Category Archives: Awful Sad

HERE, BUT NOT HERE: JAMES DAPOGNY at the PIANO (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 29, 2014)

James Dapogny, in thought, at Jazz at Chautauqua. Photograph by Michael Steinman.

James Dapogny’s corporeal self left us six months ago, and we cannot dispute it, although his absence is painful, impossible to accept. But I tell myself he is still here with us in particularly odd and generous ways — appropriate to the man himself, surprising, unpredictable, warm, lively.

When an interviewer talked to Bobby Hackett after Louis’ death, Bobby said that Louis wasn’t dead because we could still hear him, and in some ways that is a consolation.  I will leave it to you whether a collection of recorded music adds up to the whole person or is simply a slice of the pie: I lean to the latter, although I treasure the evidence.  And I know I’ve drawn spiritual nourishment from immersing myself in the art of people who died before I was born.  Still, the loss of the Prof. is too much to rationalize.  So all I can do is offer you the following, Jim warming up the piano by playing his own blues, a video not seen or heard before:

Chris Smith, Jim’s deep friend and co-leader of the band PORK, says this of the video: As you can imagine, I heard Jim do this sort of playing countless times. Just playing the blues in many keys. There is a spiritual aspect to it, that is obvious. But he was also doing the real work of a musician that involves touching on those corners of the music that sometimes trip us up in performance (hitting the V/V, etc.). Playing the blues is good for us in so many ways. And yes, it is really funny that we don’t see him until the very last second.

I feel that Jim would be amused by this video, perhaps touched by how much I and others cherish it.  And him.  When the invisible pianist can make sounds that move us, does he remain invisible?  I don’t know.  And I must muse over Jim as he mused over the piano.  All he gave — and gives — us is precious.

I omit the usual closing.  It will reappear, but it’s not in the right key here.

DON’T BE A GOOP, PLEASE

When I was a boy, my father brought home books from the public library and perhaps in an anthology of verse for children, I encountered the simple poems by Gelett Burgess about the Goops stick in my mind decades later.  Here are two — didactic, but also witty and pointed.

Table Manners

The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth —
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop–are you?

and

The meanest trick I ever knew
Was one I know you never do.
I saw a Goop once try to do it,
And there was nothing funny to it.
He pulled a chair from under me
As I was sitting down; but he
Was sent to bed, and rightly, too.
It was a horrid thing to do!

This is not a post about table manners, and I think practical jokes of the latter kind are vanishing from the earth, or I hope so.

But it is about the people we know who are Goops.  Being a Goop in the twenty-first century, to me, is based in self-absorption, heedlessness, and the desire to make a splash, often through being unpleasant.

I have wanted to write about Goopish behavior as it intrudes on my sphere.  So here are a few examples, and you can add more.  I think mostly of the Video Goop, the Spectator Goop, and the Online Goop.

THE VIDEO GOOP holds his iPhone up in the air to catch a minute of his favorite band, never thinking for a minute that it is now in our line of sight.  Or he shines the light from his phone in the musicians’ eyes; perhaps he has a camera that clicks loudly or one whose strobe flash blinds everyone.  He doesn’t think to ask permission of the musicians he videos and is astonished when they object to hour-long sets of their work appearing immediately on YouTube.  The Video Goop has a cousin, the “Professional Photographer” Goop, who gets in the way of the audience because he is working — so that we see his back and his camera constantly.

THE SPECTATOR GOOP treats the music as background to their conversation.  Concert hall or dive bar, when someone who wants to hear the music asks for lowered voices (raised voices and alcohol go together) the answer is often a huffy “I’m just here to have fun with my friends.  What the hell is wrong with you?”  At jazz festivals, where the audience has sometimes been following bands for decades, the Spectator Goops start speaking immediately when the music begins, socializing, “Isn’t it a SHAME that Marcia couldn’t make it this year?  I hear her husband is VERY ILL!”  (I feel very sorry for Marcia and Mr. Marcia, but I came to listen.  Kindly go away.  Far away.)  The talkative Spectator Goop is often the first to whistle or yell at the end of a solo, to offer us loud whoops about music that they can’t possible have taken in.

I witnessed an amazing corollary to this some months back.  At a jazz venue distinguished by superb music and loud conversation, both were in evidence.  The latter got louder — imagine my pleasure at being able to write that sentence — and one of the apparent jazz fans got madder and madder, offering loud assertive shushing.  The AJF, in his righteous rage, even confronted the noisy group and “gave them what for,” as my grandparents might have said, which led to near-violence.  The talkers were escorted from the venue, and one would think that Right had prevailed.  Alas, no: the AJF spent the rest of the evening loudly congratulating himself on his virtue and how he had done the right thing, unaware that his talk was as loud as the people he had vanquished.

THE ONLINE GOOP is so prolific and energetic that I will not do him justice here.  (An attentive reader will note my conscious use of the male-gendered pronoun.  Women are often SPECTATOR GOOPS but rarely if ever VIDEO or ONLINE ones.  Draw the conclusions you will.)  For me, their sub-groups are MEAN and FOOLISH.  The MEAN ONLINE GOOP is the person who fires off a scathing critical comment, sometimes cloaked in a thin veneer of “comedy,” that offers his harsh opinion.  “Nothing worse than a bad _______ band.”  “X can’t play the violin.”  “This band sucks.”  “Y sucks.” Sometimes, this person is inarticulate but still derisive, hence the vomiting emoji.  This Goop finds fault, not only with the musicians (who play badly, who don’t perform as he thinks they should, who don’t smile) but with the person who records them, to him, imperfectly.

A word about such criticisms.  Not every musician is perfect; not every performance pleases.  And listeners have a right to say they like this and don’t like that.  But the prevailing anonymity has fostered astonishing meanness.  I have been guided in this not only by one of my professors, Mr. Sigman, now gone for decades, but by Sammut of Malta, who says quietly, “Would you go up to the musicians and say this to their face?  Does anyone really need to read how you disapprove of someone’s vibrato?”  I have strong opinions, but does it do the world good for me to put my disdain into print?  Is my subjective disapproval the same as criticism valid enough to share with everyone who has a lit screen?

Occasionally, all of these cardboard figures become one: my example is the anonymous commenter who is furious about the loud talkers in a 2011 video and says, “I’d like to kill those people who don’t shut up.”  I suppose I empathize in theory, but I have written back that wanting to kill people in a video from almost a decade ago seems a vain expenditure of energy.

THE FOOLISH GOOP is hardly malevolent but is still exhausting.  When I read a comment that asks a simple question, “Who wrote that song?” “Where can I get the chords for this tune?  What year was this done?” “Is he the same person as the one who did ______?” I sigh noisily, and think with no regret of decades of teaching where we — as faculty — were asked to swallow constant doses of this insipidity because our students “were young,” and perhaps because we knew that if they were intellectually curious, some of us wouldn’t have jobs.  But I want to say, “You have a computer.  Perhaps several.  You have a smartphone.  Have you ever heard of Google, and have you ever spent time looking up something before you launched your question into the world?”  There is also THE JOKESTER GOOP, one who has to make comedy out of everything, but he is not a serious threat to one’s emotional equilibrium.  And — this just in — THE SHOPLIFTER GOOP, who sees something (a photograph, a video, a piece of text) and presents it as his own without giving credit to the source.  I know this is presumably a democracy, but would you walk through the diner taking a fry or a cherry tomato off of the plates you pass?

My favorite collision of the various online Goops happened just recently.  I had posted a video of an excellent band playing a piece that required a great deal of virtuosity.  And someone with a YouTube name suggesting hysterical laughter commented, “Nice playing. Just felt it might have gone better without the [insert name of instrument here].”  It was a polite enough comment, but I felt as if I’d been standing in front of a Vermeer and heard someone say, “Those curtains should be green.”  I wrote back, with some irritation, “Why don’t you send the musicians a note with your opinion?” in hopes that he would recognize some slight disapproval, some irony.  Alas, he took the comment literally, “Thanks, I tried, but couldn’t find contact details. Anyway, it’s only one person’s opinion. They make great music, that’s the main thing.” I should have desisted but I was disarmed by his politeness, so I wrote back to say I had not been serious but that the band had a website.  And there it lies, I hope.

What does all of this mean?  Why have I expended my time and perhaps yours in what some will take simply as “Michael is complaining again.”?  I think it’s important to encourage people to be considerate, empathetic, kind, to know that each of us is not the only organism on the planet, that our pleasure might interfere with someone else’s, that we should be gentle rather than cruel.  Fewer Goops would be a good thing — I don’t mean they should be exterminated, but that they should be introspective enough to ask, perhaps in front of the mirror, “Is what I am doing something I would like done to me?”

And should you think that my words come from a position of unearned moral superiority, I hope that is not so: I have made serious mistakes in my life; I expect to make other ones, but my goal is to have them be smaller and less frequent — or at least to make new mistakes.  For variety’s sake.

But all the Goops in the world can’t take the shine off of this: joy and energy at the highest:

May your happiness increase!

FIRST AMONG EQUALS: BOB WILBER AND FRIENDS, 1975

Bob Wilber with the superb drummer Bernard Flegar, after their gig in Bülach, Switzerland, June 11th 2005.

Oh, when Bob Wilber moved on we lost a kind, intense, brilliant musical sparkplug, someone who —  like Sidney Catlett, Nat Cole, Milt Hinton, and Bobby Hackett among others — made everyone not only play better but want to play better.  a phenomenon I have witnessed for myself.  A true catalyst.

YouTube has a good deal of video evidence of Bob’s superpowers, but here are two instances especially dear to my heart.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a video camera for all the times I marveled at him in the Seventies and beyond.

Here is or are ten minutes from the Nice Jazz Festival of July 1975.  The session wouldn’t have been the same without Bob.

And here‘s more music from that same year, with two editions of The World’s Greatest Jazz Band.

Finally, here is the post I published on August 6 to say something about the large hole in the universe Bob left when he moved on.  I won’t say he left the temporal for the celestial, because he was always the latter: romantic, energized, surprising.

May your happiness increase!

MR. WILBER, THE SAGE

Days gone by: December 1946, Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Johnny Glasel, Charlie Trager, Eddie Phyfe. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

Robert Sage Wilber, born in 1928, who never played an ugly or graceless note in his life, has left us.  I first heard him on recordings more than fifty years ago, and saw him in person first in 1970 with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.  He was a magnificently consistent player — his time, his intonation, his creativity, his vital force, his melodic lyricism — and one of the world’s most versatile.  He didn’t care to be “innovative” in the best modern way, but kept refining his art, the art of Louis and Bechet and Teddy Wilson, every time he played.

People who didn’t quite understand his masteries (the plural is intentional) thought of him as derivative, whatever that means, but even when he was playing SONG OF SONGS in the Bechet manner or WARM VALLEY for the Rabbit, he was recognizably himself: passionate and exact at the same time, a model of how to do it.  And if you appreciate the jazz lineage, a man who performed with Baby Dodds, Tommy Benford, Kaiser Marshall, Joe Thomas, Sidney Catlett, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Leeman . . . so deeply connected to the past while remaining fiercely active, has moved to another neighborhood.  I send my condolences to his wife, the singer Pug Horton, and his family.

I was extremely fortunate to cross paths with Bob — not only as an admiring spectator of Soprano Summit, where he and Kenny Davern were equally matched — but as an admiring jazz journalist and videographer.  He was not worried about what I captured: he was confident in himself and he trusted that the music would carry him.  Here are some glimpses of the Sage in action, in music and in speech.

Rare photographs and music from 1947 here.

A session with David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band (2010) and Daryl Sherman here.

Two parts of an intimate session at Smalls in 2012 with Ehud Asherie and Pug Horton as well here and here.

And a particular prize: a two-part 2015 interview session (thanks to Pug!) here and here.

More than a decade ago, when I began this blog, I worked hard to keep away from the temptations of necrology — my joke is that I didn’t want it to be JAZZ DIES — but if I didn’t write and post something about Robert Sage Wilber, I’d never forgive myself.  We will keep on admiring and missing him as long as there is music.

May your happiness increase!  

SO MUCH MISSING: JAMES DAPOGNY with JON-ERIK KELLSO, KURT KRAHNKE, PETE SIERS at KERRYTOWN (January 6, 2018)

James Dapogny, 2016, photograph by Laura Wyman. The show went on even with Prof’s injured hand.

I have a theory about death that even people who love me cock an eyebrow at its “sentimentality.”  I believe that the spirit continues . . . not a radical idea, but I envision it as those who “die” simply move to another cosmic neighborhood, where they can visit us when they choose to.  It’s a fiction, of course, but it comforts me as much as any fiction can.

The thought that I won’t see the people I love again is too painful otherwise.  That I can’t email James Dapogny, make plans for an ethnic meal with him, discuss piano and music and recordings and gigs with him — or even get corrected for some grammatical error — makes me catch my breath.  In two days, I will be on my way to the Evergreen Jazz Festival, where Jim and his Chicago Jazz Band played so gloriously in July 2014.  The joy of being there and the sadness that he won’t be are simultaneous in my mind.

But he lives . . . not even “lives on” in music, and in our dear thoughts of him and his absence in the temporal realm.

I am proud that I stood next to Jim on more than one occasion. Here, August 2016, captured by that same Laura Wyman.

Some of his finest music of his later years was captured by my and Jim’s dear friend Laura Wyman, sole proprietor of Wyman Video — pictured here at a Dawn Giblin Trio gig — Laura sitting in on flute with Jim and Mike Karoub.

Photograph by Jeff Dunn

And here’s some particularly inspired music from Jim, Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Kurt Krahnke, string bass; Pete Siers, drums., at what was his last great concert.

HINDUSTAN, changing keys as the spirit moves everyone:

WHEN IN DOUBT, PLAY THE BLUES — a Dapogny rumination on deep things:

Some precious Thirties Ellingtonia, KISSIN’ MY BABY GOODNIGHT:

I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY:

Except for rare instances, Jim half-hid his sentimentality behind a mask of comedy, but I felt it come through several unforgettable times.  And it might be presumptuous to think of someone who’s departed reading this blogpost, but I believe that Jim knows how deeply we miss him. . . . which makes my customary closing line seem inappropriate.

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

May your happiness increase!

BROTHERS, ARE YOU DROOLING WHILE YOU SEEM TO BE LISTENING?

Certain essays I write have been simmering in my consciousness for years, and when the moment comes, they demand to be written.  This post comes from my years of experience as a member of the jazz audience.  It is about an uncomfortable subject.

Cornelis Dusart (1660-1704), “Caricature Head of a Leering Man, A Recorder Tucked into his Hat.”

My motivation for this piece comes from a private conversation I had yesterday morning with a male jazz fan of my generation who had enthusiastically posted on Facebook that a lovely young woman instrumentalist had “a movie-star profile.”  Although his comment was meant as praise, it jarred me, and I privately asked him to consider why he had written it.  To his immense credit, he replied graciously, was self-aware, and removed the comment: acts that I admire.  But I felt a need to explore this phenomenon.

What follows is an expanded and edited version of my comment to him, names redacted.  I ask only that those who respond to this post pause before leaping in.  Comments including the words “Not all men” will be deleted.

This post is the result of a long conversation, one I’ve had with male and female musicians I respect. I am 66, and although I am in a wonderful relationship, I am also sensitive to female beauty.  We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, sexualized creatures, and that is not a bad thing.  But how we express our erotic impulses is worth considering.

In my experience of the past fifteen years, much of the jazz audience is made up of men of my generation.  Amiable, enthusiastic people.  But many apparently don’t seem to be getting a great deal of sexual fulfillment.  And without thinking about it, they publicly drool over and objectify any attractive young woman performer.  It seems some can’t decide if they want to caress her or take her out for an ice cream soda or both.  They crowd around.  They ogle.  They stare at her body as if she were a particularly appealing entree.  They follow her when she makes it clear she has to leave.

This leering response extends into their writing.  Look at the “admiring” comments on, say, a woman performer’s Facebook page.  “Wow, she’s so Hot!” is one example.  When an alluring woman musician is ooooohed over in print, it’s often evident that the man praising her is in part hearing her music but is more powerfully in the grip of his own sexual attraction.

In person, this kind of sexualizing is sometimes cloaked in fake-benevolent paternalism: “Oh, A is so cute.  I love the way she dances around the stand.”  Did anyone say of Rod Cless, “He’s so cute?”  If they did, it hasn’t been recorded.  More likely, they said, “What a beautiful tone he gets on the clarinet,” which is a critical expression with no murky subtext.

Once, at a table near me, a male jazz fan made lecherous yearning remarks about the woman musician on the stand, that he’d “like to get her away for a weekend,” while his wife sat next to him, looking elsewhere, drinking her beer.  Another man pointed out to him that the object of his affection had a partner, but he grinned and said that this did not matter.  This wasn’t an aberration; it happens often.

I am on a crusade to get people to listen to the music and assess it deeply.  To me, this is better than fetishizing the body of the artist.  That prurient response is not art criticism; it is not appropriate humane behavior.  And listening to music is done with the ears, not the eyes.

I know that this reproach goes against decades of having men tell men, “It’s OK to be like that: that’s what a man does.” We were trained to think of women as gorgeous objects, collections of delightful parts, and implicitly told that we had the right to assess them solely on their physical attributes.  “I voted for Miss December.”  Our popular culture continues, with exceptions, to tell men that lasciviousness is a commendable mark of manhood.  I don’t think we are wicked when we are sexual: this is a delightful part of being alive.  Saying to our partner, “You look so sexy in those jeans!” is not a criminal act.  Behaving lecherously to strangers who have not signed on for it is another matter.

Thus I strongly suggest that we make distinctions between the music a woman makes and her physical appeal.  We may, of course, admire both, but they are not the same thing, and our admiration requires a certain self-scrutiny, at least if we do it in public.  We all vibrate to certain powerful attractions, but to act on them in ways that cause others discomfort is not right.

This mixture of badly-concealed lust, casual expressions of power, implied ownership, and plain bad manners takes other forms.  A demure young woman musician I know says that male fans always try to touch her when they speak to her, how she must back away from them.

I do not set myself up as a model here.  I have not always behaved well, but at least I think about what I do.  But I am distressed when these attitudes and actions I have described here debase the music I love and the people who spend their lives perfecting their art.

To all the JAZZ LIVES audience: thank you for reading my long meditation on this delicate subject. I hope you always have beautiful music to hear, music that makes you feel it is a great thing to be alive.  And I hope we all can treat our fellow denizens of this planet with kindness and awareness.

May your happiness increase!