HELEN’S DREAMS

I saw and heard Helen Humes in person only once, in 1975, but she made a lasting impression.  When Ed Polcer was leading the band at the last “Eddie Condon’s,” marvelous players and singers were invited to get up on the narrow bandstand and astonish us.  I was there because Ruby Braff was leading the group; Helen came up and sang IF I COULD BE WITH YOU and ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, and I have a clear memory of her beautiful smile, heartfelt delivery, and warm voice.

At the early peak of the Swing Era, John Hammond had yet another one of his good ideas: to feature Harry James (then in his first year as a star of the Goodman band) with a small group drawn from the Basie band.  There was a clear rapport, and these under-acknowledged records stand alongside the more heralded Wilson-Holiday sessions.  Helen had recorded a decade earlier, but she was then perceived as a classic blues singer, and those records show only one side of her considerable talent.  In these 1936-38 sides, we hear what made her memorable.  (On YouTube, you can hear the other sides from the James sessions.)

The first session (on December 1, 1937) had Harry, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Earl Warren, Herschel Evans, Jack Washington, Jess Stacy, Walter Page, Jo Jones.  Helen sang several songs; here is I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I?:

On January 5, 1938, the same group reassembled, with Vernon Brown replacing Eddie Durham, and Helen sang IT’S THE DREAMER IN ME:

Other aspects of these recordings (of the two glorious sessions) are memorable: the warm sounds of Harry and Herschel, the beautiful distractions of Jess Stacy at the piano, joined by Walter Page and Jo Jones . . . but at this remove, Helen wins my heart — her deep sincerity, her vibrato, the way she delivers two love songs with complete conviction, even at the faster tempo of the first.  She’s been overshadowed for decades, but what a great artist she is.  In a few minutes, she invites us to live her dreams.

May your happiness increase!

NEW YORK CAKE: TERRY WALDO, EVAN ARNTZEN, JON-ERIK KELLSO, BRIAN NALEPKA, JIM FRYER, JOHN GILL, JAY LEPLEY at FAT CAT (January 29, 2017)

Not this (announced as “the best New York style cheesecake):

but a hot version of the song immortalized in 1924 and 1925 by Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, Bessie Smith and others, CAKE WALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME.  This is my second CAKE post: the first, presenting two hot performances by Dave Kosymna, Christopher Smith, Ray Heitger, Nicole Heitger, James Dapogny, and Pete Siers (all deftly captured by Laura Wyman) may be visited here.

But my experience of New York and New  Yorkers — even from the suburbs, what Flaubert would call the provinces — is that we don’t like to take second place to anyone or anything.  And in a cake walking contest, second place is noplace.

So here’s the New York version, created a month earlier at Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village) by Terry Waldo and the Gotham City Band, who were on that Sunday Evan Arntzen, Jon-Erik Kellso, Jim Fryer, Jay Lepley, Brian Nalepka, John Gill.  Consider for yourselves:

I won’t ask viewers to set up mock combat between Ohio and New York: all those cakes and contests are beautiful and hot.

May your happiness increase!

THEY TAKE THE CAKE (ON SATURDAY AND SUNDAY, TOO): DAVE KOSMYNA, CHRISTOPHER SMITH, RAY HEITGER, JAMES DAPOGNY, PETE SIERS, NICOLE HEITGER, LAURA WYMAN (February 25 and 26, 2017)

My dear friend Laura Beth Wyman, Sole Proprietor of Wyman Video and head of the Michigan branch of JAZZ LIVES, has been busy capturing Hot for us these days.  In Ohio, no less.  Here are two versions of the same jazz classic for your perusal and pleasure.

CAKEWALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME is an invitation to rumble when most jazz bands play it, because of the early pugilism of young Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet on the two Clarence Williams recordings of the song.

On Saturday, February 25, 2017, Laura captured the Original Downhome Jass Band at “Ye Olde Durty Bird” in Toledo, Ohio.  For this performance, the ODJB (yes, you noticed!) was Dave Kosmyna, cornet and leader; Christopher Smith, trombone; Ray Heitger, clarinet and vocal; James Dapogny, piano; Pete Siers, drums; Nicole Heitger, vocal.  Hot and exuberant:

A day later, without Nicole, alas, the band had donned tuxedos (and an altered band name) to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the first jazz recordings in concert at Freed Auditorium, Ohio Northern University. Ada, Ohio.  In this version, the band rocks through many more ensemble interludes.  Better?  No, just different:

Unlike cake, hot music never gets stale.  Thanks to the players and to Laura for making these otherwise evanescent beauties permanent and accessible, even for those of us who have never visited Ada, Ohio.

May your happiness increase!

JOEL FORRESTER’S MOVING WORLDS

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

My fascination with Joel Forrester and his music goes back more than a decade. I would guess that I heard the quizzically entrancing orchestra THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET on WKCR-FM and was intrigued by its unpredictable mixture of new and old.  And then I heard Joel in person with a few small bands he’d assembled — one called THE TRUTH, which was an accurate description.

Joel doesn’t strive to shock the listener, but he doesn’t follow predictable paths — which is, in an era of reproducible art, an immense virtue. His playing and his compositions can be hilarious, angular, tender — sometimes all at once, and his music is vividly alive, which is no small thing.

I write not only to celebrate Joel — in all his surprises that invite us in — but to remind New Yorkers of opportunities to savor his art.  Every Saturday, he is playing a solo piano gig at Café Loup, 105 West 13th St. at 6th Avenue, in Greenwich Village, from 12:30—3:30 PM.

On Tuesdays, from 6-10, Joel plays solo piano at the Astor Room (located in the Kaufman Studios complex) 34-12 36th St. in Astoria, Queens.  I suggest you mark your calendars for Tuesday, June 6, when there will be a special — no, remarkable — happening, where Joel will begin with a solo piano set (his custom on Tuesdays) and then there will be two sets by The Microscopic Septet with Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone (visiting from Australia!); Don Davis, alto saxophone; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone; Joel, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

And their latest CD — thirteen variations on the blues, with echoes of Johnny Hodges, a Basie small group, Mingus, rhythm ‘n’ blues . . . titled BEEN UP SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE DOWN TO ME — is frankly extraordinary.  Read more here.

and here’s DON’T MIND IF I DO from that new CD:

And I am not surprised that Joel is a fine writer — think of Joseph Mitchell at a tilt, an affectionate chronicler of urban scenes: read his “Three Memorable Drunks.”

Finally, since I expect that this will awaken some of you to the whimsical glories Joel so generously offers us, here is a link to Joel’s website and gig calendar.  As for me, I have new places to savor, which, even in New York City, is a wonderful thing.

May your happiness increase!

SOUTH OF FOURTEENTH STREET (March 4, 1944)

When I am in conversation with someone new and the talk turns to my pursuit of live jazz in New York City, the question will be, “I suppose you go uptown to hear music?  Do you go to . . . ”  And then my questioner will mention some club, usually now-vanished, in what he or she thinks of as “Harlem.”  My answer nearly always causes surprised perplexity, “No, almost every place I frequent is below Fourteenth Street — you know, Greenwich Village.”

Nearly seventy-five years ago (before my time) the Village was a thriving place for hot jazz to flourish, with clubs and venues now legendary but long gone.

One of the quiet heroes of hot piano was Cliff Jackson, who began his career as accompanist to female blues singers but always as a striding player on his own or as the leader of a big band, an in-demand sideman, intermission pianist, and valued soloist.  (And he was married to Maxine Sullivan until his death in 1969.)

Cliff Jackson, 1947, photograph by William P. Gottlieb

In the last years of the Second World War, several independent record companies (notably Black and White and Disc) took the opportunity to record Jackson, either solo or in bands.  He was a remarkable player, full of charging percussive energy, with singularly strong left-hand patterns (just this week I found out, thanks to the great player / informal historian Herb Gardner, that Jackson was left-handed, which explains a good deal).

Here are three sides from a remarkable and remarkably little-known session for Black and White by the Cliff Jackson Quartet, featuring Pee Wee Russell, Bob Casey, and Jack Parker.  Pee Wee and Casey were long associated with Eddie Condon bands (Eddie featured Cliff in concert and on the television “Floor Show” often).  I am assuming that Jack and Jack “the Bear” Parker, both drummers, are one and the same, recording with Eddie Heywood, Don Byas, Eddie South, Hot Lips Page, Mary Lou Williams, Pete Johnson, Leo Parker, Babs Gonzales — and he’s on Louis’ BECAUSE OF YOU and Nat Cole’s 1946 THE CHRISTMAS SONG as well).

The quartet speaks the common language with grace and eloquence.  We get to hear Cliff at length, and Bob Casey has a fine solo.  Pee Wee seems particularly unfettered: he was the sole horn on sessions that happened once every few years (with Joe Sullivan and Jess Stacy for Commodore) and I think not being placed between trumpet, trombone, and baritone saxophone made for greater freedom. That freedom means great sensitivity on ONE HOUR, and wonderfully abstract phrases on WEARY BLUES.

from Fats to James P. Johnson:

and back in time to Artie Matthews:

Readers who are well-versed or have discographies (some might be both) will note that the YouTube poster has not offered us Cliff’s minor original, QUIET PLEASE.  Yes, there are a number of offerings of this song by Cliff, but they are of a 12″ Black and White session including Bechet, the DeParis brothers, Gene Sedric, Everett Barksdale, Wellman Braud, Eddie Dougherty — a true gathering of individualists. But — before there is wailing and gnashing of teeth from the cognoscenti — a nearly new copy of the quartet’s QUIET PLEASE arrived yesterday from my most recent eBay debauch, and if the stars are in proper alignment, it could emerge on this very site.

May your happiness increase!

“TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES: SONGS BY JOE BUSHKIN,” BOB MERRILL and FRIENDS

It’s always a generous idea, karmically, to honor the Ancestors.  If you’re trumpeter, singer, and composer Bob Merrill it’s not only easy but gratifying, because the Ancestor in question is his late father-in-law Joe Bushkin, pianist, trumpeter, singer, and composer.

The formulaic way to pay tribute to Joe would have been to assemble a band and have them play transcriptions of his famous recordings — from Berigan, Condon, Spanier, to his own performances.  But that approach might have run into obstacles early.  Joe was a singular pianist, whether he was musing his way through RELAXIN’ AT THE TOURO or dazzling us on HALLELUJAH!  And fifteen minutes with YouTube shows Joe at his best as player and singer.

But Joe’s talents as a writer of songs have been overshadowed by his brilliance at the keyboard.  He was fortunate in that Sinatra and Lee Wiley recorded OH, LOOK AT ME NOW; Bing sang HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN; Louis gave Joe and his new bride the wedding present of recording LOVELY WEATHER WE’RE HAVING.

Bob Merrill’s new CD, “TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES,” devoted to Joe’s songs — and it’s the first volume of several planned — is rather like Joe himself: melodic, light-hearted even when the lyrical thread is slightly somber.  It’s a wonderfully varied offering, and rather than describe it first, I offer samples here (scroll down to the lower half of the page).

Not a simple presentation of songs with the same approach and instrumentation, the CD could have been called THE MANY FACES OF JOE BUSHKIN’S MUSIC, with each track a little dramatic presentation in itself.  Some of the tracks so wittily and cleverly develop the theme that they sound like display numbers for a yet-to-be produced Broadway show. Consider HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN, which begins as if it were an unissued 78, with Bing’s wife Kathryn singing over a hot band, then morphs into the twenty-first century embodiment of the Andrews Sisters — Kathryn, Bob, Shannon Day, and Lisa Gary, over a modern arrangement for hip vocals over a shouting band.  Nicki Parrott convincingly masquerades as a diner waitress for several minutes on BOOGIE WOOGIE BLUE PLATE.

MAN HERE PLAYS FINE PIANO has not one, but three pianists soloing and trading phrases: Rossano Sportiello, Laurence Hobgood, and John Colianni. Other pleasures here are the wildly virtuosic trombone of Wycliffe Gordon, who turns in a fine vocal — seriously evoking Hot Lips Page — on GOIN’ BACK TO STORYVILLE. Eric Comstock is responsible for a number of smooth, winning vocals: I especially admire his reading of WISE TO MYSELF, a song well worth performing in this century, and Bob himself sings splendidly (with a touch of New York wryness) as well.  In case you don’t know his trumpet playing, it’s expert and swinging: he’s never at a loss for notes, and his brass battle with Wycliffe, who could overwhelm lesser players, is truly a draw.  Bob has the best musical friends, as you will have noticed, in Nicki Parrott, Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Harry Allen, Steve Johns, and Adrian Cunningham.  Yes, the CD is a loving evocation of Joe’s many talents, but son-in-law Bob is operating at the same level of swinging joy.

If this sounds like an exuberant, vivid musical package — full to the rim and never monotonous — you have a good idea of what TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES offers.  And the music is framed by two wonderful anecdotes about Joe, told by his remarkable friends.  At the close of the CD, Red Buttons delivers a sweet, naughty elegy which ends with a story about Joe, Bing, and some sleeping potions delivered in an unusual way.  And the CD starts with Frank Sinatra, Joe’s long-time friend, telling a story about Joe and illicit stimulants.  That tale is worth the price of admission in itself.  And, for once, the CD itself comes in a splendid package with notes, stories, and photographs — much better than any download.  You can buy this generous offering here.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN, AMONG FRIENDS: DICK WELLSTOOD, BUZZY DROOTIN, GEORGE WEIN, MOREY FELD, ZUTTY SINGLETON, WILD BILL DAVISON, and a few words about TESCH, (April 21, 2017)

Here’s another opportunity to hear some priceless stories from the man who was there, with eyes, ears, and heart open — our friend and hero Dan Morgenstern, at home on April 21, 2017, speaking of the people he knew and admired.  I’ve shared previous interview segments here and here.

And here’s more: Dick Wellstood covering fires for the local newspaper, Lester Young auditioning the new pianist:

and on a wide range of memorable people.  (After I’d shut the camera off, I mentioned the Singletons’ dog, Bringdown — whom Dan had also encountered. Perhaps the next interview segment should be devoted to Famous Jazz Pets?)

What’s the moral?  Nothing new, I think.  When people pass into spirit, they never “die” as long as they are remembered with affection, as Dan does here. And the living — that’s us, with luck — have a responsibility to keep the memories fresh, by telling stories and making sure those stories don’t vanish.  If you have a story-teller in your bunch, and the stories don’t have to be about jazz, place your iPhone in front of Grandma and ask her to tell what made her love Grandpa so. (Big Joe Turner had his own answer, which you can inquire about.)

Bless Mister Morgenstern — not only for keeping the memories alive, but for sharing them with us so beautifully.  There’s more to come.

May your happiness increase!