REMEMBERING LARRY WEISS by RAY CERINO

Larry Weiss, the New Jersey-based cornetist and pianist, has died at 83, after a long illness.  His friend and mine, the jazz aficionado, popular music scholar, and amateur tenor saxophonist Ray Cerino, sent these lines at my request:

Larry Weiss, a good friend of mine, and an extraordinary musician, died over a week ago. Because I had played with Larry for several years in a pro-bono quartet at a life-care facility, the writer of this blog asked me to provide my thoughts on Larry the musician.

The first thought that comes to mind is a word in the title of a book by his friend, Warren Vache called “The Unsung Songwriters”. Although Larry was well-known and respected by all the famous musicians he played with, the majority of jazz concert-goers never heard of him. In that regard, Larry was unsung, and his special, musical ability went largely unrecognized.

The way I like to describe Larry is as a self-taught, natural, supremely gifted musician. When Larry soloed on a song, he did not simply play the notes of the chords underlying the melody, nor did he play the scales in the modal form of the harmony, as is frequently offered as an improvised chorus by younger players today. Larry created a new, beautiful variation, under which the original melody could always be heard. And often he would substitute an altered chord of his own devising, especially audible on the piano, which would introduce a new, intense feeling to the music. He did this all without ever referring to a printed note. The music came from his heart, to his ear, to his hands, seamlessly. And the music that emerged contained original, surprising passages that could move the astute listener deeply.

As a friend of Larry’s for over twenty years, we spent a lot of time together at my house, playing and listening to music. Larry was always gracious in offering to play piano accompaniment to my pedestrian tenor sax solo efforts, never making harshly critical remarks about my playing. He had a good many live recordings on cassette tape that he had acquired over the years, and we would play and listen to these on my stereo system. I recall how he would listen intently to a particular passage of which he was proud, and point to the speakers to underline his high regard for the music. When I asked him how he created so noteworthy a phrase of music, he would just shrug, and say “that’s what I heard”. Like I said, a gift.

As I mentioned above, other well-known and knowing musicians were well aware of the quality of Larry’s musicianship. Larry told me once that he was on the stand with Bob Haggart, bassist and composer of “What’s New”. Larry had just finished a solo of that tune when he felt a tap on the shoulder. He turned around and saw Bob smiling and giving him a big “thumbs up”. Many times as we listened to other famous musicians, Larry would say “I played with him”. He was never boastful: in fact he was modest to a fault. In talking about his solos, he would often say “I’m not claiming this is great, but I am rather proud of it. (And if Larry was proud, you know if it had to be good).

Unfortunately there are only a few commercial recordings of Larry’s work on cornet available, two with a group led by his friend, Warren Vache,and one CD, on piano, with Joe Licari.

That’s Larry, the unsung musician. I was lucky to have been his friend, and to have spent time discussing and listening to the music we both love.

A few words from Michael Steinman:

I am glad that Jim Balantic had uploaded to YouTube two duo selections by the fine clarinetist Joe Licari and Larry on piano — HAUNTING MELODY and MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU, where Larry plays subtle Teddy Wilson-style piano with great delicacy:

That CD, and others, can be obtained on Joe’s site: http://www.joelicari.com/

I never met Larry Weiss, but I knew his work as a cornetist and admired it greatly.  He shared my admiration for Bobby Hackett’s beautiful tapestries of melody.  And Larry was more than a copyist — not that it would have been easy to copy Hackett — he was someone who had so thoroughly internalized the Master’s style in broad outlines that he could then invent his own personalized utterances at a moment’s notice. 

I heard Larry play cornet in many rather vigorous traditional ensembles, and his voice was a clarion one.  “Luminous” is an overused adjective these days, but it applies.  He was modest; he didn’t shout; his tone glowed.

I have one example alone of Larry’s gentle mastery for the JAZZ LIVES audience.  I have shared this video clip — from the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival — before, as an aching tribute to the much-beloved Vic Dickenson, in memory of the astonishing band he and Bobby Hackett led at the Roosevelt Grill in 1969 (its rhythm section usually Dave McKenna, Jack Lesberg or Milt Hinton, and Cliff Leeman). 

But this time I would ask my readers to do what is nearly impossible — to tear themselves away from Vic and from Dill Jones and Steve Jordan — and listen to Larry Weiss.  Modest and unassuming, using his mute, sometimes creating obbligatos that one has to strain to hear, he makes great beauty, great empathy, lasting music. 

In the world of jazz, the night sky is full of stars.  There’s Louis, blazing bright; Jack, Lester, Bird, Ben, the two Sidneys . . . and more.  Galaxies, in fact.  But there are also stars not often seen.  You might need a telescope to find them.  But their light is just as memorable: that’s how I think of Larry Weiss.

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6 responses to “REMEMBERING LARRY WEISS by RAY CERINO

  1. Larry was a very, very nice man, easy going and calm- I thought his approach to jazz reflected that. He played a marvelous lead and his solos were a tapestry of lovely colors- warm and rich. Perhaps some took him for granted (not hot or sassy enough) but if one takes the time to listen closely one will hear a very unique cornetist making choices that few would ever think of. I always looked forward to being on the bandstand with this man, my friend Larry Weiss.

  2. Mike, you have said it perfectly – Larry was one of the truly unsung and a joy to play with. The New Jersey Jazz Society has a tape in its files of Larry with Bob Wilber, Marty Grosz and Bill Crow, all four at their very best, recorded in the 70’s. It’s magic. Maybe somebody could get them to make it available.

  3. Thank you, Bob — but I only deserve about 15% of the credit: the rest goes to my friend (and fine writer) Ray Cerino, whose words are in boldface. He’s the man who says it perfectly! Cheers, Michael

  4. Clarrie Henley

    Although I live in England, Larry and I have been friends for more than 30 years and I have twice arranged mini tours for Larry over here. My wife and I were frequent visitors to New Jersey where we had relatives and , of course, there were always get-togethers with Larry and his wife Terri. We enjoyed a trip to the Sacramento Jubilee once when Larry was cornetist with Warren Vache Senior’s band. Larry loved old movies, especially horror films and Marx brothers classics and he was a brilliant impressionist, able to sound more like Walt Brennan than the actor himself.
    His piano style was often likened to that of Teddy Wilson and he had that same soft touch. His cornet work can be heard on Warren Vache’s Syncopatin Seven CD’s on Jazzology and on an LP on the Dee Bess label on which he claimed that “Carolina In The Morning” best represented his horn work. I agree. It could easily be mistaken for Dick Cathcart. What amazed me most about Larry was his ear for melody and harmony. It was as sharp as a tack and several times I hummed him a tune and he immediately played it back with beautiful chords.
    Larry was certainly under-appreciated, to a degree perhaps through his own reticence and reluctance to push himself to the fore. Those of us who knew him have no problem in recognising a real talent.

  5. Larry was one of my best friends and musical colleague. We used to talk about Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett all of the time. We will all miss him a lot.
    Bobby Gordon

  6. WHAT CAN I SAY, LARRY WEISS WAS A GREAT LOSS TO ME. HE HAS BEEN MY PIANIST FOR THE LAST 15YEARS. WE WORKED A STEADY DUO GIG AT PALAZZO RESTAURANT IN MONTCLAIR, NJ. WE CALLED THE BAND “SWINGTIME” . WE DEVELOPED A NICE SOUND TOGETHER OVER THOSE YEARS AND WE PLAYED AS ONE.

    WE WERE GETTING SO GOOD THAT WE MADE OUR FIRST CD TOGETHER. WE CALLED IT “HAUNTING MELODY” WHICH IS MY COMPOSITION. ON THIS CD IS A COMPOSITION OF LARRYS WHICH IS TRUELY BEAUTIFUL. HE NEVER GAVE IT AN OFFICIAL TITTLE SO WE CALLED IT “LARRYS TUNE”. ALSO IT HAS NOT BEEN MENTIONED THAT LARRY IS ON A RECORDING WITH ME ON A RED ONION JAZZ BAND CD, WHERE HE PLAYS TRUMPET. THE CD IS CALLED “SWEET AND HOT”

    THE LAST YEAR HAS BEEN VERY BAD FOR LARRY ILLNESS WISE WITH CANCER, AND THEN WITH THAT IN REMISSION, FINDS HE HAD A TUMOR IN HIS BRAIN AND HAD THAT REMOVED ONLY TO FIND A FEW MONTHS LATER ANOTHER TUMOR IN HIS BRAIN HAD GROWN. THIS WHOLE PERIOD OF TIME WE WERE IN CONTACT AND I COULD SEE FROM OUR CONVERSATIONS HE WAS GETTING DEPRESSED AND TIRED, AND EVENTUALLY DIDNT WANT TO EAT AND JUST GAVE UP. HIS PASSING IS A GREAT MUSICAL LOSS, HE WAS SO TALENTED, ON CORNET AS WELL AS PIANO, AND COMPLETELY SELF TAUGHT. ALL DURING HIS ILLNESS WE HAD DISCUSSED MAKING A GERSHWIN ALBUM. HE EVEN HAD A TITTLE PICKED OUT, AND WE WOULD HAVE CALLED IT “ITS GERSHWIN BY GEORGE” SOMEDAY LARRY YOU AND I WILL MAKE THAT CD UP ABOVE…GOODBYE MY FRIEND. JOE LICARI

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