Category Archives: Jazz Worth Reading

THEY WERE BOILING WITH MUSIC: “AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960,” by DAVE GELLY

I enjoyed reading writer / musician Dave Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960 (published by Equinox) all the way through. I am a difficult audience for most books of jazz history that propose to cover a period of the music in a larger context (as opposed to a biography or autobiography).  Most times I find such books engaging chronological collages at best that never capture a larger world. Gelly’s quick-moving book has many good stories in it, covering those intense years in 167 pages, but his tales are all wisely connected.

His writing is also a pleasure: the book is not a series of quotations knitted together. One hears his voice: witty but not cruel, stylish but not self-absorbed. Here is part of the book’s opening chapter, an autobiographical fragment from which the book’s title comes:

I think there were five of us, all aged about fourteen, gathered in the ‘games room’ of a substantial family villa on the leafy southern fringes of London. We were equipped with musical instruments — battered cornet, decrepit clarinet, miscellaneous bits of a drum kit — and were doing out best to emulate our heroes, Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. We had been at it for some time when the door burst open to reveal our unwitting host, the cornetist’s father. ‘Will you kindly stop making that unholy row?’ he demanded, in a voice more weary than irate, and withdrew.

The 1950s, as we are often reminded, was an age of deference. Accordingly, we shut up at once, abashed but not entirely surprised. By any standards, ‘an unholy row’ was a pretty fair description of our efforts, but even if we had been competent musicians, even if we had been Humph and his Band themselves, I wouldn’t mind betting that, as far as the cornetist’s father was concerned, it would still have been an unholy row. The whole thing was offensive to ears attuned to the BBC Midland Light Orchestra or the swing-and-water piano of Charlie Kunz. 

I could have gone on reproducing Gelly’s prose happily, but this brief bit (and he is rarely so autobiographical as the book proceeds) will do to convey his accuracy, charm, and subtlety.

I began taking notes on my reading early on, and find that I have too many of them to even hint at here. Gelly is understandably fascinated by the great individualists in British jazz of the period — famous (Humphrey Lyttelton, Sandy Brown, John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott) and less so (my new hero Spike Mackintosh, George Siprac) but the book is not simply a series of portraits.

Gelly, a fine cultural historian, is curious about artistic movements, not necessarily those as defined by the journalists of the time, but as manifested in groups, recordings, and seismic shifts of taste and commerce. Sometimes these movements are given names: “trad,” “skiffle,” “blues,” “rock,” other times they are only apparent in hindsight.  Much of this might be familiar, even subliminally, to listeners and collectors who know the period, but where Gelly is invaluable is in his awareness of redefinitions within audiences.

What happens to an art form that is — of necessity — enacted in public in front of audiences — when those audiences change, develop, grow older? That, I think, is Gelly’s larger question, one which transcends the names of the music, the players, the clubs, the measures of popularity.  Even if you weren’t deeply involved in British jazz of the period, the question not easily answered.  His thoughtful inquiry makes this book well worth reading, with no hint of the classroom, no pages of statistics, no Authorities beyond the musicians and listeners who were there on the scene.

But I must backtrack and write that when I was only a few pages in, I suddenly had a small stammer of anxiety: “What if the only reason I am enjoying this book so is because of my essential US ignorance of the UK scene? What would an UK reader who knew this as native culture and experience think?” And a few days later (as I was happily reading) the answer appeared in the shape of Peter Vacher’s enthusiastic review for thejazzbreakfast. Here is an excerpt:

gelly cover[Gelly] is, and has been for many years, the jazz correspondent of the Observer newspaper, has written perceptive biographies of his heroes, Stan Getz and Lester Young (the latter also published by Equinox) and of even greater moment plays jazz tenor saxophone professionally and well. Born in 1938, Gelly embraced jazz and began to play during the very period which the book covers. So his is a commentary informed as much by first-hand knowledge as it is by his extensive research.

The subtitle suggests something more than a strictly chronological account of jazz in Britain during the cited decade and a half and that is what Gelly delivers here. He’s good at capturing the mores of the times, as Britain moved from a war-time economy to the first awakening of the ‘never-had-it-so-good 1960s’.

This was when jazz found an audience among the young, newly-liberated from the stifling conventions that had marked their parents’ lives, sometimes to their seniors’ despair, hence the title of the book. He’s even-handed about styles, understanding the sincerity of the early revivalists and tracing the rise and rise of traditional jazz and skiffle before moving over to consider the passionate espousal of the modern style promoted by the collective known as Club Eleven and the more aware dance band players of the day.

He rightly emphasises the role played by the open-minded Humphrey Lyttelton and John Dankworth, two men who largely shook off their early American influences as they sought to produce distinctive music of their own. There’s social history here but it’s British jazz history too, neatly caught and clearly expressed. No fuss, no over-elaboration, all appropriate quotations included . . . . 

Peter is typically correct; it was a relief to know that I book I was so enjoying had much to offer readers who knew the terrain by heart.

Early on in the book, Gelly chronicles a number of what he calls “the Armstrong moment” — that instantaneous conversion to jazz experienced by listeners and players.  (The late US pianist Larry Eanet wrote of the moment when some records by Louis and Earl Hines “hit” him “like Cupid’s arrow.”)

AN UNHOLY ROW gave me a literary version of “the Armstrong moment.”  I am now a Gelly convert, and want to read his other books.  I predict you will, too.

May your happiness increase!

JAMES DAPOGNY’S CHICAGO JAZZ BAND at the EVERGREEN JAZZ FESTIVAL (Part Two)

James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band is one of my favorite groups — whether they are expertly navigating through their leader’s compact, evocative arrangements or going for themselves. The noble fellows on the stand at the 2014 Evergreen Jazz Festival were Dapogny, piano / arrangements; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Chris Smith, trombone, vocal; Kim Cusack, clarinet, alto saxophone, vocal; Russ Whitman, clarinet, tenor, baritone saxophone; Rod McDonald, guitar; Dean Ross (a Denver native), string bass; Pete Siers, drums.
The CJB was one of the absolute high points of Evergreen (which I documented here) and I offer five more tasty main dishes:
DON’T BE THAT WAY was one of Edgar Sampson’s great compositions, most often known through Benny Goodman’s rather brisk performances (it worked even better at  slow glide, as Lester Young proved) but one of the most memorable recordings of this song was done by a Teddy Wilson small group in 1938 — featuring those Commodoreans Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell.  The CJB pays tribute to both the song and the performance here (although I point out that the CJB is not copying the solos from the record).  Tell the children not to be afraid: Mr. Kellso growls but he doesn’t bite:
 
IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T MY BABY? is a deep question, whether or not Louis Jordan was asking it.  Here Professor Dapogny and the Chicago Jazz Chorus make the same inquiry with renewed curiosity:
She just got here yesterday, and already she made an impression (I hear Ethel Waters pointing out these facts) — that’s SWEET GEORGIA BROWN:
I know that pianist / composer Alex Hill, who died far too young, is one of Dapogny’s heroes — mine too — someone responsible for memorable melodies and arrangements as well as fine piano.  DELTA BOUND is (for those who know the lyrics) one of those “I can’t wait to get home down South” songs both created and thrust upon African-Americans in the Twenties and Thirties, but its simple melody is deeply haunting — especially in this evocative performance, as arranged by Dapogny:
Valve trombonist Juan Tizol’s CARAVAN has been made in to material for percussion explosions for some time (perhaps beginning with Jo Jones in the Fifties) but here it is a beautifully-realized bit of faux-exotica (camels not required) harking back to the late-Thirties Ellington small groups:
Splendid playing and arrangements. And more to come.
May your happiness increase!

EDDIE CONDON’S WORLD OF JAZZ: September 4, 1940

This is the first of a series devoted to the wonders created by Eddie Condon and his friends.  Unfortunately, I cannot offer rare musical examples.  That you will have to do for yourselves, and it is reassuring that so much of what Mr. Condon and his colleagues created was documented on disc so that we can now hear it.

What I have to offer you are snippets of print documentation — new to me at the time I discovered them, and I hope to you. Perhaps a decade ago, at work in the microfilm archives of my college’s library, I was searching the New York Times archives for something literary.  On a whim, I typed in “Eddie Condon” and found perhaps thirty or forty mentions of him in that newspaper.  I remember putting dimes into the printer and copying each page.  The file folder with the copies turned up not long ago — reason to begin a series for JAZZ LIVES.

Eddie’s wife, Phyllis (born Smith) was an invaluable part of the D’Arcy advertising agency (she handled the Coca-Cola account, which should tell you something about her stature at the firm). Eddie was ambitious about getting the music heard — by people who might not come down to a night club where the clientele was drinking liquor and smoking — so Phyllis made connections.  A New York Times advertisement from September 4, 1940, is one of my favorite Imagined Delights.

John Wanamaker

Fashion Show

Today at 3 P.M.!

Cum Laude Clinic

(A line drawing of a guitarist, string bassist, trumpeter, clarinetist, trombonist)

Do you know what Bennington girls bowl in? what Smith seniors snooze in? what the Princeton stags think of black? of red? Do you know of what stuff Daisy chains are made–and what about knees?  and prom-bees?  Get the lowdown insight straight from the shoulders of our cum laude clinic–five brainy beauties from Sarah Lawrence, VAssar, Michigan State, Swarthmore, Mt. Holyoke.  See big men from Virginia, Williams, Cornell, M.I.T., Stevens turkey-trot down the runway in tweeds and tails. Learn how pink-snuggle-bunnies can help you get an A-double-plus in Pol. Sci.; learn what clothes distract half-backs, shot-putters.

*    *   *

Hear swing as swung by Bobby Hackett’s All Star Band from Nick’s-in-the-Village — hear jive experts Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Artie Shapiro, Joe Sullivan, George Wettling. Come early and hear the music, today at 3!  Fourth Floor, Fashion Store.

We could deconstruct this advertisement for all the obsolete assumptions about young women and young men, about college life, about materialism in the United States, but I’d rather think about the band.

If I had been twenty in September 1940, I’d be ninety-four now.  Had I a Presto disc cutter or a 16 mm sound camera . . . that way sadness lies.  Better to bask in the whimsy of one of the best bands ever playing hot those gorgeously and expensively-dressed young men and women.

And, yes, there was once a time when hot music was popular music.

May your happiness increase!

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

MEZZROW club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings on you, Spike.

May your happiness increase!

A BRAZILIAN WATERCOLOR: NATE NAJAR TRIO

More than half a century ago, Bossa Nova and Brazilian pop music became part of our common musical language; I recall how delightfully we were surrounded by the sounds of Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz, Jobim and Gilberto.

NATE NAJAR TRIO

The music is still vividly alive, as demonstrated by guitarist Nate Najar’s new CD, AQUARELA DO BRASIL (Candid Records CCD79988), where he is joined by Tommy Cecil, string bass; Chuck Redd, drums (all except 5, 7) and vibes (5, 7); Harry Allen, tenor saxophone (3, 8); Duduka Da Fonseca, drums (5, 7).  The songs are Canto De Ossanha / Carinhoso / Ligia / Aquarela do Brasil (Brazil) / Amparo (Olha Maria) / Chovendo No Roseira (Double Rainbow) / Fotografia / Samba For Felix / Charlotte’s Fancy / Canto De Ossanha (in an extended version).

Nate, in the fashion of his mentor Charlie Byrd, makes beautiful pools of sound on his unamplified guitar — reminding us that this sometimes-abused instrument was meant for amorous serenades — but he never loses his uplifting pulse.  Indeed, many of the performances on this disc have rollicking vamps as their heartbeat, but they are never merely rhythmic exercises, for Nate, Tommy, Chuck, and Harry are too deeply committed to melody for that. And although the swinging evocations of dancing in Rio are irresistible, I was drawn to the more meditative moments on this disc: Nate’s ruminative playing on CHARLOTTE’S FANCY and CARINHOSO, and his opening statement on AMPARO. The music, although all “Brazilian,” comes from different composers and eras — four by Jobim, but also compositions by Barrosa, De Moraes, and two more recent originals by Byrd and Cecil — spanning a range of music from the late Thirties to the present. The result is evocation rather than a copy — this is not a “famous album reproduced fifty years later” but a soulful exploration of the many possibilities of the genre.

Here is more information about the disc (including Nate’s gently perceptive notes — minus the final two paragraphs) on the Candid Records site, and you can learn more about Nate here.  For an engaging sample of the music Nate’s trio creates live, here is a 2012 recording of SAMBA FOR FELIX (named for jazz enthusiast and disc jockey Felix Grant) recorded in 2012:

May your happiness increase! 

A SPIKE MACKINTOSH POSTSCRIPT by CLARRIE HENLEY

Through the kindness of US recording engineer Johnny Maimone and UK journalist / guitarist Clarrie Henley, we have another in-person reminiscence of Ian Robert “Spike” Mackintosh by Clarrie:

I knew Spike fairly well.  Whenever I went to London which was fairly often in the seventies / eighties, Jack Hutton used to take me to the Codgers as an honorary country member.  (It was really The Old Codgers.) Cameron bought Spike a portable mini-fi which he used to take to the Drum and Monkey and we played jazz, imbibed a few and rabitted on. There was a piano there and sometimes we had live music.  

One year Spike was engaged as a solo artiste at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and he was a bit out water there as none of his mates made the trip. We saw him whenever we could and did our best to make him feel at home. He isn’t on many recordings.  I have an EP of him with Wally Fawkes’s Troglodytes and I think that’s about all. I’ll ask Dave Bennett if he has more.   

The thing about Spike was his enthusiasm, energy, wit and personality.   Everybody liked him.

He was a tank commander during the war and he went into battle with the radio blasting a Louis record. 

Cameron still pays for food and drink at an annual Spike Mackintosh bash in London.   Naturally, it is always well attended.

May your happiness increase!

“THE MUSIC NEVER DIES: A JAZZ DOCUMENTARY”

Readers of JAZZ LIVES know my interest in musicians who have not received their proper share of attention: recently I’ve been celebrating pianist Clarence Profit and trumpeter Spike Mackintosh.

But I know that there are many musicians, still on the scene, who have contributed a great deal to the music without getting their due. Worse, some of them — hardly known to the general public — have been taken advantage of by fellow musicians or people in “the music business.”

This situation may always be with us, beyond fixing until fairness and generosity are automatic responses, but a pair of filmmakers have documented some of these worthy musicians who have been treated unkindly. Their documentary film is THE MUSIC NEVER DIES.  I had never heard of Jimmy Norman, composer of the song Time Is On My Side, but I had enjoyed TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM — and I knew that some of the most influential creative people had never been known, paid appropriately, or taken seriously.

THE MUSIC NEVER DIES

I first heard of the film when a friend introduced me to Jason DeBose, a Californian now working in Finland, who has been working with the film’s director, the veteran artist and filmmaker Edward Hillel. I learned that the film “will tell the story of several legends of the art form as we catch up with them in their later years, where we find that even some in their seventies and eighties are still actively playing gigs all over the most jazz-loving cities of the United States.” Here is a brief introduction to Hillel.​  And here you can learn more about the film.

Jason and Edward have plans for the artists they are documenting and celebrating that go beyond simply completing and screening the film. Jason told me, “A large part of the funds we intend to raise will go toward a tour that we are now organizing for a group of the musicians that are the subject of our film,” a tour in countries deeply appreciative of American music but not necessarily aware of its true creators.  Here is the film’s trailer.  It certainly seems a heartfelt project, worth more than a quick look. And here is the film’s website.

May your happiness increase!