Monthly Archives: October 2009

CHARLES PETERSON’S GENEROUS ART, 1942

The photographs Charles Peterson took offer magic windows into places and emotions we would otherwise never experience.  Here’s what he captured on a truly magical afternoon in 1942, shared with us through the generosity of his son, Don.

It’s a jam session — hardly unusual for Peterson — but this is no ordinary gathering.

This jam session didn’t take place at some smoky Fifty-Second Street club or a hotel ballroom, but at the Walt Whitman School where Don was a fifth-grade student.  Whitman was an extremely forward-looking school, whose students got to see foreign films, adventurous art, and more.  So when Charles Peterson suggested that some of his musician friends might come down and play for the kids, none of the administrators raised a worried eyebrow.

Peterson, I assume, had more than one motive — staging a jam session with the finest musicians he knew would bring pleasure to everyone, and the photographs that resulted might very well be charming enough (Hot Jazz in the Schoolroom; Hot Jazz Goes to School) that a major magazine would want to buy them.  Hot jazz, good publicity for the musicians, possibly a paying gig for the photographer.  Considering that Eddie Condon and friends — including Joe Sullivan and Pee Wee Russell, depicted below — were also playing odd daytime gigs in Lord and Taylor’s for the holiday shoppers, any way to let people know about the gospel of Hot would have been welcome.

I’m sure that Peterson asked his friend Eddie to get the musicians together.  And it’s a tribute to how much these men would have looked forward to playing alongside one another that they woke up early for a non-paying gig, no drinks and nothing to smoke in sight.  For the kiddies!

To begin: Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Zutty Singleton, perhaps a group Condon had assembled for nighttime work at Nick’s in Greenwich Village:

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The band first: Sullivan is poised to launch a powerful right-hand chord, perhaps one of his ringing, thunderous octaves; Zutty is bent attentively over the cymbal, his face both serious and contented.  Pee Wee is, for once, not caught in brave-explorer anguish.  Kaminsky is watching Gowans, who is intent, and Condon is gleefully vocalizing (exhorting, encouraging) and grinning.  In fact, Condon looks even more gleeful than usual: his face looks cherubic, transported, the same age as the students!

Don pointed out — with amusement — the little boy on the left who is, for the moment, sorry that he has pushed his way into the front row, and is now holding his hands over his ears against the volume.

But there’s more here.  The settling is so atypical — to find these musicians in a large, well-ornamented room (note the plaster decorations on the wall) — is so far from the usual “night club” world of smoke and darkness, that it lends this photo a Magritte aura, as if two worlds have been superimposed on one another, peacefully but oddly.  The effect is intensified when we see those boys and girls, their school clothes all quite neat, except for one little boy in the rear who seems to have gotten the seat of his trousers dirty from his shoes.  Even from the rear, they look so beautifully-tended, as if they should be singing Christmas carols rather than hearing this band explore SOMEDAY SWEETHEART.

One other photographic digression.  I don’t know the speed of Peterson’s exposure, but think it might have been longer than we are accustomed to in this century.  So did he often opt to photograph the musicians when they were holding whole notes (or “footballs”) behind a soloist, expecting that they would be holding still?  I wonder.

Now to the full band.  If you asked Bobby Hackett if he would like to play his horn alongside his idol, he wouldn’t have had to think about his answer.  And when Louis had a choice (say, at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival tribute to him which had what seemed like a dozen trumpeters ready to accompany him), he only wanted “little Bobby Hackett,” who found those “pretty notes,” every time.

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This famous shot has sometimes been cropped because of its imperfections, such as the soft focus on Gowans and Hackett, and the lighting making Louis’s very sharp suit look just this side of garish.  But the overall effect suggests that Louis is divine or at least from another planet, and has brought his own luminescence with him — a jazz god who has decided to play at being a mortal for an afternoon.  And the viewer’s eye is inextricably drawn to the glowing bell of Louis’s horn — from whence all good things came.

(It is possible that the group shot below was taken before the close-up, but I trust my readers will not object excessively.)

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Can you imagine the sound coming from that now-crowded bandstand?  Its embodiment is on the face of the smiling little girl, whose profile we see at the right.

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I would draw your attention to four faces in this photograph.  Louis is hitting a high note or making a point with all the sincere dramatic eloquence he could command.  Head thrown back with emotion, his neck full of energy, his hand on his heart.  And he’s delightedly making the music, with the music, and wholly IN the music.  Look at how lovingly and happily Zutty’s face echoes Louis’s — they went all the way back and had been the best of friends two decades earlier.  Hackett might be taking a breath, but it looks as if he’s ready to laugh with pure joy — as if he can’t contain himself.  And here we see the grown-ups.  Because this was a program for the boys and girls, the adults had to stay off to the side, but I delight in the woman who is to the extreme left, her grin perilously broad, having the time of her life.  (And the older woman who is standing behind her is almost as transported.)

In the late Bob Hilbert’s biography of  Pee Wee Russell, I found this: “Another special date was a benefit at the “progressive” Walt Whitman School in New York in which the guest of honor was Louis Armstrong.  Louis jammed with the Condon band, but the trumpeter drew the line at singing the blues because, as he explained, the only ones he could remember were dirty and not fit for the kids.  For more than an hour, the band thrilled the students and an overflow crowd of adults as well” (141).

Maybe Louis reached back to 1936 and sang PENNIES FROM HEAVEN for the kids, with its optimistic message, or reminded them that “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you!”

This photograph, not irrelevantly, reaches forward to Nina Leen’s shots of Louis at the Eddie Condon Floor Show, telling the story of THE THREE BEARS to the children, and the famous shot of Louis in Corona, on the porch, with two little boys, one of whom is paying homage to his friend and idol with a plastic toy trumpet.  Maybe some jazz musicians are hard-pressed to be ideal parents, but Louis deserved a troop of children of his own.  Alas.

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Speaking of children: during a break between numbers, we find Pee Wee as kindly uncle (his usual nature), perhaps responding to the little girl at the bottom right who is smiling).  Louis is holding court, telling a story — look at Hackett’s face!  Condon is watching everything.

But my attention is always drawn to the little girl in the front row who has turned her head and is clearly saying something defensive or offensive to the child near her.  Those of us who recall elementary school or have taught it know that expression well.  It’s trouble, and whether it’s “Sally stepped on my dress!” or “Make Timmy stop pulling my hair!”  It doesn’t bode well.  But chaos threatens only when the music isn’t playing.  Music hath charms, we know . . .

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Harmony reigns over the land.  That same little girl is now transfixed by the sound of Louis’s horn, its bell less than two feet from her face.  She doesn’t need to clap her hands over her ears.  If she could have gotten closer, she would have, for she knows what she’s hearing!

None of the musicians in this photograph are alive (Max Kaminsky left us in 1994) and most of those boys and girls would be in their eighties now . . . but if any of them see these photographs, I would give a great deal to hear their memories of that afternoon.

As I’ve written, part of the essential charm of these photographs is that Peterson took his camera to places most of us never got to visit.  I wasn’t born in 1942, and if you count up the people in this room, perhaps fifty mortals were able to have this experience.  And it seems to me that the Walt Whitman School is no longer in existence.  So these photos are gifts to us, welcoming us into worlds now long gone.  But Peterson’s gift was also in what he saw and captured for us.  These are living examples of Peterson’s most generous art.

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CHARLES PETERSON: HACKETT and RUSSELL

image0000007A_007To have the man you consider one of the greatest photographic artists capture your heroes at work and play . . . what could be better?

I am happy to present three of Charles Peterson’s on-the-spot portrait studies of Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell in their native habitat.  Hackett met Russell when Bobby was quite young, and, much later, credited Pee Wee with “teaching him how to drink,” not the best lesson. 

But if you listen to their playing — captured on records for more than twenty-five years — they were busy teaching each other more salutary things.  Standing next to Russell on a bandstand would have been a joyously emboldening experience: “Here, kid, close your eyes and jump off.  Nothing to be afraid of!”  Pee Wee’s willingness to get himself into apparently impossible corners was always inspiring.  “What could possibly go wrong?”  And, for Russell, having Hackett nearby, that sound, those lovely melodies, that sensitivity to the harmonies, would have been soul-enhancing: “Listen to the beautiful chorus the kid just played!” 

The portrait above was taken at one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, January 19, 1941, and it presents another Ideal Moment in Time and Space that Peterson captured.  It’s possible that Brad Gowans (playing his “valide,” a combination slide / valve trombone of his own manufacture). Bobby, and Pee Wee are doing nothing more adventurous than holding whole notes behind someone else’s solo: they seem remarkably easy, effortless.  But that would have been enough for me. 

They all look so young.  And — adopting the slang of the period — spiffy.  Pee Wee’s crisp suit, folded pocket handkerchief; Brad’s bowtie; their hair, neatly slicked back.  Of course, the combination of Pee Wee’s height and the low ceiling — as well as the angle of Peterson’s shot — makes the three men seem too big for the room.  Which, in terms of their talent, was always true.

As always with Peterson’s work, I find the details I didn’t catch immediately are as enthralling as the big picture.  There’s another musician on the stand — a drummer I can’t immediately identify.  Is it Zutty Singleton?  He is hidden behind Gowans, both the man and the instrument, and less than half his face is visible.  But from what we can see, he is taking it all in, delighted. 

This photograph, with Eddie Condon’s taciturn caption, “TRIO,” appears in the irreplaceable EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal — one of the many things we have to thank Mr. O’Neal for.

The next view comes from a rehearsal for a Commodore Records date a few years earlier — I believe in the rather claustrophoblic Brunswick studios.   (It seems that every studio of that time except for Victor’s Camden church and Columbia’s Liederkrantz Hall stifled both the sound and the musicians.  That so much stirring jazz was captured in such circumstances makes me agree with Norman Field who said, “Can you imagine what those guys sounded like live?”).  The recognizable figures are again Bobby and Pee Wee, with Bud Freeman to the right.  The man I didn’t recognize until Don Peterson identified him, second from left, is jazz enthusiast and amateur drummer Harry Ely.  This is a rehearsal rather than a jam session, so it’s possible that the three men are trying out chords for a background,  Russell and Freeman are intent, but Hackett is at his ease.  His shirt-sleeve is neatly rolled up (revealing his boyish, thin arm), he holds the horn casually.  Musicians dressed beautifully for recording sessions even when no photographers were present — their habit and custom! — thus the neckties and suspenders, the fresh white shirts. 

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Here, again, the photograph can’t convey the sound these men made.  And if you were new to the art and had been handed the photograph, it would just seem reasonably antique: three men in archaic dress with instruments to their lips, a metal folding chair, its paint worn off in spots, in front.  But look at Ely’s face!   Head down, a mild smile, eyes closed to block off any visual distraction — although he never got to make a record, he is IN the music, serene and thrilled.

Finally, a photograph from one of the “Friday Club” sessions at the Park Lane Hotel, circa 1939, with an unusual lineup.

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Of course, that’s Eddie Condon on the left, Hackett, Zutty Singleton at the drums, Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax, left-handed Mort Stuhlmaker at the bass, and the intrepid Mr. Russell on the far right.  Condon is exhorting as well as strumming, and everyone else is floating along (Dorsey watching Condon to see what will happen next). 

Pee Wee has struck out for the Territory, jazz’s Huckleberry Finn, and where he’s going is not only uncharted and exciting but the journey requires every bit of emotional and physical effort.  I can hear a Russell wail soaring above the other horns.  And — perhaps as a prefiguring? — Russell’s face, almost cavernous with the effort, is an unearthly echo-in-advance of the famously skeletal man in the hospital bed in 1951, when Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong came to comfort and solace him. 

After Russell’s death, Hackett wrote of his friend, “Pee Wee and I were very close friends for many years and what little musical knowledge I may have I owe plenty to him.  He was truly a great artist and a very honorable man.  His music will live forever, along with his wonderful spirit.  I’m sure we all miss him, but thank God he was here.”

I feel much the same way about Charles Peterson, who saw, recorded, and preserved marvels for us.

HOORAY FOR HANNA!

The singer Hanna Richardson is one of our hidden treasures — lightly swinging, earnest without being over-serious, matching her mood to the song.  I’ve most often heard her alongside bassist Phil Flanigan (her husband), guitarist Chris Flory, and others of equal stature.  Here she is, cheerfully sweeping away the potential angst of Billie Holiday’s FOOLIN’ MYSELF, accompanying herself adroitly on the tenor guitar, with the nifty piano playing of Patti Wicks to keep things slyly rocking.  A treat!  And I was informed of this YouTube clip by another rare and splendid singer, Melissa Collard.

As the waitperson says when (s)he sets your salad down in front of you, “Enjoy!”

GIFTS FROM AGUSTIN

Agustin Perez Gasco is the sole proprietor of the wondrous blog MULE WALK AND JAZZ TALK.  Its website’s name, http://thereisjazzbeforetrane.blogspot.com., says a good deal about his ideological bent, one that I certainly share. 

I am convinced that Agustin is the sorcerer of jazz paper — newspaper clippings, old magazines, anything remotely connected with wood pulp and swing. But he’s outdone himself this time.  See this 1929 advertising flyer, which contains multitudes:

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First, I was astonished by LOU.  Louis himself referred to Luis Russell on recordings as “Lou,” but I can’t think of an example on record where someone calls him (Mr. Strong) anything but Dipper or Papa Dip or Satchelmouth or Louis (pronounced Lew-is, not Loo-ie).    I like “Ball Room,” too: perhaps the printer thought it was more high-class to make it into two words.  And that picture, so distant to us now, was a fairly recent one of the star (who would be in front of “America’s Greatest Broadcasting Orchestra,” suggesting of course that they were on the radio.  Acetates, anyone? 

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I hope that the letter from Carroll and Lou brought many thousand friends in!  And that everyone, uplifted by a man who was “rarin’ to go,” with a trumpet “too tight,” was ready to sing I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE — starting with the verse.

And, just when I was about to content myself with this “borrowing,” which I mean only to shine some light on Agustin’s noble works for those who might not know his blog, he came up with this one.

A scholarly study of Tommy Ladnier.  What?!

On his blog, I found out about this new book, published in a limited edition of 500 copies by two French jazz scholars — TRAVELING BLUES — devoted to the little-known but eloquent and short-lived trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, someone who recorded with Ida Cox, Lovie Austin, Sidney Bechet, and other luminaries.  Visit  http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html for details.  The book looks remarkably detailed; it can be purchased with a CD that contains (in mp3) form all of Ladnier’s 189 recordings.  It’s a delight that Ladnier should be so splendidly celebrated: he was a great, thoughtful player with deep feeling.  I’ll have more to say about this enterprise when my copy arrives!

THANK YOU, Agustin!

STUDYIN’ LOUIS

I’ve given up on academic conferences — but this is one I can recommend, not only for its Exalted Subject, but for the Presenters.  And it’s free / open to the public, too:

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LOUIS ARMSTRONG SYMPOSIUM, November 21, 2009   9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, at the College of Staten Island (CUNY: City University of New York), 2800 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, New York 10314 (609.936.3719).

On Saturday, November 21, 2009, a gathering of jazz scholars will present their research on various facets of Louis Armstrong’s life and music at CUNY’s College of Staten Island.  The event will take place from 9 AM to 5 PM in Building 1P, Room 120, the Recital Hall of CSI’s Center for the Arts.  It is open to the public and admission is free of charge.  However, due to limited seating capacity, advance reservation is strongly suggested.

To make reservations and for more information, contact William R. Bauer at: 718-982-2534, or at thearmstrongsymposium@gmail.com.  For those who will drive, parking will be available in Lots 1 and 2. For directions to the College of Staten Island, visit the college website (click on prospective students and then on visit our campus): <http://www.csi.cuny.edu/prospectivestudents/visit.html>.  For a campus map, go to: <http://www.csi.cuny.edu/prospectivestudents/maps.html>

The Louis Armstrong Symposium will feature a keynote address by Dan Morgenstern, jazz historian, author, editor, archivist, current Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, and former chief editor of Down Beat.  Presenters include Ricky Riccardi, Michael Cogswell, John Szwed, James Leach, William R. Bauer, and Jeffrey Taylor.  In morning and afternoon sessions, each presenter will offer a distinct perspective on his subject.  Each session will be followed by an open-ended panel discussion and question-and-answer session that will elaborate on themes that emerged during the talks.  A conceptual jam session for jazz scholars, this format will give scholars and audience members alike a forum for in-depth discussion about Louis Armstrong’s musical and cultural legacy.

Ricky Riccardi, whose book about Louis Armstrong’s later years will be published in 2010, will use Armstrong’s renditions of “Back Home Again in Indiana” to challenge the negative critical reception that the trumpeter often received during the latter part of his career.

Michael Cogswell, Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum and curator of the Louis Armstrong Archive at Queens College’s Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, will share and discuss samples from Armstrong’s vast collection of LPs and 78s.

John Szwed, Professor of Music and Jazz Studies at Columbia University and John M. Musser Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies at Yale University, will explore Armstrong’s role in Orson Welles’s unfinished movie The Story of Jazz, and in other projects the filmmaker was working on in 1941.

James Leach, who teaches jazz history and theory at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, will focus on Armstrong’s vocal and instrumental renditions of the Hoagy Carmichael classic “Stardust” to set in relief Armstrong’s approach to singing and trumpet playing.

William R. Bauer, from the College of Staten Island and CUNY Graduate Center faculties, will present research from his current book project, an investigation into the jazz vocal techniques Armstrong used in his early recordings.

Jeffrey Taylor, Director of the H. Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music and Professor of Music at Brooklyn College, who also teaches in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Music and its American Studies Certificate Program, will consider the impact of various pianists on Armstrong’s work during the trumpeter’s Chicago years in the 1920s.

The scholarship presented at this symposium will both deepen and expand our understanding of this giant of twentieth-century music.  The Louis Armstrong Symposium is produced with funding from the CUNY Research Foundation, and with support from the College of Staten Island and the Center for the Arts.

PERFECT!

The Perfect image (1932) below is a generous gift from Rob Rothberg, who has a collection that Philip Larkin would envy and a sensibility that Larkin would (at least in its more historical moments) share.  

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This label always cheers me, because of the two figures (Arabic?  Indian?  Pre-Colombian?) at top who seem to be kneeling reverently, genuflecting if you will, to the shrine of Hot Jazz and Pop Music of the time.  Or they may well be worshipping Electricity.  I am also amused to find the title slightly elided or truncated: it was either I WOULD DO MOST ANYTHING FOR YOU or I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU, perhaps depending on the sincerity of the singer at the moment — but the ARC people had only so much space available on the label.  So be it.  A great song, courtesy of the under-praised Claude Hopkins and the far less-acknowledged Alex Hill.  Bob Williams was, I believe, a trumpeter in Hopkins’ band. 

Does anyone know the verse?

HOT JAZZ: FOR PHILIP LARKIN

The poet and acerbic jazz lover Philip Larkin wrote in ALL WHAT JAZZ (his collected jazz criticism) that he had spent his life waiting for a reissue of the 1932 sides issued under various permutations — mostly THE RHYTHMAKERS — featuring Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Fats Waller, Frank Froeba, Jack Bland, Eddie Condon, Al Morgan, Pops Foster, Zutty Singleton, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Lord, Happy Caldwell, Tommy Dorsey, and unique vocalizing by Billy Banks (also Chick Bullock and, happily, Allen himself). 

Having referred to this music in a previous post (FINE FIG JAM) I felt duty-bound to explore the web . . . these records have been in and out of circulation for eighty years now, in a variety of forms.  My CD, on the Collector’s Classics label, has the distinct advantage of being taken from original 78s remastered by my hero John R.T. Davies — but it was issued in 1992!  So, in the name of doing public service, I offer two YouTube clips of the RHYTHMAKERS.  Before you fall over in a faint, there’s no motion picture attached.  That may have to wait for the next life, I fear.  What the generous poster, who calls himself “formiggini,” has provided, is a slideshow of the participating musicians and a good transfer from a mint-copy CD.  Larkin, no doubt, would have had scathing things to say about a world where we could no longer hear records without going to the computer, but I worried that there might be someone in my audience who had never ever heard the fiery interplay of BUGLE CALL RAG (which features Allen, Russell, Sullivan, Condon, Bland, Morgan, Krupa, and Banks) and SPIDER CRAWL (Singleton on drums). 

Larkin thought all of jazz had declined from this point.  I can’t quite agree, but it surely is the apex of a particular kind of rare, cherished Hot Music.

BUGLE CALL RAG:

SPIDER CRAWL:

And if anyone needs a scholarly explication of the lyrics, I will happily provide one,