Monthly Archives: February 2014

COMING SOON! STEPHANIE TRICK, PAOLO ALDERIGHI, MARTY EGGERS, DANNY COOTS at the ROSSMOOR JAZZ CLUB (Tuesday, March 11, 2014)

On Tuesday, March 11, 2014, I will be away from my computer, but for the best reasons: the Beloved and I will be at the Rossmoor Jazz Club (in Walnut Creek — details here) for a comfortably warm evening of hot music provided by Stephanie Trick, Paolo Alderighi, pianos; Marty Eggers, string bass; Danny Coots, drums.  I have been told by the trustworthy Robert Burch that the theatre where all this takes place is comfortable, it seats 500, and dancers are welcome.   Admission is $10 (members) and $15 (non-members), and one can become a member with an annual payment of $30. The concert begins at 7:30, but you’ll want to get their earlier.

And just in case you haven’t heard Stephanie and Paolo, I offer these four beautiful performances from their November 2013 appearance at the San Diego Jazz Fest.  The room was dark; the sounds were glowing.

THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT:

SHREVEPORT STOMP:

TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE (and why not? The rewards are evident):

Their mock-battle, all in fun, on BILL BAILEY:

See you there. And check out the bill of fare for the rest of 2014: excellent music is on the menu.

May your happiness increase!

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IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

“EXCUSE ME, SIR, DO YOU HAVE A MATCH?”

I don’t smoke, but this sacred artifact (from eBay) tempts me:

EDDIE CONDON'S matchbook front

And the reverse:

EDDIE CONDON'S matchbook back

Now, the word “D****LAND” irked Mister Condon, so I hope he didn’t see too many of those matchbooks on East Fifty-Sixth Street.

I wanted to know what occupies that address now, and found this — a perfectly serene Sutton Place apartment building.  I would trade it all for one set with a group selected from Yank Lawson, Buck Clayton, Johnny Windhurst, Bobby Hackett, Cutty Cutshall, Peanuts Hucko, Bob Wilber, Dave McKenna, Bob Haggart, Morey Feld — some of the heroes who played at this club.

Oh, well.

We’ll always have RINGSIDE AT CONDON’S,” as Bogie tells Ingrid in CASABLANCA.

May your happiness increase!

FROM EAST TO WEST, EMILY ASHER BRINGS GOOD SOUNDS (Cafe Divine, February 17, 2014)

Trombonist, singer, composer, arranger Emily Asher is so blissfully bicoastal that she makes the rest of us seem as if we’re glued to our recliners.  She flies from Hither to Yon, whisking back and forth from Seattle to Brooklyn, making friends for the music wherever she goes, a marathon runner for good music.

Here’s a very recent sample, from an intriguing gig at Cafe Divine in San Francisco — which began as a duo of trombone (Emily) and accordion (Rob Reich) but expanded in the most graceful way.  The first Special Guest was string bassist Daniel Fabricant, who joined in for a romping ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

Daniel had to go off to make a gig with Gaucho (those spreaders of joy) so Emily and Rob asked the sweet but pointed question, WHY DON’T YOU GO DOWN TO NEW ORLEANS?:

I think Frank Loesser’s imagined ship would be too sluggish for our Ms. Asher, but she likes the tune ON A SLOW BOAT TO CHINA:

BLUE SKIES featured an Impromptu but Expert Girl Trio — An Historic Moment — Emily, Meredith Axelrod, and Kally Price, with Rob and the esteemed Craig Ventresco, guitar:

Meredith showed us the way to MY BLUE HEAVEN:

Now, if you’re reading this on the East Coast and feeling deprived, there is Good News Tonight.  On Saturday, March 1, Emily Asher’s Endangered Species Trio (yes!) will begin New Brunswick Jazz Project’s Women in Jazz month.  They will play at the Alfa Art Gallery in New Brunswick, New Jersey, immediately following a viewing of the very fine film THE GIRLS IN THE BAND.

Details here and here.  The event begins at 6:30; the film screening will be from about 7:20-8:45, and the band will play from 9-11 PM: with Emily, the EST is Tom Abbott, bass saxophone; Rob Reich, accordion.  I’d be there if I could.

May your happiness increase!

“THIS HEAVEN-SENT FIGURE IN JAZZ”: THE UNION RHYTHM KINGS CELEBRATE BIX BEIDERBECKE at the WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (Nov. 1, 2013)

Last November, we were fortunate indeed to hear and see the wonderful Norwegian – Swedish hot band, the Union Rhythm Kings, at the 2013 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party.

They are Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone and master of ceremonies for this set; Bent Persson, cornet; Lars Frank, reeds; Kristoffer Kompen, trombone; Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Jacob Ullberger, banjo; Josh Duffee, drums.

The music here was hot and sweet, but played with loving reverence for the young man from Davenport — described in my title by Frans’ most gentle phrase.

LOVE AFFAIRS:

THOU SWELL:

SUGAR:

I DIDN’T KNOW:

SKYLARK:

DUSKY STEVEDORE:

WA-DA-DA:

JUST AN HOUR OF LOVE WITH YOU:

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

The Union Rhythm Kings will be a highlight of the 2014 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party — they will have their own session on Thursday night, which I am looking forward to.  Hearing them, you will properly understand the phrase, “Everybody’s doing it now,” I am sure.

May your happiness increase!

THE YERBA BUENA STOMPERS (and an ESTEEMED GUEST) at the 2013 STEAMBOAT STOMP in NEW ORLEANS

When listening to the Yerba Buena Stompers in person, I always admire their power — which isn’t a matter of volume but of strength. But they are also masters of delicacy, of precision.  They know, and their knowledge comes through as joy rather than a lesson.

Here they are, performing a small concert at the 2013 Steamboat Stomp, Duke Heitger’s delightful idea-turned-into-reality: an autumnal festival of New Orleans-related music in New Orleans, much of it held on an actual steamboat (the Natchez) which lazily paddled its way up and down the Mississippi.  This session took place at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel — on dry land, but no one objected — on October 12, 2013.

The classic YBS lineup was in full force: Leon Oakley, cornet; Duke Heitger, trumpet; Tom Bartlett, trombone; Orange Kellin, clarinet; Conal Fowkes, piano and vocal; John Gill, banjo and vocal; Clint Baker, tuba; Kevin Dorn, drums. And the YBS had a special eminent guest.  You can’t always see him (he sat demurely behind Tom Bartlett, forming a two-banjo rhythm section) but you can feel him . . . the deeply-admired Vince Saunders,leader of the South Frisco Jazz Band for fifty years and counting.  He even takes a heartfelt vocal on OLD FASHIONED LOVE.

STEAMBOAT STOMP (an apt opener for this weekend):

RIVERSIDE BLUES (from the Creole Jazz Band book):

WOLVERINE BLUES (for Mister Jelly):

SWEET MAMA RING-DING-DING (a showcase for our Man from the Islands, Conal Fowkes):

OLD-FASHIONED LOVE (featuring Vince, vocal):

THE OLD STACK O’LEE BLUES:

PINEAPPLE RAG (a rhythm section feature):

EDNA (from King Oliver’s Victor days):

I hope to see you at the 2014 Stomp . . . details to follow later in the year.

May your happiness increase!