“IN SUNNY ROSELAND,” or THE ARTS OF MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT: BARNEY BIGARD, VIC DICKENSON, DICK SUDHALTER, ART HODES, MARTY GROSZ, PLACIDE ADAMS, PANAMA FRANCIS (Nice Jazz Festival, July 22, 1977)

The jazz I grew up listening could be pure harmonic improvisation — Coleman Hawkins was a powerful example — but many of the musicians I idolized then and still do: Louis, Jack, Teddy, Ed Hall, Buck, Bobby, and two hundred others, had such love for the melody, which they had grown up with, that they ornamented and embellished it. They put earrings or a scarf on it, a bold bow tie or a cloak, but you always knew it was there. Hearing one of these embellishers play a solo, you could hum the melody alongside (or underneath) and the two lines would gently trot down the same road — not hand-in-hand, but in the same direction and arriving at the same good place.

Some performances dazzle and amaze me; others warm and embrace me. Here’s a gently leisurely example of the latter kind.

It’s a group trotting happily through ROSE ROOM at the Grande Parade du Jazz: Barney Bigard, clarinet, Vic Dickenson, trombone; Dick Sudhalter, cornet; Art Hodes, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Placide Adams, string bass; Panama Francis, drums.

Some small ruminations, first. ROSE ROOM — in its original 1920 form, a love song — was one of Bigard’s features for years, but it’s pleasing to hear he doesn’t revert to his set solo. Listening to his late work is always a joy for me because age had slowed him down just a touch, so his phrases were more varied, and you listened for his tone. (YouTube commenters, vinegary in their recliners, have been mean-spirited about Barney; I wonder how many of them run at the same speed they did thirty-seven years ago.)

Vic Dickenson fit in anywhere as long as the tempo wasn’t punishingly fast, or the band too loud. He didn’t like backgrounds, one of which appears in his second chorus, but he is playing something so delightful that even Bigard and Sudhalter don’t unsettle him. Somewhere I read that Barney and Buster Bailey were two of Vic’s favorite clarinetists; I wish I could remember the third, but it was a mild surprise. Unlike Barney, Vic retained much of his phrase-making fluidity to the end of his life, but his tones, and I emphasize the plural, were marvels in themselves.

Dick Sudhalter was the new boy in the group, but he plays with wonderful style and variety — not reverting to the Bix-phrases some demanded of him, but being comfortable in a kind of easy Mainstream. I’ve highlighted his photograph because — aside from Placide Adams — I think he in this group is most in danger of being forgotten, and he plays so nobly here.

The rhythm section has the diversity (or oddity?) one finds at festivals, where producers delight in assembling people who don’t play together “to see what happens”: Placide Adams, from New Orleans, might have seemed out of his element in this late-Swing context, but he had played and recorded often with Paul Barbarin, so he knew about time; Panama Francis, unlike many of the famous drummers at Nice, also knew time: his steadiness is so comforting. Marty Grosz — a wonderfully fluid rhythmic cushion, filling in all the spaces the other three might have left. Art Hodes, the patriarch, could be unsettlingly spare and percussive, but he is happy in this context in ways that suggest Basie more than anyone else, perhaps resting comfortably on Marty’s eloquent swing support. He takes his time. They all do. There is a tiny train-wreck at the start — confusion that is more on the scale of a model train set — but it repairs itself quickly, and they are off: masters of melody, in solo and ensemble. I, too, find the fidgety multi-camera approach very distracting, but it is part of the particular package — perhaps an emblem of that time and style.

I find it a very sweet performance.

And it says certain things to me about the comfort of a common language, the wisdom and joy that comes from decades of experience in a congenial community. Masters of Melody, so endearing, so durable, who know that ROSE ROOM is more than a set of chord changes:

I wish this band had recorded hours of music, and I think of the times I saw some of its members (bless Marty Grosz for hanging out with us still!) — those sounds are translucent gold in my memory and ears.

May your happiness increase!

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