Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

“THE FIRST KIND OF MUSIC”

When I first began to search out New York live jazz performances, the news of who was playing where and when was often available in my local newspaper, the New York Times, The New Yorker, even Down Beat.  Some of the information, accessed weeks in advance, was no longer accurate by the time the gig happened, so there were some disappointments.  And much of what I learned was by word-of-mouth: “Do you know that Buddy Tate has a gig on Saturday at The Onliest Place?” and that bit of information could be investigated by telephone.

It would seem that jazz fans have it much easier in 2014.  The sources I’ve mentioned above still publish gig announcements, and several other periodicals — including The Wall Street Journal and New York — have joined in. I am very fond of Hot House Jazz Magazine (their first-rate website is here) and The New York Jazz Record (their website here) and both journals — free, published monthly — can be found at a variety of jazz clubs.

So that’s fine for someone who wants to plan out the next month’s gigs.  But what if you are especially fond of X and her Urbanites, and want to know when they are making music?  Of course, some media-wise creative types have their own websites; others have Facebook pages and event listings.  Each is quite valuable.

But you might have to be a Facebook friend of X and the Urbanites (or X herself) and it is possible that X might be so busy writing charts and rehearsing that she hasn’t kept her website current.

There is a new cyber-resource in addition that I’d like to call your attention to: David S. Isenberg’s weekly music blog — THE FIRST KIND OF MUSIC (its title comes from the Ellington comment that there are only two kinds of music; you can imagine which one David is praising): see it here.  I don’t entirely understand how it works: it Tumbles and Tweets at the same time?  That sounds exhausting. But it’s a truly worthy effort to get more information out to an eager public about the gigging of people we love and love to hear.  So do investigate.  It’s so much nicer to know about the gig in advance than to hear about what-happened-last-night-that-you-missed.

May your happiness increase!

CONSIDERING THE MYSTERY: “THE BOSWELL LEGACY,” by KYLA TITUS and CHICA BOSWELL MINNERLY

I prize books that offer new information, solidly documented, instead of conjecture and syntheses of well-known data.  Books about departed jazz musicians often have trouble presenting new information or new interpretations of already-established information, because many musicians received little press coverage in their lifetime, did not leave behind correspondence.  So the subjects take their mysteries with them, leaving us to speculate.

After much investigation, we can be reasonably certain why Lester Young quit the Count Basie band in 1940.  We know much more about the last days of Bix Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Blanton; we’ve learned much about the private life of Louis and Lucille Armstrong.

The Sisters when young.

The Sisters when young.

But one mystery has only been nibbled at — why the glorious Boswell Sisters separated after national and international success. A new, invaluable book, THE BOSWELL LEGACY, written by Kyla Titus, granddaughter of Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, from research and information gathered by Chica Boswell Minnerly (mother of Kyla, daughter of Vet) is a prize.

BOSWELL LEGACY cover

The mysteries that surround the Boswells is not what we expect of other revered artistic figures.  During their very short heyday, they were more in the public eye than, let us say, almost any brilliant African-American musician.  (Who interviewed Herschel Evans, for example?)

But for all the newspaper coverage and media attention, the Sisters had been raised early to follow “the Foore Code,” “Foore” being a family name.  The Code had many positive aspects: self-reliance; kindness; decorum . . . but it also emphasized privacy and strongly-stated boundaries.  “Never expose private family business to anyone outside the family.”

Even though Connie lived until 1976 and Vet to 1988, they kept the Code in place, gently turning aside the question, “Why did the Sisters break up?” as if indiscreet.  So Boswell admirers like myself could chart the trio’s ascent from 1925 to 1936 through their recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances, and paper ephemera, but we had no insight into the transformation.  Some may have surmised that Connie’s career was so successful that she and her manager / husband intended that she be a solo attraction.  In addition, the Sisters married in the last years of their stardom.  But the separation continued to puzzle and irk us, especially because we want to know more about the lives of the people we admire.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY does the best job possible of making the mysterious accessible.  And it does so from the inside, rather than assembling rumors and constructing hypotheses. It has the depth and intelligence of a scholarly biography with no academic dryness.  Rather than start as so many biographies do, with the birth of the subjects’ ancestors, this book starts at a place few will be familiar with — Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 29, 1955 — with the Sisters assembling on stage for an impromptu reunion during Connie’s engagement (singing HEEBIE JEEBIES as if they had never stopped performing).

(I thought at this point — and I cannot have been alone — of all the stars of the Twenties and Thirties who continued to appear on television in the Sixties and Seventies, and wished for an alternate universe where we could have seen the Sisters on THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE or THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW.)

The book then shifts back to the past, exploring the family as far back as the start of the nineteenth century . . . then to their eventual move to New Orleans and their involvement in music there.  The book takes on its true strength as the pages turn, and that strength is in well-utilized first-hand evidence, particularly correspondence.  We do not get long letters, which might stall the narrative, but we get dated excerpts in proper contexts.  Thus we hear, as well as we can, the vivid voices of the participants.

I commend Kyla Titus’ honesty throughout.  One of the inescapable facts of Connie Boswell’s life was that, although able, she could not walk.  No single clear explanation of this exists, and Titus handles the two hypotheses — a childhood accident or polio — gracefully and candidly.  When we finish reading her presentation of the evidence, we may feel that the answer remains elusive, but we never feel that the author is ill-informed or keeping anything from us.

The book begins to move rapidly through the Sisters’ musical education, Martha’s deep love for the short-lived cornetist Emmett Hardy (dead at 22), and the gestation of the Sisters as a trio.  Success mounts steadily — at their first New York City record date, the musicians stand up and applaud when their first successful take is concluded.  They appear on radio, in film, and on a 1931 experimental broadcast of that new invention, television.  But even at that point, a reader can see tension as the Sisters’ manager, Harry Leedy, is also Connie’s manager, with conflicting allegiances. The Sisters cross paths (and sometimes work with) luminaries Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Russ Columbo, the then-unknown comedian Bob Hope, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong; they tour England and Holland, triumphantly.

But by 1936, the Sisters — as if by erosion rather than by a definite blow — have become three separate married women.  And although they speak happily of this in public, it appears that Martha and Vet wait for a reunion, which becomes less likely . . . returning the book to the one song in Milwaukee in 1955.

At the end of the saga, it is not entirely clear what happened.  Was it Connie’s steely ambition, her desire to be a star on her own, that cracked close harmony into three pieces?  Was it the divided loyalty of Harry Leedy?  Once again, I admire Titus’ refusal to force the conflicting evidence into one answer, and I think her fairness admirable, her unwillingness to assign the actors in this play roles as Victims and Villains.

Although the breakup of the group is perhaps the single greatest mystery for us, the book is not obsessed throughout with the collapse of Sisters as a trio; that occupies us for the last segment.  It is ultimately a loving look at three innovative, independent women who made their own way, both as individuals and as musicians, at a time when women were not thought to influence the men in their field to any great extent.

The book is wisely titled THE BOSWELL LEGACY, and Titus balances her and our sadness at the end of the Sisters’ career with our awareness that the “three little girls from New Orleans” left us so much — not only in recordings, airshots, and film appearances, but a living tradition for swinging, inventive close harmony groups.  To some, they live on in the energetic, witty, sweet voices of new generations.  I found the book’s ending melancholy, but I am looking forward to the film documentary about the  Sisters, CLOSE HARMONY (here you can view the trailer) as an emotional corrective.

THE BOSWELL LEGACY is a large-format paperback, nearly two hundred pages, clearly written, generously illustrated with rare photographs and documents.  Anyone who has gotten a thrill from “Shout, Sister, Shout” will find this book essential. I don’t think a better or more informative book on the Boswells can be written.

Here you can read the introduction to the book by Boswell scholar David McCain, and the preface by Kyla Titus, and here you can buy a copy of the book ($21.95 USD including shipping.)

Enough words.  Here are the Sisters in their first film appearance, CLOSE FARMONY:

No one’s replaced them; no one ever will.

May your happiness increase!

A CELESTIAL PHENOMENON: MARC CAPARONE, RAY SKJELBRED, JIM BUCHMANN, KATIE CAVERA, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 29, 2014)

The National Weather Service noted a discernable increase in MOONGLOW around 10:15 PM in Southern California.  The reason is clear.

When this group took the stand on Saturday night, November 29, at the 35th San Diego Jazz Fest, we knew that celestial events were going to happen.

The leader, pianist / singer / composer Ray Skjelbred, is known to transcend the earthly realm, and he had colleagues of the same mind with him: Marc Caparone, cornet; Jim Buchmann, clarinet and saxello; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

Together they made the room glow:

Was it their evocation of the Ellingtonian roots (with some Basie-Stacy touches) of this song?  Or a fond dream of some vanished Fifty-Second Street?  Or their unspoken assertion that jazz music must be “sweet, soft, plenty rhythm”?  Or were they simply delighting in the music and sharing that delight with us?  I can’t pinpoint the origins of this remarkable phenomenon — clouds of romance floating by in swingtime, the musicians making old stories new without a cliche anywhere.  But this performance lifts me up to the celestial realm.  I hope you enjoy it, too.

This group doesn’t have its own CD, a record contract, a concert tour — all evidence of this century’s slight attention to beauty.  But there will be more videos.  You can depend on it.

May your happiness increase!

DEEP FEELING: VINCE BARTELS ALL STARS at the SACRAMENTO MUSIC FESTIVAL (May 23, 2014: DAN BARRETT, RUSS PHILLIPS, ALLAN VACHE, JOHNNY VARRO, DAVE STONE)

Vince Bartels, a superb drummer, takes his inspiration as a bandleader from Eddie Condon — so his programs are varied in every way.  Where other bands opt for Fast and Loud, Vince has a deep romantic streak which he encourages in his colleagues.  Thus the Migrant Jazz Workers (the band name created by Eddie Higgins) often pause to look lovingly at the scenery. They aren’t ashamed of sweetness, and they strive to create memorable beauty.

These marvels happened regularly when Vince and his band played at the 2014 Sacramento Music Festival — the Workers were Dave Stone, string bass; Johnny Varro, piano; Allan Vache, clarinet; Russ Phillips, trombone; Dan Barrett, trumpet.

I offer three particularly deep performances — no self-consciousness, no dramatization . . . just beautiful music.

Their extraordinary, sensitive reading of the Ellington SOLITUDE:

Johnny Varro’s sparkling ONE MORNING IN MAY (which Hoagy Carmichael’s mother said was her favorite of her son’s songs):

Russ Phillips, singing and playing the Ellington AZALEA, inspired by Louis Armstrong’s memories of a New Orleans flowering bush that he could never forget.  (How beautifully Russ sings!):

Yes, “traditional jazz” can be sweet and lovely, too.  Thank you, Vince, for keeping this music alive.

May your happiness increase!

BEAUTY, DOWNSTAIRS: MIKE LIPSKIN and MICHAEL HASHIM at MEZZROW (November 17, 2014)

Most people know pianist / singer / composer Mike Lipskin as a direct link to the great tradition of stride piano — a student of Willie “the Lion” Smith, and an exuberant improviser, someone eager to experiment with key changes, offering “a trick a minute.”  The master saxophonist Michael Hashim also offers us dazzling buoyancies whenever he plays, an inexhaustible flow of ideas, wonderfully executed.  But both of these players also shine in more pensive modes — sweet balladry, introspective explorations of Ellington and Strayhorn: music to dream by (with a few bouncing swing showpieces for good measure).

An appreciative audience heard them in duet on November 17, 2014, downstairs at Mezzrow (163 West Tenth Street, New York City) and we delighted in their deep improvisations and affection for the songs themselves.

SOLITUDE:

AVALON:
OLD FOLKS:
LULLABY OF THE LEAVES:
DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME:
THREE LITTLE WORDS:
DAY DREAM:
GONE WITH THE WIND:
I GOT IT BAD (And That Ain’t Good):
They are a rare pair.
May your happiness increase!

GOT WALL SPACE FOR HEROES?

Clint Baker told me about this photograph — a reproduction for sale on eBay, inexpensively.  I am trying to figure out where it might go, but so far haven’t solved the decor problem.  The hero portrayed here is Sandy Williams — a wonderfully expansive trombonist who was one of the true stars of the Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson bands, recorded with Sidney Bechet, Buck Clayton, Bunk Johnson, Ethel Waters, Art Hodes, Duke Ellington, Don Redman, Stuff Smith, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Hot Lips Page, Red Allen, Ella Fitzgerald, Fletcher Henderson, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, and many others.

Where he is, and why he is wearing a parade uniform — these mysteries are for others to solve.

Here is where you can find your own copy to adorn that bare wall.  Bedroom, living room, or foyer?  Your choice. Operators are standing by.

SANDY WILLIAMS

This photograph is one-of-a-kind, so it was offered for sale for three hundred dollars (I believe) and it is — no doubt, as Mister Morton would say — already in someone’s collection.  But it is a dream in itself: a photo portrait of Hot Lips Page, circa 1937, inscribed to Jimmy Rushing:

LIPS PAGE TO RUSH

And a close-up of the inscription:

LIPS TO RUSH closeup

Finally, something very touching — I lifted this from Facebook, and its source is Michelle Fey, granddaughter of Bobby Hackett.  Here is the earliest photograph of Robert Leo Hackett with his sister Dot — very touching (even if you ignore the tiny coveralls and the way he is holding her hand).  In that serious gaze I see the beloved person who, with cornet, mustache, and bow tie, gave us imperishable music for almost forty years:

Grandpa with Aunt Dotty

I could find wall space for Sandy Williams, Hot Lips Page, Bobby Hackett and his family.  Couldn’t you?

 May your happiness increase!

MASTERING THE ART OF HOT CUISINE: ENRICO TOMASSO and HIS RUG-CUTTERS at the WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (Nov. 8, 2014)

It’s difficult for me to comprehend that one week ago (the time difference notwithstanding) I was at the 2014 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, held in the Village Hotel Newcastle, recording this performance.  I and others were having the time of our lives.

PLS-00003755-001Why is there a picture of a gravy boat on JAZZ LIVES?  All will be revealed.

This singular performance took place late in a set, led by Rico Tomasso, devoted to “the Duke’s men,” specifically the small-band recordings (with one 1930 exception) done between 1936 and 1939 under the leadership of Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, and Cootie Williams.

Cootie is responsible for this most delicate of compositions, AIN’T THE GRAVY GOOD? — which doubles as a culinary disquisition with platefuls of double-entendre implications.  To me, it’s also a late-Thirties take on a Twenties vaudeville song.  I can imagine it onstage sung by a team, one sitting at a table full of food, the other one in an apron . . . but I leave the staging to you.

As I mentioned, the leader of the set was noble and gregarious Enrico Tomasso — friends are invited to call him Rico — a wonderful trumpeter, singer, entertainer (that’s a compliment) and improviser.

He begins this number with one of the best explanations of the subtleties of plunger-muted trumpet that I’ve ever heard, and then moves on to the main course.

Rico is joined by Alistair Allan, trombone; Claus Jacobi, alto saxophone; Matthias Seuffert, clarinet and saxophones; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Henri Lemaire, guitar; Malcolm Sked, string bass; Richard Pite, drums:

Had this been the sole performance I had witnessed at Whitley Bay, I would have been more than satisfied.  But it wasn’t, and I came home with more than three hundred video-recordings.  Will I share them?  You can count on it.  I couldn’t attest to the quality of the gravy — we have to take Rico’s word for it — but the music was beyond delicious.  And there will be a 2015 Party . . . so plan ahead.  Details to follow as I know them.

May your happiness increase!