Tag Archives: 78 rpm

“APOSTLE OF SHELLAC”: MATTHEW RIVERA (The Syncopated Times, January 2021)

Matthew Rivera, music lover, filmmaker, scholar, writer, record collector, broadcaster, someone devoted to sharing not one but several Gospels, has been someone I admire for a few years now.  I first heard him playing wondrous music on WKCR-FM, then met him in person in Greenwich Village, playing rare jazz 78 rpm records to live people in public — imagine that! — then as the Proprietor and Democratic Guide of the Hot Club of New York, which holds free Zoom sessions every Monday night from 7-10 PM, where you can hear surprising music and lively discussion.  (Visit the site to get the Zoom link.)  In October 2019, I did a video interview with Matthew, which you can see here.  Matthew also presents on various aspects of jazz — in a relaxed erudite way — for the New York Adventure Club.  I predict we will read, see, and hear more from this flourishing young man.

Some music to get you in the mood: OUT OF NOWHERE, by Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and Veronica Lake (thanks to Emrah Erken for the clear transfer):

It was a real pleasure to be able to write a profile of Matthew for the remarkable and durable (the January 2021 issue is their sixtieth) The Syncopated Times  — that issue’s cover story is devoted to the splendid Jen Hodge.  Matthew’s story can be read here (with illustrations) but I trust that the good-natured Andy Senior, editor of TST, will forgive me for offering the full text here, under the same elastic law that allows the person doing the cooking to sample the soup to see if it’s done.  I encourage you to subscribe to TST — which is why I have been running an ad for it at the bottom of JAZZ LIVES posts for many moons now.

But here’s Matthew himself.

APOSTLE OF SHELLAC: MATTHEW “FAT CAT” RIVERA

Born in 1996, in Louisville, Kentucky, Matthew Rivera is making jazz vibrate to new audiences in many ways.  I met him first as a sound-phenomenon on the radio: who was this young man playing rare hot music from 78 rpm discs he treasured, and offering wise commentary?  He started “Hot Club” 78-listening sessions in New York jazz clubs, regularly at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village, New York, then founded the Hot Club of New York, which has free Monday-night Zoom sessions, he continues to broadcast; he gives erudite yet relaxed presentations of jazz for the New York Adventure Club, and has a book in progress. 

MS: Did jazz hit you like a conversion, or was it a gradually growing fascination?

Both. We’re fascinated when music catches us off guard, but we’re converted when we return to it. For instance, I first heard Billie Holiday’s “Did I Remember” on a movie soundtrack and I was smitten, but my ear truly changed after I sought out the recording and heard it again and again. I try to balance my love for the familiar with fascination for the unfamiliar, though often the familiar wins out. To use Amiri Baraka’s phrase, we have to “Keep Digging.”

MS:  Was there jazz on the family soundtrack when you were growing up?

 There were only scraps of jazz to hear or see in my youth. Maybe I’d see something in a movie, or hear a blues based tune on the oldies station. That truly sad fact indicates jazz’s position in our contemporary world. Somewhere we lost sight of the ongoing struggle for jazz’s power. The incredible thing you have to stress about jazz history is that in 1938 everyone was listening to jazz. Whether you wanted to or not, or even whether you knew it or not, in 1938, near a high point in the industrialization of music, it was impossible to escape an essentially non-conformist music that spoke about the conditions of life in America. That didn’t happen simply because people liked jazz then or because it was a new thing, it happened because of the tough fight the musicians put up to be seen and heard. What we may have forgotten is that this struggle, like all social struggles, is recurring.  The fight for jazz was obviously not won forever in 1938.  On every level—socially, economically, in essence politically—the situation today is completely different from the height of jazz’s popularity.  We have to change our strategy.  I have no prescription for how to change things, but I spend a lot of time thinking, “How did we get here?”

MS:   I first encountered you as a disembodied voice, broadcasting music rarely if ever heard in public, such as Red Allen’s 1935-36 delights, on an afternoon jazz program on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, in 2017.  How did you get there?

 I arrived at Columbia in 2014 with the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Coleman Hawkins stuck in my head. My friend Evan Sennett and I had just made a movie in Louisville about two friends of ours who are searching for a fictional jazz musician, and I added in lines like, “I like Prez better than Hawk.” It was just a complete fantasy about my friends also liking jazz from the ’30s. I was walking around campus on the first day thinking “I bet no one here knows who Bunny Berigan is,” having no clue about the incredible jazz legacy of Columbia’s radio station or that I was standing on the sundial in the middle of campus where Red Allen had once played. Then someone approached me with a box of LPs to promote WKCR. The first thing I saw was a Bunny Berigan record. When I picked up my jaw, I found out where WKCR was, and there I eventually met the great Charles Iselin who was hosting a multi-part show on Red Allen. Shortly thereafter, a tall, boisterous man in a seersucker suit and pink socks appeared and did a voluminous impression of Red Allen driving his car around Times Square, said a few things about the California Ramblers, made a point about Tommy Ladnier that trailed into Muggsy Spanier, and then stormed out of the station to catch the subway. When I caught my breath, Charles told me that was Phil Schaap.

I went to Columbia to study film, though I ended up studying English and anthropology instead because of professors like Ann Douglas, Brent Edwards, and Robert O’Meally who incorporate jazz heavily into their literature courses and teach cultural history. My love for jazz came about initially from movies. My parents wisely took me to see The Aviator when I was eight and I remember being affected not only by the planes and movie cameras, but by the jazz age soundtrack.  Later on I saw Anatomy of a Murder one summer at the Palace Theater. After I saw Duke Ellington in that film and heard the truly ‘noirvana’ soundtrack, I went to Highland Records in Louisville and asked if they had any Ellington LPs. They didn’t have any, which only added to my curiosity. I felt provoked to hear the music whenever I could.

When I showed up at WKCR, I already loved jazz, but I didn’t quite yet realize its importance or vastness. That came from Phil Schaap and older students like Charles Iselin, David Beal, and Francis Mayo. Suddenly I was thrown into a tradition of 24-hour birthday broadcasts, memorial broadcasts, morning listening sessions, five-hour profiles, and discographical inquiries. I came to the station thinking Star Dust by Louis Armstrong, Easy to Love by Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, Burgundy Street Blues by George Lewis, and If I Were a Bell by Miles Davis were all I would ever need to know and now I’m seeing Charles spinning these heavy, fragile 78s and listing off personnel and dates from fat red volumes. Early on, Fran Mayo organized a caravan — three vans of students — to drive to Bessie Smith’s grave and pay our respects. Not long after that the Norwegian solographer Jan Evensmo showed up at the station.  Charles and I spent the day listening to rare Roy Eldridge airshots with him that only exist at the station. I learned about the station’s efforts to save Eldridge’s collection when it washed up on the beaches of Far Rockaway during Hurricane Sandy. I heard Schaap’s 45- minute mic breaks, I learned about the Dizzy Gillespie red chair, I saw the thousands of interview reels in the vaults.  I was in the middle of complete and total love for music which up to that point I had only known in solitude.

Ultimately what amazed me about WKCR was what I would learn more formally from Phil Schaap when he became my mentor without me even realizing it. First, I learned from him that all music is present tense and not to get caught up in ideologies about progress or overvalue either the future or the past. Secondly, I learned not to be a swing chauvinist or a BeBop chauvinist. One of the most beautiful traditions we have on WKCR is our back to back Ornette Coleman and Bix Beiderbecke birthday broadcasts and I have learned, albeit rather belatedly, to love both dearly. Ultimately, I learned that music has a social and political function, and this, and the biographies of musicians, is inseparable and essential to understanding the sounds I loved. I learned from friends at WKCR and my teachers at Columbia to hear the essential spirit of the music’s makers. I learned to appreciate the very real connections that popular taste and criticism have largely overlooked. I learned that tastes are mutable, therefore I can’t let my taste or the taste of others guide my ears or changes my direction. I learned to follow musical daring.

MS:  For those who don’t know Phil Schaap, who is he?

Phil is a radio host, educator, sound engineer, and historian—simply a worker for jazz and the hardest working person I’ve ever met. There is an unbelievable passion in the man who speaks on air for 45 minutes straight listing record personnel, dates, and Dodgers scores by heart, remembering what he ate when he met Duke Ellington, flipping, cuing, EQing, and playing a 78 in a matter of seconds, excerpting the eight-bar Chu Berry solo and playing it twenty times in a row, working for jazz like he is running a lifelong marathon. What he teaches is basically music appreciation, not performance. Phil has aimed to get musicians better gigs, to teach listening to experts and newcomers alike, to introduce new generations of listeners to jazz, and to make jazz sound better through high quality sound productions. 

I never would be able to learn as much as I have without Phil because he taught me how to find the music, not just to settle with what I already knew. Because of his unusual methods and his aversion to mediocrity, people like to imagine Phil as a modern version of Balzac’s Père Goriot: a tragically misunderstood artifact from a different world. But Phil became a friend, a mentor, and my main influence because his mission is to bring people to jazz. He showed me what work needed to be done, and what a worker for jazz should be.

The other person I have to explain and give a big shout out to is CHARLES ISELIN! When I met Charles, I was interested in 78s because I had seen Crumb and was curious about the records in that movie. I’m a collector at heart and I don’t think that’s a shameful or embarrassing thing if the collector reflects upon him or herself, reads some Walter Benjamin, and remembers to shower once in a while. I asked Charles if he had any 78s and he went back to the archive and hauled out a box of records he had just bought. Flipping through the stack, I noticed Who by Frankie Newton on Bluebird, not because of Newton, who is now my hero, but because of Mezz Mezzrow, whose book Really the Blues I had just read and loved! Charles grinned and put on Who. I think that devil knew I was about to get hooked on some deep s*** because sure enough that night I went on eBay and bought a Red Allen Vocalion though I didn’t even have a way to play it. He showed me that the 78s were the closest I could get to the music.

MS: What led up to your founding the Hot Club of New York, whose central purpose is offering listeners “a chance to hear scarce records in their historic and aesthetic contexts, and to discuss jazz in a relaxed environment”?

Remember, I’m a filmmaker who likes jazz, but slowly there were events that led to the Hot Club. I met Parker Fishel and David Beal, two righteous fellows who loved the music, and particularly loved the Blues which was always the heart of it. That’s the main thing: the Blues is the spirit and when jazz loses the Blues, jazz loses the spirit. Everyone from Freddie Keppard to Cecil Taylor knew that. So I know that anyone who loves the Blues, like Parker and David do, is going to be a friend. Parker invited me over to his place to listen to Pete Brown records, and David and Ben Young showed up too. That was the first Hot Club I went to, and the beginning of the Neo Hot Club Movement. I’d never had that experience, other than with Charles, of listening to the music deeply and quietly, and lovingly. That’s the experience I’ve always tried to recreate with the Hot Club, whether it was at a dressed up cellar in the Village or on Zoom on Monday nights.

 MS: They call you “Fat Cat.”  But you’re not a bulky plutocrat.

Yes, I hope that handle is unlike me in more ways than one—like Tiny Parham. That really gets us to the first official Neo Hot Club: Morristown, hosted by Melissa Jones. Phil, Ben, Charles, Emily Fenster, Sam Engel, and a whole bunch would drive or ride the train out to Morristown, New Jersey, to listen to rare 78s on a top of the line sound system. I still didn’t have a turntable or anything at that time. I was only listening to my 78s at WKCR, which didn’t sound as good as at Melissa’s. On the ride back from Morristown once, Phil mentioned a Sippie Wallace 78 of which he had only known two copies to exist. There was his, and there was Johnson “Fat Cat” McRree Jr.’s, a collector and jazz festival host from Virginia. I was shocked because I had just bought the record for $8 on the internet, only it had a sizable dig in the grooves near the end.  So the next time we went out to Morristown, I brought the Sippie Wallace record and showed it to Phil.  It was the first time I had ever seen him impressed by anything. He was sweating, his eyes were bulging like a Crumb cartoon, his voice was cracking, and he told me to put on the record which I’m already in the middle of doing. As we were all listening to this unbelievably emotional, soulful blues record with Louis Armstrong and someone who wants to sound like Bechet, it gets to the chip in the grooves and Phil goes absolutely berserk, stands up in his chair, his face red, shouting “That’s Fat Cat’s copy!! You’re the Fat Cat! Fat Cat Rivera.” I had bought Fat Cat McRree Jr.’s copy for eight dollars.

MS:  You took piano lessons for ten years: tell us your James P. Johnson story.

My first encounters with music were encounters with the piano. My uncle and grandmother both played and inspired me to play. I took lessons with a true friend Calvin Pinney, a kind, churchgoing woman who would not stand for rushing or fast tempos and would have no deviation from the notes on the page. I still have her look of “You didn’t practice, did you?” burned into my mind. I took lessons up to the point where I was playing Bach two-part inventions and the four Gershwin preludes pretty solidly. Then I found a transcription of James P. Johnson playing If Dreams Come True. I listened to that music non-stop, I tried to play it, and it basically broke me down completely. I realized then, I can read music, I can interpret the old masters, I play the Rodgers and Hart songbook at a party for tips, I can even slide into Gershwin, but I can’t do THAT. I realized I was an audience member.

MS: It’s obvious you aren’t traveling this rocky road alone.

I learn from my peers, and it’s here I must thank Colin Hancock, the single most important jazz scholar living today and one of my best friends. Vince Giordano has helped me quite a bit, and with his working orchestra, The Nighthawks, he has shown us all the power of the jazz age ten piece big bands. I didn’t realize it until about ten years later, but one of my first introductions to jazz, watching The Aviator, was an introduction by Vince Giordano who performed most of the music for that film. Not to lift the curtain, Michael, but you are also an important peer and friend. Al Vollmer, David Sager, Ricky Riccardi, Scott Wenzel, Jan Evensmo, Lloyd Rauch, Andrew Oliver, Scout Opatut, Evan Arntzen, Lucy Yeghiazaryan, and countless others have taught me more than a thing or two about jazz. Still the people I learn the most from are my close friends Sam Fentress, Alex Garnick, Evan Sennett, Aaron Friedman, Laura Cadena, and Sophie Kovel, and most importantly my love, Elena Burger. They are all tuned in to our generation. They understand what the Hot Club mission is about and the sociality and politics of art and history.  In their own individual ways, they are all non-conformist thinkers which is what I want to be. Then there’s the rarest of them all, a non-conformist thinker who understands jazz: my professor Ann Douglas who wrote Terrible Honesty and has guided me in everything from Charlie Parker to Raymond Chandler. She is someone I am honored to say is my friend.

MS:  How does jazz fit into your other passions — politics, film, American culture?  Are there connections between Charlie Johnson and your literary heroes?

Jazz is the most specific of these topics because it relies essentially on an attitude and outlook towards life. It is the best part of American culture, but it is obviously not all of American culture. The outlook is, plainly enough, the Blues outlook—an honest square look at all of life’s nasty stuff that is deeply hurt by it and still finds a way to laugh it off, to see light not only at the other side of the tunnel but in the tunnel itself. Though not always successful at looking, or at laughing, and not always the most approachable thing, if you judge jazz at its best (as we should always judge) it’s the only light. I appreciate other music through jazz—certainly Cuban son, Puerto Rican plena, Old Time mountain music, Cajun, gospel, Dominican merengue, Hawaiian hula, Bach, Bob Dylan, West African palm wine, Greek rebetika—but I’ve learned I basically appreciate everything that has the Blues outlook. Outside of jazz, film noir and noir literature have been the strongest expression of this Blues spirit. The spirit, of course, predates the modern Blues as well, and it can be seen in the novels of Balzac and the poems of Sappho.  Although Charlie Johnson, as a person and artist, was basically nothing like David Goodis, they both dug into the Blues with a feeling, as a song by Duke Ellington is titled.

MS:  How did you get from being “A 78 record collector” to founding the Hot Club of New York, and what do you see as its future?

Through the path people like Phil, Charles, Melissa, David, and Parker have shown me, I have seen that jazz is a social phenomenon. There’s a book called Musicking by Christopher Small which says the music is more than the object on stage, but the entire social interaction, the space, the love and the people. Dancing, record collecting, record listening, and most certainly performance attending are all acts of musicking with almost as much importance for the social space as the performance itself.

This way of understanding music is lost on us.  Generally, we have lost sight of the need for an audience. If there are more musicians on stage than audience members in the house — which I’m sad to say I have witnessed — then it’s only public practice. I realized the same thing about collecting the records. If I’m only playing them for myself I’m not getting them all they’re worth. Even having the 78s is only half the battle. I’ve got to play them for people, and I have to find people who want to listen and teach more people to want to listen. The ultimate mission of the Hot Club is to introduce a new audience to jazz, and to create a space of active jazz musicking. 

Melissa Jones, whom I first met as a classmate at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Swing University, basically lives this idea of music, supporting and bringing together the jazz community in any way possible. I’ve already mentioned the Hot Club of Morristown. Melissa would host young musicians and listeners at her house, feeding all of us to the gills. It didn’t matter who we were as long as we loved jazz. I think the most important part of the Neo Hot Club came from Melissa as she constantly reminded me of jazz’s ultimate cause: to bring people together. She exemplified an angel of musicking to a generation of young jazz people, and when the future hit all too soon this year I took her cue to begin hosting Zoom Hot Club meetings on Monday nights. Her presence there has continued to bond the group of listeners from all backgrounds. I dedicate this interview to Melissa Jones.

MS: What are some prizes of your collection?  Do you have desert island discs?

Well, assuming I can take a ship the size of the Titanic to the island…. My number one is Out of Nowhere by Coleman Hawkins with a stunning muted trumpet by Benny Carter on HMV. 

I’m also grateful to say I have a mint copy of Cecil Scott’s Lawd, Lawd on Victor, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band’s Chattanooga Stomp and Camp Meeting Blues on Columbia, Chick Webb’s If Dreams Come True on Columbia, Jack Purvis’s Down Georgia Way, Charlie Johnson’s Charleston is the Best Dance After All, both takes of Louis Armstrong’s Star Dust, Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue on OKeh, a west coast pressing of Art Karle’s Lights Out with my favorite Frankie Newton solo, Tell Me, Dreamy Eyes by Perley Breed’s Shepard Colonial Orchestra on Gennett (thanks to Colin Hancock), Wipe ’em Off by the Seven Gallon Jug Band, Noah’s Blues by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Ice Freezes Red by Fats Navarro, My Baby’s Blues by the Blues Man on Juke Box, a vinylite pressing of Coleman Hawkins’s Talk of the Town, a vinylite of Bird of Paradise on Dial and my favorite Charlie Parker Thriving on a Riff on a beautiful sounding vinylite Savoy. Every record I own is one I could never part with! A test pressing of With a Smile and a Song, an unissued side from a Teddy Wilson session with the beautiful singer Sally Gooding and the tenor great Chu Berry, is a crown jewel.

MS:  Does record collecting feed the music or vice versa?

Through collecting records I came to understand that there are alternative ways to listen to and find music. Jazz came to have a context, and context is never icing on the cake. Context is always the thing itself when you get down to it. We’ve lost sight of that fact through the current ways of distributing music, and that’s why I think we are left with an understanding of music that is supporting an ideology that handicaps the music and strips it of its active life. Jazz is not an abstract music just like Pollock and Krasner were not abstract painters. Pollock painted about the censorship of the cold war; he danced around the oppressors to say exactly what they were afraid art was capable of saying, which is what the jazz musicians he was listening to had already done. Jazz musicians danced around power to create something seemingly nonsensical to the unhip, but explicitly communicative to its righteous audience. Spotify, YouTube, and all of the current ways of distributing music decontextualize and deactivate music. The way these apps envision music shows exactly where those in power want it to be: in the background. Ironically, their outlook inadvertently acknowledges the importance and power of jazz.  It’s our way out.   

MS: You’ve been doing intriguing research on Frankie Newton.  Why is he a hero?

Frankie Newton is important to me because he was on the first 78 I heard, and he has since become more important to me because he showed me the way to the music.  For someone who was dead for over forty years before my birth to show me the way is nothing short of the ultimate vision of jazz’s power. The same can be said of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, or Billie Holiday, but for me Newton has had the loudest voice because whenever you find him, he is never caught up in the zero sum game of the culture industry, playing hide and seek to make a living and still not lose his soul. Perhaps Coltrane equals him in this regard. Newton was politically minded, but even before I knew about his politics I knew about his activities as a painter.

As someone who was balancing playing jazz records and making films and studying literature I found any character who delved into another medium from a jazz perspective to be fascinating and exceptional. The more I’ve learned about Newton, combing through newspapers, periodicals, and an interview disc I found in a junk shop, the more I’ve found that his position on the margins of jazz popularity shows the fault lines in our understanding of the music, and a point of view that contrasts revealingly with the more famous artists of his time. Moreover, and most importantly, Frankie Newton is a truly great musician.  He is the best kind of soloist—he speaks for the whole group when he solos, not just for himself. I’m always curious to hear what he has to say.

MS:  We feel the same way about Matthew Rivera! 

Although I’ve thanked a lot of people in this interview, ultimately there are two groups of people to whom I’m most grateful.  First, my parents and family in Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, and Puerto Rico, and secondly, the pioneering jazz musicians of every generation.  They are the original jazz workers, and all I want to do is work for them.

Matthew can be found broadcasting (from his apartment) via wkcr.org on Mondays 12-3 PM EST.  Join the Hot Club of New York at http://hotclubny.com (there’s also a HCNY Facebook page) where you can find the Zoom link for his Monday night sessions from 7-10 PM.  Information about his programs for the New York Adventure Club can be found at https://nyadventureclub.com.

May your happiness increase!

 

IN RECORD TIME: A VISIT, ALL TOO-BRIEF, TO THE VINTAGE MUSIC COMPANY OF MINNEAPOLIS

I had the good fortune to visit my long-time dear friends Lisa DuRose and Susan Peters at their St. Paul, Minnesota home this summer.  I’d like to think of myself as a passable guest, so once I knew we would have plenty of time to talk and laugh and muse, I kept my requests manageable: interesting things to eat (pride of place went to Cheng Heng, a wonderful Cambodian restaurant (448 University Avenue), visits to thrift shops, a delightful bookstore, Midway Used and Rare Books (1579 University Avenue W.).

I made one Special Request.

I’d heard of a magical place where 78 RPM records and machines to play them flourished, so I asked Lisa and Susan to take me here:

I was worried that I would go down into the depths and never surface, so I asked them to pick me up in an hour, which was an atypical kind of restraint on my part.  Lisa and Susan were curious about this museum of sounds and shapes that they’d never entered, so they came in with me.

Scott, the owner, stopped what he was doing and greeted us.  I have an odd sense of comedy, so I said that I was a jazz blogger from New York, a collector of records, and that I had brought two friends who lived locally, that Lisa was my probation officer and Susan was my psychotherapist.  Perhaps because of Scott’s clientele, he only allowed his eyes to widen a bit, but did not boggle at this news.  I started to laugh, gave him my card and a Louis button, and we were off and running into hilarious instant friendship.  Here — just so you know I am not describing some time-machine dream — is the store’s Facebook page.

Here is a six-minute film portrait of Scott in his element, blissfully honest, doing what he was meant to do:

And here is a very short film of Scott, playing a cylinder on an Edison “Gem” machine:

Scott and I fell into conversation about Joe Sullivan.  That in itself should tell you a great deal — in this century, how many people can talk with depth about Joe?  I tore myself away — he is hilarious, erudite, and entertaining — to look at records.  Of course there was a Louis section, an Ellington section, but (as you can see from above) there was a Bob Pope section and one devoted to Don Redman, one to Clarence Williams.

I no longer do well with extreme sensory stimulus, and I was grateful that I could find a mere eight records: Joe Sullivan on Sunset (!) and Conqueror (the 1939 Cafe Society Orchestra);  Henry “Red” Allen on Banner;  the UHCA issue of JAZZ ME BLUES with Tesch and BARREL HOUSE STOMP with the Cellar Boys; a sunburst Decca of Louis’ ON A COCOANUT ISLAND; a beautiful Variety of Chauncey Morehouse and Swing Six (no “his”) of ON THE ALAMO.  In the name of realism, I will also point out that the days of finding N- Paramounts at the Salvation Army for a nickel apiece are long gone.  With tax, these records cost slightly less than eighty dollars, and I went away feeling gloriously gratified.

Two other record-collecting sidelights.  Scott knows a great many kinds of music well and deeply, so the shop offers opera, “roots music,” and many other things that I didn’t have time to explore.  If I remember correctly, he has three-quarters of a million records, both on the ground floor and in a well-organized basement. And more machines on which to play them than several large houses could accommodate.

And while I was there, the phone rang and Scott had an extraordinarily courteous gentle conversation with a man of a certain vintage who wanted to bring his beloved and for-sure valuable collection of late-Forties black label Bing Crosby Deccas for Scott to buy.  I was touched by the kind seriousness with which Scott handled the man on the phone, never condescending to him or being scornful, while telling him the truth, that it would not be worth his while to bring the Crosbys down in hopes of a splendid payoff.

I admire Scott’s enterprise greatly — where on earth are you going to see a 78 record shop with its own Red Norvo section?  Yes, I know a few other stores exist, and I’ve had self-indulgent fun in the 78 section of Amoeba Music — I think the one on Haight Street, but Scott’s store is a paradise of rare music and rare artifacts.  You won’t find Oliver’s THAT SWEET SOMETHING DEAR there, but if you visit and go out empty-handed, and you love this music, I marvel at you, and not necessarily in an admiring way.

He is a man of stubborn devotion to his own ideal, and that is a beautiful thing.  I will go even deeper and say that if everyone who loves older music — and the way in which it was heard — bought a seven-dollar record from Scott, or, better, a working vintage phonograph, the world we know would be improved.  I wish that he and his passionate vision prosper and continue.

May your happiness increase!

QUIRKY, CURIOUS, WISE: “DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE: THE WILD, OBSESSIVE HUNT FOR THE WORLD’S RAREST 78 RPM RECORDS,” by AMANDA PETRUSICH

About one-third of the way through Amanda Petrusich’s new book, I became convinced that its author was, as the British say, daft. Mildly unhinged. Charmingly irrational.  I say this as a badge of honor, not an insult.  It was in the middle of the chapter where Petrusich (normal-looking, quite attractive in the author’s photo) had gone through scuba training to dive into the river in Grafton, Wisconsin, near the Paramount Records factory — defunct for eighty years — in search of the rare records and Paramount ephemera that legend has it the employees had tossed into the waters.

DO NOT SELL

Although no record in the world would ever entice me into a wetsuit, I thought, “This is a kind of devotion to the cause that makes great — if slightly unstable — art.”

I had already been entranced by Petrusich’s book while she was on dry land.  I am not an stereotypical record collector — I prefer to encounter jazz recordings serendiptiously — but I liked Petrusich’s manner and approach from the first pages.  For one thing, she steadfastly refuses to satirize, to stand back at a mocking distance from the subject or from the figures she chronicles.  She does comment on the stereotype — overly pale men who spend their lives indoors and often below ground level, but Petrusich not only treats her subjects with interest and deference, but with affectionate respect . . . and becomes one of them in her own fashion. Her writing is lively, and the book rarely lingers for long on one obsession or the next (at times, it had the snap of a series of New Yorker mini-profiles).

The book is never a slow-moving history of the field (although she does touch on some of its legendary figures, such as James McKune and Big Joe Clauberg, Harry Smith and his Anthology) but its whimsical expansiveness leaves a reader feeling elated rather than deprived.  I wish I could have time-traveled Petrusich back to the mid-Seventies gatherings of collectors at the Prince George Hotel in New York City, but she has been to the New Jersey Jazz Record Collectors’ Bash, so that will do. At more than one point, I thought, “I could certainly tell her stories of collectors,” but I suspect that my reaction is far from unusual.

I should alert JAZZ LIVES readers that Petrusich’s fascination has almost nothing to do with the objects of the jazz lover’s sacred quest. ZULUS BALL does not rate a mention here, nor do the Bix Old Gold broadcast acetates, or the “little silver record” of Lester Young that Jo Jones talked about.

Petrusich is captivated by rural blues — of the sort recorded by Paramount before the company folded in 1932 — and she has her first epiphany listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s BIG LEG BLUES with collector John Heneghan.  But what saves this endearingly wandering narrative from being One Woman’s Descent Into The Maelstrom is both Petrusich’s light touch and her willingness to ask deeper philosophical questions about collecting, music, and our perceptions of both.

For all its amiability, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is a deeply serious book that — sometimes indirectly, other times head-on — asks hard questions about what makes an object valuable, and what drives certain people to amass such objects, both in what we see of them and what they see of themselves.

Anyone reading this book who is new to record collecting will find it impossible to look at a 78 rpm record the same way again — even the dullest one — without sensing its almost mystical electrical power to entice. (I write this, fully aware that I already knew how a blandly labeled RECORDS paper folio in a shelf at Goodwill may contain objects that would increase my pulse rate.)

A pause, so that you can hear Petrusich’s own voice, while she muses over the gap between the music and the artifact, the sound and the shellac disc with its memorized matrix number, and tried to figure out where our feverish excitement comes from:

That chasm–between a studied response and a gut-borne one–seemed even more palpable in the specific context of prewar blues music, where the hunt for (and especially the subsequent analysis of) the records appeared to run directly counter to the lawless spirit of the work. With a few notable exceptions, blues music was rowdy and social, and its creators led brash, lustful lives. They drank and roamed and had reckless sex and occasionally stabbed each other in the throat. There was something incongruous about sitting in a dimly lit room, meticulously wiping dust and mold off a blues 78 and noting the serial number in an antique log book. Why not dance or sob or get wasted and kick something over?  Some collectors, I knew, did exactly that, but for others, the experience of a rare blues record involved a kind of isolated studiousness, which of course was fine–there’s no wrong way to enjoy music, and I understood that certain contextual details could help crystallize a bigger,richer picture of a song. But I continued to believe that the pathway that allowed human beings to appreciate and require music probably began in a more instinctual place (the heart, the stomach, the nether regions). Context was important, but it was never as essential–as compelling–to me as the way my entire central nervous system convulsed whenever Skip James opened his mouth.

Balancing such vividly evocative meditations — which open out into lovely elusive speculations — are the concrete, often hilarious markers in Petrusich’s quest: buying records with collector Chris King at a flea market in Hillsville, Virginia; visiting Pete Whelan amidst his rare palm trees and rarer records in Florida, talking with John Tefteller over lunch in Brooklyn, being admitted to Joe Bussard’s basement shrine to hear Black Patti 8030; looking through Don Wahle’s papers with Nathan Salsburg; talking about collectors with Ian Nagoski and with Bear Family’s Richard Weize.

As the book winds down — through “ethnic music” and cowboy throat-singing, a visit to the Southern Folklife Collection, a detour into SKOKIAAN, a few pages where Petrusich muses on the relations between autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and collecting, and finally visits from two people active in the contemporary New York City world, phonograph collector / expert exhibitor Michael Cunella and musician / collector Jerron Paxton — I confess my jazz self became slightly restless.  “Couldn’t you have written about just one person who collects Leon Roppolo?” I muttered to myself.  But Petrusich’s many narratives are so sweetly compelling — vivid in their understated way — that I forgave her that omission.  And the book ends with yet another epiphany, when Petrusich encounters the “new” set of Paramount Records issues:

I felt suddenly and fiercely protective of a subculture I had no real claim to. I wanted 78s to continue offering me–and all the people I’d met–a private antidote to an accelerated, carnivorous world. I didn’t want them to become another part of that world. I wanted them to stay ours.

I do not know if Petrusich’s fierce protectiveness is possible or plausible, or even desirable. I understand it completely: so much of the lure of collecting these artifacts is the secret, even snobbish delight one can take in moving so far outside the mainstream as to require subtitles, a translator. But I wonder if the world would be happier if everyone could listen to Charley Patton 78s while making breakfast.

And I wonder if Petrusich will check in with us in ten years. Has she purchased a turntable on which to play her recent beloved acquisitions? I hope so. It would sadden me immensely if I learned, through whatever avenue one learns such things, that she had thrown it all over for a smartphone with a larger memory for music and a new delight in, say, swizzle sticks or first editions of Yeats.  But I think this won’t happen. Among its other virtues, and they are numerous, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is the journal of a spiritual enlightenment, a finding of a series of personal truths. And that is always fascinating to read.

Much, if not all, of the music Petrusich falls in love with in this book is either outside my sphere of pleasure or I am ignorant of it. But before I had read thirty pages of this book, I was already recommending it to people who love the music and the records. I recommend it to you as a deep, elegantly quirky pleasure, whose music reverberates long after one has finished reading it.

May your happiness increase!

SPINNING PLENITUDES

A few weeks ago, a young couple came to my apartment to buy a piece of furniture I’d hardly used.  (Now there’s more space for dancing.)  The young woman earnestly asked me about turntables — thinking of being able to play her mother’s beloved 1970 record collection.  I showed her both a modern one (and played her a track from a Marty Grosz Stomp Off record, which absolutely floored her with its bounce and warm sound).

Then I decided to become a true eccentric, a genuine suburban antiquarian and descended even deeper into history by playing her a 78 (Keynote, J.C. Heard, ALL MY LIFE) on another turntable.

I don’t think this was a transformational experience for her (and her boyfriend was pleasantly impassive through the whole thing) but it was clear she had never seen anything like it.

“How do you know where to put that thing [the stylus]?”  “What happens when it comes to the end?”  “Is that sound [the surface noise] part of the thing, the record?”  “Does that have only one song?”  And so on.

I don’t want to rehearse the discussion of iPod and MP3 downloads / compact discs / vinyl records / 78s / live performance — too many acres to plow! — but I did revert to my childhood in two sweetly nostalgic acts this morning.

One, I played a 78 record — LOW DOWN DIRTY SHAME / SOLITUDE (Vocalion 5531, rim chip, V) by Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra.  Lovely.  Two, I stared at the revolving disc and the diminishing circles described by the needle as the music came out of the speaker.

And I thought, not for the first time, of the beautiful paradoxes.

When the needle is lowered into the first groove, listeners enter into that musical world — new or familiar.  All experience lies before us, all possibility!  (Jack Purvis might explode in the last chorus.)  But we are always conscious of the finite limits of that world.  Listening to a live performance, we can tell when the band is near the end — although there always might be two more choruses!  A record, a disc lying on the platter, is visually bounded — its beginning and end marked out for us to see.

So as the needle follows its path, I feel the joy of hearing what’s there, perhaps the anticipatory sensation of “I can’t wait for the good part that I know is coming,” yet there’s the sad awareness of knowing the end is near.  Another sixteen bars, another thirty seconds, perhaps another two inches of black grooves.  “Oh, no, it’s going to be over!”

Everything comes to an end, we know.

But with records we have the wonderful opportunity to pick up the needle from its mindless elliptical orbits in the run-off groove and have the experience again.  Imagine being able to eat another meal in the same restaurant without monotony, without satiety.  It’s not the first kiss repeated, of course.  But second and third kisses are seriously pleasurable, too.

For those who cannot play a record today, I offer a video simulacrum — I think of it as a natural antidepressant, with no side effects:

SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, or PICNIC WITH ME

A little jeu d’esprit for today:

To be precise, this is a 78 rpm “picture record” on the Vogue label, circa 1945.  Musically it is probably far removed from hot jazz, but it’s the playful Forties cheesecake that caught my eye.  This young woman, attired in clothing that manages to be both tight and short, is reclining — after a fashion — on a blanket in the middle of an undefined meadow.  Although picnics are usually informal occasions, she has on alarmingly high heels and seems to be levitating from the blanket.  (Perhaps she is lifting her legs so she doesn’t collide with the pasted-in image of bandleader Kassel, grinning somewhere under her knees.)

To her left (although she is not registering it in her field of vision) conveniently there is a small portable phonograph . . . and a large anonymous hand (parodying the Sistine Chapel ceiling?) is offering her a phonograph record-replica of the larger scene, complete with lovely young woman and generous hand. 

The mind reels, and the recording isn’t even spinning.

DOODLE DOO DOO indeed.

“DULCE LORENA” y “NO ES ELLA DULCE?”

To people who have never collected jazz records, what follows might seem both trivial and inexplicable.  But while searching for recordings by the sublime trumpeter and singer Henry “Red” Allen, I came across these oddities on eBay — two sides from his 1957 RCA Victor RIDE, RED, RIDE IN HI-FI . . . issued as a 78 rpm record in Argentina, their titles logically translated into Spanish.

and . . .

Sweet, no?

JAZZ PAGES WORTH READING

Through the magic of Google Alerts, I was directed to two new jazz-related blogs, both of which are worth a serious look, for different reasons.

Jon McCaslin’s FOUR ON THE FLOOR came to my attention because of a recent feature on Papa Jo Jones — irreplaceable, perhaps inscrutable, certainly uncontrollable.  Here Jon has collected a number of video clips that shine the spotlight on Jo.  And his blog is full of other intriguing stories!  Visit it at http://jonmccaslinjazzdrummer.blogspot.com/ .  By the way, “Four on the floor” doesn’t only refer to manual transmission: it refers to the life-enhancing practice, among drummers of another generation (as well as Hal Smith, Kevin Dorn, Chris Tyle, Nick Ward, and Jeff Hamilton) to use the bass drum to keep the rhythm going. 

Through a rather circuitous route, I found myself rapt, staring at one beautifully-designed record label after another on Ted Staunton’s website.  Ted modestly says that he doesn’t own all the records, but he has assembled them in logical order and told a bit about the history of each label.  And the labels themselves are often lavish Art Deco miniatures:

Because the Beloved and I are now on Maui, I thought this label was particularly appropriate:

Ted’s site can be found at http://www.tedstaunton.com/.  You’ll be astonished!

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

RARE DISCS FOR SALE

I find it soothing to visit eBay on a regular basis to see what’s for sale and to muse about it. 

Our topic for today is 78 rpm jazz records, which used to be the only kind until the early Fifties.  I was somewhat overwhelmed the profusion of them on eBay — 1,183 items!  Of course, some of them had no business being in that category — a Dutch hand organ record, Clyde McCoy picture discs, records by Dinah Shore, Xavier Cugat . . . but there were more than enough authentic jazz rarities to make my head spin.  Here are some remarkable ones:

78 1

The combination of the Gennett label and Earl Hines is a potent one.

78 3

When was the last time you saw a Jack Purvis 78 for sale?

78 6

Squirrel Ashcraft and the boys, when they were very youthful.

78 9

Eddie sang on this one and apologized later . . . but it has Tesch, Sullivan, and Krupa, too.

78 11

I think this is a song from an otherwise forgotten musical production; if memory serves, the other side is YOU HAVE MONEY, DON’T YOU? — a song title that doesn’t make my heart leap with anticipation.  I want to know what the record under this one is!

78 12

Early Barry Harris and Frank Foster in Detroit, on the NEW SONG label.

78 14

The other side of this Wardell Gray record is called THE TOUP, no kidding.

78 16

I believe, although perhaps incorrectly, that this record has an early Jess Stacy solo passage; at least he remembered playing with this band.  (The leader would say, “Are you ready, Kittens?”  And they would have to answer “Meow!”  The life of a working musician.)

78 Fats Japan

And finally . . . an eBay seller is offering a dozen Japanese Victor Fats Waller and his Rhythm records . . . for some exorbitant price.  Who knew that Fats had such a reputation in Japan?  Did that country enter the Second World War because they wanted Fats to play for them?  It’s a theory no one, as far as I know, has yet explored.

The larger social significance of this list might be summarized quickly.  78s are unplayable artifacts for almost everyone in this iPod era and they look like valuable antiques that will fetch pleasing prices.  But the economy has made many people look for things to sell that they would otherwise have held on to.  Better that these records get sold on eBay to enthusiasts who can play them, so the music doesn’t vanish entirely.  Who knows how many wonderful 78s get thrown out when collectors die?  “Provide, provide,” as Robert Frost wrote.

BIX, BING, and FRIENDS IN THE BERKSHIRES

The Beloved and I are fond of a certain kind of antique store — not too expensive, devoted to fine French furniture costing thousands, and not specializing in rusted tools and old newspapers.  She is currently entranced by certain kinds of McCoy pottery (planters, not the terrifying cookie jars); I, predictably, look for sheet music and old records.  I might gaze longingly at a Victrola but have no intention of making a commitment to one. 

Sheet music is often in terrible shape if it’s been stored in the barn, and if it’s been well-cared for, the prices rise.  Today we were in Sheffield and Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and I was directed in one store to a fine small collection of music.  Someone had taste: there were Cole Porter songs I’d never heard of, a Swing Era-vintage STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and a batch of early African-Americana: IF THE MAN IN THE MOON WAS A COON and BY THE WATERMELON VINE, MAH LINDY LOU.  But these nicely-preserved artifacts were out of my price range.

Records, too, are usually disappointing: the great days of junking for Paramounts and Gennetts are long, long gone.  More typically I face Bobby Vinton and Frankie Carle, Donna Summer and Christmas songs.  Now and then a popular Goodman or Glenn Miller collection emerges, or a Jazztone from the Fifties, but such appearances are not the rule. 

Today, which happened to be the first Monday in August, before we turned for our temporary country home, the Beloved said, “Let’s cross the street and go into that shop, the one advertising farm tables.”  The shop was somewhat disorderly, and the owner was surprised, he said, that he could direct me to some sheet music (which turned out to be in bad shape).  On the way there, my vigilant eye was caught by a pile of records — microgroove issues without cardboard jackets scraping against one another mingled with 78s. 

When looking through records, one tends to make judgments on what one finds most often: too many Sammy Kaye and Eddie Fisher records and I begin to droop.  78s from the Fifties, obviously, are newer and have had fewer chances to crack and break.  All was reasonably dull until I came to two records, almost adjacent to one another.  I asked the owner, as innocently as I could, what he was charging, and he said, “Oh, a dollar apiece.”

When I took my two finds to him, he said, “Oh!  These are more valuable.  I thought that pile was only Sinatra and Tony Bennett.”  I stood there quietly and said, “Yes, they are more valuable.  What do you want for them?”  And he smiled at me, rather resignedly, and said, “Oh, a dollar apiece,” which I happily paid him.  It was an odd moment: he knew they were worth more but was being generous and perhaps feeling relieved of the burden of two more objects that threatened to overwhelm him.  

Neither record is in splendid condition.  But they both have been played over and over again, which makes them more valuable emotionally even if some eagle-eyed grader would rate them somewhere between V- and G.  Who knew that Bix and Bing got to Massachusetts, and that they had been preceded by the Original Memphis Five?  Someone in the Twenties had, as they say, an ear.  And you can now see the results.

East Chatham Summer 2009 I 018East Chatham Summer 2009 I 017

East Chatham Summer 2009 I 019

East Chatham Summer 2009 I 020

 The photographs are slightly blurry, but my pleasure in these discoveries and the casual generosity of the shop owner is sharp and clear.  “From Monday on, we’ll be in clover . . . !”

LOVELY TO LOOK AT

People who have never held an original 78 rpm recording from the great jazz past might not understand why these pictures are so exciting, but they are.  I’ve heard this music for almost forty years now, and I’ve got the digital versions on my iPod and on CDs, but when I saw these pictures of records for sale on eBay, I thought it would be worth sharing them with my readers:

KC 6 two

KC 6 one

Commodore509b

Commodore509A

SWING ARCHAEOLOGY

jelly-78I just visited Agustin Perez’s very enlightening and heartfelt blog, MULE WALK AND JAZZ TALK — where he has arranged for our delight a series of jazz record advertisements from magazines circa 1938-1944: Hot Record Society, Blue Note, Signature, Bluebird, Solo Art, and more.  If you don’t know the music represented here, these ads might seem charmingly archaic but no more meaningful than drawings of old-time detergent boxes or tubes of toothpaste.

But if you do know what it must have meant to buy the new Art Hodes session on Signature, these ads are tender artifacts of a time when “a record” was a two-sided 78 rpm disk, highly breakable, costing anywhere from thirty-five cents to a dollar, and it was something to treasure.  We who collect jazz now and are able to buy every record Fats Waller made (for example) on twenty-four compact discs, should stop a minute and recall such pleasures, even if they had vanished before we were born.

(In the spirit of accuracy, I must note that the label on the left isn’t advertised in Agustin’s pages — but I was looking for an appropriate illustration and found this: the first of the Circle label’s issues of Jelly Roll’s Library of Congress recordings — a rarity I had never seen before and wanted to share here.)

JULIE FOLLANSBEE, MANNY FARBER, AND KID ORY

kid-ory-78As much as I love jazz, I love the stories that attach themselves to the players, the records, the places the music inhabits.  Earlier today, on WNYC-FM, Leonard Lopate spoke with Kent Jones and Philip Lopate about the flim critic and painter Manny Farber, who celebrated subversive “termite art.” I never met Manny Farber, so my connection to him, perhaps tenuous, exemplifies two or perhaps three degrees of New York separation.

It was, however, my privilege to know the actress and entrancing personality Julie Pratt Shattuck, born Julie Follansbee.  Julie died on August 16 of this year.  She was 88.  I  was introduced to her by her dear friend Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy (widow of the great Irish writer Frank O’Connor — and my benefactor as well).

Julie wasn’t tall, but she seemed regally so — without being stuffy.  Her diction was elegant,  but she delighted in delivering tiny hilarious shocks.  I was standing next to her at a downtown art show when, for whatever reason, she turned to me and recited the limerick about the young man from Madras.  I still haven’t recovered.

Her blue eyes would flash and she would laugh uproariously.  She was one of the most vividly alive people I have ever met; she loved a party, and until her final illness, the word “Whee!” punctuated her talk.  Lucky me! — to have been invited to 242 East 68th Street for tea, the occasional tiny glass of bourbon, dinner — and wonderful stories.

Julie knew that I was immersed in jazz.  I gave a party at her brownstone where the great guitarist Craig Ventresco played and awed everyone.  I also remember a wonderful evening when a trio of Julie, myself, and her friend Roseli Olivera went to the Cajun to hear Kevin Dorn’s band play, where Julie sat, awash in the music, her eyes closed, her head swaying, her face a portrait of bliss.  Once, she mentioned that she had a small collection of 78 rpm records.  Would I like them?  Yes, I said, I would.

Sometime in 2007, then, I went to her brownstone and Julie gave me these 78 rpm records:

Jack Teagarden (Brunswick): Ol’ Pappy / Fate-thee-Well to Harlem

Duke Ellington (Victor): Jubilee Stomp / Black Beauty

Gene Krupa’s Swing Band (Victor): I’m Gonna Clap My Hands / Mutiny in the Parlor

Bessie Smith (Columbia): Empty Bed Blues, Part I and 2

Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers (Victor): Shake It and Break It / Wild Man Blues

Old Man Blues / Nobody Knows the Way I Feels Dis Morning (as printed on the label)

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven / Five (UHCA): Potato Head Blues / Put ‘Em Down Blues

Sister Ernestine Anderson acc. Bunk Johnson’s Jazz Band (Disc): Does Jesus Care / The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow

Kid Ory’s Jazz Band (Crescent): Creole Song / South

J.C. Higginbotham / Frank Newton Quintets (Blue Note): Weary Land Blues / Daybreak Blues

Boris Rose acetate disc: Body and Soul (Hawkins) / I Can’t Get Started (Berigan)

Dizzy Gillespie (Manor): I Can’t Get Started / Good Bait

Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, with Dick Wellstood at the Barrelhouse Steinway (Rampart): Chimes Blues / Old Fashioned Love

I was thrilled: Julie had always been generous to me, and she saw the joy on my face of even having these precious artifacts to leaf through.  The records had been well-played, which I found touching, and they, taken together, suggested someone’s deep love and understanding of jazz in its many manifestations.

“Did you collect jazz records?” I asked Julie.

“Oh, no, these weren’t mine,” she said.

I looked at her quizzically.

manny-farber“Do you know of Manny Farber?” she continued, and I was happy to say that I did.

“Well, when I was living in the Village, sometime in the late Forties, he came around to call.  I don’t recall how I met him.  But he brought these records with him, and he left them behind.”

Sensing that there was some bit of narrative hidden under that calm surface, I just looked at her.

Julie said cheerfully, “Oh, he wanted to sleep with me.  But I wasn’t interested in him.  And he never came back for the records.”

At that time, Manny Farber was still alive, 90 or 91years old.  Julie and I discussed, whimsically, whether I should write him a note and say, “By the way, would you like your records back?  Julie has been keeping them for you,” an idea that never took shape.  For those who savor coincidence, Manny Farber died on August 17, 2008, one day after Julie did.

I miss her.  I’m sorry I didn’t visit her more often.  And I’m sorry that when I looked for a picture of her on Google, none came up — although the many DVDs of the films in which she appears did.  I say “Whee!” in her honor, and thank her for this story and this gift, one of so many.

P.S.  And my hero Eddie Condon signed people’s autograph books with “Whee!”  Great minds think alike, exuberantly so.

CD OF THE MONTH (November 2008)

I’ve written approvingly of other issues on the Canadian Jazz Oracle label, originally the beloved idea of Colin Bray and John Wilby; I’ve learned that Colin approached John R.T. Davies at his home in Burnham, Bucks with the idea of starting a new label; “Ristic” joined as an equal financial partner. Jazz Oracle is a superb label for hot jazz, blues, and hot dance recordings, beautifully documented, and in fine sound — projects of consistent quality, far from the dreaded “bootleg” issues of past and present.  This most recent issue, collecting twenty-seven tracks under the real and nominal leadership of one Benjamin David Goodman, whose centennial is next year, is an entrancing collection.

But first, a caveat.  Goodman is so firmly fixed in the public mind as the hot clarinetist-bandleader-Swing Era-nostalgia-icon that it may be necessary to say that the BG here is not yet the King of Swing, and he certainly isn’t the elder statesman embracing “Memories of You,” “Send in the Clowns,” and “Avalon” on television.

Although the illustrious personnel on these 1930-33 discs includes Gene Krupa and Bunny Berigan, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Dick McDonough, Arthur Schutt, Larry Binyon, Charlie Teagarden, Manny Klein, Stan King, and others, the Palomar Ballroom is years in the future.  What’s here is evidence of the cross-fertilization of jazz and dance music, hot improvisation nestled comfortably into well-played stock arrangements.

Some of us, as more rigid and less sophisticated jazz listeners, when presented with a Fred Rich or Sam Lanin 78, focused only on the sixteen-bar hot solos and ignored the rest of the record.  True, someone hearing this CD for the first time may be slightly unsettled by the crooning of Paul Small, Scrappy Lambert, Sid Garry, Grace Johnston, or Johnny Morris.  But an open-minded listener comes to realize that these records are immensely significant as artifacts of jazz’s subversive powers: the 1931 fox-trotting couple, clinging close during a rhythm ballad, didn’t know that Manny Klein or Dick McDonough was working his enchantment — but recordings like these made jazz acceptable to a public who might otherwise have thought it foreign, unbridled.  And advocates of “pure jazz,” whatever that is, should go back and check out the Goodman Victors and Columbias of 1935-45, many of which are lovely dance music with swinging vocals — not that far from these 1930-1 hot dance sessions.

Listeners unmoved by hot dance music will still want to consider this issue for its four final tracks — a 1933 session under the leadership of singer Steve Washington.  These records, in their own way, are precursors of the hallowed Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey sessions of the middle Thirties.  In them, a little-known but emotionally compelling singer works as part of a small swinging jazz ensemble.  Although “We Were The Best of Friends” is not an ambitious composition, once heard, Washington’s yearning version is hard to forget.

Good music for those who can hear it!  And it’s available through http://www.worldsrecords.com, where you’ll find full details on this and other Jazz Oracle issues.