Monthly Archives: February 2009

GOLDEN EAR-RINGS (IN YOUR EARS)

2008-oacaca-ireland-001

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

The same ensemble with Danny Tobias and David Ostwald.

2008-oacaca-ireland-0052

ear-june-08-001

Orange Kellin and Scott Robinson.

ear-june-08-0051

Jon-Erik and Tamar Korn share thoughts, happily.

minnie-gig-pics-2008-amaryllis-flatbreads-018

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:

sid-biceps

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.