The Beloved and I spent the past long weekend (Thursday, September 17 – Sunday, September 20) at the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, New York, delighting in the twelfth Jazz at Chautauqua.
This party, burnished to a happy sheen, is the result of Joe Boughton’s sixty-year immersion in the timeless jazz he loves, situated somewhere between King Oliver and Charlie Parker, with reverential nods to Mr. Condon, Mr. Strong, Mr. Waller, Mr. Wilson. Joe is also the fierce champion of melodies that don’t get played elsewhere, and as the common parlance of jazz occasionally seems to shrink into a few syllables, Joe is trying to keep the beautiful repertoire of the past alive. That means CHINA BOY, BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU, SKYLARK, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY, and others. Play SATIN DOLL at a Boughton extravaganza and you might get glared at, which I understand.
Jazz at Chautauqua has its own delightful conventions (and I don’t mean the clusters of people who gather around the coffee urn, the bar, the tables of compact discs and sheet music). Thursday night is devoted to what Joe calls “informal music with all musicians in parlor room,” sometimes the most eloquent jazz of the whole weekend — loose jam session sets by bands Joe has assembled on the spot — no lighting, the musicians on the same level as the audience. Friday afternoon is spent in the parlor around a grand piano, with a variety of solo recitals, and the opening blow-out that night begins as if we had returned to the Third Street Condon’s of 1947, with two front lines alternating and then joining forces for an unusual number (this year it was GOD BLESS AMERICA), a ballad medley, and an old favorite.
Each day features an exalted version of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, because most of the Chautauqua players are also Nighthawks alumni — rather like an all-star baseball team behind their blue banners and music stands. In between, there’s the occasional set by “the faux Frenchmen,” a QHCF group augmented this year by Andy Stein on violin, sets for the wondrous Rebecca Kilgore. Musicians ranging in age from 29 to 87 come and go, and there’s a good deal of friendly conversation between players and listeners, with some players holding forth at length while sitting on the porch or leaning against the front desk. (The Athenaeum, if you’ve never been there, is a delicious throwback: an entirely wooden hotel, over a hundred years old, with perhaps the most friendly, solicitous hotel staff on the planet.)
In years past, I brought my notebook to Chautauqua and wrote down the details of every set. This year, I abandoned my notebook for other methods of capturing the evanescent and as a result this reminiscence is more impressionistic than quantitative. I was also busily chatting with friends David and Maxine Schacker, John Herr, John and Mary-Etta Bitter, Jim Adashek, Sally and Mick Fee, Caren Brodskey, and making new friends of Steve LaVere, Lois Lardieri, James Stewart, John and Helen Trudinger, as well as various Boughtons. Essayist and art photographer Lorna Sass graciously offered her candid portraits for this post.
What sticks in my mind is, of course, the music. On Thursday night, after a witty set by “the faux Frenchmen,” a delicious band of Andy Schumm, Dan Barrett, Bob Reitmeier, Jim Dapogny, Vince Giordano, Marty Grosz, and John Von Ohlen took the stand, and offered seven tunes that paid homage to Red Nichols (a slow SHEIK OF ARABY), Louis (YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY) and the tradition of the “rhythm ballad,” with Marty Grosz’s earnest vocal on BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD. They were followed by Duke Heitger, Dan Block, Bob Havens, Ehud Asherie, Frank Tate, and Pete Siers, whose set reached a peak with SEPTEMBER SONG — featuring Duke, plunger-muted, and Dan Block, richly emotional. Joe Wilder and Harry Allen floated over the wonderful rhythm section of Rossano Sportiello and Jon Burr for four leisurely numbers, ending with a growly JUST SQUEEZE ME and a BLUES in Bb. Then, suitably inspired by what they had heard, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson (wearing a red-and-black shirt that had SPACE CADET or was it SPACE CHAMP printed on the front) hit five home runs, playing ecstatic tag with one another with the help of Ehud, Andy Brown, and Arnie Kinsella — a rhythm section that had probably never gotten together ever but produced gliding, propulsive swing. The closing SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL was hilarious, hot, and intense.
After that point, I put my notebook away — so what remains is a happy blur of solos, ensembles, and moments.
Andy Stein, shown here on violin, was even better on his secret weapon, the baritone sax, anchoring and boosting every group he played in.
Jim Dapogny, properly Professor Dapogny, jazz scholar, once again showed himself the invaluable member of every ensemble, his right hand landing with force and delicacy to produce ringing octaves; his left offering powerful stride and variations.
Just as impressive was Ehud Asherie, not yet thirty (someone I had recommended to Joe to fill the piano chair) who so impressed us all — whether recalling Donald Lambert or being harmonically and melodically adventurous. One of the highlights of the first night was a long Asherie-Harry Allen duet set, capped by three numbers where Ehud invited Dan Barrett to join them. Two horns plus a piano might seem lopsided, but it was a wonderfully balanced trio.
Andy Schumm, the young Bixian from Wisconsin, continued to delight and amaze — not only with his evocations of the Beiderbecke era (his versions of RHYTHM KING and NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT) but with his delicate fluency: he would fit in anywhere and shine. When I passed through the bandroom, I was touched to see Andy and Tom Pletcher, Bixians young and old, deep in conversation. Too bad that they didn’t get to play a set together.
Guitarist Andy Brown reminded me happily of George Van Eps, his chordal traceries gleaming (he is one of those rare guitarists who knows better than to stun us with rapid-fire passages); he and the lovely Petra van Nuis offered two brief sets. Petra, who appears girlish, has a surprising emotional range: she got absolute rapt attention at 9 in the morning with her opening song, a version of SERENATA. (Later in the weekend, I prevailed upon the modern troubadour Edward Lovett to sing two songs, accompanying himself on the guitar: he’s somewhere between Seger Ellis, young Crosby, and Dave Frishberg — you’ll hear about him!)
And there were non-musical moments: Duke Heitger, now the delighted father of two beautiful little girls, showing off their pictures and positively glowing with pride. Marty Grosz, discoursing at length both on and off the stand — at one point discussing how current CD covers all show grinning performers and his reluctance to adopt that pose. Marty also sang I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME at the just-right 1931 ballad tempo, recalling his hero Red McKenzie.
Jon-Erik Kellso, at his ease on the stand (he is an inestimable bandleader as well as player) and happily taking his ease with wife Jackie. Rebecca Kilgore, getting so pleased with the rhythm and solos her accompanists were creating that she indulged in a good deal of ladylike trucking on the stand (as well as singing better than ever).
On one of Rebecca’s sets, Joe Wilder was so buoyed by the rhythm section of Rossano Sportiello, Jon Burr, and Pete Siers, that he flew through dazzling solos — leading Dan Block, as a spectator, to say, “Unbelievable!” while shaking his head in amazed delight. Scott Robinson, playing a luminous AT SUNDOWN on trumpet. That same Dan Block, eloquent on clarinet, bass clarinet, and various saxophones, his body always reflecting the power of the music flowing through him. An impassioned I CAN’T GET STARTED by Duke Heitger, who saw the heights of passion and attained them. Arnie Kinsella, the poet of volcanic ebullience, hitting his cowbell in a solo, as he said later, “as loud as he could,” because he wanted to — in a way that we agreed was a celebration of joyous impulse and a Bronx cheer in the face of death.
The music still rings in my ears. And I am thrilled to announce that on Sunday, Joe Boughton was busily signing up musicians for next year’s Jazz at Chautauqua. I’ll have to wait, but it won’t be easy.
I’ll have more to say about this ecstatic weekend in posts to come.