Daily Archives: February 13, 2010

“WE CALLED HIM SATCHMO”

Last week, on a weekday afternoon, I gave a presentation on Louis Armstrong and his influence on American popular music at a center for ailing senior citizens attached to a local hospital.  I played WEATHER BIRD and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, and the Bing Crosby-Lennie Hayton SWEET SUE Connee Boswell’s ME MINUS YOU (with an incendiary Bunny Berigan interlude), and some Rodgers and Hart by Tony Bennett and the Braff-Barnes Quartet.  Returning to Louis, I decided to humor myself and played ON A COCOANUT ISLAND and then segued into I COVER THE WATERFRONT and DINAH from the 1933 Copenhagen film.

Not everything was cheering.  The technology I was dealing with (someone else’s laptop and DVD projector) worked well enough but was balky, so there were periods  that felt interminable while I was waiting for it to catch up.  And many audience members seemed seriously oppressed by illnesses and were silent, although I kept reminding myself that it was a great good thing to play Louis’s music for them. 

I got thrown several times by audience questions — “What is his first name?  Is it Lois?” and someone kept insisting at length that Louis was playing a cornet rather than a trumpet.

But there were substantial rewards.  At one point, after I had played ON A COCOANUT ISLAND, with the Polynesians and Lionel Hampton’s rocking drums, a few people timidly applauded.  This was the first sign of enthusiasm, so I paused and told them: “I’m a sentimentalist.  I believe that the dead know.  So it would be a really nice thing if you wanted to applaud Louis and his music right now,” and they all took it up.    

And good things happened right from the start in the front row, where there were two cheerful African-American women, dressed in bright colors, in wheelchairs.  Before I began, one of them said, “I knew Louis and Lucille because I lived in Corona,” and I said, “OK!  I’m going to want to talk to you later!” and she beamed.  Her name was Thelma.

After I’d been introduced by the pert supervior, Cathy Mercadante, I was about a minute into my talk when I said that everyone called him “Lou-ee” but that he pronounced his name “Lew-is.” 

Oh, no,” said Thelma vigorously.  “We didn’t call him that.”

“What did you call him?” I asked, not knowing where it would lead but enjoying having the presentation, for a moment, completely removed from my hands.

“We called him Satchmo,” she said triumphantly, and I acquiesced. 

As I was playing one record after another and improvising commentary, fielding questions, I kept my eyes on another woman in the front row.  Immobile in her wheelchair, she was tapping both one slippered foot and then the other.  Keeping quite good time.  Thank you, ma’am.

When I was through, another woman in the audience came up to me (with her fiftyish daughter cheerfully in attendance) and thanked me for playing Louis’s music.  “I remember when she and her sister were young, we would play his records, and they would be hopping around the house!”  Just the right response, I told her.

Then I chatted with Thelma, who told me about seeing Louis in the local bar / restaurant, Big George’s, and how Louis and Lucille would close the block off and have parties for everyone, how he loved the neighborhood kids.  “Do you know about his son?” she asked.  And I, thinking she meant his adopted son, said, “Oh, yes, Clarence?”  “Not that one,” she said,  “He wasn’t all right, so he had a lady to take care of him.  But Louis had a real son — very few people know about him.  It was kept a secret.”  Then she told me of all the photographs she had had of Louis and friends, and Louis and her husband (a drummer) but that they were all stolen when she moved.  I told her I would write her stories down, then gave her my card and my thanks.  Maybe someone will show Thelma this posting, and she will know that I kept my word.  Thank you, Thelma, for opening the door into Louis’s world!.

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JAKE HANNA (1931-2010)

We lost someone truly remarkable: the Boston-born drummer and raconteur Jake Hanna, who died on February 12, 2010. 

When you saw — at a jazz party or on a new recording — that the band was going to include Jake, you could sit back and prepare to enjoy yourself.  He lifted every ensemble with his floating beat — reminiscent of Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Sidney Catlett, and Gus Johnson.  His tempo never shifted, and he knew how to support a band (whether at a whisper or a roar) and a soloist.  Like the drummers he revered, he varied his sound and shaded it — although he wasn’t afraid to stay where he was if it was working (some musicians irritably keep changing their approach every four bars).  Jake was a master of the hi-hat, the Chinese cymbal, the snare drum, the wire brushes.  And he delighted in playing for the band in the best Basie-inspired way.  “If you’re not swinging from the beginning, what the hell are you up there for?” he told me.

I only met Jake a few times, but I came away feeling as if I’d encountered someone larger-than-life.  His enthusiasm for the things he loved — whether it was Jo Jones’s playing or a sought-after tube of King of Shaves (a compact replacement for aerosol shaving cream cans) came through loud and clear.  His joy in being alive was powerful and infectious.  And he was also a hilarious, indefatigable storyteller.  If you got him started by mentioning a musician’s name, you could prepare to be laughing for an hour, as one anecdote chased another.  (I hope someone got some of these stories — printable and otherwise — down on tape or video.)  I remember his witty generosity when I interviewed him over the telephone for his memories of recording with Ruby Braff for the Arbors sessions issued as WATCH WHAT HAPPENS, and his pleasure in the music of Jimmy Rowles and Dave McKenna, which he and his wife listened to as their “dinner music.”     

Here he is with Howard Alden, George VanEps, and David Stone, performing A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP:

And two performances from the 1995 Bern Jazz Festival featuring a truly extraordinary version of Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern’s Summit Reunion, with a rhythm section of Johnny Varro, Marty Grosz, Milt Hinton, and Jake:

Here’s YELLOW DOG BLUES, a masterpiece of sustained, building intensity:

And HINDUSTAN, where Jake and Milt trade phrases before the closing ensemble:

You can see why musicians of all ages and styles loved him and loved to play alongside him.  His playing made sense, whether he was shouldering the whole Woody Herman band or backing Rosemary Clooney in a tender ballad. 

Our condolences to his very charming wife, Denisa, and Jake’s family.

DON’T “BRUSH ASIDE THE ITALIANS”

 From the KANSAS CITY JEWISH CHRONICLE:

The ‘multi-talented musical genius’ of jazzman Dave Frishberg

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Written by Rick Hellman, Editor   
Friday, 12 February 2010 12:00
 

altDave Frishberg

Jazz pianist, singer and songwriter Dave Frishberg, the author of such witty ditties as “I’m Hip,” “Peel Me a Grape” and “My Attorney Bernie,” rejects the notion that Jews are overrepresented among great, white American jazz players — as they are among, say, Nobel Prize winners.  “I don’t know if you can just brush aside the Italians,” Frishberg said dryly last week in a telephone interview from his home in Portland, Ore. “I never thought about Jewish representation in roles; I don’t know why that would be.”

As a former sideman for Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Ben Webster, Gene Krupa and more, the 76-year-old Frishberg is practically a one-man history of American jazz. He grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and recognized Kansas City’s contribution to the form early on.

He visits Feb. 27 for the first time in 30 years as part of the Folly Jazz Series. (See below for details.)

“My older brother had all these records — Jay McShann and Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing,” Frishberg said. “I knew all that stuff as a kid, and I guess it just stuck with me. …

“I eventually got to play with a lot of people — Ben Webster and Gus Johnson and other people — from Kansas City. And I remember Jo Jones! … I guess mainly it was Lester Young. I loved him so much, and from listening to him, I got familiar with all the music surrounding him.”

Although his own style wound up a bit more cerebral, Frishberg said Basie and McShann “were very influential” on his playing.

“More recently, I have crossed paths with two wonderful Kansas City musicians,” Frishberg said. “One is the guy I consider best drummer in the world, Todd Strait, who lives in Portland now. The other was when I was playing the Regency Hotel’s Feinstein Room, and in walks Marilyn Maye, a name that I used to see around a lot. She was kind of legendary.”

Frishberg respects what a great set of pipes can do with one of his songs. They have been recorded by such jazz greats as Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney and Blossom Dearie.

Solo act
Today, Frishberg sings and performs his own material as a solo act. It started in the late 1960s or early ’70s, he said, when he was living in New York.

“I had been there 10 or 12 years as a pianist, writing all that time,” Frishberg said, “But I never really thought about singing, except to make demos of my songs. At that time, I made a record album (including vocals), but I had still never faced an audience in the face. I never really intended to sing in front of people. But Carl Jefferson at Concord (Records) made an album of mine, and he invited me to bring the band on the album up to play at the Concord Jazz Festival. It was the first time I ever faced a crowd. … One of the most daunting things was that I was the opening act for Bing Crosby. It was a crushing responsibility and also the thrill of my life to be in that position. I was struck by the fact that I was well received. Then I began to include singing tracks in some of my albums.”

It progressed to the point where Frishberg plays and records almost exclusively as a solo act.

“When I do my own songs, it’s always by myself,” he said. “It’s just easier for me that way. I don’t have to rehearse with a band. It’s all special material. There are no standards in it, so nobody can fake my show. They’ve got to be reading it. And it never sounded good till the gig was over. So I thought, well, I can handle this myself. It leaves me more flexible. I can make instant decisions without having to worry about anyone else.”

Finally, Frishberg said, “The songs are better served that way. None of them depend on beat or groove. They are mostly personal addresses to the people, not rhythm-section music. There is a certain starkness to it that works in my favor.”

Folly Theater Development Director Steve Irwin called the venerable downtown hall “the perfect venue to showcase the multi-faceted musical genius of Dave Frishberg. … He’s done it all in his career … and did I mention he’s one of the best cabaret entertainers in the business?”

Irwin joked that if Frishberg’s career had been as a thespian, “I would describe him as one of those great character actors you love seeing, and who always gives a great performance — but you don’t know his name! On Feb. 27 at the Folly you can have the total Frishberg experience. You won’t be disappointed!”

Humorous songs
Frishberg might even play his best-known song, although it’s not one primarily associated with jazz, but, rather, children’s educational television. Frishberg is the author of “Just a Bill,” perhaps the best-known song from the 1970s ABC animated television series, “Schoohouse Rock!” It was one of a handful of songs he wrote for the series, Frishberg said. It tells how proposals become laws in the American system of government.
And while humor is clearly a tool in Frishberg’s entertainment arsenal, it’s not all he wants to be known for.

“I don’t think of my songs as funny,” he said. “Maybe half of them are. I write in different moods and with different things in mind than getting laughs. My favorite songs are the ones that don’t get the laughs, but seem to touch people. …

“When I was a kid, my ambition was to be a cartoonist; even a political cartoonist. I thought that was great to make these one-panel statements with a drawing, and I find that same kind of thing creeping into my song writing. I think of my songs as cartoons; and maybe not funny, but a three-panel strip. The characters are caricatures, almost … It’s the character that sings the song about his attorney Bernie. So the song is not about Bernie, but the guy who’s singing it. I take that approach. I like to write for characters.”

Frishberg at the Folly

The Folly Jazz Series presents “An Evening with Dave Frishberg” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at the Folly, 300 W. 12th St. There will be a pre-show talk at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $30. To charge by phone, call the Folly, (816) 474-4444 or Ticketmaster, (800) 745-3000. Or visit follytheater.com or ticketmaster.com.