Monthly Archives: March 2010

REMEMBERING JOHN L. FELL (1927-2008)

In elementary school, your best friend is probably someone you see all the time.  As you get older, proximity isn’t essential.  I never saw John L. Fell in person; I spoke to him only once on the phone and had one snapshot of him (holding his grandson on his shoulders).  But he was a true friend. 

I first saw John’s name on the back of an IAJRC record album devoted to Pee Wee Russell.  John had written the liner notes and assembled wonderful rarities.  The music held me, but I was delighted and a bit awed by John’s prose: he wrote the way I aspired to.  His language crackled; he was precise, evocative, witty, sharp-tongued. 

What also captured my attention was that he had included a few selections from a fabled 1960 television broadcast featuring Russell and Bobby Hackett.  I found John’s address and wrote to him, asking if he would trade a cassette copy of that music, offering him whatever I had recorded on trips into New York City.  

Thus began an intense and rewarding friendship with a hot jazz soundtrack.  It had its own pattern, its own rhythm.  About once a month we would exchange cassettes — four of them in a mailer with a letter enclosed.  The letter was purportedly to list the personnel, but we both quickly delighted in conversing — what I had particularly liked in John’s last batch; what I was enclosing; the jazz he had recently seen; a gossipy story about some musician, living or dead, that we had seen.  John had been part of a group of college students who, in 1947, brought a jazz band to Hamilton College: the band included Hodes, Miff Mole, Tony Parenti, Kaminsky, Danny Alvin, and had — playing intermission piano — James P. Johnson.  John was an amateur clarinetist who had led his own band; I shared stories of seeing Braff and Hackett in the flesh.  We shared common loves: the Condon crowd, obscure 78s, Lester Young, Billy Butterfield, Ed Hall, alternate takes, rarities. 

As my collection of cassettes grew, I created a picture of John in my mind — just like his prose: perceptive, no-nonsense, enthusiastic.  I found out (not from him) that he was a distinguished film scholar and bought several of his books: FILM AND THE NARRATIVE TRADITION is one I particularly admire, showing the connection between early silent film storytelling and comic strips. 

John was generous, and even though I must have seemed voracious, he never complained.  Many collectors hug their treasures to their figurative bosoms, as if to say, “This is mine and you can’t have it!”  There was none of that in John’s largesse.  He added to my library of jazz films and concerts on videotape.  Through him, I saw Sidney Catlett on film (which I’d never imagined) as well as rare concert footage.  I came to value his letters — which, sadly, I no longer have — as much as the music that accompanied them.  Early on, John was still using a manual typewriter whose capital letter jumped at the beginning of the sentence; at some point, we both switched to rudimentary word-processing.

John also gave me a fine compliment.  He took over the incomplete manuscript that his friend Terkild Vinding had written on stride piano, and fleshed it out into a book, STRIDE!, published by Scarecrow Press.  I had volunteered to read the manuscript, and had offered comments and suggestions.  In retrospect, probably most of them were superfluous, but John thanked me in the preface for my “sternly affectionate guidance,” which pleased me no end: the middle word, to be exact.   

We traded music and conversation for perhaps five years — John went through several illnesses — until he wrote a brief, sad note that he was too ill continue.  He thanked me for the music and the pleasure of our conversation, but I never heard from him again. 

Whenever I met his friend James Lincoln Collier in New York, I asked for news of John, bot no one seemed to know.  I don’t know when the obituary below appeared in the Hamilton College alumni bulletin, but I present it here as a measure of a generous, multi-talented, irreplaceable man. 

I have only to move from my desk to pick up one of the cassettes John sent me to feel his presence.   

I miss him. 

John Louis Fell ’50, emeritus professor of film at San Francisco State University and a noted authority on early cinema history as well as a jazz aficionado, was born on September 19, 1927, in Westfield, NJ. The son of Shelby G., a business executive, and Frances Hildebrand Fell, he grew up in Westfield and was graduated in 1945 from Westfield High School. He entered Hamilton that fall but left the Hill after a semester in response to an irresistible call from Selective Service.

In 1947, following a year in the U.S. Army Air Force, John Fell returned to College Hill and resumed his studies with such success that he gained election to Phi Beta Kappa. He served on the staff of campus radio station WHC, played clarinet in the College Band, and also contributed his instrumental talent to the Fallacious Five jazz band. Called by The Hamiltonian the “perfect example of the rational mind in an irrational world,” he received his diploma with honors in anthropology in 1950.

After briefly taking courses in anthropology at Northwestern University, John Fell headed to New York City, where he pursued graduate studies in cinema and eked out a living as a magazine editor, free-lance writer, and jazz musician. Besides writing “pulp” for men’s magazines and numerous film scripts, he joined fellow jazz enthusiasts in Greenwich ­Village, including classmate and fellow Fallacious Five veteran James Lincoln Collier, in playing gigs with his clarinet. For a time he also taught in a private secondary school, where he “supervised a class of schizophrenic boys, which prepared me for academia.”

John Fell, who had acquired an M.A. in communications from New York University in 1954, stayed on at N.Y.U. to earn his Ph.D in that field in 1958. Upon obtaining his doctorate, he left the East Coast for Montana State College (now University) to take over its film and television department. He remained there in Bozeman for two years as an assistant professor, primarily supervising educational television. On December 5, 1958, while at Montana State, he was married to Suzanne Shillington in Idaho Falls, ID.

In 1960, John and Sue Fell moved to California when John was appointed to the faculty of San Francisco State College (also now University). As an assistant professor, he taught courses in motion picture history, theory, and esthetics in the department of radio-TV-film. His intellectual curiosity and wry sense of humor permeated his classroom presentations, which were drawn from his impressively wide reading in film. Appointed in 1964 to develop and administer a new film program, he supported student demands for a full-fledged cinema department, which was established under his chairmanship in 1967. He chaired the department until 1970 and again in 1975-76. A reluctant administrator who was happiest sharing his passion for cinema and jazz culture, and being a mentor and guide to his students, he led the department only long enough to get and keep it on its feet. He was promoted to full professor in 1970 and continued to teach at San Francisco State until his retirement in 1984.

In addition to contributing articles and reviews on film, music, books, theater, and photography to publications ranging from arts journals to Esquire and the Saturday Review, John Fell wrote album notes for jazz recordings. He also served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly, the advisory board of Film History, and as guest editor for Cinema Journal. A member of numerous professional organizations, including the Writers’ Guild of America and the American Federation of Musicians, he was a former president of the national academic film organization, the Society for ­Cinema Studies (1981-83).

However, John Fell’s enduring influence and lasting impact was through his shaping of the film department at San Francisco State and his scholarship as reflected in five books, most notably Film and the Narrative Tradition, published in 1974. He went on to write Film: An Introduction (1975), A History of Films (1979), and Film Before Griffith (1983). His last book, Stride! (1999), was an important contribution to jazz piano history.

In retirement, John Fell, residing in Larkspur in Marin County, north of San Francisco, continued to teach film and jazz courses at the College of Marin. He also continued to write and to “play very dated jazz with a group of old gentlemen on Friday afternoons.”

John L. Fell died on October 8, 2008, following a massive stroke. He is survived by his wife of almost 50 years. Also surviving are two daughters, Justine R. Fell and Eliza M. Durkin, and three grandchildren and a sister. His son, John S. Fell, the victim of a diving accident, died in 1989.

BIX 2003: WILBER, DAVERN, PLETCHER, SJOSTROM, NICHOLS, PATRUNO, STEIN, FORBES, SAGER, GANDA at ASCONA

Thanks to Michael Supnick and his YouTube channel (“Michaelsjazz”) here are performances from the 2003 Ascona Jazz Festival, featuring a group of musicians connected to the sometimes-fanciful film about Bix Beiderbecke.  I believe it was called BIX: AN INTERPRETATION OF A LEGEND, and its intent was more homage than history.   

The full band includes the remarkable Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber, with Tom Pletcher on cornet, David Sager on trombone, Frans Sjostrom on bass sax, Keith Nichols on piano, Joel Forbes, bass, Lino Patruno on banjo, Walter Ganda on drums, and Andy Stein on violin.  

Let’s begin with JAZZ ME BLUES:

Bix never recorded ROSES OF PICARDY, but I would guess that he played this World War One melody:

We know he worked magic on SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

Andy Stein and Lino Patruno become Venuti and Lang for a few minutes on STRINGING THE BLUES:

On MARGIE, Sjostrom is characteristically majestic and mobile:

Joel Forbes replaces Frans for I’LL BE A FRIEND WITH PLEASURE:

Finally, with everyone on board — here’s a rocking but not-too-fast ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

And a “Chicagoan” version of CHINA BOY, notable for Sager’s shouting solo and the pleasure on Davern’s face during Stein’s solo:

Behind the musicians, visible in flashes, are scenes from the film, for which a version of this band provided the appropriate soundtrack.

Bix never got to Europe, but his music certainly did.  It was alive and lively in 20003 (his centennial) and continues to be.

“ACHIN’ HEARTED BLUES,” 1999

When I saw that “jazze1947” had uncovered another video by the Swedish Jazz Kings from 1999 (at the Akersunds Jazz Festival) featuring Bent Persson, cornet; Tom Baker, trombone; Tomas Ornberg, soprano sax; Martin Litton, piano; Bo Juhlin, tuba; Olle Nyman, banjo, I was excited. But then I saw the title ACHIN’ HEARTED BLUES and thought the video might be five minutes of slow-drag melancholy. 

Obviously I need to take a remedial semester in early Sidney Bechet and Clarence Williams, because both the song and the performance fly.  Not in tempo but in intensity.  This is particularly evident in Litton’s solo — two choruses of Hines-fireworks, in the second choruses by Bent and Tom, and the way Tomas flies around in the closing ensemble.  If ever a song seemed to have the wrong title, this is it:

In my country, we say, “Wow!”

“RECORD TREASURES (2) MARTY GROSZ”

The syntax is sometimes baffling (thanks to Google translation from the Japanese) but the intent is clear, and it’s one I share — to celebrate and honor Martin Oliver Grosz, as well as his wonderful (and extremely rare) 1951 records with Dick Wellstood, Frank Chace, Pops Foster, Tommy Benford, Ephie Resnick, and Hugh McKay:

Record treasures (2) Marty Grosz
September 3, 2000 (Sun), Marty Gross charity concert was held in Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art.
Why, you might reasonably be thought to concerts at the museum. Actually, the father of gross, but was born in Germany, continued to criticize the German caricaturist George Grosz’s largest Century 20 (real name: George Gross 1898-1959) is the.From August 6 to September to the 24th, the exhibition has been held by George Grosz, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art, Sept. 3, the concert is not held as one of the event Marty Gross.
Gross, now ages 20, 30 in the leading jazz and classical repertoire’s primary, has been active on the world stage as an arch-top guitar virtuoso.On the day, the Tsukuba depart 8:40 minutes, if all goes well I will get to Utsunomiya sometimes 12. Joban Line in injury Tsuchiura But straight out of a whopping three hours late! Start of the concert arrived 10 minutes before the museum was 2:50 minutes.So I became a part of stand. Year 1929 made by Gibson L-5 (16inch gold hardware in the body) have appeared in gloss, CD follows a familiar song and we sang and played. Still raw L-5 was a really good sound.The second part, and to return to families with young children could sit in the front. 2 meters before the closely watched technique was a good shout. No.1 song in the popular vote in the ability of power, now 70 years old and is unbelievably great, energetic two hours.After the concert, I went to see the gloss. People who bought the CD only, beating restrained by staff that差Shi出Shimashita two copies of the records SP Gross. Was surprised when I can not forget that face. Records this SP, June 6, 1951, which was recorded in New York, Gross was the first session will be 21 years old. In this session, and view photos Gross tenor (4 string), seems to play the guitar.

The time to migrate to the LP era, this record is the end of SP Gross and I have only two copies.
Historically, the record was one of my treasures, treasures risen in the ranks of the sign of the day.(2000.9.4)


Mart Gross & the Cellar Boys
(Jolly Roger 2003)

Mart Gross & the Cellar Boys
(Jolly Roger 2004)

Gross said during performance
Marty Grosz with Gibson L-5
(Photo: Dr. Yanagisawa)

(From left) After the concert, around the Gross
Seya Yanagisawa Mr. Hasegawa said Mr. Yamada, Mr. Gross’s exit
(Photo: Dr. Yanagisawa)

The original site, for those fluent in Japanese, is http://www.sakura.cc.tsukuba.ac.jp/~jazzsp/topic/rare2.htm.

CRAIG VENTRESCO, MAGICALLY AFLOAT

On Saturday, March 27, 2010, in San Francisco, I had the good fortune to meet (in person) the tireless video chronicler of West Coast jazz, Rae Ann Berry — a delightful person, as I’d expected — and two jazz friends: Barb Hauser, the energetic friend of the music and musicians, and the peerless guuitarist and philosopher Craig Ventresco.  None of them could stay long — Barb had a date, Craig had a gig at Cafe Atlas, and Rae Ann was going to document it. 

Rae Ann and Craig once again worked wonders — so through the marvel of modern technology and YouTube, we take you now to Cafe Atlas to hear delicious music. 

Playing unaccompanied acoustic guitar is a brave act in almost any context.  Put the guitarist in the middle of an active restaurant and it rises to levels of Olympian exploits.  Craig calmly sits in the midst of traffic, chatter, and distraction.  Servers cross to and fro; drinks are consumed and ordered; cardboard boxes cross our view; the restroom door opens and closes. 

But Craig plays on, apparently immune to the nonmusical forces around him.  With his own internal rhythmic engine, he keeps the pulse going in the most restorative way, never becoming mechanical.  His little rubato digressions are priceless episodes of speculation and ornamentation.  Craig finds the chords that other musicians ignore, and his unadorned sound is an antidote to the buzz and hum around us. 

How he does it I don’t know.  I would find myself glaring at the walkers and talkers.  But he immerses himself in a sea of musical inventiveness and floats above the distractions.

We are so lucky to have him and to have Rae Ann documenting it for us!

Here’s a ruminative look at I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS, even though it was sunny at Cafe Atlas:

And a stirring affirmation of possessiveness — the 1929 pop hit MINE, ALL MINE:

Life-affirming music.  Emersonian self-reliance isn’t dead, and it even has a guitar.

LISTENING TO LOUIS?

I’ve just read David Rickert’s assessment of “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)” issued by Mosaic Records in 2009, an essay published in ALL ABOUT JAZZ.  Rickert’s on the right path, but I found many of his statements confusing, even contradictory.  But before some eager commenters leap to his defense, I am not in the ad hominem trade, merely puzzled.

Here it is, unedited:

As far as recordings by trumpeter Louis Armstrong go, the Decca recordings don’t generate much interest. Prior to them came the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, the most influential jazz recordings ever made and the template for everything that was to come. Afterward came the superb pop recordings for RCA, which showed a masterful entertainer more respected for his vocal prowess than his trumpet playing. The Decca years represent Armstrong’s adolescence: a bit gangly, sometimes awkward, and filled with questionable choices amidst the bold assertions of identity. Part of the problem may be that the Decca recordings have been available somewhat helter skelter over the years. Who better to provide some coherence than Mosaic? The label has compiled everything that Armstrong recorded for Decca, brilliantly remastered from the original metal parts or discs, and with thorough liner notes from jazz veteran Dan Morgenstern to boot. With this seven CD set, it is finally possible to assess this set completely and perhaps more firmly establish them as the great records they are. Critics of these recordings gripe about the subpar quality of the song choice, which is surprisingly inferior given the astounding amount of good songs that were written at the time. A quick glance at the tracks will confirm this suspicion; there are quite a lot of second tier songs (you can often spot them just from the title.) At the time, Joe Glaser had recently become Armstrong’s manager and quickly obtained the services of Jack Kapp at the newly launched Decca label to record him. And record they did—166 tracks over 11 years that also span the infamous recording ban. Kapp saw Armstrong as a novelty act, someone whose numbers might be a little corny and superficial and easy on the ear. In this regard he had much in common with pianist Fats Waller, another mugger who recorded piffle. But also like Waller, Armstrong was always able to turn even the most insignificant material into something special, even if it wasn’t perhaps high art. He also correctly assumed that his performance would carry the material, and more often than not it did. There are some undeniable misfires here, such as a few numbers with a Hawaiian theme, and some gospel numbers, along with a few numbers like “When Ruben Swings the Cuban” that even Armstrong can’t redeem. But there are also quite a few numbers that Armstrong absolutely nails and turns into masterpieces, such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque,” “Tiger Rag,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Satchel Mouth Swing” and “Jubilee” proving that a terrific song and superb musicianship can always combine to make musical gold. Anther problem for some critics is the quality of the sidemen. There are really no stellar musicians on the stand, but rather serviceable sidemen capable of playing the charts and managing a decent solo when prompted. Clearly the focus here was on Armstrong and the rest of the band was only called upon to provide sturdy accompaniment and little else. Thus, unlike the Hot Five and Seven Recordings, there’s no pianist Earl Hines or trombonist Kid Ory to keep Armstrong on his toes and match his chops (although truth be told, few could keep up with him). The novelty here is hearing Armstrong navigate the world of big band coming from the smaller groups he had employed earlier. The recordings start out startlingly sweet and progressively get hotter, matched by terrific charts from Sy Oliver and Joe Garland. Armstrong was also paired with other artists from the Decca label such as saxophonist Glen Gray, reed player Jimmy Dorsey and bassist Bob Haggart, all white musicians, and pairings that helped erase the color lines that existed. There are also a few visits with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and a reunion with soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, as well as early appearances with guys like guitarist Dave Barbour who would go on to greater things. Oh yes, and the first pairing of Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald. Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great. A sampling of the best of these records would show how truly great this period was. Mosaic’s warts and all approach necessarily includes some questionable material. But with the Mosaic touch, don’t be surprised if these recordings reemerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.

Rickert ends his piece generously: he won’t “be surprised if these recordings emerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.”  But he begins with the rather curious statement that these same recordings “don’t generate much interest.” 

I wonder if the second statement is a matter of commerce rather than artistic merit.  The Deccas were never reissued intelligently at home.  Rather, they came out in blurts, “Jazz Classics,” “Collector’s Items,” “Golden Favorites,” and several well-meanin but incomplete attempts.  It was left to Gosta Hagglof  to issue the Deccas logically and completely on CD.   

It’s always tempting to see a jazz artist’s career in terms of the progression of record labels, but in doing this, Rickert presents some debatable generalities.  The Hot Five and Seven recordings are “the most influential jazz recordings ever made”; the later Victor sessions produced “superb pop,” where Armstrong’s singing overshadowed his trumpet playing. 

How about the “influential jazz recording, BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and the “superb pop” of JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES or PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? 

Rickert’s underlying assessment of Armstrong’s career might be something like this: “Louis played pure New Orleans jazz up until 1929, and then was corrupted into “pop” commercialism, with short detours back to Eden when he recorded with homeboys like Bechet and when he played W.C. Handy.  But had he stuck to POTATO HEAD BLUES, what a body of work he might have created!  Alas, poor Satchmo!  I knew him well, before he became popular, that is.” 

This harks back to the ideological wars of the Forties, Moldy Figs arguing with Be-Boppers over whose music was “authentic,” over how one defined “the real jazz.”  I thought we were past those quarrels.

Louis didn’t elevate jazz to the pantheon while lamenting that he was forced to play “pop.”  I doubt that he ever complained in the studio, “Hey, Mr. Kapp, this is piffle you’re asking me to mug.”   

In fact, if you admire what creative improvisers do with their material, what could be better than Louis did with ON A COCOANUT ISLAND?  Did it take more inventiveness for Fats Waller to swing THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART than the MINOR DRAG?  I would think so, but for these musicians, it was all music.  Perhaps even trying to play WHEN RUBEN SWINGS THE CUBAN is a heroic act in itself, and the discographies of many revered jazz musicians show equally unpromising titles. 

To his credit, Rickert recognizes that Armstrong was able to “redeem” many of the song choices and make them “something special.”  But he may confuse the musician, the record company, and the song. 

It is easy to view Armstrong as a good-natured pawn in the hands of White manipulators Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser, Kapp coming in for special excoriation for trying to make Louis a “novelty act.”  But record companies then and now wished to sell records — and, after years when companies went bankrupt, one can hardly blame Kapp for trying to ensure broad popular success. 

If Kapp viewed Armstrong as a “novelty act,” he also did so with his best-selling and most popular artist Bing Crosby, who recorded an even wider range of material with great success.  And the idea of “questionable material” might be one that the artists rarely asked.  And the idea of good songs and bad might be undercut by the results.  Does Billie Holiday sound less like herself on WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO than on YESTERDAYS?  The genius of jazz musicians lies in their ability to transform and transcend the most banal material — it is only in retrospect that jazz critics, praising “forward-looking” and “harmonically adventurous” music, make such distinctions.  I GOT RHYTHM and the blues were perfectly satisfying for Charllie Parker and Sonny Rollins to improvise on.  So, rather than assume that nefarious forces compelled Louis to record SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, we should marvel at what he did with it.  (As an aside, some of his recordings I find most gratifying are the least “jazz-inflected”: consider his Fifties recording of TREES, for one.)    

Rickert, as I do, teaches English, and I admire his equating Louis with Shakespeare.  But I find what follows condusing: “Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great.” 

Should we care how many people admire a particular piece of art?  What has popularity to do with merit? 

And if Rickert could point out to me where “academia” and “Pottery Barn,” meet, I’d be grateful.  I’d even meet him at the clearance sale table.  I applaud the idea of Louis as King Lear — majestic, commanding the winds.  But I don’t think that Louis had to pass through suffering to arrive at true awareness: his music shows that he had reached a deep awareness early.

Ultimately, I wonder if Mr. Rickert was victimized by circumstances in writing his review.  Mosaic box sets — in this case, seven compact discs — are initially overwhelming, not well-absorbed in one or two hurried gulps.  I wonder if he was sent this box with perhaps two weeks to listen to it and write about it.  He would either have had to work his way through the set — rather like doing homework — or to listen to it in pieces, hoping to find the figure in the carpet. 

In either case, I admire his fairness: praising Mosaic, attempting to situate Louis in a cultural context.  But he’s missed some of the beauties of these recordings. 

It’s perfectly understandable to look back to Louis’s partnership with Earl Hines as a high point.  But the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are in some sense artificial, because Louis never worked with those groups.  The Deccas, for better or worse, represent some of the material Louis was performing every day with working bands.  But to become nostalgic for Kid Ory is to neglect J. C. Higginbotham.  And if you’re looking for a musician perfectly paired with Louis, able to keep up with him and to spur him to new heights, I would submit that Sidney Catlett is the man. 

I would ask Mr. Rickert to listen to WOLVERINE BLUES for Catlett alone, to THANKS A MILLION and SOLITUDE for the beauty of Louis’s expressive singing and playing.  Follow that up with the sides recorded with the Mills Brothers, those dreaded Hawaiian sides, and more.  Only then can he or anyone get a true picture of Louis’s achievement . . . and that might take a good deal of time.

MORE FROM THE CARDS! (Feb. 27, 2010)

Thanks to Paul Wegener, Jake Sanders, Tamar Korn,Gordon Au, Debbie Kennedy, Marcus Milius, and Dennis Lichtman.

Here’s a romp on that 1929 tongue-twister by Walter Donaldson, ‘T’AIN’T NO SIN:

And an energetic excursion through James P. Johnson’s OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, one of those songs that sits well at a number of tempos:

Finally, a poignant reading of BODY AND SOUL, with sorrowful work by Marcus and Tamar:

More to come!

SAN FRANCISCO JOYS (March 24, 2010)

Rae Ann Berry took her video camera to Cafe Divine yesterday (that’s March 24, 2010) to capture the inspired duo of Clint Baker (trumpet, trombone, and more) and Craig Ventresco (the guitar-orchestra).  These two videos are a special kind of jazz — the music that musicians play for themselves when they’re alone or when no one is listening too closely.  It’s hot, fervent, and adventurous — if you make a mistake, you moan and keep playing, for this kind of relaxed playing needs a mistake or two to be real. 

Here Clint and Craig perform a properly slow-moving version of SAVOY BLUES, from the Hot Five book:

And — also circa 1926 — here’s ORIENTAL MAN, complete with verse:

Divine stuff!  I’m looking forward to meeting Rae Ann — in a non-cyber incarnation — this weekend in San Francisco, where I can say THANK YOU! in person.

JACK, MUGGSY, JO, JAKE, GENE, SONNY

Truth in advertising?  I hope so — and it’s a pleasure to see these artists portrayed in the media as if their playing was meaningful art and their opinions meant something.

Of course, I don’t want to think about how many young men and women were disillusioned when they found out that owning a Gene Krupa drum set didn’t make them Gene Krupa . . . but I admire they for hoping and trying.  And I thank eBay for being our national museum, ever-changing, of such endearingly weird memorabilia.

VIC DICKENSON in LIFE

Some jazz musicians are garrulous, bubbly; Vic Dickenson barely spoke, and when he did address a comment to someone else on the stand, it was hard even for a practiced eavesdropper to catch what he was saying.  Often his words were punctuated by a laugh that would be difficult to describe. 

When Vic was photographed, because of the trombone’s intrusive size and shape, he often looked like a man at the mercy of his instrument, his brow furrowed.  Photographs also captured him looking angry — which was misleading, for he seemed the least contentious of men.

Here’s an uncredited photo study of Vic from LIFE magazine, presumably from the Fifties (I date it by his hairline).  It captures his seriousness, as well as some delightful reflections in the trombone’s bell, although it can’t summon up his sense of humor, his wonderful sound and sounds. 

For that, thankfully, we have the recordings he made over nearly half a century.

EIGHT DOLLARS BUYS A JAZZ WEEKEND!

Eight dollars might buy you a restaurant lunch but it won’t cover a ticket to the movies.  It doesn’t go very far in the world of jazz, although it would be enough for a used CD or some downloaded songs. 

But here’s a bargain!  

This coming weekend, March 26-28, the clever folks who run the Bohem Ragtime and Jazz Festival in Kecsemet, Hungary, will be broadcasting the proceedings online as they occur for the eight dollar fee mentioned above.  And the eight dollars that would buy you a hamburger and drink will also allow you to view the concerts as you like from April 1 – May 31, with unlimited visits to the site (www.bohemragtime.com.)  

The players include the Washboard Wizardz (USA), Nicolas Montier (France) – ts, Thilo Wagner (Germany) – p, Jennifer Leitham (USA) – sb, Vince Bartels (USA) – dr, Bohém Ragtime Jazz Band (Hungary), PapaJazz (Hungary) Swing Manouche Project (Hungary), Balázs Dániel (Hungary) Iván Nagy (Hungary) Penge Benge Jazz Band (Hungary). 

I know that people are used to viewing video music clips online for free, and I’ve contributed to that phenomenon.  But your eight dollars will also support the continuation of the Bohem Festival in years to come — surely a worthy endeavor. 

Here’s a clip from the 2009 Festival — an all-star group playing SOMEDAY SWEETHEART — proof of the musical and cinematic quality you can expect:

(The players were Herbert Christ, trumpet; Matthias Seuffert, clarinet; Tamás Ittzés, violin, vocal;  Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Ad van Beerendonk, bass; Nick Ward, drums.)

LOCAL HEROES: THE EAR REGULARS (March 21, 2010)

Why do some combinations of musicians coalesce memorably, and others not?  I suspect that it is a matter of forces the players themselves can’t explain.  They can tell you in detail why things don’t work: someone’s tired or annoyed; X dislikes that tempo; Y can’t stand the song; Z doesn’t feel well. 

But when all the stars are in alignment, the music is uplifting.  And the players look contented when they hear their colleagues; the smiles you see at the end of a song add up to a contented glow around the band.

This unpredictable magic happened on Sunday, March 21, 2010, at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City). 

Two of the Ear Regulars were the valiant co-leaders: guitarist Matt Munisteri and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, brave and true, who have led their little band on Sunday nights for thirty months now, a delightfully consistent series of small-band jam sessions.  One of the horn players, clarinetist Pete Martinez, had played there a week ago in concert with trombonist Harvey Tibbs.  And Scott Robinson has been a Regular, off and on, since the start — but this time he was featured on bass sax (with a surprise appearance on piccolo late in the evening). 

Were they especially happy to be playing together, although they knew each other from other appearances?  Was pleasurable anticipation, soon realized, in the air?  I don’t know.  But on this Sunday, the Ear Regulars reminded me of the great New York sessions of my youth — small groups featuring Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Milt Hinton, and others — lyrical, singing hot jazz.

Here are nine performances from this wondrous constellation of players, with guests coming by.  I know that the videos aren’t the same as being there, but perhaps if you raise the volume and get in the groove, you’ll catch the fervent spirit.  And I know it wasn’t just my happy hallucination: you can ask Jackie Kellso, Kevin Dorn, Doug Pomeroy, Molly Ryan, Dan Levinson, Barbara Rosene, and the elated Friends of The Ear whose names I didn’t catch. 

After a spirited warmup on THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE, Jon-Erik did something unusual by suggesting an even faster CHINA BOY.  It summoned up the drive of the Bechet-Spanier HRS session, with a good deal of Adrian Rollini added, as well as some Quintet of the Hot Club of France flavoring from guitarist Julian Lage:

Then, the Ear Regulars decided to try that very pretty Arthur Schwartz song, I GUESS I’LL HAVE TO CHANGE MY PLAN (associated in my mind with Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden), happily asking Scott to take the melody statement, a splendid idea:

Do you associate LOUISIANA with Bix, Bing, or Lester and Basie?  Whichever version you prefer, this one rocks:

I don’t know who thought of CREOLE LOVE CALL, but any time Jon-Erik takes out his plunger mute, I listen attentively to the secret messages he’s sending:

And the set closed with a minor romp, BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, which gave Pete another chance to sear us with his lovely exuberant upper register:

After a break for dinner, it was time (however late) for a sensitive reading of Walter Donaldson’s AT SUNDOWN, at a lovely ballad tempo:

Cornetist John Bucher had come in when the second set started, and Jon-Erik invited him aboard for I NEVER KNEW, with closing riffs reminiscent of the 1933 Chocolate Dandies record:

Guitarist Dave Gross joined in for the final two numbers: a beautifully articulated IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN:

Finally, after some discussion, the Regulars chose WHISPERING to end the evening:

This music speaks for itself.  If you’ve never been to The Ear Inn on a Sunday, you’re denying yourself rare pleasure.

MR. RUSSELL POSES FOR THE CAMERA

The eBay listing is http://cgi.ebay.com/Photo-JAZZ-MUSIC-Comedian-Clarinettist-PEE-WEE-RUSSELL_W0QQitemZ160416144676QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item25598c1d24. 

I think this cheerful shot comes from the middle Forties: the PIX photographer was E. Colman.  If you can’t make money, make friends . . . or make faces? 

And here’s the unintentionally hilarious text on the photograph’s back:

“What do you know, chum?  Someone thinks I was a ‘Comedian’?”

THEY CALL IT MUSIC: “THE BIG 72” (March 19, 2010)

Last night I went to another of Kevin Dorn’s late-Friday evening gigs at The Garage (Seventh Avenue South).  The band, “The Big 72,” plays from 10:30 to 2:30.  Staying for all four sets would require a preparatory nap, something I’ve never managed to do — but I was so delighted with the music that I stayed for two sets rather than my customary one.  You’ll see why. 

Like his hero Eddie Condon, Kevin likes to employ his friends for gigs (you’d be surprised at the rancor floating around the bandstand on some gigs — not Kevin’s) and he had a particularly congenial crew of individualists last night. 

For lyricism, there’s the always-surprising Charlie Caranicas on cornet, who has a singing tone and many nimble approaches, not just one.  The clarinet master (and occasional singer) Pete Martinez was in splendid form, murmuring in his lower register or letting himself go with whoops and Ed Hall-shrieks.  I’d heard Adrian Cunningham only on clarinet before (at The Ear Inn and Sweet Rhythm): it was a revelation to hear him on alto, where he showed raucous rhythm-and-blues tendencies, bending notes in the manner of Pete Brown.  In the background, Michael Bank took tidy, swinging solos and offered just the right chords behind soloists.  He deserves a better piano, but he added so much.  Kelly Friesen, hero of a thousand bands, pushed the beat but never raced the time, and his woody sound cut through the Garage’s constant aural ruckus.  And Kevin — well, he was in his element, letting the music take its own path without getting in its way by “leading.”  His solos were delicious sound-structures, full of variety and propulsion, but I found myself listening even more to his accompaniments: the sound of a stick on a half-closed hi-hat cymbal, the steady heartbeat of his bass drum, the tap of his stick on the hi-hat stem.

Here are ten performances I recorded.  At first the Garage’s patrons were unusually chatty and ambulatory (or should I say Talky and Walky?)  but many of them noticed that me and my video camera.  Surprisingly, they executed sweet arabesques of ducking down and getting small so they wouldn’t walk in front of my lens.  Thank you! 

NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW, a pop tune beloved by late-Twenties jazz players (I think of Teagarden and Condon among them):

A devoted, serious reading of SUGAR by Pete Martinez:

If Louis Armstrong didn’t invent THEM THERE EYES, he certainly owned this bright, silly song (until Billie Holiday came and reinvented it for everyone):

That probing, perhaps unanswered question (before Charles Ives), HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?:

AFTER YOU’VE GONE, played as a Wettling-Davison romp rather than a lament:

MY GAL SAL (whose title musicians happily corrupted into “They called her Syphillis Sal”):

Homage to Bix Beiderbecke — here’s JAZZ ME BLUES:

IDA (Sweet As Apple Cider) is forever associated in my memory with Pee Wee Russell, whose choruses were always unusual in the best way:

BALLIN’ THE JACK, an eternally popular “here’s how to do this new dance” song:

Finally, BLUES MY NAAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, recollecting JAMMIN’ AT CONDON’S:

The Big 72 calls what they play music.  Or what would you suggest?

“POTATO HEAD BLUES” (March 2010)

Here’s the High Sierra Jazz Band — recorded by Tom Warner at the March 2010 Monterey Dixieland Festival — performing their dazzling version of Louis Armstrong’s POTATO HEAD BLUES.  The band is made up of Pieter Meijers, reeds, co-leader; Howard Miyata, trombone; Bryan Shaw, cornet; Bruce Huddleston, piano; Stan Huddleston, banjo, guitar; Charlie Castro, drums; Earl McKee, sousaphone.  On this dazzling homage to Louis, the front line turns into a trumpet / cornet section.  What I need to know (and will probably never find out at this late date) is which of Louis’s Chicago or New Orleans pals apparently had a head that resembled a potato and was thus immortalized?  Whose physiognomy inspired this hot tune?

I wish I could have this performance on my clock radio — music to wake anyone up in the best way!

P.S.  Tom Warner’s YouTube channel is “tdub1941,” a cornucopia of good things.

EDDIE CONDON ON TELEVISION

From www.earlytelevision.org/images/:

Notice that the group is — as they used to call it — “mixed.”  Condon not only played the right changes and set good tempos; he never cared what his musicians looked like as long as they could play. 

Makin’ friends; making history. 

And solo features for Hot Lips Page and James P. Johnson?  Be still, my heart.

MAKING THE FAMILIAR NEW

If you had asked me this afternoon if I would like to see an extended performance of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by a Teddy Wilson trio in 1963, I might have waited to be polite before saying, “Gee, I don’t think so.”  I would have assumed that by that date, Teddy would have polished his routine: the glistening runs, the familiar arpeggios, the well-established beginning and end of what had become — through thirty years of regular performance — formulaic.  If not dull.   

And, continuing in the same vein, if you’d then asked me if I wanted to see Jack Teagarden and his small band walk through BASIN STREET BLUES, from “Won’t you come along with me?” to “I’m going to take a trombone coda / cadenza / tag,” as much as I revere Big T, I might have thought, “More of the same.  I’ll take my chances with something new.”

It isn’t always a pleasure to be proven wrong, but in the case of these two performances it’s a joy.

Looking for something else (new clips of Earl Hines) on YouTube, I wandered into the land of Teddy Wilson — and sat up very straight in my chair.  Someone (his channel name is “checker764” and he loves urban electric blues) had found a 1963 television program called INTERNATIONAL HOUR: in this case a concert recorded before a full house in Chicago’s Civic Opera House, its host Willis Conover, its subject “American Jazz.” 

And the Teddy Wilson trio featured not only the fine underrated bassist Jim Atlas (who appeared with Jimmy Giuffre on THE SOUND OF JAZZ in 1957) but Papa Jo Jones in splendid extroverted form. 

My first thought when this performance began is, and I understand it is both impudent and ineffective, “That tempo is too damned fast.  Even Teddy seems to stumble in the beginning, deciding to deliver an abstracted version of the song — because the bars are going by too quickly to linger over the melodic line.”  After a competent solo by Atlas, at about two minutes into the performance, Teddy and Jo begin to trade four-bar breaks — wonderful but perfectly familiar. 

I am amused that either there had not been a rehearsal of this song or the cameraman had been dozing, for he has trouble deciding where to focus while Jo is playing.  So there are a number of breaks where Jo is heard but not seen until the cameraman (or woman, or men) figures it out.  Wilson gets more exuberant — his stride was always a signal that he was both involved and excited — but begins to head towards the conclusion at around three and a half minutes, slightly more than a 78 rpm record’s time.

But wait!  Jo Jones has just stolen the show.  “I’m having far too much fun.  We are not stopping!” he says with his brushes and his wickedly joyous expression, like a little boy who refuses to come in the house when dinner is ready.  And he hijacks the performance, most joyously.  Yes, some of the four-bar breaks he takes in the second act he had been playing for decades — but his mischievous pleasure is wonderful. 

Then, expecting an anticlimax at best, I checked the other YouTube clips from the program: a Getz-McFarland C JAM BLUES, a Basie blues featuring Frank Wess and Frank Foster on flutes, both amiable but obligatory. 

Jack Teagarden was in the last year of his life and he had been travelling with a sextet like this for slightly more than a decade.  This edition featured Don Goldie, trumpet; Henry Cuesta, clarinet; Barrett Deems, drums; Don Ewell, piano, and a bass player who may have been Stan Puls.  Meaning Jack and his band no disrespect, I must write that my heart sank when he eased into BASIN STREET BLUES, something he had been singing and playing since 1929.  And the fake Mississippi riverboat behind him did not cheer me at all. 

Watching Teagarden here, I saw a man at what he knew to be serious work.  I saw the skull beneath that impressive head.  His eyes occasionally look deeply sad; his veiled expression is far away for a second or two.  And perhaps because he wasn’t in the best health, he seems to struggle a bit in the instrumental portions.  That’s a surprise, because he had spent his life making it look easy. 

But the result is revealing although not a note is new.  The contrast between the slicked-down hair (or a hairpiece?) atop his head and his thinner-than-usual face; the small grimaces we catch him at during his solos, the earnestness he brings to words and music he had memorized . . . all add up to a very moving performance.  And it is a delight to see Don Ewell (O rare Don Ewell!) serious and stately, exploring. 

There are only twelve notes in the octave; there are only so many ways even the most inventive player or singer can use to get from C7 to F or the reverse.  But what is jazz all about except the art of making the most familiar sequences new and surprising through shifting an accent here, pausing a breath longer, entering into the material, whether it is a too-fast HONEYSUCKLE ROSE or an over-familiar BASIN STREET BLUES.  Not only does the sound surprise us; jazz can make familiar gestures wholly new.

BIX FEST 2010: GALS and RIVERS and MONDAY

These videos were taken by the multi-talented Jamaica Knauer at Phil Pospychala’s “Tribute to Bix,” the most recent celebration of Bix Beiderbecke’s life and art.  Cornetist Andy Schumm and his Gang — that’s Dave Bock (trombone), John Otto (reeds), Leah Bezin (banjo / guitar), David Boeddinghaus (piano), Vince Giordano (bass sax, string bass, tuba, vocals), and Josh Duffee (drums) performed a number of selections either recorded by Bix or evoking him.  Appropriately, the music was played on Bix’s birthday — at the Bavarian Inn in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

There are perhaps unintentional thematic connections here, easy to find.

MY GAL SAL (written by Paul Dresser, brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser):

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL (was it a pal of Sal or another gal?):

SLOW RIVER (harking back to the Goldkette band):

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE (for the Wolverines and the 1927 recording with Frank Trumbauer):

Finally, because it’s Thursday, here’s the very antidote to Blue Monday, a cheerful FROM MONDAY ON:

Anyone who’s paying attention won’t need me to point to the special pleasures — the ringing playing of the front line, relaxed and hot; the rocking rhythm section, and the wonderfully steady tempos — but these performances will please over and over.  This band knows the records and the idiom inside-out but no one feels compelled to copy the famous solos.  And the smile on Josh Duffee’s face sums it all up for me.

“OH, MISS HOLIDAY . . . ?”

The signature, although hurried, looks authentic — especially the final flourish.  Perhaps someone who’s studied Billie Holiday’s performances, tours, and isolated club dates can tell us when she was in Marion, Ohio? 

This goes back to the idyllic days when hotels provided stationery for their guests — it was, as you notice A NEW HOTEL WITH A COMPLETE SERVICE — and people used fountain pens. 

I imagine that some fan thrust a blank envelope under Billie’s nose and said, “Could I have your autograph, Miss Holiday?” and she signed it standing up . . . at least the calligraphy suggests this.  I’d entertain alternate scenarios from any Holiday-fanciers.  eBay, of course!

MARTY GROSZ and the HOT WINDS (Sept. 2007)

Is it my fault that I think Marty Grosz is a genius?  A hot balladeer and monument of chordal acoustic playing, an unreconstructed vaudevillian, satirist, and jokester, a jazz scholar . . . a great arranger (on paper and on the stand) and bandleader.  A combination of Eddie Condon, Carl Kress, Fats Waller, and Red McKenzie. 

I remember sitting in the front at Joe Boughton’s Jazz at Chautauqua early on a Sunday morning — the end of the long and fulfilling jazz weekend of September 2007.  Prior to this I had contented myself with illicit audio recordings . . . but I had my then fairly-new digital camera on hand.  Marty and his group were coming on to perform a brief tribute to Red McKenzie, another one of my heroes — for his sentimental singing and hot comb playing.  And I thought, “I could make movies with this, couldn’t I?” and aimed my camera at the musicians.  The visual fidelity is gummy at best, but the players are visible.  And what players!  That’s Scott Robinson and Dan Block in the front line; rocking James Dapogny at the piano; multi-talented and apparently inexhaustible Vince Giordano holding it all together. 

They rock, don’t they?

Here’s ARKANSAS BLUES — in memory of McKenzie’s hit record with the Mound City Blue Blowers.  It’s another I’m-going-back-to-that-Dixie-cabin-of-mine songs, but the antropologists and cultural historians will have to be quiet: I’m having too much fun listening.

And (it was Sunday, so perhaps a hint of what was to come in twelve or fourteen hours?) FROM MONDAY ON, which summons up not only McKenzie but Condon and Lang, Venuti, Bix and Bing:

Marty gives us something no one else has mastered — he’s irreplaceable.

PERFECT SWEETNESS (March 14, 2010)

Last night at The Ear Inn, I kept thinking of Emerson’s lines from “Self-Reliance”:

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great person is one who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

I saw this acted out in front of me for two joyous sets of jazz, as Pete Martinez, clarinet; Harvey Tibbs, trombone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Neil Miner, bass, pretended that a noisy crowd and a rainy night didn’t exist. 

They didn’t glower at the young woman near me, talking loudly to her friend while she twiddled away at her glowing BlackBerry; they took no notice of the man at the bar (I couldn’t see him) whose dialogue with his buddy was unceasing and tediously vulgar; they improvised singly and collectively as if none of this mattered.  And it’s a tribute to their love of their art and their focus that it didn’t. 

Matt was exhausted, having just flown in from Zurich with no sleep; Harvey was continually trying to find a place to play and not get entangled in the parade of oblivious people in the narrow corridor in front of the band; Pete was placed by the door, which opened and shut more than I would have liked.  Only Neil had a small sanctuary, and he was pressed in among pipes and a low ceiling. 

Here are three performances by an even-tempered, good-humored, spiritually uplifted and uplifting quartet — another casually brilliant version of the Ear Regulars, keeping their independence while improvising collectively, offering us perfect sweetness.  I know some of the people in the room heard it; I hope that even the talkers got some subliminal blessings from this group.

Here they do that most brave thing — a rhythm ballad which, you’ll notice, didn’t keep the level of conversation down.  It’s I COVER THE WATERFRONT, perhaps appropriate to the rain and the Ear’s proximity to the river. and a quiet homage to Billie, Louis, and Lester:

In the second set, someone called for ‘DEED I DO, always a bright message of affirmation:

And, right after it, a “Dixieland classic,” a “good old good one,” JAZZ ME BLUES, neatly and comfortably sitting somewhere between 1927 and 2010 in the place where Bix and Don Byas trade solos:

Inspired jazz conversations throughout — as well as Pete’s bright-yellow hot sound, echoing Ed Hall but not copying him, as well as Harvey’s old-time-modern approach to his cumbersome horn.  Matt didn’t let tiredness get to him, spinning out long, ringing solos, and Neil reminded us, once again, of the beauties of the acoustic string bass in this idiom. 

Emersonian, and transcendental, too.

GOOD TO THE LAST DROP!

I love this song — from 1932 by Irving Berlin — with its innate optimism, and I am very fond of this heartfelt performance by the Jazz Tuber Trio (yes, you read that right): Jimmy Mazzy (banjo, vocals); Eli Newberger (tuba), Ted Casher (clarinet) — posted on that cornucopia of delights, YouTube:

And, yes, everything will be better by the time you finish the coffee and pie.  Of course, a French press, good coffee, and real pie are essentials.  I’m not sure that McDonald’s apple pie and coffee in styrofoam will have the same salutary effect, but maybe it’s the spirit of the thing rather than the actual substance.   And, yes, Alan Greenspan is no longer in charge of things — but he did start out loosely connected to jazz, so perhaps he deserves mention here.

Wishing you all optimistic outcomes right now and in the future!