Tag Archives: Al Morgan

O.P., IRVING, LOUIS

Last night, while in an eBay reverie, I was grazing through the meadow of Entertainment Memorabilia, sub-section Jazz, sub-sub section Original Autographs, when I found these three artifacts.  To some, they may seem irreplaceable treasures; to others, just weird debris.  The first seller had purchased a huge collection of Danish paper ephemera and added it to his already expansive holdings, the latter laid out for your pleasure here.

I’d never seen an Oscar Pettiford autograph before, and this one is from the last years of his too-short life.  The red diagonals suggest that this is, rather than an autograph for a fan, the return address — upper left corner — taken from an air-mail envelope.  Whether that increases or decreases value, I don’t know.  I haven’t identified the Copenhagen hotel, but since the autograph would be, at latest, from 1960, it is possible the hotel no longer exists:

And here is a very touching and brief remembrance of Oscar with guitarist Attila Zoller — performing Oscar’s THE GENTLE ART OF LOVE in Denmark, perhaps not that far away in time from the envelope above:

Then, something more odd: a photograph of Irving Mills and two men I don’t recognize, inscribed lovingly to film star Dorothea Summers, from whose collection this came:

and a magnified inscription:

Here is a promotional short film (or most of it) from 1931, where Irving Mills introduces three of his bands: Baron Lee and the Blue Rhythm Orchestra; Duke Ellington (with pleasing closeups of Arthur Whetsol), and Cab Calloway, with Al Morgan stealing the scene.  I thought that glimpses of Mills, reading from the script on his desk, would be easier on the nerves than his singing:

Finally, something I found exciting, even though it isn’t inscribed.  Louis Armstrong had a heart attack in June 1959, and I now assume that he received get-well cards from everyone who loved him . . . that’s a-plenty.  I had never seen his singularly Louis thank-you card, and a collector possessed not only the card but a publicity photograph that may have come with it:

I would like you to commit Louis’ poem to memory, please:

Here’s Louis in 1960 on the Bell Telephone Hour — magnificent readings of SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, LAZY RIVER, and a heartbreaking SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, before a MUSKRAT RAMBLE that puts Louis with a modern version of the Mills Brothers who sing a version of the lyrics from BING AND SATCHMO:

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC FOR MOM, OR ABOUT HER (May 8, 2016)

I don’t mean to be irreverent on this Mother’s Day, or certainly not irrelevant, but here’s a wonderful musical tribute to the women without whom we wouldn’t exist.

Mammy O'Mine

The song is an ancient one (recorded by the ODJB and others — a hit in 1919-1920.  And I suspect that twenty years later, either Milt Gabler or Eddie Condon or both remembered it as a favorite of their childhood or just a good song to jam on, so we have this recording from 1942, with Eddie Condon And His Band: Max Kaminsky, cornet; Brad Gowans, valve trombone or valide; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Joe Sullivan, piano; Eddie Condon, guitar; Al Morgan, bass; George Wettling, drums.

Maternal affection, Chicago-style.  For all the Mothers in the house.  (My mother’s been gone since 2000, and she would have disliked this music, but as she used to say, “It’s the thought that counts.”  So she is being thought of, even in my own left-handed way.)

May your happiness increase!

WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON ATE (December 4, 1783), EMILY ASHER AND FRIENDS SWING (March 28, 2015)

Fraunces Tavern

Fraunces Tavern is justly famous (it’s at 54 Pearl St, New York, and the phone is 212 968-1776) but I had never visited.  Even though I view Wikipedia with suspicion, this seems both detailed and accurate.  But I wasn’t visiting there this past Saturday afternoon to see where George and company bid each other farewell over dinner.  I confess that my idea of history is being in Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s turquoise kitchen in their house in Corona.

I was there because the trombonist / singer / composer Emily Asher has had a regular jazz brunch on Saturdays (1-4) and I had heard very good things about it, so I made my way down there to enjoy Emily, guitarist James Chirillo, string bassist / singer Sean Cronin, and a special guest.

I approached the first two sets as a civilian, drinking coffee (brought to me by a very sweet young waitperson), watching the ebb and flow of families, and digging the music.  Before I talk about the music, though, a digression.  I have a notebook when I go to any music, to write down information — song titles and the like — because I can’t always rely on my memory when I get home.  And I am a born eavesdropper and collector of things sweet and strange.

Here are a few samples.

While Emily’s Garden Party trio was playing, a large group of children was dancing in the adjacent room.  They were too young to know the Balboa, but they were having a fine time.

A man in his twenties looked at the band and said happily to his companion, “Oh, a little trombone action!” which was a good critical soundbite.

To my left sat a grandfatherly-looking man with what might have been a captain’s hat, surrounded by four or five pre-teenagers who might have not been his blood relations.  They were having a fine time, and he was talking with them about different subjects and eliciting their responses (as opposed to a monologue).  One subject was flags of the world, which I confess did not catch my attention.  But the subject that did was his grass-roots explanation of economics, which caught me because it had the enticing word CUPCAKES prominently featured.  Compressed, his explanation went something like this. “Everyone here likes cupcakes, and you can bake some and sell them for money and you hope to make a profit, and if they’re good cupcakes, then people are happy.  If you have a library, you don’t make any money, but the people who read the books get smarter and the whole society improves.”  I’m not sure that any of his acolytes were willing to give up the idea of cupcakes, but he was a sly and I hope effective economist.

Back to the music. It was tender, then it swung like mad.  STARS FELL ON ALABAMA, I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA, and LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING were dear and sweet.  Emily sang most fetchingly on VIRGINIA and SILVER; there was also heat on SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL, SOME OF THESE DAYS, and a half-dozen others.  James Chirillo, the prince of swing, created a surrealistic masterpiece of a solo on THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE that would have pleased Stuart Davis or Magritte; Sean Cronin swung both with and without the bow, slapped the bass in the best Al Morgan manner, and harmonized with Emily on WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP. And — something new – – Emily picked up an empty coffee cup and used it in the best Vic Dickenson manner to make new sounds.  I was very pleased to see this manifestation of Vickensonian ardor.

By the final set, I had had enough of being a civilian and unpacked tripod and camera.  (Could I disappoint JAZZ LIVES?  Certainly not.)  So here are four treats from that set — and you’ll notice a young fellow with a trumpet.  He’s known here and abroad as Bjorn Ingelstam; he played wonderfully when I first met him, and he’s even better now.  (And April 1 is his birthday.  Happiness to the Youngblood!)

BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU:

NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW:

I WANT A LITTLE GIRL:

I know where I’ll be on some Saturdays to come.  You may notice that there is a hum of conversation, and I’ve often complained about this.  But the conversations I heard and overheard at Fraunces Tavern were sweetly reassuring, and I’d prefer them to the contemporary zombie glaze at the smartphone that I see too often.  (I am not alone in wincing at couples who go out for a meal and sit in silence, engrossed in their phones.)

George Washington never slept here: he would have been too busy putting ancient money in the tip jar. Or he would have been looking to see if there were any cupcakes on the menu or if they were simply theoretical ones.

May your happiness increase!

KATIE AND FRIENDS PLAY FATS AND FRIENDS! (KATIE CAVERA, CHRIS CALABRESE, MARC CAPARONE, CLINT BAKER, SAM ROCHA): Hot Jazz Jubilee, August 30, 2014)

FATS 1939 Howard Theatre Shep Allen Scurlock Studio

Fats Waller created joy.

In the 1939 photograph, he is with his manager Shep Allen at the Howard Theatre: credit to Scurlock Studios and thanks to Chuck Slate.

Although Fats has been elsewhere for almost sixty-five years, he continues to inspire. One example is this sweetly energetic session recorded by the ubiquitous, diligent Rae Ann Berry (all hail!  all hail!) at the second annual Hot Jazz Jubilee in Rancho Cordova, California.

This energized band — titled JUST KATIE AND FRIENDS — was, for this wonderful gathering, our Miss Cavera, guitar, vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet, vocal; Clint Baker, trombone, clarinet, vocal; Chris Calabrese, piano; Sam Rocha, string bass, vocal.

Their repertoire for this set was primarily Fats — songs composed / featured by him — as well as by fellow pianists Claude Hopkins and Earl Hines. A ringer, WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD, is by Irving Berlin — but both Fats and the Paul Whiteman band recorded it.

Notice that JK&F doesn’t aim to reproduce the Waller-Autrey-Sedric-Casey ambiance; there is a welcome absence of “Wallerisms,” either in rapid tempos or shouts by the ensemble. Chris Calabrese, bless him, can hold his own in any stride session, so the relaxed approach is everyone’s choice.

What you will experience is a congenial group of swinging pals, and you might hear echoes of Henry “Red” Allen, Mouse Randolph, J.C. Higginbotham, Al Morgan, Carmen Mastren, James P. Johnson, Albert Nicholas, Count Basie, the Rhythmakers — an aesthetic roundtrip between 1936 and 2014 — but the individual resonances and loving nods coalesce into a joyous whole.

THAT RHYTHM MAN:

HOW CAN YOU FACE ME? (with Katie’s rather plaintive inquiry):

FAIR AND SQUARE (in memory of Lueder Ohlwein and the Sunset Music Company as well as Fats, with an egalitarian vocal by Marc):

UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG:

LONESOME ME (a feature for the extremely talented Mr. Calabrese):

WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD (with hopeful vocalizing by Clint):

ROSETTA (sung by our Sam, with echoes of THE SOUND OF JAZZ):

BABY BROWN (by Alex Hill, who is reputedly the true composer of the next tune as well):

I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU, an earnest assertion from Clint:

Fats gave us everything he had, and we are still smiling at what (Just) Katie and Friends have made from his inspirations.

We don’t have to wait for The Real Thing To Come Along. Surely it’s here.

Ms. Berry is essential to our edification, for here  is her regularly-updated list of San Francisco / Bay Area hot jazz attractions; here  is her YouTube channel, where she has nearly a thousand subscribers (she’s been posting videos since March 2008).

And she’s had a direct influence on my life, because I saw all there was to see of hot California jazz through her efforts, and you know the rest.  She’s also on Facebook, displaying the same energies as her improvising heroes.

May your happiness increase!

SO SWEET: THE FIRST THURSDAY BAND (Feb. 2, 2012)

More from the First Thursday Band — a small hot jazz ensemble that appears on a particular day at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle, Washington.  They are Steve Wright on reeds and cornet; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Dave Brown, string bass;  Mike Daugherty, drums.  Each member of the band occasionally takes a casual but expert vocal, and these four players swing as soloists — and, even better, as an ensemble.  Here are a few selections from their their Thursday date of 2.2.12 — a harmonious-looking date in itself.

A song I love deeply — could it be from hearing Louis, Bobby, Joe Thomas, Jack Teagarden, and others perform it? — HOME.  And this version perfectly balances Sweet and Hot:

SO SWEET comes from Jimmie Noone, and the title describes it perfectly:

Disorientation and perhaps even homelessness never swung so hard or sounded so good as in SONG OF THE WANDERER:

MOANIN’ should be a depressing exercise, but this performance is quite uplifting:

One of my favorite tunes — which other Thirties cowboy number has ties to Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, and a doomed Bob Hoskins?  Take another one, Mike!  ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON:

To me, this compact little band is a triumph of both sound and intuition.  The players hark back to a time when you could tell an instrumentalist or singer in a few notes — instantly recognizable personal identities, like the great film stars.  No one ever confused Bette Davis or Benny Morton with anyone else!  Each member of this quartet has his own identity, and although the whole concept honors the past (so you could, if you liked, talk about Charlie Holmes and Jess Stacy, George Wettling and Al Morgan among a hundred other heroic figures), you hear Skjelbred’s traceries, Brown’s resonant pulse, Daughterty’s cornucopia of rocking sounds, Wright’s lyrical messages.  And the quartet is more than simply four great players bundled together onstage: they remind me of the great string quartets who worked together for years and played better than four individuals with bigger names.  Intuition is at work here — so that each player is both advancing his own vision and listening deeply to what the other fellow just “said,” or anticipating what he thinks is coming next.  A little family of people who know the same language and love its possibilities.

I don’t know when I will end up in Seattle, but I would like it to be a First Thursday.

These videos — and more! — are posted on YouTube by the very gifted Mr. Wright — you might want to subscribe to his channel, swr2408018 — so you don’t miss even a four-bar break.

CELEBRATING EDDIE CONDON’S BIRTHDAY

Eddie Condon left us in 1973, but the musical cosmos he created lives on in 2011 and beyond.  It’s not difficult to imagine his approving shade at Whitley Bay, at The Ear Inn, at Jazz at Chautauqua — when gifted men and women get together to worship at the shrine of Hot Jazz, of graceful melodic improvisation, of swinging solos and ensemble.  And today would have been his birthday.  But any day is a good one to remember Eddie, as a prophet and advocate of beautiful energetic collective improvisations. 

I’ve chosen to honor him through music rather than on film.  Here are three examples of what he did so well.  The first is the opening segment from a 1944 Condon concert, as broadcast on the radio and to the troops.  You’ll hear Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Morton, Gene Schroeder, Eddie, Sid Weiss, and Gene Krupa:

And just because Eddie and the boys (in this case, Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee, Joe Sullivan, Al Morgan, Eddie, and George Wettling) found the twelve-bar blues a real source of inspiration, here are two of the life-enhancing Commodore 12″ 78s in honor of John Steinbeck — Tortilla B Flat:

and More Tortilla B Flat:

Thanks to Hal Smith — who knows the spirit of Condon well! — for the timely reminder.

HEAVENLY RHYTHM: CARL SONNY LEYLAND, CLINT BAKER, JEFF HAMILTON (Aug. 20, 2011)

Carl (piano), Clint (bass), and Jeff (drums) don’t play waltzes, but I thought this recent acquisition provided just the title for the music they created at the Wednesday Night Hop in Mountain View on August 20, 2011:

Because Carl is such a superb boogie-woogie pianist and blues singer (no one else I know summons up all that lowdown energy) he is often typecast within that genre.  But he is such a fine player of straight-ahead swinging jazz that I wanted to showcase him in that way here.  (Readers take note: he is also a powerful yet subtle player of ragtime and stride: I’ve been dazzled by his versions of SWIPSEY CAKEWALK and CAROLINA SHOUT.)

Clint is so good on so many instruments that his strong, focused bass playing might be taken for granted.  But he makes me think of the heroes of that instrument — Al Morgan, Wellman Braud, Steve Brown, Walter Page.

And I always knew how marvelously Jeff Hamilton swung, having admired the two compact discs he’s recorded as a leader — check them out for yourself at http://www.jeffhamiltonjazz.com — but his playing at this session was especially rewarding.  He can swing mightily in any tempo; his time is superb; he makes any drum kit sound orchestral without raising the volume; his solos have shape and form and wit.  He surprises in the same way Dave Tough did, and his grounding in New Orleans jazz keeps any band rocking.

I apologize to Jeff and to viewers for the post that seems to bisect him vertically.  It didn’t seem to affect his playing, and filming from this angle kept me safe from airborne lindy-hoppers.

Here are the HEAVENLY RHYTHM BOYS (rechristened for the purpose of this blog), making music that needs no exegesis:

ROSETTA:

SONG OF THE WANDERER:

LADY BE GOOD:

THE PRISONER’S SONG:

I FOUND A NEW BABY:

SWANEE RIVER:

What a trio!

PAPER, NOT EPHEMERAL

This piece of paper comes from the collection of Boston jazz aficionado Samuel Prescott, and it’s an absolute Who’s Who of jazz stars who came through that city in the Forties.  The Prescott papers (and discs) are now held by the University of New Hampshire Library, and they took good care of this piece of paper, crowded with signatures of great men and women:

On the back (invisible at the moment) is the autograph of one Duke Ellington.  And here are the names that the librarians found: a good pastime for a rainy day with a magnifying glass: 

Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines (twice).  Al Morgan.  Pete Brown.  Joe Battaglia (piano).  Shirley Mhore (vocal).  Gene Sedric.  Art Hodes.  Vic Dickenson.  J. C. Higginbotham.  Roy Eldridge.  Erskine Hawkins (twice).  Joe Marsala.  Adele Girard.  Jimmy Shirley.  Jess Stacy.  Ev Schwarz (pian0).  John Kirby.  James P. Johnson.  Edmond Hall.  Louis Armstrong.  Billy Kyle.  Bob Wilber.  Frankie Newton.  Willie ‘Bunk’ Johnson (twice).  Baby Dodds.  Johnny Windhurst.  Johnny Field (bass).  Sparky Tomasetti.  Jack Teagarden.  Dick Wellstood.  Pops Foster.  Sidney Bechet.  Sandy J. Williams.  Jimmy Archey.  Howey ‘Peacoo’ Gadboys.  Sidney de Paris.  Rex Stewart.  ‘Wild’ Bill Davison.  Pleasant Joseph.  Henry ‘Red’ Allen.  Milton ‘Mezz’ Mezzrow.  Pee Wee Russell.  Don Kirkpatrick.  Max Kaminsky.  Paul Watson.  Bob Guy.  Charlie Holmes.

Amazing, no?

HOT JAZZ: FOR PHILIP LARKIN

The poet and acerbic jazz lover Philip Larkin wrote in ALL WHAT JAZZ (his collected jazz criticism) that he had spent his life waiting for a reissue of the 1932 sides issued under various permutations — mostly THE RHYTHMAKERS — featuring Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Fats Waller, Frank Froeba, Jack Bland, Eddie Condon, Al Morgan, Pops Foster, Zutty Singleton, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Lord, Happy Caldwell, Tommy Dorsey, and unique vocalizing by Billy Banks (also Chick Bullock and, happily, Allen himself). 

Having referred to this music in a previous post (FINE FIG JAM) I felt duty-bound to explore the web . . . these records have been in and out of circulation for eighty years now, in a variety of forms.  My CD, on the Collector’s Classics label, has the distinct advantage of being taken from original 78s remastered by my hero John R.T. Davies — but it was issued in 1992!  So, in the name of doing public service, I offer two YouTube clips of the RHYTHMAKERS.  Before you fall over in a faint, there’s no motion picture attached.  That may have to wait for the next life, I fear.  What the generous poster, who calls himself “formiggini,” has provided, is a slideshow of the participating musicians and a good transfer from a mint-copy CD.  Larkin, no doubt, would have had scathing things to say about a world where we could no longer hear records without going to the computer, but I worried that there might be someone in my audience who had never ever heard the fiery interplay of BUGLE CALL RAG (which features Allen, Russell, Sullivan, Condon, Bland, Morgan, Krupa, and Banks) and SPIDER CRAWL (Singleton on drums). 

Larkin thought all of jazz had declined from this point.  I can’t quite agree, but it surely is the apex of a particular kind of rare, cherished Hot Music.

BUGLE CALL RAG:

SPIDER CRAWL:

And if anyone needs a scholarly explication of the lyrics, I will happily provide one,

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

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The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

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 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

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In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

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This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises. 

ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning  at a church in Rockville Centre.

My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.

billie-1These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love.  (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)

To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure.  And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.

STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre.  As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.

But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding.  And surprising.  Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.

Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface.  If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs.  What would they bring to such an experience?”  But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.

A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.

A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties.  I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.

A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.”  (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis.  52nd Street isn’t and never was.)

I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate.  She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.

A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942.  They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz.  She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared).  And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton.  I beamed at her, awestruck.

On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided.  I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two.  And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like.  But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me.  And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.

My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible.  So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on.  And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience.  In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past.  Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.

The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.

[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour.  Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott?  I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)

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