Category Archives: Jazz Titans

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

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WHEN LOVE, MUSIC, and BREAKFAST COINCIDE: DAWN LAMBETH, PAOLO ALDERIGHI, SAM ROCHA (Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 1, 2019)

Some regard caffeine and sugar as if the respective containers were marked with skull and crossbones, with reason.  Those addictive substances upset the physical and nervous system.  Like Macbeth, they murder sleep.

But the music presented here will not cause insomnia, nervousness, or digestive upset.  Its only effect is an increase in one’s holistic well-being.  The subject at hand is a performance from March 1, 2019 at the Jazz Bash by the Bay, by Dawn Lambeth, vocal; Paolo Alderighi, piano; Sam Rocha, string bass, and it makes me as euphoric as good coffee or tea.  And please watch and listen to the end, so you don’t miss any surprises:

I don’t think these three wonderful musicians had ever worked together as a trio.  Their floating sounds delight me, and I imagine a trio of Duke, Ivie, and Blanton brought to life in 2019.

Go ahead, pour yourself another.  Good to the last note.

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC THAT FALLS KINDLY ON THE EAR: DANNY TOBIAS, JACK SAINT CLAIR, SILAS IRVINE, SAM HARRIS at the 1867 SANCTUARY (Ewing, New Jersey: April 6, 2019)

Some of the most memorable sessions — improvising without arrangements — are marked by a delightful ensemble tension coming out of competitiveness.  Think of almost any date Roy Eldridge played on, for an example close to hand.  Others are marked by an equally pleasing calm friendliness: we’re all here for the same purpose, and let’s have a good time.  A collective hug rather than head-cutting.

The quietly impressive group that Danny Tobias — master of various brass instruments — brought to the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey, on Saturday, April 6, really exemplified the affectionate community of the second example.  Danny assembled very gifted young men from Philadelphia: reedman Jack Saint Clair, here solely on tenor; pianist Silas Irvine, and string bassist Sam Harris.  Here’s their sweet version of CHEROKEE — not at a racetrack tempo, but as a waltz:

And the Rodgers and Hart SPRING IS HERE, wistful, pensive, still swinging:

Danny’s secret indulgence (one that makes me particularly glad) is the Eb alto horn — beloved of Dick Cary and very few others.  This particular specimen, Danny notes, was a gift from his friend, the very fine trombonist Gil Toth, who was in the audience.  (Also in the audience were dance luminaries Lynn Redmile and Renee Toplansky.)

What better way to say “Thank you” to Gil and all of us than with this heartfelt rendition of SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME?

Every jazz concert needs a song with disputed authorship, so here’s DIG, a line on SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, that Miles Davis took credit for:

Even if your idea of paradise is King Oliver 1923, I hope you can hear the sweet floating beauties on display here.  And let’s not forget Jack Saint Clair’s melancholy-uplifting solo feature, posted earlier.

It was a wonderful afternoon at the 1867 Sanctuary — where art flourishes — and Danny, Jack, Silas, and Sam gave us great gifts.

May your happiness increase!

TELLING TIME, SEVERAL WAYS: DAWN LAMBETH and her RASCALS at the JAZZ BASH BY THE BAY (March 2, 2019)

Sixty memorable minutes. Never mind the odd composer credits.

 

It’s all relative, as Einstein tells his grandmother.  When a man sits on a hot stove, a minute seems forever; when he’s kissing his sweetheart, forever seems like a minute.  She says, “For this you won a prize?”

Dawn Lambeth

At the Jazz Bash by the Bay this last March, Dawn Lambeth and her Rascals (the name I’ve given to this delightful little group of swinging friends) demonstrated Einstein’s discovery in the nicest ways: with performances whose text is the nature of time and how it is perceived, and declarations of love in its many forms.

The Rascals are Riley Baker, drums (catch his wonderful accents behind his father’s trumpet solo on ALWAYS: “Good deal!”); Jacob Zimmerman, alto saxophone; Clint Baker, trumpet; Jerry Krahn, guitar; Ike Harris, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, piano.

First, James P. Johnson’s IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (or, as it appeared on the 1929 Mound City Blue Blowers record label, ONE HOUR) — with the yearning verse:

From sixty minutes to eternity, Irving Berlin’s ALWAYS:

And as an instrumental meditation on the future — even when the future is seen as the fulfillment of a promise or a threat — Shelton Brooks’ SOME OF THESE DAYS, which rocks: watch out for Jeff and Riley, respectively but not respectfully:

More to come from this nice unbuttoned after-hours set.  (California festivals start early and end early, so I think this evocation of Fifty-Second Street ended at 11 PM, but it felt like the real thing, no matter what our watches said.)

May your happiness increase!

A LETTER FROM RUBY TO JACK, APRIL [3?], 1987

A small surprise from eBay, where surprises flourish: here‘s the link.  The seller’s price is $175 and $12 shipping, The latter substantially more than the original postage.

Ruby Braff, at home on Cape Cod, c. 1995. Photograph by George Borgman.

It’s a letter from Ruby Braff, who left us in 2003, to Jack Bradley, his friend and sometime manager, and of course close friend of Louis Armstrong.

Louis and Jack.

The letter isn’t dated, but the envelope is postmarked April 4, 1987:

Dear Jack (Fuckey),

I’m looking forward & backward to our gig. As we draw closer I’ll get the name of everything—oh, by the way, you’ve got plenty time now to get cash for me that nite, if possible.

You know I’m down in Zinno’s every nite, all our cats are so happy I’m there that it’s like 1941. Everybody’s in to see me. Buck Clayton, Morey, everybody. Packed!!!

Bad news—I’m depressed we lost Buddy Rich tonite. I played anyway. What a drag!

Every nite is Cafe Society for me! Unbelievable. Wild!!

Anyway ding ding you 2.

Later

love

Ruby.

Written in pencil on Braff’s letterhead. Folding creases, some light smudging, overall fine with original envelope. 8.5 x 11 inches (21.5 x 28 cm).

and . . .

and . . . .

A few annotations.  Buddy Rich died on April 2, 1987.  “Ding ding!” was Vic Dickenson’s all-purpose salutation, celebration, toast.  Buck Clayton should need no annotation.  “Morey” cannot be drummer Morey Feld, who died in 1971.

As to “Fuckey,” one interprets as one wishes.

Here, because I can —  life is not all about objects for sale — is what remains of the Braff-Steinman correspondence, two 1971 letters from Ruby to me.  Although Ruby was subject to unpredictable outbursts of rage (I witnessed one) his letters are gentle, touching, kind, and I did nothing special to evoke this kindness.

And an appropriate song — Ruby in duet with Dick Hyman in that same 1987:

We were lucky — and beyond — to have Ruby with us for fifty years.  And his music has no expiration date.

Should you want to know more — more than you ever thought you could know — about Ruby and his times, this book is a delightful and wise mountain of information and stories, Thomas Hustad’s BORN TO PLAY.

May your happiness increase!

MAKING MELODY COME ALIVE: JACK SAINT CLAIR, SILAS IRVINE, SAM HARRIS (April 6, 2019)

I knew something of young Philadelphia reedman Jack Saint Clair before I heard him — on a Danny Tobias gig last Saturday — by implication, because Danny has excellent taste.  And Jack has been part of the Marty Grosz Repertory Company that appears at the Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.  Later, I saw Jack get the coveted Larry McKenna Seal of Approval . . . if there is a higher honor I don’t know it.  But I was delighted and moved by his playing at that concert (with Silas Irvine, piano, and Sam Harris, string bass) so I think you should meet him too, doing what he does beautifully: making melody come alive, airborne, quietly compelling.

The song is SPRING CAN REALLY HANG YOU UP THE MOST, lyrics by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf — their 1955 variation on Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month.”  Or close enough.  Only 33 years separate Eliot and Landesman, proof of how quickly language moves and changes.

But there’s nothing cruel in Jack’s lovely consideration of this pastoral lament:

Anyone who has sung or played an instrument will know just how difficult it is to make melody come that alive.  For those of you, and you know who you are, who leap to Compare, whisper the comparisons to your coffee and don’t send them here . . . . Jack sounds exactly like himself, and we are glad of it.

May your happiness increase!

THE WORLD’S GREATEST JAZZ BAND: YANK LAWSON, BOB HAGGART, GUS JOHNSON, DICK WELLSTOOD, BOB WILBER, BUD FREEMAN, SONNY RUSSO, BENNIE MORTON, MAXINE SULLIVAN // AL KLINK, PEANUTS HUCKO, GEORGE MASSO, RALPH SUTTON, BOBBY ROSENGARDEN (1975)

I wouldn’t have known of these programs (now shared with us on the Musikladen YouTube channel) except for my good friend, the fine drummer Bernard Flegar.  They are rich and delicious.

The WGJB lasted from the late Sixties (when they were a development of the Nine / Ten Greats of Jazz, sponsored by Dick Gibson) to 1978.  In some ways, they were both a touring assemblage of gifted veteran players — I believe Robert Sage Wilber, known to his friends worldwide as Bob, is the sole survivor — and a versatile band that echoed the best of the Bob Crosby units, big and small.  The WGJB came in for a good deal of sneering because of their hyperbolic title, which was Gibson’s idea, not the musicians’, but from the perspective of 2019, they were great, no questions asked.  And they weren’t just a collection of soloists, each taking a turn playing jazz chestnuts (although JAZZ ME BLUES was often on the program); Haggart’s arrangements were splendid evocations of a Swing Era big band with plenty of room, and the WGJB brought its own down-home / Fifty-Second Street energy to current pop tunes (I remember their UP, UP, AND AWAY with delight).  And they played the blues.

I remember them with substantial fondness, because the second jazz concert I went to (the first was Louis in 1967, which is starting at the apex) was held in Town Hall, with Gibson as host, probably in 1970, and it featured the WGJB — Vic Dickenson and Eddie Hubble on trombones — and a small group with Al and Zoot, possibly Joe Newman, where they performed THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG, titles no one would forget, and Gibson told his anecdote of the white deer.

These two programs seem to have been sophisticated television offerings: multi-camera perspectives with a great deal of editing from one camera to the other, and beginnings and endings that suggest that these were not finished products.  The absence of an audience — or their audible presence — on the first program seems odd, but I don’t mind the quiet.  The WGJB could certainly add its own charging exuberance — hear the final ensemble of CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME — that few bands have matched.

The first program features co-leaders Yank Lawson, trumpet; Bob Haggart, string bass, arrangements; Billy Butterfield, trumpet; Bob Wilber, clarinet, soprano; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone; Bennie Morton, trombone; Sonny Russo, trombone; Dick Wellstood, piano; Gus Johnson, drums; Maxine Sullivan, guest vocalist, and the songs performed are BLUES / MERCY, MERCY, MERCY / DOODLE DOO DOO / THE EEL (featuring its composer, Bud Freeman) / THAT’S A PLENTY (featuring Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood) / A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / THE LADY IS A TRAMP (Maxine) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE/ MY INSPIRATION (closing theme) //:

And here’s another forty-five minute program, presumably aired October 17 of the same year, with certain personnel changes — this time there’s an audience but the band is also dressed with great casualness: Ralph Sutton, piano; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Bobby Rosengarden, drums; George Masso and Sonny Russo, trombones; Lawson, Haggart, Butterfield, and Maxine, performing AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL / BASIN STREET BLUES (featuring Masso) / CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME (featuring Sutton) / BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME (featuring Lawson and Butterfield) / LIMEHOUSE BLUES (featuring Russo and Masso) / HARLEM BUTTERFLY / EV’RY TIME (featuring Maxine Sullivan) / ST. LOUIS BLUES / STAR DUST (featuring Klink) / RUNNIN’ WILD (featuring Hucko) / BIG NOISE FROM WINNETKA (featuring Haggart and Rosengarden) / SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE / MY INSPIRATION //:

The repertoire for the longer program is more familiar, with few surprises, but that band could roar as well as play pretty ballads and its own version of Thirties funk.  What unexpected treasures these programs are.

May your happiness increase!