Daily Archives: November 11, 2010

FIRST-HAND: PAUL NOSSITER REMEMBERS ROD CLESS

This is the first of what I hope is a long series — first-hand testimony from the men and women who were there, about their jazz heroes and more. 

Paul Nossiter is a veteran jazz improviser, educator, and writer — on the scene for a long time and still gigging in the New England area.  We spoke in October 2010 about his early experiences with the legendary clarinetist Rod Cless.

I had an older brother, Bud (for Bernard): he was my guru.  He was a swing fan in the early Forties, and I worshipped him, so I became a swing fan.  My idea was that Benny Goodman must have been 25 or 30 years old.  Benny was going to die, and I was going to replace him!  He was going to fade away, and I had to be prepared to take his place. 

We had been collecting big-band jazz records, and then one Thanksgiving my brother saw that the Village Vanguard was going to have a jam session, and he and my cousin (who was a year older, in high school) persuaded my mother to take them, and I horned in on it. 

It wasn’t a jam session.  It was a quartet I will never forget.  Zutty Singleton, Pops Foster, Art Hodes (the only white man I ever heard who really could play the blues) and this lean, tall, weird-looking clarinet player.  So tall that they called him Pee Wee — Pee Wee Russell.

It was a karmic experience for both my brother and me.  We felt we’d heard the truth.  we went home and began to throw our 78 records of swing out the window into the courtyard below, until the super came up, cursed us roundly, and we stopped.

We got into that kind of jazz, and he began to collect records by the Condon gang, all those wonderful people, and I finally got a clarinet and began to take lessons.  We went to concerts, and eventually heard Bunk Johnson at Stuyvesant Casino.

Once, Bud was in Nick’s in Greenwich Village, and Rod Cless was playing with a group.  (I was too young to go by myself.)  And he said to Rod, “I’ve got a kid brother who wants to learn to play jazz.”  Rod said, “Well, I’ve never taught anyone.”  Bud said, “Why don’t you give him some lessons, and see?”  And that’s how it started.  I can’t remember what he got paid — maybe ten dollars. 

Once a week, Rod would come up to the apartment we lived in on West 77th Street, and teach me by ear the jazz repertoire that Condon and Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band played.  Rod would teach me, bit by bit, JADA, BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME, and some of the faster ones.  He would play the melody, and then I would play after him.  He would say, “No, that note’s wrong.  You need to use two fingers.”  It was very much Montessori-ish.  Then when I finally learned the tune, I would have to play it for him, and he would play a counter-melody behind me. 

One of the things Rod had with him when he came up was a pint bottle, because he drank continuously.  He probably put away a fifth during the day, nibbling at it, and another fifth at night, when he worked.  It didn’t seem to affect his playing (eventually I went to places where I could hear him play).  He had a very large nose — almost a fighter’s nose or an alcoholic’s nose — and when he drank it got bright red.  Once, Rod was taking a sip from his pint bottle when my father walked in.  And I thought, “Oh, shit!  There goes my lessons.”  My father turned on his heel, shut the door and went out.  And he came back about ten minutes later and said to Rod, “If you’re going to drink, drink something good,” and put a bottle of Scotch on the table.   

After school, I used to practice with the Commodore records that we collected, playing melody with those records.  (And the nice thing was that if the band made a mistake, I could pick up the needle and start over again!)

That was another very important part of my life, when we started to collect records — going down Sixth Avenue and visiting all the used record stores, looking for Louis and Bessie and Muggsy.  Then I would wind up at the Commodore Record Shop.  It was wonderful — walls of records stacked up and four or five listening booths!  Can you believe it?  You would ask for the records you wanted, they would hand them to you, and you would take them back into a booth and sit in a leather chair and play them.  I could afford one record a week, so the record I bought had to be absolutely perfect.  Every solo had to be just right, every chorus, the ensemble . . . so bit by bit I amassed a collection of these records. 

After about eight months or a year of these once-a-week sessions with Rod, he said, “Right.  Now I’m going to play the melody.  You play something else.”  And I said, “What?  What will I play?”  Rod said, “Haven’t you been listening?”  And that’s how I got thrown into the water.  I did have an ear for harmony, and I played very simple stuff behind him, and we would play duets this way. 

Rod was not a very vocal person.  He didn’t speak a lot.  He was very quiet, and very gentle.  Never critical of my playing.  He was absolutely different from any teacher I’d had before or since.  And by the time I was a senior in high school, I could sit in at Jimmy Ryan’s occasionally.  The last number, BUGLE CALL RAG, anybody in the house who had an instrument could play two choruses.       

(I got to meet James P. Johnson because Rod was working in a band that included him at the Pied Piper — a wonderful band with James P. playing, and you’d go up to him and he’d carry on a conversation with you without stopping.)

I’ve been wonderfully lucky!

Advertisements

JAZZ THROUGH THE LENS (on eBay)

This remarkable photograph of Paul Barbarin, New Orleans drummer, when he was driving the Louis Armstrong Orchestra (1935-39) is autographed to Midge Williams, who sang with Louis at the time (as did Sonny Woods, to handle the sweet numbers and to give Louis a rest).  It’s no longer possible to call up Joe Glaser and offer to hire Paul Barbarin, but this photograph — with all those lovely cymbals on hangers, temple blocks and a gong (take that, Sonny Greer!)  — makes us recall that such a thing was once possible.

More from Mr. Strong, the top picture particularly meaningful to me: from one of the Decca sessions that paired Louis with Gordon Jenkins — and someone I never noticed before, half-hidden behind Louis, the Blessed Milton Gabler.  The lower photo depicts Louis in front of what resembles a smaller late-Forties big band, but it’s all mysterious now.

Jean Goldkette and his Orchestra: I’ll rely on one of my scholarly Bixian readers to identify this one: time of day, place, and personnel, please!

I can’t tell whether this rather odd cover collage (was it an art director or someone with a pair of scissors and no supervision?) comes from the same session as the Louis-Jenkins shot above, but this cover is especially dear to me, since it’s one I stared at often through my childhood while listening to the music contained inside.  (And I still have my copy from a half-century ago, which pleases me immensely — considering the way objects evanesce and disappear.)

PHILIPPE SOUPLET’S “PIANO STORIES”

Not long ago, I encountered the impressive French jazz / stride pianist Philippe Souplet on YouTube. 

Here’s the evidence: his 2009 performance of MULE WALK:

Now, Philippe has come out with his first solo CD, and it’s delightful: PIANO STORIES: FAT LIONS, GENTLE DUKES, AND OTHER OLD FRIENDS — which should give you an idea of his musical range and light-hearted approach to the music. 

On it, he explores compositions by Willie “the Lion” Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Edgar Sampson, Arthur Schwartz, and of course James P. Johnson.

The CD benefits greatly from a wonderful piano, splendidly recorded, but Philippe’s approach to this material would come through in less ideal circumstances. 

Although he is deeply respectful of the Stride tradition, he doesn’t treat the repertoire as a series of rigidly established classical compositions.  He’s a graceful improviser, serving the music.  He isn’t combative — he doesn’t try to overwhelm the music with speed and volume.  His tempos are peaceful, giving the melodies time to breathe. 

And Philippe is not constrained by some narrow definitions of musical history: there’s an elegant openness to his playing, with sideways glances at Dave McKenna and Hank Jones.  It’s a varied CD that ranges from the pensive to the joyous. 

The selections are I GUESS I’LL HAVE TO CHANGE MY PLAN / HERE COMES THE BAND / CHELSEA BRIDGE / THE MULE WALK / HONEY HUSH / ELLINGTON – STRAYHORN MEDLEY: Passion Flower – Mood Indigo – Prelude To A Kiss – Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me / IF DREAMS COME TRUE / MORNING AIR / RETROSPECTION / IT DON’T MEAN A THING (IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING) / I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING / MELANCHOLIA / AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’. 

Philippe produced the CD himself: you can contact him at psouplet@wanadoo.fr. for information about how to purchase a copy.

THE RYDSKOGEN JOYMAKERS (and BENT PERSSON) DO THEIR STUFF!

The song: “I’M A DING DONG DADDY (From Dumas)” by Phil Baxter.

The original inspiration: Louis Armstrong (who decided that the original lyrics were too dense for him at this fast tempo, thus “I done forgot the words).

The magician(s) you see and hear: Bent Persson and the Rydskogen Joymakers, caught live in action at the Akerby Jazz Club on November 9, 2010, by “jazze1947,” a YouTube benefactor:

:

Swing, you cats (and visit http://www.rydskogenjoymakers.com)!

P.S.  One of my readers, Andreas Kagedal, also plays trombone with the Joymakers.  Is that you, Andreas, in this clip?  And can you tell the faitful the names of the other players?