Monthly Archives: November 2008

HIDE AND SEEK (IN IRELAND)

The Beloved and I just returned from a week in Ireland.  Our itinerary included University College Cork and Dalkey (a suburb of Dublin where Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, Maeve Binchy, Bono, Van Morrison, and other notables live).   And the sun shone for all but one day. 

When I first visited Ireland, continuing my work on the short-story writer Frank O’Connor, I didn’t expect to find jazz.  In fact, in those pre-iPod days, I brought pounds of CDs, trying to prevent the deprivation that I was sure would befall me.  But jazz kept on popping up to surprise me.  I heard CDs by guitarists Louis Stewart and Hugh Buckley, and was invited to jam sessions featuring Toddy’s Hot Stompers and other congenial assemblages.  

So I shouldn’t have been surprised this time when I stumbled onto my favorite art form.   

But I was.  People who love this music are forever lamenting dwindling audiences, the closing of clubs, the names in the obituary pages . . . . with very good reason.  And the sweet ubiquity of jazz in my childhood — Louis and Duke on television, Jimmy McPartland playing a free concert in a Long Island park, Bobby Hackett on the radio — is surely nostalgia rather than current reality.  These days, I can expect to hear Ben Webster as dinner music only if I’ve put his CDs on while the chicken is roasting. 

ireland-for-blog-001

And yet . . . . there was Denise Connolly’s fascinating Cork bookshop.  It was a sweet, enlightened disorder of books of all kinds, opera records, and more.  But what caught my attention was the music coming out of Ms. Connolly’s mini stereo system: Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly playing “Limehouse Blues,” then “I’ve Had My Moments,” and more — vintage 1937.  When I told her how delighted I was by her soundtrack, she smiled and said that, yes, Django, Lionel Hampton, and Thelonious Monk were her favorites.  Visit Connolly’s Bookshop, not only for the jazz, but the books! 

And the HMV store on Grafton Street has sections devoted not only to Louis and Duke, but also to Bix Beiderbecke and Humphrey Lyttelton.

ireland-for-blog-0021 

It did my heart good.  Just when I thought jazz had gone into hiding, it poked its head out of the shadows and gave me a big wink.

Advertisements

MY JAZZ MADELEINE

dsc00515

Yesterday, I was sifting through one of the mountains of papers I carefully cultivate in my apartment.  Unlike orchids, superfluous papers flourish even when neglected.  Horticulturists take note!  I found a large envelope on which I’d written details of a jam session at the now-vanished Chelsea jazz club, The Cajun, on October 20, 2004.  Marcel Proust tidying the kitchen counter, if you will.

October 20, 2004 was a Wednesday, and Wednesdays were given over to Eddy Davis’s compact, surprising ensemble. “Wild Reeds and Wicked Rhythm,” which had as its core clarinetist Orange Kellin, multi-instrumentalist and interstellar denizen Scott Robinson, Eddy on banjo, vocals, and original compositions, and Debbie Kennedy on bass.  You could always find WQXR-FM broadcaster Lloyd Moss, happily attentive at a table right in front of the band.

My involvement in this story began in mid-September 2004, when I went to Jazz at Chautauqua for the first time, a rapturous weekend.  There, I met Becky Kilgore in person, although we already knew about each other. Either she or trombonist Dan Barrett invited me to come along for their upcoming East Coast gig at Shanghai Jazz in Madison, New Jersey.  A version of their then new group, BED, would make a rare Eastern appearance.  B and D (that’s Becky and Dan) had been able to make the trip, but E (that’s Eddie Erickson, on guitar, banjo, ballads, and comedy) had commitments in California and couldn’t.  The “silent J,” bassist Joel Forbes would be there, and the Erickson-gap would be filled by the endearing pianist Rossano Sportiello.

Here the story becomes more autobiographical.  I had spent Wednesday with a small group of amiable but somewhat untrained moving men who lugged my belongings up the stairs to my new apartment.  They were sweet-natured, funny, and hard-working.  And from this experience I gleaned one piece of irreplaceable vaudeville:

Mover 1, holding up one end of my piano, “Henry, are you ready, for God’s sake?”

Mover 2, getting into position at the other end: “Man, I was born ready!”

But what was supposed to take four hours took nine.  It was physically exhausting for them, psychically draining for me.  A reasonable man would have taken to his bed (amidst the neatly-labeled cardboard boxes) with a Scotch or two, but in the short scuffle between Prudence and Hedonism inside my brain, Prudence didn’t have a chance.

Thus, I found myself in the New Jersey train station, with Dan, Becky, Rossano, and the ever-ebullient Shirley Scott, who seemed to personally know every jazz musician in a ten-state area.  Shirley had brought the daily New York Times crossword puzzle, which we did, collectively and hilariously.

I don’t recall much about the Shanghai Jazz gig except that the club seemed to be an odd place for BED. They played and sang gloriously, but the patrons focused on the excellent food, loudly praising their spicy noodles.  When BED finished their second set, we left, and after some adventures in the cold and dark on the train platform, were on our way back to New York.  Shirley called ahead and found that the Cajun was still open; Eddy and his musicians were eager to meet up with BED.

When we arrived, Eddy’s group was on the stand, with Orange, Scott, Pete Martinez on clarinet, and Conal Fowkes (a sterling pianist) on bass.  Dan took out his cornet and they played an easy “Somebody Loves Me,” one of those let’s-see-where-we’re-at opening tunes musicians like (another one is “Sunday”).  Everyone wanted Becky to sing, and she offered a lightly swinging “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” and Barbara Rosene, sitting in the audience and enjoying it all, was asked to follow, and offered a wistful “Fools Rush In.”  At some point, Dan switched back to trombone, and the band tried out the rare “I Had Somebody Else,” the familiar “St. James Infirmary” and a charging “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” with Pete Martinez ripping through splendid Ed Hall whoops and runs.

I was ecstatic, and the players were having a great deal of fun as well.  Rossano picked up Dan’s trombone for a multi-clarinet “Somebody Stole My Gal.”  Although Rossano says that he doesn’t play the instrument well, he sounds like a homespun Sandy Williams.  Scott Robinson and Dan both took cornet solos on “A Melody From The Sky,” Dan led the group through “A Monday Date,” and things concluded with a riotous “Dinah,” Debbie Kennedy taking over the bass.  Trimphantly and joyously, Dan sounded much like 1933 Louis in Copenhagen.

The Cajun session came to an end, but the story doesn’t: Shirley called the fine guitarist Joe Cohn, and everyone took over his midtown  apartment.  What I remember now is a series of brilliant flashes: sitting on Joe’s low couch with a tiny glass of demonic grappa in hand, listening to Becky sing “These Foolish Things” with deep tenderness, Rossano playing his own version of Teddy Wilson behind her — a time machine trip back to 1938.  Joe taking out his trumpet (he played it with real style), he and Dan duetting on a line of his father’s (that’s Al Cohn); Joe playing violin for us.  I sat, silently beaming.

The session broke up around 2:30 in the morning, and I made my way to Penn Station — conveniently missing the last LIRR train, so I waited in the nearly-deserted, cavernous station for another two hours.  Fast forward to a blissful man walking home at 6 in the morning, not believing his own good fortune.

I didn’t have my camera with me, and the minidisc recorder I’ve written about here was not yet an indispendsable part of my luggage — but the envelope reminded me of this intensely happy time.  And, even better, all of the players and singers I’ve celebrated here are alive and well.  May they be well, happy, and prosperous!  And thanks to Arlene Lichterman and Herb Maslin: you know who you are!

“INTEGRITY OF BEING”: SONNY ROLLINS ON COLEMAN HAWKINS

hawkins1First, November 21 is Coleman Hawkins’s birthday — not a national holiday, yet.  But WKCR-FM, the jazz station of Columbia University, will play his music for twenty-four hours in his honor.  And if you’re not within reach of an FM radio, you can hear it online at http://www.wkcr.org.

The letter printed below originally came from the esteemed player and thinker Phil Woods, making its way to Jon-Erik Kellso, who sent me a copy of it.  I hope that no one minds my offering it here: I think it is an important document for reasons both musical and spiritual.


10/13/62 P.M.

My Dear Mr. Hawkins,

Your recent performance at the ‘Village Gate’ was magnificent!!  Quite aside from the fact that you have maintained a position of dominance and leadership in the highly competitive field of ‘Jazz’ for the time that you have there remains the more significant fact that such tested and tried musical achievement denoted and is subsidiary to personal character and integrity of being.

There have been many young men of high potential and demonstrated ability who have unfortunately not been ‘MEN’ in their personal and offstage practices and who soon found themselves devoid of the ability to create music.  Perhaps these chaps were unable to understand why their musical powers left them so suddenly.  Or perhaps they knew what actions were constructive as opposed to destructive but were too weak and not men enough to command the course of their lives.  But certain it is that character, knowledge and virtue are superior to ‘Music’ as such.  And that ‘success’ is relative to the evolution of those qualities within us all.  That it has been positive and lasting for you Coleman is to the honor and credit of us, your colleagues, as well as to your credit.  For you have ‘lit the flame’ of aspiration within so many of us and you have epitomized the superiority of ‘excellence of endeavor’ and you stand today as a clear living picture and example for us to learn from.

It has always been a task to explain in words those things which in nature are the most profound and meaningful.  Now you have shown me why I thought so much of you for so long.  Godspeed in your travels and may I be fortunate enough to hear you play the tenor saxophone again in person.

sonny_rollinsYours truly,

Sonny Rollins

The letter is deeply moving, its individuality emphasized by Sonny’s sincerity, his eighteenth-century prose flourishes.  Of course, it is a heartfelt expression of gratitude and admiration.  But what moves me is that Rollins isn’t praising Hawk’s musical inventiveness.  No, he pays tribute is to the maturity of character Hawkins showed; a moral tenacity displayed in his devotion to his art.

When Sonny praises Hawk for resisting the temptations that other, weaker players fell prey to, I suspect that he has Charlie Parker in mind and those players who fell under the spell of Bird’s music and his self-destructive persona.   “Character, knowledge and virtue” — rare qualities in themselves or in such a combination.

We praise Hawkins for making the tenor saxophone into a true jazz instrument, for helping to continue and expand the jazz ballad tradition.  He kept his own identity but he played alongside Mamie Smith in 1920 and with Monk, Coltrane, and Rollins forty years later, still immediately identifiable.  But I think we should also praise Rollins for his humility and his willingness to honor his ancestors.  Many of us might think some of the same thoughts about a person who has inspired us, but how many of us will write the letter?

Hawkins died in 1969, so he cannot hear our praise.  But we can still honor him by reminding others of the celebration on Friday, by listeining to it ourselves, and by keeping his music in our ears whenever we can.

AWFUL SAD . . .

dsc00381

I didn’t have to go to graduate school to learn that things come to an end, including the summer, the bag of potato chips, and the cup of Earl Grey tea.  Of course we know that change may be the only constant.  But I was saddened to find that Jon-Erik Kellso’s Sunday gig at Sweet Rhythm is no more.

The reasons surely weren’t musical, and the audience had grown exponentially from the first Sunday to the fourth, which was November 16.  No, the gig ended for economic reasons, understandable but sorrowful nonetheless.  I envision this blog as a place to celebrate, so I will not embark on dark ruminations.

What I prefer to do here is thank the musicians who played so beautifully: Jon-Erik, Chuck Wilson, Will Anderson, Peter Reardon-Anderson, John Allred, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Kelly Friesen, Andrew Swann, and a host of gifted sitters-in including Lisa Hearns and Adrian Cunningham.  And the Friends of Jazz who filled the room: the Beloved, of course; Jackie, Lala, and Nina Favara; Bill and Sonya Dunham; Dick Dreiwitz; Jim and Grace Balantic; Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  And thanks to the people I didn’t get to meet who grinned and clapped and were moved along with us.

The music lives on in our memories and on YouTube.  You can visit my “swingyoucats” account and Jim’s “recquilt” for clips on this band in action.  But even the best live video isn’t the same thing.

AWFUL SAD, to quote Ellington.

SUNDAY’S JAZZ DELIGHTS: NOV. 16, 2008

A congenial quartet of the Beloved, myself, Erin Elliott, and Flip went to Sweet Rhythm this afternoon for what is becoming a delightful weekly ritual: to spend two hours in the happily inspired company of Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends.  This week, the Friends included some familiar faces: pianist Ehud Asherie, bassist Kelly Friesen, and drummer Andrew Swann.  Jon-Erik’s front-line colleague this week was his friend and (often) EarRegular, trombonist John Allred.

At times, I was reminded of the interplay between Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, not that Jon and John imitated those masterful players, but in the easy, dancing way their lines intertwined and complemented, feinted and echoed.  And the rhythm section was a joy, as always.

The band started off at a high level, with their comfortable, trotting version of the old standard MY GAL SAL:

They then offered a musing, sweet WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, that optimistic piece of good advice courtesy of Harry Barris and Bing Crosby:

And I close this post with the first feature of the afternoon: Ehud, Kelly, and Andrew playing LOUISE at a deliciously slow tempo.  I was so fascinated by the gliding pace Ehud had chosen that I missed the first half-chorus: I hope that I redeemed myself to watchers and readers by capturing the rest.  This performance reminds me, not of Maurice Chevalier, but of Lester Young and Teddy Wilson in 1956, although the tempo they chose was brighter:

Magical music!

Later on, Lisa Hearns sang DON’T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE and AFTER YOU’VE GONE, and sitters-in proliferated: Chris Lacamac and Gerald Kavanagh on drums, and Adrian Cunningham, an Australian clarinetist who has already distinguished himself at The Ear Inn.

We’ll be out of the country next Sunday, but that’s the only reason we would miss one of these sessions at 88 Seventh Avenue South.

BOSWELL SISTERS PROVE JAZZ IS HEALTHY: “CLOSE FARM-ONY”

This 1932 short is the first film appearance of the Boswell Sisters.  True, it’s light-years away from CITIZEN KANE, but I don’t care.  The silly and witty lyrics, the Sisters’ beautiful harmonies and irrepressible swing, and that hay-covered piano make this hilariously memorable.

Although we intuitively knew that jazz was good for us, proof like this is extremely comforting.

STILL MORE CAPTAIN VIDEO! THE CANGELOSI CARDS, NOVEMBER 10, 2008

A warning to the aesthetically sensitized: the video clips below are cinematographically substandard.  In video and films, if you are offended by the distracting sight of people walking in front of the camera, obscuring your view, the purported subjects appearing tiny, please don’t attempt to watch this (especially without a parent or guardian present).

However, you would then be depriving yourself of evidence of one of the great moments in recent jazz: the meeting of the Cangelosi Cards and members of the Traditional Jazz Collective.  As an alternative, turn away from the monitor and delight in the sounds.

There!  These videos would never get me into the cafeteria of the world’s least accomplished film school, but they do — however weirdly — record what I saw and heard from the back of the room at Banjo Jim’s, 11 PM on Monday night, November 10, 2008.  As I’ve written, that performance seemed one of those ecstatic moments where everyone in the room understood the joyous purposes that had brought them together: the musicians, the dancers, the crowd.  I thought it a thrilling experience, and I hope that some small fragment of the emotion comes through on these clips.

On the first one, Tamar Korn sings “Milenberg Joys,” accompanied by Jake Sanders, guitar; Karl Meyer, violin; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Cassidy Holden, bass; Marcus Milius, harmonica, and sitters-in Jesse Gelber, piano; Charlie Caranicas, cornet; Michael Hashim, alto sax.  The “drums” you hear are from Tamar’s repertoire of sounds — rimshots, hi-hat cymbal hisses and swishes . . . frankly amazing, even for someone who catches himself doing Jo Jones when he thinks that the recorded music needs it.

And here’s a tender, searching exploration of “I’m Confessin'”:

And for those of you whose eyes cry out for visual representation that won’t cause eyestrain, after those minutes of cinema-excessively-verite, here is Jim Balantic’s lovely candid portrait of the Cards at Harefield Road, looking alternatively happy, pensive, and peaceful.  Thanks, Jim!

cangelosi-cards-1108