Monthly Archives: January 2009

JAZZ AND RACE, CONTINUED

I just visited a blog called AfroChat — which features a particularly energized discussion on the question, “Why Don’t Black Folks Listen to Jazz?”  The question is worth asking, certainly.  And I admire the vehemence of the responders, although I cannot share some of their racial assumptions.  I should point out that I am technically Caucasian.  And perhaps the whole question is elusive — why should I, as a teenager in 1965, have found Louis Armstrong more “my music” than the Beatles, even though the latter were what the media and my peers said I was supposed to be listening to?

What if art — unlike the people who discourse on it — IS genuinely color-blind, and the race or ethnicity of an artist has nothing to do with the race or ethnicity of his or her audience? 

And a post titled “Why Don’t Black Folks Listen to Bessie Smith?” would be wrongly restrictive: these days, it should be “Why Don’t People Listen to Bessie Smith?”  Although I am sure someone will write in to say proudly that (s)he hears Bessie just fine, thank you.  And I wonder how many people actually listened to Bessie Smith when she was alive and at the height of her popularity.  I am now of the opinion that even with the big bands of the Swing Era, jazz was never truly the dominant popular music of this country.  In 1940, to pick a year at random, a listener had a far better chance of going to see jazz live, hearing it on the radio, easily finding jazz records as well as people who were aware of it . . . but for every Billie Holiday record there were a dozen records without a dash or a pinch of jazz.  Alas, but it’s easy to prove.  And Louis Armstrong himself admired the music of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, I should point out.     

The posting — and the discussion — are well worth reading.  Check them out at  http://www.afrochat.net/forums/music/21186-why-dont-black-folks-listen-jazz.html

I FOUND A MILLION-DOLLAR BABY

 cdI bought a jazz CD this morning.  For anyone who knows me or has intuited something about my life from this blog, that should hardly be worthy of comment. 

The prize CD — which I found out about because of John Herr’s recommendation — features Matthias Seuffert, Rossano Sportiello, Harry Allen, and Anthony Howe.  Three of those musicians are players I revere, and if Howe, a drummer, is part of their company, I’d take it on faith that he swings.  The title is “SWINGIN’ DUO BY THE LAGO,” and it comes from Styx Records.   

The disc itself, however, isn’t the reason for this post.  I bought the disc through CD Baby (wittily titled) and late in the evening I got this automated response, which made me laugh so hard that it is worth a purchase in itself.  This message — happily over-the-top to be sure– is the way to treat customers!  Check their website out for yourselves.   

cd-baby1

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.   A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.  Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.  We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Saturday, January 24th.  I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby.  We sure did.  Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year.”  We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Sigh…

CD Baby
the little store with the best new independent music 

http://cdbaby.com cdbaby@cdbaby.com (503)595-3000

“ROSES OF PICARDY” AND “SUNDAY”: WHAT FUN!

I’m indebted to Flemming Thorbye, whom I’ve never met, for video-recording these two songs and putting them on YouTube, where they held me transfixed through several viewings.  The performances might look informal, but it takes a great deal of hard-earned mastery to be so casual.  Thorbye captured this band at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa, July 2005.

The band was officially billed as Spats Langham and his Rhythm Boys, but this ensemble has a democratic strolling feel: routines are improvised on the stand and no one monopolizes the stage.  Even at a distance, you can see the players grinning at each other’s solos, which is not as common as you might think.

The Anglo-American players — what players! — are Thomas “Spats” Langham, guitar and vocal; Tom Pletcher, cornet; Paul Munnery, trombone; Norman Field, clarinet; Jeff Barnhart, piano; Frans Sjostrom, bass sax; Nick Ward, drums.

The first song was one of Jule Styne’s earliest — “Sunday,” whose lyrics make the trek through the week to arrive at the one day when romance can flourish.  Bix recorded it as a member of the Jean Goldkette band — with an enthusiastic, cheery vocal by the Keller Sisters and Lynch.  Apocryphally, Lynch was the Sisters’ brother, but that might be too confusing a fact to incorporate.

I know “Sunday” from years of listening to jazz sessions that took place on that day: it was and is a comfortable tune to begin with.  Ruby Braff and Bobby Hackett did it often, and Jon-Erik Kellso continues the tradition now.

After a few cinematographic shudders, we settle down with Pletcher’s firm, nuanced lead — helped immeasurably by neat improvisations from Field and Munnery.  The limber rhythm section moves things along: Sjostrom, as always doing the work of two or perhaps three men, playing rhythm and soloing.  After Tom ends his solo with a “Holiday for Strings” lick, Munnery comes on like a supple Harlem trombonist c. 1931, with easy grace.  Pletcher’s solo outing is full of Bix sound-castles, beautiful architecture, but I would also have you listen closely to Nick Ward’s rocking choke-cymbal (and then his accents behind Field on what Jo Jones used to call “elephants’ nuts”).  Feld is deep into the idiom, but he doesn’t copy anyone’s phrases.  Spats (at Pletcher’s direction) takes a winsome vocal, backed by Barnhart and then Sjostrom.  When Frans solos, it’s easy to get swept away in his pure sound — but on a second listening, one comes to admire the shapes of his phrases, echoing the whole reed tradition.  Jeff Barnhart drifts into some nifty Zez Confrey flourishes in the middle of his solo, paving the way for a fervent but still measured ensemble, driven home by Nick once again.

“Roses of Picardy,” a sentimental favorite from the First World War, is even better.  It was the last tune of the set, and (as often happens) all the horns and the players and their instruments had warmed up.  I can’t connect Bix with this song, but it was a popular favorite of his teens.  Everyone is even more lyrical — Frans, Tom, a very Russellish Field, Langham blending Django and Lang, and Munnery, leading into the final ensemble.  Although the audience drowns out Nick Ward’s break, we know it was there, so that will have to do.  What great ease!

Some discographical comments:

I first heard Nick Ward, Spats Langham, and Norman Field on a Stomp Off CD, THE CHALUMEAU SERENADERS (1394) which also features the reed wizard Matthias Seuffert in the front line.  Spats appeared on only one track — a vocal on a song I associate with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, “Okay, Baby,” but his singing was so wonderful that I sought out the two Lake CDs he had made under his own name — a duet with pianist Martin Litton called LOLLIPOPS (LACD 226) and a small band — also featuring Norman! — THE HOTTEST MAN IN TOWN (LACD 228).  The duet album has its serenely beautiful moments; the small band is cheerfully frisky.  Norman shows off his beautiful alto work as well on these CDs.  And Nick Ward is a quiet powerhouse, rocking the band without getting loud or louder.

I apologize for my not having any Paul Munnery CDs to report on — but a bit of online research suggests that he is a Higginbotham – Nanton man on CD, so I will look for his smaller group, SWING STREET, and his work with a big repertory band, HARLEM.

Jeff Barnhart has made many CDs with multi-instrumentalist Jim Fryer, and he’s also recorded a lovely solo piano CD for Arbors, IN MY SOLITUDE (19324).

I’ve praised Frans Sjostrom elsewhere in this blog and will continue to do so: search out his extraordinary HOT JAZZ TRIO on the Kenneth label (CKS 3417) with Bent Persson, and he also is an essential part of the ensemble on I’M GLAD: TOM PLETCHER AND THE CLASSIC JAZZ BAND (Stomp Off 1353).  Tom has appeared on many earlier vinyl issues with the Sons of Bix — have they made it to CD?  But most recently, he has impresed me deeply on CD, not as a player, but as a writer and annotator of a most special kind.  Many of you will know of Tom’s late father, Stewart (or Stu or even Stew) Pletcher, a wonderfully lyrical player whose most notable recordings were made as a member of Red Norvo’s Thirties orchestra and combos.  I was delighted that the Jazz Oracle label issued THE STORY OF STEWART PLETCHER (BDW 8055) in 2007.  Marvelously researched as always, it gives a thorough picture of Pletcher Sr.’s playing — through rare recordings, of course, from 1924 to 1937.  That would be enough for me.  But I was tremendously moved by his son’s essay on his father.  It is loving yet candid, a tribute to a man much-loved but not always easy to know.  I do not overpraise it by calling it an affecting memoir, honoring both father and son at once.

If you don’t know these players, I hope I’ve given you reason to regret your previous ignorance and repent yourselves of it as soon as possible.

P.S.  The espression “What fun!” comes from Liadain O’Donovan — of Kinvara, Dalkey, New York, and San Francisco — and I hope she doesn’t mind my borrowing it.

LOUIS, AN ECSTATIC EXPERIENCE

louis-posterSam Parkins, bless him, sent me the backstory (or is it “prequel”?) to his 1945 Louis experience, which I posted as LOUIS AND “THAT MODERN MALICE”:

A note from now – January 2009: It’s impossible to overstate Louis’ nearly-vanished position in the early 40s, when I came into jazz sentience.  To us hep-cats he was only slightly more ‘there’ than Alphonse Picou (whom no one had heard of).  We’d heard of Louis, but he hadn’t mattered for years.  I did have a high school classmate who kept a wind-up Victrola and some 78s in the garage, but when he tried playing me some red-label Columbia Hot Fives they didn’t register so he gave up.  Benny and Duke (oh all right – and Glenn Miller) were pretty nearly all there was.

So the following trip was – well – a trip: 1945 was a hell of a year.  A half-dozen big things happened: I got drafted, Roosevelt died, VE day, I heard Louis Armstrong for the first and almost last time (drunk in Geneva – the other time – doesn’t count), VJ day, Bird and Diz first record, Stravinsky writes “The Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman band… I was let out of basic training end of March just after VE day and given a chance to go back to college for engineering.  Seemed vastly superior to heading for the Pacific so I didn’t tell them I had already switched to a music major at Cornell, and fetched up at the University of Kentucky, where the girl/boy ratio was 5-1.  Cool.

I’d been there three days – and met a girl acquaintance downtown on the main (and only) drag by the drugstore. Saturday afternoon.  There’s no possibility of transcribing this but I’ll try: “Yawgnjlnnye?”  It evolved that Louis Armstrong was playing at the Joyland Ballroom that night and was I going?  Joyland was the classic American amusement park and ballroom, built by the trolley company, always at the end of line to get customers out on weekends.  Think Coney Island.  So I took her.  At least I took her, bought tickets and got her in the door.  Then Louis started to play and I was rooted to the floor in front of the stage, which was high, at shoulder level (a good idea if there’s a riot – and I’ve been in one, at a wedding where the bride was Irish and the groom Polish.  High stage saved the band).  Never saw the girl again. (But I did see one of the dancers.  Barefoot guy, nearly seven feet tall, very long – past shoulder length – hair, in an era where that simply wasn’t done.  Guy stood out.  Jitterbugging like hell.  Must have still been with girl; asked her “Whoozat?”  “Oh – that’s a hillbilly. They come down from Harlan County.”    Ferociousest lookin’ guy I ever saw).

Rooted to the floor with tears streaming down my cheeks.  Louis could play one note and destroy me.  Never ever let up.  This was his traveling big band, one nighters all over the country, and this was the South, where by all accounts the going was rough for a black band.  He could – and I think this was true all his life – only play and sing wide open. And that doesn’t mean loud.  “Commitment and Abandon”?  This is it.

I look over my long life in music and can think of only one comparable experience.  Bob Palmer, our composition teacher at Cornell, took us – his class of four would-bes – up to Eastman to hear Frederick Fennell conduct the student orchestra in Bartok’s “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste”.  Bartok had just died, and his music immediately spread like a tidal wave everywhere.  Erased everyone else for a few years.  At the end of the performance Fennell asked the audience, “Would you like to hear it again?”  Of course we would.  At the end of the second go-’round I nearly fainted – had to be partly carried to the door.  Too much emotion.

(And folks – tell me: can any of the other arts do that to you?).

Stoned: Like most bands in the ballroom era, Louis only took one break – no more that a half-hour.  His arranger had his office across the hall from Big Nick’s studio over the Savoy in Boston; when I was about to leave for the army he said, “If you run into Louis on the road, say ‘Hi’ for me”.  So at intermission I went back stage, found Louis’ road manager, flashed the arranger’s name (which I’ve forgotten) and asked for an autograph (on my gold-rimmed union card – issued when drafted, dues suspended).  He disappears, comes back with Louis and introduces me.  Louis reaches out his hand to shake, and I really shouldn’t try to transcribe this one.  Guttural utterances, no recognizable words at all.  I thing he was working on “pleasedtameetcha”.  So wrecked he couldn’t talk.  (Now you know why he needed Joe Glaser).  But he could play and sing like an angel.  (All sources including All-Star players I know agree that it was mostly pot.  He did drink a little Slivovitz, but only at parties).

I asked my father (doctor) about this phenomenon and he told me about a colleague, brain surgeon, deep in the toils of senile dementia – and still able to do the most delicate surgery.  Dad said that what ever you’ve spent your life doing day in and day out is so embedded in the brain (sounds like a back-up circuit) that it’s often available when everything else has packed it in.  Regarding music against speech – nowdays we would say that speech is left lobe and music right, and right is apparently more durable.

So what do I close the 20th century with?  Only Louis and his idol Caruso (played on a wind-up Victrola on the original discs please.  Anything more modern destroys his soul; digital buries him) have the ability to by-pass hearing.

They go straight to the gizzard and shake it up mercilessly.

A note from a grateful reader: now you see why I praise Sam as a writer — intent, exuberant, apparently heedless but knowing what he’s up to all the time.

A CORRECTION

correctionIn reference to NO JAM TODAY (AT SYMPHONY SPACE):

A New York City jazz musician whose opinion I respect gently reminded me that even in these days of fifty-dollar gigs, putting together my imagined jazz group for a Symphony Space gig would require more than five hundred dollars so that the players I so esteem would not be underpaid.  He is correct of course, just one more reason for my not being an impresario.  No doubt I had caught a touch of the prevailing minginess in my calculations.

I had just wanted to make the point that the sum the Space might be paying one of their high-powered “name” guests to moderate an evening’s presentation (could this be Mr. Cavett?) would be enough to hire a wondrous jazz cornucopia for a string of concerts celebrating 1939  and have funds left over for cookies at the intermission.  Fresh cookies, too — not ones baked seventy years ago.  But I digress.

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.

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.)

lea-windhurst-1

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?