Tag Archives: Benny Goodman

THE PURSUIT OF SWEETNESS, OR, LIFE BEYOND “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARTY EGGERS, JEFF HAMILTON, a/k/a “THE HOT CORNER” (September 15, 2019)

Hot Lips Page is supposed to have said, on the subject of repertoire one could improvise on, “The material is immaterial.”  Or, as a segment on the Benny Goodman Camel Caravan was headlined, “Anything can swing!”  Many jazz fans cling to a favored selection of songs, performed loud and fast — you know the tunes that the audience is ready to applaud even before a note is played, the lure and comfort of the familiar.  Not so here.  This is music for people willing to pay close attention, and to feel what’s being created for them.

Ray Skjelbred goes his own way, deep in the heart of melody, and we are glad.  Here he is with Marty Eggers, string bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums, documented for all of us and for posterity by RaeAnn Berry.  Ray’s renamed this trio “The Hot Corner,” a reference to third base in baseball, but the music lives up to the name in very subtle ways.  In fact, it’s quiet and thus even more compelling, reminding me of the passages on 1938-40 Basie records where only the rhythm section is playing, quiet and even more quiet: enthralling!

Ray loves Bing Crosby, and Bing inspired some of the best songs, including his theme, a melody almost forgotten now:

Here’s what my dear friend Mike Burgevin would call “another Bingie,” this one best listened to over a dish of fresh — not canned — pineapple:

We wander from Bing to King — Wayne King, “the Waltz King,” that is:

Notice, please, the sweet patience of musicians who don’t have to jump into double-time, who can stay contentedly in three-quarter time, and it all swings so affectingly.  And here, just because technology makes it so easy, for those listeners who might not know the originals (and can now marvel even more at what Ray, Jeff, and Marty make of them), here they are.

Bing, with added attractions Eddie Lang and Franklin Pangborn:

and in a Hawaiian mood:

That famous waltz (which Bob Wills and Tamar Korn have also made their own):

and the Wills version, because why should I deny us the pleasure?

May your happiness increase!

THE MUSIC WAS HOT IN AVALON, BESIDE THE BAY: CARL SONNY LEYLAND, MARTY EGGERS, JEFF HAMILTON (Evergreen Jazz Festival, July 26, 2019)

The rainbows I associate with the Evergreen Jazz Festival weren’t always in the sky.  More often than not, they appeared on the bandstand and went vibrating towards everyone in the audience, memorably. One of the people I most associate with cosmic phenomena is pianist-singer-composer Carl Sonny Leyland.  People who like to categorize say that Sonny is a fine boogie-woogie and Chicago blues pianist and singer . . . and they would be correct.  But he’s also a rollicking full-spectrum jazz pianist, and one of my great pleasures is listening to him rip into a classic pop song as if he were a large puppy and the song a brand-new chew toy.  Or, once you’ve calmed down after this performance, you may want to invent a more demure metaphor, and I invite you to do so.

I associate AVALON with numberless Benny Goodman small-group performances and Goodman-inspired performances, but the song was “written” and published in 1920 — composer credits Billy Rose, Al Jolson, and Buddy De Sylva (to figure out who actually “wrote” this would tax my five wits, especially since its initial melody came from Puccini’s TOSCA).  However, it remains a reliable uptempo jazz standard for performers with certain associations.

Here is the strain from Puccini, sung by that Caruso fellow:

Hear Sonny, Marty Eggers, string bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums, make a meal out of it at the Evergreen Jazz Festival:

By the way, no matter what MyLife might say, there is only ONE Jeff Hamilton.  Accept no substitutes.

May your happiness increase!

MR. WILBER, THE SAGE

Days gone by: December 1946, Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Johnny Glasel, Charlie Trager, Eddie Phyfe. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

Robert Sage Wilber, born in 1928, who never played an ugly or graceless note in his life, has left us.  I first heard him on recordings more than fifty years ago, and saw him in person first in 1970 with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.  He was a magnificently consistent player — his time, his intonation, his creativity, his vital force, his melodic lyricism — and one of the world’s most versatile.  He didn’t care to be “innovative” in the best modern way, but kept refining his art, the art of Louis and Bechet and Teddy Wilson, every time he played.

People who didn’t quite understand his masteries (the plural is intentional) thought of him as derivative, whatever that means, but even when he was playing SONG OF SONGS in the Bechet manner or WARM VALLEY for the Rabbit, he was recognizably himself: passionate and exact at the same time, a model of how to do it.  And if you appreciate the jazz lineage, a man who performed with Baby Dodds, Tommy Benford, Kaiser Marshall, Joe Thomas, Sidney Catlett, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Leeman . . . so deeply connected to the past while remaining fiercely active, has moved to another neighborhood.  I send my condolences to his wife, the singer Pug Horton, and his family.

I was extremely fortunate to cross paths with Bob — not only as an admiring spectator of Soprano Summit, where he and Kenny Davern were equally matched — but as an admiring jazz journalist and videographer.  He was not worried about what I captured: he was confident in himself and he trusted that the music would carry him.  Here are some glimpses of the Sage in action, in music and in speech.

Rare photographs and music from 1947 here.

A session with David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band (2010) and Daryl Sherman here.

Two parts of an intimate session at Smalls in 2012 with Ehud Asherie and Pug Horton as well here and here.

And a particular prize: a two-part 2015 interview session (thanks to Pug!) here and here.

More than a decade ago, when I began this blog, I worked hard to keep away from the temptations of necrology — my joke is that I didn’t want it to be JAZZ DIES — but if I didn’t write and post something about Robert Sage Wilber, I’d never forgive myself.  We will keep on admiring and missing him as long as there is music.

May your happiness increase!  

FOR CHARLIE, BY CHARLIE (PART TWO): LITTLE CHARLIE BATY, JAMEY CUMMINS, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, MARC CAPARONE, DAN WALTON, SAM ROCHA, JEFF HAMILTON, DAWN LAMBETH (Redwood Coast Music Festival, May 11, 2019)

From this distance, it feels as if Charlie Christian (July 29, 1916 – March 2, 1942) was an extra-terrestrial phenomenon, some entity that touched down so briefly on this planet, played a great deal of music — some of it, thank the Goddess, recorded — and then said he had to visit another neighborhood and we should study what he had given us.  Charlie feels more like a beam of light reflected through a spinning prism than an actual mortal, although we have stories of him at the back of the band bus, singing Lester Young solos.  And I suspect that what the doctors at the sanitarium on Staten Island, New York, wrote down as “tuberculosis” on his chart was an inter-galactic summons to another place that needed his particular blaze of joyous enlightenment.

He wasn’t the first to play jazz on the electric guitar (check out George Barnes, Eddie Durham, Floyd Smith, and others) but what he did was completely fresh then and remains so: the looping lines, the rhythmic attack both fierce and subtle, the harmonic suggestions, the incisive swing.  We celebrate him!

Charlie Christian as a member of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, Waldorf-Astoria, New York City, September 1939. Thanks to Nick Rossi for the photograph.

This most recent celebration took place at the Redwood Coast Music Festival on May 11, 2019, and the brilliant players are Little Charlie Baty (right) and Jamey Cummins, guitars; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Sam Rocha, string bass; Dan Walton, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet; Dawn Lambeth, vocal.  Here are the first four performances: FLYING HOME, ROSE ROOM, BENNY’S BUGLE, and STAR DUST.

And the second half, beginning with SEVEN COME ELEVEN:

Dawn Lambeth stops by to sing I’M CONFESSIN’:

and the splendid 1931 I SURRENDER, DEAR:

Something Middle Eastern that isn’t hummus? Perhaps THE SHEIK OF ARABY:

And the closing swing delight, WHOLLY CATS, which I always think should have an exclamation point at its close:

Incidentally, it’s easy to be distracted by the gleaming sounds of the “two guitar heroes,” Little Charlie and Jamey, but I would direct or re-direct your attention to that glorious rhythm section of Dan Walton, Sam Rocha, and Jeff Hamilton; the sweet song of Dawn Lambeth; the wonderful improvisations of Jacob Zimmerman and Marc Caparone, whose idea this set was.

Make plans to visit the Redwood Coast Music Festival, May 7-10, 2020 — thanks to Mark and Valerie Jansen and their wonderful musical friends.

And for more about Charlie, from a different angle, here is Mel Powell’s recollections of the young man.  And a memory of Benny Goodman as well.

May your happiness increase! 

FOR CHARLIE, BY CHARLIE (PART ONE): LITTLE CHARLIE BATY, JAMEY CUMMINS, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, MARC CAPARONE, DAN WALTON, SAM ROCHA, JEFF HAMILTON, DAWN LAMBETH (Redwood Coast Music Festival, May 11, 2019)

Charlie Christian didn’t have many birthdays on this planet, but yesterday would have been another one.  We celebrate him and his music, and with good reason.

Charlie Christian as a member of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, Waldorf-Astoria, New York City, September 1939. Thanks to Nick Rossi for the photograph.

This celebration took place at the Redwood Coast Music Festival on May 11, 2019, and the brilliant players are Little Charlie Baty (right) and Jamey Cummins, guitars; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Sam Rocha, string bass; Dan Walton, piano; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet; Dawn Lambeth, vocal.  Here are the first four performances.

FLYING HOME:

ROSE ROOM:

BENNY’S BUGLE:

STAR DUST:

More to come in Part Two.  And more to come from the Redwood Coast Music Festival, May 2020 — thanks to Mark and Valerie Jansen and their wonderful musical friends.

And for more about Charlie, from a different angle, here is Mel Powell’s recollections of the young man.  And a memory of Benny Goodman as well.

May your happiness increase! 

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

FOR FATHER’S DAY: “THE JAZZ APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE,” by SONNY McGOWN

A touching reminiscence by my friend, jazz collector and scholar Sonny McGown:

Through our correspondence over the years and my recent YouTube posts as “Davey Tough,”  our dear host Michael became aware of my father’s musical impact on my life. Quite often many people ask “How did you discover Jazz?” My story begins in 1952 at age 5, observing my father’s music related activities.

Sonny and Mac, later in life.

His name was Monroe “Mac” McGown and his story began at age 10 in the late 1930’s when he was fascinated and captured by the radio broadcasts he heard of the great Benny Goodman band with Krupa, Stacy, James, Elman et al and he soon started collecting Swing records up until the beginning of World War II. As a result of his boyhood hobby in Chemistry, he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and became a Pharmacist’s Mate. He deployed with the U.S. Marines and eventually landed in one of the later waves of the horrific and extended battle of Okinawa. After being honorably discharged in 1946, he decided that Radio and TV electronics would be a promising career so he took correspondence classes and mastered the science. Soon he became a TV repairman and stockpiled his home with radios, TVs and various pieces of audio equipment such as turntables, amplifiers, and speakers.

His first job as a TV repairman was with the Southern Electric Appliance Company in Arlington, VA, who also sold phonograph records which necessarily enlarged his record collection and diminished his take home pay each payday. Sometime in 1950 he procured a Wilcox-Gay Home Disc recorder which allowed him to permanently capture radio and TV music broadcasts onto aluminum based acetate discs. Using his electronics skills, he wired the recorder input to the amplifier stages of the TV and radio thereby obtaining the best possible audio fidelity.

This is where my Jazz initiation begins.

Creating a record involved the constant removal of the metal shavings carved out by the heavy cutting arm. This feat was performed gently with a soft brush and without touching the disc in order to not disturb the turntable speed. Watching this process simply fascinated me and my father recognized an opportunity to stimulate my interest.  In 1952 he trained me to be the brush boy. All of a sudden, I was part of the music preservation process! Further, as fate would have it, I started to relate emotionally to the music as well. There was something captivating about it to me, particularly the rhythms and soon he made me keenly aware of artists like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey among many others.

Thanks to his instruction it wasn’t long before I was able to recognize them by sight and eventually by ear. For a kid this was truly exciting and was similar to seeing your favorite baseball player on TV whose trading card you had but in this case it was a recording that I possessed and could play over and over.

A few years later in 1955, home tape recording became commercially available and my father upgraded to a Magnecord M30 reel to reel recorder and the quality of the recordings vastly improved because there was no annoying surface noise which was inherent in the acetate disc surfaces. More technical training from my father ensued and I soon became an official tape recorder switch operator. At this point he had gained enough confidence in my ability to start and stop the recorder before and after a performance. Eventually he strategically staged a tape recorder setup in the living room, dining room, and master bedroom operational station was usually the bedroom. For upcoming program guidance, we subscribed to the weekly issue of TV Guide magazine which was pretty reliable at listing guest artists on various shows for the week so we had a good idea what to watch for music potential.

So much good Jazz was still on the air in the 1950s. Steve Allen was a serious Jazz promoter as well as an accomplished pianist and regularly featured numerous notable Jazz guests. Jackie Gleason promoted the Dorsey Brothers on “Stage Show.” NBC Monitor Radio had 15 minutes segments where they would cut away to another studio or Jazz venue and broadcast live music. Garry Moore was a big Jazz fan and had top flight talent in his “house band.” There were educational programs such as “The Subject Is Jazz” hosted by critic Gilbert Seldes, “The Stars of Jazz” series from the West Coast hosted by Bobby Troup, “The Timex All Star Jazz Concerts” were superb shows and “The 7 Lively Arts” series which included arguably the most famous Jazz TV broadcast which was the “Sound of Jazz” production. As a kid my favorite TV show was “Pete Kelly’s Blues” with the likes of Dick Cathcart, Matty Matlock, and Nick Fatool providing the background music. In hindsight, I was so fortunate to have the real time opportunity to absorb all of these wonderful sights and sounds by so many Jazz Giants including some who had just a few years left to live.

One of the best regular sources for good Jazz was the daily Arthur Godfrey Show on CBS Radio. Arthur loved Jazz and stocked his “house band” with renowned players such as Dick Hyman, Lou McGarity, Urbie Green, Remo Palmieri, Cozy Cole, and my favorite of all, clarinetist extraordinaire Johnny Mince. Each summer day for me began sitting beside our Zenith FM radio at 9 am with hopes that Johnny would be featured which happened quite often. We have some wonderful Godfrey recordings of eminent guests including Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Benny Goodman, and Erroll Garner among many others.  What a show! You can imagine how sad I felt when summer recess ended.

As you can probably tell by now I was happily hooked on this wonderful music called Jazz due to all of the paternal influence around the house between 1952 and 1958. The next logical step was to begin record collecting. Fortunately, another key person entered my life at this time: and that was my Uncle Don who was my father’s brother. I had an RCA Victor 45 rpm only stackable record changer. Unc gave me several 45 rpm records with the first being a box set of the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. He also helped me expand my nascent collection by taking me each Saturday morning to Swillers, our local record shop, and I would pick out one 45 rpm single and they all came from the RCA Gold Standard series. Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” was my favorite followed closely by Benny Goodman’s “King Porter Stomp.”

Don also subscribed to the Jazztone and Columbia Record Clubs and there were new LPs arriving in the mail on a monthly basis. Eventually I expanded into LPs and my very first purchase was Columbia CL 547 titled “Jam Session Coast to Coast” with the Eddie Condon Gang representing the East Coast and the Rampart St. Paraders on the West Coast; truly one of the Classic Jazz LPs of all time. I wore out every groove on that disc!

Lastly, I must not forget my dear mother! We grocery shopped once a week and she allowed me to buy one record; yes, in those days even grocery stores sold records. Thanks to her I purchased the complete twelve volumes of “The RCA Victor Encyclopedia of Recorded Jazz” which cost a whopping $0.79 cents per 10 inch LP.

Eventually, there came a point where my father and I had our musical differences; thanks in particular to the “Jam Session Coast to Coast” album. He was more of a Big and Small Band Swing fan while I was more into the Condon style. He couldn’t convince me that Benny Goodman was better than Edmond Hall and I couldn’t convince him that Wild Bill Davison could cut Louis Armstrong. It took me some time to realize of course that he was right and I was simply naïve.

On another matter, I’m still feeling guilty to this day that I broke one of his most cherished 78 rpm records. He rarely got mad but this mishap was really disappointing to him. It was Brunswick 7699 by Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. His favorite side was “Why Do I Lie to Myself About You” which is a real swinging instrumental with Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Jonah Jones. I love that record myself, but I’ve never been able to find an original replacement copy because the flip side is “Them There Eyes” by the same band but with a vocal by Billie Holiday. All of Billie’s Brunswick records are highly collectible these days and tough to find. The search goes on even though my father passed away in 1997.

One last fond memory that I truly cherish from my formative period pertains to the release of the movie “The Benny Goodman Story”. My father’s Uncle was an accomplished organist and projectionist at the McHenry Theater on Light St. in Baltimore, MD.  When the BG movie came to town we made the 45 mile trip to Baltimore where Uncle George allowed us upstairs into the projection booth to directly access the theater sound system and tape record the soundtrack in the best fidelity. I still have that reel of tape from 1955 and it plays fine today.

To this point, I have addressed the first 6 years of my Jazz foundation all of which I recall as if it were yesterday. Needless to say, we had a fabulous time building a large Jazz archive together over many years until he passed away. One of the most memorable collecting moments occurred in the mid-1960s. I went to the Discount Record Shop in Washington DC and purchased 2 LPs on the Melodeon label produced by Dick Spottswood. These LPs were the first issue of the legendary and mysterious Bill Dodge World Transcription session featuring Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan. This was unquestionably the greatest recording session with Benny and Bunny together. Also, as avid collectors, this was the kind of session that we never expected to be made available to the public. As soon as I got home that afternoon, I called him at work and he was in total disbelief. He was home in half an hour and we played those records over and over until midnight. For us, this day was like hitting the lottery!

Finally, I must note that my father influenced me in other ways that shaped the course of my life. His alternate passion for electronics lured me into that domain and we spent countless hours building AM and police band radios, repairing TVs and even making loudspeaker baffles from large cardboard boxes. These appealing projects led me to pursue a career in Electrical Engineering, working for the U.S. Navy for 35 years. Never one to be outdone, my father advanced as well by becoming a computer programmer, designing naval shipboard antennas at the Naval Research Laboratory for 40 years. As they say, “like father, like son.” I believe it was just meant to be.

Like many of you, I could go on about my Jazz influences and experiences. The way in which all of this happened has been key to much happiness in my life up to the present day. This music is joyful and comes from the heart. I can’t imagine my life without it and for that I am deeply grateful to my father in particular who fostered my musical and career paths. He didn’t push me into these realms but allowed me to naturally grow within them. As a result, my happiness still increases daily!

Sonny McGown

May your happiness increase!