Monthly Archives: February 2009

GOLDEN EAR-RINGS (IN YOUR EARS)

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Joe Cohn, John Allred, Ken Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso (above).

The same ensemble with Danny Tobias and David Ostwald.

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Orange Kellin and Scott Robinson.

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Jon-Erik and Tamar Korn share thoughts, happily.

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Jon-Erik, Mark Lopeman, and Matt Munisteri.

Homegrown photographs courtesy of your humble correspondent, who is usually so busy leaning forward to catch every sixteenth note that he forgets to take still photos. 

All this musical fun and frolic can be found Sunday nights, 8-11 PM, at the Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, New York, courtesy of the EarRegulars, a group co-piloted by Jon-Erik and Matt, which attracts the most illustrious musical guests.  Not to be missed!

DON’T MESS WITH MY BLOG!

I don’t go in for what was once called “physical culture,” and I never sent away for the Charles Atlas course. 

But I have powerful friends:

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That’s Sidney Catlett impressing disc jockey and friend-of-jazz Fred Robbins (who inspired “Robbins’ Nest), horsing around in the WOV radio studio, circa 1947.  Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, late of Great Neck, New York.

THE PIANIST IN QUESTION

weinI was in the middle of writing an ambivalent review for All About Jazz of the Mosaic reissue of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars 1967 concerts when I stopped.  The CD, GEORGE WEIN IS ALIVE AN WELL IN MEXICO, features Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jack Lesberg.  It was originally issued on Columbia Records, and Mosaic has added three previously unissued tracks.  The slow numbers offer poignant playing from Russell late in his career, with Freeman and Braff in peerless, musing form, Lesberg giving great support.  And reissue producer Michael Cuscuna, long may he wave, apologizes for reproducing the dreadfully insulting cover photograph and tells a wonderful story about two of the faux-Mexican banditos, who are doing their best to summon up the spirit of Alfonso Badoya.   

But Lamond’s drums pummel the listener, which could be more the fault of the hall and the recording engineer.  And all of Wein’s pianistic shortcomings are brilliantly audible — the heavy touch, the clogged phrasing, the repeated formulas, the dragging rhythms.

In the interest of fairness, I took a YouTube break to check myself, to see if I was being unjust to Wein.  As an impresario, he has contributed immeasurably to jazz.  Imagine if the Newport Jazz Festivals had never existed! 

But as a pianist and bandleader? 

I found this performance of LADY BE GOOD — from Copenhagen, dated 1974 (although it might be 1969) with Braff, Red Norvo, bassist Larry Ridley, Barney Kessel, Lamond, and Wein.

Wein kicks off a very brisk tempo and all is well, sometimes inspiring, until he solos, perhaps becase Kessel and Ridley’s strong rhythmic pulse keeps the band on track.  But Wein then launches complicated figures that he is just-nearly-able to play at this tempo.  The solo isn’t disastrous, but it offers evidence to support what I’ve been hearing on records and in person for a long time.  Unkind, perhaps; unjust, no.  Imagine this band with a young Mark Shane, with Dick Hyman, John Bunch, Hank Jones, or Jimmy Rowles.  How they would have flown! 

And since there is more to life and to this post than pulling anyone to pieces in public, I encourage vewers to delight in the solos by everyone else in this performance — Norvo’s limber arpeggios, a floating phrase Braff pulls off in his second bridge, Kessel’s bluesy intensity. 

Should the philosophical question come up, “Is it better to have this performance, with its flaws, then not?” my answer would be a quick Yes.  But it reminds us just how marvelous it is when everyone in an improvising jazz group is emotionally and technically on the same wavelength, and perhaps just how hard it is to accomplish that special creative unity.

MOUND CITY BLUE BLOWERS: “NINE O’CLOCK FOLKS”

This Vitaphone short (circa 1931) is ten minutes long, and viewers who suffer from even mild impatience may want to fast-forward through the hillbilly jokes that take up the first four minutes: the man sitting on a box of eggs because his hen has wandered off, the local constable directing traffic (it’s another man and his cow).  Cinematic vaudeville at its finest and broadest, as those city slickers show how dumb the rubes are.

But things start to get hot when the trio from the local cafe, “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” (who are they, really?) sing a low-down melody, an eccentric dancer capers around the stage on clown shoes.  That would be intermitently hilarious vaudeville, but the jazz content would be low.  However, you can begin to hear Red McKenzie creating wailing phrases behind the dancer, as if he couldn’t contain himself.  Then, after some more labored banter, the trio-that-became-a quartet takes the stage for a ferocious ST. LOUIS BLUES — from left to right, there’s Red (blowing his comb wrapped in newspaper into his hat), Josh Billings whacking a suitcase with whiskbrooms and kicking it for bass-drum accents, Eddie Condon and Jack Bland, playing what appear to be Vega lutes.

Josh Billings, by the way, is credited with one of the great wry aphorisms of the last century.  Someone is supposed to have been complaining about how things were in what would later be called the Great Depression.  “Will it ever get better?” lamented the nameless interlocutor.  Billings said thoughtfully, “Better times are coming . . . now and then.”

The rocking interlude is over too soon, and we descend into a drunken-dog act . . .  I find it weirdly significant that Whitey the dog gets star billing, but no matter.  How else would we have seen the Mound City Blue Blowers?  Thanks to Vitaphone, to Roy Mack, the director, to TCM, to Dailymotion, and others.

And now, ladies and gentlemen . . . !

KEEP OFF THE GRASS! (JOE TURNER PLAYS JAMES P. JOHNSON)

Stride is such a triumph of instinct and athleticism that it always amazes me.  Here’s a rare clip of the American pianist Joe Turner (not to be confused with Big Joe Turner) — who appeared in 1931 as one half of a duo backing the singer Adelaide Hall.  The other pianist?  A kid from Ohio named Tatum.

I love what I call Jazz Manglish — so James P.’s title, an admonitory KEEP OFF THE GRASS, is transformed here into KEEPING OUT OF THE GRASS, which is gentler and more descriptive, but hardly the same thing.  We know what it means, though.  And it seems as if stride demands a cigar — think of the Lion and James P. — although Fats got by with cigarettes.  But he was Fats, of course.

NEVER SWAT A FLY! (1930)

You don’t have to take the title to heart as a Buddhist spiritual manifesto.  But the song is hilarious, the performance hovering between outlandish and endearing.  The song, by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, comes from the movie JUST IMAGINE.  Pretty Marjorie White was a woefully short-lived (1904-1935) Canadian comedienne, and her wide-eyed partner in the marvelous tuxedo is Frank Albertson.

The only recording I know of this opus is by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers: also worth committing to memory.

Now, don’t forget.  Thanks to “perfectjazz78” on YouTube for sharing this delicious curio.

A POCKETFUL OF DUKES?

dukes-quarterToday, according to the Associated Press, the United States government honored Edward Kennedy Ellington — in its own fashion:

Jazz musician Duke Ellington has become the first Black American to be prominently featured on a U.S. coin in circulation with the release of a quarter honoring the District of Columbia. U.S. Mint and D.C. officials celebrated the release of the coin Tuesday during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Like many great Americans who succeed in what they love doing, Duke Ellington was equal parts talent, hard work, passion and perseverance,” U.S. Mint Director Ed Moy said.  Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born and raised in Washington. He and other Black music legends, such as Ella Fitzgerald, helped establish the city’s U Street as an entertainment corridor. Ellington beat out designs featuring abolitionist Frederick Douglass and astronomer Benjamin Banneker. Last year, the Mint rejected a proposed design for the D.C. quarter that included the slogan “Taxation Without Representation,” a phrase borrowed by D.C. residents to voice objections that they pay federal taxes without full representation in Congress. Instead, the Ellington coin includes the D.C. motto “Justice for All.” The coin with Ellington resting his elbow on a piano was officially released Jan. 26, but officials took time Tuesday to hand out some of the “mint condition” quarters to D.C. schoolchildren. “With Duke on the coin, we are sending an important message to the world that D.C. is a lot more than a government town,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said. Prior to the Ellington quarter, the only U.S. coin to depict a Black person was a 2003 Missouri state coin that featured explorers Lewis and Clark with a Black slave named York, Mint spokeswoman Carla Coolman said. Commemorative coins have also featured Black figures, but those coins weren’t put into circulation.

I don’t know.  It does my heart good to see Ellington honored.  But am I carping when I point out that he was denied the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes?  And that this government waited until he was dead nearly a quarter of a century to give him this honor.  And that it isn’t the hundred-dollar bill?  Of course, more people will see and handle those quarters, I know.  And perhaps when I go to the laundry room I can have the pleasure of a whole pocketful of Dukes.  But we DO seem to honor artists in this country oddly.  And if they happen to have been African-American and “popular,” well, they do end up on the bus — but far too late, and in the back.  Things ain’t what they used to be, and they never were.

Thanks to Bill Gallagher for reminding me, and to Ian Bradley, from whose Ellington-themed site, MIDRIFF, I borrowed the image.

WORTH SEVERAL THOUSAND WORDS

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Billie Holiday and Sidney Catlett at the Metropolitan Opera House, January 18, 1944.

INSPIRATION’S SOURCES

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People who live for jazz recordings and performances are often surprised to find that jazz musicians need a more balanced diet — what Ruby Braff called “aesthetic vitamins.”  Coleman Hawkins listened to the “modern classical music” of his day, as did Bix, and Louis drew energy and solace from John McCormack records.  The anecdotes below are testimony from most illustrious sources.  And, since the universe seems occasionally to operate harmoniously, they came to me — independently — in the last two days.

First, from Dan Morgenstern about his hero and mine, Vic Dickenson:

When I interviewed Vic Dickenson years ago and asked him what trombone playing he had listened to in his formative years (making the point, as you will see, wrongly, that trombone playing back then (Vic b. 1906) was of the tailgate variety) he didn’t say anything but went to his small collection of records, pulled out an old 12-inch 78, and put it on. It was a beautiful version of Celeste Aida by Arthur Pryor, Sousa’s trombone soloist and assistant conductor before going out on his own, and most certainly known to Tommy Dorsey. These are the kind of things you won’t learn from most jazz history sources.

And here is a generous website featuring “recordings from the nineteenth century,” where you can hear THERE’LL COME A TIME, made in 1897, featuring Pryor, whose playing is astonishingly mobile.  Although the link probably does not work within this post, visit http://home.clara.net/rfwilmut/19thcent/19th.html.

Then, taking it one step beyond (from appreciation and immersion to actual performance), Sam Parkins testifies:

No one thinks about jazz people’s interest in classical music. Bird listening to Bartok, that awesome tale of Dave McKenna playing the Ravel Piano Concerto chilling out after a record date. “But Dave – you can’t read music -” “Yeah I know. I learned it off a record”. And a friend staying in a hotel in Chicago where Earl Hines was playing. He comes down for breakfast late; after he goes to the lobby and the door to the nightclub is ajar. Hears piano. By the bare single ‘off duty’ light Hines is working on Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111 — the really hard one. Oh – & AL Haig only practiced Chopin.

More to come on this subject.

I took the photograph above about ten months ago.  It is my version of “where inspiration comes from.”  Anyone care to guess the country and region?

“SOME BLISS, PLEASE?” DECEMBER 1, 1978

This song — Vincent Youmans’ I WANT TO BE HAPPY — evoked small verbal comedies from two musicians I saw in New York years ago.  Wild Bill Davison would announce the title and then leeringly say in his best W.C. Fields voice, “Don’t we all,” drawling the last word for four beats.  Kenny Davern, on the other hand, was more academic, seeing the simple declarative statement as the opening for a basic ESL class, “I want to be happy, she wants to be happy, they want to be happy,” trailing off, an amused look on his face.  But comedy isn’t the theme in this gathering of happy improvisers at the Manassas Jazz Festival: Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Spiegle Willcox, trombone, Davern, clarinet; Dick Wellstood, piano, Marty Grosz, guitar; Van Perry, bass; Spencer Clark, bass sax; Tony DiNicola, drums.  See how Butterfield works hard, building and soaring; how Davern turns his familiar figures in every possible direction, animated by the thryhm deep inside; Wellstood’s opening jab at “Perdido,” and the way Marty Grosz, intent, relaxes when he can put his guitar down, take a sip of his drink, and revel in Wellstood’s playing.  And the ensemble joyousness.  We think of the Golden Age of Jazz — suggest your decade — but this performance is evidence that 1978 was a pretty good year for it, too. 

RAY BRYANT IS THRIVING

I can’t recall the first time I heard a recording of pianist Ray Bryant — perhaps because he was captured so often and so well during the Fifties and onward.  Was it with Miles or Sonny Rollins?  No, more probably it was as a member (along with brother Tommy) of the Jo Jones Trio.  Or as a sideman on any number of Prestige swing-to-bop sessions.  I even recall finding a used copy of his Columbia record THE MADISON TIME, which featured Buddy Tate and Benny Morton, among others.  Then he made some records for Norman Granz (a solo album, one with Zoot Sims, among others) but he didn’t have as high a profile as other pianists.  That struck me as odd, because Bryant’s approach to the piano was expertly orchestral, without any narrow definitions.  He struck me as a musician, a pianist rather than someone limited to a single approach. 

ray-bryant1Thus it is a great pleasure to report that there is a new solo piano CD by Bryant and that it is even better than I thought it would be.  It’s called IN THE BACK ROOM and appears on the Evening Star label — a label known for its beautifully done CDs featuring Benny Carter, Joe Wilder, Phil Woods, Randy Sandke, among others.  Prodcer Ed Berger has a long association with the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University– he is one of the finest jazz scholars we have — and all of the twelve performances on this CD were recorded at the university in 2004 and 2008, some during a Fats Waller Centennial celebration.  Five tracks are Waller compositions, and one is IF I COULD BE WITH YOU, by his teacher James P. Johnson.  The other tracks include EASY TO LOVE and ST. LOUIS BLUES — and, most importantly, four Bryant compositions.   

Most pianists have the same difficulty considering Fats Waller’s music that trumpet players asked to pay tribute to Louis do, I assume: the musical personalities are so strong, their effect so definite, that the musician paying homage might be tempted to imitate the model.  This isn’t terrible in itself: if I knew someone who could play POTATO HEAD BLUES or AFRICAN RIPPLES at will, I would have them come to my apartment often.  But the wiser course might be to honor the durable melodies as improvisatory material and go from there.  With Waller, however, the risks are immense: what can a player bring to HONEYSUCKLE ROSE that is reasonably authentic and still new? 

No one need worry.  Bryant is a mature artist, wholly comfortable with his own identity so that he relaxes into his own style — which, one notes immediately, is not built on well-worn figures and pianistic cliches.  Rather, he seems to love the way the piano can be made to sound, full and rich, without straining for effect.  He is happy to play the melody, to ornament its harmony subtly.  His solos sing; his rhythm is relaxed yet consistent.  And he is a master of the small variations possible within medium tempo. 

Although Bryant is known for his deep immersion in the blues and his originals such as “Little Susie,” the most moving music on this CD comes when he plays his own compositions.  One of them, “The Impossible Rag,” is a tour-de-force that pianists might find it hard to reproduce, but Bryant’s virtuosity is more a matter of deep feeling.  It comes out most strongly in “Lullaby and” “Little Girl” (the latter dedicated to his wife Claude).  “Little Girl,” an almost grieving meditation, sounds cantorial in its minor harmonies: in it, we hear someone considering the possibilities of simple melodic motifs — eloquently and sorrowfully.  I didn’t think of jazz when I heard it; rather, of Dvorak.  “Lullaby” also takes an apparently simple idea and explores it, gently and sweetly — with contrasting brief sections balancing against each other.  Both pieces stayed in my memory for a long time, which says a good deal about Bryant’s powers to evoke emotions.  Even if you think you know Bryant’s work, this CD is worth searching out.  And if the Evening Star label is new to you, delights await.  Visit http://www.bennycarter.com/common/eveningstar/

WARMED BY JAZZ

fireside20chatAlthough live jazz gives me more spiritual and emotional pleasure than I can say here, I admit to being hard to please.  Maybe it’s because I have heard so much transcendent music on records (from James P. in 1921 to the newest releases) and in person.  My memory is inconsistent, but I have lasting,sharp recollections of club dates.  The night at Condon’s where Ruby Braff kicked off “I Would Do Most Anything For You” at a wickedly fast tempo and drove the band across the finish line by simple stubborness.  When Benny Morton played the melody of “When You’re Smiling” two feet from my ear.   

So the bar (to use one of a dozen cliches) is set quite high, perhaps impossibly so.  And I am often discontented by my surroundings.  When I’m at a club, I wish the people around me would sit down and be still; when I’m at a concert, I long for the freedom musicians have to take chances and make mistakes they don’t always find while playing in a large hall. 

But something interesting happens — neurological or psychlogical or just idiosyncratic.  When I’m listening to jazz in performance, if I’m not transfixed, critical thoughts pop unbidden into my head.  I don’t invite them and wish they would go away and lie down.  All of these thoughts might seem unfair, of course, coming from someone who still aims for sub-amateur status on any of half-a-dozen instruments.  But I think, “That player has so much technique: when is he going to sing us a song?  Too many notes!”  “You — why don’t you lay out so we can hear what X is playing?”  Or “That tempo is too slow.” 

I don’t say these things aloud — I hope for a long lifespan — but the Beloved has had to put up with a good deal of sotto voce grumbling.  However, here’s the redeeming part I myself don’t understand: give me twelve hours, and the flaws, if they’re not mountainous, fade away.  Emotion recollected in tranquility, perhaps?  But the music takes on a golden sheen, and I think how fortunate I was to have been there. 

Last night was a special occasion: another of Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” concerts — celebrating his thirty-sixth anniversary! — held at the congenial Tribeca Arts Center (a pleasant hall in the Borough of Manhattan Community College). 

This, for faithful blog-readers, is the concert that Phil the groundhog was so insistent about.  I’m going to take him a jar of Trader Joe’s almond butter next time I visit him in Pennsylvania, to say thanks.

Jack was energetic, enthusiastic, and loquacious as ever — but all these are good things.  It’s a delight to see someone so genuinely animated by the music he is presenting, and jazz is sadly lacking in such commitment these days.  He told us that next year might be his final season — mournful news — unless more funding comes through.  Are there any wealthy jazz angels out there?  I’ll give you Jack’s phone number.

The first half of the concert was given over to David Ostwald’s Birdland band, augmented by pianist Mark Shane — Jon-Erik Kellso on cornet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and vocals, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Howard Alden on banjo, Kevin Dorn on drums, and David on tuba.  LIMEHOUSE BLUES started the good works with some Krupa-flavored tom tom work from Kevin that got us sitting forward expectantly before anyone else had sounded a note.  And this hot version was subtly shaped by a one-chorus duet between Jon-Erik and Mark, perhaps recalling Louis and Earl or Ruby and Dick Hyman.  LONESOME ROAD had a lovely Shane solo and some extraordinary broad-toned playing from Wycliffe, who (for sheer abandon) must be the most accomplished trombonist on the planet.  A rocking YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY (which David dedicated, with a grin, to the concert’s producer) began with the verse — a boon! — and Kellso pulled off a floating Louis bridge, a great suspended arch in the sky, during his second chorus.  (In the middle, there was a fascinating duet for clarinet and piano, one set of lines weaving around the other.)  Since young players don’t get tired, Anat stayed onstage with the rhythm section for a gallop through Morton’s SHREVEPORT STOMP which showed how she and Howard could improvise, conversationally and contrapuntally, at top speed.  For his feature, Wycliffe chose something so familiar that it’s rarely played as itself — I GOT RHYTHM, which gave him an opportunity to sing, something he does with great charm.  During his three vocal choruses, he made his way by great leaps from a respectful reading of the lyrics to great Leo Watson figures.  He stayed at the vocal microphone (with a sheet of lyrics helpfully provided by David) for a brooding WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, which began and ended with touching four-bar miniatures by Shane and had an interval of moody growling obbligato by Jon-Erik.  They closed the first half with a romp through ATLANTA BLUES (also known as “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”) — with a hilariously intent solo by Kevin.

That would have been enough for almost anyone — but the second half provided other delights.  One of them was the presence of Dick Hyman, now 82 or thereabouts, up from Florida, his virtuosity undiminished.  He performed two standards — BODY AND SOUL and IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (the latter with its pretty verse), showing how fertile his imagination is, how unbounded his energy.  Tatum, Bach, and McKenna, fugues and waltzes all put in appearances, but the result — sprawling and ingenious — was recognizable at every turn as pure Hyman.  In between, he paid tribute to the young man from Davenport with his original THINKING ABOUT BIX.  During his solo set, I became aware that the hall and the listeners were so quiet that the loud sound of Hyman’s tapping foot reverberated throughout the room.  Fats Waller got his nod with AFRICAN RIPPLES — a choice that made the gentleman next to me say happily to his Beloved, “I have the original 78,” beaming.  Hyman’s version was illuminated from within by his own ideas — it wasn’t a copy of the record — with a wonderful bounce.  A pensive, twining duet with Alden (now on guitar) on SOFTLY, IN A MORNING SUNRISE brought us from mid-Thirties Harlem to more harmonically exploratory lands.  It reminded me of one of my favorite recordings, the Pablo “Checkmate” — duets between Joe Pass and Jimmy Rowles. 

Then came the moments I had been waiting for.  I knew Joe Wilder (who will be 87 this month) was scheduled to play duets with Dick, and we could see him in the wings, his horns gleaming, waiting.  He came out and joined the fun for a fast SECRET LOVE, an inquiring, calling-in-the-highlands HOW ARE THINGS IN GLOCCA MORRA?, and SAMBA DE ORFEO.  Joe is a relentless critic of his own playing, and his brow was furrowed at some points, but a Wilder solo with a note or two that cracks is still a work of art — Joe, swimming upstream against the demands of metal tubing, lung power, and embouchure, is my hero. 

And the evening closed (as is Jack’s habit) with everyone on stage for a strutting performance of Waller’s THAT RHYTHM MAN, David Ostwald’s happily unhackneyed choice.  The band was flying, but the best part of this cheerful performance was that Mark and Dick did piano-acrobatics: you take the treble and I’ll take the bass; now, let’s switch; let’s each play sixteen bars.  Splendid, accomplished, and swinging.   

 It was frigid out last night — winds that would have done Coleman Hawkins proud made us all feel vulnerable and under-dressed.  But this concert let us warm ourselves through the music.   They don’t call it HOT JAZZ for nothing.  Highlights all ’round!

LOOKS LIKE FUN! “JAZZ ME BLUES,” BOBBY HACKETT, 1938

Oh, the golden days — not only for the music, but for those extraordinary tuxedos.  Bobby Hackett, cornet (and sideways glances); Brad Gowans, valve trombone; Ernie Caceres, clarinet; Eddie Condon, guitar.  The showy drummer turns up in another Hackett-related film clip from the same period: is he Andy Picardi, who played in Hackett’s big band?  The pianist and bassist are mysteries, although they do their jobs well.  Studio players, perhaps?

Take me back to 1938!  (Thanks to Bob Erwig, who posted this clip on Dailymotion.)

JOURNEY TO BOHEMIA: DICK TWARDZIK, SERGE CHALOFF, CHARLIE PARKER, and DYLAN THOMAS: THANKS TO SAM PARKINS

dick-t-photo-with-chetRichard Twardzik, Boston jazz pianist, was dead at 24.  And I don’t believe he ever saw any of his recordings issued.  His name has emerged once again in the jazz press (a fine appreciation by Ted Gioia at www.jazz.com) and there is a new biography out (BOUNCIN’ WITH BARTOK, by Jack Chambers, Mercury Press).  The photograph above shows him with trumpeter Chet Baker.

But The Real Thing is closer to home.  Sam Parkins, who never ceases to amaze, sent me this long essay — fascinating and heartbreaking in its immediacy — an excerpt from his book JOURNEY TO BOHEMIA, whose title refers both to the land beyond the familiar and to Cafe Bohemia.  Even if you’ve never heard Dick’s recordings, Sam’s essay-meditation is enthralling.

DICK TWARDZIK 1931-’55

Greetings gentle readers (that’s a 19th century locution. May not hold in today’s world): There’s a way over due bio published (back-ordered at Amazon) which may cause me to modify this and that – ‘though I bet I know stuff he doesn’t. As is true with all of these writings, this goes out to a dozen or so persons. Alta Ann is my first wife, member of my family and a good pal.

DICK TWARDZIK, d.’55; heroin overdose in Paris, with Chet Baker, age 24, is known to any even slightly modern jazz pianist because there’s a small recorded legacy. He’s the only junkie I knew – and I knew and loved this guy and could still weep for him – that wasn’t depressed. He had the joy of youth, always excited about what might come next. I wrote my first piano sonata for him, but death intervened…

$ [Alta Ann – you were in on the end – the night before he went off with Chet Baker. We had invited him to dinner; with desert I played him some of the Billy Banks sides with Fats Waller. He sat down at that great Bechstein grand in the living room and got very upset because he – a marvelous technician – couldn’t lay a glove on some of those triplet filigrees that Waller tosses off like cake frosting. It was you who asked – our friend now really clean after six months in the Bridgewater detox unit – “Dicky – why are you doing this – going off with all those junkies?” “To prove that I can do it”. You all know of course that he got dead in Paris instead. 1955]. Fine.

* * *

Dicky’s parents had restored the old house in Danvers (north of Boston) to its late seventeenth century state. Sure – it was central heated, had storm windows, sheep weren’t allowed to wander in and out of the kitchen. But they got it right, furniture and all – except for the big Steinway in the living room.

The kitchen was the showpiece. Discretely, at the far end of the big room, was a modern electric stove, refrigerator, butcher block island for chopping vegetables and having breakfast, but what you saw when you walked in the door, revealed by removing layers of sheetrock, plaster and wallpaper, was the ancient fireplace and chimney, with the hooks, rods and movable grills used to boil, broil, fry etc.; the oven to the right where bread was made, and the warming oven above it.

And on the left? A little door in the wall about a foot off the floor. Dick said that when they uncovered it and checked it out they left everything exactly the way it was:

He opened the door – and there was a little stairway – maybe a dozen steps, child-sized, that went nowhere. And, each exactly in the middle of its stair, climbing one at a time, were seven genuine, hand made, 17th century left shoes.

It’s late fall 1945. I’m on a long furlough, in the uniform of the buck-assed private I was. I get on a Cambridge bound trolley to Bobby Thayer’s house; he’ll drive us to the session.

But a note about Thayer, whom we won’t meet again. He had been in the trumpet section of the ‘kid band’ I played in through high school and early college, and had the distinction of being the first trumpet player in greater Boston – only a couple of months after those first mind-blowing Diz/Bird records – to master the complexities of Dizzy Gillespie’s style, which required blinding technique. He did make one little adjustment. He played all those licks at half-speed.

I meet his pretty wife, who spoke with a fashionable lisp. Go out to his ratty old Pontiac. Remember we’re all about 19. Head for downtown Boston to a jam session with (for me) mostly strangers – turns out to be the super stars of the region – Joe Gordon, Sam Rivers, Floogie Williams. Bobby, an otherwise lousy trumpet player, is accepted because of his curious quasi-mastery of Dizzy’s stuff. Turns out I can play with these guys because be-bop, which I never mastered, wasn’t the coin of the realm yet.

On the way, Bobby lights the first joint (marihuana) I had ever seen, let alone tried. Passed it over to me. Lovely.

The First Whorehouse. That was the working title in my early notes about Dick Twardzik. Most of the truly valid jazz joints I played in from 1944 on had a core ‘sin’ that defined them. The Golfers club, Ithaca, gambling. The Melody Lounge, Lynn MA, heroin. Harold’s House of Dixie, W. Orange NJ, money laundering and clubhouse for the North Jersey mafia. Barbara Kelly’s Glass Hat, Manhattan, blatant high-end prostitution. The Bowdoin Bar and Grill (where we’re going now) – really low-end prostitution. A sailor who had been all over the world said he never found a joint as rotten as this one in Calcutta. (To obfuscate matters – they weren’t all real ‘joints’. The Golfers Club was an old theater – take out the seats, add a bar and you have a dance hall. Gambling hidden in the back. Ditto Harold’s House of Dixie. College kids hangout. Bowling alley, cafeteria, two bars – and a big dance hall upstairs. Half a dozen hoods meet in an alcove under the stairs maybe twice a month. Black suits, navy shirts, silver ties, grey fedoras).

We’re driving but you could take the scenic route: Get off the trolley at Boylston St.; walk northeast (you’re on Tremont St.) the full length of the Boston Common past the Park St. Church. Tremont curves around to the left and becomes Cambridge St., headed for the river. If you’re walking in the 21st century you’ll come to a desolate moonscape called Government Center.

But if your journey is in 1945 you’ll find Scollay Square, the “Armpit of Boston”, a bustling market place with porn shops – dildos, vibrators, 8 m.m. ‘blue’ movies. Strip joints [being Boston, they didn’t quite take it all off – except for a flash when facing away from the audience – and toward the band], and the venerable Old Howard Theater, home of Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee. As you keep going toward the river the sleaze quotient becomes more pronounced and you come to Bowdoin Square – the back-side of Beacon Hill, with its Christopher Wren houses and some of the oldest money in America. Hang a left on Grove St. and there’s The Bowdoin Bar and Grill.

As you tour around this neighborhood keep in mind that WW II is just over and the Boston Navy Yard has hordes of sailors and marines in need of entertainment.

Ambience? Wasn’t any. No amenities. Maybe forty feet square. Row of tables on the left as you enter; kitchen on the right – a square chunk subtracted from the room. Past the kitchen in the resulting indent, three booths, followed by the men’s room – and the bandstand stretching across the back of the room. No sit-down bar; kitchen acted as a service bar. ‘Bar & Grill’? Massachusetts law requires that any establishment serving liquor must serve food, so the ‘Grill’ part was covered by remarkably good hamburgers when needed. The rest was dance floor.

Personnel: The kitchen – and the staff (patience my dears) were utterly dominated by Mary, the chef/bartender/boss. What in those politically incorrect days was called a bull dyke. At least 280 pounds, and I’m afraid it was all muscle. And two waitresses named Dusty and Dry Run. (For non-military readers, a ‘dry run’ is when the troops hold their rifles up, aim them at something, the sergeant says “Fire!”, pull the triggers – and nothing happens. No bullets). Well into their thirties, good-looking in a rough and ready way.

This was a non-resident brothel. The ladies had an apartment nearby, and one or the other would disappear for a half-hour periodically. When asked they would dance with the sailors; when not asked they danced with each other, with running commentary. Sample: “Hey Dusty, you stupid cunt. Your fucking slip is showing”.

Bobby and I climb on the (crowded) bandstand. Band as good as it gets; launch into some variant of the blues. Never was introduced to anybody. The stage is about 2 1/2 feet high; I’m perched at the edge, blowing leaning back a bit, eyes closed – and feel an unaccustomed draft around my crotch. Look down. My fly is open. “Oh – Dusty always does that to the new boy”. She had danced by, and…

One last tableau of The Bowdoin Bar and Grill: It’s a long set, strenuous, serious blowing. The joint is mobbed – it’s Friday night. Payday, and the sailors have money to burn. A crowd at the middle booth on the left gets my attention – three guys on the far side, four jammed in the near side and another half-dozen leaning on the table or the booth, laughing like hell. The guy in the middle of the far side is slumped down, head back, eyes closed in an expression of ecstasy — I peer under the table at his outstretched legs and there’s Dry Run on her knees, administering – well – in the Clinton era it was called oral sex…

Funky club, great session, great players – but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to meet the piano player. The closet that was the men’s room stuck out into the dance floor right by the bandstand; the piano was tucked in behind it, the piano player faced away from us. All I noticed was a little guy, playing music I’d never heard before (but he had. Bud Powell) hunched over the piano with an inch thick pile of hand-written music on the bench beside him.

At eleven the trumpet player looked at his watch and said, “Hey Dicky – you gotta get outa here!”. We declared a break, the piano player turned around, slightly dazed – and I saw a kid.
Dicky said “Oh migod”, grabbed his music and fled. The trumpet player explained: “He’s only fourteen. His mother wants him home by midnight and the last train out of North Station is at 11:30”. I asked the obvious question, “Who is he?”

“That’s Dick Twardzik. He wrote out every tune we might play, but hasn’t memorized them yet – that’s what the pile of music is about…”

I didn’t see Dick again until I came back to Boston in 1950. He had been with Serge Chaloff’s band for about a year and that’s where the trouble started.  (If you don’t know who Chaloff is, you could start with the Wikipedia entry online: brilliance, heroin, cancer. )

There’s a back-story about Chaloff’s cancer that came from Dick Wetmore, the great cornetist/violinist I played with around Boston for years. It happened that Dick and Serge Chaloff developed testicular (NOT spinal – that’s later) cancer at about the same time. The treatment was to lose the infected ball, (leaves one ball and leaves you sterile so Dick, with no condom, could blithely screw his heart out – which he did). And to go for twenty weekly radiation treatments. Dick Wetmore did it and is living in Florida as we speak.

Serge went for two weeks, “Oh the hell with it”, stopped going for treatment, went back to music and junk (heroin) – and that particular cancer’s first migration is to the nearest bones, in this case, the spine…

Woody’s Second Herd? Formed in 1947 after the huge success of the First Herd (see ‘Woody ‘n Igor’, module 4). Propelled Stan Getz to stardom with his ethereal solo on “Early Autumn”. Getz, Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn made up the most famous “Four Brothers” sax section mentioned above (other players not so illustrious came and went). All addicts. In fact half the Second Herd were junkies. The stated reason for the break-up of the band in 1949 was financial – the dancers didn’t understand heavily be-bop tinged music. David Young, who knew Woody and most of the musicians, told it a little differently:

“Woody had to break up the band because guys were throwing up all over the bandstand”.

Gene Lees, Woody’s biographer, says “Hiring him must be accounted one of Woody’s worst errors: Serge was a serious heroin addict and, like so many of his kind, a dedicated proselytizer for the drug”.

Band breaks up in ’49, Chaloff returns to Boston with enough of a reputation as a star to be able to start a band of very young men (age 19 or so) and keep them working. And still proselytizing. It is here that Dick Twardzik and his band mates became heroin addicts.

The yin and the yang of the Chaloff family: Serge’s mother, Margaret Chaloff, was considered one of the finest piano teachers in Boston, with a studio over Symphony Hall. Dick studied with her for years. Gene Lees has high praise for her in his bio of Woody Herman.

I came back to Boston June, 1950, and into a steady Saturday night ballroom job for the summer – Nuttings on the Charles (river) – near the end of the ballroom era. Sparsely attended, only one night a week. After a six-year absence I knew almost no one. Circulated, went to sessions, slowly got back on the scene – and started four years of graduate school in composition at the New England Conservatory in the fall (playing constantly to pay for it). In getting back on the scene I encountered Dick Twardzik all over the place. Sessions, the occasional gig – not much of that though. I veered away from bop into New Orleans while Dick forged ahead as one of the few major ‘modern’+ piano players – remember 1950 is early days in be-bop, est. 1945. (+ let’s dispose of that right here. There was a lot of silliness about terminology. Be-bop, modern jazz, with a slightly different twist, but inaudible to the un-hip ear, progressive jazz. George Russell in desperation called his version ‘the New Thing’. Composers in the early 14th century faced the same problem. Came up with the ‘Ars Nova’).

But I particularly I encountered him at The New England Conservatory of Music (likewise encountered the legendary avant-garde pianist, Cecil Taylor, who gets a long look later). Dick was studying composition, and – and this is one of the real artistic drags about his death: He was studying harp with Louise Pappoutsakis, the Boston Symphony harpist, and would have evolved into – not the first, but the only be-bop harpist.

There is a warren of practice rooms on the second floor of the conservatory; each with a pretty good grand piano (and a dungeon in the basement with maybe fifty cubicles with not so good uprights). I’d see Dick at one of those grands, join him and he would show me what he was pursuing at the moment. For instance, what he called his ‘speed bass’. True stride piano in the manner of Fats Waller requires the left hand to drop at least two octaves (a leap of about a foot and a half) for a bass note on beats 1 and 3, leaving the chord indicating the harmony back up in the middle on beats 2 and 4. Playing a lot of Chopin helps. Dick kept his left hand in the middle position and hit the nearest ‘correct’ note (bass equivalent) to the south with as little hand motion as possible. (Any readers who know Dave McKenna’s music will hear this technique in frequent use).

I went to hear him with Serge, and particularly with Bird when he came to town – unlike classical performers, jazz players on tour then and now almost always go out alone and are at the mercy of local rhythm sections.+ It’s the Hi-Hat club, described elsewhere (the second burned-for-insurance fire closed it permanently). Of course I went. But missed the first tune of the first night. [+one of those half-truths that are taken for gospel at the time. Two Charlie Parker CDs, both taken from broadcasts in Boston clubs, have Charles Mingus, bass, Roy Haynes, drums – and Dick Twardzik, piano. For the non-jazz reader – Mingus and Haynes, New Yorkers, were about to become international stars].

Music lesson: Pop music back into the mists of history has been pretty simple. During the Golden Age of American Song – Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter et al – the harmony would change typically every two measures; once in a while, as in ‘The Song is You’, every measure, and on the lazy side, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, every four measures, with four beats to each measure. Until be-bop came along. The improvisers took to modifying the songs in the direction of complexity, putting in as many as one chord change per beat.

So Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker comes to the Hi-Hat and Dick Twardzik is tapped for the piano chair. “Ohmigod – I’m going to play with the Great Master”. Dick sat down at the piano and worked out complex re-harmonizations of every tune he could think of that might be in play and went to the gig*.

First song up is the above mentioned ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. ‘F7′ for four measures, ‘B-flat 7′ for four measures and so forth. Dicky is ready. He has a different chord for each beat, totaling sixteen chord changes for every four measures where there had only been one. At the end of the song, Bird – having never bothered to shake hands with his piano player before the gig – comes around behind the piano and says in Dicky’s ear, “Kid – just play ‘F7′. I’ll do all the diddley shit”.

[* typical sad Charlie Parker story. He was hired to play seven nights – Monday thru Sunday – at the Hi-Hat. He actually showed up for only five. One absent night was a mystery, during the other he was found out cold in a gutter. And he was so revered that he was invited back anyway. His legendary absences were part of the mystique. I’ll say right here, noting as I read about the Hip-Hop world that nothing has changed except the be-bopping junkies of my youth didn’t shoot each other**, that the general irresponsible lifestyle of our heroes made great newspaper copy and influenced a lot of kids]. [**But once in a while someone else did. Lee Morgan was shot on the bandstand by an outraged wife; Wardell Gray was shot by the outraged husband of his girlfriend – or so said the tale that circulated at the time (1955). The current internet bio has a mafia/drug-tinged story instead. The joys of history].

Dylan Thomas made four trips to America, beginning in February, 1950. America didn’t interest him; he came mostly for the money. The job that got him here the first time was a reading at New York’s YMHA, which paid $500 plus airfare. Factor in inflation – in 2006 dollars that’s closer to five grand. Once he got here he took his show on the road, making substantial money, much of which he drank…He died in New York during the fourth tour, of acute alcohol poisoning, November ’53.

Of all the scenes described in these writings – some hazy memories, some Hi-Definition Technicolor – the most vivid is this:

Dick’s mother was an artist. Her day job was as an illustrator at MIT for books and scientific papers produced by the faculty. Dylan Thomas came to America for the third time in April of 1953 and his first stop was MIT, Cambridge, for a lecture/reading. 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon, end of the school week.

Mother picked us up at school (New England Conservatory) at 2:30 on a beautiful spring afternoon; Dick had those bright red spots on his cheeks that showed he was really flying. Mother says indulgently, “Oh Dicky…” (must have shot up in the men’s room after lunch), and drove us across the Harvard Bridge to MIT.

The reading was closed to the public; it took place in a very ordinary classroom – teacher’s desk up front on the left, equal size table on the right for the guest. We were almost late. Walked into a nearly full house and found seats just as the presiding faculty member was introducing Dylan Thomas.

What did he look like? The picture of him in the BBC bio shows an uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles as Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’. Attractive, perspiring, mop of wild curly hair, red-faced, really drunk, but the kind of drunk that can function normally when he should be in a coma. He began his lecture, interspersed with readings from his poetry – and you couldn’t tell them apart. His language was luminous – beyond beautiful, and his presence eerily commanding [the Welsh and Irish can do that. Celts]. It isn’t often given to any of us to be in the same room with true genius. Palpable, vibrating genius.

So where am I? In the presence of two great artists, both doomed to die real soon of substance abuse – Thomas, gone at 39, with a substantial body of work behind him, the other, Dick, 24, with the barest hint of what’s coming in his sparse recorded legacy.

Here’s a glimpse of Dick’s genius. He is simply not ‘just another be-bop piano player’ In recordings with Chet Baker and Serge Chaloff he sounds more conventional, but that’s what a sideman is supposed to do. Not upstage the leader [and more than by-the-way, note his gorgeous piano sound. Gene Lees in his Woody Herman biography says that that sound quality is a hallmark of all of Margaret Chaloff’s students].

And there is a home recording, 1954 Improvisations. Boston. June-October 1954, where, in a fragment of Jerome Kern’s ‘Yesterdays’ the future really shows. He deconstructs the tune the way Charles Ives might have – and then he’s gone.

Dick’s is the only early death among musicians/composers that really bothers me artistically [it killed me emotionally]. Mozart made it to 35. And left a complete life’s work. I’ve always felt that he lived a compressed, accelerated existence and died of old age. Ditto, Bird, also gone at 35.

Charlie Christian? Dead of TB at 26, with less than two years in the public eye and ear. But heavily recorded, and – here’s the Internet quickie: “was the founding father and primary architect of the modern jazz guitar style”. And revolutionary. Someone else would have done it, but in fact it was Christian that set the stage for guitar driven rock and roll, comin’ at you a little over ten years after his death in 1942.

Dick Twardzik left only the barest hint of what was to come…

I realized, whizzing around the park on my bike yesterday, what I uncovered here. Note the extreme contrast of the house Dick lived in and the joint he – and we all – played in. A couple of observations: No matter what your background – in Dick’s case it seems clear that there was substantial wealth in his family – you were likely to play in the scuzziest possible circumstances unless you became a star and Storyville (or its equivalent in any city) could afford you. More likely in a joint with the mafia lurking in the background. And of course – as an only child from an affluent family, how could he not have been rescued from his virtual suicide? It wasn’t exactly a secret. Let’s look:

His father was one of only two stained glass window designers and builders in the United States. Had an atelier on St. Botolph St., the front 3 stories high so they could assemble a finished window, then take it apart for (very careful) shipping. St. Botolph – that funky little street that petered out behind the Conservatory, coming over from Mass. Ave. just across the tracks from the ‘colored district’. David Young’s studio was there in the early 50s.

[What follows is probably from my friend Jack Lawlor, the left-handed bass player who shows up on several records and attended the sessions we held at Dick’s parent’s home. As I write, the long promised biography of Dick remains back-ordered at Amazon and people in Dick Twardzik chat rooms are getting pretty upset. So 1) I have no confirmation of the health issue; 2) Jack Chambers, the biographer, could conceivably have missed this. Families are pretty close-mouthed about health disasters].

It matters that Dick was a sickly child. He had a rare disease – here’s the Internet word:

“…probably had polyarticular arthritis, a form that affects children in at least five joints. Samantha at 16 months had 11 swollen joints, in her knees, wrists, toes, elbows and fingers. NY Times 9.30/03, Health & Fitness”

People that knew him told me that by the time he was 11 Dick had every joint in his body operated on. Helps explain the indulgent mother. How could you not spoil an only child with such a dreadful illness?

There was just forming up when I returned to Boston in 1950 a consortium of young modern musicians that called themselves ‘The Jazz Workshop’+; their mission to provide a space where students and professionals could play and study together. They found a bar downtown that had a little used back room; they persuaded the owner that jazz would bring in customers and were given carte blanche to do whatever they liked. I paid my dues with saw, hammer and nails many an afternoon helping to build the stage. [+Those musicians, led by trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, became the core faculty of the internationally famous Berklee School of Music. They are now of course very senior faculty or emeritus]. It prospered; a Monday night big band session was laid on, with Jaki Byard writing the arrangements and sitting in the tenor sax chair rather than piano.

And eventually they had to move to larger quarters; a club called The Stable on nearby Huntington Ave.

Dick Twardzik was a frequent member of the Jazz Workshop ‘in house’ rhythm section and it was here that he asked his fellow musicians for help with his heroin addiction. We have seen that his family was no help at all.

Now look: This may be apocryphal in places; it went around town as scuttlebutt. But it rings true. He asked the guys in the band for help “…and they laughed at him”. So after the gig, at two o’clock in the morning, on a cold December night, he walked up to a cop on Huntington Ave. and said, “Officer – I’m an addict and need to quit. Can you help me?”

Bless that cop. I’m sure there was and is a city agency set up for this. They helped get Dicky into the Massachusetts detox unit in Bridgwater, where he stayed for six months, met a priest he really liked and started going to church. Came out squeaky clean and full of the joy of life. He had finally beaten it.

In a musical composition that returns to the beginning for the last few measures, there is a convention that we’ll use here. “Dal Segno” – “to the sign”, which is a squiggle not on the keyboard. We’ll use $.

“Dal segno $ al fine [finish]”

If you don’t want to bother, it goes like this:

$ [Alta Ann – you were in on the end – the night before he went off with Chet Baker. We had invited him to dinner; with desert I played him some of the Billy Banks sides with Fats Waller. He sat down at that great Bechstein grand in the living room and got very upset because he – a marvelous technician – couldn’t lay a glove on some of those triplet filigrees that Waller tosses off like cake frosting. It was you who asked – our friend now really clean after six months in the Bridgewater detox unit – “Dicky – why are you doing this – going off with all those junkies?” “To prove that I can do it”. You all know of course that he got dead in Paris instead. 1955].

Fine.

Copyright © 2006 Leroy Parkins

[Here’s Sam’s own biographical sketch, taken from his MySpace page:

Leroy (Sam) Parkins: born in reign of Calvin Coolidge. Heard Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton 1936 – 1945. Charlie Parker from then on. Normal life no longer possible. Cornell for composition; New England Conservatory for Masters. Saxophonist-in-residence two whorehouses (Bowdoin Bar & Grill, Boston, 1945; Barbara Kelly’s Glass Hat, NYC 1960), the Heroin Capital of the North Shore (Melody Lounge, Lynn MA, 1954 but didn’t sample the wares); Carnegie Hall (one-shot, 1976) etc.etc. Sixteen years with two major society orchestras. Duties included playing New Years Eve for the Carnegies and Mellons at Rolling Rock Country Club, Ligonear, PA.; deb parties as far away as St. Louis, MO. Joined production staff CBS Masterworks 1967. Recorded the complete Charles Ives chamber music. One Grammy (European); four Grammy nominations. Recorded Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Charles Wuorinen et al for New World Records, 1975. Black composers series, various labels: Music of Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Cecil Taylor, Benny Carter, Scott Joplin. Stravinsky’s ‘Ebony Concerto’ with Richard Stolzman and Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, RCA Victor, 1987. Grammy nomination. As featured soloist, ‘Take Me To the Land of Jazz’, Aviva records. Stereo Review, Album Pick of the Year, Acoustic Jazz, 1979. Recorded ‘Preservation Hall Live!’ for Sony Classical, 1991. Miscellaneous recordings since; clarinetist-in-residence, Cajun Restaurant, NYC; ditto weekly stint New York Public Library. Commence writing ‘Journey to Bohemia’ 1997. Lived.]

“IDOL OF MILLIONS OF POPULAR MUSIC LOVERS THROUGHOUT AMERICA”

Quick, now.

Which person comes to mind when you read “Idol of popular music lovers throughout America”?

Admittedly, the phrase has a certain archaic sound to it.  But even so: Elvis Presley? Bing Crosby? Benny Goodman?  Glenn Miller?

No, it’s EDDIE CONDON!

I’ve been posting about the fabled Eddie Condon Floor Show for some time now.  My friend Rob Rothberg — who has a fabulous collection of what Ebay calls “entertainment memorabilia” — generously sent along copies of what appears below.  Circa 1949, it appears to be a prospectus for the program, an effort to find a sponsor (cash bulging out of corporate pockets) so that the show could stay on the air.  I assume that the booklet was the creation of Ernie Anderson, but I am sure that Phyllis Condon and Paul Smith, her brother, made some contributions; both of them worked for advertising agencies.

Although the Condons had a dog, whose name escapes me as I write this, I find it difficult to envision Eddie or perhaps Joe Bushkin telling everyone how Ken-L-Ration made for bright eyes and a healthy coat.  Or Tide detergent.  But stranger things have happened.  Some jazz fans will remember the radio and television commercials Louis did for Schaefer and Rheingold beers and Fords — why else would I hear his voice ringing out, “You’re ahead in a Ford / All the way!” some forty-five years later?

The prospectus didn’t succeed, but here are pictures and text:

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Condon and Sidney Bechet, of course.

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Looking off (handsomely) to the mysterious East, where the sponsors ride over the mountains in expensive suits:

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You see I didn’t invent this enthusiastic prose.

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That camera makes me think of the NBC peacock — spreading its animated self as a totem of “living color” even when most viewers saw it in black and white.

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I didn’t know that “the proverbial duck” also played tenor guitar, but no matter.

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These photos are more familiar; they surfaced in Hank O’Neal’s EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, a wonderful book.

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It’s an interesting mix of “jazz” and “popular” — Condon recognized talented musicians, however they might have defined themselves.  I wonder, however, what songs Frankie Carle played when he appeared.

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A cherubic Billy Butterfield, a pleased Joe Bushkin — sixty years ago, when newspapers paid attention to jazz.

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That’s a dramatic art photo — Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge framed by the bent wood of the chair.  And, to the left is an easel.  Was this the program on which Mischa Reznikoff (husband of photographer Genevieve Naylor) sketched while the musicians improvised?

floor12

Here comes the hard sell . . .

floor13Oh, how I wish this prospectus had appealed to some firm — Proctor and Gamble, say.  Then, instead of watching BONANZA on Sunday nights, we could have seen Cutty Cutshall and Pee Wee Russell.

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I think that Virgil Thompson was praising the Town Hall concert series, but the sentiments remained true.

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The VOA transcriptions might be the source for the audio portions of the Floor Show that survive.

floor16Ernie Caceres to the left, Peanuts Hucko, Bushkin, Butterfield . . .

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Alas, it didn’t work.  But Condon’s career didn’t end when the show did, and he kept playing and organizing bands into the early Seventies, when I got to see him in action — a subject for another post.  Right now, let us remember the time and place when it was possible to have such high art on nationwide television, with or without a sponsor.

BARBARA ROSENE at IRIDIUM, February 17, 2009: SWEET, HOT, and SOULFUL!

barbara-rosene-2003-cd1I first heard Barbara Rosene sing on a compact disc — the 2003 Stomp Off “Ev’rything’s Made For Love,” which I’d obtained serendipitously.  Bob Rusch of Cadence thought I would take pleasure in this music, and (as is often the case) he was splendidly correct. I loved the sounds — plural, not singular — of Barbara’s pure, clear voice, tenderly exploring the layers of feeling in a ballad, being naughty on a double-entendre Twenties song, or simply swinging her way exultantly through one of those unashamedly happy songs that used to be the fashion.  Although Barbara often sang obscure songs, she was more than an archivist delighting in artistic esoterica.

Some singers sing at the song, or, worse, they present it at a distance with ironic quotation marks around it.  Barbara immerses herself in the emotions of the lyrics and the melody, uniting herself with the song.  Although some of her material was peripherally connected to girl singers who chose to present themselves as Twenties Lolitas (little girls lispiing through the lyrics), Barbara is serious when her material is, riotous when the song calls for it.

In October 2004, I was in the audience for a late-night jam session at the Cajun, where Barbara, at someone’s request, got up and sang a touching FOOLS RUSH IN.  Later, I introduced myself to her as the Phantom Reviewer, and was delighted by her genuineness.  She and Kevin Dorn are close friends, so I began to see Barbara sing more often in a variety of places — from an Episcopal church in Hicksville, New York to an uptown club whose name I forget to the now-eradicated Jacques-Imo’s.

All of this is prelude to what the Beloved and I enjoyed last night: Barbara and her New Yorkers appearing at Iridium for two sets — an engagement I hope will be repeated soon and often.  She always surrounds herself with the best musicians, and the band last night was choice: Kevin on drums, Conal Fowkes on piano, Doug Largent on bass, Michael Hashim on alto and tenor, Matt Szemela on violin, and Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet.

The lovely thing about Barbara’s Iridium gig was that the room was packed with quietly appreciative people, many of whom knew each other, so it was like a reunion — or a party in someone’s large living room.  The Beloved and I sat at a table with the cheerful Joe and Carla Samolduski, the people responsible for Barbara’s appearances at “Cabaret Night” at the Hicksville church.  All that was missing was the basket of potato chips in front of us.

The music began with a positively rambunctious THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  When the gleeful dust had settled, Barbara chatted with the audience about her song choices.  She believes in what she sings: GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON is not just a series of words for her.  Matt Szemela added his sweet countrified violin to the ensemble, a wonderful bonus.  Acknowledging her debt to Annette Hanshaw, Barbara began a deeply serious (although rhythmically mobile) version of AM I BLUE.  Jon-Erik growled ominously behind her, and Michael Hashim explored the low register of his horn, reminding me of Ben Webster at his Fifties best.  The mood brightened dramatically when Barbara offered a chipper rendition of LOVABLE AND SWEET, composed by Oscar Levant, rhyming “nice man” and “iceman” for naughty reasons.  DEEP NIGHT, which Barbara dedicated to her late father, who loved the song, was a sultry tango.  Barbara is a gracious and generous leader, so she gave the band a chance to romp on I WONDER WHERE MY BABY IS TONIGHT, which featured a patented Hashim stop-time chorus and two jammed ensemble choruses, the first quiet, the second shouting.  A delicate IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER followed; during Michael’s solo, Barbara sat on the piano bench next to Conal, her eyes closed, rocking happily to the beat.  A brisk IT HAD TO BE YOU came next: Barbara sang the familiar lyrics as if the song was new, and Conal provided a rocking minimalist solo (Basie without the cliches), supported in high style by Doug and Kevin.

Readers familiar with this blog might be asking themselves, “Where was Flip all this time?”  “Struggling to get out of my pocket,” would be the answer.  Flip was thrilled to be at Iridium (it was his first time) and he wanted to get close to the stage, but I kept on trying to quiet him down.  People had the audacity to be sitting in front of us and their heads were in the way; Flip wriggled and jumped so vigorously that I thought the waitstaff were going to ask us to leave.

When it was clear that Barbara’s set was more than half over, I took Flip out of my pocket and aimed him at the stage — thinking that the Iridium staff would hardly eject us so close to the end.  (I was right.)  The result is that you are now able to see and hear some of what Barbara and her New Yorkers did so beautifully last night.

Here’s Irving Berlin’s melancholy SAY IT ISN’T SO, a fully realized dramatic performance without a hint of “acting”:

Barbara featured the band on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, which offers wonderful hot solos and ensemble joys.  I especially love the trades between Doug and Kevin at the end, reminiscent of the playful jazz conversations Milt Hinton and Jo Jones had so memorably:

And something even more special: Barbara’s ukulele feature.  Faithful readers will know of my recent (and continuing) ukulele obsession — I’m still finding my way around the fingerboard.  But I was thrilled when Barbara unsheathed a soprano ukulele and put on her own one-woman show.  It’s not that she’s the East Coast version of Lyle Ritz (or at least not yet) but she encapsulates another world in her performance of KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW — as if we were sitting on the porch with her and she decided it was time for a little music.  It’s charming!  And her whistling is both casual and accomplished:

Finally, a rocking version of MY BLACKBIRDS ARE BLUEBIRDS NOW — one of several songs that exploited this avian metaphor.  I feel sorry for the poor blackbirds, who got a bad reputation as emblems of bad luck.  All because of that one flying terrorist who pecked off the housemaid’s nose, if I remember correctly?  Bluebirds are fine, of course — but the blackbirds swung.  Here’s Barbara and her New Yorkers:

Barbara says that she is trying to keep this music alive without turning into the guardian of a time capsule.  That’s a tall order, but she is doing it heroically every time she sings, and she did it splendidly last night.  I hope these homegrown video clips convey something of her special gifts.  She is The Real Thing.

HARRY ALLEN and EHUD ASHERIE, JAN. 29, 2009

Here we are at Smalls again (Seventh Avenue South and West Tenth Street in New York City) for another Thursday night duet between gifted friends, eloquent and swinging.

“Manhattan,” Rodgers and Hart’s sweet valentine to this metropolis, always makes me think of Bobby Hackett and Lee Wiley; the duo reclaims it for themselves, with hints of Ben Webster and Teddy Wilson, a royal pair.  Listen to Ehud’s small homages to the lesser-known stride masters in his solo: a touch of Luckey Roberts’s “Moonlight Cocktail,” a passage of Cliff Jackson’s distinctive stride left hand.  And Harry’s tone and gliding phrasing are like a sonic caress:

Then, an old-time stride romp on Vincent Youmans’ exultant “Hallelujah!” — with Harry negotiating every turn so easily, after Ehud has dramatically explored the verse.  Ehud loves Fats Waller but isn’t a prisoner of the recordings; in fact, his single-note lines have all the snap of Bud Powell.  Flip was very pleased to be able to present two Ehuds — the real one and his mirror-image.  What riotous fun as the duet changes keys and the players trade ideas:

I don’t think I am being hyperbolic when I say that these two performances exemplify what jazz is all about: the melding of individual impulse and communal creativity (whether on a tender ballad or at top speed, trading phrases) — amazing for its emotions, intellect, and sheer technical athleticism.

LOUIS, 1947, CARNEGIE HALL, TRIUMPHANT

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Exultant, too!  That’s Ed Hall on the left, Henderson Chambers on the right.  Was this taken by William P. Gottlieb?  It wouldn’t surprise me.  We owe the photographer heartfelt thanks.

What we owe Louis goes beyond words.

CELEBRATING FRANK NEWTON AND PEE WEE RUSSELL

I wish that the title of this posting referred to some newly unearthed recordings that had both of these jazz poets improvising together.  Unfortunately, although such a meeting might have taken place, the recorded evidence may not exist.

Newton, whom I’ve written about before, remains beautiful yet shadowy.  The sensitivity we hear in his playing also made him one of jazz’s revered yet most elusive figures.  That same sensitivity apparently made him a man greatly burdened by the injustices around him: racial prejudice coupled with the inartistic nature of “the music business.”  Surely the frequent periods of illness he suffered were not merely the result of a frail constitution: he had power and self-assurance.  But they seem to be necessary periods of retreat from a world that repelled him.

Pee Wee Russell lived longer and had more opportunities to play and create alongside everyone from Arthur Schutt to Bobby Hackett to Thelonious Monk.  But he, too, was hampered by factors that he must have found demeaning: the musicians who had once cherished him treated him more as a clownish spectacle, someone who made freakish sounds and faces.

But there’s good news — so remarkable that only italics are suitable:

The Jazz Museum in Harlem will be devoting a Saturday afternoon to Newton and Russell.

On March 28, from 10 to 4, they will be celebrating the lives of these two creative improvisers.  Not, mind you, in the usual way, by simply playing their records.  I would guess that they would show us Newton and Russell on film (Pee Wee shows up in a variety of contexts over the years; Newton, I believe, is only visible once, if that).  But we will get to hear about these two men from people who were there. Readers of this blog will know the value I place on first-hand testimony, especially since the original players and the people who witnessed their miraculous work are becoming fewer.

Here’s the list of esteemed, eloquent testifiers: Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, and George Wein.

The panel will be held at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem Visitors’ Center, at 104 East 126th Street.  And it’s free.  “Don’t miss it!” is a real cliche when the event doesn’t warrant it, but it means something for an event like this.  And in the meantime, I hope readers can remind themselves of the beauties Newton and Russell created for us to hear.

“LUCK ALWAYS”: SONNY GREER

sonny-greer1William “Sonny” Greer, who played drums for Duke Ellington for nearly thirty years, never received the acknowledgment he deserves.  True, he could be more interested in decorating the ensemble than in simply driving them to the finish line.  Musicians who played with Sonny as he got older said that he was sometimes unreliable, that he drank too much.  But all those statements matter very little when measured against the musical evidence.

Today I was listening to the second half of the 1940 Fargo, North Dakota dance date.  That evening has achieved mythic status because two undergraduates recorded the music and kept the discs safe — so we can hear Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton tenderly exploring STARDUST.  But consider “Fargo, North Dakota,” and “dance date,” both factors to be examined: a touring band played a thousand such dates, and there was no reason for the musicians to be particularly attentive on any given night.  Wintry North Dakota was far away from uptown New York in ways that transcend the distance one could measure on a map.  But Greer’s playing is simply extraordinary: the ebb and flow of the sounds he creates (he didn’t have one or two trademark patterns — think of Cozy Cole’s press roll or Jo Jones’s hi-hat).  Sonny Greer made sounds that fit what everyone else was playing — or perhaps he made the sounds that pleased him most at that split-second.  So to those listeners who are accustomed to drumming that utilizes a steady ride-cymbal beat, for instance, Greer at first sounds like an accompanist rather than a jazz drummer, echoing what the soloist is doing with a splash or an auditory comment.  But closer listening reveals that he is leading far more than following, and that the surging rhythms he creates are pushing the band.  Of course, some of what Greer was doing in 1940 got picked up by people who didn’t understand how a drummer could be playing loudly, creatively, and exuberantly — and still not overshadow the other players.  Sonny could do that, as could Sidney Catlett.

But John Hammond criticized him in print, as did others.  However, Hammond and the others always had their own ideas of what the Ellington band and other bands should sound like.  Ellington wouldn’t have kept Greer at his side for so long simply for youthful loyaty.  (Keeping Greer on salary until his death was an example of such feelings, but Ellington didn’t keep anyone in the band whose work didn’t add something — whether or not jazz critics recognized it mattered not at all.)

So I would send readers back to the Fargo concert, to ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM and ST. LOUIS BLUES, and to the panoply of tone colors Greer adds even at slow tempos.

My friend the Jazz Sage Sam Parkins sent in this story: “One ‘once in a life-time’ jazz event: In spring of ’58 or so I was doing Yale Reunion with Eli’s Chosen Six, only 2 Yalies left (Roswell Rudd and bassist Bob Morgan). We were doing class of ’48; Sleepy Hall showed up and played awesome banjo – voice leading like a Bach chorale. In the tent next to us, some class had signed on Bud Freeman and a quintet. Now Sonny Greer was a bit of a laughing stock – drunk, didn’t play too good at best etc. Here he is on a Saturday afternoon, hadn’t had a drink yet, and I’m transfixed. Never settles down to press rolls or a steady cymbal beat like Jo Jones. He’s dancing lightly all over the kit, with clean even swing, and propelling the band out the door. Never seen anything remotely resembling it before or since. AND – the next fall there’s a typical quasi-Jazz at the Philharmonic monster rally at the Cinderella Club, incl. me – and Greer. Playing barely so-so. The jazz life.”

I have my own Sonny Greer story.  In the early Seventies he and the brilliantly eccentric pianist Brooks Kerr had a duo gig at Gregory’s, a shoebox of a club.  I took my then-girlfriend there one night.  She was a classic Irish Catholic beauty: shining dark hair, pale skin, and blue eyes.  That night she sported a fake fur coat.  Between sets, I approached Sonny and asked him if he would autograph an Ellington lp that had his picture on the cover, which he did happily.  He seemed minute and beautifully-preserved: a wonderful miniature figure of A Jazz Drummer.  But nothing got past him.  He spotted my girlfriend and locked his eyes to hers with a steady devouring stare and the quietly exuberant words, “Sonny just LOOOOOOVES YOU,” which I hear as I write this.
duke-autographsbeggarsblues
On the left is an Ellington 78 issued under Sonny’s name, and here’s that famous Soundie (1942) of the Ellington band performing C JAM BLUES.
The short film is called “JAM SESSION,” and its fictions are endearing: the musicians are of course performing to their own soundtrack, but it doesn’t matter.  Notice Rex Stewart pretending to unpack his cornet while Ray Nance is playing, Ben Webster rising from his lunch-counter stool, playing as he goes, Tricky Sam Nanton waggling his plunger, and Sonny — beaming at the camera in his beautiful clothing before crossing to the drums to play a wondrously showy hot solo, twirling his sticks as he goes.
“Luck always” is what Sonny wrote above his name on the cover of my record.  Clearly, he had it and shared it with us.
Something I find particularly thrilling in the online playground is that if you go to the Rutgers University Libraries website:http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/IJS/johpaudio/SonnyGreer_audio.html
you can hear Sonny himself telling stories.  Priceless generosity on all fronts!

A JAZZ HOLIDAY! (February 2009)

No, this post isn’t about Benny Goodman’s 1928 recording — although that record does deserve to be celebrated.  Rather, it’s about a jazz immersion because of what my college calls “Presidents’ Week” — the Monday holiday stretching into a full week to follow the public school calendar.

What that means for me (and the Beloved) is a wonderful chance to hear four live jazz sessions.

Sunday night I went to the Ear Inn, newly lit and full of people celebrating that they, too, didn’t have to get up early the next morning.  The EarRegulars were there in stellar form: Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri, with their inspiring friends Scott Robinson and Greg Cohen.  I was sitting three feet from Greg’s bass, and it was a transforming experience: the rhythm shot through me all night long.  And Scott — the mysterious shape-changer of jazz, who finds a new self whenever he picks up a different horn — was in a happy groove from the opening notes of WEARY BLUES.  (Scott had brought his tenor, a cornet — I couldn’t see if it was his fabled echo cornet) and his sopranino sax.  In the second set, Rachelle Garniez sat in with her Hohner claviola, Ted G (we couldn’t figure out his last name) brought his Maccaferri guitar, and Lucy, sixteen years old, sat in on trumpet.  As they used to say in the society pages of small-town newspapers, “a good time was had by all.”

Last night I went to Banjo Jim’s to catch a return appearance of the Cangelosi Cards with their guest star Sam Parkins, who had brought “his Klarinette.”  If you want to get the flavor of that evening, I’ve posted clips from their last jam session on “LIGHTNING IN THE DARKNESS.”  It was a smaller hand of Cards — Tamar Korn, Jake Sanders, Karl Meyer, Marcus Millius, Gordon Webster, and Cassidy Holden (who uses gut strings on his bass — as the great players of the Swing Era did).  The joint rocked: Tamar sang the blues and ALL OF ME; the Cards turned into a gypsy /tango band with NUAGES, MINOR SWING, and their own line on LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME.  Heady stuff!

Tonight, the Beloved and I are going to the 8 PM show at Iridium to hear Barbara Rosene and her New Yorkers.  Enough said!  Barbara will sparkle and move us, and the New Yorkers include Jon-Erik, Michael Hashim, Conal Fowkes, Matt Szemela, Doug Largent, and Kevin Dorn — fine players and fine friends.

And (if that weren’t enough) we’re going downtown on Thursday for the 36th Anniversary HIGHLIGHTS IN JAZZ concert, featuring David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band (or the Gully Low Jazz Band, what you will) — Jon-Erik, Wycliffe Gordon, Anat Cohen, Mark Shane, David himself, and Kevin Dorn.  Jack Kleinsinger’s concerts are always models of jazz generosity, and this one includes a pair of raw recruits named Joe Wilder and Dick Hyman.

Yes, I still have to grade two more sets of student essays, but I would call this A JAZZ HOLIDAY.  Wouldn’t you?  And I haven’t even mentioned the Gully Low Jazz Band’s regular Birdland gig on Wednesday and a midday solo piano outing for Hyman at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in midtown.

New Yorkers are lucky to live in this time and place, the economy notwithstanding.  Go and hear some live jazz, even if you don’t have the week off.

“DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM”

Last night (Thursday, February 12) was perilously windy, but Flip and I bundled up and made it downtown to Smalls to hear an hour of duets between Jon-Erik Kellso and Ehud Asherie.

The story goes that Duke Ellington was in a cab one night in the early Thirties with the newspaperman (and occasional songwriter) Nick Kenny.  The following dialogue (hardly Chekhov) ensued:

Kenny: “Where do you want to go, Duke?”

Ellington: “Oh, just drop me off in Harlem.”

( Scholars dispute whether it was IN or AT, but I leave that to those who argue about ON line or IN line.)

Jon-Erik and Ehud take this pretty song at one of many right tempos — a medium glide.  And, luckily, Jon-Erik was in the mood to unleash his Inner Puppy, a friendly mixed-breed that would characteristically lick your face but most often has a whole repertoire of growls to offer.  Listen to the vocalizing he gets here, and to Ehud’s mobile, listening playing.  Lovely, evocative music!