Tag Archives: Bluebird Records

A STRING OF SOLOS, and FOR BEST RESULTS USE VICTOR NEEDLES (January 3, 1940)

Some listeners speak condescendingly of certain jazz performances as “a string of solos.”  This dismissal may be understandable if soloists go on and on — one can feel trapped, as one does when facing the conversationalist who shares every in response to, “Nice sneakers!  Where did  you get them?” After fifteen minutes, the room starts to darken, then spin.  But “just solos” can be wonderful.

I know it’s elderly of me to cherish the concision that the ten-inch 78 side demanded, but occasionally it seems just right.  Consider this side — famous but little-heard, recorded on January 3, 1940, shortly after Coleman Hawkins came back to New York from his half-decade in Europe.  The song originated in 1921, with ties to Valentino and Eddie Cantor, and was often played and recorded by jazz musicians, but (curiously) not that often before 1940.  The band is a mix of Hawkins’ colleagues from his Henderson days and a few members of his current orchestra; Polo might have crossed paths with Hawkins in Europe.

In three minutes, they create five choruses of THE SHEIK, and each one is delightfully different: the recording has a built-in structure from the first improvised chorus to the last.  (There are nearly a half-dozen transfers of this side on YouTube: I’ve chosen the slightly more honest version here over the very cleaned-up “modern” one others prefer: when surface noise is tidied up and removed, some of the sound goes with it.)

Incidentally, I was recently captivated again by this record (thanks to the silent encouragement of Mister Fat Cat) and by one solo on it — with apologies to Hawk, it’s not his.  Care to guess?

I can imagine Hawk briefly issuing directions.  “All right, SHEIK.  Bright but not too fast.  Gene, start us off.  Benny, take the lead in the first chorus.  I’ll play the melody behind you, and, Danny, you do a little there also.  Jack (or “Higgy”) lay out — save it for your chorus.  We don’t want to sound too old-fashioned.  Danny, take the second.  Higgy, take the third.  I’ll take the fourth and the first half of the fifth, with maybe a little riff behind me, and then every tub out.”

I think that’s glorious.  I doubt there was more than one take.  Everybody played their individualistic selves but knew their ensemble role . . . and the record soars.

You’ll notice the label advertises another product.  If you’ve ever picked up a well-played 78 at a yard sale, and noticed that the expected black glossy surface is a dull gray, you could say, “Well, that record’s been well-loved,” or you could think about the possible culprit, depicted here.

Mug shots.  Front:

Back:

Full view:

I know that the modern stylus is also made of metal, perhaps jewel-tipped (I remember the Columbia Records lp sleeves of my youth, with their taxonomy of Sapphire, Osmium, and Diamond — which now sounds like a singing group) but these Victor needles meant business, and with heavy tone arms, they plowed paths through the grooves.  But enough of that.  Let us return to Araby, and not the Joyce story.

May your happiness increase!

STREET FOOD, AN EXOTIC HONEYMOON, EXUBERANT DANCE, 1936

If you asked me to give an overview of jazz and popular music in 1936, I might summon up Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Putney Dandridge, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill, Gene Krupa, Fifty-Second Street, Red Allen, Art Tatum, Bob Howard, Mildred Bailey, Jones-Smith, Incorporated, Teddy Wilson, and twenty others.  It would be a little after THE MUSIC GOES ROUND AND ROUND but just right for I’SE A-MUGGIN’, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, and RHYTHM IN MY NURSERY RHYMES, perhaps DINNER FOR ONE, PLEASE JAMES.

But in even broader strokes, this was the early triumph of the Swing Era, dominated by well-rehearsed bands, using intricate arrangements for dancers.  But art, however you define it, is never homogeneous: while Joyce and Woolf were exploding the conventions of narrative, many traditional linear novels were published and read.  In jazz, we know that Max Roach and Baby Dodds were on the same radio broadcast in most congenial fashion.  And in the very late Fifties, Herbie Nichols, Steve Lacy, Ed Allen, and Cecil Scott were all gigging in New York City simultaneously.

These musings come about because of Briscoe Draper’s posting on Facebook of a song I’d never heard, LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON, which delights me.  It features the clarinet playing of Arnett Nelson, someone I’ve heard about from one of my other teachers, Sammut of Malta — whose expert playing has nothing to do with the elegant playing of Benny and Artie, so much in fashion in 1936.  These tracks were issued under the all-inclusive but unspecific name “Chicago Rhythm Kings,” which jazz fans will recognize as a nom-de-disque for young white Chicagoans in 1928.

Here is the recording data, edited from Tom Lord.  Steve Abrams suggests that Guy Kelly is the trumpeter, but I feel that the player we hear is less assured.  And is the pianist Black Bob or Jimmy Blythe?  I do not know, nor are such matters my focus.

Lord notes: prob. Alfred Bell (cnt) Roy Palmer (tb) Arnett Nelson (cl,vcl) prob. Black Bob (p) prob John Lindsay (b) Jimmy Bertrand (d).  Chicago, March 11, 1936: YOU BATTLE-HEAD BEETLE- HEAD Vocalion 3208 / IT’S TOO BAD (WHEN THE SISTERS START TRUCKIN’ AROUND) in two takes; Voc 3208.
Same personnel but unknown (as-1) added.  Chicago, April 3, 1936: SHANGHAI HONEYMOON Bluebird 6371 / LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON (same, unknown vocalist).

Because Steve Abrams has generously made available his 78 transfer of IT’S TOO BAD / YOU BATTLE-HEAD, I have included that as well as the YouTube transfers, which might be from the RST CD collection.  (There are pitch and sonic differences: I would assume that the 78 transfer is a more trustworthy source, but such waters are deep and dark.)

I invite you to turn away from the news and immerse yourself in a different world, thanks to these “Hot Dance with Vocal Chorus” records.  I’ll have some listening comments at the end.

and the 78 version:

Flip it over, as they used to say:

This seems the same take as the 78, unless they followed the routines closely:

If you are enamored of SHANGHAI HONEYMOON, there are many versions with vocal refrains and ostentatious “Chinese” cliches.  However, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have performed this opus — you can find it on YouTube — with its ethnic-racial tendencies tamed, and a duet by Ray and Katie Cavera (also on the Jazzology CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO):

and my new favorite ditty, which I hope to hear Dave Stuckey sing when we meet again (although that is a suggestion rather than an order — greetings, Pappy!):

Depending on how deeply you have steeped yourself in the music of the period, you may hear many different things.
First, the material itself is cheerfully homemade: except for SHANGHAI, the songs are composed by the players, and they are miles away from Rodgers and Hart or Arlen and Koehler.  That is not to condescend, for listeners respond strongly to campfire songs as well as poetry, but BEETLE and TOO BAD seem more enthusiastic than expert: the end-rhymes are inexact, and occasionally the lyrics and music do not fit neatly.  They are set-pieces for an audience who wanted to party: the “you’re a fool for getting so drunk” song; the “let’s celebrate wild action on the dance floor” song — reminiscent of a contemporaneous Tampa Red blues — especially because the Chicago blues records of this period employed many of the same musicians.  I hear echoes of MAMA DON’T ALLOW and HOW’M I DOIN’ as well as YOU RASCAL YOU.
LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON aspires to be one of those songs mingling love and the bill of fare (think WHEN LOVE DROPPED IN TO TEA) but it doesn’t get there; the composer(s) are more focused on what’s for sale than in a Billy Wilder meet-cute with someone’s hamburger being shared by thrifty lovers.  (I hear echoes of ACE IN THE HOLE in the first strain.)
SHANGHAI HONEYMOON is the most “professional” song of the four, possibly going back to 1927, and whether Lester Melrose had anything to do with writing it or simply required a portion of the royalties in exchange for getting it published, played, and recorded, I do not know, but the three other songs did not have any currency outside of this record date, where HONEYMOON did.  I have seen no sheet music for the other songs.
Second, these recordings are stylistically earlier than 1936 (no offense meant there either); rather than being “streamlined,” “innovative,” or “harmonically forward-looking,” they happily live in the musical world that Dick Wellstood called “grease and funk,” with TOO BAD and BEETLE sounding, to me, like Saturday-night-party music.  The closest parallel in jazz is the long series of Clarence Williams recordings, but these sides are genuine crossover music before the name ever emerged, with sideways connections to blues and roots music.
And this is understandable, given the histories of the players: for most of them, this was their last recording session, and some of them had been recording since 1921 or 1923.  I delight in Arnett Nelson’s wildly opinionated clarinet — “I have something to say and I have to say it loudly and right now,” and the powerful rhythm section. But we are miles away from the Benny Goodman Quartet, Toto.  I also have a special affection for the rather sweetly amateurish singer on SANDWICH: was he someone’s relative or friend?  (I wonder what the significance of “He didn’t serve no rice” is.  An easy rhyme for “nice,” or are there deeper meanings?
Finally, I wonder how these record dates came to be.  In New York, Williams made no records between 1935 and 1937, and his 1934 sides for the Decca “Sepia Series” were issued as the “Alabama Jug Band.” Did a Vocalion recording executive in Chicago perceive that this band — of known reliable musicians who were also appearing on blues records — should be given the chance to make two sides of their own compositions with the hope of a jukebox hit?  Musicians recorded such sessions with little preparation; they were paid scale.  It would not have cost Vocalion much, but clearly the records did not make a stir.  Did Nelson or someone else in the band take the test pressings over to the Victor studios and request a date in April?
I have stayed away from discussing race in this post, but I will suggest that a 1936 record buyer would recognize these four sides as being performed and aimed at a “colored” audience, to use the description of the times.  Yet I know Bluebird (by which I mean Victor) also used the “Chicago Rhythm Kings” name to issue a record or records by what I believe are white orchestras.
All this must, I think, remain mysterious.  What we have is rollicking, enthusiastic hot music played by Chicago veterans.  Thank goodness for records, and particularly for odd, cheerful ones like these four.
May your happiness increase!

AN ANCIENT RECORD, IN IMPERFECT CONDITION, PLAYED BACK PRIMITIVELY ON OLD-FASHIONED EQUIPMENT, BUT THE MUSIC COMES THROUGH: “THREE’S A CROWD” (October 1938: Paul Ricci, Carl Kress, Jerry Sears)

Although I am glued to my computer for many of my waking hours, I am also fond of the old ways, especially when they work.  I could learn, no doubt, how to connect my ancient four-speed school phonograph (an eBay purchase) to my computer and, through software, create an mp3 file . . .  etc.  But the music is more important than the technology, so I present this primitive video of some delicious music.  “Three’s A Crowd” — Jerry Sears, piano; Carl Kress, guitar; Paul Ricci, clarinet — recorded six sides for the Bluebird label in October 1938.  They have not, to my knowledge, been reissued at any time.

I bought this disc for a dollar plus tax in Petaluma, California (in mid-2014) and enjoyed it so much I shipped it back to New York.  It is possible that it was a jukebox item, for ANYTHING FOR YOU is more worn than DALLAS BLUES, but that is mere speculation.  These videos are highly imperfect: you might hear the traffic outside my window, one floor down, the sound of the radiator pipes, and other noises — it’s even possible that Autumn, the anxious terrier across the hall who misses her parents, might have made some sound.  However, if you were to come to my apartment and listen to the record, these are the human and mechanical noises that you would also encounter.  Kindly address all complaints to the Customer Service Office, located to the right of the water cooler.

 

and Claude Hopkins’ theme:

Life is imperfect.  We are imperfect.  Music, however, comes as close to perfect as we will ever know.  Thanks to Nick Rossi, scholar and roving artist, for the inspiration.

May your happiness increase!

A TEA PARTY, 1936

Thanks to the ever-surprising Tim Gracyk, here is a new piece of history. (Tim, for those of you who don’t know, posts rare records, poetry, and philosophical commentary regularly on YouTube — in profusion.)

The “buff Bluebird” label is very appealing to the eye and nostalgic for me, so I paused while scrolling through Tim’s latest cornucopia.  Then I saw the band title, which was another inducement — because of its suggestion that hot jazz might be lurking behind that general monicker.

I started the video and listened very casually: nice band, good trumpet and clarinet, both familiar, but it wasn’t until the drummer hit an accent that I started to pay attention.  “That’s Stan King!  And it certainly sounds like Marty and Joe Marsala. . . . ”

The band was “Tempo King And His Kings Of Tempo” : Marty Marsala, trumpet; Joe Marsala, clarinet; Queenie Ada Rubin, piano; Eddie Condon, guitar; George Yorke, string bass; Stan King, drums; Tempo King, vocal, leader: another one of the swing combos, their roots in Fifty-Second Street, to emulate and ride alongside the Fats Waller phenomenon.

I couldn’t find out much about Frank Ryerson, except that he also was one of the composers of BLUE CHAMPAGNE, and what we used to call The World Wide Web (remember?) told me that he was a trumpeter in Glen Gray’s orchestra.

Why the alias?  Ordinarily bands recorded four sides in a three-hour session; this one was particularly fertile, and this band turned out seven usable sides.  So Bluebird 6690 had this recording on one side; on the other, a performance by Frank Tanner (leader of a Texas-based orchestra), SAILOR MAN RHYTHM.

The song isn’t memorable, but I find it intriguing.  For reasons that are somewhat amorphous eighty years later, there was a spurt of novelty songs with mock-historical themes: CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, QUEEN ISABELLA, THE MIDNIGHT RIDE OF PAUL REVERE, and others even less well known. Stuff Smith, not surprisingly, had the riposte with I DON’T WANT TO MAKE HISTORY (I JUST WANT TO MAKE LOVE.)

Before this session, Mal Hallet, Jimmy Dorsey, and perhaps other bands had taken this one on; after, on a 1937 radio transcription from Hilversum, the Ramblers with Coleman Hawkins performed it, then Max Rumpf in Berlin, and Seger Ellis and his Choirs of Brass.  Hallet may even have taken it as his theme song; there’s a 1944 V-Disc which is introduced by this song.  (Another V-Disc, which I’ve never heard, is called AFTER ALL THAT GIN, which is promising.)

It’s a good record, a lot of fun, and an otherwise hidden performance.  Thanks, Tim.

May your happiness increase!

FIRST-RATE FROLICS: DAVE STUCKEY and the HOT HOUSE GANG: “HOW’M I DOIN’?!”

HOT HOUSE GANG two

These fellows mean business: to swing and to lift our spirits.  And unlike a good many bands who market themselves as “retro swing,” the Hot House Gang can really play.  Experience, not imitation via the iPhone 92S.

DAVE STUCKEY photos

Happiness is hearing new music that has an old-time feel with modern vivacity. May I present Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang?

Their new CD, HOW’M I DOIN’?!, is a delight.

HOT HOUSE GANG

Dave himself (guitar and vocals) has an infectious swing, and the musicians he’s gathered around him are some of the best in the West, or perhaps the known world.  I was immediately reminded of Fats Waller and the ebullience he created on his Victor discs . . . but Dave has an advantage here.  Where Fats often had to lampoon substandard material (I am thinking of ABERCROMBIE HAD A ZOMBIE, where the last word refers to a particularly potent drink, not the night creature), Dave writes many of his own songs, words and music, and they have a jaunty, side-of-the-mouth comic flair: I found myself listening several times to each track — for the band, for Dave’s singing, for the lyrics.  In a different era, these would be hit singles — although they might be too hip for the room.  And although Dave urges the band on a la Waller, he can also be tender — on a rhythmic performance of GHOST OF A CHANCE or a romping I NEVER KNEW.

I knew this was a fine band and a fine CD about ninety seconds into the first track because I was smiling and bobbing my head — sure signs of swing pleasure. Dave’s ebullient singing caught me instantaneously, and I thought, “This is a song that would have fit right in on a 1936 Bluebird, although the lyrics are as hip as Mercer and the band has more room to rock.”

About those originals — they are new but seem immediately familiar (and the CD includes a lyric sheet for those readers on long car trips) — and each one rocks in its own fashion.  I worry about CDs that are entirely composed of the leader’s originals, but Dave is a triple threat: singer, rocking guitarist, and songwriter. Dave also has done the clever trick so beloved of Thirties songwriters: to base the conceit of his lyrics on a familiar phrase: LET’S GET HOT AND GO, STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE, WHAT WILL IT TAKE?, MAYBE IT’S THE BLUES, and two oddities, SISTER KATE (The Potentate of Harlem) and OPTIMISTICIZE.

And there is a pleasing sheaf of jazz classics that will never grow old: I NEVER KNEW, LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, I DON’T STAND A GHOST OF A CHANCE WITH YOU, ‘T’AIN’T NO USE.

Dave has two overlapping bands, each one filled with stars who can create mellow sermons — as soloists or as an ensemble playing Dan Barrett’s charts, which grace seven songs):  Corey Gemme, cornet, trombone, clarinet; Dan Barrett, trombone, trumpet; Nate Ketner, alto, clarinet; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Wally Hersom, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums — or Corey; Josh “Mooch” Petrojvic, piano; Larry Wright, alto, soprano, clarinet; Wally, Josh.

I confess to a surge of pleasure that the CDBaby page devoted to this CD says you will like it if you like Clarence Williams, Fats Waller, and Wingy Manone.  Someone’s got the best intentions, and someone’s been listening closely: mid-Thirties joy without any museum dustiness.  And that page offers a chance to buy the disc (how twentieth-century of us!) or to download the music.

Just to whet your appetite for the CD — or to pass the time until it arrives — here are a few videos of the band in their natural habitat:

TOO  BUSY, from December 2014, with Carl Sonny Leyland, Corey Gemme, Rob Hardt, Jeff Hamilton and Marquis Howell:

SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, from October 2015, shot by JediJen7:

and BLUE LOU from the same evening:

Here’s Dave’s Facebook page, for those people fortunate enough to live in Southern California, where the band currently romps; you can also see and hear more and even find out how to purchase the CD.

The CD asks the question — even though the song is not one of the twelve titles — HOW’M I DOIN’?!  I can answer in the enthusiastic affirmative for Dave and his band.  Long may they swing and cheer us.

May your happiness increase!

JAMES P. JOHNSON MEETS LES BROWN (January 9, 1939)

On one of my record-hunting trips of 2014 I found a Les Brown 78 that would otherwise not have caught my eye.  That is not meant to demean the Brown band, just to say that I was never drawn to them.  But when I saw a Bluebird 78 of two lesser-known James P. Johnson songs (from the musical POLICY KINGS) I had to buy it to see what they sounded like.  The compositions were a love song called YOU, YOU, YOU — which I knew only through a much later recording by Dick Wellstood and Bob Wilber (instrumental) and one of the many songs celebrating a dance which possibly had a very short vogue if it had one at all, HARLEM WOOGIE.  (About a more famous recording of that song, more below).

The Brown band that recorded these two sides was John Martel, Melvin Hurwitz, Les Kritz (tp) Bob Fishel (tb) Les Brown (cl,as,arr) Steve Madrick (cl,as) Herb Muse (as,vcl) Wolfe Tayne, Carl Rand (ts) Billy Rowland (p) Allan Reuss (g) Bassie Deters (b) Eddie Julian (d):

YOU, YOU, YOU:

HARLEM WOOGIE:

Now, these are quite successful dance-band records, to my ears — although my ears are more accustomed to 1938 Basie, 1940 Ellington, 1939 Goodman, and so on.  And Herb Muse sings the two selections in a style, quite pleasant, that I associate with Pha Terrell and others.  But the records, judged as jazz opuses, are somewhat undramatic.

Here’s the HARLEM WOOGIE I remember, having first heard it around 1967 — featuring James P., Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Sidney Catlett, and Anna Robinson: searing!

Even though Herb Muse sang the lyrics more clearly, Anna Robinson clearly had great force and presence; Red Allen’s echoing the rhythm of her closing vocal phrase is priceless, as are Sidney’s accents behind James P.  And behind Sedric. But listeners can absorb this on their own.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is not a post setting up Bland White Swing Era music against Hot Black Authentic Jazz.  If you want to draw such conclusions, you are on your own, but I don’t encourage them, because the Brown and Johnson records have different purposes and intentions.

What does fascinate me is the brief moment-in-the-sun of two of James P. Johnson’s less intoxicating compositions.  Did he, or his publisher, offer them to as many “middle-of-the-road” Swing orchestras as possible, hoping for a hit, hoping for radio play?  Or was it the reverse (which I suspect): James P. was out of fashion in the late Thirties, attempting to be taken seriously as a classical composer — but — anyone who had been paying attention during the preceding decades knew that he wrote hits.  One of them was a love song, IF I COULD BE WITH YOU; another was a dance, CHARLESTON.  So it would be an odd bandleader who would ignore the songs from a James P. Johnson show.  It’s a pity the songs weren’t more memorable . . . or the recordings.  But it is, to me, a small but fascinating example of “crossover” before the term ceased to have any meaning.

May your happiness increase!

SEISMIC SWING FOR WASHBOARD SAM: CARL SONNY LEYLAND, MARTY EGGERS, JEFF HAMILTON, and PATRICK SKIFFINGTON at MONTEREY (March 8,, 2014)

The life story of “Washboard Sam,” born Robert Brown (singer / songwriter / washboardist) is melancholy and seems all too familiar: early fame, influential recordings, a short life — 1910-1966 — and burial in an unmarked grave.

WASHBOARD-SAM-1931

But his music lives on.  Here is a brief but successful musical tribute performed at the 2014 Monterey Jazz Bash by the Bay. At the head of this compact swinging band is the inimitable Carl Sonny Leyland, piano / vocal, with Marty Eggers, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

For this trio of selections, Carl invited the young washboardist Patrick Skiffington to join in, to give the music its proper shaking and rattling quality.

The washboard often has been looked down on in jazz but when it’s played well, it can drive a band (think of the hot records by the Washboard Rhythm Kings circa 1931-33).

Young Mister Skeffington knows his craft: as an ensemble player, he listens; he varies his dynamic range, and he’s a true addition to the band, his sounds and rhythms steady and varied. He’s been on the scene a bit, but JAZZ LIVES takes pleasure in welcoming him officially.

I wonder if I might see a quartet set by this band at a California festival?  An idea whose time might well have come.  For the moment, enjoy these three performances.

I apologize to those viewers who wanted to see Patrick in all his glory. It didn’t happen during this set — he is mostly hidden — but hearing is believing.  Next time, perhaps I will choose a better vantage point.

And thanks as always to Carl, Marty, and Jeff, who always create solid vibrations of the finest kind.

MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT:

SHE BELONGS TO THE DEVIL:

THE LEVEE CAMP BLUES:

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC, BUSINESS, ZIGGY and NONI

Where shall we start?  With the music, of course.

Here is an engaging record with the spontaneous energy and lilt of the best small-band swing, but with neat arranging touches. The players were from the Benny Goodman Orchestra of 1939:

This performance was recorded December 26, 1939 with Ziggy Elman, trumpet; Toots Mondello, Elmani “Noni” Bernardi, alto sax; Jerry Jerome, Arthur Rollini, tenor sax; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Ben Heller, guitar; Artie Bernstein, string bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

From a splendidly informative profile by Christopher Popa (including an interview of Martin Elman, Ziggy’s son) we learn that Bernardi created the arrangements for the sides Ziggy did for Bluebird Records, Victor’s budget label. The profile — superbly done for Popa’s BIG BAND LIBRARY, can be found here.

This post had its genesis in something not a recording or a performance, but the result of a record session and the hope of making money from a hit. On eBay, I found this two-page contract between music publisher Bregman, Vocco and Conn, and Elman and Bernardi — for this song, then called I’M TOOTIN’ MY BABY BACK HOME.  (This title is a play on Maurice Chevalier’s 1931 hit WALKIN’ MY BABY BACK HOME — recorded by, among others, Louis and Nat Cole.)

NONI and ZIGGY contract

From this vantage point, the contract seems anything but lavish, although the format is standard and the terms might have seemed a good deal at the time.  I don’t think this venture made anyone richer.  I’ve never seen a copy of the sheet music?  And if one wishes to perceive BVC as exploitative, I am sure there is reason, but they at least published this folio, a good thing:

ziggyelman50trumpetlicks“Ziggie” is both nearly forgotten and much missed.  Like Charlie Shavers, he could forcefully swing any group in many ways (consider his work on sessions with Mildred Bailey and Lionel Hampton).  Harry Finkelman (his birth name) could do much more than play the frailich for AND THE ANGELS SING.  Those Bluebird records are understated delights (with a beautiful rhythm section for this session).

May your happiness increase!

DREAMS, BLUEBIRDS, GOODWILL

I don’t usually write blogposts about blogging, but I ask my readers to follow this one to the end.  It has its own surprises.  The Beloved and I sometimes talk about worry and its ubiquity and how to shake it off.  About a week ago, I posted GET HAPPY?  And a day later, the Beloved posted her own variations on the theme, MY WORRY CUP.  Both of these blogposts have this piece of music in common:

I am always moved by the wistful optimism of the song and the beauty of Bing’s voice — and the way that this performance has its own satisfying dramatic shape, moving from song to recitative to whistling.  It’s a very compelling performance, and it always reminds me that one’s troubles can be made to vanish if you gently wrap them in dreams.  The lyrics also suggest that there is a limitless supply of dreams in the universe — always a good thing to hear.

You will notice that the YouTube video begins with a close-up of a lovely record label — what collectors call a “buff Bluebird,”very attractive in itself.  Bing recorded the song in 1931 and the record seen here is from mid-1937.

A few days after we had published our blogposts, the Beloved spotted a Goodwill store we had both delved into in 2011, always finding treasures.  We went inside, elated and curious, and threw ourselves into the treasure hunt.  I found a spectacularly bold Hawaiian shirt; the Beloved found her own prize.  I remembered that in 2011 I had bought a half-dozen late-Twenties records there, so I knelt on the floor among scattered 78s.  I opened one of the ten-record brown cardboard albums and saw a buff Bluebird label.  Expecting nothing remarkable, I drew out a well-preserved copy of Bing’s WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, a record I had never owned.

It is a cliche to write, “My mouth fell open.  I was speechless,” but it was true.  Carefully I put the record into a paper sleeve and, holding it behind my back, went over to the Beloved and said, quietly — in the presence of Mystery — “You won’t believe this.”  And we marveled at the artifact that had appeared to us.

The object and its suggestive powers are both powerfully in our thoughts.  If you like the mathematical: what are the chances that a piece of fragile, breakable shellac would emerge intact after seventy-five years?  What are the chances that it should appear to us, who had been humming and singing and thinking about that song for the days immediately before?

I could hypothesize that Someone or Something put it there for us to find, as a little gleaming light on the path, or The Path.  Since I believe that the dead know what is going on on this planet, I could — with some quiet amusement — think momentarily that Bing had arranged for it to be there.  I could even entertain the possibility that it was there as a reward in a universe where such synchronicities are all around us if are hearts are open to them.  I could turn the whole idea on its head and think that this disc was the starting point for my journey and the Beloved’s, that we had thought of the song and written our posts because the record was waiting to be found.  I think it meaningful that the disc appeared in a place called GOODWILL, where many less fortunate people come to shop — their troubles larger than their abilities to dream them away.  All the omens, including the hopeful Bluebird, augur well.  The other side of the 78, and I think not by accident, is an Irving Berlin song called THE LITTLE THINGS IN LIFE.  Ponder that.

I have no real answers.  But I am awestruck, delighted beyond the quick formulaic responses with which we brush away the beautiful Mysteries: “accident,” “randomness,” “luck,” or “coincidence.”

What do my readers think?

And while you muse and dream, please listen to Mister Crosby.

I send thanks to Bing, to Harry Barris, Ted Koehler, Billy Moll, David J. Weiner.  I hope to spread Goodwill through JAZZ LIVES.

May your troubles be small.  May your dreams be powerful.

May your happiness increase.

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.

ARTIE SHAW, THREE WAYS

Artie Shaw has been gone since 2004 and he last played the clarinet in public around fifty years before that, so the people who heard him play must be diminishing day by day.  But he remains an astonishing musician and a public figure capable of stirring up controversies.  I offer three ways of looking at the King of the Clarinet.

One is a glimpse of the intelligent but highly prickly writer, as evidenced by this letter for sale on eBay:

Another is through Tom Nolan’s superb biography, THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE, which I’ve reviewed here: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/three-chords-for-beautys-sake-artie-shaw-by-tom-nolan/

But these pieces of paper don’t always get us close to the music. 

Rather than coop yourself up with the Bluebirds or the new Mosaic set, why not come out and hear New York City’s finest jazz musicians play a tribute to Artie?  The reed-playing Andersons, Will and Peter Reardon, have planned two weeks of Shaw-inspired jazz at 59e59 in New York City.  They’re not only fine clarinetists but fine musicians: these concerts will be lively and evocative but far from note-for-note recreations of famous Shaw solos.  The Anderson Twins Sextet will include Jon-Erik Kellso, Ehud Asherie, and Kevin Dorn.     

The first week  — Tuesday, May 18, through Sunday, May 23 — will be an instrumental fiesta, with the band exploring the rivalry (real and imagined) between Artie and Benny Goodman (something their respective fans keep arguing about)  Details:   http://www.59e59.org/shows/WhoWasKing.html.  The next week will move away from clarinet-a-la-rancor and add the gifted singer Daryl Sherman, who sang with Artie’s “last” band and no doubt has some good stories to tell in between songs: http://www.59e59.org/shows/DarylSherman.html.

For those who haven’t been to this theatre, it is (reassuringly) located at 59 East 59th Street in New York City: www.59e59.org. or (212) 753-5959 for more information.

TRAVELING BLUES: TOMMY LADNIER

Ladnier 5For the second time this season, a jazz book has so astonished me that I want to write about it before I take the time to read it at the leisurely pace it deserves.  This book is published in a limited edition of 500 copies, so I hope that someone might be moved sufficiently to order a copy before they are all gone.  TRAVELING BLUES: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF TOMMY LADNIER, byBo Lindstrom and Dan Vernhettes, is a lively yet scholarly study of the life and music of the short-lived trumpeter.  Many jazz books are enthusiastic but lopsided; books that collect beautiful photographs sometimes have minimal or unsatisfying text; scholarly books are often not appealing to the eye.  This book strikes sparks in every way: the diligent research that has gone into it, the expansive prose; the wonderful illustrations.  I have been reluctant to put it down.  Each page offers surprises.    Ladnier 1

Tommy Ladnier isn’t widely known: he has been dead seventy years.  The fame he deserved never came, even though he had enthusiastic champions in Mezz Mezzrow, Hughes Panassie, and Sidney Bechet.  But a brief list of the people Ladnier played alongside will testify to his talent: Bechet, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Noone, Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams, Sam Wooding, Doc Cheatham, Noble Sissle, Chick Webb, James P. Johnson, Teddy Bunn, Walter Page, Jo Jones.  He was known as a “sensational” trumpeter in Chicago in 1921: he appeared in Carnegie Hall in 1938.   

The reasons he is so little known have nothing to do with the quality of his art.  Ladnier did not enjoy the high-pressure urban scene, and he occasionally retreated from it (in 1934-8, when he could have been playing more often in the city, he he lived upstate); he also spent a good deal of his playing career in Europe (including a sojourn in Russia) before it was fashionable.  And in a period when hot trumpet playing was fashioned in splendidly extravagant Louis-fashion, someone like Ladnier — quieter, even pensive, choosing to stay in the middle register — might have been overlooked.  (At times, he makes me think of a New Orleans version of Joe Thomas, Shorty Baker, or Tony Fruscella.) 

Ladnier 3

I first came to Ladnier’s music indirectly, by way of his most enthusiastic colleague, reedman, pot-supplier, and proseltyzer Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who saw Tommy as someone with pure jazz instincts.  Mezzrow idolized Tommy as a quiet prophet of soulful New Orleans jazz, music not corrupted by the evil influence of big-band swing.  My youthful purchase of the RCA Victor record THE PANASSIE SESSIONS (circa 1967) was motivated by my reading of Mezzrow’s autobiography, REALLY THE BLUES.  But Mezzrow played and improvised so poorly, never stopping for a moment, that I could hardly hear Ladnier properly.   

Ladnier 4

Eventually I heard the 1932 New Orleans Feetwarmers session, where Ladnier and Bechet were effectively the front line, and too-brief live performances from John Hammond’s 1938 FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING concert where Ladnier, Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, Walter Page, and Jo Jones roared through WEARY BLUES.  Finally, I understood what it was that others admired so in Ladnier’s work.  A terse, nearly laconic player, he placed his notes and phrases perfectly.  His solos never overwhelm; his forthright earnestness is convincing; he doesn’t care to shout and swagger, but he is intense.  

As is this book.  Other scholars might have rearranged the easily accessible evidence: the recollections of Mezzrow, Bechet, and Panassie, written admiringly of Ladnier’s recording career, and left it at that.  Some writers might have brought melodrama to the facts of Ladnier’s life — his ambitious wife jeopardized a number of opportunities for him (one possible drama).  Ladnier died of a heart attack at 39, and could perhaps have been saved (another drama).  One could cast him as a victim of a variety of forces and people including the recording supervisor Eli Oberstein.  But the authors avoid these inviting errors.

They succeed not only in examining every scrap of evidence they could find — their research has been cautious, comprehensive, and lengthy — about Ladnier as a musician, born in Louisiana, migrating to Chicago, taking on the life of a jazz player in the Twenties and Thirties, dying in Harlem. 

But there’s more.  These scholars are also thoughtful historians who delight in placing the subject of their loving scrutiny in a larger context.  “What did it mean?” I can hear them asking.  So that their inquiry broadens beyond the simple chronological tracing of Ladnier’s life.  When we learn (through a beautiful reproduction of Ladnier’s draft card) that he worked for the Armour meat-packing company — so justly excoriated in Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE — we can read about Armour and what it meant to Chicago and Chicagoans.  What did it mean to be an African-American musician traveling overseas in the Twenties?  The appropriate footnotes are easily accessible on each page.  The book also concludes with a detailed discography — noting not only the labels and issues, but on which performances Ladnier has a solo, a break, accompaniment, and the like. 

And the book is also visually quite beautiful.  A large-format book (the size of a 12″ record, appropriately) it is generously illustrated in color, with fine reproductions, nicely varied.  I was happily reminded of a beautifully-designed history or biology textbook, where the book designers had sought to set up harmonious vibrations between print and illustrations.  Indeed, one could spend an afternoon immersed in the illustrations: maps, a handwritten letter from Ladnier, record labels, photographs of individual players and of bands.  One illustration I particularly prize is an advertising handbill for a dinner-dance, “A Night At Sea,” to be held at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights, New York, on January 22, 1939.  In part, the music was provided by “Milton ‘Mez’ Mezzrow and his Bluebird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier.”  Even better: heading the bill were Henny Youngman and Molly Picon.  Without this book, I would never have known.

The music?  Well, the authors have taken care of that, too.  As part of the complete Ladnier experience, they have created a CD containing all 189 of Tommy’s recordings in mp3 format.  I don’t entirely understand the technology, but the CD is certainly the ideal companion to the book — containing the equivalent of eight CDs of music. 

I urge you to visit http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html and see for yourself.  In this era of deeply discounted books, the initial price of this one might seem serious, but its beauty, thoroughness, and devotion make it a masterpiece.

As a coda: the noted jazz scholar and collector of rare photographs Frank Driggs wrote an introduction to the book.  Here’s its closing paragraph: “This remarkable book is loaded with details on the lives of Tommy Ladnier and most of the people he played with.  There are hundreds of illustrations, photos of people I’ve never even seen before and I’ve seen most of the photos of jazz musicians over the last fifty years.  The depth of research is I believe unparalleled.  God bless these two fanatics who have devoted so much of their time and energy to bring this work of love to fruition.”

My sentiments exactly! 

SWING ARCHAEOLOGY

jelly-78I just visited Agustin Perez’s very enlightening and heartfelt blog, MULE WALK AND JAZZ TALK — where he has arranged for our delight a series of jazz record advertisements from magazines circa 1938-1944: Hot Record Society, Blue Note, Signature, Bluebird, Solo Art, and more.  If you don’t know the music represented here, these ads might seem charmingly archaic but no more meaningful than drawings of old-time detergent boxes or tubes of toothpaste.

But if you do know what it must have meant to buy the new Art Hodes session on Signature, these ads are tender artifacts of a time when “a record” was a two-sided 78 rpm disk, highly breakable, costing anywhere from thirty-five cents to a dollar, and it was something to treasure.  We who collect jazz now and are able to buy every record Fats Waller made (for example) on twenty-four compact discs, should stop a minute and recall such pleasures, even if they had vanished before we were born.

(In the spirit of accuracy, I must note that the label on the left isn’t advertised in Agustin’s pages — but I was looking for an appropriate illustration and found this: the first of the Circle label’s issues of Jelly Roll’s Library of Congress recordings — a rarity I had never seen before and wanted to share here.)