Through the kindness of my friend, the fine drummer and jazz scholar Bernard Flegar, we have an extended performance by “The Bob Cats,” featuring musicians rarely captured on film at this length — who come together to form an expert band, engaged and expert. In their hands, the most hackneyed tunes sound casual, intense, and fresh. The band is presented as a subset of “The World’s Greatest Jazz Band,” but in truth only co-leaders Lawson and Haggart were founding members of the WGJB: the others were old friends who could be wooed into a European tour, people who knew the routines, sometimes because of fifty years of professional performance.
The performance began with a long introduction by Peter Buhr, who was, as Bernard tells me, “the MC and booker of the Bob Cats tour, and to this day leader of his band, the ‘Flat Foot Stompers.’ Peter was a personal friend to many of these legends.”
Here is the first part of this glorious concert, almost eighty minutes in four segments. . . . . and now the second part (all of this divided arbitrarily by YouTube, but not disastrously).
This segment continues the rocking SWEET GEORGIA BROWN that now includes (unobtrusively) the banjoist Hanju Pape and perhaps some of the young players at the rear of the stage, but the real delight is the way the Bob Cats trade phrases — the audience delights in it, also. Peter Buhr then introduces Pape to sing and play NOBODY KNOWS YOU WHEN YOU’RE WHEN YOU’RE DOWN AND OUT, quite idiomatically. Haggart quietly and effectively backs him up: friendship on the bandstand! Fatool adds so much during Pape’s OH, SUSANNAH (is Haggart checking the chords?), then Stein joins in for S’WONDERFUL, and the Cats gentle reassemble behind and around Pape. Havens begins a beautiful BASIN STREET BLUES — incomplete (in the middle of a Lawson phrase) but to be resumed in the next segment:
The band provides Havens superb stop-time backing (and someone says, fervently, “Yeah, Bobby!) and then the mood changes for the Haggart-Fatool duet, BIG NOISE FROM WINNETKA, a beautiful version: great visual and auditory theatre that pleases the audience immensely. Lawson then begins SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY with Fatool, Haggart, and Stein — tightly muted and whispery, before playing the sound games of which he was a master: this quartet session is reminiscent of the Ruby Braff live gigs I saw, and makes me think it was a pity that Lawson never did a whole session as the only horn. “We meet again,” says Marty Grosz, before beginning his solo segment with BREAKIN’ THE ICE (catch the descending phrase behind “I guess you know what it’s for”) then ALL GOD’S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM, with a nod to Clappo Marx, in a truly swinging version, interrupted before the final words, but you know what they are:
“. . . .got swing.” Then, SQUEEZE ME, at a leisurely tempo with beautiful expressive solos by Lawson, Havens, and Miller — followed by a rhapsodic MY FUNNY VALENTINE featuring Stein and masterful accompaniment from Haggart and Fatool. Then what might have been a deplorable interlude — WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN — plus Pape — is transformed by this band’s irresistible swing and quiet lyricism. Mainstream jazz, my friends: consider Miller’s splendid solo before the applause, band introductions, and more applause. The band goes off, but there must be an encore, and we know it, SOUTH RAMPART STREET PARADE, started off by Fatool, whose playing is a graduate seminar in itself:
and here it is! — with everyone knowing just how it should sound, splendidly, Most nodding to George Lewis once or twice, Miller soaring, and Lawson climbing above the ensemble in the best Blackhawk fashion:
“Drive carefully going home,” Lawson tells us, before Peter Buhr closes off the evening for us and we watch the pleasantly-dressed audience leave the hall.
But wait! Here’s Eddie Miller playing SOPHISTICATED LADY with the same rhythm section at the Cork Jazz Festival, a year later. Too good to ignore:
And a few words about labeling and categorization. Dick Gibson named this band and its offshoots THE WORLD’S GREATEST JAZZ BAND as a marketing idea (it was more memorable than the TEN GREATS OF JAZZ on a marquee) and also because he believed it. But at Gibson’s parties you’d also hear Carl Fontana, Sweets Edison, and Benny Carter. However, many jazz fans — perhaps those who believe that the music began with KIND OF BLUE — sneered at the label and at the band. To them, these musicians were elderly, repeating old routines. I will leave the ageism to those who dote on such things. But as you listen to “The Bob Cats,” even though some of their repertoire goes back to the ODJB, and a few routines are pre-war, the solos and ensembles are so lively, so timeless. Mainstream jazz, not museum jazz. All it requires is that listeners are open to the individualities, the sincerities, and the swing.
Heartfelt thanks again to Bernard, Peter, Yank, Bob, Eddie, Abe, Lou, Bob, Nick, Marty, Hanju, another Michael, and that pleasant audience . . . for making these hours of joy possible then and now. And I can testify that this concert improves on repeated listening.
May your happiness increase!