Tag Archives: Don Byas

RHYTHM, THEN BIRDSONG: MICHAEL BURGEVIN (1936-2014)

The heroes and the people we cherish forever don’t always have their names written in huge capital letters. But we know who they are.

One of them was the drummer, artist, raconteur, dear friend and gracious man Michael Burgevin. We lost him — abruptly, of a sudden heart attack — on June 17, 2014.  If you look in Tom Lord’s discography, the listing of official recordings MB (how he signed his emails — a man with things to do!) made is brief, but that is in no way a measure of his effect, his swing, his sweet presence.

MB and Cornelius, 2001, by Penny Haddad

MB and Cornelius, 2001, by Penny Haddad

I had met Mike in 1973, in New York City, and although we were out of touch for about twenty years, he was always in my thoughts as someone I was grateful to.

Because I miss him and admire him — first as a musician, then as a generous friend, then as a thinker who knows and feels the truth — what follows below is the leisurely narrative of my friend MB. The dates are fuzzy, my feelings sharply realized.

When I met him in 1973, I was a college student, deeply involved in jazz, without much money to spend on it. But I read in The New Yorker that there was a little bar / restaurant on East 34th Street, Brew’s, that featured live hot jazz.

You can read more about Brew’s here — on a blog called LOST CITY — with MB’s comments.

I read the names of Max Kaminsky and Jack Fine. I didn’t know about Jimmy Andrews, piano, and Mike Burgevin, drums. But when I saw a listing that advertised “trumpeter Joe Thomas,” I began to pay attention.

Joe Thomas remains one of the great subtle players in the swing idiom, recording with Benny Carter, Ed Hall, Don Byas, Sidney Catlett, Art Tatum, Claude Hopkins, and many other luminaries: he was one of Harry Lim’s favorite players and gets a good deal of exposure on Keynote Records.

I worried that my trip to Brew’s would turn out to be a jazz mirage; how could one of my heroes be playing in a club just ten minutes from Penn Station?  “Joe Thomas” is a very plain name, but I got myself out of my suburban nest, brought my cassette recorder (of course) and came to Brew’s. When I came in the door, the sounds told me I was in the right place.  Not only was Joe on the stand, instantly recognizable, but he had Rudy Powell and Herb Hall with him; Jimmy Andrews was striding sweetly and quietly.

The man behind the drums was tall, elegantly dressed.  His hairline receding, he looked a little like a youthful Bing Crosby without his hat on.  And he sounded as if he’d gone to the magic well of Swing: without copying them, I heard evocations of Dave Tough and George Wettling, of Sidney Catlett and Zutty Singleton: a light, swinging, effortless beat.  Quietly intent but restrained, with not too much flash and self-dramatization.  He didn’t play anything that would have been out of place on a Commodore 78 but it seemed fresh, not a collection of learned gestures and responses.  I can hear his hi-hat and rimshots as I write this, his brushes on the snare drum.  He was leading the band, but he let the men on the stand direct traffic: in retrospect, he was a true Condonite, letting the music blossom as it would.

I was shy then, but I got my courage together and spoke to him — I must have seemed an unusual apparition, a college student breathless with enthusiasm about swing drumming and especially about Sidney Catlett.  I had just purchased the three records (from England) of the complete 1944 Metropolitan Opera House Jam Session, and I asked Mr. Burgevin if he had them or would like a tape of that concert.  He hadn’t known of this music (like many musicians, he loved hearing new things but wasn’t an obsessive collector himself). And so we arranged something: perhaps I asked him for a copy of the records he had made with Doc Cheatham.

That night, Joe Thomas took a solo on a set-ending CRAZY RHYTHM, and although Joe is no longer with us, and the performance is now forty years away, I can hum the beginning of his solo, upon request.  To say the music I heard that night made an impression is putting it mildly.

Memory is treacherous, but what I remember next is being invited to the apartment he and his wife Patty  — Patricia Doyle, if we are being formal — shared on East 33rd Street in an apartment building called The Byron. At some point MB persuaded me to stop calling him “Mr. Burgevin,” and I was made welcome. And often. I had been brought up to be polite, but I blush to think of how many meals I ate in their apartment, how long I stayed, how much time I spent there.

Often MB was at work on a piece of commercial art in his little studio, wedged in a corner: I played the records he had or the ones I had just bought for him. Louis, Bing, Condon, stride piano, Billie, Bud Freeman and his Chicagoans, Dave Tough, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey. We had much to talk about, and I learned to hear more under his gentle tutelage. We didn’t speak of anything deep: I don’t think I knew how at that time, skating over the surface of my life, moving from one small triumph or failure to the next. But we admired J. Fred Coots’ YOU WENT TO MY HEAD and other beauties.

(I cringe now to think that MB and Patty might have liked to be left in peace a little more.  I wonder how many meals were stretched to include a hungry guest.  When, in this century, I apologized to MB  and Patty for my late-adolescent oblivious gaucheries, they said they remembered nothing of the sort. I take this as a great kindness.)

Chicken cacciatore, Dave Tough, a feisty little terrier named Rex, are all inextricably combined in my mind. I can see that rectangular apartment now.  MB lent me records and books, tapes and other music-related treasures, and in general made his house mine, open-handedly and open-heartedly.

In ways I didn’t verbalize then, I felt his kindness, although I didn’t at the time understand how powerfully protective the umbrella was. It was all subtle, never dramatic. One thing MB encouraged me to do was to bring recording equipment along to gigs he was playing. And (again in this century) he told me this story that I had not been aware of while it was happening. One night at Brew’s, the musicians were MB, the Welsh pianist Dill Jones, and Kenny Davern, then alternating between clarinet and soprano saxophone.  Blithely, I came in, said hello to MB, and began setting up my reel-to-reel recorder. Davern turned to MB and said — out of my hearing, but referring to me, “WHAT is THAT?” and MB told Kenny to calm down, that I was a friend, not to worry about me.  As a result, Kenny, with some polite irascibility, showed me where to set up my microphone for better results. Now I know that he would have just as energetically told me where the microphone could be placed, but for MB’s quiet willingness to protect his young friend, myself.

In the next two years, I was able to hear Joe Thomas, Doc Cheatham, Al Hall, Al Casey, Vic Dickenson (at length), Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Wayne Wright, Red Richards, Dick Wellstood, Susannah McCorkle, Norman Simmons, and a dozen others at close range. MB shared his tape library with me, so I heard him as a glowing, uplifting presence with Herman Autrey, Bobby Gordon, Benny Morton, Bobby Hackett, and others. He delighted especially in the sounds of Fats Waller and his Rhythm, and took every advantage possible to get together with Jimmy Andrews, Al Casey, Herman Autrey, and Rudy Powell to recapture some of that jovial spirit.

MB told stories of spending time with Vic Dickenson, of how Bobby Hackett insisted he play sticks, not brushes, behind him, of meeting Pee Wee Russell late in the latter’s life, and a favorite anecdote of an early encounter with Cliff Leeman at Condon’s, in the eraly Fifties, when MB was on leave from the Merchant Marine (I think): he had come into Condon’s and was listening to the band, which then took a break. Leeman stepped down from the drums and MB asked politely if he could sit in with the intermission players — Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone and Ralph Sutton, piano.  Leeman, always tart, said to MB, “Whaddaya want to do with the drums? Fuck ‘em all up?” but he let MB play.

Here is a photograph of Michael Burgevin, young, jamming on board the USS IOWA, circa 1955-7:

MIKE 1955-57 USS IOWA

My friendly contact stopped abruptly when MB had a heart attack. I was terrified of going to a hospital to visit anyone (I have said earlier in the piece that I was young, perhaps far too young). Before I could muster the maturity to visit him, he and Patty seemed, as if in a snap of the fingers, to flee the city for points unknown upstate.  I wondered about him in those years, heard his music, and thought of him with love — but we had drifted apart.

We reconnected around 1997, and I am sure I can’t take credit for it, for I felt guilty for my emotional lapses.  I think that Vic Diekenson drew us together once again, through the research Manfred Selchow was doing for his book, and MB got in touch with me when he planned to come down to New York City to play on a Monday night with the Grove Street Stompers at Arthur’s Tavern. Once before, he had played with that group. I don’t know who else was in the band, but I recorded a version of HINDUSTAN that had MB stretching out for a long solo in the manner of STEAK FACE.

I didn’t have sufficient opportunities to video-capture MB at play in this century, although there are examples of him on YouTube with his concert presentation of three men at drumsets “drumatiCymbalism” — but here is a 2009 video he made to promote his concerts and his paintings.  It seems odd to hear him gently trying to get gigs, but it is a good all-around picture of Michael Burgevin, his sound (solo and in an ensemble with Warren Vache, Dan Block, Harry Allen, Howard Alden, and others) and it gives glimpses of his paintings:

A few years ago, MB seriously mastered the computer and moved from writing letters to writing emails, and we stayed in contact, sometimes several times a week, that way. I sent him music and jazz arcana, and we had deep philosophical conversations — the ones I had not been ready for in the early Seventies. I hadn’t known that he had become a Jehovah’s Witness (as had Trummy Young and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Joe Thomas and Babe Matthews) but our discussions were fervent, even when we were gently disagreeing about our views of the world. Recently he burst forth of Facebook, and had a delighted time sharing photographs of his friends from the old days.

If Ricky Riccardi posted some new Louis / Sidney Catlett on his blog, I forwarded it to MB, and we shared our joy and excitement often. A few years ago, he came down to New York City to meet the Beloved, and he and our mutual friend Romy Ashby had lunch together.  MB was beautifully dressed and as always sweetly gallant.

It was foolish of me to think we would always have our email conversations, or another meeting in person, but we never want the people we love to move to another neighborhood of existence. I know he read JAZZ LIVES and delighted in the videos and photographs of the men and women we both revered. That thought gave and continues to give me pleasure.

He wrote a little self-portrait more than a decade ago:
As a child was riveted by marching band drums in firemen’s parades on Long Island. Born with rhythm! Given a pair of drumsticks at age seven and a 1920’s style trap set at age 15 and began his professional career playing weekends at Stanbrook Resort in Dutchess Co. (NYS) Played with bands in high school and at Bard College. Strongly influenced by his uncle George Adams’ jazz collection of 78’s (rpm records). Studied drums in Pine Plains High School (1950’s) and later under Richard Horowitz percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera Symphony Orchestra (1970’s). Studied (and uses) many of the early African tribal rhythms- Dinka, Bini, Malinke, Bakwiri, Watusi. About 10 years away from music working as a freelance commercial artist and graphic designer. Returned to drumming in 1968. Spent many nights sitting in at famed Jazz clubs Jimmy Ryan’s on 57th Street and Eddie Condon’s 55th St. There met legends Zutty Singleton, Freddie Moore, and Morey Feld often subbing for them. Lived in Manhattan. Worked steadily at Ryan’s with Max Kaminsky’s band. Also became friends with George Wettling, Cliff Leeman and Jo Jones. Worked full time with almost all the titans of small band jazz during this period of time (late 1960’s through 1980’s) including Roy Eldridge, “Wild Bill” Davison, “Doc” Cheatham, Bobby Hackett, Claude Hopkins, Bobby Gordon, Marian and Jimmy McPartland. Toured Canada & USA with Davison’s Jazz Giants. Made Bainbridge, NY, situated on the beautiful Susquehanna River, a permanent residence in the 1990’s. Traveled to NYC for many engagements. Connected with Al Hamme, professor of Jazz Studies at SUNY Binghamton, playing several concerts there. Since 2001 has been producing Jazz concerts in the 100-year-old, Historic Town Hall Theatre in Bainbridge, featuring world-class jazz personalities: Kenny Davern, Warren Vaché, Peter Ecklund, James Chirillo, Joe Cohn, Howard Alden, Harry Allen, Joel Forbes, Phil Flanigan, Dan Block and many, many others.

Why do I write so much about this man?

Michael Burgevin seems to me to be the embodiment of kind generosity. Near me, as I write, I have a little 1933 autograph book full of inscriptions of jazz musicians that he bought and gave to me. Invaluable, like its owner.

But MB’s giving was more than the passing on of objects: he gave of himself so freely, whether he was behind the drum set or just sharing ideas and feelings. Reading these words, I hope his warmth and gentle nature comes through, his enthusiasm for Nature and for human nature, for the deep rhythms of the world and the way a good jazz ensemble could make us feel even more that life was the greatest privilege imaginable. A deeply spiritual man, he preached the most sustaining gospel without saying a word.

I have a story I can only call mystical to share. Yesterday, on the morning of the 17th, I was writing a blogpost — which you can read here. I had indulged myself in the techno-primitive activity of video-recording a spinning record so that I could share the sounds on JAZZ LIVES.  It was a slow blues featuring, among others, Joe Thomas and Pee Wee Russell, two of MB’s and my heroes. Through the open window, the softer passages had an oddly delightful counterpoint of birdsong, something you can hear on my video. I was not thinking about MB while I was videoing — I was holding my breath, listening to music and birdsong mixed — but now I think that strange unearthly yet everyday combination may have been some part of MB’s leaving this earthly realm — music from the hearts of men now no longer with us overlaid by the songs of the birds, conversing joyously.

Patty, Michael’s wife, tells me that the funeral will be Friday, June 20, at the C.H. Landers Funeral Home in Sidney, New York (the place name is appropriate for those who understand): the visitation at noon, the service at 1 PM. Landers is on 21 Main Street, Sidney, New York 13838. (607) 563-3545.

Adieu for now, Michael Burgevin. Kind friend, lovely generous man, beautiful musician.  Born January 10, 1936. Made the transition June 17, 2014.

It seems odd to close this remembrance in the usual way — but someone like MB increases my happiness, even in sadness, that I will continue as I always have.  May you, too, have people like him in your life, and — more importantly — may you be one of the loving Elders to others, and older brother or sister or friend who shelters someone who might not, at the time, even recognize the love he or she is being shown.

May your happiness increase!

WARM MELODIC EXPLORATIONS: JOEL PRESS, MICHAEL KANAN, BOOTS MALESON, FUKUSHI TAINAKA at SMALLS (Dec. 20, 2013)

The masterful Joel Press created a wonderful musical evening at Smalls (183 West Tenth Street) at the end of my 2013 stay in New York City — a first portion posted here. Joel had Michael Kanan, piano; Boots Maleson, string bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums, along for some soulful melodic explorations, which bow to Masters Lester and Thelonious along the way.

THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU, which jumps right in:

JUST YOU, JUST ME:

ALL OF ME:

In honor of Don Byas and Slam Stewart in 1945, a duet for tenor saxophone and string bass on INDIANA:

SOPHISTICATED LADY:

Music to warm the heart and melt the snows.

May your happiness increase!

BASIE SAYS YES

Miles Davis has often been quoted as saying, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

I would never disagree with this. I don’t wish to set up any competition, but I think everyone should give thanks to Count Basie — and not just once. And not just musicians, either.

It is fashionable, still, to affect hipness, and that is not limited to people under 30. And some intriguing theoretician has suggested that the qualities we praise as hip — subtlety, originality, a wry way of perceiving the world — were exemplified by Lester Young before Kerouac and the Beats took them as their own. I like this theory, although what Pres would have made of a Williamsburg or Berkeley or Portland hipster is not known.

But I would propose Basie as the original Parent of many virtues we prize. Singularity, although a loving reverence for one’s ancestors (as in Basie’s affectionate nods to Fats Waller), an awareness that joy and sorrow are not only wedded but interdependent (that the blues are at the heart of everything), and a deep emotional commitment to swinging one’s way through life.  Swinging, as embodied by Basie, his peers and their descendants, meant the maximum of grace with the minimum of visible labor.  The style later exemplified by Astaire with a Kansas City world-view. Passion and fun, no less powerful for being streamlined to their essentials. His playing and his approach have been characterized and parodied as “minimalist,” but I think of it more as a Thoreau-inspired simplicity. Don’t need that note, do we? Let it be implied. Unheard melodies and all that. How Basie knew what he knew is beyond us, but the evidence is there for us to hear.

Here’s an audible example of what Basie did. And does:

That’s the 1939 Chicago session, issued in the Seventies as “Basie’s Bad Boys”: Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, trumpets; Dan Minor, trombone (audibly?), Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page; string bass; Jo Jones, drums. Yes, the studio sound is foggy and dense, but the music just flies and smiles and rocks.

These thoughts are provoked by two photographs for sale on eBay — from the Frank Driggs Collection (each one for three hundred dollars plus) — of Basie and his colleagues and friends in 1941 and 1943.  Lester had leapt out, but they seemed to be doing fine on their own.  Here’s a rehearsal session at the New York studio of Columbia Records. They are apparently listening to a playback.  Details first:

BASIE IN THE STUDIO 1941 true front

The front:

COUNT BASIE REHEARSAL 1941

What I notice first, always (this is a photograph often reproduced but also often cropped) is Basie’s dreamily unfocused expression which might be deep concentration.  Jo’s nearly angry attentiveness, his thinness (that protruding Adam’s apple), his full head of hair and tidy mustache.  Walter Page’s substantial girth. The handkerchief not quite tucked away in his back pocket.  The way his vest is strained by what’s in it.  The height of Jo’s beautiful trousers, and his suspenders.  The way Page (casually?) is listening to what handsome Buck Clayton is playing.  How beautifully everyone is dressed, in an era before jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and knapsacks.

And a more formal pose, 1943, where cake predominates:BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 back

Jimmy Rushing steals the show, and all eyes are on him (although Buck is somewhat quizzical and Basie — aware of the photographer — doesn’t turn around; Jo’s smile is world-weary).  What, I must know, is Rushing saying to that forkful? “Sent for you yesterday and here you come today,” perhaps? Or “Tell me, pretty baby, how you want your lovin’ done”?  Or perhaps the plainer, “I am going to EAT YOU ALL UP!” 

BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 front

I chose to title this posting BASIE SAYS YES because I believe he always did. Although Basie spent his life “playing the blues,” his approach to them was always life-affirming.  Even on the darkest dirge, there is a slight grin. “Look how sad I can make this music sound.  Isn’t it a lot of fun to play such sad music?”

Cool, swinging, affirmative.  We could follow him, a Sage, for life-lessons.

May your happiness increase! 

DON BYAS HAD AN IDEA

The great tenor saxophonist composed a line over the chords of STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY called — wittily — BYAS A DRINK, which he recorded for Savoy Records:

That would be enough pleasure for most of us.  But I found something remarkable on eBay (from a seller who offers more than twelve thousand pieces of sheet music among other things):

BYAS A DRINK front

And an explanation on the back:

BYAS A DRINK explanation

and here’s a sample of the drum part:

BYAS A DRINK drum part

Now, I don’t harbor a serious desire to go back to 1945.  Were I there, wouldn’t I be dead by now?  (The logic will keep me up at night.)  But the thought of Don Byas, Eddie Barefield, and Walter “Foots” Thomas making an idea like this available for sale . . . so that I could have a “unique style set” for my modern combo.  Very enticing.  And here  is the actual link.

May your happiness increase!

ALBERT AMMONS and FRIENDS: PERPETUAL SWING, 1936, 1944

Everyone knows those famous boogie-woogie pianists were best on their own, and they were stylistically limited.  Wrong.  Hear these three recordings by the heroic Albert Ammons (1907-1949) and noble hot colleagues.

In the first two, reedman Dalbert Bright is as nimble and enthusiastic as any swing-to-bop player; trumpeter Guy Kelly, although somewhat more taciturn in the manner of Tommy Ladnier, executes some heartfelt Louis. Ike Perkins, young Israel Crosby, and Jimmy Hoskins were Ammons’ preferred rhythm team, and it’s easy to hear why.  On the last recording, it’s as if Milt Gabler got the most rocking, riffing players he or anyone could find . . . evoking jam sessions in Kansas City that could go on for hours.

MILE-OR-MO BIRD RAG* (based on a strain of OL’ MISS):

NAGASAKI:

Guy Kelly, trumpet; Dalbert Bright, alto and clarinet; Ammons, piano; Ike Perkins, guitar; Israel Crosby, string bass; Jimmy Hoskins, drums.  Chicago, February 14, 1936.

JAMMIN’ THE BOOGIE:

Hot Lips Page, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Don Byas, tenor; Ammons, piano; Israel Crosby, string bass; Sidney Catlett, drums.  New York, February 12, 1944.

Extraordinary tireless, gravity-defying swing, no?  And Ammons holds it all together, strides, encourages everyone . . .

*I always thought that this first title referred to a bird that could fly impossibly long distances.  Some online research revealed that the M-O-M-B exists only in boyishly naughty local legends involving avian body parts.  You’ll have to look these tales up for yourself.

May your happiness increase!

OSCAR PETTIFORD, FOUND

OP front

Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily.  But Pettiford’s is often not among them.

Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career.  An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don  Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.

This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings.  It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s.  But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.

Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous.  And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of.  Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.

Surely he should be better known.

Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):

And his stirring solo on STARDUST:

Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience.  One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions.  That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.

Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there.  Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago.  Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.

American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.

OP cover rear

And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME.  Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz.  The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.

And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:

Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow?  Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative.  So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar.  Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew.  “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.

May your happiness increase!

PETER VACHER’S SUBTLE MAGIC: “MIXED MESSAGES:

The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility.  Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us.  This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling.  Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t.  Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.

Vacher

MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good.  The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly.  But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself.  One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).

Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.  They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent.  The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling.  New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography.  Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.

But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories.  (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.)  Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.

Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:

He was a pretty self-centered guy.  Kinda selfish.  When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show.  He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were.  He’d say, “People come to see me.  I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.”  He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.”  I’d say to myself, “Good show!  I feel like crying.”

Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:

. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix.  He said, “Why don’t you turn to music?  You can get more girls.”  He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.” 

Trumpeter John Eckert:

I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965].  A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups.  Louis ended the concert.  I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.

To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.

May your happiness increase.