IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO PRAISE

My title is a slight distortion of a Willard Robison song that Mildred Bailey did beautifully, and it’s also a statement of philosophy for this blog.  But I’m not going back into the Dear Departed Past, to quote Dave Frishberg, only back to last year — December 30, 2008, to be precise. 

applause

In a December post, WAY DOWN YONDER ON CARMINE STREET, I urged my New York readers to come hear the singer Ronnie Washam (she’s Veronica on her return address labels) and her Friends at the Greenwich Village Bistro for a debut gig.  I made it to 1 and 1/2 sets that night.  And they were worth writing about. 

Ronnie’s Friends — not just an idle band title — are Sam Parkins, also known as Leroy Parkins, Albert-system clarinetist, scholar, record producer, raconteur, and writer; Pete Sokolow, pianist-singer, honoring Earl Hines and Fats Waller, and bassist Dave Winograd. 

When I got down to the Bistro (just south of the IFC theatre and around the corner — 13 Carmine Street), this little band was already strolling through S’WONDERFUL.  They proceeded to honor George and Ira Gershwin in a fond and musically articulate set.  The songs ranged from the tender (EMBRACEABLE YOU and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY) to the affectionately satiric (THEY ALL LAUGHED, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT), the rueful (BUT NOT FOR ME), and the riotous (Sokolow’s tribute to “my hero,” Thomas Waller, in a piano-vocal I GOT RHTYHM that summoned up Fats’s band version of 1935 hilariously and effectively.

Ronnie was in wonderful form and fine voice.  I hadn’t heard her since the Cajun closed in 2006, when she was “The Chelsea Nightingale,” positioned off to the side of the bandstand as an accessory to Bob Thompson’s Red Onion Jazz Band.  Thompson, even then, was a solid drummer with a well-earned grasp of jazz history, but he called the songs Ronnie sang, and it was a pleasure to see her sing others at the Bistro.  I knew her then as someone who loved the melody and understood the words; with this more relaxed combo, I heard her as a far freer improviser, someone whose second choruses were developments of what she had sung in her first exposition of the theme.  Her time remains excellent; her diction is splendid.  But it’s her feeling that sets her apart from a thousand other singers trying to comvince us that they own the Great American Songbook.  Like Bing, Ronnie makes it seem easy: listening to her, one might think, “Oh, I  could do that!”  But that would be an error.  And she had an easy give-and-take with the band, being content to be one of them rather than the Star. 

The band — all three of them — was very pleasing as well.  The piano wasn’t perfect, but Sokolow covered every inch of it, graciously playing the right chords, delicately voiced, behind Ronnie and the other two players.  Dave Winograd sat on a high stool, his bass at an angle over his shoulder, impressing us all with his huge tone and fine notes.  Sam Parkins has all the Goodman facility anyone would want, but he isn’t the twenty-first century’s Peanuts Hucko: he uses those flurries to create his own sound-pictures, with lovely excursions into the horn’s lower register. 

Sam is also a not-quite-dormant showman and vaudevillian, so one high point of the evening was his rapid-fire delivery of I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS.  Who among us remembers all of those tongue-twisting lyrics?  Sam remembers them and puts them over, exuberantly.  It was a joy to watch and hear him, occasionally finishing his sixteen bars and deciding to hand the baton to another player, hollering, “Somebody else!”  It worked. 

The second set moved beyond Gershwin to a naughty MAKIN’ WHOOPEE, a tender TIME ON MY HANDS, a funny CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU (a Waller-Razaf collaboration with an irresistible melody and irresistibly silly lyrics), a fervent ME MINUS YOU (in honor of Connee Boswell, one of Ronnie’s — and my — heroines), and a moving AM I BLUE, complete with the rarely-heard verse, where Ronnie showed just how compelling her understated delivery is.

I sat next to my friends Marianne Mangan and Bob Levin, and the three of us were beaming.  Others in the Bistro seemed to know just how good the music was, and the tip jar was filled with bills.  I hope this quartet has a new steady gig.  The ambiance, in itself, was worth seeking out, as if a group of talented friends was playing for their own enjoyment in someone’s living room, caring for the music above all.   

A postscript: Sam Parkins has been writing his musical and intellectual autobiography (he gave me some chapters from it when we were both regulars at the Cajun) and it’s wonderfully addictive.  You can find excerpts from it on his MySpace page:   http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=201966595.  He was there (I was just re-reading his piece on the death of Ellington bassist Junior Raglin) and he can write.  A rare combination indeed.

5 responses to “IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO PRAISE

  1. Marianne Mangan

    I smile as I remember this engaging set of musicians and I’m happy to report that a return engagement is planned for February–if not exactly steady, soon enough! Sam will keep us posted as to exactly when.

  2. Nancie Beaven

    OH MY, how we miss the Cajun !!! Great tribute to Ronnie whose vocals we all loved with the Red Onion JB.

  3. Ronnie Washam and Friends is tentatively scheduled to return twice in February 09.
    Tuesday, February 10, from 9pm to 11pm
    and
    Thursday, February 26, from 9pm to 11pm

    Ronnie Washam, girl singer!
    Pete Sokolow, piano/vocals
    Sam Parkins, clarinet/vocals
    David Winograd, bass

  4. Great news, David– thanks for letting us know! See you in February . . . .

  5. leroy sam parkins

    Outside of an engraved and plated with Gold Leaf ‘THANK YOU” to Michael Steinman and his superb blog, “Jazz Lives” (that cat can WRITE too) – a bit of the back story:

    Shouting “Somebody !!” at the end of a chorus was learned at the feet of the last Great Masters of New Orleans Jazz – the Humphrey Bros., Preservation Hall, Oct. ’91, my last major label recording: “PRESERVATION HALL LIVE!” for Sony Classical. They did this all the time, knowing that the right person wold seize the baton.

    Benny Goodman? Have we got time?? Good grief – it’s 1936; I own a tin clarinet ($35. with case and one reed), have a lousy teacher, which is good because it made me figure out a lot of stuff myself, but which is bad because the 2nd measure of “Don’t Be That Way” stopped me dead so traumatically that I only figured out that it was an augmented chord (who knew?) about twelve years ago. I’m 10, dozing off on the couch; my brother Ted, older, bears the entire resposibillity for all this, pinches me – hard – on the thigh equidistantly between the knee and hip, where it really hurts “WAKE UP!! THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!”

    The Camel Caravan radio broadcast, “Tuesday at Ten”, the Goodman band roaring into life and bringing a changed world with it. Swing (and its companion WW II). Me? Mesmerized, and in 1938 our perceptive father took us to the RKO (Boston’s Paramount) Theater to see B.G. live. Jesus. It was over. Normal life. With Lionel on drums; it was he who played ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’.

    Four years later I started gigging – $5. for a Saturday night Methodist sunday school dance (BTW, the Catholics do NOT have a lock on child molestation. I got groped by a Unitarian and a Congregationalist in my youth), and hey – to quote Dick Wellstood – “Beats working”.

    All is serene for a couple or three years. Then “Wham!” — Charlie Parker. To survive, begin to feel my way into bebop – and oh yeah – come to New York at 30 and discover I can’t hardly play the clarinet at all; Bob Wilber sends me to his teacher at Juilliard for four years. Leon Russianoff, teacher of the entire Philharmonic clarinet section, Bob. Jimmy Hamilton – and me.

    Meanwhile the bebop scene has me very unhappy. I can’t really execute “Airgin” or “Epistrophy”, don’t particularly want to, and that heroin all over the place is dreadful (read “Dick Twardzik” on MySpace). AND: just in time, in 1950, my mates offered me a steady Sunday afternoon, $6. Dixieland gig. Oh wow!! – these guys laugh a lot, drink beer, blow a little reefer – and I never looked back. From then on I killed off my fathers, Benny Goodman and Leon Russsianoff. From my first record, 1956, when I go through Jelly Roll’s “London Blues” in the manner of Johnny Dodds until 2006, that last sad and great night at the Cajun (blessedly recorded by Michael Steinman) – pure NO and the last time I played pure Albertian – Dodds again. I had hung on to my second roots.

    But the wall was coming down. Ted, that rascally brother, sent me the late Goodman Sextet records with Mel Powell (my true love) and Red Norvo – this not so long ago – and “Hey – this cat plays great. Why am I murdering him and Leon? Don’t need to any more”. (Benny went to study with Leon too, but later).

    Ever since then I have embraced beauty, done what my dearest friend and idol, Kenny Davern did – listened to everybody, but centered it all on a true clarinet sound, which works for Brahms* or the Blues. Still workin’ on it, maybe finally learning to play the clarinet, helped by my fathers, and the contant presence of Kenny, who shows me the way every day…sam p {*A PS about Kenny: At the first session of the Music Masters recording, “One Hout Tonight” he warmed up with a big chunk of von Weber’s 1st Clarinet Concerto. A truly great classical player, any orchestra would have been proud to have Kenny Davern}.

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