Daily Archives: February 22, 2010

TWO NEW CANGELOSI CARDS GIGS! (Feb. 27, March 27, 2010)

Splendid news!

The Cangelosi Cards are in town.  The Cards will be playing and singing at a new venue — two Saturday 8 PM concert appearances (dates above), with free dance lessons at 7 PM.  A $10 admission will do it, and there will be “wine and soft drinks by donation.”  The concert announcement reads: “The Cangelosi Cards bring their acoustic swing music to the Shambhala Center for a lively evening of music and dance.  The large hall with wooden floors and good acoustics gives room to dance, not just in the aisles, while the separate lounge gives socializing its full due.”  Who could argue with any of that?

To see all of this for yourself (if any doubters exist): http://ny.shambhala.org/music.php.  The Shambhala Meditation Center Of New York is located at 118 West 22nd Street, 6th Floor, New York,  New York 10011.  Tel. 212-675-6544    Email: // info@shambhalanyc.org

Here’s George Yi’s picture of the band (Stockholm, 2009):


The Columbia Records studio, August 6, 1946: Mitchell Ayres, Benny, guitarist Mike Bryan. 

A poster for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers — appearing at a “Roseland” on the Merrimack, autographed to “Bob Page” by William McKinney.  The perpetual calendar tells me that Friday, May 25, would have occurred in 1928 or 1934.  Hard to tell more from the poster, except for the violently stereotypical drawings below.


And a detail of the autograph:

eBay, of course.  Where else?


Did you ever listen to a blues singer on a recording — from the Twenties onwards — and have only a dim idea of exactly what the singer was talking about?  The general themes of the blues: disaster, poverty, oppression, heartbreak, dance, and sexuality, are discernable, but the language often gets in the way of clarity. 

Stephen Calt’s new book: BARRELHOUSE WORDS – A BLUES DIALECT DICTIONARY (University of Illinois Press) — will be invaluable, and it’s often eye-opening fun.

Like all dictionaries, it’s not the sort of book one sits down with at “act the fool” and reads steadily until reaching “your time now, be mine after awhile.”  Anyway, we know the plot — and it usually takes only twelve bars to develop.  No, the fun is in searching out those expressions we’ve heard on record or in performance and having our suspicions (or intuitions) confirmed or denied. 

Because the blues singers often took the oldest subjects — money, love, and sex — as the structure of their songs, part of the amusement is in finding just how many of the words we thought were vaguely erotic synonyms are just that: “horn,” “pork-grinding business,” for the penis, “toodleum,” “cookie,” and “cake” for vagina. 

But there are other surprises: “tight like that,” according to Calt’s research, is a term of enthusiastic praise that has nothing to do with erotic dimensions and pleaure.  “Honky,” we learn, a term of Black scorn for Whites, may have originated with White men in automobiles honking their horns in Black neighborhoods in search of prostitutes, with the lyrics to Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 “Busy Bootin'” as possible evidence: “I met your mama in the alley way / She’s catching honkies night and day.”  I didn’t know that “nation sack” was short for “donation sack,” which the proprietor of a roadhouse or juke joint would wear around the neck or waist to collect money for food and drinks.  Or that a “partnership man” was a man shared by two women.

Another pleaure is in noting how many blues couplets and conceits are a shared common language: so the lines I first heard on an Ida Cox record were also recorded by other singers.  Calt is far more scholarly than his chosen material might lead one to believe: he began the book nearly forty years ago — the result of his curiosity about the music he loves and his love of language.  Although the project was put aside because he could not interest a publisher, Calt interviewed a number of seminal blues musicians about phrases they used in their songs  and has done a good deal of research into vernacular English and regionalisms.  The book also contains his fine introductory essay about the language of the blues, and the double standard based on race: Black performers could be as licentious as they liked in performance and in the recording studio, but Whites could not.

The book is valuable in itself — and enjoyable, as few dictionaries are — but it will also send readers back to the recordings, and I imagine a new internet conversation springing up, of serious-minded blues lovers who try to season their emails with as many word found in Calt as they can. 

It’s certainly tight like that!


That phrase is how cornetist Jimmy McPartland remembered the sound of Bix Beiderbecke’s playing.  It applies just as well to a book about Bix by the late Rich Johnson (with Jim Arpy and Gerri Blowers): BIX: The Davenport Album.

And an album is what this book is — nearly seven hundred pages of newspaper clippings, first-hand reminiscences, and photographs detailing Bix’s life and music.  Now, given that there have been a number of biographies of Bix, one might ask why such a book needed to be written.  But from the first page, it’s evident that Johnson was a masterful researcher, and that his diligence allows us to hear the now-silenced voices of people who knew Bix — primarily from his home town of Davenport, Iowa.  So it’s not the usual chronicle of gigs played, punctuated by comments from famous musicians.  (The book does, by the way, have comments from Bix’s famous colleagues, including Hoagy Carmichael, Armand Hug, Benny Goodman, Wingy Manone, and Louis Armstrong — but they are delightful ornaments to Johnson’s wider view.)

The people who knew Bix as a friend, a schoolmate, and a member of the community offer their voices and memories: many of them born in the earliest years of the last century.  These sweetly affectionate narratives make us see Bix anew: not simply as a phenomenal cornetist and improviser, but as the boy next door, one of the gang of kids.  The effect is very touching and intimate, as if we had been invited into their homes to drink tea and chat.

Here’s Leon Wermentein (1902-89): “I remember one Halloween night that he came to our neighborhood.  There was an old maid sourpuss everybody was scared to death of.  We dumped ashes on her porch and then rang the bell.  Bix was the last one to jump away a the door opened.  The old maid reached out, grabbed Bix and yanked him into the house.  Well, we didn’t know what would happen.  We all sat across the street staring at the house and wondering what she was going to do to Bix.  After about ten or fifteen minutes, the door finally opened and out came Bix carrying two big bags of cookies.  That’s the kind of guy he was.  He could win anybody over.  He was a charmer.”

We hear from Theresa Beyer (1911-2003) sister of Carlile Evans — in whose band clarinetist Leon Rappolo and cornetist Emmett Hardy played: “[Roppolo[ lived with us.  I remember many a night waking up and hearing him play clarinet.  He couldn’t read or write music, but boy, could he play.  The only thing . . . the only bad thing . . .he moked muggles, I think they called it.  My brother tried to get him to quit but he never did.”

Rolla Chalupa (1904-98), the Davenport postmaster, recalled Sophie Tucker’s appearances at the Columbia Theatre, where Bix (still in school) played cornet in the pit orchestra some nights and on weekends — and Tucker always introduced Bix as “the greatest trumpet player in the world.”

The book offers the sweet memories of Thelma Griffin, Bix’s Valentine in 1921: “I’m a pianist myelf and listeners tell me I have a different style.  It’s one that Bix taught me, how to play Somebody Stole My Gal, with a beat at the end where he’d come in on cornet.  Bix was just a wonderful guy.  I can’t believe some of the things they say about him today.  He and I were jut friends, even if the Valentine I’ve kept all these year does say To my sweetheart.  He was friendly, but shy.  I never dreamed that Bix would reach the status he did.  I moved to Springfield about the time he started on his road to the top bands.  We corresponded for a while, but I didn’t save his letters.  Sometimes I wish I had, now that he’s famous.”

And there’s more — the reminiscences quite affectionate, even Chet Salter, who remembered perhaps seventy years after the fact that Bix still owes him eight dollars for a pair of football shoes. 

Of course, since some of the incidents of Bix’s life are less fortunate — his alcoholism for one — Johnson does not ignore them, and I learned more about the “cure” at the Keeley Institute than I had expected.  But the overall tone of the book is anything but tragic or critical: it is a generous, sometimes sprawling valentine to Bix from the people who loved him — as a person as well as a musician.


During the week of March 4, 2010, the “Riverwalk” jazz program — featuring Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band and perhaps a guest or two — will be honoring Lillian Hardin Armstrong, someone who deserves attention even when it’s not Women’s History Month. 

Lillian Hardin Armstrong was known as “Miss Lil” to her fellow musicians in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.  On 1945 record labels, she was heralded as “Lil ‘Brown Gal’ Armstrong” — not an offensive racial reference, but a reminder of one of her hit tunes.  But most people know her as one of the earliest (and perhaps most successful) women in jazz and as Louis Armstrong’s second wife and co-composer. 

It’s easy to dismiss Lil Hardin Armstrong as an improviser.  In early recordings, one hears her piano as competent at best: a steady but hardly swinging approach to the music.  Correct and emphatic but not terribly inventive.  And it is ungracious but inevitable to imagine how much more the Hot Five might have swung had Teddy Weatherford or Cassino Simpson or Earl Hines been the pianist. 

But she was one of those musicians we cherish because she improved — by the Thirties, her Decca recordings (now almost impossible to find) show an ebullient vocal personality.  Her compositions were cheerful swing material, and at least one of them — JUST FOR A THRILL — is wonderfully moving.  She knew enough to surround herself with the best players of the period, Chu Berry and Joe Thomas among them.  And she had learned a good deal about playing swing piano — if you compare her recordings from 1926 and a decade later, it’s clear that she had travelled a long distance, not only in concept, but in Hot execution.

But we celebrate her for more personal reasons.  Many married men roll their eyes when they discuss the power that their wives hold in the household and beyond.  “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” Rumpole of the Bailey calls his Hilda.  “The Power Behind The Throne,” says another.  “I’ve got to call home and get my marching orders,” said one of my professors in college, years ago — with some vestige of affectionate resignation.

And Louis Armstrong’s bandmates called him “Hennie,” short for “hen-pecked.”  So Miss Lil, by her own account, was a woman who would say, “Do it this way or I won’t stick around a moment longer.”  She told Louis that she wasn’t going to stay married to a second-trumpet player, and that he had better play first, lead the band. 

But her way — she was ambitious for her husband in ways that he wasn’t — benefitted both Louis and the course of the music.  He would have been more than content to play a supportive role to his musical father, Joe Oliver, for a long time.  But Lil saw what was happening: that Joe was keeping Louis down so that Joe wouldn’t be outshone by the younger man.  She directed Louis’s career until he was a star.  So we owe her thanks for being so — overbearing.  And Louis, late in life, although he was ungenerous about her skills as a pianist and improviser, thanked his pushy wife for aiming him in the directions his talent said he should go.

So when the Riverwalk series (given over to the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and illustrious guest stars) devotes a program to Miss Lil, with the subtitle, “Behind Every Great Man,” it has real validity.  And fine jazz.  The program wil air the week of March 4, 2010 — and, as an extra bonus, the Riverwalk people have included audio clips of Lillian Hardin Armstrong telling her own story. 

Here’s the link where you can find out more AND hear Lil herself reminisce: http://www.riverwalkjazz.org/jazznotes/behind_every_man/

And I’m sure that the Cullum band will do justice to STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (which I’ve heard was originally a pretty waltz by Lil before Louis changed the tempo) as well as JUST FOR A THRILL and other delights.   

P.S.  If you want to learn more about Miss Lil after you’ve heard the Riverwalk tribute, be sure to visit Chris Albertson’s blog — not only did he record her with a great romping Chicago double-sized band, but he’s also published long sections of her typed autobiography, fascinating stuff.  The first section is http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/09/louis-lil-and-little-gangster.html; others follow.