Tag Archives: Big Joe Turner

TAKE THE SWING CURE, AS PRESCRIBED BY MY MEDICAL GROUP: DOCTORS DURHAM, DONALDSON, KAHN, MOTEN, BAKER, LAMBETH, CALLOWAY, BAKER, LEYLAND, REINHART, KING, CAVERA, SMITH (Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 7, 2020).

Some of the doctors were too busy for photographs, but here are four images of this superb medical group:

Doctors Baker, C.; King; Calloway.

and

Doctors Leyland, Lambeth, Reinhart, Baker, C; King.

and

All this marvelous cure-by-swing took place over several days and nights at the Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California — a positively elating experience.  Here’s another name for this assemblage of healing, Clint Baker’s New Orleans Jazz Band.  For this weekend, they were Hal Smith, drums; Katie Cavera, string bass; Bill Reinhart, banjo; Jessica King, banjo, guitar, vocal; Clint Baker, trumpet; Riley Baker, trombone; Ryan Calloway, clarinet, and for this set, Dawn Lambeth, vocal; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano.  As Clint explains, this combination of YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY and MOTEN SWING was inspired by a Big Joe Turner recording (BIG JOE RIDES AGAIN, Atlantic) and the blessed Buck Clayton Jam Sessions.  So now you know all  you need.  Prepare to be uplifted. I was and continue to be so.  And I can share more performances by this group.

Keep swinging . . . it’s the opposite of emotional distancing.

May your happiness increase!

WHEN TECHNOLOGY IS METAPHOR AND OTHER GROOVY MATTERS: CARL SONNY LEYLAND’S HOUSE PARTY, with ANDY REISS, MARC CAPARONE, STEVE PIKAL, DANNY COOTS (Stomptime, April 29, 2019)

When Big Joe Turner recorded TV MAMA in October 1953, television sets were smaller than they are now and although middle-class families had them, they were hardly as ubiquitous as they became later.  So Joe’s stated wish for an amply proportioned companion was much more plausible than it is now, when it is possible to buy a flat-screen television that is more than six feet across.  The television set below is from 1947, I understand.

But I digress.  You haven’t wandered into a graduate seminar on modernism or popular culture.  Unless I am mistaken, you are here for the music, which is what I can and will provide, as well as prose.

I am still on the inaugural STOMPTIME cruise, as happy as a mortal can be without anything illicit being provided — all thanks to Brian and Amy Holland and a double handful of my friends and heroes, musicians who are dear friends both new and old.

Some of them took the stage on April 29 for the final set of the evening, Carl Sonny Leyland’s House Party.  Carl is a house party in himself — piano, vocals, a totally entertaining line of jive that is also wise and deep — and here he was joined by Danny Coots, drums; Steve Pikal, string bass; Andy Reiss, guitar; Marc Caparone, cornet.  And Carl led us all into Big Joe’s desire for a companion who would be larger-than-life, but not too large to love.

How they rock!

Join us for the next SYOMPTIME improvisation in delight — their seven-day Alaska cruise (June 12-19, 2020): I’ll have more details when I’m on land.  Until then, savor the joy that this House Party provides.

May your happiness increase!

“HOTTER THAN A FORTY-FIVE!”: CARL SONNY LEYLAND / MARC CAPARONE, PART ONE (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, June 2, 2018)

Both purr; neither is declawed. Carl is to the right.

My title has nothing to do with the NRA.  It was King Oliver’s highest praise.

I’m coming out of a delighted exhaustion — a long weekend at the Evergreen Jazz Festival, a cornucopia of good sounds, prefaced by a night at Dorothy Bradford Vernon’s wonderful barn dance in Longmont, CO — so I can’t muster up many words.  Yes, Virginia, there will be videos.

The two fellows above were stars at Evergreen, and were beautifully hot in duet at the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, so here they are.  Marc was a wonderful one-fifth of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, and Carl led his own trio.  I don’t have the energy to figure out what one-fifth and one-third add up to in grade school math, but the me the result is Startling Joys.  Put that in your calculator.  Echoes of Big Joe Turner, Bunk Johnson, and W.C. Handy, gloriously.

Marc Caparone and Ricky Riccardi, considering important matters

and when they go crazy, it would not be surprising:

and

More to come, in many delightful shapes and sizes.  You know that Carl and Marc will be gracing the STOMPTIME cruise in 2019, of course?  I think the cat has to stay at home, though.

May your happiness increase!

DISMISSED, DERIDED, DELICIOUS: THE VARSITY SEVEN: 1939 and 1940

If you consider an artist’s works in chronological sequence (bibliography as well as discography) certain landmarks blot out their neighbors.  In the case of Coleman Hawkins, there’s BODY AND SOUL, then the Hampton Victor date, then his big band — leading up to the small-group sessions of 1943-44 for Signature, Keynote, Savoy, and more.

The Varsity Seven sides — full of delights — recorded in December 1939 and January 1940 — haven’t received the admiration they deserve.  Hawkins’ admiring biographer, the diligent John Chilton, calls them “a pastiche of Dixieland.”  I disagree.

The Varsity label (please note the transparent pseudonyms for Hawkins and Carter) was run by Eli Oberstein, and it never seems to have been entirely out in the open.  I don’t know that Oberstein was the equal of Herman Lubinsky of Savoy, but Eli seems to have been ingenious in his dealings.  I believe the masters of these and other sessions were bought by Savoy, and thus the trail to licit reissues is complex.  Were they Victor sessions, they would have been available straightforwardly for decades now, including “official” CD issue.

Another side-note is that the session — one or both? — was co-produced by Leonard Feather and Warren Scholl, which may account for a Feather composition being there.  I knew two sides from this date because my Long Island friend Tom Piazza played them for me, forty-plus years ago: SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT and A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY.  I don’t know where each of the musicians was working in 1939-40, whether Fifty-Second Street or Cafe Society or uptown, but they come together to create great jazz.  Cheerful Jeanne Burns (known for work with Adrian Rollini and Wingy Manone) is a liability, but we’ve all heard less polished singers.  Here’s the information for the first session.

Benny Carter, trumpet, alto saxophone; Danny Polo, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Joe Sullivan, piano; Ulysses Livingston, guitar, vocal; Artie Bernstein, string bass; George Wettling, drums; Jeanne Burns, vocal.  New York, December 14, 1939.

IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (Burns, vocal).  The first two choruses — bless Sullivan and Wettling, who are bringing Jimmy Ryan’s to a record date or doing the Commodore? — are flawless.  Ms. Burns has pitch trouble, but I concentrate on Sullivan behind her.  Polo and Livingston (the latter sounding much like a sweet Teddy Bunn) aren’t derailed by the young lady, and then Hawkins charges in, “I’m back from Europe, and let me remind you who is still King!”  My idea of perfection is of course subjective, but the instrumental portions of this recording stand up with any other of this period:

EASY RIDER (Burns, Livingston, vocal).  Hawkins starts off rhapsodically, and is then relieved by Polo, whose sound in itself is an aural landscape, no matter how simple his phrases.  (In this, he reminds me of poets Joe Marsala, Raymond Burke, and Edmond Hall.)  Ms. Burns Is much more at ease at this tempo and in this range, and her unusual mixture of Mae West and Mildred Bailey is her most successful vocal.  Livingston’s vaudeville couplets are harmlessly archaic counterpoint, leading in to an ensemble where Carter and Polo take up most of the space, leaving Hawkins little to do.  One must admire the lovely drumming of Wettling — and how beautifully Artie Shapiro’s bass comes through — before the consciously “old-timey” ending:

SCRATCH MY BACK is the one Leonard Feather composition, and a charming one, revisited by Dan Barrett a few years ago.  I can’t figure out the changes beneath the melody — an experienced friend / musician says the first strain is similar to YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME.  I love the opening ensemble, and Shapiro’s deep notes behind Polo, then Sullivan’s rollicking solo chorus, where Wettling is having a wonderful time — and the passage where Sullivan abstracts the melody for great dramatic effect.  Then — what’s this? — a glorious alto solo by “Billy Carton” (heir to the cardboard box fortune) punctuated by a Livingston blues-pastoral.  Everyone steps aside for Hawkins, and a recap of the theme with Livingston adding sweet arpeggiated chords.  No complaints here:

SAVE IT PRETTY MAMA (Burns, vocal).  Aside from the ending, I don’t think of this as “Dixieland”: rather a series of splendid improvisations from Carter, Sullivan, and two choruses from Hawkins — over a gently propulsive and balanced rhythm section.  I find Burns’ version of Mildred Bailey’s upper-register-vibrato jarring, but I was listening to Polo, murmuring sweet limpid asides, and the rhythm section while she sang:

Fast forward to January 15, 1940: the same personnel except Big Joe Turner replaces Burns, an improvement.

And in his honor, they began with HOW LONG, HOW LONG BLUES.  In the opening ensemble, Hawkins is nearly submerged (could this have been what irritated Chilton?) which leads into a lovely chorus by Polo — with plain-spoken rhythm section work.  Then, Big Joe, in glowing voice, supported by a very powerful Sullivan, with lovely ensemble encouragements.  It almost seems as if Hawkins has been waiting his chance, and he takes it eloquently, before Big Joe and the band return.  At 2:23, apparently Turner has momentarily forgotten the lyric couplet or has gotten distracted.  A fine improvised ensemble closes off the record, with a Wettling accent.  This side seems slightly under-rehearsed, but the looseness adds to its charm:

SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT has always been a favorite, and this vocal version is a prize.  If there’s a sound more engaging than this rhythm section following Sullivan, I have yet to hear it.  Big Joe sounds positively exuberant (in touch with the lyrics); Polo and Livingston keep the forward motion going , and everyone is even more gleeful for Joe’s second chorus (“rub it all over the wall”) before particularly hot choruses by Carter and Hawkins follow, leading to jamming (with Wettling happily prominent) to end the record.  If this is “Dixieland,” I want many more sides:

A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY was not a song much utilized for jam session recordings, but to have it here is a pleasure.  I wonder if Oberstein said, “No more blues, fellows!  Let’s have a hot one!” as Big Joe left the studio.  Or it just seemed like a melodic yet under-played Berlin song, taken a little quicker than I imagine it was done in the Ziegfeld Follies.  A very simple — even cliched — vamp led by Livingston starts things off before Polo takes the lead — which surprisingly turns into an ensemble passage, then a wonderfully quirky Sullivan solo AND Hawkins leaping into his chorus with the zeal of a great athlete (powerful playing from Shapiro, Livingston, and Wettling) — then a magnificent Carter solo and a romping ensemble close.  This is one of the most successful sides of the eight:

And, finally, POM POM, a Carter original which might be a phrase from one of his solos scored for small band, with a particularly light scoring: I would have thought the opening 16 was scored for alto, clarinet, and tenor, but for the speed with which Carter plays trumpet on the bridge.  Polo’s chorus is so tenderly levitating that if you, hearing his work on this session, don’t want to hear more, then I have failed.  Hawkins is energized in his two-chorus solo, reminding me of the trio records he made in 1937, especially in his powerful second chorus — but Carter is as elegant a mountain-climber as I can imagine (with a distinct similarity to Joe Thomas or Bill Coleman of this period); another piece of swing lace-weaving from Livingston, and the record gracefully winds down — simultaneously hot and gentle.  Is that a recording engineer’s “fade” or simply everyone getting softer?  I don’t know, but it’s very sweet:

These aren’t flawless records. Some of them might have benefited from a second take.  But they are uplifting examples of the stars willing to come in and play two dates for what I imagine was scale.  All in a day’s work — and how glorious the results are.

May your happiness increase!

“NO, WE’RE NOT THERE YET!”: FOR PARENTS WHO ARE ABOUT TO TAKE LONG CAR TRIPS WITH YOUNG CHILDREN

American blues singer Gladys Bentley (1907 - 1960) poses with bandleader Willie Bryant (1908 - 1964) outside the Apollo Theater where posters advertise a performance by Bryant & his band, New York, New York, April 17, 1936. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty IMages)

American blues singer Gladys Bentley (1907 – 1960) poses with bandleader Willie Bryant (1908 – 1964) outside the Apollo Theater where posters advertise a performance by Bryant & his band, New York, New York, April 17, 1936.

This is addressed to parents who are about to be cooped up in a moving metal box for more than a few hours . . . with children . . .  and might need a new song to sing in the car. (I think of Angelo, Gabriella, and Gianluca, whom I already miss fervently.)

Possibly, children of 2016 are too hip to sing along in the car with The Old Folks (“I don’t play with anything that doesn’t have a charger, Mommy!”) but this song — suitable for vegans as well — might find a home.  I’d sing it, and have.

It’s performed by a wonderfully swinging band that few people seem to have heard of.  (Consider this, Laura Windley.)

Between 1935 and 1936, this band — perhaps only for recordings rather than gigging — recorded 22 sides for Bluebird Records, the less expensive Victor Records subsidiary.  Bryant was the main vocalist (on this side he is helped in a charming way [I think of vaudeville or minstrelsy] by trumpeter Jacques Butler).  Bryant had the best people for record dates: Taft Jordan, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole, Ram Ramirez, Eddie Durham, Edgar Battle.  He was a public figure: first in vaudeville, then a disc-jockey, and in the Fifties the master of ceremonies at the Apollo Theater — also a very engaging singer.

The sometimes garbled lyrics to this song might be a problem: one solution is this Thirties recording from another musical world:

Another is to do it yourself, because the easy rhymes lend themselves to improvisations  such as this: “I don’t like shrimp cocktails / They swim up my nose / But I love bananas / Because they don’t wear clothes.”  (Copyright reserved 2016 The Jazz Lives Foundation.)

For the Francophones in my audience:

Or this — presented as the lyrics sung by Billy Cotton:

Standing by the fruit store on the corner,
Once I heard a customer complain:
You never seem to show
The fruit we all love so.
That’s why business hasn’t been the same.

I don’t like your peaches; they are full of stones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
Don’t give me tomatoes; can’t stand ice-cream cones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
No matter where I go,
With Suzy, May, or Anna,
I want the world to know
I must have my banana.
Cabbages and onions hurt my singing tones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.

Now I don’t care for muffins; I don’t like buttered scones,
Ah, but I like bananas because they have no bones.
I don’t like giggling flappers; I don’t like ancient crones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.
And fig leaves and bearskins
That you girls often trip on,
Why not have banana skins?
They’re easy things to slip on.
I can’t bear tax collectors, especially one who phones,
But I like bananas because they have no bones.

I don’t like a crooner; of the blues he moans,
But we like bananas because they have no bones.
I don’t like politicians; they’re human gramophones.
We like bananas because they have no bones.
I never cared for drink.
To me it seems so sinful.
Though when you come to think,
Bananas get a skinful.
I don’t like the bagpipes and I can’t stand saxophones.
We like bananas because they have no bones.

BANANAS cover

For those who are not utterly depleted by all these good spirits, here is a later (1945) Bryant effort, featuring Tab Smith,Chuck Wayne,  and Taft Jordan.  The tempo may be too slow for a long drive — Bryant is in a Big Joe Turner mode — but the song is a useful counting song as well as a paean to healthful exercise and long-term committed monogamy:

Keep singing.  Even if you’re not in the car.  It makes ALL hard journeys easier.

May your happiness increase!

TO “PUNK” AND “SPUNK”

Yes, you read that correctly.  Here’s an eBay marvel, quite remarkable, showing Benny Carter in a promotional picture playing clarinet — which he did infrequently but with great style — and the picture is wittily inscribed:

BENNY CARTER inscribed

The seller notes,

Photograph is inscribed and signed: “Best wishes to ‘Punk and Spunk’ which may be junk but surely no bunk with a hunk of sincerity, Benny Carter”

Photograph captioned: ” BENNY CARTER And His Orchestra”.

I’ve acquired a photo album, with over 100 photos, which comes from the Down Beat Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. These photographs are from the Swing Era. They are all original photographs. There are photographs of such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Cootie Williams, Erskine Hawkins, Count Basie, Andy Kirk, and Cab Calloway. Some of these photographs are signed and inscribed. I’ve included images of three additional items which will not be included in the sale, but help to illustrate the location, upcoming events of the time, and a couple of the illustrious musicians who played there. The photograph on the bottom right is of Erskine Hawkins and Ida James in the Down Beat Ballroom in front of some of the very photographs which are currently for sale or will be offered for sale in the days and weeks to follow. The other photograph is an amazing one of Louis Armstrong (Satchmo) playing in the Down Beat Ballroom. If you look above Louis’ head and above the word Ballroom, you’ll see a musical bar with the word Down in it. I’ve also included the back of an orange Nookie Ration Card, which was used as a calendar of upcoming events. As most of the signed photographs were inscribed to Spunk and Punk, I must assume that these were the names by which the proprietors of the club were known.

DOWN BEAT BALL ROOM

Doing research from my desk chair, I found that the “Down Beat” was in operation in July 1941 and was named for the music magazine of the time (Ella Fitzgerald and her Orchestra were appearing there).  I gather that the building that once stood at 1201 North Greenwood no longer exists; I could find no photographs of the ballroom.  Oklahoma State University has its main address as 700 North Greenwood, and Greenwood runs through the campus, so I hope that one or more of the Music Department’s classrooms now occupy the space where Punk and Spunk held court:

1201 N Greenwood Ave TulsaThe Carter photograph is undated, but the “Nookie Ration Card” provoked a short — and possibly ethereal — investigation of historical linguistics.  I submit the evidence but offer no conclusions.  One: rationing in the United States began in late 1941 and continued through the Second World War.  Two: “nookie” was cited as early as 1928 as a word meaning both sexual intercourse and the female sexual anatomy.  I would thus love to see more photographic detail about the “Nookie Ration Card.”  Did it contain stamps that one could present to receive a rationed — thus highly desirable — product?

While readers consider the implications of this, or don’t, here is the eBay link.

And here is the lovely sound of Bennett Lester Carter (“The King”) playing clarinet.

DEE BLUES (The “Chocolate Dandies,” 1930 — Bobby Stark, Jimmy Harrison, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Horace Henderson, Benny Jackson, John Kirby:

JOE TURNER BLUES (1940: Big Joe Turner, Bill Coleman, Benny Morton, Benny Carter, Georgie Auld, Sonny White, Ulysses Livingston, Wilson Myers, Yank Porter):

BEALE STREET BLUES (same):

On both tracks, Joe sang his own quite impromptu lyrics, amusing since the records were intended as a tribute to W.C. Handy.

LOVELESS LOVE (take one, Billie Holiday for Turner):

LOVELESS LOVE (take two):

ST. LOUIS BLUES (take one):

ST. LOUIS BLUES (take two):

Here you can find other photographs inscribed to Spunk and Punk or the reverse — Cootie Williams, Savannah Churchill.  Here’s Ida Cox, in a rare shot:

IDA COX to PUNK AND SPUNK

and this person:

TO SPUNK AND PUNK FROM LOUIS

Thanks to the Swing Detective, Kris Bauwens.  And I dedicate this post to Benny Carter’s friend, photographer, and scholar Ed Berger.

May your happiness increase!

“GEORGE WETTLING, MARCH 1953”

That’s written on the back of this snapshot — originally taken by drummer Walt Gifford, later held by jazz enthusiast Joe Boughton:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

I am assuming that it was taken in the Boston area, but Wettling is the main attraction.  In the great tradition, Wettling played drums for the band — caring more for that than for any extended solo, although his four-bar breaks at the end of Eddie Condon recordings (Commodore, Decca, and Columbia) are justly famous.  He wasn’t as dramatic as some of his more celebrated peers, but any group that had Wettling in the rhythm section could relax, secure that the tempo would be steady, that every accent or sound would make sense as a complementary part of the whole.

Here are two samples of George at work — atypically visible as well — along with Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Al Hall, and Eddie himself — from a 1964 television program:

and

and — nearly a quarter-century earlier, sounds only:

and

If you follow the recordings he left behind — with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Hot Lips Page, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Frank Teschemacher, Frank Melrose, Boyce Brown, Paul Mares, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Marsala, Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, Pete Brown, Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Danny Polo, Herman Chittison, Joe Thomas, Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Carter, Miff Mole, Brad Gowans, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, Ed Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Yank Lawson, Jerry Jerome, Billy Butterfield, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Benny Morton, Jonah Jones, Errol Garner, Billie Holiday, Bujie Centobie, Red McKenzie, Chuck Wayne, Lucky Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, Connee Boswell, Sidney Bechet, Frank Newton, Bing Crosby, Art Hodes, Doc Evans, Bob Wilber, Tony Parenti, Charlie Parker, Ralph Sutton, Barbara Lea, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Kenny Kersey, Frank Signorelli, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Urbie Green, Marian McPartland, Stuff Smith, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Claude Hopkins, Nat Pierce, Jimmy Jones, Marty Napoleon, Buster Bailey, Shorty Baker, Tyree Glenn, Kenny Davern, and many others — you will always hear rewarding music.

May your happiness increase!

GOIN’ TO KANSAS CITY WITH THE IAJRC (Sept. 5-7, 2013)

I’ve been a member of the IAJRC for many years — that’s the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors — and it continues to make many good things possible.  In its quarterly journal, I have read fascinating stories, found out about CDs that would become life-enriching experiences, learned a great deal, and met wonderful people.  (Two Bills, as a matter of fact: Coverdale and Gallagher.)  So I think it’s a marvelous association, in the nicest senses of that overused word.  And their focus isn’t purely on ancient shellac, but on keeping jazz thriving.

Every year, the IAJRC creates a “convention”: but this isn’t simply an excuse to hear other people talk at length.  No, there one can meet friends with similar musical interests; hear rare music on disc; see film presentations; listen to live exciting jazz.  And this year it’s being held in Kansas City, Missouri — where visitors can enjoy the Marr Sound Archives, the American Jazz Museum, half-price on the breakfast buffet, a free drink in the lobby lounge every day (such blandishments are not small things).  Here’s the link to the detailed two-page flyer for the convention.  Go ahead, take a look.  I dare you.  And when you come back, your ears full of swinging four-four, you can then (if the neighbors don’t mind), attempt to sound like Big Joe Turner, “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeelllll, I’ve been to Kansas City . . . ”

May your happiness increase.

SOULFUL ELEGANCE: JOE THOMAS, TRUMPET

The trumpet master Joe Thomas, aplacid, reserved man, didn’t make as many recordings as he should have.  But he played alongside the finest musicians: Jack Teagarden, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Herman Chittison, Benny Carter, Barney Bigard, Joe Marsala, Buck Clayton, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Edmond Hall, Art Tatum, Pete Brown, Claude Hopkins, Kenny Kersey, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Russell, Buddy Tate, Tony Scott, Dicky Wells, Oscar Pettiford, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, Benny Morton, Bobby Gordon.  Harry Lim (of Keynote Records) was a special champion of Joe’s and featured him on many sessions.

Here is a 1945 recording — during the great flourishing of small independent jazz labels — on the Jamboree label, which issued perhaps twenty discs in all, most featuring Don Byas; one session under Horace Henderson’s name; another was the only session under Dave Tough’s name — featuring our Mr. Thomas.  One of the Byas discs, recorded by Don, Joe, and the mighty rhythm section of Johnny Guarneri, Billy Taylor, and Cozy Cole, is JAMBOREE JUMP — a groovy 32-bar head arrangement:

My ears tell me that JUMP has a close relationship with STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, exceedingly familiar chord changes for that period. The line sounds at first simple, something out of a child’s scale exercise — but it turns more adventurous.  There is a suggestion of a phrase we know from DIZZY ATMOSPHERE as well.  Swing and Be-Bop were adjacent, simultaneous, rather than two epochs as the journalists wanted us to believe.

Byas swoops and hollers, evoking Ben, over that concisely effective rhythm section, with Guarneri offering his own synthesis of Waller and Basie over Taylor’s powerful bass and Cole’s restrained drums — their sound somewhat swallowed by the whoosh of the 78 surface, although his bass drum is a swing heartbeat.

The quartet glides for two minutes until Thomas announces himself with one of the upwards arpeggios he loved, a sea creature leaping gracefully through the ocean’s surface.  His repeated notes never seem mechanical or over-emphatic: he just states he has arrived!  Joe, as Whitney Balliett pointed out, had listened hard to the Louis of the Hot Seven period, although Joe always kept his cool.  What follows might seem simple, undramatic for those anticipating the attack of an Eldridge or an Emmett Berry.  But Joe knew how to structure a solo through space, to make his phrases ring by leaving breathing room between them.  Like Bix or Basie, Joe embodied restraint while everyone around him was being urgent.  His pure dark sound is as important as the notes he plays — or chooses to omit.  Although his bridge is a leisurely series of upwards-moving arpeggios, it is more than “running changes.”

A simple phrase, in Thomas’s world, is a beautifully burnished object.  And one phrase flows into another, so at the end of the solo, one has embraced a new melody, resonant in three dimensions, that wasn’t there before, full of shadings, deep and logically constructed.  The band returns for the last statement of the theme, but it’s Joe’s solo I return to.

Louis, speaking about playing the trumpet, praised as the greatest good “tonation and phrasing.”  Joe’s tone, dark and shining, makes the simple playing of a written line something to marvel at, and each of his notes seems a careful choice yet all is fresh, never by rote: someone speaking words that have become true because he has just discovered they are the right ones for the moment.

I offer JAMBOREE JUMP as prelude to something even more marvelous.

Harry Lim, the guiding genius of Keynote Records — which, session for session, was consistently rewarding — loved Joe and featured him often.  The Pete Brown All-Star Quintet had a splendid rhythm section and the contrast between Joe’s stately sweetness and Pete’s lemony ebullience.  IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN shows off not only the contrast between them, stylistically, but also in tempos — this 12″ 78 (another one of the independent labels’ of the time’s great ideas — thank Milt Gabler and Alfred Lion) contrasts sweeping elegance with double-time romping.

That song might well have been Joe’s choice.  I was fortunate enough to see him in person a few times in the early Seventies, and he took this song as a kind of personal utterance.  I don’t know if the lyrics meant something deep to him — he was happily married to the singer Babe Matthews for many years — or if he associated the song with some event or place in his past, but he played it and sang it as if he had composed it.  And given Joe’s delight in the possibility of repeated notes in his soloing, TALK provides ample opportunities in its written melody.  (Like DARN THAT DREAM, it is a song that — played mechanically — could grow wearisome quickly.)

Here’s the Keynote recording, beautifully annotated by its generous YouTube creator:

If you’ve heard little of pianist Kenny Kersey, his chiming, serious solo introduction is evidence that he is another unheard master.

Then Joe comes to the fore in a sorrowing embellishment of the theme.  Hear his vibrato, his tone — without stating anything in melodramatic capital letters, he says, “What you are hearing is very serious to me.  It comes from my heart.”  Indeed, I think of the great later Louis of THAT’S FOR ME.  Joe is somber and tender at once, lingering over a note here, adding a small ornamental flourish, as he does at the end of the first sixteen bars, almost in a casual whisper, his brass voice trailing away.

Around him, the elements are in place: the warm resonance of Milt’s notes; the gentle timekeeping of J.C. Heard; Kersey, pointing the way; the sweet understated agreements provided by Pete’s alto.

When Joe would sing TALK OF THE TOWN, he would get even more emphatic on the bridge.  A song that begins, “I can’t show my face” already starts passionately, but the bridge is a drama of disappointment and betrayal: “We sent out invitations / To friends and relations / Announcing our wedding day. / Friends and relations gave congratulations. / How can you face them? / What can you say?”  Here, Joe’s trumpet rises to depict this heartbreak without increasing his volume or adding more notes.  The run that begins the second half of the bridge is Joe’s version of an early Thirties Louis phrase in sweet slow-motion.

Something startling comes next, and although I have known this recording for several decades, I can’t prepare myself for it: Pete Brown and the rhythm section go into double-time.  Pete loved to push the beat, and perhaps the idea of playing TALK OF THE TOWN as an extended ballad seemed too much of a good thing.  I also wonder if Pete knew that to follow Joe in the same fashion was not a good idea*.  Whatever the reason, the spirit of Roy Eldridge playing BODY AND SOUL at double-time is in the room.  Although Pete’s rough bouncy energy is initially startling, his bluesy vocalized tone is delightful, and the rhythm section digs in (Heard’s soft bass drum accents suggest Catlett).  And there’s the SALT PEANUTS octave jump at the end of the bridge, too.

It’s left to Kersey to return everyone to the elegiac tempo set at the start, and he does it beautifully, although the section has to settle in.  Joe returns, declamatory and delicate.  Where many trumpeters of the period might have gone up for a high one, Joe repeats the title of the song as if to himself.

I have loved Joe Thomas’ work for forty-five years, having heard him first on an Ed Beach radio show with the Keynote SHE DIDN’T SAY YES and then on a Prestige-Swingville session led by Claude Hopkins and featuring Buddy Tate.  His playing still moves me.  Although his simple notes are not difficult to play on the trumpet, to play them as he does, to learn how to sing through metal tubing is a lifetime’s work.  There were and are many compelling Louis-inspired trumpeters, and they all brought their own special joy.  But there was only one Joe Thomas.

Thanks to SwingMan1937 for posting JAMBOREE JUMP and to sepiapanorama for IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN.  These generous YouTube folks have excellent taste!

*About Pete Brown’s double-time section.  I came across another YouTube presentation of IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN — Connee Boswell’s lovely 1933 reading with the Dorsey Brothers in an orchestra directed by Victor Young — and she lifts the tempo, too.  Perhaps it was a swing convention when the song was first introduced?  (The picture of the singer isn’t Connee but Jo Stafford, by the way.)

May your happiness increase.

BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD

People who listen to jazz, read about it, write about it, seem to be entranced by drama.  So many of them are drawn to artists whose careers and lives are boldly delineated: the arc of early promise and a life cut short through self-destructive behavior or illness; the narrative of great achievement that tails off into stark decline.  Early Fame, Great Decline.  Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Blanton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young . . . the list is long.

But what of those musicians who had long careers, functioned at a high level of creativity, were undramatic in their professionalism?  They get less media attention in life and in death; their sheer reliability makes them almost shadowy figures.  (Of course, if they happen to live long lives — Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Lionel Ferbos — then they may get a story in the paper.  But that’s another subject.)

One of the greatest trumpet players — also a wonderful composer and arranger — doesn’t get the attention he should: Buck Clayton from Parsons, Kansas, whose recordings over a thirty-year span are exceptional but not always celebrated as they should be.  Anyone familiar with the best music of that period can call to mind a dozen sessions that Buck not only plays on, but elevates: consider the dates with Basie, the Kansas City Five and Six and Seven, Billie, Mildred, Teddy and Ben, Hawkins on Keynote, Ike Quebec on Blue Note, his own dates for HRS, the Jam Sessions for Columbia and the later ones for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label, his recordings with Mel Powell at Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard sessions, a Verve date with Harry Edison, his own small band (circa 1961), recordings with Jimmy Rushing and Ada Moore and Mae Barnes, with Earl Hines, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Flip Phillips, Horace Henderson, Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Ed Hall, Alex Combelle, Joe Turner, Big Joe Turner, “Jazz From A Swinging Era,” Humphrey Lyttelton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson, Benny Goodman . . . and I am sure I am leaving out many sessions.

Shanghai, 1934

Even though Buck was playing jazz in Shanghai in 1934, before he came home and stopped off in Kansas City, he seems to have been a rather undramatic man for all his exploits.  He showed up on time for the gig; he could talk to the audience; he wrote excellent charts and swinging originals; he was beautifully dressed; he transcended late-in-life health problems to launch a new career as a bandleader when the trumpet no longer responded to his urgings.  How unfortunate to be so bourgeois.

I only encountered him in person once: in 1971, there was a New York Jazz Museum Christmas party (if I have this right) where he was among a large number of musicians advertised as performing.  Buck was there, not playing, but splendidly dressed and very polite to a young fan who asked for his autograph.  (A side story: the musicians who actually did play, beautifully, were Chuck Folds, Gene Ramey, and Jackie Williams.  Someone requested MISTY and Ramey, upon hearing the song title, said, quietly, “I don’t play that shit,” and leaned his bass against the wall for the next three minutes, returning when the music was more to his liking.)

I also saw Buck — perhaps in 1980 — at a Newport in New York concert possibly paying tribute to Billie, with musicians including Zoot Sims and Harry Edison — attempting to return to playing.  His beautiful tone was intact on a fairly fast SUGAR, but he was having trouble hitting the notes one could sense he was aiming for . . . heroic but painful.)

Let’s listen to Buck again.

Here are the two takes of WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS from the 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore — with Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones.  It’s hard not to focus on Lester — but it can be done. Hear Buck, golden, easeful, and lithe . . . the only trumpet player I know who approaches his sly mobility is Bill Coleman of the same period.  Like Louis, he constructs his solos logically, one phrase building on its predecessors and looking forward to the next, each one acting as a small melodic building block in a larger arching structure — melodic embellishment with a larger purpose:

Any improvising musician would say that Buck’s solo choruses are not the work of an immature musician and not easy to do; his graceful ensemble playing is the work of a master.  But it sounds so easy, as if he were singing through his horn.  And that tone!

Here he is in a 1954 session that few know of — a Mel Powell-led jam session at Carnegie Hall, with Ruby Braff, Jay Brower (trumpet), Vernon Brown, Urbie Green (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Lem Davis (alto sax), Buddy Tate, Eddie Shu (tenor sax), Romeo Penque (baritone sax), Mel Powell (piano), Steve Jordan (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Jo Jones, Gene Krupa (drums):

Buck appears near the end –just before Gene and Jo trade phrases.  And, yes, you read that correctly.  A marvel!

Here’s Buck with Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones in C JAM BLUES (1959):

And after his playing days had ended, as leader / composer / arranger of his own Swing Band, captured in France (1991) on RAMPAGE IN G MINOR:

The other swingers on that stage are Gerry Dodgion, alto; James Chirillo, guitar; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Matt Finders, trombone; Doug Lawrence and Arthur “Babe” Clarke, tenor saxophones; Phillipe Combell, drums.; Dick Katz, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Bobby Pring, trombone; John Eckert, Greg Gisbert; trumpet.

Someone who hasn’t forgotten Buck Clayton is the UK bassist / writer / radio host Alyn Shipton, who has performed often with Buck’s compositions and arrangements as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band.  Here they are in this century performing Buck’s tribute to his friend and fellow brassman Humph, SIR HUMPHREY:

That band is full of people who understand Buck and his music (some of them heroes of mine): Menno Daams, Ian Smith, Adrian Fry, Alan Barnes, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Litton, Martin Wheatley, Alyn Shipton and Norman Emberson.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to go to his or her shelves and take down a recording by Buck and revel in its glories.  Milt Hinton used to have a memo pad with this heading (because of his nickname “The Judge”):”You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music.”  If you were to explore and re-explore Buck Clayton’s jazz world, you would have more than a month of pleasure.

He never provoked controversy; I doubt he will ever have his own online forum with vigorous acrimonious discussion of the minutiae of his life . . . but he created beauty whenever he raised his trumpet, composed a melody, or led a band.

May your happiness increase.

TOO GOOD TO IGNORE: CONDON’S WEST: HAL SMITH and FRIENDS at SACRAMENTO (May 29, 2011)

I published this post slightly more than five years ago, and the music remains so delightful that I thought it would be a sin not to offer it to the eager public once again.

hal-6-2011

My title isn’t hyperbole.  For when the band hit the first four bars of LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, I felt as if I had been time-and-space transported to the original Eddie Condon’s on West Third Street . . . even though I’d never been to the actual club.

This was the penultimate set I saw and recorded at the 2011 Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, and it was one of the high points.  I had been enjoying Hal Smith’s International Sextet through the Memorial Day weekend, but this version hit not one but many high notes.  The regulars were there in splendid form: Hal on drums, Katie Cavera on guitar and vocals; Anita Thomas on clarinet, alto, and vocals; Kim Cusack on clarinet, tenor, and vocals.  But Clint Baker had shifted from string bass to trombone (sounding incredibly like a gutty evocation of Sandy Williams and Jimmy Harrison, taking tremendous chances throughout), and Austin, Texas, native Ryan Gould played bass.  And — as a special treat — Bria Skonberg joined in on trumpet and vocal.

Here’s what happened.

Hal called LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (always a pleasant thought), surely inspired by the memory of that famous Commodore session in 1938 with Pee Wee, Bobby, Brunis, Bud, Stacy, Condon, Shapiro, and Wettling: the 2011 band had a similar instrumentation and the same drive:

How about something rocking and multi-lingual for the charming Ms. Skonberg to sing and play — like BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN:

Something for our canine friends?  LOW DOWN DOG, featuring Carl Sonny Leyland, is reminiscent of both Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson — a neat trick!

The next selection — deliciously low-down — poses a philosophical question.  When Katie Cavera sings and plays about SISTER KATE, is it meta-jazz, or M.C. Escher in swingtime?  Puzzle me that.  Anyway, it’s a wonderful performance complete with the tell-it-all verse:

Then a jazz gift from Hal and the band — a POSTCARD TO AUNT IDA, celebrating one of the warmest people we will ever know, Ida Melrose Shoufler of Farmer City, Illinois, the surviving child of Chicago piano legend Frank Melrose, a pianist, singer, and deep-down jazz fan herself — here’s Kim Cusack to tell us all that THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Today!

Anita told us all how everything would be make-believe if love didn’t work, in IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON:

Then, some hi-jinks.  Jazz and comedy have always gone together, even if Gunther Schuller sneered at “showmanship,” and what follows is hilarious impromptu choreography.  I don’t know which of the happily high-spirited players noticed that this was a two-camera setup (independently, Rae Ann Berry on the band’s right, myself on their left) and said, “Do something for the camera.  So you have Clint exuberantly singing DINAH while the rest of the band plays the most musical of musical chairs:

I’d like to see that video get international exposure: could we start the first (and last) JAZZ LIVES chain letter, where readers send this clip of DINAH to their friends?  The world needs more joy . . .

Finally, Bria sang and played her own version of LULU’S BACK IN TOWN to close off this exultantly satisfying performance:

It was a big auditorium, with advertisements for a Premier Active Adult Community behind the band, but it looked and sounded like the original Eddie Condon’s to me. . . .

TREASURE ISLAND, 2011

As a young jazz fan, I acquired as many records as I could by musicians and singers I admired.  (There was an Earl Hines phase, a Tatum infatuation, a Ben Webster obsession among many.)  The impulse is still there, but economics, space, and selectivity have tempered it somewhat.  I’ve written elsewhere about Wanting and Having and Enjoying, and those states of being are in precarious balance.

But these philosophical considerations don’t stop me from being excited at the thought of visiting Hudson, New York, once again — and my favorite antique store, “Carousel,” on Warren Street.

Carousel was once a “National Shoe Store,” as it says on the floor in the entrance way, and it specializes in a variety of intriguing goods — furniture, books, planters, metalwork . . . but in the very back of the store, past the cash register most often supervised by the exceedingly pleasant Dan, is a galaxy of records.  I skip the 45s and go to the stacks of 10″ 78s, the browsers full of 12″ lps and one devoted solely to 10″ lps (where one might find THE DINAH SHORE TV SHOW and BRAD GOWANS’ NEW YORK NINE).

Here’s what I found — and purchased — one day last week. 

Richard M. Jones was a pianist and composer who accompanied blues singers, led a few dates in the Twenties . . . and this one in 1944.  The rarity of this 10″ French Vogue vinyl reissue is evident.  The original tracks (four by Jones, two by the ebullient trumpeter Punch Miller) were recorded in Chicago for the Session label — 12″ 78s — with a band including the under-recorded Bob Shoffner, wonderfully boisterous trombonist Preston Jackson, and the heroic Baby Dodds.  I’d seen these sides listed in discographies for years, and the Sessions appeared on a vinyl issue on the Gannet label (with alternate takes!) but I’ve never heard them . . . and any version of NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES is all right with me.  I haven’t heard the music yet, but have high hopes.

 Decca and Brunswick collected four-tune recording sessions as GEMS OF JAZZ and the more pugnacious BATTLE OF JAZZ.  Zutty didn’t record many times as a leader, and this is one of the rarer sessions: 1936, I think, with hot Chicagoans who didn’t reach great fame.  I had these four sides (once upon a time) on sunburst Deccas . . . gone now, so I anticipate hot music here. 

(The shadow above speaks to the haste of JAZZ LIVES’ official photographer.)

The four sides above have often been reissued, although the most recent Tatum Decca CD split them between Tatum and Big Joe Turner.  No matter: they are imperishable, not only for Big Joe, in pearly form, but for the pairing of Joe Thomas and Ed Hall, saints and scholars.

Now for two rare 78s: their music reissued on European vinyl and CD, but how often do the original discs surface?

Whoever Herman was, he had good taste.  The WAX label was the brainchild of solid reliable string bassist Al Hall in 1946-7: its output might have been twenty sides (including a piano recital by Jimmy Jones) using the best musicians one could find in New York or the world.  Herman bought the first issue!

That quintet wasn’t made up of stars — except for Ben — but they were all splendid creative improvisers.

Is the next 78 more rare?  It might be . . .

I believe these 78s were made especially for purchase at the club — and Eddie Condon might have been under exclusive contract with Decca at the time (on other sides, I recall the guitarist as being the much more elusive Fred Sharp).  I recently looked up Joe Grauso in John Chilton’s WHO’S WHO IN JAZZ and was saddened to find that he had died in 1952, which is why we have so little of him aside from the Commodores and the Town Hall Concert broadcasts.

I love the composer credit.  Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

SONNY’S BLUES (and MORE): DIXIELAND MONTEREY, March 4, 2011

When the sweet-natured pianist and singer Carl Sonny Leyland took the stage at Dixieland Monterey, I expected rocking rhythms and down-home singing.  I wasn’t mistaken.

But mere recordings and videos don’t entirely summon up the romping momentum and good humor of this entirely complete player / vocalist / understated showman.  Carl does nothing more dramatic than pat his foot, adjust his glasses, speak softly to the audience between sips of water.  But he’s a jazz and blues volcano, someone whose motion is perpetual and perpetually exciting.  On the surface, he might initially sound like “a boogie-woogie pianist,” which he is — but he has (like Pete Johnson) tugged at the form to make it less restrictive.  He isn’t locked into eight-to-the-bar and his swing is ferocious but light, with echoes of Hines and Fats and Stacy woven into a beautifully organic style.

In this session, he had the finest musical comradeship in bassist Marty Eggers and drummer Jeff Hamilton (“our” Jeff Hamilton, I will point out).  The teamwork of this trio is sensational.  Marty plays the bass with the grace and fervor of Pops Foster or Milton John Hinton, no less.  And Jeff could swing a seventeen-piece band with just his hi-hat, and creates swaying columns of sound all over his set.

Without a hint of antiquarianism, we’re back in the Thirties with Little Brother Montgomery’s SHREVEPORT FAREWELL:

Groovy as a ten-cent movie!  Jimmy Yancey’s JIMMY’S ROCKS:

Sad, wistful, and blue: W.C. Handy’s variations on a folk lament, LOVELESS LOVE:

A favorite rag, BLAME IT ON THE BLUES:

Just an ordinary BOOGIE WOOGIE, inspired by Meade Lux Lewis:

For my dear Aunt Ida Melrose, a rocking OH, BABY:

YANCEY SPECIAL (plus litigation):

You made me what I am today — that’s THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART:

Carl’s own RAT CATCHER’S BLUES, funny and gruesome too.  To paraphrase Ogden Nash, “I’d hate to be  / the rat / That Carl is angry / At.”:

An exuberant HINDUSTAN BOOGIE:

And a romping set closer for Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner, ROLL ‘EM PETE:

Want to learn more?  Visit http://www.carlsonnyleyland.com., http://www.jeffhamiltonjazz.com.  It doesn’t seem that Marty has his own website — he has bigger and better things to do (such as play the bass in a way that reminds me of Walter Page) — but you can find him in many places online and in real life.

Carl Sonny Leyland is so much more authentic than James Baldwin’s story.

THE MUSICIANS GIVE US SO MUCH: CLICK HERE!

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BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

It’s a long time since I got so wrapped up in a book that I didn’t want to stop reading it — but CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE (Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009) is just that book.

Who was Barney Josephson (1902-88)?  If he hadn’t worked very hard to make his dreams become reality, we would only know him as a successful businessman: his specialty, stylish shoes. 

Happily for us, Barney had thoughts beyond Cuban or French heels: a yearning to run a nightclub in New York City, a keen sensitivity to talent, a hatred of social injustice.  And CAFE SOCIETY is the book his life and accomplishments deserve.  It could have been dull, academic, or third-hand.  But it’s a lively memoir of Barney’s life, taken from the tape recordings he made — he was a born raconteur — subtly annotated and expanded by his widow Terry Trilling-Josephson.  

CAFE SOCIETY (like the Downtown and Uptown nightclubs that had that name) is energetic, memorable, full of memorable anecdote and gossip.  Josephson was someone who had good instincts about what artists — musicians, comedians, or actors — whose work had substance.  He said he viewed himself as a “saloon impresario”: “I love it when people say that because I’m not more than that.  It’s the way I view myself.  In this business if you’re an ‘impresario,’ I say that with quotation marks around the word, you have a feeling.  You hear something, and you say, ‘This is it!’  You go ahead and you do it.  You don’t analyze.  You have to follow your hunches.”

Josephson had the good fortune to have John Hammond as his guide, instigator, and occasional arm-twister.  When Barney wanted to start a New York night club with music, it was Hammond who urged him to hire the three boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, the blues singer Big Joe Turner, and Billie Holiday. 

Cafe Society is remarkable for the improvisers who played there: Teddy Wilson with a band including Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, or Bill Coleman; Benny Morton; Ed Hall or Jimmy Hamilton; Sidney Catlett.  Frank Newton with Sonny White, Kenneth Hollon, Tab Smith, Eddie Dougherty, Johnny Williams.  Ed Hall with Mouse Randolph and Henderson Chambers.  Ellis Larkins with Bill Coleman and Al Hall. 

Later on, at the Cookery, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams.  Josephson brought back Helen Humes and Alberta Hunter for successful late-life “comebacks.”  And it wasn’t simply jazz and popular songs: think of the Revuers (with Judy Holiday and Adolph Green), of Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, of the now-forgotten Jimmy Savo, all given encouragement and room to develop by Josephson.   

But this isn’t purely a list of who-sang-what and how they were received, a collection of press clippings and schedules.  Josephson was a first-class storyteller with a remarkable memory, and the stories he remembered are priceless.  Nowhere else would I have learned that Emmett Berry, when trying to get someone to take a drink, would ask, “Will you have a drink of Doctor Berry’s rootin’ tootin’ oil?”  For me, that’s worth the price of the book.  Wonderful photographs, too. 

And the stories!

Billie Holiday, at first not knowing what to do with the lyrics of STRANGE FRUIT when they were handed to her, and showing her displeasure in the most effective non-verbal way when an audience annoyed her.

Zero Mostel, always onstage, making life difficult for the man trying to fit him for clothing.

Barney’s firing of Carol Channing and his missing a chance to hire Pearl Bailey.

Tallulah Bankhead complaining — at high volume — about what she’d encountered in the ladies’ room.

Teddy Wilson’s drinking problem, late in his career.

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

 And there is a deep, serious undercurrent throughout: the difficulty of having an establishment where neither the bands nor the audiences were segregated, and the looming shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  (Leon Josephson, Barney’s brother, was a particular target, which cast a shadow over Barney’s endeavors.)

Ultimately, the book is delightful for its stories (and the wonderful photographs) and the way Terry Trilling-Josephson has woven recollection and research together.  And the book is — on every page — the embodiment of Barney’s achievements and of the deep love he and Terry shared.  Not to be missed!

REVISITING BENNY GOODMAN’S TRIUMPH, JANUARY 16, 1938

In the past year, there’s been much well-deserved attention paid to the life and music of Benjamin David Goodman, clarinetist supreme, cultural icon, King of Swing, trail-blazer and phenomenal improviser — because he was born a hundred years ago.  In 2008, there was another reason to celebrate while invoking his name — the seventieth anniversary of his Carnegie Hall concert. 

I don’t wish to take an iota away from the significance of that event, nor do I wish to dull our reverence both for it and the recordings of that evening.  It may be heretical that I find the records uneven — but, then again, attempting to capture any live jazz is risky, and that Carnegie came off so spectacularly is a tribute to everyone’s creative energies.  (As an aside, I don’t have much enthusiasm for the recent concert recreations where a first-rate jazz band plays the concert, from first note to last, “live.”  The original event is irreproducible, another tribute to its essence.)  Perhaps my reaction is the result of having listened to the original recordings too many times in my youth, although the jam session on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE is still thrilling.

Here, to celebrate the event, is a snippet from a Goodman documentary: I include it not because of the leaden commentary, but for the silent newsreel footage taken in the hall that night. 

A celebration of January 16, 1938 that I can applaud whole-heartedly is Jon Hancock’s wonderful book: BENNY GOODMAN – THE FAMOUS 1938 CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT (Prancing Fish Publishing, 2009).

Before I explain this book’s virtues, I must reveal my own reactions to much of what is published on the subject of jazz in general and Goodman in specific.  Having read the best prose and criticism, I dislike sloppy research, poor attribution and inept paraphrase, polemical ideological statements passed off as evidence.  I applaud Whitney Balliett and Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern and Richard M. Sudhalter even when I disagree with them, because of their insight and their evidence-gathering.  But many “jazz writers” have only the opinions and attitudes of others to offer: leftovers presented as fresh. 

Goodman, too, is a special case.  I have savored Bill Crow’s brilliantly lacerating memoir of the 1962 trip to Russia; Ross Firestone’s affectionate, forgiving biography of Benny, SWING, SWING, SWING told me things I hadn’t known and was therefore valuable.  Ultimately, Goodman the musician is a more absorbing study than Benny the neurotic. 

Hancock’s book is exciting because it does offer new information about this most singular event.  Even better, he has made a point of not taking familiar statements as gospel without tracing them back to their original sources.  The result is a fascinating mosaic.  I knew, for instance, that Harry James said, “I feel like a whore in church,” joking about his being in the august hall, but I knew nothing of the newspaper reports before the concert: predictions that Big Joe Turner might sing and W.C. Handy might appear, that Mary Lou Williams was writing a “Jazz concerto,” and, even better, that Lionel Hampton was composing a “Swing Symphony” for the occasion. 

And there’s just as much pleasure in the visual memorabilia.  John Totten was the stage manager at Carnegie, and he collected signatures in his autograph book.  One page of this book (beautifully reporduced) has the signatures of Benny, Jess Stacy, Hampton, “Ziggie” Elman, Gordon Griffin, and others; another page has the signatures of George Koenig, Martha Tilton, Pee Wee Monte, and “best remembrances” from Joseph Szigeti.  That’s priceless.

There’s also a photogrraph from the Ferbuary 1938 Tempo Magazine of a pre-concert rehearsal for the jam session: Freddie Green, Benny, Lester Young, his high-crowned hat pushed back on his head, a grinning Gene Krupa, an intent Harry James.  Is it evidence of Benny’s over-preparation that he would have musicians rehearse to jam on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE — or is it just that he wanted the opportunity to play a few choruses with Lester and Freddie? 

A beautiful picture of a young (he had just turned 29) Gene Krupa adjusting his tie between sets in the Madhattan Room has him against a background of brass instruments that, curiously, looks like the work of Stuart Davis or someone inspired — at first glance, I thought that the painter (and occasional drummer) George Wettling had been the artist. 

Hancock’s book also reproduces the twelve-page concert program; here one finds announcements for upcoming concerts by Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, advertisements for Schrafft’s and the Russian Tea Room, for Maiden Form brassieres and Chesterfield cigarettes, and (something to live for) notice that the Gramophone Shop would have on sale on January 22, 1938, Teddy Wilson’s Brunswick record of MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU and IF DREAMS COME TRUE.

 These lovely artifacts, including a ticket from the concert, shouldn’t make us forget that the real glory of the book is Hancock’s meticulous (but never stuffy) eye for detail — that pro-Franco demonstrators picketed Carnegie the night of the concert, chanting “Benny Goodman is a red from Spain,” necause Benny had played a concert for the Spanish Loyalists in December 1937.  Ziggy Elman’s rejoinder, “No, he isn’t, he’s a clarinet player from Chicago!” satisfies me, even if it did little to placate the protesters. 

The centerpiece of the book is Hancock’s easy, unforced commentary on the music played at the concert — forty pages of analysis and commentary, neither highflown musicology in the Gunther Schuller way or a fan’s yipping enthusiasm — something to read while the compact discs of the concert are playing.  Anything about the concert — the microphone setup, the photographs and newsreel footage — as well as the recordings made, the mythic story of their re-discovery, their various issues . . . . up to Benny’s later appearances at Carnegie — all are meticulously covered by Hancock.  And there’s a touching reminiscence of BG at home by his daughter Rachel Edelson that is a masterpiece of gentle honesty. 

Reviewers have to find flaws, so I will say that a few names are misspelled, as in the pastoral “Glen Miller,” but since none of these musicians were in the Goodman band, I and other enthusiasts forgive Hancock . . . while applauding his tremendous effort, both enthusiastic and careful.  Writing this post, I must add, took a long time — not because my mind wasn’t made up within the first fifteen minutes of looking at the book, but because I kept getting distracted from writing to reading and re-reading.  Good job!

Jon has a website, www.bg1938.com., where you can find out more about the book — and the more important information about how to get your own copy.  And you can add your own opinion about Just Who the Mystery Man is.  Someone has to know!

REMEMBERING JOE THOMAS

The trumpeter Joseph Eli Thomas — fabled but truly little-known — is almost always confused with his higher-profile namesake, who played tenor sax and sang in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. 

But a quick scan of the people our Joe Thomas played with should suggest that his colleagues thought very highly of him.  How about Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Guarneri, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Catlett, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, Cozy Cole, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Claude Hopkins,  Buddy Tate, Pee Wee Russell, Tony Scott, Buck Clayton, Woody Herman, Trummy Young, Rudy Powell, Eddie Condon, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Al Hall . . . . ?  Clearly a man well-respected.  But he is an obscure figure today. 

He can be seen as a member of Art Kane’s famous 1958 Harlem street assemblage.  Shirtsleeved and hatless, he stands with Maxine Sullivan and Jimmy Rushing to one side, with Stuff Smith on the other.  Fast company, although the sun must have been bothering him, for he looks worried. 

In another world, Thomas would have had little reason to worry, but he came up in jazz when hot trumpeters seemed to spring out from every bush.  To his left, Red Allen and Rex Stewart; to the right, Bill Coleman, Emmett Berry, Bobby Hackett.  Rounding the corner, Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Benny Carter, Frank Newton.   So the competition was fierce.  And Thomas often had the bad fortune to be overshadowed: in Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS band — the one that recorded extensively for Victor and Vocalion — his section-mate was a fireball named Eldridge.  In Fats Waller’s big band, Thomas played section trumpet and the prize solos in Fats’ Rhythm went to Herman Autrey or Bugs Hamilton.  And then there was a colossus named Armstrong, apparently blocking out the sun.  John Hammond was busy championing other players, all worthy, and never got around to pushing Joe Thomas into the limelight.  Although he recorded prolifically as a sideman, he never had a record date under his own name after 1946. 

But Thomas got himself heard now and again: his solos shine on Decca recordings (alongside Chu Berry) under Lil Armstrong’s name, and on a famous Big Joe Turner date for the same label that featured Art Tatum and Ed Hall.  On the much more obscure Black and White label, he recorded alongside Tatum and Barney Bigard; for Jamboree, he was captured side-by-side with Don Byas, Dave Tough, and Ted Nash. 

Later in his career, the British jazz scholar Albert McCarthy featured him on a Vic Dickenson session (Vic, like Tatum, seems to have admired Joe’s quiet majesty), and he popped up on sessions in the Fifties and Sixties in the best company.  Whitney Balliett celebrated him in an essay, and the drummer Mike Burgevin used him on gigs whenever he could.

Thomas’s most important champion has to have been the Javanese jazz enthusiast and record producer Harry Lim, whose biography should be written — producing jam sessions and heading one of the finest record labels ever — Keynote — then shepherding another label, Famous Door, through perhaps a dozen issues in the Seventies.  I gather that his day job was as head of the jazz record section in the Manhattan Sam Goody store: probably I saw him, but was too young and uninformed to make the connection. 

Lim loved Thomas’s playing and featured him extensively on sessions between 1944 and 1946.  Regrettably those sessions were reissued in haphazard fashion in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies — vinyl anthologies on the Emarcy and Trip labels — then in a wonderful box set first appearing in Japan, then briefly in the US, then disappearing for good.  A number of compilations drawn from that set — featuring Hawkins, Eldridge, Norvo, and Young — made it to CD but seem to have gone out of circulation.  And wise collectors aren’t putting them up on eBay.  Thomas also appears on a few sessions for the HRS (Hot Record Society) label, and those sessions have been collected in a Mosaic box set, which I believe is still available — although the Keynotes show him off far better. 

What made Thomas so special?  His tone was luminous but dark, rich — not shallow and glossy or brassy.  His notes sang; he placed his notes a shade behind the beat, giving the impression of having all the time in the world at a fast tempo.  Like Jack Teagarden, he wasn’t an improviser who started afresh with every new solo.  Thomas had his favorite patterns and gestures, but he didn’t repeat himself.  Listening to him when he was on-form was beautifully satisfying: he sounded like a man who had edited out all the extraneous notes in his head before beginning to play.  His spaces meant something, and a Thomas solo continued to resonate in one’s head for a long time.  I can still hear his opening notes of a solo he took on CRAZY RHYTHM on a New York gig in 1974. 

What made his style so memorable wasn’t simply his tone — a marvel in itself — or his pacing, steady but never sluggish.  It was his dual nature: he loved upward-surging arpeggios that spelled out the chord in a gleaming way, easy but urgent.  Occasionally he hit the same note a few times in a delicate, chiming way (much more Beiderbecke than Sweets Edison) — and then, while those notes rang in the air, he would play something at one-quarter volume, which had the shape of a beautiful half-muttered epigram, something enclosed in parentheses, which you had to strain to hear.  That balance between declarations and intimacy shaped many a memorable solo. 

And when Thomas was simply appearing to play the melody, he worked wonders.  I don’t know where a listener would find the Teddy Wilson V-Disc session that produced only two titles (and one alternate take) with a stripped-down version of Wilson’s Cafe Society band in 1943: Thomas, Ed Hall, Wilson, and Sidney Catlett.  I mean them no disrespect, but Benny Morton and Johnny Williams may have wanted to go home and get some sleep.  The two titles recorded were RUSSIAN LULLABY and HOW HIGH THE MOON — the latter of interest because it is one of the first jazz recordings of that song (including a fairly straight 1940 reading by a Fred Rich studio band with Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge as guest stars!) that I know of.  But RUSSIAN LULLABY is extra-special, taken at a slow tempo, enabling Thomas to illuminate the melody from within, as if it were a grieving anthem. 

Alas, there are no CD compilations devoted to Thomas; someone eager to hear him on record might chase down the Keynotes in a variety of forms.  One session finds him alongside Eldridge and Emmett Berry, and it’s fascinating to see how easily Thomas’s wait-and-see manner makes his colleagues seem a bit too eager, even impetuous.  His playing alongside Teagarden and Hawkins on a session led by drummer George Wettling couldn’t be better, especially on HOME and YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE TO ME. 

But he came to prominence, at least as far as the record studio executives were concerned, most often in the years of the first record ban, during World War Two.  After that, he emerged now and then in a variety of Mainstream revivals — he played at Central Plaza on an elusive “Dr. Jazz” broadcast; he was a member of an Eddie Condon troupe in the Forties that did a concert in Washington, D.C.  

I was lucky enough to hear him a few times in the early Seventies, primarily because of the enthusiastic generosity of Mike Burgevin, a classic jazz drummer whose heroes were Catlett, Tough, and Wettling — someone who also sang now and again, his model (wisely) being early-and-middle period Crosby. 

For a time, Mike took care of the jazz at a club named Brew’s — slightly east of the Empire State Building — that had a little room with tables and chairs, a minute bandstand, a decent upright piano.  His sessions usually featured himself and the quietly persuasive stride pianist Jimmy Andrews (or Dill Jones), perhaps Al Hall on bass, and a noted horn player.  It could be Ruby Braff or Kenny Davern, but often it was Max Kaminsky, Herb Hall, Herman Autrey, or Joe Thomas.  (One week, blessedly, Vic Dickenson played three or four nights with a shifting rhythm section: glorious music and a rare opportunity to observe him on his own.) 

The sessions were even noted in The New Yorker.  I remember noting that these players — people I had heard only on record — seemed to be gigging about ten minutes away from Penn Station.  When Joe Thomas’s name came up in print, I was nearly-incredulous.  Could this be our Joe Thomas, the trumpeter who was nearly luminescent on his choruses on SHE DIDN’T SAY YES?  I think I prevailed on my friend Stu Zimny to come into the city and see whether this was miracle or mirage, and I remember one brilliant set — Joe, Waller-altoist Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, and Burgevin — that featured Rudy on WHERE OR WHEN and there was a closing CRAZY RHYTHM for the whole band.  Of course I had my cassette recorder, but where these tapes are I cannot say.  Joe’s chorus, however, is fresh in my mind’s ear.  

We struck up a friendship with Mike Burgevin, who was thrilled to find college-age kids who were deeply immersed in the music he loved, and he told us that Joe and he would be leading a quartet for an outdoors concert in a park at the very southern end of Manhattan.  I remember that Stu and I brought a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder, the better to capture Joe’s golden sound, and set it up in the shade, near a tree.  This provoked the only conversation I remember having with him.  Understandably, perhaps, the sight of young strangers with a big tape recorder made him nervous, and he kept on telling us that we shouldn’t do this, because “the union man” could come by.  Perhaps impatiently, we assured him that Local 802 representatuves didn’t seem to be hiding in the bushes, and that we would take the blame if anyone came around.  He could pretend that he had no knowledge of our criminalities.  It was a less memorable occasion: the quartet was filled out with someone of moderate abilities on a small electric keyboard, the bassist played an over-amplified Fender.  Joe fought his way upstream, but it was difficult.  In retrospect, I feel guilty: was he worrying about the union man all the time he was playing?  I hope not. 

He also got a chance to shine twice at the 1972 Newport in New York concerts, once at an affair devoted to Eddie Condon and his music.  It was a characteristically uneven evening.  The sound engineer at Carnegie Hall amplified the piano so that it sounded other-worldly, and Thomas (perhaps playing the role of a more modest Hot Lips Page) was brought on, along with J.C. Higginbotham, for a closing version of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  Of that occasion, I remember a stunning Bobby Hackett chorus and break, but Thomas didn’t get the space to do what we knew he could.  He also was a member of Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS big band — its rhythm section featuring Teddy Wilson, Bernard Addison, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones (!) and Thomas took a wonderful solo on a very fast rendition of SLEEP.

I don’t know what kept him out of the limelight after that, whether it was ill health or tiredness?  Was it that more showily assertive trumpeters (and there were plenty) got the gigs?  Whatever the reasons, he seems to have faded away. 

Ironically, Mike Burgevin had issued three vinyl recordings on his own Jezebel label that featured Herman Autrey, Jack Fine, Rudy Powell, and Doc Cheatham . . . which, in a way, led to Cheatham’s rediscovery and second or third period of intense (and well-deserved) fame.  Had circumstances been different, perhaps it would have been Joe Thomas playing alongside Nicholas Payton, and that is to take nothing away from Cheatham.

I had begun to write a post about Joe Thomas very shortly after beginning this blog, but shelved it because so little of his work is now available on CD.  But the impetus to celebrate him came in the past few days when the Beloved and I had the great good luck to hear Duke Heitger on a brief New York City tour.  I have admired Duke’s work for a number of years, and think of him as one of those players who honors the tradition — subtly yet passionately — without imitating anyone.  But on a few occasions this last week, Duke would get off a beautiful phrase that hung, shimmering in the air, for a second, and I would think, “Who does that remind me of?”  And the answer, when it came, startled me: the last time I had heard something quite so lovely was in listening to Joe Thomas in his prime.  Duke is too much his own man to have copied those Keynotes, but it’s an honor (at least in my estimation) to come close to some of Thomas’s quiet majesty. 

One other person who thought Joe Thomas was worthy of notice was the esteemed photographer William P. Gottlieb.  In this shot, taken at the Greenwich Village club “The Pied Piper,” sometime between 1946 and 1946, Thomas is third from the left, the only African-American.  To his left is Harry Lim:

Joe Thomas 1

Here he is playing alongside pianist Jimmy Jones, at the same club:

Joe Thomas 2

Ultimately, Thomas got a number of opportunities to record and to perform, so that a few people still remember him, but it’s sad that his work is so difficult to find.  He deserves so much more.

LOVE AND THE BLUES, TWICE

Even though they have the most expressive faces imaginable, so many inspiring jazz players and singers were passed over by film producers because they weren’t conventionally “attractive.”  Think of how wonderful it would be to see Mildred Bailey sing.  Alas.

But here are two clips of jazz / blues singers that we are lucky to have.  And, coincidentally or not, the blues they are singing talk about Love, from very different perspectives.

First, the under-acknowledged Ida Cox, “Miss Ida” to even the most illustrious musicians, captured here with her husband, pianist Jesse Crump, some time in the Forties.  I can’t find the source of this clip — which seems to be two versions of “‘Fore Day Creep” from different camera angles, spliced together.  “‘Fore Day” is almost always incorrectly written and conceived as “Four Day Creep,” which suggests that the Wandering Man will be away Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  Nay nay, to quote Louis.  It’s “‘fore day,” as in “before sunrise,” but logic is elusive for some people.

Miss Ida looks healthy, assured, sure of herself and her advice.  I love the Twenties hand gestures as well as the nimble, rippling piano accompaniment — a mixture of tidy minimalist stride and slowed-down boogie woogie figures.  And her commentary?  It might strike some as pre-feminist, but it comes from the same tributary as the song DON’T ADVERTISE YOUR MAN.  Obviously, it’s a pre-internet conception of what can be kept private!

Here’s another bit of enticing memorabilia: an autographed Ida Cox publicity picture.

ida-cox-autograph

The second clip comes from a May 1965 BBC television program called JAZZ 625, which featured Humphrey Lyttelton and some of jazz’s finest players and singers: here, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, and Vic Dickenson — here with Tony Coe, tenor sax; Joe Temperley, baritone sax, Eddie Harvey, piano; Dave Green, bass; Johnny Butts, drums.  The song is CHAINS OF LOVE, much sadder and more uncertain — although Big Joe looks so powerful and assured here that the pleading questions he is asking of His Woman must be purely rhetorical.  This clip also gives us Vic Dickenson up close, a beret over the bell of his horn, playing the blues ever so masterfully.  Vic sang on his horn better than most singers.

Perhaps these two performances speak to our age much more that Petrarch spoke to his.

KEEP OFF THE GRASS! (JOE TURNER PLAYS JAMES P. JOHNSON)

Stride is such a triumph of instinct and athleticism that it always amazes me.  Here’s a rare clip of the American pianist Joe Turner (not to be confused with Big Joe Turner) — who appeared in 1931 as one half of a duo backing the singer Adelaide Hall.  The other pianist?  A kid from Ohio named Tatum.

I love what I call Jazz Manglish — so James P.’s title, an admonitory KEEP OFF THE GRASS, is transformed here into KEEPING OUT OF THE GRASS, which is gentler and more descriptive, but hardly the same thing.  We know what it means, though.  And it seems as if stride demands a cigar — think of the Lion and James P. — although Fats got by with cigarettes.  But he was Fats, of course.

“BOTTOM BLUES” BY ALBERT AMMONS AND HIS RHYTHM KINGS

Although I can’t envision life without daily infusions of stride piano, I’ve never managed to warm up much to boogie-woogie. At its peak, that late-Thirties style featured three rotund, cheerful players — Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson — whose collective sonic effect was a roaring express train aimed at the listener. But each one of the trio was a splendid soloist who could venture beyond eight-to-the-bar conventions, given the chance. Their slow and medium-tempo blues, especially, moaned and rocked. And they were superb leaders and accompanists: Big Joe Turner and Johnson made a wonderful team. But Albert Ammons is not often given his due.

Born in 1907, Ammons died young, but he made some marvelous band recordings. There’s a 1936 Decca session recorded in Chicago featuring trumpeter Guy Kelly (whose mournful voice you hear on Jimmie Noone’s “The Blues Jumped A Rabbit,” recorded around the same time). That’s the band pictured at the top of this posting, his “Rythm Kings.”

Slightly later, there was a romping session with Harry James (a Texan who knew how to play the blues), the Port of Harlem Jazzmen for Blue Note, and a 1944 Commodore session that produced four titles. One of them is an instrumental slow blues, “Bottom Blues.” Whether the title refers to the tempo, the overall funkiness, or the reference is anatomical, the music is imperishable.

On February 12, Milt Gabler, the patron saint of Commodore (pictured here in his record shop — thanks to the late William Gottlieb for capturing this shrine for posterity), put together one of those compact bands that blossomed in 1944 on Keynote, Savoy, Blue Note, Wax, Jamboree, and other small jazz labels. Most jazz historians ritually excoriate James C. Petrillo, then president of the musicians’ union, for provoking the record ban of that period, but the irony is that the ban provoked some enterprising jazz-lovers into capturing transcendent music that the major labels wouldn’t have been interested in. For once, commerce and art — however unintentionally — worked together.

Jazz listeners are always frustrated record producers, who think, “That band would have been just perfect if I had been able to replace Kid Pippin with Sox McGonigle,” on into the night, but this sextet admits no such after-the-fact meddling.

In the jazz family tree of recording dates, we can find connections among the three horn players, but this is the only record date I know of with this front line: Hot Lips Page on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone, and Don Byas on tenor sax. As a teenager, bassist Israel Crosby had worked and recorded with Ammons in Chicago, and Big Sid Catlett — everyone’s first choice — was in town.

The four selections recorded that day are all blues — medium slow, medium, fast, and slow. Page and Dickenson were known as splendid bluesmen, squeezing Dionysiac ecstasies into the narrow confines of twelve bars. Byas’s style may have seemed more urbane, but he had deep Basie – Kansas City roots as well, and he plays nobly. The slow tempo, in addition, keeps him from falling back on the up-hill-and-down-dale rhythmic patterns he liked when he picked up speed, echoing Coleman Hawkins.

Gabler liked to give his musicians a chance to stretch out both live and in the studio, and he usually recorded on 12″ 78 RPM records — almost always earmarked for classical discs — that allowed another full minute of playing.  (Had this been recorded on the much more common 10″ disc, the ensemble would have concluded, probably in haste, when Lips Page’s chorus was over.) 

“Bottom Blues” is structurally very simple — a series of solo improvisations on the twelve-bar blues form, leading up to ensemble riffing at the end. Ammons begins with a musing, suspended-animation four-bar introduction, almost tentatively setting the key, the tempo, and the mood, before moving into a simply played blues — with only Catlett, on brushes, behind and alongside him. It’s as if he’s thinking about what he might be playing while he is doing it.

Catlett, as I’ve written in this blog, could play with great force and volume.  Although he adds notable intensity as the performance builds, he sticks to the wire brushes rather than using sticks.  In his solo chorus, Ammons offers brief glimpses of familiar piano blues motifs, but with surprising delicacy.  He does suggest eight-to-the-bar rolling rhythms at several points, but they are implied rather than stated: his bass patterns hint at Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, even Fats Waller. The effect is thoughtful rather than assertive, and someone hearing this recording for the first time might not identify him as a famed boogie-woogie stylist.

Vic Dickenson takes the next two choruses, and Ammons’s accompaniment has a simple, forceful architectural logic, as he restricts himself to simple block chords in the first chorus and becomes more ornate in the second. Dickenson’s playing has always been praised for its “vocal” quality, its smears, growls, and moans. Justly so, but was there ever was a singer as eloquent as Vic is here? Could any voice create such sounds, bearish growls and sinewy moans, moving from side-of-the-mouth satirical asides and grief?  At points it sounds as if his sound is huge, barely contained, exploding into our ears.  Vic’s second chorus, propelled by Catlett accents, takes a simple phrase and turns it around and around, holding it up to the light before moving more rapidly into double-time and a few exultant shouts, like a man with so many things to say who knows his time is running out.  We should also hear, behind the growls and snorts that seem to characterize Vic’s solo and his style, a deep allegiance to the vein of exuberant melancholy we hear in Twenties and Thirties Louis — play this solo next to “Gully Low Blues” and hear the emotional kinship.   

By contrast, Byas sounds supple and suave, gliding from one phrase to another, extending the harmonies as if to remind us that this is, in fact, 1944, and that Dizzy and Bird are in town.  He is aided immensely by the two horns humming behind him, felt more than heard — voices in the choir adding harmonic support. 

Saving Lips Page for last was not just a good idea; it was inevitable, for no one wanted to follow him on a blues performance.  His solo isn’t appreciably high, loud, or fast, but it is the very quintessence of intensity.  Like Vic, he manages to get so many different sounds out of an unforgiving piece of brass tubing — slides, glissandos, half-valve effects — that would be impossible to notate.  And I defy any trumpet player today to reproduce these twenty-four bars convincingly.  But what we hear is light-years away from trumpet plus rhythm, as the four players drift into electrifying multi-layered polyphony, with Crosby getting even more earnest, Ammons varying his accompaniment, and Catlett urging, commenting, and agreeing to what he’s just heard.

When Ammons returns, it’s not merely an interlude to give the horns time to get into position: he is more rhythmically assertive, with wonderful dialogues going on between his spattering Hines right-hand figures and the ocean-motion of his bass line.  The orchestral polyphony broadens, as the three horns take the simplest moaning figure, as old as King Oliver’s solo on “Dipper Mouth Blues” — rocking back and forth between two notes with plenty of vibrato — and balance it against Ammons’s interjections, Catlett’s accents (he has become an entire section in himself!) building and building, with his cymbal crash the last word.  What a moving interlude!                 

Jazz, like other arts, always implicitly asks the question of how can we make the familiar new and vividly alive?  In this case, how do these six musicians, individually and collectively, take the same phrases that every jazz improviser in 1944 knew by heart and make them seem fresh?  The answer may lie in a strong sense of self, of defiantly individual voices, of superb technical mastery, of intense passion.  The question of HOW may defy words, but “Bottom Blues” shows itself as lasting, emotionally powerful art.

Happily, I can report that someone besides myself cares deeply about Albert Ammons — in this case, his granddaughter Lila has set up a site to celebrate his memory: www.albert-ammons.com.  And although the ASV CD which contains some of his finest work may be out of print, “Bottom Blues” should be available.  It is down-to-earth and celestial at the same time, worth repeated listenings.