Last night — Thursday, July 9, 2009 — I witnessed the kind of jazz creativity and bravery that at times left me with tears in my eyes.
The occasion was a concert organized by the Swedish trumpeter / cornetist / Louis Armstrong scholar Bent Persson, one of my heroes, in tribute to his hero Louis: “YOUNG LOUIS,” which — in two hour-long sets — demonstrated much about Louis’s first six years of recordings as well as the majesty of players now alive.
The band was a stellar international crew: Mike Durham, tpt, joining Bent at the start and finish, as well as being a most adept and witty master of ceremonies; the gruff trombonist Paul Munnery; the brilliant reedman (clarinet and alto this time) Matthias Seuffert; the nimble pianist Martin Litton; the remarkable plectrist (banjos and guitar) Jacob Ullberger; the very fine brass bassist Phil Rutherford; the frankly astonishing percussionist Nick Ward. The concert took place at the very modern Sage Gateshead in Newcastle, UK — lovely acoustics and a sound engineer at the back who was truly paying attention! I attempted to videotape the whole thing (being a man of daring but not much discretion) but was stopped by an usher who whispered ferociously that there was NO photography of any kind allowed and I would have to leave if I continued . . . so I stopped. But I did capture the band’s second song, a stately rock through King Joe Oliver’s WHERE DID YOU STAY LAST NIGHT? — much as it might have sounded in Chicago, 1922-23. My video doesn’t capture everything — but you can see the graceful arcs of Nick Ward’s arms behind his drum set: I had a hard time taking my eyes off of him.
Lovely as it is, that performance can’t summon up all of what I found so moving in this concert. It wasn’t a pure repertory performance, where musicians strive to reproduce old records “live”; no, what was fascinating was the fervent interplay between the Past and Now, between the Great Figures and the living players onstage. Everyone in this band knew the original records, but they were encouraged to dance back and forth between honoring the past by playing it note-for-note and by going for themselves. Thus, Bent created solos that sounded like ones Louis might have — should have! — recorded, and his bravery and risk-taking were more than heartening. I have never seen him in person, and he would give the most timid of us courage to learn the craft, to shut our eyes, and to make something new. His playing on POTATO HEAD BLUES was immensely moving — watching him dare the Fates and declare his love for Louis in front of our eyes. Bent also sang in several performances — mostly scatting, but once or twice delivering the lyrics in a sweetly earnest way — another example of an artist going beyond the amazing things we’ve already come to expect. It was also delightful to watch the musicians grin broadly at each other as the beautiful solos and ensemble work unfolded.
The concert moved briskly from Louis’s sojourn with Oliver to his work with Clarence Williams small groups, his own Hot Five and Seven, an evocation of Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards, Louis’s duet with Earl Hines, his Hot Choruses (as reimagined by Bent over a thirty-year period), with more than a few surprises. One of them — gloriously — was the appearance of bass saxophone titan Frans Sjostrom for a version of BEAU KOO JACK by the trio called, so correctly, the Hot Jazz Trio (their one CD is under that name on the Kenneth label): Bent, Jacob, and Frans. Wonderful both in itself and as a reinvention of that brightly ornate recording. Sjostrom stayed around for the final ensemble celebration on HIGH SOCIETY, which brought tears to my eyes.
I am posting this on Friday morning, hours before the Whitley Bay extravaganza — some 130 bands playing in rotation for three days in four simultaneous locations — is scheduled to begin. There’ll be more magnificent, moving jazz, I am sure! It promises to be both uplifting and overwhelming. (And, as an extra delight, I am joined here by two of my three Official British Cousins — Bob Cox and John Whitehorn — men of great humor, generosity, and sensibility — whom I first met at Westoverledingen, Germany, in 2007, when we were rapt attendees at another Manfred Selchow jazz festival. Always nice to have friends nearby!)
A postscript: at the concert, copies of an otherwise unknown compact disc were for sale — a recording of a similar YOUNG LOUIS concert from 2002, with many of the same players. I snapped up one copy (paying for it, of course) and by the end of the concert, the CDs were all gone. Let us hope that Bent and Co. choose to reissue that one and other versions. I’m going to treasure it, as well as my memories of the concert I experienced.