Tag Archives: Bird

“PLASTIC, OR PAPER?”

Late last year, I did one of my periodic eBay browsings, which have provided many images for this blog.  The items below are no longer for sale, but the images are available for us to linger over.

In HERE AT THE NEW YORKER, Brendan Gill told a story of showing his friend, the writer William Maxwell, a Roman coin he had bought, and Maxwell thoughtfully saying, “The odds are on objects.”  A cryptic utterance, but my time spent on eBay suggests that Maxwell was right.  For one thing, objects are longer-lived than their owners, and they are put up for sale.

These thoughts are motivated by yet another visit to that site — in this case, to a “store” which has folded its tents as far as jazz and big band collectors are concerned.  But they offered these four artifacts for sale.  The seller knew their value: the prices ranged from $279.20 to $2,399.20.  But looking is free.

Here is a postwar V-Disc, its talk and music taken from the April 26, 1947 WNEW Saturday Night Swing Session, hosted by Art Ford, featuring Louis, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Catlett, Roy Ross, accordion; Nicky Tagg, piano; an unidentified string bassist.  Louis and Jack used the same pen:

louis-v-disc-front

That’s an authentic signature (to me) even if Louis didn’t have his pen, filled with green ink, on hand.

louis-v-disc-rear-signed-by-jackI coveted that disc intensely for a few minutes, then calmed myself down by thinking of the impossibility of displaying it properly — honoring Louis yet turning Jack’s “face” to the wall.  And the price, of course.  Here’s another piece of holy paper, even though this slip has been reproduced in a book on Bird (however, the seller has offered a note from the Parker collector Norman Saks, verifying the authenticity):

bird-cash-advanceWhat I would like to know, of course, is the name of the person who advanced Bird the money — not a small sum in 1950.  Whether Bird actually went to the doctor, and for what reasons, I leave to you.

From Bird to Miles — in 1957:

miles-1957and a close-up of that somewhat faded ink signature:

miles-signatureFinally, a contract for Billie to perform at the Tiffany Club in 1952:

billie-1952-contract

and a close-up of her signature and pianist / bandleader Buster Harding:

billie-1952-signature

Since none of these objects is as durable as a coin, it’s marvelous that they have survived.  Did their owners keep them safe for love of Louis, Jack, Miles, and Billie, or because of an awareness of their monetary value?  Or both?  I can’t surmise, but I am glad that these things exist for us to look at, and perhaps own.

May your happiness increase!

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A GENUINE PAGE-TURNER: “SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES,” by PETER VACHER

I’m a very tough audience when it comes to jazz history books.  Many of them, understandably, are pastiches of familiar evidence with big helpings of speculation mixed in.  Nice enough for people new to the subject, but give me first-hand information rather than paraphrases of what has already been published.

In addition, most jazz literature seems star-struck, fixated on the forty or fifty BIG NAMES.  That’s splendid: books about Louis, Lester, Ben, Hawkins, Roy, Red, and others are treasures.  But since the musicians themselves didn’t always get the attention they merited, much jazz biography is brilliant posthumous research.  If someone were to turn up pages by Walter or Hot Lips (I couldn’t resist) they would be priceless.  And the people who never get to report on what they saw, felt, heard, experienced are likely to have the best stories to tell.  This brings us to Peter Vacher’s new book, SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 331+ pages, many photographs).

It is an irresistible book, and I speak as someone who finds many books — after decades of reading — utterly resistible.

SWINGIN' ON CENTRAL AVENUE

Peter Vacher (much like the recently-departed John Chilton, although Peter is still very much alive) is one of those rare multi-talented writers: a splendid unaffected prose stylist, a very diligent researcher and “connecter,” someone with an eye for what’s true and what’s intriguing.  In this case, he offers us oral histories and historical research into the lives and music of sixteen musicians — his research done over more than two decades.  The musicians profiled are Andrew Blakeney, Gideon Honore, George Orendorff, “Monk” McFay, Floyd Turnham, Betty Hall Jones, “Red Mack” Morris, Caughey Roberts, Chester Lane, Monte Easter, Billy Hadnott, Norman Bowden, John “Streamline” Ewing, Chuck Thomas, Jesse Sailes, “Red” Minor William Robinson.

I knew of perhaps one-half of those musicians: Blakeney had played with Kid Ory; Honore with Jimmie Noone; Orendorff with Les Hite and Louis; “Red Mack” with Lee and Lester Young’s band; Caughey Roberts had been replaced in the early Basie band by Earle Warren; Billy Hadnott was on famous JATP recordings as well as with Nat Cole; Norman Bowden had recorded with Zutty Singleton; “Streamline” Ewing had played with Hines, McShann, Horace Henderson.

Because of the “star-system” in jazz, many might assume that these interviews with people who — apparently — were on the fringes of the big time would be narrow and not terribly interesting.  To assume this would be a huge error.  For one thing, these sixteen people hadn’t been interviewed much, if at all, so their reminiscences are fresh and eager, full of good stories.  Not one page in Vacher’s book has the stale, “Must we go through this again?” quality of the recitals the stars have given so often they take on an inescapable sleepiness (both in the speaker and the reader).  Although many older musicians expressed themselves through their instruments, sometimes their narratives are enthusiastic but closed: “Big Boy was a terror when he got into that whiskey, but he sure could blow.”  Not here.  And Vacher’s interludes are brief, lively, and the very antithesis of narcissism: he shines the light with great skill and affection on his subjects.

And the stories are amazing.  Andy Blakeney was in Chicago when Louis joined King Oliver; he played in a Doc Cooke band.  Streamline Ewing was asked to join the Basie band; he heard Charlie Parker before Bird had made records.  Speaking of Bird, he stayed with Billy Hadnott and his wife — and it’s a sad story — before the Hadnotts were compelled to ask him to leave.  Ewing also mentions seeing both Mutt Carey and Nat Cole at the union — consider that pairing!  Norman Bowden talks of rehearsing with Jelly Roll Morton, “the most sophisticated man I ever met in my life,” in 1940.  We hear of Benny Goodman sitting in with Mutt’s band in 1925; the book offers the first substantial sketches of drummer Cuba Austin, of bandleaders Reb Spikes, Sonny Clay, the pianist Lady Will Carr. We learn — in just a sentence — that the short-lived and extremely talented pianist Margaret “Countess” Johnson was Lester Young’s “heartbeat.”That Eddie Nicholson was Billie Holiday’s drug supplier.  There are extended stories about a young Charlie Christian, about Lester, about the Basie band at the Reno Club in 1935, about Louis, marijuana, Charles Mingus, Buck Clayton in Shanghai, Lionel Hampton in 1936 . . .  And some musicians, like Kid Ory and Christian, pop up in different contexts, so one has the advantage of seeing them as if they were characters in a Faulkner novel, from many angles.

I deplore the kind of advertising assertion that suggests, “If you don’t buy / read / eat ____________, your life will be joyless, devoid of meaning.”  But I found myself thinking, “Every jazz fancier I know would find something delightfully memorable in these pages.”

And there’s more.  Extraordinary photographs, many from the subjects’ personal hoards.  Interludes of fact taken from contemporary music magazines. And, should you think this to be simply a collection of oral histories of little-known musicians retelling their careers, the book presents so much more — as in race and racism from the Twenties onwards.  Not all the stories are grim, but they are all revealing.  I offer only one example — in Billy Hadnott’s section, Vacher includes this comment from DOWN BEAT, March 15, 1944, where Frankie Laine and a four-piece “mixed group” are praised for their music, then the reporter notes, “Despite their excellent air shots the group has found difficulty in club bookings because of the racial angle involved in the mixed group. Setup includes two colored and three ofays, and it will be interesting to find if this group can break through the Jim Crowism so strong out here.”  That quotation — both in subject and style — is worth a good deal of study, and it reminds us that there were two unions at the time in Los Angeles.

Such fascinating evidence spills out of Vacher’s book — because his subjects haven’t simply played or lived locally, and they are people one would otherwise know only as names in discographies or on record labels.

The book is entertaining, powerful, and eye-opening.  Peter Vacher has surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal.  Now I’m going back to read more.  As a postscript, I opened the book at random and found Chester Lane’s story about working with Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings in El Dorado, Arkansas, circa 1928, with Louis Jordan . . . and the band is taken over by one Wilson, who owns Wilson’s Tell-‘Em-‘Bout-Me Cafe.  I’ll stop there, but you will see why such real-life details make the book a deep pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

FATS, CONNIE, BUNNY, LIPS, BIRD, CHICK

As the people who were swing / jazz / popular music fans in the Thirties and Forties leave the planet, their possessions come up for sale on eBay.  This makes me mildly sad — let’s make money off Gramps’ stuff! — but it is far better than the beloved artifacts being tossed in the recycling bin.  Four treasures that are or were for sale.  I don’t know who Joe Walsh was.  But I do know that Fats Waller autographed this photograph in green fountain pen ink to him:

FATS TO JOE WALSH full

and a magnified view:

FATS TO JOE WALSH detail

Fats Waller’s best wishes are always free, thankfully:

DO ME A FAVOR:

WHOSE HONEY ARE YOU?:

and then there is Carol (Lotz) Lantz:

CONNIE BOSWELL to CAROL front

and the back:

CONNIE BOSWELL to CAROL rear

and the provenance:

Signed and inscribed to CAROL (Lotz) Lantz, daughter of Charles Lotz (1891-1965), a prominent band director from Canton, Ohio. Apparently Boswell performed sometime with Lotz’s band and signed this photo for his daughter. From the Lotz family collection.  SOURCE: From the archives of the World War History & Art Museum (WWHAM) in Alliance, Ohio. WWHAM designs and delivers WWI and WWII exhibits to other rmuseums. Our traveling exhibts include Brushes With War, a world class collection of 325 original paintings and drawings by soldiers of WWI, and Iron Fist, an HO scale model of the German 2nd Panzer Division in 1944 with 4,000 vehicles and 15,000 men.

A little sound from Connie, on a 1936 fifteen-minute radio program in honor of the charms of Florida — with Harry Richman and Fred Rich:

Then there’s Joe Williams, someone I reasonably sure is not the singer:

BUNNY to JOE WILLIAMS

Bunny was proud of his beautiful handwriting, and this one looks authentic. So is this music — A 1938 Disney song (with Dave Tough and Gail Reese):

And one page from a serious scrapbook (with signatures of Chu Berry and Ivie Anderson) belonging to L. Sgt. McKay:

HOT LIPS PAGE to McKay

This record may not be the finest example of Lips (or Lip’s) trumpet playing, but it has a sentimental meaning to me — if I may name-drop — that when I was at Ruby Braff’s apartment, this 78 was leaning against the wall.  So it’s doubly meaningful:

And the Yardbird:

BIRD

Finally, something quite rare: a Chick Webb photograph I’ve never seen before, signed by the Master, who was embarrassed (according to a Helen Oakley Dance story) about his poor handwriting:

CHICK WEBB autographed photo

And Chick in an unusual setting — with an Ellingtonian small group (and Ivie):

I am fond of being alive, and dead people don’t blog, but I wish I’d been around to ask Fats, Connie, Bunny, Lips, Bird, and Chick for their autographs.

May your happiness increase!

JO JONES, SPECIAL

I’m always intrigued yet sometimes puzzled by the waves of interest in jazz figures that I can discern in the searchers who find this blog.  I’m thrilled to know that somewhere, people yearn to know more about the obscure, “al drootin,” or “bernard addison.”

But often the curiosity (as tabulated by search engine visits) has been both odd and sad.  It feels as if unknown people want badly to put large figures into tiny labeled boxes.

I note with discomfort the morbidly voyeuristic fascination with Billie Holiday unrelated to her music, as documented in many inquiries about her last husband, Louis McKay, about heroin (some searchers have gotten the threads tangled and search for “ella fitzgerald heroin death”), as well as “billy holiday nude” and “how much did billie holiday weigh,” which I find both inexplicable and painful.

More recently, I’ve noted a consistent fascination with Jo Jones.  That in itself would cheer me up, but it seems to grow out of one legend connecting Jo — disdainful, furious — with a youthful and unprepared Charlie Parker.  I wrote about that incident in 2011 here.  (Do people still take Clint Eastwood’s BIRD, where this incident is a repeated narrative thread, as an accurate historical record?)

I saw and heard Jo Jones often in person between 1971 and 1982, and although he was not a predictable individual, what I remember about him is more than the potential for violence, as I have written here.

Jazz enthusiasts and makers of myth apparently need to simplify; they take pleasure in flattening out complex individuals into single iconic gestures, as if making plastic action figures out of them. I imagine a series of dolls sold at giant toy store.  Buy them.  Trade them.  Collect the set!  Here’s Billie Holiday with a needle in her arm or knocked to the ground by her man.  A plastic Louis Armstrong grins and sweats.  In another box, Miles Davis scorns the audience.  Count Basie strikes a single note.  Duke Ellington, in an electric-blue suit, woos a woman.

And now, Jo Jones imperiously humiliating Charlie Parker — complete with tiny gold cymbal flying through the air as if to decapitate the boy who has presumed to enter the world of men.

The Jo Jones I experienced was part mannered exhibitionist, a complete commedia dell’arte troupe in himself, grinning, gesticulating, insisting on playing eleven-minute solo spectacles, demanding our sustained attention.

And then there was the unpredictable deity who commanded the ocean, summoning cosmic rhythms.  His outward appearance — someone you could see on the subway, the compact balding man wearing short trousers that revealed white socks — was only a guise put on so that he could pass among mortals.

Hear him with his peers Emmett Berry, Lucky Thompson, Bennie Green, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and that same Count, playing SHOE SHINE BOY:

The sounds Jo creates — I use the present tense intentionally — will outlast any concocted myths, searchers and search engines.

And if future cosmologists discover that the Basie rhythm section was and is really the music that animates the universe, it would explain the durability of this cosmos that some people have tried so hard to destroy.

May your happiness increase!

BELIEF and GOODNESS (in SWING)

Here’s a taste of something good — easy and spicy, honestly in the tradition but not copying any famous recording robotically.

The very endearing song, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME (Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill) has been recorded and performed by many jazz musicians, beginning with a 1927 hot dance record by Roger Wolfe Kahn.  The song truly took off with memorable records by Louis, Red McKenzie (a favorite swooning tempo), Billie, Basie, Cootie, Ed Hall, Marty Grosz, and so on.

Here is an outdoors performance by Austin, Texas pianist / bandleader Floyd Domino and his All-Stars, featuring Alice Spencer, vocal; David Jellema, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor sax; Brooks Prumo, guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. Recorded at Central Market North in Austin, Texas on Aug. 3, 2014:

The very adept videoing is thanks to  Luke Hill (Austin guitarist / vocalist / bandleader) and it came to YouTube thanks to percussionist, scholar, instigator, video creator Hal Smith.

The virtues of this performance should be immediately apparent to any listener who can feel the good vibrations. But I would point out that Domino’s quirky piano lines are engaging and always surprising, and the rhythm trio is always energetic but never obtrusive.  Jellema and Doyle (the former serious; the latter on springs) know what Louis, Buck, Ruby, Lester, and others have done with this song, but they cut their own lyrical paths through the familiar thickets of imitation. And Miss Spencer delightfully avoids the temptation of becoming yet the fifteen-hundredth Billie clone, dragging behind the beat in “meaningful” ways. She sounds like herself, with no postmodern ironies, and if I heard any Swing Goddess with a dainty hand on Miss Alice’s shoulders, it would be Lena Horne, and that is not a bad invisible guide through the song.  The band swings and they are having a subtle good time — instantly transmittable to us through the flat screen.

I believe it.  Don’t you?

And (as they say on the news) THIS JUST IN!  The same band, without Miss Spencer (although you can see her nimbly seat-dancing), performing LADY BE GOOD:

Nicely!  And in one of those moments that couldn’t be staged for anything, at about 3:53 an unidentified bird flies across the scene from right to left and contentedly perches in a branch above and behind the band, happily enjoying the swing.  Is it the ghost of Bill Basie or of the Yardbird, who knew the Jones-Smith record by heart, by heart?  I leave it for the mystically-minded to assign their own identities to this Bird.

May your happiness increase!

BING, PRES, BIRD, 1946, 2014

This afternoon, I went on another thrift-shop quest: I search for several rewards, but predictably one is jazz records.  I am most keenly interested in 78s, although vinyl, CDs, home recordings, and cassettes have all surfaced recently.

In Petaluma, California, I drove to one of my favorite places, Alphabet Soup Thrift Store on Western Avenue. Once I had assumed the proper posture (hands and knees, for the 78s were in a box on the floor) I saw this:

APRIL 2014 and before 119

Just finding ten-inch 78 albums is a treat. As an omen, it was hopeful in itself, although Bing albums are common: he sold millions of discs — this collection is copyright 1946.

I love Mr. Crosby, although I gravitate towards his earlier work, when his gaze was more romantic, less severe. For a moment I mused upon the photograph of the man on the cover, clearly warning me not to trespass on his lands. At best, serious; at worst, unfriendly.

With what I can only describe as guarded optimism, I opened the album, knowing from experience that I might not find the records advertised on the cover within.  (In my thrift-shop experience, the records and the album only match when the music is classical, Viennese waltzes, or the songs of Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly — for reasons I have never understood.)

This is what greeted me, a holy relic:

APRIL 2014 and before 120Thanks to John Hammond and Milt Gabler, that’s a serious thing!

I can’t prove it, but I would bet a good deal that Jimmie Blanton heard and admired that side: where Walter Page comes through beautifully. The other side is the celestial ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS. (Yes, a later pressing, but why fuss?)

I would have been happy if the remaining records had been Allan Jones or perhaps Helen Traubel.  This disc was a treasure.  But I proceeded deeper into the album, to find this disc, especially cosmic (for me) because I had revisited the recordings of this band, including Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Taft Jordan, Edgar Battle, on a recent extended car trip:

APRIL 2014 and before 121I wasn’t moaning in the thrift store, because I knew the other patrons might find it odd, and I would have to stand up to properly explain that these discs were the jazz equivalent of first editions by prized writers. But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand my state of bliss.

Two other Commodores (!) appeared — the whole of the 1944 Kansas City Six date with Bill Coleman, Lester Young, Dicky Wells, Joe Bushkin, John Simmons, Jo Jones: JO-JO, THREE LITTLE WORDS, FOUR O’CLOCK DRAG, I GOT RHYTHM.

The final record in the album was cracked — but surely playable:

APRIL 2014 and before 122

The other side is BLUE ‘N’ BOOGIE, Dexter Gordon credited.

My discoveries weren’t at an end.  On the inside cover of this 1946 Crosby album, the owner of the discs had kept a tally. It is hard to read but you’ll note that (s)he loved Lester Young:

APRIL 2014 and before 123

I don’t know the facts, and I shy away from melodrama: jazz-mad Patty or Bill secretly demolishing Mom and Dad’s square Crosby platters to have an album for Pres, Bird, Diz, and Babs. But this list is written with pride of ownership and pride of having a burgeoning Lester Young collection. I don’t think that with an album of only six pockets that one would have to write such a list to recall the contents: this tally says LOOK WHAT BEAUTY I HAVE HERE.

That four of the discs on the list survived speaks to the owner’s care, and to the care of the person who delivered this package to Alphabet Soup. I always feel sad when I uncover such a beloved collection, because I worry that the owner has made the transition, but perhaps Grandma or Grandpa simply has the complete Lester on an iPhone?

Did Bing and the Andrews Sisters give way to Pres, Bird, and Dizzy?  I can’t say in this case. If you wish to write the narrative of seismic artistic shifts, I can’t prevent you from issuing essays on Modernism. Or academic exegeses of High and Low Art.

But this assemblage — take it as if it were one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes — suggests to me that there was a moment in the bumpy history of “popular music” where Eddie Durham, the Andrews Sisters, “cowboy music,” Three Bips and a Bop, Cole Porter, Bird, Diz, Clyde Hart, all coexisted in relative serenity.

Will those days when music roamed wide-open spaces return? Can we dream of creativity without fences established by the artists, their publicists, the critics, and business people?

I don’t know, and the arguments this might provoke have a limited charm.  So if you pardon me, I’m off (across the room) to play my New Old 78s, much loved then and much treasured now.  And those seventy-year old relics sound very good now, I assure you. Walter Page and Willie Bryant come through superbly, as do Lester, Jo, and Dexter. And listening to 78s is very good aerobic exercise for me: I have to get out of my chair every three minutes. Lester is watching over my health, or perhaps it is Bill Coleman or Milt Gabler?

Blessings on you, oh Unnamed Lover of Jazz!

This post is for three young tenor players — in alphabetical order — Jon Doyle, Ben Flood, and Stan Zenkov. They know why!

And for those readers who wonder, “What do those records sound like?” I encourage them to search “Kansas City Six” and “A Viper’s Moan” on YouTube, as well as Bird and Dizzy.  Reassuringly audible.

May your happiness increase!

LISTEN TO VIC DICKENSON

Vic Dickenson, trombonist, singer, composer.  Photograph by Robert Parent (circa 1951).  Inscribed to drummer Walt Gifford.  From Gifford’s scrapbook, courtesy of Duncan Schiedt.

VIC by ROBERT PARENT

I dream of a jazz-world where everyone gets the credit they deserve, where Vic is as celebrated — and as listened to — as his contemporaries and friends Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Sidney Bechet, Mary Lou Williams, Frank Newton, and many more.

I’d like writers to pay attention to his delicate lyricism, his melodic improvisations, his way of illuminating a song from within.  This would require new language and new hearing: no longer putting Vic into the familiar compartments of “sly,” “witty,” “naughty,” and so on.

It would also require some writers and listeners to put aside their barely-concealed disdain for jazz as it was played before Charlie Parker came to town.  No disrespect to Bird, mind you, who jammed happily with Vic and Doc Cheatham and knew that they were masters. But Vic was more than a “Dixieland” trombonist, more than someone chained to TIN ROOF BLUES and SLOW BOAT TO CHINA.

Would Vic have been taken more seriously had he played trumpet? The trombone blends so well, so often, that it (like the string bass) is taken for granted. And Vic was one of the more reticent of jazz players: someone who wanted to play rather than chat or announce. But the musicians knew how special he was, and is.  (Some people celebrated Vic during his lifetime and still do: I think of Dan Morgenstern, George Wein, John Hammond, Dan Barrett, Mal Sharpe, Manfred Selchow, and others.)

We could begin to truly hear Vic, I think.  Perhaps the beginning of the campaign would be if we asked everyone we knew to listen — and listen with all their perception and love — to music like this:

It is indeed true that having Shad Collins, Ed Hall, Sir Charles Thompson, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, and Jo Jones along — in gorgeous sound — did no one any harm.  But I ask my listeners to do the difficult task of putting Vic first: his sonority, open and muted.  His time, his phrasing, the vocal quality of his sounds (plural).  His love for the melody and for the melodies that the original suggested.  His delicate concise force: what he could say in four quarter notes, or eight bars.  There was and is no one like him.

May your happiness increase!