In the past year, a few holy relics of the beloved and subtle pianist Jess Stacy have come my way. (Today would have been his 116th birthday, which counts as well.) At a swing dance, I purchased one of his Chiaroscuro solo recordings — especially after I turned it over and saw that Jess had inscribed it, “Hi Jack, Well, I tried, Best, Jess.” which says so much about his character. On eBay two months ago, a late photograph of Jess which he signed, again graciously, to the photographer. And perhaps ten days ago, this disc crossed my path, and although it is not a Stacy solo, it’s priceless evidence of what he did so well and for so long.
But — for the delicate — these sides have not been well-cared for in their eighty-year life, and I think that aluminum acetates are less gentle to the ear than shellac. So if you quail at surface noise, there is a substantial amount.
And the other side:
An explanation, or several.
Bob Crosby was Bing’s brother, handsome and presentable, who had a career because of his last name and a passable although quavery singing voice. His band — featuring Ray Bauduc, Bob Haggart, Eddie Miller, Irving Fazola, Matty Matlock, Billy Butterfield, and many others — made its fame with a New Orleans-inspired rocking approach and a small band, the Bobcats. Crosby usually had first-rate pianists, Joe Sullivan, Bob Zurke, and, joining the band after five years with Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy. Goodman had had great success with a radio program sponsored by Camel cigarettes, the “Camel Caravan,” but in 1939, Crosby took over the program.
One of the featured performers with Goodman was songwriter-singer Johnny Mercer, whose feature was “Newsy Bluesy” or I’ve seen it as “Newsy Bluesies.” Mercer had done something like it when he was with Paul Whiteman: a variation on the vaudeville device of straight man and comedian, with Mercer playing the latter with great skill and singing in his inimitable way (which I love) — the weekly theme drawn from odd stories in the newspapers. The result is a hilarious scripted playlet, set over a quick-tempo OLD-FASHIONED LOVE. Mercer shines, especially with a very stiff Crosby as his foil.
But the real treasure here is the rollicking piano of Jess Stacy, lighting the skies alongside Bob Haggart, string bass, Nappy Lamare, guitar, and Ray Bauduc, drums. You might have to pay close attention or even listen twice, but Jess, bubbling and swinging, is completely there.
November 28, 1939.
December 5, 1939:
Small mysteries remain. Why did Mercer have a New York City recording studio preserve these sides for him? (He was, one biography says, commuting between New York and Hollywood.) How did they survive (although the labels have had a rough time of it)? And how did they wind up where a mere collector-mortal could purchase and share them in time for Mr. Stacy’s birthday?
Whatever ethereal forces are at work, you have my gratitude — as do Jess, Johnny, the Crosby band, ACE Recording, and WABC.
And happy birthday, Mr. Stacy. You not only tried: you are irreplaceable.
May your happiness increase!