Tag Archives: Artie Shaw

THE KINGS OF SWING: THE ANDERSON TWINS’ SEXTET (May 19, 2010)

As far as I can see, the Swing Era isn’t coming back any time soon.  Gone are the days when sixteen or seventeen tuxedo-clad musicians (seated neatly behind their individual music stands bearing the bandleader’s initials) played dances, toured the country in a bus for one-night stands.  1938 and 9 don’t seem to be returning.  Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman have been gone for some time.

But their music isn’t dead and isn’t gone. 

The Anderson Twins proved that last night at 59 E 59 (a New York City theatre located at 59 East 59th Street: http://www.59e59.org.) in two sets devoted to the music Artie and Benny and their bands made in their prime.

The Anderson twins are Pete (on clarinet, tenor, and bass clarinet) and Will (clarinet, alto, and flute).  Pete is on the left in the videos below.  Both are expert musicians — although they young, they are deeply immersed in this music, able to improvise nimbly in it rather than just copying the notes.  And they’re also engaging, low-key bandleaders as well as first-rate arrangers, responsible for the wonderful charts we heard. which kept the flavor of the big bands without seeming cut-down or compressed. 

At this concert (with no microphones: how rare and wonderful!), the other players were Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Ehud Asherie (piano), Clovis Nicolas (string bass), and Steve Little (drums).  The premise of this week of concerts was to consider who the real King of Swing was — which one of the rather neurotic, talented Jewish clarinet players from immigrant backgrounds was the reining musical monarch. 

Of course, Will and Pete like each other too much to make it into a dysfunctional musical family onstage: the atmosphere was congenial, and the boys didn’t vie for the limelight.  And it was very sweet to know that their parents were in the audience: we chatted with Will, Pete, and their mother and father after the concert: gentle, unaffected people.   

The series of concerts runs from May 18-23 and again from May 25-30.  The second week’s performances focus on Shaw’s music and to the vocalists who sang with the band — hence the appearance of the charming Daryl Sherman in Week Two, who will sing some of the music associated with Billie Holiday’s brief stint with the band and Helen Forrest’s longer one.  Daryl is a contemporary singer who actually worked with an “Artie Shaw band” supervised by the Master himself — and I am sure she will have good stories.  Incidentally, the second week of concerts celebrates Shaw’s centennial, an occasion for celebration. 

The boys promise that there will be new repertoire throughout the run of the concerts, so that’s good reason for going more than once.  Various musicians will fill the chairs: Charlie Caranicas and Mat Jodrell (trumpet), Steve Ash (piano), and Kevin Dorn (drums). 

Last night, we arrived late and missed AVALON, WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?, STARDUST, CARIOCA, MOONGLOW, STEALIN’ APPLES.  Marianne Mangan (there happily with husband Bob Levin) told us that STARDUST followed the iconic Shaw Victor recording, but that there had been a good deal of impromptu jamming otherwise.

Here are seven performances from last night’s concert, beginning with an excerpt from the Sextet’s extended exploration of CONCERTO FOR CLARINET, Artie’s “answer” to Benny’s SING SING SING:

FRENESI was a huge hit for Artie and his band, and this nifty arrangement (with Will on flute and Pete on bass clarinet) not only summons up the Shaw band, but also echoes the Alec Wilder Octet, always a good thing:

BEGIN THE BEGUINE, more evidence of Artie Shaw’s affinity for Cole Porter, became the ironic apex of his career.  No one expected it would be a massive popular hit, and he came to hate it and the people who demanded that he play it.  Here the Andersons offer a bouncy, entirely unironic reading of the song.  Too bad there was no room for dancing:

GOOD-BYE (a treat to hear it before the end of a concert!) was the Goodman band’s closing theme, a melancholy song by Gordon Jenkins.  Goodman fanciers are used to hearing it in fragments, as the broadcast fades away, but the Andersons are generous listeners and players, and offered this beautifully textured and complete arrangement:

When Goodman planned the program for his January 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, one of the organizing ideas was “Twenty Years of Jazz,” beginning with the ODJB and going up to “the present.”  Of course there had to be a tribute to Louis, and Harry James was asked (or asked to?) to perform Louis’s astounding solo on SHINE (or S-H-I-N-E, if you prefer).  Here Jon-Erik plays his own version of the classic explosion, with encouragement from his colleagues:

It might say a good deal about Artie’s approach to his audiences that he didn’t open his shows with something pretty, accessible.  Rather he gave his jitterbugging fans a good dose of their darkest urges and fears in NIGHTMARE:

The evening concluded with a romping LADY BE GOOD — in an arrangement that owed a good deal to the Shaw band, to Eddie Durham’s chart of EVERY TUB for the 1938 Count Basie band, and to Lester Young — although Benny had his own good time playing the Gershwin standard in every conceivable context:

The Kings of the Swing Era may be dead, but long live their successors!

[Just so no one makes our mistake of arriving late, there are no shows on Monday.  Tuesday and Wednesday, the show starts at 7.  Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, it’s moved to 8, and there’s a Sunday matinee at 3.]

DELICATE FORCE: HANK JONES (1918-2010)

Hank Jones, 2005

It’s unrealistic, but I thought that Hank Jones would be around forever: so I was unreasonably shocked to hear of his death at age 91.  The obituaries speak of the musicians he played with so gloriously — from brothers Elvin and Thad to Charlie Rouse and Joe Lovano . . . to Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Joe Wilder, and Ruby Braff.  He had fine taste: the “New York Rhythm Section” that flourished in the Fifties included Hank, Milt Hinton, Barry Galbraith, and Osie Johnson. 

Modestly, he didn’t want the spotlight for himself (although he recorded prolifically as a leader for forty years and more); nor did he say that his sound on the piano, his touch, was exceptional.  But anyone hearing even four bars of his playing could identify Hank — he had a singular way of hitting notes on the piano, of phrasing a line of notes, of voicing a chord . . . so that it could be no one else.  I don’t know enough about piano technique to say whether it was a matter of touch, of pedaling — but he could make the simplest (even the most cliched) phrase sound pearly.  Next to him, many other pianists (with monumental reputations) sound over-elaborate or uncouth.  (The player closest to Hank in this was Ellis Larkins.)  Hank’s phrases seem to float above the piano, transcending the mechanics of hands pressing down wood, the wood hitting strings, and so on.  And he had a particularly steady rhythmic sense: his beat was also unmistakable, apparently decorous.  But the elegant surface veneer of his playing, its sheen and gloss, could not mask his swinging force beneath.  Like Bobby Hackett, he was never loud.  He didn’t have to be.   

And he’s gone.  But we had sixty-five years to hear him: what a generous life!

“The Official Hank Jones Website” can be found here: http://www.officialhankjones.com/.  It’s rather outdated, but it will do to remind us of the glorious playing of Hank Jones.

ARTIE SHAW, THREE WAYS

Artie Shaw has been gone since 2004 and he last played the clarinet in public around fifty years before that, so the people who heard him play must be diminishing day by day.  But he remains an astonishing musician and a public figure capable of stirring up controversies.  I offer three ways of looking at the King of the Clarinet.

One is a glimpse of the intelligent but highly prickly writer, as evidenced by this letter for sale on eBay:

Another is through Tom Nolan’s superb biography, THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE, which I’ve reviewed here: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/three-chords-for-beautys-sake-artie-shaw-by-tom-nolan/

But these pieces of paper don’t always get us close to the music. 

Rather than coop yourself up with the Bluebirds or the new Mosaic set, why not come out and hear New York City’s finest jazz musicians play a tribute to Artie?  The reed-playing Andersons, Will and Peter Reardon, have planned two weeks of Shaw-inspired jazz at 59e59 in New York City.  They’re not only fine clarinetists but fine musicians: these concerts will be lively and evocative but far from note-for-note recreations of famous Shaw solos.  The Anderson Twins Sextet will include Jon-Erik Kellso, Ehud Asherie, and Kevin Dorn.     

The first week  — Tuesday, May 18, through Sunday, May 23 — will be an instrumental fiesta, with the band exploring the rivalry (real and imagined) between Artie and Benny Goodman (something their respective fans keep arguing about)  Details:   http://www.59e59.org/shows/WhoWasKing.html.  The next week will move away from clarinet-a-la-rancor and add the gifted singer Daryl Sherman, who sang with Artie’s “last” band and no doubt has some good stories to tell in between songs: http://www.59e59.org/shows/DarylSherman.html.

For those who haven’t been to this theatre, it is (reassuringly) located at 59 East 59th Street in New York City: www.59e59.org. or (212) 753-5959 for more information.

GEORGE WETTLING’S RIGHTEOUS RAGE

The man in the picture looks serious, intent, but hardly dangerous.  He is George Wettling — known for his wonderful drumming with Eddie Condon, Max Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Art Hodes, and many others. 

In my recent, quite amiable discussion of Moldy Figs and Mossy Stones with Nate Chinen, one of my friends, drummer Mike Burgevin, brought up a piece of jazz legend: he had read somewhere that “George Wettling flattened a critic.”

Inquiring minds want to know, of course, and so Stompy Jones (my Canadian ally) asked me what I knew about this incident.  I knew nothing, but suggested that the critic in question might have been Leonard Feather, who expended a great deal of energy in the Forties making fun of the Condon bands — so much so that Condon dedicated a mocking title to him, and later on Muggsy Spanier made a record called FEATHER BRAIN. 

I inquired of fellow scholars and drummers Hal Smith and Kevin Dorn, but no one seems to have particular details of this incident.  And the less I know about it, the more it piques my interest.  Let us assume that it actually happened, of course.  Did Wettling read something in DOWN BEAT, say, by Mike Levin, the critic who compared Lester Young’s tone to cardboard, meet him on the street, swing once, connect, and leave Levin horizontal?  Or was it a critic who actually came to hear Wettling in person who may have told George that his style of drumming was old-fashioned.  “Stop playing that bass drum.  Go take some lessons from Tiny Kahn or Max Roach.”  BOOM!

Those with information are invited and encouraged to write in; aspiring playwrights are also encouraged to submit five-minute playlets on the theme. 

And then, when we’ve collectively solved this mystery, perhaps someone can explain the astonishing and continuing interest in photographs of Billie Holiday’s “man,” Louis McKay.  Hundreds of people seem to be searching for Mr. McKay.  With all due respect, why?

CHANGES MADE

This post is motivated by email conversations with friends, some of them musicians, who confess in hushed tones that they really can’t listen to X, no matter how famous or renowned (s)he is. 

So I hereby reveal my contributions to this secret dialogue.  It interests me that some of the music I adored in my twenties I no longer can put up with. 

I find Ella Fitzgerald chilly and detached except when she is warmed by Ellis Larkins or Louis.  Once I thrilled to Tatum’s rococco wanderings for Norman Granz and Hines’s late-period bubblings-over.  No more.  No can do.  No Oscar Peterson; no Buddy Rich.  Rush the tempo, no matter how famous you are, and I want to walk away.     

Some of this may be the result of my aging impatience.  I’ve heard a lot, on record and in performance, and much pales by comparison.  Of course, my reaction may sound snobbish.  “What an over-critical view!  Jazz needs all the friends it can get,” some might say. 

But now I want a certain intense passionate simplicity (or it has to sound like simplicity — even though it isn’t simple at all!) rather than displays of technique.  Tell your story and let someone else play, please.  It’s not a matter of disliking, but a paring-away of what now seems to me inessential.  Maybe my ears are saying, “You know, life isn’t long enough to listen to four choruses of that solo.”  I know that some readers will find my choices wrong, inexplicable.  And I applaud their doing so.  We must listen to and love that which makes us vibrate in the best ways.

And I still have my treasures.  Certain recordings (I restrict myself to dead players and singers) I will carry with me to the grave, and beyond.  Lee Wiley’s Liberty Music Shop recordings.  Louis’s THAT’S MY HOME, KNOCKIN’ A JUG, and two dozen others.  The Chocolate Dandies’ I NEVER KNEW.  Eddie Condon’s TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL.  Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE.  Teddy Wilson’s I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (School for Pianists).  Red Allen’s ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON.  Billie’s I’LL BE SEEING YOU.  Mildred’s WILLOW TREE and BORN TO BE BLUE.  Joe Thomas’s YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME.  James P. Johnson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE and AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  The Basie rhythm section.  Almost anything by Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, Buck Clayton, Emmett Berry, Lawrence Brown, the Boswell Sisters.  Red Norvo on xylophone.  Ben Webster with strings.  Lester Young in good company.  Jack Purvis’s work on the Seger Ellis SLEEPY TIME GAL.  The Ellington-Hodges STOMPY JONES.  The 1934 Fats Waller sessions with Bill Coleman.  Dicky Wells in the Thirties.  Hot Lips Page and Dave Tough on Artie Shaw’s 1941 THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Teddy Bunn.  frank Newton.  Early Crosby, and the Bing-Mercer MR. CROSBY AND MR. MERCER.  Bix, Tram, and Lang.  Mercer’s THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN.  Early Jack Teagarden.

But many other famous players and recordings do not move me.  However, one of the freedoms of no longer attempting to be a completist, not having to listen to everything the Jazz Heroes / Heroines did is that I can spend time discovering less-publicized delights, the living players I celebrate in this blog.

And then there’s the larger issue, or burden, of perception.   

Some time ago, I began to write a blogpost called IS ANYONE LISTENING?  It remains a valid question.  Occasionally jazz seems based on a star system that rigidifies.  You come to the music of Kid Flublip early, fall in love with it, and are loyally obligated to keep to your early allegiance.  That’s wonderful, if the music continues to satisfy.  But I wonder if listeners are actually listening to what they hear or are so wrapped up in their adoration that they no longer hear.  Can an acolyte hear what the band is playing or is (s)he wholly in love with the name of the leader?     

Everyone might try a self-imposed Blindfold Test, or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind”: take a treasured recording and listen to it as if you’d never heard it before.  It requires a playing-tricks-on-the-self, but the result is exciting.  Familiar recordings give up new bits of lovely evidence; others crumble.  The Famous Bassist is out of tune; the Revered Soloist goes on for too long. 

A listening public — as opposed to a sentiment-driven one — might find new disenchantment.  The music we actually hear might not measure up to what we think we remember.  But that would enable us, as well, to put aside our adorations and hear something or someone new, a different kind of reward.

And if the musicians or singers I’ve grown away from still sing to you, consider yourself fortunate; it must be idyllic to find everything in an art form equally rewarding.  I can’t do it, and I am not sure that it would be a rewarding activity.

THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE: ARTIE SHAW by TOM NOLAN

 

It was easier to be a biographer in the nineteenth century.  The job description was clear: write a lengthy volume chronicling an honored subject from birth to death.  Admire the accomplishments; ignore the failings.  Say little of the great man’s private life, and make whatever information you present fit the admiring portrait.  Burnish the publish ideal of the hero. 

But the twentieth century brought us pathobiography, with the subject anatomized (sometimes gleefully) as a corpse to be dissected.  And many biographies now fixate on the subject’s offensive behavior rather than in his work.  In some books the palpable rancor of the biographer becomes the focal point.

Artie Shaw, who would have been a hundred this year, would seem a spectacularly difficult subject for a biography.  For one thing, Shaw’s music was beautifully analyzed and documented by Vladimir Simosko in 2000.  Shaw has been pictured as an unimaginably boorish husband (or ex-husband) by his ex-wives.  His last recordings were made more than fifty years ago, even though he lived on until the very end of 2004.

But biographer Tom Nolan proves himself valiantly up to the task in THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE: THE LIFE OF ARTIE SHAW (Norton, 2010).  It’s not simply the first-hand research, the careful investigation of the facts, the easy, approachable prose style.  Throughout the book, Nolan understands the scope and idiosyncratic shapes of Shaw’s life and art.   

But before we get into serious issues, I must say that a biography of Shaw (who knew many people and slept with many others) should also have some good gossip.  Nolan offers some wonderful anecdotes:

Billie Holiday advising a seven or eight-year old boy on proper deportment: “You better be good– or I’m gonna put a stamp on your forehead and mail you away!”  (The eight-year old boy took her very seriously and grew up to be a judge.)

Nolan lets us know Shaw’s recollection of what it was like to be in bed next to the gorgeous Lee Wiley in 1938: “In bed, she would say things like, ‘You are lying next to the greatest ass in New York.'”

Then there’s the tale of Judy Garland’s early and continuing love of Shaw.

But these are sidelights to the fascinating story of Shaw’s rise from obscurity to international success, his digust with that success, and his rejection of it — not once, but several times.  Although Nolan has left the musical and musicological analysis of Shaw’s playing and his overall artistic conception to others, what comes through is a full portrait of an artist — not simply a player, an improviser, a bandleader — but someone deeply concerned with the music he was making and might make.  Music, mind you — not just pop hits, not simply playing a good solo or having a successful band, but music

But what also comes through is that Shaw, perhaps because of the focused self-absorption needed for this quest, was a seriously unpleasant person.  Erudite, brilliant, witty, sophisticated, and all that.  But. 

Some will say that arists can be forgiven nearly everything because of what they give us, and that has a certain validity.  But Shaw seems time and again so obsessed with his own self-justifying, harsh truth-telling that it’s hard to tell where accuracy stops and cruelty begins.  As much as I admire Shaw’s music and his integrity, I find myself recoiling from the man who characterized Johnny Mercer as having  “a little faggotry in him,” to say nothing of the saga of Shaw’s failed marriages.  Nolan is fair and balanced, not taking the testimony of ex-wives and lovers at face value . . . but Shaw, in the end, comes across as an ungenerous narcissist. 

Here, for instance, is his portrait of Billie Holiday later in life: “Then she got hooked — she went to jail — all that shit.  I went to visit her, she was no longer the girl I knew.  She was no longer — anybody.  She was a — whiner.  She had some guy, livin’ off her and — it was no fun.  It was not fun being with her.  So it goes.”

But finding Shaw repellent did not make me put the book down.  In fact, I continued to read with terrible fascination: “What awful thing will he do or say next?”  It is a real tribute to Nolan’s ability as a writer and shaper of narrative that the reader is able to admire and dislike Shaw at once.  Nolan does not ignore Shaw’s failings, but he doesn’t gloat.  The portrait is thorough, providing a deep study of a man both complicated and coarse, creating beauty through his clarinet and creating turmoil through his actions. 

Even if you have only the vaguest idea of Artie Shaw, this biography is a fascinating study of the difficult relations between the artist and the audience, between the creative mind and the demands of the marketplace. 

And it sent me back to listen to Shaw’s music, which is, after all, what he should be remembered for.  To read a piece by Nolan about Artie Shaw, here’s an article about the recording “Summit Ridge Drive” published in the January 8, 2010 Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704398304574598343861876358.html

SURPRISED BY JAZZ (IN OAK CREEK CANYON)

The Beloved and I are taking a holiday in Sedona, Arizona, land of astonishing red rock formations and much more that we haven’t encountered yet.  On the road north through Oak Creek Canyon, we spotted a green-and-white sign for GARLAND’S INDIAN JEWELRY, and decided to pull over to take a look.

Garland’s is a beautiful store — more museum-quality silver than one can initially take in.  While the Beloved engaged a cheerful blonde woman in conversation about a particular purple stone from South Africa — a conversation that eventually managed to wend its way through the woman’s recently departed father-in-law, whose business it was (he had died recently at 92), the stress of being a war veteran, vegetarian and vegan diets . . . and more.

I confess I had been giving everything in the store, even the surprisingly deep conversation, only half of my attention — because they were playing my song.  And my songs.  From an Artie Shaw record to someone’s WOLVERINE BLUES to more Swing Era hits, I was pleased and surprised.  In a century where the background music, even in elaborately outfitted restaurants, strikes me as oppressively loud and aesthetically alien, this was a relief.  No, better.  It was balm. 

Cynically, I thought to myself, “Well, they want to attract the upscale market of people old enough to recall Artie Shaw — retirees with beau koo jack, sizable amounts of disposable income. 

But then the music shifted into the hard stuff: the Creole Jazz Band’s SNAKE RAG.  Billie, Lester, and Teddy in 1937.  Louis singing and playing ALL OF ME in 1931.  And my cynicism melted.  I apologized for intruding on the conversation to say, “Who chose the CD for this store?  That’s my music?”

The blonde woman — her name is Tricia Garland — smiled and said, “That’s Pandora, a free download channel: we set it to New Orleans Jazz.  Yes. today is Mardi Gras, but that’s not the reason.  We enjoy the music!” 

I told her a bit about this blog, and she said, “Jazz crosses all boundaries, doesn’t it?”

Truer words were never spoken.  Thanks to Tricia Garland for making sure that Hot jazz follows us wherever we go.  And it’s truly a lovely store: see for yourself at www.garlandsjewelry.com.  You can trust anyone who plays SNAKE RAG!

MILDRED BAILEY by JULIA KEEFE

Mildred Rinker Bailey

“The Rocking Chair Lady”

February 16, 1900 – December 12, 1951

Mildred Rinker was born one hundred and ten years ago today in Tekoa, Washington.  Her mother, Josephine Lee Rinker, was an enrolled member of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe.  Mildred’s early childhood was spent on the family’s tribal allotment near DeSmet, Idaho, where she spent many happy hours riding her pony, Buck.

The Rinker family moved to Spokane’s North Central neighborhood when Mildred was thirteen, and she graduated from St. Joseph’s School. Mildred and her younger brother Al spent many happy hours singing and playing piano under the instruction of their mother, an excellent pianist who could play both classical and ragtime music.

Mildred’s musical talent inspired both her brother Al and one of his band mates, a singing drummer named Bing Crosby, who once said, “I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life.  I learned a lot from her.  She made records which are still vocal classics, and she taught me much about singing and interpreting popular songs.”

Shortly after her mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1917, Mildred moved to Seattle and found work singing from sheet music at a local music store.  Her career path led her throughout the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where she joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and became the first full-time female big band singer in America.  Mildred Bailey’s groundbreaking achievement opened the door of opportunity for later jazz greats including Billie Holiday, Helen Ward, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Mildred Bailey’s earliest recordings were made in 1929, and she recorded nearly three hundred songs over the years, several of which became best-sellers.  Mildred had her own radio show in the 1940s, and was voted either first or second most popular female jazz vocalist in the first three annual Esquire Magazine jazz polls. The most famous artists from the swing era recorded and performed with Mildred, including Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, the Dorsey brothers, and Artie Shaw.

In 1944, Time magazine reviewed her show at the Café Society in New York and called her “just about the greatest songbird in the U.S.”  Mildred and her husband, pioneer xylophone and vibes great Red Norvo were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing” during this phase of her career.

Mildred Bailey died on December 21, 1951 in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she lived on a farm with her beloved dachshunds, Spotty and Susan.  In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of stamps honoring legendary jazz and blues singers, including “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey.  One jazz historian said of Mildred, “She had a magic. So many people down the line, so many singers, benefited from her, owe debts to her – and they don’t even know it.”

Thank you, Mildred, for the trail you blazed and the beautiful songs you left behind.  You demonstrated that a little girl from an Idaho Indian reservation can dream big dreams, and make those dreams come true.  We’ll never forget you. Thanks for the memory!

Julia Keefe, Nez Perce tribal member

www.juliakeefe.com

(For those of you who haven’t heard of Julia Keefe, I promise that you will.  She’s more than an articulate Mildred Bailey fan; more than a diligent researcher — who provided these pictures of a seventeen-year old Mildred about to leave Spokane for the big time (the pictures came from Mildred’s niece, Julia Rinker Miller, whose father was Al Rinker) . . . she’s also a 20-year old jazz singer with a future.   She reveres Mildred and sings some of her songs, but Julia is wise enough to know that imitation is both impossible and no one’s idea of flattery.  More from and about her in future!)  And Julia went to the same Spokane high school, Gonzaga Prep, as that fellow Crosby . . . it’s a small world after all. 

PROFESSOR EVE WILL TEACH YOU!

I’ve never met Eve Polich although we’ve been at the same event and we’ve corresponded — but I have seen her dance!  So I can recommend her upcoming dance classes with confidence.  Maybe she will encourage me to find my Capezios, get over my previous lack of success as a ballroom dancer, and try once again.

Here’s the information: worth a trip from everywhere!

AVALON JAZZ DANCE LESSONS!

 So many people have approached me asking about dance lessons that I have decided to start some classes starting in March every 2nd and 4th Monday/Tuesday to test the waters. These classes are ridiculously cheap if you are a musician. Just sayin’.  (All classes are $10 for civilians, $5 for musicians.)

Beginner Lindy-Hop! Mondays

Learn traditional partnered swing dancing from the 1920’s and 30’s.  This class will cover the basic steps as well as discuss technique, connection, and musicality.

March 8th and March 22nd: 8-9 PM

Beginner/Intermediate Lindy-Hop! Tuesdays

Learn traditional partnered swing dancing from the 1920’s and 30’s.  This class will be for beginner students who want to take their dancing to the next level.  We will focus on more complex moves, technique, connection, and musicality.

March 9th and 23rd: 6-7 PM

Solo Charleston! Tuesdays

Learn traditional solo jazz movement from the 1920’s and 30’s.  Not only is this awesomely fun, but will also inform your partnered dancing.

March 9th and 23rd

All classes will be held at Chelsea Studios, 151 West 26th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues

If you attend both Tuesday classes, together they will be only $16 or $8 for musicians!

Private lessons available for $40/hour or bartered goods and services.

RSVP to evepolich [at] avalonjazz [dot] com

And if you visit Eve’s site (AVALON) and click on the hyperlinks, she promises you’ll see “examples old and new” of these dances — worth investigating!  Check out http://avalonjazz.blogspot.com/2010/02/avalon-jazz-dance-lessons.html

Here’s the ideal — the collegiate Shag done to Artie Shaw’s DIGA DIGA DOO.  Anything’s possible, right?

LETTERS FROM FRANK CHACE, 1998-2002

I first heard the Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace on 1951 broadcast recordings from Storyville (issued on Savoy records and reissued in the late Seventies) where he held his own alongside Wild Bill Davison, Ephie Resnick, and a loud rhythm section.  (Later, Frank would tell me that he was half-deafened by Davison’s habit of blowing into the clarinetist’s ear.)  Chace impressed me as having absorbed Pee Wee Russell’s style without exactly copying Pee Wee.  Years later, I thought that he was to Pee Wee what Buck Clayton was to Louis — a loving reflection, a distillation.  But in the early days of my vinyl-searching, there was no other Chace to be found on record. 

in 1986, when I began corresponding and trading tapes with John L. Fell — film scholar, amateur clarinetist, and erudite jazz collector — he sent a cassette of private Chace performances: some with Marty Grosz, others with the guitarist / cornetist Bill Priestley.  On this tape, I heard thoughtful questing that had only been hinted at on the Storyville recordings.  And I wanted to hear more.  After asking all the collectors I knew (among them the late Bob Hilbert and the still-active Joe Boughton, Wayne Jones, Gene Kramer) to dig into their Chace holdings, I had a good deal of music in settings where he felt comfortable enough to explore, from 1951 duets with Don Ewell to a Marty Grosz nonet and various small groups.  Frank’s brilliance and subtlety — his willingness to take risks — moved me greatly.  I iamgine I was also intrigued by his elusiveness: his name appeared in none of the jazz reference books; his issued recordings were out of print, except for a Jim Kweskin session on Vanguard. 

Quite by accident I learned that he was still playing.  WBGO-FM broadcast live remotes from the Chicago Jazz Festival over the Labor Day weekend.  In 1997, listening idly to the proceedings, I heard the announcer say, “Up next, the Frank Chace Quintet.”  I scrambled for a new cassette, and, feeling as if the heavens had opened to let divinity in, heard Frank play, marvelously, including a bossa nova and LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY.  This gave me hope that he was alive and well, and I imagined that I might see him play sometime or have a new Chace recording to study. 

Because I had spent much of my academic life as a literary detective, poring over unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, I became fascinated by Frank as a subject for study.  I knew that he lived in Evanston, Illinois, and when I had his address confirmed by the Chicago musicians’ union, Marty Grosz, and John Steiner, I felt bold enough to proceed by writing to him.

I don’t have my letters to Frank, although his friend and executor Terry  Martin tells me that Frank saved them, but I am sure that I introduced myself as an admirer, someone who would like to write about him (I had been reviewing CDs for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors Journal and was soon to start writing for The Mississippi Rag).  In this post, I present his side of the correspondence.  I have omitted only a few telephone numbers and addresses of individuals; otherwise I have left the letters intact.  I have guessed at the placement of the few undated items; readers are free to do their own reshuffling if my logic offends. 

I must have sent him some Pee Wee Russell cassettes, and addressed him (politely) as Mr. Chace:

12 Apr 98

Dear Michael,

     A hasty note of thanks for the astounding packet.  Golly, Pee Wee was even better than I thought.

     I had no idea anyone was tracking my transgressions.  If I recall, some of those pallid Pee Wee-ish peregrinations are even lousier than others.

     You still think I should be interviewed?

     I wish Hilbert had looked me up.  I might have filled in a few spaces, e.g. PWR for Jack T. at Curley’s in Springlfield IL Oct 93 [sic], et alia.  Five glorious drunken nites. 

     My father was from Mayville, N.Y.  Any relation?

Cordially, Frank.

P.S.  I’m Mr. Chace only to the IRS.

Frank’s opinion of his playing here is positively sunny.  “Hilbert” was Robert Hilbert, who had written a Russell biography and compiled a discography.  Later, Frank told me that the Curley’s gig was meant to be a Jack Teagarden quartet — Teagarden was by then appearing only with Don Ewell, a bassist Frank remembered only as “Pappy,” who was derisive about the other players, and drummer Barrett Deems.  When Teagarden took sick, Pee Wee filled in for him, and Frank remembered long explorations of each song that would end with many choruses of eight-bar and four-bar trades among the quartet.  Don Ewell was his great friend and musical mentor.  And “Mayville” is a mild joke; I was living in Melville, New York.

Encouraged by his response, I sent Frank a photocopy of my then amorphous Chace discography:

 20 April 1998

Dear Michael,

     I’ve entered some guesses along with one or two certainties.  I recall some of these sessions vividly, others not at all.

     As for the penultimate entry on the reverse side, if you send a cassette I might sort it out.  But aside from a few tunes with Marty [Grosz] and a bassist [Dan Shapera] from the Chi. Jazz Institute’s Jazz Fair in Jan. 1984 I haven’t listened to myself since before 1982, when I stopped drinking.  Too grisly.  (Except for a few S[alty] D[og] ensembles, below*.)

     There was a 1968 session (at John Steiner’s, like many of them) during Marty’s brief affair with electricity: Lullaby in Rhythm, Exactly Like You.  These should be around, God knows, if the rest of this stuff is.

     Birch Smith sent me a CD “Selty Dogs 1955” last year.  He finally issued them (Windin’ Ball) but so far as I know distributes from his home, only.  I’d make you a dub but don’t know how.  (I have only a Sony Diskman for playing.)

     Do you have the 1961 Jabbos?  Lorraine Gordon issued [a] two-LP boxed set around 1984.  Sure enough, we didn’t try any Jazz Battles or Boston Skuffles, but we thought Jabbo was wonderful seapite reviewers’ demurrers.  I never had other than a tape dub but gave it away 30 years ago!

Cheers back atcha,

 Frank

I don’t remember when I asked Frank if we might talk on the telephone; he agreed, although our conversations were intermittent at best, usually on Sunday evenings.  Once I interrupted him when he was about to eat some soup; other times I would let the phone ring twenty or so times before giving up.  I now assume, and Terry Martin agrees, that Frank was at home — as he aged, his mobility was limited by illnesses — but did not want to talk. 

I do recall his amusement when I asked his permission to record our conversations for a profile of him; he was both flattered and puzzled.  He had said that he didn’t write to me as often as he would like because he lacked paper and pens; ever enterprising (or overbearing?) I sent him some.  Now, I think he was being polite and evasive; I was more interested in interviewing him than he was in being interviewed.  Gene Kramer, who had co-written a book on Don Ewell, had sent me a collection of Pee Wee rarities, which I copied for Frank:            

24 Aug 98

Dear Michael,

     It’s yet unclear how churlish I can get — might at least have sent a thank you card, but didn’t think I had any stamps.  (NO — please don’t send stamps – I found some.)

     *I haven’t listened to it all so far — it’s easier to replay the marvelous alternate Ida.  Marty once opined that PW’s style came to fruition only around Home Cooking time, but it seems PW was annoying and perplexing his colleagues years earlier.  And, how those other guys could play B I Y O Backyard.  I’m reminded again of hos much I love Max.

     *I’ve wondered for a long time how the US got this way — a week ago at the N[orthwestern] U[niversity] library I read NSC 68 (to be found in “Foreign Relations of the United States,” 1950 Vol I page 234).  Example: “We seek to achieve (our values) by the strategy of the Cold War.”  The whole thing is absorbing.  Books I might have mentioned to youare The Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare and Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948 by Frank Kofsky.  If you’re interested.

     Later.  it’s to hot and humid for now.

     *The “I” violated your code.

     SPPFL = Society for the Preservation of Pete Fountain’s Legacy.

 Love, Yakov, master of the ocarina.

The “Ida” was an alternate take of the 1927 Red Nichols recording.  In retrospect, this letter mirrors our phone conversations.  Frank was articulate and well-read.  Although he could be wheedled into talking about himself (briefly and grudgingly) and the musicians he admired, his real subject was the downfall of the United States.  I was much less well-informed about global history, and this seemed to exasperate him.  I shared some of his views, but his gloom and rage were far deeper.  I suspect now that he humored me when we spoke of jazz, but that it struck him as almost irrelevant.  His comments about “I” and the “SPPFL,” which he had written on the envelope, need explanation.  Frank disdained players he thought “synthetic”; Fountain was one.  And I had mock-apologized in a letter for beginning several paragraphs in a row with “I”; hence his asterisks.

I didn’t hear from Frank until the end of the year, when a Seasons Greetings card arrived. 

  Dear Michael,

     A bacterial infection put me in the hospital (out cold) Sept 14 – Oct 13 and Rehab Oct 13 – Dec 4, but I recover apace.  Sorry about the hiatus.  Hope you are well and prospering in this psychotic Republic.

 

[undated]

Dear Michael,

     Hoping all’s well with you.  You wanted a picture.  All I’ve unearthed so far are pix from Aspen, where Marty got me a few weeks with The Village Stompers.  The wide angle shot shows Alfie Jones, a dandy Toronto trombonist, greeting Lou McGarity.  The others you know or are listed.

     I’ve been out of touch with Sandy Priestley, Bill’s younger son, the one most interested in his dad’s music.  He one told me that Avis, Squirrel [Ashcraft]’s daughter, had rescued some stuff from the Evanston Coachouse and needed ID’s for some of the players.  He, Seymour, lives in or near Milwaukee.  I don’t want to put him in touch with you without your permission.  The 1951 tracks with Nichols and Rushton, and Bill’s anthem Isn’t It Romantic might interest Sandy and Avis a lot, but it’s been a while . . . . This makes me miss the old “Club 55” (Lake Forest).  John Steiner, too.  The old order passeth.

Cheers anyway,

As ever, Frank.

I had sent Frank a private tape (original source possibly John Steiner, the great archivist of Chicago jazz) of a 1951 Squirrel Ashcraft session featuring Red Nichols and Joe Rushton.

2 Feb 1999

Dear Michael,

     I only just uncovered your Prima cassette amidst four cases of accumulated mail, mostly junko.  I had never even known of the enhanced orch. of side B.  PWR’s chorus-long trill on Dinah has me confounded.  Never knew him to do the circular breathing thing.  Prima clearly exhilarated him.  Egged him on.  Exhorted him.  PWR IS SUPERMAN.

     I (hereby disobeying your paragraph rule) never replied to your probe for an 8 x 10 glossy.  Fact is, I never had one.  The J D Salinger of the clarinet.

     Yet another fellow, a Brit, has written about doing a piece on me for IAJRC publication of Miss. Rag.  I’ve come across his note ten times, but now can’t find it.  Name of Derek Coller from County Berkshire if I recall.  Do you know of him?  I might never find his address.  I am less churlish than lazy and disorganized.

     Your cassettes are better for me that Wodehouse’s BUCK-YOU-UPPO.

Cheers,

Frank

Frank was referring to the Brunswick recordings Pee Wee had made as a member of Louis Prima’s band, which show off Prima as successfully ouis-inspired, and Pee Wee responding with great enthusiasm.  Ironically, Derek Coller (a fine jazz scholar) and Bert Whyatt did finish a long essay on Frank for JAZZ JOURNAL — in 2009 — and an accompanying discography for the IAJRC Journal in the same year.  Like Bix and some of the Austin High Gang, Frank loved P.G. Wodehouse.

9 March 1999

Dear Michael,

      You Leave Me Breathless.  What?  No Simeon too?  Do I not play like Simeon?  Beale (Billy) Riddle thought I played like Simeon.  Possibly not like him on”Bandanna Days” tho.  Beautiful. 

      Your encomiums had me groping for my blue pencil, but I won’t query you less’n you want.  The finale, or coda, “inspired improvisation,” is a dandy.  STET.  I told you I was fighting for my life.

     As for your S[umma] C[um] L[aude] submissions, they only fortify my esteem for those guys.  How competent they are.  The medley, stitched together with modulations ouf of Easy to Get, seems an outstanding ploy.  Signature segues.  The Miff unissued V-Disc: I heard Peg O’My Heart at Nick’s, then on Commodore, but PWR is positively SEIZED on this on.  And on what you call “Notes on Jazz,” see if you don’t identify Mel Powell.  The Bushkin right-hand grupetti, the fleeting salute to the Lion.  And if Bert Naser is Bob Casey, why?  AFM?  And Joe Sullivans, I’d never heard these.  No wonder [Richard] Hadlock’s fixation. 

     And Swing It.  Priceless.  My undying gratitude is yours.  I’ve watched it only once so far, perhaps refusing to believe it.

     And that fool Brunis.  (Ending tape segment.)  PWR phoned from the hotel upon arriving [in] Chicago with McP (MaFathead) for that NPR thing (Oct. 67?).  I said, “Pee Wee!  You called me”!*  He said, “Who would I call, Brunis”? (Georg was his lifelong tormentor.)

     I found the Coller letter and replied saying that the recounting of my legendary career had been already besought, but omitting your name and address.  If you care to write him . . . .

     Instead of dredging out my apartment I did so with my wallet and found the enclosed.  It’ll have to do.  Soon I’ll be “a tattered coat upon a stick.”  Whence the quote?

Love and XXX,

Frank

*I have to watch my punctuation p’s and q’s, Prof.

P.S.  My regards to [Gene] Kramer.  We’ve got out of touch.

Have you read “the Ends of the Earth” by Robert D. Kaplan?  An outstanding travel book.

Frank admired the Fifties John Coltrane, and “You Leave Me Breathless” was one of his favorites.  I had written an exultant review of the 1955 Salty Dogs CD to the IAJRC Journal and sent Frank a copy.  Since it infuriated him when people assumed he was imitating Pee Wee, I made the point that Frank had reinvented many of the classic clarinet styles — Dodds and Noone among them.  Beale Riddle was a jazz fan, amateur drummer, and recordist who had captured an early trio of Frank, Don Ewell, and himself for posterity.  “Bandanna Days” was recorded by “the Carnival Three” in 1947 for Disc — Simeon, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster.  I had sent Frank airshots of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (with Kaminsky, Gowans, Pee Wee, and Bud) from the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1940, as well as an unissued V-Disc performance of “Peg O’My Heart” by Miff Mole, Pee Wee, Stirling Bose, and others.  “Notes on Jazz” captured a number of Condon concert performances — before the Blue Network series began in 1944 — for distribution to South America.  I had been given thirty minutes of this material by John L. Fell; the announcements were in Portuguese.  I had also sent Frank a videocassette copy of the Thirties film short subject SWING IT — featuring Pee Wee and Louis Prima at their most lively, and may have included the 1967 JAZZ ALLEY television show with Hodes, McPartland, and Pee Wee.  (Frank was in the audience, and remembered that Pee Wee offered McPartland five dollars to change places with him onstage.)  Richard Hadlock continues to be an active West Coast jazz historian and reedman; he did a good deal for an aging Joe Sullivan in the Sixties.  The quotation was from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which Frank knew I knew.  Still looking for a picture to send me, he had found an outdated bus pass in his wallet and enclosed it, which I still have.  Obviously he was in a happier mood.  And I was thrilled to be purveyor-of-jazz-treats, sharing pleasures.

28 June 99

Dear Michael,

      I went straight to the Marty-Ephie music.  Was there ever a one-man gang like Mart?  And Effie’s dry wit.  I can’t always tell whether he’s trying to be expressive or funny.  And he can play anything, sometimes all at once. 

     Grateful too for the Dodds stuff.  It seems the Harlem hot-shots foreswore mocking him musically – let’s hope they didn’t do so personally.  Terry Martin suggests he probably could hold his own in eiher context, Ewell’s fears notwithstanding.

     I never dreamt the Ashcraft stuff had been orgaznied and documented like that.  Pee Wee, guesting at Priestley’s in 1967, calimed he could identify Joe [Rushton’s] clarinet anywhere.  So far I’ve heard only a little from these cassettes.  Speaking of bass sax I have from the lib. “ART DECO” Sophisticated Ladies (Columbia, 2 CD’s set).  Ella Logan sings I Wish I Were Twins, with Adrian [Rollini], Max, Bud, [Carl] Kress, [Roy] Bargy, [Stan] King.

     It’s raining on this sheet.  Grateful to know someone who connects with my frame of reference.  Must run for cover.  WITH THANKS                      

FC

This time, I had sent a duet recording of Marty Grosz and trombonist Ephie Resnick, as well as the Decca sides pairing Johnny Dodds with Charlie Shavers, Pete Brown, and Teddy Bunn.  The Rushton recordings are informal duets recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s — Rushton on clarinet, Bob Zurke on piano.  Whether then or at another date, I had sent Frank a collection of other informal sessions at Squirrel’s: on the telephone, he told me that a prized listening experience was hearing Pee Wee on a 1939 or 1940 “Clarinet Marmalade.”

 27 Mar 00

Dear Michael,

     Don’t get a paper cut from these sheaves.  Not that these observations from K. Amis’s memoirs are new to you.

     I love the references to Hodes, with whom I played off and on between 1957 and 1984.

     Young J. Dapogny introduced me to Lucky Jim.  I evened up by playing him Tea for Two by one T. Monk, of whom he’d never heard.

As ever,

Frank   

The pages were excerpts from Kingsley Amis’s memoirs:  Amis, like his friend Philip Larkin, revered Pee Wee and especially the 1932 Rhythmakers sides.  In 1947, moving into an apartment, Amis glued to the wall “an over-enlarged photograph of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, with a typed caption adapted from the last stanza of Tennyson’s poem, ‘To Virgil’: I salute thee, Pee Wee Russell, / I that loved thee since day began, Wielder of the wildest measure / ever moulded by the lips of man.’  Frank also took pleasure in Larkin’s dismissal of Hodes: “he sounded as if he had three hands and didn’t know what to do with any of them.”  When I see James Dapogny (now Professor Emeritus) I will ask him if the Monk anecdote is as he remembers it.

17 Jan 00

Dear Michael,

     I write this on my lap in front of football TV, having no surfaces owing to apt. mucking-out, and having no pen I like andneeding to buy six encased in plastic to find out.

     So this should be short – a mercy considering a sentence like the above.

     Nice to hear Jack [Gardner or Teagarden?] again.  An altogether agreeable cohort.  And such exciting Lester and Fats. Listening to that radio announcer makes my blood run cold.  I hate this f…..g country. 

     In that vein I’m reading Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised.  My high school’s history text was Charles Beard.  Reading him now suggests the textbook was seriously bowdlerized.  No wonder we’re all so ignorant.  Oh by Jingo.

     Do you have, I mean do you know, Bud’s I Remember Rio, done latterly in Chi?  Typical Bud.  He’s like a favorite uncle.  

     At the library I check[ed] out the 2 CD Art Deco, Sophisticated Ladies on Columbia.  I Wish I were Twins: Max, Bud, Adrian, Kress, Ella Logan? 1934.  You Go To My Head unusual sunny Pee Wee yet controlled.  Nan Wynn?  Lee W.[iley] and a flock of canaries w/ nice acc.

     I hear of a complete Django – might buy.

     Ask me sometime about who I thought  (whom, Prof.) was Jerry Winter — turns out to be Jerry Winner who hung around North Brunswick, NJ in 1951-2.  Nice cl. With Raymond Scott 1947/8.

     Also ask about the Victory Club.

TaTa,

Frankie

P.S.  I used “nice” 3 X, C-.

Terry Martin tells me that Frank discarded nothing and hoarded things in stacks and piles.  Were the frequent references to desperate cleaning real or merely rhetorical?  What incensed him so much in this letter was a live 1938 broadcast Fats Waller did from the Yacht Club — infamous for a condescending racist announcer who persists in calling Fats “boy.”  Frank loved football but was aghast at the way the announcers spoke: he told me more than once of a famous sports figure, trying to sound polished, making a grammatical error.  Now, this letter seems to combine politeness and impatience: I did not get the opportunity to ask  about the subjects he threw in at the end.  He had told me that as a young clarinetist, he failed to get involved in the rivalry of Goodman and Shaw; he cited Winner as someone he admired.

29 June 00,

Dear Michael,

     I never expected that fooling around with a clarinet would fetch me such bounty as your books and cassettes.  This Buddy Clark sure had accurate pitch, is it not so?

     As for your Salty Dogs (Saline Canines: MOG) inquiries, as far as those of D. Coller about [Tony] Parenti, [Bill] Reinhardt and [Jimmy] Ille, I wouldn’t know what to say.

     Did I ever tell you of my European summers (’51 and ’52) with the Amherst Delta Five?  Their clarinet player preferred to sell used cars in Utica.  One “Bosh” (Wm. H.) Pritchard came along on guitar (’51) which h’d never played.   Someone showed him how to make a G7 chord.  Some girls on board ship told him he sounded like Eddie Condon.  Protchard became Henry Luce Prof. of Eng. at his alma mater.

Hastily,

Frank

I had sent Hilbert’s Pee Wee biography.  The Buddy Clark session was an oddity — for the Varsity label in 1940, where he is accompanied by a version of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, with Freeman and Pee Wee taking surprising solo passages.  “MOG” is Martin Oliver Grosz.  I hope that the story of Prof. Pritchard is true.

2 January 01

Dear Michael,

     Glad to have your letter, but saddened indeed at news of your mother.  Please accept my condolences.  What good is it to know that it happens to most of us before we depart, and that there’s always regret at what we failed to do or say in time.

     As for me, I’m trying to emerge from the Nov. – Dec. blahs — respiratory congestion followed by the BLAHS of SNOW and cabin fever.  Yes, I played a couple of gigs in Nov., just down the street really at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, a last refuge of cigarette smokers.  I paid for it.  [Bob] Koester showed up both times, and Paige Van Vorst, and someone named Jerry (a friend of Bill Russell of Am. Music) and an OTIS who is a P. W. fancier.  A katzenjammer quartet: [mandolinist  / guitarist Don] Stienberg, [Mike] Waldbridge, me, and an EAGER but blatty trumpet player.  Later, Paige sent me a year’s worth of  Miss. Rag.  Don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

     Koester keeps wanting a record session and I keep demurring.  As for your discography and entries I question the Jazz At Noon dates as to my presence, my having been absent with a misdiagnosed biliary tract infection.  I was in hosp. during the assassination of Fred Hampton.  The Oct. 18, 1968 date shows an odd title inversion suggestive of Steiner: “Pick Yourself Up” is really Let Yourself Go.

Hang in there,

Frankie

My mother had died, at 85, a few months before.  Frank’s comments transcend formula, I think.  And I take it as indicative of his worldview and political awareness that he should recall his hospital stay because of Fred Hampton:  the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, killed by police at the direction of the FBI.

02 Nov 02

Dear Michael,

     Terry Martin sent me a photocopy of D. Coller’s thing on Floyd O’Brien.  Takes me back, if not quite aback. 

     Here’s hoping you are somewhat restored to the quotidian world, the humdrum, what an Army buddy and I referred to as the drab mundane.  Meanwhile, I thought you might be bemused by the enclosed pic, from 1978 I think under a wedding-reception tent in Priestley’s backyard. (Lake Forest, IL).  Bill, left, has his back to the crowd as was his wont, duels with Warren Kime.  Your congenial leader is at back, looking like Bergen Evans.  Not shown: Bob Wright, piano; Joe Levinson, bass; Bob Cousins, drums.  Nice gig.

     I’m looking for a cassette to send you: a string of tunes from the Chi. Jazz Fest, Jan. 1984.  Doubt that you’ve heard them.  A trio: Marty, me, Dan Shapera, hass.  Last time Mart and I tangled.  Trying to get my apt. under control – I’m not exactly a fussy taxonomist.

As Ever,

Frank

I will share this photograph in a future posting. 

18 Dec 02

Dear Michael,

     So you laughed out loud at M[ichael]. Chabon – I coarsen myself listen to the enclosed examples of obtuseness, banality, and dead-ass playing.  I wrote Price and Thompson thanking them for the check and rhapsodic blurb, respectively.  Also mentioned that I was both terrified and pissed off throughout.

     Thanks anyway, but I can’t listen to Braff.  Musically, verbally and in print, he is, for me, a prototype of The  Boston Asshole.

     I really must learn to curb my expressionism.

     As Marty once abjured me, For Your Eyes Only.  I continue to rummage for that cassette – my housekeeping is execrable.

Ever,

Frank

The remarks above may offend, but at this late date I prefer candor to ellipsis.  I had sent Frank a copy of a Braff CD I particularly liked; he sent me the 2-CD set of his live recordings from 1967 with Jimmy Archey and Don Ewell — an odd group of players, their styles rarely coalescing.

This is the last letter from Frank — and my Sunday evening attempts to call met with no response.  I assumed he had fallen ill or no longer wanted to talk or correspond.  Thus I was greatly surprised to receive a package months later — that long-promised cassette, with a scrawled note on a tiny scrap of paper, which read something like, “Sorry, man — I’ve been sick with ascites (?)”  That was the last I heard from him.

Frank’s letters were always leavened to some extent by his wit, even when it was extremely dark.  I don’t, however, know if he would have written to me at all if he didn’t feel the need to thank me for the things I sent him, which he did seem to appreciate. 

Talking to him on the telephone, however, was often a depressing experience as conversation wound down.  I found Frank’s mixture of annoyance, contempt, and sadness sometimes difficult, often frustrating.  I wanted to celebrate and gossip about the older music (a fan’s ardor); he wanted me to listen to Coltrane.  But more, he wanted to vent his rage at United States imperialism and the decline of the West.  In retrospect, we had little to talk about.  Someone listening in might have considered our sonversations as little dramas, with each of us wanting to make things go his way, succeeding only briefly.  I know that musicians and non-musicians are often separated by an invisible wall, but these conversations had even greater barriers, although we were enthusiastic about the same things. 

But Frank often seemed as if he was going through some elaborate set of motions; whether he wearied of me, an enthusiastic correspondent who attempted to ply him with cassettes, whether he wearied of talking about what was now the receding past, whether he was weary of people, I do not know.  That enigma, still fascinates me, although the possibilities are saddening.       

Thus I was surprised when I heard from Terry Martin, perhaps in 2006, telling me that Frank was ailing (which did not surprise me: the long spaces between calls or letters were often the result of hospitalizations) and that Frank had mentioned my name to Terry as someone he wouldn’t mind speaking to.  I feel some guilt about this now, but I told Terry I couldn’t attempt to restart the conversation.  I was going through a difficult period and Frank’s darkness was too much to face.  Terry, to his credit, understood.  The next news I heard was that Frank had died at 83.   

I consider myself fortunate that I had these exchanges, and that we can hear him play on recordings.  Frank had something to tell us, and he still does.      

Frank Chace: July 22, 1924 – December 28, 2007. 

A postscript: when I was attempting to interview Frank for a profile, I amassed five or six pages of transcriptions of those taped conversations.  In the spirit of Frank’s housekeeping, these pages have vanished.  However, I recall a few fragments.  When young, Frank was initially intrigued by the sounds coming from the apartment below — a neighbor was a symphony flautist.  When he began to take up the clarinet (moved to do so, of course, by a Pee Wee Russell record), he listened to “everything” and thought it was his responsibility as a musician to do so.  He recalled with great glee a recording with  Don Ewell in the house band at Jazz Ltd: the band was playing the SAINTS, a song Don loathed, and he kept playing MARYLAND through his piano chorus.  (The details may be awry, but the intent is clear.)  When asked what recordings he particularly liked, Frank eventually called to mind the Mezzrow-Bechet OUT OF THE GALLION, Bud Jacobson’s BLUE SLUG, and expressed a special desire to hear Pee Wee’s solo on the Commodore Muggsy Spanier Ragtimers SWEET SUE, which I did not have, but acquired through Gene Kramer.  When Frank heard it, he remembered that he and Marty played it many times, their verdict being that Pee Wee’s solo “scraped the clouds.” 

But he saved his most enthusiastic words for two extremely disparate recordings: Coltrane’s YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS and Jerry Colonna’s comic version of EBB TIDE.  Since Frank’s death, I’ve heard both, and was much more impressed by the Coltrane.  Colonna’s version of that pop song has the singer nearly drowned by sound-effects waves — surely an acquired taste.   

Frank had seen my hero Sidney Catlett in concert once (a wartime presentation by Deems Taylor); he had played alongside Bobby Hackett once in an informal session, probably at Priestley’s.  But there were almost no contemporary musicians he admired, and fewer he could see himself playing or recording with: Marty Grosz certainly, Dick Hyman, possibly.  He was sure he was able to play a whole session and that he didn’t need to practice.  Terry Martin and Bob Koester have first-hand experience with Frank’s reluctance to record.  In fairness, few of the recordings he did make usually do not find him in the most congenial settings: he felt comfortable alongside Ewell and Marty and some of his younger Chicago friends, but such congeniality was rare. 

Frank deserved better, but it is difficult to make him into another jazz-victim-of-oppression, as his stubbornness often got in the way of musical opportunities.  I offer these letters and recollections as tribute to a great musician and enigmatic figure.     

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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LISTEN TO GEORGE WETTLING!

The history of jazz is full of musicians, both reliable and inventive, who don’t become stars.  Drummer George Wettling is one of the most neglected, although he had a recording career that lasted more than thirty years, finding him alongside Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Milt Hinton, Wild Bill Davison, Coleman Hawkins, Wingy Manone, Frank Teschmacher, Joe Thomas, Herman Chittison, Bobby Hackett and a hundred other first-rank players. 

Here’s a film clip of Wettling, playing ROYAL GARDEN BLUES in an all-star Condon group (minus Eddie, who was recovering at the time), featuring Davison, Ed Hall, Cutty Cutshall, Willie the Lion Smith, and Al Hall. 

The cameraman was fascinated by the front line, so we get to see Wettling only intermittently, but we certainly hear his pushing accompaniment, although his playing is anything but overbearing.  Wettling’s style focused on his snare drum, and his rolls and accents, his rimshots and commentary, are drawn from the drummers he heard in Chicago and the Midwest in the Twenties: Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton.  But the style is fluid, not a relentless two-beat, and Wettling continually changes his accents and volume while pushing the band along exuberantly, playing differently behind the full ensemble, behind the Lion, with Hall, propelling the end of Hall’s chorus and playing tag with the emphatic Wild Bill.  Wettling doesn’t demand the listener’s attention by volume or pyrotechnics.  Rather, his drums seem to say, “Listen to us.”  And when we finally get a chance to focus purely on Wettling, in his brief exchanges with Al Hall, it is over too soon — but we can admire his conciseness (not an extra stroke or beat, nothing wasted or superfluous) and his swinging embrace of pure time — he never speeds up or slows down, or loses the thread of the music.  And although his four-bar break is simple, it is a Wettling trademark: how much percussive variety and energy he could put into sixteen beats! 

It’s odd that in jazz, where drummers become stars, Wettling didn’t get his share of attention and adulation.  Musicians knew him and hired him — Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, Muggsy Spanier, Jimmy McPartland, Miff Mole, Billy Butterfield, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and he was a first-call studio and recording drummer.  But Wettling didn’t want to lead bands; I sense that he was happy to let someone else handle the audiences, the payroll, the clubowner: he wanted to play, and play he did.  I also suspect that being associated for so long with Eddie Condon, someone with a strong personality, made have put Wettling in the shadows . . . although Condon said once that all he needed for a romping band was Wettling.  And the magnificent drumming that lifts Berigan’s Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is Wettling’s; hear him, as well, on perhaps seventy-five percent of the Commodore Records classics.

But he’s not well-known these days, which is a pity.  Hear him on the Commodores, on the Doctor Jazz broadcasts, on the Condon Town Hall concerts, on the magnificent Fifties dates Condon did for Columbia.  Put all your preconceptions about formulaic “Dixieland drumming” aside and listen to Wettling — fluid, energetic, responsive, fully engaged and lively.

Here’s that rare thing — three minutes of Wettling solo in the middle Fifties, titled IT AIN’T THE HUMIDITY (IT’S THE BEAT).  No fireworks, no crashing “technique.”  Timeless and hot, the drums singing their own melodies.  

Should you ever encounter Hal Smith, Kevin Dorn, Jeff Hamilton, Chris Tyle, or Nick Ward — ask them, “What do you think of George Wettling?”  And stand back!

I’ve been listening to Wettling for forty years now — he’s on many of my favorite records!  But what made me write this post was a little anecdote I just heard.  A musician I know, now in his seventies, told me that his older brother had been in the audience for Louis Armstrong’s 1947 Town Hall concert, where the drummers were Sidney Catlett and Wettling.  When it was time for Wettling to play, the musician’s brother (seated in the balcony) saw Catlett come upstairs and take a seat — the better to delight in what Wettling was doing and how beautiful it sounded in the hall. 

If it was good enough for Sidney Catlett and Eddie Condon, it should be good enough for all of us!

THE SPIRITS OF RHYTHM

Spirits Alabamy

Spirits

Up until a few weeks ago, I would have sworn that the entire output of the Spirits of Rhythm — that gloriously hot (and sometimes silly) group — could have been contained on one CD of their 1933-41 recordings, including sessions with Ella Logan and Red McKenzie.

spirits 1Of course, there were other extras — Leo Watson’s one session for Decca, a later one for Signature (with Vic Dickenson), and a mid-Forties reunion of the group on the West Coast which resulted in four sides for the Black and White label.  Tangentially, Leo Watson appeared on a few Jubilee shows and once on a Rudy Vallee radio program, as well as recording with Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw, but I thought the musical material was unbearably finite.

Spirits SWEETHEART

That was until I found “TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY” on YouTube and got to see the Spirits in action (the clip came from the otherwise-forgotten 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS).

And some more online research has just turned up that they appeared in two other films that year: ALABAMY BOUND and YES, INDEED!  Both musicals were directed by Dudley Murphy, the second with Josef Byrne (it seems to be a short subject with Dorothy Dandridge).  Something tells me that these weren’t big-budget mass-market productions, but perhaps productions aimed at the Black market, done in a hurry and on a minimal budget.  In fact, I have no assurance that the three films have different musical numbers.  And in 1942, the Spirits appeared in PANAMA HATTIE.

Spirits DeccaBut did you know that the 6 Spirits of Rhythm (including Teddy Bunn, Wilbur and Douglas Daniels, Leo Watson, Virgil Scoggins, and Ernest “Serious” Myers) appeared on Broadway from September 1935 to March 1936 — alongside Bea Lillie, Eleanor Powell, Ethel Waters, and Eddie Foy, Jr. in the Dietz-Schwartz musical AT HOME ABROAD?  Do I have any Broadway archivists among my readers?

At the top of the page is a still of Leo Watson from ALABAMY BOUND.  The world needs more film footage of Leo and Teddy Bunn.  Or, if you think that statement’s too sweeping, I do.

COUNT BASIE RECOMMENDS (April 11, 1947)

This clipping comes from SONG HITS magazine — and thanks to “bunky’s pickle” (no kidding) on Flickr for making it available to us.  I’m amused by Basie’s apparent musical conservatism in 1947, but he was a gentle man who didn’t want to leave any one of his friends and peers off the list.

Do YOU have these records in your library?

Do YOU have these records in your library?

JACK TRACY’S WONDERFUL STORIES

For some delicious anecdotage from former Down Beat anchor Jack Tracy, now eighty-two, be sure to visit Steven Cerra’s JAZZ PROFILES – – http://jazzprofiles.blogspot.com/2009/04/jack-tracy.html — where Tracy, who was there, shares first-hand tales of Bill Harris’s boxer shorts, Dorothy Donegan’s napkin, Duke Ellington’s wise, generous con, Artie Shaw’s bad behavior, Oscar Peterson, Sidney Catlett, as well as a gracious and near-saintly owner of a Chicago jazz club, and much more.

Worth every penny, to quote David Ostwald!

WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE

Please note that my title isn’t “If . . . . ”

The ideal jazz club experience, if you were to take fabled movies as a guide, is an exuberantly chaotic spectacle.  One trumpet player vanquishes another by playing higher and louder; two drummers pound away in grinning synchronicity; musicians magically get together in thunderous ensembles.  Everyone knows what the song is and what key they are playing in; musical routines miraculously coalesce without rehearsal.  Inevitably the audience is on its feet, cheering.  Long live the new king of jazz!  Everybody join in!  (Consider, if you will, “Second Chorus,” “The Glenn Miller Story,” or “The Five Pennies,” and other deliciously unreal episodes.)

I doubt that many of these fanciful scenes ever happened away from the soundstage.  Even if they did, hey aren’t my idea of pleasure.  Everything is too loud, and the movies assume that everyone in the crowd is hip, attentive, listeners unified into an appreciative community.  I wonder if this audience ever existed, although in Charles Peterson’s glorious photographs of 52nd Street jam sessions, no one is texting or even reading a newspaper.

For me, the ideal scenario is quieter: a small audience, paying attention, in a quiet club — quiet enough so that I can hear the music.  And the improvising shouldn’t be self-consciously exhibitionistic, one player trying to outdo another.  My dream, rarely realized, needs an intuitive connection between players and audience.  It happened often in the sessions Michael Burgevin led at Brew’s, featuring Joe Thomas, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Jimmy Andrews, Kenny Davern, Dill Jones, Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Marshall Brown, Wayne Wright, and others.

Last night (Sunday, December 7) was frigid and the winds were unkind — perfect weather fo staying indoors.  But I made my way to the Ear Inn to hear the EarRegulars.  Because Jon-Erik and Jackie Kellso are off somewhere around the Mexican Riviera, the Regulars were led by the brilliantly soulful guitarist Matt Munisteri.  He arrived first, his hands cold, looking harried but greeting me pleasantly.

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Next in the door was the fine, surprising tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, whose playing I had appreciated greatly on the only other occasion I had heard him — also at the Ear.  Bassist Lee Hudson and trombonist Harvey Tibbs completed this quartet. Matt, Harvey, and Lee have all played together at the Ear and I would imagine other places, so they know and respect each other.

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Michael, about whom I wrote some weeks ago, fit in immediately.  By his playing, I would guess that he isn’t one of those deeply archival types who thinks, when someone mentions a song title, “Oh, yes, Billie recorded that with Bunny and Artie in 1936.  In two takes.”  But when either Matt or Harvey called Walter Donaldson’s IT’S BEEN SO LONG as their first tune, I could hear Michael listening intently for the first few measures, perhaps to remind himself.  Then he, like Lester, leaped in.  His jazz radar is exquisite.  Someone said of Milt Gabler, the Saint of Commodore Records, that he “had ears like an elephant.”  Michael deserves the same accolade: he is a peerless ensemble player, finding countermelodies, call-and-response, and harmony parts while everything was moving along at a brisk tempo.

cork-1108-ear-inn120708006Harvey Tibbs, resplendent as always in white shirt, was in execptional form as well: several songs began with trombone-guitar duets, beautiful vignettes.  Like Michael, Harvey can fit himself into any ensemble, galloping or loitering.  He has a wonderful musical intelligence, which he displayed on James P. Johnson’s OLD FASHIONED LOVE, which had a truly churchy ambiance to start — helped immeasurably by Matt’s delicate single-note lines, music for a troubadour under his Beloved’s balcony.  Lee Hudson kept lively, limber time, saving himself for an intense solo on WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS in the second set.

A lively JUST YOU, JUST ME followed James P.’s paean to the more seemly days of yore; here, Blake exploded into his solo, sounding at times like a supercharged Lester Young with modern sensibilities.  Michael’s tone is often consciously dry instead of pretty, and he approaches his lines in a sideways fashion (his phrases begin and end in surprising places).  A phrase might have an audacious shape — a Slinky tumbling down an irregular staircase — but each one landed without mishap.  I could hear the whole history of jazz tenor in his work — not only Lester, but Lucky Thompson and Al Cohn, Sonny Rollins as well.  He and Harvey took off on a song I didn’t expect — JAZZ ME BLUES — their version harking back not to Bix but to Glenn Hardman or to some imagined jam session in the afterlife, with Bird sitting amidst the Dixielanders at Copley Square.  Although Tom Delaney’s Twenties classic is full of breaks, Blake bobbed and weaved in the ensembles.  A moody WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? followed — suggesting that the four players were really considering that question on the tiny square of floor they claim as the Ear’s bandstand.  Finally, in deference to inescapable holiday music, someone called for a Bird-and-Diz version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, and it joyously closed the set.

A long pause for the quartet’s dinner ensued, but a noble visitor, his tenor saxophone at his side, joined them: none other than Dan Block.  The two players had a good time, playing their solos while standing at the bar, one listening deeply to the other, or forming a loose circle.

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Harvey, perhaps, called for the Basie classic 9:20 SPECIAL to begin the second set, then they all became optimistic (the only way to face the economic news) with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, then, in honor of the gales outside, a trotting GONE WITH THE WIND.  They ended with a jubilant IF DREAMS COME TRUE, where Blake got so caught up in the vehemence of his double-time phrases that he was almost kneeling on the floor as he soloed.

It was an extraordinary night of music.  Perhaps it would have seemed insufficiently dramatic for the movies, but my jazz dreams came true for a few hours.

P.S.  The delghtful jazz singer Barbara Rosene was also in the audience.  Her new Stomp Off CD, “It Was Only A Sun Shower,” is perhaps her finest recording to date.  A new one is in the works, devoted to naughty double-entendre songs from the Twenties, where the He-Man (whether Handy or Military) always stands at attention, can trim any girl’s garden and make her coffee boiling hot.  What delights await us!

REMEMBERING DAVE TOUGH

I read in the December 2008 issue of Jersey Jazz that Dave Tough died sixty years ago on December 6, tough-by-gottlieb2 1948. Because so many of my musical and spiritual heroes are dead, my devotion to jazz always threatens to turn into sad necrology, but Tough deserves a few words and a few pictures.

I won’t dwell on his near-scholarly intellectualism (rare among jazz musicians in those days) and his deeply self-destructive alcoholism, his frustrations.   William P. Gottlieb’s famous photograph of Tough, working away at his practice pad in the basement of Eddie Condon’s, is on the right.

dave-toughRather, I think of a brief list of brilliant recorded moments.  There’s Tough’s luminous, shape-changing drumming all through the 1940 Bud Freeman and his Famous Chicagoans session (most notably available on the Mosaic Classic Condon Mob Sessions), where he shifts from splashing cymbal work to brilliant use of the hi-hat and bass drum, propelling soloists.

It would be difficult to delineate, let alone reproduce, what Tough does so naturally through “Forty-Seventh and State” or “Prince of Wails,” his sound captured with extraordinary clarity in Liederkrantz Hall.  But as marvelous as the horn soloists are, and the under-acknowledged pianist Dave Bowman, I find myself listening to what Dave is playing (and, by implication, choosing not to play) throughout those records.

Two years earlier, although he was reputedly in bad physical shape, he levitated another Bud Freeman date, this one for Commodore, where his wandering, unpredictable work on the jam blues”Tappin’ the Commodore Till” has yet to be equalled.  On that record, Tough comes through as a blindfolded genius, ready to tap on or against anything in the studio, testing the pure sounds he might get out of the equipment around him.  Again, the soloists — Freeman, Bobby Hackett, PeeWee Russell, Dave Matthews, Jess Stacy — are wondrous, but I am distracted in the best way by Tough’s gloriously weird, urging counterpoint.

I was lucky enough to find a Commodore 78 of that — in the days when such artifacts were more easily available — and it ornaments my office wall, a talisman of artistic individuality.

I think also of Tough’s solo –he was repelled by the idea of soloing and did it only under duress — on “Just You, Just Me,” which closes off a Charlie Ventura concert in 1947 — music once available on a Norgran lp and most recently on a Verve set collecting Jazz at the Philharmonic music from the Forties.  Again, Tough explores pure sound as well as rhythm: the solo is even more unusual because it sounds so much like Sidney Catlett, who also played that night.  I suspect that Dave sat down at Sidney’s drums: two kings trading courtesies.

Tough also shines all through a little-known and rarely-reissued 1946 Brad Gowans session for RCA Victor, where Gowans leads his “New York Nine,” featuring his own arrangements loosened up by solos by Billy Butterfield, among others.

Dave was usually happiest in small jamming groups — although concert bills show that he appeared at Eddie Condon’s Forties concerts, he does not appear on any of the famous half-hour broadcasts.  With all respect to George Wettling and Joe Grauso, that’s a real pity.  But the one film clip of Tough has him, all too briefly, amid a 1946 Condon group recorded at the club.  Wild Bill Davison, Tony Parenti, Gowans, Gene Schroeder, and Jack Lesberg are visible, roaring through the end of “Farewell Blues,” in a “March of Time” newsreel called “Nightclub Boom.”

The clip used to be available on YouTube, but it seems to have vanished.  Can any readers help me find a copy to post here?

Here, however, is a Gjon Mili photograph — new to me — taken from LIFE in 1945, showing Condon, Schroeder, Davison, Freeman, Bob Casey on bass, and Tough at the downtown Eddie Condon’s.

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An assiduous listener can find many more glowing surprises in Tough’s work with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey (as well as his sometimes hilarious work with the Clambake Seven), with Bunny Berigan, with Goodman (as well as sessions with the Trio, Quartet, and Sextet), with Artie Shaw (there is a priceless, driving airshot of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” where Tough pushes the band and soloist Hot Lips Page as hard as a drummer could push); finally, there is Tough’s work with Woody Herman’s First Herd, where he is again well-recorded by the Columbia engineers.

He made only one four-tune session under his own name, and (perhaps typically) it doesn’t show him off all that well.  And there has never, to my knowledge, been a record or compact disc simply devoted to him.  What a shame!

I am sure he would have splendidly fit into the “Mainstream” jazz that prevailed a decade after his death, once “Bop” and “Dixieland” had stopped baring their fangs at each other.

Was Tough someone who said all that he had to say in his brief span of time?  Can we mourn him without thinking gratefully of what he did leave for us?  But like Lips Page, Catlett, Frankie Newton, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton and a dozen others, he left too soon.  I miss them all.

P.S.  In Tom Pletcher’s liner notes to an exquisite Jazz Oracle CD devoted to the music and life of his father, Stew Pletcher, he points out that his father — who knew and played alongside Tough — said that Tough hated being called “Davey.”  Even when Edythe Wright did it at the beginning of “At the Codfish Ball,” no doubt.

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MISS HOLIDAY TO YOU

billie-jpegIn the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to talk to groups, often senior citizens, at libraries and community centers.  And although I started out with literary subjects (Frank O’Connor, William Maxwell, Sylvia Townsend Warner) I decided I might have much more fun talking about Louis, Billie, and Fats.  And that has been the case.

Last Friday morning, I spent a pleasant ninety minutes at the JCC (that’s the Jewish Community Center) in Commack, talking about Billie Holiday to a large group of serious, receptive people.  Of course I played “Miss Brown to You,” “Now They Call It Swing,” “Back in Your Own Backyard,” “Strange Fruit,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and the kinescope from The Sound of Jazz where Billie sings “Fine and Mellow.”  I talked about Billie’s Baltimore chum who described her as “don’t-careish,” about Linda Kuehl, Artie Shaw, Lester Young, Count Basie, John Hammond, about gin and heroin, about Louis McKay and Joe Guy, about the jukebox phenomenon that made Billie’s Thirties sessions possible, about Milt Gabler and Billy Crystal.

And the people in the audience were good listeners.  They swayed and rocked to the beat of “Now They Call It Swing,” and one woman in the front softly sang along with “Back in Your Own Backyard.”  “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Strange Fruit” left them appropriately silent, awed.

But this posting isn’t about my talk so much as it is about the questions it provoked.  “Was Billie Holiday Jewish?” (No, I’m afraid not.)  “Did she have any formal training?” (Ditto.  She didn’t need it, did she?)

The best colloquy came from a well-dressed woman with brown hair and lively eyes.  When I mentioned the blessed name of Hot Lips Page, this woman — twenty rows back — got elated and shot me a huge grin.  I stopped and said, “You know about Lips Page?” and her grin got wider.  I told her that she had to come up after the talk to receive a hug.

Well, she did and I did . . . and it turned out that her parents, who ran twenty-four hour candy / convenience stores, were both mad for music.  Although she was raised as an Orthodox Jew, her mother had taken her and her younger brother to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve to hear the holy music.  Her first piano teacher was Conrad Janis.  And she recalled other kinds of holiness: Tuesday night jam sessions at Eddie Condon’s, the Suyvesant Casino, the Central Plaza.  Oh, to have had those experiences!  And I hope she reads this blog.  Whoever you are, dear lady, you made my day.  Thank you!

P.S.  The photograph of Billie with her dog comes from http://www.ladyday.net, “The Unofficial Billie Holiday Website,” which has other lovely photographs.

BASIE’S BAD BOYS: ADVENTURES IN LISTENING

In jazz, the most rewarding art combines mature technique, deep feeling, and the willingness of players and singers to become carefree children, trying new things with no censorious adults looking on.

Consider a four-song Chicago recording session that took place one day before Valentine’s Day in 1939.  In total, the results are slightly less than twelve minutes.  But what a memorable brief expression!  The players, perhaps named years later, are “Basie’s Bad Boys,” a title both accurate and inspired.  Basie played not only piano but organ (according to Jo Jones, the organ was particularly ancient, recalcitrant).

He was joined by the rest of his irreplaceable late-Thirties rhythm section: Walter Page, bass; Freddie Green, guitar; Jo Jones, drums.  Jimmy Rushing sang the blues on one number and trombonist Dan Minor accompanied him on it; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Shad Collins stood side-by-side with Lester Young, playing clarinet as well as tenor on “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Goin’ to Chicago,” “Live and Love Tonight,” and “Love Me Or Leave Me.”

I have occasionally been severe about John Hammond-as-mythologizer in this blog, but this session was one of his finest ideas, a worthy addition to “Jones-Smith, Inc.” and the 1940 rehearsal session that paired Goodman and Basie, Young and Christian.  The November 1936 session that produced “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Lady Be Good” was Hammond’s revenge on Decca, the company that had signed Basie to a restrictive contract, the payoff being $750, a paltry sum even in 1936 dollars.  I believe that the Basie band was just about to escape from its Decca servitude in early 1939, so this session might have been another naughty gesture on Hammond’s part – making recordings for Vocalion while the band was still under contract to Decca, sides that then could be issued once the band was free.  These sides were recorded in Chicago, in what Hammond remembered as a really terrible studio, making them impossible to issue.  Ironically, the studio was called United – and that the Basie small band certainly was on this date.

I first heard this music on a precious vinyl record issued in Sweden on the Tax label, “The Alternative Lester,” which contained, among other things, previously unissued takes of “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Dickie’s Dream,” and “Lester Leaps In,” heady stuff in the late Seventies.

Tidied up, all four sides then appeared on a two-record Columbia anthology, “Super Chief,” which had a color drawing of Basie’s smiling visage superimposed on the front of a locomotive (Basie, like Ellington, loved trains and the music they made).  This anthology also offered brilliantly idiosyncratic notes by Michael Brooks, a writer who took chances: some of his swooping metaphorical leaps are audacious.  Brooks had also interviewed Jones and other Basieites, and their recollections are priceless.

The four sides are now available on the Lester Young Mosaic box set (MD4-239), and they sound spectacular.  I had not heard them for a few years, having been separated from my copy of “Super Chief,” but they burst through the speakers.

They represent an Edenic glimpse into what the Basie band truly was – a good-natured, intense traveling jam session made up of supremely telepathic players.  For me, the great period of that band was delineated by Lester Young’s arrival and departure.  I can still marvel at individual solos recorded from 1940 onwards by Clayton, Dicky Wells, Buddy Tate. Don Byas, Vic Dickenson, that gliding rhythm section, Rushing and Helen Humes.  But the demands or expectations of the marketplace made the band outgrow itself.  What was a small group at the Reno Club in Kansas City was compelled to become a Swing Era big band – nearly doubling in size and heft.  It gained power yet lost mobility.  Some of the early Deccas show the ghost of the Reno Club band: “Panassie Stomp” and “Out the Window” come to mind.  But as arrangers came in, capable ones, and popular tunes became part of the repertoire in hopes of a hit record, the Basie band sounds like someone who has gained fifty pounds overnight.  On the 1938 radio airshots from the Famous Door (the two versions of “Indiana”) – soloists have room to invent, to play. Behind a trumpet solo, Lester creates a background, which the reeds fall in with instantaneously.  The two dozen-plus men on the stand function as a small group, musically jostling and joking.  The best recordings of the period balance soloists, the rhythm section, and spare riff backgrounds.  But as the Basie band became identified with “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” those sliding trombones, trumpets fanning their metal derbies, saxes repeating patterns, became the norm.  What had been extemporaneous became more mechanical.  Arrangements might have been necessary as the band grew, to prevent small collisions, but no wonder Lester complained that rehearsals had become tiresome, that Vic Dickenson, legend has it, was fired for falling asleep on the stand.  The unthinkable had happened: the band had become dull.

But it had not happened yet at this session.  “I Ain’t Got Nobody” had been a favorite of both Basie and Hammond as a piano feature; on another clandestine 1938 session, Basie, Page, and Jones, strolled through that potentially lachrymose song, first as a meditative Fats Waller medium-tempo rhapsody, full of baroque excursions – a tribute to Basie’s friend and mentor.  Then, as if moving into Modern Times, away from His Master’s Voice, Basie played it in his own faster tempo, leaving spaces all along for Page and Jo to propel, to encourage.  This three-minute lesson in jazz piano history is available on the Vanguard “From Spirituals to Swing” set and the Phontastic “Lester – Amadeus” disc.

The 1939 “I Ain’t Got Nobody” from Chicago begins at the brisk tempo Basie had concluded with in 1938, yet with an unusual Basie-with-rhythm introduction: his first phrase a characteristic simple riff owing something to “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.” I suspect that it was one of Basie’s beloved gestures, but it would have been a sly in-joke if he had been thinking of “Habit,” whose opening phrase states that the lover is addicted to the Love Object – while playing “Nobody,” whose lyrics drip lonely self-pity.  His second figure moves into an upwards chromatic run, something Basie would often use to end a number rather than begin it.  Even though Green’s guitar is deeply buried, felt rather than heard at best, the sound of the rhythm is so instantly infectious that a listener does not notice the oddity of Basie’s introduction at first.

Then he launches into the familiar melody, leaving only the most bare contours, stating the theme in widely spaced, ringing chords.  Basie casually alternates passages of embellished melody with his familiar catch-phrases: what makes this potentially threadbare style so winning is his rhythmic sense, as well as the nearly choral support the rhythm section gives, Page’s bass resounding like a reassuring heartbeat.  Even when the gesture Basie launches into (the phrase just before the bridge) is such a timeworn Waller phrase, his good humor and rhythmic delight maskits familiarity.  (Even when borrowing from Waller, Basie’s individuality is as strong as Louis’s or Bird’s: who, on hearing this, would mistake him for another pianist?)

During that bridge, I hear some talking, perhaps merely an affirmative grunt from Basie or one of the musicians?  Was Basie telling Lester that he was up next, or was Hammond directing traffic?  It’s clearly not a Fats-aside, meant to be heard, but a private nudge or reminder – teasingly audible but not decipherable, even given the clarity of the CD.  Readers with better hearing than mine — it has stumped fellow listeners! — are invited to send their conjectures for appropriate prizes.

But musicians did not give such verbal cues on record unless it was an informal session or if the take was to be scrapped.  This makes me wonder if this performance, the first one mastered that session, was originally a casual warm-up, a run-through to get a balance in this murky studio.  But I can imagine that the musicians and Hammond, at the end of this take, thought that this performance too good to discard.  Basie ends his chorus with a single repeated note, one of his trademarks (where else did Harry Edison get this ultimately irritating mannerism from?) that perhaps he used as a signal, “I’m finished.  Your turn now.”

Everything we might expect is transformed when Lester enters, not dancing in on a complex swooping tenor phrase, but announcing his presence on clarinet.  His announcement is a simple phrase followed by a rest, but it is arresting.  What strikes the listener is Lester’s particular tone.  Early in his career, he played a cheap metal clarinet – the kind of instrument students and band musicians, who marched outdoors, would have used instead of the more delicate wooden models.  And Lester’s particular sound is supposed to have been the result of this instrument.  Benny Goodman is supposed to have been so entranced with the way Lester played clarinet that he gave Lester a better one (one rebuttal to tales of Goodman’s stinginess).  This instrument was stolen some time during Lester’s stay with the band, but his colleagues say that he never played a metal clarinet on records.  But his tone, piping, narrow, almost shrill, forceful, is not like any other clarinetist’s, not Shaw, Bigard, Noone . . . .

A digression here.  While vacationing in Maine, the Beloved and I went twice to an open-air flea market, the most varied and intriguing one I ever saw.  There I saw not one but two metal clarinets for sale, and nearly succumbed to their lure.  Visible rust kept me from even inquiring the price.  If I could have been sure that a metal clarinet would enable me to approach Lester’s sound(s), I would have bought one happily.  But I remembered a conversation with a musician in his eighties, who said that everyone who plays an instrument inevitably sounds different, because of the shape of one’s skull and the cavities within it govern what happens when a player buzzes into a metal mouthpiece or makes the reed vibrate.  That anyone could sound like anyone else would be miraculous, and that someone like Paul Quinichette succeeded so well in copying aspects of Lester’s tone is remarkable rather than deplorable.

But back to Lester.  we hear that tone first, then his eloquent use of space, one tumbling phrase separated from the next by breathing-pauses.  Although his range is consciously limited (most clarinetists cannot resist the temptation to fill the air with ornamental notes that show off technique but destroy potential architecture) and his note choices restrained, he is bobbing and weaving over the background.  What we hear is greatly influenced by Basie’s spareness, translated into Lester’s vocabulary, sensibility, and instrument.

That background is both plain and propulsive: the muted trumpets of Clayton (left) and Collins (right)  doing four doo-wahs in succession behind him.  No doubt that phrase was a familiar one for jazz players well before Ellington popularized it in capital letters as part of the lyrics and music of the 1932 “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”  But one doesn’t notice its familiarity because it fits so well.  A listener senses only that something dynamic and irresistible has taken place, as the texture of the rhythm section (Basie’s treble line, Page’s steady tread, the whish of Jones’s hi-hat) has suddenly exploded into a much more richly textured sound, Lester’s thin, penetrating line undulating over the deeper, half-muffled choral punctuations of the horns.  Basie’s chorus was anything but monochromatic, but when the horns enter, color explodes in the listener’s consciousness.

And the dynamic contrast is not only strong but unexpected: often, recordings began with the piano or the rhythm section, then went to a chorus of a soloist over that rhythm, then (and only then) was the soloist joined by other horns in support.  Because of the time limitations of the 78 rpm record, everything seems telescoped: not overly fast, but moving at top speed with no time for elaborate transitions between one kind of display and the next.  As was common practice, the trumpets laid out during the bridge, their absence letting us hear the dry slap of Jo Jones’s wire brushes on his snare drum.  (In my mind’s eye, I see him, even late in life, boisterous, grinning, wrists and elbows in motion.) Lester remembered his childhood in New Orleans with affection, and here he offers his own version of the clarinet’s traditional place in the ensemble, dancing in arcs of notes over the brass.  The remainder of his solo, its balance between a bridge made up mostly of passages of repeated notes, the upward arpeggios that bookend that bridge (their highest note verging on the shrill) — could be committed to memory, genuinely his, simple yet inevitable.  And its tonal variations, so different from what a “better” clarinet player might have offered, and so much more rewarding. Another clarinet player might have worked up to a high note, a dazzling technical flurry to conclude his solo; Lester, making way for the next player, winds down into a sweet decrescendo, a musing figure, generously bowing out as if to prepare the way.

When he concludes, the transition is seamless and wondrous.  From clarinet-backed-by-trumpets, we have Buck backed by Lester and Shad, the two of them using another simple Swing Era convention that develops the earlier backing riff but doesn’t repeat it.  (This was the glory of the Basie “Kansas City” style that other orchestras tried to imitate but failed at, choosing instead to repeat the same riff for chorus after chorus.)  This figure seems an orchestral transcription of one of Basie’s favorite triplet figures.

In some ways, what one realizes in this performance is the strength and pervasive durability of Basie’s personality.  Although he was a modest, reticent man, his artistic identity was so strong that his soloists seem to share his most characteristic thoughts, shapes, and utterances, as he is drawing upon theirs.  This record is of course the triumph of individualists, having their instantly recognizable time to say their piece, but it is also the triumph of a completely integrated artistic community, where ideas have become generously-shared communal property.  And the two kinds of expression balance.  Soloists step forward, testify, and then take their place in the congregation so that the next person can speak.

Clayton’s solo is another triumph of what Louis called “tonation and phrasing,” Buck’s sound, his way of attacking his notes.  Like Lester, he announces himself – his choice being a punchy, staccato phrase reminiscent of the spare closing riffs of “Every Tub.”  Although the trumpet style of the late Thirties was often commanding, insisting, Clayton’s sound (his horn cup-muted as it often was) asks rather than demands, hitting some notes precisely, bending and slurring others.  But his originality is paramount.  Even when he fills his second phrase with one of the oldest motifs in jazz, a direct reference to Bolden’s “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” the borrowing does not intrude.  The listener, again, doesn’t think, “Oh, that old thing?” because the notes tumble on, one of Clayton’s talents being in rhythmic placement, instinctively knowing how many notes would fit neatly in a scalar phrase.  His solo is not made of a series of ascents, but a progression of descending phrases, somewhere between Bill Robinson dancing down the stairs and a waiter with a full tray of dishes making his way, carefully but rapidly.  And Buck seems to improvise on his own ideas: the beginning of his bridge contains a clearly articulated descending figure, which he later turns into a half-comedic slide down an imagined slope.  At times, the solo uses repeated notes (not as Lester did) in a way that players like Muggsy Spanier would flatten into predictable pounding of simple ideas.  What makes Clayton’s work pleasing is his vocalized tone, his rhythmic subtleties.  And, as Basie had signaled the end of his solo by playing with one note, Clayton earnestly turns the same figure over and over as his thirty-two bars come to a close.

On a more predictable recording, with everyone given a turn, the next soloist would have been Collins, but that would have courted the monotony of one trumpet following another.  What comes next is a brilliant offering, something that didn’t happen often: Lester coming back for another solo, this time on tenor.  (It happens on the Kansas City Six recording of “Them There Eyes” and on the Glenn Hardman session, on “China Boy” and perhaps elsewhere.)  With feline grace, Lester doesn’t “leap in” immediately, but there is the pause of a short breath, the silence heightening our expectations: what will happen next?  And instead of a horn or horns backing him, there is only the rhythm section – but Basie has become his own orchestra, his simple bell-like rhythmic figures (new ones this time) urging Lester on.  Behind him, one must marvel at the supple, pulsing time that Jo, Walter, and Freddie grant – a rhythmic wave that could sustain a weaker soloist and push a strong one to creative heights.  Again, in Lester’s solo, one hears those arpeggios, up and down, his turning melodic lines into a blues.  This second solo seems to encapsulate all of his style.  It could be sung; it is full of unexpected pauses; it has its own wandering yet logical shape.  On tenor, he purrs, cajoles in a more mellow way.  I would love to hear his two solos on this recording played simultaneously, Lester as one-man band, playing counterpoint with himself.  I’d be nearly as happy to see the two solos notated in parallel, to see their shapes over the same chords.  Until then, I will simply play this record over and over.

Records made for issue on the expected 10″ 78 discs were planned to be somewhere between three and three-and-a-half minutes long.  Studios had clocks, but experienced musicians had to know how many choruses could fit at a particular tempo.  After Lester’s chorus, one way to conclude the record – with time for one chorus – would have been a collective improvisation, or a riff beneath another soloist leading to a final four bars of jamming.  (Think of the Holiday-Wilson “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and how it ends, for instance.)  This record’s final chorus is an egalitarian one, audibly something worked out in progress, which completes the circle that records were.  In the first instance, Clayton’s chorus came between Lester’s two solos, affording him time to put down his clarinet and clip his tenor on to his neck strap – something that big-band reed players were expected to do with ease, even in the middle of an arrangement, although photographs show them having stands for their instruments on the job.  However, after Lester’s tenor chorus is concluded, there is a brief space, not quite strictly delineated, where all one hears is Basie responding with punctuations to the initial two-trumpet riff, Jones’s accents moving the music along.  It takes Lester four bars, more or less, to get his clarinet into play, and then we hear him begin to dance over the background again.  The listener who is prepared for another clarinet-with-rhythm bridge is in for a surprise, as that bridge is given over to trumpeter Shad Collins, a new member of the band whose style came out of the same roots as Clayton’s – but one would never mistake one for the other.  Jo Jones said that Shad made each note pop out as if he were making spitballs, but there is more to his style than a simple percussive attack.  As Clayton’s tone is beseeching, fragile, Collins’s tone is nearly derisive, needling, a buzzing that is, in some way, insect-like.  Yes, there is a stylized bit of Armstrong declaration, but also the teasing sonic play of Rex Stewart.  His solo goes by so fast but deserves a rehearing.  And, in the last eight bars, everything coalesces precisely because the band seems willing to go on forever, happily unchecked – Lester singing his wry song over the trumpets, Basie commenting and urging everyone on, and the rhythm pulsing without strain or exhaustion.  Everyone pedals happily off into some imagined swing paradise.

Ezra Pound, always writing manifestoes, had a simple one: MAKE IT NEW.  This 2:55 of recorded time is a true embodiment of that principle.  Take ideas going back to Economy Hall and make them ardent, emotionally strong, by blending individuality and community.  Synthesize without ever seeming synthetic.  All this in a badly-designed recording studio in Chicago one day in February nearly seventy years ago.

The other three sides will reveal their beauties with repeated listening, but I will suggest only these.  The sound that Basie got from the organ on “Goin’ to Chicago,” his familiar piano gestures transfigured by that instrument, and the beautiful depth of Page’s bass.  The way Basie and Jo accompany Clayton’s lovely open blues chorus; the sound of Lester’s clarinet behind Jimmy Rushing’s voice, veering in 1939 between entreaty and delicacy; Dan Minor’s plainer version of Dicky Wells’s familiar phrases behind Jimmy, and Shad’s commentary, which gives way to another rocking episode of Lester, on clarinet, riffing over the two trumpets in what was the simplest of blues riffs.  (Where was Dicky?  Had he misbehaved, or was Minor finally being given a chance to have a solo – a mere twelve bars of traditional blues accompaniment?  Hammond must have approved of Minor’s playing, because Minor stands alongside Bechet, Ladnier, James P. Johnson, Page, and Jo – some band! – on the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert.)  On “Live and Love Tonight,” a 1934 movie song – recorded by the Ellington band and who else in a jazz context, and whose choice was it? – Basie’s organ introduction is melodramatic, suggesting the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Bijou, his volume nearly overwhelming the microphone, before it settles down into a marvelous Clayton melodic statement.  Listeners who don’t quite understand the reverence musicians had for Basie might listen closely to his accompaniment – on a bulky and balky instrument – behind Clayton.  It is a graduate seminar on how to guide, cheer, and raise a soloist and the band.  And Basie’s solo chorus that follows is anything but a solo – in fact, the soloists who should get our attention are Page and Jones.  February in Chicago might have been brutal, for someone coughs quietly during that bridge, too.  And the Waller-Basie trill that he can’t help inserting near the end of the chorus is hilarious: given the bulk of the organ’s sound, it is like Oliver Hardy on point, executing a pirouette.  Lester’s chorus is emotionally and rhythmically moving, apparently a series of easy ascents and descents through the chorus – but his tone is earnest and unfulfilled, as if whatever request he was making was, he knew, not going to be granted.  The ending is more pious than one might have expected, but I suspect it was a combination of time running out and no one having anything to say after Lester’s exposition.  Jo Jones said of “Love Me Or Leave Me,” happily, that he could be heard now, which is true, and we hear him closing his hi-hat cymbals decisively rather than keeping them part open, but the sound is crisp, especially considering the murk which dominated the previous three sides.  This version of Donaldson’s edgy lament predates “Dickie’s Dream,” but it suggests that these chord changes were meat and drink to this Basie band much as “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” also by Donaldson, pared down to “Moten Swing,” was for the 1932 band on into 1937 or so, as broadcast openings and closings show.  This, one feels, is what the band must have sounded like when everyone was fully warmed up: hear how Clayton manages to turn a phrase over and over in the middle of his solo, how Lester dances in to his, followed by a full Collins chorus, and then an abbreviated chorus, the sound of a band running out of time.  This recording – a simple series of solos over rhythm with a get-it-all-in final sixteen bars – is a banquet, even though it leaves us wanting more.

Artists at play, blessedly and brilliantly.

POSTSCRIPT: Both Dan Block and Doug Pomeroy, whose opinions I trust, feel that Lester was probably playing a metal clarinet on the 1938 Kansas City Six recordings.