Monthly Archives: December 2012

“MAKIN’ FRIENDS”: THE JAZZ LIVES 2012 YEAR-END REPORT

At the end of a calendar year, many people take stock of where they’ve been and where they will be going.  I hope my readers will forgive me if I offer a brief JAZZ LIVES version.

Since the spring of 2004, I have been having the time of my life.  Not only have I been able to hear more live music than ever before; I have been able to travel to hear it; I have been able to document it in words and pictures and videos.  A year ago, at the start of 2012, I decided — with the heedless enthusiasm and joy of someone one-third my age, “I am going to follow every impulse I can.  My life is finite.  The lives of the people I revere are also finite.  Not only do I want to extend myself to the utmost; I feel I must do it.”

And I set out on this path, or these paths.  If you were to look at my kitchen calendar or my datebook or the notebooks I write when / where / who played / what did it sound like, you would see that I have been busy.  Jazz parties in Connecticut, Chautauqua, San Diego, Monterey, Sacramento, Atlanta, Whitley Bay.  Club gigs in New York and California.  And I might have left some things out.

I flew so often and slept so little that by the last third of 2012, I was at the bottom edge of my energy, and I felt it.  The Blessed Milton J. Hinton used to have a joking expression: FUMP, which was his synonym for the excrement of whales . . . nothing could be lower than that, because it rested on the ocean floor.  I felt like fump, I assure you.  But I am coming back to my ordinarily resilient self, so do not worry.  (The combination of being with the Beloved, sleep, acupuncture by Marcia Salter, antibiotics, and homeopathy is wondrous.)

JAZZ LIVES is not a profit-making proposition.  Had I a financial advisor, (s)he would say, “You cannot continue to do this.  You will have no money,” and 2012 would prove him / her right.  But that, too, is not entirely important.

What is important — to me — is that I have gained new friends.  Some of them I have been able to meet.  And if I called 2012 THE YEAR OF THE HUGS, I think it would be accurate.  I have been hugged in cyber-space, on the telephone, by mail.  And in person.  And although (as they say at the Academy Awards) I accept this award for myself, it is really because I realized that my role in life is to attempt to spread joy through music.

I am so indebted to the real creators — the musicians — who so generously and good-humoredly allow and encourage me to help their notes and phrases be heard by audiences who will never be able to see and hear them live.  JAZZ LIVES both spreads and receives love, and I am proud of this.

So 2012 has been a year where I have been able to accomplish things I never thought possible.  I send love and thanks to everyone who has ever clicked on a page, even if it was searching “dressed as a girl by my mother,” which still comes up in Search Engine Terms.

And I hope no one will mind if I close this love letter to all the musicians in the house, all the viewers and all the readers — with the lesson from Mezz Mezzrow’s autobiography.  The lesson took place in 1929, but it never grows old.

I used to sit huddled up on my [subway] seat, shrinking into a corner, my head shoved down between my knees and my arms wrapped tight around it, to keep from screaming.

One day, just as the train pulled into 110th Street, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, and when I worked up enough courage to raise my head, there was a nice-looking old colored man with a thick crop of snow-white hair, looking down at me with the kindest, most sympathetic expression I ever saw. “Son,” he said to me real soft, “if you can’t make money, make friends,” and with that he stepped out on the platform and drifted away. He saved my life that day.

Make friends.  Spread joy.  Swing out.

May your happiness increase.

RAGGIN’ THE SCALES at WHITLEY BAY 2012: KEITH NICHOLS, EMMA FISK, MARTIN WHEATLEY, NORMAN FIELD, FRANS SJOSTROM (Oct. 26, 2012)

The 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party opened — not with a bang but with a rag.  This set, led by the elegantly risque Keith Nichols (piano, vocals, commentary) featured Emma Fisk (violin), Norman Field (reeds), Martin Wheatley (banjo/ guitar), and Frans Sjostrom (bass saxophone) in a program that roved about in the first thirty years of the last century.

The Classic Jazz Party is like no other — a living, energized jazz museum with plenty of room for blowing and smiles all around.  Here’s the first cheerful offering of a long rollicking musical weekend.

Eubie Blake’s CHEVY CHASE:

Bimbo

MY LITTLE BIMBO DOWN ON THE BAMBOO ISLE (when being a Bimbo meant something pleasant — circa 1920.  Lyrics by Grant Clarke, music by Walter Donaldson):

Then Keith and colleagues moved into territory so wonderfully explored by Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Harold Arlen, Jimmy Dorsey, Adrian Rollini, and others, beginning with RAGGIN’ THE SCALE:

PARDON ME, PRETTY BABY:

PRETTY TRIX:

DINAH:

THE WILD DOG:

A short commercial interlude: the 2012 Party was sold out — dramatically early. The 2013 Party (Friday November 1 – Sunday November 3, with a pre-party concert on October 31) has already begun to fill up.  Click here for details.  It promises to be thoroughly gratifying.

May your happiness increase.

THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND (December 2012 Edition)

If you’re going to hear jazz that was recorded before 1990, you might need to be friendly with those archaic objects — phonograph records.  It isn’t essential.  Modern friends (M. Figg and others) get their daily ration of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra through the invisible magic of digital download.  (How Sidney deParis, Ben Whitted, and Jabbo Smith feel about being mashed into an mp3 is something for the metaphysicians to explore).

But when the Beloved and I go a-thrifting, as we do regularly, she is a fine and generous spotter of records.  Often they are the most popular examples of the genre: supermarket classical, Andy Williams, easy listening, disco 12″.  But the person who passes by these stacks and heaps in a spirit of snobbery misses out on great things.  Of course, one needs reasonably flexible knees, a willingness to get mildly grubby, and perseverance . . . but sometimes the quest ends with something hotter than Mantovani.

Six dollars and tax — in two stores in Novato, California, on December 24 — was a small price to pay for these six discs.

Hank Jones Porgy

SWINGIN’ INTERPRETATIONS OF PORGY AND BESS (Capitol stereo): Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, “Alvin” Jones, with arrangements by Al Cohn.

SORTA-DIXIE (Capitol): Billy May (glowering under a straw boater) with soloists are Dick Cathcart, Moe Schneider, Eddie Miller, Matty Matlock.  The big band is also full of luminaries: Uan Rasey, Conrad Gozzo, Manny Klein, John Best, Skeets Herfurt, Murray McEachern.

SWEET GEORGIA BROWN (Tops): Billy Tipton Trio.  Wow, as we say.

TEDDY WILSON AND HIS TRIO PLAY GYPSY IN JAZZ (Columbia): liner notes by Jule Styne.

MUNDELL LOWE AND HIS ALL STARS: PORGY AND BESS (Camden stereo): Art Farmer, George Duvivier, Osie Johnson, Ed Shaughnessy, Tony Scott . . . and Ben Webster.

THE DIXIELAND BALL: THE L ANCERS with GEORGE CATES’ ALL STARS (Coral).  This one is a mystery.  I know that the Lancers recorded with Charlie Barnet and Les Brown; Cates arranged for some jazz-flavored sessions.  There is no personnel listed, which means that the music might be tepid, the All Stars undistinguished.  But I dream of an unacknowledged Abe Lincoln in there.  I couldn’t pass this one up — not only for its mysterious potential, but for the liner notes by Jane Bundy, which begin:

Born in sin and raised in controversy, Dixieland was the musical problem child of World War One–the rock and roll of its day.

Jane, you had me with “Born in sin.”  But enough of that.  So if you see a brightly-dressed man on his knees, reverently going through a stack of records in Northern California or elsewhere, you might be looking at me.

May your happiness increase.

GENEROSITIES OF SOUND: CELEBRATING TED BROWN (Part One: December 2, 2012)

I admire the tenor saxophonist Ted Brown immensely — for his quiet lyricism, his floating melodic improvisations that seem to come directly from his heart through the bell of his horn.

And Ted — soft-spoken, reticent, not a man to call attention to himself — reversed the usual practice in December 2012 when it came to celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday.  Instead of sitting at a table surrounded by people who love and admire him, opening gifts and receiving congratulations, Ted gave us presents — as you will see and hear below.

This is the first of a three-part series celebrating Ted: the first two parts will present a divinely inspired evening at Michael Kanan’s Brooklyn studio, The Drawing Room (December 2); the third part will document an evening at Somethin’ Jazz (December 13) where Ted was joined by the energetically lyrical trumpeter Bob Arthurs.

Here’s the first part: music performed at The Drawing Room with tenor saxophonist Brad Linde and Michael Kanan as guiding spirits alongside Ted.  For once, I will leave all commentary aside: Ted’s music really speaks deeply for itself, a mixture of lightness and deep feeling — conscious spiritual homage to Lester Young.

BROADWAY features Ted, Brad Linde, Michael Kanan, Murray Wall (string bass), Taro Okamoto (drums):

SMOG EYES adds alto saxophonist Sarah Hughes for a famous original line of Ted’s:

MY MELANCHOLY BABY was an amusing choice, given the broad smiles in the room:

317 EAST 32nd STREET belongs to Lennie Tristano — his line on OUT OF NOWHERE chord changes:

A second set paired Ted with the wonderful cornetist Kirk Knuffke, Chris Lightcap (dtring bass);, Matt Wilson (drums).  It was my first in-person introduction to Kirk and Matt, and I am still amazed, three weeks later.

They began with BLIMEY (on the chords of LIMEHOUSE BLUES):

Then, three more famous Brown original lines — FEATHER BED:

DIG IT:

JAZZ OF TWO CITIES:

Michael and Brad joined in for SLIPPIN’ AND SLIDIN’ (on the chords of I FOUND A NEW BABY):’

What astonishing music!  Happy birthday, Mr. Brown — with more music and more birthdays to come.

POUND CAKE Kirk Knuffke

And for those who are inspired by these videos to want TWO OF A KIND Brad Lindesomething musical they can carry around, Ted has released two new compact discs: one, TWO OF A KIND Bleebop 1202, pairs him with Brad; POUND CAKE, Steeplechase 31749, puts him alongside Kirk and Matt.  I will have more to say about these discs in 2013, but you don’t need my permission to venture boldly into ownership.  Delicious airs!

And for some of my more “traditionally-minded” readers who might be inclined to back away from this “modern” jazz . . . . listen deeply and you will hear Lester and Jo Jones — their swing, their lightness — brought into this century by warm gentle improvising men and women.

Thanks to the spirits — Lester, Jo, Lennie, Bird — and to the people in the room: Hyland and Ben, Stephanie and Lena . . . as well as to the heroes making the music.

May your happiness increase.

THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME: JEFF AND JOEL’S HOUSE PARTY: October 2012, April 2013, and BEYOND

The word that comes to mind about Jeff and Joel’s House Party is a Yiddish one that has entered the common language in some places — haimisch — meaning “like home,” “comfortable,” “easy to love.”  All of these things apply to the rollicking weekend that Jeff Barnhart and Joel Schiavone have created in Joel and Donna’s beautiful farmhouse in Guilford, Connecticut.  I was a happy member of the group last October, and I will be there again for April 20-21, 2013.  (They are already veterans at this, having hosted a successful February 2012 party)

Continuing the secular-Hebraic theme, “Why is this jazz gathering different from all jazz gatherings,” the youngest son asks.

Even the most convivial jazz parties or festivals remind the listeners that they are not at home.  Most sets are played in large rooms; sometimes there is a raised stage.  Yes, the barriers between musicians and fans are less obvious than at, say, Carnegie Hall, but the illusion of welcome-to-my-house is impossible to sustain.

Not so at Jeff and Joel’s House Party, which is what it purports to be.  I think it might be exhausting for the musicians, but everyone hangs out in the same place — playing, listening, chatting, laughing, telling stories, snacking . . . for three sessions — a Saturday afternoon fiesta, one at night, and a Sunday afternoon cookout.

The other remarkable difference is that the musicians don’t play “sets,” which is standard practice elsewhere . . . half-hour or forty-five minute gatherings for anywhere from a duo to twelve or more players and singers.  At this House Party (again, possibly exhausting for the musicians but never ever dull for anyone) there is a constant changing of the guard, as musicians come and go for each new  performance.  Variety is the key, and no one yawns.

And without leaving anyone under-praised, I have to say that Jeff and Joel strike a remarkable balance.  Jeff — the most serious clown, the deepest philosophical trickster it has been my pleasure to know — is a splendid singer, pianist, bandleader, archivist of lost songs, sixty-second cousin of Thomas Waller you could imagine.  In fact, you can’t imagine Jeff.  He surpasses anything you could think up.  And Joel is making the world safe for sweet / hot banjo playing and group singing.  Don’t scoff: SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON softly sung by a roomful of sympathetic adults is worth decades of therapy or cholesterol-lowering drugs.  (The results of a study done using IF YOU KNEW SUSIE are inconclusive.  I will keep you informed.)

The April 2013 party will have many new faces — in the most gentle sense of that phrase, since many of them are heroic figures and friends to those of us in the tri-state area.  Consider this list (aside from Jeff and Joel): Lew Green, Gordon Au; cornet / trumpet; Craig Grant, Paul Midiri, trombone; Noel Kaletsky, Joe Midiri, reeds; Ian Frenkel, piano; Bob Price, banjo; John Gill, banjo / vocal / drums; Brian Nalepka, Frank Tate, string bass; Kevin Dorn, Tom Palinko, drums.

With that group, you just know that things will swing — and there will be interesting side-discussions about James Bond, James Whale, and other pressing philosophical matters.

The October party was an unusual one for me.  Usually, these days, I arrive with a camera, a tripod, batteries, a marble-covered notebook, and go away with an elevated sense of well-being, a stiff neck, drained batteries, and a hundred or more videos.  Not this time, and for the best reasons.  J&J HP already has its own videographer, Eric Devine (his YouTube channel is CineDevine), a very nice fellow and a splendid video professional.  Two cameras, no waiting; a good recording system.  And the fellow knows how to edit.  I must apprentice myself to Mr. Devine someday.  But I was free to roam around, to listen, to stand outside (the weather was lovely), to talk to people . . . knowing that Eric was on the job.  His videos are super-special, and he’s posted a goodly assortment.

Here are a nifty seven videos from that October weekend . . . to make some of you recall the pleasure of that time; to make others think, “Why did I miss that?”; to make others say, “Have to get there in April.”

Musical evidence, Maestro! The noble players who amused, elated, and delighted us for three sessions in October 2012 were pianist / singer / philosopher Jeff Barnhart, pianist Ross Petot; reed wizards John Clark, Noel Kaletsky; Renaissance man Vince Giordano; trombonist / singer / euphonist Jim Fryer, trombonist Craig Grant; trumpeter / tubaist Paul Monat, trumpeter Fred Vigorito, banjoist / singer Bob Barta, string bassist Genevieve Rose, banjoist / singer Joel Schiavone, drummers Sal Ranniello, C.H. “Pam” Pameijer.

SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, as they used to do it in old Chicago — with the law firm of Clark and Kaletsky:

DARKNESS ON THE DELTA, featuring Bob Barta:

A serious exploration into romantic cosmology, Thirties-style — WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN?:

A heroic STEVEDORE STOMP, romping:

YOUNG AND HEALTHY: a collaboration between Jeff, a somewhat bemused Joel, and yours truly (“our blog guy”) — not yet the Lorenz Hart of the blogosphere:

Jim Fryer shows off his remarkable talents on THE GYPSY:

JAZZ ME BLUES, properly Bix-and-Rollini-ish:

You can read what I wrote about the pleasures of that party here.

Here you can find out more information about the April 20-21, 2013 shindig.  You can email here or call Maureen at (203) 208-1481.  For those whose day isn’t complete without a soupcon of social networking, the Party has its very own Facebook page.  I know I “like” it.  Seriously.

And there might even be a few seats left.  But “a few” is no stage joke.

May your happiness increase.

THE BRAVE JOURNEYS OF JENNIFER LEITHAM: “I STAND CORRECTED”

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

I first encountered the virtuoso jazz string bassist Jennifer Jane Leitham at the Sacramento Music Festival a few years ago — and was impressed by her eloquent improvisations.  Not only did she have technique, but she was a powerfully focused musician. Although I had never encountered the jazz string bassist John Leitham in person, I had heard him on recordings with Mel Torme, George Shearing, and other jazz notables. I STAND CORRECTED is a marvelous film documentary that traces the transition from John to Jennifer.  It is a deeply felt collaboration between Jennifer and filmmaker Andrea Meyerson. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to admire the film or its subject. It chronicles  the life-long journeys of Jennifer Leitham, who courageously exists in two simultaneous realms.  One story — more familiar — is how a young person born in Pennsylvania (not New Orleans, New York, or Kansas City) becomes a jazz musician in a time and place not all that hospitable to jazz.  Or perhaps not to larger kinds of improvisation. But I STAND CORRECTED is about much more than “becoming a musician”: early inspirations, good teachers, learning one’s craft, breaking in, getting a nationwide reputation, working alongside famous players and singers — with heartbreaks that keep the story genuine, not an unbroken climb to the top. I STAND CORRECTED is about a young woman born into a boy’s body who, early on, knew she was in the wrong place, in a society that would not admit such things might be possible.  It is a record of how John became Jennifer while not letting her essence be destroyed in the process.  For  John Leitham was a wondrous musician before Jennifer emerged in the public eye, and one of the sweetest aspects of this saga is Jennifer’s awareness and acceptance of both selves: this isn’t a film about an enraged, wounded adult trying to obliterate her younger self, but an adult who wants to emerge as the person she knows herself to be. I STAND CORRECTED offers that human story and more in a most moving film. For one thing, Jennifer is an exceedingly likable guide, honest but not pompous nor didactic or narcissistic.  I STAND CORRECTED is not a sermon telling us that we should all be tolerant.  There are no scientific or academic talking heads, no instant revelations. The film is a casual but strongly felt journal of one woman’s struggle to be the person she was meant to be.  Jennifer is both candid and light-hearted without ever undercutting the seriousness of her quest.  The film touches on emotional crises (a divorce, family members unable to accept Jennifer when they knew only John) and medical catastrophes, without becoming bleak. Of course, it helps that an audience has seen Jennifer onstage, ebullient and serious at the same time, playing at the highest level of her art, testing herself while having the time of her life.  And the film is generously leavened with musical performances where Jennifer shows off her prodigious talents as improviser, composer, singer. But the real story is more than a music video. Along the way, John-in-the-process-of-becoming-Jennifer is forced to be a spy in enemy country.  But she finds allies, friends, and supporters.  Some of them are genuinely unaffected noble people: Doc Severinsen is someone you would always want in your corner — gentle yet unwavering, both parent and friend to someone who strongly needs both.  “I hired a bass player, not a man or a woman,” he tells her.  Bless him.  Ed Shaughnessy is not far behind.  (Jennifer’s younger brother is a prize, too.) I was reminded that Doc and Ed were born n an era of drinking fountains labeled COLORED and WHITE outside train stations in many states.  But they and other jazz musicians learned quickly that it didn’t matter what you looked like on the outside.  It didn’t matter who your life-partner was.  Black, white, gay, straight?  Could you play?  What was your heart like?  How well did you love? Meeting these gracious, generous people is one of the film’s pleasures.  But they are only reflecting back something shining out of the film’s heroine.  Jennifer Leitham is gently making her way, as we all must.  Her courage is admirable, for she made the transition at the height of her career, when “coming out as a woman” could have ended her life as a performing musician. I STAND CORRECTED introduces us to a person for whom making music was a way to save herself, to define herself . . . and her music is a great loving gift to all of us.  The salvation young John found while playing the electric bass left-handed (a conscious choice, perhaps an early sly way of saying “I am different”) radiates through this film — a gift Jennifer gives to us.  And as she trusts herself, we trust her. We are all trying to become the person we feel we are meant to be, and some get close to that goal.  Jennifer Leitham’s quest didn’t end when she came out of the hospital after surgery.  It continues every time she performs or tells her story — a story that will give some other young person courage to be him or herself. I STAND CORRECTED is beautifully yet unobtrusively presented: the film shifts back and forth from the early life of John Leitham to the music of Jennifer Leitham to her voyage of self-discovery, the situations she must face and the oppositions that result — as well as the emotional rewards. At the end of I STAND CORRECTED, we feel privileged to have met a happy, realized, creative human being: a woman with four birthdays. And as we are slowly — too slowly — leaving behind the world where skin color or sexual preference determines identity and worth, I STAND CORRECTED will be understood as a small milestone on the way to a world where the idea of MAN or WOMAN is put aside as irrelevant in favor of PERSON, of BEING. It is a rewarding film both musically and spiritually.  Make every effort to see it.  Its heroine’s courage and perseverance are inspiring.  In a world where many people make judgments based on someone’s external presence, we need to be reminded that the truths lie within. Here is the film’s website — where you can see trailers and find out where it is being shown. May your happiness increase.

JUST THREE-QUARTERS OF AN HOUR OF LOVE WITH MONA’S HOT FOUR AND GUESTS (“THE ‘TUESDAYS AT MONA’S’ ALL-STAR JAM BAND”) at the ROCKLAND MUSIC HALL (Dec. 11, 2012)

Although my spiritual persuasions lead me in other directions, here is the Official JAZZ LIVES 20 13 Christmas Gift: forty-five minutes in jazz heaven.

That Elysium was found at the Rockland Music Hall (Allen Street, the East Village, New York City) on Dec. 11, 2012 — when Mona’s Hot Four (plus many stellar friends) took to the small stage to celebrate their CD / DVD release.  You can read about the CD / DVD here: in the words of Stuff Smith and Mitchell Parish, it’s wonderful.

Mona’s Hot Four appears every Tuesday night at Mona’s on Avenue B and Thirteenth Street; they begin their ecstatic festivities close to midnight and continue until 4 AM or so.  So this early-evening set was a treat for nine-to-fivers like myself (and my pals Ricky Riccardi and Ben Flood, who felt as I do about the music).  And through the kindness of MH4, I was allowed to record the proceedings and share them with you.

The core unit is Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Gordon Webster, piano; Jared Engel, string bass; Nick Russo, guitar / banjo.

And they began with the Sidney Bechet song, CHANT IN THE NIGHT:

Then Dennis invited Gordon Au, trumpet; Emily Asher, trombone; Jerron Paxton, vocal / banjo to join in for CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN:

Miss Tamar Korn came along for a vocal duet with Jerron on SUGAR BLUES:

David McKay became the sole vocalist for a Nat Cole-inflected WHEN I GROWN TOO OLD TO DREAM:

And the scene shifted: Dennis, Gordon, and Nick remained, but Molly Ryan, Vocal; Rob Adkins, string bass; Chris St. Hilaire, snare drum; Mike Davis, cornet replaced their august friends for WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO:

And to close — a vocal trio of Tamar, Molly, Margi Gianquinto sang DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ME with help from Bob Curtis, clarinet:

If that isn’t three-quarters of an hour of love, I don’t know.

After you’ve watched these free-to-all videos a dozen times and told your pals, I urge you (if you can) to get down to Mona’s for a late-night swing session.  If  you can’t do that, the urge is transmuted . . . pick up several copies of the CD / DVD, which is just as sweet and far more riotous.  Art can’t live on love alone, can it?

May your happiness increase.

TREAT THE DEAD KINDLY

If you come up to me, face to face, and suggest something about me — in the sweetest tone of voice — that I know to be untrue, or something that hurts my feelings, I can respond in several ways.  “You were misinformed.”  “That just isn’t the case.”  “Why would you say something like that?” “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way,” and a dozen others.

If you write something about me that is unkind, offensive, biased, or false, I can respond in the same ways . . . or, if I am furious or wounded, I can hire an attorney to put sharp-edged words on paper to make you stop.  “Libel” and “slander” become part of the conversation, as does the all-purpose phrase “legal action.”

But the dead have no such recourse.

Here’s a true story.  Two years ago, someone I had never before encountered wrote to me with some anecdotes he thought I would like to print on JAZZ LIVES.  One of them concerned a musician I will call Charles Atlas.  I knew that Charles occasionally took a drink, but my correspondent told a tale of alcohol making him act foolishly.  I will spare you the details.

Reading this tale of a grown man’s stupidity, I felt wounded.  Could one of my heroes have behaved like this?  But almost immediately that feeling of shock was followed by protectiveness.  I wasn’t about to bring shame to Charles, nor was I going to participate in publicizing stories — true or not — that would encourage readers to laugh at him, to think he was less than heroic.

In the 1980s, Joyce Carol Oates coined the term “pathography” for the modern biographical study that emphasizes the subject’s flaws: “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”  Although such books — and the gloating self-righteousness the reader is encouraged to indulge in — are fascinating in the same way a tabloid newspaper, seen at the supermarket checkout is — their appeal is essentially repellent.

So that when I read a recent news story that refers to Louis Armstrong as a lower-case “lothario,” I am appalled, not only by the weird archaism, but at the mix of prurience and disrespect.  “Hey, that’s LOUIS ARMSTRONG you are talking about, Buster!” I want to say.

Some readers might think that all journalistic exploration is justified.  After all, to know the whole person do we not need to know his or her faults?  Perhaps. But is it crucial to our understanding of Ben Webster’s music to know that he had a violent side?  And if we insist on knowing this, how large a shadow should it cast on his life’s work?  Is Ruby Braff’s legendary irascibility more memorable than his music?  I think not.  If this sounds as if I am a hero-worshipping nineteenth-century biographer, I confess to leaning in that direction.  Human beings are complex and not all mysteries are meant to be unraveled.

Privacy counts.  Twenty years ago, I would have taken the position that the private life of a public individual was fair game.  But I have shifted that position so that when the elderly widow of a famous artist talked about her desire to burn certain private letters, I thought she had the right idea.  You can come visit me; I will speak candidly to you, but you cannot follow me into the bathroom.

And privacy is such a fragile concept in this century: type in anyone’s name and Google downwards.  The chance of finding that name followed by “hot nude photos” is not small.

If we love and respect someone while he or she is on the planet, should those feelings of affection and reverence cease when the person has made the transition to another existence?

But disrespect and unkindness to the dead are not solely the purview of people who (consciously or not) want to pull down the great figures because they are so imposing, because they make ordinary mortals seem so tiny.  The dead can be treated unkindly by those who feel great love for their idols.

People in love with the great artists can also crush and deform them in a choking embrace — an embrace turned off-balance by an ideological notion.  Someone who has labored to write a book on Kid MacIntosh must be careful not to distort or invent evidence to make the Kid a victim, perhaps.  The distorting impulse is subtle, and it comes out of love, “How could someone like the Kid have been less than a superstar?  It must have been his manager / his wife / discrimination / exploitation,” etc.  But love can obstruct our clear sight as much as any other emotion.  The chronicler who thinks (s)he owns the subject is mistaken.  The Kid was there before the book began and will remain long after the book has been remaindered.

We should treat the dead kindly.  Someday we all will be dead, and perhaps we will hope for the same posthumous kindness.

May your happiness increase.

LET ME OFF UPTOWN FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Part Two): “CHRISTMAS STOMP” with GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS (Columbia University, December 1, 2012)

It bears repeating.

Saturday, December 1, 2012, was a wonderful day (they all are, if you have the right approach to them) but the evening was even better . . . I was fortunate enough to be uptown for the CD release party held at Columbia University.  The party was honoring the Grand Street Stompers on the occasion of their new CD, CHRISTMAS STOMP.  And STOMP they did.  (Learn more about that very pleasing CD here.)

GSS cover

For those of you who couldn’t take the A train (thank you, Billy Strayhorn) or drive uptown, here are some highlights of this most swinging, mobile evening. The participants: Gordon Au on trumpet / arrangements / compositions; Matt Musselman, trombone; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Davy Mooney, guitar; Jared Engel, string bass; Rich Levinson, drums; Tamar Korn, Molly Ryan, vocals — with guest appearances from the amazing dancer Andrew J. Nemr, clarinetist Dan Levinson, saxophonist Adam Lee, singer Margi Gianquinto, and more.

Before we start,a caveat (nicely browned for the holiday season).  The music is wonderful; my videos are somewhat below-par for reasons that anyone who has been in a large hall filled with wonderfully graceful dancers will recognize.  An event such as this (thank you, Lucy!) is organized for the comfort and pleasure of the people who not only know what the Peabody is but are able to do . . . the world is not my sound stage.  Knowing this, I took up a position at the rear of the hall — a happy observer — and recorded what I saw.  In situations such as this, I think, “This is what it was like at the edge of the Savoy Ballroom,” and any discontent vanishes.  Perhaps next year someone will lend me a crane or at least a stepladder and a longer tripod.  Or not.  Here are the remaining marvelous swirling delights I saw and heard on December 1.

It wasn’t wintry outdoors, but Tamar feels it’s always a pleasure to sing I’VE GOT MY LOVE TO KEEP ME WARM:

Moving along in the “I’ve got” cardfile, she beautifully delivers Fats’ I’VE GOT A FEELIN’ I’M FALLING:

Molly comes back for IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS:

O HOLY NIGHT is not the vehicle one associates with high-energy jazz, nor with elegantly forceful tap dancing, but when Gordon Au and the Grand Street Stompers meet the wizard Andrew J. Nemr, magic happens.  I only wish I had been at a better angle to focus on those airborne feet.  Next time:

Molly, typically well-behaved, tells of holiday adulteries in I SAW MOMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS.  Let us avert our eyes from this potentially lascivious scene — when the Grand Street Stompers play, we get the presents:

The Three Graces — Molly, Tamar, and Margi — give out with a very sweet WHITE CHRISTMAS:

Victor Herbert never knew his MARCH OF THE TOYS could look and sound like this:

AIN’T MISBEHAVIN is a way to welcome Adam Lee, Lucy Weinman, and Dan Levinson to the holiday stomp:

For the finale, everyone throws caution to the wind — at least metaphysically — for LET YOURSELF GO:

If you’ve enjoyed these experiments in Cinema Very Tea, you’re sure to enjoy the real thing: learn more about the actual CD (a winner no matter what the calendar says) here.

May your happiness increase.

LESTER YOUNG, VICTIMIZED: “PLAGIARIZIN’ THE DEVIL”

I have a number of Google Alerts for the improvisers I love. This just came up under LESTER YOUNG.  As a jazz fan and academic horrified by plagiarism, I find it both sad and ludicrous.

Now, students can buy a term paper on Lester here.  And, if that were not enough, it is in the category BUSINESS AND MANAGEMENT.  The way such term-papers-for-sale sites work is that they offer the “student” the first paragraph of the essay for free and then — should someone’s intellectual curiosity come to a full boil or should the essay be due on Tuesday — the whole essay may be purchased for a price.

Here’s the free part:

Lester Young was born in 1909 in the New Orleans area. This was a good thing for Lester; As New Orleans is the birth place of Jazz. And his father, Willis Handy Young, was a versatile musician who taught all of his children instruments and formed a family band. Lester studied violin, trumpet and drums for a time. But by the age 13 he would settle on Alto Saxophone. The oldest of three children, Lester toured with the family band for some time, often getting into disputes with his father. While touring the vaudeville circuit and carnivals, Lester grew increasingly uneasy about touring the Segregated South as well. All of this eventually came to a head, and Lester left the family Band in 1927. After Leaving, he spent the following year touring with Art Bronson’s Bostonians. While with them he took up tenor saxophone. However this was short –lived, and by 1929, Lester returned to his family in New Mexico. But then, when his family moved to California, he chose to stay behind. Lester eventually found himself performing briefly with different people and bands. In 1930, for a short while, he played with Walter Pages Blue Devils. And afterwards, wound up playing again with Art Bronson, but again, only for a while. He went on to settle in Minneapolis, where he played during 1931 with Eddie Barefield and various leaders at the Nest Club. By the time 1932 rolled around, Lester joined the thirteen original Blue Devils, and while touring with them, he met Charlie Christian. The Band would later disband in the middle of 1933. Making Kansas City his base, young went on to play with the likes of the Bennie Moten-George E. Lee Band, Clarence Love, King Oliver. On one December night, he even got to play with Fletcher Henderson, who was on tour with his star saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins.

In 1934 Lester joined the Count Basie band, an association that would eventually lead to national recognition, but by March of that year, he…

I can’t tell you what the rest of the paper — four pages, 964 words — is or what it costs.  To do so would require that I join Term Paper Warehouse, and I’ll pass on that tempting opportunity.  But I do know what Bessie Smith would have said about all of this, and it isn’t “Gee, that’s swell!”

Lester said he never wanted to be a “repeater pencil.”  Too bad that in death his biography — in microwaveable portions — is up for sale.

May your happiness increase.

I’VE GOT SIXPENCE . . .

but I’d rather hear the Boswell Sisters sing this song.  Here’s a lovely souvenir of their 1935 visit to the United Kingdom.  Thank you, eBay!

WHEN I GROW TOO OLD Boswells UK

And when I grow too old to dream — I hope this doesn’t happen — I’ll still remember Connie, Vet, and Martha.  I promise.

May your happiness increase.

LET ME OFF UPTOWN FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Part One): “CHRISTMAS STOMP” with GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS (Columbia University, December 1, 2012)

Saturday, December 1, 2012, was a wonderful day (they all are, if you have the right approach to them) but the evening was even better . . . I was fortunate enough to be uptown for the CD release party held at Columbia University.  The party was honoring the Grand Street Stompers on the occasion of their new CD, CHRISTMAS STOMP.  And STOMP they did.  (Learn more about that very pleasing CD here.)

GSS cover

For those of you who couldn’t take the A train (thank you, Billy Strayhorn) or drive uptown, here are some highlights of this most swinging, mobile evening. The participants: Gordon Au on trumpet / arrangements / compositions; Matt Musselman, trombone; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Davy Mooney, guitar; Jared Engel, string bass; Rich Levinson, drums; Tamar Korn, Molly Ryan, vocals — with guest appearances from the amazing dancer Andrew J. Nemr, clarinetist Dan Levinson, saxophonist Adam Lee, singer Margaret Gianquinto, and more.

Before we start,a caveat (nicely browned for the holiday season).  The music is wonderful; my videos are somewhat below-par for reasons that anyone who has been in a large hall filled with wonderfully graceful dancers will recognize.  An event such as this (thank you, Lucy!) is organized for the comfort and pleasure of the people who not only know what the Peabody is but are able to do . . . the world is not my sound stage.  Knowing this, I took up a position at the rear of the hall — a happy observer — and recorded what I saw.  In situations such as this, I think, “This is what it was like at the edge of the Savoy Ballroom,” and any discontent vanishes.  Perhaps next year someone will lend me a crane or at least a stepladder and a longer tripod.  Or not.  Here are the marvelous swirling delights I saw and heard on December 1.

I don’t know if it was because of his essential courtly modesty that Gordon called I MAY BE WRONG to start the evening.  More probably it was because that song (in 1934) became the theme song of the Apollo Theatre, and we were uptown:

WINTER WONDERLAND always used to be formulaic December-it’s-the -holidays-music until I heard Louis sing it with accompaniment / arrangement by Gordon Jenkins . . . .  Here Molly Ryan, fetching in green, steps up to the vocal microphone and reminds us just how pretty this simple 1931 song is: 

Some might presume that IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE (recorded memorably by Mr. Waller) was appropriate because of Santa’s ethical police, but I think swing candor is always valuable.  And Molly sings it without any didacticism:

WHEN I TAKE MY SUGAR TO TEA may have been the first song I ever heard Tamar Korn (all keyed up here, in red) sing.  Her improvisations on the theme remain memorable, sweet, tart, and hot:

Following in the holiday footsteps of Mister Strong, Tamar pretends to be a little anxious, asking the seasonal question, ‘ZAT YOU, SANTA CLAUS?:

And Tamar and the band offer Gordon’s whimsical sweet feline love song, CRAZY EYES:

More to come!  For now, if you’ve enjoyed these experiments in Cinema Very Tea, you’re sure to enjoy the real thing: learn more about the actual CD (a winner no matter what the calendar says) here.

May your happiness increase.

“WHAT A HEAVENLY DREAM”: PAUL ASARO and THE FAT BABIES PLAY FATS WALLER AND HIS RHYTHM (Rivermont Records)

Fats Waller left us in 1943.  Both he and his swinging little band — his Rhythm — are inimitable.  But jazz musicians have a good deal of fun trying, in their own ways, to evoke their joyous spirit.  And their efforts give us joy, too.  Dick Wellstood had his Friends of Fats; Mark Shane has FATS LIVES!

2222pic

The most recent — and highly successful — effort is captured on a new Rivermont Records CD: PAUL ASARO and THE FAT BABIES: WHAT A HEAVENLY DREAM / THE FATS WALLER RHYTHM PROJECT (BSW-2222). Paul Asaro has been a sweetly propulsive pianist and equally fine singer for some years now, and this CD captures him in great form with a band of musicians who are working on his level — the hot Chicago band led by string bassist Beau Sample, with Alex Hall (drums); Jake Sanders (guitar); John Otto (reeds); Andy Schumm (cornet).

How good is this session?  Two critical reactions will have to suffice here.  One is that I received the disc in the mail (a holiday present from a jazz friend!), listened to it last night and this afternoon, and am impelled to let you know about it as soon as possible.  The second is a small experiment I conducted — and it’s one of those you can indeed try at home in complete safetly.  I put the CD into the Beloved’s computer (two rooms away) and let it start up.  “Is that Fats?” she said immediately.  When I explained that it was a modern band in the Waller spirit, she said, “Wow, they are swinging like mad.”  And the Beloved knows Swing.

On the surface, this project looks familiar: fourteen songs, all but one of them recorded by Fats and the Rhythm between 1934-1941.  But there is nothing formulaic about this disc.  For one thing, there’s no lengthy renditions of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW,  or HONEYSUCKLE ROSE.  Some of the songs are familiar — YOUR FEET’S TOO BIG, TRUCKIN’, BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU — but the majority are lesser-played, and some are deliciously obscure: YOU’RE MY DISH, ABDULLAH, GOT NO TIME, and WINTER WEATHER. Paul sings on several of the songs, but he is wise enough not to attempt Fats’ particular brand of theatrical jocularity.  And the players are on their own to tell their own stories — a great thing.

What distinguishes this disc from other Waller-inspired evocations is its overall gentleness and sweetness.  Yes, a number of the performances are up-tempo romps so that Paul can show off his considerable stride chops and the band can make any good-sized building sway back and forth, but much of the disc is devoted to sweet-tempered rhythm ballads — coaxing rather than stomping. Paul is responsible for this musical worldview, which makes the CD easy to love rather than difficult to endure (many CDs, however well-meant, grow tedious because of a sameness of approach) but the players here offer their most friendly selves.

The rhythm section of Hall, Sample, and Sanders chooses simplicity over virtuosity; they glide rather than push, and the music breathes beautifully.  John Otto is characteristically subtle on tenor and clarinet, with none of the dramatics Fats’ reedmen sometimes drifted towards.  And then there’s Andy Schumm — making the whole enterprise glow with a delicate sound that of course recalls a mid-Thirties Bix . . . but I thought more often of the young Bobby Hackett on the Decca Dick Robertson sides and, at times, what would have happened if Joe Smith had lived.

This edition of the Rhythm — 2012 style — is precious, and I  can only hope that Paul and company achieve their next dream,  which is a CD of songs Fats never recorded done in this blissful way.

Here’s  the Rivermont Records Facebbok page, and their website.  (Visit the website and hear excerpts from the disc.)

But wait!  There’s more.  This recording is available both as standard audio CD and also as an audiophile-grade vinyl LP limited to 500 copies (in your choice of crystal clear or standard black vinyl). BONUS: Each LP includes a complimentary CD copy of the entire album.  Enjoy the album on vinyl and CD for the same price as the CD alone.

Yum yum yum, to quote Mr. Waller.

May your happiness increase.

“HISTORIC SCENES”: BILLIE SPEAKS, 1952. LOUIS on the RIVERBOAT, 1962

“A gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift,” writes Lewis Hyde.  The music we love immediately resonates with generosity, “those pretty notes” given freely from the musicians to us, as we give back our gratitude.

Generosity isn’t always restricted to the great players.  This morning, I must thank Nou Dadou (a fellow jazz-researcher) for letting us know about a rare radio interview Billie Holiday did in 1952.  Never mind that Billie has interpreted historical facts in a rather affectionately loose way; it is a joy to hear her speak, to hear the pleasure with which she pronounces the names of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Oscar Peterson.  The interview can be heard here.

My young friend Austin Casey — I can even say my young hero — then reminded me of some video footage of that Louis fellow, along with Kid Ory, Monette Moore, Johnny St. Cyr, and other home boys — at Disneyland in 1962.  It’s reassuring to know that even then the crowd couldn’t clap on the right beats, but no matter.  What a good time the band is having!  Click here to be dee-lighted.

Those gifts will never grow old, wear out, or have to be returned.  And if you’re in the holiday mood, send them on to someone you love . . . !

May your happiness increase.

THE TALENTED MR. GREENSILL: MIKE GREENSILL, DAN BARRETT, HARRY ALLEN, HOWARD ALDEN, FRANK TATE, BILL RANSOM at JAZZ at CHAUTAUQUA (September 22, 2012)

As I wrote in an earlier post, I had known Mike Greensill, on records and in person, as the splendid intuitive pianist / partner of singer Wesla Whitfield, who happens to be his life-partner as well.

But until the 2012 Jazz at Chautauqua, I hadn’t realized how many vibrant selves were packed into Mr. Greensill — someone who can play fine eloquent solo piano or push a band along beautifully; a sweetly earnest singer; an on-the-spot head arranger and effective bandleader; a winning composer . . . as you will see below.  It did not hurt Mr. Greensill that he had some of the best players in the world on the stand: Dan Barrett, trombone; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Howard Alden, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; Bill Ransom, drums.

The set had a real Ellingtonian flavor . . . .   That didn’t bother us.

JUST SQUEEZE ME:

THEME from SOUNDS LOCAL (explained by the composer)

I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY:

ELLINGTONIA (DON’T YOU KNOW I CARE? – ALL TOO SOON – CHELSEA BRIDGE – WARM VALLEY):

“Beautiful, beautiful!” to quote Mr. Waller.

May your happiness increase.

JAZZ FOR SVETLANA: BOB ARTHURS / STEVE LAMATTINA

SvetlanaTheoretically, if you were to attempt to fit trumpeter Bob Arthurs into one of those categories jazz writers love so well, he would be a “cool” trumpeter.  Bob has played alongside Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Sal Mosca, Ted Brown, Warren Vache, Larry Coryell, Bucky Pizzarelli, Chuck Wayne, Tal Farlow, and many others.  He knows and likes the music of Lennie Tristano.

I can envision some of you turning over the leaf and choosing another page, to paraphrase Chaucer; others might be going to another room to, shall we say, put on a sweater.

But be calm: frigidity is not on the menu, for Bob is an appealing warm trumpeter.

He doesn’t look back to the Thirties (more to the Fifties) but his approach is gently melodic rather than a clinical exploration of extended harmonies, and although he is on good terms with sixteenth and thirty-second notes, he does not careen through a chorus in the manner of virtuosic beboppers.

In fact, when I was listening to Bob a few nights ago at Somethin’ Jazz, leading a quintet that featured the esteemed tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, it clicked into my head.  A resemblance — not an imitation, but a shading.

I know that some musicians dislike being compared to the great dead figures, and I understand that: we all, in Yeats’ words, want to be loved for ourselves alone, but I took a chance and said to Bob, “I just realized.  If Ted is Lester Young, his own version of Lester, then you are Harry Edison.  Perhaps?”  And Bob looked pleased and said I had given him a great compliment.  I meant it.  Not the beep-beep-beep self-parodying Sweets, but the agile swinger, the to-the-point melodic player whose lines had the snap of epigrams.

You will hear and see more from that evening at Somethin’ Jazz.

But I have something more tangible for JAZZ LIVES — an actual compact disc of an intimate jazz session — trumpet and guitar and two vocals — that is sweet, to the point, and very rewarding.

Without being in the least “antique” or “repertory,” Bob and guitarist Steve LaMattina create wonderful jazz that is reminiscent of a Sweets Edison – Charlie Byrd record date for Norman Granz or Carl Jefferson.  Easy, melodic, dense with feeling but not with flurries — nothing artificial.  The songs are easy medium-tempo explorations . . . but no one will doze off: HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN / ALL OF ME* / BIRKS’ WORKS / I THOUGHT ABOUT YOU* / NIGHT IN TUNISIA / LONNIE’S BLUES / STELLAR PROBE / MELANCHOLY SERENADE / SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.  Bob plays softly but with intensity (often muted) and Steve provides swinging supportive counterpoint.  And his singing on two numbers is easy, heartfelt, inventive without being showy: musicians who put down their horns often are wonderful singers (Zoot Sims walking through I CAN’T GET STARTED, for one) and Bob fits right in.

And the story behind the CD is fittingly sweet.  I’ll let Bob tell it:

The making of our new album, “Jazz for Svetlana,” was a labor of love. The guitarist Steve LaMattina and I have been playing together off and on for about ten years.  Our good friend Svetlana, who is a wonderful classical pianist, really loved hearing Steve and I play as a duo.  She also kept telling her husband Yuri how much she loved our music.  Yuri decided to give her a very special birthday present.  He called me one day and said that he would like to produce a duo album of Steve and myself.  All he wanted out of it was the first CD to give to Svetlana for her birthday.  After that he said we could promote and sell the album wherever and however we wanted.  So here we are. The CD has been well received by everyone who got an advance copy.  It was a pleasure to record, and I’m happy to say that Svetlana loved her birthday present.

A present by a loving husband to his musical wife turns out to be a substantial present to us — one that won’t be worn out in a year.

Here is Bob’s website, with the smiling fellow greeting you.  At the top left, you can click on the appropriate icon and hear some music, so you will know I am not inventing what is not there.

And here is the link to CD Baby to hear brief excerpts from the songs and — I hope — purchase the CD.

May your happiness increase.

FOR THE CHILDREN: “THESE FOOLISH THINGS” (TED BROWN, ETHAN IVERSON, PUTTER SMITH, HYLAND HARRIS at THE DRAWING ROOM, December 2, 2012)

This is for the children.

This is for ALL the children.  The ones who grow up to be adults.  The ones who never get the chance to do so.  This is for the children we are, for the children we cover up with adult garb.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS REMIND ME OF YOU — played by Ted Brown, tenor saxophone (celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday); Ethan Iverson (who said, “Can we play a ballad?”  Bless you, Ethan); Putter Smith, string bass; Hyland Harris, drums.

Their hearts beat as one as they go down their personal paths.  They make music to elate us, to make us weep, to remember the lost, to feel hope.

Please offer this music to your friends — those who grieve, those who have no time to grieve, those whose hearts may someday be light.

May your happiness increase.

MEET ME AT THE CORNER OF SWING AND LOVE: DUKE HEITGER and DAN BLOCK PLAY RHYTHM BALLADS (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 23, 2012)

Before the tempos in jazz became so severely divided into Very Fast and Less Fast, there was a beautiful land known as Medium Tempo — a Canaan of Swing.  In this land, there were infinite shadings and subtleties, and one of the most rewarding emotional expressions was something called — by those who knew — the Rhythm Ballad.  It wasn’t BODY AND SOUL played at the speed of maple syrup and then double-timed; it was a slow medium with a real pulse, the best way to play love songs that the dancers could still move to.  Rhythm ballads are often neglected these days, but here are two very touching examples taken from the last session of the 2012 Jazz at Chautauqua.  The rhythm section is Pete Siers, drums; Kerry Lewis, string bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; Rossano Sportiello, piano . . . which for me would be enough delight.  But then we have two poets — Duke Heitger creating beautiful visions out of WHEN DAY IS DONE (a song of sweet longing for one who is missed), followed by Dan Block, building the most ethereal castles-in-the-air for PENTHOUSE SERENADE, which is subtitled WHEN WE’RE ALONE, and celebrates sweet intimacy — something that can’t be rushed, either.

I imagine — or I hope — that some readers of JAZZ LIVES will turn away from the computer and say, “Honey?  Come over here right now.  Put down that screwdriver / iPhone / spatula and let’s dance.”

This one’s for Louis and Johnny Hodges, for my Beloved, and for yours, too.

May your happiness increase.

A BOX OF BLESSINGS, SLIGHTLY MIXED: “LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE OKEH, COLUMBIA, and RCA VICTOR RECORDINGS 1925-1933” (Sony Music)

Louis OKEH

As I write this, I am listening to a “new” box set of Louis Armstrong’s recordings.    Issued by Sony Music, it offers his work for OKeh, Columbia, and Victor from 1925-1933.

I am ambivalent about this product — which has nothing to do with the heartbreakingly beautiful music contained within the purple box.  And although I ordinarily go on at length on JAZZ LIVES, I find it easier to write my assessment as a checklist.

THE GOOD NEWS:

181 recordings by Louis, grouped together in this fashion for the first time in the United States.  (The Fremeux label has been issuing multiple CD sets of Louis in chronological order for some time.)  This means the familiar — POTATO HEAD BLUES and I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING — alongside sessions that have not been available for some time, including the wonderful sides Louis made for OKeh in Los Angeles and Chicago, 1930-31.  The set ends with the peerless 1932-33 Victor sides (THAT’S MY HOME, LAUGHIN’ LOUIE) and throws in BLUE YODEL # 9, the collaboration of Louis and Jimmie Rodgers.

Beautiful notes by Ricky Riccardi.  Need I say more?

Lovely photographs, some new to me, photographs of record labels, and a design that — for once — doesn’t decompose as soon as one opens the box.

A reasonable price, if you consider the amount of music purchased.

A recording of WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS that I think not many people have known well.  Courtesy of that same Riccardi fellow, you may hear it here:

THE LESS-GOOD NEWS:

The first two discs (containing the Hot Five and Seven material) are mastered off-pitch, a half-tone low.  This might not bother most listeners, but it makes the music sound slightly sleepy, draggy — which it wasn’t in performance.

The set is not advertised as “complete,” which is accurate.  Missing are the sessions Louis recorded with a variety of singers, including Bessie Smith, Chippie Hill, Hociel Thomas, and Lillie Delk Christian.  I do not know why this is, except perhaps it would have taken more trouble to amass them and the person who is listed as “Project Director,” Seth Rothstein, surely had some reasons, whether economic or aesthetic.  (The last time in my knowledge that those Louis-and-the-blues-singers sides were available is several decades ago: a French vinyl series on CBS, “Aimez-vous le jazz?”)

The absence of this material is irritating because seven or eight of the discs in this set are “short,” with sixteen, eighteen, or twenty tracks.  Readers who can do basic math quickly can figure out just how many additional tracks could have fit in this box.  Or Sony could have squeezed the material onto eight discs and sold it at a lower price.  (When you buy a bag of potato chips and see that the bag contains more air than chips, you can rationalize it — the air is there so that the chips don’t get reduced to dust — but most of us find chips more tasty than chip-scented air.)

THE WRITER MUSES, BRIEFLY:

I always wonder how much thought goes in to the production of one of these box sets, conveniently on sale at the holiday season.  Sony Music has this material in their vaults; they seem to have done nothing to it (checking proper pitch, remastering) except put it in a different box and offer it to us.  It is not exactly a jazz re-gift, but close.  Who did they think was going to buy it?  Some people who lack a historical consciousness will quail slightly at “1925-1933,” because that is OLD MUSIC.  And the deep-down Louis scholars were already thrashing around online before the box came out, so I think their disappointment is palpable.  I also do not know how many people actually are buying CD box sets — as opposed to listening to downloads through their earbuds (two words that have become loathsome to me).

Ultimately, any scrap of Louis Armstrong’s music is beautiful, valuable, irreplaceable.

But Louis deserved better than this set.  We do, also.

Should you buy it if you have unlimited funds?  Yes.

Will you find some aspects of it annoying?  Yes.

May your happiness increase.

QUESTIONS OF “TASTE”

Once upon a time, I was a very eager student in Miss Golab’s middle-school music-appreciation class.  She knew I liked jazz and introduced me to another student who was similarly obsessed.  He was much hipper.  He had a chin tuft.  He asked me, “Well, who do you listen to?” and I said “Louis Armstrong!” (my unspoken “of course” hung in the air).  Quizzically, he replied, “What about Archie Shepp?”  I said, “That stinks.  I say to hell with it,” and he, indignantly, said, “And I say to hell with you!” and stalked away.

Two jazz critics in the making, I point out.

A few years later, I still couldn’t hear Archie Shepp . . . but I also had little patience for Charlie Parker, late Lester Young, and a thousand others.  If it didn’t sound like the 1937 Basie band, Louis, or the Blue Note Jazzmen and their modern heirs, my ears were closed.

It has taken me forty years to be able to listen to a much wider variety of musics, and I am happy that my horizons have widened: if you can find beauty in Ran Blake as well as in James P. Johnson, aren’t your delights multiplied?

But not everyone feels that way.  One JAZZ LIVES reader told me that I was a traitor to the real jazz, which he defines as happy music played by “Negroes” in New Orleans.  All I can say (having calmed down) is that I hope he gets much pleasure out of the music he loves — as much as I do in listening to what I love.

This brings me to the question of what we call taste.

“I have good taste,” we say to ourselves.  “I know what I like.  What I like is really good.”

Others, we think, have slightly less reliable taste.  And we gossip about them in jazz terms.  “I can’t hang with him at the festival.  All he wants to do is go hear the Roly-Poly Piranhas play AT THE CODFISH BALL.”  Or, in more intimate terms, “I could never sleep with a (wo)man who digs the Roly-Poly Piranhas.”  I understand this sharp-edged perspective, but I am working hard to tame the snobbish divisiveness in my personality.

For whatever reasons, we grow attached to certain artistic expressions early in our lives.  Dr. John Money, an eminent medical researcher on the subject of sex (based at Johns Hopkins) said that our erotic attraction was based on childhood experiences we might not have been conscious of — not Freudian so much as experiential and genetic.  He called it a person’s “lovemap.”

Before I was able to vote, I heard records by Louis Armstrong (with Gordon Jenkins and the 1947 All-Stars), Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Jo Jones, the Boswell Sisters . . . so they are part of my musical “lovemap.”

And still — for all the ecumenicalism I am encouraging about “taste,” which, after all, is just something we make up to make ourselves feel better about our visceral reactions — if you tell me that you find Louis Armstrong boring, if the Basie rhythm section irritates you, I will feel pity . . . and think, “Wow!  That is WRONG!”

If you say “I do not like the way Hot Lips Page plays the blues,” I will try not to look at you as if you had just said, “I dislike breathing.  Breathing bores me.”  I might ask you, “What don’t you like about his playing?” and then we could get into a discussion.

But the word “like” is important here, because it shows that Hot Lips Page’s essence is not really in question; what is up for discussion is your subjective visceral reaction to it.

If you say to me, “I prefer the way Tony Fruscella plays the blues to the way Hot Lips does,” at least I can understand this, although I may still be surprised.  However, if you say, “Hot Lips Page is a bad trumpet player.  He can’t play,” then I must take my leave, because you have raised your subjective assessment into a statement of what you consider to be factual evidence.  I would say, as I go away, “You might want to ask a professional trumpet player if your assertion is correct.”

Ultimately I think that such “expressions of taste” are about what moves us deeply.  Does Connee Boswell’s singing of IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND store make you want to weep?  Does Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE solo make you want to get up and dance around the room?  (Please insert your own examples here.)  Are they the only musical expressions that move people to tears or joy?  I think not.

But maybe we could back off a little.

mushrooms

I don’t like the flavor of cooked mushrooms.  Too dark, too earthy.  I will eat them to be polite, and I don’t wrinkle my nose, gag, or toss my plate on the floor.  But if you think mushrooms are the most delicious thing in the world, and you pity me my culinary myopia, we could still go out to dinner.  And while you are thinking, “Michael doesn’t like mushrooms?  What is WRONG with him?” I would give you all the mushrooms on my plate so that you could enjoy them.

It holds true for music.  To my ears, there is little better than art of the musicians I hold dear.  But if you really want to go off and hear a band I don’t like, perhaps you hear something in them I do not.

Back to food.  If we are going to go out to lunch and you want me to join you for a paper sack full of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, I will not only say NO but I will tell you what I know about processed genetically modified food from animals that have never been allowed to live.  I might even say, “Hey, do you want to die?  Have you ever had real roast chicken?”  And we could not dine together, at least not at the Golden Arches.

However, should I think you are evil or stupid?  I think the most rancorous I should allow myself — in an echo of CASABLANCA — is to say, “You were misinformed.”

But if you want to spend all your time at the festival listening to the RPP, I hope you get a chance to walk in and hear a lyrical cornetist take a beautiful solo on a ballad.  Only then can you say you want to be exclusive.  Telling me that the lyrical cornetist “would put you to sleep” is true for you, but it makes me sad.

The principles of criticism stand solidly here: what are the artists attempting to do, and how well do they accomplish those goals?  If a band proposes to swing in a certain manner, to improvise on themes in ways that are melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically varied and skillful . . . we should judge them on those criteria.

For me, if the tempo drags or races, if the band is not in tune, if they rely on crowd-pleasing volume rather than shadings of dynamics, then I feel sad for the people who are hollering joyously in that room.  And also I feel sad that such displays of enthusiasm often shape the decisions of festival promoters.  I once talked with someone who ran a New York City jazz club, who told me, “The only way I know if a band is good is if they fill the room.”  That was understandable in economic terms, but not always so artistically.

I will hold on to my set of experiences and loves and I hope you will allow me to.  And I will try to be gentle.  If you tell me that the RPP is THE BEST BAND YOU HAVE EVER HEARD.  I might say, “Gee, have you ever heard Louis and Lonnie Johnson on HOTTER THAN THAT?” but I will try to disperse my unspoken scorn.

Want some mushrooms?  (Could I have those olives you aren’t eating?)

May your happiness increase.

NAPOLEON’S TRIUMPHS, or ROCKIN’ THE REGENCY: MARTY NAPOLEON, BILL CROW, RAY MOSCA at the REGENCY JAZZ CLUB (December 7, 2012)

I heard on NPR just yesterday that life expectancy for people living in New York City has now risen to slightly over eighty.  That would make Marty Napoleon, who is 91, remarkable simply in actuarial terms.  But Marty is splendidly remarkable for his music.  He is one of the few people I could use the term “unique” about and not feel that I was doing the language an injustice.  He was a splendidly swinging pianist when he made his first recordings in 1945, when he played with Gene Krupa and Red Allen; he swung the band when I heard him with Louis Armstrong in 1967 and when he astonished Harry Allen in the summer of 2012 at Feinstein’s.

Now there’s a trivia blossom in itself: how many musicians can you name who have delighted both Henry and Harry Allen?

Marty has made his home at the Regency in Glen Cove, New York — an “adult care facility,” and the Regency — with the help of some jazz angels — offered him a showcase on Friday, December 7, 2012.

He brought some swinging friends with him — Bill Crow, poet of string bass and pen, and the very warm-hearted drummer Ray Mosca.  Here are a few of the highlights of that evening’s concert.

If this is 91, I want to be a rug-cutter in just this Napoleonic manner.  Marty, Bill, and Ray rocked the room — as you will see and hear.

PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE (with the sweetly informal chat at the beginning — evidence of playfulness, not forgetfulness):

THE PREACHER (bringing churchy funk to Glen Cove!):

LOUIS ARMSTRONG MEDLEY, sweetly danceable:

A swinging CARAVAN:

Deep thanks to Beth, Stella, and Erika, who helped make this glorious evening of music happen; thanks to Neal, who knows where One is — and to Geri, one of the bright lights of our collective swinging soul.

Here’s  a link to the Regency at Glen Cove — an embracing, comfortable place indeed.

May your happiness increase.

WHY THE BOSWELL SISTERS MATTER: A HARMONIOUS CHAT WITH KYLA TITUS (December 8, 2012)

I had the great privilege of meeting Kyla Titus for the first time in person on December 8, 2012, at Cindy and Joel Frank’s delightful house.  Kyla is the granddaughter of Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, with whom she was deliciously close.  Also with Connie / Connee Boswell.  Martha Boswell had died before Kyla could know her, but Martha was everywhere in spirit.

I had another great privilege that day — that of asking Kyla to share her thoughts and feelings about the Sisters.  Did you know that a Boswell Sisters book and documentary are on the way?  Well, you will know a little more after this video.

But mostly you will share the rare honor of being close — through the medium of cyber-space — with a person animated by the spirits of people she loves very much, people who live through her.

More to come.  But let us be harmonious in our daily lives!

May your happiness increase.