Category Archives: Jazz Worth Reading

EMBRACED WARMLY BY MUSIC: DANNY TOBIAS, GEORGE RABBAI, PHIL ORR, PAT MERCURI, JOE PLOWMAN (Part One): March 24, 2018

It’s lovely to see and hear indebtedness, art, and gratitude all combined into a glowing musical gift.  I’m not at all being hyperbolic, as you will understand.

But before I get wrapped up in the music, let me point out that this all happened yesterday, Saturday, March 24, at a place you should know about — the 1867 Sanctuary Arts and Culture Center at Ewing, New Jersey.


And what was “this”?

Now you know.  But in all fairness to the graphic designer and the copywriter here, that advertisement might have made people who didn’t know Danny, George, Pat, Phil, or Joe leap to incorrect conclusions.  “Pops to Bop” might have suggested a-history-of-jazz-trumpet, or an afternoon vacillating between WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD and DIZZY ATMOSPHERE.  But these musicians meet on common ground; they love one another, and the music was so warmly played and presented that there was not even a thirty-second note of the formulaic here.  It wasn’t a battle of genres: quite the contrary, if you squinted in just the right way through the stained glass windows, you could see Buck, Louis, Sweets, Basie, and Dizzy grinning like mad.

And although the brass instruments displayed and played here are often quite assertive, there was none of that signifying stuff, no “I can play higher, I can play louder,” so the sound was resonant, glowing, and in its own way serene, even at faster tempos.  

Introducing the second song, HALF NELSON, Danny talks about how George was and is his inspiration, and even if he hadn’t explained that, we could hear it in the air.

Let me share the first four performances with you.

Danny’s original (in the spirit of the season to come) PASS OVER:

Following that thread, I’M CONFESSIN’:

HALF NELSON, credited (I think) to Miles, but who can tell?

And to close off this segment, George’s lovely reading of BODY AND SOUL:

It was a nearly six-hour round trip by car from my place to Ewing: I’d do it every weekend ti hear this band.  Aren’t they wonderful?  Savor this quartet of beauties: there are ten more to come.

May your happiness increase!

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A MORTONIAN PARADISE, PLUS (ANDREW OLIVER / DAVID HORNIBLOW): A BLOG, TWO VIDEOS, and an e-78, TOO.

When I go to my computer in the morning — a twenty-first century act as natural to us as making a fire in the stove for breakfast must have been years ago — and I see that the Complete Morton Project (a/k/a Andrew Oliver at the piano and David Horniblow at the clarinet, bass clarinet, or alto saxophone) has been at it again while I have been sleeping or attempting to grade student essays, my first feeling is pride — pride that I am living in a world where such beauty is being regularly given to us for free.  Of course, my second thought is, “Oh, no!  I’m falling behind!”  But David and Andrew have been very forgiving, and I have received no lowered grades for tardiness.  And they offer their creations open-handedly and open-heartedly.

Here is the aptly named PEP:

and the NEW ORLEANS BUMP, which should induce dancing everywhere.

I especially like David’s growly evocation of Cecil Scott and other “dirty” clarinetists — the world as it was before Benny smoothed everything out:

There’s more information and music here on Andrew’s blog — which also shows off the considerable talents of the Vitality Five and the Dime Notes — and you can subscribe to these weekly YouTube bouquets of sound here.  And (while I was tidying up the kitchen) the Vitality Five issued their February 2018 e-78: details here.

How will I keep up?  I don’t know.  But it’s a delightful struggle for sure.

May your happiness increase!

EXPERIENCING BIG BAND JAZZ, by JEFF SULTANOF (Rowman and Littlefield)

Richard M. Sudhalter told Jeff Sultanof that he should write books.  Five pages into Sultanof’s multi-faceted examination of big band jazz, I felt the same way.

EXPERIENCING BIG BAND JAZZ is a brand-new and admirable book by a composer, arranger, historian, archivist of all kinds of American music, vernacular and formally composed.  I’ve never met Jeff, but I have had several years to admire his expertise: I’ve read his postings to an online jazz research group with pleasure.  Sultanof isn’t interested in self-absorbed preening or  proving ideological points for ideology’s sake; he’s interested in tangible evidence and following its implications.  And when he doesn’t know, he says so, which is honest and rare.  This diligence and rigor is at the heart of the book.

Incidentally, a low bow to whomever conceived the cover — a loose Ellington assemblage that, unlike the expected choice, fellows in dinner jackets or tuxedos behind floor music stands, did not say NOSTALGIA and thus distance prospective readers.  And the old-timers in the imagined bookstore (people of my ilk and generation) warm to pictures of Ray Nance, Sonny Greer, Rex Stewart.

Now, if this book had been proposed in the Sixties, no publisher would have taken it — no reflection on the author — because big band jazz was a charmingly ubiquitous part of everyone’s culture and needed little explication.  Fifty years ago, I could see in person Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Herman, Calloway, Barnet, James, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Benny Carter’s Swing Masters, Hampton, Jacquet, Rich, Nat Pierce-Frank Capp, Lombardo, Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Dorsey and Miller ghost bands, and three dozen others.  Every television  variety program had a big band, from Doc Severinsen to Mort Lindsey to Ray Bloch and Sammy Spear.  A Sinatra or Peggy Lee concert . . . you’re beginning to sense the connection.  FM radio played modern big bands; college radio stations allowed scholars who were and are friends to have “Swing Years” programs.

Parallel to this late flowering in music, there were books on the phenomenon.  Affectionate dictionaries of big bands by Albert McCarthy and George Simon, “Remember When” volumes of nostalgic reminiscences by listeners and musicians alike, with the subtext “This is the music that helped your parents and grandparents get born, and wasn’t it wonderful?”and analytical books by Chilton, Walter C. Allen, Schuller, and others.

Perhaps we didn’t need Sultanof’s book then.  We surely do now.

If you don’t believe me, ask anyone under forty who Glenn Miller was, or Bennie Moten.  I have a sour fantasy of standing on a street in Manhattan with a sign saying, “WHO WAS BENNIE MOTEN?  ANSWER CORRECTLY AND WIN A PRIZE.”  How many people would look up from their iPhones?  (Incidentally, HBO turned down my pilot for an alternate-universe series where Berigan and Blanton live on.)  Go to a Jazz Studies program and ask the students sitting in plastic chairs whether they prefer the Henderson band pre-Louis, post-Louis, or in Chicago 1936?  Or “Name me three big-band drummers who aren’t Buddy Rich.  Three alto saxophonists playing before Charlie Parker.”

In the void that exists when a large piece of communal culture has been made disposable, Sultanof is not only a historian but a rescuer.  And he doesn’t gush but this is not a dry academic book: his writing is not only clear and factual but quietly affectionate.  Somehow knowing that he probably did not lose his virginity to the strains of IN THE MOOD makes his work even more meaningful.

EXPERIENCING BIG BAND JAZZ is presented for an audience that is unaware of the traditions, and that is in the main correct, because so few know when the four-person rhythm section became three; why the big band jazz scene changed in the Forties, and so on.  But it’s not a book in primer type, and it’s not sentimental: we don’t learn about Louis and his trout sandwich, or the deaths of David Goodman, Sonny Berman, or Dave Tough.  There are no maps of famous ballrooms and dance halls, no stories of Buddy Rich ranting, no stories of life on the band bus.  Sultanof’s focus is plainly on the music.  And he’s done a heroic job of making a huge musical landscape visible.

But the book is so plain-looking (I don’t mean the nice cover) that it might take readers time to stop underestimating it.

Here’s a very brief overview.  The center of the book — more than a hundred and fifty pages — is a chronological survey of selected recordings from MEMPHIS BLUES (1919, Handy) to THE PRESIDENTIAL SUITE: EIGHT VARIATIONS ON FREEDOM (2014, Ted Nash). Each entry offers a cogent thumbnail sketch of the bandleader / orchestra / performance — with some quirky facts inserted, like crushed red pepper.  And there is no hidden ideological leaning: the US gets the main portion, but the Europeans come in nicely; 4/4 is the meter of choice but not always.

Here’s a sample of names from the middle of the book (pages 61-72) — admittedly, my turf: Glenn Miller – Bill Finegan; Jay McShann – Charlie Parker; Harlan Leonard – Tadd Dameron; Cab Calloway – Dizzy Gillespie; Benny Carter; Miller – Eddie Durham – “Chummy” MacGregor; Artie Shaw – Sam Donahue; Charlie Barnet – Billy Moore; Billy Eckstine – Budd Johnson; Stan Kenton – Buddy Baker.  Those who know will recognize that not only is Sultanof speaking of the leader, the composer, the soloists, but also the arranger . . . and a particular version’s connections (echoes and liftings as well) to other recordings and performances.  Devotees might say, “Why did he pick that version, that song?  Why do the Canapes have only two performances?” but that’s what connoisseurs do, muttering in the background.

Back to the experience of reading this section.  First, one is not compelled to follow in chronological order.  I would hope that even a novice would know a few names and start with the recognized heroes.

With a pleasing awareness of the century we live in, Sultanof has picked performances currently available on YouTube — rather than saying “Decca 374,” which for all but a handful, is inaccessible and thus frustrating data.  I can’t overemphasize the sly brilliance of this scheme.  First, no young student has to buy one of those things the old folks dote on, compact discs.  (He’s promised to update links as they become defunct on YouTube.)  It is possible to imagine a whole group of reader-listeners accessing this book on their phones — one of the few instances I would be happy to see someone with earbuds, rocking and smiling.

Also, I am sure he understands the wandering ways of YouTube and its endless supply of rabbit-holes. Remember the last time you went on YouTube to find some artist or performance and found the right-hand column of thumbnails beckoning?  Looking for one particular Charlie Parker performance?  Pack a lunch, because you’ll find it hard to get away in ten or even ninety minutes.  The cry, “Honey, I’ll do that thing you wanted me to do right after I watch just one more thing!” is so common, not limited to big band jazz-obsessions.

He’s also created a Facebook group for the book, where he promises to “supply additional tracks to supplement the book, answer questions, and promote discussion about the materials covered. There is a teacher guide for the book as well, and support information for interested parties who would use the book as a text for a class.”  That is using current media with great intelligence.

On a personal note: I come from a different century, which doesn’t upset me, because there were many more opportunities for friendly community than most have now.  When I was in my late teens, I had a small circle of friends who loved the same music, and we would go to each other’s houses (sometimes the visit would turn into dinner cooked by the friend’s mother) and listen closely to the newest or oldest record that was giving intense pleasure, commenting chorally and individually to what we heard.  “Can you play that again?  Listen to what Page does in that phrase.  Listen to how Ben charges in on his solo.  Listen to what Hackett does at the end of the chorus,” and so on.  We were already worshipers, and we helped each other know and notice more.

Having Sultanoff’s concise, friendly summaries is like going through the potentially cold museum of only-slightly-understood art with a very wise but never obtrusive guide at your arm, murmuring about what one might see if one looked closely.  The listening experience is instantly made richer.

It’s a valuable book for many different audiences; it’s very well done, and it fills a void that many may not have recognized existed.  Thank you, Jeff Sultanof!

Here is the publisher’s official link to purchase the book (hardcover or e-book) but please note the sale / discount prices above.  I don’t know when this offer expires, so get to it in a nice swinging 4 /4.

I want to hear Jazz Studies students humming Benny Carter reed-section variations or becoming Don Redman’s trombone section on the street as soon as the book is bought and adopted widely . . . and the weather improves.

May your happiness increase!

FOR NANCY HARROW, THE SONGS ARE ALL

Looking back on my 2017, one of the memorable pleasures is the privilege of meeting and hearing Nancy Harrow (in the company of fellow-singers Daryl Sherman and Hilary Gardner, too).  You could call Nancy “a singer,” and then add “composer,” but she is more, an inspiring artist of great scope.  I imagine her as someone who realized, early on, what her paths were, what her purposes might be, and set off to fulfill them — as she continues to do, with warmth, perception, humor, lightness, and strength.

I’ve written about Nancy here, but I couldn’t let this year conclude without shining a light on her latest work, her 2016 CD, THE SONG IS ALL.  It’s not just that she’s recorded infrequently in this century — her preceding CD, recorded with Don Friedman in Japan, was in 2009, and even Tom Lord hasn’t noted it.  But THE SONG IS ALL shows off Nancy in all her facets and reflections.

Nat Hentoff wrote this about Nancy’s 1981 sessions with John Lewis (THE JOHN LEWIS ALBUM FOR NANCY HARROW, Finesse Records): Nancy’s style is Nancy.  There are no masks, no trickery–of sound or personality.  What impressed Buck [Clayton] and a good many others . . . was the absence of artificiality, the directness of her sound and emotion.  The presence, in sum, of someone real. . . . Nancy moves inside the lyrics, and as she tells each story there is that touch of autobiography that all lasting singers suggest.  Again, it’s real.  And that, I think, is why people who have heard her keep on wanting more.  Hearing that kind of probing of memory and imagination is infectious.  You start probing your own.

In the opening track of  THE SONG IS ALL, Nancy sings the lines, “When I was small, no friend called, I played all the parts by myself,” which beautifully characterizes what she’s been doing for years — creating literary / musical imaginings based on Willa Cather, Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and several “children’s books” with deep meanings for adults as well.  Nancy has written music and lyrics — songs that stand on their own as well as interludes in the plot — then performed them, an actress without artifice.  THE SONG IS ALL is thus the multi-colored, emotionally intense Nancy Harrow Repertory Company.

Here is IF I WANT TO, drawing on Nancy’s improvisations on Cather’s A LOST LADY, combining pride, tenderness, vulnerability, and self-knowledge:

Ordinarily, if you offered me a CD solely of one artist’s originals, I might look at it with skepticism, for not every musician is a successful composer, but I embrace THE SONG IS ALL because of its depth and variety of feeling — the toughtness of SELF-ESTEEM, the wry wit of PUTTING ON AIRS, the mournful recollections of MY LOST CITY, the quiet intensity of I AM TOO SHY, and more.  Many CDs pall after a half hour because of sameness, but this one moves from scene to scene with grace and power.

Although I take great pleasure in hearing Nancy with spare accompaniment, here she has assembled a thoroughly entrancing stock company of (mostly young) musicians: Chris Ziemba, George Delancey, Robert Edwards, Owen Broder, Alphonso Horne, Carrie Dowell, Monica Davis, Sarah Whitney, Eleanor Norton, Alex Claffy, Britton Smith, Carl Clemons Hopkins, David Linard, Nathan Bell, and veterans Dennis Mackrel and Rufus Reid.  (If I’ve made anyone improperly “young” out of my ignorance, I trust I can be forgiven.)

Another piece of music that has become part of my daily pleasure — I cannot share it with you here (it never became a CD in this country)– is Nancy’s 1981 performance of MY SHIP and her version of AS LONG AS IT’S ABOUT LOVE from the record with John Lewis, and I have had the strongest urge to get out of my chair and put my ear close to the speaker, to best hear her songful message.  I think of Whitman, “This hour I tell things in confidence, I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.”

Her voice, so endearingly personal — vibrato-ed or vibrato-less, tender or fierce — conveys emotions and ideas that it seems only she can convey, even if the song is familiar, with many singers trying to make it their own.  And when she sings her own words and melodies, she quietly fills the room.

Here is an extraordinarily deep article on Nancy (with many of her own words and insights) by Wayne Zade, and here is Nancy’s website, a good place to read, listen, dream, and purchase CDs.

I close with the words by Chekhov — chosen by Nancy to be what someone sees having opened the cardboard sleeve of THE SONG IS ALL:

“Why are your songs so short?  Is it because you are short of breath?” the songbird was asked.  The bird replied: “I have a great many songs and I should like to sing them all.”

“When it’s true, I can move you,” Nancy sings, and she does:

Nancy Harrow and her songs are rare blessings.

May your happiness increase!

“THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL”: THE HOLLAND-COOTS JAZZ QUINTET HONORS FATS WALLER

In July, I spent five splendid days in Nashville as a delighted observer to a recording session that produced this rewarding tribute to Fats Waller, with Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet / vocal; Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone / vocal; Steve Pikal, string bass.

and the CD cover itself.  Don’t let the slogan frighten you: for the moment at least, joy is still legal and unregulated.  Should you want a copy immediately, without reading another word, visit here and the door to gladness will swing open easily.

This isn’t a formulaic tribute, with players imitating the Victor sessions and tossing off already-venerable Fats-wisecracks.  No, something much better.  It’s music.  Click here and you can hear a sample track — the Quintet’s version of Fats’ 1943 composition, MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’.

I had the privilege of writing the liner notes (I may have insisted on doing so: my memory betrays me here):

Fats Waller’s substantial physical envelope left the scene for another gig seventy-five years ago, but his joyous soul is still with us. This CD doesn’t attempt to replicate the former, but celebrates the latter in all its radiances.

Musicians have attempted to capture the totality of this great man. The road most often taken is presenting a lurid outsized caricature to fool us into thinking we have his essence in our possession. Imagine Fats as a parade float three stories high, grotesque head, tilted derby, restless eyebrows, a cavernous mouth full of vaudeville asides we expect to hear. While the head waggles in the breeze, a loop of his greatest eight-bar piano modules plays endlessly through massive speakers.

With the best intentions in the world (and sometimes with the best musicians in invisible shackles) many tributes go this way. One hears a band, its members pretending to be Herman, Gene, and Al, energetically playing the best-known Waller compositions or songs he’s identified with, copying as closely as possible his 1934-43 Victor records. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so severe, because Fats was such a powerfully appealing personality whose records sold so well that such “tributes” were happening while he was around to hear them. Records by Pat Flowers, Johnny Guarnieri, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, and others might at first make listeners think they have wandered into Plato’s cave of small-band jive. But the real Fats leans outside, smoking, untouched by such parasitic adulation. (Incidentally, my censure is not limited to Fats-by-the-yard productions, for many people who tell you how they revere the innovators have misread them similarly, reducing Louis to a sweaty handkerchief, Billie to a discontented meow.)

This disc is different. Ignore the familiar picture of Fats on the cover, ready to deliver a wisecrack he’d delivered too many times already, the Groucho Marx of jazz. Think, instead, of the Thomas Waller who swung without letup, created beautiful melodies, and sang with affectionate sincerity. (If you don’t think of him as a tender singer of ballads, search out his Bluebird recording of I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN.) With that in mind, I urge you to begin your listening with one of the least-known songs on this disc, LET’S PRETEND THAT THERE’S A MOON. At an easy fox-trot tempo, it begins with Brian’s solo chorus, clearly stating the melody while luxuriating in its possibilities, a ninety-second statement that would have been taken up the first half of a 10” 78 rpm disc. Then “here comes the band!” as Willie “the Lion” Smith would say, Marc Caparone quietly suggesting that the blues are at the heart of everything or at least the first sixteen bars, before Evan plays the bridge in the best limpid way, before the band returns. Evan then comes in to sing – and what a singer he is! – with Brian gently creating some Nashville ripples, behind him, Marc, Steve, and Danny gently rocking the imaginary canoe before Evan and Brian, true romantics, remind us all what the song is about: hopeful love, love that climbs to an exultant sweet high note. I was in the studio for this performance and there was a hush when it ended. I take notes at a session, and mine read: “Brian solo / ens / voc EA . . . . . perfect.”

Fats’ music transcends romance, however, to celebrate the pure joy of life. His compositions on this disc focus on the rewards of fidelity and good behavior, as well as creating a Frolic that might be either a Drag of a Fuss. Courtesy of Alex Hill and Claude Hopkins, pianist-composers who breathed the same uptown air, we praise BABY BROWN and a statement of complete devotion, by which I mean this band leaves the “MOST” out of I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU. James P. Johnson, Fats’ teacher and our hero, says that sixty minutes is enough room to create happiness; we believe in miracles but, just the same, have our fingers crossed, celebrate a love that is so pleasing we expect the authorities any minute; we ask the musical question “Whose tea do you sweeten?” Of course, our romantic Zeppelins sometimes crash and burn, so there’s LONESOME ME, one of Fats’ sweet sorrowful triumphs. And splendid oddities – MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’, which comes from Fats’ star turns in the film STORMY WEATHER; LIVER LIP JONES, a close cousin of the characters we know from Ellington’s A SLIP OF THE LIP and Morton’s BIG LIP BLUES. Who knew that loquaciousness was such a problem uptown?

Intentionally, I haven’t said anything about the band except by implication. Very little needs saying except that they work together as brothers – each a wonderful soloist and an absolute marvel as a team player, ready to be lyrical or hot, bluesy, rampaging, or sentimental. At close range, and this counts a great deal for me, not one of them is a blabbermouth rascal.

This CD, so beautifully recorded and wisely programmed, is the debut on disc of the Holland-Coots Quintet. I hope for dozens more discs and lots of gigs in my lifetime and yours. Their expression of musical creativity, lyrical, warm, sometimes hilarious (I play and replay the introduction to WHOSE HONEY ARE YOU), celebrates the joyous merrymaker, but it is more an outpouring of devotion for Fats and what he did so open-heartedly.

Our universe often feels dark these days. The light he shines so brightly is always welcome. The time and place are opportune.

Again, you can proceed bravely into commerce and purchase copies here.

May your happiness increase!

TEDDY TAKES TO THE COUNTRY, 1939

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

For a quarter of a century, perhaps more, Teddy Wilson was unmatched as solo pianist, accompanist, and ensemble inspiration.  Consistently inventive, reliable without being stale, he seems now both traditional and forward-looking, swinging and harmonically inventive, his melodic lines clear and memorable.  And it is our good fortune that he worked and recorded with three of the great star-legends of the period, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey, in addition to recordings under his own name.  To me, his great period begins with his 1933 work with Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter and gradually tapers off by the end of the Verve recordings — although he could still play magnificently.

He had many opportunities to record, not simply because of his splendid improvisations. Because Wilson was personally responsible — a quiet, businesslike man — you could count on him showing up on time, being prepared, being sober — no small collection of virtues.  And he had a champion in John Hammond, who perhaps recognized not only the astonishing musician but a fellow patrician, a courtly intellectual.  Thus, between 1935 and 1942, Hammond helped to get Wilson recorded often as soloist and leader for the ARC labels (Columbia, Vocalion, Okeh, Brunswick) and he was of course recording with Goodman for Victor and on Decca with Putney Dandridge and Bob Howard.

Wilson’s most famous sides are frequently reissued — think of MISS BROWN TO YOU and BODY AND SOUL with Billie and Benny, respectively, but many glorious ones are overlooked.  Mosaic Records, the jazz benefactor, will be issuing a seven-CD set of Wilson’s recordings — leaving aside the ones made with Holiday — under his own name for the ARC family of labels between 1934 and 1942: details below.  “Under his own name” is important here, because a few sideman sessions had to be omitted, some because they appeared on other Mosaic sets (Mildred Bailey, Chu Berry) and others because they don’t fit the premise of the set.

Two are glorious and worth searching out: I know Chick Bullock is scorned by some, but his sessions with Wilson’s band backing him are priceless, as are the sides made with Eddy Howard as the star (consider this personnel: Wilson, Bill Coleman, Bud Freeman, Benny Morton, Ed Hall, Charlie Christian . . . . ).  The Bullock sides are on a Retrieval CD; the Howard ones on Neatwork or Classics.  I’ve also heard the “safety” disc from the Howard session, which has the singer having trouble with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS.  It may have emerged on the Sony Charlie Christian box set.

But two sessions led by the elusive Redd Evans “and his Billy Boys” have never been reissued.  JAZZ LIVES to the rescue! — although the sonic quality is flawed.  (The Customer Service Department is out back; form a single line.)

Redd Evans (1912-72) was most famous as a lyricist, whose hits included “Rosie the Riveter,” “There! I’ve Said It Again.” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “No Moon at All,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “American Beauty Rose,” “The Frim Fram Sauce,” and “If Love Is Good to Me.”  He was also a singer and he may have been a better-than-competent ocarina player, possibly at one time a member of the Horace Heidt dance orchestra.  But for me, Evans is fascinating because of the rare 1939 recordings with Wilson, and, in one instance, Buster Bailey.

I know that Evans was born in Mississippi, but how deep his “hillbilly” roots went is hard to discern.  On IN THE BAGGAGE COACH AHEAD, where Mother’s coffin is part of the lyric, he sounds seriously influenced by Jerry Colonna. THEY CUT DOWN THE OLD PINE TREE is yet another example of morbidity in swing, a “country” song written by people whose idea of “the country” might well have been a day trip to Long Island, Edward Eliscu and either David or Milt Raskin.  “Brown” could have been a dozen people, so I leave that to you.

I am certain that John Hammond was involved in these recordings, and although their initial affect may seem strange, they are another reason to be grateful to Hammond for his limitless ambitions.  For one thing, even though Wilson’s name is not on the label, Evans calls out to him on one side, and he is unmistakable.  The sessions, also, were made when Wilson had left Goodman to lead his own band, which was an aesthetic success but not a financial one, so they may have been Hammond’s way of helping Wilson make money and re-establish an identity that had been subsumed with Goodman.

Too, Hammond was always looking for ways to merge his jazz stars with more popular artists — perhaps hoping for what we would now call a “crossover” hit that would give him even more freedom to record his improvisers.  Think of the Glenn Hardman date with Lester Young, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones — perhaps a sideways glance at the sides Milt Herth was making for Decca with Willie “the Lion” Smith, Teddy Bunn, and O’Neil Spencer.  Had Hammond known of the 1938 Pinky Tomlin Decca sides, which pair a “countrified” singer with a hot band — one of the issued sides being RED WING?  Pairing Wilson — and other African-American musicians — with Evans would not only be crossing genres but also gently eroding race barriers.  Perhaps the people who enjoyed Western Swing would find this side appealing, as well.

Evans made a few vocal sides with Charlie Barnet in 1945, but his 1939 sides are of most interest here, documented by Tom Lord:

Redd Evans (vcl) acc by tp, ts, g, Buster Bailey (cl) Teddy Wilson (p) unknown (b) J.C. Heard (d).  New York, April 17, 1939.
W24381 They cut down the old pine tree Voc 4836
W24382 Red wing –
W24383-B Carry me back to the lone prairie 4920
W24384-A Red River Valley –

Redd Evans And His Billy Boys : Willis Kelly (tp) Floyd Brady (tb) Reggie Merrill (as) Clark Galehouse (ts) Teddy Wilson (p) Al Casey (g) Al Hall (b) Cozy Cole (d) Redd Evans, “Hot Sweet Potato” (vcl).  New York, August 11, 1939.
25189-1 Milenberg joys (re vcl) Voc 5173
25190-1 In the baggage coach ahead (re vcl) –
25191-1,2 Am I blue ? (re,hsp vcl) (unissued)
25192-1,2 When it’s springtime in the Rockies (hsp vcl) –

I find the personnel above intriguing, because it mixes players from Wilson’s band — the rhythm section and Floyd Brady — with “studio” players: Galehouse shows up on a Quintones session, Merrill on an Alec Wilder date.  Willis Kelly, anyone?

I’ve never seen a copy of MILENBERG / BAGGAGE, but I was delighted to find a worn copy of RED WING / OLD PINE TREE on eBay.  Again, I advise that my method of getting the sounds to you is at best odd, but it will have to do until the Real Thing Comes Along.

Wilson is immediately recognizable — admire his neat modulations out and in to Evans’ vocal key, the way he shines through the ensemble also.  Whoever the ocarina player is, I like his work immensely, and the unidentified trumpeter has certainly listened to Roy Eldridge.  The tune — with its memorably odd lyrics — bears some small melodic resemblance to WHEN YOU AND I WERE  YOUNG, MAGGIE.  Was it written tongue-in-cheek (rather like the story told about SONNY BOY) as a collection of down-home cliches?

RED WING is more familiar — an ancient campfire favorite, with connections to Robert Schumann and Kerry Mills, eventually to Woody Guthrie — and this recording is thirty seconds shorter, but it has the pleasure of a chorus split between Wilson and Buster Bailey, which is no small gift.  I’ll take it on faith that the drummer is J.C. Heard, who was part of Wilson’s orchestra, and the record pleases me, even though the subject is sad indeed, the Native American maiden weeping over her dead lover night after night:

And here are the two other sides from April 1939, in a format that may or may not work for you (if it doesn’t, I invite you to Google “Redd Evans and his Billy Boys” and find them on your own).

https://archive.org/details/78_red-river-valley_redd-evans-and-his-billy-boys-redd-evans_gbia0003699a

https://archive.org/details/78_carry-me-back-to-the-lone-prairie_redd-evans-and-his-billy-boys-redd-evans-robison_gbia0003699b

A few words about the Mosaic set — seven discs, expected at the end of this year.  As always, the Mosaic boxes are often highlighted for the previously unknown and unheard music they contain, which leads some value-minded collectors to sniff, “Only seven unissued sides?  Why, that costs $ – – – a side!”  I can’t tell anyone how to apportion their money, but Mosaic issues, to me, always expose the larger picture: hearing familiar sides in a context not available previously; hearing the chronological development of an artist’s work, as far as it can be documented in visits to the recording studio.  I will say that the set begins with the May 22, 1934 piano solo SOMEBODY LOVES ME and ends with the July 31, 1942 B FLAT SWING, both in two takes.  In between, there are previously unheard band sides, and a 1942 trio date with Al Hall and J.C. Heard that was issued in part — but now we have the whole thing, more than two dozen performances, because Bill Savory was the recording engineer for Columbia.

I have been fascinated by Wilson since the late Sixties, and one of the thrills of my college-student life was getting his autograph at a suburban shopping center concert.  Of course I sought out the Billie and Mildred sets on Columbia, and then graduated into the deep territory that only Collectors know.  But I do not have all of the issued sides on this Mosaic set, and I have (or had) the Meritt Record Society lps, the three-disc French Columbia Wilson box set, the Masters of Jazz CDs . . . and so on.  So this will be a set to treasure.

And this is true: in today’s mail, I received a traffic ticket from a red-light camera (the county I live in loves such things) that will cost me more than the Wilson set.  And paying that fine will give much less pleasure than listening to Teddy in his prime.

Come to a full stop.  But not for Mosaic Records.

May your happiness increase!

“A SWELL GUY / NO JIVE.”

My business card has a photograph of Sidney Catlett on it, and when people stop mis-identifying him (no, that’s not Nat King Cole or Morgan Freeman) some ask me why he’s there.  I answer, “He made everyone sound better; he died after telling a good joke in the intermission of a concert, and people still miss him.”  And depending on my listeners, I might repeat what Billie Holiday said of him.

After Louis, he remains my pole star.  So I was astonished and delighted to see this photograph, which was new to me, on sale at eBay.  Torn right corner and all.  I know Sid’s handwriting, so the capital B S and C make me know the signature is genuine, and his fountain pen was working: obviously Marvin was someone special, because the inscription is carefully done, probably on a table or other flat surface.

and a closeup:

Through eBay serendipity, I found out that “Marvin” was Marvin Kohn, who had been the New York State Athletic Commissioner — and a jazz fan.  (He also had an autographed photograph of Will Bradley.)  Here’s a sketch of Marvin by Leroy Neiman:

I had invented a scenario where Sid and Marvin met at a boxing match, where Marvin offered Sid a ticket to some sporting event and then asked (as one might) for an autographed glossy in return, but I believe what might have happened would be different.  Here is Marvin’s obituary in the New York Times:

Marvin Kohn; Boxing Publicist, 70
Published: February 8, 1994

Marvin Kohn, a longtime figure in New York boxing, died Sunday at New York Hospital. He was 70.  He died three days after suffering a stroke.  Mr. Kohn was appointed a publicist for the New York State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing, in 1951, and he later served as a deputy commissioner of the agency before retiring in 1989.  He also was a press agent for many actors and had served as publicity director for the old Hotel Astor.  He is survived by his widow, Mildred.

And a memory of Marvin from Mervyn Gee, whose blog on boxing is called SLIP & COUNTER:

Back in 1987, more than 25 years after moving to London, I was security manger at The Cumberland Hotel, a 1,000 bedroom hotel situated in the Marble Arch area. The reason I mention this is that the World Boxing Council (WBC) held their annual convention there that year and a glittering array of their champions and their entourages were at the hotel. . . . Caroline Fransen was our liason officer  . . . . [she] introduced me to Marvin Kohn, who at the time was secretary to the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) based in New York. Kohn was also deputy commissioner at the New York Athletic Commission for over 30 years and over the next decade I visited the Big Apple a number of times and Marvin introduced me to so many fascinating and influential people in the boxing scene.

Long before there were public tours of Madison Square Garden, I was privileged to be a frequent visitor and Marvin was even the only non-actor to have his caricature on the wall at Sardi’s famous restaurant. To this day, the BWAA present a “Good Guy” prize each year named after my late friend as the ‘Marvin Kohn award’. As a result of my friendship with Marvin I was even invited to the VIP lounge and restaurant at the United Nations buildings. Not bad for a little boyo from the valleys!

And from Mervyn’s site, a lovely photograph of Marvin at his desk:

But back to Sidney Catlett.  January 1944, the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, with Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, for ROSE ROOM:

and one hero speaking of another:

Now I just have to figure out where to hang the picture — because I won it.

P.S.  This post is in honor of master jazz-sleuth David Fletcher.

May your happiness increase!