Monthly Archives: April 2017

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS BIG SID CATLETT and JOE THOMAS (April 21, 2017)

I’m thrilled that I could visit Dan Morgenstern again at his apartment and we could talk and create something permanent that people could enjoy and learn from.  The first session took place on March 3, 2017, and the results are here.

About six weeks later, we got together again so that Dan, an enchanting storyteller whose stories have the virtue of being true, could share his love for his and our heroes.

The first segments we did that April afternoon were tributes to mutual deities, Sidney Catlett and Joe Thomas.  First, Big Sid:

and then the lyrical, melodic trumpeter Joe:

with a sweet postscript:

Here are Joe, Big Sid, Teddy Wilson, and Ed Hall on a 1943 V-Disc session:

and the Keynote Records side Dan refers to, with Joe, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Trummy Young, Earl Hines, Teddy Walters, and Billy Taylor:

and Louis’ Decca WOLVERINE BLUES with Big Sid:

There’s much more to come.

May your happiness increase!

SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE IN WHISPERS: “BON BON,” JOE THOMAS, EDDIE DURHAM, and BUSTER SMITH, 1941

Sometimes great art flourishes in corners where it is not at all expected even to survive.

George “Bon Bon” Tunnell (1912-1975) was an engaging singer — yet not well-remembered.  He was first a member of The Three Keys, and from 1937-42, he was the first African-American male singer to appear with a Caucasian band: Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters.  Incidentally, he was heavily featured with the band — and — one of the trombonists there was Cutty Cutshall (1939-40) something that would interest Condon scholars like myself.

The two sides below come from Bon Bon’s early solo career — four sides from this date, two the next year (where Decca seems to have wanted him to be an African-American Bing, or at least a Chick Bullock or Dick Robertson) and then some solo features with Steve Gibson’s Red Caps.  But with no disrespect to Bon Bon’s very nice singing, the two sides offer a rare combination — two musicians who, at this point in the Swing Era, did not receive all the opportunities to record their talents warranted.

They are guitarist / trombonist / arranger Eddie Durham, whose guitar sound is instantly recognizable — swinging but with sharp corners — and trumpeter Joe Thomas, also instantly recognizable and inimitable.  The second song, I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE, is also Durham’s — although there are three other names on the label.  And, on clarinet, the”Prof” of deep Kansas City jazz, Buster Smith.   New York City, July 23, 1941: Tunnell, Joe Thomas, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Jimmy Phipps, piano; Al Hall, string bass; Jack Parker, drums.  The other two sides — which you’d have to track down on your own (they are on the THREE KEYS CD on the Chronological Classics label) are BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, and Fats Waller’s ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES.

SWEET MAMA  (from 1920, I believe, and recorded by the ODJB) has lyrics that suggest domestic abuse and a real need for anger management, but the band is splendid.  But first we hear Durham’s spiky arpeggios, a very dark and threatening orchestral passage featuring growl from Thomas (not his usual approach) and leafy clarinet from Smith — a passage reminiscent of Durham’s approach to GOOD MORNING BLUES for Basie.  I find Bon Bon hilariously sweetly unconvincing in his gentle singing: this man couldn’t do damage to a sandwich, but we will let that pass.  (When he returns for his second vocal, he wants to convince us: “Papa’s really gone mad,” but his heart isn’t in it.  Too kind to make anyone cower.)

The half-chorus Thomas solo that follows is quietly magnificent: even through his mute, the steady glow of his tone comes through, as does his fondness for repeated notes, his love of 1927 Louis; his stately glide.  Where other trumpeters shout, Thomas caresses, and his solo winds down rather than moving out of the middle register.  It is equally affecting for what he doesn’t care to do — remember, 1941 was the age of great brass virtuosity — as for what he does. Thomas whispers sweet epigrams to us, and their impact is only felt on the third or fourth hearing.  I’d also call your attention to the strong but not overdone rhythm that Hall and Durham offer, as well as Smith’s sweet commentaries.  Bon Bon returns to assure us of his menace, but no one would be all that scared of “the fine undertaker,” which seems like a Waller touch.

The more famous song, justly, begins with an orchestral introduction that borrows quietly from THE MOOCHE, and we then move to a love song — where Bon Bon sounds more comfortable.  Durham’s arpeggios threaten to take our attention away: he’s not aiming to copy Charlie Christian’s smoothness, but he makes a deep impression.  Eddie is much more prominent here — it was his song and I wonder if he’d brought a small-band chart to the session. Then, less than half a minute of Thomas, but his sound, even muted, is like sunshine coming through the windows in late afternoon.  His gentle intensity; his love of the melody — and that upwards arpeggio in the middle is purest Joe (and purest Louis, if you need to find an ancestor) — quite touching.  When the band and Bon Bon return, the blending is completely polished and fetching.

(Joe gets three more extroverted outings on BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, which he executes nicely, and Bon Bon scats in the best almost-Leo-Watson manner.  ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES bounces along pleasantly, but once again Bon Bon must pretend to menace — “I’m fit to fight” — which is sweetly unconvincing.  Durham is delightfully in evidence and the other horns show their individual voices — but the two sides here are, to me, the standouts. Tunnell’s final side for Decca, before the recording ban, SLEEPY OLD TOWN, could pass for Bing, and it is delightful — with Russ Solomon doing a commendable Bobby Hackett.  But it’s no longer on YouTube.)

And just because it exists on eBay, a little more Bon Bon memorabilia — a signed contract, with amendments.

and the reverse:

I haven’t analyzed the contract.  Perhaps Laura Windley, our swing star and lawyer, might have something to say about it.  Until then, I will cherish those two Decca sides, full of instrumental surprises and engaging singing.

May your happiness increase!

“MERVEILLIEUX!”

When I hear the voice of Rebecca Kilgore, I smile, even if the song is sad.  When I think of Rebecca Kilgore — who goes under various aliases to keep ahead of the law . . . Beck-a-Roo, Becky, Roo — I feel joyous.

With very few words, let me use JAZZ LIVES to share some of those good feelings.  Here’s a delicious sample of Rebecca — not only the singer, but the witty composer.  The song is THE DAY I LEARNED FRENCH.  Becky’s colleagues are Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass, and this was recorded at the 2014 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party:

And if you are close to New York City, Rebecca will be singing tomorrow — that’s April 29, 2017, at the International Women in Jazz Festival:

And if you can’t get to New York City tomorrow, you can follow Rebecca here.

May your happiness increase!

THREE AND ONE-HALF MINUTES OF GRATIFICATION

In the taxonomy of older jazz, we know where we stand, or at least where the classifiers tell us we should be standing.  There are Hot Bands (usually African-American) and Sweet or Dance Bands (Caucasian).  There are, of course, groups that snip the barbed wire to escape or to visit the other side — Claude Hopkins performing TREES in a very arboreal manner, then, several years later, Bunny Berigan setting the forest on fire with the same song.  (The Louis – Gordon Jenkins version of that same song, fifteen years later, is beyond dispute, and I’ve started disputes when people looked askance at it.)

But it has been my experience that most jazz fans of a certain ideological bent prefer — mutely or vividly — their music Hot and either played by African-Americans or by Caucasians in the Hot style.  Or in cases where a Sweet band offers a Hot solo, we can find the 78s that have that twenty-second interlude played to a fine powder, the rest of the record nearly pristine.

What do we do with this curious and wonderful artifact, however?  It is at once a superb dance record; it swings easily and well; it is a wholly satisfying performance and presentation.  I present it to JAZZ LIVES’ listeners in hopes that they can listen to this buff Bluebird 78 from 1933 with open and appreciative ears, enjoying the recording for what it is.

The group is the Joe Haymes Orchestra — Haymes had played piano and arranged for the Ted Weems band — but under the nominal leadership of Mike Doty, thus Roy Wager, Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Ward Silloway, trombone; Mike Doty, clarinet, alto saxophone, vocal; Toots Mondello or Dan D’Andrea, Paul Ricci, Bud Freeman, reeds; Paul Mitchell, piano; probably Mac Cheikes, banjo; Gene Traxler, string bass; Charlie Bush, drums; Joe Haymes, leader / arranger.  New York, November 9, 1933.

And the song is PUDDIN’ HEAD JONES — recorded also by a Ben Selvin group, Don Redman, Hal Kemp, and perhaps a half-dozen other bands in 1933.

Here’s the performance:

From the start, this is an assured, swinging band.  The melody statement — muted trumpets, possibly a baritone saxophone line, Gene Traxler’s strong string bass and Charlie Bush’s rocking drums — is easy and non-threatening for the dancers who simply wanted a fast fox trot, but the band is splendidly rehearsed without being at all stiff.  And a gorgeous modulation follows — leisurely, with clarinet (I guess Paul Ricci) on top, while Bush shifts to either a low-boy or a hi-hat cymbal.  Without overstating my praise, the Haymes band — under Doty’s name — is grooving at the first minute in such a lilting easy way that other bands never reached.  In the first seconds of Doty’s vocal, he sounds more declamatory than the song requires — but that’s a 1933 style of singing when there wasn’t a microphone, and the singer needed to be emphatically clear so that the witty bits of the lyrics were heard and understood.  Beneath him, the band swings and Ricci ornaments it all.  (I’ll get to the lyrics in a bit.)  Even though the lyrics are hilarious and verging on the naughty, the band doesn’t emphasize the punchlines: no rimshots or bass-drum hits.  The listener must pay attention. After the vocal, the band subtly says, “WE can swing like mad, too!” with delicious interludes for clarinet and I think Dick Clark on tenor saxophone (it’s not Bud), supported beautifully by the wonderfully focused slap of Bush’s wire brushes.

(A one-bar digression: what is known about Charlie Bush?  HE COULD PLAY.)

When well-executed, “glee club” choruses for the band are just marvelous — if you needed a musical definition of logical architecture or building momentum, you have it in the way the band voices rock wordless riffs behind Doty.  And although his voice isn’t up to the challenge of shouting over the band at the end, he certainly delivers the message.

Those lyrics.  One encounters this song, depending on one’s level of empathy, with some doubts.  Will this be a narrative about how stupid an elementary-school student was — the equivalent of the polite dozens for middle-class Caucasians?  You know, the sort of humor that builds on “You’re so dumb . . . ” But — the clever turn of the bridge, where the fictional character we have been invited to laugh at turns out to be the Teacher’s Teacher (a folk take in swingtime) with a real punchline in the last words of the bridge — something has turned around, and in some ways we are a little embarrassed at underestimating Puddin’ Head, who is much smarter than we thought and probably much smarter than we are.  Are we meant to assume that  Teacher has already spent time in interdisciplinary studies with Puddin’s older brother?  I leave that to you. But our young dunce turns into an expert wooer, and as an adult a diligent citizen, frugal and energetic — so much so that in this 1933 Depression-era saga, he is presumably the only man in the neighborhood who is well-loved, securely affluent, perhaps even wealthy.  An American success story: from dunce to happy successful man in three minutes and change.

“Underestimate people at your own risk” might be the moral of this tale.

I knew I had to write a blogpost about this record when I needed to hear it four or five times in a row — with great joy — from YouTube.  (And I also purchasesd or re-purchased the three Haymes reissues that exist, and await their arrival.)

Of course, there might be grumbling in the imaginary cyber-audience, “Great record.  But how much better it would be with, say Jimmy Rushing singing, and Ben Webster on tenor.” Perhaps.  But I love what we have, and cherish it as a perfectly accomplished piece of hilarious swinging art that needs no improvements.

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART THREE (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

I offer here the final segment of a glorious evening that also happened to be Dan Block’s birthday.  But rather than waiting for cake and gift cards, Dan bestowed presents on us.

The Mobius Travelers (my band name, not Dan’s) are Dan Block, clarinet and tenor; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, who convened for an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls (West Tenth Street, New York City) on February 3, 2017. The imaginative premise: revitalize obscure Swing Era compositions and arrangements by (among others) Mary Lou Williams, Benny Carter, Billy Moore, Fletcher Henderson, Edgar Sampson.

Here are the selections performed earlier in the evening, and some words in addition.

Now, the three closing performances — full of juice and surprises.

CANCER, from Mary Lou’s “ZODIAC SUITE”:

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE, Mary Lou’s creation for the Andy Kirk band:

And to close, Benny Carter’s BLUES IN MY HEART, that segues into a let’s-celebrate-the-leader HAPPY BIRTHDAY, a riotous ending to a memorable evening.

May your happiness increase!

“A REALLY PRETTY SONG”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JEFF HAMILTON, KATIE CAVERA, CLINT BAKER (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 25, 2016)

Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have the magical ability to play with Time (Einstein would be pleased) so that a nice steady medium-tempo groove from the band can also be ornamented with dreaming, almost motionless ruminations on the theme: it happens beautifully here.

The song is famous for Billie Holiday and Lester Young, although in 1937 it was simply another new pop tune, composed by Carmen Lombardo and John Jacob Loeb.  Carmen doesn’t get much credit for melodies — people are too busy sneering at the Lombardo reeds and vocalizing — but think of COQUETTE, SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, RIDIN’ AROUND IN THE RAIN, and even BOO HOO (I hear Jimmy Rushing singing that one with perfect swing sincerity).

This isn’t a post about the glories of Billie and Lester (even though they can’t be celebrated too much) but rather a wholly instrumental and wholly satisfying version of this song in our century, created by Ray, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar:

What beautiful dreamy music.  Blessings on these musicians and thanks for the San Diego Jazz Fest for providing a time and place (November 25, 2016) for the musicians and audience to feel such expansive comfort.

May your happiness increase!

“SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON”: TAMAR KORN, GORDON AU, DENNIS LICHTMAN, JARED ENGEL, CRAIG VENTRESCO at the LOST CHURCH (June 8, 2013)

In the dozen years I’ve lived here, my apartment has slowly morphed into a combination library / computer workshop / recording studio / and who knows what, based in the living room, with various effusions of CDs, books, external hard drives, cassettes, photographs — generally confined to the living room.  To my left, cassettes from the late Seventies on; to my right, a four-speed phonograph with (as I write) a Jess Stacy Commodore 78 of RAMBLIN’ and COMPLAININ’ on the turntable, adjacent to a newer stereo system.  Also on my left, long-playing records and hard drives; to my right, a wall of CDs.

There are rules: a new CD will migrate to the kitchen counter, but it knows it shouldn’t be there and it tends to hide and look abashed when discovered.  The bathroom and bedroom are off limits to music-infestation.  No, don’t ask for photographs.

But having JAZZ LIVES since February 2008 is like living inside a giant multi-sensory photograph album.  Insubstantial in some ways, seriously substantial in others.  I’ve posted nearly six thousand videos on YouTube, which means I’ve been a busy tech-primate.  And some more videos haven’t been posted, so the bits of information are thick in this one-bedroom palace of sound and sight.

Photograph by Michael Steinman

Every so often I want to hear and see something that gave me pleasure several times: at the moment of experience and, later, in writing about it, posting it, and enjoying it.  One that came to mind today was a performance I witnessed and savored in California at San Francisco’s The Lost Church, almost four years ago: Tamar Korn, Craig Ventresco, Jared Engel, Gordon Au, and Dennis Lichtman — mellowly celebrating the lunar power of love with SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON:

Awfully sweet, this speaks of a world where young people could ask the cosmos for help in romance and receive it.  Life before phones.

I will indulge myself in this again, and I encourage you to do so also.  When I take a day off from blogging, the search bar on front page will lead you to treats.

May your happiness increase!