Daily Archives: November 8, 2011

“I’M READY, I’M READY!” or “THE TRUMPET KING OF SWING”

I can identify some of the signatures, but not all.  Where are they playing?

Thanks to Mister Glaser, Luis Russell, Sonny Woods, Midge Williams, Lawrence Lucie, Decca Records, and of course to The Trumpet King of Swing himself!

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: BUBBER MILEY ON FILM, 1929

Around the same time that Eddie Condon was introducing African-Americans and Caucasians to each other in front of the recording microphone, a similar experiment was taking place — although with much less directness.  James “Bubber” Miley was appearing with the Leo Reisman Orchestra on record and (I believe) in stage shows, where he would perform from behind a screen or in other guises.  When the Vitaphone Company approached Reisman to create a short sound film, it is to his credit that he included Miley — as well as an Ellington composition that we can be sure Miley brought with him.  But how to show a racially-mixed orchestra onscreen?

The answer — both gratifying and frustrating — can be found below, thanks to “vitajazz,” who posted this rare Vitaphone Varieties film on his YouTube channel.

You can see many more fascinating Vitaphone treasures here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/vitajazz.

I’ll let Vitajazz explain, although some of the commentary will only be fully understood once the film has been seen:

LEO REISMAN and his Hotel Brunswick Orchestra

Vitaphone Reel 770, March 1929

Restored about 14 years ago, film for this short was much sought-after because the surviving Vitaphone disc clearly featured African-American hot trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley. The question was, how was he presented on-screen? Showing a mixed-race ensemble on a cinema screen was completely verboten in America in the twenties and into the Thirties. This finally-located mute element resolves that conundrum…Anyone who thinks of the Leo Reisman band as tending to sweet and commercial will be completely surprised by this film, it has true jazz. The excellent vocalist is Paul Small.

Songs: “Moochie (Ellington), “Water of Perkiomen,” “If I had You,” “Hyo-Mio,” “Milenberg Joys,” “Lonely,” “Some of these days.”

It’s clear that Miley is in charge on “Moochie” (sic) and I believe he is the hat-muted trumpeter on “Some of These Days.”  I hope he was paid well, and was happy with the results.  The film, eighty-plus years after its creation, is a small sad triumph.  We can almost see Bubber Miley, and in this case “almost” does count.

DON’T BE CRUEL

Recently the French jazz critic and composer Andre Hodeir died.  The elegies I read made much of his severity, his intolerance for anything that he felt was inferior.  This discussion took me back to his famous essay about the singular trombonist Dicky Wells.  In his first book, JAZZ: ITS EVOLUTION AND ESSENCE, Hodeir praised the “romantic imagination” Wells showed in his early solos; in a later collection, TOWARDS JAZZ, Hodeir wrote the disillusioned essay, “Why Do They Age So Badly?” — which emerged from his disappointment in hearing an older Wells in the flesh in 1952.

My citations come from memory, but what sticks in my mind is the ferocity of Hodeir’s critical rancor.  Candor and critical objectivity in his hands became punitive.  For one example, when the young Hodeir wrote about the recordings of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, he praised Louis, but scorned the vocal efforts of Mae Alix as “among the ugliest and most grotesque things ever recorded.”  I am paraphrasing, but you get the idea.  Confronted with an aging Dicky Wells, Hodeir seemed furious at what he perceived as a disappointingly diminished musician.

Had he written, “Wells no longer sounds the way he did in 1937, and I am sorry that this is no longer possible,” I would not complain.  But his pique was so strong that it was as if he felt Wells no longer had a reason to play in public.  There was little human awareness of the ways a creative style might change over the decades, and no compassion for the great physical effort it takes to play the trombone or sing.  No, Hodeir was personally disappointed that Wells had not remained the same artist he was in 1937 — as if his favorite restaurant no longer cooked his dinner in the manner he was accustomed.

Of course we are entitled to our reactions — our subjectivity tethered to some vestiges of objective “evidence.”  But I find the harshness with which some of these “critical assessments” are delivered to spring from cruelty, not enlightenment.  “Let’s give that one no stars, and let’s click on DISLIKE while we’re at it.”  (There is something to say about the “star system” in art — where viewers and listeners have “heroes” and reject others as inept pretenders . . . but that’s another essay entirely.)

Perhaps thirty-five years ago, when I encountered the fine jazz pianist Dill Jones on a gig, he was nearly tearful when recalling the review given him by the Toronto “jazz critic” Patrick Scott.  Scott had written that Dill’s fingers should have been broken if they weren’t already.  That makes for “good journalism,” if one savors cruelty, but it still seems inhuman some thirty-five years later.

“I like the way X plays” is a statement hard to find fault with.  “X is a better player than Y” is more suspect.  By what standards?  And this variety of criticism is especially prevalent online.  A good many musical commentators — and I don’t know their basis of musical knowledge or experience — share what’s on their minds in very bold strokes.  “A’s performance is mediocre.”  “B’s band played that song too fast.”  “X was a bad player.”

Some of this criticism I will take as valid (if amusing): Sidney Bechet had a right to tell an eager Yank Lawson, “Young man, you played that song too fucking fast,” after Yank had stomped off an impetuous tempo for JAZZ ME BLUES.

But I would urge all the jazz critics — professional and avocational — to be kinder in their public judgments.  We ought to be supremely grateful for the music that we hear and see.  Were we to say, “This isn’t the tempo I prefer,” or “I like the way A sings this,” our objectivity won’t be compromised.  And generosity is always a good thing.

If we allow others to be imperfect, who knows?  They might extend us the same courtesy.

“THE ETERNAL PRESENT,” or ONWARDS TO the SAN DIEGO THANKSGIVING DIXIELAND JAZZ FESTIVAL(Nov. 23-27, 2011)

England, Summer, 2009

We all know that it’s crucial to live in the Moment — NOW — not to be looking over our shoulders at the triumphs and failures of the past, or to be “killing time” waiting for Something Good That’s Coming.  Occasionally, living in the Moment is nothing more than effectively focusing ourselves on the reality that is right in front of us: how the coffee really tastes to us, how the sunlight gleams on the red leaves outside the window.

But when it comes to the delightful and sometimes odd intersection of jazz and the internet, the Moment gets harder to pin down.  As I write this, in the background of my computer, I am downloading videos from Jazz at Chautauqua — music performed in the Past of mid-September 2011 — so that JAZZ LIVES can share them.  And in another room, videos taken just this past weekend at Mike Durham’s Classic Jazz Party at Whitley Bay (Newcastle, England) are being copied from my camera onto a presumably more durable external hard drive.  And as I write this, I am listening to a “new” CD — from 1992 — of THE YOUNG GENERATION OF SWING — including those youths Kellso, Barrett, Sandke, Alden, Allen, Allred . . . in their collective boyhoods.

Now, which one of these is the Present?

And, to complicate matters, Chris Albertson posted the third part of an interview he did with Lil Hardin Armstrong —

stomp-off.blogspot.com/2011/11/lil-armstrong-1968.html

The interviews are wonderful, but what caught my eye and stays in my imagination is a photograph that Lil saved — a portrait of her young husband Louis, which he inscribed most tenderly: “To my Dear Wife, whom I’ll love till I die, from “Hubby,” Louis Armstrong.”  Chris tells me that the photograph is from September 23, 1929.  And I read that sweet inscription, knowing that the happiness Louis and Lil shared wouldn’t last — but I imagine the romance and delight that is in that inscription, which is its own kind of Moment, not to be tarnished all that much by our knowledge of what was to come.

The flower at the top of this post is dead.  Or is it?  It seems tangibly alive through the bright colors of the photograph.

Sometimes our ability to have a rewarding Moment relies on planning for it well in advance.  Thus, while I am downloading Chautauqua and still fresh from Whitley Bay, I must remind myself and you all about what is to come at the end of November 2011: the 32nd Annual San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival.  Hot jazz in profusion, giving us all things to be deeply thankful for.  I found out that tickets are still available . . . . take a look at this schedule, and you’ll see what there is to get excited about:

http://www.dixielandjazzfestival.org/pdfs/ScheduleGrid.pdf

It’s reassuring for me to be able to see where I might be having a good time all through that weekend.  I hope to see you there — and even if I’m filming, I will smile and wave (all in silent-film fashion): tell them that JAZZ LIVES sent you!

That’s the music that we love so deeply — a series of Moments that don’t die, giving us an Eternal Present.