Category Archives: It’s A Mystery

MISS LIL, FOREMOTHER

I like the universe I was born into, but I imagine alternate ones all the time — the debt I owe to my Big Sister, who introduced me to Golden Age science fiction in my late childhood.  So I imagine one where this woman — pianist, singer, composer, bandleader, natural leader, innovator — was a star of the magnitude she deserved.

Lillian Hardin

Lillian Hardin is ill-served as being perceived primarily as just “the second wife of Louis Armstrong.”  My admiration and love for Louis is beyond the normal measuring tools, but Lil is someone and would have been someone if she’d never devoted her energies to that chubby young man from the South for a decade or so.  She herself didn’t have a substantial ego, which may have accounted for her somewhat shadowy presence in jazz history.  How she would have been celebrated had she not been female is something to consider.

You could ask one of the heroes of this music, Chris Albertson, about Lil, for sure. Here — on Chris’ STOMP OFF blog — is a trove of information, all enlivened by his love for Miss Lil.  (His memories of Lil — including a three-part audio interview — are treasures.)

Rather than write about her in ways admiring or polemical or both, I offer a banquet of her Swing Era Decca recordings, which — I know it’s heresy — stand up next to the Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and Henry “Red” Allen small groups of the period for swing, charm, melodic inventiveness, and fun.  On these discs, I know our ears go automatically to the horn soloists — but imagine them with a flat rhythm section and inferior tunes.  Lil’s exuberance makes these recordings much more memorable.  Although none of her original compositions had much longevity except for JUST FOR A THRILL, sixteen of the twenty-six are hers, and I’d guess the effective arrangements are hers as well.

Underneath the picture on the YouTube posting are all the titles: further details here: Lillian Armstrong And Her Swing Band : Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Chu Berry (ts) Teddy Cole (p) Huey Long (g) John Frazier (b) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  Chicago, Oct. 27, 1936.  OR LEAVE ME ALONE / MY HI-DE-HO MAN / BROWN GAL / DOIN’ THE SUZIE-Q / JUST FOR A THRILL / IT’S MURDER /

Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Robert Carroll (ts) James Sherman (p) Arnold Adams (g) Wellman Braud (b) George Foster (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  New York, April 15, 1937: BORN TO SWING / I’M ON A SIT-DOWN STRIKE FOR RHYTHM / BLUER THAN BLUE / I’M KNOCKIN’ AT THE CABIN DOOR /

Shirley Clay (tp) replaces Joe Thomas, Prince Robinson (ts) replaces Robert Carroll, Manzie Johnson (d) replaces George Foster.  New York, July 23, 1937:
LINDY HOP / WHEN I WENT BACK HOME / LET’S CALL IT LOVE / YOU MEAN SO MUCH TO ME /

Ralph Muzzillo, Johnny McGhee (tp) Al Philburn (tb) Tony Zimmers (cl) Frank Froeba (p) Dave Barbour (g) Haig Stephens (b) Sam Weiss (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  New York, Feb. 2, 1938: LET’S GET HAPPY TOGETHER / HAPPY TODAY, SAD TOMORROW / YOU SHALL REAP WHAT YOU SOW / ORIENTAL SWING /

Reunald Jones (tp) J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Buster Bailey (cl) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) O’Neil Spencer (d).  September 9, 1938: SAFELY LOCKED UP IN MY HEART / EVERYTHING’S WRONG, AIN’T NOTHING RIGHT / HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT / KNOCK-KNEED SAL (is the unidentified male voice on the last track Clarence Williams?) /

Jonah Jones (tp) Don Stovall (as) Russell Johns (ts) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) Manzie Johnson (d) Midge Williams, Hilda Rogers (vcl).
New York, March 18, 1940: SIXTH STREET / RIFFIN’ THE BLUES / WHY IS A GOOD MAN SO HARD TO FIND? / MY SECRET FLAME /

I salute Lillian Hardin as a joyous Foremother.  Her virtues should be celebrated on many other days of the year.

May your happiness increase!

TWO THANK-YOU NOTES (1947)

Heartfelt people knew to write thank-you notes.  Here’s a singular one, showing just how much love a man of feeling could fit on a penny postcard (mailed from St. Louis, May 12, 1947):

I’ve tried to trace the doctor but with no success.  However, 440o South Drexel Boulevard still can be seen on Google Earth — a pleasant small apartment building or multi-family house.

I wonder what Louis and Dr. Teplitz and family had for dinner.  May 12 was a Monday; had the Teplitzes invited Louis for a Shabbos feast?  Not improbable, and Louis would have loved it.

This was the wondrous early heyday of Louis’ All-Stars.  The other side of the postcard is a studio portrait of Jack Teagarden, which leads to this delightful illustration of gratitude.  To me, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is a thank-you note to the cosmos, especially in this performance:

Don’t you, even for a moment, wish that Louis had come to your house for dinner?  I know I do.

May your happiness increase!

THREE AND ONE-HALF MINUTES OF GRATIFICATION

In the taxonomy of older jazz, we know where we stand, or at least where the classifiers tell us we should be standing.  There are Hot Bands (usually African-American) and Sweet or Dance Bands (Caucasian).  There are, of course, groups that snip the barbed wire to escape or to visit the other side — Claude Hopkins performing TREES in a very arboreal manner, then, several years later, Bunny Berigan setting the forest on fire with the same song.  (The Louis – Gordon Jenkins version of that same song, fifteen years later, is beyond dispute, and I’ve started disputes when people looked askance at it.)

But it has been my experience that most jazz fans of a certain ideological bent prefer — mutely or vividly — their music Hot and either played by African-Americans or by Caucasians in the Hot style.  Or in cases where a Sweet band offers a Hot solo, we can find the 78s that have that twenty-second interlude played to a fine powder, the rest of the record nearly pristine.

What do we do with this curious and wonderful artifact, however?  It is at once a superb dance record; it swings easily and well; it is a wholly satisfying performance and presentation.  I present it to JAZZ LIVES’ listeners in hopes that they can listen to this buff Bluebird 78 from 1933 with open and appreciative ears, enjoying the recording for what it is.

The group is the Joe Haymes Orchestra — Haymes had played piano and arranged for the Ted Weems band — but under the nominal leadership of Mike Doty, thus Roy Wager, Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Ward Silloway, trombone; Mike Doty, clarinet, alto saxophone, vocal; Toots Mondello or Dan D’Andrea, Paul Ricci, Bud Freeman, reeds; Paul Mitchell, piano; probably Mac Cheikes, banjo; Gene Traxler, string bass; Charlie Bush, drums; Joe Haymes, leader / arranger.  New York, November 9, 1933.

And the song is PUDDIN’ HEAD JONES — recorded also by a Ben Selvin group, Don Redman, Hal Kemp, and perhaps a half-dozen other bands in 1933.

Here’s the performance:

From the start, this is an assured, swinging band.  The melody statement — muted trumpets, possibly a baritone saxophone line, Gene Traxler’s strong string bass and Charlie Bush’s rocking drums — is easy and non-threatening for the dancers who simply wanted a fast fox trot, but the band is splendidly rehearsed without being at all stiff.  And a gorgeous modulation follows — leisurely, with clarinet (I guess Paul Ricci) on top, while Bush shifts to either a low-boy or a hi-hat cymbal.  Without overstating my praise, the Haymes band — under Doty’s name — is grooving at the first minute in such a lilting easy way that other bands never reached.  In the first seconds of Doty’s vocal, he sounds more declamatory than the song requires — but that’s a 1933 style of singing when there wasn’t a microphone, and the singer needed to be emphatically clear so that the witty bits of the lyrics were heard and understood.  Beneath him, the band swings and Ricci ornaments it all.  (I’ll get to the lyrics in a bit.)  Even though the lyrics are hilarious and verging on the naughty, the band doesn’t emphasize the punchlines: no rimshots or bass-drum hits.  The listener must pay attention. After the vocal, the band subtly says, “WE can swing like mad, too!” with delicious interludes for clarinet and I think Dick Clark on tenor saxophone (it’s not Bud), supported beautifully by the wonderfully focused slap of Bush’s wire brushes.

(A one-bar digression: what is known about Charlie Bush?  HE COULD PLAY.)

When well-executed, “glee club” choruses for the band are just marvelous — if you needed a musical definition of logical architecture or building momentum, you have it in the way the band voices rock wordless riffs behind Doty.  And although his voice isn’t up to the challenge of shouting over the band at the end, he certainly delivers the message.

Those lyrics.  One encounters this song, depending on one’s level of empathy, with some doubts.  Will this be a narrative about how stupid an elementary-school student was — the equivalent of the polite dozens for middle-class Caucasians?  You know, the sort of humor that builds on “You’re so dumb . . . ” But — the clever turn of the bridge, where the fictional character we have been invited to laugh at turns out to be the Teacher’s Teacher (a folk take in swingtime) with a real punchline in the last words of the bridge — something has turned around, and in some ways we are a little embarrassed at underestimating Puddin’ Head, who is much smarter than we thought and probably much smarter than we are.  Are we meant to assume that  Teacher has already spent time in interdisciplinary studies with Puddin’s older brother?  I leave that to you. But our young dunce turns into an expert wooer, and as an adult a diligent citizen, frugal and energetic — so much so that in this 1933 Depression-era saga, he is presumably the only man in the neighborhood who is well-loved, securely affluent, perhaps even wealthy.  An American success story: from dunce to happy successful man in three minutes and change.

“Underestimate people at your own risk” might be the moral of this tale.

I knew I had to write a blogpost about this record when I needed to hear it four or five times in a row — with great joy — from YouTube.  (And I also purchasesd or re-purchased the three Haymes reissues that exist, and await their arrival.)

Of course, there might be grumbling in the imaginary cyber-audience, “Great record.  But how much better it would be with, say Jimmy Rushing singing, and Ben Webster on tenor.” Perhaps.  But I love what we have, and cherish it as a perfectly accomplished piece of hilarious swinging art that needs no improvements.

May your happiness increase!

“THESE ARE MY PEOPLE”: LOUIS and ENRICO at the BATLEY VARIETY CLUB, 1968

This is an amazing and sweet documentary, something I never expected to see and hear, a portrait of Louis in unusual surroundings, with deep commentary from Enrico Tomasso, whom I admire greatly, as musician and humane being.  It will all become clear:

The twentieth century had its horrors; some continue, intensified, today.  But Louis Armstrong — our spiritual beacon — could come to Batley, in Yorkshire, and play for several weeks.  Such a fact suggests that, as THE NEW YORKER’S Harold Ross said in a different context, “Talent doesn’t care where it resides.”

May your happiness increase!

“SPEEDY RECOVERY”: MAY 1949

Most formulaic greeting cards you can buy in the chain pharmacies are now probably three or four dollars, and they are pleasant enough expressions of sentiment (or humor) that the sender hopes will make the patient feel better. Or, as a display on the side-table, they suggest, “I have friends who care about me!” which is an entirely understandable sentiment.

Here is a singular jazz get-well card, from May 1949.  It costs a bit more: ten thousand dollars.  But you’ll see why.

and a closer look at the signatures:

The seller explains:

Unique, one of a kind, original vintage concert program for the Festival International de Jazz held at the Salle Pleyel in Paris [France] from 8th May – 15th May, 1949, featuring Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, and many more. The program has been authentically signed and inscribed on the front cover by Charlie Parker (“Speedy Recovery Charlie Parker”), Miles Davis (“Best Wishes Miles Davis”), Tadd Dameron (“Get well quick Tadd Dameron”) and Max Roach (“Wishing A Speedy Recovery Max Roach”). Also signed inside the program by Don Byas (“Best regards Don Byas”). The original owner of the program was a young British jazz fan. He married in 1949 and he and his wife honeymooned on the continent and attended the Paris Jazz festival at this time. Judging from the various inscriptions we must assume he wasn’t feeling well the night he obtained the autographs. The festival, by the way, marked the first European appearances for both Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Moving inside the souvenir booklet:

and:

and:

and:

the Don Byas signature as well as a photograph of Jimmy McPartland, the man no one associates with this festival:

and:

finally, the back cover:

The souvenir booklet is, of course, incredibly rare.  But what delights me as much as its existence is the untold short story of the young British fan and his new bride.  He must have approached his heroes and told them, not only that he admired them and would like them to sign his program, but that he was ill. Were the Americans charmed by the young couple and their English accents?  Were they feeling paternalistic to the ailing young man?  (Notice that Don Byas either didn’t hear the young man’s tale or didn’t care much about it.)  But he obviously made enough of an impression on the American jazz stars for them to write kind words to him.

I even wonder if he was ill in their hotel room after the concert and his young bride took the program to Bird, Miles, Tadd, Max, and Don, and prettily asked a favor of them, explaining that her husband was out of sorts. And we don’t know why he was sick.  Was it the strange food that had made him ill?  The crossing to France?  We can only imagine these events, but it’s clear that someone prized this souvenir of his and his bride’s honeymoon.  And now it’s on eBay.  What that says about us I couldn’t begin to fathom.

This I can fathom, though — some music from that festival:

May your happiness increase!

THE DIVINE SPIRIT: BILLIE, 1938

New York City, January 27, 1938.  A song of no special merit with undistinguished lyrics, but what Billie and her colleagues do with it is beyond remarkable.  We are in danger of forgetting the music in favor of salacious personal archeology, so I offer two explorations of beauty for your consideration.

“If I may,” in the words of Joe Thomas, to celebrate Billie on April 7.

and another take (the YouTube source is at much lower volume for seven silly reasons).  Incidentally, if these videos are not accessible in your part of the world, a little searching will solve the problem, for there are multiple versions posted:

In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes, “The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure, that it is profane to seek to interpose helps.”  He was speaking about those who would presume to explain God to the congregation, but I take it as encouragement to let Billie Holiday, Jo Jones, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Benny Morton sing their own songs to you without any explication from me.  All the answers, and all the joy are there for those willing to listen seriously.

May your happiness increase!

DON’T GO WEST, YOUNG WOMAN

The bespectacled fellow was only a name in a discography to me until today.

Thanks to Tim Gracyk and his YouTube channel, I now have one more new-old-favorite-record, HOLLYWOOD, by Art Gillham, “The Whispering Pianist.”

According to the Discography of American Recordings entry here, this performance was recorded on November 25, 1929, in New York City.  The composers of this thin but irresistible song (with a rising chromatic motif and unadventurous lyrics) are Arnold Johnson (music) — who may have been the bandleader known to some for his associations with Jack Purvis and Harold Arlen — and Charles Newman (lyrics).  Newman is better known for the lyrics of SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, I’LL NEVER HAVE TO DREAM AGAIN, WHAT’S THE USE, I WOULDN’T CHANGE YOU FOR THE WORLD, YOU’VE GOT ME CRYING AGAIN, I’M PAINTING THE TOWN RED, TAKE ANOTHER GUESS, WHY DON’T WE DO THIS MORE OFTEN? (a song I learned through the recording Melissa Collard and Eddie Erickson made of it) and the imperishable A HOT DOG, A BLANKET, AND YOU.  Apparently Newman took current conversational phrases and bent them into songs — songs more memorable for their performers.

Here’s the recording — moral message, free of charge:

The message first: another cautionary tale (think of GLAD RAG DOLL, NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, and a dozen others) about young women who go to the big city, get their hearts broken, their virtue damaged beyond repair.  “Mothers, tie your daughters to the sink so that nothing bad can happen to them!”  (Theodore Dreiser’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, five years earlier, is a variation on this theme.)

A month and a day before this recording, the stock market had crashed: was that one of many reasons for this song?  The record of copyright notes that HOLLYWOOD is dated November 9 — slightly over two weeks after the crash, which may be even more significant.

Gillham is a pleasant singer, even with wobbly vibrato.  Radio audiences and song publishers must have loved him, because every word came through. But I am particularly interested in the little band: muted trumpet or cornet, bright and agile clarinet, sweet violin, Gillham’s own piano, perhaps someone at a drum set, although aside from one resonant thump at 1:25, it’s hard to tell. (Was it multi-tasking Eddie King or Justin Ring?)  I believe that “novelty” came from the presence of horns, rather than a more “legitimate” polite accompaniment by piano or piano and violin.

But this record has not been annotated or noticed by the official jazz scholars.  A selection from Gillham’s recordings makes its way into the discographies I have (Rust and Lord) — because those sessions feature Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Rube Bloom, Louis Hooper, Murray Kellner, Andy Sanella.  The three or four sides concluding either discography [thus defined as jazz recordings] have him accompanied by Alex Hill on piano, and Gillham performs Hill’s YOU WERE ONLY PASSING  TIME WITH ME.  The lack of documentation of HOLLYWOOD — which sounds like a certifiable “jazz record” — says much more about the “star system” in jazz than it does about the lightly swinging instrumental music heard here.  The players do not sound like those stars most featured and idolized: not Mannie Klein or Jack Purvis or Nichols, not Jimmy Dorsey or Tesch, Joe Venuti, or Stan King.  But the music is memorable, inventive and rhythmic, and I would rather have this record, offered as an anonymous effort, than a dozen others with more famous names that might have satisfied less.  Once again we encounter rewarding art that no one has designated as such.

May your happiness increase!