Category Archives: Jazz Worth Reading

ECUMENICAL PLEASURES: TERRY WALDO’S GOTHAM CITY BAND at FAT CAT (August 14, 2016) PART ONE: TERRY WALDO, CHUCK WILSON, JIM FRYER, JAY LEONHART, JAY LEPLEY

In my adolescence, I read every jazz book on the shelves of the very well-stocked suburban public library.  I didn’t understand everything I read (when one reads Andre Hodeir’s harsh analysis of, say, Dickie Wells’ later style without having the musical examples at hand, it is an oddly unbalanced experience) but I absorbed as much as I could, from Rudi Blesh to Barry Ulanov and beyond.

I remember clearly that some of the history-of-jazz books (each with its own ideological slant) used diagrams, in approved textbook fashion, for readers who needed an easy visual guide.  Often, the diagram was a flow chart —

Blank-flow-chart

Sometimes the charts were location-based: New Orleans branched out into Chicago, New York City, Kansas City (as if the authors were tracing the path of an epidemic).  More often, they depicted “schools” and “styles”: Ragtime, New Orleans, Dixieland, Chicago jazz, Early Big Bands, Stride Piano, The Swing Era, Fifty-Second Street, Bebop, Modern . . .

Sectarian art criticism, if you will.  You had different dishes for New Orleans and Modern; you didn’t eat Dixieland on Fridays.  And you had to wait two hours before going in the water. It also supported mythic constructs: the earliest jazz styles were the Truth and everything else was degenerate art, or the notion that every new development was an improvement on its primitive ancestor.

The critics and journalists loved these fantasies; the musicians paid little attention.  Although you wouldn’t find Wingy Manone playing ANTHROPOLOGY, such artificial boundaries didn’t bother George Barnes, Joe Wilder, or Milt Hinton (the latter eminence having recorded with Tiny Parham, Eddie South, Clifford Brown, and Branford Marsalis).

Happily, the musicians are able to assemble — in the most friendly ways — wherever there is a paying gig.  No one has to wear a t-shirt embossed with his or her allegiance and stylistic categorization.  Such a gathering took place on Sunday, August 14, 2016, in the basement of 75 Christopher Street, New York City — known in the guidebooks as FAT CAT, although there are many variants on that title.

fatcat-2__large

The leader and organizer of this ecumenical frolic was Terry Waldo, pianist, ragtime scholar, vocalist, and composer.  For this session, his Gotham City Band was Chuck Wilson, alto saxophone; Jim Fryer (the Secret Marvel), trombone and vocal; Jay Leonhart, string bass and vocal; Jay Lepley, drums.

And here are four examples of the good feeling these musicians generated so easily.

DIGA DIGA DOO:

MEMORIES OF YOU (starting with Terry’s elaborate homage to its composer, Eubie Blake):

EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY (with a funny, theatrical vocal by Terry):

OLD FASHIONED LOVE (sung by the romantic Jim Fryer):

Once again, this post is dedicated to the inquiring scholar from Bahia, who sat to my left and brightened the room.

More to come.

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaen we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

THE VERY ELOQUENT MR. LEWIS (KERRY LEWIS, MARTY GROSZ, DAN BLOCK, ANDY SCHUMM: September 20, 2012)

kerry-lewis-3-web

Call it the string bass, the bass viol, the double bass, the doghouse: it’s essential to jazz ensembles.  Milt Hinton reminded us that “bass” meant “base,” or “foundation,” and which of us would say the Judge was incorrect?  Experienced listeners know that no matter how glossy the front line is, how expert the drummer, if the bassist doesn’t feel right, the band might as well go home.  And sometimes should.  But the man or woman behind the beautifully polished near-human figure doesn’t always get the attention so richly deserved, and, yes, people talk through bass solos.  What a pity.

New York is full of splendid string bassists, but the fellow I’d like to salute here makes his living, often, in New Orleans.  I’ve seen him in Chautauqua, New York, and San Diego, and hope for more such intersections.

His name is Kerry Lewis — and the first paragraph of his website biography, which you can read by clicking on the link,  is worth the trip.

I could describe Kerry’s strong yet subtle, deeply intuitive playing, but it is more fun for you to discover his mastery for yourselves.  To this end, here is a video from Jazz at Chautauqua, when it was situated there — this performance took place at one of the fabled Thursday-night sessions, September 20, 2012.

The quartet here is full of engagingly distracting musicians.  It would be easy to concentrate wholly on Marty Grosz, guitar, vocal, vaudeville; Dan Block, clarinet; Andy Schumm, cornet.  But I would ask the attentive people in the JAZZ LIVES audience (and they are there, bless them!) to study Mr. Lewis — in ensemble, in solo . . . playful, absolutely right without being rigid, holding the whole ensemble on his shoulders.  Although he might deny it, I think of him as the Swing Atlas, hoisting everyone up a little higher, although not demanding attention in any narcissistic way.

So now you know.  And when the talk turns to admired musicians, “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition,” you can say with the half-smile of the wisely initiated, “Yes, ________ is fine.  But have you heard Kerry Lewis play the string bass?”  Amaze your friends; delight your neighbors; be a hero(ine) to the children and not only yours.  And it pleases me to say that Kerry will be playing at the 2016 Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, which begins on September 15.  Soon!

May your happiness increase!

TOKARSKI’S NIGHTINGALE (AND OTHER RARE SPECIES)

Although I’ve only met the young pianist / composer Kris Tokarski a few brief times in person, I admire him as a remarkable musician with great wit, warmth, flexibility, and swing.

Kris Tokarski. Photograph by Scott Myers.

Kris Tokarski. Photograph by Scott Myers.

About sixteen months ago, Kris made his first CD as a leader, DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM — a delightful musical collation with Kris among his friends and peers James Evans, Evan Christopher, and Benji Bohannon.  Here’s what I wrote about Kris (with music samples) in April 2014.

Although Kris’ musical and emotional range is substantial, he is a great subtle player of older music with the right feeling — without being hemmed in by written manuscript, older recordings, or restrictive stylistic conventions.  Here is a recent video-recording Kris did especially for JAZZ LIVES — at home and informally — of Joseph Lamb’s RAGTIME NIGHTINGALE:

Notice his lovely touch, his gentle approach.  Would you like to hear more? That is easily accomplished.

Kris, photographed by Don Keller, in front of Jelly's house, Frenchmen and Robertson Streets, New Orleans

Kris, photographed by Don Keller, in front of Jelly’s house, Frenchmen and Robertson Streets, New Orleans

In March of this year, Kris, Hal Smith, drums, and Cassidy Holden, string bass, went into the GHB Studios in New Orleans to create a CD that would consider classic rags from a Mortonian perspective, with performances modeled on Jelly’s own evocations as well as songs known to be familiar during his career but not recorded.  The compositions are Pastime Rag #3 / Heliotrope Bouquet / Kinklets / Peacherine Rag / Elite Syncopations / Ragtime Nightingale / Grace And Beauty / Please Say You Will / Sunflower Slow Drag / Swipesy / Magnetic Rag / The Easy Winners / Cataract Rag / St. Louis Rag.  If you understand the concept, the CD is a magnificent invention; if you’ve never heard the Morton Library of Congress recordings, the CD will please just as deeply.

I was delighted to be asked to write the liner notes.  Here’s what I said:

SOFT, SWEET, PLENTY RHYTHM

In 1972, I had several opportunities to marvel at Eubie Blake, then nearing ninety.  He would play MEMORIES OF YOU, TROUBLESOME IVORIES, STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER, or CHARLESTON RAG, but he always concluded with a virtuosic display and a triumphant shout, “That’s RAGTIME!” It certainly was, but the music was more than notes on the page; it was shaped by the personality and experiences of its creator. Jazz improvisation is never pure (thank goodness): it’s all subliminal osmosis and hybridization.  Eubie’s ragtime was broad-minded: it cuddled up with stride, eight-to-the-bar, orchestral flourishes owing as much to Rachmaninoff as Joplin. 

I’ve heard many musicians approach the ragtime repertoire according to their spirit animal.  Some storm through a rag as if preparing for a martial arts tournament.  Others play it with reverent rigidity, the way a child in an antique shop sits tensely on the chair to which he’s been affixed.  This CD presents one, two, and three musicians embodying a radical idea: “Let’s play the music with joy and attention to detail, and whatever happens, it will be good.”     

On this CD, Jelly Roll Morton’s proud, playful New Orleans spirit is strong, although Kris Tokarski wisely avoids the Morton caricature: lesser pianists turn Morton into a large papier-mache figure at the keyboard. 

Kris’s playing is, as always, warm and delicate but you know there is stomping power beneath the surface. I admire his beautiful touch, the logic of his phrases, but he’s never so precise as to be chilly.  Kris animates the rags, reminding us that ragtime is swinging syncopated dance music: pastoral but not effete.

Masterful playing by Cassidy Holden and Hal Smith makes this a genuine trio, democratic and empathic.  Hear the low woody propulsive sound Cassidy gets (the right notes, the right changes, a wonderful pulse) as well as his cellolike clarity.  Hal’s playing appears uncomplicated, but it takes decades of devoted playing to know what to leave out, what sounds to make, how and when to make them.  I thought occasionally of Minor Hall and Tommy Benford, but most often of Hal.

These performances aren’t “recreations” of some imagined past, but neither are they free-form improvisations on the harmonies.  I hear echoes of the jungle (ANIMULE BALL) in CATARACT RAG, the Spanish tinge in MAGNETIC RAG.  But each song sounds like a movement in a dance suite – with echoes of marches, quadrilles, and street parades. PLEASE SAY YOU WILL moves so deliciously from waltz to a gently swinging rhythm ballad with a few closing moments of stomp (as Morton did on MY GAL SAL).  ST. LOUIS RAG – in the words of Jake Hanna – starts swinging from the beginning.  GRACE AND BEAUTY shows off this trio’s many virtues: they don’t get louder or faster, but you know the train is moving on the right track and it will arrive on time. 

SUNFLOWER SLOW DRAG is a history of the first decades of jazz, as it progresses from a tender, almost shy start to a romp.

We owe this session to Hal Smith, not only a master percussionist but a jazz scholar and detective.  He had long been fascinated by Morton’s transformations of famous ragtime pieces, and wondered how other rags would sound if played in Jelly’s style.  He knew that Kris would be perfect for the project, making the performances vibrant, not dusty.  Hal put together a list of rags that might have been played in New Orleans between 1900 and 1917 – and after swapping music and recordings, this wonderful group was ready – not for the river, but for the studio.  Thank you, Kris, Hal, Cassidy, for opening the magic toybox and offering us so much joy.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Or perhaps I have.

To purchase the CD, visit here. Or if you encounter Kris at a gig, I am sure he will be happy to arrange a mutually satisfying transaction.

And I am looking for several chances to enjoy Kris and friends in the coming months.  His trio — with Hal Smith and Tim Laughlin (yes, you did read that correctly!) — is a highlight of the Evergreen Jazz Festival in Colorado at the end of July; the “Hot Classicism” trio of Kris, Hal, and Andy Schumm will also appear at the 2016 Steamboat Stomp in New Orleans.

May your happiness increase!

WAY OUT WESTOVERLEDINGEN / PAPENBURG JOYS (APRIL 8-10, 2016)

I don’t always speak to my college students about Literature; more often, I find myself standing at the intersection of Literature and Life.  So that when a student says to me that (s)he is exhausted because of working too many hours to pay for “things,” I encourage that student to consider, before springing to buy a glittery object, exactly how many hours of work it will cost.  I don’t know if my parental exhortation has any effect, but it is part of a cost / benefit calculation that has sometimes led me to put back something I was about to buy.

Cost and benefit is relevant here, because the person writing these words is still seriously exhausted by the previous weekend’s travel to the Rathaus, in Papenburg, in the larger territory of Westoverledingen, where the Generous Man of Jazz Manfred Selchow lives and has been staging concerts and tours for thirty years.  I know I spent more hours in transit than I did listening to music, but the ten-plus hours of the latter were and are precious.  A few notes follow. But first, a photograph (by my new friend Elke Grunwald):

Rathaus photo by Elke Grunwald

From the left, that’s Engelbert Wrobel, tenor saxophone; Helge Lorenz, guitar; Matthias Seuffert, tenor saxophone; Nicki Parrott, string bass / vocal; Menno Daams, cornet; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Moritz Gastreich, drums.  Others on the program were Stephanie Trick, Paolo Alderighi, Niels Unbehagen, piano; Bert Boeren, trombone; Bernard Flegar, drums; Nico Gastreich, string bass.  And in the audience there’s a balding fellow with a turquoise shirt and a video camera, as close to the music as he can get without ascending the stage.

Friday night featured a two-set concert by Engelbert, Stephanie, Paolo, and Nicki — a group coyly termed SWINGIN’ LADIES PLUS 2.  The music was lively (TEMPTATION RAG), funky (BLUEBERRY HILL), riotously exuberant (THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE), multi-colored (THANKS FOR THE MEMORY), classic (SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, SHINE, LIZA, ST. LOUIS BLUES) tender (THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU) and Brazilian (Nicki sang BRAZIL and played a samba medley).  I heard delicious echoes of Goodman, James P. Johnson, Garner and Don Lambert, but the quartet was itself as well as evocative, full of sweet surprises in ensemble and solo.

FROM JOPLIN TO JOBIM

If you weren’t in the audience, you can still hear this group — their wonderful CD, FROM JOPLIN TO JOBIM, is available on iTunes and elsewhere.

And that was Friday.

Saturday, post-breakfast, was devoted to a necessary exploration of Sleep.  But at night, there was JAM SESSION NIGHT — four hours and more of sheer pleasure.  It began with a set devoted to Eddie Condon’s music and world, which was started off in just the proper spirit by Nico, reading aloud from WE CALLED IT MUSIC — in German — the passage where Eddie has to go to the induction center to determine if he is fit for service.  (The punchline, in English, is something like, “Get this man a drink!”)  After the laughter died down, Menno, Rico, Bert, Matthias, Niels, Nico and Moritz offered songs directly related to Eddie’s recordings and performances: LOUISIANA, WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, DIANE, OH, BABY!, THEM THERE EYES, a ballad medley, and MEET ME TONIGHT IN DREAMLAND.  The music also honored Milt Gabler and George Avakian, appropriately.  And it honored Eddie, with beautiful hot lyricism from everyone.

A short pause, and then Paolo introduced his clever AROUND BROADWAY — jazz classics that were originally show tunes in one way or another — with Engelbert, Stephanie, Nicki, and Bernard.  Berlin, Youmans, Gershwin, with intelligent but never pedantic commentary by Paolo.  And we heard HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, BLUE SKIES, OVER THE RAINBOW, ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, THE MAN I LOVE, and I WANT TO BE HAPPY.  (The audience and the musicians were already happy.  I saw this.)

One of the highlights of the weekend followed, a Hoagy Carmichael set featuring Menno, Matthias, Engelbert, Paolo, Nicki, and Moritz.  The classics were beautifully played and sung: SKYLARK, RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, NEW ORLEANS, STARDUST, RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, LAZY RIVER — with two delicious surprises: SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, which Carmichael’s Collegians had recorded, although not a Carmichael composition, and THANKSGIVING, which was his work.  My marginal notations (what Stephanie called my “grades”!) were very enthusiastic.

Finally — who or what could follow that? — a set led by Rico in tribute to his mentor, idol, and ideal Louis.  A brief AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ led off, then a seriously intent CHINATOWN, a more relaxed MY WALKING STICK, WILLIE THE WEEPER, a Rico-Niels duet on SWEET LORRAINE (unplanned and elegant), two versions of I LOVE YOU, SAMANTHA, YOU’RE LUCKY TO ME, A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON, and a two-tiered finale, merging STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.

A seemingly insatiable audience called for more, and got it — eleven players assembled for a Benny Carter-flavored I NEVER KNEW and a promise, WE’LL MEET AGAIN.

Delighted, thrilled, elated, exhausted, I went to bed as soon as I could.

After a perfect German breakfast buffet (I dream of these lavish assortments of food, I confess) it was time for Sunday’s JAZZ FRUSCHOPPEN (I now know that the second word means “morning / lunchtime drink,” another linguistic morsel for the word-hoard).  Bert, Rico, Engelbert, Niels, Stephanie, Helge, Nico, and Moritz took on the pleasure of honoring Basie in under an hour, with MOTEN SWING, SPLANKY, a plunger-muted feature a la Al Grey for Bert on MAKIN’ WHOOPEE, SHINY STOCKINGS, ALL OF ME (for the rhythm section) and a searing JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE.

Nicki led Menno, Matthias, Stephanie, Paolo, and Bernard through a tenderly swinging evocation (not imitation) of Billie, Teddy, and Lester, with ME, MYSELF AND I, LOVER MAN, PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE, SAY IT ISN’T SO, THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT, STORMY WEATHER, and WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO — drawing on the best songs that Billie ever recorded, instead of A SUNBONNET BLUE.

And — a proper climax — a JATP set with a five-horn front line backed by Paolo, Helge, Nicki, and Moritz, which presented long versions of TEA FOR TWO, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, I SURRENDER DEAR, IDAHO, a BLUES FOR MANNIE, THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME, LADY BE GOOD with Lester’s 1936 solo for two tenors, and an encore of PERDIDO, with swing rather than honking.

It was wonderful.

Yes, I video-ed the weekend, so those who weren’t there should not grieve.  It will, however, take some time for the videos to emerge: courtesy to the musicians requires that they be given a chance to see what they like or loathe.

A Manfred Selchow weekend is a jazz feast, and he’s been doing this and more for three decades.  We are all so grateful.

May your happiness increase!

A GENUINE PAGE-TURNER: “SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES,” by PETER VACHER

I’m a very tough audience when it comes to jazz history books.  Many of them, understandably, are pastiches of familiar evidence with big helpings of speculation mixed in.  Nice enough for people new to the subject, but give me first-hand information rather than paraphrases of what has already been published.

In addition, most jazz literature seems star-struck, fixated on the forty or fifty BIG NAMES.  That’s splendid: books about Louis, Lester, Ben, Hawkins, Roy, Red, and others are treasures.  But since the musicians themselves didn’t always get the attention they merited, much jazz biography is brilliant posthumous research.  If someone were to turn up pages by Walter or Hot Lips (I couldn’t resist) they would be priceless.  And the people who never get to report on what they saw, felt, heard, experienced are likely to have the best stories to tell.  This brings us to Peter Vacher’s new book, SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 331+ pages, many photographs).

It is an irresistible book, and I speak as someone who finds many books — after decades of reading — utterly resistible.

SWINGIN' ON CENTRAL AVENUE

Peter Vacher (much like the recently-departed John Chilton, although Peter is still very much alive) is one of those rare multi-talented writers: a splendid unaffected prose stylist, a very diligent researcher and “connecter,” someone with an eye for what’s true and what’s intriguing.  In this case, he offers us oral histories and historical research into the lives and music of sixteen musicians — his research done over more than two decades.  The musicians profiled are Andrew Blakeney, Gideon Honore, George Orendorff, “Monk” McFay, Floyd Turnham, Betty Hall Jones, “Red Mack” Morris, Caughey Roberts, Chester Lane, Monte Easter, Billy Hadnott, Norman Bowden, John “Streamline” Ewing, Chuck Thomas, Jesse Sailes, “Red” Minor William Robinson.

I knew of perhaps one-half of those musicians: Blakeney had played with Kid Ory; Honore with Jimmie Noone; Orendorff with Les Hite and Louis; “Red Mack” with Lee and Lester Young’s band; Caughey Roberts had been replaced in the early Basie band by Earle Warren; Billy Hadnott was on famous JATP recordings as well as with Nat Cole; Norman Bowden had recorded with Zutty Singleton; “Streamline” Ewing had played with Hines, McShann, Horace Henderson.

Because of the “star-system” in jazz, many might assume that these interviews with people who — apparently — were on the fringes of the big time would be narrow and not terribly interesting.  To assume this would be a huge error.  For one thing, these sixteen people hadn’t been interviewed much, if at all, so their reminiscences are fresh and eager, full of good stories.  Not one page in Vacher’s book has the stale, “Must we go through this again?” quality of the recitals the stars have given so often they take on an inescapable sleepiness (both in the speaker and the reader).  Although many older musicians expressed themselves through their instruments, sometimes their narratives are enthusiastic but closed: “Big Boy was a terror when he got into that whiskey, but he sure could blow.”  Not here.  And Vacher’s interludes are brief, lively, and the very antithesis of narcissism: he shines the light with great skill and affection on his subjects.

And the stories are amazing.  Andy Blakeney was in Chicago when Louis joined King Oliver; he played in a Doc Cooke band.  Streamline Ewing was asked to join the Basie band; he heard Charlie Parker before Bird had made records.  Speaking of Bird, he stayed with Billy Hadnott and his wife — and it’s a sad story — before the Hadnotts were compelled to ask him to leave.  Ewing also mentions seeing both Mutt Carey and Nat Cole at the union — consider that pairing!  Norman Bowden talks of rehearsing with Jelly Roll Morton, “the most sophisticated man I ever met in my life,” in 1940.  We hear of Benny Goodman sitting in with Mutt’s band in 1925; the book offers the first substantial sketches of drummer Cuba Austin, of bandleaders Reb Spikes, Sonny Clay, the pianist Lady Will Carr. We learn — in just a sentence — that the short-lived and extremely talented pianist Margaret “Countess” Johnson was Lester Young’s “heartbeat.”That Eddie Nicholson was Billie Holiday’s drug supplier.  There are extended stories about a young Charlie Christian, about Lester, about the Basie band at the Reno Club in 1935, about Louis, marijuana, Charles Mingus, Buck Clayton in Shanghai, Lionel Hampton in 1936 . . .  And some musicians, like Kid Ory and Christian, pop up in different contexts, so one has the advantage of seeing them as if they were characters in a Faulkner novel, from many angles.

I deplore the kind of advertising assertion that suggests, “If you don’t buy / read / eat ____________, your life will be joyless, devoid of meaning.”  But I found myself thinking, “Every jazz fancier I know would find something delightfully memorable in these pages.”

And there’s more.  Extraordinary photographs, many from the subjects’ personal hoards.  Interludes of fact taken from contemporary music magazines. And, should you think this to be simply a collection of oral histories of little-known musicians retelling their careers, the book presents so much more — as in race and racism from the Twenties onwards.  Not all the stories are grim, but they are all revealing.  I offer only one example — in Billy Hadnott’s section, Vacher includes this comment from DOWN BEAT, March 15, 1944, where Frankie Laine and a four-piece “mixed group” are praised for their music, then the reporter notes, “Despite their excellent air shots the group has found difficulty in club bookings because of the racial angle involved in the mixed group. Setup includes two colored and three ofays, and it will be interesting to find if this group can break through the Jim Crowism so strong out here.”  That quotation — both in subject and style — is worth a good deal of study, and it reminds us that there were two unions at the time in Los Angeles.

Such fascinating evidence spills out of Vacher’s book — because his subjects haven’t simply played or lived locally, and they are people one would otherwise know only as names in discographies or on record labels.

The book is entertaining, powerful, and eye-opening.  Peter Vacher has surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal.  Now I’m going back to read more.  As a postscript, I opened the book at random and found Chester Lane’s story about working with Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings in El Dorado, Arkansas, circa 1928, with Louis Jordan . . . and the band is taken over by one Wilson, who owns Wilson’s Tell-‘Em-‘Bout-Me Cafe.  I’ll stop there, but you will see why such real-life details make the book a deep pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

“BOBBY HACKETT: HIS LIFE IN MUSIC” (by George Hulme and Bert Whyatt)

BOBBY HACKETT 2 auto

I’ve written at length about my affection and admiration for cornetist Bobby Hackett, someone who illuminated my musical life on recordings and in person and continues to do so.  If Hackett is someone you haven’t heard deeply, I offer this as evidence of his quiet soaring majesty — a 1961 recording of LOVE LETTERS with Glenn Osser’s Orchestra — hidden in it are Dave McKenna and Jake Hanna:

The first thing I hear is Hackett’s sound — warm, glowing, controlled but entirely natural-sounding.  One doesn’t think of vibrating breath going through metal — just as one doesn’t anatomize birdsong.  No, that sound on its own seems both unearthly and completely friendly, evocative.  And one does not have to be a cornet player to imagine how difficult it is to “make melody come that alive,” as Hackett said of his greatest inspiration Louis.  LOVE LETTERS is itself simple-sounding yet treacherous, a test of a player’s delicacy and ingenuity: how to make all those repeated notes sound as if each one of them had a pulsing life? But Hackett did, and does.

Bobby, listening to Vic Dickenson at Childs Paramount, October 1952

Bobby, listening to Vic Dickenson at Childs Paramount, October 1952

The other side of Hackett’s recording and performing life moved at a faster pace — call it “Dixieland” or other names — often with the best Mainstream musicians, including Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber, Pee Wee Russell, the aforementioned Dave McKenna, Jack Lesberg, Cliff Leeman.  Here’s a 1962 sample, DARK EYES — from a “theme” album, Condon and friends capitalizing on the success of MIDNIGHT IN MOSCOW:

And the first recording where Hackett was in evidence that I can recall — the 1947 TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS featuring Louis, Jack Teagarden, Dick Cary, Bob Haggart, Peanuts Hucko, Sidney Catlett, and AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ — where Hackett takes over for Louis, presumably making his way to the vocal microphone, at :35, and then follows Hucko with his own beautiful solo:

And if you haven’t heard any of the 1937-onwards Dick Robertson sides made for Decca (for the jukebox market, with an identical piano introduction and similar formats) you need to begin your enlightenment here — 24 bars of pearly Hackett in the middle:

This posting isn’t meant to offer all of the Hackett recordings available on YouTube that move me: it would turn impossibly long. Readers can find or discover their own favorites.  My purpose is to let you know about a superb book on Bobby and his music.

Although Hackett’s life (1915-1976) was not dramatic in the ways the chronicles of other musicians have been, he has deserved a book for decades.  He appeared memorably in profiles by Whitney Balliett and Max Jones, but the first legitimate full-scale study of his musical life has just appeared, and it is a delight. The book, BOBBY HACKETT: HIS LIFE IN MUSIC, by George Hulme and the late Bert Whyatt, is a model of what such books should be, and the only reason it has taken me this length of time to write about it is that every time I open it, I am so suffused with Hackett-love that the book goes down so that I can listen.

Full disclosure: I traded tapes and information with Bert and George, and there is a little Hackett-reminiscence of mine, “Thanks, Bobby Hackett,” at the start of the book.  (That is how he signed my record label when I timidly requested his autograph.)  So I won’t pretend to objectivity here.

The book looks unobtrusive from the front:

HACKETT book cover

but the cover design is this famous late-Forties photograph:

HACKETT photo for book cover

Its contents are anything but dull.  and the 630-plus pages of this book (in a readable typeface, for which we give thanks) are detailed yet unfussy and thoroughly informative.  It contains twenty rare photographs and an equal number of record label scans.  The book is divided in three parts: after the acknowledgments, there is a fifty-page section of reminiscences — which begins with Hackett in his own words, then continues on to include brief essays by Vic Lewis, Hank O’Neal, Tony Bennett (via Will Friedwald), Warren Vache, Sr., George Hulme, as well as on-the-spot pieces about appearances of Hackett and bands from 1943 on.  Hackett was an early recording / stereo equipment enthusiast, and Hulme has written an intriguing essay on that facet of his life.

From there, a truly informative musical biography, organized chronologically, which offers reviews of performances, details of sessions, gigs, and recordings. I find such assemblages of detail fascinating (especially because Hulme and Whyatt offer reasoned research rather than conjecture or repetitions of debatable facts).  One small instance: “Eddie Condon offered a concert at Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, on March 21 [1947], with Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Jack Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko, James P. Johnson and Dave Tough.”  Those are words to dream about, and I can hear that band, faintly, as I write this.

Other delights pop up throughout the 135 pages.  The remainder of the book — some four hundred pages — is a beautifully clear, well-organized discography, ending with pages of “discographical mysteries,” a bibliography, and two detailed indices.  It is a worthy tribute to a musician whose work never disappoints.

Here is a link to purchase the book — which, because it’s paperbound, is surprisingly affordable.  I recommend it with the greatest enthusiasm.  And now, I’m going back to listen to more of Bobby:

May your happiness increase!