Monthly Archives: January 2009

CANGELOSI CARDS: SWEET SATORI!

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Because of a much-appreciated friendly email nudge from Jim Balantic, the Beloved and I (with Flip tagging along) wended our way down to Banjo Jim’s last Monday night.

Banjo Jim’s sits at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue C.  The area feels much like the mysterious East but it was worth the trip.  The club is a small squarish room with tables, stools, and a bar (the latter presided over by the cheerfully expert “Banjo” Lisa).  Banjo Jim’s is a neighborhood hangout, and it offers a dazzling variety of groups who play for the tip basket.

The crowd is mostly younger people, which I find encouraging, and even when the chat level gets high, they get reverently quiet when the band begins a ballad or they sense something unusual is happening.  (And, when feelings run high, there’s a good deal of fervent jitterbugging and even slow-motion tangoing in front of the band.)

Of course the club has a website: www.banjojims.com., and a MySpace page:  www.myspace.com/banjojims — everyone seems to have a MySpace page except the Beloved and myself.  (Flip isn’t telling.)

We were there because of the regular Monday night gig of the Cangelosi Cards, that musical cornucopia, and Jim’s news that their splendid singer Tamar Korn had been working on Boswell Sisters-inspired repertoire with two other harmonizing women.

And — this is no small matter — Tamar had graciously agreed to do some of the new trio material in the band’s first set (their gig ordinarily runs from 9 PM to 2:30 AM) so that the nine-to-fivers could hear some of it before their ancient eyelids began to sag.  I was especially grateful to her for this kindness, because my clock radio makes itself known four mornings a week at 5:45 AM.

When we arrived, we were met on the sidewalk by Jim and his wife Grace and a beaming Tamar; Tamar and I talked happily until our faces began to grow numb from the cold.  We spoke of the Boswell Sisters, and how their vocal arrangements seemed to have the same intense purity of chamber music — to be revered, but also to be improvised on in a personal style.  Tamar said that she and her two friends — Mimi Terris and Naomi Uyama — found that they could do instant improvisation in the style they loved on songs the Boswells had never recorded, which suggests that they have moved well beyond imitative groups, and there have been a few.  (Copying the Boswell Sisters, incidentally, is not at all easy to do.)

Inside, a young band, calling itself “The Scandinavian Half Breeds,” no fooling, was plunking away.  That foursome, offered surrealistic gypsy swing, some Thirties songs, and some lopsided yet earnest singing. The Scandinavians have a CD for sale — a mere five dollars — and they also have a MySpace page with audio samples: www.myspace.com/scandinavianhalfbreeds.

But they were what my people call a forshpeits — an appetizer, an amuse-bouche before the entree.

The Cards were at full strength: in addition to Tamar, they had Marcus Millius on harmonica, Karl Meyer on violin, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Jake Sanders on guitar (he set tempos and routines as well), Cassidy Holden on string bass, Matt Musselman on trombone, and Gordon Webster on piano.

Here’s some of what Flip, that tidy little fellow, captured.  I have to point out that Banjo Jim’s isn’t a movie set, so that people walk in front of Flip (he’s used to it) and there were couples gyrating in front of the lens.  These clips offer atmospheric cinema verite of a particularly unbuttoned sort, but I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of the club and the Cards, who are more like an ecstatic travelling ceremony than a formal orchestra.  And that’s high praise.

Here’s a wonderful rocking version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody”:

In the name of accuracy, I have to say it begins in darkness — but soon your eyes make out the nimble fingers of Jake Sanders playing his National steel guitar in the wonderful manner I associate with the West Coast genius Craig Ventresco.  Then it starts to rock, and rock hard.  This is the kind of music that great improvisers of any kind make when no one is paying attention, when they are blissfully playing for themselves.  And the dancers!  Tamar couldn’t keep still at the beginning, and the whole room was swaying, although Flip couldn’t take his little monocular self away from the band.  (He’s a fan.  Now it can be told.)

The Cards decided to slow the tempo down — and Tamar explored a truly lovely ballad, “It’s Like Reaching For the Moon,”  which most people know, if at all, through Billie’s version.  Examined closely, the song is a rather simple motif, repeated, and the lyrics aren’t exactly Larry Hart.  (Charlie Levenson, jazz man-about-town, was sitting next to me, and he kept muttering ecstatically, “I love this song.  This is my favorite song!” so perhaps I am being too harsh.)  But what lifts it above the ordinary is Tamar’s singing — full of genuine yearning.  We believe her, as do the Cards.

After two songs about unfulfilled love, even at different tempos, it was time to explore another dramatic situation, and the Cards turned to Irving Berlin’s satiric Socialism (like “Slummin’ On Park Avenue,” it has a sharp political subtext).  Catch the weaving, seductive tempo they choose, and admire Matt’s wicked trombone playing:

Then it was time for what Jim had promised: Tamar, Mimi Terris, and Naomi Uyama got together on the tiny bandstand (this is one of those clubs where nothing delineates the end of the Audience and the beginning of the Stage, which is a truly good thing in this case) for “Moonglow,” which was properly ethereal.  These girls have it:

We were glowing!  The set ended with another loving consideration of meteorological phenomena, “Stardust,” which Tamar said she “learned from the music,” but clearly she, Naomi, and Mimi are well beyond the notes on the page, into some beautifully mystical realm:

When the Cards’ set was over, it was around 11:30 — time for the aging wage-slaves to find their cars and drive home.  But there was more!

As we were getting ready to go, Tamar said there was one more Boswell Sisters piece that she, Mimi, and Naomi had been working on.  They planned to perform it much later on but knew we would want to hear it.  Would we mind waiting for them?  Jim, Grace, and I looked at each other, grinned, wrapped our coats a little tighter, and waited on Avenue C.  In a few minutes, the Girl Trio came out (as an unrequested surrogate parent, I checked that their coats were properly buttoned up).

The trio positioned themselves in front of us on Ninth Street, and began a most unearthly beautiful a cappella rendition of the Sisters’ radio theme, “Shout, Sister, Shout.”  As you may remember, that’s a moody slow-drag, all about how singing the right way has Satan on the run.  (Would that this were the case.)  Their voices were pure and low-down at the same time, soulful and intense.  I listened, transfixed.

In an odd way, it was as close to being a royal patron of the arts as I will ever be — with Mozart playing his new piece near the dinner table to give the guests a little night music.  It was eerie, lovely, and awe-inspiring. . . as if Beauty had slipped her arms around me while I stood out in the cold.

Listening to live jazz is, with luck, a series of special moments when a listener feels that Something Rare is taking place, and it often is.  But it’s even rarer for a musician or musicians to create such tender intimacy that the listener feels, “They are playing this song just for me.”

Even though I knew it was an illusion, I felt that way while Lee Wiley sang in her 1972 farewell concert in Carnegie Hall, and I remember a much more personal example.  Once, Stu Zimny and I went to hear Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s — this would have been the same year.  Ryan’s was an inhospitable place for college kids who wanted to make their bottle of Miller High Life (awful beer even at $2.50 a bottle) last for hours.  Roy must have been playing another gig, so his place was taken by the veteran Louis Metcalf, who had played with King Oliver and Duke Ellington in the Twenties.  He was a far less electrifying player than Roy, but one moment cannot be erased.  On a medium-tempo “Rosetta,” Metcalf put his Harmon mute (the stem still attached) in his horn and went from table to table, playing a half-chorus here and there, six inches from our ears.  I can no longer remember the shape of his solo or the contours of the melodic paraphrase, but the experience — jazz at the closest possible range — gave me delighted chills then and I can see it now.

This version of “Shout, Sister,Shout,” girlish and earnest, graceful and disembodied — their three voices harmonizing as if in the middle of the darkness — was even more electrifying.  As I drove home, shaken and levitated, I thought, “I might have died and never heard this.  My God, I am lucky!”

To experience something of the same repertoire — although I can’t promise that you will have a private serenade on the sidewalk — be sure to follow the Cards wherever they go.  If you judge musicians by the quality of their formal wear, the Cards seem loose and casual, but the musical experiences they offer you won’t encounter elsewhere.  Blazing enlightenment is possible if you’re listening closely.

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“CALL 1-800-STRIDE” RIGHT AWAY!

Here are photographs you won’t see on the Post Office walls, one by William Gottlieb (left), another by Gjon Mili (right):

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And, finally, two recordings: one from the early Fifties:

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and one from the Dear Departed Past:

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What’s all this?  Scott E. Brown wrote a wonderful book about our man James P. Johnson, A Case of Mistaken Identity: The Life and Music of James P. Johnson (Scarecrow Press, 1986).  Johnson, as many of you will know, taught Fats Waller, composed “Charleston,” “Runnin’ Wild,” “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight,” “Mule Walk,” and many others.  To my ears, he is the most satisfying of the great Stride players.  But he also wrote longer works, including an opera, DE ORGANIZER, with libretto by Langston Hughes — “Third Stream” works bridging jazz and classical music.  His more ambitious compositions received insufficient notice, and he may well have died a disappointed man.

Scott is up here in New York for a few days to do research at the New York Public Library, and he is looking for people who saw James P. play.  That’s not an impossibility: James P. was at the keyboard in 1950 and perhaps beyond.  If you have any information for Scott (a pile of acetates in the kitchen cabinet, perhaps) email him at jpjstride@aol.com, or call him at 443-528-1444 (cell).  I’ll see Scott on Thursday — we’re going to see Ehud Asherie and Harry Allen at Smalls (!) so I can also pass on messages.  Thanks to Tony Mottola, editor of Jersey Jazz, the monthly magazine of the New Jersey Jazz Society, for letting me in on this.

A SILENT PICTURE, RESOUNDING

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Gjon Mili.

His studio.

1943.

LIFE magazine.

Pearl Primus, Bobby Hackett, Lou McGarity, Ed Hall, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett.

That might be bow-tied Cliff Jackson, absorbing it all.

The caption of the original picture says that this band was playing HONEYSUCKLE ROSE for Pearl Primus to dance to.

I can hear Catlett’s brushes, the stomp and scrape of Primus’s feet, the organ notes of the front line, Wilson’s chords, Williams’s deep woody sound.

If you look at this picture and don’t hear the band, something isn’t working.

CREATIVE VIOLENCE?

wby1When I was in graduate school, deep in W.B. Yeats-idolatry (my other life has been wound around Irish literature), I admired “Under Ben Bulben”  — his great late poem — immoderately.  But I had very little patience for this quatrain, and wondered if Yeats had made the idea fit his rhymes.

Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

The slightly satiric visual image these lines suggested to me was of the artist as bullyboy, getting ready to wallop someone, the man getting dressed to go out with his ladylove, shaving in front of the mirror in tremendous annoyance.  And as I write this, I am listening to an old record of Johnny Windhurst ambling through a ballad-tempo “Memphis Blues”; he sounds utterly at ease.  And Yeats himself — in the famous photo here — looks more pensive than violent.

But I do know that the creative process, even for writers, is tension-producing, the effort of making something a tiring and often irritating thing.  Although we talk about “relaxation” as an ideal creative state and imagine that the string bassist playing those beautiful lines (I am thinking of Pat O’Leary at the Ear Inn last Sunday) is dreamily easeful, every muscle loose, this may be a fallacy.  I wonder if creative energy, productive anger and violence are much like sexual tension: that state of being ready for action, mildly edgy, on the brink of action.

But these lines came to mind again because Sam Parkins, sage and improviser, sent me something he had written about Louis and the emotional climate needed for creativity.  It also reminds us of Louis’s essential deep seriousness about his art, something that all the grinning pictures occasionally obscure.  Some readers might think that these two examples are atypical, but I wonder.  A great deal!

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In all the voluminous writing about Louis Armstrong there is something elementary missing, and the minute I tell you about it you’ll agree.  I started looking for it about ten years ago, when I started researching him. Had to be there.  Violence.  The need for it comes at you from all directions.  His start in life, in the funkiest, most criminal part of New Orleans.  The stress of dealing with really bad racial stuff – from both sides, because he was darker than most, and would have got it from lighter folks as well as whites.

And something I know from myself.  When I get deeply involved in music, I go around slightly pissed all the time.  It generates a kind of energy that it’s a good idea to be aware of.  I noticed it only last fall when I had to play clarinet on a critical recording, including memorizing the book, and having to practice my way to more than competence in a hurry.  If you knew Zoot Sims, you would have been aware that it was always there – an undercurrent.  (Don’t take this to include all artists all the time – just a tendency).  But all the writing portrays Louis as this pussy cat.

So finally I found it.  In a recent book, “The Louis Armstrong Companion: 8 Decades of Commentary” (ed. Joshua Berrett, Schirmer Books, 2000), there’s a couple of prime examples:  1) Someone goes into the dressing room just in time to see Louis with his hands around his manager Joe Glaser’s neck – “Lissen motherfucker – if I find you’ve stolen one penny from me you’re dead”.

2) Just before the All Stars are about to go on stage, Louis flattens Jack Teagarden.  Knocks him out.  And goes on to announce sweetly, “Mr. Teagarden will not be able to be with us for this performance”.  (Doesn’t tell us why). I asked biographer James Lincoln Collier if he knew about this, because it’s not in his book. “Yes – I knew about it, but didn’t include it because I have to have something like that from two sources and there’s only one”.

BILLIE, BARBARA LEA, MINGUS, AND FRIENDS

Jeanie Wilson (dear friend of Barbara Lea and a thoughtful reader of this blog) just sent this along — what a treasure!

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When it stops snowing, Jeanie, can we go?  I’ll spring for the tickets.  At $2.50, everyone we know can join us!

(Before my attentive readers write in to add information, I’ll venture that this took place in 1957 — a few minutes with an online perpetual calendar suggested that as the only plausible year.)

OH, PLAY THAT RADIO!

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I tried to tell Betty Sue that she didn’t need to place herself so firmly in front of her radio — it’s only Wednesday — but she said indignantly, “Don’t you know that Jon-Erik is going to be on WBGO-FM this Sunday at 11 PM?  I’m just getting ready.  I need to get a good seat, you know.”

Perhaps I should explain.  If you’ve been reading this blog and are saying “Jon-Erik who?” then you have failed the Reading Comprehension section of the examination.

That’s Jon-Erik Kellso, the Michigander Prince of Growl, who regularly leads the troops with intelligence, wit, and passion whenever he unpacks his Puje trumpet.

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(I captured this moment at The Ear Inn:  Jon-Erik, Mark Shane, Mark Lopeman, and Matt Munisteri.  Heady stuff!)

Jon-Erik will be both co-host and subject of the venerable and wonderful program JAZZ FROM THE ARCHIVES from 11 PM to midnight this coming Sunday, February 1, on WBGO-FM (88.3 on your dial).  For those of you beyond the reach of the radio signal, I understand that the program can be heard — in real time — through the station’s website:   http://www.wbgo.org/

Jon-Erik is someone much loved by listeners and his colleagues, but he hasn’t made the cover of TIME just yet, and he missed out on having Gjon Mili take his picture with Lips, Mezz, Dizzy, and Duke, alas.  So I urge all of you to listen.  He’ll be seated next to Dan Morgenstern (someone who needs no introduction if you love this music) and they will talk and play some of Jon-Erik’s own recordings and some that have pleased and inspired him.

Honoring jazz musicians on the radio is not an everyday affair, and honoring a living jazz musician is even more pleasantly unusual.  So do remember to tune in!  They tell me that there’s something going on earlier in the day that calls for beverages and snacks: a group of men do something with a ball, but that remains a mystery.  Save your energies for 11 PM.

And you might want to stake out a comfortable chair near the speaker for yourself.  It really is getting crowded in here.  Who are these people?  Did I invite any of them?

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ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning  at a church in Rockville Centre.

My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.

billie-1These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love.  (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)

To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure.  And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.

STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre.  As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.

But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding.  And surprising.  Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.

Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface.  If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs.  What would they bring to such an experience?”  But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.

A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.

A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties.  I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.

A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.”  (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis.  52nd Street isn’t and never was.)

I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate.  She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.

A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942.  They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz.  She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared).  And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton.  I beamed at her, awestruck.

On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided.  I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two.  And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like.  But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me.  And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.

My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible.  So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on.  And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience.  In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past.  Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.

The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.

[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour.  Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott?  I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)

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