Category Archives: It’s A Mystery

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!

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O.P., IRVING, LOUIS

Last night, while in an eBay reverie, I was grazing through the meadow of Entertainment Memorabilia, sub-section Jazz, sub-sub section Original Autographs, when I found these three artifacts.  To some, they may seem irreplaceable treasures; to others, just weird debris.  The first seller had purchased a huge collection of Danish paper ephemera and added it to his already expansive holdings, the latter laid out for your pleasure here.

I’d never seen an Oscar Pettiford autograph before, and this one is from the last years of his too-short life.  The red diagonals suggest that this is, rather than an autograph for a fan, the return address — upper left corner — taken from an air-mail envelope.  Whether that increases or decreases value, I don’t know.  I haven’t identified the Copenhagen hotel, but since the autograph would be, at latest, from 1960, it is possible the hotel no longer exists:

And here is a very touching and brief remembrance of Oscar with guitarist Attila Zoller — performing Oscar’s THE GENTLE ART OF LOVE in Denmark, perhaps not that far away in time from the envelope above:

Then, something more odd: a photograph of Irving Mills and two men I don’t recognize, inscribed lovingly to film star Dorothea Summers, from whose collection this came:

and a magnified inscription:

Here is a promotional short film (or most of it) from 1931, where Irving Mills introduces three of his bands: Baron Lee and the Blue Rhythm Orchestra; Duke Ellington (with pleasing closeups of Arthur Whetsol), and Cab Calloway, with Al Morgan stealing the scene.  I thought that glimpses of Mills, reading from the script on his desk, would be easier on the nerves than his singing:

Finally, something I found exciting, even though it isn’t inscribed.  Louis Armstrong had a heart attack in June 1959, and I now assume that he received get-well cards from everyone who loved him . . . that’s a-plenty.  I had never seen his singularly Louis thank-you card, and a collector possessed not only the card but a publicity photograph that may have come with it:

I would like you to commit Louis’ poem to memory, please:

Here’s Louis in 1960 on the Bell Telephone Hour — magnificent readings of SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, LAZY RIVER, and a heartbreaking SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, before a MUSKRAT RAMBLE that puts Louis with a modern version of the Mills Brothers who sing a version of the lyrics from BING AND SATCHMO:

May your happiness increase!

“EVERY DAY’S A WORKING DAY FOR YOU”

How do you recognize wealthy people?  They go on vacation with more possessions than they can carry, and they hire someone to do the work for them.

“Red cap” or “redcap,” now archaic, dates back to when people traveled by train, when suitcases did not have wheels, so passengers would need help with their luggage, and would summon a railway porter.

Here is a 1983 news story, “The Top Redcap,” which explains it in greater depth.  I believe that the redcaps were hard-working men of color who may not have been treated well by affluent passengers.  One of the sadnesses of this life is that people who perform low-status jobs become servants and are thus invisible.

If you wonder at the photographs — figurines carrying suitcases and golf clubs, my intent is not to demean these diligent laborers, but these objects turned up online, described as “REDCAP W/ LUGGAGE, STANDARD GAUGE MODEL TRAIN PLATFORM FIGURE, NEW/REPRODUCTION” — produced for people who wanted the landscape of their model train layout to be realistic.  “Look.  Servants, too!”

The description reads: “This is a Standard Gauge figure of a redcap/train porter carrying luggage. It is a reproduction cast in tin from a Lionel antique original and is hand-painted by Leddy & Slack. Lionel’s six-piece set #550 of Standard Gauge figures was manufactured from 1932-1936. The redcap is 3″ tall and wears a dark gray uniform. The suitcase in his left hand is detachable. . . . Suitcases are also available separately to replace a lost piece of luggage on an old figure; please inquire.”  It’s significant that this piece of miniature art dates from 1932-36.

But JAZZ LIVES has not turned into a cultural studies explication of Lionel train figures.  It’s all a prelude to the music, which touches us through the decades.

In 1937, Louis Armstrong and Ken Hecht collaborated on a song, RED CAP.  Everyone, including me, thinks the Hecht referred to was BEN — he’s even credited in the Mosaic set — but it’s  KEN.  See below for Dan Morgenstern’s correction.

Louis had traveled coast-to-coast many times by 1937, so he had first-hand experience of the amiable fellows who helped you and your bags off the train.  Ricky Riccardi, my brother-in-Louis, told me something I hadn’t known, that Louis refused to put his name on songs he had no part in writing.  But there’s an even stronger story behind RED CAP.

Louis grew up in poverty, knew what it was like to hunt through garbage cans for food, was contemptuous of the “lazy,” and held hard work for a goal as the greatest good.  He also was generous, and I would bet that when Louis and his band came into town, he was a hero to the red caps and more.

A year before RED CAP, Louis had a great hit with SHOE SHINE BOY, by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin (Cahn wrote about Louis in his autobiography, and I posted this cameo in 2009).  If you don’t know the song, or know it only through the instrumental versions by Count Basie, Lester Young, and Jo Jones, listen to this touching December 1935 performance:

So: a song celebrating the working man (or child) invisible to the higher classes, directed at him (as in “you” rather than “he”) and predicting a hopeful future, upward economic mobility.  As you’ll hear, RED CAP has one extra touch that SHOE SHINE BOY doesn’t: it ends with the notion that the man working so hard hustlin’ and bustlin’ other people’s suitcases will someday be able to take a vacation and call for a red cap as well.  A dream worth dreaming!

It’s easy to imagine the dialogue between Louis and Hecht about writing a song in praise of the unseen but invaluable red caps, no matter who started the conversation. Louis usually worked with Horace Gerlach,  but you are free to let your imagination wander as to the genesis of RED CAP.

My imagination wanders to this wonderful 2003 performance now accessible on YouTube, from Scott Robinson’s eloquent spacious Louis tribute.  Here Scott plays C-melody saxophone alongside another hero, Mark Shane, irresistible both as pianist and singer:

and from five years ago (can it be that long?), our friend Daryl Sherman, vocal and piano; Scott, taragoto; Harvie S, string bass:

And the Master comes last:

I write these words a few days before Labor Day — thus “Perhaps some day you may be shouting, ‘Red Cap!’ too!” — has much hopeful significance to me: people’s dreams can still become realities.

And this, a gift from the Big Dipper, which says so much:

THIS JUST IN, from Dan Morgenstern, whom I trust!

Alas, I too thought how wonderful that Louis and Ben Hecht, of whom I was and still am a great fan, should have collaborated, and on a theme fitting with Hecht’s ideology . But I was not convinced that Ben and Louis had ever been connected. Sure enough, the Red Cap lyric is by KEN Hecht, writer of special material for many comedians and such entertainers as Belle Baker and Rose Marie. None of his other songs is near Red Cap. As for Ben, his most famous work is the play “The Front Page” a big 1928 Broadway hit twice filmed with success, first with the same title and later as “His Girl Friday” with which anyone at all into vintage films will know. Hecht’s partner was Charles Macarthur with whom he screenplayed “Scarface”, “Twentieth Century”, “Nothing Sacred” and, for Noel Coward’s first major film role, “The Coward”, all that plus making the twosome major league screenwriter. Hecht was one of the major advocates for the creation of Israel, among other causes. His 1926 novel “Count Bruga” is a sui generis satire that should be rediscovered. I don’t know if he was a Louis fan but glad this brought him up. His dates are 1894-1964.

AND a wonderful postscript, just in, from the wise Paige VanVorst:

One of my longtime idols, Natty Dominique, who’s on as many classic jazz records as Bix (As Wayne Jones used to say, “but they don’t buy them for Natty’s playing”), worked much of his life as a redcap at Chicago’s Midway Airport. People loved him, and he told stories of the early days of jazz to the people he served. He had a very nice retirement- he had a nice apartment with everything he needed, a wife who was an excellent creole cook, and he’d tell you it was all from his work as a redcap.

May your happiness increase!

HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST SWING CONCERT: A TRIBUTE TO JOE SULLIVAN (1937)

Before anyone gets too excited, I do not have acetates or videos of this event to share with you.  All I can offer is the souvenir program, which was on sale a month ago on eBay here for $300.  This item does not seem to have sold, but the seller ended the sale.  If someone were interested, I’d suggest contacting the seller and opening negotiations again.

This program was from a benefit for Joe, ill with tuberculosis, from which he recovered.  I had never seen this paper treasure before; I thought you, too, would be intrigued.  And I’ve inserted some contemporaneous recordings by Joe to keep the display from being silent.  Since I’ve never seen or heard evidence that this concert was broadcast or that airshots or transcription discs exist, this paper chronicle is all we have.  It must have been a lovely evening of music and feeling.

and this, from 1945 (Archie Rosati, clarinet; Ulysses Livingston, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums — on the SUNSET label):

and

and SUMMERTIME, 1941, Commodore:

and

another Decca solo from 1935:

and (Larry and Everett were Crosby brothers; Bing had a large role in this):

and Joe’s Cafe Society Orchestra, with Ed Anderson, Big Joe Turner, Benny Morton, Ed Hall:

and

and the Cafe Society Orchestra with Helen Ward:

and what an assortment of stars and bands!

and LADY BE GOOD from the same band, in a performance I’d bet stretched out longer when live (Danny Polo takes the tenor solo):

and

and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE by the same band, with Ed Anderson building on Louis and Big Joe Turner making it a blues:

and

and

and

and

and

and

Joe recovered and lived on until October 1971, which to me shows the sustaining power of community in times of stress and despair.

May your happiness increase!

CHARLES IN CHICAGO (The Final Part): KIM CUSACK and ANDY SCHUMM (2018)

My friend Charles keeps on providing surprises from his Spring trip to Chicago, where he captured Kim Cusack and Andy Schumm on video at the Honky Tonk, although he assures me that this is The End of his Secret Stash.

Dear Michael,

I dug down into the video archives (where the videos sleep on the computer) and found six more little gems to share with you and your blog-audience.  These performances are a little more noisy — people gnawing on ribs and suchlike — but Kim and Andy come through beautifully.  I’ll be in New York at the start of October, and we shall meet . . . .

Your pal,

Charles

On the Mildred Bailey radio show, circa 1944-45, she refers to her selected jazz group (Teddy Wilson, Al Hall, Red Norvo, others) as her HOT HALF-DOZEN.  Here is the 2018 version of that collective noun:

YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME:

LIMEHOUSE BLUES:

JAPANESE SANDMAN:

TROUBLE IN MIND:

MELANCHOLY BABY:

INDIANA:

And since the Cornucopia According to Charles is now well and truly emptied, it’s up to you to get out and hear Kim and Andy — as a duo, or in other permutations — on your own.  No slacking, now.

May your happiness increase!

MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE: “PIANO JAZZ – CHICAGO STYLE!” featuring RAY SKJELBRED

Like other jazz fans and collectors, I have had many dreams of music I would like to hear, and in my lifetime many of those dreams have come true: the alternate takes of the Jones-Smith, Inc. session; airshots of the Basie band at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing; the Ellington Fargo concert; the Jerry Newman uptown recordings; more Louis and Big Sid, on and on.

Earl Hines and Ray Skjelbred

The pianist Ray Skjelbred — treasured courageous explorer of beauty — is part of this story of dreams taking lovely shape.  I heard him on recordings perhaps fifteen years ago, and I encountered him in videos perhaps eight years ago, first in those of Rae Ann Berry, then in my own attempts, having met him, to capture him with appropriate skill and reverence.

In whatever medium I found him, I was astonished by the spacious, emotionally dense worlds he invented at the keyboard.  I still am.  And although Ray allowed me to capture individual performances that he approved of, solo and in duet; Ray leading his own Cubs — I am proud of the results, but they are beautiful snapshots for the most part.  In my videos, the sound might be imperfect; the audience might be chatting or moving in and out; Ray would speak, memorably, but briefly.

I came to dream of a Skjelbred film, a recital-explanation that would help us capture his secrets and his deep essence, as much of his history and magic that he cared to reveal.  But it remained a dream until Ray’s friend John Ochs, with Ray, created a profound but never sententious portrait of Ray and the musical atmosphere he both swims in and has enriched for decades.  It exists, and it can be seen.

From the first pearly notes of Joe Sullivan’s GIN MILL BLUES to Ray’s reminiscences-with-music of Burt Bales, Johnny Wittwer, Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, Art Hodes, Jess Stacy, stride piano, octaves, tenths, the blues, tremolos, a stomping LITTLE ROCK GETAWAY, anecdotes of Sullivan — among well-trained kindergarten children, or listening to Bob Zurke play GETAWAY, a  brilliantly meandering chorus of ROSETTA which reminds me of someone picking up glittering beach glass at the ocean’s edge, and a riotous BEAU KOO  JACK, and so much more — the film is a treasure.  It is both the chronicle of a questing artist and his interactions with Hines, Sullivan, Stacy, Hodes, and a series of casual lessons from a Master about other Masters.

I admire it tremendously.  Ray’s deadpan puckish humor animates all of his conversation with us, as when he describes a heart attack at the keyboard turning, for seconds, into stride piano . . .his description of a poor traditional band as “six people with shotguns.”  I encourage viewers to savor his after-midnight introduction to I FOUND A NEW BABY and the last minutes of MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY.

It isn’t a how-to film that entices the viewer with the kinds of promises historically made on matchbooks, “See, you can play _____ too if only you learn these sixteen gestures,” nor is it a chronological autobiography of gigs and encounters, but a warming combination of sounds, techniques, memories and music created right at the moment.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget Ray’s story of Jess Stacy’s summation of a visit from jazz acolytes, at first  unfamiliar to him, as “Those nice boys.”

The film is emotionally filling without being overwhelming: when I finished watching for the first (of several times) I felt as if I had spent a month with Ray, yet it felt like a seamless easy journey, over too soon.

Recorded in one sitting, at a fine piano, with subtle, telling editing, it is so far beyond my best videos that I am both thrilled it exists and slightly embarrassed by my own earnest amateur sallies.

I am not the only person to appreciate this film: it has been selected by the New York Jazz Film Festival and will receive an award for HISTORY / DOCUMENTARY at the end of August.

I am able to share the film with you — and frankly I would find it inexplicable if hundreds of people did not take advantage of the opportunity — but I do not know for how long this will be possible.  These things are mysterious, but Imight not be able to share this film indefinitely.

So I urge and beseech my viewers to be with Ray Skjelbred, man and artist of independent spirit, for one hour (and twenty-three minutes and fifty-eight seconds) tonight, or, if not tonight, then tomorrow night.

Early on in the film, Ray says, as if to himself, “All music is a narrative of some kind — it starts somewhere and it goes somewhere.”  He could have been describing this very fulfilling film as well.

May your happiness increase!

MORTONIC CAPERS: ANDREW OLIVER, DAVID HORNIBLOW, and SURPRISE GUESTS MICHAEL McQUAID and NICHOLAS D. BALL

Two kinds of surprise, one subtle and one cinematic-vaudevillian-theatrical from the Complete Morton Project.  More details here.

First, DIXIE KNOWS — a composition Morton never recorded — played beautifully by Andrew Oliver, piano; David Horniblow, clarinet:

Then, a party!  The Complete Morton Project invited two friends over, increasing the band by 200%: Michael McQuaid on reeds and Nicholas D. Ball on drums and hilarity — for HYENA STOMP:

Should you be tempted to dismiss HYENA STOMP as pure goofiness, listen to Morton’s Library of Congress solo rendition:

Anyone who thinks of Morton as a limited improviser who didn’t swing should be given a fifteen-minute immersion in that performance, which I marvel at.

But HYENA STOMP (in the 1927 Victor version) is elusive in one detail.  I tried to find out about Lew LeMar, who says, “That’s terrible, Jelly!” and then does the laughing — choose your own adjective.  I know there is a tradition of laughter being recorded as part of an act (consider the OKeh LAUGHING RECORD and later, LAUGHIN’ LOUIE) but I can find no information on the exuberant Mr. LeMar.  Even William Russell’s seven-hundred page Morton scrapbook has no entry for him in the index.

And thus I am free to imagine.  Did Jelly and Lew know each other from vaudeville?  Had they met at a theatre or bar, with Jelly saying, “I’ve got a record date in three days and I want you on it?”  Or was LeMar appearing on another Victor recording at the same time?  Was he the recording supervisor’s idea?  Was HYENA STOMP — very close to one strain of KING PORTER — created for LeMar?  What was union scale for vocal effects?  This unsolved mystery pleases me.  But it makes me smile, which is a good thing in itself.  Let us hope that we always have reasons to laugh.

May your happiness increase!