Daily Archives: January 28, 2009

“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.

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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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