Daily Archives: June 18, 2012

ANOTHER JAZZ FATHER GONE: JIM LEIGH (June 18, 2012)

One of the rewards of being human is being able to form deep attachments with people we know for only a short time, or people we don’t get to know as well as we would like.  The trombonist and writer Jim Leigh died this afternoon (June 18, 2012) after a brief illness, and although my contact with him was scant and tardy — others knew him better and longer — I know we have lost someone remarkable.

I “met” Jim first in the pages of The Mississippi Rag, where he displayed an amused, observant intelligence — quick to praise but politely acerbic about those things that deserved a quick four-bar break.  I admired his candor and his affection for the music.  Much later, my dear friend Marc Caparone gave me a copy of Jim’s book and I was delighted, page after page.  When Jim read what I had written, he sent me a nearly astonished email and we corresponded intermittently, Jim showing his generosity by completing my Gremoli collection and also sending his copy of Herb Flemming’s memoir, wanting nothing in return.

Dick Karner had kindly sent me a copy of a TradJazz Productions CD, taken from tapes made at the Sail’N in 1958 — with a front line of Jim, Bob Helm, and Ev Farey.  I brought it with me this summer, intending to write about it — not only the joyous rough-hewn music but also Jim’s funny, sharp notes.  I will still do this, but it saddens me that Jim will not be reading it.

The only tribute I can pay Jim is to reprint what I wrote about his book, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, and to say that I will keep him alive in the only way I can, by missing him and feeling that another one of the Wise Elders — modest, incisive, swinging — has gone.

Knowing Jim Leigh, even as briefly as I did, was a privilege.

May your happiness increase.

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I knew Jim Leigh as a writer covering the West Coast scene for THE MISSISSIPPI RAG — someone observant, witty, occasionally satiric. Later, I knew him as a solidly rough-hewn trombonist, with plenty of pep and lowdown spice, what Dicky Wells called “fuzz.”

But it’s only recently that I have had the opportunity to savor his prose at length, and his memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is a splendidly moving book. I apologize to Jim for coming to it so late — it was published in 2000 — but I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for it. When a friend gave me a copy in September, I found myself reading it while standing up in my hotel room, and I quickly was so entranced that I rationed myself to only a few pages at a time because I didn’t want it to end too quickly.

Readers familiar with the literature of jazz know that many jazz memoirs follow predictable patterns. Some musicians offer us the familiar path: early discovery of the music, early study, scuffling, the first breakthrough, then a listing of gigs and encounters. Other books are a series of vignettes — associations with famous people . . . “and then I told Louis,” and so on. Other chronicles depict battles with addiction and other unhappinesses — ideally they end in triumph and freedom. All of these books can be irresistible on their own terms, but they often become cheerfully formulaic once the subject has succeeded.

Jim’s book is not only a history of his own musical development (how he learned to play “Whispering” in its key, not Bb), or his brushes with the great and near-great . . . but, like A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, it is a record, seen retrospectively, of the growth of a consciosness, the creation of a discerning self. The combination of his prose (modest, expert, not calling attention to itself) and the insights he has come to — makes for a book that’s not only readable but memorable.

I won’t summarize the insights — that would do Jim an injustice — but they have to do with his development not only as a trombonist and a listener, but as a full-fledged adult with a deep understanding of himself, of his relations with others, and of the music. In these pages, we observe someone grow, which restores us as we participate in it.

The temptation for me, as someone fascinated by HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is to retype great chunks of it. I will let readers take their pleasures and surprises on their own — and offer only one excerpt from the book, Jim’s encounter with the great and somewhat inscrutable Herb Flemming (world-traveler and Ellington alumnus) in Fuengirola, Spain, circa 1965:

. . . a man considerably older than I lived with a small white mixed-breed dog. I kept imagining that I heard the sound of a trombone from his second-floor apartment, often playing a part of “Sophisticated Lady” or “In My Solitude,” typically the bridge, repeating it, perfectly, perhaps a dozen times. Discreet inquiry in the large and heterogeneous foreign community provided only a rumor that the man, “some kind of an Arab,” had “played with Duke Ellington, a long time ago.” Whether because he was too self-sufficient to require conversation or too anti-social to permit it, he was said to be taciturn to the point of utter silence. Or, as Wacker, the retired Australian soap opera writer down the street, put it, “Bloke seems to be missing the old vocal chords.”

One day when I was walking along the Paseo Maritimo, next to the beach, I saw him coming, as always with his dog on a leash.  Thinking that it was perhaps now or never, I spoke to him.  He stopped and listened, impassive, his eyes focused on a patch of Mediterranean somewhere beyond my shoulder, but did not answer.  “I’ve  heard that you used to play with Duke,” I said. 

He echoed me tonelessly.  “Duke,” as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Ellington.”

 He let me wait a bit. “Yes, I did.”

 I told him my name, and that I lived across the street from him. “Next to the Casa Blanca,” I said. “You know, the Danish bar?”

“I don’t pass my time in bars,” he said. He let his eyes rest steadily on my face then. I saw his calm gaze, but decided not to mention that I, too, had played the trombone, and waited. He must have reached some sort of decision, because, without looking away, he stuck his free hand inside his jacket and brought forth a calling card, which he handed me. I thanked him.

“Mm,” he said, and resumed his stroll. The card read Nicolaiih El-Michelle (Formerly Herb Flemming),” and below that “Trombonist”. It bore a Paris address, pencilled out but not amended. He and his doggy were already on their way. We never spoke again.

There are writers who would make an exquisitely sad little vignette out of the former Herb Flemming. I might have been one of them 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer. If our brief experience taught me anything at that time it was that the former Herb Flemming did not require pity any more than he required conversation. He had his dog, he had his trombone: what more, his manner said, did a man need? Someone might call him for a gig, I thought. As Sister Rosetta Tharpe so memorably sang, strange things happen every day. If someone did call, I was sure the Former Herb Flemming would have his chops together.

The book is full of these brief moments of revelation, quietly persuasive but never self-congratulatory. Any of us might have encountered Herb Flemming, and perhaps with similar results, but only Jim Leigh would have come to understand that moment as he has . . . and only Leigh would have written of it in such a sweetly understated way. HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE is full of personalities and stories, from Turk Murphy to Louis to Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Django Reinhardt, to Dan Barrett and Clint Baker . . . but what compels me is the steady, often amused, man and writer, experiencing his life and learning from it, every chorus, every day.

It’s an invaluable book. Visit http://www.xibris.com/sales to obtain a copy. An actual bookstore (they still exist!) could order it under its ISBN number, which is 0-7388-5602-9.

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BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD

People who listen to jazz, read about it, write about it, seem to be entranced by drama.  So many of them are drawn to artists whose careers and lives are boldly delineated: the arc of early promise and a life cut short through self-destructive behavior or illness; the narrative of great achievement that tails off into stark decline.  Early Fame, Great Decline.  Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Blanton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young . . . the list is long.

But what of those musicians who had long careers, functioned at a high level of creativity, were undramatic in their professionalism?  They get less media attention in life and in death; their sheer reliability makes them almost shadowy figures.  (Of course, if they happen to live long lives — Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Lionel Ferbos — then they may get a story in the paper.  But that’s another subject.)

One of the greatest trumpet players — also a wonderful composer and arranger — doesn’t get the attention he should: Buck Clayton from Parsons, Kansas, whose recordings over a thirty-year span are exceptional but not always celebrated as they should be.  Anyone familiar with the best music of that period can call to mind a dozen sessions that Buck not only plays on, but elevates: consider the dates with Basie, the Kansas City Five and Six and Seven, Billie, Mildred, Teddy and Ben, Hawkins on Keynote, Ike Quebec on Blue Note, his own dates for HRS, the Jam Sessions for Columbia and the later ones for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label, his recordings with Mel Powell at Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard sessions, a Verve date with Harry Edison, his own small band (circa 1961), recordings with Jimmy Rushing and Ada Moore and Mae Barnes, with Earl Hines, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Flip Phillips, Horace Henderson, Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Ed Hall, Alex Combelle, Joe Turner, Big Joe Turner, “Jazz From A Swinging Era,” Humphrey Lyttelton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson, Benny Goodman . . . and I am sure I am leaving out many sessions.

Shanghai, 1934

Even though Buck was playing jazz in Shanghai in 1934, before he came home and stopped off in Kansas City, he seems to have been a rather undramatic man for all his exploits.  He showed up on time for the gig; he could talk to the audience; he wrote excellent charts and swinging originals; he was beautifully dressed; he transcended late-in-life health problems to launch a new career as a bandleader when the trumpet no longer responded to his urgings.  How unfortunate to be so bourgeois.

I only encountered him in person once: in 1971, there was a New York Jazz Museum Christmas party (if I have this right) where he was among a large number of musicians advertised as performing.  Buck was there, not playing, but splendidly dressed and very polite to a young fan who asked for his autograph.  (A side story: the musicians who actually did play, beautifully, were Chuck Folds, Gene Ramey, and Jackie Williams.  Someone requested MISTY and Ramey, upon hearing the song title, said, quietly, “I don’t play that shit,” and leaned his bass against the wall for the next three minutes, returning when the music was more to his liking.)

I also saw Buck — perhaps in 1980 — at a Newport in New York concert possibly paying tribute to Billie, with musicians including Zoot Sims and Harry Edison — attempting to return to playing.  His beautiful tone was intact on a fairly fast SUGAR, but he was having trouble hitting the notes one could sense he was aiming for . . . heroic but painful.)

Let’s listen to Buck again.

Here are the two takes of WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS from the 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore — with Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones.  It’s hard not to focus on Lester — but it can be done. Hear Buck, golden, easeful, and lithe . . . the only trumpet player I know who approaches his sly mobility is Bill Coleman of the same period.  Like Louis, he constructs his solos logically, one phrase building on its predecessors and looking forward to the next, each one acting as a small melodic building block in a larger arching structure — melodic embellishment with a larger purpose:

Any improvising musician would say that Buck’s solo choruses are not the work of an immature musician and not easy to do; his graceful ensemble playing is the work of a master.  But it sounds so easy, as if he were singing through his horn.  And that tone!

Here he is in a 1954 session that few know of — a Mel Powell-led jam session at Carnegie Hall, with Ruby Braff, Jay Brower (trumpet), Vernon Brown, Urbie Green (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Lem Davis (alto sax), Buddy Tate, Eddie Shu (tenor sax), Romeo Penque (baritone sax), Mel Powell (piano), Steve Jordan (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Jo Jones, Gene Krupa (drums):

Buck appears near the end –just before Gene and Jo trade phrases.  And, yes, you read that correctly.  A marvel!

Here’s Buck with Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones in C JAM BLUES (1959):

And after his playing days had ended, as leader / composer / arranger of his own Swing Band, captured in France (1991) on RAMPAGE IN G MINOR:

The other swingers on that stage are Gerry Dodgion, alto; James Chirillo, guitar; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Matt Finders, trombone; Doug Lawrence and Arthur “Babe” Clarke, tenor saxophones; Phillipe Combell, drums.; Dick Katz, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Bobby Pring, trombone; John Eckert, Greg Gisbert; trumpet.

Someone who hasn’t forgotten Buck Clayton is the UK bassist / writer / radio host Alyn Shipton, who has performed often with Buck’s compositions and arrangements as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band.  Here they are in this century performing Buck’s tribute to his friend and fellow brassman Humph, SIR HUMPHREY:

That band is full of people who understand Buck and his music (some of them heroes of mine): Menno Daams, Ian Smith, Adrian Fry, Alan Barnes, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Litton, Martin Wheatley, Alyn Shipton and Norman Emberson.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to go to his or her shelves and take down a recording by Buck and revel in its glories.  Milt Hinton used to have a memo pad with this heading (because of his nickname “The Judge”):”You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music.”  If you were to explore and re-explore Buck Clayton’s jazz world, you would have more than a month of pleasure.

He never provoked controversy; I doubt he will ever have his own online forum with vigorous acrimonious discussion of the minutiae of his life . . . but he created beauty whenever he raised his trumpet, composed a melody, or led a band.

May your happiness increase.