Monthly Archives: March 2008



Jazz often seems like am unending exercise in mourning the dead, but I think this news especially sad. The brilliant, blind, uninhibited Canadian jazz musician and scholar Jeff Healey died on March 2 at the age of 41. He was an inspiring singer and guitarist, a plunging, devil-may-care trumpet player whose heart was always in the right place. Many more clips are on YouTube, and his CDs Adventures in Jazzland and Among Friends — where he plays serious hot jazz alongside Marty Grosz, Dan Levinson, Vince Giordano, Tom Pletcher, Dick Sudhalter, John R. T. Davies, and Jim Shepherd — show that he was born to jazz nobility. There was no one like him, and his death leaves us much poorer.

A note for purists: Healey made his name as an electric blues-rock guitarist, but he loved Annette Hanshaw, Eddie Lang, and other Twenties and Thirties jazz arcana: the CDs issued on his Sensation label are devoted to Irving Mills and Red McKenzie, if his aesthetic credentials are in question.


Menno Daams is not only a wonderful trumpet player but a jazz scholar and a thoughtful individual. You will find his website (listed to the right) extremely entertaining, and, just to show how up-to-the-very-minute this blog is, here‘s a clip of Menno and friends playing “Summertime” at a concert on March 16 — which was yesterday.


This blog will take on a different flavor for the next two weeks, as the Beloved and I visit Sicily — in a very thorough search for the origins of Leon Rappolo and Tony Parenti. Nick LaRocca, too, as Phil Stern pointed out.  I also hope to return with copies of the previously unissued Odeon 78 sessions by Kid Gelato and his Orchestra Caldo . . . so stay tuned. If anyone knows about jazz in Sicily, now’s the time to speak up. Ciao tutti!


Sidney Catlett, “Big Sid” Catlett, 1910-1951, the quintessential jazz drummer, requires some prologue.

BIG SIDOne way is the anecdote Ruby Braff told Loren Schoenberg: Ruby and Louis Armstrong were sitting together, listening, as Louis liked to do, to his own records, the big-band Deccas of 1939-41. Catlett propelled that band, sparked the soloists, and kept everyone in the right direction. Louis turned to Ruby and said, happily, “There’s that Catlett again! Looks like he was on every swinging record I ever made.”

I first came to jazz through two Louis Armstrong records — sessions pairing him with Gordon Jenkins, an unlikely collaboration which worked: Jenkins’s whooshing strings and capital-S sincere vocal backgrounds made Louis stand out with passionate sharpness. The second was Town Hall Concert Plus, which presented him in 1947 with Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Dick Cary, Peanuts Hucko, Bob Haggart, and George Wettling trading places with Sidney Catlett. My copy of that long-playing record (how very archaic do those words now seem!) has two tracks worn dull gray through repeated playings: Teagarden’s feature on “St. James Infirmary” and Louis’s exultant “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” was notable not only for Louis’s pleasure in the song, complete with the quotation from Rhapsody in Blue he had first added when the Gershwin and Waller compositions were new. Bobby Hackett’s solo was a twining, ascending marvel. But this performance featured the most inspiring drumming I had ever heard, perhaps will ever hear.

The best jazz drummers often play alongside the band, their timbres, patterns, and accents offering simultaneous commentary.

Catlett’s playing suggested a giant hand supporting the band, his sound coming from within it, presenting the players to the light. When a soloist played something memorable, he would seem to comment approvingly with a titanic rimshot or bass drum accent, a percussive “Hear that?” “Yes!” “Wow!” His playing was a joyous, encouraging after-voice. He was impossible to ignore but never intrusive. His great champion, the late Whitney Balliett, wrote that Catlett’s playing was both surprising and inevitable: a definition of great art.BIG SID 2

Catlett’s work glows, no matter what the musical context. Although he died young, he was much in demand, and he left behind recordings with everyone — the Ellington band, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Lips Page, Eddie Condon, Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Charlie Shavers, Hank Jones, Wild Bill Davison, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton. A generous, witty accompanist, he applauds his fellow player; when his solo comes, he says everything worth saying in eight bars.

These words are the result of listening, once again, to a performance re-issued on the new five-disc Mosaic set, The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941 (Mosaic MD5-238). Catlett appears on one session only, but is surrounded by wonderfully idiosyncratic giants: Red Allen, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone, Earl Bostic, alto sax; Clyde Hart, piano; Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Artie Bernstein, bass; Hampton, vibraphone and vocal.

Our text for today (Disc III, Track 17) is “Haven’t Named It Yet,” obviously the amused answer to the obligatory question coming at the end of the take from the glass recording booth. A simple composition, its melody line is only a few repeated notes — a nearly skeletal line, allowing soloists space to improvise on the chords. It has its own irrepressible momentum: in seconds, this band is moving in a silky, intense way. They begin at a level of enthusiasm and power most bands never reach. Some of this is ascribable to Hampton, whose drive never seemed to falter, even when the material he chose later in life was simple to the point of coarseness. Charlie Christian’s electrified comping pushes the ensemble; Artie Bernstein, never celebrated, has a strong, flexible beat.

Small heroic creations unfold in less than three minutes: the time constraints of a 78 rpm could wonderfully concentrate a soloist’s thoughts. And this record relies neatly on players splitting thirty-two bar AABA choruses, not in the usual sixteen-bar chunks, but players taking one another’s “bridge,” so that Charlie Christian has the first sixteen bars, Red Allen (approaching almost weirdly from an unexpected angle) takes his eight-bar interlude, than Christian returns to finish the chorus. Since the “bridge” usually has more rapidly-changing harmony, the listener is always pleasantly unsettled: who’s next?

BIG SID 3In the first ensemble chorus, Catlett pushes everyone forward with rimshots and cymbal splashes: hearing them for the first time, one admires their rightness, their force. Listening a second time, it is almost impossible to say “There!” a milisecond before one of his accents and get it right: he is surprising, elusive, and fitting. Backing a busy soloist, he doesn’t compete for our attention but plays simply; introducing a soloist for his chorus (Higginbotham), he delivers an annunciatory accent. Behind Hampton, he shifts to hi-hat playing of the sort introduced and made a common language by Henderson master Walter Johnson and later made a trademark by Jo Jones. Catlett’s accents and cymbals are powerfully audible — I have no doubt that Hampton encouraged him to play forcefully. He was a tall, broad man, and his sound is three-dimensionally spacious — at points one imagines him seated at a larger than life drum kit, its hi-hat five feet tall and two feet wide — but a listener never wants him to be quiet so that we can enjoy the real thing that is going on. Catlett ISthe real thing.

All but a very few drummers, playing at this volume, would be insufferable — he illuminates and propels.

Catlett can be seen on several intermittently-satisfying clips on YouTube (segments from Gjon Mili’s jazz abstraction, Jammin’ the Blues, appearances with Louis Armstrong on several 1941-2 “Soundies,” and excerpts from two dubious late-Forties films whose titles suggest their nature: Boy! What A Girl and Sepia Cinderella (ouch). None of these filmed appearances convey as much as they should, because Catlett and his fellow players are miming, on-screen, to pre-recorded tracks, which adds artificiality to playing by drummers and singers. But at least he was captured, however imperfectly, on film.

And the Mosaic set is, as always, as close to bliss as recordings get. (For details, visit Yes, there is occasionally too much Ziggy Elman or Cozy Cole; Hampton’s piano gyrations grow tiresome, but the Victors, taken one at a time, are nearly as irreplaceable as the Billie Holiday – Teddy Wilson Brunswicks and Vocalions, which should be praise enough for anyone. Beautifully remastered and documented, as always.

I will have more to say about Sidney Catlett: for the moment, I’m going to play “Haven’t Named It Yet” again.


Jon-Erik Kellso, the Bard of Growl, writes that The Ear Inn ( will be graced by two sets of Ear Regulars on upcoming Sunday nights:

Sunday, March 16, will find Kellso, Matt Munisteri, and Joel Forbes — honored members loyal and true — joined by the exuberant reed virtuoso Anat Cohen ( for some musical explorations. Anat and Jon have often shared the bandstand on Wednesdays with David Ostwald at Birdland, and they will be playing at Symphony Space, under Anat’s leadership, in concerts sponsored by the Sidney Bechet Society this month. Check Jon’s website ( for details.

Sunday, March 23, will find Jon and Matt joined by the equally brave souls Scott Robinson, eloquent on every reed instrument you can imagine plus cornet, Eb alto horn, and unimagined others, and Greg Cohen, musical associate of Ornette Coleman and Marty Grosz.

Since The Ear Regulars are always graced by unexpected players, prepare for jazz ecstasies. You can always nap on Monday afternoon, on the job or not.


Well, the line from “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” isn’t temporally accurate: the Sunday sessions at The Ear Inn ( begin around 8 and end somewhere around 11:15 (JMT, Jazz Musicians’ Time) but the sentiments are still apt. When the Beloved and I are sitting underneath the huge ceramic ear, reading the specials off the blackboard, Monday morning is far away, another time-space continuum.

The amazing synergy that jazz musicians accomplish so casually happened again last Sunday, with the Ear Regulars (Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Mark Lopeman, tenor sax; Joel Forbes, bass) suggesting a Tiny Ellington Orchestra, walking through a growly, amused “Just Squeeze Me.” Lopeman was again in shining form, spinning lovely constellations out of his horn on an energized “Tea for Two” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” At times, this spare trio suggested a late-life Ruby Braff evocation as well as the magic Fifties sessions Lucky Thompson made with Oscar Pettiford and Skeeter Best. And when guitar marvel Joe Cohn joined them, his rhythmic pulse and looping lines nailed everything in place. Dan Block, on alto for a change, joined the group on the second set for a darkly funky “The Intimacy of the Blues,” a Billy Strayhorn composition that sounds as if Bobby Timmons wrote it for the Jazz Messengers. It has a great impassioned thump to it, and Kellso’s solo – as is his habit – built chorus after chorus, full of Detroit-and-environs soul. (This uncluttered performance ran for fifteen minutes, my idea of jazz bliss when the soloists have eloquent things to share with us.) Lopeman had a groovy “Everything Happens to Me” all to himself in that set and he made that often self-pitying song rock and saunter.

This coming Sunday, March 9, the Ear Regulars will once again have Kellso and Block on the tiny postage-stamp square of floor that is their bandstand. They’ll be joined by guitarist Chris Flory, whose winding lines faithfully come back to the blues, and the eloquent, steady bassist Lee Hudson. This quartet worked together splendidly (with Larry Ham and Chuck Riggs) on Block’s most recent CD, Almost Modern, (Sackville 2069) the result of a five-year investigation by Dan and Chris into that under-explored period of jazz which encompasses late, harmonically sophisticated swing playing and early bop. They brought forth compositions by Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, Don Byas, the unacknowledged pianist and composer Sir Charles Thompson (still with us!), Howard McGhee and others. This music combines the easy, polished swing of the late Thirties and onward with the broader harmonies and occasionally less predictable rhythms of Bird and Dizzy.

And Monday morning? Shhhhhh! The Ear Regulars are playing! Join us as we make Carpe diem a joy rather than a gloomy necessity.



I first heard Kevin Dorn play drums at Ray Cerino’s birthday party in October 2004, with Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Levinson, Mark Shane, and Vince Giordano – the best in their line. And I was astonished. Who was this young man who had so thoroughly learned the lessons of George Wettling, Gene Krupa, Cliff Leeman, Dave Tough, and Sidney Catlett? He knew everything about swinging, steady, unobtrusive time, about varying his timbres behind each soloist, about kicking a band into a hollering outchorus. He wasn’t imitating anyone – he was himself, in the moment, which made his playing creative, energetic, and fun. And we had a cheerful conversation between sets about the spiritual rebirth possible through close listening to Bud Freeman and his Famous Chicagoans (Columbia, 1940).

Good fortune followed, as I got to hear Kevin lead his own band – the Traditional Jazz Collective – many evenings at the now-vanished Cajun. It was “traditional” in repertoire but hardly in approach and instrumentation. Some nights there was a trumpet player (Kellso, Charlie Caranicas, Dan Tobias) and often the wonderful singer – trombonist J. Walter Hawkes, but often it was a reed-based band featuring Michael Hashim on alto and soprano saxes and Pete Martinez on clarinet, with a rhythm section of Jesse Gelber on piano and Doug Largent on bass. Hashim and Martinez sounded like a wild enthusiastic stretching of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, led by Edmond Hall with a rhythm and blues Doc Poston, the rhythm section attuned to every idiosyncratic risk-taking. It was an egalitarian band, with tempos, solo orders, and repertoire determined by amiable consensus: one of the few working jazz ensembles where no one was annoyed by anyone else, week after week.

The TJC made two fine CDs on the Little Simmy label (check out the soundbites on Kevin’s website, But they haven’t had a home base for a while, which is a pity. And Pete Martinez temporarily put his clarinet down, choosing the luxury of a steady paycheck. But he’s back! And the originals – Kevin, Pete, Michael, Jesse, and Doug — will be reassembling this Friday night at The Garage, from 10:30 PM to 2 AM for a splendid downtown bash. The Garage Restaurant ( is at 99 Seventh Avenue South (212-645-0600). I’ll be there to savor the TJC’s unbuttoned approach to “Chinatown” and the blues, to ballads and stomps. The photo below shows Hawkes, Largent, Hashim, Dorn, Gelber, and Martinez — a happy gathering of jazz transcendentalists shaped by Eddie Condon, Thoreau, archaic video games, a dog named Truffles, James Whale, Vitaphone shorts, Tiajuana Bibles, and other arcana.

“Check it out, check it out,” as they used to say on Forty-Second Street. tjc-jpeg.jpg



Let us now celebrate pianist and singer Mark Shane.

Without strain, he creates new melodies; he swings; he has a wonderful touch. His easy, graceful embellishments and composed-on-the-spot lines linger in the ear. When he was only a boyish sideman in Bob Wilber’s Bechet Legacy, I was impressed by how he played behind everyone, listening, creating a generous, mobile harmonic platform. With beautifully voiced chords and memorable single-note lines, he commented appreciatively on what he was hearing and pointed the way to what a soloist might play next.

Although jazz is greatly an intuitive art, Mark has clearly thought deeply about what it means to improvise. Even the most creative players – Parker, Tatum, Teagarden — have a secret stash of favorite phrases they can’t resist, an open bag of potato chips hidden behind the big dictionary. Mark has avoided this trap. His lines sing; they make a listener pay attention. He mastered stride playing a long time ago, and can display the joyous velocity of early Teddy Wilson, of James P. Johnson, but he knows that the style is more than broad strokes. His stride is heroically athletic, but he can be delicate at top speed without pounding away at the keyboard or the listener.

Two recent CDs on his own Amber Lake label reveal his virtues as an ensemble pianist and soloist.


FATS LIVES!!! – credo as well as title — was recorded in 2007 with “the Shane Gang”: Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Dan Levinson (clarinet, tenor sax), Brian Nalepka (string bass), Kevin Dorn (drums). Since Waller’s early death in 1943, admirers and alumni have often assembled, trying to recreate those Bluebird and Victor 78s. But the reunion bands capture only their noisy joviality.

Although the Shane Gang creates stirring versions of “Hold Tight,” “Oh Susanna, Dust Off That Old Pianna,” and “That Rhythm Man,” Mark has understood that Fats was inspired by tenderness and simplicity, perhaps more than by shouting out-choruses. “Oh, Baby, Sweet Baby,” hardly one of the six songs Waller is best known for, is all gentle ambling down the path. And Shane is a wonderful singer. He can be theatrical, with vaudeville touches, but his understatement is exceedingly moving. (On this track, Kellso, quietly impassioned, and Dorn, master of those now-forgotten implements, wire brushes and the bass drum, outdo Waller’s own Rhythm.) “Lonesome Me” is a touching lament with a steadily beating swing heart. But Shane’s Fats isn’t a creature given to self-pity: a trio “Seek and Ye Shall Find,” featuring Levinson and Dorn, shows off Levinson’s bubbling tenor and Shane’s irresistibly comic vocalizing. The closing track, a Public Domain specialty that Fats never got to record, “Nothin’ on the Hawg,” is a paean to pork, inspired by a Cajun tune Mark transformed into “One O’Clock Jump” with cracklins. At the 2007 Atlanta Jazz Party, Mark introduced this number and got the audience to sing along – a priceless moment.

Mark’s earlier CD, RIFFLES, is a beautifully-recorded 2003 solo recital. The BBC has yet to call, but it’s one of my Desert Island Discs. The title composition prances, but I am most fond of two Benny Carter compositions from a 1933 “Chocolate Dandies” session that featured Teddy Wilson, Chu Berry, Max Kaminsky, and Sidney Catlett: “Blue Interlude” and “Once Upon A Time.” On both of them, Shane does something that physics tells us is impossible: he appears to stand still, lingering meditatively over cherished notes, letting them ring in mid-air, while quietly pushing the music forward with calm, unceasing rhythms. His own composition, “Along Came Shmendrick,” has the same clarity of approach, shining right-hand melodies laid over walking tenths and finely-wrought stride bass patterns. Beginning as a rubato homage to Fred and Ginger, “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” shifts into a happy stroll, appropriate to the simple pleasures of Berlin’s song.riffles-jpeg.jpg

Thirty years ago, I could direct readers to the “S” bins at Sam Goody, King Karol, or Happy Tunes to find these recordings. Those days are gone, so here is the necessary mercantile information: to purchase either CD ($16.95 including shipping), email Mark Shane at