Tag Archives: Austin Casey

A HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE TODAY

My good friend Austin Casey pointed me to this YouTube video — from March 1950 — LIGHT UP TIME featuring Frank Sinatra (born December 12, 1915) and Bobby Hackett (born January 13, 1915).

SINATRA

The scripted jokes are painfully limp, but Hackett on EMBRACEABLE YOU and the pairing of Sinatra and Hackett on BODY AND SOUL are lovely.

Nostalgia is an emotion that cannot change the present world, but I think of a time when radio listeners could immerse themselves in such beauty.  (I am leaving aside IF I KNEW YOU WERE COMIN’, I WOULD HAVE BAKED A CAKE.)

Bobby Hackett by Burt Goldblatt

Thank you, Frank, Bobby, and Austin.

May your happiness increase!

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“WHY, OF ALL THERE ARE, ARMSTRONG?”

I recently found myself in a friendly cyber-conversation with someone . . . in the way one meets people online in fragments, as if they are illuminated in part, coming out of total darkness, by a camera strobe.

This person knows my fascination with jazz and my reverence for Louis . . . which provoked the question (curious rather than hostile): “Why, of all there are, Armstrong?”

I confess that it stopped me abruptly for half a minute.  It has the same effect on me that the innocent question, “Michael, why do you like breathing so much?” might.  Now, I don’t know this person’s perception of “jazz” — it could begin and end with KIND OF BLUE or Bill Evans or be far more amorphous.  And there is so much Louis-stereotype in the air to those who haven’t gotten to his emotional center that perhaps the reply should not have surprised.

BUT.  I wrote back this.  (The “departed musician” was pianist Larry Eanet):

As for Louis — his music hit me “like Cupid’s arrow,” to quote a departed musician, when I was nine or ten and it hasn’t left. If you know him only as caricature, sweating, playing high notes, making faces, I hope (say) his recording of IT’S ALL IN THE GAME or ON A COCOANUT ISLAND is on YouTube. He goes right to the tenderest part of my being in ways that Coltrane won’t. I am a dinosaur but I love melodic improvisations, a la Ben Webster With Strings.

I am happy that YouTube provides the soundtrack.  Exhibit A:

I know some listeners will be shocked by the swooping beauty (some might say excess, but I won’t) of Gordon Jenkins’ strings . . . but what follows, when Louis makes his careful way through the lyrics, is the most deep tender authenticity. Without acting, without undue emphasis, he is the wise sweet Elder.  “I’ve been in love.  Let me put an arm around your shoulder and tell you what will happen. Take heart.  Be courageous.  Great rewards await those who can open their hearts to music, truth, and love.”

Exhibit B, for pure joy (thanks again to the generous Austin Casey):

I know there are a hundred recordings I could offer as proof of why Louis touches me so much — WEATHER BIRD, STARDUST, WHEN YOU’RE SMILING — but these do the work, especially because I think someone new to Louis can take in his tender voice more easily than the trumpet.

Like Cupid’s arrow.  Indeed.

May your happiness increase!

CONFESS YOUR FEARS AND THEY MAY BE TRANSFORMED: DUKE HEITGER, BEN POLCER, RUSS PHILLIPS, TOM FISCHER, JOHN COCUZZI, PAUL KELLER, DANNY COOTS at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 17, 2015)

I’M CONFESSIN’ (a song with an unusual history — written in 1929 and published with another title and lyrics, then recreated a year later with the same melody, new lyrics, and an entirely different set of composers credited) is a lovely durable melody . . . of course, first made immortal by Louis Armstrong, who sang and played it for the next forty years.  I couldn’t find a copy of the first sheet music, but here is a later version:

I'M CONFESSIN'Many bands pick this as a reliable rhythm ballad — and some race through it as if on jazz cruise control, taking it as an interlude between one punishingly fast / loud number and the next.

Happily, this was not the case with Duke Heitger, Ben Polcer, trumpet; Russ Phillips, trombone; Tom Fischer, clarinet; John Cocuzzi, piano; Paul Keller, strig bass; Danny Coots, drums, at this year’s Atlanta Jazz Party (this performance was only the second song of the three-day marathon).  These master musicians created something frankly alchemical, transforming sadness into joy:

Everything about this performance entrances me: the sweet steady tread of the rhythm section (a wonderful team saying with every beat to the horn players, “Create whatever is in your heart and we will be there to support you, to make you feel safe”) to the compact singing utterances of the horns — how to make those instruments speak in such heartfelt ways in sixteen bars!  (Sixteen bars go by so quickly.)  The variety of sounds!

And just as a self-referential digression: inspired by the song, I stopped writing and went twenty feet to the other end of this long room, where a cherished cornet rests on blue velour in its ancient case.  I picked it up and “played” the first sixteen bars of I’M CONFESSIN’ and reminded myself only how incredibly difficult making an instrument sing is.  Mine sang, but I won’t describe how or what it was singing.

From the title alone, one would think that I’M CONFESSIN’ would be an exultant outpouring of love, with the Lover offering feelings openly.  And that is indeed the case.  But the Lover here is both frightened and self-aware, wondering if those feelings will be reciprocated or discarded.  And the Love Object — the source of power in this interlude — is both inscrutable and ambiguous: the eyes embody one “strange” message; the lips offer another.

I think that JAZZ LIVES readers might need to hear the lyrics as well as the melody. And thanks to my dear friend Austin Casey, here is THE version of the century: Louis on the Frank Sinatra Show.

Gorgeous, light-hearted, and heartfelt.  I offer this as evidence to those who think Louis didn’t care about the lyrics: here he offers each word as if it had been written by Keats.  Tonation and phrasing for the ages.  I also offer this performance not as a diminution of the one created on April 17, 2015, but to show that the two stand side-by-side, our heroes in this century so completely lit from within by Louis’ blessed spirit.

A last word about the alchemy of music, of candor.  The musicians in Atlanta did the impossible by transforming unease and anxiety into something beautiful, in the spirit of Louis.  This transformation is not always possible in what passes for real life, but it is worth attempting.  Keeping one’s terrors to oneself is what we have been trained to do.  Adults don’t talk about what scares them: they might terrify the children.  But I wonder if we said out loud to ourselves, “I am deeply afraid that ___________ might happen,” that the fear, put into syllables we can hear ourselves saying, might be more manageable.  Saying to the Love Object, “I’m afraid some day you’ll leave me / Saying ‘Can’t we still be friends?'” is a true act of courage, because the Love Object can always say back, “Indeed, that was just what I was thinking this very moment,” but [hence the MAY in my title] it could provoke reassurance.

JAZZ LIVES offers no advice in relationships, and hence is held harmless from any liability.  But speaking what you feel, embodying what you feel is always courageous, no matter what the result.

Keep CONFESSIN’, I say.

May your happiness increase! 

ON THE JAZZ TRAIN, MIRACULOUSLY, WITH GEORGE WEIN’S NEWPORT JAZZ ALL-STARS (April 17-19, 1961): RUBY BRAFF, VIC DICKENSON, PEE WEE RUSSELL, JIMMY WOODE, BUZZY DROOTIN

Thanks to the indefatigable Franz Hoffmann, this treasure!  Twenty-four minutes and thirty-five seconds of live music (and rare conversation) recorded between April 17 and 19, 1961, in Baden-Baden, Germany — by the Newport Jazz All Stars: Ruby Braff, cornet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; George Wein, piano; Jimmy Woode, string bass; Buzzy Drootin, drums.  The program is produced and narrated by the jazz scholar Joachim E. Berendt:

WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CONVERSATIONS / C JAM BLUES:

SUGAR (Pee Wee) / LOVER, COME BACK TO ME:

JAZZ TRAIN BLUES / WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE (Ruby):

I know that we have a million reasons to thank George Wein — going all the way back to Forties Boston and up to this very moment — but I propose that this band and his continued stewardship of NJF All-Star bands is something that hasn’t been sufficiently applauded.  At a time when most of these musicians would have been under-employed or under-paid, George had the foresight to get them gigs all around the world, to encourage them to play a loose personal version of the Mainstream jazz they created so beautifully (having an awfully good time at the piano, too).  Here we have a very vivid reminder of a beautiful band, fueled in equal parts by fun and generosity.

This post is dedicated with gratitude to all the musicians and to Franz Hoffmann, and it is especially for Mal Sharpe, Austin Casey, Destini Sneath, and anyone else who understands hot lyricism.  (And you can read more about this band in Tom Hustad’s monumental Ruby Braff discography, BORN TO PLAY.)

May your happiness increase.

“HISTORIC SCENES”: BILLIE SPEAKS, 1952. LOUIS on the RIVERBOAT, 1962

“A gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift,” writes Lewis Hyde.  The music we love immediately resonates with generosity, “those pretty notes” given freely from the musicians to us, as we give back our gratitude.

Generosity isn’t always restricted to the great players.  This morning, I must thank Nou Dadou (a fellow jazz-researcher) for letting us know about a rare radio interview Billie Holiday did in 1952.  Never mind that Billie has interpreted historical facts in a rather affectionately loose way; it is a joy to hear her speak, to hear the pleasure with which she pronounces the names of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Oscar Peterson.  The interview can be heard here.

My young friend Austin Casey — I can even say my young hero — then reminded me of some video footage of that Louis fellow, along with Kid Ory, Monette Moore, Johnny St. Cyr, and other home boys — at Disneyland in 1962.  It’s reassuring to know that even then the crowd couldn’t clap on the right beats, but no matter.  What a good time the band is having!  Click here to be dee-lighted.

Those gifts will never grow old, wear out, or have to be returned.  And if you’re in the holiday mood, send them on to someone you love . . . !

May your happiness increase.

WHEN COMMERCE MEETS ART, NICELY

How did the Chrysler Corporation enter my college classroom?  It was an unexpected visit, because I teach English, not business, and it happened after the class meeting was over.  But the automative corporation was chaperoned by the Ink Spots, so I feel good about it.

I have an especially nice group of students in an Honors class twice a week early in the morning.  And I’ve had conversations with some of them after class — the subjects being literature and music.  At some point I must have said something about my deep immersion in “older” music and thought nothing of it. 

Last week, one of my very personable, insightful students said, “Professor, I heard the Ink Spots perform WHISPERING GRASS on a Chrysler commercial, and I wanted to hear more of them.  I have to look them up on YouTube — I heard a cover of THE GYPSY by Frank Sinatra . . . ” 

I was astonished and delighted, and told the young man about my Facebook friend Austin Casey, who has a page devoted to the Ink Spots and Bill Kenny — http://www.facebook.com/#!/Mr.InkSpot — and a YouTube channel that’s pointed in the same direction.  One sweet bit of evidence is this:

If a major American corporation is using beautiful music to sell its cars, I feel more kindly towards them: one more young person now knows about the Ink Spots.  (And, being a hopeless improver, I told him about the Spirits of Rhythm on YouTube: perhaps he’ll come back in April and happily tell me about Leo Watson.  Youth wants to know!)

BOBBY HACKETT, IMMORTAL

Seen up close, Bobby Hackett appeared to be one of us.  A diminutive man, neatly dressed, he spoke quietly, in a deep voice.  With Whitney Balliett, he chain-smoked, drank black coffee, and ate peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches.  Many other people we know have performed all or some combination of those acts.  I was close enough to him to exchange a few sentences; to have him borrow my Flair pen (this was 1972) to autograph my copy of COAST CONCERT. I wasn’t blinded by radiance; I sensed no otherworldly aura in the man.

But when Hackett began to play, it was clear that he existed on another realm, far beyond the ordinary.  And this lovely impression remains.  Consider his ethereal playing on this 1950 or 1951 recording — billed as the Ink Spots, it’s a feature for singer Bill Kenny:

I know that “immortal” is a cliche of advertising.  But it seems to me that someone who played — no, plays music as delicate and resonant as that, so precise yet so deep in feeling, has never died and will never leave us.  How could we thank Bobby Hackett sufficiently?

And thank you, Austin Casey, for inviting me into Hackett’s world once again by pointing me to a recording I had not heard.  Music of the spheres.