Tag Archives: Billy Taylor

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, 1944

A simple song about a universal, deep desire — by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar.  The melody is very unadorned, as are the lyrics: qualities that would make it memorable to a large popular audience and also great material for jazz improvisers.  It was recorded frequently when it was a new pop song, then given new life by Benny Goodman, his orchestra, and other Swing Era bands.

In my time, I’ve seen leaders call I WANT TO BE HAPPY when they want a trustworthy up-tempo song, often to close a set.  I remember Wild Bill Davison announcing the title and then leering at the audience, “Don’t we ALL?”  Kenny Davern, more an intellectual comedian, would conjugate the statement in a half-Yiddish inflection, “I vant to be happy, he vants to be happy . . . ” and then trail off amidst the audience’s laughter.

Here is a particularly memorable 1944 version, showing that a good melody has its own immortality, especially when explored by brilliant improvisers who never lose sight of the melody’s validity: the Commodore Records classic (from a long session with many alternate takes) featuring Edmond Hall, Teddy Wilson, Billy Taylor, Arthur Trappier (July 20).  It is easy to take this superficially as a version of a Goodman small group because of the uplifting presence of Wilson, but Hall and Wilson had been working together at Cafe Society for some time.

The YouTube presenter has gotten the date wrong and provides no data; instead there is a constant flow of often irrelevant photographs, but the music is what matters.

And what music!  It’s really a simple recording — a worked-out introduction, a chorus for Hall, one for the rhythm section, another for Hall (low-register with the bridge for bassist Taylor) one for the rhythm section with the bridge for Trappier on brushes, then a quartet improvisation, everyone more intense but hardly louder, ending with no dramatics.  I marvel at Edmond’s tone in all his registers, his easy facility that is allied to great quiet intensity; the depth of Wilson’s harmonic inventions that are always moving — he never puts a foot wrong but nothing seems worked-out — and the solid sweet push of Taylor and Trappier.

It’s a remarkable recording because it never tugs at the listener’s sleeve to say LOOK HOW REMARKABLE WE ARE.  (However, if one hears it through a fog of multi-tasking, it might become background music — what we used to call “elevator music,” which would be a shame.)

This was the peak of a particular style (still practiced beautifully today): swinging melodic inventiveness in solo and ensemble.  There really is no way that a listener could improve on this group effort, and I whimsically theorize that Bird and Dizzy went their own ways because this style, these individualistic players, had so polished this kind of jazz that there was no way to better it without breaking out of it.

We still want to be happy, and music like this points the way, if only we take the time to immerse ourselves in it.

May your happiness increase!

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DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS BIG SID CATLETT and JOE THOMAS (April 21, 2017)

I’m thrilled that I could visit Dan Morgenstern again at his apartment and we could talk and create something permanent that people could enjoy and learn from.  The first session took place on March 3, 2017, and the results are here.

About six weeks later, we got together again so that Dan, an enchanting storyteller whose stories have the virtue of being true, could share his love for his and our heroes.

The first segments we did that April afternoon were tributes to mutual deities, Sidney Catlett and Joe Thomas.  First, Big Sid:

and then the lyrical, melodic trumpeter Joe:

with a sweet postscript:

Here are Joe, Big Sid, Teddy Wilson, and Ed Hall on a 1943 V-Disc session:

and the Keynote Records side Dan refers to, with Joe, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Trummy Young, Earl Hines, Teddy Walters, and Billy Taylor:

and Louis’ Decca WOLVERINE BLUES with Big Sid:

There’s much more to come.

May your happiness increase!

WHAT SID DID (December 18, 1943)

SIDNEY CATLETT with WIRE BRUSHES

Sidney Catlett, that is.  Big Sid.  Completely himself and completely irreplaceable.  And here’s COQUETTE by the Edmond Hall Sextet on Commodore — Ed on clarinet, Emmett Berry, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Eddie Heywood, piano; Billy Taylor, string bass; Sid, drums, on December 18, 1943.

After Heywood’s ornamental solo introduction, which sounds as if the band is heading towards I WOULD DO MOST ANYTHING FOR YOU, Sid lays down powerful yet unadorned support for the first sixteen bars, yet he and Emmett have an empathic conversation on the bridge, Sid catching every flourish with an appropriate accent.  More of that to come, but note the upwards Louis-hosanna with which Emmett ends his solo (Joe Thomas loved this motif also) and Sid’s perfectly eloquent commentary, urging the Brother on.  His drumming has an orchestral awareness, as if the full band plus Heywood’s leaves and vines is dense enough as it is, and what it needs is support.  But when it’s simply Emmett and himself and the rhythm section, Sid comes to the fore.

The timbre of the second chorus is lighter: Ed Hall dipping, gliding, and soaring, with quiet ascending figures from Emmett and Vic, then quiet humming.  So Sid’s backing, although strong, is also lighter.  Hall, in his own way, was both potent and ornate, so Sid stays in the background again.

The gorgeous dialogue between Emmett and Sid in the third chorus (from 1:44 on) has mesmerized me for thirty years and more.  One can call it telepathy (as one is tempted to do when hearing Sid, Sidney DeParis, and Vic on the Blue Note sides of the same period); one can say that Emmett’s solo on COQUETTE was a solo that he had perfected and returned so — you choose — but these forty-five seconds are a model of how to play a searing open-horn chorus, full of space and intensity, and how to accompany it with strength but restraint, varying one’s sound throughout.  Even when Sid shifts into his highest gear with the rimshots in the second half of the chorus, the effect is never mechanical, never repetitive: rather each accent has its own flavor, its own particular bounce.  It’s an incredibly inspiring interlude.  And the final chorus is looser but not disorderly — exultant, rather, with Sid again (on hi-hat now, with accents) holding up the world on his shoulders at 2:40 until the end.  He isn’t obtrusive, but it’s impossible to ignore him.

Here’s another video of COQUETTE, this time taking the source material from a well-loved 78 copy:

I confess that I think about Louis fairly constantly, with Sid a close second — marveling at them both.  An idle late-evening search on eBay turned up this odd treasure, something I did not need to buy but wanted to have as another mental picture.  It’s the cardboard album for a 1946 four-song session under Sid’s leadership for Manor Records, with Pete Johnson, Jimmy Shirley, Lockjaw Davis, Bill Gooden, Gene Ramey.  Because of the boogie-woogie format and the piano / organ combination, the four sides have a rather compressed effect.

s-l1600

What one of the original 78s looked like.

SID Humoresque BoogieUnfortunately, no one as of yet has put this music on YouTube, so you’ll have to do your own searching.  (The sides were issued on CD on the Classics CD devoted to Sidney.)

I present the cardboard artifact here as one of the very few times that Sidney would have seen his own name on an album — although he’d seen his name on many labels, even a few sessions as a leader.  Sid recorded from 1929 to 1950; he lived from 1910 to 1951.  Not enough, I say — but so generous a gift to us all.  “Good deal,” as he often said.

May your happiness increase!

TIMME’S TREASURES, or THE BARON’S BOUNTY

Timme Rosenkrantz was born a Danish Baron, but he preferred to identify himself as “a little layman with an ear for music and a heart that beats for jazz.” Duke Ellington, no stranger to the nobility, called him “a very unselfish man who dedicated himself to the great musicians he loved and the music they played.”

A jazz fan on a lifelong pilgrimage, Timme arrived in New York City in 1934 and made dear friends of many musicians, writers, and critics.  His cheerfully light-hearted chronicle of those journeys has been published (translated and edited by Fradley Garner) as HARLEM JAZZ ADVENTURES: A EUROPEAN BARON’S MEMOIR, 1934-1969 (Scarecrow Press).

One of the most tantalizing sections of that book — full of lively anecdotes — is its discography of private recordings that Timme made between 1944 and 1946: a trove, including pianists Erroll Garner, Herman Chittison, Jimmy Jones, Billy Taylor, Ellington, a young Monk, Eddie Heywood, Willie “the Lion” Smith, hornmen Bill Coleman, Gene Sedric, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Charlie Shavers, Barney Bigard, Bobby Pratt, Jack Butler, Benny Harris, Vic Dickenson, bassists Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, violinists Stuff Smith and Ray Perry, guitarists Bernard Addison and Zeb Julian, drummers George Wettling and Cliff Leeman . . .

A few of these recordings have been issued commercially (the best example being the Smith and Perry sides on Anthony Barnett’s ABFable label) and others less properly or in edited form.  I first heard some of the music Timme recorded through the collectors’ grapevine, on cassette, in the Eighties, and it still sounds magical, with musicians stretching out, free from the tension of the recording studio or the imposition of the producer’s “taste.”

You can hear more — although there’s only one private recording — of the music Timme cherished from sessions he produced at THE JAZZ BARON, a site devoted to him, his musical adventures, and the book.

But we are going to be able to peek behind the curtain that has kept those privately recorded sessions private . . . soon, because Storyville Records is issuing what I hope will be the first in a series, TIMME’S TREASURES.

TIMME'S TREASURES

I haven’t heard a copy yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to it. How about ten minutes of solo Monk from 1944 — a six-minute THESE FOOLISH THINGS and a four-minute ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT?  Or a quartet of Don Byas, Monk, Al Hall, and an unidentified drummer playing something called LET’S GO for another six?  Broadcast material featuring Stuff Smith, Frank Froeba, Byas, and Sidney Catlett?  More from Lucky Thompson, and a trio session for Jimmy Jones, bassists John Levy and Slam Stewart?

The liner notes are by Timme’s friends Dan Morgenstern and Fradley Garner. And the Storyville Records site will soon have more information about this exciting release.

Here’s a wonderful example — imperishable — of Timme’s taste: a duet for tenor saxophone (Don Byas) and string bass (Slam Stewart) recorded in concert in 1945:

May your happiness increase!

SWING FOR ROMANTICS (1931)

When the conversation turns to the great swinging bands before “the Swing Era,” the names that are mentioned are usually the Luis Russell Orchestra and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City aggregations, Henderson, Ellington, Goldkette, Calloway, and Kirk.  Each of these bands deserves recognition.  But who speaks of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers?  (Is it the name that so embarrasses us these days?)

mckinneyscottonpickers

The song and performance that so enthralls me is from their last record date in September 1931 — DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT? — composed by Ted Fio Rito and Gus Kahn. I am assuming that it was originally meant as a love ballad, given its title and world-view, but the band takes it at a romping tempo. (Was it played on one of their “coast to coast radio presentations”?  I hope so.) Several other marvelous features of this recording have not worn thin: the gorgeous melody statement by Doc Cheatham; the incredible hot chorus by Rex Stewart; the charming vocal by Quentin Jackson; the tenor saxophone solo by Prince Robinson, the arrangement by Benny Carter, and the wondrous sound of the band as a whole — swinging without a letup.

The personnel is listed as Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, arranger / leader: Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet;  Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931.  (The personnel offered by Tom Lord differs, but I think this one is more accurate.)

Here, thanks to our friend Atticus Jazz — real name available on request! — who creates one gratifying multi-media gift after another on YouTube — is one of the two takes of DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT SIGHT?:

I love Doc Cheatham’s high, plaintive sound, somewhat in the style of his predecessor, Joe Smith — and how the first chorus builds architecturally: strong ensemble introduction, trumpet with rhythm only (let no one tell you that tuba / guitar doesn’t work as a pairing), then the Carter-led sax section — imagine a section with Carter, Hilton Jefferson, and Prince Robinson — merging with the brass.  By the end of the first chorus, you know this is A BAND. (I’m always amused by the ending of the chorus, which exactly mimics the end and tag of THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE.  Nothing new under the sun.) And whose idea — Carter’s? — was it to so neatly use orchestra bells throughout this chart?  Lemon zest to the ear.

But then there’s Rex Stewart’s expert and hilarious solo — he wants to let you know he is here, immediately.  I always think of him as one of those bold trumpeters who, as the tempo speeded up, he played even more notes to the bar, rather than taking it easy and playing whole and half notes.  In this chorus, he seems like the most insistent fast-talker, who has so much to say and only thirty-two bars in which to say it.  Something else: at :56 there is a small exultant sound. It can’t be Rex taking a breath and congratulating himself (as he does in WILD MAN BLUES on THE SOUND OF JAZZ) so I believe it was one of his colleagues in the band saying without the words, “Yeah, man!”

Then a gloriously “old-fashioned” vocal from Quentin Jackson, but one that no one should deride.  He told Stanley Dance that he learned to sing before there were microphones, so that you had to open your mouth and sing — which he does so splendidly here.  He’s no Bing or Columbo, wooing the microphone: this is tenor singing in the grand tradition, projecting every word and note to the back of the room.

The final chorus balances brass shouts and the roiling, tumbling Prince Robinson, who cuts his own way amidst Hawkins and Cecil Scott and two dozen others: an ebullient, forceful style.  And by this chorus, I always find myself rocking along with the recording — yes, so “antiquated,” with tuba prominent, but what a gratifying ensemble.  Yes, I believe!

Here is what was to me the less familiar take one:

It is structurally the same, with the only substantial difference that Rex continues to play a rather forceful obbligato to Quentin’s vocal — almost competing for space, and I suspect that the recording director at Camden might have suggested (or insisted on) another take where the vocalist was not being interfered with.  How marvelous that two takes exist, and that they were recorded in Victor’s studios in Camden — a converted church with fine open acoustics.

There is a third version of this song, recorded in 1996 by Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton — sixty-five years later, but for me it is a descent from the heights.  You can find it on YouTube on your own.

Whether or not you believe in love at sight (that’s a philosophical / emotional / practical discussion too large for JAZZ LIVES) I encourage you to believe in the singular blending of hot and sweet, of solo and ensemble, that is McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.  One has to believe in something.

May your happiness increase!

IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

A JAZZ VALENTINE, 1931

Yes, I know it’s about five weeks early.  But Emrah has provided us with a double delight — a great romantic ballad in swingtime, beautifully sung by Quentin Jackson, with solos by Doc Cheatham, Rex Stewart, and Benny Carter . . . as well as a Carter reed-section passage and rollicking piano accompaniment from Todd Rhodes.

The whole band — McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in their last sides for Victor, although the band went on for a few more years — is Benny Carter, clarinet, alto saxophone, director; Rex Stewart, cornet; Buddy Lee, Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Ed Cuffee, trombone; Quentin Jackson, trombone, vocal; Joe Moxley, Hilton Jefferson, clarinet, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Todd Rhodes, piano, celeste; Dave Wilborn, banjo, guitar; Billy Taylor, brass bass; Cuba Austin, drums. Recorded in Camden, New Jersey, September 8, 1931:

The delights of this performance are many, and they grow with repeated listenings.  The supple, fluid sweetness of Doc Cheatham’s melody statement; the vigorous “I will play a note or two to every beat” solo chorus, so flavorful and personal, by Rex Stewart; the lusciously slippery Carter reeds; the dashing vocal chorus by Quentin Jackson (play this for everyone who insists that before Crosby, all male singers sounded insufficiently masculine), and the rocking motion of this ensemble, thanks to Wilborn, Taylor, and Austin, refuting another canard, that jazz musicians were waiting to get rid of banjo and brass bass so that Modernity could burst forth.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovers. Start your romantic engines early.  Work on becoming just as swoony and loving as the men and women portrayed on Emrah’s photographs and postcards.

May your happiness increase!