Monthly Archives: July 2008

PRIME LOUIS!

In the past decade, issues of new Louis Armstrong material have most often drawn on the All-Stars period, and are thus energetic, impassioned, but potentially narrow in their repertoire and performance. 

The one exception came out on Gosta Hagglof’s Ambassador label (see “Classic Jazz Productions” on my blogroll).  It is a collection of previously unknown 1939-1942 radio broadcast performances featuring the wondrous synergy of Louis and Sidney Catlett.   

The 2008 discovery that I have been enjoying is a two-disc set on the Jazz Heritage label.  One disc comes from Louis’s famous-but-unheard 1937 stint on the Fleischmann’s Yeast radio show, where he was the first African-American to host a program.  The performances, “fast and furious,” as the announcer says, are in excellent sound (remastered by our own Doug Pomeroy) and are wildly swinging.  The second disc is even more moving, even when the fidelity is lower: excerpts from Louis’s home tapes, including unaccompanied renditions of “Over The Rainbow” and”Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries,” jokes and ruminations, conversations with his wife and friends — priceless private glimpses into the life of a great man.

I won’t rhapsodize about the emotional and musical significance of this set — Louis-scholar Ricky Riccardi has done that with great eloquence on his blog, “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong,” in a posting of July 14.  (It’s also on my blogroll.)  This posting is just to say that the CDs are now more widely available for sale.  When they first appeared, you could find them only at the Louis Armstrong House in Corona, Queens.  Now, they can be purchased through www.jazzstore.com at a very congenial price.  You could also become a member of the Jazz Heritage Society: information about that is available at www.jazzheritage.org.  And how, you might ask, did I learn all this?  Nowhere else but at http://www.satchmo.net

Although he thought July 4, 1900 was his birthday, Louis was born on August 4, 1901.  Even if you order this CD set soon, it won’t come in time for his birthday — but a belated party is better than none.  And if you can tell yourself that it’s not important to hear Louis at home and in splendid 1937 form, keep such utterances private.  I’ll be listening to “The Love Bug Will Bite You,” and I won’t want to be distracted from it.  His story is our story, if we know how to listen to it.      

THE ELUSIVE FRANK NEWTON

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the remarkable jazz trumpeter Frank Newton in the last few weeks, even before having the opportunity to repost this picture of him (originally on JazzWax) — taken in Boston, in the late Forties, with George Wein and Joe Palermino. 

Jazz is full of players who say something to us across the years, their instrumental voices resounding through the murk and scrape of old records.  Some players seem to have led full artistic lives: Hawkins, Wilson, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Bob Wilber come to mind at the head of a long list.  Others, equally worthy, have had shorter lives or thwarted careers.   Bix, Bird, Brownie, to alliterate, among a hundred others.  And all these lives raise the unanswerable question of whether anyone ever entirely fulfills him or herself.  Or do we do exactly what we were meant to do, no matter how long our lifespan?  Call it Nurture / Nature, free will, what you will.     

But today I choose Frank Newton as someone I wish had more time in the sun.  His recorded legacy seems both singular and truncated.     

Frank Newton (who disliked the “Frankie” on record labels) was born in 1906 in Virginia.  He died in 1954, and made his last records in 1946.  A selection of the recorded evidence fills two compact discs issued on Jasmine, THE STORY OF A FORGOTTEN JAZZ TRUMPETER.    His Collected Works might run to four or five hours — a brief legacy, and there are only a few examples I know where an extended Newton solo was captured for posterity.  However, he made every note count. 

In and out of the recording sudios, he traveled in fast company: the pianists include Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Sonny White, Mary Lou Williams, Buck Washington, Meade Lux Lewis, Kenny Kersey, Billy Kyle, Don Frye, Albert Ammons, Joe Bushkin, Joe Sullivan, Sonny White, and Johnny Guarneri.  Oh, yes — and Art Tatum.  Singers?  How about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Although Newton first went into the studio with Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys in 1929 for Victor, the brilliant trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dicky Wells blaze most notably on those sessions. 

It isn’t until 1933 that we truly hear Newton on record.  This interlude, lasting less than a minute, takes place in the middle of Bessie Smith’s “Gimme A Pigfoot,” one of four vaudeville-oriented songs she recorded at her last session, one organized by John Hammond, someone who re-emerges in Newton’s story.  It was a magnificent all-star band: Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Benny Goodman (for a moment), Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, Billy Taylor on bass.  Hammond wanted Sidney Catlett on drums, but Bessie refused: “No drums.  I set the tempo.”  For all the rent-party trappings of the song, “Pigfoot” is thin material, requiring a singer of Bessie’s majesty to make it convincing.   

What one first notices about Newton’s solo is his subversive approach, his unusual tone and attack.  In 1933, the jazz world was rightly under the spell of Louis, which led to understandable extroversion.  Project.  Hit those high notes loud.  Sing out.  If you were accompanying a pop or blues singer, you could stay in the middle register, be part of the background, but aside from such notable exceptions as Joe Smith, Bubber Miley, trumpets were in the main assertive, brassy.  Dick Sudhalter thought Newton’s style was the result of technical limitations but I disagree; perhaps Newton was, like Tricky Sam Nanton, painting with sounds. 

Before Newton solos on “Pigfoot,” the record has been undeniably Bessie’s, although with murmurings from the other horns and a good deal of Washington’s spattering Hines punctuations.  But when Newton enters, it is difficult to remember that anyone else has had the spotlight.  Rather than boldly announce his presence with an upwards figure, perhaps a dazzling break, he sidles in, sliding down the scale like a man pretending to be drunk, whispering something we can’t quite figure out, drawling his notes with a great deal of color and amusement, lingering over them, not in a hurry at all.  His mid-chorus break is a whimsical merry-go-round up and down figure he particularly liked.  It’s almost as if he is teasing us, peeking at us from behind his mask, daring us to understand what he is up to.  The solo is the brief unforgettable speech of a great character actor, Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton, scored for jazz trumpet.  Another brassman would have offered heroic ascents, glowing upwards arpeggios; Newton appears to wander down a rock-choked slope, watching his footing.  It’s a brilliant gambit: no one could equal Bessie in scope, in power (both expressed and restrained) so Newton hides and reveals, understates.  And his many tones!  Clouded, muffled, shining for a brief moment and then turning murky, needling, wheedling, guttural, vocal and personal.  Considered in retrospect, this solo has a naughty schoolyard insouciance.  Given his turn in the spotlight, Newton pretends to thumb his nose at us.  Bessie has no trouble taking back the spotlight when she returns, but she wasn’t about to be upstaged by some trumpet-playing boy.     

Could any trumpet player, jazz or otherwise, do more than approximate what Newton plays here?  Visit http://www.redhotjazz.com/songs/bessie/gimmieapigfoot.ram to hear a fair copy of this recording.  (I don’t find that the link works: you may have to go to the Red Hot Jazz website and have the perverse pleasure of using “Pigfoot” as a search term.) 

The man who could play such a solo should have been recognized and applauded, although his talent was undeniably subtle.  (When you consider that Newton’s place in the John Kirby Sextet was taken by the explosively dramatic Charlie Shavers, Newton’s singularity becomes even clearer.)  His peers wanted him on record sessions, and he did record a good deal in the Thirties, several times under his own name.  But after 1939, his recording career ebbed and died. 

Nat Hentoff has written eloquently of Newton, whom he knew in Boston, and the man who comes through is proud, thoughtful, definite in his opinions, politically sensitive, infuriated by racism and by those who wanted to limit his freedoms.  Many jazz musicians are so in love with the music that they ignore everything else, as if playing is their whole life.  Newton seems to have felt that there was a world beyond the gig, the record studio, the next chorus.  And he was outspoken.  That might lead us back to John Hammond. 

Hammond did a great deal for jazz, as he himself told us.  But his self-portrait as the hot Messiah is not the whole story.  Commendably, he believed in his own taste, but he required a high-calorie diet of new enthusiasms to thrive.  Hammond’s favorite last week got fired to make way for his newest discovery.  Early on Hammond admired Newton, and many of Newton’s Thirties sessions had Hammond behind them.  Even if Hammond had nothing to do with a particular record, appearing on one major label made a competing label take notice.  But after 1939, Newton never worked for a mainstream record company again, and the records he made in 1944-1946 were done for small independent labels: Savoy (run by the dangerously disreputable Herman Lubinsky) and Asch (the beloved child of the far-left Moses Asch).  The wartime recording ban had something to do with this hiatus, but I doubt that it is the sole factor: musicians recorded regularly before the ban.  Were I a novelist or playwright, I would invent a scene where Newton rejects Hammond’s controlling patronage . . .  and falls from favor, never to return.  I admit this is speculation.  Perhaps it was simply that Newton chose to play as he felt rather than record what someone else thought he should.  A recording studio is often the last place where it is possible to express oneself freely and fully.  And I recall a drawing in a small jazz periodical from the late Forties, perhaps Art Hodes’ JAZZ RECORD, of Newton in the basement of an apartment building where he had taken a job as janitor so that he could read, paint, and perhaps play his trumpet in peace.  

I think of Django Reinhardt saying, a few weeks before he died, “The guitar bores me.”  Did Newton grow tired of his instrument, of the expectations of listeners, record producers, and club-owners?  On the rare recording we have of his speaking voice — a brief bit of a Hentoff interview — Newton speaks with sardonic humor about working in a Boston club where the owner’s taste ran to waltzes and “White Christmas,” but using such constraints to his advantage: every time he would play one of the owner’s sentimental favorites, he would be rewarded with a “nice thick steak.”  A grown man having to perform to be fed is not a pleasant sight, even though it is a regular event in jazz clubs.     

In addition, John Chilton’s biographical sketch of Newton mentions long stints of illness.  What opportunities Newton may have missed we cannot know, although he did leave Teddy HIll’s band before its members went to France.  It pleases me to imagine him recording with Django Reinhardt and Dicky Wells for the Swing label, settling in Europe to escape the racism in his homeland.  In addition, Newton lost everything in a 1948 house fire.  And I have read that he became more interested in painting than in jazz.  Do any of his paintings survive?  

Someone who could have told us a great deal about Newton in his last decade is himself dead — Ruby Braff, who heard him in Boston, admired him greatly and told Jon-Erik Kellso so.  And on “Russian Lullaby,” by Mary Lou WIlliams and her Chosen Five (Asch, reissued on vinyl on Folkway), where the front line is bliss: Newton, Vic Dickenson, and Ed Hall, Newton’s solo sounds for all the world like later Ruby — this, in 1944. 

In her notes to the Jasmine reissue, Sally-Ann Worsford writes that a “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” Newton “made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s.”  That large hall, peopled by loudly enthusiastic college students shouting for The Saints, would not have been his metier.  It is tempting, perhaps easy, to see Newton as a victim.  But “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” is never the sound we hear, even on his most mournful blues. 

The name Jerry Newman must be added here — and a live 1941 recording that allows us to hear the Newton who astonished other players, on “Lady Be Good” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” in duet with Art Tatum (and the well-meaning but extraneous bassist Ebenezer Paul), uptown in Harlem, after hours, blessedly available on a HighNote CD under Tatum’s name, GOD IS IN THE HOUSE.  

Jerry Newman was then a jazz-loving Columbia University student with had a portable disc-cutting recording machine.  It must have been heavy and cumbersome, but Newman took his machine uptown and found that the musicians who came to jam (among them Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Thelonious Monk, Joe Guy, Harry Edison, Kenny Clarke, Tiny Grimes, Dick Wilson, Helen Humes) didn’t mind a White college kid making records of their impromptu performances: in fact, they liked to hear the discs of what they had played.  (Newman, later on, issued some of this material on his own Esoteric label.  Sadly, he committed suicide.)  Newman caught Tatum after hours, relaxing, singing the blues — and jousting with Newton.  Too much happens on these recordings to write down, but undulating currents of invention, intelligence, play, and power animate every chorus.

On “Lady Be Good,” Newton isn’t in awe of Tatum and leaps in before the first chorus is through, his sound controlled by his mute but recognizable nonetheless.  Newton’s first chorus is straightforward, embellished melody with some small harmonic additions, as Tatum is cheerfully bending and testing the chords beneath him.  It feels as if Newton is playing obbligato to an extravagantly self-indulgent piano solo . . . . until the end of the second duet chorus, where Newton seems to parody Tatum’s extended chords: “You want to play that way?  I’ll show you!”  And the performance grows wilder: after the two men mimic one another in close-to-the-ground riffing, Newton lets loose a Dicky Wells-inspired whoop.  Another, even more audacious Tatum solo chorus follows, leading into spattering runs and crashing chords.  In the out- chorus, Tatum apparently does his best to distract or unsettle Newton, who will not be moved or shaken off.  “Sweet Georgia Brown” follows much the same pattern: Tatum wowing the audience, Newton biding his time, playing softly, even conservatively.  It’s not hard to imagine him standing by the piano, watching, letting Tatum have his say for three solo choruses that get more heroic as they proceed.  When Newton returns, his phrases are climbing, calm, measured — but that calm is only apparent, as he selects from one approach and another, testing them out, taking his time, moving in and outside the chords.  As the duet continues, it becomes clear that as forcefully as Tatum is attempting to direct the music, Newton is in charge.  It isn’t combat: who, after all, dominated Tatum?  But I hear Newton grow from accompanist to colleague to leader.  It’s testimony to his persuasive, quiet mastery, his absolute sense of his own rightness of direction (as when he plays a Tatum-pattern before Tatum gets to it).  At the end, Newton hasn’t “won” by outplaying Tatum in brilliance or volume, speed or technique — but he has asserted himself memorably.   

Taken together, these two perfomances add up to twelve minutes.  Perhaps hardly enough time to count for a man’s achievement among the smoke, the clinking glasses, the crowd.  But we marvel at them.  We celebrate Newton, we mourn his loss.

Postscript: in his autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, Wein writes about Newton; Hentoff returns to Newton as a figure crucial in his own development in BOSTON BOY and a number of other places.  And then there’s HUNGRY BLUES, Benjamin T. Greenberg’s blog (www.hungryblues.net).  His father, Paul Greenberg, knew Newton in the Forties and wrote several brief essays about him — perhaps the best close-ups we have of the man.  In Don Peterson’s collection of his father Charles’s resoundingly fine jazz photography, SWING ERA NEW YORK, there’s a picture of Newton, Mezz Mezzrow, and George Wettling at a 1937 jam session.  I will have much more to write about Peterson’s photography in a future posting.

BILL DUNHAM’S GOTHAM NEWS

An email received yesterday from Bill Dunham, pianist-leader and eminence of The Grove Street Stompers, who shake things up every Monday night at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street:

         You should have been there! We went to the tribute and benefit for Barbara Lea last night at the West Bank Cafe. Very moving! Sold out two weeks in advance. I first knew Barbara (at the time Barbara Leacock) when we were fixed up on a blind date – she at Wellesley and me at Harvard in 1950. She was a great singer even then. So good in fact that she was taken on as the vocalist with the Harvard Crimson Stompers – a student dixieland band – me a member.  Barbara as you know is not well and really doesn’t recognize anything. Very sad! She received countless warm tributes from the many stars present – Loren Schoenberg (with his Big Band including Dick Katz) , pianist Keith Ingham, many singers including Ronny Whyte, Steve Ross, Daryl Sherman, Karen Oberlin etc. They all spoke so lovingly about Barbara and what she has taught them over the years. Barbara is now 79.

 
        News Flash!! Randy Reinhart, fantastic cornetist and trombonist, is moving back to the area and is available for gigs! His cell number is (917) 273-5106. He is playing with the Grove Street Stompers this Monday at Arthur’s Tavern.
                                   Regards
                                                            Bill
 
————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–
Bill told me today that Randy had gotten marooned in California (a cancelled flight) and so Simon Wettenhall would be taking his place this Monday . . . but I gather the esteemed and modest Mr. Reinhart will be on the New York scene (with his lovely wife Nina) in the future. 

And since a person’s medical expenses are never completely taken care of, since the bills keep coming — here’s more information about aiding Barbara Lea for those who, like myself, didn’t get to the benefit. 

 

 

 

 

Donations can be made to:  Barbara Lea Fund c/o Jeanie Wilson, 212 Ramblewood Drive, Raleigh, NC 27609.  For further information kindly contact: Sue Matsuki, 917-821-4342, or or Karen Oberlin, 917-405-5181.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIVE JAZZ AT THE OLD RED SCHOOLHOUSE

The Beloved, who has a well-developed Sniffer for Things Interesting, pored over the Halifax, Nova Scotia newspapers and tourist handouts and found that there was jazz scheduled for this afternoon at Peggy’s Cove.  Yes, live jazz.  Everyone we had spoken to about their favorite spots had emphatically praised this one, so we set out this morning on a jaunt there — complete with provisions, maps, and the necessities of travel (in this case, money and a cassette of Ruby Braff and Dick Hyman exploring the score of My Fair Lady). 

It turned out to be a pleasant forty-five minute drive along the Atlantic Ocean, west of Halifax.  Aside from being somewhat overrun by tourists (and, lest you snicker, the Beloved and I are Travelers, a step up from Tourists) Peggy’s Cove was astonishingly beautiful, complete with an observant gull.

And we dined on that most relevant native delicacy — Nova Scotia smoked salmon — tender, moist, not oversalted.  Take that, Zabar’s!  (I confess that the photo is out-of-focus: my hands were trembling with anticipatory passion.) 

Then we heard the strains of live music coming from the old red schoolhouse, set on a rise. 

As we got closer, it sounded even better, and when we entered, it was jazz at its simplest and most unadorned: two gentlemen in an improvised duet.  One was seated at the piano — his name, we learned later, was Murray Brown, and he provided solid, sturdy harmonic backing and plain-spoken melodic embellishments that stood well on their own and were gracious accompaniment to the other player. 

He was Tobias Beale, who soloed on tenor sax, flute, sang, and even kept time on a cymbal near him, accenting it with occasional visits to a cowbell.  This was no novelty One-Man Band: he just wanted to do as much as he could to keep the rhythm going.  As a soloist, he reminded me of Al Cohn, moving lightly from phrase to phrase, with a good dose of Houston Person’s Southwestern passion in his attack, his bluesy swooping phrases. 

Brown and Beale knew the changes; their performances were both compact and fervent.   

There was a small audience, which kept shifting in and out, but the duo didn’t coast or take the easy way.  I would have expected less challenging materials, but their set (which we caught midway) began with Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” then shifted to “The Nearness of You,” took chances with “I Only Have Eyes For You.”  Beale proved himself a fine singer with a yearning “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” that honored Don Redman, then a solid reading of “Devil May Care,” finishing up with a Baker-inspired look at “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”  On that last song, a husband and wife got up and danced — proof of music’s power to spread happiness, to share emotions. 

The children in the audience were quiet, almost transfixed by the spectacle of two people playing unamplified musical instruments right in front of them.  We learned later that Beale taught all the reeds at the junior high and high schools, and some of the younger people who stopped in to chat after his set were his students.  I only hope that some of the rapt children then in attendance will go home and ask their parents for lessons on something that isn’t a guitar or a synthesizer. 

This duo will be appearing every Sunday at the same place.  We’ll be far away by then, but I hope some readers will take the opportunity to visit these two quiet jazz heroes, who are steadily working their way through the best repertoire, making some listeners smile and others dance.  Jazz is indeed where you find it, and it turns up in unexpected places, spreading spiritual largesse for the simple joy of playing.

“ANOTHER ROAD POST FROM LOX COUNTRY”

I can’t take credit for the witty title, invented by Marc Myers, Mister Jazz Wax (www.jazzwax.com).  More about his site’s latest treasures later.  “Lox country” refers to Nova Scotia, from whence this posting comes.   

I could happily discourse about Montreal bagels — reminiscent of those of my youth.  Thin, dense, chewy, although the hole in the middle seems much too large.  The Montreal bagel company runs six shops in that city, all open twenty-four hours.  My kind of metropolis! 

If I chose to be more grim, I could describe my becoming an all-you-can-bite mosquito buffet, but I will forego such grotesqueries. 

My text for today is a jazz book purchased in a Halifax shop, SUCH MELODIOUS RACKET: THE LOST HISTORY OF JAZZ IN CANADA, 1914-1949, by Mark Miller (Mercury Press, 1997) tracing that subject from the Creole Band’s 1914 tour to Oscar Peterson’s 1949 Carnegie Hall debut.  A perceptive historian, Miller is a diligent researcher of newspapers and oral histories who doesn’t get bogged down in details, and a sharp-eyed writer with no particular ideological position.  Since the first half of the book takes him only up to the early Twenties, much of his research seems social history — because the musical evidence is so limited and the records are not always convincing evidence of what jazz did get played.   

The book is full of fascinating snippets of information about American performers visiting Canada: Freddie Keppard, the Six Brown Brothers, Jelly Roll Morton, James “Slap Rags” White, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Mamie Smith, Wilbur Sweatman, Hollis Peavy and his Jazz Bandits (featuring a young Eddie Condon), Lloyd and Cecil Scott, Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells, the Casa Loma Orchestra, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Alphonso Trent, Stuff Smith, J.C. Higginbotham, Billie Holiday, Louis Metcalfe, even Sonny Rollins.  As a sidelight, it contains the only portrait photograph I have ever seen of pianist Dave Bowman (1914-1964), born to Canadian parents in Buffalo, New York — a beautifully subtle player, reminiscent of Jess Stacy, who often appeared with Condon, Hackett, Bud Freeman, the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, and George Wettling. 

MiIller’s book is most interesting in his thorough overview of Canadian jazz orchestras and soloists who escaped the attention of American historians: the Original Winnipeg Jazz Babies, Shirley K. Oliver, Andy Tipaldi and his Melody Kings, the Canadian Ambassadors, Trump Davidson, Bert Niosi (“Canada’s King of Swing”), Sandy De Santis (“The Benny Goodman of Canada”), Irving Laing, Al McLeod (“The White Tatum”), and better-known Canadians: Kenny Kersey, Al Lucas, Buster Harding, George Auld, Maynard Ferguson, and Louis Hooper.  Equally intriguing are passages drawn from interviews with Black players about racism in Montreal and elsewhere.   

My only regret is that this book did not come with an accompanying CD.  Is there one or a comparable anthology?  Can any Canadian reader enlighten me in this?

Back to JazzWax for a moment, to conclude.  Marc has embarked on a series of interviews with George Wein, impresario and pianist.  I have always been prejudiced against Wein as a player of limited gifts whose accompaniments held back Ruby Braff, PeeWee Russell, and others — but jazz would have been much poorer if he had become the doctor his parents wanted.  And Marc has offered pictures of Wein with two of my heroes.  In the first, the trumpeter to Wein’s left is Frankie Newton (the bassist Joe Palermino); in the second, taken by Robert Parent, the recognizable constellation of stars at Storyville, 1950, is Sidney Catlett and Hoagy Carmichael.  These two photographs make me feel much more generous towards Wein, for we are indeed known by the company we keep.

NOTHING BUT THE BLUES!

When you travel far from urban centers, you meet wonderful new people and see sights and sites you wouldn’t otherwise.  All quite exciting and often rewarding.  And I don’t miss the wild proliferation of cellphone stores and nail salons of my native New York.  But I must be a born homebody, for I miss so many things while on the road, mostly food — spicy cuisine, the easy availability of goods I’m used to (tasty wholegrain bread, bagels, Martin’s pretzels).  You can make your own list.  Johnny Hodges, who knew about life on the road, wrote a song, THE THINGS YOU MISS.   

And I miss hip FM radio, especially jazz radio.  (I know I could pay for Sirius or XM, but I’m not ready: remember that I still have cassettes at home and have only recently begun to covet an Ipod and you will know how far behind the curve I am.  But I digress, unapologetically.)  Driving from Maine into Canada, I’ve been struck, once again, by how lucky people are who can hear NPR — to say nothing of the joys of idiosyncratic college radio stations. 

In Canada, I heard some reassuring Dvorak and Bach, but much more generic pop-rock and a good deal of local newsbreaks about the man who died after police used a stun gun on him . . . .

So it was a soul-stirring pleasure today to hear the strains of a later-period Goodman-Sextet style ROYAL GARDEN BLUES come out of the car speakers, without fanfare.  The guitar soloist went on indefatigably, in the manner of the late Charlie Christian, leading me to suspect that it might be Herb Ellis, bluesy, profane, profound.  When he was followed for a few choruses by two of the most recognizable soloists in jazz — Stan Getz and Roy Eldridge — I thanked the Fates for this six-minute interlude.  And to hear the announcer then render the album title as RIEN MAIS LES BLUES or some such was an added treat.  (My faux-French shouldn’t obscure that what I heard came from a Verve CD reissue of a Herb Ellis session, NOTHING BUT THE BLUES, truly worth searching out.)   

JOHN GILL’S NATIONAL SALOON BAND

Heat and humidity make August a terrible time in New York City.  Therapists flee; Yorkshire terriers and Great Danes pant; air-conditioners drip; the asphalt shimmers in a most unappealing way. 

But Bruce McNichols, of the Smith Street Society Jazz Band, just sent me good news. 

John Gill, that understated virtuoso of the banjo, National guitar, and trombone, and a compelling, loose-limbed vocalist, has got an August gig — Sundays from 7 to 11 PM at the National Underground.  What’s more, he’s assembled some of my favorite individualists — Terry Waldo on piano and vocals, McNichols himself on banjo, soprano sax, and vocals, Brian Nalepka on bass, tuba, and vocals, and the pensive but ferociously swinging Kevin Dorn on drums.  You’ll have to visit the club every Sunday in August to see if Kevin can be enticed to croon a chorus by the end of the night.  I imagine the joint will jump with John’s own mix of ragtime, hot jazz, blues, and rockabilly.  I won’t be there and I’m sorry I won’t hear John sing: he knows the lyrics to both “Tishomingo Blues” and “Did You Ever see A Dream Walking?”  How many men can say that? 

The National Underground is at 159 East Houston Street (at Allen Street) (212.475.0611) and this band is a rare treat.  Bring several large handkerchiefs, a bottle of water from the freezer.  Don’t miss it!

RETTA CHRISTIE SINGS!

 

When I got a copy of Retta Christie’s new CD, RETTA CHRISTIE WITH DAVID EVANS AND DAVE FRISHBERG (Retta Records 002) I knew only one member of that trio — the redoubtable Mr. Frishberg.  I put the disc on as I did that night’s dinner dishes — what could be more in the true American spirit than that?    

Now, I am a long-time musical elitist, taking this position early by my stated preference for jazz, not Gary Lewis and the Payboys.  And my first reaction to the mention of “country and western” was to think of Buddy Rich’s quip, when hospitalized, that it was the only thing he was allergic to.  So I was mildly suspicious of a CD that had “Ridin’ Down the Canyon” on it, and even Frishberg’s name didn’t entirely soothe me.

But I was willing to give tnis CD a try — my friend Barb Hauser, the Sage of Bay Area jazz, often spoke admiringly of Retta — and much of the repertoire on it was more than reassuring.  “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?” has a fine pedigree (I know Bing’s record by heart, and I am looking forward to John Gill’s version for Stomp Off).  I had listened to a fair amount of Thirties Western Swing, to the country-meets-jazz jamming of Butch Thompson, Peter Ostrushko, and others on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, and the cowboy jazz that Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri created in their group Brockmumford. 

When I began to listen to Retta’s singing (and her nimble, unflagging time — she plays brushes through most of the CD) I was charmed, entranced . . . . hooked.   

I was first attracted to the sound of the trio.  As a soloist and accompanist, Frishberg is peerless.  In one of his bits of memoir, he says that he would have liked to sound like Jimmy Rowles.  Here, he often succeeds in his own way, never copying J.R.: Dave’s swinging waywardness, his way of finding melodies in corners no one would think to look in, his wry comedies (hear his commentary on “a coyote whining for hie mate” on “Ridin’ Down The Canyon”) are irreplaceable.  I doubt that he will establish the Dave Frishberg School for Pianists — mail-order, with transcribed solosfor amateur pianists like myself — but I’ll sign up.    

I had never heard or heard of David Evans, but I see that my horizons have been woefully limited.  His tenor and clarinet playing is loose, amiable, lyrical.  I thought of Al Cohn, of Eddie Miller, of Lester Young — and not because he offers the listener a plateful of phrases they made famous.  Evans knows how to purr, to muse, or to jump off the highest diving board, eyes closed, into a solo.  When the two Davids explore “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Louise” in duet, the result is thoughtful, moving music.  Backed by Retta’s neat brushwork, this trio sounded deliciously like Mel Powell’s Vanguard trios of the Fifties — particularly the one with Paul Quinichette, but also the session with Ruby Braff and the one lovely number, “When Did You Leave Heaven?” that Powell recorded with Jimmy Buffington on French horn. 

But I have intentionally left Retta Christie for last, as hers is the best surprise.  When I first heard her sing, I thought her approach so artless that it seemed unadorned, as if the guitar player’s girlfriend had gotten up and sung her favorite number.  But I seriously underestimated her singing.  Its emotional directness and simplicity got to me fast.  She doesn’t show off; she doesn’t insist on being the star.  She has a speaking delivery, but it isn’t a matter of being untrained or unsophisticated.  Rather, she wants us to hear the words because they mean something — and she delights in presenting the melodies as if they were beautiful and swinging.  Which they are! 

Without acting or overacting, Retta brings a rare tenderness to her material — Floyd Tillman’s “This Cold War With You,” “On Treasure Island,” as well as “I’ll String Along With You.”  You will hear echoes of Patsy Cline, but also of Connee Boswell and Nan Wynn.  And she can ride the rhythm on a swinging song — the rarely-heard “Lost” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer). 

I find myself returning to this session regularly, for its sincerity and wit — and I predict you will too.  The disc is avaliable at Retta’s website (www.rettachristie.com), where you can also learn about her other recordings and live gigs, should you be in the Pacific Northwest.  I never thought I’d find myself humming “Ridin’ Down The Canyon,” but I do, with pleasure.  Thanks, Retta.     

 

 

WHEN JAZZ WAS FASHIONABLE

This grainy newspaper ad for Adam Hats shows the Benny Goodman Sextet of 1941, with Davey Tough nearly dwarfed by his hat, Charlie Christian looking somewhat startled by his.  I presume that is Johnny Guarneri in the back left corner, bassist Artie Bernstein next to Charlie, and who could mistake Cootie Williams — with or without a blazing necktie — and Georgie Auld for anyone else?  Benny looks comfortable with his hat: more power to him. 

I include this advertisement here because jazz musicians were usually trend-setters in fashion, and because it summons up a time when they were also iconic figures: WEAR THE HAT THAT DAVE TOUGH WEARS would be good enough for me, then or now.

The photo is taken from Leo Valdes’s encyclopedic Charlie Christian website, SOLO FLIGHT, http://home.elp.rr.com/valdes/index.html — hugely diverting and informative even if you don’t play the guitar or have no intention of wearing a fedora.

A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND

 

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided everyone into two types: those whose knowledge was broad but not deep, and the reverse.  One he characterized as a hedgehog, the other a fox, and I do not remember which animal reportedly had which intellectual profile. 

But yesterday the Beloved and I met a man who knows many things well AND deeply, and I celebrate him.  He’s BOB WIRTZ, and he’s on his way to Ohio to look at another huge record collection. 

While we were in Portland, Maine, a lovable town, I spied a used record store on Congress Street.  ENTERPRISE RECORDS was closed whenever I walked by, and it became even more enticing: records arranged neatly in browsers, a Jim Hall – Bill Evans issue in the window.  On our last day in town, I walked over and stood in front of the window, disappointed that I wouldn’t get in.  As I was about to turn away, the door opened and a compact, thoughtful man in a red floral shirt asked quietly if he could do anything for me.  I identified myself as a jazz collector and asked if I could come in for a few minutes if I promised not to talk to him.  He grinned, waved me in, saying that talking was OK, although he was on his way to Ohio. 

Since I get overwhelmed easily, I was happy he didn’t have acres of jazz records — but (to paraphrase Spencer Tracy) what he had was choice: from Sweet Emma Barrett at Preservation Hall to Herman Foster to Sun Ra and beyond.  I gleefully found a reissue of one of the Dicky Wells Felsted sessions (Benny Morton, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones), a Columbia two-record Jimmy Rushing reissue which contained a few duets with Helen Humes backed by Ben Webster, and a Jim Robinson record that had the poetic Raymond Burke in the band — all for less than twenty dollars.  My kind of music!  When we fell into collectors’ conversation, I learned that Bob had run this store for twenty-one years and was interested in most kinds of music. 

The conversation turned to more normal matters — like food — when the Beloved entered, and we told him that we were on our way north and had been told to stop at a famous tourist spot, Moody’s Diner, for its good food, its local color, its popularity.  Bob said with great intensity, “You don’t want to go THERE!  Everything there is straight out of the freezer!”  He was fervent and compelling and offered an alternative in Gardiner, the A-1 Diner.  And anyone who worries that people will eat poor food and warns them away from it is someone to treasure. 

We found Moody’s Diner en route, and stopped in to see if Bob was right.  Oh, was he ever!  The iced coffee was distinguished only by being brown and wet; the packaged slices of pie had been left over from a James Whale film shoot, and the best thing was the restroom . . . .

Thank you, Bob Wirtz!  May all your enterprises prosper.

BOB WIRTZ, ENTERPRISE RECORDS, 650 CONGRESS STREET, PORTLAND, MAINE 04101 (207.773.7672).  enterpriserex@aol.com; www.enterpriserecords.net

JAZZ LOST, JAZZ FOUND: DAVE McKENNA, BOBBY HACKETT, VIC PIERCE, J.C. HEARD, “DIXIE LAND”

It may be apocrypha, or a bit of crypto-knowledge passed around in adolescence, but I remember reading that the Zen masters taught the art of indirection.  If you truly want to get a bull’s eye in archery or other endeavors, close your eyes.  Stop aiming so earnestly.  It might work very poorly with real arrows, but it is a strong piece of metaphysics.  One way to have something you want badly come to you is to assume the attitude that Castiglione, in The Book of the Courtier, called sprezzatura — nonchalance — and the desired object will, in its own time, show up, although it may take years.  

Those ruminations are supported by my recent experiences at a yard sale in Portland, Maine (the town I am now writing from), flea markets in Woodstock, New York, and Lambertsville, New Jersey. 

I’ve spent a long time as an anthropologist-without-credentials in New York suburbs, where such informal commerce proliferates.  Hence the following generalities.  Yard sales seem feminized: they put forth outgrown baby clothing, coffee mugs and bread machines, mystery novels, self-help books, videocassettes and other amiable domestic debris.  Garage sales often seem male: shovels and power drills, six-packs of automobile engine additive, rock salt for clearing snowy sidewalks.  Both of them, true to their names, are held outdoors, goods sprawling across lawns and driveways.  Tag and “estate” sales, cutting across gender lines, pretend to be far more serious affairs, run by officious professionals who place price tags on clothing, jewelry, or furniture.  But all four varieties of sale might have a box of phonograph records, sometimes hidden under a table, objects of limited importance. 

Two days ago, at a Portland yard sale, I was drawn to a carton of long-playing records.  Usually they’re low-level knockoffs (“The Hollyridge Strings Play the Beatles”), Christmas collections by Andy Williams, 1970s Carly Simon, motion picture soundtracks, heavy metal, disco hits.  Jazz is understandably rare.  So I was astounded to see a Dave McKenna solo record, LULLABIES IN JAZZ, on the Realm label, recorded in 1963.  Before he was recognized as a phenomenonal solo pianist, McKenna had recorded only twice on his own — one Fifties session for ABC-Paramount; and this one for Realm.  I had never before seen this record and had only heard selections from it — all the songs have to do with sleep, the kind of gimmickry that record producers thought would sell records — on Ed Beach’s WRVR-FM jazz program, circa 1972.  Incidentally, the original lp has this quote from Oscar Peterson: “Dave McKenna’s left hand is a full rhythm section.”  How true!     

For perhaps twenty years, McKenna and Bobby Hackett were friends and musical associates.  Hackett, who had played with everyone, thought McKenna unquestionably the finest pianist he had ever worked with.  So it was fitting that, a few records deeper into the same box, I should find a Columbia stereo record, NIGHT LOVE, featuring Hackett playing classical and semi-classical themes over a lush background arranged by Glenn Osser.  What could be better than to hear Hackett muse over Puccini’s “Un bel di” from Madame Butterfly?  For whatever reason, this record is still sealed — no one has played it since purchasing it in 1962.  A musical time-capsule, perhaps?  Each record cost me twenty-five cents: a small price for such music and such associations.  And, in the fashion of the time, the covers of both records sport attractively dreamy women, their larger-than-life faces turned toward the camera, sending some message or other.   

In true secular-Zen fashion, while loafing around cyberspace, preparing for this posting, I found that there is a McKenna website — which I urge you to visit, especially because it has more than a half-dozen beautifully-recorded and authorized solo CDs for sale.  The proceeds go directly to Dave, who is no longer performing.  It’s http://www.aahome.com/dave.

A few weekends back, the Beloved and I went to Woodstock, New York, to experience this fabled town.  We spent a pleasant few hours at the official flea market, whose range was astonishing.  I sniffed out several boxes of records, most of them dull or odd, at least to me.  But one man had a few 78s in a binder.  Usually 78s are Forties and Fifties pop (Arthur Godfrey, Xavier Cugat, Eddie Fisher), polkas, or symphonies.  In this context, a Goodman record is a find, and the mint Keynote 78 of a small band led by drummer J.C. Heard a revelation: ALL MY LIFE and GROOVIN’ WITH J.C., featuring Buck Clayton, Flip Phillips, Johnny Guarneri, Milt Hinton, and Heard.  What was even more resonant was that the paper sleeve someone had kept this 78 in had once housed Charlie Parker’s Dial record, “Dewey Square,” certainly a powerful association.  Someone, who may now be dead, had very good taste,  Thank you, whoever and wherever you are.   

Another box offered up the lp, “ON THE ROAD with The Vic Pierce Orchestra,” clearly a home-grown production on a local label.  Born Vito Pesce in Woodmere (another suburb), Pierce was a bassist, so the cover of this record was clever — a line drawing of an automobile-sized string bass on wheels, driving on to the gig.  That in itself wouldn’t have convinced me to buy it, but the liner notes said that several songs featured trumpeter Billy Butterfield.  Online research uncovered little about Pierce except that he died not long ago: I would have liked to ask him about this record date.  Cost: three dollars for the pair.

Thumbing with tepid interest through a box of audiocassettes — almost all professionally made — I stopped cold when I saw the handwritten words PEE WEE RUSSELL / EDMOND HALL on the side of a box.  Someone in the early Seventies had used this then new medium to make a portable listening experience, ninety minutes long, of favorite selections by these two clarinet masters, with Dave Tough, George Wettling, Wild Bill Davison, and others.  The cassette’s owner was male (judging by his handwriting) and meticulous: each song had its personnel listed, its origin.  Someone had treasured this music and loved this cassette: the dollar I paid for it was a fraction of its emotional worth and warmth.     

Finally, DIXIE LAND, its title reproduced accurately, which I found at a flea market in Lambertsville, New Jersey, the sole trophy of an unpromising visit.  (Neither the Beloved nor I had realized that devoted buyers and sellers start their pirouettes at 6 AM on a Sunday, so we showed up quite late by community standards, and it was parchingly hot.)  An obviously serious record collector had his inventory arranged, without prices, by genre.  I looked through the assorted jazz and found nothing essential except a fairly tattered low-cost issue featuring Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Lou Carter, “Arnell” Shaw, and Jo Jones.  What made this record desirable wasn’t the splendid music, which I had already heard, but the cover picture — Pee Wee dressed in a plaid shirt, Jo Jones bending over to say something to one of his colleagues, Bud Freeman sharp in suit and tie, Buck Clayton laughing at something Lou Carter had just said.  I had never seen the photograph, still lively in nearly garish shades.  Considering it as a possible purchase, I slid the record out of its sleeve and saw it was worn, saying politely to the dealer, “This one looks somewhat chewed.  What do you want for it?”  He took umbrage at these sentiments and snapped at me, “I’ll tell you what the condition is,” and continued abruptly, “Two dollars.  And don’t try to get the price any lower.”  I would have paid four, so I handed him two singles, thanked him, and said no more.  Even though I am far from a phonograph, these acquisitions will enliven me in September.   

What’s the moral?  Perhaps this: with luck, nothing is really ever lost.  Unless they are smashed or burnt, the venerated artifacts of someone else’s past come around, as they should, to new owners who appreciate them anew.  Yes, so much has disappeared, but so much remains to be cherished.   

And, going back to the apocryphal Zen masters: if the only way to assure yourself of a desired result is to give up hoping for it, let me declare right now that I renounce all the Bluebird 78s by Frankie Newton.  I have no thoughts of any Nat Pierce records with Ruby Braff, Phil Woods, and Doug Mettome.  I eschew and abjure all jazz acetates or test pressings.  Is that clear?  Meanwhile, I am going to treasure the things that I have found: worth so much more than I paid for them, rare and special.

WHITNEY BALLIETT: AN AUDIO POSTSCRIPT

Click (http://www.theconnection.org/shows/2001/02/20010206_a_main.asp) to hear an hour-long interview on WBUR-FM where Whitney Balliett talks about jazz and some of his favorite recordings.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.     

 

BLOGGIN’ AROUND: PAGES WORTH READING

I know that anyone who now and again leaves the house and the keyboard might groan, “More things to read? Please, in the name of Jimmie Blanton, no!” So I will keep this brief.

Two blogs that have given me special, consistent pleasure are Marc Myers’ JAZZ WAX and Ricky Riccardi’s THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG, both listed on my blogroll, so discovery and gratification are only a scroll and a click away.

Marc’s blog is a heroic endeavor: he puts something new online every day, sharp prose next to witty photographs and graphics. His stated focus is recorded jazz, but he has gone far beyond simple appreciation or discography. He’s a fiercely attentive listener who hears beneath the obvious. And he has gone out of his way to interview some of jazz’s most pivotal but often underrated figures — how about Danny Bank, Eddie Bert, Dan Morgenstern, Chris Connor, Roy Haynes, and the like? We don’t share identical tastes — I am a dinosaur to his modernity and vice versa, but he never writes a trivial phrase, and his comedy is as affecting as his insights.

Ricky (not an alias) Riccardi is a not-yet-thirty Louis Armstrong disciple. He, too, has wise ears and a phenomenal reach. His long analyses of particular recordings are entertaining jazz scholarship of the highest order, and he generously provides substantial sound clips, so that when he’s written lovingly about every record Louis and others made of “West End Blues,” we can hear them as we read, enabling the best kind of comparative art analysis. And his love for Louis is deep, knowing, and objective — he won’t write that every version of a particular song is equally compelling, although he is the first person I know to state in print that he would like to hear another version of “Pretty Little Missy.”

These blogs are worth a visit. I find myself edified, amused, provoked, and moved. You will, too.

NEW YORK, JAZZ PLAYGROUND

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” That was the introductory voice-over I remember from the fabled television show depicting New York City’s urban grittiness. I don’t know how many stories there are as I write this in July 2008, but here is my story — one man’s nearly obsessive quest to soak up all the choice live jazz possible before leaving New York for a long pastoral summer vacation. The score at the moment is (approximately) four Kellsos, two Asheries, two Aldens, one Hendricks, and so on. Tally up the totals at your own peril.

On Sunday, June 29, I took my position at THE EAR INN (326 Spring Street), knowing that the Earregulars would swing out in inimitable fashion, and a quartet of Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Block, Howard Alden, and Frank Tate devoted themselves to some surprising music: a rousing “Ring Dem Bells,” “When I Take My Sugar To Tea,” then, joined by the brilliant alto / flute player Andy Farber, who leads his own seventeen-piece band at Birdland on Sundays, they stretched out on “Russian Lullaby” and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” before ending with a jam session on “Honeysuckle Rose,” made even more brilliant by violinist Craig Eastman, Frank Tate’s talented cousin.

The music was stirring, the camaraderie was happy: I got to meet and talk with the owners of an upscale Australian chocolate company (www.chocolategrove.com), Will and Dianne Muddyman, in town to show off their products at the Jacob Javits Center. They are a lovely couple, funny and well-informed: we were trading names of Australian jazz heroes in spirited fashion.

On Tuesday, July 1, I made my way to ROTH’S WESTSIDE STEAKHOUSE (630 Columbus Avenue at 93rd Street) to hear the weekly duet — in this case, pianist Ehud Asherie and Howard Alden. Listening to their inspired teamwork, I thought often of the 1941 “Waiting for Benny” warmup session captured by Columbia’s engineers that brought together Charlie Christian and Johnny Guarneri, Alden’s single-string lines perfectly complementing Asherie’s stride and walking tenths. Their repertoire was magically wide-ranging, moving without strain from Waller’s “Viper’s Drag” and “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” to Monk’s “Ruby My Dear,” Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” and “King Porter Stomp” with all their strains properly attended to, as well as a Fred Astaire cluster of “Change Partners” and “I Won’t Dance.” Barbara Rosene (high-class local talent) sat in and sang a pretty, yearning “I’m Confessin’,” and the duo offered a delightful Brazilian contrapuntal song, “Lamentos,” which was new to me (Ehud said it was a choros, although whether I am using the term correctly I have no idea).

Here, too, the pleasure was personal as well as gustatory (he steaks are excellent at Roth’s): I met the genial owner Marc Roth, a committed-to-the-point-of-piety jazz fan who donates his time and energies to the Jazz Foundation of America. It was a real pleasure to meet a club owner who sees good music as integral to his business.

Two days later, I visited Ehud and Jon-Erik again, this time for a Thursday duet session at SMALLS (183 Tenth Street at Seventh Avenue South) with the compact room filled more than usual, which pleased me greatly. As I climbed downstairs, they were floating through a truly slow “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” The tempo made that song (often turned into a quick-step) into a wistful love ballad. But their next tune, a “Whispering” that kept turning into “Groovin’ High,” was just as rewarding, and I noted that these two players have been more intuitively connected each time I’ve heard them — two like-minded improvisers turning into a team reminiscent of Hackett and McKenna, Braff and Hyman. It was a most rewarding hour.

Oh — and the personal angle? When I walked in, I heard a pleased voice (in an accent that wasn’t Queens) say my name, and I turned around to see a beaming Will and Dianne at the bar. We had an even more lively chat afterwards — with hopes for a more leisurely encounter in the future.

We didn’t hear any live jazz on July 4 — but since Louis thought that day was his birthday, it has the status of a sacred day.

On Saturday, July 5, the Beloved and I went to the JAZZ STANDARD (116 East 27th Street) to catch the early show of what was billed as “Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross Redux,” featuring one of the elders of the tribe, Jon Hendricks — now eighty-six, dapper and bouncing in a yellow blazer — his daughter Aria, and the anchor of the trio, Kevin Burke Fitzgerald. At eighty-six, Hendricks manages vocal calisthenics with the skill and wit of a man one-third his age. He led the trio rather than keeping up with it. Aria has a lovely, supple vocal instrument and a dynamic stage presence; Fitzgerald not only sang his parts wonderfully but stopped the show twice, hilariously impersonating a muted brass player, then an arco bass soloist — magical impersonations, theatrical as well as musical. He’s a true star and he deserves to be widely known.

Sunday, July 6, was a Kellso-and-friends doubleheader. I found my way to a new spot in the Broadway restaurant district, the sympathetically-named BOURBON STREET (346 West 46th Street), where the band was scheduled for their first brunch appearance (12-4). All the omens and portents were good: the restaurant is a huge space, two floors with high ceilings, marble floors, and a wrought-iron balcony. This isn’t simple decoration: the band was positioned on the second floor, playing without amplification, and their sound was brilliantly resonant, the room “live” the way such places used to be. The quartet was an uptown version of Kellso’s gifted crew, with Dan Block on clarinet and tenor, John Gill on banjo, guitar, and vocals, and Kelly Friesen on bass. And I got to sit with Doug Pomeroy, renowned audio engineer and deep-dyed jazz listener, so that we could trade inside stories.

Musically, it was one of those extra-special occasions where the jazz was quiet but rose to new heights on every song, from a hymnlike “Old Fashioned Love,” to a floating “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” and intense explorations of “Wabash Blues” and “Apex Blues.” Jon-Erik and Dan are profound soloists and deeply attuned team players, filling gaps, finishing each other’s sentences. Kelly Friesen nimbly managed to bring together the great slap-bass he learned from Milt Hinton and witty bebop references. John Gill provided his own recogniable pulse, wonderful chord voicings — and his own Bing Crosby-inspired versions of “When You’re Smiling,” “an uptempo “Pretty Baby,” “Sweethearts on Parade,” and — for a socko finish, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” The Irish connection? One of the owners, Brian Connell, hails from Blanchardstown, a Dublin suburb, and we traded local lore. I hope that the place prospers as a site for live jazz: the acoustics are wonderful, the food delicious, the staff cheerful.

After a brief interval devoted to non-jazz realities, I drove downtown to The Ear Inn for a hail-and-farewell* Sunday night with The Earregulars — Jon-Erik, trombone marvel Harvey Tibbs, bassist Pat O’Leary, and guitarist Chris Flory — joined for the second set by Dan Block, on his third gig of the day. If the mood at Bourbon Street had been distinctly New Orleanian, this band had its heart firmly set in late-swing-early-bop (think 1946 Savoy, Keynote). Perhaps without any hidden egocentrism, they chose songs for the second set that had their first word in common: “I Never Knew,” “I Want A Little Girl,” “I Would Do Most Anything For You,” a heartfelt “I Only Have Eyes For You,” featruing Dan, Chris, and Pat, and “I Want To Be Happy.” A closing “C Jam Blues” broke the pattern but was a delicious slow-rocking exploration. I got to chat with Jackie Kellso and the young trombonist Emily Asher (known for her work with the ensemble “Mighty Aphrodite,” which lives up to its billing) — another pleasure.

I don’t know if I could keep up this pace on a regular basis — occasionally my eyes threatened to close of their own accord, and I did go outside and stand on the street between sets to gulp some air — but my jazz marathon was richly rewarding.

Never fear, though, loyal readers: I will be posting on this blog wherever I go.

*I was doing the farewelling: happily for New Yorkers, that band will continue even when I’m not there.  Reassuring, that.

“BOTTOM BLUES” BY ALBERT AMMONS AND HIS RHYTHM KINGS

Although I can’t envision life without daily infusions of stride piano, I’ve never managed to warm up much to boogie-woogie. At its peak, that late-Thirties style featured three rotund, cheerful players — Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson — whose collective sonic effect was a roaring express train aimed at the listener. But each one of the trio was a splendid soloist who could venture beyond eight-to-the-bar conventions, given the chance. Their slow and medium-tempo blues, especially, moaned and rocked. And they were superb leaders and accompanists: Big Joe Turner and Johnson made a wonderful team. But Albert Ammons is not often given his due.

Born in 1907, Ammons died young, but he made some marvelous band recordings. There’s a 1936 Decca session recorded in Chicago featuring trumpeter Guy Kelly (whose mournful voice you hear on Jimmie Noone’s “The Blues Jumped A Rabbit,” recorded around the same time). That’s the band pictured at the top of this posting, his “Rythm Kings.”

Slightly later, there was a romping session with Harry James (a Texan who knew how to play the blues), the Port of Harlem Jazzmen for Blue Note, and a 1944 Commodore session that produced four titles. One of them is an instrumental slow blues, “Bottom Blues.” Whether the title refers to the tempo, the overall funkiness, or the reference is anatomical, the music is imperishable.

On February 12, Milt Gabler, the patron saint of Commodore (pictured here in his record shop — thanks to the late William Gottlieb for capturing this shrine for posterity), put together one of those compact bands that blossomed in 1944 on Keynote, Savoy, Blue Note, Wax, Jamboree, and other small jazz labels. Most jazz historians ritually excoriate James C. Petrillo, then president of the musicians’ union, for provoking the record ban of that period, but the irony is that the ban provoked some enterprising jazz-lovers into capturing transcendent music that the major labels wouldn’t have been interested in. For once, commerce and art — however unintentionally — worked together.

Jazz listeners are always frustrated record producers, who think, “That band would have been just perfect if I had been able to replace Kid Pippin with Sox McGonigle,” on into the night, but this sextet admits no such after-the-fact meddling.

In the jazz family tree of recording dates, we can find connections among the three horn players, but this is the only record date I know of with this front line: Hot Lips Page on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone, and Don Byas on tenor sax. As a teenager, bassist Israel Crosby had worked and recorded with Ammons in Chicago, and Big Sid Catlett — everyone’s first choice — was in town.

The four selections recorded that day are all blues — medium slow, medium, fast, and slow. Page and Dickenson were known as splendid bluesmen, squeezing Dionysiac ecstasies into the narrow confines of twelve bars. Byas’s style may have seemed more urbane, but he had deep Basie – Kansas City roots as well, and he plays nobly. The slow tempo, in addition, keeps him from falling back on the up-hill-and-down-dale rhythmic patterns he liked when he picked up speed, echoing Coleman Hawkins.

Gabler liked to give his musicians a chance to stretch out both live and in the studio, and he usually recorded on 12″ 78 RPM records — almost always earmarked for classical discs — that allowed another full minute of playing.  (Had this been recorded on the much more common 10″ disc, the ensemble would have concluded, probably in haste, when Lips Page’s chorus was over.) 

“Bottom Blues” is structurally very simple — a series of solo improvisations on the twelve-bar blues form, leading up to ensemble riffing at the end. Ammons begins with a musing, suspended-animation four-bar introduction, almost tentatively setting the key, the tempo, and the mood, before moving into a simply played blues — with only Catlett, on brushes, behind and alongside him. It’s as if he’s thinking about what he might be playing while he is doing it.

Catlett, as I’ve written in this blog, could play with great force and volume.  Although he adds notable intensity as the performance builds, he sticks to the wire brushes rather than using sticks.  In his solo chorus, Ammons offers brief glimpses of familiar piano blues motifs, but with surprising delicacy.  He does suggest eight-to-the-bar rolling rhythms at several points, but they are implied rather than stated: his bass patterns hint at Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, even Fats Waller. The effect is thoughtful rather than assertive, and someone hearing this recording for the first time might not identify him as a famed boogie-woogie stylist.

Vic Dickenson takes the next two choruses, and Ammons’s accompaniment has a simple, forceful architectural logic, as he restricts himself to simple block chords in the first chorus and becomes more ornate in the second. Dickenson’s playing has always been praised for its “vocal” quality, its smears, growls, and moans. Justly so, but was there ever was a singer as eloquent as Vic is here? Could any voice create such sounds, bearish growls and sinewy moans, moving from side-of-the-mouth satirical asides and grief?  At points it sounds as if his sound is huge, barely contained, exploding into our ears.  Vic’s second chorus, propelled by Catlett accents, takes a simple phrase and turns it around and around, holding it up to the light before moving more rapidly into double-time and a few exultant shouts, like a man with so many things to say who knows his time is running out.  We should also hear, behind the growls and snorts that seem to characterize Vic’s solo and his style, a deep allegiance to the vein of exuberant melancholy we hear in Twenties and Thirties Louis — play this solo next to “Gully Low Blues” and hear the emotional kinship.   

By contrast, Byas sounds supple and suave, gliding from one phrase to another, extending the harmonies as if to remind us that this is, in fact, 1944, and that Dizzy and Bird are in town.  He is aided immensely by the two horns humming behind him, felt more than heard — voices in the choir adding harmonic support. 

Saving Lips Page for last was not just a good idea; it was inevitable, for no one wanted to follow him on a blues performance.  His solo isn’t appreciably high, loud, or fast, but it is the very quintessence of intensity.  Like Vic, he manages to get so many different sounds out of an unforgiving piece of brass tubing — slides, glissandos, half-valve effects — that would be impossible to notate.  And I defy any trumpet player today to reproduce these twenty-four bars convincingly.  But what we hear is light-years away from trumpet plus rhythm, as the four players drift into electrifying multi-layered polyphony, with Crosby getting even more earnest, Ammons varying his accompaniment, and Catlett urging, commenting, and agreeing to what he’s just heard.

When Ammons returns, it’s not merely an interlude to give the horns time to get into position: he is more rhythmically assertive, with wonderful dialogues going on between his spattering Hines right-hand figures and the ocean-motion of his bass line.  The orchestral polyphony broadens, as the three horns take the simplest moaning figure, as old as King Oliver’s solo on “Dipper Mouth Blues” — rocking back and forth between two notes with plenty of vibrato — and balance it against Ammons’s interjections, Catlett’s accents (he has become an entire section in himself!) building and building, with his cymbal crash the last word.  What a moving interlude!                 

Jazz, like other arts, always implicitly asks the question of how can we make the familiar new and vividly alive?  In this case, how do these six musicians, individually and collectively, take the same phrases that every jazz improviser in 1944 knew by heart and make them seem fresh?  The answer may lie in a strong sense of self, of defiantly individual voices, of superb technical mastery, of intense passion.  The question of HOW may defy words, but “Bottom Blues” shows itself as lasting, emotionally powerful art.

Happily, I can report that someone besides myself cares deeply about Albert Ammons — in this case, his granddaughter Lila has set up a site to celebrate his memory: www.albert-ammons.com.  And although the ASV CD which contains some of his finest work may be out of print, “Bottom Blues” should be available.  It is down-to-earth and celestial at the same time, worth repeated listenings.