Tag Archives: Benny Goodman

DAN MORGENSTERN ON JIMMY ROWLES, RACE RELATIONS, THE BLESSINGS OF JAZZ, WHICH INCLUDE POTATO SALAD (March 3, 2017)

This is the fourth part of a series of interviews I was fortunate enough to do with Dan Morgenstern on March 3, 2017: here are the ones already posted, with first-hand commentary on everyone from Lester Young to Tommy Benford, soul food, and more.

The interview that follows began with my asking Dan about the irreplaceable pianist and singer Jimmy Rowles, but it soon moves away from a remembrance of Rowles to larger matters: jazz as a place “where the dark and the light folks” could meet in safety and love, and Dan’s own experiences with race relations during his military service in Columbus, Georgia, and a record shop he remembers as “Dr. Jive.”  I found this  article on the founder of that record shop, eventually four record shops, and various record labels — Ed Mendel, a man wholly exemplifying the blessed color-blindness we are still striving towards, eighty years later.

Dan mentions Sherman’s BBQ — which closed about five years ago — and remembers their potato salad as the best he’d ever eaten.  In memoriam, I offer this photograph:

More interviews to come, of course.  For potato salad, you’re on your own.

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!

IF THERE’S A GLEAM IN HER EYE, SHE’S LISTENING TO THIS BAND: JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, FRANK TATE at LUCA’S JAZZ CORNER (Dec. 22, 2016)

The song, THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU, music by Burton Lane (a bubbling rhythmic line) and witty incisive lyrics by Frank Loesser, first emerged in 1939 and was a big-band hit immediately for Krupa, Miller, and Goodman.  Then, in 1944, it emerged again as a Condon favorite.  I give full credit to Eddie for making it popular, with everyone from Jimmy Rowles to Annie Ross to Mel Torme to Susannah McCorkle recording it — with special notice for Marty Grosz and Rebecca Kilgore in my decades.

ladys-in-love-larger

It’s a great premise — that these are all the litmus tests one can use to determine if, in fact, the lady is infatuated — a nice change from the usual “I wish she loved me again” plaint.  Here are Rebecca and Dave Frishberg — verse and two choruses, beautifully:

But the punchy repeated phrases lend themselves to vigorous instrumental strutting, as evident in this version, created at Luca’s Jazz Corner on December 22, 2016, by Jon-Erik Kellso, Evan Arntzen, Rossano Sportiello, and Frank Tate. Building inspectors stopped in near the end of the performance because of calls that the whole block was swaying dangerously in 4/4:

Lovely music happens regularly at Luca’s Jazz Corner (1712 First Avenue in Manhattan): a Kellso quartet will be back on March 23 . . . a clear day for hot jazz indeed.  Incidentally, if you haven’t been following the intensive JAZZ LIVES coverage of this band, this evening, here you can enjoy dazzling renditions of JUBILEE, RUNNIN’ WILD, and FINE AND DANDY.  All three song titles appropriately describe the music, too.

May your happiness increase!

TWO NEGATIVE STATEMENTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, MAKE A POSITIVE ONE (November 27, 2016)

ill-never-say-never-again-again

Two negative statements can make a positive one.  Oh, how very positive.  The song here is the nearly-impossible to sing I’LL NEVER SAY “NEVER AGAIN” AGAIN, by the one and only Harry Woods, and for most of us immortalized by Henry “Red” Allen or Connee Boswell when the song was new.  (Benny Goodman featured it in the Sixties, and in our time there’s a delectable version by Rebecca Kilgore.)

The narrative premise of the song (no doubt arising from the wordplay of the title) is that a couple has had some disagreement — what people used to call “a spat” or “a fight,” and the singer is now repentant, swearing endless high fidelity, which is always a nice concept.

But what we have here isn’t a matter for couples counseling or an exploration into the archives of recorded sound. Rather, it is a sweetly frolicsome duet — I think of Earl and Louis in the wings, grinning — between two of the masters, Ray Skjelbred at the piano and Marc Caparone on cornet — at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 27, 2016:

This performance is dedicated to all those wise enough to kiss and make up.

May your happiness increase!

“PASS THE BOUNCE”: BROOKS PRUMO ORCHESTRA at the HOT RHYTHM HOLIDAY (Jan. 28, 2017)

The charts for the BPO at Hot Rhythm Holiday.

The charts for the BPO at Hot Rhythm Holiday.

Nothing beats music, which is its own kind of prayer, for both instant and lasting spiritual relief.  No extra calories, liver damage, or worries about The Law. One of the newest groups of roving spiritual practitioners is the Brooks Prumo Orchestra led by young Mister Prumo of Austin, Texas, dancer, rhythm guitarist, and man-with-more-than-one-plan.  And we can now see and hear the results of his energetic devotion: a swing band that is serious about the music but has a large light heart.  (Thanks to Kevin Hill for the fine videos.)

Here are the band members, many of them familiar as players in the Thrift Set Orchestra, the Sahara Swingtet, Swing Central, and groups led by Jonathan Doyle and Hal Smith.  (Speaking about Hal, this gig was, I believe, his second or third after being sidelined for a time because of an auto accident.  WELCOME BACK!  WE MISSED YOU!  The sound of Hal’s drumming — his percussive insight as well as the silvery float of his hi-hat — always makes me feel good, and I know I am not alone.)

Back to the BPO: Cale Montgomery, Marcus Graf, David Jellema, trumpet; Mark Gonzales, Leo Gauna, trombone; Jonathan Doyle, Lyon Graulty, tenor saxophone / clarinet; Zack Varner, alto saxophone / clarinet; Greg Wilson, alto / baritone saxophone; Dan Walton, piano; Ryan Gould, string bass; Hal Smith, drums; Brooks Prumo, guitar; Albanie Falletta, vocal.  All these very pleasing videos are on YouTube (where else?) and you can subscribe to the Orchestra’s channel .  I did.

ESQUIRE BOUNCE, arranged by Jonathan Doyle:

BENNY’S BUGLE, a mixture of Lee and Lester Young 1941-2, SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams, and Benny Goodman. (arrangement by David M. Jellema, his first for this band):

BOLERO AT THE SAVOY (echoes of Krupa and Basie), vocal by Albanie Falletta:

AVENUE C (by Buck Clayton for the 1942-3 Basie band):

PASS THE BOUNCE (arranged by Lauryn Gould), vocal by Albanie Falletta:

JON’S DREAM a/k/a DICKIE’S DREAM, arranged, properly, by Jonathan Doyle:

LAST JUMP, arranged by Zach Varner:

I know that it won’t be the LAST JUMP for this swinging band for some time: wishing them many gigs, appreciative audiences, public notice, and pleasures — like the ones they give us.

May your happiness increase!

BUT WHO KNOWS WHERE OR WHEN?

Although technology — whatever that means — keeps telling us we are “all connected,” and it is easier than ever to click a “like,” to instant-message someone, I think many of us feel, in the midst of the crowd, more isolated than ever before.

where-or-when

But community is always possible.  I offer this tender example from — oh, only eighty years ago.

The song is WHERE OR WHEN, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, from the musical BABES IN ARMS, which premiered in New York April 14, 1937.  I don’t know when Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa first heard the song or had the sheet music (possibly well in advance of the show’s premiere, because who wouldn’t want to know, sing, play a new score by Rodgers and Hart?) — but they performed it at the Madhattan Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania, on October 23, 1937.  (An aside: the first jazz group to record the song was Frank Newton’s small band.)

Here is that Goodman Trio performance:

Now, this is not a generic time-travel post.  As delightful as it would be to hear the music of 1937, I’d also be reading about Herr Hitler in the newspapers; people would die from tuberculosis and polio . . . so I don’t want to leap backwards in time.

But the sound of the “college audience,” to quote my friend David J. Weiner, who wrote the notes to the CD issue of this track, singing along in unified pleasure and knowledge . . . it’s a sweet yet heartbreaking reminder of a time when such things were possible.  Perhaps the fragmentation of the collective audience is an inevitable result of astonishing strides forward in communication, but I’d trade Facebook for a world where people acted in unison, so sweetly.

Here are the lyrics to the chorus, for those motivated to sing along.  I know I was.

It seems we stood and talked like this before.
We looked at each other in the same way then.
But I can’t remember where or when…
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when…
Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again.
And though it seems like we have met before,
And laughed before, and loved before,
But who knows where or when…”

What could we do to make such sweet unity the norm in the Here and Now? And I mean more than people knowing the lyrics and being willing to share their sweet impulse.

This post is for Hilary Gardner, who knows and sings.  Both.

May your happiness increase!

IT’S SAVORY! (THE SWING TREASURE CHEST OPENS FOR US.)

JAZZ LIVES, like its creator, is a little eccentric (I write those words with pride): I don’t always rush to cover what everyone else is covering.  But in the past few days, I’ve met several people, one a brilliant young musician, unaware of the riches made available by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Bill Savory Collection in two volumes with more to come . . . so I write these lines as a Swing Public Service.

A Savory Disc

A Savory Disc

Here’s Loren Schoenberg, the guiding genius of all things Savory, on NPR, just a few days ago on November 6, 2016.

Let me backtrack a bit.  Some years back, the “Savory collection” was mythic and tantalizing.  Jazz fans had heard of Bill Savory, an audio engineer and Benny Goodman devotee, who had recorded hours of live material off the air in the late Thirties.  The evidence existed tangibly in a collection of BG airshots issued by Columbia Records to follow up on the incredible success of the 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.  Some years back, the indefatigable Loren unearthed the collection.  I knew, step by painstaking step, of the heroic work that the peerless sound engineer and disc restorer Doug Pomeroy was doing in his Brooklyn studio.

Collectors were anxious to hear the Savory treasures: some made the trek uptown to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to do auditory research. Excerpts were shared in news stories.  But we wondered about the legalities (dealing with the estates of the musicians) and the eventual price to us. Recently, we learned that at least part of the Savory material was to be issued digitally through iTunes.

Like many listeners of a certain age, I grew up with music being available tangibly.  I went to Sam Goody or King Karol and bought discs.  Others I borrowed and taped.  So the notion of, say, a Coleman Hawkins performance that I could hear only through my computer was mildly eerie.  But some of the downloaded music can be burned to homegrown CD — with a reasonably easy learning curve — and once downloaded, they won’t go away even if your computer suddenly starts to emit purple smoke.  If all of this is off-putting, one can buy a $25 iTunes gift card at the local supermarket or chain store; one can enlist someone under 30 to do the dance; one can hear treasures, most in gorgeous sound, never heard before.  And the price is more than reasonable: each of the two volumes costs less than a CD.

On the subject of money: as always, enterprises like this stand or fall on our willingness to join in.  I’m  not saying that anyone should starve the children, but this music is terribly inexpensive.  In speaking to some collectors, I found it wryly hilarious that more than one person said, “Oh, I only bought ____ tracks,” when I, being an elder, stifled my response that this was self-defeating.

In 1976, if you had said to me, “Michael, would you like to hear a jam session with Herschel Evans, Lionel Hampton, Dave Matthews, Charlie Shavers, Milt Hinton, Cozy Cole, and Howard Smith?  Give me six dollars,” I would have been removing bills from my wallet even though I was earning a pittance in academia.

I also note that some jazz fans have commented on Facebook that they are enthusiastic in theory but waiting to purchase the volume that will contain their favorite band.  If you don’t find something to admire here and now, I wonder about you.

Doug Pomeroy’s remastering of these precious discs is marvelous.  The immediacy of the sound is both intense and immense, especially for those of us used to “airshots” recorded by some amateur Angel of Hot with the microphone up to the speaker of the radio console . . . then playing the disc a hundred times. Savory had an actual recording studio and could record the radio signal directly. On a few tracks, there is some gentle static, I believe caused by a lightning storm, but it’s atmospheric rather than distracting.

Here’s a detailed essay on Savory and his collection.

Having learned how to navigate iTunes, I have been listening to the first volume for the last few days.  The second volume, sixty-two minutes of incredible live material in vibrant sound of the Count Basie Orchestra 1938-40 featuring Lester Young (also Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing) has proven too intense for me: I started to play the whole set and then found myself overcome, as if I’d tried to eat a whole chocolate cake in a sitting.  I can see that I will spread out this disc over a week or more of intermittent listening, and then more weeks to come.

A very literate San Francisco guitarist, Nick Rossi (you should know him!) has written, at my request, a short appreciation of a Herschel Evans solo from the first volume — to be published here shortly.

The first volume starts off with a triumph — a monumental performance, tossed off casually by Coleman Hawkins.  BODY AND SOUL, nearly six minutes (twice the length of the legendary Bluebird 78), followed by BASIN STREET BLUES, not something I’d associate with Hawkins, but it’s spectacular — also a leisurely performance.  Two Ella Fitzgerald performances remind us of how girlish she sounded at the start: irreplaceable and tenderly exuberant.  Next, a series of Fats Waller effusions live from the Yacht Club on Fifty-Second Street (now probably obliterated to make space for a chain pharmacy) where Fats is wonderfully ebullient, although the standouts for me are I HAVEN’T CHANGED A THING and YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY — the latter a new song at the time.  There’s a spirited reading of HEAT WAVE by Carl Kress and Dick McDonough (amazing as a team) and one of CHINA BOY by the Emilio Caceres Trio featuring Emilio on violin and brother Ernie on reeds.  And that jam session.

Jam sessions, when considered coolly decades later, tend to be lopsided affairs: someone rushes or drags, the tempo is too fast.  But this jam session offers us the poignant evidence of one of our great lost heroes, Herschel Evans, not long before his death.  He isn’t at full power, but he sounds entirely like himself — and the choruses here expand his recorded discography by a substantial amount.

The second volume offers what I noted above, but it bears repeating in boldface — sixty-two minutes of Lester Young and the Count Basie band in glorious sound — with more unfettered leisurely improvisation (how happy the band sounds to be playing for dancers and to have escaped the constraints of the recording studio).  I’ve only heard three tracks: a jam session on ROSETTA, a very fast I AIN’T GOT NOBODY with a Jimmy Rushing vocal, and one other.

Words fail me, and that is not my usual reaction.  I don’t think the rhythm section ever sounded so good, Freddie Green’s guitar so luminous.  My friends tell me that Lester is astonishing throughout (this I would not argue) but that there are also clarinet solos.  And in a complete loss of self-control, I found the superb full chorus for Vic Dickenson on I NEVER KNEW. Let joy be unconfined.

Here is the most expansive description of both sets, with sound samples.

I’ll stop now, because readers have already gotten the point or have stopped reading.  But please do visit the Savory Collection sites.  And I suggest that the perfect holiday gift for yourself is acquiring both volumes.  I don’t endorse a major corporation here, and I have been Apple-averse for as long as I can remember, but when the reward is Lester, Jimmy Rushing, Buck, Sweets, Jo Jones, Herschel, Hamp, Ella, Fats, Hawk, Vernon Brown, Milt, etc., I can conquer my innate distrust.  And so can you.

May your happiness increase!