Daily Archives: February 2, 2011

OH, PLAY THAT THING!

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The sheet of manuscript paper below — with thanks to Norman Field and David Weiner, rescuers and researchers both — is my idea of Holy Writ: the lead sheet for Joe Oliver’s composition DIPPER MOUTH BLUES, registered with the Library of Congress in 1923.  Does it get more magical than that?  And Norman thinks that “by Joseph Oliver” in the upper right is in the King’s hand.  (All that is missing is the royal seal, methinks.) 

This page originally belonged to or passed through the hands of Turk Murphy — who knew something about playing the blues in a style the King would have liked — thus the signature in the bottom right corner, in a handwriting that isn’t the same as that found top right.  JAZZ LIVES readers should consider themselves encouraged to play, sing, or hum along.  As for rehearsals, you’re on your own.   

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SO RARE: SAYING GOODBYE TO “CADENCE”

I think sometimes that becoming a complete human being requires immense daily practice in the art of saying goodbye. 

Our emails (and perhaps the morning paper) tell us all about the deaths of people we love and know, or perhaps have never met.  Jazz blogs like this one have to resist very strongly the urge to turn into the Daily Necrology. 

And we say goodbye to things and situations that are meaningful to us — and I don’t just mean the lost iPod or the very sweet person who used to work at the grocery store who has moved away. 

For the jazz devotee, loss is tangible all around us.  We awaken into this music with the sharp mournful awareness of the people we will never get to encounter in person.  My readers can compile their own list of names. 

Places, too.  Think of all the concerts we never got to, the clubs closed, the record stores now turned into banks and forgettable restaurants.  Nick’s, the Commodore Music Shop, Swing Street, 47 West Third . . . and so on.

The past few years have been especially hard on print journalism, not simply for jazz periodicals, although in my own experience CODA and THE MISSISSIPPI RAG have both ended fruitful existences; JAZZ JOURNAL died and was reborn. 

About a week ago I got an email from CADENCE, which opened (after a polite salutation): By now you have heard that Cadence will stop publishing at the end of this year unless other arrangements come forth. (Any of you want to be a publisher?)

I sidestepped the parenthetical question, but I read the announcement with sorrow and inevitability.  In this century, any periodical that publishes with a minimum of advertising and a commitment to candor is remarkable.  To do it for what will be thirty-six years at the end of 2011 (if my math is correct) is remarkable . . . and when you consider that the subject of CADENCE is and has been Creative Improvised Music, its continued stamina is an accomplishment to be celebrated at the same time we mourn the announced end of their epoch. 

I can’t speak for the world of, say, opera journalism or that of hip-hop.  But about jazz publishing I do know something. 

And because it is a particularly cloistered world, with a smaller (sometimes more intense) audience than many other arts, it has certain inescapable qualities, one of them often a certain slyness. 

In this world, candor is particularly rare: when the business end of a magazine must keep its advertising income up, the possibility of true assessments narrows. 

I have been told, explicitly, by two editors that writing negative reviews did jazz harm; their journals were there to encourage the music.  So if I wrote that the Great Neck Jalapeno Boys were out of tune, my words did jazz an injustice. 

I was younger and more eager for an outlet, so I subsumed my criticisms in my reviews . . . and, to be fair, I was being asked to write about music I liked, for the most part.  But I continue to see “reviews” (in quotations) and advertisements on adjacent pages in journals other than CADENCE

Which came first, the chicken-journalism or the egg-money for the ads?

CADENCE has been different.  I confess that my first experience with the magazine goes a long way back — the Eighties — when Tower Records carried it, and I would stand in their magazine racks and skim it, looking for the names of people I recognized.  My horizons were much narrower, and often I went away from my quick and selfishly unpaid-for reading thinking that it was full of discs by people I didn’t know and whose music I wouldn’t like if I did know.

That changed after I got a chance to write about some CDs that were more to my taste and after I spoke on the telephone to its editor, Bob Rusch (or RDR).  He was imposing on the phone, but we got along fine — he only needled me that I was slow in sending reviews. 

And as our friendship deepened, I had — and have — the deepest respect for him as a person of feeling and perception, someone willing to commit himself to an ideal.  The ideal had a hard time making money, and it would have been so much easier to be polite, take the ad money, make the deals.  But Bob and the Crew are stubborn: their stubbornness coming from ethics and a love for the music. 

When, at the end of 2011, CADENCE might call it quits, I will have writen for it for about six years.  They have been a rewarding experience.  I haven’t liked all of what I’ve been asked to review, but I have been exposed to music and musicians — deeply gratifying — I never would have encountered otherwise.  And Bob’s guidance has made me a better writer, a deeper thinker, a better listener.  Hilariously, he’s only chided me when he thought I was being slippery-tactful, and he’s never asked me to change a word, even if I disliked music he thought was fine. 

I gather that even after CADENCE ceases to publish as a print journal, its other enterprises — creating CDs by worthy artists who aren’t well-represented in the mainstream, and promoting top-flight audio products by way of North County Audio — will continue.  And there may be more, although I don’t know the details.

I will be very sad when it all comes to a close — no more cardboard boxes of surprises! — but I salute Bob and the Crew for their wonderful example of loving fortitude.  And if a publisher were willing to take over the magazine, I could certainly continue to do my bit . . . there is a small mound of CDs on the coffee table near me that I have to write about, now!

Hail, hail!

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PHILIP LARKIN’S “LETTERS TO MONICA”

I admired Philip Larkin first as a poet, then as an obstinately reactionary jazz critic, then as a writer of letters. 

The first two roles have been examined many times, but I want to say something about his correspondence: thoughts provoked by a new collection of letters to Monica Jones, the woman he had a relationship with for over thirty years.  The phrase “had a relationship” is murky, but their encounters on the page and off defy easy classification.

Larkin could be exceedingly gracious in his correspondence if he chose to: the scholar William McBrien (an authority on both Stevie Smith and Cole Porter) told me that the poet was extremely courteous and modest in their exchanges. 

But more often Larkin is writing to people he has known for decades, and the letters are difficult to read (even when hilarious) because he comes through so completely as someone who knows how flawed he is while hugging his flaws to himself proudly.  He can’t help himself, but who can?  Selfish and complaining, irritable and ungenerous, he also can turn the harsh light on himself and writes of his horror at what he perceives.  At such times I forgave him his meanness of spirit.  But as soon as that moment passed, the next letter returned him to his familiar self, disappointed in almost everything around him.

So his letters are often appalling, often irresistible character studies.  It would have taken a great novelist to delineate him without caricature.   

Larkin experienced hot jazz as a religious revelation and never faltered in his devotion to the Truth as he saw it.  For him, the acme of Western civilization was the recording sessions of the Rhythmakers in 1933 — featuring Henry “Red” Allen and Pee Wee Russell. 

The pianist Larry Eanet once wrote that the first jazz records he heard, the Louis Armstrong – Earl Hines sessions of 1928, hit him “like Cupid’s arrow,” and this was Larkin’s experience also. 

The Rhythmakers records were the standard by which everything, live or on record, had to be judged . . . and as a result, almost everything Larkin ever heard after his first ecstasy, with the exception of Sidney Bechet, seemed flawed. 

Larkin’s letters to Monica are sometimes claustrophobic studies in bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.  We observe Larkin being selfish on one page, sometimes apologizing for it two pages later.  That he and Monica kept up a running lovers’ narrative of themselves as two rabbits is surprisingly charming but, even with that as counterpoint I could read only a dozen pages at a time before I needed to put the book down, if not away.

I also understand more than ever the wisdom of some public figures who refuse to have their private papers made accessible to “scholars” after their deaths.  I think Larkin would have been enraged to know that readers were poking into his letters: in fact, he supervised the destruction of his diaries.

But this post is about Larkin’s devotion to jazz — and his letters are often lifted up from his annoyance, his sulks, his self-absorption, by his love for this transfiguring music. 

I offer a few passages here, the first two suggesting what it was to be a British record collector of American jazz.  (In these days of apparent plenty, with so much music made available, some forget what it was like to have so little at our fingertips.)

I am leaving out the passage where Larkin is furious because an acquaintance who has been to the States has brought him Volume Two of a Bechet Blue Note collection rather than Volume One — you’ll have to buy the book to read his small yet explosive reaction.

23 November 1950 (Belfast, p. 23)  . . . . I looked round the shops, buying a copy of Wild Bill Davison’s Tishomingo Blues that so insinuatingly wound itself into all last summer; but a sense of having been rebuffed remains with me, perhaps because the cow in the record shop wouldn’t let me — or didn’t want to let me — look through a pile of Jazz Collector & Tempo records she had just unpacked — cow of Hell!  I have never seen any before, & Belfast is the last place I expected to find them: I’m sure they will never sell them.  They are the Real McKoy, fantastic private dubbings of entirely irrevocable records: the Malone Reprint Society in terms of jazz . . . .

1 November 1951 (Belfast, 66-67) . . . . played my new records — six unsuspected sides by Muggsy Spanier, Pee Wee Russell et al. discovered by me in Tempo lists, 6/6 each.  I ordered them blind, & played them trembling, fearing lest they should be a fearful let down, but they weren’t: not a dud among them: six sides of aggressive attacking jazz, touching greatness here & there, but what John Hewitt would call ‘good bread’.  They date from Feb & March 1945: already ‘history’, really — wartime.  My great prayer is now to have scooped Kingsley [Amis] over them, wch I’m almost sure to have done.

Our heroes, seen through Larkin’s acerbic, disappointed eyes:

25 January 1957 (Hull, p. 213)  The Condon evening was too strange to describe fully — there were two ‘houses’, each an hour [Humphrey Lyttelton] an hour Condon — or supposedly.  The first was almost empty: the second almost full.  Condon was a little neurotic-lipped man, like a jockey retired by age & drink, with a drunkard’s careful movements.  W. Bill was a fat fiftyish Jack-Oakie College-Humor man, who chewed gum & clowned about.  I couldn’t adjust myself to the thought that these were friends of Bix, and that WB had been driving the car in 1932 when Teschmacher was killed.  They played fairly routine stuff, not as good as their records, though WB did some of his notorious tricks of tone.  I was in the front row: Condon sat playing his guitar about 6′ from my head.  The Lyttelton group was as usual, Johnny Picard blowing away manfully & very well.  But it was all very odd.  A lone shop girl sat beside me, who’d never heard a jazz concert before, & never heard of Condon.  I admired her resolution . . . .   

And two elegies in his own fashion:

7 May 1959 (Hull, p. 249)  I was saddened to hear of the death of Bechet tonight: of course, he hadn’t produced much lately — living among the French had brought out his Creole side musically — but he was a wonderful player in his day, as exemplified by the 2 choruses of Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Mornin’ they played on Radio Newsreel tonight.  At least one could understand his music: not like this modern stuff . . . cacophony (mumble mumble), deliberate atonalism (mumble mumble) etc etc.  Of course one wanted to take him back to New York and put him behind a good blues singer & in front of a good guitarist for a session or two, but I suppose we shall have to be content with what there is.  I’ve always wanted to hear a 12″ Summertime (c. 1940) on which the musicians ‘burst into spontaneous applause’ at the end of the record . . . .

19 February 1969 (Hull, p. 397)  My record player has broken & been taken away, & life is very narrow.  Did you see that Pee Wee Russell is dead?

Larkin understood so well that life without jazz was indeed very narrow. 

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