Tag Archives: Bessie Smith

MONEY BLUES, or BEYOND “FEED THE KITTY”

Go to a jazz club, bar or restaurant that offers live music, and there is often a tip jar (tip vase, tip pumpkin, in the latest incarnation a tip brown paper bag).  Very few people bother to put anything in it, and those who do often think a lonely dollar is just recompense for the hour of music — created by human beings — that they’ve just heard.  I’ve been to nightspots where one of the musicians walked from patron to patron, asking for “tips for the band,” and some people look embarrassed, offer coins, or — in one case — hand the musician a five and ask for three back.  And when the patron is on his or her third drink, it seems offensive to say, “I am worthy of twenty-five dollars of alcohol but the musicians are furniture that makes sounds.  I don’t pay chairs when I sit on them.”

The professional who performs a valuable service (be she an ENT doctor or an estate lawyer helping you write a will) has studied for years to earn that credential, and must keep re-certifying to retain it.  I think such levels of skill deserve more pay than — let us say — folding jeans at the local chain clothing store, with all respect to the folders.  The musician you listen to has probably put in ten thousand hours of practice on her instrument, and keeps working.  That’s worth more than a dollar.

But there’s an intrinsic problem, as Blanche DuBois found out, in relying on the kindness of strangers.  Sometimes people are more strange than they are kind.

A musical interlude at an angle to this theme:

Eric Whittington, owner and spiritual Chief of Staff of Bird & Beckett — bookstore, cultural center, concert space — in San Francisco, has written cogently about this on his blog:

A healthy arts culture requires public subsidy. To us, it seems as simple as that.  

At Bird & Beckett, we generally ask you to put up $10 to $15 to $20 when you come to a show, and that goes a long way. And when you and your neighbors donate to our nonprofit, that supplements the money you put in at the shows and also underpins our overhead costs — so that we can stay in business as a venue and as a bookshop.

Is $10 or $20 a lot of money to hear talented performers play live music?

Not really. How much did you pay for your last burrito? How much did you tip the wait staff in that nice restaurant down the street for visiting your table several times in the course of serving you a meal that cost you $20 to $75? How much did you pay to see a movie over in West Portal? What price the popcorn?

30 people at the bookshop putting in $10 apiece comes to $300. For four musicians, that’s $75 apiece, with nothing to the venue. If there are only 12 people in the room, $15 apiece is only going to total $180 for that Saturday night quartet, though we pay out $400.

But your pockets on any given day are only so deep!
Again, a healthy arts culture requires public subsidy!

As an individual, you are personally making a substantial and crucial contribution when you seek out live music and put up your cash, whether by paying a cover charge, by throwing money in the donation buckets and tip jars, by spending lavishly on a performer’s merchandise and a venue’s food & drink. Still, it’s not really enough unless you’re able and willing to pay a $50 cover instead of $15. Subsidy is necessary. How do we get there? How do we distribute it?

Jazz in the Neighborhood – a wonderful organization that’s been sponsoring performances in non-traditional venues all over the Bay Area the past several years – has just launched a fund to supplement musicians’ pay. Their efforts can’t cover all the musicians in all the venues. Nonetheless, they’re raising the bar, raising consciousness and setting a standard. $150 per show per performer is the goal they’re establishing. You’ll be reading about their efforts in the media. They’re our allies, and champions of the City’s (the region’s) working jazz musicians. Google them now! Wrap your mind around their efforts.

The problem, simply stated is this: It’s unusual for musicians to get decent pay in this city when they play live music. Some get steady work, and sometimes that work is decently paid, but that’s rare and they almost always travel far and long for a 2-3 hour gig, lugging gear, setting up, breaking down and schlepping. Practicing incessantly, working side jobs. And most find gigs only occasionally — teaching or doing what they can to stay in music. For most, pay is paltry and, we believe, insultingly low. Often a just a tip jar to split, or a percentage of the door. Playing your heart out for $35 isn’t unheard of. Playing for less happens too.

How would that sit with you if you were in their shoes?

And here’s another development of the same generous idea, as explored by Burt Dragin in the East Bay Express, called “A New Model for Paying Musicians A Living Wage”.  Here’s the relevant text:

Bay Area trumpeter Mario Guarneri is sympathetic to the plight of freelance jazz musicians. The septuagenarian has a long career performing with symphonies and for television and film, while teaching at various institutions. But in recent years he’s seen up-and-coming jazz musicians struggling just to get by.

“Most venues don’t pay a guaranteed fair wage,” he said. “Instead, they offer a percentage of the door, or ask musicians to split the tip jar.” If you do the math, he said, “the hourly wages often amount to less than the SF city minimum wage.”

Underpaid freelance musicians is nothing new. But lack of union support, the Internet’s supply of “free” music, and an abundance of talented musicians in a buyer’s market have exacerbated the problem.

Years ago, Guarneri decided to do something about it — by paying musicians out of his own pocket. But he realized his method was a band-aid approach to a systemic problem. So, in 2012 he created Jazz in the Neighborhood, a nonprofit whose goal is “to improve the economics of jazz performance in the Bay Area by presenting affordable concerts, paying musicians a guaranteed wage, and supporting the work of established and aspiring artists.”

“Suffice it to say, the music scene as we knew it in the Bay Area in the 1980s and ’90s was a very different scene than it is now,” said Jon Herbst, a sought-after composer, arranger, and audio engineer who helped Guarneri start Jazz in the Neighborhood. “We saw the whole sort of degradation of the music scene take place and were aware of it. We saw that it was affecting many, many talented players that we knew and were associated with; it hit them hard.”

Jazz in the Neighborhood took a major step in 2013, becoming a member of the Intersection Incubator, a program of the nonprofit Intersection for the Arts, which allowed it to receive tax-deductible contributions. Jazz in the Neighborhood has presented nearly 200 concerts in Bay Area venues such as Piedmont Center for the Arts, Community Music Center in San Francisco, and Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, paying $140,000 to more than 300 musicians. “There was no tip jar allowed and no splitting-the-door percentage deals,” Guarneri explained. Sponsorship comes from a variety of sources: members, grants, corporate and private foundations, local businesses, and ticket sales.

Bay Area jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer has performed at several Jazz in the Neighborhood events and was recently named to the group’s artistic advisory committee. “I love what Mario is doing,” Brewer said. “He has made us realize there is a partnership to be had with young artists and professionals coming together.”

Last year, Guarneri expanded his efforts further by creating the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund. A survey of Bay Area jazz venues by Jazz in the Neighborhood revealed that musicians were paid an average of $95 each for a three- or four-hour performance. The fund ensures that musicians earn at least $150 per performance by subsidizing up to 40 percent of that amount after the venue guarantees the initial 60 percent of their pay. During a pilot program last year, Jazz in the Neighborhood supplemented musician’s salaries by $2,000 (adding about $60 to each musician’s pay) over the course of eight concerts. This year, Jazz in the Neighborhood received a $3,000 grant from the SF Friends of Chamber Music to fund a concert next year showcasing three young professionals who have come through the nonprofit’s Emerging Artists programs. The concert will be held Feb. 16 in the SF Community Music Center.

While jazz musicians typically haven’t had the support of the musicians’ union, Guarneri hopes to change that. “The union supports the symphony, opera, ballet and theater orchestras because they bring in revenue to the union through work dues and thus have a strong voice in union policies,” he said.

David Schoenbrun, president of the Bay Area Musicians Union Local 6, is sympathetic to what he called Guarneri’s “noble quest.” But he cited several obstacles to revisiting such prosperity. “Patrons once found a value in live music and a willingness to pay for it,” said Schoenbrun. “But there’s been a cultural shift in the value of music, and people often feel it should be free. That’s been a difficulty, and it’s sure to get worse.”

There’s also been a shift in the musicians’ union membership: Most members are in their 50s and 60s. “We have fewer and fewer young people joining, which was not the case in the 1950s and ’60s, when the union could ensure the minimum number of musicians in the room, no matter what kind of music they were playing,” Schoenbrun said. “The only young people joining are fresh out of the conservatory and want to play in orchestras, which requires union membership.”

Younger jazz players are reluctant to join because there is no work for them that requires union membership, Schoenbrun continued. “And they see no reason to expend money on dues if they don’t think the union can protect what they’re doing.”

Another element in the mix is the fact that many musicians do club work “as an avocation, without expectation — or hope even — of ever being paid. It’s a labor of love,” Schoenbrun said. This development, he noted, “takes it out of the professional realm. Club owners plead poverty because they don’t get enough traffic, and only take musicians who have established a following.” Experienced jazz musicians are left to hope that a gig will provide a chance to sell a few CDs.

But there may be a warming in the relationship between Jazz in the Neighborhood and the musicians’ union. Recently, Guarneri and the Jazz in the Neighborhood staff made a presentation to the union board about his nonprofit’s accomplishments. “We’re not sure how we can partner together to help musicians, but they clearly appreciate that we’ve paid professional wages to over 300 musicians and seem to want to help,” Guarneri said.

In the meantime, Guarneri continues to scour the Bay Area, putting on shows and making a pitch to venues and promoters to sign on to the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund model. Jazz in the Neighborhood will hold a major fundraiser at a private home in Marin on Sunday, Sept. 24, featuring jazz notables Mimi Fox on guitar and singer Clairdee.

Is it possible for Jazz in the Neighborhood to improve the lives of local musicians? Guarneri could have retired long ago. But that’s not his style. “It’s a struggle to change the dynamic, the way musicians are treated in our society,” he said. “But in trying to alter the system, I always ask, ‘Do we have to do things that way?'”

Another interlude:

Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson were ground-breaking artists, seriously influential and much beloved.  Neither of them died prosperous.  If you value the music, it is logical to value the artist who creates it.

May your happiness increase!

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NEW YORK CAKE: TERRY WALDO, EVAN ARNTZEN, JON-ERIK KELLSO, BRIAN NALEPKA, JIM FRYER, JOHN GILL, JAY LEPLEY at FAT CAT (January 29, 2017)

Not this (announced as “the best New York style cheesecake):

but a hot version of the song immortalized in 1924 and 1925 by Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, Bessie Smith and others, CAKE WALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME.  This is my second CAKE post: the first, presenting two hot performances by Dave Kosymna, Christopher Smith, Ray Heitger, Nicole Heitger, James Dapogny, and Pete Siers (all deftly captured by Laura Wyman) may be visited here.

But my experience of New York and New  Yorkers — even from the suburbs, what Flaubert would call the provinces — is that we don’t like to take second place to anyone or anything.  And in a cake walking contest, second place is noplace.

So here’s the New York version, created a month earlier at Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village) by Terry Waldo and the Gotham City Band, who were on that Sunday Evan Arntzen, Jon-Erik Kellso, Jim Fryer, Jay Lepley, Brian Nalepka, John Gill.  Consider for yourselves:

I won’t ask viewers to set up mock combat between Ohio and New York: all those cakes and contests are beautiful and hot.

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC IN THE AIR (Part One): BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW, FEBRUARY 16, 2016

 

Barbara Rosene at Mezzrow

I thought Barbara Rosene was a delightful singer when I first heard her in 2005, and she has become an even deeper pleasure in the years that followed.  Forgive me for writing that an artist has “matured”: people are neither cheese nor wine, but the emotional depths that Barbara reaches now — easily, casually, as if everyone could sing this way — are breathtaking.  She doesn’t just sing the words; she embodies the feeling that animates them.

The first pleasure is simply in Barbara’s voice: not a lulling monochromatic croon, but a resonant instrument lovely at bottom and top, full of quiet shadings.  There’s no harshness, no ironic edge, but she is not an old-fashioned copier of records.  Within eight bars, you can bask in the glow and warmth of her voice itself, but you can also feel her deep understanding of both the melodic contours and the words — the ways in which they complement each other.  I’ve never heard Barbara stand at a distance from the song or deliver any aspect of it mechanically.  She is not in any way a prisoner of that gorgeous instrument; rather, she uses her voice with great fervor and delicacy to send us lovable truths.

And she is a multi-faceted artist.  Were I to present this geographically, I would venture that Barbara is one part Ohio (shined shoes for family dinners, a sweet reverence for the natural world, inherent good manners) and one part Upper West Side (the ability to negotiate a crowded subway or the Sunday-morning rush at Zabar’s — someone who won’t be pushed around).  Maybe it’s the intersection of church and eroticism, of Annette Hanshaw and Bessie Smith. You’ll have to parse that one for yourself.

Barbara has good taste in songs and in musicians — witness her latest duo-performance at Mezzrow with piano wizard Ehud Asherie on February 16, 2016. Ehud is, as always, brilliantly orchestral in solo and tremendously sensitive as an accompanist.

First, Ehud’s variations on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE:

The lovely DEEP NIGHT, scored for two nocturnal explorers:

The cheerful, loving YOU’RE THE CREAM IN MY COFFEE:

Barbara makes I”LL NEVER BE THE SAME her own:

The next two songs, adjacent, perhaps sum up the two sides of Barbara’s vocal character: raunchy in I’M WILD ABOUT THAT THING:

The tender TIPTOE THROUGH THE TULIPS was a marvelous highlight of this evening for me:

EVERYTHING’S MADE FOR LOVE, prefaced by a nifty story:

What a winning duo.  Without being inappropriate, I say with conviction that I am wild about Barbara and Ehud.  And I know I have company.  A second offering will come soon.

May your happiness increase!

MY HONEY, THAT THING, A SWEETIE, NEVER THE SAME, A JUMP: RAY SKJELBRED, JONATHAN DOYLE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH (SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 29, 2014)

Ray Skjelbred

Ray Skjelbred

I keep coming back to the videos I’ve shot at several yearly incarnations of the San Diego Jazz Fest — and finding treasures and marvels I’d overlooked.  (I also keep coming back to the actual Fest, but that should startle no one.)

Jonathan Doyle

Jonathan Doyle

Here are some highlights from a long quartet set performed by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Jonathan Doyle, the swing star from Austin, Texas; Beau Sample, string bass and leader of the Fat Babies; Hal Smith, who’s played with and swung everyone who deserves it.

Beau Sample

Beau Sample

My titles are an expression of whimsical shorthand, but there’s nothing left out in these performances.  First, a swing trio (Chicago pays San Diego a visit) then quartet improvisations that are delightful inducements to the dance, even if you are sitting in a chair.

Hal Smith

Hal Smith

MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS (scored for trio):

A song I associate with Bessie Smith, I’M WILD ABOUT THAT THING (decide for yourself what THAT THING is, but no need to write in, because no prizes will be awarded for the best answer).  I’m wild about this performance, I feel compelled to say:

BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME (in a medium tempo sitting nicely between Noone and Condon):

I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (evoking Venuti and Lang, Billie and Lester, or both):

Finally, THE 313 JUMP, whose title has a new pop culture / numerological significance — just Ducky:

See you at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest — Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 23-27.  Of course.

A postscript.  The jazz-scholar part of my being says that I could have written a thousand words on Influences and Echoes, with a long list of names, including Jess Stacy, Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Rod Cless, Frank Teschemacher, Lester Young, Eddie Miller, Wellman Braud, George Wettling, Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Milt Hinton . . . but I will let you do the research for yourself — in whatever way offers the most satisfying results.  I’d rather revel in the actual sounds made by Smith, Sample, Doyle, and Skjelbred on a late November day in 2014.

May your happiness increase!

A SERENADE TO THE GODDESS OF GOOD FORTUNE: THOMAS WINTELER, MORTEN GUNNAR LARSEN, JACOB ULLBERGER, HENRY LEMAIRE at MIKE DURHAM’S WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (November 8, 2015)

MAMIE SMITH LADY LUCK BLUES

This song — new to me although almost a century old — made a powerful impression on me when Thomas Winteler, the great soprano saxophonist (and clarinetist) performed it at Mike Durham’s Whitley Bay Classic Jazz  Party on November 8, 2015.  Accompanying him were Morten Gunnar Larsen, piano; Jacob Ullberger, guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass.  It’s a passionate performance:

Here’s the original 1923 recording, with Mamie Smith’s powerful penetrating voice matched by Bechet’s soaring soprano (and Buddy Christian, banjo):

And the first, even more convincing recording, that same year, by Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson:

And a 1935 instrumental version with Williams, Cecil Scott, Ed Allen, Jimmy McLin, Cyrus St. Clair, and Willie Williams:

I hope the Goddess smiles on your efforts.

May your happiness increase!

THE TRIUMPHS OF JAMES P. JOHNSON

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Baby Dodds, 1946, by Charles Peterson

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Danny Barker, 1946, by Charles Peterson

When the Student is more dramatically visible than the Teacher, even the most influential mentor and guide might become obscure.  James Price Johnson, pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, has become less prominent to most people, even those who consider themselves well-versed in jazz piano.  He was a mentor and teacher — directly and indirectly — of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum. “No James P., no them,” to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie. But even with memorable compositions and thirty years of recording, he has been recognized less than he deserves.

CAROLINA SHOUT eBay OKeh

 

Fats Waller eclipsed his teacher in the public eye because Waller was a dazzling multi-faceted entertainer and personality, visible in movies, audible on the radio.  Fats had a recording contract with the most prominent record company, Victor, and the support of that label — he created hit records for them — in regular sessions from 1934 to 1943.  Tatum, Basie, and Ellington — although they paid James P. homage in words and music — all appeared to come fully grown from their own private universes.  Basie and Ellington were perceived not only as pianists but as orchestra leaders who created schools of jazz composition and performance; Tatum, in his last years, had remarkable support from Norman Granz — thus he left us a series of memorable recordings.

Many of the players I’ve noted above were extroverts (leaving aside the reticent Basie) and showmanship come naturally to them.  Although the idea of James P., disappointed that his longer “serious” works did not receive recognition, retiring to his Queens home, has been proven wrong by Johnson scholar Scott Brown (whose revised study of James P. will be out in 2017) he did not get the same opportunities as did his colleagues.  James P. did make records, he had club residencies at Cafe Society and the Pied Piper, was heard at an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s THIS IS JAZZ . . . but I can look at a discography of his recordings and think, “Why isn’t there more?”  Physical illness accounts for some of the intermittent nature of his career: he had his first stroke in 1940 and was ill for the last years of his life.

There will never be enough.  But what we have is brilliant.  And the reason for this post is the appearance in my mailbox of the six-disc Mosaic set which collects most of James P.’s impressive recordings between 1921 and 1943.  (Mosaic has also issued James P.’s session with Eddie Condon on the recent Condon box, and older issues offered his irreplaceable work for Blue Note — solo and band — in 1943 / 44, and the 1938 HRS sides as well.)

JAMES P. Mosaic

Scott Brown, who wrote the wise yet terse notes for this set, starts off by pointing to the wide variety of recordings Johnson led or participated in this period.  And even without looking at the discography, I can call to mind sessions where Johnson leads a band (with, among others, Henry “Red” Allen,  J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett — or another all-star group with Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Lionel Hampton on drums, Artie Bernstein, Ed Hall, and Higginbotham); accompanies the finest blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, is part of jivey Clarence Williams dates — including two takes of the patriotic 1941 rouser UNCLE SAMMY, HERE I AM — works beautifully with Bessie Smith, is part of a 1929 group with Jabbo Smith, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Fats Waller on piano); is a sideman alongside Mezz Mezzrow, Frank Newton, Pete Brown, John Kirby, swings out on double-entendre material with Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams. There’s a 1931 band date that shows the powerful influence of Cab Calloway . . . and more.  For the delightful roll call of musicians and sides (some never before heard) check the Mosaic site here.

(On that page, you can hear his delicate, haunting solo BLUEBERRY RHYME, his duet with Bessie Smith on her raucous HE’S GOT ME GOING, the imperishable IF DREAMS COME TRUE, his frolicsome RIFFS, and the wonderful band side WHO?)

I fell in love with James P.’s sound, his irresistible rhythms, his wonderful inventiveness when I first heard IF DREAMS COME TRUE on a Columbia lp circa 1967.  And then I tried to get all of his recordings that I could — which in the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, was not easy: a Bessie Smith accompaniment here, a Decca session with Eddie Dougherty, the Blue Notes, the Stinson / Asch sides, and so on.  This Mosaic set is a delightful compilation even for someone who, like me, knows some of this music by heart because of forty-plus years of listening to it.  The analogy I think of is that of an art student who discovers a beloved artist (Rembrandt or Kahlo, Kandinsky or Monet) but can only view a few images on museum postcards or as images on an iPhone — then, the world opens up when the student is able to travel to THE museum where the idol’s works are visible, tangible, life-sized, arranged in chronology or thematically . . . it makes one’s head spin.  And it’s not six compact discs of uptempo stride piano: the aural variety is delicious, James P.’s imagination always refreshing.

The riches here are immense. All six takes of Ida Cox’s ONE HOUR MAMA. From that same session, there is a pearl beyond price: forty-two seconds of Charlie Christian, then Hot Lips Page, backed by James P., working on a passage in the arrangement.  (By the way, there are some Charlie Christian accompaniments in that 1939 session that I had never heard before, and I’d done my best to track down all of the Ida Cox takes.  Guitar fanciers please note.)  The transfers are as good as we are going to hear in this century, and the photographs (several new to me) are delights.

Hearing these recordings in context always brings new insights to the surface. My own epiphany of this first listening-immersion is a small one: the subject is HOW COULD I BE BLUE? (a record I fell in love with decades ago, and it still delights me).  It’s a duo-performance for James  P. and Clarence Williams, with scripted vaudeville dialogue that has James P. as the 1930 version of Shorty George, the fellow who makes love to your wife while you are at work, and the received wisdom has been that James P. is uncomfortable with the dialogue he’s asked to deliver, which has him both the accomplished adulterer and the man who pretends he is doing nothing at all.  Hearing this track again today, and then James P. as the trickster in I FOUND A NEW BABY, which has a different kind of vaudeville routine, it struck me that James P. was doing his part splendidly on the first side, his hesitations and who-me? innocence part of his character.  He had been involved with theatrical productions for much of the preceding decade, and I am sure he knew more than a little about acting.  You’ll have to hear it for yourself.

This, of course, leaves aside the glory of his piano playing.  I don’t think hierarchical comparisons are all that useful (X is better than Y, and let’s forget about Z) but James P.’s melodic improvising, whether glistening or restrained, never seems a series of learned motives.  Nothing is predictable; his dancing rhythms (he is the master of rhythmic play between right and left hands) and his melodic inventiveness always result in the best syncopated dance music.  His sensitivity is unparalleled.  For one example of many, I would direct listeners to the 1931 sides by Rosa Henderson, especially DOGGONE BLUES: where he begins the side jauntily, frolicking as wonderfully as any solo pianist could — not racing the tempo or raising his volume — then moderates his volume and muffles his gleaming sound to provide the most wistful counter-voice to Henderson’s recital of her sorrows.  Another jaunty interlude gives way to the most tender accompaniment.  I would play this for any contemporary pianist and be certain of their admiration.

I am impressed with this set not simply for the riches it contains, but for the possibility it offers us to reconsider one of my beloved jazz heroes.  Of course I would like people to flock to purchase it (in keeping with Mosaic policy, it is a limited edition, and once it’s gone, you might find a copy on eBay for double price) but more than that, I would like listeners to do some energetic reconstruction of the rather constricted canon of jazz piano history, which usually presents “stride piano” as a necessary yet brief stop in the forward motion of the genre or the idiom — as it moves from Joplin to Morton to Hines to Wilson to Tatum to “modernity.”  Stride piano is almost always presented as a type of modernized ragtime, a brief virtuosic aberration with a finite duration and effect. I would like wise listeners to hear James P. Johnson as a pianistic master, his influence reaching far beyond what is usually assumed.

JAMES P. postage stamp

I was happy to see James P. on a postage stamp, but it wasn’t and isn’t enough, as the Mosaic set proves over and over again. I would like James P. Johnson to be recognized as “the dean of jazz pianists”:

jamesp-johnsongravemarker

Listen closely to this new Mosaic box set six compact discs worth of proof that the genius of James P. Johnson lives on vividly.

May your happiness increase!

I’M GETTING MY BONUS IN STRIDE: JAMES P. FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Everyone who follows jazz devotedly has theories about why some musicians become Stars and others remain Obscure.  It clearly isn’t artistic quality, as one could find out quickly by playing recordings of famous and neglected artists. No, other factors interfere.

In that wonderfully uplifting sub-genre known as Harlem stride piano, the pantheon seems to have room for only one man, Fats Waller.  His fame is well-deserved: his genial embellishments, his rhythmic drive, his delicious pianistic surprises.  But we also have to consider the effect of Fats as a Personality (many recordings and some film appearances) and a Composer.  (In the jazz mythology, he is also remembered as a joyous Dionysiac child who died young — elements that stick in our minds.) Willie “the Lion” Smith seems a collection of delightful eccentricities — melodies, derby hat, cigar, scraps of Yiddish, an elegant braggadocio.  In our time, pianists Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell, and their current counterparts have (or had) the advantage of being accessible.

But what of the man who came first (leaving aside Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts), Fats’ teacher, James P. Johnson?  He was not a Personality; the one or two times he sings on record he seems uncomfortable; a quiet man, almost shy, he did not thrust himself forward.  It would seem that he didn’t record sufficiently, but the discographies prove otherwise.  Wellstood once said in print that James P.’s recordings didn’t always document his greatness — although for those of us who didn’t see and hear James P. at all, that would be a moot point.

Mosaic Records, blessedly, has seen fit to put Wellstood’s casual assertion to the test.

JAMES P. Mosaic

This box set will be available in mid-December; it offers the usual Mosaic largesse spread over six CDs; rare material (eleven sides not previously issued), beautiful photographs; a lengthy essay by Dr. Scott Brown, James P.’s biographer, familiar material in the best sound.

And should some worry about six CDs of stride piano, fear not: we hear James P. accompanying blues and pop singers (including Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Ethel Waters) and as a sideman in bands that include Frank Newton, Jabbo Smith, Clarence Williams, Garvin Bushell, Louis Metcalf, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsel, King Oliver, Jimmy Archey, Teddy Bunn, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Smeck, Tommy Ladnier, Sidney DeParis, Mezz Mezzrow, John Kirby, Cozy Cole, Sidney Catlett, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Christian, Ed Hall, and others.

Here‘s the discography, for those who (like myself) find listings of music we are going to hear very enticing.  And if you haven’t heard James P. recently — someone Thelonious Monk admired — scroll down on this Mosaic page and listen.

My holiday shopping list is now complete — my gift to myself, I mean.

May your happiness increase!