Monthly Archives: January 2012

“AN OLD OFFENDER,” JANUARY. 2, 1913

Perhaps you’ve seen this already — courtesy of http://www.nola.com — an excerpt from the police blotter of the New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE of Jan. 2, 1913:

Our lives take unusual paths.  At twelve, the “negro” Louis Armstrong was already excited by the possibility of entertaining people in public.  The impulse to celebrate was strong.  But the Waif’s Home was where Louis was — eventually — given a bugle, then taught to play HOME SWEET HOME.  Would he have found his way to jazz so quickly had he not shot off the revolver?  One never knows; it is possible he would have continued as a singer — part of a quartet — or would have become a world-altering clarinetist.  We can’t say.  But it is the only time I can think of that I am grateful beyond words for one of my heroes being arrested, going to jail . . . especially as “an old offender.”

Louis offended no one, but journalism never quite gets the facts right.

THE REAL THING: HOT CLUB PACIFIC

Wonderful music awaits!  Explanations follow:

The very swinging performers are Jack Fields, rhythm guitar; Marc Schwartz, guitar; Matt Bohn, bass; Dale Mills, clarinet.

Here’s Ginny Mitchell, sweetly singing AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ with three-quarters of the band above:

Here’s a nod to Django Reinhardt, with SWING 42:

And something a little more unusual — the Latin-flavored FOR SEPHORA (by Stochelo Rosenberg):

This band is called HOT CLUB PACIFIC, and I confess that others have discovered them already — but to me they are the best news of 2012 so far.  Their website (complete with bios, a calendar, and more) is here: http://www.hotclubpacific.com/contact.html

and they play every Monday from 7-9 PM at the Soif Wine Bar, 105 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, CA.  From what my friend told me, it’s a scene — the joint is jumping in the nicest pacific way:  www.soifwine.com (831)-423-2020.

Now for the lengthy introduction.  I don’t hold with most sweeping declarations about jazz, but a few have never failed me: it should be played “sweet, soft, plenty rhythm,” said Mr. Morton.  “If a pianist can’t play like Count Basie, he shouldn’t play,” according to Mr. Braff, and (in parallel), “Anyone who doesn’t play like Lester Young is wrong,” noted Brew Moore.  “Start swinging from the beginning!” opined Jake Hanna.

For me, a certain gentle steady rhythmic pulse is essential.  Swing is, indeed, the thing.  There are other ways to get there, but Basie is and will be the model.  So when my friend Helen called me and said, “I have a really swinging group I want you to hear,” I was excited.  When she told me it was a Hot Club. my enthusiasm diminished slightly — not that Hot Clubs are all bad or “wrong,” but some adopt the more virtuosic extremes of what they believe to be “Gypsy jazz,” and get even more enthusiastic as they go, forgetting that Django and Stephane were swinging melodists who knew the value of space.

But I trust Helen’s taste, and when she advised I begin with JIVE AT FIVE, I was willing.  I was very happy within the first eight bars, and my pleasure only grew.  It is perhaps appropriate that PACIFIC, in this case, doesn’t only refer to the West Coast, to the ocean that embraces California, but to a certain peaceful way of being.  And the gentlemen of the ensemble don’t aspire to be Gypsies; they don’t smoke Gitanes and affect accents: their jazz is frankly American, and it draws so deeply on the best swing of the Thirties — when you sink deep into JIVE AT FIVE, you know you are listening to players who have absolutely internalized the Kansas City Six, the Basie rhythm section —  a sweet kind of perpetual motion that never wears on the listener.

I look forward to hearing the HCP this summer.  And for the moment (or “the nonce,” as someone once wrote) I will go back to JIVE AT FIVE.  Today has been a lovely day; repeated listenings will make it just about perfect.

BEAUTY IN THE CORNER: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO and NEAL MINER (Jan. 25, 2012)

Harold Ross, who edited THE NEW YORKER, once wrote, “Talent doesn’t care where it resides.”  I think of jazz improvisation as a secret beautiful art.  Although the players are happy to have a receptive audience, often the audience’s inattention matters not at all, for the players are creating something that we happen to eavesdrop on. 

This was the feeling that the Beloved and I had listening to pianist Rossano Sportiello and string bassist Neal Miner last Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, at Sofia’s Ristorante (211 West 46th Street).  I had originally entertained thoughts of going there as a civilian — an ordinary listener with nothing more complicated in his hands than his drink, but the music was so quietly eloquent that I started videotaping and then asked permission of Rossano and Neal when they took a breather.

Photograph by Lorna Sass. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012.

Listening to Rossano, one hears his delicate touch, his rhythms (romping or subtle), his orchestral sense of the piano balanced with crystal-clear lines, his unerring ear for what Coleman Hawkins called “the choice notes.”  And Neal Miner embodies swinging persuasiveness.  Bass players usually get less attention than people with shiny horns.  Understandable in a way: the bass is in the lowest register and it stands to the rear of the background.  But the horn players I know admire the shape and scope of Neal’s lines and would be delighted to have invented them. 

On some of these performances, the audience is somewhat interactive.  You’ll hear someone’s comment when Rossano began to play a dreamy Liszt piece, “What is this, classical music?”  Yes, sir.  Classical and classic in the best senses of the words.  And rather than be annoyed at the people who chatted while the music was being created, I would simply hope that they went home subliminally elated by the fine loving sounds.  Maybe, with luck, someone might think, “At that bar there’s really nice background music . . . ” 

Early in the evening, a breezy optimism prevailed — even in the face of current economic reality, as the duo swung into THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE:

A Basie improvisation on I GOT RHYTHM changes that began as JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE and then went its own merry ways:

Indecision was never so pleasantly propulsive as in this UNDECIDED:

And the unexpected high point of the two sets — Liszt’s CONSOLATION # 3 in Db . . . a sweet musing exploration . . . then Rossano took a breath and turned the corner with Neal — uptown — to STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY:

And this set concluded with Tadd Dameron’s GOOD BAIT:

Talent, taking up temporary residence on 46th Street.  Beauty in the corner.  Much to be thankful for.

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES TO BROADWAY: “PORGY AND BESS,” January 2012

I approached the new production of PORGY AND BESS with some mildly-suppressed skepticism, expecting it to be a star turn for the glorious Audra McDonald, who would shower the rafters with operatic splendor while the inhabitants of Catfish Row waited for her lovely upper register to stop reverberating.

I was entirely wrong.  I had an ecstatic theatrical experience.

I am a restless spirit at most Broadway musicals — finding them unsubtle (overamplified music played luridly) — the books seem thin, the gestures hyperbolic.  And in the case of PORGY AND BESS, I had heroic voices in my mind — Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong.  Especially Louis.  I have been listening — physically and mentally — to his and Ella’s version of the score for more than forty years.  (Another Louis — my father* — brought home a copy of the lp for me when I was in my teens.)  These performances of the arias by George and Ira made me feel as if PORGY AND BESS would be a series of musical performances with some unidentified threads in between the singing.  Since I think no one possibly sings with the emotional power of Louis, I was waiting to be disappointed.  Again, wrong.

I told a friend, “Ten minutes into the production, I lost my heart to what was going on onstage.”  My enchantment — the hallmark of great theatrical experiences — was a combination of many things.  Rather than feeling, “Oh, this is A PLAY,” I felt that the actors on Catfish Row, dragging boxes and chairs and fishnets, were utterly natural.  They were there and we were permitted to watch them being themselves.   Yes, the analytical part of my brain did think, “What lovely sets and what beautiful lighting — a mass of orange-yellows,” but I accepted it as real.  And when Clara and Jake began to sing SUMMERTIME to their baby, I felt tears welling up — not because the singing was so extraordinary or because it washed away my memories of Billie et al., but because it seemed the most wonderful melding of the familiar and the new: the beloved but over-familiar piece of music placed into an utterly right context, part of the plot, part of the dialogue moving forward inexorably.  Casually right, not calling attention to itself as a “great song.”

(I know that more experienced theatre-goers might think these perceptions naive — but my naivete, if you want to call it such, is a kind of openness, and although I kept making notes on my pad to write this for JAZZ LIVES, I was part of the experience.  I didn’t look at my watch once.)

I was continually absorbed by the way in which the staging and the music suggested larger ideas — the way little communities formed and broke apart on the stage, in duets and trios and more.  Consider, for instance, the group of young fishermen led by Jake — remember this name:  JOSHUA HENRY, a wondrous singer and actor — who form a small supportive group to sing and enact IT TAKES A LONG PULL.  It held true for the dancing as well.  And although the book has its own thinness — Bess as a woman torn between Goodness and the allure of Evil — so much was happening among the cast in terms of their relations between one another, suspicious of or accepting the outsider, that I put my English-professor mind aside and sunk into the show.

I admired the dramatic lighting — the undersea blue-green of the scene where we learn of Jake’s death in the second act; the way in which we are compelled to watch the huge dark shadows the actors create above and behind them (perhaps a homage to German Expressionism or the great films of the Thirties, to CITIZEN KANE).  I admired the shifting of moods — always carried along by the music that hinted at country-dance music of the teens, at Black vaudeville — when Mariah, NaTASHA YVETTE WILLIAMS, takes the stage, I thought, “This is what TOBA must have been like — echoes of Butterbeans and Susie, of young Moms Mabley — hilarious and taking no stuff from any man alive” — to gospel, to keening laments for the dead.

And what of the principals?  AUDRA McDONALD gave generously of herself as a member of the ensemble — being many women in one, from the hard-edged temptress in a red dress, to the woman who learns what love is, to the victim of Crown’s brutalities, to the woman who cannot help herself but follow Sportin’ Life to New York.  And her voice rang and chimed — but was in character.  I knew DAVID ALAN GRIER from television comedy, but was delighted by his strutting, his insinuating nasal singing, with strong overtones of Cab Calloway and of Louis — but in his bulky gracefulness and the way he held his hat, a very effective two-dimensionalizing of Fats Waller, who would have played the role perfectly although without the necessary evil.  My strongest praise goes to NORM LEWIS, who made Porgy so much more than a victim, so much more than a cripple — but the moral center of the play, the man who gives himself for love, the man who grows stronger in his desire to protect someone who needs it.  His affect, his singing voice — entirely convincing.

The curtain came down, but PORGY AND BESS is very much alive in my head.

Here is a video that shows a great deal about the process, and the progress, of this particular production — very revealing and a great pleasure:

It’s at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, on 46th Street — and JAZZ LIVES readers who don’t often go to Broadway will feel themselves right at home: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks play Monday and Tuesday nights at Sofia’s across the street, and Sofia’s also features fine jazz Wednesday through Saturday.

For more information, here’s the official website for the show:   http://www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com/

*My father remains alive in my head, as well: January 29, 2012, is the thirtieth anniversary of his death.  A whimsical man who loved music, he not only gave me physical life but encouraged me to be joyous — one Louis who gave me the ears to hear another Louis.  I miss him but that is the tribute we pay the dead, and he knows this.

FIFTY-FOUR SECONDS OF BLISS

Someone took his or her phone / camera to California Adventure Disney and caught the Ellis Island Boys in action — Ralf Reynolds, washboard, vocal; John Reynolds, guitar, vocal; Marc Caparone, trumpet; Westy Westenhofer, sousaphone (sitting in for Katie Cavera, string bass). 

SADIE GREEN (The Vamp of New Orleans) from 1926 — a delicious miniature of hot jazz, hokum, and hilarity — and listen to the way Marc ends his bridge.  Mother, mother, pin a rose on me!

Pssssst.  The Ellis Island Boys are usually known as The Reynolds Brothers or The Reynolds Brothers Rhythm Rascals when they perform elsewhere . . . they will be at the 2012 Dixieland Monterey Jazz Bash by the Bay . . . will you?

ZELDA: THE MAGAZINE OF THE VINTAGE NOUVEAU

This post is about a charming magazine you ought to know — ZELDA: THE MAGAZINE OF THE VINTAGE NOUVEAU — whose fifth issue has just appeared.

If you are instantly taken by that cover, you may skip what follows and leap into http://www.zeldamag.com — why waste time with descriptions when you could become a subscriber right away?  ZELDA is published twice a year, and its issues are not the kind of thing you would want to throw out.

ZELDA (named for the brilliantly creative and underacknowledged bride of F. Scott Fitzgerald) was the creation of the very talented Diane Naegel — who died far too young after battling breast cancer.  Her fiance Don Spiro and the people who love her and her vision have kept ZELDA afloat — feeling, I think, that to do anything else out of grief would be the wrong thing entirely.  I learned about the magazine from Lynn Redmile, who has a fine eye for detail — current and vintage.

For three years, Diane and Don (a fine photographer) have also produced a series of monthly evenings (held in a former Manhattan speakeasy) called “Wit’s End,” Jazz Age-themed evenings “with Prohibition-era cocktails and a dress code.”  At these events, friends of Don and Diane played hot jazz — including Dan Levinson, Molly Ryan, Baby Soda, The Red Hook Ramblers, Cynthia Sayer, Gelber and Manning, and others.*

Not irrelevantly, the first Wit’s End party of 2012 is coming up in a few days — and it features the music of the Big Tent Jazz Band (where you can hear Lucy Weinman swing out) in a tribute to Texas Guinan.  Here’s the Facebook link.

But back to ZELDA itself.  It is not a museum catalogue of ancient clothing that one might look at but never put on.  Rather it is a vivid tribute to all things “vintage,” a term that includes the music.

In the best way, ZELDA celebrates living artistically in a style which continues to be strikingly fashionable if one understands it.  “Vintage” here is not just a kind of antique Halloween getup to be applied when the time is right, but an entire way of being — something that Oscar Wilde would have approved of: creating oneself as a living work of art.

But it’s not all about black-and-white shoes.

Well-written features in past issues have included a recalled interview with Ginger Rogers, current interviews with actress Marsha Hunt (then 92), Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Ziegfeld showgirl Doris Eaton Travis, profiles of Janet Klein, Jesse Gelber and Kate Manning, features on vintage cocktails, neckties, fingerwaving, pincurling, profiles of various cities for their vintage appeal, advertisements from shops and online sellers of everything from rare records to vintage jewels, an advice column . . . and more!

The newest issue contains articles and features on Fanny Brice, cosmetics, the Sweet Hollywallians, KING KONG, and more.  It’s beautifully laid out and a pleasure to read . . . and you’ll find yourself returning to older issues for witty, arcane yet pertinent information.  For myself, I will never be a vintage fashion icon — but I take great pleasure in learning about the art and its practitioners.

*For more information about the Wit’s End gatherings, visit    http://clubwitsend.com/

But these events are serious about vintage attire, so be forewarned: “ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY WILL BE PERMITTED TO THOSE WEARING JEANS, ATHLETIC SHOES, ZIP-UP JACKETS, OR CASUAL ATTIRE.”  Elegance asks only that we leave our sneakers at home for one night — to recall a time and place where one dressed differently for, say, gardening, and going to an evening dance.

TAKING RISKS, HAVING A BALL: TWO CINEMATIC MASTERPIECES from “THE SOUND OF JAZZ” (1957)

Next to JAMMIN’ THE BLUES and HOT HOUSE, the 1933 footage of Louis in Copenhagen, Duke in CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK, the silent newsreel film of the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing, the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ might be the most famous film of jazz performance extant.  I’ve seen it in various forms: on a muzzy VCR copy, an improved DVD, and in bits and pieces on YouTube.

And I hope everyone has seen it so many times that it has the gleam of photographs of a dear old friend — lovingly glimpsed from many angles in a leisurely way.

But when the generous collector Franz Hoffmann opened his Henry “Red” Allen box of wonders, I thought, “What if there are some people who haven’t seen ROSETTA and WILD MAN BLUES — ever?”  So in the same way we return to stand awestruck in front of a Sargent portrait or we settle in for a long night with KING LEAR, let us return to these two magical filmed performances.

The first thing, of course, is the music — music made by titans at the peak of their casual achievements.  Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet and vocal; Rex Stewart, cornet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor sax; Nat Pierce, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

Let us be frank about this band.  It was a gathering of strong personalities — players who demanded space for themselves (perhaps with the exception of Pierce and Barker) who — given the wrong audience, could caricature themselves.  To some this will seem like heresy, but the evidence exists.  But what remains here is an exuberant jostling in the name of the music:  the combat between Red and Rex is subtle and sly, and Jo’s solo — although perhaps a digression — is constrained rather than a show-stopper.

Careful observers will note that in a program ostensibly devoted to the blues, neither ROSETTA nor WILD MAN BLUES is one, although the latter descends into those emotional depths with great fervor.

So one could watch these clips over and over, marveling at the balance between individual ego and cohesion.  What Red Allen does is also an advanced course in leadership.  I know that the band had had a “rehearsal” for the purposes of recording the music for Columbia Records (more about that later) but it’s clear that not much had been worked out aside from the basics: who solos first and for how long.

But I would propose another reason to marvel at these clips, and it’s a silent one — almost in the name of moving sculptures and shadows.  The director of the program, Jack Smight, was a great jazzman himself — not that he played an instrument, but in the chances he took.  This was live television, so his decisions were made on the spot and there were no retakes.  He had five cameramen — their names Bob Heller, Harold Classen, Joe Sokota, Jack Brown, and Marty Tuck.  And Smight moved from one to the other with great logic, sensitivity, and freedom.  Musicians hard at work — in love with their art — are great studies, and these five cameras captured not only the usual visual cliches: the sweating face, distended cheeks, intake and outflow of breath, but the musicians listening and responding to one another.  And to their own creations: one of the most memorable seconds of this is the expression on Rex Stewart’s face after he has pulled off what he understands is a particularly felicitous epigram in WILD MAN BLUES.  It’s self-congratulatory but in a sweetly hilarious way, “Hey, Ma!  Look what I just played!”  And who would deny Rex his pleasure in his own art?

In an era where multiple-camera setups often lead to restlessness that is difficult to endure (even before everyone had a video camera) these cuts and chance-takings are both beautiful and highly rewarding.  I propose something nearly audacious: one could watch these films with the sound off and marvel at the faces and their expressions.  Truly rewarding film of a musical performance is not only the soundtrack, but the way the players present themselves to us, as we see here.

WILD MAN BLUES:

ROSETTA:

And a purely aural note.  In the vinyl era, both a monaural and a stereo record were issued.  They captured the music at the “rehearsal,” December 5, 1957.  (I assume that this session also captured the disembodied voices we hear on the television program, explaining what the blues meant to them.)  Both of those issues were slightly different: at one point in the last minutes of DICKIE’S DREAM, the brass and reeds got out of synch with one another; on one issue, the raggedness is documented (very reassuring for those of us who are not giants on the scale of these players!); on the other, a neater passage and a different Basie piano bridge have been spliced in.  George Avakian was apparently not involved with this project, but Irving Townsend seems to have picked up some of George’s skill with a razor blade.  But — even better! — the CD issue, now possibly difficult to find (Columbia Legacy CK 66082) includes a previously unissued take of WILD MAN BLUES that runs almost nine minutes.  (Much harder to find is the late Bob Hilbert’s vinyl issue on his own Pumpkin label, THE “REAL” SOUND OF JAZZ, which presents the audio from the television show.)

Even if you think you know these performances, I will wager whatever you like that something will come and surprise you in a repeat viewing.  Bless these musicians; bless Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff; bless Smight and his cameramen; bless Franz Hoffmann, too.