Category Archives: It’s A Mystery

TAKE ONE, TAKE TWO (Chicago, January 24, 1929)

I don’t remember in which antique store I found a shiny copy of the record above, except that my boredom (prowling through aisles of overpriced odd fragments of human history) stopped instantly.  It’s a famous recording, because more than twenty years ago, an unidentified trumpet solo that sounded rather Bixian was seized upon as being a true Bix improvisation.  I assure you that the dramatic discussions that went on — read here if you like — are not my subject.

Before I delve into why, here’s some data: the personnel as stated by Tom Lord: Ray Miller And His Orchestra : Muggsy Spanier (cnt) Max Connett, Lloyd Wallen (tp) Jules Fasthoff (tb) Jim Cannon (cl,as) Maurice Morse (as) Lyle Smith (ts) Paul Lyman (vln) Art Gronwall (p,arr) Leon Kaplan (bj,g) Jules Cassard (tu,b) Bill Paley (d) Bob Nolan, Mary Williams (vcl) Ray Miller (dir).

Why should I post the two takes of CRADLE OF LOVE?  For one thing, I have been putting my 78s in order and I saw the record, decided to play it, liked it, played it several times over.  And I continue to do so: it has become something I love.

The song itself — by the team that had a hit with RAMONA — is delightful in its limited scope.  You might know the story that Ray Henderson, Bud De Sylva, and Lew Brown — responsible for many hits — decided to write the worst song they could, with every tear-jerking cliche, and the result was SONNY BOY, which — with Al Jolson’s fervent performance (and his adding his name to the credits) was a million-seller.

I don’t know if the SONNY BOY story is true, but there’s something about CRADLE OF LOVE that hints at its composers asking themselves what they could do to assure themselves a hit.

First, pick a very optimistic premise: the young couple, so in love, in their tiny rural paradise which will be paid off in a year; they have chickens; their neighbors love them; they will have a baby soon.  Fecundity, domesticity, domestic bliss, prosperity — pleasing dreams, especially in January 1929 with no hint of the Crash to come. Home, young love, sex, and chickens!  And yes, the song is very close to MY BLUE HEAVEN, which made a great deal of money not too long before.

Second, invent a melody with an irresistible hook that sounds much like MAKIN’ WHOOPEE (a song with a clearly divergent view of domestic bliss, curdled) and put the two together.  The one touch of realism in this dream-world is that the neighbors “smile / most of the while” (my emphasis).  Why there are these noticeable lapses in grinning is never explained, especially since “all” would have worked just as well in the line.  Perhaps Wayne and Gilbert had some scruples.

CRADLE OF LOVE should have been memorable, but didn’t become so.  However, there’s so much that pleases me in these recordings (there are rumors of a third non-vocal version, made for the German market, but I don’t know anyone who has heard it).  The Miller band just sounds good, and they balance their instrumental work and the “hot” solos so beautifully.  (Yes, the question has been asked, “Why two trumpet / cornet improvisations on the same — white — dance band record?” to which I have no answer.)  It means a great deal to me that the statement of the verse is a wonderful early Muggsy Spanier episode, as well.  I don’t feel the need to mock Bob Nolan, either.  And Eddy Davis was telling me, a few weeks ago, about working with pianist Art Gronwall — to which I could only say, “Wow!”  The rhythm section has a nice bounce, and the trombone interlude reminds me cheerfully of Miff Mole.

So I invite you to listen, to put aside preconceptions, and simply enjoy.

Take One:

Take Two:

and, just because YouTube makes it possible for me to share it with you, here is the Paul Whiteman version recorded fourteen days earlier, an entirely different orchestral rendition, with a lovely Trumbauer bridge near the end:

Slightly more than ten months after the Miller recording, the stock market crash changed everyone’s lives.  I hope the young couple had paid off every stick and stone before then, and could make a living selling eggs.  How the toad plays into this I can’t imagine, but I hope (s)he and others prospered.  Otherwise it’s too dire to contemplate.

Note: readers who feel a pressing need to extend the Bix-or-not-Bix discussion will not find their comments printed here.  Enough idolatry, thanks.  I don’t think it’s Bix — but it’s my blog and I have some privileges therein.

May your happiness increase!

IN 1959, THEY SAT RIGHT DOWN AND WROTE HIM LETTERS

I don’t know what happens today if a young fan writes a letter to Lady Gaga, let us say, requesting a signed photograph or, better yet, asking a question.  That rhetorical question in itself may mark me as hopelessly antique, since fans can find out everything online as it happens.  But my guess is that the Lady doesn’t have time to send back handwritten personalized replies, and that is nothing against her.  Even in the Swing Era, musical personalities had their secretaries or staff sign photos for fans.  On my wall, for instance, is a lovely shot of Connee Boswell — her name signed in pen — but inscribed to the fan in a different hand, leading me to believe that Connee took a stack of a hundred photographs and signed her name on each one.

So what came up on eBay several days ago is remarkable.  I can’t do much detective work, because the seller seems innocent about the trove, and perhaps (s)he has no other connection.  Here’s the listing description:

This 1950’s collection of famous jazz musicians includes autograph letters, signed photographs and autographs. There is an autograph letter signed “Pops Foster” and a photograph signed “George Pops Foster.” There is an autograph note signed “Don Redman” and an 8 x 10 inch photo of Redman also signed. There is an autograph note signed “Meade “Lux” Lewis” There is an autograph note signed “Pete Johnson” and a letter by Pete Johnsons wife. There are two autograph letters signed “Alberta Hunter.” There is an autograph note signed “Buster Baily” and an autograph letter signed “Terry Spargo.” There is also a typed letter by Terry Spargo and a signed photograph. There are several autographs including “Moondog” “Israel Crosby” and a few others. All the letters, notes, photographs and autographs are in very good condition! NO RESERVE!

While you peruse and consider, here is a most appropriate musical soundtrack:

“Christopher,” whose last name may have been “Jameson,” seems to have been a young aspiring pianist and fan who wrote to his heroes, either asking a question and / or asking for an autographed photograph.  We don’t have any of his inquiries, but they must have been polite and admiring, because he received gracious unhurried answers.  And what strikes me is that in 1959 he wasn’t writing to Dizzy, Trane, or Mobley, but — for the most part — jazz pioneers.  A few of the pages in his collection look like in-person autographs, but much is unknown and will probably remain so.  But we have the most delightful evidence: paper ephemera of a kind not often seen.  Here, without further ado:

POPS FOSTER gives his address twice, clearly pleased by this correspondence:

DON REDMAN, smiling and fashionably dressed:

TONY SPARGO, handing off to Eddie “Daddy” Edwards:

More from TONY SPARGO:

PETE JOHNSON wasn’t up to much writing, but his wife was encouraging and Pete did send a nice autograph:

“Musically yours,” MEADE LUX LEWIS:

Are the signers (from Brunswick, Georgia) a vocal group I don’t recognize?  I do see MOONDOG:

I don’t recognize the signatures on the first page, but below I see VERNEL FOURNIER, AHMAD JAMAL, and ISRAEL CROSBY:

BUSTER BAILEY signs in kindly and also mentions his new recording, perhaps the only long-playing record under his own name:

an extraordinary and extraordinarily generous letter from ALBERTA HUNTER:

and an even more generous second chapter:

Christopher must have written extremely polite letters to have received such answers, but this selection of correspondence speaks to the generosity and good will of people who were actively performing, who took the time to take a young person seriously.

When the bidding closed, the collection sold for $660 a few minutes ago.  So you can no longer possess these holy artifacts, but you can lose yourself in rapt contemplation of the images and the kind people who not only created the art we revere, but wrote to Chris.

May your happiness increase!

TO KAYO, FROM BUD, FATHA, LION, FATS // BILLIE and BABE and HANS KNOPF, 1941

Those who have time, patience, eagerness, can find treasures on eBay: type in “jazz” and “entertainment memorabilia” or “music memorabilia” — as I did.  Here are two treasures, each with hints of mystery.  First.  I have no idea who “Kayo” is or was, what their gender, and so on.  A name or a nickname?  But Kayo got close to the deities for certain.  I’ve seen Earl Hines and Willie “the Lion” Smith autographs fairly plentifully, but not Bud Powell and certainly not Fats Navarro.  Of course the autographs do not have to be contemporaneous with each other, but Fats died in July 1950, which suggests a decade, as does the fountain pen.

Opening bid $100, for a very limited time: details here.

The second item is even more mysterious: we are told these photographs were taken by Hans Knopf of PIX —  of Billie Holiday with Babe Russin’s Orchestra at the Famous Door, 1941.  $1000 or best offer: details here.  The only thing I am deeply certain of is that Hans Knopf existed from 1907 to 1967.

and:

and what I presume is the back of the photograph (I believe that the smaller and larger images are the same thing — note the oddly empty room and the two or three people to the right) with notations that leave me skeptical:

Here is yet another photograph by Knopf, advertised as Billie, 1941, and the Famous Door.

Several thoughts.  Babe Russin appears on Billie’s sessions in May and June 1938, on August 1941 and February 1942, so their connection is plausible.  During those years, no “Babe Russin Orchestra” made commercial records, so there is little evidence to help us figure out the personnel in this photograph.  As for the photographs themselves, I see the same (or similar) cloth-backed chairs.  But the club, long and narrow, does not look anything like the Famous Door at which the Basie band appeared in 1938.  It does more closely resemble the Village Vanguard.

Was it Billie’s gig?  In 1941 she was a star, and was she appearing with Russin, but why would the band name be on the marquee?  Was Hans there one night when she sat in?

I hypothesize that the annotations on the back of the photograph may not be from 1941, that what was blacked out might be a clue, even if it was only “Property of PIX Photo” and that the emendation to “Famous Door” has more to do with another internet site — with the smaller photograph of Billie for sale — than any evidence by Knopf.  (That latter site, selling a “jumbo” photograph, is fascinating for one frosty line only, at the end: If you’re not satisfied this page or Billie Holiday At the Famous Door NY 1941. Jumbo Hans Knopf Pix Photo, you can leave now.
Thank you for visiting.)  

This just in . . . and no fooling, from a 2010 entry on a blog called “The Daily Growler,” Hans Knopf, though there’s not much personal info about him, in 1941 was a staff photographer for PIX. During those years his work was in publications all over the place. In later life, Hans became a sports photographer on the first Sports Illustrated staff, where he was from 1956 until 1964 when he died. Hans was celebrity famous when he married Amy Vanderbilt, called the Staten Island Vanderbilt. Hans and Amy lived life to the fullest!

Fine, you say.  But this blogpost has “the growlingwolf” tell of his adventures at an Allentown, Pennsylvania “paper show,” for collectors of paper ephemera, where he goes through a box of photographs and finds . . .

The first print I saw was of a black woman with a flower in her hair singing live with the Babe Russo Band, an all White band, at the Sherman House in Chicago. I knew she looked familiar–I turned it over and Hans had marked it “Billie Holiday at the Sherman House, 1941.” Holy shit. I dug deeper.

Now we know.  Of course it’s Babe Russin, and it’s the Sherman Hotel . . . but 2020 is going to be a very good year.  Mysteries, all delicious, and all allowing us glimpses of people and their relics we would never have seen otherwise.

May your happiness increase!

GUILTY, AS CHARGED

This morning, Connor Cole, a young Facebook friend, someone with good taste, casually asked me to list the recordings that had impressed me in the past year.  I’ve stopped composing “ten best” lists because I know that I will hurt the feelings of someone I’ve left off.  (I once applied for a job where there were openings for five people, and was told afterwards that I was number six, a memory which still, perhaps absurdly, stings.)  But Connor’s request pleased me, so I began thinking of the recordings of 2019.

Perhaps it was that I wasn’t fully awake, but I came up with almost nothing, which troubled me.  So I began searching through blogposts and came up with these reassuring entities (new issues only) in approximate chronological order, with apologies to those I’ve omitted, those discs which I will write about in 2020:

IN THIS MOMENT, Michael Kanan, Greg Ruggiero, Neal Miner

NEW ORLEANS PEARLS  Benny Amon

UNSTUCK IN TIME  Candy Jacket Jazz Band

NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU  Danny Tobias, Mark Shane

RAGTIME — NEW ORLEANS STYLE, Volume 2  Kris Tokarski, Hal Smith

PICK IT AND PLAY IT  Jonathan Stout

BUSY TIL’ ELEVEN  Chicago Cellar Boys

TENORMORE  Scott Robinson

UPTOWN  The Fat Babies

COMPLETE MORTON PROJECT  Andrew Oliver, David Horniblow

A SUNDAY KIND OF LOVE, Alex Levin

DREAM CITY  David Lukacs

THE MUSIC OF THE BIRD AND THE BEE  Charles Ruggiero, Hilary Gardner

LESTER’S BLUES  Tom Callens

WINTER DAYS  Rebecca Kilgore, Echoes of Swing

The majority of those discs are musician-produced, funded, and released — which is yet another blogpost about “record companies” and their understandable attrition.  Economics, technology, and a changing audience.

But that list made me go back in time, decades of trading money for musical joy.

In late childhood, I would have walked or bicycled the mile to Times Square Stores and bought Louis’ Decca JAZZ CLASSICS for $2.79 plus tax.  A few years later, Monk cutouts on Riverside at Pergament or Mays. E.J. Korvette. Lester Young and Art Tatum Verves at Sam Goody’s.  A British enterprise, Tony’s, for exotic foreign discs.  In New York City, new Chiaroscuro issues at Dayton’s, Queen-Discs at Happy Tunes.

In the CD era, I would have stopped off after work at Borders or the nearby Tower Records for new releases on Arbors, Concord, Pablo, and import labels.  Again in the city, J&R near City Hall for Kenneth, French CBS, and more.  But record stores gave way to purchasing by mail, and eventually online.  Mosaic Records was born, as was Amazon, eventually eBay.

So today the times I actually visit “a record store,” it is to browse, to feel nostalgic, to walk away with a disc that I had once coveted — often with a deceased collector’s address sticker on the back — but I am much more likely to click on BUY IT NOW in front of this computer, or, even better, to give the artist twenty dollars for a copy of her new CD.

What happened?  I offer one simple explanation.  A musician I respect, who’s been recordings since 1991, can be relied upon to write me, politely but urgently and at length, how I and people like me have ruined (or “cut into”) his CD sales by using video cameras and broadcasting the product for free to large audiences.

So it’s my fault.  I killed Decca, Columbia, and Victor — Verve, Prestige, and Riverside, too.  Glad to have that question answered, that matter settled.  Now I’m off to do more damage elsewhere.

May your happiness increase!

THE HILL COUNTRY DANCE ORCHESTRA: “WORDS”

The chorus begins, “Words that seem so tender / Words of sweet surrender,” so you can invent the rest of this 1924 song — by Al Dubin, Al Tucker, and Otis Spencer — on your own.  I have to improvise as well, because the complete sheet music has eluded me so far.

Most of us, if we know the song at all, know the Fletcher Henderson acoustic Vocalion recording where youthful Louis Armstrong explodes into his chorus, backed by an equally stirring Kaiser Marshall, or perhaps later evocations.

Here is a very remarkable “modern” (i.e., 2019) recording of the song that only a few listeners have made friends with — by the Hill Country Dance Orchestra, a band you won’t find in Brian Rust’s books.  Listen and marvel:

Hot enough for you?  “Authentic” enough for you?  Yes, on both counts.

What’s most remarkable is that the Hill Country Dance Orchestra — its personnel two cornets, trombone, two alto saxophones, baritone saxophone, C-melody saxophone, clarinet, violin, banjo, piano, tuba, drums — is both a discographer’s dream and nightmare, because of this young brilliance, Colin Hancock from Texas (and now studying in New York City):

My more attentive readers might be saying, “But I don’t understand.  Which instrument does Colin play on this recording?”  And then I would respond, with the appropriate emphasis.  “ALL  OF  THEM.”  The magic of modern technology; the exuberance and accuracy of a great artist.

I’ll wait while you return to listen to this marvel once again.

And here is Colin’s newest band, his Signature Seven, rollicking through I’M GONNA STOMP MISTER HENRY LEE and DOWN HOME RAG:

Colin’s noble roisterers (he’s playing cornet) are Jeffery Miller, trombone; Daniel Dickinson, alto saxophone, clarinet; Troy Anderson, tenor saxophone; Juan Vidaurre, banjo; Isaiah Thompson, piano; Julian Johnson, drums.

Great music.  Tell your friends.  Wake the children.  No one will want to say, “I wasn’t paying attention when Colin Hancock and friends were making glorious sounds.”

And you can get a direct line to the new / old sounds by subscribing to Colin’s YouTube channel SemperPhonographCo here.  (Why wait?)

May your happiness increase!

MAKING NEW MEMORIES: MARC CAPARONE, BRIAN HOLLAND, STEVE PIKAL, DANNY COOTS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 29, 2019)

Marc Caparone and Ricky Riccardi, considering important matters — a Louis Armstrong trumpet — a few years ago.

I don’t know if people look to pianist Jess Stacy as a model for spiritual enlightenment, but perhaps they should.  Yes, he’s rightly known for his solo on SING SING SING at the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert, and for subtle but memorable playing for decades, but he had a revelation in mid-life that has been one of my cherished stories since I first read it.  I am paraphrasing because the book it comes from is in New York and I am in San Diego, but I have it close to my heart.

He had been successful as a Goodman sideman but had made the mistake of marrying Lee Wiley — they were spectacularly unsuited for each other, a story you can explore elsewhere on the blog — they had divorced, unpleasantly.  And as Jess tells it, he was sitting on the bed in a hotel room, ruminating, despairing, feeling that there was little point in going on.  He could, he thought, follow the lead of his friend Bix Beiderbecke, and “crawl into a bottle and die,” which had its own appeal, its own seductive melodramatic pull.  But Stacy, although in misery, was curious about life and what it might offer.  Musing more, he eventually came to a decision, and spoke to himself, briskly not not sternly, “All right, Stacy.  Time to make new memories!” and he got off the bed and lived a fulfilling life.

I hear in that story something that we all have faced whether we are sitting on a hotel bed or not: stuck in our own lives, do we hug the past like a cherished stuffed bunny or do we “move on,” and see what happens?  It’s not easy.  Despair has a powerful attraction, and memories can feel like a suit of clothing that weighs tons — stifling ye familiar.  And let us say what no one wants to say, that the future is always mildly terrifying as well as alluring.

All of this has been running through my own mind (I am not in danger of ending it all through alcohol, never fear) and I have told the story to a few friends in the past week.  The wonderful trumpeter Marc Caparone provided a musical illustration of it just a few days ago at the San Diego Jazz Fest — with Brian Holland, piano; Steve Pikal, string bass; Danny Coots, drums — in his performance of MEMORIES OF YOU, a very dear song by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf.  We don’t hear Razaf’s lyrics, but those who know the song well will have them as a subliminal second theme.

And here’s Marc’s very personal exploration of these themes: a model of passion and control, Louis-like but not Louis-imitative, music that I found very moving, as did others at the San Diego Jazz Fest . . .beauty at once somber and uplifting:

I think of Bobby Hackett, saying of Louis, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come that alive?”

Thank you, Marc, Brian, Steve, and Danny — as well as Eubie and Andy, and of course Mister Stacy.

Let us hold the past for what’s dear in it, what it has to teach us, but let us not sit on the edge of the bed, musing, forever.  Make new memories.

May your happiness increase!

“THE LAMB OF GOD!”: ELEGIES FOR DONALD LAMBERT IN STORIES, PHOTOGRAPHS, AND MUSIC

Meet the Lamb!  Here he is — don’t mind the murky visual — at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival:

Thanks, deep thanks to Howard Kadison and Audrey VanDyke, keepers of so many flames.  Here is Howard’s prized copy of the PRINCETON RECOLLECTOR, a historical journal almost exclusively devoted — in this issue — to the marvelous and elusive jazz piano genius Donald Lambert.

An editorial about Donald Lambert: will wonders never cease?

Lambert plays the Sextette from Lucia:

Recollections of Bill Priestley, a fine cornetist:

Pee Wee Russell and the milk truck:

Fashions:

More rare narrative:

Lambert in his native haunts:

Playing two melodies at once:

THE TROLLEY SONG, with friend Howard Kadison at the drums:

SPAIN, with Lambert and Kadison:

ANITRA’S DANCE, from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival:

LIZA, from the same concert:

Yes, Art Tatum:

Physiognomy:

The 1941 Bluebird PILGRIM’S CHORUS:

I GOT RHYTHM (recorded by Jerry Newman, 1940) with Lambert, Hot Lips Page, Herbie Fields, Pops Morgan:

DINAH, from the same party at Newman’s parents’ home):

I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE:

and TEA FOR TWO from the same incredible session, Lambert also playing FRENESI:

 

A very rare (and I think unissued) 1949 performance, BLUE WALTZ:

LINGER AWHILE, with Kadison (the first Lambert I ever heard):

An unlisted WHEN BUDDHA SMILES, with trumpet and string bass:

Another local legend:

May your happiness increase!