Tag Archives: biography

“THE CAUSE OF HAPPINESS”: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS

Ricky Riccardi’s new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon), will be published in a week, and it has already gotten a glowing review in the Washington Post, with NPR and The New York Times coverage to come.  (You can read the reviews and Ricky’s interview in JAZZ TIMES by clicking here):

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-news-and-reviews.html

Full disclosure: my name crops up in the acknowledgments, and I admired Ricky’s work long before this book came out.  But I would think this book was magical even if I’d never met its author.

On its surface, this biography depicts the last quarter-century of Louis Armstrong’s life — his years of global popularity as a beloved figure, the years of HELLO, DOLLY! and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.

But the real story in this book is the gap between public perception and essential reality.  “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson wrote, and it rings true here.  Artists cannot defend themselves against those who choose to interpret their work.  There is often a huge gap between what artists create, how the “experts” and “critics” perceive it, and how the art is represented to the world.

There have been many books about Louis — the best of them have been Terry Teachout’s POPS, and LOUIS by Max Jones and John Chilton.  (I am passing over the other biographies, marred by their distance from the subject or by personal rancors.)

But Ricky’s book deeply and effectively faces the complex question of what it is to be a working artist in the modern world.  An artist working in the public world — not a painter or a poet in a studio, but a “performer” on television, on records, onstage.

Louis lived to make music, and to “lay it on the public.”  A musician needs a community, both on and off stage.  Louis was no recluse; he didn’t scorn his audiences.  He spent his days and nights, consciously and subconsciously, living for what would come out of his horn, how he would sing.

This was his quest, his joy, and his “hustle,” what he did for a living.  He didn’t demand to be taken seriously as An Artist, but he did know that he was creating masterpieces; he was proud of his art and the pleasure it brought and continues to bring.

Thus, when he began to be sneered at (and that’s not too strong a word) as an Uncle Tom, an “entertainer,” someone who had sold out, had lost his creativity, had turned his back on “the truth,” even “a good-natured buffoon,” these cruel misinterpretations turned Emerson’s words into knives.

Another artist might have turned his back on his critics and spent his last quarter-century in wounded seclusion.  Louis worked harder; he toured the world; he became “Ambassador Satch,” he created astonishing beauties.  The audiences understood this in deep spiritual ways, even if they had never read Gunther Schuller.

But it took this book — the new material in it and Ricky’s affectionate, dogged diligence — to bring Louis, complete and complicated, to life once again.  And here I want to move slightly to the book itself — and its author.

Ricky Riccardi is, first off, a fine writer.  Not fussy, not academic, but someone whose vigorous, human speaking voice resonates through these pages.  So the book is a pleasure to read: I rationed the pages I allowed myself each night so that it wouldn’t end too soon, as I knew it had to.  He has so steeped himself in the life of the man he is celebrating (and it is a celebratory book!) that his easy assurance illuminates every page.  But the reader never feels intimidated by an impending avalanche of facts and dates and itineraries.

This book places the living Louis Armstrong in front of us, seen anew — the man who had a very intricate relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser, but was in charge of that relationship, not its victim.  There is an astonishing long letter from Louis to Glaser on the subject of marijuana — a revelation not only in the tale it tells, but in Louis’s angry eloquence.

Ricky has delved more deeply into Louis’s private tapes than any biographer before him, thus the book is full of new insights rather than being a synthetic assemblage of what other people have written.  I was surprised and delighted (dee-lighted, really) on every page.  And while this biography is no uncritical fan letter, its affection comes through from start to finish — a fitting celebration of Louis, who created and felt “the love and warmth of a million people.”

As a working jazz musician, Ricky also understands much more about the music than many writers who have been on the scene longer.  Even though you don’t need to be a musicologist to read this book, and there is not one intimidating transcribed solo (just lovely photographs), the book never feels distant from Louis’s art.

Louis Armstrong lived “in the cause of happiness.”  Although he knew his art was unique, he wore his achievements lightly, “I’m not lookin’ to be on no high pedestal.  [The people who hear me] get their soul lifted because they got the same soul I have the moment I hit a note.”

More than any other biography of Louis Armstrong, Ricky’s book vibrates with those truths.  Even if you are someone who appreciates Louis Armstrong only casually, you will find in this book a deep, rewarding, honest portrait of a man, an artist, his century.

It’s an extraordinary biography and a wonderful book.  And it brings to same joy that Louis did.

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THIS WONDERFUL WORLD

I have just finished reading the galleys of Ricky Riccardi’s WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon).  I am a very severe critic of biographies — where odd things happen.

Sometimes the writer gets so caught up in him / herself that the book becomes self-referential, an unintentional autobiography, the writer gazing lovingly in the mirror.  Some biographies end up rancorously, with the writer deciding that after all the Great Man or Woman was really rotten.  And some biographies are unoriginal compilations of what everyone else has written.

I was ready to love Ricky’s book because I love both the subject and am very fond of the author, but I was not prepared for how superb it is.

It is full of original research, new first-hand tales and evidence on every page.  It is beautifully written, casual without being flippant.  It is splendidly annotated but never academic.  It is full of light and joy without being idolatrously adoring.

As I write this, I am surrounded by biographies of Louise Bogan and of Henry “Red” Allen, of Frank O’Connor and Pee Wee Russell.  Riccardi has written a book worthy of the best ones on my shelves or on yours.

It won’t be officially published until late June, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from ordering it.  It made me laugh a good deal; it made me think; it made me cry.  And the energy and soul of Louis shines through every page.

http://www.amazon.com/What-Wonderful-World-Magic-Armstrongs/dp/0307378446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1299530493&sr=1-1

WHAT WOULD LOUIS DO?  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS: CLICK HERE!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

KENNY DAVERN: JUST FOUR BARS

Readers accustomed to novels may find most jazz biographies only intermittently satisfying.  Lives, of course, cannot be arranged into dramatic arcs worthy of Trollope or Faulkner — but, just the same, the chronicle of the life and music of your favorite musician often has all its drama in the beginning: attempts to find a personal style, to become proficient, to be recognized. 

Once the musician is reasonably successful, the narrative might become a listing of gigs, concerts, recordings.  Some musicians aid a biographer (unintentionally) by having dramatic or melodramatic lives — drug use, illness, marital and economic strife — but a comfortable musician with a spouse, family, regular income and housing, might offer a biographer a challenge.

It’s a pleasure to write that Edward N. Meyer’s biiography of Kenny Davern’s life and music, JUST FOUR BARS, published by Scarecrow Press and available through Amazon, is a triumphant book on all its many levels. 

Meyer, best-known in the field for his bio-discography of Dick Wellstood, GIANT STRIDES, was the logical one to write about Davern, and although Davern said at first he did not want a biography, he eventually told his wife that Meyer would be his choice. 

Meyer’s coverage of the facts of Davern’s musical life couldn’t be better.  With diligent accuracy, he chronicles appearances, recordings, gigs satisfying and frustrating, the bands Davern led and was part of for more than fifty years. 

If a reader might weary momentarily of the data from Davern’s date book, it should be said that the biographer is writing for two audiences at once — people like me who saw Davern and for whom he is a living presence still, and the Future — those readers for whom it will be crucial to have all this data properly arranged and assessed in one place.  The result is satisfying throughout, especially because Meyer interviewed Davern — making one wish that Davern had written more on his own, for his voice is salty, witty, and precise.  Also invaluable are the voices of Davern’s friends and colleagues: Marty Grosz, Greg Cohen, Dave Frishberg, Warren Vache, James Chirillo.    

Where Meyer is even more fascinating is in what he has uncovered of Davern the private man: the child (the painful twists and turns of his childhood are too complicated to be retold here, but they would have ruined a more fragile person), his development as an adult, husband, father, grandfather. 

In his conversations with everyone who knew Davern on and off the stand — including candid passages from his wife and children — Meyer has shown us the man we didn’t know.  And that man is an enthralling study, because the public Kenny was often comically irascible in ways that felt dangerous to onlookers.  But the private man was erudite, deeply-interested in a variety of subjects, generous, and introspective — genuinely lovable and deeply loved. 

The record of Davern’s musical life is equally detailed and rewarding.  We read of his musical apprenticeship with big bands (which he hated), with Jack Teagarden, Phil Napoleon, musical maturity alongside Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood, Dick Hyman, and his later quartets and quintets.  And through it all we see a man always striving for something beyond the heights he had already scaled — subtlety, emotional connection, mastery of the horn and the idiom.  His life’s goal, he said, was to be recognized in “just four bars.”  And he did just that, and more. 

Meyer’s biography of Kenny Davern is wide-ranging, analytical as well as enlightening, generous to its subject as well as to readers, now and in the future.  It made me want to revisit my Davern collection, and it brought up memories of seeing the great man plain — for which I am grateful.

THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE: ARTIE SHAW by TOM NOLAN

 

It was easier to be a biographer in the nineteenth century.  The job description was clear: write a lengthy volume chronicling an honored subject from birth to death.  Admire the accomplishments; ignore the failings.  Say little of the great man’s private life, and make whatever information you present fit the admiring portrait.  Burnish the publish ideal of the hero. 

But the twentieth century brought us pathobiography, with the subject anatomized (sometimes gleefully) as a corpse to be dissected.  And many biographies now fixate on the subject’s offensive behavior rather than in his work.  In some books the palpable rancor of the biographer becomes the focal point.

Artie Shaw, who would have been a hundred this year, would seem a spectacularly difficult subject for a biography.  For one thing, Shaw’s music was beautifully analyzed and documented by Vladimir Simosko in 2000.  Shaw has been pictured as an unimaginably boorish husband (or ex-husband) by his ex-wives.  His last recordings were made more than fifty years ago, even though he lived on until the very end of 2004.

But biographer Tom Nolan proves himself valiantly up to the task in THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE: THE LIFE OF ARTIE SHAW (Norton, 2010).  It’s not simply the first-hand research, the careful investigation of the facts, the easy, approachable prose style.  Throughout the book, Nolan understands the scope and idiosyncratic shapes of Shaw’s life and art.   

But before we get into serious issues, I must say that a biography of Shaw (who knew many people and slept with many others) should also have some good gossip.  Nolan offers some wonderful anecdotes:

Billie Holiday advising a seven or eight-year old boy on proper deportment: “You better be good– or I’m gonna put a stamp on your forehead and mail you away!”  (The eight-year old boy took her very seriously and grew up to be a judge.)

Nolan lets us know Shaw’s recollection of what it was like to be in bed next to the gorgeous Lee Wiley in 1938: “In bed, she would say things like, ‘You are lying next to the greatest ass in New York.'”

Then there’s the tale of Judy Garland’s early and continuing love of Shaw.

But these are sidelights to the fascinating story of Shaw’s rise from obscurity to international success, his digust with that success, and his rejection of it — not once, but several times.  Although Nolan has left the musical and musicological analysis of Shaw’s playing and his overall artistic conception to others, what comes through is a full portrait of an artist — not simply a player, an improviser, a bandleader — but someone deeply concerned with the music he was making and might make.  Music, mind you — not just pop hits, not simply playing a good solo or having a successful band, but music

But what also comes through is that Shaw, perhaps because of the focused self-absorption needed for this quest, was a seriously unpleasant person.  Erudite, brilliant, witty, sophisticated, and all that.  But. 

Some will say that arists can be forgiven nearly everything because of what they give us, and that has a certain validity.  But Shaw seems time and again so obsessed with his own self-justifying, harsh truth-telling that it’s hard to tell where accuracy stops and cruelty begins.  As much as I admire Shaw’s music and his integrity, I find myself recoiling from the man who characterized Johnny Mercer as having  “a little faggotry in him,” to say nothing of the saga of Shaw’s failed marriages.  Nolan is fair and balanced, not taking the testimony of ex-wives and lovers at face value . . . but Shaw, in the end, comes across as an ungenerous narcissist. 

Here, for instance, is his portrait of Billie Holiday later in life: “Then she got hooked — she went to jail — all that shit.  I went to visit her, she was no longer the girl I knew.  She was no longer — anybody.  She was a — whiner.  She had some guy, livin’ off her and — it was no fun.  It was not fun being with her.  So it goes.”

But finding Shaw repellent did not make me put the book down.  In fact, I continued to read with terrible fascination: “What awful thing will he do or say next?”  It is a real tribute to Nolan’s ability as a writer and shaper of narrative that the reader is able to admire and dislike Shaw at once.  Nolan does not ignore Shaw’s failings, but he doesn’t gloat.  The portrait is thorough, providing a deep study of a man both complicated and coarse, creating beauty through his clarinet and creating turmoil through his actions. 

Even if you have only the vaguest idea of Artie Shaw, this biography is a fascinating study of the difficult relations between the artist and the audience, between the creative mind and the demands of the marketplace. 

And it sent me back to listen to Shaw’s music, which is, after all, what he should be remembered for.  To read a piece by Nolan about Artie Shaw, here’s an article about the recording “Summit Ridge Drive” published in the January 8, 2010 Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704398304574598343861876358.html

HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE

Two biographies of jazz musicians have recently gotten much well-deserved media attention: Robin G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk, Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong book. 

The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.  It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare. 

But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition.  It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher. 

At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi.  But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed. 

But more about that later.  Who was Herbie Nichols?  “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer.  “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.”  “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.”  “Inimitable pianist and composer.”  “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.” 

Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created.  The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.”  In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas.  (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.) 

But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.”  He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band. 

But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily.  Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop.  He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South.  Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better.  Al was nasty to Herbie.  Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now!  Right in the middle of the tune!  Let’s stop that shit now.  Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah!  Go, man, go, go, go!” 

Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim.  One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.”  Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict.  African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.   

Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators.  Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim. 

However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey.  We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow.  A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES.  He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system. 

Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs.  The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread.  The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced. 

And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him.  Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose.  His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.

Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.”  Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology.  Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin.  I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end.  That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.       

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 

MONK, KNOWN AT LAST

I’m only up to page 138 — which is the year 1948 — in Robin D.G. Kelley’s monumental THELONIOUS MONK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL (Free Press, 2009, 588 pages) but I had to write something about this book now rather than waiting sedately until I finish it.  Kelley doesn’t need my enthusiasm, judging by the reviews and media coverage, but his book is seriously worthwhile.monk

It’s clearly the product of fourteen-plus years of research, and the result is thorough without being overwhelming.  Writing about Monk isn’t easy: previous studies have tended to overemphasize his “weirdness,” his apparent reclusiveness, his tendency towards gnomic utterances — as if saying, “Both the man and his music come from the same unreachable, inexplicable sources.”  But Kelley went to the most logical sources — the Monk family and friends — so that the portrait we get is not of someone strange and threatening, but the loving husband and parent.  This may seem a terrible cliche by now, but it’s a relief from those books that equate Genius with Madness or at least with Cruelties.  I find those equations wearisome.  Although Kelley doesn’t invent scenes of Monk going to Home Depot or being a secret suburbanite, it is reassuring to find that in some deep ways, he made sense — if not always to the prying world outside, at least to those who loved him.  (This demythologizing is welcome.) 

Kelley has also had the benefit of being able to speak at length with Monk’s manager, Harry Colomby, so that the book becomes far more than the record of a musician’s life — which often follows a predictable trajectory: early encounters with the music, youthful influences, first success, and then a boring chronicle of gigs and concerts.  About twenty percent of the anecdotes are familiar, but the rest are new and often greatly revealing.  Kelley, a jazz pianist himself, gets under the surface of Monk’s music without being overly technical.

He also grapples with two other issues: the role of the media in the Forties (often the role of people who earnestly wanted to make sure Monk received wide coverage) in making Monk “the High Priest of Bebop,” thus peculiar — because peculiarity brings people to clubs more than benign normality.  He has also faces the larger — and painful — question of Monk’s mental illness, or bipolar disorder, or chemical imbalance . . . call it what you will — honestly rather than speculatively.  I haven’t yet read enough of the book to see how he takes on the unanswerable question, “If Monk had been medicated early, if he had been a compliant patient, if more had been known, would he have been happier?  And would we have those astonishing records?”

Reviewers have to complain about something so that readers know they are attempting to be objective, so I have two Official Complaints.  Kelley doesn’t mention that Louis Armstrong made influential records of JUST A GIGOLO and BYE AND BYE — material that receives some emphasis in the text.  And, perhaps in his desire to be unbuttoned, friendly rather than academic, Kelly is occasionally a bit too casual, too slangy for me.  Monk may have called it “reefer,” and Bessie Smith did, but Kelley’s hipness rings false. 

But I am a seriously finicky reader . . . and if these are the only things I could find to complain about, it has to be a beautifully written and carefully documented book.  Thrilling, even, in its diligence, intelligence, and compassion.

HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

I’ve been listening to a new double-CD set of Ben Webster recordings assembled in honor of his hundredth birthday, titled THE BRUTE AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Storyville 103 8407).  Most of the music in this set comes from Webster’s last years in Europe.  Depending on the musicians accompanying Ben and his own health, the results are either lovely or uneven.  Occasionally a boppish rhythm section intrudes, or sweet symphonic orchestrations threaten to drown everything.  But two recordings in this set done with Teddy Wilson are irreplaceable — one, a version of STARDUST done in Copenhagen in 1969, is yearning and intense.  (The video of this performance, once available on YouTube, apparently has been removed, which is a pity.)

But the more dramatic OLD FOLKS (Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Ole Streenberg, drums) from May 1970, is still accessible.  It is also very deep music.

Webster is casually, almost sloppily dressed, his great bulk protruding in front of him.  Because he had broken an ankle in a fall eight months before, he is seated.  The performance begins with a small display of will, as Ben refuses to play the song at the medium-tempo jog Wilson chose.  Instead, Ben snaps his fingers insistently, slowing the tempo to a ballad, a lament.

Teddy Wilson also has the sheet music in front of him and gazes at it intently, his lips moving silently.  During the last twenty-five years of his career, Wilson stuck to his own familiar repertoire, medleys of songs associated with Waller, Goodman, Gershwin, Basie, and so on, so this is unusual.  The unfmiliarity of OLD FOLKS accounts for the atypical mistake he makes at the end of his second chorus.  Viewers will notice the difficulty or pain evident in his right hand as he pauses between phrases to turn his wrist inwards, perhaps the inevitable result of so much muscular exertion at the piano night after night.  Watching these two men play, one is aware of their age, their occasional struggles; hearing them is a different matter.

This performance is Webster’s, although Wilson’s accompaniment is gentle, supportive, and simple.  Ben’s first chorus is apparently close to the melody, with some tender arpeggios and pauses, but playing melody in this fashion is anything but simple, something only learned through forty years of devotion and practice.  The song comes alive.  Ben’s sound, his tone, his phrase-ending vibratos, full of air, are the very opposite of uninflected playing.  In the middle of the bridge, Ben removes the mouthpiece from his lips, shakes his head in exasperation (with himself or with his instrument?) but does not stop or give in.

To me, the polite applause that greets the end of his chorus is inadequate response, suggesting that the audience does not entirely grasp what they have just heard, but that might do them an injustice.  Teddy’s  chorus is a mixture of embellishments and his patented arpeggios.  Midway through it, though, the camera pulls back and we see Ben nodding silently, “Yes, I know,” empathic, hearing Wilson’s playing.  They had known and worked with each other as early as 1935, so there may havebeen the kinship of people who have shared the same experiences over time.  Ben told the British interviewer Henry Whiston in 1971 that he had leased a “beautiful piano” for his home, “I got that piano so that Teddy Wilson could have a piano to play on.”

(While Wilson is concluding his seond chorus, the camera pans to a handsome African-American of this same generation, dressed in a pink shirt, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, another long-term expatriate.)

Then we see that Webster has been crying: a tear is spilling out of his eye.  And he nods again, sadly agreeing with what Wilson has been saying without words, before picking up his horn a few beats later.

When I first saw this performance perhaps twenty years ago, I was unaware of any context, and thought perhaps that Ben had been moved to tears by the beauty of Wilson’s solo, which I still believe.  Was he also thinking of his peers — the American jazz musicians who knew and lived the music he loved — the men and women he had left behind to come to Europe?  The friends he had lost, the musicians he might never play with again?  Johan van der Keuken, who knew Ben well in Scandinavia, has spoken of the “essential loneliness” that “became more heavy” for him as he remained there.

But I read in Frank Buchmann-Moller’s excellent biography of Webster, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, that Ben had learned of the death of Johnny Hodges only a short time before this broadcast.  Although Ben might very well be weeping over Wilson’s solo, its beauty and its larger implications, his grief takes on a new dimension.

The fine tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo said of Ben, “He was 100 percent honest.  Everything came from the heart; there was no acting involved.  He wasn’t very good at sweeping things under the carpet.”

Ben had sat in the reed section of the Ellington band for almost four years, hearing Johnny Hodges every night and marveling.  He had come to the band a fully developed soloist, but he learned so much about the subtleties of technique and emotion, about singing from Hodges.  A year before this performance, Coleman Hawkins had died — an event that had upset Ben greatly.  Hodges’s sudden death — a heart attack in the dentist’s chair — was even more devastating.  Ben told Whiston, “It was . . . like if you hit me in the head with a sledgehammer.  It knocked me down.  I really didn’t know what to do.”

I do not think that Ben chose OLD FOLKS as a tribute to Hodges: that song, that piece of Americana, had been part of his repertoire since 1969, and an Ellington ballad such as I GOT IT BAD or SOPHISTICATED LADY would have been more predictable.  But OLD FOLKS was Ben’s idea rather than Wilson’s, the evidence suggested by Wilson’s unfamiliarity.

However it came to be part of this performance, OLD FOLKS is an integral part of the emotions we and the musicians come to feel.  Written by Willard Robison and performed by Mildred Bailey, among others, it is an affectionate, sly, sentimental portrait of a grandfatherly character whose habits are rustic, who tells “tall tales” that everyone knows are doubtful . . . yet he is beloved.  The lyrics emphasize his age; someday “Old Folks” will be dead and everyone will grieve.

Was Ben Webster weeping not only for the deaths of Hawkins and Hodges, Sid Catlett and Jimmy Blanton, but for an entire generation of his friends, artistic colleagues?  For the inevitability of their deaths, all the Old Folks of jazz?  Was he even wondering how long he would live?  Perhaps.

But his tears do not disable him.  He does not, in Yeats’s words, “break up his lines to weep.”  It all had to be saved for the music — a professional musician, a grown man, he had his job to do, whether or not tears were spilling out of his eyes.  And so he continues playing OLD FOLKS, hesitantly, but with such feeling.  It almost makes me weep, watching it: Ben’s slow pace, his patient, sorrowful exploration of its lines.

But it took me twenty years to realize that ben’s closing solo is a musical evocation of the weeping he would not surrender to.  His eyes dry up; he gains control of himself.  But he weeps through his horn.  What are his brief, irregular phrases, separated by gulps of air, but sobs and gasps?  His loss, his tenacity, his art — inseparable.  Watch closely: here is Ben Webster, a man, majestic and infirm at once, someone who would die in two years, racked by emotions, playing as beautifully as any musician ever did.  Without ever being didactic, this performance has so much to say to us, to teach us.

Two postscripts.

One: this clip has detestable advertisements crawling along the bottom of the frame.  But a reasonably nimble viewer can find the X and make the ads vanish.  I know that jazz needs financial support, but the ads seem a repellent intrusion here.

Two, much happier: the quotations here come from Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.  Buchmann-Moller is also the author of two indispensable books on Lester Young’s life and music, their titles taken from Lester’s own defining expressions: YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, and YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!  His work is accurate, compassionate, and fair — worthy of the great John Chilton.