Daily Archives: January 20, 2009

NO JAM TODAY (AT SYMPHONY SPACE)

symphony-spaceI opened the January 26, 2009, issue of The New Yorker to the advertisement that sits contentedly between pages 32 and 33.  It describes, in brief, events taking place throughout February at Symphony Space in their month-long “1939 Project: American Arts At A Turning Point.”  The full schedule is available at www.symphonyspace.org/1939. On this page, one can see programs devoted to 1939 cinema, popular and classical music, fiction, “American culture in context,” “the pulse of 1939,” and more.  Kirk Nurock, Marion Cowings, Eisa Davis, Sara Laimon, Robin Aleman, Dawn Clement, Jody Sandhaus and others will play and sing.  Famous names — E.L. Doctorow, Robert Dallek, Dick Cavett, and Leon Botstein — will speak, moderate, and direct.  And there’s more.

But I have to say that before I saw this advertisement, I had heard intriguing rumblings about these programs: the names of Ellington and Basie had been invoked as artists central to the culture of 1939.

But no Ellington or Basie did I see on this program.  I looked closer, and found something . . . .

“JITTERBUG DANCE JAM

FEB 7 AT 7 PM    FREE

Kick up your heels to the sounds of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and other big band favorites at this community dance-along on the stage of the Peter Sharp Theatre.”

Forgive me if I seem ungrateful.  I know that pop music of the Swing Era was transmitted for free — recordings and live broadcasts — on radio coast-to-coast in 1939, so I suppose this evening is someone’s idea of “Juke Box Saturday Night.”  But to me it seems cheap and inadequate.  The absence of live 1939-tinged jazz on such a program is annoying, to put it politely. I mean no disrespect to the singers and musicians Symphony Space has already hired and advertised; I am sure that they will sing and play with abandon and ambition.  But . . . .

Were the project directors at Symphony Space unaware that 1939 was a watershed year in live jazz?  Charlie Christian joined the Benny Goodman band; Jimmy Blanton joined Ellington; Lester Young was electrifying listeners in the Basie reed section.  Eddie Condon was creating jam sessions at the Friday Club; Alistair Cooke was announcing other sessions for the BBC; a young Charlie Parker was finding his wings; Dizzy Gillespie was already surprising musicians; Art Tatum already had intimidated everyone; Coleman Hawkins returned from Europe and recorded “Body and Soul”; Louis Armstrong was at one of his many artistic peaks.  An underfed singer from Jersey named Sinatra made his first recordings.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

I know, of course, that such projects are broad in scope and often narrow in budget.  But I have seen jazz concerts put on by the Sidney Bechet Society at this very Symphony Space, so I would guess that such an event was within the realm of possibility. And, to loosely paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, “I saw the best musicians of my generation playing for the tip jar, playing fifty-dollar gigs all over town.” I’m no impresario, but if you gave me a five-hundred dollar budget, I could put on the finest impromptu 1939 jam session you’d ever seen or heard.  (No music stands, by the way.)  I could think of twenty-five imensely talented and under-utilized instrumentalists and singers, each of whom could embody the creative pulse of 1939 in sixteen bars.  But they’re not on the program.

Did the famous names on the program eat up all the funds?  Did the producers decide that it was important to have live classical music and live singers, but assume that jazz could be taken care of by someone with a well-filled iPod?  I don’t know.

Once again, live jazz has the door shut in its face.  And, ironically, jazz of this era is often dismissed as “no longer representative of American culture,” the outdated music of white-haired folks deep in nostalgia.  Surely some place could have been found for it during a month-long project.

How very disappointing.

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BARBARA LEA AND JOHNNY WINDHURST, THEN AND NOW

One of the great pleasures of this not-for-profit enterprise is the connections that it creates and makes possible.  Sam Parkins writes about hearing Louis in 1945, then Ricky Riccardi does some detective work to track down the song Sam might have heard Louis play.

When I posted about Johnny Windhurst on January 8, it provoked some felicitous comments from musicians.  Today, I heard — indirectly — from Barbara Lea.  I say “indirectly,” because Barbara’s been ill of late, so her dear friend Jeanie Wilson wrote to me . . . which was a pleasure in itself — and sent these two photographs.  Barbara spoke of Johnny in the most glowing terms, much as she spoke of the late Dick Sudhalter, who joined her on a number of more recent sessions.

For those of you who don’t know all about Barbara Lea, I would direct you to her website (www.barbaralea.com) and then to Amazon to purchase the three CDs that contain the music she recorded with Johnny Windhurst, Dick Cary, Garvin Bushell, Ernie Caceres, Dick Hyman (as “Richard Lowman”) and others: BARBARA LEA, A WOMAN IN LOVE, and LEA IN LOVE.  (Details of these sessions can be found in the discography, nicely done, on Barbara’s website.)  The intuitive teamwork between Barbara and Johnny — intense yet delicate — summons up the celestial music that Lee Wiley and Bobby Hackett made on a precious few records.

The first photograph, as atmospheric as you could want, was taken during a 1956 Riverside recording session at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio — which was actually his living room, if you didn’t know.

When was the last time you saw a trumpeter or cornetist sweetly change the timbre of his sound with a felt hat?  (I saw Vic Dickenson put a beret over the bell of his horn, and the resulting sound was lovely, clear but far-away, as if heard in the forest.)

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Here’s another snapshot of Johnny, from Barbara’s scrapbook:

lea-windhurst-2

And a beautiful portrait of Barbara herself in full flower:

lea-portrait

And just so you know that virtue is, in fact, sometimes rewarded:  Barbara is an alumna of Wellesley College, and they are honoring her with their Alumnae Achievement Award.

Who deserves it more?