Tag Archives: Big Money in Jazz

JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE

Mal Sharpe and the “Big Money in Jazz” band

Mal Sharpe moved to another neighborhood on March 10, 2020.  He refuses to go away, so it is both an obligation and a privilege to honor him here.  His official obituary depicts him as a comedian:  

Mal Sharpe, ‘The Man on the Street’ radio gag man, dies at 83

That’s one way to see Mal, but between 2011 and 2014,  I knew him well as the leader of a band of idiosyncratic individualists, playing traditional jazz and standards, and as a friend.  I brought my camera and videoed him and his band, “Big Money in Jazz,” at the No Name in Sausalito, at the Savoy Tivoli and Fior d’Italia in San Francisco, at an outdoor concert in North Beach, and once in Armando’s in Martinez.  You can find my videos on YouTube, of course. 

Even though I celebrate Mal as musician and friend, this demands to be included, with all respect to Larry Scala, who told Mal the joke and was never credited:

You know.”

I checked my email files and found that I first met him through my friend Jeff Hamilton in 2011: I’d written to Mal for permission to video his gig at Armando’s, and he was very gracious, telling me that he had seen my blog many times.  Later, I came to his regular gigs, chatted with him, and took pleasure in the band.  He was physically large — tall and broad-shouldered, even though he slumped down in his chair while playing — well dressed in an intentionally casual way.

In those years I was commuting-for-romance from New York, and although I loved being in California, I missed the banquet of music at home.  I was sustained by Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All-Stars and the occasional swing dance gig, but initially found driving to and parking in San Francisco terrifying.  Going to Sausalito was easier — I clearly recall parking my car on Bridgeway and walking past a vertical bank of nasturtiums, which I ate liberally, much to the horror of my companion: I compromised by eating only those above dog-height.  I digress, of course.

The No Name Bar in Sausalito was quite awful, and since I had not been a bar-goer in my youth, I recoiled from its most remarkable features: the broken toilet in the men’s room, the bill of fare that was microwaved popcorn in paper bags, local beer, ordinary spirits, an odd clientele, Nancy, behind the bar, gracious in a rough-hewn way, the band assembled on a narrow stand parallel to the bar.  I remember coming outside after the gig and feeling that the world was strange because it was so clean and bright.  

I never knew in advance who was going to be on the stand with Mal — sometimes superb players, sometimes those who had once been superb, and some others — but the music was always interesting, if only because it was precarious: would X know the chords to the bridge? would Y accelerate his usual glacial pace to get to the end of the chorus when everyone else did?  And there was always Mal, who had his routines, but delivered them with that combination of “I know this by heart” and “I just made this up” that I found charming.  Hearing and watching him do something as mundane as gently hector the crowd to put tips in the jar was worth the drive. 

Mal also had regular improvisations.  One of them was that he would go to a local thrift store (was it in Berkeley or in Oakland?) and buy nearly-useless trinkets — little plastic toys or medical items of no value but much strangeness — and set up mock-contests whose winners would receive some bizarre prize.  I don’t think I am making this up, but once it was the empty case in which one could carry an enema bag.  The takers were few. 

Here is Mal’s New-England based improvisation with which he closed the afternoon’s music:

He played trombone and sang.  As a singer he could be marvelously affecting, and one of the delights of the band was that it was not a stereotypical Bourbon Street band.  If they played the SAINTS, I don’t recall.  And — in the fashion of the great postwar ensembles of Boston (where Mal had grown up (he’d been to George Wein’s Mahogany Hall) and New York, where I had, the band explored standards.  You were much more likely to hear PENNIES FROM HEAVEN than BOURBON STREET PARADE, although they did perform ICE CREAM and Mal liked women singers who favored Billie and Ella, so the band had a less-raucous air to it.  Here’s an example I found moving at the time and still do:

That’s classic Mal — singing with sly tenderness, but also with new lyrics he probably made up on the drive from Berkeley to the gig.

Mal and I bonded because he saw that I was going to use the blog and camera to celebrate him — not embarrass him — and he once said to me, after a post, “Michael, you made us sound so good!” which pleased me.  He knew he was an amateur trombonist, and he said as much, but he stayed within his limitations and thus did no harm. 

We also drifted into a sideways friendship over delicatessen sandwiches at Saul’s, and talked of our mutual hero Vic Dickenson.  I gave him copies of recordings I’d made of Vic, and sometimes our phone conversation would start with his commenting about what Vic had done on the second chorus of SONNY BOY on the CDs I’d made for him.  When I visited him at home once or twice, he invited me into his den, which had photographs of his and my heroes on the wall, a barber’s chair that he sat in to practice, and other oddments. 

I emailed him often, mostly propelled by my finding a new picture or video that I knew he would like, and his brief responses had a telling comical snap.  Face to face, Mal and I spoke of recordings we were listening to; I brought him jazz gossip from New York and he talked about chance meetings with great people and odd ones, taking perhaps more delight in the latter than the other. 

As noted in the newspaper obituary, he was a great on-the-spot improviser of nearly-surreal sketch comedies, and once that I recall I felt (years after the fact) that I had become a character in a Sharpe sketch.  We both knew someone on the New York scene — a fan, amateur musician, and schnorrer (Mal loved Yiddish) who was always on the lookout for some apparently-altruistic scheme that would benefit no one but himself.  He came into the conversation and Mal and I took turns enthusiastically narrating his small-time thieveries.  The next time we met I brought him up with vengeful glee and told of his latest feats while Mal sat silent, listening.  When I ran out of energy, Mal looked at me after a long pause and said that he had decided to speak of this person no more, that it was not what he should be doing, and so on.  At the time, I felt as if Mal had let me walk blindfolded into a hole he had just dug, and said, “Hey, you could have stopped me at the start of blackening this person’s character,” and I don’t recall what he said.  Years later I understood that he had let me go on for the pleasure of the punchline, and I appreciated it as much as I could.

I am not sure if I discerned it or Mal himself told me, but he was a classic paradox — a shy man who sought the limelight as long as he could control it.  I think he needed to be onstage, to make people laugh and applaud, but (with the tuna or turkey sandwich he had Nancy get for him) he needed even more to drive home in silence, then be at home with no one bothering him.  Later on he told me that it wasn’t just shyness, it was anxiety, and I felt very sorrowful, but it also helped me understand him better: as if someone afraid of drowning forced himself to take swimming lessons, even though they scared him terribly and he never got any better.  

When I came back to New York in January 2015, I was happy to be home but I missed Mal greatly, and I would pick up the phone and call him.  I think the last time we spoke was in 2017, and I sensed that he had retreated from the world more than a little.  He stopped responding to emails as well.  But that is too sad a note to end my recollections on.  

How could you not love a man whose email signature (edited by me) was . . . .

MAL SHARPE
Host of KCSM’s Back on Basin Street 91.1
Man On The Street Productions & Big Money in Jazz
Home phone xxx xxx xxxx cell xxx xxx xxxx
Teenage Home phone in Newton, Ma. Bi-4-9509 (If my mother answers, hang up)

DON’T LOOK AT THE TROMBONES, IT ONLY ENCOURAGES THEM—RICHARD STRAUSS

and then there’s this song and performance.  Larry told me today, as we spoke of Mal, that it was Mal’s opening song for gigs:

I think Mal would be embarrassed by having more than fifteen hundred words written about him, but when he could be by himself in his barber chair, he would be secretly pleased.  Perhaps he would have emailed me to say he never ate turkey.

My condolences to Sandra and Jennifer Sharpe.  And my gratitude to Mal for letting me be one of the band in my own way

.

May your happiness increase!

A VIVID MAN: CHARLES “DUFF” CAMPBELL (1915-2014)

Charles “Duff” Campbell — jazz aficionado and art dealer and close friend of the famous — was born on January 9, 1915.  He died on October 3, 2014, peacefully, at his home in San Francisco. Even if he had never become friends with Jelly Roll Morton, Nat Cole, Mary Lou Williams, and many others, he would have been a remarkable man: a childhood in Vladivostok and Shanghai before he returned to California to stay.

Here is an official obituary — but Duff led such a richly varied life this summary cannot begin to tell more than the smallest bit of his tale.

Through the good offices of his dear friend, cornetist Leon Oakley, I was invited to Duff’s house on the afternoon of April 16, 2014, and I brought my video camera.  Duff’s memory was not perfect, and occasionally it took a few questions from Leon to start a story going, but we knew we were in the presence of a true Elder.

He recalled seeing the Ellington band in California in the late Thirties (“They were so damned good”) and hanging out with Mary Lou Williams when she took a solo piano job at a hotel.  “I went to hear everybody,” he said.  “Everybody” meant the Basie  band on an early trip west; Louis and Jack Teagarden in the first All-Stars; Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines, Don Ewell, Darnell Howard, Muggsy Spanier. Duff remembered sitting near Sullivan at Doc Daugherty’s Club Hangover and Sullivan turning to him and saying, “Well, what would you like to hear?”

For me — a born hero-worshipper — Duff was the most real link with the past imaginable.  He sat in a car with Jelly Roll Morton; he drove Art Tatum to and from the gig; he had listening parties with Nat Cole as a guest.

Before anyone turns to the video, a few caveats.  Duff had lost his sight but could still get around his house without assistance, and he had some involuntary muscle movements — so the unsuspecting viewer might think he was terribly comfortable, but he wanted to talk about the days he recalled, and when the afternoon was over he was intent on having us come back soon for more.  It was a warm day and he had dressed formally for his guests, so he was perspiring, but a gentleman didn’t strip down while company was there.  Here are some excerpts from that long interview, with Leon asking Duff questions:

on his encounters with Jelly Roll Morton:

and with Nat King Cole:

a brush with the law:

memories of Art Tatum:

Everyone I’ve ever mentioned Duff to, before and after his passing, has had the same reaction.  We knew and and know now we were in the presence of an Original: quirky, independent, someone who knew what was good and supported it no matter what the crowd liked. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I first met him at one of Mal Sharpe’s Big Money in Jazz afternoons at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach San Francisco.  I saw an older gentleman sitting in front of the band, as close as he could get, a drink on the table.  He was dancing in his chair, his body replicating every wave of the music.  When I found out who he was and introduced myself (we had a dear mutual friend, Liadain O’Donovan) he was as enthusiastic in speech as he had been in dance.  And I suspect that enthusiasm, that deep curiosity and energy, sustained him for nearly a century.

Goodbye, Duff.  And thank you. It was an honor to be in your presence.

May your happiness increase! 

BAND ON THE STREET: MAL SHARPE and BIG MONEY IN JAZZ PLAY IN NORTH BEACH (May 10, 2014)

Saturday, May 10, our friend Mal Sharpe took his band, Big Money in Jazz, to play in celebration of the grand re-opening of the North Beach Public Library at Columbus and Lombard in San Francisco. Not only was the library worth celebrating, but the renovation included a new rectangular asphalt playground with plantings around it, the Joe DiMaggio Playground.

The music was celebratory as well, with Mal on trombone and vocals; Leon Oakley, cornet; Jeff Sanford, clarinet and soprano saxophone; Bill De Kuiper, guitar; Paul Smith, string bass.

Mal loves North Beach, “You could be in Greece,” he said, gesturing at the long vista of bright sky and mountains off in the distance.  Here are three performances from that afternoon, with cinema verite of picture-taking spectators looking to see where the music was coming from.

During SONG OF THE WANDERER, both a sight-seeing bus and a cable car pass by, behind the band.  Jazz has that effect on the universe: everything coalesces all of a sudden.

ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, perfectly apt:

MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR:

SONG OF THE WANDERER (an excerpted version, for the outchorus had to compete with local clamor):

Mal and friends have a variety of regular gigs in the city: once a month at the Savoy Tivoli, weekly at Fior d’Italia, Original Joes, and at Tupelo.  Email him at malsharpe@gmail.com, and ask to be added to his weekly email announcements — whimsical, just like their creator.

May your happiness increase!

“DINNER MUSIC” FROM MAL SHARPE and THE BIG MONEY IN JAZZ at FIOR D’ITALIA (March

Mos people know Mal Sharpe (with one of his current bands, the Big Money in Jazz) as someone who inspires audiences with exuberant music. But he and his musicians can create very subtle music as well, Jelly Roll Morton’s “sweet, soft, plenty rhythm.” It’s music to dine by. Of course, with Mal in charge, it will be colorful, lively, witty — quiet but never dull.

Mal’s smaller version of his classic band floats along without piano or drums, and with Mal’s playing and singing; Jim Gammon, cornet; Dwayne Ramsey, clarinet, tenor saxophone, vocal; Bill DeKuiper, guitar; Paul Smith, string bass and wordless vocal. . . .evoking New Orleans grit and the Kansas City Six.

This band plays every Wednesday night from 6 to 9 at the well-known Italian restaurant, Fior d’Italia (2237 Mason Street) in North Beach, San Francisco, and we came by for a meal and a serenade on March 19, 2014. Here are some of the musical highlights. You’ll have to invent the culinary ones for yourself: here are the menus.

JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE (the band’s theme and Mal’s offhanded sermon on carpe diem and tempus fugit, too):

MEAN TO ME (a rhetorical statement only):

SHINE (that splendid, misinterpreted song):

STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (appropriate to a restaurant with various grilled meats, no?):

JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE (soulfully sung by Dwayne):

And for an effervescent dessert, on the last number of the second set, San Francisco’s irrepressible jazz singer Kellye Gray was compelled to join the band with a rare whistling solo on DINAH:

Fior d’Italia is a North Beach classic, known for a varied menu, a comfortable ambiance, a sweet-natured staff . . . and the best dinner music you can think of on Wednesday evenings.

May your happiness increase!

UNDER WESTERN SKIES, JAZZ HORIZONS

Long-Beach-California-Sunrise

With great pleasure, I have transplanted myself from one coast to the other, from suburban New York to Marin County in California, where I will be for the next eight months.  So what follows is a brief and selective listing of musical events the Beloved and I might show up at . . . feel free to join us!

Clint Baker and his New Orleans Jazz Band will be playing for the Wednesday Night Hop in San Mateo on January 8: details and directions here.

Emily Asher’s Garden Party will be touring this side of the continent in mid-January, with Emily’s Hoagy Carmichael program.  On January 16, she, friends, and sitters-in will make merry at a San Francisco house concert: details here.  On the 17th, the Garden Party will reappear, bright and perky, at the Red Poppy Art House, to offer another helping of subtle, lyrical, hot music: details to come here.

Clint and Friends (I don’t know the official band title, so am inventing the simplest) will be playing for the Central Coast Hot Jazz Society in Pismo Beach on January 26.  Details are not yet available on the website, but I have it on good authority that the band will include Marc Caparone, Dawn Lambeth, Mike Baird, Carl Sonny Leyland, and Katie Cavera.

A moment of self-advertisement: I will be giving a Sunday afternoon workshop at Berkeley’s The Jazz School  — on February 9, called LOUIS ARMSTRONG SPEAKS TO US.  Details here.’

And, from February 21-23, the Beloved and I will be happily in attendance at the San Diego Jazz Party — details here — to be held at the Del Mar Hilton, honoring guitar legend Mundell Lowe and featuring Harry Allen, John Allred, Dan Barrett, John Cocuzzi, John Eaton, Eddie Erickson, Rebecca Kilgore, Ed Metz, Butch Miles, Nicki Parrott, Houston Person, Bucky Pizzarelli, Ed Polcer, Chuck Redd, Antti Sarpila, Richard Simon, Bria Skonberg, Rossano Sportiello, Dave Stone, Johnny Varro, Jason Wanner.  The sessions will offer solo piano all the way up to nonets, with amiable cross-generational jazz at every turn.  In a triumph of organization, you can even see here who’s playing with whom and when, from Friday afternoon to Sunday farewell.

In March, the Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey . . . make your plans here!

And — a little closer to the here and now — if you don’t have plans for a New Year’s Eve gala, check out ZUT! in Berkeley.  Good food — and Mal Sharpe and the Big Money in Jazz (with singer Kallye Gray) will be giving 2013 a gentle push at the stroke of midnight.  Details here.

We hope to see our friends at these events!

May your happiness increase!

WE RETURN TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING (February 24, 2013)

Yesterday, your grateful / intrepid videographer took his new knapsack, camera, tripod, and microphone to a live jazz event, set up, and recorded. . . . after a month’s hiatus in the schedule.

The event was the Sunday afternoon gig of Mal Sharpe and the Big Money in Jazz Band — that entertaining group no longer at the No Name Bar in Sausalito, but now taking up a serious weekend residence (Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 PM) at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach, 1434 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California.

Mal’s colleagues were Leon Oakley, cornet; Jeff Sanford, reeds; Si Perkoff, keyboard; Paul Smith, string bass; Carmen Cansino, drums; guest Waldo Carter, trumpet on JOE LOUIS STOMP.

I chose two selections from the afternoon’s performances not only because they felt so fulfilling, but also because I had not captured either song on video for JAZZ LIVES.  The first, a mixture of wistfulness and comedy (that’s the Mal Sharpe way!) is the song Billie Holiday and Lester Young made immortal in 1937 — FOOLIN’ MYSELF:

And the second, a walloping tribute to the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis (with a side-glance at Bill Coleman, having a good time in Paris) is JOE LOUIS STOMP:

I’m ready! — for the Jazz Bash by the Bay / Dixieland Monterey 2013 . . .  Hope to see you there.

May your happiness increase.

“SQUEEZE AND RELEASE,” or “THE MAL SHARPE SHOWCASE”: ANOTHER SUNDAY IN SAUSALITO with MAL SHARPE, DWAYNE RAMSEY, CLINT BAKER, SI PERKOFF, PAUL SMITH, and CARMEN CANSINO (Dec. 23. 2012)

I don’t quite remember how we found out about Mal Sharpe’s regular sessions (his Big Money in Jazz Band) at the No Name Bar in Sausalito (Sunday), the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach (Saturday), and Armando’s in Martinez (one Thursday a month), but these anything-can-happen festivities have been a continuing pleasure.

Mal is not only an engaging trombonist / singer; he also enjoys the possibilities of improvising in front of — and with — an audience.  So at the same time the Beloved and I have enjoyed the down-home sounds, we’ve also been delighted by the chances Mal takes . . . quizzing the audience, muttering philosophically just loud enough to be heard, having a good time.  And Mal surrounds himself with some of the best musicians, who drive the band and provide subtle moments for an attentive crowd.

My title — somewhat mysterious in itself, perhaps — can be untangled or interpreted for readers too impatient to watch all the videos at the start of SUNNY SIDE below.

Here are five slices-of-life from December 23, courtesy of Mal, Clint Baker, trumpet; Paul Smith, string bass; Dwayne Ramsey, reeds; Carmen Cansino, drums; Si Perkoff, piano.

Mal becomes more anatomical than we might expect on his vocal rendition of ROSETTA:

IF I HAD YOU (with the bridge given over to Carmen, our heroine):

Clint stomps off SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET at the 1938 Louis-Fats jam session tempo:

Need spiritual counseling?  The Reverend Dwayne lays it out for us with soul on JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE:

And I know they heard this musical trilogy all the way over in Provincetown — I FOUND A NEW BABY / THE SONG IS ENDED / Closing Ceremonies:

Something different . . . unpredictable . . . hot jazz and hilarity intertwined.

May your happiness increase.