Monthly Archives: August 2008

I CONFESS! A JAZZ CRIMINAL TELLS ALL

If the phonograph record had never been invented, jazz might have remained a local art form heard only on a visit to New Orleans.  Charlie Parker might well be only a remote name, an unheard legend to listeners born after 1955. 

Phonograph records are objects that make music accessible and permanent, and I grew up surrounded by them.  My father, a motion picture projectionist, was also expected to be an unpaid disc jockey, someone who would fill the theatre with music between shows by spinning records from the projection booth.  I remember his story of the first explosion of rock ‘n’ roll.  During an intermission, he reached for a record whose title meant nothing to him, put it on with the volume turned off in the booth, and turned back to his book.  Then the theatre manger called him in a near-frenzy, “Take that God-damned record off!  The kids are dancing on the seats and ripping up the theatre!” 

It was the famous (or infamous) record here.   

As 78 rpm records gave way to microgroove, my father would occasionally bring an outmoded record home rather than see it thrown away.  He was intrigued by technology, and we had a Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder, which I learned how to use early on. 

Later, around 1968, he brought home something new, a portable cassette recorder and a few blank tapes. 

By this time, I had become converted to jazz, which I thought of as my music.  It as a secret pleasure: I thought of myself as a subversive, listening to Louis while everyone around me was deeply absorbed by rock.  In my suburban hermitage, I recorded jazz radio shows — John S. Wilson’s “World of Jazz,” Ed Beach’s “Just Jazz,” and made them my soundtrack.  Records were not easy to get and I couldn’t afford all that I wanted, so the idea of tape-recording a precious performance and listening to it over and over shaped my first experiences of the music.  I lived for the moment when everything seemed cosmically aligned: Beach would be playing two hours of rare Jo Jones records on WRVR-FM; I would be home at the right time with a reel of blank tape; I could listen to it while the show was being broadcast; I would tape it to hear it again.  It would become mine.  In my memory, I can see those tape boxes, each one holding a precious hour or two of Buck Clayton, of 1940 Ellington, or Lee Wiley.    

I grew up on Long Island, an environment defined by the distance from one shopping mall to the next, and I recognize its inherent provincialism.  But for someone like myself, entranced by jazz, being born there rather than in Cape Breton was great good fortune.  In The New Yorker, I could read the names of musicians I had heard on radio or records.  They were playing live in New York City, an hour away by train and subway or car.          

I do not remember the details of the first live jazz I heard in Manhattan.  Was it in Town Hall or the Half Note?  But I prepared for this precious experience by bringing my cassette recorder with me.  It seemed logical rather than perverse to be a jazz anthropologist, a swing explorer.  Vasco DaGama of Dixieland, if you will.  I could poke my nose beyond my comfortable suburban environment, venture into the uncharted City, capture a performance live and return home with the reward.  Not gold or pepper or notes on the marriage rituals in New Guinea, but a homemade recording, however flawed, of the music I had heard last night.  A prize — to revisit, to study, to treasure.

Of course the idea wasn’t new.  Jazz enthusiasts had been capturing the music in its native habitat since the Thirties, perhaps earlier.  I had read about airshots, “on location” acetates, and live recordings, essential parts of jazz’s mythology.  That these recordings had often been made secretly by amateurs happily breaking the rules was even better.  Their illicit behavior was evidence of deep devotion to the art.  They wanted to keep what they had heard once from vanishing forever.  Even though I didn’t think about the implications of what I wanted to do, I now think there was a touch of late-Sixties political rebellion implicit in it.  Why should the recording companies control the music, and why should I be deprived of doing so?  When I had seen Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars in 1967, I had been too naive to bring my Instamatic camera to take twelve snapshots.  Now Louis was dead, and I had only an autograph and my memory of what he had looked like, what he had played. 

I was not sufficiently prideful or self-deluded to think of myself as the Long Island reincarnation of Jerry Newman at Minton’s or Dean Benedetti in search of Bird.  But perhaps I could capture a memorable chorus or ensemble, even in low-fidelity.  Would it become valuable over time?  What did that matter?  It would be precious now.          

This may strike some readers as more peculiar than collecting stamps or baseball cards.  Some jazz-lovers may be satisfied to hear a beautiful performance once, never again.  But this art is so splendidly evanescent that the thought of it going away is nearly painful.  It cries out to be preserved.  In terms of jazz’s brief chronological history, I am a late-comer.  Many of the great players were dead by the late Sixties; many of their portraits greeted me when I turned to the obituary page of The New York Times: I saved those clippings until the sheaf got too depressing.  It felt as if all the creators were leaving town, and this may have goaded me into illicit tape-recording as a way of snaring what moments I could before it was too late. 

I would never see PeeWee Russell or Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins or Rex Stewart . . . but when Benny Morton or Jimmy Rushing played a gig, I would not let their sounds escape me.   

Thus my life of crime began.  Being a criminal is difficult, let me tell you.         

Many club-owners did not care about a couple of college kids with their cassette recorder, sitting as close to the bandstand as possible, as long as the kids bought beer or hamburgers at regular intervals, but some establishments were very serious about such infractions.  I nearly got thrown out of the Village Vanguard a few years ago when the waiter noticed something glittering in my lap – a minidisc recorder, its display a bright phosphorescent blue.  He said that I could stop recording right now or I would have to leave, in tones that suggested New York’s finest were pounding down Seventh Avenue South in hot pursuit of Another Jazz Miscreant.        

And it was even worse in larger places, with notices hanging everywhere that The Taking Of Photographs and The Use Of Recording Devices Is Prohibited By Law.  But I had seen that the ushers were not athletic enough to arrest everyone with a tiny Kodak (flashbulbs went off at many performances) so I thought that I might get away with my criminalities.  I became sly, sidling into a concert hall with a blue plastic shoulder bag, trying to look nonchalant, always a failed enterprise.  The bag held a newspaper or magazine – a thin subterfuge – covering my cassette recorder, a $60 Shure microphone, and extra batteries.  Illegal and delicious.  I evaded what I thought were the peering eyes of the usher, usually someone who wanted only to give me a program and seat me in the right place, then scuttle away.  In the semi-darkness, while people talked, rattled their programs, unwrapped their cough drops, I would connect the microphone to the recorder and drop the heavy wire down through the sleeve of my jacket so that the microphone could be hidden in my lap.  I knew that my applause –the sound of two hands clapping — would be deafening on the tape, so I learned to look enthusiastic while pretending to clap. 

Emboldened by success, I brought a tape recorder to nearly every jazz performance I could.  Sometimes those tapes, heard the next day, were mediocre: routine music, badly recorded, turns out to be not worth the effort.  Occasionally, there were what college radio stations call “technical difficulties” and I had recorded nothing.  In those cases, crime certainly did not pay.  But I captured hours and hours of jazz that gave me pleasure.  Even the roll call of the players delights me now: just to think of pianists, I come up with Earl Hines, Eubie Blake, Dick Wellstood, Art Hodes, Joe Bushkin, Dave McKenna, Jimmy Andrews, Count Basie, Mark Shane, Teddy Wilson, Dick Hyman, Bill Evans, Jimmy Rowles, Ralph Sutton, Dill Jones, Hank Jones, Claude Hopkins, Chuck Folds, Don Friedman, Red Richards, Ellis Larkins, and two dozen others. 

Concert halls were usually terrible places for surreptitious recording because they were often terrible places to hear music.  The sound technicians at Carnegie Hall, for instance, where many of the Newport-New York concerts were held, apparently took perverse pleasure in making the piano sound as much unlike itself as possible.  The eye saw Teddy Wilson seated at a Steinway: the ear heard metal striking metal.  And you can imagine the acoustics at the top of Radio City Music Hall.  At the first of the 1972 jam sessions, Stu Zimny and I were seated in what seemed the upper reaches of the earth, next to a pair of Texas women who whooped happily when Gene Krupa hit his splash cymbal or when Roy Eldridge went for a high note.  Before the concert and during it, they most cordially offered us whiskey from bottles they had hidden in their pocketbooks; not to be outdone in gallantry, I offered them chocolate.  Both of us stuck to the stimulants we knew best.  But I cannot complain.  When I hear those tapes again, their exuberant hollering is part of the experience of the music, of having been there.      

Small clubs were easier to record in, and there was a better chance to be forgiven my wickedness, especially if I had spoken to the musicians beforehand and gotten their permission.  Since I looked at my jazz heroes with reverence, this approach often worked.  Kenny Davern, who had a powerful prejudice against playing into a microphone, showed me how to set mine so that it would record effectively.  Ruby Braff got so used to me and my friends that he dubbed us “Tapes,” as in, “Hey, Tapes!” when he saw us.  

One Sunday in 1972, Bobby Hackett, a gracious man, looked down at my brand-new Teac reel-to-reel recorder, perhaps forty pounds, that I had lugged into Your Father’s Mustache in hopes of recording him.  I was sweating already, and his noticing the machine made me even more moist, from anxiety.  What if he growled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  But all he said was, mildly, “What brand is that?”  And when I told him, he smiled and said, “I have one like it at home,” and went about the business of getting ready for the gig.     

But my criminality wasn’t always well-received.  The trumpeter Joe Thomas fretted about our taping him at an outdoor concert in Battery Park.  He was insistent that that “the union man” would find us out and that he would get in trouble.  I don’t remember how we soothed his fears (did we hide the recorder in a flowerbed?) but it took a good deal of placating before he let us go ahead. 

Some musicians were unwilling to be taped, and, in retrospect, I can’t blame them.  Perhaps someone unscrupulous had taken advantage in the past.  The pianist Cyril Haynes refused to play a note until I put my recorder away.  

I can see in my mind’s eye the brilliantly eccentric trombonist Dicky Wells, at the back of the bandstand clogged with other musicians, shaking his head from side to side in vehement “No-no-no!” and waving his arm and outstretched index finger in energetic arcs.  I remember a session featuring cornetist Wild Bill Davison, where I set up my microphone right under the bell of his horn.  He asked, gruffly, “Are you planning to record me with that?”  “Yes, Mr. Davison,” I politely replied.  “Well, that will cost you one Scotch now and one for each set you record,” he said in what seems now to have been a well-rehearsed speech.  I considered my budget for a moment and put the recorder back in the bag.  Was he disappointed at the failure of his bargain?  I couldn’t tell. 

Many players looked horrified and refused, politely but vigorously, when I asked if they wanted me to mail them a copy of what they had just played.  Was it modesty?  Perhaps they had no particular desire to relive what they had done in what was supposed to be an informal situation.  I recall Ray Nance playing splendidly as part of a large ad-hoc ensemble at a Queens College concert (with Joe Newman, Garnett Brown, Hank Jones, Milt Hinton, Al Foster, and others), and I recorded it from the audience.  Some months later, he appeared for a few nights at a tiny local club that had – for whatever reason – ventured into jazz.  Few people came to hear him, and on the second night, I brought a tape copy of that concert, approached him and offered it to him, thinking I was giving him a present.  He was pleasant enough, but I recall his looking at the box, now his, with mild puzzlement, as if I had given him a parakeet or a box of raisins.     

But taping made for delightfully weird interchanges with some players, made more aware of our presence by the machinery set in front of them.  Ruby Braff came over to Rob Rothberg and myself during a set-break one Tuesday night when he was guest star at the 54th Street Eddie Condon’s.  He peered at the small notebook in which I was writing down personnel and song titles for future reference.  “What is that?” he asked.  I showed him, and he said, “Want my autograph?”  “Sure,” I said, although we had met a dozen or more times already.  He took my pen and spent more time than I expected before handing the book to me, proudly chortling.  He had drawn a pistol, smoke curling out of its muzzle, with “Lucky Luciano” signed boldly beneath it.  A fellow law-breaker!     

After beginning my life of crime, in a few years I had piles of tapes, annotated and organized.  It may have made no sense to anyone not a member of the jazz world, but it meant that I could hear Vic Dickenson play Louis’s famous WEST END BLUES, the cadenza note-for-note, as he had in an outdoor concert at Port Jefferson, New York.  I could hear Marty Grosz sing ISN’T LOVE THE STRANGEST THING, as he did when Soprano Summit appeared at the Jazz Museum in midtown.  On a precious cassette, I still have perhaps ten minutes of what might have been the ultimate small group — Hackett, Vic, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones — strolling through JUST YOU, JUST ME, BODY AND SOUL, and a slow blues — from a Newport concert in 1974. 

Having these tapes did not prevent any of my heroes from dying, but bits and pieces of their music have been saved.

But “saved” is, alas, an overstatement.  The blank tapes I used were thin and inexpensive; even the best ones were inherently fragile.  The coating flaked off, or their sound got dimmer and dimmer.  So I no longer have many of my original tapes, surely an irony in itself.  In my mind’s ear, I hear Al Cohn, Joe Newman, and Zoot Sims surging through THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG at a Town Hall concert sponsored by Dick Gibson (was it 1970?).  The tape has been gone for years, proving that all things fall or decay, that objects disintegrate or scurry away, beyond our reach.  I didn’t succeed in making permanent records, or at least the tapes I made proved to be impermanent.  But the idea of capturing — or nearly-capturing — jazz in full flight appealed to me then and continues to now.

And (as a postscript) such taping allowed me to make friends from Florida to Westoverledingen, Germany – friends who also loved the music and broke the rules.  I will write about such partners-in-crime in a future posting, among them the brilliant and generous John L. Fell. 

My crimes continue unabated, I state proudly.  The ancient cassette recorder gave way to a Sony minidisc recorder in 2005, thanks to my mentor Kevin Dorn, and I try to be an ethical, polite lawbreaker and ask the musicians’ permission to record whenever possible.  But if you see me in a club, vigorously enjoying the music, nodding my head, smiling broadly, but not applauding, you can be fairly sure that I am continuing my wicked (although fairly harmless) ways.  Come say hello – but not while the music is playing, if you don’t mind.      

DICK, DOUG, BIX, DICK (AND JOE SULLIVAN)

Jazz-lovers owe Dick Sudhalter a great deal for his hot, lyrical playing, his elegantly-written research, and his long-time devotion to artistic causes we hold dear.  Whether as an jazz historian, biographer of Bix and of Hoagy, a member of the Classic Jazz Quartet a/k/a/ The Bourgeois Scum, as a radio broadcaster (WBAI, “Bix and Beyond”), or as a bandleader, he has left his mark.  This list is far from comprehensive: Dick is someone whose generosities have touched us all. 

As you should know, after a stroke he suffered in 2003, he is quite ill with Multiple Systems Atrophy.  The picture of him at the top of this page is from a 2006 benefit held in his honor.  His medical care costs a great deal.  This post is to publicize the latest effort to raise more — but a Hot Jazz Treat is involved.   

That Treat is a two-disc set of rare recordings made during Bix Beiderbecke’s short lifetime by musicians vividly influenced by his playing — one disc of American performances, one of European ones.  Many of the recordings were unfamiliar to me.  Some have never been on CD, some are previously unknown, unissued takes.  Visit http://bixography.com/BixInfluenceFinal.html for details.  All proceeds from the sale of this set — reasonably priced and well-documented — go to defray Dick’s medical costs.   

Doug Ramsey is a well-regarded jazz writer and critic of long standing, someone whose enthusiasms are always expressed in thoughtful words.  I found out about this set on Doug’s blog, “Rifftides,” (http://www.artsjournal.com/rifftides, where jazz is central but far from the only subject he and his expert writers touch upon. 

There, under the heading of “Correspondence: About Wellstood,” on August 8, Doug posted letters from Toronto broadcaster Ted O’Reilly and Dave Frishberg on the subject of Dick Wellstood . . . and told of young Dick encountering his hero, Joe Sullivan, after searching earnestly.  I won’t spoil the story but will add two Wellstood anecdotes of my own.  (Sudhalter and Wellstood were one-half of the aforementioned CJQ, a memorably eccentric group, whose music has been collected on a Jazzology CD set.) 

I didn’t get to see Wellstood enough in New York City, even though he played often at Hanratty’s, but one Sunday afternoon gig in 1972 sticks in my mind.  Bassist and singer Red Balaban led sessions at Your Father’s Mustache (on the site of the old Nick’s), where peanut shells and sawdust crunched beneath our feet.  One Sunday, the band was a pre-Soprano Summit gathering: Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern on clarinets and sopranos, with Dick Rath on trombone, Wellstood, Balaban, and drummer Buzzy Drootin.  Before the first set began, Dick Rath, modest and genial, saw Vic Dickenson heading into the hall, trombone case in hand, and said something like, “I’m going to step down now!” and gave the place in the middle of the two horns to Vic, staying to revel in the music as a spectator. 

Through the afternoon, Wellstood made that badly-tuned piano sing out — whether he was embellishing a medium-tempo melody or in full stride.  One set ended with a fast “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and in the middle of his second chorus, Wellstood did the key-changing trick that Tatum liked on “Tea for Two,” but his harmonies were wilder and weirder, memorably so.  I didn’t know how he returned to the familiar parade of sevenths in time, but he did.  To begin another set, Wellstood and Davern began with an intentionally droopy, whining rendition of “Somewhere My Love” as if for a tea dance on a particularly timid cruise.  Drootin, someone I’d never thought of as a satirist, added intentionally dull snare-drum rolls.  Jazz loves to poke fun at dance-band conventions, and this was a hilarious live example.  Wellstood died in 1987, far too young, and we miss him. 

Whether satiric or exploratory, impassioned or funky, jazz lifts our souls, and its players have earned our thanks and more.  I hope you’ll investigate the Bix-influenced CD set as a way of giving something back to Richard M. Sudhalter, hot cornetist and stylish writer, who’s given us so much. 

TIDINGS FROM ORONO, MAINE

Fats Waller used to say, “Fine! Wonderful! Perfect!” when you asked him his opinion about something he liked.  Orono, a gently sleepy small town north of Bangor, made me think of those words often. 

They came into my head more than once while eating at THAI ORCHID (28 Mill Street).  This isn’t a food blog, but the savory, spicy, delicate home cooking there made me stick my head into the small kitchen and applaud the chef.  They have a take-out menu: call 207.866.4200, although I’m not sure that they’d drive more than five hundred miles to bring us number 97, Country Style Noodle. 

Around the corner, we saw DR. RECORDS (20 Main Street), clean, organized, with jazz records and old-time prices.  At the helm is Don, who studied trombone at the university and plays in the town band: we had a refreshing conversation about Wycliffe Gordon and John Allred, two of his favorites.  And I picked up three records, each a delightful surprise.  One I knew of but had never seen: BUD FREEMAN AND HIS SUMMA CUM LAUDE TRIO on Dot (Bob Hammer, Mousie Alexander).  One was utterly new to me: BANJO-RAMA by Carmen Mastren on Mercury (with “John” Pizzarelli on guitar — that’s Bucky — and Bucky’s uncles, and “the Fabulous Riccardo” on piano.  I’ll bet that’s Mr. Hyman).  And the third record was one I had once had and was sorry to lose: PEE WEE RUSSELL and OLIVER NELSON, THE SPIRIT OF ’67 (Impulse).  Frank Chace told me a story about those sessions — PeeWee was nervous playing with that orchestra, so the pianist Nat Pierce, a close friend, sat at PeeWee’s feet in the recording studio and kept his glass of ale properly filled.  Ballantine’s to the rescue! 

I won’t be able to hear this music for three weeks, but life is good when you can find well-cooked meals, knowledgeable conversation, people who smile at you on the street, and rare jazz records!

WHAT’S NEW?

 

The Beloved and I have been on the road for more than a month now.  While we are in the car, the CD player is (as Pee Wee Erwin used to say) hotter than a depot stove, with respites for cassettes (the Braff-Hyman Concord duet version of MY FAIR LADY) or the CBC. But most often we are listening to one of the two hundred-plus compact discs I brought along. (If ever someone was a candidate for an iPod, I nominate myself.)

Sinatra with Gordon Jenkins arrangements, 1937 Basie airshots, Dick Sudhalter, Jack Purvis, Lester Young, Seger Ellis, 1940 Ellington, Ben Webster, Spirituals to Swing, early Crosby, late Jimmy Rowles, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, and so on.

This musical buffet has led me to think, admittedly not for the first time, about artistic originality, creativity, and “influence.” Especially in jazz, listeners and critics privilege a musician’s having an individualistic, recognizable sound, something that musicians worked towards with some earnestness.  And it went beyond sound: musicians were proud of their origins but even more proud of telling their own stories.     

But taken to an extreme, this pride in individuality might have its limitations. It leads us to make the appearance of originality the greatest virtue, so that a cliche of jazz prose or oral history is, “When K came on the scene, we were amazed, because he didn’t sound like P, the main man at the time.”

So, when I listen to Jones-Smith, Inc. romping through “Lady Be Good” or “Shoe Shine Boy,” I think of the impact those sides must have had on 1937 listeners who knew nothing of Lester, Tatti Smith, Basie, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The quintet we hear still seems daringly “original.” Certainly Lester sounds so unlike Hawkins and his disciples, unlike other musicians,even now. His rhythm, his tone, his flight. And it is certainly valid to praise the Basie rhythm trio for the same driving singularity.  I do not mean to slight Carl “Tatti” Smith in all this, but his percussive attack was not uncommon among trumpeters of that era.     

So it is a commonplace to cherish these sides for their singularity, that they sounded so unlike the records made in late 1936.  But what shall we then say of the Fats Waller turns of phrase and whole phrases so evident in Basie’s playing? (Earl Hines and James P. Johnson are in there, too.)  What of the influence of older bassists Steve Brown, Wellman Braud, and Pops Foster, on Page’s work here? Jo Jones’s drumming was certainly a revelation, but one can hear Sidney Catlett in his accents and Walter Johnson in his hi-hat work.  Perhaps some of Gene Krupa and George Stafford as well. 

And when one listens closely to the riffs that the Basie band threw around with such headlong delight on, say, “One O’Clock Jump,” one hears familiar late-Twenties / early-Thirties jazz figures: one of them in particular, is the phrase Louis sings to the words “Oh, memory” on that take of “Star Dust.”

Of course we might fold our hands and say meditatively, “Oh, everyone comes from somewhere,” which is undeniable.  But this makes me think of the way the conceive of jazz improvisation, the ways in which jazz finds us, and the technology that enwraps it. If you were to take someone who knows little about jazz to a club or concert performance, the novice usually says, with a hint of astonishment, “How do they know what they are playing? How do they know where to come in?” And the more experienced listener can say, “There is a common language in this music as in othercommunal arts. If one of the players says, ‘Let’s do “Undecided” in two flats,” the other players are familiar with that melody, its harmony, rhythmic patterns, the conventions that go with it.  All this is learned through intent listening, bandstand-practice, and intuitive empathy.”  So what looks “made up on the spot” both is and isn’t. And only the musicians, perhaps, know whether the trombonist is playing the solo she always plays or if she is stepping bravely out into space.  Whether she herself knows, at the time or after, is beyond our knowing and perhaps hers.   

Playing a musical instrument competently is difficult.  Inventing something that even approaches “originality” while playing an instrument, among other musicians, the notes moving by inexorably, is even more daunting.  So, as a result, many musicians have a set of learned patterns they can call upon while speeding through familiar repertory: their “crib,” some call it.  Thus, if you hear Waltie King speed through “It’s You Or No One,” one night, Waltie may dazzle with a wondrous display of technique allied to feeling.  “What a solo!” you say.  If you follow Waltie to his other gigs and hear him play that same song twenty times, would you be disillusioned if his solo on Thursday bore close resemblance to his brilliant exploits of Monday?  How many listeners truly know when a musician is inspired one night, playing it safe the next?  And, frankly, does it make a difference if the solo — ingenious or worked-out — charms our ears? 

This brings us to Lester Young, who said that a musician had to be original, and that he did not want to listen to his old records for fear of being influenced by them and becoming a “repeater pencil.”  His fellow musicians testify that he was astonishingly inventive, that he could play dozens of choruses at a jam session and never repeat himself. But even given that piece of mythology, can we be sure that his improvisations on the Vocalion “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” were not, in some way, workings-out of ideas he had already played in other contexts?  Were those solos as original to him as they continue to appear to us?

We cannot know, since we have no recordings of Lester before this one (Jo Jones spoke of a “little silver record” (you’d have to imagine his odd verbal style here) he had once owned of Lester, circa 1934, but told Stu Zimny and myself that it had disappeared long ago).  And even if we had acetates stacked to the ceiling, the question might be both unanswerable and moot. 

And records themselves complicate the issue.  Before there were strings of alternate takes and session tapes, records were singular artifacts: three minutes capturing one unrepeatable occasion.  Think of the Armstrong-Hines “Weather Bird” or the Webster-Blanton “Star Dust” duet from Fargo 1940. Unique.  Irreplaceable.  But the same worrying questions apply to the music captured by microphones.  And the dazzling singularity of a recorded performance, by people who are now dead, puts a weight on the shoulders of living players whom we hope will create fresh solos each time they lift their horns.  I think that this also accounts for some of the pressure musicians feel when they must step into the recording studio, that their improvisations will attain a certain permanence, a permanence they might never intend. 

And jazz critics condescend to musicians who create solos and, with only minor variations, repeat them for years. I have quietly groaned when faced with yet another late Jack Teagarden performance of “Basin Street Blues,” but perhaps, in retrospect, I should not have done so.  It could not have been easy for him or anyone to a) find something new to say about that particular piece of music, and b) to play and sing so beautifully, even if every nuance had been worked out.  I was a trifle disappointed whenever Vic Dickenson, whom I saw often in his last years, would embark upon “In A Sentimental Mood,” because every note, sigh, and slur in it had been perfected through repetition. But, and some may find this sentimental, I would love to have him here to play it again. And it was an exquisite piece of music.

Such ruminations might seem to have no particular beginning and certainly no end.  Perhaps the only conclusion we might draw is the oldest one, that all kinds of human creativity are miraculous.  We should cherish those pieces of music that are both intelligent and impassioned, whether they seem “original” or derivative.  And road travelers might find a great deal of pleasure, as I do, listening to what Jack Purvis plays behind Seger Ellis on the unissued “Sleepy Time Gal” — but more about that in a future posting.

THE EYES HAVE IT

It’s deeply foggy here in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  And although my thoughts might turn to myriad possibilities for indoor edification and soul-solace, today they turn to YouTube. 

Tom Warner, ever diligent, has just posted a number of video clips from the most recent  Bix Beiderbecke Festival held each year in Davenport, Iowa.  The one that caught my attention was “Clarinet Marmalade,” a set-closing performance by Randy Sandke’s New York All-Stars: Randy on cornet, Dan Barrett on trombone, Dan Block on clarinet, Scott Robinson on C-melody and bass saxophones, Mark Shane on piano, Nicki Parrott on bass, Howard Alden on guitar, and the Invisible Man — I presume it’s Rob Garcia, by the sound of his cymbals — on drums. 

It’s a very satisfying performance, both evoking the original recording (itself a cut-down version of the famous arrangement Bill Challis did for the Jean Goldkette Orchestra) and building upon it in lively ways.  “Clarinet Mamalade,” one of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band records Bix so loved, is also a refreshingly old-fashioned piece of music.  Harking back to ragtime and brass bands, it has several strains, which might make it a minefield for players who know it only slightly, but it also has more substance than the usual thirty-two bar AABA tune.  I particularly like the strain that comes after Mark Shane’s piano solo: it always makes me think of silent film music, the soundtrack for something particularly ominous (the demure heroine tied to the track, the approaching train, the storm at sea, perhaps?) while the band is swinging.   

Here, for your dining and dancing pleasure, are Randy’s All-Stars:

Musically, it’s greatly rewarding.  But there’s something delightful about watching musicians at work, feeling the spirit without showing off, when they are not constrained by the knowledge of someone with a video recorder getting it all down for posterity.  It’s a treat to hear Mark Shane’s Wilson-inspired stride playing, light yet forceful, but my pleasure is intensified by the sight of Nicki, rockin’ in rhythm, during his solo.  And watch her, hard at lip-biting work, during hers!  It adds to the pleasure of hearing Dan Barrett’s fearless Miff Mole-staccato leaps to see his slide moving, to see the rest of the musicians acting out their notes and phrases in the language of their whole bodies, to see Dan Block express his enthusiasm by moving in time while Barrett plays.

Sometimes the visual aspect detracts from what we’re trying to hear.  Musicians have a casual way of chatting and guffawing while someone else is soloing.  But even though Warner’s cinematography is functional, seeing adds to hearing in this instance, and the ovation this band gets is well-deserved.  I don’t know if you will leave your chair in front of the computer monitor, but you will understand why the Bix Fest audience did.

GOOGLE ALERTS – “SID CATLETT”

The Beloved, who Knows Things, told me about “Google Alerts”: I could enter any words or names I wanted into a simple form and then get an email from Google whenever they appeared on the web (once a day, as they happen, or every week).  No ads, no identity theft.  And it’s easier to do than it is to read about.  I was characteristically skeptical, but now, whenever someone online mentions Louis (frequently), Lester, Ruby, or Sid, I know.  Hugely reassuring.  Some of what surfaces is trivial, but this morning I was Alerted to an extraordinary website: THE EVANSVILLE BONEYARD

That’s Evansville, Indiana. 

A rather cryptic, even macabre title, granted. 

But these pictures are anything but cryptic. 

 

I find the second one — shock and sorrow too sharp for any place but the front page — especially moving.  Thanks to John Baburnich, the BONEYARD’s editor, for posting these irreplaceable artifacts of the man he calls an “Evansville Born Jazz Great” — which Sidney Catlett was.

I also found myself reading about other events in Evansville history — Mike the Headless Chicken and The Great Molasses Flood.  Neither story is for the faint of heart, but they are both engrossing.  A visit to THE EVANSVILLE BONEYARD  will amuse, enlighten, and exalt, even if it’s always too early in the day to read about headless chickens. 

http://web.usi.edu/boneyard/catlett.htm

A SCOTTISH JAZZ PARADISE, AUGUST 2-7

Forres Gazette
Published:  30 July, 2008

NAIRN Festival, which this year runs from August 2 to August 7, makes no bones about how it organises its annual event programme – if the audience has loved a gig or an artist then they are brought back for more! And trumpeters take the centre stage throughout this year’s event.

And despite funding cash being short and airfare soaring, a full programme of American stars have been lined up.

Duke Heitger has been on the bill with Evan Christopher for a number of years – but this year he flies into the event to take residence for the whole Festival and feature in all sorts of new line-ups – including introducing fellow New Orlean vocalist Topsy Chapman for his Paddleboat shuffle, and for the first time in the Festival programme, Engelbert Wrobel on clarinet, for an interesting History of Jazz.

He has also brought in a red-hot selection of other horns including Randy Reinhart (cornet/trumpet) and Bill Allred (trombone) – in the Wild Bill Davidson Legacy Band. Australia’s finest Bob Barnard (trumpet), performs together with Reinhart and Jon-Erik Kellso (cornet/trumpet) in the Nairn Trumpet Summit and the later as a special guest of the Swedish Jazz Kings, adding a fresh note as they both make Nairn Festival debuts.

And even on a more reflective note… the death of cornet legend Ruby Braff in 2003 has not stopped this year’s event recalling his now historic final live performance in Nairn 2002. Ruby opened the first ever Festival of Food and Jazz as it was then billed in 1990 and it is his long-time friend Scott Hamilton (who also featured in the programme that year) who pays tribute to him along with John Bunch, piano and Dave Green, bass, reprising their roles, and US cornet player Jon-Erik Kellso – in what is set to be one of the usual flagship exclusive concerts within a slightly more humble, but yet packed, programme.

The Knockomie Hote, one of the staunchest supporters of the jazz festival in Forres, will again be hosting a concert. The Classic Jazz Quintet, featuring Bent Persson on lead trumpet and special guest Dan Barrett on trombone, will be playing a late night concert, starting at 9.30pm, on Tuesday, August 5.

Funding has been much more difficult this year and along with late awards and the soaring cost of US airfares, which make the budgets even tighter than usual, the organisation decided to be a bit more frugal and invest in what it could deliver well, rather than continue on the wider development and growth plan of the last few years.

But even this did not stop organiser Ken Ramage revisiting his own personal highlight concert of 2007, which featured pianist Larry Fuller, and with the support of The Davidson Trust, he has managed to bring him back for another exclusive, the Nairn International Piano Trio line-up featuring Nairn’s favourite bassist Andy Cleyndert and Basie drummer Butch Miles.

Ken said: “We have received continued significant local sponsor support from Hawco Volkswagen and Gordon Timber and decided to go ahead with what I am billing as a reflective programme, filled with the essential elements that have become synonymous with the brand style now known as Ramage Jazz.”

Of course the key to making any event a success is not only the programming but ticket sales and the event is hoping that along with its loyal audience, now from all across the UK, it will hit the right note with locals when it strongly needs their support.

 

All content copyright 2008 Scottish Provincial Press Ltd.

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This piece comes from the FORRES GAZETTE: thanks so much for making me wish I was going to be in Scotland for these hot festivities!

THE LESTER YOUNG MOSAIC, PART ONE

I know it’s a bold statement, but there is nothing better than the Thirties Basie band with Lester, Buck, and the All-American Rhythm Section.  So I was eager to buy the new Mosaic set and have derived an anticipatory thrill from the four discs still in their shrinkwrap, knowing what I will be able to listen to when I can’t put off the waiting one moment more. 

I had heard from Marc Myers (Mr. JazzWax) that some web-grousers had leaped in online to declare that there was just too much Lester Young on this set for them.   I thought he was teasing.  But here’s an excerpt from Will Friedwald’s admiring piece in the New York Sun (June 2, 2008), “When Basie Was Young At Heart”:

“[The recordings Lester did with his] musical soul mate Billie Holiday, were amazingly democratic: All of the players get equal solo space, and even the star singer is confined to a single chorus.  Not so on the Basie sessions: The bulk of these are solo features that spotlight him more like a king than as an elected official or public servant. There are other solo stars here, notably the trombonist Dicky Wells, trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison and Buck Clayton, as well as two excellent band singers in Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes. Still, the material is skewed toward Young. The four discs here do not contain the band’s complete output of the period, just those numbers on which Young solos.”

When was Lester ever a public servant?  The mind reels. 

I do not share Mr. Friedwald’s muted distress at a possible overabundance of Lester’s music at the expense of those records featuring other players, and direct him back in time to a ten-record vinyl box set put out by French CBS, collecting every recording they could find of Basie’s recordings for Columbia, Vocalion, and OKeh in the 1936-42 period.  (Mosaic has come up with new alternates, incidentally.)  On paper, that CBS set looks like the Holy Grail, and Mr. Friedwald would be able to hear all five takes of “One, Two, Three, O’Lairy,” or whatever it was called.  I find alternate takes thrilling for what they reveal of the creative process, but long stretches of this Basie set were surprisingly monotonous.  But completists believe that what they do not have is much more important than what they do, and in some emotive way they might be right. 

However, I must thank Mr. Friedwald for using the Sun’s resources to reprint a Gjon Mili photograph of Lester and Basie at a jam session.

I believe this comes from Lester’s 1943-44 stint with Basie, because the drummer (probably Kansas Fields) is in uniform.  The other saxophonist is altoist Earle Warren, and (for the moment) the trumpeters elude me.  Is this another shot from the session where they were Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Edison?  But I direct you to the clarinetist.  It’s not Larry Talbot — it’s Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, Jazz’s very own Zelig.  And I am certain that Mezz is blithely playing along while Lester is taking his solo.  If you insist on being charitable, let us say that he is joining the riffing behind Lester.  Notice how he has wedged himself into the gathering, though, and the man behind him — Jo Jones! — has to crane his neck around Mezz to see what is happening.  

Gjon Mili took a number of wonderful shots of Jazz-in-action for a wartime feature published in either LOOK or LIFE around 1943, so this may come from that sequence.  If his odd-sounding name is familiar in the context of jazz and Lester Young, he is also responsible for the short film JAMMIN’ THE BLUES.  Bless him, and the players, too.

I will have more to say about the Lester Young Mosaic once I have begun to break into my precious hoard.