Tag Archives: Alan Dawson

JAZZ WORTH READING: “THE BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES: FACES, PLACES AND NIGHTLIFE 1937-1962”

Some of my readers will already know about Richard Vacca’s superb book, published in 2012 by Troy Street Publishing.  I first encountered his work in Tom Hustad’s splendid book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY. Vacca’s book is even better than I could have expected.

VACCA book

Much of the literature about jazz, although not all, retells known stories, often with an ideological slant or a “new” interpretation.  Thus it’s often difficult to find a book that presents new information in a balanced way.  BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES is a model of what can be done.  And you don’t have to be particularly interested in Boston, or, for that matter, jazz, to admire its many virtues.

Vacca writes that the book grew out of his early idea of a walking tour of Boston jazz spots, but as he found out that this landscape had been obliterated (as has happened in New York City), he decided to write a history of the scene, choosing starting and ending points that made the book manageable.  The book has much to offer several different audiences: a jazz-lover who wants to know the Boston history / anecdotal biography / reportage / topography of those years; someone with local pride in the recent past of his home city; someone who wishes to trace the paths of his favorite — and some obscure — jazz heroes and heroines.  (Vacca’s book could become the ULYSSES of jazz Boston, although we’d have to settle on a day to follow the paths of, perhaps Sabby Lewis or Frankie Newton through this vanished terrain.)

I found the proliferation of new information delightful, even though I was familiar with some of Boston’s “hot spots of rhythm” and the musicians who played there: Newton, Max Kaminsky, Dick Twardzic, Serge Chaloff, Bobby Hackett, George Wein, Jaki Byard, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Alan Dawson, Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, John Field, Buzzy Drootin, Joe Gordon, and others.  I’d known about the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, Mahogany Hall, and the various permutations of Storyville.  But on every page I read stories that were both new and illuminating (filling in gaps in the lives of musicians I had known as well as obscure ones) and learned a great deal about place and places.

And Vacca has an old-fashioned respectfulness, which is rare in this century.  True, there are stories of low life and bad behavior, for some of those night spots were run by and populated by people who gave way to their impulses — but Vacca is no tabloid journalist, savoring wicked or illicit behavior.  And his amused, gentle forgiveness makes the book especially charming.

Topography — whether substantial or vanished — has a good deal to do with experience.  When I could visit Your Father’s Mustache in New York and realize that its floor space was that of Nick’s circa 1944, it made something click: memory met tangible reality.  Knowing more about the Savoy — as a place, run by real figures in a genuine historical panorama — adds to my experience of listening to broadcasts taken from there.

The photographs — almost all of them new to me — and the maps (a delight) add to the pleasure of this book.  As well, I learned about musicians I’d never heard of, or from, who played major roles in Boston’s jazz life: Dean Earl, Al Vega, Mabel Robinson Simms, as well as places I’d heard little of — Izzy Ort’s Bar and Grille, for one.  james Reese Europe puts in an appearance, as does Sam Rivers; George Frazier, Nat Hentoff, Father Norman J. O’Connor, Symphony Hall, Symphony Sid, Teddi King, Jake Hanna, Leroy Parkins, Fat Man Robinson, John McLellan, Charlie Bourgeois, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Berklee College of Music pop in and out.

But what makes this book rise above the information and stories collected within it is Vacca’s skill as researcher, editor, writer, and presenter.  The first thing a reader will notice is his lively but not flashy writing style: I’d call it refined, erudite journalism — fast-moving but never superficial.  He is a great storyteller, with a fine eye for the telling detail but someone who leaves a reader wanting more rather than feeling as if one was trapped at a party with an Authority on some bit of arcana.  (The writer Vacca reminds me of is THE NEW YORKER’S Joseph Mitchell, and that is not a compliment I utter lightly.)  He has a light touch, so the book is entertaining without ever seeming thin or didactic.  I would hand this book to an aspiring writer, researcher, or reporter, and say, “This is one admirable way to do it.”

In addition, the book is obviously the result of diligent research — not simply a synthesis of the available books that touch on the subject, although there is a six-page small-print bibliography (and a discography, a generous touch) but much of the information here comes from contemporary newspapers and magazines and Vacca’s interviews with Bostonians who were there, whether they were musicians, fans, or interested onlookers.

I’ve finished reading it, but it remains on my desk — an irresistible distraction, a book I have been returning to often.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment — literate, vivid, accurate, and animated.

To find out more about the book, click here. I predict it will provide more pleasure, and more lasting pleasure, than its price — which is roughly that of one compact disc.

May your happiness increase!

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MICK CARLON RECALLS RUBY BRAFF, BEAUTIFULLY

Reprinted from JAZZ TIMES, May 2011:

05/04/11 • By Mick Carlon

Ruby Braff: The Beauty in Music

It’s 1999 and I’m watching a PBS special on Mark Twain. The phone rings. It’s Ruby Braff. “Are you watching the show about Twain?” he asks. “It’s superb. The man was one of our nation’s greatest geniuses.”

I agree. “Too bad Twain didn’t live to be one hundred,” I say.

“Why?” asks Ruby.

“Because then he could’ve heard Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings and we’d have Twain’s reaction to them.”

I hear an intake of breath. “Why the (bleep) would you care about that? Why would anyone want to know how Mark Twain felt about Pops? What a (bleeping) stupid thing to say.”

Not taking Ruby’s insults personally (for some reason, I never did), I reply, “Well, I think it would have been interesting.”

“That’s because you’re a (bleep),” and, once again, Ruby Braff hangs up on me.

For the past quarter century, I’ve lived on Cape Cod. Believe it or not, this sandy peninsula, about an hour south of Boston, was once a garden of jazz delights. Although his fans in Japan and Denmark stood in line to buy tickets to his gigs, Dave McKenna’s local gigs were ridiculously easy to attend. My wife and I would simply stroll into Hyannis’ Road House Café to delight in the world-class sounds of Dave on his “saloon piano”—for free.

And we could hear Ruby Braff, playing the most gorgeous cornet in the world–with a sound redolent of summer dusks and autumn wood-smoke—often with McKenna and bassist Marshall Wood.

I met Ruby through Jack Bradley, his old friend who had once actually saved Ruby’s life. In the depths of a three day coma, Ruby was responding to nothing and nobody. Deciding to visit Ruby at Cape Cod Hospital, Jack brought along a cassette player and a Louis Armstrong tape. He pressed play and the sound of Pops playing “I’m In the Mood For Love” filled the hospital room. Amazingly, Ruby’s eyelids began to flutter. The color returned to his cheeks. A few moments later, his eyes opened. “Hey,” he said in his Beantown Dead End Kid voice, “that’s not the 1935 version.”

“Nope,” replied Jack. “It’s from ’38—Pops with the Dorsey band.”

A few minutes later, now fully awake, Ruby said, “You know, that’s the second time Pops saved my life.”

“When was the first?” asked Jack.

“The first time I heard him.”

Ruby, of course, was a graduate of the Louis Armstrong School of Music. “It doesn’t matter what instrument you play—you’re supposed to be listening to Louis Armstrong. It doesn’t matter whether you write, sing, dance, or anything. If you haven’t listened to Louis Armstrong, there’s nothing, nothing going to come out of your playing that will ever please me. I can tell you that.”

And Ruby would tell you. When I once mentioned a young hot-shot trumpeter, Ruby scoffed, “He can’t play (beep). And you know why? He’s never listened to Louis. I can tell.”

However, one time the young hot-shot trumpeter I admired was Ruby himself. “I love those albums you made with Dave McKenna in 1956,” I said.

“What? Are you nuts?” Ruby thundered. “Do you have ears? I couldn’t play worth crap back then. Only an ignorant fool would like that playing. Dave’s the only reason to listen to those pieces of (beep). I thought you had more sense than that!”

I guess I didn’t. I stand by my high opinion of Ruby’s 1950s music. But his later work, recorded when he was often breathless with emphysema, is among the greatest jazz of the past thirty years: On the Arbors label: Variety is the Spice of Braff; Being With You (Ruby’s lovely Pops tribute); Live at the Regattabar; Music for the Still of the Night; Controlled Nonchalance at the Regattabar I and II (with Dave McKenna and Scott Hamilton). On the Concord label: Ruby Braff and His New England Song Hounds I and II (once again with McKenna and Hamilton, along with Howard Alden; Frank Tate; and the immortal Alan Dawson). I also have big eyes for The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet Live at the New School album (Chiaroscuro) and (sorry, Ruby!) his 1956 duets with Ellis Larkins (Vanguard).

My friend rarely had a good word to say about anyone—myself included—but I never heard him say anything negative about a fellow he had known since boyhood in Roxbury: Nat Hentoff. “That man,” said Ruby one evening, “has never written one phony word in his life. God knows how many bum notes I’ve hit over the years—but as a writer, Nat has never hit a bum note.”

When illness struck again, in the autumn of 2002, I visited Ruby often at Cape Cod Hospital. Strangely, amazingly, he was now always kind, with never a negative word for anyone. It worried me. “I don’t think I’ll ever play my horn again,” he said one rainy November afternoon. I kept quiet. With Ruby, phony optimism would’ve rung false—a bum note.

He died on February 9, 2003, a month short of his 76th birthday. Cape Cod has been one quiet place since.

I’ll let Ruby himself take one last word-solo. In 1979 he told Wayne Enstice: “I believe in beauty, and there’s got to be nothing but beauty in music. And if you’re not playing beautiful music that takes people to another plane, to a delicious place that they can’t ordinarily get to in their own lives, then you’re producing nothing. I want delicious sounds…that’ll take me away on a dream.”

Thanks, Ruby. You gave the world countless such delicious sounds.

P.S.  I hope that neither JAZZ TIMES nor Mick Carlon mind my reprinting this delicious piece that catches Ruby whole.  I, too, loved his music and followed him around with a camera (once) and a cassette recorder (many times) to be closer to the source of that wonderful sound.  And who’s Mick Carlon, aside from being a good friend and a fine writer?

Mick Carlon is a 27- year veteran public school teacher.  His young adult novel, Riding on Duke’s Train, starring Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, will be published in December by Leapfrog Press.  Says Nat Hentoff: “I knew Duke Ellington for over 25 years.  He was my mentor.  The Ellington in Carlon’s book is the man I knew.”  In 2014, Leapfrog will publish Carlon’s young adult novel on Louis Armstrong, Little Fred and Louis.  Carlon lives on Cape Cod with his wife Lisa and his daughters, Hannah and Sarah.