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.