Monthly Archives: December 2008

REQUIRED READING!

Readers of this blog know Lorna Sass as a fine jazz photographer.  She captures the essence of her subjects and conveys it in a single frame.  Her jazz pedigree is impeccable: she admires the living (Wycliffe Gordon, Jon-Erik Kellso, Kevin Dorn, and others) and the departed (Louis, the Brothers Mills, and the Sisters Boswell).

But Lorna is a woman of many talents.  She’s an established journalist, travel writer, essayist, culinary historian, medieval scholar, and the author of fifteen award-winning cookbooks.  Her specialties are whole grains, quick healthy meals, pressure cooking, and vegan cuisine.  In the picture below, she’s on the left (with red eyeglasses) next to Mollie Katzen.  The night this picture was taken, both of them had won the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for their new books.  Lorna’s was WHOLE GRAINS EVERY DAY, EVERY WAY.

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Lorna has just started her own blog — LORNA SASS AT LARGE. You can get to it by way of my blogroll.  The web address is http://lornasassatlarge.wordpress.com

Because I admire insightful prose, I’ve been enjoying her essays on Sicily, popcorn, Chinese takeout, and other delicious subjects.  And her wonderful photographs.  She improvises nimbly over the chords and never turns a predictable phrase.

You might work up an appetite while reading her blog, but you’ll leave it feeling satisfied.

And I promise I won’t be jealous if you visit her blog first.

MORE WORDS TO LIVE BY

“His main theme was that you didn’t have to play loud but that you needed intensity to get the listener’s attention.  This turned out to be the greatest of all lessons in how and what to play.”

wo-smithThese words come from a fascinating book, now apparently out of print but worth searching out: SIDEMAN: THE LONG GIG OF W.O. SMITH.  William Oscar Smith is the bassist on Hawkins’s 1939 Bluebird session, the one that produced “Body and Soul.”  That should be enough renown for anyone, but Smith went on to be a generous and respected educator.

Those of you who follow this blog will not be surprised that the quotation is something Smith remembered Sidney Catlett telling young musicians in the early Forties.  I’ve included it here not as another tribute to Sid, although who would deny me that?  But it’s applicable — in its own way — to current jazz performance practice.

At the gigs I attend, musicians rarely feel the need to outshout one another.  Most of the clubs are intimate (read: “cramped”) so that raising the volume of your solo for the sake of loudness isn’t something people do.

But I am always amazed and dismayed by how many musicians unconsciously accelerate tempos, carried away by the intensity of the solos they hear.  Musician A plays more intensely, digging into his notes, so B (feeling the spirit alongside him) gets faster and faster.  These aren’t amateurs, by the way.  Now, I know how hard it is to improvise, and I am sitting at a table, silently censorious as the piece that began as a medium-tempo rock is now a sprint.  I also know that some of the greatest live performances rush or drag, and that very famous musicians tended to do this.  I will not call the roll in this blog, for, after all, jazz isn’t a metronomic art.  It isn’t mechanical, nor should it be.

But the only rushing I approve of wholeheartedly is Jiimmy Rushing.

JAZZ FESTIVAL: BETTY BOOP, DON REDMAN, EDDIE CONDON, LESTER YOUNG

Like you, I tried to imagine all those players assembled in one place and failed.  But everything is possible on YouTube.   Melissa Collard called my attention to the Don Redman / Betty Boop clip, circa 1932-33.

Has anyone written a history of Max and Dave Fleischer and associates?  I know there are Betty Boop fanciers, but I wonder about Fleischer’s choosing famous African-American jazz musicians and their bands in his cartoons.  Did he love the music?  Or was it because he could get these bands and players (think of Louis, Cab, and an uncredited Luis Russell ensemble) fairly inexpensively?  Anyway, here is I HEARD:

The opening theme is CHANT OF THE WEED — the vipers’ theme song, punctuated by wood blocks and the oceanic swaying on beautifully-dressed musicians.  Then we enter the deliciously surrealistic world of the Never Mine — the noon whistle eating its lunch, the beaver cooking pancakes on its tail.  Not to mention the whole peristaltic underground travel system.  All of this while Redman himself sings HOW’M I DOIN’?  I hope he didn’t mind being transformed on film into a canine member of the waitstaff.  Betty’s vocal (presumably that is Mae Questel) is also accompanied by a miniature mixed choir who pop in and out of the staircase in time.

When the lunch hour is through (note how that whistle lets everyone know) all the miners reverse their steps — going back under the shower which now rains down filth so they are suitably attired for the mine — to the strains of I HEARD.  Don’t miss the cat-telephone-switchboard while Claude Jones, Ed Inge, and Bob Carroll have brief solo spots before Don’s vocal.  It’s hard to keep up with the action of a terrifying descent down an elevator shaft (Betty, characteristically, loses her dress for a moment), ghosts playing baseball with a bomb — all the nightmare anyone could imagine while the Redman band plays goblin music.  But everything ends well — the bomb does the miners’ work for them and they can go home to the strains of WEED, which is perhaps an in-joke here.

These cartoons happily mix the surreal and the swinging, the wild camera angles anticipating later films.

After that, almost anything would seem sedate.  However, an Eddie Condon group (circa 1952) does its best in real time, no animation, working out on FIDGETY FEET with Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Ed Hall, Gene Schroeder, Condon himself, an off-camera Jack Lesberg, and Cliff Leeman.  (I was reminded of this and the last clip by Loren Schoenberg.)

The Mob seems to be doing a gig on an aircraft carrier, but that’s of less import than the fine sound and the beautiful interplay of this group.  They had performed FIDGETY FEET thousands of times at the club, so the routines are razor-sharp in performance, but what I delight in here is the collective exuberance, particularly that rhythm section.  Cliff Leeman!

And watching a very expert and enthusiastic Gene Schroeder makes us remember just how much piano he played, night after night, without anyone paying sufficient attention.  (He made one 78 session, four songs, as a leader, for the Black and White label, in 1944, but he deserved more.)  And Condon himself, so often slyly categorized as someone who talked more than played and drank more than he talked, shows how he directed and drove this band.  Imperishable stuff, fierce and compact at the same time.

Finally, how about seeing — not just hearing — Lester Young play POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS?

The rhythm section on this Art Ford telecast (from 1958, I believe) is Ray Bryant on a terrible piano, a happy Vinnie Burke on bass, and an unacknowledged drummer who sweeps his brushes most respectfully.  Yes, the clip is out of synch, but that adds to the poignant dreaminess of the performance, with Rex Stewart wandering in the shot.  Since there’s so little Lester on film, this is even more precious.

What follows suggests that no one — at the moment — recognized how beautiful a performance it was, or perhaps it was just that Art Ford (and his passel or posse of jazz critics at home, ready to call in) had to “keep it rolling.”  Sylvia Syms, with the same rhythm and a perky Rex Stewart offstage, wisely change the mood.  Who would be foolish enough to follow Lester in the same lovely, mournful mood?

All the Olympians . . . .

AL COHN LIVES ON

The critical eye will find many flaws in the video clip below.  It takes place at a jazz festival (not in itself a bad thing) and the cast of characters is stellar: Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Tate, Harry Edison, Woody Herman, Urbie Green, Jake Hanna , and Al Cohn.  But the end result is not all it might be: several musicians seem bored, detached.  Tate, during his better-than-average late-period solo, even glances around him for a second to mutely ask, “Aren’t any of you jazz all-stars going to play a riff or a background behind me?  Do I have to do all of this myself?”  Herman, pursued to his death by the IRS, looks exhausted and frail.  The composition, IN A MELLOTONE, Ellington’s line on the 1917 ballad ROSE ROOM, is mis-identified by the translator / subtitler: it’s not BERNIE’S TUNE.

But then there’s Al Cohn, who makes up for it all when he enters, around seven minutes into the performance.  In the Forties, Cohn was identified not only as a Woody Herman’s alumnus, but as one of the Caucasian Lestorians — tenor players who memorized all of Lester’s performances and offered them forth in their own way.  Many of them apparently emulated Lester’s delicacy.  Here, Al’s playing has energy and sinew.  He’s onstage to say something important.  He doesn’t shout.  But his solo has an easy majestic urgency all its own , even though one thinks of Ben, Bird, Herschel, preaching about mellow tones.  All of this takes place in ninety seconds.  And when the group of somewhat jaded jazz titans hears what Al has to say, they wake up and launch a suitable riff.

That’s one aspect of Al Cohn — inspiring by his fervent example.

But even posthumously, Al is an inspiration.

That’s not an empty phrase, and it’s not limited to tenor saxophone players or to listeners with good music libraries (I am thinking of the Xanadu recording HEAVY LOVE, an imperishable duet of Al and Jimmy Rowles.)  Next to me as I write this post is the Fall 2008 issue of THE NOTE, the journal of the Al Cohn Memorial Collection at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.  (The collection’s website is www.esu.edu/alcohncollection, and their email address is alcohncollection@esu.edu.)

Their mission isn’t purely archival: they want to “stimulate, enrich, and support research, teaching, learning, and appreciation of all forms of jazz.”  One of the ways they have done this — for twenty years now — is by making the collection’s resources available “and useful to students, researchers, educators, musicians, historians, journalists and jazz enthusiasts of all kinds.”  Commendably, they preserve what they have already collected “for future generations.”  The collection includes records, books, photographs, oral histories, sheet music, art,memorabilia, and ephemera.  Although their definition of jazz is broad and inclusive, the collection focuses on Al Cohn and his many friends, chief among them Zoot Sims.  Other collections draw on the life and music of bassist Eddie Safranski, the rare acquisitions of the jazz scholar Coover Gazdar, and research materials about the history of jazz in the Pocono Mountains.

(As an aside, I sent the collection — some years back — a copy of a private tape where the noble participants were Al, Zoot, and Bucky Pizzarelli.  I have some candid jazz photographs that I’ve been saving for them, too.)

I started this second half by mentioning THE NOTE.  It’s no sentimental valentine to days-gone-by, nor is it a dry academic wafer.  Professionally done, it’s a pleasure to read.  The front cover of the current issue is a beautiful color photograph of David Leibman; the back cover a 1985 shot of Hank Jones by the always-surprising jazz photographer Herb Snitzer.  In this middle, rather like a jazz fan’s chaste version of a Playboy centerfold, is a two=page candid shot of Al and Jimmy Rowles in concert in Kansas City.  In the middle — a long hilarious screed of a column by Phil Woods, who writes as vigorously as he plays.  There are also brief comments from Bob Bush, the collection’s co-ordinator, “Thinking of Al” by Doug Ramsey, and an interview with Manny Albam done by Flo Cohn, Al’s wife, memories of jazz in Disney’s “Magic Village” by Jack SImpson, photos, letters, and hilarious anecdotes.

I can hear my readers murmuring, “How can I get a copy of THE NOTE for myself?”  Well, the journal is available free to those who ask to be placed on the mailing list.  But enterprises of this sort require some support — so a little contribution (if you don’t have a large one at hand) would be appreciated.  Email or send your best wishes and checks to

ACMJC – Kemp Library

East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania

200 Prospect Street

East Stroudsburg, PA 18301-2999

And if your basement is crammed with rare tapes, acetates, photos, or charts, call Bob Bush at 570-422-3828.      

THE WASHBOARD SERENADERS GET HOT!

The first clip, merging DARK EYES and ST. LOUIS BLUES,  is from 1936 and features Jerome Darr (guitar), Bruce Randolph (kazoo), Arthur Brooks (piano), Len Harrison (spoons), Harold Randolph (kazoo), Derek Neville (alto sax), and Bruce Johnson (washboard).

In this 1933 clip (very brief), the Serenaders treat us to a wild “A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN.”

They didn’t have the finesse of the great bands of the period, but they are incendiary in their own fashion.  Thanks to the wondrous singer and musical thinker Melissa Collard for pulling my coat to these YouTube clips.

BENT PERSSON, FRANS SJOSTROM, BOB ERWIG

This video performance of “After You’ve Gone,”  taken at a Polish jazz festival last August, is a prize because it captures two of my heroes in performance: the astonishing trumpeter Bent Persson and bass saxophonist Frans Sjostrom.  The footage comes to us (via YouTube) courtesy of the generous patron of jazz video Bob Erwig, a fine trumpeter himself.

The band, the Malmo Jazz Kings, is led by trombonist Dymitr Markiewicz, who provided the film for Bob to share.

Bob explains, “Dymitr surrounded himself with some great Swedish musicians. On trumpet we see world renowned Bent Persson playing together with a young trumpet player of great talent who I noticed first with Gunhild Carlings Big Band.  Then also from Sweden is Max Carling on clarinet.  Another world famous musician is Frans Sjostrom on bass sax.  They are backed up by the Polish musicians pianist Wojtek Kamisky, drummer Bobby Sakowicz and banjoist Pawel Tartanus.  The free spirit of a jam session comes through, darn good musicians who know the jazz standards. Unfortunately it is so hard to get the right balance in a tent or a small room, both drums and banjo sound somewhat overamplified, but then it is the jazz that counts and these jazzmen certainly know what they are doing.”

Enthusiasm, skill, beauty — who minds a few rough edges?  And if you would like to admire Bent and Frans in a more intimate — but no less intense — context, look for a CD on the Kenneth Records label, HOT JAZZ TRIO, which is both a tour-de-force and a casual example of fine chamber jazz.

TAMAR KORN by EVE POLICH

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This beautiful candid study of an intent Tamar Korn of the Cangelosi Cards is the work of Eve Polich, whose Avalon Jazz blog (click it on the blogroll) provides valuable information about not only the Cards but other swing-dance-jazz-unclassificable music opportunities here and elsewhere.  The photograph needs a soundtrack . . . so check out the Cards’ schedule and catch them live!