The Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace remains one of my heroes. In all things, he was an obstinate individualist. I knew him first as a musician, then (in the last years of his life) as a correspondent, rarely by telephone and only slightly more frequently by mail. Here is a Chace letter that recently turned up — unexpectedly. The contents are not significant in themselves, but the letter is significant to me: I look at it and think, “At one time in my life, it was possible to get a letter from Frank Chace,” which still amazes me:
Lucid, sardonic, perceptive. He was the only correspondent I ever had or might ever have who could move easily from Noam Chomsky to Kansas Fields and Don Frye, Bobby Hackett and Dave McKenna, with hints of Bob and Ray at the end. (The music references are to a private tape with some otherwise undocumented Eddie Condon-and-friends music from 1942 and 1944 that I had sent him.)
You can’t hear a letter, so here’s some audible Chace — a rarity, something I heard years ago on a cassette from the sweetly generous Bob Hilbert: four selections recorded in 1957 by a band led by cornetist Doc Evans. The concert, billed as a history of jazz, was issued in three 12″ lps on the Soma label, but Chace popped in for the “Chicagoan” portion, playing both clarinet and bass sax, the latter for one of only two times on record.
Because I have a fascination with ornate prose, I offer some paragraphs from this record’s liner notes (omitting the writer’s name) for your consideration:
There is almost as much of the white American Midwest as there is of the Negro South in classic jazz, which is only natural: like the chestnut tree of the poet Yeats, the “great rooted blossomer” of the Mississippi River and its tributaries (pushing across the New York-Hollywood “course of empire” of the entertainment industry) has been the nesting-place of jazz. Its songbirds have been of all colors, but the music they have made has been one integrated chorus . . . . Bix and Tesch could no more rid themselves completely of their common German ancestry than the Negro could completely rid himself of Africa; and thus a 19th-century European concept of melody and harmony, of “art” music, of the virtuoso instrumentalist, enters jazz with Bix and Tesch — enters, to be assimilated (if in such a short time as they accomplished that assimilation for themselves) by an act of will and talent, of sensibilities strained to the breaking point. . . . . But not all broke; followers of Bix and Tesch carry on . . . in our time the direct legitimate heir of Tesch, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, for whom time has stood still and who has made it stand still for others. One man, one horn, one ghost epitomize Chicago style: eccentric, wailing, uninhibited. It is like Chicago, where the men of Storyville came to plant their music amid the aspirations of another race.
To the music, played by Evans, cornet; Chace, clarinet / bass sax; Hal Runyon, trombone; Dick Pendleton, clarinet (when Chace is on bass sax in JAZZ BAND BALL) alto / tenor sax; Frank Gillis, piano; Bill Peer, banjo; George Tupper, string bass; Warren Thewis, drums — SINGIN’ THE BLUES / AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL / SUGAR / I FOUND A NEW BABY:
The first two performances follow the original 1927 OKehs fairly closely, with Chace on clarinet on SINGIN’ and on bass sax — doing a creditable Rollini on JAZZ BAND, thirty years after the fact. Readers who like such things can consider whether these concert performances are effective copies. For me, the real pleasure comes in Chace’s solo chorus on SUGAR, his solo and ensemble work on the latter two tunes — a free-thinking Chicagoan approach. Superficially, he resembles Pee Wee Russell, but a more attentive hearing will turn up Simeon, Teschemacher, Noone, Dodds, and other evocations, all blended strongly into a unique entity known as Frank Chace. . . . someone who went his own way even when the constraints of the situation seemed claustrophobic.
I remember now that my telephone conversations with Frank were often bleak: he was convinced that everyone was corrupt, that there was no reason for him to play or record again. At this date, I can’t know if he was realistic or deeply depressed or both; he defeated my sustaining optimism with ease. But I miss him.
May your happiness increase!