Tag Archives: Art Tatum

STREET FOOD, AN EXOTIC HONEYMOON, EXUBERANT DANCE, 1936

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.
May your happiness increase!

BRAGGIN’ IN BRASS: JON-ERIK KELLSO, SCOTT ROBINSON, JOE COHN, MURRAY WALL (Cafe Bohemia, January 30, 2020)

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:

May your happiness increase!

“WAKIN’ UP MUSIC”: BRIAN HOLLAND, STEVE PIKAL, DANNY COOTS at the EVERGREEN JAZZ FESTIVAL (July 27, 2019)

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.

And now we’re all awake.

May your happiness increase!

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!

POETS IN THEIR YOUTH (October 11, 1938)

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.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET LESSONS IN MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT (1946)

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.

This music says YES, no hesitation.

May your happiness increase!

OF COURSE, THEY WEREN’T “TRAINED SINGERS”!

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.

These singers go right to my heart.

May your happiness increase!