Daily Archives: October 21, 2009

FROM THE ARCHIVES: JON-ERIK LEADS THE BAND (Sept. 2009)

Over the past five years, Jon-Erik Kellso is the musician I’ve had the most frequent opportunities to observe and appreciate.  And I keep coming back for more: he doesn’t run out of things to say; he doesn’t fall back on prepared solos; he takes risks; he balances technique and emotion, individuality and tradition superbly.  When he gets into what he calls “his happy place,” he has no equals!

So I offer this version of a rarely-played Twenties pop tune, DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME? (a memorable question for sure) that he played at Jazz at Chautauqua this last September.  His colleagues for this session were James Dapogny, Vince Giordano, and Arnie Kinsella in the rhythm section, with Dan Block, Bob Havens, and Bob Reitmeier in the front line.

In anyone else’s hands, a set-closer at this tempo (and with seventy or so years of performance convention behind it) would be simple and not always subtle: a rocketing tempo, a long drum solo, and horn solos without much support from the band.  You’ve all seen such performances: Fast becomes Faster and the soloists are left on their own while the front line waits its turn off to the side.  Not so here.  Jon-Erik learned a great deal about leading an ensemble from the Master, Ruby Braff, who knew how to keep monotony at bay.  Without pushing anyone around, Jon knows how to lead an ensemble.  So, in this performance, he wisely extends the opening ensemble chorus into a second one (honoring New Orleans traditions all the way up to the present — why let the emotional temperature drop?).  And while the wonderful rhythm section is cooking away, Jon motions to the horns who aren’t soloing to play “footballs,” whole-note harmonies, musical and emotional choirs giving strength to the band.  His own solo (which plays with a phrase from Bob Reitmeier’s outing) gets a well-deserved thumbs-up.

And everyone floats on the momentum: Dapogny takes risks that come off; Vince Giordano and Arnie Kinsella exchange comments, witty and thunderous, becoming the twentieth-century version of Milt Hinton and Jo Jones — which leads to the closing ensemble.  Thinking orchestrally, Jon-Erik guides the horns into a soft passage (you have to play softly to shout it out at the end) and we romp home.  Even the still photographer in the plaid shirt, who sweetly yet obliviously blocked my view, couldn’t stifle my joy.  Or ours, I trust.

Swing, you cats!  

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MISS HOLIDAY, SOLD

 BILLIE

Billie Holiday archive, Christie’s (New York), $30,000

In June 1939, Marilyn “Marly” Moore, an aspiring teenage singer living in California, wrote to the jazz singer Billie Holiday for advice; 70 years on, a group of 30 letters that Holiday wrote to Moore from Harlem formed part of a June 24 sale.

“This life is a little tricky,” wrote Holiday in one letter, “but you being a white and if you got something to offer you might not have it so bad,” though she warned Moore against coming to New York unless she had money and was able to take care of herself. “New York…is a tough spot if you ain’t got the jack. Ha Ha.”

Holiday’s big break came when the impresario John Hammond heard her perform in a Harlem club in 1933 and arranged for her to make a number of well-known recordings with the Benny Goodman Band. Holiday told Moore, “John Hammond and Benny Goodman is the right people for you. John discovered me and he fine and a Blue Blood…If he likes your work he will make you a big person.” Then she added, “I know what it is to long to be a Big Star.”

In another letter, she reported on a concert she gave at the Modern Art Theater, remarking, “those society people knowck me out because they aint supposed to like swing.”

When Moore sent Holiday a demonstration recording, she wrote back, “My mother played your record for John Hammond and he told her you didn’t keep good time,” but then in more encouraging mode, Holiday wrote, “but I am sure you will make the grade.” Elsewhere she urged Marilyn to “practice up on your timing; that is the main thing in music and with your face and voice you will be a killer.”

This was the largest group of Holiday letters yet to come onto the market.

auction-billieholliday 1

I read this story with mixed emotions. 

The photograph of Billie, happy, youthful, healthy, well-fed, is thrilling.  Her grin is contagious, and the woman depicted here isn’t the gaunt Madonna of suffering we see in her last images.  And to see her amidst what is obviously an Eddie Condon jam session, with Bud Freeman, Hot Lips Page, and Zutty Singleton, is another pleasure.  (The debate over whether the location — a New York hotel ballroom — is the St. Regis or the Park Lane might rage on forever.  And is it a Charles Peterson photograph?) 

Any reason to celebrate Lady Day is fine.  And the letters are obviously a treasure.  But their fate is less cheery.  They weren’t made available to any of Holiday’s biographers, as far as I know.  Will they be made available to scholars in this century? 

I also know the law: the words on the page belong to Holiday’s estate; the letters belong to Moore and her descendants (one of whom is the estimable guitarist Joe Cohn, because Marilyn Moore was married to Al Cohn).  But I wonder if Billie ever earned $30,000 a year.  That figure says a great deal about the way artists are deprived in life, and someone else makes money from their fame after they are dead.

Thanks to Will Friedwald for uncovering this: see http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/200909/auction-2.phtml.

SHARP AS A TACK

Through the good offices of Swing Era scholar David Weiner, whom I’ve known since the mid-Seventies, and the indefatigable Will Friedwald, I’ve become a member of a Yahoo group, “Toast of New York,” or ToNY, whose members swap information, music, film clips, and questions about the period online.  The other day, saxophonist and Lester Young disciple Loren Schoenberg came up with this delectable photograph. thebluedevilssaxophonesection1932withlesteryounginthemiddle-390x488

It’s taken from the website SWING FASHIONISTA http://www.swingfashionista.com. — lovely and fascinating.   

The photo itself comes from a Ken Burns book on jazz (I will not embark on the expected Burning here) and it depicts the saxophone section (Theo Ross and Buster Smith) of the Blue Devils — led by the Blessed Walter Page — greeting the new member, Lester Willis Young, in 1932.  There are not that many pictures of Lester as a young man before the Count Basie band came East, so this one is a rare pleasure.  And it pleases me to imagine him as a young man who didn’t drink too much and was happy to play his horn, not the saddened Pres we read of, late in life, drowning his very real sorrows in cognac.   

But what pleases me at the same time is the beautiful linen suits these musicians are wearing.  In the Black argot of the time, a badly or poorly-dressed person might be “raggedy as a bowl of slaw”; someone stylish would be “sharp as a tack.”  Lester, even though he seems slightly diffident, a bit shy for the camera (without his horn to hold on to) is SHARP — those shoes, that three-piece suit, the pocket square.  And that pipe!  Who knew?

Of course, clothes alone don’t make the man — it matters more than anything that it is Lester Young in the center — but the combination of man and suit and pipe, captured a bit stiffly in a photographer’s studio,  is something to cherish.