Category Archives: It’s A Mystery

“THUMBS DOWN” and OTHER INEXPLICABLE MANIFESTATIONS OF THE MODERN AGE

I have no problem understanding taste.  I admire Charlie Shavers; you prefer Shorty Baker.  I think that the 1938 Basie band and the 1940 Ellington band were high points in civilization; you choose, instead, Lunceford and Miller.  Fine, and we need not snarl at each other on the street.  I can even understand the anonymous YouTube lone disliker — out of a sea of thumbs up, there’s one person who thinks, “That’s not so good.”  And I know that criticism is not new to this century, as Nicolas Slominsky has shown: for one example, I have read that the audience at the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night was savage and satirical in its disapproval of performers who weren’t up to what the audience thought was the standard.

I have worked hard to acquire some equanimity when faced with negative responses to videos and posts I have created for JAZZ LIVES.  When people comment negatively in either sphere, I can simply make the comment go away, leaving a faint bad smell until I open the window.  However, some of the comments are so acrid that they make me get up from the computer and do something else for a few minutes.  Typically, someone doesn’t approve of the angle from which I am videoing (assuming, I guess, that I am using several people and a multi-camera perspective) — especially if one of the performers is an attractive woman whom the male commenter doesn’t see enough of.  In that case, if the spirit moves me, I gently explain the limitations of a single-camera setup or of my desire to not get walloped by someone’s swingout, or other factors that the commenter may not have understood.  And in many cases, my calm approach gets a calm apologetic response, which is gratifying.

In other situations, the prose is darker.  I shoot videos in places where — you’ll be horrified — people drink alcohol, eat food, and converse . . . as opposed to videoing in the Sistine Chapel.  Thus, many viewers write in to me in a near-rage: “I’d like to shoot the people who were talking while this great band was playing!” I do understand, but the impulse — even rhetorical — is frightening in this century, and again I try to write a calm explanatory note.  (Years of being a college professor have left their mark on me in a gentle moral didacticism.)  I have also said that yelling at people in a video shot five years ago will have little effect on making them quieter.

If the commenter, in either case, continues to fume in response, I will often suggest that he should ask for a refund.  Rimshot.  And no one has written in to ask for one, for obvious reasons.

I understand that there are situations were sharp criticism in public from a nameless “reviewer” is not only appropriate but helpful.  If I go to a restaurant and something makes me ill, in writing about my experience I might be warning others away so that they did not have to spend hours in the bathroom.  If my painter, lawyer, doctor, or other professional does a poor job, there might be good reason to say so in public.  (I would hope, though, that the first line of response would be to contact the restaurant or the professional, as a courtesy.)

But a video that someone disapproves of has no power to do harm, and one can always shut it off, muttering, “Wow, that’s awful,” to oneself.

All of this distresses me, not because people are not “entitled to their own opinion,” but because it seems ungenerous to criticize a product or a production that is offered open-handedly and for free.  And the criticism is often voiced in a coarse unfeeling way.  Of course, this tendency is amplified by the anonymity of the commenters, who are not asked to offer their credentials in evaluating artistic performance.  The man — and the commenters are all men — who says that X is a rottten trumpeter is never asked to demonstrate his own ability on the horn by playing C JAM BLUES, even in Bb.

But anonymity gives courage.  Thus, this comment on a YouTube video of mine this morning.  The subject, a singer I respect greatly, someone with classical training and jazz experience, accompanied by a pianist: “Listening to that whiney voice instead of the sense of the song…horrible nonsense..he’s good but who can tell w that phony warbling…yikes”

That approach and that language seems abusive.  I imagine that few artists read the YouTube comments, but why should someone doing their best be skewered by a nameless “reviewer”?  Would the commenter have the courage to go up to an artist in a club and say, “Your whiney voice is horrible nonsense and phony warbling?”  I would guess not, for fear of getting whacked with an RCA ribbon mike.  And stand.  And I would dearly like to be on the jury to vote for the musician’s acquittal and then award damages in a lawsuit.

I wonder if there is some motivation I am overlooking.  Does it make the commenter feel superior?  “I am an experienced music critic, and everyone is entitled to my opinion, as a public service?  Or does it come out of a silent insecurity?  “X makes CDs and is famous.  Why doesn’t anyone want to give me a gig like that?  I hate X!”

What I suspect, and hope I am wrong, is that it is yet another manifestation of general pervasive mean-spiritedness, that there are hate-filled people in the world who have not got enough to occupy themselves, so they rack up disapproval right and left.  That makes me sad.  Someone once said, “If you’re not being loving, why are you taking up space on the planet?”  True enough.

Something to end this sad essay on a hopeful note: music that no one can disapprove of:

May your happiness increase!

 

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NEARLY EIGHTY YEARS LATER, MEL POWELL’S IMPROVISATIONS ON “MISSION TO MOSCOW” CONTINUE TO DAZZLE

Magnificent gifts from Mel Powell and his daughter Kati.

If you find surface noise on ancient discs offensive, please find another post, because here “bad sound” is mixed in with ethereal music.  Home recording discs were never supposed to last seventy-five years, so it’s a miracle that these did, but there is a good deal of surface damage to these unrestored artifacts.

I had possession of these holy relics for a short time, before passing them on, so what you hear below is one pass each — so not to erode the fragile surfaces even more.  The discs are now part of the “Mel Powell WW2 Collection” currently curated by my good friend, the splendid musical detective David Fletcher, part of a larger group of ephemera that’s being processed for its final destination. I have every expectation that the discs will, in time, be tenderly and expertly restored.

These document the brilliant pianist / composer / arranger Mel Powell experimenting with his composition MISSION TO MOSCOW, first recorded by Benny Goodman with the composer at the piano in mid-1942, then Mel took it with him when he joined Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band.

What a thrilling pianist he is!

Sensitive listeners might want to start listening to this video around halfway through: there was serious damage to this disc and I played it from the start:

Another version, with a damaged start that is less obtrusive:

a more leisurely exploration, almost a pastoral walk:

and two separate explorations:

Blessings on Melvin Epstein, “Melvie,” Mel Powell and of course Kati Powell.

May your happiness increase!

“I ALWAYS BEGIN WITH THE EYES”: MAGDA BOREYSZA’S GLITTERING IMPROVISATIONS

I am neither an art connoisseur or collector, but recently, I have had the wonderful luck of being able to follow three artists, directly or tangentially connected to jazz, whom I also personally admire.  There’s John Scurry and Ivana Falconi Allen.  To that inspiring warm company I now add Magda Boreysza.

I first took note of Magda’s work this summer when I saw this poster, had an immediate fierce infatuation with it, bought two, and spoke with her in cyberspace.  This post is my idea, although many of the words are hers.

She is a three-dimensional jazz improviser, inventing worlds we hadn’t thought of before, populated with immaculately drawn and vividly imagined creatures.  Her scope is ever-expanding: she’s not primarily a “jazz artist,” but those two works — depicted here — were my entryway into her universes.

Here she is:

I think of my pictures as stories, and I always start with a character. As I draw, the character tells me what else is happening in the story/picture. I always begin with the eyes. They reveal who the character will be. All my imagery comes from the same world, where the boundaries between human and animal are blurry.

Cue theme music:

All my work is drawing-based, but I work in different mediums. I self-publish comics, I make painted ceramic masks, I’m a printmaker, and I also make regular drawings, which I sell as reproductions. I found I would rather draw my own ideas rather than working to someone else’s specifications. But from time to time, I will make an album cover or a poster for my musician friends.

Juju’s Jazz Band Ball is an event organized by my friend Ewan Bleach, of the Cable Street Rag Band. He asked me to create a poster, and we agreed that it should feature foxes and other feral animals found in the streets of London. I imagined their wild party, their jazz dance, and I tried to capture that energy as well as a typical alley in the Brick Lane area of London. The animal musicians are based on the band members.

I was born in Poland but mostly grew up in the south of Sweden, before moving to Scotland and eventually to New Orleans. I’m married to a jazz musician, Robin Rapuzzi, who plays washboard and drums in Tuba Skinny. Because of this, I’m immersed in the world of music, and I have myself started playing, mainly the bass drum and some auxiliary percussion.

At the Edinburgh College of Art, in Scotland, I specialized in traditional animation techniques, and I made a hand-drawn film for my Master’s — A Game of String, available to stream http://foxandcomet.com/post/113892897077/a-game-of-string-hand-drawn-animation-2010.

As for the Frog & Henry poster, I just wanted to make a silly image, and I was inspired by old cartoons, where objects are sentient.

These things and people inspire my work: Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. The works of David Lynch. Nature, animals, wilderness. Pagan folklore and ritual. Medieval western European religious art, such as the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Hans Memling. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with John Tenniel’s original illustrations.

Here is Magda’s Facebook page. You can see more of her work here, and more importantly, you can buy it here.  Her imagination is spacious, sometimes dark and luminous at the same time, and she invites us in.

May your happiness increase!

“eddie condin racist”

On this blog, WordPress has kindly provided a feature “Search Engine Terms,” which lists the ways that anonymous web-searchers have landed on JAZZ LIVES.  Sometimes it’s edifying, sometimes amusing.  The title of this post is copied directly from a search I find infuriating.

I am going to assume that the question — translated into a literate full sentence — is “Was Eddie Condon a racist?”  If one were to deal in stereotypes, it might be a plausible question.  Condon, a Caucasian born in the Middle West in 1905, might have been expected to have the racial attitudes of his time.  But the assumption, like all stereotypes, is insulting and wrong.

Consider this, first:

The web-inquirer wouldn’t know that Mr. Condon was the only White man in this band of Black musicians, that he is responsible for getting the session recorded.  Without him it would not have happened.  (Eddie’s story of how this happened is hilarious, but it also highlights his friendship with Fats Waller and his devotion to the music.)

Jump forward twenty years: Eddie had a television show in 1948-50, with live jazz and “mixed bands”: here is just over a minute of music (transferred slightly fast) featuring Hot Lips Page, a Black trumpeter, singing a celebratory blues:

I could keep on offering musical examples, but now it’s time for words.  Condon was as far from being a racist as one can be.  From the start of his fifty-year career in the music to the end, he continually sought out, played with, hired, and celebrated musicians of color.  He speaks in print of youthful experiences watching and hearing King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters.  When he had a club, gave concerts, made records, appeared on radio and television — his bands were race-blind.

A list of the Black musicians Eddie worked with goes something like this: Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Hot Lips Page, Buck Clayton, Rex Stewart, Benny Morton, Herb Hall, Edmond Hall, Leonard Gaskin, Vic Dickenson, Billie Holiday, Charlie Shavers, Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Kansas Fields, Al Morgan, the 1929 Luis Russell Orchestra, Sidney Bechet, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Sidney DeParis, Sidney Catlett, Jonah Jones, Teddy Hale, Leonard Davis, Happy Caldwell, George Stafford, Pops Foster, Henry “Red” Allen, Coleman Hawkins, Zutty Singleton,  Grachan Moncur, Cozy Cole, Wilson Myers, Clyde Hart, John Kirby, Oscar Pettiford, Billy Taylor, Sr., Joe Thomas, Johnny Williams, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Greer, Cliff Jackson, Lord Buckley, Earl Hines, Albert Nicholas, Arvell Shaw, Hank Duncan, Thelma Carpenter, Ruth Brown, Horace Henderson, Jimmy Archey, Walter Page, Al Hall, Sir Charles Thompson, Maxine Sullivan, Sandy Williams, Roy Eldridge . . . and there must be others not covered by discographies.

(No, the singer above is not Lee Wiley.  But the trumpeter to the left is Roy Eldridge.)

And another story.  In 1946, after a series of very successful concerts (1943-5) that were broadcast and sent overseas to the Armed Forces, Eddie decided to give a concert in Washington, D.C., at Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who balked at his bringing a racially-mixed band because it might draw “undesirable” elements — draw your own conclusion.  Happily, Eddie moved the concert to the Willard Hotel, where it was a huge success.

None of this sounds like racism to me.  Rather, it sounds like someone who valued what human beings were, what they could create, over skin pigment. A hero to me, and to many others.

So, dear anonymous web-searcher, I hope you find this posting, that it expands your narrow vision, and that you learn to spell.

May your happiness increase!

OF COURSE, THEY WEREN’T “TRAINED SINGERS”!

Anna Moffo, one of my mother’s favorite sopranos: my definition of a “trained singer.”

Everyone of us has pet theories: there’s a secret way to fold fitted sheets; day-old bagels, toasted, are better than fresh, and so on.  You, no doubt, have yours.

One of mine that is relevant to JAZZ LIVES is that often, singers who never sing because they are busy playing are the best singers of all.  I don’t mean those who are clearly identified as singers — Louis, Jelly, Teagarden, Cleo Brown — but those instrumentalists who have recorded once or twice only.  So I assembled a host of my favorites, leaving out scat choruses.  Some recordings were inaccessible: Sid Catlett’s OUT OF MY WAY, Basie’s HARVARD BLUES (where he, not Jimmy, takes the vocal) Ed Hall’s ALL I GOT WAS SYMPATHY — but this is, I hope, a pleasing, perhaps odd offering.  I present them in no particular order, except for Lester being the last, because that recording so touches me.

James P. Johnson, 1944 (with Frank Newton, Al Casey, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty).  The story is that Alan Lomax thought that James P. was a blues pianist when he interviewed him for the Library of Congress — and compelled him to sing this.  I don’t know: James P. is having a good time:

Coleman Hawkins, 1936, highly impassioned (when was he not?):

Vic Dickenson, crooning in 1931 with the Luis Russell Orchestra:

Vic — nearly fifty years later — singing his own composition with Ralph Sutton:

Benny Carter, aiming for Bing and having a dear good time in the process, 1933.  (This has been one of my favorite records since 1974.  Catch Benny’s trumpet solo and clarinet solo.  And Sid Catlett pleases.)  Those clever lyrics aren’t easy to sing at that tempo: ask Dan Barrett:

And another helping of Benny-does-Bing, gliding upwards into those notes.  Another favorite:

Yes, Art Tatum could sing the blues.  Uptown, 1941:

I save this for last, because it leaves me in tears.  Lester Young, 1941, and since this is the only copy of a much-played acetate, there’s a lot of surface noise.  Be patient and listen deeply:

Little is known about that recording, but I remember learning that one side of it was a dub of SHOE SHINE BOY by Jones-Smith, Inc., and this — a current pop tune with glee-club embroideries — was the other.  It’s been surmised that this was a demo disc for Lester’s new small band that he hoped to make flourish after leaving Basie.  Some of the sadness, to me, is that the attempt worked poorly, and although Lester loved to sing, there is only one other recording (the 1953 IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO) that exists.

These singers go right to my heart.

May your happiness increase!

SWEETLY UPLIFTING: The MICHAEL McQUAID SAXOPHONE QUARTET

I’ve been thinking about the saxophonist Chuck Wilson, who left us on October 16 (my post about him is here).  Chuck came from a tradition where the saxophone made beautiful melodic sounds and blended with other reeds — he was a consummate section leader.  It’s a tradition sometimes overlooked today, where it occasionally feels that everyone wants to be a soloist, at length.

But the tradition has been splendidly recalled and embodied by our friend, the brilliantly imaginative multi-instrumentalist, Michael McQuaid in his recent musical gift to us: four musical cameos inspired by the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet of 1929-30.  The arrangements by Michael — lovely translucencies, swinging and tender — were recorded “with minimal rehearsal” (I emphasize this to hail the professionalism of the players) in the UK on July 27, 2018.

I think of these performances as modern reworkings of classical string quartets, but with a particular harmonic delicacy applied to popular songs of the day, with hot solos implied, delightful counterpoint, and a compositional sense: each arrangement and performance has a wonderful logical shape, a light-hearted emotional resonance.  Each performance rewards repeated listening.  (I cannot play MY SIN just once.)

The remarkable players are Michael McQuaid (first alto); David Horniblow (second alto); Simon Marsh (tenor); Tom Law (baritone).

IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER, which I associate with Annette Hanshaw, Barbara Rosene, and Tamar Korn:

OUT OF THE DAWN, by Walter Donaldson, from 1928, recorded by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra:

WASHBOARD BLUES, whose arrangement is inspired by the 1926 recording by Hitch’s Happy Harmonists, with composer Hoagy Carmichael at the piano:

MY SIN, by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, also associated with Annette Hanshaw:

I wasn’t the only one astonished by the arrangements and the playing, and I wrote to Michael to ask, “When’s the CD coming out?  When’s the concert tour?”  No one else is making music like this anywhere.

Michael responded on Facebook:

Once again, this video features great playing from some of London’s best saxophone players. Their musicality is all the more remarkable when one considers this is closer to sight-reading than a fully-rehearsed ensemble.

A few of you have asked whether I’m going to release these recordings. Well, yes – they’re on YouTube anytime you want! But properly producing a full album of this material would require significant rehearsal followed by hours in the studio, and hence probably a wealthy philanthropic benefactor (please message me if that might be you!).

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing saxophone quartet arrangements until I have a whole concert’s/album’s worth. It’s been great reading your positive words on these videos, and I’m glad if I’ve been able to draw attention to the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet and their beautiful 1929 records. Our musical heritage is filled with many such neglected treasures, ready to leap into the present (and the future) with only a little of our time and attention.

Since some readers might not have heard the originals, here (courtesy of generous Enrico Borsetti) is the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet playing BABY, OH WHERE CAN YOU BE?:

I haven’t found out much about Merle, except that he played clarinet, alto, and tenor, was born in upstate New York, and lived from 1897 to 1978, and was a renowned saxophone teacher.  Michael told me that Merle’s students included Larry Teal and Joe Allard (each became a highly influential saxophone teacher in his own right), as well as famous players such as Buddy Collette and Frank Morgan. His legacy is probably more lasting as a teacher than as a player or bandleader!

Merle’s recording career — according to Tom Lord — ran from 1923 to 1930, with Sam Lanin (alongside Red Nichols), Isham Jones, Seger Ellis, the Ipana  Troubadours, Jack Miller, a young fellow named Crosby.  He was friends with Leo McConville, and he led his own band called the Ceco Couriers, which alludes to a radio program supported by a product: in this case, CeCo radio tubes, advertised in the October 1928 POPULAR SCIENCE (the tubes “cost no  more but last longer”).

Did Merle leave the New York City studio scene after the stock market crash for the security of a teaching career?  Can it be that no one interviewed him or one of his pupils?  Incidentally, when I do online research on someone obscure and find that one of the resources is this — a JAZZ LIVES post I wrote in 2011 — I am both amused and dismayed.

“Research!” to quote Lennie Kunstadt.  Calling David Fletcher!

And here’s another gorgeous quartet record, this one of DO SOMETHING:

I post the two Merle Johnston “originals” not to show their superiority to the modern evocations, but to celebrate Michael’s arranging and the playing of the Quartet: to my ears, fully the equal of the antecedents.

Listen once again, and be delighted.  I am sure that Chuck is pleased by these sounds also.

May your happiness increase!

PIECES OF PAPER, CONTINUED: LOUIS, BILLIE, ELLA, BUDDY DE FRANCO, ELLIS LARKINS, AL HALL

Paper ephemera — but hardly ephemeral — from a recent eBay expedition.

“SATCHMO,” to you, in an unusual newspaper photograph, sporting what looks like Playboy cufflinks, and a white belt.

and the reverse:

and something even more unusual: a copy of Sidney Finkelstein’s 1948 JAZZ: A PEOPLE’S MUSIC, translated into German, with signatures and candid photographs enclosed:

and

The “Daniel” is mysterious; it’s been attached to Louis’ first name in various canned biographies, but as far as I know he never used it himself, and that does not look like his handwriting.  Unlike this uncomplicated signature:

and (I believe that’s Norman Granz on the left):

and the seller’s description:

Signed book `Jazz` (by Sidney Finkelstein), 200 pages – with four affixed unsigned candid photos (three of Ella Fitzgerald), 5 x 8,25 inch, first edition, publisher `Gerd Hatje`, Stuttgart 1951, in German, signed on the title page in blue ballpoint ink “Billie Holiday” – with an affixed postcard (Savoy Hotel): signed and inscribed by Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) in pencil “Daniel – Louis Armstrong” & signed by Buddy DeFranco (1923-2014) in blue ballpoint ink “Buddy DeFranco”, with scattered mild signs of wear – in fine to very fine condition.

Here‘s the seller’s link.  Yours for $2492.03.  Or the easy payment plan of $120 a month for 24 months.  Plus $16.00 expedited shipping from Switzerland to the United States.

Once you’ve caught your breath, here’s something that was within my price range.  Reader, I bought this — although I haven’t played it yet — a souvenir of the East Side New York jazz club, Gregory’s, where (among others) Ellis Larkins and Al Hall played . . . also Brooks Kerr, Russell Procope, and Sonny Greer; Mark Shane, Al Haig . . . .

The front:

The back:

May your happiness increase!