Having a plethora of new compact discs to listen to is a wonderful thing, but it can make even the most devoted listener forget about the records of one’s past. But all of this can be repaired easily, and I am grateful to Todd Bryant Weeks, jazz scholar and trumpeter, for reminding me about Oran “Hot Lips” Page, the Texas-born trumpeter and jazz singer. Weeks’s biography of Lips, Luck’s In My Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page (Routledge) has just come out — and it is a thoroughly rewarding study.
It is impossible not to regret that such a book wasn’t written in the 1980s, when Lips’s colleagues Jo Jones, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Sammy Price (the list could go on) were alive and talkative, but Weeks is a first-rate researcher, so he has gleaned more than one would expect from oral histories, newspapers, letters, and interviews with the survivors, including Lips’s family. Weeks is also a calm, plain-spoken prose stylist, which makes the book a pleasure to read. As well, he is a jazz trumpeter himself, so the examination of Lips’s music is clear and enlightening. (In the evocative photograph by Charles Peterson, Lips is having a joyous time playing alongside another jazz warrior, Sidney Bechet, at Jimmy Ryan’s.)
Who was “Hot Lips” Page? An early Basieite, a Louis Armstrong disciple, a trumpeter with power, subtlety, and seemingly indefatigable swing, an inventive and touching blues singer, a musical sparkplug — the hero of “Harlem after hours,” an ebullient, down-home man and player. Although his career never blossomed as it should have, given his talents, he was also visible and active in changing styles in jazz and popular music: he could play with Eddie Condon, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Pearl Bailey, Big Joe Turner, Billie Holiday, and Wynonie Harris. His recorded career bridges early Kansas City swing and jump blues, Swing Era big bands, the transitional groups of the Forties and Fifties — and when he died, far too young, in 1954, rhythm and blues and early rock were in place. He could have given Ray Charles some fierce competition, the records prove.
The biography has a fine discography, so I hope that suitably-inspired readers will be able to search out such masterpieces as the 1951 “Sweet Sue,” recorded at a Rudi Blesh party, the irreplaceable live material Jerry Newman caught in 1940 and 1941 with pianist Donald Lambert, among others, including “I Got Rhythm,” “Konk,” and “My Melancholy Baby,” and the ad hoc 1950 Philadelphia concert that had Lips holding forth majestically on “Muskrat Ramble” and “Squeeze Me.” There’s a priceless duet with Fats Waller at Carnegie Hall in 1942, and some whooping 1952 sessions taken down from the Stuyvesant Casino with Joe Sullivan, Lou McGarity, and George Wettling.
Lips always had a great time working with Eddie Condon, as the rare Floor Show recordings and the — happily available — Town Hall broadcasts show. Search out “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street,” “Chinatown,” “What’cha Doin’ After The War?,” “Uncle Sam Blues,” and “The Sheik of Araby.” Glorious playing from a man whose casual intensity comes right through your headphones, someone worth discovering and re-discovering.