Daily Archives: January 16, 2010

IT COULD ONLY BE VIC DICKENSON

Spending too much time at the computer results in a stiff neck and eyestrain.

But these long obsessive hours in front of the monitor or laptop bring rewards I wouldn’t have imagined.  An eBay seller has found and is offering for sale ($400.00) the scrapbook or photograph album of a singer, Lucille Hall (or Lucille Halle) who worked on the West Coast with, among others, Leon Herriford, Charlie Echols and his Dixie Rhythm Kings, appeared alongside the Mills Brothers.  I had never heard of her, and doubt that many people have.

But the first picture in her scrapbook is a beautiful publicity shot of her playing trombone (which I can’t know for sure if she did) to the right of a wholly recognizable trombonist, one of my heroes, who spent some years in California, perhaps 1944-7.

It was worth the stiff neck and eyestrain to see this:

The little statuettes (jazz Oscars, more or less) are Vic’s Esquire Awards. 

The link to the eBay site is http://cgi.ebay.com/African-American-Photo-Album-Jazz-night-club-singer_W0QQitemZ320474157913QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item4a9dbf9359

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LET’S GO HEAR LOUIS!

I have room in my car, and I’ll take care of the tickets.  Everyone should come — Louis has a great band, with Red and Higgy and Big Sid, too . . .

JEFF HEALEY: FOR DICK SUDHALTER (September 10, 2006)

Repeat after me:

Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Levinson, Molly Ryan, Brad Kay, Brian Nalepka, Kevin Dorn, Jeff Healey.  Joining forces for one time only as DAN LEVINSON’S LOST CHORD SEEKERS.  (The quest was a success, as you will hear.)

Performing BLUE RIVER (with an impassioned vocal by Healey, on guitar) and I NEVER KNEW (woth a touching episode by Molly Ryan, Healey on trumpet). 

I was in the second row, drinking it all in.  (You can see me obsessively taking notes.) 

I didn’t know that this would be the only time I would see and hear Jeff Healey, and I’m thrilled that the video has surfaced on YouTube (courtesy of “lindyhoppers,” whom I’d like to be able to thank in person). 

For the love of jazz, hot, blue, and sweet, and for the people who play it, some of them now gone:

SIDNEY CATLETT AT 100

A  jazz blog like this one might easily become necrological– mourning the deaths of musicians and jazz scholars or sadly celebrating players who have been dead a long time.  It’s a battle to tear one’s eyes away from the rear-view mirror and focus on the present.  But since I do not expect to see the celebrations for Big Sid Catlett’s two-hundredth birthday, readers will forgive me. 

Sidney Catlett was born on January 17, 1910 and died before I was born.  I don’t believe in “the best,” but Big Sid might well be The Master — at least Max Roach thought so, as did Jo Jones.  Beyond legend, there is the recorded evidence: he could play propulsively and eloquently with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Mildred Bailey, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster . . . and those are only the recorded performances I can call to mind.

Ruby Braff remembered that when he listened to Louis Armstrong’s records with their creator, Louis said to him, “There’s that Catlett again!  Seems like he was on every swinging record I ever made.” 

But being versatile, in itself, is not enough: many musicians have been versatile without being particularly distinguished.  What made Sidney Catlett so special? 

For one thing, his instantly recognizable beat.  Even simply keeping time — using one of his seemingly numberless varieties of wire-brush sweep or playing the hi-hat — his time is identifiable.  Whitney Balliett, who first helped me to listen so closely to Sid, noted that Catlett played a fraction ahead of the beat — many drummers find the best and sit right down on it — but Sid’s time seemed to urge the band forward in the most jubilant way, although he didn’t ever rush.

Along with that beat there is his gallery — or galaxy — of sounds.  His drums sound alive.  The snap of his closed hi-hat.  The seductive come-with-me of his brushwork.  The thump of his tom-toms.  The masterful NOW! of a Catlett rimshot.  Drummers of the Forties and beyond tried to copy him and some came close to capturing the broadest outlines of his style — J.C. Heard for one — but their sounds are somehow flatter, narrower, more monochromatic.  So his sound is immediately identifiable — dance music, no matter what the context. 

As with all the great artists, much of Sidney’s mastery is not just in what he did — but what he wisely chose not to do. 

Many drummers, then and now, play at the same volume as the horns.  Sidney knew how to play very softly — which made his thundering climaxes so impressive.  Some drummers insist on filling up all the spaces.  Or they accent every note, enthusiastically but unthinkingly.  The result gets tiresome before a chorus is over, rather like a forest of exclamation marks or someone with a point to make who emphasizes every word. 

Sidney knew when not to play, when not to dramatize, when not to continue the pattern.  There were exceptions: I think of Lou McGarity’s bridges on Benny Goodman records, where Sidney, either enjoying McGarity’s exuberance or wanting to push him along, drives the rhythm section along with relentless accents that could fell a sequoia.  But Catlett understood space and variety, and surprise.  He was a great dramatist behind his drums. 

So his percussive world sounds undated — springy, elegant, and funky.  The listener says, “That’s Big Sid!” but that awareness isn’t because Catlett thrusts himself to the forefront; rather, it was because he makes his fellow musicians sound better than they themselves thought possible.

I’ve been admiring his playing for as long as I can remember — one of my earliest musical experiences was hearing Louis’s RCA Victor TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, and delighting in the way Sid pushed everyone along on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’.  Later, I heard him with the Blue Note Jazzmen and every jazz group I could find.  But he continues to amaze.

“Amaze?” you say.    

As an experiment, take any record on which Sid plays a particularly engaging, swinging part (that would be ALL of them) and listen to it once.  Admire the sounds he makes, the comments he provides, the support he gives to the band.  Then, play it again, and try to anticipate his shifts, his accents.  Experienced listeners will be able to divine some of the general motions — here, Sid will shift to the hi-hat; here’s a break coming up.  But if you try to play his accents along with him, it’s nearly impossible.  Sid’s pulsing work, his amazing accompaniment, is never rote.  I would suggest ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall and the Blue Note Jazzmen — his playing is stirring, as is his work on the recently discovered 1945 Town Hall concert with Bird and Diz. 

His music is amazingly generous.  He lived a very short life and his recorded career is only slightly over two decades.  But he gave so much to his fellow musicians and to us that it seems as if he played more — and at a higher level — than the musicians who lived longer.

And he mastered the problem of being a forceful individualist while serving the community with every breath.  A question of Ego, if you will.  Catlett shouts for joy, but he does it so the band is even more joyous as a result.   

He died backstage at a concert, his arms around Helen Humes, telling her a funny story.  An admirable death, I think.  A a life well-lived. 

Jim Denham, on his fine blog, SHIRAZ SOCIALIST, has just written a tribute to Sidney: http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/big-sid-b17-jan-1910-d25-march-1951/

Ricky Riccardi really understands the majesty of Sidney: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2010/01/celebrate-big-sid-catletts-centennial.html

And, or those seeking legal ecstasy, there’s a live ROYAL GARDEN BLUES from 1948:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/09/one-hot-garden.html

Ricky also sent this from British jazz drummer John Petters — information about BBC radio programs about Sidney:

 Here are two programmes about this sensational musician this Saturday:
The Late Paul Barnes @ 23:00 on BBC Cambrideshire, Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Northampton, Suffolk & Three Counties. (Paul celebrates the
Django Reinhardt Centenary next week)

The live link on line will be:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_norfolk/

and from Sunday until the following Saturday on Iplayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002mhdx

And Alyn Shipton discusses Big Sid with drummer Richard Pite on ‘Jazz Library’ on BBC Radio 3 at 16:00 on Saturday. This is from the Radio 3 website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ps0sk

The show will be on the BBC iplayer following the broadcast

Big Sid Catlett was arguably one of the most naturally talented percussionists in jazz history. To celebrate Catlett’s centenary in January 2010, Alyn Shipton is joined by drum expert Richard Pite to pick the highlights of a recorded catalogue that includes work with the swing orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the original Louis Armstrong All Stars.

Big Sid Catlett – born 17 January 1910, Evansville, Indiana, USA, died 25 March 1951.

Coda: A word or two about the audio-visual aids.  The Drumerworld video (posted on YouTube, of course) brings together Sidney’s three main filmed appearances (leaving aside JAMMIN’ THE BLUES) — two quickly-made films from 1946-7, SEPIA CINDERELLA and BOY! WHAT A GIRL, with a guest shot by one Gene Krupa, as well as a Soundie of YOU RASCAL YOU by Louis.  I treasure these film clips but find that they need to be absorbed on two levels.  Since musicians were required to pre-record their music and then mimic playing it for the camera, what one hears and what one sees are always slightly out of step . . . so one must be able to adapt to this.  But the games Sidney and Charlie Shavers play . . . !  I have also liberally seasoned this blogpost with what might seem an odd phenomenon: YouTube videos of famous jazz records a-spinning.  For those who did not grow up with vinyl or shellac records, what could be more dull?  But I find it nostalgic in the best way — because I spent so many hours of my childhood and youth staring at the spinning label in a kind of happy trance while the music poured out of the speakers . . . very life-enhancing, and a way of getting Sidney’s sound into this post.

BILLIE HOLIDAY’S DRUG DEALER SPEAKS

I present this possibly apocryphal narrative (published in ESQUIRE)  without moralizing . . .

Speaking of the slow pace of change, I [author John H. Richardson] recently talked to Billie Holiday’s drug dealer. He said I could call him Pat. “Don’t put my last name in there,” he ask me. “I know too many people.”

Since those people had names like Frank Costello, “Johnny” Gotti, and Bugsy Siegal, I’ll oblige.

Pat was skeptical about the chances of drug reform. “I don’t think they’re going to legalize drugs in this country because of the fact that the government is behind it all,” he insists. “You go back in time during the bootleg days, the Kennedys winded up with the eastern seaboard. All the whiskey that came in, they got a percentage. And jail is big money, too — they feed you nothing but beans, rice, and potatoes, and all that money is going in somebody’s pocket.”

Pat said this is a gravelly voice with a New York accent. He’s eighty years old, retired to Florida now. He just had hip surgery, he’s got back problems. But he remembers clear as day how his life of crime began. He was growing up on the east side of Manhattan, up around 110th Street, an altar boy at St. Anne’s. “I came home from school one time, fourteen years old, and found my mother crying in the kitchen. I asked her why. She said, ‘There’s no food in the house.'”

That was the day before Thanksgiving. So Pat put his schoolbooks down and went to meet his friend Chubby. They sat on the milk box in front of the Kennedy store and made plans to rob a deli on the corner of 96th Street.

“There was one of those rotisseries spinning, so Chubby and I got the idea to snatch a turkey. I said, ‘I’ll tap on the glass with this key and tell him I want the oatmeal box on the shelf and when he moves the ladder, I’ll snatch the turkey — and when he chases me, you grab the money.”

Pat still remembers the oatmeal box, which had a black-and-white cartoon of a man in a big hat — and how the deli owner came after him yelling sonavabitch! “I ran from 96th to 110th without stopping — he was gaining on me for a while, plus the turkey was about 22 pounds.”

They cut the turkey in half and both families had a great Thanksgiving, but of course their parents found out and gave them each a beating.

A few years later, Pat started “making deliveries for different people, because they trusted me and I never ratted on nobody.” That’s how he came to meet Billie Holiday.

“I met Billie through Bumpy Johnson,” he says. “I used to go listen to jazz on the west side, at Milton’s [Minton’s] Playhouse. She popped in there one day and I was introduced to her. Somebody said, ‘Pat’s your man, he can take care of you.’ So I sold her like a half-ounce of cocaine. A couple of days later, she called me and I called her back.”

He had a system. He would call her every few days, they’d meet somewhere and have a drink. She’d tell him what she wanted and then they’d meet later to make the deal. Holiday would be dressed in ordinary clothes, slacks and shirts. He liked her. “She was a very warm person. She was kind of heavy, with rosy cheeks. Then after awhile she started losing weight, started looking like a toothpick.”

He knew it was because of the drugs he was selling her, but he never said any words of warning. “No sense lying to you,” he told me. “You don’t say those things when you’re looking to make money. But when you’re sitting behind bars, in your cell-house, you think about those things.”

Pat got arrested for selling a quarter kilo of cocaine in 1950. In 1954, the day after his son was born, he went to prison on a twenty-five-year sentence. He’s also seen drugs destroy members of his own family. “I got a niece that was fooling around with drugs — she would up with a bad needle, she got AIDS, she’s ready to die in any day. I feel bad about that, but what can I do?”

And that’s why — for his dying niece, for Billie Holiday, for the St. Anne’s altar boy who fell for the lure of easy drug money — he thinks the government should finally try something different. “Frankly, I think they should legalize it all,” Pat says. “As far as the heroin, they should allow that to be taken in hospitals, so patients know it’s clean and they’re not going to use any dirty needles and they’re not going to drop dead from an overdose.”

A few years ago, Pat’s wife took all his jazz records in a divorce. But he still listens to Holiday on the radio, and whenever he hears the mournful joy of that unforgettable voice, the memories and the regrets come roaring back. “Not too long ago I was listening to blues, and she came on and sang a song — that song she used to sing about her man. She used to tear me up when she sang that song.”

http://www.esquire.com/the-side/richardson-report/marijuana-bills-in-congress-2010-011210#ixzz0cnxOXunq

RHYTHM SAVED THE WORLD

This kind of rhythm, especially. 

Sir Robert Cox (known as “Cousin Bob,” more informally) pointed out these YouTube romps to me — posted by “TOTOCHIO” in September 2008.  They feature the wonderful clarinetist Aurelie Tropez, James Evans on clarinet and sax, Keith Stephen and Martin Wheatley on banjo and guitar, and Bruce Rollo on bass.  The venue looks much like one of the rooms in the Village Newcastle — site of the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival — but this is just a guess. 

Here’s DINAH:

CRAZY RHYTHM:

and an extended session on I GOT RHYTHM, undisguised:

Thanks for the rhythms, the echoes of Benny and of the QHCF as well!