Tag Archives: Bix Beiderbecke

LEGENDS REVISITED: THE SONS OF BIX (Manassas Jazz Festival, December 1, 1978: Tom Pletcher, Don Ingle, John Harker, Don Gibson, Russ Whitman, Dave Miller, Glenn Koch) with an APPRECIATION by DAVID JELLEMA

Of course, the Legends are Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Adrian Rollini, and their majestic colleagues.  But from this distance — can it be a little more than forty years ago? — Messrs. Pletcher, Ingle, Harker, Gibson, Whitman, Miller, and Koch are legendary as well.

I asked someone who is too young to be a legend but certainly plays like one, David Jellema, to write an appreciation of this band, this video, and Tom Pletcher, and I am delighted to present it to you.  David, whom I’ve known for more than a few years, is a world-class cornet and clarinet hero, hot and lyrical, his work intelligent and passionate, his style all his own even when he is paying tribute to the Masters who have inspired him.  At the end of this presentation, I’ll share a few videos where David shines and list a few sessions that delightfully showcase his work.

But now, to the Sons, through David’s affectionate and perceptive lens.

In the 1970s and 80s, many of the founding fathers of jazz and swing, although in their twilight years, were fortunately yet with us. It was also a great time for the second generation of jazzmen not only to be personally influenced by the ancestors, but to be mingling and collaborating to make their own unique sweet preserves of musical fruits. Bands featured at many of the revival traditional jazz festivals tapped specific, living veins of American jazz heritage.

There were a few bands on the scene that dedicated themselves to the memorialization of the legend of Bix Beiderbecke, some featured over the years at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society jazz festival in Davenport, Iowa where Bix was born. One such specialty band, western Michigan’s “The Jackpine Savages,” formed in 1971, had the expected repertoire of traditional jazz standards and many tunes that Beiderbecke had recorded, but had the honored distinction of including leader Don Ingle (Baldwin, Michigan) on valve trombone and vocals, and Tom Pletcher (Montague, Michigan) on cornet.

Ingle’s father, Ernest ‘Red’ Ingle, played tenor sax and violin,and over his career had recorded with Ted Weems, Spike Jones Orchestra, and his own group,the Natural Seven. For an engagement in Cincinnati in May and June 1927, Red appeared on tenor sax with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. So Don Ingle (1931-2012, who, as an infant, had been held in Bix’s own arms), inheriting his father’s music, humor, and artistic talents, was tutored on cornet by Red Nichols, on arranging by Matty Matlock, and played at Chicago’s Jazz Limited in the mid ‘60s. When he formed The Jackpine Savages in the early 1970s to play at the Lost Valley Lodge on Lake Michigan’s shore near Montague (also for various appearances locally and at aforementioned festivals), he switched to the valve trombone and hired local business-man Pletcher to play the cornet.It was just a few years later that Ingle collaborated with Chicago-based bandleader and piano player Don Gibson (Al Capone Memorial Jazz Band) in forming the Bix-style repertory band heard here, the “Sons of Bix,” whose repertoire and arrangements were primarily informed by Bix’s recordings and as well by period tunes Bix may have played.

This cornet player, Tom Pletcher (1936-2019), was fortunate to have been born to a sterling jazz trumpet player who had played in a few of the earliest jazz groups in collegiate circles. Stewart (“Stu” or “Stew”) Pletcher had friends and associates among the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, and Roy Eldridge (who had once exclaimed to young Tom sweet profanities of praise about his dad), and played professionally for Ben Pollack, Smith Ballew, Red Norvo. Young Tom had the nurturing environment of the earliest of the jazz pioneers even in his home growing up; and at 15, hearing his first Bix record, decided to take up the cornet. After formative youth years on the West Coast, adult Pletcher ended up taking over his grandfather’s decorative metal business in the White Lake, Michigan area (something his jazz musician father was not in position nor disposition to do) throughout a good deal of his life. This metal fabricator shop was a little more than 7 miles from where Ingle’s band would play at that lone restaurant overlooking Lake Michigan shores.

Pletcher’s fascination with Beiderbecke’s music led him into remarkable musical circumstances and personal associations that fueled and lent credence to his knowledge of Bix’s life and music. He corresponded with and visited the homes of the guys who had known and played with Bix. As a layman, he was diligent in seeking, and lucky in finding, not only information, facts, and stories about Bix, but even unseen pictures and a previously unheard recording, thereby to a small degree aiding in the research of Phil Evans toward two different exhaustive books about Bix. In that respect alone he deserves some credit toward the shaping of a factual account of Bix’s life beyond romantic and apocryphal mythologies and fantasies, something the dreamy jazz icon was victim to even before his tragic early death.

Pletcher’s acute intimacy with Bix’s music found its real recognition, however, in how he played a Getzen Eterna cornet(–one from 1965 that Ingle sold to him when Tom joined the Jackpines, and another large bore Eterna he bought in 1987). Certainly Pletcher had been influenced by his own father, Stu, and the musicians Stu associated with (especially Armstrong and Teagarden). Pletcher was an avid fan of Bobby Hackett, and often could deliver a solo sounding convincingly like the gentle man from Providence. He loved the recordings of Bunny Berigan, listening til the end of his life. Tom had acquired and absorbed all the lp records of Chet Baker. (Pletcher was also a keen listener, with Bix, to the music of the French Impressionist composers, Debussy, Ravel, and Delius, beautiful sounds that also influenced how he felt the music.) So a broad base of jazz (and classical) sounds made for a rich depth and diversity of the ideas that he expressed on the horn: he didn’t just play Bix’s licks or try to copy Bix. (The note-for-note tribute solo features like “Singin’ the Blues” mark the rare exception).

It was the extent to which Pletcher had absorbed and internalized technical aspects of Bix’s playing (attack and articulation, tone, vibrato, dynamics, effects and idiosyncrasies, and often, humor) without slavishly or consciously copying Beiderbecke that allowed him the acclaim among fans and musicians, contemporaneous to his generation and that of Beiderbecke’s, that he had come closest to Bix’s sound and spirit of anyone to date. All the other influences that had seasoned his playing allowed him freedom to express his own modern feel of the Bixian sound, keeping those sounds fresh.

Among musicians in the 1980s and early 1990s, he would be the first call to sit in “Bix’s chair” for a host of projects that recreated that period in repertory bands. While yet still alive, Bill Challis, the Bix-friendly arranger for the famous Jean Goldkette Orchestra and Paul Whiteman Orchestra (and the man who transcribed and published Bix’s piano compositions), joined with protégé Vince Giordano to do some newer, expanded renditions of songs from the Goldkette years, including tunes Bix had recorded and some he hadn’t. Legendary piano demi-god and musical powerhouse Dick Hyman had Pletcher featured in a 92nd Street Y concert in New York City (and subsequent CD for Arbors Records) called “If Bix Played Gershwin,” a delicious pallet of all Gershwin tunes rendered as if they had been played in some of the formats that Bix had been grouped in. (Actually, only one Gershwin song from the concert was one that Bix had recorded, “Sunny Disposish.”) An Italian film producer had Pletcher playing the Bixian lead and solos for the stellar soundtrack of a not-so-stellar film loosely based on Bix’s life called “Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend.” John Otto’s “Hotel Edison Roof Orchestra” made in two recordings the perfect setting for Pletcher’s sound: hot jazz arrangements from Jean Goldkette, California Ramblers, Ted Weems, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Sam Lanin, Frank Skinner, and more.

A word must be said about one of Pletcher’s longest standing gigs of fairly consistent personnel. Pletcher played yearly among a group of musicians who gathered to play at Princeton 50th class reunions (months of June, 1975-1981), partly to entertain alumni, but mostly to enjoy their own private ongoing reunions of musicians who were fond of Bix’s music and some who were there when Bix played at Princeton near the end of his life. Squirrel Ashcraft, Bill Priestley, Jack Howe, and other Princeton grads had continued playing music under Bix’s spell at jam sessions in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; they were joined by later Princeton grads like Ron Hockett and Doug James, and collegiate and commercial band alumni like Spencer Clark, Bud Wilson, and Bob Haggart. The music had Eddie Condon-like small group spirit and freedom, and a relaxed approach. Live recordings from these were privately issued on vinyl for the musicians, friends, and alumni. They too called themselves “Sons of Bix.” They later went into Jazzology studios to record formal lps under Haggart’s name, with arrangements on “Clementine” and “In a Mist” by Hockett. They also did a number of private parties on the east coast that carried the reunion flames forth, one among many in Vero Beach which produced a nice album of cassettes with a complete 8-page history of the various “Sons of Bix” configurations over the decades, written by Jack Howe.

The Sons of Bix that you hear in this video (originally calling themselves, tongue in cheek, “The Sons of Bix’s”) only have Pletcher in common with the Princeton Reunion Sons of Bix, although their personnel may have had associations in the Evanston, Illinois jam sessions at Squirrel’s. These SOBs had three lp albums that were released (“A Legend Revisited” on Fairmont Records;“Ostrich Walk,” “Copenhagen”both on Jazzology). One was recorded but not issued on vinyl, and only in part much later online, called “San.” They played at the popular traditional jazz festivals like San Diego, Central City, and Sacramento. They toured Europe in 1979, playing in numerous countries and at the Breda Jazz Festival. (That is no small feat for loads of luggage, many horn and drum cases, a bass sax, train schedules and coaches, plane rides, small alleys, streets, and bars, wives and my own tagging aunt and uncle..)

In their “first East Coast appearance,” introduced here by the director of the DC-area Manassas Jazz Festival, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, the personnel consists of Glenn Koch, drums; Don Ingle, announcer, valve trombone, arranger, co-leader; Don Gibson, piano, arranger, co-leader; John Harker on clarinet and alto sax; Dave Miller, banjo and guitar; Tom Pletcher, cornet; and Russ Whitman, bass saxophone. In this video you’ll hear six songs that Beiderbecke had recorded, and one traditional tune they occasionally played.

I heard this band live for the first time at this very festival. I was a little boy, almost 14, with a bowl-cut Dutch-boy head of blonde hair and corduroy pants climbing high over white socks. I joined some of them for a brief after-hours jam session, along with another young Bix-Pletcher protégé named Ralph Norton, whose hair was slicked back and parted down the middle. (By the next time I heard them live, Ralph and I were in a cordial race to see who could part with his hair first.)Fast forward. In August 1987, I was just graduated from college, and for that summer was at my family farmhouse near Montague, Michigan (within a 12-minute walk from the Lost Valley Lodge where I first had heard the Jackpine Savages as a lad). The Sons of Bix had two appearances in the area the 8th and 9th, one at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp with guest Marian McPartland, in which she joined the band for a standard, played “In a Mist” solo, and did a haunting duet of “Stardust” with Pletcher. The next day,the SOBs were at a country club near Muskegon. Tom was playing that weekend on a brand new, large-bore Getzen Eterna, and any adjustments he needed to get used to the feel of the new horn on its maiden voyage Saturday night had been made into a crackling performance for the local jazz society the next day.

Unfortunately, life was making demands on me that did not allow me any further opportunities to hear this band live. But the lp records had to suffice, and the magic had been done on me. In either case, here was a band that liked playing together, liked the specific material they were reviving and reshaping, played with energy and cohesion, joked and giggled a lot. They had intelligent arrangements when needed, they could hug the ballads, and could fire up listeners with the standard barn-burners of the genre. Each musician was a seasoned, veteran master at his craft. Each one had remarkable personal connection to his antecedents at a time when some of those musical forebears were still alive to enjoy their own memories and these new achievements.

I have resisted a number of other opportunities herein to insert myself further into the narrative about this band and its roots, about Ingle, and especially about Pletcher. I will simply close with a note of gratitude to them for their loving treatment of their musical heroes and their influence on the younger musicians they had the chance to shape, to the two horn players that especially mentored me, to all the other musicians who play in these sounds, and finally to the historians, archivists, and documenters that have the cultivating hands in making this tree continue to grow in the shape of a musician from Davenport, Iowa.

And now, that 1978 session.  SUSIE / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / BORNEO / CARELESS LOVE / THOU SWELL / CLEMENTINE / FIDGETY FEET // Introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee: Tom Pletcher (cornet), Don Ingle (valve trombone), John Harker (clarinet), Don Gibson (piano), Russ Whitman (bass sax), Dave Miller (guitar, banjo), Glenn Koch (drums).

Back to David for a rewarding short interlude.

What could be nicer than four friends romping through a jazz evergreen: Albanie Falletta, David, Jonathan Doyle, and Jamey Cummins in 2014:

More friends, the Thrift Set Orchestra (yes, that’s Hal Smith!) in 2013, doing KRAZY KAPERS:

Many of the same rascals, plus the wonderful Alice Spencer, in 2014:

You can also hear David on the Brooks Prumo Orchestra’s THIS YEAR’S KISSES, two sessions by the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet, THE ROAD TO LEAVING and LIVE AT THE SAHARA LOUNGE, as well as FLOYD DOMINO ALL-STARS.

May your happiness increase!

TRANSLUCENT SERENADES: “DUETS FOR NO REASON AT ALL IN C”– MICHAEL McQUAID and CURTIS VOLP (Bandcamp, 2020)

Artwork by Nicholas D. Ball

I’ve known the multi-instrumentalist and jazz scholar Michael McQuaid for ten years now (we first met at the Whitley Bay Jazz Party, on a bus from the airport, if I remember); I just became Facebook friends with guitarist Curtis Volp.  This post is to let you know about their brand-new CD — can I call it a CD if it only, for the moment, exists intangibly? — available here.  There you can hear the first track for free, no obligations implied or expressed.

Some words, not mine, but right on target:

Established hot jazz authority Michael McQuaid and youthful guitar virtuoso Curtis Volp team up for a dynamic yet intimate series of duets, for no reason at all – other than musical enjoyment, of course.

The album features a surprising array of tunes from the 1920s and 30s, ranging from familiar favourites like ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Melancholy’ to unjustly neglected gems such as ‘Forget-Me-Not’ and ‘If I Can’t Have You’.

Though inspired by the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Johnny Dodds, Frank Trumbauer, Annette Hanshaw, Eddie Lang and Teddy Bunn, the duo achieves a fresh new sound through their warm and witty musical dialogue.

Some facts, now that you’ve figured out the personnel.  The songs are THERE AIN’T NO LAND LIKE DIXIELAND TO ME / WITHOUT THAT GAL! / FOR NO REASON AT ALL IN C / MELANCHOLY / THE MAN I LOVE / LOTS O’MAMA / MOONLIGHT ON THE GANGES / BLUE RIVER / FORGET-ME-NOT / LOOKING AT THE WORLD (Thru’ Rose-Colored Glasses) / IF I CAN’T HAVE YOU / WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD / BECHET’S STEADY RIDER /

And another sample:

Some random observations, because it seems important to me to make the JAZZ LIVES readership aware of this music right now.  I’m on my third playing, because when the “disc” ended the first time, I was shocked.  “Is it over?  Is that all?” which you can take as a positive endorsement.

The music is nicely varied — in tempo, in mood, in emotions and emotional associations.  Several of the more morose songs (you’ll know them when you hear them) are taken a little more brightly than is conventional, but the approach works.  Both Michael and Curtis are free, imaginative players, but they clearly love the melodies, so no track is a blowing exercise on the chord changes.  The person who has been deep in the music for a half-century (wait, that’s me!) can find subtleties to admire, but this is also unashamedly “pretty” music that wouldn’t scare the new kitten back into the closet.

The repertoire is of a certain era, and the playing is spiritually and chronologically appropriate — there are no quotes from 1958 Rollins or Wes here — but it isn’t a museum tour, with a guard glowering at us to keep our distance and not touch the precious OKeh icons.  Their approach is loving but not timid, reverent but not imitative (except in their FOR NO REASON AT ALL, which has its own little individualistic nuances).  Occasionally I felt as if I’d wandered into an alternate universe of “What if?” as in “What if Tram and Lang had had a whole side to themselves to play BLUE RIVER?” Although Curtis reminds me beautifully of Salvatore Massaro, he isn’t a clone; Michael knows so many reed players so deeply that there’s no danger of him getting buckled into one cosplay suit and never being able to free himself.

I admire this session all the more because I know how risky duet improvisations are when the two musicians are in the same space, can make mutual eye contact to signal changes in the itinerary, and can prance simultaneously together.  Somehow, I think watching the monitor and listening through earbuds doesn’t make it easier, and I rejoice at the warmth of their duet.

Incidentally, there are no jokes, no gimmicks, no earnest or comic vocals, but the musicians are having fun — this is a very lively jovial session, and Curtis even shouts “Yeah!” on BECHET’S STEADY RIDER.  Appropriately.

This is beautiful fulfilling warm music, a real accomplishment.  I think you’ll love it.  I certainly do.

May your happiness increase!

CELEBRATING ADRIAN ROLLINI, THEN AND NOW

Adrian Rollini has been gone from us for nearly sixty-five years, but his imagination, his huge sound, his virtuosity lives on.  He has been celebrated as associate of Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, the California Ramblers and their spin-offs, Cliff Edwards, Frank Trumbauer, Annette Hanshaw, Vic Berton, Stan King, Abe Lincoln, Miff Mole, Fred Elizalde, Bert Lown, Tom Clines, Bunny Berigan, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Lee Morse, Jack Purvis, Benny Goodman, Ethel Waters, Fats Waller, Gene Krupa, Wingy Manone, Joe Marsala, Pee Wee Russell, and many more; multi-instrumentalist: the premier bass saxophonist, a pianist, drummer, vibraphonist, xylophonist, and master of the goofus and the “hot fountain pen,” with recordings over mearly three decades — 473 sessions, says Tom Lord — to prove his art.

Here, in about six minutes, is Rollini, encapsulated — lyrically on vibraphone for HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, then playing TAP ROOM SWING (really THE FARMER IN THE DELL with a domino on) alongside Berigan, Teddy Wilson, and Babe Russin — for the Saturday Night Swing Club, with Paul Douglas the announcer. Thanks to Nick Dellow for this two-sided gem:

and later on, the vibraphone-guitar-trio:

I love the song — as well as the weight and drive Rollini gives this 1933 ensemble — to say nothing of Red McKenzie, Berigan, and Pee Wee Russell:

and the very hot performance of NOBODY’S SWEETHEART by Fred Elizalde:

Rollini died on May 15, 1956, not yet 53, so by most perspectives he is a historical figure, outlived by many of his contemporaries (Nichols, Mole, Hackett, Buddy Rich come to mind).  He made no recordings after December 1947.  But recently, several exciting fully-realized projects have made him so much more than a fabled name on record labels and in discographies.

The first Rollini exaltation is a CD, TAP ROOM SWING, by the delightful multi-instrumentalist Attila Korb, “and his Rollini Project,” recorded in 2015 with a memorable cast of individualists getting a full orchestral sound from three horns and two rhythm players.

Attila plays bass saxophone, melodica, and sings beautifully on BLUE RIVER and SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL,  and is responsible for the magical arrangements; Malo Mazurie plays trumpet and cornet; David Lukacs, clarinet and tenor; Harry Kanters, piano; Felix Hunot, guitar and banjo.  Those names should be familiar to people wise to “old time modern,” for Felix and Malo are 2/3 of Three Blind Mice, and with Joep Lumeij replacing Harry, it is David Lukacs’s marvelous DREAM CITY band.  The selections are drawn from various facets of Rollini’s bass saxophone career: SOMEBODY LOVES ME / SUGAR / THREE BLIND MICE / BLUE RIVER / BUGLE CALL RAG / DIXIE / SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL / PE O’MY HEART / TAP ROOM SWING / I LEFT MY SUGAR STANDING IN THE RAIN / SWING LOW / EMBRACEABLE YOU (the last a gorgeous bonus track, a duet for Attila and Felix that is very tender).  The performances follow the outlines of the famous recordings, but the solos are lively, and the whole enterprise feels jaunty, nothing at all like the Museum of Shellac.  You can buy the CD or download the music here, and follow the band on their Facebook page.

Here’s evidence of how this compact orchestra is both immensely respectful of the originals but — in the truest homage to the innovators — free to be themselves.

MY PRETTY GIRL (2018), where the Project foursome becomes the whole Goldkette Orchestra, live, no less:

THREE BLIND MICE, PEG O’MY HEART, SOMEBODY LOVES ME, BLUE RIVER (2016), showing how inventive the quintet is:

CLARINET MARMALADE, LULU’S BACK IN TOWN, BLUE RIVER, SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL — with a caffeinated-Bach interlude, not to be missed (2017):

I would chase this band all over Europe if circumstances were different, but they already have expert videography.  And at the end of this post I will share their most recent delightful episode.

But first, reading matter of the finest kind.  For a number of years now, there has been excited whispering, “How soon will the Rollini book come out?”  We knew that its author, Ate van Delden, is a scholar rather than an enthusiast or a mere compiler of facts we already know.  ADRIAN ROLLINI: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF A JAZZ RAMBLER is here, and it’s a model of the genre.  I confess that I am seriously tardy in adding my praise to the chorus, but it’s an example of “Be careful what you wish for.”  I always look for books that will tell me what I didn’t already know, rather than my thinking, “Yes, I read that story here, and this one in another book.”

RAMBLER, to keep it short, has so much new information that it has taxed my five wits to give it a thorough linear reading.  I’ve been picking it up, reading about Rollini’s early life as a piano prodigy (and the piano rolls he cut), his associations with the famous musicians above, his thousands of recordings, and more.  van Delden has investigated the rumors and facts of Rollini’s death, and he has (more valuable to me) portrayed Rollini not only as a brilliant multi-instrumentalist but as a businessman — opening jazz clubs, hiring and firing musicians, looking for financial advantages in expert ways — and we get a sense of Rollini the man through interviews with people who knew him and played with him.

He comes across as a complex figure, and thus, although van Delden does give loving attention to Rollini on record, the book is so much more than an annotated discography.  In its five hundred and more pages, the book is thorough without being tedious or slow-moving, and if a reader comes up with an unanswered Rollini question, I’d be astonished.  The author has a rare generous objectivity: he admires Rollini greatly, but when his and our hero acts unpleasantly or inexplicably, he is ready to say so.  Of course, there are many previously unseen photographs and wonderful bits of relevant paper ephemera.  The book is the result of forty years of research, begun by Tom Faber and carried on into 2020, and it would satisfy the most demonically attentive Rollini scholar. And if that should suggest that its audience is narrow, I would assign it to students of social and cultural history: there’s much to be learned here (the intersections of art, race, economics, and entertainment in the last century) even for people who will never play the hot fountain pen.

And here’s something completely up-to-date — a social-distancing Rollini Project video that is characteristically emotionally warm and friendly, the very opposite of distant, his nine-piece rendition of SOMEBODY LOVES ME, which appeared on May 23.  Contemporary jazz, indeed!

How unsubtle should I be?  Buy the CD, buy the book — support the living people who are doing the work of keeping the masters alive in our heads.

May your happiness increase!

“YOU CAN GO AS FAR AS YOU LIKE WITH ME”: STILL MORE FROM A VISIT TO CHAMBERSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA: JULY 22, 2015 — JOSH DUFFEE’S GRAYSTONE MONARCHS (ANDY SCHUMM, MIKE DAVIS, JIM FRYER, MICHAEL McQUAID, JASON DOWNES, JAY RATTMAN, TOM ROBERTS, JOHN SCURRY, LEIGH BARKER, JOSH DUFFEE)

This post is part three of three.  I wish it were part three of ten, but one can’t be greedy.  Here’s part one, and part two.  And here is the 1927 Oldsmobile.

And now . . . . four classic performances that we all associate with Jean Goldkette, Bill Challis, Bix Beiderbecke, and Frank Trumbauer, music conceived in 1927 and revisited for enthusiasm, style, and expertise in 2015.

I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA:

IN MY MERRY OLDSMOBILE (the 4 / 4 version), with Mike Davis blowing a scorching chorus where the vocal once was:

CLEMENTINE (From New Orleans), the last side this band recorded for Victor:

MY PRETTY GIRL:

It was an honor to be there, and it is a privilege to share these dozen performances with you.  Blessings on the musicians, on Chauncey Morehouse’s friends and family, and, as before, this post is dedicated to Susan Anne Atherton.

May your happiness increase!

“IDOLIZING”: MORE FROM A VISIT TO CHAMBERSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA: JULY 22, 2015 — JOSH DUFFEE’S GRAYSTONE MONARCHS (ANDY SCHUMM, MIKE DAVIS, JIM FRYER, MICHAEL McQUAID, JASON DOWNES, JAY RATTMAN, TOM ROBERTS, JOHN SCURRY, LEIGH BARKER, JOSH DUFFEE)

Here‘s the first part of my trip to the Capitol Theater in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania — Chauncey Morehouse’s home town — including performances of I’M GONNA MEET MY SWEETIE NOW, SLOW RIVER, DINAH, and MIDNIGHT OIL by Josh Duffee’s Graystone Monarchs, a wonderful orchestra of musicians from New York, Iowa, and Australia.  And, yes, that gun is loaded.

Here are the next four delightful performances.

THE PANIC (a musical satire on the unwise rush to get married):

CONGOLAND, a Morehouse composition, whose title Josh explains:

And back to the Goldkette book, with the ODJB’s OSTRICH WALK:

And the hot-romantic IDOLIZING (which is all that seems worthwhile):

This post, as are the others in this series, is dedicated to Susan Anne Atherton.

May your happiness increase!

A VISIT TO CHAMBERSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA (Part One): JULY 22, 2015 — JOSH DUFFEE’S GRAYSTONE MONARCHS (ANDY SCHUMM, MIKE DAVIS, JIM FRYER, MICHAEL McQUAID, JASON DOWNES, JAY RATTMAN, TOM ROBERTS, JOHN SCURRY, LEIGH BARKER, JOSH DUFFEE)

I hadn’t heard of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania before the summer of 2015, when drummer-percussionist-archivist Josh Duffee announced his intention of giving a concert with his ten-piece Graystone Monarchs to celebrate the appearance of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra at the Capitol Theater on May 4, 1927, which was a triumphant evening, made even more so because Chambersburg was legendary drummer Chauncey Morehouse’s home town.

As you will see, the modern evening was triumphant also.  And a fact that says something about Josh’s devotion to the jazz heritage — the 2015 concert was free to the public (I am sure the 1927 one wasn’t).

Of course, I asked Josh if he needed a videographer, and he did, so you can see highlights of that concert here.  The band — expert and hot — was Josh on drums; Leigh Barker, string bass; John Scurry, banjo / guitar; Tom Roberts, piano; Jason Downes, Michael McQuaid, Jay Rattman, reeds; Jim Fryer, trombone; Andy Schumm, Mike Davis, trumpets.

Twelve performances from this evening have been approved for you to enjoy, and I have taken the perhaps unusual step in presenting them in three portions, as if you’d bought two new records from the local Victor dealer and would have weeks or more to savor them.  But eight more performances will follow.

An exuberant start:

SLOW RIVER, arranged by Bill Challis, who told Phil Schaap he hated the limp melody and tried to bury and sabotage it:

DINAH, harking back to the 1926 version featuring Steve Brown:

And the fourth “side,” from Chauncey’s days with the 1935 Russ Morgan orchestra:

More lovely music to come.

May your happiness increase!

ON MARCH 12, 2020, WHEN BROADWAY WENT DARK, THIS INSPIRED QUARTET MADE BARROW STREET AS BRIGHT AS DAY (JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, JOSH DUNN, SEAN CRONIN)

For those of us who are paying attention, this is a scary time.  But when Jon-Erik Kellso suggested with polite urgency that we might want to join him and the Cafe Bohemia Jazz Quartet on Thursday, March 12 — it seems a lifetime ago — I stuffed a produce-section plastic bag in my jacket pocket (it took a few more days to find gloves) took a half-empty commuter train, got on an even more empty subway, and walked a few quiet blocks to this place, the home of restorative music and friends since last September: Cafe Bohemia at 15 Barrow Street, New York City.

We sensed that the huge dark doors were closing, although we didn’t know what would follow (we still are like people fumbling for the light switch in a strange room full of things to trip over).  But music, artistic intelligence, soulful energy, and loving heat were all beautifully present that night.  I hope that these video-recordings of these performances can light our way in the days ahead.  And, for me, I needed to post music by people who are alive, medically as well as spiritually.  So here are three inventive performances from that night.  Subliminally, the songs chosen were all “good old good ones” that can be traced back to Louis, which is never a bad thing.

YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY — perhaps the theme song for quarantined couples and families? — with the world’s best ending:

Honoring another savory part of Lower Manhattan, CHINATOWN:

And the oft-played ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, here all bright and shiny with love.  Everyone in the band lights up the night sky, but please pay attention to Sean Cronin playing the blues in the best Pops-Foster-superhero-style.  This venerable song is often played far too fast, but Jon-Erik kicked it off at a wonderfully groovy tempo, reminding me of Bix and his Gang, and the Benny Goodman Sextet of 1940-41:

If, in some unimaginable future, a brave doctor leans over me and says, “He shouldn’t have gone into the city on March 12, you know,” my lifeless form will resurrect just long enough to say, “You’ve got it wrong.  It was completely worth it.”

Bless these four embodiments of healing joy, as well as Christine Santelli and Mike Zielenewski of Cafe Bohemia, too.  And here are three other lovely performances from earlier in the evening: I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, WILLIE THE WEEPER (he was a low-down chimney sweeper, if you didn’t know that), and the MEMPHIS BLUES.

This should be obvious, but people under stress might forget to look at “the larger picture,” that others have a hard time also.  I’ve created this post for free, but what follows isn’t about me or what’s in my refrigerator.  The musicians didn’t receive extra money for entertaining  you.  How can you help them and express gratitude?  Simple.  Buy their CDs from their websites.  Help publicize their virtual house concerts — spread the news, share the joy — and toss something larger than a virtual zero into the virtual tip jar.  Musicians live in a gig economy, and we need their generous art more than we can say.  Let’s not miss the water because we ourselves have let the well run dry.

Spiritual generosity means much more than a whole carton of hand sanitizer, and what you give open-handedly to others comes back to your doorstep.

May your happiness increase!

TELL MARIE KONDO: THIS SPARKS JOY! REGINALD FORESYTHE, 1935

Maybe everyone has already repented of their Marie Kondo-obsession (I hope you didn’t throw out something or someone you now miss terribly) but I thought of her criterion for keeping an object: did it “spark joy” or not?  The music that follows does for me.

If people recognize Foresythe at all, it might be from his compositions recorded by others — SERENADE TO A WEALTHY WIDOW by Fats Waller, DEEP FOREST by Earl Hines, less so for his own orchestral work which looks forward to the Alec Wilder Octet and perhaps backwards to Spike Hughes’ 1933 compositions.  He was a truly fascinating individual, as I’ve learned from Terry Brown’s splendid biographical essay, the first part of which is published        here.  I haven’t been able to find the second part online.

Some months ago, I saw this intriguing 78 rpm disc for sale on a record colletors’ site — at a pleasingly affordable price — and holding to the philosophical principle of “What could possibly go wrong?” I bought it, played it, and was instantly smitten.

I’d heard and seen the New York Jazz Repertory Company in 1974 and onwards reproduce Louis’ solos scored by Dick Hyman for three trumpets; Earl Hines had recorded BEAU KOO JACK in 1929, and there are numerous examples of homages to famous solos — particularly Bix’s — recorded years later, but this is a wonderfully unusual homage — six reeds, three rhythm, playing every note of Louis’s solo on CHINATOWN (personnel thanks to Gary Turetsky): REGINALD FORESYTHE and His Orchestra: Cyril Clarke, Dick Savage (cl), Jimmy Watson, Harry Carr (as), Eddie Farge (ts), J. L. Brenchley (bsn), Reginald Foresythe (p, a), Don Stuteley (b), Jack Simpson (dr). London 19 July 1935:

Jon De Lucia was also taken with this record, and has promised to write it out for saxophone ensemble: I look forward to the day when I can hear it live. Until then, spin this more than once and enjoy the joy-sparks: more fun than bare shelves and empty clothes-hangers, no?

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!

BRAGGIN’ IN BRASS: JON-ERIK KELLSO, SCOTT ROBINSON, JOE COHN, MURRAY WALL (Cafe Bohemia, January 30, 2020)

A few night ago, I was witness to a glorious expression of personalities and an explosion of sounds.  The “Cafe Bohemia Jazz Quartet,” which appears regularly on Thursdays at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, was that night led by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet (as usual), with Scott Robinson, magic man, playing tenor saxophone, taragoto, and a new find from his basement, an “adorable” little Eb cornet.  With them were Joe Cohn, guitar, and Murray Wall, string bass.

The evening’s music was characteristically rewarding and varied: a first set of SONG OF THE WANDERER, SUGAR, INDIANA, ROCKIN’ CHAIR, THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and CREOLE LOVE CALL.  In the Bohemia audience, appropriately, were members of the Pilsner Jazz Band, who had just appeared at the Kennedy Center (more about that below) and were enthusiastically responding to the band.  I don’t recall if Jon-Erik asked them what they’d like to hear (the act of a brave person) but someone suggested ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and that began the second set.

A word about ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — which has a lovely pedigree, because the song (with lyrics) by Clarence and Spencer Williams, possibly just by Spencer, refers to the place King Oliver played, later the Lincoln Gardens.  It’s a century old, if we take as its starting point the unissued recordings pioneering bandleader George Morrison made of the tune.

We all have our favorite versions, from Bix to the Goodman Sextet to Tatum to Louis, and as I write this, another’s being created.  But since it was taken up from the Forties onward by “trad” groups — define them as you will — it’s one of the three songs played nearly to a crisp (the others are MUSKRAT RAMBLE and STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE).  Too many formulaic renditions in my history have caused me slight flutters of ennui when someone suggests it.  But not with this quartet.  After a gentle ensemble start (I missed a bit due to camera rebellion) this performance escalates into a wonderfully friendly joust between Jon-Erik and Scott.  Quite uplifting, with every tub securely on its own botom, seriously cheering

I felt like cheering then, and I do now.  See what happens when you leave your house to confront the music face to face?  More about the notion of leaving-your-house, at least temporarily, here.

Beauty awaits us, if we just look for it.

And just because this title was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of this post, here’s an evocative jazz artifact:

Postscript: here’s the Pilsner Jazz Band at the Kennedy Center, Jan. 27, 2020:

May your happiness increase!

TAKE ONE, TAKE TWO (Chicago, January 24, 1929)

I don’t remember in which antique store I found a shiny copy of the record above, except that my boredom (prowling through aisles of overpriced odd fragments of human history) stopped instantly.  It’s a famous recording, because more than twenty years ago, an unidentified trumpet solo that sounded rather Bixian was seized upon as being a true Bix improvisation.  I assure you that the dramatic discussions that went on — read here if you like — are not my subject.

Before I delve into why, here’s some data: the personnel as stated by Tom Lord: Ray Miller And His Orchestra : Muggsy Spanier (cnt) Max Connett, Lloyd Wallen (tp) Jules Fasthoff (tb) Jim Cannon (cl,as) Maurice Morse (as) Lyle Smith (ts) Paul Lyman (vln) Art Gronwall (p,arr) Leon Kaplan (bj,g) Jules Cassard (tu,b) Bill Paley (d) Bob Nolan, Mary Williams (vcl) Ray Miller (dir).

Why should I post the two takes of CRADLE OF LOVE?  For one thing, I have been putting my 78s in order and I saw the record, decided to play it, liked it, played it several times over.  And I continue to do so: it has become something I love.

The song itself — by the team that had a hit with RAMONA — is delightful in its limited scope.  You might know the story that Ray Henderson, Bud De Sylva, and Lew Brown — responsible for many hits — decided to write the worst song they could, with every tear-jerking cliche, and the result was SONNY BOY, which — with Al Jolson’s fervent performance (and his adding his name to the credits) was a million-seller.

I don’t know if the SONNY BOY story is true, but there’s something about CRADLE OF LOVE that hints at its composers asking themselves what they could do to assure themselves a hit.

First, pick a very optimistic premise: the young couple, so in love, in their tiny rural paradise which will be paid off in a year; they have chickens; their neighbors love them; they will have a baby soon.  Fecundity, domesticity, domestic bliss, prosperity — pleasing dreams, especially in January 1929 with no hint of the Crash to come. Home, young love, sex, and chickens!  And yes, the song is very close to MY BLUE HEAVEN, which made a great deal of money not too long before.

Second, invent a melody with an irresistible hook that sounds much like MAKIN’ WHOOPEE (a song with a clearly divergent view of domestic bliss, curdled) and put the two together.  The one touch of realism in this dream-world is that the neighbors “smile / most of the while” (my emphasis).  Why there are these noticeable lapses in grinning is never explained, especially since “all” would have worked just as well in the line.  Perhaps Wayne and Gilbert had some scruples.

CRADLE OF LOVE should have been memorable, but didn’t become so.  However, there’s so much that pleases me in these recordings (there are rumors of a third non-vocal version, made for the German market, but I don’t know anyone who has heard it).  The Miller band just sounds good, and they balance their instrumental work and the “hot” solos so beautifully.  (Yes, the question has been asked, “Why two trumpet / cornet improvisations on the same — white — dance band record?” to which I have no answer.)  It means a great deal to me that the statement of the verse is a wonderful early Muggsy Spanier episode, as well.  I don’t feel the need to mock Bob Nolan, either.  And Eddy Davis was telling me, a few weeks ago, about working with pianist Art Gronwall — to which I could only say, “Wow!”  The rhythm section has a nice bounce, and the trombone interlude reminds me cheerfully of Miff Mole.

So I invite you to listen, to put aside preconceptions, and simply enjoy.

Take One:

Take Two:

and, just because YouTube makes it possible for me to share it with you, here is the Paul Whiteman version recorded fourteen days earlier, an entirely different orchestral rendition, with a lovely Trumbauer bridge near the end:

Slightly more than ten months after the Miller recording, the stock market crash changed everyone’s lives.  I hope the young couple had paid off every stick and stone before then, and could make a living selling eggs.  How the toad plays into this I can’t imagine, but I hope (s)he and others prospered.  Otherwise it’s too dire to contemplate.

Note: readers who feel a pressing need to extend the Bix-or-not-Bix discussion will not find their comments printed here.  Enough idolatry, thanks.  I don’t think it’s Bix — but it’s my blog and I have some privileges therein.

May your happiness increase!

MAKING NEW MEMORIES: MARC CAPARONE, BRIAN HOLLAND, STEVE PIKAL, DANNY COOTS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 29, 2019)

Marc Caparone and Ricky Riccardi, considering important matters — a Louis Armstrong trumpet — a few years ago.

I don’t know if people look to pianist Jess Stacy as a model for spiritual enlightenment, but perhaps they should.  Yes, he’s rightly known for his solo on SING SING SING at the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert, and for subtle but memorable playing for decades, but he had a revelation in mid-life that has been one of my cherished stories since I first read it.  I am paraphrasing because the book it comes from is in New York and I am in San Diego, but I have it close to my heart.

He had been successful as a Goodman sideman but had made the mistake of marrying Lee Wiley — they were spectacularly unsuited for each other, a story you can explore elsewhere on the blog — they had divorced, unpleasantly.  And as Jess tells it, he was sitting on the bed in a hotel room, ruminating, despairing, feeling that there was little point in going on.  He could, he thought, follow the lead of his friend Bix Beiderbecke, and “crawl into a bottle and die,” which had its own appeal, its own seductive melodramatic pull.  But Stacy, although in misery, was curious about life and what it might offer.  Musing more, he eventually came to a decision, and spoke to himself, briskly not not sternly, “All right, Stacy.  Time to make new memories!” and he got off the bed and lived a fulfilling life.

I hear in that story something that we all have faced whether we are sitting on a hotel bed or not: stuck in our own lives, do we hug the past like a cherished stuffed bunny or do we “move on,” and see what happens?  It’s not easy.  Despair has a powerful attraction, and memories can feel like a suit of clothing that weighs tons — stifling ye familiar.  And let us say what no one wants to say, that the future is always mildly terrifying as well as alluring.

All of this has been running through my own mind (I am not in danger of ending it all through alcohol, never fear) and I have told the story to a few friends in the past week.  The wonderful trumpeter Marc Caparone provided a musical illustration of it just a few days ago at the San Diego Jazz Fest — with Brian Holland, piano; Steve Pikal, string bass; Danny Coots, drums — in his performance of MEMORIES OF YOU, a very dear song by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf.  We don’t hear Razaf’s lyrics, but those who know the song well will have them as a subliminal second theme.

And here’s Marc’s very personal exploration of these themes: a model of passion and control, Louis-like but not Louis-imitative, music that I found very moving, as did others at the San Diego Jazz Fest . . .beauty at once somber and uplifting:

I think of Bobby Hackett, saying of Louis, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come that alive?”

Thank you, Marc, Brian, Steve, and Danny — as well as Eubie and Andy, and of course Mister Stacy.

Let us hold the past for what’s dear in it, what it has to teach us, but let us not sit on the edge of the bed, musing, forever.  Make new memories.

May your happiness increase!

“THE LAMB OF GOD!”: ELEGIES FOR DONALD LAMBERT IN STORIES, PHOTOGRAPHS, AND MUSIC

Meet the Lamb!  Here he is — don’t mind the murky visual — at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival:

Thanks, deep thanks to Howard Kadison and Audrey VanDyke, keepers of so many flames.  Here is Howard’s prized copy of the PRINCETON RECOLLECTOR, a historical journal almost exclusively devoted — in this issue — to the marvelous and elusive jazz piano genius Donald Lambert.

An editorial about Donald Lambert: will wonders never cease?

Lambert plays the Sextette from Lucia:

Recollections of Bill Priestley, a fine cornetist:

Pee Wee Russell and the milk truck:

Fashions:

More rare narrative:

Lambert in his native haunts:

Playing two melodies at once:

THE TROLLEY SONG, with friend Howard Kadison at the drums:

SPAIN, with Lambert and Kadison:

ANITRA’S DANCE, from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival:

LIZA, from the same concert:

Yes, Art Tatum:

Physiognomy:

The 1941 Bluebird PILGRIM’S CHORUS:

I GOT RHYTHM (recorded by Jerry Newman, 1940) with Lambert, Hot Lips Page, Herbie Fields, Pops Morgan:

DINAH, from the same party at Newman’s parents’ home):

I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE:

and TEA FOR TWO from the same incredible session, Lambert also playing FRENESI:

 

A very rare (and I think unissued) 1949 performance, BLUE WALTZ:

LINGER AWHILE, with Kadison (the first Lambert I ever heard):

An unlisted WHEN BUDDHA SMILES, with trumpet and string bass:

Another local legend:

May your happiness increase!

ANDY’S GANG, OR “BIX ONE-SIX”: ANDY SCHUMM, JIM FRYER, LARS FRANK, ROBERT FOWLER, DAVID BOEDDINGHAUS, JOSH DUFFEE (Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, November 4, 2016)

Al Gande, Bix Beiderbecke, Johnny Hartwell, from Dick Voynow’s scrapbook. Courtesy of Michael Feinstein and THE SYNCOPATED TIMES.

Here, on November 4, 2016, a group of International Bixians played a set of the dear boy’s music at the Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party.  The premise was a small group modeled after the 1927 “Bix and his Gang” recordings for OKeh, but with some songs Bix would have known or did play but never recorded in this format.

The players should be familiar, but I will elucidate.  Andy Schumm, cornet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Lars Frank, clarinet; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Robert Fowler, in his maiden outing on bass saxophone; Josh Duffee, drums.

First, the ODJB’s AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL:

ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

The pretty and durable BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD:

JAZZ ME BLUES:

From SHOW BOAT, CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ DAT MAN:

SORRY (not really SORRY!):

Wonderful music in a remarkable setting.

May your happiness increase!

YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EARS: “DIXIELAND VS. BE-BOP,” MAY 23, 1948, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Consider this.

Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Willis Conover, late Forties: photograph by Norm Robbins. Photograph courtesy University of North Texas Music Library, Willis Conover Collection.

and this:

Once upon a time, what we like to call “jazz” was divided into warring factions.  Divided, that is, by journalists.  Musicians didn’t care for the names or care about them; they liked to play and sing with people whose artistry made them feel good.  And gigs were gigs, which is still true.  So if you were, let us say, Buck Clayton, and you could work with Buddy Tate playing swing standards and blues, or rhythm and blues, that was fine, but playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE with Tony Parenti was just as good, as was playing NOW’S THE TIME with Charlie Parker.

But this was not exciting journalism.  So dear friends Jimmy McPartland and Dizzy Gillespie were asked to pose for a photograph as if they were enemies, and people like Hughes Panassie, Leonard Feather, Rudi Blesh, and Barry Ulanov fought the specious fight in print.  Even some musicians caught the fever and feuded in public, but perhaps that was jealousy about attention and money rather than musical taste.

One positive effect was that musical “battles” drew crowds, which musicians and promoters both liked.

Since every moment of Charlie Parker’s life seems to have been documented (the same for Bix Beiderbecke, by the way) we know that he played a concert in Washington, D.C.’s Washington [or Music?] Hall on May 23, 1948; that the masters of ceremonies were Willis Conover and Jackson Lowe, and that the collective personnel was Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Sullivan, Sir Charles Thompson, George Wettling, Tony Parenti, Earl Swope, Benny Morton, Charlie Walp, Sid Weiss, Ben Lary, Mert Oliver, Sam Krupit, Joe Theimer, Arthur Phipps.  We know that the concert began at 2:30 PM, and — best of all — that private acetate recordings exist.  A portion of the concert, heavily weighted towards “modernism,” appeared on the CD above, on Uptown Records, and copies of that disc are still available on eBay and elsewhere.

Details from Peter Losin’s lovely detailed Charlie Parker site  here and here.

But for those of us who hadn’t bought the Uptown disc, there it might remain.  However, through the kindness and diligence of Maristella Feustle of the University of North Texas Digital Library, excavating recordings in the Willis Conover collection, we now have twenty-seven minutes of music — some of it unheard except by those who were at the concert.  There’s the closing C JAM BLUES / a partial RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, talk, and a partial SQUEEZE ME / S’WONDERFUL / TINY’S BLUES / TINY’S BLUES (continued).  Yes, we have no Charlie Parker here . . . but a great deal of lively fine music.  (Do I hear Eddie Condon’s voice in this or do I dream?).

Here’s  the link to hear the music.

But wait!  There’s more.  My dear friend Sonny McGown sent me a photograph I’d never seen before, from a similar concert of the same vintage, at the National Press Club, with this description: “Your email this morning reminded me of a photo that belonged to my father. He is in the picture with his head visible just above the bell of the trombonist on the far left. Some of the musicians’ identities are obvious such as Jimmy Archey, Wild Bill Davison, Ben Webster, and George Wettling. The rest are unknown to me. I wonder if the trumpet at the microphone is Frankie Newton? The clarinetist looks a bit like Albert Nicholas. It is quite possible that some of the fellows are locals.”  [Note: in an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the photograph and the concert tape were connected: they aren’t.  Enthusiasm over accuracy.]

My eyes and ears were ringing while I stared at this gathering.  I couldn’t identify the others in the photograph, but did not think the tall trumpeter in the middle was Newton.  (And Sonny’s father, Mac, was a spectator, not a player.)  Sonny then found two more photographs from the concert that we hear the music — their source being Maggie Condon, which would place Eddie there, logically, as well.

Tony Parenti, George Wettling, Wild Bill Davison, either Sid Weiss or Jack Lesberg, Bennie (the spelling he preferred) Morton:

Joe Sullivan, happy as a human can be:

This photograph popped up online, labeled “Washington Press Club,” but I wonder if it is from the same occasion.  Even if it isn’t, it’s always a pleasure to portray these sometimes-ignored majesties:

Now, might I suggest two things.  One, that JAZZ LIVES readers go back and listen to this almost half-hour of joys here — giving thanks to the University of North Texas Digital Library at the same time —  for instance, the five-hour interview Louis gave to Conover on July 13, 1956, which starts here, and ten years later, something astonishing, Louis playing COLUMBIA, THE GEM OF THE OCEAN and singing “This is the Voice of America,” the former of which I would like as a ringtone: here.

Still hungry for sounds?  A January 31, 1956, interview with Eddie Condon here; a brief 1946 interview with Duke Ellington where he seems to say nothing about the death of Tricky Sam Nanton — the music section begins with Ellington’s BLUE ABANDON, which contains a stunning solo by Oscar Pettiford, which is then followed by lovely records by Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and Kenton: here.

There are many more gems in the University of North Texas Music Library, which seems better than any ancient debate about the merits of different kinds of jazz.  There is music to listen to and photographs to stare at . . . and gratitude to express, nor only to the musicians and Mr. Conover, but to Ms. Feustle and Mr. McGown.  Those who keep the archives tidy and share their gifts are our lasting friends.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET CREATIONS: “DREAM CITY”: DAVID LUKÁCS, MALO MAZURIÉ, ATTILA KORB, FÉLIX HUNOT, JOEP LUMEIJ

David Lukács dreams in lyrical swing.  His most recent CD is evidence that I do not exaggerate.  Now, I know that some of my American readers might furrow their brows and say, “Who are these people?  I don’t know their names!” but I urge them to listen and watch.

To quote the lyrics from SAY IT SIMPLE (I hear Jack Teagarden’s voice in my head as I type), “If that don’t get it, well, forget it right now.”

Here you can hear the music, download it, purchase a disc.

The sweet-natured magicians are David Lukacs, clarinet, tenor saxophone, arrangements; Malo Mazurie, cornet, trumpet; Attila Korb, bass saxophone*, trombone; Felix Hunot, guitar, banjo; Joep Lumeij: string bass.  The songs are DREAM CITY / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / OLD MAN BLUES / MORE THAN YOU KNOW / THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC / MOONLIGHT ON THE GANGES / I HAD IT BUT IT’S ALL GONE NOW / HALLELUJAH! / BLUE PRELUDE / MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND / THEN SOMEONE’S IN LOVE / LOUISIANA / CLARINET MARMALADE / MANOIR DE MES REVES.  The liner notes are by Scott Robinson.

David told me that this CD is inspired by his father’s record collection (obviously the Lukacs lineage has taste and discernment) but his vision is even larger: “With this album I created my own city, my Dream City, where there’s Bix and Tram’s music in one club, Duke is playing in the theatre beside, and you might hear Django’s music around the corner.”

That transcends the time-machine cliche, and each track is a dreamy vision of a heard past made real for us in 2019. The dreaminess is most charming, because this disc isn’t simply a series of recreations of recordings.  Occasionally the band follows the outlines of a famous disc closely — as in A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND — but each song becomes a sweet playground for these (sometimes shoeless) dear geniuses to roam in.

Here’s another video tour, with snippets of the title tune, OLD MAN BLUES, MOONLIGHT ON THE GANGES, MANOIR DE MES REVES (and comments from Scott, who knows):

Readers who feel this music as I do won’t need any more explanation — but a few lines are in order.  I first heard David on record with Menno Daams (check out the latter’s PLAYGROUND) — two musicians who have deep lyrical intelligence, but DREAM CITY is an astonishing combination of the hallowed past and true contemporary liveliness.  David told me that he has been inspired not only by the old records, but by the music Marty Grosz and others made, using those sounds as a basis.  I hear echoes of the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet and the small-group sessions that were so prolific and gratifying on the Arbors label.

DREAM CITY offers us glorious yet understated solo work and — perhaps even better — delicious ensemble playing and gratifying arrangements.  The inspirations are also the Kansas City Six, the Ellington, Basie, and Wilson small bands, and more.  You can draw your own family tree with chalk on the sidewalk.  The “unusual” instrumentation also allows a great flexibility in voicings — this is no formulaic band that plays each song in the same way, simply varying tempo and key — and this CD is not a series of solos-with-rhythm.  Each selection, none longer than a 12″ 78, is a short story in sounds.

If you care to, go back to the video of DREAM CITY — which begins, if I am correct, with a line on the chords of BYE BYE BLUES and then changes key into a medium-bounce blues — and admire not only the soloing, so tersely expert, so full of feeling without self-consciousness — but the arrangement itself: the quiet effective way horns hum behind a soloist, the use of stop-time and a Chicago “flare,” the echoes of Bix and Tram without tying the whole endeavor to a 1927 skeleton . . . worth study, deserving of admiration.

All of the players impress me tremendously, but Attila gets his own * (and that is not the title of a children’s book) because I’d not known of his bass saxophone playing: he is a master of that horn, handling it with elegance and grace, sometimes giving it a limber ease I would associate with the bass clarinet, although he never hurries.  (I also discovered Attila’s 2017 TAP ROOM SWING, a tribute to Adrian Rollini, which I hope to write about in future.)

I plan to continue blissfully dreaming to DREAM CITY, an ethereal soundtrack, so rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

May your happiness increase!

“LOVE WILL FIND A WAY”: A NOBLE + WYLIE SHOWCASE (Part One): THE NEW WONDERS at the RUTGERS PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: MIKE DAVIS, JOSH HOLCOMB, RICKY ALEXANDER, DALTON RIDENHOUR, PETER CHO, JAY RATTMAN, JAY LEPLEY (January 7, 2019)

Here are some wonderful highlights from my first concert of 2019, a showcase for several bands under the brightly colored banner of Noble + Wylie, a musician-run enterprise that fills a real need, representing splendid traditional jazz performers, offering the best services to the artists and their audiences.  The co-founders are musicians Emily Asher and Katie Lee, who know the business from many angles.  You can read more about this promising company at the link above, but a few sentences from Emily give a taste of their forthright approach: “I see Noble + Wylie as an agency which elevates and celebrates excellence. By focusing on honesty and quality over chaos and hype, I look forward to fostering long-term positive relationships with diverse music venues, festivals, schools, and private clients in order to provide distinctive and creative music to audiences world-wide.”

(If you search for Noble & Wylie — connected by an ampersand — you’ll find only UK shoes, no music at all.  Caveat emptor.)

At the January 9 showcase, we had the opportunity to hear three groups represented by Noble + Wylie: The Ladybugs, the New Wonders, and Emily Asher’s Garden Party — and I brought back some tasty video evidence.  Here is the first set by the New Wonders, the remarkable band making the hot and sweet music of the Twenties alive again.  For this occasion, they are Mike Davis, cornet; Josh Holcomb, trombone; Ricky Alexander, reeds; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Peter Cho, banjo; Jay Rattman, bass sax; Jay Lepley, with incidental singing by members of the band.  My videos came from an odd angle, but I hope all can be forgiven.

The New Wonders, photograph by Renée Toplansky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike’s introductions are delightful history lessons in themselves, so you need no more from me.

RHYTHM KING, for Bix:

I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED, for the Chicago Loopers:

OSTRICH WALK, for Bix and Tram:

CLORINDA, for the Loopers:

This one’s a particular favorite of mine, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s sweet ballad, LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, in the style of Bix and his Gang:

Finally, a romping CLARINET MARMALADE — hot and spreadable:

Once again, you can learn more about Noble + Wylie here.  (The name that Asher and Lee have chosen for their enterprise is a fascinating story in itself.)  And their Facebook page is  here.

May your happiness increase!

“FINE RIFFIN’ THIS EVENIN'”: DAVE STUCKEY and the HOT HOUSE GANG at FRESNO: DAVE STUCKEY, MARC CAPARONE, GARETH PRICE, SAM ROCHA, NATE KETNER, DAVID AUS (February 9, 2019)

Seat belts fastened, seat backs upright, tray tables in the upright position?

As the ebullient guitarist / singer / bandleader Dave Stuckey says, “Come on, cats!”

Here are three Stuckey-beauties from the Fresno “Sounds of Mardi Gras,” last month, in which our heroes teach the Gentle Art of Swing and the Arcane Secrets of Riffing.  (See: “Arrangement, head” in the index.)

The rollicking heroes are Dave Stuckey, guitar, vocal, imagination; Marc Caparone, cornet; Nate Ketner, reeds, David Aus, piano; Sam Rocha, string bass; Gareth Price, drums.  Special plaudits go to Youngbloods Rocha and Price, who make seismic upheaval fun.

FROM MONDAY ON, for Bix, Bing, and Eddie:

I NEVER KNEW, for Benny Carter:

YOU’RE GONNA LOSE YOUR GAL, for Red Allen:

“Wow wow wow!” as my friend Anna Katsavos says.

“May your happiness increase!”

THEM THERE BOYS: THE CHICAGO CELLAR BOYS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: ANDY SCHUMM, JOHN OTTO, PAUL ASARO, DAVE BOCK, JOHNNY DONATOWICZ (November 24, 2018)

They’re back!  And below I’ll have news of their appearance at a one-day Midwest festival on March 30, 2019.

The Chicago Cellar Boys made beautiful music at the 2018 San Diego Jazz Fest, and I caught as much of it as I could.  (Type in CELLAR on the search bar and see for yourself.)

Here is part of a set that I recorded on November 24.  The CCB are Andy Schumm, cornet, tenor saxophone, clarinet; John Otto, alto saxophone, clarinet; Paul Asaro, piano, vocal; Johnny Donatowicz, guitar, banjo; Dave Bock, tuba.  Dee-lightful.

INDIAN CRADLE SONG (in honor of the Dorsey Brothers and, faintly, Louis Armstrong).  Andy told me that he had hidden another song in the “chorale” section, but he’s too smart for me.  Maybe you’ll recognize it?:

BOSTON SKUFFLE (something for and by Jabbo Smith):

HOME, CRADLE OF HAPPINESS (a song popular in the early Twenties, recorded by a Sam Lanin group and by Ethel Waters):

FIDGETY FEET (a tribute to Bix and the Wolverines):

KING PORTER STOMP (the CCB’s homage to the 1924 Autograph duet session by King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton — also the band-within-the-band):

Aside from their inspiring playing and singing, hot and sweet, there are the marvelous arrangements that make this two-horn quintet sound like a large group, and the positively exciting repertoire.  I know the music of this period fairly well, but I always go away from even one CCB set saying to myself, “I’ve never heard that wonderful tune before.”

And here — because listeners need to get away from their computers now and again (it’s good for us!) — is the festival they will be illuminating at the end of this month, along with Petra’s Recession Seven (featuring Petra van Nuis, Andy Brown, Russ Phillips, and other luminaries):

May your happiness increase!

“SHE YELLED WITH DELIGHT”: DAVE STUCKEY and the HOT HOUSE GANG at FRESNO: DAVE STUCKEY, MARC CAPARONE, NATE KETNER, RILEY BAKER, DAVID AUS, SAM ROCHA, GARETH PRICE (February 9, 2019)

The Twenties marked an explosion of female freedom that would blossom in our time, with political empowerment and social power running parallel: the right to vote and the right to choose what you would wear.  I am sure that somewhere in that decade a singer was whimpering through SHE’S ONLY A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE, and NOBODY’S SWEETHEART appears to — note I write “appears” — say that a young woman could lose her virtue in the big city, with a wink at the listener as if to say that scandal is more fun than conformity. But the songs below, which resurface as hot jazz classics in their own decade, say that the rewards of freedom and pleasure and hugely gratifying.  (I amused myself a few years ago here by writing about several of those songs — with a guest appearance by Thomas Hardy.)

By coincidence, the songs I am considering were given splendid performances by Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang at the 2019 “Sounds of Mardi Gras” in Fresno, California — on February 9.  The HHG was Dave, guitar and vocal; Gareth Price, drums; Sam Rocha, string bass; David Aus (subbing for Carl Sonny Leyland), piano; Nate Ketner, reeds; Marc Caparone, cornet — on LIZZIE, the delightful trombonist Riley Baker joins in the fun.

Let’s begin with Bessie, from 1929 — not Smith, but a young woman with no last name who is completely enjoying herself.  I’ve always wondered if Bessie’s yelling with delight celebrates the female orgasm.  And although the lyrics suggest a faux-pity about Bessie, who “couldn’t help it,” as if she could be an entry in Krafft-Ebing, we are meant to cheer her on:

Then there’s Lizzie, who is dancing all over town with such wild abandon that she shakes the pots and pans in what we must assume is a more sedate lady’s kitchen.  Ah, flaming youth!  (Or, as Dave exhorts the band, “Come on, cats!”).  I also note the repeated reference to what I know as “Oh, they don’t wear pants / in the southern part of France,” which suggests that Lizzie’s dance is close to the hootchy-kootchy:

These songs have wonderful jazz pedigrees, should you want to listen to other versions: Louis and Hoagy and Marty Grosz for BESSIE; “Irving Mills” and then Eddie Condon for LIZZIE.

Hot jazz, social emancipation, wild dancing, orgasms.  Fine with me.  And I write with untrammeled pride that I think this is the only jazz blog where Krafft-Ebing and Louis have equal time.

May your happiness increase!

HOT MUSIC, GOOD STORIES, LASTING FRIENDSHIP, KINDNESSES: HANK O’NEAL RECALLS SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT (Nov. 2, 2018)

Here is one perspective on Hank O’Neal — writer, archivist, record producer, photographer, friend of Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott . . . and many jazz musicians from Willie “the Lion” Smith to Borah Bergman.  Hank is also an incredible resource and storyteller, someone I am thrilled to call a friend: reasons that Hank visits JAZZ LIVES, as he speaks with great fondness of Squirrel Ashcraft.  If you say, “Wow, Squirrel!” then you have come to the right place.  If you say, “Who IS that?” you’re also in for pleasure and enlightenment.

Hank O’Neal by Annie Tritt for the Boston Globe, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And since Hank is a masterful photographer, here is another character study, one I like even more — shot by Sherry Sereboff (2017, near Fort Worth, Texas) even better.  When I meet Hank next, I will ask what was on his plate:

I had asked Hank to speak about Squirrel for JAZZ LIVES, and the conversation began very informally, as he was paging through Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft’s scrapbook.  I just started videoing . . . with happy results — little anecdotes about sacred objects connected to Bix, Tesch, and Dick Voynow.  But for future researchers, any time someone you respect says the words, “Letters from Brad Gowans,” you know something important is being revealed:

“Who was Squirrel Ashcraft and how did I meet him?”:

Paging through Squirrel’s 1928-9 notebook, “JAZZ MUSIC,” with entries devoted to the Wolverines, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, the Georgians, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo, Henderson’s adaptation of RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and more:

I first learned about Squirrel through EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (a book Eddie did with Hank) and then through Squirrel’s home recordings, later issued on rare lps by . . . Hank.  Here’s the story of Squirrel’s career — about fifteen years — as an archivist of home recordings, often aluminum, including performances by Johnny Mercer, Joe Rushton, Jimmy McParland, George Barnes, Boyce Brown, Bob Zurke, Spencer Clark, Rosy McHargue, also Joe Rushton, his motorcycle, and Pee Wee Russell, and Squirrel’s later playing career in Washington, D.C., and sidelights on Jean Bach, Jimmy Dorsey, and jazz reunions at Princeton University from 1975-79:

Finally . . . Hank brings us up to date (Squirrel died in 1981, but his relics are going to a good place.  And don’t miss the story about the Bob Crosby band: Squirrel and friends obviously knew how to live:

The best part of this story, just over an hour with Hank, is his obvious affection and indebtedness to Squirrel, and Squirrel’s sweet feelings for the music and musicians.  Thank you, Hank, for making the reclusive Squirrel appear to us in this century.

And . . . because Hank is a wonderful writer, here’s his “little piece” on Squirrel from his book on pianists. Some of the stories you will have heard from the videos above, but they don’t wilt with a second telling:

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III, better known as “Squirrel”, is the least known pianist in this book, but he was by far the most important to me. It all started because of two courses I’d taken at Syracuse University; one in Russian Studies and another in African Studies. The Russian Studies course ultimately led me to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The African Studies course, particularly one taught by Eduardo Mondlane, who was later to lead and win the revolution in Mozambique, led me to the CIA’s Office of Operations, where Squirrel Ashcraft was the Director.

Though forgotten today, Squirrel was a legendary figure in the world of jazz, at least into the mid-1970s, but much can be lost and forgotten in a quarter of a century. He was, for example, the only person I knew who had heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, and had known and associated with a host of other legendary players from the 1920s, who were just names in a book or music in the grooves of old records to me. He was the kind of man who could make a simple telephone call and John Hammond, Neshui or Ahmet Ertegun would welcome me warmly. The same was true of any number of musicians of a certain age, i.e. the Austin High Gang, and their musical associates or disciples.

He was the first jazz artist I ever heard perform in an informal setting, that is away from a concert hall or club, where I was a paying spectator. By that time, he was in his 60s, hadn’t played regularly for years, never had been a first rank player anyway, and now had an affliction in one of his hands that affected his dexterity. But for someone of my age, and limited experience, it was more thrilling to be standing two feet from a legendary figure in his living room than hearing a great pianist from the top balcony in Carnegie Hall.

He was also the man who first introduced me to an active jazz musician, in this case, Jimmy McPartland. Later, he would introduce me to many others, and simply because he made the introduction, I was accepted by these men and women without question.

A little background is in order. Squirrel was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1905. His family was socially prominent and well situated. In the early 1920s he discovered jazz and became as deeply involved with it as possible. He was active in Chicago in the same way John Hammond was in New York, and he met many of the up and coming young jazz musicians in that city long before they had come up, befriended them, helped them whenever possible, and continued to for years and years.

Squirrel came east in the late 1920’s and attended Princeton. He played both piano and accordion, was part of Princeton’s Triangle Club, wrote songs, recorded with the Triangle Jazz Band, was known to and played informally with such legendary figures as Bix Beiderbecke, and even corralled the elusive cornet player one night, convincing him to record with the Princeton band. It almost came off, but not quite; Bix was there when everyone fell asleep but had vanished when they woke up. He continued at Princeton, but eventually returned to Chicago in the early 1930s, and took up his post in the family law firm.

He opened his home to every jazz musician who could find their way to Evanston, and hundreds did, usually on Monday nights. The sessions at Squirrel’s featured a who’s who of whoever was in Chicago at the time. He began to record these proceedings in about 1933 and, until he left for World War II, hundreds of private discs were made, sometimes with the help of his friend John Steiner. Steiner eventually issued some of the goings-on on Paramount 78 rpm discs and later on 10” LPs.

World War II closed down the Monday night sessions; Squirrel was inducted in the U.S Navy, and assigned to naval intelligence. After the war, he returned to Chicago, his law practice, and the music and recording began again, this time on a crude tape recorder that used paper tape. The music didn’t last long, however, because in the late 1940s Squirrel was selected by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency to run its Chicago field office, and the music slowed down once again. He was so good at the CIA game, he was urged to become the Director of all domestic operations in the early 1950’s.

Squirrel accepted the challenge, closed down the house in Evanston, moved to Washington, and vanished into another world, his whereabouts unknown, except to the musicians and friends with whom he kept in touch. There were no sessions at Squirrel’s massive apartment in Washington. When I arrived on the scene in 1964, his piano sounded a bit like one from a Charles Addams’ haunted house. But that was soon to change.

Suddenly there was someone around who knew his past, and even had one of those old John Steiner-issued Paramount records to prove it. I was the junior guy in the Office of Operations, but I had immediate access to the Director because of the music. This is when I learned that love of jazz of a certain sort could cross any cultural divide, regardless of age, race, or anything else.

It didn’t take long before the piano was tuned and regulated, and informal musical gatherings began. The first was with Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and two wonderful local Washington musicians, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney (who founded and owned Blues Alley) and guitarist Steve Jordan. Squirrel got his hands back in shape, so he could spell Marian when she wanted to relax and, just like in the old days, everything was recorded. The first “new” informal session was eventually issued as a record that was given away to anyone who wanted one. I cut my recording teeth on Squirrel’s Ampex F-44 and two Electrovoice microphones.

Listening back to the old acetate and aluminum recordings from the 1930s, Squirrel reminds me of a pianist like Frank Melrose. A great deal more passion than technique, but good enough to get the job done. He was a better than average amateur in those days, and could easily hold his own with his peers, and provide good accompaniment to A-list artists when it was required. I remember him telling me that one night the entire Bob Crosby band came out to his house for a Monday night session. The thing that pleased him most was that the first complaint was from a neighbor whose house was three blocks away. And he got to play with the band when Bob Zurke was doing something else.

Squirrel’s influence in the jazz world was not as a pianist. He was always behind the scenes and, eventually, way behind the scenes. If Eddie Condon couldn’t get a liquor license to open Condon’s; Squirrel could make the call to the right person so it could be worked out, despite the checkered past of some of the club’s owners. If a certain player were down on his luck, there would be a check in the mail. There were any number of people he supported for life. He was a safety net for many, many of the first generation of jazz musicians, and probably some of the second and third. My guess is he was a safety net for a lot of people I didn’t know about, musicians, old friends down on their luck, or even a struggling bullfighter.

After he officially retired in the late 1960’s, Squirrel spent less and less time in Washington and more time at his home in Spain. Sometimes a year would pass and I wouldn’t see him, except perhaps to see him off on either the ocean liners Michaelangelo or Rafaello, his favorite modes of transportation between New York and Spain. When in Spain, he had little time for music, but towards the end of a letter from there, dated November 12, 1969, he says, “We are listening, which we do seldom at all, to Miles’ Sketches, and I wish so very, very much that Bix could have heard it…. We think about you often. Please write the whole story.” I’m not sure I ever did, but in the 1970s, and early 1980s, he had a burst of musical energy, at least every June, for half a dozen years.

In 1975, Jack Howe liberated a funny little band, affectionately called The Sons of Bix, from cornetist Tom Pletcher. Jack was an amateur tenor saxophone player, who’d been part of the in the Princeton Triangle Jazz band with Squirrel in the 1920s. He augmented the SOBs with Princeton alumni musicians, aided by the likes of Spencer Clarke, Bob Haggart, Max Kaminsky, Maxine Sullivan and others. The band only had one certain engagement each year, to play a class reunion at Princeton. It turned out, however, the band played the reunion of the Class of 1929 or the Class of 1930, every year until at least 1982. Squirrel actually played a little piano on all the dates until 1981. I recorded the performances, which, as often as not, were presented in tents. Squirrel and Jack then chose their favorite tunes, and I arranged for a few LPs to be pressed up and distributed to the dwindling faithful. The records are often spirited, but not landmark recordings. A friendly souvenir, but little more. Much to my surprise, some of them have been listed in Tom Lord’s landmark The Jazz Discography.

In those years, if I had to be in Washington, for whatever reason, Squirrel’s Watson Place apartment was always open, whether Squirrel and his wife, Patter, were in residence or not. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Washington since 1960; but to confess, I only went back a few times after Squirrel died in 1981. The last time I was there was at the urging of his wife. She telephoned in the mid-1980s and said she was cleaning out files and had found some correspondence from me in a box of music-related junk in the back of a closet. Would I please come down and save all these found items from the trash collector? I was also urged to pick up the crank-up Victrola with the bamboo needle cutter that was now stored in the basement. I’d first seen it at an old filling station somewhere in Virginia in the mid-1960s, offered the owner $10, which he was happy to have, and had passed it on to Squirrel, so he could play his old Hot Five 78s as he played them in the 1920s, when they were fresh and new. I was happy to have it back, and it still works just fine.

I drove down, had a nice visit with Patter, and loaded all the papers, the boxes of stuff she’d found in the closet, and the old Victrola in the back of my car. I had a last look around, and never went back, but stayed in touch with Patter until she became ill and her Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where she didn’t know who I was.

When I got home after that last trip, I had a good time looking at the correspondence, the old clippings from the 1930’s and 1940s. At the bottom of the box I saved from the trash man, I found the bell of a battered cornet, with a note from Jimmy McPartland. This was all that was left of the cornet Bix had bought him, when Jimmy replaced Bix in the Wolverines. This was the kind of thing that turned up at Sqiurrel’s house. And I’ll bet things like that don’t turn up too many other places.

Squirrel Ashcraft was a kind and generous man who touched the lives of many men and women in a positive way. When he found time to touch a piano, it was equally positive. I never heard him play the blues.

May your happiness increase!