Monthly Archives: December 2011

CONSIDER THIS, DEAR FRIENDS!

It is now December 21, 2011, so I wish all of you a happy Solstice! 

But if the evidence around me is to be taken seriously, many people are rushing around in search of the perfect last-minute holiday gifts.  I have a great deal of ambivalence about this, although I haven’t renounced materialism entirely.  The holiday season intensifies the loud drumbeat of the online entreaty BUY THIS NOW AND BE HAPPY!  Once you are past childhood, you sense that some purchases lead to nothing more than January remorse.  How many sweaters does anyone need, especially when we know that some people don’t have sufficient clothing to keep them warm?

But — even with all that in mind, I wish to quietly offer a few last-minute JAZZ LIVES  suggestions for gifts that won’t be tossed aside on December 27.

Tops on my list is a membership in support of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.  Here’s the link: LOUIS!  There are benefits and perks to becoming e member, supporting the best museum I know.  But even if you don’t have the minimum amount for membership, generosity is possible on a smaller scale.  If everyone who ever was moved by a Louis Armstrong recording or video sent the museum a dollar, it would make it possible for the LAHM to keep the legacy of Louis vivid and tangible in this century. 

Perhaps you would like something for your contribution?  If you live close enough to Corona, Queens, New York, to pay the LAHM a visit, paradise awaits those who walk through the front door, in the gift shop.  Alas, the SATCHMO box sets have all been bought up, but there are racks and shelves of Louis-related gifts, from bags of rice with his picture on them, boxes of Swiss Kriss (something for Secret Santa at work, perhaps?), wonderful books by Ricky Riccardi, Michael Cogswell, and Jos Willems, DVDs and compact discs. 

Did someone say “compact discs”? 

The LAHM is the only place on the planet that has Gosta Hagglof’s lovely Ambassador series of discs — a wonderful labor of love, documenting Louis’ great work in the Thirties and Forties (and beyond) — with the Decca recordings, broadcasts, and more.  In fact, several of the Ambassador CDs contain music you can’t find anywhere else: the “Dancing Parties” one, devoted to Louis’ live recordings with Sidney Catlett, many of them from the Cotton Club, is extraordinary, as is the first volume of Louis and the All-Stars in Philadelphia 1948.  Unfortunately, the LAHM can’t ship you a boxful . . . you’ll just have to come to Corona in person, which is a life-changing experience. 

Other jazz gifts? 

Michael Zirpolo’s new Bunny Berigan book is a wow.  Find out more here

So is Dr. Judith Schlesinger’s feisty and compelling THE INSANITY HOAX.  Check it out here

Dawn Lambeth is coming out with a new DVD (hooray for Dawn and Chris Dawson) and there is a DVD documentary devoted to Marty Grosz, RHYTHM IS HIS BUSINESS.  Details to follow! 

Another possibility — giving thanks directly — is to go to a local jazz club.  Listen closely to the men and women swinging so deliciously.  Put something more than a dollar in the tip jar.  Buy a CD or DVD directly from the players.

And if all of this is beyond your capabilities, make sure you have jazz playing in your house . . . to lift your spirits, to make the rafters ring ‘way up to Heaven, and to enlighten your visitors.  If one more person gets to hear the 1938 Basie band, or George Wettling, or any jazz that makes you tingle, we are that much closer to creating and maintaining the wonderful world Louis sang about.

Happy holidays, dear friends!

DA CAPO AL FINE: JAMES DAPOGNY AND FRIENDS (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 17, 2011)

That dark-haired fellow at the keyboard in the videos that follow is James E. Dapogny, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus and professor emeritus of music (theory) at the University of Michigan School of Music, where he taught from 1966 to 2006.  Professor Dapogny has done extensive scholarly work on Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson.  Professor Dapogny’s study of Johnson’s work, in particular, came to fruition in the large-scale reconstruction of DE ORGANIZER and THE DREAMY KID, two Johnson operas (the first with a libretto by Langston Hughes) once thought to be lost.

But the dark-haired fellow is also Jim Dapogny, a stomping pianist whose solo and ensemble playing are instantly identifiable — he is his own man whether tenderly exploring a ballad or stomping the blues.  And he is a peerless ensemble pianist — like Basie or Ellington, James P. or Fats, he knows just what to play to push the group without overpowering it.  (I hear the barrelhouse pianists of the Twenties and Thirties — think of the blues pianists and Frank Melrose, then add on the traceries of Hines and Stacy, the force of Sullivan, a deep-rooted stride with surprising harmonies.)

But Jim is also a delightful arranger and occasional composer.  The arrangements you’ll hear on the performances below are so splendid: you can hear them subliminally (horns humming behind a solo, playing a melodic line sweetly) or you can admire them out in the open.  But a Dapogny performance is never just a string of solos: he thinks orchestrally as a bandleader as well as a pianist.  You’ll also hear a sly exchange between Jim and Marty Grosz about the arrangements — not to be taken entirely seriously:  “I know every thing I know from Marty’s records,” says Jim.  “That explains it,” retorts Marty.

Both the man and the music are gratifying, full of surprises.  I never took a class with the Professor, but I’ve learned a great deal in his informal onstage seminars at Jazz at Chautauqua (to say nothing of his recordings — another post in itself).

This set was called TUNES FOR JOE in honor of the late Jazz at Chautauqua commander-in-chief Joe Boughton, who favored lovely and sometimes obscure repertoire in favor of a themeless blues, SATIN DOLL, or SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, which would make him horrified — he actually left the room when these things happened.

In this set, the players are Jim Dapogny, piano and arranger; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Scott Robinson, Dan Block, reeds; Marty Grosz, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; Pete Siers, drums.

The set begins with BREEZIN’ ALONG WITH THE BREEZE, familiar but not often played.  Hear Jim’s comping behind Scott’s solo, Pete’s splashing cymbal behind Jon-Erik.  And the whole performance has a lovely shape and balance between the written passages — played with great swing — and the solos that explode out of them:

COUNTRY BOY (not COUNTRY BOY BLUES by Willard Robison), a paean to rural life, beautifully pastoral from its first notes.  What a pretty song!  (Composer credits, please, Professor D?)  And I hereby christen the trumpet player formerly known as “Jon-Erik” as “Bunny Kellso.”  Dapogny’s coda is worth waiting for, too — this band knows how to take its time:

THAT THING — courtesy of Roy Eldridge, a close relative of the Henderson band’s D NATURAL BLUES, brings what Jim calls “malice,” or what Dicky Wells called “fuzz” to the Chautauqua bandstand — so well.  The piano interlude is both climbing and musing, and the brass solos suggest Mister Cootie and Mister Vic — great accomplishments.  Hear the rock this band gets in the last ensemble chorus!:

Finally, a nod to Old Chicago — with a dance that’s easy to do / let me introduce it to you — SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE.  Memories of Tesch and Condon, of Frank Chace and Don Ewell, too.  If this is “Dixieland,” give me more, especially the overall texture of the band and the reed “conversation,” Kellso’s lead, Barrett’s commentaries.  Pete Siers plays that hi-hat behind a leaping Kellso in the best Catlett / Tough manner — blessings on his head:

Wonderful music — solos and ensembles that look back lovingly to the past but imbue it with energy and individualism.  Jazz, not nostalgia — very much alive, even if the repertoire is apparently “historical.”

Why the Italian title?  “At the end, go back to the head,” more or less — instructions to the player or singer to return to the opening when the piece is “over” once.  For me, those instructions have a special meaning.  These are the final video performances I will be posting from the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua: I know I’ll be returning to these and others for edification, spiritual uplift, and great fun.  What a swell-egant party it was!  And special thanks to pianist Jim and Professor James for yet another rocking seminar in lovely improvisation.

It might sound too close to THE GODFATHER, but I think of Jim as CAPO, too — in the old Italian sense of “head,” or “chief.”  He is someone special.

FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS!: RAY SKJELBRED’S FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND (Puget Sound Traditional Jazz Society, Dec. 18, 2011)

These two elevating performances come from a Dec. 18, 2011, concert by Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Jazz Band for the Puget Sound Traditional Jazz Society in Seattle, Washington.  The band members are Ray Skjelbred (leader, piano), guest artist Chris Tyle (trumpet), Steve Wright (reeds), Mike Daugherty (drums), Dave Brown (bass), guest artist Jake Powell (guitar and banjo).

Echoes of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and a thousand other Twenties blues records, BARRELHOUSE BLUES.  But this performance, although deep-down, has a sweet propulsive Thirties rock to it — imagine an Albert Ammons band circa 1936 allowed to go on for a good long time.  Or one of those groups that we know Frank Melrose led in a smoky Chicago basement club:

And something equally gutty, NOBODY’S FAULT BUT MINE — a rocking jazz sermon by Pastor Skjelbred and friends:

I take my title from the notion that these two performances swing dangerously — not at high volume or excessive speed, but deep-down velocity.  And since the Beloved and I are going to be on a plane in a few days, I was reminded of the flight attendant’s often-stated reminder that I should fasten my seat belt “low and tight around my hips.”

I wanted to call this post — in tribute to this Hot Music — LOW AND TIGHT AROUND THE HIPS — but thought it might seem distracting.  You choose!

“DELICIOUS!”: THE DAVID LUKACS TRIO

Ruby Braff wasn’t terribly interested in food . . . but one of his prime words of praise was DELICIOUS.  And it came into my mind in the first few seconds of these performances by tenor saxophonist David Lukacs,tenor saxophone; Henk Sprenger, guitar; Uli Glaszmann, string bass — recorded on November 13, 2011, in the Theatre De Meerpaal, Dronten, the Netherlands.

Here they make something positively translucent out of Victor Herbert’s INDIAN SUMMER:

And a collection of jazz standards beginning with the witty, twisty Fifties anthem, BERNIE’S TUNE, before moving to a limpid clarinet reading of YOU TURNED THE TABLES ON ME,and a bit of BESAME MUCHO (the Swing Era is back!), a touch of INDIAN SUMMER, a mournful glance at SEPTEMBER SONG, a sniff at CLARINET MARMALADE, and some FLYING HOME to get us there.

Every note’s beautifully in place, but nothing’s chilly or over-intellectualized.  This swinging trio reminds me greatly of Lucky Thompson / Oscar Pettiford / Skeeter Best or — in this century — the nifty playing of Americans Chris Madsen, Andy Brown, Dan Elfland, Joe Policastro.  I first encountered David (through the magic of YouTube) as a member of the Menno Daams small band, and was instantly won over.  I hope there are more videos of this group, and a CD, and a concert tour . . . world stardom, riches beyond the dreams of avarice . . . they deserve it and more!  (I’m ready!)

“A WONDERFUL BAND”: GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS at RADEGAST, Dec. 13, 2011

The title for this post isn’t my enthusiastic invention.  The very creative Peter Ecklund came over to me to say hello during a set break while the GSS were playing at Radegast (Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York) and his first words were “Isn’t this a wonderful band?”  I agreed — and the fact that he phrased it as a rhetorical question takes nothing away from its truth.

Peter was speaking of Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers — who, for their Dec. 13, 2011, holiday visitation, were made up of composer / arranger / trumpeter Gordon; reedman Matt Koza; trombonist Emily Asher; guitarist Davy Mooney; bassist Debbie Kennedy; singer Molly Ryan.  (Also in the house were friends Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  And the Official GSS Person, Veronica Lynn Day.)

You’ll find so much to admire here: the swing, the arrangements and compositions; the hot / sweet soloing and singing.  I especially admire Gordon’s originals: they lilt and trot like the best jazz tunes or pop songs of the past (I find myself humming them — a sure sign of permanence!) but they take unusual twists: they don’t follow formulaic paths — melodically or harmonically.  We begin with three — ranging from a hot march to two rhythm ballads.  Then there are pretty vocals by Molly Ryan, ukulele and whistling from Peter Ecklund, and the casually intense playing by every member of this band.  They are indeed wonderful!

PISMO BEACH PARADE:

SARATOGA SERENADE:

I want to know what Gordon’s title ONCE, DEAR means.  Is it “once” as in a numerical concept, or is it “once,” referring to the past?  If I know, then I can begin to whimsically compose the lyrics in my head, without ever expecting to hear anyone sing them:

I have had a soft spot for SHE’S A GREAT, GREAT GIRL for thirty-five years, ever since I heard it on a Jack Teagarden RCA Victor Vintage compilation — with Jack’s solo bursting out in the open (with great sympathetic assistance from Vic Berton’s tympani).  But I am also fond of the vocal version I heard in the last year or two, where the male singer, obviously besotted beyond reason by the Girl he loves, offers to “give up golfing, even give up my meals,” if he could only hear “the tap-tap of her heels.”  Not bad for late Twenties pop song lyrics, I vow:

AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ — sweetly sung by our own Molly Ryan and strummed by Peter Ecklund:

Molly says I’LL BE  HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: 

Peter Ecklund is one of the great whistlers I know (along with John Reynolds) and it was a treat to hear him breathe new life into SWEET SUE:

And — as a joint tribute to Walt Disney, Louis Armstrong, and a man in a bear suit — Molly tells us all about the BARE NECESSITIES:

A good time can be had by all: just appear where Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers (or perhaps one of the smaller versions) are playing.

HORACE GERLACH and BADINAGE IN SWINGTIME: MARTY GROSZ, JON-ERIK KELLSO, SCOTT ROBINSON, and FRANK TATE (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 19, 2011)

A nifty quartet — and for once without one of Marty’s idiosyncratic names — performing on September 17, 2011, at Jazz at Chautauqua.  That’s Marty on guitar, vocal, and repartee; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Scott Robinson on tenor saxophone, metal clarinet (he briefly considers his cornet in the final track); Frank Tate on string bass.  As always with Marty’s groups, I think of Fats and his Rhythm, the Kansas City Six, the Bechet-Spanier Big Four, the Delta Four, the 1940 Chocolate Dandies — sweet rhythmic contraptions that scrape the clouds.

Swing it on out there!  ALL MY LIFE:

Did someone say Fats Waller?  Why not SQUEEZE ME:

How about Fred Astaire and Johnny Mercer’s I’M BUILDING UP TO AN AWFUL LET-DOWN:

And — as a jazz dessert of sorts — a tribute to the under-acknowledged Horace Gerlach, two songs immortalized by Louis Armstrong: IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN (sung sweetly) and SWING THAT MUSIC with Jon-Erik keeping time, which he does so well:

I’m as happy as can be / When they SWING THAT MUSIC — not only for me, but for the larger audience and Posterity, too.

“WE ALL NEED GOOD MUSIC / TO STRAIGHTEN UP THE SOUL”: MATT MUNISTERI – WILLARD ROBISON (Barbes, Dec. 15, 2011)

Those lines come from Willard Robison’s THE DEVIL IS AFRAID OF MUSIC, and the sum up the experience I — and a receptive audience — had last night at Barbes in Brooklyn, New York.  Matt Munisteri sang and played both electric and acoustic guitars, aided by Danton Boller on string bass and Ben Perowsky on drums — with a late cameo appearance (two songs) by guitarist Julian Lage.

It was a lovely evening, and Matt both performed and reimagined a dozen of Robison’s songs perfectly — his singing a mix of tenderness and amusement, his playing a marvelous offering of textures: twangy notes and assertive dissonances, a rhythmic rocking whether the trio was in 2/4 or 4/4 — ranging from thunderous opening chords to lullabies.  Danton Boller was a swinging foundation, every note a pleasure in itself, whether he was creating chiming harmonies or walking the pulse.  And Perowsky was a perfect sound-receptor in the manner of Sonny Greer: what he heard, he echoed, he anticipated, he commented on — never losing the thread of the music.

I can’t wait for the Munisteri CD of Robisonia!

Last night, Matt began with one of Robison’s “syncopated sermons,” STILL RUNNIN’ ROUND IN THE WILDERNESS, which opened with minor-key vamping over Ben’s brushwork, then segued into a sweet but emphatic lesson about finding one’s life purpose by being aware of other people (always a pertinent message).

I’LL HAVE THE BLUES UNTIL I GET TO CALIFORNIA was a delicious mixture of optimism about the Golden State and a lover’s hope to be reunited.

Robison loved to quietly suggest to his listeners that they could find joy in being kinder human beings, but he had a satiric streak — one of his sly, naughty folktales is REVOLVING JONES (where one must listen very carefully to the verse to understand the chorus): Jones, before he dies, instructs his wife not to take a lover after he’s gone, or else he’ll turn over in his grave . . . and you can see where the song is headed.  With a wink, Matt delivered the tale of infidelities to his Brooklyn hearers.

Another piece of sweet Nature-worship was I HEARD A MOCKINGBIRD SINGING IN CALIFORNIA . . . which (not for the first time) led me to wonder just how much of the folk-poetry Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer are justly celebrated for comes straight from Robison.  MOONLIGHT, MISSISSIPPI had a couplet that Mercer would have been proud to write — describing the languorous cadences of speech in this “whistle-stop town,” the lyrics point out, “Like corn on the cob, it’s mighty sweet on the ear.”

Appeals for building funds never charmed me, but WE’LL HAVE A NEW HOME IN THE MORNING (anticipating Habitat for Humanity) was a rocking exhortation: we were ready to pick up hammer and nails and begin constructing something!

TRUTHFUL PARSON BROWN, the tale of a syncopating man of the cloth who swings the organ while telling his congregation what they need to know, “You’ll never get ahead if you try to keep your brother down,” was uplifting — and also reminiscent of music I’d never heard: Fats Waller said that his dream was to go out with a big band behind him and preach sermons.  He would have grinned so happily at the music I heard last night.

Many evenings of improvised music hit a peak and then trail off: this one climbed and soared.  Matt picked up his acoustic guitar for a solo trilogy (and I noted that Danton and Ben stayed there and listened admiringly) of three sweet songs I associate with Mildred Bailey: an instrumental chorus of OLD FOLKS, a deeply tender GUESS I’LL GO BACK HOME THIS SUMMER, and (what I think of as the evening’s masterpiece) a reading of LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN that was loving without being mawkish, amused without being in the least emotionally distant.

COUNTRY BOY BLUES was one of Robison’s satires — where the singer has been taken advantage of by an urban vamp, having let “a shoemaker’s daughter make a heel of me.”

Matt and Julian Lage had a good time with the closing songs — echoes of a Mississippi revival meeting in THE DEVIL IS AFRAID OF MUSIC and a reinvented T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO which began in funk territory before moving into the light.

It was a wonderful evening, with so much to admire in Robison: his earnestness and goodness of heart mixed with a Frishbergian sharpness and awareness of life’s little hypocrisies.  And then there was Mr. Munisteri, humming along with his solos, rocking the blues, creating sweet music throughout.  And he is a peerless singer, sincere or sly or both at the same time.

As I said, I can’t wait for the CD.  You might want to investigate Matt’s recorded output while you’re waiting, though . . . !

SOME RIGHTEOUS JIVE: THE AU BROTHERS JAZZ BAND (October 28, 2011)

This is the good stuff.  Give up the multi-tasking for about ten minutes and relax into the sweet and hot sounds of the Au Brothers Jazz Band.

They are Gordon on trumpet / vocal / composition;  Justin, trumpet; Brandon, trombone / English baritone; Howard Miyata (Uncle How), tuba; Katie Cavera, banjo / guitar; Danny Coots, drums.  These four performances were recorded at the Pismo, California, Jazz Jubilee “By the Sea,” on October 28, 2011.  And if you have any skepticism about how the balance would work — four brass, no piano — worry not.  Splendid soloists, great riffers, wonderful team players!

Here’s Gordon’s own romantic rhythm ballad, SOMEHOW THE WORLD HAS TURNED UPSIDE-DOWN, which he sings in a way both unaffected and effective.  The song is straight out of the Thirties but has much more clever lyrics.  Energized playing throughout and good feeling on the stand: see Katie and Danny smiling while Justin and Uncle How explore:

Another surprising composition of Gordon’s is PAVONIS (named for the genus of the peacock).  Gordon’s originals shift and turn as you listen, so I hear in this a moody ballad that could be scored for Bobby Hackett, late Louis Armstrong, or even Johnny Hodges.  But the ABJB — by their sweet understated playing — brings us to 2011, with no rhapsodizing about the past.  And by the end, all I could think of was the words “soaring lyricism” — from the whole band:

I don’t know how old any of the players was when Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK appeared on movie screens in 1967, but I would guess it predates a few of them.  Gordon has a not-so-secret fondness for odd Disney songs (many of them neglected classics) and BARE NECESSITIES is one of them.  Brandon not only utilizes his English baritone horn (in a cross-stage series of trades with his uncle) but offers a vocal chorus in the manner of Louis.

And speaking of Louis, this was one of the songs he performed on television that year — was it the HOLLYWOOD PALACE?  I have a very clear memory of watching him sing this ditty — then a man in a bear suit came out from the wings; “bear” and Louis did a few turns and a do-si-do, then the “bear” went back to his cave — perhaps the greenroom.  If you see your hero cutting a rug with a man in a bear suit, you don’t forget it:

To close the session, something familiar — a good old good one complete with hot drum solo!  LIMEHOUSE BLUES with the verse.  And, yes, that riff before Katie solos is indeed an Au-variation on DIZZY ATMOSPHERE:

Californians are so lucky!  (Although we have a firm grip on Gordon here in New York City: I saw the Grand Street Stompers at the Radgast Bierhalle last night, and they were wonderful.  Stay tuned.)

MATT MUNISTERI DIGS DEEP: “THE LOST MUSIC OF WILLARD ROBISON” (Barbes, Dec. 15, 2011) IS COMING

May I recommend something to the tristate JAZZ LIVES audience?  It’s an evening of music coming this Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, beginning at 8 PM.  Guitarist / singer / songwirter / thinker Matt Munisteri will be presenting THE LOST MUSIC OF WILLARD ROBISON along with friends Matt Ray on piano and Danton Boller on bass.  Barbes is an intriguing spot in Brooklyn, New York: their site is Barbes — and they are located at 376 Ninth Street (corner of Sixth Avenue) in Park Slope; their phone is 347.422.0248.  Barbes is — for the geographically anxious — reachable by the F train, which should calm us all. 

Matt Munisteri is well-known as a fine guitarist to JAZZ LIVES — creating looping down-home solos and playing rocking rhythms — and as co-founder of The EarRegulars.  But Matt rarely sings at The Ear Inn, so the evening at Barbes will allow us to hear him: a mixture of earnest and sly, heartfelt and ironic.  Matt Ray creates note clusters that seem like small stars; Danton Boller is a great swing melodist.  This trio would be worth the trip to Park Slope on their own collective / individual merits and voices, but since the subject (and the musical text) is Willard Robison, it will be an extra-special evening. 

If people know of Robison at all, it is for his jazz connections — with Bix, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Lang, and other luminaries in the Twenties.  Later on, his songs were sung in the most touching way by Mildred Bailey.  A few became unforgettable pieces of the musical landscape: OLD FOLKS,  A COTTAGE FOR SALE, and DON’T SMOKE IN BED.  Robison was so popular that he made many recordings as a vocalist, pianist, bandleader, and composer; he had his own radio show. 

But I fear that he has been misunderstood as a folksy poet of rural pieties — go to church, keep your hand on the plow, tell the truth.  He did have strong moral beliefs and he did weave them into his songs, but I never find a bar of Robison’s music didactic or preachy. 

And there is a sharp wit under the surface; his melodic lines often go in unexpected directions, and his “folksiness” is very expertly crafted.  And he is very deep: listen to ‘ROUND MY OLD DESERTED FARM for one example.

Although Robison died in 1968, he has found someone who not only loves but understands him in Matt Munisteri — a romantic with a sharp eye for the absurdities of the world, a city boy who knows what it is to burn wood in a stove for heat.  And even better: this appearance at Barbes is a preview, a coming-to-a-theatre-near-you for Matt’s CD devoted to Robison that will be released next year. 

Skip the office party; don’t go to the department store.  I’ll see you at Barbes!

POST-GRADUATE SWING SCHOOL at THE EAR INN (Dec. 11, 2011)

The students were arranged in a neat row at the bar (and a few sat at tables); the Visiting Professors began the seminar.

We weren’t taking notes, but we were learning a great deal last Sunday night, Dec. 11, 2011, at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.

The EarRegulars that night were Matt Munisteri, guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jon Burr, string bass; Harry Allen, tenor sax; and sitting in for the Official Christmas Song, Michael Blake; tenor sax.

What did we learn?  A great deal about love for melody and respectful although playful melodic embellishments.  We filled our mental notebooks with observations on the state of twenty-first century Swingmatism, and Einstein’s Law of Time as it applies to the elasticticity of the beat.  We observed the sweet variations of Medium Tempo, and once again had an opportunity to revisit the philosophy of Oran Thaddeus Page, who uttered the timeless words, “The material is immaterial,” as well as his observations on the necessity of having his livelihood remain serene.

I wish all the Jazz History students in the known world could attend these seminars at The Ear Inn, and the people currently squabbling in the blogosphere about what to call this music (How about “Music”?) and who owns it . . . could study what we studied.

Of course, I have provided an online study guide below.

Very few bands play WHAT’S THE USE?; very few players know it, and it got a divine performance from the EarRegulars.  I think it was originally a rather sad love ballad written by Isham Jones; I first heard it on a red-label Commodore 78 that featured Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, and Eddie Condon.  Here is it, reimagined for us:

That Irving Berlin fellow wrote mighty good tunes — no postmodern irony, no hip posturing.  He celebrates love and faithfulness — as do the EarRegulars, as a nice rocking tempo, with ALWAYS:

More Berlin!  Shades of Louis and the Mills Brothers, of Ruby Braff, early and late, inhabit MY WALKING STICK:

Michael Blake (tenor sax on the right) joined in for another Berlin classic — a song ennobled by Bing, Louis, and Connee: WHITE CHRISTMAS:

Someday we will speak nostalgically of the great Sunday evenings at The Ear Inn!  I hope they go on and on: there is no need to graduate from the University holding classes at 326 Spring Street.

This post is affectionately dedicated to Ace Irwin, formerly an aerospace engineer, a theatrical set designer, and artist who is enjoying the sounds with all his heart in Mendocino, California.  He loves to listen to the EarRegulars and is someone who understands the various scenes at The Ear Inn, although he’s never been there.  It’s an honor to send this music across the continent to him!  I’ve never met Ace, but knowing that he is on the other end of the cyber-pipeline warms my heart.  (How do I know about him?  His daughter is one of my warm-hearted Ear Inn pals, and she speaks of her father with affection and gratitude.  Good deal!)

I keep JAZZ LIVES going for all the people I might never meet, the lovely men and women who might or might not ever get to New York City or the California festivals that have been so festive.  This blog is for the Beloved (of course), for Aunt Ida and Boris, Eric and Noya, Bill and Melissa, Ricky and Clint, Hal and James Arden . . . the list could be very long.  You, you, and especially you!

SONG STYLISTS: SONYA PINCON, CHRIS PEETERS, LYNN STEIN

One of the many pleasures of JAZZ LIVES is that I find about artists I would ordinarily never have known about.  Here are three singers who might be new to you, whose work will please you.  Each one is a strong individual stylist: no repeater pencils here.  And since some of my metaphorical way of looking at the world finds food-analogies everywhere, if you think of the three singers below as very sharply flavored cuisines, you wouldn’t be far off.

I first encountered SONYA PINÇON on YouTube — singing as part of a group led by her husband, the fine swing pianist Philippe Souplet.  She has a new CD out, IN THE MOOD FOR DUKE, where she’s accompanied by Souplet, Patrick Stanislawski, string bass; Joel Toussaint, drums.  I was at first struck by the focused ease of her voice, evoking any number of fine singers but not imitating anyone.  The repertoire is tried-and-true Ellington / Strayhorn, but it certainly sounds lively rather than overfamiliar.  (I have my usual problems with the lyrics added after the fact, but Sonya doesn’t take it all too seriously, as if she were singing Sondheim or Hart, and husband Philippe strides splendidly and in a delightfully understated way.)  They perform — live — DUKE’S PLACE / DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM / SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR / PRELUDE TO A KISS / CARAVAN / I AIN’T GOT NOTHING BUT THE BLUES / SATIN DOLL / SOPHISTICATED LADY / JUST SQUEEZE ME / IT DON’T MEAN A THING / DAY DREAM.

Here’s a fourteen-minute YouTube preview from the CD: .  Visit http://www.sonyapincon.com for more information.  To order the CD, email Sonya at sonya.jazz@yahoo.fr

If I heard CHRIS PEETERS singing from another room — on the radio or her new CD, that my reaction would be, “Wow!  Who is that?”  And then when I heard her own blues — which has the refrain, “Well, a little strange is good,” I knew the amused and amusing souce of her appeal.  It seems as if her world is charmingly atilt . . . perhaps ten degrees off what the world calls “level.”  About half of her debut CD is devoted to her own compositions, which are surprisingly refreshing — her own versions of hip Europop, the theme songs for films that we might never see, music that we would keep humming to ourselves.  Here’s that BLUES: 

Chris has the benefit of imaginative and often surprising backing on her CD — including Dirk van der Linden; piano, organ, vocal, Vincent Koning, guitar, vocal; Jos Machtel, string bass; Rene Winter, drums, percussion, vocal; David Lukacs, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Joep Peeters, vibraphone; Ellister van der Molen, trumpet; Dennis Kolen, vocal.  She is one of the few singers who can take on the Billie Holiday repertoire without being swallowed up by it — hear her YOU LET ME DOWN as a funeral march with a swinging pulse.  The songs are NOT THE FIRST TIME / BAR FLY / PETITE DANSEUSE DE QUATORZE ANS / MY MAN / CHRIS’ BLUES / SUIT / YOU LET ME DOWN / OH, LOOK AT ME NOW / ONLY ALONE / IT’S LOVE / THE SPINACH SONG (I DIDN’T LIKE IT THE FIRST TIME) / LA VALSE DES LILAS / HALLELUJAH, I LOVE HIM SO.  Find out more here

So far, LYNN STEIN doesn’t have a glossy YouTube video (more about that later).  But she is the only singer of this trio that I’ve had the good fortune to hear live, and her new CD shows off what she can do — and more — in the best way.  Although her new CD, SOFTLY, is brief, she shows off a variety of approaches in six compact performances: from risk-taking to carefully evocative to genre-bending (a version of I’LL BE AROUND that is tough, resilient rather than maudlin).  Her singing can be coy, ironic, sweeping, and rich.  And on the CD she has splendid musical partners: Jon Burr, string bass; John Hart, guitar; Matt Ray, piano; Warren Vache, cornet (on I’LL BE AROUND).  Living in New York, I have the opportunity to hear Lynn and Jon often — and the best part is that Jonathan Schwartz is playing this CD on the radio: always a sign of great things to come.  The songs are SOFTLY, AS IN A MORNING SUNRISE / ALONE TOGETHER / ONLY TRUST YOUR HEART / I’LL BE AROUND / WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO / MY FOOLISH HEART.  Lynn’s singing sounds simple, but it isn’t . . . close listening reveals a great deal.

About the video!  Here’s Lynn in September 2011 at Jazz at Chautauqua, telling us that everything was fine but it’s even better now — I WAS DOING ALL RIGHT — with Jon on bass, Howard Alden, guitar; Harry Allen, tenor sax; Dan Barrett, trombone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Pete Siers, drums.  I admire the performance; I was there; I held the camera:

Sing out, sisters!

TWO WAYS OF LOOKING AT PAUL MOTIAN

Fred Settenberg’s piece on Paul Motian intrigues me.  Although I don’t always enjoy writing so powerfully aware of its own power, Settenberg’s piece — just posted a day ago — moves me.  It feels candid, adult, a little wry: and the love for Motian’s music and what it implied, the dreams that great art leads us into, is fully realized.

It’s worth reading for sure: Motian

But I know that Paul Motian was — in his own quiet, amused, compelling way — a man too large to be encompassed by just one piece of writing.  So here is the photographer John Rogers’ tribute to Motian as loving mentor and guide to the big city — a piece I haven’t been able to get out of my system since I first read it:

Dinners and Drum Music

I wish I could require my students to read these two beautiful evocations side-by-side: Settenberg imagining an ideal future in the sound of recorded jazz; Rogers finding his way with Motian at his side.  How very different, how moving, and how true!

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES TO A DANCE: FOUR SEMI-FORMAL SCENES from the COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY SWING DANCE (December 9, 2011)

In my ideal re-envisioning of myself, I am both a hot cornetist — modeling myself on Little Bobby Hacksaw — and a stylish swing dancer.  Both of these goals have so far eluded me, but I was delighted to be invited to the Columbia University Swing Dance Society Semi-Formal Friday night.  And I took my camera.  More about that in sixteen bars.

What could be nicer, more promising?  The Grand Street Stompers would play hot and sweet jazz — always original — for an audience of limber swing fans who were in constant motion.  The GSS is one of my favorite bands: Gordon Au on trumpet, gentle leadership, compositions and arrangements; Dennis Lichtman on clarinet; Matt Musselman on trombone; Nick Russo on banjo and guitar; Rob Adkins on string bass; Kevin Dorn (just back from the West Coast) on drums; Tamar Korn on voice.

The Beloved came in and enjoyed the scene; I got to talk with some friends: Lucy Weinman, Veronica Lynn Day, Sam Huang, Michelle deCastro, and Lynn Redmile — and to watch the dancers, who made me think sadly of college opportunities missed.  I told Veronica that when I went to college swing dancing was not quite in fashion (probably I was too busy reading), but that had I been in the right place and the right time, I would have been entranced — both by the live music and by the lively young women.  I would have had a fine time and probably flunked all my classes.  Worth the trade?  No doubt, to quote Mr. Morton.

But back to the semi-formal scenes.  I stationed myself at the rear of the room to capture what you might have seen and heard had you been there . . . the videos are slightly more jumpy than I would have preferred, but I thought a tripod would not have gone with my semi-formal garb.

For Bix, for Hoagy, and for swing — RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

Miss Korn (resplendent in mauve or is it Valpoicella?) tells us EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY:

Are skies cloudy and gray?  They’re only gray for a day, remember.  WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

And Gordon’s own rocking love song, CRAZY EYES:

Wonderful scenes!  And how fortunate we are that such things are flourishing in this century — not only for those people who live near 117th Street and Broadway.  Get rhythm in your feet!  On with the dance!

EXACTLY LIKE THIS! (“KATIE AND THE LOST BOYS,” December 6, 2011)

Initially, I thought the band name was misleading — even though I understood the reference to PETER PAN.  Clint Baker (heard here on clarinet and trumpet) and Jason Vanderford (banjo) seem like the least-lost-fellows in the cosmos . . . they never miss a beat!  But I accept the title on behalf of Katie Cavera, who certainly provokes lovely thoughts whether she’s playing, singing, or just sitting down in front of her breakfast . . .and she surely can fly (no need for the feathers)!

We owe thanks to the musicians and to Alisa Clancy — whose December 6, 2011, end-of-the-year party at her “Jazz on the Hill” class at San Mateo Community College we’re now enjoying.  And of course we owe thanks to Rae Ann Berry, who took her camera, tripod, and enthusiasm to capture this music for us.

Exactly like this, exactly like them, EXACTLY LIKE YOU:

When some people might ask, “Should I reveal / exactly how I feel?” we might be tempted to say, “Gee, I’ve got to run.  Will you look at that time?” — but this group can reveal its feelings all they like . . . play it till 2051:

Katie sings I WISH I COULD SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE — beautifully, as always.  Some of you may be troubled by the postmodern aspect of this — isn’t Katie Cavera our Sister Kate?  How can she sing about herself in the third person?  Don’t let these metafictional trifles ruin your pleasure:

And here’s Clint to tell us all about Al Capone, Johnny Dodds, and a hat — tales worth spinning — as prelude to a lovely rendition of SARATOGA SWING:

Another one of Miss Cavera’s signature numbers, that paean to erotic activity — time’s a-wasting!  We’re burning moonlight here!  Ah, DO SOMETHING:

And a version of JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE (in two tempos) that’s full of feeling and personal significance, as Clint explains:

We’ll close with another vision of Paradise — did J.M. Barrie know this one? — called AVALON:

Exactly!

FROM THE HEART, FOR THE HEART: RAY SKJELBRED’S “FIRST THURSDAY BAND” (Dec. 1, 2011)

Feeling low?  Got a parking ticket?  Can’t shake that nasty cold?  Worried about the bills?  Did you burn the toast?

It’s going to be all right.  In fact, it’s already all right. 

Make yourself to home and listen to this music.  Or — if you’re swiffing around, turn up the volume and feel the deep swinging joy this band creates.

They’re Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, caught live at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, on December 1, 2011.  They are Ray Skjelbred, piano / leader; Steve Wright, cornet, clarinet, alto and soprano saxes; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums.

And — in the spirit of the season — do you hear what I hear?  I hear a real jazz band.  “What’s that?” I hear someone in the back saying.  Well, that’s an improvising group where all the members love the music and work together towards the same purpose, supporting one another in a gritty joyousness appropriate to the song, picking up each others’ cues, playing witty follow-the-leader so that one hears simultaneously a quartet and four strong-minded individualists taking their own path to get to their own versions of Jazz Paradise.

I also hear echoes of Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Fud Livingston, Guy Kelly, Doc Poston, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Wellman Braud, Milton J. Hinton, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty (a relation, perhaps?), George Wettling — all embodied on December 1, 2011, by living creators who have absorbed the tradition and made it their own.  Who cares if people fight cyber-skirnishes in the blogosphere about whether “J**z” is alive or dead?  Call this by whatever polite name you like: it is most certainly alive.

The first song and performance that caught my attention was LOVE ME TONIGHT, which is associated in my mind with Earl Hines and Bing Crosby — one hell of a pair!  It is a lovely song: with lyrics, one of the most insinuating seduction lyrics I know (perhaps more wooing than A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY): a carpe diem pointed towards the bedroom.  But here it’s a bit more lowwdown, suggesting that Chicago jazz was a powerful aphrodisiac as well:

And here’s a lowdown Commodore JADA:

Something unusual from Mister Piano Man — a little solo tribute to someone quite forgotten, Cassino Simpson.  All most of us know of him is that he worked with Tiny Parham and did his own Chicago gigs, before succumbing to mental instability.  After he unsuccessfully tried to kill Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, he was institutionalized and I believe he spent the rest of his life there.  The noble John Steiner took recording equipment to Simpson and recorded him playing piano in 1942: the results, very hard to find even fifty years ago, appeared on a Paramont 10″ lp, which I’ve heard but never seen.  Mister Skjelbred gives us a window into the blues — the Cassino Simpson way:

And something pretty, soulful, as well as funky: Ellington’s BLACK BEAUTY:

Here’s a truly mournful TRAV’LIN ALL ALONE (Ethel Waters – Jimmie Noone – Kenny Davern tempo, not Billie’s ironic bounce):

And a rather obscure tune from 1936 — I associate it only with Henry “Red” Allen, but that’s sufficient pedigree for anyone — NOTHING’S BLUE BUY THE SKY:

Something else from Red (circa 1933), his affirmation that everything is really OK — THE RIVER’S TAKIN’ CARE OF ME:

And the song that could stand as the band’s secondary title, summing up their attitude towards their work and their art, LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (think of Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, and Jeni LeGon in STORMY WEATHER).  Ray sings the delectable lyrics softly, but you might consider memorizing them — you could do far worse for a mantra to get you through every day:

What exquisite music — delicate and raunchy at the same time!

P.S.  I don’t want to be especially preachy, but I would like all the youthful musicians in the house to watch and listen closely to these clips — for the deep unspoken unity of the quartet, the shifting sound-textures, and numberless virtues.  Mister Skjelbred doesn’t cover the keyboard with runs and arpeggios (unless he wants to); his left hand is integral to his playing; he could be a whole orchestra but doesn’t trample on anyone.  Mister Wright knows everything there is to know about “tonation and phrasing”: not a note is out of place and each one has its own purpose, its own sound.  And, children, there were ways of playing the alto saxophone that Charles Parker did not render obsolete.  Mister Daugherty does so much with so few cymbals — bless him! — he knows what his snare drum and bass drum are for; he swings those wire brushes, and he is always listening.  And Mister Brown, whether plucking or bowing, gets a deep resonant yet flexible sound out of his bass.  Want to know what kind of amplifier he uses?  It’s called LOVE.  And although he can play the guitar beautifully, he doesn’t turn his string bass into one.  There!  I have spoken.  Learn it to the younguns!

SWEET AFFIRMATIONS: ANDY SCHUMM, DAN BARRETT, DAN LEVINSON, JOHN SHERIDAN, GLENN HOLMES, BILL RANSOM (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 18, 2011)

The 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua was full of delights, and this set was one, a congenial group of musicians taking their time through three late-Twenties pop songs.  Perhaps it’s coincidental, but you’ll notice that the titles of the first and third song say YES in their own ways, and the one-word title of the middle song is all about sweetness.

The heroes up on the bandstand are Andy Schumm, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Levinson, reeds; John Sheridan, piano; Glenn Holmes, string bass; Bill Ransom, drums.

And the songs?

After an affirmative ensemble, ‘DEED I DO shifts into gear with Dan Levinson’s sweet-sour solo and the chord backgrounds behind it.  Then Andy shouts for joy and the other gentlemen of the ensemble follow in their own way:

SUGAR has connections to Ethel Waters, McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans, Louis Armstrong and Vic Dickenson, and of course that Bix fellow.  The Schumm-Sheridan duet on the verse is a delight!  The lazy Trumbauer tenor solo by Dan L. and the more bumptious one by Dan B. are equally sweet, as is Sheridan’s quiet rollicking, with a very Lestorian Dan leading us out.  Andy’s little coda suggests both Lester and Bobby Hackett:

And the unusual one (although I believe it was a pop hit), THERE’S “YES YES” IN YOUR EYES, which starts with a hot cadenza, turns the corner into a sweet melody chorus — enjoy the transition into an improvised ensemble and the backing Sheridan gives the soloists — before the brassmen have a very concise exchange of ideas and Bill Ransom takes a volatile drum break to close things out:

I’m sorry that neither of the two Dans burst into song — I will bet that both of them knew the lyrics.  Here’s the chorus:

Your lips tell me no no
But there’s yes yes in your eyes
I’ve been missing your kissing just because I wasn’t wise
I’ll stop my scheming and dreaming ’cause I realize
Your lips tell me no no
But there’s yes yes in your eyes
And here are two covers:

I knew Bunk Johnson had recorded it, but not Dean Martin, Eddy Howard, as well as Ken Colyer.  And — since the twenty-first century is full of marvels, one site tells me that I could have THERE’S YES YES IN YOUR EYES as a ringtone on my cellphone.  Tempting, no?  Although the NO NO part of the lyric is less encouraging.

To this music, wouldn’t you say YES YES?

BILL WOOD, SELMA HERALDO, PAUL BLAIR: “NO-ONE CAN TAKE YOUR PLACE”

There are people, memorably important in the Land of Jazz, who never pick up instruments or sing a hot chorus.  Three of them, dear to me in their own ways, have died in the past weeks.  This posting is by no means the full-scale memorial or obituary each one deserves.  It’s just something I have to write so that JAZZ LIVES readers will know.

Between 2004 and 2010, whenever I went to Jazz at Chautauqua, I inevitably ended up spending time and money at a table where a large quantity of sheet music was laid out enticingly — to admire and to purchase.  Bill Wood and his younger partner Greg Laird came to greet me, to be amused by my comments on the sheets I bought and refused to buy, and I expected to see them there year after year.

Bill looked as if he would have fit in perfectly as a small-town druggist or the wise fellow behind the hardware counter in a small-town store that had refused to be bought up by a chain.

He wasn’t there in 2011, and I missed his quiet, amiable presence, overseeing the coming and going of people and pages of Thirties pop songs.  In mid-November, Greg told me Bill had died: “Bill loved going to Chautauqua and providing his great collection of sheet music.  He loved the music and the people.  He was truly one of the nicest men I have ever known.  Even when he couldn’t use the computer any more, I still read to him what everyone was doing through your blog.”

Now, whenever I go through the stack of sheet music on the piano, I will think of Bill Wood with even more gratitude: someone who made it possible for me to bring home new music to learn, to admire, to enjoy.

Selma Heraldo, who died a few days ago at 88, received less attention than she deserved.  She was a fixture at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, because she had been Louis and Lucille’s next-door neighbor for decades.  Although she was the size and shape of an old-fashioned elementary school pointer, it would have been a mistake to underestimate her.

Had Selma lived in Hollywood, she would have been a renowned character actress, and that’s no stage joke.

She had a lovely wry grin, a nearly theatrical forwardness, and no tolerance for inaccuracy or self-promotion in anyone.  If someone else in the room claimed an unmerited glory, Selma would set the person — and everyone else within hearing — straight.  She was a delightful storyteller, and I will cherish forever the tales she told of her mother making Louis a fried-egg sandwich in the Heraldo kitchen when he came home from the road, wanting something plain to eat.

Selma was a shameless vaudevillian, incomparable in the art of mock-serious flirtation.  On September 22, 2011, she was seated at our table in the pleasant garden of the LAHM, eating dinner al fresco before Ricky Riccardi did his presentation on the Gosta Hagglof collection.

In an instant Selma decided I was both her comic foil and male door prize, leaning forward to ask if I would go home with her. “Not later, today.  I live next door,” she winked at me.  When I demurred, saying (as is my habit) that I was so sorry to turn her down, that I was already in a relationship, that perhaps I would disappoint her, she kept the game at a high level.  “Your wife better keep a close eye on you, handsome,” she said.

I did my best to keep the level of things high by asking Selma where she had been seven years ago when I had been at liberty and would have taken her up on her offer, and she giggled happily.

Being the object of Selma’s attention, even for a minute, was like hearing Louis launch into a second chorus of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING: she was a master improviser, able to negotiate any turn with comic timing that would have pleased Jack Benny.

Paul Blair, the dear editor at HOT HOUSE — the great New York jazz magazine, died of a sudden heart attack.  He would have been 70 in January 2012.  I met him through the Beloved, who had gone on several of his jazz walking tours, and he welcomed me to the magazine.

Although I sometimes chafe against editing, cherishing my own peculiarities, working with Paul was a writer’s dream.  He was careful, witty, tactful — but his suggested changes were so good that I took them without a word of fuss.  Reading my prose, he quickly saw what it might be and moved speedily yet gently to make that ideal possible.  I also enjoyed the witty emails he sent me — often with information I hadn’t known.

I only met him once in person: I had been urging him to come to The Ear Inn to hear The EarRegulars, and one night he did.  I didn’t recognize him in person, but he found me and we had a conversation that began in laughter and ended in an deep friendly empathy.  A casually-dressed man who easily made himself comfortable, he sat near the band and I could see him enjoying the sounds of the music: his face clearly reflected what was being played.  I could see that he was a perfectly intuitive listener, which is why  he was such a fine editor.

Paul was also master of the unexpected sweet generosity.  Once, with no prelude (after he had come to know my taste) he told me of some cassettes he had, recorded at a jazz party in the Seventies, featuring jazz pianists, some of whom are now dead.  Would I like these cassettes?  I was enthusiastic; they arrived a week later; he wanted nothing in return.

With the deaths of Bill, Selma, and Paul, my circle of people I love and admire has constricted, and my world is a little smaller.  I will do them the only honor I can — remembering them with love and hoping that others do so also.

And although I hope to make new friendships with other people memorable for their generosity, their style, these three will not be replaced or forgotten.

GO, LITTLE BOOK! — “WAY DOWN THAT LONESOME ROAD: LONNIE JOHNSON IN TORONTO 1965-1970” by MARK MILLER

Mark Miller is the most consistently satisfying jazz writer today.

His books are full of new information, but it’s never oppressive heapings-up of research.  He is occasionally part of the text in subtle ways but never the subject.  His affection and interest in his subjects is palpable.  In an age of self-indulgent sprawling prose, he is superbly concise.

I have read books by Mark on people who are slightly outside my realm of interest — Valaida Snow and Herbie Nichols.  And I had a problem with each of these books, but not what you might expect.  I really wanted to stop everything else I was doing and read the book in one sitting.  Watching me ration myself with a new Miller book must be hilarious, like watching someone put the bag of potato chips on the highest shelf and then hunt down the stepladder.  None of his books has ever seemed too long.

And his new biography seems more subtle, more graceful, than its predecessors.  It’s a portrait of the blues / jazz guitarist / singer / composer Lonnie Johnson and the last five years of his life in Toronto.

I confess that my awareness of Lonnie Johnson was limited.  I knew and admired him primarily as an extra added attraction with Louis, with Ellington, for his wonderful soloing on the 1940 Decca CHICAGO JAZZ sessions with Johnny Dodds (hear him on NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES).  I had admired his guitar playing and singing, but once had had a copy of his Canadian CD, STOMPIN’ AT THE PENNY (with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers) and had let it go to a guitarist friend without undue regret.  So I didn’t approach this book already in love with its subject.  I did, however, anticipate superb reading ahead.  If anything, I underestimated what Miller can create.

First of all, in an era of hugely comprehensive biographies (pick your tomes as you will) one soon realizes that not every figure requires such coverage, nor is there necessarily always the requisite evidence to support six hundred pages.  Jazz biographers sometimes act as if they know no one will ever write a biography of Kid X again, so they cram their pages every available piece of data, including lists of gigs and travel details.

As a scholar, I admire the thoroughness, the diligence, and the scope of such information-gathering, and I know that the resulting book will be useful to future generations.  As a reader, I find the fact-avalanche daunting: I imagine a parade of appendices so that I could continue reading about the main drama.  And sometimes the lives of jazz musicians are only interesting because we are in love with the music that they make.  As a result, many of the most weighty jazz biographies — although I come to them with anticipation — feel heavy in my hands before their subject is 35.

Mark Miller writes books that look and feel like volumes of poetry, as if you could put such a book in a jacket pocket, smaller than an iPad.  (This book, by the way, is beautifully done by the Mercury Press and I found no misprints — something remarkable — and there are precious photographs I’d never even imagined.)  WAY DOWN THAT LONESOME ROAD is just over 150 pages of text, which would be several decent-sized chapters for one of our more expansive writers.  To be candid, this review is longer than many of Miller’s chapters.

It isn’t that Miller’s story is limited or short on interest.  In fact, even if you knew nothing of Johnson, a number of intriguing issues arise here: the drama of the last five years of the life of a performing artist; an African-American artist in a country he wasn’t born in; the politics of gigging, publicity, getting recognition, making money; what happens to a “former” star, and more.

Yet this isn’t a sad sad story.

Many jazz chronicles intentionally thrive on victimization: poor Bix, poor Bird, and more.  Miller clearly loves Lonnie Johnson (and saw him perform — once — at an epiphanic moment in 1970) and grieves for him, but this book is not an elegy for someone brutalized, nor an indictment of an ungrateful society.

None of the above.  Rather, in vignette-sized chapters of a few pages (each taking as long as a 78 side if you are a quick reader), Miller delineates the shape of Lonnie’s last years — how the “roamin’ rambler” arrived in his final city, Toronto.  Miller sketches in Johnson’s early and middle career for the first forty pages of the book.  In this section, Miller neatly balances his sense of the man — a mix of seriousness and mischief, of modesty and pride — his travels (Miller is particularly good on his feel for the overlapping worlds of jazz, blues, vaudeville, and recordings) and the music he produced, on and off records.

Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang, and Bessie Smith make appearances here, although Miller is not someone obsessed with chronicling every note recorded.  But when he does write about the music, he hears a great deal and reveals it to us.

It’s when Lonnie Johnson arrives in Toronto that the pace slows down in a very gratifying way.  For not only has Miller followed Lonnie’s trail through the newspapers and the jazz magazines of the time (the book is dedicated to the late John Norris, much-missed; Patrick Scott, a champion of Lonnie’s who could be vitriolic, also appears) but he has spoken to people who knew Lonnie, who sewed up a pair of his ripped trousers, who ate ice cream with him, who saw him perform, who loved him, who saw him sit on the floor and play with a pair of kittens.

Young blues guitarists and old colleagues (including Louis Armstrong) come in and out of the text; this book includes both Don Ewell and Lady Iris Mountbatten, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Jim Galloway.  I marvel at Miller’s gift for weaving reminiscence and data, impressionistic illustration and quotations, into an entrancing whole.  Many jazz books feel like the sweet necrology: their subject is dead, and all the people recalling the subject are dead, too.  Not so here: the book is full of sharply-realized affectionate stories told by very alive people.

It is one of those books that even when a reader is fascinated by what is happening on page 64, that same reader is also aware of the writer’s larger design.  In fact, several times, I felt strongly that Miller is demonstrating the subtle interweaving of strands of fact and feeling in the way a great modern novelist would do — except that he is playing fair with the information, inventing nothing but simply presenting what he’s  learned in fulfilling ways.

In addition to the mix of reminiscence and fact, there is also a good deal of subtly understated social history.  It is not the heavy-handed “historical context” that I find so irritating elsewhere.  Imagine a biography of Hot Mama Susie Saucepan that arrives at 1933 — at which point the writer feels compelled to explain all about the Depression, Repeal, the New Deal, who was on the radio, what was the popular car, film, hair style.  I am no cultural historian, but when books offer these nuggets of freeze-dried history, I skip forward — often after putting the book down for a brief irate interval.

Miller doesn’t do this, but he has a fine sensitive awareness for the flavor of the different neighborhoods, communities, and populations of Toronto — often as manifested in the different blues and jazz clubs that appear and die (including one Lonnie invented for himself).  One senses that Miller, who refuses to make the narrative all about himself, is writing from personal observation and experience.  (And when, by the way, Miller is part of the text — as an eighteen-year old blues fan at a 1970 concert where Lonnie sings two songs — it is a breathtaking experience.)

Although Lonnie Johnson didn’t leave a substantial narrative record — no jazz institute recorded an oral history; no young filmmaker created a documentary — he lives on in Miller’s book, a man and musician as complex as any of us: “He was a gentle soul, a charmer and a ladies’ man.  He could be too trusting, an easy mark, but he was also rather sly, feigning innocence and playing for sympathy when it served his purpose.  He looked out for himself first and foremost, but he could be generous towards others.  He was regarded with respect, great affection, and, occasionally, exasperation.”  So Miller synthesizes the reactions of the people who knew his subject.

And one gets a vivid portrait of Johnson in his brief spoken excerpts: the cheerful man who meets John McHugh (club owner) and Jim McHarg (musician) in Toronto and wants to know what “the chick situation” is; the aging man who is worried that he will be looked on as a relic, who asks musicologist Charles Keil before he will grant an interview, “Are you another one of those guys who wants to put crutches under my ass?”  But Johnson comes across as neither cynical nor predatory.  We are reminded by incident rather than any authorial sermonizing that there is no barrier between Johnson and his music.  He tells an interviewer, “I love to sing.  Some singers love payday.  They sing for payday.  I don’t.  I sing for you, for the people out there, for myself.”  The book is full of memorable little sentences that linger in the mind like the pungent notes of Johnson’s guitar.

My favorite is “Charlie, the canary sings,” but you’ll have to read the book to delight in that story.

Ultimately, Lonnie Johnson comes fully alive in these pages because of Miller’s love and skill.  A lesser writer would not have melded the very disparate elements with such grace; truly, it could have become a formulaic story of the Last Years of An Aging African-American Jazzman.  Miller is the literary equivalent of a Jimmy Rowles or a Joe Thomas: every word is in place.  His writing surprises us with its lilt, and the result seems beautifully inevitable.

The book is available through a variety of online sources: you might begin at here.

MODERNISM WITH ROOTS: KEITH INGHAM PLAYS JOHN LEWIS (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 18. 2011)

Everyone knows John Lewis at the pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and a serious composer.  The aura of seriousness followed Lewis in other ways: I don’t recall any photographs of him in a t-shirt, although there are some portraits in which he is broadly smiling.  But the imagined picture of that handsome man in the tuxedo is so strong that some might forget that Lewis had deep roots in Basie and Ellington and the blues, that he accompanied Lester Young and Jo Jones on some splendid small-group recordings, and that he swung.  (Check out DELAUNAY’S DILEMMA on an Atlantic session — IMPROVISED MEDITATIONS AND EXCURSIONS — if you don’t believe this.)

What better pianist to honor Lewis than our own Keith Ingham, someone who is also occasionally perceived through the wrong end of the telescope as a uniquely fine accompanist to singers, someone able to swing any band or to write arrangements that make everyone sound better.  But Keith is not caught in the Thirties; his new Arbors CD has (by his choice) songs he loves by Wayne Shorter as well.

So we have a meeting of two modernists with roots — Lewis creating lovely melodies on his score sheet; Keith creating his at the piano, with the inspired playing of Frank Tate, string bass, and John Von Ohlen, drums, to guide and propel — all recorded at Jazz at Chautauqua on Sept. 18, 2011.

AFTERNOON IN PARIS:

SKATING IN CENTRAL PARK:

DJANGO:

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW:

Cerebral music with a deep soul.

And while we’re on the subject of Mr. Ingham and his subtly deep ways at the keyboard, I would like to follow up on an earlier posting — featuring Keith playing Dave Brubeck (also Arthur Schwartz and Billy Strayhorn).  My friend Hank O’Neal (a member of the down-home nobility) sent the Brubeck recital to Dave himself!  Dave loved it and said so in an email: “From listening to the Chautauqua concert on UTube I would say that Keith Ingham has a wonderful concept, an appreciation of jazz from the past and a look into the future.  Really enjoyed it.”

I know that Keith spends far more time at the piano keyboard than the computer keyboard, but I know that Dave’s praise will get to him.  Love will find a way, as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle told us.  And I hope some smart jazz booking agents will find ways to send Keith in person throughout the world of clubs and concerts.

The Brubeck post, in case you missed it, can be found here

BERND SOLVES THE MYSTERY!

When I posted a picture of my newest objet d’art and small heavy mystery, I was hoping for a mixture of amusement and erudition, whatever the proportions.

I got the former in large measure: the comments have been very witty and some of my JAZZ LIVES friends absolutely threw themselves into the delightful activity of solving the mystery.

But this comment rang the bell, hit the target, won the prize.  Dig it, as we say:

May I help you? This artefact is a replica of the “Neumagener Weinschiff” which ornated the graveyard of a wine-merchant in the then Roman part of Germany. Details are to be found on the German version of Wikipedia.
“Jazz lives” is a daily joy for me and lots of others. Thank you very much, Michael. Truly yours, Bernd Gaertner, Berlin, Germany

From what I can gather online (with the usual reservations — search for “Neumagener wine ship” if your German is as poor as mine — the tomb dates from about 220 B.C. and it was found near Trier, Germany.  Thus I suspect what I bought for twelve dollars was a piece of German-Roman tourist merchandise, which in no way reduces its value.  (Some of my readers were mildly anxious lest I think I had found a valuable antique: I had no such get-rich-quick illusions.)  I love it even more for the hilarious good cheer it produced on this blog, and tonight I plan to drink a glass of Nero d’Avolo in its — and Bernd’s, and my readers’ honor.  Thank you all!

LOUIS IS IN THE NEWS! (and so am I — with RICKY and DESLYN and BALTSAR)

Fame — and for such good reasons!

Think: Corona for Christmas!

Read about it here

Thanks to Ricky Riccardi and Sam Levin and Deslyn Dyer and Baltsar Beckeld and Michael Cogswell . . . and of course Louis.

IS THERE AN ART HISTORIAN IN THE HOUSE? (or NAME THE UNIDENTIFIED BAND, PLEASE?)

What follows is off the track — it may strike some JAZZ LIVES readers as being lost in the woods — but humor me if you will.  I know my readers are very well versed in subjects that go beyond jazz, so I am asking for their assistance.

Cast your eyes on the object below.

I bought this at a Berkeley, California, outdoor flea market in the summer of 2011.  The Beloved and I love flea markets and yard sales — something about the thrill of the chase, not buying things new, getting a bargain, and (whisper this) getting a peek into other people’s lives through the objects they have for sale.  Much of this is disappointing, and it brings out my worst snobbery.  I have seen more “country antique” home decor objects than is good for me, and the records are often a fairly depressing reminder of what people actually listened to . . . the OKeh test pressings have so far eluded me.

But this small, heavy object delighted me.  Is it eight men rowing in a galley, or are they carrying wine barrels on their shoulders?  What animals are carved at the front and rear of this sculpture?  I tried for a moment to convince myself that it was really an antique Greek jazz band — the Athenian Washboard Beaters — or a German trad group — but even my whimsy could not be extended that far.  I know it’s not the George Barnes Octet or the Jones-Collins Astoria Eight — so we won’t go there.

I love it and it’s on my coffee table.  Can anyone explain?

And the answer to the question you were too polite to ask is, “Twelve dollars, and I didn’t haggle.”

(I’m still holding out hope that it is an ancient rendering of the Brock Mumford Arcadian Dance Orchestra of sainted memory.  Or perhaps I’m a little too early: the third fellow from the left looks a bit like Leon Rappolo.)