Rossano Sportiello is the Maestro, no questions about it. Classically trained with a deep jazz feeling and impeccable technique, he astonishes us. Here’s his solo version of Nicolo Paganini’s Caprice # 24, which rocks all the way through . . .from the Milan conservatory to Harlem stride to super-Tatum without a quiver.
Rossano performed this as one of his solo features in a duet concert with brass wizard Danny Tobias put on by the Pennsylvania Jazz Society (October 30, 2022).
I suggest that you play and watch this several times, so that you can assure yourself it actually happened, the creation of Maestro Sportiello.
I have a sentimental attachment to the music issued on the Black and White label in the Forties. My father, a motion-picture projectionist, spent his working life “in the booth.” In addition to keeping the picture and sound on the screen, the projectionist was expected to fill the theatre with music during intermissions. In my childhood, theatres were making the transition from turntables in the booth that played 78s, and my father would occasionally liberate a disc he thought his music-mad son would like.
He told a funny story of playing Bill Haley and the Comets’ ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, not paying much attention to it until the manager called him in a frenzy to take the ——- ——– record off because of what the kids were doing to the theatre. But I digress.
One of the records he brought home was this 12″ disc:
The other side is LADY BE GOOD, and it made a considerable impression. (“BROWN GAL” is a reference to her composition and 1936 Decca recording of the same name.)
Later on, when I began to actively collect records, I saw that so many issues on this label were rewarding and unusual combinations of musicians: Joe Marsala (with Chuck Wayne and Dizzy Gillespie!), Joe Thomas, Art Tatum, Leo Watson, Nat Jaffe, Art Hodes, Pee Wee Russell, Sidney Bechet, an imperishable session with Rod Cless, Sterling Bose, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster; Barney Bigard, Cliff Jackson, Erroll Garner, Teddy Bunn, Leo Watson, Brad Gowans, Oscar Pettiford, Ivie Anderson, Helen Humes, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Red Rodney, Howard McGhee, Irving Ashby, Ulysses Livingston, Lucky Thompson, and two dozen others. But almost all of them were simply listings in discographies.
Occasionally a session, transferred from worn discs, would surface on a European anthology, and a supermarket-label, TOPS, issued a compilation called JAZZ GREATS with the unequalled combination of no data and a yearning young woman portrayed on the cover. Still later, perhaps into this century, a short series of CDs appeared on the Pickwick label, anthologies assembled with hope but little logic. And there it stood.
To be fair, the story is not unique to this label. Search for a coherent reissue of many of the small labels that proliferated in the Forties, and you have to hope for the best. Ownership rights are tangled or on the ocean floor, and most — if not all — reissue companies are not relying on an audience thirsting for invaluable music.
But what is that I hear, coming over the hill? The drums and trumpets of Mosaic Records, once again, bringing heart, valor, enthusiasm, and exactitude to a worthy project.
The facts? 243 tracks, spanning 1942 to 1949, primarily studio performances with a few concert ones for leavening; New York, Chicago, California (mostly Los Angeles), eleven CDs, price $179.00 plus shipping. I’ll let you do the math, but just for a thrill, I looked up the Lil Armstrong disc I began with on eBay, and the least expensive version is $23.66 here, assuming of course you have the turntable and stylus to play it properly. You could also look for some of these records on YouTube — happy hunting! — but although the Tube is priceless for certain things, music tends to transfer off-pitch, and some of the collectors (heartfelt as they are) have makeshift methods of getting the music to us.
No, the Mosaic Records issues remain — a cliche but no less true — the gold standard. They are also limited editions, so one cannot really say, “I’ll buy that set in _______ years when and if my ship comes in,” because then the only place to purchase it will be charging a premium price, if, indeed, it can be found.
But enough words about money. How about some sound(s)? Here you can hear Charlie Ventura, Red Rodney, Willie Smith, Barney Kessel, Billy Hadnott, and Nick Fatool play ‘S’WONDERFUL; Jack McVea; Gerald Wilson; Joe Marsala with Dizzy Gillespie, Cliff Jackson, Chuck Wayne, Irving Lang, Buddy Christian play MY MELANCHOLY BABY; Willie “the Lion” Smith, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Frank Orchard, Jack Lesberg, Mack McGrath play BUGLE CALL RAG. Delightful performances.
And the sound is translucent; you hear all the nuances, thanks to lovely transferring from the best original sources by Andreas Meyer and Nancy Conforti of Swan Studios, who have outdone themselves. Perhaps you knew that small labels of this period suffered because shellac was rationed, so many treasured 78s were pressed on a mixture of substances including horse manure, as my expert friend Matthew Rivera tells us.
On that same page, a detailed discography, and, of course, a place to buy the set.
The set has photographs — rare and stunning, beautifully reproduced, and essays by Billy Vera, Scott Wenzel, and the Eminence Dan Morgenstern. Dan’s notes are characteristically witty, heartfelt, and candid. Who else do we have who was in New York in 1947, saw, spoke with, and befriended many of the musicians on this set? Priceless.
It’s a valuable swinging human archive. And you deserve a present, don’t you?
Billie Holiday and Sidney Catlett at the Metropolitan Opera House, January 18, 1944
Here’s an extraordinarily fulfilling eighteen minutes, as if — in the name of humanity and enlightenment — a New York radio station was able to gather everyone of note into its studios to uplift listeners: Billie Holiday, vocal; Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers; trumpet; Vic Dickenson, Bennie Morton, trombone; Ed Hall, clarinet; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Art Tatum, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Arthur Trappier, drums; Josh White, vocal and guitar.
“NEW WORLD A-COMING: THE STORY OF NEGRO MUSIC,” Broadcast on WMCA, June 25, 1944, based on the book by Roi Ottlei, narrated by Canada Lee. Theme by Duke Ellington. Introduction / I GOT A HEAD LIKE A ROCK Josh White / FINE AND MELLOW Billie / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / ALL OF ME Billie / I GOT RHYTHM // Hall Johnson Choir announced but edited out of this recording.
The music is timeless; the commentary may seem less so: I was struck by “from cabin to cabaret,” and sensitized listeners might find other archaisms. But the music!
P.S. “Jazz can be hot or languid.” You knew that, of course.
P.P.S., based on fifteen minutes of online curiosity: WMCA was a rock-and-pop AM station in the Sixties, home of the “Good Guys.” Started in 1925, it had a wide range of popular music programming, with programs aimed at an African-American audience. In 1989, it became a Christian radio station and continues today.
I have never been involved in sports as participant or spectator. But when I was not yet ten, at recess, there were intense discussions, often arguments, among my male classmates about the merits of baseball stars Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris, competing to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. I tried to join in, because I wanted to belong, and it would have been foolish to say, “Who cares?” Looking back at least in this situation, we had statistical evidence: hits, runs, RBI’s and the like. But this hierarchical squabbling struck me as silly then, and seems even sillier now when applied to art and creativity.
I should preface what follows by writing that jazz is a holy art to me, to quote Schubert. And if what follows sounds irritable, you can say, “Michael’s gotten crabby in semi-quarantine, I see,” and I wouldn’t argue the point. But the reason for this post is that it disturbs me when I see people who believe themselves experts and advocates about the music debasing it by their reactions.
A day or so ago I made the mistake of entering into a Facebook discussion on a wonderful page devoted to Lester Young, where someone with fine taste posted Lester’s 1942 version of BODY AND SOUL (Nat Cole and Red Callender). The first response that caught my eye? I quote, “Sorry, but coleman hawkins owns this song.” Various people chimed in to proclaim the superiority of their favorite player, and I, rather than leaving the keyboard, wrote, “Art is not a competitive sport,” which also met with a variety of responses, which I won’t go into here.
On another page, someone posted that a revered drummer was the “GOAT,” or “Greatest of All Time,” not an omnivorous animal. You can imagine the discussions that ensued, the rimshots and ride-cymbal crashes.
I found it odd that fans were so much more vehement about presumed superiority than most musicians were and are.
I don’t deny that some musicians were competitive by nature, wanting to show their powers, their mastery. Some of the greatest lived to “battle,” among them Roy Eldridge, and “cutting contests” have a long history. Norman Granz, knowing his audience, made these tests of strength and audience appeal the center of Jazz at the Philharmonic with “the drum battle” between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, or gladiatorial exercises between Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips, between Roy and Dizzy GIllespie. However, when the concert was over, these musicians were friends who rode the band bus in harmony. Artists with even a small amount of self-awareness respect each other, because they know how hard it is to play or to sing well, how it requires great skill and constant devotion to the art and the craft.
So these discussions of WHO’S THE BEST? are driven by audiences who want to see their team win. They are also fueled by journalism and press-agentry. Jazz has been weighed and measured by people who gave recordings and concerts stars and letter grades, in magazines that encouraged readers to vote for their favorites. People would then buy the next issue to see how their votes counted. All of this seems inexplicable now, that in 1956 a new record that we think a classic was given two stars in Down Beat when it appeared. Or that X placed forty-seventh in the Critics’ Poll for that year. Polls and year-end lists of the Ten Best CDs of the Year still go on, the latter energized by people of good character, but I think of them as marketing tools, not much else. These competitions were good business for winners: if you won the poll, your price would increase.
We continue to live in a culture that greatly values the subjective opinion of the audience member(s). I bought kitchen knives recently, and the company invited me to “submit my review.” I was happy to, because the knives are exceedingly sharp. But my review was a way of their getting free copywriting. What I wrote might motivate someone to buy a knife, but it would have no effect on the knife’s quality. It remains that way in art. If you say that Tatum is your favorite pianist, does his work get any better: if you say he is too ornate, does he falter? I am also reminded of someone who ran a jazz club, who told me that the way they knew if a band was good was the number of people in the room. To me, the symphony means more than the volume of applause.
In print and in person, there were and are the jazz ideologues offering verdicts. M “is the greatest jazz singer,” where P “is just a pop vocalist.” C is “ground-breaking,” “harmonically adventurous,” “innovative,” “cutting-edge,” “genre-bending.” Reading this, I must assume that everyone else is sitting in the dirt, looking sadly at their dinner, a half-done potato covered with ash.
Art does not lend itself to the collection of evidence that baseball does. If a singer has a larger range, is she a “better” artist? If a drummer has a more dazzling technique, is he the King? Is the superior musician the one who has more gigs, more fame, more money, more recognition?
I understand that there are artists who have been justifiably elevated to the pantheon (which, to me, is different than anyone’s “Hall of Fame”) but this also speaks to the Star System in Jazz, where there must be only one supernova in the galaxy. For you, it’s Miles or Trane, for you Bird or Rollins, for you, Duke, for you, Louis. The Star System is evident in what passes for “jazz criticism,” but perhaps most forcefully in Jazz Studies textbooks, where the Stars whiz by at blurry speed. Louis-Roy-Dizzy-Miles. James P.-Earl-Teddy-Tatum-Monk-Cecil. And so on. No room for Tony Fruscella or Buster Bailey because the publisher’s budget only allows for 650 pages and this price point.
Mind you, not only have I no objection to a rainbow of personal tastes, because I am a walking collection of them, and I revel in this. If the music that makes you most happy is on an Impulse CD or a Dial 78 or an American Music one, who would I be to say that your feelings should be challenged?
But let us give up pretending that preference is empirical judgment. Let us not treat individual reaction as law for everyone. To write that someone is “the best,” or “better than,” is an attempt to say, “I like this. Therefore it is good, because my judgment is always valid,” and then, “Why do you assert that something else that I do not champion is better? Are you attacking my discernment? I must defend my family’s honor! Pistols at dawn!”
We are thus back at recess, a bunch of quarrelsome fourth-grade boys. Art deserves reverence. And the most reverent response may be rapt silence.
If you asked me to give an overview of jazz and popular music in 1936, I might summon up Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Putney Dandridge, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill, Gene Krupa, Fifty-Second Street, Red Allen, Art Tatum, Bob Howard, Mildred Bailey, Jones-Smith, Incorporated, Teddy Wilson, and twenty others. It would be a little after THE MUSIC GOES ROUND AND ROUND but just right for I’SE A-MUGGIN’, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, and RHYTHM IN MY NURSERY RHYMES, perhaps DINNER FOR ONE, PLEASE JAMES.
But in even broader strokes, this was the early triumph of the Swing Era, dominated by well-rehearsed bands, using intricate arrangements for dancers. But art, however you define it, is never homogeneous: while Joyce and Woolf were exploding the conventions of narrative, many traditional linear novels were published and read. In jazz, we know that Max Roach and Baby Dodds were on the same radio broadcast in most congenial fashion. And in the very late Fifties, Herbie Nichols, Steve Lacy, Ed Allen, and Cecil Scott were all gigging in New York City simultaneously.
These musings come about because of Briscoe Draper’s posting on Facebook of a song I’d never heard, LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON, which delights me. It features the clarinet playing of Arnett Nelson, someone I’ve heard about from one of my other teachers, Sammut of Malta — whose expert playing has nothing to do with the elegant playing of Benny and Artie, so much in fashion in 1936. These tracks were issued under the all-inclusive but unspecific name “Chicago Rhythm Kings,” which jazz fans will recognize as a nom-de-disque for young white Chicagoans in 1928.
Here is the recording data, edited from Tom Lord. Steve Abrams suggests that Guy Kelly is the trumpeter, but I feel that the player we hear is less assured. And is the pianist Black Bob or Jimmy Blythe? I do not know, nor are such matters my focus.
Lord notes: prob. Alfred Bell (cnt) Roy Palmer (tb) Arnett Nelson (cl,vcl) prob. Black Bob (p) prob John Lindsay (b) Jimmy Bertrand (d). Chicago, March 11, 1936: YOU BATTLE-HEAD BEETLE- HEAD Vocalion 3208 / IT’S TOO BAD (WHEN THE SISTERS START TRUCKIN’ AROUND) in two takes; Voc 3208.
Same personnel but unknown (as-1) added. Chicago, April 3, 1936: SHANGHAI HONEYMOON Bluebird 6371 / LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON (same, unknown vocalist).
Because Steve Abrams has generously made available his 78 transfer of IT’S TOO BAD / YOU BATTLE-HEAD, I have included that as well as the YouTube transfers, which might be from the RST CD collection. (There are pitch and sonic differences: I would assume that the 78 transfer is a more trustworthy source, but such waters are deep and dark.)
I invite you to turn away from the news and immerse yourself in a different world, thanks to these “Hot Dance with Vocal Chorus” records. I’ll have some listening comments at the end.
and the 78 version:
Flip it over, as they used to say:
This seems the same take as the 78, unless they followed the routines closely:
If you are enamored of SHANGHAI HONEYMOON, there are many versions with vocal refrains and ostentatious “Chinese” cliches. However, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have performed this opus — you can find it on YouTube — with its ethnic-racial tendencies tamed, and a duet by Ray and Katie Cavera (also on the Jazzology CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO):
and my new favorite ditty, which I hope to hear Dave Stuckey sing when we meet again (although that is a suggestion rather than an order — greetings, Pappy!):
Depending on how deeply you have steeped yourself in the music of the period, you may hear many different things.
First, the material itself is cheerfully homemade: except for SHANGHAI, the songs are composed by the players, and they are miles away from Rodgers and Hart or Arlen and Koehler. That is not to condescend, for listeners respond strongly to campfire songs as well as poetry, but BEETLE and TOO BAD seem more enthusiastic than expert: the end-rhymes are inexact, and occasionally the lyrics and music do not fit neatly. They are set-pieces for an audience who wanted to party: the “you’re a fool for getting so drunk” song; the “let’s celebrate wild action on the dance floor” song — reminiscent of a contemporaneous Tampa Red blues — especially because the Chicago blues records of this period employed many of the same musicians. I hear echoes of MAMA DON’T ALLOW and HOW’M I DOIN’ as well as YOU RASCAL YOU.
LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON aspires to be one of those songs mingling love and the bill of fare (think WHEN LOVE DROPPED IN TO TEA) but it doesn’t get there; the composer(s) are more focused on what’s for sale than in a Billy Wilder meet-cute with someone’s hamburger being shared by thrifty lovers. (I hear echoes of ACE IN THE HOLE in the first strain.)
SHANGHAI HONEYMOON is the most “professional” song of the four, possibly going back to 1927, and whether Lester Melrose had anything to do with writing it or simply required a portion of the royalties in exchange for getting it published, played, and recorded, I do not know, but the three other songs did not have any currency outside of this record date, where HONEYMOON did. I have seen no sheet music for the other songs.
Second, these recordings are stylistically earlier than 1936 (no offense meant there either); rather than being “streamlined,” “innovative,” or “harmonically forward-looking,” they happily live in the musical world that Dick Wellstood called “grease and funk,” with TOO BAD and BEETLE sounding, to me, like Saturday-night-party music. The closest parallel in jazz is the long series of Clarence Williams recordings, but these sides are genuine crossover music before the name ever emerged, with sideways connections to blues and roots music.
And this is understandable, given the histories of the players: for most of them, this was their last recording session, and some of them had been recording since 1921 or 1923. I delight in Arnett Nelson’s wildly opinionated clarinet — “I have something to say and I have to say it loudly and right now,” and the powerful rhythm section. But we are miles away from the Benny Goodman Quartet, Toto. I also have a special affection for the rather sweetly amateurish singer on SANDWICH: was he someone’s relative or friend? (I wonder what the significance of “He didn’t serve no rice” is. An easy rhyme for “nice,” or are there deeper meanings?
Finally, I wonder how these record dates came to be. In New York, Williams made no records between 1935 and 1937, and his 1934 sides for the Decca “Sepia Series” were issued as the “Alabama Jug Band.” Did a Vocalion recording executive in Chicago perceive that this band — of known reliable musicians who were also appearing on blues records — should be given the chance to make two sides of their own compositions with the hope of a jukebox hit? Musicians recorded such sessions with little preparation; they were paid scale. It would not have cost Vocalion much, but clearly the records did not make a stir. Did Nelson or someone else in the band take the test pressings over to the Victor studios and request a date in April?
I have stayed away from discussing race in this post, but I will suggest that a 1936 record buyer would recognize these four sides as being performed and aimed at a “colored” audience, to use the description of the times. Yet I know Bluebird (by which I mean Victor) also used the “Chicago Rhythm Kings” name to issue a record or records by what I believe are white orchestras.
All this must, I think, remain mysterious. What we have is rollicking, enthusiastic hot music played by Chicago veterans. Thank goodness for records, and particularly for odd, cheerful ones like these four.
A few night ago, I was witness to a glorious expression of personalities and an explosion of sounds. The “Cafe Bohemia Jazz Quartet,” which appears regularly on Thursdays at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, was that night led by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet (as usual), with Scott Robinson, magic man, playing tenor saxophone, taragoto, and a new find from his basement, an “adorable” little Eb cornet. With them were Joe Cohn, guitar, and Murray Wall, string bass.
The evening’s music was characteristically rewarding and varied: a first set of SONG OF THE WANDERER, SUGAR, INDIANA, ROCKIN’ CHAIR, THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and CREOLE LOVE CALL. In the Bohemia audience, appropriately, were members of the Pilsner Jazz Band, who had just appeared at the Kennedy Center (more about that below) and were enthusiastically responding to the band. I don’t recall if Jon-Erik asked them what they’d like to hear (the act of a brave person) but someone suggested ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and that began the second set.
A word about ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — which has a lovely pedigree, because the song (with lyrics) by Clarence and Spencer Williams, possibly just by Spencer, refers to the place King Oliver played, later the Lincoln Gardens. It’s a century old, if we take as its starting point the unissued recordings pioneering bandleader George Morrison made of the tune.
We all have our favorite versions, from Bix to the Goodman Sextet to Tatum to Louis, and as I write this, another’s being created. But since it was taken up from the Forties onward by “trad” groups — define them as you will — it’s one of the three songs played nearly to a crisp (the others are MUSKRAT RAMBLE and STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE). Too many formulaic renditions in my history have caused me slight flutters of ennui when someone suggests it. But not with this quartet. After a gentle ensemble start (I missed a bit due to camera rebellion) this performance escalates into a wonderfully friendly joust between Jon-Erik and Scott. Quite uplifting, with every tub securely on its own botom, seriously cheering
I felt like cheering then, and I do now. See what happens when you leave your house to confront the music face to face? More about the notion of leaving-your-house, at least temporarily, here.
Beauty awaits us, if we just look for it.
And just because this title was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of this post, here’s an evocative jazz artifact:
Postscript: here’s the Pilsner Jazz Band at the Kennedy Center, Jan. 27, 2020:
Let’s just say that you have to go back to work on Tuesday morning, September 3. You’ve had a lovely summer or, at least, a pleasing long Labor Day weekend. How to bridge the gap, or jump the chasm without falling in?
Ben Webster, living his last years in Copenhagen, had a tape of what he called his “wakin’ up music”: a mix of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and others — Ben fancied himself a homegrown stride pianist, and in his own seriously idiosyncratic way, he could cover the keyboard.
I offer this to JAZZ LIVES readers as a salutary alarm clock, something that might make the journey back to the world of work seem, for the moment, tolerable. It’s a performance of Eubie Blake’s TROUBLESOME IVORIES by a trio calling themselves GROOVUS — a subset of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet (yes, a band-within-a-band) that is Brian Holland, piano; Steve Pikal, string bass; Danny Coots, drums.
GROOVUS has also recorded their first CD, called ALL WE KNOW: details here. And if you’d like to hear the version of TROUBLESOME IVORIES that Brian and Danny recorded recently, nothing’s simpler: look here.
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.
Thanks to Loren Schoenberg for sharing this gem with us. If, like me, you grew up after the Swing Era had ended, the great creators were still in evidence: Benny, Teddy, Lionel, Gene, Harry, Basie, Duke, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, and half a hundred others. But sometimes they seemed more venerable than lively, and that was to be expected: routine, age, and aging audiences had had their effect. But it is lovely to be thrust back into late 1938, with fiercely beautiful evidence of just why they were seen as Masters.
Here, in under three minutes, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton — the last on drums — play a fiery but delicate I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW, at top speed, never smudging a note or resorting to cliché.
They were young: Hampton, the eldest of the three (one never thinks of him as such) had turned thirty only six months earlier: Goodman and Wilson were still in the latter half of their twenties. (Gene Krupa had left Goodman and formed his own band earlier in 1938.)
I invite JAZZ LIVES listeners to do the nearly-impossible, that is, to clear their minds and ears of associations with these artists, their reputations, our expectations, and simply listen. And thus admire: the precision, the near-audacity of improvisations at such speed, the intensity and the clarity with which the details are offered to us. The unflagging swing, and the compact art: seven choruses in slightly less than three minutes. The architecture of this performance, balancing solo and ensemble, giving each of the players the spotlight in turn. And the fact that it was live — no second takes or studio magic. One can admire this as a chamber-music performance thoroughly animated by the impulses that made “hot jazz” hot:
It’s easy to hear this in historical context: ten years earlier, Jimmie Noone and his Apex Club Orchestra had fashioned their own variations (Cliff Edwards, a dozen years earlier, had sung it with his Hot Combination) and Goodman had played it as an orchestral piece from 1935 on — with special mention to the Martin Block jam session of early 1938 where Benny, Teddy, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Benny Heller, and Sid Weiss had jammed on the Vincent Youmans song. And it comes out of a larger musical world: I hear late-Twenties and early-Thirties Louis and Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, and Zutty Singleton standing behind this trio.
But I can also imagine the radio audience of 1938 — not only the children and adolescents who nagged their parents for drum sets, clarinets, pianos and piano lessons (some signing up for the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists) but also the youthful Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach hearing and studying, thinking of ways to emulate and then outdo. It would have been considered “popular music” or “entertainment,” but now we can value it as it deserves.
It’s a magnificent performance, with details that glisten all the more on subsequent listenings. Thanks to Benny, Teddy, Lionel, Loren, and the noble Sammut of Malta for art and insights into the art.
I woke up yesterday morning with the melody of SHE DIDN’T SAY YES in my head — as performed in 1946 by Joe Thomas and his Orchestra for Keynote Records — and that performance insisted that I share it and write a few words in its honor. The song comes from the 1931 Jerome Kern – Otto Harbach musical comedy THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE, and it is limited in its ambitions (words and music) but it is also irresistible. The steplike melody is difficult to get rid of once one hears it, and the coy naughtiness of the lyric — raising the question of being “bad” when badness seems so delightful, but tossing the moral question back at the listener — combine in a kind of musical miniature cupcake.
Here is a video clip from the 1934 film version of the play — Jeanette MacDonald, looking lovely, sings SHE DIDN’T after a large clump of cinematic foolishness, including post-Code dancing, has concluded. (My contemporary perspective makes this scene slightly painful to watch, as Jeanette is bullied by the crowd into declaring a love that she seems to feel only in part.)
The song was recorded a number of times in the early Thirties (by Leo Reisman and Chick Bullock, among others) but may have surfaced again with the 1946 film biography of Kern, who had died suddenly the year before, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. However, since its performance in the film by the Wilde Twins goes by quickly, I think other reasons may have led to its being chosen for this Keynote Records date. Did Harry Lim hear something in its melody — those repeated notes that Alec Wilder deplored — or did Joe Thomas like to play it? We’ll never know, but it is a recording both memorable and forgotten.
The band was “Joe Thomas And His Orchestra,” itself a rare occurrence. Lim had used Joe on many sessions for Keynote (the Forties were a particular period of prominence on records for him, thankfully — where he recorded alongside Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries). The band was Joe Thomas, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums, and it was done in New York on August 16, 1946. I don’t know who did the backgrounds and introduction, but the recording is a small marvel of originalities. I listen first for the soloists and their distinctive sounds and then consider the performance as an example of what one could do with texture and small orchestral touches with only an octet.
I first heard this record coming out of my radio speaker when Ed Beach did a show devoted to Joe Thomas — perhaps in 1969 — and then I got to see Joe both on the stage of Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls (with Benny Carter and Eddie Condon, consider that!) and at much closer range in 1972-74, thanks to the kindness of my dear Mike Burgevin.
I don’t want to subject this recording to chorus-by-chorus explication, but I would ask listeners to hear the individual sounds and tones these players had: Joe, Tyree, Hilton, Jerry — each man singing his own distinctively recognizable song — and the perky unflagging rhythm section, with Leighton beautifully doing Basie-Wilson-Guarnieri, and the lovely support of Billy Taylor, Sr., who had kept the Ellington band swinging.
“We had faces then!” to borrow from SUNSET BOULEVARD.
I keep coming back to the gleaming warm sound of Joe Thomas — in the first chorus, outlining the melody as if nothing in the world were more important; in the closing chorus, flavoring and shading it as only he could. And the rest of the band. As a friend said to me recently, “They were pros. They really knew how to do it.” And bless Harry Lim: without him, we would know such things happened but they would now be silent and legendary rather than tangible and glowing.
Anna Moffo, one of my mother’s favorite sopranos: my definition of a “trained singer.”
Everyone of us has pet theories: there’s a secret way to fold fitted sheets; day-old bagels, toasted, are better than fresh, and so on. You, no doubt, have yours.
One of mine that is relevant to JAZZ LIVES is that often, singers who never sing because they are busy playing are the best singers of all. I don’t mean those who are clearly identified as singers — Louis, Jelly, Teagarden, Cleo Brown — but those instrumentalists who have recorded once or twice only. So I assembled a host of my favorites, leaving out scat choruses. Some recordings were inaccessible: Sid Catlett’s OUT OF MY WAY, Basie’s HARVARD BLUES (where he, not Jimmy, takes the vocal) Ed Hall’s ALL I GOT WAS SYMPATHY — but this is, I hope, a pleasing, perhaps odd offering. I present them in no particular order, except for Lester being the last, because that recording so touches me.
James P. Johnson, 1944 (with Frank Newton, Al Casey, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty). The story is that Alan Lomax thought that James P. was a blues pianist when he interviewed him for the Library of Congress — and compelled him to sing this. I don’t know: James P. is having a good time:
Coleman Hawkins, 1936, highly impassioned (when was he not?):
Vic Dickenson, crooning in 1931 with the Luis Russell Orchestra:
Vic — nearly fifty years later — singing his own composition with Ralph Sutton:
Benny Carter, aiming for Bing and having a dear good time in the process, 1933. (This has been one of my favorite records since 1974. Catch Benny’s trumpet solo and clarinet solo. And Sid Catlett pleases.) Those clever lyrics aren’t easy to sing at that tempo: ask Dan Barrett:
And another helping of Benny-does-Bing, gliding upwards into those notes. Another favorite:
Yes, Art Tatum could sing the blues. Uptown, 1941:
I save this for last, because it leaves me in tears. Lester Young, 1941, and since this is the only copy of a much-played acetate, there’s a lot of surface noise. Be patient and listen deeply:
Little is known about that recording, but I remember learning that one side of it was a dub of SHOE SHINE BOY by Jones-Smith, Inc., and this — a current pop tune with glee-club embroideries — was the other. It’s been surmised that this was a demo disc for Lester’s new small band that he hoped to make flourish after leaving Basie. Some of the sadness, to me, is that the attempt worked poorly, and although Lester loved to sing, there is only one other recording (the 1953 IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO) that exists.
Before anyone gets too excited, I do not have acetates or videos of this event to share with you. All I can offer is the souvenir program, which was on sale a month ago on eBay here for $300. This item does not seem to have sold, but the seller ended the sale. If someone were interested, I’d suggest contacting the seller and opening negotiations again.
This program was from a benefit for Joe, ill with tuberculosis, from which he recovered. I had never seen this paper treasure before; I thought you, too, would be intrigued. And I’ve inserted some contemporaneous recordings by Joe to keep the display from being silent. Since I’ve never seen or heard evidence that this concert was broadcast or that airshots or transcription discs exist, this paper chronicle is all we have. It must have been a lovely evening of music and feeling.
and this, from 1945 (Archie Rosati, clarinet; Ulysses Livingston, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums — on the SUNSET label):
and SUMMERTIME, 1941, Commodore:
another Decca solo from 1935:
and (Larry and Everett were Crosby brothers; Bing had a large role in this):
and Joe’s Cafe Society Orchestra, with Ed Anderson, Big Joe Turner, Benny Morton, Ed Hall:
and the Cafe Society Orchestra with Helen Ward:
and what an assortment of stars and bands!
and LADY BE GOOD from the same band, in a performance I’d bet stretched out longer when live (Danny Polo takes the tenor solo):
and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE by the same band, with Ed Anderson building on Louis and Big Joe Turner making it a blues:
Joe recovered and lived on until October 1971, which to me shows the sustaining power of community in times of stress and despair.
Once again, I am in the odd position of writing a review of a book I have not finished. I am a very quick reader of fiction, but books full of new information are imposing. The good news is that I feel compelled to write about this book now because it is expansive and delightful: a gorgeous large-format 340-plus page book about Tal Farlow, in English and French, illustrated with many rare photographs and at the end, “Gifts from Tal,” a CD of rare music. Unlike many substantial research volumes, it is splendidly designed and visually appealing, with so many color photographs, magazine covers, and priceless ephemera that one could spend several days, entranced, without ever looking at the text.
Hereis the link to purchase this delightful volume.
Recently, I finally decided to take the more timid way into the book, and started by playing the CD — rare performances with Red Mitchell, Jimmy Raney, Gene Bertoncini, and Jack Wilkins, some recorded at Tal’s home in Sea Bright. Interspersed with those performances, quietly amazing in their fleet ease, are excerpts from interviews with Tal done by Phil Schaap, edited so that we hear only Tal, talking about Bird, about technique, about his childhood. I think the CD itself would be worth the price of the book, which is not to ignore the book at all. (It is playing as I write this blogpost.)
And a digression that might not be digressive: here is the author speaking (in French) about his book and about working with Tal and Tal’s wife to create it:
and a small musical sample (Neal Hefti’s classic, here titled very formally) for those who might be unfamiliar with Tal’s particular magic: he was entirely self-taught and could not read music:
The book brims with first-hand anecdotes about Tal in the company of (or being influenced by) Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Billy Kretchmer, Dardanelle, Red Norvo (whose extended recollections are a highlight), Charles Mingus, Mary Osborne, Eddie Costa, Norman Granz, Oscar Pettiford, and Tal’s brothers of the guitar, including Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel.
It’s a dangerously seductive book: I began revisiting it for this blog and two hours went by, as I visited text and photographs from Tal’s childhood to his death. For guitar fanciers, there are pages devoted to his Gibsons as well.
This book deserves a more comprehensive review, but I know JAZZ LIVES readers will happily write their own. And I have my entrancing jazz reading for the winter to come.
Sometimes, in what’s loosely known as traditional or Mainstream jazz, the band launches into “an old chestnut,” “a good old good one,” and listeners no longer hear the original song, but layers and accretions of conventions, of echoes of past recordings and performances. Although satisfying, the whole performance may have a slight dustiness to it.
This wasn’t the case when Ehud Asherie, piano; Hal Smith, drums; Joel Forbes, string bass; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone and metal clarinet; Randy Reinhart, cornet, performed their set at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, last September 17. I’ve already posted their magical LADY BE GOOD here — exceedingly satisfying.
They did their magic on three other jazz classics, none of them newer than 1929, but making the music seem fresh and new. They weren’t museum curators, carefully approaching the venerated antique with awe and cotton swabs; rather, they seem like little boys in the summertime, skinny-dipping in the music, immersing themselves in it, delighting in it. Life, lived, rather than archaeology.
There are, of course, humorous and loving nods to the past: Ehud’s Tatum; the tempo chosen for WILD MAN BLUES which makes me think of Henry “Red” Allen on THE SOUND OF JAZZ; the Hawkins riff which shapes the last choruses of TEA FOR TWO. But the music itself seems so lively that I thank each and every one of them.
Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:
I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.
But I must start with a small odd anecdote. Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it. It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison. I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.” Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea. Cue rueful laughter.
Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by extension, the recordings in this box set.
Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries. One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her. The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string. True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle. But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable. Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.
His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid. But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero. I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues. And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.
Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography. From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance. There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.) Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises. I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.
He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps. Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week. In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered. I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to. I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art. They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.
The music impresses and moves me on several levels. One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic. Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole. There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical. The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues. The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part. The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type. Check the Mosaic discography.
In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another. Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane. The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.
The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record. Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions. What more could one create within this form? How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?
Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so. But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.
I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear. Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs. When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations. However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.
I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise. Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards. So I won’t belabor that point here. If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do. But I will leave that to others to argue.
I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over. And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research. And the photographs. And the splendid transfers. I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.
For more information, go here— either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available. Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box? Is it a good value? I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds. Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.
And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.
My business card has a photograph of Sidney Catlett on it, and when people stop mis-identifying him (no, that’s not Nat King Cole or Morgan Freeman) some ask me why he’s there. I answer, “He made everyone sound better; he died after telling a good joke in the intermission of a concert, and people still miss him.” And depending on my listeners, I might repeat what Billie Holiday said of him.
After Louis, he remains my pole star. So I was astonished and delighted to see this photograph, which was new to me, on sale at eBay. Torn right corner and all. I know Sid’s handwriting, so the capital B S and C make me know the signature is genuine, and his fountain pen was working: obviously Marvin was someone special, because the inscription is carefully done, probably on a table or other flat surface.
and a closeup:
Through eBay serendipity, I found out that “Marvin” was Marvin Kohn, who had been the New York State Athletic Commissioner — and a jazz fan. (He also had an autographed photograph of Will Bradley.) Here’s a sketch of Marvin by Leroy Neiman:
I had invented a scenario where Sid and Marvin met at a boxing match, where Marvin offered Sid a ticket to some sporting event and then asked (as one might) for an autographed glossy in return, but I believe what might have happened would be different. Here is Marvin’s obituary in the New York Times:
Marvin Kohn; Boxing Publicist, 70 Published: February 8, 1994
Marvin Kohn, a longtime figure in New York boxing, died Sunday at New York Hospital. He was 70. He died three days after suffering a stroke. Mr. Kohn was appointed a publicist for the New York State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing, in 1951, and he later served as a deputy commissioner of the agency before retiring in 1989. He also was a press agent for many actors and had served as publicity director for the old Hotel Astor. He is survived by his widow, Mildred.
And a memory of Marvin from Mervyn Gee, whose blog on boxing is called SLIP & COUNTER:
Back in 1987, more than 25 years after moving to London, I was security manger at The Cumberland Hotel, a 1,000 bedroom hotel situated in the Marble Arch area. The reason I mention this is that the World Boxing Council (WBC) held their annual convention there that year and a glittering array of their champions and their entourages were at the hotel. . . . Caroline Fransen was our liason officer . . . . [she] introduced me to Marvin Kohn, who at the time was secretary to the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) based in New York. Kohn was also deputy commissioner at the New York Athletic Commission for over 30 years and over the next decade I visited the Big Apple a number of times and Marvin introduced me to so many fascinating and influential people in the boxing scene.
Long before there were public tours of Madison Square Garden, I was privileged to be a frequent visitor and Marvin was even the only non-actor to have his caricature on the wall at Sardi’s famous restaurant. To this day, the BWAA present a “Good Guy” prize each year named after my late friend as the ‘Marvin Kohn award’. As a result of my friendship with Marvin I was even invited to the VIP lounge and restaurant at the United Nations buildings. Not bad for a little boyo from the valleys!
And from Mervyn’s site, a lovely photograph of Marvin at his desk:
But back to Sidney Catlett. January 1944, the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, with Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, for ROSE ROOM:
and one hero speaking of another:
Now I just have to figure out where to hang the picture — because I won it.
P.S. This post is in honor of master jazz-sleuth David Fletcher.
Our good fortune continues. “Tell us a story, Dan?” we ask, and he kindly obliges. And his stories have the virtue of being candid, genuine, and they are never to show himself off. A rare fellow, that Mister Morgenstern is.
Here are a few more segments from my July 2017 interlude with Dan. In the first, he recalls the great clarinetist, improviser, and man Frank Chace, with glances at Bob Wright, Wayne Jones, Harriet Choice, Bill Priestley, Pee Wee Russell, Mary Russell, Nick’s, Louis Prima, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes, Frank Teschemacher, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton:
Here, Dan speaks of Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Charles Edward Smith — with stories about George Wein, Stan Getz, Art Tatum, Sidney Bechet:
and a little more, about “jazz critics,” including Larry Kart, Stanley Dance, Helen Oakley Dance, and a little loving comment about Bunny Berigan:
If the creeks don’t rise, Dan and I will meet again this month. And this time I hope we will get to talk of Cecil Scott and other luminaries, memorable in their own ways.
Billie Holiday and Sidney Catlett in concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, January 18, 1944.
And here is the soundtrack: DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME, BILLIE’S BLUES, and I’LL GET BY, with Billie accompanied by Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, and Sidney Catlett:
And you all know that Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, and Mildred Bailey appeared, with the Goodman Quintet being beamed in from the other coast.
When I bid on and won that photograph of Billie and Sidney on eBay, it came with a small rectangular strip of yellowed paper taped to its back, which read
THE THRUSH AND THE SKINMAN
“Two top jive artists are shown at the Esquire All-American jazz concert, held at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 18th. Billie Holliday does the vocalizing as drummer boy Sid Catlett pounds the skins.”
I am nostalgic about 1944 music, but I am glad that no one feels compelled to write that way anymore. Incidentally, when I looked online to see where this picture might have appeared — searching for THRUSH and SKINMAN — I got a whole host of entries about candida, male and female yeast infections. Mmmmmmm.
My unanswered and unanswerable question about the photograph has to do with it being a posed, rather than candid shot. Notice that neither of the two participants is in motion; there is no blur. So. Did the photographer say to the two of them presumably before or after the concert, “Billie, Miss Holiday. Could you come over here? We need a shot of you and Sidney — how do you people say it — giving each other . . . some skin?” And for those who like metaphysics, which one put out a hand first for this hip charade? I know the photograph is in some ways fake, but the emotions behind it are not.
P.S. If you’re going to lift the photographic image for use on your own site, be my guest. I wouldn’t disfigure it with a watermark . . . but real gents and ladies also write, “Photo courtesy of JAZZ LIVES.” Thanks.
I now have another regular Saturday-afternoon gig to go to, which for me is no small thing. Every Saturday afternoon from noon to after 3:30 (the music begins at 12:30) I’ve been at Cafe Loup, 105 West Thirteenth Street, near Sixth Avenue, to get a good seat for the solo piano recital of Joel Forrester, one of the most consistently imaginative — often playfully so — artists I have ever heard and witnessed in person. What I offer here is the last set (only four performances) of Joel’s offering of May 27, 2017. And here are videos and commentary about the first two sets. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with Joel’s work, this should remedy that deficiency easily.
JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner
Joel’s compositions, his approach to standard material — all of his music is as far from formulaic as one could imagine. He knows the tradition, and it’s not simply “the jazz tradition,” “the bebop tradition,” or “the jazz piano tradition,” and the breadth of his knowledge and his affection for all kinds of melodic music, subtle and powerful, bubbles through every performance. So here are four more:
His original, SERENADE, in honor of a now-defunct club of the same name:
Another original, I WONDER, that begins as if the ghost of Tatum had beguined into the room for a few minutes, then transforms into a swirling dance:
A respectfully quirky reading of Monk’s WELL, YOU NEEDN’T:
and finally, the Beatles’ YESTERDAY, the soundtrack of my early teens:
Gigs do not last forever, as we all know. If you’re in the vicinity of Cafe Loup on a Saturday afternoon and you don’t get a chance to witness what Joel is doing, you’re missing the Acme Fast Freight, to quote Mildred Bailey. That’s an unsubtle admonition or is it a solicitation? — but true nevertheless.
No blues lyrics that I know begin with “The mail carrier came today, and (s)he brought me good news,” but it happens to be the case. Evidence herewith:
Once again, prowling eBay about ten days ago, I saw ten issues of Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD — a short-lived and wonderful magazine on sale — and I took money out of the grandchildren’s retirement fund and splurged. The issues were the prized possession of someone whose name I can’t quite read, and their original owner not only read them avidly, but had a cigarette in his hand . . . typical of the times.
I will in future offer selections — a concert review, or a letter to the editor complaining about varying prices for King Oliver Gennetts — but this is what caught my eye immediately, and the neighbors called to complain that my whimpering was upsetting the dogs in this apartment building. You will understand why.
On the inside front cover, there is a print column titled I Thought I Heard . . . Buddy Bolden wasn’t audible in 1945, but his heirs and friends were certainly active in New York City.
Stuyvesant Casino, 2nd Ave. at 9th St. — Bunk Johnson’s New Orleans Band
Nick’s, 7th Ave. and 10th St. — Miff Mole and orchestra with [Bujie] Centobie, [Muggsy] Spanier, [Gene] Schroeder, George Hartman, bass, Joe Grauso.
Down Beat, 52nd St. — Art Tatum.
Onyx, 52nd St. — Roy Eldridge.
Three Deuces, 52nd St. — Slam Stewart, Erroll Garner, Hal West.
Ryan’s, 52nd St. — Sol Yaged, clarinet; Danny Alvin, drums; Hank Duncan, piano.
Jazz fans get very wistful when dreaming of scenes that were only captured in words: the twenty chorus solos young Lester would take; Louis on the riverboats; Lips Page singing and playing the blues at the Riviera. But the recording machine has been the time-traveler’s best friend. Because of a variety of electrical devices, we have been able to go uptown to hear Frank Newton and Art Tatum; we’ve heard Charlie Christian, Oscar Pettiford, and Jerry Jerome in Minneapolis; we can visit YouTube and hear Lester sing A LITTLE BIT SOUTH OF NORTH CAROLINA.
This new issue, explained boldly by its cover picture, is one of those time-travel marvels. I was alive in 1952, but no one was taking me to the Embers to hear Joe Bushkin’s quartet with Buck Clayton, trumpet; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums. But now — somewhat older, thanks to this beautifully-produced disc on the Dot Time Records label — I can visit that club and hear exalted music any time I want.
This was a celebrated quartet, and for good reason. Buck and Jo were a fulfilling pair from around 1936 for perhaps forty years; Milt and Jo were also one of the most gratifying teams in the music. The three of them were at their peak in this period (although one could make a case that they were among the most consistently inventive musicians in Mainstream jazz).
I’ve left the leader for last, because he’s rarely got the attention he deserved — although he certainly appeared with the greatest musicians: Bing, Billie, Louis, Lester, Bunny, Tommy Dorsey, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Eddie Condon . . . a Bushkin discography is astonishing. Musicians knew, admired, and valued him. But his glistening style has led some casual listeners to hear him shallowly, the vivid, mobile approach to the piano as a display of technique. But when one hears Bushkin closely, there is a real lyricism underneath the facility, and an equally deep love for the blues: in the ancient argot, he is a real barrelhouse player, even in a pricey Upper East Side supper club.
And although Joe was not allowed to chat or to sing on this gig (a matter of arcane tax laws in cabarets) his bubbling sense of humor, his ebullience, comes through in every note. With a different pianist, Buck, Jo, and Milt would have still made great jazz, but the result wouldn’t have been as much fun. And “fun” wasn’t a matter of goofy quotes or scene-stealing: Joe was a perfectly sensitive accompanist. (I saw three-quarters of this group: Jo, Milt, Joe, and Ruby Braff — create a ten-minute MOTEN SWING in 1975 — and Fifty-Fourth Street has never been the same.)
Unlike other reissues, this disc sparkles for another reason — explained beautifully in the liner notes by Bushkin’s devoted son-in-law, trumpeter Robert Merrill, here. That reason is the most gorgeous recorded sound you’ve ever heard at a live gig: there are people in the room, but their presence is not intrusive, and each instrument is heard as beautifully as if this session was in a studio. To learn more about the label’s Legends series, visit here. (Dot Time has also issued recordings by Mulligan and Ella — and a magnificent Louis series is coming out.)
As I wrote above, Joe ran with the best. I’ve posted this once before, but everyone sentient in the known world needs to hear and re-hear it:
And here’s Joe being interviewed by the genial Stuart Klein in 1985:
2017 is Joe’s centennial, so there are a variety of celebrations going on, appropriately. Recordings of the Joe Bushkin Songbook are on the way, and there’s something to leave the house and the computer for, a Highlights in Jazz (a series in its 45th year) concert: the Joe Bushkin Centennial Concert
featuring Wycliffe Gordon, Harry Allen, Eric Comstock, Ted Rosenthal, Spike Wilner, Nicki Parrott, Steve Johns and John Colliani, under the musical direction of Bob Merrill — and a surprise Guest as well. It will take place at 8 PM, on Thursday, May 4, at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at Borough of Manhattan Community College, 199 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007.
One can purchase tickets by calling the box office [212-220-1460] or visiting www.tribecapac.org. Those who find the Post Office more consoling can mail a check made payable to highlights in Jazz for $50 per ticket (still a bargain, for those who have been to a club recently) to Highlights In Jazz, 7 Peter Cooper Road, Apt. 11E New York NY 10010. (Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope).
A concert celebrating Joe Bushkin will be fun. And the CD is a thorough pleasure.
Louis Mazetier, Jerome Etcheberry, Michel Pastre. Photograph by Philippe Marchin
Yes, a delightful new CD by players many of you might not be terribly familiar with — but JAZZ LIVES hopes to change this. Without another word from me, visit here where you can (on the right-hand side) hear excerpts from three performances.
This CD is the work of three splendid instrumentalists — Jérôme Etcheberry (of the Swingberries and other groups), trumpet; Michel Pastre, tenor saxophone; Louis Mazetier, piano. And there’s no need to ask yourself, “Where’s the rest of the band?” because you won’t miss them, not even for four bars.
It’s clear that this is music with a pulse, a warm swinging heartbeat. I envision the trio as if they were happily walking down Fifty-Second Street. That isn’t to suggest that this is a repertory disc, although most of the repertoire would have been applauded in 1944, but that these three players have a deep commitment to Swing: in their medium tempos, in their infallible rhythms, and their lovely balance between solo and ensemble. All three of them are hot players who find joy in ballads, who love to rock, who create backgrounds and riffs, so that the trio never seems like three voices lonely in the aesthetic wilderness.
They balance ease and intensity in the best ways, so that the session is as if Lips Page, Ben Webster, and Johnny Guarnieri found themselves in a congenial place with a good piano and decided to have some fun. Both Etcheberry and Pastre are old-fashioned players, lyrical and hot at the same time, who aren’t copying but making their own ways through the material: maybe they aren’t Lips and Ben . . . perhaps Shorty or Cootie, Ike Quebec or Chu. You get the idea. Mazetier graciously and unflaggingly is a whole rhythm section in himself, offering orchestral piano in the Waller manner — but we also hear touches of Wilson and Tatum. For me, it’s as if my beloved Keynote / Savoy / Blue Note 78s had come to life in this century — and continued to amaze and please right now without a hint of conscious recreation.
The song list will give you a clear idea of what inspires this trio: the original for which the CD is titled, 7:33 TO BAYONNE, and DON’T BE AFRAID, BABY (by Etcheberry and Pastre respectively), ESQUIRE BOUNCE (associated with Hawkins and the Esquire All-Stars), YOU CAN’T LOSE A BROKEN HEART (echoes of Louis, Billie, and James P.), TIME ON MY HANDS, VICTORY STRIDE (think Ellington, James P., and the Blue Note Jazzmen), FOOLIN’ MYSELF (for Lester and Billie), SQUATTY ROO (for Hodges and Co.), SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY, BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA, I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING, a ballad medley of SEPTEMBER SONG, MY ONE AND ONLY LOVE, and COCKTAILS FOR TWO, a romping IF DREAMS COME TRUE (again, echoes of James P., the Webb band, Buck, Ben, and Teddy), and Mazetier’s LA LIGNE CLAIRE.
Before I remind you where and how you can buy this CD, which I encourage you to do, because it is good for the soul as well as the ears, I will say that musicians wisely don’t ask me how to title the new CD. I say “wisely,” because not only do I have opinions, but I am often eager to share them. But if the trio had asked, I would have said in a flash, “Call this one THREE GROOVY BROTHERS.” “Groovy” makes sense to anyone who’s heard the excerpts. “Brothers” might not: their last names are dissimilar . . . but what I kept hearing all through the disc is a wonderful comradely embrace in swing. No one wants to show off, to play more, to play louder, to do fancy stuff. It’s all a kind collective endeavor, with each player trying gently to make sure the music sounds as fine as it can. Which it does.
You can buy the disc here — and for the monolingual, the form is easy to follow, and the little credit-card rectangles are, for better or worse, a common language.