Tag Archives: Blue Note Jazzmen

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS (July 12, 2014)

Take a deep breath, see that your eyeglasses are clean, ask your neighbor to take a break from leaf blowing . . . and get ready to admire.

What follows is a wonderful assemblage of rewarding details that make a performance soar and shine.  Everybody knows EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, ninety years old in 2014, and the song flexibly lends itself to many approaches: a slow-drag tempo with the verse (think: Blue Note Jazzmen) or delightedly skittering around the room, making all the turns (any Fifties Eddie Condon performance).

The creators here are Ray Skjelbred, piano and imagination; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar, and this took place at the one-day jazz festival at Cline Cellars Winery in Sonoma, California.

The pleasures of this al fresco performance are double: first, the joy of hearing Ray and his Cubs do anything, and second, the little architectural details that delight and surprise, throughout. Ray says this performance takes some of its inspiration from the 1929 Earl Hines Victor recording of the tune, but it’s clear that the record is a leaping-off place rather than a model to be copied.

The DETAILS I celebrate here are Clint’s arco string bass work, Jeff’s tom-toms, Kim’s magical ability to sing and play at the same time, or nearly so, the duet scored for Cusack and Skjelbred; evocations of Jess Stacy’s 1938 “A-minor thing” even if it’s not in A-minor, and the delicious surprise of the bridge of the last chorus:

I so admire the romping large-scale scope of this performance — people confident and joyous in the sunshine — but the details that poke their heads through from below I find thrilling.

Here’s Earl Hines, playing, leading, and scat-singing:

I couldn’t close this blogpost without commenting that Benny Hill used to announce this song on his television show as EVERY BABY LOVES MY BODY, which works also.

May your happiness increase!

PIECES OF OUR PAST (August 2011)

Wordsworth was correct when he wrote that in “getting and spending” we “lay waste our powers.”  I live not too far from a large shopping mall, and visit it only when other ways to buy something necessary are worse.  But certain kinds of “getting” and “spending” aren’t so bad: when the purchases uplift the spirits and don’t cost much.  Exhibits below.  First, sheet music from a Vallejo, California antique shop.

I was motivated to buy this 1926 laff-riot because of the title and the line drawing — I sympathize with that fellow, even though I haven’t worn a three-piece suit in years.  However, instead of being a comic ditty about table manners, it is more literal — X does all the work but Y, who doesn’t, gets all the credit.  And it must have been a smash in vaudeville, for the inside front cover contains 24 knock-em-dead versions of the chorus.  I will spare you.  And if the name “Larry Shay” looks familiar, he was in part responsible for WHEN YOU’RE SMILING.

A much more seriously valuable song: I can hear Billie singing it or Ed Hall playing it.  The most touching part of this sheet music is the inscription of ownership on top — I don’t know if it’s entirely visible, but this copy was the property of WOODY’S DANCE DEMONS.  I looked them up on Google and didn’t find anything, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t play well in 1929 or 1930.

This song is deeply unimaginative, but I thought that if the Benson Orchestra had played it and its composer had written OKLAHOMA INDIAN JAZZ, it might have some merit.  We live in hope.

I wouldn’t call this a memorable Berlin tune (I suspect it was meant as a frisky dance number) but it does contain the lines, “Let me mingle with a peppy jingle / That the jazz bands love to play,” which is certainly hip for 1922.

I heard Rosy McHargue sing this on a Stomp Off recording (he must have been in his middle eighties) and thought it was hilarious.  Also, isn’t that the most thoroughly anthropomorphized dog face you’ve ever seen?  Now for several artifacts that are more fragile, heavier, and harder to pack — but no less irresistible.

Although I can’t imagine Eddie Condon with a novel in front of him, he admired John Steinbeck and was very proud that they were friends.  Steinbeck loved the music that Eddie and the boys created, with only one caveat: he kept asking Eddie to take up the banjo again, an offer Eddie steadfastly pushed aside.  This 12″ 78 cost more than fifty cents when it was new, and the band is flawless.

Also (not pictured, but you can imagine):

another Commodore 12″ of OH, KATHARINA and BASIN STREET BLUES; a Blue Note Jazzmen 12″ of WHO’S SORRY NOW (no question mark) and BALLIN’ THE JACK.  Moving into the microgroove era, I proudly snapped up a Collectors’ Classics lp of the Red Allen Vocalions 1934-5 (with the exultant ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON), Ray Skjelbred’s first solo session for Berkeley Rhythm Records, from 1973-4 (signed by the artist), and the JUMP compilation of (Charles) LaVere’s Chicago Loopers, with Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, Nick Fatool, and other stalwarts.

O RARE JAMES P. JOHNSON!

The world still hasn’t quite caught up to James Price Johnson, ambitious composer, eminent pianist, generous mentor and teacher. 

How about CHARLESTON or ONE HOUR, MULE WALK  or YAMEKRAW? 

He  lifted up every band he played in, and as a stride progenitor, he lived up to his announcement that he could create “a trick a minute” at the keyboard.  And through his loving paternal care of one Thomas Waller, we have generations of pianists who thank him and sing his praises. 

James P. doesn’t get the attention his works or his playing merit.  But eBay has a few more exhibits for sale and for delighted contemplation.  Printed music, not records — harking back to a time when every household had a piano and someone reasonably competent to make it sing and shout.

Early in his career, James P. (who studied the classical repertoire and took many of his “tricks” from it) had ambitions — always frustrated — to write and perform longer works.  Many have been unearthed and recorded after his death, but EBONY DREAMS (1928) is new to me.  I’d love to hear what a real pianist could do with this music: if I bought it, it would simply reproach me, unplayed, from the piano:

And here’s something more popular and less intimidating — a song from a 1932 musical.  I’ve heard Marty Grosz sing it (as THERE GOES MY HEADACHE) and it’s entertaining although not hugely memorable.  But I’d never seen the sheet music for this show before:

And just to keep this post from being too dry a trip into the world of paper ephemera, here’s something for the ears.  Here’s James P. with Sidney DeParis, Vic Dickenson, Ben Webster, Jimmy Arthur Shirley, John Simmons, and Sidney Catlett, performing AFTER YOU’VE GONE for Blue Note.  Listen to his ringing solo chorus and the fine, spare comping he gives the soloists:

You see I don’t mean my title to be taken lightly!

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BRAD LINDE and TED BROWN and FRIENDS at TOMI JAZZ (Feb. 5, 2011)

The musical intelligence of youthful saxophonist Brad Linde continues to impress me.  Brad also has good taste in friends: Lee Konitz and Ted Brown. 

One of the high points of seeing Ted Brown and friends live at Sofia’s in January 2011 was the impromptu pairing of Ted and Brad, eminence and youthful star, musing over the chord changes, having a lovely empathic dialogue.  Affectionate, thoughtful collaboration, not competition. 

So when Brad told me that he and Ted would be leading a quartet (with Joe Solomon, bass, and Taro Okamoto, drums) at Tomi Jazz on East 53rd Street in New York City, I was there . . . quite early, as always, to document the good sounds I knew would be created. 

Tomi Jazz is very cozy (you could pass right by it on the street) and for much of the evening the audience was made up of intent listeners.  

Here are some of the songs that Brad, Ted, Joe, and Taro (with surprise guests) reinvented that night.  Obviously they are honoring their own creative impulses and going their own way, but they also do honor to the Masters: Pres and Bird, Lee and Lennie.  And the contrasts of pure sound are so revealing here: Ted often has a particularly focused, intense sound on his tenor that suggests a double-reed instrument (an English horn, perhaps?) while Brad’s sound is more orthodox, more furry, broader.  (Not meaning to be taken seriously, I told Brad that at points they reminded me of Herschel and Pres in the Basie band . . . and we both laughed.)  Joe Solomon’s bass sonority is big and warm, and Taro Okamoto knows just what to play, when, and when not to!  I’ll let you discover Jim, Sarah, and Lena as we go along . . .

From the first set, here’s Ted’s improvisation on the changes of THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU — celebrating perhaps more than a little ruefully what it was like in Los Angeles — SMOG EYES:

Here’s the tender, winding SWEET AND LOVELY.  I always wonder where the more “modern” musicians picked this one up from.  Bing?  Ed Hall?  Hawkins?  Whatever the source, it is a song that lives up to its title:

Not too fast, but truly exuberant — one for Lester Willis Young from Woodville, Mississippi — LESTER LEAPS IN (I believe a title created by John Hammond, someone Lester came to abhor):

Still on a 1939-40 Basie kick — always a good idea!  Here’s BROADWAY:

Since Lester’s spirit was at Tomi Jazz and is always in the room — delicately but tangibly — I should point out that the eminent Chris Albertson has just posted on his STOMP OFF IN C site a recording of the 1958 interview he did with Lester: click here to hear it: http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2011/02/my-interview-with-lester-young.html

Joined by trumpeter Jim Ketch, the band launches into a song honoring that Parker fellow and his early creation.  Jim Ketch, by the way, is Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Here’s his website: http://www.jimketch.com/index.html.  And here’s YARDBIRD SUITE:

Another song with unusual chord changes was the Ned Washington – Victor Young I’M GETTING SENTIMENTAL OVER YOU, which Tommy Dorsey took as his theme song:

Two songs about memory and memories:

I REMEMBER YOU:

and I’LL REMEMBER APRIL:

The young, gifted altoist Sarah Hughes joined the quartet for a romp on Lee Konitz’s SUBCONSCIOUS-LEE, based on WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? changes:

Another song with subtle, unusual harmonies is YOU STEPPED OUT OF A DREAM:

The very fine player Lena Bloch came on board, tenor at the ready, for Harold Arlen’s exhortation GET HAPPY.  (The ding-dong at the start is Tomi Jazz’s doorbell rather than an aesthetic comment from extraterrestrials.):

A very rewarding evening — even for a man standing up through three sets with a video camera.

For those who, like me, enjoy reading what the musicians have to say, there’s a wonderful interview with Ted done by Clifford Allen: read it here:

http://cliffordallen.blogspot.com/2011/01/ear-conditioning-with-tenor-saxophonist.html?showComment=1297609944573#c7835830240652120113.

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And a possibly superfluous postscript.  I celebrate what some listeners call “OKOM” (Our Kind Of Music) although I also love other styles — with melodies and swing.  I hope that listeners with more firmly defined preferences don’t reject performances such as the ones above because they don’t fit expected formulas: I bow low before the Blue Note Jazzmen of 1943-44, say, but there are worlds and worlds of creativity.  Stretching isn’t just confined to yoga!  End of sermon.  

SPREADING JOY at THE EAR INN (Jan. 16, 2011)

It’s wonderful to spread joy.  To me, the concept doesn’t mean acting silly or buying someone a greeting card to send good cheer: it means something larger, creating beauty and sharing it so that other people become deeper and more enlightened.

Readers of JAZZ LIVES won’t be surprised when I say that the EarRegulars and friends spread joy splendidly on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011 (from 8-11 PM).  As always, they did it at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City. 

The regular EarRegulars (what pleasure it is to write that!) were Jon-Erik Kellso, trying out a Thirties Conn trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar and vocalizations, both singular.  Then we had Mark Lopeman on tenor sax and clarinet and Neal Miner on string bass — both quietly eloquent, nimble individualists.  Later, the heroic Pete Martinez brought his clarinet!  (In a prior post, I’ve offered the three vocal performances at the end of the evening — by Tamar Korn and Jerron Paxton, with the addition of yet another clarinetist, Bob Curtis.)

But here is some genuine Hot Jazz to warm you up, spiritually and any other way.

WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS is one of those songs that works wonderfully at a number of tempos, from the yearning Bix-and-Tram version (and even slower when performed by Peter Ecklund) to the jogging Kansas City Six (1938) version with Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Eddie Durham or Charlie Christian, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones.  I didn’t bring my metronome, so I can’t tell where the EarRegulars romp fits in, but it nearly lifted me out of my seat.  Hear the four players cascade, each one in his own way:

I associate BALLIN’ THE JACK with the Blue Note Jazzmen — also, oddly, with a vocal version done in the late Forties by Danny Kaye, someone who could swing in his own fashion when he decided to put the clowning aside.  The song — an ancient let’s-learn-to-do-this-dance by Chris Smith — has one of the most seductive verses I know of, and it was a thrill to hear the EarRegulars wend their way through it.  Hear how Jon-Erik balls the jack into his first solo chorus:

Mark, Matt, and Neal took time to consider OLD FOLKS, that loving Willard Robison meditation on a much-loved elder member of the family:

Because Mark Lopeman’s band director was in the house and TIGER RAG was the school fight song (what a hip place indeed!) Jon-Erik suggested it.  This version is compact (four players rather than thirteen) but it growls and frolics just as energetically.  Listen to Lopeman (when is someone going to offer him a chance to do a CD under his own name, please?): he rocks!

James P. Johnson’s OLD-FASHIONED LOVE is, to me a combination of a secular hymn to sweet fidelity given a down-home flavor.  I first heard it on the Vic Dickenson Showcase, so many years ago, and it’s never left me.  And I like the old-fashioned kind, I do, I do — as do the monogamous fellows of the ensemble.  You can hear it in their playing!  (It occurs to me that Matt’s tangy twang evokes not only the Mississippi Delta but also George Barnes, whose single-note lines consisted of notes that snapped and crackled.  And those wonderful exchanges between Jon-Erik and Neal — a bassist whose solos have strength and resonance.)

The irreplaceable Chris Flory (just returning to action after an accident — we’re so glad he’s back, intact!) took Matt’s place for HAPPY FEET, a song that has the distinction of being connected with Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, THE KING OF JAZZ, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Red Allen, Dicky Wells, Fred Astaire — quite a pedigree (as opposed to “pedicure,” although witty Jon-Erik ends his solo with a kick at TICKLE-TOE!):

And I end this posting with the universal expression of desire (the second movement of the EarRegulars Happiness Suite), I WANT TO BE HAPPY, its delight intensified by a visit from Pete Martinez, who is beyond compare.  And the “Flory touch” at the start is completely remarkable; the riffs behind Pete are pure Louis, always a good thing:

I call that joy, don’t you?

“BEAUTY IS TRUTH,” SAY THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN

A friend who is new to the music gently asked me by email, “Hey, Michael, what’s all the fuss you’re making about this Sidney Catlett?”  And it’s a valid question deserving an answer.  But the best way to answer it is not through words, but through the experience.  Thanks to “cdbpdx” on YouTube, here’s a 1943 recording of ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall’s Blue Note Jazzmen.  Let their names never be erased: Sidney deParis, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Arthur Shirley, Israel Crosby, Sidney Catlett.  If you’d want to understand what Sidney is doing — playfully and with the utmost art — listen to the little conversations he has with the ensemble (both as part of it and joyously commenting on the good time everyone’s having) urging, encouraging, applauding — especially alongside the solos of deParis and Vic. 

I don’t mean to give my readers homework, but someday soon, listen to this recording twice with all your attention: once in its glorious complete beauty, then for Sidney Catlett himself.  Jubilation indeed.  And everyone on this recording is dead, but like Keats’s urn, they transcend mere mortality: this music is alive!

HARRY ALLEN and EHUD ASHERIE at CHAUTAUQUA 2010

This very inspired duo — Harry on tenor, Ehud on piano — took the stage early on at Jazz at Chautauqua and left a deep impression.  Although their play looks casual, they reach memorable heights — whether they are handling the twists and turns of PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ like a pair of gliding skiers, or turning SOME OTHER SPRING into a rueful ode. 

Some duos are an exhibition of two very ego-driven selves who happen — sometimes under duress — to occupy the same space.  Harry and Ehud listen seriously to each other, and their duo becomes more than the two men standing on a much larger stage.  Ehud’s spikiness plays off Harry’s creamy tone; they complement rather than collide.  A witty telepathy governs their interplay.  Even the people trotting to and fro with full plates were grinning at what they were hearing.

For Mr. Berlin, Mr. Astaire, and Miss Rogers — ISN’T IT A LOVELY DAY?  Who could say anything but “Yes”?  Hear Harry’s purring, yearning sound; admire Ehud’s most sympathetic commentary: adding up to a lovely quiet seriousness with not one superfluous note:

Ehud loves James P. Johnson, and here the duo takes that lovely ballad IF IF COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (or “ONE HOUR” for those in a hurry) at a surprising clip — a young Bud Powell has entered the room.  But there’s a sterling precedent for this kind of audacity: think of Bill Basie and his little band riding high on SHOE SHINE BOY in 1936.  Midway through the exultant performance, you’ll have to remind yourself that this is a duo, not the Blue Note Jazzmen:

THE LITTLE THINGS THAT MEAN SO MUCH was the song Teddy Wilson used as the theme for his short-lived big band.  And as Ehud says, it’s so true — not only for this kind of heartfelt chamber jazz, where every nuance counts — but as a life-motto:

PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ is virtuosic but never exhibitionistic:

And, to close, a sweetly sad SOME OTHER SPRING, with memories of Lady Day:

Jazz, stripped down to its essential selves, with no distractions!

SIDNEY CATLETT AT 100

A  jazz blog like this one might easily become necrological– mourning the deaths of musicians and jazz scholars or sadly celebrating players who have been dead a long time.  It’s a battle to tear one’s eyes away from the rear-view mirror and focus on the present.  But since I do not expect to see the celebrations for Big Sid Catlett’s two-hundredth birthday, readers will forgive me. 

Sidney Catlett was born on January 17, 1910 and died before I was born.  I don’t believe in “the best,” but Big Sid might well be The Master — at least Max Roach thought so, as did Jo Jones.  Beyond legend, there is the recorded evidence: he could play propulsively and eloquently with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Mildred Bailey, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster . . . and those are only the recorded performances I can call to mind.

Ruby Braff remembered that when he listened to Louis Armstrong’s records with their creator, Louis said to him, “There’s that Catlett again!  Seems like he was on every swinging record I ever made.” 

But being versatile, in itself, is not enough: many musicians have been versatile without being particularly distinguished.  What made Sidney Catlett so special? 

For one thing, his instantly recognizable beat.  Even simply keeping time — using one of his seemingly numberless varieties of wire-brush sweep or playing the hi-hat — his time is identifiable.  Whitney Balliett, who first helped me to listen so closely to Sid, noted that Catlett played a fraction ahead of the beat — many drummers find the best and sit right down on it — but Sid’s time seemed to urge the band forward in the most jubilant way, although he didn’t ever rush.

Along with that beat there is his gallery — or galaxy — of sounds.  His drums sound alive.  The snap of his closed hi-hat.  The seductive come-with-me of his brushwork.  The thump of his tom-toms.  The masterful NOW! of a Catlett rimshot.  Drummers of the Forties and beyond tried to copy him and some came close to capturing the broadest outlines of his style — J.C. Heard for one — but their sounds are somehow flatter, narrower, more monochromatic.  So his sound is immediately identifiable — dance music, no matter what the context. 

As with all the great artists, much of Sidney’s mastery is not just in what he did — but what he wisely chose not to do. 

Many drummers, then and now, play at the same volume as the horns.  Sidney knew how to play very softly — which made his thundering climaxes so impressive.  Some drummers insist on filling up all the spaces.  Or they accent every note, enthusiastically but unthinkingly.  The result gets tiresome before a chorus is over, rather like a forest of exclamation marks or someone with a point to make who emphasizes every word. 

Sidney knew when not to play, when not to dramatize, when not to continue the pattern.  There were exceptions: I think of Lou McGarity’s bridges on Benny Goodman records, where Sidney, either enjoying McGarity’s exuberance or wanting to push him along, drives the rhythm section along with relentless accents that could fell a sequoia.  But Catlett understood space and variety, and surprise.  He was a great dramatist behind his drums. 

So his percussive world sounds undated — springy, elegant, and funky.  The listener says, “That’s Big Sid!” but that awareness isn’t because Catlett thrusts himself to the forefront; rather, it was because he makes his fellow musicians sound better than they themselves thought possible.

I’ve been admiring his playing for as long as I can remember — one of my earliest musical experiences was hearing Louis’s RCA Victor TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, and delighting in the way Sid pushed everyone along on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’.  Later, I heard him with the Blue Note Jazzmen and every jazz group I could find.  But he continues to amaze.

“Amaze?” you say.    

As an experiment, take any record on which Sid plays a particularly engaging, swinging part (that would be ALL of them) and listen to it once.  Admire the sounds he makes, the comments he provides, the support he gives to the band.  Then, play it again, and try to anticipate his shifts, his accents.  Experienced listeners will be able to divine some of the general motions — here, Sid will shift to the hi-hat; here’s a break coming up.  But if you try to play his accents along with him, it’s nearly impossible.  Sid’s pulsing work, his amazing accompaniment, is never rote.  I would suggest ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall and the Blue Note Jazzmen — his playing is stirring, as is his work on the recently discovered 1945 Town Hall concert with Bird and Diz. 

His music is amazingly generous.  He lived a very short life and his recorded career is only slightly over two decades.  But he gave so much to his fellow musicians and to us that it seems as if he played more — and at a higher level — than the musicians who lived longer.

And he mastered the problem of being a forceful individualist while serving the community with every breath.  A question of Ego, if you will.  Catlett shouts for joy, but he does it so the band is even more joyous as a result.   

He died backstage at a concert, his arms around Helen Humes, telling her a funny story.  An admirable death, I think.  A a life well-lived. 

Jim Denham, on his fine blog, SHIRAZ SOCIALIST, has just written a tribute to Sidney: http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/big-sid-b17-jan-1910-d25-march-1951/

Ricky Riccardi really understands the majesty of Sidney: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2010/01/celebrate-big-sid-catletts-centennial.html

And, or those seeking legal ecstasy, there’s a live ROYAL GARDEN BLUES from 1948:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/09/one-hot-garden.html

Ricky also sent this from British jazz drummer John Petters — information about BBC radio programs about Sidney:

 Here are two programmes about this sensational musician this Saturday:
The Late Paul Barnes @ 23:00 on BBC Cambrideshire, Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Northampton, Suffolk & Three Counties. (Paul celebrates the
Django Reinhardt Centenary next week)

The live link on line will be:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_norfolk/

and from Sunday until the following Saturday on Iplayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002mhdx

And Alyn Shipton discusses Big Sid with drummer Richard Pite on ‘Jazz Library’ on BBC Radio 3 at 16:00 on Saturday. This is from the Radio 3 website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ps0sk

The show will be on the BBC iplayer following the broadcast

Big Sid Catlett was arguably one of the most naturally talented percussionists in jazz history. To celebrate Catlett’s centenary in January 2010, Alyn Shipton is joined by drum expert Richard Pite to pick the highlights of a recorded catalogue that includes work with the swing orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the original Louis Armstrong All Stars.

Big Sid Catlett – born 17 January 1910, Evansville, Indiana, USA, died 25 March 1951.

Coda: A word or two about the audio-visual aids.  The Drumerworld video (posted on YouTube, of course) brings together Sidney’s three main filmed appearances (leaving aside JAMMIN’ THE BLUES) — two quickly-made films from 1946-7, SEPIA CINDERELLA and BOY! WHAT A GIRL, with a guest shot by one Gene Krupa, as well as a Soundie of YOU RASCAL YOU by Louis.  I treasure these film clips but find that they need to be absorbed on two levels.  Since musicians were required to pre-record their music and then mimic playing it for the camera, what one hears and what one sees are always slightly out of step . . . so one must be able to adapt to this.  But the games Sidney and Charlie Shavers play . . . !  I have also liberally seasoned this blogpost with what might seem an odd phenomenon: YouTube videos of famous jazz records a-spinning.  For those who did not grow up with vinyl or shellac records, what could be more dull?  But I find it nostalgic in the best way — because I spent so many hours of my childhood and youth staring at the spinning label in a kind of happy trance while the music poured out of the speakers . . . very life-enhancing, and a way of getting Sidney’s sound into this post.

FINEST FIG JAM

fig jam

Some history might be needed here.  “A fig,” “a Moldy Fig,” even “a Mouldy Figge,” is now-archaic language invented during the Forties, when jazz found itself divided into warring factions called Dixieland and Bebop.  This divisiveness may have splintered the music and its audiences irrevocably.  Much of the noisy conflict was fomented by journalists and publicists seeking to attract audiences through controversy.  At this distance, we know that GROOVIN’ HIGH is only WHISPERING with a new blouse, but people allowed themselves to ignore this.  I find the poet Philip Larkin very endearing in his art and his vinegary energies, but his jazz prose embodies this point of view, where the world had reached an artistic peak in 1932 with the Rhythmakers recordings and had gone steadily downhill.  I agree with the first part of this formulation but not the second. 

I began my devotional listening as a Fig, so it took a long gradual period of contemplative immersion before I could understand that, say, John Coltrane wasn’t The Enemy out to destroy the music I loved.  In truth, I was never an extremist but I had strong, narrow likes and dislikes.  I remember having a brief conversation with another student in a middle-school Music Appreciation class who was deeply immersed in the New Thing — this was forty-plus years ago and the new thing was Archie Shepp, and the conversation went like this:

“Alan,” which might not be his name, but is a good guess: “I hear you like jazz.”

Me (brightening at having found a fellow subversive): “Oh, yes, I do!”

“Alan”: “Do you listen to Archie Shepp?”

Me (horrified that he hadn’t mentioned Louis, and coming up with a wise-acre New Yorker rejoinder): “Archie Shepp?! I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it!”

“Alan”: “Well, the hell with you!”

So goes critical discourse at its finest! 

I would like to boast that I’ve seen the light and the scales have dropped from my eyes, but if you told me I had to choose only one jazz recording to spend eternity with, it still might be AFTER YOU’VE GONE by the Blue Note Jazzmen, even though I can understand and appreciate music that would have perplexed and repelled me in my youth.  And the music was always there, I just didn’t get it. 

This self-scrutiny is provoked by a phone conversation I had yesterday with Bob Rusch (or RDR), editor and chief spiritual guide of the quarterly journal devoted to Creative Improvised Music, CADENCE.  Full disclosure requires me to say that I write reviews for CADENCE, and I continue to admire the journal’s honesty.  And working with Bob has always been a pleasurable lesson in Emersonian candor: when I have felt an inexplicable need to tactfully cloak the truth in polite words, he has always asked, “Why?” 

If you’ve never read CADENCE, you have been missing something special and rare.  See for yourself (www.cadencebuilding.com).

In the course of our conversation — we speak infrequently, but over the past five years it has always been both bracing and affectionate — Bob said gently that he thought I was “getting more figgish,” and I agreed.  But it made me think, and perhaps my experience will ring true with my readers. 

There used to be “the jazz record industry,” and I am not talking about sixty-five years ago, the Commodore Music Shop, and listening booths.  Ten years ago, perhaps, there were many more active companies producing compact discs.  (If you want to have a sobering experience, casually inspect the spines of any fifty CDs in your library and note how many of those labels no longer exist.)  This, of course, has to do with the economy, an aging audience, and more. 

It has had an double-edged result.  On one hand, no more new issues from Chiaroscuro, no more Pablo, fewer ways for musicians to be encouraged by a label.  But because labels no longer exist, many energetic musicians have gone into business for themselves and produce their own discs.  

This can be a boon: musicians can record what they want, have it sound the way they want, without the interference of recording engineers or the heads of record companies . . . and splendid personal statements emerge.  But this asks musicians to be both courageous and affluent (or at least credit-worthy): a self-produced CD might require a $10,000 investment that the artist might get back over ten years of selling the discs one at a time on the gig.  We should all live and be well! 

(Musician joke: “My latest CD is a million-seller.  I’ve got a million in my cellar.”)

Many players I know have made a virtue of necessity, but I think many of them look back nostalgically to the dear dead days when they got a call to go to a studio at noon to make a date, they played their hearts out, they got paid, and eight months later they knew that the disc they had appeared on was being sold all over the world.  Yes, their control over the music was compromised, their pay was a percentage of the profit, but someone else was handling all the annoying business.  

What this means for someone like myself, reviewing CDs, is that a good deal of what I am asked to listen to is by artists new to me (a good thing) who are offering their own music (potentially a good thing).  And occasionally it leads me to sit up in my chair and say, “By God, (s)he’s got it!”  Melissa Collard was new to me when I first heard her OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, and she is one of those singers whose work I most treasure.  Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Danny Tobias, Lyle Ritz, Andy Brown, Petra van Nuis, and more.  

But much of what I hear is both competent yet entirely forgettable.  I know that Lips Page said, “The material is immaterial,” but hand me a CD full of original compositions by a player and I wonder, “Gee, you’ve already decided that there’s nothing new for you to say on the blues or on I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR?”  Funny, that hasn’t occurred to Sonny Rollins.

And it is sad to receive a CD by a singer or musician, male or female, where great effort has gone into burnishing the exterior at the expense of other things.  When the artist credits his or her hair stylist and wardrobe person first, I think, “Oh no.  Repertoire, not manicure.  No one listens to the cover.” 

So my “figgishness” or “figitude” (both my own coinings) is a way to get back to what music means to me — a spiritual / intellectual / experience that makes me want to grin foolishly and shout exultantly.  I would indeed rather hear a wonderful performance of an original composition by musicians I don’t know than a tired rendition of OUR BUNGALOW OF DREAMS, but I need to hear jazz that makes me remember why I began to listen to the music in the first place: joy, inventiveness, clear delight in being alive in the face of death.  If your listening is purely an intellectual exercise and you find that gratifying, fine, but mine is tied up with the emotions.  Is the music beautiful?  Does it make me feel some strong emotion, preferably happiness?  Can I admire the players?            

So I close this post with a new example of FINEST FIG JAM — pure, organic, and locally sourced.  It’s another YouTube clip from the lucky and generous SFRaeAnn of the Eldorado Serenaders, whose front line is Don Neely on reeds, Robert Young on reeds, trumpet, and vocal, Dave Frey, plectrum banjo, Jim Young, tenor banjo, Steven Rose, sousaphone, Stan Greenberg, percussion.  This performance of BALTIMORE (one of those delightful songs-about-a-new-dance-craze) honors Bix and Wingy and Red, and I think this band is terribly, admirably brave to be shouting it out in a bookstore.  “Fit audience, though few,” said Milton, but he never had to worry about the tip jar.  It was recorded on October 25, 2009 at North Light Books in Cotati, California.  

JAM WITH DAN! (October 16, 2009)

DAN BARRETT’S EAST COAST TOUR (Part Three)

This installment in the Barrett Chronicles 2009 takes us to what was once called Roth’s Westside Steakhouse (Columbus Avenue at 93rd Street in Manhattan) on October 16, 2009. 

The fun and frolic began with a series of duets between Dan and Ehud Asherie.  Roth’s gets high marks for encouraging jazz, but it is a typical restaurant: dishes and silverware crash, the bar patrons were especially excited by some sports event on television, and there is a good deal of loud oblivious chatter.  On the other hand, Roth’s is the only jazz event I’ve ever attended where the governor of my home state — in this case David Patterson — came in late in the evening.  Whether he was in the groove or merely addressing his dinner I was too preoccupied to notice, but if he missed out on the music he missed something special.

Not incidentally, I’ve been admiring Dan’s recorded work since 1987, and have seen him live a number of times (with Becky Kilgore and Rossano Sportiello, at Jazz at Chautauqua, and at a series of concerts put on by Joe Boughton, where his colleagues included Vince Giordano, Duke Heitger, and Kevin Dorn) . . . as well as an early-Eighties Newport in New York tribute to Billie Holiday directed by Ruby Braff.  But this gig and his appearance at Smalls have given me an even greater admiration of Dan’s creativity, because no one else was in the way.  I was reminded often of hearing Vic Dickenson play — with Mike Burgevin and Jimmy Andrews — in 1974.  The same swing, the same full understanding of what this music is all about.  But on to the videos!

Here are Dan and Ehud caressing THAT OLD FEELING, a ballad everyone knows but few jazzmen actually play.  Who could be insensitive to the beauty of Dan’s pure sound?  And Ehud accompanies him perfectly — then launches into his own ruminations, which embody the whole history of swinging jazz piano, delicate and pointed at once:

And a Barrett original (his lines have the same bounce as his solos), WITH’EM, which will reveal its roots in a flash.  At first, when I didn’t recognize the line, I thought it was something written by Don Byas or Johnny Hodges, evidence of its authentic pedigree:

Another fine neglected Forties tune (courtesy of the Ink Spots) at a jaunty tempo, without recitative, IF I DIDN’T CARE.  The crowd was getting a bit more noisy, but I didn’t care:

And a slow-motion DON’T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE, its mournful tempo getting at the loss that is at the heart of the lyrics,  Savor Dan’s lovely opening cadenza, a composition on its own (while the dishes clatter):

Who else would have the musical wisdom to offer up IF YOU WERE THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD, a fine song to improvise on:

And (for me) the piece de resistance — a genuine Hollywood-style jam session.  Lovers of jazz on film will know what I mean.  The model comes from the 1947 film THE FABULOUS DORSEYS, where the scene begins with the briefest clip of Art Tatum playing in a club . . . we know this because there’s a sign outside saying so.  Then, as if by magic, a whole host of jazzmen appear — their horns at the ready — as if from nowhere.  No one has to warm up, adjust a reed, or use the facilities: they just spring into action.  Well, it happened at Roth’s.  Attillo Troiano was there with his clarinet, to the left; Jon-Erik Kellso rose from his dinner, ready for action, and Luigi Grasso, seated to the right, just happened to have his alto saxophone with him.  And someone called HIGH SOCIETY — which resulted in what Dan, at the end, said was “really jazzy,” and then started to laugh.  It has the wonderful swagger of the Blue Note Jazzmen, transported to the Upper West Side, with all the strains in place, everyone knowing the right melodies and countermelodies. 

It was a privilege to be there, and I don’t write these words casually.  I won’t forget this evening!

NICK HORNBY, RECORD STORES, and “POP MUSIC”

I visit www.jazz.com. with some regularity, and I’ve even had my own blogposts featured on it.  A good deal of what is posted there is not my thing, but some of the content is fascinating. 

Today I encountered there an article published in the Guardian by the popular British novelist Nick Hornby on the death of record stores.  That isn’t a particularly original observation: everyone who’s bought even one record during the last half-century could write similar articles about the phenomenon. 

Hornby proposes that new pop-music blogs that offer MP3 downloads are the new local record stores, and that the internet has become a global music market.  I can’t say much about the first proposition, because I don’t find twenty-second musical snippets valid enticements to purchase, but the second is surely true.

But this casual pronouncement made me sit up straight:

After my local CD shop closed down, I was getting ready for a musical life that turned in on itself, before dying slowly from malnutrition.  Any piece of music becomes drained of meaning and excitement if you listen too much to it, but a three-minute pop song isn’t going to last you a lifetime.  Popular music needs to keep flowing. If the fresh supplies stop, it’s you that becomes stagnant.

I am enthralled by this terminally short attention span: “Any piece of music becomes drained of meaning and excitement if you listen too much to it.”  This hunger for new sensations clearly isn’t just Hornby’s artistic immaturity; it defines contemporary culture’s glorification of disposable ersatz-Art, novels that exhaust their ingenuity before the reader is well into chapter two; music that bores the listener on the first hearing.  (It all sounds dismayingly like a dystopian restaurant where the food is stale as soon as it leaves the kitchen.)       

I don’t know: I’ve been listening to Lester Young and the 1938 Kansas City Six, to Louis and the Mills Brothers, to Billie Holiday and Count Basie, to the Blue Note Jazzmen . . . for almost forty years now.  And if I were to hear one of their recordings now — even though I could hum along with it, knew the solos and the accents by heart — that music wouldn’t be “drained” for me.  The next time Hornby comes to the US for a book tour, I hope he’ll accept my offer of music that doesn’t grow old.  I’d be glad to share some Teddy Bunn and Bessie Smith records: they should restore him!

The full text of Hornby’s piece can be read at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/sep/06/nick-hornby-mp3-record-shops

KING JOE / KING LEAR

King OliverMy iPod isn’t always a subject for philosophical contemplation.  More often it’s merely a calming talisman in my battle against airplane claustrophobia and tedium.  But recent experiences have made me think about it as more thought-provoking than a twentieth-century version of the transistor radio and cassette player of my past. 

It began when I unintentionally erased not only the contents of my iPod but also my iTunes library.  How that happened is not a subject for this blog, but I erased eight thousand tracks.  (Or, to use “the male passive,” I could write “eight thousand tracks had been erased,” but no matter.)  Preparing to go off on vacation far from my CD collection, I began to stuff compact discs into my iTunes library.  This, as readers will know, is a nuisance, and at times I wished for a youthful niece or nephew to whom I could say, “Want a hundred dollars?  Put each of the CDs in that bookcase into iTunes for me, will you?”  The computer did its job well, but it required me to check on it every six or seven minutes.  I began with the tail end of my collection — that’s Lester Young, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Ben Webster, Lee Wiley, and so on, and worked my way back to the Allens, Harry and Henry Red, in the space of ten days. 

And a King — Joe Oliver, pictured top left.   

This combination of obsessiveness and diligence resulted in an iPod with more than fifteen thousand tracks on it — the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Basie Deccas, the Lester Verves, the Billie Vocalions, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Fats Waller from 1922 to 1935, Mel Powell on Vanguard, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins . . . all I could desire, more than a hundred full days of music.

But I kept silently asking myself, “What do you need all this music for, knowing that you couldn’t listen to it all in the space of the next twelve months?”

King LearAnother King kept insisting that I pay attention to him.  He didn’t play cornet; he would have been out of place at the Lincoln Gardens.  I had taught a course in Shakepearian tragedy this summer, and ended it with KING LEAR — adding a few scenes from the 1982 Granada television presentation with Sir Laurence Olivier.  

Early in the play, when Lear still thinks he has imperial powers (even though he has renounced the throne), he bargains with his daughters about whose house he shall stay at first, casually letting them know that he will arrive with a hundred knights.  Although Goneril and Regan are cruelly inhuman, I always feel for them at this point, as they ask their father, with some irritable reasonableness, why he, no longer King, needs a retinue.  Lear responds:    

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.

In the most commonsensical way, I take these lines to suggest that the difference between a reasonably privileged person and a Maltese terrier is that the person, when the impulse strikes, can go to the kitchen cabinet and have another cookie or pretzel.  Choice is at work here, unlike the dog who has to wait for the owner to fill his bowl.  “Need” is constricting; luxury is the freedom to transcend mere needs.  Or, in other terms, to have merely “enough” — the spiritual equivalent of eight hundred calories a day — is emotionally insufficient.

I knew that I didn’t “have to have” Ella Fitzgerald singing MY MELANCHOLY BABY (Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Benny Morton, 1936) in the same way I need food and drink.  I could capably replay most of that performance in my mind.  But not having it accessible provokes feelings of inadequacy, of being separated from my music.  To some, this will seem like an exercise in superfluity: I know there are people in other countries who don’t have clean water, let alone alternate takes of the Albert Ammons Commodores, and I feel for them, but the sensation of having more music than I can possibly listen to is luxuriant bliss.  It means that if, upon awaking, I really NEED to hear Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman play SWEET SUE . . . there it is.

Which leads me to the most brilliant feature of the iPod — not the ability to reproduce album cover artwork (!) but the ability to shuffle songs.  I plugged it in here and started it up . . . so that Dizzy Gillespie followed Mamie Smith who followed the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings who followed Hawkins . . . . a floating Blindfold Test, full of surprises and gratifications.  And no worrying about the hundred knights drinking up all the milk in the refrigerator. 

iPod

Olivier and Oliver, in perfect harmony.

DESERT ISLAND DISCS (FEBRUARY 3, 2009)

desert-island-discsAt the suggestion of my friend Bill Gallagher, I am compiling this afternoon’s list of Desert Island Discs — named for the famous BBC radio program — and invite readers to do likewise.

The rules?  There are always rules, although readers may wish to be less stringent with themselves.  One item by any musician: no ostentatious duplications, although overlaps are inevitable.  Box sets (a generous self-indulgence) are of course allowed and encouraged.  Half of the list may be devoted to the Dearly Departed; the remainder must include a majority of living artists.  Alphabetical order, so as not to imply a ranking by virtue.

Here goes (as of a snowy February 3, 2009) — done off the top of my head, without visits to the CD stacks!  Try it yourself and send in your lists, which I am sure will be revealing.

Louis Armstrong 1935-49 Decca releases (Ambassador)

Bob Barnard / John Sheridan: The Nearness of Two (Nif Nuf)

BED, Four + One (Blue Swing)

The Blue Note Jazzmen (Blue Note)

Melissa Collard, Old-Fashioned Love (Melismatic)

The Vic Dickenson Showcase (Vanguard)

Eddie Condon Town Hall Concerts (Jazzology)

Billie Holiday: Lady Day (Sony)

Jon-Erik Kellso, Blue Roof Blues (Arbors)

Barbara Rosene, It Was Only A Sun Shower (Stomp Off)

Mark Shane: Riffles (Amber Lake)

I lament that I didn’t invent an Honorable Mention category — but there’s always next week, next month . . . . Then I can sneak in Dan Block, Basie at the Famous Door, the Fargo dance date, Tony Fruscella, Bix, Buck, Bobby . . . . the mind it simply reels! And if you’re going to write in, taking me to task for leaving out Bent Persson, Ben Webster (with or without strings), Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden, Hal Smith, Red Allen, Marc Caparone, Dawn Lambeth, Dave Frishberg, Bennie Moten in 1932, Goodman, Jess Stacy, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell, Ehud Asherie . . . . I know, I know, I know.  It’s only a game, mind you.

Thanks to http://www.colindussault.com for the image above!