Daily Archives: April 10, 2014

MAX’S MOTHER

Recently I reread Max Kaminsky’s autobiography, MY LIFE IN JAZZ, which takes him from his birth in Brockton, Massachusetts (1908) to his then current life in 1962.  It’s a pleasant and revealing book, with sharp self-awareness as well as portraits of Max’s friends and colleagues — especially Billie, Louis, and Eddie Condon.

When I closed the book, the person who had made the greatest impression on me was his mother.  We don’t get to know her given name in the book: she is “Ma,” born in the eighteen-eighties in southern Russia . . . and she gives Max and his friends loving kindness and wise advice until her death at ninety. (Intuitively, she is a quick-witted compassionate friend / rescuer to Billie and Pee Wee Russell.)

Three sketches of Mrs. Kaminsky.  “Ma.”

When Max is in seventh grade (the very early Twenties) he rounds up other neighborhood children to form a “kid band,” which enjoys some success at the local vaudeville house until several members of the band turn on him and fire him:

I ran into the house and cried inconsolably until finally my mother came to my room and talked to me.

“People are bad,” she said, “but they’re bad to themselves and all the harm they do is only to themselves. Wait, and you’ll see this is true.”

and at the end of her life:

“Don’t mourn for the dead, take care of the living,” she had so often said to me. “And when I die, I want you to go out and see a movie.” 

. . . I kept remembering how I used to play Louis Armstrong records around the house night and day when I was home in the thirties and how my mother was convinced it was I on the trumpet. Nothing could shake her conviction. “That’s Maxie, but he doesn’t want to tell me because he’s so modest,” she’d say knowingly to [Max’s sister] Rose, and then turning to me she’d say, “You needn’t be ashamed. In fact, it’s very good!” Everywhere I go, I still meet musicians who ask me about my mother.

I feel that I am lucky to have known — even in these tiny glimpses — such a person.

May your happiness increase!

LISTEN TO VIC DICKENSON

Vic Dickenson, trombonist, singer, composer.  Photograph by Robert Parent (circa 1951).  Inscribed to drummer Walt Gifford.  From Gifford’s scrapbook, courtesy of Duncan Schiedt.

VIC by ROBERT PARENT

I dream of a jazz-world where everyone gets the credit they deserve, where Vic is as celebrated — and as listened to — as his contemporaries and friends Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Sidney Bechet, Mary Lou Williams, Frank Newton, and many more.

I’d like writers to pay attention to his delicate lyricism, his melodic improvisations, his way of illuminating a song from within.  This would require new language and new hearing: no longer putting Vic into the familiar compartments of “sly,” “witty,” “naughty,” and so on.

It would also require some writers and listeners to put aside their barely-concealed disdain for jazz as it was played before Charlie Parker came to town.  No disrespect to Bird, mind you, who jammed happily with Vic and Doc Cheatham and knew that they were masters. But Vic was more than a “Dixieland” trombonist, more than someone chained to TIN ROOF BLUES and SLOW BOAT TO CHINA.

Would Vic have been taken more seriously had he played trumpet? The trombone blends so well, so often, that it (like the string bass) is taken for granted. And Vic was one of the more reticent of jazz players: someone who wanted to play rather than chat or announce. But the musicians knew how special he was, and is.  (Some people celebrated Vic during his lifetime and still do: I think of Dan Morgenstern, George Wein, John Hammond, Dan Barrett, Mal Sharpe, Manfred Selchow, and others.)

We could begin to truly hear Vic, I think.  Perhaps the beginning of the campaign would be if we asked everyone we knew to listen — and listen with all their perception and love — to music like this:

It is indeed true that having Shad Collins, Ed Hall, Sir Charles Thompson, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, and Jo Jones along — in gorgeous sound — did no one any harm.  But I ask my listeners to do the difficult task of putting Vic first: his sonority, open and muted.  His time, his phrasing, the vocal quality of his sounds (plural).  His love for the melody and for the melodies that the original suggested.  His delicate concise force: what he could say in four quarter notes, or eight bars.  There was and is no one like him.

May your happiness increase!