allen, Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Lester Bowie.

Jaap, born in 1940, has been involved with the music and the musicians for more than half a century, including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Kenny Drew, and Kenny Clarke among others.

But he is not only a person of great feeling and a fine photographer.  Jaap is one of those rare souls who wants to share what he has done.  He wrote this to me, “The book which is sold out in the Netherlands by now will not be reprinted and has been proven to be physically too heavy for worldwide distribution. In this form I still hope to reach more jazz enthusiasts with a book which was a great pleasure to make.and which is still a very dear project to me.”

He has offered to make his book available as a digital download — for free — to anyone who emails him at info@jaapvandeklomp.nl  with JazzLives in the subject line.  The whole book is about 150 MB and it might take a few minutes to download.

This is generosity without hidden motive, and it is a beautiful work of art and devotion.

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE NOTES THAT FRAME THE PASSION”: RAY SKJELBRED’S TRIBAL WISDOM

Pianist / composer / scholar / poet Ray Skjelbred is one of the rare ones.

I don’t say this only because of his deeply rewarding piano playing — soloist, accompanist, bandleader — but because of the understanding that it rests upon.  Ray understands that he is one of long line of creators — members of the tribe of improvising storytellers, some of them no longer on the planet but their energies still vividly alive.

He doesn’t strive to copy or to “recreate”; rather, he honors and embodies in ways that words can only hint at.  Call it an enlightened reverence that takes its form in blues-based melodic inventions, and you’ll be close to understanding the essence of what Ray does, feels, and is.

Here are some of his own introspections: “I get ideas by trying to hear the world differently, sometimes even misunderstanding sound on purpose. . . . I like to see things differently, to shape a song, to make it mine. I like to make tempo changes, especially fast to slow, I like to make the notes as round and warm as possible and part of that comes from shading a composition with blue notes that frame the passion. I like to fill in harmonies when the melody feels a little bony to me. . . . I think music is an adventure, a chance to shape sound with your bare hands.”

I’ve admired his playing for some years now — before I knew him as a soloist, I heard him through ensembles on recordings led by other musicians, rather in the way one would hear Hines, Horace Henderson, Joe Sullivan, Frank Melrose, Jess Stacy, Zinky Cohn, Tut Soper, Cassino Simpson, Alex Hill, or a dozen others subversively and happily animating the largest group.

There are several ways to experience this magic — Ray making himself a portal through which the elders can speak, while adding his own personal experiences.  One, of course, is to witness his transformations in person.  To do this, you’d have to know where he is going to be playing — check out the bottom of the page here for his appearances in the near future.

Another way t0 have a portable Skjelbred festival is through his compact discs, recent and otherwise, listed here. I call two new issues to your attention.  One, RAGTIME PIANO, is — beneath its rather plain title — a continued exploration of subversive possibilities, witty and warm.

I remember the first time I began to listen to it — with small surprises popping through the surface like small flowers, catching me off guard, subtler than Monk creating his own version of stride piano but with some of the same effect.  Each track is a small hot sonata, with the surprises resurfacing to make the whole disc a suite of unusual yet comfortable syncopated dance music.

The sixteen solo piano performances offer classics, stretched and reconsidered: SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / SOMETHING DOING / WHOOPEE STOMP / LOUISIANA RAG / MOURNFUL SERENADE / DANCE OF THE WITCH HAZELS / PINEAPPLE RAG / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING, as well as Ray’s originals — inspired by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Julia Child: SMILING RAG / LEAN AND GRIEFY RAG / DON’T CROWD THE MUSHROOMS / COCHINEAL RAG / LITTLE ELMER’S RAG / THE PICOT RAG / REFLECTIONS RAG / BALLS AND STRIKES FOREVER.

Another deep lesson in how to get the most music possible — and then some — from the piano can be found in Ray’s PIANO PORTRAITS, which demonstrates his range of endearing associations, from the Hot Five and early blues singers to Carl Kress and Eddie Lang, from Jimmie Noone and early Ellington to Bix, Hines, and Charlie Shavers. It’s a filling and fulfilling musical banquet: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD / FEELING MY WAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / WEATHER BIRD RAG / SQUEEZE ME / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE / DINAH / READY FOR THE RIVER / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CLARK AND RANDOLPH / CANNED MEAT RAG / BLUES FROM “CREOLE RHAPSODY” / BLUES FOR MILLIE LAMMOREUX / FATHER SWING / WHEN I DREAM OF YOU / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / MY HEART / MUGGLES / UNDECIDED.  Ray’s prose is as forthright and evocative as his playing, so this CD is worth reading as well as hearing for his recollections of Johnny Wittwer, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Art Hodes, and Earl Hines.

Another way to experience Ray, his mastery of “those pretty notes and jangly octaves,” can be through these video performances.  He has been more than gracious to me, allowing me to capture him in a variety of settings.  I offer one here, BULL FROG BLUES, recorded on November 29, 2013, at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival — with his Cubs, that savory band: Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Mike Daugherty, drums:

Wherever Ray goes, whatever the context in which he makes music, it’s always rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

FACTS ABOUT FACTS ABOUT THE MUSIC

Imagine an engrossing book “about” jazz that has very little to say about the music. None of the usual content or digressions: anecdotal stories of musicians; portraits of club owners, record producers, concert impresarios. No one’s mother plays the organ; no one has a loving mentor or a horrible first gig.

But the book, MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE MUSIC, by Bruce D. Epperson (University of Chicago Press, 2013) is an intriguing study of something most people involved in the music in more than a casual way find invaluable: discographies.

EPPERSON DISCOGRAPHY

A discography, for those new to this, is an essay — or book-length — or a dozen volumes — or an online source — that documents the recorded history of this music. As a bibliography (at the end of your fifth-grade report on The Eye) lists the works consulted, a discography seeks to present all the information known on these recordings.  It can be limited to one artist, a span of time, a style or genre, or it can attempt to be encyclopedic, comprehensive.  Before jazz existed, of course, there were catalogues of compositions — think of the BWV numbers or Kochel numbers for Bach or Mozart.  But it was only when listeners and collectors began seriously to both amass and study recorded evidence — artifacts of performance — that the idea and the actual realization of discography came into being.

Epperson comes to this book (the result of five years’ study — and it shows in the best way) from a singular perspective. He is neither a musician nor a collector; rather, he is a bibliophile fascinated by the books and the people who envisioned and created them. (For some “jazz readers,” this is a perspective that takes some getting used to. It is as if one was handed “a study of Shakeapeare” that was really a history of the most renowned and influential editors of the texts of the plays. If one feels at a distance reading about everyone from the first innovators up to Tom Lord, Epperson’s lively prose will stand up to the accompaniment of one’s favorite recordings — all the master and alternate takes in chronological order, of course.)

A good deal of the book is a serious but not dry historical survey of the form — discographical research and publication, as we know it, began in England in the late Twenties and continues as I write this. At first, it was an outgrowth of the urge common among collectors to know all so that all could be possessed. If one fell in love with the sound of Bix Beiderbecke or Eddie Lang, for instance, one wanted to know exactly what recordings they had appeared on (and which were tempting imitations) so that one could, in this world or an ideal one, possess all their music or at least know that it existed. I think of an orinthologist’s “life-list,” where birds spotted get checked off, and I have seen many discographies that are also tidy or untidy lists of what a particular collector has. (I’ve done it myself, and I recall reading my copies of Rust, Jepsen, Lord, and specialized discographies with a mixture of awe and yearning: “Another take of X MARKS MY SPOT exists?  And it was issued on Bolivian OKeh?  And I don’t have it?  How can I hear it?”)

Why were discographies desirable or necessary?  When jazz performances were issued on single discs, often without the individual players listed on the label, one couldn’t be sure who the Kentucky Grasshoppers or Lil’s Hot Shots were. One could trust one’s ears, but that method has often led to what I would call Collector’s Enthusiasm, where every muted trumpet solo had to be by King Oliver; a vague aural shadow of saxophone on a 1934 Clarence Williams record — could that be Lester Young?  So, at first, they were lists created by collectors, then made public as more widespread enthusiasm about famous and obscure recordings developed.  Then, discographies could serve an ideological purpose: all the recordings in these pages have notable “jazz interest” (translation: they reflect my aesthetic values); they could be divided along racial lines to reflect theorizing about the development of an art form.  From more balanced perspectives, they could reflect much about the ways in which art was made public, and tell a great deal about individual artists or groups.

Epperson’s book deals adeptly with the ideas behind the varieties of discographies, and he does so by specific reference — tracing the changes in the form through specific publications and the writers / researchers responsible for them. This might, to the uninitiated, seem like a scriptural list of begats beginning with R.D. Darrell, but the creators themselves seem to have been at best energetic, at worst acrimonious. There are many small contentions documented in this book: questions of accuracy, of plagiarism, of theory and practice. Epperson’s story begins in England, takes in France and New Orleans, digresses most pleasingly into the phenomenon of “field recordings” and the changes brought in discography and record collecting by the long-playing record, and comes up as close to the present as possible. I was amused and pleased to see jazz scholars I know and admire depicted in these pages: Jan Evensmo, Manfred Selchow, Robert Rusch.

Epperson concludes with some deep philosophical questions (with commentary by Michael Fitzgerald, who knows the field deeply): in this new world, where it appears that everything one wants to hear can be heard in digital format, stripped of its evidence, what effect on discography as a scholarly endeavor or a music-lover’s act of reverence? And for the twenty-first century listener who can have all the issued and some unissued recordings of The Bohemian Stompers in one neat multi-disc set, are comprehensive discographies necessary or are they an antique manifestation of the urge to have all the rarities in one place?

Incidentally, the title isn’t Epperson’s point of view — it comes from a 1947 article by Ernest Borneman, “The Jazz Cult.”  The book has useful illustrations of pages taken from the respective discographies, generous footnotes and bibliography.

I think this book will have a lasting place in the libraries of many jazz enthusiasts and collectors, and I can see it treated with equal pleasure and respect in graduate programs in library science. But that makes it sound too serious. Epperson is a lively, witty writer, and although he tends to fairness to all sides so thoroughly as to occasionally seem diffident, his sharp observations are a real pleasure.

I said at the start that the book was different from most jazz tomes in that it wasn’t deeply based on anecdotage, but one story has stuck in my mind.  The renowned British discographer Brian Rust, Epperson tells us, was already collecting jazz records by the time he was 13 — in 1935 — “it was cheap, and it was approved by the family nurse, who assured them that ‘it’s not possible for germs to survive on smooth surfaces.’”

If anyone comes to you and asks what you are doing, for the love of goodness, with those records or compact discs, feel free to offer that answer.  Jazz records are, if nothing else, sanitary, and thus laudably safer than other objects by which we might amuse ourselves.

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ IN BLOOM: RANDY REINHART, BOB HAVENS, DAN BLOCK, HARRY ALLEN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, KERRY LEWIS, JOHN VON OHLEN at “JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA” (Sept. 20, 2013)

If you wonder about the title, you have only to gaze at the splendid autumnal chrysanthemums onstage . . . but the music would be blooming even if no flowers were in evidence.

Here is an early set from the jazz weekend formerly known as “Jazz at Chautauqua,” now reborn as the Allegheny Jazz Party.  The creative heroes on the stand for this short but intense gift are Randy Reinhart, cornet; Bob Havens, trombone; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Kerry Lewis, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums.

Please notice how much music they offer in three extended performances — echoing the Swing Era but firmly rooted in timeless Mainstream jazz of this century, with nods to Edgar Sampson, Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter.

BLUE LOU:

JUST SQUEEZE ME:

YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME:

See you at the 2014 Allegheny Jazz Party! It will happen from Thursday, September 18, to Sunday, September 21, 2014, at the InterConental Cleveland Hotel (9801 Carnegie Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44106).  The hotel gets good reviews and is much easier to get to than the august lodgings of yore.

The creative participants will be Marty Grosz, Rebecca Kilgore, Nicki Parrott, Wesla Whitfield, John Von Ohlen, Ricky Malichi, Pete Siers, Frank Tate, Jon Burr, Harry Allen, Dan Block, Scott Robinson, Dan Levinson, Rossano Sportiello, Keith Ingham, James Dapogny, Mike Greensill, Howard Alden, Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, Duke Heitger, Jon-Erik Kellso, Andy Schumm, Randy Reinhart.  The proceedings will be supervised by the gently efficient Nancy Griffith, who has made sure of everyone’s happiness in years past at these parties.

There will be informal music on Thursday night, a solo piano session Friday afternoon, a seven-hour session with everyone joining in on Friday night, two more sessions on Saturday (more than eleven hours of music) and a Sunday afternoon finale (four hours).  No one will go away thinking, “There wasn’t enough to hear.”

Details can be found here or — more colorfully — here. I made hotel reservations today — there’s a special discount for the AJP.  But I learned that rooms are going quickly, and that’s no stage joke.

May your happiness increase!

ESCAPING THE BOX

William Carlos Williams: “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet—gosh, how I hate sonnets—is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab any more.”

Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Younger, I would have sided with Frost: too much freedom leads to chaos. But I celebrate Williams’ position (even though his metaphor makes me wince) more as I age, feel, and listen.  Tidiness is a wonderful thing in the kitchen cabinets, but it might lead to the slow death of creative improvising.

In that spirit, I present the latest works of saxophonist / composer / historian / scholar / seeker Allen Lowe, a four-CD set of original compositions with one exception, a spoken-word piece by the novelist Rick Moody.

field recordings cover bc

JAZZ LIVES readers will be familiar with many of the names on that cover; others will provide engaging and sometimes quizzical surprises in listening and emotion.

Lowe’s works don’t seek to present snapshots of particular eras; they don’t offer “styles or schools.” Rather, his imaginations are intense, deep, yet unfettered. FIELD RECORDINGS, Lowe says in his liner notes, grew out of an argument he had with Wnton Marsalis — during Lowe’s attempt to interview Marsalis.  Disagreeing about “minstrelsy,” Marsalis characterized Lowe — in Lowe’s words — as “merely another in a long line of deluded white academics.”

Lowe spent the next six years immersing himself in “early entertainments of every racial persuasion,” which led him to compositions — song forms — that reflected what he had heard and experienced.  He also plays and improvises on many of these performances heard in this CD set.  More details here.

Lowe writes, “There is a tradition in certain kinds of writing in which the writer takes past works and puts them to his own use for very specific philosophical and artistic reasons. Brecht called this copien, as in the use of older texts as a means to something new and different, as a method from which to challenge prior ideas and forms. This project was done in exactly this spirit, as a way of altering certain received ideas of popular and jazz song. It is also a challenge to certain formal and intellectual assumptions.”

I haven’t heard more than one quarter of the set, but found the music so inspiring that I wanted to spread the word about it.   The performances weren’t always easy to listen to — Lowe, as composer and player, doesn’t shy away from improvisation’s rough edges, but he doesn’t run into harshness for its own sake.

What I appreciate most about the music — I was listening both with and without the benefit of Lowe’s commentaries — was its depth of feeling and innate ability to surprise.  The surprises weren’t ones I could predict (I know that sounds like an illogical paradox, but listening to many of the great musicians, I feel I know “where (s)he might be going” in the next chorus).

Rather, I felt the ground shifting under me in the best sense of the metaphor. Over and over, I felt beautifully startled, gently lifted out of my expectations and planted somewhere else, experiencing the sounds from a different perspective.  Each voyage was a fascinating series of what Emerson calls “zig-zag tacks.”  I heard echoes of New Orleans polyphony and street parade, dark unrequited blues, ensemble questing that echoed Mingus and freer improvsations, with searching, winding melodic lines, unpredictable harmonies that felt good as soon as they found my ears.

Language has a hard time describing music in the best of circumstances, and words are particularly inadequate here. One must be a creative listener to feel Lowe’s many musics, but they are well worth the investigation.  He is honest, inquiring, and sly — as is his work on these four CDs.  But beware!  This set is not ear-cushioning, to be listened to in conjunction with household chores, nor is it meant to be heard as one hears some discs: seventy-five minutes of supple protection from the world.  I predict that the listener wise and brave enough to purchase the FIELD RECORDINGS will approach the music as one does a new book of poems: a poem or two at a time, rather than as an artistic devouring of it all.

As a measure of the breadth and often witty depths of Lowe’s imagination, I would list some of the names he calls in his notes and compositions: Bunk Johnson, Tony Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Ernest Hogan, Mantan Moreland, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Lennie Tristano, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Thelonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Varese, Dave Schildkraut, Bud Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Melrose, Paul Whiteman, Bill Challis, Harry Barris, George Bacquet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James P. Johnson, Albert Ayler, Ran Blake, Henry Mancini, Sun Ra, Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Daily, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Bill Triglia, George Gershwin, Frank Teschemacher, Jess Stacy, Bix Beiderbecke, Arizona Dranes, Bert Williams, George Wheeler, Barbara Payne, Clyde Bernhardt, Ma Rainey, Anthony Braxton, Joe Jordan, Jaki Byard, Fess Manetta, Lester Young, Duke Ellington . . . and more.

The curious — and I hope there are many — will listen to samples here and then plunge in — this set costs less than two CDs and is wonderfully lively. You can also learn more at Allen’s website and blog (called EVERYTHING ELSE IS POST MODERNISM) — where Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Norman Mailer, compelled to share a subway seat, eye each other with suspicion.

I admire Allen Lowe’s courage, range, and audacities. The music is often, on first hearing, “weird,” but that’s a compliment. A little weirdness is like good seasoning: so much missed in the music we are sold, so richly enhancing in the right proportions.

And to return to the austere Robert Frost.  My letter to him, unsent and unread, is as follows:Dear Mr. Frost. If you removed the net, you might not have tennis, but you certainly would have an engaging dance.”

May your happiness increase!

MOUNTAIN AIRS: THE 2014 EVERGREEN JAZZ FESTIVAL (July 25-27, 2014)

EVERGREEN

I’m very excited to be going to the 2014 Evergreen Jazz Festival — that’s Evergreen, Colorado, near the end of July. The last time I visited that state was also for rewarding jazz — I have fond memories of Sunnie Sutton’s Rocky Mountain Jazz Party — so my mind automatically associates Colorado with good music and new friends.   

The Festival is arranged so that each band plays eight sets over three days in five venues (I can’t do the math; perhaps some of you can) ranging from intimate to large, with room for energetic swing dancing. 

I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing some 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, Chris Calabrese, and Clint Baker)

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

Filmmaker Franklin Clay made a very expert video of the 2012 Festival that you can see here. Although the 2014 lineup is different, the video shows what the Festival feels like better than ten thousand words would.

And here’s Jenney Coberly’s film of the 2011 festival: 

Elsewhere on the Festival site, there is appealing news for those people trying to hold on to their dollars until the eagle grins: discounts apply to tickets ordered before May 31, so the race is indeed to the swift.  (You need not be swift to attend the Festival: I see there is a shuttle between venues.)

I will say more about this as the calendar pages fall off the wall, but I wanted to tell JAZZ LIVES readers about good times sure to come.

May your happiness increase!

“PRESIDENT OF BEAUTY”: A FILM ABOUT LESTER YOUNG

Here is the link to what promises to be a beautiful film — Henry Ferrini’s documentary about Lester Young, PRESIDENT OF BEAUTY.

If anyone ever deserved a gentle celebration of his life — while the people who saw him are still on the planet — it would be Lester, and I look forward to this film.

May your happiness increase!

WITH THIS BOOK (AND A FUNCTIONING PEN) THE BAY AREA JAZZ FAN IS ALL READY FOR MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES

Photographer / jazz fan Jessica Levant has been enjoying her twin pleasures for years now — as she says, “idly” taking pictures of her jazz and blues heroes and heroines in the Bay Area (that’s the area in and around San Francisco, California).  She’s now collected those photographs — no posing, all taken in performance — into a charming book, SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA JAZZ & BLUSICIANS.

jabcover

The book is sweet testimony to the wide variety of musical styles and performers working in this area — women and men, youths and veterans, singers and instrumentalists, leaders and side-people. By offering these photographs in pure alphabetical order, Jessica has wisely avoided the question of categorizing or of valuing these musicians. I am pleased to see portraits and biographies of people I know and have heard: Clint Baker, Danny Brown, Waldo Carter, Mike Greensill, Jeff Hamilton, Paul Mehling, Si Perkoff, Rob Reich, Dave Ricketts, Mal Sharpe, John Wiitala . . . as well as people I know by reputation . . . and the larger group of people I look forward to hearing and meeting.  Jessica’s color portraits are informal and lively; no stiff poses against a studio backdrop here, and her biographies combine material provided by the artist and her own perceptions.

It’s an entertaining book, and I predict it could start a social trend. Jazz and blues fans like (we’re all fans at heart) to go home with an autograph from our favorite musician, and I can see Bay Area fans competing with one another to collect ALL the autographs in this book.  Better hurry: I’ve spotted Jessica at jazz clubs, busily photographing — I hear rumors of a second volume to come.

You can learn more about Jessica and her book here. And when you see a quietly enthusiastic woman with a camera (tactfully not getting in anyone’s way) I encourage you to approach her and ask, “Are you Jessica Levant?  May I have your autograph?”  I’m fairly sure she will oblige, graciously.

Thanks to Barb Hauser for making the connection, as she always does!

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ WORTH READING: “STRICTLY A MUSICIAN: DICK CARY” by DEREK COLLER

STRICTLY A MUSICIAN

Usually a reviewer waits until (s)he has finished the book before writing. I’ve only read one-sixth (one hundred pages) of Derek Coller’s biography of multi-instrumentalist / composer / arranger Dick Cary, but I didn’t want to wait to tell you how good it is

I think it is one of the most important books about how it feels and what it means to play jazz in public.

Cary (1916-1994) is one of those figures in jazz — invaluable but shadowy — whose identity is defined by associations with famous names.  A long time ago, I knew him the pianist in Louis Armstrong’s first All-Stars. Listening to TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS over and over, I heard him as a masterful accompanist, deferentially but beautifully showing the way, never intruding, quietly swinging in delicate fashion.  Later I delighted in his brilliant, nimble trumpet work — soaring in ways reminiscent of Bobby Hackett.  But it was as the great swinging exponent of the Eb alto horn (the “peck” horn) that he made the greatest impression on me: hear him on Eddie Condon’s JAM SESSION COAST TO COAST or JAMMIN’ AT CONDON’S. More recently, I admired his arrangements and compositions performed and recorded with his “Tuesday Night Friends” on Arbors issues.

But even when I noticed his always welcome presence, I never attempted to piece together the evidence to ask, “Who was this Dick Cary?”

I am so glad that Derek Coller — a very well-respected researcher and a fine straightforward writer — has done so. Derek has a well-earned reputation for intelligence, empathy, and candor, so the book is honest and thorough, without being ungenerous.

So many respected volumes (in and out of jazz) are well-crafted syntheses of what others have written. STRICTLY A MUSICIAN is entrancing because of its tireless use of first-hand “new” materials. The book has been written with the help and complete cooperation of pianist Jim Turner, who inherited the Dick Cary Estate and maintains the Cary website.  Cary was interviewed by a number of people, including the late Floyd Levin; friends saved his correspondence and recalled his stories.  But the spine of this book is Cary’s diaries, which he kept (with a few gaps) from 1931 to 1994 — 56 diaries in all.

Diaries.

I feel so grateful for this possibly vanished phenomenon.  Had Cary lived in our times, and communicated by email and social media, his introspective recollections would be gone.  His diaries are essential to our understanding of his life, his work, and his sensibilities.  Keeping a diary is by definition a private act but Cary kept his (unlike Philip Larkin) because he wanted to share — posthumously, I assume — what he had seen, done, and felt.

Anyone’s diary might be intriguing as a candid record of daily experiences and perceptions, but the diaries of musicians — creative individuals making a living in the public sphere by being asked to “perform” in public, to interact with the audience at close range — are bound to be fascinating.

Being human asks us to balance one’s public and private selves.  It isn’t always a battle, I hope, but musicians are on display.  They smile at the bandleader; they shake hands with fans; they might speak more candidly to their colleagues on the stand, but in general we meet their public selves when we ask for an autograph or thank them for a great set. A musician who is candid without tact on the microphone may enjoy the sensation for the moment, but might lose an opportunity for a job, so the Public Self is firmly in place for most of them until they speak among themselves or with others they trust.

Cary’s diaries — and this rewarding book — give a reader a deep feeling for what a working musician sees and experiences, and Coller uses this material wisely, sparingly, yet to great effect.  The book is not a day-to-day record of aches and pains, physical and emotional (although Cary does complain). The diaries contain details that make a typical jazz fan excited: who was on the gig last night, who played what, who was “helpless” from alcohol before the evening was over.   We learn what a night’s work paid in 1944. We find out who is a pleasure to work with, who is a total bore or sharp-tongued mocker.

Through these excerpts from Cary’s diary, we are taken behind the scenes.  Those of us who do not play professionally will find it as close as we will ever come to being part of the band.  No, bands, for their are many. Reading this book, I often felt as if I were sitting with Cary at a small table, and he had decided I was a trusted friend, someone to whom he could share his inner life.

This is invaluable, and it goes beyond the anecdotal.  Coller admires Cary but does not pretend that The Jazz Hero was saintly, so we get a clear sense of Cary as someone who speaks his mind, and not only to his diary. But Coller (unlike many other modern biographers) is not interested in revealing that The Jazz Hero was A Bad Person. When Cary is irritating or foolish — in retrospect — we learn of it, and the book moves on.

A pause for some glorious sounds.  Here’s a sample of what Cary sounded and looked like in performance (with the Climax Jazz Band — he’s the bearded fellow playing an alto horn to the right):

Back to the book.  In the first hundred pages, I encountered head-spinning details of jam sessions, of arranging for Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.  What it was like to walk home after a gig with Eddie Condon.  How Jack Teagarden came and tuned the piano first on every gig he was on.  That Rod Cless asked Cary (in Pee Wee Russell’s hearing) what he, Rod, could do to be more like Frank Teschemacher. What it felt like to hear Tatum in the forties.  How Dick Hyman — age 21 — appeared to Cary. Cary’s hearing and meeting Charlie Parker. A dinner with Charlie Creath and Zutty Singleton (gumbo!). What being typecast as a “Dixieland” musician did to Cary. An early sighting of Barney Kessel.  The Eddie Condon Floor Shows and the 1944-5 concerts. Working for Billy Butterfield and Jean Goldkette, and Cary’s six-month tour with the first Louis Armstrong All Stars. Cary, in 1941, playing BODY AND SOUL and THE SHIEK OF ARABY with Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Catlett at a Boston gig. Portraits of Brad Gowans, Wild Bill Davison, George Brunis, Danny Alvin, and Nick Rongetti.

Cary was articulate — one of those straightforward writers who captured one aspect (perhaps a transient one) of someone’s personality in a few sharp strokes.  And he was also just as ready to put his own playing and conduct under the microscope.

STRICTLY A MUSICIAN (a phrase that Barney Bigard used to praise Cary instead of Earl Hines) is an enthralling book — one that I have been rationing my reading . . . so that I won’t finish it too quickly. If you love this music, it is invaluable.  Rare photographs, a comprehensive discography, indices, and more. And Coller — who by choice remains almost invisible — is a fine careful graceful writer, shining the light on Cary and his colleagues all the time.

The book is available here, but I also encourage you to contact Jim Turner here and visit the Dick Cary Music site, which has treasures to share. Jim tells me that Dick’s “Tuesday Night Friends,” his rehearsal band, is still going strong after twenty years — because of the devotion of the musicians to Dick’s music.

May your happiness increase!

LOOKING AND LISTENING CLOSELY: “IN SEARCH OF RAG-A-JAZZ,” by ANDREW SAMMUT

One of the pleasures of the last few years has been that I have met a whole host of jazz people younger than myself — sometimes seriously younger.

The musicians I cherish and celebrate you all know, and I dare not start the list because a) it would be very long, and b) I surely would leave someone out and hurt her / his feelings.  I’m talking about people who write about this music.

I’ve recently reminded people of the fine heartfelt work Ricky Riccardi is doing — in print, in person, online, on the media — and he is someone I admire and trust, when he speaks about Louis Armstrong and about jazz in general.

You may not know the other young man I am about to celebrate, because he doesn’t have the ebullient public profile of our Mr. R.

But you should know him and his work.  He’s Andrew Jon Sammut, and he thinks deeply but not ponderously about a variety of “early musics,” Vivaldi as well as The Georgians, Locatelli and Larry Binyon. He admires Louis and Bix and the Masters whose names we all know, but he also writes intelligently and with feeling (with research, too) about the people who sometimes get ignored.

His blog is called THE POP OF YESTERCENTURY — Andrew is witty — and the most recent posting is wise and thoughtful, an investigation into that not-well-studied music that draws from ragtime and early ensemble jazz, dubbed later “rag-a-jazz.”  He’s done some serious homework here — in a modern vein — talking with jazz scholar-players Dan Levinson, Vince Giordano, Chris Tyle, Jon-Erik Kellso, David Sager, Hal Smith, and others.

I hope you can read Andrew’s piece: IN SEARCH OF RAG-A-JAZZ. He asks good questions, and invites others to add what they know: the hallmarks of an honest and humane scholar.  I read the piece with pleasure when it came out, and I am proud that he and I can discuss shared passions and questions.  (“What would Don Murray have been like at a dinner party?”  “Is this an important question?” and more.)

May your happiness increase! 

“HE CONQUERS THE WORLD”

Don’t let the commercial at the start put you off . . . here is a young hero, Ricky Riccardi, speaking on television about our shared Hero, Louis Armstrong and his House, here.

Doing it “for posterity.”

And if you’re looking for a good book, I suggest this.

May your happiness increase!

FABULOUS FRIDAY at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ PARTY (Part One): FEBRUARY 21, 2014

A week ago (that would be February 21) I was ready to have fun at my first-ever San Diego Jazz Party.  And I certainly did.  The music below will speak — and play and sing — for itself, but the SDJP was a real pleasure . . . comfort all around, the details managed gently and wisely, the musicians smiling.  As were we.

Here are a few shining examples of how fine the music was, how comfortable the musicians were . . . couldn’t ask for more!

If you need more words — data, information, facts —   here is what I wrote about the party as it was in progress.  But I think you’ll want to hear and see some of the joyousness first.

WABASH BLUES (Ed Polcer, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Antti Sarpila, soprano saxophone; Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar; John Cocuzzi, piano; Richard Simon, string bass; Ed Metz, drums):

ROBBINS’ NEST (John Allred, trombone; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Chuck Redd, vibes; Jason Wanner, piano; Dave Stone, string bass; Butch Miles, drums):

THE FIVE O’CLOCK WHISTLE (Rebecca Kilgore, vocal; Eddie Erickson, guitar; Dan Barrett, trombone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Ed Metz, percussion and miscellaneous instruments):

That, dear friends, is just a sample of how delicious the whole weekend was.  And my videos — which I am proud of — can’t convey the whole experience.  You’ll just have to be there in 2014.

May your happiness increase!

IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

JAZZ WORTH READING: “THE BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES: FACES, PLACES AND NIGHTLIFE 1937-1962″

Some of my readers will already know about Richard Vacca’s superb book, published in 2012 by Troy Street Publishing.  I first encountered his work in Tom Hustad’s splendid book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY. Vacca’s book is even better than I could have expected.

VACCA book

Much of the literature about jazz, although not all, retells known stories, often with an ideological slant or a “new” interpretation.  Thus it’s often difficult to find a book that presents new information in a balanced way.  BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES is a model of what can be done.  And you don’t have to be particularly interested in Boston, or, for that matter, jazz, to admire its many virtues.

Vacca writes that the book grew out of his early idea of a walking tour of Boston jazz spots, but as he found out that this landscape had been obliterated (as has happened in New York City), he decided to write a history of the scene, choosing starting and ending points that made the book manageable.  The book has much to offer several different audiences: a jazz-lover who wants to know the Boston history / anecdotal biography / reportage / topography of those years; someone with local pride in the recent past of his home city; someone who wishes to trace the paths of his favorite — and some obscure — jazz heroes and heroines.  (Vacca’s book could become the ULYSSES of jazz Boston, although we’d have to settle on a day to follow the paths of, perhaps Sabby Lewis or Frankie Newton through this vanished terrain.)

I found the proliferation of new information delightful, even though I was familiar with some of Boston’s “hot spots of rhythm” and the musicians who played there: Newton, Max Kaminsky, Dick Twardzic, Serge Chaloff, Bobby Hackett, George Wein, Jaki Byard, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Alan Dawson, Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, John Field, Buzzy Drootin, Joe Gordon, and others.  I’d known about the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, Mahogany Hall, and the various permutations of Storyville.  But on every page I read stories that were both new and illuminating (filling in gaps in the lives of musicians I had known as well as obscure ones) and learned a great deal about place and places.

And Vacca has an old-fashioned respectfulness, which is rare in this century.  True, there are stories of low life and bad behavior, for some of those night spots were run by and populated by people who gave way to their impulses — but Vacca is no tabloid journalist, savoring wicked or illicit behavior.  And his amused, gentle forgiveness makes the book especially charming.

Topography — whether substantial or vanished — has a good deal to do with experience.  When I could visit Your Father’s Mustache in New York and realize that its floor space was that of Nick’s circa 1944, it made something click: memory met tangible reality.  Knowing more about the Savoy — as a place, run by real figures in a genuine historical panorama — adds to my experience of listening to broadcasts taken from there.

The photographs — almost all of them new to me — and the maps (a delight) add to the pleasure of this book.  As well, I learned about musicians I’d never heard of, or from, who played major roles in Boston’s jazz life: Dean Earl, Al Vega, Mabel Robinson Simms, as well as places I’d heard little of — Izzy Ort’s Bar and Grille, for one.  james Reese Europe puts in an appearance, as does Sam Rivers; George Frazier, Nat Hentoff, Father Norman J. O’Connor, Symphony Hall, Symphony Sid, Teddi King, Jake Hanna, Leroy Parkins, Fat Man Robinson, John McLellan, Charlie Bourgeois, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Berklee College of Music pop in and out.

But what makes this book rise above the information and stories collected within it is Vacca’s skill as researcher, editor, writer, and presenter.  The first thing a reader will notice is his lively but not flashy writing style: I’d call it refined, erudite journalism — fast-moving but never superficial.  He is a great storyteller, with a fine eye for the telling detail but someone who leaves a reader wanting more rather than feeling as if one was trapped at a party with an Authority on some bit of arcana.  (The writer Vacca reminds me of is THE NEW YORKER’S Joseph Mitchell, and that is not a compliment I utter lightly.)  He has a light touch, so the book is entertaining without ever seeming thin or didactic.  I would hand this book to an aspiring writer, researcher, or reporter, and say, “This is one admirable way to do it.”

In addition, the book is obviously the result of diligent research — not simply a synthesis of the available books that touch on the subject, although there is a six-page small-print bibliography (and a discography, a generous touch) but much of the information here comes from contemporary newspapers and magazines and Vacca’s interviews with Bostonians who were there, whether they were musicians, fans, or interested onlookers.

I’ve finished reading it, but it remains on my desk — an irresistible distraction, a book I have been returning to often.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment — literate, vivid, accurate, and animated.

To find out more about the book, click here. I predict it will provide more pleasure, and more lasting pleasure, than its price — which is roughly that of one compact disc.

May your happiness increase!

“COME ON, MISTER TATE, AND JAZZ ME!” (FRANK TATE, MARTY GROSZ, SCOTT ROBINSON, DUKE HEITGER: September 20, 2013)

I know that even the most attentive jazz audiences sometimes begin to chat during a string bass solo.  But you will notice in this video performance the delighted quiet in the room when our man Frank Tate leads this little quartet (nominally under the leadership of Marty Grosz) into JAZZ ME BLUES.

To be specific, that’s Frank, string bass; Marty, guitar; Scott Robinson, reeds; Duke Heitger, trumpet.  And this was recorded on September 20, 2013, at Jazz at Chautauqua (now the Allegheny Jazz Party):

I’d love to hear our Mr. Tate show just how well he can Jazz us on a wide variety of songs: his bass playing is so rich and melodic: so very rewarding!  (Who’ll underwrite a CD for the FRANK TATE BIG FOUR?  Do I hear any voices out there?)

May your happiness increase!

MORE ABOUT THAT WONDERFUL PARTY ON FILM (1935): THANKS TO MARK CANTOR

Just yesterday, I stumbled into a delight (thanks to Franz Hoffmann and Tom Saunders) — a YouTube video offering musical selections from a 1935 Oscar Micheaux film: music by Clarence Williams, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Hank Duncan, Cecil Scott, Jimmy McLin, and Eunice Wilson.  Here is that posting, with a link to the film.

That is a kind of delicious time-warp experience in itself.  Soon after, my friend, the most eminent / diligent jazz film scholar I know, Mark Cantor, asked me if I’d like to know more — and I not only said YES! but asked if he would mind if I shared his work with you.  Generously, he agreed.  And here it is.

CELLULOID IMPROVISATIONS by MARK CANTOR

Lem Hawkins’ Confession featuring Clarence Williams and his Jazz Band

I. Introduction: Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, Lem Hawkins’ Confession, and the Leo Frank Lynching

In Names & Numbers #61, within the general text of the Clarence Williams “Personnelography” (part 4), a pair of Oscar Micheaux feature films are cited as containing appearances by Clarence Williams. In point of fact, however, Williams is present in only one of these films, Lem Hawkins’ Confession (also known as Murder In Harlem). In light of the work that has been done with Williams’s recordings, personnels and solos, it makes sense to share what details are available regarding his sole film appearance. The second film noted in the article, Oscar Micheaux’s Swing, features the orchestra of Leon “Bossman” Gross, with Dolly Armina Jones added as a featured trumpet soloist. This film is a topic worthy of a detailed discussion in itself, although it should be noted here that Clarence Williams does not appears in the film: alto sax Leon Gross is the leader of the band, and the pianist is Arthur Briggs. To eliminate any further misunderstandings, it must be noted that the music track by Clarence Williams used in the SOUNDIE “Sweet Kisses,” which features dance performances by The Mitchell Brothers, Evelyn Keyes and other, with no band on screen, is not a unique recording for the producer, W.F.C. Productions, but rather one of Williams’s Lang-Worth broadcast transcriptions.

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) is often cited as the greatest of early African-American filmmakers. While this is certainly open to discussion — the films of Spencer Williams are often more coherent, and those of William Alexander better made in terms of production values — one cannot argue with the talent and tenacity that Micheaux displayed in getting some forty-plus features produced and distributed between 1921 and 1949. Micheaux saw musical entertainment as an important factor in his films, both because audiences had come to expect cabaret scenes in black cast features, but also because musical performances could extend the length of a feature with relatively little additional cost, or risk of mistakes by less experienced actors and actresses. Lem Hawkins’ Confession contains an extended fifteen minute cabaret sequence in which a great deal of music and dance is seen and heard as the plot continues to develop. The music of Clarence Williams’ band aside, which is discussed in detail below, Lem Hawkins’ Confession is one of Micheaux’s most ambitious projects.

Based on his original novel, The Forged Note (1915), the story was first filmed by Micheaux in 1921 as The Gunsaulus Mystery. On-screen credits also note the story The Stanfield Murder Case as an addition source of the film’s plot. Both the novel, story and film were based, in turn, on the notorious Leo Frank case, in which a Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta, Georgia, was convicted of the murder of 13 year old factory worker Mary Phagan. Leo Frank’s sentence was commuted to life in prison due to what the governor saw as a miscarriage of justice. In August 1915 Frank was kidnapped from prison and lynched by a mob of prominent Atlanta civic leaders. Later evidence suggests that the factory janitor, Jim Conley, actually committed the murder, although that has never been proved. What is known is that a mob, including a former governor of the state, two mayors (one of whom was still in office), three law enforcement officers and a number of other prominent citizens lynched Leo Frank on August 5, 1915. While this became the foundation of the story filmed in 1935 as Lem Hawkins’ Confession, Micheaux altered the story considerably, to the point of eliminating the lynching, in his screen adaptation.

As is sometimes the case with Micheaux films, the narrative is somewhat convoluted and often unclear, made even muddier by the constant use of flashbacks. It is important to note that the film is not a strict retelling of the Leo Frank case — the historical case is used as a very loose “frame” — and that Micheaux added a number of secondary plots; as noted above, Micheaux did not end the film with a lynching. A full and fairly accurate synopsis of the film can be found at the American Film Institute web site (http://www.afi.com). Here we are primarily concerned with the nightclub sequence in which all of the music is performed. The details of the musical content of the film follows a brief description of the film’s production.

II. The Production of the Film

According to on-screen credits, Lem Hawkins’ Confession (along with the three Micheaux features that preceded it) were produced for Oscar Micheaux Pictures by A. Burton Russell. However, this is a nom-de-production of sorts for Alice B. Russell, Micheaux’s second wife. The Russell family would probably not have been able to invest in a project such as this one, and we are still two years away from the time that Sack Enterprises would be become involved in the financing of Micheaux’s films. Where Micheaux got the funding for this film, probably in the neighborhood of $15,000, is unknown. Relatively little is known about the actual production of the film, although further information about the plot, casting of actors and so forth can be found in Patrick McGilligan’s Oscar Micheaux – The Great and Only (Harper Perennial, 2008). The only known advertisement in the press (New York Amsterdam News, May 11, 1935) notes that the “Premiere New York showing” of the feature would be held that week at the Apollo Theater. While it is somewhat unusual to find copyright registrations for black cast films, this feature was indeed registered for copyright with the Library of Congress, along with a handful of other film produced by Oscar Micheaux on August 23, 1935. This informationallows us to estimate a production date as between fall 1934 (so claimed by McGilligan) and spring 1935. Lem Hawkins’ Confession was released in the late summer or early fall of 1935. At some point in time the film was reissued as Murder In Harlem, with the new titled used for release in the South. Other sources suggest that the film was re-released yet again as Brand of Cain, although this has not been verified, and Brand of Cain may actually be an early pre-production title.

While a production location has not been established, Micheaux would have probably worked at a rental stage in Fort Lee, New Jersey, although other facilities were also available in Manhattan. My suspicion is that it would have taken no more than a week, or perhaps 10 days, to shoot the entire film. Micheaux produced, directed and wrote the feature. He also gathered a group of technicians who were quite likely inexperienced in film production, but nevertheless able to help Micheaux turn out a fascinating dramatic piece. With the exception of recording engineers Harry Belock and Charles Nason, none of the men involved in the production appear to have made a film before this feature, and none turns up in the credits of any subsequent film. While none of his cast members appeared regularly in major Hollywood productions, many of were cast fairly often in black cast films of the period. Among the more familiar names are Clarence Brooks, Alec Lovejoy, Laura Bowman, Bee Freeman, Eunice Wilson and “”Slick” Chester.

III. The Music: Clarence Williams and his Band

Although he is not credited on-screen, the band featured in the extended cabaret sequence is led by Clarence Williams. As musical director of the band, and presumably the entire floor show, Williams leads the combo, but does not play piano. Indeed, two well-known Harlem stride pianists sit side-by-side at the piano: to the front, almost certainly sits Hank Duncan, and to the rear, Willie “The Lion” Smith. (Smith’s trademark cigar can be seen in freeze frames of the duo.) Regrettably, there is no band feature per se, and neither Duncan nor Smith can be seen or clearly heard as soloists. The band includes two reeds, a musician who doubles on clarinet and tenor sax, and an alto sax. The first musician, seated to the left, is Cecil Scott. Not only has Howard Rye identified Scott aurally (Storyville Magazine no. 132, page 209), but Scott can be visually identified as well: compare the image of the musician here with Cecil Scott as he appears a decade later in four SOUNDIES produced for Filmcraft Productions. The alto sax who sits to Scott’s right is less easy to identify, but to my eyes it appears that this is Louis Jordan. While Jordan was a member of Chick Webb’s orchestra at this time, he had freelanced with Williams the previous year, and he recorded at least four titles with Williams in March 34; one of the numbers from this session, Williams’ “I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants In My Pants) was repeated in this film. Mr. Rye is very astute in hearing a trumpet on soundtrack, especially because the musician can be seen only briefly on screen. While it seems logical that this might be Ed Allen, from what little can be seen of the musician on screen, it does not look like Allen to me. Howard also hears a string bass on soundtrack, but I can neither hear the bass, nor locate a bass player on screen. The band is rounded out by a guitarist, who I am certain is Jimmy McLin.

Two other performers appear with the band, an unidentified male tap dancer, and vocalist Eunice Wilson. Wilson was a popular singer and dancer who presumably appeared as a club and stage performer in the Chicago and New York City areas. Three notices in Franz Hoffman’s Jazz Advertised cite performances around the time of the film’s production. The Chicago Defender (November 12, 1932) notes that Wilson will appear at a Thanksgiving Party at the Regal Theater, along with Earl Hines and his Orchestra. In June 1934 it is reported that she will be one of many on stage in a National Auditions Benefit Show, also at the Regal Theater, this time backed by Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. ` In late 1934 Wilson appeared in a Warner Brothers / Vitaphone one reel short, All Colored Vaudeville Show, filmed in Brooklyn and released the following year. In this short subject Wilson appears with a small rhythm quintet billed as The Five Racketeers, personnel unknown. Her vocal feature is a song by Leonard Reed titled “I Don’t Know Why,” which is followed by a dance to “Tiger Rag.” Subsequent to the production of the Micheaux feature Ms. Wilson sailed to London (May 1936) as a member of the Lew Leslie Blackbirds troupe. More than a decade passes before we hear from Eunice Wilson again, this time in two final film appearances. No Time For Romance (Norwanda Pictures, 1948) stars Wilson, and also features a jazz combo led by Austin McCoy; it is the first black cast film to have been produced in color. Sun Tan Ranch was made the same year, with a similar cast, and is probably also a Norwanda Production.

Detailing the music in the cabaret sequence is difficult for a number of reasons. Save for the vocal and dance features, the music is played in the background, largely behind dialog, sometimes in complete performance, sometimes as a partial take. In addition, Micheaux’s rather rough editing, plus jump cuts resulting from damage to the master print over the years, makes it somewhat unclear where some numbers begin and end. Further uncertainty revolves around the actual recording of the soundtrack. While some black cast musical performances from the period are clearly filmed and recorded simultaneously, I suspect that the soundtrack for this film was prerecorded, with the musicians miming to the playback. While it seems that certain short segments, and even longer performances, might be repeated behind the dialog, I think that it is equally likely that the soundtrack numbers were recorded in a number of takes that could be “recycled” during the sequence.

IV. Film and Music Details

Lem Hawkins’ Confession An A. Burton Russell Production Micheaux Pictures Corporation Oscar Micheaux, producer, director and writer produced ca. late fall 1934 – spring 1935 Clarence Williams, musical director Clarence Williams and his Band: Clarence Williams, vocal and leader; unidentified trumpet; Cecil Scott, clarinet and tenor sax; possibly Louis Jordan, alto sax; probably Hank Duncan, piano; Willie “The Lion” Smith, piano; Jimmy McLin, guitar Much of the music is heard behind dialog, or in support of vocal or dance performance. Regrettably, there is no feature for the band in the cabaret sequence. (1) Ants In My Pants (Clarence Williams) – Clarence Williams and his Band (Clarence Williams and members of the band, vocal) (2) Ants In My Pants (reprise) (largely behind dialog) – Clarence Williams and his Band (3) unidentified title, based on chord changes to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with an altered release – unidentified male tap dancer, accompanied by Clarence Williams and his Band (4) Ants In My Pants (reprise) (largely behind dialog) – Clarence Williams and his Band (5) unidentified title, partially based on the chord changes to “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now” (largely behind dialog) – Clarence Williams and his Band (6) Ants In My Pants (reprise) (largely behind dialog) – Clarence Williams and his Band (7) Harlem Rhythm Dance (Clarence Williams) – Eunice Wilson, vocal and dance, accompanied by Clarence Williams and his Band (8) unidentified title, or perhaps two titles linked closely together, the second of which is definitely a repeat of # 5 above (largely behind dialog) – Clarence Williams and his Band.

V. Evaluation, Conclusions and Post Script

The problems inherent in evaluating black cast films are many, and perhaps more so with this film than with most. Like other orphan films (that is, a film without copyright owners or custodians to care for the material) or other “poverty row productions,” Lem Hawkins’ Confession is plagued by poor picture and sound quality, poor edits and lost footage, and inadequate camera coverage where the music performance is concerned. However, considering Clarence Williams’s important to the music —- as a pianist, bandleader, composer and entrepreneur —- the fact that his band was captured film and is available to us is significant. As Howard Rye point out in Storyville Magazine, the music is wholly consistent with what Williams was recording during this period. Interestingly enough, Film Daily (2/20/40) noted an upcoming film series that was to feature Williams and his music. Sadly, nothing seems to have developed from the proposition that a series of two reel musical shorts was to be produced on the East Coast by Clover Swing Productions. Al Ford was slated to produce, and the series was to feature Eva Taylor, with music by Clarence Williams. The first release titled, which never saw the light of day, was to be Money Mad. After the release of Lem Hawkins’ Confession, save for the use of his compositions in various films, Clarence Williams disappears from our history of jazz on film. Once again, as with so many jazz film appearance, we are left wanting so much more, but thankful for what we do have!  

(My note: if every scholar in any field did work as careful and diligent as this, it would transform what we now call “research.”  Thanks to Mark Cantor!)

May your happiness increase!

COME CELEBRATE APRIL IN ATLANTA at THE ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 25-27, 2014)

During the weekend of April 25-27, 2014, the Atlanta Jazz Party will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary.  I’ve joined the Party twice and it was an extravagant banquet each time, supervised with generosity and common sense by Pualani and Philip Carroll.

Details! Here is  the Facebook site for the AJP.

The musicians at this year’s Party (as always) are a wonderful bunch, linked by a common urge to swing, to surprise us with new melodies, to play sweet, to get us all excited with the music: Ed Polcer, Duke Heitger, Bria Skonberg, cornet / trumpet and an occasional vocal; Allan Vaché, Dan Block, reeds; Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, trombone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; John Cocuzzi, vibes, piano, vocal; Freddy Cole, vocal, piano; Randy Napoleon, Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar; Frank Tate, Paul Keller, string bass; Ed Metz Jr., Danny Coots, drums; Rebecca Kilgore, vocal.

The music is beautifully conceived, with something for everyone: pretty ballads, rocking New Orleans, hot Goodman-style small groups; timeless Mainstream. And no one will go away hungry for music: I counted thirty sets in four sessions (Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening, Sunday) Guarantors and Patrons get to attend all four sessions plus the exclusive Saturday morning jazz brunch just for patrons, guarantors and musicians.

More details can be found at the AJP site. You can sign up for a single session or for all four.  The hotel (the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North*) is exceedingly comfortable; the ballroom is also, with good sight lines and nice sound.  There is a pleasing democracy at work here: everyone gets to lead a session, and the results are nicely situated between Old Favorites and New Surprises.

*The hotel is located at 7 Concourse Pkwy. NE, Sandy Springs, Georgia, 30328 — about thirty minutes from downtown Atlanta. Be sure to mention the Party for the best room rate! Click here to reserve rooms.

Here are two examples of uplifting jazz I recorded at the 2012 AJP.

STEALIN’ APPLES, performed by Allan Vache, John Cocuzzi, Rossano Sportiello, Bucky Pizzarelli, Richard Simon, Chuck Redd:

Bucky, solo, tenderly considering TRES PALABRAS:

If you need tres palabras from me, they could be “Mark your calendars,” or “Make your reservations,” or “Don’t miss this.”

May your happiness increase!