Monthly Archives: December 2011

A JAZZ MANTRA FOR 2012

Photograph and source material courtesy of Enrico Borsetti

It’s not yet 9 PM in California (where I am writing this) but it will be midnight in New York City.  So let me join in the imagined chorus and wish all the readers of JAZZ LIVES deep happiness in 2012 and the future.

When in doubt, let these words guide you through 2012 and onwards!

The custom, for some, at the end of the year, is to look back sadly at those we have lost.  I’ve felt those losses, and I know you have too.  But at this moment, let us celebrate the artists who continue to give us so much joy, and those new players and singers we will come to discover in the New Year.  Thanks, you cats, for swinging so!

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“FOUR ON THE FLOOR,” or “IT ALL GOES BACK TO DISCO”

1930 Ludwig Streaked Opal drum set: visit http://www.olympicdrums.com for more information

In the late afternoon of December 31, 2011, the Beloved and I were in the car, heading from Novato to Napa in California.  The car radio was set to NPR — not a bad thing — and an ingenuous young woman reporter for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED came on to ask the pressing question: what sound was prevalent in all the pop music hits of 2011?  I heard a throbbing beat that was soon drowned out by some version of electronic thrumming and whining . . . and then she came on the air to answer her own question: four beats on the bass drum.  Here’s the transcription of what she said:

There’s one sound that pretty much dominated pop music this year. Monster hits by LMFAO, Adele, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and more all relied on the hammering beat known as “four-on-the-floor.”

“You feel it in your whole body, just on every beat: boom, boom, boom, boom,” says Jordan Roseman. “It’s so easy to understand, it’s almost hard not to move to it.”

Roseman, better known as DJ Earworm, is intimately familiar with these songs and their matching beats. He mixed them all together in his annual mashup of the year’s biggest pop hits, a series he calls “The United State of Pop.” He says that four-on-the-floor, while not a new sensation, dominated the radio dial in 2011.

“It goes back to disco. Right when these big speakers came along, all of a sudden the kick drum took this new prominence in music because you could really feel it,” Roseman says. “It’s definitely peaking right now.”

You can download Roseman’s 2011 mashup, “World Go Boom,” at the DJ Earworm website.

Call me a nostalgia-addled dinosaur, a Swing Era relic (I’ve been called worse) but I thought “four on the floor” was cherished standard practice in all jazz performance until the very early Forties when (let’s say) Kenny Clarke started dropping bombs.

Before then, a drummer who couldn’t keep time — not necessarily loud — on the bass drum was considered inept, rather like the novice waitperson who has to ask each of the two diners, “Who gets the Greek omelet?”

I wish that the NPR story created a rush to study the recordings and videos of the masters: Krupa, Dodds, Jones, Catlett, Tough, Wettling, Marshall, Stafford, King, Berton,Morehouse, Singleton, Hanna, Bauduc, Leeman, Rich, Drootin, Dougherty, Walter Johnson, Spencer, Webb, Bellson, Shadow Wilson, Best, and a hundred more — or to sit at the feet of the contemporary percussion masters Smith, Burgevin, Hamilton, Dorn, Tyle, Baker, Siers . . . but somehow I don’t see this happening any time soon.

Because, as you know, “It all goes back to disco,” and our contemporary awareness of the past can be measured with a micrometer.

IMAGINE THIS!

The generous jazz collector Sonny McGown keeps surprising me: first with that lovely candid shot of Barbara Lea and Johnny Mince, now with this — a disc that isn’t playable at the moment but may be restored in the near future.

It made me catch my breath at the computer, because not only is it a live 1951 recording of Miss Leacock with the great pianist Larry Eanet, it also features the irreplaceable and (to my mind) under-recorded trumpeter Frank Newton.  In 1951.

I knew he had spent much of his last half-decade in Boston, and had read about concerts he had played in, gigs he had done — both from Manfred Selchow’s encyclopedic studies of Ed Hall and Vic Dickenson as well as the recollections of Leroy “Sam” Parkins — but I never expected to see this:

If that isn’t something to dream about in 2012, I don’t know.  Thanks, Sonny!

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES SHOPPING at AMOEBA MUSIC

More rewarding than going to the mall in search of the nonexistent record store (now replaced by a kiosk selling baseball caps you can have embroidered with your name, perhaps?).  More personal than bidding and clicking online, it’s my return to AMOEBA MUSIC in San Francisco!

It should say something about the impression this store (and its Berkeley branch) made on me this last summer that I can summon up “1855 Haight Street” without having to think about it.  And the flimsy yellow plastic bag I brought back to my apartment has not been used for any ordinary purpose.  Inside the store the view is awe-inspiring and not a little intimidating for those who (unlike me) collect broadly across the musical spectrum:

I knew where I was going and my path had only two main oases — leaving aside the cash register at the end.  One delicious spot is sequestered in a corner: several bookshelves filled with albums of 10″ 78 rpm records.  You’d have to be a collector of older music or someone of a certain age to be familiar with this display in its unaltered state.  It still thrills me but it has the odd flavor of a museum exhibit — although I know of no museum where you can purchase the exhibits and take them home.  See if this photograph doesn’t provoke some of the same emotions:

And what do these albums contain?  I’ll skip over the dollar 1941-2 OKeh Count Basie discs, the odd Dave Brubeck 78, the remarkable Mercer Records PERDIDO by Oscar Pettiford on cello, the Artie Shaw Bluebirds . . . for a few that struck particular chords with me:

That one’s to inspire my pal Ricky Riccardi on to his next book!

One of the finest front lines imaginable — a pairing that only happened once.

The right Stuff . . . for Anthony Barnett.

Milt Gabler made good records!

In honor of Maggie Condon, Stan and Stephen Hester . . . and I didn’t arrange the records for this shot.  When was the last time you entered a record store with its own Eddie Condon section?

It would have been disrespectful to confine myself to taking pictures and not buying anything (also, enterprises like this need some support to stay in business), so I did my part.

The reverse of a Johnny Guarnieri tribute to Fats Waller, autographed to “Ed,” whom I assume played a little piano.

The NOB HILL GANG might look like another San Francisco “Dixieland” band, but any group with Ernie Figueroa on trumpet and Vince Cattolica on clarinet demands serious consideration.

But wait!  There’s more!

A Roy Eldridge collection on Phontastic (source: Jerry Valburn) of Gene Krupa 1941-2 airshots plus the 1940 Fred Rich date with Benny Carter;

ONE WORLD JAZZ — a 1959 Columbia stereo attempt at internationalism through overdubbing, featuring a home unit of Americans: Clark Terry, Ben Webster, J. J. Johnson, Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones — with overdubbed contributions from Bob Garcia, Martial Solal, Stephane Grappelly, Ake Persson, Roger Guerin, Roy East, Ronnie Ross, and George Chisholm;

Marty Grosz and his Honoris Causa Jazz Band on Ristic / Collector’s Items — featuring unissued material and rehearsals from the HOORAY FOR BIX! sessions — featuring Frank Chace;

a double-CD set on the Retrieval label of the Rhythmic Eight, in honor of Mauro Porro, whose set at the 2011 Whitley Bay paying homage to this band was memorable;

a Leo Watson compilation CD  on Indigo — just because I couldn’t leave it there;

the Billy Strayhorn LUSH LIFE compilation on Doctor Jazz, with a fine small group whose horns are Clark Terry and Bob Wilber.

The end result at the cash register?  Forty-three dollars and some cents.  Worth a trip from just about anywhere.

BILL DUNHAM REMEMBERS BARBARA LEA

The good friend of JAZZ LIVES, pianist and bandleader Bill Dunham, sent his recollections of Barbara Lea for us:

I guess I’m Barbara’s oldest friend – both in terms of age and friendship.  She was at Wellesley (where she was Barbara Leacock out of Detroit) when I was Harvard in the late 40’s.  We met on a blind date and dated briefly (I was pretty inept and Larry Eanet took over in that department).  It was there that I introduced Barbara to the Harvard Crimson Stompers a Dixieland band that was really a hot item among the college jock fraternities (Dartmouth, etc.) Her singing career started!  I was a member of the Stompers at the time and can remember how we were all knocked out by this Wellesley girl’s singing!

During her senior year at Wellesley and after graduation she sang at local Boston clubs – some not too upscale including a Mafia-run club where she called me one night and asked me to please come down the next night because she had been threatened by a gang thug.  I was to call a police lieutenant should there be a confrontation.  I was not too enthusiastic about this assignment but fortunately it went OK with me sitting nervously clutching the policeman’s phone number.

As you know, Barbara made scores of LPs, CDs, etc.  One of my favorites is the one she made with Johnny Windhurst, a marvelous young trumpet player.  He incidentally sat in with the Grove Street Stompers a number of times.

Barbara has often been labeled as a young Lee Wiley. Yes, one can pick up traces of Wiley in her singing but Barbara was her own person and had her own approach to singing the great standards with a beautiful, pure, ungimmicky voice!

I have been a close friend of hers since college and will really miss her!

Another pianist with young Barbara Lea

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.

A FEW MORE WORDS FOR MISS LEA

On hearing of Barbara Lea’s death, I, too, went back to her recordings. And what strikes me now (and impressed me the first time I heard her) was her clarity and simplicity.  No tricks, nothing to obscure the melody and to place the singer in front of the song.  Barbara had most often been compared to the female singers she so admired — Lee Wiley, then Mildred Bailey and Billie Holiday — but at this distance she sounds much more like a medium-register cornet, on track and sweetly focused.  She was also a great interpreter of the lyrics, without ever seeming to “dramatize,” to deliver certain words or lines in italics. The music flowed through her to us.  She respected the composer’s intentions and offered the song — with a lightness of heart yet a great deal of feeling.

What also remains is the memory of her sharp-edged prose: if you have the vinyl or CD version of the sessions Dick Sudhalter and Connie Jones did first for Stomp Off Records as GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON, read her notes: they have a gentle pungency — serious truths are being told here although without belligerence.

We are lucky to have had her and her music!

Here are two more reminders.  The first is a candid photograph taken by Sonny McGown at the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival (Barbara’s studio recordings from that time are collected on a CD titled DO IT AGAIN, which pairs her with Vic Dickenson, Billy Butterfield, and Johnny Mince).  Johnny had a headache so Barbara offered a neck massage — and it looks as if she knew exactly what she was doing:

Before I close this post, the person I want to call to your attention is Jeanie Wilson, Barbara’s dear friend from North Carolina.  Jeanie stayed out of the spotlight and does so even now, but the way she and her husband Bill took care of Barbara in Barbara’s last years is a model of loving solicitude and generosity of spirit that we could all try to live up to.  As we are bereft of Barbara, we should send thanks to Jeanie for being the most devoted friend anyone ever had.

And let’s have Barbara and Johnny Windhurst, both young, fill our ears with their golden music. If there are echoes of Wiley and Hackett, that doesn’t bother me: