Tag Archives: Art Farmer

THREE BY THREE: GABRIELE DONATI, EHUD ASHERIE, JASON BROWN at CLUB 75 (May 21, 2019)

We begin with John McCormack.  “Why?” you ask.  It’s not because of my Irish Studies connections . . . the link is musical.

Ler’s move to a more assertive improvisation — created at the 75 Club on May 21, 2019, by Gabriele Donati, string bass; Ehud Asherie, piano; Jason Brown, drums:

Brilliance without ostentation.  And then . . . .

the even more obscure song, the 1930 SO BEATS MY HEART FOR YOU:

Finally, a film song with a solid place in the jazz repertoire:

and this wonderful breakneck performance:

The erudite among us will note associations to Art Tatum, who recorded all three songs.  Art Farmer, Bud Powell, Ivie Anderson, the Marx Brothers, Barry Harris, Lee Morse, Marty Grosz and more, have improvised on these themes.  I hope all listeners will admire the music and the 75 Club, on 75 Murray Street, New York City — close to the Chambers Street stop, with a multitude of trains.

A postscript: this post is for the energetic Maureen Murphy, a dear friend whom I first knew as a world-renowned Irish scholar (this was in 1970): she also loves jazz piano.

May your happiness increase!

HE’S JUST OUR BILL: AN EVENING WITH BILL CROW and FLIP PETERS (January 28, 2016)

BILL CROW

Bill Crow is one of the finest jazz string bassists ever.  But don’t take my word for it — hear his recordings with Marian McPartland, Jo Jones, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Al Haig, Jimmy Raney, Hank Jones, Jimmy McPartland, Manny Albam, Art  Farmer, Annie Ross, Jimmy Cleveland, Mose Allison, Benny Goodman, Cliff Leeman, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Morello, Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Jackie and Roy, Bob Wilber, Ruby Braff, Eddie Bert, Joe Cohn, Mark Shane, Jay McShann, Al Grey, Barbara Lea, Claude Williamson, Spike Robinson, and two dozen others.

Here’s Bill, vocalizing and playing, with guitarist Flip Peters on SWEET LORRAINE:

And if you notice that many of the names on that list are no longer active, don’t make Bill out to be a museum piece.  I’ve heard him swing out lyrically with Marty Napoleon and Ray Mosca; I’ve heard him lift the room when he sat in with the EarRegulars, and he plays just as beautifully on JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE as he does on a more intricate modern piece.

Bill Crow - From Birdland to Broadway

Bill is also a splendid raconteur — someone who not only has a million stories, but knows how to tell them and makes the experience enjoyable.  You should know of his book JAZZ ANECDOTES, which grew into a second volume, and his FROM BIRDLAND TO BROADWAY, a charmingly casual but never meandering autobiography.  (Like  his colleague and friend Milt Hinton, Bill is also a wonderful photographer.)

And did I mention that Bill recently turned 88?

I don’t know which of these three offerings of evidence should take precedence, but put them all together and they are excellent reasons to join in the musical pleasures offered this Thursday, January 28, 2016 — details below:

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To reiterate, thanks to www.project142.org

Thurs. – Jan. 28, 2016 – 8:00pm – 9:30 pm. – The DiMenna Center for Classical Music – NYC – Bill Crow Project 142 Concert with Flip Peters – 450 West 37th St. (between 9th & 10th Aves.) – Benzaquen Hall (elevator to 1st Floor) – Doors open @ 7:30p. – $15.00 Concert Charge @ door.

I asked the delightful guitarist / singer Flip Peters to speak about his relationship with Bill:

I first became aware of Bill Crow in the early 1960s when as a young jazz fan I heard him with Gerry Mulligan. I remember around that time reading a quip in Down Beat about bass players with bird names, Bill Crow, Gary Peacock, and Steve Swallow.

In the early 1980s, I began to read Bill’s column, “The Band Room,” in the Local 802 paper, Allegro. That column is a highlight and I turn to it first each month when I get that paper. I received a copy of his Jazz Anecdotes as a Christmas present a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I first played gigs with Bill in 2014. The first one we played on together was a Gatsby-themed party with Marti Sweet’s Sweet Music (www.sweetmusic.us). On that gig Bill doubled on bass and tuba and I was struck by his mastery of the tuba. After that we played private party gigs and some Dixieland gigs with trumpeter Tom Keegan. Then in 2015, I played on gigs with Bill in Rio Clemente’s band (www.rioclemente.com). On one of those gigs, Bill asked me to join him at Shanghai Jazz where he had been hired to speak and play for the Jersey Jazz Society. After that gig I decided that it would be a good idea to present this to a wider audience. Anyone who loves jazz would be fascinated to hear Bill recount some of his many stories, and of course to hear him play.

I am honored and thrilled to play music with Bill. He is a rare person and musician. Not only is he a virtuoso on his instruments but he is a true gentleman. When you are in his presence you can’t help but feel comfortable. When he relates his experiences, everyone present feels as though they are sharing those moments with him. And he continues to play at an extremely high level. He has truly stayed at the top of his game for many years. He maintains a busy playing schedule and plays with the energy of a young musician who possesses the experience of an elder statesman.

You can find out more about Bill at his website but I politely urge you to put the phone down, back away from the computer, and join us on Thursday night to hear Bill and Flip, in music and story.  Evenings like this are rare.

May your happiness increase!

BRILLIANT VERSATILITY: KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: THE GLASGOW SUITE / CLARINET GUMBO

Here’s what I wrote about Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra when I first heard their three CDs (one devoted to Louis, one to Jelly, one to a jazz panorama) in 2010.  Five years later, it’s just as true.

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away. For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra.

The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits.  For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, King Benny Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.

And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance.  Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong.  Commendable enough.  One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records.  Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc.

Admirable, but somewhat limited.  Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point?  (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.)

Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically.  Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet?  Is it possible to lose the thread?

Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course.  On two new CDs, he has managed to heed Ezra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences. Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance.  The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified.  Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.

The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet; Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet; Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, tenor, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Tom Finlay or Paul Harrison, piano; Roy Percy, bass; Ken, drums and arrangements.

Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson. I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners.  But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow!  That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?”

Now.  Here we are in 2015, with more good music on two new CDs.

The new CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: CLARINET GUMBO /WITH EVAN CHRISTOPHER (Lake LACD 133) and ALAN BARNES with KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: THE GLASGOW SUITE: THE MUSIC OF BENNY CARTER (Woodville WVCD 133).

CLARINET GUMBO, as you can guess, draws fervently and superbly on the New Orleans clarinet tradition, with delightful reed work from Evan, Dick, Konrad, and Martin — as well as several Jelly Roll Morton rarities which were part of the library of his abortive late big band, GANJAM, STOP AND GO, and JAZZ JUBILEE. evocations of Bechet, Bigard, Noone, Fazola, Simeon, and others — all voiced imaginatively and without cliche.  You can gather something about Ken and the CJO’s consistent ingenuity by noting this: the disc has five Morton pieces, including the venerable BLACK BOTTOM STOMP and the less well-known SUPERIOR RAG, but Ken has also reimagined Mingus’ JELLY ROLL as a musical scuffle between Messrs. Ferdinand and Chazz, each earnestly proposing that his way is the only right way.  Throughout the disc, even when the melodies are familiar (DARDANELLA, for instance, a tribute to Ed Hall) the scoring is fresh and lively without ever going against the essential nature of the song or its associations.  Beautifully recorded and nicely annotated, too.

Here’s FAZOLA from the clarinet CD: 

and the lovely, moody PELICAN DRAG: 

Tributes to Benny Carter are not as frequent as they might be, perhaps because his music is orchestral as well as featuring a saxophone soloist; it’s not easy to play well, and Carter himself created glowing examinations of his music while he was alive — which was only right, since his “old” charts still sounded wonderful. (I think of hearing his Swing Masters onstage at the first Newport in New York, in 1972.)

For this wonderfully varied tribute to Carter, the great Alan Barnes plays alto and clarinet — but as in the case of CLARINET GUMBO, he is one of many delights.  Those familiar with Carter’s recorded history will know A WALKIN’ THING, SYMPHONY IN RIFFS, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, MALIBU, DOOZY, and a few others, but it is Carter’s five-part GLASGOW SUITE, composed in 1987, that is the delight of this CD.  Mathieson had the opportunity to work with Carter, and the two became friends as well as colleagues, something that shines through this recording.  It is not at all the endeavor of musicians hired for the moment to play scores they don’t love deeply.  Again, beautiful sound and warmly personal notes.

From the Carter tribute, here’s the perfectly sprightly DOOZY: 

and EASY MONEY .

(As an aside, I have grave reservations about YouTube’s practice of offering CDs in this fashion — no doubt without asking permission of the artists or offering them a thousandth of a cent royalty per view.  But I also feel that people need to hear the music before deciding to buy the CD . . . so I hope that these glimpses propel some readers to purchase rather than to “get it for free,” which has unpleasant effects on artists everywhere.)

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found here, and he Lake Records site is here.

These two discs, as is the case with all the CJO’s efforts, show a bright path into the future that carries the past along with it in the most tender way — while understanding that the innovations of the past need to be treated in living ways.

May your happiness increase!

OSCAR PETTIFORD, FOUND

OP front

Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily.  But Pettiford’s is often not among them.

Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career.  An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don  Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.

This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings.  It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s.  But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.

Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous.  And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of.  Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.

Surely he should be better known.

Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):

And his stirring solo on STARDUST:

Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience.  One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions.  That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.

Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there.  Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago.  Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.

American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.

OP cover rear

And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME.  Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz.  The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.

And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:

Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow?  Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative.  So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar.  Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew.  “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.

May your happiness increase!

PETER VACHER’S SUBTLE MAGIC: “MIXED MESSAGES:

The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility.  Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us.  This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling.  Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t.  Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.

Vacher

MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good.  The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly.  But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself.  One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).

Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.  They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent.  The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling.  New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography.  Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.

But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories.  (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.)  Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.

Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:

He was a pretty self-centered guy.  Kinda selfish.  When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show.  He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were.  He’d say, “People come to see me.  I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.”  He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.”  I’d say to myself, “Good show!  I feel like crying.”

Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:

. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix.  He said, “Why don’t you turn to music?  You can get more girls.”  He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.” 

Trumpeter John Eckert:

I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965].  A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups.  Louis ended the concert.  I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.

To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.

May your happiness increase.

THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND (December 2012 Edition)

If you’re going to hear jazz that was recorded before 1990, you might need to be friendly with those archaic objects — phonograph records.  It isn’t essential.  Modern friends (M. Figg and others) get their daily ration of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra through the invisible magic of digital download.  (How Sidney deParis, Ben Whitted, and Jabbo Smith feel about being mashed into an mp3 is something for the metaphysicians to explore).

But when the Beloved and I go a-thrifting, as we do regularly, she is a fine and generous spotter of records.  Often they are the most popular examples of the genre: supermarket classical, Andy Williams, easy listening, disco 12″.  But the person who passes by these stacks and heaps in a spirit of snobbery misses out on great things.  Of course, one needs reasonably flexible knees, a willingness to get mildly grubby, and perseverance . . . but sometimes the quest ends with something hotter than Mantovani.

Six dollars and tax — in two stores in Novato, California, on December 24 — was a small price to pay for these six discs.

Hank Jones Porgy

SWINGIN’ INTERPRETATIONS OF PORGY AND BESS (Capitol stereo): Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, “Alvin” Jones, with arrangements by Al Cohn.

SORTA-DIXIE (Capitol): Billy May (glowering under a straw boater) with soloists are Dick Cathcart, Moe Schneider, Eddie Miller, Matty Matlock.  The big band is also full of luminaries: Uan Rasey, Conrad Gozzo, Manny Klein, John Best, Skeets Herfurt, Murray McEachern.

SWEET GEORGIA BROWN (Tops): Billy Tipton Trio.  Wow, as we say.

TEDDY WILSON AND HIS TRIO PLAY GYPSY IN JAZZ (Columbia): liner notes by Jule Styne.

MUNDELL LOWE AND HIS ALL STARS: PORGY AND BESS (Camden stereo): Art Farmer, George Duvivier, Osie Johnson, Ed Shaughnessy, Tony Scott . . . and Ben Webster.

THE DIXIELAND BALL: THE L ANCERS with GEORGE CATES’ ALL STARS (Coral).  This one is a mystery.  I know that the Lancers recorded with Charlie Barnet and Les Brown; Cates arranged for some jazz-flavored sessions.  There is no personnel listed, which means that the music might be tepid, the All Stars undistinguished.  But I dream of an unacknowledged Abe Lincoln in there.  I couldn’t pass this one up — not only for its mysterious potential, but for the liner notes by Jane Bundy, which begin:

Born in sin and raised in controversy, Dixieland was the musical problem child of World War One–the rock and roll of its day.

Jane, you had me with “Born in sin.”  But enough of that.  So if you see a brightly-dressed man on his knees, reverently going through a stack of records in Northern California or elsewhere, you might be looking at me.

May your happiness increase.

BOB WILLOUGHBY’S REMARKABLE PORTRAITS

Because they give themselves to what they are creating, jazz musicians make splendid photographic subjects.

Bob Willoughby, who died in 2009, wasn’t the first to capture their intensity, lack of self-consciousness, and energy on camera.  But his beautiful volume of photographs and recollections, JAZZ: BODY AND SOUL, shows on every page that his work is superbly moving.  (Evans Mitchell, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound.)

Since musicians — in the act of creation — aren’t standing still, some photographs begin to look like versions of poses we have already seen a thousand times before: the horn player, face distended, sweating, looking like a runner just before crossing the finish line; the intimate relationship between the singer and the vertical microphone; the drummer, moving so quickly that the sticks blur.  Other photographs entrance us because they are the only visual evidence we have that an otherwise obscure musician was ever seen.

Willoughby’s work goes well beyond these formulas, although some of his images have been reproduced so widely that they are now the way that we mentally identify the subject.  But even his most famous pictures have something to offer us, a half-century after they were created.

The book is divided into two sections: one of Wlloughby’s West Coast photographs from 1950 to — Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee.  Particularly absorbing is a series of dramatic photographs catching the emotional interplay between saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and a crowd in hysterical rapture.  Willoughby photographed Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Buck Clayton, Martha Tilton and friends during the recording sessions for the soundtrack of THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY.  An extended photo-essay on Frank Sinatra tells us more than any biography.

The second section of the book offers photographs Willoughby created in Germany in 1992 and 1994 — fascinating portraits of Lee Konitz, Marcus Roberts, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, John Lewis, Mulligan much transformed by the years, and many others.

Having purchased many volumes of photographs of jazz musicians, I tend to look at the book with fascination immediately after their purchase . . . but not often after.  Willoughby’s book has proven itself an exception.  In tne month that I have had a copy, I have come back to it over and over, drawn by what his eye captured — tantalizing wordless dramas that open deeper each time I stare into the pages.

And the appeal of the book is wider than the allure of the musicians portrayed there.  Without being precious or coy, Willoughby created small paintings full of feeling, emotion coming through the lovely blacks, greys, and whites.  He was a master of seeing, of shaping line and angle, shape and focus.  I look at these portraits and I can feel Louis’ happiness, imagine the words passing between Bing and Frank on the set of CAN-CAN, hear Billie’s voice.  In addition, Willoughby’s photos are idiosyncratic master classes for photographers: what to emphasize, what to leave out. . . all the more remarkable because he captured his subjects in the moment.

Marc Myers, of JAZZ WAX, knew and spoke with Willoughby, and the essays Marc has created about the man and his work are rewarding (with photographs that will astonish): read more here and here.   The book’s website — with even more beautiful pictures — can be found here.  Willoughby’s photographs reward the eye.

May your happiness increase.

EMMETT BERRY’S BUESCHER TRUMPET, 1952

This Buescher trumpet, the advertisement tells us, is the model Emmett Berry plays with Johnny Hodges.  For tremendous power and range, which Mr. Berry would have had on any horn.

Emmett Berry came from the tradition of individualistic players — with an intense near-ferocity no matter what the context . . . with Fletcher or Horace Henderson, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Edmond Hall, Bennie Morton, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Buddy Tate, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Walter Thomas, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Oscar Pettiford, Harry Carney, Johnny Guarneri, Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, Vic Dickenson, John Kirby, Gerald Wilson, Betty Roche, Helen Humes, Johnny Thompson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Al Sears,Al Hibbler, Lem Davis, Dodo Marmarosa, Slim Gaillard, John Simmons, Zutty Singleton, Sidney Catlett, Sammy Price, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Eddie Bert, Lucky Thompson, Bennie Green, Lawrence Brown, Sidney Bechet, Ruby Braff, Art Farmer, Claude Hopkins, Pee Wee Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, Andy Gibson, Paul Gonsalves, Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Baker, Chu Berry, Earl Hines, Joe Williams.  On Keynote he was the third trumpet player with Joe Thomas and Roy Eldridge.  He was in the trumpet section for a Miles Davis and Gil Evans session.

Between 1937 and 1967, he seems to have been active on gigs and in the recording studio, even if some of that work had him playing second trumpet to Buck Clayton or as part of the brass section behind a singer.  But this record of activity says to me that various people (Harry Lim, John Hammond, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Tate) valued him as a powerful, reliable, creative player — someone who could swing, improvise, blend with a section, sight-read music the first time he saw it.

Buck Clayton’s story of Berry whacking Jimmy Witherspoon in the head with his trumpet when Spoon had been particularly out of line suggests that Berry was not someone to be trifled with, and his phrasing does suggest an expert boxer and dangerous counterpuncher.

But no one seems to have interviewed him during his playing career, and I have it in my memory (true?) that he suffered some sort of late-life mental collapse and retired from music.  (What does anyone know of him in the years from 1967 to 1993?)

His sound– so vehement — remains in my ears.  On the early Clef sessions with Hodges, on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, backing Rushing on Vanguard — unmistakable.

Here’s “a little good blues” with Earle Warren, Sir Charles Thompson, Gene Ramey, and Oliver Jackson, from 1961:

Berry doesn’t take enough space, and his vehemence is hinted at rather than fully released, but his sound and physical presence are fully evident.

He’s someone I miss.

May your happiness increase.

KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away.

For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra. 

The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits.  For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, the aforementioned King, Mr. Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison,  Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.

And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance.  Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong.  Commendable enough.  One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records.  Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc. 

Admirable, but somewhat limited.  Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point?  (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.) 

Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically.  Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet?  Is it possible to lose the thread? 

Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course.  On three CDs, he has managed to heed Exra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences.

Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance.  The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified.  Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.

The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet and fluegelhorn; Ewan McAllan or Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Keith Edwards or Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, alto, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Paul Kirby or Tom Finlay, piano; Roy Percy, bass. 

And what’s most refreshing is that both Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: so the solos on CORNET CHOP SUEY do not emulate Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory; the ensemble work on SORRY doesn’t hark back to 1928 Bix and his Gang; the sound of BOJANGLES reflects on 1940 Ellington without copying it.  And the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson. 

I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners.  But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow!  That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?” 

(Ironically, one of Matheson’s triumphs as an arranger is the wisdom to leave well enough alone.  So one of the memorable tracks on his Louis CD (with the glowing Duke Heitger in the lead) is a very simple and touching AMONG MY SOUVENIRS.) 

The experience of listening to these discs was as if my old friends had gotten new wardrobes and hairstyles — immensely flattering but startling at first.  And Ken seems to have the same playful idea, for his Morton CD is called JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES.  On the back there is the famous portrait of Jelly, his arms raised to conduct, wearing a suit with six huge buttons and pressed white trousers.  On the front, Mathieson has reinvented Jelly as a twenty-first century hip teenager, wearing a short-sleeved yellow t-shirt, earbuds around his neck, the cable leading to an iPod, baggy denim jeans, running shoes.  And Jelly looks happy!

Their three CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA SALUTES THE KINGS OF JAZZ (Lake LACD 261), JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES (CJO 001), and CELEBRATING SATCHMO, featuring Duke Heitger (LACD 286). 

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found at http://www.classicjazzorchestra.org.uk/diary.htm

Information about their Lake Records CDs is available here: http://www.fellside.com/Shop/Results1.asp?Category=2

JOEL PRESS CONSIDERS: PLAYERS, LISTENERS, PLACES

From Joel Press, the Swing Explorer, a deeply informed meditation on the possibilities and the depths of the real, as well as the attainable ideal:

Your essay, (A LITTLE SOFTER, PLEASE?) which I read late at night, made a great impression on me and brought forth the reminiscences below.  They who eat, drink, and indulge their senses whilst we play, know not what they are missing . . . . 

Art Farmer played at Lulu White’s in Boston in the early 80s with a band that included Akira Tana and Fred Hersch.  When I met Fred at Smalls last month, I recalled Art’s going to the microphone and telling the audience that this quartet had been on the road for several months developing the sound and repertoire they were offering that set.  He said that it was difficult to concentrate given the volume of conversation and laughter from the large group of people sitting near the bandstand.  Art, ever the gentleman, asked them to allow the musicians to concentrate on the music they ostensibly had come to hear.  Sadly, Art was reprimanded by the management and was never engaged again.

When I lived in New York in the 1960s, there was a little club in the Fifties off 8th Avenue.  Barbara Carroll and Billy Taylor’s trios often played there.  One night, an inebriated middle aged couple came in, probably thinking this was another 8th Avenue bar.  They ordered drinks and became loud and unpleasant.  When they were asked to be quiet, the woman in a booming voice said, “What the hell?  You think this is a Goddamn church!”

I had an LP bootleg of Lester Young live at The Savoy Ballroom. While Prez was spinning out a soulful improvisation on a medium tempo standard, he was inadvertently accompanied by a foul mouthed argumentative couple, who were seemingly oblivious to the wondrous melodic invention emanating from Lester’s tenor.

The Sahara Restaurant in the town of Methuen, Mass.,  north of Boston, is the scene of a weekly Tuesday night concert, curated for many years by Jocko Arcidanoco, a dedicated lover of our music.  The room has a stage, lighting, and a sound system.  The audience is attentive, responsive and respectful.  Eating and drinking is done quietly if at all.  Musicians love to work here, given the fact that there are few venues left in which music is not a a background to general conviviality.  When my quartet was invited to play there last month, the musicians treated the engagement as something special and made an effort to rehearse our program despite the demands of teaching and other commitments. Playing in a concert situation has became a rarity.

The private jam session in a musician’s studio has become more prevalent as opportunities for serious playing have diminished.  Without monetary compensation, players travel to join in the pursuit of musical excellence.  Their reward lies in the interaction with and inspiration from their cohorts.  The only sounds in the studio come from the instruments and an occasional brief appreciative comment after a solo.  As has always been the case the chief supporters of jazz music are the players.

BRILLIANT EMPATHY! (November 20, 2008)

The jazz musicians I know say that improvisatory duet playing is intensely difficult, sometimes highly rewarding.  For a duet to work, it needs a great deal of intuitive cooperation, players anticipating each other’s thought patterns.  But the duo that is too congenial runs the risk of being tamely polite.  Alphonse and Gaston are ideal pals, but some friendly jousting is at the heart of jazz.  However, if players go their own heedless, self-absorbed ways, collisions are a sure thing.  Each of the two players must be attuned not only to what is being played, but what might be played, what might be just around the corner.

The video clips of pianist Ehud Asherie and reedman Dan Block (here on tenor sax and clarinet) here will show that the title I’ve chosen for this posting is enthusiastic but wholly justified.  They listen; they take chances; their technical brilliance is matched only by their emotional depth, their timeless swing.

Flip and I went to Smalls on West Tenth Street about ten days ago for one of Ehud’s Thursday night duo gigs.  These gigs last only an hour, but they offer more resonant jazz than many other sessions that go on much longer.  Ehud’s partner was the wonderfully soulful Dan Block.  Here they work their eager way through Vincet Youmans’ HALLELUJAH!  (My sentiments exactly, with the shades of Tatum and Hawkins standing in the wings, smiling sagely.)

Here they are on a haunting melody, one of those that you might begin to hum without knowing its name or the lyrics.  AUTUMN NOCTURNE, music by Josef Myrow, was a favorite of Sonny Rollins, Claude Thornhill, Art Farmer, and many others, although it never became a popular or jazz standard.  (Myrow, incidentally, wrote many more forgettable songs — “Keep Cool, Fool” suggests the kind of evanescent pop ditty he leaned towards — although we know him better for YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG.)

A more familiar jazz standard, Fats Waller’s I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY, is next — with the memorable verse.

And this mini-program concludes with two more contemporary jazz standards from another stride pianist, Thelonious Monk.  (Monk scholars will remember that when he was corralled into a Down Beat “Blindfold Test” and one of his own records was played for him, he said, “That sounds like James P. Johnson.”)  Dan and Ehud, comfortable playing all sorts of music, treat us to Monk’s lyrical RUBY, MY DEAR.

Finally, here’s the duo’s propulsive OFF MINOR.

This coming Thursday, December 4, Ehud will be improvising alongside his great friend, tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, someone I’ve celebrated in this blog.   I’ll be there!

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.