Tag Archives: Art Blakey

JAZZ FOR FREE: 2011 SAVANNAH JAZZ FESTIVAL (Sept. 18-24, 2011)

I’m not a big fan of “free jazz,” but “jazz for free” is entirely a different matter.  And it’s happening this September in Savannah, Georgia.  The festival has been going on since 1983, built by local talent (Teddy Adams and Ben Tucker) and has featured international jazz stars as well, from Carmen McRae and Lionel Hampton to Jimmy Knepper and Art Blakey . . .

All events are free and open to the public.  Here’s the schedule:

Sept. 18 — 5-8 p.m. – Jam Session led by Teddy Adams  

Sept. 19 — 7-9 p.m. – “Ninety Miles” — a movie on Cuban Jazz (cosponsored by Psychotronic Film Society)

Sept. 20 — 7-10 p.m. – Howard Paul Quartet w/Scott Giddens & Jody Espina

Sept. 21 — 7-10 p.m. – George Petit 4 & Bob Masteller & Jazz Corner Quintet

Sept. 22 — 7-11 p.m. – Forsyth Park BLUES NITE

Bottles and Cans, Eric Culberson and Super Chikan

Sept. 23 – 7-11 p.m. Forsyth Park

Huxie Scott & Friends (Hall of Fame Members), Stan Killian Quartet and UNF Band w/Allan Harris

Sept. 24 – 4-11 p.m. Jazz Composers Sextet

Robert Lewis, Sax; Randall Reese, Sax AASU; Bill Schmid, Trumpet GSU; Dave Springfield, Piano VSU CofC; Frank Duvall, Bass CofC; Steve Primatic. Drums AASU; JB Scott/Lisa Kelly Quintet and Deborah Brown Quartet

Savannah Jazz Orchestra Featuring Wycliffe Gordon & Ron Wilkins, Pat Martino Trio w/Pat Bianchi (B3) and Shawn Hill (Drums)

For more information, visit http://www.savannahjazzfestival.org/main.html

FIRST-HAND: PAUL NOSSITER REMEMBERS JO JONES and SIDNEY BECHET

My favorite character of all the drummers was Jo Jones.  Jo was at a Newport Jazz Festival convocation of jazz drummers, and all of the big names were there, including Art Blakey.  There had been a Basie reunion that year, 1957  — Lester and Jo had played with the band.  At the afternoon session, Jo was last.  All of the big names had played the shit out of the drum set, and Jo put the sticks aside and played finger drums for ten minutes.  And then he stopped and smiled and walked off.  It was a lesson for the kiddies.  Less is more.   

I sat in with Sidney Bechet in Juan-les-Pins when he was playing with Claude Luter.  Much to Luter’s annoyance.  But I knew Sidney for a long time, because he and my brother chased the same Australian girl in 1942 or so!  He was very sad being in France, though, because he was treated like a god.  People approached him like a deity.  And there was nobody to hang with.  He was afraid of going back to America because the woman who ran the Savoy in Boston was suing him for non-appearance.

THE “POTATO HEAD” MYSTERY SOLVED AT LAST!

The genial man to the left doesn’t exactly resemble Sherlock Holmes or even Dr. Watson, but he’s helped me solve a nagging mystery.  He’s Dr. Julius “Boo” Hornstein, longtime resident of Savannah, Georgia, and chronicler of its varied jazz scenes.  His research, memories, and appropriate photographs have been published in his book, SITES AND SOUNDS OF SAVANNAH JAZZ (Gaston Street Press).  In it, I found more than I’d expected about King Oliver’s last days and his benefactor Frank Dilworth — and anecdotes about Jabbo Smith, Johnny Mercer, Ben Tucker, and other improvising natives.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing this post.  Exhibit A:

Recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven in 1927, POTATO HEAD BLUES has been a mystery to many for nearly eighty years.  The music itself isn’t mysterious — exultant, rather — but the title has puzzled jazz enthusiasts forever.  Some plausibly have thought it came from the teasing way New Orleans musicians made up names for each other based on essential physiognomy — and one of my readers, Frank Selman, wisely suggested that the title was a sly dig at Clarence Williams, whose cranial structure resembled an Idaho Russet.

Eighty pages into Dr. Hornstein’s book, we meet Sam Gill — not the Brooklyn-born bassist who recorded and played with Randy Weston, Monk, and Blakey, but a Savannah-born trumpet player who (as a young man) had met the down-on-his-luck Joe Oliver. 

But I’ll let Dr. Hornstein lead us back to POTATO HEAD BLUES:

Sam Gill is the kind of guy who likes to tell a story.  Consider this.  We’re sitting around City Market Cafe one early summer afternoon, and Sam is holding forth.  “You ever heard the expression ‘potato head’?  You know, ‘So-and-so is nothing but a potato head?’  No one in our group can rightly say that we have, so Sam proceeds to set us straight.  ‘Well, the expression goes way back in time and has to do with the parades which frequently took place on West Broad Street.  If you were an important figure in the black community, say, a businessman, it was expected of you to have your own band to march in the parades.  The bigger the band, the better in terms of your the image.  So, every now and then you would beef up your band with one or two good-looking men.  The problem was, a lot of the time these fellows looked good, but they couldn’t play.  So, you’d put a potato in the bell of their horns and let them march.  Of course, no sound came out, but that was okay ’cause you only wanted the guys to look good.  That’s how they got to be known as potato heads.” 

You have no idea how relieved I am by this riddle, now unraveled for all time.  And how prescient of Louis not to have turned to his band and said, “Boys, I have a new song for us: it’s about those street parades in New Orleans.  You’ll never forget it: BLUES FOR THE CATS WHO COULDN’T PLAY SO WE HAD TO MAKE SURE WE COULDN’T HEAR THEM PLAY A NOTE EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE SHARP-LOOKING CATS.  One, two!”

Thank you, Sam Gill; thank you, Dr. Hornstein — we’ll all sleep better tonight!

HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE

Two biographies of jazz musicians have recently gotten much well-deserved media attention: Robin G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk, Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong book. 

The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.  It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare. 

But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition.  It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher. 

At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi.  But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed. 

But more about that later.  Who was Herbie Nichols?  “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer.  “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.”  “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.”  “Inimitable pianist and composer.”  “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.” 

Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created.  The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.”  In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas.  (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.) 

But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.”  He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band. 

But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily.  Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop.  He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South.  Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better.  Al was nasty to Herbie.  Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now!  Right in the middle of the tune!  Let’s stop that shit now.  Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah!  Go, man, go, go, go!” 

Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim.  One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.”  Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict.  African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.   

Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators.  Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim. 

However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey.  We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow.  A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES.  He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system. 

Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs.  The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread.  The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced. 

And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him.  Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose.  His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.

Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.”  Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology.  Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin.  I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end.  That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.       

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.
 

JAZZ TREASURES IN CYBERSPACE

I spend more than enough time in front of the computer (my neck can testify to this) but I’ve recently encountered two websites that might prove promising for jazz fanciers.  One, Wolfgang’s Vault, initially awakened all my snobbery: lips that touch Black Sabbath will never touch mine.  And I’m not terribly interested in Grateful Dead backstage passes.  But the Vault has just opened the jazz door a crack for three performances from the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival — audio only — featuring the Basie band, Dakota Staton, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  And more from 1959 is promised on November 17.  See for yourself at http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/concerts/support/newport-jazz.html.

The other site is much more welcoming — it seems to be the official French government video site — my understanding of this is hampered by my stale rudimentary French — called INA.FR.  Visit their site and search for “jazz,” about 600 videos come up.  Some of them are powerfully irrelevant, and much of the “jazz” here is beyond my admittedly narrow interests.  But there are live performances by Ella, Duke, Louis, Lucky Thompson, Bill Coleman, Vic Dickenson, Byas, Bechet, Hawkins, Getz, Gillespie, and long compilations from French jazz festivals — all in evocative black and white.  You’ll be delighted by what this site has to offer: http://www.ina.fr/.

EDDIE HIGGINS (1932-2009)

My good friend Bill Gallagher was lucky enough to know the late pianist Eddie Higgins.  With Eddie’s help, Bill became his discographer as well.  Here is Bill’s beautiful elegy for Eddie:

Eddie Higgins: 2/21/1932 – 8/31/2009

The world of jazz has lost one of its most talented pianists and I have lost a good friend.  Eddie Higgins’ life was brought to an end by complications of lymphatic and lung cancer, an event that seemed to have developed in a matter of a few months.  I had seen Eddie perform in Sacramento in late May, had dinner with him, and he showed no evidence or indication of what was to come in a few brief months.

Eddie was a generous and talented person in so many ways.  He not only played great piano, but he could write well and discuss matters outside of music in ways that were thoughtful and revealing.  Although he could be generous with his time, it took a while to crack the veneer of New England reserve that was part of his persona.  But the effort and the result was worth it.  Underneath was a man who was a gentleman in every sense of the word, a man of taste, a highly developed wit, and one hell of a pianist.

His career was established in Chicago during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s where his longest running gig was a 12 year stint as the resident trio at the London House.  Eddie could play just about anything and with anybody, but he mainly stuck to Mainstream.  He once described Free Jazz as sounding like “a fire in a pet store.” Over the course of a number of years, he played with Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Al Grey and Eddie South. And that’s just the short list. Other well known piano trios that performed at the London House were intimidated by Eddie’s group. Some of the tales that came out of his London House experience were more than entertaining, such as the one involving Buddy Rich. Buddy was drumming like crazy but the customers were leaving because of the volume. The manager asked Eddie to turn down the amplifiers before everyone had left and Eddie did so – but Buddy caught him at it. Accusations were hurled at Eddie, Buddy drummed louder and threatened to get Eddie after the set. Sure enough, he came after Eddie and Eddie hightailed it into the restroom and locked himself in a stall. Buddy found the locked stall and proceeded to do a limbo under the door while Eddie vaulted over the top of the door and out the building. Later, each would avoid bringing up the event when their paths crossed.

Also during his Chicago years, Eddie was invited by Art Blakey to join his Jazz Messengers. Eddie refused because he had two young children at the time and it wasn’t a good time to go on the road. He also had an offer to become Carmen McRae’s accompanist but he turned down the opportunity for the same reasons and the job went to Norman Simmons. When further pressed for his reasons for turning down Blakey, he said that he didn’t want to be the odd man in the group. Eddie would have been the only white musician, the only non-user and Blakey had a habit of paying his connections before he paid his musicians.

Eddie’s versatility was amazing. During the 70’s he was exposed to some of the early recordings coming out of Brazil and was taken by the new rhythms of the Bossa Nova. Many of his albums include a track or two of a South American composition, but he also produced one of the finest albums of Jobim compositions that exists, “Speaking of Jobim.” If you haven’t heard it, you must.

There will be some who read this who will have no idea who Eddie Higgins was or how brilliantly he played. This won’t surprise me because Eddie traveled in certain jazz circuits and was probably better known in Japan and Korea, where his recordings on the Japanese Venus label are among the top jazz sellers. However, Eddie enjoyed deep respect among fellow musicians who admired him as a consummate professional. So, to those who might say, “Eddie, we hardly knew ye,” I understand. But to those who did know him, he was a national treasure and will be missed more than words can express.

Bill and Eddie at Sacramento

Bill and Eddie at Sacramento

About Eddie: he was one of those rare musicians who can make a melody, apparently unadorned, sing.  Any of his Venus recordings (solo, trio, or quartet) demonstrate that he was someone working beneath the surface of the music, giving himself fully to the song.  I also can testify to his gracious nature: having reviewed a Venus CD in Cadence (I believe it was his quartet with Scott Hamilton) I got a letter from Eddie, thanking me for what I had written in the most perceptive way.  I hope that more people come to his music as the years pass.

Jazz photographer John Herr, another Higgins devotee, captured Eddie at the leyboard during the April 2006 Atlanta Jazz Party:

Eddie Herr 406

Eddie’s widow, the singer Meredith D’Ambrosio, sent along this piece on Eddie from the Chicago Tribune — http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/chi-obit-ed-higgins-02sep02,0,1489219.story — a fitting tribute to a man who brought so much music to that city.  We send our condolences to Meredith and to Eddie’s family.  Thanks to Judith Schlesinger, Bill Gallagher, and John Herr.

ON TREASURE ISLAND

No, my title isn’t a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson, or the 1935 pop song recorded by Louis and Wingy Manone.  It’s how I think of the back quadrant of the antiques-and-collectables shop called CAROUSEL on Warren Street in Hudson, New York.  In a previous post, I happily showed off the Jelly Roll Morton HMV 78 I had uncovered . . . but I hadn’t bothered to look down.  What I found was two boxes of 10″ and 12″ 78s and a few 10″ lps — many of them suggesting that their previous owner had far-ranging and excellent jazz taste.  Here are my latest acquisitions, arranged in rough chronological order for the purists out there . . .

Let’s begin with some classic acoustic blues: two Columbias by a famous pair:

78s from Carousel 001

78s from Carousel 002

78s from Carousel 003

78s from Carousel 004

78s from Carousel 005

This one was fairly dull, but I didn’t expect roaring improvisation.

78s from Carousel 006

Well, we live in hope. SUSAN has some faux-hot playing in its final chorus, where potential buyers might not be scared away, but nothing memorable.

78s from Carousel 007

I recall this tune from Mildred Bailey’s little-girl version, but don’t know the vocalist.

78s from Carousel 008

This 78 is cracked, but this side’s a real prize.  With the song taken at a slower tempo than usual, there’s a good deal of growling from Bubber Miley in the last minute of the record, out in the open and as part of the ensemble.  A find!

78s from Carousel 009

What first caught my eye was the lovely UK label . . . then when I saw this and the next ones were mint Bings from 1933, I couldn’t resist.  And Eddie Lang is added to the Royal Canadians.  Legend has it that the British pressings are quiet and well-behaved.  Is this true?

78s from Carousel 010

Not a memorable song, but I can hear Bing becoming pastoral as I type these words.

78s from Carousel 011

78s from Carousel 012

And my favorite of the four sides — a jaunty naughty song about love-addiction, and perhaps other things, too.  I always knew that “I must have you every day / As regularly as coffee or tea,” didn’t entirely refer to Twining’s Earl Grey.

78s from Carousel 013

Now you’re talking my language!  We jump forward into the Forties (I left aside a number of familiar Commodores and Keynotes, because of the economy) — with a record I’d only heard on an Onyx lp compilation.  Here’s the original 12″ vinyl pressing, with “Theodocius,” as Mildred called him on a 1935 record, who was under contract to Musicraft at the time.  A wonderful quintet!

78s from Carousel 014

And a tune that only one other jazz group (Benny Morton-Red Allen, 1933) ever recorded.

78s from Carousel 015

For whatever reason, 10″ jazz lps are even more scarce than 78s, so this one was a real surprise — even without its cover.

78s from Carousel 016

Just as good!

78s from Carousel 017

The other side of the ideological divide, but equally thrilling.

78s from Carousel 018

Did Mingus overdub his bass lines on this issue, I wonder?

78s from Carousel 019

Take it on faith that side 2 is exactly the same except for the altered digit.  Now, to conclude — a pair of oddities!

78s from Carousel 021

I can see myself listening to this two-sided piece of history once, if that — but the near-mint record and the original sleeve made it an essential purchase.  I’ll also send this photo to my friend, poet Amy King, who isn’t abdicating her throne any time soon.

78s from Carousel 022

Finally, a real gamble and entirely irresistible for that reason.  The logical half of the brain says that what looks like “Hawk” will turn out to be “Hank,” singing about his girl Nona, accompanying himself on the musical saw.  The hopeful side of the brain says “Coleman Hawkins, of course . . . ”  Stay tuned!  My next purchase, obviously, has to be a three-speed turntable.

And two antique-store stories, both cheering.  In Carousel, the gentleman behind the counter saw me come puffing up with my armload of precious 78s.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think the store does a brisk business in 78s, so he was happy to see me.  “I have twelve,” I said, with that hopeful expectant canine look on my face that says, silently, “Can you give me a break on the price, especially if I don’t haggle with you?”  His intuition was splendid.  He grinned at me and said, “Looks like ten to me.”  I was pleasantly flustered and said, conspiratorially, “You knew I was hoping for some sort of discount, didn’t you?” and his smile got bigger.  “No,” he said, “I just count better than you do.”  Very sweet indeed!

And a few days before this, the Beloved and I had spent some time in a store in an odd location — where, I don’t exactly remember.  Its owner was even more amiable, even when we couldn’t find a thing to buy in his place, including gardening books and a small stash of vinyl records.  But we had an exceedingly amusing and thoughtful conversation with him about the changing nature of the area, and how it affected local businesses.  We exchanged friendly good wishes at the end, and went outside to get in the car.  A few beats later, we saw him emerge from the store.  “Did I tell you my clown joke?” he said, and we said no, he hadn’t — hoping for the best but expecting something positively weird or terrifying.  (One never knows, do one?)  “Two cannibals are eating a clown, and one of them looks at the other and says, suspiciously, ‘Does this taste  funny to you?”  It caught me by surprise and, after a moment for cogitation, we were laughing loudly.  Now you can tell it to someone else.