You know the man on the right in this 1965 picture, taken in Sweden.
The man shaking Louis’ hand is less well-known, but he was one of the most generous advocates of jazz that it has ever been my privilege to know. His name was Gosta Hagglof, and he died on March 8, 2009. Gosta had been ill for some time, but he never gave any indication of it. He was as enthusiastic as ever about the music in what were the last emails I was to receive from him.
For a much fuller appreciation of his life, I would have you “turn over the leaf and choose another page,” to quote Chaucer. The other page is Ricky Riccardi’s extraordinarily touching essay on the man:
But a few words of my own might be apt here. I first encountered Gosta in an extremely indirect but effective way.
In 1927, the Melrose brothers of Chicago, music publishers, had wanted to capitalize on Louis’ clearly increasing fame — not by making records, but by publishing a folio of music for aspiring trumpeters to copy. Or to attempt to copy! The story goes that they gave Louis a cylinder phonograph and a goodly number of blank cylinders, asked him to play solos on familiar jazz tunes (many of them published by Melrose) as well as recording many of his famous jazz breaks. The pianist Elmer Schoebel transcribed the music, and the folio was published (the solos and breaks only, no harmony supplied). That was 1927. By the way — and it’s an important comment — the cylinders have never surfaced.
Gosta thought it would be a brilliant idea if the phenomenal cornetist / trumpeter Bent Persson recorded the solos and breaks. But the idea didn’t stop there. It would have been easy to hand the folio to Bent, somene who is himself a rich treasury of Armstrong-lore and music, and ask him to play them with rhythm accompaniment. Gosta and Bent went far deeper — and the records that resulted are extraordinary, not only in the instrumental playing, but in their conception. Each performance is clearly the result of creative investigation and experimentation, and the formats are varied and rewarding.
I didn’t know anything of this, one day perhaps thirty years ago, when I found myself at J&R Music in downtown Manhattan. It is even possible that in those pre-internet days I had not heard of either Bent or of Gosta. But I bought one of those “imported” records as an experiment, a leap of faith. If it hadn’t worked out, I would have squandered perhaps seven dollars.
When I played the record at home, the jazz leapt out of the speakers at me in the very best way. I couldn’t believe it. Some day I will write more about Bent Persson, but for now I would simply send you to his site (listed on my blogroll, as is Gosta’s “Classic Jazz Productions”). When I could, I returned to J&R and bought the remaining volumes in the series. Happily, this music has been issued on CD. Incidentally, this for was Gosta’s “Kenneth” label, its actual paper label an ornately witty takeoff on the Gennett logo. I looked for all the Kenneths I could find — some featuring Maxine Sullivan in her finest recordings, others spotlighting Doc Cheatham. Each one was better than its predecessor.
And then I learned about the “Ambassador” label. Gosta loved swinging jazz, but his heart belonged to Louis. At that time, Louis’ most under-reissued and misunderstood recordings were the series (usually done with a big band) for Decca between 1935 and 1942, with later sessions here and there. Gosta took it upon himself to create a series of the Deccas, in chronological order, in the best sound possible, speed-corrected without annoying “improvements” to the sound. In addition, to compile as complete an aural portrait of Louis’ life in those years, the Ambassador compact discs offered radio broadcasts, concert performances — whatever evidence there was. They were and are beautiful recordings, beautifully researched, full of new discoveries. However, in the United States, they were not well-known. Decca had very intermittently issued a number of records and eventually compact discs, but the Ambassadors were unequalled.
In 1999 or 2000, I wrote to Gosta and asked him a favor. I was then writing reviews for the IAJRC Journal, a publication that let me review whatever I wanted as long as I bought the recordings myself and paid for my subscription. (That’s another story.) Gosta generously sent me a set of the Ambassadors, and I wrote a leisurely appreciation — perhaps twenty thousand words. I don’t know how many people ever read it, but it made us friends. And the Ambassadors are among my most treasured discs.
This led to what I consider a stroke of luck for me. One day a letter came from Gosta: he had noticed the number of times I had reverentially mentioned Big Sid Catlett in my writing. Would I like to write the notes for a CD that would make available new material by Louis and Sid from 1939 to 1942. I can’t remember how quickly I wrote back to say “Yes,” but I think it was the same day. And that CD is something I am very proud of — it also has rare performances by Louis of “As Time Goes By” and “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” unbelievably tender and knowing.
When I began this blog, I looked for opportunities to tell everyone about Gosta’s handiwork — most recently CDs featuring Doc Cheatham and Dick Cary (the latter a tribute to Hoagy Carmichael). Those CDs are rewarding in every way but also clearly labors of love because Gosta never made much profit, if any, on them.
I was heartbroken to read of his death, and not just because he and I loved the same music. Gosta was devoted to something larger than himself. And he was one of those lucky individuals who gave his energies to something he loved passionately. What Gosta loved so deeply and so well he also shared with us.
I have read no obituaries of Gosta except Ricky’s, but I tell you that we have lost someone rare.