Daily Archives: September 27, 2012

UNCLE JAKE IS WITH US: “JAKE HANNA: THE RHYTHM AND WIT OF A SWINGING JAZZ DRUMMER,” by MARIA S. JUDGE

Maria S. Judge’s book about her Uncle Jake — one of the most swinging musicians ever — JAKE HANNA: THE RHYTHM AND WIT OF A SWINGING JAZZ DRUMMER — is irresistible.

I write this in all objectivity, even though I have a connection to the book.  When Maria let people know that she was collecting stories about Jake for this group memoir / portrait, I sent her my recollections of an hour spent with Jake before Sunnie Sutton’s 2006 Rocky Mountain Jazz Party.

I don’t mean to inflate my own importance by this: I am not sure Jake knew who I was before, during, or after his recital, but he HAD to tell stories as  dogs have to bark and cats meow.  So I was the delighted recipient of some of his best tales — affectionate, scurrilous, sharp, verifiable.  My only regret is that I didn’t have my little digital recorder concealed to get Jake’s delivery — a Boston Irish W.C. Fields with expert comic timing — for posterity.  I contributed a paragraph about that encounter, and I read the manuscript before it went to press.

But when a copy came in the mail two days ago I thought, “Oh, I know all this already,” and was ready to put the book on the shelf unread.

But Jake’s powers extend far beyond the grave, and I opened it at random.  An hour went by as I stood in the kitchen reading, laughing, feeling honored to have met Jake and heard him play.

The book follows Jake from his family and birth in Dorchester, Massachusetts (1931) to his death in 2010.  The family narratives are fascinating, because all of the Hannas seem to have been engagingly larger-than-life and the book begins not with serious historical heaviness but with the genial mood of a Frank Capra film.  Here’s Jim McCarthy, a younger friend from the neighborhood:

We lived . . . two blocks away from the Dorchester District Courthouse. . . [which] was surrounded by a granite wall about two feet high that the guys used to sit on.  When Jake sat there he’d straddle the wall and hit on it with his drumsticks.  My mother and I were walking past the courthouse one day when we saw Jake playing the wall.  “Is that all you have to do?” my mother asked him.  “Just beat those sticks?”  “Hi, Mrs. McCarthy,” Jake said.  “Someday they’re going to pay me to beat those sticks.”

There are tales of Jake’s army service, his first meeting with Charlie Parker, “the nicest guy I ever met in my whole life,” working with Jimmy Rushing, Marian McPartland, Maynard Ferguson, and Harry James.  Here’s drummer Roy Burns:

When Jake was playing with Harry James, Harry used to go “one, two, one, two, three, four,” with his back to the band, but his shoulders were slower than the tempo.  So Jake finally asked him, “Harry, should I take the tempo from your shoulder, from the piano, or just play it at the tempo we usually play it?”  Harry said, “Jake, you’re the leader.”  Jake said, “Do you really mean that?”  Harry said, “Yes.”  Jake said, “OK, you’re fired.”  

There are many more funny, smart, naughty stories in this book — but it is not all one-liners and smart-alecky.  Jake comes across as deeply committed to his craft and to making the band swing from the first beat.  And for someone with such a razor-sharp wit, he emerges as generous to younger musicians and his famous colleagues, affectionate and reverential about those people who epitomized the music: Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney.  We read of  his work with Woody Herman, on television with Merv Griffin, in Russia with Oscar Peterson, Supersax, the long run of jazz albums for the Concord label, a sweet sad encounter with Chet Baker.  There are long lovely reminiscences by John Allred and Jim Hall, by Dan Barrett, and Jake’s wife Denisa — plus memorable stories from Scott Hamilton, Hal Smith, Charlie Watts, Rebecca Kilgore, Warren Vache, Jim Denham, and dozens of other musicians and admirers.

Uncle Jake is still with us — not only on the music, but in these pages.  “Pay attention!” as he used to say.

Here’s one place to buy the book — JAKE — and you might also visit Maria’s Jake Hanna blog here.

May your happiness increase.

THAT PRINCESS OF RHYTHM and THE INVISIBLE MAN

This particular piece of sheet music must have sold well when the song was new in 1931 — if the number of copies that have surfaced in this century is evidence: THAT PRINCESS OF RHYTHM sang WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra:

Incidentally, the song takes on new shadings of meaning when you hear the verse: the speaker is dreaming of going back to Virginia, hardly the Deep South.

This sheet music cover is new to me: I note that Mildred was no longer a Princess, although she Featured songs With Great Success.  (I wouldn’t argue with that.)  And the original publishers seem to have been delicately consumed by Mills Music.  I have no idea of the date of this second issue, but the picture suggests the mid-to-late Thirties.

Here’s a small mystery.

A man — you’d know him once I mention his name — recorded this song first, almost six months before the Whiteman record.  He sang and played it every night onstage for forty years.  Why is there no sheet music with him on the cover?  In the period before his great popularity in the Fifties, I’ve seen him on the cover of one song — LIGHTS OUT, circa 1936.  He was anything but invisible in all other media: you could see him in theatres, in concerts, at dances here and abroad; he broadcast on the radio and had his own program; he stole the show in films. But no WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH.

I wonder why.

P.S.  I don’t see his invisibility as a racial issue: other African-Americans got their bands or their pictures on sheet music.  The only hypothesis I can invent is that Mr. Collins and then Mr. Glaser wanted too much money for Our Hero’s visage to be Visible. May your happiness increase.

WITH A STROKE OF THE PEN

More eBay autographs . . . some surprises! Of course, Louis signed his name how many thousand times from the middle Twenties to 1971 . . . but each one is its own treasure.  Lucky Bill! The seller describes this as signed in green ink (a mark of authenticity) even though it reproduces as blue. Here’s something much more unusual.  At first, it looks only like an antique check (1936) but then you see it’s made out to trombone legend Miff Mole, and the person handing over the thirty-two dollars is Rudy Vallee.  Not to be mean-spirited, but Rudy had a reputation for being reluctant to let money out of his possession, so this is doubly or triply rare — and thirty-two 1936 dollars are a substantial sum. And the reverse, where Miff endorsed the check over to one Louis Mussi.  The story?: Here are the signatures of one version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Narvin Kimball (banjo); Willie Humphrey (clarinet); “Sing” Miller (piano, in a rebus); Percy Humphrey (trumpet); Allan Jaffe (tuba); Josiah “Cie” Frazier (drums); Frank Demond (trombone): That in itself would be pretty good — as satisfying as a half-pint of Mrs. Circe’s gin . . . but the “unidentified” signatures on the back of this page are also intriguing: Some of those might remain mysterious — I have trouble turning my head to the required angle . . . but top left (March 15, 1978) is Arnett Cobb and long-time Lionel Hampton guitarist Billy Mackel; to the left is Andy McKee, and in the middle I am certain that Robert Sage Wilber — otherwise known as Bob — signed in.  My intuition tells me that this page comes from a Nice Jazz Festival . . .

May your happiness increase.