Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

SOME SPLENDID NEWS: THE RETURN OF THE REDWOOD COAST MUSIC FESTIVAL (Sept. 30 – Oct. 3, 2021)

Given the landscape we have been traveling through, when good news shows up, it’s almost a shock. So brace yourself: I have some, as spelled out in the title of this post.

The Redwood Coast Music Festival is going ahead, energetically and intelligently, for 2021.

I did not take the pandemic lightly, and I spent a good deal of last year scared to bits . . . but I’m going. And I hope you will also, if you can.

Details here — but I know you want more than just details.

Although for those who like it very plain, some elementary-school math: four days, more than a hundred sets performed at eight stages, from intimate to huge. Dance floors. And the festival is wonderfully varied, presenting every kind of “roots music” you can imagine: “jazz, swing, blues, zydeco, rockabilly, Americana, Western Swing, country.”

Off the top of my head — when I was there in 2019, I heard the music of Charlie Christian, Moon Mullican, Pee Wee Russell, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges, Pete Johnson, Billie Holiday, and much more. Bob Wills said howdy to Walter Donaldson, which was very sweet.

And here are some of the jazz and blues artists who will be there: Carl Sonny Leyland, Duke Robillard, Dave Stuckey, Hal Smith, Andy Schumm, Dan Barrett, Jonathan Doyle, Jacob Zimmerman, Dan Walton, Marc Caparone, Joe Goldberg, Bill Reinhart, Joshua Gouzy, Joel Patterson, Katie Cavera, Dawn Lambeth, Clint Baker, Kris Tokarski, Nate Ketner, Brian Casserly, Josh Collazo, Ryan Calloway, and two dozen other worthies whose names don’t yet appear on the site. And of course, bands — ad hoc units and working ones.

For the justifiably anxious among us, here is the RCMF’s Covid update: several things stand out. First, California has mandated that ticket sales must be in advance. And understandably, there will be fewer people allowed in any space . . . so this translates for you, dear reader, as a double incentive to buy tickets early. I know that festivals always urge attendees to do this, but you can see these are atypical reasons.

How about some musical evidence?

CASTLE ROCK, by the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet:

WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD, by Dawn Lambeth and her Quartet:

REACHING FOR SOMEONE, by the Doyle-Zimmerman Sextet:

HELLO, LOLA! by Hal Smith’s SWING CENTRAL:

SAN ANTONIO ROSE, by Dave Stuckey – Hal Smith’s Western Swing All-Stars:

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, by Marc Caparone and his “Louis Armstrong All-Stars”:

If the videos don’t act as proof, my words may be superfluous. But to paraphrase Lesley Gore, “It’s my blog and I’ll write if I want to.”

I come to this festival-jazz party circuit late — both late for me and for the phenomenon — September 2004. Chautauqua, California, Connecticut, Newcastle, Westoverledingen, and others. I’ve attended a hundred of them. Meaning no offense to any festival organizer, I think Redwood Coast delivers such quality and such range that it is astonishing. I told Mark Jansen that it was the SUPERMARKET SWEEP of festivals: so much to pick up on in so short a time. And readers will understand that my range is narrow: there is much music on the list of genres above that doesn’t stir me, although it might be excellent.

However: in 2019 I came home with over 150 videos in four days of enthusiastic observation-participation. I slept as if drugged on the plane ride home. I’d been perforated by music of the finest kind.

I also need to write a few darker sentences.

There is a blessed influx of younger people — dancers, often — to music festivals like this one. But festivals are large enterprises, costly to stage and exhausting to supervise. Those of us who want to be able to see and hear live music must know that this phenomenon needs what realistic promoters call Asses in Seats.

So if you say, “Well, I’ll come in a few years when I’m retired,” that’s understandable. But Asses at Home mean that this festival, and others, might not wait for you. Grim, but true.

So I hope to see you there. There are a million reasons to stay at home. But who will come in and dust you?

May your happiness increase!

“LOVE MAKES ME TREAT YOU THE WAY THAT I DO”: The EarRegulars Show Us Love (Outside at The Ear Inn: Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Scott Robinson, Pat O’Leary, May 2, 2021)

Wise humor by Maria Traversa.

I’ve always felt Don Redman’s plaintive love song deeply — posed as a question, explaining devotion to someone who needs an explanation, which makes it more poignant (“Don’t you understand why I do these things for you, my dear?”) — GEE, BABY, AIN’T I GOOD TO YOU?

Hot Lips Page, Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, and Nat Cole sang it . . . but even if you know only the title, you get the feeling. And the EarRegulars specialize in feeling.

Here they are, laying it on us, outside the Ear Inn, on May 2, 2021:

Delightfully, this is not meant to be a single remarkable occasion, like the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the night sky. No, the EarRegulars have plans — pray for no rain! — for Sunday, May 9, 2021, with Kellso, Munisteri, O’Leary, and John Allred, trombone. What’s that? “It’s Mother’s Day, Michael!” “Doesn’t Mom deserve the best?

Did you miss the joys of May 2 that I’ve posted so far? Get comfortable and let yourself be pleased here. And if you understand the significance of this event and the promise of Sundays to come, you will notice more people grinning as you get closer to Spring Street.

May your happiness increase!

“JAZZ CAN BE HOT OR LANGUID”: BILLIE HOLIDAY, ROY ELDRIDGE, CHARLIE SHAVERS, ED HALL, BEN WEBSTER, VIC DICKENSON, BENNIE MORTON, ART TATUM, AL CASEY, SLAM STEWART, ARTHUR TRAPPIER, JOSH WHITE (“New World A-Coming,” WNYC, June 25, 1944)

Billie Holiday and Sidney Catlett at the Metropolitan Opera House, January 18, 1944

Here’s an extraordinarily fulfilling eighteen minutes, as if — in the name of humanity and enlightenment — a New York radio station was able to gather everyone of note into its studios to uplift listeners: Billie Holiday, vocal; Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers; trumpet; Vic Dickenson, Bennie Morton, trombone; Ed Hall, clarinet; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Art Tatum, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Arthur Trappier, drums; Josh White, vocal and guitar.

“NEW WORLD A-COMING: THE STORY OF NEGRO MUSIC,” Broadcast on WMCA, June 25, 1944, based on the book by Roi Ottlei, narrated by Canada Lee. Theme by Duke Ellington. Introduction / I GOT A HEAD LIKE A ROCK Josh White / FINE AND MELLOW Billie / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / ALL OF ME Billie / I GOT RHYTHM // Hall Johnson Choir announced but edited out of this recording.

The music is timeless; the commentary may seem less so: I was struck by “from cabin to cabaret,” and sensitized listeners might find other archaisms. But the music!

P.S. “Jazz can be hot or languid.” You knew that, of course.

P.P.S., based on fifteen minutes of online curiosity: WMCA was a rock-and-pop AM station in the Sixties, home of the “Good Guys.”  Started in 1925, it had a wide range of popular music programming, with programs aimed at an African-American audience.  In 1989, it became a Christian radio station and continues today.

May your happiness increase!

OH, THEY DO: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS (November 25, 2016)

I love this little band, in all its permutations, and I am not alone.  When they get onstage, the question posed above becomes completely rhetorical.  They most certainly have music, and they share it with us.  Here are five lovely (purple-hued) performances from the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, featuring Ray Skjelbred, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet; Dawn Lambeth, vocals.

Here’s LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, evoking Eddie Condon and the first Commodore 78, and the swinging Bing Crosby version a few years earlier:

and James P. Johnson’s song, recorded by Henry “Red” Allen:

and a song associated with Lee Wiley, sweetly sung by Dawn Lambeth:

the beautiful Thirties ballad associated with Billie Holiday:

Finally, Dawn’s exposition of swing frustration (thanks to Walter Donaldson):

May your happiness increase!

“THE DAPOGNY EFFECT,” or, PROF. TO THE RESCUE

James Dapogny at Jazz at Chautauqua, September 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman.

I am never sure how closely the audience at a live performance is paying attention to the details of the music being created in front of them.  Because I have spent a long time considering the subtleties of this holy art, I believe I hear and see more near-collisions than those who (happily) absorb only the outlines of the music.

I’m not boasting: my over-attentiveness is like being the person at the movies who can notice that a character went out the door in one scene with a green scarf and when we see her in the next shot — no scarf. . . not exactly like having perfect pitch, but the analogy might work.

Today, I am going to show-and-tell an experience that I happened to capture for posterity (or, perhaps, “for posterior”).  I present it not to embarrass the musicians I revere, but to praise their collective resilience, ingenuity, and perseverance.  In this case, that redemption in 4/4 is because of my hero, Professor James Dapogny, who might have cocked a skeptical eyebrow at what I am doing and said, “Michael, do you really need to do this?” and I would have explained why.

For those who already feel slightly impatient with the word-offering, I apologize.  Please come back tomorrow.  I’ll still be at it, and you will be welcome.

An uncharitable observer might consider the incident I am about to present and say, “Well, it’s all Marty Grosz’s fault.”  I would rather salute Marty: without a near-disaster, how could we have a triumphant transformation?  Or, unless Kitty escapes from her basket and climbs the tree, how can she be rescued by the firemen?  Precariousness becomes a virtue: ask any acrobat.

But this is about a performance of I WISHED ON THE MOON that Marty and Company attempted at Jazz at Chautauqua on a late morning or early afternoon session in September 2008, along with Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Chuck Wilson, alto saxophone; Dan Barrett, trombone; Professor Dapogny, piano; Marty, guitar and vocal; Vince Giordano, string bass; Pete Siers, drums.  The amateurish camera work in bright sunshine is evidence that it was one of my sub rosa escapades: I was using a Flip camera and trying to not get caught by the authorities.

We know Marty as a peerless work of nature: guitarist, singer, wit, artist, vaudevillian.  But many might not be aware that one of his great talents is arranging.  Yes, he can uplift an impromptu session on BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, but he loves the effects that can be created by any ensemble with directions sketched out on manuscript paper and then hastily explained on the spot: “No repeats!” “jump to letter D,” “trumpet break at the start of the last chorus,” and so on.  Marty works hard on these things, and his earliest recordings — although he dismisses them as “‘prentice work” — show him in pursuit of the ideal: swinging, varied, surprising, effective.

But he is happier with pen and pencil than with the computer, so a Marty score is handwritten, in calligraphy that is italic, precise, lovely, but not as easy to read (especially in dim stage light, seen for the first time, without rehearsal) as the printed scores many musicians are used to in this century.

Thus, the possibility of chaos.  Thus, the possibility of triumph.

In the recording studio, when things start to go awry, musicians used to look at each other and break into a sort of Twenties near-hokey jamming, away from the score, and the “take” would end in laughter.  A “breakdown,” the recording engineer would call it.  Or the engineer would give a piercing whistle, to say, “Let’s start over.”  You can hear this on “rejected takes” by Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and many other jazz heroes, that have been saved over the decades.  They are reassuring proof that our jazz-deities are human, that people get off on the wrong foot, that someone missed a cue or made a mistake.

In performance, though, in front of an audience, musicians do not want to stop and say, “We loused this up.  Let’s start over,” although I have seen it happen: it is the equivalent of Groucho speaking directly to the audience in a film, “breaking through the fourth wall,” and it is always surprising.

But back to our musical and heroic interlude.  I WISHED ON THE MOON is made famous by Billie Holiday, but it is not by any means a classic, a standard, part of “the repertoire” so often played that musicians perform it with full confidence (take AS LONG AS I LIVE as an example of the second kind).  MOON has its own twists and traps for the unwary.  The very expert musicians in this band, however, had at most been given a minute or two before the set to know the tune list and to glance at the manuscripts Marty had given them — roadmaps through the treacherous landscape.  But since everyone on this bandstand is a complete professional, with years of sight-reading and experience, it would not have been expected that they needed rehearsal to play a song like MOON.

That Marty gives directions to this crew before they start suggests to me that they hadn’t seen his score before, nor would they stand in front of the audience studying it and discussing it.  Professionals don’t want to give the impression that they are puzzled by any aspect of their craft while the people who have paid to see and hear them are waiting for the next aural delicacy to be served.

Thus, Professor Dapogny, who “knew the score,” plays his four-bar introduction with verve and assurance.  He knows where he is.  But the front line is faced with a score that calls for Dan Barrett, master melodist, to play the theme while the reeds back him up, and Dan Block, another sure-footed spellbinder, plays the bridge neatly.  Marty has his eyeglasses on — to read his own chart — and he essays a vocal, trusting to memory to guide him through the mostly-remembered lyrics, turning his lapses into comedy, more Fats than Billie.  While this is unrolling, the Professor’s rollicking supportive accompaniment is enthralling, although one has to make an effort to not be distracted by Marty’s vocalizing.

I feel his relief at “having gotten through that,” and lovely choruses by Duke Heitger and Dan Block, now on tenor saxophone, follow.  However, the performance has a somewhat homemade flavor to it — that is, unless we have been paying attention to the Professor’s marking the chords and transitions in a splendidly rhythmic way: on this rock, he shows us, we can build our jazz church.  He has, in the nicest and most necessary way, taken charge of the band.

At this point, my next-seat neighbor (there by chance, not connection) decides she needs more lemon or a napkin; her entrance and sudden arising are visually distracting, even now.

But, at around 3:55, the Professor says — with notes, not words — that he himself is going to climb the ladder and rescue Kitty; he is going to turn a possibly competent-but-flawed performance into SOMETHING.

And does he ever! — with a ringing phrase that causes both Marty and Dan Block to turn their heads, as if to say, “Wow, that’s the genuine article,” and the performance stands up, straightens its tie, brushes the crumbs off its lap, and rocks.  Please go back and observe a thrilling instant: a great artist completely in the moment, using everything he knows to focus a group of adult creators towards a desired result that is miles above what would have resulted if he had blandly played an ordinary accompaniment.

And you thought only Monk danced during his performances?  Watch Marty, joyously and goofily, respond to what his friend Jim has made happen.  After that, the band must decipher Marty’s swing hieroglyphics, his on-the-spot directions, “Play a fill!” and someone — to cover up a blank spot — whistles a phrase, and the performance half-swings, half-wanders to its conclusion.  Relief sweeps the bandstand.

These five minutes are highly imperfect, but also heroic: great improvisers making their courageous way through territory where their maps are ripped, unreadable, and incomplete — refusing to give up the quest.

If you need to understand why I have written so much about Professor Dapogny, why his absence is a huge void in my universe and that of others who knew and love him, watch this performance again for his masterful individualistic guidance: Toscanini in a safari jacket.  Completely irreplaceable, modeling joy and courage all at once.

May your happiness increase!

SUNDAY NIGHTS AT 326 SPRING STREET (Part Thirty-One) — WE NEED SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO: SESSIONS AT THE EAR INN, featuring THE EarRegulars (2007 – the Future)

Is it Sunday again?  Covid-time defies ordinary physics: we experience it as rushing and dragging at once.  But ordinary physics is dull and restrictive, so let me invite you this Sunday, January 10, 2021, to be with me in November 7, 2010, and wherever you are, to join me at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Greenwich Village, New York City.

I know an arm around the shoulders violates CDC guidelines about keeping proper distance, but I offer you mine, metaphysically, in swing friendship.

Here are two extended performances by a sextet, really the EarRegulars quartet of that moment expanded by three hero-pals with reed instruments: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Alex Hoffman, tenor saxophone; Neal Miner, string bass; and friends Andy Farber, tenor; Dan Block, alto.

Gene Ammons’ RED TOP (solos: Block, Kellso, Hoffman, Farber):

RED TOP (concluded — solos Munisteri, Miner):

Adding the brilliant clarinetist Pete Martinez, on a barstool to my left, with a lovely curious admirer as well, to asking the musical question, HOW AM I TO KNOW? — at a tempo slower than Miles’, faster than Billie’s:

HOW AM I TO KNOW? (concluded):

See you next week!  I hope you can glide from this Sunday to the next.

May your happiness increase!

NANCY HARROW COMES BEARING GIFTS, AGAIN: “PARTNERS II”

There are many signs that 2021 will be a New and Improved Year: you can list your own.  A significant one is the appearance of a new Nancy Harrow CD, PARTNERS II: I Don’t Know What Kind of Blues I’ve Got.  For those of you who greet this news with delight — and for those of you who have the pleasure of discovering Nancy Harrow waiting for you — here’s her HAVIN’ MYSELF A TIME, with Clark Terry, Dick Katz, Ray Drummond, and Ben Riley:

One of the most beautiful things about that performance is that, hearing it again, I don’t think, “Oh, that’s a Billie Holiday song,” but rather, “How wonderful Nancy sounds!” For the moment, Billie has retired to another room.

This, to me, is testament to the strength — a winning strength — of Nancy’s artistic self.  The cliche is “She sounds like herself,” but it is not a cliche, especially when so many singers do not.

Singing should be easy — we are organisms capable of making all kinds of vocal sounds, from the pleased wordless sounds of delight when we meet, by chance, someone we haven’t seen for a long time, to the sound we might make when something falls on your bare foot.  But we know that singing is more than opening one’s mouth and — even knowing the melody and the words — letting our impulses take over.  So much is craft, simultaneously delicate and passionate, the way one phrases a particular word in a line, the tone one uses to surround that word, the timbre.

In HAVIN’ MYSELF A TIME, the placement of each syllable is the result of Nancy’s lifetime of on-the-job immersion; at the same time, it is improvised and fresh, a kind of emotion-driven speech set to music.  She has immersed herself in the song so that the sharp edges of where Song ends and where Nancy starts are happily erased, but her personality shines through in every choice she makes.  It’s not Acting in some melodramatic way but Nancy is having herself a time for those minutes it takes the performance to unfold.  I hear her smile, but it is a wise smile, not boundless enthusiasm, separate from craft.

Not for the first time, hearing Nancy, I think of the paradox she presents, evoking Whitman,

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.

where at once she leans forward to tell us a secret in her own quiet way, even as the secret is sung aloud to everyone in the room.  Her art is completely personal and completely universal.  I haven’t described the perfect tang of her singing voice, at once tender and salty, her emotional range, also moving from sly amusement to grief, her innate rhythmic pulse, her complete connection with the words as well as the melody line: you must hear these magics for yourself.  And you have a new opportunity in PARTNERS II.

This disc is an anthology of performances Nancy selected — from 1961 to 2016 — with two previously unissued performances.  Even if you have squirreled away all of Nancy’s CDs (a lovely shelf-full) as I have, it is thrilling to hear her own choices, arranged as if brilliant tiles in a mosaic or familiar poems in new contexts, each reflecting the sheen of its neighbor, seeming new because of it.  And PARTNERS II (there is a I, also available) speaks to Nancy’s sense of the buoyant jazz community, so we also hear Buck Clayton, Phil Woods, Kenny Barron, Grady Tate, Frank Wess, Bob Brookmeyer, Roland Hanna, Jack Wilkins, Jim McNeely, Rufus Reid, John Lewis, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Terri Lyne Carrington, George Mraz, and Bob Brookmeyer.

Here’s one more — Nancy’s own (yes! words and music) IF I WANT TO, with Chris Ziemba, Owen Broder, Alex Claffy, Dennis Mackrel:

PARTNERS II is available as a physical disc from Amazon, and in digital format at all the usual places.  More importantly, it is Nancy’s gift of her music, of her irreplaceable self — things told in confidence that we can treasure as our own.

May your happiness increase!

“LATCH ON TO THAT RHYTHM” AND OTHER SWING TREATS: MICHAEL GAMBLE AND HIS VERY SWINGING FRIENDS

Michael Gamble amid friends. How many swing stars do you recognize?

In person, bandleader-string bassist Michael Gamble is quiet and unassuming, but he really knows how to swing.  It’s a pleasure to tell you about four new digital-EP releases by his virtual groups, now available at Bandcamp. Those who like can skip the rest of this post and go directly there to listen.

They sound great, which is particularly remarkable, considering how hard the musicians have to work to make music in “isolation sessions.”

Michael explains, “All recordings from this series were made remotely, each of the 18 musicians (from 9 states) playing either in their homes, home-studios, or whatever they could make work! Despite the logistical challenges, we were determined to make an artistically cohesive and exciting project. Sections were pieced together painstakingly to make sure that no part was recorded prior to something that it needed to react creatively to, which often required multiple takes by the same musician on the same tune, spread over weeks. We believe the result — while certainly different in feel than prior Rhythm Serenaders albums which were recorded live in a single room — is a special set of recordings with their own completely unique flavor. We hope they’ll be enjoyed for years to come!”

I can swear to that last sentence.  Without a hint of museum dustiness, it is as if Michael and friends lifted me out of my chair and teleported me to splendid sessions truly happening, let us say, between 1934 and 1947.  Or, if you prefer, he came to my house and gave me a waist-high stack of perfectly recorded 16″ transcription discs of all my heroes and heroines.  Both of those science-fiction scenarios require a suspension of disbelief: all you have to do to drink at the extraordinary Fountain of Swing is to go here and buy yourself and friends holiday and early-holiday and post-holiday presents.  (Friday, December 4, by the way, is one of Bandcamp’s special days where all the proceeds go to the musicians, with no fees deducted, so it’s a wonderful time to do this.)

The musical worlds (note plural) Michael and friends live in are so spacious that each of these has its own distinctive flavor, which I will try to describe.

Volume One, LATCH ON TO THAT RHYTHM, goes like this:
Somebody Loves Me / Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise / Lester Smooths It Out / Bounce Me Brother, with a Solid Four / Did I Remember? / Joe Louis Stomp / One Never Knows, Does One? and the musicians are Laura Windley, vocals (1, 4, 5, 7); Dan Levinson, clarinet / tenor; Noah Hocker, trumpet; Jonathan Stout, acoustic and electric guitars / Chris Dawson, piano; Michael Gamble, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  The overall flavor is multi-layered, with tastes of mid-Thirties Wilson and Billie, the Gramercy Five, and a splendid infusion of 1946 Aladdin and Keynote.  Even if the references mean little to you, hear how good the band sounds on JOE LOUIS STOMP.  And listen to Laura Windley work her magic on ONE NEVER KNOWS, DOES ONE? — that rarest of compositions, a song about the magic of love balancing frail hope and deep melancholy.  (By the way, it’s a Mack Gordon-Harry Revel creation from 1936, and although everyone knows it from Billie, it’s first sung by Alice Faye in a Shirley Temple film.  Consider that.)

Volume Two, EFFERVESCENT SWING, features
A Sunbonnet Blue (and a Yellow Straw Hat) / Coquette  / Me, Myself, and I / South / Am I Blue? / Sweet Sue / Effervescent Blues / Tickle-Toe, and some of the same rascals are present: Laura Windley (1, 3, 5); Dan Levinson (tenor 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; clarinet 5; alto 8); Chloe Feoranzo  (clarinet 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8; tenor 6); David Jellema, cornet; Charlie Halloran, trombone; Jonathan Stout; James Posedel, piano; Michael Gamble, Hal Smith.  The flavors — still delicious — are a little different.  Think the small-group Basie riffing of the Kansas City Six; toss with Reuss and Catlett seasonings; add some Commodore Condon rideouts; mix gently with the Charlie Christian – Benny Goodman Sextet (yes, I have those names in the right order); several tablespoons of 1938 Bobby Hackett, top with modern tailgate from Charlie Halloran, and you get the idea.  And the three songs associated with Billie — and sung gloriously by Laura — have sly arrangements that honor the period but don’t copy the records.  For one instance only, hear how the rideout of ME, MYSELF, AND I nods to LAUGHING AT LIFE, and Michael’s cross-dressing riffs that start off AM I BLUE remarkably.  So rewarding.  For musical samples, hie thyself to the Bandcamp page!

Volume Three, DIGGIN’ IN THE DEN, offers these daily specials: Good Morning Blues / Scuttlebutt / I’m Painting the Town Red / Tumble Bug / It’s Like Reaching for the Moon / Diggin’ in the Den / Honeysuckle Rose  — performed by these swing alchemists, Laura Windley (3, 5); Keenan McKenzie (clarinet / tenor); Gordon Au (trumpet); Jonathan Stout; Craig Gildner (piano); Michael Gamble; Riley Baker (drums).  Here, the recipe calls for a dark Kansas City groove (think Eddie Durham, Lips Page, Dick Wilson), with equal parts Gramercy 5 pre-bop gloss, Lady Day Vocalions (the gorgeous trumpet-tenor interplay at the start of IT’S LIKE REACHING FOR THE MOON) — all mixed together with modern ingenuity harking back to Basie and Ellington small groups but sounding fresh — even on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, which (admit it!) has been played to shreds in its various incarnations.

Volume Four THE GAMBLER, unwraps its digital box to reveal these gifts: Something to Pat Your Foot To / The Gambler / Smokey Shoulders / Sunday / Cotton Tail / Night Bloom / What’s the Fuss? / Bottoms Up.  The musicians radiating expert joy here are Laura Windley (4); Keenan McKenzie (clarinet and tenor); Jacob Zimmerman (clarinet and alto); Gordon Au; Lucian Cobb (trombone); Jonathan Stout; Chris Dawson; Michael Gamble; Josh Collazo (drums).  Here the aura is pleasantly situated between just-after-the-war sessions led by Sir Charles Thompson and Illinois Jacquet and the late-Forties Basie band.  I hear a good deal of mute work from the brass (all those not-terribly frightening snarls and growls) and glistening late-Forties electrified Reuss, with reed playing that soars and slides.  COTTON TAIL leaps over the fence likea caffeinated bunny, the originals stick in my head — always a good sign — and the last few tracks nudge so wondrously into what I’d call 1951 Clef Records territory.

If you’ve lost your way in the forest of words, the musical oasis can be found here.  I encourage you to visit there now, or December 4, or any old time.

Three things.  One is that I listened to all four discs in one sitting (a tea break between Two and Three doesn’t count) with delight, never looking at my watch.

Second, if you ever meet one of the Official Jazz Codgers who grumps, “Oh, these kids today try, but they don’t know how to swing,” I encourage you to box his ears with digital copies of this music — a wild metaphor, but you’ll figure it out — until he stops speaking nonsense.

Three, a paradox.  These are “isolation sessions,” with everyone miles apart, earbuds or headsets, praying for swing synchronicity — and that is a miracle itself.  (Ask any musician who’s participated in such rigors.)  But as I listen to this music, I feel much less alone — less isolated, to be exact.  Try it and see if you don’t feel the same way.

May your happiness increase!

IRRESISTIBLY SWINGING: THE BROOKS PRUMO ORCHESTRA: “THIS YEAR’S KISSES”

The new CD by the Brooks Prumo Orchestra, THIS YEAR’S KISSES, is wonderfully groovy, rather like the thing you can’t stay away from, Bert Lahr’s single Lay’s potato chip.  (You can look that up on YouTube.  I’ll wait.)  By the way, I loved the BPO’s first CD, PASS THE BOUNCE (2017): read about it here.

Here‘s the Bandcamp link for KISSES, where you can see the personnel, the song titles, hear a sample, download, or purchase this CD.

The description reads: The Brooks Prumo Orchestra was made for dancing. Featuring brand new arrangements of long-lost big band tunes, original compositions, and crowd favorites, the Brooks Prumo Orchestra aims to embody a big band dance orchestra of the Swing era. Filled with world-class musicians, the band will evoke thoughts of Count Basie, Earl Hines, Andy Kirk, and Billie Holiday.

The noble members of the BPO are Alice Spencer, vocals*; Mark Gonzales, trombone; Jonathan Doyle, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Lauryn Gould, alto saxophone; David Jellema, cornet; Oliver Steck, cornet; Hal Smith, drums; Ryan Gould, string bass; Kris Tokarski,  piano; Brooks Prumo, guitar.

And the delicious repertoire is  CASTLE ROCK / SOMEBODY LOVES ME* / ‘T’AIN’T LIKE THAT / PEEK-A-BOO / THIS YEAR’S KISSES* / JO-JO / DON’T BE THAT WAY / ARMFUL O’ SWEETNESS* / OUT OF NOWHERE / THE THEME / WHAT’S YOUR NAME?* / BLUE LESTER / BROADWAY / I’M THRU WITH LOVE* / JEEP’S BLUES.

Those who know will see splendid associations: Al Sears, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Count Basie, Karl George, Billie Holiday, Joe Bushkin, Jo Jones, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Alex Hill, Fats Waller, Henry “Red” Allen, Dexter Gordon, Nat Cole.

Happily, the CD is very forgiving of the dance-challenged: it allows me to sit in my chair, listen, and beam.  And to give you an idea of the intense attraction I had for this CD on my first hearing I thought, “I want this CD!” and then calmed down enough to think, “You already have it.”

Listening to it again and again, I envisioned the eleven members of this orchestra as a kind of M.C. Escher drawing, people swimming blissfully in two divergent streams at once.  One could be labeled NOW, which means that the musicians here sound like themselves — and their voices are so individualistic — but they are also having a high old time splashing around in THEN, so that many of the performances have a tender connection to past recorded performances.  But there is no conscious attempt (use your Steve Martin voice) to say, “Hey! Let’s Get OLD!” — no archival stiffness.  And the familiar material, say SOMEBODY, BROADWAY, NOWHERE, is delightfully enlivened by the band’s passionate immersion in not only the notes but the emotions.

The rhythm section is fine-tuned, flexible and resourceful, four individuals playing as one; the solos are memorable; the ensemble work is both loose and graciously cohesive.  This is a band, and even if there isn’t the official BPO band bus for the one-nighters, you can hear their pleasure in working together, easy and intense.

And a few lines, once again, for the miracle of nature known as Alice Spencer, who takes familiar music and makes it fresh, who makes songs associated with Billie Holiday for decades into her own without warping their intent, who can be perky or melancholy with utter conviction.  She is full of surprises — many singers telegraph what they are going to do in the next four bars, but she doesn’t — although her surprises always seem like the right thing once they have landed.  I won’t compare her to other singers: rather, she has an aura like a great film actress, comfortable in many roles.  Think Joan Blondell or Jean Arthur, and you have some idea of her great personal appeal.

This CD is a great gift.  It’s music for dancers, music for those of us who know the originals, music for people who need joy in their lives.  THIS YEAR’S KISSES is like sunshine breaking through: a consistent delight, much appreciated.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to it again.

May your happiness increase!

THE BAND THE ANGELS HIRED FOR THEIR PROM (January 15, 1967, Carnegie Hall)

Some may read those words as blasphemy, but the music is its own divine truth.

One of John Hammond’s best ideas, and he had many, was the two FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING concerts in 1938 and 1939: marvelous events with irreplaceable music from Benny Goodman, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Hot Lips Page, Ida Cox, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Count Basie, and more.  The music was recorded, and even with some technical flaws, it remains monumental.  Because of Hammond’s connection with Vanguard Records, it was issued there — first a two-record set, and more recently, on CDs.  (Like most CD sets, it’s “out of print,” but you can find copies.)

But this post is concerned with “newer” music . . . created in 1967.

In 1967, someone had the good idea of booking Carnegie Hall for a thirtieth anniversary concert, and selections from the concert were recorded and (five years later) issued on a two-record set featuring Basie, Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, John Handy, George Benson, and Marion Williams.  I wrote on the back of my copy that I bought it at Record World, a local chain, for $5.29, on April 23, 1972.  (I no longer annotate purchases this way: life got more complicated.)  The segment I love the most has a distinct Basie flavor.

In conversation with a new erudite jazz friend, Randy Smith, I found that we both had hoped for this music to be issued on CD, but obviously the glory days of jazz reissues are gone for whatever corporate entity controls this music, and even the European issuers have not touched it.  So — since yesterday was oddly and happily quiet in my apartment building, the families and dogs elsewhere for the moment, I made a DIY transfer of the music.  There’s a certain echo-y quality, but pretend that you have been taken by magic back to Carnegie Hall on January 15, 1967, and let me — and us — have our fun.

Goddard Lieberson introduces the “Cafe Society Band,” with some rueful amusement that the crowd response to that fabled place is small (the generation that had heard Frank Newton and Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, and Basie there had probably stayed at home) and he stumbles over Milt Hinton’s name, but he brings on the celestial orchestra: Count Basie, piano; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Buddy Tate, tenor saxophone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums, for SWINGIN’ THE BLUES.  I won’t explicate the delights here, but these nine minutes have been special music since 1972, and when I return to this performance I hear gratifying surprises, the hallmark of the greatest art.

The solos and ensemble interplay between Buck, Ed, and Buddy are priceless, showing that the players so brilliant in 1937 were still brilliant thirty years later, without a hint of repeating their routines.  (How DO they age so well?)  For me, though, this is a post-graduate seminar in rhythm-section playing, with each of the three “in the back” bringing so much sonic and textural variety, playing little aural games of hide-and-seek.  Basie, especially, shows once again that he was not only the master of silence, which is not a paradox, but of how to push a soloist with the right note or propulsive chord.  I think only Sidney Catlett approached his mastery in this — when to bide his time, when to create one accent that would have the effect of a “Yeah!”:

“They called him a shouter.”  Big Joe Turner, who had appeared at Hammond’s original concerts, comes onstage.  In his later years, he often appeared to be very little concerned with what verses he sang in what order (although he may have had a plan that I am not able to discern) and the result was a kind of swing autopilot, where I and others just listened to the majestic roar and holler of his voice.  But here, on a blues called (perhaps after the fact) I’M GOING AWAY TO WEAR YOU OFF MY MIND, his dramatic gift, his sadness, is lovely and powerful.  Hear how he sings his initial “Thank you,” and note the wonderful support Ray Bryant gives him, Buck’s solo, and Jo Jones’ exhortations:

Then, ROLL’EM, PETE — which Joe and Pete Johnson first recorded in 1938.  Pete Johnson had been ill, but he was at this concert.  I’ll let Dan Morgenstern, who was also there, describe the scene that you will hear, as he did in DOWN BEAT (included in Don DeMicheal’s fine liner notes):

Then, for the concert’s most moving moment, Lieberson escorted Pete Johnson on stage and introduced him as one of the participants in the original Spirituals to Swing and the greatest boogie-woogie pianist. Johnson had suffered a series of paralytic strokes and had not played piano for many years. His old buddy, Turner, took him by the hand, and for a moment the two middle-aged men looked touchingly like little boys.

Turner dedicated ROLL ‘EM PETE to his old friend, as Lieberson and Johnson were about to leave the stage. Instead, they stopped, and the pianist seated himself next to Bryant at the piano and began to play the treble part of his old showpiece, Bryant handling the bass. Johnson was a bit shaky but game, gaining in confidence as the number built in intensity:

It wasn’t 1938 any longer, but it was a damned fine evocation, with Buddy Tate at his vocal best, Edmond Hall matching him in exuberance (Hall died later that year), Buck and Jo building castles of swing as only they could:

In 2020, no one who sang or played on that stage in 1967 is around to uplift us.  (I take pleasure in knowing that Dan Morgenstern will read this post.)

But their sounds, their passion, their grace remains.

May your happiness increase!

HAPPY 95th BIRTHDAY, GEORGE WEIN!

In front, Bobby Hackett, Louis Armstrong, George Wein; behind them, Joe Newman, Dizzy Gillespie — at the July 1970 celebration of Louis at the Newport Jazz Festival.

I saw the pleasing news on Facebook — and in an online source called CELEBRITY ACCESS, which summed it all up with a video and these words (if the New York Times had a front-page story, it eluded me, alas):

NEWPORT, RI (CelebrityAccess) — George Wein, the legendary pianist, jazz and festival promoter, turned 95 on Saturday.

Wein, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival and co-founded the Newport Folk Festival, also played a key role in the creation of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Wein’s birthday was marked by tributes from the likes of James Taylor, Senator Jack Reed, Dianne Reeves, Jason Moran, Nate Smith, and Ben Jaffe.

George deserves a little more fuss.

The Newport Jazz Festival, which he founded in 1954 — and is still a going concern — featured everyone.  The Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Archie Shepp. Duke, Louis, Miles, Trane, Dizzy, Monk, Hamp, Benny, Billie, Roy, Hawk, Pres, Ben.  What other festival featured both Donald Lambert and Sonny Rollins?  If you didn’t appear at Newport — in its now sixty-six year span — you had died before it began [Bessie Smith, Charlie Parker, Frank Newton, Hot Lips Page] or you had missed your set.  George’s reach was extensive and his tastes heroically inclusive.  Those who never got to Rhode Island were nourished by recordings and performance film footage; George created tours — Europe and Japan — that brought the music to eager audiences who would otherwise not have partaken of it first-hand.

Before Newport, George had clubs in Boston: Storyville and Mahogany Hall, where you could enjoy Sidney Catlett, Stan Getz, Sidney Bechet, Lee Konitz, Erroll Garner, and other deities.  When the Newport Jazz Festival took a brief trip to New York, as the Kool Jazz Festival or the JVC Jazz Festival, I was able to see Benny Carter, Allen Eager, Charles Mingus, Lee Wiley, Gene Krupa and others who gladden my heart.  In the early Fifties, George also had a record label — Storyville — where you could hear Milli Vernon and Beryl Booker, Ruby Braff, Teddi King, Ellis Larkins, Johnny Windhurst and Jo Jones.  I’m also reasonably sure that George’s generosity — not publicized, but apparent — kept some musicians in gigs and dinner for long periods.

Incidentally, I am doing all of this delighted salute from memory: George’s 2004 autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, is a much more detailed view at almost six hundred pages, so I know I have left out a great deal for which George deserves praise.

George also loves to play the piano and to sing, and although I think those activities have slowed down or ceased in recent years, his pleasure in these activities emerged most fully in the Newport All-Stars, a group that at various times featured Tal Farlow, Pee Wee Russell, Buzzy Drootin, Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Red Norvo, Norris Turney, Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache, Bud Freeman, Slam Stewart, and others: George’s discography begins in 1951 and its most recent entry is 2012.

I’d like to offer some swinging evidence of George as pianist: not at his own festival in Newport, but at the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, in July 1977: a nearly nineteen-minute jam on TAKE THE “A” TRAIN, nominally under the leadership of clarinet legend Barney Bigard — featuring Jimmy Maxwell, Joe Newman, trumpet; Clark Terry, trumpet and flugelhorn; Eddie Daniels, tenor saxophone; Slam Stewart, string bass; Bobby Rosengarden, drums.  Notice the atypically expansive piano solo that George creates at the start: percussive, surprising, mobile . . . and watch Barney Bigard’s delighted face at the end.

Happy birthday, George!  Our lives would be much poorer had you chosen another career.

May your happiness increase!

YOUR HAPPINESS LIES RIGHT UNDER YOUR EYES: JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, JOSH DUNN, ALBANIE FALLETTA, SEAN CRONIN, KEVIN DORN (Cafe Bohemia, March 12, 2020)

As 2020 ticks on, I find myself daydreaming about being in JFK, my bags checked, the TSA pat-down concluded, walking towards my gate, knowing that soon I will be on a plane for an eagerly-anticipated jazz festival.  Then the emotional mist clears, and I think, “Not yet, even if one is announced,” and I turn my thoughts to the local scene.

This is my local scene: the suburban apartment complex where I’ve lived for sixteen years.  I no longer apologize for my nesting impulse, for the fact that I haven’t driven anywhere since March 24 (yes, I do start the car weekly) and that I spend hours in a triangular rotation of computer – kitchen – bedroom.  This is as close as I can get to having a bosky dell, a garden, or a backyard, and it’s a consolation.  And in this landscape where virus numbers often rise and rarely dip, it’s a good place to spend time.

I also love the song commemorating the pleasures of nesting.  You may think of that vintage composition in connection with Al Jolson or Billie Holiday, but the lovely strains I prize happened right in front of my face, ears, camera, and heart on Thursday, March 12, 2020 — the last song of the last set of music I experienced in New York City (at Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street) — a performance that, to me, would still have been transcendent had the circumstances been mild and predictable.

The noble improvisers here, the official uplifters, are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; Josh Dunn, guitar; Sean Cronin, string bass — with delightful visitors Kevin Dorn, drums (wire brushes and snare, to be exact) and Albanie Falletta, resonator guitar:

Why are tears forming in my eyes?  They aren’t from despair, but from the effort necessary to sustain hope.

As for The Backyard, masked-and-prudent visitors invited.  Transportation’s up to you, but I can provide iced drinks, unhealthy snacks, bathroom facilities, and gratitude.  Two days’ notice, please.  If I’m out, Maisie will take the message.

May your happiness increase!

“I’M AS HAPPY AS A PUP”: A SONG AND PHOTOGRAPHS TO SUSTAIN US

A friend posted this jubilant photograph about a week ago, and it’s stayed in my mind as the epitome of joyous freedom.  The splendidly happy fellow is Cooper (he asks that his last name not be used: he’d rather frolic than answer mail).

The photo raises the question: “How could I have such joy in my life?” and I don’t pretend to have the answer: these are not joyous times for those whose eyes are open.  But one spiritual panacea has to be music: the sounds that make our eyes bright and our tails wag.

When I saw Cooper’s portrait, “I’m as happy as a pup,” ran through my head, and I tracked it down to the Gershwins’ THINGS ARE LOOKING UP, and the thread went straight to Mr. Astaire, then to Lady Day.  It’s a poignant version, with Buck Clayton whispering I CAN’T GET STARTED in our ears, then Billie approaches the possibly jubilant text with a hint of poignant tentativeness — can this be true? — the sound of someone who has known sadness and is wary of embracing joy too unguardedly.  Her delivery of the bridge is so tender (I think of MANDY IS TWO, a few years later) but her second offering of the title is more exultant, as if she had crossed the fiery river to safety and could relax and contemplate the much more real possibility of joy.  (All of this in under two minutes.)  Teddy Wilson’s sixteen bars characteristically glisten, but it pleases me so much to hear Vido Musso, consciously or otherwise, sounding so much like a wordless Billie.  Completely touching and genuine.

Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra : Buck Clayton , trumpet; Prince Robinson, clarinet; Vido Musso, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Cozy Cole, drums [as Swing Roo (d) ] on label, Billie Holiday, vocal; New York, November 1, 1937:

This post is for Cooper (who obviously has so much to teach us) and my friend, for Charles of Sammut, for Penny Bengels, Pika Skjelbred, Winston and Harriet Comba, and a thousand other sentient beings who know how to love, how to frolic.

And if you think I demean Lady by linking her to Cooper, consider this:

and this, which even though it’s stiffly posed, the dogs don’t mind:

and this tenderness:

May your happiness increase!

“SOLID, GATE!”: THE ONYX TRIO: TEDDY BUNN, LEO WATSON, BOBBY HENDERSON (Saturday Night Swing Club, July 15, 1937).

Bobby Henderson, as “Jody Bolden,” performing in Albany, New York.

The hell with time-travel.  Before you long to go back to 1937, remember lynching, polio, breadlines, dictatorships.  Don’t touch that dial.  But a short jaunt back into audible time, not heard before, cannot wound.  This five-minute radio airshot from the SATURDAY NIGHT SWING CLUB (on the Columbia Broadcasting System) of July 15, 1937, is a delightful rebuke to those who feel “all the good stuff has been found and heard already.”  Nay nay, indeed.

To me, and to many of  you, this will be an astonishing rarity: few knew it existed.  The earnest-comic-attempting-to-be-hep announcer (possibly chained to his script?) is Paul Douglas. The musicians are guitarist Teddy Bunn, scat-singing wizard Leo Watson, also playing drums, and pianist Bobby Henderson.

This is the only recording of Henderson in his prime; he was at one time the young Billie Holiday’s accompanist, and in 1932 he recorded some sides which were never released with Martha Raye and Lonnie Johnson — but he would have to wait until the middle Fifties to make recordings, three on the Vanguard label — one Verve side from a Newport Jazz Festival appearance in 1957 — then a decade later for Hank O’Neal, when Henderson had become ill.

Here he displays great swing mastery.

Teddy and Leo are deliciously unique: note Leo’s making “CBS” and “Columbia” part of his vocal, and Bunn is a complete rhythm CPR in himself.  The fidelity is narrow but clear.  Perhaps this is how it sounded on AM radio in mid-July 1937?

Blessings on the creators, and on the savers of their creativity.

May your happiness increase!

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MAKING THE MUNDANE BEAUTIFUL, or LONG SLEEVES (Part One)

I am slowly getting back into 78-record collecting, thanks to Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, and I emphasize “slowly”: no bidding wars, and many of the records I’ve purchased would be considered “common” by more well-established collectors, although I will — immodestly — begin with a picture of a record I treasure, bought a few years ago.

However, this post isn’t primarily about the recorded obsession.  It is about the beauty of the ordinary: the paper sleeves once personalized by record stores.  I saw an eBay site devoted to jazz records from Denmark, and was thrilled by the more ornate labels of the records themselves and the beautifully creative sleeves.  There will be only three minutes of music on this post, but you can follow my lead to YouTube, where many of these recordings are waiting for your tender, approving touch.  Today my subject is advertising art at its most sweetly distinctive.

The eBay seller I have borrowed these images from is https://www.ebay.com/usr/seuk880, and the 78s are still for sale, as I write this in the last week of April 2020.  The seller has a large and varied collection, but here are a few that caught my eye — and might catch yours as well.

Tommy Ladnier, in high style:

Billie, originally on Commodore:

Louis, for my friend Katherine:

Hawkins, solo, a two-sided meditation:

This (below) is my absolute favorite of the whole series, and it it were not $10 for the Morton disc and $18 for the shipping, it would be on its way to me now.  Please, someone, buy this so I don’t have to?

Ella and Louis:

Glenn Miller:

Fats meets Freddy:

I don’t know the artist but could not resist the sleeve:

and here Aladdin points the way to swing:

I think ten of these beauties is enough for one post, but if there is interest, I have nineteen or twenty more sleeve-images to share with you.  And would.

I promised you three minutes of music, so that no one would go to bed feeling deprived.  Here’s REINCARNATION by Paul Mares and his Friars Society Orchestra : Paul Mares, trumpet; Santo Pecora, trombone; Omer Simeon, clarinet; Boyce Brown, alto saxophone; Jess Stacy, piano; Marvin Saxbe, guitar;  Pat Pattison, string bass; George Wettling, drums — January 1935, Chicago:

May your happiness increase!

YOUR HAPPINESS LIES / RIGHT UNDER YOUR EYES, or POSTPONE THAT TRIP (2020 Edition)

I believe that the first version of this now-neglected classic song I heard was Jolson’s, then Billie’s . . . and it is even more pertinent now, as an antidote to the restless itch to be somewhere else, or to have a “bucket list” of places to visit.  In this time of sheltering-at-home, to me it seems the ideal soundtrack, even if your backyard is only imaginary or remembered.

From 2011:

2012:

Later that year, and closer to my backyard:

2014:

and 2016:

I even have a version of this song recorded in March 2020, but it hasn’t passed the Imperial Board of Censors just yet.  And since I am keenly aware of ironies, I know that for all but one of these performances celebrating the joys of one’s own place, I had to get on a plane to enjoy and record it.  Calling Steven Wright or perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson — the latter of whom wrote “Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.

So today, perhaps, I will put off the thrilling journey to the Post Office and, later, when adventure calls to me, I will take the cardboard boxes to the recycling area. Back in my own backyard for sure.  Possibly constrained, but reasonably safe from harm.

May your happiness increase!

 

ANOTHER TUNE FOR THE TIMES (March 8, 2020)

This commercialized mirth might strike you as extreme, but bear with me.

Perhaps this will resonate more effectively.  The OKeh sleeve makes me smile.

And this.

This song has been turned into a terrible cliche through ninety years of routine performance, but this effort from March 8 — which seems like ages ago! — takes me right back to Billie and Louis. The cheerful creators here are Danny Coots, drums; Steve Pikal, string bass; Brian Holland, piano; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet; Marc Caparone, cornet; special guest, Riley Baker, trombone. All this goodness took place at the 2020 Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California.

As an aside, I’d always thought of SMILING as a post-Wall Street crash song, but not only was Louis’ recording before the market imploded, but the first recording, by Bill Carlsen’s Orchestra, dates from May 1928 in Chicago.  (Thanks to Charles Richdale for this prompt answer to my research query.)  So the suggestion that smiling built community where tears did not was in its own way timeless.  I hope readers can find reason to grin.

In the process of assembling this blog — which often feels like a small-town newspaper — I encountered this sweet 1928 recording, new to me, which I include because it begins with the verse.  And I admire Seger Ellis.  SMILING has gotten criticized by the “true jazz connoisseurs” as saccharine, over-simple: a song that needed improvisers to raise it above the mundane.  I’d disagree: sometimes a sweet uncomplicated tonic is just the thing to settle one’s nerves.

May your happiness increase!

STREET FOOD, AN EXOTIC HONEYMOON, EXUBERANT DANCE, 1936

If you asked me to give an overview of jazz and popular music in 1936, I might summon up Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Putney Dandridge, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill, Gene Krupa, Fifty-Second Street, Red Allen, Art Tatum, Bob Howard, Mildred Bailey, Jones-Smith, Incorporated, Teddy Wilson, and twenty others.  It would be a little after THE MUSIC GOES ROUND AND ROUND but just right for I’SE A-MUGGIN’, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, and RHYTHM IN MY NURSERY RHYMES, perhaps DINNER FOR ONE, PLEASE JAMES.

But in even broader strokes, this was the early triumph of the Swing Era, dominated by well-rehearsed bands, using intricate arrangements for dancers.  But art, however you define it, is never homogeneous: while Joyce and Woolf were exploding the conventions of narrative, many traditional linear novels were published and read.  In jazz, we know that Max Roach and Baby Dodds were on the same radio broadcast in most congenial fashion.  And in the very late Fifties, Herbie Nichols, Steve Lacy, Ed Allen, and Cecil Scott were all gigging in New York City simultaneously.

These musings come about because of Briscoe Draper’s posting on Facebook of a song I’d never heard, LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON, which delights me.  It features the clarinet playing of Arnett Nelson, someone I’ve heard about from one of my other teachers, Sammut of Malta — whose expert playing has nothing to do with the elegant playing of Benny and Artie, so much in fashion in 1936.  These tracks were issued under the all-inclusive but unspecific name “Chicago Rhythm Kings,” which jazz fans will recognize as a nom-de-disque for young white Chicagoans in 1928.

Here is the recording data, edited from Tom Lord.  Steve Abrams suggests that Guy Kelly is the trumpeter, but I feel that the player we hear is less assured.  And is the pianist Black Bob or Jimmy Blythe?  I do not know, nor are such matters my focus.

Lord notes: prob. Alfred Bell (cnt) Roy Palmer (tb) Arnett Nelson (cl,vcl) prob. Black Bob (p) prob John Lindsay (b) Jimmy Bertrand (d).  Chicago, March 11, 1936: YOU BATTLE-HEAD BEETLE- HEAD Vocalion 3208 / IT’S TOO BAD (WHEN THE SISTERS START TRUCKIN’ AROUND) in two takes; Voc 3208.
Same personnel but unknown (as-1) added.  Chicago, April 3, 1936: SHANGHAI HONEYMOON Bluebird 6371 / LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON (same, unknown vocalist).

Because Steve Abrams has generously made available his 78 transfer of IT’S TOO BAD / YOU BATTLE-HEAD, I have included that as well as the YouTube transfers, which might be from the RST CD collection.  (There are pitch and sonic differences: I would assume that the 78 transfer is a more trustworthy source, but such waters are deep and dark.)

I invite you to turn away from the news and immerse yourself in a different world, thanks to these “Hot Dance with Vocal Chorus” records.  I’ll have some listening comments at the end.

and the 78 version:

Flip it over, as they used to say:

This seems the same take as the 78, unless they followed the routines closely:

If you are enamored of SHANGHAI HONEYMOON, there are many versions with vocal refrains and ostentatious “Chinese” cliches.  However, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have performed this opus — you can find it on YouTube — with its ethnic-racial tendencies tamed, and a duet by Ray and Katie Cavera (also on the Jazzology CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO):

and my new favorite ditty, which I hope to hear Dave Stuckey sing when we meet again (although that is a suggestion rather than an order — greetings, Pappy!):

Depending on how deeply you have steeped yourself in the music of the period, you may hear many different things.
First, the material itself is cheerfully homemade: except for SHANGHAI, the songs are composed by the players, and they are miles away from Rodgers and Hart or Arlen and Koehler.  That is not to condescend, for listeners respond strongly to campfire songs as well as poetry, but BEETLE and TOO BAD seem more enthusiastic than expert: the end-rhymes are inexact, and occasionally the lyrics and music do not fit neatly.  They are set-pieces for an audience who wanted to party: the “you’re a fool for getting so drunk” song; the “let’s celebrate wild action on the dance floor” song — reminiscent of a contemporaneous Tampa Red blues — especially because the Chicago blues records of this period employed many of the same musicians.  I hear echoes of MAMA DON’T ALLOW and HOW’M I DOIN’ as well as YOU RASCAL YOU.
LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON aspires to be one of those songs mingling love and the bill of fare (think WHEN LOVE DROPPED IN TO TEA) but it doesn’t get there; the composer(s) are more focused on what’s for sale than in a Billy Wilder meet-cute with someone’s hamburger being shared by thrifty lovers.  (I hear echoes of ACE IN THE HOLE in the first strain.)
SHANGHAI HONEYMOON is the most “professional” song of the four, possibly going back to 1927, and whether Lester Melrose had anything to do with writing it or simply required a portion of the royalties in exchange for getting it published, played, and recorded, I do not know, but the three other songs did not have any currency outside of this record date, where HONEYMOON did.  I have seen no sheet music for the other songs.
Second, these recordings are stylistically earlier than 1936 (no offense meant there either); rather than being “streamlined,” “innovative,” or “harmonically forward-looking,” they happily live in the musical world that Dick Wellstood called “grease and funk,” with TOO BAD and BEETLE sounding, to me, like Saturday-night-party music.  The closest parallel in jazz is the long series of Clarence Williams recordings, but these sides are genuine crossover music before the name ever emerged, with sideways connections to blues and roots music.
And this is understandable, given the histories of the players: for most of them, this was their last recording session, and some of them had been recording since 1921 or 1923.  I delight in Arnett Nelson’s wildly opinionated clarinet — “I have something to say and I have to say it loudly and right now,” and the powerful rhythm section. But we are miles away from the Benny Goodman Quartet, Toto.  I also have a special affection for the rather sweetly amateurish singer on SANDWICH: was he someone’s relative or friend?  (I wonder what the significance of “He didn’t serve no rice” is.  An easy rhyme for “nice,” or are there deeper meanings?
Finally, I wonder how these record dates came to be.  In New York, Williams made no records between 1935 and 1937, and his 1934 sides for the Decca “Sepia Series” were issued as the “Alabama Jug Band.” Did a Vocalion recording executive in Chicago perceive that this band — of known reliable musicians who were also appearing on blues records — should be given the chance to make two sides of their own compositions with the hope of a jukebox hit?  Musicians recorded such sessions with little preparation; they were paid scale.  It would not have cost Vocalion much, but clearly the records did not make a stir.  Did Nelson or someone else in the band take the test pressings over to the Victor studios and request a date in April?
I have stayed away from discussing race in this post, but I will suggest that a 1936 record buyer would recognize these four sides as being performed and aimed at a “colored” audience, to use the description of the times.  Yet I know Bluebird (by which I mean Victor) also used the “Chicago Rhythm Kings” name to issue a record or records by what I believe are white orchestras.
All this must, I think, remain mysterious.  What we have is rollicking, enthusiastic hot music played by Chicago veterans.  Thank goodness for records, and particularly for odd, cheerful ones like these four.
May your happiness increase!

A FEW WORDS ABOUT ART METRANO, THEN THREE CHORUSES OF BEAUTY: JAMES DAPOGNY at the PIANO (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, Sept. 16, 2016)

James Dapogny at Jazz at Chautauqua, September 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman.

Jim Dapogny’s absence in my world is a tangible thing, as solid as any object I might stumble over or into on my path through my hours.  But his presence is even more solid: his voice, his gestures, his puckish surprising off-handed self.  And the sounds he created at the piano, a simple phrase articulated so memorably that the notes sound like a joke for us.  I bless recording equipment: imagine if Jim had been Buddy Petit, someone recalled but never heard.

At fast tempos, Jim’s playing was raucous, exact, and astonishing: here comes the band!  I knew it would take a lifetime of concentrated practice to come close to a bad imitation of what he could do, so my reaction was always, “Did you hear what he just did there?”  On a slow blues or a rhythm ballad, he created the momentary illusion: I would think, “I could do that if I really worked at it,” which of course was a delusion, but Jim was, in his own way, strolling along in the way Bing sang.  As Fats told Joe Bushkin, “It’s so easy when you know how.”

Jim knew how.

Here he is, very relaxed, at the piano at one of the short solo interludes that were a delight at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party: the piano situated informally in a large open area, a small attentive quiet audience.  I knew I was in the presence of something and someone magical: I hope everyone felt as I did.  And do.

This video begins with the tail of Jim’s previous performance of musings on FINE AND DANDY, rather like a glimpse of a cat going in to another room.  (I hope to be able to share those musings someday.)  And what follows is playing that sounds like relaxed speech or song, but is anything but easy.  It’s a 1938 rhythm ballad, IF I WERE YOU, which Billie and others sang, and I think of it as a Brill Building song coming from a familiar phrase, as so many did.

The first sixteen bars might seem only a straight exposition of the melody, stated clearly in bright colors.  But listen to the sound, Jim’s definite but never abrupt attack, his touch, and then, as he begins to explore the bridge, even more shadings emerge. His distinctive harmonic flavorings, the elasticity of his time (the way his left hand is steadily keeping the danceable tempo while the rhythmic placements of his single notes and chords is not locked in to four-beats to the bar), the very slight grace-note dissonances that are here and gone.  There’s enough in that “straight” first chorus to keep me happy for years.

The second chorus is freer, more expansive, although the melodic thread isn’t lost in the suspensions, the hesitations between chords, the sweet emphases.  In the manner of the greatest players (think Morton, Louis, Sullivan, Hodges) Jim plays a phrase, considers it, plays a variation on that phrase, and then another, before moving on to the next idea — we see the structures being sketched in the air before the artist’s hand moves on.  In real life, as I wrote above, I would be thinking, “WHAT was that?”  Thank goodness for video: I can return, and you can too, to examine a particular aural jewel.  The bridge of the second chorus, for example — four-dimensional tap dancing.

The third chorus seems more abstract, with dancing single-note lines, but Jim tenderly returns to melodic cadences as if embracing an old friend once again.  Catch the rocking-rowboat phrase with which he ends the bridge, and the gentle tag with which the whole performance closes.

A quiet marvel, and he performed like this for more than fifty years.  How fortunate we are that we shared the planet with Professor Dapogny:

I imagine a reverent pause here.  You will have to create one for yourselves, or perhaps play this video over again.

A conversation with Jim was always animated by reminiscences of some fairly obscure comedian’s bit, a theatrical world rather than “a joke” — re-enacted at the table, over the lamb vindaloo, so here are two brief videos devoted to the remarkable Art Metrano, whom Jim delights in at the start of his performance:

Moving Art closer to current times — he is still with us, at 83:

This posting is for Jim, the complex marvel whom some of us got to know and others simply can hear, and for those of us who miss him deeply.  You know who you are.

May your happiness increase!

HONORING PRES and LADY DAY: SCOTT ROBINSON, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JOE COHN, MURRAY WALL at CAFE BOHEMIA (January 30, 2020)

The great innovators began as imitators and emulators, but their glory is they went beyond attempts to reproduce their models: think of Louis and Joe Oliver, think of Bird and Chu Berry, of Ben and Hawk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was present for a glorious example of honoring the innovators on January 30, 2020, at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, when Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, cornet, and more; Murray Wall, string bass; Joe Cohn, guitar, crated merriment, art, and enlightenment.  I’ve posted their extravagant ROYAL GARDEN BLUES here.  It’s worth the nine minutes and ten seconds of your time.

A few songs later, Jon-Erik suggested that Scott take the lead for a performance, which he did, most splendidly, with FOOLIN’ MYSELF.  Yes, it’s a  homage to a heard Lester and a remembered Billie, but it also takes in a fragment of Rex Stewart’s BOY MEETS HORN, and creates on the spot a riff reminiscent of Fats’ HANDFUL OF KEYS as reimagined by Ruby Braff:

Thus it isn’t the little box of Homage or Tribute but a large world, elastic, expansive, gratifying.  The way to honor the trail-blazers is to blaze trails.

Postscript: this is being posted on Tuesday, February 18.  On Thursday, the 20th, Scott will be leading a quartet at that very same Cafe Bohemia, with sets at 8 and 10.  Break the piggy bank and come down the stairs!

May your happiness increase!

THE GLORIES OF WALTER DONALDSON: JONATHAN DOYLE – JACOB ZIMMERMAN SEXTET at the REDWOOD COAST MUSIC FESTIVAL: KRIS TOKARSKI, KATIE CAVERA, CHARLIE HALLORAN, HAL SMITH, BRANDON AU (May 12, 2019)

Few people would recognize the portrait on its own.

But Walter Donaldson (1893-1947) wrote songs that everyone knows (or perhaps, in our collective amnesia, once knew): MY BLUE HEAVEN; LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME; AT SUNDOWN; YES SIR, THAT’S MY BABY; HOW YA GONNA KEEP THEM DOWN ON THE FARM?; MAKIN’ WHOOPEE; CAROLINA IN THE MORNING; LITTLE WHITE LIES; MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME; WHAT CAN I SAY AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY; YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, and many more — six hundred songs and counting.  Ironically, the man who created so much of the American vernacular in song is little-chronicled, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, he is buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn.  So much for Gloria Mundi.

On May 12, 2019,  Jonathan Doyle (here playing bass saxophone) and Jacob Zimmerman (clarinet and alto saxophone) created a  wonderful exploration of Donaldson’s less-known and often completely unknown compositions for the Redwood Coast Music Festival.  Joining them were Kris Tokarski (piano); Katie Cavera (guitar); Charlie Halloran (trombone); Hal Smith (drums).  Charlie had to rush off to another set, so Brandon Au takes his place for the final number, JUST THE SAME.  There are some small interferences in these videos: lighting that keeps changing, dancers mysteriously magnetized by my camera, yet oblivious to it (a neat trick) but the music comes through bigger-than-life.

Ordinarily, I parcel out long sets in two segments, but I was having such fun reviewing these performances that I thought it would be cruel to make you all wait for Part Two.  So here are ten, count them, Donaldson beauties — and please listen closely to the sweetness and propulsion this ad hoc ensemble gets, as well as the distinctive tonalities of each of the players — subtle alchemists all.  At points, I thought of a Twenties tea-dance ensemble, sweetly wooing the listeners and dancers; at other times, a stellar hot group circa 1929, recording for OKeh.  The unusual instrumentation is a delight, and the combination of Donaldson’s unerring ear for melodies and what these soloists do with “new” “old” material is, for me, a rare joy.  In an ideal world, this group, playing rare music, would be “Live from Lincoln Center” or at least issuing a two-CD set.  We can hope.

LITTLE WHITE LIES, still a classic mixing swing and romantic betrayal:

DID I REMEMBER? — possibly best-remembered for Billie’s 1936 recording:

SWEET JENNIE LEE! which, for me, summons up a Hit of the Week paper disc and a Frank Chace home jam session:

MAYBE IT’S THE MOON — so pretty and surprisingly unrecorded:

YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO TELL ME (I KNEW IT ALL THE TIME) — in my mind’s ear, I hear Jackson T. singing this:

SOMEBODY LIKE YOU, again, surprisingly unacknowledged:

CLOUDS, recorded by the Quintette of the Hot Club of France:

TIRED OF ME, a very touching waltz:

REACHING FOR SOMEONE (AND NOT FINDING ANYONE THERE), which enjoyed some fame because of Bix, Tram, and Bing:

JUST THE SAME, which I went away humming:

Thoroughly satisfying and intriguing as well.

I dream of the musical surprises that will happen at the 2020 Redwood Coast Music Festival (May 7-10, 2020).  With over a hundred sets of music spread out over four days and on eight stages, I feel comfortable saying there will be delightful surprises.  Their Facebook page is here, too.

May your happiness increase!

“I’M WISE TO ALL THOSE TRICKS YOU PLAYED ON ME”: LUCY YEGHIAZARYAN SINGS AT MEZZROW (Stefan Vasnier, Vincent Dupont, Greg Ruggiero: January 28, 2020)

I admire the art of Lucy Yeghiazaryan — learn more here — and I am not alone.

Here are two more wonderful performances by Lucy, with pianist Stefan Vasnier, string bassist Vincent Dupont, and guitarist Greg Ruggiero — created at Mezzrow on her late-Tuesday set, January 28, 2020.  (If you missed her passionate PRISONER OF LOVE, here is that remarkable experience.)

“Happiness writes in white ink on a white page,” says Henry de Montherlant, and the ache of failed love has been a fertile subject for songwriters — much more than the Twenties’ optimism of “My baby and me are getting married in June.”

In PRISONER OF LOVE, the singer speaks of being “too weak to break the chains that bind me,” where the jail term sounds like a life sentence.  THE GENTLEMAN IS A DOPE, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rodgers, from the 1947 show ALLEGRO, has a much more arch premise, mixing yearning and derision: the one I adore is too stupid to notice my love:

That lover is still stuck in mid-passion, but the protagonist of I’M GONNA LOCK MY HEART (AND THROW AWAY THE KEY) aims a declaration of independence right at the faithless, treacherous partner, in this 1938 Jimmy Eaton-Terry Shand song associated with Billie Holiday:

Thankfully, Lucy and friends are gigging here and there (“follow her on Facebook,” as they say) but the next Mezzrow appearance will be Tuesday, February 25.  I plan to be there, perhaps at that same second table on the left.

May your happiness increase!