I have friends who aren’t involved in jazz, and one of the most dear is the writer and literary scholar Gretchen, whom I’ve known and admired for over a decade.  Gretchen’s short stories are slippery marvels; her scholarship is both substantial and deeply felt.  (She’s also private; hence the first-name-only.)  Gretchen speaks with the most tender affection of her father, Ken, who is no longer on this planet.

Recently Gretchen told me of the travails of moving her mother from the family residence — but said that she had managed to rescue Ken’s “potato.”  I don’t think I made any witticisms about tubers and their perishable nature; perhaps I just said, “Oh?” and she then explained that Ken had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania and the “potato” was a musical instrument he had made of clay, painted red and gold, and it had the shape of the root it was named for, with holes in it to play musical notes.  I said, “Oh! An ocarina!” and we met in the middle of the nomenclature.  Here’s Ken’s “potato”: he was neither a professional musician nor an artist, but he clearly had a witty style.

I told Gretchen, that as the “ocarina,” this instrument had cropped up on several of my favorite recordings — from sessions supervised by John Hammond, marrying “hilbilly” music and “swing,” led by the singer / successful composer Redd Evans, featuring the jazz master pianist Teddy Wilson, and an ocarina solo by one of the musicians, identified on the label only as “Hot Sweet Potato.”  I wrote a long post about those sides here but it’s from the jazz side of the aisle, its emphasis on Teddy Wilson.  Since our focus today is on the potato, I will simply share the music.  First, the frolicsome-somber THEY CUT DOWN THE OLD PINE TREE:

The flip side of that 78, RED WING, is much more worn (someone loved it even more) and the first reed solo is by Buster Bailey, another hero, on clarinet, but the potato gets in a few notes at the end:

This post isn’t about the cultural history embodied in 1939 “crossover music,” nor is it about the ocarina per se — so I ask for some restraint in the commenting audience for the moment.

It is, however, about the way some adults are such good and loving parents that their adult children still remember them with the deepest affection.

Gretchen told me today that “Ken often picked it [the potato] up from where it stood on the hutch in the family room and played it for sheer enjoyment.”  I imagine I can hear those notes, and Ken is alive to me in them, as he is to Gretchen, in that space where music, love, and memory hold hands sweetly.

May your happiness increase!


  1. David O'Connor

    and ‘jass lives’ as it should

  2. The ocarina was featured in the rock anthem “Wild Thing” by the Trogs in the 1960’s, reaching #1 on the charts. Check out the the ocarina solo at 1:08 here:

  3. Laurie Whitlock

    We have an expert in the ocarina here in Southern California- he would hate that reference, as he is the “shy, retiring” sort. Larry Wright has several sweet potatoes in various keys and he wears the most often used in a holster on his hip. Larry is a multi-instrument, multi-talented, genius of a kind. He brooks no sloppy and uncaring musician and feels that if one is going to work one should take pride in the job and one should do the very best to be the best they can, this leads occasionally, to impatience and misunderstandings. Larry has written and performed music, primarily Classic Early American jazz in a handful of theaters from the first General Electric March of Progress to Epcot and has won a Clio for music written for a television commercial. Health problems have forced him to be more selective in his performances and now sits in with a few groups in gigs around the Southland. But, I thought if you hadn’t seen or heard him while you were here, it would be good to bring him to your attention.. He is worthy of note.
    How are ya doing, my friend? You are everywhere and having the time of your life. I miss you and I miss all the festivals and great friends. I hope that 2020 is a real doozy of a year!

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