Category Archives: Jazz Worth Reading

HALF A LOAF IS STILL DELICIOUS: NOTES FROM JEFF AND JOEL’S HOUSE PARTY (October 13-15, 2017)

One of the lines attributed to Mae West is “Too much of a good thing . . . can be wonderful.”  I agree with this, but I wonder what Miss West would say about the following report I am turning in, incomplete but enthusiastic, from “Jeff and Joel’s House Party,” with Jeff being pianist / singer / raconteur Barnhart and Joel being banjoist / singer / master of ceremonies Schiavone.  The party took place this preceding weekend at the Elks in Branford, Connecticut.  (I can check my GPS for the exact address on South Montowese Street if you need to know.)

Aside from Jeff and Joel, the participants were Banu Gibson, vocal and stories; Vince Giordano, tuba, bass sax, string bass, vocal; Dan Levinson, clarinet and tenor; Noel Kaletsky, clarinet and soprano; Kevin Dorn, drums; Frank Tate, string bass; Fred Vigorito, trumpet; Mike Davis, cornet and vocal; Jim Fryer, trombone, vocal, and trumpet; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Tom Boates, trombone and vocal; Tom Palinko, drums.  (There were also many lovely people who didn’t sing or play instruments who made the Party even better than simply having musicians perform in a room.)

If you missed this one, the next JJHP is October 12-14, 2018.  Mark it down.

Some details about the Party, for those unfamiliar.  This one was the eighth, spread over seven years.  (It was the third I’ve attended.)  And there are four sessions: Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening, and Sunday afternoon. Food and drink are also available — ample varied food and a well-stocked bar, included.  (I thought it a lovely sign on Saturday afternoon that the bartender had nothing to do: people were preferring to listen rather than drink.)

Incidentally, if you are wondering, “Was any of this recorded?” the answer is YES — by my very amiable and technologically-wise friend Eric Devine (getting moral support from the splendid hiker Sherral Devine) — so that there will be some videos of performances the musicians approve.  This, of course, left me free to roam around, purple notebook in hand, like a free person, so I enjoyed the out-of-doors now and again and for once was not in a monogamous relationship with my tripod.

Traditionally, Friday night at the Party has been a concert of sorts — two sets by one band or group.   Last year it was Paris Washboard, and I hear they will be back in 2018.  At this Party, Friday night was given over to Banu Gibson, the one, the only, and a nice small band of Jeff on piano, Vince on everything he’d brought plus vocals, Dan Levinson on reeds, and Tom Palinko on drums.

Banu is not only a wonderful singer and story-teller (more about that later) but an engaging informal scholar, whose introductions are conversational but always erudite.  She’s done her homework and more, and whatever she says comes out of her deep love of the songs, their creators, and their singers.

She’s also devilishly quick-witted, so that even if her ad-libs are familiar bits of material, they never seem defrosted and microwaved.  I arrived on Friday in the middle of a brisk run-through, and in between songs Banu turned to us, half-affectionate, half-naughty schoolmarm, to say, “Now don’t you make any mistakes, you folks who are here early.”  In her third tune, DOIN’ THE UPTOWN LOWDOWN, after Jeff Barnhart had rippled through something delightful, she turned to him and said fervently, “God! How I’ve missed you!”

But her program was far more than comedy.  She gave us dear vibrant performances of songs with verses: Berlin’s PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ, Fats’ I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY, Hoagy’s MOON COUNTRY and a quicker-than-plausible THE MONKEY SONG, AIN’T GOT A DIME TO MY NAME from one of the Road pictures, the melancholy YOU LET ME DOWN from her most recent CD (which is a wonder), and a rollicking JUST IN TIME.  For variety’s sake, Vince sang and played IDA and IF I HAD YOU — reminding us of his many talents.  Dan summoned up middle-period BG on clarinet and perhaps Eddie Miller on tenor; Tom Palinko kept to brushes and swung quietly.  In the second set, Banu showed off even more of her versatility, moving easily from LULU’S BACK IN TOWN to the Gershwins’ I WAS DOING ALL RIGHT to the ancient WHERE DID ROBINSON CRUSOE GO (WITH FRIDAY ON SATURDAY NIGHT) which had several choruses of vaudeville joy.  For DO SOMETHING, Banu became Helen Kane, for SHINE ON, HARVEST MOON, she led quite a successful sing-along.  Vince charmed us again with I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU and DINAH — so nice to see him in this setting — and then Banu told at length the sad story of Johnny Mercer, Judy Garland, and Ginger Mercer, leading into a touching rendition of I REMEMBER YOU.  She ended her concert with three more tart offerings: the revenge ballad I WANNA BE AROUND, Porter’s MAKE IT ANOTHER OLD-FASHIONED, PLEASE, and THIS CAN’T BE LOVE.  Everyone looked elated and fulfilled, and we promised to regroup Saturday morning.

Saturday began with what Jeff called THE NEW YORK INVASION — a band made up of musicians based in Manhattan, approximately — Mike Davis, Jim Fryer, Dan Levinson, Dalton Ridenhour, Vince Giordano, and Kevin Dorn — who summoned up Condon’s 1956 with THAT’S A PLENTY and a Teagardenish A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY with a sweet Fryer vocal.

Because the Party is not run on “jazz party” principles — no forty-minute showcases for one group at a time — the next group, dubbed THE SUBURBAN RESPONSE by Jeff, was completely different: Fred Vigorito, Noel Kaletsky, Tom Boates, Jeff himself, Frank Tate, Tom Palinko, Joel Schiavone — and it had a distinctly “New Orleans” cast with a very fast BOGALUSA STRUT and the nice homage to Bix in I’LL BE A FRIEND WITH PLEASURE (although it was more “Condon” out of BIXIELAND than the 1930 Victor notion).

Banu returned with Mike, Dan, Kevin, Vince, and Jeff for her ebullient I’VE GOT A HEART FULL OF RHYTHM (which should be her official theme song), YOUR MOTHER’S SON-IN-LAW with the rarely-heard verse, and FEELIN’ HIGH AND HAPPY.  In the interests of full disclosure, she told us that it was too early to make jokes about that title.

My notes are slightly congested from this point, since I began to actually have conversations with people while standing outside and hearing the music.  I recall Dalton’s beautiful solo verse to I’VE GOT A FEELIN’ I’M FALLING, and later Saturday he performed a gorgeous LOVE WILL FIND A WAY — with Jeff watching him intently — and a shake-the-building reading of James P.’s JINGLES.

Dan Levinson assembled his Original Dixieland Jazz Band centennial edition, Mike, Jim, Kevin, Jeff, and himself, and they made the Victors come alive — LIVERY STABLE BLUES and PALESTEENA.

Joel had a feature on a slow-drag LAST NIGHT ON THE BACK PORCH, which moved some of the audience to get misty over shared Your Father’s Mustache experiences.

Banu and Dalton did some touching duets, but their sweet quality is mostly obliterated in my recollection by Banu’s story of being a young performer working with a Your Father’s Mustache bill — and on that bill was a man whose act was called HAM AND EGGS because it featured a piglet and a chicken.  The piece de resistance, Banu told us, was his feature on TIGER RAG, where he made the piglet squeal in place of the tiger roaring.  If you need more details, you should ask Banu herself: her version was politely graphic, but I wasn’t the only man wincing.

A band devoted to “West Coast style,” which means to this crowd Lu Watters rather than Gerry Mulligan, assembled: Fred, Jeff, Jim Fryer on second trumpet, superbly, Vince, Noel, Tom Boates, Kevin, Joel, for Maceo Pinkard’s STORYVILLE BLUES and a lengthy romp on CANAL STREET BLUES, featuring two-trumpet fisticuffs, as requested by Jeff.  Later, a two-trombone conversation on ROSETTA, Noel and Dan on I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY, and a very sweet I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE for two trumpets, with young Mike getting in some lyrical Butterfieldiana.

Banu offered both story and song of BLUE SKIES, Hoagy’s MEMPHIS IN JUNE, and the Gershwins’ NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT; Joel followed with an extended BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME.

Levinson’s ODJB reassembled for Berlin’s I LOST MY HEART IN DIXIELAND and a truly splendid ALICE BLUE GOWN that began as a sedate 3/4 and ended up with a Chicagoan fervor that reminded me so much of the jam sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the Thirties.  In between, something even more wonderful.  Dan told the audience about “rag-a-jazz,” and then said that this group was so well versed in the style that he sometimes asked for requests from the audience for jazz material out and away from that era.  Someone called out LIMEHOUSE BLUES, and Dan vetoed that as too familiar, since it was written in 1922, but a more daring listener suggested TAKE THE “A” TRAIN, and they played it splendidly: one could hear its lines and contours powerfully, but its heart was in 1920.  It was a remarkable performance, and in its way, it captured the flexible, imaginative heart of this party.  A few other songs followed, but I was still hearing that TRAIN in my mind.

Various circumstances, all unexpected, made me miss the second half of the Party, which I regret.  But if this doesn’t seem like hugely pleasing musical plenitude, I don’t know what more I can say.  I will share videos when Eric creates and shares them . . . . but they aren’t the real thing.

As I wrote above, the next JJHP is October 12-14, 2018.  Why miss out on the fun?

May your happiness increase!

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“SWINGIN’ FOR THE FENCES”: BRIAN HOLLAND AND DANNY COOTS (AND MORE)

Oh, no.  Another wonderful CD?  Will those musicians ever let us alone?  When the musicians are pianist Brian Holland and drummer Danny Coots, the answer is a joyous NO.

But first.  Let’s assume you’ve never heard Brian and Danny.  Nothing simpler than remedying this deficiency. From the 2017 Santa Cruz Ragtime Festival, here is their rendition of two Fats Waller compositions, JITTERBUG WALTZ and BACH UP TO ME:

and here are the two gentlemen, caught by a still camera:

Holland (left), Coots (right), for those who have never had the good fortune to see and hear them in person or in action or both.

Their new CD is a delightfully varied offering:

The songs:  Charleston Rag / Jimmy McHugh Medley (Spreadin’ Rhythm Around – I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed) / Memphis Blues / Doll Dance / Wolverine Blues / Black and Blue / Tico Tico – Besame Mucho / Root Beer Rag / Hymn to Freedom / Violet Wedding (A Song for Marcia) / Rubber Plant Rag / Ragtime Nightingale / Troublesome Ivories / Planxty.

Students of the music will notice some well-deserved homages to great composers and players: Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Nacio Herb Brown, Jimmy McHugh, Joseph Lamb, and a few slightly less expected sources: Oscar Peterson, Glenn Jenks, Billy Joel, and an original by Brian.  Ragtime, stride, novelty piano, deep blues, venerable pop tunes, and more.

The title of the CD — even for those who shy away from professional sports, like me — would explicitly suggest that virtuosic larger-than-life musical athleticism is in store.  And in a few instances that impression is correct.  Brian and Danny romp with great grace and power, and they can show off in the most impressive musical ways.  You won’t find players who are more deft at fast tempos than these two, and their quickest skirmishes still make great artistic sense: the listener never feels pummeled with notes.  They work together splendidly as a telepathic team, hearing each other’s impulses and subtexts as well.

But leave aside the gorgeous rapid beauties of the up-tempo performances –CHARLESTON RAG, DOLL DANCE, RUBBER PLANT RAG, TROUBLESOME IVORIES, to consider BLACK AND BLUE, which Brian says he began, musingly, in an effort to get into the mind of Thomas Waller — whose affecting song about racial prejudice this is. It is the most quiet and searching show-stopper I can imagine, beginning with pensive suspended chords, an improvisation that hints at Beiderbecke and Gershwin, before gaining emotional power as it climbs to a moving end.  I call it a show-stopper because once it had concluded, I was overpowered and needed to pause before moving on to the next track.

In an entirely different way, HYMN TO FREEDOM begins as a solo human being’s prayer — for what and to whom I leave to you — and ends up as a jubilant prayer meeting.  PLANXTY starts as a small utterance of grief and ends up a funeral procession, without its volume increasing that much.

But lamenting is not always what Danny and Brian have in mind.  Some of these duets are seriously cinematic: listening more than once to TICO-TICO / BESAME MUCHO, I found myself imagining the brightly colored musical film for which they had invented a provocative soundtrack.  I see elegant, formally dressed dancers all through RAGTIME NIGHTINGALE as well.  I have to say a word about TROUBLESOME IVORIES — perhaps too much autobiography — but had I the ability to dance, and a willing partner, I would not be typing these words now, being otherwise occupied.

The disc is beautifully recorded and, even better, splendidly sequenced, so one never has the sense of listening to ten or twelve minutes of the same thing. Piano and drums — no gimmicks, no novelty vocals or sound effects.  Just lovely music.

You can purchase the CD here.  Or you can find it on Facebook.

And . . . speaking of pleasures that won’t grow old quickly, the Holland-Coots Quintet has just released a new disc, a tribute to Fats Waller, THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL, with Marc Caparone, Evan Arntzen, Steve Pikal as the additional merry-makers.  I was at the sessions in Nashville in July 2017, and this band made thrilling music, which I wrote about here.  (Caution: HOT VIDEO ALERT.)

I will have more to say when the actual disc flutters into my mailbox.  And don’t let the title fool you: quantity purchases are not only legal, but medically-recommended.

May your happiness increase!

MONEY BLUES, or BEYOND “FEED THE KITTY”

Go to a jazz club, bar or restaurant that offers live music, and there is often a tip jar (tip vase, tip pumpkin, in the latest incarnation a tip brown paper bag).  Very few people bother to put anything in it, and those who do often think a lonely dollar is just recompense for the hour of music — created by human beings — that they’ve just heard.  I’ve been to nightspots where one of the musicians walked from patron to patron, asking for “tips for the band,” and some people look embarrassed, offer coins, or — in one case — hand the musician a five and ask for three back.  And when the patron is on his or her third drink, it seems offensive to say, “I am worthy of twenty-five dollars of alcohol but the musicians are furniture that makes sounds.  I don’t pay chairs when I sit on them.”

The professional who performs a valuable service (be she an ENT doctor or an estate lawyer helping you write a will) has studied for years to earn that credential, and must keep re-certifying to retain it.  I think such levels of skill deserve more pay than — let us say — folding jeans at the local chain clothing store, with all respect to the folders.  The musician you listen to has probably put in ten thousand hours of practice on her instrument, and keeps working.  That’s worth more than a dollar.

But there’s an intrinsic problem, as Blanche DuBois found out, in relying on the kindness of strangers.  Sometimes people are more strange than they are kind.

A musical interlude at an angle to this theme:

Eric Whittington, owner and spiritual Chief of Staff of Bird & Beckett — bookstore, cultural center, concert space — in San Francisco, has written cogently about this on his blog:

A healthy arts culture requires public subsidy. To us, it seems as simple as that.  

At Bird & Beckett, we generally ask you to put up $10 to $15 to $20 when you come to a show, and that goes a long way. And when you and your neighbors donate to our nonprofit, that supplements the money you put in at the shows and also underpins our overhead costs — so that we can stay in business as a venue and as a bookshop.

Is $10 or $20 a lot of money to hear talented performers play live music?

Not really. How much did you pay for your last burrito? How much did you tip the wait staff in that nice restaurant down the street for visiting your table several times in the course of serving you a meal that cost you $20 to $75? How much did you pay to see a movie over in West Portal? What price the popcorn?

30 people at the bookshop putting in $10 apiece comes to $300. For four musicians, that’s $75 apiece, with nothing to the venue. If there are only 12 people in the room, $15 apiece is only going to total $180 for that Saturday night quartet, though we pay out $400.

But your pockets on any given day are only so deep!
Again, a healthy arts culture requires public subsidy!

As an individual, you are personally making a substantial and crucial contribution when you seek out live music and put up your cash, whether by paying a cover charge, by throwing money in the donation buckets and tip jars, by spending lavishly on a performer’s merchandise and a venue’s food & drink. Still, it’s not really enough unless you’re able and willing to pay a $50 cover instead of $15. Subsidy is necessary. How do we get there? How do we distribute it?

Jazz in the Neighborhood – a wonderful organization that’s been sponsoring performances in non-traditional venues all over the Bay Area the past several years – has just launched a fund to supplement musicians’ pay. Their efforts can’t cover all the musicians in all the venues. Nonetheless, they’re raising the bar, raising consciousness and setting a standard. $150 per show per performer is the goal they’re establishing. You’ll be reading about their efforts in the media. They’re our allies, and champions of the City’s (the region’s) working jazz musicians. Google them now! Wrap your mind around their efforts.

The problem, simply stated is this: It’s unusual for musicians to get decent pay in this city when they play live music. Some get steady work, and sometimes that work is decently paid, but that’s rare and they almost always travel far and long for a 2-3 hour gig, lugging gear, setting up, breaking down and schlepping. Practicing incessantly, working side jobs. And most find gigs only occasionally — teaching or doing what they can to stay in music. For most, pay is paltry and, we believe, insultingly low. Often a just a tip jar to split, or a percentage of the door. Playing your heart out for $35 isn’t unheard of. Playing for less happens too.

How would that sit with you if you were in their shoes?

And here’s another development of the same generous idea, as explored by Burt Dragin in the East Bay Express, called “A New Model for Paying Musicians A Living Wage”.  Here’s the relevant text:

Bay Area trumpeter Mario Guarneri is sympathetic to the plight of freelance jazz musicians. The septuagenarian has a long career performing with symphonies and for television and film, while teaching at various institutions. But in recent years he’s seen up-and-coming jazz musicians struggling just to get by.

“Most venues don’t pay a guaranteed fair wage,” he said. “Instead, they offer a percentage of the door, or ask musicians to split the tip jar.” If you do the math, he said, “the hourly wages often amount to less than the SF city minimum wage.”

Underpaid freelance musicians is nothing new. But lack of union support, the Internet’s supply of “free” music, and an abundance of talented musicians in a buyer’s market have exacerbated the problem.

Years ago, Guarneri decided to do something about it — by paying musicians out of his own pocket. But he realized his method was a band-aid approach to a systemic problem. So, in 2012 he created Jazz in the Neighborhood, a nonprofit whose goal is “to improve the economics of jazz performance in the Bay Area by presenting affordable concerts, paying musicians a guaranteed wage, and supporting the work of established and aspiring artists.”

“Suffice it to say, the music scene as we knew it in the Bay Area in the 1980s and ’90s was a very different scene than it is now,” said Jon Herbst, a sought-after composer, arranger, and audio engineer who helped Guarneri start Jazz in the Neighborhood. “We saw the whole sort of degradation of the music scene take place and were aware of it. We saw that it was affecting many, many talented players that we knew and were associated with; it hit them hard.”

Jazz in the Neighborhood took a major step in 2013, becoming a member of the Intersection Incubator, a program of the nonprofit Intersection for the Arts, which allowed it to receive tax-deductible contributions. Jazz in the Neighborhood has presented nearly 200 concerts in Bay Area venues such as Piedmont Center for the Arts, Community Music Center in San Francisco, and Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, paying $140,000 to more than 300 musicians. “There was no tip jar allowed and no splitting-the-door percentage deals,” Guarneri explained. Sponsorship comes from a variety of sources: members, grants, corporate and private foundations, local businesses, and ticket sales.

Bay Area jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer has performed at several Jazz in the Neighborhood events and was recently named to the group’s artistic advisory committee. “I love what Mario is doing,” Brewer said. “He has made us realize there is a partnership to be had with young artists and professionals coming together.”

Last year, Guarneri expanded his efforts further by creating the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund. A survey of Bay Area jazz venues by Jazz in the Neighborhood revealed that musicians were paid an average of $95 each for a three- or four-hour performance. The fund ensures that musicians earn at least $150 per performance by subsidizing up to 40 percent of that amount after the venue guarantees the initial 60 percent of their pay. During a pilot program last year, Jazz in the Neighborhood supplemented musician’s salaries by $2,000 (adding about $60 to each musician’s pay) over the course of eight concerts. This year, Jazz in the Neighborhood received a $3,000 grant from the SF Friends of Chamber Music to fund a concert next year showcasing three young professionals who have come through the nonprofit’s Emerging Artists programs. The concert will be held Feb. 16 in the SF Community Music Center.

While jazz musicians typically haven’t had the support of the musicians’ union, Guarneri hopes to change that. “The union supports the symphony, opera, ballet and theater orchestras because they bring in revenue to the union through work dues and thus have a strong voice in union policies,” he said.

David Schoenbrun, president of the Bay Area Musicians Union Local 6, is sympathetic to what he called Guarneri’s “noble quest.” But he cited several obstacles to revisiting such prosperity. “Patrons once found a value in live music and a willingness to pay for it,” said Schoenbrun. “But there’s been a cultural shift in the value of music, and people often feel it should be free. That’s been a difficulty, and it’s sure to get worse.”

There’s also been a shift in the musicians’ union membership: Most members are in their 50s and 60s. “We have fewer and fewer young people joining, which was not the case in the 1950s and ’60s, when the union could ensure the minimum number of musicians in the room, no matter what kind of music they were playing,” Schoenbrun said. “The only young people joining are fresh out of the conservatory and want to play in orchestras, which requires union membership.”

Younger jazz players are reluctant to join because there is no work for them that requires union membership, Schoenbrun continued. “And they see no reason to expend money on dues if they don’t think the union can protect what they’re doing.”

Another element in the mix is the fact that many musicians do club work “as an avocation, without expectation — or hope even — of ever being paid. It’s a labor of love,” Schoenbrun said. This development, he noted, “takes it out of the professional realm. Club owners plead poverty because they don’t get enough traffic, and only take musicians who have established a following.” Experienced jazz musicians are left to hope that a gig will provide a chance to sell a few CDs.

But there may be a warming in the relationship between Jazz in the Neighborhood and the musicians’ union. Recently, Guarneri and the Jazz in the Neighborhood staff made a presentation to the union board about his nonprofit’s accomplishments. “We’re not sure how we can partner together to help musicians, but they clearly appreciate that we’ve paid professional wages to over 300 musicians and seem to want to help,” Guarneri said.

In the meantime, Guarneri continues to scour the Bay Area, putting on shows and making a pitch to venues and promoters to sign on to the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund model. Jazz in the Neighborhood will hold a major fundraiser at a private home in Marin on Sunday, Sept. 24, featuring jazz notables Mimi Fox on guitar and singer Clairdee.

Is it possible for Jazz in the Neighborhood to improve the lives of local musicians? Guarneri could have retired long ago. But that’s not his style. “It’s a struggle to change the dynamic, the way musicians are treated in our society,” he said. “But in trying to alter the system, I always ask, ‘Do we have to do things that way?'”

Another interlude:

Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson were ground-breaking artists, seriously influential and much beloved.  Neither of them died prosperous.  If you value the music, it is logical to value the artist who creates it.

May your happiness increase!

“MAGIC FINGERS”: JIM TURNER’S TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY GUARNIERI (Solo Art SACD 172)

Here’s a sample of the technically inspiring, elegant music that pianist-composer Johnny Guarnieri created for half a century:

and one of his many other sides — the quietly irrepressible swinger:

and then there’s the audaciously gifted stride pianist:

and his variations on and venerable pop tune:

Guarnieri could marvelously become Fats, Tatum, Teddy Wilson, James P., Basie — all at once or in lovely little interludes — but after a few bars on any recording, you knew it was Johnny, which (to me) is the summit that improvisers strive for, influences melded into a recognizable self.

He started at the top, as they say, in 1939 as a member of the Benny Goodman band and the sextet with Charlie Christian, then as the harpsichord player with Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five as well as with the band, then numberless sessions with Ziggy Elman, Cootie Williams, Slam Stewart, Sammy Weiss, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Cozy Cole, Jerry Jerome (in the early Forties, Guarnieri seemed to be the house pianist for Keynote, Savoy, and other small labels) Yank Lawson, Ben Webster, Benny Morton, Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart.  He’s the pianist on the V-Disc sessions that brought together Louis, Lips Page, Bobby Hackett, Billy Butterfield, Jack Teagarden, Lou McGarity,Nick Caiazza, Ernie Caceres, Herb Ellis, Al Hall, Cozy Cole, Specs Powell; more sideman work with Don Byas, Joe Thomas, Buck Clayton, Hank D’Amico, Ike Quebec, Flip Phillips, J. C. Heard, Sidney Catlett . . . . and this recital of famous associations is only up until the end of the Second World War.

Guarnieri wasn’t famous, necessarily, in the way that Teddy Wilson was, but he had the respect of the best players, singers, and record producers in the music business.  And the long list of names — did I leave out Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, June Christy, or Dick Haymes? — means that if you have a favorite jazz or swing record from this period, chances are that Johnny was the pianist on it. In the Fifties and beyond, he went for himself as a soloist or led a piano trio or quartet, for the next thirty years, although he participated in the great revival of interest in the masters of the Swing Era, and could be found alongside Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Buddy Tate, Slam Stewart, and others.

Perhaps because of his swing and his dazzle (stride faster than the speed of light, improvising in 5/4 and other eccentric meters) Guarnieri has been admired but never approached.  That is, until Jim Turner‘s new CD, in tribute to Johnny, Jim’s mentor and friend, aptly called MAGIC FINGERS.

Jim Turner

Jim hasn’t had the benefit of Guarnieri’s visibility and name recognition, but I knew of him for years as a convincing, graceful stride and swing pianist.  And anyone who begins his recording career in duet with Knocky Parker and has played concerts with Dick Hyman has to be taken seriously.

Here’s some evidence: POET AND PEASANT OVERTURE, performed in June 1986.  The video is murky, but the music is wonderful: we could have taken Jim uptown and he would have impressed the titans.  Better, he impresses now:

and here’s Jim beautiful version of James P. Johnson’s CAPRICE RAG:

What makes his playing remarkable is not its speed, but his gorgeous marriage of accuracy and warmth, his rollicking swing.  As fast as this performance is, it never feels mechanical (beautiful dynamics!) and it never outraces its jubilant rocking motion.

One more, because I can’t resist.  You might need to increase the volume, but it will be worth it:

But to the subject at hand, MAGIC FINGERS.

A tribute to Johnny Guarnieri by another pianist might get bogged down in layers of emulation, where the second artist, let us say, might decide that Johnny’s choruses on I NEVER KNEW or EXERCISE IN SWING were so fulfilling that the only thing one could do, as if they were a Chopin etude, would be to reproduce them beautifully.  But a CD of copies would not, I think, serve Johnny’s spirit and legacy all that well, especially since Johnny was always being his singular self even while some listeners might say, “That’s a Fats phrase! That’s some Basie!” — as if they were walking the beach with a metal detector looking for identifiable treasures.  (Incidentally, the perhaps apocryphal story is that when Johnny would launch into these pitch-perfect impersonations as a sideman with Benny Goodman, the King would tell him vehemently, “STOP THAT!” and Johnny would, although perhaps not as quickly as Benny wanted.)

The brilliance of MAGIC FINGERS lies, of course, in Jim Turner’s deep understanding of Johnny’s musical selves, and in Jim’s choice to create a disc devoted to his mentor’s ingenious, restorative compositions.  Each of the originals (well-annotated by Jim in his notes) has its own life, with great variety in tempo, key, rhythms, and approach.  A number of the pieces were written with a specific individual in mind — thus a tribute that collects many tributes! — and the ear never gets tired.

At no point in my multiple playings of this disc did I feel the urge to shout at the speakers, “STOP THAT!”  Quite the opposite: from the opening notes of GLISS ME AGAIN, I settled down in comfort for a series of endearing adventures — seventeen selections, all but three by Guarnieri.  Beautifully played and beautifully recorded — the real sound of a well-maintained piano in a large room.

I admire how Turner has not only managed to reproduce the wonderful features of his inspiration’s playing — the great glide of his swing, the impish romping, the energetic and varied stride — but has made them entirely personal and rewarding.  I’ve chosen to avoid a track-by-track explication (discover these pleasures for yourselves!) except to say that the closing track, THE DAZZLER, is a duet for Turner and the singularly eloquent clarinetist Ron Hockett.

I can’t offer the usual tech-inducements of seventeen sound samples or the like, but I assure you that this disc, as they used to say, satisfies.

A closing thought.  I recently had a conversation in cyberspace with a respected musician who plays “traditional jazz,” who lamented that this music was “a language” that modern audiences would not hear and, if they did, might not understand.  Maybe his dark assessment is right, but I would use MAGIC FINGERS as a test case: anyone who purchases this disc might feel encouraged to play one of the more leisurely pieces and then a romp for someone who didn’t know this music but was open to other genres.  I’d hope that the listener would say, “That’s really pretty,” of the slower piece and “That pianist really can play!” of the more acrobatic one.  I have faith in the music and in this CD — and, if it isn’t clear by now, in Jim Turner and in Johnny Guarnieri and the gifts that each offers so generously.

May your happiness increase!

THE WARM SOUNDS OF BILL NAPIER (1926-2003)

Clarinetist Bill Napier might be one of the finest musicians that few people outside of California have ever heard, or heard of.  Marc Caparone says, “I only played music with him twice, but he was a god, a very quiet man who didn’t get much publicity but was always superb.”  Leon Oakley remembers him as a “warm, creative player.”  Hal Smith told me that Bill cared about the music more than “traditional” ways of playing a chorus.

Almost all of the recordings Bill made, and the live performances captured outside of the studio have him in the middle of six or seven-piece units.  What I now can share with you here is intimate, touching music, with Bill the solo horn in a congenial trio.

The personnel of these live recordings is Napier, clarinet; Larry Scala, banjo; Robbie Schlosser, string bass.  They were recorded on August 8, 1994, outdoors at Stanford University, by Dr. Arthur Schawlow, who won the Nobel Prize (with others) for his work on the laser beam.  Dr. Schawlow not only liked jazz, but was an early adopter of high-tech: Larry says that he recorded these performances on a digital recorder, the first one he had ever seen.

Here are five delicious chamber performances, beginning with ALL MY LIFE.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

I’M CONFESSIN’:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

IF I HAD YOU:

and a masterpiece:

Napier’s sound comes in the ear like honey.  He never plays a superfluous note; he honors the melody but in the most gentle supple way.  It is rather as if he were leaning forward, softly saying something heartfelt that was important to him and that he knew would uplift you.  Beauty and swing without affectation.

Before we move on to precious oral history, a few words about one of the other members of this trio.  After you have bathed in the liquid gold of Napier’s sound, listen once again to the very relaxed and gracious banjo playing of Larry Scala. Like Napier, he understands melodic lines (while keeping a flexible rhythm going and using harmonies that add but never distract).  Banjos in the wrong hands can scare some of us, but Larry is a real artist, and his sound is a pleasure to listen to.  (You can find examples of his superb guitar work elsewhere on this blog.) And this post exists because of his generosity, for he has provided the source material, and Larry’s gift to us is a great one.  Music to dance to; music to dream by.

I asked California jazz eminences for memories of Napier, and this is some of what people remembered.  Bill was obviously A Character, but everyone I asked was eager to praise him, and you’ve heard why.

From Hal Smith: I was going through tapes in the archive of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation. One tape had several of the bands which performed at the Clancy Hayes benefit at Earthquake McGoon’s in May of 1970. Napier led a band for the occasion. I heard him get onstage, walk to the mic and say “Here we are!” Then, a couple of seconds later, “Where ARE we?”

By the way, Bill’s real name was James William Asbury.  I’m not sure how it got changed to “Bill Napier.”  When he would tell stories about his youth, or time in the Army, he always referred to himself as “little Jimmy Asbury.”

Bill told me about the clarinetists he admired, including Jimmie Noone and Jimmy Dorsey. He also liked Albert Nicholas and went to hear him at Club Hangover in San Francisco. He asked to sit in, but was turned down. As he described it, “I asked Albert Nicholas if he needed any help and he said he didn’t think so.”

Bill was the original clarinetist with Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band. He left the group following Jack Sohmer’s mean-spirited review of Schulz’s CD which was published in The Mississippi Rag. After that, whenever Schulz would ask if Bill was available to play a gig, Bill would say, “No. Jack Sohmer may be in the audience.”  Before he left the Schulz band, we played a concert at Filoli Mansion outside San Francisco. M.C. Bud Spangler asked each musician to explain why they play music for a living. There was a wide range of responses, but Bill’s was the best: “Well, I have to pay my taxes!”

From Clint Baker:  Bill Napier was a bit of a prodigy, as a teenager he was playing at the Dawn Club as part of a young band that was one of the substitute bands for the wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band.  By the late 40’s he was working with Wingy Manone in San Francisco. He went on to have a couple of stints with the Turk Murphy band and also with Bob Scobey, a band for which he was better suited for sure. He later worked with all the better bands around here; he was not all that interested in playing music on the road and kept close to home for the most part after the Fifties.

I encountered him many times when I was coming up.  He was always the consummate sideman, and always played with great imagination; he had the most amazing tone, liquid would best describe his.  But he NEVER ran out of ideas, he was a wellspring of original musical thought. If he did fall back on a device such as quote, it was always the most obtuse thing one could come up with.

Bill was one of the only players I ever played with who perfectly combined the elements of swing clarinet and New Orleans style clarinet; he all at once sounded like Goodman or Shaw or Simeon or Bigard.  He was hip to all of it and could combine all of the musical DNA of those styles in to his own rich sound. I remember speaking with him about to old masters and he told Simeon was one of his main favorites.  BUT he was truly his own man with the richest of musical imaginations.  I was always honored to work with him, and wish I had had more chances, but the times I did, I cherish. You knew when you were on the bandstand with him you were in the presence of greatness.  Bill was a master.

From Paul Mehling: I worked with him for nearly thirty years in a trio of bass, guitar, and clarinet, and he is on two of our CDs.  He was very shy, quiet, and private. He loved his two (or more?) cats. He and his wife would take the two cats camping and one year when it was time to leave they couldn’t find one of their cats. They called and called but feared he’d been abducted or eaten so they drove home very sad. Next year, they went camping again, same spot/campground. Guess who showed up!  They were overjoyed.  He never really believed how much I loved his playing and all I aspired to at that time was to be GOOD ENOUGH TO SHINE HIS SHOES (musically). I used to try to get into his head during each song and try to give him the kind of rhythm that he’d be most comfortable with.

I was 18 when I first played a full gig with him, but I first met him at the Alameda County Fair when I was 16, long-haired, and didn’t know anything about music but had enough gumption to drag my acoustic guitar into the fairgrounds and find those guys- Lueder Ohlwein, banjo; maybe Ev Farey, trumpet; for sure Bob Mielke, trombone, was there and probably Bill Carrol on bass.  They said Do you know any songs?” I said “Sure, whaddabout Avalon and I Got Rhythm,” and probably one other song.  I played, they liked it, and a few years later Napier remembered me!

He and I bonded early on over comedy. He liked how often I quoted Groucho. We had a shared love for bad puns:
Napier: “Let’s play the suspenders song.”
Me: “ What song is that?”
Napier: “It all depends on you.”
Me: “What?”
Napier : “It hold de pants on you.”

Napier: “You like to golf?”
Me: “Uh, no. You?”
Napier: “No, I never wanted to make my balls soar.”

We’d come up with all manner of re-titling songs to keep us from feeling bad about playing background music and getting almost zero love from “audiences.”

When the Bob Scobey band did a two-year stint in Chicago, Benny Goodman used to show up just to dig on Napier’s playing (which sounded like Goodman/Bigard/Noone!

One thing for sure: the guy never did NOT swing. Never. Even a song he didn’t know. In fact, and more curious was that I could throw all kinds of (gypsy) chord substitutions at him (I didn’t know any better, I thought that’s what jazz musicians did: reharmonize everything) and he never, EVER said “No” or so much as cast an evil eye in my direction. I think the years he played with Bill Erickson at Pier 23 were his favorite years.  He didn’t speak much of Erickson, but I could just tell.

Oh, here’s the BEST story. I just remembered: we were at a swanky Sunday brunch on the Stanford Campus, near that big Stanford Mall with Bloomingdales and other stores.  We would often try to engage diners by chatting and asking if they had a request. Most people wanted to hear something from CATS (ugh). Or they wanted to hear In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.  So we went up to this table, and there’s a guy there, of a certain age. With an attractive woman half his age.  One of us said, “What would you like to hear?”
Man: “ I want to you to play “It Had To Be You” but not fast, about here- ….”(snaps his fingers indicating a medium slow tempo)
Me, aside to Napier: “Why don’t you ask MR. CONDUCTOR what KEY he’d like to SING it in?”
Napier, whispering to me: “I think MR. CONDUCTOR is MR. Getz.”
Boy, did I feel stupid: Stan Getz, doing a residency at Stanford, one of Napier’s heroes.

Obviously, a man well-loved and well-remembered.

I have foregone the usual biography of Bill, preferring to concentrate on the music for its own sake.  But here is a lovely detailed sketch of his life — unfortunately, it’s his obituary, and here is another week’s worth of rare music — Napier with bands — provided thanks to Dave Radlauer.  There are more trio performances, also.

Now, go back and listen to Napier play.

May your happiness increase!

“THE MOST BEAUTIFUL TOGETHERNESS WE HAVE”: DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS TONY PARENTI, HARRY JAMES, HERSCHEL EVANS, BOB CASEY, ROBERT CLAIRMONT (April 20, 2017)

Here are several more interview segments from Dan Morgenstern (the second series).  What an honor to be permitted to capture Dan’s generosity and insights.

Here, Dan speaks of the great (and now nearly forgotten) clarinetist and bandleader Tony Parenti:

Here’s some music from Tony, Ralph Sutton, and George Wettling:

And a little “digression,” so tenderly revealing, with the characters being Harry James and Herschel Evans — maybe two minutes in the recording studio, but a short example of great kindness:

The man pictured below might not be familiar — Robert Clairmont — but he is obviously a fascinating figure, someone Dan knew:

And here’s Dan’s recollection — by way of great string bassist Bob Casey:

In honor of Mister Casey and young Mister Morgenstern, buying his first jazz records in Denmark:

The music played at W.C. Handy’s April 1928 Carnegie Hall concert, made possible by Robert Clairmont, as listed on the BIXOGRAPHY Forum, thanks to the research of Albert Haim.  I had not heard of Clairmont before this, but he gave Handy $4000 — a large sum of money — to finance that concert, where James P. Johnson’s YAMEKRAW was given its premiere, Fats Waller at the piano.

(Internet research, that funny thing, identifies Clairmont as “poet” and “Wall Street investor,” an unusual pairing.)  I also found this brief biographical sketch:

ROBERT CLAIRMONT, poet, was born in 1902 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. Clairmont is author of Quintillions, Star in the West, and Forever X; and the first volume of the series Poets of Today (1938) is given to his work. He was editor of the periodical New Cow of Greenwich Village and, in the early 1950’s, of the poetry magazine Pegasus.

And . . . because I find it irresistible, here is one of Clairmont’s poems for children, THE ANSWERS, later set to music by Alec Wilder:

The Answers

“When did the world begin and how?”
I asked a lamb, a goat, a cow:

“What’s it all about and why?”
I asked a hog as he went by:

“Where will the whole thing end, and when?”
I asked a duck, a goose and a hen:

And I copied all the answers too,
A quack, a honk, an oink, a moo.

Here’s an inscription from Handy to his friend and benefactor:

“Togetherness” and kindness: Tony Parenti making spaghetti for Buck Clayton and teaching him the new / old repertoire; Harry James helping Herschel Evans out at that Lionel Hampton record date; Robert Clairmont saving a man’s life and then making it possible for W.C. Handy to have a Carnegie Hall concert; Dan Morgenstern’s uncountable gifts, which continue as I write this.

May your happiness increase!

VIVIDLY ALIVE: THE BRAIN CLOUD, “LIVE AT BARBES”

I adore the surprises that happen at jam sessions or when musicians are asked to play alongside each other in new combinations, but Heaven smiles on that rare entity, a WORKING BAND.  The Brain Cloud, led by Dennis Lichtman (clarinet, violin, mandolin, and more) is such a remarkable entity — and they’ve just released their third CD, “Live at Barbes.”

Photo by Seth Cashman

Here’s a sample: music does speak louder than words!

Dennis Lichtman and all the members of the Brain Cloud have created the world’s most swinging, melodic “safe space”: which is to say, a place where all kinds of lyrical music are welcome to flourish — not historical or archaeological, but alive now.

Once upon a time, we know, there was just MUSIC — a beautifully undulating landscape as far as we could see.  Then, people looking to sell product — journalists, publicists, record company executives, even some musicians — came and divided the landscape up into little fiefdoms whose occupants glared at one another.  The Brain Cloud suggests that a return to the prelapsarian world is possible: imagine a record store where The Carter Family and Benny Carter are friends, where Lester Willis Young and Bob Willis share a drink, a cigarette, and a story.  Or a place where double-entendre blues sit in the same pew as hymns, where “Dixieland,” “roots music,” “Americana,” all those dazzling names for what is essentially the same thing, coexist beautifully, because they are all only music that has stories to tell and in the telling, enlightens the listener.

Photo by Tom Farley

To the music: as you can hear and see above, the opening track on this CD, JEALOUS HEARTED ME, is no academic exercise: a Carter Family song, it reminds me of rocking Fifties rhythm and blues, with an outchorus that would equal any Eddie Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  The expert Merrymakers here are Dennis Lichtman, clarinet, mandolin, fiddle; Tamar Korn, vocal improvisations; Skip Krevens, guitar, vocals; Raphael McGregor, lap steel guitar; Andrew Hall, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.

Each track is wonderfully itself — the CD isn’t a monochromatic blur — but each is a joyous lesson in the merging of “styles.”  So aside from the “roots” classics — venerable as well as new (from Jimmie Rodgers and Patsy Cline) — there’s Alex Hill’s YOU WERE ONLY PASSING TIME WITH ME (hooray!) and the 1939 Broadway song COMES LOVE and the Twenties LONESOME AND SORRY and IF YOU WANT THE RAINBOW.

Since the Brain Cloud has had a long residency at Barbes (on Monday nights) there is a delightful mix of exuberance and comfort.  Everyone’s made themselves to home, as we might say.  And — in case you worry about such things — the recorded sound is excellent.  Those who have been to Barbes already have multiple copies of this disc; if you’ve never made it into Brooklyn for such frolics, you’ll want your own copy.  And on a personal note: listening to the Brain Cloud has helped me to drop my own narrow suspicions of music that I didn’t think was “jazz,” always a good thing; I’ve been following them since 2009, and this disc is a wonderful encapsulation of what the band does so well.

Here you can find out more about the Brain Cloud, hear more music, buy this disc, or a download, or even as a limited-edition cassette.  And more.  Don’t just sit there!  Move that cursor!

May your happiness increase!