I am moderately accident-prone: I can trip over an uneven sidewalk; have the last bit of salad dressing adhere to my shirt; while driving, I may unsuccessfully avoid a pothole with an $800 repair bill as the result. I laugh about it.
So I admire those who see the looming catastrophe, however its size and shape, and step around it without spilling their tea. They aren’t Bojangles, Fred, or Gene — just people who sense the landmine and gracefully avoid it. Jazz musicians are especially good at fixing errors before they turn into train wrecks.
Two of these Masters — you could call them spiritual acrobats or merely veterans of the trade — are trombonist Bob Havens and guitarist / singer / arranger Marty Grosz. Both of these heroes are born in 1930, so when this brief interlude took place on September 16, 2011, they were 81. Decades of experience! The occasion was the yearly Jazz at Chautauqua, the beloved child of Joe Boughton, that was held at the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, New York (ninety minutes from Buffalo). It was a memorable jazz weekend, with about thirty musicians playing and singing from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon.
One of the particular delights of Chautauqua grew out of Joe’s love for beautiful semi-forgotten songs. Thus the weekend began and ended with a ballad medley. Four musicians were chosen as a skilled rhythm section, and from one side of the stage, everyone else walked on, indicated briefly to the rhythm section what song they had chosen and in what key, played or sang a chorus at a slow tempo, and walked offstage from the other side. Emotionally powerful, visually charming, full of surprises and sweet sensations.
For the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua’s closing medley, the rhythm section was Keith Ingham, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; Arnie Kinsella, drums. The complete medley ran perhaps twenty minutes: I’ve excerpted a segment I find particularly touching.
You’ll see at the start of this excerpt Bob Havens step onstage and explain by words and gestures that he plans to play — in seconds — LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND, the nostalgic creation of Charles and Nick Kenny and Danny Coots’ great-uncle, J. Fred. It’s a favorite song of mine, first recorded in 1931 by (among others) Ruth Etting, then made into a huge success by Pat Boone. I won’t comment on what the trajectory from Ruth to Pat suggests to me, especially because it was one of Vic Dickenson’s favorites also (his medium-bounce version can be found on YouTube). In its homespun way, it’s a seventeenth-century poem: human love always loses the battle with nature and time, and tears are inevitable.
The opening phrase is familiar, the harmony simple, but unless my ears deceive me, there is a slight uncertainty in the rhythm section about the harmonies that follow, so Havens, used to this sort of thing for decades, “spells out” the harmony by emphasizing arpeggiated chords as he goes along — and the performance not only reaches its goal but our hearts as well.
Then Marty, who always goes his own way, thank goodness, asks everyone to be silent while he essays EMALINE. That in itself would be brave — the lyrics to the chorus are pure Waltons-Americana, but they might be fairly well known. No, our hero Martin Oliver Grosz begins with the verse and gets about one-third of the way before realizing his memory of the lyrics is incomplete: hear his inimitable rescue! And the chorus is just lovely. Incidentally, Frank Tate is someone I deeply admire: watch and listen to this clip again, and look at his facial expressions as Marty walks the thorny path he has chosen for himself.
For those who need to know (I had to look them up) the pretty although seriously hackneyed lyrics to the verse are: Ev’ning breezes hum a lullaby / There’s a million candles in the sky / I’ve put on my Sunday suit of blue / Emaline, just for you / Here I’m standing at your garden gate / While the village clock is striking eight / Hurry up! Hurry down! / Honey, don’t be late! (I especially like the “up” and “down,” but I’m a sentimentalist.)
The musicians on this stage (and their friends) are my role models. What does a brief error matter if you either head it off or make a joke out of it: in both cases, they not only avoid trouble but cover it up so stylishly that the result is even better than plain old competence. All hail!
There will be more previously unknown treasures from the Jazz at Chautauqua weekends — and then its successor, the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party — in months to come. “Too good to ignore,” said Eddie Condon, who spoke truth.
May your happiness increase!