Tag Archives: Bob Crosby

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase!

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BEWARE OF THE BIG BAD DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE

from Martha Stewart, of course

 

If this song is known at all in this century, it is justifiably because of this version:

That’s Shirley Temple in the 1934 film BRIGHT EYES.  The song is by Richard A. Whiting, music, and Sidney Clare, lyrics, as the UK sheet music notes.

I had had only the vaguest sense of the song as a cross between BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN and another “Please go to sleep, child!” lullaby-lament. Listening to the verse brought new insights: Shirley as aviator — perhaps modeling herself on Amelia Earhart? — which makes the scene in the film take place on an actual plane rather than a bus, very “moderne” for 1934. Wikipedia, whether accurate or not, notes that the airplane is “a taxiing American Airlines Douglas DC-2.”  That Shirley doesn’t want a dolly to be a mommy to but rather sees herself as a pilot is a very cheering example of female empowerment. Women had earned pilot’s licenses early on (Bessie Coleman, in 1921, was the first African-American woman to do so) and one Helen Richey was a commecial co-pilot in 1934, but the first American commercial pilot — “the first woman captain,” Emily Howell Warner, did not begin her routes until 1973.  And, yes, I looked this all up online.

LOLLIPOP would have remained nothing more than a candied fossil in my memory.  (I have taught Toni Morrison’s lacerating novel THE BLUEST EYE for years now, where Shirley is the looming symbol of oppressive white beauty: although some of my students say they know her, I wonder how many are aware of this song.)

But thanks to Marc Caparone, I can share with you a frolicsome version of the song, airborne in its own way, with a little Father / Little Boy dialogue enacted by Mr. Manone and Mr. Lamare.

Wingy Manone, trumpet, vocal; Matty Matlock, clarinet; Eddie Miller, tenor saxophone; Gil Bowers, piano; Nappy Lamare, guitar, talk; Harry Goodman, string bass; Ray Bauduc, drums; recorded March 8, 1935.

I don’t know whether Wingy and Shirley would have gotten along, but what a good record that is (Bauduc’s drums behind Miller, Wingy’s eccentric happiness) — but neither version gives me a bellyache.  Jazz history has done a good job of ignoring Wingy (although the people at Mosaic Records did not) but his recorded legacy is at the same level as Fats Waller’s and Henry “Red” Allen’s.

And I wonder how contemporary hot jazz bands would do with this song.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW PAGES FROM ROBERT BIERMAN, formerly of IRVINGTON, NEW YORK

Another eBay prowl (taking a long respite from grading student essays) with glorious results.

The seller is offering an amazing collection of autographs, some dating back to 1938.  Since a few items were inscribed to “Bob” or “Robert” Bierman, it was easy to trace these precious artifacts back to the man of the same name, a Krupa aficionado, now deceased (I believe his dates are 1922-2009) who lived for some time on Staten Island.

The jazz percussion scholar Bruce Klauber tells me: Bob passed several years ago. He had things you wouldn’t believe and was kind enough to share several audios with me. Anything he was connected with was rare and authentic.

My friend David Weiner recalls Bierman as quiet, reticent, with wonderful photographs and autographs.

I never met Mr. Bierman in my brief collectors’ period, but in 1938 he must have been a very energetic sixteen-year old who went to hear hot jazz and big bands, asking the drummers and sidemen for their autographs.  The collection is notable for the signatures of people not otherwise documented — as you will see.

Incidentally, the seller has listed the items as “Buy It Now,” which means that indeed the race is to the swift.

cless-brunis-alvin

Three heroes from what I presume is Art Hodes’ Forties band that recorded for his own JAZZ RECORD label: Rod Cless, Georg[e] Bruni[e]s, Danny Alvin.

bunny-postcard

Bunny and his Orchestra.

walter-page-buck-jo-tab-green-rushing

Basieites, circa 1940: Walter Page, Joe Jones, Buck Clayton, Tab Smith, Freddie Greene, and James Rushing.  The story is that John Hammond convinced Jo and Freddie to change the spelling of their names . . . perhaps to be more distinctive and memorable to the public?  I don’t know if this is verifiable.

gene-postcard

Gene!  But where and when?

wettling-1939-front

Wettling, promoting Ludwig drums — when he was with Paul Whiteman.

wettling-1939-back

And some advice to the young drummer.

teddy-1938

Teddy Wilson.  It’s so reassuring to see that there was actually letterhead for the School for Pianists.

bierman-bob-crosby-front

Some wonderful players from the Bob Crosby band: Jess Stacy, Eddie Miller, Bob Haggart, Matty Matlock, Hank D’Amico, Nappy Lamare.

bierman-bob-crosby-rear

Liz Tilton, Ray Bauduc.

bierman-gil-rodin

Gil Rodin from Ben Pollack and Crosby.

bierman-earle-warren

Earle Warren of Basie fame.

bierman-bunny-al-donahue

Al Donahue, and another Bunny signature.

bierman-hank-wayland-george-rose

To me, a page with the signatures of Hank Wayland, and George Rose — plus a caricature — is worth many thousand letters with a secretary’s “Bing” or “Benny” at the bottom.

bierman-ellington-venuti

You want famous?  Here’s famous: Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti.

bierman-mary-lou-williams

and Mary Lou Williams.

bierman-peggy-lee

Peggy Lee.

bierman-henderson-1939

Some fairly obscure Benny Goodman sidemen — Buff Estes, Toots Mondello, Arnold “Covey” — and the leader-turned-sideman Fletcher Henderson.

bierman-fats-waller-sidemen

Gentlemen from the reed section of Fats Waller’s big band: Jackie Fields and Bob Carroll.

bierman-gene-sedric

Fats’ “Honeybear,” Gene Sedric.

bierman-hodes-1947

A letter from Art Hodes!  (“Bob, there’s a letter for you!”)

bierman-hawkins-1943

Finally, the Hawk. 1943.

It makes me think, “What will happen to our precious stuff [see George Carlin] when we are dead?  eBay certainly is better than the dumpster, although these pages remind me that everything is in flux, and we are not our possessions. Beautiful to see, though, and to know that such things exist.  You, too, can have a piece of paper that Rod Cless touched — no small thing.

May your happiness increase!

SWEETLY IN BALANCE: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, DOUG FINKE, JIM BUCHMANN, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 29, 2014)

COSMIC HARMONY

I once read a Persian poet on music.  The translation ran, “Melody is the song the universe sings to us, harmony the beautiful twining-together of many songs, and rhythm is the universe’s heartbeat echoed in our own.”  Although that poet lived and wrote perhaps five hundred years before the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest, I am sure that he would have agreed that the performances I offer you today exemplify those words.

TIM CONNIE YouTube

They come from the final set of the Tim Laughlin – Connie Jones All Stars with the addition of clarinetist Jim Buchmann for several numbers.  That’s Tim, clarinet; Connie, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

Here is the full band for AS LONG AS I LIVE:

Then, two clarinets plus rhythm for THE ONE I LOVE:

Another helping of that nice combination for IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN:

And the ensemble for a Bobcat-inspired SPAIN:

May your happiness increase!

LYRICISM, DRAMA, FUN, SWING: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 29, 2014)

I’ve seen and heard a great deal of live jazz performance since 2004 (and before then) and occasionally I feel as if the video camera has been grafted on my body (“More than five thousand published YouTube videos,” he said immodestly) — but the band that follows is one of my great pleasures.

TIM AND CONNIE FQF

It’s a delicious hybrid of deep New Orleans, Bob Crosby Bobcats, Teddy Wilson and Basie small groups.  I speak of Tim Laughlin’s All Stars featuring the master of melody on clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  Here they are in all their delightful gliding majesty at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest.

TIM AND CONNIE

YOU’RE LUCKY TO ME:

BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES:

DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME?:

And a vocal feature for someone who’s not only one of the greatest instrumentalists I know — but also a great musical actor and singer, Mister Connie Jones — NEW ORLEANS AND A RUSTY OLD HORN:

I treasure these musicians and these performances, and feel privileged beyond words that I have been in the same room (with a camera) with these masters.

May your happiness increase!

FOUR FOR ARTIE: RICHARD PITE’S CHAMBER JAZZ at the MIKE DURHAM CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (Nov. 7, 2015)

Shaw Granercy 5

When we think of the great small bands of the Swing Era, early and late, Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five is both memorable and overshadowed . . . perhaps because (unlike the Goodman small groups, the Crosby Bobcats, and others I can’t call to mind) it was a studio aggregation, so we don’t have a large history of live performances in concert or recorded off the radio.  (I’ve seen a photograph of the 1945 group with Roy Eldridge and Dodo Marmarosa, apparently performing as part of the Shaw big band presentation, but I don’t think the 1941 group existed outside the Victor studios.)

It was a superb — and quirky — group, with an affectionate kinship to the Raymond Scott and Alec Wilder small bands.  Its instrumentation accounted for much of that — pianist Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord — but its very tight arrangements were also remarkable.  Al Hendrickson was an excellent electric guitarist — in the dawn of that era; Billy Butterfield, Nick Fatool, and Jud deNaut were also brilliant.

I was delighted to see and capture this four-song evocation at the 2015. Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party, where such heartfelt expertise is the main dish.  Led by the masterful drummer Richard Pite, this new Gramercy 5 — what would that be on your smartphone? — soared and rocked.  The noble participants: the brilliant clarinetist Lars Frank, Martin Litton, harpsichord; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Martin Wheatley, electric guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass.  And they perform four classics: SUMMIT RIDGE DRIVE, KEEPIN’ MYSELF FOR YOU, SCUTTLEBUTT, and SPECIAL DELIVERY STOMP.  A quarter-hour of compact pleasure:

Hot modernism in its own way, and it hasn’t aged.  Try to make your way to the 2016 Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party — where such good surprises proliferate.

May your happiness increase!

BY POPULAR DEMAND: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 29, 2014)

TIM LAUGHLIN

The band you will see and hear below is one of my favorites: they create a floating lyricism and melodic inventiveness on every song, whether a pretty ballad or a hot tune.  There is also a wonderful swinging lightness — could it be the New Orleans / California hybridization: imagine a shrimp po-boy that comes with a side of massaged organic kale, perhaps.  They might also evoke the magical 1938 jam session when the Basie and Bob Crosby players got together at the Howard Theatre after the show.  However I might whimsically analyze it, I treasure their music.

Two days ago, I posted some videos of this band from the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest here, and the music pleased me so that I decided to repeat the process with a San Diego session performed one day later.  The players are Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

MUST BE RIGHT, CAN’T BE WRONG (a pretty Jabbo Smith composition):

ORIGINAL DIXIELAND ONE-STEP (or ODJB ONE-STEP):

Tim’s own MAGNOLIA DANCE:

SWING THAT MUSIC, for and by Louis — with a rocking solo chorus from Hal:

More treasures exist.  But the real treasure is that this band does.

May your happiness increase!