Tag Archives: Benny Carter

VIVIDLY ALIVE: THE BRAIN CLOUD, “LIVE AT BARBES”

I adore the surprises that happen at jam sessions or when musicians are asked to play alongside each other in new combinations, but Heaven smiles on that rare entity, a WORKING BAND.  The Brain Cloud, led by Dennis Lichtman (clarinet, violin, mandolin, and more) is such a remarkable entity — and they’ve just released their third CD, “Live at Barbes.”

Photo by Seth Cashman

Here’s a sample: music does speak louder than words!

Dennis Lichtman and all the members of the Brain Cloud have created the world’s most swinging, melodic “safe space”: which is to say, a place where all kinds of lyrical music are welcome to flourish — not historical or archaeological, but alive now.

Once upon a time, we know, there was just MUSIC — a beautifully undulating landscape as far as we could see.  Then, people looking to sell product — journalists, publicists, record company executives, even some musicians — came and divided the landscape up into little fiefdoms whose occupants glared at one another.  The Brain Cloud suggests that a return to the prelapsarian world is possible: imagine a record store where The Carter Family and Benny Carter are friends, where Lester Willis Young and Bob Willis share a drink, a cigarette, and a story.  Or a place where double-entendre blues sit in the same pew as hymns, where “Dixieland,” “roots music,” “Americana,” all those dazzling names for what is essentially the same thing, coexist beautifully, because they are all only music that has stories to tell and in the telling, enlightens the listener.

Photo by Tom Farley

To the music: as you can hear and see above, the opening track on this CD, JEALOUS HEARTED ME, is no academic exercise: a Carter Family song, it reminds me of rocking Fifties rhythm and blues, with an outchorus that would equal any Eddie Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  The expert Merrymakers here are Dennis Lichtman, clarinet, mandolin, fiddle; Tamar Korn, vocal improvisations; Skip Krevens, guitar, vocals; Raphael McGregor, lap steel guitar; Andrew Hall, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.

Each track is wonderfully itself — the CD isn’t a monochromatic blur — but each is a joyous lesson in the merging of “styles.”  So aside from the “roots” classics — venerable as well as new (from Jimmie Rodgers and Patsy Cline) — there’s Alex Hill’s YOU WERE ONLY PASSING TIME WITH ME (hooray!) and the 1939 Broadway song COMES LOVE and the Twenties LONESOME AND SORRY and IF YOU WANT THE RAINBOW.

Since the Brain Cloud has had a long residency at Barbes (on Monday nights) there is a delightful mix of exuberance and comfort.  Everyone’s made themselves to home, as we might say.  And — in case you worry about such things — the recorded sound is excellent.  Those who have been to Barbes already have multiple copies of this disc; if you’ve never made it into Brooklyn for such frolics, you’ll want your own copy.  And on a personal note: listening to the Brain Cloud has helped me to drop my own narrow suspicions of music that I didn’t think was “jazz,” always a good thing; I’ve been following them since 2009, and this disc is a wonderful encapsulation of what the band does so well.

Here you can find out more about the Brain Cloud, hear more music, buy this disc, or a download, or even as a limited-edition cassette.  And more.  Don’t just sit there!  Move that cursor!

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART THREE (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

I offer here the final segment of a glorious evening that also happened to be Dan Block’s birthday.  But rather than waiting for cake and gift cards, Dan bestowed presents on us.

The Mobius Travelers (my band name, not Dan’s) are Dan Block, clarinet and tenor; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, who convened for an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls (West Tenth Street, New York City) on February 3, 2017. The imaginative premise: revitalize obscure Swing Era compositions and arrangements by (among others) Mary Lou Williams, Benny Carter, Billy Moore, Fletcher Henderson, Edgar Sampson.

Here are the selections performed earlier in the evening, and some words in addition.

Now, the three closing performances — full of juice and surprises.

CANCER, from Mary Lou’s “ZODIAC SUITE”:

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE, Mary Lou’s creation for the Andy Kirk band:

And to close, Benny Carter’s BLUES IN MY HEART, that segues into a let’s-celebrate-the-leader HAPPY BIRTHDAY, a riotous ending to a memorable evening.

May your happiness increase!

WE INTERRUPT OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BLOGGING

No, JAZZ LIVES is not going away.  Nor is there some crisis.  Nor am I asking for money.  However, I would like my viewers to devote themselves to what follows, which will take perhaps ten minutes.

That man is pianist Junior Mance, born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1928.  Before he was twenty, he had begun recording with the stars we revere: Gene Ammons, Howard McGhee, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Clark Terry, Paul Gonsalves, Clifford Brown, Maynard Ferguson, Israel Crosby, Chubby Jackson, Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley, Sam Jones, Nat Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, Carmen McRae, Wilbur Ware, Bob Cranshaw, James Moody, Jimmy Cleveland, Bill Crow, Art Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie (he’s on the duet with Louis of UMBRELLA MAN), Leo Wright, Harry Lookofsky, Lockjaw Davis, Johnny Coles, Ray Crawford, Paul Chambers, Bennie Green, George Coleman, Eddie Jefferson, Louis Jordan, Irene Kral, Joe Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Ben Webster, Kenny Burrell, Mannie Klein, Shelley Manne, Etta Jones, Benny Carter, Jim Hall, Joe Newman, Milt Hinton, Richard Davis, Frank Wess, Wilbur Little, Jimmy Scott, Marion Williams, Les McCann, Dexter Gordon, George Duvivier, Carrie Smith, Ken Peplowski, Howard Alden, Milt Jackson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Al Grey, Houston Person, Joe Temperley, Benny Golson, Jay Leonhart, Jackie Williams, Andrew Hadro . . . and I know I’ve left two dozen people out.

Next, in the world of jazz, one would expect a tribute.  Or an obituary. Or both.

But not a love story, which is what follows.

A few days ago, I was contacted by Sarit Work, co-producer of SUNSET AND THE MOCKINGBIRD, a not-yet-finished documentary about Junior and his wife, Gloria Clayborne Mance.  They have created a Kickstarter to help them finish the documentary.  The headline is “The love story of jazz legend Junior Mance and Gloria Clayborne Mance. As he loses his identity to dementia she reckons with her own.”

Being a man (although this may not be typical of my gender) I have less ability to cope with illness than women I know.  It’s terribly irrational, but I cringe at visiting people in hospitals, visiting the ailing, the dying . . . and so on.  There must be a name for this — call it “testosterone terror”? — which makes people like me hide under the couch, if possible.  Or in the car.  And dementia is especially frightening, because I am closer to being a senior citizen than ever before.  But Sarit was very politely persuasive, so I watched the trailer.

And it hit me right in the heart.

Junior has a hard time remembering, and he knows this. But he knows he loves Gloria.  And Gloria, for her part, is a lighthouse beacon of steady strong love.  It is not a film about forgetting who you are so much as it is a film about the power of devotion.

So I urge you — and “urge” is not a word I use often — to watch the trailer, and if you are moved, to help the project along.  It will be a powerful film, and I think that helping this project is very serious good karma.  Maybe it will protect us a few percent?

Here is the link.  Yes, the filmmakers need a substantial amount of money.  But anything is possible.  And, yes, I’ve already contributed.  And from this day (or night) the filmmakers have only EIGHT days to raise the sum they need.  So please help — in the name of jazz, in the name of love, or both.  In my dictionary, the two are synonyms.

May your happiness increase!

“AND UNCLE TOM COBLEY (or COBLEIGH) AND ALL”

I just received this now out-of-print “Chronogical” Classics disc.

With all respect to Feather, journalist-publicist, promoter, pianist, composer, arranger of record sessions, I bought this rare item for the company he kept:

From left: Robert Goffin, Benny Carter, Louis, Feather, 1942

For me, the appeal of this now-rare disc in in sessions featuring Bobby Hackett, Leo Watson, Pete Brown, Joe Marsala, Joe Bushkin, George Wettling, Ray Biondi, Benny Carter, Billy Kyle, Hayes Alvis, Artie Shapiro, Cozy Cole, Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford, Remo Palmieri, Tiny Grimes, Jack Lesberg, Morey Feld, and two sessions featuring swinging British players.  I knew far less about trumpeter / singer Dave Wilkins, reedmen Andy McDevitt and Bertie King, pianist Will Solomon, guitarist Alan Ferguson, string bassist Len Harrison, or drummer Hymie Schneider.

These musicians (with Feather on the final two selections) were presented as LEONARD FEATHER AND YE OLDE ENGLISH SWYNGE BAND, and they recorded for Decca in London on September 12, 1938.

Here’s the personnel for the disc:

Listening in sequence, I discovered this side, which is now an instant favorite:

I hadn’t known this traditional English folksong, obviously updated, but the parade of names is very funny and definitely 1938 hip. I’m sorry the take is so short, because the band has a good time with the simplest material. A similar band had backed Fats Waller on recordings in April.  Was the idea of jamming on traditional folk material was modeled on Maxine Sullivan’s 1937 hits LOCH LOMOND and ANNIE LAURIE, perhaps on Ella Logan’s performances of folk songs swung, or a way for a recording company to avoid paying composer royalties.  Or both.

I searched for more information about WIDDICOMBE FAIR and found this wonderful animated film, hilarious and deft both:

Here are the complete lyrics — an oral narrative too long to reprint here, the moral being caution about lending important objects / animals / possessions. But a secondary moral is that anything can swing, in the right hands.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS FRIENDS AND HEROES (Part Three: March 3, 2017)

Dan Morgenstern is a remarkable person, lively and kind, and would be so if he had been a veterinarian with only a passing interest in music.  But even better for us: he hung out with [and wrote about] some of the greatest artists we know and still revere.  I continue to feel immensely fortunate that I could visit him, and that he so generously shared some candid loving stories of people who many of us know only as a photograph or a sound emerging from a speaker.

For those of you who have been otherwise occupied, and I understand, I have posted videos where Dan speaks of Tommy Benford, Frank Newton, Al Hall, Mary Lou Williams and her friends, Donald Lambert, Eubie Blake, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Nat Lorber, Buddy Tate, Gene Ramey, Lester Young (twice for Pres).

But before you leap in, a small caveat.  Dan is soft-spoken, and my few comments from behind the camera are louder.  Friends have pointed this out, and I have been penitent, citing inexperience rather than ego and I will balance the audio better on our future encounters.  The first five videos are here.

More friends and heroes.  Eddie Condon (and I had to say a few things, given my reverence for Eddie):

Buster Bailey, Stanley Dance, Coleman Hawkins, cameos by Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Joe Thomas, John S. Wilson, Billy Kyle, Louis, and Dan’s thoughts on writing about artists:

More about Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, with comments about Sir Charles Thompson, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker as well:

Notice in the second interview that Dan took an unpaid gig because “it will be good for the musicians.”  And I am touched by Coleman Hawkins’ generosities (acceptance in to the tribe) to Dan — which Dan has repaid us ten thousandfold.  More to come.

May your happiness increase!

“FOX TROT, VOCAL CHORUS”: JIM FRYER, EVAN ARNTZEN, BRIAN NALEPKA with TERRY WALDO, JAY LEPLEY, JOHN GILL, JON-ERIK KELLSO at FAT CAT (Jan. 29, 2017)

Even if they don’t have trained voices, the instrumental soloists I know tend to be really convincing singers, often with a loose, sleeves-rolled up approach to the song, which, by its casualness, conceals a real understanding of melody, rhythm, and how to “sell a song.”  (And sometimes the most under-documented singers are the most affecting: Basie, muttering his way through HARVARD BLUES, Hawkins emoting on LOVE CRIES, Carter wooing us with SYNTHETIC LOVE.)

Musicians know that bursting into song delights an audience (if it’s not offered on every performance) and it rests tired lips and hands. Here are three wonderful examples from a Sunday afternoon session by Terry Waldo, Jon-Erik Kellso, Jim Fryer, Evan Arntzen, Brian Nalepka, John Gill, and Jay Lepley — January 29, 2017).  I will point out that everyone in this band has been known to warble a chorus, but today I am concentrating on Messrs. Fryer, Arntzen, and Nalepka — all of whom have sung in performance and the recording studio.

And since so much of American pop music of the last century and more takes romance as its subject, here are three very different love songs: the first a chronicle of deprivation (“I’d love to join the fun but they bar me.”) the second a narrative of how serendipity made for great love (“I kept buying china / Until the crowd got wise.”) and the last a happy description of mutual adoration (“My baby don’t care who knows it.”)

Jim Fryer chronicles romantic woes, Lombardo / Louis style on SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE:

Evan Arntzen reminds us of Bing, 1931, incidentally, with I FOUND A MILLION DOLLAR BABY (IN A FIVE-AND-TEN CENT STORE):

and Brian Nalepka tells the truth (ask Mary Shaughnessy), MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME:

These frolics happen most Sunday afternoons at Fat Cat, 75 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York City (take the #1 train to Christopher Street / Sheridan Square).

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY: BIG BAND JAZZ ARRANGING IN THE SWING ERA,” by JOHN WRIGGLE (University of Illinois Press)

john-wriggle-cover

One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:

That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra.  But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.

An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:

We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises.  More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.

Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo.  Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted.  Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance.  But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance.  I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:

In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it.  The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.

The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.

Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity.  He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.

The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.

Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited.  I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.

Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader.  His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.

As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias.  To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.

As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.

The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.

Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.

This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.

BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience.  It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions.  I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.

May your happiness increase!